The putrid stench wafted into Harald’s nostrils, threatening to make him lose everything he had eaten that day. He clenched his stomach muscles, refusing to let any physical weakness show. There was simply no time for weakness.
Weakness is what had gotten one of his companions killed.
Harald focused on the faint pine scent emanating from the nearby trees, sparsely scattered as the troll led them further away from the forest and into more rocky territory. Harald stared down the giant troll from underneath his helmet, careful not to take in too much breath. The last thing he needed was to be sick as the creature exhaled its noxious air. From the corner of his eye, he saw Ivar circle slowly to the troll’s side, an axe in each of his hands, gracefully navigating the uneven terrain. Sigrid was already behind the brutish troll, waiting for his signal to thrust her spear into the creature’s leg. Steinar, his other friend, lay motionless on the cold, rocky ground.
Harald watched for an error from the troll, an unintended movement that would spell its doom. Being already hacked up on every side, it wouldn’t take long.
The troll lumbered forward, eyes focused on Harald. With one long step, it planted its bloody right foot ten meters away from Harald, stumbling as it shifted its weight onto it.
That’s all Harald needed. “Now!”
The troll bellowed in anger. Sigrid must have found her mark. Ivar rushed in from Harald’s left side, slashing at the troll’s leg with his axes, a blur of motion with each swipe. The troll swung its club in a wide arc, searching for the cause of the biting in his leg and back. The club passed dangerously close to Harald, but all he was hit with was the breeze the club created as it swung by his face.
Without waiting for the club to come back around, Harald charged, closing the distance in seconds. The troll staggered as if he had three too many pints to drink, careening towards Harald. Harald put up his right arm and, using the round shield strapped to his forearm, pushed against the troll’s trunk-like leg.
Harald jumped up onto the troll’s other foot, opposite to where Ivar still attempted to hack away at the troll’s thick skin. Holding a long dagger in one hand, Harald stabbed the troll in the calf, leaving the knife protruding from the troll’s thick skin, using it as a step to climb higher up the creature’s body.
The troll roared and shook its leg, but Harald held tight. The troll’s club screamed down towards Harald as he still stood on the dagger’s handle protruding from the beast’s leg. Harald jump at the last moment, letting the troll’s club tear the blade through its own leg. He grabbed hold of the club as it passed, knuckles white as he held on as it swung back and up. The troll brought its club up over its head, ready to bring it down with deadly force.
Harald swung from the club and landed on the troll’s scaly shoulder. Without wasting another second, he thrust his spear into the back of the creature’s neck. Still the troll bellowed and roared and thrashed in pain and annoyance. Harald pushed harder, using the haft of the spear to help balance himself.
Finally the troll stopped its deep, guttural howling and tipped forward. Harald pulled his spear free as the troll toppled to the earth. Harald rolled off the creature’s back as it hit the ground, dropping his spear in the process. He tumbled over jagged rocks and large stones. Harald used his momentum to push himself up quickly. He retrieved his spear, walked up to the troll, and pierced its skull with the sharp spearhead.
The troll spasmed for just a moment before it remained motionless. Finally dead.
“That was easy enough,” said Sigrid, coming around form behind the troll, holding just half a spear.
“You are insane to think that was easy,” chided Ivar. “We were all nearly killed, and if you notice Steinar’s motionless husk, he was!”
Harald sat on the troll’s shoulder, breathing heavily. “And yet here you are, alive and well.”
“You know we had to do this,” Sigrid sighed. “It wandered far too close to the town.”
Ivar sat on a large boulder. “Of all the people to be paired with, why did I get stuck with you lot?”
“Because you’re our friend!” Harald laughed. “Besides, if I remember correctly, it was you who volunteered to help me in my task.”
Ivar wiped the blood off one of his axe blades with his leather tunic, extending just slightly past his armor. “Yes, but that was before I realized you were being charged with protecting the town from these creatures.”
Harald slid off the troll. “Cheer up, friend. The time is soon at hand when a new Jarl will be chosen. And since I have done an outstanding job of protecting the town, there is little doubt that the people will chose me to fill that role.” Harald examined the creature. “Now come, we must get back before it gets too dark. Help me relieve this brute of its head.”
Laughter surrounded Harald as he sat in the common room of the tavern, soaking in the victory and plaudits of his fellow comrades. The lamps flickered gently, helping warm Harald’s soul. He loved the thrill of the hunt, but there was something to be said about drinking one’s self into a stupor after the fact.
Trolls were relatively common in the nearby hills, but that didn’t make it any less a feat of greatness when one came back with a hideous troll head as a trophy. He was growing quite a collection of various troll heads, proof that he was doing his duty of protecting the town from their rampaging.
Despite the laughter and adulations of those with which he shared drinks, Harald still felt a pang of grief at the loss of Steinar. He had been a good friend, and a cunning warrior. He had fallen far too early in life, but that was the way of things. He would mourn at the funeral in a few days. For now, he would celebrate his own accomplishment.
Ivar sat at a nearby table and had gathered quite an audience as he told of his role in bringing down the troll. Of course, Ivar was embellishing most of what had happened, but Harald just smiled through his thick, red beard. Despite Ivar’s hesitations before and after a battle, he was as brave as any, and the most trustworthy companion.
Sigrid sat at the bar, sending away any would-be flirters by threatening to challenge them to a spar out front. These were strong men who had seen many battles themselves, but none dared challenge Sigrid. They would rather come up with some phony excuse as to why they couldn’t at this time.
Harald chuckled as he relaxed at his own table, still surrounded by men and women alike, asking him to retell his story of how he slew the troll. As he opened his mouth to begin the story anew, the front door of the log tavern burst open, letting in a blast of the cold night air. Candles flickered, but did well to stay lit.
Silence engulfed the entire room as a group of haggard men strolled inside. There looked to be six of them in total, but it was the leader on who everyone had their eyes fixed.
“Valdemar!” someone shouted. Then the entire room erupted in noise, some whooping, others calling out to him, asking how he fared.
The man leading the group – Valdemar – strutted through the room until he came to the table where Harald sat. Pulling up an empty seat, he sat down, propping up his muddy boots on the table.
“Harald! I see you haven’t moved since I left. Things must be quiet around here.”
Harald bit back a hasty retort. “Hello, Valdemar. I see you failed to meet up with your ancestors.”
Valdemar laughed. Harald might have thought it was even genuine, had he never met the man before.
“You are correct, friend! I still roam this pitiful realm. I have been far too busy with my travels to pass on to the other side.”
“A pity,” Harald said, trying to make it at least sound like a jest.
Valdemar ignored Harald’s comment. “What have you been up to? Surely not just drinking the whole time, no?”
Now it was Harald’s turn to bring the conversation back to him, lest anyone around forget the heroics he and his comrades had just been through. “Since you ask, I have just returned from ridding the hills of another foul troll. It had become a threat to the town, so I saw to it that its head joined my collection.”
Valdemar’s eyes opened wide. “You let the troll wander close to the town?” He laughed and slapped the table with a heavy, gauntleted hand. The table sounded like it might split in two. “Either you are lacking in your ability to track these creatures, or your bravado has reached a point where you feel it does not matter how close the creatures gets, so long as it remains outside our borders.” Valdemar smiled, but it was not a friendly look on his scarred and bearded face. “You must be quite proud of yourself, Harald.”
