A Stranger in the Woods

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic
Rolf lives a simple life for a Norseman. He and his dog, Ubba, keep to themselves. But when a stranger is nearly killed by a horde of warriors right outside his homestead, he has no choice but take action. Rolf soon finds the stranger isn't what he seems to be...and his actions may come with a cost.

Submitted: October 02, 2018

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Submitted: October 02, 2018

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980 A.D., Danish held lands, Northern England.

The sun was blinding as it rose over the freshly fallen snow and frost covered trees surrounding Rolf’s little homestead; he grimaced his heavily bearded face when the light hit his eyes.It was cold…very cold. It was on mornings like this he dreaded the hike up to the stream that provided his little homestead with water. Still, it had to be done, he thought.

“Ahhhh.” The brisk winter air struck Rolf hard in the face as he stepped outside. “It’s cold as a Frost Giant’s bottom out here this morning, eh Ubba? Good thing you’ve got that coat of yours to cover your backside.” Rolf laughed at his own joke. Ubba, Rolf’s only companion, wagged his tail in agreement and hurried alongside his master as they moved unsteadily through the heavy snow up to the stream.

“I hope the ice isn’t as thick as it was yesterday, old friend. It’ll take us forever to break it into something we can use if it is. Don’t you worry, though, old Rolf won’t let you die of thirst this day. We just might have to wait a bit for it to warm by the fire is all.”

Ubba stopped short and began to growl. He stared out into the woods intently; he clearly saw or heard something Rolf could not. The hair along his back and all the way down to his tail, was standing fully alert and he had pulled his lips back into a menacing snarl.

“Easy, boy. What do you see, eh? A bear? Perhaps a dragon this time?” Rolf teased. But, he was at ease. There were a great many things in the woods that could hurt a man and his dog, but more often than not it was a squirrel or some such. Still, he gripped his axe just a little tighter as he continued up the trail after Ubba.

“Come on then, we’ve got water to get before we can head back…you want breakfast, don’t you?”Ubba growled his displeasure; but Rolf was unphased by the dog’s pleas until he heard the clang of steel on steel and the sounds of battle. Who would be fighting here…in his woods? There was not an army for miles and certainly no invading army could have gotten that close overnight; he’d been out along the ridge facing the river just the night before. He pulled at Ubba’s rope collar and slowly eased back down the path towards his cabin. He spoke gently to Ubba to try to calm him, but the little warrior was stiff and preparing for a fight. Finally, to cover as much ground as possible, Rolf reached down and picked Ubba up and began running down the path to the relative safety of this home. Once there, he slammed the door and placed a large wooden beam upon its braces to lock it from the inside. He moved to the windows and latched them tightly before bracing the back door as well. Slowly, he peeked out one of the holes he had placed in the wall for just this very reason. It was big enough to keep an eye on much of the woods from inside, but small enough that it could not be used to gain entry. Rolf knew the little ports were hard to see from outside, so they provided safe cover as he watched the woods intently for any sign of the battle he’d heard up the path.

A tall man burst from the underbrush. He was wrapped from head to boots in a ragged gray cloak and he had a brimmed hat pulled down low over his eyes. He stumbled as he came, leaning on a tall walking stick for support. His head was bleeding from a wound just above his left ear and crimson ran down the side of his face to stain his long cloak. He nearly fell as he moved into the clearing in front of the small cabin. Rolf couldn’t make out much about the man’s face with the hat pulled down as low as he had it, but he had a long beard the color of fresh snow that fell to his chest. Rolf could tell that he had once been a man of some girth in his youth, but now it seemed that age or his wounds, or both, had taken their toll and bent his frame. Rolf was certain that without his stick he’d not be able to walk at all.

