Fates needle, p.1

Fate's Needle, page 1

 

Fate's Needle
 



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Fate's Needle


  Fate’s Needle

  by

  Jerry Autieri

  One

  Ulfrik stood in the front rank, on his father’s shield side. He pushed up his leather cap, which constantly slid over his eyes. Once I’m a blooded warrior, I’ll have my own helmet. On Ulfrik’s shield side stood his father’s hirdmen. Behind them, a crowd of about thirty men—all from the nearby farms or standing troops—formed ranks. Looking over at his eldest son, Orm reached out, removed the ill-fitting leather cap, and tossed it away. He said nothing. Ulfrik could feel his heart hammering in his chest, even though no enemy was in sight.

  “Grim, go back to the hall,” Orm ordered, pointing at his youngest son.

  Grim, wearing one of Ulfrik’s tunics that hung loosely on his young frame, had been fluttering about the front rank, brandishing a small knife and boasting about killing the enemy. His face crumpled at his father’s command. “If Ulfrik can fight in the shield wall, so can I!”

  “Fool child, nothing but trouble from the day you were born. Your brother is fifteen, and smarter than you’ll ever be. Now go, before I crack your head.”

  Grim appeared about to speak, but kept silent. He dared to glower at his father, then faced Ulfrik and spat at his feet before running back across the dew-laden grass toward the hall.

  “Better keep your brother in check,” Orm said, peering over Ulfrik’s head to the tree line beyond. “I’ve no patience for his complaints.”

  Ulfrik nodded, wondering when his father had ever had patience for Grim. He watched his brother’s form dissolve into the gray and green background. Ever since they had received news of the raiding ships, Grim had not stopped trying to join the defense. Ulfrik had told him to stay away, if only to keep their father from beating him senseless, but his brother never took his advice.

  The chill morning was quiet but for wind rushing over the cleared fields around his uncle Auden’s hall. When the wind lulled, the rasp of weapons and hushed talk of the warriors could be heard. Ulfrik continued scanning the distance. He felt his pulse throb in his neck, and was self-conscious for it. The older warriors seemed unconcerned about facing savage Vestfold raiders.

  Eventually, two figures approached from the woods: scouts, now returning.

  “The raiders have pulled up their ship as far as the inlets could take them. They’re on foot now, moving with purpose,” the older scout reported.

  Orm grunted and smiled. Ulfrik swallowed hard at the news. His father nodded to Auden, who commanded one of his men to raise Grenner’s standard, a green flag with elk antlers in black. Orm cheered as his standard fluttered, and the others joined in.

  “Cheer with us, lad.” The hirdman at Ulfrik’s shield side, Snorri, elbowed him. “Let those whoreson raiders know the land is protected.”

  Smiling, Ulfrik joined in the hollering; it felt like a celebration. These fierce men would drive back the scum from Vestfold. The invaders had no chance.

  Then, the enemy emerged—at first just muted smudges in the distance with sporadic white flashes as the thin sun glanced off their weapons. Orm and the men bellowed in challenge.

  “Form up the line to prevent flanking. Make them come to us.” Orm gestured toward the center of the field, and the men formed two straight lines as Orm had commanded.

  Undaunted by the challenge, the enemy marched toward them.

  “The line’s too thin.” Auden worried. “What it if breaks? They’ll split us up.”

  Orm didn’t seem concerned, which Ulfrik admired. He had never seen his father command men in battle, but he knew by heart the stories of his father’s bravery and cunning. Now, Ulfrik would make a new story at his father’s side. Unlike Auden, Ulfrik was certain of victory.

  “Keep your shield on me, lad,” Snorri said, nodding toward the loose group of about thirty approaching raiders. “I’m trusting you to guard my life.”

  “I am ready, Snorri,” Ulfrik said, but he felt his knees buckle and his breath grow ragged. He regretted refusing the mead and ale the men had been passing around earlier to steady their nerves. Watching the solemn march of the enemy, he whispered a prayer to Thor to keep his sword true in battle.

  The raiders halted in the middle of the field, out of bow range. Two men strode forward, hulking figures in furs and mail hauberks. The one at the back shouldered a two-handed ax. Orm tapped Ulfrik with his shield. “Come with us to the parley and learn how it’s done. There are many ways to tell a man to go fuck a goat. I’ll show you a few now.”

