It’s true that such a place is dark, and has an odor of loam and sea salt clinging to the very rock bones that support its too-low roof. But Hervor didn’t care about vague impressions of menace.
Her crew had abandoned her as soon as she set foot on the island.
“It’s haunted,” they said. “Bad memories eat at the minds of people here and the restless dead guard their treasures jealousy.”
To which she laughed and said, “Why should such things hurt me? I am their kin? Why would the bones of my ancestors hurt me when I am the last breath they have in the world? I am but the impression they left. To destroy me is to destroy themselves.”
Her ancestors had built these burial mounds and hollowed them out over centuries. They tunneled deeper and deeper with each funeral until it was not known how many tunnels existed or how far down they went or even where each long dead king or warrior’s bones rested.
“Hervor,” her advisers had said. “Listen to us. Even if the specters can’t hurt you, then the winding tunnels will confound you and you shall never find your way out.”
This too she disregarded, saying, “You counsel me with ghosts, then with darkness. Know you that I am the last Shield Maiden of the House of Arngrim the Swede? Know you that I am sworn to defeat my house’s enemies? Where are my kin? Dead and gone, and my brothers will never know the peaceful dark that I seek. Their enemies left them in unmarked graves in foreign soil.”
Then her handmaiden had cautioned her, “Mistress, if you will not listen to your crewmen or your advisers, then listen to me. Even if the ghosts are harmless, even if you navigate the tombs of your ancestors, even then, what if this sword has not the power your bloodkin ascribed to it. A sword is but a hunk of metal. A single blade cannot win an entire war for you.”
“This is all I have,” Hervor said. “I am the last of my line and it would be improper for me to let the crimes of those who clipped my family tree’s branches down to the root go unpunished.”
“Mistress,” the handmaiden returned. “It would be better to beget children than to throw your life away.”
“I would beget children if I were made of less stern stuff,” Hervor said, “but I am as inflexible as my honor and as hard as my armor.”
Now, deep in the burial vaults she turned this way and that as her torch burned low. The earth was buttressed by stone, but still the place groaned as the ground shifted, and the dim flickering light she had brought with her did little to illuminate the treasure each king had piled around their bones.
The wealth hoarded there contained jeweled cups, diamonds, spinel, amethyst, rubies the size of men’s fists, golden torques, loose pearls, rings of every size and complexion from tawny gold to lusty orange hessonite. Sapphires that contained the sea, emeralds with entire forests in them, and carnelians with internal fires. No swords.
“Cursed be this treasure,” Hervor said. “No use to the dead, and no use to the living. The dead cannot buy anything with it, nor can they impress their sole audience, me, with it. And I cannot use it to bribe my way into vengeance. My crew would never brave the passages to haul it up and I could not take all of it in thirty passes. Nor can I eat it, nor does it possess its own light. Look at this ruby, coruscated with borrowed shine, as red and vivacious as a beating heart, until the light goes out.”
She tossed the gem aside. “Would that the heart of my enemy be likewise in my hand.”
She went deeper, and as she went deeper, the great wealth grew less and less until the desiccated bodies were only accompanied by bones with their varied treasures being stale air.
Who knows whose bones these were in the lonely places of the Earth? They were her kin, but she didn’t know their names, didn’t know their stories or their histories. Without shield or helm, was this one a warrior or that one a saint?
“O, wretched bones in the dark,” she said. “Are you really my kin? They said this pit would be haunted, but there are not even memories.”
“Yes it is all deep oblivion. Yes it all ends the same. Moths can’t escape from their coruscation. Flames of ancient, incandescent scintillation. Nor can I. Nor can you,” the voice answered from the dark.
“Who are you?” she said, raising the torch high. “Are you one of the ghosts who haunts this place?”
“I am Arngrim, slayer of Skalk and many others. My way was paved with blood. It is I who brought the cursed sword Tyrfing into our clan. It was made for the King Svafrlami by two enslaved dwarves who made it so that it would never miss its target nor would it break or rust. But they cursed it as revenge for their chains. It must kill whenever it is drawn and within seconds. Svafrlami used the sword to conquer much, but I tricked him by drawing the sword from his own scabbard during his own wedding feast.”
“Where is the sword?” Hervor asked.
“I will not tell you,” the voice said. “For it will bring misfortune upon whoever holds it.”
“Who are you to deny me my right?” Hervor said. “I am the rightful heir to it being the last of your descendants. There are no others.”
“When a child wants to touch the fire, it is up to the adult to keep her from burning herself.”
“Do not child me, you wretched dead thing! I am Hervor of Arngrim’s line! Give me what is owed!”
“I cannot, for I do not have the weapon. But the latest bearer is here.”
The voice faded and Hervor sighed, “Poor ghost, may you rest.”
The next chamber was barer still; no bones even to keep the coffin company. The shield maiden wrapped on the stone walls, and said in a commanding voice, “Is this tomb empty? Where is the ghost I was promised?”
