A Parting of Body and Soul and the Search for the Lost.
Dunstan did not feel well after the night’s sleep. Hereweard had told him his soul had been stolen but Dunstan said he could not accept this was true. He had interpreted the constant growling noises he was making as anger at all the people who had annoyed his family and the injustices that had been visited upon them. His list of people that he intended to make pay was increasing and now included the Bretwalda Aelle, the Atheling Cissa, Guthmaer Sleddeson and Griswold Frithowulfson, both of whom ran the slave market in Cissa Cæster, the Atheling Wlencing and his wife Ealhwyn Hrofsdotter. When Uthric asked him if Beorthric and Winfrith were on the list Dunstan said that they were already dead and they did not matter. Uthric was puzzled because he knew Beorthric was alive and well and living in Cissa Cæster but he let it pass. He did ask Dunstan why he was so dishevelled and Dunstan told him of the strange dream. Uthric thought it might be best if Dunstan went to talk with Hereweard. He thought that maybe the leæce might be able to help with whatever was wrong.
Dunstan reluctantly talked to Hereweard who he found mixing some herbs. Dunstan said that he had never believed the story about losing his soul and thought that it was due to the stress of being in too many Shieldwalls and then the disappointment of losing his wife and children. He thought if he could talk to Hereweard about all his troubles he might feel less concerned within himself. Hereweard said he doubted this would change anything for Dunstan, because it was clear to him that the reason Dunstan did not feel well within himself was because he had no soul. Dunstan said he was tired of hearing about his soul and thought it best if he left or he might fly into another rage and do something he might regret.
Dunstan said that he would come back to see Hereweard in another moon to prove to him that the discussion about losing his soul was nonsense. Hereweard said that he thought it likely that by then Dunstan’s body would have consumed itself because he was soulless and even the potions that Hereweard gave him could not protect him from death.
Uthric went to see Dunstan when he heard that he had not told the leæce about the dream. Dunstan said that he found it hard to believe that he could have lost his soul but Uthric pointed out he had awoken with a Rune on his forehead and there might be some truth in Hereweard’s words. He prevailed on Dunstan to return to Hereweard and tell him about the dream. Hereweard was not surprised to see Dunstan return. He asked Dunstan if he was having difficulty containing his emotions as that was a clear sign of losing his soul. Dunstan still maintained that his anger was only a reaction to difficult times and he thought it would pass however he consented to tell Hereweard about his dream.
Dunstan told him that he dreamt he had been asleep in his booth. People he did not know came in and held him down. They took out sharp knives and began to cut his body into pieces. Each part was put in a different sack and they then left. Dunstan said that although he could see what they were doing with his body it had been like he was watching as if he was an observer. When the people left he went too and followed them to a grove in a dark forest. The grove had an outer circle of nine Ash trees and an inner circle of nine elm trees. In the centre of the grove were three oak trees. The middle oak had been struck by lightning and still smouldered. Dunstan watched the people put his body back together and then they painted a Rune on his forehead. He noticed that a bit of his body escaped from the bag in the shape of a black cat and squeezed into a hole between two rocks at the foot of the lightning struck oak.
Hereweard sighed when he heard the dream. He said that he had never been particularly good at interpreting dreams but he thought it might be a sign that Dunstan's body could no longer exist without his soul and the bind to Miðgarðr was becoming weaker. The rune was easy to interpret it meant Travel, Rhythm, Spontaneity or Evolution. It was likely that the rune was connected to Dunstan but how he would need to find out for himself.
Hereweard said that he knew where the grove was in Dunstan's dream. He had visited it once with Stithwolf when they were talking to the spirits in the area. It was likely that Dunstan would need to travel to Nastrønd or Hel to get his soul back. Dunstan asked if Hereweard would come with him but Hereweard said that he would not expose himself to the dangers of such a journey. He agreed to help Dunstan and would show him the way to go but he thought he would not have the strength or courage to face Nastrønd. Hereweard said that Dunstan should return in five days and bring people he trusted that would go with him on his journey. Hereweard said he should also bring ten men, digging tools and a goat. Dunstan tried to ask Hereweard what would happen but the leæce told him to go and prepare.
Wulfhere was trying to decide how many men he should send to Ealdorman Stuf to join the raid into Dumnonia. He was unsure about the benefits of losing more men but, following a debate with Uthric, agreed that if they did not get enough food for the winter many of the people would die anyway. He agreed that he would lead thirty men and join Stuf as soon as they were ready.
His plans were upset when Dunstan came back with the news that he needed to go to Nastrønd to get his soul back. Wulfhere was unsure that they all needed to go. The idea of going to Nastrønd did not fill him with joy. He decided that he would delegate the raid on Dumnonia to his younger brother Halig as he thought he would need to help Dunstan regain his soul.
The situation became more complicated when a stranger arrived at Hambladensted. He told Wulfhere he had a message from Beorthric and had been asked to deliver it. The man named himself as Ernbald Ormarson and said he was going to Lundenwic to seek employment with a Þegn. He hoped to make money to buy land for a farm and have lots of children. Beorthric had found out that Wulfhere's wife had been taken to Anderida and there was also hope that Dunstan's wife was also there. Wulfhere quizzed Ernbald about Beorthric but Ernbald said that he could not say much other than he had already said. He did not really know Beorthric and thought he was therefore unlikely to be able to shed any light on Beorthric or his motives. Wulfhere thanked him for his message and spoke privately with his brothers.
