Jolnir, a Yuletide Tale
“—ou kendrless cur! Sooner cut your own horn off to blow for your tiny friends than side with your own kind!”
“I wouldn’t be talking about friends right now, Nefr. Seeing as you don’t have any,” Hund replied, shoving the unruly varl into the largest gaol cell. The iron door handle was chilling to touch, even for the giant, yet the satisfying slam and thunk of the lock bar warmed the cockles of Hund’s heart. “If you be quiet, I’ll have the gaoler get you some water. Else you can dry out on your own.”
“Faen you, watch dog!”
Hund sighed at the prisoner’s needless obstinance and walked towards the exit, passing a few beams of morning light peeking from apertures carved into the stone walls. He moved slowly, studying the passage and reflecting on his contributions to the architecture. How the height was just enough that a varl didn’t have to bow his horned head, how there was even a couple of rooms large enough for his kind.
I could do so much better now, he thought. I’ve learned and practiced so much since then. He couldn’t help but feel some shame for his inexperienced handiwork all those decades ago. Or was it more than a century now? Hund frowned, struggling to remember. The long lives of varl turned memories into labyrinths of time.
Nefr began to ramble and howl at him, his words so slurred that only their hostility could be felt, not their meaning. Hund didn’t spare him a second look, stepping out of the prisoners’ hallway and shutting the door. The litany of drunken curses was lost behind a barrier of wood, leather and wool designed to muffle the gaol’s most vocal occupants. Hund marveled at the ingenuity of the design. That must be made by a man. Gods be good, why didn’t I think of that…
“You’re up early,” someone said.
Hund spun around, then nodded to the speaker. The human was getting on in age, his hair and long mustache a mix of grey and brown. In the embers of the nearby fire, his wizened eyes sparkled with wisdom and intellect. “Sorry if I woke you, Sigketill.”
“Nah. I was up ages ago. Don’t sleep much anyway.” He hunched down to place a log into the fire pit built into the wall between two rooms, and stirred it back to life. Hund stared at the flames, remembering long ago when he was on his back, carefully chiseling the rock inside the wall. The hole that rose up formed a stack chimney through the hill, providing ventilation which allowed smoke to escape. It was a technique that Hund had learned long ago in Grofheim, as the giants much preferred stone homes that would live as long as their occupants.
“So, who is our customer today?” Sigketill asked.
“Nefr. Again. Drunken argument at The Caroling Giant that turned into a fist fight. The hall owner banned him this time.” Hund unslung the sheathed greatsword over his back. “Glad he didn’t use this or I’d never have gotten him out alive.”
“No offense Hund, but you bring me the lousiest Yuletide gifts.”
Hund threw his head back and laughed, his mirth echoing in the cavernous gaol.
Sigketill’s thick mustache hid his amused grin, and he turned towards another door. “Follow me.”
Hund dipped his horns to fit through the entrance of Sigketill’s quarters, warmed by the opposite side of the firepit. Some seasonal fruits dried on a board next to the heat, while finished batches hung from garlands nailed to the wall. Across the room, a shutter was open, letting in a beam of sunlight that struck an opaque stone on a table, illuminating the chamber with a candle-like glow. Hund marveled at the sunstone. Such “diffusing” types were exceedingly rare. The varl knelt down to examine the carved, glowing rock, realizing that the utter smoothness of the surface was perfect. Not something that could be wrought by the hands of men nor varl…
“Where did you get this?” Hund asked.
“Gift from the Governor a couple of years back, but I don’t know where he got it. I think… it may have come from our other ‘friends’ in the north.”
Hund smiled faintly. The gaoler was no fool, and that was undoubtedly why the varl liked him.
From a carved shelf in the wall, Sigketill withdrew a small book and carefully set it on the table nearby. In the sunstone’s light, he slowly flipped pages until he found what he sought. “Let’s see… yes. Nefr was a guest in our humble lodgings almost a month ago. Charges included a fight with another varl and smashing a merchant’s stall. He was drunk then, too.”
“I remember. The varl turned out to be the merchant’s guard, so only Nefr was taken in.”
