“I don’t know why I bother, Ungild. Talking to you is like talking to a stone!” Hilde blasted.
She brushed some dirt off her earth-colored wool dress and squatted near a crude stone hearth, warming a tin bowl of onions and lentils. The wood in the fire was green and kept hissing and spitting sparks, but it crackled its needed warmth into our small home.
“It isn’t going to work, dearest. I’m not a warrior. I can’t just mosey up to a bunch of big hairy men of a raiding party and whip out my dagger…not without getting properly throttled in the process. No, sailing across the sea to kill people isn’t going to work. I’m a fisherman, not a fighter.” I replied.
She flashed a murderous glare at me, causing me to soften my tone. “But…I will think of something.” I said, holding my hands up in front of me. Then I dropped my head to my chest, pushing my wiry beard into my face. I let my hand linger on the iron tip of my spear which I’d just finished sharpening.
Breathing in deep and letting out a long exhale, I spoke very slowly. “Hilde, if I gather a bunch of guys…like Birsk and Wigum, sail across the sea to take revenge, I will likely be killed in the process. I’m a fisherman for the love of God. I’m no swordsman. This spear is alien to me. When I hold it up, it feels all…wrong.” I shook my head again and looked at her, pleading with my eyes.
“Ungild, you are the man of this family…supposedly. Now is not the time to be fretting. Now is the time for righteous vengeance. What they did…it cannot stand. It cannot stand! It’s not allowable for me to go and avenge our village, otherwise I would. You must go. This discussion is over. If you don’t do the right thing, then I’ll find a man who will!” Hilde stood sharply, her unblinking eyes boring into my own. She continued, “I don’t care how that spear feels. I don’t care if you think it’s a bad idea. God wills it that you get revenge for what those heathen bastards have done to us. We don’t have any FOOD, Ungild. We have NOTHING! This lousy stew of onions and lentils…that’s the last of the food. What can we do? Beg? I will not suffer the indignity of begging. Besides, who is there to beg from? Huh? Everyone is out of food. Those raiding pirate bastards TOOK it ALL!”
Her face was red, and her teeth were clenched tight. She had her arms stiff at her side, and she’d moved right up to me.
“Oh…okay. Okay, dearest. I’ll get together a warband or something…a raiding party. And, we’ll use the fishing boat. It’s strong and seaworthy. We can carry a good bit of plunder aboard her.”
“Good, good. See…it wasn’t that hard, was it?” She turned and went back to her cooking.
Just then, Aelswitha, our daughter, came up and grasped my hand. The sudden coldness of her touch startled me.
“Hello sweetie. Where have you been?” I said, with a warm smile.
“I’ve been standing…just outside the door.” She looked at her feet when she spoke.
“You’ve been eavesdropping you little git. No supper for you!” Hilde snapped.
“But mama?” Aelswitha pleaded.
I put out my hand and comforted her quietly. “I’ll talk to mama for you, or…I’ll let you eat some of my supper.” I smiled.
She wrapped her arms around my waist and held me tight. I embraced her and kissed the top of her head. The scars on her scalp were clearly visible through her hair. She’d gotten them when she was four. They matched the scars she had on her armpits and inner thighs. They were from a pestilence which was visited upon us. I still hadn’t forgiven myself for letting her be so scarred. I know it was my sins that brought this curse on her.
Presently, she looked up at me and pushed my beard aside to see my face clearly. “Papa, are you going to go get those bad men who raided us?”
I stiffened, and I saw Hilde looking at me intently, from the corner of my eye.
“Y..yes. Yes I am. I’ll make sure they never come back. I must make some arrangements, but we can talk after that.” I kneeled to face her directly. “Oh, I love you sweetie. My dear little Aelswitha.” We hugged again, and I sent her off to resume her chores.
I wore a face of deep sorrow, and…something else.
“Dearest, I’m going over to Birsk’s cottage, to discuss a plan. I’ll be back soon. Can I get you anything while I’m out?”
“Yes, get back our food, you dim-wit.” She didn’t even look towards me when she spoke.
I grabbed my spear, pushed the leather door aside, and walked out of our small home. I turned briefly to look at it. The dark brown thatched roof was neat, and the wattle and daub walls were smooth and dry. Two of my fishing baskets in need of repair were stacked against the rear wall, and Aelswitha was just now going to collect water for Hilde. I was greeted by a clear azure sky, with birds flying in every direction. The ocean waves were gently breaking on the gravel beach, and a cool breeze played with the orange hair on my beard. The smell of salt and seaweed filled my nostrils, and the sound of chopping wood filled my ears. I turned and started towards Birsk’s home. His was some distance from mine, just inside the tree line. Along the way, a small man, dressed in a dark green tunic with a wide leather belt came out of his hut and greeted me.
“Good morning Ungild. I heard Hilde tuning you up earlier. Gonna be a good day?” He said with a mocking smile.
“Good morning to you too, Wigum. Yes, Hilde is…upset with me. She…she…” I sighed. “We have differing ideas on what to do right now.” I stuttered, but kept walking. The air was cold, so I wrapped my wool tunic around me more tightly.
“Well, I think we should load up your boat and go get those heathens…and teach them a lesson.”
I looked at him intently. “You must have been listening, because that is what I intend to do.” I said, trying to sound determined.
“Really!? Then, I’m going with you.” He picked up his step.
“Are you sure? I was thinking about going by myself.”
“What? By YOURSELF? How would you even DO that? Do you want to die?”
“No, it’s not that. I just thought that maybe I could sneak into a village better by myself, you know, one person…instead of an entire noisy raiding party.”
We passed by a few fresh mounds of dirt, with crude wooden crosses on them as we were nearing the tree line, and the scent of fir and pine welcomed us. I could hear chopping wood clearly through the trees. I stopped and turned to look back at the village and the sea. Just then, Hilde’s gravelly voice broke through the serene quiet. She was admonishing Aelswitha for something…probably undeservedly. I sighed again, and thought of my precious little girl. She was so innocent, such a blessing to have in my life. Sometimes it seemed weird that she was birthed from the woman with that voice and temperament. Wigum raised his eyebrows and glanced at me sideways.
“Do…you…want to head back there? See if you can help her with anything?” He said.
“No…no I don’t. I’m going to see Birsk. You want to come with me?” I turned and kept walking.
Wigum followed. “I figured that’s where you were headed. Is it about assembling a raiding party?” He beamed.
He nodded and said, “I’ve been practicing lately with this new yew bow.” He held out a beautiful piece of gently bent dark wood. “I shot a bird out of the sky yesterday.”
“No, you didn’t.” I said.
“Ok, well, I didn’t do that…no. But…but, I DID kill a large squirrel with it. Ate it last night. I can prove it. I can show you my–”
“Please don’t!” I stopped abruptly and faced him. “I just don’t know about you sometimes, Wigum. I think the plague messed with your brain more than you’ll admit.”
