Good Morning, Everyone!
Sophia had our family committed to so many social engagements this past weekend — which, come to think of it, actually seems to be the case every weekend — that I missed giving a shout-out to the summer solstice…not a very smart thing to do when you’re writing an epic fantasy that, among other things, sets the stage for the 12th Century return of warlocks and witches!
So, forgive me, my Druids of Rhydderch and Coven of the Mists— before your Celtic descendants gather in some sarsen-stone ridden knoll to cast a hex my way, let’s properly greet the season with a “summery” moment from The Codex Lacrimae: Part 1, The Mariner’s Daughter & Doomed Knight. http://www.The Codex Lacrimae_Pt 1 In this case, I’ve chosen one of my favorite scenes from the Norse Nine Worlds: Bk. 2, Ch. 1’s “The Forest of Alfheim,” when Aurelius meets Grimnir in the Forest of Alfheim. Enjoy!
from The Codex Lacrimae, Part 1: The Mariner’s Daughter & Doomed Knight
by and © A.J. Carlisle (2012)
Book 2: The Roots of Yggdrassil
Chapter 1: The Forest of Alfheim
The youth awakened to the sound of a light shower pattering against leaves, a stream gently rippling somewhere close, and the voice of an old man conversing with small children.
Aurelius opened his eyes. An enormous ash tree loomed overhead, whose green, low-lying and dripping boughs stretched almost to the ground where he lay.
For a disorienting moment, he thought himself returned to early childhood, awakening from a nap in the Calabrian forest of southern Italy after taking cover from a cloudburst. He winced at the sorenesses in his shoulder and wrist as he propped himself onto an elbow, relieved that he’d somehow managed to take a break from fencing with his trainer, Devrone di Magglia. The swordsman rarely gave Aurelius a rest during the day, and certainly never in the morning when he said that one got the best training done.
All his senses were alive to nature’s plenitude — the splashing and rippling sounds of a river nearby, the sight of pine needles and moss-covered logs on the damp ground, the smell of bark freshened by a recent rainfall, mixed with a variety of bouquets like foxgloves and hyacinth that Aurelius hadn’t inhaled in years.
In a rush, he came into full waking and realized that he couldn’t be in Calabria — those times were close to a decade past!
He brought a dew-dampened hand to his forehead and sat fully upright, confused, for none of the sights nor sounds was of the Syrian landscape of the Krak des Chevaliers. Retracing his memories, he remembered the battle with the Assassins before the gate and the renegade knight with the bow and arrow.
The Codex, Santini — awaken it now because the trap is sprung. We’re the Huntsmen of Muspelheim. Match our fire with the Codex Lacrimae, or die!
The blond-haired archer’s words echoed in his mind but — except for the facts that the traitor somehow knew his true identity and referred to the Codex Lacrimae — they made no sense to him.
He instinctively reached a hand to the back of his shoulder at the memory of his injuries. When his hand fell back to his lap, he noticed that a long white scar marked his wrist where he’d been struck in the melee by the gate. He was clad in the same garments, but now in a clean uniform of his order, with all his weapons accounted for, the clothes stained neither by the blood of the earlier surgery on Roberto, nor by the gore of battle.
A horrifying concern intruded: Oh, God, what happened to Marcus?
He looked cautiously around him, seeing not his younger friend, but instead a bonfire across the open space in the trees.
An old man in a midnight blue cloak relaxed at the edge of the glade, lazily fishing in the river that ran along a rocky shore. The stranger sat on a gigantic, moss-covered yew log and poked at a fire with a different branch. He looked up and nodded when he noticed Aurelius looking at him.
A pointed blue hat and long white beard marked the elderly man’s features, whose wide brim cast the rest of his face and eyes into shadow. The figure seemed so completely at ease in this place that some animals had drawn near him — a sizable squirrel perching comfortably at one end of the log, a rooster trotting to and fro around the campsite pecking at seeds, and — of all the creatures that Aurelius never expected to see in a campsite area — two grey wolves who lay panting at the man’s feet, both predators glaring at Aurelius with feral yellow eyes.
