Geirmund's SagaMatthew J. Kirby
Assassin's Creed Valhalla
“Behind you!” Hámund shouted, drawing his bow.
Geirmund dodged aside as the arrow whistled past him, heard a thunk and a whimper, but he had no time to turn and look. The fourth wolf leapt upon him before he could raise either of his weapons, and he went down under its weight, the snapping of the animal’s teeth in his ears, its rancid breath in his nose. Geirmund put his sword arm up to keep that mouth from his throat and the wolf seized it. Its fangs sank into the meat of his arm, puncturing leather, wool, and skin, and he knew those jaws would shatter his bones.
Geirmund had not yet regained his feet when a fifth beast charged that narrow gap in their defences. He scrambled to get up, bleeding and slipping in the snow, but couldn’t reach his brother in time.
“No!” Geirmund cried. The wolf flew at Hámund, yanking him to the ground.
Also in the Assassin’s Creed® series
The Secret Crusade
© 2020 Ubisoft Entertainment.
First published by Aconyte Books in 2020
ISBN 978 1 83908 060 9
Ebook ISBN 978 1 83908 061 6
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A Common Knife
The wolves appeared almost as soon as the red deer fell, and Geirmund wondered how long the beasts had been stalking them. His brother’s arrow had not been well placed in the stag’s side, and the wounded animal had bellowed and bled a vivid trail, leading them on a lengthy chase before it finally collapsed in the early snow with one last grunt and sigh. The sounds and smells of its death had doubtless reached deep into the surrounding valleys and over the hills, as loud to the wolf pack as the summoning of a blown battle horn.
“How many do you count?” Hámund asked.
Geirmund peered into the woods, which were already twilight-dim that late in the afternoon and darkening still. The open lowland groves of oak had long since given way to dense mountain forest in which all manner of beasts could hide. Black trunks of pine and birch stood in silent vanishing array, the posts of a hall into which Geirmund and his brother had not been invited. No hearth or soapstone lanterns burned there, and if such a hall had a king or a chieftain, be it troll or spirit, that ruler would offer them no protection.
“I count five,” Hámund said.
And those were only the wolves that wanted to be seen. Geirmund drew his sword and pulled his axe free. “There could be twice that many held back.”
“Held back?” Hámund frowned. “You credit these wolves with the battle cunning of a raiding party.”
“That is what they are, in their way.” Geirmund had glimpsed their leader as she skulked between the trees and paused in open view as if to look into his eyes and make certain that he realized she knew all about him. Her hackles bristled, her coat the colour of wet driftwood, and though she was large, there were others in her pack that were larger. That meant she did not rule by strength alone. “They may not sail by longship, but these wolves have come a-viking.”
Hámund continued to scoff. “Next you’ll tell me they’ll attempt to flank us.”
“They’ll certainly try.”
Now Hámund scoffed at him, and Geirmund’s temper flared.
“Perhaps if you had spent less time drinking ale and flattering jarls with Father, you would know how wolves hunt.”
Hámund stopped laughing but made no reply. Geirmund measured his older twin’s silence and knew he would have to answer for the insult later, however true the observation might have been, but not in the danger of that moment. Several of the pack had openly advanced a few paces towards them, heads down, lips curled, with low thunder in their throats.
“They want the deer,” Hámund said. “Perhaps we should let them have it.”
Geirmund glanced down at their kill, a young buck that had not yet fought and claimed his own herd of hind-wives. That early in the winter he still had his antlers, and though they were no trophies, they were large enough for carving something useful, and his unblemished red coat still held a silken shine. His meat would make good eating.
“You would let them take what is yours?” Geirmund asked.
“You would die for a deer when there’s a full larder at home?”
The bluntness of that question caused Geirmund to stop and reconsider. They were three days out from their own hall at Avaldsnes. What had started as a short hunt for small game had quickly become something much more ambitious. Finding larger prey scarce nearby, they had followed the Ålfjord north-east, far into the uplands that rose south-west of the village of Olund, near the border with Hordaland. But they were still more than a day from that place, their only refuge should the battle go ill for them. Geirmund smelled no smoke on the wind, no cookfires. Only the fragrance of the trees and the musk of sodden ground beneath the snow.
“We came this far because you wanted a hart,” Geirmund said.
“But not at the cost of my life. Or yours.”
Geirmund was leaning towards agreement with his brother when the pack’s leader suddenly reappeared, as cold and silent as a mist out of Niflheim, and closer to them than any of the other wolves in her pack. Then, just as quickly, she loped out of sight, her head high. But Geirmund had seen the embers of Muspelheim in her yellow eyes, a burning and fearless defiance, a hunger for more than deer meat. This wolf knew of hunters, and she had hunted them. Geirmund had felt her ruthless hatred for the two men trespassing in her mountains, her forest hall.
