Svalbard Global Seed Vault

The Prince of Svalbard: A Saga of the Thaw

In Fiction by

So. The Svalmen have always been renowned as the wisest and most warlike among men, and the most blessed. Did not the gods, in the frozen age before they made the world, visit Svalbard and there construct the great fortress Frøkvelv, and fill its catacombs and passageways with those seeds of wholesome grains that now grow both wild and cultivated across the land? Was not Frøkvelv wrought of godly stones and metals that hold fast against the weapons of any army? Did not they place upon the walls of Frøkvelv their protection, in magic runes that read, in the language of the gods:

SVALBARD GLOBAL SEED VAULT

And have not the gods been with the Svalmen since their first day, raising up heroes and warriors among them, men of renown on that land and on other lands across the great sea?

Know now the sad tale of the greatest and most defiled of these heroes, who strove mightily against the enemies of the gods and won much glory thereby, but in the end was ensnared in a demonic deception and brought to a base and tragic end: the tale of Ørretfangst, Prince of Frøkvelv.

Okred was king in those days, son of Gilesso, and when he was a young man he sailed and traded and raided all the lands around the land of Frøkvelv, and all agreed he was a strong man and a cunning one, and a fearsome foe in battle. And in the fullness of time he brought home a wife, a princess of the Easterlings, and with her he had a son.

Ørretfangst they named him, trout-trapper, after the fiercest beast of their land, which they knew by that name. The ørretfangst, mighty and clever, that waits hidden in stream or fjord for its prey and then strikes with a great clash of fangs, like spear on spear and shield on shield.

He was a strong lad, and grew up well, and was skilled with spear and sword and bow, and all men said he was the best of Frøkvelv in these things. And he learned well the catechism of the True Gods, who made the land and all the good things that man may eat, and who overthrew the tyranny of the Frost Giants, and brought the Thaw upon all the lands, and made the land of Frøkvelv a fit place for a man to live.

The seasons turned, and the prince became a man, and went out raiding. And he did many great deeds, both in raids and in defending the Kingdom of Frøkvelv, and all men said that he was a wise prince, and strong in battle, a worthy leader.

In the prince’s sixth spring tilling the whale’s road, he and his men went raiding upon the islands to the south of Svalbard. They raided that island that is called the sea’s pipe, for its mountains are known to issue forth smoke. Thereafter they raided those islands that men call the Narrows, for so little of them remain above water. Before the Thaw, the seas were lower, and their waters were locked up in the vast palaces of the Frost Giants.

After the raids, when Ørretfangst was returning home to Frøkvelv, a mighty storm whipped itself up from the sea. Able seamen all were the prince and his men, and had they been otherwise their bones would have gone down to the bottom of the sea. But no man may bid a storm, and day by day and night by night the froth-tipped horses bore them onward.

When the sky cleared, Ørretfangst and his men found themselves near a strange coast. Ørretfangst, hawk-watchful, seabird-wise, had determined that the storm had borne them far to the south. Broddr, Ørretfangst’s boon companion, said they should sail north at once, for men say that lands far to the south of Svalbard are hotter than may be endured, and have no natives, and nothing that is good for trading. But venturesome Ørretfangst, mighty of arm and strong of heart, would not be deterred by the words of men. Glory hungry, he sought to do great deeds heedless of reward. So they set their backs to rowing and brought their longboat ashore.

A strange land it was indeed. No man of Frøkvelv had stood in this place. Hot it was like an oven, a baking heat, and salty. The men removed their swordbelts and their loincloths and they tipped the longboat and sat beneath it, the burning sun low and watery in the south.

In the heat of the noonday sun they could not move about at all, but as the sky’s coin sank in the west they organized scouting parties and set forth on this barren land in search of provender. Long they scouted and searched through that barren land, without reward. Not even weeds grew in this desolate place. But then they sighted the citadel of the gods, tall and proud upon the horizon.

As mighty as Frøkvelv rose the fortress, of god-stone and god-iron. Three great trunks it had, as the Easterlings’ castle towers, but without any arrow slits or windows. From these large grey pillars issued a great roar. The fields around the fortress were sown with black glass, arrayed in rectangles and facing toward the sun.