He just smiled, and we both continued walking. The pine trees were immensely tall, and the forest was thick with them. Birsk’s hut was just a few paces inside the edge of the forest, and it was belching dark smoke from its chimney. I could see Birsk himself further in the woods, swinging his axe. A sharp gust of wind rustled pine needles on the forest floor. We paused at Birsk’s hut, as his large, wet, and stinking dog, Grol, walked out from behind it and deposited himself in the doorway. Wigum and I quietly observed as Grol placed his head between his legs and began licking himself. For some reason, the size of Grol’s genitals made both Wigum and I uncomfortable and we began looking around for something else to talk about. Birsk was still chopping away, and we returned our gaze to the dog…who was now clearly using his long tongue to clean his anus.
“Ungild, do you ever wonder, maybe if…”
We sighed in unison. A moment later, the chopping ceased, and Birsk shouldered his large iron axe, wrapped his immense arm around the trunk of a tree he’d felled minutes ago, and started trudging towards us.
“Birsk, do you need some help with that?” Wigum bellowed in jest.
He said nothing. He simply kept walking…dragging a tree with him. When he was a few paces away, he let it fall with a great “thud”.
“A fine morning to you both.” Birsk boomed in his deep voice. Grol got to his feet and pawed at his owner.
“Hey boy. How are you doing?” Birsk said, playfully, as he knelt in front of Grol…who began aggressively licking Birsk’s face and mouth. Wigum and I exchanged smirking glances.
Wigum jerked his head towards me. “Ungild has a proposition for you, Birsk.”
They both turned to me. “Let’s discuss this a bit more discretely. Birsk, may we speak in your hut?”
I gestured towards his small home. Birsk nodded, and all three of us entered. Inside, there was a large bed of hot coals inside a ring of gray stones. The acrid smoke escaped through small gaps in the thatched roof. Birsk motioned for Wigum and I to sit, and he seated himself on a large wooden block.
“Birsk, I’m thinking of assembling a raiding party…to go across the sea and visit some revenge on those heathens who took all our food.”
Birsk pursed his lips and shrugged a little. “You want my help? My axe?”
“I do. Are you amenable?”
He exhaled heavily. “I can be. Who’s gonna lead us? You?”
I was taken slightly aback. “I…don’t think we NEED a leader. Especially if there is only a few of us. I’m just assembling a…”
Birsk shook his head, “No, no, Ungild. We would need a leader. That’s the most important part.”
“More important than a boat?” Wigum goaded Birsk, but Birsk only rolled his eyes.
“Would you be our leader, Birsk?” I asked, timidly.
He eyed me suspiciously. “Ungild, our village has been raided four times in the ten years I’ve lived here. Had it been otherwise, we would be a thriving community. I hate those men just as much as you do. I will cross the sea with you, and I will visit my vengeance upon them with you, but I will not lead. No, it is YOU who must lead.” He placed an enormous calloused hand on my shoulder and gripped it firmly. Then he continued, “This is a holy cause. We must fight the heathens on their own land. I will lend my axe and my strength to your will, and you will lead.” He nodded warmly and leaned back.
We all sat in silence while Birsk tossed another stick of wood on the fire. A small burst of smoke issued from the flames, snapping us all out of the momentary trance.
“Very well then, Birsk. My boat will hold at least ten men and their weapons, along with the supplies we’ll need to make the crossing. I guess I’ll take this spear.” I moved it in front of me, and stared at it.
“Ungild, like I already told you, I’m in too.”
“Thank you Wigum.” I turned back towards Birsk. “We leave in the morning?” I raised my eyebrows.
Birsk nodded. “We must prepare. Your boat only has oars for one man. I will use that timber outside to make more.”
We all rose, and Birsk bowed to Wigum and I as we left his warm hut. The wind had subsided in the time we were in the hut, and it was warmer outside now. It made the smell of the salty sea even stronger.
“Wigum, we’ll need more men.” I tried to sound bold. “Will you come with me to raise more?”
The two of us made our way slowly to every home in the community. At each one, we raised more men. Some agreed with ease, some took more persuasion. Being a salesman was easy. I did it all the time with my fish. But leading men…leading men terrified me. By midday we had the word of ten men. They were to spend the remainder of the day preparing. In the morning, we would push my fishing boat into the sea and set sail for our holy raid.
“Would you like to come in for a bit?” I asked Wigum when we reached my home.
“No, I think I’ll pass. Give my best to Hilde.” He said with a grimace.
I pleaded him with my eyes, but to no avail. I entered my home solo, and was greeted by the smell of an onion stew. There was a hint of earthy sourness to the aroma, and I held my nose higher to test it.
“What? Does it not smell good enough for you?” A rough voice chided me from a dark corner of the room.
“No, dearest, it smells wonderful. What is it?”
“Lentils and onions weren’t enough alone. I had to add seaweed to make it enough to eat.”
I saw Aelswitha behind Hilde, peeking out from behind a swinging divider made of woven reeds. She smiled at me blissfully.
“I thought Aelswitha was going hungry today. There should be enough stew for you and me, right?” I said, sarcastically. I saw Aelswitha’s eyes flare open in shock when I said it.
Hilde’s incredulity was palpable. “Right! It doesn’t matter what I do with her supper, you’ll just give her some of your portion anyway. Won’t you?”
I pursed my lips and shrugged. “Probably.” I winked at my small daughter in her hiding spot.
“Aelswitha. AELSWITHA get in here!”
“Yes mum.” She said meekly as she stumbled awkwardly out of her hiding spot.
“Your father’s going to give you supper anyway, so…here, take this.” Using an iron ladle, Hilde placed a small portion of green stew into a shallow wooden bowl. Then she thrust it into the little girls’ waiting hands and pushed her aside. After handing another bowl with a similar-sized portion to me, Hilde continued. “So, what plan did you come up with dearest?” She said in a clearly mocking tone.
“Wigum, Birsk, and myself, along with seven other men are taking the boat across the sea in the morning. We’re going to raid the heathens.” I said it with an air of grandiloquence.
“Well, I say, I’m surprised.” For a moment, she almost seemed pleasant. “I’ll believe it when I see it.” She snapped. “Now, I’m going into the woods to handle my dirty business. Child…” She glared at Aelswitha. “You’d better have supper cleaned up before I get back, and it is high time we checked on your progress mending those fish traps outside.”
Hilde roughly tossed the remnants of her stew into the fire, and the hot coals hissed in reply. Then she simply dropped the bowl on the dirt floor and walked out of the hut. Aelswitha and I both breathed a sigh of relief.
“How is she my mother?” Aelswitha implored of me.
“Sweetie, you are beautiful, just like her. You share the same features. It’s clear that you are her daughter.”
“Yes papa, but I don’t act like that, do I? Is that how I’m SUPPOSED to act?”
“Your mum is dealing with a lot of stress right now. We don’t have any food. It’s late summer, and, even though I could catch fish to feed us, those fish will be gone in a month, not to return until spring. What are we to do then?”
