Sunday, May 31, 2015

Chooser of the Slain - Part 4

Chapter 3

"I am the Harvest Mother's priestess, and you will pay for this sacrilege," the woman spat at Ragnorvald and all the men near him.

Eirik, Agnar and Skarpi had joined them. Eirik had stuck his fat head through the door to the hall and nearly had it cut off by some old thrall with a fire-axe. Clumsy and stupid most of the time, Eirik was quick to react during a fight. He'd moved quick enough for her to sink the blade into the door instead of him and immediately clouted her in the head with back of his own axe, dropping her like a sack of potatoes.

The freehold was one large room with a fire-pit in the middle and a wide capped hole in the roof to let the smoke out (and the cap, like a round table with legs set around the hole, kept much of the rain out as well).

The roof-pillars were all carved and the walls, which would normally be decked with old shields, weapons, banners and runes left by the skalds, was covered in cleaned and tanned lengths of hide with paintings of the Harvest Mother, her crops, sheltering the young, healing the sick, planting the dead who followed her (instead a respectable pyre to help send the spirit of the dead off to the Raven King's hall as any warrior would want).

At the back of the hall a large crowd was gathered around an ancient carving of a sitting woman, hugely pregnant with gigantic breasts and hair coiled around her that piled on the floor and hid her feet. A child suckled at her teat and she held what was probably meant to be a sheaf of wheat. Eirik backed slowly out of the hall.


Gisli was covered in shit. It wasn't the first time. He'd grown up with sheep and a cow in the single room of his family's hut at night. He rubbed the head of a sheep that was just waking. The entire flock was beginning to mill about in a nervous circle, but all the screaming, barking and shouting had died down.

He jumped over the small fence that penned in the sheep and made his way to the front of the freeholding's hall with an axe in one hand and a large knife in the other. He could throw either and most times cripple or kill the one he aimed at. Everything seemed quite but the middle of a raid was no time to get careless.

Someone had lit a torch, then another at the entrance to the hall. He could see Sven backing away from something and rubbing his hands across his face. Ragnorvald was yelling. Agnar was there and Asbjorn was holding something up to Eystein who suddenly doubled over and spewed last night's supper on his boots.

Eirik appeared backing out of the door to the hall. He turned and began screaming at Ragnorvald. Gisli paused to watch what was becoming an entertaining pantomime. He shifted his view to his right as Thorkel and Hrafnkel came trundling toward the hall. A figure was moving to the far right. For a moment he didn't recognize him. Ring looked like he'd had someone dump a bucket of blood over his head.

Where, Gisli wondered, were Aelfdan and Glum?


"Aelfdan," came a whisper from below him, "It's gone quiet."

"Shut-up," Aelfdan hissed back.

"It's gone quiet and where is everyone!" Glum said in a louder voice.

"I told you, shut-up," Aelfdan said again, his own voice even louder than Glum's."

"To the ice with you!" Glum yelled and ducked down so that Aelfdan tumbled from his shoulders.

Aelfdan felt his perch give way and rolled, cradling his longbow as he did. He jumped to his feet and reached for an arrow. Glum' s back was a wide easy target as the man marched around the curve of the wall heading for the gate. Aelfdan had his arrow fitted and aimed with his arm drawing back, but it wavered and slowly he let the tension of the bowstring pull his arm back without releasing the deadly shaft. With a shrug of his shoulders Aelfdan marched after Glum but kept a distance between them till his temper cooled.

They would have words, but later.


"This is a temple-farm," Eirik exclaimed as he turned to face Ragnorvald. He pointed a finger at the two women still lying on the ground. "Those are priestesses!" his voice rose and broke. "What have you done?" he had more than a look of mortal fear on his face as he shouted at Ragnorvald.

"You northmen," Ragnorvald shook his own head.

"You cursed eastlander, " Sven's voice was flat with shock.

"This is a wealthy farm, as I told you," Ragnorvald replied to his underling, "The men rode and marched out of here a day ago; A ripe piece of fruit."

"You've cursed us!" Eirik shouted.

"Do you think the Raven King or the Thunderer would care?" Ragnorvald asked them. "About a bunch of farmers?"

"She is a priestess!" Eirik was looking at the dead and wounded scattered about the doors to the hall. "Is that one dead?" he pointed to the bowwoman Sven had knocked out with the end of his appropriated spear.

Ragnorvald nudged the woman's body with the tip of his boot. She stirred and moaned, but didn't wake.

