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Thialfi’s Challenge

The favoured warriors of Earl Olaf clashed their drinking horns and drank deeply on the first night of winter. The summer had yielded silver and slaves aplenty to the warlord, the torches sparkled on his jewelry and gold embroidered cloak taken in raids from the English princes. It was time to enjoy the rewards of the season’s labour, the ale and mead for a hundred nights in the great hall, the precious metals to be worked, reluctant virgins seized from the White Christ

Thormod the songsmith, younger brother to the Earl and gothi of the warfather, sprang to the rushes beside the hearth. The warriors at the benches crashed the handles of their eating knives on the boards of the trestled tables, in welcome to the skilled one. Thormod silenced the hall with a gesture. He sang of the making of the Nine Worlds, the work of Odin, Vili and Ve. The rough men of Earl Olaf sat quietly lost in the power of Thormod’s words. The songsmith switched to another tale, of Sigurd and his battle against the Dragon. Delighted the warriors joined in the familiar folk song, their voices rising to a thunder, shaking the very timbers of the hall.

 

The song ended and the warriors fell silent and expectant. Thormod cried out ‘This is the night we honour Odin the father of battle and lord of all brave warriors.’ The warriors chanted the gods name until the songsmith gestured again for silence. ‘This year we have fought hard and suffered few injuries, raided hard and taken many treasures from the fat kings of the South. We must offer our thanks to the Allfather, we must make sacrifice. Earl Olaf, what will you give to the war god this year?’

All eyes turned to the Earl where he sat in his carved and gilded high seat. Olaf delayed, as if considering, although both he and Thormod already knew his answer. Olaf smiled, ‘We have gained many new women slaves, and we can easily spare one for a gift to the Allfather. But let it not be one of the Christ women whose whining would tire even a gods patience. Give him a woman who knows her duty is to serve her master, give him Thorgerd’.

At their lord’s words two of the warriors grabbed the arms of the terrified bondswomen whose fate had just been declared. Peasants! he thought, She hardly deserves such an honour.

Olaf’s servants brought the winter nights feast from the hearth fires and the tables soon groaned from the weight of the heavy platters. Thormod slipped away to prepare for the war gods offering while the warriors attacked the roast ox meat with vigour.

Toward the end of the feasting a stranger entered the hall. A young man with a scanty golden beard, he was muscular and well dressed, he glowed with health. Curious, Olaf strode down the hall to meet him.

Olaf gave the usual cautious greeting ‘Who are you and where do you come from?’.

The young man answered, ‘My name is Thialfi and I have traveled far. Will you give me shelter in you hall tonight?’

The stranger had only given half an answer, but Olaf had drunk deeply and had little concern for whatever threat this half bearded youth could pose. Furthermore Olaf had noted the young mans obvious wealth and was keen to impress him. ‘Your are welcome to our feast’. Olaf replied, shouting at the servants to bring the guest food and ale, Come and sit with me beside my high seat, and share in our winternight’s sacrifice.

Thialfi paused before the bound slave girl ‘A generous gift! One that would certainly please me.’

Olaf snorted with amusement, ‘You have a little time while she is still in this world.’

The youth strode to the pillar, kissed her roughly and fondled her breasts through her clothing. When he took his place at the table she stared at him in shock.

‘Thinks she is too good for Odin that one.’ muttered Olaf disdainfully.

‘Surely not.’ replied Thialfi as he attacked the choice food placed before him.

‘I fear so. Slaves are blind to the worlds glory.’

Thialfi grinned, ‘Too much work, breaks the back and all they can see is the mud at their feet.’

The warriors had finished their feasting and the servants cleared the tables of the empty platters. The songsmith stood in the doorway, naked except for a wolfskin and a polished bronze helmet of ancient design decorated with curling horns. He held a spear with a head of gleaming silver and the hangman’s noose.

Thorgerd stared at spear head, the mixed feelings of hope and terror whirling through her being. She had been at the depths of despair, waiting only for the icy touch of the spear and the wargod’s whim. She did not relish the heaven Olaf’s men called Valhal, their tales described a hall filled with a thousand thousand warriors. Warriors like them, all crying for ale, quick with their fists when their horns were empty and rough with her body when their flesh was hard. Thor help me, her tortured mind had screamed in desperation. Her grandfather had told her the farmers’ god always heard when he was needed, if only it was true.

Then the young man had come, Thialfi, an unusual name, only known to her from myths and stories. He had come to her, and whispered reassurance, unnoticed beneath his coarse embrace. Her plea had been heard and Thialfi sent for her protection.