Aurelius rose, fully conscious of his surroundings and definitely aware that in this springtime environment he wasn’t anywhere near the late-autumn desert lands of the Krak des Chevaliers.
He touched the trunk of the ash tree beside him, tracing a forefinger through one of the wooden rivulets that marked its ancient trunk. It felt real. Despite the dampness, when he pried some bark away there was a dry, dusty feel to the wood. The sun still remained hidden behind the upper branches of the trees, but Aurelius could tell that the hour was just past midmorning. To his north, a mountain loomed high beyond the forest and into storm clouds that gathered at its hidden heights. The meadow where he stood abutted with what appeared to be a foothill and lake of this mountain.
A chill passed through him as he looked toward the obscured peak, as if some part of him recognized the towering mass with dread and foreboding.
“Vieni,” the old man said in Italian, beckoning, “sit down, per favore. There’s a lull between the storms and plenty of room here by the fire.”
“Grazie,” Aurelius replied, taking a seat on one of the logs by the fire, albeit a healthy distance from the two wolves. The animals rose in unison to seated positions on their haunches, the hackles of their fur rising in threatening defense. At a quietly spoken word from their master, however, they both lay fully on the ground and appeared to fall asleep. The squirrel, far from darting away at the wolf’s motions or Aurelius’s approach, came closer until it was an arm’s span from the old man.
“Mi scusi,” Aurelius said after a few minutes, when no words were forthcoming from the stranger and the fire’s crackling and popping were the only sounds in the glade, “but what land is this?”
The old man grunted and poked the fire again. When he looked up from under his broad-edged hat, Aurelius could see that a brown leather patch covered his left eye.
“You’ve been sleeping there for a while, young man,” he observed, his right eye gleaming. “Curious isn’t it, that you don’t know where you are?”
Aurelius shrugged, no answer possible under the circumstances. How could there be, when he couldn’t even make his own reckoning of the situation — wasn’t this all a dream?
“I know a riddle that might be of help,” the stranger said. “Do you know riddling?”
“Some kinds,” Aurelius replied guardedly. He didn’t much care for riddles because what he did remember of them had to do with his earlier childhood — happier times spent training with Devrone di Magglia and Brother Tomas — memories he’d shied away from since the Battle of Mecina. There was no time in his present life for the betrayals of the past.
“Try to answer this,” the old man said with a chuckle:
One of nine lands, forested in tree’s ashen truth,
Odin gave Freyr in days bygone, as gift for a tooth.
Near white-capped teeth, whose bite chills, uneating,
Dwell eternity’s children, at play, never aging.
“Would you repeat that, please?” Aurelius asked, frowning.
The old man did so, and the young squire’s frown deepened.
He thought he knew the answer, but it didn’t make sense for the question he’d been asked. It couldn’t make sense if he were to maintain his reason and sanity.
While he thought about the riddle, Aurelius speculated on what could have happened after he succumbed to the madness that had taken him in front of the gate, how he could be here. None of this made sense.
“This place feels like a forest where I spent much time as a boy,” Aurelius said. “Near the Apennines in Calabria, in southern Italy on the Tyrrhenian coast.” He nodded upward at the sky. “But, things here — the position of the sun, the trees, that mountain over there — it’s all different from what I remember, and reminds me of northern lands, like Sweden or Norway.”
“I should say so,” the old man agreed. “Those other Roman places you describe are hundreds — thousands — of leagues distant.”
“We are in the North Lands, then?” Aurelius guessed. “Somewhere in Scandinavia?”
“Why don’t you try answering the riddle?” The old man murmured as he continued to stare into the fire.
