The dank forest was flooded with foreboding in the dark before dawn, but Ulf, son of Alf, son of Wulf, fearlessly delved deeper and deeper into the wood, slipping wraithlike through the soupy morning mist. A ferocity had been loosed in the forest by the Elders and Ulf was tasked to defeat the creature and win the trophy it carried, unarmed and alone. The beast was raised for the singular purpose of meeting the boy in battle, as doomed Ulf was to this day. This, a gruelling test of his manhood alone, was but the first of three trials he would face on this day. Triumph would propel Ulf from a boy to a man, allowed to forge his honour in battle and, gods willing, die with glory. Failure was unthinkable; he would be consigned to a year of the worst of the women’s work. Ulf shuddered as he thought of the piles of odorous loin cloths he would have to scrub should he forfeit and, worse, the pitiless scorn of his brethren. Each day would be a death. Ulf continued into the wood with a strengthened resolve.
As the morning sun’s weak hay tinted rays needled between the thick tree trunks, he at last sighted the beast. It was a boar of such stature that to call it pig was as to call Mjöllnir a hammer. More monstrous than he’d imagined, it bristled and rippled with thick slabs of muscle. A hawser of saliva drooled from its mouth and spattered on the ground. It snuffed and grubbed in the mossy muck with its muscular snout, oblivious to all except the beetles and worms that it rooted up and crunched in its cavernous maw. Ulf crouched low, working his way in a wide hem around the creature, manoeuvring so that the swine lay between him and the keen toothed gully. He steeled himself, uttered a prayer to Odin and began his assault. The hog heard his foe’s charge and quickened, starting and plunging into the brush. It soon found flight blocked by the deadly gulley’s drop and spun with a snort, spraying moss and twigs in a dirty crescent. The beast gave a hate bellow and fixed its pygmy eyes on his assaulter. Ulf was on it in seconds. He assailed the beast even as it worried the ground, ready to charge. His quick hands found the porky throat, and his strong arms entwined the lusty neck, pushing back the head with its gnashing, foaming jaws, fingers harrowing its fatty wattle with every mote of strength. It roared, shook its bristly head, tried to loose the strange, hairy pinion. It pushed back with its huge hocks, pulling Ulf with it, who furrowed the ground with his heels. They wrested, fused, making a slow yard to the edge of the gully. At the last moment, Ulf loosed his grip and the creature slued. One hefty hoof kicked into the void and the porker panicked. Ulf reacted instantly, setting his shoulder beneath the great pork belly and heaving the beast it onto its flank. He gripped the great gold ring protruding from the swine’s spumy nostrils and in a single mighty heave, he ripped it free. Ulf stood away, letting his deringed foe totter to its feet. It considered Ulf with a rolling eye as great globs of snotty blood slopped onto the forest floor. Ulf raised his hands to the sky and gave a great howl of victory, sending the shamed pig fled squealing into the trees. Ulf paused briefly to offer his thanks to the gods, and then headed back down the hillside towards the camp, where his second trial awaited.
Nearing the treeline, he slowed his pace, fear and doubt creeping into his mind. No amount of strength or training could prepare him for what lay ahead. This was the terrible Test of Will. He had heard tales of men being driven mad, clawing out their eyes and beating in their own skulls with rocks to escape the torment. A cold sweat formed between his shoulder blades, and a finger of icy terror poked him in the belly. He thought of his mother’s words to him the night before.
“Ulf, when you enter the second trial, let your soul fly free like Odin’s ravens. If any scrap of your mind remains within your body, the terror will take hold of it and shake it like a dog with a rag. It will eat you from the inside out until it has consumed the very soul of you, and there will be no option to end your life in despair. I will not lie to you son. This will be the hardest thing you have ever done, and no man escapes without damage. But, should you pass this test, fear will never have hold of you, for you will have looked into the darkest corner of Hel and clung onto life. Survive this trial and you will have conquered death itself.”
