Slowly, it stops struggling in her hands. It grows limp and heavy in the water. She lets go and sniffles. It starts sinking as it floats towards the long reflection of the moon, clearer now the lake is still again. She stands up and wades back to the shore. She struggles to dress, her body shaking and her wet skin resisting the dry clothes. A black bird whistles its too cheerful, too early morning song nearby. Suddenly, she regrets leaving the body in the lake. She looks around for a stick to retrieve it with before it sinks too deeply into the bog.
Early that morning she set off to go the market in town with a basket of eggs on her head and her baby girl strapped on her back. She sang in a low voice to soothe the baby and keep the sound of her own steps company. The forest path was well-worn and the sleek tree trunks on either side stretched their crowns up toward the sun. Soon summer would turn colder and mushrooms would crowd the moist understory of the pine trees. She already looked forward to making her favourite mushroom stew.
As the sun got warmer, her mouth started feeling dry. A bit further up the path was a little brook that swelled and flooded the path when it rained heavily. The summer had been dry and rather than the usual mud puddle to navigate around, the path was dusty from the fine silt that had dried and set the last deep wheel tracks and footsteps like rock. She walked a few meters into the scrubs, bent down and cupping her hands, she let the cool water rush into them. She drank greedily. Looking back toward the path where the sun blazed down, she spotted wild raspberries shining like bright red lanterns among the green leaves in an unruly tangle of long prickly canes. She decided she would gather enough for a sweet pie on the way home.
She got as far as the bend by the big gnarly oak tree before she sensed something was wrong. She felt a caress of cool wind on her hot face and a chill ran down her spine. She stood still, listening over the sound of her escalating heart beat. Was that a rustle in the leaves, a careless step breaking a stick on the ground with a crack, a shadow moving closer? She spun around. There was nothing but the sun peeking through the green tree tops and the wind playing catch with shadows on the path.
Uneasy, she moved on. Faster. She was nearly running when her baby woke with a whimper from the erratic movements. She attempted to slow her step again to calm the baby. Her pulse beat urgently and hard. She admonished herself to calm down, it was just the wind.
Over her too-loud heartbeat she heard a different rhythm. Clo-clo-clonk, clo-clo-clonk it went, like the cooper’s three-legged dog rushing across the wooden floor to the dinner bowl with its uneven run. Yet, this was no dog, it sounded like a larger, a hoofed beast. The baby wailed loudly and she stopped again to take her out of the sling to calm her down. She held her close to the chest, while she slowly turned around on the spot, peering apprehensively through the trees. Only too late did it dawn on her what she was hearing, what was coming her way. The worst forewarning. The most terrible of fortune tellers. It was the Helhorse.
She had been just a little girl when her grandmother took her to town to look at the building site for the stone church that would cement the new religion in their lives. The men had dug deep holes in the flat ground for the foundations of the church. Her grandmother explained how foundations are of crucial importance to most things in life, but especially to buildings and even to a holy building. It was rumoured that the bell tower of Saint Canute’s church fell down twice before the master builder convinced the incredulous priest to bury alive a young horse near its foundation. This sacrifice now kept the bell tower tall and erect.
So for the glory of God, four apprentices wrestled a beautiful white stallion into a hole dug where the eastern wall of the nave would be. It struggled so badly that the master builder called in the blacksmith. Already a committed follower of the White Christ, the blacksmith had let the monk baptise him in the river. He thought for a moment about the good use he could put such a fine horse to, but then swung his giant axe and chopped off the right front leg. Stunned, the horse lay still as the red blood spurted out of its mangled leg and the men started shovelling dirt onto its white body.
She looked into its confused brown eyes and felt its pain like lightning in the pit of her stomach, as the black dirt gradually smeared and covered its shining white fur. She hid her face in her grandmother’s skirts.
On the walk home her grandmother explained that from now on the ghost of the horse would show itself to people to warn them of impending death. Perhaps their own miserable end or the death of someone dear to them. Her grandmother had cackled:
-Imagine that! If this White Christ is as powerful as the monk claims, how come he needs the Asa gods to keep his places of worship from collapsing? They should be wary of the fury of Valhalla.
She had heard some of the tales of the old religion, but not from her own parents. They were too frightened by the monk’s condemnation of those who did not turn their back on the old ways to embrace the White Christ. They accepted no other form of superstition. Her grandmother snorted with contempt at the thought and was secretly excited to pass on the old tales, the old wisdom, to her granddaughter. There was hope yet.
