Shields and Ogres
The sunshine felt warm on his skin as the traveler made his way through the golden valley. And it was golden, indeed: fields of wheat or rye were abound and the harvest would be plentiful. The ground was as fertile as if every square ell had seen the sacrifice of a fully grown oxen to the now-dead goddess Freya. Or maybe the ground was just naturally fertile and the gods had kept the earth from reaching its full potential to entice more sacrifices? Only the gods knew and they were dead. The people inhabiting this strange and rich land were as odd and unpredictable as the wind. They seemed to use coins made from silver and gold as a proxy for trading goods instead of exchanging them right away. That was simple enough, but they had gotten so attached to the shiny coins that they seemed unwilling to do anything without them being involved. This greed for the shiny also had made their spirits weak and the old fashioned way of acquiring goods was not practiced in these lands.
Speaking of the lands again, were they truly as vast as they seemed? Impossible. The traveler had walked for months, from the beginning of spring to harvest time. Initially, the mountain tops and some parts of the land were covered in snow and he had to wear furs to protect himself against the cold. By now, it was hot and flies were buzzing through the air, and he had given away the furs long ago in exchange for something he didn’t quite remember. This island seemed to stretch as far as Midgard itself and more than once had he climbed some hill or mountain and not seen the sea. Still, it didn’t make sense that this place would be larger than all of Midgard. Now that he thought about it, he had used the sun to navigate. Who said the sun was still following a straight and predictable path, now that Skoll and Hati weren’t chasing her across the sky anymore? Maybe the sun now went in circles, tried to mock and mislead him, to make him walk around in circles too?
As he entered a large town, the traveler attracted a lot of views; people weren’t used to seeing a shirtless Viking in these lands, traveling around with his half-broken shield and his long axe. The shield could really use some work; it hadn’t been repaired since the ice giant had almost hacked it in two and apparently blocking the flying sword of Freyr had left some marks as well. As he was contemplating finding a smith or shield maker to take a look, the traveler laid eyes upon a tall, but slender man. The man himself wasn’t as interesting as what he had placed in front of him, leaning against a piece of wood: a nice and shiny shield, painted in a dark red color, with a wolf seemingly made from silver nailed to its front. The artwork was delicate and the shield seemed incredibly sturdy. Full of excitement, the traveler approached the slender man and asked about the shield. The man immediately became defensive, looking down at the half-naked wanderer suspiciously, and asked to see golden coins before the chat could go any further. This upset the traveler, so he suggested a different approach: they would exchange their shields. The shield maker could easily repair the damage and would then have a piece that had seen the death of the gods and the traveler would take the other shield as a replacement. As an additional piece of evidence, he presented his axe with a shaft that, too, had seen the end of days. The slender man wasn’t convinced. He seemed to get more nervous with each breath he took. Eventually, the traveler helped him to make a quick decision by describing to him, in simple terms, what would happen if he continued to ask for gold coins. Now, finally, he saw some progress, as parting with his head seemed less favorable to the shield maker than just parting with his shield. The traveler, satisfied with the exchange, happily continued on his journey when suddenly, out of nowhere, an ogre appeared. This hideous creature, while having some familiarity in facial structure to the slender shield maker, was at least five times his size, red-faced and fuming. He screamed and shrieked just like a Valkyrie (not the cute ones from the sagas, but the real ones, all fury, and claws) and he seemed determined to perform a valkyrie’s duties as well: dragging him right into the afterworld. The traveler pondered his odds in defeating the monster but then decided that dying honorably was really not as good a plan anymore, now that he had seen the fate that would await him afterward.
A Golden Coin
Walking alongside the road, the traveler approached yet another village. The rich soil allowed these Southerners to breed like cats and rabbits and to found new villages all over the valley. By now, the traveler had taken the time to make a new axe handle for his trusted long axe. Sadly it wasn’t the one he had taken into the underworld; the one that had fallen down when he was rescued from atop the great wolf; the one that had fallen down and woken up said great wolf, which ultimately led to the end of the gods. At least this axe had seen the gods die, so that wasn’t too bad either.
