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THE HIGH KING OF MONTIVAL

by S.M. Stirling   <joatsimeon@aol.com>


 

CHAPTER FIVE:

 

Norrheim, Land of the Bjornings
Near Eriksgarth
(Formerly Aroostook County, Maine)
March 23, Change Year 25/2023 A.D.

 

One of the six Bjornings who stood by the upright rune-stone was a young man in a mail byrnie, but he moved with a bad limp. The others were women, equipped with spear or bow, swords at their waists. They all exclaimed at the sight of the war-party from Kalksthorpe—about two hundred, plus Abdou el-Naari’s forty-four, and fifty more picked up from lonely steadings along the way. Artos suppressed a smile at the obvious relief the man was trying so hard to hide, and thumped a fist on his own brigandine-armored chest in greeting as one of the women slipped away.

“Ladies... and... Erland Johnsson, isn’t it?” he said.

The young man nodded, flushing with pleasure at being remembered from a brief meeting during Rudi’s passage through Eriksgarth.

“Yes, lord; hirdmann to the Chief. I was here when you came at Yule, and the Seidhkona made prophecy, and you and the Chief swore blood-brotherhood.”

“You weren’t limping then,” Artos said.

“That thumb-fingered idiot Halfdan Finnursson dropped a crate of hard-tack on my foot while we were loading the supply sleds!” Erland burst out, flushing; the flush grew deeper when one of the young women snickered. “That’s why I was left behind when the fyrd marched.”

“But you can stand and hit. Your Chief must value you highly, to have you defend his home and kin while he’s away.”

Out of the corner of his eye noticed two of the Norrheimers he’d sworn to his service, Hrolf Blood-Axe and Ulfhild Swift-Sword, glance at each other and roll their eyes a bit. The young man—he was about seventeen, Artos judged—nodded without noticing; his face was self-consciously warrior-stern, but there was a pleased note in his voice as he said: “Pardon, but I must signal.”

Then he pulled an ox-horn from its sling at his tooled leather belt and blew: huuu-huuu-hu-hu-hu. The snarling blat of the horn trumpet sounded across the bright snowfield. You could just see the high roof of Bjarni’s mead-hall there over a clump of trees and his father’s grave-mound to the westward. And the glint of his tribe’s stave-hoff; it was further away, but taller and sending bright eye-blinks from its gilding and painting. Post-and-board fences sliced the snowfields into square shapes, curving around an occasional rocky hillock or clump of dark-green spruces or leafless birch and maple.

“Lady Harberga will be happy to see you; come with us! It’s her might that holds the garth while the godhi is away.”

Edain led a spray of bowmen out first. Before the main column had joined him Artos heard a high ringing neigh. A black mare had been standing hipshot in the turn-out field; you could scarcely call it a pasture, with new snow half a foot deep. Night-colored beauty seventeen hands high tossed its head and trotted in a circle, with the other horses in the crowded paddock giving her room.

He laughed, for a moment as carefree and joyous as a boy, and called out ancient poetry in a bard’s voice he had learned at his mother’s knee:

One horse is black, broad-thighed, fierce, swift, ferocious, war-leaping, long-tailed, thundering, silk-maned, high-headed, broad-chested; there shine huge clods of earth that she cuts up with her steel-hard hooves, and her victorious stride overtakes the flocks of birds!”

Then he whistled loud and shrill; she took ten quick strides and leapt the six-foot rail fence with contemptuous ease, pacing over to him with her tail lifted like a flag and her mane flying in the breeze of her speed. Matti was on his right; the horse casually shouldered her aside and stood by him, turning her head to butt him in the chest and nip slobberingly at the ends of his hair. He blew into her nostrils, a greeting kiss in the horse-tongue, and gave her a piece of dried apple which she deigned to accept, with an implication of forgiveness for his long absence.

“I could get jealous of Epona,” Mathilda said. “Is she your horse, or your leman?”

“Nonsense. We’re just very good friends,” Artos grinned. “You were at Sutterdown Horse Fair, you should know the true story of Artos and Epona.”