Eirik gave a scream and rushed at him. The rage had mostly drained away from Ragnorvald leaving a throbbing pain in his head and a numb tingling through most of his body. He was still quick enough to thump Eirik across his temple with a blow strong enough that it twisted the man's head halfway round and left him on his back gulping in shallow breaths.

"There now," laughed Ragnorvald, "you can keep her company."

"You bastard," Sven mutterd.

The big man was still red as a beat and breathing like an angry bull. Ragnorvald eyed him with much more caution than he would ever have given the clumsy pup he'd just knocked out.

"Sven, how many farmers have we killed? How many holds have we raided?" Ragnorvald yelled back at the man. "Don't get squeamish on me now. So this is a temple-farm. We fought them fair and they lost. You can plant them if you like. Plant some warrior seed in the thralls. Your Harvest Mother likes babies doesn't she?"

"She will curse your seed, your manhood!" growled the older priestess. The younger one just glared at Ragnorvald, but sent looks toward her unconscious sister-priestess but still too wary to go to her.

"Priestess... in the eastland we have no priests or priestesses..." Ragnorvald spread his arms and pointed vaguely toward the east as he spoke.

"She is a priestess here, eastlander," Sven growled.

Ragnorvald turned his head. He took in the looks of his men. All were northerners and all had a nervous mien, except for Ring whose white eyes almost glowed behind the mask of drying blood he wore.

"Hey Ring," Ragnorvald called to him, "What say you? Looks like you've sacrificed enough to appease any Goddess tonight."

Ring laughed, "That I have. The Fox's children nearly had me. I've paid for whatever I take here!" he caught sight of the priestess. "But not her. Not them. The Harvest Mother has marked them and they aren't for me."

"Nor for me," said the quiet Asbjorn. "I will honor the Harvest Mother's priestess but the Fox tells me that I may take what else I like."

Many of the outlaws followed the Fox, the Raven King's bastard child. He helped thieves and tricksters, fools, madmen, and murderers. There was no Hall for those who followed him. No glorious life of battle beyond this one, but one could be reborn, sometimes as an animal, sometimes as a man with the spirit of an animal inside of him. But each new life lead to madness till one day you joined the legion of dark spirits that the Fox had at his command.

"I don't know what that will get you," Ragnorvald shook his head, "but these three we will lock in the barn with the children. I am sure there are enough thrall maidens and slaves in the hall to keep us warm today."

"You will not...!" the priestess began to shout but Ragnorvald thumped her stomach with the flat of his boot spilling the air from her lungs. The younger priestess gasped and Ragnorvald eyed her with regret. He followed the Raven King as his own people had taught him. He never broke his word whatever the cost to himself. But this craven abasement toward a Goddess that was honored by sacrifices of cakes and grain made him wonder about the strength and nerve of those who followed him. Even the older priestess had a noble bearing and an iron spirit which promised much if he took her for a slave or bargained a thralldom out of her.

"We have no slaves!" the younger priestess shouted at him before Ragnorvald could turn his back on her. "And the thralls have come here to honor the Harvest Mother. They pay her with their service."

"A thrall is a thrall," Ragnorvald regretted even more the wrestling it would have taken to have this maid now that he saw the spark of her own fire. "The Raven King wants men, and women, who do not bow their heads or turn their backs in battle. What happens to those who deny him is none of his concern. You raised that bow for your Goddess, you should have raised it for the Raven King if you wanted to die a warrior's death. Bah!" he laughed at her. "Wasted breath. Sven, Asbjorn, hey Thorkel, you three take them to the barn and tie them to a post. These three will gnaw through any ropes, so keep their hands away from their teeth. And keep them separate from each other. I don't know what witchery they and their Goddess can concoct, but make sure to gag them."


"That was quite a show," Gisli spoke loudly to the others as he made his way to the entrance of the hold.

"You smell like shit," Eystein told him as he approached.

Gisli shrugged his head.

"Ha!" Ragnorvald laughed at the mired man. "Where have you been?"

"Fighting some sheep," he said matter-of-factly.

"Screwing some sheep it looks like," laughed Ring.

"There better be more than sheep here," said Gisli looking toward the three women being led and carried toward the barn.

"Inside," said Ragnorvald, "I have no doubt."

"Hey, where's Skarpi?" Gisli eyed the gathering of the raiders.

"Over here," Skarpi was leaning up against the wall of the hold beyond the torchlight.

"What happened to you?" asked Gisli as he made his way to the torch-lit doors.

