Asgeir pushed open the heavy door. Sensual meats, meads, and oak smoke pleased his nose. Hearty laughter and music and talk filled his ears. Roars and cheers shook the floorboards as the men played their games of dice. Other men filled their bellies with mead and chased after the girls. The girls sat in bunches around the tavern, whispering and giggling amongst themselves. Merry pairs danced to the music, bumping people, spilling drinks, singing songs, and some danced completely oblivious to the tavern.
The tavern was alive this evening with half the villagers packed into the main hall. Though, as Asgeir noticed, no southern Imperials were present. His fellow Norse were a hearty and boisterous people, but were quickly soured by Imperials. Asgeir’s grandfather told him stories of the Imperial legionnaires marching across the land, burning farms and torching entire villages. Now the Norse belonged to the Empire. Some still fought, but most paid their taxes without protest.
Asgeir made his way to the bar, greeting friends and commenting on games as he passed. Ingrid, the tavern keeper, smiled at him and nodded off over Asgeir’s shoulder. Asgeir turned and found an empty table against the wall, near the corner. He wove his way to the table and sat down, the old chair creaking under his weight. Asgeir scanned the tavern for Ingrid’s daughter, Fraya. After looking many times and accepting she was not there, he turned his attention to a pair playing Stones, a quiet game. The game consisted of twenty river stones with shallow runes carved into the top. Each stone could make a different move and the game ended when one lost their Shor stone. Asgeir never held a fascination with the game, but quickly realized their game would be over in four moves. A quick smile stretched across his face when the game ended exactly as he predicted. He turned and sat square with the table, scanning the crowd once again until he met familiar eyes not three feet away. Fraya was sitting across the table from him. She burst out laughing as shock etched Asgeir’s face. Asgeir sat cross-armed, patiently waiting for her to settle down. She reached down below the table and pulled up a glass bottle of mead.
“I have no money for that,” Asgeir said sourly.
“My mother gave it to us. You know why so many people are here, right?” Fraya asked.
Asgeir nodded. He had known far longer than most. An Imperial army was marching north to battle, as his village called them, the Far Northerners. The Far Northerners had been sending raiding parties south into the Empire for months. While Asgeir considered himself a northerner, the Far Northerners lived in rocky tundra far from the Imperial capital. Very little grew in a wasteland of rocks frozen together by millennia of ice and snow storms.
“I heard the Empire only sent a hundred soldiers to battle them,” Fraya said. “And they take all the men at every village they march through. They will be here tomorrow.” Asgeir heard that too. His father, Olik, told him it was true, so he let Asgeir off early to see Fraya.
Together, they chatted about the inn, Olik’s forge, gossip, the Imperials, the army, and many more topics over the mead. Fraya was standing up to get food when the noise died off immediately. Asgeir looked around and saw two Imperial legionnaires standing in the doorway. They wore steel and leather armor over a red tunic. A crimson cape was draped over one of the soldier’s shoulders, signifying his rank of commander. They took two steps in, saying no words. Then a dozen more soldiers walked briskly in. Fraya’s mother offered them drink and food, but they ignored her. With powerful authority, the soldiers began weaving through the inn, grabbing men of all ages and dragging them outside. There was an uproar. Men struggled against the soldiers. Shouting, accusations, and insults flew. The soldiers drew their swords, singing as the polished blades sliced through the air.
The Imperial commander bellowed in a deep, commanding voice, “By order of your Emperor, Marcus Decius Meridas, Grand General Tiberius Cladius Nero, and by the people of the Empire, you have been called into service of the Grand Imperial Army. Any man who refuses this command will be put to the sword. Follow these soldiers out of the inn and you will not be harmed.”
Fraya looked to Asgeir with tears in her eyes. She put her hand forward, wanting to touch it one last time. But Asgeir did not take it. Instead he sank lower in his seat, hoping the soldier would overlook him if he looked small and young. But it wasn’t to be. He and a muscular soldier made eye contact and the soldier strode over to the table, grabbed Asgeir’s arm with an iron fist, and dragged him away. Fraya made a lunge for him, and Asgeir reached out for her hand this time. But they missed by an inch just before her face disappeared behind a wall of men and soldiers.
The soldiers had marched the men to a large hill south of their village. At the top, Asgeir could see the main body of the army. There has to be a few hundred. I have never seen so many people in one place. The soldiers arranged them in ranks while the commander pulled out a scroll.