Harald waved a hand across his face, signaling that Valdemar’s words held no merit in his mind. “Enough about me. Where have you been this last month? Certainly not doing anything for the betterment of the town, hm?”
Any joviality in Valdemar’s demeanor vanished, his face stern, solid as ice. “I have been out hunting, far across the known seas, where monsters dwell.” The noise in the tavern dwindled as Valdemar spoke, patrons trying to listen in. “I have seen the monstrous Fenrir, but its skin was not enough for me. I hunted, with my crew, until we found the fabled lindwurm. We lost many of our crew, but in the end, its life was ended by my own hand.” Valdemar’s smile returned, mirthless and cruel. “The serpent will bring me great honor.” He stood, pushing his chair back with his legs. “Perhaps even enough to be named Jarl.”
Harald didn’t so much as blink as Valdemar walked away, but marked his every move until he sat down at the bar near Sigrid. Sigrid stood up as Valdemar sat down and made her way to the seat Valdemar had vacated at Harald’s table. At least she did not seem interested to hear more of his tale.
“The way he boasts is childish and arrogant,” Sigrid noted, sitting down.
Harald’s anger roared inside of him, threatening to boil over any second. Many of those in the tavern crowded around Valdemar as he expounded on his adventure across the sea.
“What good is slaying trolls if there is nothing to show for it?” fumed Harald.
“You have much to show for it,” Sigrid reassured. “Besides, you are one of the best warriors within the outlying townships. The people of Hofslond are grateful they have you as their protector.”
“But it is not enough,” muttered Harald. “With the Jarl dead, there is no order. I can only do so much to protect these people from those wandering creatures.”
Sigrid sighed. “A new chief will be appointed soon. Then things will be as they were.”
Harald pounded the table with his fist, a few splinters flying up. “Not if Valdemar is appointed Jarl! With him as chief, he will make certain life is only good for those of his inner circle. We will become outcasts in the very town we struggled to protect.”
“Perhaps it is time to hunt the trolls more aggressively,” Sigrid suggested. “Show the town your worth. Show them what kind of leader you will be.”
Harald took a swig of his foaming brew, considering his friend’s words. As he contemplated, Ivar took another empty seat next to him. Most of the seats had been abandoned anyway, once Valdemar took his place at the bar.
“What silenced him?” he asked Sigrid.
“He worries about the fate of this town.”
Ivar nodded. “He fears Valdemar will become the next Jarl.”
“It won’t happen,” said Harald. “I will make sure of it.”
Ivar shot Sigrid a worried look. “I don’t like the sound of that.”
“What do you plan on doing, Harald?” Sigrid’s tone was even, calm.
“I will set sail for the far reaches of the known ocean to hunt my own prey. I will bring back a monster even more deadly than Valdemar’s lindwurm. There are rumors of dreki far across the sea.”
“A dreki?” exclaimed Ivar. “A troll is one thing, Harald, but a dragon is surely past our expertise!”
“There is no difference, my friend. Only in your mind.” Harald leaned back in his chair. “When I return as an even more successful hunter than Valdemar, the people will have no choice but to make me Jarl.”
“By doing this, you leave the town vulnerable to the trolls’ attacks,” cautioned Sigrid.
“We have just slain one. We have three more weeks, perhaps four, until another troll wanders close enough to town to be a threat. We will be back by then.”
“We?” exclaimed Ivar. “Who do you mean by ‘we?’”
Harald looked his friend in the eye. “I do not expect you to come, my friend. But your skill with the axe surpasses any I know. I would be loath to leave you behind.”
“Besides,” said Sigrid, smiling. “Without you, who will be our voice of reason?”
Ivar lolled his head back and sighed. “You will be the death of me. You know that, don’t you?”
Harald laghed. It felt good to laugh. “Without you, Ivar, it is me that will surely pass on.” He downed the last of his drink and stood up. “Now come! We must leave as quickly as we can. Hofslond will choose the new Jarl in three weeks’ time. If we are not back by then, it will most certainly go to Valdemar, and that we cannot have. We leave tomorrow.”
“But what of Steinar’s funeral?” asked Sigrid. “Surely you plan on waiting until after he’s laid to rest.”
“There is no time,” said Harald. “If we do not return before the town sits to choose the next Jarl, all will be for naught.”
Sigrid nodded “I will be ready.” She made her way through the common room and out the door.
Harald knocked back another mug of ale before rising to leave. With the courage of drink, Harald left the tavern with high spirits. Valdemar may have slain an impressive beast, but Harald would outdo him. He would hunt the most dangerous monster known to man and bring it back. He will win the honor of his people, and he will keep Valdemar from being named Jarl.
“You can’t be serious,” laughed one of the warriors Harald talked with. He thought he would find some willing men at the training grounds near the edge of town, but so far, nobody had so much as blinked at his offer. “You’re excellent against trolls, yes, but to sail into uncharted waters seeking out such monsters is well past your level of experience.”
“Then you will have no part in the glory and honor when I return,” huffed Harald, and he stormed off, heading down the path back into the town.
“Odin doesn’t accept idiots into Valhalla!” the man called as Harald walked away.
Harald ignored the laughs and jeers of the men as he put his back to them. It had been the same story all morning. Either he was too inexperienced in boating or not practiced enough at fighting. Didn’t they know who he was? He was the one that kept their borders free of vile trolls! He knew how to fight; he had proven that time and time again.
“Still no luck?” It was Sigrid. She fell into step with him as he went in search of a more willing group of men.
“None,” said Harald, scowling at a pig, wallowing in its pen. “It’s as if these men are scared to venture out to sea, to hunt and to achieve glory and honor beyond description!” Harald shook his head, eyes darting between the homes scattered around the area. How many times had he protected them, and still they treat him this way?
“It is a daunting task you offer them,” said Sigrid. “Had I not known you personally, I may have also turned down your request. However, I know what kind of man you are, and I know you will succeed. You must help these others see that as well.”
“That is not as easy as it sounds.”
“No, but it’s still something you must do.”
Harald squared his shoulders. “So be it. In the mean time, Ivar is securing us a ship. Meet us at the shipwright’s after lunch. I will have our warriors by then.”
Sigrid nodded and they went their separate ways. Harald was out of patience. There was no time left to play diplomacy with the others. He would have to coerce them into coming along. It was his only option left. He was more than willing to go with just him, Sigrid, and Ivar, but knew that chances of surviving with just the three of them were slim to none. No, he needed at least a few more warriors.
Harald turned and made his way back to where the group of men were training.
“What are you looking at?” he challenged the pig as he passed it once again.
The men stopped what they were doing when he approached them this second time and jeered and taunted him once more. He ignored their jibes. Walking into the middle of the training ground, he unclipped his spear from its place on his back, along with his round shield, grasping it in his non-weapon hand.
“I challenge each one of you to a duel!” Harald shouted. “Should you lose, you will come with me on my journey. If you win…”
“You buy us drinks for a month!” shouted one man. The other warriors roared their approval.
“That is fair,” agreed Harald. “Who’s first?”
One of the younger warriors, training with the spear, approached Harald. “I hope you have enough gold, Harald. I drink a lot.”
“You are young and foolish,” said Harald, “but you will have to do. Let us begin.”
The young man wasted no time in attacking Harald. He lunged at him, closing the distance of the open training field quickly, but Harald batted the attack away with his shield, following up with a jab of his own. The young man jumped to the side just in time to miss the sharp end of Harald’s spear. However, Harald followed through on his attack and cracked the butt of his spear into the young man’s ribs.
