The berserker dropped to the ground between the fire and the old druid, axes clinking at her belt, a caribou hock in one fist. Behind them, the others daubed the wattled longhouse walls with dung and straw where freezing wind whistled through.
“It’s explanation time, old man,” she demanded. She took a big bite of the meat, leaving strips dangling, and pointed the hock at the druid. “That’s the fifth earth tremor in an hour. It’s knocking holes out of the walls now. I know you have some old story for every little thing that happens.”
“There is a truth for everything,” he corrected in a low drone. “Beneath us slumbers Gudmund, the giant elder, son of Gunnr the Great Oak, and brother of Gymir, his bitter rival.” His fingers danced like punctuation in the firelight. “The brothers’ war grew so violent that nothing could live among the ruins of their hatred, so Gunnr sang a song to make them dream, then buried them deep underground, one in each hemisphere of the world. Gudmund was banished to the northern half, and Gymir was banished to the south…”
“Wait. Gymir was the father?”
“Gymir is the brother of Gudmund and the son of Gunnr,” groaned the old druid. “Pay attention.”
“Gunnr transformed herself into the Great Oak that spears through the world, its branches growing on either side, its roots holding her sons captive. Where their breath seeps through to the surface, there are life-giving wells from which can be drawn great power.”
“I will find one of those!” the berserker announced, her mouth full. “The west people wouldn’t hunt at our borders if we had ancient power-breath.”
“The nearest well is at the center of a temple, guarded by the enormous Fortress, so that humankind will not kill itself with the power therein.”
The berserker gnawed at the meat, her brain clicking through calculations. “I could scale a fortress,” she mumbled.”
The old druid chuckled. “Do not wander away with your mind. You must learn this story well, for it is you who will tell it after I’ve gone.”
The berserker snapped up her eyes to the old druid. “Where do you think you’re going?”
There was a long silence, during which the berserker did not breathe, until it was apparent that the old druid had nodded off into sleep. The berserker poked him in the shoulder; the old druid snorted and resumed: “Gudmund the Elder stirs. His breath comes stronger through the well. The ice has melted, and it is this elder’s breath that shakes the earth. I must go to the other side of the world to see to the wells of Gymir the Elder.”
“You? You cannot wander to the other half of the world. You are eight hundred years old.”
The old druid croaked, his version of a laugh. “I am not quite so helpless as you think. Not all battles are won with steel.”
“If this Gudmund man is causing the quakes with his bad dreams, I shall put him permanently to sleep. I will go down the well and bury my axe in his eye. I will fish him up by the nostrils and punish him before the people, at the Thing.” The berserker rose, holding up one axe, her voice rising. “I am not afraid of any man who can be held captive by a silly tree!”
The old druid rose with a groan and creak of joints, then patted her back. “It is difficult to see clearly through a blood-soaked helmet. No, this battle is not yours, nor mine. This is a terror from which we must run. You will lead our people as far from the wall as you can, and I will pass through the womb of the Great Oak. I will not be alone.”
“Then who will…”
The earth shook again, stronger than before, rolling logs away from the fire. The berserker muttered to herself as she kicked them back into place with one boot heel. When she turned back, the old druid had already shuffled into the longhouse.
In the distance, the howls of wolves sounded through the frozen air.