Chapter One - Blood and Iron
The great heavens, so constant and unwavering in their path for hundreds of years, now began to growl and rumble in furious anger. No longer could we navigate the great expansive oceans by the glowing sparks in the night time sky. We were lost, set to wander aimlessly from island to island by All-Father, Odin, and his offspring. For when the gods bicker and scheme against one another, man will inevitably suffer the consequences of their indignation.
These were the dark times the Volva and Seidr had foretold of, the age before the last and final battle promised through the eons, the Ragnarok. Violent men led countless raids upon the lands of the frigid north. The snows melted from the great fjords and the glaciers once again receded as far back as Helheim itself. The power of the local Chieftains had all but ceased during mid-winter by the falling snows, howling winds, and deathly cold, but now winter’s grip had loosened at long last and I welcomed its departure. With summer’s return, the war bands, fierce and merciless tribes of fighting men, gained in strength and moved freely throughout the land. At land’s end, longships were eagerly readied and brothers gathered, sharpening their weapons against the stone wheel. War was not beckoning to the lands of the north, it was already there...
From the fog came a shadowy and sinister creature. It was a dark and ominous behemoth, spit forth from the bowels of Helheim; the long-necked two-headed serpent stretched high into the sky. The creature glided atop the water, searching stealthily for its prey. Bearing gleaming razor-sharp fangs for all to see, the beast appeared ready to strike at a moment’s notice; its teeth dripping with murky salt water. A silent hunter indeed, this stalker brought death and destruction to every shore it visited, for it carried upon its back the most deadly and destructive creatures this realm had ever known, the white foreigners, the death-bringers, Norsemen.
“Get the oars up. Shut your mouths. We’re getting close now,” Rurik quietly commanded from the rear prow.
The men guided their heavy oaken oars back into the longship, the wood sliding effortlessly along the rails with little or no noise. We waited patiently for Odin to send a mighty gust of wind to send us to shore. If the current and winds were against us, it could slow our advance, giving our prey ample warning and time to rouse their warriors for a sufficient defense. Halldis steadily fixed his gaze on the dark skies, keeping close watch of the weather vane atop the mast for any movement or sign of favorable winds. “My lord,” said Halldis “the winds fail us, but the tide is in our favor. We should move with haste, my lord, before the Aegir in all his power changes his mind.”
Rurik turned swiftly towards me and the men placing his hands on his hips. “Brother Halldis says it is time to attack. What say you?”
We stood to our feet and raised our weapons to the sky, “Aye!”
Rurik tugged on his long braided auburn beard. “Very well, brother. Then it is to battle and glory. Bring down the sail, oars out. Start rowing you stupid bastard sons of dogs.” The men pulled at the ropes and secured them to the decks. We whispered orders back and forth, moving silently on the ship’s deck quickly gathering our weapons: axe, spear, shield, and sword. Like a serpent skimming across the water, the ship moved through the dense fog, inching closer to its victim.
“Row quietly now. We wouldn’t want to give them early warning,” said my brother Jareth as he steadily worked his oar. Rowing no more than the length of several ships we were once again ordered to pull the oars back in as our longship drift towards the shore.
“Ready your blades men and wait for the signal,” commanded Rurik.
“No sudden movements until I give word,” Halldis quietly repeated Rurik’s' order to the men while walking between us up and down the center of the ship. Our hearts pounded, palms sweating, gripping our weapons, waiting for the proper moment to strike. The long and agonizing winter of the North had left us anxious to return to the glorious rituals of battle. Gripping a bone knife handle, my hand bounced and shook anxiously in place; the time for battle was nearly upon me. Well into manhood, this was my fifth season raiding with Rurik and his crew. I waited impatiently for Rurik’s order; stroking my dirty blonde beard and cracking my neck from side to side. The harsh and unforgiving winter months had left us fat and lazy with no one to challenge, no glory to deliver unto our Gods and our people. We craved blood at the end of an axe, silver and gold in our coffers, and this night we would have it all or dine in Valhalla.
