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As spring comes to the North, two companions from a tiny village follow their lord to battle dreaming of glory and riches.
The snow was beginning to melt in the high hills as a group of Tormlings marched to battle. They were headed to the valley to combine with their kin. City and hamlet alike had mustered forth. They streamed across the land as the crystal waters streamed down from the mouth of the mountains far above, twisting and rushing through draws, pouring over drops and cliffs, wearing away at ancient stone. It was spring in the North. Soon the lakes would be filled and trout would flourish along their rocky bottoms. Soon the valleys would be filled and men would make war.
Brand of Jaska, son of Berg, stood among this armed band. As they crossed a rill a mounted lord dressed fully in steel shouted for the group to halt. The low-hanging sun shined off the leader"s burnished armor as would-be warriors and weary veterans alike set aside their shields and partook of the icy water. It reflected grinning faces and golden locks, a smooth surface only broken by the burbling waterfall where it trickled in from the hillside. Brand's mind wandered back to thoughts of his home, to the great river by his village. He had spent seventeen summers in a cottage by those fast-following waters, living by its bounty. It was the pulse of his village, at least in the warm months, when fish and trade were plenteous.
"Drink up, brother," said a blue-eyed youth, clasping Brand on the shoulder. "We both need our strength for the trials ahead."
Onund, son of Thorfin, had been with Brand since before either could remember. Onund was a week younger and bit shorter, lean and lithe compared to Brand"s heavy frame. Since the time they could both stand they play-fought with staves, as all hot-blooded Torm children are wont to do. More than a game for young men, Brand and Onund were the twin champions for Jaska and beyond. The youth of nearby villages had never beaten them.
Brand smiled at his friend, bent down, cupped his hands, and drank. He let out a sigh of contentment as water ran down his thin beard, cooling the hot sores of a long journey.
"I shall slay a hundred men," he exclaimed, throwing a fist into the sky.
"Aha!" replied Onund, raising a spear. "If it were mead I would slay a thousand!"
The whole band laughed, a deep, rich sound that rolled and echoed through the woods and across hilltops. A few with gray hair gave the road behind them a wistful look. They did not laugh as loudly.
"You show good cheer, men of Jaska," said the armored lord, stepping down from his hearty Torm steed. "I expect valor in the field from each one of you. There will mead and food aplenty once we vanquish the axe-worshipers."
His dwarf slave brought him a reindeer-skin flagon from a pack horse. He took it and drank. Known as Fastvir, son of Reithdomsvier, his father ruled over a modest domain that included Jaska and a handful of other villages. He was the only noble Brand had ever seen.
"That lifts my spirits immeasurably, lord," replied Onund. "I will stand by you without fail. I will not blench, even if my shield be cloven and spear shattered."
The boy's voice quivered only slightly as his he spoke. Brand looked on with muted wonder. His friend seemed so small standing before their steel-clad lord. As all nobles, Fastvir towered over the common folk of the North. The blood of the titans ran thick in their veins. From the first day he saw Fastvir ride into Jaska, Brand wished he had been born well. He dreamed might and prowess, of having a dwarf of his own and arousing awe wherever he walked.
"'When the spear shatters, unsheathe the sword,'" Fastvir said to Onund, reciting a venerable verse. "'Once the sword snaps, draw out the dagger. When the dagger breaks, become the bear.'"
The words conjured a vision in Brand's mind. His head and shoulders sagged as he remembered the first time he had tried to go off to war. At fifteen he had carried only a pine shield and his father's sword. It was a skillfully crafted blade and old, though Brand's father would not tell him of its lineage. Years ago, returning from many battles to the life of farming, fishing, and herding, Berg of Jaska discarded the blade. Brand discovered it in a makeshift shed behind his family's cottage. When he first saw it he thought it was still covered the blood of vanquished foes, but the red-brown stains were naught but rust. He had cleaned it as best he could, but some of the damage went too deep.
The passing band of warriors had ridiculed him for trying to join them.
