STORYLINE - 20: WASTELAND, Midgard Nightmare At The End Of The World
The woodsman keeps going, unaware of my calling out to him for help
I wake, cold, numb, shivering. On looking around all I see is tall, bare trees and snow. Calf-deep, the cold, white stuff clings to me as I shuffle aimlessly through it - to where? All I have on is the old check nightshirt my Uncle Jack bought me when I was at college. It wasn't meant as a joke, he told me. It would keep me warm. Well, twenty-odd years on and I'm a married man. She thought it was funny - odd but funny, and told me to keep it. I found out why. Mind, it was as if both of us wore nighties. But that was only half the fun.
Meanwhile I'm still cold. The cold seems to be alive and gnaws at my bones and I'm left looking around with my arms folded, teeth chattering. It's begun to snow. Flurries are blown almost horizontally into my face and I have to turn away, in time to see an old man some way off with bound branches on his bent back. I call out but he doesn't seem to hear. Hard as it is, I hasten off after him, the snow almost burning my feet and legs in its cold grip.
'Hey!' I call again when I get closer. This time he hears and turns. He doesn't seem to be surprised to see me in my nightshirt and looks gloomily at me as if I were an annoying neighbour. The words seem to be on his lips, 'What does he want now?' .
'I need shelter', I wave at the snow and he nods, beckoning. 'Have you something I can wear over this?'
I tug at the now damp cloth that clings to my chest and groan with the icy chill. He nods again and starts off along an unseen track. I shuffle after him, arms still folded across my chest. By and by we reach his dwelling, a low, wooden, turf-roofed shed-like building. He opens a door that faces away from the wind, kicks the snow off his deerskin boots and throws down the wood by the hearth.
'Woman!' He calls out again, 'Woman, we have a guest! Bring a pair of my breeks, woollen socks and boots'.
He turns back to me and shows me to a wooden bench close to a crackling fire. Tossing a divot of peat onto the fire, he goes to a chest that stands against the wall opposite. From it he brings horn cups and sets them down on the pine table beside me. Now he walks to a shelf and brings an earthenware bottle, pulls out the stopper and pours.
'Drink. It will warm you within', he knocks back whatever he poured himself and watches as I do the same. The cold fluid seems to light a fire in my belly and I splutter. He grins for the first time and asks, 'More?'
I nod sharply and hold out the cup. A woman shows from behind a thick curtain. Her pale, lined face creases in a smile as she hands me clothing.
'Go behind the curtain, outlander. Put them on', he points to the curtain, behind which is the rest of the dwelling. A neatly made bed, more a mattress really, rests on a ledge above which the eaves of the dwelling lean inward and upward to a steeply sloping roof. Good for keeping the snow from crushing the roof. .
'What is your name, outlander?' he asks. 'I cannot keep calling you that - outlander'.
'I'm Gordon', I answer, slurping a nice, hot, thick broth that his woman has brought me.
He mouths the name after me,.
'Gor-don. Where does that name come from? I am Fridjof, my wife is Agneta. Welcome Gor-don!' he reaches a gnarled hand for me to take hold of and shake slowly.
'I'm not sure where it comes from', I answer when I've swallowed my mouthful. 'I think it is Scottish'.
'Scott-ish', Fridjof mulls it over and shakes his head. He has never heard of it. And I've never been there. I'm not much wiser than he is.
'Where am I?' I ask, waving my free hand before picking up another crust of bread to dip into the broth. This is good stuff!
'You are in Midgard. It is one of the Nine Worlds around Yggdrasil', Fridjof answers, his eyes wide with surprise at my lack of knowledge of these things he takes for granted. Moreover, what puzzles me is that we can talk like this without having to resort to hand signals. How come we understand one another?
I try to say after him,
'Yggdrasil, Gor-don. He has read my thoughts and tells me, 'All men understand one another here in Midgard. Do you want more broth, Gor-don? Agneta bring the pot and set it on the board for him to help himself. Bring a spoon for him'.
She gives him a look that speaks volumes, but does what she is asked to do and shuffles to the hearth with a cloth to lift the pot onto the board - what's that? She puts it on the table and walks away again. So the board is the table. It figures, we talk about a board of directors who sit around a table. I ladle the soup into the wooden bowl Agneta left with the spoon - also wood. Even the drinking cup Fridjof gives me is made of wood.