“Damn Imperial lists,” someone to Asgeir’s right muttered. Light laughter broke out. The Imperial commander said nothing of the joke, but began reading off names of people from the village. Asgeir was on the list. Some of the younger men were not called, and were forced to sign the list for the Empire.
After the commander was finished, he handed the list to a soldier and said, “Round the rest of them up.” The soldier saluted, then rode back to the village on a horse. The commander turned back to the men and said, “You have been conscripted into the Imperial army. The Empire expects this to be a one month campaign, not including the time to march north and back south if you are so lucky. Upon your return, you will be paid with three gold coins.”
An uproar among the men cut the commander off. The soldiers drew their swords and struck many of the men with the flat of the blade. To the men, three gold coins were useless. The village did not use Imperial currency, and the men would have to go south in order to spend them.
The commander continued, “If you are to die in battle, one gold coin will be paid to your family. Any acts against this army or the Emperor will forfeit your pay, and your life. I know you are a spirited people, but you will follow any order given to you by a superior officer. Any other action will be met with swift force. The Far Northerners have been raiding villages under Imperial control. Many Imperials have died defending your people. Now it is time for you to take up arms and defend your homes. You will be sorted into third company under Commander Lucillius Bassus. These soldiers will show you to Commander Bassus. You are dismissed.”
Before the commander could turn away, one of the villagers stepped forward. He said in a practiced voice, “Commander, my name is Cato Octavius Russus. My father runs the forge for the village. He needs my help making steel for the army.” Asgeir scowled. Cato’s father was sent to his village by the Emperor to maintain control. His father set up a forge and took all the best iron, leaving very little for Asgeir’s father.
The commander studied Cato for a minute. “You are an Imperial?” he asked. Cato nodded. “Very well. Your name will be removed from the list. We expect a steady flow of steel from your father. Be sure to remind him of that.”
Asgeir was furious. The Imperials always favored each other. But Asgeir was not about to let Cato off. He also stepped forward and said, “Commander, sir, my father, uh, also has a forge. I help him too!” Asgeir kicked himself mentally. I sounded like such a fool!
Cato laughed. “His father’s forge is a joke, commander. And he doesn’t help. He fletches.”
The commander looked furious. “Get back in line!” he shouted at Asgeir. “You will fulfill your duty to the Empire. And you can fletch for us on the march.
Asgeir’s life had been hell for the past month. He followed the strict military routine, one that had not changed since he began marching. Every morning, they woke, broke down the army’s defenses, marched all day, stopped and set up the defenses, practiced fighting, then were allowed to rest. Most sat around a candle until sleep took them. But Asgeir had a different task. He assembled arrows for the Empire. The work was easy enough, but a full day’s march slowed Asgeir’s hands and mind. Still, as the days passed, Asgeir found himself stronger, less tired, and able to finish more arrows at the end of the day. Even Commander Brassus took notice, and complimented Asgeir on his work. “These are better than Imperial arrows!” he once boasted to the Imperial fletchers. Two weeks into the march, Commander Brassus had him start fletching instead of building the defenses. He then let Asgeir rest with the rest of the men.
Commander Brassus was a hard man. He believed in discipline and chain-of-command. Though Asgeir had gained Brassus’ respect, Brassus pushed him harder each day. Their training was brutal under his tutelage. Brassus had them training with spears since their company would be leading the first charge. They were taught how to parry enemy spears while running, how to fight another man with a spear or sword, and how to kill a man.
Asgeir’s arms grew lean and muscular. His palms slowly became a large callus. Surprise took him each time on the rare chances Asgeir was able to look upon his face. His jaw was a chisel, with an edge to delight even a weapon master. Asgeir was happy with the changes. He could now fight and defeat every man in his village. Asgeir hated the smell however. The army did not stop for rivers or lakes to bathe. Only when they stopped for the day next to a river or lake were they given leave to bathe. Sweat and dirt built a thick layer of grime on the skin.
With the changes to Asgeir’s body also came changes to the land. The forests became thicker then rapidly thinned out. Snow started falling to Asgeir’s surprise; it was still summer! The road they traveled turned from stamped dirt to rock. Now they marched over open terrain as the road long since disappeared. The land was everything Asgeir knew it to be, but he still denied it to himself. How could anyone live here? It was flat and rocky where the snow had not yet accumulated. The wind howled from morning to night, and harder it seemed when they slept. Cover was scarce since very little could survive the wind and cold. Asgeir figured what pines were alive must have been around centuries before his grandfather first told him of the place. Eventually, they came upon a large forest of pines. The Far Northerners called it the Deadwood.
