Olaf held his axe to his side, his shield in front of him. His knees bent as he constantly shifted weight from one foot to the next, ready to move at any moment.
The man before him wore only a faded tunic and loose-fitting trousers, armed with a spear and shield. From the way he held his spear, it was easy to see he was not an experienced warrior. The young man stood rooted to the spot, his legs stiff like the roots of a tree, while he looked for a weakness in Olaf’s defence. Even though Olaf was a farmer, he had been a warrior once. He had felt the crush of the shield wall and the hot spray of blood as his enemies died around him.
“Come on, boy! You going to attack or wait for me to die of old age?” Olaf provoked the young man. “You scared of an old farmer?”
The young man screamed as he attacked, aiming high with a lightning fast spear thrust. Olaf ducked low behind his shield, not having enough time to lift it. At the same moment, he lunged forward into his oncoming attacker, punching out with his shield as soon as they collided. The reverberating sound startled the cows as they grazed in the nearby field. Birds scattered from the barley they had been feeding on, screaming their discontent at being interrupted. The young man grunted as the air was knocked out of his lungs and was sent sprawling backwards. Olaf smiled as he watched his nephew lying on the ground, gasping for air like a fish out of water. The boy lacked skill, but he was fast. He could be a fine warrior, as his father had been. Bjørn had been a great warrior, the champion of Jarl Thorgils. The jarl Olaf had once served and who ruled these lands. His nephew Ulf, Bjørn’s son, looked a lot like his father, but he was not as tall or as wide. He was still young though, only sixteen or seventeen winters; he would grow some more.
“Thor’s balls boy! Enough!” Olaf roared as Ulf attacked again. He deftly stepped aside, using his shield to deflect Ulf’s spear jab. Olaf kicked Ulf in his exposed side, sending him sprawling to the ground again. Before Ulf could get up Olaf planted his foot in his back, pressing him to the ground. Ulf tried to twist and turn, hoping to free himself, but was not strong enough. The more he tried; the harder Olaf pressed. Eventually, Ulf gave up and just lay there panting like a dog in the summer’s heat, his anger and energy burned out. Although Olaf knew it would return. It always did.
“Good boy.” Olaf removed his foot. “Let's get cleaned up for dinner before your aunt flays us both.” At least he kept hold of his spear this time, Olaf thought as he watched Ulf pick himself up from the ground and walk to the stream which ran close to their farm.
“Almost skewered you there.” Olaf turned to the worried voice of his wife Brynhild who’d been watching from the doorway of the longhouse.
“Never even close,” he lied, examining the edge of his axe instead of looking at his wife.
“Don’t like you using real weapons.”
“Makes it more realistic,” Olaf replied.
“And if you don’t manage to get out of the way in time?” She crossed her arms as she stared at her husband.
Olaf only shrugged, not wanting to have this argument again.
“He won’t mean to hurt you, but accidents happen,” she said, softening her voice. “Maybe it’s time we let him go on his own path, I don’t think being here is doing him any good. We’ve played our part since he lost his father,” Brynhild said, walking over to comfort her husband. He was a good man, but he was blinded by his devotion to his brother.
Still, Olaf said nothing, preferring to watch their daughters chase butterflies in the tall grass than face his wife.
“He’s old enough to go raiding. Perhaps the jarl will take him on,” Brynhild said as she got to her husband. She didn’t want the boy to go, but she knew he was unhappy on the farm. She also worried about his temper. He was as unpredictable as the weather, calm one moment and then a raging thunderstorm the next. Brynhild didn’t want their girls to have to grow up tiptoeing around him, never quite sure how he might react to things.
“Aye, I was of his age when my brother took me raiding for the first time.” Olaf stroked at his beard, while his eyes glazed over. “But he’s not ready yet, his anger still controls him.”
“His anger will kill you one day. It’s best he takes it out on someone else,” Brynhild said, exasperated.
Olaf knew she was right; she was always right. He turned and looked at their small farm, which consisted of a few cows, a goat and a small field where they grew vegetables and barley. Olaf sighed. “Perhaps, but I’ll not take him to Jarl Thorgils. The boy won’t be safe there.”
Brynhild smiled at her husband, even if she didn’t understand his bitterness towards the jarl he once served. “Will you let him take his father’s weapon? You know he loves that sword; he drools over it like the ogre king drooled over Freya.”
