The Village Healer
The old warrior remained upon his bed for a moment to allow the haze of sleep to fade, and to catch his breath. Hogni had felt himself not to be quite right lately. He had noticed a slight wheeze when he took a deep breath out in the cold air, and an occasional tightness in his chest that was usually followed by a moment of queasiness. As the fog of sleep dissipated, and clearer thoughts entered his head, Hogni made a decision. He promised himself that he would go to see the village healer today. Hildigunnr was known for her unique ability to diagnose an illness, and treat it successfully. This healer, he had heard, used roots and herbs to heal the sick, but many in the village believed that she was able to contact the Goddess Eir, the best of physicians, and through her make magical healing potions. Hogni did not care what the truth was, he simply wanted to know what ailed him.
Hogni carefully dressed himself warmly to guard against the cold morning air. Before leaving, the old warrior told his family that he was going to take a walk down to the ocean that morning. Asdis tried to persuade her father - in - law to eat breakfast before he left, but the old warrior declined her offer. Thorir became a little worried when little Bera asked if she could go with her grandfather, and he replied : " Not this time little one. " His father loved to spend time with his granddaughter, and almost always gave into her wishes. It was odd for Hogni to decline her offer. As Thorir and Asdis watched Hogni walk down the road that led to the sea, they gave each other a questioning glance. Father was acting a little strange this morning, and they were both mildly concerned.
About a half mile from the village the main road branched off in two directions. The left fork took the traveler down to the shore line, while the right fork directed you to the forest known as the Svartiskogur. This " Black Forest " was believed to be the home of witches, dwarves, and other unsavory characters. It was here, in this mysterious place, that the healer Hildigunnr could be found. Some in the village believed that she lived here to be closer to the roots and herbs that she used to make her remedies. Others, however, believed that she lived alone in the Svartiskogur to be closer to the evil spirits that resided there. Hogni, a practical man, simply figured that she lived alone in the forest because she was a crazy old bitch.
Although Hogni had never been to see the healer it did not take long for him to find the healer's hut. As he looked up through the tall trees he could see that the sun had not yet reached its apex in the sky. The small hut was nestled in between large oak trees, and was overgrown on three sides with bushes and weeds. It was hard not to notice that the structure was in disrepair, and Hogni thought it odd that the structure had no windows. Despite Hogni not being a man who was easily frightened, he did feel a sense of uneasiness as he walked up to the front door and knocked.
" Come in Hogni the Bold ! And welcome to my humble abode. " a voice from inside the shack shouted. Hogni was stunned ! There were no windows ! No visible openings at all for that matter ! How did the healer know who stood on the other side of this door ?! Hogni took one last look at the Svartiskogur, inhaled a long deep wheezing breath, and lifted the wooden latch to open the door.
As Hogni stepped inside he closed the door behind him. It took the old warrior a moment to spot the old woman in the smoke filled room. Finally, when his eyes became acclimated to the low light, he saw a woman sitting by the fire stirring a foul smelling brew. The healer, who was actually younger than he expected, was dressed in rags that seemed to blend in with the bleak surroundings, making it difficult to discern her true form. The only feature that stood out were her eyes. " Are they truly red ? " Hogni thought to himself. As he came closer he realized something even more frightening . They were as black as coal, and the flames of the fire were reflecting off of them as if they were a still pond.
" Sit my friend, and tell me what ails thee. " she told the old warrior in a voice that sounded like a moan. Hogni sat down on the bench that was positioned on the other side of the fireplace, and across from the healer. Hildigunnr the healer moved her bench over closer to Hogni until they were within arm' s reach of each other. Hogni looked up at her, and was mesmerized by the sparkling flames that seemed to be doing a dance within her black eyes. Without so much as a smile the healer reached out her hand. " I am Hildigunnr, and my fee is one gold coin. " she told him bluntly. Despite her ragged clothes and wild red hair, Hogni could see that in her youth she had been a woman of some beauty. Without taking his eyes off of her, he reached down, opened the drawstring to his money pouch, and pulled out a shiny gold coin. As he handed the coin to her, she smiled and nodded to him.