“He seems to be something of a dolt, Grimnir” the squirrel chirped abruptly, lifting an acorn from the pile of nuts on the log, scrutinizing it curiously with large black eyes, and then discarding it back into the pile. “I don’t think that he’d recognize the backside of a riddle if it had just run him down and was dashing away.”
Aurelius started, his eyes widening in shock at the animal’s speech.
The squirrel ignored him, testing another acorn with his teeth. When Aurelius started to ask the stranger if he’d heard the same thing — did I hear aright? did the animal speak and call the man ‘Grimnir?’ — Aurelius got interrupted by another voice close at his side.
“Leave it be for a while, Ratatosk” the rooster clucked, emerging from behind the other end of the fallen tree to peck at the seeds the old man cast on the ground near Aurelius’s feet. “It seems that the lad’s had a rough time of it.”
Ratatosk lifted another acorn from the mound, eyed it, and then placed it down on the log with a disdainful pursing of its lips. “Nuts to you, Vidofnir, and rotting oak trees to you, Grimnir, if you think these acorns are anything close to edible.”
The squirrel abruptly hopped onto one of the sleeping wolves, who awakened with a growl and snap of its fangs. It lurched upward, shrugging, and flung the rodent high into the air directly at a tree.
Warbling in delight, Ratatosk stretched his fore and hind legs and glided into the upper boughs of the silver fir tree. He scampered down the soft white wood of the trunk and dashed across the grasses back to the wolf.
“That wasn’t very kind, Geri,” Ratatosk said as he hopped onto the other wolf’s back again and then onto the log. “Keep that up and I won’t tell you where to find a herd of deer for tonight’s meal.”
“We can smell any herd, Fool,” the other wolf snarled, snapping at the squirrel so that Ratatosk had to jump back a few feet to avoid the wolf’s fangs, “but I wouldn’t mind splitting you as an appetizer with my brother.”
“You’d have to catch me first, Freki,” the squirrel chittered, “and none move faster in the Nine Worlds than —”
“Freki, Geri — heel,” the old man grumbled at the wolves. “Ratatosk, that’s enough out of you for the moment.”
He directed his gaze again at the astonished young man across from him. “Well, do you know the answer to my riddle?”
“The…animals, they all speak?” Aurelius asked in utter disbelief.
“See? I told you, Grimnir — he’s an imbecile.” If possible for his kind, Ratatosk seemed to smirk as he selected another acorn to inspect. “Of course, we animals can talk,” he continued, turning to Aurelius, “you seem to be the speechless one here — do you know the answer to Grimnir’s riddle, or not?”
“I think so,” Aurelius said softly, marveling at the creature’s ability to communicate. “If I’m correct, though, then I’m confused.”
“Give an answer, then.” Grimnir said. “Let’s see if you have the sense of it.”
“Well,” Aurelius reflected as he spoke, “the phrases `nine lands’ and `in tree’s ashen truth’ make me think of the Nine Worlds of the Norsemen, bound together by the great yew tree, Yggdrassil.”
Grimnir nodded. “Go on,” he encouraged.
“If I remember the Norse myths a’right, then the ‘gift to Freyr’ and ‘eternity’s children, at play, never aging’ must mean that this is the world of Alfheim. That would make the children the Light Elves, but I get confused at the meaning of ‘teeth not biting.’ Normally in riddles, I’d take a reference to teeth for mountains, and ‘biting, uneating’ for chill winds. That’s what’s confusing. From what I know about the Nine Worlds, Alfheim is a land of warmth and light — forests, seas, great lakes, those sorts of things.”
“It is, indeed,” Grimnir agreed, “and you’ve reckoned it correctly.” He leaned forward, amusement arching his bushy eyebrows. “I threw in the bit about teeth to refer to Mount Glittertind, and the Jotunheim Mountain Range. The mountains don’t come into the old tales nearly as much as they should — Alfheim and Svartalfheim have forests, yes, but they also have many, many mountains. The bones of the world, they are.”
