So this was how it felt to die.
Rollo stared up at the leaden sky as the ravens circled above him, and listened to the sounds of battle, far in the distance—strange, he'd thought they were closer than that. Maybe the sound of blood rushing past his ears was drowning it out.
He wasn't afraid. He was a mighty warrior, his would be an honourable death, and his place in Valhalla was assured. Gritting his teeth and, fighting the urge to cry out as a shaft of searing, red hot pain ripped through his body, he closed his eyes. And as the cold from the mud seeped into his bones, and the smell of blood filled his nostrils, he waited.
"Kara. Kara! Sister!"
The noise came to Kara as if from a great distance away. She half-turned towards her sister's voice, unable to tear her eyes away from the scene that was laid out before her.
"Yes?" She replied absently.
"Are you going to sit and stare at that puddle all day? There's a whole field of warriors waiting for us."
The battle was waning. It would soon be time for Kara and her sisters to begin their work.
The upstart Danish invasion had never had a chance. They were led by a mad man, a mad man who now lay motionless on the field, his head was resting several feet from the stump of his neck. That the imbecile had attempted such a mission, with so few men and such a paltry store of supplies, told Kara that this was the glory-hunt of a radical extremist, not a Jarl-sanctioned endeavour. Not that it mattered. The impudent invaders had been roundly beaten by the Norsemen. Hardly a rebel lay still breathing in the quagmire of mud and trampled heather.
Kara shuffled her feet and stretched a flapped her wings. She let out a loud "Caww!" and stretched her neck. It was almost time. She and her sisters were perched in a the thick branches of a tree that was still without leaves after the bitter winter. Not that this season was any less sharp, but the sky now seemed to have swallowed all the snow that it had tried to shed. Only few insistent flurries still lingered, spinning through the air in lazy spirals in the absence of any breeze.
At the unseen signal, Kara and her sisters spread their wings and jumped from the branch, shrieking their warnings at the warriors below them. They swooped low, the tips of their iridescent wings almost dipping into the rivers of blood and mud.
These men were at their mercy. Kara and her sisters would choose who would follow them to the ever after, and who would live to fight another battle, who would live to spill more of their red blood into the thirsty earth. Freya would get her pick of the slain before anyone. She would choose which men would reside with her in Folkvangr. Those that Freya did not beckon, would accompany Kara and her sisters to Valhalla, to sit in the company of Odin. They would be known as the einherjar, and they would prepare for Ragnarok.
Kara wheeled and shrieked again, and headed for the puddle whose appeal had so amused her sisters. To be sure, there was a puddle, but in that muddy water, fouled by blood and gore, lay the body of a warrior.
How much more must he endure?
Had he not faced his enemy without fear? Even after the arrow had pierced his lung, stealing the breath from him, he hadn't hesitated. Two more had fallen, before a blow to the chest had knocked him onto his back into the oozing mud.
Were the gods testing him? His death had been honourable, but his life had not.
He squeezed his eyes shut in an attempt to block out the memory of himself on his knees in front of his brother, and the years of self hatred, when he'd wished himself dead.
Rollo tried to take a breath and a spasm ran through him, filling his throat with blood. He hadn't realised he'd been dead inside back then. An empty husk of a man, waiting for his body to stop functioning. He'd believed himself beyond redemption.
Siggy hadn't, though.
His woman—if that was what she was—had seen potential in him. Maybe she herself, had fallen so far, that he was her only option. Siggy was ambitious and hungry to reinstate her status. And he was the brother of Ragnar Lothbrok after all.
There was no love in what they had. For Siggy he was a means to an end, and he was sure she wouldn't mourn his death. As for him... He wasn't really sure. He knew she'd been using him—he may not have been Ragnar, but he wasn't stupid, and she'd made no secret of her ambitions—and he knew that her greatest weapon was sex. But he had cared for her in his own way.
He'd been a fool. He could see that now. He'd allowed his jealousy of his brother to cloud his judgement. And allowed those with ambitions greater than his, to put thoughts into his head.
He was Rollo Lothbrok. Not Ragnar. He was a mighty warrior. He didn't play games with kings, and he wasn't born to lead. He was born to fight. And to die an honourable death.
A new pain, deep inside him, brought him to the present, and he opened his eyes at the sound of fluttering wings above him. Rollo squinted at the raven on the branch above him. He wouldn't curse, or cry out. If the gods were testing him, he'd prove himself worthy. He tried to pull his face into a grin as the raven cocked her head, and fixed him with her beady eye, then closed his eyes again, and waited.
