The Valor of Cappen Varra

by Poul Anderson

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: We have said that there are many and strange shadows, memories surviving from dim pasts, in this FANTASTIC UNIVERSE of ours. Poul Anderson turns to a legend from the Northern countries, countries where even today the pagan past seems only like yesterday, and tells the story of Cappen Varra, who came to Norren a long, long time ago.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

“Let little Cappen go,” they
shouted. “Maybe he can sing
the trolls to sleep--”

The wind came from the north with sleet on its back. Raw shuddering gusts whipped the sea till the ship lurched and men felt driven spindrift stinging their faces. Beyond the rail there was winter night, a moving blackness where the waves rushed and clamored; straining into the great dark, men sensed only the bitter salt of sea-scud, the nettle of sleet and the lash of wind.

Cappen lost his footing as the ship heaved beneath him, his hands were yanked from the icy rail and he went stumbling to the deck. The bilge water was new coldness on his drenched clothes. He struggled back to his feet, leaning on a rower’s bench and wishing miserably that his quaking stomach had more to lose. But he had already chucked his share of stockfish and hardtack, to the laughter of Svearek’s men, when the gale started.

Numb fingers groped anxiously for the harp on his back. It still seemed intact in its leather case. He didn’t care about the sodden wadmal breeks and tunic that hung around his skin. The sooner they rotted off him, the better. The thought of the silks and linens of Croy was a sigh in him.

Why had he come to Norren?

A gigantic form, vague in the whistling dark, loomed beside him and gave him a steadying hand. He could barely hear the blond giant’s bull tones: “Ha, easy there, lad. Methinks the sea horse road is too rough for yer feet.”

“Ulp,” said Cappen. His slim body huddled on the bench, too miserable to care. The sleet pattered against his shoulders and the spray congealed in his red hair.

Torbek of Norren squinted into the night. It made his leathery face a mesh of wrinkles. “A bitter feast Yolner we hold,” he said. “‘Twas a madness of the king’s, that he would guest with his brother across the water. Now the other ships are blown from us and the fire is drenched out and we lie alone in the Wolf’s Throat.”

Wind piped shrill in the rigging. Cappen could just see the longboat’s single mast reeling against the sky. The ice on the shrouds made it a pale pyramid. Ice everywhere, thick on the rails and benches, sheathing the dragon head and the carved stern-post, the ship rolling and staggering under the great march of waves, men bailing and bailing in the half-frozen bilge to keep her afloat, and too much wind for sail or oars. Yes--a cold feast!

“But then, Svearek has been strange since the troll took his daughter, three years ago,” went on Torbek. He shivered in a way the winter had not caused. “Never does he smile, and his once open hand grasps tight about the silver and his men have poor reward and no thanks. Yes, strange--” His small frost-blue eyes shifted to Cappen Varra, and the unspoken thought ran on beneath them: Strange, even, that he likes you, the wandering bard from the south. Strange, that he will have you in his hall when you cannot sing as his men would like.

Cappen did not care to defend himself. He had drifted up toward the northern barbarians with the idea that they would well reward a minstrel who could offer them something more than their own crude chants. It had been a mistake; they didn’t care for roundels or sestinas, they yawned at the thought of roses white and red under the moon of Caronne, a moon less fair than my lady’s eyes. Nor did a man of Croy have the size and strength to compel their respect; Cappen’s light blade flickered swiftly enough so that no one cared to fight him, but he lacked the power of sheer bulk. Svearek alone had enjoyed hearing him sing, but he was niggardly and his brawling thorp was an endless boredom to a man used to the courts of southern princes.

If he had but had the manhood to leave-- But he had delayed, because of a lusty peasant wench and a hope that Svearek’s coffers would open wider; and now he was dragged along over the Wolf’s Throat to a midwinter feast which would have to be celebrated on the sea.

“Had we but fire--” Torbek thrust his hands inside his cloak, trying to warm them a little. The ship rolled till she was almost on her beam ends; Torbek braced himself with practiced feet, but Cappen went into the bilge again.