No, he thought. I was just Rudi then. Ten years old, and Matti a kid as well, sure, when I found Epona. Or she found me.

“I wasn’t watching when you jumped in that paddock. My hair went white when I heard. She’d just tried to kill a man. Several men!”

“I’m sure she’s not jealous of you,” he said.

“I know that,” Matti said dryly. “She hasn’t tried to kill me. Yet.”

Artos winced slightly as he ran a hand over Epona’s withers. She was well into middle-age for a horse... or would have been, if she was like most horses. Even her vitality had been worn down by the terrible midwinter trek eastwards, the grinding effort and bad food. Now she was glossy-sleek, her neck a smooth arch of power and the long mane shining, her coat as smooth as the winter growth would let it be; he thought he saw a wicked glint in the eye she rolled towards him.

“They’ve been stuffing you,” he said mock-accusingly, breathing in her grassy scent. “Maple sugar with the oats, and warm mashes each night, blankets, fresh straw every morning. Some adoring girl currycombing every chance she gets, and teasing out your mane and polishing your hooves as if you were a holy image in a shrine.”

“Which means she’ll savage someone soon,” Matti said. “Poor baby,” she added.

He nodded. Women were relatively—not absolutely—safe around Epona. The horse-trader who’d mistreated her as a filly had been a man, and so had his assistants, and had bred a longlasting feud with human kind in her breast, starting with the male half. All except for him. She followed at heel as he stepped out of his skis, put them over one shoulder and moved on. Every now and then she’d nuzzle him in the back.

Eriksgarth’s heart was an L-shaped combination of a big pre-Change white frame farmhouse sheathed in clapboard and the two-story mead-hall, squared logs on a hip-high foundation wall of mortared fieldstone. The regular whitewashed plank of the one and the flamboyant carved dragon-heads and steep roof of the other ought to have clashed, but over a generation they seemed to have grown into each other. The snow-patched shingles on each roof even shared the same spotting of green moss.

Smaller homes for the chief’s carls and their families made another arm to turn the L into a U; a little further back were big hip-roofed barns, the low sunken rectangular structures they called potato-houses here, and granaries and stables and workshops, all the necessities of a busy community’s farming and crafts. Right now it was more busy than ever, but not with its normal round of churn and loom, saw and smith’s hammer. Wagons and sleds were parked densely in the gaps between the buildings, lashed together with ropes and chains to make fighting-platforms. The windows of the houses had been closed with loopholed steel shutters, and a buzz of voices showed that the population had swollen manyfold.

“Some of those are folk who fled the Bekwa,” young Erland said, ignoring the pain of his foot and using his spear as a walking-stick. “Their families, at least. And more the families of the bondar—“ which meant yeoman, near enough “—hereabouts sent in as part of the Defense Plan. Erik made the Plan, Erik the Strong, the Chief’s father. Families to rally at the strongest places while the fyrd is out.”

Rudi nodded. Bjarni’s father had been head of an Asatru kindred much further south; he’d also been a soldier in the old American army for most of his life before the Change. This part of the world hadn’t been cursed with the great cities whose witless hordes killed all around them when the Change came, and it had enough goodish farmland to feed the dwellers despite the stark climate, like an island in a sea of forest. But it had been in chaos when Erik arrived with his followers and those picked up along the way. Chaos could kill as certainly as numbers, if more slowly. You couldn’t plow and plant if the forest-edge was likely to vomit armed men at you on any given day. The more so when old ways of doing had to be relearned in desperate haste by stumbling through books or from a few who’d known them as hobbies.

Erik and his men hadn’t conquered the land once called Aroostook, not exactly. From what he’d heard it was more that they’d organized it, with a fair bit of fighting now and then, against bandits and reivers and refugee gangs from the north and south and locals too stubborn to admit what needed to be done.

And I grew up on stories of that sort, he thought. Erik sounds a good deal like my blood-father Mike Havel.

Folk came boiling out to meet them. They seemed a little surprised when the newcomers didn’t do likewise. Instead Fred Thurston made a signal, and troop-leaders barked halt. That came a little raggedly, but in silent unison.

