Across the Kolgan Sea

Benjamin R. Babst

 

Chapter 1

A Visit and Departure

I stood at the door of the building, taking deep, long breaths to prepare myself. When I looked up, smoke was billowing forth from the old brick house. I didn’t want to go in—All-father knew I didn’t want to go—but I had to. Eira was depending on me. With one deep breath to give endurance to my lungs and soul, I opened the door and let the heat greet me like Muspelheim. I wrapped my cloak over my mouth to help me breathe, but I had to let my eyes bare the pain of the soot. I looked around frantically for her, but with my eyes watering so much, I had enough trouble seeing my nose.

I ducked to the ground, hoping to enjoy some fresher air and better visibility…And indeed I did. She was lying right up against the wall, where she’d been for the last three hours. Avoiding the smoky air above me, I crawled to her and unhooked her. With the halibut my sister requested obtained, I marched triumphantly out of the smokehouse and up to the house.

My family lived in a longhouse on the edge of a seaside cliff. Like most Shaloor, we were humble fishermen and proud of it. Of course, it wasn’t just my family who was home today, for a friend of my father and his family were visiting, but this visit wasn’t for fun and games. Not to say Mr. Bergson’s kids and my younger sisters weren’t playing Trade Ships, nor was my father having a lively chat over a game of Tables, it was just that that wasn’t why they were here. Their reason for coming up to our home was Mrs. Bergson was one of the midwives for our island and my mother was in labor.

Because of this, almost everyone was outside, including my sister Eira, who was stooped over a pot cooking. “Here’s that fish you asked for,” I said, handing the halibut to her.

She thanked me as she took the fish and peeled strips off to drop in the pot. I crowded up next to the fire to take in some heat, disregarding it being used for supper. It was a little breezy today and the lack of sunlight made for very cold weather. Unlike in the smokehouse, no smoke was blowing in my face, a rather nice perk to the wind.

“So, how’s Mom doing? I doubt there’s been any progress since last time I asked, though.”

Eira turned away from the soup for a moment to look at the door of the house. “It’s kind of hard to tell, Erland. Not many sounds manage to get out here, after all. Though I think I heard a chanting poem just a little bit ago.”

I found this kind of embarrassing to say, but in spite of the many times this has happened before, the mention of chanting poems still got my stomach to churn. “Do you think Mom’s all right then? If chanting poems and runes are needed, that means it’s not going smoothly, right?”

Mr. Bergson chuckled a bit and turned away from his game of Tables for a minute. “Don’t worry, Erland boy, my Runa’s done this sort of thing dozens, no, more than dozens of times. Your mom is as safe as, well, a baby in its mother’s arms. The one Eira mentioned sounded like a pretty standard one, too. A simple spell meant to ease the pain.” Even with his tendency to ramble, his words did comfort me. There was no reason at all to fear for my mother’s life with such a professional taking care of her. Besides, Mrs. Bergson’s best apprentice and my sister Erika were also helping out, redoubling Mom’s safety.

With her incredible ability to separate herself from the world and focus on what she was doing, Eira departed from the conversation and took a quick taste of the soup and then threw some herbs into the pot. “So,” she said to kick up her own idle conversation, “do you think it’ll be a boy or a girl?”

I answered her question quickly, as I had only addressed this exact same topic several times over several months. “A boy, of course! Dad and I are already outnumbered by you girls two to nine. We need somebody to at least somewhat level the playing field.”

Eira gave a little smile. “We girls do not outnumber you. Try to remember you have the ganders on your side.”

“I refuse to take sides with geese,” I said in a mock whine. “How dare you compare Dad and me to loud, obnoxious, territorial creatures like those.”

“Now, now, Erland, just because they have better manners than you doesn’t mean you have to get indignant.” Her smile grew larger as I realized I walked straight into that quip.

I smiled right back at her as I figured how to out-outwit her. “Well, if we’re including the ganders, we also have to include the geese.”

“That still means there’s more of us,” she came back with a taunting ring. My face puckered up and I stood up to leave.

“I’m done talking to you now,” was all I said before departing to check on the younger children’s game.

