by Adam Murton
The Sun-lander pacing the top of the great wall above Golnir the Bright-eyed was a living insult to all sentries across Ea. No Nord sentry would be so foolish as to carry a burning torch with him allowing it to rob him of his night-sight, when its light barely reached the ground. The Nord stalker could clearly hear the Sun-lander’s boots even down at the foot of the wall, but then Golnir’s senses were far greater than mere mortals for his blood flowed with the power of the Einherjar.
He waited for the Sun-lander to pass over head, as much out of habit as out of fear of the witless guard. Then, he began to climb. The rough stones of the great curtain wall rasped at his fingers as he sought out the gaps and cracks he knew would be there. He dug his fingers in where loose mortar had crumbled or where mismatched stones had been paired up. Slowly he dragged himself higher, hauling at his weight, coercing the rough masonry into being his ally.
Four man-heights up, he stopped briefly to savour a lichen patch, holding his nose close by it and drawing wafts of air across it with each breath. Once, he had resumed his climb, the lichen scent was soon overwhelmed, by the nervous sweat of the witless fool above and the heavy musk of a full barrack. He focussed beyond it. Most of the men had had sweet-roots and oats today, but some – the noble lords no doubt – had had ham and cloying honey. No wonder they slept so soundly. There was another smell, deep in the castle keep. Golnir paused to sniff again and a frown creased his brow. It was distant and faint in the wind, but there it was: spicy and sharp with an undertone that brought to mind the trees of his home forests. However, the whole scent, could not have been farther from the lands of Mannheim; for it was the incense of the Sun-lander priests.
Two hand-spans from the top, he slowed his own breathing and hung there waiting for the witless Sun-lander to near. One hand released the wall and drew his hunting knife. He strained his hearing now, ignoring the crunch of boot-steps; they echoed too much amongst the walls. Instead, he listened for the rub of tunic against chest-plate and softer still the sound of stubble against a leather collar. There, that meant he was close now. Only the wall separated the Nord stalker from his prey. If the guard stopped and looked over, he would almost certainly see Golnir and the surprise would be lost. A beat later, the steps crunched on and the scent moved with it, passing by.
Golnir tensed his arms and pulled himself up, swinging over the battlements. Almost immediately, the blazing torch-light stole his sight, but it mattered not. Golnir was close enough now for his ears to guide him in. He landed two footed, bending his knees deep to soften the sound. With his right hand, he flicked the curving blade up and around, aiming just above the rasp of stubble on collar. His left hand also stretched out reaching round, as the guard half-turned. His mouth opened at the first sting of the blade to squeal or shout, but Golnir was ready for him. He thrust a soft rabbit pelt into the open jaw, ramming it in and muffling the scream as it formed. Golnir slit the sentry’s throat just as Loki had once slaughtered Heimdallr, but this death was far more deserved. Golnir twisted the guard towards the wall, so that the torch fell onto the stones of the wall-top walkway. The guard thrashed against Golnir’s grip and lunged forward to pull away. Golnir stepped with him, maintaining his hold. The stalker smiled at the guard’s foolishness. If their positions had been reversed, Golnir would have kicked off against the wall and driven them both off the walkway’s edge. In one move, eliminating the intruder and hopefully rousing the garrison with the noise of the fall. Instead, the guard struggled in his grasp as he grew weaker and weaker. Eventually, the Nord hunter lowered the guard’s limp body to the walkway.
With that task achieved, Golnir turned his back on the guttering torch and allowed his eyes to grow accustomed to the dark, once more. As he waited, he unslung and notched his bow. He drew the string and released: a mere half pull, just enough to carry the single arrow out over the wall and within thirty paces of the wood’s edge. That was the signal for the Jarl and his band to leave the wood and advance towards the gate.
Golnir moved swiftly, but soft-footed into the tower and down the winding staircase. Half-way down, he realised the fates had turned against him. Perhaps it was Loki’s revenge for daring to compare the guard’s death with Heimdallr’s. A creak of heavy hinges heralded the change of fortunes, With the creak, the pork and honey smell grew stronger. The keep door must have opened. Golnir readied the bow and notched a second arrow. The other scent had grown too: the tang of spice and pines. Only, it kept growing stronger and harsher.