He fell to one knee, grabbing at his side. Harald brought his spear around once more, stopping it at the front of the young man’s neck. Just like that, the bout was over.
“We leave after lunch today,” said Harald. “Pack what you need and meet me at the shipwright’s in two hours.”
The young man’s mouth hung agape. Whether he was shocked at how quickly he lost or frightened at what he had just got himself into, Harald didn’t care. What mattered was that he had found his first addition to his team. He only needed a few more to give him a fighting chance at defeating the dreki.
“Who’s next?” challenged Harald.
The man who had previously taunted him about Odin not accepting idiots approached, a blithering smile pasted to his ugly face. “That young lad is new in the training grounds. You would have been better off without him.” The man circled Harald. “Now, prepare your coin purse. I could use a drink.”
Without waiting for a response or a proper start to the duel, the man thrust his spear forwards. Harald jumped back, narrowly avoiding a new hole in his body. The two fought with equal skill, both wielding spear and shield. After a long drought of neither party close to making contact with the other, the man called out to one of his friends watching on the side.
“Rolf! Get in here!”
A man carrying an axe in each hand sauntered into the fight, a wicked grin on his face.
“This is a one-on-one duel!” Harald exclaimed. “He cannot help you.”
“You failed to specify that rule,” said the man.
Harald fumed. He moved in a small circle, slowly rotating to keep the two men in view. Realizing Harald was keeping them both together, the two men split up, Rolf going around to Harald’s right, and the other to his left.
Harald knew he needed to keep both within his sight, but with them split up like they were, it became much more difficult. He had to act now before they gained any more advantage.
Harald turned and charged at Rolf, catching him off guard. Harald heard the other man, now behind him, run towards him. Harald spun, left hand outstretched and holding his shield. With a loud crack, his wooden shield crashed into the charging man’s head. Harald kept spinning, keeping his spear and shield outstretched.
Rolf yelped as he jumped backwards, narrowly missing Harald’s spear to the leg. Harald pressed forward and brought his shield around, aiming for Rolf’s face. Rolf raised both his axes in front of him, one crossed over the other. Using his axes as a shield, Rolf pushed Harald’s shield back. As he did, Harald brough his spear around and cracked Rolf on the side of his head with his spear’s wooden haft.
Rolf collapsed and dropped his axes. He lay on the ground motionless. Harald turned to face the other man, still laying unconscious.
Harald leaned against a nearby tree and waited for the two men to wake up. After a few minutes Rolf stirred. He sat up slowly and looked at Harald, then sighed.
“Shipwright’s in two hours?” he asked.
Harald nodded. “Best get packing.”
The other man groaned and rolled over. Rolf pushed himself up slowly and walked over to his fighting partner. Then he kicked him in the ribs.
“Thanks a lot, Leif.”
Leif coughed from the blow, then looked up at Harald. “You’re better than I thought. Maybe this expedition of yours won’t be such a sham after all.”
“You won’t be disappointed,” said Harald. “You have two hours. Better use that time to get that face of yours looked at.”
A swordsman stepped forward, approaching Harald. “Heil ok sæl, Harald.”
“Good day,” replied Harald.
The swordsman cleared his throat. “I see you have some skill after all. I would join you in your journey, without the pleasure of dueling you, I might add.”
“And I as well,” said another swordsman, stepping forward.
Harald was speechless. He had to aggressively coax his first three comrades to join him. Now they were volunteering?
“You know what it is you are agreeing to, then?” Harald wanted to ensure everyone was aware of the danger ahead.
“We are aware,” said the first swordsman. “We could use some of that glory you promise.”
“And a dragon’s scale!” chimed in another.
Harald laughed. “Then may the glory be yours to take part in!” He looked around the crowd of people. “Anyone else?”
To his surprise, two dozen men stepped forward, all armed with axes, swords, and spears. Harald’s moustache lifted slightly as he smiled. His journey just became much easier.
“We depart in two hours. Meet at the shipwright’s with your own supplies. I will see you then.”
Harald left the rest of the men to their training and set himself busy securing supplies for the voyage. Once he had everything he figured he and his mates would need, he made his way to the shipwright’s building.
Sigrid was there waiting for him, along with Ivar. The two of them leaned against the front of the merchant’s shop, a small building made up of logs held together with mortar. The shipwright was across from them. The ocean waves lapped up against the shore nearby – the very ocean that would take them to their destiny beyond.
“Well?” asked Sigrid.
“They will be here shortly,” said Harald, carrying two sacks full of food, water containers, and other supplies. He dropped the goods at his friends’ feet.
“Do I even want to know how you managed to get anyone to join your little crusade?” asked Ivar.
“We should have sufficient for our task,” said Harald, slapping him on the shoulder. “You have acquired a ship?”
“I did. It’s not the largest, but it will have to do.”
“How many will she hold?” Harald queried.
“Sixteen” answered Ivar. “Not including supplies.”
“Is there nothing bigger?” asked Harald.
“Of course there is,” said Ivar. “Unfortunately your coffers are only large enough to match the smallest ship available.”
Harald grunted. It would have to do. Following the journey, he would be able to afford a bigger ship the next time, perhaps even purchase his own!
He heard the scuffing of feet behind him. He turned to see Rolf, Leif, and the young man heading his direction. They may be arrogant, but the word of a Viking is as good as gold.
“Is this it?” asked the young man.
“The others will be here shortly,” reassured Harald. “What’s your name, son?”
Harald held out his hand. “Well, Eirik, welcome to the crew. When you get back, not only will you have stories to tell, but you’ll have all the glory of the gods to go with it.”
Eirik smiled. “If you fight as well out there as you did against us, we should be in good hands.”
“That you will,” said Sigrid. “Harald is one of the best warriors I know.”
“And a good leader at that!” offered Ivar.
“Does that mean we are ready to sail?” asked Leif. “I’m anxious to get on with this.”
Harald smiled. “Almost. There is one more stop I need to make. The others should be here by the time I return.”
Harald sat across form a wizened old woman. She wore a pale orange dress, a blue apron hanging from her shoulders. Four strings of colorful beads hung from the apron, dropping across her chest.
Smoke billowed throughout the room, the result of too much incense burning at once. Whips of smoke curled and danced with each gentle breeze that snuck through the hut’s cracked walls. Harald wasn’t sure which smelled worse—this or the troll. He rested his hand on the table in front of him, a large basin of water, rippling from his movement.
“I need to know what lies ahead on my journey, wise Sage,” he said leaning forward.
Harald looked into the lady’s eyes, but she made no sign she recognized he was even there. Her eyes were dull, like they had simply worn out. And yet he felt as if she stared into his very soul.
“Your journey is important to you, yes?” the woman asked.
Harald nodded, more for himself than for her, considering her eyesight. “Yes. Very important.”
The old woman sighed. “It always is.” She reached across the table and took Harald’s hand. Her skin was rough and wrinkled, but gentle still the same. Harald raised an eyebrow as the woman dipped his finger in the water basin, tiny waves rippling out from where the finger penetrated the liquid.
She pulled his finger out and Harald slowly brought it back to his person. The old woman then dipped her own finger in the basin and stirred it around, faster and faster until she created a small vortex in the water, a miniature whirlpool whose waters nearly reached the top of the dish.
Still stirring, the old sage stared into the spiraling water. Whether her eyes worked or not Harald still couldn’t say.