Ulf walked into the camp, where the men of the village awaited him. He handed the pig ring to Mord, who took it with the slightest of nods. He walked past his younger brothers, who would not meet his eyes, who stared at their feet and shuffled awkwardly. He walked past Magnus and Harald, the strongest of the Vikings and his trainers in the art of combat. He walked past Olaf and Leif, the most magnificent of all the hunters. At last he arrived at the end of the line. Before him stood the tent where the trial would take place, its heavy black canvas adorned with powerful runes to bind the evil that lay within. His father and Jarl Gunnar stood on either side of the tent entrance. Alf clasped his son to his breast in a bearlike hug then, releasing him, looked deep into his eyes. There was nothing to be said between man and boy. Ulf then nodded to Gunnar, who pulled back the thick canvas of the tent flap. Ulf stepped inside, and the entrance was then furled and bound tightly shut, sealing him in darkness.
Ulf crouched in the impenetrable darkness, feeling more alone than he ever had. Biding his mother’s advice, he sought to clear his mind of all the wretched thoughts that clamored inside his head. In the dark, with his eyes so completely shuttered, he became acutely aware of his body, of the crackling of his skin in the dusty, stifling heat of the tent. An acrid taste of musty iron welled in his mouth, burning its way down his throat as he gulped for air. His fingertips thrummed. As he sat there, he became aware of the sound of waves of blood surging in and out of his temples. His ears became as sensitive as a wolf’s, every detail of each dry breath revealed in inglorious detail. Steadily he became aware that he was not alone. The rasp of a calloused hand on polished wood. The subtle, but unmistakable twang of tightening cat gut. A thousand ants crawled at once over Ulf’s skin. Then, a voice came out of the darkness, at once low and scratchy and squeaky and cracked. It was a nightmare made sound. This was the voice of Skald the Bald, the singer of songs, player of the lyre and the bringer of damnation to men’s souls. Every younger was warned that, if they misbehaved, the Skald would appear in their dreams and sing one of his epics into their ear while they slept. By morning the child’s brain would be as scrambled and rotten as a bucket of old fish guts. The Skald was the clan’s ultimate weapon, and was feared by their enemies more than any warrior. However, his awful power was a two headed axe, as he insisted on practicing his art at the feast table. By the rule, any time he opened his mouth with lyre in hand the nearest Viking must, on pain of death, pour as much mead down his gullet as was possible. By the time he was able to utter a note, he was always so drunk that his words were incomprehensible and his playing even sporadically enjoyable. But here he was now, sober as a newborn, and ready to spring forth with an epic so long and harrowing that it would not cease for 6 dreadful hours. His bony fingers plucked the first note and Ulf split the air with the first of many long and terrible screams.
Darkness had fallen when the tent flaps were finally untied. All was silent around the camp as Magnus pulled Ulf from the tent. His body was curled into a foetal ball. His fingernails were cracked and bleeding where he had clawed at the canvas in an attempt to escape. Olaf tenderly plucked the stones out of the side of the boy’s head where he had jammed them and Leif cleaned the sweat, dirt and blood from his face, creased into an expression of ultimate torment. The trial seemed to have physically aged him. They shook their heads. It was a terrible test for even the most wall willed Vikings, and there was no shame in succumbing. They called out to Ulf’s father to come to grieve his son. At that moment, Ulf stirred, his eyes, gummed together with blood and tears. Magnus was the first to notice it, and gave a great shout. Within moments, the whole camp was in uproar. Every Viking, man, woman and child rushed to gather around the boy. Olaf moved them back as Alf cradled his son’s head. Ulf’s eyes opened and he looked up at his father. His cracked lips parted and he spoke in a thin whisper. Alf bent his head to hear what his boy was saying. He nodded, and then addressed at the assembled crowd, his eyes shining with pride. ”By Odin’s beard, will someone get this man a drink!”
The third trial was not so much a trial as a celebration. However, it was still a mighty test. This was the Test of Heart, better known as a drinking competition. Ulf was to go head to head with Grunth the Sober for ten ever more alcoholic rounds. Grunth was a viking so accomplished in the art of the mead that he guzzled fifteen horns before breakfast each and every day. It was said that he was so used to seeing double that his eyes now worked independently of each other. One year he set fire to himself when he took a piss too close to a fire and his urine ignited. This was a Viking that even the most hardened of drinkers considered to be a bit too fond of the booze. His moniker was due to the fact that no-one had ever seen him drunk, as invariably they passed out first. Ulf seated himself opposite Grunth, and offered him his hand. Grunth vigorously clasped the air a foot to the right of it. He had no such trouble finding the first horn of mead, and so it began.