Dunstan was scathing of Ernbald and Beorthric. He said that it was clear that they could not trust either man and he was sure that this was a trick. Wulfhere said that he did not yet see the purpose of the information and if it was a trick why would Beorthric pay a man to come so far just to give a message. Dunstan said he could not trust Ernbald and felt that he was dubious and the information was to disrupt what they needed to do in the villages. He went through all the ills that people had caused him and his family and was keen to extact revenge. Uthric listened to his younger brother’s list of the people with whom he would like to discuss perceived wrongs with by using his spear and said that he must remember to always stay on the right side of Dunstan.
Wulfhere said that he was of a mind to ask Ernbald to stay. He thought that if Dunstan was right about Ernbald' they would keep him close and then could exact revenge if he proved to be false. On the other hand, if he was honest then they had added another experienced warrior to the settlement. Wulfhere said that the priority was to find Dunstan's soul. Dunstan was worried that he might not find his soul or possibly get the wrong one. Wulfhere said that might be an outcome but when he got one back he should really look after it this time.
Hereweard came to meet the brothers and advised them that they must fast for three days before the ritual. On the third day they would travel to the forest north of Calleva and go to the sacred grove. Dunstan confirmed he had ten loyal men and had bought a black goat from one the farmers. Hereward told him to make a wooden platform that they could erect when they got there. It had to be big enough for three men to lie on. He asked Dunstan to also make a ladder with nine rungs. Dunstan asked if there was any significance in this and Hereward said they would not have too long to wait to understand it more.
On the appointed day Hereweard, the Hrothgarsons and ten trusted men made their way to the Sacred Grove. There was a distinct lack of bird song around the grove and the air was heavy and still. The grove was just as Dunstan had seen it in his dream. The outer circle of trees were nine ashes and the inner nine elms. The three oak trees in the centre of the grove were the only vegetation in the circle and the middle oak tree had been hit by lightning at some point in the past but it still smoked as if it had happened recently.
Hereweard asked everyone to erect the platform and the ladder. After they had constructed the platform, Hereweard brought the goat into the grove. He got the men to dig a shallow pit at the bottom of the platform and he rested the ladder in it. The goat began to get nervous but Hereweard soothed it by whispering in its ear. He ordered the men to light a fire and when it was hot enough he bought the goat to the pit and expertly slit its throat. He let the goats blood flow into the pit and Uthric thought he could see shadowy figures lapping the blood up with long tongues. He pointed it out to Wulfhere and Dunstan but neither saw anything. Hereweard cut the legs off the goat and removed the flesh. He gave a thigh bone to each brother and instructed them how to write runes on the bones. It took several attempts from each of the brothers to satisfy Hereweard but finally he was happy. He explained that the brothers need to keep these runebones on them or the they would not be able to return to Miðgarðr. He then took some of the pooled blood in the pit and wrote further runes on their foreheads.
Hereweard had told them that he would not be travelling with them but he would come the first part to make sure they got past the Horned Man and started on the road between the worlds. Hereweard explained his spirit animal was the wolf and when in that shape he could not speak with words and they would not understand spirit speech so that he would not be able to give them further instructions. Wulfhere asked how they would know where to go but Hereweard said that they needed to follow the road wherever it took them. Hereweard said that they might meet many people and many obstacles on their journey. They must bargain, use trickery and only resort to fighting if there was no other option.
He asked the Hrothgarsons to lie on top of the platform and gave them a bitter potion to drink. He sat calmly on the platform and began to beat a small hide drum and shake a rattle. Hereweard asked them to put a cloak over their bodies and to concentrate. In the next few hours they would feel that they separated from their bodies. He told them when that happened then they must climb down the rungs of the ladder. How many rungs they climbed down would depend on their ability to concentrate.
Hereweard spoke to them as they lay under the cloaks and told them to empty their minds of their daily tasks and listen to the drumbeat. He told them he had instructed their men to cover them with earth when Hereweard gave the signal. This was the ritual of Death that would take them to one of the other worlds. Someone then began to chant to the rhythm of the drum but they did not understand the words.
Wulfhere was the last to leave his body behind because he had had difficulty emptying his mind of the temporal affairs of organising the settlements, but at last he made his way down the ladder. Wulfhere estimated that he only went down three or four rungs before he hit solid ground and joined his brothers in the darkness. Bits of earth showered them as they stood waiting to see what would happen next. A large wolf sat beside them and they assumed that it must be the fylgja of Hereweard.
Wherever they were it was dark and there was no light but they could still see. The darkness had a living quality to it and they felt that as they breathed it in they became more attuned to it. Gradually shapes could be seen and they noticed that a large man was standing in front of them. He had horns like a deer growing from his head or perhaps he was wearing an intricate headdress.
The wolf lay down and they thought perhaps they should kneel too. When they had done so the Horned Man said he would like to ask Dunstan some questions in order that they could continue. Dunstan said he would try and answer any questions honestly. He asked Dunstan if he thought family or king were more important. Dunstan said that in his view family were more important and that he owed a lot to his family that were close to him. He said that he always tried to serve his family as well as he could.