Asgeir woke to horns. The sound was not the high-pitched sound he had heard every morning for the last two months that signaled the start to the day. It was a deep hum that thrummed in his chest. It was that of the war horns. Asgeir and his tentmate hurriedly pulled out their leather armor and dressed each other. Spears in hand, they left the tent and sprinted to the assembly area. Half the men were already in ranks, but Asgeir was one of the last to arrive from his company. Those who made it first got to stand in the back. Asgeir would be in the front rank.
Ahead of Asgeir was a frozen lake and beyond the lake was the Deadwood. The ice was old and strong. Asgeir did not fear marching on it. He could see people moving among the trees, hear shouts but could not understand their meaning. They were preparing for battle however. Asgeir was certain of it.
Commander Brassus rode up on his horse and surveyed the company. He rode down the front rank and back. He drew his sword and pointed toward the Deadwood. “Those men have killed Imperials and Norse alike! Burned down whole villages and farms! Raped the women and strung up the children!” Asgeir had seen charred villages and walled towns during the march, though never any dead children. He held little anger for the Far Northerners. But he wanted them dead, Brassus had seen to that during their training. “We fight for those who cannot any longer, those who cry out from the ground! Our blood has watered the forests. Today, their blood will run thick in the roots of their precious Deadwood! We now move to fulfill our oaths to the Empire! Charge!” His horse kicked high in the air and the company charged.
Blood pumped in Asgeir’s head. He didn’t feel the cold wind, didn’t hear the thundering footsteps. He saw the Far Northerners running out from the trees to meet him. Asgeir ran faster. The Far Northerners were getting bigger. He could see their wild fur garments and barbaric spears. They drew closer. Asgeir could now see their faces. Their eyes flashed with an anger Asgeir had never seen. They were wild. Asgeir locked eyes with the Far Northerner in front of him. His long raggy hair flailed in the wind. His eyes burned of pure hatred. They would meet and one would die. He raised his spear to Asgeir’s chest. Asgeir lowered his. The spears crossed. Asgeir flicked his wrists and sent the other spear over his right shoulder, missing his head by inches. Asgeir’s spear tip found the man’s face. It busted through his teeth and speared through the man’s neck. His body fell limp and the spear tip stuck into the ice. Asgeir kept running, trying to dislodge the spear from the ice. He failed and the shaft broke in two, just after it ripped the man’s skull from the lower jaw.
Asgeir was off balance, still running, when he crashed into the next Far Northerner. This man carried a rusty sword. He threw Asgeir to the ground and slashed Asgeir’s left arm. Asgeir rolled to his right. With a heave, he kicked out with his left leg and struck the Far Northerner’s knee, breaking it. He fell on Asgeir with a mighty howl. He raised his sword with a savage cry, ready to bring it down on Asgeir’s face. Asgeir still held the broken spear shaft, and thrust it through the man’s neck. Asgeir twisted the shaft and felt tearing reverberate through his hand. A torrent of blood spilled out and over Asgeir. The man’s eyes, once bright with rage, grayed and closed as his life left him.
Asgeir rolled the dead man off him and looked up. The bright clouds obscured his vision. He could see only legs through the glare. He was grabbed by the shoulders and hauled up. Asgeir turned around and saw one of his lieutenants, an Imperial. He thrust a rusty sword into Asgeir’s hands and yelled, “Keep fighting! Go!” Without a second thought, Asgeir turned and met the next Far Northerner. Brassus had trained them very little in swordplay. The sword felt foreign in Asgeir’s hand. Nevertheless, Asgeir raised the sword to meet a Far Northerners blow. The swords clanged. But instead of sparring as he and his friends would back in the village, he was pushed from behind and smashed into the Far Northerner. The Far Northerner slipped his sword out from between their chests and raised it to slash at Asgeir. Asgeir tried to free his sword but the Far Northerner had it pinned. As the sword came down, a spear from behind Asgeir stabbed forward, blocking the blow from the sword. Asgeir brought his forehead down on the man’s nose. He reeled and released Asgeir’s sword. Asgeir didn’t wait for him to regain composure. Still locked together, Asgeir jabbed furiously at the man’s ribs. He howled and Asgeir continued until a rib broke and the blade slipped deeper.
