And what are these things we walk around with in the afterlife – these bodies which are not bodies, these precious things we buy and sell and eat and drink and routinely destroy? What are they made of? Not flesh and blood, though they can bleed. Not nothing, either, because we can feel and move with them, and certainly suffer with them (and is not suffering the one undeniable truth of reality?) I will approach the subject by laying out the facts as I know them and have seen them, and I will let you, the reader, decide what it is your own soul consists of. The first fact: If you cut open souls, as my friend Karl Hauptmann does, (for an honest living, of course), you will find that while many ‘bodies’ share common elements, organs, and fluids… No two are alike, and some are beyond explanation, such as the weary traveller Karl met once, whose innards were made up exclusively of cobwebs and dry bones.
– Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 8 (On the Nature of Souls)
The Vikings wasted no time in putting Calvin to work, and for the first few ‘Blue Nights’ as they called them, he had to build his own house from scratch, learn how to make Hellfire from the most meagre of materials, and memorise the most important Sagas and Lore of Niffleheim.
The one that naturally interested him most included the reason for the Blue Nights and the Red Star and, most significantly, the night of the Bloodbath, a subject which Halvar seemed disinterested in discussing at length. The furthest he ever got to an explanation was: ‘It is what we always dreamed Valhalla would be! Food and dancing, and humping and sacrificing to the gods – and war! You will love it, demon.’
But in time, Calvin learned the truth. Every night they would bring rocks carved from the nearby mountainside to the middle of the valley and light them with Hellfire, which could burn anything that was at least as dense and solid as wood, and then someone would tell a Saga. Unless there was a blizzard (which there was more often than not), in which case the Saga telling would happen in Halvar’s cave around a pot of boiling Draugr bones and snakes. Calvin, storyteller that he was, came to look forward to these gatherings very much, and through them he learned many things, such as the reason so many travellers got hopelessly lost in Niffleheim.
He heard the Saga outside, as it happened, and since everyone from the village was there, sitting on rocks or stumps or anything they could find scattered around, Calvin managed to procure a position right beside Ingrid, who was sitting alone because Halvar was the one on the stone block that served as a stage.
As the big boned warrior boomed insults and jokes with the settling audience members, Calvin turned to face her and was surprised to find her staring evenly back. He grinned, but she remained impassive. ‘Ingrid, isn’t it?’ he said.
She raised an eyebrow.
‘Tell me, Miss Halvar-wife, or whatever they call you… Are they going to eat me at the next Bloodbath?’
She narrowed her cat eyes and folded her arms. ‘I am not Halvar-Wife, demon. I am Ingrid Uhtredsdottir, and I do what I like. As for the Bloodbath… why don’t you listen to the Saga and find out?’
And she turned back to face the stage, just as Halvar began the story.
Calvin lingered a minute longer, admiring the sharp curve of her jaw. He remembered the hard-line feminists from when he was a young man alive, and thought she’d have fit right in with them. The type of woman who was itching for a fight, a revolution of some kind, and just hadn’t found the spark to set it alight, yet…
But he didn’t have much time to scheme before Halvar’s charismatic voice drew him in to the magical Saga of the Killer and the Red Star, and he was soon hypnotised, lost in a story well told.
The tale was short, but it would stick with Calvin long after the telling, and only partly because of Halvar’s oratory talents. When it was over, in the silence before the crowd erupted in applause and stomping feet, he felt some mad hope rise up inside of himself. Not hope of redemption – he was under no illusions that Dale (if he wasn’t frozen in a cave somewhere) would ever forgive him for what he’d done – but for escape. A way to leave all the horror of hell behind and be human again… even if just for a while.
The tale began with a Viking Warlord named Kjartan and his murderous wife Grun, who was known, when executing an enemy, to offer him either his sword in hand in the moment of his death, or his testicles attached to his body, but not both. It was, in short, a good opening to a classic Viking tale, and Calvin settled in with a grin.
‘Whole kingdoms Kjartan and his wife conquered together, and they ruled fairly and generously, though to their enemies they showed nothing but the cold blade. One day, Grun was training in the courtyard, when a Jarl she had once shamed and sent running returned for vengeance. He waited until she was exhausted from her exercise, and then came to slit her throat. Even so, she put up a great fight, but he was fresh and full of hate, and took her life, taking her sword away so that she would not go to Valhalla.’
