The Cycle of Axer Carrick
Part IV -- Reading the Endtrails
The Revised Version
by Henry Wyckoff
Axer sat against the headboard, oblivious to the fact that Nat's eyes were a trifle wider than they should be. His hair hung in his face as he lit a Shermans, taking a deep drag and blowing it across the room.
Where do I begin?... Europe was in flames. Wars erupted right and left as the old orders crumbled and the land turned to barbarism. Like a fire rushing across a grassland - fires are part of the cycle of nature, but I didn't want to be caught up with it. And so I left my familiar homes behind -- Wales, Britain, Scotland, Ireland...
I didn't know where to go, so I went for the unfamiliar. It was said that the Danes were great sailors, and they reached into parts unknown, and so I would share the new discoveries with them. I walked on foot from Cornwall to the Danelaw, and I learned about the people who had invaded my fair land many years before. After a generation of moving from place to place, I became a Dane myself -- the fact that I looked like a Wielas was not important, because by the second generation, many looked like Wielas and Saxon. The fact that I refused to speak Danish was considered irritating, but not too important, because they all spoke Saxon and Celt as much as Danish.
I was known as Bjorn, a travelling skald who knew the tales and the songs. My lore was much needed, and my power great -- and none of it to do with fighting. I threw my fate up to the wind and buried my sword underneath a huge boulder and took up the cloak, and decided that it was time to move on...
I went to the port and signed on a ship traveling to Iceland. It had already been settled, but more expeditions were being launched, so I thought that it would be good if I moved to Iceland first.
The captain was glad to have a skald on board, but he let it be known that when the times came, I would be expected to row and bail like the rest of them. I accepted his terms and cast a piece of my heart away, sailing to parts unknown. I sat near the rudderman, a hand clutching my heart tightly as I watched the last of the shore vanish.
As the shore nearly vanished from sight, I wanted to jump up and dive into the waters. I would swim my way back, I thought, and return to the land that had brought me into the world. I never moved a muscle.
Over a millennia of memories flooded through me. I remembered the mountains I climbed, the men I'd killed, and the feasts I'd attended. Civilizations passed before my eyes, and the world changed several times. I had seen death and life pass before my eyes too many times to count, and yet I had a sense of stability. I knew my place in the world. No matter what happened, life was good and had meaning. Now I know it was because I was still a child living in the cradle.
It was time to grow up.
Perhaps that was when the world changed for me, as I watched the endless expanse of ocean all around me. I had always known the sea was endless, looking from the shore, but I never truly embraced the notion of 'endless' -- I had traveled across the waters before, but it was with a knowledge that land wasn't that far away. It took weeks for me to finally forget the Isles and become a resident of the ocean.
Though I was signed on board as a skald, the others seemed to understand and respect my love of the land, and my broken heart that came with leaving it. Though they were seamen, they had lived their lives on land, and knew what it was like to leave it for real the first time. When the world changed for me, they seemed to sense it, and began to ask me to break their exhaustion and boredom with songs and poems, tales of great deeds, riddles to confuse them, and jokes to lift their spirits.
I had known the Danes enough to know that their hearts were much like the Celts of my youth -- young, lively, and sharp. Their ideas of humor and good taste often clashed with those of 'civilization'. But I had lived in a time much like theirs -- I no longer saw them as oppressors -- they had become human.
The weeks passed, as we went from isle to isle, replenishing our stores of water and food. Scotland and even the Faroe Islands were long since left behind, and we entered the ocean proper. It didn't bother me as much now.
When we eventually reached Iceland, I had become a new man. My muscles were lean and tight from the endless rowing and adjusting of scales. My skin was roughened from the ever- cold wind and the low sun. The narrow eyes and grim face I had gathered from the long wars had changed to an open face and a wide smile. I had every one of the sailors laughing at my jokes and crying at my tragedies.
When it was time for me to part ways with them, the Captain was the most regretful of all -- yet he was very accepting of parting ways. He told me, "When you love someone or something, set it free. Chaining it will kill it. We value you, so we let you go in the hopes that some day, you will return."
One of the sailors, Ulaf Trygvasson, parted ways with the Captain as well -- he had family who had moved here years before him, and now it was time for him to farm and raise cattle. He never loved the sea, and was tired of eating fish.
Ulaf was a tall and thin man from the shores of Norway. Though his muscles were as thin as my wrist, he had the strength and stamina to row all day and night, and carry thrice his weight for miles.
For all his roughness, he had a voice as smooth as silk, and I found the sound of his poems and songs breathtaking, even though I still didn't understand a word of Danish. It was my stand -- I would not learn the language of the invaders, even though I now lived in their world. At least he spoke the language of the Lowland Scots, and enjoyed speaking it. It wasn't my language, but it was close enough that I used it to speak with him, rather than the Saxon we had spoken on the ship.
"Where are you bound?" he asked me.
"I don't know," I told him. "I want to see the world beyond the world -- I wouldn't know where that is."
He became serious, "That is a dangerous place to go. The end of the world is not far away, and when you reach the end of it, horrible monsters await."
I still believed in monsters back then, and as far as I was concerned, the world was a flat place. I trusted him. "All I know is that I am tired of war."
