Passing the serpent’s jaws into Valhalla

Valhalla, a board game from Tara Hill Designs

Valhalla, a board game from Tara Hill Designs

On a ship out of Lubeck, headed downriver to the Baltic and bound for Castle Gottorp, two of the hands find time to play an ancient board game.

Valhalla is a game of both chance and strategy, in which the players overcome physical obstacles, attacks by their opponents and the whims of the Gods in order to reach a joyous afterlife in Odin’s hall – Valhalla. The game is loosely based on Senet, which originated in ancient Egypt and was adopted by the Greeks and later the Romans, until it may have made its way north into medieval Scandinavia.

I found the game online a couple of years ago and downloaded the instructions (which are apparently no longer available).

The game board is in the pattern of a serpent, representing the Midgard Serpent which dwelt in the deep ocean and encircled the world. Along the serpent’s back are three rows of 12 spaces each, some of which are marked with runes representing various special conditions. The first row is the home harbour, where each players pieces begin the game. The second row is the open ocean, where each side battles for position. In the middle is an island with a ship yard where players must go for repairs if their ships are damaged. The third row represents the final leg of the journey, where players may form blockades, take shelter in a safe harbour, or be washed up on the rocky shoals, sending them back to the repair yards. Once past the serpents jaws, your ships pass into Valhalla, at which point they leave the board. The first player to remove all their ships is the winner.

In my novel, Ulf is the educated son of a Swedish nobleman who has abdicated his birthright to become an apprentice trader. Thadeus, a giant of a man whose birthright and interests are inferior to those of his opponent, collects various games and asks Ulf to play his latest acquisition.

Ulf sat down with his back against the bulkhead, sheltered from the southwest wind that drove the fluyt forward from the rear quarter. The surface of the river rippled and the small bow wave gurgled against the hull. The canvas, not yet filled with wind, luffed and flapped, reminding him of servants at home drying the household bedsheets. Ahead, the river began a wide turn to the east, past the old island fortress of the first Lubeck settlement. Cows meandered among a few black stones, but nothing remained of the citadel that Ulf had read about in his father’s library. On both sides of the river, workers were already in the fields. On the western shore a small caravan of wagons, loaded with grain, eased their way toward a local jetty where an old bark and her crew waited.

He was tired from the early morning work of outfitting the ship for sea, but cool air and the sun in his eyes conspired to keep Ulf awake. He closed his eyes for a moment and listened, hoping no one would bother him, and pulled the collar of his fine leather coat tighter against his throat to keep out a sudden gust of wind. He pulled his cap down tight and settled himself more snugly against the bulkhead, feeling the alternating mixture of warmth and wind.

He heard heavy footsteps on the wooden deck, and opened his eyes as a pair of legs lowered themselves down next to him.

“Aaah, so there you are!”

Recognizing the voice of crewman Thadeus Schynnagel, Ulf groaned in disappointment. The man was constantly enticing him to play one game of chance or another. He had given in a few times on the condition that no money would exchange hands.

Thadeus lowered his considerable weight onto the deck and tossed a red velvet bag into Ulf’s lap. “I’ll bet you’ve never seen this game before. Want to play? Just for fun, of course.”

“I was resting before we reach the open sea and I have to stand watch. Can we play later?”

“We need a stable surface and the river is calm today.” Thad retrieved the bag and dumped its contents onto the deck. “I found this in Lubeck. It cost me all the money I had. Very nice quality, don’t you think?”

Ulf took the rectangular board in his hands and turned it over. Carved into the soft spruce, the body of a serpent formed a playing area of three rows, tail to snout, across its surface. Evenly spaced holes pierced the snake’s body, apparently for inserting the oval tokens that Thad now held.

“Do you want dark or light?”

Do I have to choose?”

“No, but that way is more complicated.”

Ulf watched the man’s thick fingers place the twelve pieces onto the board, surprised again at how deft such a big man could be.

“Throw the four rune sticks.”

Ulf picked them up, cupped his hands, shook and threw the sticks. Two of them landed face down.

“Two points,” said Thad, pointing at the runic symbols. “The sun and god runes are face up. The gift and fate runes are face down. The most points you can get are five. Now move that ship two spaces, out of the harbor.”

Ulf selected the ship at the head of the line and moved it two spaces. “How do you win the game?”

“By moving all your ships off the board, past the serpent’s maw, here.” Thad pointed to the other end of the writhing snake. “Now it’s my turn. I’ll tell you the rules as we go along.”

