A life spent in campaigns and raids, marching through mud and hiding in gore; the old knight had seen losses before. He’d been defeated before. Such things were inevitable, if one was truly honest with themselves. It was impossible to have perfect control of your soldiers. Impossible to know with perfect certainty how a rival would move, or how quickly their troops could muster.
These were all excuses that he told himself, saddled on his powerfully built warhorse, tromping through the hoarfrost. It had been a slaughter, there was no other word for it. The painted faces of the Hollow Song had come through the woods in a single long line, stretching further than the eye could see. They had been slathering at the mouth, adorned with the flesh of others. The Grym had faced their out runners and scouts in forum. The Hollow Song had refused to stay dead even then. How many had he killed? He’d lost count Their ravening cries between deathblows frantic, without greater purpose. The red haze that had descended across his vision had never truly lifted. [i]Her form had been limp, nestled against the base of the damned menhir. Red wicking through the pristine white of her robes. Her voice weak and sedate as it called to him.[/i]
When an army suffers a grievous blow and is in an ordered retreat, there are sounds one expected. A morose sort of silence. The whimpering of the wounded and the drag of their sleds. The occasional shout of alarm as each branch becomes a new imagined enemy. Curses, both at their ill fate, and also their inept leadership. His troops made little of these. Instead, there were growls, unsettling and deep. There were no curses from them, only demands that their retreat halt that they could return to the hopeless battle. They had been slaughtered when their force was twice this size. Now? They would hardly even slow the madmen. Some dark seed had been planted in them, and Sven, the Elf-Blood, wished to water it. More than anything, he wished to wheel his horse about and ride back to face them.
The painted faces had been goading, by the end. He had been surrounded by a dozen or so dead of their number, a hundred more of his own. They had been grinning, nearly lecherous at them. They flesh adorned men, faces grinning and painted, words oddly encouraging, had made a hole. They’d allowed half his soldiers to slip between their lines. The intentional release couldn’t be ignored; his lines had rolled up like a carpet. They’d been doomed; he’d expected to die with his troops, and they’d let him go.
“How old were you when you killed your first man, Troels?” he asked, not really caring. The commander of his forces said something in a growling voice, but Sven hadn’t asked because he cared for the answer. Sixteen, he thought. “I was nine.”
Eyes glassy, breath frosting and catching moisture in his beard, he stared into the distance. Some memories were burned into your mind for all time, and this one was just as clear now as it had been then.
“My Uncle took me hunting. He wasn’t so much older than me. My father was Earl and had given up most frivolities to focus on managing the house, for all the good it did him. A true Gothic in all but name, father was proud to divest himself of all but his furs. But Uncle Hakon… he was all history and romance for times gone by. He was so proud of his Brand. Hakon Iceblood, the vacant eyed killer. He taught me the trade more than anyone else,” the old knight shrugged. “He would often take me hunting. Sometimes for elk, sometimes for bandits. It made little difference to him.”
He was rambling now, but it didn’t seem to matter. Words were being used as a crutch, and he needed them to keep his men moving away from certain death. The blood in his veins boiled and demanded some sort of satisfaction. To be gratified on flesh.
“Uncle Hakon collected me from the city. The usual excuses were given. He wished the heavy pelts of larger deer in the North. He said we would be gone for a few weeks. It was a long trip. We met his men a few days out of town, and we moved north. A challenge had been issued; I didn’t know it at the time, but someone…” Sven’s features shifted to a frown in though. “I can’t for the life of me remember with who. Someone had challenged someone, and now their small armies were jockeying about to find favorable ground for a battle. I’d never seen such before. Not a real one. Two organized shield walls moving and counter moving. The axes pulling open holes. Spears and blade slashing through the openings. Iceblood won. I’d never seen a man move so fast. I’d stayed back with the followers; the cooks and blacksmiths and wounded too tired to assist materially. Far enough for safety, but close enough to observe”
The scent of the battlefield had been more jarring than the sounds. The slashes of blood making mud of the ground had been greater than any hunt. Nothing in this life smelled like the belly of a man torn asunder.
“When the matter was settled, Iceblood came back, grinning like a loon. He had taken a knee and clapped me on my shoulders. ‘This is mans business’ he’d said. The gravity of the situation was broken by the manic levity painting his face. He taken his knife from his boot. A lovely blade with a hilt of polished horn. He pressed it into my palm,” the knight looked down at his gloved hand as his horse plodded on. He could still feel the small nubs dotting its length and biting into his palm. “He took me by the shoulder and guided me to the field where the wounded lay. Some were crying. Some were dragging themselves off. Some were just blinking up at the sky with bewilderment. Iceblood found a fearsome specimen. Tall as a mountain. Some axe or another had taken a deep wedge of flesh from his side. His hair was the color of embers as they burn low, with a fearsome beard to match. Darker flecks dotted the beard, looking black in the evening’s shimmering light. ‘This is mans business’ Iceblood repeated and just stood there, expectantly. I was confused. I remember looking up at him and wanting to ask what was mans business. But it was the bleeding fellow that brought clarity to me. ‘It falls to the boys to cut the throats of the fallen’ he said. ‘This is our way. Cut the throats of those who will not rise on their own again. Call it a kindness lad.’ But there was no kindness there. I was dizzy and young and had no mastery of the blade. The first thrust hesitated and caught on his rib. It skittered away, sending shivers up my arm. Damnedable feeling, the bone grating against the blade. Iceblood let me stab him three times before he told me where to cut a man that he would bleed out. Didn’t show me, mind. Told me. I never learned the name of that red maned giant, but I remember his eyes still. I cut the throats of six more men that night. Their faces are less clear to me.”
He looked up from staring at his palm to view the woods thinning to plains as they marched towards Runeheim. Word would have already reached the Avalanche and Ingvar of their devastating lost. They would be wheeling their forces about to secure the populace. They were good, moral lads, in their way.
“I don’t know what brought that to mind,” the knight said absently.