It should have been a glorious expedition. A dozen ships under the warlord Roneth the slayer set to pillage the coast of Britannia, but barely a day out from harbour, a storm blew in from nowhere, scattering the fleet.
Clinging to his ship, Magnus ignored the sea spray in his eyes. Thunder shook the skies. He tried in vain to spot the other ships, but mist shrouded the swirling ocean waves.
Beneath him, Magnus felt the wood of his ship bending under the strain. Fear stalked his thoughts, even Reaver had limits. The cold, unforgiving sea was no way for a warrior to die.
As if reading his thoughts, his younger brother Erik shouted, "We've been through worse!"
"Lies!" replied Magnus. "And you know it!"
Though opposites in many ways, he was stocky, muscled and prone to anger, while Erik inherited their father's tallness and easygoing nature - the two were inseparable.
Erik's laughter stopped abruptly. "By Odin's beard."
It was as if the sky around them had come alive. Strange colourful lights swirled around them. Further north, it was not unknown for bizarre colours to dance across the sky, some said it was light shining off the armour of Valkyries, but nothing like this. The peculiar lights circled Reaver, enveloping it in a strange otherworldly fog. It swirled chaotically around them, taunting them to do something. The last thing Magnus heard before blacking out was mocking laughter.
When Reaver's crew awoke, darkness shrouded them. The storm had vanished - the sky above eerily clear, bright white stars beaming down.
Everyone was subdued. Finally Erik said, "I feel like I've had a night's drinking with none of the fun!"
Magnus climbed to his feet. "Unless you lot want to feel worse, get yourselves sorted! Odin knows how long we've been drifting. Get off your backsides and check the ship for damage!"
They responded to his commands with a series of well-rehearsed grumbles. He made his way to Reaver's side and tried to see any other ships, but the sea lay deathly still. If they were present, he couldn't see them. But at least one thing was working in his favour - he could see a shoreline. With a bit of luck they could safely beach themselves and take stock of their situation.
"No serious damage or missing," said Erik. He paused. "Any sign of the others?"
"You think that fog took them?" asked Erik.
"You think it's the Gods?" whispered Erik.
"I hope not."
Old warrior, Leif nodded sagely. "Aye, I remember my grandfather telling me about a ship that disappeared in a ball of light, while raiding. It returned barely a day later, but the entire crew had aged thirty years."
The black bearded Hengist snorted. "This isn't time for one of your fairy stories, old man."
"Enough!" said Magnus. "The locals catch us, they'll string us up."
"Let them come!" said Hengist.
There was silence, until Snori known for his acid tongue growled. "Great. Olaf offered me a spot on his ship, but I had to join the ship of the damned."
Magnus's hand moved threateningly towards his sword, until restrained by Erik. "Easy."
"This is all Magnus's fault," said Hengist. "He angered Odin by refusing to make the sacrifice before we left and now we're being punished for it. Roneth only wanted your daughter, it not like it was your son.” He pointed at Magnus. “I say we appease Odin with you!"
"Just try," said Magnus. "I honour Odin as much as any warrior, but it wasn't Roneth's place to ask each ship to make a sacrifice. I don't care whose name is drawn, I would not offer my dog, let alone my kin."
"Would you be so defiant if one of our kin had been drawn?" asked Snori.
He spoke so all could hear. "No man's kin should be gifts for Odin. We honour him by facing our enemies on the battlefield and slaying them." Magnus looked up at the sky and shouted. "If I have angered him, let him come and face me as a warrior!"
Magnus licked his lips as the Norsemen looked up expectantly, but there was no response.
Feeling on firmer ground, Magnus continued. "Odin would face us like a warrior. This is some game of Loki's, but the trickster is a coward. If we face him openly we will prevail." He pointed towards the shore. "That's where we'll find answers."
Honed by years of experience, the crew propelled Reaver swiftly yet silently forward, careful not to betray themselves. They saw a broken land much like their own, with countless hills and ridges. Much of it completely covered in dark green forests. The more romantic crewmembers were reminded of home, the more cynical wondered what horrors awaited them.
Such thoughts weighed heavily on Magnus as he scoured the coast for a suitable landing spot, a difficult task with craggy rocks jutting up from the sea floor. The coast looked like the gods had designed it for smashing ships. Finally an inlet appeared and he manoeuvred Reaver in.
The inlet was eerily quiet, as Reaver glided in, the only noise the occasional shore bird calling out from the marshes.
Fate seemed to take pity on him, as the perfect landing spot loomed ahead. With equal parts fear and curiosity the crew leaped over the side to see where they had washed up.
Magnus landed with a grunt, thankful to be on solid ground, even if he wasn't sure where this ground was. An earthy smell wafted back to him. He eyed the dark forest extending right to the beach, but when nothing came screaming out of the bushes, everyone relaxed - slightly.