“But none of the other mothers in the village act like her.”
I slurped the last of my seaweed stew, picked up Hilde’s bowl and carefully placed hers and mine into the wash bucket. I moved my sitting stone closer to Aeslwitha and said, “She is the most beautiful woman in town, isn’t she?”
“Yes, but only on the outside.” She said with a huff, and crossed her arms.
“Sweetie, hurry up and get started with your duties. We wouldn’t want mum to be any more upset than she is already. I have to pack a few things in the boat and get it ready for the morning.”
I looked at her with a warm calm face. Her bottom lip quivered.
“How long are you going to be gone? How long am I going to be stuck here, alone…with her?” Her eyes were misting with tears.
I stared at her, then pulled her into my arms. I just held her, gently rocking from side to side.
“My daughter, I love you. When I get back, I’ll show you that it was worth the wait. Your mum will keep you safe while I’m gone. Do you understand?”
She said nothing, only nodding in my chest while making sniffling sounds. Again, I looked upon the scarring so clearly visible through her red hair.
The next morning, I was awake before sunrise. The wind whipped the leather door flap of our hut all night. I went to the boat, loaded my spear and a few items of clothing, wrapped in a leather satchel. Birsk was already there, bare chested, but with a wide leather strap fastened across his chest. From it, depended a loop, to which he fastened his axe on his back, and a few small tools on his side. Wigum soon walked to the boat, carrying his bow, a quiver, and a leather bundle.
“Wigum, are you sure you want to wear that brown monk garment?” Birsk asked.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Heathens might not show you much kindness.” Birsk added.
I asked, “Why do you still have that?”
“When I left the monastery, I did so in a slight rush.” He said with a look of fondness on his face, then he continued. “None of them felt the need to understand the joys of ale or the pleasures of the female form quite as much as I wanted to.”
“They kicked you out for drinking too much?” Birsk asked, a little shocked.
“I know…ironic, isn’t it?”
The other men weren’t far behind, and less than an hour after sunrise, we were ready. The entire village was there to see us off. Men kissed their wives and children. They pet their wet and stinking dogs.
“Who will take care of Grol?” Wigum asked.
“He will be fine for a few days…probably for weeks. He’s resourceful.” Birsk answered.
Some of the women gave their men necklaces or other talismans. Hilde and I hugged, warmly for a change. Then she pulled my face in and kissed me. I was not a little startled.
“What, am I not allowed to kiss you any longer?” She accused me.
“I’m…I’m just surprised, that’s all.”
She instantly became smug, “Well, I just want to remind everyone here that you are MY man.”
A sense of pride welled up inside me. I felt my soul leaping for joy, having finally received a hint of the respect I deserved.
Hilde continued, “Besides, with your strength and skill with that spear, I don’t expect you to make it back alive, and I will ensure that your inheritance falls to me, not one of these filthy maggots who live nearby.” She snarled.
I tried to hide my emotions by quickly kneeling to face Aelswitha. For the moment, everything Hilde had just said vanished into the deep needing eyes of my dear daughter. She was so fragile, yet strong at the same time. I wanted to stay…to protect her from Hilde, but I couldn’t.
“I’ll be back soon.” I said with a shaking voice.
“I love you papa.” She wailed and wrapped her arms around my neck. I held her tight in response.
We were the last to embrace. Then, ten newly-minted sea raiders set sail.
The first day of the crossing was uneventful. That was a blessing in and of itself. We talked. We discussed raiding and battle tactics. None of us had any shields. Birsk, of course, had his great axe. Wigum used a bow. I had a spear, along with four of the others. The last three men used assorted farming implements.
The air was salty, and the sea spray frequently blasted us over the sides of the boat. As for the boat itself, it was about eight paces long, and three paces wide…larger than most fishing boats. It was made of oak, and I’d inherited it from my father before me. He and my grandfather made it many years ago…before the raids. It was a miracle it hadn’t been destroyed in one of them. As fate would have it, I was at sea, a long distance along the shore when they came. I was fishing. I wasn’t even there when the village was raided. Hilde bitterly hated me for it. The one raid when I was there, they tried to burn my boat. They left before there was any actual fighting though, and I was just able to put out the flames before the boat was seriously damaged. It still bore the blackened scar near the steering board. One time, the heathen raiders ran onto one of the large rocks just offshore. They were clearly visible at low tide, but invisible at all other times. Lucky for them, they came it two boats and were just able to get all their men onto their remaining one before everyone drowned.
I was lost in thought, looking at the vast expanse of the sea when Wigum interrupted my daydream. “Ungild, have you ever sailed this boat overnight?”
“What do you mean? Are you asking if it will still float once the sun is gone?”
He made a stupid face. “Uhhh…no. I mean, do you know how to keep us sailing in the right direction once the sun is gone?”
“Hmmm. No. I haven’t had it out overnight. But, I imaging we just look where the bow is pointed when the sun sets, and whatever stars are there, we just keep pointed at them.” I said, flippantly.
Birsk added, “Yeah, but the stars move during the night.”
“It’ll be ok. I’ll get us there. I think.” I said, timidly.
Birsk gave me an ill look.
As evening approached, Wigum took out a small cask of ale he’d stowed onboard, and began passing it around. I took a few sips each time it came by. However, again, Birsk gave me a piercing glare when I did. I did my best to remember the stars on the horizon in front of the boat, once the sky was black. All I could do was pray now.
Once all the men were sleeping, I settled into my comfortable spot at the rear of the boat and leaned on the steering board. I let out a loud breath when I did, which seemed to garner Birsk’s attention. He was at the front of the boat, but he made his way, with difficulty, to me at the back. Once there, he carefully seated himself and faced me.
“Ungild, we have to talk.” He said, seriously.
“What is it?”
“You are the leader now. You have to act like it.”
“I am…I think.”
“No, not even close.” He said, shaking his head.
“But, what do you mean. I assembled the crew, I have been telling everyone what to do. I’m clearly the leader.”
“Well…you are clearly in charge, but you are not acting like a leader. What is our goal? Do you have an overall plan? Do you have a contingency plan, for when things go wrong? Have you established a chain of command, for if you die?”
My eyes were wide open. “I guess our goal is to punish the heathens that raided us.”
Birsk nodded his head. “Okay, but I think you need more details than that. Also, you cannot admit to the men that you don’t know what to do. It doesn’t matter if you do or don’t know what to do. In front of the men, you ALWAYS know what to do, even if you must fake it. Is that clear?”
“Yes. I see.” I adjusted my position, uncomfortable with the discussion.
“One more thing: you cannot get drunk with the men. Ever.” Again, Birsk’s gaze was intense.
“Oh…okay. Why?” I asked, almost wishing I hadn’t.
