Content notes: abuse, untreated PTSD, violence, death threats
Salma pushed aside the curtain and stepped into the airway. As always, the space between the thick sod outer walls and the wooden inner walls of the long house was cool and damp. The shielded oil lamp she carried cast a dim glow across the nearest support beam and a few feet of dirt floor.
A strong tang filled the air. Someone had been to lazy to go to the outhouse. Salma’s nose wrinkled. She watched the ground as she moved through the airway, careful of where she put her feet.
The airway stretched the full length of the long house, providing insulation and protecting the wooden walls for damp and rot. More than half the distance from the curtain Salma entered, a dark shape stepped back, pressing itself against the wooden walls. In the darkness, the dim light of the lamp came steadily closer. The monster’s golden eyes tracked the light, and the sturdy hand that held it.
The filth saved Salma’s life. When the flickering light bounced off a stinking puddle, she stopped. The beast launched himself at her. With a clattered of chains, he jerked to a stop, his teeth inches from her throat.
A daughter of the north, Salma didn’t scream, but stepped back quickly and her free hand grabbed the hilt of her knife.
The beast stood revealed in the light of her lamp. A man’s body, but covered in a thick pelt of dark grey fur. The head a mix of man and beast, with golden eyes, and a muzzle filled with sharp teeth. His hands, held by thick chains bolted to the wall, had thick, dark claws in place of finger nails.
Salma gasped. She released her knife. Her wide eyes glittered with tears before she blinked them away. Coming out of her defensive crouch, she curtsied, her eyes fixed on a spot above the beast’s head. “Greetings, ulfsark.”
The beast growled again. They stood for a moment, unmoving. Then the beast relaxed. The arms stopped straining against the chains. The muzzle softened. The face shifted, the eyes taking on a human cast while keeping their bright gold color.
“It has been a long time since one of your kin feasted in my hall, warrior. I am sorry I cannot give you a proper welcome.”
“No one welcomes a monster.” The whisper was more growl than speech. He stepped back from her, turned to face the wall.
Salma stepped forward, coming within his reach. “I do not see a monster. How came you to my hall, ulfsark? Who did this?” Her finger brushed the chains that held him.
“The Bloodaxe brought me. If you do not heed him, he will loose me on your people.” He whirled, grabbing her arm, his claws digging into her skin. “Leave before I kill you. And listen to the Bloodaxe.”
She tilted her head. “I am a daughter of the northlands, ulfsark. I have faced death every winter of my life. I will fight you if I must. But I will not fear you.”
The claws retreated from her arm, though his hand never moved. The last of his muzzle disappeared into a human mouth. “How are you doing this?” fear flickered in his eyes.
“I told you, warrior. My hall has welcomed ulfsark and berserk many times. I am not a threat to you, nor do I fear you. What has the Bloodaxe done, to drive your wolf out of your control?”
He laughed. “Not the Bloodaxe. His father. Haraald Shockhair did what 15 years of battle could not.”
“And now he uses you as a tool of his conquest.”
“Yes.” He met her eyes, and his teeth hovered between fang and human. “Heed him, or more blood will soak my claws.”
She shook her head. “No.”
His hand tightened on her arm, claws once again dug into her flesh. “I could kill you now.”
“Or you could free me.”
“Warrior. Help me escape the Bloodaxe, and I will help you. You can come with us, and you and your wolf will heal. You can own your life again.”
He stared at her. Tears shimmered in his eyes. Then he dropped her arm and turned away. “Go. When they do release me, I will try to make your death quick.”
Blood trickled down her arm. She reached toward him, then turned and walked away. Leaving the broken warrior standing in a pool of his own piss.
Some time ago I read an essay on evidence of PTSD in warrior myths. Among other things, the author explored evidence from Norse mythos that the berserk and ulfsark of legend might have been Norse warriors suffering from PTSD. Of course, the legends we have are incomplete and mostly recorded through later Christian writers. But he made a compelling case.
Of course, a few places in the myths say or imply that berserk and ulfsark were shapeshiters. I had to put the two together.
Harald Shockhair is the historical Norse lead/strongman/conquerer who united Norway into a single kingdom in the 10th century CE. He did so through a combination of threats, bribes, and outright conquest, driving many of the lesser kings and chieftains into exile in England or Iceland. Eric the Bloodaxe was his son.