Posted: Jul 2, 2019, 4:01pm
Daylight broke over the horizon. From the crests of the hilltops shone the early morning sun as it rose to look down upon the valley. The snow coated trees rustled gently as a soft breeze took through their branches. It carried the cold night air down from the hills and rushed away to another horizon. The breeze would swirl and dance through the forest of great, untouched conifers before squeezing through a gap in the hills.
Nestled against a tree on the edge of a trickling river, was a simple and small camp. Cocooned in furs and pelts was a hooded figure, A Man. A Man opened up his eyes, and then took his first wakeful breath of the crisp dayspring air. It chilled him to his bones but coaxed any lingering wisps of sleep out and away from his mind. Slowly he peeled off the layers of his thick blankets, shaking the snowfall off them.
Before A Man was the remnant of his fire from last night, a quietly smouldering pile of ash. It was a brave fire to try and send the cold away from this place. Even next to the most roaring pit of flame, you would find a chill wrap around your body, prickling your skin underneath your clothes.
The land was quiet, no creature to be heard for miles around. A Man moved softly as he began to coax his fire back to life. Slow and deliberate, he made his footfalls as light as possible. To his surprise, even in the thick and deep snow around him, his feet made no mark upon the snow. He had already spent too long here.
The heavy weight of the silence kept his mouth closed for fear of disrupting even the air around him. It was always like this in the mornings. But he needed to eat, and he needed to eat something hot. He braved himself to begin the clattering of pots and pans from his worn sack. His food was running short and he had nothing but the heel of a loaf and two strips of bacon. A Man quickly began to cook, the hot sizzle of the bacon breaking the silence around him.
A Man’s breakfast was quick and light, but his stomach still rumbled angrily. He looked to the crest of the hill he had to climb this day and felt his stomach rumble again. It would be a hard trek across rough countryside, no road to show him the way. He was alone out here. No roads, no people, no animals. Nothing, but It.
A Man set out on his journey, picking his way through the trees. He followed the river upstream to the hills, tracing the bank as it wound its way through the land. A Man was left with his thoughts, to think of the restless sleep from the night. He had dreamt of wolves and men beyond the tops of the hills, of a land walked by giants. It all played back behind his glassy blue eyes, shining like ice from within his hood.
A clap of thunder.
Dark clouds began to roll over the sky, and It was awake.
A Man dropped his shoulder and rested his pack on a tree stump. He knocked an arrow to his bow and scanned the sky. It was still early, It wouldn’t be hunting. He should be safe.
From across the sky came more claps of thunder. Breaking through the cloud cover was the slithering and worming body of a Dragon. This was It, the great beast of the sea and sky. It snaked along, far above the tops of even the tallest trees. From that distance, it seemed as like a bird on the wind, but A Man knew it was larger than the mightiest fortresses of men. Armoured in scales and armed with teeth, the great Dragon was a predator without equal. Taunt skin that was pulled tight over flexing muscles could strike down a man like an insect. Sharp eyes watched over the land, searching for any prey - not that it would quench the insatiable appetite.
It continued on its way, to the south beyond the gap in the hills. It was where A Man had first seen It and where he had first seen this land - this land of It’s. It was King of Its Empty Realm. There had been another, long ago. A woman with swords and ferocity. But it had taken her and nearly taken him.
A Man looked down to his right arm, withered and white. He felt it all up that side of his body. It was like an infection or a burn, writhing across skin and muscle with such a heat yet no heat at all. The flesh was turning like the snow and felt as fragile as glass. It bit into his face - hollowing out a cheek and clawing at his eyes, his eyes of ice.
A Man re-shouldered his pack and put away his bow. It would be a quicker journey to know that It was far behind him. Perhaps he would make the tops of the hills before the sun fell. He set off, determined to find out, a way out of Niflhel.
The sun had set behind the hills again when A Man reached about halfway to the top of the hill. It should have taken less time, but the land seemed to stretch and steepen with every footfall he made. He could feel something pulling him back, keeping him here. This felt like the edge of the world. Beyond this, he hoped, was an end to his pain.
His stomach roared again, clawing at him for food. But there just was none. No fruit grew on any bush, no mushrooms on any tree stump. No fish swam in the ice-cold water, and no game grazed through the snow on the grassy clearings.
He had not seen It in a while, not since it climbed over the southern horizon. He would be safe to rest here, he thought. Searching the dark landscape, he spotted a break in the slope of the hill. A cave mouth, a tunnel on its way below the ground. That would be a fair spot to rest his head.
A Man made his way to the mouth of the cave and peered into the inky blackness. There was no telling how far the cave stretched for. A Man sat down at the edge of the cave, just in under the rock face. He pulled out the blankets and wrapped himself tight. As A Man looked out onto the setting sun, he hoped the sleep would take him quickly.
