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Rune Songs: The Collected Works of Eric Northman

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Circa 750 C.E.

A few small fires scattered the battlefield providing enough light for my men to finish cutting down the last of our enemies. The cries of agony and the sound of metal ringing out upon metal were slowly dying down. Smoke and sweat stung my eyes as I leaned into the hilt of my sword, thrusting every last bit of my weight into its target. Ulrike cried in shock. Entirely possessed by the need to kill this loathsome, spindly coward, I kept pushing. Down, down, down, until I felt my fingers slip into the hot watery wound in his chest. I'd driven my sword, Grendl, deep into the sandy soil beneath him, pinning him to the earth like an insect.

I cannot know what came over me then. Refusing to break our locked gaze, I took hold of Grendl with my left hand and let the sputtering traitor watch as I licked his foul blood off my swordhand and spat it at his face.

"To Hel with you, Ulrike! You leave no heirs. You leave no memories. You depart this world without honor. You are nothing," I whispered to him, inches from his glassy eyes.

The searing bite of a blade between my thighs was so sudden, I doubt I even gasped. Ulrike coughed, blood spattering from his mouth. And then he was dead. The weapon that had just brought the hammering blow of justice down on my father's murderer was now unexpectedly a crutch. I held myself up against it, glancing down briefly to see just how bad he'd gotten me. Blood pulsed down the inside of my right thigh. I laughed. Never once had I doubted whether the cost of revenge would be great. I knew a high price was to be paid.

I quickly looked across the field to my brothers.

Forgive me, Grendl, I must leave you.

I abandoned my sword and stumbled in the stiff grass. Each step sent more blood gushing out of the heinous wound and my vision started to blur. I tried calling out to Leif and Asvald, but I could not make a sound issue from my mouth. The last thing I remember was the ground reaching up to punch me hard in the face and the earth whirling top over end. 

<>

Woozy sounds of a voice drifted around me and I was floating. Someone was giving me deliciously ice cold ale and I swallowed it down greedily. I couldn't stop myself; it was the sweetest drink that had ever touched my lips. I drank like a dying man. Somewhere in the back on my head I knew this was because I was a dying man. The coolness spread, numbing the horrific pain that wracked every inch of my body. I am dying! I thought. I am dead! I wanted desperately to see. I wanted to see Valhalla. I managed to open my eyes; it took the force of a hundred men to raise those soft lidded gates onto the world. All I could see was the sky – the beautiful swirling night sky.

A shining, iridescent boy suddenly looked over me.

"You don't look so good."

The words of the boy enraged me. I had never seen a creature such as he before – strange tattooed markings covered his skin and his hair was matted into long locks. My stiff fingers flexed, trying to find my sword. But no, I remembered. I'd left her in the fucker that killed me, too weak to pull her from the ground. I felt my heart ache.

The boy disappeared from view between my thighs. I could feel him touching my flank strangely with cold slithery caresses.

Pushing my chest together with great effort, I found my voice, albeit a croaking hiss. "May dogs eat you! I'll defile your mother, you filthy bastard, and your sisters too! Fiend! Devil!"

He popped back into sight, his mouth smeared in blood. It was then I saw he had two long knives for teeth. He cocked his head curiously. "I am no devil, child. I am Death."

I laughed. "Death? You're just a little boy! Bring me my sword you fucker of pigs; I'll show you death…"

He threw his head back, shaking it in amusement.

Seeing the golden firelight reflecting off his unnaturally pale face and those bloody, gleaming fangs, cold horror ran through me.

"Death!"

He nodded.

The realization shocked me. Death. The weight of my life's events suddenly felt final. This was all there would be. It was done. I'd never sleep with my wife or laugh with my children again. I'd not see the snow fall on Uppsala during the midwinter fest, nor walk through my fields, satisfied that my labors would feed my people. I felt this sadness begin to choke my throat, but I refused to give this trickster the pleasure of seeing my weakness. "If I had known you were a boy I would have fought more bravely and fucked twice as much!"