He nodded. "I wondered where your sword was."
"I buried it forever."
He took that in an odd way -- he was disturbed, but refused to elaborate as to why. I let the matter drop and looked inland to the breathtaking volcanoes. The village was bustling with life, as the people went about their daily business.
Ulaf looked at it with satisfaction, "My family lives a day away, so I have heard. I will go there and claim my inheritance. You are welcome to come with me. A skald would bring me much fame."
"Even though I don't speak Danish?"
"Who says you'll never learn?" he laughed.
And so we bought a large horse for each of us, built for dragging plows through clay. As we travelled across the snow-covered rocks, I felt this land become a part of me, as much as I became a part of it. I saw the Great Mother in everything around me, and I no longer felt as homesick.
As Ulaf had believed, we reached his family's farm, and the extended family greeted me as if I were a part of his family as well. There were three separate branches of the family living on the farm, each taking care of a different plot.
I was quite shocked to learn that the patriarch was the very man who'd killed me in battle many years ago. He was a gray- haired old man who was beginning his path to death, which would claim him perhaps as little as a year down the line. He saw me and tilted his head, with his eyes narrowed, and I was nervous that he would recognize me and declare me a demon. I was filled with relief when his expression became more open and he greeted me as friend. But in my heart I knew that he had deliberately kept his knowledge hidden -- he had a true warrior's heart, and not that of a fearful man who would declare all things not understood as evil or demonic. I was a true bit of mystery and wonder in a world that Christianity was altering -- stripping it of that mystery and wonder.
And so I became the skald of the farm, and though I did not speak the language, many would come from miles around to hear me play the pipes or the harp. When I sang in my own language, or in languages that we mutually understood, that would thrill them even more than if I had sung in their tongue. Though many of them had come from the old lands, they hadn't heard the sounds that I had grown up with. It was like a breath of new life, and it renewed all around the farm.
It was a year later that Buri, the patriarch, died in a farm accident. A bull had broken loose from a pen and run him down, and the whole family rejoiced. Though they lived on a farm, they were still warriors at heart -- and to die of old age was still considered bad luck. The fact that he had been killed was enough for celebration, but sadness was still mingled in with the cheers.
It was then that one of Ulaf's cousins caught my attention - - Ulla, her name was. Buri's death had hit her hard, and she spent more and more time to herself. The others left her alone, and so I figured that it was the Viking way. But I was not Viking. I followed her to where she sat pensively, and let my presence be known.
She didn't react when I sat down next to her on the rock that overlooked the next valley, covered with snow. Her eyes were still red with tears, though Buri had been dead for two weeks.
"You are killing yourself," I told her. She had lived in the Danelaw, and so she understood a little of what I said when I spoke in Saxon. "This grief maddens you."
Her eyes blazed as she looked at me, "This is none of your concern!"
"It is of my concern. I see a soul crying for help, and I can't stand back and let it die alone."
She stared back to the next valley, "It is noble to die alone."
"But not if you die alone by your own hand. You're committing suicide, which is an act that bestows no honor. You will be remembered as Ulla, the woman who gave herself to needless grief, and perhaps as the woman who simply gave up. Is that how you want to be remembered?"
"Leave me alone," she whispered hoarsely.
I left her alone, perhaps a little too defensively. The days passed, and Ulla seemed to break her mood. Though she still kept to herself, she started to work once more at the household chores. A few days later, and nobody would have known about her depression -- except me. I could still see it in her eyes, and she knew it. Ulla avoided me even more. It was sometime the next spring that my life and hers changed forever. A neighboring family had a feud with this one, and this year they decided that they'd help themselves to a few dozen cows.
Before the sun rose, they came. A dozen horsemen with spears and axes descended from the ridges and converged on the farm. The houses were mostly stone, so they couldn't torch them, the way they would do in Wales, but they could torch the fields that were full of corn.
I noticed the sounds first -- I was still attuned to the sounds of war. My hand grabbed for the sword that I had buried near York, and grabbed nothing. Regardless, I raised the alarm and jumped out the window, charging towards a horseman with a wood-chopping axe that I found near the wood-pile.
The memories are still a blur, but I do know that somehow I gained a sword and killed five men that morning. The fifth man I killed had finished raping Ulla and was about to take her with him as a prize. My rage boiled, and I killed the young man. Ulla stared at me as if I had killed her only son.
The sounds of battle faded away in my own mind as I stared into her eyes -- I couldn't take them away, and she couldn't take hers away from mine.
"What am I to do?" she nearly cried. "He's taken away my honor, and you killed him! What will become of me?"
At last I understood, and was surprised to hear myself say, "I will take you for my own. I don't care if there's a child that's his -- it's yours, and that is all that matters to me."
For the first time in weeks, she cried in relief. It was the happiest moment of my life as well, and I took her up in my arms, kissing away the tears.
Axer had gone through a full pack of Shermans already, and was starting on another one. Nat's eyes were still wide- open, but for an altogether different reason.
"I'm curious as to how you were so evil," she finally said after a few moments of silence. "You've told me nothing that would suggest you're evil."
"That comes next," he frowned, the relaxed tranquillity draining from his face. "I had to set the stage, so you would be able to appreciate my actions."
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