'Are you not eating?' I ask, suddenly aware of them watching me..
'We have eaten already, friend. 'You will want to be on your way again before nightfall? The wolves will be on the prowl. This is only the onset of the Fimbulvetr'
'What's that, the Fimbul -' I break off, not having understood.
'The Fimbulvetr is the long winter, when the sun never rises for many a year. This is the longest day, from now on days will shorten', Fridjof tells me. 'I will have to take my bow with me for more than mere hunting. No crops will grow and one day even the creatures we eat will die off for lack of roots, and shoots, to eat in the long darkness. Some, like the bears, will hide in their caves but when they come out again - hungry - there will be nothing for them. The wolves will have hunted everything down. Agneta and I will have to go south, to look for the sun'.
'Where can I go?' I ask, shrugging.
'Home - where else?' he asks in turn, smiling as if talking to a fool. When he sees me look askance he coughs, clears his throat and asks, 'Where is home for you?'
'York', I tell him, unsure whether he will know.
'York - where is that?' He looks at his wife and back at me.
'It is in England', I offer. I hear a long, loud, drawn-out groan from outside and look up in alarm.
Fridjof ignores the noise. His woman tells me,
'It is the wind'.
My furrowed brow tells her I don't believe what she has told me. She nods assuringly, as if to a frightened child. She gives her husband a sidelong look, as if to say, 'Where's this one been?'
'The wind does sometimes make that noise', Fridjof assures me. 'There is another noise you will not like the sound of.
A howl echoes outside and he nods knowingly,
It sounded like some demented man more than an animal. Like a human in agony.
'That is Fenrir'', Fridjof tells me and gives me a knowing look. Should I know this Fenrir?.
'Fenrir the wolf, one of Loki's three offspring by the giantess Angrboda. The Allfather cursed all three', Agneta half smiles, worried now. Is it my ignorance that worries her, or is it the thing they call Fenrir. 'We are safe in here, as long as we do not show ourselves to him. Then he would be angry'..
'He has been freed from his chains', Fridjof scowls, 'and seeks his father'.
'Loki is his father?' I ask, almost shout.
Fridjof puts two fingers to his mouth and looks up into the darkness of the rafters, shadows cast by the fire dance above us.
'From the smoke he will know we are here, surely?' I ask, very worried.
'The smoke will calm him', Agneta shakes her head, 'as long as he sees no-one - not of mankind'.
'How do I leave here?' I ask, a worried look I know spreading across my brow.
'Do you need to be somewhere this evening? Does Heimdall know you are about?'
'Who is Heimdall -' I know I must seem foolish to them, a complete 'outlander' as Fridjof put it. Then it dawns on me. At the Cineplex I saw the first of the 'Thor' films with Anthony Hopkins as Odin.
'Heimdall guards the way into Asgard', Fridjof tells me, eyes widening in mild surprise at my lack of knowledge. 'He stands by Bifroest the rainbow bridge'.
'Of course', I answer. It comes back to me, the story and all. 'So how do I go?'
'On foot. I saw you had no horse', Fridjof seems flabbergasted. 'You have socks and boots, breeks to keep the wind from you. I will give you a bag to put food in, a small flask of the spirit to warm your innards and a cap trimmed with wolf fur. When you leave through our door turn left and keep walking. You will see Asgard and if you are lucky Heimdall will see you, let you cross Bifroest'.
'I will be welcome there?' I ask, pulling on the socks and boots after having pulled on his breeks. He is around the same height and build as I, so everything should fit well. He tells me everything I need to know, to cross Midgard, what to avoid.
'You will be welcome there. Knowing as little as you do of our world, maybe you will be more at home there, although you must hurry! The wolves will not harm you with the burning torch I give you. Take the billhook from the wall, should any of the wolves become emboldened'.
My worried look makes him laugh. His teeth are too even for a mere man, although he walks with a stoop. I think there must be more about him than he lets on. His woman has a glint in her eye, too, that seems to belie her years. That notwithstanding I am soon ready to go. The pair of them wish me well and he hands me the burning torch. Even with the groaning wind blowing it doesn't go out. There's something odd...
I see eyes glow in the dark between the bare trees as I set out. What was it, left away from here and keep going? Shadows pass behind the iron-like tree trunks. I grasp the billhook firmly in my right hand, the torch in my left. How far do I go? The woods seem to stretch out on either side of me, onward into the unseen distance.
