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.”


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.