To clarify, my parents have ten children, including myself and the one on the way. They actually put a lot of stress on me since I was the only boy in the family other than my dad, and in more ways than putting up with Eira’s sense of humor. It was hard to help my father support a family this large without more hands to help. Sure, my sisters would help me fix a net or haul in a large catch every now and then, but they stayed near the house, learning to do womanly things mostly. Many of my friends said I’m a whiner when I talk like this, but I was not. I’d found it quite fulfilling to be one of the major breadwinners for a family of eleven (and soon to be twelve), and wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Anyway, even though Eydis made sure to keep the game from getting too close to the cliff, I made sure to keep an eye on all of the younger ones, sort of playing referee. Frey’s turn as the Agrian was fairly short, and it was time for my youngest sister, Sigrun, to play the role. I decided to help Sigrun. I didn’t want to give her any major advantages, so I chased after everyone as slowly as I could.

“Cheater! Bully! Just what a filthy Agrian would do!” That was what the little ones all shouted as I helped Sigrun play the Agrian. I ignored them because a lot of that was actually true. Everyone knew the Agrians were cowards who despised us for no real reason. Attacking our trading ships in the name of stopping piracy, refusing (even killing) any of us who dare to try to land on their shores. May the giantess Ran scoop me up with her net if I was wrong; if we so much as barked, they’d try and put us down because we were mad dogs or something.

I was having fun giving off my best Agrian snort (that was how they’re rumored to talk), when father hollered over to us. “That’s quite enough,” he said sternly. “Come over here, dinner’s almost ready.” I, however, knew exactly what he meant. What he was really trying to say was, “Hey! Stop saying mean things about those saps on the mainland.” I didn’t really understand why he felt so uncomfortable about us talking about the Aggies like that. He was the only person I knew who knew their “culture” inside and out, so how was it he couldn’t see them for the simpering barley-eating slobs they were?

Regardless, I still respected his wishes; he was my father and if he didn’t want me to do something, I wouldn’t do that something. All of the girls were busy setting the table, but I took the time to sit and watch Father and Bergson’s game. Things weren’t going very well for Father from what I could tell; he had Bergson’s king surrounded on three sides, but there didn’t appear to be very many ways for him to block off that fourth side. Judging by the glint in his eyes, though, Father knew exactly what to do and how to execute it. I was never able to figure out what his brilliant strategy was, unfortunately, because before he was even able to move his piece, Erika came calmly through the door of the house with a serene smile on her face, while a loud cry came from behind.

“Father, I am pleased to tell you Mother is fine and our family now has another baby girl.”

Father stood up and smiled. On the outside, Father looked just as collected as Erika was, but that was a very deceptive thing to go off of. I knew inside he was just as excited and ecstatic as when he first knew Erika and I were born. “Good job, Erika. Am I allowed to see the little lass?”

Erika nodded and went back inside. It took her a minute to return, but in her arms was a white bundle of cloth with a red face showing through. Father gingerly brushed the fabric aside to see the newborn’s face, still tearing up a bit from the shock of being dragged into the world. He said nothing, but I knew exactly what he was thinking. “Welcome home, my child.” That was a very easy thing for me to discern because it was the same expression he wore when the rest of us were born.

Bergson, thrilled in his own way, demonstrated his joy by giving Father a light punch to the shoulder. “Congrats on number ten, Fridtjof old boy. What are you going to call her, if I may ask?”

Father waved his hand to dismiss the question. “I have a few ideas, but I would rather not mention them until next week, when she will be officially given the name.” He then pushed the door open a little more and said, “You may give the girl back to her mother now, Erika.” Erika gave a slight bow and then returned inside. As the door closed, Eira announced supper was completed. So we all went to the table to continue our happy discussions over some food.

The table was already set with all of the stew and spoons and so forth, and the bread and mead were being handed out. But it wasn’t time to eat, as my younger sisters had made the mistake of thinking. As was done after the birth of every child, a song of prayer was needed to be sung. We all sat at the table patiently for the performance. This one was going to be different from all the ones before. Today was the first time Erika would sing the prayer instead of Mrs. Bergson.

She stood before us all, not looking at us but instead at the horizon. Mrs. Bergson sat down behind Erika with her set of panpipes. They both bowed, and a few meters after Runa began playing, Erika began to sing.

