May 8, 1002, Kokolu
Hilja’s return to consciousness was slow and gradual. There was a dreamlike sensation of being moved, almost rocked by motherly arms. Grey light pulled at the darkness over her eyes until it disappeared. She was aware of the early morning sky, the familiar tree line of the forest, and the gentle, slightly bumpy movement.
Then, a voice called nearby, “Father! I have found one who’s still alive!”
Off in the distance, a voice shouted back, “Bring them over here, I have a water skin!”
Hilja became aware that she was being pulled in a sled, slowly over the soft tundra towards Kokolu. She was terribly thirsty, and hungry, and as she took stock of herself, she was stabbed by another sharp cramp from her womb. She moaned, curling up and clutching her knees to her chest.
“She’s alive, all right, but looks wounded.”
Then, nearer than before, the other voice said, “Here, give her this. Let us hope that she lives and can tell us what happened here.”
The voices were strange to her, but they spoke her language, in concerned and kindly tones. The first voice was now quite close.
“Miss, can you hear me, are you awake? We are here to help. Are you injured?”
Hilja opened her eyes and looked up into the most beautiful face she had ever seen. Straight black hair framed wide grey eyes flecked with gold, framed by long curled lashes. Those pretty eyes were wet with tears and haunted by loss. The face of the young man was filthy, covered with dirt, soot, and ash, but Hilja saw only the flash of gold in his eyes. His mouth, slightly open, smiled with relief as her eyes met his. He held a water skin to her lips and she drank, at first slowly, then greedily. She sputtered, coughing, and sat up on the sled.
Peering down at her were two men, father and son. The younger one was perhaps a few years older than Hilja. His father was middle aged, but not yet grey at the temples. They were both dirty with soot from head to foot. When Hilja stopped choking on the water, the older one knelt down near her. His eyes were also kindly and sparkled with small flashes of gold.
“Miss, what happened here? I am afraid you are the only one who can tell us…”
‘The only one?’ Hilja found her legs beneath her and stood up quickly. She was at the top of the cliff, at the foot of the Black Rock. She whirled, looking behind her towards the huts and lodges, but saw only smoking piles of ash.
Her Kokolu, which had been the home of her people since before their legends began, was gone. Dizziness overcame her again, and she fell to her knees. Before her on the ground, Hilja saw a giant boot print in the soft earth that was at least twice the size of her foot.
Distantly, she heard herself repeat aloud, in a cracked voice, “The only one?”
“We have been traveling along the coast to Kokolu, and saw smoke two days ago. We arrived last night. I am sorry, Miss, everyone is dead. Everyone except you. Can you tell us what happened?”
A long silence answered the question, as Hilja slowly shook her head from side to side. She focused her eyes on the boot print, remembering the metal-clad giants who had taken her mother and sister. Her entire body began to tremble, as if she were shivering.
Through clenched teeth, she managed to say, “I have just returned from a long journey. You are the first people I have seen in fifty days. The Norsemen were here.”
Now the younger man spoke up, “That would explain why there are no…” He put a hand on his son’s arm and stopped him.
Hilja got back up to her feet, and finished the sentence for him, “Why there are no women and children among the dead. The Giants have been here before, but only one boat. So few could never have taken the village. There must have been many boats, but then how did they surprise everyone? And why would they take so many?”
After the Norsemen kidnapped Hilja’s mother and sister, the village had taken the precaution of posting a lookout high on the Black Rock, and setting piles of heavy stones along the cliff over the steep path. Invaders would have to climb up the narrow path and be subjected to a terrible shower of boulders. Hilja could see from where she knelt that the boulder piles were still in place, unused. For miles in either direction, the jagged cliffs were nearly impossible to climb, making Kokolu’s beach the only place to land. Its defensive location was one reason why Kokolu had been the largest village on the coast for as long as anyone could remember.
After a long pause, the older man spoke again, “I am Veli, and this is my son Paavo. We are from Haapolu, up the coast. What is your name?”
“I am Hilja. I was an orphan before today. Now I’m an orphan with no home.” And with that, all pretense of fortitude melted away, and a mountain of grief as dark and looming as the Black Rock crushed her composure. Veli sighed, then folded the young woman into his arms and held her while she shook and wept. The hunter kissed her tenderly on the top of her head. Then he heard cheeping and rustling inside her cloak and took a small step back, eyes wide. Hilja could not help but smile a little as she opened her pocket and took out her tiny charges.
“This is Pipa, and Bo. With some luck and many worms, they will be flying in a few weeks.” The birds’ introduction seemed to remind Paavo of something urgent, and the handsome youth spoke up,
“Hilja, does the Lady of the Wood still dwell near here? We have paddled for five days to Kokolu to seek her help.” Hilja sighed, and nodded,
“She does, and I can lead you to her.”
Hilja looked at the men again, surprised by her response. She was unprepared to attend to the needs of her first callers, and she felt much too vulnerable to ask for their belief in her abilities. She also needed to sweep out the hut and rekindle the fire before she could perform the duties of her office.
Hilja was conscious of looking every bit as travel-worn and bedraggled as Veli and Paavo. Her hair was clumped and dirty, full of twigs and spruce needles. Her face and body was likewise smudged with her journey and the efforts of burying Taika. Her fasting and drug ingestion had purged her system, leaving a rancid patina of sweat on her skin. She felt that she was barely presentable to clean fish, much less command the respect of these men.
She was also acutely aware that she had not been to the sea in many months, and she could not resist the urge to wash herself in the salt water.
“Paavo, do you have provisions? I am weak from my journey, and there will be no rest for me here in Kokolu.”
“Please, Hilja, come with me. We have dried fish and acorn cakes in our kayaks, and we must fill the water skins again.”
Veli sensed a connection forming between the two adolescents, and said, “I will circle the village once more to search for survivors, then join you later.”
Paavo gave his harpoon to Hilja to lean on as they made their way slowly down the steep, narrow path to the beach. Another cramp doubled Hilja over at the waist and she paused, leaning on the wooden haft. Paavo put his hand on her shoulder and said, “Are you sure you are all right? I can easily carry you down.”
Hilja straightened and stepped away from Paavo, interposing the harpoon between them. Now her voice carried an angry, impatient tone, as she looked him fiercely in the eye,
“I am weak from travel and hunger and have been visited by the Moon. Otherwise, I am unharmed. I thank you for your concern, but please do not touch me again.” Then she looked down and did not raise her eyes until her feet touched the beach.
Paavo sulked, falling behind her and remaining silent. When Hilja went down to the water, he walked to the far end of the strand to examine the village’s fleet of now-vandalized kayaks. There were over forty boats in all, many of which were staved in by the blows of axes or hammers. But there were several boats closer to the middle that had been disabled by a few jabs of a spear.
Paavo decided to take two of these out of the pile and drag them over to where his own kayak sat next to Veli’s. These were small but well-built craft that only needed a few patches to be functional again. The Norsemen hadn’t even taken the precaution to break the paddles, and Paavo recovered four of the best ones from the ruined boats.
As he worked, Hilja laid out her cloak on the pebbles, took off her torn and weatherworn deerskin jerkin, and stepped out of her heavy winter moccasins. She caught him stealing a furtive glance in her direction, and decided to keep her doeskin shift on. She waded for several minutes in the shallows, then removed the garment and washed her hair.
Looking over to see if he was looking, Hilja stole naked out of the water and ran to her bag. She took out her wooden comb, and ran back into the water with it. She sat in shallow water, combing the tangles and twigs out of her long black hair.
By this time, her stomach was growling terribly, and she saw that Paavo had opened a pack from his kayak and was looking through it. Wrapping her cloak tightly around herself, she went over to him. As she opened her mouth to offer some apology, he interrupted her,
“You must be famished. Here, try this; it’s the specialty of Haapolu, pickled minke whale.”
Being careful not to make eye contact, Paavo offered up a palm-sized greenish-grey cube that wiggled slightly as he extended his hand. Though it looked only dubiously edible, Hilja did not want to appear ungrateful, so she took it in her fingers, smiling.
That smile quickly faded, though, as the smell of the pickled whale meat struck her nose, curling the delicate black hairs inside her nostrils and sending her eyebrows skyward in alarm. It was absolutely the worst thing Hilja had ever smelled.