Halldis strode to the rear prow to speak to the young ones, their first raid, merely boys no older than thirteen. “Listen here, you little shit kickers, out there is your glory, your chance to become men. If you fall behind, I will kill you. If you fall down, I will let you die. Be fearless, be menacing, and show no mercy upon your foe for they will show you none. If All-Father Odin sees fit that you shall live this day and you fight with honor, you will become one of us. Until then, you’re fucking worthless.” Halldis stepped up onto a foot locker next to the mast and clung to it with one hand. “Know this,” he said pointing towards the shore, “those sons of whores out there want you dead, to spill your guts on the beach like a pig to the slaughter, so who’s it going to be? Who’s it going to be? Some of you boys are cowards. You’re scared. I can see it in your beady little rat eyes. It’s time to become men.” Halldis spit on the deck in front of the young ones and walked back to his station. The young ones said nothing and barely moved for fear of reprisal from Halldis. The dread in their eyes was perfectly apparent. The thought of ending up impaled at the end of a spear point sent chills down their spine and the brief taste of vomit crept into their mouths as they swallowed nervously.
I turned my head and looked at Jareth standing next to me, our eyes met and we each nodded at each other, no smiles, no fear, just the bloody rage that now flowed in our veins. Jareth removed his seax that was tucked under his leather belt and made a small cut upon his arm. “Jareth, what the hell are you doing?” I asked. Jareth opened his free hand wiping the dark red blood onto his palms and smeared it across his face making a long bloody streak. I quietly chuckled seeing my brother now turned into a demon like creature. Extending my hand I said, “Lend me your blade.”
“So brother Audan, I’m not so foolish after all?” Jareth warmed at the idea of being clever. I made a small cut on my forearm, the blood dripping out like tears, one pouring through after another. Catching them into my hand I dragged my fingers straight down my face and neck, the blood still warm against my cool pale skin. The very sight of our faces must have been frightening and gruesome to even the most hardened of warriors. Jareth extended his hand; wiping the blood off the knife onto my pant leg and I happily returned his property. We drifted into a small channel lined with tall grass passing several torch lights along the shoreline. The village beach, our enemy, lay just ahead.
Standing on the front prow Rurik placed a brown leather helm upon his head and lifted his arm straight into the sky. “Get to your fighting positions, let’s go, quickly now. Rocks! Brace yourselves!” The ship came to a sudden and blaring stop on the beach head throwing most of us forward. Rurik fell to the ship’s hard wooden deck but stood up quickly, gazing at the foggy horizon for signs of resistance. Halldis stood higher at the prow, his eyes scanning the far horizon in darkness. “Halldis?” asked Rurik. Halldis took one more look at the shoreline and shook his head; there was no sign of resistance. Rurik lifted his arm once more into the sky, signaling the archers. Two dark hooded men quietly stepped forward, lifting their yew bows skyward, and drew back their strings, ready to unleash their stingers upon our awaiting victims.
“Give me fire,” Halldis commanded. A warrior quickly stood and handed him a recently lit torch. Halldis waved the fire under the arrows that were wrapped with cod liver oil soaked cloth. The arrow heads now ablaze, lit the rock covered beach below and the tree line in front of us. With the drop of Rurik’s arm the bolts of fire roared as they streaked across the sky, casting moving shadows and rained down hot iron tearing through the straw of the village hovels just beyond our sight. The signal to commence the carnage had been given.
“There they are, men! Attack! Get off the ship!” Rurik yelled as he wildly lifted his heavy bearded axe into the air. Warriors arose swiftly from their stations, shields clunking, chainmail clanking, thrusting a thunderous battle cry upwards to cut the heavens. Bodies jumped into the shallow, dismal water below, one by one, each splash was a messenger of death inching its way closer and closer to shore. Warriors filed into two lines working towards the front prow so not to drown in the deeper waters in full kit. Reaching the front prow it was my turn to take the leap; I looked down at the black murky water that lay below and without hesitation, plunged in. Like a million stabbing knives, the cold water soaked my leather armor and pierced my skin down to the bone, my lungs momentarily robbed of their breath. Tripping over a rock beneath the water’s surface, my brother in arms picked me up by the back of the neck as one would pick up a dead rabbit.
