Lazy bastards, every last one of them. Lazy and unseasoned, even though their bluster would have you believe that they are the Aesir themselves, walking in the realm of Midgard.
Fools, young fools full of piss and nothing more. The old man sighs at the younger men’s latest outburst of whining. True, the sun is already beating down on them despite the early morning hour, and the unseasonable heat refuses to abate even though it is late September, but still. He remembers a time when a man’s work was a thing of pride, no matter how menial the chore or task put to him. The men of this younger generation seemed to have lost that premise, or worse, were never taught it in the first place. The old man wipes the sweat off his brow and then readjusts the leather cord holding his hair back. Both hair and beard are wet and clinging, mostly grey and white with only the slightest remnants of his youthful hazel streaked at the tips. He has been growing both for so long that it is hard to tell where his hair ends and his beard begins. Removing his hand axe from its belt loop, he turns the cutting edge skyward and uses the flat back of the head to continue hammering his stake into the ground. A dozen or so feet away one of the younger men works on his part of the palisade, but with obviously less vigor. Behind them both, another three sit on the ground circled around a sparse cook fire, their pittance of a breakfast stew slowly coming to bubble in a small pot.
“Hey, old man, you might want to slow down a bit. We don’t you need you keeling over before noon.” That came from Kjeld, the worst amongst them. His face is so young that he is unable to grow whiskers under his nose, and his beard looks like patches of hair shorn from a sheep were nailed to his face. The other lads laugh at the quip. The old man thinks he’s an arsling.
“Maybe if you got off your humps, we could get this done quicker,” he growls back.
“Relax old man, the Saxons won’t be here for days.” This from Rolf, another waste of a flesh. “Besides, they probably won’t show up at all after the thrashing they just got.”
“They had better, they owe our king plenty of hostages and cattle,” warns Kjeld.
“I hope they have nice, ripe Saxon bitches amongst them. I wouldn’t mind a hump or two!” Aslok says. The old man can’t stand his voice. It still screeches like one who had not yet had his balls drop.
“So you all get into one scrape against a bunch of farmers and dunces and think you’re entitled to our king’s plunder, is that it? Expecting many arm rings are you?”
They don’t laugh at that. “At least we won’t have to sell ours when we do get them, you crusty shit.”
They all laugh again. The man has no rebuttal, his reputation being well established amongst the army. If it wasn’t for his past service and his physical stature, he probably wouldn’t even be with the army. In truth, he probably would’ve been executed long ago. He returns his hand axe to his belt and stalks past them angrily, having to step over their weapons and shields strewn carelessly about, and picks up another sharpened stake to add to his section of the palisade. The old man just can’t understand the youths. Your weapons are your life. He wears his constantly, even when he works, and only takes them off when he sleeps. Even then, he curls his arm around them like a good woman. He had learned that lesson long ago, during the raids of his own youth. You never knew when an enemy would attack your camp while you were in his lands.
Before he turns back he spares a glance across the river, the waterway obscured by willow trees on both banks save for the bridge crossing, taking in the rise to their east. There he can see at least part of an explanation. Men, good fighting men that he has known for years, are all strewn about and lounging in the morning sun the same as these youths. Most hadn’t even bothered to bring their mail with them from the ships at Riccall. He had worn his here, the one item he allowed himself to take off while he worked. If the men of this army weren’t willing to carry their mail or put in the work that was needed, why should the youths be expected to? They had no example to work off of, no leadership to follow in this regard. A successful campaign was many things beyond the leadership in a shield wall. He tried to do his part, to adhere to his own father’s teachings and work the way he was raised to, but he was not a suitable example by any means. No one would follow the actions of a man who had tarnished his reputation such as he had. In fact, he was an example of what not to do, pointed at and used as a lesson to boys and girls back in their village, all while their parents scowled and spit at him, cursing his name.
Turning back to the west with the stake in his calloused hands the old man freezes. The youths fall silent as well. The horizon is obscured by dust, glints of light sparkling throughout it like flashes of lightning in storm clouds. Moments later, men mounted on horseback appear on the rise before them, with archers and infantry at their heels.
