THE WAKING OF ANGANTYR, by Marie Brennan
Hervor splashed through the cold surf onto the rocks of the beach, resisting the urge to look over her shoulder. By now the ship would be underway again, putting out to sea as fast as it could. How she would get off the island was a problem for later, assuming they hadn’t just put her off at random. She pushed such thoughts out of her mind. She was lucky to have come through so much already.
Cresting the beach ridge, Hervor saw a farmer in the distance, working the hard ground with his hoe. His movements were quick, purpose driven by a hint of fear, and that made her suspect; but she had to be sure. Hervor slung her small pack higher on her shoulder and went toward him with determined strides.
He stopped hoeing as she drew close, and gripped the tool more firmly.
Hervor once had carried an axe, and a shield, both long lost now. Still, supposed she looked frightening enough to a farmer: scratched and dirty, her blonde hair hanging in tangled ropes. And big, under her ragged clothes — bigger than him. She kept a polite distance as she asked, “Am I on Sámsey?”
“That you are,” the farmer said, not relaxing. The setting sun painted his face with ruddy light, so that he had to squint. “Where were you headed for?”
“Here,” she said, feeling relief surge up within her. “I just didn’t know if I’d landed in the right place.”
The farmer stared. “You were coming here? Bolvereik’s blade, what for? There’s nothing on Sámsey but farms and ghosts!”
A twisted smile grew on her face. “So I’ve been told.”
“You’ll be needing shelter,” the farmer said. “It’s not long to sunset, and you don’t want to be out at night. I don’t know what possessed you to come to Sámsey, girl, but take my word — this isn’t any kind of place for sane people. Most everybody has left. I’d leave, if I could.”
Hervor shook her head. “Thank you, but what I really need is directions. I’m looking for a burial mound.”
“Sámsey’s covered with them,” he muttered.
“A specific one.” She turned to gaze across the low, undulating ground of the island. “Thirteen men lie buried in it. A recent mound, built not more than fifteen years ago…”
She caught herself pausing. Even after she learned the names, she still had trouble saying them out loud. She looked back at the farmer. “Angantyr’s barrow.”
The farmer flinched. She saw it, and came closer; he retreated, holding his hoe like a defense. “Where is it?” she demanded.
He shook his head, lips trembling in fear. “You don’t want to go there, girl. Barrows are haunted places, and that one more than most. Come nightfall, it’ll open up, and the flames will rise, and you don’t want to be outside when that happens.”
Want to? No. Had to? Yes. Iron-hard, she repeated, “Where is it?”
As if against his will, his arm rose to point. Southeast, and Sámsey, she had been assured, wasn’t a big island; the mound couldn’t be far.
Hervor set off for it immediately.
“How are you going to know which one it is?” the farmer called after her.
“The ghosts will tell me!” she shouted back. “Angantyr and his sons have driven me this far.”
Hervor found the mound shortly before sunset. It was easy to spot; thirteen men required a large barrow. She needed no ghostly voices to tell her that.
But they’d told her many other things. They’d whispered to her in her sleep since childhood, murmurs of battle and blood and thirteen men murdered. That was how she knew their number. Their names had come, over years, in murmurs sometimes, sometimes in screams. Finding out that they lay buried on Sámsey hadn’t been so easy — ghosts, it seemed, were better at counting than geography — but she had pursued the knowledge of their tale as relentlessly as their whispers hounded her.
Her lopsided smile returned. As a girl, she’d gotten used to dead men’s voices in her sleep. When they’d begun speaking to her in broad daylight, from that point on, her choice was clear: find them and silence them, or go mad.
She dumped the contents of her ragged pack onto the ground. Bones, leather, bits of charcoal, and gleaming white stones tumbled out. She left them where they lay and pried an egg-sized rock out of the earth. Then she began to wander, ranging outward from the burial mound in growing arcs until she found a small hole, barely visible in the grass. From one pocket she produced an apple core, which she tossed down a few paces from the hole.
Then she crouched and waited.
Soon a twitching pink nose emerged from the burrow, followed a moment later by the rest of a skinny brown rabbit. The animal hesitated. Hervor didn’t move. It hopped forward, paused, then darted for the apple core. The instant it stopped, Hervor threw her rock.
The furry body pitched over sideways. She ran forward and grabbed it; the thing was only stunned, not dead, and it struggled as she bundled it into the tattered end of her shirt. The squirming was a nuisance, but she needed the rabbit alive.
Not for much longer, though. The sun was almost down.
She returned to the burial mound, stuffed the rabbit into her now-empty pack, and began to lay everything out.