  Orm and Auden peeled out of the shield wall to confront their enemies. Ulfrik, trying to keep his face devoid of expression, followed, but his head felt hot and his eyes wanted to close. As they approached the men, Ulfrik realized the shorter man was the leader. He was stout and thick-necked, and his eyes glinted with what Ulfrik recognized as conceit. Grim might look like him when he comes of age, he thought. Two gold arm rings encircled his biceps beneath the cuff of the hauberk and his black hair blew forward over his face as he waited. Ulfrik noticed the dazzling green gem set in the pommel of the man’s sword.

  “I am Orm the Bellower, Jarl of Grenner,” his father said as they approached. Ulfrik said nothing, merely turned up his chin defiantly. “You are trespassing on my lands, dogface. I’ll allow you and your band of swineherds to leave now without punishment.”

  The leader did not flinch.

  Ulfrik watched the exchange with fascination. He would have to do this one day, when his father passed Grenner on to him. Orm’s warning, however, seemed bland. Ulfrik had seen his father angered more readily by a spilled mug of ale. Perhaps it’s all part of the act.

  “I am Aki Geirson, and my men and I will leave. But the price is twenty pounds of silver.”

  Orm and Auden laughed. The man named Aki remained impassive, his hair blowing across his face. The other raider with him hitched his ax up his shoulder and appeared bored.

  Orm looked Aki up and down. “Listen to me, Aki Geirson. I’ve seen your type before; their skulls now watch over my coast from the tops of poles. I will add you and your men to that guard duty. Now leave here and never return, or I will feed your guts to the birds, you turd-eating pig.”

  “Twenty pounds of silver,” Aki repeated. “And we leave without burning your hall and taking your little boy as a slave.”

  Ulfrik startled at Aki’s acknowledgement, and his gaze flew to his father.

  A brief smile alighted on Aki’s thin lips.

  “You choose death, Aki Geirson.” Orm turned, and Auden followed. For a moment, Ulfrik worried the axman would chop them down from behind, but Aki and his guard also turned away.

  Ulfrik hurried behind his father and uncle, the wind filling his ears as they crossed the field back to their lines.

  “He looks like a good brawler,” Orm told Auden, but his eyes remained on his own men. “What did you see in his men? Bows?”

  Auden, also looking ahead, replied, “No bows that I saw, but spears. I counted twenty-eight. Their weapons are not well maintained. They’ll run off when the fighting gets tough.”

  Orm grunted again as they returned to the line. He looked down at Ulfrik with the barest of smiles on his face. “The parley is a chance to get a better look at the enemy. Take someone you trust to it; let him count enemy spears and give you advice.”

  Ulfrik nodded, turning back to Aki, who had disappeared into the crowd of raiders. “What now? Do we wait here?”

  Orm did not acknowledge Ulfrik, instead stepping in front of the men. “Listen, they are weak and we are strong. They are desperate and we are calm. We have some numbers over them, and bows. Fire on them as they close, but hold this line. They’ll try to put a swinehead through us. We’ll fold up on their flanks and cut them to bits. No prisoners. Understood?”
>
  The men roared, and Orm encouraged their bloodlust. Ulfrik joined in, but felt his own calls were lame, unheard squeals. He knew Aki and his fiercest men would lead the swinehead—the wedge formation used to break a shield wall—which meant they would collide directly with Ulfrik’s position. He straightened up, squeezing out the jitters.

  Aki lead his men closer, still in a loose group, and began to hurl insults. With all the ferocity Ulfrik expected from his father, Orm yelled back across the expanse. Orm the Bellower could be heard above anything, across any battlefield. His battle cry weakened men and frightened wolves. Ulfrik felt proud to stand next to him at this moment, and to let out his own bellow.

  “Arrows!” Orm called. But the weak hunting bows failed to reach Aki’s line.

  Aki and his men laughed and showed their backsides. More arrows flew, one actually landing among them. A section of their ranks jumbled to avoid the arrows.

  After a while, neither side had advanced and the cajoling and cursing grew uninspired. Ulfrik anticipated the attack. He could already feel the enemy shields clashing on his own.

  Orm must have sensed it as well. “Ready shields. They’ll come at us soon.”

