James Whitchers gulped down a large mouthful of wine, ‘I can’t fight them anymore.’ he said.
He sounded utterly defeated.
‘I don’t understand James, what are you doing?’
‘No more battles. No more murder attempts, no more accidental wounds and deaths, no more risk to my family and friends. No more of your bastard dogs. No more. What don’t you understand?’
‘Is this really the way to that end?’ Odin was trying hard to sound reasonable. But he knew what James meant. The kind of power he wielded was an unpleasant burden.
‘Can you think of anything else?’ replied James. He was very angry, and he was drunk. His voice slurred a few words. He was rushing about the forge, closing all the shutters, hatches and doors. The stone room was very hot now, with the fires in the forges all built up to roaring and dangerous levels.
The body of a small elemental lay where Odin had slain it, draped over a free standing work bench, the strange green gas that formed it’s blood hissing out of the spear wound in it’s chest.
It had not been a difficult battle, but it was the latest of what were becoming almost daily attacks. The creatures were appearing from the most unexpected places, and seemed to be becoming much more crafty each time. A few days earlier, a fire Srith had appeared before James in the village square, holding his daughter. It had a sharp spine pressed against the girl’s neck. It had shouted at James in it’s own language and shaken the girl about like a doll.
Freki, one of Odin’s dogs, had taken down the Srith before any harm had come to her, but it had been close. The power James commanded that summoned Odin did not extend to his young daughter, so the Srith could easily have murdered her and they would never have known. How long would it be before another elemental got the same idea, and one of James’ family were hurt?
It would happen eventually.
The whole event had deeply disturbed James, and led him, Odin supposed, to this decision.
‘What about Berry? What will she think of you?’ he asked. The young girl’s name was Beryl, but everyone close to her called her Berry. James loved her more than life itself.
‘I don’t care what she thinks of me, as long she’s alive to think it.’ James’ one eye met Odin’s, ’Surely you can see that.’ James shut the last of the room’s thick wooden hatches and bolted it, sealing them in completely. No-one would be able to get in from outside without a lot of work, and by morning the gruesome deed would be done anyway.
James’ heart was sinking. He sat down on a bench, reaching for his half full jug of wine. He drank straight from the side of it, the warm liquid doing nothing to refresh him. His wife would have been dismayed.
He had left no letter explaining his reasons, not being able to write very well. He thought perhaps it was best that way. Most people would never believe the truth of the matter anyway. They would assume it was due to melancholy or debt. He was happy to let them think what they liked, as long as Berry and Catherine were safe. He had had to explain to the girl what had happened to her, and she was young enough to accept it without question. She thought her Father very wise.
He had told her that it was to be kept secret between them, because if the church-goers found out it would cause the family a lot of trouble. Berry was a good girl and agreed with her father that that was for the best. She was so clever for one so small. James felt very proud. Thinking of her poor little soul in the arms of that evil creature made him weep. Tears rolled like rivers down his grimy face, forming clean lines through the sweat. What if he hadn’t been able to save her?
James Whitchers had been a blacksmith for fourteen years, and an apprentice for seven years before that. He was thirty now, and had owned his own forge for the last six years. The village of Sutton had welcomed him after his time with the army, the story of his involvement in King Henry’s campaigns in France securing him a good name among the old soldiers and other ex-military staff that had retired and settled here.
Near the end of his apprenticeship, his master had been drafted into military service, to assist the army with his skills. His master was a good teacher, and thought James would benefit from field experience. James had only been fourteen at the time, and the idea of going off to war had been exciting and glamorous. His parents were farmers, and were opposed to the idea, but the decision ultimately lay with his master.
These days, the stories went that over a thousand ships had gone over the channel with Henry to invade France, carrying ten thousand archers, five thousand men at arms and all their supporting artillery, horses, stable hands, cooks, smiths and craftsmen, numbering over twenty thousand in total. In truth there had been nowhere near that many ships, archers or fighting men available to Henry, but stories were powerful tools during times of war.
