"So, we lost, huh?" Astolfo had an interesting reaction to the news of the Frankish defeat. I had been a little wary of it, to be completely honest. Which was why I had kept the news from her until the ransom was taking place, despite the fact that her hands were in chains. Simply put - if she wanted to kill me, then now would be the time for it. A sigh heaved out of her, "Ah… I'm gonna get yelled at when I get back…"
She accepted the news with ease. I watched her carefully, glancing over my shoulder as I headed out of the prison that she was kept in for the past week and some days. I saw her eying my injuries, "I'm guessing you met Roland? Pretty tough, huh?" She continued with an easy smile on her face.
A small huff escaped me, "Hm. Very." I agreed, thinking that it was an understatement. Astolfo laughed easily as we headed out of the camp that was still celebrating our victory over the Franks. And likely would in the days to come. There was an uneasy standoff between the Franks, who still remained in Antwerp, and us. However, in recent days, more news had reached us. The other end of Charlemagne's empire was being attacked, and King Widukind figured that he couldn't afford to raise another army.
That good cheer left Astolfo when we reached the horse that she would be riding back into Antwerp. The body of Olivier was draped over the back of a mare. His sword was strapped into the saddle - it was tempting to take it as my own, especially considering that it was a much finer blade than the one that I used. A long, drawn out sigh escaped her when she approached the horse, pulling back the cloth that the body was wrapped in. "Oh, Olivier…" Astolfo sighed, her head falling forward.
I didn't offer an apology. It would have been an empty one. I didn't regret killing him, but I did regret the sorrow that it caused.
"Are you angry?" I asked her, getting on my horse. My ribs still ached, but the pain got better with each passing day. I didn't just mean about Olivier.
"I'm furious," Astolfo admitted, sounding remarkably calm in that case. "But, that's war. People die in it. You never want it to be someone that you know, but I've always known that it's a possibility. We aren't gods. We aren't invincible. So, every time I went to war, I prepared myself for the thought of defeat. And dying. And seeing people die." She cast me a glance and gave my injuries a rather pointed look. As if she were trying to say 'don't get a big head.'
There was wisdom in her words. "Does it make it any easier?"
"Nah. Not really," Astolfo confessed as she mounted her horse. "I just have to have faith in God and King Charlemagne that we kill and die for a worthy cause. And, so far, neither have led me astray." Her attention went to the sky, "It's been a hard year for us, but I suspect we'll be in Spain soon enough." She mused, sounding distracted.
Hm. "How did you become a Paladin?" I decided to ask, unable to think of a way to subtly bring up the question. It caught Astolfo by surprise as we made our way through the camp. Tonight, there would be a sacrifice to Woden and the gods - to give thanks for our victories… and to repay the slaughter of Verdun in full. There was a thrill in the air of the camp, everyone excited for the festivities that would come with nightfall.
"Eh? If you're looking to switch sides, I'd say it's a little late for that," Astolfo remarked, not sounding angry about the question. Just surprised.
I decided to go with a half-truth. "Before this war, I thought that there was none else like me. At least not living. There are tales, of course - the great warriors Beowulf or Sigurd. Yet, your king managed to find twelve of you… and Arda was a normal woman before she was chosen by King Charlemagne. I was curious how you were found… or chosen," I admitted. Astolfo gave me a lingering look before shrugging her shoulders.
"Ain't nothing too special, really. Some of us have blood ties to him. Others ended up gaining King Charlemagne's attention by chance or by deed, like Arda. But, there's definitely a before and after. I've always been quick, but before the ceremony to join the Paladins and my acceptance of God's grace, I was a lot slower," Astolfo explained, and I got the impression that wasn't something she was supposed to share but couldn't be bothered to remember to keep it a secret. At least that was how I was going to interpret the mild panicked look that followed her explanation.
It was as I thought. King Charlemagne was able to bestow a blessing onto others. I had refrained so far, simply because it was something that couldn't be taken back. I was uncertain if the blessing was the exact same, but it seemed similar in nature. King Charlemagne was creating Paladins through the power of his God, just as I could through the power of mine.
