Chapter 16
Father and Son

Mount Kell, Titan; Anno Titanos 293

"There is a time to kill your enemy and there is a time to make him your own. Never waste a worthy opponent. He is simply a worthy ally who needs a little convincing."
- Saying attributed to Rorik the Great, the Mercenary King

Before riding out to meet his destiny, Randwulf wanted to test his Marauders first, to prove their fighting skill in actual combat. He got his wish. A bandit chieftain by the name of Leif Grimmson apparently heard the rumors of Randwulf's exploits in the South and mounted his own effort in the North to cobble together an army. He called his men the Wolf-eaters, a direct challenge to the Wolf of Cygnus. They were also the last bandit group left in all the Crescent Mountains.
The first encounter with the Wolf-eaters was back before spring, when foraging parties from each side clashed. Both were wiped out save for a single Marauder who came back alive to report the incident. A number of similar skirmishes came in the months to follow, but it was not until summer that they had their first full-fledged battle. It was a messy affair. Neither side was able to gain an advantage and it took a fierce storm to break it up. The storms to follow forced both sides to take shelter for several weeks. Besides a few minor sneak attacks on both sides, it was a bloodless reprieve until the fighting resumed.
There had been two more major battles since then, both inconclusive. The two leaders had enough sense to keep their camps moving, so neither side was able to get the drop on the other. The Wolf-eaters had numerical superiority and were relentless fighters, but their training and equipment were inferior to the Marauders'. They were formidable opponents, but Randwulf had been holding back. He needed the manpower, so he did not want to wipe out the Wolf-eaters, but the fighting had already claimed more than a hundred Marauders. He had to find another approach.
That other approach was to challenge this Leif Grimmson to a duel. It was quite simple, but it probably could not have happened without the bloodletting on both sides. From Magnusson he learned the rules of the Nordmen's style of dueling, called holmgang. You could not simply issue a challenge, you had to insult him and force him to defend his honor. The response had to come swiftly, which was exactly what Randwulf was after.
In just three days, the Marauders and the Wolf-eaters met, only this time the fighting would only be between two pairs of men. First a champion from each side would duel, followed by a duel of the leaders. The first duel was actually a covert way for Randwulf to observe a holmgang before doing it himself.
At the appointed place on the summit of Mount Kell the Wolf-eaters had already spread out two ox hides on the ground and staked off the dueling ring. There was not much room to maneuver, but that was how Nordmen fought. One either side were three leather-bound shields and three short wooden clubs. If a man's club or shield was broken in the middle of the duel, he had two replacements at the ready. After that, he had to rely on his bare fists, if he lasted that long. The duel would be fought until one man yielded, stepped outside the ring, or until he was killed or incapacitated. It was crude, but without the effete trappings of formal duels in more 'civilized' lands. It was a fitting way to decide the fate of the Marauders.
The leaders and their champions walked up to meet each other. The leader of the Wolf-eaters, Leif Grimmson, was a fierce-looking, weather-beaten man, stout yet muscular, with a large bushy beard. Were he but a little shorter, he might be mistaken for one of the Dwarves of legend. He was wrapped in a wolf's pelt, wearing the head as a cap. The message was clear.
"So you're the one they call the Wolf of Cygnus?" Grimmson asked, his voice gruff and harsh.
"I have been called that," Randwulf replied. "You must be the dog they call Grimmson."
Grimmson twitched. Although it was very subtle, Randwulf could tell he was exerting all his willpower not to retaliate then and there.
"You'll get what's coming to you," Grimmson said. "You got your man?"
Randwulf nodded to Magnusson and said, "Right here. You got yours?"
Grimmson clapped his hand on the shoulder of the young man standing next to him. His son, perhaps? There was certainly a resemblance. It was an interesting choice.
"Let's get started," Grimmson said.
Magnusson and the young man knew the rules. They stripped from the waist up, took a shield and club, and stepped into the ring. Randwulf and Grimmson stood at the sides to hand their champions the spare equipment as needed. There was also an extra Marauder and Wolf-eater to ensure the duel was fought fairly. Naturally, Randwulf picked the giant Ursus for the task. The brawny Wolf-eater Grimmson chose looked like a child in comparison.
Before they began, there were the usual introductions. Magnusson went first.
"So the dog sends a pup to face a wolf? Beardless boys are no match for Thor Magnusson, but I'll give you a sound whipping and send you back to the whorish dam that birthed you."
The abuse properly enraged his opponent. Red-faced, the young man exploded, charging at Magnusson with a howl. Magnusson knocked him back with a stiff blow from his shield, but the young man barely skipped a beat, furiously whaling on Magnusson's shield and screaming.
"I'm Sven Leifson! I'll show you what Wolf-eaters do to wolves!"