But these were not her mountains, and this deer was not her kill, and she must be made to know it.
“If we run,” Geirmund said, “they’ll track us and rip out our throats as we sleep.”
“Surely not,” Hámund said, but without conviction.
“I’d also wager the people of Olund are well acquainted with this wolf.”
“And if they are?”
Geirmund turned towards his brother, frowning. “They are of Rogaland and loyal to our father. They are our people. And you will one day be their king.”
p; Hámund straightened at the accusation that Geirmund had stopped just short of making, his honour now at stake and his fate decided.
“Come, brother.” Geirmund grinned and raised his weapons. “Do you want to fight? Or would you rather try to negotiate a trade agreement for the deer?” He nodded towards the wolves. “They’d be glad to offer terms, but not in our favour.”
Hámund slipped his yew bow around from his back. “It might surprise you, brother, but I have learned some useful things in my travels.” He pulled an arrow from his quiver and nocked it. “For example, I’ve learned you can’t negotiate with the sea, no matter how many offerings you make, and I don’t think it takes a hunter to know the same is true of wolves.”
Geirmund stepped closer to his brother. “Aim truer than you did with the stag.”
“Keep them off me so I can.”
Then Geirmund turned and set his back to Hámund’s, and they planted their feet for the fight to come as the wolves began to circle, searching for a weakness or opening in their defences. They huffed clouds of breath-mist into the air, the cold afternoon light having waned further in the last few moments, giving their wolf eyes an advantage.
When two of the beasts finally charged, they did so as one, from opposite sides. Geirmund heard the twang of his brother’s bow over his shoulder, followed instantly by a yelp, and then he ducked and swung his sword at the second animal lunging for his axe hand. His blade caught the big male’s left foreleg, and when the beast retreated it did so limping, its dripping paw hanging on by little more than skin.
Geirmund glanced over his shoulder at his brother’s target, which lay folded on itself, head beneath its body in the snow, an arrow protruding from the space between its neck and shoulder. A killing shot and a quick death.
“Well done, brother,” Geirmund said.
“What of yours?”
“Out of the fight. But we–”
The next snarling wolf-wave rushed towards them, four in number, with another three or four beasts already circling, ready to add their teeth and claws. Hámund loosed an arrow and pulled another from his quiver while Geirmund swung his axe at the head of the first wolf to come within striking distance of his brother. The arrow found its mark, but not fatally, and the injured wolf tumbled, staggered to its feet, and fell again, while the animal Geirmund had struck rolled away and lay still.
“Behind you!” Hámund shouted, drawing his bow.
Geirmund dodged aside as the arrow whistled past him, heard a thunk and a whimper, but he had no time to turn and look. The fourth attacker leapt upon him before he could raise either of his weapons, and he went down under its weight, the snapping of the animal’s teeth in his ears, its rancid breath in his nose. Geirmund put his sword arm up to keep that mouth from his throat and the wolf seized it. Its fangs sank into the meat of his arm, puncturing leather, wool, and skin, and he knew those jaws would shatter his bones.
He opened his eyes wide and roared into the wolf’s ears, and then Hámund also roared, and suddenly the wolf convulsed and let go of Geirmund’s arm. It leapt a few unsteady paces away, pawing at its face, an arrow sticking out of one eye. In the closeness of that fight, Hámund had stabbed the beast with it like a dagger, and so the shaft had not gone deep enough into the brain to kill it outright. Hámund drew another arrow to finish the job, his attention focused on the struggling animal.
Geirmund had not yet regained his feet when a fifth beast charged that narrow gap in their defences. He scrambled to get up, bleeding and slipping in the snow, but couldn’t reach his brother in time. The wolf flew at Hámund, snatching him by the clothing and flesh in the pit of his drawing arm and yanking him to the ground.
“No!” Geirmund shouted. He had lost his sword but launched himself at the wolf with his axe, bringing it down in the middle of the beast’s back with both hands, halving its spine. The wolf shrieked and tried to flee, dragging its useless hind legs, and Geirmund ended its misery quickly before turning to face the next assault.
But none came, and the battle was suddenly over. The pack seemed to have simply vanished, at least for the moment, leaving their dead and wounded behind. Geirmund picked up his sword and killed the two still twitching and suffering. That was when he noticed the familiar, nearly severed paw dangling from the foreleg of his brother’s final attacker, a grievous wound that had not stopped that wolf from rejoining the fight with even greater bravery and ferocity. Or perhaps the wolf simply knew he was to die, and so decided to meet his fate with teeth bared. Geirmund considered either choice worthy of honour. He knelt next to the wolf in admiration, which quietly changed into a kind of regret.
“They’ve gone?” Hámund said.
“Will they return?”
“Always,” Geirmund said. “But not today.”
“How bad is your arm?”