Rolf could make out the shapes and shadows of others in the woods now. “There must be a dozen of them out there, boy.” Ubba stood at his master’s side, resolute and unwavering. As if prodded by Rolf’s words, a dozen warriors stepped out of the brush and moved to surround the tall old man. At the center of the group, a few yards behind the tall stranger, stepped two men out from behind the thick, snow covered branches. These were the leaders, Rolf thought. The larger of the two men, and he was quite large Rolf noted, grinned with crooked green teeth as he moved towards the staggering cloaked stranger. The man was of immense size, seven or eight feet in height at least, even stooping as he did, and his shoulders and arms were as thick as the trees of the surrounding forest. His head was bald and covered with tattoos in striking blue patterns and he carried a massive axe that he clearly meant to kill the bewildered looking old man with. He knocked the man in gray to the ground and lifted his axe high above his head. Rolf knew a fatal blow was coming, but he couldn’t look away. The stranger in the hat lifted his eyes to face the giant with a look of confusion and dismay …and yet Rolf saw strength in his profile.

“Today you die, old king,” said the giant with the axe. “You should not wander where you do not belong.”

“I…I don’t know what you mean,” said the man in the hat. “Who are you and why…?” His voice trailed off as if he could no longer remember what he was going to say. He looked up at the big man and bravely faced what was coming next. Rolf could see there was no fear in the man, despite the giant’s axe. 

The tattooed man laughed heartily. “You took a harder blow to your head than I thought, didn’t you Gallows God? Well, worry not. It will all be over soon.” 

The other man moved up beside the giant. He was a tall but slender man with a great horned helmet. Up until now, he had stood at the edge of the woods like an observer.

“Hurry, you buffoon. If you’re going to do it, you need to do it now.” There was urgency in the horned man’s words as he looked around and then up to the sky. Unlike the old man, Rolf saw that there was fear in his eyes. Great fear.

“Back off, Trickster” said the bald giant as he stood hovering over the wounded old man. “I want to enjoy this. My axe hasn’t tasted kingly blood in a long time and I mean to take my enjoyment.” With that, he raised his axe higher and prepared to drop it heavily on the man in gray.

There was a sound like splitting wood and the giant man’s eyes rolled back in his head as he slumped forward onto his great knees. He gurgled blue blood as it began to flow from his eyes and mouth. Then, without making a sound, he simply fell over. Rolf’s wood cutting axe was buried deep in the man’s big skull. Rolf turned swiftly to face the other man but found only woods and snow where the man had been just a moment before. He’d vanished. The other warriors maintained their distance just inside the tree line surrounding the small cabin, the sight of their fallen leader had caught them by surprise and most were looking around for the other, smaller man with the horned helmet.

Rolf ran out into the clearing and lifted the cloaked stranger to his feet. “Hurry, my friend, we’ve got to move quickly.” Rolf’s breathing was labored; the old man was far heavier than he looked.

“Why…why did you help me?” asked the cloaked stranger as Rolf guided him towards his cabin.

“I couldn’t just stand by and watch” said Rolf. “I’m not sure why. I guess I thought maybe I’d be next.” There was truth in both statements. Rolf had indeed been afraid that the giant would kill him next. But, there was also something else that Rolf couldn’t seem to put his finger on; something told him that he needed to take action and so he did. It was his way.

“Let’s get you inside. There you go, easy does it.” Rolf handed the old man his staff and together they made their way into his cabin as swiftly as they could and locked the big, wooden door behind them. He knew his meager defenses would be of no consequence to the warriors outside, but honestly, it wasn’t them he was concerned about. He was watching for the one that disappeared. There is magic at work here, he thought. Rolf did not trust magic. Regardless, he wasn’t sure where the other man had gone but he clearly wanted the older man dead. Rolf was willing to bet his best goat he’d be back.

The tall stranger sat heavily on a stool by the fire and began to warm himself. Rolf alternated between staring at him and watching the warriors outside move to surround his cabin. They kept their distance, but they were surrounding his home.

“Who is that….out there?” Rolf finally asked motioning with his head in the direction of the front door. “And who are you?”

“I…I’m not sure, on either account I’m afraid,” the big man said as he removed his hat and set it down on the table beside the stool. Ubba issued a low growl, but otherwise didn’t show the older man any aggression. The big dog looked back at Rolf and slowly lowered itself to the ground at Rolf’s feet.

