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.”

Departure

He waits in the airport bar, sipping on neat whiskey and watching the seconds tick by on his watch. The small carry-on at his feet holds nothing more than a single change of clothes. Through the window, he can see the mountains in the distance, enticing him to stay.

He clings to his memories of the night before the way one clings to covers on a cold morning, fearful of letting them slip even for a second. A day of wandering, countless jokes and affirmations of love. Was it just the alcohol that brought all these feelings up? Or were they genuine?

Inside he’s awash with feeling but to the world, he betrays nothing.

The chaos inside him ranges from happiness to fear. Was he too much? Had he been overbearing? Was it all real? What could he have done better? The anxiety grips him as he replays countless alternatives and different phrases. What had he done to deserve such pure love? How could he ever hope to repay such generosity? He dampens his turmoil with another sip of bourbon.

Time passes and the patrons at his sides come and go. None of them look at him. To the world, he is just another traveler. Inside his jacket is the ticket that will take him back to his city, to his apartment, to his life.

But in the opposite pocket, the one closest to his heart, are memories frozen in time. He smiles to himself, feeling warmer just knowing they are there. He spent the morning carefully studying them, stepping back into the precise moment they were taken. He doesn’t focus on himself but rather on the others. Their care-free smiles and silly faces, brimming with happiness and playful love are all he can think about.

The artificial voice announces the moment of departure and he leaves his drink alone at the bar. The walk to the door is quiet as he secretly prays for some miracle to delay him. He takes his uncomfortable and stiff seat while coming to terms with the fact that his hiatus in color is coming to a close. Within a few short hours, the mountains will slip away beyond the horizon and the squat gray architecture will return to dominate his world.

He slips a hand into his jacket pocket and touches the relics of happiness. Two small rolls of photos, four pictures each. He closes his eyes and smiles.

Outsider

Kirill trotted along the column, the spring sun burning hot and baking the procession. For miles, the Tsarina’s courtiers and retinues marched through the Crimean countryside, resplendent in their parade uniforms and garb despite the heat. Thousands of pages, servants, the Tsarina’s attendants and companies of the Imperial Guard, some mounted and others on foot, all marching behind the Mother of the Nation.

Zoya snorted impatiently and kicked the ground. “Shhh. Shhh dear.” Kirill whispered as he pet his mount. A strong Don breed, Zoya was born to run for miles not trot in formations. He pet her again and adjusted his sabre.

The fields of grass and dirt patches stretched out as far as the eye could see. The sky was cloudless and a sun-bleached blue. The sound of a thousand marching feet filled the air and a light gust of wind wisped over Kirill’s face. The weight of his carbine was discomforting on his shoulder. He hated the lump of wood and metal. Try as he might, he was a middling marksman on the best of days. He preferred the lance and sabre, the way his father and grandfather had fought. To add to the discomfort, his uniform was constricting and hot. But the court had taken a fancy to Kirill’s company and loved the romantic image of the rugged and exotic Cossacks riding in full regalia under the Imperial colors.

Colonel Milyukov rode up alongside Kirill, his face locked in its perpetual frown.

“Lieutenant Yashin!” the colonel exclaimed, his St. Petersburg accent thick as molasses, “Order your men to reform your riders closer to the procession. We mustn’t let any brigands near her majesty.” Kirill saluted and the colonel rode off to the head of the line.

A fool choice, Kirill thought to himself. His Cossacks would be better served on the wings, scouting for threats and provisions rather than tucked in with no space to ride. Worse still the column was loud and made foolish errors, marching against the terrain. Too little ground covered and their presence was announced miles before they arrived. This may have served well for introducing the peasants and serfs to their new empress but made Kirill squirm with discomfort.

But what was he to do? Colonel Milyukov was of the Preobrazhensky Guards and one of the personal nobles in charge of the security of her majesty. An old silver-haired crow of a man, he had spent far too much time in the parade grounds with European-trained musketeers. Always fussing over uniforms and the cadence of marches, he could usually be found stomping about the army camps, inspecting the equipment of unlucky soldiers. The scouts and the provincial troops joked he’d spent too much time with the armies of Vienna and fancied himself a Habsburg Cuirassier.

