From the time the three groups of their forces rejoined at the base of the cliff road almost to the tower gate, all they saw was the backs of the defenders fleeing before them. For all that Stigander did not want to slay more of his clansmen than he had to, it made him more than a little worried his half-brother had turned them all into cowards.
With two switchbacks left before the gates the wolflings set up a defensive line. Stigander raised his shield and charged, all his allies hot on his heels. The man who had rallied the line plainly had some skill, or there would not have been one at all. It was not enough to let them hold, or even offer more than token resistance, though. The line buckled like thin kindling.
Stigander refused to give up the momentum of his charge, and so they kept going. Running up the road was not generally recommended, even for a young man, but when they came up to the last stretch before the gate Stigander was not even winded. Ahead, about half the number of warriors as had tried to hold below now bristled from the gate house like a hedgehog.
They were about as fearsome as a hedgehog, too. Blades clashed against shields for two exchanges before Ulfr’s men were once again overcome with – what? Stigander hoped it was doubt, induced by Einarr’s runes, but he saw fear on more faces than he was truly comfortable with. Where he would expect the defense to be growing more fierce, it instead seemed to be the opposite.
It had been sixteen years since Stigander had set foot in his father’s hold, but in spite of everything done to the city below the courtyard looked almost exactly as he remembered it save for one, small detail: there were no people. Not that he expected to see the movements of daily life when an invasion was happening, but still there should have been someone – even if only messengers running from the crumbled battle lines to their supposed thane.
It was not until he flung open the door to the Hall, his men flanking him in victory, that he remembered the differences in the vision the Oracle had given him. He stopped. His father’s hall, built large, felt twice as empty without the rugs and tapestries and trophies. Cold, and barren, and he suspected even if there were a fire in the hearth it would be the same. His father’s seat sat empty on its low dais.
A man sat on the edge of the dais, his sword held upright with its point resting on the flagstones between his feet, watching the door as a man who has accepted his fate. Blood was spattered across the man’s face and tunic. His expression was calm and resolute, although his eyes were hooded. This could only be Kaldr, the Captain who had caused them so much trouble on their journey here. On the floor behind him, Stigander saw a headless corpse and an expansive puddle of blood.
Stigander had only seen his half-brother once, and that in passing, but he had no doubt whose corpse that was. Although he had long harbored the hope that he would not have to kill Ulfr, would not become a kinslayer, he was still surprised to feel sorrow at the man’s passing. Was I truly so foolish as to believe he would not have to die? He clenched his fist, but still his arm shook.
As Stigander took in the scene before him, Kaldr spoke. “Lord Stigander Raenson. The usurper, your half-brother, is dead. As the slayer of your kin, and a steadfast enemy of your approach, my life is forfeit should you wish to claim it.”
Stigander tore his eyes away from the fallen body of the usurper to look more closely at the one who had slain him. “Why?”
“The blood price must be paid…”
“That is not what I asked!” He snapped in spite of himself. “As early as this morning, you called this man Lord, and yet you slew him. Why?”
Kaldr’s mouth tightened and he lowered his gaze toward the floor. “Because I learned the truth and knew he must die. By the laws of the Althing, it should be the rightful Thane who dispenses justice, but to go from the rule of a usurper to that of a kinslayer… it was too much.”
Stigander nodded slowly, chewing over the man’s words. This should not be complicated, and yet… He stepped up onto the dais and walked slowly towards the corpse sprawled on the ground. Ulfr’s body still clutched Grjóthrun in both hands, his grip proclaiming that he had never before used a sword. Stigander reached down to grasp his brother’s head by its hair and lift it up. The man’s grizzled hair stuck out in every direction where it had slipped free of the cut-off braid. Its face was contorted with rage and desperation: at least Ulfr had not died a coward. Stigander placed the head back near its former body. He turned and stepped back off the dais, not caring that his boots had picked up some of the blood.
Facing Kaldr once more, he drew his father’s sword. He held it upright, studying the blade as he spoke. “Very well, Kaldr Kerasson. Stand, and hear the judgement of the Thane of Breidelstein.”
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