“Well, Ubba doesn’t usually take well to strangers. So, if he’s at ease with you, that’s good enough for me. I can’t say as much for your friends outside. You may not remember them, friend, but they certainly know you. For now, they seem content to leave you here. But, I’m afraid that is only temporary. Once the other man with the horns returns, I’m afraid it will just be a matter of time.” Rolf turned to look at the older man, then looked around at his cabin. “Probably burn the place down, I’d imagine. Easier that way, I guess. Either way, we have found ourselves in a grave situation, stranger,” said Rolf as he returned his attention to the men moving just past the wood line around his home.

Rolf moved away from his perch by the wall and stepped towards the old man. “Let’s get a look at that wound, friend. You’ve bled a considerable amount.” The stranger looked down at his cloak and reached up to touch the source, a heavy wound that had mostly been hidden by his hat. The big man turned and looked at Rolf and smiled. It was the first time Rolf had gotten a good look at his features. He had the appearance of a battle-hardened warrior with deep lines and noticeable scars, yet his face showed kindness. His smile was disarming, and he had an old bandage draped over one of his eyes. His beard was full and white, and his one good eye was bright and as blue as the North Sea. Rolf knew the face in an instant based on the stories he’d been told as child. The missing eye, the wide brimmed hat and cloak…he was in the presence of Odin, king of his gods. At least, he thought he might be. He laughed at himself and dismissed the thought. It couldn’t be. This man, though he had the bearing of a great man, and the once powerful build of a warrior, was old and weak. He was hunched over, and he seemed too feeble to walk without his walking stick. If it was Odin, he’d certainly seen better days, Rolf mused.

Rolf did his best to clean the wound and the old man set idle and let him do as he would. He retrieved some clean cloth from a trunk in the corner and wrapped the old man’s head.

“There. That should at least stop the bleeding,” Rolf said.

“Thank you, I am in your debt…I’m sorry, did you tell me your name?” The stranger, or Odin…Rolf wasn’t sure, looked sincerely into Rolf’s eyes. Rolf realized he had not. Everything happened so quickly.

“Well, I’m not sure it will matter shortly, but my name is Rolf, son of Gunder the elder. And this…this is Ubba.” Ubba raised up on his front legs at the mention of his name, a big sloppy grin on his face.

“Rolf Gunderson…and Ubba. It is my pleasure to meet you both, and you both have my gratitude,” the big man said leaning heavily on his stick for balance as he tried to stand.

“Easy, friend, easy,” Rolf said as he moved to help the older man. “So, you really don’t remember who you are or who those men are that want you dead?”

“No. I’m afraid all I remember is walking on the beach. Next thing I know, I’m being pummeled by a giant. I tried to fight back, but I really don’t remember much else.”

Rolf pondered the situation. The man did bear a great resemblance to how his god, Odin, had been said to appear…only older, weaker. But, surely the great Odin would have easily dispatched his attackers. Then, Rolf remembered one of the old tales his mother had told him about the great king. According his mother, Odin was enamored with man. More accurately, he was enamored with being a man. He would have his wizards transform him into a man, or as close as a god could come to a man, and he was said to go out and walk Midgard for weeks, even months, at a time. But in the end, Odin would always revert to his all-powerful form with only a thought. If this was truly the king of Rolf’s gods, why hadn’t he changed back and decimated his attackers? Unless he didn’t realize he could, Rolf thought. The wound to his head, perhaps a lucky shot taken by the giant before Odin had realized what was happening, had addled his mind. And if he truly was in the state of a man, he was mortal. In fact, Rolf reasoned that was what the other man, surely the trickster Loki, had counted on. The picture was becoming clear to Rolf, but he still had a problem before him. Odin or not, the man with him was just a man and there was a small army of warriors outside his cabin preparing to kill them both.

Rolf stood and went from one hole in his wall to the next and tried to find out if the army had taken any kind of action. They had not. They still stood just inside the tree line, but the cabin was completely surrounded now. He counted dozens of warriors ranging in size from dwarf to giant. But, still no Loki. Were they waiting on him? Rolf knew that he needed to find way to jar his guest’s memory and he figured he only had until Loki came back to do it.

“So, friend, do you remember where you are from? Your home, maybe?”