“It’s one thing to enjoy the base things of others if you want their approval and adoration…or if you simply want them to like you. But you are the leader. You should not give a damn about any of that. You need them to respect you…not because you are a tyrant, but because you make the most sacrifices. The best leaders always make the most sacrifices.”
I sat in silence for a few moments, pondering his words.
“Having said this, who is staying up to watch over the boat and the stars? Are you staying up all night?”
“Um, no. I hadn’t planned on it.”
“Well, what then? Were you planning to sleep as well? How far do you think we would go off course if we all slept while the boat steered itself? A leader asks for help when he needs it. A leader plans for such things.”
I made a barely-audible whimpering noise.
Birsk continued, “I will go to sleep now. You may wake me once you become tired. Goodnight, Lord Ungild.” He said with a smile, then worked his way back to the front of the boat.
After a few rotations of steering duty, we made it to the morning, without capsizing or running aground. The sky was alive with a vivid display of orange and crimson clouds of blazing intensity. There was a small flock of seagulls flying overhead, and they gracefully flapped their wings and passed by us. Everyone on board immediately made wide-eyed faces at each other.
At once, we all took up our newly fashioned oars, inserted them into the recently-cut oar locks, and began to heave in rhythm. Within minutes, a dark shoreline just crested the horizon.
“Heave! Heave!” I shouted, leaning firmly on the steering board. The wind was pushing us forward too, and my tightly woven sail was billowed out to its fullest. I felt my heart pounding in my ears, and I began to salivate involuntarily. There was something inside of me, transforming.
“Look!” A man in the front of the boat shouted, pointing a finger ahead of us.
Would you believe it! There was a small village, dead ahead. The tell-tale shapes of huts were now clearly visible. I stood to get a better look.
“I see a village, but no people.” I said, hushed. Just then two oars collided with a loud ‘clap’. “Keep it quiet everyone. Row carefully.” I hissed.
We crept closer. Little by little, the gray and brown village came into sharp view, but still, we saw nobody.
“I don’t like this.” I said.
Birsk looked at me and nodded. We slowed our pace and took down the mast. We rowed into a small inlet in the coastline. The shallow gravel beach soon greeted the oaken hull of our vessel and several men leapt over the side and into the water, as if they were dismounting a horse. Woven guy lines came flying out of the boat, and the remainder of us heaved with our oars from the rear of the boat. Birsk fastened his rope to a rotten tree stump, partially submerged in mud.
“Everyone, be very quiet. Stick together.” I cautioned, as we all formed a loose mob and stealthily crept onto dry land. “Ready your weapons.” I whispered. We went amongst the huts and checked each one in turn. There was nobody, no animals, no food, nothing. Of the six huts in the village, five of them were covered in moss and vines…slowly decomposing and returning to the Earth. One of them was partially burned, with a large bird nest inside the remaining portion. The whole scene stunk of mold and water-logged wood, with an earthy, yet sweet, taste in the air.
“Ungild, look there.” One of the men pointed inland. There was another hut, slightly larger than any of these, but possessing a stone base.
Again, we raised our weapons and made a quiet approach. We encircled the hut, and Birsk kicked in the door. But it was so rotten, that his foot simply went through it. When he tried to pull it out, the entire door came free, and he busied himself with carefully detaching it from his thigh. Wigum and I slowly went inside.
“What is this place?” I asked. “A noble’s hut?”
“No.” Wigum replied. “It’s a church.”
“What? That’s not possible.” I retorted, as Birsk made his way inside. I ordered the men outside to search the village again, setting two men as pickets.
“Ungild, I’m telling you, this is a church…or, at least it WAS a church.”
“How can you tell?” Birsk asked.
Wigum walked behind a low wooden wall and looked down. “Because of this.” He said, somberly.
Behind the wall were the long dead remains of a person. They’d been wearing a brown woolen cloak.
“That proves nothing. I mean…you’re wearing a brown cloak too. And you aren’t a monk or a priest.”
“Yes, but look at this.” Wigum motioned towards a tan object on a small stand. It was a book. The quill and inkwell were long gone, but the words on the book were crisp.
Birsk and I looked at Wigum excitedly. He paused and gazed at it. “Well? What does it say?” I chided him.
“It says this.”
It scourged the people and ravaged the lands. Blood and health were no protection. Wife buried husband. Child buried mother. Sister buried brother, and so they died. In the passage of one moon, the entire village was gone. The vinegar stench of the wretched corpses lured flocks of ravens and wild dogs and wolves. They tore at the putrid green flesh of the dead day and night. Only I, Churdich, remain among the living, but for how long?
I believe I now have the first signs of the disease in my own body. Fever. An itchy rash around my eyes. And today, a constant sense of vertigo. It is in God’s hands now.
God. GOD. I BEG you. Deliver me. Release me. I am in agony! The skin around my eyes is raw and bloody from my constant scratching. I cannot eat, I cannot drink, and I cannot sleep. Please, send your angel of death, with haste.
Wigum paused and looked up at us, but keeping his finger on the page.
“Then, in crude handwriting, it continues with one last entry”
To spare me from the itching, I’ve torn my eyes from their sockets and permanently blinded myself. But, to no avail…the itching continues. God, take me.
“Holy God.” I gasped. “Is this place cursed?”
We looked at each other’s faces in wild amazement. Wigum bent down and retrieved an inkwell and quill, partially hidden beneath some debris, then placed them on the pedestal. He looked at me, nervously. The ink was barely useable, but Wigum dipped the quill and wrote, speaking aloud as he did. “Friar Churdich also died of the pestilence, but he foiled oblivion.”
He then placed the book in his empty satchel and we vacated the church. We spent the rest of the day digging through the remains of the village. Once we began, we found the remains of twenty people. They were nothing but bones now…some of them scattered by the wild animals. Earlier, we hadn’t looked so closely, and therefore missed their presence. There a few valuable items amongst the huts, but most had already been stolen before we got there. After we ate, we sent out small search parties, but they returned empty-handed as well. Birsk and I retrieved some fish from the boat, which we’d caught the day before. He then roasted them on a fire we made from wood and straw wreckage around the village. Wigum took a small flute from the folds of his cloak and amused us with some light-hearted music. We needed it. This place was hexed. When nightfall came, I welcomed sleep.
In near silence, we boarded our boat and left that desolate village, glad to have the morning sun on our faces and the wind at our backs. I steered the boat out to sea for nearly half an hour, then turned back parallel with the coast. We kept this heading until the sun was directly overhead. After which, I turned us towards the coast again, and, in less than ten minutes, we were within sight of another rocky beach. This time, however, there were several plumes of gray smoke silently rising from the wooden huts in a village, much larger than the one we just left.
“Twenty? Twenty-five?” Birsk asked me.
“About that.” I replied.
Then I ordered the mast taken down again. We were almost close enough to see people in the village when I heard a woman’s scream echoing across the open water. It was a shriek of terror, and it was followed by a cacophony of more screaming. Emotions began welling up in my mind. Something deep inside me snapped, and a fluid much like bile began to fill my mouth. I swallowed it down with a forced gulp. Wigum and I made eye contact very briefly. He wore a look of dire seriousness.
