Walk the Hel Road
Christine D Cohen
There is an old woman in the village who can smell death.
She lives in a hut in the lee of the mountain, sheltered from the wind. Mothers bring their sick children to her, creeping in with swaddled bundles and whispered prayers. They say the witch-woman crouches over the child and presses her swarthy nose to his skin before speaking his fate. Her words are written on the mothers’ faces when they leave: sometimes relief, sometimes sorrow.
They say she is never wrong.
We are a village marked by death. Even the mountain that towers above us—-the one we do not climb—-whispers a death-song through the long winters. As a child I told my father this, and he scolded me for playing foolish games. I haven’t spoken of it since.
But I still listen.
I am crouched by the shore in the shadow of the mountain when I see the boat. It is early morning, and mist blankets the fjords and covers the skerries like a sheepskin coat.
In an instant I am standing, an arrow knocked against my bow, ready to let it fly as soon as I see a face. Man or woman, child or aged, we do not harbor strangers. Not with our men off raiding and the tribes in the North on the prowl.
I whistle a warning, and pray the wind carries it back to the others.
The boat’s prow cuts through the fog, but no one is standing at the helm. Silent as a wraith it glides toward me, scraping against the pebbled shore. Water laps at the hem of my skirt as I cautiously peer inside.
A man sleeps in the hull. His hair, the color of barley, hangs in knotted ropes around him. Blood cuts a path down his face like the roots of a tree. He has no armor or shield, and yet I stumble back, blood pounding wildly in my veins. The wolf mask, pushed up high on his forehead, gives him away.
I should send my arrow straight through his heart, yet something stops me. I don’t know if it’s the way his hands are folded in sleep like my brother Gellir’s, or the troubled set of his lips, or the strange murmurs of the mountain that stay my hand.
Feet pound the earth behind me. It’s Wilda, broadax in hand, her dark braids flying like serpents around her. When she sees my lowered bow, she fastens her ax across her back.
“Why would you send the warning on an empty boat?”
“It isn’t empty.” I point to the man inside, and Wilda sucks in a sharp breath. The wolf’s glassy eyes stare back at us. “The sleep-spell’s taken him.” They say that after battle a berserker is so spent that he could sleep through Ragnarok undisturbed.
“Perfect.” Wilda rips a knife from her belt and kneels down beside him. This is how she acts, swift as a current and twice as unpredictable. But as her blade slips under his throat, I lay a hand on her arm.
“You would risk Odin’s wrath?” I ask.
“You would let him slay us and claim our home-acre?” There is fire in Wilda’s eyes. She begged her father to let her go with the men on their expedition, but he refused.
“We can trade him shelter for protection,” I say.
Wilda shakes her head. “You have your father’s kindness. It’ll kill you like it killed him.”
Her hand tightens under mine, the blade digging into the warrior’s skin. Fresh blood stains his tunic, but he doesn’t even flinch.
“Wilda.” I’m careful not to raise my voice. I don’t think the berserker should die, but I wager that Wilda would just as soon turn that knife on me.
“Let go,” she snaps.
At that moment a raven takes flight from a craggy peak on the mountain above us, its shadow like a boulder plummeting from on high. It swoops so close that Wilda drops her dagger.
I purse my lips to keep from smiling. The black-winged eye of Odin has settled the matter for us.
I call for Gellir, and he helps me drag the berserker’s body to the nearest empty longhouse. Wilda follows behind, still clutching her dagger.
Later that day, Brunwyr the blacksmith’s wife creeps into the witch-woman’s house with her infant wrapped in her arms. When she comes out, she is wailing. He is her only son.
The elder women call a meeting in the chieftain’s house. “Brunwyr’s son has a sickness that only comes in winter,”
the witch-woman says. “We should kill the berserker. He carries a curse with him.”
“Gellir and I pulled him from the whale-road,” I reply. “Why do the gods not punish us?
The women exchange tense looks and send my brother and I to the inlet to scrub our skin until it bleeds. They say the blood will wash away the curse. I inspect Gellir’s face for signs of illness, but he looks the same as always: wide cheekbones and snub nose and a mouth that’s quick to laugh. He’s laughing now, even as he scours his arms with the flat rock.
That night I roll from my sleeping bench in the chieftain’s house and sneak outside. We all sleep together when the men are gone—save for the witch-woman—and I don’t want to wake any of them. The berserker lies on the ground in the longhouse, his arms bound with iron shackles. My story of the raven-sign convinced the elder women not to kill him, but if he wakes and the blood-rage takes him, the shackles will be as useless as linen bands. I dip my rag in water and wipe his face, cleaning off the blood. When I’m finished, he looks younger. But still he sleeps on.
They say that a berserker feels no pain in battle. That he can bite his shield in two and massacre entire villages. They say he howls like a wolf when Odin’s spirit fills him. But when the fury leaves, he is as weak as an infant.
I should be afraid of him. But instead I wonder why the mountain whispered of hope when the current brought him to me, the waves lapping against my feet.
Brunwyr’s child is dead by morning. And two more have taken ill overnight.
As I muck out the cow’s stall and milk the goats, I can feel Wilda watching me. I try to ignore the scrape scrape scrape of her knife against the whetstone. I go swiftly about my chores. I have no men on the boats anymore, with my father and older brother dead and Gellir still untested. But I pull my weight in the village. I have always been useful to our tribe.