The old man seemed lost for a moment as he mused over Rolf’s question. “I remember great golden halls and…and a family, I think. Not much more.” A plan began to form in Rolf’s mind. He just hoped it would work in time to save both their lives.

“I see,” Rolf said. “Great halls, huh? That reminds me of the stories of Valhalla. I’ve heard it said that those that live a peaceful life can find a home there after they die. I’ve heard it is somewhere around here, in the land of the Pict’s perhaps, eh?” Rolf paused to gauge the reaction of his guest. The old man, looked at Rolf with his one good eye and cocked his head slightly to the right as he considered what Rolf had said.

“That doesn’t sound quite right,” he said after a time. “But I can’t remember my name, so I’ll have to take your word on it.”

“Oh, I’m pretty sure that’s right. Valhalla is magnificent with a great wall around the borders. It’s a great nation!”

“I thought you said it was a hall,” the old man said looking doubtfully at Rolf. “Where peaceful men went when they died.”

“So, I did,” said Rolf. “I meant it’s located in a great nation, called Niflheim. At any rate, there is a great wall surrounding it. It was built by the Frost Giants that rule over the gods”

“That’s…that’s not right,” the stranger said. “The Frost Giants…aren’t in Niflheim with the gods. The gods aren’t…” His voice trailed off as he pondered his words. Rolf watched hopefully.

A loud crack shook Rolf from his seat. Then another. His little cabin rocked with each sound. Rolf moved quickly to the viewing hole in the wall. He’d been so focused on his plan to awaken Odin, he’d forgotten to keep an eye on what was going on outside. One of the giants was pulling up small trees by the roots and whirling them at the cabin.

“You have no time,” the brute yelled in a broken dialect. “Come out. Will destroy!”

Rolf could see the warriors surrounding his home preparing for battle. They were adjusting great bows and lighting arrows on fire in anticipation of burning the home down. There had to be fifty of them or more now. And standing just behind the tree slinging behemoth, was Loki. Or at least, Rolf assumed it was Loki. It was the same tall man with the horned helm he’d seen at the start of all this.

“You come NOW,” the great beast bellowed. Loki had his arms crossed and stood back, staying aloof but clearly calling the shots. For a moment, Loki’s eyes met Rolf’s and he smiled. Rolf pulled away from the wall quickly. Ubba’s barking was incessant despite Rolf’s attempts to calm his friend.

“I will go. You’ve been very kind, but I cannot let them hurt you to get to me,” the stranger said as he picked up his wide hat off the floor.

“Nonsense. We’re perfectly safe,” Rolf lied. He was getting somewhere, he knew it. He just needed more time. So, as the thuds of the flying tree trunks continued to shake the cabin, Rolf continued with his plan. “You were saying something about the gods...the gods from the walled city of Niflheim? Or about their masters, the Frost Giants?”

Rolf saw a flash of anger in the old man’s eyes. It was brief, but it was there. “The gods have no masters…and they live in Asgard.”

“Are you sure? I’m pretty sure it Niflheim. The Frost Giants make them live there,” Rolf added.

“No…no. That’s not right,” the old man said shaking his head as if to try and knock something loose inside of it. “The gods are from Asgard…and they have no masters.”

“The Frost Giants rule them, friend. All of them…even their king,” Rolf said.

“No!” There was anger in the stranger’s voice now. Rolf knew he was playing a dangerous game.

Just then, Rolf heard a series of thuds against his home. Then, he smelled the smoke as the burning arrows set the wood of the cabin on fire. He was running out of time.

“Yes! The Frost Giants beat and raped the gods they didn’t kill…and their king could do nothing but standby and watch. That’s how it happened!”

“The Frost Giants never took Asgard...”

“Niflheim,” Rolf corrected.

“Asgard! By all the gods of the forest, you are a stubborn one!” The old man was standing now, anger causing his one blue eye to glow fiercely.

Smoke was coming his from the roof and from under the floor boards. Rolf could hear the timber burning and his vision was starting to blur from the foul black smoke that was filling the room.

“The Frost Giants….,” Rolf was cut off mid thought.

