Posted: August 18, 2014 in Fiction
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Ari stood in the tall grass beside her younger sister. A cool, salty breeze tousled their hair and shuffled their skirts. Cloud shadows played across the green countryside. Several yards away, their father bent to encourage Tate as he aimed his drawn bow at a distant hare.
“The wind will carry his arrow too far to the right. He must correct his aim” Ari whispered for her sister’s benefit.
Artis scrunched up her mouth in four-year-old contemplation. “I hope he misses.”
Havelock inched his squatting bulk away from Tate. Turning his body several degrees to the left, Tate paused for a moment. He released the arrow. It gained height and curved gently with the breeze. The arrowhead thudded into the ground next to the hare’s tail. The animal bolted for cover.
Havelock and Ari cheered his shot. Artis cheered the rabbit’s escape. Tate grinned in spite of the shot.
Havelock turned toward his daughters. His smile faded. Alarm seized his face as he stood. Ari felt the intensity of his gaze and looked over her shoulder. She grabbed Artis tightly by the arms.
A man had lumbered out of the forest and was moving in long strides across the slope to the clearing, straight at her.
“Ari!” shouted her father. She heard her brother’s bowstring stretch. Artis peered around Ari’s waist and whimpered.
The man raised a pale palm to halt her father’s approach. Ari could not believe this man was human. His skin was as dark as the soot in her mother’s hearth. He was half again as tall as any man in her village. His head and face were shaved clean, as were his eyebrows. His nose was a gnarl of flesh and his eyes were swollen nearly shut, the way some of the men’s eyes would be when they returned from a raid. His jaw hung slack under enlarged lips. The ridges above his eyes and his cheek bones were scarred shades of brown and pink. His clothes were rags and animal skins. He stopped walking a moment before his chest touched her face. Palpable hatred roiled furnace hot from him.
The stranger squinted into her eyes for some time. Ari stopped breathing. She heard Artis’ bladder release onto the ground behind her. The beast reeked of sweat and gore. A dagger appeared at her cheek. She stifled a cry as the man sliced away a knot of her hair. His glare never wavered. He placed her hair in his mouth. It hung from both sides of his lips like whiskers. The dagger slashed the veins of his left wrist. The enormous hand cupped toward her, allowing black-red blood to collect.
Ari stared wide-eyed into his hand as moments passed. The man uttered a sudden cry of pain through his broken jaw. He raised his left arm to his lips and blew a thick spray of cooling blood and blonde strands into Ari’s face.
The giant pivoted and marched back up the hill to the trees, blood dripping profusely off the fingers of his left hand.
“Ari,” her father said softly. Artis began to sob.
The man entered the distant tree line. As he did, a second giant stepped away from a trunk and followed the first out of sight.
“There’s nothing to be done, Ari.” Her father put his arm around her and eased his children in the direction of the seaside village. His voice cracked. “I’m sorry. You’ve been chosen.”
~ ~ ~
Father broke the silence when they passed the first of the huts. “Tate, have you got your brains in your head?”
Tate nodded. He had spent most of the slow walk glancing over his shoulder.
“Then put that arrow away. There’ll be no using it now. Go down to the dock. Find Baldur. Tell him the Berserkers have come.”
Tate replaced the arrow, threw his bow over his shoulder and ran.
“Artis, go to your mother.” The little one bobbed her head and stepped gingerly away, conscious of the drying piss on her legs.
“Ari,” her father took her by the arm and faced her. “You are my daughter and I love you. You must be brave. My honor depends on it as much as your own. Wake up now, girl. You have been chosen and it cannot be helped.” His tone turned harsh.
“Father, I-” He slapped her.
“You are old enough to remember Baenlyn! You know that your death spares the whole clan. Think of Tate. Do not make me disown you. You will die. Die as the daughter of Havelock. Let the people think well of you.”
Ari’s eyes sagged to the ground. Shock and despair held her.
“Go to the great hall.” Her father ordered. “Sit on the ground before Haerd’s throne. I will be there soon.”
Ari obeyed.