“Armco, Ekson, and Ptro,” breathed Ørretfangst, invoking three great chieftains from among the host of gods, their names foreign to his language but familiar to his tongue. Never had he expected to encounter another such marvel as the fortress of Frøkvelv.

Men gripped their spears and spoke words of fear, saying that this thing was a work of the gods, who are fearsome to trespassers, or Frost Giants, who are worse. But Ørretfangst took not the counsel of cowardice, and he spoke to the men, saying:

“Before us we have a fortress of the gods! Mayhap men inhabit it, and mayhap gods, or giants. Mayhap it is abandoned, a haunt only for beasts and ghosts. I fear them none. I will enter the fortress and get its treasure: as gifts, as tomb plunder, or as war plunder. This I mean to do, and if I die in the doing, let my spear and shield be buried beside my bones in this alien land, so that all may say: here lies Ørretfangst, of true boasting and bravery.”

Ørretfangst’s brave plan and plain words rallied the men, and with spear in hand and sword within ready reach for every man, they set a march towards the god-wrought fortress.

Through the field of black glass they marched, and the march was easy, for they set their feet upon a godroad. Men find such roads, black-finished, long-weathered, in many places: wherever the gods had trafficked when they were making the world. Like all godroads, this was in disrepair; and its heat in the baking fires of the sun was a fearsome thing to behold. But a force of fighting men may march along a godroad at twice the speed they make along a path made by men, and so they came before the portal of the citadel of the gods.

It was no imposing thing, this portal, no high archway such as in the cathedrals that the richest kings of the faithful strive to erect. It was the height of a man, rectangular in shape, and wrought of metal.

Above the door there was an inscription in great runes of an unfamiliar type. Though Ørretfangst and Broddr were both skilled in runes, neither could read it. It looked like this:

LONDON CARBON SEQUESTRATION FACILITY 14G

Beside the door there was another inscription, in smaller runes, writ by hand. It had the appearance of a poem, composed of alliterating lines. The runes were these:

My house it lies under the ocean
My street it lies under the sea
Old London lies under the ocean
Oh bring back fair England to me

“Is it a curse?” asked Broddr, cautious-stepping, curse-fearing.

Ørretfangst, wise in witchcraft, examined the inscription and said it was not, and so fearlessly the men entered the great hall of the citadel.

And great it was. Once through the shabby portal, the fortress revealed its true splendor. Tall, it was, many times as tall as a man. The air was cool as in a cave, and the far reaches of the hall were invisible at that great distance. The walls were wrought not of wood, bone, hide, nor even stone, but of metal. Only the gods know the secret of forging the bones of a hall of any sort of metal. The walls of the place were not smooth or simple, as are the walls of the homes of the race of man. Instead, they erupted in a great profusion of made things, and were everywhere covered with peeling paint and other pigments, and half-preserved runic inscriptions.

Everywhere things were dark and silent, save for the low rumbling the Svalmen had discerned from outside. There was no immediate sign of human habitation, nor did they encounter any guard or watchman.

Broddr, whose name means the point of a spear, wished to rush forward with the party, seizing the fortress he now thought to be abandoned and plundering its goods. But Ørretfangst, clear-seeing, sure-thinking, bade him wait, and the prince of the Frøkvelvfolk turned his attention to the walls of the hall, and the arcane objects that protruded therefrom, which were made of iron.

When a man finds a godthing wrought of iron—an old signpost of the godroads, the bones of a godsteed, or a wrought thing more outlandish still—it is badly rusted, for the things the gods made were all made a long time ago.

But the iron bones of this hall were cleaned of rust. When Ørretfangst saw this, he knew that the citadel was not as abandoned as it seemed. Venturesome he was, yet also he was wise in the ways of ambush. Therefore he did not proceed into the dark hall, but instead struck his spear against one of the iron pipes, which rang like a war drum.

“Hark, strangers!” he called. “I am Ørretfangst, Prince of the Frøkvelvfolk and foremost among Svalmen! I have sworn to know this citadel, to serve its lord if he be pious and slay him if he be wicked, to receive gifts or claim plunder. Come forth and greet me!”

