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~ Heathen Stories and New Myths ~

 

The Wooden Sword
A Yuletide Tale

In ages past there was a boy of eight winters named Burl who was the son of Ivor. Burl's father was a farmer of middling status; certainly no rich man but not poor either. It was Yuletide, and as a present Ivor had carved Burl a small wooden sword which was his supreme delight. It was of sturdy oak and had fine whorls carved on its hilt. It was balanced like a true blade, and indeed no better present could be had by a boy who longed one day to be a great warrior and stand at the side of mighty kings. Burl loved the sword and had already spent days among the snowy fields, leading imaginary warriors into battle with himself at their head with his great weapon. The giants who had fallen at his wooden sword's point were second only to the number of fell beasts from Iron Wood that had shared their fate.
It was the day before the last night of Yule and Burl's father was eyeing the fare for the winter feast. This year they had planned to kill one of the pigs to make a fine Yuletide feast. But the beast had not fared well over the winter and had become ill early on. Thus by Yuletide it had lost much weight. And though it would likely survive the winter Burl's father was in no mind to have a sparse feast at Yule.
"This boar is too lean to be a befitting feast," said Burl's father, "we are no paupers and deserve a full plate. I think I will go to the village and buy us a boar befitting such a good year."

Burl's giant foe crashed to the ground with a deft flick of oaken fury at this remark and he turned to his father, gazed him full in the face and cast a look that asked a question upon the hearts of all arborially beweaponed children. A Quest?!
Ivor was a very good father.
"But my knees ache from this cold," he said as he showily leaned over to rub a kneee that wasn't sore, "Burl, will you go to the village and bring us back a fitting beast?"
"Of course father," announced Burl with a flick of his blade and a rising of heart, " I will undertake this task."
"Good," said Ivor as he retreated to a side room. When he came back he held out his palm, and in it were five silver pennies. "Take this silver and bring us back a fine beast, that we may have a true feast this Yuletide season."
Burl beamed mightily and took the silver coins as if he were being handed a golden crown. He charged for the door in a rush of excitement and was expertly snared by his mother who made sure that her overly eager little warrior was well armored against the cold with good boots and warm coat before he dashed out on his great quest. At length and without too much fuss Burl was out of the house and racing across the snowy fields with his father's final cry of "Try not to let that swineherd swindle you!" receding in the distance.

Burl followed the short forest track from his home to the roadway to the nearby village and continued to dash until his legs and heaving lungs reminded him that he was no steed and warrior in one, and would need to pace himself. He slowed his pace and took a moment to slay a menacing beast that had been following him with his wooden sword. Onward he went until he saw another person coming towards him along the road, well wrapped against the cold with a cloak trimmed in brown fur. Burl could not make out who it was as the hood was pulled low over the figure's face, but Burl could see it was not a grown man as the figure was too short. Burl put his wooden sword at his side and walked on. As they drew nearer the figure's head lifted up. "Hel's bedhangings," said Burl.
The figure on the road ahead was Vingolf, a boy from the village of nine winters and whose father was a very well off trader. Few were the times when Burl was in the village when Vingolf had failed to chide him and deride him out of the earshot of any adults. Now it was worse, for Burl was on the road alone.

Vingolf's face lit up when he recognized Burl. "Hah!" came the mocking shout, "look what I've caught on the road. It's Burl the Churl! What brings you out of your rat's hole all alone?"
Burl did not meet the derisive gaze of Vingolf but turned his eyes downward. "Leave me alone, Vingolf. I'm on my way to the village to buy some food."
Vingolf's eyes locked savagely on the tiny coinpurse attached to Burl's belt. "Buy?!... Did that whore of a mother of yours sleep with a cow of some wealth and taste for once?! Or did your father manage to rob a wealthy fence post?"
Burl's fist clenched tight about his wooden sword. "Leave me be!," he shouted as he made a move to get by Vingolf.
The older boy sidestepped to block his path "Ohhh going somewhere Churl? I think what's in that coinpurse should go to better use than to help that collection of dung balls you call a family. Don't you think?"
Burls thoughts went to his wooden sword and he raised it slightly from where it rested at his side. As if Vingolf had felt the intention he reached down before Burl could react, grabbed the wooden sword above the hilt and sent his knee into Burl's stomach, breaking his grip on the wooden sword and knocking him to the ground.

