The Last Storyteller in Effable





"Health and happiness." Olaf Havardr, the storyteller, welcomed his audience atop the hill overlooking the misplaced village of Effable. "Gather round before the sun goes down. Gather round the fire for a story of giants, gods, and adventure. Gather round, children."


In the meadow below, the first flicker of candles marked a few pit house windows in the village. The full moon perched on the horizon opposite the setting sun. Cold already displaced the twilight chill, and shallow pockets of snow lingered in shaded crevices. More snow would accumulate before morning. Winter approached.


If this year was like the last few, Effable would not celebrate Winter Nights for the arrival of Winter or the New Year. Even without the celebration, storytelling must soon move indoors where parents would join their children in the assembly hall to hear the old tales on dark winter evenings.


For the first time since he became storyteller twenty-odd winters ago, Olaf dreaded the prospect of an adult audience. They weren’t as tolerant of story mishaps as the children.


Olaf squatted and stirred the embers in the fire pit and placed another log on the coals. The sweet smell of alder mellowed the vinegary oak. He struggled past the pain of aching knees to stand.


Momentarily dizzy from the effort, Olaf stumbled across the flat limestone outcrop to his seat atop the storyteller's stone. The seat felt cold through his woolen trousers, and Olaf rearranged his fur cloak to cushion his butt and warm his legs.


Age weighed on Olaf. He did not remember how many winters old he was, but his neck and sword arm throbbed most of the time and brown spots dotted the backs of his dirty, calloused hands. Once, he told stories with energy, standing and pacing around his audience, but no more. Now, he felt safer sitting.


Four children climbed the rocky incline to the story pit. Four. Only four. Tonight's circle of wide eye-children gathering around the fire was smaller than in the past, but only one yawned and rubbed his eyes. The rest waited alert, their eyes reflecting the renewed campfire flames.


Olaf licked his lips, pulled at his beard and wondered whether he had time for another swig of mead from the drinking horn he hid behind the storyteller's stone. Best not. Last week while attempting to drink and tell a story, he had meandered through events, mixed up characters, and ruined the ending of the tale. Perhaps that accounted for the low attendance tonight.


But only four children?


Surely, another two or three more children in the village were old enough to listen and young enough to want the old, familiar stories. Wasn't there a birth last year, or was that the year before? Years ago, he had known the name of every child that came to listen, sometimes as many as ten or twelve. Now, he struggled with the names of the four children in the circle. The names came to him, one by one by one--Rolf, Arna, Knute--until. . . .


The last boy yawned and peeked out from his furs. His face was familiar, but Olaf could not recall his name.


Odin's raven, Muninn, help me remember. What is this boy's name? Isn't he the miller's son. Why can't I remember? What else do I forget? Who will I be when all my memories flee? Who will tell the old tales when I cannot?


"What story tonight?" Rolf at thirteen was the oldest and biggest among the children. He also bored easily and was a troublemaker.


Olaf had made plans to tell the tale of Loki and the Dwarves, but after drinking mead most of the afternoon, the details of the beginning of the story escaped him. If he could properly coax out the beginning, often the rest of the story would flow forth like an almost forgotten song remembered while being performed. But all thoughts of Loki eluded him tonight. Best to stick with the familiar, something he could enhance and elaborate. A story that he could coax the children into helping with the details should he falter.


Something very short.


"Why Odin Has but One Eye." Olaf tried to smile but his lips felt numb. A sip of mead should cure that. He licked his lips.


"Again?" Rolf said. He rolled his eyes. "You told that story two weeks ago. You tell it at least once a month. I want adventure. Tell a story about Thor."


"I want to hear the Saga of how our families came to this land," Arna said.


A Saga. Arna always wanted a Saga. The girl was what, eleven or twelve. Olaf couldn't remember. He would not admit that he no longer remembered most Sagas, or that those he carelessly remembered mixed up incidents and the names of the ancestors. Thor shield him, telling a Saga could take an hour. How would he remember something that long?


Stories about the Aesir gods were easier, and shorter.