"I have never seen a man fight as fiercely or as bravely as you. It was a glorious thing to behold."

I was stunned. "You saw?"

He nodded and grinned fiercely at me, stroking my face in a paternal gesture. "Could you be my companion? Could you forsake the day and walk the nights with Death?"

"What gain is there in it for me?" I blurted out.

He howled and thumped his fist against wood. It was only then that I realized we were still in Midgard, the human world. And the wood around us was one of our small landing boats. I was laying upon my funeral pyre.

I blinked to clear my eyes, my vision blurred and slipping. The boy leaned closer to me and whispered, "Eternal life, my child. Eternal life."

In an instant, he had disappeared. 

<>

 I cannot say how long I lay there immobile on the hard planks of the boat. The rolling surf crept slowly towards my deathbed in foamy sweeps. Up the sandy bank of the shoreline, I could hear my men laughing and singing around a fire. No one came to check whether I was dead yet and the sea breeze chilled me to the bone. I longed for someone to cover me in a fur, but I hadn't the strength to call out. My brothers in arms were drunk and reciting praise poems in my honor. The lyrics made me think of my father in the magnificent halls of Valhalla and I felt at peace with my deeds. This was a good death. An honorable death.

For hours, I waited to see if the strange young man would return. He did not come and exhaustion finally took hold of me. My sleep was haunted by bizarre, twisting dreams.

Someone shook me, jostling the images away. "Eirikr! You live among us still!" The midday light filtered through a grey pall of low hanging clouds over my brother Leif's shoulder.

"Brother," I said hoarsely.

He began to shout excitedly, calling for small beer and porridge. I tried to take a little to please him, but it tasted of ash in my raw throat.

"Leif, take the men up the coast and reclaim Kings Hall," I said. "The throne is yours. Please care for Astrid and the children. Tell them all - my son Thorson especially - that they have always made me proud. I know Thorson will bring honor to the family."

"We aren't leaving you behind, you damned fool!"

"No. No. You must."

"Eirikr, you have won, Ulrike is slain! Here. Here is Grendl, she served you well." He put my hand on top of our father's sword. Someone had cleaned it and placed it alongside my body. "Your wounds are many, but by some miracle this one here – the worst - has closed. You may live long yet!

"I cannot return. The God of Death has visited me."

"You madman! You are alive!"

"He came to me, Leif, a real god! He wants me to go with him. You will leave me here if you love me. Return if you wish in nine days time. If I am gone then you will know I have joined Death."

"These are the tricks of Loki!"

"Perhaps. Perhaps not. I shall see what fate brings."

My brothers and men laughed at me, saying I must be drunk on the blood of my enemies. Did I not taste Ulrike's blood, they teased!? My mouth was crusted in crimson, as though I'd feasted on the fellow! Only Eirikr of Åsaviðr would win back his rightful crown only to say there was yet another adventure to begin. Lesser men, they said, would be happy to grow fat and lazy and do nothing but eat, drink, and spill seed in women all day.

They left me on that coast, joking thusly and offering casual well wishes, saying they would see me soon. I could not explain it, but I knew these would be our last words. To this day I remember the expression on Leif's face as the longboat pushed offshore, growing smaller and smaller in the horizon. He gave me a little saluting wave with two fingers and a loving smile, not really believing he was going home to lead our lands so soon. He was a loyal brother and my closest friend in life. I never saw him again.