Sigketill flipped through further pages until arriving at a list of names, dates and crimes that didn’t reach the bottom. He reached for a quill on the table’s corner, dabbing it in its vial a few times before adding Nefr’s fresh charges to the paper. “Well. That’s the second foul up for our good friend.”
Hund shook his head sadly. Had Nefr committed anything more serious then he would have been banished immediately. As it was, Strand’s patience was at an end. One more arrest meant kicking Nefr out of the city and seizing his property. It wouldn’t be a duty Hund relished.
“I don’t suppose he had any coins for his fine?”
“The barkeep insisted on collecting what little he had to pay for the damages,” Hund replied.
Sigketill sighed, the ends of his mustache streaming like a banner in the wind. “Well… I guess we’ll feed him out of kindness and seasonal cheer.”
“Maybe have him work for it?” Hund offered. “Haul somethings around perhaps. He’s as strong as a yox though twice as stubborn.”
“Hmmm. Maybe. Or maybe we could sell that.” Sigketill gestured to the weapon the varl held.
“That won’t go over well.” Hund placed the greatsword against the wall. “He’ll turn into a lunatic if you do. He loves that sword.”
“Alright, but if we have to arrest him again, we will take it for good.” Sigketill let the book sit for a while, the ink drying. “Since you’re here, got time for another game?”
“I think I could manage it.” A smile spread across Hund’s face as he saw his chance. With no seats his size, he sat on the floor beside the table. “Ready to lose again?”
Sigketill chuckled as he drew a bag and a panel of wood from the shelf. The board bore a beautifully engraving of ships on the edges, and a carefully aligned grid. Hund had once asked Sigketill who had carved it, but the gaoler did not know. From the bag came several black pieces shaped as men, and larger white pieces with shields carved in the bodies. Varl.
“Such a sad looking king,” Hund commented, as the final piece was set. Placed in the center, the king was cracked along the top, the crown gone. With a grin, Hund reached into his pouch and withdrew something, gingerly planting it before Sigketill. “Merry Yuletide.”
The gaoler laughed and gently lifted the newly carved king piece. It was made of whale bone, regal and stern faced with a mighty set of horns instead of a crown. “When did you have time to make this?”
Hund shrugged. “Here and there. Took patience.”
“I never understood why you bothered to join the City Watch when you could be rich as an artisan. This is truly something beautiful.”
Hund smiled sadly. He was the only of his kind officially in the watch, a fact that earned him much disrespect. “I could do so, making beautiful things that would outlive my kind. But you know, too many varl dwell on a bleak future or a glorious past. Not enough focus on the problems at hand. I want them to wake up, pay attention. Be mindful. And sometimes that means pulling a few horned heads out of their arses…”
“Now that is an image I did not need.”
The two friends burst into a guffaw that lasted a long minute. Despite his loneliness, Hund did feel better. When they settled, Sigketill reached beneath the table, pulling out a large clay pot he set before Hund.
“What’s this?” The varl removed the lid, his brows rising in surprise at the golden liquid inside. “Good gods! How many skeps did you destroy to get this much?
There was a mischievous twinkle in Sigketill’s gaze as he smiled. “None.”
Hund’s brow rose. Often, cultivating honey meant drowning or smoking out the bees from the skep basket, killing the colony. “How?”
“Let’s just say I have my ways and leave it at that. Maybe I’ll write them down and share it with you when I’m dead. But since you clearly made the better gift, why don’t you choose who goes first?”
“Ha. I’ll be the varl then.”
They set up the board. The white varl pieces stood in the center around the king, and after a moment of deliberation, Sigketill decided to align the black human pieces along the edges rather than the corners. Then they began.
With the king totally surrounded by his guards, Hund’s first turn was to move a varl out of the lord’s way. He carefully turned the piece’s shield towards the nearest group of humans. If two black pieces surrounded a varl on the unshielded sides, it would be taken. The possibility of that was quite real as Sigketill had a larger, more mobile force in every direction. The gaoler moved two human pieces towards the king, one of which stopped at the recently-moved varl’s flank. Hund moved another varl diagonally, taking the flanking human and creating a shield wall; a vital defensive maneuver.