"A spear is worth two swords on the field of battle," they had said, "unless you bear a two-hand blade. Do not seek a spot with us until you are properly armed, child."
"It is my father's sword!" Brand had shouted as he drew it forth from its worn sheath.
"Then a double hex on him," a graying man had said, his face turning grim. "First for letting a good blade rust, and second for entrusting his son's life to it. He has done you a disservice."
"Come, brothers," another had said, "let us fly away from this village. There is no honor to be found in a place that sends its children out to die with rusted swords."
"I'll fight any of you right now and show you my worth."
"War is not like the games, boy," the group's leader had told Brand. "Have your blacksmith make you a spearhead, then get yourself a thick tunic and cured leather cap. After that perhaps you will find glory in battle."
Brand's father had not grown angry when he recounted what had happened. The insults did not rouse his ire. If anything, he had seemed pleased, though with a hint of melancholy behind his eyes.
"Let's throw the useless thing into the river together," Berg had said. "There"s no need for you to leave. Stay here. It's better to fish and farm than to fight."
As Brand stood over the little creek and felt the weight on the rusted sword on his hip, he didn't understand. Why would anyone promote toil over courage? The thought of that life turned his stomach. Men went to war; only the feeble and cowardly shunned battle. He sought to sustain himself by strength in arms, never desiring to cast a line or pull a plow again.
"The women and weaklings can feed me," he whispered.
Fastvir was finishing a strip of dried meat as Brand's senses returned to his present circumstances. Onund, still excited from the attention the lord had shown him, gave Brand a questioning look.
"I had a vision of the victory to come," he told his companion.
Brand's mind remained in motion as they continued the march to the valley. He saw himself cleaving limbs and bathing in blood, returning to Jaska a fell and mighty hero. The hillsides stood alive with color as they traveled, mixing with his dreams. Alabaster and butter petals across the ground, triangular pink blossoms hanging in the trees, conical black flowers that grow only on peaks called Vala's trumpets. She was the storm goddess, mistress of battle and frothy sea, and the patron deity of Tormlund. Her rains brought forth the springtime. Brand prayed she would single him out for her favor, aiding him the coming battle and propelling toward a glorious destiny of riches and renown.
"Ah, I have no desire for mead now," said Onund, breathing in deeply. "This air is sweeter than any drink."
Brand agreed, though the trail was hard. As the day moved on his legs and shoulders began to ache. He could see it in the faces of other warriors as well. Some grumbled but Brand endured, gritting his teeth and focusing on fantasy.
"You have marched well," Fastvir said as they set up camp in the valley amidst the great Torm host. "Remember that loyalty does not go unnoticed among our people. Serve my father honorably and he will not forget you."
Brand and Onund would have been heartened had they not been overwhelmed by exhaustion. The two champions looked at each other with drooping eyelids as they shared a smoked eel and pouch of hazelnuts. Brand could hardly lift the knife to his lips. No longer dreaming, he fell into the darkness of sleep as soon as he lay down in the blankets beside Onund.
His entire body ached when he reluctantly pulled himself out of the tent the next morning. Onund stumbled out into the sunlight to seek sustenance while Brand only stood and stared. He had never seen so many men in his life; the camp in the valley was buzzing with commotion. Scores of lords with ornate armor and bejeweled blades shouted at dwarves and servants. Their stalwart stallions stomped and snorted as they ate a breakfast of oats and hay. Amid such august company, Fastvir suddenly seemed insignificant. Brand marveled most of all at the noble ladies who accompanied the men, the priestesses of Vala. They bore broad spears and bright breastplates, each etched with images of sea, snow, and storm. On the field they led the infantry, fighting on foot and wielding wondrous powers. Brand had heard they could call down the lightning or bring a warrior back from the brink of death. Finally his gaze turned to the mass of common folk in their thousands, the majority equipped as he was albeit with long, heavy knives rather than swords at their belts. Precious few had so much as a shirt of mail.