~ ~ ~
The great hall stank of fear and sweat. Every member of the village crowded into the spaces at or around the large central table. The whole of Ari’s clan pressed to the front of the crowd. Facing them from his throne, Haerd measured the faces in the room. Ari sat on the dirt floor between her family and her king, legs tucked under her. Her face was slick with sweat. King Haerd had ordered the fireplace behind his throne stoked to its limit, casting his seated form in a hellish silhouette. Waves of heat coursed through the long house.
Her mother shoved her way to the front of the house and knelt beside her daughter. A wet rag in her hand, she scrubbed the blood from Ari’s face. The older woman’s eyes shined with a violent determination that puzzled Ari.
“Inga.” Her father said softly.
Ingrid stopped rubbing Ari’s cheek and stood next to her husband, the bloody rag clenched in her fist.
King Haerd stood self-importantly. He had an inclination for drink. His movements were slow and deliberate.
“The Wargaz’s messengers have come. It is the time of the sacrifice. The Strangler has made his choice.”
“It is said that the monster travels with an army of the dead!” Brede, a helmsman, shouted from the crowd.
“That’s impossible!” Old Storr declared. His wife Ylsa nodded agreement. “The draugr stay near their graves.”
“And what do you know of graves?” Thick-necked Baldur asked.
“I have filled my share,” Storr said
“Why don’t we take to the sea? Leave the Wargaz to his wanderings.” Brede offered.
“Again the sailor speaks!” Baldur said. “You are too eager to run.”
Turning to her husband, Elgira spoke with contempt. “Where are the men in this village, Baldur?”
“We cannot fight everything, Baldur,” King Haerd scolded.
“We must not take to the sea. The Wargaz travels on the wind. He would hunt us,” Storr protested.
“Have you seen him flying around of late?” chided Baldur.
“Enough,” Haerd looked down at Ari, a little sadness in his unfocused eyes.
“Who is the father of this girl?”
Havelock stepped next to her.
“I am.” He said.
Haerd squinted at him. “Do you remember the time of the last sacrifice? Do you remember the need for the sacrifice?”
“It was Baenlyn, daughter to Storr and Ylsa. A very beautiful girl, blessed with her father’s noble determination. Her life was a great and unfortunate loss,” Her father spoke loudly. “She conducted herself rightly. A true sacrifice.”
Haerd shifted uneasily in his seat. A few in the building coughed away laughter. Across the room, old Storr stiffened. His wife leaned into him, seeking comfort. A tear traced her cheek. Storr’s eyes shone at Havelock’s words.
“Do not forget the reason for the loss!” Haerd bellowed. “This outcast from the east must be appeased. Remember his power. Remember how quickly he can bring death. His nature is to kill, and he does control the strength of the wind.
“Take the girl to be bathed and instructed. Prepare her well. The Wargaz must be pleased.” Haerd motioned, and tipped a little forward. “Everyone else will make preparations to sleep in this hall tonight. We shall stoke the fire bright and take the day’s last meal together. Brede, secure the ships as if against a storm. Baldur, you are to shelter the livestock.”
Old Ylsa led Ari out of the great hall.
The people began moving to the doors, most relieved that they and theirs had not been chosen. Haerd lifted his voice, “This is how it must be. We will all meet here tonight before Ari is taken. We will feast in her honor, and drown our tears in wine.”
He caught Havelock’s eye and nodded staged affirmation. Havelock placed his hand on Tate’s shoulder and both turned away.
The hall’s double doors shut against the daylight. Haerd supported himself on the arm of his throne, listened a moment to the cracklings and silences around him. He stumbled to the table and picked up the wine skin and goblet. Slurping from the skin, he coaxed himself back to his high-backed chair. The weight of the skin disappointed him. His cup sloshed as he sat. Wine settled over the tip of his nose and soaked his thick moustache. Moments passed. Haerd took comfort in the silence of his hall, the familiar crackle of his fire.
A figure prowled out of the shadows. It moved swiftly at him. Haerd tried to rise to meet it. Ingrid strode into the firelight, her red hair shone brightly. Her face was a taut scowl. She raised her fist behind her head.