But it was not about defeating the enemy force. Indeed, fighting was a losing strategy, as tafl was about escaping to fight another day.
The board became a complex formation as the other groups of men were moved to surround the king’s varl, cutting them off from the exit point corners. Hund paused and thought carefully over any sacrifices, such exchanges inevitably favoring Sigketill. He was glad they elected not to allow reinforcements, which would have permitted the gaoler to return captured men to the board each time a varl was taken. Oh, how I loathe that rule, Hund thought. As if I need to be reminded of men’s fruitfulness.
“Can I ask you something?” Sigketill asked.
Hund narrowed one eye, suspecting the gaoler of trying to distract him.
“Do varl have any stories about Yuletide? We tell a few to our children, but they never sound too realistic. I’ve always been curious about how it started, but man is notoriously bad at record keeping.”
Hund cracked a smile as he moved another varl forward, capturing a black piece. “Well, there’s one. It’s more historical than a myth for us though. A kind of lesson.”
“I’d like to hear it,” Sigketill made no captures, but moved more humans into position to block escape. “Were you there during it?”
“Me? Nah. I met a few varl who were though, old timers. Veterans of the First Great War, during the final days, not long before it ended.”
Sigketill leaned back in his seat, the leather shuffling. They were both content to pause the game, to reflect on their forthcoming decisions. Sigketill’s forces almost blocked Hund, who would have to fight his way through. A single mistake would unravel the shield wall and doom his king. A break from the tension was welcome.
“It started with a winter storm. A bad one, one where the clouds hid the sun for days while the snow fell almost unceasingly. Sometimes it fell hard, sometimes softly, and any breaks felt like the clouds were only drawing a breath before continuing. It was during this wretched time that a varl leader named Jolnir led his warband south. Jolnir and his varl were tired and hungry. Tired of the war, tired of the endless raiding. The chill of the wind was bad enough that even the biggest kiln-kin felt the ice in their very bones. Some even wondered if the world was ending. If the gods had turned their back on them. If the sun had died forever and left them to be buried in tombs of snow and ice. But more than anything, Jolnir missed the laughter. The mirth he enjoyed with his fellow varl, over warm meals and good drinks. He cherished those simple joys that eased the burden of living, having forgotten or lost his reasons for warring long ago.
“During their venture, one of Jolnir’s scouts came back with a prisoner. It was a man, a forager who had been scrounging for food or firewood. Jolnir’s warband, also hungering, first thought to have the man lead them back to his village, so that they may raid and plunder what they could. But Jolnir looked at the starving forager and knew they had little, or else he would not have ventured into this storm. The leader bade his warband to wait, and he went with the man to his village.
“When Jolnir returned, he brought with him several huntsmen. The men knew the land, the woods and where to find game. They feared betrayal, but Jolnir had each of his varl give oaths not to attack the men, striking a truce. Together, they journeyed into the snowcapped forests to begin their task. At first, they found little, until Jolnir plucked several holly plants and bundled them together, their berries bright red against the green. Popping one of the berries, the men and varl hid as deer and other game sought the bait. They repeated this trick again and again, relocating to escape the strong smell of blood. And by the end of the joint hunt, they gathered almost more than they could carry.
“But their return was not without perils. Before they left the forest, they were assailed by armed bandits, ravenous for their prized game. Jolnir’s varl formed a shield wall while the huntsmen fought with bows and boar spears. Before long, the bandits were routed, and not a member of Jolnir’s comrades had died.
“Still, troubles dogged them as they left the forest. For they came upon another small raiding party of varl. ‘Kiln-brother,’ said their leader to Jolnir. ‘My varl starve, and you depart the forest with meat enough to sate even the Winter Bird. Let us take the human’s share and leave them to their fate.’
“Yet Jolnir refused. ‘I shall not turn my back on these huntsmen, for they have shared in the hunt and in battle. I will share our spoils with you as fellow children of Hadrborg. But theirs is their own, as my varl and I have pledged that they would live to see the sun reborn, for peace begins with a kept oath.’