“Attention to orders!” the son of Boise’s first General-President snapped.

“We’ll break long enough to load food and get the news,” Artos called. “And then we’re off. No more than two hours—don’t get settled. Dismissed!”

Then more quietly: “Good work, Fred.”

Fred grinned, snapped a salute and then dashed off. The crowd of Norrheimers parted and Harberga Janetsdottir came through. She’d been well along in pregnancy when he met her, and wasn’t now.

“The babe is well?” he asked, with a little anxiety. “And yourself?”

“A boy this time, strong and healthy,” she said, smiling forgiveness of his breach of formal manners. “I find the second time goes easier.”

Gudrun Eriksdottir followed—her husband’s younger sister and about seventeen herself. Gudrun walked in breeks and jacket and boots this time, helm on her auburn-tressed head and spear in hand. Harberga was in Norrheimer women’s garb, a long hanging skirt of fine green wool embroidered at the hem with golden triskels, and a linen apron held at the shoulders with silver brooches, with a shaggy bearskin cloak over all. She was tall and a year or two older than he, her fair hair braided under a married woman’s kerchief according to local custom, and a look of tight-held worry on her face.

Her blue eyes went to the sword at his waist—to the Sword—and then flicked up to his face, going a little wider. He nodded very slightly, and saw her sternness melt a bit. Then he bowed a little with the back of his right hand pressed to his forehead. That was the greeting a Mackenzie man gave to any hearth-mistress, whether in a lordly hall or a crofter’s cot. Harberga handed him a drinking-horn that one of her women had brought.

“Drink I offer, tall helm-tree,” she said, abbreviating the local formula of welcome a little.

“Hail to the giver, to the Powers and the folk,” he said, doing likewise.

It was hot cider, and grateful in his throat, tasting of summer afternoons. They made good cider in this land, and fine whiskey, and excellent mead. The beer... well, they flavored it with spruce buds and had no hops.

He touched a finger to the drink, flicked a drop aside in offering to the spirits of place, then raised it and drank again with his own folk’s toast:

“To the Lord, to the Lady, to the Luck of the Clan! Now, Lady Harberga, it’s tidings I need; after that, trail-food for those with me, if you can spare it.”

“We can. We’re well-supplied and we were expecting... well, not you, but the folk from Kalksthorpe at least; they’re the last of the fyrd to come in. We were hoping for our allies from Madawaska, but there’s been no word, we don’t know if the messengers got through or if they’re under attack too and can’t spare help... Gudrun, see to the supplies!”

The godhi’s younger sister pulled Mathilda away, and they started to compare tallies and lists. Barrels and crates and sacks began coming out to fill near-empty sleighs; cracker-like rye hardtack, oatmeal cakes, cheese and dried smoked sausages, with some maple sugar. Concentrated foods, ready for use in the field; several hundred human beings ate a quarter of a ton a day when they were working hard. Meanwhile servers brought the newcomers cooked food from the kitchens, and the improvised camp-style cauldrons that drifted a mist of woodsmoke through the crowded settlement. Artos accepted a chipped plastic bowl of hot bean soup with chunks of meat in it, and a slab of rye-and-barley bread with cheese melted into its surface. The smell of the good plain food made spit run into his mouth; traveling hard on skis in cold weather burned the body’s fuel faster than anything else in his experience.

Harberga spread a map the size of a large towel on a trestle resting on barrel-heads, and Artos’ chief followers crowded around, looking with busy spoons but careful not to mar the precious thing; Heidhveig came over as well, using her staff and assisted by her apprentice Thorlind, herself middle-aged. The Lady of Eriksgarth looked a little askance at Abdou al-Naari, who politely ignored her, eyes kept down on the map itself. It was a new one, copied from a topographical survey of the ancient world onto a carefully tanned white sheepskin with a hot needle, the names and places modernized and twining bands of serpentine gripping beasts added for a border about the edges.

“The muster of the fyrd was here, at Staghorn Dale. A short day’s march northwest,” Harberga said, tapping the surface.

“How many?” Rudi asked.

