By Patrick R. Burger




Without warning, without honour, they attacked. 

People clad in leather and furs -- playing in the snows of the Alps, whooping with delight as they tobagganed on wooden shields down tree-lined slopes glittering in the sun -- screamed as Roman legionnaires charged from the dark forest.  Grim-faced demons in scarlet cloaks, the Romans hacked and stabbed, little caring whether it was the men, women or children of the wandering Kimbri that fell beneath their bloody blades.

A young Kimbri warrior, Wolfhart, saw Sieglind -- her loose blonde hair waving wildly as enemies surrounded her -- fall.  His scream stuck in his throat as he leapt up from the shield he had toboganned on.  Weaponless, desperate, his boots sinking in the snow, he struggled up the slope, bloody bodies and shouting Romans everywhere.  His eyes smoked with hate and burned with tears; unseen in the chaos, he bore down on the cowardly murderers.  With a lunge he broke into the scarlet and bronze crowd around the girl he loved -- and stepped into the Roman short sword intended for her.

Wolfhart groaned and stumbled into the startled swordsman.  The strange red crest of the man’s helmet waved as they collided and lost their footing.  The bronze helm fell as they both toppled into the cold, biting snow.  They tumbled and skidded down the steep slope, and every rolling toss of Wolfhart’s limbs sent snow flying and jammed the blade deeper into his gut.  Bitter snow caked his face, and all he saw on the slope above as his bleeding body finally came to rest were countless stabbing and slashing enemies and the bloody, slaughtered bodies of the Kimbri at their feet.  Wolfhart tried to rise, but with every heartbeat the hot red pulse of his life drained into the cold white; darkness closed his eyes and the screams of his dying people faded away.


Wolfhart – still clad in leather, wool and fur – leaned on his spear and gazed out angrily; tempestuous grey fog obscured the world beyond the crenellated battlements of the Citadel.  His fingers tightened on his spear, and he glanced up at the gleaming white marble minaret that rose into the grey sky several dozen paces to his right, where the nortwest-facing battlement he stood upon met the northeast-facing battlement.  The roiling and churning fogs slid off the minaret’s glistening ivory sides -- he could see it clearly despite the thickness of the fog.  In fact, he could see across the star-shaped fortress and make out the white marble minarets on each of the six points – except for the one on the southern point, for it was currently hidden from his view by the bulk of the great ebony tower that rose from the courtyard.  This black tower was almost twice the height of the six minarets.  Wolfhart gazed up at it and clearly saw its upper platform, where a ring of black, doric columns supported a gleaming gold cupola.

He turned back to the fog – and could not see two paces beyond the battlements.  How could that be?!  Indeed, the thick fog curled and roiled like a thing alive, storming the Citadel’s high, steeply sloped ramparts, only to stop suddenly and roll back, like a wave breaking against a cliff.  The boiling mists could easily conceal an army approaching any of the six great gates set in the crotches of the star-fortress – or the small sally portal in the southern wall.  Although the Citadel’s battlements could accommodate a legion of archers who could cut down any attacker with shaft after feathered shaft, all the archers had long since discarded their bows and left the walls to join the crowds on the lawn in the star-shaped courtyard below.  In fact, the fortress’s gates of wrought adamantine had been open now for centuries, so that the sorrowful faces of six forgotten gods, carved into the weighty lintel stones over each of the six grand arched gateways, could look out into the fog with their sightless stone eyes and – like Wolfhart -- despair that the attack the Citadel had been designed to withstand would never come.

Wolfhart gripped his spear grimly.  The elder gods – if any had survived the apparent triumph of the One God – seemed too weak to rescue those who had once worshipped them.  He glared down into the Citadel at the crowds of hopeless souls strolling aimlessly across the great lawn.  They meandered about the base of the ebony tower, where two torches burned in brackets at its doorway; the reflection of the flames slithered like liquid fire in the jet-black gleam of the polished stone.  These torches were kept burning, Wolfhart knew, to light the way up the tower’s dim, winding stairs and to ignite the great brazier of oil that stood on the high platform below the gold cupola.

The assault must still be possible, he thought.  It might still happen!

But he, his long blonde hair stirred by the winds that roiled the fog, was the only warrior left upon the Citadel’s far-flung battlements.  He alone kept watch.  Not to warn the Citadel’s aimless inhabitants should the long-forgotten assault finally come; not to rouse them to the defense of their own captivity -- no, he kept watch because he yearned with all the desperate passion of the eternal youth which had been given him – for rescue.

But it never came, and the gathering dead weight of his faltering hope fed his anger – and his hatred of those within the Citadel.  He looked down upon the hopeless fools, and watched them stroll through the shadows of the fortress’s collonades and arcades, past unfinished sculptures of the most exquisite artistry…marble faces with cheeks smooth enough to kiss, but with chins left rough-hewn; detailed locks of hair that abruptly yielded to chunky indistinctness; torsos celebrating the exquisite beauty of the feminine that did not taper into shapely thighs and calves but into ugly lumps of stone as the tools of the artist had succumbed to his material and his fashioning hand had fallen silent. 

Wolfhart watched as they wandered by murals on the walls, murals that were wrought by masters.  He couldn’t make them out from where he was, but he knew them well – scenes of creatures called satyrs dancing, of a god named Dionysus holding court over an orgy, of armies of Roman legionnaires, ranks upon ranks of them, their faces and limbs so lifelike that it seemed their very souls were trapped in the stone.  But not a single scene was finished: armies, satyrs and revelers faded again into the preparatory whitewash that was each work’s final message.

He also watched the idlers trample the remnants of unfinished mosaics which glittered like gems on the fringes of the brown-green lawn…. 

His gaze fell upon a clustered group of souls that seemed somewhat livelier than the rest.  One of them was speaking animatedly.  While the speaker’s  voice didn’t rise above the numbing murmur that filled the Citadel, Wolfhart could see him declaim and wave his hands emphatically as his blazing eyes raked the faces around  him for agreement.

Philosophers, Wolfhart thought.  ‘The great pagan thinkers.’  He remembered the conversations of these learnèd ones: at the beginning he had listened until he realized that what they said were only circular chants that sank the listeners into melancholy boredom as the speaker’s chain of logic wrapped around himself and he was driven to the edge of madness and, finally, to silence.  But that sudden silence, Wolfhart remembered, could not be borne by these philosophers, mathematicians and rhetoricians.  And so soon a new flurry of fevered speech burst out, and its very intensity drew those who had lapsed into silence and had begun to wander away.  He remembered the chilling dismay he’d felt as part of a group around one of these speakers.  As they made their way through the arcades and collonades of the Citadel, he slowly realized that each one in the group was deliberately forgetting that they’d heard all of this before – until the manic energy that propelled the speaker drove him, again, into the same ever-constricting spiral of logic that left his listeneners shaking their heads sadly at yet another failed attempt to break the mental chains that bound them.

Wolfhart now followed the group of philosophers with his gaze, focussing not on the intense speaker, but on a bald, older man among the listeners whom everyone kept glancing at as if looking for a cue. 

Plato, Wolfhart remembered.  But Plato was just like the other Greeks and Romans who propounded again and again the theorems that had secured for them the dubious honour of this afterlife granted by the One God.  Wolfhart looked away, glad that he couldn’t hear their blather about a revaluing of values that would somehow turn this defeat into a glorious triumph.

Instead, he looked upon warriors languishing in the arcades and sitting with their backs to the columns in the collonades.  These, he’d been told, were the heroes of Ilium and the benchmates of Odysseus, and they suffered more in this soul-crushing peace, in this spiritual defeat no force of arms could reverse than the thinkers who could at least delude themselves for brief moments that they were accomplishing something.  He focussed on one group lolling in an arcade.  None of them were armed – their swords, bows, spears and shields had long ago been discarded somewhere – and their eyes were cast down on the ground. 

