Thursday, November 5, 2015

Short Story: "The Holms"

“That is, they engaged in single combat; the spot for such encounters being called a holm, consisting of a circular space marked out by stones.”

Once, there had been twenty stones around the holm. Twenty stones, almost too large for a man to carry comfortably in one hand. Nine of those stones remained. Skulls had replaced the other eleven stones—skulls of men who would be king, each fleshless bone scoured clean by ice and wind.

Regin Radsvid knew each skull by name. Lugal Redtooth, first to die at the holm, and his slayer, Hlaeving Holm-Crowned. Skogul of the Longships, distant relative to Regin, who had led the raiding fleets under Hlaeving’s rule. Larger than the other skulls was Atrid Man-Mountain’s, for Atrid had been a giant of a man. He had fought honorably only to be slain by a poisoned blade. On it went. Each skull once had entered the holm to contest their right to rule.
Today, one fresh skull would replace a stone. All prognostications, all common sense, declared it would be Regin’s. Everyone knew the outcome. It just hadn’t happened yet. Sevald Sevenfinger had given back Regin’s brideprice, saying, “I’ll not see any daughter of mine burned for a fool with dreams of kingship.”

Regin’s mother said much the same. Even the entrails and runestones carried ill tidings, no matter how often Regin consulted them. 

Regin felt he lacked a choice. Someone had to challenge Tyndall. Just letting an imbecile don the Sea-Crown solely on basis of “He’s the oldest son of the strongest clan” wasn’t good precedent. The Sea-Crown belonged to whomever deserved it—someone worthy—not a warhungry idiot with a rock’s grasp of politics. Scratch that. A rock wouldn't start wars over spilled wine or a lousy hunt. 

No one else worried about Tyndall’s fitness to rule. Name thought perhaps he’d gone mad. Else the others were blind. No other clan set forth a challenger. In his own clan, laughter met his worries. 

In a way, his fears were irrelevant. No warrior could defeat Tyndall in single combat. The man was huge as an iceberg but faster than a longship under oar and sail. Regin, though not ignorant of combat—the pointy end went in your enemy—stood little chance. At least in a fair fight. Loke’s star shone ascendant at Regin’s birth. And Loke never fought when conniving served better.

At first, thoughts of poison had sprung to mind, only to be discarded. Both challengers ate from the same dish for three days prior. A tainted blade? No, for a Grey Priest provided weapons. Outright assassination would not serve his purpose. Tyndall died publically or not at all. Any hint of treachery and Regin’s counterclaim became invalidated.  

He’d walked into a trap of his own making, through sheer bloodyminded adherence to old ways. Kings earned their crown in the holm, hands still red with blood. Thus it was done. 

Old-fashioned? Perhaps. Regin felt himself capable of adjusting to change. Some thought him too eager to embrace new ideas and strange counsel. But some things didn’t need changing. Some things. The winner at the holm became king. But nothing said one couldn’t ask gods or men for help. 

Part of him wished he’d called an Althing. Lay his concerns before the Moot, old wise ones who would surely see folly in Tyndall taking the crown unopposed. Calling an Althing, though, meant declaring a complaint, and neither “The old way was better” nor “I just don’t like the man—he’s a warmongering fool” constituted a legitimate grievance. After all, hadn’t Harald the Young been both an iconoclast and a bloodthirsty conqueror? And it was Harald who had begun the holm-crowning, rather than allow his sons to wage wars of succession. 

No, this way or none. He had chosen this. For the clans’ sake. For survival. 

Weeks ago he chose his second. Biltung Nest-Robber. Not a staunch supporter, but one who stood for fair fighting and honesty. They called him Nest-Robber because it took a steady, courageous sort to scale the cliffs for rooks’ eggs. That and he’d taken a wife a third his age, scarcely after her first thawing. 

Tyndall chose his brother, unlike as a hawk to a whale. The Priest, most called him, and his prematurely bald head indeed resembled the shaven pates of a southern monk. A bookish man and his troglodyte brother. Had it not been for the disdain Tyndall bore towards his brother, Regin might have thought the Priest some sort of puppeteer. But Tyndall treated the Priest little better than a dog—sat him far from the table’s head, aimed jests and kicks at him like a bastard or a jester. No, Regin knew that Priest’s seconding was an insult: You’re so insignificant, my pissant brother could crush you in my place.

For such a blunt man it was a shrewd jab—no doubt suggested by another. No matter. One man would be dead come nightfall.

The morning wore away. A grudging sun emerged from clouds and melted the hoarfrost. Across the holm-ring stood Tyndall’s tent. Its garish red glared against brown grass. Spring yet huddled far south in Italy. Regin might not live to see frostflowers blooming on the Akhen Hills. “Would not” forbode the entrail-readings, against his better knowledge.

He wished he’d married Brynjild, or at least gotten children on one woman or another. As a precaution. The bloodline must survive. Too late now. No women at this camp.

