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Kai is looking for a quiet place to rest, but he finds a maid in distress. He rescues her, then she brings him to her father for honor. When they meet, Kai is reunited with his brother, but it is no happy reunion when steel flashes.
Haze and noise filled the room, mingling with aromas of warm food and too many bodies. A large fire danced in the fireplace opposite the bar. In front of the fire, a skald was preparing to sing as patrons shuffled about to make room to sit before him. Kai was preparing to leave.
Rising from his table, Kai almost tripped as a child rushed passed him to find a place next to the skald. With more care, Kai made his way to the door, tossing the barkeep a few pennies as he walked past.
Once outside, the air stole his breath away in white puffs. Kai welcomed it, preferred it over the stuffy air of the hall. He pulled his cloak around him tightly against the chill breeze as he walked to the stables. He also much preferred sleeping with the beasts than rolling on the floor with drunkards.
A hush filled the hall behind him, and Kai could hear the skald beginning his tale. The smell of beasts was strong before the stable doors. As he opened them, a muffled cry came from the back, followed by a quiet grunt and a sudden covering of a lantern.
“What do you want? Go listen to the tale, there’s nothing out here for you,” said a disembodied voice.
“My sleep lies out here. If you don’t want company, you may leave,” Kai said gruffly.
Scuffles and grunts came from the back, along with a slap.
“There’s only one, and he looks old,” came a whisper.
“I am only one, but I’m not that old,” Kai replied.
With a rush of noise and light, two bodies crashed into Kai, bowling him across the floor. As he was rising from the ground, a body rushed at him again, but this time Kai could see what he was fighting, and with a side step, he caught a youth by an arm and threw him to the ground then turned in time to confront another attacker.
Before Kai stood a young man with a seax in one hand, shifting his weight from one foot to the other in a defensive stance, gesturing Kai to attack with his free hand. Kai reached for the pitch fork leaning against the wall next to him, but the man rushed in with the knife. He slashed at empty space. Kai caught the armed hand with an iron grip and hammered the elbow with his other hand. A cry of pain and crunch assured Kai that at least one attacker was downed, leaving only the one sprawled on the floor and the one holding the lantern.
As Kai turned towards the lantern bearer, his feet were knocked out from under him, followed by a kick to the ribs. Kai coughed at the kick, which was followed by another. Another kick came, but Kai rolled towards the attacker, tripping him. Kai crawled to the tripped youth and punched him once in the face, knocking the fight out of him.
Rising once again to his feet, he turned to face the last man, only to find him sprawled out on his belly with a seax sticking in his back up to its hilt and a young, disheveled woman standing over him, spitting.
“I told you, Ryan: no means no,” the young woman said, smoothing her dress.
She wasn’t much more beautiful than any other maid around. Kai could see the roughing up and disheveled appearance didn’t take from or add to her beauty. But her manner demanded one’s attention.
“Thank you, sir. No doubt you have saved me from great shame tonight. My name is Greta,” she said bowing slightly.
“Kai,” he replied. “Are you hurt at all?”
“Just pride, but that has been mended,” she said, stepping over Ryan’s body while combing straw from her hair. “You have helped see to that.”
“You two get out of here, and remember what happens when you deal with me,” Greta said as the other attackers fled the stables.
Kai rubbed a hand across his ribs. They were far from broken, but he’d feel those kicks in the morning. He walked over to the body. Blood trickled from the stab, settling in a puddle around the corpse.
Kai sniffed in disgust. There were a growing number of violent acts around the countryside. Young men bent on making a name or claim what wasn’t rightfully theirs by force. It was sad, and even with the chieftains’ help, it was a growing problem in the more settled areas. Kai was grateful that he usually kept away in the wilds.
“You can’t possibly want to stay the night here now. You shall stay at my home for the night.”
“That would be better than sleeping with the dead,” Kai said, turning to follow Greta.
The skald’s melodic voice could scarcely be heard in the cold outside of the stables. Greta led Kai at a quick pace through the village, stopping at another, livelier hall. Light and noise flooded the empty street when Greta pushed open the door.
“My father should be inside. Wait out here, and I’ll bring him out,” Greta told him before she strode in.
Kai pulled his cloak closer again and rested his hand on his sword hilt. The stars shined bright and clear through a few slight clouds. A chill breeze swept up the street at Kai before the doorway was filled with Greta and another.
“My daughter tells me that she was saved by some great warrior by the name of Kai. I could only hope she didn’t mean you, but it is you,” said the man next to Greta.
“Gunnar. How long has it been?” Kai asked as he unsheathed his sword.
