The son of the Pope
May 1st, 1003, The Witch’s Teats, Vestfold, Norway
Hekka, the Witch of Vestfold, dipped the long bronze-bladed knife into the boiling cauldron and held it there for a minute. She exhaled slowly trying to calm her nerves. Though she would not trade places with any other woman in Norway, there were times when the duties of her station were heavy to bear.
Hekka was called upon as an oracle, to scry or pry into the future or past. She was an alchemist, able to brew potions for love, potency, courage, or their opposites. She was a healer and poisoner, able to cast both blessings and curses. And she was a mother as well as midwife. Surgery was not near the top of her occupational preferences.
Norway’s ranking Seiðr Woman had birthed over two hundred infants, with a survival rate that recommended her as one of the ablest midwives in the South. She was also the mother of four of her own, including a three-month-old boy, still in swaddling.
All her experience told her that this would be a very risky birth. Even at her daughters’ behests, she’d refused to consult the runes on her patient’s behalf. If the runes foretold tragedy, there would be no way to hide the outcome from the overly intuitive young woman.
Indeed, at age fifteen Hilja already had enough experience as a healer to know the risks she faced. As precocious as Hilja was in mind and spirit, she was still little more than a girl in body, and a small one at that. This would not be the first time that her stature put her at a disadvantage.
It had been twenty-two hours since her water had broken, and she still had not uttered one sound to express discomfort. This was most unnerving, as Hekka relied on the normal cries and groans of childbirth to cue her movements as Midwife.
Hekka herself had roared like a lioness during each of her children’s births. That noise had helped her through the delivery and greeted each of her young to this world. She thought it possible that some of the respect that her daughters afforded her originated in the primal utterances they’d heard when they first arrived.
This infant had been stuck for hours now, and no progress seemed possible without intervention. One hour ago, when a cold sweat covered the exhausted Laplander, she looked up at Hekka and said,
“Do whatever you must to save this child. His name is Ulli. Tell him that his father is Paavo of Haapolu.”
“You will tell him yourself,” rasped the Witch, “Helga, fetch the clove paste, Vexi, put this knife to the strop.”
The Witch’s older daughter nodded, wide-eyed, and obeyed. The clove paste was made from the most expensive ingredients at the imports shop in Tønsberg. It was only used for surgery, and only if the Witch was in a charitable mood.
She brought the small clay pot to the bed of sheepskins where Hilja lay, attended by Vexi and Impala, the Witch’s younger girls. Vexi took the primitive bronze knife and freshened its edge with a smooth stone before pulling it just twice across a leather strop. While she was busy with that, the Witch of Vestfold took a palmful of the ochre ointment from the pot and applied it to the painfully swollen and stretched pudendum of her patient. Hilja’s nose twitched at the scent of the clove oil,
“Is that needed?” she gasped.
“At least it will make me feel better,” replied the Witch as the numbing analgesic began to take effect.
“I don’t…want to miss any part of this,” insisted Hilja.
“You have lived in this cave for the better part of eight months, girl, and that is the first foolish thing you have said in all this time. You impress me, and that does not happen easily. But you have done everything you can, and now you must let me do my work. Do you trust me?”
“Then let’s get this baby out of you.”
Hilja saw the knife glitter in the candlelight and realized she was right. She sent her mind away, outside the cave to where her wrens were playing in the trees atop the hillock that covered their primitive cave home. She saw the sun glittering off the river, and a few clouds in the mostly blue sky. It was just getting warm enough for flying insects, and her wren familiars Pipa and Bo were feeding greedily.
She thought briefly of the surgery she had performed on Axius, one of Thorkell’s warriors. He had withstood the pain silently while she had whittled away the infected bone on his eye socket.
She tried to be as brave as he, but suddenly a red spear seemed to pierce her very core before she popped like a huge jewelweed seedpod. She cried out once,
“Aaaah!” before everything went black.
Many children of Lapland are born to the sound of singing. Women in attendance chant sacred verses to properly greet the newest member of their tribe with the ancient songs of their race. Things would be different for this boy.
Assisted by the smallest flick of a sharp bronze blade, the son of Lapland’s Lady of the Wood slid into the world to find himself in a foreign country, covered in his mother’s blood, and surrounded by Giants. The same knife that had allowed him access to this world also inadvertently scratched into his tiny brow a jagged mark that would become a persistent scar. The next cut would sever the still-pulsing umbilical cord connecting him to his mother. Vexi’s voice was plaintive,
“She said that his father’s name was Paavo!”
“Well we can’t very well call him ‘Ulli Pavesson,’ can we?” retorted Hekka, “lest everyone thinks she got this babe from lying with the Pope.”
“He can’t help it if his father’s name sounds like the Pope, but it doesn’t sound quite right,” said Helga, “how about ‘Ulli Lappison?’ That will explain why he is so small; then no one will have to ask.”
The Witch nodded, “That is not bad. It will do for now, until his mother wakes up. Helga, run outside and fill the small basket with horsetail, hurry! Vexi, hold this babe carefully and wipe him off with that rag.”