"Ha ha ha ha ha!" came the mocking laughter on curling wisps of steam puffing from Vingolf's mouth. Burl sat up and closed his eyes forcing air back into his lungs from which it had just been kocked out. He looked up to see Vingolf 's legs take several hasty steps backward. Anger came up over Burl, and his fists balled up. He would show Vingolf that younger did not mean weaker. He hoisted himself to his feet quickly, intending to charge Vingolf and tackle him, but as he rose his eyes met a sight of unmitigated horror. Vingolf stood next to a solid tree, the wooden sword held high and to the side, such that the flat of the blade would hit anything which it might be swung at. With a motion ever so simple Vingolf could easily break his cherished Yuletide present, and the mocking look in his eye said he would.
"Planning on using your stupid stick on me were you, Churl? I bet this was the best present your cross eyed father could manage. How many fingers did he loose in carving it? You couldn't even come close to affording this fur lined cloak my father got me.", said Vingolf evenly and cruelly. "I'll tell you what Churl. I'll give you this stick back when that little coin purse lies at my feet. How bout that?"
Burl's gaze dropped to the ground. He was agonized. If he lost the money his father would be angry, but to lose his prized sword, nonetheless, to have his loved Yuletide present broken broken by this bully? In his mind's eye he could already see the two halves of his father's present lying at the base of the tree. A beautifully carved hilt with delicate whorls lying just below a mass of fine splinters. 
Burl reached to his belt and tossed the coin purse on top of the snow at Vingolf's feet.

Vingolf chuckled, "You really want this ugly stick, don't you, Churl? Ha ha ha ha..... well...." Vingolf raised the wooden sword high and swung it down sharply, tossing it across the road where it flew into a snow filled ditch. Burl dashed after the wooden sword, relieved that Vingolf had not shattered it against the tree, but still fearing greatly that it might be damaged. For Burl knew that the ditch at the roadside was lined with sharp rocks. Pausing to examine the hole in the snow where the wooden sword had been thrown, Burl did not notice or care about the whereabouts of Vingolf until he was roughly shoved headlong into the ditch. He felt something hard and wooden below him as he fell, but he was falling on it much too hard, much too fast, and the rocks beneath him....

"Thanks for the coins, Churl!" was the last sound the wind carried to Burl as he pulled himself out of the ditch, in time to catch a glimpse of Vingolf as the older boy dashed down the road. Fighting back anger, sadness, and the pain of several small cuts on his hands and face from the fall, he stooped in the snow and began to search for his prized wooden sword. It took him some time as his hand were numb till finally, with frozen fingers, he drew forth his father's Yuletide present. It was whole and undamaged, or so Burl thought for brief instant before turning it over. A rock had scored a long and ugly gouge up the blade at an odd angle. The scar was quite deep. To Burl this gouge may as well have been a mortal wound. The unblemished perfection of his warrior's weapon was marred horriibly and permanently by his fiendish peer. His father's Yuletide present had been shamed and desecrated. Burl's eyes welled up even though no tears met his face and a choked sob arose in his throat. He stood there in the cold for many long minutes, staring at the great gaping blemish upon his present as if it were a wound oozing the wooden sword's own blood. His heart welled with fury and anger, and it was then that he made a great mistake. He spoke out with all the hate steaming in his heart: "If my sword were steel, I would kill Vingolf for this."

The wind shifted suddenly and went flat, the birds ceased their chirping, and the cold of the snow that covered the road hung bitter in the air, perfectly still.
"Did I hear you right?" came a croaking voice from nowhere. "Did you say you would kill Vingolf, if only your sword were made of steel?"
Burl looked around but could see little through his water-misted eyes. He snuffled and looked again. In the shadow of a large Ash tree sat a hunched figure, very short and with a dirty brown cloak, holed and patched, pulled close about it. The figure began to look up, but Burl dropped his gaze immediately, not wishing to meet what he knew would be unsavory eyes.
 "Yes." said Burl, "He never would have grabbed it if it were real. He'd have cut himself and then I would have stabbed him." The long scar on the formerly perfect wooden sword screamed for vengeance.
"You look like a very wronged boy" said the figure in a voice that sounded like rust flaking off a scythe, "for a price I will turn your wooden sword into the finest steel so that you can have your revenge."
"Price?" said Burl looking up slightly but still not meeting the little troll's gaze. He could see grey wisps of a long thin beard and the grey mottled flesh of a hand not covered by the troll's cloak.
"All I ask is that you enjoy what I will grant you to the fullest," cackled the figure.
"Done," said Burl his thoughts suddenly horribly gleeful.
"Close your eyes!", said the troll.

