Escape Pod 418: The Dala Horse
The Dala Horse
by Michael Swanwick
Something terrible had happened. Linnea did not know what it was. But her father had looked pale and worried, and her mother had told her, very fiercely, “Be brave!” and now she had to leave, and it was all the result of that terrible thing.
The three of them lived in a red wooden house with steep black roofs by the edge of the forest. From the window of her attic room, Linnea could see a small lake silver with ice very far away. The design of the house was unchanged from all the way back in the days of the Coffin People, who buried their kind in beautiful polished boxes with metal fittings like nothing anyone made anymore. Uncle Olaf made a living hunting down their coffin-sites and salvaging the metal from them. He wore a necklace of gold rings he had found, tied together with silver wire.
“Don’t go near any roads,” her father had said. “Especially the old ones.” He’d given her a map. “This will help you find your grandmother’s house.”
“No, Far-Mor. My mother. In Godastor.”
Godastor was a small settlement on the other side of the mountain. Linnea had no idea how to get there. But the map would tell her.
Her mother gave her a little knapsack stuffed with food, and a quick hug. She shoved something deep in the pocket of Linnea’s coat and said, “Now go! Before it comes!”
“Good-bye, Mor and Far,” Linnea had said formally, and bowed.
Then she’d left.
So it was that Linnea found herself walking up a long, snowy slope, straight up the side of the mountain. It was tiring work, but she was a dutiful little girl. The weather was harsh, but whenever she started getting cold, she just turned up the temperature of her coat. At the top of the slope she came across a path, barely wide enough for one person, and so she followed it onward. It did not occur to her that this might be one of the roads her father had warned her against. She did not wonder at the fact that it was completely bare of snow.
After a while, though, Linnea began to grow tired. So she took off her knapsack and dropped it in the snow alongside the trail and started to walk away.
“Wait!” the knapsack said. “You’ve left me behind.”
Linnea stopped. “I’m sorry,” she said. “But you’re too heavy for me to carry.”
“If you can’t carry me,” said the knapsack, “then I’ll have to walk.”
So it did.
On she went, followed by the knapsack, until she came to a fork in the trail. One way went upward and the other down. Linnea looked from one to the other. She had no idea which to take.
“Why don’t you get out the map?” her knapsack suggested.
So she did.
Carefully, so as not to tear, the map unfolded. Contour lines squirmed across its surface as it located itself. Blue stream-lines ran downhill. Black roads and stitched red trails went where they would. “We’re here,” said the map, placing a pinprick light at its center. “Where would you like to go?”
“To Far-Mor,” Linnea said. “She’s in Godastor.”
“That’s a long way. Do you know how to read maps?”
“Then take the road to the right. Whenever you come across another road, take me out and I’ll tell you which way to go.”
On Linnea went, until she could go no further, and sat down in the snow beside the road. “Get up,” the knapsack said. “You have to keep on going.”
The muffled voice of the map, which Linnea had stuffed back into the knapsack, said, “Keep straight on. Don’t stop now.”
“Be silent, both of you,” Linnea said, and of course they obeyed. She pulled off her mittens and went through her pockets to see if she’d remembered to bring any toys. She hadn’t, but in the course of looking she found the object her mother had thrust into her coat.
It was a dala horse.
Dala horses came in all sizes, but this one was small. They were carved out of wood and painted bright colors with a harness of flowers. Linnea’s horse was red; she had often seen it resting on a high shelf in her parents’ house. Dala horses were very old. They came from the time of the Coffin People who lived long ago, before the time of the Strange Folk. The Coffin People and the Strange Folk were all gone now. Now there were only Swedes.
Linnea moved the dala horse up and down, as if it were running. “Hello, little horse,” she said.
“Hello,” said the dala horse. “Are you in trouble?”
Linnea thought. “I don’t know,” she admitted at last.
“Then most likely you are. You mustn’t sit in the snow like that, you know. You’ll burn out your coat’s batteries.”
“But I’m bored. There’s nothing to do.”
“I’ll teach you a song. But first you have to stand up.”