Something soft and damp hit Haerd in the eyes. He grunted and fell back into his throne. The bloodied cloth fell in his lap.
Inga planted a fist on each side of Haerd’s throne and shoved her face close to his. “You know Haerd, that I am gifted from time to time with the foretelling.” She hissed. “I have seen the coming night. I have seen fire consuming and wind to scare the bravest of sea-going men. I have seen the Wargaz’ anger. I have seen his vile Berserkers cutting down our men. If Ari goes willingly tonight, hell shall visit us soon after!”
“Nonsense!” Haerd retorted, yeast and grape on his breath. “You speak this way because she is your daughter. You would spare her and kill us all! I warn you not to-“
“No great Haerd,” Ingrid shouted, her small frame undulating with rage. “Any one of my family would lay down their life for this village. You have seen it. The family of Havelock has nothing to prove. But use your ears, great King. I have seen more. I have seen you.”
Haerd’s mouth fell open.
Ingrid flicked her face to the oven behind the throne. “You, great Haerd, will die. Burned to a charred skeleton. In your own hearth!”
She pushed off of the throne and left the hall to its cracklings and silences.
~ ~ ~
Steam hung low to the floor of Storr’s washing room. Ari sat in a large basin while Ylsa stoked the contained fire beneath her.
Ari felt as if she were in a nightmare. The Berserker’s blood, the callousness in her father’s explanation, the king’s appearance and decree, what was to come… Fear settled in her, anticipating itself in her tightened shoulders and sitting hard in her stomach.
“Ari, listen to me.” Ylsa glanced tenderly at her. “Listen to an old woman, child. It is a brave thing you do. I know you didn’t choose this, but you must be strong.”
Ylsa’s arthritic hand touched Ari’s chin firmly. Ari met her eyes.
“These men of ours, they are all noise and suicide under masks of heroism. They expect us to behave like girls, swooning and weeping over the death of a bird that will fill our bellies.”
Ari shook her head, “I don’t-“
“You, child, are no girl,” Ylsa spoke firmly. “You are no noisome man. And you most certainly are no bird.”
“What am I?” Ari asked.
“What do you want to be?”
Ari studied her face.
“You are trying to distract me.” She decided.
The old woman laughed. “So then, what do you want to be?”
“Distracted.” Ari answered without pause.
~ ~ ~
Havelock sat on a barrel outside the door of his mud brick home, the knife in his hand sounding a gravely whistle over his whetstone. Tate sat on the ground next to him, checking and adjusting the plumage and tips of each arrow in a large quiver.
“Havelock!” Baldur swaggered up. Storr and several of the village men were with him.
“Baldur. Storr.” Havelock greeted them without looking up.
“And Tate!” Baldur turned to the boy. “I heard you killed a fat rabbit this morning.”
“I missed.” Tate scowled into his quiver.
“Well, you’ll get the hang of it. Just mind the wind.” Baldur encouraged.
Tate’s head snapped up. Tears wet his cheeks.
“I will never miss again.”
“Did you men need something?” Havelock kept his attention on his work.
Baldur started to open his mouth, but Storr spoke first. “Thank you, Havelock, for your kind words. If Baenlyn were alive, she would have been moved.”
Havelock stopped his work and stared into the old man’s eyes. “Your daughter had more passion in her than any two people I know. If that girl were alive, she would have darkened Haerd’s eye once more.” The men did not halt their laughter this time.
Storr nodded, his grief buried again. He wore a hard expression, calm but eager. The men of the village had grown up emulating Storr’s face before battle.
“Whatever should happen, Havelock,” Storr nodded at the quiver at Tate’s side. “I will stand my shield over this man. You will lose a daughter, but I swear you will keep your son.”
Storr pushed through the men and walked away toward the sea.
“Funny old bastard.” Baldur started irrepressibly. “Havelock, do you intend to see trouble?”
“Baldur, you loudmouth, today all I see is trouble.”
