Wotan's Pass - by Dave Hoing
ODAY, AT FATHER RAGNI'S INSISTENCE, I killed a raven.
My name is Fjalar, and I am a merchant by trade. Because of my skill with the bow, it is also my task, when need arises, to guide priests through the wilderness, as thieves and cutthroats prowl these roads. An unarmed holy man would be unwise to travel them alone; criminals care nothing for the new truth or the envoys of God who bear witness to it.
The day was cold and wet, as spring always is. In the meadow south of the forest, where the ground slopes sharply upward toward the mountains, the raven attacked us. These birds are common enough, but they are carrion eaters, and I have never known one to assault living humans. Time and again the creature dove at us with talons extended, only to veer away at the last instant. Clearly its intent, if beasts can be said to have intent, was to frighten, not to harm. Such behavior, though odd, was more nuisance than threat. Since we would soon be shielded by the forest, I would have chosen to ignore it; Father Ragni, however, insisted I kill the thing. Unable to dissuade him, I notched an arrow and took aim. A bird in flight is a difficult target for even the best bowman, and my first arrow missed; but my second pierced its breast. The raven shrieked once and plummeted onto the muddy road ahead of us.
Ragni approached the corpse, then reined his horse to a stop and dismounted. "This is a raven, is it not?"
"I have heard," he said, poking its dead body with his staff, "that the heathens in these parts revere ravens and still use them in their unspeakable rituals." Before I could respond he withdrew a small vial from his cloak and knelt to the ground. Mumbling a prayer, he crossed himself and removed my arrow from the bird's breast. Into the oozing wound he sprinkled three drops of holy water. When nothing happened his face clouded with disappointment: I believe he expected the beast to burst into flame! Slowly he stood and replaced the vial in his cloak. "Well, then," he said, "no heathen will blaspheme the Lord with this one again."
I did not tell him that animals were seldom used in pagan rituals.
Ragni climbed back onto his horse and trotted ahead, forcing me to run to catch up. Our road rose north and west into the forest alongside the Fenris River, which flows out of the mountains to the sea. This time of year, with spring rains and melting snow, its current is very swift. Thunder promised more rain; a chilly breeze sifted out of the trees. As I finally overtook Ragni I tapped the horse's nose to slow it. "Father," I panted, "you should not separate yourself from me. If a thief were lying in wait, you would be dead before I could reach you."
The priest dismissed my concern with a gesture. "God is the only protection I need."
It was not God who killed the raven, but I said nothing, for he would only think me insolent and question my faith. Instead I took my position in front of the horse, recalling that the last time I had made this journey Father Grigori had borrowed a mule from church stables and left the horse to me. "If a mule was worthy to bear our Lord into Jerusalem," he'd said, "then a mule is certainly sufficient to carry me to Sessrymnir."
Ragni had a different view. The mules, he declared, were Church property and could be used more profitably in the city. One horse, mine, would have to do. It was not proper that a priest should walk, of course, nor share his mount.
Rain burst from the clouds just as we entered the forest. Ragni tightened the sheepskin at his throat, pulled the cowl over his head so that only his hooked nose protruded from the garment. The thick canopy of newly budding trees provided some protection against the rain, but the gloom there chilled us and worsened our irritable moods.
I produced one of the torches I keep in my quiver and with a flint lit a fire for us to see by.
"This is hateful country," Ragni moaned, swatting at an imaginary insect in his beard. He shivered; apparently the crucifix at the top of his staff warmed his soul but not his body.
"The inn is not far," I consoled, "and Vanadis is in her ninth month. You'll not have to wait long for the baptism."
At that he only grunted, and for the next hour we plodded On silence. The Sun, already obscured by clouds, sank behind the mountain, bringing a dreary twilight, a deeper cold. I envied my horse hard shoes, her strong muscles. Every step seemed to suck amy leather boots, as the road was pocked with mudholes. I was becoming exhausted. Ragni's only reaction to my discomfort was impatience, as if annoyed I was slowing him down.
There is a clearing in the forest just below the level of the village Two roads cross here, the one we were traveling and a second that passes over the Fenris River by way of an old wooden bridge and continues east to Alfheim. To the west it descends onto the plain and merges with the caravan routes that lead to the sea. As a merchant I have taken that road many times.
Ragni and I emerged from the woods to a drenching downpour. As the priest tried to disappear into his cloak, I noticed a man leading his horse across the bridge. I recognized him as my friend Urdre. Urdre is our village ironsmith. We have been companions since childhood. When I hailed him he stopped to wait.
"Ah, Fjalar," he called, "you've returned, and not a moment too soon. Good to see you again, Father Grigori."
"Grigori is dead," snarled Ragni, throwing back his cowl. I am certain I heard him mutter under his breath, "The old fool."
