Drunk in the Afterlife
There was a shout, and then darkness.
There were things to be known. I was cold. Very cold.
It was dark, dark in a fuliginous black-beyond-black, there would never again be light in the world kind of dark. Darker than the cloudiest night, in the dead of winter. Sewn into the carcass of a frozen bear and thrown into a dry well and covered with dirt dark
And I had a thirst. Such a thirst. My father was an epic boaster, who could fill an hour with a single claim of heroic deeds at trencher, whole oxen eaten as simple asides, poetic reference to the puny meals eaten by giants laced among fantastic claims of whole steads of roebuck, villages of salmon, mountains indeed of roast boar nibbled down as the merest of tidbits, as a warming up after a light exercise, and washed down with buckets of ale, whole oceans of mead. And I, though dainty of appetite, being usually only able to eat the size of my head when at meat, have a bit of my father’s prodigious capacity for drink. But never had I such a thirst, even after the fight with Hradrir Onetooth, where, there in the dust of the dry river’s bed we traded blows in the midsummer heat from first light to 2 hands past noon, our boots scrabbling up dried river-muck to foul our beards, clog our nostrils, and sweet Freya’s arse, coating our throats with a caking that three night’s steady drinking couldn’t wash away, and all the butts of summer ale brewed by his widow in vain anticipation of his coming back from sport for the harvest went to better use fortifying me for her consolation. That was a thirst, or so I thought then. Now I knew what a hero’s thirst was.
I sat up, or at least partway. I half-heard the thump, a pleasantly musical wooden sound like a gaff bouncing from a thwart-board when sail is lowered just before the first crunch of bow into sand. It would have been much more pleasant had it not been the sound made by my head knocking wood.
Now I was cold, blind, thirsty, and angry. I rolled to the side, and found myself in light. After the dark of under-table, blanketed as it was by a heavy weaving, (this much I knew, having spent many an odd night in the hero’s second bed, snoring from both ends in the mead-wife’s embrace) I was now blind by brazier-light rather than by none.
And deafened now, as well. The hall, for hall it must be, no mere room could have contained it’s din without bursting like a drowned deer after three days in the sun, was filled by the mouths of men, singing, boasting, arguing, weeping, laughing, coaxing, shouting, chanting, and chomping and champing. Filled too, with the great hall aromas of roast meat, sweat, spilled ale and dried blood.
Though my wits seemed ale-scattered, and my eyes not yet focused, I had times enough woken from under-table to know what I must do first. Drink, eat now, sort things out later. Things such as where I was, how I got there, and what the hour after next would bring could wait. I hoisted myself by a bench, legged over, and shouldered to the table.
A jack like a hog’s head was thrust into my hand. I grunted thanks to the blurry man-shape who filled it, and knocked it back, swallowing in great draughts ‘til breath called out in alarm. I gulped sweet, smoky air, and drank again. When it emptied after long moments, I set it down, and it was instantly filled by the same half-seen carl. The next draught was slower, and my nose caught the fragrance rising from the steaming trencher before me. Suddenly I knew I hungered, and I reached for the knife at my belt, found it not there, and so made do with fingers and teeth, tearing great chunks of roast ox and wiping my fingers on my beard between gulps of ale.
Gradually I slowed, and looked about. As I had known before, I was in a great hall. But I hadn’t known how great. Around me must have been 300 men, all at the same task as I, eating, drinking and shouting for ale. And the hall was nearly empty. It could have held ten times our number, with room left over for some great king’s funeral ship and a village full of mourners. Beams were carved with fish, ships, warriors and maids, all gilt and inlaid. Tables the size of longships stretched in double rows down the center, great open fireplaces roaring between.
“What place is this?” I asked my left-hand benchmate. But before he could reply, the great door at the end of the hall banged open, and a man strode in.
He was huge. A man of hero’s size, of a size to match the hall. His red blond beard was massive, curly, and would have dwarfed a smaller head. It stretched down across the gut of a man who could have eaten hay and shat in the street, who could have carried a brace of oxen like chickens to market, whose deeds at table were blazoned across his middle like a mountain against the winter sky.
All talking ceased. All heads turned. Jacks were lowered, fists full of meat fell unnoticed to the table. And he spoke.
“Welcome you all are! Here in my great hall
Meat you have eaten mead you have drunk
Boasting there has been songs there are to be
Great deeds undone yet oaths not yet sworn.
Tonight I am hosting guesting is your task
All of us heroes each at our role.
Here there is roast meat here there is sweet ale
Good is the guesting when brothers we meet.
None of you ken me hight Bygvirr Thorson
Grandwhelp of One-eye feeder of ravens
Judger of warriors maker of widows
Captain of Asgard at end of days.
Bygvirr I am named giver of gold rings
Brewer of man’s drink drinker of same
Long have you served me from your small beer days
Worship by jack-full ‘til down on your knees.