In a distant echo of the spirit of the champion who steps before the host to engage an enemy in single combat, a broad chested, iron-thewed giant with blonde hair rose to his feet.  He began to speak, and Wolfhart recognized him as the one they called Achilles.  No doubt he was recounting his exploits in a battle long ago.  One by one the others raised their heads to listen, and Wolfhart could almost hear the clinking of bronze and iron as their bodies shifted.  Despite the gore, terror and glory that likely characterized Achilles’s tale, Wolfhart saw him falter, his hands grow more helpless in their gestures as his companions -- one by one -- looked away again, some spitting at the pointlessness of all the blood and suffering.

Wolfhart looked up at the sky, his gaze flashing past the black tower’s cupola.  These were all the ways, he thought, that the One God made certain that the hopelessness of those condemned to the Citadel was reflected in all things.

But he was not like the Greeks and the thrice-cursed Romans below!  Not anything like them! – and yet…why was he here?  Why was he among them?  He had died bravely in battle – he had died for Sieglind – so why was he here, and not in Valhalla?  He was the only one still on the battlements, the only one who still held a weapon! 

He gripped his spear’s haft with a grim strength as he turned back to the fog.   


A soul fled across the top of a barren escarpment, hot air shimmering around him as steaming gas rose from a trench of bubbling pitch below.  His naked body was blistered and streaked black, and his grey-blonde hair was caked with hardening tar – behind him soared a black demon with outstretched bat-wings.

“Thisss too isss a race you cannot win, my liberal grafter!” bellowed the reptilian horror, pink folds of skin rippling at the corners of its snake-like mouth.  It whirled a rope with two blackened grappling hooks over its head.  With powerful ease the demon stretched out one black-scaled arm – and the sharp hooks launched after the fleeing man.  They pierced his white, sinful flesh – his blood spurted and the naked soul screamed.

“Thisss time you will not pay for two antidotessss and ressceive only one,” the demon hissed, “for there isss no cure for the pitssch!”  He alighted on the escarpment with a leathery rustle of his wings and yanked on the grappling rope.  The shrieking soul was torn from his feet and fell with a viscous splash into the bubbling tar.

Scaly black arms bulging, the demon Malacoda wrenched and snapped the rope – until the hooks, shedding globs of pitch and blood, flicked up out of the hot ooze.


Anger smoldered in his eyes as Wolfhart shouted to the sky: “Where are the halls of the heroes that I was told of?  Where is Sieglind?  Wotan, hear me!  Holle, hear me!”

The dark fog gave no answer.

A hot flush of shame suddenly burned Wolfhart’s cheeks -- he realized that he was too much like the others, too cowed by this Citadel, by this grand manifestation of the might of the One God, to even think of escape!  But how could that have happened?  How had the hopelessness of the others so thoroughly infected him that he had waited for rescue – instead of acting?  Was this why he, alone of all the Kimbri who had fallen that snow-blind day at Vercellae, had ended up here?  Because his passivity and his cowardice were akin to that of the honourless Romans and the weak-kneed Greeks? 

No!  It could not be!  It must not be!  The gates were open – wide open!  He needed simply to stride through them to demonstrate that he had courage, and that he was worthy of the name Wolfhart of the Kimbri!

Demons would be dispatched to find him, he knew that, and there might even be demons waiting in the fog to devour him, as some of the philosophers of the Citadel believed.  But so be it!  He did not belong here, and better the eternal death of the soul than this unending unlife!  Gripping his spear fiercely, Wolfhart turned and jogged down the narrow stairs from the deserted battlements.  Now – finally! – he would pass through one of the Citadel’s seven gates and plunge into the forbidden unknown.  Leaping down the last steps, anger blinding him, he strode into the multitude on the lawn –  and he collided with the muscled form of a Greek warrior of the Bronze Age.

“Ah, the Kimbri child!  Where do you go, angry Wolfhart?”

“I am leaving!” Wolfhart snapped defiantly at Achilles, son of Peleus.

“A vain and hazardous venture it is to attempt to leave from where there is no leaving,” Achilles warned, seizing Wolfhart’s arm in an iron grip and pulling the younger and slenderer warrior closer.  “This is our fate.  Accept it as we have all accepted it.”

“No!”  Wolfhart wrenched his arm from the hero’s powerful fingers.  “I refuse to suffer this any longer!”

“I would also rather work as a day labourer in the fields of a poor man than while away eternity here,” the son of Peleus muttered.  “Yet it is a destiny we may not escape, for we were born before the Son of God came to the world.”

“I know nothing of this ‘God’ who keeps me prisoner here!” Wolfhart retorted.  “Holle and Wotan guided my steps in life, and I belong to them!”

“And who was it that chose this relationship, Wolfhart, son of barbarians?” an old Greek in long robes asked as he stepped around Achilles’ bulk.  Bald, bearded, fragile-seeming, but the most outspoken of those who wandered aimlessly about the Citadel -- Plato.  “You or these gods whereof you speak?”

“Do not try to confuse me, philosopher.  I am not one who thinks the world is made of words, like you do.  I know what is true and what is not!” 

“Ah, but you misunderstand me, young one.  I do not think the world is made of rough words – but of fine questions.  Some of which you would do well to ask yourself.”

“For a long time I waited for an answer to a question,” Wolfhart shot back, irritated by the old man’s air of superiority.  “But now I know that it is not the question – or even the answer that is important.”

“Perhaps you have been asking the wrong question then.”

 “No, the mistake was asking a question at all!”

“If this is your newfound truth, do you not think you would be better served asking yourself if you are simply persisting in error?”  Plato raised a warning finger.  “I, too, thought existence beyond the veil of death would be otherwise, but do you not realize that our presence here is proof of the dictum that the illustrious son of Peleus cites?”

Wolfhart tightened his grip on his spear.  “Your endless talking proves nothing – only that you do not have the courage to challenge this living death!”

Achilles’ battle-scarred face darkened.  “I – who terrified the heroes of Ilium with the irresistible power of my hands – I – do not have courage!?”

Realizing the fury he was provoking, Wolfhart abruptly turned and strode away.

“Do you think it courage to run into the darkness of error and despair?” Plato shouted after him.  “Can you not see that it is merely the headstrong folly of youth?” 

Wolfhart kept walking. 

“You will see, barbarian!  And you will be back before long!”

Those words haunted Wolfhart more than he liked to admit – for words precisely like those had kept him bound here for ages.  Yet with every step toward the grand archway of the northwestern gate, every step through the crowd and away from the fuming presence of Plato, he pulled away from one invisible chain after another.  The crowd thinned as the archway in the wall of monolithic black stone blocks came closer; cold dew glittered like gems on the adamantine bars of the open gate.  Without realizing it, Wolfhart picked up his pace, and he strode through the open gate like a man who expected it to close at any moment. 

He passed under the archway, and was through.  Impenetrable grey darkness loomed before him; it seemed the world beyond the walls of the Citadel was nothing but thick, roiling fog.  He clenched both fists around his spear, prepared to fight anything that might suddenly leap out of the mists.  He would not be denied.  He was determined to cast off his fear of the omnipotent ‘One God’ and escape. 

Or die. 

If he could.


“The lad is not stopping,” Plato realized.  He turned to Achilles.  “Why do you not hurry and fetch him back, son of Peleus?”

Achilles glowered down at the philosopher.  “My divine Mother, accompanied by her maids, rose from the sea at my death.  All nine Muses led the funeral songs in my honour while the great Gods and all my countrymen wept for seventeen days.  Only on the eighteenth was my body  finally given over to the flames, so great was the mourning for me, the hero of the slaughter at the gates of Ilium.  And although I would gladly exchange this shadow existence for that of a day labourer under the sun, here in the afterworld I am still he who was honoured in death like no man before -- and I should go chasing after a barbarian boy?”

