"Please, Oracle. Tell me. I have scarcely any hope left."
Small bones hanging by threads rattled in synchronization with the breeze slithering through the cracks in the wooden walls. There was an intense smell of herbs and decay in the air, leaving a cloying acid taste on the tongue.
But Aslaug took no notice of the odor, for all her senses were focused on the man before her, sitting in judgement with his eternally malformed face. The old man could not see her for his eyes had been taken from him a long time ago, either by sickness or injury. Aslaug could not know since the Oracle had always looked like thus for decades, perhaps centuries considering what some of the town's people believed. But what was certain was that those that knew the man's story perished a long time ago, their bones turned to ash by time.
He did not need eyes to see her, Aslaug knew. His mystical powers granted him a sight mortals couldn't even dream of. In the end, they would have been just a hindrance to his wisdom.
"Do not fear, child." The raspy voice of the deformed man echoed across his small, clustered abode. "The boneless one will not fade to obscurity. He will rise above the brothers, his name resounding across the distant land with terror."
The woman gasped in relief as a smile of pure joy grew on her lips. Her son, Ivar, had from the moment he was born been a considerable concern to her. She had tried to peer into the future, induce visions and even looked into the bones, but she could see nothing. His fate was blind to her.
Out of her sons, she loved him the most. He was her son, not Ragnar's, who shunned him away the first moment he laid his eyes on his crippled legs. Her only wish had been for Ivar to live as normally as his brothers, to not be pushed to the side because of his hindrance. He was strong. She only wished Ragnar and the others could see it too.
The Oracle hummed deep in his throat as he craned his neck. "But I fear he will not be a happy man. His path is a lonely and treacherous one. The exhilaration from battle will fade and all that will be left is a hollowness that will empty his soul."
Her happiness shattered like a struck jewel. No…
Just when hope bloomed inside her, lifting her spirits out of the despairing gloom, it was taken away mercilessly within a blink of an eye. The Gods were cruel indeed.
"Will my son never taste joy, Great One?" Aslaug clasped her hands, feeling her eyes stinging with tears of frustration and sadness. "I knew, even before he was even born, that he will be different from other children. I saw it in my visions, and yet…I still hoped. That maybe he could find a reason to smile and not brood over the fate the Gods had given him."
Like an ancient tree, the Oracle shifted in his raggedy robes, his bones clanking as his leathery skin creaked. There was no pity to the undying man. His role on the living world was to guide and advice, not to be a shoulder to cry on. Even if his words would not be received kindly, they were the truth and that was what the Oracle expressed.
"There is a light in the darkness, but it is dim and always in constant threat of dying. It is up to your son if he will keep it burning…or smother it himself." He finished ominously.
Aslaug took his hand. The image of willowy, soft pale fingers against pink skin with a sickly greenish tinge was as different as fire and ice. The Oracle himself shrunk back, minutely loosing his composure. He was not used to being touched by human hands.
"This light," The beautiful woman's bottomless blue eyes stared at him like her last hope in a sinking ship. "Can it help him?"
"You mean save him." The Oracle chuckled snidely, knowing the woman's thoughts. Mothers and their offspring… "No. His path is set, but it can guide him when the darkness takes over."
The Oracle's skeletal fingers with black nails shaped into claws, suddenly clutched at Aslaug's hand tightly. He hunched over, ever so close to her. His whisper, barely above the slight breeze, wary of even the dead hearing.
"Be warned, Aslaug." As dry as withered grass and as cutting as a blade, his voice harbored bad omens and storms to come. "This light is not as harmless as it seems. It is a treacherous one, a double edge blade. The Gods are not as simple as they make themselves to be, and neither are their creations."
Once the warmth that Aslaug's presence brought disappeared from his dwelling, the Oracle looked over the goat's skull settled among a myriad of tiny bones, wasted flowers and animal organs. It's hollow eyes lured him in, trying to trap him within the boundless void with promises of wondrous sights to see.
He had seen it before. In his countless decades alive, he had only seen it in a handful of people he could count on one rotted hand. The Princess Aslaug had the light, even Floki in his eccentricity and astuteness was but a bud still waiting to bloom, but they both paled in comparison to the one waiting on the other side of the volatile sea.
He wished he could meet her, but the man knew he would never get the chance. Events that will transpire, years from now, will see to that. Her path did not lead to the frozen lands of his Gods.
What will you do, girl? Warm him or burn him?
Or will your light be smothered by your own hands?
