To all men who ask, my name is Gunnolf Hakonarson. My sword does not shine in the sun, its blade is dull; and the weight is heavy. But I alone can carry it with ease, despite my chosen physical stature. It is named 'Vengeance the Red', because vengeance is its purpose, and red because it is the only colour my sword knows. I wander between small settlements, trading meat which I have hunted with my bow and arrow, just to socialise with the people. I do not need sustenance myself, as I am not human. Still, I forget sometimes...
Gunnolf! Go forward! The short, stocky man does not blink as he steps from the shade of the tree into the sunlight, he grins. He pulls behind him, gripping the handle with his left hand awkwardly, a sword of monstrous proportions, it is surely almost as tall as he. The men on the horses look down at him, a mixture of confusion and mirth. Who is this man, who drags behind him such a great sword, like a child playing with his father's blade?
What is this, Agnar? Where are your men? roars one of the horsemen, You have refused our offer, so we have come to take your territory, and this is what you show us? Will you now joke instead of fight? The riders behind the speaker laugh, and the speaker - their leader - spits at the ground in annoyance.
I would not jest over such a thing, Eirik Magnusson you are here to try to take my lands, and Gunnolf is here to stop you. Face him alone in combat, and once you are dead, your men will die too.
This statement provokes a riot of laughter from the riders. Annoyed and impatient, Eirik Magnusson growls with disgust, dismounts his horse, and draws out his dreaded twin axes. Eirik is a hardened and well-seasoned warrior, and tall; much taller than Gunnolf is. The horsemen are tense; they can sense no ordinary challenge as Agnar the Quiet, a coward by any decent man's standards, stands firm and confident, a man privy to a secret Eirik's horsemen do not know. The horsemen wonder if Agnar the Quiet has become Agnar the Mad. They watch quietly as Gunnolf still grins, seemingly a man with no cares in the world, watching Eirik approach him with a warrior's purposeful menace. Then almost lazily, Gunnolf moves his left arm, which clumsily grasps the hilt of the mammoth blade, and with the lightest of ease swings the sword forward so he can grasp it with both hands. Gunnolf stands, massive sword held aloft, in perfect symmetry with his reach; man and blade as one. Eirik falters, his stumbling steps betraying his disbelief. He is stunned as he watches Gunnolf drop the massive blade forward, and using impossible acrobatics, uses the blade itself as a vaulting pole, closing the distance between himself and Eirik with frightening speed and accuracy. As Gunnolf lands lightly on his feet before Eirik, Eirik's warrior instincts finally jolt him and he raises both arms, axes gripped tight, praying to Odin that his deathblow is quicker than that of his enemy's. Gunnolf's swift blade sweeps in a crimson arc and comes to rest once more at his left side in a brief rain of red. Gunnolf turns and walks back toward Agnar, once again dragging the blade as though it were an impossible weight, as Eirik Magnusson's severed arms and head fall to the earth, followed by his ruined body. The realisation of Eirik's death begins to dawn on his men, they shout at each other confused and afraid, they watch as Gunnolf thrusts his sword into the ground and casually prepare his bow. Three horsemen from Eirik's party cry out and break rank, but are felled rapidly by Gunnolf's arrows. The bloodied madman grins, and turns to the rest of the bewildered horsemen.
Will you not run, too? he asks, his eyes shining with a childish and terrible excitement, It is more fun if you are running!
It all happened so fast.. the panicking horsemen tried to flee, and although they were three hundred and twenty strong, one by one I felled them by bow or by blade, like men of straw. Some tried to fight back despite their terror, but not one did I allow to strike me. Their panic increased as they watched their comrades go swiftly from life to naught but cold blood and bone. I was deaf to their cries, did not heed their pleas nor hear their prayers, I only brought about death. The riderless horses fled, screaming in terror, their bodies awash with their master's blood. And Agnar the Quiet stood by, true to his name, and silently watched my every move..
Agnar! I need to speak to you - there are rumours that... Einar the Bold faltered, daring not speak the words. Agnar the Quiet sighed and looked up at him.
There are always rumours, Einar, it comes with the responsibilities I have. Now speak plainly, or leave me to my night meal.
Eirik Magnusson and his men - vanished, they say, though the horses came back alone, and drenched in blood. What happened, Agnar? Why did you go there alone, and with him? Who is this man you have brought to the village?