Asgeir stepped over the body… and saw empty space. He had reached the rear of the Far Northerner’s ranks. He kept running as he was trained to do, allowing his fellow soldiers to spill through and attack from two sides. Three men made it through before the Far Northerners closed the hole. Asgeir turned and lunged at the closest Far Northerner. His blow was parried and Asgeir brought the sword back to defend. But he never needed to as the Far Northerner as cut down from behind. Asgeir watched as the remaining Far Northerners were killed. Asgeir led the remaining soldiers in a victory cheer. He had survived. Nothing Asgeir had ever experienced compared to this elation.
Brassus rode up, his bloody sword raised high above his head. “We are victorious!” His proclamation was accompanied by roars and cheers. “General Nero has ordered our retreat! Another company will rout the Far Northerners from the Deadwood!” Amid the cheers, Asgeir heard a heavy twang. He knew this sound from years hunting in the forest. And the sound came not from the Imperial army.
“Arrows!” Asgeir screamed. Brassus turned to face the Deadwood, and then fell from his horse. Asgeir ducked, raising his arm to shield his head. Asgeir waited for orders. But when another volley of arrows hailed around him, Asgeir stood and shouted, “find shields! Form ranks behind the shields!” The men were happy to listen, to do something. A short line of shields formed and the rest bunched behind. Asgeir looked back to the army. The retreat flag had been lowered. Another company was marching out across the lake. Marching, not charging. Another volley of arrows struck the small group of soldiers. Both men to the right and left of Asgeir fell. They could retreat, but many would not make it back to the army. They were too close to the other shore. Their best chance was to attack the archers and hope other Far Northerners weren’t there to attack. The shields would help stop the arrows. But there were no officers left.
“We need to attack! We won’t survive crossing the ice back to the army.” Protests and agreements were shouted at him when another volley struck more men down. Curses flew. They agreed to charge. The shield bearers ran holding the shields above their heads. The rest tried to stay as close as they could. Before the Far Northerners could loose another volley, the men had reached the tree line. Asgeir was astonished at what he saw. The archers were boys, no older than ten. Too young to fight men, but old enough to fire bows. Even with the men charging them, they stood and fired. Some dropped the bows and fought with clubs, sticks and knives. Asgeir was glad he never had to raise his sword against them. But they were dead all the same.
Asgeir sat on a stump back at camp. A healer was applying a salve to clean the gash across his arm. As the healer cleaned the wound, Asgeir thought back to the battle. He had killed men, men who were fighting Imperial conquest. Those men had been my ancestors, years ago. Now I’m part of the invading and killing. Asgeir shook the thoughts from his mind. It wouldn’t do well to lose that keen edge in the next battle.
The healer interrupted his thoughts by jumping up and shouting, “sir!” Asgeir twisted around and saw General Nero striding to him. Asgeir moved to stand and salute, but the general stopped him.
“Sit,” he commanded. Asgeir bid the order. General Nero stood a few feet from Asgeir, studying him. General Nero was an older man. His skin was an olive tan, but wrinkled. He lives far to the south, Asgeir thought to himself. His sharp gaze unnerved Asgeir. Finally, General Nero said, “I’ve been asking the men where their commander was. They all directed me to you.” He waited for a reply.
“Sir, Commander Brassus was killed in the first volley of arrows. I never saw a lieutenant after that. I tried to organize them,” Asgeir explained.
General Nero laughed. “Tried to organize them? I think you did better than that. You and your men will deploy with Commander Lucious now. After your arm is stitched, you will report to the quartermaster. He has new armor for you, lieutenant Asgeir Olikson.” Asgeir stared, shocked. General Nero picked up the rusty sword. “This was an Imperial sword, turned against us by the Far Northerners. You have no need for this any longer.” General Nero turned to leave when Asgeir stopped him.
“Sir, I would like to keep it. As a keepsake,” he added.
That night, Asgeir lay in his tent. Sleep would not come. His wound seared with pain, but that wasn’t what kept him up. He welcomed the pain. It kept his mind off other things. The pain worked for a while, but soon its effectiveness wore off. Now Asgeir was lying on his arm just to increase the pain. But it did not help. His pain was deeper. He had killed men. And the faces of those men danced in his head.