“Not long enough, brother, not long enough,” Gunnar said, producing a great axe.
Kai unbound the cloak around his shoulders and let it slide free as he held his sword before him. The breeze was stronger now, and before the cloak slid to mid-back, it was picked up and blown a few feet away to land in a puddle. Gunnar now had made his way out of the hall, despite a protesting Greta.
“Father, stop! Kai saved me from being ravaged by that ingrate Ryan. He deserves honor, not death!”
Gunnar pushed her away from him with such force that she fell to the ground. “You don’t understand what is happening here, girl. Get inside.”
Greta was rising from the ground to protest again when Kai said, “Listen to your father, Greta. We have business which requires closure. Whatever honor you feel I deserve, consider it fulfilled in the fact that you are safe. That is all the honor I need.”
“Go, girl!” Gunnar barked.
Greta walked into the hall and closed the door behind her.
“You’ve got balls, Kai. I never expected to see you again. Thought you had disappeared into the wild like the beast you are.”
“I wish I had now. Gunnar, we don’t have to fight. No bloodshed will bring ease to you.”
Gunnar laughed. “Oh, it will. If the blood is yours, I’ll feel better. Our parents will feel better. Hilda will feel better! Once you are dead, their souls may rest in peace.”
“I didn’t kill your Hilda or our parents. We are brothers! Why after all these years do you still not believe me?”
“Liar!” Gunnar leaped forward swinging his axe. Kai parried with his sword in both hands and kicked Gunnar in the stomach. Gunnar stumbled backwards and fell to the ground.
Gunnar grunted and stood up. “I saw you slay father. I saw you run him through with your sword. I saw father fall to his knees and look up at you and plead before you tore your sword from his stomach and walked away. I will never forgive you!”
“That wasn’t father. A demon had hold of him. It was the demon who killed mother and Hilda. He was going to slay Knut before I stopped him. I’m sorry I couldn’t stop him sooner, before Hilda.”
“Lies! Come, be a man and fight me!” Gunnar stood with his axe in a ready position.
Kai readied his sword then charged Gunnar. Sparks flew into the air as axe and sword met. Gunnar grunted and pushed Kai back far enough to chop at his torso. Kai stepped back and countered with his own chop at Gunnar’s shoulder. Gunnar moved quickly and ducked under the sword, kicking at Kai’s legs.
Kai fell to the ground and rolled, dodging Gunnar’s attack and coming up on his feet just behind his brother. He thrust his sword, but was parried and countered by an elbow to the stomach. Gunnar swung his axe again at Kai’s torso, missing as Kai spun away.
Again sword and axe met in a shower of light, revealing a small gathering growing around the two snarling brothers. Greta was among the crowd, trembling.
Both brothers fought with fluid skill, neither giving the other any gain. Kai was bleeding from a gash across his back. Gunnar was also bleeding. This was a fight between two equally matched men, both masters of their weapons. It could only end with one outcome: death.
His breath coming in gasps, Gunnar rose from the ground after his feet were tangled in Kai’s discarded cloak. He raised his axe high and charged. Kai parried the blow aside and dropped his sword. He threw himself at Gunnar, knocking him to the ground. Kai tore Gunnar’s axe from his hands and threw it away.
Gunnar stood up, pulling his seax out. He circled his brother until Kai was standing, grasping his knife as well. They lunged at each other, both drawing blood then retreating. The fight was slowing. Both brothers’ chests were heaving, their limbs were quivering with the heat of battle, and blood was flowing.
“Let’s stop this madness, Gunnar.”
“No! You started this sixteen winters ago. It will end tonight.”
Kai jumped back as Gunnar slashed. He countered with a jab, only managing to tear Gunnar’s shirt. Gunnar feinted with his seax, and as Kai dodged, Gunnar kicked him. Kai staggered back a step but had no time to steady himself before Gunnar was on top of him again. Gunnar grappled Kai’s knife hand and stabbed at him with his seax, tearing open an ugly gash in Kai’s right side, the blade sliding across ribs. Kai caught Gunnar’s knife hand, crashed his forehead on the bridge of Gunnar’s nose, then broke free.
Blood was soaking Kai’s side, and it seemed the cut was filled with fire. He knew this had to end soon.
Gunnar rushed in, slamming a fist into Kai’s wound. Kai stumbled back. When Gunnar rushed again, Kai sidestepped the lunge and slid his seax between Gunnar’s ribs.
Gunnar stumbled forward a few steps until he fell. Blood was pumping out. Steam rose from the blood as the last bit of life flowed from Gunnar.
Kai fell to his knees, trembling. He looked up to the sky and howled.
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