He is a friend to us, Einar. His name is Gunnolf. Treat him well, he is my guest. I will not have him mistreated here, do you understand? Eirik Magnusson and his kin are no longer a threat to us.
If you had agreed to the marriage there would have been no threat at all! Einar hissed, The men are afraid of this man Gunnolf, they say he is always smiling, because he can smell blood.. our blood! We will be next! The men say.. Einar stopped, and lowered his gaze. Agnar looked up at him.
The men say what, Einar? More nonsense? Agnar leaned forward, It would be prudent of you to quell such stories. And wise of you to remember that agreeing to the marriage would not have gone well for any of us! I will not ask Gunnolf Hakonarson to leave, he will be of great and useful service yet, for he is an extraordinary man. And now he has taken custody of Magnusson's land, he is a suitably rich man.
If he is a man at all! Einar shook with the effort of restraining himself, The men say he is a child of Loki, or even the half-god himself! The way he smiles..
Enough Einar! Agnar slammed his open fist down on the table.
You know, Agnar, don't you? whispered Einar, his eyes widening with fear, You know full well what devil you have brought into our midst; tell me, what have you forfeit for his dark service?
A devil in their midst.. that's how they saw me. I wanted to settle down for a while, and live as one of them, but how could I when they watched me with fearful and mistrustful eyes? What could I do to make them accept me, what did they have that I did not? And the answer came to me, as I witnessed a stolen kiss between a man and his wife.. I would marry. I informed Agnar the Quiet that I would return within the moon, and I set out for Hell, to ask the artificer Balberith to make me a suitable bride.
You left us to be married? Agnar's eyes widened in surprise.
Yes, Gunnolf nodded, This is my wife, Ylaenia.
The room had fallen silent, each man taking in his fill of Ylaenia, who was an an unearthly beauty, with skin of ice and hair of the raven, an exotic creature amongst the women in the village. Gunnolf began to wonder if he had made a mistake with his demonic wife, but then Agnar spoke again.
You are most welcome, dear lady, he smiled, and Gunnolf could see the lust in his gaze. Men would ignore the obvious if what they saw was pleasing enough to their eye. Gunnolf smiled.
Ylaenia loved me and me alone, it is why she was made. Her presence in the village stirred up something in the men which the women did not like, and the women, having more sight than men, shunned her. Ylaenia cared little for this, she only lived to please me.. and please me she did, we spent many nights as man and wife.. and I thought I could ask for no better.
Come Gunnolf, will you sit with me? Agnar smiled, pro-offering a cup of ale. Gunnolf grinned and accepted the cup, drinking heartily. He helped himself to a bowl of barley bread, chewing enthusiastically, smiling as he did so, as was his way.
Your wife.. she is quite the beauty, is she not? Agnar asked casually.
Aye, she is, Gunnolf agreed happily.
Barren though, eh? Agnar said quietly; the question not really a question at all, but a statement. Gunnolf stopped chewing and his smile dropped.
I did not mean to offend you, friend, Agnar said soothingly, but the women have been talking, my wife in particular, and at great length.. Agnar began to laugh, but stopped when Gunnolf did not share his mirth. You know, if you want to settle here properly my friend, and ensure that you keep a hold on the lands that you have won, then it is best to produce an heir.
Gunnolf sat back and began chewing once more, holding Agnar's gaze thoughtfully.
Your wife, is she not more of a concubine? She is certainly not one of us, and you did not marry here.. what bride price did you pay for her?
I paid nothing, Gunnolf confessed.
Ah! Agnar clapped his hands with glee and leaned forward, Then, by our laws, you are not truly married. You remember Eirik Magnusson, Gunnolf?
Of course I do, Gunnolf nodded.
He wanted to marry off his son with my daughter, and thereby sought to gain control of my land with the children they produced. I refused, which insulted him, so he came to take my land by force. You put an end to that, Gunnolf, and you gained his lands I can think of no better man to wed my daughter, Trigve. I know you can afford a more than generous bride price and morning gift. Trigve's dowry will be no less substantial. This marriage will bind the ties between us and we can increase our wealth and power - together. What say you?
Gunnolf chewed thoughtfully. Agnar sensed his uncertainty, and pressed further.
Come to my booth for your morning meal, Gunnolf. I will have Trigve show you what a fine wife she would make. Then we can discuss the bride price, and the hand-seal. What say you?
And what does Trigve have to say about this? enquired Gunnolf.
