Gisli could hear the hard breathing of Thorkel as they approached the short palisade. He would have a talk with the broad-shouldered big-bellied man when they returned to their cavern up in the mountains after this raid. The strength and wide shoulders of Thorkel would be a strong ladder for him to climb and stand upon when they reached the palisade, but the man needed to find the wind for a run or a fight or lose the belly. He shook his head. Thorkel was a land-thief and a farmer at heart. He was outlawed for rape, theft and murder, and Gisli had no liking for him.
Once Gisli had been a Jarl's man, a warrior, a sea-king, but his blood had always been hot and a quick insult by a rival put Gisli's hand to his axe and in a flash of spinning steel the blade split the other man's skull.
"What was his name?" Gisli mused to himself and shook his head again as he reached the wall. Thorkel was yards behind and puffing like an ox pulling a wagon full of stones. Maybe Thorkel would stay behind permanently this trip, and Gisli let his hand caress the handle of his throwing axe.
They clumped across the plowed and turned field crunching the layer of rotting stock and loose hay left over the frozen, bare earth. Eystein was keeping his pair of mewling pups quiet and on their feet as they raced toward the small freeholding. Ragnorvald kept pace beside Big Sven, and both stayed a man's-length back from the others so that they could keep their eye on them. Asbjorn and Skarpi mumbled something between themselves then smothered laughter. Sven growled deep in his throat like a bear woken too early from its winter sleep and both men turned back to look with a quick jerk of their heads and the smiles disappeared as did the loose talk and laughter. This brought a smile to Ragnorvald's own lips. Sven could be trouble and in his heart Ragnorvald could see the desire of the big man to replace him as the leader, but till that time came to pass Sven had his uses.
Ahead there was a sudden barking of dogs, a sharp whimper of pain then a shout. Ragnorvald and his men broke into as fast a run as they could manage.
Aelfdan was an archer. He'd traveled in his youth. Followed the path of the sea-kings and crossed the white ocean to the land of ghosts. It was a strange place, the creatures not to be believed and the further he went the stranger it became. One day the dragonship he sailed with became storm-tossed and lost. They passed the craggy mountainous realm north of the ghost land where the bluemen stalked the hills and lay in wait for anyone foolish enough to land. He'd fought the bluemen and they were canny foes, as fearless and wild as the sea-kings were themselves. Steel told when fearless hearts met and much glory was found, many a seat at the Raven King's hall was filled, but little gold was taken and the women of the bluemen were as wild as their men.
Still the dragonship sailed on and hugged the coast of that high land till they found themselves headed south instead of west. One morning they awoke to the sight of hills instead of mountains and towns instead of rude huts or rough stone circles with roofs of sod. With broken oars, torn sails and wounds unhealed from their many fights with the bluemen the sea-kings sailed into a harbor of fishermen, scores of them, to trade instead of take and lucky it was that they did.
These were the men of wode, civilized cousins to the bluemen of the north. While they had lost the bluemen's love of battle they had gained warm houses of wood and stone, farms of grain and cattle, they had letters and song, but most importantly they had the bow.
In the sea-kings' land, the three realms of the north, the bow was a feeble weapon unfit for a warrior, short of range and too weak to pierce the shields men carried to battle. Useful for hunting deer perhaps, or rabbits or squirrels, but the bow of wodemen was something altogether different. Every man among the wode hunted and from youth learned to use the bow as they would use an axe for cutting would or a knife for cutting meat. Their bows were huge, taller than a man, their arrows as long as an arm.
There it was, on the far side of the earth, that Aelfdan learned the bow. It called to his heart stronger than a maiden's arms. With the bow he felt as powerful as the Gods, and yet it was the source of his dishonor. Aelfdan the bowmen, once a warrior, a sea-king, but a man who preferred to fight from a distance, who killed without standing close enough to feel the last breath of his enemy, or paint his blade with blood. To his fellow warriors and his clan he was not a warrior and he had no honor.
Now he fought beside the dishonored and the outlawed. They had no care how he killed a man or a dog. Aelfdan stood upon the shoulders of Glum the treecutter and searched the wide yard around the hall of this holding for just that man or dog to shoot.
Sven hit the palisade hard enough to shake it and bounced back a step. Ragnorvald came to a jolting stop beside him and the others followed suit. With a quick turn he motioned to Skarpi and the younger man ran over. Cupping his hands together with his fingers interwoven Ragnorvald made a stirrup for Skarpi to rest his foot and shoved him toward the top edge of the palisade. Quick, deft hands caught the edge and with the momentum given to him from Ragnorvald's throw Skarpi brought his leg up and over till he was sitting astride the wall hugging it to his chest then up with the other leg and over. He hung a moment by his fingers then dropped to the ground, crouching as he landed, reaching for the small axe at his side.
