The Rule by Jack Colman
In the midst of the darkness, Gunnarrâ€™s eyes snapped open.
The hairs along his forearms stood raised like the hackles of a snarling wolf. Muffled voices were hissing at each other from somewhere across the room. Quietly, Gunnarr reached a hand out from the covers and felt the warm absence that his parents had left in the furs at his side. The air felt chilled, and thick with disquiet. Something had happened. He could sense it.
Closing his eyes, he lay very still and tried to listen to his parentsâ€™ words, but their voices were low and rushed, and he could follow only snatches.
â€˜â€¦ now theyâ€™ve decided they â€¦â€™
â€˜â€¦ and you think death will solve â€¦â€™
Gunnarr jolted as if shaken awake from a dream. Death, he thought, and a gleam of a smile spread across his lips. Gunnarr Folkvarrsson and his warrior father were no strangers to death.
The first time he had still been a boy, not yet five. Heâ€™d stumbled across a nameless corpse floating in a swell by the shoreline, staring up at the clouds. Of that he remembered mostly the queerness of the dead manâ€™s face, all swollen like a sow, front lip eaten away up to the nose.
A year later, on a spring day with a biting breeze, he met death for a second time. Again heâ€™d been down by the near-black sea, the freezing-cold surf roaring with anger at his feet. His grandmother was leading him across the coastal rocks, looking for shellfish, when she made a strange sound and collapsed. Gunnarr had waited patiently for her until the tide was almost in before someone came and carried him away.
His parents had quietened their voices to breathy whispers, perhaps fearing they might wake him. For a moment, Gunnarr contemplated going to his fatherâ€™s side and declaring that he could soon find the old kindling axe and be ready for whatever might be needed of him. But his father, he had learnt, was quick to temper whenever he addressed the topic directly. He would call Gunnarr a child and tell him he knew nothing, but he was wrong. True, those encounters from his early childhood had been tame affairs; the first he had come upon too late, long after death had done its work, and the second was but the quiet expiry of life from an old and wasted body. The third, though, had burnt its way deep into his mind. For that was when he had seen the strike of deathâ€™s hand; the vicious snatch that rips a life away with the eyelids still blinking.
It was the first time he had been taken on a hunt with his father and uncle. Winter had come early that year, bitter and fierce. The grass had turned brown, and his mother had wrapped him in thick furs to guard against the searching wind. A group of seals they had stalked for most of the morning had become spooked and scattered into the waves when just yards out of range, so the group was returning to town unsuccessful, and in a black mood because of it, when they heard shouts from over by the smoke house.
Gunnarr did not see what had caused it, but he had never forgotten what followed. His father and the rest broke immediately into a run, sweeping Gunnarr along with them. He remembered his uncle screaming curses in a voice louder than thunder, and glancing up into the distance to see a man some twenty yards away hacking his sword double-handed into the half-turned neck of Agni Alvisson. Gasps went up like startled birds, and a crowd of onlookers swamped in and smothered Gunnarrâ€™s view.
The rest was a mess of trampling feet and womenâ€™s screams. There had been one deafening clang of metal, which Gunnarr remembered well, and a rush of grunting movement almost bundled him over. When he recovered his balance, he found his father, uncle, and their friends facing down a group of frozen-eyed men who were cautiously backing away, leaving one of their number spluttering on the floor at his uncleâ€™s feet, while a silenced crowd looked on.
That had been a real death. Almost too real, for the man had had time to say a lot of strange things before his wounds drained him, and his blood had smelt sickly as it steamed amidst the mud and rotting oak leaves. Agni Alvissonâ€™s head, grinning up at the sky, lay a few feet to one side. Gunnarrâ€™s friends told him it had continued to scream in agony even as it landed on the ground, some three yards away from its body.
There were other memories of death besides those, of course. The wails of his aunt and the silence of his father on the day that his uncle had died. The time he caught his father rinsing his sword in the stream, and the way Folkvarr had turned around and placed a sly finger to his lips and patted Gunnarr on the head as he walked inside. Countless other times where the only detail Gunnarr could recall was the billowing heat of the funeral pyre on his cheeks as he pushed and pointed with the other excitable children. Nothing that compared to those first three, though. Perhaps tonight, he thought eagerly, he would finally find something that could challenge them.
He might have lain there for longer in the dark, enjoying the mischievous sensation of hearing what he was not supposed to hear, of knowing about his father things he wasnâ€™t supposed to know, but Gunnarrâ€™s eyes jumped open again when he heard a new sound amid the rustles and the whispers: a sob from his mother, fearful and desperate.
A protective impulse drove a shiver across his shoulders, and his grin vanished. Casting his furs aside, he stared into the black until he found his parents standing beside the far wall. The wicker door of their single-roomed hut stood an armâ€™s width ajar, with a dull sheen of moonlight drawing a pale line across the floor. He thought he heard voices outside.
â€˜Father?â€™ he called into the gloom, and his parentsâ€™ conversation immediately hushed. As they looked across to face him, Gunnarr noticed that his mother was clinging very tightly to his father. Had it been lighter, he would have seen tears in her eyes.
â€˜Go back to sleep, Son,â€™ his father said, after a brief pause.
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