48. The Mustang's Tests of Spirit

         We begin first by establishing the winter activities at Brygjafael since the last time. Poul had been given a task in Silksif's prophecy -- to forge three axes: one for himself, one for a friend, and the third for someone who will appear. Poul begins by forging the first axe for himself, but something goes wrong in the forging. The axe's steel comes out with a scaled appearance, and the balance is strangely wrong. However, it is amazingly sharp and he can wield it passably as long as it is in his right hand.[1]

         Meanwhile, Kjartan has been preparing for the ritual. With aid from his relatives and employees, he has been carving a horse-head emblem which would go on the roof-peak at the front of the Brygjafael lodge. He has also consulted with Kitgari for background on visionquests among the Lagakin. However, there are many details yet to be determined.

         Two days before Christmas, Silksif, Melnir, and two of his men (including his Lagakin huscarl Thorbrand but not Honiahaka) arrive at Brygjafael after a week-long journey by ski over land from Raudarbank, in bone-chilling cold. They are, of course, welcomed by Aud's family and treated in style.

         The day after they arrive, Maushop offers to show Silksif the forge where the axes she prophesized were made while Poul is out. After bringing her there and tokenly talking about his own smithing work, he asks her if it would be bad for him to go on the visionquest if he had already had dealings with spirits.

         The next evening after dinner, there is a long family discussion of who will participate in the ritual. The answer is not simple because the Norse tradition contrasts with the Lagakin tradition here. Kjartan speaks about the Lagakin tradition, having talked with his relative Kitgari about this. Among the Lagakin, all males who are expected to be leaders will go on a visionquest. They go on their one journey, but never again -- they establish a link with their clan totem by meeting it in the spirit world.

         Among the Vinlanders, a few select women (prophetesses or gydjas) go on a similar journey. They are prepared more thoroughly, because it is a trip they will expect to make many times. However, they have a liminal place in society -- i.e. they are considered strange. Rather than a clan totem, they contact a personal spirit called a fylgia or fetch. Silksif speaks some about this journey and transformation.

         So the family discusses who should go. At first the leaning would be to follow the Lagakin tradition and have the male leaders go -- which would likely mean Odd, Arnkel, and Poul along with their eldest sons (Einar, Herjolf, and Maushop) and selected other sons. However, Kjartan considered that it might be best to mix the cultures. Aud leans towards the traditional (i.e. men only), but Thjohild speaks up that going would be a sign of her merging with the clan of her husband. She is inspired by her friendship with the adventurous Thorgerd, as well as by her rivalry with Silksif.

         This is then considered by Kjartan's older brother Einar. Like his father, he is a practical man inclined to leave religion to others. His wife is Asgerd, daughter of the Raudarbank chief Eystein the Innocent (so named because he has frequently been tried in court and found innocent). She is respectful of her father and his ambitions, and is ambitious herself. She too is in favor of joining, and Einar is inclined to agree. Helga is doubtful about this plan and does not wish to undergo the stress, but her young daughter Astrid eagerly steps forward to take her mother's place.[2]

         So eventually the list is settled. Kjartan and Thjohild, along with his older brother Einar and his wife Asgerd. Poul and his wife Alfdis and his son Maushop. Arnkel and his daughter Astrid and his sons Bjarni and Herjolf. Eleven in all, plus Silksif who will guide them.

         The ritual itself involves various forms of stress and elation to induce an altered state. They all go together into the sauna, with stretches of going outside in the cold to wander and see the stars. (Men and women both normally go naked in the sauna. There is little nudity taboo given that they live in longhouses, after all.) There is fasting, meditation, and sleep deprivation. There is also smoking of tobacco and other herbs which induce a high but are not strictly hallucinogens.[3] From the Vinlander tradition there is also singing of sacred songs.

