Heartcleft road – Gna’s Story part 5

Posted: September 16, 2014 in Aesir & Asynjur, Deities & Wights, Gna, Handmaidens, Jotnar, Stories
Tags: , , , , , ,

Part 5: Hilt or Blade –

Blue gambeson

Blue gambeson.

A dark foggy path stretched before us as we rode, pierced only by pinpoint stars in every direction. Grey mane in one hand, the other held the Winds, sweat beading on my forehead from the strain. I felt foreboding mixed with hope, now that we were finally making progress, and glanced nervously behind us every now and again. This had been one of the most gut wrenching days of my life, and I feared more misfortune would befall me ere I lay my head to sleep once more.

Our trail ended at a shimmering wall, distorting the stars that seemed behind it. We followed the Deer through, and I got a mouthful of heavy snowflakes as I opened it to speak. Lit by the first hint of dawn, blown by blizzard winds, flakes froze the moisture on my scalp, settled in wet masses on my golden hair, and covered my blue coat with whiteness in mere minutes. I had no power to spare to calm the storm, and it wouldn’t listen to me anyway. The winds of Niflheim were always cranky but right now they were angry with me.

Trapped us, they howled. Free the Four Elders, their hoary voices demanded, their icy breath stinging my face.

“I can’t,” I apologized, “not yet. Be patient a little while longer.”

They only blew harder against us as Hoof Tosser stubbornly trudged on through, sinking almost to his belly. We tried to rise above, only to have gusts slam us down again. We’d have to do this the hard way, and I cast an envious glance at the Stag. Between snow-laden fir trees he pranced ahead atop the snow, barely leaving tracks.

Soon we found the Hel-Road – bordered by snowbanks – well trampled though no travelers were in sight. Part of it ran through Niflheim’s eternal winter, and the Frost Giants knew enough to leave inbound travelers alone. It wouldn’t do to anger Hela by harassing her dead, so they ignored us, though any of those journeying out were fair game to them. I’d had some unpleasant run-ins with Blár and Dökkblár, two massive Frost Thurses that often kept watch on their side of the border, and was glad not to see their ugly blue mugs.

That I did not see them didn’t mean they weren’t there. The icicles on that pine to the left could have been one of them. The snowdrift to the right could have been the other. Any natural feature could be a giant in their elemental shape, hunting, waiting, ready to pounce on prey.

There was no shimmer to announce our passage into Helheim — the border between the two realms could shift by a few furlongs either way at any time – but winds died down and snow became sparse between patches of yellow grasses, though the sky remained a cloudy grey. I blew out a breath of relief and started brushing the snow off of us.[1]

“Almost there,” I told my steed with a smile.

“You say that as if it were going to get easier here,” he replied, “which I highly doubt.”

“Don’t be such a joy-killer Hoofie, at least we’re close to the goal.”

Further ahead, Black Tower stood ominously, twenty paces or so to the left of the road.

The Stag stopped as I brushed more snow from my sleeve and said: I go no further, you are out of my realm. Let bad memories not strand you there again. I had no chance to thank him further before he ran back into the storm behind us. He’d gone this far with us, perhaps to make sure we’d get off his turf.

Mordgud[2] appeared by her ebony tower as we approached, a handsome Giantess in black metal armor clad, guarding the gold glinting bridge of blades. Slowly she walked to the edge of the road and awaited us. I dismounted and joined her among the yellowing grasses. She towered over me by a head, her dark hair tied in the back, save for one small reddish braid that went down to her jaw, left hand resting on her sword’s pommel. Her armor was made of plates that overlapped like the scales of a dragon, short sleeved, with larger plates protecting her arms and thighs. No helm or gauntlets.

“You have not,” she said flatly with a raised eyebrow, “made appointment with The Lady.”

“Yet I must speak to she who rules the Land of the Dead, and cannot wait. What must I do, Bridge Keeper, to earn her consent?” I said, then bowed. Formal speech is best when begging favors.

