Apr 18, 2011
An ancient hero legend
The fire on the hearth still burned brightly casting its warmth across the stone and packed-earth floor and its light to illuminate the faces of the old man and boy and, beyond them, to the door and windows, shuttered and barred against the bitter wind and the things which prowl, howling in torment, in the Northern night. Above the mantle, the boy's eye caught the glint of metal and he looked up, squinting against the fire-glow.
“Is that your sword, Grandfather?” His little finger, extended from a pale hand, indicated the object of his interest. The old man did not need to look up for confirmation but, instead, turned slightly in his chair, the coarse blanket across his shoulders rustling, and regarded the boy sitting on a small, wooden stool by his feet.
“Aye, it was. Now it is your father's and, once you grow to be a man, it will be yours.”
“Did you ever kill any dragons, Grandfather?” His little fists joined together and, in imitation of the sword-play he had witnessed among older boys, slashed at an imaginary direful beast. He clearly wanted to hear a story before sleep. The old man's laugh escaped him although his breath was as thin as brook-side reeds in the spring.
The sword was, by any measure, a fearsome thing. The blade was two palms wide and as long, again by half, as a man's arm. It's sides were incised with curling designs of these people along with a mythic bestiary of rampant gryphons, frolicking unicorns and, near the shield, a dragon spread it's wings in protection. It had two handles for, to wield it, required the strength of a great man.
“Nay, son.” He stopped laughing and regained his breath. “Dragons have been gone from this country for many, many generations – almost longer than our legends recall. But, if you want, I will tell you the story of the sword and for who it was created to slay.”
The boy nodded energetically.
The boy scampered from the low stool, invited to join in his Grandfather's lap. He old man grimaced and adjusted the blanket to cover the boy.
“You are getting heavier – too much for these old bones. It is good.” He sighed, collecting his thoughts. The boy's fist extended to grip the security of the man's long, wiry beard. After a time, the Grandfather began.
“This land is cursed but, truly, it may not only be our land but all the lands that are occupied by Man – the Gods do not stop from their games in the mountains to explain these things to us. We do know this: that where there is Evil, there is also Good; where there are the weak, there are also the strong to protect them for that is their honour. Just as the winter here is long and cold, so does summer bring forth the bounty and beauty of our land and this is how it should be. All things remain in balance and that is the work of the Gods.
“This curse has been here since the beginning of time. The last to do it battle was my Grandfather, Olveg.”
“That's my name,” whispered the boy, peering from the folds of the blanket.
“Aye, t'is true. You are named for my Grandfather and for your own father, Harrald. It is the way of our clan and the way of our people's tradition.
“It is a demon that comes. The legend says that it is the bane of each sixth man and, so far as we know, it is true. It comes like a coward in the night – a blight and a plague together – laying waste to the land, draining the blood from the beasts and, by the stench of its breath alone, makes our women barren. That it is also a coward is true, for it hides from strong men, continuing its ruination, until cornered and made to fight.
“In the language of our ancient, sea-going ancestors...”
Here, the old man, bent and gnarled as a pine clinging to the coast, lowered his voice to a whisper lest, in the uttering of it alone, the name of the thing might cause it to awake to renew its devastation before the boy would be grown enough. He continued.
“It is called, 'Hrvastøg'. It stands the height of three men and has the appearance of a cripple. It is as broad as two ox and, when forced from its cowardice, will use the same strength and more.
“When it last came, like a wolf in the night, it blighted the land while, in ignorance, my Grandfather lay with his beloved wife, Ysolt, and planted the seed that would grow to become my father, Sigisbert. It was only in the morning, when called by wailing neighbours, that Olveg knew what had happened to the countryside. He took up the sword from where it had been kept from the time of his Grandfather's Grandfather, also Olveg, and he spoke to the men of the town:
- Men of Holmstaedt! The demon has returned to curse our land.
“He held up the sword in one arm, as stout as a tree-trunk, to show his determination.
- I, Olveg, son of Erdorf and blood of the Great Olveg who came long before me, will not stand by whilst this thing – traveling like a slug in the night – destroys the land or risk that its breath nears my wife to blight her womb and destroy the blood of my family.