  True enough, Aki called out and pointed at them with his sword; the green gem on the pommel flashed, as if winking at Ulfrik. Then the whole group moved forward at a jog. Orm’s few bowmen fired and first blood was shed as an arrow found a mark. A raider fell, clutching his neck. As the enemies approached, screaming and cursing, they picked up speed.

  Then they seemed to slow, and they raised their arms.

  At first, Ulfrik didn’t understand.

  “Spears!” Orm screamed, raising his shield.

  With a hiss, the enemy let their spears fly, some hurling two at a time. The heavy shafts sailed in steady arcs, thudding all along the line and into the earth before them. Ulfrik ducked behind his shield just as someone behind him screamed with a wet gurgle.

  “Lock shields!” Orm cried again. “No mercy!”

  Ulfrik hurried to place his shield on Snorri’s. Beside him, Orm’s shield clacked on his own. Over the leather shield rim, Ulfrik saw Aki leading a charge, his men forming a loose wedge behind him. Screams washed over them, and Ulfrik pulled behind his shield and braced for the onslaught.

  None of the powerful kicks Orm had ever delivered to Ulfrik’s shield in drills could compare to the impact of a real charge. The enemy crashed down upon Ulfrik; Aki had probably guessed he was the weakest link. He felt himself driven back as the charge plowed home, but the man behind shoved him forward, smashing Ulfrik up against the point of the swinehead. His breath pressed out of his chest, Ulfrik swooned.

  But somehow he still stood.

  The noise was deafening: the roars and curses of men on both sides, the clash of shields like rocks clattering down a mountainside. Then, under the shield came a gray iron blade. Ulfrik sprang back, the blade searching for his crotch or inner thigh—either strike would bleed him out in minutes. In answer, spears plunged down from behind him, striking over the shield wall at the enemy.

  Regaining his composure, Ulfrik jabbed his short blade under the shield, feeling it turn on something as he did. Now came the steady killing. Men on both sides howled and screamed. The tang of blood rose into the air. Ulfrik kept his shield over Snorri, who screamed and jabbed his blade beneath it. Orm, next to him, pushed forward into Aki.

  Giddy and light-headed, Ulfrik stabbed his sword again and again beneath his shield until it came away bloody. It had to have been Aki’s blood; the enemy leader shrieked in pain whenever Ulfrik felt the resistance to his strike. It was an incredible feeling to exist only in the timeless space of battle—a space in which people moved with perfect clarity. Ulfrik didn’t know how it happened, but suddenly the orderly battle lines on both sides were broken. Men were pairing off in combat. To his left, Snorri had engaged a red-haired giant with a bloody ax. A sallow-faced man came at Ulfrik with a spear from the front. Instinctively, his shield arm snapped up, saving him but lodging the enemy spear deep into the wood and sending Ulfrik careening backward. The attacker, also without a shield, dropped his spear and fumbled for his long knife. It was the pause Ulfrik needed. He stepped into the gap and sliced upward, his blade ripping through the man’s unprotected throat like old linen. Blood gushed down the man’s body as he flopped face down with Ulfrik standing over him.

  The close but disordered ranks of men crashed into him all around. Before him, Orm and Aki traded blows strong enough to behead a horse. Aki, despite being shorter, steadily beat Orm back until Ulfrik saw his father stumble over a corpse. Again the world slowed down. Orm toppled backward, one arm out to break his fall, his shield arm drawn protectively over his chest. Aki’s eyes seemed lit with a feral fire. He stepped into Orm’s fall, hauling his sword back, preparing to plunge it into the gap in Orm’s defense. Ulfrik, watching, felt everything move too slowly; it could not be real.

  He leaped forward, his borrowed sword seeming almost to pull him toward Aki’s exposed armpit. The iron blade thrust easily through the chain links, plunged into Aki’s soft skin, and finally halted on bone deep inside. He saw Aki’s eye blaze. Then the man’s eyelids fluttered, his pupils dimmed. Brilliant scarlet sprayed Aki’s sides and his mouth fell open, releasing a torrent of blood as he twisted and fell. Ulfrik, amazed, forgot to release his sword; it snapped as Aki toppled.

  Weaponless and stunned, Ulfrik looked up into the melee. Men dashed everywhere. He could not tell who was who, but he guessed the enemy was in retreat now that their leader was a corpse at Ulfrik’s feet.

