“Egil, Hakon! Come, sons, we must leave if we are to make camp before Sól sleeps,” Hemming bellowed.
I made a sly glance toward father. I didn’t want him to see my curiosity. A pack filled with provisions for the hunt embraced his shoulders. A spear, which doubled as a walking staff, sank into the soft earth.
“Coming, Pappa! Drop your leathers, Egil, we have to go,” Hakon said, shouldering the pack mother had assembled. Just like father, Hakon carried a spear as a walking stick, the sharp point giving direction to Thor’s domain.
“Why do I have to go? Why can I not stay here and help with the leathers?” I whined. It was a task needed within our small village because we relied on it for everything, and I knew Arvid would appreciate the extra help now that the kills were increasing.
Hakon smacked me on the back of my head hard enough that my nose touched the hot beskeldyrefett I was currently using to stain the vest I’d finished stitching last night. The mixture of tree sap and animal fat smelled horrible during application, but it made our clothes last longer, and now, thanks to my older brother, my nose would be red and stinking for the rest of the day. I leaned back from my work to scowl at my impish sibling. His good-natured laugh irritated me all the more.
“Don’t be a Kjerring,” he said. Walking towards our father, he said, “Get your pack and let’s go. It is our family’s turn to provide meat for the month.”
I grumbled as I cleaned my little workstation and snuffed the fire. Based on my father’s plan from last night, I thought I was going to have enough time to finish the vest this morning before leaving, but apparently he was more eager to leave the house than I thought.
Shouldering my pack, I trudged after my father and brother. I was too young to carry a spear–I hadn’t passed the Icewind Trials yet–but I was expected to be involved in the hunts. Mostly because I could haul the kills, but my father would say, “because I had a mouth that needed feeding just like everyone else.” It was a phrase he repeated often, and I was tiring of hearing it. I hated the hunts for many reasons, especially the first hunt after the snow broke because the ground was so muddy and slick, but mostly because I wasn’t as tall as my father and brother, and I had to work harder to keep up. Even when they were weighed down with the prizes from our kills, I still had to walk at a brisk pace just to keep them in my sights.
My father liked to say he was built of the granite that rooted the mountain and I was soft shale that flaked in the wind. He wasn’t totally wrong. I preferred to work on leathers then kill and make war–a staple amongst our people, but his words still hurt. Hakon made life bearable. He was the bridge between my supposed inadequacies and my father’s expectations.
Our trek from the house to our first campsite left me weary with sore legs. I was going to be in even more pain tomorrow, but I refused to whisper a word of discomfort to Pappa. He was in a rimy mood from having to stop and wait for me a few times throughout the day. Hakon, of course, was always in his good graces. We huddled before the fire. The snow may have melted, and all of us were used to withstanding a fair bit of cold, but we were high in the mountains where the wind was still as bitter as the first visit from the Frost Maiden.
My brother speared a goat. The roasted meat did wonders for my mood. What we didn’t eat tonight could be taken with us for food tomorrow. Hopefully, the fresh meat put my pappa in a better mood.
During the winter we dine on the preserved meats from our summer hunts, but with spring comes a renewal of animals, and all of us would take advantage of fresh meat over dried any day. Mamma could make a decent stew with the dried meats. She had a way of making even the oldest preserves taste delicious, but it just wasn’t the same.
Day two and three of our hunt was more of the same. Endless walking until we came to the next campsite. Pappa had his favorite places to hunt, and he went there every year. For our third campsite, I fell into an exhausted sleep after eating what I could. I was so tired. I looked forward to the day I could keep up with my family without feeling rung out and limp.
Day four dawned, and I didn’t want to open my eyes, but the angry huff of an ice bear made my eyes pop open. I froze, since it sounded like the bear was within reach of me.
“Egil, don’t move,” Hakon whispered.
I turned my eyes as far to the side as they could go without moving my head, and I could just make out my Pappa and brother with their spears in hand threatening the massive bear. I felt helpless, and I didn’t like it. What I wouldn’t give to have a spear next to me so that I could thrust the sharp point through the animal’s jugular and let the fresh blood run down my arm. That singular act could prove to my father that I was worthy of his attention. Instead, I was as immovable as the mountain’s root. Fear and necessity will do that.
