Engill the Warrior
The little village huddled on the stormy Icelandic coast had long been a home for epic stories of past glories. The gathering hall, or holl in their language, was host to many a tale on cold winters nights. But none of the stories was as welcome as that of Engill the Warrior. Unusually, for their culture, this tale was traditionally told by two people not one. The first was often the oldest person left in the village and the second was always one of the younger, often around 8 years old.
As the fire crackled in the hearth and the evening drew to a close, one of those young people, probably not wishing to go to bed just yet, would often say: “Let us hear the story of Engill the Warrior. Grandpa will you tell it?”
The oldest man in the village would smile, because they always loved this moment, before replying. “I will tell it, if you will help me.”
The young person would then snuggle up next to the old man, nestling into the thick blanket that covered him and together they would speak.
“Not long after the building of this very holl,” the older man would begin, “dark clouds were seen overhead as a storm swept in from the coast. All the village gathered in this place to huddle together for warmth and comfort and safety.”
“Not all, Grandpa,” the young person would say.
“That’s right little one,” the old man would continue, “not all. The oldest man in the village, Old Gudrun, was not there. He seldom left his little hut anymore. But he was not alone that night because Ana, his young granddaughter was by his side. She was always by his side, day and night.”
“Except to do her chores.”
“Yes little one, to do her chores.”
“And to do her studies.”
“Yes little one, and her studies.”
“And when she went to sleep.”
“Yes, little one except when she went to sleep.”
“So really, she wasn’t always by his side was she?”
“No little one,” said the Grandpa, pretending to be irritated by the girl’s interruptions, but secretly loving the interaction. “Will you let me tell the story?”
“You have to get it right Grandpa.”
“Yes, little one, I have to get it right. I am sure you will help me.” Inevitably the younger would then snuggle back into the blanket and let the older continue.
“Little Ana was by his side, as often as she could and tonight she would not have left him even to sleep. The screaming wind made wooden walls shake as in fear. Snow blew against buildings and slowly banked up against their side walls. Soon, only the roofs of huts could be seen and the high walls of the holl looked half the size.
The villagers, gathered inside the meeting place, had long since stopped worrying about themselves, as their thoughts had turned towards the old man and Ana.
“We should see how they are doing,” said Ana’s father.
“I will come,” replied his oldest son. They pulled cloaks over shoulders, grabbed a staff each and went to open the door. When they did, they were shocked by what they found.
“What did they find, Grandpa, what did they find?” Said the young girl by his side.
“Patience, little one,” the old man would say. “I will never get through this tale if you keep interrupting me.”
The younger person would snuggle in again, a little more reluctantly than before.
“They saw a huge wall of white. Snow had banked up against the holl so high that it almost covered the grand door. The only door. They tried to climb over, but it was too deep.”
“And very cold, right Grandpa? Very, very cold.”
“Yes little one, but will you please stop interrupting me.”
“Ok Grandpa,” the little one would say with a big sigh.
“The villagers realised how serious this was. Ana and Old Gudrun’s fire had long since died down and there was no way they could now get out of their hut to pick up more wood from the pile that lay outside. Whilst blankets would keep them warm for a while, they would not withstand the cold night if someone did not get to them soon.
“We need to dig ourselves out, quickly everyone,” it was the Chief. He cared deeply for all his people. “We can’t scrape all the way down to the rock, but maybe we can make enough of a path for some of our young men to crawl through with a sled and bring them back.”
They got to work, pushing snow purposefully with whatever tools and weapons they could find. The doorway was narrow so a few dug whilst the rest grouped around the fire, waiting their turn. Progress was slow. The snow was so high that even when they carved out something of a valley, the walls on either side would quickly collapse in on it. Finally one of the young men could get out and a few feet forward.
“Trample the snow down hard! Make a path! Remember it must be able to hold Gudrun and Ana as well.” The Chieftain spoke as he worked.
Just as they were breaking through, a shrill noise froze their blood.
“Aaagh!” The young girl on Grandpa’s knee would shriek so loudly that everyone jumped a little from their seats, even though they knew it was coming. “How many Grandpa?”
“First one howl, then two, then three, they realised a large pack was moving in on them.”
“Close the door!” The Chieftain yelled. Just in time. It was slammed in the face of a large muzzle with sharp teeth.
