The fires burned low, and shadows began to fill Thorvald's hall. He stood with his wife, Ota, looking down at their son. Ragnar seemed entranced, crouching in the feathery ashes that covered his skin and clothes, staring at the guttering flames. He did not look at his parents, yet he saw them, and heard what they were saying.
"Still he does not know me." Thorvald's voice was bitter. He was a tall man, red-bearded like his patron the thunder god, and burly from years following the plough.
Ota laid her hand on his shoulder. She was dark, half of Danish blood, and it was she that the boy favored. "He has been like this only a year, beloved. Many boys spend two or three winters in the ashes, and still become men when the time is right."
"When the time is right! The time is wrong, Ota, but I need him now."
"So it is certain, then, that Guthrum is coming?" she asked quietly.
"His ships have been seen, by those who venture out to fish where the sea serpents sport." Thorvald turned and began to pace up and down, between the hall's long central hearth and the platform beds that ran along its walls. "Ships with all his men's shields hung out for show-as if he were a visiting king, and not an outlaw and a kin-slayer."
"Why here?" Ota's eyes moved, following her husband.
"He has no love for me-I was foremost among those who voted to banish him. And we have the richest land on the coast." Thorvald shook his head. "He may know our weakness, as well. I have two score, maybe, of men still remember going a-viking in their youth. Guthrum has gathered together many outlaws from the mainland, they say. And he himself-" Thorvald's voice sank to a whisper. "He is a berserker. A shapechanger."
Ota stood silent a moment. "Come to bed," she said at last. "It may be that Thor will send you a dream."
"Aye, I'll come," Thorvald said with a sigh. "The morrow will be here soon enough."
The boy remained crouching in the ashes after his mother and father withdrew. He slept there, when he did sleep, but he was not tired now. He had felt warm and safe among the ashes for so long, without duties, neither boy nor man. Many youths went through such a time, and their folk let them be. They lived a hard life in a hard land, and understood the need for escape. They were used to the madness of warriors and poets and seers. But now everything was changed for Ragnar. His father's words were like a cold wind, blowing the ashes away, leaving him naked.
Ragnar stood, stretching unaccustomed muscles. He looked long at the dead fire, his little kingdom of ash. Then he stole out into the night. His mother felt him go, but wove his leaving into her dream, which was full of darkness.
Ragnar left the village silently, climbing far into the hills where the elves lived, deep in the dark forests. But not only elves lived here. He found the house, where his father had once said it would be, by following the light of a candle in the window. It was a round house, made of stone, with a thatched and pointed roof.
The old woman who sat in the doorway looked up, squinting. Her gray hair tumbled down in a confusion of elf-locks, like knots tied in a magic rope to bind the wind. She was dressed in a robe made from the skins of many small animals. Her voice was surprisingly loud and strong. "Ho, a cinder-lad! And what was it called you from your cozy hearth?"
Ragnar came closer and sat down. He briefly regretted not taking the time to wash his face and find clean clothes, but it didn't matter. "I am your grandson, Gruna Runemistress."
"I have so many grandchildren I can't remember them all," the old woman grumbled. "What do you want from me, Ragnar Thorvald's son?"
Ragnar drew a deep breath. "I want to learn the runes, Grandmother."
"What, a boy your age and you don't know the runes?" Her eyes glinted at him.
"I know the runes for writing messages-the Horse and the Spear and the Birch-twig. But now-I need to know the runes that are hidden. The runes of power."
"Do you!" Gruna smiled slowly. "Which ones?"
"Which ones?" This was a question Ragnar hadn't anticipated. "All of them!"
"All of them!" The Runemistress snorted a laugh. "Boy, Odin himself hung on the great World-Tree nine days and nights to learn all the runes. And he's a god."
Ragnar swallowed. "But I don't have that long." He told his grandmother of the coming of Guthrum, the beserker, and his outlaws.
"So, you want to save the village? Have them write sagas about you?"
Gruna scooped up a handful of earth, peering at it as if she could read his future there, then opened her hand and let it trickle through her fingers like sand through an hourglass.
"I hadn't really thought of that," Ragnar said honestly. "But I want to save my mother."
Gruna was silent a while. "I was a mother too, once," she said at last. "Very well, I will help you."
She cleared a space on the ground, took a staff that leaned up beside the door, and scratched the outline of a rune in the dirt.
"Now, what does that look like to you?" she asked, as Ragnar leaned forward to study the lines.
"A bird," he said, slowly. "A bird, flying."
She smiled. "So shall it be. Bow your head, and touch it to the rune."
He did as she bade him. A shudder passed over him, and he felt his body changing. He tried to jump back, but his legs wouldn't move in the way he knew. His eyes had moved apart-to see Gruna, he had to cock his head to one side. He tried to lift his hand to his face, but instead, a black-feathered wing opened and spread at his side.