“You cannot fly,” she said with a steady gaze, “The Lady forbids it in her realm.”

“This much I know. Yet I must ride swiftly to seek her aid.”

“You cannot ride as nobles do, for you have no such title here, and he must stay with me as hostage,” she said, pointing to my steed with her chin as she crossed her muscular arms.

“If I cannot ride, then I will run with haste to Lady Hela,” I said. My left hand was cramping, still held as a claw, and my breath was getting ragged. I couldn’t hold the Winds much longer.

“You cannot run in the rush of the living,” she admonished, “The more you hurry, the slower here you will go.”

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. “May I enter now?” I asked. My whole left arm was trembling. Never had I needed to hold such a mighty spell so long.

“You may continue,” she conceded, “bringing nothing but yourself.”

“Really,” I sighed, clenching my right hand by my side, “this is how you want to play it? Fine!” All these rules were getting on my nerves.

I dropped my sword belt and pouches onto the grassy ground between us, then strode without another word to the bridge above the River of Knives – blonde braid bouncing at my back. You could see their blades reflecting light far below as they flowed through the icy waters that isolated Helheim proper.

I then made the mistake of looking down at the bridge itself. It had no railing, and was made entirely of swords, pointing up. I glanced back to Hoof-Tosser, who gave me an encouraging nod, before stepping on.

Piercing pain shot up through my right leg and I screamed, leaping back to the safety of the dusty Hel Road. Left hand still extended, I limped back to the Tower as my steed whinnied in laughter. I unclenched my teeth long enough to glare at him: “So you think this is funny?”

“No, dearest, it is not,” he said, “but you do look a bit funny standing like that.”

“And you,” I turned a baleful gaze at Mordgud, “what is the meaning of this?”

She was slightly smiling when she gestured at my chest: “You sought to enter as a messenger of Asgard, in Frigga’s fine livery of white and blue. That means nothing here. You must give up your title to enter.”

penannula brooches

penannula brooches

With a growl I removed the penannular brooches pinned above each breasts, releasing the front and back panels they held, then carefully lay the embroidered white cloth atop my steed’s back. “I leave my title and tabard behind. Is anything else required?”

“Your sky blue quilted coat,” she said, “must stay as well. There will be no more need of armor than of sword.”

I was struggling to remove my gambeson’s sleeve one-handed when she added: “Your riding trousers are part of your uniform, and you are not riding here on behalf of Asgard, so take them off. Your boots are for running, and you will not be running.” I took all of those off. [3]

“If you wanted me naked as a new born babe,” I quipped, “you could have just said so.” At this point I was down to off-white linen underpants, breast-band and yellow wool socks, standing fists on hips with as much dignity as I could muster. [4]

“No,” she said with a slight smirk, “this will do. Proceed, but do not look down as you cross.”

Lofn would lose a gut laughing if she could see me now.

I turned and made way once more to the bridge, keeping my eyes fixed on the distant black iron Hel-Gate that hid the dealings of the dead from prying eyes. Now the bridge seemed smooth and thatched with gold, at least in my peripheral vision, and felt the same as I warily stepped upon it. Reassured, I easily crossed it, ignoring the deafening sounds of river and steel clashing below.

The water’s edge on the other side was lined with nearly dead trees, precariously balanced, with roots desperately clutching at the ground to avoid falling in.

The gate ahead was nestled in a gothic arch, piercing the shiny black stone that covered Helheim’s fortified wall. A musty smell made me sneeze as I walked the across the dead field, noticing bits of rusty metal sticking out of the ground that might have once been weapons.

“Pray let me enter,” I said to the gate, there being no guardian in sight, but received no response. I started pounding the door, “Let me in, I must see Hela!”, striking harder and harder, ignoring the pain of my fist. Screaming, kicking, hitting, I continued until my knuckles were raw and bleeding, even trying with my head, until I sank breathless to the ground on my knees.