Baldur laughed, assuming he had been complimented. “Be certain you think of the village, my friend. Many lives can be spared by one action. Think to tomorrow.”
Havelock lowered his head and resumed sharpening his knife. The men of the village walked away.
~ ~ ~
Ylsa’s brittle arms dried Ari with a cloth and sat her near the fire. Ylsa commanded Ari to dry her hair thoroughly before disappearing into another room.
When she returned she held a small clay bottle in her hands.
“Why does my hair have to be so perfectly dry?” Ari asked.
“Because the sacrifice must be delivered without clothing.” Ylsa stated.
Ari’s head whipped around. “What?”
“I know, child. It’s an added insult, especially given how cold it’ll be tonight. Right now just enjoy the fire.” She opened the bottle.
“What’s that?” Ari’s self-control hinged on conversing.
“Something Storr brought back from the south. Here, smell it.”
She passed it to Ari.
“Storr nearly lost an arm over this.”
“Really?” Ari asked, smelling the musky liquid.
“Have you ever seen him hold his right arm over his head?”
Ari shrugged. Ylsa huffed.
“Why haven’t you worn this, Ylsa?
“I did, once,” Ylsa voice turned to a whisper. “It was to be a wedding present to my daughter. I wore it the night she left.” The woman fell silent for a time.
“Well. That is for you Ari. For tonight. Might as well smell nice while you’re, well, being unbearably honest with the whole world. It’s an insult returned to the Wargaz. When he smells that he’ll miss his humanity. He is limited in what he can possess, you know.”
Ari froze, considering for the first time what might happen before she died; and what would not. Relief washed over her.
The women sat quietly in front of the fire for several minutes.
“Its time, Ari. Put all of that on. Empty the bottle.” Ylsa commanded. “Don’t be scared of the men waiting for you outside. Go.”
“What about you?” Panic rose in her voice.
Ylsa met Ari’s eyes. “I’m going to the longhouse, just like the rest of the village.”
Ari poured the oil over herself, filling the room with the fragrance. She hugged and kissed the old woman on the cheek. She took a deep breath. Taking hold of the door, she exhaled slowly and opened it.
~ ~ ~
Ari stepped outside. The cold air hit her like a fist. She crossed her arms over her bare chest. A few feet away stood six men. White robed and hooded, they stared straight ahead. Self-conscious in spite of her fear, she stepped into the midst of these strangers. They began to walk.
Flanked by her silent escort, Ari shivered against the fog. She walked slowly, her head down, into the clearing where Tate hunted. Two fires burned against the far tree line ahead of them.
None of the gift bearers spoke. No one would look at her. Her arms dropped to her sides, fear overcoming humiliation. Half way into the field, the clouds disrobed the moon. Feeling eyes on her, Ari looked up. She stopped walking.
Ranks of women milled through the cloudy air or stared at her. Vaguely translucent, some were moon pale, some were black as night. There were hundreds filling the clearing. None spoke. Their presence closed the mouths of the night insects. The closer women were visibly nude. Their eyes shone sea-glare blue when the moonlight crossed their faces. Their hair blew fiercely as if caught in a squall, despite the impossible stillness of the air.
A frightened voice behind her whispered, “Draugr.” These were the ghosts of the strangler’s victims. Joining the ranks of these mute slaves would be her fate. Her heart seized in her chest. She could not fill her lungs. Her legs grew weak. A hand pressed firmly against the small of Ari’s back. She stepped forward involuntarily. The dead figures parted to allow her passage.
A small distance from the fires a tall, regal visage stepped out of the silent masses and into the procession’s path. She had high cheekbones and white-yellow hair. Even in death her beauty stirred a memory in Ari’s mind. Nobility sang in her posture. Azure rage flashed in her eyes. She peered quickly at each of the men in turn, and then focused on Ari. The draugr looked on her with helpless pity for a moment, holding Ari’s eyes with her own. Something grew in those glazed eyes. Something akin to recognition, and then angry, defiant affirmation. Ari met her stare, entranced by the strength of will she felt from this creature. Her breathing steadied. The moment passed suddenly. The girl turned and slid into the mist.