My legs feel tired from treading the snow but I have to keep going through the darkness, not so dark that I cannot see the wolves through the trees, keeping pace with me - maybe hoping for me to weaken.
There is light ahead, but not from torches or daylight. It is an unholy glow that comes from below.
'Fear nothing', someone tells me and I turn my eyes right to where I heard the voice.
'What?' I ask, startled, and look up at a tall fellow with fiery mane and beard. This dream - is it a dream or is it happening to me? - this dream keeps taking odd turns. It's almost as if I should know what's happening but I don't seem to grasp what's happening.
'Show no fear', he says. 'I will deal with it. You keep going to Asgard. It is safe there - for now'.
I can only nod before he strides away to the left, great long bounding strides. In one hand he holds something that might be a hammer, although you can't tell in this odd world. I'm sure this is a dream and blink - twice. But no, I'm still here. I blink again but it still doesn't work. I'm stuck here! There is another glow ahead from a high cliff. It's a golden glow against the threatening darkness that surrounds. A rainbow reaches down to the ground, fizzes at the edges. I stand and look, awe-struck, at the stronghold high up above me.
'Put one foot before the other', someone booms from out of the darkness, as if I needed to be told how to walk, and I look above. 'Come, outlander, before the Frost Giants catch up with you!'
My look of disbelief annoys him. Is this Heimdall? He looks nothing like how the movie showed him.
'What are you waiting for. Look behind you and come, steadily', he booms again.
I look behind. It's startling, whatever it is, and I set foot on the rainbow bridge.
'Be quick about it, outlander, their strides are much longer than yours!'.
Having been fed as guest of the woodsman...
As I hasten across the bridge to Asgard I hear something loud and even more startling than I've heard before. Before I can turn to look Heimdall roars impatiently,
'Come on outlander! I must cut Bifroest off before the Frost Giants catch you up! I know you are only a man, but I have seen fitter on a funeral pyre!'
With my right leg I touch solid ground and Heimdall reaches out a dinner plate sized hand to catch hold of me as the bridge vanishes beneath me. My left leg is still in the void as I am swung to safety. He points the way with his long staff,
'Valhall is that way, outlander'.
'My name is Gordon', I tell him sniffily.
'Your name would easily have counted for nothing, had the Frost Giants caught you, Gor-don! Hammer loudly on his door, as there will be the din of feasting within, where the heroes drink to the Allfather after their long day of fighting one another'.
Whilst I do not double my stride, I make resolutely for Valhalla. I know what that is, even if I'm ignorant of most other stuff I've been told about here. They seem .to take it for granted that I should know everything that goes on. There are tall buildings that glow like shimmering gold in the dark, but none as high as the one I'm told I should hammer on the door of. The roof looks as if it's been made of shields and weapons, and I'm taken aback at the loud, hollow knock I make on the door that seems to stretch up into the darkness. They've used whole trees, I think, to make either door.
Someone calls out at me from one of the benches nearest the door. He looms over me in the darkness, a silver-adorned horn in one hand. Ale splashes on the floor and over one of his booted feet as he thumps it down in front of him and demands to know again,
'Who are you, bold little man?'
'My name is Gordon', I tell him. They might be godly but they're obviously not mind-readers.
'Gor-don? Does that mean you are a son of Gor?'
'It might indeed', I answer, amused at his turn of phrase.
'You mock!' He stands, a lot taller than i am - maybe eight foot tall - ready to do me some mischief. At least it's warmer in here. A raging fire is tended in the hearth at the heart of the hall. 'You had best go on up to the Allfather before I lose my temper with you. Before you go, where were you slain? There is no blood on you'.
'Slain?' I look hard at him, or rather through him at the post he stands in front of. 'As far as I know i'm still in one piece'.
'They do not always know they are dead yet', another says, seemingly on my behalf. 'Were you chosen by Freyja?'
'Er, no', I'm at a loss again. What does he mean, chosen by Freyja?.
'You do not know much, do you?' the first one sniffs. 'You are not one of these Christians, are you? They are raised ignorant of the finer things. Go on up there. Fear not, the Allfather is worldly wise'.
'Unlike him', the second warrior says behind his hand, nodding my way and laughing as if I was a screw or two adrift.
When I stand at the end of the row of benches a very handsome looking young woman says, looking down at me, that I should speak up, as the Allfather's hearing is not as good as it was in his younger days. How old is he then?
