Only Bjorulf Knows: Part V
By James Fadeley
Special thanks to Dan Riggins and Erik “Frown” Bergman
Sigbjorn moaned as he finished relieving himself against the side of a small shed. He couldn’t believe how long he had held it, and his mood improved as nature was satisfied. Redoing his leggings, he took in the view of the eastern horizon’s forest.
Just over the tree tops and upon a hill laid Bjorulf’s godstone. If Hadrborg had created varl, then the god of drink and mead was the kind uncle Sigbjorn had grown fondest of. He had promised himself that he would visit the godstone one day, and felt a pang of guilt. He had not done so yet, and today would be no exception.
He remembered that some folks buried their dead in the earth, carving stones over the burial site. Tombstones they were called, the domain of sentimental fools. Despite himself, Tomas’ immolating corpse came to his mind. Would the old spearman, once a gothi, have preferred that to a pyre? The thought made Sigbjorn wonder if the gods themselves were buried under the slabs dedicated in their honor. Surely after they died, they too left mortal coils…
A flock of birds took flight from the trees around the godstone. Something moved amongst the forest. When Sigbjorn squinted he thought he could see… people, leaving the woods. He couldn’t be sure, but it looked almost like a caravan.
A cry stole his attention. Grabbing his great sword, the varl ran towards the clamor.
When he arrived at the yox stable however, Sigbjorn discovered a familiar, weeping girl struggling in Marteinn’s grasp. Something glinted in his hand.
“Come on now,” Marteinn said with a leering grin. “This isn’t all I could take if I wanted.”
“What the faen are you doing?” Sigbjorn asked with strange calm, his drunkenness making the situation seem surreal. “I told you to get everyone to the mead house.”
“Can’t I enjoy a little Reynivik hospitality?” Marteinn twisted his head to ask. The girl took advantage of the distraction to scratch his cheek with her nails, drawing blood. Shouting painfully, he slapped her hard across the face, sending her back. Her tunic ripped as he tore the necklace, her chest spilling out. Marteinn raised the prize high, and Sigbjorn saw the shine of crafted gold.
“What is going on?” Freylaug approached, her eyes widening at the girl’s exposure. “What is he doing with Jofast?”
Marteinn snarled and raised a fist at Jofast, who was about to pounce to reclaim her property. She cringed away, cradling her bared chest and grimacing with rancor at the man and varl. Something about her reaction angered the lunatic and he stepped before Sigbjorn. “I fight and kill dredge like the rest of us! These people owe us their lives, so why the faen can’t I claim payment? You know who we are better than anyone!”
Sigbjorn’s cheek twitched in annoyance, vexed as to why Marteinn would expound justification to him. The yelling and violent motions Marteinn made cut through his inebriated state, triggering something primal. Something defensive, as though the varl was the one being accused. He growled, low and dangerous.
“I can’t believe you!” Freylaug screamed with an aggravating shrill. “Who are you to do this to our people? You’ve done nothing for Reynivik except drink yourselves senseless, and now you think you can take that which isn’t yours?”
Sigbjorn’s teeth flashed. He was on the red edge, the cliff beyond which there was no reason. Freylaug, realizing something terrible was amiss, stepped back and silenced herself. However, Marteinn recklessly waved his seax as he shouted, his face both rouged and bloodied. “Who the faen do you think you are t—”
Sigbjorn palmed Marteinn’s head with tightened fingers, and deftly twisted.
There was the sound of eggs cracking, and the seax fell from nerveless fingers. Marteinn’s convulsing body dropped into a pile on the ground, his eyes rolling upward in death.
“You…” Freylaug stuttered. “But, he was…”
“Was what?” Sigbjorn asked, his tone calm. He gazed at Marteinn’s fresh corpse and felt… little. No remorse, no pity for the lunatic. At best a coldness swept over him, a sensation that might have been regret for losing control. But not for the consequences.
“I…” Freylaug swallowed, her complexion lighting to a pallor. Her gaze went to Jofast, who clutched her torn shirt as she stood. “We are, grateful, for your justice. But we need fighting men,” Freylaug’s hands trembled as she raised them defensively. “Perhaps, disciplining him for… assaulting Jofast, could have been less severe? Or after we are safe?”
Sigbjorn took the void within him as a sign, and rolled his shoulders in a shrug. “Being an ungracious guest would have gotten him a warning. It was mouthing off that got him killed.”
Freylaug’s gaze widened, her mouth gapping like a fish out of water. Rubbing her stricken cheek, Jofast stepped to the corpse. She pried open Marteinn’s clutched fingers and reclaimed her necklace, before again covering her chest. “Freylaug? Shall, we go?”
“Yeah,” Sigbjorn said. “Let’s all go back.”
The women huddled together as they walked, checking the varl behind them several times. His brooding presence kept them silent as they entered the hall.
Aron awaited them, armed and ready. “Didn’t find anyone. You see Marteinn?”
“Yep. Dead.” Sigbjorn responded in a nonchalant tone.
Aron was stunned, but recovered. “Dredge?”
Aron opened his mouth to reply, but glanced at Freylaug and the half-naked Jofast, both of whom whispered to the crowd. The villagers whom they spoke to glared at them in horror.
Sigbjorn snorted and walked over to his drink. After downing the mead, he turned to a large barrel, setting his sword against the wall before tapping the spigot. The slowness of the pour told him that it was the last of Bjorulf’s Blessing, save whatever was stashed in the keg under the nearby table. As he sipped, his mood rapidly improved. Faen Marteinn, he thought. He knew he would not miss the ass-shining lunatic.