“Arms!” the old man bellows, dropping his stake and scooping his shield from where it lay atop his coat of mail, but the youths pay him little mind so frozen is their gaze and subsequent disbelief. He is just able to crouch and get his shield over his body, no small feat given his six and a half feet of height and girth, as a score of arrows fall amongst them. The old man does not see it, but he can hear the screams and deaths of the young men who were mocking him just minutes before. Another volley slaps into the ground around him, several arrows striking his shield, before he is able to peer over the rim. The boy who had been hammering his stake now hangs over it, an arrow protruding from his chest, another two from his back. Rolf lies lifeless, an arrow in his eye and stomach each, while Aslok writhes on the ground, blood gurgling out of his mouth in pink bubbles, his hands wrapped around the shaft of the projectile jutting from his throat. The boy gives a final, full body shudder before going still. Kjeld, wounded with two arrows through his forearm, scrambles about in a panic but knows not where to look or turn.
As the advance riders pour down the hillside towards them, no doubt members of King Godwinson’s cavalry, the old man leaps to his feet and grabs the youth by the scruff of his neck, hauling him up. The boy’s stench is overwhelming, the old man realizing the lad has shit his pants. “Get across the bridge now! Warn our Lord that the Saxons have arrived! Go!”
He says the last as he shoves the boy forward with a mighty push, Kjeld stumbling and almost falling as result. Once he sees that the boy has remained upright, the old man grabs his mail and pack and slides them over the five and a half foot ash haft of his Dane axe. Shouldering his bundle, he takes off for the bridge as well. Around him other groups of workers and lookouts try to mount a defense, but he has seen this too many times before. With their backs to the river, the enemy coming at them downhill, there is no chance to hold this side of the bank. Still, they fight something fierce, even young and inexperienced as they are, apparently enough so to give the enemy pause. As he reaches the west end of the bridge he turns back, watching the horsemen who are now joined by the infantry move about the field, cutting down those pockets of resistance that still remain. The grass bloody and the air filled with the screams of the dying, the Saxons appear to be content with consolidating their forces before pushing across the river.
The old man goes to cross the bridge, knowing full well that is where the true fight will take place but then he stops, suddenly frozen in place. A strike of consideration, no more than that, a burst of clarity erupts upon him as if the three Norns themselves were allowing him to see a glimpse of his fate. He turns back to the west, watching the Saxons gather further onto the field. The decision comes without question or hesitation. Yes, his fate was decided long ago, but he would decide how he met that fate. Upending his Dane axe and dropping his bundles to the ground, the old man next unbuckles his weapons belt. He pulls his mail over his shirt, the uncomfortable pluck of the metal rings ripping out arm hairs both familiar and comforting. Strapping his belt back on, he places his shield next to his pack before opening it and reaching inside.
He pulls the bearskin out and drapes it over his shoulders, the upper jaw of the animal he slew ages ago resting on his head. The old man had been forbidden to wear it for some time now, another consequence of his crimes, but he had carried it with him in secret on each campaign since, a reminder of what kind of a man he had once been. Donning it now brings a long forgotten sense of pride along with a swell of strength and fury. Picking up his Dane axe, he moves into the center of the roadway, the bridge just steps behind him. There he stands and waits, watching the gathering Saxon troops.
The old man feels it build up within him, the fear and anxiety that comes before battle. It mattered not how many he had fought in before, or how many more Odin would allow him to fight in after today, it was always the same. No man or woman, except maybe the insane, could go into a battle without feeling it. Not when it took being face to face with another across your shield, to feel his breath against your skin, the warmth of his blood and innards on your hands as you ran him through. Any man who said they weren’t afraid of battle was an arsling full of manure. Silently he prays, asking the Gods for favor, to look down upon him and past his transgressions as a younger man.
Tyr, look down upon me. Steady my stance and help me to hold my ground. Bestow upon me the courage you faced Fenrir with. Help me to stay their advance. Do not let me falter. I ask this of you, bravest of the Gods.