You sit in my hall the Hall of Vengeance
Least of the halls of the slayer of men.
Drink now and eat time will come later
For fell deeds and blood and the measure of all.”
There was a silence for a long moment, and then he laughed, a laugh as heroic as everything else about him. The hall roared with him, jacks were raised, and the din resumed. He sat down in a chair that could only have been made for a man his size, grabbed a jack, and drank deeply.
I am not shy, and I had questions. I pushed back from the table, rose, and strode boldly across the hall to stand in front of him. I felt less bold when I got there.
Even with him sitting down, I was still looking up. Had he stood, I doubt I would have far topped his belt. And I am of a statue that befits a man.
“Great is the guesting, Lord Bygvirr,” I said.
He smiled, a great twinkling, unfocused smile, and waved me to continue.
“I have a question, or two if I may.”
He laughed again. “I’m sure you do. But I didn’t catch the name.”
I rose up to my full height, which to any man but this one would have seemed toweringly high. “But no doubt you will know it, in days to come, when deeds are chanted in dark winter in front of safe fires. But I am new here, and must have drunk much, for I do not recall my arrival. Still, it is only manners that I should tell you the name by which I am known. It is…” and I stopped, dumfounded. How much drink does it take to cause a man to forget his name?
He guffawed, then raised his hand at my rising color. “I am at fault here, I forgot you’d forget. And that will be your new first question, which sadly I can’t answer. You’ll have to ask All-Father when he gets back with the rest of this batch.”
He smiled kindly, and leaned forward to rest a hand the size of a horse’s head on my shoulder. “But I can tell you how you got here, old son,” he said gently. “You’re dead.”
Some days it doesn’t pay to crawl out from under the table. This was looking like one of those days.
How much drink did it take before a man no longer knew his name? How much ale did it take to start seeing gods, let alone be having conversation with them? I’ve had mornings when mead-head drummed like the spring tide against the rocks of a fjord, all a-stagger from a five-day sea battle between keg and cask, guts heaving, ears roaring, hands that trembled like a badly trimmed sail, feeling near death, and wishing to be there, but never have I drunk enough as to be told I was dead.
“Dead?” I asked, weakly.
“Dead,” grinned Byggvir. He lifted his hand to pat me gently on the shoulder. Each gentle pat would have felled an ox.
“Well, then,” I managed. “If that is your word, then it must be true. If you can’t trust a god, who then can you trust?”
“Ha!” he guffawed. “So here is another answer for you, and an easy one, too. You trust only yourself, here, and proven man only when deeds show his iron. And as for trusting a god! Ha!”
He gulped at his ale, wiped foam from his beard with the back of his hand, and grinned again. “Lookit here, sport. This here is the Hamnadaula, the Hall of Vengeance. This is where revenge is taken, against oathbreakers and the like. Half of these fellas are likely as not to swear out to Loki, which is a pretty good tell on which side of the vengeance brought ‘em here. The other half, soon’s they gather their wits, or rather the All-Father lets ‘em be gathered, will be taking their measure of justice out on the first half. Look around. Every one of these fellas looks like they’d cut a throat for a mouthful of ale, or drown their own mother for sport.
“You know the type, ‘cause you’ve the same look. Heroes.”
He had me there. Though I could not remember my name, or the circumstances surrounding my death, there was no need to remember that I was a hero. Some things just are.
“So you say I should not trust even a god? You must mean Loki, and those who serve him.”
“Aye, Loki is the first among liars, but he is not lonely in that trade. Trust none of us, old son, until we be proven to you as well. The purpose of a god is not the purpose of a man, y’know. Now me, you can trust, for the best of reasons. I ain’t important enough to want anything worth lying for.” He grinned again.
“Not important? How not? Did you not say your name as Thorson? Or did I mishear?”
“Naw, Old Thunderer is my Pap, alright, but I am only one of his by-blows. My Mam is a Vanir, one of Freyas maids. Plenty enough like me running around Sessrumnir, her hall. I am a right bastard, and proud of it, too.”
He leered. “Too hard to keep track of, who’s topping who, anyways. And there are some, like Uncle Goldtooth, he has nine mams. Kinda takes the whole idea of figuring who’s who, ties it to a rock, and throws it overboard.”
He stretched. “Well, Hel,” he yawned. “This party looks to be well underway. I’ve business elsewhere, as always, so I’ll leave you here. Drink up, there’s always more!”
* * *
“If I were planning an afterlife,” I grumbled. “By Tyr’s aching stub, it would not have this damned mud.” I ducked another slow, sweeping axe-blow from the massive man in front of me.