Erik asked, "What now?"
"We need answers," replied Magnus.
"Insightful," replied Erik. "Where shall we start?"
Magnus pointed behind Erik. "How about there."
Erik turned around and saw the puffs of dark smoke on the horizon. "A village? I volunteer to scout it out."
Magnus addressed the men. "Erik's leading a scouting party to investigate that smoke. I need five men to go with him."
Despite the precariousness of their situation, the five places were immediately snapped up. Snori thumped Erik on the shoulder. "Be good to stretch me legs. Do we get to keep what we find?"
"No," said Magnus. "I do. You can have what's left."
Snori winked at Erik. "He can't take what he doesn't know about it."
"Don't be so sure," said Erik, "If anyone has a nose for gold it's Magnus."
Hengist thumped his chest. "Finally a chance to fight."
Magnus said, "This is a scouting mission, Hengist! Not a raid, don't kill anyone unless you have to. Can you get that through your thick skull?"
Hengist frowned, before finally nodding. As the group made their way over to the forest, Magnus took Erik aside. "Watch him. Hengist can be a hot head."
"Then why'd you let him come with me?"
Magnus smiled. "Because if he stays here, I'll kill him. You know what to do, check the smoke. See what sort of threat the locals are and get back by sunset. Can you handle that?"
"They don't call me Erik the Wise for nothing."
Magnus rolled his eyes. "Just don't get yourself killed. That's my job."
As they departed, Erik said, "Don't fret, lads, we'll try to leave you some gold."
With the scouting group gone, the rest of the crew spent their time gambling or taking watch. Fortunes were won and lost several times, but eventually even that lost its lustre. Magnus joined in briefly, but his mind was elsewhere, pondering what had become of the other ships.
The next morning dawned with thick black smoke on the horizon and no sign of the others.
With the smell of the smoke wafting around him, Magnus came to a decision. "I'm forming a search party. Time to get off your lazy arses."
Leaving a small group to watch the Reaver, he led the others into the dense undergrowth. Time to pull Erik's chestnuts out of the fire again.
His body still tender, it took Erik a moment to realise someone was calling him. "Wake up!"
Gradually things began connecting and as his last memory came to the fore, he jolted awake. Groaning, he took in the scene before him. It hadn't been a bad dream. The sun peeked on the horizon and he realised a whole night had passed.
His captors wore well-crafted metal helmets and while their scaled plate armour was dirty, it appeared well maintained. The men were unkempt with greasy long hair, their clothes worn and patched up, but they had a steely discipline in everything they did. He had fought many races, but he couldn't identify these warriors.
Their campsite was large, housing at least a hundred warriors, however it clearly wasn't permanent. All the tents and structures looked designed to be brought down at moment's notice and looked old with numerous patching jobs holding them together. Some of the warriors were on sentry duty, some engaged in idle conversation, others training or making weapons, activities found in any military camp. There were a few females about performing menial tasks, but they appeared to be trying hard not to attract attention. The smell of food cooking in several pots around camp fought for supremacy with the stench of the gathered people.
He cursed his fortune. The scouting party had successfully tracked the smoke to a small village, but of course it was just his luck to arrive as these mystery warriors attacked the village. He fought valiantly but the raiders knocked him out and dragged him here.
He tried moving his arms, but discovered they were strapped tightly behind him, binding him to a pole in the ground. For the first time, Erik noticed the three survivors from his group trussed up beside him, all unconscious and sporting their own share of bruises.
Erik finally realised who'd been talking to him.
About several feet away was a sturdy wooden cage filled with a mixed group of about thirty villagers. One of the captured village girls, maybe sixteen, with dirty blonde hair looked fiercely back at him, behind the bars. Her compatriots were too wrapped up in their own problems to worry about him, but she seemed determined to engage him.
"I'm awake," he muttered. "Though I wish I wasn't. What land is this?"
She looked at him as if he was feeble minded. "This is the land of the Picts. I'm Ailsa, daughter of the village headman."
"I'm Erik, son of Ragnar. Who are these people?"
"The Sons of Mars."
"Sons of Mars?"
"Remnants of an army the Romans sent north to conquer us. We destroyed the army and took their eagle. The survivors fled, but were turned back in shame at the wall. Forced to exist among the people who defeated them."
He shook his head. "The Romans are gone, their empire dust."
She looked at a pair of legionaries walking past. "Then how do you explain them?"
He had heard stories of how the old Romans fought and their appearance, but he doubted her tale. "Why don't you tell me?"
Ailsa smiled thinly. "A sorcerer called Aodh found them roaming the hills. Some say he's older than Rome itself. He was chased north by Rome's legions and made a home here. He made them an offer. In return for following his orders he would protect them with sorcery and provide them with long life. When they are not raiding the south they torment us."