“Where is Thetis, your ‘divine’ mother, now?” Plato countered.  “Where are your sea maids, your muses, your great gods?”  He paused pointedly.  “It is not a question of honour, oaf!  This is a violation of the very precept that is the cornerstone of the mild republic we have here!  Reprisals for this sort of transgression could be swift!  Go and light the signal fire at least!”

Achilles hesitated.  “Reprisals?  For what?”

Losing patience, Plato gathered his robes and marched off toward the black marble tower in the centre of the Citadel.  He knew Achilles watched his progress, the warrior rooted to the spot of their barbed exchange by wounded honour, so some steps before the tower Plato turned dramatically and shouted back over the heads of wandering souls: “Our afterlife need not be this easy!  We are left in peace because we uphold the justice which shaped the very walls that shelter us!  We must play our part – for we too could suffer – and will, if we do not at least warn our masters!” 

With that he plucked a torch from its sconce by the ebony tower’s entrance and disappeared into the gloom, his shadow flickering briefly on the wall.


Stumbling in the dark fog, tripping on rocks, Wolfhart found the stony ground around him suddenly lit from behind.  He looked over his shoulder and saw the crown of the Citadel’s ebony tower shimmering golden-bright in the mist. 

He fought down a sudden chill of fear – the fire was meant to alert  demonic watchers far below, in the towers of the Iron City of Dis.  He  swallowed nervously and kept moving.  The rebellious angels in those iron towers would see the warning fire from the Citadel and light their own signal…to summon one from even farther down.


“Ceasssse your futile strugglesss!” Malacoda hissed as he stabbed repeatedly into the bubbling pitch with his pitchfork.  “You will find no rock to hold you up!”

His wings suddenly twitched; he turned his ebony reptilian head and saw the summoning flame of Dis gleaming like a star high above the barren terraced hillsides of Lower Hell.  Nodding in acknowledgement, he unfurled his wings.  With a leathery rustle, he bounded to the top of the escarpment and called to a tawny-scaled demon patrolling some distance away: “Catclaw!” 

Catclaw turned, and in the heat shimmer rising from the trenches his golden eyes gleamed weirdly, cat-like pupil-slits widening in anticipation.

 “Obssserve thisss one,” Malacoda ordered, pointing to where his quarry remained sunk in the bubbling pitch.  “I have been sssummoned to thwart an essscape from the ssCitadel.”

Catclaw hissed in amazement, “The Citadel?”, and his sharp feline teeth showed between scaly lips.

“Yesss.  It hasss long been clear to me that we have left those ansscient dodderersss far too much freedom,” Malacoda said, tensing for a leap.  “Yet, only when sssomething of thisss sssort occurssss….”  Leaving his sentence to die away unfinished, Malacoda soared away from Catclaw, his powerful leg muscles releasing like steel springs.  Bat-like wings flapping with menacing grace, the demon flew over steaming ditches of pitch and terraced slopes of grey dirt, to finally disappear over falls where massive globs of glistening hot tar roared down to burst on jagged rocks below.


Wolfhart was making good progress up the foggy incline north of the Citadel; that was due to the fact that his eyes had adjusted to the darkness, and – ironically – that the signal fire from the Citadel provided just enough additional light.  He unwillingly recalled Plato’s words as he climbed, and the thought forced itself upon him that perhaps there was no irony, and that the darkness of spiritual error was simply his natural environment.  And that thought was linked with, and immediately followed by, one he had wrestled with throughout the ages: could the philosophers of the Citadel possibly be right?  Could Wotan and Holle have merely been delusions of his people? 

Plato’s words were hard to refute, and it seemed true that Wolfhart’s very presence in the Citadel among the virtuous who had worshipped so-called false gods did prove the old Greek right.  But then where were Sieglind and the rest of the Kimbri who had died valiantly that day on the snowy slopes, fighting unarmed against enemies who slaughtered like unprincipled murderers?  Surely the fallen of his people were virtuous too?  At least some of them? 

At least Sieglind! 

Wolfhart seized on that thought and used it to drive the doubts from his mind.  Of course Sieglind was honourable and virtuous!  I am sorry to doubt you, Lady Holle, he prayed silently as he reached the crest of a hill.  I dishonour you and my own family….

The mists were thinner on this height, and Wolfhart saw that he had come upon a path winding through the dark and stony land…a wide and distinct path, apparently walked by many before him.  And yet the stones and pebbles upon it were sharp, unsmoothed by the nearly weightless tread of spirits.  Wolfhart stepped onto the path and went northward, concentrating on wishing weight to his footfalls, wishing life to them.  Lost in concentration, one step blurring into the next and the next and the next, it was only when a feverish chill brought his trembling hand to his forehead that he realized he had been hearing the tell-tale liquid whisper of a mighty watercourse for some time. 

The Acheron! 

Forgetting his sudden weakness, he quickened his steps.  The Acheron was the first of Hell’s circling rivers, and since he was heading north from the Citadel it was the only one he had to cross.  As he neared the the river, his fever intensified.  Was he getting sick?  Was this some kind of punishment for escaping the numbing deathlessness of the Citadel?  He grit his teeth, and pushed on through dead, dried brush and tried to get to the river bank.  Thin, wailing cries eddied across the unseen, coursing Acheron; twigs snapped and branches cracked as he finally broke through the brush.

The wide river stretched out like a cold black plain before Wolfhart.  He could make out the faint line of the far bank in the gloom, but he could not discover the source of the cries haunting the air.  His eyes were drawn to the white hull of a boat glistening in the oily black water on his side of the river, a ferry moored to the shore.  Tightening his grip on his spear, Wolfhart hurried toward it – but a darkly robed figure appeared among the benches in the low-hulled ship.  A skeletal hand emerged from its sleeve, pushed back the robe’s cowl, and revealed an emaciated face crowned with a stiff bush of white hair, and dominated by eyes that were circles of fire.  A bony, accusing finger pointed at Wolfhart.  “Who comes from whence none may come?”

With splashing steps, Wolfhart hurried through the ankle-deep water toward the boat.  “I am Wolfhart, son of Arnulf of the Kimbri, and I must cross the river!”  The water was icy and his feet froze – but he reached the ferry and seized its low gunwale.

“Do not touch my ship!”  Wheels of flame flared from the eyes of the figure in the boat, illuminating the ghastly pallor of its face.  “Charon ferries only the damned who wait and wail on the far shore.  I carry no passengers from this bank!”

Wolfhart ignored Charon and leapt into the boat -- but because of his feverish weakness and his terribly chilled feet, he lurched clumsily into the ferryman.  “You must take me across old man!” Wolfhart demanded, turning and cutting the rope holding the ferry to a rock at the river’s edge with a swipe of his spear.  “I do not belong in this place and you will not stop me from leaving it!”

Charon’s skeletal fingers seized Wolfhart with startling strength. 

“Only the Almighty may compel me to do what is not in my nature to do!  I will not be commanded by a pup who has no respect for the ferryman of the dead!”

Wolfhart struggled with Charon as the ferry slipped into the river’s irresistible flow.   The ferryman’s strength was incredible while Wolfhart’s arms trembled and his feet were numb – he staggered as Charon wrenched at him.

“Fool!” the ferryman sneered, his overwhelming corpse breath billowing into Wolfhart’s face.  “If I do not row us back to the mooring from which you cut us, we will be at the mercy of the Acheron!”

