Beren stared at the copper caps of Agna’s mead hall. Over the years, they’d been lovingly oiled and polished to ward off the jade patina that had still managed to start its incursion. It was a beautiful building, hewn from great, red trees and adorned with dozens of intricate carvings. Above the door hung a man-sized dragon skull from a previous winter’s hunt. This they had coated in black lacquer to protect it from the elements.
For near forty years he’d served the jarl, the chief, under that mighty, snow-covered roof, bringing the choicest game and guarding her people. Now, those duties, and quite possibly his life, would be taken from him. For all intents and purposes, telling the jarl was suicide, the most shameful death any of his people could suffer.
With a quiet sigh, he started towards the front door of the hall, his hunting party behind him. They were each capable, even down to the newest addition, a youth of eighteen winters by the name of Harald. It had been Harald who had killed the moose and one of the deer with which they were returning now. The boar Beren and Leif had slain lay where it died, somewhere back in the forest.
The heavy cedar doors of the mead hall parted before he reached them, as if welcoming the bad news. He could see Agna herself standing to welcome them just inside. The jarl wore a thick bearskin cloak and broad gold chain, badges of her office which she donned only on special occasions
Upon reaching the threshold, Beren saw the black candles and bitter greens at each seat along the tables. They must have already prepared the funeral pyre as well.
“Welcome back, huntsmen,” Agna’s voice sounded calm. “I trust you’ve already observed the preparations for the funeral rite.”
“I have,” he nodded. Agna couldn’t have know about the event in the woods, which meant someone else in the village had died within the last three days that he and his men had been gone. “Whose is it?”
The jarl blinked with surprise. “Sigrid’s of course. This is the anniversary of her passing, is it not?”
A mixture of anger and renewed grief swept over Beren. This was indeed the same time of year his wife had passed, but he did not want the reminder. Even with the time that had passed, the wound felt fresh. “She already had the rite,” he grunted.
“While you were away, yes. You need this now just as much as her spirit did then.”
Beren shook his head and sighed. “Someone else needs it more.” He stepped aside to allow the huntsmen behind him to enter the hall with their kills. One of the carcasses in particular caught Agna’s attention. It had been wrapped in two cloaks and bound with three lengths of rope to keep it shielded from the elements. A large, red patch of thickened fluid had soaked the lower half of the thing, and the two men carrying it grunted under its weight. It was exactly the right size for a human, but the shape wasn’t clear enough to judge for sure.
With the utmost care, Beren’s two most trusted companions set the body on the open spot on the far table- the spot reserved specifically for the deceased. Agna approached the body and extended her palm towards the nearer of the two. The man presented his knife and Agna motioned him to cut the bonds at what she’d assumed was the corpse’s head. The rope sheared and the cloak parted enough to reveal a pair of fine boots. The jarl recognized them instantly. “Leif,” the name left her lips as little more than a whisper.
She turned to the head huntsman and set her jaw. “How did it happen, Beren?”
Beren came to a stop at the edge of the small clearing, his breath showing as great, billowing puffs of white. Ruby spots stained the snow at his feet, each growing closer together as he neared his quarry. He could see the boar as it teetered at the edge of the pines, a pair of spears wedged in its ribcage.
Leif loped past him. “You’re useless, old man,” he pointed to the shaft poking from the animal’s hip. “Barely pierced the hide.”
“Check again, Leif. My spear’s the one in its throat.”
“Dragon spit. You couldn’t have made that hit if you’d been standing next to the thing,” Leif scoffed. He shook his head. “Chief Huntsman. Of all the titles she could think of…”
“I earned it.” Beren asserted, making his way over to the boar. The other hunters would probably be along soon, so he and Leif would need to be quick in preparing the carcass for the journey home.
“Back off, old man. This is my kill,” Leif’s eyes narrowed and spat at the elder hunter’s feet. He pulled out a knife and slit the boar’s belly, spilling its steaming guts onto the snow. A foul smell wafted from the body and Beren’s nose wrinkled. In his haste, Leif had cut too deep.
“I offered help,” he shook his head. “But as usual you seem intent on finding the worst in it.”
Leif scowled at him. “Back. Off.” He stood and rested a hand on one of the spears.
“Get your head out of the ice Leif, I’m twice the man you are- have been for thirty winters. Take your hand off that weapon.”
The younger man’s eyes narrowed and his voice raised further. “Twice the man? I am heir to the clan! You have no authority over me.”
“Heir, yes, but not jarl. Agna would have you removed from the hall for your actions today.”
“Removed me? Our people fight for fun, Beren! What I did was-”
“You struck a man who offered you no offense. You’re lucky it caused no lasting harm.” Beren’s ire had begun to climb, Leif had never been the teachable sort.
“I put Harald in his place, something I’ve needed to do with you for a long time.”
The older hunstman shook his head. “Remember who your sister’s favorite-“
Leif let out a feral cry and shoved Beren back. The older huntsman stumbled, even as Leif freed one of the spears from the gurgling boar. Beren was just starting to regain his feet when the spear sliced through his ear and embedded in a nearby tree. “You’ve done it now, boy!”