"Why would a druid hunted by Romans help them?'
She shrugged. "Maybe it amuses him."
The strange storm that brought them here and an army of Romans who should have been long dead allied with a sorcerer. Erik licked his lips, what next? A visit from Odin? "What are they intending to do with us?"
"Nothing good. The boys will be inducted into their army. The women kept as slaves, till they no longer need them. The others will be sacrificed to appease the demons they worship. What they intend to do with you and your men, I don't know."
Pausing to make sure no one was watching them, Ailsa tossed a sharp splinter of wood towards his hands. "Use this to loosen your bond. Release us and we can guide you through the forest."
He eased his hands back and awkwardly snatched the wood. "I like the way you think."
Ailsa hastily turned away. Erik turned his head, and saw why. Flanked by four smaller legionaries, an old man wearing a tattered black cloak, headed his way. He had a weather beaten face, pale sun bleached red hair and a long scar where his left eye would have been. As they got closer the older man smiled at him, but it was far from warming.
"Optio,” said the old man. “Wake them, I'll not repeat myself."
The man named Optio, a man wearing slightly cleaner armour then the others grabbed what Erik hoped was a bucket of water and tossed it into the faces of the woozy Norsemen. When this didn't achieve immediate results, he slapped them. "Move dogs."
This did the trick, the others peering around wildly. Erik called out, "Stay calm, lads. Everything's going to be fine."
"Doesn't feel that way," growled Snori.
The old man studied them. In a raspy voice he said, "I am Aodh, leader of the Sons of Mars."
"I am Erik. Son of Ragnar the Red. You shouldn't have killed my men. We're the scouting party of an army far larger then what you have here. Let us go now and perhaps I can persuade my Chief to let you live."
Aodh laughed. "My Romans are used to fighting barbarian hordes."
The Legionaries joined in on his laughter.
"If they were any good, they wouldn't be running around the back of beyond."
"You're the one tied to the pole," smiled Aodh.
"I'm resting," replied Erik. "Release me and we'll see who's the better fighter."
"You have a warrior's spirit," replied Aodh. He kneeled beside Erik. "I need two things - sacrifices and men. I have one opening, whoever tells me where the rest of your men are receives that opening. Make your minds quickly, my mercy has limits."
"Which one would you like, my lord?" asked the Optio.
Aodh looked carefully at the bound Norsemen, as if judging which beast to slaughter for a feast. "All would be worthy." He pointed at Halfden. "He will suffice for now."
Two stone faced Legionaries stepped forward and cut Halfden's bindings. Halfden growled, "Do your worst!"
Straining against his bindings, Erik yelled, "Take me!"
Aodh laughed, "Your time will come." Reaching down, he plucked a hair from Erik's head and sniffed it. "There's magic around you. Magic from the Gods. I don't know why you're here, but the Dark Ones will appreciate such unique offerings."
Erik watched helplessly as they led Halfden away. The Legionaries knocked to his knees, then tied him to stakes in the ground. As Halfden fought, Aodh bent down and cut away his shirt. Halfden was noted for his calm demeanour in combat, and he showed it here. "Do your worst. I'm not afraid."
"Then you're a good choice," replied Aodh.
Abandoning their other tasks, the Legionnaires kneeled before Aodh as he closed his eyes and placed his hand over Halfden's chest. Softly he began muttering incantations. His eye sprang open glowing a sickly yellow. He drew a ceremonial stone dagger from his belt. He raised the dagger above his head, then plunged it into Halfden's chest. The Norseman let out a piercing cry of pain.
"No!" roared Erik.
He flinched as he saw Halfden's spirit leave his body - the corpse shrivelling from the inside. The golden light attempted to flee, but Aodh pulled it back, compressing it tightly together. The Sons Of Mars appeared to look on with anticipation as Aodh directed the energy towards them, each one getting a share of Halfden's soul.
When the last of Halfden's soul was gone, the sorcerer picked up Halfden's shrivelled remains and threw them on a nearby fire. Erik felt an icy numbness in his chest. It was easy to face death when you knew Valhalla was your reward, but to have your soul devoured like that, that was no reward.
Aodh made his way over. "Have you considered my offer?"
Despite his apprehension, Erik remained silent as did Snori. His gaze drifted to Hengist but the black bearded giant stayed his tongue.
Aodh’s smile looked one of fatherly concern. "I'm not surprised. Frankly I would have been disappointed if men of your metal had agreed."
His eyes darkened until they were completely black. "But all men have weaknesses plaguing their hearts. It is just a matter of probing the cracks."
He ran a hand over the bound men. As Aodh's hand passed before Erik, pain shot through his head and everything went black. When the mist cleared he felt sick. It was like every bad thing he'd done or even thought about had just happened.