Paavo seemed to understand her reaction, but encouraged her, saying, “It actually tastes much better than it smells. It is also very nutritious and will keep for weeks at ocean temperature.” Now he looked up and met her eyes with a winning smile. Hilja was beyond hungry, and despite her nose commanding her to do otherwise, she took a big bite of the soft, fatty meat.
Though it tasted only slightly better than it smelled, she found that the meat was gone within seconds, and she was licking her palms, which were slick with salty grease.
Paavo had another piece in his hand, and before he could say, “Would you take a little more?” Hilja just as quickly made that one disappear as well. Now it was Paavo’s eyebrows that shot upwards, impressed by her appetite.
He said, “Maybe there is something wrong with this batch. No one has ever taken a second piece.” Hilja looked up in alarm, caught him grinning, and they shared a little laugh.
Paavo gave her a packet of acorn cakes, wrapped in dried seaweed. They were crumbly looking and glistened with honey and salt. Next, he handed her a package of dried cod and more of the whale meat. The chunks of meat were also wrapped in leaves of dried seaweed.
Paavo said, “This food will be of use to you on your way to the hut of the Lady of the Wood. We also eat the seaweed for good health.” Hilja smiled again.
“Thank you Paavo, that is very generous. I already feel much better.”
Paavo said, “Good, but be careful, the whale meat is very rich, don’t eat too much of it at once or you might feel unwell.”
By this time, Veli had descended the cliff and approached them on the beach. He placed his hand on his son’s shoulder and turned to face Hilja.
“Now that you have washed the forest from your hair, I can see that you are a beautiful young lady.”
Taking a few steps back, she drew herself up to her full height, and addressed the men formally,
“Good hunters of Haapolu, I have trained with the Lady of the Wood for seven years. I am sure she will hear your petition, but whatever your need, there are more pressing matters at hand here. I will tell her that you have come, and she will prepare for your visit. But first, I must ask of you a service on her behalf:
“The dark Goddess Louhi has brought you here for a terrible task. It falls to you to put the bones of Kokolu to rest. For generations, this village has taken its sustenance from the sea. Return the dead of my village to the waves, where the salt will free their spirits from their broken bodies. There is a place on the other side of the Black Rock where the cliff is sheer. This is where we have dropped the bones of our hunt into the sea.
“Camp here on the beach, and wash yourselves with sea water in the evening when your work is done. There,” she said, pointing to a small cairn at the foot of the Black Rock, “is a cave where we kept dried meats. You may collect the belongings of the people there. In a few days, I will return and lead you to the hut of the Lady, and I promise that she will do everything in her power to help you.”
Veli and Paavo were taken aback at the tone of authority in Hilja’s voice, and the gravity with which she spoke. Paavo was the first to recover from his surprise and bow, his palms turned upwards before him. He was soon followed by his father, who was a little slower in showing respect to someone so young. Her words did make sense. The dead villagers of Kokolu were simply too numerous to bury. The hunters had already decided to camp on the beach, as the sight of the devastation of Kokolu was too much to bear. And a gift or labor was usually required in exchange for the Lady’s services.
Paavo said, “Hilja, are you sure you are well enough to return to the Lady’s hut alone? I will be happy to accompany you there, then return to work with Veli.”
“Thank you Paavo, but it is not far, and I feel much better after the food you gave me. I will be all right on my own.”
This much was true. The strange tasting whale meat had infused her system with energy, and the company of the hunters had revived her spirit somewhat. She bowed to the two men and said, “I will leave right away. The Lady will have to prepare for your visit.”
And with that, she ascended the rock path from the beach to the village for the last time, and walked to the cave where the inhabitants of Kokolu kept their dried foods. Most of the stores had been hastily gathered up and taken with the surviving captives, but there on the high shelf were the clay salt pots. She took one of them down, checked that its contents were still dry, and carried it with her to the woods.
As she walked the familiar path through the pine and spruce, she nibbled at the acorn cakes made in Haapolu. The acorns had been boiled to reduce the bitterness, then toasted, mashed, and mixed with cranberry and honey. Then the mash was pressed between flat stones heated by coals and cooked until tan and brown. They were salted before being wrapped in seaweed leaves for storage.
Hilja wondered that the village of Haapolu should have such different foods from Kokolu, and thought that both villages might have benefitted from a greater cultural exchange.
When she arrived at the hut, it was past midmorning, and the sun was peeking out from the grey bank of clouds for the first time in days. Glancing down the little hill, she saw the grave that she had prepared for Taika, and was pleased that a few sparrows were playing in the trees nearby. The grave looked peaceful and Hilja wished that it were possible to bury the rest of Kokolu’s dead with such care.
Hilja opened the door flap and lifted the deer hide skirting all around the hut to let in air and light. She then shook out every blanket and fur in the hut and laid them outside on the ground. In an hour’s time, Hilja had removed everything from the hut and laid it out on the furs. She was intimately familiar with every bowl, every basket, and every bundle of herbs in the hut. But underneath her blanket in the corner was something Hilja had never seen before.
It was a travel bag made of white and tan spotted seal skin, sporting a wide shoulder strap and thirteen pockets, large and small. Each pocket had a flap and an antler button to fasten it. The stitching of the bag was very fine, and made of the gut of a small animal, probably chipmunk or squirrel.
Hilja recognized the handiwork of Magdi, the best tanner and clothing maker of Kokolu. Curious, she opened the main compartment of the bag, and as she did, she saw that there was a design burned into the back of the sealskin flap. Peering at it, she made it out to represent a small bird flying up from a nest of fire. Her heart skipped a beat as she heard her late mentor’s voice repeat, ‘and that bird, Little Wren, was you.’
Peering into the bag, Hilja saw that it was divided into compartments, and each section contained pouches, bundles, and sachets full of every variety of plant, root, dried berry and mushroom. There was a small wooden bowl and pestle, as well as a long sharp knife with a bone handle and bronze blade. Hilja knew that the blade must have come from the lands far to the South and East, where such metals were made, and wondered how Taika had come to possess it.
She choked back the emotion that the gift stirred up, the memories of Taika, and the meaning behind the medicine bag. Its creation meant that Taika had already decided Hilja was ready to take her place. This revelation eased her own doubts about her readiness to be Lady of the Wood.
Now the hut was empty, and she cleaned the fire pit and hearth, then swept the floor clean. Going back outside, Hilja took the four bowls full of old salt and cast it into the woods in the four directions. She wiped the bowls clean then placed them around the fire pit. Next, she brought in the pot of salt she had carried from Kokolu, and refilled the bowls in clockwise fashion, from East to North. She went back outside to collect firewood from the lean-to next to the hut, and relit the fire. Hilja noticed as she worked that her cramping had abated and the flow of blood had slowed considerably. As the first tendrils of smoke curled up and out of the round chimney hole, the forest seemed to come alive with sounds.
Squirrels chittered in the trees, sparrows sang, and peeked into the hut, watching her. Flying overhead, a lone crow cawed loudly, and flew away, bearing the message to all creatures that the Lady of the Wood had returned.
Once the fire grew hot, Hilja closed the skirting of the hut, and piled green cedar on the flames. The pungent smoke filled the hut’s interior, and Hilja sat in Taika’s place by the fire, inhaling as much of it as she could stand. When the smoke had cleared, she filled the clay pot with water and set it to boil on the stone next to the flames.
For the next hour, she rested and ate by the fire, warming her travel-weary bones. Hilja found that the greasy pickled whale meat paired very well with the toasted acorn cakes. The dryness of the cakes absorbed the fat from the meat and sat in her belly comfortably, making her feel full for the first time in weeks.
She prepared a tea from raspberry leaves and the bark and berries of viburnum. Taika had used the recipe to ease the distress from women’s cycles. After she drank the tea, Hilja felt calm and centered for the first time since she had returned from her journey. She felt the familiar stirring of her awareness, and allowed herself to commune with her surroundings.
It had been a few days since she had performed this most basic practice of her art, and Hilja could not remember the last time she had gone a full day without communing. The fresh bowls of salt and pungent cedar smoke amplified her senses.
Hilja slowly summoned her energy, letting it stay contained within the hut. She began to chant, but instead of letting her awareness stream outwards under the ground, she created a sphere of it around herself. With this, she probed every inch of the hut, making sure that it was completely refreshed. Satisfied, she turned her attention inward to herself, and began a frank assessment.