Brand and Onund spent the next few weeks amongst these men in training and rough play at arms. The lords held their own contests. Jaska"s twin champions practiced martial skills such as holding the shield wall, thrusting over a ally's shield, and dueling with shield and blunted sword. They made out well enough, though they had more familiarity with staves. They were accustomed to taking hard knocks and striking strong blows, displaying tenacity in formation and prowess in duels. They had much experience with principles of distance and judgment, and put them efficient use. They slipped and danced around their mock foes with agility, though they took their share of hits.
"It's almost if we were back at home, isn't it Brand?" Onund said after a duel, wearing a broad but tired grin. "I believe we put up a fair showing for a our village."
They swiftly found getting sufficient food to be as much of a struggle as the war games. Men quarreled over every morsel, often coming to blows. The nobles decreed that only they could hunt in surrounding woods; the rest received meat by their generosity. Fastvir gave more freely than many lords, but Brand could still hardly recall eating so little flesh. On some nights he and Onund had to split a loaf of hard bread and go to sleep with growling bellies. Other times they managed cheese or broth with perhaps a bit of ale. Onund won a rabbit after throwing a much larger man on his face. They eagerly roasted it over an open fire, looking over their shoulders until they had devoured even the bones.
The host crept forward amidst the drills, advancing a few miles every day. After nearly a month had passed, their camp rested deep within the rolling coastal lowlands. One chill dusk Brand and Onund sat listening to old warrior tell stories about Gram the Giantslayer, legend of the North. Brand reclined against a mossy boulder and let his mind roam to that distant world of heroes and adventure.
"After he slew the serpent," the elder intoned, "Gram swam back a full hundred leagues while dragging its head beside him. On the beach he found his armor and sword where he had left them, for none had dared to steal from him. Slinging the monster"s maw on his back, Gram took this prize to the king. The giants and goblins saw him as he strode across the mountains and trembled in terror. What could they hope to do against a man who slaughters the strongest creatures of the sea as if they were codfish? They ran into their caves, cast themselves on the ground, and begged the gods to be spared."
Onund pressed close against Brand for warmth as the tale continued.
"When Gram set the head in front of the royal place, the king was dumbstruck at its size, for the beast could have swallowed a horse whole. He immediately called for a feast to be held in Gram"s honor. The ovens flamed like forges while hunting parties the size of armies made war on the wilds. When the day came, dwarves brought platters of every type of meat imaginable, from goose to whale, each expertly cooked and seasoned with fragrant herbs. To this they added loaves of golden bread, broad dishes of butter and cheese, plums, smoked apples, and immense tubs of mead and ale."
Brand couldn't stop himself from salivating.
"The king and his court stood in awe as they watched Gram devour enough to feed a hundred famished men. A troll could hardly have done better. Finally he ate the last scrap of venison, drank the last draught, and held up his hand."
A cry of alarm suddenly resounded. Dreams fell from Brand's mind as he seized his spear and leaped to his feet. Onund stood beside him. Horns blew and war drums boomed. Warriors hastily joined into small bands and rushed to the sound of the commotion. Brand looked back at the old man, who rose slowly and did not follow.
"Where are we going?" Brand asked Onund.
"To the fight," his friend answered.
They could see little more than silhouettes in the gathering gloom, but the screams and clatter of steel lead them on. When the groups of men stopped, Onund abandoned his shield to push forward through the press.
"Order!" someone shouted.
"Glory," he retorted.
Brand did his best to keep up, enduring the occasional jeer or curse.
"There's nothing here for us," a warrior said as they passed.
"The lords have already beaten them," another said.
Brand could barely discern mounted shapes in the distance. Onund leaned on his spear and stared.
"A pity," he said.
Those around him nodded.
"How many came?" Brand asked.
"Few," a warrior replied. "No more than two dozen."
"They did not come for a fight yet one found them," another said with a slight smile.
Soon the skirmish disappeared from sight and hearing. Drums and horns went silent, leaving only the voices of men to fill the air. Brand and Onund meandered back to their tent.
