Dear readers, tonight with me is a creature of myth, the last of a race of those who hunted us, and we hunted them in a war that could only lead to extinction.
We find him in a cave. At first, he wishes to kill us, for we are interlopers in his world and there is very little we could do to stop him. We are reminded of a wolf, old and battle-scarred but still hale and as deadly as its younger kin. Perhaps moreso. But, we have come prepared. We appeal to his vanity — and his vanity is immense — until he deigns to let us live . . . and to answer a few questions.
A fire crackles on the crude hearth; ventilation is poor, and the smoke hangs over us like a death-shroud. He sits on an ancient throne-like chair carved of wood and watches us with his head tilted, his right eye like an ember that burns with a light of its own; his left eye is the color of old bone. His saturnine face is sharp and lean, with a jutting chin, heavy cheekbones, and a craggy brow. A jagged scar bisects the bridge of his nose, crossing his left eye, and continuing up until it vanishes beneath gold-and-bone beaded braids of coarse black hair at his left temple. When he speaks, he does so in a patois drawn from Old Norse, Danish, and Anglo-Saxon. His vernacular is crude and vulgar, and he peppers his answers with curses, snatches of song, and guttural noises.
We have edited his answers to appeal to the modern ear . . .
Tell us a little about yourself. Who . . . wh-what are you?
You tell me, little Mjólkblóð [Translator’s note: “Milk-blood”; this was his name for us, collectively]! What did you expect to find when you came blundering into my cave, eh? What am I? Faugh! I am called many things, you wretch. I am Corpse-maker and Life-quencher! I am the Bringer of Night! I am the Son of the Wolf and Brother of the Serpent! The Danes of old named me skraelingr. To your kind, to you bastard English, I am orcnéas—
Wait . . . Orcnéas? You mean, you’re an orc?
If it strikes your fancy, Mjólkblóð. Call me what you will, but if you interrupt me again, by Ymir, I will tear your blasted tongue out by the roots! I have a score of names: skraelingr, orc, fomoraig to the Gaels of Èriu . . . but what of it? I am kaunar! I am the last! The last of my kind . . . the last son of Bálegyr left to plague Miðgarðr! I am Grimnir!
I drew my first squalling breath in the last days of the Butchering Month, forty-eight years before the strife and shield-breaking that was Mag Tuiredh [Translator’s note: Mag Tuiredh, a battle in ancient Ireland, has been tentatively dated to 69 AD; thus, Grimnir’s year of birth is approximately 21 AD]. Orkahaugr, in the Kjolen Mountains, was my home. You should have seen it, Mjólkblóð! Your houses of steel and glass? Faugh! You lot might as well live under two nīðing-poles and a twine-stretched sheet! I was raised in granite and limestone, our mines, smithies, armories, and dwelling halls hacked from the mountain’s innards by my sire’s hands – the same hands that once fashioned trinkets of gold and iron for the kings of Jötunheimr. Columns of living stone stretched higher than a titan, holding up the mountain itself; shafts cut through the rock let in cold air, and hundreds of lamps hung from the branches of great trees forged from iron and bronze. Trophies dripped from the walls: banners and flayed skins, the shields of fallen foes, the hauberks of heroes slain on the field, the skulls of Jötnar and the thighbones of trolls. [Grimnir’s eye blazes in the gloom; its intensity is quite unnerving, really] Aye, Orkahaugr was my home, the heart of the kaunar lands of Miðgarðr, but it has been as dead as your Nailed God for more than two thousand years, now.
You mention Jötunheimr, the Abode of Giants . . . is that where your folk are from? How did you come to be here, in our world?
Nár! My folk were wrought in the dark of Niðavellir, by the hand of the Tangled God, Father Loki, himself. Nine clans of dvergar [Trans. Note: Norse dwarfs] were invited to a feast. The Nine Fathers, they were called, my own among them:
“There is Bálegyr | the mightiest made
Of all the chieftains, | and Kjallandi next;
Lútr and Hrauðnir, | Njól and Dreki,
Naglfari and Gangr, | and fierce Mánavargr.”
