The sky dawned red on the day High Priest Hakon came to the Midlands.
Red as the blood that painted the sandy shores. Red as the burning star that he saw in his dreams.
Two of Hakon’s men stepped towards him. They wore layers of iron mail beneath their wool and furs. Neither of them had so much as a scratch marking his skin. The “battle” had scarcely lasted more than a few minutes, and none of Hakon’s reavers had been slain. The men held naked blades stained with blood, and between them they dragged a Middish fisherman.
The fellow was not young, with gray hair and beard. His face was bruised, his hair matted with blood. But Hakon saw strength in the old man’s limbs, and in his eyes a spark of defiance.
“You must be an elder,” Hakon said. He spoke to the man in his own tongue, the mongrel language of the Middish. He could taste some of the northern tongues in it, but they were… faint. Watered down, weakened. Like everything in the Midlands.
The man spat at Hakon. A feeble gesture, a glob of bloody phlegm that barely spattered onto his boot.
“You think you’re brave?” snarled the man. “Cowards and savages, the lot of you! Just like every Svard! It makes you men, raiding villages, slaughtering defenseless people? We’re fishermen, for God’s sake!”
“And we are the men that will end your world. Perhaps if you had spent your days learning the ways of blood and iron, things would be different,” Hakon said. “Perhaps not. Bring him to the ship.”
His men nodded, and dragged the man away. The fisherman screamed and struggled, but Hakon’s men were strong. They paid him no mind as they pulled him through the shallow surf.
Hakon closed his eyes. The sounds and smells of the reaving washed over him.
He could hear the screams of other fisherfolk. Men dying, or being hauled away as thralls. Women being taken by the raiders. The sound of wood walls and thatch roofs crackling in flames. The smell of blood, shit, brine, and smoke.
Hakon and his flagship, the Vlarrök, had come upon this village in the gloomy hour preceding the sunrise. The fishermen had been rising for the day, breaking their fast, prepping their small vessels for the the sea. The Vlarrök had crept up to them, huge and silent, until it was far too late.
It had been over so quickly.
Hakon walked through what was left of the village, surveying the carnage. Perhaps thirty dead men, women, and children were scattered amongst the burning hovels. A petty homage to Vlar, but an offering was an offering. He saw one of his disciples, Jerk, kneeling before a dying woman. She was mostly naked, already used by a few of the men. Jerk had opened her wrists, and was painting in blood across her pale, naked abdomen. She sobbed quietly, waiting for death.
The runes should be ones to give the men strength and courage, and bring swift winds for the day. Hakon did not stop to check his priest’s work. Jerk knew all the rituals, all the prayers.
Elsewhere, Hakon passed another priest standing over a man. He had carved the fisherman open from groin to ribs, the blood and pain offered up for Vlar’s favor. Hakon doubted that the God of the Deep would be much impressed by such paltry sacrifices, but that was fine. It was good practice for the days ahead.
She wouldn’t want this. The thought came into Hakon’s mind. Unexpected, unwanted. He pushed it down.
“Hakon,” said a voice behind him. “Word has come.” The voice spoke the Svardic tongue, the language of the homeland. But his inflections were odd, his accent marred by the sloppy guttural tones of the far north.
“What is it?” Hakon asked. He turned to face the voice. The speaker was a young man, taller than Hakon and lean with wiry muscle. He wore a wolf-skin cloak over his mail, and held three spears clutched in his fist. The savages of the northern tundras of Svarden had their uses, but Hakon lacked the patience to deal with them.
“The Taerbjornsen has left Kriegany. He comes.”
“About time,” Hakon said. “Have you told the others?”
The man gave a curt nod. Hakon returned the gesture, dismissing him.
Finally, the plan is in motion, he thought to himself. After all these years of waiting. All these years of planning and preparation have come to this.
He turned around, and began walking back to the Vlarrök. This village was irrelevant. Just a tiny morsel for the men, to whet their appetite for violence. To remind them what it meant to be reavers, and men of Vlar. To remind them what it meant to be Svards.
He waded into the surf, walking out to where his longship was beached. The seawater lapped at his legs, leaving icy kisses on his skin. No matter. The rising sun would warm him soon enough.
Nobody would miss a tiny fishing village along the northernmost edge of Caedia. Svards had been reaving the northern coasts for generations, after all. But Hakon had not taken the village to strike fear into the Caedians hearts. That would come later. Nor had he taken the village for the thralls. He had plenty, most of them from Svarden and Kriegany. Caedian rowers would always pale in comparison.
He climbed onto the deck of his ship. He gave the order to begin pushing off the shore and into deeper waters.
He saw the elder fisherman, still held by one of Hakon’s reavers. The fisherman was kneeling at the bow of the ship, head down. Hakon approached him. The man seemed to sense it, and he looked up just as Hakon reached him.
“You won’t break me,” he said, defiant to the last.
Hakon slipped his Vlari prayer knife from its sheath. The blade was long, slightly curved, and honed to a razor edge. He met the fisherman’s eyes. As easy as that, he saw fear worm its way into the man’s heart.
“I do not wish to break you,” Hakon said. He rammed the dagger into the fisherman’s stomach.
The man gasped, more in shock than in pain. Hakon grabbed the man, and dragged him closer to the bow. Blood spilled from his belly in pulses, leaving a crimson river on the planks of the deck.
“You have lived here your whole life,” Hakon explained. “Sleeping on this shore. Fishing in these waters. Your blood is a part of this land.”
The man began sobbing. He mumbled prayers to Torath, his heathen god. He begged Hakon for mercy. Hakon ran a finger along the blade of his knife, and pained a rune on the man’s forehead. Consecrating the coming sacrifice. He shoved the man forward, bending him over the rail.
“That is all I need,” Hakon continued. He murmured a Vlari prayer. “Your blood, in exchange for dominion over your home.”
He swept the blade across the fisherman’s throat. Blood gushed out, hot and red. It poured down the bow of the ship. Hakon’s voice rose, the ritualized prayer echoing across the open sea. As he chanted, he felt a wind begin to rise from the north.
The wind blew to the south, down the coast. Hakon gave the order for the rowers to dig in, and for the men to unfurl the sails. As the wind picked up, the sails billowed outward, catching the breeze so perfectly it was almost as if he’d planned it. The Vlarrök took off down the coast like an arrow from a bow.
Onward, to Caedia. And destiny.