a tale from Telemark, Norway

"You're cheating again," Knut growled.

"No worse than you," said Lars.

Gunnar threw down his cards. "For all the good it did you. I win." He scooped coins from the table.

Knut and Lars eyed Gunnar. "Biggest cheat of all," Knut muttered. "You're slick enough to be the devil himself."

"Not quite." Lars tipped back his drink. "The devil's cousin, perhaps."

The inn's outer door creaked. Another fellow entered the common room, glanced around, and ambled over. "Deal me in?" the stranger asked.

The locals glanced at each other then shrugged. "Sure, have a seat," Lars said.

They played several hands. The newcomer lost each one. The locals didn't smirk openly, but they traded looks loaded with sly humor. The smell of cheating hung so heavy in the air that Liv, the innkeeper, glared warning at the three as they competed to see who could pull the most spectacular win.

Knut's best scam was to drop a card on the floor as cover for sleight of hand. But while he scrabbled down low for the deuce, ready to switch for an ace, he saw the stranger's feet.

No boots. Bare feet. Ugly toes. Tipped with great curling claws, now dug into the rungs of his stool, wood splintering.

Knut lurched up, sat there staring at the newcomer's gnarled fingers and horny nails. Old Eirik.

The stranger chuckled, voice hard as hammer on anvil. "Why hello, Cousin," he said.

Knut gulped. "Lars, go fetch the priest."

Lars hesitated, face turning ashen, then leaped up and ran for the door.

"Your turn, Cousin Knut," the stranger said. "Four of a kind. Aces all. Correct? Ah, so good to chat face to face with my kin. Cousin Gunnar, your turn."

The door creaked. In came the parish priest with crucifix and Bible. "Old Eirik, you say? We'll see about--"

"Cousin Sveinung," crowed the stranger. "How good to see you! Still beating your wife every evening? Good, good. That makes you mine."

The priest fled.

"Send for the priest at Bø!" Knut yelled at Lars, still shivering in the doorway.

"Why?" asked Old Eirik.

Gunnar stammered, "H-he's got an imp-p-peccable reputation. A g-g-good man, Wettengren."

"No one is all good," Old Eirik crooned, and grinned, showing fangs.

It took time for Lars to fetch Wettengren. For two hours Knut and Gunnar played straightforward hands. Sweat streamed from their brows. Their pockets emptied.

"A little late for honesty, don't you think?" Old Eirik asked.

At last Wettengren arrived. Old Eirik turned to face the priest from Bø. "You. Another one of mine. You stole food when you were little.*"

"That I did, because I was starving.*"

"You shod yourself first on your left foot, when you traveled from home today.*"

"I shall do it again now,*" Wettengren said, unabashed.

Flustered, Old Eirik said, "You stole a look in the Black Book!"

"So I did, and this is what I learned there." Wettengren chanted in Latin -- and the devil was sucked through a nail-hole in the wall, shrieking all the way.

* dialogue taken straight from the folktale; tale from Fjaegestrondi

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