The doors to the barn were unlocked. Up above, Aelfdan was perched and alert, scanning the horizon front then back to see if anyone approached. Inside the barn were the stalls, mostly empty, two wagons and five oxen restless to be released.
Sven stood near the first wagon and near to him were Eirik and Asbjorn. Two of the three priestesses stood with them, no longer bound and talking in earnest conversation with the men. The third, as well as the young who'd been brought to the barn, were nowhere to be seen. The older of the pair of priestesses, she who had received the rough side of Ragnorvald's boot, stopped talking suddenly and pointed toward the open doors. Her voice rose, but Ragnorvald could still not make out what she said. Eirik turned with fury in his eyes, while Asbjorn merely shrugged. Sven's look was grim and it was he who stalked forward with Eirik near behind him.
"Do you lead here now?" Ragnorvald asked as Sven approached.
"I lead here," Sven replied.
"Axe's then," Ragnorvald said. "You are a fool Sven. Where did this come from?"
"You easterner. You pay no respect to the Harvest Mother, to the other Gods," Sven rubbed at his head. "You've cursed us."
"Outside then," replied Ragnorvald. "You surprise me. This I never saw. I knew you'd come for the challenge one day, but this, no I did not see this."
They walked outside and turned toward the open space between the hall and the barn. The others followed then came Asbjorn and the two priestesses.
"Room enough for the circle and the square," said Sven.
The customs of the northerners seemed never ending to Ragnorvald. Some he adapted to, most he ignored, but the laws for fighting and challenge seemed senseless to him. In the eastern clans a man challenged, and the fight began. Weapons were always at hand when a man went out of doors and even among family a warrior was held wise to hold himself ready for combat to come to him especially when he felt most safe and far from danger.
Which was never, Ragnorvald thought to himself remembering his own time as a child among his clan. The growing southern empire pushed at the tribes along all its borders and war between those from the south and east as well as the Empire's slavers changed what had been a hard life to one of desperation. His clan would not give ground, but chose instead to fight and die to a man and then the end came to every woman and child as well, fighting or letting their own blood flow rather than let the slaver's take them.
He would fight again in this challenge as he had done many times since taking the leadership of the outlaws and honor the strange customs of his northern cousins.
From above, Ring and Aelfdan turned to watch as Asbjorn paced out a square and cut the marks in the turf between the buildings. Then he drew a circle within the square so that it touched each side. At the corners were placed weapons. Both had chosen the axe and four were laid in the corners. Eirik held Sven's axe and stood to one side of the square. Gisli, looking on, and leading a crowd of outlaws and thralls came up to Ragnorvald.
"Trouble unexpected," he said, "A challenge from Sven, hey."
"Hold this axe, will you," Ragnorvald took his own axe from his belt and handed to Gisli who raised an eyebrow, laughed and took the axe in his hand.
Most of the population of the temple-farm filed out from the hall as word spread of the challenge. All the outlaws were present and the priestesses except for the third and the children she watched.
Sven stripped himself down to the waist and stood just outside the square's edge nearest to the barn.
"This is your time-wasting," Ragnorvald called to him, "Say the words."
With a sneer Eirik started to speak, but Sven turned with a smooth and lightning quick flash of his hand and gripped him on the shoulder with steel-like fingers that brought him up short.
"I bring challenge," Sven called to the assembled crowd and slowly turned his head to take in everyone, thrall, priestess and outlaw who stood along the sides of the square drawn in the dirt. He turned back and caught Ragnorvald's eye.
"I accept," Ragnorvald answered and chuckled, "I choose axes."
He stepped over the line on the ground and into the circle. Gisli handed him his axe. Two more were laid at the corners diagonally opposite in the space where the circle did not touch. A man could only grab the weapon set in his corners and could not leave the circle for any reason. To do so was punished by death and the sentence carried out by those closest to whoever broke the code of dueling honored among the north. The possibility that both men would step beyond the line was very real and death would be given to both.
"Axes," Sven replied and took his from Eirik while two others were laid in his corners.
