Sleeping Mathilde, Chapter Two, THE HÄSSE CASTLE
“In order for you not to take my manuscript as an excessively modest gift, I must tell you more of the Hässe castle.
“Beyond distant clouds, on the moist ground of Norrbotten, there was the Og lake, speckled with tiny islets. On the Naki island, closest to the coast, the Hässe castle sprouted and grew.
“Once, when I was returning from a campaign, over the frostbitten hill, I saw a castle in the distance, towers which, akin to dancing topaz-color-caped silhouettes, were holding a pierced, pale human being on the tips of their spears. The castle reflected me. That being had been me.
“The road was winding along the hill by the coast, flowing into the bridge which tore the sky asunder reaching for the hilly islet of Naki.
“The stone-cold road not unmade by salt, flimsy and steep, was swallowing the travelers from the North tumbling them down the sharp skin of the Fjalar hill or casting them, wind-bound, in the icy grotto of Hornavan, where their deafening screams could be heard from.
“The travelers who would survive Fjalar would pause in front of Lindworm’s tongue with bulging eyes and mouths-a-shiver, they would turn their horses back and fled meeting the sky herald Gná. The braver ones, clenching the reins, would continue walking towards the abyss of Hornavan. The road was encircled by the desolate surfaces of lakes, as unreachable as whirlwinds, crowned with the snowy soil of Norrbotten, and only in certain places with pine and birch trees dipped in hoarfrost.
“The marble carpet lead to the main gate of the Hässe castle (piercing through a vivid garden, a kind of garden few can boast to possess in this part of the world), over which, branching out, the bridges were connecting the tall towers, therefore I could have entered any part of the castle from the main tower without descending down into the garden.
“There was many a varied seed in the garden, from the date palm which my ancestors brought from the Middle East during the Crusades, to the lilies, hyacinths and other, exotic plants unfamiliar to the climate of Norrbotten. The enchanted seed of death was handled by the gardener woman Hilde, known to me for her conversing with Vidar embodied in the greenery and the woodlands. From the God of the Forests she drew her magic and poured it onto the flowers which had no place in this lifeless land. When death is tangled with life and the course of nature changes, the root unleashes the power of the venom deep, changing the essence of the soil. Both the land and the men have venom sprout from within them. The seed of death revivifies. Creating upside-down tulips which adorn my home, and which Hilde kept warm day and night, stoking the fire in enormous kettles.
“On the double leaf oaken gates which hid away the entrance to the main fort, there was, painted in golden strings, the crest of the brave and gluttonous house – a lion’s paw. It could also have been found on blue banners which were waiving born by the wind up high on the Hässe towers, grasping for the heavens. The windows were guarded by marble manticores, born in the early days of Hässe, threatening with their sharp stings soaked in rainwater.
“When the Lindworm swallows the newcomer, it shows them the ghastly yard in front of the castle. Upon entering the main gate guarded by the maw of the Lindworm, the traveler would note the beaten pathway that leads into the yard and the stalls in the very center of Hässe.
“The road, vaulted by guard towers speckled in guardsmen, lead to the altar and reeked of cow entrails. The altar, above which the tall defense towers of Hässe lorded over, lay on the dry land, tucked into deerskin and adorned with raven skeletons. In the middle of the altar there was a platter with the pre-read, rotting entrails. ’They feed the vultures of darkness’, I would often personally explain it away to a visitor of my empire who shivered in fear and to whom the dread crawled up the spine… The altar, inflamed in cypress and sandalwood from which the messages meant for the Goddess of Death were smoking, was lined with cracked skulls of those who did not bow. The stone thighs of the altar were sprinkled with blood, some of it animal, some of it human.
“The ritual usually took place at night, when the holy Altar burned ghostly in the middle of the yard. Around it would dance, covered in blood, nude witches, keepers of the scourge. They had in long, thick, blonde hair onyx crystals or raven feathers entwined within them. The head-priestess would wear a crown of deer antlers. The witches, while chanting a mantra, would dispense soil from the graves around the altar.
‘Oh, Yambe-Akka, all that we offer may now be thine
And no man else’s
Oh Yambe, Goddess of the Underworld, take this gift,
Offer him to your peasant spouse, the God of Death,
So it may be his and no man else’s!’
“Thus the three beautiful witches would chant until they fell to the ground in ecstasy. Then I would approach them, cloaked as if in a pupa, surrounded by a procession of swarthy torchbearers and claimed them, upon which the ritual continued; the tribute would be brought over, completely nude, from the lower chambers, the torture chambers – it is their blood I would drink upon the ritual’s conclusion. Oftentimes I would, when in shortage of manpower and the fear which paced ahead of me like a shade, drink up horse blood in honor of Yambe-Akka.
“ ’Oh Yambe-Akka, let me behold the cruel patterns of the past and the future.’
“ ‘Oh, Yambe-Akka, do not let the premonitions dry up!’, I would utter in an official tone of voice, raising my scepter with both hands. After I had had my fill of the meat, I would take a sharp athame in my hand, doused in blood. Upon the palm of the victim I would personally carve the hagalaz rune, and the Goddess would snatch away the dried away, dead bodies, storing them in the chest of gifts. The vultures of darkness would then disperse on the sky of Norrbotten, chased away by the spirit of the Goddess…
“’’The blade was laid in the carved bone which might have once been an arm of a faithful servant’ – I would tap the traveler on his shoulder – ‘and the altar, an ancient image of divinity’ – I would proudly point towards the extinct altar – ‘will speak the tongue of bones tonight’. Bone-chilling words I would direct at a wealthier yeoman or a more ambitious Brit, who would come as was his duty, quivering like a leaf, to bow down to me and ask for my blessing.
“The stranger who made his way to Hässe would get a pitcher of wine and a place at the stables to spend the night. I would often, if they hadn’t been of noble birth or ilk, convert them to servants. The nobles received all the comfort of this home and its glimmering guest hall, where they would dine along the tune of the lutes. There had also been the undefeatable ones, who were met with whipping to the death, oftentimes torn limb from limb tied to four horses, and other types of torture which I was coming up with while drinking up the blood-red wine at the dinner table. I would inject vinegar in noblemen’s bodies by means of needles, I tightened their limbs, poured hot tar on them, and from time to time I would toss them in the jail-cells atop the tower where they would die of hunger. Fear of others and their complete despair, oftentimes madness as well, filled me with lechery. The rotten road I walked along, as a man who had within himself made a pact with nature, as well as savagery, stretched onward into infinity. And still the travelers, in a maniacal run, would come to the doorstep of the richest sven, bearing gifts to the master so that he could protect him from vile natures of his subjects and himself.
“Of my rage I could speak a multitude, of the true tendon of evil, the shade of accrete sensuality within my infected blood.
“Thoughts of human nature occupy my mind until the late hours of the night when my thinking faculties wane, up until the early morn when they spark up anew: how much fealty did I really accrue, and how much am I actually bound by fear of the vindicators’ wrath? To what extent had I become the Supreme deviser of the horrific power which always emerges from the blackest night in all of this? I ended the invasion of conscience with bloody campaigns and have thus removed her permanently. It was a shameful act which ate away at me. From my bloody dreams I was woken by the raw explosion in my heart of all the memories of the murders committed. I held them, crucified in my chest, with an occasional squeal of conscience which erased the breath that followed. Understanding the transience of the soul and the motion of time through the howl of the wind, which reached the very distant tops of Norrbotten shackled in eternal ice like an echo, I yearned for eternity, and it had been the light of my dwellings and my cruelty, and because of which I had eventually lost my wits. I had been hot-tempered. Perhaps insane. But, I had been a lord.”