-Once you are dead the Helhorse will return to accompany you to Niflheim at the roots of Yggdrasil, the huge tree at the centre of the world. Here Loke’s daughter, Hel, waits to show you your rightful place in death. Hel’s world is a cold, wet place for those who die without honour.
-How do you die with honour? she quizzed.
-You die bravely. In battle on the fields, not on your sick bed or of old age.
To die in battle sounded painful and frightening. Her brothers often played battle with their swords and axes fashioned from timber. Dangerous battles where they pretended to crush the skulls of the fearsome Vends. Though she loved to play with them, she never did enjoy this game, where she had to die first or stay out of the way.
Her grandmother explained that if you died in battle, the beautiful Valkyries would fetch you and guide you to Valhalla, where you would live and party with the gods until Ragnarok.
She knew about Ragnarok, the end of the world, and she knew about Valhalla, the home of Odin and Thor and their families. She thought she would rather enjoy Valhalla than end up with moody Hel in dank Niflheim, so she decided that in future she would join her brothers’ game more intently, so she too could learn to become a fearless warrior. A maiden warrior who would sail on the long ships on dangerous expeditions and come home with treasure from across the sea.
As a wise woman, her grandmother occasionally practiced sejd – seeing into the future by communicating with the gods. She did it less frequently these days, for the White Christ’s men cared neither for magic nor the Norse gods. They claimed the White Christ was the only god and dismissed the Norse gods as evil superstition.
When the master builder had first been appointed to build the church in their town, he had come to her grandmother’s hut and told her about the trouble at St Canute. She had been weary, cautious, but the builder had convinced her to seek the wisdom of Odin. He had promised discretion: it was his own reputation at stake. She had warned him against the ongoing effect of the Helhorse. But she was wise enough to confirm what the builder wanted to hear. It was her best insurance that he would keep her secret.
Later, the master builder inserted a smooth black stone into the floor near the wall of the nave. This stone marked the place where the Helhorse died its painful death and the first burial in the sacred grounds of the church. On Sundays women spat at the stone when they walked past to keep the Helhorse at bay. Of course, it never worked. No-one escapes the Helhorse.
Standing still on the forest path, she felt rather than heard the laboured breath behind her. Slowly, she turned around. There it stood, the Helhorse, browning blood smeared on its front and the little stump of leg. Its white fur was stained by moist dirt and it looked thin and ghostly. Almost see-through. Its big eyes looked at her with a deep sadness, as if it regretted it was her it faced. Its nostrils flared as it came close enough to touch the bundle she held by her chest with its muzzle. Her baby let out a weak cry, but then settled down. She felt the steam from its nostrils and the rank smell of horse and decaying meat. The horse lifted its head and, gently whinnying, it reared onto its hind legs, turned around and disappeared into the trees to its awkward rhythm.
Shaken, she looked down at the calm face, the paper-thin eyelids, the button nose and the moist lips that suckled thin air in her sleep. Oh she loved this girl so much she felt her heart might break. Her husband had been disappointed his first born was a mere girl. Sometimes when he had too much drink in him, she feared he would harm the child. Once when he could not fall asleep, he agitated about the baby’s crying. She tried her best, but was unable to settle her. He lashed out at her and threatened to silence the baby once and for all. She snatched the baby from the crib and ran to the safety of her grandmother’s place. Her grandmother calmed her down and cursed the husband.
A terrible thought struck her: the Helhorse had come to warn her about her baby’s death. In her mind, she saw how her husband would come home tonight, in a fit of outrage, after drinking away his meagre earnings at the pub. He would stagger to the crib and pick up her baby by one leg and smash her head against the post. Her baby would cry, terrified, but after a while she would hang silent and limp from his big hand and he would laugh and throw the little body to her, so he could be rid of it. She would be unable to stop him. She had to find another way.
In the early morning light, the search party finds her by the banks of the lake, rocking a bundle in her arms, singing sweet lullabies that her baby no longer hears.
Her husband crouches down and holds his strong arms around her still wet, shaking body. He asks her what happened, sorrow painted in his eyes with dark brush strokes. Her own eyes are distant, glazed over and looking beyond him. When she finally responds in a low, rusty voice, her speech is incomprehensible:
-I cheated the Helhorse.
© Lone Veirup Johansen 2015