Only Bjorulf Knows: Part IV
By James Fadeley
Special thanks to Dan Riggins and Erik “Frown” Bergman
“… And I kid you not, that is how Sparr joined us!”
The end of Sigbjorn’s tale, which never once mentioned Bolverk or the Ravens, left Marteinn and Aron laughing. Even Tomas cackled, the sound like a crow’s caw as he clutched his side with a pained expression. Aron raised his drinking horn with a wide grin. “Skal!”
“Skal!” Marteinn and Sigbjorn echoed the word and gesture, Tomas the latter, and they downed their mead. The varl smacked his lips after, feeling a weight lifted from his shoulders. It felt amazing to drink again, his cares melting away as his mood improved.
Aron sputtered during their revelries, coughing mid gulp. Marteinn burst into hysterical laughter, prodding Sigbjorn with an elbow. “No wonder they sent the dead weight with us, eh?”
It was more of that ass shiner behavior. The varl found himself loathing the excuse for a man more and more. “And what exactly did you do to earn your place on this critical duty?”
“How do you think?” Marteinn smirked, then took a long sip. Sigbjorn figured it was a feint to buy the lunatic time to scheme a lie. “A girl of course.”
“Was she pretty?” Aron asked with a perked brow. The varl snorted in exasperation.
“Aye, you know it. Fine girl with hair the color of straw. Ruddy complexion with freckles, and a goodly bust. Her father didn’t let that one go hungry!” Marteinn burst into lewd laughter as Aron’s brows rose from whatever image his imagination painted for him.
Sigbjorn’s scowled, rather glad Hadrborg never deigned to curse varlkind with such distractions. “So, a woman got you in trouble, did she?”
“Well, heard the Governor took a fancy to her.” Marteinn replied, scratching his nose. “May have complained to Bol— the boss.”
Now it was Sigbjorn’s turn to smirk as Marteinn’s big mouth solved the puzzle. “Yox dung.”
Marteinn said nothing.
“Heard a little tale from Folka last week. Somethin’ about a meal in the Governor’s court to discuss our defense strategy. She heads off to relieve herself and happens across one of our men getting a little forward with a girl. Or rather, a well-dressed lady too deep in her cups to know better. So, our trusted shieldmaiden escorted her away, but not before a huskarl got an eyeful.”
Marteinn’s head moved in a twitchy fashion, like that of a bird, as he turned his attention elsewhere.
Sigbjorn continued. “So, the huskarl whispered something to one of the Governor’s guests. Some merchant or caravan master, who knows. Unfortunately, this trader is one of the last with ample food supplies, and enough guards to protect it. And our well-meaded little girl just so happens to be his daughter.”
Tomas coughed laughter, his stump of a tongue wagging between his open lips. Aron shook from a giggling fit, covering his face to hide his amusement. For a moment, Marteinn scrunched up, as though ready to explode in fury. But soon, even he grinned. “Faen maiden-shield of a shieldmaiden.”
Sigbjorn guffawed. So Marteinn could take some humiliation after all. Perhaps the varl could like him, someday. Until then, drink would help, and the varl tossed his back. Yet he frowned when he realized his horn, so tiny in his hands, was already empty.
“Hey barkeep…” He spoke loudly enough to be heard in the other room. “Uggi, you there?”
There were some mutterings before a middle-aged man peeked into the hall from the kitchen door.
“You got anything more fit for a varl to drink from? Maybe a bit to eat too?”
Uggi groaned and stepped away. A moment later he returned, polishing the dust off a large metal stein. It was tall as a man’s forearm and wide as one’s neck. Uggi’s arm trembled from strain as he poured from a massive barrel in the collection.
“My wife is preparing something,” Uggi said, his voice tense as he carried the hefty drink to Sigbjorn. “I can have some fruits and cured meats brought out in the meantime. We did not anticipate guests.”
“Sounds good Uggs,” Sigbjorn replied as he accepted the drink, his host frowning at the nickname. The varl’s eyes lit up as his lips touched the stein, the foam washing over his tongue with a bouquet of sour cherries and something vibrant. “What is this fantastic drink?”
Uggi stopped in his tracks and spun. After studying the carving on the cask’s top, he slapped his forehead. “That… that is one of our best brews. Made with Tistelberries for an added kick. We call it Bjorulf’s Blessing.”
As he disappeared into the kitchen, Sigbjorn stood. He took his blade from the wall and sauntered over to one of the small barrels.
“That’s a fine-looking sword you got Sig,” Marteinn said, as though the compliment was a peace offering. “Steel?”
“You bet your scrawny ass.” Sigbjorn gently stabbed the top of the tiny keg and removed the lid, still stuck on the point. Setting his blade on a bench, he lifted the container with a single hand and began to chug.
“Has it got a name? All great ones do.”
