The Tale of Rauðúlfr
By Lisa Farrell
Hulda watched the flames dance until her dim eyes saw only light. She listened to the snapping and popping of the twigs, and ignored the sound of women’s voices through the wall. A bird was screeching outside, and she wondered how it could bear to open its beak and call out in such cold.
She had not thought she would survive this winter, but the children told her that the signs of Harpa-month were already here. Well, she could not yet feel it. Her bones still felt like the twigs in the fire, though under siege by ice rather than heat. She could barely move, but spent her hours trying to fold herself up small, keeping her face in the glow, until they teased her that the bristles on her chin would singe. They did not respect her, these young women whose bellies still waxed and waned like the moon. They had continually knocked into her as they prepared the day meal around her, as though she were an unwelcome guest. Yet this was her seat, her place, and she had earned her spot by the hearth-fire, having cooked on it for so many years. At least Rauðúlfr had made the women promise not to let the fire die. He was a good boy; he took care of his mother, as a son should.
Hulda sat up suddenly, and had to readjust her dress to block the chill air again. She sniffed. There was something in the air; sweet, like sheep-dung, but stronger. She stood, and arched her back until it clicked. Then she shuffled to the door in her calf-skin shoes, and through into the hall.
They were both sat there at the loom; her daughter, Saldís, and her son’s wife, Erna, who played at being mother, mistress of the farm. They looked up quickly, then back to their work, but did not speak to her.
Hulda went out into the snow. It turned to slush beneath her feet and she could feel the dampness seeping through. Mountains loomed on either side of the farm and cast great shadows over the valley, so though there was no wind, the air was sharp.
As she approached the animal shed a new smell reached her nostrils; the thick, warm stench of soiled hay and dung. She walked around the shed to the back where, between the wooden slatted wall and a hardy, scraggly bush, lay the body of a sheep. The wool was tangled, and crawling with lice.
“How can the shepherd not miss you, eh?” she asked it, as she pulled away the brittle branches of the bush to get a better look. She did not like to stoop for so long, but took hold of a curved horn and dragged the dead sheep from its hiding place. She stopped when she realised what else lay under the bush. The small, malformed body of a premature lamb lay in what must have been a sticky pink puddle, but had now dried into stiff, dirty spikes on its back.
“Now,” said Hulda, “just look at you!”
The still-born was shrivelled, short black legs wrinkled under its swollen little body. On its neck was not one head, but two. Two identical white faces, with closed eyes and open mouths, below four little stumps of horn.
“I’ve been waiting for you for a long time,” she said, “and at last, transformation… ‘Twas all I lacked.” She looked up to the mountains. “Now I can see you again, Fálki,” she murmured. “At long last.”
She reached into the folds of her dress and pulled out a small bundle. Unwrapping her treasure, she fingered the contents carefully; a lock of his blond hair, made delicate by age, a falcon’s feather, like the one he used to carry, and a length of blue thread. She reached down again, and pressed the thread against the twisted body of the lamb, rubbing it hard into the skin of the belly and then the face, until it came away dyed red. She spat into her palm and moistened the thread there, before wrapping up the bundle and knotting the thread tightly at its neck. This took some time, as her fingers were red and bent with cold. Then she moved a little away from the dead sheep, before burying her wish in the snow. Hulda lowered herself slowly and knelt on top, her knees turning numb the moment they sunk onto the frozen ground. She spread her cloak over herself, before she began her chant in the privacy of the darkness there.
His body lay inside the belly of the mountain, pinned by blades of ice. He was reflected and fragmented across craggy walls, which captured the pricks of light that infiltrated the cave and so shone even in the dark. His limbs were stiff, splayed, his arms like broken wings. His neck bent back over a rock, split to reveal a ridge of bone in his throat, visible only when the sun was directly overhead and beams of yellow light cascaded through the hole in the roof of the cave. He had not been disturbed; he had lain with his sword useless at his side for what could have been a hundred days or years. His flesh, though cold and brittle, still retained a hint of pink.
As the spirit reached him, crawling into his ear like a familiar voice and squatting there in the dry hollow of his head, his body tried to twitch. Feeble spasms crossed from the tip of one forefinger, to the tip of the other. His toes curled tighter in his boots. The wrinkled fruit that had lain still in his chest for so long, began to warm.
His icy prison lost its glow and faded, as his body began to move. His eyes had remained open, but only now did they become aware of the dark. When he stood, it was as though the ice meant nothing to him. He placed one foot heavily before the other, and passed through the rock in the direction of that voice, that smell that felt like Hulda’s breath upon him.
She said his name, that he had long ago forgotten, and he was drawn on.
They lit the long fire in the hall that evening, and she could hear their voices deepen and thicken with drink as the hours passed. That son of hers had more friends than he had workers; she hoped he could afford enough ale for them all. She had needed the latrine for some time, but refused to move from her bench, and her own, more benevolent fire. She could hear his wife cackling and squawking in there, and men stamping their boots. They would be dancing next. She would not pass among them, even for the sake of her bowels.
Then the noise stopped. It took her a moment to realise that this was real silence, not just a trick of her ears. They could not have all left so quickly. She rose, and pulled her shawl tight around her neck before moving to the door.
They sat along the benches in the hall, drinks half-raised, staring across the flames at each other. She hobbled towards the fire. This seemed to rouse them.
“What was that?” whispered Saldís, who should have known better than to keep such company at such an hour.
“What was what?” Hulda asked, peering at the faces, trying to distinguish those she recognised from those she did not.
“A knock,” said Rauðúlfr, “that’s all.”
“A single knock, and after dark,” someone said. “That is no friend outside.”
