He crunched though knee high snow kept warm by thoughts of old injustices. Steam raised from his body from recent exertion and his sword from recent slaughter. Skarbjorn would not be stopped. His eyes were fixed on the wooden palisade nestled on this white hill in front of him. He licked his lips seeing it and smiled a wicked smile. He strode up to the gates bare chested yet he was not at all reduced by the cold. A sleepy guard sprung awake and stared at Skarbjorn as he moved towards the entrance. He trembled seeing his bloody sword and whimpered at the sight of his heavy axe.
Skarbjorn stopped before the gate, far enough from the guard to not be a threat but close enough to be heard. He took in a deep breath and then called out.
‘SIGURD!’ He called. His voice as deep as a bear. The entire valley around him echoed the name. There was no movement, except for the guard who had now started to back away.
‘SIGURD! SHOW YOUR FACE!’ He bellowed again. There was movement behind the walls but no one had appeared yet.
‘SIGURD! DO NOT HIDE FROM ME! I CALL YOU NIÐINGR!’ He roared. The sound almost shaking the palisades, the guard winced at the last word and shook his head in horror. Skarbjorn smiled over gritted teeth and through bulging eyes.
‘SIGURD! YOUR CITY HEARS YOU DISGRACED! YOU MUST ANSWER!’ He screamed. The gate opened and an entourage exited. They were surrounded on all sides by hulking shield bearers, but Skarbjorn could already see the objects of his hatred. First came the heavily jewelled, dyed blonde trophy wife, then the richly garbed, smug and spoilt little son, in the back of the crowd was the detestable, drab robed priest of Christendom and finally the Jarl himself. Greying and richly furred he finally responded.
‘God would have me forgive you for such vulgarity.’ He walked out hand on his carved wooden cross, this caused Skarbjorn to spit. ‘However I cannot. I must pray his forgiveness and seek vengeance. Are you satisfied now?’ He answered with a turn of his lip.
‘A wet blade will be my satisfaction.’ Skarbjorn replied spraying spittle.
The priest stepped forward with his arms raised, Skarbjorn growled at the sight of him.
‘My child, can we not avoid bloodshed? Must you go down this path? The Lord Jesus Christ has a different path in mind for you.’ He said softly. Skarbjorn replied with a barking laugh and raised his sword to the sky.
‘I do not belong to your dead God! I belong to Odin! My arm swings with Thor’s fury, my blades bite like Fenrir and my passions are same as Tyr!’ He called back. The priest shook his head and withdrew, mumbling something in his God’s language.
A Cold wind blew between the two men as they stared at each other sizing their opponent up, it was the Jarl who broke the silence.
‘I challenge you to a duel, hólmgang rules.’ Jarl Sigurd, announcing to the, ever increasing, curious crowd now gathering behind him. The larger the crowd the clearer the Jarl spoke, the taller he stood and the higher he held his head. Skarbjorn noticed this with a wet toothy smile.
‘Coward! Hiding behind rules! Fight me proper! Hide behind your sheildbearer if you must but I will still claim victory.’ Skarbjorn called. There was a muttering behind the Jarl, he couldn’t possibly let this stand, his brow furrowed and he fixed Skarbjorn with a stare.
‘I am innocent of this man’s blood, it is on his own hands.’ He announced to the crowd but his eyes were focussed on his priest. He nodded his head forward and a great brute of a man stepped forward, his shield dwarfed on his arm.
‘This is my sheildbearer. Are there any that will stand for this beast?’ The Jarl asked the crowd. Silence was his answer and the Jarl approved. ‘It seems you stand alone, child.’ Sigurd said smirking. Skarbjorn only mirrored it. They held each other’s gaze for a long time neither wanting to back down. Neither did, they were interrupted before either could look away.
‘I will stand for him!’ The voice from so far back in the crowd, Skarbjorn strained to hear it. The crowd parted and a small teenage girl stepped forward, brunette hair hanging loose with a defiant look in her eyes at the Jarl. For a moment there was a stunned, silent disbelief then there was a ripple of laughter.
‘What a pair of heroes! A berserker, to rival Grendel in hideousness, and a baby girl!’ The Jarl said, with a forced laugh. She crunched down towards Skarbjorn who stared at her with a burning hot anger. She shrunk the closer she got to him and had to avoid his murderous gaze when she stood beside him.