“Eight thousand and a little more when Bjarni moved against the foe. More were coming in each day, but he didn’t want to delay; if there hasn’t been a battle yet, then... perhaps nine thousand?”

Artos cleaned the inside of his bowl with the heel of the bread, crunched the hard crust down and handed the empty container aside, tapping a thumb on his chin. Nine thousand was more than a tenth and less than a fifth of Norrheim’s whole population. Subtracting the many children too young to fight and the sprinkling of elders too old for it along with the sick, halt and lame the total came to about half the folk of warrior age. It meant Bjarni had called up every man between fifteen and fifty who was fit for war, and a fair proportion of the stronger women. He was throwing the dice with everything he had for table-stakes. Artos nodded slowly in respect. Many would have tried to hedge their bets, and traded a possibility of swift victory for the certainty of slow piecemeal defeat.

“The enemy?”

“Less certain, but more than the fyrd by a quarter to a third. All the wild-man tribes of the north along the Great River from Royal Mount to the Stone-Halls. We have a treaty with the Madawaska Republic—“

She pointed to a narrow strip shaded along the upper St. John to the north and east of the Norrheimer settlements, with a symbol that looked like a porcupine in a circle of stars beside it.

“—and we were expecting a thousand men, but we’ve heard nothing.”

Artos’ breath hissed between his teeth. “And your last word from Bjarni?”

“Two days ago. They were here,” she said, moving her finger westward. “Skirmishing with the troll-men’s outrunners, and the foe seems to be gathering all their gangs into one horde.”

“They’re going to accept battle, then,” Artos said thoughtfully.

Sure, and it can be surprisingly hard to make men stand and fight if they don’t want to come to the dancing-ground, he mused. Especially if neither side is cramped for room.

She nodded. “Bjarni said he’d try to have them come to him on his chosen ground, he knew the place he’d prefer to fight. Six-Hill Field, it’s called, used for summer pasture by the northernmost of our folk. The old roads run through there, it’s the only way to get large numbers into our farmlands quickly.”

Then Artos blinked. The map seemed to be... overlain somehow. As if he was hovering above the land like a raven, and the war-bands were like little writhing lines of men coming together; and yet he could hear them, the murmur of voices, the shuffle of boots and skis and snowshoes. But at the same time they were like living numbers, swinging balances of supply and distance and time in his head, a consciousness of every factor in a dynamic balance. It was the way a God might see them...

And not the way I would choose to do so, at all. Useful, though!

The others were looking at him oddly, as if he’d gone away for a moment. He shook his head.

“Yes, that’s where the fight will be. Almost certainly. No word of Mary or Ritva?” he asked. “I sent them on a scout, and they were to rejoin here if they could.”

“Your half-sisters?” Harberga said, frowning. “No, nothing.”

Ingolf moistened his lips, then visibly took command of himself. Rudi/Artos felt his mind stutter. One part was worried; the other was...

Not indifferent, he thought, turning the eye of attention inward. Not that. But as if I had ten thousand thousand sisters, and all were somehow equally dear to me. And that too is how a God might look on things, and no comfort to a man. But it’s perhaps a lesson to a King.

Then he regained his self’s balance, feeling as if he should be panting. But that was no calm center. It was more as if he rode a rushing wave, as a longboat does from a ship off the surf-beaten Pacific shore to land softly on the gravel beach that might have ground its bones to splinters if it wavered.

“We’ll take this path, cutting the cord of the circle,” he said. “That will give the best chance of catching up in time. The river ice is still hard?”

“For now,” Harberga said. “But the weather could turn warm any time. The weather-wights are flighty in this season.”

Artos looked up, at a sky white with high thin cloud, felt the air through his skin and breathed the stinging cold. He folded the gift-map.

“Not for a week,” he said absently, watching the others get the war-band ready to move; it went quickly. “Probably ten days. Time enough to find Bjarni, and fight a battle.”

