by Bryan Aiello
Every Viking warrior hopes for a good death, and when two feuding Jarl’s battle, many will go to that great hall to feast with the gods.
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Jarl Hjalmar stands aft. His personal longboat cuts a line through the freezing waters of the Vestrhaf. The red and white-lined sails of his older brother doom the sky behind. This was no chance encounter on the Northern Sea. His fleet of eight ships catch the wind just a bit better, his oarsmen dip their oars a bit more stout. They will catch up. There will soon be a battle and a battle is a fine thing.
As a seasoned soldier, Hillevi knows her lord would rather choose where. He has two choices. Wait for the enemy to overtake them on the water and hammer them from behind with fire or Hjalmar could pick the battlefield. If he can find one in the middle of this desolate hell of an ocean.
The air on both sides rise and seem to vibrate with heartbeats in anticipation of the coming bloodletting.
Yet no soldier wants to drown engulfed in flames.
In open water, finding a suitable place to avoid that will be difficult.
Hillevi walks midship and shouts “down!” and sixteen four-soldier teams dunk their oars. “Pull!” and they pull hard against the dark water. “Up!” and they pick their oars up and push them over, ready to do it all again in time with the deep drumming that keeping them in tune with each other.
The drumming increases with a signal from the Jarl.
Hillevi pushes her soldiers hard. Their oars battle against the water but there is no way they will be able to keep this pace until they are relieved at nightfall.
The sail flaps with the winds and the mast creaks in protest. The vessel is doing what it can.
She glances behind and knows the Jarl’s brother will catch them. She does not know what magic he uses, maybe the Gods just favor his quest with better waters.
The Jarl signals again.
The drummer raises his tempo.
The soldiers push their bodies against the labor. They would never complain. They would die at the oar rather than stop. She feels their struggle. It wasn’t long ago she was one of them, gripping the once rough, hand-smoothed wood. Her shoulders cramping at the end of her twelve-hour shift of steady momentum.
As a mere lancemark, she can only hazard a guess what the brothers Jarl’s feud is about. Maybe something stolen. A woman. An insult. It is not a soldier’s job to know the working of a lord’s mind; most likely over something small, trivial, like children these lordlings.
She does not know anything more than that there is no turning back for either of these supposed betters but to relieve the pressure with a battle.
As soldiers are wont to do, they fared better than expected over a night of going harder at the oar then Hillevi thought them capable. They went east, tacking to and fro. Ice dragged the stern and weighed the sail and was constantly being chipped free. In the morning, a tiny red spot marked a miserable orb that was ole Sól making an appearance in the sky as if embarrassed he couldn’t do more against the extreme cold.
Eventually, her platoon is relieved by the day shift. One four-person team at a time give up their oar and seat, and a bit of tired and sore sleep is had.
Hillevi stands in the bow with the day watch, tired, but sleep is a distant concern.
“Land soon, aye?” the watch questions rhetorically, looking towards the grey heavens above.
Hillevi nods, following his gaze. In the sky, she could see the swirling dance of gulls and smell the wet dog funk of seals and decomposing stink of seaweed on the air. Looking to the horizon, soon enough, she sees the miracle. From the white-tipped black water, a bit of brown land rises. She is unsurprised. Still, a whisper begins among the rowers that it’s the island of Hlesey. The very home of the Sea God himself wishing to be entertained by a slaughter and growing bored with waiting for the humans to find a place to fight.
“Ægir wants a fight.”
Hillevi nods, her exhaustion forgotten as if rubbed clean with hot water.
The Jarl’s eight boats turn as if attached to one rudder and aim for the natural harbor ending in a shallow, stony beach.
In minutes, the longboats are pulled onshore and two hundred eighty battle-hungry soldiers wait to draw blood.
Jarl Waldermar’s first order is to clear the beach with a shower of fire-tipped arrows sent from the white-tipped shoals. He is successful, but his enemy does the same for him from higher ground when his troops make landfall, but this is not the fight either side want and soon ax and sword clash hard and sparks fly.