A thin sheen of sweat covered Aodh's face. "Yes, yes. I think...I have found...the...one."
He pointed to Snori. "Optio, bring him to me."
Snori got a wild-eyed look. "Bugger off, you bastard. I knew I should have sailed with Olaf. Tell Magnus..."
The Optio clipped him on the head with a cudgel then one of the Legionaries took a stunned Snori to the feet of Aodh.
Aodh laid a hand on Snori's head. Snori let out a piercing yell. His head slumped down. "Rise my friend."
Snori rose to his feet. When he turned around his eyes were black. He blinked and they were back to normal. He looked at Erik and smiled. Aodh slapped him on the shoulder. "Go my son. Bring me my souls."
The Optio handed Snori a sword and he disappeared into the undergrowth.
Erik noted with concern that nearly a third of the Sons followed Snori into the forest. He had every confidence in Magnus's ability to lead the others against any force in a stand up fight but in an ambush anything could happen.
"What did you do to him?" asked Erik.
"I merely helped him to be the man he always wanted to be," said Aodh. "Enjoy your last day of life. It ends with the coming of the full moon."
Erik's eyes narrowed. "You'll regret this."
Aodh looked up at the sky. "I regret many things, but I doubt this will be among them."
The sorcerer walked off whistling a melancholy tune.
"You look worried," said Ailsa. "At least they are only going to take your life."
"None of us are in an enviable position. I was simply worried about my comrades. They are still out there."
"So is my father. We can mourn them later."
"You think them dead?"
Her eyes narrowed. "I think we cannot stay here. So hurry up."
Erik grinned. "You remind me of my niece. She has a mouth too. Probably why Magnus hasn’t found her a husband."
Hengist began laughing uproariously.
Erik flashed him an angry look. "What by Odin, is so funny?"
Hengist fixed him with a look. "You thought I would be the one to go over."
Erik looked down. "It would have been better. You, I would have understood. I thought Snori had more..."
"Honour?" Hengist grinned. "Snori's always had an eye out for the main chance, but you and Magnus were too busy laughing at his jokes to notice."
"If you weren't such a bad tempered bastard, Magnus wouldn't want to throttle you once a day."
"Maybe I am a bad tempered bastard, but I'm still here. Now you're the bloody leader of the expedition. How are you going to get us out?"
"You'll see soon enough."
Erik knew it would take forever to cut his way through the bindings, but a little hope was better then none at all.
With his men's tracking skills, Magnus soon picked up Erik's trail, but if someone had been shadowing the scouting party, he saw no sign. Frustrated, Magnus hoped he would get answers when they reached the smoke's source. Spying down into the valley, Magnus saw the remains of what had been a mid-sized settlement- its buildings put to flame. The smell of the charred buildings - still strong. It brought back vivid memories of past endeavours. He spat on the ground. Too vivid.
"You think the others did this?" asked one of his men.
"No. I can’t see six of them taking out an entire village."
"I don't see their bodies," said one.
"I don't see any bodies. We need to get closer."
The Norsemen advanced carefully to the devastated village. They gazed around unsentimentally. For them, people belonged to two groups: the hunter and the prey. These people belonged to the latter.
Magnus was drawn to the small, but numerous patches of blood on the ground. From the corner of his eye he saw movement between the buildings. He held up his hand and the men moved into a circular combat formation, just as a group of men, armed with a collection of spears and swords, and dressed in thick tunics appeared. Their faces were painted blue and were as hard and unforgiving as the land they lived.
The two groups stood as still as statues as they sized each other up.
A tall well-built native with black hair broke the silence. "Who are you?"
Magnus kept his expression neutral, despite his surprise at how well they spoke his language. "I'm looking for some of my men. They passed by here. Did you see them?"
"They were here."
"Were?” Magnus patted his blade. “Where are they now?"
Ignoring Magnus's tone the native replied, "We don't have them. The Sons of Mars took them when they attacked our village."
The group were unknown to Magnus, but he didn't let that phase him. "Yet you escaped. Your warriors must be swift of foot."
The native's eyes narrowed. "You'd best watch that tongue, stranger. Lest someone cut it out."
"That sounded like a threat, friend. I don't respond well to those."
"And I don't react well to insults on my men's courage. I lost many good men fighting those monsters. We held them as long as we could to allow the others to escape, but they had another party hiding in the forest to sweep up survivors. By the time we found out it was too late."
"So you're not cowards," replied Magnus. "Merely incompetent."
"Talk like that again and you'll regret it."
Magnus laughed. "Just tell me where these Romans are, skraeling, and we'll deal with them. Assuming they exist."
"They exist. Unfortunately my scouts haven't been able to locate their camp. They use magic to hide themselves from distant view."
