Chapter VII: Hammerfall
Peridas observed the battle from the small deck outside the captain’s quarters. After landing on Colossus, the Viking forces formed one large semicircular shield-wall, which swelled to an enormous size as more warriors poured onto the deck. The boy glimpsed the feared Viking chieftain, Captain Borgrave, as he leaped onto the deck, clad in gleaming plate armor. The captain towered over the other warriors, standing over a head taller than his brothers in arms, who were themselves dramatically bigger than most of the Greeks- save the Spartans.
Borgrave wielded an impractically large warhammer with a double-sided head; both sides were divided into four symmetrical segments, and from each segment jutted a blunt spike about an inch long. The weapon’s shaft was even taller than Peridas and was as thick around as the boy’s forearm. Peridas guessed that just the head of the hammer weighed eighty pounds. The boy swallowed several times without noticing. We have to beat him? he thought.
A few other Vikings, arrayed in similar armor to Borgrave, joined him in the heart of the formation and formed a second shield wall well within the first. Clever… . Peridas thought. Any soldier that tried to reach Borgrave would have to fight their way past two walls and half the Viking army. Borgrave barked orders to his men with a thick accent and a harsh snarl disfiguring his face, doing his utmost to conceal the cowardice of his strategy; the three Greek commanders on Colossus were stationed at the heads of their battalions.
The last of the Leviathan’s crew had emptied onto Colossus’ main deck, and the massive force surged forwards- spreading out like an ocean tide- and collided with the Greek army, creating a deafening clamor.
The armies appeared evenly matched, but the Viking warriors seemed to have more stamina, and ever so slowly pushed the Greeks back, step by step. Even the seasoned group of Spartans that Ionus commanded were hard pressed to stay out of reach of the Vikings’ hungry blades. Captain Borgrave and his guards were especially lethal. They swept through Colossus’ ranks with near impunity, Borgrave laughing grimly the whole while, leaving none alive. Their advanced armor and exceptional martial training were indeed a dreadful combination. We’ll need every man we can get before the day is out. Peridas thought, already nervous. He pressed his left hand to his numb side, testing the amount of force he could withstand. The puncture wound throbbed but weakly. Somewhat reassured, Peridas swallowed his trepidation and dropped from his vantage point, loosely holding onto a piece of rigging to control his descent.
The boy landed lightly, then rolled under a vicious two-handed ax-swing and kicked his attacker in the gut. The warrior stumbled back several feet. Peridas rose, grasped the Viking’s ax and smashed his knee into the warrior’s side. The Viking cursed but held onto the weapon. While keeping hold of the ax with his right hand, the boy spun quickly to gain momentum and smashed his left elbow into the Viking’s temple, dropping the brute. Then Peridas jumped, grabbed a crossbeam and swung from it with as much momentum as possible, driving both heels under the jaw of another Viking. There was a loud crack overlaying a series of simultaneous pops. The warrior tumbled backwards, teeth spilling out of his ruined mouth, which was hanging open wider than an idiot’s slackjaw.
A duo of swordsmen stalked toward Peridas, warily keeping their arms and weapons tucked close to their bodies. At the same time, a spearman advanced on him from the opposite direction. Peridas collected his thoughts, mentally labeled the attackers, and then darted towards the third man. Peridas grabbed the spear near its blade and tried to rip it from the spearman’s grasp. The spear slid partway out of the Viking’s hands, but then he tightened his grip on the weapon, immobilizing it. Peridas swore, placed his second hand on the shaft, and thrust the blunt end backwards into its owner. It struck the Viking in the chest and he grunted in pain. Twice more the boy struck him, the third blow cracking his sternum. As the spearman’s body fell, Peridas twisted to face the first two warriors. A nearly invisible strip of silver sped towards his neck, like a whip made of shining gray thread. Startled, Peridas jerked his head back with a cry, and he felt a faint tugging on his collar. Before the swordsman that had swung at him could recover, Peridas lunged and caught him in the throat.The Viking collapsed with a gurgle. The boy instinctively drew the spear’s shaft to his side at eye level to ward of the blow that he knew was coming from the second swordsman. There was a dull thud that jarred his arm, and then Peridas swept the warrior off his feet with a twirl of the spear and finished him with a single thrust.
For Peridas, most of the battle was a nightmarish jumble of tangled limbs and flashing weapons. He dispatched several himself, relying on surprise and momentum to compensate for his lack of strength. Others he distracted or provoked into charging towards him, into the groups of Greek soldiers, where they where immediately slain. The Greeks quickly learned to mind Peridas’ presence and to take advantage of the openings he provided. Peridas tried not to kill anyone- he wanted no blood on his hands- but he could not spare every berserker or overeager swordsman that tried to chop him to pieces. After all, their lives were not above his. Not his, nor Ionus’s. And so, when he was in truly grave danger, he killed. And killed… and killed… . And all throughout the battle the frequent sound of Borgrave’s hammer cracking shields and swords punctured the din, accompanied by his feral giggling. The enormous man and his heavily armored companions had punched through the Greek defenses and slain the Athenian commander- leaving just Ionus and Novale to command the Greeks- and Borgrave was even at that moment advancing on Ionus’s cluster of Spartans. I have to kill him- now. Thought Peridas, If he reaches Ionus-
A quick punch in between Peridas’ eyes shook him from his reflections. He had been grappling with an unusually bright warrior for the past few minutes, dodging and striking in grim disdain of his opponent’s wit. Peridas finally triumphed by feigning a punch, then abruptly kicking the warrior in the kneecap and headbutting him in the nose as the Viking fell forward. There was a wet crunch as the warrior’s nose gave way under Peridas’ forehead. As the body slumped to the floor, Peridas glimpsed Borgrave striding toward him from the opposite side of the ship, teeth bared in a wicked, twisted snarl. His retinue continued to attack the Spartans, but Ionus caught the captain’s change in direction and glared after the man with a cold fury in his eyes at being unable to help his friend.