"Forgive me," Urdre said, "in the darkness I didn't see..." Great gusts of steam billowed from the nostrils of his horse. The animal needed rest, but Urdre did not dismount. I introduced him to the priest
"I am sorry to hear of Grigori, but you are welcome here. We always look forward to the visits of holy-"
"Any news of the child?," Ragni interrupted.
"Not as of two days ago. Vanadis is having a difficult time of it. The midwife, Anna, fears she will have to be cut. I have been to Alfheim informing those folks of the event and inviting them to join us in celebrating Eucharist with you. We seldom see priests up this way, so we have to take advantage of the situation as we may."
Ragni frowned at me. "I was told nothing of communion! I suppose I shall have to hear confessions as well?"
"We have as much need of God's blessings as city people," I said. "Father Grigori knew that-"
"Grigori is dead," Ragni repeated. "But we shall see."
He spoke as if sharing the sacraments with us would be an inconvenience. Many times in my life I have contemplated taking up the vows; until now I had thought myself unworthy.
"Will you ride with us, Urdre?" I asked.
"I wish I could," he said, shaking his head, "but I'm on my way to Lidskjalf."
"What," Ragni said, "is Lidskjalf?"
Urdre pointed to an invisible formation in the mountains. "We also call it Wotan's Pass."
The priest squinted into the twilight. "I don't see anything. A heathen god?"
"It's a passageway through the mountains. A name, nothing more. No one in our village has worshiped Wotan since my grandfather's time." Urdre glanced sideways at me and wryly lifted an eyebrow.
"What business do you have there?" Ragni demanded.
"There's someone I must summon-"
I gasped before he could finish. "The woodcutter?"
"Yes. Vanadis requested he be present for the baptism. What man has greater need of the Word than he?"
"Who is this person?" Ragni glared at us suspiciously.
I paused to gather my courage, then answered, "He is a craftsman on Lidskjalf with whom we have occasion to trade. His carvings are quite magnificent, but... he has not accepted the teachings of our Savior."
Here the priest surprised me. "A pagan?" he said, his voice calm and mild. "Does he have a name?"
"None that he has given us. He is simply the woodcutter."
"Will he come?"
"Yes," Urdre said, "but the question is, will he listen?"
Father Ragni nodded solemnly, his face transfixed in contemplation. He looked almost kind. "It is easy enough," he explained, "to save souls that wish to be saved. It is another thing to find one that is lost and to bring it home."
He spoke with a simple sincerity that made me question my harsh opinion of him. Perhaps I had been wrong. I promised myself that for this lack of charity, this presumption of judgment, tonight in my room I would do penance with the lash.
Ragni offered Urdre a blessing for safe passage. My friend bowed his head for the prayer, then slapped his horse on the rump and galloped out of our sphere of vision.
When the priest turned to address me I could see his moment of humility had passed. "So," he announced, "it seems as if there is real work to be done here." His tone was arrogant and full of ominous portent, but I did not challenge him. We resumed our journey
The clearing was eerie in torchlight. Shadows rippled before us like living things. Wind and rain pummeled us with such force that I had to shield my torch to keep it burning. As the weather worsened, the angle of the road became steeper. And yet, despite our misery, the song of the river lulled us, compelled us toward sleep as it splashed against earthen dikes on its frenzied rush to the sea. I felt myself growing drowsy, and I nearly stumbled. "The spring floods will be coming soon," I said, "but as long as the dams upstream slow the flow, the villages should be safe."
Ragni jerked his head up as if roused from a pleasant dream. "What is that?" he said.
"Nothing, Father, I was just talking to stay awake-"
"No, that." He pointed a bony finger at an ancient rise of stones nestled against the trees at the edge of the clearing.
I began hesitantly, unsure how he would react. "It is only a barrow, Father. A graveyard."
He looked at me and pursed his lips. "Ah." Then, when we were near enough to see the mounds plainly, he scratched his head in mock confusion. "Why, I don't see any crucifixes. Odd omission in a graveyard, isn't it?"
"Crucifixes would not be appropriate for these dead," I said.
"No, I don't suppose they would." A long flat stone had captured his attention. "This is an altar, a site of pagan worship."
His words implied accusation. "Yes," I blurted, "human sacrifices were performed here, but we had nothing to do with them! This place hasn't been used for two generations. We are Christians, God damn you!"
He ignored my blasphemy but added smugly, "And yet it stands.".
"Yes," I said. "We never thought to tear it down."
His contradictory attitude infuriated me. He spoke of my people, we who have abandoned the old gods, with scorn and sarcasm, yet viewed the woodcutter with almost paternal fondness.
