Chapter 12 - The Brothers Lionheart Fairy tale by Astrid Lindgren

We slept under a fir tree that night and woke at dawn; it was freezing cold, at least I was. Mist was lying between the trees and we could hardly see Grim and Fyalar. They looked like two gray ghost horses in the gray light and the silence all around us. It was utterly silent, dismal in some way. I don’t know why everything seemed so gloomy and desolate and worrying that morning. All I know is that I longed to be back in Mathias’s warm kitchen and I was uneasy about what lay ahead of us, everything that I knew nothing about.

I tried not to show Jonathan what I was feeling, for who knows, perhaps he would suggest that I go back, and I wanted to be with him through every danger, however great it was.

Jonathan looked at me and smiled slightly.

“Don’t look like that, Rusky,” he said. “This is nothing. Things’ll get much worse, you can be sure.”

Well, what a comfort that was! But just then the sun broke through, the mist vanished, the birds began to sing in the forest, all that had been gloomy and desolate disappeared, and the dangers seemed less dangerous. I grew warm, too, and everything felt better, almost good.

Grim and Fyalar were also all right. They had got out of their dark stable and could now graze the rich green grass again. They liked that, I’m sure.

Jonathan whistled to them, a quiet little whistle, but they heard it and came.

He wanted to get away, now, Jonathan. Far away. At once!

“Because the wall’s just behind that hazel thicket,” he said. “And I’ve no desire to see the whites of Dodik’s eyes.”

Our underground passage came up between two nearby hazelnut bushes, but the opening could no longer be seen because Jonathan had covered it with branches and twigs. He marked the place with two sticks so that we would be able to find it again.

“Don’t forget what it looks like,” he said. “Remember that big stone and the fir tree where we slept, and the hazel thicket. Because one day we may come this way. If...”

He said no more and we mounted our horses and rode silently away.

Then a pigeon came flying over the treetops, one of Sofia’s white pigeons.

“There’s Paloma,” said Jonathan, though I don’t know how he could recognize her at such a distance.

We had waited a long time for news from Sofia, and now at last her pigeon had come, just when we were outside the wall. She flew straight toward Mathias’s house and would soon be landing in the pigeon loft outside the stable. But only Mathias would be there to read her message.

This vexed Jonathan.

“If only she’d come yesterday,” he said. “Then I’d have known what I want to know.”

But we had to be away now, far away from Wild Rose Valley and the wall and all the Tengilmen searching for Jonathan.

We were to make our way down to the river via a detour through the forest, Jonathan had said, and then follow the banks toward Karma Falls.

“And then, little Karl, you’ll see a waterfall such as you’ve never even dreamt about.”

I had seen very little before I had come to Nangiyala, certainly no forest like the one we were now riding through. It was one of those truly sagalike forests, thick and dark, and there were no trodden paths. We simply rode straight on through the trees, which slapped their wet branches across your face. But I liked it, all the same. All of it---seeing the sun sifting through the tree trunks, hearing the birds, and smelling the scent of trees and wet grass and horses. Most of all, I liked riding there with Jonathan.

The air was fresh and cool in the forest, but as we went on, it grew warmer. It was going to be a hot day, we could feel that already.

Soon Wild Rose Valley was left far behind us and we were deep in the forest. In a glade surrounded by tall trees, we came across a little gray cottage, right in the middle of the dark forest. How could anyone live in such a lonely place! But someone did live there, for smoke was coming out of the chimney and there were two goats grazing outside.

“Elfrida lives here,” said Jonathan. “She’ll give us a little goat’s milk if we ask her.”

We were given milk, as much as we liked, which was good, because we’d ridden a long way and had had nothing to eat. We sat on Elfrida’s steps and drank her goat’s milk, and we ate bread that we’d had with us and goat’s cheese which Elfrida gave us, and we each had a fistful of wild strawberries which I’d picked in the forest. It all tasted very good and we were satisfied.

Elfrida was a fat, kindly little old woman, and she lived alone there with nothing but her goats and a gray cat for company.

“Thank the Lord I don’t live behind any walls,” she said.

She knew many people in Wild Rose Valley and she wanted to know if they were still alive, so Jonathan had to tell her. He was sad when he did that, for most of it was the kind of news a kindly old person must grieve to hear.

“That things should be so wretched in Wild Rose Valley,” Elfrida said. “A curse on Tengil! And on Katla! Everything would be all right, if only he hadn’t got Katla.”

She threw her apron over her eyes, and I think she crying.

I couldn’t bear to watch, so I went to find some more wild strawberries; who was Katla and where was Katla? When would I be told that?