Baenlyn’s ghostly passage had not slowed the procession. The heart of every man in the ranks had sunk heavy with shame.
The fires were much closer. Between them stood a crude log table. After a few more steps up hill the fog in the air burned off. The draugr kept to the fog, far from the table. The berserkers stood to each side, firelight attacking and retreating the contours of their grotesque bodies. Behind the table loomed a robed figure darker than the night. No illumination touched him. Light flickering on the tabletop distracted Ari.
“Wargaz!” Here is your sacrifice.” The man ahead of her shouted. Startled, Ari looked at the back of this man. His voice was deep and sure. Commanding. It could only belong to Daerin, the village smith. The men in her procession were not strangers; they were from her own village.
Courage swelled in her. She stepped forward, beyond the columns of men. She lifted her chest and raised her chin. Her fists clenched at her side, she glared contempt at the cowled horror behind the table.
“Strangler. Outcast. I am Ari, daughter of Havelock. I am the sacrifice you require, and I defy you.” The firmness and condescension in her voice surprised her.
“I submit to your hands willingly, to save my people. After, I will not be your trophy, or your slave.” She spat at the Berserker on her right. Both turned to look at her.
Ari climbed onto the table and lay down. She raised her fists.
“These contain no weapons. They are weapons! I will strike you and strike you as you kill me. My spirit will not be yours. By my fists I will brawl in Valhalla. I will feast and tell of my death. I and all the warriors under the shield roofs will raise a war cry against you that will echo and shake those holy halls! Face me, and kill me if you can.” She commanded.
A breeze stirred intimately over her flesh. The Wargaz stepped forward, his cloak flapping. With his second step a turmoil of freezing wind blew his robes against the table. The fires danced sideways toward the clearing. The men who had escorted her staggered and struggled to hold their footing. Below them, the draugr shrieked fearfully against the wind and its maker. Ari tightened her fists and started to beat the air in front of her. The berserker she had spat at grabbed her wrists and wrenched them over the edge of the table. The rough wood scraped her. The other beast snatched her ankles and pulled. She arched her body upward against them and screamed. They slammed her down in unison. The logs under her wracked her exposed back. The Wargaz reached out slowly and placed his cold hands around her neck. The cold permeated her, freezing her ability to struggle. His gaze must have been inches from her face, but she could see only outlines behind deep darkness. The Wargaz gradually increased the strength of his grip on her throat. The wind slackened. Seconds passed. Her neck, it hurt! The fires blazed upright again. She could not breathe. The breeze tousled her hair lightly. The moon glared full overhead. The Wargaz remained a shadow with vague features. She wanted to turn her head and look at the men from her village. The draugr were silent. She wanted to turn and search the faces of her escorts. Blackness crept into the corners of her vision.
Something slammed over her. The Wargaz doubled over and lurched backwards. An arm flew past her head and landed heavily on the opposite edge of the table. For a moment she saw Baldur’s grinning eyes. Ari’s world pivoted violently. She felt the grass and earth slam into her face, chest, fists, and knees. Men were shouting. Something growled. Her vision returned. For an instant she could see down the hill. The draugr were all facing the table. Every eye was lit by the moon.
Two pairs of hands grabbed her under the arms and pulled her to her feet, then off her feet again and away from the table. She caught a glimpse of Baldur pummeling the Berserker who had held her ankles with a thick wooden cudgel. A body lay at their feet.
“Ari!” Someone spun her around. Havelock’s smile startled her. “Ari! You have to get to the village. Find Brede.”
Cast off white robes littered the ground around the table. Daerin drove a sword up through the jaw of the other Berserker. The monster had hold of him by the hair and the shirt. The tip settled in deep, its wide hilt disappearing into the Berserker’s scarred flesh. Refusing to release the man, the dying thing fell to its knees. Daerin landed on top of it. His weight knocked both of them to the ground. Another man ran to Daerin, loosing his sword from its baldric.
