Once upon a time, there was a farmer in one of the northern districts named Andres. He lived with his wife, Hjordis, and their children at Aegirsstead, which was situated at the mouth of a great fjord. Andres knew his family was special because his folk remained happy and healthy at a time when famine was widespread in Iceland.
Andres had very few neighbors. Earthquakes, landslides, and lava had displaced many of his countrymen. However, his seaside farm remained well enough. Of course, starvation was always part of life, but few Icelanders went about with a full belly during those years.
Andres took in the family of his brother, Pall, during one especially severe winter. Pall’s steading had failed several straight years and his family was in a dire condition. With the addition of more mouths, portions at Aegirsstead were diminished. However, Hjordis was a very thrifty woman and made good use of everything provided to her and her family. Her ancestors were very knowledgeable seafarers from Norway, and she came from wealth. Andres considered her a wise manager of their steading, and he was grateful to have her.
Pall had brought news to his brother: few folk remained in the district and those who did were surely facing death before Lent. Moreover, the surviving local folk knew that Aegirsstead had remaining stores. Andres found this ironic, as his steading had suffered many unfavorable years due to the proximity of the ocean. However, the fickle sea had become an apparent blessing.
With this troubling report received, Andres took time to sharpen his weapons. He prepared his folk to defend the steading if necessary. His family had owned this particular steading since the days of Harald Bluetooth, and Andres was prepared to do whatever necessary to keep ownership. Just after Yule, the weather soured. However, no attackers showed themselves at Aegirsstead. There were few signs of folk in the surrounding district.
Andres made use of the short winter days by fishing in the fjord. He was interrupted by a shrill voice calling his name. At first, he thought that one of his little nephews had followed him down to the rocky shore, but, when he turned, he was amazed at what he found standing behind him. The squeaky voice came from an incredibly small man — one of the elfin folk. The scrawny elf was peeking from behind a large stone.
“Andres!” the little elf exclaimed. “Oh, how you could use my help!”
“What do you mean small one?” Andres replied, “Who are you?”
“My name is Karlhapni,” the elf continued, “I am from the icy world beyond your fjord to the east.”
“What do you want?” Andres demanded.
“I hope to enter your service,” Karlhapni piped. “I’m the last of my kind, and I’ll never survive this winter alone. You are the finest farmer of the northern districts. There must be a way that your folk could benefit from my charms?”
Andres stood confidently but was not a little afraid. He had heard many stories, most told to him by a servingwoman when he was a child, about supernatural tricksters. These creatures often stole from good folk.
“I have no need for you,” Andres said flatly. He tossed Karlhapni a small cod from his basket. The starving elf gobbled the fish up.
“Be gone with you!” Andres barked.
Karlhapni slipped away behind a few rocks and was immediately out of sight.
Heavy snows fell a few days later, so that Andres, Pall, and their oldest sons had to work together to push the steading’s door open. The snow continued into the night. Andres awoke from a deep slumber to hear his sheep bleating wildly. This was uncommon, especially at night, and Andres expected to find thieves about the barn. After giving his best axe to Hjordis, so that she might guard the smaller children, he went to Pall’s bedcloset and roused his brother.
“Come,” Andres whispered, “there are hungry demons at work.”
Pall and Andres each woke their eldest sons, and the four men set out armed with the few weapons that could be mustered from inside the steading. Pall and the two sons approached the barn from the fjord, while Andres stayed back, watching the surrounding hillside for movement. He was somewhat surprised when from behind a fence post jumped Karlhapni.
Andres was again somewhat afraid, but this time what Karlhapni had to say was much more urgent.
“The husbands of starving wives and the fathers of buried children approach this steading on skis!” Karlhapni exclaimed. “Old Geir Marsson has evened repaired an ancient crossbow for this raid! And a priest has come along to bless the seizure of your stores!”
“Sira Fell?” Andres asked in shock. He had long been friends with the priest, and, unfortunately, no one in the district should better understand the cycle of life and death in this world than Sira Fell. The report of a crossbow was also disconcerting. Few weapons of such ilk remained in the northern districts.
Of course, Pall warned him earlier about such danger. The intensity of the snowstorm prevented Andres from seeing whether or not the elf was truthful.
“I can help you,” Karlhapni insisted. “My powers are greatly reduced by my hunger. Give me something to eat and I will help you!”
Andres watched Pall and the older sons enter the barn. There didn’t seem to be any trouble inside.
“I need no help,” Andres growled. “Leave this place!”
“You fool,” Karlhapni muttered. “I conjured this storm with the last of my strength to protect you.”
Karlhapni waved a hand over his pointed ears and the storm subsided. The sky cleared, revealing the entire fjord to the moonlight.
Andres could plainly see a rugged line of men standing on a hillside some distance away. He quickly counted over twenty. These men were armed with a variety of weapons and screamed with rage when the sudden clearing allowed Aegirsstead to come into view. Andres discerned the figure of Sira Fell in the middle of these attackers. He recognized a few others, as well. Several of these men were distant relations. Andres had been more than charitable with a few of these brutes in the past. Obviously, his previous goodwill was for not.