"If you do that on the field I will kill you," a grizzled member of Fastvir's company told Onund.
"You will try," he replied, yet Brand noticed that his knees trembled.
"We march tomorrow." Moonlight caught the edge of the warrior"s helm. He shifted the grip on his spear, features hidden in shadow. "Remember what I said, for I speak in earnest."
He turned his back on the two companions and walked off. Brand put a hand on Onund"s shoulder. He felt his veins racing.
"I am ready," Onund said. "Are you?"
"I am weary," Brand replied, setting down his shield.
He slept restlessly that night, beset by visions of war. In one dream his courage failed him at the onset, before he could give a single thrust. He ran for what seems like leagues and leagues, chased by laughter of his fellows, only to stumble into a swamp and start drowning. His family, appearing as marsh ghosts, pulled him deeper into the muck. In another he slew the king of the axe-worshipers with his father's sword, the stroke rending mail and bone. He held the might of Gram the Giantslayer in the palm of his hand, standing tall and triumphant over the carnage with thunder behind him. Yet Onund numbered among the fallen, and Brand could not wrench his gaze away from the broken body.
The next morning he awoke to a tap on his arm. It was before dawn, the air cold and black.
"I wish to see the sunrise with you with once more," Onund said softy. "Come, walk with me."
Brand rubbed his eyes and followed his friend, throwing on a wolf pelt as he left the tent.
"Do you remember how we'd watch the sun come up from the top of the mountain behind our village, years ago?"
Brand thought of Jaska, of the last time he saw his home. His father had solemnly bid him farewell, but he could still feel the strength of their final embrace. His sister, little Osa, had cried and clung to his legs, demanding that he stay. Her hazel eyes had nearly defeated him. He had only escaped with the promise that he would bring her back a stone from the sea when he returned.
"Aye, I remember," Brand said sleepily. His stomach growled. "I miss the mead and smoked trout more than anything."
Onund give a subdued smiled as the first rays illumined the sky, rosy pink and creamy orange reflecting through the clouds.
"I fear the coming battle, brother," Onund said abruptly, looking into Brand eyes. "Death has been haunting my mind."
"Be brave," replied Brand, taking his friend's hand. "If we die, we die together. My spirit will follow yours to join Vala's great host."
"There our spears like would strike like thunderbolts and feet move like tempests." Onund laughed. "I would rather return home rich with stories and spoils."
"I do not think we will fall. We are the twin champions of Jaska."
For a moment it seemed as if Onund would protest, but instead he caught Brand in a tight embrace.
"Your heart burns with valor, brother," he said. "I could not quench it if I wished. It drives my fear away, like the morning sun drives away the night's chill. If you are by my side I will not falter."
They held each other under the brightening dawn until the sound of horns called them back to camp. It already bustled with preparations by the time they had come down from the hillside. Men tested the edges of weapons, bundled up tents, and haggled over lines of command. Brand and Onund managed to get plums, rough bread, and a bit of pork for breakfast. They hastily packed for the march.
"The enemy is close," Fastvir told them from atop his stallion. "Today we fight."
Assembled in formation, Brand and and Onund found themselves near the center, surrounded by allies on all sides.
"We'll be lucky to strike a single stroke," Onund said, looking around.
The Tormlings marched across the smooth plateau in fully array, banners unfurled and shields displayed. The same landscape continued for a few more leagues before dropping off precipitously into the sea down steep, rocky cliffs. Brand did not know when axe-worshipers first came to settle this fertile coast, but it had been before his father's time. The foreigners were short, stubby men with dark hair and dark eyes, yet some of Brand's own race had converted to join them. He wondered how Tormlings could renounce their ancestral gods and adopt the strange cult of Kailor.