Wolfhart dug the fingers of one hand into Charon’s robe and pushed the shaft of his spear against the ferryman’s sunken chest with the other.  “Row us across,” Wolfhart gasped, trying not to breathe the charnel stench.  “Row us across or I will let the river take your precious craft!”

“Never!”  With a violent heave, Charon cast him overboard.

Wolfhart splashed into the icy water -- his heart seized at the shocking cold and his fingers cramped about his weapon.  Like a stone he fell through icy black water.  Terror gripped him; through the sound of the gurgling bubbles escaping his mouth, the surge of the dark water streaming by his ears whispered: You need not fear, for there is no hope.  No hope of denying the justice and love that built Hell and causes the Acheron to flow.

The water towered over him as he sank -- the surface so far above --  and blackness enveloped him.  What hope was there to get back to the air?  What hope had there ever been?  He let himself sink; his lungs burned; and the blackness around him suddenly sparkled, blossoming with a myriad of colours.  Fascinated, he watched the motes of rainbow colour form a winsome smile – and the glitter in a young girl’s eyes.  He saw her face and remembered – Sieglind!  And her voice whispered to him in his liquid fall:  “Yes!  There is great wonder!  Yes!  There is great happiness!  Yes!  There is great pleasure and great joy!”

Life surged in Wolfhart, his heart thudded with sudden pain, and he remembered his body.  Sluggishly, he moved – a weak kick, another – a stroke, another, and he moved up through the cold, up through the icy flood.  Desperately he fought the desire to take a breath, that fatal liquid breath, and he focussed on the tip of his upward-pointing spear…as if it, in reaching the upper air first, could breathe for him.

And then – he broke the surface, splashing, gasping open-mouthed, moaning, thrashing like someone who could not swim.  Sweet cool air filled his aching lungs and he struggled to keep his nose above water.  He tried to orient himself and, fighting the leaden weight of his limbs,  set out toward the faint sound of voices.  His clumsy strokes were hampered by his spear, but they brought some warmth to his chilled heart.  He was cold, so cold, and somewhere behind his thrashing arms and kicking feet was Charon’s ferry.

“You will drown, you fool!  Come back and accept your fate!” 

The ferryman’s call faded as his ferry was swept along by the river’s thunderous flow.  Wolfhart fought against the current and the cold, trying only to keep his muscles moving.  But the Acheron’s cold was arctic, and Wolfhart’s limbs faltered and finally froze up; the Acheron’s flow was unwavering, and Wolfhart’s mind succumbed again to its dark.  Yet his hand refused to release his spear, and at the moment body and soul failed, the spear tip jabbed into the river bank.

Startled to semi-consciousness, Wolfhart grabbed wearily at a jutting rock and hung on.  Long moments went by before he pulled himself up onto the bank.  His knuckles white on his spear, he collapsed, half-aware of the naked feet of a crowd around him.


 “Gatesss open wide – no sssentriesss upon the battlementsss – !” Malacoda strode angrily through the southern sally portal of the Citadel.

A muscular human in bronze armour blocked his way through the gloomy tunnel.  “You are the hunter?” the human asked.

Malacoda stopped and, with a gruesome smile, set the butt of his pitchfork against the stone floor.  “You are no philosssopher,” he hissed.  “The obviousss isss the lassst thing to crossss their lipsss, not the firssst.  Ssso – Achillesss, isss it not? – who hasss sssucssceeded in essscaping thisss well-guarded ssCitadel?”

“A Kimbri – ” Achilles began.

Emerging abruptly from the shadows of the tunnel, Plato came rushing up to them.  “A barbarian boy,” he gasped, “ – too stupid to listen to reason!”

Achilles looked at the philosopher.  “Were you not in conference with the others?”

“Democracy – unfortunately -- is too slow to reach a decision in a crisis,” Plato said breathlessly.  “I take the responsibility upon myself to act quickly and decisively for us all.”  He turned to the demon.  “You – and your superiors – do understand that we had nothing to do with this?  You know, do you not, that we do not condone this behaviour?”

“I am not ssso sscertain,” Malacoda hissed slowly.  “You have left the gatesss wide open and have no sssentriesss posssted on the wallsss.”

Achilles stepped forward.  “Do not impugn our honour!  No denizen of the Citadel has ever before deigned to do such a thing, and we could not be expected to know it could still happen.  It is beneath our dignity to patrol the walls every day for the rest of time when there is no call for it!”

“Beneath your dignity, Achillesss, corpssse ssson of a corpssse?  Thisss dignity of yoursss – open gatesss and unmanned wallsss – will not be permitted to continue.”

Achilles’ nostrils flared and he curled his hands into massive fists.

Gripping his pitchfork with both claws, Malacoda stepped forward to meet the challenge.  He glared into the Greek hero’s smoldering eyes.  “Or elssse sssome more sssuitable punissshment will be found for you blasssphemersss and idol worsshipersss!”

“The Kimbri child is armed with a spear, as is the custom among his people,” Plato intervened.  “If you do not hurry he may well elude you!”

Malacoda aimed his pitchfork threateningly at the philosopher’s face.  “Do not attempt to dissstract me, old man.  I do not require a reminder of my dutiesss from sssomeone who doesss not know hisss.”

Beads of sweat broke out on Plato’s pate as he glanced down at the pitch-caked trident beneath his nose.

  “But I grow weary of tarrying here,” Malacoda muttered.  “The ssstench of humansss uncleansssed by the burning pitssch is offensssive.”  He slowly lowered his pitchfork.  “Your fatesss will be desscided by One far greater than I.” 

With a last cold glance at the fuming Achilles, the demon turned and stalked back down the tunnel toward the open gate.


“Fuck you, mom!  Just go fuck yourself you fucking bitch!  Look what you did to me!  Look where I’ve ended up!  If I get across and I find out you’re not here too I’m going to hate you even more!  Fucking bitch!”

“…and I wish I was never even born.  I wish you were never born either dad – and your father and every single generation before.  If I could, I’d go back in time and wipe out our first ancestor so that our family would never have existed at all.”

“…a piece of human shit!  That’s what I am!  A piece of shit going into Hell like I deserve!”

Wolfhart opened his eyes, the legs and feet of a wailing crowd all around him.  He was shivering, he was terribly cold – but he abruptly realized that he’d made it.  He had crossed the Acheron!  Now, somewhere – away from this cursed river – there had to be a way out.   He rose painfully, dazedly, and tried to push through the naked crowd.  But they resisted him.

“Hey!” snapped a pudgy woman in her 30s with stringy brown hair.  “Where the fuck do you think you’re going, dickhead?”

Her name had been Margaret, and the road that had led her to the shores of the Acheron had been a painful one.  Psychologically painful, for she was a lesbian whose response to the dawning realization of what she was, was to deny it.  Every time she denied herself, every time she lied to herself, she masked it by lashing those around her with the foullest of curses.  Every time she harmed herself, she took a step closer to the Acheron.  And every time she hurt others, she took another step.  By the time the final darkness claimed her in her mid-30s, she discovered that she’d traversed the whole distance and now stood on the banks of Hell’s first river, cursing her mother, cursing all those she knew, and finally cursing even herself.

“I must pass,” Wolfhart said wearily to her.

“Like fuck you do!  You’re going to cross this river and get what’s coming to you – like all of us!”

“Yeah,” a thin man with crazy eyes, yellow teeth and a patchy hint of mustache added.  “You’re in this with us, dude.  All for one and one for all!” 