“Mama?” called Impala. The four year old still mostly spoke in monosyllables, but she communicated very clearly with her tone. Hekka looked at her youngest girl who was stroking Hilja’s head in her lap.
She smiled and said, “You, my little Imp, have the most important task of all: you must keep our friend with us and tell her what a beautiful boy she has birthed.”
Impala looked down at her friend’s face, almost peaceful in repose, and shook her head,
“No, Darling Girl. Hilja walks a narrow path between life and death. Tell her about her child so she will wish to live.” Hekka busied herself with staunching the flow of blood from the incision she’d made. She hoped Helga would return quickly with horsetail. The strange fernlike plant was very astringent and could stop the most serious bleeding. The small whitish shoots should be emerging from the ground this week. Her thoughts were interrupted by the first complete sentence that Impala had ever uttered,
“Your baby is a boy. A nice, handsome boy. Look at him, Hilja. Very nice…”
A few tears welled up in her one eye as Hekka said,
“That’s right, Impala, keep talking to her.” The Witch swallowed a big lump in her throat and continued, “She’ll follow your voice back to us.”
Soon little Ulli began to cry the weak and whimpering mews of a newborn. His voice woke little Thorsson Bjørn who was sleeping nearby.
“Vexi, hand me that baby, then bring your brother over here as well. Hello Little Man. I’m sure your mother would like to do this, but she is indisposed right now. Take this, and grow to be a big strong boy.” She placed Ulli’s tiny face against her breast, but he would not root for the nipple. Vexi handed her little brother over as well, and Thorsson Bjørn began to drink in great gulps from the other breast. Eyes wide, the four month old reached out to touch the cheek of the newborn next to him. Little Ulli stopped crying and rooted his mouth around to where Hekka’s nipple poked his cheek.
“Thank you, Vexi. Now, hold this poultice in place for a while to stop the bleeding.”
“Mama, this looks bad.”
“I know Sweetie.”
“Can you stitch her up?”
“We can’t risk the stitches getting infected in there. We’ll wait for it to close on its own.”
“Ow. Why did you have to cut her?”
“Sometimes the baby is too big or the mother too small to make birthing easy. She is not only small, but also very young to deliver a child. The first one is always the hardest, and this little man has a big head.”
Some time went by while they listened to Impala’s voice trying to coax Hilja to consciousness. Finally, little Ulli Lappison latched on and started to drink the strange thick milk of the Giants.
“Will she live?” asked Vexi in a quiet voice.
“I don’t know,” admitted the Witch. Her head tipped back and her one eyelid quivered, “but I can tell you that her child will.”
“I don’t think I will ever have a baby,” added Vexi, peeking once again under the poultice and wincing.
“You may feel differently when you are old enough to fall in love. The pain of childbirth lasts only a few days, but the joys of motherhood are…” here Hekka paused, eyelid still fluttering, “…many.”
Hilja’s pain was to last much more than a few days. Weak from loss of blood, she would only regain consciousness after another journey through Tuonela…
It had been exactly one year since she her first journey to the Underworld. That time, she swallowed a poisonous medicine bundle to send her spirit between the worlds to gain the blessing of a medicine animal. This time she found herself drifting in a dark void. Hilja floated in silence and saw nothing but blackness.
Slowly sounds began to beckon at her consciousness. It was not the coarse voice of the Witch or the crying of the newborn babe that she longed for. Instead, the lapping of water, the distant laughing of a crow, and the gruff voices of Giants told her that she was no longer in the Witch’s cave. She felt the familiar rocking of a wooden boat on the sea and slowly opened her eyes.
There were the silver-grey clouds and colorless, sunless sky of Tuonela. Hilja was seated at the bow of a long dragon ship. The carved figurehead with its narrow eyes and cruel teeth looked familiar to her, but she could not quite place it. Across from her on the narrow bow sat another Laplander, and Hilja recognized Marja, her mother’s friend from Kokolu. She felt someone stirring next to her, and turned her head to see her young sister Kimja clinging to her arm. Kimja looked the same as the day she was taken from Kokolu’s beach, a tiny toddler of two years.
“Mama, where are they taking us? I’m afraid.” Now she recognized the dragon ship, and Kimja’s voice told her that this was the day she was kidnapped by Giants, and she was reliving that terror through her mother’s eyes.
“They are taking us to the Land of the Giants. I am afraid too, but be brave, at least we are together.”
Hilja looked down the length of the wooden boat and saw many armored Giants at the oars. On her first trip to Tuonela, the Giants had appeared as devils, with flaming red eyes and horns on their heads. They rode a giant serpent over the sea instead of a boat.
These Giants looked like the Norsemen, sailing a ship and wearing metal helmets. She wondered if she was dreaming instead of journeying in Tuonela, and whether there was a difference between the two.
Two of the Giants came up to the bow and Hilja recognized the face of Thorsson Hund. He looked younger than before, healthier. He wore a cruel sneer, and he spoke to the other Giant in amused tones,
“I knew the Laplanders would be small, but at least they did not put up any kind of fight.”
“I have to wonder what kind of price they will fetch at market,” said the other. “That one has a pretty face, but she’s no bigger than a child. Of what use could such small people be?”
