Wednesday, February 29, 2012


Skaftna’s Doom
By Joel Zartman

It was not yet midday. The smoke from Thornshofn’s hearths rose into a blue sky. The cliff that marked the north of the valley was almost white in the bright sun. The vale lay under peaceful skies, but all was not peace in the lands of the north.
Skaftna, sitting in his hall looked at a dirty man. Dried blood, torn clothes—the man knelt on the rushes, exhausted beyond weeping.
“Who is this?” Skaftna asked, though he knew the answer already.
“Uheld, my lord, of Laekjar,” the steward said.
“What is your message?”
“The Evenki came and took all our cattle and slaughtered all of the people in Laekjar.”
Skaftna looked around the hall at his counselors and knights. “They are destroying all our wealth and spreading lawlessness. I must move against them. See how they provoke me?”
“Are they not beloved of Aegir, lord of the seas?” one old counselor asked. 
“Do the gods despise justice? Have we done anything to provoke these robbers the Evenki?”
No one answered Skaftna’s questions, but there was a low murmur of approval all around the hall. 
“We must put a stop to the lawless deeds of the Evenki,” Skaftna said. “We will drive them to the coasts and out upon the fjords and from there to the sea. We will slay none who will take ship and depart the coasts of the north, but all who refuse or resist we must kill.”
Aegir was angered, but the god of the sea said nothing. He gave the Evenki safe passage to an island to the west, and there he blessed them, and began to wait.
In Thornshofn, Hrethra, Skaftna’s wife was troubled, and Skaftna knew it. 
“Yet it is justice,” Skaftna said. And Hrethra said no more.
The country had rest, and Skaftna’s people prospered, and the rumor of their riches reached the deep, hot beds under the mountains where the dragons spawned. 

Hrethra’s Song
Skaftna stopped hammering; the ringing of his blows died out as he looked around. Hrethra stood in the doorway, a shadow against the twilight of the stars behind. The looked upon each other—two dark figures in the silence—until Skaftna turned away.
“You have had another dream,” he said. The mode and mood of Hrethra’s movements, of her posture Skaftna had learned in the ages of their marriage. He turned the piece of metal he was working in the ruddy glow from the furnace. 
“Skaftna, I have dreamed a dream and such a dream!”
She paused while Skaftna pounded, and again the ringing of the blows died away.
“Forsake the sword—oh my husband! it will be your doom.”
“This sword, Hrethra, is the dragons’ bane.” 
Skaftna had seen, and knew it was the truth. She knew it too.
“It will be your bane before it is the dragon’s. There are many dragons, and you do not know for which this sword awaits.”
“Mine! I prepare against the dragons, for this I make the sword. The gods have sent it.”
She was quiet for a while, then she said at last, “My sight has never failed.”
This also was true. He looked at her and said, “Nor mine.”
He was still holding the metal with tongs, waiting for it to heat up in the furnace. He looked in, saw the glowing metal and withdrew it. It clanged upon the anvil. Pausing as he reached for the hammer, he looked at her and said: 
“This time you will be wrong.”
* * *
Hrethra stood on the parapet looking out into the north.
“The dragons will come out of the north?” Ulgwast asked.
“Yes. We ought to dig, to find ourselves deep hiding places,” she replied.
“It is not for warriors to dig and hide.”
“It is for warriors to die,” she said. Then added, “Is it not for warriors to protect their own?”
* * *
Skaftna toiled at the forge. His knights watched the north and drank. His lands and people went neglected, and justice grew effete as he forged the sword. What Hrethra said ate at him, but he continued, alone and grim.
Hrethra had food sent to Skaftna. Hrethra visited his people and watched his lands, but she commanded nothing of his knights and warriors. These prepared for battle by shining their armor and sharpening their blades, by hunting, feasting and carousing, squandering and wenching, boasting and listening to bards and tales.
One night Hrethra came to Skaftna’s hall when the knights were feasting. They toasted her—they toasted Skaftna too—but she said nothing and only gazed.
“You bring an ill omen, woman,” some one of them cried at last. 
Still she did not speak, and gradually all the hall grew silent, heavy. And then she called for her harp in a low voice. 
“A song!” one cried, but no one else took up his mocking cry, and there was silence again. 
Hrethra sat down, arranged her mantle and her long, elaborate sleeves of scarlet and took the harp. She plucked a few notes, and they hung on the air with a sound of gold, of honey and also of ashes. With her notes she commanded the hall, and then to a slow rhythm she sang:

I sing a song of apple trees
whose leaf and flower are fair,
of apples in the autumn breeze
that sweeten all the air.