He was near the front gate. Somewhere off to his left a man was screaming, a dog was whimpering, he heard a whistle and a fire-arrow sailed into the night calling out its warning, then another, and another. To his right was the front gate. He moved toward it and behind him he could hear one then another of his companions drop inside the wall.
His first arrow took the barking dog in the throat and silenced it. These were huge, scruffy beasts not too distant from their wolfish cousins, but loyal to the men who raised them and the packmates whose barks were intermixed with ferocious growls. They ran free within the walls of the palisade, left out in the cold night as sentinels whose senses were so much keener than that of any merely human guard.
Aelfdan didn't care. Man or beast he loved to kill with his bow. His arrow pointed and his fingers opened and death flew free. One more spirit that he'd marked as his own. As the first shaft sped towards the dog's throat his hand was at his back drawing another. Notched and ready he surveyed the ground from his vantage atop Glum's shoulders.
The man beneath his feet stayed rock steady and still. Glum was tall and rangy, from the most northern of the three lands of the sea-kings. Aelfdan had chosen him because he knew he would have an unmoving perch with which to stand above the freeholding's short wall; meant more to keep the chicken's in and the wolves out rather than as a serious defense against Aelfdan and Ragnorvald's other outlaws.
There was a barn that cut off his view of the hall directly ahead. It was at least as high as the long one-roomed dwelling. He could see a pen filled with thick-furred sheep off to his right, but the dim glow of the cloud-obscured moonlight wasn't enough to show him more. He'd spitted the dog by aiming at its sounds as much as by its dark shape coming from around the side of the barn.
Somewhere ahead he saw an orange spark; more barking from around the farside of the barn to his left. Someone shouted then the screams began.
Ring and Hrafnkel turned to the right while the others had turned left. They crossed the dirt road that lead to the front gates and circled around the side of the wall. Ring gave a doubtful look at Hrafnkel. The man was no giant, neither was Ring, and he wondered if he'd be high enough to shoot over the wall even if he stood on the other man's head.
They were a dozen yards away from the front gate when Ring gave Hrafnkel a tap on the shoulder. Hrafnkel turned to face the wall and crouched while Ring clambered up his back. With a grunt of effort Hrafnkel stood and Ring found himself looking over the wall onto an expanse of dirt yard. There were small buildings all along his right and he could smell the charcoal smell of a smith's fire and see an orange wink through the cracks of a wide door in a low-roofed building where the coals burned beneath their growing covering of ash.
'Someone has been up late,' Ring thought to himself. He'd apprenticed as a smith and could remember sleeping each night by the warmth of the dying coals. In the years since he'd been exiled from his clan for theft, he'd barely escaped before losing a finger for that first offense. He'd made his way as a hunter, but found himself more often the hunted. Still, he had learned the bow and it had kept him fed during the long years before falling in with one outlaw band and the next.
"Higher!" Ring said in a harsh whispered voice, and with another grunt Hrafnkel strained to raise him high enough to clear his shoulders. He was only at shoulder height and could barely get his arms over the wall let alone bring his bow to bear. There was nothing to be seen anyway. Putting his bow over his shoulder he whispered down again to Hrafnkel, "I'm going over," then pulled himself up to his waist across the top of the palisade.
"What?" Hrafnkel spat back as he felt Ring's boots leave his shoulders. He stared up as the dark legs and feet hung for a moment on the edge then disappeared over the side. "What do I do now?" he asked the air around him.
Gisli had veered left and motioned for Aelfdan who was running on his left to follow him. He waved the other pair on to circle further around the palisade before coming to a halt and starting up the wall himself. He had been glad to see that Ring and Hrafnkel had headed to the right and were hopefully even now ready to bring the hunter's short bow against any guards inside the wall.
After the puffing Thorkel set himself below him Gisli pulled himself over with barely a look. His axe would be of better use once he was on the ground.
He landed with a roll letting his legs collapse under him as he absorbed the shock from his jump and then on his shoulder before springing forward, his throwing axe already in his hand. It was a shock when he slammed up against a soft-furred body and the bleat of the half-conscious sheep kept him from lashing out with the weapon's edge. Gisli smothered a laugh and crouched amid a large milling flock which shifted constantly for warmth. His jump had taken him into the pen the freeholder's kept within the walls; lucky that he hadn't landed on one and set them all to bleating.