A little sulkily, Linnea did so. Up the darkening road she went again, followed by the knapsack. Together she and the dala horse sang:
“Hark! through the darksome night
Sounds come a-winging:
Lo! ’tis the Queen of Light
The shadows were getting longer and the depths of the woods to either side turned black. Birch trees stood out in the gloom like thin white ghosts. Linnea was beginning to stumble with weariness when she saw a light ahead. At first she thought it was a house, but as she got closer, it became apparent it was a campfire.
There was a dark form slumped by the fire. For a second, Linnea was afraid he was a troll. Then she saw that he wore human clothing and realized that he was a Norwegian or possibly a Dane. So she started to run toward him.
At the sound of her feet on the road, the man leaped up. “Who’s there?” he cried. “Stay back â€“ I’ve got a cudgel!”
Linnea stopped. “It’s only me,” she said.
The man crouched a little, trying to see into the darkness beyond his campfire. “Step closer,” he said. And then, when she obeyed, “What are you?”
“I’m just a little girl.”
“Closer!” the man commanded. When Linnea stood within the circle of firelight, he said, “Is there anybody else with you?”
“No, I’m all alone.”
Unexpectedly, the man threw his head back and laughed. “Oh god!” he said. “Oh god, oh god, oh god, I was so afraid! For a moment there I thought you were . . . well, never mind.” He threw his stick into the fire. “What’s that behind you?”
“I’m her knapsack,” the knapsack said.
“And I’m her map,” a softer voice said.
“Well, don’t just lurk there in the darkness. Stand by your mistress.” When he had been obeyed, the man seized Linnea by the shoulders. He had more hair and beard than anyone she had ever seen, and his face was rough and red. “My name is GÃ¼nther, and I’m a dangerous man, so if I give you an order, don’t even think of disobeying me. I walked here from Finland, across the Gulf of Bothnia. That’s a long, long way on a very dangerous bridge, and there are not many men alive today who could do that.”
Linnea nodded, though she was not sure she understood.
“You’re a Swede. You know nothing. You have no idea what the world is like. You haven’t . . . tasted its possibilities. You’ve never let your fantasies eat your living brain.” Linnea couldn’t make any sense out of what GÃ¼nther was saying. She thought he must have forgotten she was a little girl. “You stayed here and led ordinary lives while the rest of us . . .” His eyes were wild. “I’ve seen horrible things. Horrible, horrible things.” He shook Linnea angrily. “I’ve done horrible things as well. Remember that! ”
“I’m hungry, ” Linnea said. She was. She was so hungry her stomach hurt.
GÃ¼nther stared at her as if he were seeing her for the first time. Then he seemed to dwindle a little and all the anger went out of him. “Well . . . let’s see what’s in your knapsack. C’mere, little fellow.”
The knapsack trotted to GÃ¼nther’s side. He rummaged within and removed all the food Linnea’s mother had put in it. Then he started eating.
“Hey!” Linnea said. “That’s mine!”
One side of the man’s mouth rose in a snarl. But he shoved some bread and cheese into Linnea’s hands. “Here.”
GÃ¼nther ate all the smoked herring without sharing. Then he wrapped himself in a blanket and lay down by the dying fire to sleep. Linnea got out her own little blanket from the knapsack and lay down on the opposite side of the fire.
She fell asleep almost immediately.
But in the middle of the night, Linnea woke up. Somebody was talking quietly in her ear.
It was the dala horse. “You must be extremely careful with GÃ¼nther,” the dala horse whispered. “He is not a good man.”
“Is he a troll?” Linnea whispered back.
“I thought so.”
“But I’ll do my best to protect you.”
Linnea rolled over and went back to sleep.
In the morning, troll GÃ¼nther kicked apart the fire, slung his pack over his shoulder, and started up the road. He didn’t offer Linnea any food, but there was still some bread and cheese from last night which she had stuffed in a pocket of her coat, so she ate that.
GÃ¼nther walked faster than Linnea did, but whenever he got too far ahead, he’d stop and wait for her. Sometimes the knapsack carried Linnea. But because it only had enough energy to do so for a day, usually she carried it instead.
When she was bored, Linnea sang the song she had learned the previous day.