She was a spirit descended from the heroes and demigods of the Upper World, muddied by generations of dwelling on the Middle World, but a granddaughter of the Goddess Mielikki just the same. Her spirit had been selected and honed from an early age by a wise and kindly Medicine Woman. Taika, the Lady of the Wood, was the ranking Medicine Bearer of the North, and with her tutelage came the entire body of lore held by her people.
The myths and legends of her people were just a part of it. The larger mission was to keep them in harmony with themselves and with nature, so that all beings would thrive.
Now her spirit was colored with anger and loss. She was saddened by the passing of her mentor, and worried that she would not be able to fill Taika’s station. Hilja also knew there was something else troubling her;
Deep in her gut, there was a hard piece of coal smoldering. A warm wind from the South and West had touched that ember of her rage, and rekindled her hatred of the Giants who first took her mother and sister, and then her entire village from her. Hilja was a Healer and Animal-Talker, how could she fight against Giant Warriors?
Hilja continued her self-examination and had a good look at her body, the vehicle for her spirit. She was small, even by Kokolu’s measure, and thin. Her wiry muscles stood out from her bones, softened only by the recent rounding of her hips and breasts. Though she was technically a woman, she was a late bloomer and looked more like an adolescent in need of good feeding.
Now that Kokolu was gone, she had two choices: she could find a new village to dwell in and continue her practice, or she could embark on a fool’s errand to find Kokolu’s survivors and try to bring them home.
As a child, Hilja listened to the brave exploits of Lemminkainen and Vainamoinen, and wondered what her life would be like if she were somehow able to live like one of the heroes of legend. Was it a fool’s errand or a hero’s journey she was considering?
Her vision quest into the Underworld had already shown her which choice she would make. She would travel South and West to heal the Devil, find her sister, and help her son unite her land.
“A mother does what she must…”
May 13, 1002, outside of Tønsberg, Vestfold
Asta Gudbrandtsdotter made her way north from the village walls through barley and wheat fields that were being plowed for the spring planting. She wore a simple brown cloak pulled tight around her which betrayed neither her age nor station. She walked with a short staff, not uncommon for a lone traveler.
She had left her young Olav at home in the care of her servant Gudrun with strict instructions not to let him out of her sight. She had hoped that leaving a suckling pig for them to roast would give him ample reason to stay home.
Leaving the house, she’d admonished Olav, “If you do not stay home with Gudrun you will have none of the roast, so be a good lad and help her in the kitchen.”
A cool rain began to fall, and Asta was glad of the hood on her cloak.
She did not have an appointment, but a rather vague invitation. The Seiðr Woman had told her to return in seven years for another scrying.
Asta trembled beneath her cloak, partly from the dampness, and partly because of the talk in the village about the Witch.
Though no one knew her to be married, other visitors had reported that Hekka had begun to produce offspring, seemingly of her own accord. First, a daughter in the year before Olav’s birth, then another two years hence, and then another. Rumors circulated about the origin of these children, many of which intimated some kind of dark supernatural paternity.
Hekka herself had told a few visitors that the father of her girls was a fearsome warrior of terrifying stature who could tear men limb from limb with his bare hands. She told others she was married to a dark lord from a distant realm that she summoned on occasion to father another child. All of these rumors had the same effect: to limit visitations to all but the most serious inquiries.
Now Asta reached the edge of the fields adjacent to Tønsberg. Ahead of her, the dirt track continued on, but she took a left turn. The road narrowed to a footpath, meandering into a cluster of small hillocks known affectionately as ‘The Witch’s Teats.‘ These hills were not very tall, the largest being no more than a few hundred feet high, but they stood very close together in a notoriously gloomy swamp.
Between The Witch’s Teats, the path led Asta onward and inward, turning and twisting through increasingly dense trees and boggy copses. The rain abated some, but a grey mist hung low to the ground, obscuring her view of the path ahead. She walked another ten minutes, moving slowly and trying to remember some familiar landmark from her previous trip to reassure herself.
For a moment, the mist parted, and Asta came to a small clearing of dry ground in the center of which stood an ancient Willow. The Willow was not tall, but over eight feet in diameter at the base of the trunk. Its gnarled and warty black bark was all but obscured by the bright yellow tiara of new branches that hung down to the ground in a great circle all around the tree. New leaves covered the yellow branches with a light green halo. Asta had been here before.
The first time she had come, she got directions from her maid. The woman had frowned when asked the way to the Witch’s Cave…
“You walk North through the farms and fields until the road turns into a path. Go left, and down. The path leads to marsh, and then becomes narrow and strange, but you follow, until you come to the Old Willow. You must…” Here she looked oddly at Asta, and continued in a hushed, but urgent whisper, “go Widdershins around the tree, and cross over three black stones in the ground. At the third stone, turn right and follow the path to her Cave.
“Asta, the way is dark and strange. Go only if it is a matter of life and death. There will be some price to pay…”
Now Asta regarded this ancient tree a second time. Though she knew the way, she opted to go around the tree the long way again, as Ingol had so urgently instructed her. A simple split log bridge crossed the bog to the tree. Asta crossed it, and as she set her foot on the ground, she saw a movement to her left. A small dark animal ran into the forest in the direction of the Witch’s Cave.
She caught just a glimpse of it before it was out of sight, and could not tell what kind of animal it was. Asta froze, trying to make the creature out through the trees. She was even more startled by a loud voice quite close by,
Asta gasped, clutching her breast with one hand, and her staff in the other as she turned her head to look ahead in the Willow’s branches. Two round yellow eyes peered at her under a pair of grey horns. Then the great owl leapt from its perch, spread its broad white and brown wings and flew over Asta’s head towards the fields and farms.
Asta struggled for breath for a moment, leaning on her staff. She tried to drive the fright from her mind and forget about the strange animal. Just. Keep. Going!
She walked to her right, circling the tree widdershins. She stepped over a long black stone set in the soft earth across her path. Continuing around, she came to the far side of the tree and crossed over another long black stone. It pointed north, and the main path continued away in this direction.
Asta continued around the tree to where she saw the animal a minute ago. There was the third black stone, pointing west to the Witch’s Cave.
The narrow path ran down into wet boggy ground, and she walked carefully over more split logs, just inches from the murky water. The rain made them slick, and she slipped, nearly losing her footing.
As she recovered her balance, she saw the dark animal again, ahead on the path. It was crouching, regarding her with strange round eyes. Asta saw now that it was ashen grey in color with a longer mane. It was small, the size of a dog, and it promptly loped off, first on all fours, then rising up to run on its hind legs. It headed towards the Witch’s cave, and Asta shuddered beneath her cloak.
A chill ran up her spine, leaving a trail of goosebumps. She definitely did not recognize this creature and feared it was some kind of demon or homunculus belonging to the witch.
She told herself that she had come too far to turn back now, and that any creature of the Witch’s would be under her control, so she had nothing to fear. Despite this, her heart beat wildly against her breastbone and her breath came in shallow gasps.
Ahead of Asta rose a small, steep hill, all but covered in short, twisted hawthorn trees. The path veered around the hillock to the left, and at the next turn, she could smell smoke from a cooking fire.
To her right, a generous cave opening gave way to darkness inside the hillock. Around the outside of the cave was a camp with a fire pit, cauldron, racks for drying herbs and skins, and a great flat stone set upon a stump.
Asta started again, as the creature appeared suddenly, dropping down from a perch over the cave entrance, and darting inside. At the same time, a low rumble of thunder preceded a soaking downpour as the grey sky turned black and grim.
Asta had no choice. She took three steps inside the cave entrance to get out of the deluge. A dry, rasping voice slithered out from deep within the cave,
“Asta Gudbrandtsdotter, come inside and tell me how fares the future King of Norway!”
Asta straightened herself up, threw back the hood of her cloak and leaned her staff against the cave wall. Then she walked down the short tunnel and into the Witch’s Cave.
It was the size of an average home, with a tall ceiling tapering high up into a fissure where dim daylight was visible. There was a central fire pit and hearth. Attached to a post by the hearth was an array of iron arms that could support pots or game above the fire. A large cauldron of water was warming over coals, big enough to cook a whole pig.