He sprawled there for a while, his bruised body refusing movement. A weary sailor with a bucket glared at him through dripping hair. His shout was dim under the hoot and skirl of wind: “If ye like it so well down here, then help us bail!”

“‘Tis not yet my turn,” groaned Cappen, and got slowly up.

The wave which had nearly swamped them had put out the ship’s fire and drenched the wood beyond hope of lighting a new one. It was cold fish and sea-sodden hardtack till they saw land again--if they ever did.

As Cappen raised himself on the leeward side, he thought he saw something gleam, far out across the wrathful night. A wavering red spark-- He brushed a stiffened hand across his eyes, wondering if the madness of wind and water had struck through into his own skull. A gust of sleet hid it again. But--

He fumbled his way aft between the benches. Huddled figures cursed him wearily as he stepped on them. The ship shook herself, rolled along the edge of a boiling black trough, and slid down into it; for an instant, the white teeth of combers grinned above her rail, and Cappen waited for an end to all things. Then she mounted them again, somehow, and wallowed toward another valley.

King Svearek had the steering oar and was trying to hold the longboat into the wind. He had stood there since sundown, huge and untiring, legs braced and the bucking wood cradled in his arms. More than human he seemed, there under the icicle loom of the stern-post, his gray hair and beard rigid with ice. Beneath the horned helmet, the strong moody face turned right and left, peering into the darkness. Cappen felt smaller than usual when he approached the steersman.

He leaned close to the king, shouting against the blast of winter: “My lord, did I not see firelight?”

“Aye. I spied it an hour ago,” grunted the king. “Been trying to steer us a little closer to it.”

Cappen nodded, too sick and weary to feel reproved. “What is it?”

“Some island--there are many in this stretch of water--now shut up!”

Cappen crouched down under the rail and waited.

The lonely red gleam seemed nearer when he looked again. Svearek’s tones were lifting in a roar that hammered through the gale from end to end of the ship: “Hither! Come hither to me, all men not working!”

Slowly, they groped to him, great shadowy forms in wool and leather, bulking over Cappen like storm-gods. Svearek nodded toward the flickering glow. “One of the islands, somebody must be living there. I cannot bring the ship closer for fear of surf, but one of ye should be able to take the boat thither and fetch us fire and dry wood. Who will go?”

They peered overside, and the uneasy movement that ran among them came from more than the roll and pitch of the deck underfoot.

Beorna the Bold spoke at last, it was hardly to be heard in the noisy dark: “I never knew of men living hereabouts. It must be a lair of trolls.”

“Aye, so ... aye, they’d but eat the man we sent ... out oars, let’s away from here though it cost our lives...” The frightened mumble was low under the jeering wind.

Svearek’s face drew into a snarl. “Are ye men or puling babes? Hack yer way through them, if they be trolls, but bring me fire!”

“Even a she-troll is stronger than fifty men, my king,” cried Torbek. “Well ye know that, when the monster woman broke through our guards three years ago and bore off Hildigund.”

“Enough!” It was a scream in Svearek’s throat. “I’ll have yer craven heads for this, all of ye, if ye gang not to the isle!”

They looked at each other, the big men of Norren, and their shoulders hunched bear-like. It was Beorna who spoke it for them: “No, that ye will not. We are free housecarls, who will fight for a leader--but not for a madman.”

Cappen drew back against the rail, trying to make himself small.

“All gods turn their faces from ye!” It was more than weariness and despair which glared in Svearek’s eyes, there was something of death in them. “I’ll go myself, then!”

“No, my king. That we will not find ourselves in.”

“I am the king!”

“And we are yer housecarls, sworn to defend ye--even from yerself. Ye shall not go.”

The ship rolled again, so violently that they were all thrown to starboard. Cappen landed on Torbek, who reached up to shove him aside and then closed one huge fist on his tunic.

“Here’s our man!”

“Hi!” yelled Cappen.