Havelock pulled off his robe and whipped it over Ari’s head. He drew a hatchet and a dirk from his belt. “Mind the draugr. No telling what they’ll do.”
Havelock turned and ran yelling at the remaining Berserker.
Ari stepped backwards slowly, caught in the violence before her. She saw Baldur lifted off the ground above the cluster of warriors, his head too far to the side. The Berserker dropped him and stepped toward the men facing him. The hillside blocked her view.
Ari spun around and broke into a run.
~ ~ ~
Ylsa waited outside the longhouse for Storr. The rest of the village had gone inside by the time he arrived. He had his best weapons and armor with him.
“Ylsa, Love…” He began.
“Do you intend to tell me something I don’t already know?” Ylsa demanded.
“No Love.”
“Do you need to hear anything you have known your entire life?”
“No Love,” He repeated, hiding a smile.
There was silence between them for a moment.
“Funny way for things to end up.” Ylsa said snidely.
Storr laughed. “Is the boy…”
“Yes,” Ylsa responded.
“Have they locked the doors?” Storr asked.
“Not without me, they haven’t!” Ylsa paused. “I wish you could be with me tonight.”
“Say the words Love, and I will be.”
She shook her head. “Someone has to stay out here and keep watch. Besides, it’ll all be over soon enough”
“I love you Storr.” Ylsa said.
Storr kissed her, then handed her a blade. “I love you, Love.”
Ylsa walked calmly into the longhouse. Storr waited to hear the bar fall into position. Satisfied, he lifted his shield, hung his spear over his shoulder, and walked to the docks.
He stared up the hill at the twin fires and thought of his daughter.
~ ~ ~
Ari moved warily through the fog. The draugr, intent on the battle at the forest’s edge, ignored her. She maneuvered around the draugr, not wanting their attention. They looked nearly solid from a few feet away, but those that were mere inches from her were only apparitional mists. Her progress was slow.
The draugr fascinated her. They looked freshly dead, the way her father’s brother had when she was young. She had stared at his face in expectation of his eyes opening. These draugr, some of which looked very foreign to her, wore the new paleness that settles on a body only a day dead, but were smooth in their rare movements and quick with their eyes. Each face wore an expression of dread and doubting hope. They were silent. Only her rapid steps and the rhythm of the seashore could be heard.
Ari skidded to a stop. There was no battle noise behind her.
A cry of surprise slipped from her throat. Her face was inches from the dispersed features of a blond-headed girl a few years younger in age. Ari could see through her. A look of annoyance sifted over the immaterial face. The draugr stepped to Ari’s left and continued its gaze up the slope, illusory physique forming as Ari put distance between them.
Ari turned toward the tree line and craned her neck as far as she could. The fires had gone out.
Daerin and her father were charging down the slope. Havelock yelled and motioned for her to run. Ari bolted, moving as fast as she could. The two warriors overtook her quickly. A few seconds more and the party tore out of the draugr fog. Their village lay clearly ahead of them. Daerin, in the lead, put his arm out to stop their progress. Panting, they turned to stare behind them. There was no sign of pursuit.
“Baldur and the others?” She gasped, already knowing the answer.
Doubled over gasping, Havelock shook his head. “They fought well.”
“The Wargaz? The Berserkers?” Ari’s whispered between heavy breaths.
“The damn thing disappeared. We need to get to the longboat.” Her father gave Ari a shove and sprinted toward the village.
~ ~ ~
The great hall was dark and packed with huddled villagers. Haerd had let the fire in his hearth die down to embers. He refused to let more wood be placed on it. A few of the men carried lit torches in order that the rest might be able to see. The log ceiling shone yellow-bright. Shadows throbbed and struck erratically against the crowd. The grumbles and complaints hid Ylsa’s entrance.
She fought her way to the back of the room. Reaching a gap in the crowd, she stopped. The air around her crawled with tension. Her eyes met Haerd’s. A moment’s glare passed between them before the old man’s eyes shifted to the floor. He sat leaning forward on his throne, a short sword flat in his hand. His shield sat against his throne.