All sixteen longboats burn brightly.
Sól rose and fell twice on the battle. An uneasy truce brought campfires and rest during the night but at daybreak, lines were reformed and the bloody combat raged on.
Two equal forces beating on each other for dominance. Chipping at one another.
One body part at a time.
One slow bleed out at a time.
Hundreds of dead bodies lay drained and mutilated on the brown rocky island. A feast for the birds and the orcas willing to risk the beach for a snatch and grab.
As the third night neared, it was unlikely another truce would be needed.
Every battle eventually ends.
Every battle needs a winner.
Still, as victory nears, Hillevi remains disciplined.
She screams, voice raspy with exhaustion, “Afterbirth, the lot of you! Tighten up!” She was a battled hardened noncom decades ago. “Rotten dog scrotums could swing a weapon better! You’re letting scum through the line!”
She is sinew and muscle and callused skin and short cropped blonde hair and steel blue eyes. She glows with brittle anger. A deep purple bruise runs through her right shoulder up her neck and down her dimpled bicep. The wound is from a crushing blow that makes moving that arm impossible for the forty-year-old female. So she stuck a shield on the end and forces it between an attacking sword.
The lack of movement in her right arm made it a good thing she learned every skill she knew with her left arm as well as she did with her right. She steps into the swing of her slab of sharpened iron, as she has been trained, as she has trained hundreds of men and women through the decades. The slash is wicked, not because she cares any more than she did the last time she swung her blade, but because she is disciplined and capable and is a leader of soldiers and is a living example.
The swing takes the left side of the attacking man’s face off. She briefly sees his tongue waggle out of the wound as it unrolls from his head. Maybe it could have been a comical effect.
Hillevi doesn’t find many things comical though.
Life is cold, hard pain leading to death.
Leading to the warm embrace of Odyn fire and the feast won by a lifetime of battle.
Her task is not just to kill but to lead, to die in combat if that’s what is needed. It won’t be.
Her attention is pulled to the left end of the formation.
Blatqnn is getting crazy. He is a giant man who would drink too much, but there is no drink on this cursed rock. He has served for over fifty years. He is twenty-five stone of flabby muscle, but in the heat of battle, he is a monstrous beast used best to stave off advance on the platoon’s left flank. His only negative is he flies into rages.
A small opposing clansman has sunk a dagger into his thigh. A blossoming flower of blood forms from the wound. He screams and in an injured rage drops his sword and shield and reaches down to grab the smaller man by the head. Even over the agiato of battle, the sound of his skull being smooshed is a loud, crisp, echoing pop.
Blatqnn forgets all discipline. He swings the man back into his brothers like a floppy twig and steps over his fallen sword and shield and disappears into the fray, screaming in pain and rage and the only tell where he might be are the screams of terror his approach causes.
His departure leaves a hole in the line and Hillevi moves to fill it.
She shoves Tik into the gap. He falls immediately with two arrows to the chest but Hillevi fills the gap again and again, finally finding a suitable replacement with Vitskertr who is too dumb to know how dangerous the job is.
Hillevi falls back to her position and works her platoon like a machine.
Being a soldier is not about being the best or killing the most, it’s about surviving to fight in the next battle and being a cog in the machine of war.
Hel is the God of Death and he loves battle. Hillevi can feel him here watching and taking his souls.
Most here will get to eat at the long table in Valhalla under Odyn’s shadow soon. Many will get to go to the Soldier’s rest. Some will be damned as cowards. But those are not her men. Her men won’t swim in the river of souls between paradise and life, the abyss reserved for those who never lived and died without a fight.
Hillevi gives Hel another soul as a fat sow somehow slips through the line and dies with her fists clenching her guts as they slither from her belly like a snake looking for its burrow. Hillevi hopes her would-be murderer finds Valhalla. She would judge that death as honorable, maybe they will share mead someday and talk about this blessed moment when she sent her to meet Odyn.