But the songsmith advanced with the silver point shining before her eyes, and again she imagined its blade sliding into her flesh. Thialfi quietly rose from his bench and stepped between them.

‘The girl is mine!’ he said loudly and clearly in the silent hall.

‘She belongs to me, I have already claimed her.’ replied the startled songsmith. ‘Stand aside, least you be tied to the post beside her.’

‘No.’ Thialfi pressed ‘she is mine. Or has the warfather forgotten the bargain we struck only an hour ago?’

The songsmith hesitated, something about the youth’s confidence unnerved him. To interrupt a sacrifice in this manner was nothing less than suicide, but to claim he had bought the girl from Odin himself?

‘Who are you?’ asked the songsmith coldly.

‘I have given my name already wise one,’ the young man said mischievously ‘I am Thialfi, known to every poet in the Northlands, the brave slayer of mighty warriors’.

‘You overrate your fame, you are not known in this hall.’

‘Maybe because I fight beside a warrior who is even better known.’

‘Hah, would that be Arnolf the seldom mentioned or Kollbard the unheard of?’ asked the songsmith nastily.

‘No,’ replied Thialfi, ‘Asa Thor’.

‘Now I know you lie!’ cried the songsmith triumphantly. ‘That peasant slave of the prince of goats would never interfere with Odins affairs! And now you will pay for your sacrilege with your life.’

Thormod thrust the spear at Thialfi intending to kill him, but the youth caught the shaft in a vice like grip and pushed it aside. Olaf shouted for his warriors to seize the knave who dared to disturb the rite. The men reached for their weapons but were checked by Thialfis confident voice….

‘In an ancient age

Asyniur Freyja

taught the trier

of trolls and dragons

mastery of magic

mysteries and charms,

the better to battle

bold foes of Midgard.

‘Now Thor has Thialfi,

Thrudvangr’s bondsman,

servant and shield bearer,

loyal sword companion.

Much might he taught me

that master of battle

sword lore and spell lore

that I might stand.’

The song ended, Thialfi whispered a word of power. Thormod’s spear shaft shattered and the glinting silver head thudded on the packed earth floor. Thormod backed away aghast. Many spoke of magic, some even threatened its use, but never had the gothi seen such a demonstration of the skill. Whilst the warriors stared in silence and frozen in uncertaincy, Thialfi freed the bondgirl, sawing through the ropes with his knife. As he drew Thorgerd away from the pillar Olaf cried in indignation ‘No! She has been given to Odin, she must die.’

‘You can dedicate her to anyone you like.’ Thialfi replied ‘But Odin will never have her. When the offering is unwilling the gift goes astray, and this one belongs to Thor. Give Odin a willing sacrifice if you want to gain his blessing.’ Thialfi pointed his arm in a great sweep, indicating all the warriors in the hall ‘Who will it be, who will buy the next seasons victory with their life?’ The warriors were silent, none spoke, none came forward. Thialfi laughed and looked Olaf in the eye ‘So you are all too good for Odin, all blind to the glories of the world.’ He bent and picked up the spear head from among the rushes, snatched the broken shaft from Thormod’s unresisting hand. With a whispered word the spear was whole once more. Thialfi raised it high so the blade shone in the light of the torches ‘I keep my bargain with the father of battle, a life for a life.’ Thialfi turned, again meeting the Earl’s gaze ‘Olaf, I give you to Odin!’

Olaf regarded the young man calmly, ignoring the horrified cries of the warriors, he drew his great broadsword, and smiled. ‘Will I see you later Thialfi?’

Thialfi grinned and nodded. Thormond came forward, still shaking from shock with the noose in his hands, and laid it around his brothers neck. Olaf called out to his god, and the songsmith heaved on the rope and Thialfi plunged the spear deep into his heart.

As the warriors tended the body of the dead Earl, Thialfi put an arm around Thorgerd and lead her out of the hall. In the cold wind of the first night of winter she finally felt safe and clung to her saviour.

‘You are free now.’ Thialfi said gently, ‘Where will you go?.’

‘I don’t know. But thank you, for everything.’

She was shivering, Thialfi pulled off his fine scarlet cloak and wrapped it round her shoulders. ‘You could come with me.’ Thialfi suggested ‘I must confess, I came courting.’

Thorgerd stared at him in disbelief, then laughed, lifting the six ounce gold brooch on his cloak, ‘What would you want with a serving girl? You could have anyone.’

‘I don’t want anyone, I want you.’

Thorgerd shook her head. ‘You are welcome to claim your reward, you have certainly earned it, but you will soon tire of me.’