He knew fully then what had happened. With an exultant shout that emerged as a caw, he rose into the air. His cries faded as he spiralled upward toward the moon where it drifted among dark clouds.
His grandmother stood, watching until he was out of sight. Her wrinkled hand tightened on her staff.
"Good flying, boy," she muttered.
Ragnar flew with abandon, learning how to use his new wings, how to navigate the currents and deeps of the air, and the treacherous shoals of tall trees. But when he saw dawn beginning to show like a small, secret wound in the gray eastern sky, he remembered what he must do. He flew to the shoreline as quickly as he could.
From far above, he could see the landed ships like bright, painted toys, and the men clustered around them like warriors that children make out of small sticks and stones. He saw, too, the line of defenders moving out to meet them, under his father's eagle banner. Swooping lower, he glimpsed Thorvald at their head, resplendent in his mail tunic and scarlet cloak.
He landed on a dead tree, folding his wings, and watched the onset. The still, cold air filled with hoarse shouts and the clash of iron. The outlaws forced the villagers to give ground, forming a shieldwall and driving them back nearly to the edge of the wood. Thorvald's men fought bravely, but they were not a practiced army as the outlaws were. Lone warriors kept breaking away and attacking on their own, despite Thorvald's orders.
Ragnar knew he was needed now. He called a harsh battle challenge, and flew at the enemy. Many stopped fighting to gape upward. Ragnar was a huge raven, nearly as big as he had been in boy-shape. He flew from one outlaw leader to another, breaking the shieldwall, striking with wing and beak and claw.
A big man with a crooked scar on one cheek was the first to give way, throwing down his shield and turning to flee. Heartened, Thorvald's men rallied and began to push the outlaws back. Soon, most of the invaders were struggling to launch their ships again, while some few still fought to protect their retreat.
Then the last outlaws turned and splashed out to the ships, cursing, while their fellows pulled for the open water. Back on shore, Thorvald's men shook their spears and swords in the air, raising a cheer.
Ragnar circled several times above the battlefield, adding his caws to the men's shouts. Then he flew back toward his father's hall.
He wanted to be back in his place by the fire before his father came home, but it suddenly occurred to him that he had no idea how to resume his own shape. Once he touched down, however, he felt strange and dizzy and in a moment, he was a boy again. The magic of the rune must know, he thought, when its aim was accomplished.
He lay down again in the cinders and ashes. His mother was not in the hall. He had seen her from above, chopping wood outside. When, after a while, Thorvald came in, bringing with him a gust of cold air and laughter, she followed.
"The gods came to our aid, I swear it!" his father was saying. "One of Odin's ravens came to do battle and broke their shieldwall. We drove them back to their ships!"
Ota's dark eyes shone. "So now we can finish the harvest?" Sobering, Thorvald shook his head. "But-if we lose any more of the wheat-"
"They'll be back." Ragnar's father sat down, called for and drained a bowl of mead brought by one of the housecarls. He wiped his beard and went on, "Guthrum himself was not there-and not all his force, either. They'll try to land again tomorrow, I'd guess, if the weather holds and their leader isn't far behind."
"If the gods are still with us…" Ota murmured, though her eyes strayed to where her son slumped by the fire.
Thorvald nodded. "Aye-if."
This time Ragnar waited until dawn was near, and the hall utterly still save for the cold ghost of a breeze, before he slipped outside. Quickly he climbed to Gruna's little clearing. His grandmother was sitting by her door, as she had been last night, and warming her hands at a small fire. He wondered if she ever slept.
He sat beside her. "Grandmother, I need another rune."
"What?" She looked at him with eyes like black riverstones. "The first one didn't work?"
"We drove them back," he told her. "But today they will come again."
The Runemistress nodded slowly, her eyes half lidded. "So be it."
Standing, she drew another shape in the dirt with the tip of her staff.
"Look at that then, son of Thorvald, and tell me what you see."
He bent over the rune, letting his eyes wander over the strong, slanted lines. "Like something running-something with four feet. I can feel the wind, and the running, swift under the moon-"
Obeying, he felt the change in him begin. His arms lengthened. Silver-gray fur covered his skin, and he fell forward onto all fours. He lifted his wolf's muzzle and gave a long howl, calling to the distant and hidden moon.
Then he was gone, running into the forest with Gruna gazing after him.
As Thorvald had predicted, the outlaws came in greater numbers that day. Crouching behind an elm tree in wolfshape, tongue lolling out as he panted, Ragnar counted over a hundred men. Thorvald too had mustered a few more spears, but still there were two outlaws to each defender.
Ragnar watched as his people attacked, showing more discipline than they had the day before. Indeed it seemed at first that they might win the victory. They pierced the outlaws' shieldwall, cutting their force in two, and the enemy went into full retreat. Thorvald's men leaped after them, casting their spears, trying to cut the outlaws down this time before they could reach their beached sea-dragons.