“Please,” I whispered, right cheek and palm pressed to its rugged cold iron surface, “I beg you. I have given up all I had to give for this. I have nothing left:

With no title nor trust, no friends catching my fall.
No ruler grants me role, no mantle gives me warmth.
Nearly naked I kneel now, clutching coils of my will.
I pray to the blessed, bring back to my corpse,
A suitable soul, be sent in my stead,
To carry on, and care for my kin.
My leash of desire, my spells of breath,
Release the deserving, that dwells in death.”

I shivered, seeing fog pour from my mouth, as arm hairs stood to defend me from sudden cold. On my left shoulder I felt a hand, as gentle as any mother’s could be.

“That was a fine prayer,” she said softly, “yet there is one more thing to let go of.” I craned back and saw the caring voice came from Mordgud bent over, surprising me with the concern on her face.

“I can’t,” I croaked. “It’s all I have left.”

She cradled my cramping left hand in her own and knelt beside me against the gate.

“Hela cannot condone keeping the human world frozen. She will not demand or threaten like the others. She will simply wait, and I will wait with you, as long as it takes.”

We sat in silence as I despaired. Eventually I noticed her breathing was matching mine when I took a sharp inhale and sighed, letting my shoulders slump.

She nodded and reached at her belt, pulling out a short knife to show me. Its round handle was white as bone, and its pommel held a small opaque green stone. The blade was short, wide and rounded, thick as a sword but barely longer than my palm, with a surface resembling a river’s currents. The Damascus steel’s patterns seemed to shift and flow as I stared in fascination.

“Her name is Oathbreaker, a gift from my father. In the left hand, her pommel will open any door. In the right hand, she will cut through any binding. Either usage will open the way for you.” She grew still as stone and waited with the proffered weapon between us, knowing I could not use my left hand without releasing the Winds.

My right hand hovered over the hilt, trembling with indecision as I bit my lower lip. I could see the pulse upon her neck. One quick slash would slay her,  and the gates always opened to welcome the dead.

I seized the handle, turning the blade upright.

I could feel my own heart thudding while staring at the shifting steel-gray river. My own death would also do. Her neck, or mine? I wondered.

I leaned the tip forward. Better her than me.

Clenching my teeth, eyes narrowing, I prepared my resolve to strike. She slowly cocked her head, further exposing her jugular.

I… what kind of monster have I become that I would consider sacrificing someone for selfish gain? Blinking slowly, I brought the blade to rest under my own chin. I accuse me now: of scarring the child of my flesh and blood with sight of my death, of imposing duress on a world for my personal needs, of betraying Frigga’s trust and that of my friends, of endangering my most dear companion in my recklessness. Truly it is I who deserves to die.

The warmth of her cradling hand upon mine drew me back a bit as she squeezed, and her eyes turned to shiny black pools, reflecting my image twice. I expected to see a traitor about to be sentenced, but all I saw was a woman trapped by pain and terror, trying to run away from her problems as she always did. Running was easy, familiar and wrong.

Tears blurred my vision as I uncurled the left index and whispered: “Iostr be blessed, I release you from this task.” The middle, the ring and pinky fingers soon followed. “Arhalda, Vestra and Kari be blessed, I release you from this task. For this boon I am grateful, for your lenience I give thanks. Please forgive my foolishness.” The strings of these four, and all the lesser winds, slipped away from my digits as breath and motion returned to Midgard. Tension flowed out of my body and I felt the winds of many worlds sigh in relief.

Mordgud nodded, and started rubbing feeling back into my hand as her eyes returned to hazel.

“Thank you,” she said while releasing my hand.

“For what?”

“For ending what needed ending, and nothing more.”

With a quizzical expression, I transferred the knife to my left hand and tapped the gate with its hilt. A hum reverberated through its metal before the great doors screeched inward enough for us to pass.

“You could use a friend right now,” she said softly before we entered, eyes downcast.

“Are you offering?”