As Loki looked on, servants doled out bloody cuts of meat from three great platters, and the Nine and their families gorged themselves. Was it raw hanks of goat’s meat they shoveled down their gullets? Was this flesh cut from the flanks of Ymir’s prized cow? Can you guess what it was, Mjólkblóð? No? It was the afterbirth of Angrboða, who had that very night borne Loki’s monstrous children: the mighty Fenrir, the serpent Jörmungandr, and silent Hel. All who partook of that feast, and their descendents, were forever changed. They became kaunar.
[He is silent for a long moment; when he speaks, again, his voice drips scorn.] Those wretched beardlings, our dvergar cousins, drove the Nine Fathers from Niðavellir. We sought refuge in Jötunheimr, under the Tangled God’s banner. It was he who set us the task of guarding the caves where he’d hidden his monstrous issue from the Allfather’s gaze. We tried, but when the lords of Ásgarðr came to take Loki’s children with Angrboða off to face the judgment of that raven-starver, Odin, we could not hold them off. Five of the Nine Fathers died under the blades of the Æsir. The rest — with only their wives and brats and what goods they could carry on their backs — made good their escape, following Bálegyr across the Ash-Road to this Miðgarðr. To your world, Mjólkblóð.
Aye, the roots and branches of Yggðrasil. They thread through the Nine Worlds, from Helheimr at its roots up through its mighty limbs to Ásgarðr. Yggðrasil’s wooden fingers pierce Miðgarðr in a hundred places. If you’re canny and seiðr-wise, you can find one of these, open a way, and walk the Ash-Road.
Could you not use this Ash-Road to escape our world, and maybe make your way back home?
Clean your ears out, little fool! Did you not hear me say I was born here, at Orkahaugr? Nár! This is my home . . . even if I’m forced to share this wretched ball of dirt with the likes of you, Mjólkblóð.
You’ve walked the Ash-Road before, though, haven’t you? When you were chasing Bjarki Half-Dane?
So-ho! You’ve read that dunghill rat’s account of it, have you? That idiot-scribe, O-den? Faugh! I should have split that one’s skull when I had the chance. That fool didn’t even know what a flock of ravens was called. Ha! It’s a ‘treachery’, not a ‘gathering’! [He laughs uproariously at this] I’ll not repeat his wretched lies. If you’re curious, go read it again, and this time pay attention.
What did you think when you heard he’d written another book about you?
[Here, in lieu of an answer, Grimnir turns his head to one side and spits a gobbet of phlegm at the fire]
Right. Assuming Mr. Oden did not lie and you are, for all intents and purposes, immortal . . . What is the worst thing about living [consults notes] “a thousand mortal lifetimes”?
Ha! On that mark, O-den was right. Short of taking a knife to the gizzard, I will live until this world turns to ash. Aye, it has a price. I am the last of my kind, Mjólkblóð. I bear the weight of my ancestors, the weight of their death-songs. And when I am slain, who will sing of my deeds? Who will sing my death-song, eh? O-den? Faugh! That wretch will only sing it if it brings him glory! Nár! If I die ere I figure this out, the kaunar will die with me.
What is the best thing about it?
[He grins, sharp teeth yellow in the firelight] Freedom! I go where I want, little manling! I take what I want and kill when I want! Your greybeards call themselves wise? Ha! They prance and preen like their paltry years are badges of respect, but I know different. A hundred centuries and more have taught me what your kind fear, and it’s taught me how to play the lot of you like a cheap rebec [Translator’s note: A rebec is a kind of violin the Vikings encountered on their travels east, to Constantinople]! And if I can’t learn a thing in one of your lifetimes, then — by Ymir! — I will learn it in two!
You’ve had your fair share of allies over the years, too, have you not? Tell us a little about them.
“Allies”? Ha! You make it sound like I’ve built a merry band of mates. Nár! They’re not allies, you wretch! They’re tools! The foundling [Étaín from A Gathering of Ravens] was a useful idiot who found that sniveling cur, Half-Dane, for me! My little bird [Dísa from Twilight of the Gods] kept me from having to deal with those swine, the Raven-Geats. That one-handed bitch, Úlfrún . . . she was handy in a scrape, I’ll give you that. Then, there was Halla . . . she was different, that old troll-hag. She’d been with me, and with old Gífr — my mother’s brother — before me, for nigh upon a thousand years. Even so, the old hag was still more useful to me than I was to her.
They’re all women, I’ve noticed. Any romantic involvement?