“And I sure as Hel would not let it rain all the time.” A quick sweep of my shield to the left, to block a half-hearted spear jab from one of the two house-carls on that side. I made a quick feint to the right, to discourage the more enthusiastic carl on that side. Good thing he was armed with only a mast-stepping maul; given a real weapon, that one would have been dangerous.
I took a rush, shield front, and slammed the Master of the Steading onto his arse. I would have finished him then, but as I hopped forward my boot slid once again in the porridge colored muck, and two quick steps turned into five stumbles and a slide. “Tyr!” I cursed, then was very busy for a few moments with the annoying lesser players in our dance.
“’Join my service’, Tyr says.” Two quick swings to the left, and a lopped off spear-head splashed mud on my breeks. “’I’m looking for men who can handle a sword, and you look like you’ll do’, he says.” The master, Hrudi? Hrumi? Who cares? was half up now, and a good target, but I had only time to give him another arse-dumping punch with my shield before I had to half turn to my right and poorly block another stroke from the maul-rat. The side of the maul clipped my shoulder, and the bitter end of the haft where it stuck up through the head burned across my ear. He was really starting to annoy me.
“’Just fetch me a trinket’, he says.” The carl holding the headless spear haft looked at it, goggle-eyed, then dropped it, and fled over the rail fence into the pig sty beside which we fought. His companion looked over his shoulder, considering whether to follow, and I kicked him in the hip, launching him to lodge head first between two rails. Before I could get my leg back down, the Master of the Pig-farmers stumbled up, and shouldered me. One foot in the mud was not enough for balance, and I went down, but so did he.
I’d have risen, but the world rang out with thunder and light. That rat-bastard with the maul drove my head down into my shoulders like a ship-wright drives a peg. I fell back with a splash, rain running into my face. My arms wouldn’t move. I watched as the Master of Pig Dung stumbled up, raised his axe, and brought it down to crunch into my chest.
“Twice in one day,” I groaned. “After all those years without dying once.” He yanked the axe from my chest with a grunt, though what was loudest to me was the sucking sound it made coming out. Stupid axers, think they own the battlefield.
He turned away, and bent over to gasp for breath, which gave me time to stand up, pick up my sword, and bring it down with both hands on his neck where it was exposed at the top of his muddy chain byrnie. His head rolled a satisfying distance through the mud, and fetched up against the door of his stead.
“You!” I shouted at the carl, who stood gawping, maul lowered. He raised the maul in front of him as I stepped forward as if to ward me off, and with his free hand traced the hammer sign on his breast.
I slapped the maul out of his hand, swept it up from the mud, and tossed into the pig sty. He fell to his knees, trembling. “Kill me swiftly, witch-man,” he said.
“Oh, you bet your arse I will, pig-boy,” I said. I raised my sword for the stroke, then lowered it. “On second thought, I’ve a better idea. Get up.” I glanced around. “You, there with your head in the fence! Quit laying about and fetch me a draught!” I wiped my sword against the tail of my muddy, blood-covered boiled leather shirt. Besides the obvious hand-span rent in the chest where the axe went in, there were a couple of slashes across the right sleeve where maul-boy had taken a couple of passes at me with a dagger before grabbing his great wooden head-thumper. “Well, this thing is ruined. Only had it a day, too.”
I shucked it off and threw it over the fence to keep company with the maul. “You, maul-boy! What’s your name?”
“I hight Svintjenner.”
“Okay, Master Svintjenner, I name you foljeslagare. Companion to whom? Well no witch-man am I. I am an Einherjar, chosen from the field of death by One-Eye’s maids. Can you serve one who serves Tyr Redhand?”
He gulped, and nodded. “So you ain’t gonna kill me?” He was a strapping fellow, tow-head and wispy pale beard, with most of his teeth and a good jaw. He should clean up nicely.
“Naw, I got much worse than killing for you, boyo” I grinned. “You’re coming with me to Asgard. You can watch me drink with the gods. Sound good to you?”
“Then strip off that fine chain byrnie from your former master and bring it to me. He owes me a new shirt. Oh, and rinse the mud from it first.”
I bent down and raised one arm of the headless corpse, worried the silver arm-ring from it, and held it up to wash off in the rain. It was a pretty thing, silver, in the shape of a spiral snake. It looked to be from the islands west, where they are cunning in the making of such things. No wonder Tyr wanted it.
“Ho there! Where’s my draught?” I shouted, in time to see the house-carl I had sent after it come running from the house with a jack in his hand. I grabbed it, rewarded him with a kick, and drained it. He had been wise enough to fetch me a slab of meat, too, so I worried that while Svinjenner rinsed the byrnie in the trough, then rubbed hog fat into the links to keep it from rust. That done, he helped me shrug it over my shoulders and settle it evenly.
“Well, my boy, take a last look at home here, in all its pig stink beauty, and then we’ll find us the Big Tree and I’ll show you your new home.”