Loud and booming, like Big Ben, the man asks, leaning forward on his high seat between others who stare down at me,
'Whom or what do you seek here, if you have not fallen in the shieldwall? How did you cross Bifroest without Heimdall knowing?'
I decide honesty is the best policy and tell what I know,
'I awoke down there', I point back over one shoulder to where I've been told is Midgard, 'freezing cold in my nightshirt in the snow. I found a kind-hearted old fellow who took me in and fed me, gave me this clothing. He told me to come this way as it will be the Fimbulvetr, a long, long winter'.
'Ah, the Fimbulvetr', old one-eye sighs and sits back, thinking. He leans forward again, one hand cupped to an ear. 'You saw Fenrir?'
'I think I probably did. I also saw this red-haired giant who told me to make haste here. I don't know what he was up to'.
'He had a fight with another of Loki's offspring', the tall woman nods, golden-blond hair framing her handsome face.
'Aye, Freyja, my son takes too much on himself', the old man nods wisely. 'Jormungand might yet prove more than a match, as Tyr found with Fenrir when he had to help bind him in his chains. A fight awaits us, my warriors! Utgard Loki waits beyond Bifroest, let us not keep him waiting!'
'As you are not one of the slain you had best wait here', the tall woman, Freyja tells me with a wicked grin, 'with the women'.
'Why should they have all the fun?' I groan, pointing at the warriors lined up in rows of three behind the Allfather. She laughs shrilly. 'Do you hear that, Sif?'
Another tall woman, prettier than the first looks at me and shakes her head,
'If you do not know what it is they are to fight, you would be best counselled to bide your time here with us until it is safe to cross Bifroest. There is no shame in it, being a mere man. You will have your day'.
Not listening, I follow the old man with all his warriors. A pair of ravens flies overhead, and when I look down again at the milling warriors a pair of pale-eyed wolves stare back at me, their shoulders level with my jaw.
'They are the Allfather's ravens', one of the servants tells me, pointing up at them, 'Huginn and Muninn, Thought and Memory. And they are his wolves -'
'Eyvind!' the Allfather calls over one shoulder. 'My sword!'
'I am with you, Lord Odin!' The servant leaves me to do his master's bidding. I'm left to wonder at the names the old man gave his pet ravens.
The ground shakes under Asgard. All hell breaks loose beyond Bifroest. Roaring, screaming and all manner of noises comes back through the cold air at us, those still in the great hall. It's time I was elsewhere so I make for the rainbow bridge. Heimdall isn't there and I'm halfway back to the old man's dwelling when I hear something growl behind me. I daren't look, and keep going at a trot. When I do look back I see the jaws open. Staring up at Fenrir's fangs I think I am next... Saliva drips and I try to back away. There is nowhere I can go, a tree at my back. My arm goes up in the vain hope of staving off the attack, defending myself....
I begin to sweat, and strike out and then half awake, thirst raging, I kick off the bedclothes. I strike out... What? I'm at home!
'Why did you smack Towser on the jaw?' It's the girlfriend, Marge. Where is she in all this whiteness? I'm still only half awake and I can feel the cold gnaw at me again.
'Gordon', I hear her say again, 'I asked why you smacked that poor dog on the nose? Didn't you hear him yelp in pain? Anyway, where did you get those clothes?'
I rub my eyes and stare. Towser stands at the bedroom door, a hurt, reproachful look in his eyes, tail between his legs. I look down at the outfit I'm still wearing. Anyone would think i'd been to a charity shop in Outer Mongolia..
'Sorry Marge', I shake myself awake, give the dog a quick rub on his back and sides on my way to the bathroom. 'Are you doing a cuppa?'
Before I enter the bathroom I look back at Towser. He looks balefully back at me - I should say looks down at me - saliva dripping from fangs as big as cutlasses.
Then he blinks slowly. I look again and he's the wobbly old mutt Marge rescued from the local dog's home.
...Staring up at Fenrir's fangs, I think I am next... And then, half awake, thirst raging, I kick off the bedclothes... What? I'm at home!
Hope you enjoyed this offering in the STORYLINE series. A departure from my usual serious VIKING series. If you want to read about the Norse gods, take a look at Kevin Crossley-Holland's book here, the Norse Myths. There are lots of notes and a name check before the index at the back. Savour the read.