Perhaps I expected more than normal human behavior from a priest; perhaps I expected saintliness. (And perhaps it was my own expectations that failed me, not Father Ragni. If I had answered God's call, would I have fared better? Certainly my temper was nothing to be proud of. Had I not just taken the Lord's name in vain?) Ashamed, I coaxed the horse onward.
White curls of smoke lifted above the last line of trees before Sessrymnir. Ragni made no further comment as we passed the barrow, though as I led him out of the woods and to the inn he whispered, "Do not imagine, Fjalar, that I will forget that heathen place."
A stableboy came to care for the horse as soon as he dismounted.
Freda, proprietor of the inn since her husband's death, greeted us at the door. A woman of 50 years, she was too wise to show surprise at the new priest. She simply brushed a gray tuft of hair from her forehead and said, "So. Grigori is dead, God rest his soul. And bless yours, Father-?"
"I'm Freda. Come in. You, too, Fjalar. Warm yourselves by the fire."
I doused my torch in the bucket next to the door and stepped inside with Father Ragni. The rich aroma of mutton porridge wafted out from the greathall, reminding me of my empty stomach. Freda hung our cloaks on wooden pegs, apologizing for the rain and cold.
Ragni leaned on his staff. "Mistress, weather is God's work. It needs no apology. Even if it is miserable."
"Of course. Fjalar, show the Father to the hearth. I'll bring food." With that she scuttled away, leaving Ragni still in my charge. I'd looked after him for a week and had hoped now to give up that responsibility.
A loud clap of thunder shook the walls of the inn.
"Where is the girl?" Ragni said as we walked toward the great hall.
"Vanadis is upstairs in her confinement. Freda is her mother."
"And the father?"
I sat at an unoccupied bench and blew on my frozen fingers. "Her father is dead."
"Not the girl's father, idiot," he said, joining me, "the child's."
I hesitated, and then was spared from answering by a scream from above. Fearing the worst, many guests rushed for the stairs. I went with them but Ragni did not. Vanadis, a girl of 13, lay crumpled on the landing at the top, her bloated belly heaving. She was sweating and trembling and on the verge of delirium. Freda reached her first, bounding up the steps with an energy that belied her age.
Vanadis's greasy hair was matted to her face. "The baby kicked," she panted. She struggled to focus her eyes. "It hurt so much! There were voices... but I was alone. It was dark. I was so frightened and wanted to come down ....."
Freda's head immediately snapped around to survey the inn, and we all looked as well. A few guests had remained below.
"Aha!" Freda cried. Anna, the midwife brought in to attend to Vanadis, cowered behind two men near the hearth, peering up at the proprietor with dread. She wiped her mouth on her sleeve and shoved her tankard of ale toward one of the men.
"Woman," Freda raged, "you are not paid to drink and flirt! If Vanadis had fallen we might have lost both her and her child!"
"Sorry, mistress," Anna murmured as she hurried up the steps. "Just thought I'd have a little nip. I was thirsty."
"Whatever you need will be delivered to you."
"Yes, mistress." Head down, the woman slinked into Vanadis's room.
Freda pointed at me and another man I didn't recognize. "Fjalar, you two help Vanadis to her bed."
"Wait." Ragni stood at the bottom of the stairs. We all held our breath as he slowly ascended, majestic as a gathering storm. The only sound was the fabric of his robe as it swished against wood. Reaching the top he glared at Vanadis venomously. "So this is the girl. Rather young for childbirth, is she not?"
"She is of the proper age," Freda said.
"It hurts," Vanadis sobbed.
The priest watched her writhe in her agony. He displayed no sympathy for her pain; rather, he seemed to find her ordeal distasteful. His face became so pale I thought he was going to be sick. "She smells," he said, loosening the material at his throat. "Birthing is a messy business." Then he waved his hand, an imperious gesture giving us permission to move her.
Vanadis was asleep almost the instant we lay her on the bed. As I gazed at her innocent beauty, I regretted never having taken a wife. But I am a merchant and a guide for priests; as often as I must be away, what woman would have me? Still, it is a lack I often feel. (I have also aspired to the priesthood. Just last year the Pope reiterated the Church's stance against its clergy marrying, making my options very clear: the holy vows or a wife. These are my life's two desires, and I have chosen instead to exist in the empty spaces between them.)
Out in the hallway I heard Freda thank her guests for their concern and bid them return to their meals.
"Who is the father?" Ragni said when the rest had gone. His voice was low and threatening.
Anna and I exchanged worried glances. The man who'd helped me with Vanadis started to speak, but I silenced him with a finger to my lips. Hearing no response from Freda, I crept to the door and peered out. From that angle I could not see Ragni, only Freda standing against the railing, looking calmly toward the stairs. She sighed.