Aurelius followed his gaze and rested his eyes on the great mountain that rose above the forest. “Is that Glittertind, then?” he asked.
Grimnir’s eyes clouded. “Part of it,” he said cryptically. He glanced at the squirrel. “It seems that you’re the one to misjudge things this time, Little One.”
Ratatosk flicked his tail up in disgust and leapt onto Grimnir’s shoulder, curling around the back of his neck, where his head almost got lost in the white beard. The squirrel didn’t completely disappear, though, because Aurelius could still see the black eyes peering intelligently at him.
“Tell me, if you will,” Grimnir said, “where did you learn of these `myths?’ You’re Italian, aren’t you? Most of your people hold to traditions of the Greeks and Romans. I thought that the ways of the north had been lost in those Mediterranean lands.”
Aurelius smiled. “I grew up in Sicily and southern Italia, so I think that I’m a little bit of both lands.” The fire had diminished while they spoke, and Aurelius picked up a log.
“Of course,” Grimnir said.
Aurelius tossed the wood onto the flames, his effort immediately rewarded by a crackling of renewed combustion.
“As for the Norse myths,” he said, “I was introduced to them by an old friend who used to trade in the northern sea routes.” He paused. “He took me to Norway once. When I was very young.”
Grimnir grunted, raising the bushy white brow over his eyepatch. “You’re still very young.”
“No,” Aurelius countered, “even younger than now. I was a boy. I don’t think I was even twelve yet.”
“Was your family with you?” Grimnir asked. “Your mother and father, brothers or sisters?”
“No, no —” Aurelius began to reply and then stopped. How did this man know anything about his family? “It was a good trip, though,” he finished, trying to think of something general to say, “and sailing on the northern seas and fjords was an experience I’ll never forget.”
Grimnir peered at him with an amused expression on his face, his good eye twinkling.
“I’d not forget that, either, if I were you,” the old man said. “Did you learn the word for ‛ocean’ while you were there?”
Aurelius thought for a moment, then murmured from a distant memory, “Hav.”
Grimnir laughed, and tickled the squirrel under its chin. “Yes, yes, Hav.” He adjusted his seat on the log and lifted the fishing rod from the crook of the fallen log.
“Hmph,” he continued, angling his chin slightly to look at the squirrel still under his neck. “It seems that there’s much here that you didn’t tell me about, Ratatosk.” He then looked intently at Aurelius. “I give you that memory as a gift, Boy. Remember the ocean. It’s a good word, Hav, and to the Northmen it was everything.”
Aurelius glanced at the running water of the stream, nodding in agreement, still thinking of the trip with that old friend, Devrone di Magglia.
The youth grimaced and tried to push away the memory — that trip had been only six years ago, the summer before Mecina when he was twelve, and marked the beginning of the end of his childhood. Upon returning from that journey, he’d been told by his father that he could never again see Devrone, nor even his professor, Brother Tomas. Then, events had taken a course that saw the boy setting sail to the Holy Land with the spring tide.
Why couldn’t I see Devrone and Tomas again? He silently asked for the ten-thousandth time of his long-absent parents. If you wanted me to be a priest, I could’ve served just as well where I’d been training at the monastery of Santa Maria di Corazzo. Why did we let Uncle Servius into our lives, and why was it so urgent that we go to the Holy Land? There was no pilgrimage there, no Jerusalem…only Mecina.
“We had a rough time of it in the North Sea, but made it through to the Schlei Fjord,” Aurelius recalled, “and we spent a week in the town of Schleswig.”
“A busy port, Schleswig,” Grimnir grunted, “but good folk there. Good folk.”
“That was my experience,” Aurelius agreed, then elaborated, “We spent most of the time near the docks, hosted by family friends of my sword-master, Devrone di Magglia. They were shipwrights, working on knarrs,” he recalled, referring to the type of shallow-drafted Viking merchant boat used to transport goods and livestock. The young knight shook his head, smiling. “I haven’t thought about them in years. Each member of the family was an amazing craftsman.”