His name had been Keith.  He had been gifted with a love of language and literature – and cursed with parents who could not understand that.  With a father who demanded excellence in things that mattered, and with a mother who insisted upon a room so neat that he could not sit upon the bed once it was made, nor play on the polished floor, nor have more than one pencil and one piece of paper on his desk at any one time.  He took his first steps toward the Acheron in his child’s evasion of these expectations.  He lied about his grades, and instead of cluttering his room, he cluttered his mind.  When he left his parents’ house he could have turned away from the Acheron, but he found that he had acquired a taste – and a talent – for mendacity.  He enjoyed the advantage it gave him over the unsuspecting and he preyed on those less loquacious than himself.  Faking a hipster’s expertise in Freud, he made himself everybody’s psychoanalyst and proceeded to tear them down so cleverly and so relentlessly that they became weak enough that even he could dominate them.  And every time he could have confronted the reality of his predatory life, he took refuge in the cluttering of his mind.  He did not turn away from madness, but he embraced it – and the freedom from responsibility it brought.  And so, Scavenger King of the underside of the city, the sickness in his mind fed the sickness of his body, until he found that he had chauffered himself on the backs of rats to the shores of the Acheron.   

Wolfhart brandished his spear in Keith’s face.  “Step aside or, by Gungnir, you will die again.”

“Fuck you, buddy.”

Before Wolfhart could turn to see who had spoken, a fist  hammered into the side of his head.  Staggering, his hand coming up at the pain in his temple, Wolfhart turned and saw a large and solidly built young man with an incongruously child-like mop of curly locks standing there.

His name had been Patrick, and there could hardly have been a bigger physical difference between him and Keith.  Patrick had early realized the enormous power that his physical size gave him.  He slipped into the role of bully easily, and had early felt the delight that came from having his every cruel and aggressive whim realized.  To his credit, a niggling sense of remorse stole its way into his heady reign of youthful terror and he turned to drugs to quash it – to give him that thrill of surging power even in the quiet moments when that little voice tried to get his attention.  Ah, he loved that high, and his bullying ways helped him get his hands on what he needed – and the things he’d done to get the stuff…!  Afterward, he always liked to take refuge in the word “addiction”, but even that didn’t stop those awful moments of lucidity when he suddenly remembered all the little decisions, all the moments when it was up to him, and all the little surrenders he’d done to get where he was – on a steady trek to the Acheron.  He had long been in sight of its cold black waters when he finally drowned the lucid voice inside him forever.

“At the end I was taking coke just to feel normal,” he said, his fists clenched.  “You can’t get to be normal– ” his fist suddenly lashed out again and  smashed into Wolfhart’s chin “– that easily.” 

Wolfhart crumpled to the pebbly ground. 

“You can’t just walk in the other direction,” Patrick lectured, standing over Wolfhart, “ – against the flow of everybody else!”

“Yeah,” Keith with the crazy eyes concurred.  “If it was that easy – fuck!” – he giggled – “I would’a done it a long time ago, bro!  A long time ago!”

Wolfhart, his head ringing, struggled to his knees.  “I have no quarrel with any of you.”  He planted the butt of his spear against the ground to help himself up – but Margaret grabbed a hold of it.

“But I’ve got a fucking qwor-rell with you, asshole!  You think you can just come here and act like you’re better than us – like you’re some kind of exception to the rules of God?  Fucking asshole!  We should kick you across the fuckin’ river!”

“Yeah,” Keith agreed, “you need a good butt-kickin’!”

“Kick him!” somebody screamed.

And they did.  Again and again.



The robed ferryman looked up from his work on his boat’s cut mooring tether.  His fiery eyes flared in disbelief: another one?  “Who approaches from whence none must approach?”

“Malacoda.”  With a weak flutter of his wings, the demon hopped onto the river bank.  “I quessst for an essscapee from the ssCitadel .  Have you ssseen him?”

“That barbarian boy?”

Malacoda shifted his grip on his pitchfork.  “Yesss.  Where isss he?”

Charon gestured dramatically at the rushing river. “Acheron has taken him.”

“He hasss drowned?” Malacoda asked doubtfully, stepping closer to the water line.  “You are sscertain?”

“He dared to set foot on my ferry unbidden.  So I threw him into the river.”  Charon folded his skeletal arms.  “No one can survive the icy despair of its kiss.”

His clawed toes spasming suddenly, Malacoda gingerly stepped back from the edge of the bank.  “I feel the truth of what you sssay.  It makesss one feel weak jussst to ssstand bessside itsss flow.  I do not believe that I can ssstill fly  acrosss.”

“Luckily you do not need to cross, demon.  Your hunt is ended.  Your quarry has perished.”  Charon bent again to his work.  “And it is also strictly forbidden for anyone to cross from this side.”

Suddenly furious, Malacoda strode to Charon’s moored boat and pointed his pitchfork at the ferryman.  “Do not try your power on me, old one!  If I require passssage, you mussst take me – and quickly!  I am quesssting for a fugitive, and the integrity of Hell isss a matter of the highessst order!”

“You do not need to cross.”

“Ssso you sssay….”  Malacoda’s small, pointed ears swivelled at sounds from across the river.  “Do they alwaysss make sssuch a din over there?”

“Yes, yes,” Charon said dismissively.  “Wailing and cursing – constantly.  It is the music of the Acheron.”

“No – not that – fighting.”


Malacoda fixed the ferryman with a determined look.  “You had bessst take me acrosss.”


No matter how they savaged him, Wolfhart did not relinquish his spear, and even as he fell he tore it from Margaret’s grasp.  His substance was assailed by their cruel blows and brutal kicks – but the lingering numbness of the river’s grasp somehow protected him.  During a lull in the storm of blows, Wolfhart staggered to his feet and slashed about wildly.

“Back, you cretins!” he snarled through bloody lips.  Stabbing and slashing, he waded into the naked crowd – and they yielded before him.  Parting, they allowed him to slowly move away from the river.  Wary of treachery, Wolfhart whirled every few seconds, his iron speartip whistling in a deadly arc.

“You’re a fucking prick!”

“You think you’re special and we’re not?”

“Eat shit, leather boy!”

“You can’t get out of Hell!  You’re dead, you moron!”

Wolfhart ignored their cries and forged out of the press – and onto a path leading uphill.  The exit must be at Hell’s highest level, at the very top of the spiralling pit, he thought.  But the last shout of those waiting to be ferried across the Acheron worried him.  Could the dead actually leave the afterworld?  He immediately reached for a source of hope: this was not the afterworld that the wise men and women of the Kimbri had spoken of.  He knew that he had died bravely in battle and that he should have gone to the hall of the heroes to be greeted by the Valkyrja with a horn of heavenly mead.  But a terrifying doubt assailed him: could it be that his death counted as a dishonourable one because he could not save Sieglind?  Was this then Niflheim, the land of shadows and, thus, his true fate? 


Malacoda impatiently leapt off the ferry before it touched the shore.  Wings fluttering weakly, he landed amidst the throng on the beach.

“Oh my G…” somebody choked.  “A demon!”

 “You would crossss the river sssomewhat more quickly if you had sssome competition,” Malacoda called back to Charon before turning his attention to the crowd.  “Ssstand assside!” he hissed.

Screams and shrieks resounded along the river bank.

“Sssilence!” Malacoda shouted as he swung his pitchfork.  He felt his strength return with every step he took away from the river.  “You will all feel the tormentsss of Hell sssoon enough!”  The crowd parted at his jabs; then Malacoda recognized one of them. 

“You!  You will be coming to the pitssch!  Isss it not fassscinating how your talk of ticking clocksss whilssst you yearned for war brought you to thisss?”  Malacoda abruptly lunged and ran the naked sinner through – the man’s small black eyes widened in pain.  “How doesss it feel?” Malacoda gloated at the writhing wretch.  The scaly muscles of the demon’s arms rippled as he twisted the fork in the wound.  “The sssweet sssensssuousssnesss of war!”  Then he violently wrenched the fork out, and a trail of blood spattered the crowd.  “But enough, junior – I have busssinesss to attend to before pleasssure.”