“Ormstunga?” Olaf pictured the double-edged sword with its name engraved on the blade. On its golden half-circle pommel, Jörmungandr encircled the Valknut. The grip, made of dark-red wood, had a gold ring in the middle. The guard, also made of gold, had two intertwining fire breathing serpents. Written on them in runes was a reminder not to be careless with the sharp blade. It had been in the family since the day it had been forged and had been given to Bjørn by their father. Bjørn had sent many warriors to Valhalla with it. Olaf had managed to retrieve the sword in Bjørn’s last battle before it could be taken by another. He hoped to one day give it to Ulf.
“No, he’s not ready for Ormstunga. He’ll need to prove himself in battle and to Odin first. She needs a warrior who understands himself, not a child who cannot control his temper.” Olaf did not like saying this, but he knew it was true. Ulf had to prove himself worthy of Ormstunga’s trust.
“He’ll not like that. Ever since he was a boy, all he could talk about was using that sword to kill his enemies.”
“Aye, well you don’t always get what you want.” Brynhild saw the pain in Olaf’s eyes. She knew he wanted Ulf to be like his brother was, but they could never quell his anger. Maybe Olaf was accepting that Ulf was no Bjørn.
“When you plannin’ on telling him?”
“Tonight maybe, after–” he paused as he looked into the distance. “Now who in Thor’s name is that?” Brynhild turned and saw a large man slowly approaching their farm from the north.
“Doesn’t look very friendly,” Brynhild said as she took in the giant man. He was larger than anyone she had ever known, with huge boulder-like shoulders and trunk-like arms. His face was almost troll-like, with a round misshapen nose in the centre.
“Get the girls and go inside,” Olaf whispered to her, as his old warrior instinct kicked in. “Good day, stranger. What brings you out here?” he asked.
“Was passing through the valley when I saw your farm. Thought I might slake my thirst and perhaps get some food,” the ogre said, his voice sounding like two rocks grinding against each other. “Might be I can get more than I bargained for.” His eyes lingered on Brynhild as she called her daughters to her.
Brynhild froze on the spot. She could see the wolf grin which parted his moustache from his beard.
“We are poor farmers with not much to share, stranger. But if you carry on east over them hills, you’ll soon come across the hall of Jarl Thorgils. He can provide you with better hospitality.” Olaf was feeling uneasy about the way this stranger was looking at his wife.
“That’s a beautiful woman you have there. Must be nice having her warm your bed at night.” The stranger’s eyes were fixed on Brynhild as she gathered her girls around her. He licked his lips and stared at her rounded hips.
“Better watch that tongue of yours, stranger.” Olaf glanced over his shoulder, willing Brynhild to go inside with their daughters, but she was rooted to the spot in fear. His daughters clutched their mother’s legs. At least the hound was with them, a growl escaping its throat as it eyed the stranger. Olaf stepped to the side, blocking the stranger’s view of his wife and children.
“You ever kill a man, farmer?” the stranger asked, scratching the side of his thick neck.
“When it’s been needed.”
The stranger smiled his ugly smile again. “Aye, I can see that, but it’s been a while since I’d wager.”
“My axe still remembers how it’s done, don’t you worry.”
The stranger was almost beginning to like Olaf; not many men had the courage to stand up to him. It’d be a pity to kill him, but a woman always felt better when she was taken from another man. “Name’s Griml. I tell you this so when you find the other men I have killed in Valhalla, you can share a drink with them,” he said, seeing the confusion on Olaf’s face.
Olaf was unnerved by Griml’s confidence. But he kept his face set as he crouched behind his shield, keeping his axe ready by his side. He just needed to give his family enough time to get inside and bar the doors.
“Come on then farmer, let’s see what you got.”
With a roar that sounded across the valley, Olaf ran at Griml who twisted out of the way.
“Not bad, almost had me there.” Griml smiled.
Olaf stood still, watching Griml. Their positions had now changed, with Olaf facing his hall. He saw Ulf poking his head around the corner of their house to see what was happening. He willed Ulf to grab his family and take them into the house.
“My turn, I guess,” Griml said before running at Olaf. Olaf swung his axe at him, but Griml caught his hand in a crushing grip, lifting Olaf up as if he were a doll, before punching him in the face with his giant fist. With a crunching noise, Olaf’s head snapped back. Blood ran down his lip. Dazed, Olaf tried to hit Griml with the rim of his shield, but Griml caught it and ripped it away from Olaf. Helplessly Olaf hung there.