"Well?" the priest snapped. "Are you going to answer me?"
Still Freda paused, as if giving the matter great thought. Then she drew a dramatic breath and said simply, "No."
With that she disappeared from my view. The man and I left Anna with Vanadis and followed Freda downstairs. Ragni stood two steps down from the top, his body rigid, his mouth agape with sanctimonious wrath. I took a sinful delight in his failure. Perhaps he could intimidate me with his authority, but Freda was made of sterner stuff. He would find her a formidable enemy.
It was not until much later that he joined the rest of the guests at the long table near the hearth. We'd already finished our porridge. Freda had set a wooden bowl for him, but would not serve him. Ragni scooped his bowl into the pot, then sniffed the contents as if suspicious of poison. Satisfied it was safe, he hungrily drank the warm brew.
When he finished he let out a loud belch. "Tell us a tale," someone suggested. "Tell us of Father Grigori."
"There is little to say of him," Ragni muttered. "Against the advice of our bishop he went to a house to bless a girl who'd fallen gravely ill, hoping to cure her. But this disease of hers, this disease which has descended upon my city, claims all who are exposed to it."
"The girl died?"
"Oh, yes. And Grigori, too."
"That is a wonderful story! He gave his life in the service of Christ!"
Ragni exhaled through clenched teeth. "Father Grigori died a doddering fool. The sick girl was a good Christian. The last rites had been performed. Her soul was already saved, so there was no need to save the body All he accomplished was his own death, a death that silenced a very eloquent voice. That was his gift, the ability to inspire others to faith. In speaking the Word, Grigori was unmatched. And now, because he insisted on offering help where none was required, that gift is lost. There are souls in this world that he alone could reach. What awaits them now but the flames of hell?"
I noticed a bitterness in his tone. "But surely, Father," I said, "no one may know the time of his own death. How can you condemn Grigori for acting on his conscience? The Church should have more like him."
"His death was perilously close to suicide," Ragnar said, frowning at me for the effect. "You know how the Church views that."
Shocked by his assertion, we all huddled into our jerkins and avoided his gaze. It was still raining furiously outside, accented by thunder and lightning and wind. Even next to the hearth we felt the chill of the weather. Deeper yet was the chill within us, for at that moment I believe each of us considered this man, this priest, to be a fraud. His indignation was simply a pretense to disguise his brooding jealousy for Father Grigori - a terrible, ugly trait in a man to whom we appeal for guidance.
Realizing he had angered us, Ragni announced he would tell another tale, one that would both amuse and instruct. He then launched into a preposterous account of pagan rituals and human sacrifices. Certainly he'd never witnessed these things himself, and I doubted he had ever encountered a real pagan in his life. His youth and middle years were spent as a monk in an isolated abbey. Perhaps he filled those days transcribing lurid fairy tales or listening to exaggerations concocted by other monks as ignorant as himself. In any case, his story was so fantastic, so ridiculously untrue, that we could not help but laugh. I could tell by his expression that we had hurt his feelings, but to whom did he think he was speaking? We here in Sessrymnir are within a day's walk of the heathens who still live up beyond Lidskjalf. We know.
Ragni turned his face from us, staring morosely into the fire. Even if he was a fraud, he was also a man; as such he was subject to human weaknesses and deserving of Christian charity. Thinking to cheer him, I rose and removed a small but ornate wooden statue from the shelf next to the hearth. "Father," I said, "remember the woodcutter Urdre was going to see? This is one of his creations. Is it not beautiful? He gave it to Vanadis when he heard she was with child."
Ragni took the statue from me and studied it for long moments without comment. Crafted out of a rich, dark wood, the statue depicted a bird raging at a diminutive sheep caught in its talons. The wood was smooth as polished stone, its grain used to suggest feathers. Light from the fire transformed its deep brown color to red.
The priest sighed and handed it back to me. "It is beautiful," he murmured, "but beauty is a thing of this world, not to be coveted. Our lives should be simple, devoted to the next life, not this one."
I nodded and started to return the statue to the shelf.
"Fjalar," he said. I stopped. "Pagans are wonderful artists, aren't they" It was not a question. His voice was so melancholy, so full of despair, that I wanted to embrace him, soothe him, forgive him.
But I did not. Instead I retired to my room to write these words, and to do penance with the lash.
HIS DAY DAWNED FAIR AND COOL. THE SUN ignited the snow on the high peaks in a blaze of orange, melting away yesterday's storm clouds and rendering the sky an effervescent blue. Toward mid-morning Ragni joined me at the northwest window. "There, Father," I said, pushing aside the waxed cloth that served for glass and pointing to the mountains, "now you can see it."
He squinted. "See what?"