My trees stand green under the sun,

with dappled grass beneath,
but under the long grass long roots
grope blindly at old teeth.

For underneath lie all the bones,
and skulls are buried there:
the memory of brave men’s groans,
the ashes of their hair.

The dragons came and burned away

the warrior’s boast and arm;
and with the ashes apple seeds
I sowed to hide the harm.

And now the autumn passes too,
and rising with the moon
are dragons that burn apple trees,

and memories, and doom.

And after she had sung, one by one the warriors left the silent hall, and the fires burned low.

The Fall of Thornshofn
The dragons came, and Skaftna lifted up his finished sword. The arrows of his archers rained among the dragons; the spears of his knights flew, piercing wing and nose and eye; the dragons screamed and reeled, but they came on nevertheless, and fought, and drove the shrinking defenses back with flame hard to withstand.
“We ought to have dug; we are not prepared,” the chief of Skaftna’s knights said.
Skaftna cast on him a dark look and stood looking over the walls. Then he sensed something, and turned to see his wife standing beside him. He hardened his heart, knowing she was about to speak.
“Your people are perishing, Skaftna.”
“I will turn the tide of this battle,” he said.
She watched him leaping down the stairs in the shadows cast by the flames of dragons. She saw him, small now, approaching the gate, heard him calling to his knights, ordering the gates be opened, striding out into the flare and fury of the pitched battle. She kept the figure in view as it darted, saw the sword flash and fall, heard the cries of wounded worms and saw them writhe.
That night Skaftna slew the greatest of all the ancient dragons: Malbung the Bitter. The rest of the dragons fled, making the hills echo with the anguish of retreat. But many of Skaftna’s people also perished, many of his knights and warriors.
“We cannot hold them off if they return,” Ulgwast said.
He sat in council in Skaftna’s great hall. The women were there also, tending the many wounded. 
“The women can fight,” said Mod, the wife of Ulgwast. 
Skaftna looked at her for a long while. He knew the women of his people could indeed fight. He knew that they could die, and a vision rose before him of a bloody battlefield, and among the dead hewn limbs and forms of women. He stirred uneasily in his great chair, and he found he could still harden his heart.
“Tomorrow  we will fight again,” he said.
The next day they drove back the dragons again, but at a cost that could not be repeated. Many of the women fought, and many of the women died. Skaftna watched his people perish. He himself had killed three dragons, but more came on. The smoke billowed over the field and over Thornshofn. As the day dimmed, Skaftna watched with narrowed eyes and grieved. In his hall that night, amid the cries of the wounded and before the looks of his knights, Skaftna found he could no longer harden his heart.
“We must prepare to abandon Thornshofn,” he said. And in the hall all became silent. “If the dragons return—” he said looking up, and every eye in the hall was on him now, “if the dragons return, we cannot hope to hold them off; we must be a long way on our road.”
Nobody moved. Nobody looked around. All stood or waited in the silence, taking it in. 
“And if they do not return?” Mod asked at last, for the losses to the dragons had been great also.
“Then we will know, and we’ll return,” said Hrethra, who had been standing in the shadows behind the great chair.
“Go!” Skaftna cried to his people, “Prepare. We must depart.”
* * *
The scouts brought word of the returning dragons while the long train of women and children wound its way south through the mountains. Skaftna and his knights stood at the last turn, and that night they watched as Thornshofn burned in the darkness, watched the writhing shapes and shadows of the dragons, the lurid light upon the clouds.
“So it passes,” Skaftna said in a low voice. He drew his sword and gazed on it in the dim, red light. He drew his arm back to cast the accursed sword away from him, but as he was about to hurl it the sword resisted him. He turned to look.
Hrethra held the sharp end of the sword in a bleeding hand. Skaftna’s eyes narrowed, he relaxed his arm and she let the tip of the sword drop to the snow between them. 
“Still you do not understand, Skaftna.”
He gazed at her in silence.
“Put up your sword. See! Now it has been tempered with my own blood.”
“What about my doom?” Skaftna asked her.
“Do you think that hurling the sword away will change it? The sword has been forged and you must carry your curse around with you until your doom is settled by the sands of the sea. If you throw it from you, some shepherd will find it and come and slay you.”
He looked at the sword a long time. Then he cleaned the blood in the snow and sheathed it. “Here,” he said, “let me bandage your hand.”
With his tears he washed away the blood, and bandaged his wondering wife’s hand. And in silence turned to lead his knights on the long retreat through the mountains and in search of the restless, ageless sea in whose depths Aegir brooded.