I stood and raised my spear overhead. “Gentlemen, this is it. You hear that screaming? They know we’re coming…and they’re scared out of their minds!”
“Hoorah!” My crew replied.
“Remember the plan. We make land, form a wall, and we drive them out of their homes. Nobody gets split off. Stick with your war buddy. When in doubt, kill it. We take food, metals, and anything else of value. Are you READY?!” I shouted as if I’d been their champion all my life.
“Yeah!” They again replied.
As we approached the shore, we saw women and children fleeing into the forest beyond. They were each carrying a small load…anything they could save. The boat swiftly, yet gently, glided onto the ground in the shallow water. I threw myself overboard and landed in knee-deep sea water with a splash. A couple of the others fell out of the boat more than they jumped.
“A line…a wall. Form a wall!” I barked as we huddled together and presented a solid line of sharp objects. “Let’s go. Forward!”
With caution, we moved forward at a pace just slower than walking. The village was still fifty paces away, and we could see it was already vacant. We didn’t even see people fleeing anymore. They’d passed out of vision too.
“Ungild, we may want to hurry this up.” Birsk counseled me.
I simply nodded in his direction. “Ok, break off in pairs. Stick relatively close to the main group. Get what you can carry, and load it on the boat. Birsk and I will remain ready to fight. Let’s go!”
With that, we swiftly moved into and amongst the small thatched huts of the village. It was a rich plunder. I saw men carrying sacks of oats and grains, woven baskets full of nuts, barrels of mead and ale, assortments of cloth, some fine tools, several metal cooking implements, an ivory comb, a leather bag full of amber, some furniture, and several shields. The men made some three or four trips to the boat, carrying armloads of loot as they went. Birsk and I were wary of the surroundings, keeping one eye on the forest at all times. The men were just finishing the job when we heard an eerie horn blast echoing across the shoreline. We all froze. A few seconds later, the second blast wrenched us from our collective trance and I began bellowing orders.
“To the boat! MOVE!”
Wigum came to me amongst the rush of men in flight. “Ungild, I think there is some more ale in the far hut. We should get it before we leave.”
“Wigum! No. Get your drunk arse on the boat!” He only looked dejected for a moment, the next moment he was pointing over my shoulder towards the sea…his eyes as big as a bull’s.
“God in Heaven! RUN!” I gasped. Then, Wigum and I sprinted towards the boat, bringing up the rear. Birsk was already heaving the boat into the water, while the men on board were situating the oars. One of them pointed his farm implement towards the forest and shouted, “Lord Ungild, behold!”
I only glanced for a moment, it was more than enough. There were at least two dozen men with swords charging headlong towards us. The ground thundered with the sound of their foot falls, and the air rang out with the sound of their cries.
“Wigum, get on board and get your bow ready. Don’t stop for anything, not even me.” I ordered in between panted breaths.
The men from the forest were closing fast, too fast.
“Birsk! Birsk! Look out! Look out behind you!” I yelped. They were close now…their heavily bearded faces, leather clothing, their spears and swords, and their deafening shouts of anger. Wigum splashed into the water and launched himself over the side of the boat headlong. Once onboard, he nocked an arrow and let it loose towards the stampeding men. The lead man was almost to Birsk now, but Birsk wasn’t watching. He was only heaving the boat as the others of our crew pulled the oars…desperate to get to sea. I smelled the salt and the earthy seaweed as water scattered around me in my desperate sprint toward Birsk. I had my spear and I had a large round shield I’d just taken from one of the noticeably well-adorned huts. The wood was arranged in small thick planks, and it had an iron boss and an iron rim at its edge. The inside was covered in soft leather, and it was remarkably lightweight. It weighed as much as an ox as I saw my enemy reaching out to Birsk before I could get there.
I pulled up short, about ten paces away, rotated my spear overhand, and let it fly, emitting a loud grunt as I did. The spear flew true, and its iron tip pierced the neck of the lead man, from thence, it kept going until it had skewered him entirely. He collapsed to his knees and fell face-first into the calm shallows. The water surrounding the body immediately became a murky red. My spear had saved my friend, but there was no time to retrieve it from the man’s neck. As the other heathen men stood in shock for a heartbeat, I dashed towards the boat. Birsk hauled himself onboard using one of the guy ropes. The water was up to my knees again. One of my crew tossed me a rope, and just as I was reaching for it, my feet became ensnared in a net of seaweed beneath the waves. My legs stopped moving forward, but my torso kept going…right into the drink. As the water engulfed me, I heard, or rather felt, another spear slicing into the water just above me. I tugged at the seaweed, but it was already too tight. I didn’t get a good breath before I went underwater either, and I felt a familiar panic inching its way into my thoughts.
As a fisherman, I’d survived many near-drowning experiences, so I’d learned how to remain calm in such situations. I felt around the ocean floor for something with which to cut the seaweed when my hand found the iron sword of the man I’d just killed. I quickly found its hilt, thrust it between my legs, and sliced the seaweed. Before I emerged from the water, I saw numerous feet walking into the sea, but they were too late. I grasped the end of the rope tightly, and my men pulled me to the boat as others heaved the oars. Wigum stood at the prow with his bow, challenging anyone who dared make a move towards me.
Five pulls on the oaken oars, and we were safe beyond their reach. I got to my feet and stood at the prow, soaking wet, with a fine shield in one hand, and an iron sword in the other. I felt our progress slow, and I turned to look at the men.
“What are you doing?” I asked them…clearly incredulous and irritated. I didn’t wait for an answer, I pointed towards the open sea with the sword. All the crew craned their necks to see the two long ships, quickly moving towards us. We were trapped.
Each of the long ships was crewed by at least thirty men. Several of them had bows and were training them on us right now. They were only a dozen oar pulls away. All my men looked at me, desperate. I started to make an excuse or something, but then Birsk caught my eye, and I remembered what he’d told me yesterday.
“If you want to live, you have to pull on those oars like a pack of mules…not men. Wigum, be ready with arrows.” All the crew was ready, some nearly holding their breath.
“Ready…Heave.” I ordered, just loud enough for them to hear me. As they did, I sharply steered the boat in a course parallel to the coast, heading away from the two long ships.
“Heave. Heave. Heave. Heave.” I droned. They’d taken the initial bate, and suspected we were about so surrender.
“Wigum, fire an arrow, make them keep their heads down.” He did so, and the men of one long boat noticeably slowed their pace, but the other was gaining. Wigum fired more arrows, but couldn’t hit the lead boat. “Wigum, that’s enough.” I ordered.
I slowly changed our course and angled us towards the open sea, and the lead boat followed. The other boat had seemingly lost interest, and they turned around. Soon, they’d pass out of vision, along with the entire coast line.