The Horned Man said that he saw a lot of hate in Dunstan's heart and asked why he hated so much. Dunstan said that he always tried to live honourably but often he came against people who lived by different rules and they had been hurtful to those who could not defend themselves, killing and despoiling innocents. Dunstan said that he had always shown pity and mercy to the deserving. He spoke about rescuing villagers from despoilers and that he was aware he judged people but it was always on their actions. The Horned Man nodded but said he was not sure that Dunstan always lived up to his views on pity and mercy. Dunstan said he tried to observe the general good but the Horned Man laughed and said it might be that hate that had made him stronger. However, he was aware that Dunstan gives pity and mercy to his friends but not to anyone else and often suspects their motives. He thought Dunstan might want to think on that.
The Horned Man then pushed the wall and a way opened into a dark land. It seemed nearly featureless apart from a road that stretched into the distance. The wolf joined them outside and pointed the way along the road. The brothers looked at each other and started along the empty road.
The Hrothgarsons walked along the road for what seemed like days. The land was flat and empty and there was no sun to shed light or mark the passing of time, but they were able to see despite the darkness. The road ran up to a small hillock out of which the sound of hammers banged as if on a smithy. The door stood open and was lit by the reddish glow of fire. Coloured smoke escaped through the open door that made them cough and the smell was of hot metal and charcoal. The road went into the mound and the Hrothgarsons thought that they should not bypass this situation. They carefully went down the short tunnel that led to the smithy. Three Duergar were working with their hammers, bent around the fire that burnt white hot. Discarded weapons and armour lay around the floor of the workshop. One of the Duergar approached the brothers and introduced himself as Brúni and pointed out his brothers Gustr and Mótsognir. Brúni asked the Hrothgarsons how he could help them and wondered if they had come to buy weapons or armour.
Wulfhere, Uthric and Dunstan introduced themselves and Wulfhere said that he would be interested in buying a Byrnie. Brúni said that he would be pleased to sell anything they wished to have, but the bargain would have to be fair. Wulfhere asked what payment would be made as none of their shadow bodies had any valuable metals and he did not know what Brúni might desire. Brúni said that he would be happy to take skills or attributes. For instance, one of the Jötunn traded his height for a magical shield or a Troll had given her Hide ability to buy an axe that would cleave through stone. Brúni said that they would be willing to trade their Rune sticks but Wulfhere did not think that that would be a good idea.
Wulfhere tried on a metal Byrnie but found it overly heavy if he needed to march for any length of time. The Duergar thought that if Wulfhere wanted a less heavy option he might like a Byrnie made of Doeskin but forged with the endurance of a troll. Wulfhere thought that the Doeskin tunic might suit him well and offered his ability to dance. The Duergar conferred and agreed that this would be a suitable bargain. Brúni said that Wulfhere would never be able to dance again and if he was content with that then the deal was complete.
Mótsognir said that they had been asked to make them a rope and he had just finished making it. Uthric said that he was unsure why he needed a rope and did not know if he could afford the price. Mótsognir said that the price had already been paid and the rope was a gift. He warned them that the rope was made from the hair of drowned maidens and that it was both thin and strong however they would be unable to take it back to Miðgarðr. Mótsognir said he believed it might come in useful in their travels. Dunstan thanked the Duergar and they bid them farewell.
Wulfhere was pleased with his Doeskin tunic. It was light and flexible. He tried dancing some steps but tripped over his own feet and fell on the road cutting both knees. He tried dancing again and the same thing happened. He said he thought he still might have had the better of the bargain despite his inability to dance.
The Hrothgarsons continued along the stone road and after a number of days saw that they were approaching a forest that stretched as far as they could see in either direction. The trees grew tall but were bent and gnarled. Uthric thought this was an old forest from the beginning of days. Dunstan tried to cut one of the branches but it blunted his seax and did not seem to make any impression on the tree.
The path led through the middle of the forest and Uthric said that he did not see any point in putting off the journey. Wulfhere agreed and warned that they should not leave the path. They walked along the path but it was difficult to see under the trees. They could not tell if the darkness stopped them seeing or there was some spell that created a mist. They were aware of the noises, grunts, snuffling and crashes as of large creatures making their way through the undergrowth. Periodically eyes would stare at their foliage reflecting amber, green or vivid blue in some unseen light. The brothers were unnerved by the unseen creatures that watched from the shadows and they moved cautiously forward expecting an attack.
Dunstan became very concerned about the creatures and started at any sudden noise. He impetuously ran after a sudden appearance of amber coloured eyes. His brothers tried to stop him but having failed to prevent him they felt they had no option but to follow him. The eyes flickered and disappeared but Dunstan continued to pursue where he thought they had gone. When Wulfhere and Uthric caught up with Dunstan, they were unsure where the path lay. Uthric suggested that they use the Duergar rope to try and methodically find their way back to the path. Wulfhere said he was reluctant to use the rope as he did not think that this was what it was given to them for and cutting it up could diminish its purpose. They made a guess at where the road lay and fortunately reached it after a short time.
Wulfhere told Dunstan that he really needed to control his fears but he acknowledged that it might be because Dunstan still lacked a soul. They walked for several more days through the blackened forest and Dunstan resisted the urge to chase unknown beasts through the darkness. After another day, they became aware that something was following them. The pursuit seemed to be more than the infrequent watchers from the forest edges and the footfalls often mirrored their own, starting and stopping when they did. Eventually the pressure of their unseen foe became too much and they turned around to await their pursuer, locking their shields together. After waiting several hundred heartbeats they could see a tall shape that began to look less human as it came closer. Suddenly the creature began to run at them and Wulfhere shouted at his brothers to brace their spears to use the creatures speed against itself. However, the impact never happened. The creature jumped just before it reached them and cleared them, swivelling easily to block the road ahead. All three turned around and had just about set themselves as the creature attacked. Now that it was up close they saw that it was a gigantic wolf.