Matti returned, giving him a quick report—full provision—and then checking her horse’s tack. The gray titanium-alloy mail of her hauberk and vambraces seemed to suck the pale light out of the day. Gudrun was with her, but carrying a young babe swaddled in one arm and leading Swanhild, Bjarni and Harberga’s three-year-old daughter. The little girl was much graver than Artos remembered her, great turquoise eyes sad and worried. Children that age could smell trouble like a puppy, though the words might be beyond them. Her gaze lit when she saw him, though.

“Little Swan-battle!” he said, and got a smile in response to his; then she went to cling to her mother’s skirt. “And this likely lad is—“

“Erik. Erik Bjarnisson,” Harberga said, taking the infant. Then, suddenly: “I wish I could be out there, fighting for them, beside my man. For our homes! Instead I have to... to sit here and fill stewpots and make bandages and wait.”

Artos shrugged to settle the long kite-shaped shield across his back, hung the sallet helm on the saddlebow and handed Epona’s reins to Matti.

“Lady Harberga,” he said gently. “May I hold him for a moment?”

She looked puzzled, then handed over the bundled child. He cradled the small body expertly, looking down into the softly unformed face, just past the red and crumpled appearance of a newborn.

“Such a little thing,” he said softly. “Such a little thing, with such a greatness of might-be within!”

A tiny perfect hand clutched at one long callused finger as he touched the baby’s chin, and it grinned toothlessly at him.

Now, there is perfect joy, he thought happily. With the glow of the Summerlands and the Cauldron still upon him.

Then he went down on one knee and held the child out in both hands.

“Lady,” he said as Harberga took him back, meeting her blue eyes steadily. “Haven’t you fought for your son already? Haven’t you gone under the shadow of the Dark Mother’s wings for him and his sister, walking the blade-thin bridge in blood and pain? If your man fights with weapons, and the rest of us beside him, it is for this... this wonder. Only for this.”

Slowly she nodded. He drew the Sword and held it up reversed, pommel uppermost; the pale winter sunlight caught in the crystal and broke back in flickers of colored fire. The baby’s chubby fist clutched it with a crow of delight, and the mother’s hand closed around both. A singing note rose within him; he didn’t think the Lady’s gift glowed, not to the eyes of the body at least, but there were gasps around him.

“Give us your blessing, Lady.”

She did, standing tall.

 

@@@

 

Norrheim, Land of the Wulfings
Six-Hill Field
(Formerly Aroostook County, Maine)
March 25, Change Year 25/2023 A.D.

 

Crack!

Bjarni Eriksson wheezed and took the axe-blow on his shield. Impact shocked through the battered, tattered round of plywood and sheet steel, though his aching hand on the central grip and into his shoulder.

Yuk-hai-sa-sa!” he screamed, and cut with a swooping arc.

The sword bit, though the edge was duller now; through the Bekwa’s leggings and thigh and into the bone. The foeman wailed and toppled backward down the hill, thrashing and spurting red against the gray trampled snow. Despite its chill the air stank of it: blood like rust and seawater, and the hard fetor of cut-open bodies, and sweat. For a moment he blinked at the sight, then realized that the dying man could fall, without being held up by the press of living warriors behind him; the enemy were giving ground, fast until they were out of bow-range, then more slowly, then stopping in a way that spoke of sullen readiness to come again. The long slope was littered in clots and clumps and single shapes, mostly still, some still moving and moaning. More Bekwa than Norrheimers, but too many of his people as well.

The mind-blanking surf-roar of battle died, thousand-fold screams and shouts and the endless waterfall rattle and crash and drumming of steel on steel or wood or leather. Only the lighter threnody of pain from the mangled and dying remained, a shocking quasi-silence under the cold wind. He put the point of his sword against a dead man’s moose-hide jacket and leaned forward with both hands on the hilt, heaving air in through an open mouth for a moment before he could stand on legs suddenly a little wobbly.

His face was nearly as red as the brick color of his short-cropped beard, and sweat dripped off his nose and soaked the padding under his knee-length mail byrnie. His body was strong—not overly tall, yet broad in the shoulders, thick in chest and arms—but he ached in every inch, though the morning sun was still low in the eastern sky and the battle was as young. The sweat stung in minor cuts he hadn’t noticed until that instant, and places where the mail-coat had been hit hard enough to rasp skin raw beneath even through the stiff quilted padding of the gambeson.