‘What do you think you are doing?’ Skarbjorn hissed. The girl frowned at the ground.
‘Doing what is right.’ She said. Skarbjorn just looked even angrier.
‘I did not save your life to have you throw it away.’ He said with clenched fist. She stared
him in the eye this time.
‘My life is not yours to give away!’ She stated and then turned to face her opponents
One step. That is what Skarbjorn had to focus on. One step at a time. Not the snow, not the ice and definitely not the shirt he had lost escaping the Jarl’s men. He wrapped his arms around himself to try and keep out the cold but he was turning blue. The town was so far way, each time he glanced up he was convinced he would never make it there without freezing to death. So he focused on his steps. One at a time.
One step closer
Laughter. That wasn’t right.
He checked himself to make sure he hadn’t flew into another fit and lost control but he heard it again and was sure it wasn’t him. He looked around and couldn’t see anyone, was he hearing things?
Again. It was deep, booming and familiar laughter. Looking around he saw a small cabin nested in some trees. There was a fire inside and that was reason enough to head towards it. Just as he reached the door he heard the laughter again. Now that he was closer he recognised it, it belonged to one of his berserker brothers. He hated all of his berserker brothers.
‘She’s got fire, wonder how long that’ll last?’ A voice squeaked. It was Erik speaking. He was a beast in a fight but a subservient little weasel outside of a battle which made Skarbjorn wonder who was in charge.
‘I don’t think it’ll be long Erik.’ That was the fat bastard, Olaf. Skarbjorn had been aching for a reason to gut him for some time. This seemed as good as any. ‘I think she doesn’t understand the situation.’ He was walking around as he spoke. The floorboards creaked under his weight.
‘You don’t understand do you girl?’ Erik said, adding precisely nothing to the situation.
‘Your father is a traitor. No one is going to miss you and no one is searching for you.’ Skarbjorn could picture the horrible smile on Olaf’s face as he spoke.
‘That Jarl is a traitor. He betrayed the gods!’ The girl chirped up.
‘You got a big mouth girl. Makes me wonder what will fit in it.’ Olaf said.
Skarbjorn had no more patience. He kicked the door in and swung his axe at the first figure he saw. It spilt Erik’s skull with a click. Olaf, never known for being defensive swung his sword, immediately. It hacked a piece out of the already dead Erik who was falling to the ground.
‘How did you-’ Olaf started but Skarbjorn was already furious, eye’s bulging and blades itching for the kill.
A real berserker can’t be stopped fat boy!’ Skarbjorn said with a manic laugh and a swing of his axe. It caught his belly and opened a gash that spilled with blood. Olaf still stared at Skarbjorn terrified.
‘Don’t kill me we can share her-‘ He tried but Skarbjorn’s next blow bent the sword and sent its blade into his fat chest.
‘I am no animal! I am the chosen of Odin!’ Skarbjorn said, raining multiple blows onto the fat man’s chest reducing it to a bloody cavity.
When he was done, he calmed himself so he didn’t go into a draining full berserker fit. Taking in deep breaths he turned to the girl, she frowned up at him defiantly.
‘Are you going to kill me too?’ She asked strongly but her eyes betrayed a fear lingering underneath. He brought down his axe. Her bonds fell to the floor.
‘This doesn’t make us even.’ She said, massaging her wrists as she stood.
‘I know, Birger.’ Skarbjorn said moving to the inviting cackle of the fire. The girl did not join him despite the cold. Reflecting for a moment Skarbjorn recalled the last time he was in a house like this, it wasn’t a pleasant memory. The girl began to shiver in increasing intensity.
‘Come to the fire, you will catch cold.’ Skarbjorn said gently, more gently that he had spoken in years.
‘People around you tend to catch death.’ Birger snapped. Skarbjorn just shrugged in agreement and shuffled closer to the fire.
‘I won’t kill you.’ Skarbjorn said emotionlessly. It was clear that Birger wanted to stand her ground but she was shaking violently now and so she moved slowly towards it. She sat almost right beside him and for a few moments there was a pleasant silence in the house.
‘You killed my mother.’ She said. She was taken aback by the sadness that washed over him. Tears flowed down his face as he regarded her and he didn’t fight them or even move to wipe them away.
‘Aye, I did.’ He said, painfully. The girl moved closer, confused and looking almost concerned about the man now.