But the outlaws had only pretended to flee. On the shore they regrouped with lightning speed, trapping Thorvald's scattered men in a cage of iron. One of the defenders fell, then several, to the swinging axes. The outlaws were cutting their way through to where Thorvald and his household fought desperately, huddled around the bravely fluttering eagle banner.
It was time. Ragner growled deep in his throat and charged. He moved so fast that he could not hear what the outlaws were shouting, but he could see the fear in their eyes.
He never knew how long it was that the red bloodlust took possession of him. He snapped at men's unprotected legs, leaped past raised shields to tear out throats, the whirled away before their swords could bite in return.
When they had fallen back again, pushing their ships out into the surf with his father's men at their heels, they left a score of their number dead on the sand. Ragnar pointed his muzzle at the sky, loosing a triumphant howl, then trotted home, keeping under cover.
As before, he resumed his human shape when he came near the hall, and was sitting in the ashes by the time his father and mother came in. With them was Olaf the Badger, whose farm was the next largest in the settlement.
Ota's cheeks were flushed. "So it is victory this time? The outlaws won't dare return, surely."
"Victory for now," Olaf said. He drew his sword, showing that the blade was broken near the hilt. "But I'll not fight with this again. We would have lost today, were it not for the Wolf."
"Guthrum has still not come," Thorvald said grimly. "Perhaps he has been testing his men. But did you hear what they were shouting, as they put out from shore? 'Guthrum comes tomorrow, and the ravens will have your eyes!'"
"No matter what chances, we will stand," said Olaf heavily. "I think I can raise a few more spears up the valley." He rose, took his leave and went out.
Ragnar sat without making any sign, his eyes on the fire, thinking only, So the danger is not over, but is growing still. The warm ashes settled over his skin like a blanket. He slept.
When he awoke, the hall was cold and still. He sat for a while listening to the breathing of all the sleepers in the hall. He went to his parents' bed then, and stood for a moment gazing at their faces, feeling a fierce love for them. Then he went again to the hills to seek out the Runemistress.
This time the old woman awaited him inside her house. She bade him come in and he found her standing, leaning heavily on her staff, before a fireplace full of cold ashes. She spoke slowly and with difficulty. "Third time pays for all, they say. What have you come for now, grandson?"
Ragnar knelt before her. "The outlaw king himself is coming this day, Grandmother. I need to fight him. You have given me strong magic. Give me now the rune of the warrior-the rune of the berserker!"
Gruna sighed. "Listen, I'm old, and my death has come so close that even my old eyes can see it. I can teach you only one more rune. If you really want the rune that makes berserkers, I can give it to you. But…"
"I don't understand," Ragnar said. "Does not the berserker have the greatest power that Odin can give? The power of victory in battle?"
"There are many gifts that Odin can give," the Runemistress said. "The berserker has great power, yes, but that power is not always at his call. The shape-change can overcome him at any time, even against his own will. A berserkers might slay his dearest loves, because when the battle fury comes on him, he no longer knows the face of his wife or his child."
Ragnar's heart sank. "You are right, Grandmother," he said at last. "I cannot take that gift, if gift it can be called. But is there another way you can help me?"
Gruna's breath labored as she spoke. "I know one more rune…the last one I ever learned, and it cost me the most dear. See now, here-this is the way of it--"
Ragnar drew near and watched her trace the rune, and traced it himself, many times until he could draw it with his eyes closed. "But, Grandmother," he asked, "what power does this one have?" For this shape brought no image at all into his mind.
His grandmother's eyes were dark, and held no answers. "You will know how to use it when the time comes, Ragnar. Now go, and the gods give you blessing."
On the way home, Ragnar stopped in a clearing and marked the rune again in the soft earth, then touched his forehead to it. He expected the tremors of shape-change to shake him, but nothing happened. When the time comes, his grandmother had said. Did this merely mean it was not yet time?
He went down out of the hills on his own legs, and the way seemed longer to him than before. He could not stop wondering about his grandmother's last gift. The dull red embers of the fire in his father's hall held no answers. Staring long at them, he fell at last into a dreamless sleep.
He awoke to shouts and the sound of running feet. He leaped up, his heart pounding. He could hear his father outside, calling to his men-and from somewhere near, the crackling flames of a huge fire.
His mother caught him in her arms. She was weeping. "Ragnar-the outlaws. They're here! They didn't wait for dawn, this time. You should run-you can still save yourself-"
Ragnar kissed her and held her close for a moment. He shook his head. "It's my time now, Mother."
Ota gave him a stricken look, then stood back to let him pass. He walked outside, into the battle and the fire, trying to seem taller and more courageous than he felt.