On the ground the small buildings blocked his view. The hall, a dark blot ahead of him, was more than twice the height of any others, higher than the palisade of logs they had surrounded themselves with. Ring edged toward the smithy and the orange glow.
From somewhere off ahead he heard a dog begin to bark, the sound ended suddenly but just as suddenly he could hear the bark and growl of other dogs.
"What...?" exclaimed a surprised voice nearly at his elbow.
Ring turned and loosed his bow. The arrow sank into the center of a man's shape. Behind it the coals of the smithy's fire were revealed. One of the double-doors to the smithy was thrown open and as the figure collapsed he could see the long white hair and beard of an old man.
With fingers tight around the shaft of Ring's arrow and the arrow sunk deep into his stomach the man began to scream. Ring danced from one foot to another for a moment, shocked and surprised. He hadn't even meant to fire but his fingers opened of their own accord. Not that he would have done differently if he'd had the chance.
From the dark black presence of the hall someone began shouting. Ring could hear the name "Hnaef! Hnaef!" being called, but then the barks and growls of the dogs drowned it out. A lopping form was rushing toward him, an orange flare came from the direction of the hall. Ring nocked another arrow and fired, drew and fired before the first dog reached him.
From his vantage point atop Glum, Aelfdan spied a second dog rushing from the far edge of the barn. He fired, the arrow skimmed the back of the dog, who yelped mid-growl, and it lodged in the side of the barn. He drew again but the dog was speeding toward the wall. The second arrow missed by a tail's length and the dog was now too close. It leapt and growled beneath him and Aelfdan could not bring his tall bow to bear on its jumping, slavering form.
Beneath him Glum was as silent as stone.
"Ice take you!" Aelfdan yelled at the dog who made enough noise to drown out the screams of men and the barks of the other dogs. Aelfdan yearned to leave his perch and head back for the front gate where the others would be gathering, but he knew Ragnorvald would not be glad to see him abandon this spot. He knew also that the barking, growling hound might draw defenders from the hall where his bow could do its work and he could harvest more kills to feed the blood hunger he never seemed able to sate; Besides he was here as bait. He knew Ragnorvald well enough to know that. So, with the silent Glum beneath his feet and the maddened dog below him, Aelfdan would wait and hope for blood.
Skarpi ran to the gate. It was wide enough for a large wagon to pass and composed of two portals made of heavy logs shut with a thick beam between two iron staples. He put his shoulder beneath one end and lifted it less than an inch before he could budge it no more. He tried again with no better result, then, feeling around the metal of the staple, he encountered a knotted clump of leather.
Someone had tied the damned thing down. He swore to himself and raised his axe to chop the knot open. An arrow spranged off the iron staples and the sparks stung Skarpi's face. Someone was shooting at him; the next arrow thocked into the wood near his head.
His axe sliced cleanly through the leather tie-down and into the beam. He pulled it free as a third arrow sliced across his shoulders and split the strap holding his boiled-leather chest-plate that he wore over a padded vest. The strap parted and the plate of leather pulled free over his left arm. He had no time to rid himself of it and instead put his shoulder beneath the beam and pushed. One heave lifted it up but not over the staple. Skarpi bent and dug his feet into the ground and pushed high with both arms as best he could, his right hand still clasping his axe, and with the hair's breadth of height gained he slipped the beam over the staple-top then grunted as an arrow sank home into his chest between the loose leather plate and his upstretched arm.
As Skarpi hit the ground inside the walls of the freeholding Agnar followed and behind him came clumsy Eirik. He landed on hands and knees and as he pushed himself to his feet Eirik came down and squashed him flat. The two men rolled in a tangle of limbs. Stars and sparks danced around Agnar's head, his jaw ached and he'd nearly bitten off his tongue. Eirik's foot had taken him at the back of the skull and slammed him face first into the ground. Eirik himself slipped backward and landed again on Agnar, flailing his arms about, dropping the long dagger he'd drawn and tangling himself with Agnar's legs. A boy with a sharpened stick could have speared the pair of them like trout flapping on the bank of a river.
As Ragnorvald leaned against the front gate he felt it give suddenly and heard the clunk of the crossbeam falling to the ground.
"Everyone!" he yelled. "The gate!" and he slammed himself against the portal. It moved maybe a foot and he slammed again, but this time with Sven beside him. The big man let out a growl and the gate scrapped across the ground. Eystein slipped inside through the gap they'd opened followed in a flash by Asbjorn, a large man but short-legged making him seem like the stump of some huge gnarled tree that moved on the boles of its thickest limbs.