"Tell the Binding of Loki." Knute was the smallest boy in the circle, and he always spoke so low that Olaf had trouble hearing. How old was Knute? Eight? No. He was just small for his age. Could he already be ten?


"Look at Olaf." Rolf pointed and laughed. "He can barely sit upright. The only story he cares for is the Mead of Poetry."


Olaf cleared his throat as was his custom to signal the start a story. "We know that Odin loves, uh . . . wisdom, but why does he have only one eye--"


"I'm going home." Rolf stood and wiped dirt from his cloak. "I'd rather do chores than listen to this again."


Following Rolf, Arna and the unnamed boy trudged down the slope. Only Knute remained. Olaf leaned forward to hear what the boy said.


". . . the Binding of Loki next." Knute's eyes sparkled with interest. "I like the way you tell that story."


How long since Olaf had seen such interest in a child's eyes? Olaf could not disappoint the boy.


"The Binding of Loki?" Olaf stroked his beard and wondered how much mead was left in his horn. "Very well. Loki . . . Loki was a, uh. . . ."


Knute moved to sit at Olaf's feet. "Loki was a burden rather than a help?"


"Yes, yes. Loki was a burden rather than a help to the other gods." Olaf licked his lips with sudden thirst. "He, uh . . . I'm sorry, Boy. I don't remember how it goes. Too many other things on my mind. Maybe next week?"


Knute sighed. Then with head down, he trekked down the moonlit incline.


Olaf retrieved his horn of mead, then settled in to drink and recall what stories he could. When he was a boy, Olaf had loved the tales of Asgard and Odin. As a young man he trained to be an explorer, a warrior like Thor, but no enemy presented itself to the remote village. Effable was too isolated even though only a narrow channel separated it from the wilderness mainland. Few risked taking a makeshift boat across that channel to the mainland. Many who tried never returned. No one on the island possessed the skills to build a sea-worthy ship to leave the island and seek adventure beyond the mainland, and seldom did a passing expedition enter the fjord below the village.


And so, Olaf learned not only the sword and ax, his father also taught him the mundane art of masonry and stone carving. Eventually, Olaf married and acquired land, but his wife died young and left him childless. Heartbroken and alone, he tended his pastures until he wearied of the task. Then, he neglected his livestock, left them to fend for themselves except during the winter, and let his land go idle.


At last, all he had to offer the community of Effable was the uneven harvest of his self-seeded barley and rye, which the village women made into ale, and his detailed recall of the old stories, stories that he heard as a child, stories that he had repeated to the village children over the last twenty-something years, stories that now threatened to forsake him.


Whom should he curse for his misfortune? Odin? Perhaps instead, the jovial gods of the Greeks? Maybe the new Christian God discovered by the Jews and spread by a dying Rome?


Olaf pounded his chest and challenged the stars. "I had no opportunity to die with my sword in my hand. I lost my true love. I'm an old man burdened with a boring life in a colorless world. All that is left for me are my stories. Please, Odin. Do not take those from me."


But in bits and pieces, the stories evaded his summons, and this night was no better than other recent nights. When he could no longer recall any stories, he might as well forget all else.


Olaf drank until the last alder stick on the fire turned to ash, and then his worries embraced the comfort of winter's approaching darkness.


#


"Do you know me?" the stranger asks.


"You look familiar." Olaf scratches his head. "I should know you, but my memory sometimes fails me."


The stranger is impressive in stature, a huge blond man with long braided hair. He carries a spear rather than a sword and no shield. Explorer? Adventure seeker? Vikingr?


"Are you on expedition?" Olaf asks. He examines the man more closely. Powerful. Lightly dressed despite the cold, no armor. He could be a god. "Odin?"


"Perhaps." The stranger smiles.


Two eyes. Not Odin. A smile? Surely, the man is not one of those idiotic, happy deities from the south. Gods need dignity, solemnity. What's the Greek ruling god? Jupiter? No, Zeus. A frivolous god by all accounts, not much different than having Loki in charge.