Trigve is a fine, proud woman, and there is no better match, insisted Agnar.
You have not asked her opinion then? Gunnolf smiled.
I need not ask when I already know it, Agnar persisted, So what do you say? Come to my booth in the morning?
There was a long pause in which both men regarded each other, neither willing to break gaze.
If I agree to come, nothing is final? asked Gunnolf.
Not until you are willing to discuss it formally, my friend. But you will, as Trigve is fair and has many good qualities, and she will bear you the heirs you sorely need.
Alright then, Gunnolf finally nodded. Agnar laughed in relief, stopping abruptly when the screaming started, his eyes wide with shock. Both men ran out into the village, following the wrenching sound. Their eyes found Ylaenia, who stood motionless outside Gunnolf's home, her eyes fixed on her husband, screaming with sheer terror. The sound was unearthly, but apart from the two men, had attracted no other interest from the people of the settlement. Villagers walked around, going about their business, chatting and working, apparently deaf to Ylaenia's terrible lament. Agnar's face clouded and he turned to Gunnolf.
So what the women say is true then. Get rid of her, and only then you can marry my daughter.
As Agnar finished speaking and turned back to enter his booth, Ylaenia stopped screaming, her breath laboured and halting, tears running down her face.
Ylaenia wailed and screeched, her heart, she said, was broken into pieces, and if truth be told I felt ashamed at hurting her. She knew, she said, what had been promised to me and begged to be given another chance, she insisted she could bear me a child as well as any human woman could. Her persuasive and ethereal nature ensnared me and I lay with her at her demand three times, after which she said she was with child. By the morning her belly was already distended, and she was in pain with it. I did not go to Agnar the Quiet's booth that morning, and at midday he came looking for me. He took in the sight of my weeping wife writhing on the floor in agony with his customary quietness. Agnar told me his offer would still stand for two moons, at which Ylaenia shouted all the louder and her stomach grew ever more alarmingly. Agnar gave me a haunted look, one which will stay with me always, and left. Ylaenia gave birth not long after. I loved the child instantly, regardless.
The entire village was on edge. Mothers kept their children indoors, the women convened at the normal social spots in silence, and the men looked lost. Gunnolf Hakonarson did not seem to notice, and instead walked through the village, grinning as he walked, a man bouyed by new fatherhood. He did not seem to find it strange that the new mother only wanted to eat raw meat, nor that his child was not remotely human-like.
Ylaenia did not take to motherhood, and I cannot blame her, as she was not made for this purpose. The child cut her often, and seemed to fight against her when she held him. My child. He however calmed when I held him, it was surely that he sensed her unease and fear. I named him Jorund. I had my heir, that Agnar could not deny. What did it matter that my son was more serpent than human?
Fourteen days after Ylaenia gave birth to Jorund, she snapped. Ylaenia took the baby down to the sea, waded out until she was hip-deep in the waves, and dropped her son. This was witnessed by Trigve Agnarsdottir, who immediately ran to her father. Agnar could neither hide his glee nor mask his fear, and he sought Gunnolf out, on the outskirts of the woods, where he knew Gunnolf was leading a small hunting party. Agnar was surprised when Gunnolf came out of the trees to meet him, his face ashen. Gunnolf did not wait for Agnar to speak.
Where is my son? he asked Agnar, Where is Jorund?
I found her sitting at the shoreline, weeping. I hated her then, and she knew it. All was lost, despite her efforts to keep me. My son, Jorund, lost to the waves. He was alive, I knew, but lost to me. And my heart was lost with him. Jorund would make his new home in the sea, and into legend. I could never forgive Ylaenia.
Agnar watched as Gunnolf waded out into the sea, scanning the waves anxiously for signs of the beast child, who was surely dead by now. Gunnolf's mad wife sat weeping by the shoreline, pulling at her long black hair. After searching hopelessly through what surf he could, Gunnolf turned to his wife and Agnar gasped at the sight of Gunnolf's face. Never had he seen such pain and anguish etched so plainly upon a man.
He was my son, Gunnolf said hoarsely, My son!
I am sorry, I am sorry! wailed Ylaenia.
You are free. I have no desire for you any longer. Do what you will, Lady, Gunnolf began to walk along the coastline, away from the village. Agnar the Quiet would never see him again. Ylaenia gave one last howl of anguish before consigning herself to the sea.