He signaled to his riders to close in and slow their pace. They grumbled and gave foul looks to the perfumed and sweating horde they rode along but complied with the order. Slowly, the Cossacks joined the column, lances and muskets held lazily at rest. Both the men and their horses fidgeted and scanned the horizon, longing to ride at speed along the open fields and hills.

The Imperial and regimental flags stirred and beckoned with the breezes. Seeing them in the air, Kirill considered the choice to serve in the army. It was his kinsmen who’d fought against the Tsar generations before. Back in times before the musket and the crown, they roamed the steppes and fought any who dared face them, be they Russians or Turks. But now, he had kopeks and steady meals. He had received an officer’s commission and had a state to call home and a sovereign to bend the knee to. What did he know of the old times? The elders didn’t think much of him. Іноземець, outsider they called him. Not a true Cossack. Just another peacock, prancing and strutting for scraps and attention.

Kirill sighed and continued on. The sun continued to beat down on him and he wiped fresh sweat from his face.

Late-night Blues

I walk down the empty street, my feet dragging along the sidewalk and my shoulder sore from my bag wearing on it. My mind is filling with fog as the cold bites through my shirt. God, I’m tired. The sun slowly breaks over the horizon and the orange beams of daylight stretch through the receding ink of night.

I’ve never felt time move slower than it did this past night. Each bar was a temporary shelter from the night’s cold. I’d sit and stare at the faces around me, all of them unfamiliar and indifferent. Then there were no more bars to hide in, nowhere to pass the time. The city streets were quiet except for the occasional homeless person, covered in makeshift blankets. I must have looked pretty unprepared with my thin windbreaker and small sports bag with one day’s worth of spare clothes.

Each step feels draining as I wander in the direction of my former college. I check my watch and see there’s at least another 20 minutes before anything is open. I find an outdoor bench and sit down, ignoring the frost that clings to my pants.

I’m too tired to have clear thoughts on my visit but I can make out the feeling of anger. Even now, trying to stay awake and warm, I feel anger burning inside me like the embers of a dying fire. I’m angry at Donnie for not telling me he’d be busy this weekend. I told him a bunch of times I was coming up. Was it too much to ask for him to help me out a little? I’m angry at myself for not being clearer that I’d need to crash with him. But I’m too proud to ask for help.

My depressive voice takes an opportunity to remind me of how this is all my fault. Do you really expect your friends to try when you never do? You goddamn hypocrite, it says. You’re so quick to judge them, to call them out on every little mistake. No wonder they don’t want to be around you. You can’t even drop them a line or give them a call. And you blame them for not wanting to stay in touch?

You need to be lovable to be loved, it reminds me again. Normally, I’d wrestle with it but right now I’m too tired. I wallow in self-pity and let the depression radiate.

Poor you. I don’t know what I hate more: that the voice is right or that I can’t seem to change.

As the din of early morning traffic slowly brings life to the city, all I can feel is the breeze sending shivers down my neck as the fragile architecture of my self crumbles. The negativity and the hatred sweep through me, turning everything to ash. I know that I need to stop it but all I can force myself to do is to think about sleeping, just for a few minutes.

A girl in a black Dunkin’ Donuts uniform opens up the store front and I force myself onto unsteady legs and into the warm orange-colored haven. I can barely comprehend what the girl is saying as she asks for my order. I pull myself together enough to order a coffee. The second she hands it to me, I make for the open booth and climb onto the soft cushion seat. I rest the little white Styrofoam cup on the table and put my bag under my head. Just to close my eyes and lay down feels incredible. I drift off into a dreamless sleep as the smell of black coffee and fresh donuts hangs in the air.

I wake with a start and check my watch. It’s 9:30 AM. For only two and half hours of sleep, I feel revitalized. There are a few customers sitting at tables but only a handful. I shake my head and give myself a quick slap in the cheek to re-focus my senses. To be honest, I’m amazed nobody’s tried to throw me out. I down the cold coffee I’d ordered a lifetime ago and collect myself. The girl behind the counter is looking at me like I’m a walking corpse. I walk into the shop’s bathroom and look at myself in the mirror.