"Those little priestesses aren't shy with the bow," he told Gisli. Skarpi had his armor off and his shirt padded under his left arm. "I'm getting cold out here. Let us find some thrall maids, and maybe a cloak I can steal."

"Yes, let's find something to steal, and maybe a water barrel where I can wash some of this sheep off me." Gisli reached down and with a slow pull helped Skarpi to his feet.


"I'm staying here," said Sven, "Outside the barn."

"Don't you trust yourself in there with them," Ragnorvald said in a mocking tone.

Sven glared for a moment but then answered in an even voice, "I don't trust the Fox God's men to keep their word. He is the father of lies."

"Fine. I'm putting Aelfdan and Ring on the rooftops," Ragnorvald told him. "Since you don't trust the Fox's boys I'll have Aelfdan on the barn. He worships that bow of his. Ring, once he has washed off some of that blood will be up on the hall roof."

"That is a temple," Sven reminded him.

"Temples," Ragnorvald shook his head then slapped Sven on the chest, "your heart is the only temple that the Raven King cares about."

"So you say," Sven said seriously, "There are more Gods than the Raven King."

"He is the one that matters," Ragnorvald said over his shoulder as he left the big man standing stiffly in the cold night air against the door to the barn.

Ragnorvald had seen what he needed when they opened the doors. Oxen, milk cows, two wagons they could use to haul away what they looted from the hold. Temple-farm, he corrected himself.


Inside the hall the shouts and screams had died down. The old and the children had been weeded out. They took the children to the barn to spend the rest of the night and probably most of the next day with the priestesses for company. Sven had removed their gags, and they'd cursed him as soon as their mouths were free, but even he wouldn't free them from their bonds.

"There are three or four toothsome thralls in the lot," Ring told Ragnorvald when he entered the hall. He had washed most of the blood from himself and wore a shirt too big but warm and clean. His leather shirt was gouged and heavily stained and would probably remain so till Ring could replace it.

"You've tried them all I take it," smiled Ragnorvald.

"One, one and a half," Ring laughed back. "Those dogs wore me out more than the thrall maids. I did take the best of those Harvest Mother's women's bows and they had whistling fire arrows aplenty."

"Good," said Ragnorvald. "Take them to the roof. Bury yourself under some furs but keep an eye out."

"Still some time before dawn," Ring grimaced. "I'm not going to see much further than the yard in this light."

"Do what you can. Use your ears, but even a little warning is better than having everyone caught with their pants down." Ragnorvald told him and clapped Ring on the shoulder.

He nodded and shouted for Hrafnkel to pull up his pants and bring him some furs before departing for the ladder they'd taken from the barn and then the perch on top of the temple-hall, bow and quiver over his shoulder.

Ragnorvald made his way further into the hall past several grunting fur piles. Gisli was stripped naked, watching as an old thrall woman scrubbed at his clothing and another worked over his armor. Skarpi was nearby leaning against a wall with a leather tankard beside him. He was doing his own work with knife and huge steel needle to fix the cut strap of his own armor. Two thralls tended a fire where the smell of roasting mutton made Ragnorvald's mouth water as he approached.

"They're cooking Gisli's sheep-girl," Skarpi smiled grayly but his crushed arm and chest wound made his work both slow and painful.

Gisli made a rude gesture at the wounded man then padded over to the fire and grabbed a knife. He cut a hunk of meat from where it snapped and burned and carefully bit at it then spit out his mouthful and snatched a bowl from the top of a wide barrel.

"You are going to burn more than your mouth if you aren't careful around that fire," Ragnorvald warned him.

 Gisli took another bite of the hot mutton and a quick gulp of whatever was in the bowl before trying to talk with his mouth full. Ragnorvald left him happily wolfing down his fatty, blackened meal and made his way to the back of the hall.

The statue of the Harvest Mother eyed him with wooden disdain. Ragnorvald felt nothing. He could take his axe and chop the old wood to kindling and he'd feel nothing. Sven was fearless, a wildman in battle, but one look at this tree-stump and he's knees weakened. Ragnorvald would never understand.

His people lived far to the east but were still kin with these northerners, even their language was almost the same, but this burden of priests and temples, and the many Gods they worshipped made his head hurt. There was the Raven King, the Allfather, and his children. This Harvest Mother was something dragged in from some other people that the northerners fought and traded with, some land of song-smiths and wizards who lived along the black ice where the sun barely shone. Maybe if he'd ever taken to the sea he would call out to the Thunderer to guide his path and keep the ocean calm, but he was no sea-king and the Raven King was enough God for him; Ragnorvald needed no other.