It took Asta’s eyes a minute to adjust to the darkness in the cave. She heard Hekka’s cooing voice, much lower now,
“Come here poppet. Did the fancy Lady frighten my Imp?”
Asta tried to see into the dimness and gasped. Hekka was clutching the strange grey creature to her breast, inside her wolf skin robe. The horrified look on her face set Hekka to laughing. It was a slow, wicked laugh that went on and on, as if fueled by Asta’s expression.
During this time, Hekka walked over to the cauldron of water, put a few fingers in, and stirred the surface. Asta noticed that the Witch wore a patch over her right eye and wondered what other abominations or mutilations she might face during her visit. Priests had warned her village about “…those witches who suckle the Devil’s spawn at their breasts…” and now she had seen it for herself. She tried to gain control of her face, her composure, to no avail. She moved her mouth, but no words came. It was Hekka who broke the silence again, this time with a much sweeter tone,
“Girls! Your bath is ready! And do see that the Imp does not drown, hmmm? Lady Asta, I do not believe that you have met my daughters. It has been seven years since you were here last, no?”
Asta managed to nod, then say, “yes.” Two other wild-haired and grey furred beasts came out of the shadows of the cave walls. These two were larger than the one Hekka nursed. The Witch continued,
“I was married before we met. Almost impossible to believe, I know… Then the daughters started coming. It’s wonderful, really, they are the joy of my life.”
As she spoke, her daughters stood upright, walked to the fire pit, shed their grey wolf skin robes, and climbed up into the cauldron. Finally, Asta could see that the creatures she had been afraid of were just young girls, no older than her Olav.
With an audible pop! Hekka pried her youngest from her breast and handed her to the oldest girl, taking her tiny grey fur wrap off as she did so.
“Here is the brush and a clump of spring mint. Brush your hair with the new lemon balm oil after you’re clean.
“Lady Asta, may I present Helga, she’s seven; Vexi, five, and my little Impala, almost three.”
The three girls nodded curtly in perfect unison while Helga said,
“Milady. It is a pleasure to…”
Hekka quickly said, “Meet you…”
“Yes, Mama; meet you.”
The girls took to washing and brushing one another, while Hekka took Asta by the arm,
“You still have not answered my question, Lady.”
“I beg your pardon, which one?”
“How fares the future King of Norway?”
“Oh yes! Of course, Olav is well…very well.”
“Mmm. And he wears the amulet?”
“Yes, most of the time. But he takes it off and hides it just to vex me! He is most willful, Hekka.”
“Excellent! He will need to be. And you still bear the stone I gave you?”
Asta looked down and frowned. The two women walked out to the cave’s entry and stopped there, just inside the pouring rain. Asta figured it was almost noon, but it was dark as a pocket in the gloomy bog.
“Yes, I have barely parted with it all this time.”
“Fine, then. You are done with it. Give it to me.”
“Unless you would like to bear it another seven years.”
“Certainly not! But this is shameful, it is!”
“Not at all,” cooed the Witch. “A mother does what she must for her children.”
Asta reached up under her dress and lifted her cotton shift. Then she squatted there in the cave entry, and reached up for the stone she had borne for the last seven years. Heavy, black, and as big as a walnut, it came out smooth and shiny as a tadpole and hot as a cauldron bath.
Hekka snatched it from her fingers before Asta could wipe it off, and clutched it tight in her fist. Asta turned her bright red cheeks away as the Witch brought her hand to her face and peered closely at the stone with her big brown eye. Hekka slipped the black stone into the pocket of her tattered robe, and said,
“Very good. You have been diligent…and chaste. Now tell me more about your son…” She regarded Asta intently with that eye, and Asta found herself struggling to focus on it instead of its neighboring patch. This left her feeling uncomfortable and off-balance.
“Well, he is a big boy, with a big appetite. He loves to cook and eat, and will eat as much as a grown man, or more. He has no friends his own age and tires easily of other children’s company. If he must spend time with them, he will quickly say or do something to put them off. He does love the company of men, particularly the soldiers. He often runs away from home and must be collected at the garrison. And the thing is, the men enjoy his company as well.
“He’s very smart, and keen to hear stories from other lands. Once I found him in a pub, sitting at a table with men from Gaul. They were speaking in their tongue, and my little Olav was just listening, with his elbows on the table. Then the men all laughed, and Olav laughed with them, as if he could understand their speech…”
Asta looked up again to find Hekka still staring intently with her left eye. It widened a bit and a smile grew underneath it, showing two rows of very neat white teeth. The Witch spoke through that smile,
“And is he healthy and hale?” Asta looked away again, having an easier time finding her words while not meeting that cyclopean gaze,
“Yes, decidedly so. In fact, when he was a babe, he never once spat up his milk. The other young mothers often remarked that he never seemed colicky, almost never cried, and has not once been ill with fever or dysentery. He also…”
“Yes…?” prompted Hekka.
“Well, he is very heavy. He is a bit plump, but not obese. Even so, I cannot lift him up anymore, though it looks like I should be able to. The other day at the market plaza, I was leading him by the hand and he stopped to watch the blacksmith sharpen a sword. I tried to continue, but I could not budge him. I might have well as tried to pull the church tower down the street.”
“Very interesting,” cooed the Witch. “It seems the talisman is working.”
“Do you mean to say that the talisman is responsible for my Olav’s strangeness?” asked Asta.
“I will say only what I mean to say, Lady Asta. Many people have a potential destiny that they will never achieve. My art cannot turn your son into someone else. The talisman will protect him and help him become what he is meant to be. You were wise to seek me out, Lady. There are a thousand possibilities for your child’s future, but in only one of them will he be King of all Norway. My art and your diligence will help him find that path.”
The two women were interrupted as the girls emerged from the bath, scrubbed clean, and naked as the day they were born. Asta was startled to see that the girls’ hair was not black after all. After bathing, it shone with shades of red and gold. Their skin was a luminous ivory and their wide round eyes a bright blue. They were not only quite normal looking, but very pretty.
Each of the girls wore a small bone and bead necklace strung on a leather thong, not unlike the talisman her Olav wore.
Hekka continued, “They look so beastly when they are overdue for a bath. But now you can see that there is nothing not to love. Come here, my Imp.”
Hekka replaced her youngest underneath her grey fur robe and nursed her on the other side while they continued talking,
“Girls, wash your furs and hang them by the fire to dry.”
Helga was looking up at Asta, her eyes wide,
“Look, Vexi, her eyes are blue, and her hair is gold like ours!”
“And Father’s,” added the middle child. “Mother, will we be as pretty as Lady Asta when we are grown?”
Hekka smiled kindly and said, “We must hope so, poppet. You are lucky enough to have your father’s good looks.”
That much was true. Hekka wore thick, kinky black hair that emanated from her head like a menacing halo of thorns. To put it nicely, her face was not blessed with pleasing features in harmony with one another. The three girls looked so unlike their mother that their relation seemed improbable, making Asta all the more curious about their father.
Asta felt a sharp tug on the back of her neck, as Vexi snatched a long golden hair from her nape and ran inside with it, laughing a chilling little laugh. Helga was not far behind her.
“Such wicked little beasts, but then it is hard to socialize them properly out here alone in the bog,” said the Witch. Asta tried not to think about what dark rituals these angelic looking children might concoct using her hair as a specimen. They might look like their father, but they were definitely their mother’s creatures. She tried to regain her composure again,
“I suppose so, yes,” she agreed. “They are very pretty…”
“Too much so, I fear. It’ll be the death of me, but I am too much a fool for a handsome man. I could have done them a favor by coupling with one as ugly as I, but I haven’t the stomach for that.”
And with that, Hekka began cackling again, sounding a bit like a crow coughing up bones. When she finished with a dry little rattle, Asta inquired,
“So where is this husband of yours?”
Hekka cocked her eye at Asta, and said, “Next you’ll be asking what happened to my eye. But you are here to ask about the future of your son, are you not? Let’s go back inside and throw the runes.”
Not far from the fire pit stood a wooden platform carpeted with black sheep skins. Hekka placed two pillows on the platform and bade Asta sit. Then she lit an array of beeswax candles on sconces around them.
A shelf stood behind Hekka, and from this she took a bronze bowl and stand, and set it up between them. She filled the bowl with water nearly to the top. Then she took a box from the shelf and opened it, revealing a dozen or so glass vials. She selected one whose contents were black as the night and dropped a few drops into the bowl. Immediately, the water turned dark and opaque.