“One thing about it you’ll like, is the ale is a long sight better.”
“What shall I call you, Lord?” he asked.
“Call me Ingen, for now,” I replied. Ingen. No one.
* * *
Jeg bor her alltid fra tres først grod
Mitt navn er mild Ask rager solid venn som
vÆrer hellig til den ene øyeslayer av det mektige
jeg venter hans återfärd og hans avslutning
I dwell here always
from tree’s first sprout
My name is Ash
gentle tower stout friend
sacred to the one eye
slayer of the mighty
I wait his return
and his ending
I finished the song, but nothing happened. Perhaps I had sung it wrong, but that seemed unlikely. This was a hymn that I had sung from my mother’s pap. I tried again, this time with feeling. Nothing.
I scratched my arse, facing the ghostly outline of the world tree. It stretched up out of sight, cloud-shrouded and dripping with moss. “Svintjenner! Can you sing?”
“My Lord? I cannot.”
I sighed. “Can you chant, at least?”
He shook his head. “No sense of rhythm, my Lord.
“Maybe it is because you are still alive, and cannot pass the door into Valhalla. Easily fixed, then.” His eyes grew wide, and he backed away.
“You are doing it wrong.” The voice came from behind me. I spun, clawing for the sword at my side.
Standing a safe distance away was a young woman, dressed in leathers. In one hand she held a small ox hide shield, in the other a steel-tipped spear.
“What do you mean, wrong? And who, by Freya’s shining teats, are you?”
“I am… call me…Glemt, skildpidge to Var, Goddess of oaths between men and women.” Her expression flicked from bold to puzzled, like someone had asked her a mid-winter riddle she had heard before, but forgotten.
I pressed my advantage, not wanting some shield maiden to make me look a fool. “Glemt? How is “forgotten” even a name?”
Puzzlement was replaced by irritation. “It is the name I am using right now, and will serve. Have you a name, or do you just blunder about nameless yourself, shouting at trees and bellowing curses like a drunken new-beard trying to impress his younger play-mates?”
“Ha!” I felt a grin spread across my face. “Know, Shield Maiden of Golden Var, that stands before you is he who slew Bjorn Sten, who none before could stand against, whose mighty spear had slain thousands, who towered above the shield wall like an oak among the reeds. We met, as skalds still undoubtedly sing, on the stricken field at Hvitramannaland, just past the…”
She yawned, pointedly. “Get to the point, lest your maunderings be interrupted by nightfall.”
“Well, you see sister, I don’t know either. I woke entirely without that knowledge, though suspect that eventually it will come to me. I’m using a similar name to yours. I hight Ingen, pledged as am to Tyr Wolf-feeder.”
She snorted a laugh. “Then well met, Lord No One.”
“Well met, Glempt. How am I doing it wrong, and how did you happen here just now?”
Now it was her turn to grin. “Shining Heimdall, who can hear grass growing in the meadows, and see the wool growing on sheep, saw while on eternal watch that you were baffled by the world-tree, and sent me to help.”
I raised my eyebrows, impressed. “Then even gold-tooth knows of me? How my fame has spread already! It reminds me of how I bedded the three virgin daughters of Trygve Irontounge, after…” I trailed off. “He didn’t really send you, did he?”
“No, you cod pate. He didn’t. I happened by. Now step aside and let me do it the right way. Didn’t you pay any attention when you were told how to do the opening?”
“In truth I was a bit worse for the drink, having consumed a butt and a half of Tyr’s fine ale, as befits a hero, you know.”
“Hold my spear.”
I nodded to Whattacallhim, who held it gingerly, eyeing the runes of victory that adorned its shaft.
She clapped her hands together, and sang. I listened carefully, but could hear no difference is her song, nor see anything special in her hand-wavings.
A sparkling started at the grassroots near the World-tree, and slowly a faint door appeared in the trunk.
I scratched my head. “How?”
“Your singing, bucket-head. Not only is it tuneless, it most resembles the caterwauling of seals on the beach at Skogarstrond during mating season. It is the most god-awful thing I have ever heard.”
“Singing is for women and skalds. It ill-befits a great slayer of men like me.”
“Yes, but you will have to ask Tyr for a charm or such if you are ever to get back into his great hall via Ygdrasill.”
I nodded. “Now step aside, so I might pass first into his hall as is proper.”
“Not on your life. We will step through together, as is proper with equals.”
“Of course.” I waved my hand. My carl… Svintjenner, that was his name! handed the spear to her, and we moved to the doorway.
At the last moment, I stuck out my foot, and she stumbled. I swaggered to the door in front of her, as was the right of a hero.
I felt the tip of her spear prod me on the back of my neck. “As I said, Ingen, together.”
I sighed. “Yes, together.”
This was not anything like I had imagined the afterlife to be.