“Let’s take a closer look, and find out,” said Thorsson Hund. He reached down to where Marja sat and yanked her to her feet. She was not even as tall as his shoulder. Kimja buried her face in her mother’s arms and started to cry. Hilja watched as the Giants ripped the cloak from Marja’s shoulders exposing her doeskin undershirt. She threw her arms across her chest to cover herself from their greedy eyes, but Thorsson’s companion took both her wrists in one huge paw and held them behind her back.
Hilja was outraged, and shouted,
“What kind of coward would treat a woman like that? Have you no honor?” Though the Giants did not understand her words, her tone was clear enough. Thorsson drew a huge knife from his belt and shot Hilja an evil look.
“Shut your mouth you stupid seal!” Then he reached forth with the knife and cut Marja’s shirt right down the front, exposing her to their view.
Hilja shouted, “You are dead! I have already killed you, Thorsson Hund, and would do it twice again!”
Marja looked over in surprise, just in time to see the Giant knock her friend senseless with a blow from his great fist.
Once again, Hilja drifted in a black void, glad to be free from witnessing that scene. She had no illusions about the abuse Marja had suffered at the hands of Thorsson Hund, but she did not wish to watch it.
The next time she opened her eyes, the dragon boat was coming ashore on the familiar beach of Bjarkøya. Her face throbbed and was so badly swollen that she could only see out of one eye. Kimja clung to her, but now said nothing. The two-year-old just stared wide-eyed into space, as if blind.
Longhaired warriors lifted them off the boat and down to the beach, where some Giant women took Marja away. She did not resist them, but looked at the ground as she was led up the hill to the Giants’ village.
Another female looked at little Kimja and her bruised mother and shook her head. She called out to Thorsson Hund, who was busy unloading empty water barrels from his ship,
“For Freya’s sake, Thorsson, what did that poor little thing do to earn a beating like that?”
Thorsson looked down at his wife, shrugged and said, ”She looked at me the wrong way.”
“Then I’d better get back to the house before I do the same,” she replied, spinning on her heel and marching off.
“And so the returning warriors are greeted by their loving families,” said Thorsson Hund.
One of his companions put his hand on the Thorsson’s shoulder and said, “Bjarkøy women are tougher than the rocks.”
“And colder,” replied Thorsson. They shared a laugh then he gestured to Kimja and her Mother, “Take this one and her pup with the others to market. They’ll fetch ten silvers in Trondheim and twenty in Greenland.”
“Maybe more if her face heals by then. Do you think they will make good workers?”
“That other one has some potential as a house slave, but we will see. They are used to cold weather. If there is a market for them in Greenland, we can go back with more boats and sack the village.”
“It was an awfully long voyage for such small slaves.”
“Then we will take a lot of them to make up the difference.” Thorsson Hund laughed at his own joke, but Hilja knew the time would come when they would make that return trip to Kokolu.
One of the tall, stern-looking females handed her a water skin,
“Here, drink. You must drink if you want to live!” Hilja stood there, clutching little Kimja, unable to move. She was aware that she felt dreadfully thirsty, but she could not reach for the water skin. A thick mist rolled in from the water and enshrouded the scene. Even as Bjarkøya and the Giants faded away, she heard those words again,
“You must drink if you want to live! Do you not want to see your baby?”
Hilja struggled to open her eyes. Suddenly she was choking and sputtering, coughing up water. A jagged shooting pain in her loins accompanied her coughs. That brought Hilja back, and she opened her eyes wide,
The cave was dark. A few candles burned nearby, and Hekka knelt next to her holding a water skin. Impala sat behind her dabbing her forehead with a cloth. Her skin was hot to the touch and damp with sweat. Hilja took the water skin and drank until it was empty. Gasping, she asked,
“Where’s my baby?”
“Helga, bring the wee lad over here. There you go, take a look at Ulli Lappison.” Hilja took her tiny tan infant in her arms and the world seemed to stop spinning.
He was asleep, little almond-shaped eyes closed, but when Hilja spoke his name,
“Ulli Paavosson,” those tiny eyes opened, and Hilja saw the grey irises flecked with gold sparkling in the dim light. They were the eyes of his father, and Hilja began to cry at the thought of Paavo missing this moment. She said his name again, “Ulli Paavosson, what kind of world have you been born into?”
Nearby, Vexi and Helga started laughing.
“Maybe she did sleep with the Pope!” said Vexi, and the girls laughed again. Hilja was confused,
“I don’t understand.”
“In our language, ‘Pave’ means ‘Pope.’”
“Oh. I guess that is funny. That is why you called him Lappisson?”
“Just until you decide otherwise.”
“That is not bad. Why will he not take my nipple?”
“He’s probably full,” said the Witch. “Your milk did not come in. We were afraid to let him nurse while you were weak from loss of blood and I have had to feed him.”
“Thank you. How long have I been asleep?”
“Three days,” said the Witch. Hilja looked down at Ulli, who had closed his eyes again. He looked well, but there was that jagged gash on his forehead.
“I have to pee.”
Hekka furrowed her brow, drew a long breath and said,
“You are going to have to be very brave.”