“Don’t die yet, little brother; we may have some use for you yet. Besides, if you drown, who will watch your back in Valhalla?” Jareth said. I smiled briefly, picking up my spear and moving forward to the beachhead. The water weighed down my clothes; I grunted and forcefully lifted each leg as I marched to the beach with my shield in front of me at the ready. Reaching the pebble-laden shore I shook off the water like a stray dog and removed the hair from my eyes.
“Take formation on the beach! Take formation on the beach! Shields! Shields!” shouted Mar the Lesser as he feverously repeated his orders. “Lock your shields and make ready to move forward.” Warriors knelt digging their knees into rocks, shields and spears forward at the ready awaiting the next order. We locked our shields together making a solid defensive wall. Archers formed up behind the wall of shields, quickly scanning the beach, moving our heads left to right, searching for signs of resistance. Alas, there was nothing but darkness and the outlines of small village hovels that lay ahead. The ground was frigid, hard, and unwelcoming under our feet. Muffled screams could now be heard in the distance followed by the sounds of rustling brush, but the warriors had not yet challenged us.
Mar stood next to Rurik bearing his blackened teeth. “It’s an ambush my lord. There’s no sign of the enemy and yet they must be here.”
Rurik smirked. “Of course, it’s an ambush. It’s always an ambush. Get the men forward. We take this village tonight, Odin willing.” Mar nodded and looked to the men. Rurik moved to the front of the formation with his shield forward he turned and looked back at us, “Sons of Odin, what makes the grass grow and the rivers flow?”
We replied in unison, “Blood, blood, blood!”
“And how do we get blood?”
“Kill, kill, kill!”
“You heard your Chieftain! Forward, you dogs! If our enemy does not wish to welcome us with open arms then we shall make ourselves at home,” commanded Mar. All at once, as if one man, we stood and marched forward atop the loose pebbles, increasing our speed as we got closer to the village. Dark shadows moved in the distance and as we approached, our adversaries gradually became visible, taking refuge behind a wall of earth and mud.
Swoosh, swoosh, thwack! Arrows flew invisibly in the darkness. Their deathly shriek could be heard all around us, striking shield and dirt. The villagers were prepared; perhaps they had been attacked before in previous raids. “Keep your shields up lads unless you want to eat iron stinger!” said Rurik. Chieftain Rurik ordered open ranks to break up the concentration of arrow fire. We split up and charged forward, swords and axes drawn. The tip of my ear bent forward, arrows from our archers just behind us passing by my head giving us support to move onward.
“Aaaaaaahhhh!” The piercing shriek from the first kill. Vallis the Ruddy stood up, placing his large foot firmly on the chest of his now dispatched victim. He pushed his foot deep into his victim’s cracking ribs and pulled his sword from the villagers’ motionless body. Dark blood dripped profusely from his blade. Vallis looked at his cutting edge intently as if to see if his weapon was satisfied with the meal it had feasted upon. Looking back at his Chieftain with a devilish grin, Vallis then returned his attentions forward to track down his next victim. “Valhalla awaits!” yelled Vallis as he charged forward into the darkness.
Thunk! His victory was short lived. A stray arrow pierced Vallis’s throat. He grasped his neck tightly around the arrow, desperately trying to keep the blood from rushing out of his body. The sound of blood rushing into a man’s throat, gurgling, as he fought for air was like watching a fish flop about on dry land, longing for the water. Reaching outwards for some kind of comfort from his brothers, Vallis stumbled. Quickly succumbing to his wound, he fell, like a cut tree to the earth, eyes still open as he took his final breath. Rurik, our Chieftain, looked down upon the dying Vallis and kneeled next to him. “We will meet again in Valhalla brother. Heimdallr will show you the way.” Vallis’ comrades continued to move forward under the relentless hail of arrow fire.