“You’ve caused enough hurt for my men, boy!” spat Borgrave in Greek.
“Not quite,” Peridas whispered to himself, already moving toward the captain.
As the two men charged, a pair of Greek soldiers darted in front of Borgrave and leveled their spears at his chest. Likewise, a Viking berserker wearing only breeches and covered with an elaborate tattoo that flowed over his entire torso, stepped forward and swung a massive greatsword at Peridas, as if to catch him in the stomach. Without slowing, Peridas caught the flat of the blade between his gauntlet-protected palms, yanked the sword from the Viking’s hands, spun counter-clockwise, and struck the berserker in the ear with the sword’s pommel. The man howled and dropped to the deck, arms wrapped around his head. At the same time, Borgrave swept both spears aside like they were nothing more than river reeds. Then, instead of slaying the soldiers with his hammer, the captain simply surged forward and trampled them underfoot, as a draft horse might.
…And they resumed their headlong rush at each other, bidding both armies to stop and witness their duel. As he ran, Peridas searched for anything in his opponent’s bearing that might provide him with an advantage. He found none- save Borgrave’s single-minded determination.
When they were but fifty feet apart, the captain lifted his hammer over his head almost as if he was preparing to throw it. The boy was aware of nothing but the man in front of him… thirty feet… and the drumming of his boots… twenty feet… and heard naught but the pounding of his pulse… ten feet… .
Borgrave took one prodigious leap and swung his hammer in a shallow arc that would have pulverized the boy, whether he dodged left or right. So instead, Peridas dove forward and slid between Borgrave’s legs. Before the captain could react, Peridas lashed out with both legs and kicked Borgrave in the back of his knee. The joint gave way several inches, held for a moment, and then buckled, sending the captain to his knees. Even on the ground, the man was so large that Peridas had to jump as high as he could to swing his hips and legs, and kick Borgrave in the side of his head with all his might. Through his leather boot, Peridas could feel Borgrave’s ear being smashed flat.
Having used both legs in his attack, Peridas toppled to the ground with Borgrave, who was cursing weakly in Old Norse. Before the boy could stand, Borgrave slammed his elbow into Peridas’ chest. The pain seemed too sharp to have come from a blunt strike; it seared and spiked deeply into his muscles, unlike the broad but dull ache that most punches elicited. Gasping in shock, he pushed off the deck and staggered to his feet, and remained there, stunned. As Peridas shook off his daze, a leg as tall as he was arced through the air and connected with his bicep. An inappropriately satisfying pop emanated from his shoulder as he flew through the air and collided with a mast. His neck kinked in a way it wasn’t supposed to, and a jagged line of ice-cold fire tore through his neck, then his shoulder, then his chest. He howled but couldn’t hear himself, couldn’t hear anything in fact.
With an enormous effort of will, he sat up and opened his stubbornly clenched eyes. Green… puddles- swatches of color- dominated his vision, but after a few moments they cleared and he saw the captain stumbling after him as if he were drunk. His right ear was torn and drooping, and his face was slack, but the position of his hammer bespoke everything. Peridas stood and an grimaced at the almost metallic shriek at the base of his brain-stem that punctuated his body’s thousands of protests. His heart fluttered like a wisp of flame in a gale. He knew what that meant, and if he was going to die, so be it. But if he did he was sure going to kill that smug maggot Borgrave first.
The chieftain’s stride quickened, and Peridas charged… and the hammer fell…
…And smashed through the deck where Peridas had been a half-second after the boy jumped backwards and landed safely out of reach. Borgrave tried to yank the hammer out of the planks, but it was wedged firmly in the deck. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Peridas darted forward and ran up the hammer’s shaft, then spun backwards and used his considerable momentum to kick Borgrave square in the chin. The boy heard a dull clack as Borgrave’s jaws smacked together, then he he completed his backflip and landed on a hand and a knee where he started off. He looked up at the captain; he was standing straight and rigid as a column, his jaws clamped so tightly, the bottom one appeared to be missing. There was a deep split running through his chin, which was dark purple and dripping blood and fluids. The ruined chieftain stood for a moment more, then tipped backward and collided with the deck. And throughout the entire ship all was still. And then a roar of excitement and admiration issued from the Greeks, accompanied by the Vikings’ groans of rage and despair.
