“Today you will be a Taster of Blood, Torsten,” Ødger said, passing him the drinking horn. Torsten took it, reluctant to drink the hot henbane tea.
He was a wisp of a boy, a few dark hairs growing from the corners of his upper lip. He talked little with the men, afraid of his voice betraying him—going from higher to lower pitches without his consent. His mother had teased him for being too young to wage war.
However, Ødger’s nephew was good with the bow. Torsten had planted many arrowheads of iron into the chests of the Geats. Ødger and his band needed his skill on their foray east, a vanguard preparing the way for the juggernaut to come.
“Taster of Blood,” Ødger repeated. “Odin be praised! Your father in Valhalla will rejoice with you tonight.”
“Will I join him in the Hall of the Fallen?” Torsten asked. His sincerity caused the other men to roar with laughter.
“Unless Freyja has absconded with your father to Fólkvang,” Ødger said, patting Torsten on the shoulder. “I would not doubt that possibility. Your father rutted like a boar! No maiden was safe wherever he was, but many came to him willingly. You may have half-siblings as far away as Ealdwic!”
“It was said your father had two battle axes—the one in his breeches the longer of the two!” one of the mercenaries added.
Torsten flushed red, though he was proud nonetheless.
His father had died well in battle.
“Drink, Torsten,” his uncle commanded. “It is time for us to transform.”
“Be mad as a dog, as strong as a bear—” murmured one of the men with a thick red scar edging down the side of his face. He lifted a larger horn, drinking his fill of the brew.
“You’ll be a shield biter before you know it,” crowed the largest in their band. “Paid for by King Harald Fairhair’s gold!”
“There are better kings than Harald,” Ødger remarked. “But we’ve fought for worse.” He took the drinking horn from Torsten, drank from it himself, then ladled more tea from the iron pot nestled in the embers. With an eyebrow raised, Ødger handed the tea back to Torsten.
Ødger was not going to ask again.
Torsten knew full well how the henbane tea was made. His own mother, Gunhild, had hunted the plant with yellowish-brown flowers with sticky hairy leaves. Harvesting enough to prepare them for battle, she painstakingly ground the seeds and dried the flowers, leaves, and roots.
He had heard that certain warriors would smoke the leaves. Sometimes they would mix crushed henbane seeds into animal fat and smear it on their bodies’ most vulnerable parts. The tea would be sufficient to enrage them, eliciting shrill cries and otherworldly screams as they attacked.
Torsten had seen the aftermath of war, men led off the field, covered in blood, flesh flayed, bones jutting through skin—all the while singing paeans to the Gods. The tea took away both fear and pain.
Days later, they would recover their minds while their bodies healed in the King’s Hall.
The tea made that possible. Berserkergang.
The tea changed them into Odin’s right hand.
“Why must we fight naked?” Torsten had asked his uncle.
“Because we dedicate our bodies to battle,” Ødger explained. “It shows the Gods we are invulnerable and worthy of their blessings. Besides, the Geats cannot believe we run through the ice without our linens. They fall to the earth and beg us for quick deaths!”
Torsten found himself smiling.
His father died in battle, heroically, majestically. How tragic to die on a sickbed from smallpox or from senicide when becoming a doddering old fool.
He prayed to Odin to avoid these fates.
Torsten put the drinking horn to his lips, then tipped it back quickly, imbibing every drop. The men cheered him, clapping him on the back, rollicking with good pleasure when he finished the draught.
“We prepare now,” Ødger ordered, speaking to all. “See you on the other side, my friends. Be wary of who you fight when the rage comes upon you!”
Torsten wanted to reply, yet simply watched as each man took off his heavy woolen cloak in the frigid air. They wordlessly unbuttoned long-armed tunics and stripped off trousers and the puttees that warmed their lower legs. They kept on their leather boots, treated with beeswax to be pliable and fish oil to be waterproof. Boots were quite necessary to be nimble in battle.
Seeing the nearly naked men on the frozen field made Torsten feel colder. His teeth began to chatter before he began to shiver in stronger convulsions. He touched his face, growing evermore red and swollen. Alarmed, he looked at his uncle, whose eyes were as dilated as his.
“Skoll!” Ødger yelled, loud and long. It was a cry for the men to move forward to defeat the enemy, to decapitate the opposition’s leader, to drink from his skull. It would be an honor to the vanquished, the only way a fallen foe could enter Valhalla.
“Skoll!” the others replied, shrieking louder and longer into the thin air, plumes of breath making them feel like dragons. They began to run through the underbrush, holding spears, lances, and swords aloft.
Torsten brought up the rear, sheaths of arrows strapped across his back, bow in hand. With each step, he felt the sensation of his feet growing lighter and lighter. He lowered his head, flying like a bird of prey over the rocks and crags.
Goddesses and demons swirled about his legs. Torsten looked down to see a maiden reach for his manhood before turning into a goblin, baring its jagged teeth. His ears were assaulted by mankind’s cries. He thought he heard women being beaten and ravished, just before the agony of birthing pains. He listened to howls of Germani torture victims, the cracks of limbs being amputated, the dying’s gurgling death rattles. Torsten clapped at his ears to make the anguished voices stop.
A man next to him suddenly staggered, vomited, rolled on the ground before leaping into the air to continue his forward momentum. For a savage moment, Torsten hated his comrade with an all-consuming passion, wanting desperately to shove his hand down his throat and rip out his viscera. He squinted at the battlefield in front of him, combatants already embroiled with one another, the scene washed in a blue-green patina.
Torsten blinked in an attempt to focus more clearly. His muscles burned, restless, as he watched bodies fall about him. He scurried over to a clearing.
In a few fluid movements, Torsten nocked and released a half dozen arrows that quickly found their mark.
He turned to hear his mother’s voice.
“Mother?” he called out, his voice breaking like a frightened child. Rivulets of sweat poured down his face—into his twitching eyes.
Torsten. Come home.
“I have work to do!” he yelled.
Torsten. Come home.
“No, Mother! I will follow my father. Skoll! Skoll! Skoll!”
With each shout, the boy sent arrow after arrow into the heads, backs, and shoulders of the warring tribesmen.
His mother’s voice again.
Would she not sever their umbilical cord?
Wild eyed, he turned his bow towards the voice, drew the bowstring back, released an arrow.
Through his delirium, he saw the eyes shaped like his mother’s, but Ødger’s brows were much heavier, much darker—made even more so by the stream of blood burbling from the arrow’s wound right below the crown of his head.
Besieged on all sides, Torsten ran to cradle his uncle in his arms, burying his face into his hair, unsure of whose blood he finally tasted.