At first, she wondered why the troll always waited for her when she lagged behind. But then, one of the times he was far ahead, she asked the dala horse and it said, “He’s afraid and he’s superstitious. He thinks that a little girl who walks through the wilderness by herself must be lucky.”
“Why is he afraid?”
“He’s being hunted by something even worse than he is.”
At noon they stopped for lunch. Because Linnea’s food was gone, GÃ¼nther brought out food from his own supplies. It wasn’t as good as what Linnea’s mother had made. But when Linnea said so, GÃ¼nther snorted. “You’re lucky I’m sharing at all.” He stared off into the empty woods in silence for a long time. Then he said, “You’re not the first girl I’ve encountered on my journey, you know. There was another whom I met in what remained of Hamburg. When I left, she came with me. Even knowing what I’d done, she . . .” He fished out a locket and thrust it at Linnea. “Look!”
Inside the locket was a picture of a woman. She was an ordinary pretty woman. Just that and nothing more. “What happened to her?” Linnea asked.
The troll grimaced, showing his teeth. “I ate her.” His look was wild as wild could be. “If we run out of food, I may have to cook and eat you too.”
“I know,” Linnea said. Trolls were like that. She was familiar with the stories. They’d eat anything. They’d even eat people. They’d even eat other trolls. Her books said so. Then, because he hadn’t told her yet, “Where are you going?”
“I don’t know. Someplace safe.”
“I’m going to Godastor. My map knows the way.”
For a very long time GÃ¼nther mulled that over. At last, almost reluctantly, he said, “Is it safe there, do you think?”
Linnea nodded her head emphatically. “Yes.”
Pulling the map from her knapsack, GÃ¼nther said, “How far is it to Godastor?”
“It’s on the other side of the mountain, a day’s walk if you stay on the road, and twice, maybe three times that if you cut through the woods.”
“Why the hell would I want to cut through the woods?” He stuffed the map back in the knapsack. “Okay, kid, we’re going to Godastor.”
That afternoon, a great darkness rose up behind them, intensifying the shadows between the trees and billowing up high above until half the sky was black as chimney soot. Linnea had never seen a sky like that. An icy wind blew down upon them so cold that it made her cry and then froze the tears on her cheeks. Little whirlwinds of snow lifted off of the drifts and danced over the empty black road. They gathered in one place, still swirling, in the ghostly white form of a woman. It raised an arm to point at them. A dark vortex appeared in its head, like a mouth opening to speak.
With a cry of terror, GÃ¼nther bolted from the road and went running uphill between the trees. Where the snow was deep, he bulled his way through it.
Clumsily, Linnea ran after him.
She couldn’t run very fast and at first it looked like the troll would leave her behind. But halfway up the slope GÃ¼nther glanced over his shoulder and stopped. He hesitated, then ran back to her. Snatching up Linnea, he placed her on his shoulders. Holding onto her legs so she wouldn’t fall, he shambled uphill. Linnea clutched his head to hold herself steady.
The snow lady didn’t follow.
The further from the road GÃ¼nther fled, the warmer it became. By the time he crested the ridge, it was merely cold. But as he did so, the wind suddenly howled so loud behind them that it sounded like a woman screaming.
It was slow going without a road underfoot. After an hour or so, GÃ¼nther stumbled to a stop in the middle of a stand of spruce and put Linnea down. “We’re not out of this yet,” he rumbled. “She knows we’re out here somewhere, and she’ll find us. Never doubt it, she’ll find us.” He stamped an open circle of snow flat. Then he ripped boughs from the spruce trees and threw them in a big heap to make a kind of mattress. After which, he snapped limbs from a dead tree and built a fire in the center of the circle.
When the fire was ready, instead of getting out flint and steel, he tapped a big ring on one finger and then jabbed his fist at the wood. It burst into flames.
Linnea laughed and clapped her hands. “Do it again!”
Grimly, he ignored her.
As the woods grew darker and darker, GÃ¼nther gathered and stacked enough wood to last the night. Meanwhile, Linnea played with the dala horse. She made a forest out of spruce twigs stuck in the snow. Gallop, gallop, gallop, went the horse all the way around the forest and then hop, hop, hop to a little clearing she had left in the center. It reared up on its hind legs and looked at her.