  Orm leaped up, ready to fight, as if he had never touched the ground. Ulfrik, still straddling Aki before him, nodded to his father. Even as men still swirled in combat, Orm dropped his fighting stance and strode to Ulfrik’s side. Kicking Aki’s body over, he dropped his hand to his son’s shoulder. Breathing heavily, father and son stared down at the corpse at their feet.

  “You are a man today,” Orm finally said, patting Ulfrik’s back. “When I’m gone you will be a fine jarl.”

  Ulfrik heard no more but his own beating heart. He looked to his father, who was surveying the ebbing tide of the battle, the bloody flotsam of its wake. Ulfrik smiled, and swore he would never forget this day.

  ***

  The raiding party had been destroyed, killed to a man as near as anyone could tell. Once the bodies had been stripped of valuables and the raiders’ ship found and hauled overland to the hall, Ulfrik helped carry away the treasures. Orm made good on his promise to line the coast with the raiders’ heads, supervising a few men performing the grizzly task. Ulfrik was glad he did not have to watch.

  Only one of their own had died—the man who had taken a hit from the thrown spears.

  “A fool to die like that,” Orm had told Ulfrik privately. But later, when the man’s relatives came to collect their blood price, Orm had praised the man as if he were a hero from a saga. Some of the other men had taken serious injury, but once everyone had cleaned up, they nonetheless prepared to celebrate with a feast.

  Ulfrik sat at the high table with his father, his uncle, and their hirdmen. Being a man meant he was to drink like a man, yet he still became drunk like a boy. Orm and Auden were in high spirits, and every time Ulfrik drained his mug it was ordered refilled. Ulfrik was enjoying the glory of the battle and the camaraderie of the warriors. Earlier, he had embellished his own role for the excitement of his cousins, ignoring Grim’s constant interruptions and belittlement. Now, Grim had disappeared, making the feast even more pleasant.

  “Listen! Listen to me!” Orm banged on the table as he stood. “By the gods, still your mouths!”

  Men laughed and fell silent, turning on their benches to look up to Orm.

  “Today, we celebrate not only our victory, but also the making of a man.” Orm gestured to Ulfrik without looking down. Several of the men hammered on the tables and growled their approval. Ulfrik shrank under the attention, not knowing what to do.

  “
You’ve heard how he sent that rat-turd Aki Geirson to his death,” his father continued. “But you hear it now from me. Ulfrik slew two men today—equal to the head count of any of you. I watched him at work. Not a moment’s hesitation in his thrust. Aki thought Ulfrik was our weakest link, but he is fierce and strong. He is one of us!”

  The hall swelled with cheers and roars. All of the mugs were raised to him and Orm snatched up his own.

  “Stand up, boy.” Auden smiled and raised his own mug. “Take glory when it shines on you. Hurry!”

  So Ulfrik stood, wobbling and taking up his mug. Orm guzzled his mead, and everyone followed. Ulfrik slugged his back, too, although the taste was beginning to make him nauseous. As he sat again, he noticed Orm whisper to Snorri. Something passed between them: an object Orm kept hidden behind his back. Snorri winked and stepped away.

  “All men who fight in a battle are entitled to part of the spoils,” Orm said. “Ulfrik was in such a hurry to tell his cousins about his day, he forgot to grab his share.” Laughter rippled through the hall and Ulfrik smiled in embarrassment. He hadn’t thought of looting, even though he had been assigned the task of carrying the goods.

  “I have picked the finest of spoils,” Orm said, “and I give it to you now.”

  From behind his back, Orm produced Aki’s blade. The green gem inlaid in the pommel glittered and winked in the light of the hall. Orm turned it around and tipped the hilt at Ulfrik. “Take this, Ulfrik,” Orm said softly, and with more feeling than Ulfrik had ever heard from him. “Slay many foes with it. Gather glory with it. You made me proud today, and you have my thanks.”

  Ulfrik carefully took the blade into his hands, as if it were an infant. The hilt welcomed him, fitting his hand as if made for him. A sharkskin wrap kept the hilt rough and tight in his grip. The weight felt perfect. He wanted to draw it, but there was no space. Instead, Ulfrik turned to the men and held it out over them. They cheered and clapped. Ulfrik felt his eyes become wet.

  Then he saw Grim.

 
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