In The Blade Itself Joe Abercrombie has produced a remarkable work of fantasy, not the least accomplishment of which is the character of Logen Ninefingers and his murderous, berserker alter-ego, the Bloody-Nine, who is both the bane of Logen’s life—and yet often the only thing that keeps him alive.
I thought I would give you all a taste, since this is by far and away the best characterization of a berserker I’ve ever read. So, meet the Bloody-Nine:
Ferro crept off down the corridor, keeping low in the darkness. He could still hear the sounds, beneath them, beside them, all around them. They crept down a flight of stairs, out into a dim hallway panelled with dark wood. Ferro ducked from shadow to shadow, moving fast. Logen could do no more than limp after her, dragging his leg, trying not to squeal with pain whenever he put his weight on it.
“There! It’s them!” Figures in the dim corridor behind. He turned to run, but Ferro held her arm out. There were more, coming the other way. There was a big door on his left, standing open a crack.
“In here!” Logen shoved his way through and Ferro darted in after him. There was a heavy piece of furniture beside it, a big cupboard thing with shelves on top, covered in plates. Logen grabbed hold of one end and dragged it across in front of the doors, a couple of the plates dropping off and smashing on the floor. He pressed his back against it. That should hold them for a moment, at least.
A big room with a high vaulted ceiling. Two huge windows took up most of one wood-panelled wall, a big stone fireplace facing them. A long table stood between, ten chairs on either side, set for eating with cutlery and candlesticks. A big dining room, and there was only one way in. Or out.
Logen heard muffled shouting beyond the door. The big cupboard wobbled against his back. Another plate clattered from its shelf, bounced off his shoulder and smashed on the stone flags, scattering fragments across the floor.
“Nice fucking plan,” snarled Ferro. Logen’s feet slid as he strained to hold the teetering cupboard up. She dashed over to the nearest window, fumbled at the metal frames round the little panes, prising with her fingernails, but there was no way out.
Logen’s eye caught on something. An old greatsword, mounted over the fireplace as an ornament. A weapon. He gave the cupboard one last shove then hurried over to it, seized hold of the long hilt in both hands and ripped it from its bracket. It was blunt as a plough, the heavy blade spotted with rust, but still solid. A blow from it might not cut a man in half, but it would knock him down alright. He turned just in time to see the cupboard tipping over, dropping shattering crockery all over the stone floor.
Black figures spilled into the room, masked figures. The one at the front had an evil-looking axe, the next a short-bladed sword. The one behind him was dark-skinned, with gold rings through his ears. He had a long, curved dagger in either hand.
Those weapons were not for knocking a man on the head with, not unless they meant to knock his brains right out. Seemed that they’d given up on taking prisoners. Killing weapons, meant to kill. Well, so much the better, Logen told himself. If you say one thing for Logen Ninefingers, and one thing only, say he’s a killer. He eyed those black-masked men, clambering over the fallen cupboard, spreading out cautiously around the far wall. He glanced over at Ferro, lips curled back, knife in her hand, yellow eyes sparkling. He fingered the grip of his stolen sword—heavy and brutal. Just the tool for the job, for once.
He plunged at the nearest mask, yelling at the top of his voice, swinging the sword over his head. The man tried to duck away but the tip of the blade caught him on the shoulder and knocked him reeling. Another one jumped in behind him, chopping with his axe, sending Logen stumbling away, gasping as his weight went onto his bad ankle.
He flailed around with the big sword, but there were too many. One scrambled over the table, got between him and Ferro. Something hit him in the back and he stumbled, spun, slipped, lashed out with the sword and hit something soft. Somebody screamed, but by then the one with the axe was coming for him again. Everything was a mess of masks and iron, clashing, scraping weapons, curses and cries, ragged breathing.
Logen swung the sword but he was so tired, so hurt, so aching. The sword was heavy, and getting heavier all the time. The mask weaved out of the way and the rusty blade clanged into the wall, knocking a great chunk out of the wooden panelling and biting into the plaster behind, the shock nearly jarring it out of his hands.
“Ooof,” he breathed as the man kneed him in the stomach. Something hit him in the leg and he nearly fell. He could hear somebody yelling behind, but it seemed far away. His chest was hurting, his mouth was sour. There was blood on him. All over him. He could hardly breathe. The mask stepped forward, and again, smiling, smelling victory. Logen lurched back towards the fireplace, his foot slipping, falling down on one knee.
