A shadow moved beneath the pale, silvery light of the crescent moon. Only the two old ravens, Huginn and Muninn, nestled high in the tallest tree, paid any attention to the dark shape slipping in amongst the black boughs of the forest.
From their great height, it was difficult for the ravens to tell if the shadow was that of a man, or a bear. Far below, the forest floor was buried deep beneath a thick, untarnished layer of snow. Belgr, the warrior and caster of the shadow, was indeed a man. For now.
He was here, moving silently amongst the trees, to fulfil his destiny and honour the one-eyed god-king, Odin. He was going to complete the trial and join the ranks of the elite warriors; the berserkers.
As the ritual demanded, he was naked except for his mjolnir amulet that hung about his neck on an intricate chain, and a small leather pouch at his hip, held in place by a long, twisted strap that slipped over his shoulder and across his chest and back. His face streaked with black war paint; even his short blonde beard had stained dark with it. He held a small axe in one hand.
It was a clear night, and looking up through the bone-like branches, Belgr saw a familiar constellation, the Wain, or as Haldar his instructor called it, the Great Bear. Either way, Belgr took it as a sign from Odin that he was on the right path.
Belgr picked his way carefully through the trees, heading north towards the heart of the forest, just as he had been told to do. Haldar had been very precise about that. The cave would be easy to find from there. What was less certain was what Belgr would find within the cave.
As Haldar told it, each warrior attempting the trial to become an elite berserker would face either a brown bear or a black bear in the centre of the cave. Whichever was present would dictate the warrior’s future. Those who found a brown bear waiting for them would return empty-handed and denied a place in Valhalla, for brown bears were common and unworthy. Those who faced a black bear within the cave had a fighting chance of returning a hero. However, they had to kill the black bear and take its skin to earn a place within the halls of Valhalla, to earn the title of berserker.
Anyone who came face to face with a black bear on the trial and did not kill it was doomed to a half life, a shadow life. A failure for all to see, no longer under Odin’s protection.
Belgr spent every day of the last six years, from boy to man, training with Haldar and praying to Odin for a chance to fight a black bear. Belgr had worked harder than anyone else he knew, but becoming a berserker took more than physical effort. It required a touch of the mystical. Haldar had given him the mjolnir amulet, so that the gaze of Odin’s one good eye was always upon him.
Belgr was determined not to let Haldar down. He would face and defeat a black bear, joining the ranks of the elite berserkers, and he would earn his place at Odin’s table.
It was this determination, this unwavering desire to become so much more than he was today, that carried Belgr all the way to this moonlit night in the forest.
As he plodded onward, he felt the weight of expectation upon his shoulders, pushing him deeper into the snow. Would he succeed, or would he find a useless brown bear waiting for him?
The forest was eerily quiet. At this time of night, in the depths of winter, only the most foolish or desperate creatures were out and about. Belgr wondered which one he was? An abrupt crack accompanied and the desperate cry of a pair of ravens echoing high above, jerked him from his thoughts. Something large and strong had just snapped off a low-hanging branch, somewhere over to his left.
Belgr crouched, his axe quivering in his hand. The sight of an enormous bear rooted him to the ground. He could smell it, a pungent mixture of fish and dirt. The beast was larger than any Belgr had seen before. It was very close now. He could see its warm breath curling into the air, hear its deep voice grumbling with each step. The lumbering beast passed directly in front of him.
It was a black bear.
That put Belgr’s mind at ease, a little. At least it wasn’t a brown bear. He still had to work out exactly how he was going to kill the creature.
Belgr could see by the tapered muzzle that this was a female. She hadn’t spotted him yet, as she was too busy going about her own business, striding boldly through the dark trees, each foot lifting and then falling into densely packed snow.
Like Belgr, the black bear was heading north and so he followed her, whilst also trying to keep his distance. He was not ready to fight, not yet. Both he and the bear needed to be in the cave. Only then would Belgr take a pinch from the pouch at his side, to unleash the berserker within him and complete the trial.
Thinking about the pouch, Belgr instinctively checked it was still at his hip. A quick look inside told him that the contents, so carefully prepared, were still there and dry, waiting for the right moment.
He pressed his tiny, hammer-shaped mjolnir amulet to his lips and once again became a shadow passing through the trees.
The she-bear didn’t stop, look back, or show any signs of knowing that Belgr was following her. She just kept plodding on until she reached the clearing at the heart of the forest.
Huginn and Muninn, Odin’s favourite ravens, landed on a cold, grey outcrop of rock inside the clearing. They chatted amongst themselves for a moment, keeping their sharp eyes on the bear and the warrior.
Seeing the black bear come to a halt in the middle of a circle of uninterrupted snow, Belgr slipped behind the trunk of a nearby tree on the edge of the clearing, and froze in place. He waited to see what happened next.
To the left, directly opposite the ravens on their rock, and behind the bear, was the entrance to the cave. It was an open mouth made of stone, lined with sharp teeth. In the moonlight, Belgr could just about make out a path leading deeper inside.