The earth felt so cool.
Sweat poured down her skin as she dug through the soil. The hole had to be deep enough so the fires wouldn't spread to the nearby forest, a lesson her Grandfather had taught her when one of their dogs had died.
The old man had breathed his last breath this morning. The sun hadn't even risen properly when she heard him gasp softly and no more did he move. She hadn't cried. For some time now, she had known his end was nigh, but even so, nothing in the world could have prepared her for the hollowness that followed. She felt nothing, as if all sentiment had deserted her and all that was left behind was an empty space where her heart was supposed to be.
Grandfather had been her only living loved one. And with that thought came the realization that she was now alone in the world. In this cruel, harsh world that offered nothing but hostility and misery. The sky seemed to cave in on her and trees loomed ominously, casting deceptive shadows that threatened to engulf her.
What was she supposed to do without Grandfather? He had been the last bastion that stood guard against the monsters outside their cottage. He had been her protector, her one shining light in the void and now…That flame had been snuffed and she was thrust into the darkness, alone and without a way out.
Her grip on the makeshift shovel tightened.
"You have to be strong, child. I will not be by your side for all eternity. You need to learn to endure on your own. This life is not a cheerful one. It is cruel and harsh that can bring you to your knees if you are not careful enough. You always need to be one step ahead of these simpletons."
Her teeth scraped against the plump flesh of her lower lip, pearls of ruby red gathering.
"You have a gift, girl. But those fools down in the valley cannot see it. What they cannot understand makes them fear, and in turn, that fear blossoms into anger and hatred. Once I am gone, they will show you no mercy."
The shovel fell with a wet thump. The girl clutched her arms tightly, unable to control the shaking of her body. Fear gripped her soul with an iron fist, leaving her stomach in a gnarled twist.
She had to leave York, abandon the cottage she had named home for the past decade. Once the townspeople heard of her Grandfather's demise they would not wait. The high priest would make sure of it. She could already hear his raving chants of devils and witches, declaring that God wanted blood to be spilled on the cobblestones. She was to be purified of her wickedness via hanging or burning at the stake.
The girl wanted neither of those things to happen to her. She had done nothing but exist. How was that an affront to God?
"Never despair, my sweet girl. You are more precious than you can understand. A diamond in a sea of pebbles. Even my life is nothing compared to yours. You were the one chosen."
She never liked it when he spoke like that. As if there was some grand design to her meager existence. She was nothing but a vagabond with neither past nor future. A drifter like so many others in this world. The ones of note had their lives sung in grand sonnets, their accomplishments a tapestry of color and glory. This skinny girl did not quite compare to those heroes of old.
Sometimes, the old man frightened her. Words turned to heated tirades and he would pace relentlessly across their meager house, losing himself to his own world. His raving would continue until he fell asleep in his favorite chair, covered by a blanket the girl threw on him later on.
Her knees gave way and the girl slid to the cold ground, invisible tears rolling down her cheeks.
He was dead now. There would be no more rantings, no more stories, no more lectures or lessons to be learned.
Grey eyes the color of an approaching storm moved across the shallow grave to the human figure wrapped in white linen. Once, her Grandfather had been a boisterous man with a healthy gut, limbs the size of tree trunks and a thick mop of stubborn hair. But the last few months had toppled down the bear of a man she knew. He had always had a funny cough, but the moment he woke up one day and spat blood was when they both knew a sickness had taken over. Or perhaps, it had always been there as her Grandfather discerned. Waiting for the right time to manifest itself.
Looking at the corpse now, she could find no trace of the man she had grown up with. A shriveled up old man, weighting less than a feather with weak bones and no voice. She had had to feed and bathe him like a newborn babe. He never said it, or perhaps he couldn't after his voice was taken, but she knew he was ashamed. That for a man the size of a giant and with the strength of an ox being reduced to a wisp, unable to do even the most rudimentary of tasks, had been a large kick to his pride.
The girl had never once cared that she had had to take care of him. What crushed her heart was knowing that the only person she loved in this world was withering away right before her eyes and there wasn't a damned thing she could do about it. All their ointments and elixirs and decoctions had done nothing, not even prolong the man's life. Her so called gift could do nothing but silently watch. The only thing the girl had been capable of doing was to keep the man in a suspended state of numbness as the pain became too great to bear.
Taking a deep breath, the girl rose to her feet and brushed the dirt off her dress. She still had this hole to finish and she couldn't let the corpse out in the rising heat any longer. It was an unusually warm day for the beginnings of summer and the body was starting to get ripe.