He continues his mantra, repeating it over and over, even as a Saxon on horseback rides up to within twenty five yards of the bridge, a group of six infantrymen behind him. The man sits tall and cocky, his helmet slightly askew on his head, his mail brilliant in it’s cleanliness. A nobleman, the old man guesses, possibly even a housecarl of the king’s. Judging from the look of him, his place was in the rear of formations his whole life, so perfect is his war kit. The nobleman brazenly waves him off. “Stand aside heathen. You will not stop us. Go and join the rest of your savages on the hill. We’ll kill you all soon enough.”
The old man looks back through the space in the trees where the bridge spans the river. His Lord’s men, his brothers in arms, scramble towards the high ground, racing to put themselves into some semblance of a defensive formation. The old man looks back. “Fuck off.”
He might as well have slapped the man, so shocked is his face. The Saxon actually recoils at the words as if he had been slapped. The old man smiles. He doubts the nobleman has ever been spoken to this way.
“What…what did you say to me?”
He places the base of the haft on the ground and folds his hands over the axehead, leaning on the weapon. “Go back behind the lines where you belong. The front is no place for you. Order those men behind you forward if you must, but I’ll not move on your account. You look more at home humping boys in the ass than at a battle.”
The indignation actually sparks a laugh or two from the infantrymen. The housecarl twists in his saddle and the laughs are quickly subdued. Outraged, the Saxon doesn’t know whom he should focus his fury on. He rips his sword free and kicks his heels into his mount. The horse gallops forward and quickly gains speed. It is the reaction the old man hoped to incur. The infantry move forward as well, swords and shields at the ready but the animal’s stride easily separates their lord from them. As he nears the bridge the housecarl raises his sword and screams. All at once the old man raises his Dane axe, loops it around his head to gain momentum, and then swings the head out in front of him at the full extension of his arms and the lengthy haft. The edge crashes into the horse’s head, splitting it open as easily as a log for firewood. Brains and blood shower the ground as the animal crashes, spilling the housecarl out of the saddle. The nobleman rolls down the bank into the rushing waters of the Derwent, thrashing his arms about for a moment before the weight of his armor pulls him under the current.
The infantrymen freeze in place as they watch their lord disappear. The old man bellows a cry that wakes them with a start. He rushes forward, looping his axe in a rising arch coming across his body from right to left. The lead swordsman tries to back up against the attack instead of blocking it, but stumbles as he steps into those behind him. The axehead crashes into his chest, shredding through his mail, his ribs, his life. The force of the blow sends the man into the two behind him with such strength that they all collapse to the ground. The old man swings his Dane axe back to the right, shattering the shield of a man on that side, immediately moving his weapon into a mighty chop that splits the man’s helmet and head in two. A hack of a sword catches him on his left shoulder, but he barely notices it past the thud of the blade. He spins in that direction, swinging the axe in both hands and catching the infantryman that just struck him in the knee. The blow severs the appendage clean off and the swordsman topples to the ground. The man screams as he clutches at his bloody stump, but the old man silences him with a stomp of his boot to the throat. He pushes off and steps over the body, bringing the haft up in front of his eyes so that it is parallel with the ground, just in time to stop a top down attack of the only infantryman still standing. As soon as the sword hits the wood the old man twists into the soldier, striking him across the jaw with the bottom of the haft, breaking the bone. The swordsman stumbles away from the impact, his back exposed. The old man screams a war cry as he buries the axehead in the man’s spine. As the infantryman collapses to the ground the old man pulls his weapon free and turning to the swordsmen he knocked over, dispatches them both with furious chops to their skulls as they attempt to get to their feet. All seven killed, a cry of adulation rings out from across the river as his countrymen cheer his victory, short lived though it may be. Panting and sweating profusely, the old man begins a slow walk back to his place in front of the bridge. A few of the Saxon archers send arrows towards him, but most go astray, and of the two that actually manage to get near one lodges into the railing of the bridge while the other bounces off his mail.
Across the river a frenzied horse is pulled up just short of the east side of the bridge, the man atop it familiar to him, his black hair and beard just as dark as his stallion. He is one of his king’s Chieftains, a battle lord by the name of Rognvald. “Can you hold?” he yells.
The old man looks out to where another twenty soldiers are already making their way towards him, the ones in front armed with long spears and tower shields. He turns back. “I will for as long as I am able.”
