Bewildering Stories

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The Messenger

by Ásgrímur Hartmannsson

Ori, Nort and Nibu walked through the forest. They, the sons of King Omenni, were on a hunt. They had their bows and obsidian tipped arrows, and their bronze daggers at their sides like true noblemen.

They had just killed a deer, cut up the meat, and had sent Snati the messenger to get help to carry the meat back to the kingdom. At great length they began to wonder at the time it took Snati to bring back help, and they became restless and argumentative.

They did not notice right away the warriors closing in on them, losing the chance to run before it was too late; Nibu was struck in the head with a rock, and fell to the ground. Ori and Nort drew their bows, and shot into the woods. Loud screams told when they hit, but they soon ran out of arrows; and then the enemy appeared: a dozen men with fiery eyes and shrubby hair came running out of the thicket, throwing rocks and swinging large clubs. The attackers wore skins draped over their shoulders, sewn around the edges with a string around the waist.

Ori and Nort ran out of the woods and in sight of the kingdom. They saw on the field before them Snati and five peasants walking toward them.

Snati and the peasants wondered why the two princes came toward them in such a hurry, and stopped in their tracks to await them. Then they saw the army of barbarians come running after them, at least a hundred strong, all swinging clubs, and carrying large bags of stones to throw. Snati and the peasants thought it best to run also and made it to the great city of Okea ahead of the princes.

The people of the city were alarmed, and the guards were called to duty. The king ordered the army to go out to fight the barbarians, and they went out just as the princes arrived through the gates.

And the army ran out toward the long line of barbarians in a swarming mob, armed with bronze swords and mallets and short bows, and armoured with bronze breastplates and helmets. And the barbarians came at them from three directions and threw stones at them, and the army shot arrows at the barbarians, and there were casualties on both sides.

And the barbarians had them surrounded and they attacked them with their heavy clubs, and the army defended itself with their swords and mallets, and the noise of battle was so loud it could be heard to the next kingdom.

Soon the army ran out of arrows, but the barbarians never seemed to run out of rocks. And they threw their rocks into the swarm of fighters, and dented many breastplates and many helmets.

And as the bronze swords became blunt and bent, the barbarian clubs remained heavy and hard, the army of the kingdom lost its edge and was forced to flee. But they were still surrounded, making flight difficult, and only one-third of them could stumble back to the city.

And thus the gates were closed, and the city surrounded by barbarians; and the people watched over the walls as the barbarian forces sorted the bodies, buried their own and burnt the others in a huge pile. And it seemed to the people that they had lost more than the barbarians.

And the king asked his two sons what happened to his third son, Nibu.

“He was slain in battle,” said Ori.

“We were attacked by many barbarians,” said Nort.

King Omenni asked his advisor how the battle had turned out. The advisor told him, they had sent out four tens of men, the entire armed force, and lost all but one and a half dozen. He could not say how many barbarians had been slain, but he guessed there had been many. Snati looked over the wall, and counted no more than ten. But he wasn’t sure, because he was missing a finger.

King Omenni saw this was bad, and he mulled it over for the night. In the night the barbarians lit a campfire, and they sang and drank fermented honey and milk.

And in the morning the king had made his decision. He would send Snati the messenger to king Loki, two days’ trip away, and get reinforcements from him. He said to Snati:

“You must go to king Loki, and you must tell him we have barbarians at the gates, and that they are many; some say there are a hundred of them, all superior fighters. And remind him if he refuses that his sons are married to my daughters, and my sons to his daughters. And tell him, if he succeeds, that I will give him my youngest wife.”

And Snati learned the message, and prepared to run out of town. The gates were opened, and six men ran out, and Snati after them, and the men fought with the barbarians, keeping them busy while Snati got away.

Snati went far into the woods. He stopped to think that in the night he would forget some of the message. A wise man had once told him, that man remembers better what is bound in meter. So Snati sat on a log, and started to bind his message in meter. For hours he worked on this.

Snati was most happy with how his message worked out in rhyme, even if he had to compromise a little in regards to content. But no matter. He repeated it often as he walked through the forest, fastening it in his memory, making revisionary touches as he went.

The next morning Snati woke up, and recalled the poem he would recite to king Loki. He still thought it might need touching up, and he had enough time yet, as he was just yet at the outskirts of Loki’s domain.

When he reached the gates of Loki’s palace, the poem was all finished. And he met with the king, and he sang the revised poem:

Glorious Loki the king,
I have a song to sing,
with a message inside,
with nothing to hide.

King Omenni wants to remind you,
that you have his daughters
and he has your daughters,
and he has barbarians, too.

He wants to give you his wife,
to spend with your life,
if you send troops to his city,
if not, it is a pity.

And as king Loki heard the message, he was silent for a while. He did not know which hurt his ear more, the prose or the singing. Also, he did not know what to make of this message. It was so cryptic, yet so bluntly threatening in a strange and peculiar manner. He wondered why his old friend Omenni wanted to extort him, and what he wanted.

King Loki guessed he had to take possession of this aforementioned wife to save his daughters from barbarians. With that, he worried profusely about this woman he was supposed to take, thought she must be the worst shrew. And he was quite offended at the thought. So he said to Snati, “Tell king Omenni, that I will not take his wife if she is a shrew. If he wants to get rid of her, I suggest he take her for a walk in the woods and slit her throat there and bury her under a tree himself, and not bother me further.”

And Snati went back with the message, and on his way fixed it into meter. And when he came back to the land of Okea, he saw that the barbarians were still there. And when he approached the city, they threw rocks at him, so he barely got through the gates alive.

The king was most happy to see him, and asked when the reinforcements would arrive. And Snati sang for him his poetic rendering of king Loki’s message:

You must go to the woods with your wife,
you must kill her there with a knife,
you must bury her under a tree,
and then you can be free.

King Omenni had no idea why king Loki would say such things. But now it was too late to send Snati back to ask him, because they had run out of arrows and spears, and the food would run out tomorrow.

In a week they gave up, and they were raped and killed by the barbarians, not necessarily in that order; and the few that got away came to king Loki a week later and asked him why he did not send help. He replied to them by asking why they had not asked for help. And they told him about the messenger. King Loki listened to them intently, and mulling it over, he came to a conclusion: they must come up with a way to send messages that did not involve the memories of feeble-minded messengers.

He put his wise men on the job. The wise men thought and pondered and researched for a moon, and came up with a few ideas, each more outlandish than the next. The ones most likely to be doable were researched into further.

One idea was sounding drums, putting up relays between cities, to further the message. Two messengers were sent to the nearest city, Artlin, a two-day trip on foot, with drawings of the apparatus. A code had to be worked out later.

Another idea was signaling with light. A fire would be lit in a tower, and cast a long way with help of a polished bronze mirror. Fewer relays would be needed, and so the king put this in use between his city and the farthest city, Murvil, a week’s trip away. It took three months to get the message to them uncorrupted, and king Loki passed a law banning all “improvements” imposed on his messages on the pain of public flogging.

These two means of communication caused a new technology, as people had to make sense of all the banging and flashing emanating from the relays. They jotted down dots on skin or on wet clay, a dot for blink and a dot for a bang, and a line for long silence. And as the years passed, there came the idea, that maybe it would be easier to just send the piece of clay or skin with the markings on them, instead of keeping the relay towers, which constantly needed supplies and a shift-change.

And so, the messengers were sent running again, this time they did not have to rely on their memory.

Copyright © 2004 by Ásgrímur Hartmannsson

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