‘I will have to convince you then,’ Thialfi lifted her in his arms and swung the girl around ‘if I wasn’t serious would I bring you here?’

Even in the darkness, Thorgerd sensed something had changed, the bitter wind was gone, replaced by the cooling breeze of a warm summers evening. A great hall rose beside them, but it wasn’t Olafs, its timbers reached so high that the clouds parted around it.

‘Follow me,’ said Thialfi pulling her hand, ‘if you find a cloak pin daunting I had better find some more humble surroundings to persuade you of my interest.’ He brought her to a large barn, pushed open the door and fumbled for lantern and firesteel. Thorgerd smelt hay and horses, and heard the stamp and whinney of wakeful steeds in the warm darkness. Thialfi held the light high revealing a ladder to the hayloft above ‘Your chamber my lady.’ He said with a grin. Thorgerd smiled and climbed the steps easily in her short servant’s gown, and clambered up into the mound of fresh hay above. Thialfi climbed after her, hung the lantern from a nail on the rafters and turned to face her. ‘Do you know the name Hlidskjalf?’ he asked.

‘Yes, it is the throne from which Odin can see all the nine words, or so Thormod says.’ Thorgerd pondered, ‘But Olaf’s shepherd says it belongs to Freyr.’

‘They are both correct, many gods own a Hlidskjalf, Thor has one too. When you called for help I was watching there and I saw you, and wanted you. Thor gave me leave to claim you.’

‘I still cannot imagine what you see in me.’

‘A pretty face and a shapely figure,’ Thialfi replied, ‘but more than that too. From the Hlidskjalf I saw the strength of your spirit, in your fear it burned bright and fierce. I want an adventurous wife, not an unsoiled maid fit only for embroidery’.

‘Then maybe I do qualify.’ Thorgerd muttered looking down at her hands roughened from hard menial work.

Thialfi embraced her and kissed her warmly, Thorgerd laughed with joy and guided his hands, finally she knew she was free, knew she had come home.

Thorgerd struggled from slumber, someone was calling her. She was lying naked in the hay with Thialfi’s warm body beside her. A smiling woman was holding onto the loft ladder with one hand and thrust a large cloth bundle onto the hay. ‘I thought you might need some breakfast lass. It is always the last thought on a mans mind. All very well rescuing a maid from certain death by violence, but from starvation? That’s another matter.’

‘Thank you mistress.’ said Thorgerd. Like Thialfi the woman was adorned with golden brooches, and her hair swept up in a knot behind her glistened like gold, even in the dim light of the barn. ‘Asyniur Sif?’ Thorgerd asked.

‘Indeed’ the goddess replied ‘and you can tell your sleepy friend to come and find me when he feels like earning his keep. But for now I have something else for you.’ She tossed Thorgerd a small rosy fleshed apple. ‘From Idunn.’ she said and climbed down the ladder leaving the lovers alone.

Thorgerd stared at the apple in her hand as Thialfi stretched beside her and yawned mightily. He rolled and learnt over the edge of the hayloft. ‘Mistress!’ he called down, ‘What do you see? A boy or a girl?’

‘A girl,’ Sif replied ‘quick with her wits and quicker with a sword, just like her father.’

Thialfi turned and gave Thorgerd a beaming smile ‘Remember, never underestimate the woman of Asgard, they are always one step ahead of you.’

Thorgerd grinned and took a bite from the apple I will enjoy reminding you, and so it would appear, will your daughter.

(This tale is modern fiction but is well rooted in Norse Mythology. Professional warriors followed Odin the god of battle, while farmers followed Thor or Frey and the goddesses, and so in this imaginary hall of Olaf, the warriors priest’s beliefs differ greatly from those of the peasantry. Amazingly one eyed faces carved in pillars survive in Norway’s stave churches. The method of sacrifice is borrowed from King Gautrek’s Saga, naked men wearing horned helmets and bearing weapons are found on Early Medieval Art and may represent the priests of Odin or Woden.

Thialfi was originally a peasant’s son who became Thor’s personal servant (thanks to Loki’s interference) and acts in the myths as his traveling companion (Myths of the giants Utgardaloki, Hrungnir and Geirrod).

Thor’s wife the goddesses Sif is also called Sybil, hence her knowledge of the future. Idunn’s apples represent immortality.

Thorgerd is a goddess known from the Sagas and was known as the ‘wife’ of her devotee Earl Hakon, she is mentioned nowhere in the Edda’s so I hope she does not mind being included in Thor’s household.)

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