“You will be tried with rough waters,” said the woman. “The waves will be dangerous, but trust in your instincts. Your feelings will guide you to safety.”
Harald sat in silence, waiting for more words of wisdom. When none came, he pushed his chair back and stood up. “I thank you, wise Sage. I will not forget your imparted wisdom heard here today.”
“I should hope not,” replied the sage, a hint of mirth in her tone. “Only a fool rejects the very council of which he asks.”
“I understand,” said Harald. Without waiting further, Harald turned and exited the hut, letting the cloth doorway flutter back into place as he walked back towards the docks.
Harald arrived at the shipwright’s and took in a deep breath of the sweet, salty sea air. He was pleased to see Sigrid, Ivar, and the other recruits packed on what he assumed must be their longship. It was smaller than he had hoped – a karvi by the looks of it. The ship was tied to a dock, waiting to be sent forth into the ocean before her. The front and back of the ship curved upwards, a wooden blade to cut through the ocean’s mighty waves. A large mast rose up from the center of the ship, the sail rolled up nicely at the top. It truly was a marvelous sight.
So why did he suddenly have doubts about this trip?
His eyes lingered on all those who had shown up to attend him in his quest. Many of those that had volunteered still lingered on the shore. Harald sighed as he realized there might not be enough room for all those he brought. He did a quick count and shook his head. This would be reason enough to postpone the trip; tell them all he had decided to wait until he could afford a bigger ship.
But Valdemar had already completed a successful quest. If Harald did not return with something of a much grander scale, he would never be named jarl. He must press forward. What sort of brave warrior backed out moments before his epic quest? Harald chuckled. He would see this through, and he would return with honor and glory.
“You have great courage, noble warriors!” he called out to his crew. “As fate would have it, not everyone will be able to partake in our quest. For that I apologize, but it is the way things must be.”
“Not a problem,” smiled one of the men on the shore nearby. “Should probably stay home with the family anyway. Wife is due to give birth any day now as it is.”
Harald chuckled. “Enjoy your new child!” Then, to the rest of those lingering, he said, “Anyone not on the ship will need to stay behind. But you may certainly join me on my next journey after our return!”
Nobody cheered – he didn’t really expect them to, but he did have a slight hope that they would. Instead, they all silently went their way. In no time the beach was cleared of men aside from those on the longship, waiting to be pushed out to sea.
“Is everybody ready?” he asked those in the ship. Unlike those on the beach, these people roared their excitement to be on their way.
Harald jumped into the ship and untied the rope that held them bound to shore. He pushed off the dock and the ship moved slowly out into open water. He made his way to the bow of the ship, armor clanging as he walked.
“Row!” he shouted as he took his place at the bow. With sixteen rowing positions, the longship propelled itself into the crashing waves. The ship cut through the waves and in no time they were past the breakers and on their way into the high seas.
“Full sail!” he called. The two rowers in the middle by the mast pulled on a rope and the sail fluttered downward, puffing out as the wind caught inside it.
Harald laughed as the longship picked up speed, water splashing around him as they sped through the waves. Finally, he was on his way to grand victory and all the glory that comes with it.
“How far is this monster of yours, exactly?” Each day at sea seemed to make Ivar more and more nervous, but he never once complained. He just asked more questions.
“I do not know,” admitted Harald. “Close, I should expect.”
“If you don’t know,” said Ivar, exasperation thick in his voice, “then what makes you think we will ever find it?”
Harald sighed. “My instincts tell me we are near.”
Ivar rolled his eyes. “I’d much prefer a map telling us we were close.”
So would I, thought Harald.
He had never been to the land in which they were traveling. Although there were plenty of stories suggesting where it was. Harald relied on these for direction, although, thinking back, he probably could have asked Valdemar for at least a hint of directions. At the time, however, Harald refused to ask the man for help. Now, he wished he had done a little more in terms of getting directions. But, he knew the sky was a map of its own, and keeping the sun in the right part of the sky would eventually lead them to the monsters’ spawning ground. Or so the stories told.
He watched the rolling waves, hoping for a glimpse of anything other than water. The past five days at sea had been calm. Puffy white clouds dotted the sky, doing well to keep the sun from scorching them as they sailed.
And that’s what worried him.
The old sage had warned of troubled waters. So far the only troubled waters he had encountered was his own bladder. If they didn’t find land soon, they would have to turn back. They didn’t have enough supplies to go on much longer.
“Harald,” said Ivar, eyes fixed on some distant point off the starboard side.
Harald grunted, coming out of his thoughts. “What is it?”
Ivar pointed ahead, but Harald could only see the rolling waves.
Harald sighed. “The ocean air has been getting to you. You must just be seeing things.”
“Fish!” called out one of the warriors near the ship’s stern.
Harald clapped Ivar on the shoulder. “So you did see something! And tonight we shall eat fresh fish!”
Something cracked against the water beside the ship, sending a spray of water against Harald. “Careful with your oar, you dunga!” Harald cursed as he turned on the man behind him. “Spray me again and you’ll be floating home!”
The man shook his head, but didn’t meet Harald’s eyes. His eyes focused on the waters below. “It wasn’t me. It was…something out there.”
Anger surged within Harald. “You dare pass this off to a simple fish leaping out of the water? I’ll—”
The karvi lurched to the side, as if struck by a powerful wave, but all around the waves remained calm. Harald grabbed the side of the ship with one hand, reaching out to grab Ivar with the other. Ivar caught hold of Harald’s hand as he was nearly flung off the side of the ship.
Harald looked at Ivar, face as pale as the driven snow. Something was moving their ship. As suddenly as the longship lurched, it righted itself again. An eternity passed as Harald scanned the waters near the ship, afraid that by merely looking for whatever was toying with the ship would set it off.
Water exploded upward all around the longship, long tentacles rising into the air before latching onto the ship. The wood creaked and moaned as if it felt the pain of the suctioned tentacles trying to rip it apart.
“Kraken!” shouted Harald. “She’ll rip the ship to pieces!”
His crew attacked the tentacles with all the ferocity of an eagle protecting her nest. Harald retrieved his spear from the deck and thrust it into the nearest appendage. The tentacles looked like branches from a tree, nearly dead but with still some life in them. Pale, yet tinted green. It spurt black blood as Harald repeatedly pierced it.
The tentacle he struck released the ship and slithered back into the dark depths of the ocean, oily blood pooling at the surface. Harald looked around. His men fought furiously, cutting and hacking at any part of the creature they could reach. One of the men – Rolf, an axe in each hand – disarmed two tentacles at once.
As the crew continued repulsing the attacking creature, the boat rocked more and more. Harald planted his feet, finding his balance. Waves churned up all around the ship, growing to become giant walls of water.
The first wave broke against the portside of the ship, sending wood splintering off to join lifeless bodies floating in the sea. Another wave crashed into the same side, threatening to capsize the longship.
“It’s underneath!” warned Harald. “We must kill it now!”
Two spearmen leaned over the wall of the ship, jabbing their spears into the water repeatedly. A muffled rumbling exploded into a terrible roar as an elongated head nearly half the size of the ship burst through the water. Its two round eyes were filled with bloodlust. Black blood oozed from its bulbous head.
“Kill it!” shouted Harald.
Spears flew towards the creature, floating just out of their reach. Its unearthly screech pierced the dusk sky. It reached for the ship with its tentacles, but each time it did it was quickly rebuffed, blood leaking from dozens of wounds.