Whatever abuse could be said of them, Brand could not fault their bravery - the enemy's forces had come out boldly to meet the Torm advance. Even with the clatter of shields and boots, Brand heard the resonating chants before saw the immense mass of men. Countless thousands, they sang in unison. It was a clear, low hum that seemed to fill the entire plains, bouncing the stunted hills and sparse clumps of trees. Brand realized he had been hearing the sound for a long time, unaware of its source. From afar it was as subtle as the pulse of the earth, but as the Tormlings closed the noise became almost overpowering, a ceaseless rumble threatening to undermine towering Torm courage. The thunder of Torm war drums was drowned out. Men beside Brand faltered; spears and shields hit the ground.
"With such strength they call on their god!" Brand heard someone behind him shout.
"What use is steel against this sorcery?" another cried out, voice weak.
The line broke as some men held back and others mustered forth. Brand did not let himself miss step, though a gut-wrenching shudder passed through his body. Onund paused and had to leap forward to keep pace with his comrade. When Brand looked back at him he was still shaking. The Torm lords broke from their wedges on the flanks and wheeled over in front of the crumbling line, furiously screaming for order. One voice rang above the rest.
"Men of the North," the lord called out, his tone calm yet powerful, "do not cower before their song. We are the folk of the mountains, the progeny of the peaks - lightning flows in our veins. Vala is stronger than a thousand of their gods. Each of our spears is sharper than a thousand of their axes."
He had cast aside his helm and golden hair fell about his face he spoke. The whole host listened. He was Earl Authgor of Thurhyal, master of many lands and cousin to the king. Folk across Tormlund knew of his magnificent feats of arms and fearless adventures; warriors and fishwives alike whispered his name with reverence. A return of the spirit of Gram the Giantslayer, some said - the ideal man of the North.
"They seek to make us bow before their tiny god," he continued. "They would take the weapons from our hands, chain our women, abolish our customs, and spit on our ancestors." Authgor hefted his hammer high. "You now chose between glory and oblivion. No mercy to any man who flees. Make your loins as firm as the mountains and your steps as heavy as the giant's. Do not waver!"
A cheer went up as Authgor finished his speech and the Tormlings fell back into formation. An old war ballad came to their lips; soon all men were singing, voices straining. Each man beat upon his shield as well, adding to the rhythm of the war drums. It was a contest of songs, of voices, and Brand eagerly put forth the utmost effort to aid his people. He felt as if his lungs would burst. With Onund by his side, and some thousands of warriors about them, he cared not.
Hundreds of yards from the enemy, the Torm lords ordered a halt. They trotted forward to meet the Kailorian cavalry, their fluted armor and long lance points radiant in the sun, their enormous steeds snorting and stomping. Brand stood on tiptoe to watch the charge unfold, using his spear for support. Though outnumbered many times over, the Tormings tore through their opponents as a tornado through a stand of young trees. The clash of steel against steel pierced through the two songs, stinging the ears. After wheeling back to the their dwarves and servants for fresh lances, the haughty nobles rode alone against the multitude of infantry.
With the abruptness of a heart stopping the enemy's chant ceased. They made great yell, bold and crisp, and arrows filled the air. The Torm lords did not falter under that fell wind, for their armor was the finest in the world, forged by the dwarves they had long ago enslaved. The Torm host cheered and shook their spears as their shinning lords crashed against the ranks of Kailorians. Screams and cries carried clearly across the field. Strikes from Authgor's hammer resounded like thunder. Visions of glory and valor danced through Brand's mind. He grimaced at the cacophony in front of him but gripped his spear eagerly. The same conflict could be found on Onund's face.
The Torm foot shifted forward slowly. Enemy formations held fast, refusing to break even as the cavalry rode through them again and again. Brand noticed a lord pulled from his mount and engulfed by a forest of descending axes. At each pass they emerged from the Kailorians slightly fewer in number. A hollow feeling grew in Brand's belly as the men around him began to murmur and question. He looked to Onund, who swallowed awkwardly, throat tensing.