It was to be the most dramatic battle campaign ever mounted, and would show the civilised world the power of the common man against the supposed divine right to victory that the French nobility had always claimed. It would also prove to be a triumphant example of the effectiveness of well disciplined, clear thinking military tactics against the ridiculous pursuit of bravery and glory that had dominated warfare up until that time.
Back then, James had not appreciated the significance of this. His master had kept him busy running between the squires, stablemen and the clerks in charge of archery equipment, to make sure they were producing the correct items for the correct people at the correct time. It had been a mammoth undertaking, with all the smiths and their assistants working hard from dawn till dusk every day to get everything ready..
Each forge had been assigned a clerk to document their quotas and payment, with a specially hired smith rounding the forges at random to inspect the quality of the items being produced. His master’s forge had been chiefly responsible for producing the link mechanisms, axles and studs for carts, thin metal struts for coopers to use in barrel making and the manufacture of small hammers, drills and other essential campaign equipment.
Once the preparation had been completed they had packed up their equipment and been assigned to a baggage train that was travelling on a small ship behind the advance party of warriors. Crossing the channel had been an adventure in itself for all the younger men, most of whom had never left their villages more than once or twice in their lives.
As well as the King, the invaders were commanded by the Dukes Gloucester and York, Earls Huntingdon, Oxford and Dorset, and Sirs Umfraville and Cornwall. Those men were true celebrities among the lower echelons of the campaign, who had previously had little to no contact with nobility of any sort. James hadn’t mixed much with the soldiers, but the impression he got when he was around them was that the nobles weren’t as respected as they should be. A lot of soldiers seemed against the idea of campaigning at all, if only privately and in small groups. For the most part though, the mood had been strong and morale high, with most of the real workers being too busy to be scared. There was always a horse with a thrown shoe, or a cart with a broken axle to be working on.
They landed without any resistance or opposition from the French forces on the fourteenth of August 1425 and travelled quite slowly east. The journey had been very quiet until the campaign had reached the French fortress town of Harfleurs, only three miles from the landing spot. The travel was so slow mainly due the size of the carting mechanisms used to transport the nine foot cast iron cannon artillery and stone cannonballs. The balls themselves sometimes weighed up to a quarter ton, James had no idea how much the cannons had weighed.
Harfleurs was a well defended place, and the English suffered heavy losses before it eventually surrendered. The fighting had been brutal. James had been one of the lads drafted in to help set up the artillery for the main assault on the walls. Henry had lost almost a third of his force during those preparations. The only thing that had kept James alive had been Odin.
Harfleurs had strongly fortified walls with about twenty five towers set a regular intervals along them. It was protected also by a moat and three barbicans, with adept and experienced soldiers manning them. The French had been easily able to repel the initial assault and Henry had had no choice but to rely on artillery.
The problems came during the artillery set up because the French had cannon and crossbowmen already in place. They harried Henry’s forces constantly, slaughtering hundreds before they could respond in kind. But respond they did, and however experienced and able the French defenders were, they were greatly outnumbered by Henry, and were forced to surrender. After more than three weeks of fighting, Harfleurs opened its gates and allowed Henry to take control. A condition of the surrender had been that no sacking or looting could occur, and on the surface that rule had been followed. There had been numerous ‘gifts’ made to the occupiers, in the vain hope of stemming their restlessness. Officially, the attitude was mutually peaceful, but the French in the area James was sent to stay seemed very unfriendly and resentful. James didn’t mind. He had witnessed terrible things in those weeks of fighting, and would suffer any resentment as long as he didn’t have to see any more.
With a third of his army dead, and many more wounded or suffering from dysentery, Henry had to march soon if he was to mount any kind of effective attack. He was originally intending to march on Bordeaux, but had to reconsider and eventually decided to take the best of his forces on a fast 120 mile march toward Calais. He was advised against it, but something inside him forced him on. He couldn’t be seen to have given up without a proper fight.
Administration and government of Harfleurs was left in the hands of the Earl of Dorset, along with about fifteen hundred soldiers and archers. The artillery and baggage train were left behind, along with James’ master and numerous other craftsmen. His master had been wounded during the siege, so the running of the smithy he had been put in charge of in Harfleurs was seen to by James and some of the older apprentices.