The Siege of Morvagroth
After the dragons came and the bitter cold fell upon the North, Skaftna’s people fled south and built the fortress of Morvagroth. Then the doom that Hrethra saw came upon her husband. The Evenki came from the sea, covering the beach with their longboats, laying siege to the castle of Morvagroth, lofting boulders at the smooth rock, chanting death. The Evenki hated Skaftna with a bitter hatred and would not rest until they had accomplished the ruin of Morvgroth and all of Skaftna’s house. 
Skaftna looked out over the parapet and to the sea. The sun was setting, the sea was calm and golden. He held the sword before him so that it became gold in that last light, gold as the sea to which it pointed. He held up the sword with the falcon hilts and thought how it had never know defeat since it had been forged in the mountains, in the land of steam and lava. He looked at the horde that besieged Morvagroth, their longboats on the beach, their fires stretching into the twilight. The Evenki would not turn aside or retreat till they had ruined Morvagroth and wreaked their vengeance upon him. And they were likely to have it; his men were too few. 
He descended from the walls; it was time for another council.
“We are too few to break the siege,” Skaftna said to his knights. 
“Send to the king in Cardoreth,” Hrethra urged. 
Skaftna knew there was little hope the king could come in time; so did his knights. The council did not look at Hrethra, gazing down at the table or off to the side; she also knew what they knew, and she knew more. She insisted.
Skaftna agreed, and a messenger climbed over the rocks on the north and sped toward the east. The king marched forth with his armies in haste from distant Athlag. The hosts of the king came through Fenweth and found men dwelling there. And when the king called for aid, the men of Fenweth that could be mustered went to battle with him. Yet they arrived too late to save Morvagroth.
In her chamber Hrethra was combing her hair. Skaftna entered and watched her for a while in silence. 
“When the defenses are breached—” he began.
“Then I will go.”
“And you will die upon the sand.”
The night was still, the soft sound of the sea was all Skaftna heard, all he noticed as the room swam suddenly around him. He accepted what his wife had told him.
“You have seen it?”
“I have seen it Skaftna. But . . . you are weary, you should rest. Come, lay your head on my knees.”
Skaftna knelt beside his wife and lay his head on her knees. She stroked his hair and soon he slept, and then he dreamed. In Skaftna’s dream fish-tailed Hefring, Aegir’s daughter visited him.
“Now is the doom of Skaftna come upon him,” she said, mocking. “Tonight will the Evenki breach your walls, and the king of Cardoroth cannot arrive in time to save you.”
Skaftna gazed on her: the tangled locks with seaweed, her willowy, white arms, the grey-green scales on her belly tapering down, the fish’s fin. “And now the Evenki will be avenged on proud Skaftna.”
“It is not justice!” he cried out, waking.
“No, and yet, it is,” said dark and pious Hrethra to her husband. 
After a while Skaftna arose and went to make his final plans.

The Fall of Morvagroth
When the defenses of Morvagroth were breached, Skaftna rallied his knights.
“To me!” he cried. “We must break through to their ships and send our women and children out to sea. We will die, but perhaps they can be saved.”
The knights of Morvagroth perished on the sands of the sea preventing the enemy, as the ships that carried their women and children sailed away. The army of the king arrived as the last ship set out and the last defenders spilled their last blood on the beach. The king found Skaftna dead, the bloody sword in his hand.
In a ship, for she had not refused to go, still within sight of Morvagroth, Hrethra knew that Skaftna’s doom had come upon him and she bowed her head. Then she took her harp again, and on the prow of that ship, sailing south and west she sang:

When Skaftna perished on the sand
his great, dark heart was stilled.

Then Aegir took his soul below
and vengeance was fulfilled.

Another dragon waits the sword
whose bane it is to be;
but Skaftna’s passed beyond the world

and gone under the sea.

“Slay all of the Evenki. Do not let one escape,” the king commanded his armies.
Among the men of Fenweth there was a captain who killed more Evenki than any other in the king’s army. To this one the king gave the sword of Skaftna, and made him lord of the middle marches of Fenweth. The falcon on the hilt of the sword became the emblem of this lord’s house. Many great deeds were done by his lineage, and they became known as the Falcon Lords. To this line came the doom of the dragon who pillaged Cardoreth in later ages.

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I live and write in Bogotá, Colombia.


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