Suddenly, shouting. The traveler was asked to halt and a group of children hopped from a wagon to interrogate him. Upon closer inspection, these were the children: a young boy, maybe 15 or 16, clad in black, with a hood and daggers. He reminded the traveler of his own brother, Skapti, who had perished with the gods. Then there was a girl of a similar age, maybe a year or two older, wearing a black dress. She appeared serious and conflicted to him, not unlike himself. Then there was a boy with a long and well-kempt beard, broad shoulders and large hands. On second thought, maybe he had just forgotten to keep growing taller and was an adult man after all. He referred to himself as a dwarf, which the traveler found unnecessarily insulting. The last one was the smallest and he looked like a shrunken down man if ever there had been one. He was the loudest one of them. After a pleasant exchange of words it became apparent that they were interested in his shield, so the traveler made a point of telling them that it was his by right and he’d fight for it if necessary. This seemed not to please the bearded one, who decided to pin down the traveler and to hold him down. Otherwise, the conversation continued as pleasantly as before and, due to a lack of rope, the children decided to not attempt to bind him. Eventually, the bearded one gave him a gold coin, probably to apologize for the hostile behavior from before, and he seemed open to dueling over the shield. While he held a formidable hammer and seemed capable to use it too, the traveler was sure that he could defeat a man smaller than himself.
Eventually, the smallest one showed him a rock that he assured him was taken from Asgard and he mentioned that he had met gods there too. The traveler was quite confused, as he had seen the gods die; some of them, like Loki and Odin, more than once. Wasn’t it funny that if you saw someone die once you were pretty sure they’re dead, but if you see them die again you were somehow not so sure anyone? Either way, the children apparently meant that they had met the traveler’s previous companions in Asgard and they had mistaken them for gods. Son, who they said was their friend now, apparently now was the god of ale and handsomeness, which made sense. As friends of friends they decided to not murder each other and since the children proclaimed they knew how to trick the sun and how to truly travel south, the traveler decided to follow along. Their current plans, other than chasing Trygve’s fever dream of the Nithhoggr, was to rescue yet another kid and that seemed a reasonable enough thing to pass your time with while following the allfather’s footsteps. More so, since the girl was followed by two ravens, like Hugin and Munin, the allfather’s ravens. Maybe Wothan had found the ravens here, in this far away land, where he had traveled to a place of knowledge. The traveler gave the golden coin to the tiny one, who apparently with this act became his friend and he showed to the traveler that he had the magical power of annoying someone by playing with the back of their head.
Of Loki and Other Liars
When arriving in a magnificent city, the group of travelers went straight into the fanciest of trading posts that the traveler had ever seen. Shiny rings, rare clothes, armor made by a dökkalfar and more piled up all around them. The shopkeeper was a beautiful dark-skinned woman who insisted not to have the blood of a dökkalfar in her family’s line, in lieu of the obvious evidence to the contrary. She spoke with the well-versed tongue of a professional liar and her eyes clearly showed that she was up to no good too. After asking for a large number of pieces of gold for a piece of armor that seemed very nice, but clunky and too heavy for combat, she decided to offer the group gold pieces instead of taking them. In exchange, she wanted them to break into a house of another shopkeeper and steal her cat and a log. While the true reason for this wasn’t really clear, she insisted that with the cat and a log she could know precisely what her fellow shopkeeper was up to. The tiny one, who called himself Bingo, was very happy to take up this offer, as the shopkeeper was also his sister and he hated her. It seemed that she, not unlike the traveler’s older brother Grizir, was a bad and miserable person and stealing her cat would be a worthy cause. Also, the girl the children were trying to rescue, who was the sister of one of them, wasn’t being sacrificed within the next few days anyway. This was also when both the traveler and the brother learned that she was being sacrificed.
The traveler, together with the children, entered another house that seemed suspiciously like one of those guest houses that first treat you with kindness only to suddenly demand goods, services or gold. The children seemed at ease and assured the traveler that they knew exactly how to deal with such people. The owner, a friendly voluminous woman, insisted that her pie was the best and that they should eat it. With little innuendo she invited the bearded one to enjoy some other delicacy of hers privately, which left the traveler with two slices of pie. In the meantime, Bingo, who was suspiciously nice, also explained that he was a shapeshifter, like Loki. Also, like the god of lies, he seemed preoccupied with complicated plans that would ultimately fall prey to circumstances. When a tiny cook entered the house, he was quickly and unceremoniously thrown out by the children who insisted he shouldn’t ruin these fine pies too.