“Fight them brother. Our Lord Harald is readying the shield wall and has already dispatched messengers for Riccall. Every moment you can spare us is a moment closer to Orri arriving with mail and reinforcements. We can still win the day, but we need time.”
“Hail to the Gods, that they may grant us strength and victory.”
With that the rider speeds away and he turns his attention to the approaching Saxons, who move cautiously after seeing their initial party annihilated. Gripping the ash haft of his axe in both hands across his waist, the old man begins a ritual he has not performed in decades. Closing his eyes, he focuses inward, synchronizing his breathing with his heartbeats, delving further and further into a trance. Slowly a chill begins to build within him, and in mere moments he begins to shiver uncontrollably. The heat of the day no longer touching him, his teeth chatter from the deep cold. The chill rushes to his head where it transforms into a searing heat, his face turning progressively red until it is almost a deep purple. His eyes, fluttering behind their lids, suddenly fly open, and the sight of the enemy before him sends him into an uncontrollable rage. The old man raises his weapon to his face and chews along the haft. The approaching soldiers exchange glances with one another at his strange behavior. All at once the berserker lets out a wild howl, the animalistic scream stopping both Saxon and Viking alike.
The old man flies forward with the speed and dexterity of a man ten years his younger. The Dane axe shatters the first spear it strikes and then lands against a shield. He lays about him with furious strikes, knocking men backwards, shattering shields and mail alike. He bounces his axe off the shield of a spearman on his left and uses the reverse momentum to send it flying into the neck of a soldier on the right. A spear lances into his right side but he pulls the spearhead free and punches the edge of the axe into the face of the attacker. Another swing of his axe back to his left buries deep into a spearman’s hip. As the old man pulls the weapon free the man sinks to his knees in pain, and then is laid out by a boot kicked into his face.
Swords and maces come next, the strikes and hits landing about him, but the old man feels none, and for everyone he accepts he delivers another of deadly, visceral violence. Slowly the Saxons work him back, but they have to step over the bodies of their own dead to do so. The planks of the bridge become soaked in blood and entrails, the Saxons slipping as they step upon the boards. The nearest to the old man loses his footing, and the soldier behind him makes the mistake of reaching to help the man back up. The berserker raises his axe high above his head and chops down furiously, the blow crushing the swordsman behind the one who stumbled in the back, sending his body down on top of his friend. The old man chops again, this time into the skull of the pinned Saxon, his brains emitting a squishing sound as they are dashed from his skull. Two other swordsmen try to rush alongside the railing while he dispatches those in the lead, but the old man finishes his chop in time to send a massive swing their way. Arching from right to left his strike blasts into the Saxon closest to him, sending the soldier crashing into his compatriot on the left. The force of the hit combined with the weight of two fully armored men sends them both through the wooden railing of the bridge, toppling them into the water to be swallowed by the river. Yet another swordsman comes forward, holding his shield so high in front of him that he can only peer over the rim. The old man sends his axehead over the top of the shield rather than into it and, hooking it into the wood, pulls furiously. The swordsman stumbles forward and lays out face first. The berserker darts past him to crash his axe into those still coming onto the bridge again and again, taking another with a cut that separates a sword arm at the shoulder, before looping around and cleaving the man getting up from the floor of the bridge so hard that he nearly chops the soldier in two. He spins back again to the west with a looping arch that crashes against a shield, followed immediately with another of it’s kind that catches a maceman in the clavicle. The haft shatters with the blow, splintering in two, leaving the axehead buried in the man’s neck as he sinks to his knees. A grimace of contorted pain freezes onto his face as thin streams of blood jet out from all around the metal, pulsating in rhythm with the man’s diminishing heartbeat. When the Saxon finally falls face forward his blood collects in a pool, seeping through the spaces between the boards, forming streams that join the rushing waters below.
