Only Bjorulf Knows: Part III
By James Fadeley
Special thanks to Dan Riggins and Erik “Frown” Bergman
None of them knew how long they had run. But they did not ease until they came across a log longhouse. Aron propped himself against the walls, sliding to his knees. He rasped something a few times before finally blurting, “I… I can’t…”
Sigbjorn couldn’t protest. He put a trembling arm against the longhouse’s siding, the other letting his sword tip touch the earth. Had they been in the northern mountains, the beating his heart inflicted against his ribs could have started an avalanche.
“Hadrbo—” the varl’s mouth was too dry to finish the curse. Yet when a faint memory of the god’s face came to mind, Sigbjorn figured that for the best. Shaking his head, he forced himself to survey behind them. There was nothing. Just fields upon fields of grass and snow, spanning on and on to the Wyrmscale Mountains. There were no distant, gray figures. Only gray clouds. The Ravens had lost the enemy entirely.
Marteinn coughed, holding his knees. Tomas held his stomach and breathed through his mouth, making smacking noises. Sigbjorn chuckled without a sound and patted the mute’s shoulder. “At least you don’t have a tongue to parch.”
Tomas bared his teeth and gave the varl a rude gesture, to which he smirked.
“We ain’t… gonna run no more,” Marteinn gasped. “Are we?”
Sigbjorn bobbled his head and dragged his weapon to the corner of the longhouse, tiredly clinging to the walls. On the other side was a pile of split firewood. Afar, he saw farm fields that led to a few more homes. Beyond were several more stretches before a small gathering of halls and huts, the center of Reynivik.
The varl took a massive breath, then exhaled slowly, his aching heart finally slowing. He felt the weariness in his limbs and grunted. Although they were smaller and weaker, he knew from experience that humans often possessed as much stamina as his kind. Sigbjorn sighed.
“It would be foolish to march into the village now. If these folks want to fight, we’re in bad condition to meet them.” He patted the structured logs. “Let’s see if anyone’s home. Eat, drink, rest and then say hello.”
They circled about the longhouse and came to the door. After knocking, Sigbjorn found it unlocked and ducked down to enter. It was dark inside, the shutters closed and firepit dead. The varl found space to stand under the ridge boards, but knelt to check the ashes of the pit, discovering them quite cold.
“Hmm,” Sigbjorn murmured, setting his blade down. “Aron, grab me a few logs from that pile outside. Tomas, Marteinn, check for food and valuables. Doubt you’ll find anything, but check anyway.”
It didn’t take long for them to confirm Sigbjorn’s suspicions. The cupboards and pantries had been emptied. There were a couple of cots, but the dressers were ransacked. Tomas kept looking as Marteinn growled angrily and kicked over a stool. “Sorry boss. There’s nothing. Even found a cubby hole behind one of the beds, but that’s been pinched too. And no water.”
“Then the family who lived here bolted.” Sigbjorn shrugged over his flint and steel. “It is what it is. What’s taking that boy so long?”
“Sorry,” Aron announced as he returned. Under one arm were some logs, the other bore a sloshing bucket. “I found a well on the other side of the house. Fresh water.”
“For that, I forgive you,” Sigbjorn said with a smile, taking the bucket between two fingers, the container like a cup to him. Opening his mouth, he tossed it back and downed the contents. More than fresh, the water was slightly sweet as though cleansed over rocks. When he lowered his head, he saw Tomas and Marteinn both giving him the sorrowful look of thirsting dogs.
The varl grunted and set the bucket on the ground. “Go on, wet your lips. But bring back more wood.”
The two rushed to obey as Sigbjorn took Aron’s logs, setting to work.
They kept the fire small and low, enough to stave off the chill that came with the rainfall. Over it they warmed a meal consisting of stale oat bread, salted goat cheese, dried fish and some leeks they had discovered growing outside. Once they finished their repast, Sigbjorn ordered his men to sleep. He would take first watch.