At a nearby table, a group of women openly discussed the downfall of society after the death of the gods, focusing mostly on some kids that were meeting in a nearby cave to perform evil rituals and summon evil spirits. The children decided that one of them would subtly investigate what the women were talking about and then all of them started arguing with them. The women, as mothers, knew what was best and what was decidedly not. The traveler was conflicted with this: his own mother was but a vague shadow of a memory, all sweet and caring, and these women brought her memory back in a powerful way. She too would not have rested to defend her children from evil and this was exactly what led to her death. If not for her brave intervention, all that would have happened was that Grizir would have been punished for his misdeeds. Maybe he’d have died, but the traveler would have become a woodcarver and a sailor, he would not have died by lightning, and he would not have traveled into the underworld to wake up the great wolf and free the norn of fate. Maybe leaving things to mothers who know best wasn’t the way to go if you didn’t want the world to end.
Well-fed and content, the children decided that it was time to steal a cat and a log now. To this end, Bingo shapeshifter into some random person, which was very confusing, and snuck into the house using a key that fit all locks, thus making them less useful than they initially seemed. He successfully infiltrated the shop, but before he could find the cat, his sister chased him out of the house. Bingo decided that the traveler was to approach his sister directly, to tell her he was from a faraway land and to just ask for something else instead.
The traveler knocked at the door and managed to chat with the shopkeeper who was as tiny as her brother in his natural form. She seemed unmoved by his inquiries into what her shop would sell and any attempt to find out what she wanted to sell directly were unsuccessful. She was clearly afraid and as she closed the door, the traveler could hear her make her escape through the backdoor. The traveler invoked the spirit of the hunt. His legs were imbued with the chase and his mind was set on his prey. This was a much more exciting use of this particular power than what he used it for typically: it turned out that the spirit of the hunt was quite helpful for making an escape too. This time, however, he was the hunter. Within moments he caught up to the tiny woman and he took her down with one quick swoop, his arms like the jaw of Fenrir, holding her tight and squeezing any resistance out of her. Eventually, some of the children caught up, the girl took something from the shopkeeper and as the neighbors started to become interested in the nightly noise, they made an escape. The traveler decided to slow down any pursuit by throwing the shopkeeper into an opening door.
Sometime later, the children met up with the traveler again and as they had acquired some paper with runes from the shopkeeper, they felt this was successful. Apparently these runes showed what the shop was supposed to sell, so neither the cat nor a log were necessary to learn these secrets. The dökkalfar woman with round ears was happy enough with the runes and decided to reward the children with golden coins. The traveler felt happy with how things had gone: particularly, they hadn’t stolen anything, but taken their price with honor.
The Red Wave
As fun as taking runes from tiny women was, the traveler decided that greater powers were at play and after a sister had been harmed, another one should be rescued. So it came that they left the great city behind and traveled towards the caves, where an evil lair was located, full of ritualists and evil spirit summoners.
To investigate the cave subtly, the traveler shapeshifted into a wolf and made his way into the cave. Within the central cave a group of vicious young people were gathering around a fire, odd smells in the air, although what at first glance looked like blood at the walls turned out to be red paint. It felt good to be in the form of a wolf. Upon confronting the three evildoers, one of them almost immediately started smelling fearful. The traveler had to hold back his urge to leap forward and jump at the boy’s throat. He found himself stepping forward and growling, feasting on the fearful glances he received. The children, it turned out, wanted to be evil but hadn’t even taken a life. They hid in shame and delusion, they only misdeed disobeying their parents ever so slightly. They felt weak, but the traveler wouldn’t kill them for that alone. As he turned away from them and left the cave, two of his companions seemed more at ease with his wolf shape and patted him slightly. Again he held back the urge to bite them and merely left the cave quickly. Fortunately, he smelled proper prey outside. A rabbit was hopping around in the dark. The wolf’s blood boiled even more and he started salivating slightly. Carefully he crept closer to the little prey, tried to sneak as close as he could, before the rabbit inevitably noticed him and the chase was on.
Dreams, Ravens and Preparations
While the bearded one enjoyed his nightly conquest, the rest of the group spent their time in the stable of the same house, as they were too poor to sleep in the palace of a house they had checked out earlier. It was warm, with all the horses in the room, and the smell of hay and horse felt familiar and welcoming. One of the horses seemed uneasy with the traveler, possibly picking up some note of his wolfish nature, or some lingering smell of the rabbit’s blood, but the animal calmed down eventually.
