Chooser of the Slain
Ragnorvald crawled to an old stump at the edge of the clearing and rested his back high against the cold bark. The wound in his stomach kept him from even trying to sit. When he'd tried to stand he'd passed out, he didn't know for how long, and the blood and pain seemed worse. He should have died already like the rest of his men; like everyone else. Looking across the clearing he could see nothing moving but crows picking at the bodies through the blanket of snow that covered them.
Snow, when had the snow started falling? It had been a cold day and the sky was grey as it always was this time of year, but he'd seen no snow this side of the year's last day. Bad luck to be out in the first snowfall. Ragnorvald laughed and coughed till he'd spat out a mouthful of blood congealed to the size and texture of an egg-yolk. He took a handful of clean snow and melted it in his mouth, spat that out in a pink spray then took another fistful and rubbed it in his face to clear his eyes.
At the edge of the field of his vision he saw movement. First it seemed to be a flock of crows come to settle upon the ground before their feast all bunched together. Then the blackness of the wings became grey and somehow more solid and he saw the dark cloak of a traveler and a broad-rimmed hat white with snow. It was a greybeard trudging through the snow. A tall man, slightly bent, with a staff in one hand and a pack on his shoulder, but Ragnorvald noted the breadth of those shoulders and the strong arm holding the staff and a belted sword at the traveler's belt. A skald perhaps, this one did not have the look of a merchant with a pack full of spice and steel needles for trade.
As the man approached Ragnorvald shifted, though the pain brought the crows circling in across his vision, their wings blacking out the edges of his sight till he almost fainted, but not quite. He freed his own sword and laid the naked blade across his lap. He laughed again thinking that an ancient skald or a child could end him now, as weak as he was, but a surge of anger at the thought of such a fate nearly brought him to his feet. Pain and common sense prevailed. Ragnorvald waited for the old man to approach and would fight him lying down if needs must.
"A tale is here," said the old man as he approached, "written in blood."
"A crow's dinner, skald," answered Ragnorvald.
"You are the only man to tell it," the greybeard looked at the few dozen snow-covered, crow-pecked forms. "Good looting here."
"Take what you will, skald," said Ragnorvald. "It is of no use to me."
"Tell me your tale first, warrior, and then I will take what I like."
Ragnorvald laughed again and winced with pain. The thought of the old skald picking through the slaughterhouse of the battlefield amused him. "You will get your finger's bloody, old man."
"Tell me your tale," he insisted.
"Ha, it will make no name for me to be told by skalds. You would be better looking for some gold among the dead," Ragnorvald gestured to the clearing.
"Tell me your tale."
At first Ragnorvald was annoyed at the insistence of the old skald, but then he thought that there would be little profit for the old word-thief in his story. Who would want to hear about an old outlaw and bandit like himself. He was no hero of the sagas.
"Get me some water first, old man," Ragnorvald demanded, "then I will tell you my tale."
"I have known thirst myself, warrior," the greybeard said and reached within his robe. "You have need of a drop to loosen your tongue." He held a small leather bottle in his hand and passed it to Ragnorvald.
The bottle was surprising heavy and when Ragnorvald opened it the smell was heady and sweet. "Mead," he said, surprised, but when he tasted the liquid it burned like fire and cleared the cobwebs from his eyes. The day seemed lighter as if the sun had fought its way through the thick grey clouds and there was a richness in everything around him that he had not noticed before.
The greybeard plucked the bottle from Ragnorvald's hand with surprising quickness, recapped the bottle and hid it once more within his cloak.
"That is powerful drink you have there skald," said Ragnorvald, "I have never tasted it's like."
"It is a rare brew, warrior. I hope it does you well."
"You will have my tale, skald," Ragnorvald smacked his lips and ran his tongue across his teeth to gather in the last memory of a taste. "It was only a day ago that I picked a dozen of my men and crossed the hills into the Jarl's lands. They were the most troublesome of my band and they needed a little blood, rape and loot to settle them for the bad weather I knew was coming..." Ragnorvald began his story and let his mind wander to the day before. He could feel the cold darkness of the night and sense the men around him as they approached the fenced village. The skald and the clearing faded and he was there, the leather wrapped about the hilt of his sword stiff beneath his hand, the breathing of his men beside him. He was himself again, whole and strong, and his death-wounded self was less than a dream as he told his tale.