The Wolf reared up on its hind legs and took on a more human posture. It moved swiftly and before any of the three men could advance it attacked Wulfhere who blocked its bite with his shield but almost fell with the force of the impact. Uthric stabbed it in the foreleg with his spear and Dunstan hit its forequarters. Wulfhere recovered from his stumble and hit the creature in the same leg as Uthric. The Wolf again attacked Wulfhere and although he blocked the hit, the force slammed his shield into his chest. The others hit it again and appeared to incapacitate its forearm and caused deep wounds in the chest and hindquarters. The creature attacked Wulfhere again for the third time and injured his abdomen but all three cut it badly with their spears and the creature collapsed.
They were all exhausted after the fight and Wulfhere had several cuts from claws and fangs. They looked at the creature, wondering if it was a man in wolf shape or a wolf that could walk like a man. Dunstan noticed that its wounds seemed to be healing on their own and the creature seemed to be stirring. Wulfhere said he thought that if they had to fight this creature again that they might not survive the next encounter as they did not have the same ability to heal their wounds. They agreed the best thing was to try and outrun the wolf.
They run as fast as they could but Wulfhere's injuries were hampering him and he tripped and fell. Dunstan and Uthric stopped and helped him to his feet. They could hear the sound of pursuit and ran again. It was possible that the creature was still wounded because they managed to keep well ahead, however they were becoming exhausted. Wulfhere said he was glad now he had not bargained for the Chainmail Byrnie became he could not have kept ahead of the wolf when he was wearing it. They could see the edge of the forest and tried to run faster. The Wolf was close but they kept ahead until they left the forest. The Wolf stopped at the forest edge and the brothers stopped too. Uthric said it was just as well the wolf did not pursue them as he did not think he could have run much further. Dunstan threw a piece of wood at the wolf but did not hit it. Uthric said he did not think the Wolf would be interested in fetching the piece of wood. Dunstan said that while he had not thought of distracting the Wolf like that it might have been a good strategy while they were fighting it.
They bound Wulfhere's wounds and all recovered their breath. They could hear the wolf howling and its howls were answered by other howls. Uthric wondered why wolves did not bark but Dunstan said that he had heard wolves both bark and howl. He thought that the difference was like humans speaking and shouting. Wulfhere said that this was all very interesting but they should really get as far away from the forest as possible in case the wolf and his friends decided to come after them.
They continued walking for several days until they arrived at a wide, black, turbid river. The river smelt of bitumen and sulphur. Every so often bubbles came to the surface and the foul stench was released. The road ended at an ancient jetty but there was no boat. They tried to see how wide the river was but the darkness and mist defeated their efforts. Wulfhere thought they should shout to attract the attention of a ferryman. They discussed if this might attract something dangerous but decided they needed to take the risk. Wulfhere shouted and they sat down to await whatever would appear.
After several hours they saw a large fin approach. Wulfhere thought the fish must be the length of five grown men. The fish surfaced and hailed them. It said that its name was Torhtsige and thought it might be helpful to them if they wanted to cross the river. Dunstan said that he wasn't sure if he could trust such a large fish with sharp teeth. Dunstan wondered if there was alternative such as more conventional transport like a ferry. Torhtsige said that if only they had arrived earlier then there would have been more transport options. Sadly, the ferryman had recently been eaten and therefore those that needed to cross the river would have to rely on Torhtsige. Dunstan asked what had happened to the ferryman. Torhtsige said that he was embarrassed to admit that he had been ravenously hungry and unfortunately had eaten the ferryman and then because he had still been hungry he had eaten the ferry too. Uthric said that this did not forebode well if Torhtsige was to carry them across and get hungry again. Torhtsige said that he could vouch that, for now, he had eaten enough for the next few days and they would be safe, Dunstan said that Torhtsige did not really fill him with optimism. He asked the fish what he would get out of the transaction. Torhtsige said that despite his fearsome appearance, he actually liked helping people and that he would get joy and pleasure from taking them to the other side. Wulfhere thought that maybe the joy and pleasure might not be mutual and shared by all parties in the arrangement. Torhtsige admitted that he had originally been happy to take them over safely, but all the talk about eating things had made him hungry again. However, he could see that they were keen to get to the other side and he wanted to know how they would feel if he only ate one of them as payment for the journey. Dunstan said he did not feel that this was an acceptable bargain and that he could speak for his brothers in saying that, if it was alright with Torhtsige, they would wait to see if there were other methods of transport. Torhtsige said that he could understand their concern and he would leave them to it but would come back tomorrow to see if they had changed their minds. Uthric suggested they walk along the sides of the bank to see if there was another way across. They spent several hours searching to no avail.
They returned to the jetty to see if they had missed any way of summoning the ferry. Dunstan thought there might have been something at the end of the pier which had been broken off recently. They tried using their spears to search in the river but it was too deep. As they were standing on the jetty they saw Torhtsige return. The fish was approaching rapidly and it was only too late that they saw it was his intent was to ram the jetty that they were standing on. They held onto the rail and braced themselves for the impact and watched in horror as Torhtsige began eating parts of the jetty. They all managed to get off the jetty without injury or falling into the water. Uthric threw his javelin at Torhtsige and it stuck upright near the fish’s tail. Torhtsige seemed a bit warier of coming closer to the shore after his encounter with Uthric’s javelin and circled out of throwing range. After a while Torhtsige appeared to grow bored or perhaps as Dunstan said that the old jetty did not taste as good as the fish had thought and he went off to get other food that did not use javelins.
