The Road to Nikae

This fall, I’ve been taking a course on JRR Tolkien and those works that influenced him. It’s been quite interesting. Especially for a writer, who, whenever he sees something important or symbolic in a story, immediately thinks how he can steal borrow that thing. So I hope you enjoy this piece, fully saturated with Norse myth (among other things).

Lokan Verosten stood at the prow of his warship, looking fiercely to the horizon while his men rowed, trying to overcome the bad weather that hindered their progress. Rain lashed the boat and stormclouds crackled overhead. The wind blew in from all directions, and Lokan could hardly see before him. All that were visible were the shadows of waves and rocks, and even barely enough to navigate these waters.

However, an orange glow suddenly came into view. The ship drew nearer and nearer to it, and soon Lokan could hear a voice as well. There, barely visible even with the glow, stood a man on the barest outcrop of rocks. Lokan immediately ordered his men toward the rock, not willing to let the man either drown or freeze out in the middle of nowhere.

The ship stopped by the rock just long enough for Lokan to stretch his hand out and pull the man aboard. He was old and wizened, his long beard stretching past the lantern he held in one hand. With his one single eye, he stared up at Lokan.

“Thank you for saving me,” he said. “If you could drop me off at the harbor of Nanjiustro, I could show you a way to win glory.”

“Glory is the least of my worries, sir,” replied Lokan. “We’re in treacherous waters now.”

“Well, if you skirt around these two rocks here and continue east, you may find the voyage much easier.”

Lokan swiftly ordered his men to do as the old man had said, and was surprised to find that he spoke truth – their way did become easier. Soon they had left the storm and found themselves with a strong wind from the south, precisely where they wanted it.

“If you go to the port of Higel,” said the old man as they sailed to the port he had mentioned earlier. “You will come to a road through the mountains. This is the road to Nikae. Along the way, there is a tower made from an ash tree, surrounded always by fire. Inside that tower is a woman named Rokina, who was once a Valkyrie, but now waits for the bravest of men to rescue her. If you were to do this, she would prove a most admirable partner for a man’s life.”

“That would indeed win a man glory. I thank you, wise counselor.”

After letting off the old man at Nanjiustro, Lokan immediately set for Higel. Upon arriving there, he said good-bye to his crew and departed along the road, spear in one hand, sword at his side, shield on his back.

The port vanished into the background and the mountains came to dominate his view. He wasn’t yet far into the mountains when, turning a corner, he found his way blocked by a great, swarthy giant. It laughed when it saw him, and it had reason to, being twice his size.

“Who comes?” asked the giant. “Some bookish fellow who, having had enough of his mother’s stories, fantasizes that he can become the heroes his wet-nurse tells him about?”

“I am Lokan Verosten,” replied the warrior. “I seek passage along this road, though I see that your belly is as large as your mouth, which discourages me, for I doubt you could even move yourself from that place.”

“It’s all the better for squashing little soldiers who bandy insults with those clearly their superior!” The giant stomped forward, throwing his fist at Lokan.

The warrior dodged the first blow, and the second, but we was suddenly caught up by the giant’s foot and flew against the rocks. Fortunately, the shield on his back cushioned him some. He was soon on his feet again, spear at the ready.

Again the giant came at him. Punch, punch, kick. Lokan thrust his spear into the giant’s foot, causing it to howl in pain. However, he missed a new punch, which sent him flying back at the rocks. The giant took the spear from his foot, black blood oozing out, snapping the spear as if it were a twig. Lokan eyed the giant carefully, drawing his sword. The giant rushed at him.

This time he did not retaliate, merely dodging the attacks as they came. The giant was now making use of his unwounded foot, as well as both hands. There was a way to win here, he was sure. He just had to learn how to do it.

“Come, you coward!” shouted the giant angrily. “You fight like a doe, always flitting around without making a strike!”

“I think I fight like a wolf,” Lokan said back. “Waiting for the right time to strike!”