Replacing this, Hekka removed another vial, this one of a light golden color. Hekka dropped a few drops into the bowl, and they floated on the surface, spreading quickly into an iridescent film atop the black water.
The Witch then took a small iron bowl from the shelf and called to her youngest, “Imp! Come fetch some coals for Mommy.”
The toddler came running over and took the bowl from her mother’s hand. Asta watched wide-eyed with alarm as the tiny girl ran over to the fire pit, placed the bowl on the hearth, then filled it with a small metal shovel. She then used the shovel to scoop up the bowl and came running back with it, smiling.
Asta realized she had been holding her breath, afraid that the lovely Impala would burn herself.
“There’s my clever girl! Thank you, poppet.”
The strange toddler just cocked her head at her mother, furrowed her brow, and said, “Ha!” before running back to her sisters.
Hekka returned the box of vials to the shelf behind her, and pulled forth another, this one carved with a lovely floral pattern. From this box, she withdrew a small folding fan made of some kind of reeds and colored paper. Hekka opened the fan and waved it over the coals in the iron bowl until they glowed a cheerful orange color. Then she took a bundle of pungent green flowers and a few crystals of amber resin from the box and placed them on the coals.
Immediately, the air between the women was filled with a sweet smelling, cloying smoke which coiled about them. Hekka used the fan to swirl the smoke over the bowl of water until it looked like tiny tornados danced on its surface. Then she put the fan back in the box and took out a long wooden pipe. She packed the bowl with another of the green flowers, lit a kindling stick from the bowl of coals and began to smoke. After two tokes from the pipe, Hekka inhaled deeply, and held it in, rocking in her seat, forward and back.
Finally, she exhaled, blowing a huge thick smoke ring into the air over the bowl of coals. Her eye was closed, and the lid fluttered over it like a moth. A long minute crept by during which Asta began to feel a little light-headed herself.
Then Hekka’s long-fingered hands were in motion again, putting down the pipe, and taking up a satchel. It was made of white ermine fur, tied at the top with a string of braided white horse hair. Hekka undid the knot and poured out six small ivory cubes. Three of these were white, and three black. Each of the faces of the cubes was carved with a different rune.
The Witch passed the white cubes to Asta, and took the black ones in her own left hand.
“Now, Lady Asta, let us look at what the next seven years will bring young Olav Haraldsson. We’ll throw the bones together.”
And with that, she dropped the cubes from her hand onto the black sheepskin, and Asta did the same.
Another agonizing minute crept by, at the end of which Hekka began to laugh her crow-vomiting laugh once again. Though of noble descent, Asta Gudbrandtsdotter could not read, and the symbols on the cubes meant nothing to her. She began to stir impatiently as the Witch’s unsettling noise grated on her senses. Finally, Hekka spoke, her voice dry from mirth and smoke,
“He is an adventurer, oh yes! Before his fourteenth year, he will journey far and conquer distant lands. But there is danger awaiting him on these journeys. If he survives to his thirteenth year, he must undertake the tutelage of The Maker of Kings. If he survives this, there will be no stopping his destiny.”
Another long silence passed between the two women. Asta was afraid for her son and his habit of running away. She was afraid of him becoming the pupil of the Witch’s husband, whose identity remained a terrible mystery. For all she knew, he could be a Devil, albeit a handsome one, in human disguise. Finally, she found the courage to speak,
“Is there any way to see further than that?”
Hekka’s eye flashed open angrily and regarded Asta with contempt,
“You are a silly child of a woman, Asta Gudbrandtsdotter! But yes, if you are willing to do whatever it takes to ensure Olav’s survival, to share the burden with me…”
“Yes! Whatever it takes! If there is anything I can do…”
Asta trailed off, remembering the results the last time she spoke these very words to the Seiðr Woman, seven years ago.
“Do you know what happened to my eye, Lady Asta?”
“No, I do not,” replied Asta in a small voice.
“I plucked it out so that I could see further into the mist! So that I will be able to keep a better eye on your Olav.”
With that, Hekka pulled Asta’s shiny black stone from her pocket, lifted her eye patch, and popped it neatly into her empty socket. The atrophied eyelid struggled to blink over the black orb, but could not quite close over it.
Asta fainted straight away, falling back onto the soft sheepskin with her eyes rolling up. The last thing she heard was that terrible laugh again, and the Seiðr Woman saying, “Silly Child…”
The Cursed Boy
May 13, 1002, near Kokolu, Lapland
Four days had passed since Hilja left Veli and his son Paavo to put Kokolu’s bones to rest. During this time, Hilja kept busy with the duties of her station.
It was High Spring, and leaves, sprouts, buds, and early flowers were blooming out all over the wood. Many medicinal or useful herbs were most potent and fragrant at this time of year. Each morning as dawn began to reach her fingers into the eastern sky, Hilja would commune with the forest. Then she went out with Pipa and Bo to wander the land with Taika’s large gathering basket in hand. She picked young green nettles, coltsfoot, raspberry leaf, and many others.
It was too early in the season to look for fungi, and each day she spent a good amount of time letting Pipa and Bo hop around in tree branches and flap their nascent wings.
On the second afternoon, Hilja found a fallen holly tree. One of its branches had broken off the trunk from the force of the fall, and Hilja thought this might make a fine staff to walk with. The wood was not too thick, but very heavy and hard, and tapered to a knurl where the branch broke from the trunk.
She sat and whittled at it for a time while Pipa and Bo exercised. She carved a long point on the narrow end to shorten the staff to the height of her shoulder, and decided to leave the tip there, just in case. She trimmed and smoothed the knurl on the fat end until it had a pleasing feel in her hand.
Hilja knew holly to be one of the magical trees, and she hoped this staff would accompany her safely wherever she might roam.
Each afternoon, Hilja returned to the hut of the Lady, her hut, and laid out the herbs and leaves to dry. When that was done, she made porridge out of nuts and seeds, adding fresh nettles and a pinch of salt. After eating, Hilja sat and meditated, remembering her lessons with Taika. She reviewed the Verses, and by the third day, she could remember all of the chapters in all three cycles.
On the third day, she wandered out into the forest. Hilja watched her birds and listened to the wind in the new leaves. Then she smelled musk, a bitter, pungent musk that wrinkled her nose. She whistled to her wrens. They hopped onto her shoulder, and she took off through the wood in the direction of the wind.
Within a few minutes, Hilja knew she was close. The fine black hairs on her spine lifted all the way up to her nape, informing her that she was in the presence of a dangerous predator. She heard the sound of a large animal falling, and then wheezing as it struggled for breath.
Hilja put down her basket and took out the long bronze dagger that Taika had given her. This felt strange to her, as it was the first time she had drawn a weapon for her own defense. She was afraid, but as Lady of the Wood, she felt compelled to see what this ruckus was about.
Creeping through the forest, she came up to a tall trio of spruce and peered around them. Beyond was a terrible scene. A rogue wolverine licked clean its claws, standing next to a deer and her fawn, dead and dying on the ground. It took Hilja only a few moments to understand what had happened here.
The hungry wolverine had decided to take advantage of an easy meal in the newborn, only a few weeks old and no more than fifteen pounds. The mother was grazing nearby, and rushed to her fawn’s aid, only to share its fate. She bled out through claw wounds in her neck as Hilja watched.
The wolverine stopped cleaning itself and turned its head to look at Hilja. So fierce was its glare that Hilja’s heart stopped beating in her breast for a moment. She stayed absolutely still, thinking of her options.
There was a chance that this animal would not respect her status in the forest and would wish to kill her just out of instinct. In this case, there was no way Hilja could defend herself with so small a weapon against what was arguably the most dangerous predator in the wood. She could run, but that would accomplish nothing for the sake of the natural order of the forest. She opted to parley, and she knew its Ancient Name,
The wolverine stiffened and the hair on its tail stood out. Though its eyes remained fixed on her, they widened considerably.
Hilja continued, “Why do you wander in my Woods? Why do you kill more than you can eat? That is not our Way.”
The wolverine snarled, saying, “If you take one step closer, I will kill you as well.”