         After a little over 24 hours, everyone is starting to get pretty delirious. An argument erupts between Poul's son Maushop and Arnkel's daughter Astrid over the fitness of the women to take part in the visionquest.[4] It turns into agreement to have a contest -- running out and jumping into the icy river water, where to succeed you had to drag yourself out of the water on your own. The hole was a cut maintained in the river for getting water, but they had to bring axes to cut through the ice that formed during the night over the hole. In the end, only Einar, Kjartan, and Thjohild succeed.[5] Maushop notes that more men succeeded than women, but Astrid notes that more men tried (7 to 4).

         Now shivering and twitching from the ordeal, the group come back to the sauna. As they breathe in the warm smoky air, in close time they collapse on the floor and benches and begin to see things. [6]

         Everyone finds themselves gathered in a clearing on a mountainside, naked as they left but with the axes that they had used to chop holes in the ice. (These are ordinary axes, not Poul's prophesized ones.) They are approached by a horse, which speaks to them and defines their task as a group. They are to collectively carry a burden in a sort of relay race from the mountain, across the hills and plains, and through the strait to another land -- which must reach there by the end of the day. Each of the eleven will bear the burden for one leg of the journey, and any delay or failure must be borne by the others. Those not bearing will be transported to the next point. During each leg, the person will be tested with "whatever would be the most difficult". They are also warned that they must stay on the path which is marked for them, clearly visible lines of white stones.

         As originator, Kjartan is the first to go and must retrieve the burden from the top of the mountain. He is warned that there will be dangers, and takes one of the axes. While going, he is followed by a wolf which shadows him but stays off the path. In time it talks to him, suggesting that he could quit this test and instead take the wolf as a clan totem (the same totem as their Mohican ally Rowtag). He notes how the test is degrading and menial, matching the herd animal intelligence of horses. Kjartan answers that horses are not easy prey for the wolf, and that they are smart. The wolf responds that they are easier than moose.

         The path leads to a clearing where there is a great and ancient tree: the Tree of Knowledge. It speaks in a whispery voice, telling Kjartan that his burden is a bundle of rune-staves that are hidden within a hollow of the tree. Kjartan tries to reach them, but he cannot. The tree then offers to help: it says that he can reach them if he grows. It says that in the spirit world he will grow in size if he learns, and it suggests that he take a few weeks to drink from its pools and be taught its knowledge. Kjartan says that he doesn't have time, but the tree says that is the only way. He is stymied for a time, then suddenly realizes with horror that he must oppose the Tree and harm it to get the rune-staves from it in time. Over its protests, he decides to cut two branches to fashion a hook to pull the rune-staves out. One is the branch of knowledge of Stein the Cruel, while another is unspecified. Feeling horrible, he cuts himself and bleeds his own blood on the wounds he has made on the Tree. He then leaves with the rune-staves.

         Kjartan arrives at a clearing where the others are, with his axe bloody. The next to be tested is Bjarni, who asks Kjartan what happened:
Bjarni: I see your axe is bloody. What did you have to fight: a wolf or a bear?
Kjartan: A beast more terrible, one that you could not imagine...
Bjarni: Well... whatever it is I'll fight it.
Kjartan: I wouldn't really call it fighting.
Bjarni: Well, slaughtering then!
Kjartan: Remember, losing is sometimes winning.
Bjarni: Hmm, I don't understand that but I do know that winning is winning. I think I'll stick to that.

         Bjarni again goes down a similar path, which is winding its way through the foothills of the mountain.[7] He also is accosted by a wolf, who says that it will only attack when he doesn't see it coming. A bit later down the path, he sees a horse being stalked by the wolves and calls out a warning. However, it simply runs into a trap and is soon surrounded. Bjarni is uncertain since it is off the path which he was told he must stay on. He decides to leave the horse to its fate and run on.