[Here, Grimnir glares at us as though we’re some kind of dung stuck to the sole of his boot]
Moving on. Who or what is it in this world you really hate?
[He chews this one over a moment, muttering and growling under his breath. Then, he looks up — not at us, but into the heart of the fire] Ere your Nailed God came out of the east, this Miðgarðr was a different place. The spirits of earth and stone, root and bole . . . they could thrive and work their enchantments to keep balance in the world. Not even the coming of my kind could disrupt that. [He chuckles] But after the Nailed God arrived on these shores? Faugh! Nothing works as it should! You lot embrace this offer of so-called “salvation” without a second thought, Mjólkblóð! You spread the Nailed God’s influence like a plague, and its victims are the folk of the shadows. Balance? Ha! There is no more balance! The fulcrum has rotted and the beam is broken! The spirits flee, or else they turn into the monsters lurking in your lot’s imaginings! What do I hate, you wretch? I hate everything, but I reserve my blacked rage for your Nailed God . . .
What does the future hold for you?
I am bound for the east. For Miklagarðr, most likely [Translator’s note: Constantinople, modern Istanbul]. I hunt something that escaped from me, something that owes me the blood-price, weregild. And I’ll not stop till I find it . . . and cut its wretched head from its body!
Finally, can you share a secret with us, which you’ve never told anyone else?
[Grimnir rises from his throne; he gathers up his weapons — an ancient long-seax, a Frankish axe, and a sword of black iron that gleams as though fresh from the forge] My mother’s younger brother, Raðbolg, use to tell me a tale, when I was but a lad. He told me of a fortress in the land of the Danes, a tower called Skaagen, where dwelled a sorcerer called Langbarðr — Long-beard, we named him. This Langbarðr, he was crazier than a March hare. Every year, Raðbolg said, on the eve of Yule, Long-beard would load up a ten-oared ship with coins, sweetmeats, and gee-gaws gathered from local tribes. He’d have his lads — Finns in antlered headdresses and skins — row him up and down the coast, stopping at every piss-hole village and steading they come across just so the old bastard could give it all away! Faugh! Have you ever heard such nonsense?
Well, a couple of centuries later, Gífr and me, we’re headed away into the lands of the Kievan Rus, ‘ere my brother Hrungnir gets it in his head that I might be a threat. But, I want to see this Skaagen. I want to see this damnable fool who gives his loot and spoils away every year. Gífr’s not keen on it, but I go anyway. Ha! You should have heard him screech! Well, I’m young and I’ve got a head full of rocks and a belly full of fire. Nár! I’m so raw I piss vinegar! I get it in my head that I’m going to plunder Long-beard’s precious fortress. If that bastard’s so flush he can just give a fortune away every year, then what sort of hoard must the old wretch be sitting on, eh?
I went in howling, then quick as you please I got in over my head. I hacked through those stinking Finns [Grimnir pantomimes the fight, slashing empty air with his seax], but there were more than ten of them! Faugh! They nearly had me! Then, Gífr showed up, and we sent those rats scurrying back to their holes! That left only Langbarðr. I nearly had that fat bastard, his beard flying and his scarlet coat flapping behind him as he ran. But, Gífr was right. He was a sorcerer. He stirred the bones of Ymir and brought Skaagen tumbling down around our heads! We barely skinned out of there with a sack of gold between us, and Langbarðr was never seen in the lands of the Danes, again, after that.
But, his legend clung to the minds of the Danes. When they turned to the Nailed God, they made old Langbarðr a saint. Faugh! To this day, you lot tell your children to be good so old Saint Long-beard — with his red coat and his reindeer — will bring them toys and sweetmeats!
How’s that for a secret, Mjólkblóð?
Scott Oden was born in Indiana, but has spent most of his life shuffling between his home in rural North Alabama, a Hobbit hole in Middle-earth, and some sketchy tavern in the Hyborian Age. He is an avid reader of fantasy and ancient history, a collector of swords, and a player of tabletop role-playing games. When not writing, he can be found walking his two dogs or doting over his lovely wife, Shannon. Oden’s books include the historical fantasies The Lion of Cairo, A Gathering of Ravens, and Twilight of the Gods, and two historical novels, Men of Bronze and Memnon.
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