There was a long silence, as the mighty challenge echoed through the tall and narrow spaces of the citadel. And then with a strange clatter, witch-light blazed down from the ceiling. Bright and cold and grey it was, unwholesome and unwelcome. And the sound of footsteps began to echo against the walls.

Svalmen gripped spears closer and brought their shields to hand. Ørretfangst stood at their head, proud captain.

The sound of many feet became the sound of a single pair of feet, and then from a door in the side of the hall, the figure of a man came into view, and approached them.

As it approached the Svalmen could see it was no figure of a man at all, but a woman. And yet she seemed not as the women they knew. Her hair was short, her complexion peculiar. She was clad in an odd, sleeved robe, white and tattered.

“This is no lord or lady,” said Broddr.

“Perhaps she is his thrall,” said Ørretfangst. “In any case, she comes heralded by witch-light; her connection to the masters of this place is certain.”

To the distant woman he pitched his voice, calling “Greetings, stranger!” using a man’s courtesies.

The woman stopped some distance from the war party, beyond the reach of a spear. Her hands were at her hips. Beneath her cloak was a belt of leather and shirt and pants of linen. More clothes than Svalmen wear, either men or women. She bore neither spear nor shield, nor any other piercing or cutting weapon. Yet on her belt was a small thing of iron and wood, formed like the tiller of a ship, yet smaller, which the Svalmen did not recognize.

She spoke, then, a tongue that none of the war party knew, bland and strange. And then musically and swiftly in a different tongue.

“Speak you norsk?” asked Ørretfangst, for some foreigners know by that name the tongue of Frøkvelv, which is spoken on all the islands of the great sea, save for that mountain that men call the Fist.

“Ah,” she said. “Yes. I talk norsk.” Her tongue was slow-flowing, stutter-stopped, but with some speech and some gestures she was able to make her meaning known—and then work her foul magic.

“Who are you?” asked Ørretfangst. “Your land is unknown to us, your people unfamiliar.”

“My name is Bridgid,” she said. “I am the steward of this place, a learned woman.”

“What manner of place is this?”

“It is a place for taking out of the air that which makes the world hot.”

The Svalmen were aghast that anyone would work against the gods, who fought and defeated the Frost Giants, and more so that anyone would so readily confess to such evil purpose. Warlike words were spoken and warlike deeds contemplated.

“Hold fast,” said Ørretfangst to his men, in the recondite tongue of the sagas, so that he would not be understood by a woman so unfamiliar with norsk. “Barbarians and foreigners have strange practices and foolish beliefs; perhaps this woman is simply confused.”

To the woman he turned once again, saying, “Explain to us this work of yours. Why do you do it?”

And then she wove about the prince the deadly snare of the Frost Giants, the terrible lie that overthrew the reason of the greatest prince Frøkvelv had ever known.

“In the days before the Burning,” she said, for it was by this name and this name alone that she referred to the Miracle of the Thaw, “the race of man was numerous upon the world. The world itself was temperate and plentiful, and many hundreds, hundreds, hundreds—” she seemed unsatisfied with such numbers as she could describe to the prince and his band—“countless more men were alive than are now.”

The men laughed at her, saying, “This is nonsense! For when it is warm, the crops grow tall and plentiful, and when it is cold, they fail, and many a mother’s son goes hungry.” But the prince did not laugh; he regarded the thrall of the Frost Giants calculatingly. Already her sorcery had begun to work upon him.

“There are lands to the south,” she said. “Great lands, where a man may ride the fastest steed for a month and still not reach the ocean. Once they were peopled; now they are barren, as even this land is barren.”

This impressed the men little, for a seafarer knows there are always more lands beyond the sea’s bright peaks.

“So much of the earth is not as it was, for men burnt the whale-oil of the ground, and the tinder of rock, and these fires sent up an unwholesome fume into the sky, and made the climate much hotter than it was formerly.”

“You are incorrect, lady,” said Ørretfangst. “For all men know it was the gods who made the world warm, as it is today.”