The rough square of leather she staked to the ground with four bones, one at each corner. Her hands shook despite her determination. This was seidr, blood magic, and she’d heard enough tales of what could go wrong. There was a reason seidr was spoken of only in whispers — when it was spoken of at all. It had taken her more than a year of searching to find a witch sane enough to help her, and even then, Hervor wasn’t sure. But it was the only thing that could bring her peace.
So Hervor steadied her hands, took up a stick of charcoal, and drew a circle on the leather, taking care to make the line solid and thick. In a few minutes, it would be the only thing keeping her safe. Best to be sure. The circle drawn, she placed thirteen pale stones inside it, pale like the dead. One for each voice, each ghost, and a line to hold them in when the time came.
Dangerous work. But this was the end of the road: everything she’d done — beginning with the escape from the holding where she grew up, through her sea-born wanderings as a raider, to the hard-fought battles against those who would drag her back to a bondsmaid’s chains — all of it was so she could reach this point. Sámsey, and the barrow, and the chance for something like an ordinary life. She wouldn’t back down now.
Hervor laid her knife down on the leather. Then she dragged the rabbit from the bag, where it was trying to chew its way free. She held the squirming animal in her arms and waited for the last sliver of sun to vanish below the horizon.
In the peculiar light of dusk, the barrow opened up.
There were no doors. The ground did not shift. Hervor was looking straight ahead at the grass, and then suddenly she saw through it to the chamber inside, where thirteen men sat cross-legged, their weapons leaning against their shoulders, chill blue flames dancing around them and over their skin.
Their voices rose in her mind, whispers familiar from her earliest memories.
rivers of blood
and they’re beyond our reach . . . .
They sat in two ranks, six on a side, and the thirteenth faced her from the depths of the mound. The flames leapt higher around him, throwing his corpse-white face into hideous relief. His eyes glowed with the same blue light. He alone faced her, but he could neither see nor hear her. Not yet.
Hervor pinned the struggling hindquarters of the rabbit between her knees, stretched its neck over the leather square, and slit its throat.
The blood fountained over her knees and hands and the leather before her, drenching the white stones in red. For a moment it pooled in the center of the circle, unnaturally; then it drained into the thirteen stones, which began to glow with a sullen, bloody light. The four bones shone cold blue in response, the same blue as the barrow’s flames.
The body of the rabbit fell to the ground, drained, and then Hervor spoke the invocation the witch had taught her, using the names gleaned from so many nights of dreams.
“Wake thou, Angantyr —
Hervor wakes you.
Son of Arngrím,
son of Grím,
son of Hergrím,
hear me speak.
Rise from your mound;
give me your words.
Sons of Angantyr,
see me before you!
clad all in mail,
I call you forth.
Death holds you not;
I open the door.
white in your barrow,
weapons in hand —
Feast on the blood
brought here for you.
wake to my call,
with blood and bone
I bid you hear me.
Wake thou, Angantyr,
answer my voice,
from the barrow-mound
I beckon you forth!”
The thirteenth ghost stood.
Despite her determination, Hervor flinched back. In his hand he held a sword, unsheathed: Tyrfing, the blade famed in all the tales of Angantyr. The witch swore he couldn’t harm her — none of them could, not with the charcoal line holding them in — but Hervor found it hard to trust. Was the sword ghostly, or real?
After years, after wandering and struggle, and nights on the cold ground, and wet benches of ships, Hervor had what she wanted; the ghosts, fed by the rabbit’s blood, could hear her. The time had come to answer them.
“You’ve haunted my sleep for years.”
They spoke the word together. Hervor expected their lips would move, that she’d hear them with her ears, but no — their disembodied voices echoed in her head as they always had, inescapable and cold. They’d never spoken of vengeance before, in all their years of whispering, but she wasn’t surprised. What else would murdered men want? And perhaps, a bit of luck at last.
She’d been raised a bondsmaid, one bare step above a thrall. But since she fled, hers had been a raider’s life; perhaps she wasn’t one of the great terrors of the sea, but she knew her way around a weapon. If they wanted vengeance, she’d give it to them. But first — “Why me? Why did you choose my dreams?”
That came from the thirteenth ghost alone. Angantyr, the great berserker. His frost-blue eyes held Hervor pinned. She trembled under his gaze, but made herself ask, “How do you know my mother’s name?” Sváfa was no one, a bondsmaid, dead before she earned her freedom. There was no reason Angantyr should know her.
He came forward two steps, each one shivering the ground, and did not answer her. Why do you call us from the cold earth?
“To silence you,” Hervor said. The words limped from her, not nearly as strong as she’d meant them to be. “I’m sick of hearing you when I sleep and when I’m awake. You want vengeance? Tell me who killed you.”
Two eagles flew against us, the ghost of Angantyr murmured. Battle in the sky. I will say no more.