Well, his people were gone. Plenty of eastlanders left but his tribe had ventured south and come against the people of the Empire. The fighting had taken them all and the slavers come to raid the tents of the young and the women had found that they had a tiger by the tail. Only Ragnorvald had survived.

Behind him Eystein came limping up. The wound to his leg had been bound, but it still bled slowly.

"Come to pay respect to the Harvest Mother," Eystein asked him, but it wasn't a question.

Ragnorvald snorted.

"I was brought up too close to the Southrons. The old tales weren't real for me though we left our offerings at harvest like the others and hung the gifts for the Allfather on the year's last day," said Eystein, but still he looked up at the carven statue with respect and perhaps a little fear.


Copyright March 2014 By Jason Zavoda

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Chooser of the Slain - Part 3

Chapter 2

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

Chooser of the Slain - Part 2

Chapter 1

The air was colder than the breath of the dead and the sky was black. What sliver of moon raised itself was hidden deep behind clouds that promised an early winter. Ragnorvald stood near to Big Sven who wasn't so much taller than him, just broad and round as a barrel about the chest. He could look Big Sven in the eye and even stare the man down for all that both were berserkers at heart. It was just that Sven recognized not only a kindred curse or blessing of the Raven King, as one might look at it, but a little something more, some sense of cunning and direction and even a greater wildness that Ragnorvald possessed but Sven did not.

"Cold as a hag's teat," muttered Skarpi who had come up beside the pair.

"Like you'd know the feel of a teat," Gisli, who had approached as well, said, and wacked the smaller, younger man on the head.

Skarpi was small, but mean and a vicious, wily fighter. Gisli was a tall, thin man with broad shoulders and wiry muscles that belied his size. Though not as strong as Big Sven or Ragnorvald nor a berserker as either, he was powerful with axe or spear and could cut through shield and arm with a blow well-landed.

The nine other men of Ragnorvald's small company joined them in a cluster of half-frozen breath and a patter of hands beating warmth and feeling back into their icy fingers.

"Keep it quiet," Ragnorvald hissed at the rising murmur as his men talked among themselves or simply cursed the chill of the night.

The hills where Ragnorvald's band of outlaws laired had come to an end and the forest as well. Cleared and cropped land spread before them and in the near distance a small hold with a palisade of tree boles, bark still on, ringed the main hall and outbuildings. They could smell the fire in the hall even if the night was too dark to see the plume of rising smoke that hovered above it like a crow-maiden of the Raven King floating above a battlefield. A dog barked, no friend to outlaws, and made several men clutch their weapons more firmly.

"Gisli," Ragnorvald said quietly, "you, Aelfdan and Ring will have to silence those dogs. Take three with you. You can stand on their backs to get over that wall."

The tall man was the best with thrown axe while Aelfdan and Ring were the only two who could use a bow with any skill. The bow was more of a Southron weapon and despised by the warriors of the north. Ragnorvald and other outlaws like himself were less fastidious in their codes of honor and the bandit leader would be the first to admit that the ranged weapon had its uses, though it was no weapon with which he'd found any skill in himself.

With a nod Gisli acknowledged his chief's order, tapped his two bowmen and each chose a nearby man to accompany them. Adding another outlaw to follow as his own ladder the six men soon began a crouched loping run across the fields to the hold. As they neared the palisade they split apart, each approaching from a different direction.

They would need to find the dogs and any watchers set on guard for the night. Some holds simply let out a pack of hounds on cold nights while those who should guard slept near the nightfire or wrapped themselves in furs or blankets or the arms and legs of some wench to keep warm.

Ragnorvald and his remaining men began to trot forward leaving the trees behind and moving across the rough fields filled with the stubble of the recent harvest. Eirik, always a clumsy bastard, slipped as his foot came down on a hard ridge of dirt and fell against Agnar. Both cursed, but Eystein slapped the two of them, one then another, on the back of the head to shut them up. The slaps sounded louder than the men's words but Ragnorvald would reward Eystein later for keeping the unruly pair disciplined even if it caused a stir among the hold's defenders human or canine.

