Alan Jackson

The Northern King has ridden out against the southern foe. No such battles are known now on earth. In their shared mind the men were inspired to total implacable deadliness and determination to destroy the armed might of the southern race. Not for gold or glory or to take land, but to break the spell of the demon-forces that ruled in the south, to cut the continuity of their diseased stock out of earth-life.

The men were not individually afraid, at all. It was impossible. They were members of a being; the life that animated them was more than the life of one as we think now. Blood-vitality and vision burst and bristled in them beyond the confines of their skin, far out into the woods and weathers of the world. The stars that were their stars shone and crackled in their chests as well as in the sky, and when they were told that the time to ride and kill had come, the heart in them was already tuned and turned to action. Messengers and survivors had arrived at different times, telling of the enemy's foul practices.

But they had already known. For weeks and weeks already, in their sleep-life, leering prowling shapes had appeared, looming, prodding at them and defying. They had growled and muttered to each other by day, waiting and wanting to be led in the direction they knew they came from. In some ways they were crude men, but they were a decent and true folk. They did not torture. They did not savage women. They did not spit in the wells of life.

Their leader, the Jarl, was the best among them, and if he had not been, he would not have been Jarl. It was not that he was mightiest in build or best with axe and blade. They were all warriors. He was elected by shout and clang of iron on iron for what, at that time and for some years now, shone from his forehead. The leadership was on him, the voice was in him, command spoke in his movements. That was how they knew. They chose him because he had already been chosen.

He didn't abuse his power. There was no danger of him becoming a tyrant. You cannot become tyrant over men, any one of whom might, at the slightest slight, have your head off in one blow before you knew he'd done it. Not that that was the reason, though if a man turned bad, he did not last long.

No; if they were his, then he was theirs. They were a one, under their gods. They slept, ate, rode, hunted, fought, drank, danced, made sacrifices, side by side. They were brothers, uncles, cousins, nephews. A people, yet each one bristled with a kind of independence; not inwards as ours is, but volatile like a child's. Go too far, you might be challenged or the other might sulk for a week. The challenge might be to the death or to a wrestle that ended in laughter and mead. You would not always know which way it was going to turn. These were mighty men, and babes, and a strong foundation in a world that was still slowly forming out of mists and bad magic.

If the leadership left the Jarl, he could give it up and there was no dishonour. If any clung beyond his time, he was removed. It was an absolute necessity to the people that their leader should be one in whom the gods showed confidence. The inspiration and understandings he received were rayed into them also but more dimly. The decisions that came from him could not have been arrived at in any other way, at that time. Usually he was as accessible as any other and took part in the day, but when the high mood was on him they let him be and three or four of those about him dealt with justice, guests and other matters. It was part of their folk-knowledge that the Jarl had to go apart at certain times to be charged with the vision-energy and knowledge that could, as well as other things, take them hundreds upon hundreds of miles through unknown country to burst out at the right moment on their prey.

There was no declaration of war. This was spirit-work, work of the gods, and those whom they rode to slay knew something was coming, warned by the seeings of their own dark priests. How did they travel? They thundered, that is how it was done. We do not know in these days and we will never know again what it was like to be those people, with nature forces alive in them and the gods at work through them. Compared to us they were titans; they were huge of size and mighty in strength. Even to witness their games, their merriment, we would probably fall down in a faint. To jump into a rushing torrent yourself, to tumble your mate in, or for both to go in to wrestle each other, fight the river and rocks, and climb out, half a mile down, laughing - this and worse, harder, was how they amused themselves. It was how they proved themselves; and, above all, it was how they displayed (there was no thinking in it) that the life that flowed in their blood was large and glorious, greater than their own one life (which they didn't conceive as we do).

They were supremely reckless. They were not afraid. Whatever fear was in them ( and it wasn't much) they started to quench in themselves and each other almost as soon as they'd begun to walk. We may whinge now that they were killers, and for our time we may be right, but for their time, not. They did kill, but the supreme fact is, they were not afraid to die. And who should be when there is work to be done on earth? They hurled themselves into play, contest, battle, not caring at all whether they survived or not. The life that pulsed in them was so great and their connection with the gods still so strong that they knew they were immortal; that what lived in them was stuff of the stuff and could not be expunged; must continue, for wasn't it already continuing? They were so woven into the life of earth, life of stars, that the thought of being woven out could not occur.

Part of the reason we have myths and sagas at all is that these people (the women too, in their way) could perform such deeds of war, journeying, hardship, endurance, faithfulness, comradeship and, yes, revenge, that they were not forgotten for generations. (These were not the only people, of course; we are speaking of a time.)

It was such as these that were riding. They sweated, ate, drank, slept, cursed, laughed and sang. But the essence is: they thundered. For a god went with them, for their purpose was the gods'. They traced a path of light across darkened landscapes and their passage left them altered. The places where they fought retained their emanations for centuries to come. From the pulse and beat, pulse and beat, of their hearts and the horses' hooves rose mighty songs, great hymns of exuberant life. They shouted them into the wind as their cloaks flew behind them and the sun glinted on the metal of their great axes and short swords.

How did they know which way to go on this long sortie into a land they had never been in before? How do the gulls know? How do you know that the one you love has just walked into the room behind you? They knew, because total intensity of purpose, makes light; they knew because of the interaction between the destiny that was on them and the spirits of the land they passed through. They knew through the god, because the gods are high and can see ahead and may transmit what they know to their people. When they came to a crossing of paths, a ford with two tracks or a dividing of valleys, the Jarl would raise his hand if need be, and they would gather while he looked. And the Jarl looked out of the deep dream that was in them into the deep dream that lay spread before them and whether it was an animal's call, or a rising bird; whether it was a wind that blew or a light that seemed to glimmer on a ways, summoning, he saw, and he knew, and he pointed, and they rode.

For the world was different then.

© 2001 Alan Jackson

Alan Jackson is a Scottish poet and philosopher. More of Alan's work can be seen at: AlanJackson.org.uk