The girl in black was resting uneasily closeby. There was something about her that reminded him of the allfather. The traveler wasn’t sure whether it was a lust for power, a certain degree of ruthlessness, or something else. Maybe it was the weird way she spoke, a pronunciation that somehow sounded wrong and malicious. He felt that she’d do something terrible before long.
As he gazed upon the sea, it felt like darkness tried to swallow his soul. Black waves rocked the boat, threw it sideways and shook it thoroughly. Hadn’t it been a bright and sunny day just moments ago? Why was the darkness dripping from the sky itself like a form of rain? Black tentacles burst out of the misty waters, grasping for him, trying to drown him in the black waters. He could see two birds, flying through the cloudy mists, with eyes shining in blue and gold. Wasn’t the allfather dead and defeated? Why were the birds still around and why did their gaze look right into his soul? He woke up.
As the morning broke and first rays of sunshine were cast over the nearby roofs from a direction that might be east or any other direction, the city around them started to buzz with excitement and suspense. Still troubled by his dreams, the traveler decided to ask the ravens directly. He followed the steps that father-wolf had taught him, opened his mind and his thoughts. He then approached the first of the ravens, the one who must have been Hugin, the raven of the thought, followed by Munin, the raven of mind. As they didn’t feel like sharing any deeper wisdom with him, the traveler gave up on interrogating them. What was it with ravens being so smug anyway.
The traveler now paid attention to his surroundings and to the buzz in the air. People started decorating the houses as if they were preparing for the midsummer festival; colorful garlands, flowers, and painted wooden figurines could be seen everywhere. As he quickly learned this was in preparation for the celebration of the queen’s birthday. Bingo was still making complicated plans for who would pose as a slave and who as a guard, when the traveler suggested to just go chat with the queen. As they didn’t have gifts for her and she seemed like the petty person for whom gifts were very important, the traveler considered raiding one of those caravans to find valuables. Instead, the girl who apparently was named Fronya devised a more vicious plan and all she needed for it was access to fire, stone, and a few materials.
The Queen and the Snake
Another day had passed and the traveler had put some of the gold he received to very good use. Now he stood next to a cart in the insufferable heat of the morning sun in a line of people that stretched from the middle of the large open place right to the entrance to the queen’s hall. The building the queen had built was truly impressive, comparable to the mighty castle the traveler had visited during one of his journeys. Mighty walls that looked like they were built by giants framed a house that was so big it could reasonably have a dozen rooms. The traveler, by now well versed in the art of putting gold pieces to use, managed to speed up the wait by quite some time, parting with one coin at a time. When he ran out and, coincidentally, when he met someone who didn’t want to swap places, he briefly thought about other forms of negotiations. He had an axe that was thirsting for combat, after all, with its new and so far unused handle. The children, however, shifted his attention to the queen’s guards that kept an eye on her waiting subjects. Bingo, who had taken the form of a regular-sized human again, eventually hid underneath the cart.
The morning had almost turned into noon by the time the traveler and the gift concocted by Fronya were at the front of the line. After a brief exchange of words, threats and weapons, they were allowed into the queen’s hall. Sadly, for all the castle’s splendor, the queen was a poor woman. No trophies could be seen in the big and empty hall, not even tables with food or kegs of ale, no array of dancing slaves or impressive pets and weapons. Ironically, the huge size of the room underlined the lack of anything worthy to brag about. It showed that you simply don’t build a hall for the hoard of a dragon if you don’t have a lot of things. Probably what little hoard of treasure she had called her own was by now handed out to the people who built this massive house for her.
At the far end of the hall, the traveler could see the queen, a beautiful woman with brown hair, clad in fancy clothes with her daughter at her side and a pretty-faced, but arrogant man at her other side. Obviously, this man was the head runemaster of the queen. Some servant who looked absolutely unimpressive stood between the queen and where the traveler and the children were supposed to stand. The boy with the missing sister, whose sister apparently was hidden in a cave underneath the hall, explained some sort of procedure and used the most confusing words he could conjure up to say that the queen apparently was sharing the furs with her runemaster.
Knowing how the whimsical nature of Southerners in general and of kings and queens in general too, the traveler kept quiet and left the talking to the others. Only when asked who he was did he introduce himself and briefly mention that he’d seen the death of the gods. The fact that he was responsible for it, he decided to keep to himself; some people actually liked the gods.