Now bearing swords and hammers in place of lances, the Torm lords regrouped and retreated toward the rest of the host. The enemy followed, a seething, shouting torrent of men and axes. A tremor moved through the warriors around Brand. For moment he forget everything and could think only of which way to run. But Authgor's booming commands brought him back from brink. The quivering ceased. Brand pressed his heels into the ground and stood erect.
"Together," he managed to say to Onund. "Death or triumph."
Just then an arrow whistled by his ear. The man behind him screamed.
"Raise your shields, fools!" someone yelled.
Brand pushed his shield up in time to stop a second arrow. Its broad head lodged in the wood; Brand could see its tip poking through right at eye level. This blood raced in his limbs; he thought he heart would explode. Another arrow glanced of his shield's metal boss. Torm archers answered in kind, the twang of bowstrings lingering in air. Yet the swift enemy advance gave little time for a missile duel. The axe-worshipers crashed into the Tormings as storm-wrought wave, pushing them back, slipping through any openings. Brand watched as the ranks in front of him disintegrated, with men split open, hacked to pieces, and hurled to the ground. He and Onund could only aid them with words, adding to the curses they spat as they died.
Then Brand found himself thrusting over the shield of the man in front of him, a brave warrior who yet held it firm. His spear fended off the enemy for an instant, as even wild-eyed men paused before hurling themselves at a mass of jabbing points. They seemed wearied as well, worn down by the havok they had wrought. One such mail-clad warrior let his axe fall. He took two spears to his belly but the coat endured. The shield in front of Brand's was cloven to the boss. Yet at the aggressor's axe become stuck; he was pulled down by his victim, unable to move back because of the pressure behind him. Brand leapt over the two combatants, making sure to bring his boot down on the axe-worshiper's face.
Brand felt jaw and teeth crunch as he desperately sought to maintain the shield wall. Sense of distance and judgment were lost in the chaos - he simply did stabbed with all his might and covered himself with his shield. He moved as the press of bodies dictated. Battle was not a tide or river. It was a waterfall, a great cataract plummeting into a vast abyss. He had no freedom. The flow tore him away from Onund and cast him against sanguinary savages. Its motion became a blur. A kinsman perished before him, steel helm cloven by an enemy's axe. Brand thrust fiercely against any enemy in range. A foeman with gray eyes took Brand's point in the left thigh, slumping to the ground as another northern spear bit into his face. Two throwing axes and many arrows weighed on Brand's shield. He tossed it aside as useless and gripped his spear with both hands.
Bereft of his defense he moved like lunatic, dipping and bobbing in-between axe blows. His spear devoured quilted armor and drove into a brown-haired man's chest. Brand saw the shock on the man's face, heard the alien obscenities spew from his lips. Brand let his spear gorge again and the foeman fell. His flesh felt soft under Brand's heel. The pulse of battle was pulling him forward. He and his kin were driving the Kailorians before them. The axe-worshipers had overreached, spending themselves at the onset. Now the Torm lords ravaged the enemy's flank, with the stroke of Authgor's hammer ringing through the clamor of screams and clangs. Vala's priestesses had summoned a storm overhead; wide bolts of lightning periodically struck the opposing army, each one casting many to ground. Brand let out a mighty cry, a manifestation of madness he felt taking him, and advanced boldly.
Suddenly a broad-bladed axe appeared above him; the arms that hefted it were knotty and thick. He warded as best could, lifting his spear to stifle the blow. Still it came. He stepped back, stunned, almost going down to his knees. His kin pushed forward; a flurry of spears from his left had slain the foeman before him. Brand's skull throbbed and for a moment vision fled. The cured leather cap had saved his scalp from splitting.
"Fight on," shouted a gruff Tormling behind him. "The day will be ours soon!"
Brand strained to shake off the blow but sight evaded him. He thrust desperately into the darkness. As the world return to Brand's eyes, he saw his spear sundered by a wild axe stroke, the impact vibrating up to his hands. For an instant he fought with what was left of the shaft, until a momentary pause in the flow let him draw his father"s sword.
The blade shown red in the sunlight, not as a rusted relic but the fell legacy of some bloodthirsty king.