The clang of iron on shield is growing less distinct. The battle is dying out.
The ground is slick with blood.
The sky is black with souls stretching for paradise and the remnants of the smoldering ships and sails. The water is pink-tinted caps of angry froth thrown up by the ecstasy of Ægir, the old Sea God.
The air vibrates with the ecstatic screams of soldiers who know this rock is where they die. This place in the middle of nowhere. This nothing bit of land where two flags were dropped. Where two Jarls seek to dominate each other.
And the battle ends.
Iron clangs for the last time.
The last line fatigues and breaks, buckling towards the sea. It is not that they are cowards and give up because they think escape is offered. No. Men and women are mortal and mortals are limited in body. Muscle and sinew can only go so far. They are human and humans have only so much they can give before they are empty.
They are all brothers and sisters, all losers and winners in that they bleed the same color and worship the same Gods. They are brothers and sisters in that they could have shared this bit of rock and wiped seafoam from each other’s faces for all the good it would have done either side. They could have agreed to share its seals and fish. They were brothers and sisters in that now so few are left, and of the side that lost soon to be none in that, they are being driven back to the edge of a cliff. Back to the edge of a drop. Back to a fall into the sea flailing their arms where they will crash against the frigid icy waters.
They are feed now for the sharks and the orcas and the kraken.
Fighting for nothing.
Maybe this is what cursed them.
Taking away the soldier’s death
Those left to stand alone on this rock, the fifty nursing their scrapes and cuts and bloody noses, standing on this barren land watching those in the water who survived the fall floundering below, swim for the safety of the beach miles around the rocky coast, easy prey for the wicked teeth hidden beneath the waves, cursed a wicked death yet to befall them.
Above as they watch, the high from battle crashing, the fever starting to slow. A cold sweat and shiver. Pain in the joints. Behind the eyes. A sour stomach. Exhaustion.
They have wounds, those that are left. They have wounds and little water and little food.
But they live.
Today they live.
Hillevi found the Jarls dead with their hands wrapped around each other’s throats. She draped a cloak over top of them and continued to nurse her men. All, save her, take a quick turn for the worse.
The sickness grows. The fifty dwindle on the rocky ground under small tents built from the clothing of the dead. Ripped kilts and shirts and furs. Small fires burn where they can, built with driftwood and dry seaweed.
Every wound festers fast.
From fifty down to less than ten.
A smell grows. It is sweet, like meat that has gone bad.
It is everywhere.
Hillevi can’t rid her nose of it. Her arm hangs limp and swollen like a fish left on the beach; in the noon sun, it is black and her fingernails have begun to rot. She can feel the wound in the entirety of her body. Every movement. Every thought.
She wipes the brow of one of the men named Fretr, named so because he always smelled of shit, but that stopped mattering. Hillevi dips a small rag of kilt into a helm filled with warmed sea water and wipes his brow. Most of the skin on the man’s forehead comes free from his skull with the soft gesture.
He continues to moan with fever and cursing The Baleful One. “He is here. The curse. Our souls go the Gjoll to be tortured for eternity.”
“The Baleful One did not do this, Fretr,” She says this not for her soldier, but for herself, ‘A place waits you at Odyn’s table; this is the doing of weapons left to soak in the bodies of the dead. Jarl Waldermar meant to win this battle even in death.”
Fretr does not respond. His chest rises one more time then falls and he is beyond caring, already his last breath is a moment in time.
Now only nine remain.
A gull lands on the man’s thin chest, its talons sinking into the soft rotting flesh. It plucks at an eye, pulling it from the man’s head and flies off before Hillevi can even think to offer a protest.