Carefully, he removed a single shutter board from each window so he could watch almost all directions. He allowed the flames to dwindle into little more than embers, wanting neither smoke nor light to draw attention. Gray skies were the closest thing to night those days, and the varl had no wish to attract either the dredge or Reynivik’s citizens.
And his shift began.
Boredom didn’t take long to seize him, his eyelids growing heavy with each passing moment. Only the occasional pop of the firepit broke up both the monotony of the rain’s trickling and Marteinn’s powerful snoring. Sigbjorn quickly regretted volunteering, and sought something, anything, to occupy his mind.
He spotted a stick on the ground and plucked it, spinning the twig about his fingers to keep his mind occupied. The longing for mead returned, for the tang over his palette would surely have kept him awake, thirsting for the next sip.
He’d even settle for a sour wine or thin beer, as the quiet solitude made his wits begin to wander. Many of his kind preferred being alone, but Sigbjorn had never cared for it. Even the annoyance of man was better than the memories which bubbled to the surface in silence. He shut his eyes, trying to block out the faint whispers only he could hear. Voices that called to him from old graves.
There was a better way, Sigbjorn.
“Shut up,” he muttered.
“Who are you talking to?” The voice belonged to Aron, who slunk into the ember’s light.
The varl inhaled sharply through his nostrils, caught unaware. “You should be resting.”
Aron sat down beside the pit and rubbed his arms. “I tried, but… I’m shaky. The fighting I think.”
Sigbjorn nodded. In truth, he was glad for the company. “Today wasn’t your first kill, was it?”
“No…” The youth’s voice trailed off as he stared long into the fire before continuing. “Maybe my eighth or ninth. Most of my tallies are from a distance, so it’s hard to tell. Nor was it my first slinger but I… I never thought of them as having family.”
Sigbjorn didn’t reply. It was better Aron not know. The silence lingered as the varl bent down and checked all the peepholes in the shutters. He could see people in the distance around Reynivik, but no one approached. There were no dredge to be found.
“Can I ask a question?” Aron started, holding his palms towards the warmth.
Sigbjorn shrugged, rolling the stick over his fingers.
“Are varl immortal? Do you live forever if you don’t get cut down?”
The giant smirked and rubbed the engravings on his horns. He considered teasing the youth, but decided against it. Aron had performed admirably enough to deserve a modicum of respect. “Truthfully? Faen if I know. For a lot of us, ‘died of old age’ is a polite way of saying ‘got slow with the axe.’”
Aron barked a laugh, but stopped immediately when Tomas stirred on his cot. When the sleepers settled, he spoke again in a low voice. “Was that how your mentor, Karli, went?”
Sigbjorn pulled a knee to his chest, pondering the question. It dawned upon him that all day long, the nagging voice had belonged to that long dead graybeard. It took the varl a moment to realize he was holding his breath. Slowly he released it, dreading the thought of digging up those bones again. “Easiest way to put it, I guess.”
“Did Karli instruct you in ways of battle?”
Sigbjorn’s chest froze. He had fought so long that his methods were second nature, simply instinct. Not merely taught but beaten into him. He closed his eyes and saw his instructor… a black-horned figure, staring out over the snow-covered peaks. The dark varl clenched his fingers as though desperate to choke the sky itself.
For no other save a god could bear such passionate rancor for life.
Sigbjorn’s eyes shot open. His neck throbbed from his quickened pulse, and the hint of sweat began to tickle his brow. Yet still, the warlord’s name eluded his recollection. He swallowed before he spoke. “No…”
The youth waited. Sigbjorn took a deep breath, seized the reins of his emotions, and continued.
“There was a varl, a veteran of both Great Wars, who had this… grand vision. This idea that combat, fear and life were all just the same thing. He said every day, we fight our terror or we battle to survive. Or by living do we fear, so through fear do we fight. No matter how one arranged the words, his thinking was… sound, reasonable. His views made sense then and still does, for the most part.