All things come to an end.
He couldn’t lift the old sword any more. There was no strength left. Nothing. The room was growing blurry.
All things come to an end, but some only lie still, forgotten…
There was a cold feeling in Logen’s stomach, a feeling he hadn’t felt for a long time. “No,” he whispered. “I’m free of you.” But it was too late. Too late…
…there was blood on him, but that was good. There was always blood. But he was kneeling, and that was wrong. The Bloody-Nine kneels to no man. His fingers sought out the cracks between the stones of the fireplace, prising between them like old tree roots, pulling him up. His leg hurt and he smiled. Pain was the fuel that made the fires burn. Something moved in front of him. Masked men. Enemies.
“You’re hurt, Northman!” The eyes of the closest one sparkled above his mask, the shining blade of his axe danced in the air. “Want to give up yet?”
“Hurt?” The Bloody-Nine threw back his head and laughed. “I’ll fucking show you hurt!” He tumbled forward, flowed beneath the axe, slippery as fishes in the river, swinging the heavy blade in a great low circle. It crunched into the man’s knee and cracked it back the wrong way, scythed on into his other leg and ripped it out from under him. He gave a muffled scream as he spun onto the stones, turning round and round in the air, shattered legs flopping.
Something dug into the Bloody-Nine’s back, but there was no pain. It was a sign. A message in a secret tongue, that only he could understand. It told him where the next dead man was standing. He reeled around and the sword followed him in a furious, beautiful, irresistible arc. It crunched into someone’s guts, folded him in half, snatched him off his feet and flung him through the air. He bounced from the wall beside the fireplace and crumpled on the floor in a shower of broken plaster.
A knife whirled, hissing, stuck deep into the Bloody-Nine’s shoulder with a damp thud. The black one, with the rings through his ears. He had thrown it. He was on the other side of the table, smiling, pleased with his throw. A terrible mistake. The Bloody-Nine came for him. Another knife flashed past, clattered against the wall. He sprang over the table and the sword followed behind.
The dark man dodged the first great swing, and the second. Fast and tricky clever, but not clever enough. The third blow bit him in the side. A glancing bite. Just a nibble. It only smashed his ribs and knocked him screaming to his knees. The last one was better, a circle of flesh and iron that carved into his mouth and ripped his head half off, showering blood across the walls. The Bloody-Nine plucked the knife from his shoulder and tossed it to the floor. Blood ran from the wound, soaked through his shirt and made a great, lovely, warm red stain.
He dropped and faded away, leaves falling from the tree, rolling across the ground. A man lunged past, slashing at the air where he had stood with a short-bladed sword. Before he could turn, the Bloody-Nine was on him, left hand snaking round his fists. He struggled and strained, but it was useless. The Bloody-Nine’s grip was strong as the roots of mountains, relentless as the tide. “They send such as you to fight me?” He flung the man back against the wall and squeezed, crushing his hands around the grip of his weapon, turning the short blade until it was pointing at his chest. “A fucking insult!” he roared, spitting him on his own sword.The man screamed, and screamed behind his mask, and the Bloody-Nine laughed, and twisted the blade.
Logen might have pitied him, but Logen was far away and the Bloody-Nine had no more pity in him than the winter. Less even. He stabbed, and cut, and cut, and smiled, and the screams bubbled and died, and he let the corpse drop to the cold stones. His fingers were slick with blood and he wiped it on his clothes, on his arms, on his face—just as it should be.
The one by the fireplace was sitting, hanging limp, head back, eyes like wet stones, staring at the ceiling. Part of the earth now. The Bloody-Nine smashed his face open with the sword just to make sure. Best to leave no doubts. The one who’d had the axe was crawling for the door, legs twisted out and dragging over the stones behind him, gasping and whimpering all the way.
“Quiet now.” The heavy blade crunched into the back of the man’s skull and sprayed his blood across the stones.
“More,” he whispered, and the room turned around him as he sought out the next kill. “More!” he bellowed, and he laughed, and the walls laughed, and the corpses laughed with him. “Where’s the rest of you?”
He saw a dark-skinned woman, with a bleeding cut on her face and a knife in her hand. She didn’t look like the others, but she would do just as well. He smiled, crept forward, raising the sword in both hands. She stepped away, watching him, keeping the table between them, hard yellow eyes like the wolf. A tiny voice seemed to tell him that she was on his side. Shame.