The kraken floated closer to the ship, its scream reverberating through Harald as it approached. Harald roared in rage and hacked at tentacles as he tried to get close to the beast’s giant head. As he approached, a large tentacle swung itself into Harald, sending him flying into the ship’s wooden mast. Harald hit hard, sending a jolt of pain through his entire body. He forced himself to stand, ignoring the burning pain in his side. He looked up just in time to see Rolf launch himself off the ship, directly towards the behemoth’s murderous eyes.
Rolf cried out in rage as he flew across the churning water, arms out, axe in each hand. He brought both arms down as he reached the beast’s head, imbedding his axes into its face. The kraken shrieked even louder, something Harald didn’t think possible.
Rolf removed his right axe from the creature’s face and struck it again, followed by his left axe. Over and over he walloped on the creature, its tentacles writhing in the air, trying to find its assailant but unable to control its motions.
The kraken shook its head furiously, effectively dislodging one of Rolf’s axes from its face. Rolf clutch the other axe tightly with his left hand, hanging precariously as the monster continued to try and shake itself free.
Harald’s eyes widened as a spear impaled the kraken between Rolf’s dangling feet.
“Use the spear as a foothold!” shouted Sigrid from the ship.
Rolf kicked his way through the air until his feet found Sigrid’s spear. Rolf was fortunate that Sigrid was the one throwing the spear to his aid; anyone else might have skewered him as he hung there.
Rolf planted his feet and, with a determined roar, began his ascent once again. Using his axes to climb the kraken’s face, Rolf neared the more tender area of the beat’s face. He pulled out his right axe and, pulling himself up from with his left, he attacked, slashing his axe right between the creature’s bulging eyes. He swung with his left axe, also founding its mark between the eyes.
Shrieking in agony, the creature flailed, severing the longship’s mast, causing it to collapse into the sea, sail and all. Harald watched as Rolf twisted his axe, opening an even bigger wound. Black blood gushed out.
A tentacle smashed into Rolf, and one of his axes fell into the sea. However, the tentacle stayed in place, effectively keeping Rolf pressed against the creature’s face. Another tentacle wrapped around the previous one. More and more of its slithering appendages pressed against itself, squeezing with all its might.
Harald lanched his spear at the kraken, piercing its eye and nearly traveling through the length of the spear’s shaft. The monster spasmed, releasing its grip on Rolf. With nothing holding him up, Rolf’s broken body plummeted into the briny sea.
A moment later, the kraken let out a final cry of pain and stopped moving.
The waves returned to normal, and the boat returned to its gentle rocking motions. The air was quiet, save for the creaking of the damaged longship. The kraken sank below the surface of the water.
“We should retrieve its head before it sinks further” said one of the men.
“Leave it,” ordered Harald. “We must save our strength.”
“For what?” asked another. “Was this not the monster we came to defeat?”
Harald shook his head. “The kraken is a formidable foe, however the quarry we seek is far more dangerous.”
Murmurs rose up from the remaining warriors. Twelve remained. Of the sixteen that started – seventeen including himself – twelve was a good number.
“Rolf will be well received in Valhalla,” said Harald to his men, trying to remind them of the glory they sought. “All who fell will be greatly rewarded.” Harald looked around for the other bodies. They must be sinking down to the ocean’s depths. There would be no recovering them. “We will rest here for the night. Let us repair what we can while we still have light.”
Harald picked up a discarded spear and turned it around in his hands. It looked to be in good condition. It must have been dropped by one of the less fortunate men. Harald surveyed the damage as he made his way back to the bow of the ship. From what he could tell, the hull was still intact. Just the sides were damaged, and many oars were missing. They had fought it off quickly enough that the damage was minimal. Much of their food, however, was soaking wet.
Harald kicked part of a tentacle that had been cut off during the battle.
“We will need to turn back,” said Sigrid, coming up from behind. “We will not last many more days with spoiled food. Not only that, our water skins are contaminated with the ocean’s salty water.”
“This food will not see us home, Sigrid.” Harald squatted and examined each piece of meat and bread. All was completely drenched. He sighed. A small voice in the back of his mind told him Sigrid was right. Maybe they should go back…
But he had come so far to give up now! He set his jaw and thought for a moment. “We are five days out. We must be near. Why else would the kraken attack us?”
Sigrid remained standing. “Perhaps we had trespassed into its domain. Is not that why we slay the trolls back home? Because otherwise they will wreak havoc on our town?”
“That is what I’m saying,” said Harald, standing up. His thoughts flashed back to his town. Hopefully the trolls were keeping their distance during his absence. “We must be nearing the place where these fell beasts live. The one we seek will be before us soon.”
Sigrid nodded slowly. “I hope you’re right. For all our sakes.”
Harald rowed with his crew the entire next day, and still there was no sign of land. They took shifts throughout the night, rowing as best they could, trying not to drift too far off course. After rowing through the morning and into the afternoon, the spotter on duty called out to the crew.
“Land ahoy! Land ahoy!”
Everyone stopped rowing immediately to turn around and see for themselves. Harald smiled through cracked lips at the sight of it. At their distance he couldn’t make out much, just a tall, round mountain climbing up into the clouds. As they neared the island, Harald could make out a few trees mingled with some boulders at the base of the mountain. Trees meant water, and water meant life. They would make it through this after all.
Harald encouraged his crew with thoughts of fresh water and food. With this as their focus, they rowed the longship quickly towards shore. When they finally reached the shore and dragged the karvi onto dry land, Harald immediately sought out the closest tree, a pine with blue-green needles. Green grass covered the ground, proving that water did exist. At the tree, Harald looked around for a water source. There had to be something.
“Water!” called Ivar. He had walked the opposite direction. Harald staggered over to him, finding it difficult to walk on solid land after so long at sea. By the time Harald arrived, Ivar and many of the others were submerging their faces in a small stream that flowed away from the mountainside. A trickle of water sprung from a small opening on the cliff face.
Harald and his warriors drank until they were quenched. They sprawled out on the grass and Harald let them get a few winks in before they hunted for food. Harald found a soft patch of grass next to a massive boulder and sat down, legs outstretched. Sigrid and Ivar settled down next to him, backs to the hard stone surface.
“Looks like you were right after all,” said Sigrid. “I’ll be honest, I didn’t have much hope we would find land before our food ran out. I should have had more trust in you. I apologize.”
Harald smiled as he shifted his body forward and laid down on the grass. “You know, I’m a little surprised myself,” he admitted. “You nearly had me convinced to turn back, though.”
“I’m glad you continued on,” said Sigrid, bringing her knees to her chest.
“Now that we’re here,” said Ivar, “are you sure you wouldn’t settle for a different creature as a trophy?”
Harald laughed. “Have you ever seen a dreki, Ivar?”
Ivar shook his head. “I’ve heard stories, but never seen one myself. I can only imagine what terrors they bring with them.”
“They’re only dangerous if you provoke them,” said Sigrid.
“Which is essentially why we’re here,” Ivar reminded her.
“Get some rest,” suggested Harald. “You’ll need it for the hunt.”
Ivar grunted. “I suppose you’re right. But can we eat soon? My stomach is about to start feeding on itself.”
“Rest first,” said Harald. “Then we’ll find food.”
Ivar slouched against the boulder, head dropping to his chest. “Just make sure nothing comes and eats us while we sleep, alright?”
“I’ll stand watch,” said Sigrid, standing up. “I’m not tired, anyway.”