The old man crouches as a wolf about to pounce, snarling and gnashing his teeth. He foams at the mouth, fully immersed in his trance. In a flash his hand axe is out of its loop and clutched in a clenched fist. The rest of the infantry crowd at the west side of the bridge, reluctant to move forward. He lowers himself down, scooping up a kite shield still relatively intact. A swordsman rushes forward, taking the posture as an opportunity to strike. The old man’s arm is a flash, the hand axe a blur as it wheels over and over before smashing into the Saxon’s face. The blow emits a pink mist as the hit sends the soldier careening backwards, his heels above his head before his entire lifeless body crashes onto the planks. Cheers erupt again from the east, or at least it is the first time he hears them since entering his state. The rest of the infantry look towards the berserker and halt their advance, none wanting anymore of the fight. Already he has pulled his sword from the scabbard on his left hip, and the old man’s eyes dart from Saxon to Saxon, waiting and watching to see who will come forward next. Yet they don’t come. Again they seem content to wait, to hold the western foothold while he is closer to the center of the bridge. Time drags and as more dissipates, his fury lessens, his ability to stay in his trance lessening by the minute. Soon the berserker fury is almost gone altogether. He feels the pain of the wounds he has sustained, hears the rushing water, the calls of men on both sides.
“Enough!” calls out a commanding voice. “I have words to speak with this man.” The old man watches as another shimmering housecarl arrives, stopping his expensive steed just behind the nine infantry at the foot of the bridge, another ten soldiers coming to rest just behind the horse. The nobleman clutches a shaft in his hand, the dragon of Wessex on a banner fluttering high at the top. “My King regards you with great respect,” he says to the old man soaked in blood. “Never before has he seen such prowess in battle. He wishes to spare your life and if possible, any further bloodshed. Will you hear his terms and deliver them to your chieftain?
The old man hears the words distantly, instead of being stated just in front of him, but he is able to comprehend them nonetheless. “My King.”
The housecarl sighs. “Very well, your King. Will you convey the terms?”
The old man hesitates but given that his rage has now almost fully dissipated, he agrees to listen. “Speak your message.”
“King Godwinson wishes his brother Tostig to surrender and disband this army. Should he agree to abandon his traitorous ways, my King is willing to overlook the attempted usurpation of his throne. What’s more, he will reinstate Tostig’s earldom, and give him one third the land in the kingdom. The rest of this…band is to be spared, provided they return to their ships and sail back to Norway, never to set foot on this island again.”
“My King did not sail all this way to leave empty handed.”
The herald smirks and speaks, an edge of cockiness to his words. “He will not leave empty handed. In fact, he will not leave at all.”
The old man furrows his brow. “What kind of an offer is that?”
“Tell Tostig that in exchange for his surrender, he must deliver Hardrada to his brother. His Grace, King Godwinson, will then bestow up Harald seven feet of English soil, seeing as he is taller than most men.” The herald pauses to chuckle, amused with himself. When he is finished he continues. “Now go, take yourself up the hill and deliver my Lord’s message. I will wait here for your reply. His Grace promises that no further incursions will be made in your absence, out of admiration for the way you have fought this morning.”
The horse brays. The water gurgles and flows. Some birds chirp in the trees. Beyond that, there is silence on the bridge.
The herald grows impatient. “Well? Are you going?”
“Fuck off. I’ll not deliver anything of the kind that has my Lord King dying at the end of it. If you wish that message to go forward, try to cross this bridge and take it up the hill yourself.”
The herald’s mouth hangs open in disbelief. After a moment to gather his composure, he turns to the nearest swordsman on his left. “Push forward. Kill this old bastard and let us be on our way.”
With that the herald wheels his horse around and gallops back towards the west. “Forward!” screams the man the herald spoke to, probably a lieutenant of some sort. The nine in front from the previous party at first don’t move, but the ten newcomers press against them, forcing them onto the bridge. As they stalk forward the old man closes his eyes to pray once again, as quickly as possible.
Thor, look down upon me. Lend me your strength and power. Deliver energy and vitality into these old bones. Raise me up now, as you do Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjostr, do not wait for the morrow. Allow me to smite my enemies as easily as you do giants. Send thunder to my sword and lightning to my heart. Do not let me falter. I ask this of you, strongest of the Gods.
