Beower saw his opponent standing before him in the clearing of the forest. The Northern light glowed a pale green that cast ethereal colors on the snow and animated the shadows of the trees. The warrior before him stood shirtless, scars covering his arms and a tattoo of the world serpent across his chest. His eyes seemed to glow a sickly blue from behind his helmet in the night and his smile was cruel. The axe in his hand was red with dried blood.
Beower stood and pulled off his cloak followed by his mail and his shirt. The cold bit at his skin and he fought the urge to shiver. He unsheathed his axe and readied his shield. The two men walked towards each other with slow but meaningful purpose. Beower hated the smiling face in front of him. He let the hatred spread to his limbs to fight the cold as he swung hard.
The axe smacked into the shield and the battle began in earnest. Both warriors swung with intensity, chipping away the signs and paint of the other’s shield. His opponent was swift and always seemed to melt away just before Beower’s axe could find its mark. However he kept his guard up, weathering blow after blow.
Sweat beaded in spite of the cold and dripped in warm rivulets down his face. The warrior in front of him growled with pleasure at the struggle, immune to the winter. He charged forward and knocked Beower to the ground with a blow of his shield. Snow clung to his back as he scrambled to recover his shield. The warrior’s axe came down too fast to block so Beower rolled away, surrendering his defence.
He clambered onto his feet, holding his weapon now with two hands. The enemy laughed and tossed his own shield away. The gesture only poured more hatred into Beower’s blood. He roared out in anger and swung again. His opponent blocked it and brought the handle of his axe into Beower’s face. He could feel blood running from his nose.
“Give up” the warrior hissed to Beower, grinning with a row of white teeth. Pressing forward, Beower kept the offensive up, swinging hard. Blow after blow glanced off his enemy’s weapon or chopped harmlessly through the air. His muscles burned and the cold air burned his lungs. His hatred was still thick in his blood but it wasn’t enough. His opponent’s axe tip kissed his face and drew more blood.
Beower couldn’t breathe. The hatred and exhaustion closed his throat and he struggled to keep his grip on his weapon. His enemy’s swings were getting harder and harder to dodge. He seemed to be immune to the world and fought with nothing held back. Desperate, Beower lunged forward and tackled his rival.
The two men collapsed into the snow and the battle turned into a grapple for life. Punches landed hard in Beower’s stomach, robbing him of what little wind was left in his body. His foe was fast and impossible to pin.
“Give up” he said again, malice dripping from his words spoken through gritted teeth. They traded more punches but Beower knew his strength was gone. His opponent saw his opening and jumped forward, pinning Beower on his back. Before he could even begin to struggle, two calloused hands seized his throat. His foe’s face hung over his own, eyes burning against the night. Beower could see the face that had been lurking underneath the helmet, which had come free in the struggle. It was the face he knew well and had poured so much hatred into. A face his mother never lived to see and that his father cursed.
Beower was staring at himself.
“Give up” the words dripped onto his face like poison.
All the hatred he’d gathered across his life failed to keep the spark of life kindled now. His vision greyed as the cold seeped through his limbs. The blue eyes crackled with a hatred of their own as Beower’s last breath struggled to exit his throat.
He’d fought his hardest and failed. The weight of the failure was less than he imagined it would be. His whole life spent running from falling and here he was. The cold rose through his stomach, traveling steadily towards his heart. His enemy’s anger radiated from his fingertips and seared Beower’s throat. Death was fast approaching, but there would be no valkyrie to claim his soul.
“Live.” The voice caused Beower to open his eyes. Looking to the horizon beyond his foe, he saw a vision. A light, brighter than the North Star, grew and spoke to him again.
The light changed into the form of a woman clad in grey furs and flanked by a brace of hounds. She wielded a spear and a hunter’s bow. Her hair was shaved on the sides of her head, pulled into a tight braid and white as the snow on the ground.
The light surged through his body and he felt himself transform. From Beower’s chest sprung a pelt of black fur. His teeth extended into fangs and his hands into the paws of a bear. With a terrifying roar, he surged back to life and bit hard into the throat of his enemy. His foe screamed in pain but Beower held firm, dragging his claws across the back of the man. Locked in a lethal embrace, Beower clenched his jaw tighter, the taste of hot copper filling his mouth. The fire in his heart burned hot enough to arrest the cold that had surrounded it.
With a great and terrifying force, Beower tore out the throat of his foe. The man fell dead to the ground, turning the snow red as he did. Beower climbed out from underneath his foe and turned to the sky. He let loose a roar that made the trees shudder and the Northern lights seemed to swell in a flash of green and blue.
Beower gasped for air. He sat next to his foe, covered in blood and sweat. His chest swelled up and down as he breathed for the first time since the duel began. He could feel a fire burning deep inside him and its warmth traveling to his extremities. Next to him was his enemy’s corpse. He turned the body over and looked at himself. His face was frozen in pain, blue eyes still wide at the moment of death. Beower could feel the snowflakes resting on his skin and the fire in his lungs turning into steam as he exhaled.
He stood up and turned to the west. He pulled his furs back on after shaking the snow off his body and steadying his breathing. As the last drop of hatred fell to the ground, he started walking, head raised high and his march purposeful. With each step, his vision of his path became clearer and clearer. He’d sail across the sea of wyrms for Iceland and be free of his past. For the first time in his life, he’d be free.
As he approached the forest, he turned to look back one last time at his enemy. The body was gone.