“Your lies are worse than Valdemar’s,” mocked Harald.
“I’ll be fine,” she said, and wandered around the boulder.
Harald’s eyes became heavy as the cool, gentle breeze stroked his face. As he laid on the soft ground, arms behind his head and eyes closed, a shadow shaded his face from the sun. The shade was a much welcome reprieve from the blinding rays of the sun. But, as quickly as it came, the shade passed by. His eyes shot open. Nobody was standing over him, and no clouds floated between him and the sun.
A low rumble sounded from high above. Harald sat up, looking at where the sound came from. A bird-like figure emerged from a dark cloud that covered the mountain peak. Large wings spread wide from the creature’s red body, smoke streaming from its nostrils. It had four long legs tucked up against its body, a long, serpentine tail waving back and forth as it soared high above them. It was nearly as long as their karvi, and its thick body made even the boulders seem small.
“Please tell me that’s not what we’re here for,” said Ivar, already on his feet.
“Close your ears, then,” said Harald, standing. “Because that’s exactly what we’re here for! That deki’s head is coming home with us!”
The dragon roared as it flapped its massive wings, jolting the rest of the warriors awake.
Nearby, Eirik whistled. “At least with the kraken, we knew it was confined to the waters. This…this thing can go anywhere!”
“True,” said Harald, standing up and retrieving his spear from the ground. “But before long it will be on a one-way trip back to Hofslond!”
“I guess this means we’re not eating first?” asked Ivar.
“Once we kill the dreki,” smiled Harald, “you can at all the food you want. Besides,” Harald pointed towards the flying dragon, “I think it noticed us.”
The dragon sped downward, body parallel with the cliff. Its red scales became more apparent each second it fell towards them.
“It’s coming!” cried out one of the men.
“Scatter!” shouted Sigrid.
Everyone ran this way and that, breaking away from the group they were in. No sooner had they separated themselves from each other than the dragon scorched the very spot they were on with a long blast of its fiery breath. It again ascended to the skies. Two of the slower warriors were incinerated, bodies charred, black and lifeless.
“I thought you said it only attacked if provoked!” exclaimed Ivar.
“How do you plan on defeating that thing?” asked Sigrid, ignoring Ivar’s complaint. The three of them ran towards the mountain and away from the dragon’s torch-like breath.
“Spears and axes!” shouted Harald.
“We need a plan!” Sigrid pressed.
Harald looked over his shoulder and watched as the dreki rose again into the sky. “Attack!” he shouted. His men turned their weapons on the dragon, waiting for it to come back within range.
“That’s not a plan!” insisted Sigrid.
“Sure it is!” said Harald. “It’s how we’ve always defeated the trolls.”
“Trolls are stupid,” countered Sigrid. “Drekis are said to be cunning. Intelligent, even.”
“Then we’ll need a plan,” Harald decided. Sigrid rolled her eyes. “We need to bring it down to our level. Keep it from flying.”
He stopped so fast that it took a moment for Sigrid to realize he was no longer running with her. Harald turned and ran back out, leaving the mountain’s cliff face behind him. The dragon was coming back around. He planted his feet and readied his spear. The timing would have to be perfect.
“Bring it down!” Harald bellowed. Eirik and Leif joined him, more still running to catch up. Harald was proud of these men. The glory of the kill would not be missed to them due to cowardice.
As the dreki plummeted downward, Harald knitted his brow and tightened his grip on his spear. If this didn’t work…
A large body crashed into Harald’s side. He hit the ground with Ivar beside him. Both rolled away from the descending dreki, narrowly escaping its fiery breath. As the serpentine monster soared back upwards, Harald and Ivar rolled on the ground, extinguishing the fires on their cloaks and tunics.
“Are you insane?” exclaimed Ivar. “You’ll be cooked for sure!”
“There is no other way!” shouted Harald, not bothering to hide his irritation at being thrown to the ground, missing his opportunity to strike. “We must bring it down!”
Ivar shook his head. “Not like that. We need some way to counter it first. Otherwise we’re done for.”
Harald nodded and, with sudden inspiration, ran to the stream from which they had all refreshed themselves and jumped in.
“What are you doing?” shouted Sigrid, coming up from behind. Harald submerged himself and quickly came back out, every last inch of his body soaking wet. He climbed out, water streaming off his armor.
“Protection,” he said, and took off running back to the burnt patch of earth, waving his spear in the air and cursing at the Dreki. He reached the spot he had just left moments before, saddened to see Eirik and Leif had not made it out alive.
I suppose I should thank Ivar for forcing me away, he thought.
The giant flying serpent circled around above Harald. It roared its deep, thunderous cry and again began its descent.
“Aim for its wings,” offered Sigrid, stopping next to Harald, likewise dripping wet. Ivar, too, approached Harald’s position, not a whit drier than his two friends.
The dragon came down much faster this time, the smoke from its nostrils streaming behind its massive body. Faster and faster it fell, gaining speed as it came. Its mouth opened, just ten meters above Harald. He roared, more to expel his fear than anything else. The dragon blew its fiery breath at Harald and the others as it began to level off.
Clenching his teeth, Harald threw his spear at the winged lizard. Red-orange fire engulfed him and he shut his eyes and threw his arm across his face as he dove to the side and rolled as far away as he could.
The earth rumbled beneath him. He rolled over to his back, hair still sizzling. His armor charred, but still intact. His leather tunic smoldered. He patted his hair and body to put out any more fires or burning body parts and looked towards the mountain. The dreki laid at its base, sprawled out, its torso rising and falling with each massive breath.
Harald looked around for his spear but found nothing. He returned to the charred patch of earth and retrieved the axe of his fallen comrade. He hoped the weapon would do him more good than it had its previous owner. Harald ran towards the dragon, the other warriors following their leader.
As one of his warriors neared the monster, its tail swung fast and hard, connecting with the warrior and sending him flying towards the sea. Another man likewise tried to approach from behind, and was able to roll underneath the creature’s swinging tail. He laughed at his success, but was quickly swatted as the tail swung back, sending him sailing high and away. The man didn’t even so much as scream. Harald knew he was already dead.
“Careful!” shouted Harald, approaching the dragon at a slow walk, hunched over with his axe held out. “The beast is wounded, and that makes it even more dangerous.”
Sigrid and Ivar ran up to Harald and slowed to his pace when they reached him. Harald smelled burnt flesh, and noticed Ivar’s left arm was a deep shade of red.
“You may want to soak your arm in the stream,” suggested Harald.
“No time,” said Ivar. “You will need all of us to defeat this thing.” Harald nodded. Ivar may worry too much, but he’s brave where it counts.
The dreki pushed itself up onto its four scaly legs and began to turn slowly, bringing its long neck around to look at Harald and the other warrior, still approaching at a snail’s pace.
“Not good,” muttered Ivar.
“Split!” shouted Harald.
They ran to either side of the dragon, just in time to miss another blast of its incinerating breath. Now in motion, Harald circled the beast, Ivar with him. He saw Sigrid also running around its other side. Maybe they could surround it like the trolls back in Hofslond..
Somehow they managed to reach the dreki’s side, out of range of its swinging tail and burning breath. Harald struck the winged lizard’s side, but his axe just bounced off. The dreki wheeled itself around to face whoever had dared attack its undefended flank. Harald and Ivar ran with it, staying as close as they could out of the creature’s attack range as it spun.