Hervor gritted her teeth. After everything she’d done to get here, she was damned if she’d let them answer her only in riddles. In other cirumstances her fist, or axe, would have served to get an answer. But not here, not against them. She looked away, thought, ground her teeth.
“The honor of Arngrím’s mighty line has turned to dust, if Angantyr and his sons fear to speak their killers’ names.”
The other ghosts murmured, their words indistinguishable. One by one their heads were turning to face her. At least they didn’t stand. Hard enough to face Angantyr on his own.
Her insult, it seemed, struck home. The eagles flew from the great lord’s hall, Angantyr said at last. His retainer Hjálmar, and Orvar the Wanderer. The first stood against me, and the second, my sons.
Two. Two men alone had been the end of Angantyr and his twelve berserker sons.
Hervor’s blood curdled in her veins. She’d faced battle before, yes, and killed more than one man. Never twelve berserkers, though, nor anyone like Angantyr, who — the stories said — was greater than his sons together. That was impossible. But these two men, Orvar and Hjálmar, had put an end to them.
The blood of my line burdened the earth, Angantyr’s spectral voice said. One alone bears it now.
A cold touched Hervor that had nothing to do with the barrow’s chill. “What did you say?” she whispered.
The ghost’s eyes seared like ice. Daughter of Sváfa: you bear my blood.
She was shaking her head before she even realized it. Angantyr’s wife had been Tofa, not Sváfa, and Sváfa was her mother; even he admitted that. She couldn’t be his daughter.
As if great berserkers never took bondsmaids to their beds, like other men did.
Thus the voices, the dreams, the haunting since childhood. Who else would they cry to for vengeance, when all their other kin were dead?
Vengeance, in spite of her boast, she couldn’t give them. Hjálmar and Orvar would cut her to pieces; she didn’t stand a chance.
She stood and ground her teeth, looking over her father and her twelve half-brothers. Beating Hjálmar and Orvar wasn’t the point, was it? Honor was the point. Common thralls could be cowards and no one would blame them, but not the blood of a man like Angantyr. Such folk owed a duty to their kin — even if those kin were long dead and she’d never known of their bond until today. She knew now, and that meant she couldn’t turn her back on them. The gods kept a place in the lowest hell for those who refused that duty.
Hervor closed her eyes, searching for the courage to speak. Her head dipped, and when she opened her eyes, she found herself looking at her hands, streaked with rabbit’s blood. Too much to hope it would some day be replaced by that of the two murderers. But she clenched her teeth and dragged her chin upward, intending to meet her father’s eyes and speak the words honor demanded of her.
Her gaze stopped on his sword. Tyrfing, a blade as famous as the man who bore it. Forged by the dvergar for King Sigrlami, it protected its wielder — and that might give her a chance.
Hervor said, “Give me your sword, and I will avenge you.”
Silence. No answering whisper, no call for blood.
She raised her eyes to meet her father’s, and found his face as cold and forbidding as winter itself.
You court your doom, Angantyr said. Your sense abandons you, when you come to the barrow and call up the dead. The spectral fires encircle you; death’s domain beckons you in. Flee to your ship. Leave us in peace.
“What peace?” Hervor cried in disbelief. “Your murders have kept you lingering for fifteen years. And I have lingered with you, hearing to your voices — but I will hear no more. Fires do not frighten me, though hellish their source; I’ve come through worse to find you tonight.”
Speak you of fear? Her father’s expression darkened. “The fires are not all. See, daughter, the danger you seek.
The barrow vanished. In its place she saw Sámsey, but in daylight. Men stood on the shore — she recognized them. Faces last seen in spectral blue light. Her father, his sons at his side, and facing them were two others. Orvar and Hjálmar, no doubt.
They gave their oaths, sealed in blood, because this was more than a mere brawl; it was the hólmganga, the “island-going,” a sacred form of duel. Hervor wanted to ask what had brought it on, but she had no voice, nor body. All she could do was watch.
Watch, as her kin died.
Berserkers all, and strong men, but not on that day. Weakness plagued them, weighting their limbs, and Orvar was fast; he slipped among her brothers like lightning, striking down first one and then another. Angantyr stood alone against Hjálmar, Tyrfing in his hand, light shining from the blade. And although the weakness struck at him the same, he refused to bow to it; he planted his feet in the sand of the shore and fought with all the stubborn determination of his soul. Hjálmar’s blows did not cut him, but neither could Angantyr reach him, and so they fought without result.
But his fate was already spun, by whatever treacherous hand stole the strength from his body.
As the last of Hervor’s brothers was cut down, and Angantyr gave himself over to rage.
He left at last the place where he had stationed himself, moving across the bloodstained sand, flinging his weakened body at Hjálmar in one final, desperate attack.
Tyrfing flew from his hand, and moments later Angantyr fell dead to the ground.