Golnir was not surprised, when he head a voice intoning in the rolling tongue of the southerners. He held back from the staircase door and pressed back into the shadows. Certain that no mortal ear had sensed him, he just needed to wait. Hopefully, the priest, if indeed it was a priest, would return to his cot shortly. Listening intently, Golnir thought he heard the gentle scratch of buckles; as if the newcomer was tightening armour. The stalker frowned and slowed his breath.
‘A vision came to me as I slept.’ The voice did not shout, but spoke slow and clear in the manner of one used to letting his voice carry over distances. ‘A vision from the mighty Theos of a cowardly murderer loose in the castle. A murderer with the ears of a jackass.’ Golnir did not respond. By Hel, his own father had called him much worse. Instead, he silently pondered over the Sun-lander’s words. A vision? Was it possible? Would Loki act through a Sun-lander priest. Golnir almost scoffed at his own thought, but caught himself. Loki the Betrayer?
The voice came again, mocking now. ‘Come out coward. Face me like a man. Face the Chosen of Theos.’ Boots scuffed the packed earth: the speaker was coming closer, heading straight towards Golnir. If he had been betrayed by a dream, then there was no point hiding. He dared not hesitate. He drew the bow-string and spun out through the doorway, aiming for the sound. He corrected by sight and loosed. While the first arrow was still in flight, he notched and released a second. Both flew straight and true in the still air, The priest’s fate was sealed.
Almost immediately, Golnir cursed the arrogance of the thought, but the harm was done and the fates shunned him still. The priest glowed a ghostly blue and the arrows rebounded from him, falling harmlessly to the floor. Golnir spat and focused on the gate-way, he just needed to reach it and open the drawbridge. Then, the Jarl and his raiders could handle the priest and his damned tricks. Golnir spun on his heel and sprinted for the gate.
Ahead were two capstans for raising the drawbridge. Each was locked in place with metal bars, but – oh the arrogance of Southerners – thick hemp-ropes rose up from the capstans, not metal chains. Even more arrogantly, a second barred gate had been left raised and open. Any Nord would expect to be flogged for such laziness, but the Sun-landers had truly grown soft.
Maybe three paces from the first capstan, Golnir heard the priest intoning again. Let him chant all the protective prayers he wished, there was no way he could reach Golnir in time. The stalker held the bow in his left hand and slashed right-handed at the rope above the capstan. His still bloody knife slipped at first, before tearing into the fibres. He allowed himself half a smile, as the last thread gave way. Then, he heard a crackle behind him growing louder and nearer. He felt a wave of heat and, almost at the same time, something slammed into his back and washed over him. He burned.
Agony burst over his back, as if a thousand stinging lashes tore at him. Thick acrid smoke rushed past his sensitive nose, followed by the stench of burning wool and fur. Above all this, he could hear the priest. He was no longer chanting, but shouting almost joyously. ‘Burn, heathen! Burn!’
Behind the first rush of burning heat was an icy cold grip, as fimbul-winter followed the fire-giant at Ragnarok. but Golnir knew he was still burning. The stench of burning meat and melting fat assaulted his nostrils. His flesh bubbled and grew taut. Tendrils of flame snatched at his ears.
‘Let all that is unclean and ungodly burn in the holy sight of Theos. Let Ea be purified of your wickedness.’
Golnir rolled on the packed earth trying to quench the flames, trying to end the agony that was spreading across him.
When the Priest’s voice came next, he was intoning again and another wave of flame crashed across Golnir. Bringing with it new agonies. Flames blossomed across his trousers and his leg shook beneath the attack. Golnir closed his eyes. The Priest was toying with him, like a hound with a rabbit; the outcome was certain. Golnir almost gave up, almost let himself sink into Hel’s dark embrace. Instead, he pushed down with his left arm and straining hard raised himself off the ground. He groped right-handed for his quiver and drew an arrow. He held it close to his blazing clothes. Black smoke forced tears from his eyes and choked at his wind pipe. Golnir rolled over landing by the dropped bow. He grabbed it left-handed, readying and notching in one fluid, long-practised motion. He muttered a prayer to the sacred ancestor, whose blood flowed through him. Amid the agony of the fire and the tautening of muscles, he could only manage a weak half-pull, but pull he did and loosed. The burning arrow snaked away from him, heading towards the drawbridge’s far rope. Amidst the smoke and the brightness of the flame that surrounded Golnir, he lost sight of the arrow. He tried listening for its impact, but the fire roared around him.
Golnir laid back and closed his eyes, knowing that death would soon claim him; but hoping and praying he would not be Death’s only prize tonight.