“Then I shall not,” replied Hilja, “but you will take the fawn and leave now, because I will call my friends the wolves, and they will chase you all the way to the sea if I ask it. You smell so bad, I am sure they will be able to find you in a heartbeat.”
Then, before waiting for a reply, Hilja opened her throat, tipped back her head, and sang a song of fresh meat to the wolves she knew to be only a few miles away.
With an angry growl, the wolverine took the limp fawn by the neck and dragged it off. Hilja sighed with relief, her heart still pounding. She gave the animal some time to get away before she approached the mother deer. It was dead, and still warm. On the fore hoof, Hilja spotted a clump of wolverine hair stuck together with some of its blood. She took this and put it away in her pouch.
She placed Pipa and Bo on opposite sides of the copse, and instructed them to whistle loudly if the wolverine returned.
Then she worked quickly, first skinning the midsection of the animal in a long rectangle. Its spring pelt was soft, having just recently shed the excess winter fur. Next, she opened its abdomen and cut out its liver and kidneys. These she wrapped in the rectangle of skin and placed in her basket. The wolves would be arriving any minute now, and she wanted to be away.
Most of the time, they ate fish, or whale, but several times each year, Hilja and Taika ate animal flesh. Each time, whether they had caught a rabbit in a snare, or found an abandoned kill from which they could salvage a meal, Taika had turned the task of butchering into an anatomy lesson. She would say,
“There is something to learn from every animal, if we know how to look.”
Once, they found a black bear in the early spring, frozen in a snow bank. It had died of illness or privation during the cold months, and Taika had Hilja dig the carcass out of the snow and leave it in the sun to thaw.
As soon as its limbs could be moved, they set to work. Taika said, “The bear is the closest animal in form and diet to ourselves. We are cousins, really. This will be a good opportunity for us to learn more about our own insides.”
First, they took the skin, being careful to keep it intact from the wrists and neck down to the ankles. The fur was filthy with winter mats and den soil, but after brushing and washing it, it would shine and become very soft.
Next, they cut open the abdominal muscles to expose the lower organs. The intestines, large and small, were laid out and examined. They were mostly empty, indicating that the bear had been out looking for food at the end of a long hibernation. Taika supposed it had wandered too far from its den, then was caught in a snowstorm and tried to wait it out by burrowing into a snow bank. Then the weather turned cold again, and it did not survive.
Hilja and Taika slowly removed and inspected all of the animal’s organs, including its enormous heart. Eventually, they took only the pelt.
Taika had said, “We only eat from a fresh kill. We do not have the same digestion as the wolves and carrion animals, and might become ill from it.”
Now Hilja was certain that this meat was as fresh as it could be. Collecting Pipa and Bo, she returned home as quickly as she could.
Hilja was grateful for the food. Though she had been craving meat for a few days, she did not like to kill. She felt better that the animal’s life would not go to waste. After her, the wolves would leave very little for the crows.
She collected some wood outside and stoked the tiny fire in her hut. As it crackled and grew, she salted the liver and kidneys. Then she cut the kidneys open with a small slit on one end and stuffed them full of dried chanterelles and cranberries collected last Summer. She added in a bit of rendered seal fat, as the organs were very lean.
Once the fire grew up and burned down again, she spitted the kidneys on a sharpened stick and cooked them over the coals. She sat cross-legged on Taika’s former perch, still draped with the black bear pelt. Turning the stick continuously, Hilja roasted them for ten minutes, all the while meditating on the life, habits, and habitat of the animal. As she cooked, she offered a prayer to Mielikki in gratitude.
Pipa and Bo flitted about in the bent stick rafters of the hut chirping and whistling enthusiastically as Hilja took her meal from the fire and set it aside to cool on a flat stone. Then she put a few cedar sticks on the coals to purge the air in the hut of the smell of roasting meat.
As she inhaled the sweet cedar aroma, Hilja made a plan to fetch the hunters tomorrow, bring them to the hut, and cook the liver for them. This time, she would cook it outside, over birch coals.
Unable to wait any longer, Hilja took up the stick and ate both kidneys with their stuffing. Afterwards, a sense of fullness and comfort finally replaced the hollow, sad feeling left by her menstruation.
In the morning, Hilja awoke, shook out her pallet and rolled it up. She lifted the skirts of hut and swept out the dust and twigs. She loaded in enough firewood for the day, and then prepared a fire in the cooking pit outside.
Next, she went in and placed the deer’s liver in a wide wooden bowl. She added salt water, bitter wild carrot seeds, and wrapped it in mint, nettles, and comfrey leaves. She threw a little salt water over the green bundle, and covered the bowl with a sealskin. Then she went to the spring nearby and washed herself, shook out her clothes, and brushed her hair. She tied it up with a leather thong so it hung in a fat ponytail down her back.
Hilja waited until the tiny pool at the spring was still enough for her to see her reflection. Looking down at the water, she was pleased to see that she looked hale and rosy-cheeked, and maybe a little older. She was keenly aware that she was several years junior to Veli and Paavo, and she wanted them to take her seriously. However, she knew that at fourteen, she was barely an adult. Hilja wondered whether Paavo saw her as a child or as a woman, and hoped it was the latter.
She remembered his gold-flecked grey eyes and drifted into a pleasant reverie. Then she remembered where she had seen those eyes before. They were the eyes of the Laplander from her Underworld journey, the one who had urged her kidnapped people to cooperate and survive in the village of the giant devils. Hilja wondered whether this meant that Paavo would be captured by the Norsemen and forced to help them make the most of their slaves.
After a moment of panic, Hilja calmed herself. The man in her Underworld dream was not Paavo. He had looked similar, and had the same gold-flecked eyes, but it was not he.
Hilja put on her summer cloak made of soft deerskin, took up her new holly staff, and walked back to Kokolu. When she arrived at the edge of the forest, she could see that every hut and lodge of the village had been burned and leveled. As she walked through the strange remains of what had once been a thriving village, she saw a large pile of timbers in the center of the village, near where the Moon Lodge had stood.
The hunters from Haapolu had been busy during the last days. They had done much more than put Kokolu’s dead into the sea. They cleared and salvaged from the remains, and removed all evidence of struggle and death.
Hilja went to the top of the cliff overlooking the beach, and saw that the men had carried every boat save their own up the steep path, and begun to repair them. Looking down, she saw Veli and Paavo scattering a fire, and wrapping food in seaweed leaves. She could smell smoked fish.
“Haloo!” she called and waved from the top of the cliff. Veli and Paavo waved back, gathered a few belongings, and started up the path.
When they reached the top, Hilja could see that they were bathed and their clothes were washed. They looked tired, but well fed, and managed to smile when she greeted them.
“Good hunters of Haapolu, I thank you for the service you have done my village. It was a terrible task to put upon you, and yet you have done much more than what was needed. May the souls of Kokolu look on you with favor and help you on your paths.”
The men bowed their heads and nodded.
Veli said, “Hilja, we would like to show you something.”
He led her to the cave at the foot of the Black Rock where the village’s salt and dried meats were kept. Inside, Hilja could see that the shelves and niches of the cave were filled with tools and valuables that the men had collected while cleaning the village. Sacks half full of acorns, millet, dried fish, and salt sat high up, while ropes, cords, and thongs, and a huge assortment of bone tools sat closer to the floor.
On a wooden bench sat a number of good furs, and large pieces of cured hide, as well as a great number of fine garments made of deer and sealskin. A bowl of bone buttons, needles, and hooks sat next to the clothes. Several spears and harpoons stood in a corner, waiting to be used again.
A whale oil lamp sat in a deep niche in one wall, and Paavo took a minute to strike a spark into tinder and light it.
The niche was arranged with dozens of personal artifacts belonging to the former residents of Kokolu. A great number of carved animals and fishes made of bone, little totems, bracelets, hair ties, and children’s toys, had been arranged into an altar dedicated to the lost villagers.
Hilja fell to her knees; the great empty space in her breast suddenly full of fond memories of her village and the people who were stolen from it.
She knew that for the past few days she had been going through the motions of being Lady of the Wood, but with no purpose. Without people to serve and help, her station meant nothing. Now her memories of Kokolu and its faces flooded her until tears ran hot down her cheeks. Hilja knelt silently with these memories dripping from her chin for several minutes, while Veli led Paavo outside to wait for her.
