Thursday, March 23, 2017

Fate of the Unfallen

Fate of the Unfallen
as told by Steve "Torolf"Nelson

The following is a tale from the lands of my birth in Midgard. May it please Arioch and settle a portion of our debt to him. It is an ancient saga, and my people considered it a great tragedy. Traditionally it is told by a grizzled old graybeard to anxious young warriors on the eve of their first battle. And though my beard is gray I am perhaps not yet so grizzled, nor am I by any means a bard. But I will try to do it justice. It is also my hope that this telling will help the heroes of the Realms better understand the importance of Ragnarok to the Norlund Realms and the differences in how we embrace death.

The tale begins near the dawn of the current age, with a young warrior whose name has been forgotten to time. We simply call him the unfallen, although in truth he was the first of many. Some believe it is by Odin’s design that the names of all the unfallen are veiled because the forces of darkness could use such knowledge for terrible ends. Regardless, this young warrior was both strong and fearless in battle. But he also possessed great luck, which is another quality my people value. In fact, we think of it as a type of magic or power. And those who possess it are sought out as allies to help an endeavor succeed. So over the years as he rose in power and renown, other warriors soon flocked to his side, and he became something of a leader on the battlefield. And though he never became an earl or king, he certainly became what we consider a hero. Tales of great deeds and victories in battle surrounded him.

Surely he had earned a seat in Valhalla, and many wished the honor of being there when he achieved it. And when a warrior falls in battle, and the Valkyrie choose them for a seat in that fabled hall no magic will revive them from death. No healing art, spell or potion can deny Odin and the Valkyrie once they have chosen. But in each battle, the warrior would either survive or be revived from his wounds. As his beard turned gray people began to wonder if he had somehow dishonored himself or offended the gods.

Eventually, the warrior began to despair that he would never see his ancestors again. He feared that he was fated to tumble into the dark domains of Hel among the dishonored dead. And as his limbs began to stiffen and his joints rack with pain his fame also began to fade. When he outlived the last of his children, his fabled luck seemed to have deserted him as well. Believing that he may succumb to age or illness he even tried to follow the path of the Berserkers. And while he was grievously wounded again and again, even to the point that magics could not fully restore he continued to survive.

Before one great battle, the warrior decided that it would be his last. He let warrior madness overtake him and waded into the fray at the head of the Berserkers. In his fury, he passed from one end of the field to the other leaving a swath of fallen foe in his wake. He seemed to ignore their blows like drops of rain. As the sun began to set in the sky, and the battle drew to a close, he was battered and torn with arrows deep in his back, yet somehow he still drew breath. Accepting his failure, and almost too weary to move, he waved off the aid of the healers and broke his sword against the ground. He dragged himself off the field and crawled slowly to the top of a rock outcropping where he lit a bonfire of brush and fallen tree limbs. The warrior leaned against a stone to await death's embrace, and as he did, he spat a curse at the gods and Thor in particular for denying him the strength of his youth.

And while the gods seldom seem to notice our pleas and praise, rest assured condemnation gains their attention with remarkable speed. Hearing the reproach, the Thunderer looked down in wonder to see who would be so brazen. Thor could see that the warrior's honor was intact and that a remarkably long life of bold deeds hung about him like a heavy fur cloak. As he watched, Hella reached out her icy fingers from the creeping shadows eager to claim the fallen warrior. Enraged, Thor split the sky with lightning and shook the earth with thunder as a warning to the mistress of the dead. He would not allow her to collect this spirit and drag it to the underworld without a fight. This commotion drew the eye of Odin himself, and he was displeased. Odin summoned the Valkyrie to explain why such a warrior was not long ago drinking mead in Valhalla. And it is no small thing to stand before the Allfather’s disapproval, even for the fierce Valkyrie. But they were able to recount how each time they tried to claim the warrior, the Norns denied them saying his fate was still unfulfilled.

So with dispatch, Odin traveled to the well of Urd beneath the branches of the world tree to have words with the Norns. It is there that these three wise women weave a tapestry of fate binding gods and mortals alike. Feeling the Allfather’s approach like a gathering storm, and knowing why he had come the Norns silently pointed out a single frayed stitch that was barely containing a great gash in the fabric beyond. Odin cast the runes to reveal the portion of the tapestry not yet woven. And by this magic looked deep into the future.