Throughout the war - from my first raid, all the way to the end of it, I had accrued four thousand Prestige. Until very recently, Prestige didn't seem to really do anything. It just seemed to be a metric for how well-known I was. Now, with Bestow Blessing, I could spend five hundred Prestige on a person to empower them. Only I had no idea how much of a boost that blessing would be.
"How much faster?" I asked, my brow furrowing as we left the edge of the camp. Between us and the city was a wagon that carried a number of chests. The five hundred pounds of gold that King Charlemagne spent on Astolfo's ransom. Considering how much he had invested into Astolfo, I realized that five hundred pounds of gold was likely a paltry sum to him.
"Faster than most people," Astolfo said, not offering much else. That was something, at least. Though, it did raise the question of how much King Charlemagne invested into Roland? Hundreds? Thousands? Tens of thousands? The man seemed completely unbothered by anything we threw at him. And, at what point, did it become a waste to invest more into him?
Why twelve Paladins? Wouldn't it be better to have a hundred warriors that were stronger than a normal man? Was there a limit to how many blessings that King Charlemagne could bestow? Was there a limit to how many I could? Or was it a choice on his part? He chose relatives and people that earned his attention… people that were loyal to him or proved that they had something special about them?
I didn't know. I had more questions than answers, and I had run out of time to ask them. By the cart was a Frankish warrior that seemed terrified as I approached. He made a symbol of the cross as I hopped off my horse to inspect the chests. All the while, Astolfo bemoaned her lot in life. "Ahhh~! I'm going to get yelled at so much! S-Seig! Please, maybe lower the ransom a little? Or a lot?! For your buddy?!" Her panic only increased when she saw that it was all gold in the chests. Five hundred pounds of it.
War truly was the most profitable business if you knew how to win.
"Apologies, but no. It's going to be the bride price for my betrothed," I told her, closing the wagon.
"Eh? You're getting married? Congratulations!" Astolfo said, throwing me a smile as- my eyes narrowed when I saw one hand wasn't in the manacle cuffs that she wore. She just smiled unrepentantly. When did those come off? "Well, in that case, it should be fine. It was fun, Sieg, but I better go back and get this over with." She urged her horse forward and headed to the city with slumped shoulders. "I'll see you again. Sooner or later."
It was a promise.
"Hm. Farewell, Astolfo," I returned, taking the wagon and heading back with my prize. I knew we would see each other again… just as I knew it would be on a battlefield.
King Charlemagne had been shamed during this war. Bitterly so. An insult like that wasn't one that could be ignored. Saxony may be spared if King Charlemagne kept his oath, but I had doubts that the rest of my people would be.
I returned to camp a richer man. Five hundred pounds of gold was an unthinkable sum. I once considered a pouch full of silver a considerable amount. Now, the gold seemed to be the last thing on my mind as returned, far more important things tugging at my attention. I thought the end of the war would be the time to relax, but it felt like my mind was busier than ever. The war that had consumed my attention was gone, leaving me with the aftermath.
Thorkell greeted me as I returned, "Smooth and easy?" He asked me as the wagon came to a stop. I let out a small groan as it did, resting against the back of the wagon. The redness in the white of his eye was gone, leaving him with only the scar that cut through his eyebrow. He was extremely lucky that he hadn't lost the eye entirely.
"They wanted it done as much as I did," I remarked, seeing attention being drawn to the wagon. To them, a single gold coin would be a life-changing amount of money. A younger, less experienced me would have given them that coin as a matter of principle. It meant little to me, and much to them, but I understood now what Thorkell told me when we returned to Alabu. Sometimes less is more. "Astolfo seemed convinced that Francia will be returning to war on the other side of their kingdom."
"Not surprised there. Their king lost a lot of face with this defeat. He needs a common enemy to direct that loss at to secure his position. Not really any different from being a mercenary - after a big loss, you need an easy win to wash the smell of it out of the air, or people start getting ideas," Thorkell remarked.
I imagined that was true. "Are the men ready to head out?" I asked, getting off the wagon while the chests were carried off to my tent by a handful of soldiers. They were heavy, each one taking four men to lift it.