The giant missed a punch, and Lokan turned deftly, bringing down his blade over the wrist, severing it. Black blood blasted over the rocks and the sword, and the giant contorted around his missing appendage. Lokan took quick advantage of this moment of weakness and thrust his blade into the giant’s skull. And then the giant’s wailing ceased.

The warrior cleaned off his blade, sheathing it as he looked over the corpse of his enemy. Then he was back on the road, walking onward to the unseen tower.

Coming up on one plateau in an attempt to shorten the winding road, he marveled at the sight at the top, for there, in the center of a lake, stood the tower, surrounded by red flames. Coming toward it, he found that there was a small dock on the lake, where a boat rested and a man stood, staff in hand.

“Who are you?” asked Lokan. “Who should be standing here in sight of yonder tower?”

“I am the guardian of that tower,” replied the man. “And she who inhabits it. I tell you, you shall not set foot on that island until you have defeated my test.”

“Very well. What is this test?”

“I shall give a question and, should you prove unable to answer, you must leave here at once. If you can answer, then you must try to defeat my mind with your own question. If I cannot answer it, then I shall give you passage.”

“This is good. What is your first question?”

“Ever present, yet we cannot see it. Two its masters say we do not see without it.”

“That is yet an easy question. The answer is light.”

“Indeed.”

“Now hear my question, guardian. They say the world will fall to darkness, but I have yet seen a thing that reverses this. For it comes from under the depths, and light is made to shine through this.”

“It is of course a jewel.”

Lokan pursed his lips. “Yes, it is.”

“You must sail with a drummer to keep the time, yet even the best will stop to keep this beat in mind.”

“This is thunder,” replied the warrior after a pause.

“It is. What is your next question?”

“We live by it, with it, and cannot live without it, yet to join it would be suicide.”

“It is water. Perhaps your questions grow easier.”

“I know of another thing that, despite its ubiquity, is utterly deadly. Let our children delight to play in it.”

“You grow yet more elusive, guardian. But I know this answer is snow.”

“You know well.”

They continued with these riddles for some time, each digging deeper into themselves for the next. Yet, at last, Lokan found that he had no more to ask, and could not answer many more.

“It is your turn, warrior. What question do you have next?” spoke the guardian.

A sudden thought came to his mind. “I picked up an old man this day and deposited him at a harbor. Which was it?”

The guardian laughed. “I see you have turned to real tricks to win your way. I cannot answer this. Come, enter my boat.”

Lokan did as he was bid and the guardian stood behind him. He reached down into the water with his staff and pushed, so that the boat began to move gently toward the island. Once there, they stepped out onto the shore.

The tower was tall and made of stone and ash wood, and the wall of flame crackled around it. Lokan could see no break in it, and even circled all the way around the tower to check.

“Behold,” said the guardian when he returned. “See you there eight skeletons, one for each man who crossed here. Some, as you can see, litter the shore, where they died out of cowardice. Others are in the flame where they tried to defeat it. I shall leave you now, only to return if the lady comes out.”

Lokan observed the fire for some time. He could understand how people could wait here until their deaths. The fire was tricky and patternless. He attempted to throw water on it, which subdued a section – but that section quickly roared up again, more violently than before. Lokan smiled. Perhaps the only way to beat the fire would be to meet it head on.

He ran toward it, and leapt through the flames. His clothes were on fire, but he quickly rolled around on the other side, smothering them. He sighed. He had made it. And now he ascended the tower stairs.

At the top was a wide room with a full view of the mountains. To the side was a bed and on this bed lay a woman, as pale and beautiful as Lokan had ever seen. He approached her and touched her cheek. Her eyes flew open, staring into his own.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“I am Lokan Verosten,” he replied. “And I’m your rescuer.”

With that, he carried her out. The wall of fire was gone. A raven fluttered from an ashen branch up a nearby mountain, to an old man with one eye, which twinkled as he smiled, and vanished with a swish of his cloak.

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