Each axe belonged to one or the other of the outlaws. Each was unique in its way. Most meant for a single hand and balanced for throwing. Asbjorn's had a longer grip and a curving blade like half-a-moon of steel. It was not northern work. He laid it in Sven's corner. The blade Eirik carried was a simple one-handed war axe that could be thrown, though he was unskilled at such a use. It would look small in Sven's ham-like fist. Sven himself carried an axe that many men would use with two hands. It had been crafted for him and its heavy blade was balanced by a clawed spike on the reverse.
The axe in Ragnorvald's hand was surprisingly light. He normally wore a pair, each had been crafted with throwing in mind and he would often throw off his first blade immediately then draw his other while he closed with his enemy. Sven knew this well and was wary of such a tactic.
Gisli placed his axe in one of Ragnorvald's corners. It was a plain axe till one looked at it closer. The handle was slightly curved and the grip wrapped with leather over a short length of chain that formed small grooves where fingers could find purchase. The blade was odd, a trifle smaller than a normal axe blade and double bitted. The steel was unadorned but it had a sheen like oil on water with lines that curved with the arc of the blade. Gisli placed it with care and then stood back. Skarpi left the other axe for Ragnorvald, a simple axe of the north with decent steel and a skald-placed line of runes circled around the grip.
Beside Sven the older priestess placed her hand upon his back and whispered in his ear before the big man stepped into the circle. He did not smile but the grim and despondent look left his features and with a cleared conscious and easy heart he raised his axe in salute to Ragnorvald signaling that the fight had begun.
Along the western road horsemen appeared on a curving rise. First the glint of their spears then iron helms and horse's heads huffing and snorting deep lungfulls of air. They trotted forward and slowed. More spears appeared, and helms, then men walking briskly up the slope and around the curve. They stayed to the road for the most part, but they walked in a loose throng, sometimes bunched as they talked or sang bits of song, until a score of them appeared. Their shields were slung across their backs, axes and swords at their side. Metal showed as dull grey-black or brownish-red rust on some who'd sewn rings to their leather vests or thick jerkins. Some had small plates against their shoulder or near their throats to hopefully stop the edge of a killing thrust or cut that would open their veins for a quick death. Their spears glinted sharp in the morning light. The hilts of both dagger and sword, though few bore them, were well cared for but worn with use.
The three riders were better armed. Their coats were of mail, round links which came to high collars and fell half-way to their knees. One wore armor plates for shin and thigh, and a strange helm hung from his saddle. A very long straight sword was at his side and a round shield at his other. The second had a metal cap of steel that sat on his hood of chain. There was a short straight blade on his saddle and an axe with a leather loop at its grip hung to his left. The last man was very large. His long reddish hair ran free down his back, but his pate was bald. He too had the long sword, but three small throwing axes were at his other side. His face was half-hidden by a wild red-brown beard and his deep-set eyes were shaded by red brows growing long above them.
They had been on the move all through the cold night with only a brief rest for a morning meal. Now they walked slowly and let the horses set their pace. They would be walking them soon before pushing onward for the last length of their journey to the Harvest Mother's temple-farm.
Sven turned so his freehand was toward Ragnorvald and his axe ready to sweep down at face and eyes. If he did not connect he would at least make Ragnorvald draw back. His left arm might take the axe if thrown but whatever damage it might do he knew he'd be able to catch him with his own blade while Ragnorvald was still unarmed.
But Ragnorvald did not throw his axe. He sprinted toward Sven as the broader man advanced. His axe dropped and he caught it low with his left hand, swung it up and caught Sven's descending blow haft to haft, the hooked lower edge slipping over the shaft near the head of the blade. As the axe's clacked together Ragnorvald turned and sprang at Sven. With his head lowered he brought the crown of his skull up against Sven's jaw, he left his feet, his shoulder punched into the broad unarmored chest and rebounded.
Sven staggered back spitting out blood and broken teeth. He was linked weapon to weapon, right hand to left, with Ragnorvald, his own left hand hugging inward to grab at the thatch of black hair that Sven could barely see from out of a cloud of pinpoint sparks that danced within his eyes.