“I tell you it was men! And we, all of us across many lands, seek to return the earth to her erstwhile condition, with green growing things to the far south, and land where there is now sea, and yea, ice at the poles.”

“So you admit you are about the work of the Frost Giants,” cried Broddr, the prince’s bosom companion and soul mate.

“There are no gods or giants!” said the thrall. “Just men, and their folly, and those who would repair—”

But at that instant Broddr became so enraged by the thrall’s blasphemy that he struck her in the stomach with his spear, seeking to kill her.

It was a strong blow and the spear ran her clean through the belly. But it was not her deathblow, and she reached down to her belt and raised up that object that the war party had not recognized, which was neither spear nor sword nor bow.

But in that instant they knew it to be a thunder-spear, that weapon of the gods and giants. For when she brandished it there was a noise like thunder, and Broddr fell dead, face slathered in blood. Again she brandished the weapon and again the noise like thunder, but Ørretfangst seized her about the throat and snapped her neck, and that was the end of her days.

Ørretfangst claimed the thunder-spear as a trophy, and the men of the war party coursed through the great hall and the many narrow passages of the fortress of the Frost Giants, seeking plunder and giantish foes.

No giants were there, but much plunder of good godstuff: wire for bracelets and armbands, and glass for necklaces and ornaments, a waterskin of godmetal, and a quantity of gold, which they found in strange chests, affixed to green wafers in obscure patterns. Books of sorcery they found, and with them they made a pyre and burnt Broddr, for one who is felled by a Frost Giant’s weapon requires a funeral of burning to purge the cold from his soul. And the spare volumes they burnt for warmth, and to toast meat. The thrall’s foodstore they found, and paltry and strange though it was, her bread and curds sustained them.

During the plundering the groaning and growling of the great fortress fell silent, and the men were relieved, saying that the ill purpose of the Frost Giants had been well thwarted.

After the passage of days there was no more to plunder in that mighty keep, and so the men retreated to the boat along the ruined godroad, so laden with treasures that they did not even stop to pillage the wide fields of black glass that surrounded the citadel.

On the godroad they made good time to the boat, which they set aright and launched to sea at once. And with good seamanship and a good wind they returned safely home to the land of the Svalmen, to the great fortress of Frøkvelv. But men who were there said that Prince Ørretfangst was in a strange humour indeed, silent and contemplative, not taking his ease with his fellows nor sharing their counsel.

Now, the fortress of Frøkvelv is the work of the gods, and no structure made by man can match it. And yet the city of Frøkvelv is also the greatest city of man in this age. Its walls are hewn of stone and rise twice again as tall as the tallest man, and within it are many buildings of wood, and of those buildings more than half a dozen of them are of two stories. But when Ørretfangst’s gaze fell upon the city of Frøkvelv it was not with awe, but with lordly disdain and sorrow. And men looked upon him and said that something ill had come into his heart.

When the war party landed, Prince Ørretfangst betook himself to the hall of his father, King Okred, and his troop followed faithfully, though the wisest among them had a sense of grave foreboding.

In the hall of the king, Ørretfangst stood before all and recounted the events of his journey: of the storm that had blown him from his course; of the barren land to the south; of the fortress of the Frost Giants and of the woman-thrall; of the death of Broddr and his burning; of the good plunder brought back to Frøkvelv.

When King Okred heard the tidings of these events, he knew his son and his son’s fighting men had acquitted themselves bravely, and he praised them, and gave them many gifts, and swore to uphold their names and always be a true friend to them.

But when Ørretfangst explained the workings of the Frost Giants and their thralls, the king grew gravely concerned.

“Then this is no simple raid nor feud-killing,” said the king. “It is the occasion for holy war.” The king spoke to the assembled war band, and all of his retainers, saying, “With the strength of the gods behind our right arm, there is no scheme of the Frost Giants we cannot overcome, no citadel of theirs we cannot storm and take as plunder. I therefore beseech you, Ørretfangst, if this cause seems good and righteous, to take up your followers and your ships, and sail southward, and seek out the other citadels and seize them by force of arms, and slay their thralls and end their wickedness.”