She thinks to keep busy and clear the island of the dead, but the sickness is on her too powerful. The smell of rotting flesh has attracted birds. She tries to minister to her soldiers because she feels she should, but she is failing. And her patients are too rapidly diminishing. But not the birds. She watches them hop and fly about. The sky is filled with them. Soaring gulls and albatross. They scream into the roaring wind of the sea competing with the waves crashing into the rocky cliff.
They test her with the occasional peck to see if she is still among the living. She bats away a brave gull when over the din, she hears Blatqnn scream in pain and terror.
She stands with an exhausted grunt and limps over to a flapping fur cape erected over the berserker warrior.
She lifts the flap of his makeshift tent. His leg is propped up, purple and four times as big. He has a fever so high, he shivers constantly and sweats like he sits in a heat lodge. The single knife wound on his leg is a mess of pus. The stench is unbelievable. Any attempt to touch it yields a swing from his massive flabby arm, which Hillevi finds still has strength enough to make her ears ring if he manages contact.
He looks at her with shining eyes, as if about to warn her about something grave, but before he can get his tongue behind the words, he dies with a slow whiney fart.
Hillevi lowers the kilt tent flap and notes Brusi, the only other female soldier in the unit, limping towards the tall sea cliff. She was a woman whose beard could rival any of the men and had already lost three of her fingers to rot.
They just fell off. Like they were never a part of anything living.
Hillevi thought to yell out, to stop her, but instead she watches her take a final step off the edge.
Hellevi wonders how Hel will judge that death.
Below her fight will continue with the monster of the deep.
The salty spray strikes her like an embrace. She wipes it away with a calloused, numb hand and continues her vigil staring out into the grey expanse in front of her.
That’s what she is calling it.
It is the time of soldiers. A camp tradition. Her eyes droop and images of rotting flesh return. Memories of her the fingers of her right hand falling to the rocky floor with swollen, infectious plops. She shifts and the movement makes her arm move only so slightly and she looks into the star-filled night sky for Odyn to rut himself in the arse with his own cock.
All the drills and sword swinging and marching lead to this moment alone with Sól rising again in the Eastward sky a blaze of Red fire.
Sickness pulls at her eyelids.
She commands them to open. They do. They have no choice. She is a lancemark. She is the Jarl’s senior noncom. Her eyes hurt, but they obey. She wobbles on her feet. Pain is growth.
She stands at the edge of the abyss because death is not coming for her out of battle. She is a soldier. She will die when a foe takes her head, not by a sickness brought on by something wicked. She will stay upright because below her are hundreds of feet of sheer rock ending in white-tipped waves, below her might be a coward’s death.
She is on watch. She is on watch for her life.
She is doing a soldier’s duty because there is no one else to do it and she will not die doing it.
She tries to push the sickness away. She doesn’t have time for it. She is at war. No one said otherwise. Her eyelids droop again.
She catches them and makes herself stand rigid and hard. White hot pain shoots through her body. It eats at her mind. Black splotches take her mind.
Humans cannot go without sleep. Even the hardest of them must sleep. Either for minutes or hours or forever. Eventually, sleep finds them all.
And Hillevi is no different.
And her eyes find comforting warm fuzzy blackness and she falls.
She cuddles deep into sleep and soars into the sky and lands into the ocean with a plop.
She sails fifty feet into icy cold water.
Dead but not dead.
Not that it makes much of a difference under these circumstances.
She floats up slowly and nears the surface of the near frozen bay, her skin blue. The wind blows hard against the water, making little ripples in the surface. The sun buries itself deep within the clouds, hiding from embarrassment as it can’t do more against the cold slate sky.
A flurry of snowflakes fall uselessly on the ocean and brown rocky ground of Hlesey.
A tentacle reaches through the viscous deep and grips her hard around her solid middle. A middle that bore three children to a man that died a soldier’s death a decade ago. Children she trained to be soldiers also, who swing iron better than either of their progenitors could ever have wished they could.
Who each serve a boat doing battle for Jarls that paid much silver for their service.