Healers and helpers dragged the wounded back towards the tents and surgeons’ tables at the center of the shield-wall circle. He saw one wisewoman in green with the laguz-rune on her chest, her own hand bandaged, helping along a warrior whose leg was drenched with blood and who cursed every time that foot touched the ground. Around him hale men were stepping back to the rear rank, letting the fresh second file move forward.

“Where’s Ingmar?” he said, asking after the guardsman who was assigned to ward his right side.

“Dead,” his uncle Ranulf said succinctly, and jerked his helmeted head back; there was a gilded boar on the crest. “I’m going to see to the rear of the shield-wall.”

He took off at a springy trot, despite his forty years and the weight of his gear. The whole array shook itself in the moment’s rest, handing canteens from hand to hand or taking spare weapons passed from the stacks behind the rear ranks. A few had the strength to hoot insults or jibes at the enemy, where they’d drawn off. His standard-bearer stood behind him to the left, a younger cousin holding the tall lance with the Bjorning war-flag—made by his long-dead mother of heavy black-edged white silk, straight along the upper rod-stiffened edge and the pole, but joined by a loose curve. Gold streamers edged it, and on the cloth was a black raven shaped of jet beads, with wings outspread and seeming to beat in the wind. Over its chest was the blazon of the pre-Change warband his father had served in, two letters—AA, but with the outer arm of each curved and the inner vertical so that they made a near-circle together.

The cousin set the point of the shaft in the ground and took Bjarni’s sword, wiping it down and giving it a quick touch-up with his hone. Someone else handed the chieftain a fresh shield; a sword would last a lifetime with luck, but a shield was lucky to endure an hour of sharp steel and strong men and heavy blows. Bjarni worked the strained fingers of his sword-hand inside the steerhide glove and shook out his wrist. On that side was Syfrid Jerrysson, the chief of the Hrossings, leading his fighting tail of hirdmenn and levied farmers, a tall lank man with a dark brown beard showing the first gray threads. His long scale byrnie was made of polished washers riveted to a leather backing. The overlapping disks of stainless steel were spattered with the filth of battle, but enough metal still showed to give a cold glitter in the pale sunlight of earliest spring. Fresh scratches showed as well.

The fifteen-year-old who held the Hrossing banner of a stylized white horse on green looked pale and gulped down nausea; from disgust at the sights and stinks, Bjarni thought, not fear. The sword in his free hand wavered a little.

“Never seen death before, Halldor?” Syfrid gibed at his son; the boy flushed, took stance and braced his back and the pole that bore his tribe’s standard. “It’s time, then!”

“I haven’t seen this much death before either,” Bjarni said; he’d been in fights since he came to a man’s age, but not pitched battles. “Not all in one place.”

“I have,” Syfrid replied. For a moment his voice was remote. “In the year of the Change, yes...”

Then he went on briskly, but with a grudging note in it: “You chose the battlefield well.”

The Hrossing chief checked the broad blade of his axe for nicks as he spoke—the helve was four feet of reddish-brown hickory, and thick with blood and bits of hair and matter for most of its length. He scrubbed at it with a cloth to clear the grip and continued:

“And the array, that was clever too. You’ve that much of your father in you, at least, as well as his looks.”

Bjarni nodded. Syfrid and he had never been friends—the older chief had been a right-hand man to Bjarni’s father, and had wanted to be first man in Norrheim himself when Erik the Strong died. Most folk felt that Erik’s son, the chief of the Bjornings, should have that place. Young as he’d been then, only a little older than Halldor was now, he’d managed to keep it. That rivalry was a great part of the reason the talk of selecting a king for Norrheim had stayed just talk; that and the fact that Bjarni was of two minds about the matter himself.

Or I was, he thought. Then: Let that keep to sunset, if we’re still alive.

Syfrid grinned at him now, showing strong yellow teeth, as if he’d been reading his thoughts.

“So, we end up fighting side by side like brothers, youngster,” he said. “If we win, we can take up our disputes. If we don’t...”

