In gargantuan games full of quests and characters, it’s hard for any single moment to really stand out. Ubisoft has made a career out of this, with activity-dotted landscapes that lull you into a sort of dreamy adventure haze; when you come to, you know that something happened, but you’d be hard pressed to pick out particulars. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla contains at least one exception: A guy with an axe in his head.
Guy With An Axe In His Head, who the game pragmatically refers to as “Axehead,” is an early-game side-quest NPC who appears in the Grantebridgescire region of England. When I encountered him, he was sitting on a stump. There was an axe in his head. If you saw a person sitting on a stump with an axe sticking out of their head, you would talk to them. So I talked to him.
“Excuse me, I have a slight pain. Do you notice anything on my head? It’s an itch or a cut that simply won’t go away,” he said.
Eivor, ever nimble, danced around the elephant in the room. “It appears to be…a battle scar,” she replied.
“Ah, as I suspected. It must be from my most recent battle. You should see the other man. He got the worst of it,” Axehead, who, to be clear, had an axe in his head, replied without a hint of irony in his voice.
That is when I knew: This guy and I were going to be best friends — for however many minutes or seconds he had left.
Eventually, I did tell Axehead that there was an axe in his head. He didn’t even bat an eyelash, because he’s the realest motherfucker ever to walk this Earth.
“Ah, Valhalla, it is,” he said when I told him that I’d yank the axe out, but it would definitely kill him. “I appreciate your candid response. Now I prepare myself for the sights and sounds of the Corpse Hall.”
A prompt then appeared next to him. “Remove axe,” it read. But he continued chattering in his pleasant, resigned cadence. He told me there was a meadhall nearby, and we could go there, get blasted, and spin stories of our glory days. We did not go to a meadhall — we did not move from that spot — but he proceeded to launch into a story all the same. As he spoke, his speech and thoughts seemed to fragment.
“This one blustery battle-day, I was inside a shield wall…and my wife entered the shield wall…nude…and started singing,” he said. “O…We were so young…so very nimble in our minds and our ways.”
Weird story! And maybe also not a thing that actually happened? But it was a perfect way for Axehead, an unfalteringly normal-arse dude who briefly became a person of extreme interest because he took an axe to the head, to go out. Most of us will probably either say “Wha — [sound of getting crushed by a car/boulder/piano]” or something deeply embarrassing before we die. Axehead, real as it gets to the bitter end, did the latter and managed to toss in some unexpected profundity for good measure.
He and I both knew, in that moment, that it wasn’t going to get any better than that. I tore the axe out of his head.
“All your enemies have been slain,” said Eivor. “Now you rejoice.”
For a split second, Axehead, who no longer had an axe in his head, stared at the axe that had, for the time I knew him, formed the whole of his identity — and a sizable portion of his head. Then he slumped over.
And that was it. So concluded the saga of Axehead. His story was not one for the ages. It was refreshingly average, the tale of how somebody like me would probably die if I was suddenly thrust into a time of Vikings and wolves that just attack you on sight for no reason. The side-quest was an example of how effectively Assassin’s Creed has streamlined its approach to adventuring — how if you see a little green-hued dot on your overhead compass, you can be certain you’re in for something at least mildly interesting — but Axehead was just a guy, extraordinary in his ordinariness. Unlike all the other guys I’ve met in these games, I’ll actually remember him. He will stick out my memory, like an axe lodged in grey matter. RIP to a real one.
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