‘I thought you hated her?’ The girl said quizzically, moving closer to him.
‘I loved her dearly.’ He said with a smile that conveyed all the tumultuous sadness in his heart. Birger embraced the big blood-spattered man suddenly.
‘It’ll be okay Daddy.’ She said, her voice cracking a little. ‘Grandad said he would look after us. He kept visiting Ma when you were gone.’ She added trying to comfort him. Skarbjorn’s face got hard again.
I know.’ He muttered in a dark and threatening growl. They sat in silence for a while, it had been years since they had spent any time together so they just enjoyed each other’s company, no one even commented on the dead bodies. Skarbjorn tried to convince himself that he was just sitting in the cabin for the heat, but he didn’t even really believe it. He spent a few minutes just enjoying the peace and then he turned to her and tried to speak. It took him a few more minutes to gather the courage.
‘Go home. I will be fine.’ He said, voice cracking a little.
‘I am staying with you.’ She demanded. Skarbjorn smiled, for the first time in so long it made his face feel strange.
‘I have to do something, go home and I will meet you there.’ He said, his voice desperate. Birger nodded and stood. She moved to the door and looked back at him sadly. She kicked a sword to him.
‘Don’t try to run or I will find you.’ She said, he smiled back at her and nodded. She left and he got up to the window and watched her walk back until she was completely out of sight. Then it was time for the grim business of revenge. He picked up the sword and began to
trudge up the hill.
Skarbjorn crouched low and prepared for an attack, Birger was at his side ready to deflect any blows. The Jarl stood behind his sheildbearer making it difficult for Skarbjorn to get through. The sheildbearer struck first disorientating Skarbjorn with his shield. His axe reflexively swung at the shield as it was withdrawing and shattered it. The shieldbearer had underestimated his speed and wouldn’t make the same mistake again.
Skarbjorn was forced to leap back to avoid a sudden swung from the Jarl. The older man was swinging like a maniac using the sword blade to keep Skarbjorn away. Birger stepped in with expert timing catching the Jarls blade and bending it. The Jarl looked at it in horror. Before Skarbjorn could launch his assault he got hit by the shield bearer again. He lashed out with his axe but the man was no longer there. The Jarl was straightening his sword. Skarbjorn lunged at the, seemingly defenceless, Jarl but the sheildbearer was there to bat the blow away. Taking another angry swipe with his axe he missed the sheildbearer again.
Skarbjorn heard a swing and turned to find the jarl’s sword moving towards him. Birger managed to just get in the way of it with her shield but it spilt and she scurried to get a new one. He stared at Sigurd. He let the hatred fill him. He like the angery build and at last he let the fury take him. He swung a brutal overhead swipe with his axe at the Jarl. The sheildbearer moved, predictably, to take the blow. At the same time Skarbjorn slashed horizontally with the sword. His axe shattered the shield and his sword bit into the sheildbearers side. The shieldbearer scrambled away grasping the wound and Skarbjorn was left staring at the
worried looking Jarl.
He advanced on Sigurd, slow and menacing. Skarbjorn smiled down at his bloody sword and licked his fangs. Then he heard Birger cry out. He spun and turned to see the priest pulling her back to stop her from returning to the brawl.
‘LET HER GO FREAK!’ He roared at the timid looking priest. Who grabbed onto the girl even tighter in fear. Then Skarbjorn felt a hot pain in his chest. He turned to the Jarl who was backing away looking frightened. He saw the blood on the Jarl’s sword. Then he looked down at his bare chest and saw a jagged red gash. His blood fell out of it frighteningly fast dying the crisp white snow beneath him red.
He fell to his knees. He felt cold again.
The Jarl moved towards him to check if he was still alive and in one final act of defiance he swung his axe with the last of his strength. It missed the Jarl but it severed the chain holding his cross and it fell into the snow. Skarbjorn fell beside it.
‘No!’ Birger cried out, looking tearful. The Jarl looked at her coldly and motioned for one of the sheildbearers to hold her back.
‘I will handle the burial.’ The Jarl said, to the assembly. The priest moved over to him approvingly and bowed his head a little.
‘That is a very Christian attitude.’ He said, conveniently forgetting who killed the man. The Jarl simply shrugged as he sheathed his sword and turned to move back to the town.
‘Not really.’ He said, with his back to the body. ‘A man should bury his own son.’