He turned to the cowed mob.  “I ssseek a young barbarian.  Where isss he?”

Keith, all yellow teeth and crazy eyes, stepped forward.  “Dude – ”  He paused.  “Can I call you dude?  I mean, I don’t want to insult you or anything – I mean, I’m kind of new here and I don’t know the etiquette – ”

“Sssilence!” Malacoda snarled, his reptilian eyes narrowing dangerously.  “Ssspeak to the point: where isss he?”

“Okay, right, yeah,” Keith sputtered, strangely excited at his own terror, “you’re a busy demon – I forgot – so sorry – have pitchfork will kick butt, eh?”

Malacoda stepped forward threateningly.

“That way, dude!” Keith announced with a flourish, making his whole body point in the direction that Wolfhart had gone.  Only his terrified brown eyes were turned to Malacoda.  “I’m serious!  The kid said, ‘I’m getting out of here!’ and then went that way!  I wouldn’t lie to you!”

Malacoda sniffed Keith, and then glowered at him.  “Yesss, you would…but not thisss time.”  And with a buffet of leathery wings that knocked crazy-eyed Keith down, Malacoda flew heavily over the crowd.


Not far from the Acheron the air darkened; a droning buzzing filled the black haze and was accompanied by sighs, cries and wails in a confusion of languages and accents – shouts of pain and of anger, hoarse voices, shrill voices and the repeated sound of blows.

Wolfhart stopped as a white banner materialized out of the darkness and whipped past his face, seemingly borne by the wind.  The next instant a stampeding storm of bodies smashed into him, and he was trampled by a shouting mob running at high speed.  Above the cacophony of their raucous voices and trampling feet, the deafening buzz of a cloud of wasps and hornets made its way down to his ears.  He grunted in pain as feet slammed into him again and again, and he became aware of fluid spattering him – gouts of pus and blood dribbling down like rain from the mad men and women rampaging over him.  He was driven deeper with every impact into a ground that was soft, slimy and squirmed under him.

Maggots! he realized as they wriggled against his face and into his hair.  Worms!  As abruptly as it began, the stampede ended.  Dazed, Wolfhart tried to push himself up but his arms sank down to the elbow in the slippery, wriggling mass.  Disgusted, he tried to find some footing – and was so pre-occupied by this that he only had time to grunt in surprise as he was knocked face down in the slime again by the last stragglers of the circling mob.

Groaning, he finally managed to push himself up, crushed insects smearing his hands, his face, and his clothes.  The insistent buzzing that filled the air of this dim place suddenly got louder – and before Wolfhart could react, a swarm of wasps and hornets engulfed him.  Thousands upon thousands of yellow and black bodies filled his vision and their terrifying drone filled his ears.  Madly he waved his arms to fend them off – but he felt no bites.  And the sound lessened – and the cloud of insects passed.

His heart thudding, Wolfhart wondered why he was spared.  But his thoughts were cut short – the white banner flickered in the darkness behind him, coming on again with stunning speed, pursued by the wild, shouting mob.  Lurching, trying to gain purchase in the swamp of maggots, Wolfhart waded desperately to get out of the way.  But the shrieking of the fighting and cursing crowd swelled insanely and Wolfhart was blown face first into the writhing insect mess by a hurricane push as they stormed by.

Spitting maggots, Wolfhart realized he was lucky to have been a step outside the mob’s orbit.  He stood up carefully as the mass of bodies – and their pursuing swarm of wasps and hornets – raced away.  He marked where they turned to follow the white banner into the darkness, guessed the path of their circle and how soon they would return, and then waded furiously to be completely out of the orbit of their passing.  After a few breathless moments of slogging, the shrieking crowd raced by again, but this time the hurricane winds they produced only served to give Wolfhart a final push out of the swamp of maggots and worms -- and onto solid ground.  Gasping with relief, he stamped the slimy insects off his boots. 

He looked into the gloom – and saw a dark stone archway at the crest of a small hill.


Back on the other side of the maggot field, Malacoda watched the white banner flash by.  Leaning into the storm winds, he forged through the maggots toward the racing crowd.  He held his arm out – and clotheslined a member of the whirling mob.  Dragging the choking wretch back from the stampede by his hair, Malacoda dropped him onto the hard ground beyond the glistening worms.             

“I will sssimplify mattersss for you, fensce-sssitter,” the demon hissed.  “You will not have to weigh sssidesss to determine which one isss likely to impossse itssself – I am imposssing myssself, and you will do asss I sssay.”

“What…do you want?” the spirit croaked.

“A barbarian boy.  Have you ssseen him?”

“There was somebody wandering about out there – but I didn’t pay attention.  Alone, isolated – he can’t be a factor, I figure.”

“Not like the banner, my friend?  The banner that leadsss to victory?”

“The banner!  I have to get back!  I can’t let the others be first behind it!”  The spirit struggled to rise, but Malacoda pushed it back down with a clawed foot.

“Not ssso hasssty.  Did you and your compatriotsss trample him into the maggotsss or did he crosss?”

“How should I know?  Like I said, he’s a non-entity.”

Malacoda pressed down with all his weight.  “Consssider.”

The spirit’s cunning eyes flashed with alarm.  “Okay, okay, I remember.  He crossed over.  He’s on his way to the gate.”

“Are you sscertain?”

“Hey, it’s what you want to hear, isn’t it?”

Malacoda reached down with sudden fury, grabbed the startled spirit by the hair and threw it violently into the crowd that stampeded by again. 

“Damned opportunissstsss,” the demon muttered to himself.  “I mussst asssume the worssst.” 

He leapt up, wings flapping, and plunged into the cloud of wasps and hornets that pursued the screeching mob.


Wolfhart trudged the last three dozen steps to the stone gate, his eyes fixed on the area around his goal.  There was solid darkness to the right and to the left of the archway – and above it -- for as far as he could see.  The chill of nothingness emanated from that blackness, and Wolfhart guessed that he could not – should not -- step into it.  Within the stone arch there was a nebulous greyness, bright in comparison with the utter blackness.  The gate itself seemed the only way out…and suddenly Wolfhart was afraid.  Could he really pass through?  Would he find himself in the hall of heroes on the other side?  Or was his whole journey in vain and this ‘God’ would somehow prevent his escape at the last moment?

He whirled at a sound…but nothing moved on the barren slope down to the hazy maggot plain.  He was hearing things…. 

He turned to the gate – and a blast of wind came from above.  A nightmare creature dropped from the endless black sky, landing with cat-like grace to block Wolfhart’s way.  The black, scaly, lizard-like demon levelled a pitchfork at Wolfhart to drive him back.

No!  Not now!  Not when I was so close!

A black, forked tongue flicked out from the demon’s scaly lips. “Child,” Malacoda snarled, taking a step forward, “you have come far enough!  You have led me a merry chassse, but now you mussst return to your little ssCitadel.  If, however, I could desscide, you would come back down to the pitssch with me inssstead!  Along with all the ressst of the blasssphemersss in the ssCitadel!”

Wolfhart held his spear for a sudden thrust.  “I would rather die than go back!”

Malacoda laughed -- and with a lightning-fast strike of his pitchfork batted Wolfhart’s spear aside.  “You are dead, child!  One way or another, you will return with me.”

“You would not have been sent to stop me if I could not step through that gate!” Wolfhart snapped, striking back at the demon’s pitchfork with a blow of his spear.  A loud clack of wood on metal resounded, and the demon’s weapon was pushed aside. 

“Interesssting.”  Malacoda tightened his grip on his pitchfork and aimed it anew at Wolfhart’s mid-section.  “And the philosssopher claimed you were ssstupid!  Yet the fact of the matter, child, isss that you will not ssstep through that gate – because I will not permit it!”