“I’ve got him!”
Peridas ducked under a flying javelin and grabbed a short-sword from the ground. A Viking wielding two large daggers lunged toward him; the boy simply side-stepped him and continued. When he was within accurate throwing distance, he cocked his arm- ignoring his recently relocated shoulder’s throbbing protests- and sent the short-sword spinning end over end through the press of skirmishers and into the ribs of the warrior that had just wounded Ionus. The man dropped like an under-stuffed doll. Ionus inclined his head in thanks. The man with the daggers advanced on Peridas again. “Go away!” Peridas shouted. The Viking flinched, and the boy sprung forward and tackled him to the ground. A fist slammed into the boy’s side, his injured side, and he could feel warm blood starting to run down his stomach. Peridas gritted his teeth, then dug his fingers behind the Viking’s collarbone and yanked on it as hard as he could. A scream, a spasm, stillness… and the battle swept to a different part of the deck, leaving the boy alone with the dead.
Peridas lay on top of the corpse, panting, and gazing through the twisting system of ropes into the azure sky. Beneath him, he heard the steady rhythm of his dripping blood hitting the deck at an alarming rate. Phantom images floated across his vision. He saw children gazing forlornly into the gloom of night, waiting for parents that would never return; he saw widows- ragged, threadbare, and abandoned- weeping over empty caskets surrounded with lilies and wildflowers. He had killed earlier, but he didn’t have time to think about it. Now that he could, he was revolted. Families, farms, hopes and homes; how many of those had he destroyed by taking only a few lives in battle? He leaned over and wretched on the deck. His eyes darted involuntarily to the corpse’s chest. He willed himself to look away. He thought over and over: That must have hurt. How could I… What if someone did that to me? …That must have hurt…
Beads of sweat trickled over his brow and down his nose. His hands shook, and his eyes couldn’t focus. His dripping blood sounded so loud, it hurt his head. He felt his fingers again closing around the Viking’s collarbone; crushing, constricting. Peridas let out an unexpected groan, which made him start at the noise. He stood and focused on breathing through his nose and out his mouth. Eventually, his heartbeat slowed, the tears ceased, and his hands stopped shaking.
The boy heard a faint whistling and turned, and a fist curved into his jaw and, for a brief instant, Peridas stumbled back, half unconscious. Before him was a weaponless Viking with a gash in his armor. He attacked again, and Peridas tried to deflect the blow, but missed, and an elbow hit him in the stomach. Stunned, Peridas kicked blindly upward, hoping to hit his attacker, who caught the boy’s leg and held it, and then said, “First you, then all of Greece!” and Peridas saw the Viking unsheathe a dagger.
“No!” He shouted, climbing up the man’s leg.
Peridas grabbed a shoulder and pulled himself onto his feet, then pounced and sank his teeth into the Viking’s neck muscle. The man screamed and fell onto his back, swatting at Peridas, who lost his grip and fell on his hands and knees. He lunged and tried to bite the Viking again, but the man maneuvered his arms between them and held Peridas at bay. The boy pushed and snapped with abandon, and thought that must be quite how a wolf or some such creature must feel when trying to subdue it’s prey. Beneath him, the Viking was uttering a high-pitched stream of curses. Before either of them could gain the upper hand, a shadow fell over the two men and the tip of a sword pressed against the Viking’s jugular. Peridas looked up and beheld Skipper, battered and scraped, but whole. With an exhausted sigh, the boy rolled off the frozen man and lay heaving on the deck, utterly spent. Peridas turned his head and looked toward where he thought the battle should be. A few hundred limping figures where striding over the remains of the carnage, scavenging equipment. “Skipper… did we win?” he asked between breaths.
“Yes, O Hammerbane.” replied the old man with a twinkle in his eyes. “We won.”
A loud crash emanated from the Leviathan to their right, and moments later a team of Greek saboteurs leaped off its deck and landed safely on Colossus. Then the Viking ship slowly began to drift away, sinking into the sea the whole while. Peridas gazed down at his blood covered hands. He was lacking a couple of fingernails, and a large chunk of flesh was missing from his left hand. “I’m not doing too well…”
“Come on, then.” Skipper said, grabbing him by the arm.
He led the boy back to the doctor’s quarters, passing Ionus along the way. The Spartan squinted and said, “Peridas, is that you?”
“Aye.” he replied, conscious of the motley of bruises and cuts and welts that covered his face.
The screams and groans of wounded men filled the doctor’s quarters, creating such a hideous clamor that Peridas wanted to plug his ears and leave. He sat in an empty corner and held his sleeve over his mouth and nose in an attempt to filter out some of the putrid odors that wafted through the air. After the better part of an hour, his wounds were dressed and bandaged, and he left for the barracks, hoping to forget the horrors of battle in the warm embrace of sleep. Any soldiers he passed in Colossus’ enormous and unnaturally quiet corridor greeted him with curt nods and mutterings of, “Hammerbane,” and while he found the title immensely pleasing, it was disconcerting for him to be recognized and addressed by complete strangers. Once he reached his designated bunk hold, he found an empty bed and collapsed into it, weary and haunted from the day’s events.