When I return to the longhouse that night, the berserker is awake. He is crouched like a wolf, drawing slow circles with his shackles in the dirt. Once I’m sure his chains are still secure, I approach and set a bowl of stew before him. He kneels down, lapping it up. When he raises his head, his eyes glint in the torchlight.
“Unchain me,” he says.
I don’t answer this. I don’t want to tell him how weak we really are.
“How many are in your village?”
“Plenty,” I lie. Our men won’t return until the last leaves fall from the birch trees and we’ve brought the cows back from the highlands and slaughtered the pigs. Some won’t return at all.
He bows his head again and the wolf’s eyes watch me as he eats. Why did I think I could tame a berserker? Strike a deal with a shield-biter?
His voice is muffled in the soapstone bowl. “Your men left when the buds formed on the branches.”
“But our women fight twice as hard.”
His laugh is quick and sharp.
“If they are like you, I believe it.”
They say my mother died in childbirth, I was not there to see it. She pushed out Gellir with a low moan and the last of her breath. That was the first time the mountain-we-do-not-climb spoke to me. I was picking lingonberries in the meadow, and I heard its voice like an oar pushed through my heart.
Come, it said.
I dropped my basket and ran back to the village.
Today, I see a man on top of the mountain, just a smudge against the pale sky. His hands are stretched out like eagle’s wings, as if he’s about to take flight. I blink, and he is gone.
Gellir shakes his head at my story. “Impossible. It’s sacred to the gods.”
I yank a handful of weeds from the garden row. “I know what I saw.”
Later, when I tell the berserker, he simply nods. His trust makes me bold.
“What happened to you?” I ask.
He grimaces. “I don’t know.”
“Where did you come from?”
“A battle. A town. Far from here.”
“You ran?” I glance sharply at the berserker. A coward who runs from battle will not walk the halls of Asgard.
He snorts. “No. I fought well for the chief in the North. Even though the men he sent us to kill had no weapons.”
His eyes cloud over, and I wait silently for the memory to release him. After a moment, he sighs, continues his tale. “A beardless man, old and unarmed, walked up to me. He chanted strange words and touched my head, here.” The chains rattle as the berserker points to the furrow in his brow. “His eyes were clear when I ran him through. But then… Odin’s fire left me.”
“Will it return?”
He draws more circles in the dirt but does not answer. A robin starts up a song outside, the first sign of morning.
“Unchain me,” he says again as I turn to leave.
“No,” I say.
He lays back, staring up at the interlaced beams. “Will they kill me?”
“I think so,” I reply.
As I walk back to the chieftan’s house, I roll the pieces of his story around in my mind. It’s not like any I’ve heard around our hearth-fires. Why would an unarmed man touch a raging berserker? And why did Odin withdraw his blessing?
Come, the mountain hums. I think of my mother, and run the rest of the way.
Inside, the women are already up, crowding around the sleeping bench I share with my brother. Many expressions fill their eyes, but none of them are kind. Gellir moans in his sleep, his face as bright as lingonberries.
“He has the fever,” Wilda says.
“You must take him to the witch-woman,” Brunwyr adds. “If she smells death, we will give him to the fire. The rest of us will be spared.”
We’ll be spared, the others whisper.
“He’s done nothing wrong,” I protest.
“The gods are angry,” the woman says. Her eyes narrow. “Your cheeks look flushed, too.”
I open my mouth to argue, but Wilda is nearby, her broad-ax clenched in white-knuckled hands.
I help Gellir to his feet and half-carry him to the witch’s house. The mountain is silent. There is no sign of the man with arms like eagles.
The witch-woman’s hut is small and dim. Dried lavender and wild horseradish and fennel hang from the rafters and throw shadows across the ground. She crouches on a woven mat, her head bald save for a few long strands. I lay Gellir down in front of her. She runs her knobby fingers across his face and sniffs his head.
“He will die tomorrow,” she says.
They say that Odin All-father travelled through the land of the giants to reach Mimir, the guardian of memories, who knows all things. When he begged to drink from the well of wisdom, Mimir refused.
Whatever it costs, I will pay it, Odin said.
An eye, Mimir replied, and without hesitation Odin drew his knife and cut cleanly. He placed his eye in the well, and Mimir let him drink.
They say Odin’s eye still floats in Mimir’s well. I wouldn’t know, I’ve never seen it.
But I do not think I would trade my own eye, even for all the knowledge in the world. Some things are best left unknown.
The women are gathered outside in a semi-circle, tight-lipped and immoveable. They watch as I help Gellir into the sunlight, but I do not let the witch-woman’s words show on my face.
A cow lows in a nearby pen. Thin curls of smoke rise upwards from the stone circle. They have already lit the pyre. I steady Gellir so that he can stand on his own.
“The woman doesn’t know everything,” I say.
Wilda draws her axe. “Liar,” she says, and steps forward, flanked by two others.
An arrow is nocked on my bowstring before they’ve taken three steps. Blood rushes in my ears, but my hands are steady.
From the corner of my eye, I see a tall shape, hear the clink of metal. The women shuffle backwards, murmuring in surprise and fear. The berserker stands beside me, his eyes as dark as storm-water. Chains dangle from his wrists.
He does not howl or rage. He simply waits. I lay down my bow and quiver, crouching so that Gellir can climb onto my back.
Come, the mountain sings. Slowly, I walk towards it with the berserker at my side. No one stops us. Our path is already marked by death.
They say the gods do not permit mortals to ascend their mountain home.
If we see them, I will tell you if it’s true.
Photo by Rudolf Kirchner from Pexels