Written for the Last Author Standing contest (original fiction division, round 1, challenge 5), December 2010.
Norway, 997 AD
It was the eve of Jul, the winter solstice, and the village lay silent under a heavy blanket of snow. Those of the townsfolk who had accepted Christ, under the urgings of King Haakon the Good a generation ago, or the more recent, and violent, insistence of the new king Olaf Tryggvason, were either abed, or quietly preparing for the coming feast of Christmas. But there were those, even now, who kept an older vigil.
One by one, they had slipped out of their homes earlier in the evening, hoping to avoid notice, and made their stealthy way to one of the few steads that still followed the old Gods, the Aesir and Vanir, and celebrated Jul the traditional way, as best they could now. For under Olaf’s reign, few heathen temples still stood, and those who kept the old ways now hid in the shadows, meeting in secret in farms and steads. Haakon had tried to convert by preaching and by example, but Olaf did it by the sword, tearing down temples and torturing or killing any who resisted.
Inside, the stead’s mistress, Evja Skorageirsdottir, was performing the Dísablót, the offering to the Dísir, or Ladies. The Dísir were a company of ghosts, or spirits of female ancestors, voices of fate and guardians of the land, entreated at this time to bless the harvest for the coming year. Slowly she paced the bounds of the hall, sprinkling blood from a sacrificed pig on the walls, and on each person present, to bless them. The air was heavy with the scent of mead and blood, woodsmoke and roasting meat, and a skald quietly chanted a poem of praise to the Dísir as Evja blessed all present. Later, there would be feasting and revelry, but this part of the rite was always solemn.
The rhythm of the chanting and the drum that accompanied it, and the haze of the smoke, lulled Evja into a trance as she made her rounds. Sometimes it seemed she could feel others walking with her, all the women who had ever led this rite before her, though she no longer knew if any would after her. Year after year, fewer kept the old ways. A brave few kept the rites, risking all to bless the land and honour the ancestors, but for how much longer?
As she returned to the centre of the stead, a wave of dizziness overtook her and she collapsed, the bowl of blood spilling across the floor. Distantly she heard the sounds of people attending her, and the murmured word Völva, prophetess. She had never sought that honour, but it had claimed her nonetheless. Knowing her body cared for, she let her mind range free, seeking visions.
When the grey mists of her inner sight cleared, she saw three pale women standing before her. One was dressed as a woman of her own time, and might have been one of the villagers had she not appeared slightly transparent. Another wore the dress of generations long past, and the third, strange clothing she had never seen before. “You honour my stead, Ladies,” Evja whispered. “We welcome you, and any wisdom you can offer in these dark times.”
The first to speak was the woman in archaic dress. “I bring memory of Jul past,” she said, in a voice like crackling hearthfire and winter wind. And Evja’s mind was filled with visions of the feast as it had been in her long-ago childhood, when whole villages gathered freely in temples and forest groves, celebrating openly and without fear. Her heart was warmed, but her eyes stung with tears, for the beauty and joy that was now lost. Still, she wandered the mists of memory until a second voice called her back.
The Dís of her own time spoke in a voice like clashing steel, fear, and secrets whispered in the night: “Look now upon Jul present,” and reluctantly Evja did, but what she saw wrenched at her heart. Temples struck down, whole families slaughtered, and villages where none kept the old holy days at all — not from a true change of faith, but simply from terror. But it was the last vision the spirit showed her that truly chilled her: a company of the king’s men, riding with fire and sword along a road that she knew well: the one that led to her own village.
And she knew, now, why the Dísir had appeared to her directly this night: because, like the Valkyries, they also acted as Choosers of the Slain, carrying away the worthy dead. She knew, with bone-deep certainty, that she would not live out this night. “Spirits, please, let me awaken! I must warn my people!”
“They know already,” came the third voice, like seeds hidden deep within earth, or the stirrings of an unborn child in the womb. “You have spoken in trance. But before you return to face what comes, see the Jul yet to come.”
“No, please! I can bear no more. I cannot look upon a world in which all that I love has been lost.”
But her vision shifted yet again, to a strange and terrifying new world, of vast cities larger than anything she could have imagined, all land covered with flat slabs of artificial stone through which nothing could grow, untold thousands crammed into these cities like rats. She wept for her world, but the spirit bade her look closer, into a scattering of homes across this barren land. And there she saw small handfuls of people — families, friends, strangers joined by mutual longing — gathering to try and recall, or recreate, what had been lost. They did not know all the traditional words or ceremonies, but they sang to the land, and it sang back to them, though they did not yet know how to hear it. They honoured the ancestors, and the air around them danced with invisible spirits. They made offering to the Gods, and slowly They began to stir, as if awakening from long slumber. Little by little, like a forest returning after fire, one tiny sprout at a time, the old ways returned. And Evja wept again, but this time from joy.
And then she was once again lying on the floor of her stead, while around her the people scrambled in panic, uncertain whether to fight or flee. Taking command, she ordered the children and mothers, and any who could not fight, to make ready to run, taking with them only what food and warm clothes they could gather quickly, and all those who remained to take up whatever weapons they could. She did not need to speak what all knew: that those who stayed behind had no chance of victory, that they fought only to give those who fled, who carried the seeds of the future she had seen, a chance to escape.
As the sound of pounding hoofbeats became clear, she gripped her axe and whispered a silent prayer: May the Gods bless us, every one.
Story prompt: “Write the story of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, but make it unique somehow from the original story.” This story tied for second place in that challenge.