Death had them surrounded.
It had come to cut threads, and today, it wore four faces.
A burning death for those too hurt or too afraid to flee the settlement as the firestorm swept through it. A freezing death for those who ran away up the scarp to escape the murder-make: even in spring, the wind came in off the ice flats with a death-edge that sucked an exposed man’s life-heat out through his lungs, and rotted his hands and feet into black twigs, and left him as a stiff, stone-hard bundle covered in rime.
For others, a drowning death, if they attempted to flee across the blue-ice around the spit. Spring’s touch was already working the sea ice loose against the shore, like a tooth in a gum. The ice would no longer take a man’s weight, not reliably. If the ice broke under you, down you went: fast and straight if you plunged through, slow and screaming if an ice plate tipped and slid you in. Either way, the water was oil black, and so cold it would freeze the thoughts in your brain before your lungs were even empty.
For the rest, for those who had remained to fight, a bloody death, the death of the murder-make. This was the death that knocked you down hard onto the ice with an axe or a maul, so you felt nothing except the cold burn of the ice, and the hot burn of your own blood, and the pain-scream of your crippling wound. This was the death that stood over you and knocked you again, and again, and as many times as necessary until you would not rise again, or until you were so disfigured that death could no longer bear to look at you, and moved off in disgust to find another soul to knock.
Any of those four faces would cut your thread as soon as look at you. And those were the faces the Balt were wearing.
The Balt. The Balt had brought the murder-make down on the Ascommani aett. Twenty boat. It was early in the season for a raid. A man had to be desperate to go out making red snow when he could wait for the first grasses and milder weather.
Twenty boat, and all of them still rigged for ice-running under their sea-sails.
If there had been time, the Ascomanni might have wondered why their doom had come so early. Ironland, where the Balt had settled, had persisted twenty Great Years, but many now said its roots were soft. Many now said it would only be one more summer, two at the most, before the ocean sucked it down again into the World-forge.
Ascomanni land ran from the spithead to the ice shelf, and was poor for farming and lacked natural defences, but it was yet just one Great Year old, and the dowsers had proclaimed it strong land, with many years left in it.
So land-thirst. Perhaps it was that.
Fith knew better. Nothing got the murder-urge pumping like fear, and nothing stoked up fear like a bad omen. A broom star. A day star. Colour in the ice. Bloom in the sea. Smoke out on the ice shelf where no settlement was. Some dead thing washed up that should not be. Something born to livestock or to a woman that should not be. Something with birth defects.
Sometimes a bad dream would be enough to do it, a bad dream that told you the tribe down the coast or around the headland was maleficarum. You let land-thirst be your excuse as you reached for your shirt and your blade, but you made sure the gothi marked your face in soot-glue with good cast-out marks like the sun-disk and the warding eye before you opened out your sails.
And there had been a bad omen, all right. Fith had seen it.
Fith had seen the make coming too. He’d seen the sails approaching along the in-shore early enough to blow the scream-horn, but too late for it to do any good. He had merely enabled his kinfolk to die awake.
The Balt main force had come up around the spit in their wyrmboats in the sightless pre-dawn grey, sailing black sails straight out of the water and onto the shore-ice on their rigs, translating from water-craft to ice-craft with barely a jolt. Their skirmishers had put ashore on the far side of the headland, and come romping in over the high back of the snow dunes to fall on the Ascommani settlement from the hind side.
After that, it had been fire and knocking. The Balt were mongrel-big, men with long faces and beards waxed into sun rays under their spectacle-face helms. They were horribly able with axe and maul, and the occasional high status sword that some carried.
But they brought with them none of the screaming vigour of a normal Balt raid or murder-make. They were silent, shit-scared of what they had come to kill, shit-scared of its sky magic. They were silent and grim, and set to murder everything to wipe the magic away. Men, women, the young, livestock, nothing was spared a knock. There was not a shred of mercy. There was not a moment’s thought to claim prisoners or take slaves. Ascommani girls were famously fine-looking, and there were plenty of healthy girl-children too, who would make valuable breeding slaves in time, but the Balt had put away all appetites, except for a fierce desire to be cleansed of fear.