‘When Kjartan heard what happened, he hunted the man down and fed him in pieces to the dogs, but when all was said and done the revenge was not enough. For days he wandered his rich lands, able to feel nothing but emptiness without Grun by his side. So when his son was old enough to inherit everything he had conquered, Kjartan gave him his sword and then, in front of all his men, swore he would follow Grun to Niffleheim rather than feast in Valhalla alone. Saying this, he poisoned himself, knowing that such a cowardly death would send him there.’
‘He arrived in Niffleheim, where he forged a new sword, made from his own spine and sharpened with ice. Grun was nowhere to be found, but as he explored the underworld he noticed that the flat land was spinning like a wheel, making the stars above seem to turn in the sky. The reason for this, he discovered soon enough: It was the Eater of the Dead – the Great Snake Nidhogg – slithering around and around the ice plains and making them turn in his wake.
‘Kjartan watched the snake, and he noticed that on one rotation out of every nine, a red star appeared in the sky, for this was the one day when Nidhogg would slither off course and visit his lair. When the red star was gone, Kjartan went to explore the great cavern, and there he found the bones, armour and weapons of a thousand warriors, and among them the crested helmet that had belonged to his lover, Grun.’
‘So he waited and watched the sky, and finally when the red star came around again he went back to the cavern and there cut the snakes belly open and freed the souls of all the doomed, but though he searched he could not find Grun’s soul among the lost.
‘Reduced to nothing but hatred and grief, Kjartan stalked the borders of Niffleheim, killing any snake and draugr that was not Grun as he searched for her, and once in every nine days he returned to the cavern to rest and wait for her.
‘And to this day Kjartan returns, and so with each Red Star we sacrifice valuable souls to the black well so that he may continue his search, and we celebrate his victory over Nidhogg with the Bloodbath Festival. Without Kjartan and his lust for revenge, we would all be boiling in Nidhogg’s belly for all time.’
They cheered and stomped when Halvar finished what Calvin judged to be both a terribly dark and yet enlightening story. Who knew how much of it was true, but the part about the spinning land made too much sense to ignore. It explained why it was so easy to get lost here, even if you thought you were travelling a straight line. He hoped Dale had made it out intact.
There were a couple of details that struck him, however, and not least of them was the way several quick eyes had darted his way when Halvar said the word sacrifice. He leaned over to Ingrid, who was still determinedly ignoring him, although when he’d moved to sit close enough to touch her she hadn’t moved away. She had, in fact, leaned in to him more than once, her skin surprisingly warm.
‘What was that about a black well?’ he said.
She sighed. ‘The black well is the pit we throw y – the sacrifice. It’s a swirling pool made of blood, and nothing that goes in ever comes out. Kjartan eats our sacrifices, if you were listening.’
‘I see. Well, since I’m the next sacrifice… There can’t be any harm in showing this black well to me, can there?’
She shifted in her seat. A light snow was falling, putting a damper on the fire, and everyone else was getting to their feet, chatting and laughing. Halvar hopped down from the stage, trading jokes with Egil and Kjell, the latter of whom had been casting sideways glances across at Calvin all night. Calvin wondered if he’d seen the way Ingrid’s tail had curled behind her back and interlocked with his.
‘We don’t go there except during the Bloodbath,’ she said.
‘Ah, well then,’ he sighed, standing and brushing snow from his lap. ‘I suppose I will find out when they damn me, won’t I?’
‘You don’t seem very afraid,’ she said, almost accusingly. She regarded him with narrowed eyes. For answer he merely gave her his slyest grin, and then returned the wink she’d given him that first night. He had her pegged, alright – he knew her type a mile away. And he knew he’d given her just enough rope. She couldn’t resist.
She glanced over at Halvar, who was now making his way towards them through the dispersing crowd, and then leaned in, touching him with a rakish hand that raised chills along his arm. ‘Meet me at Halvar’s cave, at tomorrow’s Blue Star, and we’ll see what you’re made of.’
And with that cryptic comment, she left him to take Halvar’s hand and pull him away from the smouldering fire and toward his cave.
Kjell, his gaping mouth leering from ear to ear, patted Calvin’s back as he passed him.
‘I wouldn’t play with fire, if I was you,’ he said. ‘After all, Ingrid’s the one who chooses the sacrifices.’
Kjell laughed as if Calvin had told a particularly funny joke. ‘No, demon, not Halvar. Who else should decide what meals Kjartan has to feast on… If not his own dear wife?’