“Northerner, eh?” asked a massive shape in the doorway.
“Aye, who’s asking?”
He was big this one, very big, and tough, and savage. You could see it on him as he shoved the cupboard away with his huge boot and crunched forward through the broken plates. It meant less than nothing to the Bloody-Nine though—he was made to break such men. Tul Duru Thunderhead had been bigger. Rudd Threetrees had been tougher. Black Dow had been twice as savage. The Bloody-Nine had broken them, and plenty more besides. The bigger, the tougher, the more savage he was, so much the worse would be his breaking.
“Stone-Shitter?” laughed the Bloody-Nine. “So fuckin’ what? Next to die is what y’are, and nothing more!” He held his left hand up, spattered with red blood, three fingers spread out wide, grinning through the gap where the middle one used to be, a long time ago. “They call me the Bloody-Nine.”
“Dah!” The Stone-Splitter ripped off his mask and threw it on the floor.
“Liar! There’s plenty o’ men in the north have lost a finger. They ain’t all Ninefingers!”
“No. Only me.”
That great face twisted up with rage. “You fucking liar! You think to scare the Stone-Splitter with a name that’s not your own? I’ll carve a new arse in you, maggot! I’ll put the bloody cross on you! I’ll put you back in the mud you coward fucking liar!”
“Kill me?” The Bloody-Nine laughed louder than ever. “I do the killing, fool!”
The talk was done. Stone-Splitter came at him with axe in one hand and mace in the other, great heavy weapons, though he used them quick enough. The mace swung across, smashed a great hole through the glass in one of the windows. The axe came down, split one timber of the table in half, made the plates jump in the air, the candlesticks topple. The Bloody-Nine twitched away, frog hopping, waiting for his time.
The mace missed his shoulder by an inch as he rolled across the table, cracked one of the big flat stones on the floor, split it down the middle, chips flying through the air. Stone-Splitter roared, swinging his weapons, smashing a chair in half, knocking a chunk of stone out of the fireplace, chopping a great gash in the wall. His axe stuck fast in the wood for a moment and the Bloody-Nine’s sword flashed over, broke the haft into splintered halves, leaving the Stone-Splitter with a broken stick in his paw. He flung it away and hefted the mace, came on even harder, swinging it round with furious bellows.
It sailed over and the Bloody-Nine’s sword caught it just below the head, ripped it out of the big hand. It twisted through the air and clattered into the corner, but the Stone-Splitter pressed forward, spreading his great hands out wide. Too close to use the big sword now. Stone-Splitter smiled as his huge arms closed around the Bloody-Nine, folding him tight, holding him fast.“Got yer!” he shouted, squeezing him in a great hug.
An awful mistake. Better to embrace the burning fire.
The Bloody-Nine’s forehead smashed into his mouth. He felt the Stone-Splitter’s grip slacken a little and he wriggled his shoulders, making room, wriggling, wriggling, mole in his burrow. He swung his head back as far as it would go. Billy-goat charges. The second head-butt smashed the Stone-Splitter’s flat nose open. He grunted and the big arms released a little more. The third cracked his cheekbone. The arms fell away. The fourth broke his heavy jaw. Now it was the Bloody-Nine holding him up, smiling as he mashed his forehead into the shattered face. Woodpecker pecking, tap, tap, tap. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. There was a satisfying rhythm to the crunching of the face bones. Nine, and he let the Stone-Splitter fall. He sagged sideways and crumpled onto the floor, blood spilling from his ruined face.
“How’s that for yer?” laughed the Bloody-Nine, wiping blood out of his eyes and giving the Stone-Splitter’s lifeless body a couple of kicks. The room spun around him, swam around him, laughing, laughing. “How’s that… fuck…” He stumbled, blinked, sleepy, campfire guttering. “No… not yet…” He dropped to his knees. Not yet. There was more to do, always more. “Not yet,” he snarled, but his time was up…
…Logen screamed. He fell down. Pain, everywhere. His legs, his shoulder, his head. He wailed until the blood caught in his throat, then he coughed and gasped and rolled around, scrabbling at the floor. The world was a blurry smear. He gurgled up blood and drooled it out, long enough to start wailing again.