- Who will join me and do battle with this thing and save this county which gives us life?
“The men of the town raised their swords and, though they shouted their battle cries, they were mere men and there was fear in their eyes.
“By the time the sun was setting, Olveg had positioned the men. Some were in the town to engage the demon and draw it out. Many Olveg placed, concealed in darkness, at the edges of a nearby meadow. Each man carried a lit brand and faggots had been stacked all around to quickly light and cut off the demon's escape. They waited and, as the moon reached its apex, the demon came, slinking into one corral and then another to drink the life from the panicked sheep and horses tethered there. Olveg gave the sign and the men began to leap from their places to drive the thing from the town.
- Raaaaaagghhh! One shouted and beat his sword upon his shield.
“The thing saw him and lashed out. The man's head flew from his shoulders and his blood drenched the straw in the corral. The thing was startled and left. The other men were emerging, creating all the noise they could, screaming and beating their swords on their shields. Olveg guided the line and the demon fled. The men followed, chasing it toward the meadow.
“When it entered that space, the other men were ready and lit the fires. As the ring of flames grew, the beast recoiled, this way and that, screaming its dismay and fury until, it stopped and, Olveg entered the field.
- Demon or whatever you are – Olveg shouted his challenge.
- Do battle with me! Kill me and let it be my blood to dampen this ground. Take your stand, or I will put you back from whenst you came!
“The beast flailed out with its distorted arm and caught Olveg in the chest. He took to the air, driven by the force of the blow toward the tree line. In mid-flight, he swung the mighty sword and, as the trees neared, the edge bit in wood and stopped him. He wrenched the sword free, dropped it to the ground and climbed down to recover it. The beast was waiting for him when he re-entered the circle.
“As he neared, the thing tried the same tactic but, Olveg had learned to be wary. He swung the sword upward and dropped to the ground. Two of the demon's fingers landed, twitching, on the grass. The thing wailed in pain and fury.
“Before it could react, Olveg saw his opening. He rose and, running with the sword raised above his head, he darted between its legs, first, drawing the blade over its underbelly and, then, he turned and the blade fell, planting deep, into the back of one talon and then the other.
“The demon screamed and tried to grab for Olveg but he darted away as it, deprived of its heels, began to fall. It landed on its hands and the massive head, with breath like tombs, swayed this way and that, finding him and snatching in the air with enormous, sharp teeth.
“When the tongue darted out, Olveg was ready. His arms flexed and brought the sword against the thing's snaking tongue, lopping it off. The field was flooded with the thing's rancid, black blood. To this day, nothing grows in that field.
“Olveg had no mercy for the thing. When it coughed and threw up more blood, it raised its jaw only slightly but, it was enough. Olveg raced in for the kill and, as that head lowered, jaws champing to find his skull, Olveg planted the sword in the thing's throat. The demon roared. Olveg stabbed again and again until the head hung on no more than sinews. It collapsed over him but, only a minute later, drenched in that evil blackness, Olveg climbed out. The beast was dead.
“It was not. When the men all returned the next day, there was a smear of blackness which they followed away from the field. For two days and nights, they searched without finding the evil thing. In the end, they reached the coast and it had slipped into the sea.”
“Did it die there, Grandfather?” The boy's eyes were wide in the dimming firelight and his mind was full of the sound of ringing steel.
“We don't know, boy. Now, it's time to sleep. Go.”
The boy dutifully slipped from his Grandfather's lap to the floor and stopped, shivering in the night cold.
“If Hrvastøg returns, I will kill it for you, Grandfather. I promise.”
“Shhh,” he reprimanded. “Speak that name softly.”
The old man's hand extended to touch the boy's hair and he smiled, still reliving his own Grandfather's account.
“You have the blood of Olveg and his sword.”
After the boy was gone, snugly nestled on fresh straw and covered in furs, the old man, his dim eyes reflecting the dying embers of the fire, sat for a long time, listening to the howling wind and wondering how much time was left.