“But he took it one step further than any other. And he began to see more and more value in fear itself. One day he took a handful of his favorite pupils and spoke to us. ‘Survival is the greatest and only true justification. Thus, it is not enough that fear is conquered, for mastery of horror is mastery of everything.’ We called him the First Warhawk.”
Sigbjorn stared into the embers, his gaze stinging from his refusal to blink.
“He trained us in his techniques and his vision. He dreamed… that someday, we would march south and slay all men. To finish what we began in the First Great War. Our king then forbade it of course, as did the one that followed. Instead, we hunted dredge in the north for sport.”
Aron hugged his knees as he listened, enraptured by the tale.
“One day, we came across a dredge party almost three times our size. Ambushing them, we cut almost all of them down. All save two.” Sigbjorn paused to swallow, forcing himself to remember the images, the memories of that day.
“He took one and sliced off an arm and leg on the right side. For the other, the limbs on the left. Then he cauterized the wounds, and bound the two together at their stumps. ‘Tell your clans, you misbegotten freaks,’ he said. ‘Tell them what we did to you.’ He sent those dredge home, stumbling, trying to walk and move as one. Their survival wasn’t really important… our message was in the scars we gave them.”
Sigbjorn closed his eyes, finally relieving his agonized whites in the darkness. When he opened them again, he noticed Aron staring with a sorrowful countenance. “This guy wasn’t Karli you said? And Karli was a mentor?”
“Yes. And a friend.”
Aron gulped. “What did he teach you?”
Something welled in Sigbjorn’s chest, like a flood mounting from the rain. Inside he struggled, desperate to keep the words from escaping his mouth. Yet Karli’s countenance flashed before his sight, and his will failed him. “He taught… he reminded me, that there is no god of death.”
“What do yo—”
The stick snapped. The varl glanced down and realized his fist trembled. He forced his muscles to relax and tossed the broken twig into the fire. “No more questions, Aron. Since you’re up, you can take watch.”
The youth nodded.
Sigbjorn leaned back, propping his head on the ground. He regretted mentioning the old varl’s name almost a day ago, even in jest. When was the last time he had thought of him before yesterday? Years? Decades? Sigbjorn still couldn’t remember. But ever since he had uttered Karli’s name aloud, it was as though he had permitted a ghost to haunt his life.
Someone shoved him awake from the inky blackness of dreamless sleep. “What?”
“Footsteps,” Marteinn whispered. He was armed.
The varl sat up. The embers had long died, and everyone else was alert and ready. Sigbjorn stood and took his blade, crouching low to escape through the door swiftly, if needed. With everyone silent he realized the rain had stopped, replaced by the patter of a runner.
“Did anyone see them?”
“They were moving too quick,” Marteinn said. “And there’s fog outside. I couldn’t tell if they were dredge or man.”
Sigbjorn nodded. “Wait for my command.”
The steps drew closer. The varl heard Aron’s bow stretch as the youth readied to fire. Whoever it was moved quietly enough, perhaps a grunt. Sigbjorn swallowed and tightened the grip on his great sword.
The door jerked open.
A man, dressed in the battered tunic and trousers of a farmer, gazed inside. His jaw dropped, stunned at the sight of three armed men and a giant.
Aron eased his bow without firing, and Marteinn and Tomas lowered their weapons. Their leader breathed easy. “Sorry about that, we thought you wer—”
Sigbjorn shut his eyes as something squelched, and hot sputters struck his cheeks and brow. He wiped his vision clear to find the farmer blanching. A double-pronged blade pierced his stomach, viscera dribbling onto the ground.
The varl charged, horns first.
The farmer fell while the scourge freed his blade in time to meet the giant. Sigbjorn yelled as the weapon nicked his forehead, yet pushed on. He rammed the scourge’s stomach, his momentum carrying them past a few more attackers. When he finally stopped, the scourge tumbled over, sliding in the mud. The varl’s sword rose fluidly then chopped the recovering dredge’s crown, the helm splitting with a thunderous crack!