Everyone grabbed a weapon, an instinctive move. The holl was full of them.
“Shush!’ Said the chieftain, “Be still.”
Howling increased and scratching began. First one scrape, then many, as hunger driven scavengers pawed wooden walls.
“They will be at Old Gudrun’s hut too and they’ll have no fire!” Said Ana’s Father.
Everyone looked at the Chieftain. He had a reputation for thinking clearly in the mayhem of battle.
“Into groups! Older ones, spears and torches! Guard the door! Younger ones, two sleds and swords! Fight your way to the hut, we will make a way for you. Everyone else, swords and torches! Thrust fire into their faces and cut them down before they recover. Follow me close. Open the door!”
With that he grabbed a torch from the raging fire in the hearth and, with sword aloft, stormed the exit.
“Stop,” cried a child who had been standing by the wall. “Listen!”
Everyone stood still.
“Listen to what? We need to move fast!”
“Listen,” the child said again.
The howling of wind and wolf had ceased, replaced by venomous snarling. Suddenly, a swift swish. Something hurtling through the cold night air. A thud as it pierced it’s intended target. A wolf shrieked in pain. It’s final cry.
The snarling continued but quietened as the pack retreated from the holl. Swish. Thud. Shriek.
“Quick,” said the chieftain, “someone has come to fight for us!”
Running out of the door he scrambled up the snow bank followed by some of his most able warriors. They were amazed at what they saw. Strong winds had driven the storm away and cleared the sky. The bright moon shone on the buckles and helmet of a warrior stood above the snow. The bow in his hands was as deadly as the sword by his side, although his hands shook with cold. Wielding whatever weapon was necessary, wolves were scattered around him far and near.
With a war cry they tried to rush to the battle, but progress was slowed as feet sank deep. A final storm cloud took their sight. When it cleared, the warrior was gone. The only sounds were the remaining wolves whimpering back into their frozen wasteland.
“Bring the sleds,” shouted the Chieftain. Soon Old Gudrun and Ana were being warmed by the fire and the company of the hol.
“Who was that?” They asked.
“An Engill” the Chief replied. Engill meant angel in their tongue. “Engill the warrior!”
“Fill your mugs!” He continued. Jugs appeared and mugs were filled.
“Engill the Warrior!” The Chieftain declared again, raising his mug to the sky.
“Engill the Warrior!” They all shouted before thumping mugs down onto the long wooden table, with a sound like a thunderclap.
The little girl sat up on Grandpa’s lap. “Is that it Grandpa? Did Engill return? Tell us, please!”
The childish enthusiasm stirred the old man to continue.
“Yes, he came again. Two more times.”
“Tell us Grandpa, please!”
“I will tell you if you will give me the space to speak.” Once more the young would nestle into the blanket of the old.
“A few days later, still mid winter. More howling winds, but this time, a clear night. Again everyone was in the great holl.”
“Not everyone Grandpa!”
“No little one, not everyone. Gudrun was getting more frail and had again stayed in his little hut.”
“But he was not alone, was he Grandpa.”
“No little one, not alone. Who was with him?”
“Ana,” said the younger proudly. “She was always with him.”
“Not quite always” Grandpa would say with a cheeky grin. “But just as you say, she was with him again. Now stay quiet so I can finish the story.” She obeyed.
“There was eating and drinking and telling stories when, all of a sudden, they heard a great clanging sound.”
“The alarm,” said the little girl stirring again from her comfort, “the alarm from the rocks.”
“Yes,” said Grandpa, “the alarm. Again the Chieftain grabbed sword and torch and ran to the door. “To the harbour” he shouted plunging into the night. Now as you know, we don’t have much of a harbour, just a gap between sharp jagged rocks leading to a little beach. The boats had been pulled from the water for winter but, as they ran, they could see, another ship negotiating it’s way towards land.
“Raiders,” shouted the Chieftain, “up on the rocks, don’t let them ashore.”
The invaders, knowing their plan was uncovered, quickly took to oars to try and back out of the narrow inlet through which they had come. They only just made it. Large stones pummeled wooden decking, splintering wood, ripping sail and threatening to sink the ship. It limped round the cove and out to sea. They would not be back anytime soon.