Now alone, I tried to pass the time by singing snatches of old tunes. I inspected as much of my body as was visible. I could see that some of the gashes had been quite deep. I'd shouldered several horrible blows and many superficial ones, but none were as vicious as Ulrike's stab wound into the sensitive skin of my inner thigh. The flesh had knitted partially together by some sorcery and oozed angrily with foul pus. Too weak to venture out of my little boat and afraid that wild animals would be glutting themselves on the remains in the battlefield uphill, I cast rune stones in my lap, snacked on dried fish, and even counted the gulls circling over head. I waited for Death, napping on and off, trying to reserve what little strength I had left. I did not know if he would still want me to accompany him if I could not walk far. Where would we go? What did he want me to do for him? So many questions burned in my mind, but I tried to remain calm. I braced myself for the possibility that this creature was indeed some kind of trickster demon. Several times I confirmed that there was still enough vigor in my sword arm to fight him if necessary. I waited and waited. Finally, I grew so restless that I upturned the boat and sat atop it, wasting the last of my energy, telling myself that I'd be damned if I laid there in a deathbed like a marooned codfish. 

<>

Late that night, I heard the splashing footsteps of someone far down the beach. It was too dark to see anything more than a shadowy movement. Unsure whether to call out to the stranger, I began to sing an old song.

Cattle die and kinsmen die
Death looks my way
And I too shall die
But I know a thing that never dies:
The fame of the honored dead

I see the hearth-fire burning
A dead man's at the door
Lo, it is my father, 'tis each sister, and my mother
'Tis me, I see at last
With each and all my brothers

Death nears and I wait
Hail friend, we greet in tiding
May Odin guide us  To Valhalla
With glory, honor, always viking

Within a few minutes, the figure drew closer and I could make out the eerie glow of pale skin and the thick spiky hair of the boy I'd seen before. He walked up to me, hands buried in the pockets of the leather leggings he wore.

"You came," I said in astonishment.

"You lived." A wry smile snaked across his face. In a flash, he hopped atop the boat and sat next to me, still bare above the waist.

"Are you not cold? Take my fur…" I went to unclasp the thick pelt from my shoulders.

"No need. I feel neither cold nor heat." He tilted his head. "I see you are generous as well as ferocious. What is your name?" 

"I am Eirikr of Åsaviðr, son of King Ragnar, himself the son of Thorbjörn the Wise."

He grinned, but his sharp teeth were gone. Had I dreamt them? "A prince of God's Tree. This is the meaning of Åsaviðr, no?" He had a slight lilting accent and pronounced the Norse with care.

"Yes. Those are my homelands, not two days north by strong wind from here."

"Soon all the world shall be yours. Most simply call me Death, but you may call me Godrik."

I nodded. "That is a strong name, though I have never heard it in the Sagas."

"I am older than your Sagas, child. In my ancient tongue, my name means 'god ruler'."

"Over which gods do you have power?"

"None. My kind are not gods, but creatures of the night - blood drinkers, bringers of death, unbound by time or age."

"I must tell you that I have always done the sacrifices to our gods and ancestors dutifully, but I have never served another nor bent my knee."

The boy laughed and clapped me on the back. "Of course you haven't! Do you think this is what I wish of you? To be my slave?"

"I do not know your wishes, sir."

"We will be each other's father, brother, and son. Come now, it reeks of death here, as do you. Let us leave this place and begin."

"Are we to go far?"

"I will carry you."

"No," I said sharply. I slid off the boat to stand. As soon as I made the movement I knew it had been in vain and there was nothing left in my legs. Before crumpling to the ground, humiliated, he jutted a hand under my arm faster than I could see and it held me up like a stone pillar.

"Foolish, proud boy," he said, clucking his tongue at me. I went to protest, but he snatched Grendl from me, then grabbed me tightly. "Hold on."

In an instant, wind tore at my hair and tunic. I twisted around to get my bearings and realized we were speeding through the air like a comet, my legs kicking at nothing. The landscape zipped in a blur beneath us and I felt Godrik laughing against my side.

After traveling what must have been a tremendous distance, he changed course and we began dropping out of the sky. Moments before I thought we would crash, he slowed us and landed softly on a mossy forest floor near a rocky outcropping. "In there," he pointed.