They waited several hours to make sure the fish had gone. Wulfhere said that he thought that there had been something at the end of the jetty that had fallen into the river and that he might be able to get it. He divested himself of armour and clothes and got into the dark water. It felt like creatures were swirling around him, touching his skin and he shuddered but despite his fear he dived beneath the surface. He followed the broken piles of the jetty down until he reached the bottom. The black water prevented him from seeing anything and also appeared to sap his strength and his ability to think. Wulfhere was beginning to forget why he was even in the water when his hand felt an object that must have been made by people. He grabbed it and kicked hard against the bottom of the river. He was so disorientated by the darkness that he was not sure that he was going the right way to the surface.
Dunstan and Uthric were standing on the remains of the jetty anxiously looking at the dark water flow slowly by. Wulfhere's head appeared close to the jetty but before either could react he sank below the surface again. Dunstan reached down and managed to grab his brother and with the help of Uthric lifted him onto the jetty. Wulfhere did not move or say anything and they carried him back to the bank and wrapped him in a cloak. In Wulfhere's hand he held a brass bell but when they tried to get it off him, they could not release his grip. They sat and watched Wulfhere. They could see no injuries on his body and Dunstan concluded it must be the effect of the dark water.
Hours passed and Wulfhere gradually recovered his senses. He was still unsure where he was and had some difficulty in accepting Dunstan and Uthric's story. He had no recollection of going into the water. Uthric said if that was the effect of the water then swimming across it was not the best idea anyone could have. As Wulfhere relaxed he was able to release his hold on the brass bell and Dunstan thought that they should ring it. Uthric said in his opinion it was unlikely that they could meet anything worse than they already had so that he might as well try it. Dunstan said he was not sure and thought there might be much worse things in this world and personally he had no desire to meet them. However, they agreed that there were no other options to get across the river. Dunstan rang it twice and they sat down beside Wulfhere to await whatever the bell summoned. Several more hours passed and Wulfhere seemed to be recovering. He still had no memory after their meeting with the Duergar.
A voice hailed them from the river and they could dimly make out a man in a small boat three lengths off the jetty. Dunstan said that they were keen to get to the other side of the river, and requested if the man would be kind enough to help. The man said that they were in luck because he had come to ask them if they needed help but there was the small matter of payment. None of the brothers appeared to have any silver or ornaments and Uthric asked what price the man would like to charge. He said that it was usual to be charged a penny for the trip. Uthric said that if the man was willing they could give him items as none of them had silver. Dunstan offered his seax and Wulfhere offered his javelin. The man accepted both as payment. Uthric said that sadly he had lost his javelin only recently but the man said as Wulfhere had already given him a javelin he did not think he needed another one. Uthric said that he had a fine helmet taken as a spoil of war and he would be willing to trade it for passage across the river. The man agreed and said he was pleased with such an unusual helmet but when he tried it on, it was a tight fit.
The man arranged the Hrothgarsons in his boat and advised them not to move too much in case they capsized. He began to scull across the river using a single oar at the rear of the craft. Uthric said he was curious about a fish called Torhtsige and asked the man if he knew the creature. The man said that he had run into Torhtsige from time to time and he had usually found him to be an irritating creature who often interfered with the job of running a ferry service. Uthric said that Torhtsige had mentioned that it had eaten the ferryman and the boat and he wondered what the man's opinion of the story was. The ferryman said that indeed Torhtsige's story was correct. He told them that periodically the huge fish would get hungry and eat both him and the boat. He could not say for sure what happened after that, but he always found himself afterwards on this boat by the jetty.
When they got to the other side they thanked the old man for helping them. Uthric asked the old man if he often wore helmets because he did not think the helmet suited him. The old man was puzzled by Uthric's remarks and said while he acknowledged the helmet was too small and the nasal guard caught on his nose, it was nothing he could not get a friendly Duergar to fix for him. Uthric polished the blade of his seax and showed the old man his reflection. The old man said that he could see Uthric's point of view and that perhaps he should not wear it. Uthric said that he had no real interest in the discussion but was just trying to be helpful. The old man thought for a moment and said that in that case he would return the helmet to Uthric. He made Uthric try it on and then turn around. The old man said he was satisfied that he had done the right thing as he thought Uthric looked particularly splendid in the helmet.
As they walked along the road Uthric asked Dunstan if he would have really got on the back of the fish. Dunstan said he did not think he would have because he could not trust such a large fish that had so many sharp teeth. Wulfhere wondered if things with sharp teeth were to be avoided in these worlds if they were to live a long life.
The road continued for several days until they saw they were approaching a vast hall. As they got closer they could see that it perched on the side of a massive cliff. The cliff stretched away on either side of the Hall and they thought they had come to another test in their journey.
They climbed the three steps to the platform before the main doors. Standing before the doors was an armoured Duergar. Around the eaves of the Hall were severed heads in various states of decay. Some were freshly severed and some were already skulls. Wulfhere introduced himself to the Duergar who called himself Skønnar. Skønnar welcomed them to Bölþorn's Hall. Uthric asked who Bölþorn might be and was Skønnar aware how they could get to the valley below. Skønnar said nothing but opened the double doors.
