Even for a Viking a first kill can be a traumatic experience. Find out more in Megan Jones’s “First Kill”, recently published in Alt Hist Issue 9.
by Megan Jones
Iceland, c. 920 A.D.
My brother is going to die.
This thought drummed itself into Asmund’s head as he knelt at his younger brother’s sickbed. Vali had always been pale and lean beside Asmund’s brawn, but now his skin was chalky and glistening with sweat. A healer had already visited and given Vali a potion for his fever, but he seemed to have grown more delirious by the hour.
Now that the harvest was over, Father had sailed away a fortnight ago with many of the grown men in their village, to raid the coast of Britannia, leaving his firstborn to look after the farm—and his thirteen-year-old brother. Asmund had resented being left behind, yearned for the chance to prove his mettle.
If you want to prove yourself a man, look after things back home, his Father had charged him when he had complained. And now he was failing even at that.
Asmund brushed Vali’s ginger hair off his forehead, the only thing he had inherited from Father. His angular chin and narrow, elfin nose he had gotten from Mother.
“Brother? Can you hear me?” he croaked.
Vali’s eyelids fluttered restlessly, as if struggling to understand the words. The elder brother took the water jug from the bedside table and, supporting Vali’s shoulders, tried to coax him to swallow a few sips—but the boy seemed too spent even for that.
“Brother, please, you must drink,” Asmund whispered. “You must get well.”
At that moment, Vali finally opened his eyes a fraction. His gaze was resigned, almost pitying, and spoke clearly: It’s no use.
In some ways, illness for Vali was nothing new. Asmund had vague memories of his brother as a sickly infant. Some of their neighbors had asked why they hadn’t just exposed the child—it was kinder, they said, than to prolong a frail infant’s suffering—but Mother had refused to do it. He is not unsalvageable, she had insisted. Just give him a little time.
And she had been right, mostly. After that, it seemed as if Vali had survived through sheer willpower, just to spite the world. It made Asmund wonder, why couldn’t his little brother summon some of that stubbornness now? Where was this acquiescence coming from?
In the evening, when the chores were finished, Asmund checked on his brother again. He thought Vali had drifted back into his restless dreams, so he was startled by a hoarse voice.
“Asmund … Tell me about Mother,” Vali croaked.
Their mother had died giving birth to the sister they never met.
“I have already told you all I remember,” Asmund said in mock sternness. “At least one hundred times.”
“Just once more, please?” Vali teased faintly.
“If you promise me you will try to drink some of that potion the healer left you,” he said, forcing a hopeful tone. Asmund did not know what to do, besides go on acting as if his brother was going to be well in no time. After his little brother nodded once and closed his eyes again, listening, Asmund began.
“She was beautiful,” he said. He was not sure why he held this conviction. All of his hazy memories of Mother seemed to recall her as a plain sort of woman, face and hands rough from work and sun and wind. But something about her smile—like the sun breaking through a dismal winter day—made him picture her with some awe.
“You were only just starting to walk when Mother died, but I was old enough to remember her,” Asmund began. He smiled, though it hurt to do so. “She loved you so much, Vali. She used to sing you to sleep, about the warriors of the past, about faraway lands, about the great adventures we would embark on someday …”
In his mind, he tried not to add, adventures that now will never be. Asmund swallowed back the lump in his throat, trying not to picture himself in the future, sailing the icy seas without his brother at his side, where he ought to have been.
“Do you remember when she died?” Vali asked quietly.
“Aye. Father buried her with a spear and a shield. He told me she could defend our home as well as any man.”
In truth, he mostly remembered sobbing desperately to his grandmother. I will never see her again, he had wailed over and over again. Mother died in childbirth, and I will die in battle! Even at that age, he had imagined a glorious death for himself—but he could not rid his mind of the image of his mother’s shade drifting through the lonely, dark plains of Helheim. But his grandmother had chuckled, Childbirth is a battle all its own, dear heart. You may yet see her in Valhalla’s golden halls.
That had consoled him, at least.
Since they were old enough to hold their wooden toy swords, their father had been teaching them combat skills. As children, between feeding the animals or scavenging driftwood from the shore, they were allowed to roam where they pleased. Then Asmund and Vali became fellow warriors, exploring barbaric territories (which were actually the meadows around the farmstead) and lopping heads off fearsome giants (which were actually sheep, slightly disgruntled at being interrupted in their placid grazing). Father encouraged the boys’ make-believe because he wanted to teach them independence, and feed their desire for glory.
Once a week, however, he made time to teach them more tangible skills. Someday, their enemies would not be imaginary monsters, but flesh-and-blood Pict warriors.
Asmund had absorbed this training eagerly. Broad-shouldered and energetic as his father, he had mastered the sword, spear, and shield with ease. He had such ferocity for his age that Father affectionately called him a berserker, which made the young Asmund swell with pride.
Not so with Vali. He had neither the heart nor the hand for swordplay. Whenever his turn came, Asmund always felt a mixture of pity, worry, and secondhand embarrassment. Vali’s bony hands would clutch his weapon awkwardly and too tightly.
“I don’t want to hurt either of you,” he would mumble, brow furrowed in distress.
Father would scoff and roll his eyes. “It’s a practice sword, son. The edges are dull. Besides, you don’t have the strength of arm to make a dent in us.”
Indeed, Vali hardly had the strength to hold the sword steady, and Asmund always managed to disarm him in one or two moves, even with all the care he took not to deliver too damaging a blow. One day, Father took Asmund aside and rebuked him for holding back.
“I know, he’s your brother, and you want to protect him,” Father said in a low voice, gripping him tightly by the shoulder. “It’s only natural. I’ve always taught you to look out for kin above all else. But you aren’t helping him, Asmund. You have to let him get hurt if he is ever going to grow stronger.”
Asmund understood. But he was not certain his gentle, insecure brother did. When they resumed the lesson, Father drove Vali twice as hard as before, criticized his every move and would not let the boy have supper until he lasted at least five minutes through a sparring session without being disarmed. Asmund could not watch: not only was it painful to see his brother gasping pitifully for breath and wiping his brow with hands shaking from fatigue, but his expression—hopelessness. Vali thought their father saw him as a failure. Perhaps he did, Asmund thought with a pang. But he was also convinced their father’s desperation was born mostly from worry. After all, how could such a slender-framed, sensitive child survive long in this world?
END OF FREE EXTRACT
You can read the rest of this story by purchasing a copy Alt Hist Issue 9.
About the Author
Megan Jones studied creative writing at Grand Valley State University. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she tends bar as her day job. She has been writing historical fiction and fantasy since elementary school, but this is her first time being published. More samples of her work can be found at https://meganjonesgr.wordpress.com.