“This is your last chance,” Karlhapni explained. “I can stop these villains.”
The storm returned. The line of men disappeared in the darkness of a snow squall.
Andres turned away from Karlhapni and walked to his storehouse. He returned with a large, fresh cheese.
Karlhapni said nothing. He merely snatched the cheese and devoured the glistening morsel.
“I hear my foes approach,” Andres growled. “Your storm is not enough.”
“Fear not,” Karlhapni chuckled between bites, pieces of white cheese wedged between his tiny, sharp teeth. “Many centuries ago, a Roman galley carrying the soldiers of Emperor Domitian wrecked on rocks in the sea near your steading. Eight survivors reached the shore and required my help. As those men are in my debt, I will summon them.”
Andres watched as Karlhapni waved a hand around his head and muttered a few foreign phrases. The elf finished the last bit of cheese and offered Andres a devilish grin.
Several large rocks near the fjord rolled into the water, and skeletal hands erupted from the sand. With Andres paralyzed with fear, eight complete skeletons emerged. Each carried a sword and the remnants of a shield. Tattered armor loosely hung over their bony ribs. The skeletons trudged between Andres and Karlhapni, fractured and gnawed bones seemingly held together by the very air of night.
Karlhapni dropped to the ground after the gruesome band passed. The elf groaned loudly into the wind. Andres moved to help the small being to his feet.
“My hunger pains!” Karlhapni cried.
“What can I do?” Andres asked.
“Take me to your storehouse. Carry me inside.”
Just as his ears caught the sound of yells and gasps from the hillside, Andres scooped up the elf and carried him toward the storehouse. The reanimated Romans had reached the attackers. Andres imagined the terrorized look on the faces of his foes.
The wind carried the distant clash of metal on metal and the faint cries of bleeding men to the storehouse. Andres dropped the elf inside the door, unsure what the small creature would want to eat. Karlhapni seemed to be immediately reinvigorated once his feet touched the floor of the storehouse. He pulled a whole cheese off a shelf with one hand and ripped a cod off a drying hook with the other. Karlhapni gorged himself on the fine stores of Aegirsstead, while Andres returned outside.
Pall and the older boys met Andres near the storehouse.
“Do you hear that?” Pall asked. “Yes,” Andres smiled,” “I suspect our conspirators have fallen on one another. Their malice was impatient.”
Pall listened to the distant fight for a few minutes longer.
“The sheep and goats are fine,” he added.
“Good,” Andres replied. “Take the children inside. Should anyone come down the hillside, I will attempt to reason before resorting to violence.”
Pall hesitated for a long moment. Finally, he nodded and guided the boys through the snow and back inside the steading.
As the door to the steading closed, Andres noticed the only sound reaching his ears was that of the storm. There was no other noise.
He took a few steps away from the storehouse and toward the hillside. His ears were met with the rallying cry of his countrymen.
The primary voice was none other than Sira Fell. The Roman undead were undoubtedly defeated. Sira Fell was encouraging those remaining to move forward. Andres stepped backward. He couldn’t believe that this clandestine raid was not only authorized by the Church but was also commanded by a priest.
Andres rushed inside the storehouse, finding Karlhapni drunk with gluttony. The elf had consumed all the choicest morsels and had a tremendously large belly to show for his feasting. The elf seemed totally disinterested in his promise to his host.
“Your legion is defeated,” Andres mocked. “And I do believe you’ve incurred quite a debt to me.”
Karlhapni struggled to his feet. His new portly frame was difficult to balance.
“Fear not,” Karlhapni mused. “This steading has with your family for generations. Who better to defend the place than your own forefathers?”
Andres understood, even if he didn’t want to believe the elf. Karlhapni waved a hand over his head with a fiendish smile. He proclaimed a few magical words and pointed through the doorway.
Andres stepped out into the raging storm. Aegirsstead was quite isolated, so over the generations the dead were more likely to be buried at the small stone chapel by the fjord than at the nearest churchyard.
Andres watched in disbelief as many of those aforementioned ancestors burst through the snow. The scene was grotesque, as some of the erupting undead were only recently deceased.
Andres made out the form of his older brother, Jon, who had drowned in the fjord. Jon was joined by an uncle, Petr Thorsteinsson, who had been murdered in a feud a decade earlier. There were many others, perhaps a dozen. A few were bound by their burial shrouds; others possessed the vestiges of clothing.
Most of the undead Aegirsstead folk managed to secure a weapon on their gruesome march away from the chapel. A few found large rocks. Another, Patrek Jorundsson, a cousin who succumbed to the stomach ill, pulled an icicle from the eave of the storehouse as he dragged himself passed Andres.
“Take me to your barn,” Karlhapni directed. “Let me gaze upon your flock.” ”
“Magic is taxing,” Karlhapni complained. “My stomach rumbles even now.”
Andres carried Karlhapni through the snow to the barn and pushed the door open. The elf pranced around inside, eyeing the ewes and lambs. Karlhapni wisely avoided the rams.
The new wave of the undead engaged the attackers in the distance. Andres listened carefully and imagined the combat that the snow squall hid from his eyes.