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Copyright March 2014 By Jason Zavoda

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Chooser of the Slain - Part 1

Chooser of the Slain

By Jason Zavoda

Copyright Jason Zavoda March 2014


         Ragnorvald crawled to an old stump at the edge of the clearing and rested his back high against the cold bark. The wound in his stomach kept him from even trying to sit. When he tried to stand he passed out, he didn't know for how long, and the blood and pain seemed worse. He should have died already like the rest of his men; like everyone else. Looking across the clearing he could see nothing moving but crows picking at the bodies through the blanket of snow that covered them.

         Snow, when had the snow started falling? It had been a cold day and the sky was grey as it always was this time of year, but he'd seen no snow this side of the year's last day; Bad luck to be out in the first snowfall. Ragnorvald laughed and coughed till he spat out a mouthful of blood congealed to the size and texture of an egg-yolk. He took a handful of clean snow and melted it in his mouth, spat that out in a pink spray then took another fistful and rubbed it in his face to clear his eyes.

         At the edge of the field of his vision he saw movement. First it seemed to be a flock of crows come to settle upon the ground, before their feast, all bunched together. Then the blackness of the wings became grey and somehow more solid and he saw the dark cloak of a traveler and a broad-brimmed hat white with snow. It was a greybeard trudging up the southern road. A tall man, slightly bent, with a staff in one hand and a pack on his shoulder, but Ragnorvald noted the breadth of those shoulders and the strong arm holding the staff and a belted sword at the traveler's belt. A skald perhaps, this one did not have the look of a merchant with a pack full of spice and steel needles for trade.

         As the man approached, Ragnorvald shifted, though the pain brought the crows circling in across his vision, their wings blacking out the edges of his sight till he almost fainted, but not quite. He freed his own axe and laid the naked blade across his lap. He laughed again thinking that an ancient skald or a child could end him now, as weak as he was, but a surge of anger at the thought of such a fate nearly brought him to his feet. Pain and common sense prevailed. Ragnorvald waited for the old man to approach and would fight him lying down if needs must.

         "A tale is here," said the old man as he approached, "written in blood."

         "A crow's dinner," answered Ragnorvald.

         "You are the only man to tell it," the greybeard looked at the few dozen snow-covered, crow-pecked forms. "Good looting here."

         "Take what you will, skald," Ragnorvald snapped. "It is of no use to me."

         "Tell me your tale first, warrior, and then I will take what I like."

         Ragnorvald laughed again and winced with pain. The thought of the old skald picking through the slaughterhouse of the battlefield amused him. "You will get your finger's bloody, old man."

         "Tell me your tale," he insisted.

         "Ha, it will make no name for me to be told by skalds. You would be better looking for some gold among the dead," Ragnorvald gestured to the clearing.

         "Tell me your tale."

         At first Ragnorvald was annoyed at the insistence of the old skald, but then he thought that there would be little profit for the old word-thief in his story. Who would want to hear about an outlaw and bandit like himself. He was no hero of the sagas.

         "Get me some water first, old man," Ragnorvald demanded, "then I will tell you my tale."

         "I have known thirst myself, warrior," the greybeard said and reached within his robe. "You have need of a drop to loosen your tongue." He held a small leather bottle in his hand and passed it to Ragnorvald.

         The bottle was surprisingly heavy and when Ragnorvald opened it the smell was heady and sweet. "Mead," he said, surprised, but when he tasted the liquid it burned like fire and cleared the cobwebs from his eyes. The day seemed lighter as if the sun had fought its way through the thick grey clouds and there was a richness in everything around him that he had not noticed before.

         The greybeard plucked the bottle from Ragnorvald's hand with surprising quickness, recapped and hid it once more within his cloak.

         "That is powerful drink you have there, skald," Ragnorvald told him, "I have never tasted its like."

         "It is a rare brew, warrior. I hope it does you well."

         "You will have my tale, skald," Ragnorvald smacked his lips and ran his tongue across his teeth to gather in the last memory of a taste. "It was only a day ago that I picked a dozen of my men and crossed the hills into the Jarl's lands. They were the most troublesome of my band and they needed a little blood, rape and loot to settle them for the bad weather I knew was coming..."

Ragnorvald began his story and let his mind wander to the day before. He could feel the cold darkness of the night and sense the men around him as they approached the fenced village. The skald and the clearing faded and he was there, the leather-wrapped about the handle of his axe stiff beneath his hand, the breathing of his men beside him. He was himself again, whole and strong, and his death-wounded self was less than a dream as he told his tale.

(If you are enjoying this story please consider purchasing it on kindle

Or sending a gift to through paypal

Comments here or on Amazon Kindle would be greatly appreciated)

Copyright March 2014 By Jason Zavoda