The Cloaked Man and the Bear
When Eirik had been king for two winters, a cloaked man came into their hall. His hood cast a shadow over his face. Raven-feathers were sewn onto his shoulders. As per the rules of hospitality, he was offered a seat next to Eirik. A slice of meat and a drinking horn was offered to him, and he was invited to share in the revelry. It was one of the warm, summer nights, and dusk had fallen, and if Eirik had been more careful, Eirik would have noticed the stranger’s eyes shining in the dark, as yellow as gold coins.
And then, the stranger’s forehead creased. There was an altar to Bertha in the central, untouched part of the hall. It was crowned with bluebells, aconite, reinroses.
“This is a hall of Northmen is it not?” The stranger said.
“Indeed, it is.” Eirik said.
“But I do not see any offering to the Blacksmith?”
“The goddess Bertha is the patron of my line.” Eirik said. “And it is her season, is it not?”
Throughout the rest of the night, the stranger was quiet. If one was to describe him, they would have said that he was sullen, even angry. He did not partake of any of the wine and food. When he was offered gold; for his patchy cloak and his ragged feathers had been taken note of, he refused. He departed after a few short hours, before dawn had followed. Within a few steps into the night, the dark swallowed him up.
“A strange man.” Asmund said, looking after him.
“I don’t know.” Eirik said. “His mood soured after I told him that Bertha was the patron of my line.”
Asmund shrugged. “He must be one of those Wodan-fanatics.”
“Must be.” Eirik said, the episode already out of his mind. But for the stranger, the episode was like salt in a wound, like a torch of fire held to living flesh. For it was no other than Wayland, who had come to bless Eirik and claim him as his own. He had even come bearing gifts; a sword forged by his own hands, a sheath that protected the wearer from bleeding to death, and a leather mail shirt as tough as dragonhide.
He was filled with rage at what he saw as a betrayal. He was determined to crush Eirik and his line, the line that he had helped create. If he could not have Eirik, he was determined that no one else would. Least of all Bertha, the leader of the Hunt. He had begun this story only to displace her, and it was galling to him that she had somehow come on top. In Asgard, he confronted her, a hammer against her plough, and they began to war. The air grew hot and crackled as weapon met weapon, and Norge experienced strange electric thunderstorms during what should have been a crisp summer.
Eirik did not know that two gods fought over him. But it was only because Bertha and Wayland had distracted each other that he was able to snatch a few years of happiness.
Eirik and his comrades were journeying back from Akerhus when a sudden squall caused them to halt. As luck would have it, there was a small log cabin, with grass and weeds climbing up the walls. Crude, but it was a roof over their heads during what promised to be a miserable night.
Eirik knocked on the door, and then broke it down. It did not occur to him that there might be someone living inside. When he finally managed to creak open the door, he was greeted by small beady eyes, small furred bodies tumbling over the ground. Then, finally, the full-throated roar of a bear-mother greeted them.
She was one of the largest bears that he had ever seen. In that moment, Eirik knew that he was a dead man. Against such a beast, an axe, a sword were all pointless things. She would swat them aside as easily as flies. Something in their pathetic, quaking bodies must have reminded her of cubs, because she roared, and then got down on all fours. With terrifying thumps, she came close to Eirik, placing her massive muzzle near his pulsing throat, and taking in his scent. Finally, she roared again, the force of it like a gale, and then trotted to a corner of the hut, shepherding her cubs with her in the process. She settled down in a corner with a growl, her eyes on Eirik and his companions. Eirik knew that they had been given permission to stay in the hut with her, but she had her eyes on them. Any funny business, and she would crush their throats between her jaws.
In the morning, they rose, damp, cramped, to three wet, scaled fish next to them. The door was slightly ajar, and a breeze was in the air. The storm seemed to have subsided. The bears were nowhere to be seen.
“Maybe we should leave.” Asmund said to Eirik. “Who knows what kind of mood she is going to be in?” With creaks and clatters, they got to their feet. And as for the scaled fish next to them, they didn’t know what to make of it. Surely, it was not the bear. How would she have scaled them anyway? With her claws? Eirik saw Bjarn look at the fish longingly, for they had all missed their last two meals, but he stopped him.
There was a creak by the door. It was a woman almost as large as Eirik. She was covered with hair all over, except, it was golden, and it didn’t show, except in the sun. When clenched, as her hands were now, they resembled drums instead of fists. She had two scars on the side of her cheeks, like a knife had been drawn across her face in a single line. It was clear that this woman was one of the shape-changers. They had always known that they existed, but distantly, like the dragon that slumbered in the forest, the witch who brewed potions in a cave.