Taking a deep breath, Hilja stood up, wiped her face, and left the cave. When she was outside, she bowed in turn to the men who had worked so hard to salvage the memories of Kokolu.
“Thank you. Thank you both.”
Veli stepped forward and once again wrapped the small woman in his arms.
“I am sorry for your loss, my child. The disappearance of so many is a great loss for our culture. Though Kokolu was far from Haapolu, it gave us comfort to know that others shared our way of life and our beliefs. Even so, the terrible things we have seen here have marked my memory. I would be happy never to set foot in this place again.”
“Now it is time for me to do a service for you,” said Hilja. “Follow me to the hut of the Lady of the Wood.”
In an hour, they came to where her hut stood in the center of an orderly camp. Hilja said to the men, “Please wait here a moment,” and went inside.
Using the shovel carved from a whale rib, she took a coal from the embers in the pit and stoked the fire with cedar boughs. She went outside, and lit the cooking fire with the ember, then bade her visitors to follow her to the peat swamp where she had laid Taika to rest.
“Good Hunters of Haapolu, Taika was the Lady of the Wood in this land for the length of her life, which was more than eighty winters. She was my teacher for the last seven years, but when the flames claimed her people, she went with them. Taika left her knowledge and station with me, and though I feel unworthy, I will do anything in my power to help you.”
The men exchanged surprised looks with one another, but said nothing as Hilja led them back to the hut and inside. She sat on the black bear skin, and put a tea of rose hips and mint to boil. She took a few dried mushrooms and a glob of fat and threw them in the pot as well.
When Paavo and Veli were seated across the fire from her, she said, “You have journeyed many days to seek the counsel of the Lady of the Wood. Now I am in your debt. What is it I can do for you?”
A long silence followed, in which Veli and Paavo exchanged glances, each unsure of whether he should speak.
Finally, Veli said, “We are from a long line of fishermen in Haapolu. My grandfathers’ ancestors were fishermen for a hundred generations, even before the Great Migration. I am the Chief Fisher of the village, and lead all of our expeditions. The forest is half a day’s walk from Haapolu, so we depend more on the sea than you must here. However…”
Here he looked over at Paavo, prompting him to continue. Paavo bowed his head, looking into the fire. His shoulders sagged. He spoke in a soft voice,
“I…do not seem to share my forefathers’ gift for fishing.”
Hilja waited for him to continue, but he did not. Being a substandard fisherman was not very good reason to seek out a Medicine Bearer. She guessed that he might have understated his case. Veli spoke up again,
“Though Paavo has been on a hundred fishing trips, and cast his net beside the others, he has never once caught a fish.”
Hilja could not contain her surprise, “Not one?”
“No. Not one. If he even touches a net being cast by someone else, it will come back empty, though all the others around it will be filled.”
“But that seems…”
“Impossible, yes. He’s known as ‘the cursed boy’ in Haapolu.”
Paavo sagged even lower, trying to disappear or sink into the floor. He could not lift his head to look at Hilja. She did not waste their time by asking the questions which first came to her. They had obviously tried everything they could think of to change Paavo’s strange fate before coming to seek her counsel. So, she did what Taika usually did when someone came to her with a puzzle.
“Let us sit and think about this a while,” she said. Then she poured the tea into three clay cups. Pipa and Bo descended from their perches in the rafters to sit on Hilja’s shoulder. She ignored their idle comments about the visitors, and eventually shooed them off, as their busy chatter distracted her from her work.
When they’d emptied their cups, Hilja said, “Paavo, will you stoke the cooking fire outside? Use the birch branches I left there. We will prepare a meal in a while.”
Paavo looked up sheepishly, an expression of relief on his face.
“Yes, Lady.” He stood up and left the hut. Hilja had a few more questions for Veli,
“Haapolu must have a Medicine Bearer. What did she say when you asked her?”
Veli looked into the bottom of his cup before setting it down.
“That is an interesting brew, Hilja. In Haapolu, we have no Wise Woman, but rather the Wizard of the Wind. He is a hermit who lives out in the waves, in a cave on an island.
“When children in Haapolu are seven, they are brought to him. They stay there until the Wizard has a vision about the child’s future. This sometimes takes two or three days. Then he lights a signal fire, and the child is collected by its father. They are given some kind of instruction on what path in life to follow, or sometimes whom they will marry. Children are also given a secret name, known only to them.
“When I left Paavo with the Wizard, it was seven days before the Wizard lit the signal fire for me to retrieve him. He said only, ‘this child has a path that I am unable to see. That he is special is certain, but even his Name is unknown to me. When the boy is fourteen, bring him to me again.’
“Last year we returned to the Wizard, and by then we already knew that Paavo was cursed. I told the Wizard that he was unable to catch a fish, and again he kept Paavo for seven days. When I went to collect him, the Wizard said, ‘His path is still secret to me, but a night will come during a Dark Moon that a red spear will pierce the sky. When this happens, follow the spear to Kokolu and see the Lady of the Wood. She will make his path known.’
“Hilja, we waited a year before the Dark Moon brought this vision in the sky. It was a night of amazing colors, which shimmered in curtains across the heavens. Then a dark red spear appeared, pointing west, and we knew the time had come. The next day, we began our journey here.
“Paavo has had no good fortune. No one wants him to go on fishing trips, and he is of no help when he does go. No maiden in Haapolu could marry him, as he is unable to provide for her. My son has no Name, and no future. We hope the Wizard spoke truly and that you can help him find his path and remove his curse.”
In the silence that followed, Veli took the mushroom from his cup and examined it, turning it in his fingers.
Hilja said, “The tea may give us visions, but do not be afraid. I will meditate a while here. Please go outside and cook this over the fire.” She removed the bundled liver from under the sealskin and handed it to Veli, who took it outside.
Sighing deeply, Hilja tried to clear her thoughts from her mind. She was concerned that if Haapolu’s Wizard of the Wind could not intuit Paavo’s path, then she would have no hope. But then why would he have sent them here? And what red spear had pierced the sky? Could it be the same one she had seen in Tuonela?
She counted back the days, trying to figure out when Veli and Paavo began their journey to Kokolu. Then the answer came to her like the sun penetrating a thick grey mist. The moon had last been dark on Beltane, when she was journeying in the Underworld.
It had been not long after that she had seen the man with the gold-flecked eyes in the devils’ village. She could not help but think there was a connection between these events.
Once again, Hilja tried to empty her mind, but this revelation of the spear in the sky and its effect on the Underworld was too distracting. Over and over, Hilja kept seeing the face of the man with eyes like Paavo’s, and she wondered who he was.
The smell of cooking meat made her stomach growl. She began to get the strange, layered feeling that the psilocybin mushrooms could impart, but had not yet found the focus to channel that energy into a vision.
Hilja stood up and joined the men outside. They were seated around the cooking fire, taking turns rolling the leaf-wrapped bundle over the coals. They leaned in to take in the smell of the seared leaves and cooking liver.
Paavo blushed again when he saw Hilja approach. Veli asked, “Hilja, where did you get this meat? Do you hunt the deer?”
Hilja sat beside the men, and said, “No, the deer are my friends, and I would only hunt them out of dire need. A wolverine killed this animal yesterday, and I took the meat from him.”
The hunters’ eyebrows shot upwards and they exchanged a surprised look. Then they turned their wide eyes once more to Hilja. It seemed Veli was about to speak again, but he could not find the words. Hilja could have said more, but decided against it.
She noticed that the pupils of their eyes were beginning to dilate, though it was noon and the sky was bright.
“Let us eat inside,” she said, and scooping the bundle into her wooden bowl, she led them back to the hut. Taking out her knife, she parted the liver into three, and gave them each a serving, which they ate with carved rib bone spoons.
By the time she finished the repast, Hilja felt the mushrooms were having their full effect. Paavo swayed in his seat and said,
“I do not feel quite well.”
“The tea will give us visions. Try to relax and empty your mind. Let’s be still for a time.” She hoped that the dose had been small enough that the men would not be ill and throw up their meal.
Hilja began to sing a simple repetitive melody, and chanted it for several minutes. Her song seemed to shimmer and solidify in the air, as if made of crystal. The dim light in the hut turned in to a pulsing, living thing. She clearly saw the currents of energy crossing between the three bodies in the hut, and then outwards, upwards, and downwards beyond her view.
