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The Song of the Bone

I read a two-volume translation of the Finnish epic Kalevala in Viet Nam. "The Song of the Bone" is set in Norway in Viking times, but a wedding feast from the Kalevala is the genesis of this story.

I didn't write "The Song of the Bone" till after I'd gotten back to the World. I didn't have a potential market. Because I was pretty depressed about the piece when I finished it I didn't try to send it anywhere. (I was pretty depressed about most things at the time, frankly. It was some years before I was able to look straight at Nam, and a very long time before that didn't make life even more depressing. I'm not sure I'm out of that stage quite yet.)

Stuart David Schiff, an army dentist who'd just been assigned to Ft. Bragg in Fayetteville, came to a Sunday afternoon get-together at the home of the Murray brothers, collectors extraordinaire, in Durham. Stu was planning to start a small-press fantasy/horror magazine to replace The Arkham Collector. Part of his reason for doing so was that he'd been art editor on Meade Frierson's huge 1971 fanzine HPL and didn't feel that he'd gotten proper recognition for his work. By doing the production himself, he'd keep that from happening again.

Stu wanted fiction, but he didn't plan to pay for it. I gave him "The Song of the Bone," but I told him I thought he was making a mistake: free fiction was generally going to be worth what he paid. I thought my story was valueless, which was the only reason I was giving it to him.

Stu took the piece, but much more important he took my advice: after the second issue of Whispers he began paying a penny a word for stories. We're both convinced that the decision to pay for fiction is the reason that Whispers was there to keep alive the fantasy/horror short-story genre during the 1970s.

The difference between low pay (and a penny a word was as good as some professional SF magazines were paying at the time) and no pay was the difference between being a professional and being a dilettante. That was important to some of us, me included, even though it was nearly a decade before I even dreamed of making a living from writing fiction.

On the next issue I became Stu's assistant editor. Throughout Whispers' run, I read all the fiction that came to the magazine, sending on the ones I thought were publishable to Stu. It was a frustrating job, but I'm glad I did it. Mr. Derleth had spent more time on me than I was worth. I couldn't repay him, but I could pass the effort on.


Olaf was king in Drontheim and prayed to the White Christ, but there were other gods still in the upcountry and it was to them that Hedinn and his wife sacrificed in the evening. Finished, they waited a moment to watch the clouds that piled up high over the tops of the firs. Hedinn smiled as the first of his cows walked across the clearing toward the cattle shed, the rest following in a silent procession. On the left side pattered a black mongrel which snapped at the nose of a cow that began to stray, and at the end of the line shambled Gage the herdsman, almost lost in the gloom of the forest behind him.

"He doesn't have a staff," Gudrun said to her husband. "How does he keep them in line like that?"

Hedinn shrugged."He seems to whistle at them. He's got forest blood in him, you know, and they can do things with animals. Mostly the dog does the work anyway."

The herdsman turned toward the couple and, though darkness and distance hid his features, Gudrun shuddered. "Ugh," she said, "I wish we didn't have to look at him. Why don't you sell him to a trader?"

"Now, Sweetning," Hedinn said, stroking his wife's fine hair with affection, "he's a good herdsman despite his looks. And we'd never get a worn kettle for him, you know."

The dog had waited for his master at the shed door. They entered together, Gage closing the door behind them.

"He sleeps with the cows, then?" Gudrun asked in surprise.

"In a corner of the cowshed," her husband agreed. "He and his dog together. And he eats any scraps the cook cares to give him. He's really no trouble for the work he does," Hedinn concluded complacently, "if you can learn to stand his face, Darling."

Gudrun laughed and patted her husband's arm. "Other men don't matter at all, Sweetning, no other men."

* * *

"Ooh, Gudrun, how do I look?"Inga asked, pirouetting in a blue embroidered dress that showed her buxom charms to the full above a belt of copper disks. Gudrun leaned back against the wall and stared critically at her sister-in-law. The girl's thick braid was hanging loose, not gathered about her head, and it shone in the lamplight. A few strands had become tangled in Inga's necklaces of facetted tin beads.

"Here now," said Gudrun, freeing the hairs, "you mustn't throw yourself around like that or you'll not be fit to meet Bjorn. You must not dishonor the house or your brother."

"Oh, tush," the younger girl complained, "they'd never notice, they'll be so drunk by now. Why couldn't Bjorn have seen me while he was still able to see?"