Karlhapni wrestled a struggling ewe to the ground and sank his little incisors into the back of the helpless animal. His fiendish hands held the poor creature in place. Andres noticed pieces of wool stuck between the little beast’s teeth when Karlhapni offered a satisfied smile after the first bite.
Andres poked his head outside. The fight continued in the distance. He noticed the front door of his steading was open. His wife looked out through the doorway at him.
“What are you doing out there?”
“Checking the sheep.”
“I will,” Andres replied over the wind. “When these villains have defeated themselves, I will return.”
Hjordis watched her husband pull the barn door closed. For whatever reason, he released a string of curses from inside. She stepped forward into the snow to check on him, but an arrow soared just over her head. The point of the projectile became lodged in a crevice between two stones above the steading doorway.
Their besiegers could easily resort to firing flaming arrows at the turves of the steading. That would burn the family out and make each of her folk easy prey for these barbarous wolves. Hjordis acted quickly, pulling the arrow free. However, there was no flame. The arrow carried only a piece of parchment. She carried the arrow into the dim light of the steading just as her husband pushed the barn door open again with a new wave of curses.
Karlhapni had devoured the two best breeding ewes and all the lambs. Moreover, the small creature had done this deed in just a few moments.
Andres was infuriated. He rained more curses down on the elf from outside. Karlhapni only relaxed on the floor of the barn and giggled, his clothing barely concealing his bulging flesh.
Even in the darkness of the squall, Andres could now discern approaching figures from the hillside. The bandits passed the chapel and quietly approached the storehouse.
Andreas snatched the bloated elf and carried him to the steading.
“You demon!” Andres shouted. “You have failed again!”
Andres dropped Karlhapni in the snow outside the steading. The elf shook snow from his ears and cap. “Fear not,” Karlhapni yawned. He waved his hand over his head. The storm immediately intensified. No folk in Iceland had ever seen since a tenacious blizzard.
“What can you do?” Andres asked with a distinct sigh.
My powers are much stronger now that I’ve managed a meal,” Karlhapni replied. “These fools are no match for me.”
“Good!” Andres mocked. “Rid my steading of their presence!”
“In time,” Karlhapni mused. “I’m in the mood for a delicacy. Your stores were good but bland. Your sheep were flavorful but thin.”
“I have no other stores or animals,” Andres answered coldly.
“Allow me to see your children,” Karlhapni grinned. “I’m sure a few of the Aegirsstead children are good and fat! That would be a delicacy I’ve not enjoyed in some time.”
“Never!” Andres shouted. He kicked at the small creature, but the elf was lightning quick with his powers replenished. He jumped away with a jolt back toward the door of the steading.
Karlhapni laughed at the Icelander. The elf snapped his fingers. The storm immediately ceased. The moonlight showed the terrible truth.
The band of looters was now at the barn, looking at the remaining sheep through the doorway. Sira Fell noticed the storm suddenly lift and looked toward the steading. The priest’s stare was not returned by Andres.
The unfortunate farmer was occupied by another sight. Standing among the surviving bandits were several of the reanimated Romans and some of his own undead kinsmen.
Andres was unable to move. Karlhapni snapped his fingers. The storm raged again, but Andres hardly noticed the snow or the wind.
“Show me your fat, delicious children!” Karlhapni shouted.
Andres did not respond. He fell back against the steading door which opened with alarming ease despite the snow. This was due to the quick hands and calculating mind of his wife.
The elf spun around with delight. The warmth from within the steading and the dim light of the hearth reached his eyes just as an axe reached his skull.
Hjordis drove the blade of the axe into the head of the little beast as far as she could manage. The elf dropped to the ground, spilling blood and gray matter onto the snow.
The storm immediately lifted. Andreas struggled to his feet, unsure of what he could do against the attackers. Hjordis thrust a piece of parchment into the hands of her husband. Andreas opened this letter and looked over the large, artful letters of Sira Fell.
Andres could not read, but his wife was certainly able to do so.
“These men are not villains!” Hjordis shouted. “These men are here to save you from this troll!”
“Troll!” Hjordis replied with anger.
Andres looked out to the group of men. The undead had already started the slow, cold walk back to their graves, each gratefully free of their supernatural bonds to Karlhapni.
Sira Fell stepped forward.
“That demon has terrorized the entire district this winter. Many folks are dead because of him. These men are not aggressors but escorted me here to strike down this creature,” the priest declared.
Andres was unable to find words.
“The Church has fed these men and their families,” Sira Fell continued. “Your charitable tithe in the autumn helped make that possible. The district has repaid the debt to you. And Old Geir Marsson saved more lives than we may know thanks to his crossbow. Thanks to the distractions of your fine stores and sheep, the little demon was unable to hold control over the undead. The Lord made sure that your children were spared the belly of the beast.”
Hjordis embraced her husband.
“You are an Icelander,” she sighed, “but you still don’t know the difference between an elf and a troll?”
Joshua Scully is an American History teacher from Pennsylvania. His flash fiction and other writing can be found @jojascully or at https://jjscully.wordpress.com/