“The Frost Giants did nothing! They could not have conquered the gods of Asgard,” the old man said in a rage as part of the roof fell in the back of the cabin.

“Why? Why couldn’t they…,” Rolf said raising his voice to match stranger’s, looking the older man squarely in the eye. “Why not?”

“BECAUSE I DESTROYED THEM!” The old man’s voice boomed and shook the cabin walls. Then, he paused said quietly, “because I destroyed them, and drove the few survivors back to Jotunheim. I…I am…”

“My king,” Rolf said between coughs as he dropped to one knee in front of the all-powerful Odin, king of the gods. In an instant, the old man’s frame swelled and stood upright. He was now more than a head taller than Rolf. His torn and bloody cape fell away to reveal golden armor gleaming in the light of the fire. His eye glowed a deep blue and he coursed with electricity all the way down to his great finger tips. He lifted his hand and his walking stick rose from the ground in front him and flew into his grasp before morphing into a great spear…Gungnir glowed with power as Odin hefted it to his side. Rolf stared in awe, and then collapsed as the smoke took its toll on his body. Ubba licked his master’s face and made a low whine pleading with Odin for help.

“Yes, friend Ubba. This has indeed gone on long enough,” Odin said. He lifted Gungnir over his head and with a flash brought it down hard onto the floor. The shockwave created by the great spear blew out in all directions and put out the flames. He then turned his attention to the door, aimed his spear and released a great blast from the end of it. The door disintegrated. With a wave of his hand, the smoke blew out the door into the crisp outside air. The army of warriors outside grew quiet. Even the great giants pulled back in fear. Loki was nowhere to be seen.

Odin reached down and gently lifted Rolf back into his chair with ease. “Easy, friend Rolf. You and Ubba are safe now. I am sorry for the damage to your home, but I will have it rebuilt for you, you have my word on that. You have done me a great honor this day, Rolf. I will not forget your kindness.”

Odin patted Ubba on the head, put back on his gray cloak and wide-brimmed hat, both now miraculously clean and bloodless, and turned to walk out the door.

“Do you need a sword? I have a sword,” Rolf said. “It’s old, and it hasn’t seen action in years…but I have one if you need it.”

“No, good Rolf,” Odin laughed, “I do not. His peaceful smile now replaced with a sinister grin. 

“Are you sure? There are many of them, my friend,” said Rolf.

“Aye. They are many. But, they will not taste anymore of my blood this day.” With that, the tall stranger that had needed Rolf’s help to even walk just an hour before stepped to the door blocking the light coming in with his girth. He paused looking back over his shoulder at the man who had saved his life.

“Will you be coming back?” Rolf’s tone suggested it was more a question of whether to set two dinner plates than it was one of survival.

“Nay, this is the last you will see of me Rolf, son of Gunder. But know this if you or your lineage should ever need me, call my name three times into the north wind. I will be there for you, as you were here for me this day. You should get behind the stove now…and stay low.”

Rolf did as his friend asked. He was afraid of what was to come, though he did not know exactly what that was to be. If the stories he’d heard growing up were true, this was going to be something he did not want to see or to carry with him in his dreams. Rolf, did as he was told and hid behind the great stove.

Odin stood at the opening that was once Rolf’s door with his cloak drawn close around him and his wide brim hat sitting low on his head. He turned to Rolf one last time and winked at him with his one good eye. A gesture, Rolf was sure, that was meant to put him at peace. It did not; it filled him instead with dread. For in that eye, Rolf saw the lightning flash of the coming storm. He heard a great crack of thunder as he watched his friend, the king of the gods, step out of the doorway to face the countless invaders still surrounding the small cabin.

Rolf closed his eyes and the world outside his home became engulfed in fiery destruction. The cabin rocked, and the cries of the dying could be heard clearly despite the roaring thunder that accompanied the blinding flashes of lightning that devastated the forest around Rolf’s home. He shook with fear pulling himself in as tight against the heavy iron stove as he could get. He huddled behind it as child would hide behind its mother’s skirt.

He would have prayed, but he knew his god was much too busy to hear him.

 

 


© Copyright 2019 Mac Childs. All rights reserved.

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