“Ho there, Stranger!” Rainald bellowed from his campsite toward the road, and the solitary old man walking it, who nearly started at the sudden noise. Recovering, having recognized Rainald’s accent, the grizzled traveler waved and responded in the Northlanders’ tongue, “Greetings, fellow North-man!” Rainald happily welcomed his elder countryman to share his fire, and his food, and the man gladly accepted his hospitality. The stranger showed no fear of the well-muscled, mail-covered, Northlander warrior with flaming-red hair, as he settled onto the ground near the modest fire. Rainald handed him some bread and asked where he hailed from, and where he was headed; the old man responded that he was from many places, and was going wherever the road would take him. The warrior laughed, for he well knew the life of the wanderer.

“You look no stranger to life’s hardships,” Rainald smiled, regarding his countryman’s weathered appearance.

The wanderer answered, “Aye, but a good life is often seasoned with hardship. Fortune has blessed me, that I have lost only my youth, and my eye. If I had to live this life again, I would change nothing. And you? I’d wager you have a tale of many hardships faced and defeated?”

Rainald needed no pause to ponder his thirty-five hard years for what experiences might qualify, but immediately began to share his story, in his way, as if the stranger before him were an old friend. “Aye, I have seen hardship as well. I have fought countless men, and orcs, and lizard-men, in many battles. I barely survived the fall of Blythe. I have slain dragons, and wizards, and things that have no name in our tongue. I have battled the locust-giants of Vasarheim, numbered like pebbles on a beach. I have faced death from all sides, at the hands of many enemies, and prevailed against them all. But none were so difficult as what I faced not so long ago. It started with a woman…”

“Ah, but doesn’t it always, eh?” the old man quipped, with a broad grin.

“Aye, it does,” the big man continued, unabated, with a chuckle of agreement.

“So there I was, after three years of war in the Otherworld was over and won, rewarded with land and title in Wallace, now riding the old roads back home to Grimswick to visit my uncle there, and the gods willing, finally see my love, Gertruð, after eight long years. After thirty-six days on the road, I was nearly home, just outside a neighboring village called Grenmarr, where by the roadside, I encountered a woman struggling against three men, who were bent on rape and murder by the look of it. As a Knight of Caithness, I am oath-bound to aid the helpless, so I stepped up and threw back her attackers; I did not know these men, or what they were about there, so I dared not slay them, but rather let them go. They swore they would have their justice upon the woman before they fled before me. As it was, the woman, called Hildra, was a slave taken from the mountain tribes, and she had killed her master, their brother, for he was a cruel and violent man. She was sorely afraid her master’s kin would return for their revenge, and pleaded that I should take her with me to Grimswick, where she was not known, and to tell all that she was my wife. I knew not what else to do with her—if I left her there, she would surely be murdered—so I agreed, though I knew this would not be the end of the matter. So I returned to my home village with Hildra, calling her my wife, as I’d promised; she was pleasant enough company, with a sharp wit and a sharp tongue along with it—too sharp, perhaps—and pleasing to look upon, though not like my Gertruð.

“Gertruð. I did find her at Grimswick, in the household of Jarl Olrik, as beautiful as I remembered, if a little thicker than she was in our youth, when I had asked to marry her. In those days, the Jarl’s son, Björn, had asked Gertruð to marry him just before I had, and she swore that if word of my deeds reached her ears before I returned from Caithness in five years time, that she would marry me instead. But now I was three years too late, and she had married Björn, but he had died some years before, and she was left childless and without a husband. I was greatly sorrowed then, for I was bound by my promise to tell Gertruð that Hildra was my wife.”

“That is a hard thing, I would agree, to give up one’s prize for honor’s sake,” the old man interrupted, nodding.