His father was standing between the hall and the granary, which was burning. There were only a few men around him. Facing them were two score of the outlaws at least, led by a giant of a man who wore a helmet with a bear's head crest. He carried a shield as big as a millstone, and a battleaxe it would have taken two ordinary men to lift.
"I've seen monks in the Low Countries that showed more fight!" the giant roared. "This is no sport. Will none of you challenge me?" His fierce eyes roved from one of Thorvald's men to another. "Come! Why should all of you die? Let one come forth to fight me alone, and decide the battle! If he falls, I will take the rest into my service."
Thorvald, pale but determined, took a step forward. The outlaws clashed swords on shields. But then Ragnar's voice was heard.
"I will fight you, Guthrum."
Outlaws and villagers alike fell silent, staring at Ragnar-armorless, his hair and skin streaked black with soot-as if he had fallen from the sky. Thorvald came to his side.
"Do you know what you're doing, son?" he asked in a low voice.
"Yes, father," Ragnar said, meeting his eyes. "My time in the ashes is over."
"Then go, and Thor watch over you." Thorvald turned away, to keep his face from betraying him. It would be dishonor worse even than death to deny his son's right to battle now.
They found him armor and a sword that had belonged to Halfdan, one of the smallest of Thorvald's men, who had fallen in battle the day before. Thus arrayed, Ragnar stepped forward to face the outlaw chieftain.
Guthrum smiled horribly. "This is what you send against me? Well, you have courage at the least, boy. You will feast with Odin today, I promise you."
The two groups of men drew back, leaving the boy and the outlaw to stand alone. Drawing a deep breath, Ragnar turned aside quickly and traced the rune on the ground. Let the others think he was praying. He was, after a fashion. But again, when he touched the rune, nothing happened.
His grandmother's last gift, then, was nothing but death. In fierce despair, Ragnar took up a guard position and advanced. But Guthrum, laughing, threw his axe aside. He gnashed his teeth and his eyes rolled back in his head. He bit his shield, then cast it away into the fire.
He began to change.
His body swelled, his arms drawn back and up by knotted ropes of new muscle. Hair covered his face, and claws sprouted from his hands. He took a step forward, opening his arms as if offering an embrace. The earth groaned beneath him.
Ragnar dodged, trying to strike at the bear-man's legs, but it turned aside and struck him a blow with its massive paw. Sprawled on the ground, he barely managed to roll aside the rending claws descended again.
Back on his feet, whirling, he managed to land a stroke on one of Guthrum's arms. But he might as well have been trying to hew a centuries-old tree. The sword rang in his hand, and he nearly lost his hold.
Then the berserker was on him again, howling like a winter storm. Ragnar fell back. The heat from the burning storehouse was like a hot breath on his forehead. Ashes were everywhere, heaped on the ground, floating around him like big, lazy flies waiting to feast on his carcass.
I've lived in the cinders so long, he thought despairingly, and now I'll die in them.
Guthrum's altered face was close to his now, snarling. He'd pinned Ragnar's sword arm, knocked the boy's shield away. Slowly, deliberately, the shapechanger raised his heavy arm to strike one final blow.
One last time, Ragnar remembered the rune. Its outlines blazed in his mind.
A handful of ash, that was all it took. His hand, moving as if it held a life of its own, marked the rune-not on his forehead, but on Guthrum's. The berserker, something like fear showing in his bloodred eyes, tried to catch Ragnar's wrist, to stop him-
But the hand that closed on Ragnar's was human.
Ragnar pushed the outlaw back, scrambling to his feet. Guthrum backed away, his mouth open, staring at his own empty hands, as if he no longer could remember how a man would fight. His men stood as if turned to stone.
Guthrum's lips shaped a curse, and he raised his eyes just in time to see Ragnar's sword pierce his heart. He clutched the blade and pitched forward, his lifeblood spilling out on the earth.
Then it was the turn of Thorvald's men to give a yell of triumph, and they cast spears after the fleeing outlaws. Thorvald paused long enough to order some of his men to follow the enemy and make sure they put out to sea. Then he caught Ragnar in a long, wordless embrace.
Breaking away at last, Ragnar walked unsteadily to where the outlaw's corpse lay, and rolled it over. Guthrum's death struggles had effaced the rune from his forehead. But death, it seemed, was more potent than any magic. His face was a man's still.
Ragnar looked at the dead man without hate. "Drink to me in Odin's hall," he said softly.
In a few days, when he had recovered from his wounds, Ragnar went up into the hills again. He found Gruna lying inside her house, hands folded on her breast, her staff beside her.
When he had finished laying her in the earth, the sun was setting. His shadow fell long over the newly turned earth, and the stone where he had carved the runes of her name and no others, as he spoke his thanks.
"I have been a boy on the hearth, a raven in the sky, and a wolf in the wood, and I was happy to be those things. But your last gift was the best, Grandmother. For now I am a man."
©2007 Oak Hedge