It’s in that, her life mattered.
It’s in that, her death is okay.
The tentacle pulls her under. She doesn’t feel it, or the pressure as the dark depths envelop her.
She does not see the bright yellow eye quickly flinch away from an attack by a pod of orca hungry for human flesh.
Hillevi does not notice the great beasts as they fight for the remaining morsel of human flesh.
In the turmoil of frothing water two great whites peck at the kraken while the orcas rip at its tentacles before turning on the sharks.
Before long, the beasts begin to turn on each other and Hillevi’s corpse is momentarily forgotten.
None of this matters to Hillevi, whose body has spit out her soul with its last breath of air and she now finds herself on board a creaking ship with ripped black sails under a dark purple sky with a menacing red tinge filled with stars streaking in flaming brands of oranges and yellows. The boards beneath her feet are rotted with writhing termites. She sniffs the air expecting it to stink, but it doesn’t. Instead, it smells like a lightning bolt striking earth. Her skin tingles. She is not cold, or warm, or perfect; she is not, but she is.
The ship sails on a sea of black that does not move but is there beneath like thick, thick blood. Like a lake of every fluid drained from every living thing to ever walk the Earth.
Other figures stand on the boat with her. Some are old and stooped. They try and meet her eye but she avoids their gaze. They have a desperate air. A sad aura. An old woman approaches, “I was a soldier also.’ she says her voice quivering, her chin dimpling with despair. ‘I raided along the English coast. I killed dragons in the North, but Hel never came for me.”
Her eyes question Hellevi and the lancemark wishes the old lady would fold back into the gloom. A soldier’s life is worthless outside of combat, a burden. It was obvious the woman died old, a burden to her family. Cuddled warm and deep in her blankets.
Hellevi does not reassure her, instead, she looks around the ship beginning to see her own death may have been disappointing to Gods also.
Her intention was to die a warrior, a soldier and dine with Odyn.
Maybe she failed.
She moves to the bow of the ship and standing there is a figure. A tall man with a black cloak whipping about his body. His eyes glued on the horizon. He cuts an imposing figure. Obvious a leader. Obviously, one that died nobly. Hellevi joins him and sees off in the distance a mountain glowing a deep bloody red. Fire and sparks shooting from out of its caldaria.
“Helgafjell,” he says in the ancient way. He turns to look down on Hellevi and she finds herself looking into an eyeless skull. A dagger protruding from one the eye sockets. “One day my body will rot and Hel might let me cross this damned river.”
The skull’s mouth clicks with each word as the dry husk of tongue slithers like a serpent over leaves.
The thing that once was a great man turns again to stare longingly at the most holy of mountains as if looking at it will make it come to him.
Hillevi backs away and her heels find the wall of the longboat. The low banister snaps free from the boat and she feels gravity pulling on her. Her arms swing and for the first time, she notices she can actually move her right shoulder as freely as she could before the battle began, but that doesn’t save her as she falls from the rotting ship.
She plunges into the substance holding the boat aloft. At first, she thinks its blood but realizes quickly that’s just the red light thrown from Helgafjell as she bobs up and down. She cups her hands and sees a face materialize there. It is sad and moans her name before she opens her palms and lets it drop back into the endless pool of souls beneath her.
The souls swirl around her like water. They do not have a temperature. They do not have a weight. They do not have any other substance but a vague semblance to the humans that they once were.
She begins to sink. The souls grabbing at her legs and arms somehow being both immaterial and weighty all at once, wrapping themselves around her, becoming her, she becoming them. She fights. She fights as she sinks into the endless depths of dead. The dead that have been unworthy to sit at the table of the great God Odyn. The unworthy, her among them. The good soldier. The thing in her chest that once was a heart grows hot. Maybe souls can feel angry. But she is more disappointed. After all the pain and injury and death here she is sinking to the bottom of a sea of worthless souls.