Henry and his forces had gone on to fight at Agincourt, and cut the heads off of most of the French ruling families. Before his return to England, Henry had stopped at Harfleurs to revitalise his forces, and James had relinquished the running of the forge and returned as well. James completed his apprenticeship and remained with the army as a smith, using his saved earnings to acquire and run the forge in Sutton. He had had no problems finding a village to settle in, because of his involvement with Harfleurs. In most people’s minds that meant that he had fought at Agincourt, which had become a legendary battle by that time.
James met Catherine before he had moved to Sutton, while he had been travelling back to his parent’s home from London. She was the daughter of the innkeeper, and had had plenty of spirit. James fell in love with her immediately, and was quite surprised that she reciprocated. They married and Berry was born soon afterwards.
It had been around the time Berry was born that the attacks had started. James had always had his special power to protect him, and it had proved so effective during his youth and during his time with the army that he had forgotten about the overhanging threat entirely.
The closest he had ever come to being killed had been at Harfleurs, during that nightmarish artillery preparation. The strange force that protected him had always existed, but he’d had to keep it secret because of the attitude of the church-goers in his village. If they had known about it he would probably have been banished or somebody would have attempted to murder him in his sleep. The power had always been there to save him from harm, but he had rarely been in any real mortal danger.
It wasn’t until Harfleurs that the strange force had needed to work hard, and that had been the time when Odin had appeared.
James and his little group had been ordered to wheel a cannon into a forward position, under a rain of deadly crossbow fire. About fifteen other groups had met a screaming death on the same route, and the boys, James the oldest among them at fourteen, were terrified. He remembered one boy, who couldn’t have been much more than nine, screeching for his mother and wetting himself. James had understood the feeling. They had had minimal cover behind some brush for the first hundred yards, but there was a mad dash of thirty yards that had been completely open.
The worst part had been having to creep past the already dead and dying boys, hearing their moans, and stopping the heavy cannon from slipping in the mud made wet by their blood. It had made him sick.
When they had reached the open area, one boy, his face streaming with tears, turned and bolted back to the camp. The others had watched him go in silence. The same thought was running across all of their minds. The boy didn’t return, and it began to rain.
James set back to the cannon, and the rest followed suit. They wheeled it slowly out from behind the scrub, and James could see soldiers up on top of the wall taking aim. He lowered his head, ’Keep moving!’ he shouted to the rest of the lads, and the first arrow whistled past them.
Immediately James felt the power inside him come to life. Crossbow bolts thudded all around, and one of the boys screamed. The rain started coming down hard, and the boy crumpled to the ground. James felt the power bind itself around him. ’Get close to me!’ he shouted, and jumped behind the cannon.
James had never been in such a dangerous situation in his life. His fear that night was what had called out large warrior god ,Odin, who, with the aid of his two hounds, Freki and Geri, beat back the volley of crossbow bolts and slew the French soldiers on top of the wall.
Mounted on his hellish steed, Sleipnir, Odin leapt onto the assaulting soldiers and trampled, stabbed and crushed his bloody way through them. The boys watched in amazement as the French soldiers died, unable to see the nightmare figure and his creatures. Odin was visible only to James, and James knew exactly who it was that he was seeing.
As a boy, James’ grandfather had told him stories of the Viking warriors from the north, and their gods. The gods were strong and powerful, and James used to love to hear tales of their adventures by the fire at night, once the farm had settled down.
The gods were called the Aesir, and Odin was chief among them. He was the god of War and Death, but also of Poetry and Wisdom. He was father to many other gods, whom he ruled from his hall, Valaskjalf, in the domain of Asgard. Valaskjalf meant ‘shelf of the slain’, and it was from there that Odin viewed all that happened in the nine worlds. He received tidings from his two Ravens Muninn and Huginn, and was able to order the dead to provide him information on any subject he required.
His dread-mount, Sleipnir, could trample any foe with it’s eight massive hooves, and carried Odin into every battle unquestioningly. Sleipnir was not immortal, but had never been harmed, and some said that he himself was a god.