Malacoda suddenly thrust – but, using his spear like a quarterstaff, Wolfhart caught the pitchfork between two of its tines.

“If you are all that stands between me and Sieglind,” Wolfhart snarled as  he strained against the demon’s strength, “– between me and Valhalla – then I am almost there!”  With an explosive push he abruptly threw Malacoda back.

Stumbling, the startled demon regained his balance on the threshold of the gate.  “Where did you acquire sssuch ssstrength?” Malacoda muttered in amazement, his reptile eyes narrowing suspiciously.  He unfurled his wings.

“Perhaps you are unused to dealing with those who have a will,” Wolfhart shot back, “with those who do not succumb to you – with those who do not fear you!”  Wolfhart stabbed at Malacoda and wondered as he did it: Can demons even be destroyed?

“No,” Malacoda uttered, expertly parrying the thrust, forcing Wolfhart’s spear tip down and to the side before whirling into a swinging counterstrike, “ -- it must be an effect of the Acheron!”

Wolfhart ducked beneath the pitchfork’s whistling arc and struck up at Malacoda’s unprotected belly.  But Wolfhart stabbed into emptiness as the demon’s flapping wings bore him to safety – behind Wolfhart.  With a triumphant snarl Malacoda jabbed at the youth’s unprotected back – but Wolfhart spun with blistering speed and parried.  Quickly bringing his speartip up to point at the demon’s forehead, Wolfhart gasped, “So now the gate is behind me – I have but to take one step back…!”

“If you do,” Malacoda hissed, “you will be ssset upon by three wild beassstsss – the lion of pride, the leopard of fraud, and the ssshe-wolf of desssire – who will tear your sssoul to ssshredsss.  And an alarm will sssound in Heaven bringing a messsenger of irresssissstible power to return you to your rightful place.  Ssso, you sssee, resssissstance isss pointlesss.”

“Interesting choice of words,” Wolfhart jabbed at the demon’s face.  Malacoda immediately commited to a parry – but Wolfhart pulled back his head-high thrust and rammed the spear into Malacoda’s belly.  For a terrifying instant the creature’s gleaming ebony scales resisted the bronze speartip – but suddenly they gave way and the spear plunged deep.  Wide eyed, Malacoda staggered back, dropping his weapon and clutching the spear in his stomach. 

Even as the demon fell, Wolfhart did not release his grip on the spear.  He looked down on the writhing demon – and grimly wrenched his spear free.  Gouts of green ichor burst from the pulsing wound in the torn black flesh, spattering over Wolfhart, the barren ground, and the stone archway itself.

A hideous smile crinkled through bubbles of green slime on Malacoda’s reptile lips.  “You have – sssealed – your fate,” the demon gasped.  “My blood – will sssummon – the Almighty.”

A sudden chill doused Wolfhart’s hot sense of triumph.  He wanted to immediately turn and run through the gate, but…for long seconds…he remained frozen, watching the demon’s body melt as if it were wax.  The humanoid shape shrunk to lumps which dissolved into black puddles which evaporated before Wolfhart’s eyes to become a threatening black vapour. 

Wolfhart finally tore himself away and, holding his breath, dashed through the stone archway –

Into a world of sunlight.

Blinking against the sudden brightness, he saw a deep valley stretch out below him.  At its far end rose a small, grassy hill – and directly under him waved the green leaves of a dark, inviting wood.  Freedom!  In that forest, among the comforting boles of trees dappled with light and shadow by the play of rustling leaves, in there he’d find freedom!  Wolfhart’s mind filled with visions of the holy groves of his people – those sacred spaces in the depths of the forests where Holle and Wotan touched the Kimbri with their mysteries.

With renewed hope, he bounded down toward the trees -- but as he began his descent, he glimpsed movement on the hill at the far end of the valley.  He stumbled, forced himself then to concentrate on his footing – but kept glancing at that hill.  Three shapes – large animals he guessed – were running down its slope.  So the demon’s threat was not an idle one.  The animals it had described were real – and raced toward the forest to intercept him!  He tried to reassure himself with the thought that they had the whole valley to cross, that he would get into the sheltering wood before they reached him – but another glance revealed to him that their speed was awesome.  He redoubled his own efforts and clattered madly down the stony slope.  For the first time in his flight he truly felt the hardness of the earth through the soles of his boots.  He skidded on loose shale, scraped his hands, his elbows, his knees, but got up and ran on; the waving crowns of the nearest pines seemed to beckon him to hurry.

Something gleamed suddenly on the summit of the hill at the end of the valley.  Unable to stop himself, Wolfhart looked into a blinding white light that flared on the hill’s crest.  Immediately he tore his eyes away from the winged being materializing in that blistering corona and dangerously increased his speed.  He tripped, tumbled, rolled, was dashed against rocks until, dazed and blind with pain, he came to a crushing stop against the trunk of an oak. 

Head spinning, Wolfhart blinked up at the wavering pattern of the the bark…and suddenly remembered.  His eyes widened as suppressed images flooded into his mind.  Forgetting his pain under the onslaught of memory, he rose shakily to his feet.  He took a few halting steps up the slope, picked up his spear, then limped into the cool safety of the forest.  With every step the pain lessened, and memory after memory flared in his mind.  Soon he was loping among the trunks and roots without really seeing them, the sure step of one raised in the woods coming back to him. 

A flying white mare – and his own bloody body held firmly in the lap of a Shield Maiden – a Valkyr – her one white arm around his chest while she held the reins of her flying steed in her other hand.  The dizzying, majestic vista of the Great Mountains, the Alps – gleaming white peaks with purple shadows – far below.  The mountains paling beside the breathtaking vision around him: dozens of white horses, spears strapped to their sides, gallopping through the blue sky, each ridden by a Valkyr in steel breastplate and flowing skirts.  Bronze shields strapped to their backs, each Shield Maiden held a brave Kimbri soul chosen for the hall of heroes.  Then, scenes of terror: a horde of naked winged men, glowing with unearthly golden light, swooped out of the sun -- winged men like the one that had just materialized at the top of the hill at the other end of the valley.  The Shield Maidens had snatched up the spears strapped to their mounts and fought the attackers valiantly – but one-handedly, for they held fast to the fallen warriors they had chosen.  They were Valkyr, and lost only one of the Kimbri destined for the hall of heroes.


That bitter memory made Wolfhart’s eyes glitter with tears – he  was torn from the Shield Maiden’s arms by one of those unearthly, inhumanly beautiful winged men.  The angel had quickly veered off with his prize and had fallen into a steep dive, swooping down into this very valley.  The angel had shot through the archway and only then slowed to glide through the gloom and fogs of upper Hell to the vast star-shaped Citadel.  Wolfhart remembered now being dropped on that trodden green lawn, dropped at the feet of a group of robed philosophers.

By Holle!  By Holle!  That was how the hall of heroes had been stolen from him!  And he had been chosen!  He had been chosen!  But instead of the comradeship of great warriors, instead of celestial mead and long evenings in the company of Shield Maidens, he had been condemned to an eternity of soul-numbing despair! 

A roar suddenly blasted through the trees, shaking the very ground beneath Wolfhart’s feet.  The roar was followed by a blood-freezing howl that echoed eerily among the cathedral-like trunks, as if Wolfhart were surrounded by wolves.  He tightened his grip on his spear and ran on, the sounds of pursuit – the swish of brush, the fast padding of huge paws on the earth – growing ever  louder, ever closer.  Abruptly he broke into a clearing ringed by stately oaks and beech trees – and what he saw in its centre made him trip in surprise – and fall at the hooves of a holy white horse.  Stunned, he looked up at the rider -- at the familiar skirt and steel breast-plate of a Shield Maiden. 