The first of the swordsmen rushes forward, apparently realizing he would not be allowed to retreat and that he has no other recourse but to attack. The old man’s eyes flick open. With his confiscated shield he swipes the man’s sword away in the manner one might do with a buzzing fly and drives his own blade through the soldier’s mail and into his belly. Ripping the blade left and right, he guts the Saxon before tearing the weapon out, causing most of the man’s intestines to spill onto his boots. Fresh blood and gore expunged, the berserker feels the rage well up, like the embers of a fire suddenly rekindled and given new wood to burn. With another howl he leaps into the fray, wildly slashing and laying about with his blade.
The ensuing half an hour or more is a blur of violence and death. The old man at first drives into the enemy horde, protecting his left while he thrusts and chops with his sword on the right, blows reigning down upon him as he deals his own. He feels them this time, his trance broken somewhat by the exchange with the herald, but only the heaviest of strikes landing flush against him causes pain and even then it is dull, while the glancing hits do nothing to break him from his latest kill.
And he kills. He kills time and time again, each Saxon falling before him in a crumpled, lifeless, bleeding heap. While blocking a hit directed at his head with the shield, he lances his sword through the face of a Saxon on his right, pulling the blade free as quickly and as easily as it entered the man’s skull. He steps back to avoid the forward falling body, and the rest of the infantrymen step in to fill the void. The old man drops another with a chop to the back of a soldier’s neck, the Saxon having overextended himself with the attempted strike of his axe. He duels with another, the sound of their blades clanging across the land, even louder than the screams of the combatants on the bridge. The old man knocks his enemy’s sword away and steps forward suddenly, raising his shield high and leveling the rim so that it sits parallel to the ground. He punches the shield forward, crushing the windpipe of the man with which he was just engaged. The Saxon drops his weapon and shield and clutches at his throat, trying desperately to breathe. The old man helps him over the side of the railing with a boot to his chest.
Still they come, and still they fall, one after another. His lungs burning as he heaves in air, the old man fights on. The Saxons across the bridge encourage their brethren to fight, to kill the heathen, but with each passing death they direct more and more slurs and curses at him, the entire western hillside buzzing with endless chatter and disgust as the Viking dispatches their compatriots. Conversely, with each man he falls, his own fellows erupt in loud cheers, their hillside laughing with astonished disbelief and admiration. They shout down at the Saxons, calling out endless mockery and challenging them, warning them of what will happen should they cross the river, given what just one of their number can do.
Despite all of the rallying coming from the hillside behind him, the old man begins to feel exhausted. His trance wears again, the physical toll too much to keep him in his state. When less than half their number still remains on the bridge he starts giving ground, too much ground, as the Saxons push him further and further east. Still, they approach and engage as if he is a rabid dog pushed into the corner of a hovel. At any moment he can lash out, and he does, attacking in spouts of sudden speed and violence, catching his latest victim with an expertly countered slash across the man’s neck, sawing skin and muscle down to the bone. The next Saxon in line must’ve been related, or at least close friends with the man he just killed, because he rushes forward screaming and spitting obscenities, striking with an uncontrollable rage. The blows rain down upon the old man’s shield, and all he can do is hold on, even using his sword hand to help support against the tremendous hits. His left forearm feels as though it will shatter at any moment, and the old man can no longer stand against the onslaught. The Saxon forces him to a knee and continues to hack with wild abandon. But the soldier’s rage makes him reckless, and his attacks strike only the old man’s shield, nothing more. Waiting for a pause between hits, the berserker lashes out with his sword, cutting the man behind the knees. The Saxon cries out and falls onto his back. The old man finishes him by driving the point of his kite shield through the soldier’s eye. His body shudders in death but his right leg continues to twitch.
Seeing him down on a knee, three swordsmen break and rush him along the right railing. Their faces alight with surprise when the old man springs up and sprints at them in return. The first of the three pulls up short, terrified at the rushing bear, the two behind crashing into him. A moment later the old man leaves his feet, diving forward and smashing his tattered shield into the trio. The blow sends them through the railing on the north side of bridge, and quickly to the bottom of the river. Getting up, the old man is able to wildly swing his shield back to the left, blocking a strike that finally splinters it into pieces. He follows the block with a piercing thrust into the attacking Saxon’s chest, the blade burying up to the hilt. The maceman’s face goes pale as his eyes go wide. He clutches at the hilt as he falls backward onto the bridge.