"Not Zeus, I hope. The Christ is better than Zeus. This is a new land, perhaps none of the old gods come here. I know not the names of the gods of this land. Tell me your name."


"My name? Whatever name you like," the stranger says. "This is your dream. I am the messenger you require."


"Oh, a messenger." Olaf is disappointed. He had hoped to meet a vikingr and perhaps join the expedition. Does action require much remembrance? "A message in my dreams. I understand. You could be indigestion. Ah, well. What is the message?"


"What message do you want?"


"I need to remember my stories and my life."


"That is not a message. That is a gift. I cannot gift you with memory. You've received the gifts for your life. The time for new gifts is over. You must make do with those you already have."


"Aye. Once I could tell a good story. That was my gift. My comrades enjoyed my tales. The children loved to listen. Now, I have trouble remembering. Tell me what I should do."


"Neither do I bring advice."


"Then what good are you? Never mind. What is the message?"


"Hope," the stranger says.


"Is that a command or a, uh. . . ?"


"Thing," the stranger says. "I will share a riddle with you."


"What is my reward should I solve the riddle?"


"I don't know, neither need you reveal your answer. Here is the riddle. Three men are given a perilous quest to prove themselves. The first man doubts he has the skills to succeed. He gives up and goes home. The second man also doubts he has the skill, nonetheless he makes his best effort. In the end, he does not have the skills, and he fails. The last man doubts he has--"


"They all doubt their skills?: Olaf says. "These are not vaunted men of legend."


"These are humans in a riddle. To continue, the last man doubts he has the skills, nonetheless he perseveres like the second man. In the end, he has the skills and uses them to complete his quest. Because of your comment, I will add a fourth man. Call him Hint. You can easily imagine other Hints. The fourth man brags about his skills to complete the quest. He knows he cannot lose. He takes on the quest, and in the end, easily wins."


"What is the riddle?"


"Whose story would you tell?"


"Uh, about the one who doubts, struggles, and wins?"


The stranger smiles. "And who will tell your story?"


#


Early the next morning, Olaf washed his face and tied back his thinning hair in preparation for his walk from his pit house to the village. He loaded the last of his barley into his cart.


On the outskirts of Effable, he stopped at the mill alongside the small stream that ran down to the fjord. The waterwheel was not turning.


"Health and happiness, Sweyn," Olaf said.


Sweyn, the miller, measured Olaf's cart. "You kept back some grain? I've milled all the rest and cleaned the grind stone."


"I planned to have Sigrid make me some ale," Olaf said, "but my needs changed. I'm short a few sacks of flour for the winter."


"From the looks, you've got rye mixed in with the barley." Sweyn scratched his chin. "This load may yield three sacks of blended flour. Small load to restart my wheel. My fee is one sack."


"A one sack fee? That much?"


"That's my minimum to restart the waterwheel, but I expect the winter will be harsh. Tell no one, and I'll return a half sack for friendship."


"Thank you, Sweyn. Does your son ever recite any of my tales?"


"Haven't you noticed that Ivar sleeps through your stories?"


Ivar, of course, that was the sleepy boy's name.


"Yes, but--"


"I have no time for nonsense, Olaf. What have the old stories or the gods to do with us? You are a fine drinking companion, but I never liked your stories. I cannot remember any of them, and Ivar knows even less. You should spend more time caring for your sheep and pigs. And chickens--whenever someone sees chickens loose near town, they say 'those must be Olaf's chickens' because everyone else has the sense to protect their livestock from predators. And look at your grain. You must plow and sow your fields to get a good harvest. Don't let them seed themselves. Rye mixed with barley. Bah."


Olaf's animals often returned to the shelter of his barn, especially in the winter when Olaf fed them, but he could not dispute Sweyn's advice. However, Olaf's farm provided for his needs, why should he work harder to acquire more?


"I understand, Sweyn. Thank you. I'll leave my cart here until the flour is ready."


At the village pub, Olaf licked his lips at the sight of Sigrid's ale--thick, cloudy, and foamy--a meal in itself. He almost forgot his task and ordered a cup, but shaking his head against letting his intentions lapse, he re-focused.