Yet when the respite passed, the hall’s oppressive silence bothered him, and his mind sought relief. Before long, a hum built in his throat, a joviality that even the villager’s scared looks couldn’t kill. He remembered the gist of it, but not the lyrics. “Hey Aron. The mood in here is a bit cold, don’t you think.”
“I…” Aron started but didn’t finish, his mouth twitching. The youth refused to meet Sigbjorn’s gaze.
“How about you sing that song again? How did it go?”
“Uh, if it’s alright, I’m going to check Marteinn’s path again. He may have missed someone,” Aron said glumly, opening the door.
“Fine, do that.” Sigbjorn replied as the youth departed. He took a long gulp, then another. His head began to spin, and the silence and stares were getting to him. At last, he stood and pointed to a group of people. “What’s a matter with you all?”
The people of Reynivik froze.
“You’re alive, dammit!” The varl sloshed some of his drink as his arms swept to either side. “You’re alive and surrounded by mead! C’mon! Have a drink while you still can!”
The villagers glanced at one another. Uggi was the first to get a horn and give himself a pour, followed by his wife. Others soon followed, some trembling as they did.
Sigbjorn laughed. What was it about fear that could be so funny, so amusing? He raised his stein in a toast. “To Reynivik! Skal!”
He drank it all. When he returned his gaze to the room, he realized he might have been the only one to partake. Their eyes were turned away, or stared at nothing. There was resignation to them, a death of the spirits that was worse than death itself. Snorting derisively, Sigbjorn turned to a different keg and refilled his stein.
“Well, I’m not about to leave all this for the dredge!” He gulped it down, coughing slightly when a more tangy, spiced flavor washed over his palette. When he finally lowered his stein, he caught something in his molars and chewed, recognizing the pulp of a tart elderberry. Laughing giddily, he wiped the blue from his lips, relishing the taste of the melomel.
Still, few partook, their features remaining glum and empty. A woman in a corner crumbled onto her knees, sobbing. Sigbjorn couldn’t believe it, and shook his head despondently. What was with most humans that they so often fell into this pit rather than enjoy what little time they had? A long life only proved that most of it was overrated. Scoffing, he opened his mouth to berate them again.
“Sigbjorn! Sigbjorn they’re here!”
Slamming his stein on the table, the varl charged out of the mead house, grabbing his sword on the way. Turning a corner around a home, he saw Aron in the street. A grunt was down before him, an arrow sticking from the slag’s neck. But more figures approached, including a few larger ones from behind.
“Aron!” Something seized the varl just then. An inexplicable dread, a need to save the youth. He ran, trying desperately to reach the fellow Raven as the dredge closed about him. But no matter how hard he pumped his legs, time slowed. Time slowed as a scourge stepped from behind a corner, raising his double-pronged great sword.
The youth screamed, gurgling as the scourge ran him through. The bow fell, and blood splashed against the muddy road. Aron’s face contorted in agony, his eyes pleading with the varl to help him, before he went slack.
And the century-old cracks in Sigbjorn’s heart painfully grew wider.
He roared and charged, his world a blur of speed and drunkenness. The dredge were ill-prepared. A grunt turned in time to take his speeding sword through the throat. A stoneguard swung but Sigbjorn stepped behind, his head spinning dizzily as steel bit his foe’s back. The scourge too staggered forth, and as Sigbjorn parried he recognized a familiar, triangular sun rune on the dredge’s chest.
With a burst of bitter laughter the varl turned and ran, the dredge giving chase. A thrill overtook him, a taste of life that could only be appreciated on the keen edge of death. A place where skill was the only immortality. He had forgotten that morbid joy, and relished it as he hid behind a home. Taking several deep breaths, he struggled to contain his laughter.
And his tears.
How drunk was he that he could ride on the high of battle, and ache within like this? Sigbjorn grit his teeth and shut his eyes. But a tear escaped anyway, running down his cheek to be lost in his beard. He tried desperately to block it out, but arrow wounds hurt less.
“He didn’t… didn’t deserve…” He swallowed, unable to say the youth’s name. His resistance crumbled as he knew he was alone again.
Just remember Sigbjorn. I often joke about men and their short lives, but… the final kendr will be a man. So if you find yourself the last of us alive, just do me a favor. Die as we have lived. Die laughing. Laugh so that the mountains rumble as they join in. Laugh such that the wind will forever echo with our mirth, on and on until the end of time. So that the heir of our people will never forget us.
Sigbjorn winced and rolled his jaw contemptuously as the memory came back to him. It was too much. He would, could not, do it. He would not be the last of his kind.
Then he saw them.
People. In the distance, a caravan with an incredibly long red banner. Probably the very same ones who had spilled out of the forests near Bjorulf’s godstone. But his joy turned to horror when the scattered dredge began to amble their way.
“No,” Sigbjorn muttered, his voice building with his ardor. “They’re mine. This is my death, not yours! Not yours! Hey slag! It was me! It was my sword that carved your clansfolk!”
A stoneguard unleashed a warbled scream, pointing a weapon Sigbjorn’s way. With a howl of delight, the varl ran back. Back into the mead house, where he slammed and bolted the door.
“What have you done?” Freylaug screamed hysterically. “We saw you cry out to them! You’ve led them here!”
The doors thudded. Then thudded again as wood splintered, a piece falling away. The villagers huddled in horror as the dredge continued to chip away at the entrance. Still, it would hold long enough for one final drink. Sigbjorn wobbly sauntered over to collect his stein, then scooped the keg from the table.
“And I was hoping to enjoy this on the road.” The door buckled and the beam securing it cracked down the middle. As Sigbjorn drank, he finally remembered the lyrics. Lowering his stein, he licked his lips and chuckled as he began to sing.
“Fly the black and let them know… fly the black and let them know.”
Decide Sigbjorn’s fate in The Banner Saga, available now.
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