Only men, and scarce few of them. Regin, Tyndall, their seconds. The requisite witnesses, a priest—a Grey Priest of Wotan, not of that southern god—to crown the victor. Some braelling. Perhaps twenty-five men in total. Each freeman bore a sword. None spoke of treachery. 

Regin did not doubt many men thought of betrayal, however. That he belonged to Loke’s star any fool could cipher. And some felt his dealings with southrons and eastrons boded ill—especially his companionship with the mad Arab of the uncouth book. One or two clansmen converted to the southern faith even called him a warlock, saying the Arab was Sathan. 

So long as his grip on power remained strong, Regin did not mind what the clan thought.  Southern faith or old gods, if they obeyed him and fought well, their mutterings were harmless. He had loftier goals in mind. If some thralls went missing after speaking with the Arab, what matter?

“Mine Jarl.” Biltung Nest-Robber approached. “It is almost noon.”

Regin ducked into his ill-let tent and donned his armor. Light mail, a round helm, his lightest shield—leather on a wood frame, painted with an all-devouring serpent. Heavy armor would not protect any better against Tyndall’s crushing blows. Preferable to dodge away instead, though the holm held scanty room for footwork.

Before exiting into the misty sunshine where Tyndall waited, Regin checked his pack once more. The black book still lay wrapped in oilskin.

Across the clearing, facing Regin over eleven skulls, stood Tyndall. In his armor, the blighter stood nearly two heads taller than Regin, and his armor would slow most men. Against his will, Regin felt sick. If the preparations failed…

No chance of it. Change lay within the Arab’s book. As a lock opens to a key so Regin’s mind embraced new knowledge. And with cunning from Loke he set his traps. The Arab lacked vision, finding only madness within the book. It was a trade—sanity for knowledge—and the Arab became the Wotan of a new religion.

Now the Grey Priest stepped forth, two swords in hand. Both dated back to the holm’s first skull, and their corroded surfaced showed thus. Pitted with rust, forged from skysteel in an antique style, each blade gleamed nonetheless. Regin shivered when he gripped his sword.

Tyndall mistook reverence for fear. “Still time to back out!” His barking laughter echoed through an otherwise silent clearing. 

A small smile escaped Regin. Foreign words flowed. He had stumbled with the Arab and the first few slaves. This time, no mistakes, no hesitation, marred the chant. A sacrificial prayer. Only an offering remained to be made.

Biltung died soundless. For weeks, Regin watched the man’s suspicions grow. Missing slaves, the Arab’s disappearance, Regin’s certainty of survival against stacked odds. Just two weeks ago Biltung met The Priest at an old ring-fort. The Priest arrived with a bag. Biltung left with it. 
One should not take up Loke’s trade late in life. Especially when one’s wife is unsatisfied between the furs.

Now power coursed through Regin. The Arab’s dark knowledge proved itself again. Those first botched slayings filled Regin with buzzing warmth. Now his flesh boiled with power. Reality slowed around him. Stars whirled overhead in a dance to wake gods beyond comprehension. Tyndall’s face blurred, but Regin counted every needle on a distant fir in the beat of a gnat’s wings. 

A sharp backstroke gashed open Priest’s gut. Blood drops hung in midair to scatter at Regin’s hissed breath.

Shoving Tyndall into the holm’s embrace, Regin screeched his accusations of treachery. No matter whether Tyndall bore guilt. If a man would be king, that man must surpass Loke in treachery, Wotan in wisdom, and Thor in power. 

Tyndall fell short.

Regin exceeded every old god. 

In that mad Arab’s black book he discovered clarity. Greater threats than one hulking fool loomed. Grotesque priests of unfathomable outer gods slumbered fitfully until stars aligned. The idiot piper played its tune. Abominations and deviltry lurked within earth and over sea and under sky. The clans must grow strong. And if a king must dabble in monstrous pacts, better one born to Loke than Thor.
But to outscheme eldritch gods, one first begged their aid.

All these thoughts passed through Regin’s mind as he dueled Tyndall. Despite unwholesome magic flooding his veins, Regin still found Tyndall a worthy opponent. And so they danced, wolf and bear, the ancient skysteel blades striking sparks together. 

Now recovered from their shock, the Grey Priest and the attendants droned the sacred edda. From beginning of time to Ragnarok, the edda ran, telling of dwarves and gods and early man. But it spoke not of the Arab’s warped outer beings. Only Regin and the Arab knew those blasphemous sacred truths. Only Regin and the Arab in his frost-gnawed grave.

Even men and those with doughty ensorcellment firing their veins must tire and and as the edda ran its course, Tyndall stumbled. One slip upon damp grass. Regin’s blade slid home. 

But as the Grey Priest lowered that heavy sea-iron crown, Regin couldn’t forget the mad Arab’s dying laughter. Though the stars were yet unaligned and Aazathoth dreamt on, all waking worlds must perish by and by.