Sigbjorn didn’t study his kill. He turned in time to witness Marteinn step in for Tomas, who cradled his wounded side. The lunatic stabbed a gasping grunt in the abdomen, tendrils of black blood seeping down his seax. With his foe wounded, Marteinn ripped an axe from his belt and slashed across the dredge’s neck. The grunt knelt, gurgling as the lifeblood gushed out and spilt over his chest.
“Any more?” Sigbjorn asked.
A twang answered his question. He glanced to Aron, and followed his shot to a dropped slinger. The arrow protruded from the downed dredge’s back, suggesting an attempt to flee.
“Not bad.” Sigbjorn nodded at the youth, then turned his attention back to Tomas.
The mute sagged, hanging onto his spear for dear life, his countenance a rictus mask of pain. Sigbjorn took one glimpse at the spearman’s red soaked tunic and knew the wound was serious. “Marteinn, patch him up immediately.”
“You’re bleeding,” Aron said.
Sigbjorn didn’t realize he was being spoken to until something tickled his nose. Wiping his bridge with a wrist, the varl found smeared blood on his skin. Aron approached, pulling a bandage from his pouch. Sigbjorn knelt so the youth could study the wound, wincing from the sharp pain caused by his touch. “How bad is it?”
“It’s a decent gash. Not terrible, but I wouldn’t ignore it.” Aron pulled a small wooden container from his pouch. As he opened it, Sigbjorn smelled the sweet scent of purple bellflowers, their petals crushed into the concoction. He grunted his approval as Aron dabbed the unguent over the cut.
A few moments later, a bandage circled the varl’s head. Testing it with a finger, he found it bound firmly but not uncomfortably, and nodded. “Good work.”
A horrific, throaty moan turned Sigbjorn’s attention to Tomas, as Marteinn tightened the dressing about his hip. The bloodspot had expanded to the bandage, the linens a vivid red.
“Can you run?” The varl asked.
Tomas sneered, but shrugged.
Sigbjorn took a moment to survey the path to the village. There were a couple of dark shapes in the mist, though whether human or dredge he could not guess. After a moment, he returned to the longhouse’s door. Sighing at all the blood, he lifted the corpse, throwing it over the crimson half of his tunic. Cradling his blade in his other arm, he turned back, double burdened. “Alright, we’ll make our way to Reynivik. Move briskly but quietly and stay away from anything you can’t identify.”
“We fightin’ the villagers?” Marteinn asked, perking his brow at the body.
“No, I got an idea. Don’t mention the Ravens or Bolverk while we’re there. In fact, just shut up and let me do the talking.”
The Ravens moved with the right mix of speed, guile and patience. Whenever a solitary figure approached they made their numbers known, sometimes splashing puddles to scare off the possible interloper. When the silhouettes were more numerous, they ducked down and waited patiently until the coast seemed clear. Despite their urgency, Sigbjorn slowed the pace whenever Tomas lagged, allowing the wounded spearman to catch up.
As they neared the center of the village, they walked more casually on the muddy roads. The mist eased around the few clustered homes, and people peered from windows and regarded them from corners. When they stopped, a woman approached, hesitating before the varl.
“Who are you and what do you want?” she asked.
Sigbjorn glanced down at the gray robed woman, who barely came to his thigh in height. Her hair was blonde but her wrinkled features suggested some white hidden among those strands. He wasn’t sure if her blue eyes were on his horns, or the corpse slung over his shoulder. “We’re from Boersgard. The Governor sent us to safeguard the city’s best food source.”
“Since when did Governor Rugga begin employing varl?”
He carefully set the body down, trying to be gentle and reverent. “Since the dredge began invading. We found this man murdered on the road here.”