The runes clattered. “The serpent is Jörmungand, who dwells in the deep oceans and encircles the earth. You command the white ships, and our two fleets do battle in the open ocean, here.” He pointed to the middle row of peg holes. “I threw a three, so my ship defeats yours in battle and you must make repairs at the island shipyard. So I will move your ship there now.”

“And what happens to that ship?”

“After one turn, you can move it back into the harbor if you roll the right number. For now, throw the runes and move the next ship in line.”

Ulf picked up the runes and dropped them, differently this time, the ends perpendicular to the deck. One of them stood for a moment and then toppled. He read the names out, feeling the familiar sense of pride in his memory.

“Tiewaz and Hagalaz.”

“Zero points. No move.” Thad threw the runes. “Four tails up. Five points.” His first ship, already in the lead, landed in mid-ocean.

Ulf could see how the game would play, and allowed his mind to wander, only uttering sounds if necessary. He already, unfortunately, had Thad’s friendship. He didn’t want to encourage intimacy. He mentally put his opponent onto the ocean-island shipyard and left him there, sailing eastward to Alandia with captain Wisna, a woman he could fall in love with if she didn’t have the soul of a man. The wind whipped the hair about his eyes, obscuring the outline of the City of Sle, where the long cold days aboard ship would fade into warm beds and meade, and the hard weeks of battle would be proudly exaggerated by warriors.

Absently, he threw the runes and moved his ships and wished for a cup of mead in his hand. The desire was almost overwhelming, and Ulf despaired that it would keep him from his rightful place when Jens was gone. More than once since taking the apprenticeship, he had neglected his duties in favor of a strong drink. He also desired the authority that Jens had promised, but not the responsibility, and in this way he was not like his father. Also unlike his father, he was unaware of the truth of his desires, and the character flaw infected even his dreams.

The dreams had been with him since childhood. Always a subordinate, never a leader, he was still clever. While his brothers excelled in war and in the administration of the family estates, Ulf excelled only in learning. He learned to read long before his brothers, spent his days in the family library, and by the time he was thirteen he had finished every book his father owned. His mother regretted allowing him to read so much, and one failed attempt at restricting it had damaged their relationship forever. Ulf was aware of the rift, but wrongly attributed it to his father’s interference.

The dream of Wisna was a constant reminder of Ulf’s second-citizen status. Watching his dream from the outside, one might think that Ulf was a trusted lieutenant or skillful advisor, and sometimes the dream started out that way. But eventually, and always, his status waned and as the day awoke he was pulling at the oars with the others as they entered the harbor. Wisna laughed at him and put a boot into his chest as she strode toward the bow, leapt over the side, and left her crew to beach the ship and unload.

“Fate,” said Thad as the runes toppled to the deck yet again. “Hagalaz, the hailstorm. Looks like you have to go back a space.”

“Stop gloating,” said Ulf. “My luck at games is terrible, but it is offset by the luck of my birth.”

“What luck? You think it lucky to be born a nobleman?” Thad chuckled deeply. “There are some who count as nothing the status given by birth, while others depend on nothing else. You seem to be of the latter sort, and yet your station in life gives you no pleasure. As for myself, I care not for my lineage and I am a happy man.”

“That’s because you have no lineage worth caring about.”

“As if you do? What did you have to do with it? Did you choose your parents? Did your father choose his? No. A true man makes his own way, highborn or not. Any man who says otherwise is a liar or a fool. Or a noble. That’s one which has escaped to Valhalla. Five to go.”

Directly below them, in the head, Ulf heard someone grunting with great effort. It took equal effort for him not to compare the activity to Thad’s ridiculous talk about nobility. He watched the other man’s huge hand move a piece off the board, out of the serpent’s reach, and wished he had the stones to call out the man’s stupidity. He took his turn instead.

Hagalaz was the only rune face up. “Fate,” said Thad.

“That’s it,” said Ulf. “I quit.” He stood up into the wind and stretched.

“You can’t quit now!” Thad said in frustration. “Who quits a game just because they are losing?”

“We’re approaching Travemunde. I’ll be needed on watch.” The Bay of Travemunde was visible and getting larger just off the starboard bow. In the distance, on the port side, the red brick of the lighthouse stood watch over the gateway to the Baltic.

“Not for another hour at least. We still need to drop off our pilot.”

Ulf let his irritation get the best of him. “I don’t care about the stupid game. I didn’t want to play it in the first place.” Before the idea of kicking the game overboard was fully formed, his foot lashed out and the pieces scattered.

Thad bellowed something unintelligible as the board disappeared over the side.

“I’m sorry!” shouted Ulf. “I didn’t mean …” But he didn’t have time to finish the sentence before Thad picked him off his feet and threw him into the river.

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