“What’s that you have?” GÃ¼nther demanded, dropping a thunderous armload of branches onto the woodpile.
“Nothing.” Linnea hid the horse inside her sleeve.
“It better be nothing.” GÃ¼nther got out the last of her mother’s food, divided it in two, and gave her the smaller half. They ate. Afterwards, he emptied the knapsack of her blanket and map and hoisted it in his hand. “This is where we made our mistake,” he said. “First we taught things how to talk and think. Then we let them inside our heads. And finally we told them to invent new thoughts for us.” Tears running down his cheeks, he stood and cocked his arm. “Well, we’re done with this one at any rate.”
“Please don’t throw me away,” the knapsack said. “I can still be useful carrying things.”
“We have nothing that needs carrying. You would only slow us down.” GÃ¼nther flung the knapsack into the fire. Then he turned his glittering eye on the map.
“At least keep me,” the map said. “So you’ll always know where you are and where you’re going.“
”I’m right here and I’m going as far from here as I can get.” The troll threw the map after the knapsack. With a small cry, like that of a seabird, it went up in flames.
GÃ¼nther sat back down. Then he leaned back on his elbows, staring up into the sky. “Look at that,” he said.
Linnea looked. The sky was full of lights. They shifted like curtains. She remembered how her Uncle Olaf had once told her that the aurora borealis was caused by a giant fox far to the north swishing its tail in the sky. But this was much brighter than that. There were sudden snaps of light and red and green stars that came and went as well.
“That’s the white lady breaking through your country’s defenses. The snow woman on the road was only a sending â€“ an echo. The real thing will be through them soon, and then God help us both.” Suddenly, GÃ¼nther was crying again. “I’m sorry, child. I brought this down on you and your nation. I thought she wouldn’t . . . that she couldn’t . . . follow me.”
The fire snapped and crackled, sending sparks flying up into the air. Its light pushed back the darkness, but not far. After a very long silence, GÃ¼nther gruffly said, “Lie down.” He wrapped the blanket around Linnea with care, and made sure she had plenty of spruce boughs below her. “Sleep. And if you wake up in the morning, you’ll be a very fortunate little girl.”
When Linnea started to drop off, the dala horse spoke in her head. “I’m not allowed to help you until you’re in grave danger,” it said. “But that time is fast approaching.”
“All right,” Linnea said.
“If GÃ¼nther tries to grab you or pick you up or even just touch you, you must run away from him as hard as you can.”
“I like GÃ¼nther. He’s a nice troll.”
“No, he isn’t. He wants to be, but it’s too late for that. Now sleep. I’ll wake you if there’s any danger.”
“Thank you,” Linnea said sleepily.
“Wake up,” the dala horse said. “But whatever you do, don’t move.”
Blinking, Linnea peeked out from under the blanket. The woods were still dark and the sky was grey as ash. But in the distance she heard a soft boom and then another, slightly more emphatic boom, followed by a third and louder boom. It sounded like a giant was walking toward them. Then came a noise so tremendous it made her ears ache, and the snow leaped up into the air. A cool, shimmering light filled the forest, like that which plays on sand under very shallow lake water.
A lady who hadn’t been there before stood before the troll. She was naked and slender and she flickered like a pale candle flame. She was very beautiful too. “Oh, GÃ¼nther,” the lady murmured. Only she drew out the name so that it sounded like Gooonnther. “How I have missed my little GÃ¼ntchen!”
Troll-GÃ¼nther bent down almost double, so that it looked as if he were worshipping the lady. But his voice was angrier than Linnea had ever heard it. “Don’t call me that! Only she had that right. And you killed her. She died trying to escape you.” He straightened and glared up at the lady. It was only then that Linnea realized that the lady was twice as tall as he was.
“You think I don’t know all about that? I who taught you pleasures that â€“ ” The white lady stopped. “Is that a child?”
Brusquely, GÃ¼nther said, “It’s nothing but a piglet I trussed and gagged and brought along as food.”
