Uggla ran his thumb across the edge of his axe. With satisfaction, he looked at the trail of dark red that it left on his gloved finger; it recalled the battle-revel, the joy of war: things that made him a man of the Skølle, a free son of the Goddess of the Sea.
Around him lay the corpses of Trow and Pyske alike, each one brought down with savage cuts of the axe and sword as Uggla’s shield wall had advanced. Their blood stained the earth, the trees, and seemed even to linger in the air and mix with the thick mists of Adelfán’s western shores. Already the scent of it drifted upwards to bring news of their victory in battle to the gods.
‘Glory to your name, warlord Uggla.’ The voice was unmistakably that of Snygg, who--despite his nickname meaning ‘the Fair’--had lost a considerable part of his lips and nose to the spears of Hulderfolk in battles past. Due to his wounds, he spoke with great difficulty.
‘And to yours, Snygg,’ Uggla replied. ‘How did we fare?’
‘Yngkliga and Hallick fell; young Linkar lies dying.’ Snygg jerked his head in the direction of where a man sat against a tree. Two other men stood over him and softly spoke to him. ‘He asks for the axe,’ Snygg said. There was not a trace of emotion on the scarred face.
Uggla nodded. He crouched down next to the dead Pyske before him and reached for the rags it had worn. Uggla looked at the Pyske’s strong horns, its long ears, and the goat-like face; it had been painted with a thick, clay-like substance that hung in clumps in the matted, blood-stained fur.
‘How alike the Gettefolk they are,’ Uggla said.
Snygg spat. ‘Hulderfolk, all,’ he said. ‘Good for the axe and nothing else.’
Uggla had known a Gettefolk once, when he was younger and had no ships of his own and no men that followed him. He had called that Gettefolk a friend and brother, and they had laughed, fought, and killed together, united by their hatred of the Hulderfolk. When his time had come, the Gettefolk, too, had asked for the axe; a favor from brother to brother in the shield wall. But that had been different: the Gettefolk had drunk deeply from the cup of life: he had had wives, sired sons and daughters, feasted and reveled, cried and grieved, and his fur was gray with age when the day of his deliverance finally came.
‘Linkar, warlord?’ Snygg’s voice roused Uggla from his thoughts. He nodded, wiped his axe clean on the Pyske’s rags, and rose to meet Snygg’s eyes.
‘Let’s deliver him,’ he said.
The blood had drawn from young Linkar’s sweaty face, and his thin, nearly white hair stuck to his forehead in matted clumps. He stared desperately at the gray sky above him to avoid looking at the tangled dark purple and red mess of intestines that he cradled with blackened hands.
Uggla cursed under his breath. He had seen Linkar fall in battle, but he had hoped the wound would be less severe. The young man had made a single, fatal mistake: he had raised his shield high to block a spear. The maneuver left an opening that was used by a small Trow--no larger than a child--to lunge at Linkar’s gut with a rusted axe. Even through the blood-mist, Uggla saw that Linkar should have ducked behind his shield; that way, it would have deflected both blows.
Linkar looked up at Uggla. His eyes were the color of ice, and in them Uggla saw nothing but reverence and admiration for the warlord, the trainer, and the teacher who had ultimately failed him.
‘Linkar. . .’ Uggla said.
The young man managed a smile. The elder man who sat next to him, Vallfarda, the shield wall’s priest, wiped young Linkar’s face with a dirty cloth that spread more filth than it wiped away. Everything was filthy on this island; everything was drenched in rain, mud, and blood.
‘I ask for the axe, warlord,’ Linkar said slowly. Each word caused him to grimace in pain.
Uggla knelt next to Linkar and looked at the young, broken face as Vallfarda handed him a skin with ale from home. It was brewed in Kristallskog, the hold where young Linkar was born and raised; it was famous for its ales. Uggla sighed deeply, and with his breath, the last of the battle-joy escaped his body.
‘Vegdar Linkar av Bardsdal,’ he said, ‘my sworn man, my brother in the shield wall: from your spirit to mine, from your blood to mine, and from your mouth to mine.’
Uggla placed the skin of ale against Linkar’s blooded lips and gently squeezed it. The dark ale came out richly, although Linkar managed to keep but little of it in his mouth. The rest flowed down to the red and purple mess below that stank of blood and half-digested food: the distinctive smell of a gut wound. When Uggla pulled the skin back, Linkar sobbed once, but managed to hold back the rest of his tears.
Now it was Uggla’s turn. He ignored the faint taste of blood and drank deeply. The bitter taste brought no joy and the cold sensation that followed in the wake of the drink brought no refreshment. When he had finished, he handed the skin back to Vallfarda and looked at Linkar once more.
The priest Vallfarda raised his hands. ‘Vegdar Linkar av Bardsdal,’ he said in his ceremonial, sing-song voice, ‘your brothers commend you to the far side where is our mother, Skolla, the Goddess of the Sea. As we are family, we shall meet again in her halls.’
After he had spoken, Vallfarda gave Uggla a nod.
The axe was heavy in Uggla’s hands when he rose. Linkar closed his eyes and clenched his jaw shut. A whimper, of pain or fear, escaped his dry lips. He seemed more like a boy now than he ever did in all the time he had sailed with Uggla.
When Uggla raised the axe, his nose picked up the rust-like scent of blood that traced it. He prayed for his skill not to abandon him now.
Of all the things Uggla had given young Linkar, perhaps a clean death would be the best.