There was a yell beyond the gate and Ragnorvald was pushing it wide enough to squeeze through with Sven behind him. Inside the could see Asbjorn rushing forward at his fastest trot toward the hall while Eystein was no more than a dim figure in the silver moonlit glow. An arrow sailed over his shoulder and Sven yelled.
Ragnorvald's mouth suddenly went dry and the world seemed to slow. An arrow whistling for his face was first a dark speck then a long blur as he turned his head. His eyes watched it as it went by. He noted the barbless head, the green shaft, the feathers of the fletching. Sven's shout behind him was a deep, deep roar. Calm descended over him as the silver light tinged with a rich dark red at the edges. The Raven King had touched him. The fire was in his blood. It burned away all doubt, all pain and gave him joy.
Behind him Sven was cut by the second arrow as it pierced the skin of his shoulder and tunneled a shallow groove across his bone. The fletching caught in the rings of his mail and the head dangled from his bleeding flesh. He caught the shaft between his fingers and snapped it off as if it were a twig. In a fresh trickle of blood the head dragged the broken shaft free. As with Ragnorvald Sven's blood was up and the rage was taking hold.
Eystein hated bows with a passion. He dodged inside the gate and his sudden swerve saved him from a pair of arrows that would have skewered his head or his gut, if his armored shirt didn't stop them, but he had no desire to put it to the test.
"More than one," he said aloud, perhaps to Asbjorn behind him but he was really speaking to the air.
Asbjorn grunted as an arrow appeared like magic in the gate near to where his hand gripped the wood. He snatched it back but kept moving forward into the hold.
'More than one,' Eystein thought to himself and charged.
He swung his bow like a club and caught the dog in mid-leap sending it rolling aside, but two more were behind it. With one hand he jabbed the end of his bow at the next dog aiming for its eyes. The third clamped its teeth on it and tore it from his grasp. Before he could draw his knife one of the pair had his arm but biting into the leather guard he wore instead of his flesh. He shook it, lifting it from the ground but its jaws were a vice and it wouldn't let go. The one he'd hit was on its feet and the second of the pair he'd fenced with was chomping near his groin and he shied away trying to kick it but it was more like he was offering it his leg and the dog accepted. This time it was Ring who howled as the teeth tore through the rough cloth of is trousers and pierced his skin.
The third dog was coming from behind and Ring tripped over it as he backed howling from the teeth which had already wounded him and threatened to unman him with a bite. He fell and scrambled, the wild beast beneath him only trapped by his legs for a moment. Ring used the dog on his wrist like a flail. He grabbed it by the throat with his free hand and smashed its body against the other. Twisting and rolling he made it to his knees then sat back on the third dog again. It was halfway freed from his legs. Its hindquarters suddenly pinned, bending backwards it snapped at Ring's side, his hip, teeth ripping cloth, gouging into the thick leather coat that he wore, but not drawing blood.
In a spray of bloody froth the dog at his wrist flew free and smashed into the wall of the forge. It went slack and lay dead or unconscious like a sack of bones and flesh, silent and still. Ring caught the second dog by its throat and felt the short iron spikes of its collar tear at his hands. In surprise he let it free and the teeth took the end from his left ear before he could push it away. He rolled on his side atop the third dog and its snapping jaw, his bloody hands slipping over its fur unable to find a grip, but then his fingers slipped beneath the tight collar, felt the sharpened studs on this one as well. Rolling again he slid over the dog's body and yanked it by its collar till he could swing it around him. In a flail of limbs and a growl turned to a yelping gurgle he beat the second dog back. He was on his own back holding a maddened dog by the collar above him, its legs scrabbling across his chest while he kicked at the other, his foot catching it a strong blow on its snout. It shook its head, pawed at its nose and sneezed blood.
Twisting the collar in his hands the dog atop him struggled madly for a moment. Ring twisted to his side again and slammed its head into the frozen ground then tossed its body aside.
As the last dog lunged toward him Ring went mad with fury. He was no berserk, but his anger welled up inside of him and he launched himself with unintelligible screams at the dog. It caught his throat, but only for a moment. Ring sank his own teeth into the dog's shoulder. It was a big dog but only half his weight and he threw himself atop. He beat its sides with his fists, smashed his forehead against its already bloody snout, growled and screamed like the madman he'd become.
Slippery with blood, both its own and Ring's, the dog squirmed through the bowman's grip and raced yelping away. Slowly Ring pulled himself to his knees, wiped his forearm across his face, which only put another coating of blood across his cheeks and mouth, and began to laugh.