Looking to the west, the old man faces the last of the would be attackers, a short, gangly boy no more than sixteen, his mail and helmet loose fitting and too big for his thin frame. “Turn back boy,” the old man spits between gasps, his voice coming out gnarled with exhaustion, pain, and above all thirst. “You need not die here.”
The boy shakes at the site of him, his sword quivering in his hand. “They’ll kill me as a coward if I don’t fight.”
The berserker coughs out a wad of phlegm and blood. “Look about you boy. I’ll kill you if you do.”
The lad has the good sense to at least consider the dead at his feet, but his mouth then ruins it. “You go back to your lines. I’ll hold the bridge, and then this can be decided on your hill.”
The old man sighs. “You damn fool. Come on then,” he says, beckoning the boy forward. When the lad doesn’t take a step the berserker begins walking towards him. A few feet away from the boy the old man reaches behind his back, drawing his seax from his belt, yet when he brings it around his body the blood covering his hand causes it to slip from his grip. He tries desperately to grab it but the blade fumbles away, clatters to the bridge, and slips through the boards. The youth and the old man exchange a glance, and then the boy rushes forward, gritting his teeth as he plunges his sword forward for the old man’s belly.
The grizzled warrior swats the blade away with his bare hand and steps into the boy. Wrapping his grip around the lad’s neck, he lifts him into the sky and then slams him down onto the bridge, the old man landing on top of him. There on his knees he squeezes with all his remaining might. The boy thrashes and kicks, his boots hammering the boards. To his credit, the young man tries to reach for a nearby weapon, and almost does get his hand on an axe. The old man watches the progress, but before the boy can grab the weapon, the berserker digs his thumbs into the lad’s eyes and gouges them out. The Saxon screams in undeniable pain, a strangled cry that barely escapes. The old man cuts it off completely.
The field is silent yet again. Slowly, ever so slowly, he climbs off of the boy and begins to crawl on all fours towards the west, the tattered remnants of the shield still hanging on his arm clacking against the bridge. Hoof beats of a furiously galloping horse ring out somewhere in the distance. Searching quickly, his right hand moves forward, falling onto a mace. He never cared for this type of weapon, but it is better than no weapon at all. The old man grabs the mace and places the head against the boards, using it to push himself up. When the old man looks around he sees that he has been pushed two thirds of the way across the bridge. He stumbles, exhausted, coming to rest and steady himself against a section of the left railing. Somewhere he hears the hoof beats drawing closer.
The old man takes stock of himself. He is coated in the blood of his enemies. His mail hangs in tatters, the links split, broken, and torn open in at least a dozen places. A massive tear runs from the center of his belly down to his left hip. The old man can see that the blood there is his own, and it is still flowing, deeply purple and coming forth steadily. At some point in all the fighting his bearskin came off. He searches around and seeing it pinned under a nearby Saxon, he stumbles towards it. The berserker reaches up to his left shoulder, where two links strain to hold together. His strong grip twists and breaks them and the entire coat drops to the bridge. He rips his torn shirt away with his left hand and stuffs it into the massive gash in his side. The searing pain alerts him not only to that wound, but all of the wounds he has sustained. Breathing hard against it, trying desperately to push it down, the old man reaches and pulls his bearskin out from under the dead Saxon. As he stands he hears the hoof beats close now, but they come not from the west but from the east behind him. He turns and sees something entirely unexpected.
Riding atop a brown and white spotted horse, dressed in the finest mail, his arms glittering with rings of gold and silver, sits his King, Harald Hardrada. Powerful and tall, he is an imposing sight, his hair and beard long and light in color, streaks of strawberry red mixing with his overall blonde. He climbs down and ties off his horse to the railing, and then removes a sack and a Dane axe from his saddle. The old man stumbles forward, meeting him at the foot of the eastern side of the bridge.
“Forgive me, my Lord, but I’m afraid if I kneel, I won’t be able to get back up.” He says this last with a chuckle.