"The brideprice had yet to be discussed," Gudrun chided. "It wouldn't have been proper. And no matter who can appreciate it, you must look your best for your husband."

"Oh, I do want to be pretty," Inga answered petulantly, "but I don't think Bjorn wants a wife who's just a stick doll and sits in the corner doing nothing. You know," the girl added with a speculative grin, "they say he really is a bear, just like his name. All rough and strong . . . ."

Gudrun nodded sternly to silence the girl."You're as ready as you can be," she said, "and the men are waiting."

The two women stepped out into the warm May darkness where the sliver moon hid in the overcast. The summer kitchen blazed with light and servants trotted between it and the main hall. Two empty tuns of mead stood outside the open main door already. It was difficult to believe that the roisterers could possibly have put away that much liquor and still down the quantities of venison being carried in.

"Oh!" gasped Inga as she saw the squatting shape lighted by the glare through the hall doorway. "But it's just Gage."

The herdsman turned and stared at the women. At his feet lay his black mongrel, gnawing on a deer haunch. Gage looked more human with his stubby legs folded under him, but his limbs were almost as shaggy as his dog and his sloping forehead was scarcely human.

As the women started to edge around him, Gage swept the bone from his dog's mouth and flourished it to Inga, who squealed and shied back.

With a silly mocking grin, the herdsman set the bone between his molars and crunched the end to splinters.

He was still grinning as Gudrun propelled the younger girl into the hall with a firm hand on her waist.

Fish oil lamps in wall niches lit the hall, but the best quality oil was already gone and a film of soot had begun to settle over the room. No one seemed to notice it; some were already too drunk to stand and one had vomited—a fox skin had been tossed over the ejecta but a sour odor permeated the room. Only one had actually collapsed, though, and most were in full voice.

The women paused uncertainly at the doorway. After a moment Hedinn looked up from his argument with the hulking young man beside him and saw them. He stood and shouted something unintelligible and unnoticed in the general din. Angry, he picked up his bronze drinking cup, reconsidered, and drew the sword that he wore at his belt like everyone else. He slammed the hilt twice on the table, jouncing it on the trestles and rocking the sleeper onto the floor. Slowly the room quieted.

There were about twenty men packed into the hall, Hedinn's relatives and retainers and those of the prospective bridegroom. Negotiations for the bride-price and dower had been sharper than either of the two prosperous farmers had expected, so that the temper of the hall was harsh despite the drink. As a result Hedinn glared at Bjorn and his voice rang louder than needful, "My sister!"

Bjorn rose a little unsteady, and squinted across the table. "Haw!" he cried, flushing, "she'll do for a milch cow if not for a wife. But we'll turn her trinkets to real silver and gold when I wed her."

Hedinn turned white but it was Gudrun who spoke."Husband, must we hear each beardless beggar prate as we feed him?"

Inga screamed as Bjorn snatched at his sword, but his own uncle Skeggi pinned the youth in a hammerlock and wrestled him back from his host. The table crashed over on its side and those not too befuddled drew. Skeggi roared, "Get him clear! No blood! No blood!"

Two or three of the others of Bjorn's party aided Skeggi in forcing him outside. Hedinn and his own people crowded back away from the door, unable to help and barely unwilling to hinder.

Never had Bjorn looked more the bear his name meant. Even with four big men clinging to him he had managed to draw his broadsword but had not quite come to the point of using it on his own kinsmen. With a convulsive effort they rushed him through the door, but he shook free outside it.

Gage scrambled away but his dog yelped in fear of being trampled. In sheer berserk fury Bjorn whirled and lopped the black mongrel in two. His overhand blow finished in shattering the sword-blade against a cobblestone, leaving the dog's corpse in a great splash of blood. The right forepaw twitched, making dark ripples in the lamplight.

Skeggi held back a man prepared to seize Bjorn again. The farmer turned slowly, his anger washed away by the shock that had numbed his whole side.

"Quick, a horse," Skeggi commanded. One of the servants dropped his platter and ran to the shed. Aided in tense silence by two of Bjorn's men he saddled the nearest horse, a big roan, and led it to Skeggi who was holding his nephew by the arm. Skeggi grunted and lifted Bjorn into the saddle where he sagged, almost too stupefied to put his feet in the stirrups.