Torbek hauled him roughly back to his feet. “Ye cannot row or bail yer fair share,” he growled, “nor do ye know the rigging or any skill of a sailor--’tis time ye made yerself useful!”

“Aye, aye--let little Cappen go--mayhap he can sing the trolls to sleep--” The laughter was hard and barking, edged with fear, and they all hemmed him in.

“My lord!” bleated the minstrel. “I am your guest--”

Svearek laughed unpleasantly, half crazily. “Sing them a song,” he howled. “Make a fine roun--whatever ye call it--to the troll-wife’s beauty. And bring us some fire, little man, bring us a flame less hot than the love in yer breast for yer lady!”

Teeth grinned through matted beards. Someone hauled on the rope from which the ship’s small boat trailed, dragging it close. “Go, ye scut!” A horny hand sent Cappen stumbling to the rail.

He cried out once again. An ax lifted above his head. Someone handed him his own slim sword, and for a wild moment he thought of fighting. Useless--too many of them. He buckled on the sword and spat at the men. The wind tossed it back in his face, and they raved with laughter.

Over the side! The boat rose to meet him, he landed in a heap on drenched planks and looked up into the shadowy faces of the northmen. There was a sob in his throat as he found the seat and took out the oars.

An awkward pull sent him spinning from the ship, and then the night had swallowed it and he was alone. Numbly, he bent to the task. Unless he wanted to drown, there was no place to go but the island.

He was too weary and ill to be much afraid, and such fear as he had was all of the sea. It could rise over him, gulp him down, the gray horses would gallop over him and the long weeds would wrap him when he rolled dead against some skerry. The soft vales of Caronne and the roses in Croy’s gardens seemed like a dream. There was only the roar and boom of the northern sea, hiss of sleet and spindrift, crazed scream of wind, he was alone as man had ever been and he would go down to the sharks alone.

The boat wallowed, but rode the waves better than the longship. He grew dully aware that the storm was pushing him toward the island. It was becoming visible, a deeper blackness harsh against the night.

He could not row much in the restless water, he shipped the oars and waited for the gale to capsize him and fill his mouth with the sea. And when it gurgled in his throat, what would his last thought be? Should he dwell on the lovely image of Ydris in Seilles, she of the long bright hair and the singing voice? But then there had been the tomboy laughter of dark Falkny, he could not neglect her. And there were memories of Elvanna in her castle by the lake, and Sirann of the Hundred Rings, and beauteous Vardry, and hawk-proud Lona, and-- No, he could not do justice to any of them in the little time that remained. What a pity it was!

No, wait, that unforgettable night in Nienne, the beauty which had whispered in his ear and drawn him close, the hair which had fallen like a silken tent about his cheeks ... ah, that had been the summit of his life, he would go down into darkness with her name on his lips ... But hell! What had her name been, now?

Cappen Varra, minstrel of Croy, clung to the bench and sighed.

The great hollow voice of surf lifted about him, waves sheeted across the gunwale and the boat danced in madness. Cappen groaned, huddling into the circle of his own arms and shaking with cold. Swiftly, now, the end of all sunlight and laughter, the dark and lonely road which all men must tread. _O Ilwarra of Syr, Aedra in Tholis, could I but kiss you once more--_

Stones grated under the keel. It was a shock like a sword going through him. Cappen looked unbelievingly up. The boat had drifted to land--he was alive!

It was like the sun in his breast. Weariness fell from him, and he leaped overside, not feeling the chill of the shallows. With a grunt, he heaved the boat up on the narrow strand and knotted the painter to a fang-like jut of reef.

Then he looked about him. The island was small, utterly bare, a savage loom of rock rising out of the sea that growled at its feet and streamed off its shoulders. He had come into a little cliff-walled bay, somewhat sheltered from the wind. He was here!