“Ungild, how close are they?” Birsk asked me.
“Not far enough. I think they’re still gaining on us, slowly.”
For hours, we rowed, regularly switching out as men got tired. My arms ached, my shoulders and back ached along with them. Wigum fired all but his last three arrows, but to no avail. The men on the long boat were relentless. They were not men at all, but machines…beasts from another world. How could they move that ship so fast? I’d given up caring where the hell we were any more. I just wanted to get us away from those men on the long boat. We rowed, and we rowed. Soon, the hot sun was beating us into the planks of the boat. Our strength was waning, but the long boat kept coming, kept gaining.
At length, my men gave up. Birsk and Wigum kept rowing, but the others were simply going through the motions. They’d resigned themselves, accepted the fate which was headed their way. They all knew they’d be greeting death very soon. The long boat came along side us, and I looked at the eager, hungry, and exhausted faces of their crew. They were just as spent as we were. Past their boat, I saw dark billowing gray clouds gathering on the distant horizon. I felt the temperature change and I wiped sweat and salt from my face.
“Do not despair. God is with us…or rather, we are with God.” I reminded them. “Stop rowing, save your strength. Drink some water, and eat…but do it quickly.” I turned back towards the long boat. Their chieftain, or captain…whatever he called himself, was standing with one leg on the rim of the boat. He shouted something, but I didn’t understand it.
“He asked if we surrender.” Wigum said.
I looked at Wigum in surprise, but then continued. “I kind of figured that was coming eventually.” I joked.
The chieftain kept talking, and Wigam translated, crudely. The entire time, they got closer to our boat. My crew was resting, albeit grudgingly at times. I looked at their faces and saw the fear and apprehension. I had to focus and force myself to avoid making similar faces.
“He says he’ll give you one chance to save the crew: fight him on the planks.” Wigum said, with an inquisitive look.
“What are the planks?” We both asked in unison.
“We lay a plank across the gap between the two boats, over the water. Then, you stand on it and fight each other.” Birsk answered.
All the men looked at me with redoubled fear, as I redoubled my effort to avoid making the same. “Eat, all of you. And rest your arms. You’ll need your strength very soon.” I tried to comfort them.
“Wigum, tell him that I accept his offer, and I will fight him on the planks.”
He looked completely astonished, mixed with deep pity. “Ok. Hilde isn’t going to like this.”
I chuckled…I needed that.
Birsk made his way to me, put his ogre hand on my shoulder, and turned me aside to speak privately. “Ungild, I know I said a lot about you being the leader and making sacrifices and all that…well, this isn’t exactly what I meant. Let me fight him. I know I can beat him. You shouldn’t waste your life for this. Let me do it, and we can save the entire crew.”
“Birsk, thank you for the offer, but you are supposed to be resting and regaining your strength. I am the leader. I will fight him. If I die, you are in charge.” I said aloud, but then pulled him in close. “At my signal, row as if your life depended on it…because it will.”
I pulled back and we observed each other briefly. We allowed the heathens to do most of the maneuvering and jockeying of their boat into positon. Once the gap between our two vessels was a mere two paces, they produced a worn pine plank, no wider than a man’s thigh, but thick enough to support two men. The chieftain carefully mounted the plank, tested his balance, and took a step along the board over open air and water. He had removed his tunic and word only a pair of leather breeches. He had no helmet, neither did he have a shield. His bare chest was like the trunk of a great oak tree, and his arms were coated in mats of blonde hair. He held a short sword in one hand, and he continued to eye me suspiciously. I touched the rim of my new shield, and drew the iron sword, holding it high overhead. My crew raised a war cry in response. At once, both crews were bellowing caracals and hurling insults. Most likely, none of them were being understood, but the body language was clear.
The chieftain thumped his chest with his free hand and shouted a name at me, “EINAR.” I put a foot on the plank and mounted it. To be perfectly honest, a lifetime of being a fisherman had made balancing acts a thing of kid’s play. Yet, I feigned difficulty on the wooden beam. In my pretend awkwardness, I thumped my own chest and shouted, “UNGILD!”
I inched cautiously towards him. All the while, he had a smug look of condescension on his entire frame. Closer, closer. Then he lunged. I parried the thrust, and recoiled a step. He backed off and laughed heartily. The boats hit a wave unevenly, and the plank slid enough to toy with our balance. Again, I faked difficulty with it. Not even looking at me, he swung his blade. I leaned back and it grazed my bare chest just enough to leave deep red scratch from top to bottom. I jumped back further, juggled my sword, then tipped from one side to the other. I awkwardly tossed my sword back into our boat, staggered forward, then deftly snatched his sword from his unexpected hands, wrapped my arms around him, sucked in a chest full of air, and pulled him off the plank.
With a large splash, we plunged deep below the waves. I kept my hold on him, and we continued to sink into the sea. With my arms preventing him from swimming, and my hand still grasping his sword behind his back, I began to bludgeon his groin with my knees and his nose with my forehead. Deeper we sank. I didn’t let go until he ceased struggling. After which, I pushed him away, as the darkness of the deep transformed his visage into that of a ghost. I swam towards the surface, still clutching his sword. Luckily for me, the two boats were easy to distinguish from below, simply based on their size. But, even if they were identical sizes, I would have no trouble identifying my boat. I’d seen it from this angle countless times. When I reached the bottom of the heathen long boat, I searched the keel up and down, looking for just the right spot. I soon found that spot, and I forced the sword into it. Once there, I began bending the hilt and base of the sword so that it could not be pulled through.
“HEAVE!” Birsk shouted, just as one of my wet arms slapped over the side of the boat. They were already moving with such force that the water nearly pushed me to the rear of the boat. Once I’d gotten safely onboard, we were fifty paces away from the heathens, and they were now dealing with the realization that their chieftain was dead, and they had a critical leak in their boat.
“Where to, my lord?” Wigum asked, eyeing the large storm, growing behind us.
“That way.” I pointed towards the twilight sun on the opposite horizon. “More plunder is that way.”
The festering storm behind us was driving a sour wind our direction. It blew in violent bursts for a small duration, then it would be still for several minutes. Sometimes the wind was straight on, other times, it drove us sideways. The unpredictability of it was infuriating. More than one fine hat was lost to a sudden gust of wind. The high spirits we had mere hours ago, were flagging.
Presently, Birsk made his way back to me near the steering board. “Lord, do you think we should turn towards land and find a safe bay before this storm catches us?” He wasn’t looking at me, but over my head at the sky turning dark gray.
I sighed and pursed my lips. “Normally, I try to avoid fishing in thunderstorms, but we should be ok. We’ve got pails to empty water, plenty of men to pull the oars, sheepskin ponchos, and I even caulked the planks before the last full moon. If we keep moving, we should be fine.”
He eyed me suspiciously. But then seemed to bite his lip and return to his oar.
Wigum, pulling on the closest oar, asked me, “Have you picked out the stars to follow tonight? Should be dark soon.”
