No Matter the Cost

The longship glided across the still river waters, oars quietly propelling it along. Volkmar stood at the ship’s bow clutching his war axe tight in his hand. The wounds and bruises from the previous night’s battle were still raw and pain radiated across his body. Still, he kept his gaze on the riverbank and his mind off his injuries.

Volkmar heard Torgyr’s heavy step before the bear spoke a word, “Helmsman, Hodrik’s dead.” The Graeling spoke in a raspy and weathered voice.

“His wounds were fresh and his sword was well used. The Blood-Father will welcome him in the Halls of Glory.” Volkmar said. Torgyr raised his sword to the sky in silent prayer. “Where are we headed next?” Torgyr asked.

Volkmar frowned as he scanned the moonlit banks. The forests and stones seemed pathetic and engorged compared to the gaunt trees of his father’s jarldom. All of the South was like this; soft and fat. The land’s abundance had turned the men of the South into weak and bloated cowards. They fought with regiments, magic and machines. Even their gods were weak, with priests fawning over trinkets and relics rather than blood and runes.

“There is a walled town, Vinnaburg, at the mouth of the river. If the wind doesn’t turn against us, we’ll reach it before dawn and then butcher them all.” Volkmar said, the prospect of fresh battle giving him renewed fire in his chest. There was a silence between the two Norscans and Torgyr’s unease was palpable. Volkmar turned to look his first mate in the eye as well as see to the remains of his crew.

Haggard and bloodthirsty Northmen covered the deck of his ship. Bloodied and fur-covered reavers manned the oars or tended to wounds while a few kept watch with bows at the ready. Not a man was present without some wound or injury but all wore them with pride. However, as proud as they were, they numbered only twenty six. The town Volkmar aimed to sack was not insubstantial and boasted a garrison at least twice times his number if not more. His ship was already adorned with the glorious bounty and scars of successful raids, more than enough to return to Norsca with honor.

But Volkmar felt the call of Ulric on the wind.

“Harder and deeper bites the wolf who’s tasted his own blood.” Volkmar said, loud enough for the crew to hear it. They looked up to their leader and waited to hear what he’d say next, “We have tasted our own blood. And now we will bite harder and deeper.” He announced, fire building in his tone. The reavers looked to him while they rowed, their faces worn with the pain of raiding and fighting but still eager to hear what their helmsman would say.

“The Southmen hide behind stone walls and pray to their weak gods. They beg and whimper like worms” Volkmar continued, hatred igniting and giving him renewed energy. “We’ll show them how the gods of the North answer cowardice.” A few men raised weapons and fists to the sky.

The rowing intensified as the reavers’ appetites for glory were sharpened, each man determined to prove his bravery and strength. Only Torgyr kept his reserve.

Volkmar returned to the prow of the ship, satisfied with his men’s reaction. Torgyr approached him again.

“If we were to keep to the East bank, we’d save a day on the voyage back to Norsca. Provisions are barely enough as is. We may well run out before we reach the Graelands.” Torgyr raised his concerns.

“So?” Volkmar shot back, his disdain for the concerns brazen as his wounds.

“Volkmar…booty and glory are well and good but men can’t live on it alone.” Torgyr answered, keeping his tone even.

“The sea is full of fat merchant ships and sleeping patrols. We’ll find provision. Besides, wolves hunt better when they’re hungry.” Volkmar answered.

“It’s not the men that concern me.”

“Then what does concern you? I’ve never known you to be fearful of a battle.” Volkmar spat out, a tongue of pain licking up his ribs.

“We sail and sack for more than just ourselves. We reave for the jarldom and for the North.” Torgyr answered, anger burning through his otherwise still tone.

Volkmar was silent. Torgyr had a point. A reaver may seek glory for himself but a helmsman was measured by what he brought back to the tribe. In winter, a boat full of meat and barley was more valuable than the mightiest of trophies. They’d already been away longer than the Vikti had predicted. Was he fighting for the tribe or to prove himself a warrior?

To sail past was the safer choice. Any other helmsman would do the same and no one would think less of him. But he was son of Renrir the Skull-Taker. To make the safer choice would taint him forever as the lesser of the tribe. He could not live with such shame.

He stared at the water, moonlight sitting on its surface like a sheet of ice. His muscles ached and he could feel the cool night’s wind stinging his blood-stained bandages. His skull felt like scraped metal and a steel knot formed in his stomach.

The Blood Father only rewards the strong. He could hear his father’s voice, stern and cold as the North.

“We sail for Vinnaburg.” Volkmar said, his tone absolute, “and by axe and sword we will win or die.”