Without hesitation, the bear entered the cave and disappeared into the darkness. Belgr took this as his sign to follow, but then another black bear appeared. A brutish male this time, with a gnarled face. The animal strode in through the trees on the other side of the clearing. It also made its way into the cave, almost as though it were in a trance. Another, and another, and another bear – all black – arrived from different directions, and all entered the cave without once stopping to examine their surroundings.
Five enormous black bears? Haldar had only ever mentioned a single bear before. Belgr didn’t know what it meant, but he also couldn’t back away now.
After a few moments of still silence, broken only by the ravens cawing, Belgr put his fears to one side and his faith in the contents of his pouch, as he crunched his way through the snow. He faced the mouth of the cave, checked his grip on the little axe, closed his eyes, and offered a few choice words to Odin. He kissed his amulet and headed inside.
The ravens hopped closer to the mouth of the cave, but refused to follow Belgr any further. They would wait outside.
It was bright within the cave. There was a blue-green glow all around. Belgr could not tell where the magic came from, but the air was thick with energy like the sky before a storm.
The walls of the cave were made of hard, grey rock and smooth green ice the colour of the brooch his mother used to wear. There was a deep, guttural rumble from somewhere beneath him. It sounded as though the cave itself were trying to talk.
Belgr made his way further into the cave, travelling downward in a spiral. The black bears were nowhere to be seen. Another rumble-roar shook the cave again, and a few shards of ice fell from the high ceiling and smashed upon the floor. Scattered amongst the ice were fragments of human bones. Belgr did not want to think about where they came from.
Another booming, echoing growl reverberated off the walls. Belgr almost felt he could understand the noise. Was it some form of speech? It was hard to tell. Whatever it was, and whoever was making it, was very close now. Just around the corner.
Belgr crept forward on his hands and knees. Below him was a pit, and in that pit he saw a giant white bear, standing on two legs. The beast appeared to be barking orders at the five supplicant black bears kneeling on the ground. It had one sharp, black eye and a deep scar where the other should’ve been.
A frosty lick of fear crept up on Belgr from the soles of his bare feet to the top of his war-painted head. He couldn’t move. He was shivering, and his heart was racing. It was hard to breathe. He could not believe his eyes. A white bear? What did that mean?
Haldar’s teachings, all those stories around the fire, came back to Belgr in that moment. Dozens of heroes had taken this trial, facing their own assailant. There were no white bears mentioned anywhere.
He suddenly felt feeble, his axe was hardly strong enough to chop wood, he was scrawny, he could barely grow a beard. He felt incredibly naked, ashamed. Vulnerable. How could he possibly hope to succeed? He had a vision of the bones trapped in ice, of how he was about to join them.
He’d held off for as long as he could, but it was time. Belgr thrust his hand into the leather pouch and pulled out a fistful of dried mushrooms and henbane. He quickly crammed the items into his mouth, chewed them as best he could, and swallowed hard.
Haldar had prepared the pouch for Belgr. It was the traditional berserker potion, designed to whip up a warrior into an incredible fury. Belgr’s wiry muscles tensed and tightened. It felt as though they grew, too. His eyes flashed blue for a moment. He could see more detail now than ever before. The vein in the neck of the white bear was pulsing, the one-eyed face was both familiar and horrifying. His axe was no longer a useless tool. What he held in his hand was a weapon capable of great damage.
The white bear turned to face Belgr, its one eye was full of rage. The monstrous bear opened its jagged maw and let out a heart-stopping roar before charging at full speed, all four feet thudding on the ground.
In return, Belgr ran at the white bear, his axe raised and ready.
Some time later, on a cold rock by the mouth of the cave, Huginn nudged a sleeping Muninn with his long, black beak. The sun was rising, large and blood-red. The ravens knew that was never a good sign. Between themselves they reasoned Odin would be missing them by now, and that they ought to get back and report their findings from the night, as quickly as possible.
Just as they were about to fly, they heard a grumble from within the cave. They saw a shadow on the inside wall, lit by the mysterious glow from within the cave. It was hard from this distance to tell if the shape was a man or a bear.
The shadow shrank, replaced by the creature itself. A thin figure, wrapped in a white fur cloak, the top half of a huge white bear’s skull sitting upon its head like a crown.
Belgr walked slowly and silently from the cave, dripping in bear blood. The ravens saw that the white fur wrapped around him was also bloody. In one hand was his axe, in the other was the empty leather pouch. Breathing heavily, Belgr thrust his axe into the air and let out a most ferocious and inhuman cry.
Behind Belgr, heads bowed, the five black bears limped out of the cave. Each of them bore scratches, cuts, and other signs of a vicious brawl. They were all beaten.
Huginn and Muninn took to their wings. They’d seen enough. Odin, the one-eyed god-king, would be pleased. He not only had another berserker in his army, but in Belgr, he had someone who held the soul of the bear within him. A true Bearskin.
My name is Scott Fisher, I am a writer based in the South-West of England, I like to write about fantastical, mythical, adventurous things whenever I can. I am often aided in this pursuit by my loyal (and supremely lazy) saluki, Jerry.