Then the vision of the past was gone, replaced by the blue flames of the opened barrow, and the ghosts that faced her there.
Sorcery stood against us, her father said. We were taken by treachery.
Her entire body ached with tension; the need for action made her shake. “Was this supposed to convince me to go home? You were betrayed! The hólmganga is sacred; but they cheated because otherwise they couldn’t beat you. How can you tell me to let that go unanswered?”
She gestured wildly at the sword her father still held. “If it had been you alone, Hervard would have taken up your sword and avenged your death. If not Hervard, then Hjórvard, and if not him then one of your other ten sons, on down the line until it reached the last. But they’re all dead, and I’m left. It’s my duty, now. I’ve listened to your rage my whole life. I’ve made my way here, through a thousand challenges; I’ve been attacked and beaten and starved. I’m not afraid of hardship. I’m not afraid of danger. The only thing I’m afraid of is spending the rest of my life with your gods-damned voices whispering in my head, telling me how you were betrayed, and never letting me rest!”
She stopped for a moment, gasping for breath; her throat was raw with screaming the words at her father. When she spoke again, her voice was quieter, but no less passionate. “My duty is clear, even if it means my death. I will take Tyrfing, to seek out your foes.”
The blade gleamed in Angantyr’s hand. Listen, my daughter — hear my words out! Tyrfing, my sword, shall bring you no joy. Cursed it was, when first it killed. Let it stay in my barrow, lest ruin it bring to all of your kin.
“I have no kin for it to ruin! My father lies murdered; my brothers lie with him. What have I to lose?” Hervor’s hands clenched into fists, her nails cutting her skin.
Sons, Angantyr replied. Disaster will this blade bring to you and your children. Hear thou, daughter, the character of this blade.
Behind Angantyr, his sons rose and lifted their axes.
Deadly the edges; each carries poison. It shines as the sun, when it is unsheathed — fierce is this light; it betrays you to foes. While it rests in your fist, fear not other’s blades. Once unsheathed, it must slay a man; and it may not be sheathed unless blood lies warm upon it.
That was why she wanted it. Tyrfing might not have saved Angantyr, but at least it would give her a better chance than she had without it.
He wasn’t done, though. This doom does it bear, from the dvergar who forged it: Tyrfing shall be the cause of three dishonorable deaths. In a barrow I sit, but I see much; this doom will strike at you and your sons.
Her determination foundered in into creeping horror. This was not how it was supposed to be; this was the end, the moment at which she broke free of the burden that had shackled her, and won for herself a normal life. But no: if Angantyr was right, then all that stood before her was more dishonor. If she turned back, she betrayed her father and brothers and let the perversion of the hólmganga stand. If she took Tyrfing, then the curse of the blade would fall upon her and her sons.
But without it, and the protections it carried, she would fail.
Doom, any way she turned. The question was, which one did she choose?
Return to your home, Angantyr said. Reach not for such pain.
When she stood before Bolvereik, what tale did she want to tell? Not cowardice, and not failure. To cause dishonorable death was no proud thing — but on that path, at least, there lay a chance of vengeance.
Hervor stood and stepped over the leather square and the stones it contained, coming forward until she reached the very edge of the flames that encircled the mound. They sank low at her approach. Angantyr stood before her; they were separated only by the veil of blue light.
“Let my sons fight for themselves,” Hervor said quietly, “as I have. I have no dread of the doom you name. Not ghosts, nor gods, nor the flames of hell frighten me. Give me your sword; I’ll seek out the warriors that slew you and your sons. My kin will know peace before I am done.”
Behind Angantyr, the twelve brothers she’d never known stood arrayed, their axes in hand. In their dead eyes she saw pride, but in her father’s she saw sorrow.
“Give Tyrfing to me,” Hervor said. “I will find my own fate.”
The cold blue fire grew in intensity until she had to close her eyes against its brilliance. When it faded, she found herself standing at the very base of the grassy mound. Dawn light came from the eastern horizon; night had passed without her knowing.
The sun glinted off something at the top of the mound.
Hervor climbed to the top of the mound. The blade, Tyrfing, lay in the grass, there for the taking. A chance, at least, at victory. As she touched it, the blade began to shine with its own light, rivaling that of the sun.
One journey ended, another begun. She would find her vengeance, her peace, whatever the cost. Her sons, on what length of life the nornir gave them, could be proud of that much.
Marie Brennan is an anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for material. Her short stories have sold to more than a dozen venues, including Talebones, On Spec, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She is currently writing the Onyx Court series of historical faerie fantasies set in London, consisting so far of the Elizabethan Midnight Never Come and the (English) Civil War-era In Ashes Lie.
More information can be found on her website, www.swantower.com.