Ragnorvald and Sven were a blur as they raced past the slow and short-legged Asbjorn. An arrow skipped off of Sven's shirt of mail in a spark. Ragnorvald smiled then felt an arrow lodge in the mail protecting his own chest, the arrowhead cutting patterns in his skin, but no more than deep scratches. Even if he felt the little wound he would have ignored it, but the fire racing through his blood was all that he could feel.
Eystein was ahead of them, but he dropped back with an arrow in his thigh. It was all close range. The doors to the hall were only a few dozen yards from the gate. There were three bowmen and half a dozen others with spears. Ragnorvald was so close he could see the terror in the wide eyes of the spearman in front of him, or felt that he could, the defenders had no light behind them making them hazy targets in the dim moonlight. The same was true for Ragnorvald and his men.
These people were good with the bow, thought Ragnorvald, his mind moved as fast as his reflexes while he raged. He noted the dark outline of the bowman ahead of him and his mind clicked, bowwoman.
A last arrow struck him hard in the shoulder, but more sparks, the wide sharp edges of the heads were not pushing the links of his mail aside to pierce the coat. He felt like stripping it off. His body swelled during the rage. The coat and the padded vest beneath were doing more damage as he strained against them than the arrows.
Sven beat him to the first spearman. He was bare-handed. Either he'd dropped his axe or still wore it at his side. It mattered little. He gripped a spear that jabbed at his armored stomach and pulled it from the spearman's grasp. A second spear sliced below the hem of his chain shirt and opened up a long gash through trousers and flesh along his upper thigh, but it did not bleed. That would be for later when the Raven King's blessing was lifted and the rage departed. For now the wound might as well have been cut through clay.
Using the end of the spear like an oversized club Sven crushed the shoulder of the man who'd wounded him, caught the disarmed spearman in the chest that sent him spinning backwards and driven a third spearman aside. Another arrow stuck him, this one cutting across his forehead and parting his hair as it glided across his thick skull. Sven leapt and was among the spearmen and his spear, descending like a quarterstaff, sent the bowwoman off her feet.
Eirik and Agnar picked themselves up off the ground. The gate was open, sounds of battle were ahead near the hall, and, further off, the screams and growls of another fight. The pair rushed forward and caught site of Skarpi pulling himself free of the fallen beam and the corner of the open gate.
"Help me up, you bastards!" he yelled at the pair.
"Skarpi, you okay?" asked Eirik as he grabbed for the wounded man's arm. An arrow shaft protruded from Skarpi's chest and his right arm hung loosely at his side where it had been gripped by the opening gate. Even Agnar, who was none too swift of thought, looked at Eirik with surprise and disgust.
"Idiot," he murmured.
"I'm not okay, frostbrain," Skarpi shouted at him. "Go and run. Get to the fight. Agnar, you get this arrow out of me."
"I can do that," Eirik said and reached for the shaft.
Skarpi danced back and sagged against the wall of the palisade. "Get off! I told you get to the fight! You're as likely to drive it deeper. Now get off!"
A small spark of fury lit up within Eirik then he smiled sheepishly knowing that Skarpi was probably right and turned round toward the fighting at the front of the hall.
"How do you want me to do this?" asked Agnar.
"Just put one hand against my chest and pull the damn thing out," Skarpi told him. "It can't be deep. I'd be dead if it was deep."
"Hold on, hold on..." Agnar said to him in the tone he'd use to calm a horse he was trying to saddle. "Hold..." and then he tore the arrow from Skarpi's chest "...on!" He held the bloody arrow up to show Skarpi with a proud smile on his face.
The spearpoint poked him in the chest. Ragnorvald reached up and moved it aside with a slow and deliberate hand that broke the arm of the spearman. In a step he was in front of the man, reaching out, grabbing him by the throat and shoving him backwards hard enough to knock aside the two women behind him and slam him against the wall. His head hit and split his skin along the back of his head painting the wall black in the moonlight. Ragnorvald let him drop. The rage was making him quick and strong but he was a poor judge of his strength and he knew it. So easy to kill when he meant only to disable a man... or a woman.
At his feet the two women were trying to rise. One seemed very young, the other more of his own age. She wore a leather vest sewn with plates of bone and reached for the handle of a dagger as she struggled to her feet. He meant to place his foot on her but sent her so roughly back down that she slid a few feet before she stopped. The younger woman scurried over to her without standing and cradled her head.
A glance around him showed none but his own men standing. Sven was holding a man pinned against the wall with the back end of a spear and seemed to be, fairly successfully, trying to drive it through his chest. Eystein was limping forward with an arm around Asbjorn and behind them Eirik was running up with an axe in his hand ready for the fight that was already over.
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Copyright March 2014 By Jason Zavoda