From fair Freya

We pray for peace

And love too

With grace please guild

Our abode

Our home of homes

Now, oh Njord

Humbly we ask

Bring bounty

From the whale’s way

Grant good gifts

Of fish and salt

And sweet winds

For our family

And yea, Thor,

Please guard this ground

Let no woe

Come to destroy

When she finished her song, Erika blinked as if she had gone out of a trance. However, we all knew it was not an actual trance, as Erika had had a tendency to do that sort of thing whenever she gave a performance. She would get so engrossed with her performance the rest of the world would sort of fade away. In fact, this little quirk had become so common to us we even gave it a name—song-sleep.

As the grasp of the song-sleep loosened completely, we gave her our applause as she took her seat and filled her bowl. That was, everyone except for Mr. Bergson, who was intent on railroading the conversation.

“You know?” he asked everyone, almost as if we weren’t already aware of what he was going to say. “All that talk of the sea and family reminds me of a little joke. It all began one day when my boy, Frey, and I were out fishing…” We all groaned with disappointment, but he didn’t let that get the better of him.

Because Bergson is a terrible orator, I will spare you all the specifics of what he said and just give you the summary. He recalled the time he mistook an eel for a mermaid. You must understand his eldest son was playing a trick on him, and he had been partially blinded from a plank of wood the day before—an entirely different, and longer story. Every time our families had gotten together, he’d always told that story. He might change a few of the words—saying the mermaid has blonde hair once and red hair another, and add a few jokes in the middle—the ending was always the same.

“And when I went to kiss the thing, it bit me on the nose,” he said with a laugh. Never in the long history of this story had he ever even changed the wording. But today, he not only added something, he changed the entire ending.

“So then I scoop it up into the boat, and what else do you expect from an eel? It thrashes around in its attempt to get back into the water.” He chuckled. “Naturally, I started jumping around in a panic too, only I knock my entire day’s work of fish back into the water. Finally, Frey grabs the dumb old thing and throws it overboard. And on top of all that, it grabs my largest catch of the day and swims away like a storm’s coming. That fish was this big.” He held his arms out as far they could go (none of us believed he could have a fish that big in a boat that small), just to add emphasis.

“So anyway,” he continued, “I turn over to Frey and asked, ‘Why did the mermaid go and do that?’ To which he just shrugged and said, ‘Dunno, maybe them oily Agrians have finally learned to swim.’”

Granted, the joke wasn’t especially funny, but because it was the first time we’d heard a different ending of any sort, we laughed very hard. That was to say everybody but my father; he just seemed to slump back into his chair and look offended. When Bergson saw his reaction, he put down his drink and continued. “Hey, it’s a joke, Fridtjof, laugh.”

My father then looked up at him and responded. “I don’t consider this a joking matter. If the Agrians were to make a comment like that about us, how would we feel?”

Bergson snorted at the statement. “Now Fridt, you of all people should know the Agrians have the collective sense of humor of a dried piece of meat. Besides, it’s a joke like this that helps us remember how bad they are. You don’t want your family to forget and let their guard down, do you?”

“The Agrians haven’t attacked in over twenty years, Bergson. Twenty. Years.”

“That’s how long it took for them to build up enough courage to attack us last time. I’m telling you, you’re raising your son to be a coward and weakling. And if you continue to raise him like this, ten gruppance says your family will be the first to go with the next attack.”

That last comment got me angry, and not wanting to make things any worse, I used my fist on the table before heading down to the shore. What right did he have to say that about my father? It might have been my mother who had to tell me the story of Alvdis and the Filthy Isle, but my father didn’t shy away from telling me how to defend myself from the Agrians. He might not have hated them but that didn’t mean he refused to think they might attack us. Ever since I was old enough to cast a net, he taught me how they thought and how to outthink them. With all I’d learned, I’d triple what Bergson was betting that everyone else would go down first.

It was overcast when I finished climbing down to the beach side, and drizzling as I got the net out of the shed, so at least I’d be able to catch a good amount of fish. In my usual habit, I threw the net out onto the beach to make sure there weren’t any holes in it. It was a good thing I did because I noted a significant hole just near the center, and a hole of any size was a bad thing. I went to get the mending kit when I heard someone calling for me.

“Erland! Erland!” the voice shouted. I peeked out of the shed and saw Bergson running down to me. When he got to the shed, he leaned against the doorpost and caught his breath. “I’m sorry about what I said back there, about you and your father. It’s just such a tender topic, you know?”