“... we can fight each other to our hearts content every day in Valhol, and then feast and drink together all night,” Bjarni completed dryly.

A canteen came his way and he took a long swig. It was one part apple-brandy to four of water, just enough to make it safe to drink from unknown streams when you didn’t have time to boil. Then another draught, and the sweet liquid poured down his throat like new strength; he thought he could feel it running out through his body, making the parched tissues full again.

“Ahhh, that was made from the Apples of Life,” he said, passing it to Syfrid.

Horn-signals went through the Norrheimer host. They were deployed in six groups of a thousand or more, each atop a hill not too far from the rest, in a loose shallow V running from north to south. The strongest clump was here in the center, with the Bjornings and Hrossings together. The formation had been enough to tempt the wild-men to try ramming through the low ground between each position to surround them. Bodies showed where those attacks had broken under a hail of missiles, and then the swords and axes of men charging downhill.

He eyed the enemy, pushing back his helmet by the nasal bar until it rested on his forehead and then using his father’s binoculars. Distance leapt closer, and men turned from ants to doll-figures. They’d suffered heavily, but...

“They’re still ready to fight. Though we killed them two, three, maybe even four for one,” he said meditatively. “We’ve better gear, we’re in better order, our men are more skillful and the foe have to come at us uphill. I think they’re hungry, too.”

“And they still outnumber us three to two or better,” Syfrid said. “They can afford losses.”

“If they’re willing to take them. I didn’t expect them to be so many, or so fierce. They fight like men who want to die.”

“If I was a Bekwa savage I’d want to die, too,” Syfrid said, and they grinned for a moment.

“Or like men who have to win or starve to death,” the older chief went on. “Men who burned their boats behind them.”

“Or they fight like men who feel the hand of their God, or both.”

He raised his eyes; ravens rode the wind, and crows. Even a few hawks.

They will feed well today.”

It was chaos over there among the enemy host, but patterns were appearing in it, like ripples in water. More and more warriors gathered around a central banner, the rayed golden sun on scarlet. Their chanting rose, breaking louder and louder across the half-mile distance:

“Cut! Cut! Cut! CUT! CUT!

“They’re going to try and smash us here in the center,” Bjarni said. “That bunch is massing to come straight down our throats. Well, let’s bite hard.”

“Do they have enough spearmen for that and to guard their flanks at the same time?” Syfrid wondered.

“We’re going to find out,” Bjarni said. Then louder: “Our hospitality is so warm on a cold day they can’t get enough of it. Honor requires we give every one of them enough feasting that he’ll have to be carried away to sleep it off.”

“And we’ll furnish a deep bed to do it in,” Syfrid said, flourishing his axe.

Grim laughter rippled through the ranks, and then farther away as the joke went from mouth to mouth; you had to show you were confident. A chieftain’s main, his soul-strength, ran all through a warband. While it did Bjarni gripped the silver Hammer that hung around his neck on a chain and spoke within his mind:

Thor, old friend, You are also the Friend of Men and guardian of Earth who is Your mother and mine. I have made offering to You many times. Now lend me Your might as I fight against etin-craft for my folk, my home, my woman and our children!

Through the binoculars he could see a figure standing before the wild-man host, a man in a dull red robe with a shaven head. He drew a blade and flourished it, then pointed at the Norrheimers—and it felt as if he pointed at Bjarni himself. He grunted slightly, like a man punched in the gut.

“The trollkjerring,” someone whispered fearfully, and it rippled through the Norrheimers. “The sorcerer. He comes with them this time. We fight trollcraft!”

“Give me one,” Bjarni said, pointing to a stack of javelins upright in the ground behind them.

Syfrid raised his brows but did so. Bjarni cased his binoculars, pulled down his helm, hefted the spear thoughtfully—it was well-balanced—and stepped out of the ranks. At his gesture the signalers blared out a sustained hoarse call on their long bull-horns. Eyes swung towards him along all the Norrheimer line. He filled his lungs. Casting your voice was a skill a chief had to have, whether speaking on a battlefield or from the thingstone when the folk-moot met.