"Lidskjalf. Wotan's Pass." With most priests I might hesitate to mention anything of the old religion. But with Ragni... well, he seemed most agreeable when dreaming of lost souls he could save.
Freda approached with an armload of wood for the fire. Ragni eyed her maliciously and snorted, "Looks like a cave, nothing more." Then, without a word to her, he stood and walked away. I glanced at Freda, she at me.
"He's a difficult one," she said, tossing logs into the hearth.
"You'll get no argument from me," I replied.
Freda made a spitting sound. "He is certainly not Father Grigori."
I nodded. "And he knows it. I think that explains much."
"Isn't envy a sin?"
"Yes, but what man would not change the dark angels of his nature if he could? Perhaps in some matters priests are as powerless as the rest of us. We should not judge him too harshly-"
At that instant Anna the midwife came rushing down the stairs and cried, "Vanadis's water has broken!"
Those guests still present began to applaud, but Freda silenced them. "Shh!" she spat, waving her hands wildly in the air. "Do you want to upset my girl with all this noise?"
We all laughed at her; it was touching to see her clucking like a chicken. Vanadis was the only one of Freda's eight children to survive into adolescence, and so this baby would be her first grandchild. After 50 years of stoicism, she could be forgiven a lapse of dignity at a time like this.
Teasing, I suggested we all go up to keep Vanadis company.
Freda shot me a withering glare. "You filthy pig, nobody but Anna is allowed in the room - especially men! Birthing is for women alone."
"Had to be a man there one time," someone said. Freda shook a warning finger at him, and again we all laughed. As she stormed away in mock anger, one of the guests clapped me on the back. "If we're not careful," he said, "we'll get no dinner!" I winced in pain, for the welts from last night's lashing were still fresh. The scourging of flesh is a small enough price to pay for the sins we commit every day.
Word of Vanadis's impending joy spread quickly through the village, bringing more and more people to the inn. The birth was not as exciting as the anticipation of a baptism. Lacking a priest of our own, we cherish the rare opportunity to participate in an official Holy Rite of the Church.
An hour passed, and then two. Freda was at her wit's end trying to silence the din of anxious voices. Finally, just after noon, Urdre returned from Lidskjalf. What Freda could not do with threats he accomplished with the simple grimness of his visage. An eerie hush fell upon us as he summoned us outside.
"I have news," he said quietly. "The woodcutter's hut has been abandoned. When I couldn't find him I decided to check the dams at the river's sources. They've been damaged, and with yesterday's rain on top of the melting snow, they cannot hold. They could go at any time. And the worst of it is this: It wasn't nature that destroyed those dams. They've been hacked with an axe or sword."
"Do you suspect the woodcutter?" I asked.
Urdre nodded. "Yes, though why he would want to drown us I don't know."
There was a single moment more of silence, then pandemonium erupted, everybody shouting and sobbing and cursing. People would be killed. Homes would be lost. Seedlings in the valleys would be washed away. It would be total ruin. Acts of God could be accepted without complaint, but this atrocity was the work of man.
Although no ill had yet befallen us, already there were demands for retribution. Shouting gave way to panic, panic to rage. The situation could have gotten out of control had not Freda thought quickly. "It's a boy!" she screamed, though of course she could not have known this. Her ploy worked: The people set aside their problems to concern themselves with the child.
Freda entered the inn, followed by Ragni, Urdre, and myself. Others straggled behind. We crept up the stairs to Vanadis's room. I do not think it was Freda's intention to actually allow us in, but she was now committed and needed accomplices.
Oddly, the door would not open. We called to Anna and Vanadis, but there was no response, only a low moaning from within. Urdre and I threw our shoulders against the door, shattering the top half of it. The four of us then stepped through to find Anna lying against the bottom half, jamming it shut. The midwife was obviously unconscious, or worse. Urdre rolled her aside, revealing an ugly black bruise on her right temple. It seemed impossible, but someone had viciously struck her down. Even as we examined her she gasped her final breath.
The room was pungent with the smells of recent birth. Vanadis writhed incoherently on the bed, her nightclothes drawn up past her waist. As feared, she had had to be cut for delivery. She exuded sweat and blood and the by products of birth. A warm breeze floated in through the open window, and yet we all felt a chill. There was no child.
"Mater Dei," Ragni muttered, crossing himself and fingering his rosary. He looked about the room in a daze. Urdre, a strong man, fainted. Freda became hysterical. I vomited and wept aloud over this unfathomable tragedy.