The sound of an axe knocking-in is a wet smack of slicing meat and shattering bone, like sap-wood being cut. A maul makes a fat, bruising sound like a mattock driving pegs into marsh loam or wet ice. Worse than both are the after-sounds. The screaming of the agonised, the ruined and the dying. The begging shrieks of the hurt and maimed. The hacking impacts of death knocking until the fallen stop being alive, or stop trying to rise, or stop screaming, or stop being in once piece.
Fith had just enough time to get his shirt on and loft his axe. Several other hersirs fell to arms with him, and they met the first skirmishers coming in through the walls and window-slits of the settlement, head on. The panic was up already. It was blind blundering in the dark, a reek of urine, the first nose-full of smoke.
Fith’s axe was balanced for a single hand. It was a piece of proper craft, with a high carbon head that weighed as much as a decent newborn boy. From the toe of the blade to the heel of the beard, it had a smile on it wider than a man’s hand-span, and it had kissed a whetstone just the night before.
The axe is a simple machine, a lever that multiplies the force from your arm into the force delivered by the blade. The rudiments apply whether you’re splitting wood or men.
Fith’s axe was a bone-cutter, a shield-breaker, a helm-cleaver, a death-edge, a cutter of threads. He was a hersir of the Ascommani aett, and he knew how to stand his ground.
It was a throttle-fight in the settlement itself. Fith knocked two Balts back out of the tent wall, but the tight confines were choking his swing. He knew he needed to get out. He yelled to the hersirs with him, and they pulled back.
They got out of the tents into the settlement yard, wrapped in swirling black smoke, and went eye to eye with the Balts in their spectacle-helms. It was mayhem. A free-for-all. Blades swung like windmills in a storm.
Fenk went down as a Balt axe split his left calf lengthwise. He bawled in rage as his leg gave out, useless. Seconds later, a maul knocked his head sidelong, and snapped his neck and his thread, and he flopped down on the earth, his shattered skull-bag leaking blood.
Fith drove off a Balt with a mattock, scared him back with the whistling circles of his swinging axe.
Ghejj tried to cover Fith’s flank, using the basics of shield-wall tactics. But Ghejj had not had time to collect a decent shield from the stack, just a tattered practice square from the training field. A Balt spear punctured him right through, and tore him open so thoroughly, his guts spilled out onto the snow like ropes of sausage. Ghejj tried to catch them, as though he could gather them up and put them back inside himself and everything would be all right again. They steamed in the spring air. He squealed in dismayed pain. He couldn’t help himself. He knew he was ruined unto death.
He looked at Fith as he squealed again. It wasn’t the pain. He was so angry that he was irreparably dead.
Fith put mercy into his stroke.
Fith turned away from his last picture of Ghejj, and saw that there were fingers scattered on the snow, on the yard snow churned up by scrambling and sliding feet, along with blood by the bowl-full. They were the fingers of women and children, from hands held up to protect themselves. Defensive wounds.
There on the snow, a complete hand, the tiny hand of a child, perfect and whole. Fith recognised the mark on the ring. He knew the child the hand had once belonged to. He knew the father the child had once belonged to. Fith felt the red smoke blow up in his head.
A Balt came at him, silent and intent, and Fith flexed the lever of his axe, and hooked it in, and made a ravine of the Balt’s face.
Four hersirs left. Fith, Guthox, Lern and Brom. No sign of the aett-chief. The chief was probably dead and face down in the red snow with his huscarls.
Fith could smell blood. It was overpoweringly strong, a hot copper reek spicing the freezing dawn air. He could smell shit too. He could smell Ghejj’s insides. He could smell the inner parts of him, the ruptured stomach, the yellow fat of Ghejj’s belly meat, the heat of his life.
Fith knew it was time to go.
The Upplander was in the furthest shelter. Even the Ascommani knew to keep him away from people.
The Upplander was propped up against cushions.
“Listen to me,” Fith hissed. “Do you understand me?”
“I understand you. My translator is working,” the Upplander replied, looking pale.
“The Balt are here. Twenty boat. They will knock you dead. Tell me, do you want the mercy of my axe now?”
“No, I want to live.”
“Then can you walk?”
“Perhaps,” the Upplander replied. “Just don’t leave me here. I am afraid of wolves.”
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