“Where’s its weak spot?” shouted Harald as they ran.
“Underneath, I think!” Ivar replied.
The dragon continued to turn itself, slowly gaining ground on Harald and Ivar as they tried to run circles around it. Without warning, the mountain appeared in front of them, blocking their circling run.
“Break off!” shouted Harald, and Ivar ran along the base of the cliff. Harald, however, kept running.
He ran straight towards the rock wall and jumped towards it. Finding a foothold, Harald planted his boot and pushed off, turning as he jumped back towards the dreki. The creature’s head was close now, close enough that Harald reached out and grabbed hold of the dragon’s neck with one hand, gripping into a scale for a handhold. He swung himself around and mounted himself on the creature’s long, scaly neck.
The dreki roared in disapproval and thrashed its head, trying to throw Harald off. Harald held on, using his axe to extend his reach and grabbing hold of it with both hands as he pulled it tight against the underside of the dragon’s neck.
Screeching in rage, the dragon lumbered ahead, quickly gaining speed. It flapped its wings and Harald felt each leap of his mount last a little longer than the one prior. It was trying to get airborne, with him still on its back.
Harald looked over his shoulder and noticed a small hole in the creature’s right wing. His spear must have found its mark after all! But whether the dragon could still fly was a question he wasn’t willing to have answered while he clung to its neck.
Releasing his grip on the axe slightly, Harald slid down the scaly neck. It didn’t take long until the neck became too thick and he couldn’t slide further. He was stuck.
Each bounding step threatened to buck Harald off the dragon’s back. His still held on to his axe with both hands, pulling it up into the creature’s neck. With a loud roar, the red dragon flapped its wings harder than ever, and as it did, all shaking and rumbling caused by its running ceased. Harald looked down, eyes wide. Despite its damaged wing, the dreki had still managed to take off. If this didn’t end soon, he would undoubtedly fall to his death.
But what could he do? Besides holding on with all his might, his options were quite limited. He tried kicking its flank, but that just seemed to enrage it even more. The dreki zigged and zagged, trying to shake Harald off. A spear bounced off its side, protected by its blood red scales. The dragon roared in a rage.
With a powerful flap of its wings, the dreki gained altitude. It veered towards the mountainside, and Harald could only watch his unwilling steed closed the distance to the jagged cliff face at incredible speeds.
The dreki lurched sideways, nearly throwing Harald off the creature’s back and into the stone wall, but he held on tight. The dragon soared, descending gradually, its back parallel to the mountain’s cliff face. It moved itself closer and closer to the protruding rocks on the mountain’s sheer side. Harald suddenly realized he was going to be paste against the mountain if he didn’t move quickly.
He unclenched his knees from the dragon’s neck and, still holding on to the axe, rotated himself until he was dangling precariously from the monster’s neck. Harald winced as a stone outcropping whizzed past where he had been sitting just moments ago.
The dragon righted itself as it neared the ground, at which point Harald’s only connection to the dragon was his axe. It had rotated its way around the dreki’s neck until it had swapped places with Harald. The axe now sat on the neck, and Harald hung underneath. He looked down to the ground below. Still to far to let go and fall. He would just have to hang on until he could either right himself or bail.
Harald felt the air grow uncomfortably warm as he continued his unorthodox ride. The dragon roared and an explosion of flame erupted from its sharp mouth, rushing downward towards his comrades on the ground. Harald watched helplessly as another of his warriors made his journey from this life to Valhalla.
The flying beast lurched upward, and it was all Harald could do to hold his grip. Higher and higher the creature flew, but Harald held fast. Halfway up the mountain, the dreki slowed its ascent and turned itself around.
The wind bit at him as he hurtled downwards, the dragon doing nothing to slow its descent, its wings tucked against its scaly body. Harald clenched his jaw as the force of gravity kept him parallel with the underside of the dreki. The dragon slowly tilted itself to the left, and then flung itself the other direction, causing it to corkscrew faster and faster as it careened downwards.
Harald opened his mouth to yell as he spun, but the wind filled his lungs, silencing him. He felt his grip slipping as he spiraled alongside the dragon. Finally, the dragon leveled off again, and Harald landed with a grunt on the monster’s neck. He clenched his thighs and released his grip the axe ever so slightly. His knuckles were burning from holding on so tightly for so long.
Flying parallel to the ground, the dragon shot another burst of fire from its mouth. Harald shut his eyes as the dragon flew him through the burning air. He felt the heat attack his face. An instant later, the heat was joined with the cold air whipping at him, a combination that was both pain and relief. The dragon had flown too fast through its flames to do any serious damage to Harald, although he would certainly be feeling it the next day. That is, if he managed to survive this wild ride.
The dreki descended slightly and strafed his fellow warriors once again with its fiery breath. Harald knew he couldn’t keep this up much longer. It was now or never.
Taking a deep breath, Harald swung himself around the creature’s neck until he was hanging upside down. He tightened his grip on the axe.
Fortunately, the dragon wasn’t very high off the ground.
As if to prove how low the creature was, a spear whizzed dangerously close to Harald’s head. If the dreki he was riding wasn’t moving so quickly, he was certain he would have felt the wind as the weapon soared past. At least his warriors hadn’t given up at taking this thing down.
Harald saw the ground moving slowly away. He had to make his move. Harald gripped his axe handle tight with his right hand, but let go with his other. His stomach instantly shot upward as he plummeted back to the earth below. He had no time to think of what might happen upon impact; he had a mission to complete.
Harald brought about his right arm and hurled the axe upward with all his might.
The ground caught up with him moments later. His breath escaped him instantaneously, his eyes going dark. Blackness permeated his vision for a moment, followed by swirling stars. He gasped for breath and held his eyes shut. He couldn’t call for help; he had no air, and none was coming back.
After what seemed an eternity of gasping for breath, he finally felt his lungs fill up. He opened his eyes slowly. The world spun around him, and it was all he could do to keep from vomiting. He pushed himself up slowly, first on all fours and then to his knees. His surroundings came back into focus and he got to his feet.
The dreki lay motionless in the distance. Harald stumbled towards the beast, limping as he walked. His left leg burned with every step. He was fortunate to still be in one piece after a fall like that.
All those who were still able to walk were gathered around the fallen dragon. It lay on its side, right wing crushed under its massive bulk. His axe was lodged in the creature’s fleshy belly. Sigrid and Ivar stood next to the axe, weapons drawn, facing three other warriors.
Of all the warriors that had joined him on his quest, was this all that remained? Harald pushed those thoughts away. Now wasn’t the time. He would have the entire journey back for those thoughts.
“About time you showed up,” said Sigrid.
“You’d better hurry and finish the job, Harald,” said Ivar. “These men are hungry.”
Sigrid motioned to the axe sticking out of the dragon’s belly. Harald placed a hand on the handle, and then pulled it out in one swift motion. The dreki moaned, moving only slightly.
“It still lives?” asked Harald.
“We’ve been waiting for you to kill it, once and for all,” said Ivar.
Sigrid folded her arms across her chest. “I didn’t come all this way just so someone else could take the glory of the kill.”
Harald laughed, which turned into a hacking cough. “You are true friends.”
He spun the axe in his hand and with a yell of victory sunk the weapon deep inside the dragon’s stomach, ripping it open wide.
The dragon thrashed for only a few seconds before it remained motionless.
“There’s your meat,” Harald said to the group. “Start a fire and tonight we feast on dreki flesh!”