To you, Victory-Father, the blót!” he shouted.

So that those beyond hearing but in sight should know what he did he tossed the javelin up into the air, a high whirling circle, and caught it as it fell again to smack against the hard callused palm of his hand before he signed it with the Ansuz, the rune of the High One.

Then he took three steps forward and threw it towards the enemy. The point gleamed a little as it reached the height of its arch over a heap of the foemen’s dead and wounded, then slanted down and stood in the hard snow-covered earth. A roar ran through his men, long and deep and fierce. They knew what he meant by that, boast and threat and prayer together: he had dedicated every soul in the enemy host to the One-Eyed, the rider of the Death Horse, the Lord of the Slain to whom the warlords in the sagas gave men. That meant a fight to the knife, without quarter or mercy. Invoking Odin was never done lightly.

Bjarni stepped back and took his fresh-honed sword from his bannerman; the edge of the hard steel gleamed as the familiar weight filled his fist. The enemy were moving, first the rayed sun flag and the sorcerer, then thousands... and all of them seeming to aim at him. All around Bjarni and on the other hills men were coughing to clear their lungs and then breathing deep over and over to give a little more strength, hefting weapons, stamping their feet to make sure of their footing. Chiefs and their hirdmenn, their sworn guards; strong stolid yeomen of the levy, their sons and carls and hinds; youngsters wild to prove themselves heroes out of the sagas and bearded fathers of families anxious about the spring plowing, and a scattering of strong fierce women; all fighting by the neighbors and kin and blood-brothers who would see their honor or their shame. Spears snapped down like a bristling porcupine, and shields overlapped in a wall.

The second rank came closer, to support the first with shield against back and stab over their shoulders. Syfrid crouched a little, the great war-ax held slantwise across his body in armored gauntlets, one hand just below the broad blade and the other near the end of the haft, teeth barred in a taut grin. Just now Bjarni was very glad indeed to have him close. He might not be quite as strong or quite as quick as he’d been in his fights beside Erik the Strong, but he had a generation’s unmerciful experience to compensate.

Cut! Cut!” rang out.

Ho La, Odhinn!” bellowed back.

The enemy grew closer; first at a steady jog-trot that rumbled through the ground until he could feel it in the soles of his boots, then faster as archers shot from the inner part of the Norrheimer position over the heads of the front ranks, then at a pounding run as they came in range of volleys of throwing-spears and stones from whirring slings. Men fell as the bale-wind blew arrows and edged metal and lead slingshot at them, silent or screaming. The rest shrieked bloodlust, teeth snarling in bearded faces often streaked with blood already, or patterned with ritual scars.

Bjarni raised his shield up under his eyes as missiles came back at the Norrheimers. But fewer; it was harder to shoot and attack at the same time. Two arrows struck in the shield with angry thwack sounds and an impact he could feel like hammer-blows in the metal-sheathed birch plywood, and three or four more banged off his mail or his helmet, bruising-hard. Scores of shafts arched towards the trollkjerring, but none struck. He loped forward as easy as a wolf, turning and jinking but as if he was anticipating the arrows rather than dodging them, not bothering to use his shield. Closer, and Bjarni could see him smile, look into his eyes...

And the sword drooped in his hand. The eyes pulled. He blinked, and saw himself dead, standing rotting amid corpses yet still seeing and feeling, and Halbegra crouched with shreds of his son’s flesh dangling from her grinning jaws. His hall was ash in a world of ash, where dead moon and gutted sun collapsed into themselves. Still his living corpse stood and watched, and love, honor, hope were dead, had never lived, as the stuff of the world itself decayed, and the blackness was forever. But that was good, for at last there was purity—

“Thor with me!” he groaned, and raised his shield.

Slivers of wood and metal spun away as the red-robed man’s blade hammered. Bjarni staggered backward, his left arm numb. Blow after blow rained on the shield, and then it fell in shattered pieces from the handgrip. A cut landed on the mail covering his left leg, and it buckled beneath him. He fell on his back, and the blade went up to kill.

 

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