"Father, give me strength!" Brand cried, hewing at the nearest foe.
His intended victim was fat and bearded, but he voided the blow and they came to grips. The axe-worshiper spat in Brand's face as they locked arms. Brand cursed and leveled a kick to the man"s groin, bringing a knee to his face when he doubled in pain. Then, as Brand stepped away, his sword tasted flesh. The foeman's head nearly flew off. Brand rushed over the body, proud that would not be taking home a dry sword. A rout was beginning. The axe-worshipers who had not fallen were flying away. Their lines broke and they simply ran.
The pursuit was long; many times Brand stopped out of exhaustion and the weight of his wounds. He became aware of them all as it dragged on: bruises across his ribs, cuts on his shoulders and legs. His head still throbbed.
"We will drive them into the sea," said nearby Torm noble from atop his horse. "Spare no axe-worshiper, neither woman nor child."
The Tormlings poured into the city as grim flood, sweeping away lives and possessions. Brand was once again caught in the flow - at this point he wished only to rest for a bit, to lie on soft earth. His kin burned whatever they could not take, he saw. He had not even known that they had fought over the town. Reeling, he hazily wondered why the Kailorians had taken the field instead of hunkering down for a siege. They must be proud people too, he concluded, desirous of glory. In vain his eyes searched for Onund, for any familiar face from Jaska. His belly felt empty but he knew he could not eat. It was all madness and wails, the hiss and pop of flames. At length he crumbled down behind a looted temple, set his spinning head to the cool stone. The dreams he drifted off to were as horrible, perhaps, as what he left, but he could not remember them.
The sky was darkening when he woke to Onund"s voice.
"Ah, I have found you!" his friend cried. "I knew we would die or triumph together."
Onund was covered in crimson, Brand saw, and there was a queer tint to his eyes, the hint of the mania Brand knew all too well.
"Yes," he murmured weakly as he attempted to stand, "victory for the twin champions of Jaska."
"There"s food and drink for us here as the lords promised."
Onund handed him a flagon and he drank, but the mead only inflamed the ache in his gut. Slowly they made their way to the center of the burning town. Hundreds of bodies lined it streets: disemboweled mothers, faceless men, skewered children.
"How many did you slay?" Onund asked.
Brand stared at him blankly, an eyebrow raised.
"In the battle, I mean," Onund added. "Three men, at the least, fell to my spear."
"Two," Brand answered numbly, "I killed two, perhaps more."
"Then we both fought valiantly."
Brand nodded gingerly. His head pounded.
Onund took sizzling leg of lamb from nearby cooking fire and pulled at the flesh with his teeth. "They say we would not have won without the earl's feats of arms. He struck down their high priest on the sixth or seventh charge and so cut off the enemy from their god's blessings."
"The priest was giant for his race, as tall as I am. He wore gray armor and carried a black axe. We hung his body from top the temple here for Vala's pleasure." Onund pointed. "You can see it from here if you squint."
"He hangs by his guts," interjected a Tormling sitting by the cooking fire.
The corpse of a young girl drew Brand's gaze instead. Torn clothes exposed fair skin under the flickering flames. A slash across her face displayed teeth through the cut cheek. Her eyes, still open, were rich hazel.
"You were right," Onund whispered, drawing close to Brand. "Vala favors us. My fear has faded. I feel like a warrior."
At that Brand's knees gave out and he vomited, containing himself no longer. He heaved up what seem to be his whole bowels there, in the midst of that smoldering city he had helped sack. Onund, standing at his side, vanished from perception. Brand retched and spat until he was hallow inside, and then blackness took him.
"We must go home."
Brand spoke even before he opened his eyes. Struggling to his feet and blinking away lingering dreams of Jaska, he repeated the message once he found Onund. His companion now wore a long coat of mail and high helm of shining steel. A double-edged sword stuck in his belt.
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"We've done our service," Brand said.
Onund shook his head. "The campaign continues. Our lord offers a double share of spoils to all stay on."