One glance it’s easy to see that the girl’s look was generous considering how shitty I look. My eyes are bloodshot and my hair is greasy. With my second wind still burning strong, I open up my sports bag and produce my travel-size toiletries. With the grace of an amateur hobo, I wash my hair in the sink and brush my teeth. The water is warm and calming as I splash some on my face, trying to wash off some of the grime and sorrow. I work quickly to avoid occupying the bathroom for too long. When finished, I take another quick look at myself as I pack my stuff up. Still rough and worn looking, but at least I can pass for human. I tuck my wet hair under my baseball cap and leave the bathroom.

Before any of the employees can take notice, I step out of the warmth of the donut sanctuary and back into the cold of the bright morning.  I’m thankful for the temporary high I’m running on as I plan out the rest of my day. When I step out from the shadow of the buildings around me, I feel the distant heat of the sun on my face and feel better for it.

Inside me, there’s a tornado’s path of destruction and emotion. I take a breath, pull out my headphones and open up my phone. It’s still too early to text anyone else I know in the city but I scroll to my music.

The fire is out for the moment and there’s a lot to rebuild. But at least I’m back in control.

A Sword’s Thoughts

Gabe wiped the sweat off his face as more fireworks exploded in the hot night sky and the sound of revelry filled the city streets. Everybody was in the streets, celebrating and waving flags. The soldiers were embraced by men and kissed by women. Even the police were caught up in the spirit of victory as they turned a blind eye to the prostitutes plying their trade. Gabe chuckled to himself at the sight of delirious joy. It was hard to imagine that the city was forlorn and sorrowful that morning or that it was a battlefield six months ago.

The waiter brought over a bottle of American whiskey and Gabe slipped him a fifty dollar bill. Gabe took a swig from the bottle itself and his mouth burned with the taste of Tennessee sour-mash. Of the few patrons in the restaurant, Gabe was the only one not standing in jubilation or toasting to the crowds outside. He simply sat with his boot resting on the chair opposite him and his equipment in a duffel bag by his side. He still kept his .45 secured in his holster, just to ward off any trouble or rowdy locals.

The restaurant was an old, pre-war style establishment that had once dreamed in white marble and Parisian design. The civil war had not touched it but it was clear that this once opulent eatery was a relic of a bygone era. The Romanesque statues had seen the fortune and splendor wither away across the span of generations while the once pristine tiled floor slowly chipped and faded. Even the waiter’s pressed white shirt and bow tie hung loose on the aging wearer. Gabe felt like his very presence was somehow accelerating the decay.

A handful of young soldiers stepped into the dining room and were greeted like heroes. Men raised glasses to them and the pretty redheaded hostess let them all kiss her on the cheek before showing them to a table.

They tried to look the part of relaxed warriors but it was clear these lads were shaking with enthusiasm and drunk off of the adoration of the city. They had rolled the sleeves of their uniforms up and left their shirts open, trying to look the part of grizzled veterans but the cleanliness of their clothes and boots betrayed them. The patrons didn’t notice and Gabe wasn’t about to spoil their night.

“Hey! I know you!” one of them shouted, pointing at Gabe. Out of reflex, he put his hand to his sidearm as the soldier who’d recognized him encouraged his mates to gather around. The enthusiasm in the soldier’s eyes made Gabe relax, but only a little.

“You bailed my unit out of the Hotel Atlantic. You’re a mercenary right?” the kid recalled, excited and nervous. Gabe nodded the affirmative, remembering the battle. The government troops had gotten a little too bold and walked right into a rebel counterattack. What started as temporary rally point turned into a two week siege.

“Why aren’t you celebrating? The war’s over, friend!” one of the soldiers said, throwing back his drink and cheering.

“Your war’s over.” Gabe corrected him.

“Our war. You shed blood with us: you’re one of us.” The soldier who’d recognized him said.

“This is your country, your home, your victory. Not mine.” Gabe said, his tone calm but firm. The soldiers enthusiastic faces dimmed slightly as they looked to their ringleader.

“You saved my life, fought for us and helped us save this country. This is your victory too.” The boy said, unable to comprehend how someone could pass up the opportunity to take part in this celebration. Gabe knew he’d never be able to make these boys understand, certainly not on a night like tonight.