Griml was about to punch the hanging Olaf in the stomach when he heard the scream behind him. He turned in time to see Ulf jabbing his spear at his face but could not get his head out of the way quick enough. Griml felt the tip of the spear slicing through his cheek.
“That wasn’t very smart, boy,” Griml said, still holding onto Olaf as a trickle of blood ran down his cheek into his beard.
“Don’t know, I think it made you prettier,” Ulf said, holding his spear in both hands in front of him.
Griml let go of Olaf, who just dropped to the ground, too disorientated to stand, and turned to face Ulf. “No one has ever cut my face before.” He stamped down on Olaf’s arm, breaking it as easily as if he stood on a twig, his eyes fixed on Ulf. Olaf screamed in agony.
“Don’t worry uncle, this troll will die for what he has done to you!” Ulf held his spear in front of him with both hands, the tip pointed at Griml.
“Troll, hey. The last person to call me that died a very painful death,” Griml growled as he bent to take Olaf’s axe from his now-useless hand. The axe looked tiny in his huge hands.
“Not my fault you look like one, you sure your mother wasn’t fucked by a troll in the mountains one night?”
With an angry roar, Griml shot forward with great speed. Ulf thrust his spear in Griml’s direction, hoping the giant man would run onto it. But Griml wasn’t a mindless boar. He grabbed hold of the spear shaft and chopped it in two with Olaf’s axe, before he spun around and drove the spear point into Ulf’s ribs. Ulf felt the blinding hot pain screaming through his body as he heard Brynhild scream. He looked down and saw the broken spear shaft sticking out of his side, his tunic already darkened by his blood as it flowed freely from the wound. Ulf fell to his knees and looked over at his uncle, who stared back in anguish.
“Uncle….” was all he managed before everything went black and he collapsed to the floor.
“Well, uncle,” Griml said as he walked back to where Olaf lay staring at the body of his brother’s son. “Your axe is good for chopping wood, I’ll give you that.”
Before he got to Olaf, Griml heard a loud growl behind him. He turned around and saw the big hound standing in front of Brynhild and her daughters, its front legs spread out wide and its shoulders hunched as it made itself look even bigger than it already was. “That’s a pretty dog you have there, but you really think it can protect you when your husband couldn’t?”
“Get him,” was all Brynhild said.
The hound launched itself at Griml and leapt for his throat. Griml stepped aside and with a swift movement decapitated the hound with Olaf’s axe.
“This is a good axe, uncle,” Griml said as he studied its edge for the first time, unfazed by the fresh splatter of blood covering his face. He glanced at Brynhild and saw her standing there, frozen in fear and shock, but keeping her daughters behind her skirt as if she could somehow protect them. “Don’t you worry, pretty, it’s not your daughters I’m after. But before we can have our fun, I need to make sure there won’t be any more interruptions.”
Olaf had to do something; he could not let this monster get to his family. He took one last look at Ulf, lying there with the broken spear shaft sticking out his side, no sign of life coming from him. I’m sorry, brother, I have failed you. The pain in his arm was excruciating, but he had to save his wife and daughters. He was their last hope. Clutching his broken arm to his chest, Olaf took his knife from its scabbard and waited for Griml.
Griml turned back towards Olaf after killing the hound. He was surprised to see a knife in Olaf’s left hand. It must have been on the back of his belt. But Griml didn’t care. That knife would not save Olaf. Griml attacked with a vicious axe swing, which Olaf just managed to dodge. Olaf struck back with a cut of his own, just catching Griml’s arm, but not cutting deep enough to do anything. Griml feinted with an axe chop and when Olaf twisted his body to dodge it, Griml punched his broken arm with his free hand. Olaf screamed as the pain shot through his arm and into his chest like a burning fire. The distraction was all Griml needed as he buried the axe in Olaf’s chest, cutting through the collarbone and severing the fingers on the hand of the broken arm. Griml let go of the axe and took a step back, as Olaf just stood there looking at his wife and daughters.
“I’m sorry,” he said to them before spitting out a mouth full of blood and dropping to the floor, still holding onto his knife.
Brynhild screamed as she saw her husband die. She urged her daughters to run, if only to spare them from what would come next, but they refused to let go off her as the bloody Griml started walking towards them.
“Now, let us have some fun,” he said with a big monstrous grin on his blood-covered face.