They walked into the wide hall and saw a Jötunn drinking at the High Table. Bölþorn welcomed them and asked them to join him for a drink. He said he was pleased that they had come as he was becoming rather bored. Wulfhere said that they were keen to get to the valley below and if Bölþorn would show them how to get there, he would be grateful and also happy to help alleviate his boredom for a while. Bölþorn said that they could indeed help to alleviate his boredom by challenging him to a game. He had long ago decided that anyone entering his hall had to engage in a contest of knowledge. If Wulfhere won then he would find out how to reach the valley below. The loser whether it was Bölþorn or Wulfhere would have to submit to having his head chopped off. Bölþorn indicated a chopping block and a heavy bearded axe that was in the corner of the hall. The Hrothgarsons conferred together. Wulfhere was happy to attempt to win the contest but Dunstan said that they were here because he had lost his soul and he felt it was only right that it should be him that lost his head if the Jötunn won. Dunstan asked Bölþorn that if he lost the contest would Bölþorn then tell his brothers the way to the valley. Bölþorn said by rights that he should make each person challenge him for information but he had been in an excellent mood since Angrboða had recently given him good news and he accepted that no matter the outcome he would let the surviving bothers know how to get to the valley.
Dunstan said he was satisfied with that and asked Bölþorn what the rules of the contest were. Bölþorn said that it was simple. Each person asked the other a question on any subject and if the other could not answer it then they had lost. The price of failure was to lose your head. Uthric asked Bölþorn if there might not be another forfeit as it all seemed very severe. Bölþorn said that the loser needed to lose their head in order that Bölþorn could gain their knowledge by eating the brain of the beheaded individual. He said he was not known as Etere Sundorcýþþe, the Eater of Knowledge, for no reason.
Dunstan said that he had prepared a question for the Jötunn and he was sure that he would not know the answer and his brothers should not worry. The Jötunn sat down and took a long draught of his horn of ale. Dunstan asked Bölþorn if he knew what a clampit was. The Jötunn screwed up his face and thought. Dunstan smiled as he watched Bölþorn torture himself to try and remember what the word meant. Bölþorn finished his ale and called for Skønnar to refill the horn. It took him three horns before he decided that he would give an answer. Dunstan tried not to show impatience as he watched the Jötunn but he hoped this ordeal would be over soon. Bölþorn said eventually that the word was obviously local slang and strictly it therefore should be discounted. Dunstan said that although it was true that the word was slang, if Bölþorn had intended to object to it he should have said so at the beginning and not after hours of ruminating. Bölþorn agreed this was correct and conceded that he had been in error and was now trapped into making a guess.
Wulfhere said that in his opinion Bölþorn had more than enough time to decide on an answer and he should hurry up about it. Bölþorn guessed that is meant something do with holding on but Dunstan said that the answer was incorrect. He told Bölþorn that it was an obscure word that he had first heard from an Irish king, called Diarmuid, who had used it to describe King Mark. Bölþorn was confused. He said it would have been impossible for him to know who these people were and the question was unfair. Dunstan said again that he should have objected at the start and now that the Jötunn had got it wrong he should tell them how to get the valley below. Bölþorn said that Skønnar would tell them but Dunstan would now have to visit the forfeit on him by chopping his head off. Dunstan said he was reluctant to do so to his host but Bölþorn said that if he didn't do it then his own head and those of his brothers would forfeit instead.
Dunstan could barely lift the great axe that Bölþorn gave him and it took him a while to grow accustomed to the weight while Bölþorn waited patiently kneeling at the block. Dunstan said he was prepared to show the Jötunn mercy but Bölþorn stopped him and said that it was important to keep to the rules of the game. Dunstan struck with force and chopped the Jötunn's head off. Immediately the doors to the hall opened and Skønnar came in. He motioned to the Hrothgarsons and took them through a door hidden in the shadows at the back of the Hall. He opened another door and advised them that the steps leading downwards would take them on their journey.
Uthric was last to leave the main Hall and when he looked back, he thought he could see the Jötunn’s body looking for its head which appeared to have rolled into a corner. Uthric drew Skønnar's attention to his master's plight and the Duergar excused himself and went to the aid of Bölþorn. Wulfhere said that they should hurry. He was not at all convinced that they would be so lucky with a return match if they were challenged to another contest. He asked Dunstan what a clampit was and Dunstan told him it was an Irish word for feckless.
The steps came out in the valley at the bottom of the cliff. They stood in a dreary country and could hear the sound of waves crashing on a shore which as they walked never seemed far away. They could not see the sea and did not dare leave the road to find out what was at the shore. As they walked along they could see in the distance a massive Hall that was curiously built. As they got closer they could hear screams of people in agony. Wulfhere said they needed to be careful and they approached cautiously. The door was open and the air was acidic and hurt their lungs to breath in. They could see hundreds of people writhing in agony inside. The Hall was bigger than they first thought. The screams died down for a moment and there was an eerie quietness as the occupants stared at the roof. Dunstan tried to see what they were looking at when the inside of the thatched roof began moving. The people inside started moving as large snake like creatures started to drip poison on those below. The screams started again as the poison hit the people on the ground and a fierce fire tore up from the floor to engulf everyone. Dunstan was forced back from the door by the heat.