Hardrada claps him on his shoulder and looks him in the eye. “Today, old friend, you kneel for no one.” The King leans the Dane axe against the railing and opens the sack, pulling out a tankard and bladder. He pours until the tankard overflows and hands it over. The old man drinks ferociously, grateful for the quenching ale. When he is done, the King takes the cup and refills it. The old man drinks again. When he has finished, he speaks.
“Thank you Lord, it is most generous, especially to be brought by you yourself.”
“My thanks are with you friend. You have given us a chance at victory. See for yourself.”
The old man looks over Hardrada’s shoulder. High atop the hill, a shield walls sits formed and ready to meet the enemy. He looks back at the king. “Has Orri arrived yet?”
“No, not yet, but he will.” This time it is the king’s turn to look over his shoulder. “I believe the Gods are with you my friend. Can you hold, even for just a bit more?”
Tears well up in the old man’s eyes. “I can, and I will, my Lord. All I have ever wanted was to serve you. Even after…even after I…” He bows his head to hide his shame.
Hardrada claps him on his shoulder again. “My old friend, all has been forgiven, long before this day. Even if it had not been, what you have accomplished here would have erased your transgressions. Your honor is restored, your reputation is intact, but more so than this. I swear to you, should I live to see another sunrise, your name will be echoed that day and every sunrise thereafter. Your name will live on forever, I promise you this.” With a wave of his hand the shieldwall erupts in a chant, screaming the old man’s name out in unison, over and over, raising their weapons high in salute each time they utter it.
The old man looks up. A single tear drops from his eye, streaking clean through the blood and grime on his face. “Thank you, my King” he whispers.
Hardrada smiles slightly and looks past him again. He turns and scoops up the Dane axe. Taking the tankard, he hands over the weapon. The old man accepts it, the ash haft familiar and comforting. “They are coming. Fight well my friend, and farewell.”
“Farewell my King.”
Hardrada turns and mounts his horse, galloping away as furiously as he arrived. The old man watches him go until he is obscured by the willow trees. Slowly, agonizing in the movements, he drapes the bearskin over his head and naked torso. Turning to the west, he watches as a group of twenty spearmen approach, their shields clutched tightly to their chests. The old man lifts his head to the sky and closes his eyes, praying one final time.
Odin, Allfather, look down upon me. Forgive me for my slights against you, the Gods, and my fellows. Allow me to die well. Let your valkyries carry me to Asgard. Let me earn my place in Valhalla and sit at your table as one of your Einherjar. Accept me. I ask this of you, Father of the Gods.
The old man opens his eyes, the spearmen at the other end of the bridge before him. He takes a step, hefting his axe into both hands, the movements tremendous in their exertion. With each repeat of his name he finds the strength to move forward. He steps again, and again, a slow procession in rhythm with the chant. The spearmen come towards the center of the bridge, matching his pace. Heavy, he steps with his right foot, and then there is a scrape on the wood and a jabbing pain into his groin. The old man looks down, seeing a spear shaft jutting up from underneath the bridge between two boards. The spearhead has severed his left testicle and sits lodged in his leg, blood running over the metal.
“What trickery is this?” the old man screams with rage. “What dishonor!” He grasps the shaft and pulls the spearhead free from his groin, his lifeforce cascading out of the massive wound. The old man wrestles the spear against the planks and snaps the shaft in half. A yelp sounds out from below the bridge. Looking to the south the old man sees yet another splendid housecarl floating in a swill tub emerge from under the bridge with the current. He rushes to the railing. “Spawn of Loki, take your trick back to him!”
The old man hurls the spear fragment, the head flying like a dart into the chest of the housecarl, who tips over into the water with the strike. The barrel quickly fills and sinks, dragging the Saxon down. His body growing cold, his eyes becoming hazy, the old man scoops up his Dane axe and bellows one final time, “Odin, I come!”
As his name resounds behind him he charges forward, swinging for as long as he can, felling one, then another, as the spears lance and pierce, gouge and impale. He sinks to his knees as the strikes continue into his body, blood spurting from his mouth. The old man’s vision goes dark. At the Well of Urd, nestled under a root of Yggdrasill that curls into Asgard, the Norn who shares her name with the well weaves the old man into his destiny.