“I have. I just hope we can see them all night. If we lose them, we can sail by the sun on the morrow. Not to worry.” I said, somewhat dismissively.
Just then a burst of wind slammed into our small boat. The sail jerked us forward and everyone struggled to maintain their balance.
“Pull in the sail!” I shouted, but it was too late. The force of the gale rent the cloth nearly the length of a man. “Holy God! Birsk, can you haul in the sail?”
I turned to look behind us and saw…chaos. Only a few moments before, there was simply a brewing storm. Now, there was a ravenous disaster waiting to happen. The waves churned and surged. We could see the water being sucked toward the heavens in great twirling columns. The sky had turned from a dour and menacing gray to a deadly and horrific black.
“Row!” I shouted. As I did, I resumed the steering board and turned us sharply towards where land should be.
In a startlingly brief period, our situation worsened. Waves were now crashing over the side of the boat, and I dispatched one of the men to stop rowing, and begin bailing water with a pail. Then the heavens loosened their hold on the rain and sky declared war upon us. The rain was cold, and we were immediately drenched.
“Row!” I kept repeating. Occasionally I caught a glance of my men’s faces. They were terrified. Most of them were familiar with traveling by sea, but not in a storm…and not a storm like this one. The wind howled like a chorus of wolves, then the thunder joined and rattled us to our very bones. The sea began to heave us up and down in such severity that it made our stomachs lurch. I heard the timbers of the boat groan under the stress.
“Hold on baby, hold on.” I encouraged our vessel.
“What do we do, Ungild!” One of the men shouted.
“Row! That’s what you do…ROW! We must make it to land.”
“How much longer?” He shouted in reply.
“I don’t…” I hesitated. “We don’t want to make it easy on this storm, do we?” I teased. Then, I pulled my tunic off my torso and violently tossed it into the boat. Standing and taking hold of a rigging rope with one hand, I chastised the tempest. “Is this all you have? Is this it? Our God will save us!”
Resuming the steering board, I commanded the men, “ROW you bastards!”
A wave sprayed over the side of the boat, and I could taste its saltiness. Again, the sea heaved us upward, then dropped us like a stone. The boat creaked and moaned like a tree being felled.
Every wave, every heave, every lightning strike…I thought of my little Aelswitha. I promised her I would return. Furthermore, these men and their families were trusting me. We’d made a successful raid, why were we going for more? Pangs of guilt forced their way into my thoughts. I justified it by reminding myself that we’d have to go through the storm to get home either way. Guilt and self-doubt was getting us nowhere.
Flashes of lighting nearby blinded us, and made the sky that much darker. The sea dropped us a full boat length, then surged us upwards so fast my entrails felt like they were flipping inside me.
This cycle continued for hours on end. The storm would intensify, then it would reduce to a lull, only to let out another burst of anger upon us. Even though we were all exhausted long before the sea calmed, when it did, we all felt safe enough to sleep. The sky was still overcast, so it didn’t matter if someone was awake to navigate by the stars or not.
“Wigum. Arise, my friend.” I said to him with a bright smile as I poked him in the shoulder. “It’s morning.”
He yawned, stretched, and roused. “Indeed. A fine morning too. The ship is still afloat, and I’m still in it.” He grinned.
“Lord, do you know where we are?” One of the other men asked.
“We’re at sea, that’s about all I know right now. But, the nature of the fog and the stillness of the air hints that we are near land.”
I wasn’t entirely sure about that, but I felt it was important that the men felt I knew something about our situation…no matter how true it was. I surveyed the boat. Everything appeared to be wet…even the grain and oats we’d plundered.
Wigum, sensing my thoughts, said, “Not everything is wet, Lord. The tome we took from the church, it is dry…along with the grains we had in leather sacks. The other sacks did not fare so well. I suggest we eat the wet grains first, if possible.”
I nodded towards him.
Birsk and a couple of the others were peering into the fog, desperately trying to see land, a shape…anything.
I turned to see the dark green tops of trees, but they were immediately obscured again by the growing mists. Without the utterance of a word, I gestured to the crew to man their oars. We began to creep, slowly, in the direction of the trees. Suddenly, without any warning, a large dark crag appeared before the boat, and I sharply jerked on the steering board to avoid it. But I didn’t see it soon enough, and the wooden side of our vessel scraped it with a loud grating sound.
“Wigum!” I shouted in a whisper. “Never mind that oar, be the pilot.” I said, pointing towards the bow.
We resumed our progress towards the shore. There was a hush surrounding us, the way only fog can create. I saw a small flotilla of seaweed pass by us on the calm water.
“Rock! Turn, turn, turn!” Wigum struggled to keep his voice hushed as he pointed away from the danger.
This time we slid by the rock without even touching it. However, a moment later, Wigum signaled again.
“Rock…turn…no, STOP. Wait!” He leapt back from the front of the boat just as it ground to a stop atop a large rocky outcropping.
Everyone lurched forward as the craft continued onto the rocks until our momentum was exhausted.
“Are we stuck, or are we on the beach?” I asked, almost knowing the answer. The men looked at me. “Reverse.” I whispered.
But, it was no use. The boat was firmly stuck. Birsk climbed onto the rock and tried to lift us off. We even tried poling against the great rock with our oars.
“It’s fine. Wigum, Birsk, go onto the rock and see if it leads anywhere. We’ll try to fasten the boat to this rock somehow. We may just have to leave it here until the tide comes in, and we should leave someone onboard.”
One of the men volunteered. He’d been hurt slightly during our flight from the last village. I grabbed my new shield and sword and disembarked. Just then, Wigum and Birsk met us by the grounded boat.
“This rock juts up from the sea floor, but there is more sea separating it from the main land.” He wore a look of deep concern.
“Ok, then, let’s swim it. Take only your weapons. Leave your shields here, and do it quietly.”
In addition to our shields, we stripped our tunics and tightened our leather slippers. Then, one by one, we slipped into the tepid water and swam towards where we believed the shore should be. As I’ve hinted before, I was an excellent swimmer, and I was pleasantly surprised that the men of the crew could swim. I realized that we were from a community by the sea, but still, not everyone could swim. However, swimming with a sword made this a significantly more difficult task. After several minutes of swimming, I began to hear the panicked breathing of the swimmers behind me.
I turned toward them. “Just keep swimming. Don’t get excited. We’ll make it to the shore. It’s up there.”