“Who raised the alarm, Grandpa, who?” The young girl asked excitedly.
“That was their question too,” answered the old man. “They had not set a watch. They didn’t think trouble would come. But as they ran out of the hall, they swore that they saw, over by the rocks where the alarm bell hangs, in the light of the moon…”
“Engill the Warrior! It was, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” said the old man smiling wearily. “It was Engill, he had saved them again. And now,” he continued with a big yawn, not entirely false, “I am tired and need my sleep.”
“No, Grandpa, you can’t stop now. Engill came once more. You said so yourself.”
“So I did. But you don’t want to hear that now do you?”
“Yes, yes, of course we want to hear it. Grandpa can’t stop now, can he?” She implored her generation.
In unison they cried: “Keep going Grandpa, all the way to the end.”
“Alright,” Grandpa would say, “alright, I will tell the story to the end. Only no more interruptions!”
“Alright” said the children, “no more interruptions,” as they settled down for the final leg of the journey.
“This time it was dawn. Most of the village slept but two doors had opened to the first signs of Spring. Two women had made their way across rocks to a distant peninsula, to nets that hung in the waters overnight. From them the screams came. The cries woke those in the final stages of sleep who rushed out of their huts. What they saw chilled them deeper than the snow of the past winter. A great white bear had quietly followed the women and now stood to contend with them for the catch of fish lying at their feet. It had a lean look and one swipe of it’s giant paws could sweep both women over the rocks and into the swirling currents below.
“Help!” They cried, “Help us!”
Another sound split the morning air. “Aaaargh!!”
This was no shout for help, it was a battle cry. Across the peninsula came Engill, sword sparkling in rising sun.
“Aaaargh!” He drove at the startled bear, who whirled to face him. His sword never landed. The great claw whistled, knocking the warrior back and down among the rocks at his feet. In a great fit of rage, the bear had forgotten about the women, who left the fish and quickly scrambled to safety.
“Aaaaargh!” The same battle cry but now multiplied. The tribe rose as one and ran screaming across the rocks. Spears and stones were thrown and, whilst none really caused pain to the great beast, the onrushing wave was enough to persuade to leave. One last look of contempt at the crumpled body at its feet and it turned, picking up a mouthful of fish from the pile, before sliding into the ocean and swimming away.
They quickly gathered up the warrior and brought him to the great holl. The fire was stoked up hot as they laid him out on the great table. Taking off the helmet that covered most of his face and head they stood, silently stunned. Instead of golden hair and strong features, there were whispy white strands, all that remained of his once great mane. His face was old and wintered and weather beaten.
“Gudrun!” They gasped.
All eyes turned to the foot of the table. A broken little girl bent over a broken old man.
“Ana?” Said her Father. “You were supposed to look after him.”
She sniffed and, brushing aside tears, stood straight and unapologetic.
“He used to say to me,” she said without shame, “an old hut may yet house a roaring fire.”
There was silence in the hall.
She continued with forceful conviction. “And an old man may yet stand guard over his people.”
After a while, the awe was broken by the breaking voice of her father.
“You did well, little Ana,” he said, “you did very well.”
The sound of the Chieftain rang out in the hall again.
“Fill the mugs!”
Mugs were filled.
“Engill the Warrior!” They shouted and brought those mugs down onto the big old table with a thunderous clap that caused the body to rise briefly one last time, though breath had long since left it.
There was a pause in the holl as the last lines of the story echoed around its ancient walls.
“That is the story of Engill the Warrior little one,” said the old man to the young girl by his side.
“It is a wonderful story,” she would reply.
“Tell me little one,” the Grandpa would continue. “When I am old and grey, will you help me to stand, even for one last time?”
“Of course,” said the little girl, “an old hut may yet house a roaring fire and an old man may yet stand guard over his people.”
With that, as was the tradition, the lucky child would slide onto the floor before the old man. He would respond by edging his way off the seat until he stood with his hand on her shoulder. Then, taking a torch along the way, she would lead the old man across the old holl towards the great door and out into the night.
“Fill the mugs!” The Chieftain would cry.
“Engill the Warrior!” The tribe would shout as one, pounding their mugs onto the great table with new found conviction. The thunderclap would echo around the rocks and follow the old warrior and his young companion all the way to their beds.