"Is Rolf nearby?" he asked Sigrid.


"No. His father is helping finish a new barn before winter sets in. He has the boy with him to learn masonry and carpentry."


"Rolf has a good mind, strong hands, and works hard. He should make a fine mason. Does he ever talk about my stories?"


"Your stories? Why do you ask?"


"I'm looking for a story apprentice, someone to learn the old stories and tell them to the children. Rolf's voice cracks now, but with practice, he could become an excellent speaker."


Sigrid sighed. "I always enjoyed your storytelling, Olaf. Many of the Sagas stay with me to this day. Indeed, I miss the way you told them on stormy evenings in the assembly house. Without the Sagas, how would we know our law or history? Maybe it is time to train a new storyteller, but it won't be Rolf. He does not like you. I must make him go to your story gatherings."


Olaf could not deny the boy's animosity. Neither would he admit his difficulty in recalling stories. Not yet.


"Thank you, Sigrid." He turned to leave.


"Any mead for you today? Perhaps an ale?"


"Later. I've resolved to allow myself only two ales each day, and no mead at all."


"Yes." Sigrid examined Olaf's eyes for longer than he liked. "That may be best."


Olaf had no better luck with anyone who lived in town. He tried Arna, but her only interest was in preparing to be a wife and a mother. She had no interest in telling stories. Of the few other children, either they were too young, or if older, learning vital skills from their parents already filled their days.


After an early lunch, Olaf started back to the miller's to see whether his flour was ready. He met Rolf crossing the narrow bridge over the millstream.


"Health and happiness, Rolf." Olaf nodded. In earlier years, Rolf usually had been attentive to storytelling. Perhaps Sigrid was wrong about the boy. What could it hurt to ask? "How do you like construction work?"


"Father says I have good hands to be a mason but I like carpentry. He also trains me with sword and axe to be a warrior." The boys eyes brightened at the mention of becoming a warrior.


"Aye. I too trained as a mason. Stone carving also. A useful skill. Sometimes I get the desire to lay a few stones, but my age slows me. Rolf, I am looking for someone to take my place as storyteller. Perhaps you know someone who would be interested in learning the old stories well enough to tell them."


"Who will teach them the stories?" Rolf asked.


"I will."


"How will you do that when you cannot remember the stories?" Rolf passed Olaf. "I have to pick up father's lunch from mother."


The boy's rudeness stunned Olaf. However, after Rolf disappeared over a rise in the path, Olaf admitted that the boy had posed a good question. How could Olaf teach what he could not remember?


#


Midmorning: after a restless night filled with more strange dreams and dread, Olaf struggled awake. Rather than breakfast on three-day-old gruel, he toasted a crust of stale bread at the fireplace. Today, he would search for a replacement storyteller among the outlying farms. Sigrid said she remembered many of the Sagas. How well? Perhaps his quest should include adult candidates. After all, Olaf had not become the village storyteller until twenty, uh, some years ago. Had the position come to him after the death of . . . ? Olaf had told so many stories when he was young that the village . . . Curse Odin. He couldn't remember how he became Effable's storyteller.


Memory flash. He was not the only one to worry about memory. Even Odin worried.


Odin's ravens Huginn and Muninn, thought and memory, fly daily across the world. Odin, disguised as the masked one, Grimnir, often worried whether his ravens would return at the end of each day. If Huginn did not return to Grimnir, that would be disaster, but Grimnir feared the loss of Muninn even more.


Olaf had told the story of Odin and his ravens a hundred times, but now losing Muninn had become personal. Man or clan, who do you become when your memory is gone, when your past disappears?


#


Olaf donned his cloak and unbarred his door. A knee-deep drift of fresh snow blocked the exit from his partially underground pit house. He promised himself that next spring he would extend the thatched roof farther over the entry. Didn't he promise himself that every winter?


Olaf filled his kettle and a bucket with the cleanest-looking snow and set them near the fireplace. The remainder of the snow he kicked aside or stomped to a frozen, dirty montage of sleet and dirt before he noticed a shadow on his stairs.


