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Episode 9 – Within the Hazel Sticks

I’d wondered at the meaning of “hazelling the field” until I saw the field behind the village.  Hazelwood poles were stuck in the dirt at three-foot intervals, forming a box roughly thirty feet on a side. 

The warriors of Fagradalr and the people of Skalmarnes lined the box, including Jarl Magnus in his fine furs.  Erik, serving as my second, walked with me towards the hazel-sticks.

Thyge Jormundsson already stood within.  I’d seen him before, but never had he looked so massive as he did then.  He wore a long coat of fine mail that must have cost as much as a longship.  His legs appeared less covered, just thick woolen pants wrapped about with leather straps to keep them from flopping.  On his head sat a conical helm with a nose-guard extending down to protect his face.

He carried a massive shield, wood covered in leather with a rounded boss in the center. In his right hand, he held an axe.  Not a big, broad-bladed axe like you’d see for wood.  No, this axe had a thinner blade, with a beard extending down from the blade.  At his side hung a lean-looking sword—a shortsword, for someone of Thyge’s stature—with a cross guard and a wide pommel.  Given the axe in his hand, I guessed the sword to be for show.

Erik whispered in my ear.  “That axe makes use of his power,” he said.  “It—”

“Shush,” I said, and waved him off.  I appreciated his desire to explain the obvious to me, as though I didn’t already know.  That damned axe could likely split my shield on a direct hit.

In contrast, I carried a small, round shield and a long knife Erik had called a seax.  The knife was four hands long, and was little more than a blocky piece of poor steel with a sharpened side, a leather-wrapped handle, and an angular point.  I wore nothing more than a woolen shield and leggings, and no helm. 

In short, Thyge had more and finer weapons, more reach, and better armor than I.  He laughed as I stepped into the hazel-sticks.

“Girl,” he said.  “It is a cruel thing your Jarlsson has done to you, sending you out to meet me.”

I wanted to answer him.  To tell him…something.  To spit defiance in his face. 

I didn’t feel fear.  I felt…something hard to describe.  I felt as though I again stood on the shore of Strongricstead, watching a dragon-prowed longship slide up to the shore. 

A fight’s not necessarily won with weapons, or strength.  This bit—this opening set of boasts—this was mind against mind between Thyge and I before we ever went steel against shield. 

And I couldn’t let him look at me and guess my mind.

So, I let my seax shake in my hand, giving it a tremble.  I kept my head lowered even as I lifted my eyes towards my giant opponent.  I let him see fear I didn’t feel. 

“Bah!” he shouted.  “This is the warrior that Skalmarnes sends to meet me?  You would cower and hide behind a serving-girl?”  He turned to look at Jarl Magnus.  “Jarl of Skalmarnes! Save your village this disgrace.  Simply agree that the grazing rights to the meadow belong to Fagradalr. Save us this farce.”

“You speak to the wrong person,” said Jarl Magnus coldly. “I granted to my son Erik the authority to handle this, and that authority still rests with him.  The decision is his.”

Erik nodded a thanks to his father, then calmly turned to Thyge.  “You issued your challenge, Thyge Jormundsson, and we are here to meet it.  If you wish to concede, so fearful of a serving-girl, then by all means do so.”

Thyge laughed.  “Let it not be said,” he cried. “That the tongue of Erik Magnusson is dull, even if his blade may be.  Come then, girl.  Let us get this over with, and let the Gods smile upon our battle.  I will ensure you see Valhalla.”

I took a step backwards, shying away from him. He began to beat his shield with the back of his axe as he walked towards me.  I took another step backwards, and he continued his slow advance.  I began to mark the pace of his steps.  One.  Two.  Three.

Then, as he lifted his foot for the fourth, when he’d placed his body in its most off-balance position, I moved.

I moved like a viper.  Like a coiled spring.  All the defiance I’d been waiting to shout burst from my mouth as I hurled myself forward in a low dive.

He hadn’t seen it coming.  He’d seen the cowardly serving girl.  He’d seen prey.  In his mind, the fight had already ended when I stepped into the ring.  So it took him a split-second to react to my sudden, low dive.  

He lowered his shield, trying to block me, but here I had the advantage.  He stood so tall that my half-second lead meant his shield scraped against my back instead of hitting my head.  Then I rolled, spinning, and brought my seax cleanly across the tendon on his back-right ankle. 

His axe slammed blade-first into the turf where I’d been just before my roll even as he cried out and dropped to a knee. 

I didn’t give him time to come to his senses.  I couldn’t.  I let the momentum of my roll carry me into a half-crouch, then sprang forward at his right side.  His unshielded side.  He tried to yank his axe free of the turf, but the power of his blow had sunk the head in deep.  He tugged at it for a moment before releasing the handle and swinging the back of his hand at me.

I took the blow across my face, and saw stars explode in my head with the pain, but continued forward.  I drove my seax into his left thigh, high, where it extended forward.  As I sailed past him, I rolled again. I torqued the blade and twisted it until it sliced a great chunk of meat from his thigh. 

He fell on his face, roaring, but unable to move his legs.  He began to roll over, but I leapt on him, not giving him a chance.  I drove my seax into his back, near his right shoulder, and he stopped his roll and simply lay there, bleeding and breathing. 

Then I looked up at the people surrounding us.

The warriors from Fagradalr and the people of Skalmarnes had all fallen quiet.  The exchange had not been the drawn-out affair they’d expected, two warriors trading blows to the shield until one fell.  They all looked at me with wide eyes and open mouths.

Except Erik.  “It’s not done,” he said, nodding to me.  “Finish the fight.”

I took a deep breath, then turned my attention back to Thyge.  His head lay pressed to the turf, and the only eye I could see looked up at me, widening in panic.

I stood, leaving his broken form on the ground for a moment.  I took a step to where his axe still stood upright where it had slammed into the ground, prying it loose. 

Thyge’s right arm flopped uselessly on the ground after my last stab, so I had to open his hand for him.  Calmly, I placed the handle of his axe in his hand, allowing him to grasp it. 

“Wait for me in Valhalla, brother,” I said softly.

Then I stabbed him in the throat with my seax and watched the life drain out of him.