It is not a good idea to enter the building said a voice. All three Hrothgarsons looked to see who had spoken and a man stepped from the shadows. Uthric asked what kind of place this was, who owned the Hall and who the people were who were inside. The man said they were leæce- killers, murderers and oath-breakers, rapists and those that had committed adultery. The Hall was called Nastrønd's Hall and the people would be tortured forever became of their crimes.
Wulfhere asked if the man knew if they had to go into the Hall to continue on their way but the man said that no-one voluntarily went into that Hall. If they wished to continue along the road he suggested that they might want to go around the back of the building and pick up the road at that point.
The man asked why living men had come to Nastrønd. Dunstan explained that a leæce called Hereweard had sent them here to get his soul back after he had had it stolen. The man nodded and said that he thought that was unfortunate. Wulfhere was interested if the man could give any advice to which the man replied he would only be too pleased to help but that they might not like his answer. Dunstan said that he thought at this stage there were no answers that were pleasant. The man said this was probably true and in that case they needed to continue and must complete their journey to regain Dunstan’s soul.
He told them to travel for ten days until they came to Yggdrasil, the One Tree. At the roots of Yggdrasil lives the dragon, Níðhǫgg, who they must battle for Dunstan's soul. They should be careful of Níðhǫgg as he is very devious and likes nothing better than to trick people into making wrong choices. Níðhǫgg spends his time sucking the blood from the living dead and gnawing the roots of Yggdrasil. Wulfhere agreed with the man and said he had been correct, it had not been pleasant to hear his words.
Wulfhere thanked him for his advice and they set off. Inside the Hall it was again quiet and they were thankful because the screams were unnerving. As they drew level with the door a man from inside hailed them and asked them to save him. Dunstan stared in horror when he recognised Garm the former Þegn of Cælctun. The man from the shadows warned them that they should not interfere with those who suffer in the Nastrønd. Uthric took Dunstan by the arm and they continued around the side of the Hall.
They seemed to walk for days before they reached the back of the Hall and found the road coming out of another door. Wulfhere wondered if they had got lost and were at the same point they had been days ago, but Dunstan thought the landscape looked different and so they continued along the road.
After five days walking they could see a massive tree in the distance that rose to such a height that its crown was lost in the clouds. As they got closer the size of the One Tree became apparent. They could also smell death and it became so strong that it felt that the air also tasted of death. At the base of the tree was an enormous dragon coiled several times around the roots. The rest of the body of the dragon stretched away into the mist. Níðhǫgg was sucking blood noisily from a pile of bodies and afterwards he had finished with the body he tossed it aside to two waiting wolves who then ripped the bodies apart before eating them.
The Hrothgarsons were not sure what to do or how to approach the Dragon. Wulfhere said that it might be good to start with introductions and then ask Níðhǫgg about Dunstan's soul. Dunstan waited until the dragon had finished eating and introduced himself. Níðhǫgg watched him closely as he spoke and Dunstan had to look away as he found his thoughts had become confused. Níðhǫgg said he had many souls in his keeping but he was sure that after they each had fought a contest of willpower with him he could sort out which soul was the right one. Dunstan said that it did not sound like an equal contest. Níðhǫgg said that Dunstan was correct in his thinking and if he did not want to accept the contest he was free to leave.
Dunstan talked it over with his brothers. Wulfhere said that this is what they had come to do and they should not back down now. Uthric agreed and said he would happily face the dragon if Dunstan was afraid. Dunstan said that he would go first as it was his fault they were about to have a contest with Níðhǫgg. He looked into Níðhǫgg’s eyes and felt himself being dragged into blackness. He looked away and felt his sight clear again. Níðhǫgg laughed and told Dunstan that he would suffer serious consequences if he ever took a prisoner. Dunstan asked what sort of consequences he would be likely to suffer. Níðhǫgg reminded him of Nastrønd’s Hall and said that those that broke a geas would be brought alive to Nastrønd for judgement.
He told Dunstan that he would have to try better or suffer further consequences. Dunstan steeled himself and looked again into Níðhǫgg's eyes. This time Dunstan managed to keep his mind focused against the Dragon. Eventually Dunston broke eye contact and staggered backwards. Níðhǫgg said to Dunstan that he was impressed that he was able to hold out so long, and rewarded him with knowledge of how to fight with a spear.
Uthric said that he had best go next. He stood in front of the Níðhǫgg and forced himself to look into the dragon's eyes. He immediately lost all sense of himself and had to look away. The dragon laughed again and told him that he would never again be able to refuse anyone who asks something of him directly. The dragon waited while Uthric prepared himself for another attempt by casually gnawing on one of the writhing bodies at the foot of Yggdrasil. When Uthric had composed himself, he signalled to Níðhǫgg that he was ready. He looked again into the dragon’s eyes but this time he focused on Meire and that helped him to survive the pull of the darkness. The Dragon released Uthric and said that he thought that Uthric had been clever to keep a focus on his wife. Níðhǫgg rewarded him with knowledge of how to lead men in battle.