Kara settled herself more comfortably. The warped bark dug into her leathery claws, but it did not hurt, it wasn't even uncomfortable as she fluffed her wings, trapping a layer of air close to her skin for warmth.
The man lying in the mud, almost directly beneath her perch, was not warm. She could tell by the blue tint to his skin and lips. Much of his life fluids were no longer in his body where they should rightly be, and the ground was hardening with the arrival of the evening's harsh frost. This one teetered on a knife edge. Truly, there was not much of a decision to make about whether he would become one of the slain. That he would die, soon, without intervention, was a certainty.
Kara would have been able to tell that he had fought hard and with valour, even if she had not witnessed almost every move that he'd made. His axe had swung in wide, deadly arcs. His sword had struck with swift, true thrusts. The strength in his legs and shoulders had been evident, even from her far vantage point. That he had discarded his shield, after sustaining a brutal slice to his bicep, and instead had punched his opponents with his bare fist as a form of defence, had been a thing of beauty to behold.
Yes, this one should do well in Valhalla. He would sit in a comfortable seat, wrapped in snug furs, and laugh as he drank mead with Odin. Kara enjoyed hearing the ribald jokes and stories that the men shared, interspersed with tales of wild battles, as she bore the never-emptying jug of mead around the great hall. She and her sisters were never the butt of the jokes. It might be the afterlife, but a Valkyrie could still make even an einherjar regret his less-than-respectful attitude.
The warrior's torso was still pierced by the torn shafts of the arrows that had struck him, but the wounds no longer bled. His body did not have much more blood to give. Only the axe wound at his back, between those muscled shoulder blades, still seeped, but that was only because he lay prone. Kara could hear the final breaths rattling in his lungs, the last pitiful beats of his heart, as his body struggled against the finality of death.
And then… he smiled…
His eyes were closed, but his lips were curved in an unmistakable expression. He was not afraid. He knew he was dying, and he was ready, he had made his peace. Brave warrior.
Kara shuffled her feathers again.
She felt disquieted. She had watched closely, to the detriment of her duties, she had concentrated on this one warrior, mesmerized by the fluid way in which his body, tall even for a Norseman, had dealt death to all who faced him. His long sable hair had whipped in the wind, kept from his face by his battlebraids. His beard, even though his face was now growing gaunt with fatigue and pain, was lush and thick. He had certainly caught her attention. He would certainly catch Freya's.
Kara let out an indignant squawk before she could catch the sound. That bitch had begun to believe her own legends. She was the goddess of battle, and ultimately death, but the simple people who dwelt below the heavens needed something more optimistic to worship in their queen of gods, and had christened her a goddess of love and fertility. Freya was letting all those adoring prayers and bountiful sacrifices go to her head. She would claim this warrior for her greedy self, for sure.
In that moment, Kara's mind was decided. Freya would not get the opportunity to offer this warrior a ride in her chariot.
His body was fighting to survive. No matter how hard he tried to stop them, his lungs fought for just one more breath and his heart fluttered in his chest. Rollo could no longer pinpoint where the pain was. It was everywhere, and he was sure that if he could, he'd have cried out.
And then it was gone.
Relief washed over him. Finally it was over. Soon he'd be drinking with his fallen comrades and... A breath of air kissed his lips, and he forced his eyes open.
A woman was leaning over him, and she was more beautiful than anything he'd ever seen in his life. Even Lagertha paled in comparison. This vision, for it must have been a death-dream, had eyes the colour of the ocean on a bright summer's day, and hair that fell to her waist in thick curls, shining like the moon on a winter's night. Her lips parted and her kiss was feather light as the brushed his own. "She shall not have you." His lungs filled with air and the pain returned, filling his body with fire, as she smiled. "I give you my breath."
"No." Had he spoken out loud?
The woman took the axe that was still gripped tightly in his hand, and sliced it across the palm of her own, allowing the blood to fall, burning hot, onto his face. "I give you my blood."
The pain intensified and his body arched. "No."
"Rollo Lothbrok. Greatest warrior, bravest of men," her lips brushed his again. "I give you life."
"No!" He tried to rise, but the pain was too much, and then, mercifully, the world faded away as he sank into oblivion.