Pappa growled at the beast, garnering its attention. My heart skittered as its massive paw, larger than my head with the curved needle-like claws, passed directly over my face. It is an image I will never forget. I was lucky the beast stepped over me and not on me. As soon as it passed, I rolled in the opposite direction and crouched with my knife out, ready to defend myself. However, my pappa and brother were more than enough to take down the ice bear.
“Good kill, Hakon,” Pappa said, as he carved the bear, “this will make for rousing fire-talks.”
“Thanks, Pappa,” Hakon replied, but it was more of a reactionary statement. My brother crouched in front of me. “Egil, are you alright?”
Was I alright? His question broke the spell I had been under. I wobbly glanced around. I hadn’t moved, and I was still crouched with my knife poised for a strike. Relaxing my glazed position, I said, “I’m fine.” Glancing over his shoulder, I added, “I’m going to harvest the skin before Pappa destroys it.”
“I’ll be fine, Hakon.”
My brother’s sigh told me he didn’t believe me. I didn’t really believe the statement either, but I had to pretend I was okay so I didn’t incur Pappa’s ire. He didn’t like weakness. I would show him I wasn’t weak. He needed to see I could stand despite being the nearest target of an ice bear.
We camped one more day in our current spot before making it to the hunting grounds. Processing the ice bear so we could take back much of it to our settlement proved to be a longer venture than Pappa expected.
Sól barely woke to give his light, and the fire was being kicked over with dirt, my signal that I needed to be moving or left behind. I trudged behind Pappa and Hakon, still trying to wipe the sleep from my eyes. At least we were near to the hunting ground.
The sun was fully above the horizon when we came to the valley of deer. It was a favorite spot for the large white-tailed beasts, and easy pickings when we needed to stock up for the settlement. I nearly ran into Hakon when he and Pappa both halted. I peeked around my brother to see a large group of men already butchering a fair number of deer.
“Pappa,” Hakon said, “we should go back to the settlement and gather more men to hunt these fiends.”
Pappa rolled my brother’s hand from his shoulder. “By then, it will be too late. I will lay waste to these ravagers!”
Before I could process that he was serious, Pappa ran into the valley, bellowing all the way down the hill. Hakon and I watched in tense silence as he did exactly what he said, stabbing and slashing the intruders, until one man, bigger than the others, stood from his kill with a massive axe gripped in his hand. Pappa’s expression couldn’t be seen from where I stood, but I didn’t need to see it to guess what he was thinking.
“Egil,” Hakon crouched next to me, “I want you to stay hidden. Do not come to help us. If we perish, you run straight for home.”
“You listen to me,” he growled. “Our people need to know what travesty has occurred here should Pappa and I perish.”
My frown felt like it reached my chin. “You’re talking as if you will not make it.”
“Just do what I say, Egil.”
I didn’t agree with the command, but my brother was the one person I obey without question in serious matters. I cared most for him in this world, and I watched him and Pappa slaughtered. I averted my eyes as the large man battling Pappa cracked open his chest. I didn’t want to witness what they would do to Hakon. The last thing I heard echo up the valley were the praises sung of the man who had killed both my kin. Fritjof. I frowned. His name meant stealer of peace. An apt name for the giant that had stolen mine. I punched the dirt. I would one day see Fritjof dead. He stole a life from me and I would steal his from him–no matter what it took.
I opened my eyes, drenched in a cold sweat. The memory of my brother’s death is still fresh, even after all this time. I’d become the very terror witnessed on that mountainside. I look down at my hands, still covered in blood, Fritjof’s blood. I smile. His death will be my favorite story to tell as I sit in the halls of Valhalla.
I squeeze the handle of my axe, Bjørensklӧ. It served me well through my many fights and acts of justice. I give a half-hearted chuckle. If Hakon and Pappa were still alive, they wouldn’t recognize me. A hero, a villain, and the subject of stories. I never intended to garner attention. I only wanted revenge. Which I have gained, but it has come with a price, one I’m willing to pay.
I’m ready to see the last of this world. It will be good to drink an ale with my kin.