The sadness and remorse weigh her down and she sinks even further. Her body dematerializing even further.
Maybe she slept. Maybe time past. Maybe decades.
Maybe time stopped having meaning.
Maybe when she heard the cry of her son calling to her, something awoke in her.
The dank, clammy darkness parts, as the souls of the unworthy seem to seep away from her and there in front of her are the golden doors to Odyn’s hall.
She finds her feet are solid once more and she can walk on the souls of the unworthy.
As she reaches the shore, she walks over a beach of skulls. Lore says they are the skulls of vanquished enemies killed in honor of Odyn. Hillevi put many heads on this beach. Her strut grows more sure as she reaches the gleaming doors.
The golden doors open for her. A blast of warm air and fragrant feast hits her, followed by the raucous sounds of mirth and celebration. The light is dim and perfect. It is cozy. Fires burn in hearths dotted around the room. Millions of chairs, if that were possible, are pulled up to a table piled high with every possible want.
The table was is strewn with food. Baked chickens and goose and ducks, and sides of beef steaming and glistening with sugars and dripping with grease. Fruits baked into pies and fresh bread steaming from the oven. Cheese, ripe and ready. Melted over this and that, served crusted and perfect. Gallons of mead. Gallons of ale and beer and wine and whisky. Weed smoke filling the air. Sweet tobacco. Sickly oriental opium. Moans of sex. Moans of satiation.
And the being at the head. The being with the great white beard and head of hair and giant golden red-glowing crown shimmering with a blue ephemeral light. His eyes, seeing her and everything all at once, knowing everything, knowing, knowing, knowing. His hand resting, bored, crackling with blue fire. Teams of hundreds of beautiful women and stout men work his giant feet, his giant shoulders. His lips pulled back into snarling laughter and in front of him a pitiful naked figure being tortured. Being dismembered. Pulled apart by jackals and with a snap of the great God’s fingers, he is together again only to be set upon again by the animals and the laughter like hail raining down.
Hillevi stops, the smile freezing on her face. The glow of being here, this place surrounded by the warriors, the best, is gone.
Her son screams in agony as the jackals pull him apart. Skin ripping. Stomach and entrails slithering free, soft parts snarled over blood pooling, the agonizing death never coming.
Odyn looks to her. His smile grows cruel. “Warrior your mother has come. The unworthy made worthy with your sacrifice. Shall we have her thank you?”
He snaps his fingers and her child is whole once again and the jackals snarling with obscene hunger, but are held back by Odyn’s magic.
Hillevi moves to her oldest child and cradles his head in her lap.
“I thought I could trade me for you.”
“No,’ she whispers, ‘you will not.” Hillevi veins fill with liquid rage. Her brain empties of all rational thought. She drops her son onto Odyn’s table and with a single step, finds footing on the great table and is at a dead sprint. She approaches the great God.
The folly of great people is perspective.
Maybe the dagger was meant for other things and not for her healthy right hand. How she found it in Valhalla only the poets will find words for. But she did and even the omnipotent one shows surprise as the sharp end sunk into the fleshy bulb he called an eye. The once blue orb was plopped out of his skull and smushed under the lancemark’s black-booted foot.
The Hall of Odyn grows quiet.
Then, with a scream of rage and pain, he shoots a bolt of blue lightning and Hillevi finds herself sliding through eons of time and finally from out of the belly of a slain great white shark onto the deck of a Great Ship flying a black flag in the middle of a horrible squall.
Hail strikes the deck, hitting her and the men surrounding her and the corpse of the giant gutted fish above her.
In the night, a giant bolt of lightning shows none of the men wear a uniform of any kind. And the ship has many masts saluting the pitch black sky.
A clap of thunder jolts everyone.
Hillevi looks down and realizes she is naked and missing her right arm.
“She was born of the great white, she was.”
“She’s a sea queen, aye?”
“Aye!” the men gathered say together, “all hail the sea bitch!”