It was not hard, since Burl was looking at the troll's feet and midsection anyhow, and he shut his eyes tightly. He had the briefest sensation as if someone were pulling a hood of spider silk over his head, and suddenly for no reason, his rump seemed quite cold. But then he heard the sound of sharpening steel and felt a vibration along the blade of his sword. He opened his eyes and saw again the hutched figure of the troll in the shadow of the Elm tree he had been sitting under. Burl blinked, for he thought it had been an Ash tree under which the troll sat, but decided he had been mistaken. What mattered was his wooden sword. It was wooden no longer. It was steel with a hilt of burnished gold. A great amythest sparkled from the center of its hilt. Now this was the sword of a legendary hero, thought Burl as he swished it through the air. As the blade turned over though his hands Burl, saw that great angry scar across the blade caused by Vingolf with his cruel chiding and thievery. That long scar flared Burl's anger anew. The sword's edge was sharp as a briar thorn and Burl's dark thoughts blossomed before him.
"Go now," croaked the troll "and enjoy my present to you." Burl raced off in the direction that Vingolf had gone. The sound of coughing laughter followed him.

Burl raced along the path, his blood hot and his mind full of hate. But even amidst the fire of his purpose the cold sensation in his rump stayed and had begun to spread to the back of his legs. Burl discounted it and kept moving. Vingolf had put a fair amount of distance between them in the time that Burl had spent looking for and anguishing over his scarred present as well as speaking to the troll. But he soon saw a figure before him, light chuckles still dancing on its lips. Vingolf walked casually on the road, his hands thumbing through the purse he had ransomed for a boy's Yule present. The grey fur of his cape.... grey..? Burl thought it had been brown fur in the cape that Vingolf's well off father had bought him. No matter. Burl stood for a moment pondering his victim, his feet going inexplicably numb despite his warm boots. Vingolf tossed the purse arrogantly in the air and caught it with a deft swipe of his hand.

Burl raised his sword, ignoring the stinging pain in his rump, the back of his legs and the numbness that was rapidly creeping up his spine and into his arms. He screamed and charged. Vingolf spun and stood in wide eyed amazement. Burl was no great swordsman, but for some reason he swung his sword low and then straight up, inflicting a most horrifying wound on Vingolf. Blood spattered on Burl's face which he did not feel from the numbness that was spreading there. Vingolf wavered as he stood, cut from stomach to sternum, and the results of such a wound dropping into the snow below. Burl brought the sword around again and scored another wound on Vingolf, tearing through his flesh like a whetted scythe cutting a leaf. Burl struck again and again; the surrounding snow became red and steamed. When Burl emerged from his fury, his legs, back and arms were all singing in stinging pain and the rest of him was without feeling. He then looked at the result of what he had done. Burl had never seen a human being after the worst of the savagery of war and battle had met him. The wooden sword dropped clanging to the ground as Burl saw the horror of what he had done. He could only stare at the ruined focus of his anger and vengance as prickling pain advanced on every part of his body. The snow turned to blood as Burl crumbled to his knees, tears streaming freely from his eyes as he viewed the cost of such hate. He toppled over into the snow as his eyes closed he wished he could just slip away.... that the darkness behind his eyelids would just reach out and take him away.... that it would come and take .... him ... awa...

"BOY!!" cried a voice loud as thunder itself. Burl's eyes rolled over. He could see no one around, and yet the word still rang in his ears. His eyes would not stay open and began to close again for the last time. Suddenly he felt a brushing across his face. The world spun as if he had a bag over his head which someone was tearing away. He saw a great palm of a hand draw away from his face balling into a fist and clutching something that looked like an icy spiderweb. His bleary eyes followed the hand to an arm that was muscled like no other being's on Midgard. Attached to the massive arm was a huge warrior with a great red beard that shone like fire in the midday sun. As the warrior cast the spidery film away from his hand with a look of disgust, Burl tried to stand but found he could not move. His limbs were near frozen to him, and his hands held frozen immobile around his wooden sword which was clutched tighly and unmoving to his chest, the scar on its blade now seeming much smaller and shallower than he remembered. The great red-bearded warrior reached down and lifted Burl with no more effort than lifting a feather. Burl's breath came in ragged gasps which left hardly any steam at all in the cold air. The great red-bearded man gave Burl a compassionate look and reached into the front of his shirt. He drew forth from it a great hammer and Burl, fighting to keep his frosted eyes open, thought could not have fit there at all. Just as darkness began to close over Burl's vision, the massive man pressed his Hammer to Burl's chest.