Thorkell nodded, "Aye, we just need to break down the tents. Are you sure you want to leave?" Thorkell asked me, and in response, I glanced over at the tree. An old oak that stood proudly just outside of Antwerp. In full view of the city. I couldn't see them from where I was, but I knew that was where the thousand odd prisoners were being kept. They had no idea that their ransom was denied. They were waiting for their freedom, half starved to keep them weak. They had no idea that they would die before the sun set. Already, the sacrifice was getting ready.
I didn't know if it was justice. Or if it could rightly be called vengeance. I had no qualms about human sacrifice, but I had only known those that were willing. I very much doubted those thousand men were. I just knew that the vengeful spirits required blood, and blood they would receive. I'm not sure if justice or vengeance really had anything to do about it.
"Aye. I want to grab the hoard before we have to leave Francia," I told him. I still recalled the amount that we left behind - three hundred pounds of gold, twelve hundred pounds of silver, and fifty pounds of precious gems. Astolfo was almost equal to a full season of raiding. Adding that two the fifty pounds of gold I got for Ageric's second ransom, and the two hundred pounds of gold and silver… I was a wealthy man. Obscenely wealthy, even.
"It's your decision. Just expect a little bit of grumbling on the way," Thorkell remarked. I imagine the grumbling would come to a stop when they saw the gold and gems. I just nodded, and Thorkell added what he really wanted to ask about. "The war is over. What are you going to do about Grimar?"
Jill had been avoiding me since the talk with Grimar. I think she expected me to be angry. Perhaps I might have been at one point, but the potent anger in my blood had cooled.
A sigh escaped me.
"If he doesn't run, I'm going to have to kill him."
We left just as the sacrifices began. It was probably seen as rude to not be the guest of honor for the sacrifices, but I was well past the point of caring. The army shifted in position, allowing the Christians a full view of the sacrifices. Many staves were out into the ground and Franks were tied to them before Saxons who lost family and kin to the Franks were permitted to step forward. They took knives and axes to the men, carving at their bodies and the air was filled with their screams of pain and fear. When they died or passed out, they were cut from the post, dragged to a stump where they were beheaded.
The bodies were desecrated further. Hands and feet were cut off, genitals mutilated, while the heads were brought to the oak tree and stacked up. Exactly how the Saxons had been in Verdun. As soon as a stave was emptied, another Frank was dragged to it and the process resumed.
We heard the Franks screaming well into our journey to reclaim our hoard, our departure practically going unnoticed. I kept an ear out toward Antwerp, but it was like the entire city was holding its breath. It wouldn't soon forget this day, for better or for worse. Neither would King Charlemagne, I imagine.
As luck would have it, we weren't that far away from where we buried the hoard. The forest was burnt out, but there were signs of greenery returning already. The landmark was easily identifiable - a solidary protruding rock above where the treasure was. The men began digging, soon uncovering the bodies of the thralls that had buried the treasure. Then they hit the treasure itself. All of the hoard was quickly recovered, adding it to our growing baggage train.
All of it was loaded up and we began our trek back to Saxony.
The day after the sacrifices were made, we joined back up with King Widukind. He said nothing of our departure, nor about our added wealth. The only things that were said were congratulations for the victory at hand, and planning out the logistics of the fleet that would be built. The Jarls were quick to try to flatter - they offered wood from their lands, willing to cut down entire forests to provide me with ships. Those that didn't have wood to offer were quick to offer their own ships.
It would take at least six months to build the fleet of ships. It could be sooner, but given how neglected the land was, King Widukind was reluctant to dedicate such a huge force to build ships for me. They would be built to my specification, modeled after my longship. Though, I did accept ten ships for the sake of transporting my wealth and my men.
It was decided that for the sake of convenience, after I was done in Norway, I would sail back down to Saxony to pick up my ships and the warriors that wished to follow me into battle. A fine deal, all around. Especially when the Jarls were eager to know what I desired to fill the ships that were promised.
Morrigan basked in it, but Jill was sullen and silent. Preparing herself for what was to come.
Because Grimar didn't flee.