At ground level, a few steps up from the door, a boy waited. Knute.


Olaf felt pleased that he immediately remembered the boy's name. Perhaps today would be one of his good days.


"Health and happiness, young Knute. Why have you come to visit an old man?"


"Aunt Sigrid says you want an apprentice to learn to be a storyteller. I remember every word of every story you told me. I can be a very good storyteller."


"Does your father know you are here? Does your mother?"


"Yes. They said I could learn from you so long as I keep up with my chores and tasks."


"How old are you, boy?" Now that Olaf had someone who wanted to become a storyteller, he had misgivings that he could properly teach him.


"I will be eleven in the spring. Will you train me?"


"I, uh. . . ." Olaf hesitated. The boy did not have the demeanor nor the voice of a proper storyteller. Yet, what choice did Olaf have? "Of course, I will teach you all I can. First, we must find out how much you already know. It won't be easy. You will have to learn to speak clearly and with strength."


"I already know the legends of Asgard and the Aesir," Knute said. "I know many of the Sagas of the Kings, one heroic Saga about the Circle of the Rings, but I don't know any family Sagas."


"I haven't told the Circle of the Rings in years. You are far too young to have heard me tell it. Where did you learn it?"


"From my mother. She is very good at telling stories. My father prefers to talk about the Sagas of the Kings. Sometimes he talks low and puts me to sleep, but I think he does that on purpose."


"Your parents. Yes," Olaf said. "Curious that I remember your parents listening to me as children better than I remember them as adults at assembly during winter evenings . . . Never mind. I wonder how many other adults remember the old stories?"


Soon, I will have to acknowledge my problem, my failure, and humble myself before the village. Perhaps the adults can help. Even if each person only remembers bits and pieces, then that could be enough to reconstruct. . . .


"I don't understand."


"You will, my boy. You will, but for now you must promise that each time we meet you will remind me that your parents remember many of my stories."


#


During the long winter, Olaf seldom told a story. Instead he asked adults from Effable to tell their favorite stories. Some of these tellings temporarily freshened Olaf's memory. Some confused him because they contradicted what little he remembered. Some passed through his head like the millstream passed around the miller's waterwheel when it was locked.


At last, the long shadow of winter faded into a brighter spring.


"Are you sure that is correct, Master Olaf?" Knute, now eleven, sat cross legged in the newly sprouted grass.


Today, Olaf kept his temper after being challenged. Some days, he shouted until the boy fled his wrath and left Olaf to sulk. Other days, Olaf refused to talk and turned to drink, but today was a good day, or perhaps Knute had grown more skilled at disagreeing with his tutor.


"Where did you hear differently, Boy?"


"Mother told me that the goddess Idun is the keeper of the apples of everlasting youth. My father doesn't remember if it is Idun, but he is sure that Baldur died and thus cannot keep the apples. My Aunt Sigrid agrees with my mother and so does my cousin, Rolf."


"The death of Baldur. Of course, he died, and I am outvoted. It must be Idun. However, remember what we must do. Ask as many folk that claim to know the story to tell it to you. Eventually, we will get you a good version with enough details, and then I will carve a rune stone for the remembrance of the story beginning."


"Yes, Master Olaf."


#


The following spring came late to Effable. Spring rains left the roads rutted and the turf soggy. Myriads of unfamiliar boots churned the muddy roads.


A dragon ship had anchored in the fjord sometime before dawn.


Olaf hesitated before entering the pub. He handed his sword to Knute and gestured for the boy to wait with the small gathering of villagers near the blacksmith's forge. The boy complied. Olaf took a deep breath and entered the pub.


Two scruffy men held Sigrid atop the table. Her dress was torn. A sword and an ax lay on the floor near the table.


Three other men wearing leather vests poured drinks. Each had a sword and a knife in his belt. The last man, a big man with a bushy red beard sprawled in a chair. His unsheathed sword lay across the table next to him.