She was too far from the door. She tried to get out, but the chill had long since stiffened her legs, and Rauðúlfr was there before her to bar her way.
“It’s only superstition,” she told him, “don’t leave the poor soul out in the cold.”
“Sit down, mother.”
She shook her head, but her son was taller and broader besides. He only had to place a heavy hand on her shoulder and she would be rooted there where she stood.
Then they looked up, as they heard a hollow thumping on the roof, and a scrabbling, and then the beams began to shake as if someone were sitting up there, kicking their heels and causing the whole hall to shake. The banging made the children cry, and even Erna, Rauðúlfr’s formidable wife, shrieked in fear.
“No, no, it’s just a storm! That’s all!” Hulda shouted above the din. But dust and cobwebs were filling the air, landing in the fire and on her head, and she allowed her daughter to usher her into the corner with the other women, while the men crouched at the door, in case.
“Will no one go out to him?” she wailed, but no one answered.
Few slept well that night. Even once the spirit seemed to have passed, they were afraid to speak or move. She did not tell them who it was, because it would do no good; they still believed Fálki had left her of his own accord, because she nagged him.
As soon as light could be seen through the cracks around the wooden door, Rauðúlfr led some men outside. The rest soon followed, and even Hulda moved to stand in the snow and stare. The gate had been flattened, as though by some giant’s foot, and the animal shed nearest the house had been turned on its side, as though only a toy. Remains of the animals were scattered in scarlet heaps. The snow had already formed veils over the bodies, and would gradually bury them.
Rauðúlfr strode towards the gate, clumps of wool drifting around his ankles as he moved through the destruction.
“Where is the shepherd?” he asked, but the shepherd could not be found.
The next night Hulda did not make the same mistake. She left the hall while the women were busy cooking the night meal, and crunched her way across the snow in the dark, heading towards the gate. It still lay on the ground, so she walked over it, her footsteps echoing, and out of the farm. They would miss her, but not for some time yet.
She walked until her knees refused to bend, and then she stood and waited, feeling the chill spread up her legs and into the very core of her. She shivered and cursed, but stayed where she was, staring up at the mountainside in the moonlight.
Until Fálki came.
He came swiftly, silently, though he had swelled to three times the size he had been in life. His eyes were two eggs bulging from his skull, and she almost feared to meet their gaze. But as he stopped before her, one huge hand supporting his head, she readied herself to speak to him at last.
“Away! Away, evil draugr!” shouted Rauðúlfr, running towards them with his sword drawn. Hulda screamed, but as the blade came down the ghost was gone, and a falcon soared away up towards the top of the mountain.
“What have you done?” she asked, grabbing her son’s arm. “Why couldn’t you let me speak to him?”
He shook her free of his arm and sheathed his sword. “I feared it was you that had loosed this ill upon us. When I saw you leave the hall tonight, I knew you went to meet it.”
“It was no ‘ill’, it was your father’s ghost,” she cried. “I wanted only to speak to him, to see him one last-”
“That was not my father,” Rauðúlfr said. “That was trouble caused by your meddling. You should have let my father rest.”
“How can he rest when he is lost in the mountains? You should have sought him out long ago, when he was newly lost. But even you believed that he had left me, that he did not want to be followed, that he did not need your help.”
Her son gripped her by the wrist and led her quickly back towards the hall.
“Just because he is a ghost now, mother, does not mean he did not leave by his own choice.”
Rauðúlfr waited until the sun rose again before following the creature. He climbed the mountain, and though he would never admit to such a feminine skill, he followed his nose to the cave.
From outside, it was no more than a hole in the rock, a gap through which snow and rain would travel, and sometimes light. This was a hole that could trap the unwary traveller, but now Rauðúlfr lowered himself through it with a purpose. The fit was tight, but he drew his shoulders in towards his chest and wriggled, rubbing snow into his armpits as he slipped through at last, into the darkness.
He did not want to move away from that pool of light, but there was a glint in the back of the cave that called for his attention. He drew his sword, and carried it before him for those few delicate steps across the slippery floor of the cave.
In the dark, he could barely tell the head from the body, but he waited and listened to his heart pound like an animal beneath his tunic, as his eyes accustomed. He lifted his sword above his head, and swung it down in a practiced arc. It only took one slice to decapitate the ghost, whose neck had been already broken. Rauðúlfr grasped the hair, frail as straw between his thick fingers, and positioned the head between the feet of his enemy. There was no danger of it rising again now.
Rauðúlfr returned to his farm with no trophy but the dull stain on his sword. His mother was waiting at the broken gate to meet him.
“I can smell your father’s blood on your sword,” she said, “and so you have killed your mother too.”
He took her back into the warmth of the hall, telling her to keep her peace and not to frighten the children. Erna was in the hall and she waited, her arms folded, as he led his mother to her accustomed seat. Erna went outside, and though she did not speak, he knew to follow her. The world was frozen but her cheeks were red.
“Why did you leave the farm? Where did you sneak to today?” she asked. “The men are suspicious enough already, and everyone is afraid. Could you not have told us where you were going?”
“I can tell you now that you are safe,” he said. “I followed the ghost, and found my father’s body at long last. I have put him to rest.”
When the day’s work was over and everyone had returned to the hall, the fires were lit and drink was passed around. Rauðúlfr was toasted for his bravery and his skill with a sword.
Erna went to the hearth-fire where lamb was boiling for the night meal. Hulda seemed to her to be sitting very still.
Erna placed a hand on the old woman’s to rouse her, but found the skin cold.
* * *
Lisa Farrell holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, and her short stories have appeared on pulp.net, Open Magazine, and in Volume magazine, among others. You can visit Lisa, and read her other online stories, by going to her blog.