He wasn't a coward. I would give him that much. I was vaguely aware of what he was doing at any general moment as we headed back to capital of Saxony, the army slowly peeling away as men returned to their homes along the way, usually far richer than when they left. For, it would seem, King Charlemagne had ten thousand pounds of gold and silver on hand. As for what he was doing, I could only describe it as settling his business. He coordinated for his troops to return home, though he found a number of them that were willing to stay. They didn't say they would stay with me, but Grimar knew it was true.
It was how my mercenary band swelled to a thousand men. Meaning that I outnumbered him militarily. Meaning that he had run out of any viable means of defeating me, and he seemed to know it.
Jill went to plead with him one last time some days after we arrived at the capital, a celebratory feast being held. She knew what the answer would be, but she tried all the same. The only thing that changed this time was that in the dead of night, she knocked at my door. I threw the furs that covered me off, pulling the door open to see her standing there with red-tinted eyes and a swollen face. She had been crying.
"He's waiting for you," Jill sniffled, wearing a nightgown. There wasn't any question of who 'he' was. I swallowed a sigh and allowed her inside my room, poking my head out to see if anyone else had seen her, but only saw a few guards posted at the end of the hall. Closing my door behind me, I saw Jill had taken a seat at the end of the bed, wiping her nose on her forearm. "You're going to kill him."
I hesitated to answer as I took a seat next to her. There really was no other way to say it, "I am." She knew that. Her shoulders slumped, so I continued. "I gave him opportunities to flee. I have to kill him. His family owes me a blood debt… but I won't take any pleasure in his death, Jill. He has chosen to take a stand, and I will give him a warrior's end."
Jill's hands curled into fists, "He said… he wouldn't leave unless I went with him. He said that you'd toss me aside once you're wed. I don't have anything to offer you - I have no lands, influence, or wealth to give." She muttered, and I saw why she was so troubled. It was one thing to do nothing while your kin was killed, but by staying, she felt like she would shoulder the guilt of his death. She was wrong, but emotions didn't care about being correct.
"His choices are his own. He speaks out of fear for you," I told her, hesitantly reaching out to cover her hand with one of my own. Her hand was much softer than my own - I had many calluses from my axes and farm work. "You made a difficult choice - you chose me. My mother decided whom I would marry and there is a good chance that part of the negotiation will be that she must be the head wife. But, as far as I am concerned, we are still betrothed, Jill. You gave me your loyalty. That is enough."
The words seemed to reassure her somewhat. She squeezed my hand. I would be a king, and kings were permitted as many wives as they liked. As many concubines as they liked. Horrik had three wives, though I had only met one of them, but I heard tales of some having as many as ten. It seemed unwise, but there was nothing stopping me from accepting Jill as a wife.
Jill's head lowered, taking in a calming breath. "Sorry," she muttered after a moment.
I gave her hand a final squeeze before I rose to my feet, making her glance up at me. "Are you…" she trailed off, and I answered by grabbing my belt that had my handaxe hanging from it. I put it on, and met her gaze, which she averted after a moment.
I swallowed another sigh, "He'll earn his place with the gods, Jill. He's no coward. The Valkyries will see that," I told her, earning another shallow nod. I didn't offer an apology for the same reason I didn't apologize to Astolfo. It would be an empty one. Grimar had made his choice and it was time for us to settle this. Jill was silent as I went to the door, but just before I closed it, she spoke up.
"Good luck," She told me, making me pause for a moment as I understood the weight behind the words. I offered a small nod, showing that I understood.
With that, I closed the door behind me and headed out. I chose not to wake anyone up, though I did feel eyes on me as my feet carried me to my destination. I already knew where he would be waiting for me. The Saxons had a dueling grove before a great tree. A sacred place before the gods to allow two men to test their favor. It was in the middle of the night as I made my way through the Saxon city - the roads were of packed dirt, and the buildings were unimpressive compared to the dwarven crafted ones that the Franks possessed.
It was a good night, I decided, glancing up at the sky above to see that there wasn't a cloud in sight and the sky was filled with stars.
