There were a hundred men in the tavern, but you could have heard a pin drop if it weren’t for the sound of one-eyed Angsfarn, the best ratter hound in the bay, who was lying on Karl’s table, munching his way through a whole bowl of nuts.
“Well? What happened next?” Theodulf asked. The greybeard had barely touched a drop of his mead. His horn would get dusty if he didn’t move soon.
Karl kept them waiting a moment longer, just to let the anticipation build. “I’d like to say I stood my ground and slew it there and then. You all know I’m no coward, but given a choice between fighting a monster like that and surviving, I’d sooner flee and live to fight another day.”
Little Ongar squealed with excitement, and his mother hushed him.
Karl drained the dregs from his tankard and held it out for the wench to refill, again. “I slipped through a narrow doorway, certain a beast big as an ox wouldn’t be able to follow. But it was sinuous, as silent as an owl, and as fleet as a falcon. I never got more than a few feet away from the great hairy beast.”
He sighed and stared into his tankard, beery reflection gazing back at him. “I glanced back and saw its soulless eyes staring at me. Filled with hate they were, and numbered more than I could count.”
“Five, were there?” Geir asked.
A score of smiles and laughs met his jest.
Karl grinned, put down his drink and made a show of counting to six on his fingers. “There were six and more,” he said, smiling with his rapt audience before resuming his tale. “I swung my axe at it, more in desperation than anything else. It scuttled back, elusive as the wind beneath the Wolf Moon. Every time I attacked, it evaded; every time I took a step back, it was shadowing me. Truth be told, I thought it had my measure.”
He paused, and the wind outside howled a ghostly song, rattling the window shutters and sending a little flurry of snowflakes under the tavern’s door.
“I remember thinking, ‘If only I had my spear instead of my axe. Nothing’s faster than the flash of my spear, jabbing high and low.’ But my spear was with my horse, and the beast had me cornered. Needs must, so I grabbed a rock with one hand and hurled it with all my might!”
Little Ongar gasped, and so did his mother.
“The beast dodged right, but my axe swung left, and not even that slippery devil could escape the hot kiss of steel,” Karl said, beaming with the memory and taking a long swig of beer. “It hissed with rage, demon-blood pouring from the leg I’d severed, though it still had plenty more.”
“Did it flee?” Ingmar asked.
Karl grimaced. “I thought so, but it was more cunning than I’d guessed. The creature scuttled away, and I chased after it, full-blooded fool I am, thinking to bury my axe in its back. It turned around, quick as a whip, fangs lunging for me like a pair of spears.” He fingered a hole that had been ripped into his tunic. “Good job I’m a fat bugger, or that would’ve been it for me. The blow knocked me flat on my back. Pain beneath me, the monster above, my head ringing like a bell. I was certain I was done for.” He sipped some more beer and stared at the sea of faces. “But we all remember when Big Ongar got lost on the ice for a month. We all thought he was dead, but the lumbering bear turned up, demanding a drink. And when Geir got run through with a sword,” he added, nodding at his weather-worn friend, “we thought that was his end, but somehow he survived. And so, as it happens, did I.”
“Did you piss your breeches?” Little Ongar asked, earning him laughter from the men and a clip round the ear from his mother.
Karl laughed with them. “Of course not. I’ve a heart of steel and a bladder of stone. Though my wife may’ve done a spot of laundry, by chance.”
He finished off his beer, set down his tankard and clambered onto the table. Angsfarn glared up at him, then returned to eating nuts. A moment or two passed, and the mirth hushed to dead silence. Even Little Ongar was quiet.
“I swung my axe at the same moment the beast’s head darted down to deliver my deathblow. The steel met the monster so hard the axe’s handle snapped in my hand,” Karl said, soaking in the attention, and speaking slow to make it last. “Part of the creature’s head was cleaved clean off. Hot blood gushed onto my face and chest, but it wasn’t dead yet. Fangs sought my flesh and I struggled to keep its ungodly strength at bay, hands locked around its throat. But as the blood gushed its might ebbed and, at last, it died. Bloody thing collapsed on me. I nearly ended up starving to death it was so hard to free myself from its bulk. But I did, and I’m here. And that foul creature is dead and rotting.”
Little Ongar whooped, and the men thumped their tankards on tabletops in appreciation of the tale and the deed that had inspired it. Karl jumped off the table and occupied a chair close to the hearth, enjoying the murmured appreciation and a few pats on the back.
Right then the tavern door opened, letting in an icy gale and a shower of snow. A hooded figure hurried inside and slammed it shut. Asgerd removed her cloak and shook off the melting flakes.
“Any colder and the sea will freeze,” she grumbled, leaning close to Karl and giving him a peck on the cheek.
She pulled up a chair and settled in beside him. “Thanks for killing that spider, love.”