Odin’s baleful eye followed the rip, past the warrior's final stitch, as it broadened across the unfinished tapestry. At the far end of fate itself, near the time of Ragnarok where even the threads of the gods ended, a great darkness had arisen rending the fabric and sending out tendrils almost all the way back to the beginning. The Allfather understood that this overburdened stitch was the last in the thread representing the warrior's life. Skuld, the Norn who looks into the future, held the unfinished end of the thread spoke. “If I let go of this thread the fabric unravels. There are simply not enough to hold the tapestry together. If I make another stitch, the warrior becomes draugar, neither truly living nor dead and must continue in a dishonored mockery of life. The choice is yours mighty Odin.”

The Allfather stared long and unblinking at the tapestry of fate. He followed the patterns and currents of the lives that each thread represented. He saw the rise and fall of kingdoms and the births and deaths of gods and mortals. He saw the great deeds of heroes and the smallest deceits of the treacherous. He also saw the darkness and cataclysm at the end of the age. Ragnarok would fail, and there would be no balance or cleansing fire. The Norlunds would suffer a long lingering descent into darkness without end.

Though the price was high, Odin knew what he must do. He took up his enchanted spear Gungnir and cut his right hand deeply. While murmuring an arcane and powerful spell, he waved his hand across the tapestry from beginning to end. Where his blood landed, threads shot out like jagged scars, pulling the fabric of fate back together. These repairs started with the dying warrior's last stitch and converged deep in the future nearly blotting out the darkness. As one voice the Norns balked saying, “Even you may not just hand out immortality so. You have created a whole host of new gods!”

“No, I have done far worse.” Odin wearily sighed. “Giving each a drop of my blood, I have twisted the fate of many who should earn honorable deaths. While I have not granted them immortality, I have given them the strength and vigor for long and heroic lives. But at the cost of denying them entry into Valhalla. For such magics must always exact a steep price. When these heroes fall, I will repair and reforge them like a favored weapon then return them anew to live another life from beginning to end. It is a grim fate without reward. They are my army of unfallen; each is a mending stitch in the fabric of time. Together across the span of the age, they may yet conquer the darkness that threatens the Norlund Realms. I can only hope that in the end, they find some reward, or at least a measure of peace, beyond Ragnarok.”

And this is where the tale usually ends. But there is another portion never spoken of on the eve of battle. In fact, it is seldom spoken of at all. I first overheard it when some elders were arguing about its meaning. In this second version of the saga after trying to repair the fabric of fate with the power of his blood Odin proclaims that “It is not enough. I can stretch the threads of the Norlunds no further, and still, darkness overtakes the light.”

Cutting his other hand with his spear, Odin plunged both wounded hands deeply into the dark, fertile soil beneath the world tree. With each, he pulled up a root from the ground, one pointing towards the world tree and one away saying, “While all the Norlund realms may hang from the branches of Yggdrasil, there are other trees. And when one tree falls to a blight many are in peril.” With this, his blood fused the two roots together forming a mystical bond between the world tree and some other.

At this, the Norn Verdandi, who sees the present, said: “Allfather you imperil these other realms to save our own, and it still may not be enough.”

Odin replied “There is no more I can do. I have taken Valhalla from many heroes, and I have made a crack in the very walls of reality. Anything more invites new disaster. This remedy will have to suffice.”

Exactly how this spell affected the other realms, or whether he created unfallen there as well is unknown. And how it entwines the fates of these realms only Odin, and perhaps the Norns, can say. But the heavy sacrifice of the unfallen is why among my people it is a great occasion when an old one takes the field for their final battle. We believe that they bring not only great luck but that Odin himself is nearby. And when a young one seems wise beyond their years or learns a bit too quickly it is sometimes whispered that they have an old soul, or borrow from past lives.

Regardless, now that we approach the time of Ragnarok, this ancient tale rings with new truth. I can easily imagine that the Allfather’s hidden army is marching towards their final battle and the finish of their long saga. As I’ve wandered this Realm, I have no doubt that I’ve encountered more than one of the unfallen. There are great things in motion, and wherever he is Odin watches with interest.

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