Yeah, it’s ‘shut the faen up and let me drink, you slack jawed idiot.’ Sigbjorn thought as he finished off the keg, then ran his tongue along the roof of his mouth. The dry mead was without fruits or spices, cloyingly sweet over his tongue. He carried the empty container to the larger barrel and began filling it with Bjorulf’s Blessing, wanting to save some for later. “Hmmm, a name.”
“How about Dredgehamarr?” Aron offered.
“Vedrstal!” Marteinn countered.
“Both terrible,” Sigbjorn said. The keg filled to the brim, he plucked the lid from his sword’s point and began resealing the container. “I name her… Olkerbani.”
“Cask slayer!” Marteinn screamed in delight. He slapped his leg, roaring with laughter before raising his horn again. “Skal!”
The axe whirled through the air, clattering against the stone wall as it missed.
“Dundr’s beard, you’re terrible.” Marteinn shook his head. “Guess those skills with the bow don’t transfer over.”
The youth rubbed the back of his neck, the last of his throwing axes expended. “I guess not. Anyway, your turn.”
Sigbjorn downed another stein of mead. The men were getting tipsy but his buzz had only begun, the pain of his headwound long abated. Leaning back in his seat, he slapped against a barrel which echoed from emptiness. It was the second they had finished, and the varl began to feel hungry. In the far corner, a table stacked with dirtied dishes marked all that remained of the snacks Uggi had provided.
Marteinn took his place and readied his axes. The first hit the bottom of the target mounted on the wall. The second whipped across the room and sank a hand below the bullseye. Marteinn was about to toss his third when the kitchen door opened. Uggi’s plump wife Drifa stepped out, carrying out a steaming bowl. The lunatic grinned lecherously. “What’ya got for us?”
Drifa scrunched her face at Marteinn’s leer. “Skause.”
Sigbjorn grunted. He couldn’t say he was in the mood for stew, less so after catching a whiff of the meal. He spotted bits of white carrots and cabbage leaves, and smelled no spices but the muddy scent of river carp. The woman’s hostility suggested she hadn’t even bothered to remove the bones. Sigbjorn had no doubt his hosts were ridding the worst of the pantry over unwelcomed guests. As she set the large bowl down on a table, Sigbjorn reached for his sword.
Steel whooshed through the air. Drifa screamed, the bowl spilling over as the blade sank home.
The target cracked and fell, split from the bottom.
“I win!” Sigbjorn declared, raising his fists victoriously. He stumbled a bit, blinking in surprise before glancing at the panic-stricken Drifa. “Oh no, our meal. I’m sure you make a most delicious carp skause too.”
Marteinn snickered while Tomas smiled meekly. Aron, to the varl’s surprise, giggled. Uggi’s wife trembled, her features twisted in a mixture of anger and terror.
“I suppose you don’t have anything else to share? Perhaps something more rib sticking?” Sigbjorn offered, smirking as he cracked his knuckles. “We are fighters, after all.”
Drifa paled, her temper outmatched. She retreated to the kitchen over Marteinn’s laughter.
“Woo,” Sigbjorn said as he tried to sit down. He misjudged his balance however, and landed hard on the bench. The wood cracked and broke off-center, the varl sliding sideways onto the floor.
His men burst into hysterical laughter. Even he found it hilarious.
“Gods, how much have we drunk?” Marteinn asked, slurring.
“Only Bjorulf knows,” Sigbjorn replied, feeling a bit dizzy. Drifa had provided them with steaks after her chastisement, but whatever rejuvenation the meal offered was wearing off. He leaned over and knocked on several now-empty barrels. He, of course, had downed the whale’s share of drink.
“You ever think of owning a mead house, boss?” Aron asked, his eyes half-closed dreamily.
The varl took another sip while he pondered the question, his tongue too coated to taste the sweetness anymore. “Now there’s a thought. Sigbjorn’s House of Mead.”
“Hey, that’s got a nice ring to it,” Aron replied.
“Yeah, not bad at all! What do you think Tomas?” Marteinn asked, turning to the man.
Tomas was hunched over, head drooping and eyes shut. Marteinn snorted and brushed the spearman with his elbow. The mute fell off his seat, clattering upon the stone floors. He did not move.
Marteinn covered his forehead, his mocking laughter a harsh bark. “Tomas passed out!”
“No.” Sigbjorn paused, catching a glimpse of Tomas’ soaked bandage. “I think he’s dead.”
Marteinn guffawed and thrust a finger at the mute. “You weakling!”
However, Aron stood and ran over to his friend’s side, his expression full of concern. After checking his breath, the youth felt for a heartbeat, his jaw dropping. “He’s… he’s gone.”
“Maybe we could prop him outside with a horn and a sign that reads, ‘Welcome to Sigbjorn’s!’” Marteinn offered. The varl found the idea amusing.
“Hey, enough jokes already. He was a comrade,” Aron said, balling a fist. “Are we at least going to bury him?”
Sigbjorn sighed and set his stein down, pointing a finger at the mug as he rose. “Don’t move, I’ll be back real soon.”