Under the canopy of whispering conifer trees, it was too dark for me to see what he meant. He hucked me over one shoulder as though I was no heavier than a sack of potatoes and walked a few lengths into a cave before setting me down on what felt like a pile of furs. I could hear his echoing footsteps shuffling around, then the sounds of iron clanking on stone. The dull orange glow of an ashy pile of embers was revealed. The boy blew on them, dropping bits of fuzzy tinder and then small twigs onto the coals until the flame caught.

"Can you manage this? We'll need it hot. I'll be back shortly."

Dragging myself over to the tiny fire, I added more kindling into it until I could see a stack of wood nearby. I was quickly panting with exhaustion from the simple action of rummaging through the logs trying to pick out nicely cured pieces of ash. Once the blaze was really going, I tossed in a small stick of fir for its aromatic quality. I'd always preferred my home fires this way.

The heat felt amazing on my skin and damp clothing. Soon I heard Godrik padding back into the depths of the cave. He had brought pails of water. Tossing even more wood on the hearth, he lifted a huge iron pot with a single hand and casually placed it on the hook of a fire spit set over the licking flames.

I raised an eyebrow in awe and he chuckled at my expression. "Come. Let's get this off you." He tugged at the sleeves of my chainmail, then helped with the lacing on my boots. They were stiff with caked mud and blood.

"Thanks," I said.

He hummed in thought. "Your tunic is not going to be as easy."

"No?"

"No. It has dried into a gash on your back. I think I can see bone. It's a wonder your legs still work at all. Let's wait until the water is warm."

"What do you mean to do?"

"Tonight? We shall prepare your body for immortality."

"Oh," was all I could manage to say.

He withdrew a pouch from his waist and sprinkled lavender into the heating cauldron. He stirred it with a hand, as if the heat could not touch him. After some time, I could see steam coiling of the waters' surface. He dipped his palm in it and held it out to me. "How is this?"

"Warm, but not nearly hot enough to begin a potion. Is there not some sister who might help you cook?"

"We're not making witches brew here, fool! I'm going to wash the stench off you. I'd rather you not freeze to death in the process."

"You are heating the water?" I asked curiously.

"It is commonly done in the more sophisticated places of the world. Trust me, it will be better than your icy dips." With that, he pulled the cauldron off the fire. It was too amazing a feat for me to comment upon. Such an act would have melted flesh; even cold those damnable pots took several strong women to handle. Godrik dipped a wooden bowl into the fragrant water and beckoned me towards him. He snatched the furs from underneath me and tossed them aside. His movements were utterly untamed and lightening fast, yet the next minute he would be still as a stone. It was dizzying to witness.

"Kneel down. We'll start from the top." He handed me a jagged cube of soap and pushed my head down. I scrubbed my face and hair while he poured, then my chest and arms. I couldn't help crying out as the soapy water ran through my cuts and gashes.

"No. Don't avoid them. Clean them well. Here…" he tossed several more large logs into the fire. "Now, you'll be able to see clearly. I will heal anything that you don't wish to wear as a scar for all eternity. Then we'll trim your hair and nails as you want them. It will all be set as in stone, Eirikr, once you are turned."

"How is this done?" I whispered.

"With my blood." I flinched backwards on my heels, stunned. "Ha! So now you are squeamish about blood?"

"No!" 

"You are bloodthirsty even in life. Trust me, you will not be disappointed in death."

He stepped around behind me. "Let's work on this shirt." He dipped the bowl again and poured hot streaks down back. The searing pain that suddenly took hold of me was so great that I pitched forward and vomited. He held me with a single, crushing hand. "That's okay. It will be worse before it is better." Opening his mouth, those knife-like teeth dropped down and he bit into his wrist.

"Drink." I was confused. "Drink quickly before it closes." He shoved a cold, bloody wrist into my mouth. The thick liquid hit my tongue and I immediately moaned and started sucking at the wound. It was that same life saving ale I had tasted before. I realized now that no one had brought me beer – it had been Godrik's blood which I'd tasted. It was sweet and perfumed my senses. The heady substance quickly had me gasping, it was so delicious. It bore little resemblance to the hot, watery tin that poured through a man's veins.