We got to the river in the end, in the heat of the midday sun. The sun was sitting like a ball of fire in the sky and the water glittered too, flashing like a thousand little suns. We stood high up on the steep bank and saw the river far below us. What a sight it was! The river of The Ancient Rivers was rushing toward Karma Falls so that the foam swirled. It wanted to get there with all those mighty waters, and we could hear the falls thundering in the distance.

We wanted to go down to the water to cool off. Grim and Fyalar were let loose in the forest to find themselves a stream to drink from, but we wanted to bathe in the river. So we rushed down the steep slope, almost tearing our clothes off as we ran. There were willow trees down on the riverbank, and one of them had grown right out over the river, dragging its branches in the water. We climbed along the trunk and Jonathan showed me how I should hold on to a branch and let myself down into the swirling water.

“But don’t let go,” he said, “or you’ll get to Karma Falls far quicker than is good for you.”

I held on so hard that my knuckles turned white. I swung there on my branch and let the water rush over me; never have I had such a wonderful bath, nor such a dangerous one. I felt the pull of Karma falls right through my body.

Then I climbed up onto the trunk again, Jonathan helping me, and we sat in the crown of the willow as it in a green house swaying over the water. The river leapt and played directly below us, trying to lure us in again, trying to make us think it wasn’t at all dangerous. But I only needed to dip my toes in, and in my big toe alone I could feel that pull that wanted to take me with it.

As I was sitting there, I happened to look up on the slope and then I grew frightened. There were riders up there, Tengil soldiers with long spears. They were coming at a gallop, but we hadn’t heard the sound of their hoofs because of the roar of the water.

Jonathan saw them too, but I could see no sign that he was afraid. We sat there silently, waiting for them to ride past. But they didn’t ride past. They stopped and jumped down from their horses as if they were going to take a rest or something like that.

I asked Jonathan:

“Is it you they’re after, do you think?”

“No,” said Jonathan. “They come from Karmanyaka and are on their way to Wild Rose Valley. There’s a suspension bridge over the river at Karma Falls. Tengil usually sends his soldiers that way.”

“But they needn’t have stopped just here,” I said.

Jonathan agreed with me.

“I really don’t want them to see me,” he said, “and get funny ideas about Lionhearts into their heads.”

I counted six of them up there on the slope. They were talking and arguing about something, pointing down towards the water, though we couldn’t hear what they were saying. But suddenly one of them started riding his horse down the slope toward the river. He came riding almost straight at us, and I was glad we were sitting so well hidden in the tree.

The others shouted after him:

“Don’t do it, Park! You’ll drown yourself and your horse!”

But he---the one they called Park---just laughed and shouted back:

“I’ll show you! If I don’t get to that rock and back, then I’ll stand you all a beer, I swear!”

Then we realized what he was going to do.

There was a rock protruding out of the river some way out. The currents were swirling around it and only a little of it showed about the surface. But Park must have happened to see it as he riding past, and now he was showing off.

“The fool,” said Jonathan. “Does he think a horse can swim against the current all the way out there!”

Park had already flung off his helmet and cloak and boots, and in nothing but shirt and trousers he was trying to force the horse down into the river. A lovely little black mare it was. Park shouted and swore and urged, but the mare was unwilling. She was afraid. Then he hit her. He had no riding crop but hit her on he head with his fists, and I heard Jonathan draw in a deep breath like a sob, just as he had done that time in the square.

At last Park had his own way; the mare neighed, and terrified, she hurled herself into the river just because that madman wanted her to. It was terrible to see how she struggled when the current caught her.

“She’ll drift right down toward us,” said Jonathan. “Park can do as he likes, but he’ll never get her to that rock.”

But she tried, she really tried. Oh, how she struggled and what terror she felt when she sensed that the river was stronger than she was!

Even Park eventually realized that his life was now at stake, and then he tried to get her back to the bank, but he soon saw that she couldn’t manage. No, because the currents wished otherwise; they wished to take him to Karma Falls, a fate he thoroughly deserved. But the mare, I felt sorry for her. She was quite helpless now, and they came drifting toward us just as Jonathan had said; soon they would pass us and disappear. I could see the terror in Park’s eyes; no doubt he knew what was going to happen.

I turned my head to see where Jonathan was and cried out when I saw him. He hanging from the branch, dangling over the water as far out as he could get, upside down, his legs hooked around the branch, and just as Park came immediately below him, Jonathan grabbed him by the hair and pulled him in so that he could catch hold of a branch.

And then Jonathan called to the mare.

“Come, little mare, come here!”

She had already drifted past, but she made a wild attempt to get back to him. She didn’t have that great lump Park on her back now, but she was almost sinking. Then in some way Jonathan got hold of her reins and began to tug and pull at them. it grew into a tug-of-war between life and death, for the river did not wish to let go; it wanted both the mare and Jonathan.

I grew quite wild and shouted at Park:

“Help them, you big ox, you! Help them!”

