This is an Assassin’s Creed Short Story set in the time of Valhalla.
The Bookworm – part 4
The silhouette of mounted bannermen framed the light regiment as it approached, smoke rising from the razed village behind them. Women, children, and the elderly scattered in the chaos as the Vikings struggled to assemble. Grain stores burned. They struck against the peace accord during the heart of a celebration when they would be the least defended during the first snow of Winter. It was a calculated execution of a people they would no longer tolerate. The calvary did not come to gamble with the veteran raider settlement; it was a show of force flying the colors of the King.
The falling snow swirled thick as the strongest of the Vikings rushed to head off the armored men on horses away from those least able to defend themselves. The thunder of hooves and boots bid Hadda’s blood to run hot. There was something unasked-for, visceral in the sound of steel striking shield that made her senses come alive. She swept up a young child, fearful but strangely silent in the chaos as she surveyed the ensuing battle. In the midst, Eivor struck her first opponent with a force like thunder.
Above the battle, a thin line of the regiment’s leadership watched under banner flapping. The snow and blood mixed on the ground until it ran freely. Sundered shield and splintered spear alike littered the ground as Saxon and Viking fell in a cacophony of death. An arrow pierced a girl through the shoulder just feet from where Hadda and the toddler fled. Amid screaming, Hadda passed the small child to another fleeing woman with a mutual glance and turned to aid the girl who had been struck. The girl with the bundle of small black-eyed yellow flowers now falling out of Hadda’s hair. The wound was severe, but with haste the girl could be saved.
“Svend!” Hadda called out, spotting him on the edge of the skirmish. In his eyes even at a distance Hadda could see the grim determination of a man preparing to die. “Svend!” she called again, attempting to restrain the girl who was fading in her arms. Unable to hear her cries, Svend redoubled the grip on his axe and charged into the fray. He fell two Saxons on foot before a slender-framed rider struck him from horseback. Svend hit the snow like an unbound sack of rocks. He was killed instantly.
She could not hear her own scream. Hadda fought a stream of tears as a strength beyond her own turned to the thick shaft of the arrow piercing the girl she held. She snapped the shaft, and with a bellow pulled the other end through the girl’s torso. She tore her dress into a broad strip until no fabric remained below her knees. She wrapped it tightly as the girl cried out, tying it into a knot before helping her retreat further down the hill towards the lodge. Out of the corner of her eye, something trivial, something otherwise very unimportant caught her eye. The door to Able’s hut was open. The same she had personally closed shut before leaving to the celebration.
Reaching the lodge Hadda and the girl came face to face with the mystic. The same air touched by the Gods radiated around her as she took the girl from Hadda to lead her into the lodge as it was being fortified to withstand a direct attack. A thankful glance from the girl and a knowing nod from the mystic dismissed Hadda as she doubled back to investigate Able’s home. A she raced up the path now obscured by snow it felt as if all sound faded away. She could hear only dull noise over her own footprints crushing snow. Cautiously, she slipped in the door.
Standing the center of a wreck of overturned bookshelves and spilled parchment was a familiar dark figure. Heavy coat framed flowing tunic and belt of a man she had seen before. The man from the garrison of her warden, he who owned the decorative knife left on the chapel table. Laying eyes upon him, Hadda’s ears began to ring louder than any sound she had heard before.
In a corner, Able stood as if turned to stone while falling. His wooden crutch hung suspended in air. In the gaze of the stranger even the dust seemed to freeze in time until he locked gaze with Hadda; deaf with fear. The interior of the home was destroyed. Helpless, Hadda looked on her adversary. Indulgent gold adorned pearl white silk and a radiant red cross. His impeccably trimmed beard and mustache contoured a face wrought by angels. He was a full foot taller than Hadda, blond hair bouncing at his collar. His steel eyes cut her to kneeling. The very earth beneath her trembled. The figure made show of breathing deeply through his nose.
“Intoxicating, isn’t it?” He chimed airily, voice cracking open the heavens above them.
The security analyst pulled one half of her headset off her ears in frustration, staring directly at the senior analyst. He could barely contain his amusement. She was well beyond asking questions she knew she would not get a straight answer to. The simulation had been modified. She was as certain as the glee on her mentor’s stupid face. She hoped her glare was as icy as it felt. He continued to smile as he lobbed a chocolate into his mouth.
Enough games, she cursed to herself as she turned back to the swarming data transit flashing before her. The second anomaly she had observed was still there, also. Cooley, she returned the headset to her ears and relaxed in her chair as the scene continued to unfold.
Hadda shook, fighting the shrill noise in her ears. The dark figure paced as Able’s adobe began collapsing around them, embers raining without source until a number of tiny fires started among the scrolls. Hadda’s cheeks were soaked with tears. The man withdrew something from his long coat. A single scrap of paper, which Hadda recognized immediately as belonging to her. The Greek prose.