All their eyes turned on Olaf when he entered the pub. Sigrid's eyes were red and angry, her face streaked with tears. The mens' eyes narrowed and their lips curled. The big man with the red beard placed his hand on the hilt of his sword.


"Who are you?" Red beard asked.


Olaf attempted a smile but his face refused to cooperate. "I am Olaf. Usually Sweyn the miller welcomes visitors, but his leg is broken, and so the task falls to me because I am accustomed to speaking."


Red beard's other men, in groups of five or six, were busy ransacking nearby farms. They had broken Sweyn's leg when he objected to them taking all his bags of barley flour.


"We're busy here," one of the men holding Sigrid said. "Get out."


"I understand that you are busy." Olaf swallowed. "I apologize that we did not have your taxes ready, but we were not expecting you. We have not seen a king in so long that most of us believed that we were forsaken and on our own. I cannot tell you how relieved we are to know that we can rely on your protection, King, uh . . . I am sorry. I am an old man with a bad memory. If Sweyn told me your lordship's name, I have forgotten it."


"Let me slit his throat," said one of the men at the bar.


Olaf ignored the ache in his shoulders and stood erect. "Before you kill me, I hope you will allow me the dignity to retrieve my sword so that I might die with a weapon in my hand."


Red beard sat up and rotated the point of his sword on the table until it pointed at Olaf.


"Why do you want my name, old man?"


"I am the storyteller in Effable. My job is to tell the children of the King's victories and conquests. For such gallant warriors as you and your men, this tiny village can only be a brief distraction on your journey to the great hall of Valhalla in Asgard and the final battle of Ragnarök, but for us, your visit is a momentous event. We are pleased to give you hospitality on your way to adventure and glory. Perhaps if you tell me your name and deeds, I can do a better job telling your story. I envy you and wish that I were young enough to wield a sword again."


Red beard said, "My name is Bragi."


"Bragi, of course," Olaf said. "Well I know that name."


"Yes, I'm sure you do." Bragi stared coldly at Olaf. "What do you want of me, Storyteller?"


"Only to cooperate. Our only wealth is our farms and our people. If you will tell me how much more we owe in taxes, we can have the remainder of your levy ready for collection on your return. Then you will not have to waste time by scattering your men throughout the countryside. Easier for you, better for us to spread out the burden among all who live here."


"Let the woman go," Bragi said.


"What?" complained one of the warriors. "We just got here. I--"


"Let her go, and sound recall on the horn. Have the men load what they've collected onto the dragon ship. We sail at noon. Do it now."


The two men holding Sigrid released her and stalked out of the pub. The other three men downed their cups and followed.


"Three months and I shall pass this way again." Bragi rose and sheathed his sword. "Have my taxes ready. Two months food for fifty men and four kegs of ale. Do you understand?"


"Yes, milord," Olaf said. "We shall keep the supplies ready and cart them to the fjord when you arrive."


"How many listen to your tales, Storyteller?"


"I am old and only a few listen to me these days, but they remember the stories well and retell them until more have heard them than I can count."


Bragi growled when he passed Olaf. "I'm showing great forbearance, Storyteller."


"Yes, milord, but that is what will make this story great. That is what will make your children's children happy to hear the tale."


#


The next winter, the pattern for stories was that someone from the village would tell the oldest story they could remember and the audience would debate what was incorrect or omitted from the tale. Often jokes would fly when a storyteller gave a particularly bad account, but most who attempted to tell a story were good natured. Olaf was careful to stand and applaud everyone who attempted to recount an old tale, but his main job was coaching Knute on how to listen to the story, what would be a good variation, when to introduce some humor or suspense.


Then Knute would finish the evening by telling a story. The boy improved with every tale he told.


Olaf added the Tale of Bragi's Visit to the list of stories for Knute to learn. He advised the boy to make ambiguous whether Bragi was the actual skaldic god of poetry impersonating a human, a lesser known king, or a lawless raider. Still, Olaf was surprised in mid-winter when unprompted, Knute attempted an early version of the Bragi tale to the Assembly:


". . . true to his word, Bragi sailed from Effable at noon. Master Sweyn took months to recover from his broken leg and to this day, still walks with a limp. After the dragon ship sailed, no one could find young Rolf. Sigrid feared that her son had sailed after adventure with Bragi. She could not be sure because Bragi's dragon ship never returned."