The buzz of excited voices downstairs returned me to my senses. Ripping off a piece of bedding, I stuffed the material between Vanadis's legs to stem the bleeding. Then I carried her to another room, away from the horrors of her own. Without the child inside her she was a tiny wisp of a girl, light as a feather pillow. She moaned and thrashed as I lay her down. Her eyes rounded in terror, but they were focused inwardly After what she had witnessed she might never want to view this world again. To pacify her, unable to think of anything else, I placed her thumb in her mouth. Poor girl-she ceased her struggles and sucked noisily as a babe.
What, I wondered, had she witnessed?
Back in Vanadis's room Ragni was trying to comfort Freda. Strange how a crisis will unite enemies. Urdre recovered from his faint and wobbled to his feet. "Fjalar, look," he said, noting what I'd already seen: the open window.
Some of the guests started filing upstairs. "How is the child?" one woman asked. "And Vanadis?" said another.
I remained staring at the window. This deed had been carefully timed. The criminal had taken advantage of our confusion to climb in, murder Anna, and Steal the child. Vanadis's room was on the second floor, true, but the inn was backed against an abutment, so gaining access through the window would not have been difficult. A man could accomplish it with a short hop. A man such as the woodcutter.
There were no footprints, though. None in the room, and none on the abutment. Yesterday's rain had softened the ground. Anyone walking there would leave impressions; anyone coming in from there would drag mud.
When order was restored we organized a search party. Small groups spread out in all directions. The largest contingent was dispatched to Lidskjalf to try to bolster the dams. Already water was nearing the top of the earthen dike alongside the Fenris River.
Those traveling the greatest distance took the horses, leaving the rest of us to make our way on foot. Father Ragni insisted on accompanying us, and I, of course, was assigned to guard him. Almost immediately he and I became separated from our companions. The priest, being old, required frequent rests. The last of these occurred in the clearing of the woods I had led him through yesterday. Stopping at the barrow, he leaned on the altar and drew wheezing breaths.
Early evening now, the Sun hovered just above the mountaintops. Much of the day's heat had been lost. Nights at this time of year are still very cold. "Your graveyard again, Fjalar?" Ragni puffed, but cut off my apology. "It's all right. Is it not invigorating to stand in a heathen place, your body an island of godliness in an ocean of evil?"
His predecessor might have used a similar image. The thought of Grigori brought to mind a question. Asking it would almost certainly provoke Ragni's ire, but curiosity overcame caution. "You speak highly of Father Grigori's gift," I ventured, "yet I sense you didn't like him. Why?"
"Oh, yes, he was gifted-and he knew it." Ragni paused in disgust, then went on when he saw my skepticism. "Perhaps you've heard I was a monk. Although it may not seem so, it is an unusual step to go from the brotherhood to the priesthood. When I made clear my wishes to him, he secretly interceded with the Bishop on my behalf."
"Forgive me, Father," I said, "but isn't that a kindness?"
"No. He considered me unfit to be a priest."
I was confused. "Then why," I said, "would he help you-?"
"To ensure his own reputation. If I am a failure as his successor, then his stature in death becomes greater than it was in life. He is exalted every time I fail."
I shook my head, though it was true I had made such comparisons myself. "I remember him as a humble and caring man."
"You remember the illusion he created of himself. Christ, how he mocked me, how he mocked us all, with his pride and vainglory!"
I had not realized until that moment the extent to which envy can unhinge a man's mind and blacken his heart against things good and decent. It was a sad spectacle to behold.
I started to protest this slander when the priest's eyes suddenly swept upward. A huge black raven soared into the sky over the clearing. Without warning it shrieked and plummeted toward us. This time there was no doubt: It did not mean to frighten, it meant to kill. One of the creature's talons ripped through Ragni's shoulder. He staggered but otherwise did not acknowledge the pain. Blood dripped down his arm, yet he glared at the beast as if daring it to attack again.
I unslung my bow and notched an arrow.
"No, Fjalar," he said. "It wants me. This is my fight." He gripped his staff with both hands, its crucifix glowing bronze in the sinking sun. The raven obliged by diving straight at him. He swung at it, but it pulled away too fast. Time and again this happened. Although he never made contact, the bird caused him no further harm.
The stalemate was broken by a rustling in the woods above and behind us. "Priest!" cried a deep male voice in the mountain dialect. The raven retreated into the sky.
Ragni and I both spun toward the sound, our weapons at the ready. A man strolled down the path, the Sun at his back, and stopped on the - other side of the altar. He gazed at us with a smile, a hideous smile I had seen many times before.
"You are seeking me?" he said. He was a very tall, very old man with a long silver beard and only one eye. A massive scar blighted the left side of his face where the other had been. In one hand he held a sword; in the other, the child. This he thrust toward us.
"You are the woodcutter," Ragni said calmly.
"I am Wotan!" The woodcutter pointed to the heavens. "That raven is my creature, as was her sister whom you killed yesterday. I have the power to guide her actions." He jabbed his sword into the ground and extended his left arm. Like a trained falcon the raven lit upon it. "Did she not try to kill you?"