She sighed through her nostrils while checking the body. After a moment, she turned and spoke to a girl. “Jofast, please go and tell Hjolp to come here. I will tell her about her brother.”
As the girl ran off, the elder woman turned her attention back to them. “I am Freylaug.”
“Are you in charge here?” Sigbjorn asked. He suspected not only the answer, but that she would not surrender her role readily.
“I am. Our chieftain died two days ago, so I ordered a few of our men to petition the Governor for aid. Did they make it to Boersgard?”
Marteinn brushed the hair from his eyes. “Not exactly lady—”
One look from Sigbjorn silenced him. He turned back to Freylaug. “No, I’m sorry. We found their bodies, just as the slag attacked. We lost good comrades getting here as well.”
His lie had the desired effect. Freylaug’s shoulders eased, as did her brow. “I see. Thank you.”
“Ma’am, my name is Sigbjorn. How many survivors are there, and how much food is left?” It was important not to show his real goal with too much haste. “Are there any ships or yoxen left?”
“Just arrived and already wanting to leave?” Freylaug’s sharp edge returned. “There are perhaps a few dozen of us left. Anyone who had a boat packed up and drifted to Deepmot. Most of our yoxen carts have already taken what they could to Boersgard. Yet the stone men have killed, stolen or eaten our remaining beasts. We have a fair amount of supplies, but no means to carry them.”
Then we will die here after all. Something withered in Sigbjorn, his head wound suddenly throbbing as his eyes went to a sign over a drinking hall. He had been to this mead house a lifetime ago, but he remembered it served some of the best drinks he ever sampled. The gold thirst overtook him, and he found himself wandering towards the entrance.
“Where are you going?” Freylaug’s voice stopped the varl’s steps. “Do you seriously think that three men and a giant can protect us here? Or on a march to Boersgard?”
Sigbjorn frowned, thinking of the fastest lie he could. “There’s a relief force… coming in two days. We’ll make ourselves defensible and just hold on until they arrive.”
“Is there really, giant?” Freylaug asked.
Sigbjorn turned. For a moment, he considered a show of strength to put this human in her place, but decided against it. His eyes swept the crowd, meeting each of their gazes. “Listen carefully! More fighters will arrive in a few days with carts. Use this time wisely. Gather whatever crops you can, pack what you need, keep your loved ones close and stay the faen away from the west. The dredge have been drifting in from that direction. If you see any, and I mean more than just a few, give the alarm. Go!”
The varl suppressed a wicked smile as many of the faces watching him lit up. They urgently obeyed, his words having stoked the fire of hope within them. Freylaug seemed ready to call to them, to tell them not to trust the giant’s promise. Yet Jofast returned with another girl, and the elder woman frowned. Shaking her head at the outsiders, she went to attend to her grim duty while Reynivik itself prepared to depart.
All over a lie.
Bolverk would never spare anymore Ravens. Sending more men would risk failing their contract, and Bloodaxe’s word was the only thing he still considered sacred. No aid was coming, yet the ruse had purchased a few days to drink their fill before dying. As far as last requests went, they could do far worse.
“The only afterlife is a hangover,” Sigbjorn said to himself as he entered the mead house.
The double doors permitted the varl entry without squeezing through or ducking his horns. Once inside, he marveled at the massive hall. Large barrels stood stacked on either side of the entrance, with a massive tub in a corner. The floors were stone except for a center of patchwork wooden panels. A long pit for fire coals rested to the right, and several long tables and benches ran alongside the walls.
“Sorry about the mess,” a man said as he approached. “How can I help you?”
“Spot a drink for a few fighters?” Sigbjorn asked.
“Yeah, liquid courage isn’t just for the ladies,” Marteinn added.
“I…” The man Sigbjorn judged to be the barkeep stopped himself, rubbing the back of his neck. “We were kind of hoping to save it.”
“Reinforcements arrive in a few days. We’re fighting to protect you, so what’s the harm in us lightening the load?”
To be continued…
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