When Knute finished the story, Sigrid broke from the Assembly and ran into the night. Her husband followed. No one in the Assembly spoke. Most looked stunned. Others were tearful. They filed out of the Assembly in ones and twos. When Olaf arrived at the boy's side, he seemed confused.


"Did I tell it wrong?" Knute asked. "Did I tell it badly?"


"No, my boy, you told the story beautifully, perhaps the best you have ever told a story. However, sometimes it is painful for those who lived through a story to hear it. Often, we must wait for a story to age beyond the living before we can appreciate it."


"Is that why Aunt Sigrid was crying?"


"Yes. So you must consider carefully what you tell of recent events. Give them time to mature. Give the audience time to appreciate the insights and the memories you evoke."


#


Late at night, Olaf sat near his fireplace and sipped at his ale. Outside, the wind howled. Tonight, images of his bride--from how many years ago?--filled his mind. He imagined Hilde bustling about the house and kissing his forehead while making lunch and talking. Hilde? Was he talking with ghosts?


Olaf paused. Lunch? He could not remember when he last ate. Should he eat . . . ?


And then there was Knute. Hilde would have loved a son like Knute.


This was Knute's fourteenth winter, and it was the coldest anyone remembered. Knute's storytelling lacked only a more mature voice, and nature had already begun to deepen that.


Olaf was content with Knute's progress and with the help the community had given the boy in reconstructing old tales. A recent growth spurt had thinned the boy and raised him to Olaf's height. Soon Olaf would be looking up to. . . .


Someone pounded at his door. Olaf shambled to the door and opened it. Knute burst in. Swirling snow followed.


"Master Olaf--"


"What are you doing out in this storm, boy?"


"My father went to warn the neighbors. I came to warn you. My lantern broke, and I almost got lost when snow covered the trail, but I saw the light in your window."


"Warn me of what?"


"The channel froze over. Wolves from the mainland crossed the ice to the island."


"Wolves are on the island?"


"Sometimes you forget to close your barn door, Master Olaf. Are your animals safe?"


"Wolves, you say?"


"Did you secure your barn door?"


"I don't remember."


"I'll need a lantern to check for you."


Knute retrieved a leather lantern hanging near the door. He lit a candle at the fireplace and placed it inside the translucent leather windscreen.


"No, boy," Olaf said. "You stay inside. Do not come out until the storm passes and you know it is safe."


Olaf took the glowing lantern from Knute and set it on the table. He pulled his fur cloak over his head and tied a belt around his waist. His sword hung on the wall near the fireplace. He slid the blade into his belt. How long since he had last sharpened that blade?


Thor grant me the strength to wield it.


He picked up the lantern. What else? What else?


"Remember, boy, bar the door behind me. Do not open it until I return."


#


Twelve years later on a dreary winter night, Knute's son and daughter sat at the front of the Assembly Hall and listened wide-eyed to the story that Knute finally felt ready to recite.


"Three days later, the storm died, and my father dug through the snow to free me from Olaf's house. We could not find Master Olaf. The men of the village formed a war band to pursue the wolves. Over the next several weeks, they killed two wolves until the rest escaped across the ice to the mainland.


"I cared for Olaf's livestock for the remainder of the winter. When spring arrived at last and the snow melted from the deeper gullies, we found a frozen wolf near Olaf's house. The next day, the retreating snow revealed Olaf, bloodied and also frozen. A second wolf had a death grip on Olaf's leg, but with both hands frozen on the hilt of his sword, Olaf had plunged his blade into the wolf's back. He persevered. Like the heroes in the great stories, Olaf the Story Teller died in battle with his sword in his hand.


"Now, Olaf laughs, drinks, and most importantly, retells all the old stories to the other warriors in the great halls of Valhalla. There, with full strength of mind and body, he awaits glory in the final battle of Ragnarök."






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