Wulfhere was reluctant and said that he would prefer not to face the dragon. Uthric told him to concentrate on something important to him like Bronwyn. He stood in front of the Dragon and signalled he was ready. Wulfhere felt that he was getting sucked into darkness. He tried to focus on anything but his mind was blank and he had to break contact. Níðhǫgg laughed and told him to try again. Wulfhere again felt himself getting lost in darkness so he broke contact. Níðhǫgg said that Wulfhere would now have two taboos. If he wanted to gain something Níðhǫgg offered Wulfhere a chance for another attempt to keep control of himself but Wulfhere thought that it was unlikely he would succeed. Wulfhere asked Níðhǫgg what the consequences of his failures were and the dragon told him that he would always have to obey Leæces and never use a javelin against a woman. Níðhǫgg warned the Hrothgarsons that if they broke their taboos he would come looking for them and they would offer the same fate as the bodies he sucked dry.
Dunstan said they had challenged the dragon and that if Níðhǫgg didn't mind he would like to be reunited with his soul as he had suffered from its loss. Níðhǫgg pointed to two black cats and said that reuniting with his soul might be another challenge. He said Dunstan would have to make a choice of either black cat or he could ask the wolves for help if he preferred. The dragon told him that one wolf would always lie and the other would always tell the truth. Moreover, if Dunstan chose to ask the wolves he could only could ask one wolf a single question.
Dunstan said that he would like to confer with his brothers if Níðhǫgg did not mind. Uthric said that the answer was simple and he had heard a similar riddle at last year’s Yule festival. Dunstan just had to ask one wolf which soul the other wolf would choose in order for Dunstan to get the right soul back. Uthric said no matter which soul they pointed to, all Dunstan had to do was choose the other one. Neither Dunstan nor Wulfhere could follow the logic but Uthric said that he was certain he was right. Dunstan said he trusted his brother and did as Uthric told him, choosing the soul that was not indicated by the wolf. Níðhǫgg asked Dunstan if he was sure he wanted that soul and since he was in a kind mood he would allow him to change his mind. Dunstan said that he had made his choice and the black cat jumped into his stomach.
While Dunstan made his choice and was re-united with his soul, Uthric watched a large red squirrel that was perched on a branch of Yggdrasil and seemed interested in the proceedings. Uthric went over to the squirrel and introduced himself and asked if perhaps he might ask it some questions. The squirrel seemed pleased to be noticed and said he would be happy to help after he had delivered a message to Níðhǫgg.
As soon as Dunstan had decided what soul he wanted the squirrel hopped down from the branch that he was perched on and whispered in Níðhǫgg’s ear. The dragon responded by biting chunks out of the roots of Yggdrasil and lashed his tail which caused mild tremors in the ground. The wolves gave up eating one of the still writhing corpses discarded by Níðhǫgg and moved further away for safety. The large squirrel hopped over to the Hrothgarsons. It introduced itself as Ratatoskr. Ratatoskr said that his job was to convey messages between the eagle and stag and Níðhǫgg but he was very interested why living humans were in Nastrønd. Uthric said that his brother, Dunstan, had come to get his soul and now that they had found it they needed to get home. Ratatoskr was interested in that story but wondered if he might be of any help to get them home. He said that Níðhǫgg seemed to be preoccupied in gnawing roots and was unlikely to help and no-one in their right mind would ever trust the wolves became they were impossible to tell apart and one always lied and one always told the truth.
Uthric said that he would be grateful if Ratatoskr could help tell the brothers how to get back to Hambladensted. Ratatoskr said that he didn't think Hambladensted was one of the nine worlds and that it might be better to be a little less specific about where they wanted to go. For instance, he suggested they might want to say to Aelfheim or Niflheim or perhaps Muspelheim. Wulfhere said that although all these places might be interesting in their own right they would prefer to return to Miðgarðr. Ratatoskr thought in that case they might have two options. One would be to follow the road back the way they had come and overcome each challenge again. The drawback with this option was that the way had been opened by someone and there was a possibility it might have since closed. Dunstan said that he wasn't sure that it would turn out well if they went back the same way. He thought that if there was another option it might be one that he and his brothers might want to take. Ratatoskr said the other option was that they might want to get to Miðgarðr by climbing Yggdrasil.
The Hrothgarsons looked at each other and agreed that although climbing such a height could be dangerous it was likely to be the only option. Ratatoskr nodded and said that the climb was long and arduous but he found it relatively easy because he had four feet all of which could cling to branches whereas he recognised that they only had two and that was likely to make things more difficult. Ratatoskr said of course that he would need payment to help as nothing should ever be for free and he was providing a service. Wulfhere said that they really didn’t have much they could give the squirrel. Ratatoskr smiled and said that what he had in mind they seemed to have plenty of. He said that he dealt in information and would be pleased if they could tell him stories of things that they had encountered on their travels. Dunstan said he was happy with such a bargain.
Wulfhere said that they could increase their chance of success by using the rope that the Duergar had made for them. With that it was agreed and they set off climbing with Ratatoskr as a guide. It took them ten days of climbing with many slips and falls but fortunately no lasting injuries as the rope stopped them from falling far. On the way, the brothers took it in turns to tell Ratatoskr tales of their lives that he thought he might be interested in. Ratatoskr was most interested in Offa’s ale and was keen that should they ever return that he would like it very much if they could bring a skin. Uthric promised he would. Eventually they reached a branch that Ratatoskr said would lead to Miðgarðr. They crawled along the branches until they were able to see clouds. Ratatoskr told them to jump and they would end up in their physical bodies.
They woke on top of a wooden platform, sore and wet from a recent shower of rain. There was no-one to greet them or give them food. Wulfhere said that from now on Dunstan needed to be careful with his soul. He was not sure he could survive another episode like that.