Aldar was awoken by a howl. The periodic, undulating yelps preceding its onset only managed to slightly stir the deckhand, but it was the sharp apex of a clear wolven call that made his heart skip a beat and had him sitting straight up, alone in his tent. Aldar could see two long ribbons of warm autumnal light on either side of the bear hide he used as a makeshift door to his humble quarters. Drawing back the fur, he focused on the top of the nearest listening post for any signs of activity.
There was nothing but the whispers of the air and the crackle of fire in his ears as he looked toward the darkened and overcast sky above him. Restlessly, Aldar noticed himself wringing the edge of the bearskin flap. Looking up to the night sky, he could judge from the position of the full moon, its emanations still visible even through the clouds, that it was somewhere near Ótta – that time of night just before daybreak, where the night would be most frightening and dangerous.
“You had best return to ground, bondsman.”, said Birger, tersely. “I can see your pale flesh through the fire’s light, you fool.”
Aldar ignored the goði’s order, and walked towards the sentry fire in an act of feigned ignorance. Although Aldar was not a free man, he wouldn’t be on the island of Gammal for much longer. He was to be released from his bonds soon, exiled from Norstead, and from the continent. A few scant hours, and he would soon be rid of minding sails, soon be rid of wood splintered hands, and free from the dreaded sea-sickness that comes from scrubbing decks in the Norstead Strait as a serf.
In the meantime, he had Birger to worry about. Once he was free, he would have warmth to worry about. The Jarl had made a special provision to his punishment. That he would be without possession save the rags, pelts and ramshackle tent that had degraded in the biting winds.
The sentry fire was a welcome comfort, and Aldar was looking for any excuse he could find to be near its glow. With the hope of freedom fresh in his mind, he slowly unfastened the top edge of the bearskin, and rose out of his pelts to make his way towards the fire.
Aldar searched his mind for just the right combination of words to play the part of a fool. “I couldn’t hear you from that distance, did you mention something — master?”, Aldar said, keeping the utterance of “master” just under his breath. While he was still obliged to Birger, each repetition left a sour taste in his mouth.
“I said return to ground, tomorrow’s journey is a long one – or didn’t you hear, bondsman? You’re set to be delivered to The Frozen Path. A most fitting punishment for our most heinous of traitors.”
A dull, deep pain hit Aldar in the pit of his stomach. He would surely die to the frozen winds, if not to the packs of dire-wolves fabled in the folktales of his youth. Aldar’s steely resolve did not waver despite this death sentence meted him, on what was supposed to be his release from servitude.
Aldar longed for nothing more than to rip into Birger’s throat, to explode in a rage, to be a flurry of fists, of flying feet. While his mind screamed, he maintained a semblance of self control that revealed only glimpses of his inner tempest; reddening eyes, ever-so-slightly tottering neck, and sweat on his brow were the signposts. Signals to the brother of Jarl Arnvid that perhaps there was fight still left in this prisoner.
“How long do you think you can keep people fooled?”, Aldar managed to reply, forming his mouth into a crooked smirk, mocking his captor.. He continued, “The sole survivor of the ǫlðr ceremony at Braithwaite…”
“You made an attempt at not only the life of another Jarl, but the brother of your own?”, Birger snorted with derision.
For a moment Aldar paused, forcing himself to stare directly into Birger’s look of sycophantic contempt. It motivated him to fight back and to refuse the defeat of his coming execution. He knew a way out of this situation existed, and it was clearly to stick to the offensive.
“You did it, Birger, we witnessed the whole thing.”, Aldar took his time with his words, slowing them with intentional emphasis, making each syllable count as a blow against Birger’s ego.
No one will ever believe a bondsman.
What proof do you have?
“We have eyes from above.” Aldar crooked his head, back to the night sky now even closer to daybreak. He closed his eyes and hoped for the good favour of Odin. A moment passed, and Aldar was looking a fool, until an entire murder of crows erupted from distant trees. The thick blanket of black wings quickly dispersed, not before the beaks of a hundred crows opened in one culminating cry, one booming crow so loud it travelled across the barren heath towards and through Norstead, buffeting both Aldar and Birger with an unnatural force.