Spun back by the collision with Sven's massive chest Ragnorvald nearly fell but was brought up by his axe held shoulder high tangled with Sven's own. He pulled at the locked blades and felt immediate resistance as Sven drew back and tightened his grip on his axe's handle. As the big man's fingers found the back of Ragnorvald's head he let his axe fly free and Ragnorvald threw himself at Sven again, but this time with his right hand reaching out, his palm slamming hard into Sven's throat, his own fingers clutching then tightening into flesh and around the windpipe.
The pair tumbled backwards and Ragnorvald's head strained back, Sven's left hand twisted in his hair, trying to drag him off. They landed with a jarring impact. Ragnorvald's fingers on his right-hand clutched desperately, his nails digging furrows in flesh. He squeezed with every ounce of strength in his arm. Behind his eyes the red curtain began to fall. He knew the same must be true for Sven.
A clumsy swing of entwined steel and awkward dangling handle beat at Ragnorvald's side, opening a long cut across his ribs, but his left forearm blocked the second blow. He shifted forward so he was leaning over Sven's struggling form, his right arm like a pillar, his shoulder pushing down and into the other man's throat. Ragnorvald squeezed his right hand as a man might crush an apple and felt a hollow meaty tube of flesh collapse.
Sven would have screamed or roared but he had no air. He felt a pressure building within his head, a tearing pain and the beginnings of the red blessed rage appearing behind his eyes. The pain disappeared, the world slowed, his struggling became a dance; every move perfection. He knew that he was dead.
Like a bear lifting from beneath a covering of leaves and brambles Sven pushed himself to his feet. His left hand peeled Ragnorvald from him as if he were no more than a rag-filled doll that had been left across his chest. He tossed his chief aside and stood. The paired axes slipped from his hand. He looked across the gathered faces and through them, through buildings, through forest and mountains. He saw the dark clouds approaching and among them came the crows. They filled his eyes and took his soul. Sven's body dropped to his knees and fell and his blood-filled eyes stared with sightless wonder at the coming storm.
Ragnorvald landed in a crouch like a cat thrown from a height. His hands caught the turf and he skidded back, almost to the edge of the circle line. His right hand was a blood-soaked fist, frozen like a club. He had to flex and flex for it to open. He watched and did not move as Sven rose then fell and died. His breathing came in great heaves and before the full rage could fall upon him it faded, escaping from him with every breath.
"No!!!" came a scream. It barely registered to Ragnorvald and he had not even turned his head before an axe came hurtling by him. The handle brushed his chest and the blade was moved just enough to save the unlucky thrall who was in its unintended course.
Eirik screamed again, but no one could know what he had meant to say. The youngling jumped into the circle his hand pulling a dagger free from his belt, his mouth opened for a shout when a steel arrowhead erupted from between his teeth as if it had been born on the wind of his own words, steel head, shaft and feathered fletching all. Made to pierce metal plate or ringed shirt Aelfdan's shot pierced bone and flesh and teeth and thudded into the ground an arm's length in front of Eirik's falling body.
With a shake of his shoulders Ragnorvald came to life. He walked over to Eirik's body and nudged it with his toe then bent and pulled the arrow from the ground. His side was washed with blood and he would soon feel pain in hand and hair as well, but the last blessings of the rage had not completely left his body.
He walked slowly over to Sven. The face was bluish black with bitten tongue protruding and the throat was a torn and bloody ruin, but the body was empty, the spirit was gone and only the honored shell of a great warrior remained.
"You will pay for all this!" the older priestess ran up to Ragnorvald and spat the words in his face.
His punch clipped her high near the temple, much in the way that he'd knocked Eirik senseless the night before. He'd put little force in it but still it twisted her head aside and dropped her to the ground unconscious or dead, he did not care.
"We will need a pyre," Ragnorvald said quite loudly, but he was speaking to himself.
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Copyright March 2014 By Jason Zavoda