“The raiders were enraged. They called Jolnir and his varl traitors as they attacked, shields and horns slamming together. Once again, Jolnir’s band stuck together and fought as one. Soon, the hunters were victorious as the enemy varl retreated, weapons slick with the blood of giants and men alike. Jolnir’s beautiful white fur coat was crimson with their grim but honest deeds. And the party returned to the village as welcome heroes, the storm miraculously ending with their arrival.
“The humans welcomed them back by preparing a feast. Word spread of Jolnir’s honesty, and every home in the village offered him a drink out of respect. And the more he drank, the more jovial he and his varl became, reminded of the value of life. Finally, Jolnir offered the village a toast and pledged he and his varl would never again attack the holdings of men.
“Then one of the wives of the huntsmen came forward. ‘But how will varl and men get along?’ To prove her point, she gestured to a young calf, a kendr of one of Jolnir’s varl, who was roughhousing with one of the village’s boys. Jolnir scratched his beard thoughtfully, then smiled. He took the bones from the feast, cleaned them and carved toys and game pieces. From these came the first tafl sets, for men and giant meet on the board as equals, the mind being as important as any other muscle.
“The night before Jolnir’s band left however, it was said he had a dream. He saw a beautiful woman beside a grand loom. When he approached, she smiled at him, the radiance of her joy blinding. And while his eyes were shut, he was stunned as he somehow felt a warm, gentle kiss upon his forehead, as though she were taller than he! When Jolnir woke, his fur coat was changed. The blood was gone, replaced with a crimson hue and a trim of pure white, while well-stitched gloves and boots awaited him, perfectly suited for his size. And when Jolnir went out to thank the villagers for their wondrous gift, they were confused… for none of them came forward to claim they had sewn it. Before he left, Jolnir took the crown of holly he made for the hunt and put it upon his head. Then, wishing the village peace, he and his varl began their journey back north… the clouds parting at last, and the warm sun shining upon their path.”
Silence fell, broken only by the crackle of the fire. Sigketill stared at Hund, his mustache twitching in deep thought before finally speaking. “What became of him?”
“I don’t know, and I doubt anyone who claims they do. I heard a rumor once that Jolnir’s real name was Karl. Others are adamant that Karl was Jolnir’s kendr, and that the rest of his warband were among the first to advocate the end of the war.”
“He certainly sounds familiar, this Jolnir. Sometimes, we tell our kids of the Yule Father.”
Hund tilted his head. “Go on.”
“Hmm? Well, there’s not much to tell really.” Sigketill grinned bashfully, rubbing the back of his head. “It is usually a story some of us tell our kids to keep them on their best behavior, with promises of gifts if they do.”
Hund stared at him a long moment before finally snickering. “Let me guess. This ‘Yule Father’… big fellow, red fur coat, gives lots of toys and games. Uses a walking stick that might have once been a spear…”
Sigketill seemed reluctant to speak. “Possibly.”
“Sounds to me like your lot might have kept the parts you liked best. Tell me, does your ‘Yule Father’ have holly-clad horns?”
“I don’t recollect such a detail,” Sigketill admitted, chuckling.
The varl laughed. “What is with men that you always want to see varl as your big, helpful friends or benevolent folk? You are enamored with the idea, staring at us with the awe your children reserve for you. Like we’ll go out on a tree limb to save you anytime you find yourselves in trouble.”
“What? You don’t like being the heroes of your own sagas?”
“Faen no. Jolnir wasn’t some skipping human lover who rewarded them for ‘good’ behavior. He was a warrior who lost his taste for raiding, used his ingenuity to feed his varl as well as a village, and get kids and calves to play with each other. But every deed done was so he could remember what life was like outside of war. Hunting, eating and drinking, games… he needed to remember what joy was.”
The friends were quiet a long, faintly tense moment. And a little voice in Hund spoke, reminding him. Just like you. You joined the City Watch for yourself, because enforcing the law was the only way you could respect yourself and your kind. Because you hated to see them squander their gift.