Geirmund glanced down and noticed something pale protruding from his reddened and torn sleeve. At first, he thought it might be his arm bone, but realized in the next moment that it was merely a wolf’s tooth. He pulled it out and held it in his palm, an ivory fang with a bloody root. “I will live,” he said. Then he turned to assess his brother, who was staring at him, eyes still alight with the fading frenzy of battle, and he saw a red stain seeping down Hámund’s side. “I fear your wound is worse.”
Hámund broke his gaze from Geirmund’s arm and looked down at himself. “I will live. The blood bodes worse than it is.”
Hámund swallowed and nodded, then glanced over the battlefield. “We took six of them.”
Geirmund laid a hand on the wolf’s side and pressed his fingers into its thick fur, feeling the animal’s ribs. “They’re almost down to bones,” he said, “and their teeth are loose.”
They were not bloodthirsty, or evil, or vengeful–merely desperate; but Geirmund knew that changed nothing in the end, and closed his fist around the fang. Even if the defiance and rage he’d seen in the pack leader’s eyes had been a figment, there simply wasn’t enough land and prey in Rogaland to feed every belly. Fighting and death were inevitable.
Geirmund stood. “We need to make camp. Light a fire and clean our wounds, then skin the animals. We’ll move out in the morning.”
Hámund blinked and nodded, and they spent the last daymark before the setting of the sun clearing a spot of ground and cutting deadwood. Then Geirmund dragged the wolf carcasses closer to the firepit while Hámund bent to light the fire with the ornate strike-a-light he’d acquired in one of his travels with their father eastward to Finnland. It had a glinting bronze handle carved with two opposing riders on horses, but for all its decoration did not seem to make better sparks than Geirmund’s plain steel. Hámund appeared to be struggling with it, his strikes with his fire-flint weak and ineffectual. Geirmund was about to step in when at last a few wisps of smoke curled up from the touchwood. Hámund was slow to rise from his task and seemed unsteady on his feet when he did.
“You do not look well,” Geirmund said.
Hámund nodded. “I feel…” he said, but did not finish.
“Sit down. Let me look at your–”
Hámund dropped to the ground as if suddenly robbed of his bones.
Geirmund rushed to his side. “Look at me,” he said, slapping his brother’s pale cheek. “Look at me!” But his brother’s eyes simply rolled behind half-closed lids.
The layers of clothing at Hámund’s side felt heavy and sodden. Geirmund sliced through them with his knife and discovered a deep wound still pouring blood from under his brother’s arm. He sucked air through his teeth at the sight of it and leapt towards the firepit. There he set the head of his axe in the growing flames, then filled a soapstone cup with snow. He left that near the fire to melt and heat up while he returned to his brother’s side and did his best to staunch the flow of blood with the pressure of his ha
“Hámund, you fool,” he whispered.
A few moments later, he retrieved the soapstone cup and poured its steaming contents over the wound to clean it. Then he took up his axe and tested its heat by dropping some snow onto the metal that sizzled and disappeared.
“I don’t know if you can hear me,” Geirmund said, standing over his brother, “but shore yourself up. This is going to hurt.”
With that, he bent and grabbed his brother’s wrist. Then he lifted that arm to fully expose the wound and pressed the flat poll of his axe against the torn flesh. Hámund groaned but did not flinch as the hot metal seared his skin, sending the smoke and aroma of cooked meat into Geirmund’s nose, making him gag for knowing what it was.
After some moments had passed, Geirmund pulled away the axe, which peeled gently from his brother’s skin, relieved that the evil-looking wound appeared to have stopped bleeding. Geirmund hoped the flow had not turned inward to fill Hámund’s belly and ribs, but he could do nothing about that if it had. He rolled up a strip of cloth and soaked it with the last of the mead he had left in his skin. This he wedged under his brother’s arm, against the wound, and tied that arm down at Hámund’s side to hold the dressing in place and keep pressure on the injury.
“Now I just need some way to bear you from this place,” he said, and turned his attention to the dead wolves.
He chose the two largest, one of those the wolf with the severed paw, and strung them up to skin them by firelight, proceeding carefully but as quickly as he could with the crude work. Usually he would have slit the bellies and legs open to splay the pelts and lay them flat, but for his present plan he needed the fur to remain of a piece, which took time, care, and strength. He began at the legs, making minimal slices through the skin, and peeled the fur upon itself down the body, as if removing wet leggings that had tightened and shrunk. At times he had to use the weight of his body to rip the pelt downward, away from the carcass, sweating from the work even in the cold, but eventually he had two soft barrels of fur. He then used his axe to fell two young birch trees, each with a trunk as thick as his wrist, and he cut these down to half again, his brother’s height in length. He laid out the wolf pelts nose to tail, and passed the two poles through them. Once the birch trunks had been braced apart, they stretched the furs tight, creating a sled that was at once tough, soft, and insulating to the cold air and snow beneath it.