“A sword knows nothing of victory or defeat. It only knows battle.” He said with a smile and patted the boy on the shoulder as he stood.

“Sir! These heroes look thirsty!” Gabe called to the waiter who quickly hurried over. Gabe slid two more fifty dollar bills into the waiter’s hand and then hoisted up his gear. As he made his way past the soldiers, he winked at the ringleader, who could only look on with confusion.

On the streets, the roar of the crowd was interrupted with the thunderous clamp and dazzling gold and red light of the fireworks. Save for his partially concealed pistol and his boots, Gabe looked like just another person. He maneuvered through the mobs, recognizing buildings and alleys where he’d previously fought and killed. Each boom and blast of a firework reminded him of the mortars and grenades that used to sound nightly.

When he finally made it past the crowds back to the small flat that he and a few of the other mercenaries had been using, he thought for a moment about the last two years he’d spent here. He’d fought across the country, killed more men than he could count and helped stop these people from killing each other, if only for a moment. He’d seen heroism and cowardice on both sides and witnessed the cruel arbitrary nature of war inflicted on people too poor or unfortunate to get out of the way.

Yet for all he’d seen, for all the battles he’d fought, only one word seemed to summate his feelings: dispassion. Time would march on and perhaps this was the bloody prologue to an era of prosperity and peace that would heal the wounds of civil war to the point where all his actions faded into obscurity. Or maybe all his effort had simply set the stage for bloodier conflict to come. Perhaps he’d even be called back, fighting for one side or the other.

He thought of the soldier in the restaurant he’d saved. The kid was a scared little fisherman’s son who’d never held a rifle before. When Gabe saw him inside the hotel, there was a foul-smelling brown stain on the back of his pants. But tonight, that kid was a hero to his country. Maybe tonight, that kid would meet a woman and he’d begin to start life as a family man. Or maybe he’d decide to work to build up the ruins of his homeland.

Or maybe he’d simply turn in his rifle and return to his fishing boat.

Gabe wiped the fresh sweat from his face and loaded his equipment onto his motorcycle. As the engine kicked to life, Gabe took in the neighborhood landmarks that he’d never bothered to remember. Out of habit, he checked his pistol again and pulled out a grease-stained map. The runway where the rest of his outfit was waiting was roughly twenty miles east of the city. From there, the plane would take him to wherever war required him to be. There was always another war. Always a fresh world to make changes that would ripple unseen.

He slowly set off down the road, feeling the indifference of the city to his presence surround him.

Retreat

Algar slumped against a tree, exhausted and in pain. The handful of Saxons who’d survived the battle limped north along the dirt road. They had fled North through the night, evading the Norman knights and scouts as they rode down stragglers. Dawn was breaking over the horizon and a chilly morning dew had covered the grassy fields.

Algar pulled his helmet off and set it next to him, his fingers brushing against the fresh sword cuts and battle marks. He could feel bruises forming over his body along with opened wounds. Under his mail, his tunic was still damp with sweat and blood. The morning air was still and cool. The birds chirping were like a lullaby, calling him to sleep. He wanted to sleep more than anything.

The men walking down the road were a pathetic sight.  Many had abandoned their weapons and shields. Others were wounded and bleeding but nobody stopped marching. After a whole day of battle, after watching their king die and after being hunted like dogs, they marched on. They were good men, loyal and forlorn.

“Water?” Kenrick offered, holding a half-full deerskin. Algar took it and wetted his bone-dry mouth. Kenrick had a deep cut across his cheek and the blood on his mail told of a wound in his side. Despite his injury, he had kept his Dane axe through the night.

“You look like shit.” Kenrick said. Algar gave a weak smile.

“Just a little sleep and I’ll be right.” Algar said.

“Aye. Won’t we all? But now is not the time to sleep. We must go.” Algar’s muscles ached and his stomach groaned. The prospect of even standing up seemed beyond doing, much less marching or fighting.

“Where will we go?”

“North. The lords and nobles will rally our army and we’ll fight again.” Kenrick said, adjusting his Axe.

“Why?”

Kenrick looked at him, genuinely surprised. “What’s this now?”

“Why go North?” Algar asked.