" Now we can begin ! " she stated in a monotone voice. Hildigunnr knelt down in front of Hogni and placed her ear up against his chest. She then moved her head lower, and a little to the side, and asked Hogni to breathe deeply. The old warrior's first breaths were not too labored, but soon they became raspy and uncomfortable. The healer slowly rose and walked over to the simmering cauldron. Using a rag she lifted the hot steaming pot, and placed it on the table in the middle of the room. " Please sit here, and inhale these fumes ! " she told Hogni as she pointed to the bench at the table.
Hogni silently walked over to the bench and sat down behind the cauldron. Before placing his head near the top of the pot he gave Hildigunnr a suspicious look. To Hogni' s surprise there was not very much in the pot. In a small amount of liquid there were some leaves, and what looked like bark from a tree. The odor was rather pungent, bad not quite as bad as the old warrior had expected. As he peered into the kettle he felt a hand push his head further down into the vapors. " Breathe deeply into the cauldron. Breathe deeper my friend ! " she told him with authority. The old warrior did not like being forced to do anything, but he realized that if he wanted a correct diagnosis, and to be cured, it was necessary for him to do as he was told.
Suddenly, Hogni began to cough ! A wet phlegmy cough, that made him spit up huge quantities of bloody mucous, that had been trapped in his lungs, into the cauldron. Hogni lost track of time as the healer held his head in place . Each time he expelled more Hogni could feel a great weight being lifted off of his chest. After what seemed him to be an eternity Hildigunnr pulled his head out of the cauldron, and handed him a cloth to wipe his face. Despite the heat from the fire Hogni found himself trembling uncontrollably. The healer patted him on the shoulder. " It will pass bold one ! " she told him.
Hildigunnr then took the cauldron and placed it back over the fire. The healer moved her bench right up to the edge of the flames, and peered deeply into the pot. In a matter of just a few moments the pot began to boil, sending a foul smell throughout the hut. Above the simmering brew a thick mist formed that the healer stared into as though in a trance. Hildigunnr began to chant words that Hogni did not understand. He did, however, recognize the healer invoking the name of the Goddess Eir several times. The healer sat mesmerized by the steam that hung over the pot for a long time, while Hogni slowly recovered from his ordeal.
Then the healer dropped her chin down to her chest, and took a deep breath. Hildigunnr pushed the bench away from the fire and stood up. Slowly she walked over to Hogni, with no visible expression on her face. Then, out of her pocket she pulled the gold coin that Hogni had given her. As she handed it back to the old warrior she told him with a blank stare : " I am sorry, I cannot help you. It is too late my friend, you soon will die ! "
Hogni dropped the coin, and in a hoarse voice asked : " Is there nothing that can be done ?! " Hildigunnr looked the old warrior directly in the eyes, and silently shook her head " no ". The healer then walked back, and sat on the bench by the fire. Hogni jumped up so abruptly that he knocked the bench he was sitting on over. He started to say something to Hildigunnr, but she once again shook her head before he could ask. Hogni, confused and angry, stumbled over to the door and threw it open. As he was about to step out into the cold forest, Hildigunnr spoke to the old warrior one last time : " You were once a brave warrior my friend. Sickness is not the only way to die. " she told him as though she were giving him the remedy for his ailment.
Hogni did not want to go home, and when he reached the fork in the road again he took the path that lead down to the ocean. Along the way he remembered the pitiful way his friends Tosti, Ketil and Bersi had died. These once huge healthy warriors were whittled down to skin and bone by disease, as they wallowed in their own filth, on their death beds. They had all died slow and very agonizing deaths. But the one memory that stuck in his mind all of these years the most was that of his old friend Kjartan' s death. He was one of the bravest men that he had ever met, and yet before he succumbed to his illness he suffered intensely for days, and screamed near the end for the Gods to stop his misery! As Hogni sat watching the waves slowly curling and breaking on the shore, he decided that this would not be his fate !
- End Chapter 2
Next : Chapter 3 : Ospak the Mighty !
- Glenn Bergen, ( Ravensheart ), © Copyright, 2015.