Eventually, while the kids were talking about Trygve’s fever-dream and about some other king with armies and ambition, the runemaster seemed quite unpleased. What was it with those people? They claimed to be all for gathering knowledge and wisdom, but then they became jealous as soon as someone else shared something they knew. Clearly, he didn’t want his queen to know something out of that stream of words coming from Bingo, Harmath or Fronya or he took offense in seeing the Asgardian stone that Bingo kept showing around all the time. The traveler eventually had enough. He told the queen what he thought of her snakish runemaster and insisted that everyone stopped wasting time. His carefully worded speech was not received particularly well and so the queen decided to have all of them brought to another unnecessarily large room to await their fate.
The day passed fairly uneventfully until the snakish runemaster came into the room to announce himself being unpleased by the turn of events. He left after making his point and returned later with the queen and her daughter. Apparently, the queen was quite open to hear more about this other king and his ambitions and cared less about the Nithhoggr, showing that she was the reasonable one in the room. Her trusted runemaster resorted first to insisting that some part of the procedure was not to his liking and then showed his true face, resorting to vicious poison and magic.
Out of nowhere, the traveler saw what could only be described as his worst nightmare: the face of his mother, distorted by anger and aggression, not unlike the angry ghosts he had come upon in Valhalla. Had she been snatched by a Valkyrie, thrown into this horrible ghost hall and spent decades clawing against its walls? Now, her features barely recognizable, she appeared right in front of the traveler, a creature so desperate and vile. She reached out towards him, clawed at him, screamed at him; it was more than he could take. The traveler fled out of the hall, just… away from this madness and horror. Moments later he noticed three things. First, his mother wasn’t really there, that was just a trick, an evil game, conjured up by Loki or someone who had learned from him. Second, he was in the shape of a wolf. Third, he was being attacked by two of the queen’s guards, one of which barely grazed his right shoulder while the other buried his sword into the wolf’s left flank. It wouldn’t take more than a few heartbeats until the guard would regret his move.
In the meantime, the runemaster, clearly responsible for the nightmare, seemed extremely happy with himself: he was laughing from the bottom of his heart, rolling on the floor happily, while all around him chaos ensued. The traveler had heard recounted sagas in which the evildoers burst into fits of laughter, but so far had considered that to be a dramatic exaggeration by overeager skalds. What in the name of Thor’s hammer was going on? Also, why was the air smelling of burned cloth, hair and flesh? Before the wolf could investigate any of these things, the queen’s personal bodyguard decided to join the battle. While the snakish runemaster, who only now had stopped laughing, played tricks again and appeared and disappeared all over the room, the bearded Harmath angrily demanded he stops being a wussy and fight him already. The queen’s bodyguard, confused about all the appearing and disappearing images of the runemaster decided to now attack the traveler by slaying the wolf he had turned into. To his surprise, the angry wolf turned into an even angrier bottomless man exclaiming in friendly words what he thought of the knight’s priorities. Shortly after black tendrils appeared in the middle of the throne room, the last remaining runemaster surrendered by losing his conscience.
The queen and her ironclad bodyguard quickly decided to invite the traveler as well as the children to stay in the castle for a few days. The queen made clear that this invitation was not up for discussion. During this time, the traveler learned a valuable lesson: being a teacher is difficult and maybe not one of his talents. Freya didn’t seem to get how to speak wolfish, what to do with the wolf totem focus or exactly how to “jump like if your legs are really strong”.
In addition to finding the boy’s sister, the queen who had no idea of the malicious doings of her runemaster realized that hiding in an empty hall for years didn’t exactly help her stay in touch with her subjects. She decided to change things up from now on and to reforge old alliances against this king with ambitions that apparently her runemaster was a servant of. Or a spy for. Or it was Loki, that sneaky bastard, just trying to sow chaos again. Either way, as they left the castle behind and the traveler was contemplating what to do next, the familiar sight of a man ogre broke through the crowds, pointed at him and shouted something along the lines of “there you are”. That was his sign to speed up farewells and resume to travel by himself again. With one sister saved, another one with a broken nose and a queen with some newly gathered sense, this short episode was clearly a success. If the gods weren’t dead he’d pray that things would continue as smoothly, both for him and for the group of children that, probably, mostly, weren’t children at all.
This story is part of a Dungeons & Dragons 5e campaign called The Chained God.
You can read the rest of the stories here.