Then his heart stopped.

Spear in one hand, shield in the other, Sieglind – his Sieglind -- smiled down at him.

Wolfhart leapt up.  “Sieglind!  By Holle, Sieglind!”  He touched her skirt and felt the leg beneath it, unable to believe that she was real.  He looked  into her blue eyes.  “I did not even dare to hope for such a meeting…!  But – but, but how is it that you have become a Shield Maiden?!”

The laughing, innocent girl with wild unbound hair that he had known was stern and serious now, her tight blonde braids emerging from under a battered steel helm.  “Wolfhart,” she said with a voice heavy with melancholy, “the ranks of the Valkyr have been thinned in a long war that we have been losing.”  She turned her head to the sounds of animals crashing through the wood.  “Human-born maidens have been called upon to take up the mantle of goddesses,” she went on.  “But now ready your spear, because our foes are upon us!”

Branches and leaves where Wolfhart had entered the grove suddenly shook and gave way.  A massive tawny lion with a great black mane and burning green eyes, a sinewy spotted leopard and an emaciated silver-black she-wolf broke into the clearing at a run – and leapt for Wolfhart.  Instantly he knew he could not avoid their attack and so did the only thing he could: he braced his spear against the earth and met the charge of the most powerful one.  The snarling lion pounced -- into a shivering shower of blood, the ripping crimson tip of Wolfhart’s spear emerging between its shoulders.  The mighty beast buried a staggering Wolfhart beneath its bulk and its claws tore at him in its dying frenzy. 

Wolfhart hissed in pain, but still kept his hands on the butt end of the stout spear that jutted from the great cat’s chest, his fingers sticky with the lion’s hot blood.  Slashed, winded, crushed, Wolfhart pushed vainly against the dying beast while the snouts and claws of the leopard and the she-wolf scrabbled under the lion’s bulk to get at him.  Abruptly he found himself staring into the leopard’s luminous orange eyes – eyes that suddenly widened in pain.  Snarling, the big cat’s face disappeared.

Wolfhart, his slashed skin burning, pushed up with every shred of strength in his trembling limbs and heaved the dead bulk of the lion off.  Gasping, he tried to pull his deeply embedded spear out of the massive corpse -- but the slavering she-wolf pounced on him.  Her sharp teeth closed on his forearm, he bit back a scream as he fell beneath her.  He punched wildly at her nose with his free hand, and she yelped and released his arm – but her foam-flecked jaws descended for his face.  Wolfhart jammed his bloody hands into her chest, pushing back against the momentum she was using to bear down on him.  He stared into her glittering brown-black eyes as her sharp canines snapped shut a finger’s breadth from his nose.

Scarlet blood suddenly spurted from her black nostrils – and her dark eyes glared with outrage.  The she-wolf turned to see Sieglind’s spear buried deep in her side -- and the bloody corpse of the leopard lying at the Shield Maiden’s feet.  With a howl that checked Wolfhart’s heaving chest in mid-breath, the she-wolf leapt for the blood-spattered Shield Maiden.  But a second thrust from Sieglind’s spear choked the howl into a dying whimper.  The she-wolf collapsed and lay in a pool of blood; her open, angry eyes slowly lost their glitter. 

Breathing heavily, Sieglind held her hand down to Wolfhart.  He grasped it and allowed her to pull him up.  “Are you hurt?” he groaned.

“Not as much as you,” she answered, catching him as his knees suddenly buckled.  He waved her hand away and straightened painfully.  His breathless gasp -- “Just a scratch“ -- was cut off: Sieglind’s white mare whinnied in terror as white light exploded above them.

Shielding their eyes, Wolfhart and Sieglind saw an angel, perfect and inhumanly beautiful, flaming sword in his grip, alight in the grove.  Bright light streamed from his pristine nakedness as his large white wings folded against his back.  He turned the cold beauty of his eyes first on Wolfhart, then on Sieglind.  “He is Ours,” the angel intoned, majestically pointing his flaming sword at Wolfhart.  “Surrender him at once, or face the wrath of the Almighty.”

“Begone, arrogant one!” Sieglind shouted back as she tightened her grip on her shield.  “Your god has no rights in this sacred grove – and no claim to this warrior.  Concern yourself with those who give themselves willingly to your god!”

“The Almighty is the ruler of all Creation” the angel retorted with a  voice that echoed like brass.  “Repent your sinful heathenism and surrender to His justice.”

“Never!” Sieglind shouted.

With a roar deeper and more soul-shaking than that of the lion, the angel swiftly unfurled his wings and launched himself at her.  She raised her shield, stopping the angel’s fiery sword from cleaving her in half – but the stroke splintered her shield to atoms and threw her into the centre of the clearing.  The angel did not give Sieglind a chance to recover: with another powerful beat of its wings it landed astride her.

“When you leave that little corner of the universe in which you hide yourselves, you expose yourselves to the power of the Almighty,” the angel exulted, raising his crackling sword high for the killing stroke.  “Long have you all been sentenced to death – I merely execute a Divine command!”

Wolfhart, who had been wildly wrenching at his spear in the lion’s body, suddenly came up with his bloody weapon.

In this holy grove, may Gungnir itself guide my aim! he prayed as he drew back his arm and quickly let the spear fly.  At the last instant the angel became aware of the missile and turned, his blade a fiery arc through the air.  The flaming sword sheared the spear in half, but what remained of Wolfhart’s missile -- not much more than a thick arrow -- sped on and bit deep into the angel’s naked side.  Beams of silvery light instantly burst out from the gash and the angel went down to his knees in pain.

“Hurry!” Sieglind shouted to Wolfhart as she seized the reins of her restless steed and mounted.  Wolfhart ran and leapt up behind her, but before he had properly settled, Sieglind touched the sacred horse’s flanks with her heels and the mare surged into the sky.  Cold wind coursed over their faces, and an instant they were high above the trees.  Wolfhart held Sieglind’s waist tightly as he looked down. 

With a convulsive effort the angel tore the speartip from his body; another gushing flare of white light escaped from his side.  Pressing a hand there, wings beating erratically, the angel rose from the grove to give chase.

Sieglind leaned forward on her gallopping horse, guiding the sacred steed higher.  Her braids brushed Wolfhart’s face – and suddenly he glimpsed a rainbow above the clouds.  His heart leapt – the rainbow bridge to the home of the gods!  He looked down again – and the smile froze on his face: the angel’s wings were beating strongly and the messenger of the One God streaked after them, flaming sword held up to cut them down.

“Faster!” Wolfhart whispered into Sieglind’s ear.

“We’re almost there!”

Wolfhart looked down again – and saw that the distance that had been closing was widening again.  The angel faltered; beams of light shot out in all directions from between the fingers the angel held to his side.  The angel’s wingbeats became erratic again – and even as Sieglind’s mount gathered for a leap into the saving glimmer of the rainbow, the angel’s wide white wings gave out completely and he dropped away, spiralling helplessly downward.

“Now!”  Sieglind threw one leg over her mare’s withers, turned in the saddle, and kissed Wolfhart, her hot tongue entering his surprised mouth.  His eyes widened: her lovely face was alive with shimmering motes of rainbow colour.  Then he closed his eyes and gave himself completely to the kiss.  When it ended a breathless eternity later, he opened his eyes to see the sacred mare gallopping within sparkling rainbow mist and Sieglind’s arms around his shoulders.  She smiled at him. 

“Now, Wolfhart of the Kimbri, now you are finally free!”


The End

© 2005-2006 by Patrick R. Burger.  Patrick R. Burger is the author of "The Political Unconscious of the Fantasy Sub-Genre of Romance" and several published book reviews.  He is married to the wonderful Amanda, with whom he globetrots and whose literary insights are worth gold.



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