It was testament to Ulf’s strength that several hours later he was still able to manage something that could loosely be described as walking, and even then he had fallen over seventeen times in the thirty yards from the longhouse. After the fifth round, the other Vikings couldn’t resist joining in, and the celebrations had begun in ernest. Ulf picked himself off the ground for the eighteenth time and looked around. It was a miracle that he hadn’t spilt a drop from the mead horn he clutched. Everything looked familiar, but it all seemed to be a bit backward, so he concluded that he must be lost. He closed one eye, which improved matters slightly. He then tilted his head back, fell over, picked himself up, tilted his head back more slowly and scented the air. The latest in a line of a great fisherman, Ulf had been born with a special gift. His olfactory sense was so finely tuned to the smell of fish guts that he could tell identify species with only a brief whiff of innards. He was so skilled he could track fish in open water by smell alone. In times to come, epic sagas would be told of his fantastic fish locating skills, but for now, he needed to locate his home. Inhaling a damp lungful of the night air, he recognised the distinctive odour of his cabin on the seashore, wafting through the thicket of firs. He set off towards it, weaving his way around the piles of animal bones, the scruffy, sleeping dogs and the snoring, grunting heaps of his comatose brethren, lying hither and thither, wherever they finally collapsed. At the mouth of the clearing, Ulf paused to catch his breath against a tree, his face mushed against its rough bark. He hiccuped loudly, vomited noisily down his front, wiped his chin with a grubby sleeve, took a gulp of mead and then set off once more.
In more capable times, the walk would’ve taken less than half an hour, but it was three hours before Ulf finally crawled out of the woods. Somehow he had lost one of his boots and he appeared to have a small thicket growing out of one side of his matted hair. He rolled down a bank, coming to rest in the damp sand, where he sat for a while, his head throbbing in counterpoint to the slushing waves. The sea wind, thick with daggers of salty ice, lashed his face. He wasn’t bothered by the cold, but the wet air seemed to be sobering him up and Ulf wasn’t convinced this was an improvement. He frowned at his unacceptably empty mead horn. He foggily remembered a small barrel of cider hidden under the bed, and a bit of pickled fish in the larder. Both of these things sounded like a good idea. Ulf hauled himself unsteadily to his feet and meandered down towards the cabin. As he approached it he noticed something strange. The door was slightly ajar and a weak light moved around inside. It couldn’t be any of his family, as the last he saw of them they had passed out in a heap after dunking each other repeatedly in a barrel of some foul smelling booze that Grunth had stashed behind his cabin for a special occasion. Ulf checked his belt and cursed. He had left his axe in the village and his fish knife was missing, presumably lost somewhere in the woods. Ulf decided that the only course of action was to storm the cabin and use the element of surprise to overcome the interloper. He began to run down the path, picking up speed as he went. He flew over the loosely packed dirt path, his feet spraying up clods of wet mud. It was now that Ulf realised that he only had one boot on, as he speared his foot repeatedly on the sharp stones littering the way. As he neared the door, hopping and swearing, he dropped his head, aiming to charge the intruder like a wild boar. As he did so, his bare foot came squelching down into a bowl of slimy fish heads that he’d left out for the dog and Ulf became airborne. Flailing his arms, he flew through the air like a crazed and filthy sea bird before crashing headfirst into the door frame. He slopped into the mud, groaned and rolled over. What a brutal pig, a crazed bard and a wagon full of alcohol had not managed, a bowl of fish heads and a doorframe had conspired to accomplish. As his vision blurred and whirled, Ulf felt himself finally succumbing to unconsciousness. As the lights winked out above him, he was surprised to see the dark mass of a giant raven peering down at him. Its great oily wings unfurled about him, and soon everything went black.