"Any simpleton can teach a bird to attack. Whatever power you have has been granted to you by God."
"I am Wotan, I say, and I spit on your god!"
Wotan? A ridiculous boast, of course; I had known this man all my life. (Yet-how did he walk across a muddy abutment without leaving footprints ... ?)
"You are a murderer," Ragni said, "whatever else you claim to be."
The priest was referring to Anna, but his adversary misunderstood. "I did not kill this thing!" he raged. "It was dead at birth, an ugly, malformed lump fouled by the presence of your White Christ. I came only to retrieve the child I fathered, and this is what I found-"
"You are the father?" Appalled, Ragni turned to me with an accusatory glare. "You knew this?"
I bowed my head. "Yes, Father."
"Freda knew as well?"
"Yes. We in the mountains accept this as a fact of life, but we were afraid you would refuse to baptize a bastard."
"Baptize!" the woodcutter roared, startling the raven into flight. He lunged at us over the altar, but I drew back my bowstring and he stopped; he was well aware of my prowess. This close, I could bury an arrow in his good eye before he could take two steps. Does a god fear a mortal's arrow? A neglected god, perhaps, a god of the past. An impotent god.
He backed up and for a moment seemed to listen to the flow of the Fenris. Then he sighed and said, "My son is not fit to look at. I blame you, priest."
"How could I harm the child? This is the first I've seen of him."
"It is your foul, abhorrent god that did this."
"Some children are simply born with defects. God does not interfere."
"The world has lost its senses. I would kill you all if I could."
"Is that why you tried to destroy the dams?"
The woodcutter snarled. "Let the idiots drown in their own stupidity."
"They are not the first," Ragni said gently, "to see their old gods pushed out by a new One who is stronger."
"Nor will they be the last."
"I can help you."
I could not believe my ears. The woodcutter had murdered an innocent woman and stolen a child. If ever a soul cried out for damnation, his did! And Ragni wanted to help him? Was he mad?
The woodcutter cursed him. "I would die first."
"Oh, yes. Dying is part of the process. But then you could live again." Furious, the old pagan paced behind the altar. He looked at me as if he expected me to reason with Ragni. I shook my head. At the moment I had little sympathy for either man.
When water began to spill over the dike, the woodcutter lay the child on the altar. He stripped off his tunic. Standing naked before us, he slowly, tenderly, wrapped his son in the coarse woolen fabric. Then he lifted his head and keened to Aasgaard in the old tongue, as if the grief of the world were on his shoulders.
The child was obviously dead, a misshapen blob of failed humanity. And yet, and yet... I was certain I saw a tiny hand rise of its own accord from that tangle of fabric, rise and reach for the woodcutter's gnarled fingers.
Father Ragni had seen it, too. He gasped at the impossibility that confronted him. "This is an outrage!" he cried, spittle flying from his mouth. "Only the one true God may give back life!"
His words broke the spell, for the child's hand fell back into the cloth, trembled once, and did not move again. Enraged, the woodcutter snatched his sword and attacked with inconceivable swiftness. My reflexes were quicker though: I loosed an arrow that pierced his skull and dropped him like a stone. The man who called himself a god fell dead at Ragni's feet, leaving the priest unharmed.
"Fjalar," Ragni screamed in horror, "what have you done?"
"He would have killed you!"
"I am already saved! My death would mean nothing. But he died without repenting, without accepting Christ. You have damned him."
"He is a murderer, he damned himself!" I felt tears on my cheeks. This was so unfair! I had no power to damn or to save. Suddenly Ragni's mind gave out entirely. His eyes glowed wildly, he drooled, he babbled. He threw down his staff and stared at the corpse with contempt.
What happened next sickened me to my heart. Setting the woolen bundle with the child on the ground, Ragni hoisted the woodcutter's body onto the altar. He demanded my dagger in a voice of such desperation that I dared not refuse. I could only watch aghast as he plunged my knife into the dead mans chest, slicing down through the abdomen to the pelvis. He then made two cuts to bisect the first, all the while chanting something in Latin and weeping. The raven ripped at him, but he paid it little heed, simply shooing it away with his hand. Obsessed beyond madness now, he tossed the knife down and reached inside the corpse to wrench out its entrails. These he dropped in a heap beside the altar, where they steamed in the cooling air.
"Here, you bloody bastard," he shrieked, "here is a pagan ritual for you!" His breath billowed like smoke out of hell. He seemed to have forgotten about me, for he spoke only to the woodcutter. "I would have saved you! I would have saved your immortal soul! Grigori could inspire a stone to faith, but even he never converted a god! Now everything is lost-" The priest collapsed next to the entrails, sobbing into his fists like a child. "I am lost..."