“I am here,” the voice said, seeping out of the air.
“I am Hervor, last of Arngrim’s blood. Who are you?”
“I am Heidrek, brother to Angantyr, slain by his sword Tyrfling.”
“Where is the sword?”
“There is no glory in that steel, there is no honor reflected there. We won the battle against the Nords. When it was over I wanted to see the blade that had won the battle. While my brother drank, I stole into his tent and drew the blade. Where, with none around to kill, I drove it into my own breast and fell into the dark.”
“Give me the sword, foul spirit!”
“I must warn you for if you hold the sword, our line truly will be extinct.”
“The insults done to our clan must be repaid and I will have my birthright!” this she said with such command that the voice was cowed.
“Then you must go deeper. Your father awaits. He has the accursed sword.”
Hervor strode deep into the earth. So deep no sigh could have escaped, to where her father lay much as the enemy had left him, broken.
“Is my father’s spirit within?” Hervor asked the tomb.
“I am here.”
“I’ve come for the sword,” Hervor said.
“You shall not have it,” the voice said. It surrounded her like fire and spoke like a dragon. The walls shook with its voice.
“For I can see where its long shadow must disrupt my kin. You will take it and you will presently go to the hall of King Orvar, my worthy murderer and slayer of all our kin. You will go there on some pretext and draw the sword in his hall and kill everyone there. If that were the end of it, that would be fine, but it is not the end of it for I see the death of you, your children, and your grandchildren, and at last I see another Hervor as alike to you as you are to your own face, dying in a field after destroying an entire army with the damned blade, and thus the last of our kin will be.”
Hervor answered in kind, “That’s it then old man? You would cowardly let your kin go unpunished and forsake Valhöll simply because you’re afraid of a curse? All men die and women too, what’s it to our generations than insult? For Orvar has not insulted you, but all of us from the first of our kin to the last, and this cannot stand.”
“FOOLISH GIRL! DISRESPECTFUL DAUGHTER!” the voice said. “Can you not listen: Have you no sense? I see an old man with a bent spine, but a lively sparkle in his eyes. Known to laugh, known to sing. Caroling to work and play. A song on every page of his face. And you would cast him into the fire!
“I know a lass in white and blue. Who tells morals. Whose binding is strong. Whose lesson teaches the strong to cry. The weak to fight. And liars to tell the truth from their hearts. Into the fire, into the fire.
“A couple in love with sonnet-like precision tell their tales between their covers. Like birds fly and dreamers weep these two lovers sing together. Into the fire, into the fire.
“I know a bedecked man full of craggy stories with a thousand scars along his binding and down his face. Whose tales of woe shoot through me to my core. Whose laughter creaks. Whose pride is bare. Into the fire, into the fire.
“I know of a genius destined for a hundred years to tell our story; the tale of our people He swells with mighty cymbal crashes, important phrases overwrought, and uses plain words too. Drawing up our measure and our worth.
“Our whole history into the fire! Unhappy girl, these worthies could be ours. Tyrfing will burn them all down.”
To this Hervor’s eyes flashed bright and she thundered louder than the voice had done,
“TALK TO ME AS IF TO A DAUGHTER? WHO RAISED ME? DID YOU NOT SEND ME ALONE IN THE WORLD? YET WHO AM I? AM I YOUR DAUGHTER? TURNED LOOSE TO MAKE ME STRONG AND IF SO THEN AM I YOUR DAUGHTER? YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO DENY ME WHAT I ASK! FOR IF I AM YOUR DAUGHTER, YOUR ONE DAUGHTER, YOUR ONLY LIVING CHILD, THEN WHAT WAS YOURS IS MINE BY RIGHT. YOU LECTURE ME ABOUT THE DANGERS OF THE SWORD YOU STOLE, THAT YOU ILL-USED AND NOW YOU THINK THAT BECAUSE I HAVE NEED OF IT, I WILL FAIL WHERE YOU FAILED. I AM YOUR DAUGHTER NOT YOU YOURSELF. YOU SHALL DENY ME NOTHING! I AM YOUR DAUGHTER!”
The spirit faltered, the flames grew weak.
“Then it is yours.”
And there in the center of the crypt was the sword in its scabbard. Hervor went to it, put it on, admired the gilded hilt, the gleaming pommel.
“This is it then?” she asked the room.
“It is,” the voice said.
Faster than thought, she drew the sword and slashed toward the voice. The darkness gave an agonized scream.
“It never misses,” Hervor said, holding the sword aloft.
It had its own light, a dark red that throbbed somewhere within the bright steel. She sheathed it as quick as she’d drawn it and left the way she came. The naysayers had been right to warn her of getting lost except for one detail. She never forgot anything.
Standing on the shores of the island of Samse, she waited for her men to return with Tyrfing by her side.
Þis ġiedd lærgedéfed is. Ic befēole forþforlætenesse scopgereordġelīċ.
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