He had scrambled up into the tree and was sitting there safe and sound, quite near Jonathan, but the only thing the fool did to help was to lean forward and yell:

“Let the horse go! There are two horses up there in the forest. I can take one of those instead. Just let it go!”

You grow strong when you’re angry, I’ve always heard, and in that way you could say that Park helped Jonathan save the mare.

But afterward he said to Park:

“You blockhead, you, do you think I’d save your life so that you could steal my horse? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?”

Perhaps Park was ashamed, I don’t know. He said nothing and he never even asked who we were or anything. He just clambered up the slope with his poor mare, and soon afterward he and the whole troop disappeared.

We made a campfire above Karma Falls that evening, and I’m sure no campfire in any day or in any world has burned on a campsite like the one where we lit ours.

It was a dreadful place, terrible and beautiful, like no other place in heaven or on earth, I think; the mountains and the river and the waterfall, it was all too vast, all of it. Again, I felt as it I were in a dream, and I said to Jonathan:

“This can’t be real. It’s like something out of an ancient dream.”

We were standing on the bridge then, the bridge that Tengil had had built over the chasm separating the two countries, Karmanyaka, and Nangiyala, on either side of the river of The Ancient Rivers.

The river was rushing along deep down in the depths below the bridge, then throwing itself with a great roar over Karma Falls, an even deeper and more terrible chasm.

I asked Jonathan:

“How do you build a bridge over such a terrible chasm?”

“I’d like to know that, too,” he said. “And how many human lives went into building it? How many people fell down there with a cry and vanished into Karma Falls? I’d like to know that very much.”

I shuddered, thinking I could hear the cries still echoing between the mountains walls.

We were very near Tengil’s country now. On the other side of the bridge, I could see a path winding its way up through the mountains: The Ancient Mountains of Karmanyaka.

“If you follow that path, you come to Tengil’s castle,” said Jonathan.

I shuddered again, but I thought things could do what they liked tomorrow---this evening, I was going to sit by a campfire with Jonathan for the first time in my life.

We had our fire on a ledge of rock high up above the waterfall, near the bridge. But I sat with my back to everything, because I didn’t want to see the bridge over to Tengil’s country or anything else, either. I saw only the light from the fire flickering between the mountain walls, and that was beautiful and a little terrible, too. And then I saw Jonathan’s handsome, kindly face in the firelight, and the horses, which were standing resting a little way away.

“This is much better than my last campfire,” I said. “Because now I’m here with you, Jonathan.”

Wherever I was, I felt safe as long as Jonathan was with me, and I was happy that at last I could sit by a campfire with him, what he had talked about so many times when he had lived on earth.

“The days of campfires and sagas, do you remember saying that?” I said to Jonathan.

“Yes, I remember,” said Jonathan. “But then I didn’t know there were such evil sagas in Nangiyala.”

“Must it always be like this?” I asked.

He sat in silence for a while, staring into the fire, and then he said:

“No. When the final battle is over, then Nangiyala will probably again be a country where the sagas are beautiful and life will be easy and simple to live, as before.”

The fire flared up, and in the light, I saw how tired and sad he was.

“But the final battle, you see, Rusky, can only be an evil saga of death and more death. So Orvar must lead that battle, not me. For I’m no good at killing.”

No, I know that, I thought. And then I asked him:

“Why did you save that man Park’s life? Was that a good thing?”

“I don’t know whether it was a good thing,” said Jonathan. “But there are things you have to do, otherwise you’re not a human being but just a bit of filth. I’ve told you that before.”

“But suppose he’d realized who you were?” I said. “And they’d caught you?”

“Well, then they would have caught Lionheart and not a bit of filth,” said Jonathan.

Our fire burned down and the darkness sank over the mountains, first a brief dusk for a moment turning everything almost mild and friendly and soft, then a black, roaring darkness, in which you could hear nothing but Karma Falls and see no glimmer of light anywhere.

I crept as close to Jonathan as I could, and we sat there, leaning against the mountain wall, talking to each other in the dark. I wasn’t afraid, but a strange unease had come over me. We ought to sleep, Jonathan said, but I knew that I couldn’t sleep. I could hardly speak either, because of that feeling of anxiety, which had nothing to do with the dark, but something else, I didn’t know what. And yet Jonathan was there beside me.

There was a flash of lightning and then a crash of thunder, the sound of booming against the mountain walls, and then it came over us, a storm beyond all imagination, the thunder rolling over the mountains with a roar that drowned even the sound of Karma Falls, and flashes of lightning coming one after another. Sometimes the lights flared up and the next moment it was darker than ever; it was as if a night from ancient times had fallen over us.

And then there was another flash of lightning, more terrible than any of the others, flaring up and throwing its light over everything.

And then, in that light, I saw Katla. I saw Katla.