“Aye, but there’s more,” Rainald continued. “I found my uncle Hrothgar living, and well as I remembered him—his knee-wound by an enemy’s arrow still left him lame. He offered that I should stay with him in our old family home by the sea, so I did. And Hildra stayed with us, as I had promised her, and I told none of the truth our arrangement, save for my uncle. Though she served us as a slave might, I reminded her that she was free, and would remain so, if I had anything to say about it. One day, the kin of Hildra’s former-master found us at home, come to take her by force to do what they would with her. There were five of them, armed with axes and clubs, but we would not give Hildra to them, but we three gave them a beating instead; I did not bring forth Gramjarn, but fought them bare-handed, and threw them into the sea, scolding them that if they attacked again they would forfeit their lives. Again, they fled before me, this time promising that they would bring the matter before the Jarl, now that they had found Hildra. That was well with me, and I told them so as they fled. Some months later, it came time for the Þing, and freemen from all the Jarl’s holdings were gathered. Hildra’s enemies were there as promised, and they accused her of murder before the Jarl, and demanded her blood be spilled for it; Hildra brazenly confessed that she had killed the man, and scolded her accusers as cowards and women, before the Jarl silenced her. Now Jarl Olrik was a fair ruler, but there were no witnesses to the killing but for the word of the dead man’s brothers, and there was little choice but to rule in their favor. My friend Magnifico would have all the freemen there laughing to scorn the accusers and chanting to Hildra’s innocence, but alas, it would fall to me for her defense. So, I declared, publicly before the Jarl and the law-speaker, that I, Rainald Ragnarsson, also called North-Hammer, Knight of Caithness and Lord of Rainaldsheim, was her husband, and that the woman was innocent of murder; and if my oath-price was not good enough, then my steel would be. One of the dead man’s brothers, Thorgrim, a wiry but strong man of some renown, accepted my challenge to combat, and so we stepped outside to see it done, according to the law and before the Jarl and other witnesses. It was brief, for despite all his dancing about, with one blow of mighty Gramjarn, the man was felled where he stood. Jarl Olrik declared the matter settled, but anyone could see on the faces of the kinsmen that they would be satisfied with naught but Hildra’s death, and now, mine as well. And to make matters worse, I had just declared Hildra as my wife before the Þing, which dashed my hopes of a legitimate life with Gertruð like a trapped ship smashed to kindling by storm-waves against the rocks.”

The stranger clicked his tongue and shook his head, in sympathy.

The warrior continued, “I knew not what I should do, so I went to the seer, as one does. The seer told me that I was fated not for Gertruð, but Hildra, and that to put her away would mean my doom. I was angered, of course, and went home to drink to my sorrows, only my uncle met me at the gate to tell me that Hildra had run away. At that instant I became aware of my own horror at being without that woman, and I tracked her down, and found her not far away, trying to steal Bann One-Eye’s boat to sail away—the woman was crafty, but not so strong. She confessed that my uncle had been drunk, and accidentally told her of my longing for Gertruð, and her promise to marry me—I had not told Hildra of it all this time—and Hildra was distraught that she might stand between me and my desire. I seized her, and told her that I did not wish her to go…”

The warrior sighed, pausing briefly to reflect, and the traveler motioned for him to continue his story. “What happened there after that is none of your business,” Rainald added with a knowing wink. “It is enough to say that things were ‘better’ between Hilda and I from then on.”

The old man chuckled, and said, “That doesn’t sound like the end of the tale.”

“Not the end at all,” the flame-haired North-man responded, shaking his head in amazement at his own remembrance of what happened next. “That winter, I came home from fishing to find my wife gone, and my uncle beaten; he said our enemies had taken her, no doubt, to lay a trap for me when I come after her. I went immediately to bring the matter before the Jarl, but he refused me to take my revenge upon her kidnappers, as he had now been told of the truth of my false-wife, that I had given false witness before the Þing. He would not suffer any more bloodshed amongst his subjects on that matter, and said he would forgive me my former ‘weakness’ were I to leave it well alone, to wed Gertruð instead, and become his huscarl. Perhaps it was as he said, or perhaps his judgement had been bought—I know not, to this day—but I told him that though she was not my wife before, she was so now, and I would have a husband’s justice upon those that had taken her. He declared me an outlaw on the spot, and ordered his men to seize me, but they could not hold me, and I escaped. Oh, to have had my friend Gabriel at my side then, for there was bloody work to be done! Hildra, crafty as she is, had taunted the men as they carried her away, such that they would strike her and she would fall into this or that; I was easily able to follow the trail, quickly, to where her kidnappers had taken her to prepare a snare for me. As I found them in surprise, I fell upon them like a god-cursed shield-biter, berserkir, and I slew them all, every one that bore arms against me and those who pleaded for mercy alike. After none remained, as I cut her bonds, I told Hildra that I had been declared outlaw now, and we fled together to a hidden place in the mountains, to live there, out of the Jarl’s reach.”

Rainald had been waving his arms wildly in illustration, but now he settled down somewhat, as he spoke on. “We lived there in a cave, in peace, for many years. We had little, but needed little but each other. I hunted game. We traded with the mountain clans, sometimes. In time, she bore me Ragnar, my first son (named for my father), and then another, Arn (named for her father). We would still be there now, I think. But early in the spring of this year, my uncle came to us there—only he knew where we lived—and warned that Grimswick was about to be raided by a tribe from the North, and had not enough warriors, and the Jarl would not help. He pleaded with me to come help them fight. I told him that the Jarl would surely have me put to death if I showed my face in his domain, but my uncle insisted, saying they would surely fall if I didn’t risk it. A hard choice, like none other; I never refuse a challenge to fight, but Arn was so young, not even weaned off the breast yet, and what if I were to fall? I looked to Hildra, and without speaking, she made it known that I should go do this thing, for honor, and for home. So I promised to return, and left with my uncle, and we went to convince Jarl Olrik to help.”