         He then comes to a fork in the path, which was unexpected. One fork leads over the next hill, while the other leads a long way around. Deciding to do what is hardest, he goes over the hill path. At the top of the hill, he can see the others of his family in a clearing below -- but he can also see a dozen wolves sneaking up on them from the woods. He shouts and run down the path to try to save them. The wolves attack and grievously wound Poul while Kjartan struggles to defend both himself and Thjohild.[8] Just as Bjarni is reaching the clearing, though, the path comes to a dead-end. He must decide whether to leave the path and try to save his relatives, or turn around and go the long way back to the other fork. He is caught in agony but decides to stick to the rules that honor dictates, and goes the long way around. Upon following the other branch, he finds the real family unharmed and indeed unaware of what his test had been.

         The next seven tests are not detailed, and were assumed to pass uneventfully for those outside not being tested. The second to last is Maushop and the last is Poul. After Maushop's test, the family unexpectedly find themselves back at the same clearing they last left. The horse informs that Maushop failed his test, and that now Poul must carry the rune-staves over both his son's distance and his own in the time remaining.[9]

         So Poul must now sprint the distance across the wetlands and through the low-tide strait to reach the end before sundown. It seems impossible, especially with Poul being a 45-year old smith and not much into running. As he exhausts himself trying, a wolf accosts him like the others -- noting that he is cannot do the task, being human and old.[10] He says that he will sacrifice his life and body to it for if it will help him. The wolf seems interested, and then Poul attempts to bargain that it carry him to the end with the staves. It immediately balks, saying that it can't carry him -- and says that it will have to give it the staves, along with some food (meaning his flesh). It says it isn't especially hungry, so a limb would do.

         Suddenly Poul is hit with the dilemma of trust. He really has no reason to trust the wolf, yet he will clearly fail without it. In a moment of clarity, he holds out his cursed right hand with the rune-staves grasped, and the wolf calmly walks up and bites him at the elbow, then twisting to tear off his forearm.[11] It then faces him with his forearm in its mouth, the fingers still locked around the rune-staves. It fumblingly thanks him with its mouth full, and he tells it to give a message to his son that he forgives him. The wolf then heads off.

         The others find themselves waiting at a shore beside a strait of land between two shores exposed during low tide. As the sun dips into the horizon, the wolf comes flashing across the strait and gives them Poul's forearm and the staves. It tells them what happened, then slips off to eat the forearm as its payment. The mustang tells them that they passed the test, but they are distracted with concern for Poul as the sun sets and the tide rolls into the strait. Kjartan says they must find him. The mustang agrees -- and they all come out of their trances in the sauna exhausted and weak from the experience. Poul finds that he cannot move his right hand or forearm at all, as though from a stroke or similar ailment from the exposure and stress. However, they all feel deep down a link to the mustang spirit.

  1. Bill rolled a 99 on his smithcraft roll. However, Liz then played a "Silver Lining" card and specified that the axe is amazingly sharp.
  2. The result of an "Unexpected Consequence" card by Heather, specifying that Astrid goes on the visionquest in Helga's place.
  3. There was disagreement between Liz and John on whether they would have true hallucinogens. Liz suggested that there would be known herbs or mushrooms undocumented in the histories, but eventually John ruled otherwise.
  4. The result of an "Internal Conflict" card by Bill, specifying that Maushop and Astrid have a fight.
  5. All characters had to roll under CON x 2 or they would need to be dragged out.
  6. There was a 40-minute real-time break here.
  7. John passed a note at this point to Bill and Liz, which read "The fight coming up will illusionary, only an appearance to Bjarni."
  8. Following the note, Bill and Liz played along with the note, rolling dice, noting hit points lost, attacking wolves, complaining a bit, and speculating about whether their characters would die if "killed" or just wake up having failed the quest.
  9. The result of both a "Horrible Failure" card by Bill, for Maushop's card to be a failure. He originally also played the "Sacrifice" card immediately that Poul would give his life for his son. The idea was kept, but a different sacrifice was worked out.
  10. The result of an "Unexpected Aid" card by Liz.
  11. The result of a "Sacrifice" card by Bill.

John H. Kim <jhkim@darkshire.net>
Last modified: Sat Jan 24 14:02:47 2004