The men roared their approval. Harald looked them over. Of the sixteen that had joined him originally, now only five remained. He sighed as he leaned against one of the lizard’s large legs.
“These men fought valiantly,” said Sigrid.
“The fallen will be honored,” consoled Ivar.
“That they will,” agreed Harald. “Valhalla will rejoice at their caliber.”
The trip back to Hofslond was filled with talking, laughter, and clear skies. Each warrior had taken a scale from the dreki as a souvenir, proof that they had been involved in its demise. Harald kept the creature’s head near the bow. It had taken some doing, removing the head, but once they had pried off the scales around its neck, the rest was easy.
The sun’s golden rays turned to various shades of pink and orange as they approached the harbor. Nobody came out to greet them as they rowed up to the docks. They tied up the longship in eerie silence. The journey home had taken much longer than their initial trip out to the monster’s island. That was in part due to a damaged ship, as well as their numbers being reduced by over half. They had been gone longer than expected, which gave Harald little doubt that everybody thought they had died at sea. What he found odd, however, was that there was no activity at all. The town looked deserted.
Harald hopped out of the boat holding his dreki head and looked around.
“I’ve never seen the place so quiet,” said Ivar as he took his place next to Harald.
“What day is it?” asked Harald.
“I don’t know,” admitted Ivar. “We’ve been gone too long to keep track.”
Harald cursed and ran ahead of his crew, dreki head cradled in his arms, limping as he entered the town. Ivar and Sigrid chased after him.
He slowed to a walk as he neared the center of the town. Wood and stone lay strewn on the ground. The inn was missing its northernmost wall; a few blankets hung in its place, billowing in the evening breeze.
“What happened?” Sigrid whispered, but her tone indicated she already knew the answer.
Harald knew, too, but he didn’t want to believe it.
He pried his eyes off the broken down inn, following a trail of destruction. Homes and shops were decimated without even so much as a wall standing upright. And each collapsed building lay in a path from the inn northward, towards the forest and mountains.
“Are they all dead?” asked Ivar, eyes darting back and forth between demolished buildings. There was no sign of anyone.
“No,” said Harald, perhaps a little too quickly. “No. I think I know where to find everyone.”
Harald ran further, heading west. As he approached the town hall, he saw lights glowing in the windows. Safe. They were safe. With nobody out in the town, Harald assumed everyone would be in the town hall. But for everyone to be there meant a town meeting. Harald ran faster.
Hopefully he wasn’t too late. Or maybe he was, and this meeting was something else entirely.
Harald burst through the entrance. There was no wooden door, but he certainly made himself known as he rushed inside past through the blanket draped to cover the entrance. Sigrid and Ivar followed close behind. The entire town was packed inside, some sitting on benches while others stood. All eyes turned on him upon entering.
“Ah, Harald!” exclaimed Valdemar, standing at the other end of the room, the crowd giving him plenty of space. “We didn’t expect you would be coming back. I trust you found what you were looking for?”
Valdemar’s smug expression and mocking tone told Harald just how pleased he was to see Harald return. He was more full of himself than he usually was, which could only mean one thing.
He must already have been appointed Jarl, the town’s new chief.
Harald ignored his baiting. “What has happened? The buildings…”
“What happened?” echoed a townsman. “You abandoned your duty, that’s what happened!”
Valdemar shook his head slowly, his eyes burning with satisfaction as they bored into Harald’s gaze. “Without you and your team standing watch, a troll manage to surprise us. It killed and destroyed before anyone could gather arms to defend against it. By the time we stopped it, it had already made its way into the heart of Hofslond.”
“I—” Harald was shocked. He knew leaving was dangerous, but he hadn’t expected a troll to come so soon. Then again, he hadn’t expected to be attacked by a kraken, either, costing him those extra precious days at sea.
Valdemar looked down at Harald’s hands. “I see you slew the dreki. I hope you’re satisfied.”
Harald looked down at the head he was still carrying. He had forgotten about it in his rush. But perhaps there was still time to put everything right, to show his worth.
“The dreki is dead at our hands. I finished it off myself. We also defeated a kraken on our journey.”
Valdemar scoffed. “You think to appease the sin of your abandonment by claiming this as a victory? Your time out at sea must have fried your mind!”
Harald looked around the room. Nobody seemed impressed at his feat. Instead, they looked on him as if he had sold them all to pirates.
“It was not my intention to abandon you,” said Harald.
“But that’s what you did!” shouted a woman on the other side of the room.
“I hoped to bring you great honor!” Harald appealed.
“Lad,” said an older man with a full head of gray hair. He stood near Harald and put a hand on his broad shoulder. “You did not have to seek glory in order to win our vote to make you the next Jarl. We all saw how faithful you were in fulfilling your duty, in protecting us.” The old man shook his head. “But when you left with nary a word and did not return, you forfeited any chance you had.” He looked Harald in the eyes, as if boring into his very soul. “You were our first pick before you left.”
Harald stood rigid, eyes wide. What had he done? He knew his people demanded honor and glory, and so he had gone to seek just that. But in so doing, he had sacrificed any he had already earned. His heart sank.
Sigrid put a hand on his back, resting it on his cold armor.
A young man burst through the entrance, gasping for breath. “Troll!” he yelled, “In the forest, not two miles out.”
All eyes turned to Harald.
Valdemar smiled his wicked grin. “So kind of you to return in such a timely manner, Harald. Now if you would be so kind to dispose of the creature? Or are you too weak from your long voyage?”
Harald squared his shoulders. He had made a blunder, but he would set it right. In that moment, Harald vowed to never let another troll come so close to his town again.
“Let’s go,” he said to Sigrid and Ivar. Harald parted the blanket as he exited the town hall. Voices inside the building followed him out, directing questions to Valdemar.
Harald forced himself to smile. Being the Jarl would have been nice, but at least he didn’t have to deal with the town politics and tedious details that came with running a town.
“You seem rather cheerful,” mused Sigrid.
“I could have been Jarl, you know,” said Harald. “Had we not left, I mean.”
“So I gathered,” replied Sigrid dryly.
“I thought I needed more honor and glory,” continued Harald. “I thought I needed to show these people my worth. But had I been nominated chief, where would I be, right now?”
“In the town hall?” offered Ivar.
“Precisely,” grinned Harald. “And that’s exactly where Valdemar is right now. Answering questions and dealing with all the monotonous duties a Jarl is tasked with. This,” said Harald, motioning to the forest ahead of them, “is what true honor looks like.”
“A forest?” asked Ivar, confused.
Harald laughed. “Killing trolls, of course! Valdemar can sit around honorably all he likes, but while he sits in comfort and ease, we will be protecting our town!” Harald stopped walking and put a hand on Ivar’s shoulder. “We failed our people once. Let us not do so again.”
Harald jogged away, limping as he went. His two friends followed close behind.
The words of the sage echoed in Harald’s mind. She had warned him of treacherous waves. He had found them to be true while out at sea, battling the kraken. But he realized now that perhaps it wasn’t his voyage she had warned about.
Leaving on his quest had set ripples in motion, ripples that had turned into larger waves, creating catastrophe in his absence. He caused the waves, dangerous as they were. Yes, he had succeeded in slaying the dreki, but he had ultimately lost his end goal.
Well, there was still time for redemption. He would hunt trolls for as long as it took to earn forgiveness. And with him here, protecting Hofslond, perhaps no more dangerous waves would come crashing against his town.