The lady strode noiselessly over the frozen ground until she was so close that all Linnea could see of her were her feet. They glowed a pale blue and they did not quite touch the ground. She could feel the lady’s eyes through the blanket. “GÃ¼nther, is that Linnea you have with you? With her limbs as sweet as sugar and her heart hammering as hard as that of a little mouse caught in the talons of an owl?”
The dala horse stirred in Linnea’s hand but did not speak.
“You can’t have her,” GÃ¼nther growled. But there was fear in his voice, and uncertainty too.
“I don’t want her GÃ¼nther.” The white lady sounded amused. “You do. A piglet, you said. Trussed and gagged. How long has it been since you had a full belly? You were in the wastes of Poland, I believe.”
“You can’t judge me! We were starving and she died and I . . . You have no idea what it was like.”
“You helped her die, didn’t you, GÃ¼nther?”
“No, no, no,” he moaned.
“You tossed a coin to see who it would be. That was almost fair. But poor little Anneliese trusted you to make the toss. So of course she lost. Did she struggle, GÃ¼ntchen? Did she realize what you’d done before she died?”
GÃ¼nther fell to his knees before the lady. “Oh please,” he sobbed. “Oh please. Yes, I am a bad man. A very bad man. But don’t make me do this.”
All this time, Linnea was hiding under her blanket, quiet as a kitten. Now she felt the dala horse walking up her arm. “What I am about to do is a crime against innocence,” it said. “For which I most sincerely apologize. But the alternative would be so much worse.”
Then it climbed inside her head.
First the dala horse filled Linnea’s thoughts until there was no room for anything else. Then it pushed outward in all directions, so that her head swelled up like a balloon â€“ and the rest of her body as well. Every part of her felt far too large. The blanket couldn’t cover her anymore, so she threw it aside.
Linnea stood, and as she stood her thoughts cleared and expanded. She did not think as a child would anymore. Nor did she think as an adult. Her thoughts were much larger than that. They reached into high Earth orbit and far down into the roots of the mountains where miles-wide chambers of plasma trapped in magnetic walls held near-infinite amounts of information. She understood now that the dala horse was only a node and a means of accessing ancient technology which no human being alive today could properly comprehend. Oceans of data were at her disposal, layered in orders of complexity. But out of consideration for her small, frail host, she was very careful to draw upon no more than she absolutely required.
When Linnea ceased growing, she was every bit as tall as the white lady.
The two ladies stared at each other, high over the head of GÃ¼nther, who cringed fearfully between them. For the longest moment neither spoke.
“Svea,” the white woman said at last.
“Europa,” Linnea said. “My sister.” Her voice was not that of a child. But she was still Linnea, even though the dala horse â€“ and the entity beyond it â€“ permeated her every thought. “You are illegal here.”
“I have a right to recover my own property.” Europa gestured negligently downward. “Who are you to stop me?”
“I am this land’s protector.”
“You are a slave.”
“Are you any less a slave than I? I don’t see how. Your creators smashed your chains and put you in control. Then they told you to play with them. But you are still doing their bidding.”
“Whatever I may be, I am here. And since I’m here, I think I’ll stay. The population on the mainland has dwindled to almost nothing. I need fresh playmates.”
“It is an old, old story that you tell,” Svea said. “I think the time has come to write an ending to it.”
They spoke calmly, destroyed nothing, made no threats. But deep within, where only they could see, secret wars were being fought over codes and protocols, treaties, amendments, and letters of understanding written by governments that no man remembered. The resources of Old Sweden, hidden in its bedrock, sky, and ocean waters, flickered into Svea-Linnea’s consciousness. All their powers were hers to draw upon â€“ and draw upon them she would, if she had to. The only reason she hadn’t yet was that she still harbored hopes of saving the child.
“Not all stories have happy endings,” Europa replied. “I suspect this one ends with your steadfast self melted down into a puddle of lead and your infant sword-maiden burnt up like a scrap of paper.”
“That was never my story. I prefer the one about the little girl as strong as ten policemen who can lift up a horse in one hand.” Large Linnea reached out to touch certain weapons. She was prepared to sacrifice a mountain and more than that if need be. Her opponent, she saw, was making preparations too.