"Magical Romans? Convenient." Magnus turned to his men. "We'll get nothing useful here. We'll head back to the ship, round up the others and do a proper search." He turned to the leader. “Move your men and we’ll be on our way.”
"Wait! As offensive as I found you, it's madness to tackle the Sons of Mars unaided."
"We'll see. Now are you going to let us leave or are going to have to cut our way through?”
After a second’s hesitation, the native signalled his men and a gap formed in their lines. As they departed, Magnus wondered what obstacle he would strike next.
A surprise awaited him at Reaver. "Snori! I'd been told you were captured by a Roman raiding party of all things."
Looking ragged, Snori was resting on the beach downing a flagon of ale. "I was taken, but it wasn't Romans. More like locals dressed up like them.”
“Picts? I should've known that they were talking crap,” said Magnus.
“I talked them into cutting me free. As soon as I got the chance, I headed back here."
Magnus felt a tiny burst of hope. "So Erik and the others?"
"Alive, but not for long. They're going to be killed in some Pictish ceremony. If we want to save them we have to leave now, and we'll need everyone you can spare. I can lead the way."
Within minutes, they were hiking through the forest, stumbling over roots and fallen branches. "How far is this camp?" asked Magnus.
"Not far," replied Snori. "But there's some tough going ahead."
"This whole place is tough going."
"True," replied Snori as he led them through a particularly narrow track. Tightly packed trees enveloped them, their scent thick in the air. Magnus halted, peering around slowly.
Snori put his hands on his hips. "Something wrong?"
"Something doesn't feel right."
"Like what?" asked Snori impatiently. He pointed up the track. "If you want to save them, we have to move."
"It feels like we're being..."
Magnus drew his dagger into the undergrowth.
A warrior tumbled onto the path. Magnus yelled, "Ambush!"
Dozens of men dressed in scaled armour charged from the undergrowth. As he turned to confront them, Magnus heard footsteps behind him. He spun around, the blade missing him by inches. Snori snarled.
Magnus felt like he'd been punched in the gut. "Why?"
Snori’s eyes went black. "To live forever."
He swung his axe, coming within a hairsbreadth of removing Magnus's head. Magnus shoulder charged Snori, knocking him to the ground. Moving to kill him, something struck Magnus’s head.
He turned to see a Roman throw aside his sling and move to finish him off with his blade. His skull still throbbing, Magnus slashed out with his sword, making a small cut on the warrior's face. The Roman roared with anger, knocking Magnus's blade aside, then pushing him to the ground. He looked up to see the warrior grinning nastily, ready to plunge his sword into Magnus's throat.
That smile vanished, as the warrior looked down to see a spear jutting through his chest. He collapsed with a grunt. Magnus rushed to his feet, intent on dispatching Snori, but he was long gone. It was only now, Magnus realised the Picts were helping them. With a scream the final Roman was dispatched and an uneasy standoff began.
"Any suggestions?" asked one.
Magnus could think of only one. "No one move!"
The leader from village crept out of the forest. He paused to survey the carnage, then walked over to the dead warrior and plucked his spear from the corpse. He pointed to the slaughter around them. "I told you we should work together."
The Roman's blood still fresh on his armour, Magnus grimaced. "I'm man enough to acknowledge when I'm wrong. How'd you know they'd attack us here?"
The leader kicked one of the bodies. "When one is hunting wolves, it's best to stake out the prey. I knew the Sons of Mars would come after you. We simply followed."
Magnus bit his tongue, lest his anger at being used as bait caused him to say something he would regret.
One of the natives reported, "We allowed the outsider to slip through as ordered."
"Explain yourself," said Magnus.
"We needed one alive to lead us back to their encampment."
"They'll have time to prepare a defence."
"But not a good one. It's a necessary risk. The Romans will sacrifice many of their prisoners tonight. Trying to find their camp will take too long. If we wait they'll kill them out of spite. If we want to stop them, we have to leave now."
"How do I know I can trust you?" replied Magnus.
A crooked grin crept across the man’s face. "If I wanted your life, it would be you lying dead."
After contemplating that for several seconds, Magnus replied, "Alright we have a deal."
The two grasped hands, sealing their agreement.
"I never got your name," said Magnus.
"Then let's go hunting, Magnus."
Filled with bloodlust, the combined force arrived at the Roman encampment just behind Snori. The Sons of Mars had chosen their site well. An impossibly steep jagged rock face with its back to the sea protected most of the camp. The only one avenue of attack - straight ahead. Rain running down his face, Magnus already saw them stirring. "No time to strategise. We'll just have to go in and smash them."
"The best strategy is a simple one," replied Dostum.
Magnus nodded silently to his men, then charged out of the forest, roaring at the top of his lungs.
Erik felt his bindings loosen with every thrust of the splinter. Barging past the sentries on duty, Snori emerged from the forest wild-eyed, clutching his sword. Erik could tell he'd been in a fight.
