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.
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