No sooner did I say these words, then did my feet touch what felt like seaweed. I started to tell the men the encouraging news when my legs became entangled by the thickening mass of the rubbery tentacles. All at once, my relief at reaching land turned to despair, as the seaweed inhibited my ability to remain afloat. Soon, we were all engulfed in the hideous morass of green. We swam with all our might, but our strength was sapped. I could hear bubbles mixed with subsurface screams, which announced a drowning in progress. I crammed my sword into my belt, feeling it slice some of my thigh in the process, and I dove underwater to retrieve the man. I grabbed him and tried to pull him up, but he was already unconscious…dead weight. I pulled and pulled, till we reached the surface. Moments later, my feet made contact with actual dirt, and I was able, with some difficulty, to revive the man on the muddy beach. Unfortunately, upon counting the men, there were only eight. Figuring the man we left on the boat, we were short one. Birsk and I exerted every last bit of strength and breath we possessed, but to no avail. We barely made it back to the slippery shore at all. At one point, I thought I heard the man gurgling…in that muffled sort of way that fog tends to do. The sound of a man dying a terrible death, with all other sounds blotted out by the fog…that’s a special sort of misery. Knowing there is nothing you can do about it, makes it so much worse. Worse yet, was the fact that it was my friend, Wigum. He was gone. His jokes, his knowledge, his loyal friendship…gone. He was with God now.
It enraged me. My greed had nearly cost me my boat and now it has cost the life of my friend. I wanted to scream, to hit something. Most of all, I wanted to fall to my knees and weep. Why Wigum? Why? He died alone. The entire time he was drowning, he was probably wondering why I didn’t come to rescue him.
We were all catching our breath on the beach, when Birsk caught my eye. “Lord Ungild, I am sorry about your friend. Do you want to go back to the boat? Go home?” He said, apologetically.
“No.” I said, through clinched teeth. “I want to burn this village to the ground…kill everyone here, and take everything.”
I saw him swallow, looking somewhat alarmed. Then he nodded, “Very well. Let us begin the work.”
I pulled my sword from my belt, being careful not to cut my skin again. We then surveyed the area. We couldn’t see very far for the milky fog. Furthermore, we weren’t even sure there was a village her at all. But, there was land, and where there is land, there is always a village nearby. We moved quietly along the beach, noticing the lines on the rocks and gravel. It gave the appearance that this was some sort of extreme low tide. Maybe our boat would have made it all the way to the shore if it were not so. We all froze in place at the distant sound of a voice. It, like Wigum’s death throes, was muffled and distorted by the moisture hanging in the air. Soon after, we caught the distinct smell of smoke as it wafted by us. I signaled for the men to gather around me.
“I think the fog gives us an unparalleled level of surprise. We should split up, silently storm the village, and burn it. Once we’ve completed it, and the fog has cleared, we can decide how to best bring the boat ashore, as well as loading it with our plunder.” I held up my sword and stared into it. “Remember, these heathen bastards have raided us on numerous occasions. It’s time we get some vengeance. Spare no one.” They all nodded in return, bloodthirsty. I, however, wanted vengeance for my friend.
We quickly moved into the village, but the fog seemed to grow even more intense. The first hut I approached had a stone base and a neatly thatched roof. Before I rounded it, I heard a woman scream in terror some distance away. It was soon silenced with an answering thud. In another direction, I saw the fog pierced by the intensely orange glow of a hut erupting in flames. Someone ran out in terror, and I ran to meet them with my sword. It was a woman, half naked, and holding a knife. But, before I could reach her, she turned and ran inland.
“Let her go!” I blasted. A moment later, I heard her screams suddenly silenced anyway.
I quickly walked back to the first hut. Rounding its corner, I saw two fishing baskets stacked next to it. I raised my sword, and steeled myself to enter it and kill everyone inside. Before I went further, the leather door flap swung aside, and a small child walked out. She approached me without hesitation and threw her arms around my waist. I was too much astonished to move. When I leaned down towards her, all I saw was a heavily scarred head of red hair.
“OH GOD! AELSWITHA!” I kneeled and embraced her. “What are you doing here? How did you know it was me? Are you ok? Speak, child. Oh, my dear, sweet Aelswitha. I’ve missed you. Did raiders come to the village in our absence?” I was nearly beside myself with joy.
“Yes father, raiders came. They are here now.” She said, flatly.
“What? No, we are here, plundering this village. And, I’m taking you home with us. Oh, God is definitely smiling upon us this day. He has led me directly to YOU!” I lifted her from her feet in a warm hug.
“Ungild. UNGILD!!” Wigum came running through the fog to me.
“Wigum! You survive!” I exclaimed, in pure mirth now.
He dropped to his knees in front of me, still coughing up water. “Yes, by the grace of God, I live. But, I must tell you…”
Before I could rejoice at the news of my friend, a lean woman exited the hut. I pushed my daughter to the ground behind me and raised my sword. It didn’t matter how I found Aelswitha or who took her. I was going to kill them and bring her home with me.
“What in the name of the Almighty One are you doing Ungild?” A familiar gravelly voice blasted.
“What are you doing here?” I asked, bewildered.
“What am I doing here? What are YOU doing here?”
“We came to raid the place, dearest. Now, it looks like we’re rescuing you as well. We’ve gotten quite a haul from our first raid, but we can talk about it on the voyage home. Step aside, I intend to burn this disgusting hovel to the ground.”
Hilde only stood there…silent, probably for the first time in her life. Just then, I felt the warmth of another hut nearby going up in flames. I smelled the earthy smoke coming from the burning thatch. I started towards the hut, when Hilde put an arm out in front of me.
“What are you doing?” I said in a hurried panic. “We have to take the food and destroy these huts before the men of the village return.”
Again, Hilde simply stood there in shocked quiet, her eyes wide open in amazement. I assumed she was merely surprised to see me, surprised that God had led me to her. However, a moment later, she snapped out of it.
“Ungild…the men of the village HAVE returned. You’re here now.” She roared at me.
“What?” I said, completely lost in her thought stream.
“This is OUR hut, you dim-witted git! This is OUR village. You have RETURNED.”
A sorrowful and agonizing scream sliced through the fog, followed by the sobs of one of my men nearby. Birsk instantly appeared out of the thick mist, accompanied by a frantic Grol.
“Lord Ungild! UNGILD!” He skidded to a stop next to me.
I was despondent as my brain reeled. “It’s ok, Birsk…I know.” I turned to face Birsk as if in a dream. “How many are left?”
“None, Lord. We’ve slain them all…all except for your family.” He dropped to his knees, and tears trickled between his meaty fingers.
“You’ve killed the ENTIRE VILLAGE?! You are a cursed FOOL, Ungild. I never should have married you. You are the stupidest man on this Earth. I hate you. I pray God kills you in a horrible death. You are a sniveling, whimpering, and pathetic excuse for a man. It is because of your sins, God visited the plague upon us, and it is for YOUR sins that the heathens raided our village. NO man can be as worthless and–”
My backhand would normally have only made her angry, but this time my hand held a sword. And this time, I separated her head from her shoulders and a stream of blood hissed out of her neck. The two parts of her body tumbled to the ground with a sickening “thud”.
“Only my daughter survives.” I said bitterly. “Bring in the boat and load anything left of value. We move on to plunder the next village.”
By: Josh Hutchins
picture courtesy of hurstwic.com