Aodh looked him over. "Where are the men?'
"Gone," replied Snori avoiding eye contact.
Under Aodh's fierce gaze he continued, "We had them, then a band of Picts flanked us. I only escaped by cutting my way through a dozen of them."
Aodh's eye widened, "And you came directly here?"
Doubt crept into Snori's face. "Uh...yes."
The howls of the attacking alliance reverberated around them.
Aodh knocked Snori to the ground. "Fool! You led them right here!"
He pulled Snori roughly to his feet. "Redeem yourself. Fight and remember no quarter."
He signalled his Optio who started assembling the men. Snori gave Erik and Hengist one final look then quickly ran off.
Staring down at them, Aodh said to one of his acolytes. "Begin the sacrifices."
"But we haven't had time to perform the proper rituals. There's no guarantee the Dark Ones will honor their agreement."
Aodh slapped him on the shoulder. "We'll see. Hurry we have many to kill and little time."
Gathering his small group of acolytes, Aodh began pulling people out of the cage and beheading them right there. Their blood pooling in the mud. Screams of panic filled the rain soaked air. From her place in the rear of the cage, Ailsa cried, "Whatever you're going to do. Do it now!"
"I'm working on it," grunted Erik.
He felt a shiver run down his spine as Aodh walked straight towards him, clutching a blade. "Don't worry, my friend, I haven't forgotten. I wanted to deal with you personally."
"Is there any way I could convince you to let us go?"
Shaking his head, Aodh bent down. "No."
Erik shrugged. "I tried."
His right fist swung out smashing into Aodh's face and knocking him to the ground. Catching his blade, Erik went to work cutting the binds from his legs.
A scream echoed behind him, he looked back to see Ailsa being pulled from the cage by a pair of acolytes. Erik threw the dagger, blood and bone exploding out as it struck the acolyte's head. Ailsa broke free from her captor, grabbing the dead man's sword and plunging it into the other acolyte.
Hengist yelled, "Cut me loose!"
Rushing over, Erik bent down to cut the binds. “Move your arse!” said Hengist.
“I’m going as fast as I...”
Something threw him backwards. Dazed, Erik opened his eyes. He'd flown back at least a dozen feet and Aodh was bearing down on him. "You've made me angry."
Erik stood up straight. "I'll take my chances."
Aodh charged. The old man might have surprised him before, but in a fair fight, Erik expected to finish him with a few solid blows. Unfortunately, Aodh was not accommodating. He skilfully evaded Erik's lunges.
As another of Erik's punches hit empty space, Aodh's fist rammed into his face, sending him tumbling to the ground. As he tried to get to his feet, Aodh mocked him, "Did you think me just some feeble old man? The Dark Ones have given me the souls of countless warriors. Their strength lives on in me, as will yours."
Erik tried to reply, but Aodh kicked him in the chest. He rose several feet in the air, before slamming into the ground.
"I was going to make your death quick as befitted a warrior. Now it will be slow and painful."
"Would you accept an apology?" groaned Erik.
Aodh's grip tightened around his throat. "Your death is apology enough. Any last words?"
Erik croaked, "You're forgetting one thing."
"For all your strength. You're just a man, and men die."
"But not before..."
Aodh's blood splashed over Erik. He dropped him and gazed down at the sword jutting from his chest. He looked at Erik puzzled, then collapsed. Behind him smiling triumphantly was Ailsa.
She helped him up. "You were taking too long to kill him."
Pain lancing through him he muttered, "I wanted him overconfident."
"Well, he looked confident," replied Ailsa. She handed him his sword. "You should have this."
"Thanks," replied Erik, glad to have a weapon once more in his grasp.
For the first time he was able to get a good look at the fighting going on around them. The camp was empty as the Romans engaged their attackers. Both sides appeared evenly matched.
He finished releasing Hengist who said, "Had me worried, you bastard."
"Me too," replied Erik.
Erik turned to Ailsa. "I'm going to help finish these bastards. Go with Hengist and make a run for it. You'll never get a better chance."
"Are you sure?" said Ailsa. "You're not exactly at full strength."
"I owe them and I always pay my debts."
He took Hengist aside and pointed to Ailsa. "Don't do anything that'll make me have to kill you."
Hengist grinned. "I'm a changed man, Erik. Trust me."
"Prove it," replied Erik.
As they departed, Ailsa turned back. "Erik! Good luck."
Erik smiled. "A Norse warrior doesn't need luck. Just a good sword." Before whispering to himself. "Hopefully."
He was spun around and thumped in the face. He staggered back several steps and saw Aodh stomping towards him, the blood still fresh on his chest.
Erik wiped blood from his mouth. "You should be dead."