And all who were present were sure that Prince Ørretfangst would do this thing, for he was boldest among men, and known for boasting, and better yet for doing the deed boasted of.

“This thing I will not do,” said Ørretfangst.

“That is ill said,” said the king, and all the men of the room drew closer to their swords, for when a king and a prince quarrel, much blood is shed.

“He speaks manliest who speaks the truth,” said Ørretfangst. “I claimed the thunder-spear as a trophy of battle, and on the long nights of the journey I contemplated its riddle. For this thunder-spear was not made in the time of the gods! Its grip is wood, and new wood at that; I have looked into the grain. Nor was it as well made as the thunder-spears of the gods, for they were made all of godmetal, and could slay many men in an instant.

“But if this thunder-spear was made after the time of the gods, and with the materials of man, then it was made by man. And if the thrall, whom we slew, made this thing or was given it by the man who made it, then she knew much of men and gods and giants that we do not.

“And in the thrall’s rooms there were many maps,” said Ørretfangst, and at this time he took out from his tunic these parchments, which he had kept in secret. “They bear out her tale! Behold the vast lands to the south!”

The king’s face was grim and cold. “So far you have said many things, Ørretfangst. But what would you have done?”

“We should sail south, yes. We should seek out another fortress and treat with its master. We should pay the death-price for the one whom we killed, and do great feats in defense of these places, and when the seas fall, we should claim all the new lands of Earth for the kingdom of Frøkvelv!”

And then the king’s face was terrible, not with anger but with sorrow.

“I see now that the Frost Giants’ witch has snared your wits,” he said. “It is a venturesome dream you have, my son, but it is a madness and a heresy.” And men nodded, for they saw that the king was right.

“No!” cried Ørretfangst, his face deranged with his madness.

“Seize the prince,” said the king, “and put him in shackles, that he may not strike out in his madness and slay, for he is still the strongest and most warlike of men.”

And it was done as the king commanded.

For six months they kept the prince in shackles, and the doctors and sages of Frøkvelv sought desperately to treat his madness. But the sorcery could not be broken, and Ørretfangst’s ravings grew only more mad, until he denied the gods and giants, and gave voice to the heresy the woman in white had espoused.

Men said he should be burned as a heretic, and given back to the god Ekson, scourge of the blasphemer, whose other name is Mobil. But one night he slipped his bounds and escaped into the swamps. Many men searched for him, and a close watch was kept over the boats, lest he attempt to make good his mad quest. But no man at arms of Frøkvelv could find the prince, then or after.

Meanwhile the king was as good as his plan. That spring, and each spring since, when the storms abate and the land may still be crossed without heat sickness, the bravest of the men of Frøkvelv take up the spear, the sword, the shield, and they sail south, guided by the thrall’s map, and they seek out the Frost Giants’ citadels. And the Frøkvelvmen put the thralls within to the sword, and pillage the citadels, and lay to waste the machines and workings of the Frost Giants. And so it is that the men of Frøkvelv do what they can to hold back the coming of the second age of frost.

Yet winter upon winter grows colder, and now men go about wrapped in skins from head to toe during the longest nights. And those venturesome men who sail north into the darkness, under the gem-cloth of the gods, report that strange new storms may be found in these waters, like unto neither rain nor hail, but instead of the smallest stinging flakes of bitterest cold, which burn the skin and bring unnatural pains unto the flesh.

And to this day, men on journeys through the marshes and bayous that separate Frøkvelv from the other settlements still sometimes see mad Prince Ørretfangst, an outcast and an outlaw, a wild man with beard and clothes in tatters, living like a beast amongst his namesakes, the ørretfangsts, the crocodiles of Svalbard.

 

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Copyright © 2019 Louis Evans. Originally published in Analog SF&F. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Feature image credit: Depositphotos


Louis Evans

So. Louis Evans has always been renowned as the wisest and most warlike among writers. Long have his songs been sung, in Nature: Futures, Analog SF&F, Interzone, and more. In spider’s weft his hearth is evanslouis.com; on birdsong he is heard @louisevanswrite.