“Now what foolishness is this?” Ylsa spoke softly, as if scolding a child. “Must we all freeze to death?”
She picked her way to the fire pit with care. Hunching her shoulders, she let her aged body hide her intent.
“Where is your man, old nag?” Haerd mumbled distractedly.
“Tending to the nags, I suppose, old drunkard.” Her voice sing-songed.
She pulled a bundle of hay and tender from under her woolen shirt.
Haerd sat up. “Have you finally lost your reason, woman? Get away from there!”
The rest of the gathering fell silent.
The tender in place, Ylsa snatched arm loads of dried wood and threw them into the pit carelessly. A flame pounced and spread.
Haerd staggered up and strode to her. Grabbing her, he spun her around.
“Do you disobey your king?” He raised his sword.
“My king? Never!” Ylsa spat. “The wife of Storr is always faithful to the man who leads our people.”
Shoving her aside, Haerd grabbed a blanket from a child and bent to beat the fire out. He dropped his sword.
Ylsa stepped back. She hefted Haerd’s shield.
“The man who leads our people has gone away to battle.” She spoke in a whisper.
Haerd turned his head to listen.
“The man who leads our people may live to see our people free,” She stepped towards Haerd. “Or the man who leads our people may die clutching his weapon. No such favor will be afforded you!”
The old woman drew back and swung the shield as hard as her small frame allowed. She lost her balance. The shield flew from her hands. Iron and wood clapped into the back of Haerd’s head. His bulk collapsed into the hearth.
Ylsa snatched a torch from someone’s hand. Holding it first into the wood, she coaxed the fire up into a blaze. Her second and third jabs were at Haerd’s pant leg and tunic.
She turned to her people.
“If you have one, grab a weapon!” She shouted. “Tonight is the night of sacrifice! Tonight the death of our village is wrought by a very old monster!”
She touched the torch to the hem of her skirt. A dirk appeared in her other hand. She held the torch up high, its flames craving the oxygen close to the ceiling.
“The monster fights, even if her village will not!” Enveloped in flames, Ylsa let the torch fall backward. It landed on the ancient throne, starting it to smoldering. Ylsa screamed and ran into the crowd. Her dirk arcing wide around her.
~ ~ ~
Storr closed his eyes as he wedged the last pole in place against the doors of the great hall. He could hear screams. His eyes stinging, he shook his head and smiled. Only Ylsa, he thought.
Retrieving his shield and spear, he crept slowly back to his place in the center of the village. Movement. He wiped away his tears and forced his failing eyes to focus. Shapes approached him quickly in the darkness.
Daerin ran past him. Ari and Havelock halted in front of him. Storr sighed, and then laughed mightily.
“The girl lives!” he exclaimed. “This is everyone?”
Havelock nodded, steadying himself with an arm on the elder’s shoulder. Storr straightened his back and peered over the younger man.
“It’s not much of a start,” he said.
“Ready your spear, old man.” Havelock gasped. “One Berserker fell. I think the other is pursuing us. I don’t know what became of the Wargaz.” He shoved Ari in the direction of one of the longboats. “You are too old to be out this late, old man.” Storr dismissively nodded his agreement.
“Get to the boat, fool. And take this.” Storr handed Havelock his shield. “Give it to the boy. The sea wind is cold at night.”
Havelock nodded, hefting the shield in salute before running to the boat.
Smoke started to waft under the door of the great hall. Storr held his spear in the sentry position and faced the dark.
Havelock crashed onto the longboat. Brede stood at the bow with a broad axe, tensed to get under way. Tate crouched next to him.
Ari spotted her mother and Artis tucked into the bow of the ship. She ran to them and folded herself beside them. A blanket was passed to her. Daerin, his back to them, played with the weight of the sword in his hands.
Ingrid’s eyes cast about and then settled on the slumping figure against the low starboard sidewall.
“Elgira. Come here to us.”
Elgira, sobbing and her face streaked with tears, crossed and laid her head in Inga’s lap. Ari reached out from under her blanket and stroked the widow’s hair.