“Like the very gods in my sight is he who sits where he can look in your eyes, who listens close to you, to hear the soft voice, its sweetness murmur in love..” he read aloud. Bright flames danced around him. Able lay in a heap too close to the blaze. The figure tossed the paper into the flames, where it incinerated immediately. Hadda sobbed. “Sappho,” he continued. “Lost to time.’ He declared.
The cry of a raven pierced the night as Hadda regained control of her senses. Eivor leapt into the fray with a fury of a dozen men. Sparks showered as the stranger parried her twin axe strikes with a blade that shone like pure sunlight. Eivor did not relent. Strike after strike, she tested his footwork until she had backed him out of the open door and onto the path outside. In the distance a Saxon horn signaled retreat. The Vikings had held their ground. “Hadda, get Able to the ships!” She urged.
With a practiced riposte, the dark figure disarmed Eivor, exchanging positions so his back faced the scribe’s home, now engulfed in fire. Hadda drug a still-conscious Able past where the pair faced off. Eivor checked her footing, but her opponent took two additional steps back. Into the flames. With a smirk he disappeared in the inferno. Eivor spent no more time than necessary doubting what she had seen. Towards the sandy shore, ahead of Hadda and Able, a lone horseman rode to intercept.
Hadda recognized immediately the slender rider. The man who had killed Svend. His horse made a restless sound. “Winnifred?” Hadda gasped, out of breath. She lacked the strength to stand, and Able could barely support his weight with help.
“Traitor!” Her stepbrother Brandon shouted. A long moment passed, nothing but the distant sound of burning, the agitated horse and the sea lapping against the hull of the longship. He held his sword aloft. In his eyes, cold intent.
Eivor rushed to Hadda’s side, a long spear held low ready to strike. Brandon kicked his armored heels into his horse’s flank, urging her to charge.
“No!” Hadda cried, leaping between Eivor and Brandon. The horse panicked, rearing up and throwing Brandon into a heap of armor and pride. Eivor lowered her weapon.
Brandon gasped for air, struggling at length to remove his helmet so he could breath. Hadda stood as tall as she could muster, weary but filled with resolve. Brandon slowly collected himself and retrieved his sword. “Do you know what happens to horses who throw their riders in battle?” He sneered, slow stepping to Hadda’s left. Eivor studied the two carefully. Her raven called from above.
With no further warning Hadda uncoiled, releasing the river-worn stone concealed in her hand. It sailed the twenty paces between them, striking him squarely in the forehead. He collapsed into the sand, rolling to support his bleeding head in his gauntlets. His voice was hollow with pain.
The horse shuffled anxiously until Hadda spoke to her. Eivor stood tall. “This horse knows you?” Eivor let out her breath. “Your favor with the Gods..” Eivor put a hand on Hadda’s shoulder, meeting eyes with Able as he helped himself to kneeling. “You surprise us all.”
Hadda nuzzled her face into the horse’s neck, sobbing in relief. Brandon struggled nearby. “Eivor, this is Freyja” Hadda introduced her through tears. The horse affectionately stepped towards Eivor.
Brandon pulled himself to standing. “Freak!” he screeched at Hadda, opening crying. Above them on the slope the eldest of Eivor’s raiders ran to investigate, scar over his blind eye.
“Just go,” Hadda pleaded with Brandon. She motioned with her hand for the grizzled warrior to wait.
Brandon’s knees visibly shook. Without another word, he turned to a darkened stretch of the river bank in the approximate direction that the other Saxons had retreated and ran.
Quiet settled before anyone spoke. The older Viking pointed with his sword in the direction Brandon had gone. “A lot of rough swimming that way” He deadpanned to laughter.
Able helped himself to standing with Hadda’s assistance. Several more of Eivor’s best men approached with serious faces. The broad-shouldered warrior held with him the treasured bound book; renowned axe holstered on his back. The others carried supplies for a journey.
Eivor faced Hadda directly, gently straightening her torn dress. “You must get Able to safety. The book cannot remain here.” Eivor looked down, solemn. “War is upon us.” She shuffled her boots, considering her next words. She held forth her hand, revealing the bracelet Hadda was to receive in the celebration earlier that night. “This is for you.” Hadda fought tears. “Hadda, with these men as witness, I declare you a free woman.”
Hadda stood tall, tears rolling free down her cheeks. On the hill above, a silhouette of a woman with antler headdress watched. With trembling hands, she put on the bracelet. She was not sure what to say.
Without a word, Eivor pulled her into a mighty hug. “Go now,” Eivor reassured. “I will care for Freyja personally.”
A brief moment passed as they regarded one another before Eivor spoke again. “Odin is with you.”
this story concludes in part 5