Her cubs clung to her skirts. The woman gave Eirik a challenging look, and then they saw what she had gone out for. It was a full deer, dead, with three red lines on its throat.
Asmund was the first one to recover. “Would you like some help?” He said, pulling out the small, but sharp knife in his boot, the one he used as an eating knife. As Asmund touched the hide of the deer, she snarled at him, bearing her teeth, the growl beginning deep inside her belly. Asmund lifted his hands and began to back away. Her cubs snarled, imitating their mother. As she cut, she sliced slivers of the red meat and handed them to her cubs.
Eirik returned to Akerhus a moon later. He broke in the door, like had done before, and curled into a corner, waiting for her to appear with her cubs. He took an inventory of what lay inside. He saw, small carven objects of wood – an elephant, a wolf, a bear. A human. The face had been left blank, but there were slight dimples of a nose, a mouth.
Her name was Thorunn. She had been born of a bear mother and a human father. She liked her fish rare, and she liked her eggs raw, breaking them from one end, and drinking the contents down, like water from a cup. At first, when he walked with her as she hunted, a growl began in her throat. But slowly, she became used to his presence, and greeted him irritably, like he was an unpleasant companion that she was forced to put up with. He would say good morning, and she would ignore him pointedly. But she used to catch fish for his breakfast – cod from the river, and he would roast it over the fire and eat it, even though he never thought of fish as a morning meal. Once, he killed a small deer and brought it back for all of them to share, and was surprised by her rage. She got on two legs and roared, before dropping down on all four. She refused to let her cubs come near that meat. When one rebellious cub managed to get away and nip at a hoof, she swiped him across the face – gently, but with enough force that he fell back.
And still, Eirik stayed.
His perseverance won her over, and he brought her back to court. She brought her cubs with her, and he built a nursery for them. They had only the slightest of the human strain through them, for their father had been one of the brown Ursus bears. Eirik remembered the day Thorunn set them free. In her human form, she got on her hands and knees and nosed them out of the hall. They were already full grown by then, but they refused to go, snuffling around her, clinging to her like they had done when they were little. They rasped her face with their tongues. But she grunted at them softly, and finally they lumbered out of the keep. Just before they became a shadow in the woods, they looked back at Thorunn one last time. And Thorunn stood at the entrance of the keep for a long time, watching the slopes of pine darken as the sky blackened.
Eirik and Thorunn had their own cub – a girl named Regnhilde. Thorunn was concerned at Regnhilde’s lack of pelt. She was perplexed by how puny she was, and worried that Regnhilde might catch cold.
“This is how human children are.” Eirik said.
“Were you like this?” Thorunn asked.
“Yes.” Eirik replied.
“But how did you survive?” Thorunn exclaimed, clearly agitated. Finally, she made a wrap for Regnhilde out of her own pelt, the coarse fur that she removed to attain a human form. She sewed a green and white woollen border to it, and as Regnhilde grew, the pelt grew with her. Eirik watched as Thorunn’s fingers, unused to needle and thread, joined fur and wool together in the warmest swaddling that he had ever seen.
For a time, they were content. They cut their wood, they ruled their people, they established networks of trade with Sverige and Suomi. What Alf and Astrid had done for Bjorgovin, Thorunn and Eirik did for Oslo a hundred times over. By then, Bertha and Wayland had been battling in the sky for almost ten winters. Every time they struck each other, lightning crackled in the sky. Finally, Wayland smote Bertha with all his force, and threw her north, to the place untouched by any sun.
He came then, for Eirik. When Eirik was on a hunt, Wayland led the wolves to him. Thorunn, terrified for Regnhilde, sent her into the forest to stay with her bear brothers. Wayland searched everywhere for Regnhilde, intending to bend her to his purpose, but he was unable to find her.
When Bertha finally returned, Thorunn had been dead and gone for many generations. Because of Regnhilde’s flight to the forest, Bertha had lost sight of Eirik’s descendants. And Oslo had changed, with its spires and castles of stone. The roads that had been so familiar to her – most of them were gone, under cobbles and stilts. Rivers had eroded into gorges, mountains had crumbled and dulled, and new species had begun to flower.
It took her many generations before she could locate one of Eirik’s descendants. By then, it was already 1863, the blood diluted many times over.