Because he was attacking so blindly, Sven was wide open for Magnusson to strike him upside the head, braining him nicely. The Wolf-eater apparently had a thick skull, because the blow did not finish him off. Magnusson did not let that deter him. He simply gave Sven another crack on the head before he could recover. That did the trick, dropping him senseless to the ground.
It did not take long at all, but Randwulf expected nothing less from the man he groomed to be his right hand. Magnusson did not look too happy, though, no doubt because he was paired with such an inferior opponent.
"I expected more from these Wolf-eaters," he said. He gave a slight bow to Randwulf. "The field is yours, sir."
Randwulf removed his gear, took up the shield and club Magnusson was using, and stepped into the ring. Grimmson watched one of his mean drag Sven out of the way before entering the ring himself. Randwulf did not waste the opportunity to taunt his opponent.
"You insult my man. Surely you have better."
"Ten of your men are worm food thanks to that boy," Grimmson retorted. "He'll learn how to use his anger."
"Anger makes a man stupid," Randwulf said, "but that whelp doesn't have much to lose."
Grimmson drew in a deep breath, tensing his muscles as he said, "I will show you what anger does. I am Leif Grimmson. My grandsire served the All-father Odin on Ragnarok as an Einheri berserker. Anger... is... STRENGTH!"
Grimmson started breathing heavily, the pace of his breaths rapidly quickening. If possible, his muscles tensed more. Thick veins bulged and throbbed as a low growl rumbled deep in his throat. His eyes became distant, as if he were letting go of his conscious self. He then howled at the top of his lungs before biting down on his shield with all his might. Still biting into his shield, his eyes met Randwulf's. The distant look was gone. In his eyes was a wildness, a madness, like a frenzied, rabid dog on the end of a tether. When Leif Grimmson's eyes met Randwulf's, the tether broke.
Grimmson practically threw himself at Randwulf, howling all the while. His son's rage when he fought Magnusson was but a childish imitation by comparison. If the club had an iron head, it would have smashed in Randwulf's shield on the first blow. As it was, the Conqueror's arm went numb and fell limp at his side. He did not let it faze him, though. He could not afford even a moment's distraction, for the frenzied Grimmson was relentless.
Randwulf met Grimmson's next swing with his own, breaking his club in the exchange. He had to sling his limp shield arm to clumsily block Grimmson's follow-up. He would not be able to do that again. Thankfully, Magnusson was ready with another club. Randwulf caught it in midair and immediately gave Grimmson a good crack on the skull. A pity it did not have much effect.
Before Grimmson could swing again, Randwulf struck his wrist, disarming him. Even that did not stop him, though. Without skipping a beat, he swung his shield at Randwulf's head. Randwulf ducked under the shield and gave Grimmson a blow to the ribs. It scarcely elicited a grunt and Grimmson responded by slamming down on Randwulf's shoulder. The Conqueror's stance was sturdy enough to withstand the blow, but before he took another hit, he wrapped his arms around Grimmson's waist and pushed forward, driving him to ground. For good measure, he clubbed the berserker square on the forehead right as he was trying to get back up, knocking him senseless.
With Randwulf's howl as he delivered the finishing blow, the crowd fell silent. Randwulf sat there on his knees, breathing heavily. It had been a while since he last had such a strenuous match. It was almost hard to believe it was over. Was Grimmson dead or merely unconscious?
He got his answer when Grimmson's eyes snapped and started screaming. He did not have a chance to get far, though, for Randwulf quickly delivered another blow to the head. It did not knock him out, but it did take the fight out of him. With blood trickling into his eyes from his split forehead, all he could muster was a defiant glare.
"Go on... Finish me."
"No," Randwulf said, tossing his club aside.
"Finish me!" Grimmson snapped.
Randwulf stood up and handed his shield to Magnusson, not even looking at Grimmson as he told him, "Killing you would be a waste. I can use you."
"Without my honor, I have nothing."
"Then win it back, on the field of battle. The day draws near."
Randwulf extended his hand. Defeated, Grimmson would only dishonor himself further by spurning the victor's courtesy. Grudgingly, he took Randwulf's hand and let the Conqueror help him to his feet. It made it all too clear that Grimmson was now beholden to the Wolf of Cygnus.
Randwulf turned to face Grimmson's men. No, his men. He addressed them in a loud voice, so that all would hear him.
"Listen well! Carve these words in your hearts or I will carve them in your bones! You who call yourselves Wolf-eaters, that name is yours no longer! You are mine now! If you survive, you will be wolves and wolf-feeders! You will be my Marauders! I will not tolerate disobedience! I will not tolerate cowardice! I will not tolerate failure! You will fight for your lives! You will fight for me!"
The Marauders roared in assent. The former Wolf-eaters could only stare in stunned silence. They would learn, the worthy among them. Now that they had gotten a real taste of blood, all that remained was to bring the new members into the fold, to make them Marauders. Once that was done, surely it would be time for Randwulf to face his destiny at long last.