Near the nameless river’s edge, they placed several logs and sticks, and laid Tomas’ remains upon the bed. At his side they placed his spear, a capped drinking horn, and a purse with a few coins inside. It was paltry, but all they could spare.
A part of Sigbjorn’s mind screamed at him that a funeral pyre was a terrible idea, that the smoke would attract the enemy. However, that voice seemed muddled and distant behind the hazy layers of alcohol clouding his wits. Just before he lit the bed of firewood beneath Tomas’ body, Aron spoke. “Aren’t we going to say something?”
The varl’s shoulders drooped and he heaved a sigh. Tomas meant little to him, and his inebriation did nothing to expound those feelings. Burying the dead was tantamount to regaining his freedom, but if a few words could give Aron peace, so be it. “Fine. Marteinn, you start.”
The lunatic rubbed the back of his head before finally commenting. “Tomas, I’ve fought with worse. May you prove yourself a master spearman to Lauga on the other side.”
He concluded his eulogy by patting his crotch.
Sigbjorn rolled his eyes at the gesture. “Aron?”
The youth stood perfectly still, staring at Tomas’ peaceful form. He didn’t speak until the varl moved to start the pyre. “He told me through notes once, that he used to be a gothi.”
Aron’s statement stopped Sigbjorn cold, the bed still unlit. “What?”
“A gothi, a priest. He had a wife and daughter and lived in some small village. Kept preaching and preaching about an afterlife where the gods awaited us. The villagers got rather tired of it too. Then one day, bandits struck. They raided, seized the crops and took advantage of his family. And he… he kept screaming at them that only Baldringr’s inferno awaited them for what they were doing.”
“The bandits left soon after killing his family. But the surviving villagers, they were furious. Tomas kept ranting about divine justice, so they forced him to the ground and took a knife to his tongue. ‘Have a real taste of Baldringr, you lying, worthless faen,’ one said as they cauterized the stump. Then they left him alive.” Aron rubbed a tear from his cheek, lowering his voice. “I don’t think Tomas ever really bothered to grieve for his family. He was… broken. He buried them, picked up a spear and just… marched. Ended up in the Ravens sometime after.”
Sigbjorn almost ignited the pyre, but stopped again. Something about Aron’s story gave him pause, a nagging sense of uncertainty. “Why?”
Aron blinked. “Why what?”
“I never understood why there were humans who felt a compulsion to become ‘priests,’ other than madness really. The gods existed, although they died long before you or Tomas ever knew them. They carved their words in stone and taught their children. When they lived, they spoke for themselves. So why should anyone speak for the long dead?”
Aron stared at the sight of Tomas’ body for a hard moment before finally replying. “Is it true that Hadrborg himself created you?”
“It is.” Sigbjorn closed his eyes, letting the darkness envelop his sight. The trepidation grew, his pulse quickening, but he forced himself to see the radiance of Hadrborg. His memory of the god’s profile may have grown hazy through the years, but he could never forget. “We all meet him on the day we were taken from the fire. Varl are born fearing, and so we’re ready for the rest of life.”
All except one. Sigbjorn’s mouth twitched.
“And we are human,” Aron replied. “We put on airs and feign bravery, but we die afraid. And can only hope that when that day comes, we will see our creators and ancestors. That is what many of us hope for.”
Sigbjorn considered this, and slowly nodded. He still didn’t believe that the dead, divine or not, cared. But it did no harm to let the old spearman have his spiritual comforts. When no one added anything else, the giant touched the torch to the pyre bed.
As the flames took, the three watched. Despite the urge to edge away, Sigbjorn forced himself to stand before the heat. He watched through stinging vision as the fire blackened the old man’s flesh and turned his clothes to cinders.
They waited until the blaze died down and Tomas’ remains were more ashes than flesh. Content, Sigbjorn dusted his hands and then jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “I’m thinking a drink to his memory.”
“Aye!” Marteinn said. Aron sighed with melancholy, and solemnly followed.
Unfortunately, they were greeted by perhaps two dozen people as they returned to the mead house. Frightened faces huddled in the corners, next to travel packs. Some had drinks in their trembling hands, trying to soothe shaken nerves. A few even nursed wounds.
Sigbjorn already knew the story as Freylaug approached. “The families from the outskirts have been pouring into town. Dredge, they claim. Some were even attacked,” her voice turned frantic. “You promised us protection!”
The varl rolled a palm over his temple, glancing at his mug in the corner. Admittedly, a fight did sound good about then, but score-to-one odds didn’t sound appealing. Instead, he reclaimed his sword from the wall. “Whatever you say, ‘Laug lady. Aron, Marteinn, split up. Gather any lingering villagers and bring them here.”
“Where are you going?” Aron asked as Sigbjorn pushed the door open.
“Well no one wants to visit Sigbjorn’s Pisshouse, do they?”
To be concluded.
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