The warrior sprang up from the ground and began pacing back and forth as he continued his story with excitement. “As we expected, the Jarl had no sooner spotted us coming than he commanded his carls to bind me. He was puzzled at why an an outlaw would brazenly stride into his village, knowing he would be slain for it without recourse, and I told him of the oncoming invasion, and my desire to aid in his lands’ defense. He said that he did not believe that this raiding party would attack, but would pass by on their way to Kethalos, and I said that we would have nothing to lose for making a show of our defense, and if they pass by, they may remember it. He said that if they did attack, we could not prevail against them, and I told him what I have seen of battle, that a small, defiant force can often worry a larger force, far from home, until they have not the stomach to continue. He asked how it could be done, and I told him of my plan, a plan I have seen used many times, forged in the fires of the Otherworld by Dane Sardock the General, himself. So inspired by the cleverness of the plan was he, that the Jarl wanted to see it for himself. So I was released to go and make the preparations. And it came to be that the Notherners did come to land at Grimswick, as it was said, to raid. But the people were ready, and the enemy smashed against the village defenses like water upon rock, and were thrown back to their ships, to flee. It was a magnificent battle, worthy of song, I can tell you! Many heroes were born, and died that day. The Jarl himself was gravely injured, and might have been killed had I not come to his rescue, as I had for my uncle ages ago in Caithness, when I swung Gramjarn for the first time. Would that my friend, Brother Mendel the Healer, had been there, for many more might have lived. My uncle was wounded as well, run through by a spear; though he clung to life, we feared he would not last the night, but he is a stubborn man, as was my father, as am I.”

Rainald slumped back down to his seat by the fire, seeming exhausted, as if he had just fought that battle all over again. “There was a great feast to celebrate the victory, and remember the fallen, of course. There, Jarl Olrik declared that I and Hildra were no longer outlaw, but pardoned of all crimes. I introduced Hildra as my true wife, and my sons, and we lived in my family’s house by the sea once again. But though my uncle still lived, after a month, his wounds would not heal, and he feared he would not tarry in this world for long. He made me promise to take him to Caithness, and to help him settle his accounts there, before he died. Jarl Olrik tried to convince me to stay, and I wanted to, but I had promised my uncle; I told the Jarl where he could find me in Caithness should the need arise one day, and promised that I would help if I could. And so, within the fortnight, myself and Hildra, my sons, and my uncle, we took up all that we owned, and left the Northlands behind, to travel to Caithness, to live on my lands here.

“So there you have it. Hardship. Maybe not like the Christ-god hanging on the World-Tree for nine days to save mens’ souls, but difficult nonetheless.”

The son of Ragnar finally fell silent for a moment. After some time had passed, the old stranger asked, “Would you change any of it if you had to live it again?”

“No, elder, I think not,” Rainald replied with a smile, after another introspective pause.

“Where is your family now? They are not here?” The wanderer looked around, as if he might have missed them hiding nearby.

“Back down the road about a day. I ride ahead to clear the road ahead of them from time to time. It’s been near two months now, but our journey is nearly done. My lands are not far from this spot.”

“Well, then…” The elder Northman smiled broadly, pausing, before he continued. “I thank you for your hospitality, and your story, Rainald Ragnarsson. Though I must confess to you that I did not find you here by happenstance, but I came to find you to deliver a message. There is a tavern another mile down the road here. A friend is waiting for you there. Though it may take you from your intended path, you should follow him. There may be hardship, of course, but should you endure it, you will find happiness on the other side, as before, I promise you.”

Now the big man looked puzzled. “Are you a seer, old man?” he asked politely.

“Of a sort, I suppose,” the one-eyed stranger replied with a smirk, before getting up off the ground and dusting off his breeches. “Off you go, now. Your friend is waiting,” he said with a wave toward his host’s nearby horse.

As the big fellow got to his feet and looked to his horse, he turned back to say goodbye, but the old man was nowhere to be seen, only the caw of a raven in the distance.

He packed up his things and rode on, as the old man directed, and indeed, there was a tavern about a mile down. Seeing it there, Rainald remembered the place—the ale was a bit watered-down. After he dismounted his horse and handed it off to the stable-boy, he smiled knowingly to himself, and whispered a prayer to Odin for safe travels for his family—for once in his life, now if ever, he felt those prayers would be heard. Then he pushed past some high-born dandy in a rush to get out of the inn’s door, scowling at the man’s rudeness as he entered.