The truth stung. Hund had been there the day the bridge of Einartoft was finished. How the varl had celebrated, but little else. Never once during the festivities did they ask what they would build next. Never did they look at their calloused palms and dare to dream beyond that moment, content in their complacency. Only the Pathlayer, the bridge’s architect, shared in Hund’s disappointment, a sympathetic hand on the younger varl’s shoulder. “Such is our immortal lament, Hundr. How we waste our true blessing… time.”
At least I met one varl who understood my sorrow, Hund thought as he remembered the Pathlayer. Here were the varl, longer lived than perhaps even the gods… wasting away in drink and pursuing money, debasing themselves, fighting, grumbling and staring at the snow. And perhaps Hund had hoped that enforcing the law might wake some up to the idea of doing more with themselves, of carving their name into something worthy of history’s marvel, just as Jolnir had. How simple an idea. Simple, and futile.
Hund shook his head, shaking off his morose thoughts before finally indicating the board. “And I need to remember what joy truly is… seeing you weep when I beat you again.”
Sigketill barked a laugh. “It’s on now!”
What happened next was a series of rapid maneuvers as the varl pieces crashed through the human line. Other black pieces were brought up to surround and capture the aggressive white ones. The situation was going Sigketill’s way until Hund moved the king up, slaying another human and clearing a path.
The gaoler studied the board intensely, and Hund smiled. Even moving a single human two spaces, the king was still a varl, and would capture any lone black piece. They both knew Sigketill could not shore up his forces fast enough, and at last he folded. “Looks like you got away again.”
“It was a good game. Let me give you a hint though. Even if you brought up that group there more, I’d simply have gone the other way. You need to be patient and stall me more.”
“I’ll catch you next time then,” Sigketill said, giving him a stern eye.
Hund returned the glare, his brows slanted with his own earnestness. The two stared each other down until the varl’s sight stung horribly, and he finally blinked hard. “Bah!”
“Ah faen you,” Hund said as he stood, grinning as he scooped up the jar. “Have fun with Nefr, I’ve got fish to fry and honey to enjoy.”
“Not together, I hope. Merry Yuletide, Hund.”
Stepping out of Sigketill’s quarters, Hund pushed through another door, finding his way to the windy outside. The rising path before him was dusted white, and the varl followed it around the hill until he stood beside the Great Hall.
He walked slowly, trying to work off the numbing sensation in his hip, but also enjoying the view. In the distance, beyond the Right Foot of Denglr’s Bay stood impressive mountains. Hund frowned, trying to remember if they were ever given a name. To the west, across the bay and upon a peak of the Long Reach Mountains stood the tower of Ridgehorn. The tower’s impressive shadow turned the snow beneath it blue.
And below stood Strand, with its many stone watchtowers and landings, the many neighborhoods of huts. The more affluent stood atop the rising ridge to the west, while the “earthlier” farmers and loggers occupied the groupings of huts both below the ridge and even the slopes across the water. White was everywhere, upon every roof, every landing. Yellow flags fluttered against the eastern winds, as a scattering of flurries heralded more snow to come.
Rounding the hill, the Great Hall itself was a sight to behold. Sprigs of mistletoe wrapped with red berries hung from beams. Wreaths of holly adorned the gates, sticks pointing outward from the center as if the decorations were each a small, leafy sun. A young watchman with dark features ran down the stairs from the gate, wrapping himself in his robes to stay warm. “Eirik! Tell them to wait! I’m almost there!”
“Hurry up, Valgard!” another young man replied.
Hund returned his attention to the magnificent view of the city. Over the faint whistle of the wind, the varl could hear a woman screaming for help from the market quarters below.
He sighed. The pain caught up to him, and he leaned his paunch forward, pressing his hands into the small of his back. That floor had done something fierce to Hund’s spine, and if he were going to keep playing with the gaoler, he’d need a chair his own size.
The woman’s pleas gave way to the howl of watchmen’s horns. The chase was on. The chase was always on in Strand. Always some plot, some mischief, some victim in some trouble. But it did not matter, not at that moment. Finally, his back gave a loud pop. Hund groaned as he felt sweet relief wash over him, exhaling ecstatically.
He snorted, whispering to himself. “Another Yuletide in bloody Strand…”
From everyone at Stoic, wishing you all Happy Holiday and a Merry Yuletide this season!