They stood in ruins of the Kailorian city under the springtime sun. The air stank of ash and rotting flesh.
"I saved a hauberk and iron cap for you," Onund said.
Faint from wounds and hunger, Brand swayed and then crumpled to a sitting position. "I want to go back to Jaska," he said.
"Come, you should eat something." Onund frowned and presented a pouch of nuts and dried fruit. "These will settle your stomach. After that there's wine and meat aplenty."
Brand ate cautiously. He thought of his father as Onund showed him the pieces of armor.
"A link was missing here," Onund said, pointing, "but I found someone to repair it."
Neither he nor Brand had ever touched mail before this day. For a moment Brand marveled at the mesh of metal of rings in his hands, feeling its weight pull on his arms and shoulders. Since first seeing Fastvir, he had fantasized about wearing a white harness. Though not the impenetrable armor of lords, the hauberk would guard his body from blows and elevate him above the mass of his kin.
"I have no use for this," Brand said, pushing it away. "I'm not going to fight anymore."
"I already told our lord we would remain with him," Onund said.
"Say you spoke in haste."
Onund shook his head. "I cannot."
"Come with me back home."
"Do you wish us dishonor?" Onund stood and looked down at Brand.
"If you won't come I'll go alone."
"You can"t say that. We"re brothers in arms. We live and die as one."
"I speak in earnest." Brand also rose.
"This battle has bound our spirits and fortunes. To separate risks Vala's scorn."
"I no longer hear her song. Gerd and Frei call to me."
"Fine gods for wives and weaklings." Onund made a sharp, sweeping gesture with both hands. "Not for men."
"Rivers yield fish. Fields yield grain." Brand spoke with a bent brow, carefully choosing each word. "What comes from war but death?"
"Wealth and glory, of course," Onund snapped. "Are you a fool?"
"Stolen wealth." Brand held up the pouch of food, now half-eaten. "I want home and harvest."
"You've lost your senses." Onund's body quivered like a bowstring after a shot. "If you flee I will break our bond and forever declare you a coward to all men."
The words stung Brand's cheeks as the west wind in winter, chafing flesh and turning skin red. He took a deep breath.
"I am going," he said.
"Then you are nothing to me."
Onund turned and stalked off, hauberk tinkling, shield bouncing on his back. Brand began gathering meat and bread with shaking fingers. He dimly wondered whether some wizard had transmuted both his head and heart into lifeless stone. Under the scowls of nearby warriors, he slung a heavy satchel over his shoulder and started walking out of the city. But his strength failed him even before he escaped the stench of charred human flesh. He stumbled to his knees and couldn't get back up. Throwing down a wolf pelt, he lay on the hard ground and slipped in and out of sleep. After eating a meal of smoked cod just before dusk, he attempted to travel again and once more crumpled to the earth. Then the cold came and he huddled under his cloak. During the night he spoke Onund's name, asking where his companion was until memory reminded him.
When he rose to relive himself after the moon had set, Brand felt vigor returning to his body. He wandered about under the stars shivering and testing his legs. He thought of sowing seeds in roughly plowed fields, catching fish, and his father"s hugs.
"There's something I must do before I can go back to Jaska," he whispered in the darkness.
The next morning he reversed course and traveled to the coal-blue sea, giving one long gaze to the sacked Kailorian city as he passed by. Slipping down one of the few drops that was not a sudden cliff, he walked alone along the rock-strewn shore. He found smooth stone that matched the ocean's hue and tucked it into his pouch, marveling at its luster and imagining Osa's smile. Looking into the sea, Brand drew the sword at his belt and held it up to the low-hanging sun. A salty breeze whipped his golden hair. He understood now why his father had let the blade rust. With a flick of his forearm he cast it out into the water and watched it disappear beneath glistening azure waves. The torrent of battle had flown into the ocean, its fury faded. Brand would walk the long journey home a free man, unburdened by spear or sword.
|The Prince's Sword||Mercy|