A wave of heat surged through Burl such as he had never felt in all his life. It was as if the warmest fires in all the warmest homes with all the warmest blankets had closed upon him at once. He breathed deep and long and a great cloud of steam gusted through the winter air as he exhaled. His limbs promptly unseized and he could again feel the smooth oak of his wooden sword in his hands.
"There now, boy", said the gigantic man in a smooth rumbling voice. "I think you have a story to tell me of how you came to be lying in a snowy ditch by the roadside with an illusion draped over your eyes."
Burl gaped in amazement.
"It's a kind of magic," said the red-bearded man with a smile.
Burl knew to whom he spoke and began to tell his friend everything of his encounter with the troll, even about his shaming by Vingolf that had led to the whole affair, but he was interrupted.
"Why are you not looking at me, boy?" said the red-bearded man.
Burl, abashed, noticed that he was not looking his friend in the eye but rather had dropped his gaze to his feet.
"I guess I didn't want to offend you", he said plantively.
"You fear me, don't you", said the man.
"I guess I... ", stammered Burl.
"Fear shows in the eyes of those who will not meet a gaze. If your eyes do not speak your intentions and your will trembles, men will think you fear, and hold sway over you."
Burl blinked and slowly raised his eyes to meet those of his friend who returned his gaze with a kind look. Burl understood and told the tale of the troll's trickery in its entirety. Burl's friend took all of the story in and thought for a moment.
"Steel has never been kind to the flesh of men when it is hammered into blades, as I think you now well understand. This Vingolf is still a thief and must still be conquered by you, Burl. You know now what vengance is wrought of the steel you desired before. This time though you should go to meet Vingolf with strength,... true strength. I believe he is just up the road. Best leave that wooden sword with me, lest you be tempted to try and swing it again." Burl nodded and handed over his prized Yule gift, his reluctance to do so showing not a little in his motions. His friend then pointed up the road, and Burl ran off.

Surprisingly fast he caught up with Vingolf, the wind tussling the brown fur that peeked out from the lining of his fur-inlaid cloak.
"Vingolf!" shouted Burl, his gaze locked intentionally on the snow at his feet. "Give me back my coin purse!"
Burl heard Vingolf stop and turn, "Well, if it isn't Burl the Churl come back for his little pouch," said Vingolf as Burl's gaze began to rise and level. "Run back to your inbred family, you lit...." the words died in Vingolf's throat.
Burl's gaze had leveled out and locked with Vingolf's. Vingolf did not like what he saw in those eyes. Burl's breath cast a steamy mist before him, but even the subtle haze did not break the intention and consequences of what his eyes conveyed very clearly to Vingolf. Then as if to seal the pact his manner had conveyed, Burl took a single menacing step forward. With a shakey hand Vingolf drew forth the purse slowly from inside the folds of his expensive cloak. Then in a single motion he dropped the purse, turned, and ran.

Burl collected his father's five silver coins and returned to his friend just as the Sun was beginning to approach the horizon. He saw hurried movements as the massive man quickly hid a whittling knife as the boy approached.
"I see you overcame," said the man knowingly. "That is very good, I have fixed your Yule present as best I could. The mark was quite deep, but for a craftsman a scar is only something to plan around." The great red bearded man stretched forth the well wrought wooden sword of oak with the delicate whorls carved into the hilt. The great scar on the blade had been incorporated into a large rune which seemed to have a slight reddish stain on it.
"I can't thank you enough!", said Burl. "You must come have Yule feast with us tonight. Of course father will have to kill the lean boar and not have the feast he desired, but you are more than welcome."
"Well, if it's a feast you are wanting, I have two fine and trim goats which I am more than willing to contribute.... so long as you do not crack the bones for the marrow."
"That should be no problem at all", said Burl with a smile, "we have enough else for our feast as to not need any cracked bones."
"Lead on then", said Thor with a jovial rumbling voice "and as we go you can tell me more about where I might find this troll again..."

And Burl's wooden sword, an heirloom now, remained unblemished by any mark at all for many many generations.

Matthias Wilson

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