Grimnir grunted again in acknowledgement, and leaned to the side to pull a mattock from where it had cloven into the tree trunk. “The Northmen know their boats. Here. Try your own skill with a blade. If you’d like to fish, cut a solid length from those shrubs over there with this. The salmon are very big in this stream, and too slender a rod will snap on your first attempt.”
Aurelius looked more closely at Grimnir’s fishing rod and saw now that it was simply a length of hazel-wood, stripped clean of its thin leaves, with a line of horsehair attached to an iron hook that had a bit of partridge feather for a fly.
“Silver salmon run here,” Grimnir repeated, “and there’s some bushes yonder that make for decent rods. I’d appreciate any help with catching dinner.” He raised his hands. “These paws don’t work like they used to — too often the fish are bigger than I expect and come unhooked before I can club them.”
“They’re that big?” Aurelius asked.
“Oh, yes. I’ve caught some at this part of the river over three handspans long.”
Aurelius took the hatchet offered to him, not believing for a moment that the old man was too weak to clobber a fish. There seemed to be a tremendous power in Grimnir that belied every move he made and word he spoke. Aurelius didn’t know why he felt so assured that the old man posed no threat to him, but he felt curiously safe around him and the talking animals.
“Grazie,” he said simply, and walked back to the hazel shrubs, realizing that he was suddenly very hungry. He saw instantly that the shrubs were no such thing at all; before him were ancient hazel trees, so dense that their trunks were wider than Aurelius’s waist. He’d have to climb high into the growth to even reach branches that could be serviceable for fishing!
He groaned — the sight reminded him of the times that Devrone had sent him to forage for blackberries, knowing full well that the most bountiful shrubs were those on the western side of the monastery and accessible only by a half day’s effort of scaling the walls. Aurelius would return at the end of a hard afternoon’s reaping with a couple of basket’s worth of berries, only to be told by Devrone that he shouldn’t have wasted so much time on a frivolous woman’s task and to get back to training with the sword.
Feeling the same flare of temper and irritation that he’d felt ten years ago, Aurelius turned to ask Grimnir if the hazel trees here were the only source of ‘decent’ branches for fishing rods. He stopped short. The old man, animals, and even the fire — all were gone.
Aurelius ran to the campsite, in a glance noting that only the fist-sized rocks of the shore, the moss-covered logs, and grassy sward remained. He knelt at the area of the site where the firepit had been and touched the grey stones; they were cold and untouched by flame or ash. He rose and looked up and down the stream, but saw nothing except the water rushing over cobbles, gravel, and sand.
He began walking toward the boulder-bridge, regret and disappointment replacing the irritation he’d felt at the prospect of trying to reach a suitable branch for his rod. He’d still fish, but now without the company he’d found (and welcomed) upon awakening in a foreign land.
Habit took over his acceptance of the situation. For as long as he could recall, Aurelius had been forced to react to situations that were far beyond his control. From when he was five years’ old and his father told him abruptly that he’d be spending every subsequent summer with Devrone di Magglia — with no explanation ever given — Aurelius had learned that there were some things in the world that were simply inexplicable.
The same held true in this instance: this dream would unfold in its own way, and he’d awaken from it in his own time.
He chuckled at the memory of the talking squirrel, pecking hen, and irritated wolves.
Da Dio, aveva goduto di parlare con quel vecchio! By God, he’d really enjoyed talking with that old man!
He reached the bridge and stood above it, watching the river water speed in a cascading rush through the rapids. Mesmerized by the short waterfall and the salmon occasionally making leaps into the lower river, his mind cast back to the days of his earlier youth… [End of excerpt from A.J. Carlisle’s The Codex Lacrimae, Part 1: The Mariner’s Daughter & Doomed Knight http://www.The Codex Lacrimae_Pt 1]
Next time: Worlds of Medieval Literature (1) Introduction!