I smiled and nodded back at him. “It’s all right, but from now on, I think it would be wise for us not to make any Agrian-related jokes.”

He nodded and chuckled. “To tell you how I really feel, I bet the Agrians would just think you and your father are one of them. What with those chins and hair of yours.” He was right, my father and I did hold some of the most prominently known traits of Agrians, those being razor-sharp chins and cherry-red hair. This was a rather rare thing among us Shaloor, but it was hardly unheard of. We were once Agrians who were driven out to sea for being too civilized, after all. Bergson continued, “So, if there’s anything I can do to make things up to you, just let me know.”

I thought for a moment and looked down at the net. “Well, do you mind fixing this net while I go check out the lobster cages?”

Bergson quickly agreed to this and I sailed out to the traps. I hopped into the boat and lost my balance for but second, almost banging by head against the side of the boat.

“Are you all right?” Bergson asked.

I nodded as I eased my way back into a standing position. “Yeah, the boat’s rocking a bit more today than usual.” I looked down at the water, which was choppy and agitated. Then I looked up at the sky; a thunderhead was mingling with the already overcast sky on the horizon. “A storm seems to be on the way,” I said to Bergson while untying the sails. “I’d better hurry.”

The wind was at my back, fortunately pushing me in the direction I wished to move, but unfortunately pushing the storm closer to me. The buoy had also been dragged farther from shore. It was so far out that it was right at the cusp of the anchorage and halfway out to the cluster of rocks surrounding our island.

As I dunked my hand into the sea to find the tether, small droplets of rain began to hit the back of my neck. The cage was difficult to pull up this time; it seemed like a nice-sized lobster was going to find its way into a soup.

“Errrlaaand,” I heard Bergson shout from shore. “The…the storm! It’s coming.” I wasn’t able to make out much of what he said over the sound of the wind beating against my ears. Despite what he seemed to think, I was an experienced sailor. As mighty as this was, I’d still be able to reach shore. I was also at the end of my chore, just a few more pulls and the trap would be in the boat. Thunder cackled above me when the cage flopped onto the deck. By my best guess, it was cackling because I’d gone through so much work for next to nothing. All that was in it was a mess of sea tangle. I grumbled as I wiped a stream of water off my face and tucked the cage into a corner of the boat; perhaps it would still be edible.

Without warning, the winds then picked up, and the more furious of Aegir’s nine daughters surrounded me. Immediately, I went for the oars to try to row back. I stroked as quickly as I could, my tempo could have outdone horse and dog alike on shore, but this was not enough to best the waves. It was only enough to barely stay where I was, though “where I was” was difficult to recall as the rain grew so heavy as to limit my sight to inside the boat.

Now exhausted by my futile attempts, I reached for the anchor. If I couldn’t get to shore, I’d have to stay right here and outweather the weather. I threw it off the side of the boat, but as I felt it pulling hard against the boat as it hit seafloor, I could tell I was even still moving forward by small leaps. For good measure, I threw the cage back into the water and tried to tie its rope to the mast.

The ship still bobbed in the water, which was still now. While I was waiting for this to blow over, I threw a tarp over my head and crawled up against the back bow of the ship. The ship served as a windbreak, but the rain still harassed me from my cocoon. So heavy was the torrent that it had already soaked the half-inch thick tarp through, and water drenched and chilled me. I was still content to stay under the shelter because I’d rather merely be wet than wet and in the bruising rain.

I lay curled up there for what felt like hours, and the only thing keeping me from being lulled into slumber was the fear this was sleep born of cold heart rather than weary mind. The rain calmed down and the winds no longer looked for cracks to spout through and further freeze me. Thinking the storm had passed, I uncovered myself and looked back toward shore. Raindrops were still large, but had slowed down so I could look back and see all my family there. Father was getting into our spare scow to come help me back. At long last, this squall was over. I no longer needed to fear for my life.

Thunder then shouted in my ear, and I reflexively turned my head to the sky. In the black storm clouds that remained, I saw an image as lightning surged through them. It was the face of an old, bearded man, his eyes glowing like orbs of light. This frightened and confused me, for what had I done to anger Aegir, the giant in the sea? I had no time to think about the old sea giant’s reasons, because his daughter, Bylgja, scooped me and the ship up and thrust us onto a large rock, shattering the ship and rendering me unconscious.