Aodh grabbed an axe off of the ground. "I should be a lot of things." He tapped the side of the blade. "Now let's try this again. Beg and perhaps I'll kill you quickly."
"You'll get nothing from me but death."
Laughing, Aodh replied, "How original. Perhaps you will be more eloquent in your next life."
He rushed towards Erik, his axe swinging wildly. Erik struggled under Aodh's blows each hit sending him a step backwards. In the hands of a skilled warrior, a battleaxe was an extraordinary offensive weapon and try as he might, Erik couldn't mount a successful attack.
Spotting the nearby cliffs, Erik had an idea. Retreating towards the rock face, he carefully negotiated his way up the wet, slippery rocks. Halfway up he tripped, wincing as his leg smashed into stone. Aodh brought the blade down coming within inches of killing him. Erik dived out of the way, then jumped to his feet. He ran up the rest of the way, ignoring the pain in his leg. Aodh arrived seconds later.
"Nowhere to run."
Erik glanced over the side - even in the dark he could see the waves smashing into the rocks below. He turned back. "Looks like I'll have to go through you."
Erik charged, catching Aodh off guard. He ducked under the axe's swing and brought his blade down cutting through Aodh's right hand. Cradling his stump, Aodh roared in pain.
Aodh snarled. "For you!"
Opening his arms he charged. Erik plunged his blade into Aodh's chest, but too late to prevent Aodh carrying them both over the edge.
The ferocity of the attack caught the Romans off guard. It was usually them charging out of the undergrowth to visit death upon unsuspecting villages.
Magnus's blade never stopped moving, as he carved a swath through them. Blood and limbs flew in equal measure. Beside him, Dostum's spear matched Magnus's blade, as he took down opponent after opponent.
Stunned they may have been, the Sons soon rallied and a second wave of Romans rammed into their lines. Magnus saw a much wanted scalp - Snori, his armour covered in the blood of his former comrades.
Snori glared at him, his eyes black. "Bastard! I failed to kill you before. I won't this time."
A small knot of fear in his stomach, Magnus forced a laugh. "You're a clown. You've never been good enough to beat me. That's why I'm Captain and you were just taking up space."
Rain in their eyes, the two charged, their swords smashing together. They tested their strength, before pushing themselves apart. All around them men were fighting and dying, but the pair were in their own world. Magnus inflicted a slight cut on Snori's arm, while Snori sliced the side of Magnus's leg.
In a rage, Magnus went for the killing stroke, but slipped in the mud. Snori knocked Magnus's sword from his hand. Instead of trying to grab it, leaving himself open, Magnus smashed into Snori, battering him to the ground. They both struggled in the mud, but Magnus recovered first. His fist slammed into Snori. As Snori went down, Magnus scrambled for his sword. He spun around, just as Snori stumbled to his feet.
Magnus pointed the blade at Snori's throat. "Leaving?"
Around them the surviving Romans fled into the forest. Their ears burning as insults rained down upon them.
His eyes back to normal, Snori raised his arms. "I was bewitched, Magnus, have mercy on an old comrade."
He raised his sword as if to strike Snori down. “Bewitched my arse. I should kill you where you kneel, but I wouldn't stain my blade with your blood. You like it here so much you can stay. Go join these monsters."
Snori locked eyes with him. "My thanks."
"Leave, before I change my mind."
Snori scurried away and Magnus turned his back on him.
Dostum yelled, "Magnus, look out!"
Magnus spun around, his blade cutting through Snori's neck and sending his head splashing into the mud below. His body tumbled with his hand still clutching the hidden dagger.
"Good riddance," muttered Magnus. He turned to Dostum. "Gratitude, I was foolish to turn my back on him."
"You gave him a chance and death was his choice," said Dostum. He pointed the fleeing Romans. "The last of the dogs have fled, we have won."
"Not yet, I haven't found my brother."
"You can't get rid of me that easily, Magnus."
Behind him an overjoyed girl ran into Dostum’s arms. "Father!"
Dostum held her tightly. "Ailsa!"
As they separated, she pointed to the cliff tops. "If he still lives, your brother is there."
Magnus and others sprinted up to the cliff for all they were worth, only to find themselves too late. Magnus walked to the cliff's edge, the wind and rain swirling round him. "Enjoy Valhalla, brother."
As he turned, he thought he heard his name. Imagining it to be just a trick of the wind, he continued walking when he heard it again. Magnus peered over the side and saw Erik clinging precariously to a rocky outcrop. Below him was a one armed man clutching even more desperately to the cliff face. His expression hard as the stone he clung to.
"Finally!" said Erik. "Help me up!"
Magnus spun around. "Get a rope!"
It took him a moment to realise the others were frozen in place, rain running down their faces.
He looked down at Erik. His brother's eyes glowed white.
Magnus took a step back. "What are you?"