“I am,” she agreed, looking up into mine.

Sighing, I nodded. “I have need of all the friends I can get.”

Without reclaiming her blade, she smiled, took my hand and led me in.

 


Note: All comments are appreciated. They help fuel faster writing and posting of these stories.

[1] A furlong is 200 meters or 220 feet. It’s an Anglo-Saxon measurement for the length of a ploughed furrow in an acre of field (“furlong” = furrow-long” from A.S. furh and lang). A furlong was forty rods, and an acre of land was four rods by forty. Field were long and narrow because it’s a lot of work to turn around a team of oxen with a plough. At the time, Saxons used the North German foot (which is ten percent longer than the modern foot). A furlong was 600 old feet (now it’s 660 new feet) or 200 old yards (220 new yards). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Furlong

[2] Mordgud’s name means “Good Mother” and is pronounced “Mord-good.” That’s the English version of her name in common Pagans usage, the Old Norse being Móðguðr. Another derivation could be móðr, “temperament; wrath; courage”, as opposed to móðir which means mother.

[3] A gambeson is a padded jacket made with up to 30 layers of cloth quilted together, usually linen canvas, used as armor or worn underneath metal armor. Stitching every two inches or so creates the gambeson’s characteristic grid or diamond shaped pattern. It may have full, half or no sleeves, be tied at the front for convenience or laced on the sides for better protection.

Not counting the time needed to spin and weave the cloth, a recreation required 40 yards of cloth and about 60 hours of quilting (a “stuffed gambeson”, whose inner layers are scraps of cloth, takes only about 5 hours to make but provide much less protection than a quilted one – those would have been used under metal armor). With half sleeves, it weighs 16 lbs (7 kg). Chain mail armor would have cost as much as a small farmstead, so gambesons were the common man’s armor in Viking times. Cloth and labor was much more readily available than metal (which was painstakingly extracted and refined from bogs).

In tests, the quilted gambeson completely stopped sword, axe and spear, thrusted and thrown, but allowed 1-3cm of penetration of arrows. In other words, they are excellent for hand-to-hand combat, but lousy against arrows. The risk of infection was high, but it was better than having an arrow go all the way through your chest. See this link http://costumegirl.wordpress.com/2010/04/01/the-making-of-a-medieval-gambeson/ for construction and testing. It’s essentially a Viking age Kevlar vest.

The top picture is a woman’s stuffed gambeson, with far too few layers, but at least it’s the right color. A real one is about an inch thick and typically has a diamond grid of stitches instead of vertical lines. http://steel-mastery.com/en/padded-armour/gambesons/woman-gambeson is pretty and http://steel-mastery.com/images/products/full/early-medieval-gambeson-6.jpg is diamond quilted like Gna’s.

[4] These are images of medieval women’s undergarments, and here is a video on medieval bras. http://www.historyextra.com/lingerie and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wVEMvp0dVuc. Socks were knitted out of wool with a method called nálbinding.

Not to be confused with a brigandine, or “studded armor,” developed in the 12th century. That one is made with small plates of steel sandwiched between two layers of canvas or leather, with each plate riveted in place.

 

 

 

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Comments
  1. Lyra says:

    You’re good at leaving your audience hanging for more :p .

    Can’t wait for the next installment!

    Like

  2. sonyjalerulv says:

    I was moved by the different side of Mordgud you shows. Offering Oathbreaker, knowing very well one of the way Gla could choose would be her own death or Gna’s. Her thanks, ‘For ending what needed ending, and nothing more. ‘ is very telling. And her offer of friendship clenched my throat.
    Nice test of character for Gna.

    Like

  3. lofnbard says:

    It was indeed a test. Mordgud was perhaps less at risk than she appeared to, Gna just doesn’t know the rules of the realm yet. That being said, the consequences of a bad choice would have been dire for our young heroine. She’s slowly gaining maturity, at a very high cost.

    I’m a huge fan of Mordgud. 🙂

    Like

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