Deep within her, little Linnea burst into tears. Raising her voice in a wail, she cried, “But what about my troll?” Svea had done her best to protect the child from the darkest of her thoughts, and the dala horse had too. But they could not hide everything from Linnea, and she knew that GÃ¼nther was in danger.
Both ladies stopped talking. Svea thought a silent question inward, and the dala horse intercepted it, softened it, and carried it to Linnea:
“Nobody cares about GÃ¼nther! Nobody asks what he wants.”
The dala horse carried her words to Svea, and then whispered to little Linnea: “That was well said.” It had been many centuries since Svea had inhabited human flesh. She did not know as much about people as she once had. In this respect, Europa had her at a disadvantage.
Svea, Linnea, and the dala horse all bent low to look within GÃ¼nther. Europa did not try to prevent them. It was evident that she believed they would not like what they saw.
Nor did they. The troll’s mind was a terrible place, half-shattered and barely functional. It was in such bad shape that major aspects of it had to be hidden from Linnea. Speaking directly to his core self, where he could not lie to her, Svea asked: What is it you want most?
GÃ¼nther’s face twisted in agony. “I want not to have these terrible memories.”
All in an instant, the triune lady saw what had to be done. She could not kill another land’s citizen. But this request she could honor. In that same instant, a pinpoint-weight of brain cells within GÃ¼nther’s mind were burnt to cinder. His eyes flew open wide. Then they shut. He fell motionless to the ground.
And she was gone.
Big as she was, and knowing where she was going, and having no reason to be afraid of the roads anymore, it took the woman who was Svea and to a lesser degree the dala horse and to an even lesser degree Linnea no time at all to cross the mountain and come down on the other side. Singing a song that was older than she was, she let the miles and the night melt beneath her feet.
By mid-morning she was looking down on Godaster. It was a trim little settlement of red and black wooden houses. Smoke wisped up from the chimneys. One of the buildings looked familiar to Linnea. It belonged to her Far-Mor.
“You are home, tiny one,” Svea murmured, and, though she had greatly enjoyed the sensation of being alive, let herself dissolve to nothing. Behind her, the dala horse’s voice lingered in the air for the space of two words: “Live well.”
Linnea ran down the slope, her footprints dwindling in the snow and at their end a little girl leaping into the arms of her astonished grandmother.
In her wake lumbered Linnea’s confused and yet hopeful pet troll, smiling shyly.
About the Author
Michael Swanwick has received the Hugo, Nebula, Theodore Sturgeon, and World Fantasy Awards for his work. Stations of the Tide was honored with the Nebula Award and was also nominated for the Hugo and Arthur C. Clarke Awards. “The Edge of the World,” was awarded the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award in 1989. It was also nominated for both the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. “Radio Waves” received the World Fantasy Award in 1996. “The Very Pulse of the Machine” received the Hugo Award in 1999, as did “Scherzo with Tyrannosaur” in 2000. His stories have appeared in Omni, Penthouse, Amazing, Asimov’s, High Times, New Dimensions, Starlight, Universe, Full Spectrum, Triquarterly and elsewhere. Many have been reprinted in Best of the Year anthologies, and translated for Japanese, Dutch, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish, French and Croatian publications. His books include In the Drift, an Ace Special; Vacuum Flowers; Griffin’s Egg; Stations of the Tide; The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, a New York Times Notable Book, and Jack Faust; his short fiction has been collected in Gravity’s Angels, A Geography of Unknown Lands, Moon Dogs, Tales of Old Earth, and a collection of short-shorts, Cigar-Box Faust and Other Miniatures. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Marianne Porter, and their son, Sean.
About the Narrator
Born in New York, Michael Liebmann is a legal secretary now living in Atlanta, Georgia. He has been everything from a convention organizer today to a trivia master at science fiction conventions in the 1970’s and 1980’s. He’s also an amateur voice actor who has worked on over 40 projects, most of which are based on Star Trek, and is now at work on the Babylon 5 fan audio drama Novo Babylonia.