"Now lead him out of here before he wakes up," Skeggi snapped to one of the men. "We'll follow. This night has gone on long enough."

Because she had stepped to the door, leaving Inga to weep inside the hall, Gudrun was the only one to see Gage put two fingers to his mouth and give a short whistle.

The horse whickered softly, then whinnied and tore the reins free. Before any of the half-drunken men could stop it, the roan had galloped blindly into the forest.

"Not on foot, you frog-spawn!" Skeggi bellowed to the men stumbling after Bjorn. "Saddle horses!"

Inga cried herself to sleep, but Gudrun was standing in the kitchen doorway when Hedinn and his men rode back in the pre-dawn.

"Where is Bjorn?" she asked quietly as her husband approached.

"Dead," Hedinn answered in a flat, expressionless voice."The horse must have dragged him a mile. We never did find his leg."

"There's hot water inside," Gudrun said.

She stood beside Hedinn as he plunged his face into the water. When he straightened she began massaging her husband's neck, loosening the tense muscles. At last Gudrun turned Hedinn around to face her.

"Did you see Gage kill him?" she asked.

"Don't talk about Gage now, Sweetning," Hedinn ordered wearily.

"Gage killed Bjorn, Hedinn; he whistled and the horse—"

"Stop it!" her husband snapped. "It's more important than whether you like a herdsman, now. There's a man dead after being insulted in my house; a man's dead!"

Gudrun stared at him without expression, then ran her hand down the curve of his biceps. "It's been a long night, Sweetning; let's go to bed."

Gudrun was alone in the hall when she heard the cows returning that evening. An unfamiliar sound, a high trill, drew her to the door to watch. Gage was blowing a pipe of some sort. A shadow wavered near the head of the file and a cow jerked back into line.

Gudrun began to walk toward the herd. Her belly started to tremble and she ran, hair loosening to stream out behind her splendid body. The herdsman glanced up and paused as she approached.

The woman stopped a body-length from him, breathing in tight, controlled pants. In his hand Gage held a bone flute crudely drilled with finger holes. It was a small thigh bone, and Gudrun remembered the dog's mangled body as Gage raised the flute to his lips. The sound whispered between them, surprisingly musical to come from such a brutish minstrel.

A small black shadow danced on the grass, so real that Gudrun saw its pink tongue loll. Gage began to play louder . . . .

Gudrun screamed and snatched the flute away, crushing the fresh bone between her fingers.

"Witch!" she shouted. "Killer witch!"

The herdsman made a guttural sound. Somewhere behind her Gudrun heard her husband call and whirled to run.

"Hedinn! He tried to rape me! Kill him, KILL HIM!"

But before Hedinn could reach her, Gage had disappeared into the forest and the cattle were already beginning to stray.

In the night she heard the whistling as she lay on the low couch with her husband. For a moment she pretended that it wasn't real, was only a dream, but another trill from the darkness froze her. Still she waited, bone cold, until the sound rippled around her a third time. It seemed to be nearer.

"Hedinn," she whispered, shaking her sleeping husband, "Hedinn."

"Uh . . . ?" grunted Hedinn. "Sweetning?"

"Shh. Listen."

After a moment Hedinn padded over to a window and loosed its leather flap to peer out. He swore and began to pull on his boots.

"Is it him?" Gudrun whispered.

"It's him, yes," Hedinn answered, groping for his sword.

"Then call the men out," Gudrun hissed.

"I don't need help to teach that dog vomit a lesson," Hedinn said, throwing open the door. Gudrun followed him barefoot.

The herdsman faced them fifty paces away, his expression shaded by his thick shock of hair. He carried a bone, large enough to make a dangerous club. Not a club though, Gudrun knew, for she could see the shadows of finger holes as on the smaller flute.

This had been a man's thigh, a large man's.

Hedinn stalked toward his slave, his sword held low across his body.

"Wait!"Gudrun screamed, running after her husband as Gage raised the flute to his lips. There was no whisper of sound this time, no keening, but a full-throated skirling that turned Gudrun's sweat acid.

A bear loomed up beside Gage, swinging its right paw with terrible precision. Hedinn's ribs caved in and his body hurtled back against his wife.

Gudrun screamed again as the bear waddled hugely toward her, and the laughter of the thigh bone rang behind it.

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