I do not like Father Ragni, I have admitted as much. But seeing him like that, I was moved to a greater compassion than I have ever felt for any man. I did not realize that when a priest saves one soul, he saves two.
The Fenris was gushing over its dike in torrents now. If we remained here much longer we would be swept away. Still, I could not leave the body on the altar in that condition. Father Ragni would be ruined if people learned he had performed a pagan ritual. First I gathered the entrails and sloshed to the dike. I flung the gore into the river, then returned for the woodcutter. He was old but still solid and quite heavy. Only Ragni's madness had allowed him to manage such weight. I had to drag the corpse most of the way, a difficult undertaking against a strong current and up a steep slope. Finally I lay him on top of the dike. With a last look at this craftsman of unequaled skill, this murderer and self-proclaimed god, I rolled his body over the edge. The churning water of the Fenris devoured him, sucking him into its underbelly and carrying him downstream to be spewed into the sea.
It was nearly dark by the time I had finished. I was cold and wet and exhausted. The old priest was still on his knees when I readied him, the flood well above his waist. I knelt and wrapped my arm around his heaving shoulders. Guiding him to his feet, I nudged him gently up the path to the inn, where we would be safe from the water a while longer. He wept the whole way, begging God to forgive his inadequacies. He clutched at me, raking his hands across the wounds on my back. It was only fitting; in his way he had given his sanity in the service of Christ, while I suffered only the pains of the flesh. I stroked his thinning hair and cooed little nonsense phrases of comfort. The kind of help he needed was beyond me.
After I'd settled him into bed at the inn, I returned to the dry spot above the clearing, thinking I had forgotten something. Water was by now lapping blood from the top of the altar, though to my relief its advance seemed to be slowing now. The back end of Ragni's staff bobbed and swayed on the surface; the other end, the one with the crucifix, was submerged, anchored to the ground.
Then I remembered: Vanadis's child. What was I to make of this, a dead thing given respite, a solitary moment of life? As if in answer, the woodcutter's raven screeched a baleful challenge from high above the dike, then released a woolen bundle into the river and winged off toward Wotan's Pass.
E BURIED ANNA THIS AFTERNOON. URDRE knows some Latin and spoke the Mass for the Dead. He injected as much promise into the service as he could muster, but we took little solace from his words, for our problems are still many. At least Anna has been released am from this world.
We no longer fear the floods, as those who climbed to Lidskjalf managed to slow the rushing waters with stones and dead wood. For that we are grateful, though there are Masses yet to be said for the two men who were drowned in the effort. The water level will remain high for some time, but assuming no more than normal rainfall, Sessrymnir should be in no danger. We have less hope for villages lower in the mountains, where the Fenris merges with other streams. Certainly crops will be lost, which means a lean year for us all.
Vanadis's wound is but a physical one, and she will recover. Cutting is common enough, especially in young women; with good care she should be healed in two weeks. How she will handle the trauma of the past day is another matter. But she has her mother to see her through it. Freda has lost seven children, and grief has made her strong.
And Father Ragni? He is quite mad. He sits in his room at the inn and rants, refusing to take in food or drink unless we force it down his throat. Twice already he has fouled his garments, and I have had to clean him up. It is clear he will never return to the city, but that does not matter. I fear he has little time left.
There have been rumors, of course, about the cause of his distress, but I will never reveal the truth.
I watch him with a mixture of loathing and admiration. I cannot help but think that he has done this to himself, and yet... would I have made this sacrifice? Would I have invited this degradation upon myself in the name of my God? For surely that is what Ragni has done. He fights a perpetual and, for him, unwinnable, battle in his mind between what he is and what he wishes to be. His successes and failures are threads spun into the same cloth, and he does not know how to separate them.
The blasphemy of his monstrous ritual is not what made him mad. He could forgive himself that-the woodcutter's soul, after all, had already departed, and the scourging of flesh is no sin-but what he will not, cannot, forgive is his inability to exceed Father Grigori's standards, which he felt he could achieve by the old pagan's salvation. Experienced priests accept that there are souls they cannot reach, but Ragni, despite his age, is a novice. To comfort him I have acknowledged the burden of damnation he placed on me for killing his adversary. He only blinks and drools when I speak.
I, too, have been touched by madness. Was the woodcutter Wotan? I cannot believe it and retain my faith in Christ. And yet I can never again dream of entering the priesthood, for the movement of that dead child's hand has forever jaded me. It was a striking scene, a terrible, wonderful image I will carry with me to my grave.
I can hear the woodcutter laughing. True, he is saying, your White Christ did drive out the old gods. But we, in this one small way, have had our revenge.