Grimar was waiting for me underneath the great tree, a great axe in his hands as he bowed his head in prayer to the gods. He was dressed in armor with a fine black cloak over his shoulders. Fine clothes to die in. I didn't hide my approach, but it did take him a few seconds to address me as he finished his prayer. "I'm surprised that you came alone."
I searched the grove to find no one but Grimar here. "I knew I didn't need to bring others," I told him. That got a rueful chuckle from Grimar as he turned to face me, his expression grave. I approached, going to stand across from him in the grove - offerings hung from the branches of the tree and the other trees in the grove were painted. The grass was intermingled with planted flowers, complete with a small pond.
"Saving you during the battle was business. Not personal," he told me outright.
"I know. A lesser man wouldn't have made that distinction," I told him. It was a stark difference from our first meeting. I hurled every single curse that I could think of at him, trying to provoke him into a duel. He kept a level head then, and he did so throughout the time that I knew him. He kept his word since the slaughter of Verdun. He stayed to fight the Franks when everything looked bleakest. He fought to save me when he thought that the battle hinged on my actions.
And now he faced me here, alone.
Grimar was a better man than I had given him credit for. And I had been too angry and bitter to recognize that.
Grimar narrowed his eyes at me for a moment, as if he were trying to tell if I was being honest or not. "Hm. You're not the immature child that you were," he acknowledged. I liked to think that was true. I still felt like myself, but I liked to think I was a little wiser. A little calmer. The hate that poisoned my soul was still there, though the fury had faded. Now it was reserved for Horrik and Thorfinn.
He hefted his dane-axe and I drew my handaxe, my other arm still in the sling. The sound of a twig breaking brought both of our attention to someone else in the grove. Only it really wasn't someone. A single golden eye shone in the darkness, his black fur making him next to impossible to make out in the low light.
Fenrir stood in the grove, watching both of us. Grimar sucked in a sharp breath at the sight of the wolf, who seemed even larger than the last time I saw him. He was as silent as a shadow, watching both of us. Judging.
"The gods heard your prayer," I told him, knowing that this was a sign from the gods. I didn't see any other wolves with Fenrir, and I couldn't imagine that he would go anywhere without his pack. Especially so close to civilization.
"I'll suppose I'll see if they heard the rest of it," he remarked, his tone one of awe before he grounded himself and faced me with renewed determination.
"For what it's worth, Grimar… I'll take care of Jill. And I'm sorry that you're your father's son," I told him, facing him in turn.
He met my gaze, pausing before he spoke. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry about your family. And I'm sorry I am my father's son."
With that, we clashed…
And I was the one to leave the grove.
I got some comments about it over on the , so I figured I'd make an AN about it here. The TLDR is that gender roles killed Grimar.
The longer version is that Grimar was locked into his fate, and he really couldn't do anything about it while still maintaining his dignity as a man. Jill can get away with siding with Sieg over her family, just barely. What she did was a massive social taboo in not siding with her family in all things, there is an argument there. She was betrothed to Sieg, who is basically a living god in people's eyes, and people like a good love story - so, the bitter pill can be swallowed.
In Grimar's case, he's a man, and more than that, he's a warrior. Grimar is a pretty solid guy all things considered - rational, calm, and he was able to swallow his pride in putting the war first and foremost. Not a lot of people could have done that. But, due to the traditions of the time, Grimar couldn't flee without being considered a coward. He couldn't side with Sieg because that would make him a coward and a traitor. And he was just good enough of a man that he wouldn't resort to underhanded tricks to survive.
So, his only choice was to die with his head up high.
Also, on another note, in regards to Jill - there was a quote that I found but I can't find where I found it, but it basically went like this; The first wife is for power, the second is for pleasure, and a third is arrogance. After everything, Sieg wouldn't leave Jill behind but she's not in a position to actually offer Sieg anything. What he would have gotten is a plot of land that he no longer owns. The position of first wife in norse culture is basically the most important one, and the one that brings the most to the table - either literally or politically.
The next chapter is currently available on my Pat re on and Subscribe Star, so if you want to read it a week early, all it takes is a single dollar in the tip jar. Or, for five dollars, you can read the chapter after that two weeks before its public release! I hope you enjoyed!