Tense moments passed as Brede prepared the ship. Havelock motioned Daerin and Tate to follow him to the stern.
Face to the village, Havelock started to say the funeral rite. Tate, a determined concentration on his face, nocked an arrow in his bow and passed the oily rag tied to the shaft through the flames of a metal fire pit. Aiming carefully, he shot the arrow at the furthest hut. He repeated this slowly and with reverence until each building had caught alight. The great hall was a mass of fire silhouetting Storr.
Havelock ended the funeral rite. Brede strode past him and slammed his axe into the mooring line. No wind caught the sail. The men raced to the oars. The boat began to drift along the dock when Storr shouted. Tate grabbed another arrow. A great shadow charged in long strides at Storr. Storr turned the point of his spear to meet the Berserker. Tate passed the arrow through the fire, aimed, and waited.
Storr sidestepped the charge and drove the shaft of his spear backwards. The Berserker howled and clutched its ribcage. Spinning, the beast backhanded Storr to the ground. Storr lifted his spear, catching the charging Berserker deep in its shoulder. Staggering back, the Berserker lifted its leg over Storr’s head. The great hall collapsed in a shower of sparks. Smoke blossomed outward like an explosion.
Tate exhaled and let the arrow fly. It split the air. Flame marked the bronze arrowhead’s path into Storr’s heart. His clothes catching, he fell dead before the Berserker’s foot trampled him.
The boat picked up speed. Turning its head, the Berserker caught sight of them. Screaming, the monstrosity pounded onto the pier. The wood shook and cracked under its weight. Brede and Havelock dropped their oars and raced for boarding pikes. Daerin threw Tate out of the way and readied his sword. The men formed rank on instinct and planted themselves firmly.
Seeing the oars abandoned, Tate hollered to his mother. He scrambled to get hold of a slacking oar. Artis slammed into him and clutched at the oar. Ari, blanket tangling her arms, helped her mother control another. Elgira wrestled the foremost starboard oar by herself. Tate looked over his shoulder fearfully.
The pier receded gradually. The stern slid past the dock’s edge five seconds before the Berserker reached it. The men, anticipating it would jump, readied to receive the thing. The Berserker halted at the edge of the pier and looked down. Fear sparked on its face. It screamed in terror and backed up several steps. Anger seized it again. It wailed and growled at them well after they reached deep water.
~ ~ ~
Ari walked up to her father and Tate at the stern of the vessel. The fire pit was doused. Brede and Daerin each took an oar. Havelock tried to coax Elgira to give him the oar, but her sadness and anger had found a focus. Tate squatted under Storr’s shield and stared at nothing, Artis cuddled up next to him. The waters rocked them gently. Havelock watched the smoke from the village billow upwards. Ari glanced nervously at the limp sail.
“What happened to the Wargaz?” Ari asked quietly.
“No one saw him after Baldur speared him,” her father feigned a reassuring tone.
“The Strangler controls the wind. Haerd said that.” Ari stated.
Havelock nodded. “Yes he did.”
“Why destroy the village? Why kill all-“ Her father cut her off.
“The others had lost their will to fight. They could accept submission. We could not.” He said.
“And the smoke? It is to tell us which way the wind is blowing?” Ari asked.
“Smart girl.” Tate muttered.
“What keeps him from taking another ship?” Fear touched her voice.
“Brede.” Havelock stated. “It pained him, but he drilled holes below each ship’s water line. Besides, I don’t think the Strangler can cross water easily.”
“Where do we go now?” she wondered.
“Nowhere near the lands and islands we know.” Havelock announced. “We’ll follow the sea. It has winds of its own. It will take us somewhere.”
Hours passed. The light from the village disappeared. Ari sat in the bow, but could not sleep. Ingrid sat next to her, concern on her face. At sunrise a breeze arose, filling the sail and pulling the ship further into the deep waters. A natural breeze, Ari decided, with the smell of salt and great white birds flapping their wings to stay aloft against it. Around her were friends and family. Each had decided that she should live. They were few, but they had strength. Ari’s mind opened to sleep before her eyes could close.


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