The huntsman’s blade rang from its scabbard as Leif aimed the second spear. Beren ducked and the weapon sailed into the woods. Leif backpedaled and drew his own sword. The older huntsman’s first strike came overhead in a blow meant to cleave Leif’s skull in two. The younger man managed to bring his sword to overhead just in time to block the blow.
Beren’s second swing came down in the same place not a second later. Leif had slid to the left, and the blade drove his block almost down to his shoulder. Before the younger man could push back, Beren had altered his stroke to slide towards his opponent’s head, and the weapon glanced off the side of Leif’s skull.
The younger man reeled back. Beren saw that the blade had barely cut the skin, but the impact left his opponent dazed. Leif lashed out, and Beren felt his jaw take the hit, and he staggered back. Both men hung back for a second before closing distance again. Beren found himself on the defense as Leif’s swordpoint lunged at his heart.
Beren turned to the side and batted the blade away, but not before the point found purchase on his cloak and carved a shallow gash in his arm. He locked his hand around Leif’s wrist and brought a sharp kick to the man’s groin. The younger man doubled over just as the first voice came from the woods.
“Beren what are you doing!?”
He brought the pommel of his sword down on Leif’s head.
Beren let his gaze drop to the floor for a moment. “He attacked me.”
“He always was a fire-brand,” Agna sighed. “I take it you killed him then?”
Under other circumstances, he would have reveled in a chance to recount the glory of a fight, now however, he felt subdued, like he’d just betrayed his closest friend. “Aye.” Jorgunn and Milla, the two hunstmen who had witnessed the end of the fight, locked eyes on their leader.
“He died a warrior’s death?”
Beren gave no answer. The truth bore so much more weight than could be conveyed in the simple words he’d chosen. That Leif had attacked him was disgrace enough. The only real way to salvage the man’s honor was to sacrifice his own by lying.
Agna challenged him again. “Did he die a warrior’s death, Beren?”
“Aye,” the word tasted like bile in his mouth.
“Then you have done him a service.”
At length Beren replied. “If I could make one request before my execution?”
“I won’t kill you Beren. I won’t lose my brother and my most loyal servant in the same day.”
“You’ll lose clout with the other clans.” The words were out before he could stop them.
Agna gave a pained smile. “I know. You have three days to say your goodbyes. Then you are banished.”
A cold descended on the hunter quite separate from any the winter could have brought. Fear was not the assailant here. A lone man could survive on berries and deer and dragon eggs, but to be cast off from one’s clan was a lifelong stigma that no one could erase.
“This is not justice!” Jorgunn challenged.
“You would rather I have him slain?”
“I have made my bed,” Beren said. “And I will lie there.”
“Then I will accompany you,” Harald stepped forward.
“As will we,” three of the other huntsmen stepped forward, joined a moment later by Milla. Jorgunn remained in place.
Beren let a rueful smile cross his features. “Thank you, all of you, but it is not needed.”
“No matter,” Milla asserted. “It is settled.”
Agna heaved a sigh. As loyal as Beren had been to her, so these men had and would be to him. “I will miss you. All of you. You were of my family, my clan.”
Leif staggered at the blow to his head and dropped to his hands and knees. Jorgunn and Milla came barreling into the clearing just as Beren stepped back from Lief.
“What are you doing!?” Jorgunn’s eyes bulged.
He knelt and wiped his blade in the snow, then dried it on his cloak. “Teaching a whelp a lesson. The little maka threw a spear at me.”
“Striking the jarl’s brother…”
“Should I have let him kill me? Without putting up a fight? He still breathes. Maybe now he will afford his elders some respect.” He started back towards the edge of the clearing.
Jorgunn frowned. “Fair.”
Beren reached the edge of the clearing and set to work cleaning the boar. “I suppose the others have brought down that moose?”
“Aye.” Milla trudged over to the elder huntsman and started to help, while Jorgunn made his way to Leif. Before he reached the young man, however, Leif stood and grabbed his sword. “You’re dead old man, DEAD!”
With that, he charged, but failed to account for the first spear he had thrown, which still lodged in a tree in front of him. The shaft of the weapon caught his foot, and he went sprawling headfirst into the snow. Milla turned and laughed.
“That is why you will never outrun your prey,” she grinned. Leif made no motion to get up and Milla’s smile faded. “Leif?”
The hunters made their way towards the fallen youth. Before any of them reached him, Beren caught sight of a growing red stain in the snow. Jorgunn was the first to reach Leif and flip him over, revealing that he’d been impaled by his own sword.
Beren got to him just in time to see the man’s mouth moving, struggling to form words with lungs that could hardly draw air. Leif’s eyes rolled in their sockets and he tried to vomit, instead expelling an alarming quantity of blood. Somehow, he managed to gather enough breath for his next words. “Don’t… don’t tell her…”
“I won’t,” Beren promised. Leif slipped into unconsciousness. “For her sake.”
Simeon Overbo is an undergraduate student at the University of South Florida. He enjoys writing, swimming, reading, and Norse mythology.
Featured image on this post © Bennett North. Author photo © the author.