“We have a war to fight, Algar.” Kenrick said, his tone turning firm.

“We fought a war. We fought all sodding day. And we lost. We lost our army and our king and his brothers.” Algar felt like he was dropping a weight off his back. He felt a defeated relief in saying it all out loud.

“We lost a battle. And we lost a king. But we’re still alive. We still have men. And so we’ll fight.”

Algar was so tired of fighting. He was tired of everything. God, all he wanted was to put his head down and sleep.

“Aren’t you tired of fighting?” He asked.

Kenrick sighed. There was pain in his eyes that wasn’t coming from his wounds. It seemed as if his hair had turned grey in the space of a day. But still he stood, weathered but unbowed.

“Living is fighting.”

Words

Sam wiped the tears from her face and took a deep breath. She’d finally stopped crying but still felt raw. The shattered picture frame was still in pieces by the bedroom door. She checked her phone again, even though she knew there was no response.

Why did she have to needle him? She should have noticed when he came into the apartment that he was in no mood to talk about it. She should have just let it be for the night.

But why did she have to put things on hold for him? You can’t just not have a response to someone saying ‘I love you’, it wasn’t fair to her to have to sit on her hands for him to decide to talk about it. Sam felt more tears creeping up behind her eyes. Her feelings were so churned they were tying her insides in knots.

Every item in the bedroom sent a fresh bolt of emotion through her. The little grey teddy bear he’d bought her on their third date, the almost empty bottle of clubman aftershave that he had clumsily asked her for, the Notre Dame sweatshirt he’d specifically ordered two sizes too big for her, everything had some story or history attached to it. All she wanted was to rewind time to a week ago when they were a normal couple.

Sam kept replaying the way he left in her head. In her mind’s eye, she could see him clench his jaw and see him twitching with frustration and anger. Then something inside him snapped and he turned around. Not a word or even an angry slam of the apartment door, just a turnaround and then he was down the hall.

Fine! Just fucking go! She had screamed at him as he left. She might have even meant it at the time. What she really wanted was for him to let it out. He’d been off since her birthday and she wanted him to just talk to her about it. It wasn’t too much to ask, was it?

Her feet were freezing but she couldn’t bring herself to lay down. She just sat at the foot of the bed, feeling the fallout cling to every piece of fabric as it poisoned the memories around her. The bright white numbers on her phone read 2:40 AM. She felt completely spent but had no energy or desire to sleep. The melted yellow light from the streetlights filtered in through the windows, casting a dim haze on the otherwise still and dark apartment. The air still smelled of winter night as the cold crept through the glass pane.

Sam’s ears perked as she heard a key unlock the door and John walk in. Her heart fell down into her stomach and all the air in her body jammed itself in her throat. He stood before her in only a button down and his slacks. His shoes were still untied and caked with melting snow. Even in the low light, he looked terrible. His hands were cracked and his eyes looked sunken.

The two stared at each other for what felt like ages. Sam no longer tried to fight the tears as they rolled down her face. God, she needed him to say something, anything. The apartment was so quiet she could hear his wristwatch tick, second after second.

He stepped forward with heavy and exhausted steps. The smoldering repression was gone from his face, replaced with weariness and pain.

“I can’t go” he said.

“What?” Sam asked, not fully sure what he meant. John paused for another moment, as if one wrong word might unleash an avalanche.

“You told me to go. But I can’t” he said. Sam felt regret burning up inside her. She had a million things to say right, all bubbling inside her throat. But before she could even start talking, John slowly cupped her face in his hands.

His skin was frozen and sent shivers down Sam’s spine but she kept her eyes on John.

“Not now…” John continued, his voice wavering. Vulnerability resonated off his body as much as the cold did. He looked at Sam like she was fate itself. She’d never seen him like this before. He was so raw and unprotected. It filled her with a sense of fear that even the slightest breath might shatter him.

“…cause I love you” John said, the words leaving his mouth like a prayer of absolution. The collage of emotion inside Sam continued to blend and overlap as she felt warmth slowly pour into her soul. John slowly put his arms around her and held onto her like without her, he might collapse. His shirt was damp and cold but Sam didn’t care. She ran her hands through his hair and kissed him as softly as she could as he hung his face on her shoulder.