When A Man woke up, it felt as if he had never really been asleep. A weariness weighed him down like a heavy cloak as if he had been awake the entire night. Opening his eyes, he was greeted with a pitch, thick blackness. He felt around, padding at the ground and the wall he lay against.
Was he blind? Perhaps. Perhaps he had been here for too long now.
He went to his pocket and fished out the flint and steel. Striking them together produced bright sparks, lighting the cave. At least he was still able to see.
A Man went to the cave mouth. He ran his hand over the rough stone wall that now covering the entrance. He pressed his fingers in along the cracks and crevices of the rocks that now sealed him in.
A soft breeze began to swirl around his face, sneaking in under his hood and digging at where his scarf met his face. It felt fresh and cool - almost warm against the memory of the harsh winds of Nilfhel. And there was a light, a faint glimmer poking at the rocks on the wall.
A Man shouldered his bag and began to approach the light. It grew brighter, and brighter, and brighter until the back of his eyes burned and felt as if to blister. Searing light, almost hot on the skin and caused water to weep at his eye’s edge.
And just like it faded and A Man found himself on the bank of a river, the cave turned to the swirling and thin air. The coursing river waters by his feet had been halted by the freezing temperatures, caught and preserved in their motions. Along its body, the river broke away like branches from a trunk. Perhaps one led back to where he had started that yesterday morn.
He felt like he was warmer here, but kept his layers around his body. He scanned his icy eyes along the contours of the land, drinking in his new landscape. There were rocks of cold stone poking through from a sea of untouched snow. A forest swayed in the wind, its leaves brushed by the flurry of snowfall. The trees were more sparse than his home in Niflhel but thick enough to seem untouched by the works of men.
There was a shift. Somewhere, something had moved.
It was a rock that seemed to tumble from its perch.
No - the whole structure did seem to move and stand. A Man’s eyes squinted and focused. The rock had a face, and arms and legs - a whole body that seemed to unfurl from its sitting position. What had seemed like snow caught against the face of the rock was actually a mane of thin white hair.
The giant came to its full height, the rocky monument standing tall over the land. Beside it was a great axe, bigger than that which the mightiest warrior in Midgard might wield. Yet this giant wrenched it from the ground and held it easily in the palm of its large hand.
The ground quaked as it began to approach. A Man dropped his bow into his hand and slowly pulled an arrow out from his quiver. He gently placed it onto the bowstring as he watched the giant come closer.
‘What arrows do you think would break through the skin of a giant, little one?’ boomed the deep voice of the giant. ‘Mythril perhaps? Certainly not steel, and certainly not in Niflheim.’
‘Niflheim?’ said A Man, speaking for the first time since he could remember.
‘Indeed, traveller,’ spoke the giant, its voice like a roll of thunder across the clouds, ‘At least what remains.’ The giant took a deep breath. ‘You stink of Niflhel, traveller.’
‘I have travelled for a long time,’ said A Man, and he adjusted the hood around his head.
‘I am sure you have,’ the giant said, eyeing him suspiciously, ‘Do you know upon what you stand?’
A Man hesitated. ‘A river bank?’
‘Correct - in a sense. This is the remnants of the River of Gjöll, one of the Élivágar. It is what separates the living from the dead. Beyond here, you have no place.’
The words echoed around in A Man’s head. They seemed so alien, words of the gods and elves and dwarves that had been brought to the world of men. Yet, they were so familiar. When he repeated them back to the giant they were as natural in the mouth as any other.
‘How do I cross it?’ asked A Man.
The giant laughed, the bass thumping in A Man’s chest. ‘Do you not remember dying? You have certainly been touched by It, though.’
The giant narrowed its eyes and peered into the hood of A Man. ‘A lucky escape,’ A Man replied.
‘Must have been,’ said the giant. The giant turned back from A Man and headed back to its spot further up the river bank.
‘Where are you going?’ called A Man after him.
‘To wait,’ said the giant, ‘You never escape from It, and so It will be back soon.’
‘And then what?’
‘And then I would be free of this world,’ said the giant, and he turned to look towards the heavens, ‘There’s no escaping It.’
‘I escaped it?’
‘No,’ said the giant, ‘You did not. You are still here. You cannot cross the River Gjöll. It claims what little life we have left the moment you touch the frozen waters.’
‘There must be a bridge or crossing somewhere?’
‘Gjallarbrú crosses closer to Hvergelmir, but you will be stopped when you try to cross.’
‘Stopped by who?’
‘It will hunt you down. If you are lucky again, you’ll find Móðguðr guarding the crossing.’
‘Leave me now,’ said the giant finally, ‘I grow tired again.’
With that, the giant curled back into his rocky perch beside the frozen waves of the river. Never again would he speak. A Man was left in silence.