For a moment he stood, running through all he had learned about the trolls which infested these northlands. Hideous and soulless dwellers underground, they knew not old age; a sword could hew them asunder, but before it reached their deep-seated life, their unhuman strength had plucked a man apart. Then they ate him--

Small wonder the northmen feared them. Cappen threw back his head and laughed. He had once done a service for a mighty wizard in the south, and his reward hung about his neck, a small silver amulet. The wizard had told him that no supernatural being could harm anyone who carried a piece of silver.

The northmen said that a troll was powerless against a man who was not afraid; but, of course, only to see one was to feel the heart turn to ice. They did not know the value of silver, it seemed--odd that they shouldn’t, but they did not. Because Cappen Varra did, he had no reason to be afraid; therefore he was doubly safe, and it was but a matter of talking the troll into giving him some fire. If indeed there was a troll here, and not some harmless fisherman.

He whistled gaily, wrung some of the water from his cloak and ruddy hair, and started along the beach. In the sleety gloom, he could just see a hewn-out path winding up one of the cliffs and he set his feet on it.

At the top of the path, the wind ripped his whistling from his lips. He hunched his back against it and walked faster, swearing as he stumbled on hidden rocks. The ice-sheathed ground was slippery underfoot, and the cold bit like a knife.

Rounding a crag, he saw redness glow in the face of a steep bluff. A cave mouth, a fire within--he hastened his steps, hungering for warmth, until he stood in the entrance.

Who comes?

It was a hoarse bass cry that rang and boomed between walls of rock; there was ice and horror in it, for a moment Cappen’s heart stumbled. Then he remembered the amulet and strode boldly inside.

“Good evening, mother,” he said cheerily.

The cave widened out into a stony hugeness that gaped with tunnels leading further underground. The rough, soot-blackened walls were hung with plundered silks and cloth-of-gold, gone ragged with age and damp; the floor was strewn with stinking rushes, and gnawed bones were heaped in disorder. Cappen saw the skulls of men among them. In the center of the room, a great fire leaped and blazed, throwing billows of heat against him; some of its smoke went up a hole in the roof, the rest stung his eyes to watering and he sneezed.

The troll-wife crouched on the floor, snarling at him. She was quite the most hideous thing Cappen had ever seen: nearly as tall as he, she was twice as broad and thick, and the knotted arms hung down past bowed knees till their clawed fingers brushed the ground. Her head was beast-like, almost split in half by the tusked mouth, the eyes wells of darkness, the nose an ell long; her hairless skin was green and cold, moving on her bones. A tattered shift covered some of her monstrousness, but she was still a nightmare.

“Ho-ho, ho-ho!” Her laughter roared out, hungry and hollow as the surf around the island. Slowly, she shuffled closer. “So my dinner comes walking in to greet me, ho, ho, ho! Welcome, sweet flesh, welcome, good marrow-filled bones, come in and be warmed.”

“Why, thank you, good mother.” Cappen shucked his cloak and grinning at her through the smoke. He felt his clothes steaming already. “I love you too.”

Over her shoulder, he suddenly saw the girl. She was huddled in a corner, wrapped in fear, but the eyes that watched him were as blue as the skies over Caronne. The ragged dress did not hide the gentle curves of her body, nor did the tear-streaked grime spoil the lilt of her face. “Why, ‘tis springtime in here,” cried Cappen, “and Primavera herself is strewing flowers of love.”

“What are you talking about, crazy man?” rumbled the troll-wife. She turned to the girl. “Heap the fire, Hildigund, and set up the roasting spit. Tonight I feast!”

“Truly I see heaven in female form before me,” said Cappen.

The troll scratched her misshapen head.

“You must surely be from far away, moonstruck man,” she said.

“Aye, from golden Croy am I wandered, drawn over dolorous seas and empty wild lands by the fame of loveliness waiting here; and now that I have seen you, my life is full.” Cappen was looking at the girl as he spoke, but he hoped the troll might take it as aimed her way.

“It will be fuller,” grinned the monster. “Stuffed with hot coals while yet you live.” She glanced back at the girl. “What, are you not working yet, you lazy tub of lard? Set up the spit, I said!”

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