Way of the North

Renrir stared into the dark and storm-churned waters of the Sea of Chaos. The winds carried ice and stung his cheeks, but he stood still. His bondsmen and attendants stood by him, waiting for a command from their Jarl.

It had been almost two years since his son took to the sea at the helm of his own ship. Other raiders had returned with spoils and slaves but none had any news of Volkmar. The Vitki had no wisdom or insight to his son’s fate, only the same words Renrir had heard when he was a boy.

The Blood Father only rewards the strong.

Some of the warriors had told him that it was a sign that the boy was weak and that it is best he die on foreign waves. They reminded him of how there is no room for weakness in the North. Renrir didn’t argue with them, for he knew they were right. But deep down, he felt a small tinge of worry and shame. I hope he died well, he thought.

The boy had survived childbirth when his mother did not. Born amidst blood, the Vitki told him. He was marked by the Blood Father, they said. Renrir had felt great pride in the boy and secretly hoped that it would be Volkmar who would take the title of Jarl when Renrir’s time had come.

The wind picked up and the ice cut even harder into his weathered skin. The cold crept through his furs and clung to his bones. Renrir could feel the years wearing down on him. His muscles, still taut and powerful, felt rusted and chipped. Pain radiated from his fingers when he held his sword and he felt the cold more and more each day. He could see the way his warriors looked to him. They still believed he was the Renrir who had taken to sea and cleaved his way through the empire all the way to Sylvania. They would remain fiercely loyal until it was clear that he was too old to fight.

He had prayed to the Blood Father and the Winter Lord for a son capable of sending him to the Halls of Glory. But now it seemed that he would have to take to the sea again to find death.

“Ship!” One of the warriors shouted, pointing to the storm-covered horizon. Renrirs’s entire hold peered into the distance and sure enough there was a lone red sail. As the ship drew nearer, it was clear even from a distance that the craft had seen dozens of battles. Arrows still stuck from the shields that lined her hull and the sail was ripped in many places. A giant’s skull hung from the ship’s bow.

The reavers aboard the ship were adorned in mail and fur, with hungry looks in their faces. When Renrir saw the captain of the ship, he smiled to himself. The young warrior was tall and had shoulders as broad as a bear’s. His pale blond beard was clasped with the runic symbol for Ulric fashioned from whalebone and his arms were covered in scars. He had carved the mark of the Blood Father into his neck and a large scar ran across his face, splitting his left eyebrow. It was hard to imagine that this man had once left the shore as a bare-faced youth.

Renrir’s warriors clasped these sea-reavers in tight embraces as they stepped onto the snow-covered ground. From the ship, they unloaded what seemed like an endless pile of treasures and trophies. Coins from the empire, banners from Bretonnia and even the giant axe and helmet of a felled Orc warboss were carried off the longship. Following their treasures came the thralls, elves and men alike. All were bloodied and bruised as they cowered and shivered in the cold of their new home.

Volkmar stepped before his father and bent his knee, the antlers adorned to his helmet pointing out like a wall of spears. “My lord, I offer you this mighty gift.” He said, wasting no time in adhering to the code of the Graelings. He produced a battle-axe with ornate carvings in the hilt and the flat of the blade.

“Taken from one of the horse-lords of the South and anointed in battle, may it shed fresh blood in your hands.” He spoke, his shipmates, lowering their heads as the gift was presented.

Renrir took the weapon in his hand and lifted it into the freezing air. Feeling the rush of youth again, he swung the axe and cleaved the head off of the closest thrall. A jet of blood flew into the sky as the elf’s body collapsed to the ground. Suddenly, the entire shore was alive with the roaring of Norscans as they cheered and beat their weapons against their shields. The roaring and cheering grew louder as the the Vitki dragged the corpse to the water to offer it as thanks to the sea gods for bringing the reavers home.

From the meadhall, Renrir could see his thralls and servants preparing for a great feast. He could practically taste the mead and roasted elk. As the warhird started to march towards the hall, Renrir stole a glance at his son, who was at the head of his men and already exciting Renrir’s warriors with promises to tell them of his exploits in the South.

Finally, a worthy challenger. Renrir thought. You will make my death glorious.