Paavo lay down on the floor of the hut, but Veli stayed seated, closing his eyes. From time to time, he looked at Hilja and his son, and closed them again. Hilja stopped her song and placed a fresh cedar bough on the fire, inhaling the white and blue smoke as it rose up to her face. She looked at Paavo again, and then closed her eyes, trying to visualize him in the future, as a grown man. She tried to see him in Haapolu…
And there he was, an old man, with a thin white beard draped from his chin. His beautiful eyes glinted with mischief amongst wrinkles and crow’s feet under long white eyebrows.
He stood over a circle of people seated around a fire, holding a shaman’s staff topped with strange antlers from an animal she did not know. He sang the ancient poems of her tribe in a strong voice, retelling the saga of the recovery of the mythical Sampo, the symbol of her people’s divine heritage.
In her vision, Paavo ended his narrative, and a youngster from the circle asked him, “Grandfather, what became of the Sampo? Where is it now?”
Paavo-the-Elder looked at the child and smiled kindly,
“No one has seen the Sampo in a hundred generations, and no one knows what it looks like. Even so, I believe it to be very close by, even perhaps under your hat!”
Everyone around the fire laughed while the child took off his hat and felt on top of his head. Hilja caught a glimpse of the Black Rock in the background, then the vision faded, and Hilja returned to her hut.
She stayed quiet for a long time, trying to understand what she could from her vision of Paavo as a Medicine Man. At least he would live to an old age, and have the respect of his tribe. But where would he get his training? Who would teach him the Verses? She did not believe it would be the Wizard of the Wind, as the staff he bore was the totem of a forest dweller. Certainly, near Haapolu, there would be another Medicine Bearer.
Then doubt crept into her heart, and Hilja wondered whether she had seen a true vision, or one that she had dreamed up to satisfy herself. She still had no idea why Paavo would be cursed to catch no fish. It would be one thing if he simply had poor luck, but to have caught not one fish…this indicated some supernatural intervention. Perhaps if Paavo had any luck at all in fishing, he might not pursue the path of the Shaman, but follow in his fathers’ footsteps.
This seemed like a very plausible explanation, but one thing was missing from the equation; if supernatural intervention was the likeliest reason for Paavo’s impossibly bad luck at fishing, then what was the motivation for such intervention?
Perhaps in this world, where Giants from distant lands kidnapped her people and destroyed whole villages, Chief Fisherman was not the most important role to which Paavo could aspire.
Hilja knew she was treading toward sea ice, and vowed not to use her influence on these men in any way. She must let Paavo find his own way to the future she had seen. Standing up, she took a water skin and walked to the spring. It was late afternoon, and she wondered where the day had gone. Her vision still shimmered with the layers of perception the mushrooms had imparted, but the effect was wearing off. She would make a chaga fungus tea to help the men recover from the effects of the psilocybin.
Bringing the fresh water inside the hut, Hilja rinsed and filled the clay pot, then put it on the coals to boil. From one of the many woven grass baskets on the shelves, she took a woody clump of dark brown fungus, and slipped it into the pot.
Veli had his eyes half open as she did this, and murmured, “I don’t know whether I should drink your mushroom tea again, Hilja. Our village never uses mushrooms because we have lost the lore. I feel a little queasy from the last one.”
“As do I,” added Paavo from the floor.
“Then you would do well to drink this when it is ready. The first one helps you see visions, but can make you feel ill. This one will bring you back to yourself and settle your stomach. Did either of you have visions from the tea?”
Veli looked up and opened his eyes wide.
“Yes, yes I did. I saw myself leading a work party in Kokolu. We were raising the timbers for a hunting lodge. Great fish and whales were breaching in the ocean below the cliffs.”
“That is a fine vision,” said Hilja. “I hope it will come to pass.”
Paavo sat up, and spoke in a soft voice,
“I too had a vision, but I do not know what to make of it. I was running through the forest, but it was not like this forest, the trees were strange, and huge. I was chasing some kind of antelope. It was like a deer, but smaller, faster, with sharp points on its horns. We were chasing this way and that, running very fast. I thought I was hunting them, but suddenly I realized I was one of them. I know that sounds strange…” He trailed off, looking away.
“No, not at all,” urged Hilja. “Visions can be of anything at all, even the impossible. Paavo, sit up and look at me.” Hilja’s voice had a tone of authority. “You are not cursed. You are being driven to another path.”
Paavo sat up and said, “But what is that to be?”
“I have had a vision about that. After we have drunk chaga and feel better, I will tell you what I saw.”
The three were silent until they had each downed two cups of the brown tea. The chaga was pleasant tasting, a bit like toasted barley tea, and seemed to chase away the fogginess in their minds. Then Hilja spoke again,
“Paavo, I saw you as an old man. You were a Medicine Bearer, and you were singing the Verses to your tribe. You had a staff which had the horns of an antelope, and you were…” Hilja paused, and a tear of compassion rolled down her cheek, as she realized that Paavo had a tribe to return to, that he would return to. With an effort she continued, “…loved by your tribe.”
Veli’s eyes were wide.
“Of course! I mean, we knew that he was cursed as a fisherman, but we did not know what to do with him.”
“Veli, you must take Paavo back to Haapolu and seek out a Medicine Bearer to take him on. There should be one in the forest or mountains near your village.” Hilja did not think that their Wizard of the Wind was the right mentor for Paavo, and if the Wizard had thought so, he would have said so.
Paavo looked at Hilja oddly, seeming a little disappointed.
Veli said, “We do not know who that would be, but we can ask at the next village, at the edge of the forest.
“Hilja, will you not return with us, and sing the Verses to our people? We have need of you in Haapolu.”
Hilja poured another round of the brown tea and waited a long time before she spoke. She had already made up her mind, but she waited so that Veli would believe that she had given his offer due consideration. She liked him, and did not wish to hurt his feelings.
“Veli, Paavo, during my vision quest, I saw the path to my future. I must travel to the land of the Giants and find my people. I went there in the Underworld vision and saw them. I know they are alive, and I must try to bring them back home.”
A long silence followed, and the three sat and drank tea again.
Paavo stood up, saying, “Excuse me a minute.”
Veli followed his son out a few breaths later. He said, “The tea is really very good.”
Hilja remained silent, sitting with her mug. Pipa and Bo dropped down from the rafters and sat on her shoulders. Soon she heard the sound of the men’s voices, a short distance off. She could hear them urinating on the ground. They were arguing and becoming upset with one another, she could not hear their words.
Hilja imagined what it would be like to have Pipa hop over to their conversation and listen through her ears. She knew that Taika had done this often to keep an eye on the welfare of the village.
No sooner had she thought this than Pipa jumped down and hopped outside. Bo stayed seated, but whistled with enthusiasm. Hilja closed her eyes, and saw Pipa’s approach through her own tiny black orbs. She hopped a little closer, and then pecked at the ground a bit. Now Hilja could clearly hear the men speak. Veli’s voice was hushed, but angry.
“Then I will return to Haapolu and build a funeral marker dedicated to the both of you!”
“Father, I believe in Hilja’s vision. If it is true, then I will live to be an old man. And better I should return home after a long journey, than come home now, still unable to marry.”
“Then I will go with you. You are too young to undertake such a venture on your own.” Veli was practically pleading now.
“No, Father, you have to go back to Haapolu, and tell the village about the plight of Kokolu. You must prepare them for the Giants, and set lookouts. And you must train my little brother to be the Chief Fisher of Haapolu.”
“And what if the Lady of the Wood does not wish your company?”
“I will not give her the choice. Either Hilja will return to Haapolu with us, or I will dog her all the way to the Land of the Giants.”
Veli smiled. “I was hoping you would say that.”
Me too, thought Hilja to herself.
Hilja wished for Pipa to return, and she hopped back to the hut and up into the rafters. Soon Veli and Paavo returned to the hut as well and retook their seats.
Paavo sat up straight, took a deep breath, and said, “Lady of the Wood, I do not mean to be ungrateful for your advice, but I cannot follow it. I believe in the vision you have had, and I know it can only mean one thing.”
Hilja held up her hand to stop him. She smiled at Veli, then Paavo.
“Paavo, if you are coming with me to find the survivors of Kokolu, there are going to be some conditions…”