I never felt his hand creep down to the edge of my tunic, but I certainly knew when he tore it off. I doubt I screamed so horribly when I received the blow. There was no hiding my weakness now. He was at my back then, doing something to the wound, much like he'd done to the gash in my flank. The flesh tingled, almost like inhaling quickly after chewing peppermint leaves.

"Drink again." I heard him crunch into his arm again and he held it to my face. I didn't hesitate; I sucked hard at the bite it elicited a deep groan from him. His blood was a divine elixir. I felt stronger with every pull. "Alright. Finish washing. Can you see? Shall I add more wood to the fire?"

"I'm battle-worn, not blind," I retorted.

"Of course," he laughed at me, ignoring my stubbornness. He inspected me then more closely than anyone had ever done. Though I'd never been shy about my body, it felt strange to be looked over so thoroughly for imperfections.

"Do I pass?" I joked.

He snorted and stood back, tapping a finger on his nose in contemplation. He then bit the pad of his thumb and began tracing over each cut and abrasion on me. I watched as they miraculously disappeared.

"Your blood is magic!"

"Aye. This here," he pointed to a place on my hip. "This scar is especially nasty. Shall I fix it?"

I shrugged. "Sure. It was a burn from when I was a child."

Godrik knelt down and glanced up at me. Then much to my surprise, he sunk his fangs into the spot.

"Ow! Fuck!" I tried to push him away, but I would have had better luck moving a mountain.

He chewed and sucked at the skin with closed eyes, then slowly licked at the wound, making it heal. The flesh sealed over and he worked more of his blood into it until it was a flawless, smooth expanse of skin. He repeated this action several more times, perfecting and beautifying my body.

When he'd at last finished, he pulled out a very fine pair of shears and a comb to trim my shoulder length hair and to even out my nails. It felt odd being attended to this way. But then, my people had our methods of preparing bodies before burial too. They just usually weren't still alive for it.

"Your beard is a shaggy mess."

"I cut it short for battle. It never grows out evenly."

"How shall I do it then? It won't ever grow longer than how we cut it tonight."

"Cut it close. That way I will always be ready for war."

He nodded and began snipping at it. While he focused on his task, I took in the details of his face for the first time. Like me, he had the high, strong cheekbones and almond eyes of a man from the north country. If his hair hadn't been so filthy and matted into dreadlocks, I could tell it would naturally be a lustrous golden brown. His sensuous mouth was full and shaped like a bow. Though nothing about him struck me as gentle, his eyes were soft and fringed in long lashes. They were a stormy blue green and his pupils were ringed in a sage color. Rather like the sea, I thought. I found myself fascinated with the dark blue collar tattooed around his neck and the bands encircling this biceps, but I didn't dare risk offending him.

"Marks of honor," he said, sensing the question in my roving eyes. "There. That will do." He handed me the bowl to wash off the stray whiskers and I inspected his handicraft in the reflection of the water.

"Not bad," I remarked.

"How are you feeling?"

"Better. Stronger," I lied. I felt like Hel warmed over, but I thought it better not to let on.

Godrik dusted off my fur stole and put it around my shoulders, then tossed me a little satchel.

"Dried fruits?" I wondered aloud, pouring its contents into my hand.

"Eat that tonight, but nothing after the sun rises, only water. No more of those foul little fish, understand?" he smirked. I'd never even realized he'd snitched my food pouch off my belt. "Your body is going to reject all the human fluids in you. The less there is to come out, the better for both of us. I will return tomorrow night at sundown and we shall truly begin."

"Where are you going?"

"To rest for the day. Say your goodbyes to the sun, for it is the last time you shall ever see it. Stay close and don't get yourself killed while I'm gone." He winked, then disappeared.