"Your God," replied Erik in deep voice.
Magnus took a step back. "Odin?"
Smiling, Erik replied, "So you remember my name? I thought it forgotten."
Magnus found his voice. "My lord. This was your doing?"
"It was Loki's idea, but after you denied me my sacrifice, I concurred. I needed to see if your words of devotion were just that - words"
Magnus chanced his tongue. "I thought better of you, my lord."
Erik frowned. "Faith is worthless if it's not backed up by actions."
Magnus thudded his chest. "I have always honoured you."
"Not when it mattered most. You needed to be tested."
Standing his ground Magnus replied, "Have I passed your test?"
Erik smiled. "The test continues."
A bright flash blinded Magnus. When he opened his eyes, he saw his daughter, Halle hanging onto the cliff. Shamefully he could only think to be glad it wasn’t his son.
Red hair blowing in the wind, she looked up at him with the same glowing eyes as Erik. "Pick which one dies. Do so and I may spare the other."
Magnus looked from his brother to his daughter hanging there precariously in the wind. "Damn you. You want someone...have me."
He threw himself over the side. Wind tearing past his face he forced himself to keep his eyes open as the rocks zoomed ever closer. Just as impact loomed, Odin transported him back to the top of the cliff. He sagged to the ground.
"Well played," said Erik.
"You alway were a man of principles," said Halle.
He looked down at them. "Release them and let me die for them."
Erik and Halle laughed. Then Erik said, "You have amused me. Take them both."
The light left their eyes. Jerking his head around, Erik asked. "What is she doing here?"
Wincing in pain from holding onto the cliff, Halle looked back at him. "What is going on!"
Magnus looked around half expecting to see Odin looming over him
"Father!" she yelled clearly exasperated.
He spun around. "Someone get me a rope!"
The Picts soon found one and he hauled Halle over the side. She slumped down and brushed hair from her face. "Father, what the bollocks is going on? One moment I'm at home, the next..."
He raised his hand. "A long story."
She looked at the mixed group of Picts and Norsemen. "I'm listening."
He grimaced. "Just a...disagreement with Odin. It didn't go well."
Her expression softened. "A disagreement with the Allfather?" She went even whiter than usual. "What did he want?"
He patted her hand. "It doesn't matter."
Dostum's group pulled Erik over the side. Before Magnus could move Ailsa rushed to his side. She grinned. "You look good for a dead man."
Erik winced. "Dead men don't hurt this much. I have some questions, but for now I'll settle for did we win?"
The thanks of the gathered warriors more than answered his question.
Magnus peered down at the dangling Aodh who still clung to life despite his missing limb. Indeed he was sure he could see the cut healing. “Enjoy the view, sorcerer. It will not be long before the sea claims you.”
Despite his obvious discomfort Aodh attempted a smile. “Indeed you have powerful friends while mine have deserted me, but perhaps we can come to an arrangement.”
“The same arrangement you made with Halfden!” said Erik stumbling free of Ailsa’s support. He spat down at him. “Here’s your deal.”
Magnus raised his hand. “Enough. I would hear him speak.”
“You didn’t see what he did to Halfden.”
Magnus lowered his voice. “This trip has cost me plenty already, perhaps we can get something out of it.”
“He killed the others.”
“And his death will not bring them back.” He looked back down. “Talk sorcerer before Erik convinces me otherwise. What are you offering?”
“My men have been raiding a long time. There is a cave in the hills filled with our spoils. How much gold is my life worth?”
“All of it.”
“Then it is yours.”
Magnus turned to Dostum. “I would have some profit from this trip, but this is your land, you have final say.”
Dostum looked at Ailsa who was supporting Erik. “You endured time under his heel. What say you?”
Ailsa got an evil glint in her eye. “Much as his death would amuse me.” She turned to Erik and raised a finger to his mouth. “I think we should get something out of him besides blood.”
Dostum nodded. “I agree.” He pointed to one of his men. “Find some iron. I’ll not bring him up til we have some way to bind his powers.”
After soon iron chain was found in the roman camp, a man was lowered to attach a rope around Aodh and he was hauled up. Magnus’s blade was just one of several pointed at the sorcerer as the iron was wrapped around him.
Aodh made no attempt to struggle. “This isn’t necessary. I gave my word.”
“Forgive me if I need more then that,” said Dostum.
Aodh merely laughed then fixed his gaze on Halle. “Another traveller sent by the Gods.”
Magnus was proud of the way she stood her ground. “So this flea bitten sorcerer is going to take us on a treasure hunt?”
“He’ll lead us to gold,” replied Magnus, “Or I’ll be bringing his head back as a present for your brother.”
Halle smiled. “Can I have some teeth for a brooch?”
Magnus looked down at Aodh. “We’ll see.”writing here ...
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