Odin wielded the mighty spear, Gungnir, which never missed it’s target, and wore the magical ring Draupnir, that give birth to eight new rings every ninth night, providing Odin with incomparable wealth. Odin’s two hounds, Freki and Geri, served Odin gladly, dining each day on all of his food. Odin himself consumed only wine, symbolising his ability to live on the death of his foes.
Odin had only one eye, that he kept covered with a helmet, as it blazed and blinded like the sun. It was said that his eye, if revealed, could see into your soul and your thoughts. His other eye he had once traded for a drink from the well of wisdom, which provided him with his immense knowledge.
Odin waits to greet the soul of every slain warrior in Valhalla, and it is said that one day, when the final battle comes, Odin himself will be slain by the wolf lord Fenrir. When this occurs, Odin will leave the nine worlds with his army of the dead, and carve new worlds out of areas of the universe known only to him.
James would never forget those stories. He watched, awestruck, as the mighty god defended him and his oblivious companions, and listened, gladly, to the screams of his enemies in the distance.
The terrifying figure had appeared swiftly, and once his job was finished, he disappeared again effortlessly. Leaving only the sullied twilight and rain.
The chaos of thought had threatened to overwhelm him. He had sat, immobile, when one of the other lads said ‘Come on James,’ and started trying to shift the cannon. The darkness was rolling in. James had never liked the rain. He stood up.
‘Right!’ he shouted ‘Let’s shift this and piss off!’ They got the cannon into position and no French soldiers appeared at the walls. As they had headed back, James had resolved not to mention what had happened to anyone. He didn’t know if the others had seen the god or not, but none of them seemed to be talking about the event like they had. They all seemed to think that the soldiers had been dying on their own, or had been slain from behind. When they returned to camp, no-one would believe their story anyway.
James had kept his secret from everyone but Catherine. She had never truly believed him, but she loved him, and accepted that his experiences must have caused a little madness.
Berry believed him, but she had been through it and seen for herself. James didn’t understand why she had been able to see what other people could not. But in a way, he had been glad. Perhaps he could stop her from having to suffer as he had.
The forge was searing now, and it would soon be over. James didn’t feel any fear as his eyes began to droop. He had known fear, and what he was seeking now was release, the coward’s way. He knew that this would be a sleep he would never wake from, and so did Odin.
He drew a rasping breath to speak. ‘What did you think you would do? You can’t go against my wishes.’
‘I know. If I did I would cease to be.’ Said the god.
‘Will you survive this?’ asked James.
‘Yes I will, in one form or another. Though I will miss this manifestation. You truly understand power.’ The man-god sounded very low, and his face was turned toward Freki and Geri. He looked over at James, expecting another question, but the man had already fallen asleep. A combination of the heat and lack of air would dehydrate James and suck all the life out of him before the night ended.
Odin stayed by his side until he felt the life pass away, and with it, his connection to the material world. He would grieve for James, as long as he could, knowing that soon his comprehension of grief and loss would dissipate with the rest of his mind. He had not spent long in this hard combination of forms, but had learnt more during that brief time than the pool of mental energy from which he came could in hundreds of lifetimes. The thin cord of mortality gave clarity to the world, focusing and honing every thought and action. Life was better when it was finite, because it mattered so much more.
The power that was Odin, Freki, Geri, Sleipnir, Muninn, Huginn, Draupnir, Gungnir and all their history would only stay woven into that form for a short time. It was long enough.
James had been a warrior to his core, and had been slain by the hardest enemy of them all.
He would cause a lot of by taking his own life, but he had followed his heart to the end.
As Odin left the blistering forge behind, he soon began to feel the cleansing tide of heaven. He was looking forward to relinquishing his role as protector, and welcomed the wash of souls and thought as his corporeal body began to break apart. The night sky welcomed him like a brother, the stars his parents. He sped towards them with all haste, anxious about reclaiming his immortality, but keen to see what would become of James’ daughter and his bloodline, wondering all the time how long it would be before he was called into service again…