The commotion of the crows was so intensely loud that other townsfolk had begun to poke their heads out of their homes – one by one, the murmurs travelled around Norstead that something was happening – until a small gathering began to amass around both Viking men. The town folk were eager for the chance to witness the special brand of pugilism that only Birger was known for.
“Fear not my people, good timing, a trick and nothing more.” said Birger, circling Aldar, employing the same air of superiority he always did when holding the attention of loyal subjects. The people of Norstead were loyal, but Aldar thought, to their own detriment. Now with an audience, the Jarl’s brother would continue to lie without hesitation. A civil court of sorts was now in full session.
“He cannot control the crows and he cannot speak to any gods”, laughed Birger. “That was the job of the so-called Seer, Hrafn.”
The sound of jeers, hisses, and boos filled the air immediately after the mention of Hrafn. Two guards emerged from the sea of townsfolk to the clearing, flanking Birger for added protection and placing a hand on their weapons.
Birger continued, “The very same man who poisoned the mead of Braithwaite, corrupting the village, condemning our kinsmen to wander for eternity.” Birger then motioned for the two guards to apprehend Aldar, each grabbing hold of one arm. Aldar struggled to stay in place, and to provide rebuttal, even though his former friends and family were now shouting for swift justice upon him.
“Any last words, Aldar?” snickered Birger, as his brutes pulled Aldar up by his shoulders, each soldier furrowing their brows and breathing heavily with the effort to keep the younger man under their control. “Before we hurry your exile, and remove you from my brother’s island.”
Aldar stood still, his captors briefly relinquished their tight grasp of his arms as if to show restraint, to allow him to speak. Surveying his surroundings, Aldar took in the crowd that still surrounded them both. Mutters of threats and all manner of vile gestures continued like arrows pointed at him. Innocent or not, he would not get out of this situation alive unless he had something – anything – convincing.
Aldar seized his chance and boomed out, “The Seer granted me sight, through the eyes of the great raven. I witnessed our revered Birger dropping a vial in Braithwaite’s meadkanne.”
Upon hearing this, Birger’s fist met Aldar’s stomach. While Aldar reeled back, disoriented, Birger made no hesitation to thrust his elbow around Aldar’s neck, positioning himself behind the deckhand in a perfect headlock. “And where is this Seer now? If he’s not guilty, why can’t he stand before the judgement of my people!?”, Birger bellowed with fervour, fury forming at the edges of his mouth.
“He caused the curse in the woods!”, shouted a villager “The Seer betrayed us, he betrayed the Jarl!”, shouted another, Birger’s wrath beating in their hearts.
Birger leaned in towards Aldar’s ear, whispering silkily, “You will soon die, a cold, lonely death. Who knows, maybe you’ll run into your little magician friend out there.”
Aldar managed to spit on Birger’s worn breastplate as a final act of rebellion. This was met with both guards on either side, pulling his arms away from his body until he was held helplessly in front of Birger’s speeding fist, landing dead center into his forehead.
“Guards! – Drag him to the pier. Let’s see this traitor off to The Frozen Path – we sail soon,” Was all that filled Aldar’s ears as his vision blurred and slowly faded to black.
Murky visions began to manifest in the void, eerie green shapes twirled before his eyes – a mixture of kaleidoscopic patterns that seemed to repeat infinitely. The patterns continued to grow in complexity until they spun together to form a glowing firmament. Pulsing green, Aldar observed the firmament emitting light in the form of a solid pane.
The surface shook, revealing the entrance of Braithwaite. Overgrown with cobwebs and thick weeds, the neighbouring village to the south of the island had become dilapidated and unnaturally corrupted. Corrupted in spirit and in soil, for the victims of Birger’s poison were unable to pass on to Helheim, and forced to roam the village in their dismay.
Just before the break in the woods, a single raven landed on a stone before Aldar, beckoning him to enter the woods. “I won’t let you down Hrafn.”, Aldar said to himself.