The sound of metal parting soil was strangely calming.
Her Grandfather had had a good life. There had been ups and downs throughout the years, but he never once complained. He always took everything with a grain of salt and was never one of short vision. The girl could say that her old man was the most wisest person she had ever met. The stories he had told her of his younger days when vigorous blood still pumped through his veins…Odes could have been written in his honor.
She wiped the excess sweat from her face, leaving a faint smudge of dirt behind.
She threw the shovel out and climbed out of the hole. With a tired sigh, she grabbed her Grandfather by the rope winded across his body and pulled him across the short grass. It wasn't a physically demanding task, he had after all lost the majority of his weight. The girl just couldn't handle the fact that she was taking her Grandfather on his last road.
Her eyes stung as she dragged the body into the hole. It wasn't wide, only enough for her Grandfather to remain in a fetal position. Over his cadaver she threw an abundance of dried up grass, enough to drown his entire form. The girl left no memorabilia with him like all people did with their dead. The old bear had always loathed the idea of burying objects or burning them when they could still be of use.
The girl took out the flint and steel set in her leather pouch and began striking the two just above the dried vegetation.
Her Grandfather had never wanted to be buried. He had wished to be burnt and then scattered to the sea's capricious wind and the girl was ready to fulfill his wish. She would journey to the edge of England and throw his remains down the high cliffs. From there…only fate knew.
Sparks rained upon the yellowed grass.
These were to be her last few hours spent at home. In heading towards the sea to keep her Grandfather's dying wish, the old man was forcing her to forgo the comfort of her home and never return. He had planned it all before the sickness took away his senses. He would not leave her without making sure she made her own way in life. There was no one he could send her off to, no family or friend that would understand her situation, so she had to survive on the teachings he bestowed upon her and her own wits.
Smoke rose and the girl made sure she lit up a few more areas before scuttling out of the grave. It didn't take long until fire ignited and engulfed her Grandfather's dried up frame.
Numbness overcame her as she watched the flames eat his body. The hollowness in her soul grew, leaving her feet cold and her bones weary.
Poor, poor girl.
What is she to do now?
The girl winced. They were back.
She had thought that today of all days she would get a reprieve from their judgmental and harsh whispers, but alas, it was not meant to be. They were always with her no matter what she did, no matter how many times she had tried getting rid of them.
What are you going to do?
Cry like you always do. Run away.
Survive. Do not listen. You are stronger than you think.
Weak girl, foolish girl.
It had been too quiet all morning. Her head empty of these sharp voices and it had put her at unease. Whenever they left her alone, it meant something was amiss. The girl had realized years ago that whenever she experienced heightened emotions, they would cascade upon her like vultures on a fresh carcass. That was why she had tried to instill a sense of serenity and quiet within her, to at least push them back to only a tingle at the back of her mind. Her Grandfather had been disapproving of her choice, believing that the voices was God's light shining upon her, but he was not the one to live inside her head. He did not have to carry this burden day and night.
The smell of burnt meat carried over to her and she gagged, retreating a few steps.
You cannot do this.
I knew she could not.
Avert your eyes and think that all will be well.
Look into the fire and see your reality. Death is the only answer in the end.
Condescending, mean, sometimes helpful, and always there to shout their opinions. She hated them.
Her eyes averted to the sky. She searched for signs that would put her at ease, anything that might repel the cavalcade of dark voices trying to further dampen her already sour mood. But alas, the heavens gave her no answer. Only the bright sun and white clouds painted across the clear blue sky loomed overhead.
The girl shivered, unable to escape the foreboding feeling in the pit of her bones. Ever since this morning, she hadn't been able to let down her guard. She woke up with a scream on her lips and her skin damp from cold sweat. That dream had haunted her again, the one she'd been having for the last couple of months. Even now, the vision came to her as clear as the sky above—
She could see the peaceful waves, scattering across the vast sea. Around her was nothing but dark water, not even a patch of dry land could be seen in the distance. She ran…and ran and ran…but to no avail. There was just the calm waters trapping her in an endless void. Her screams had fallen on deaf ears, her tears left unnoticed for only the darkness beneath her.
Shed no tears for you are home, child.
They tried to sooth her, but she could never trust their honeyed words. How many times had they tricked her, only to laugh and belittle her soon after?
She would not listen to them.
She was lost. Alone and forgotten. This would be her grave, as they had always promised her. A death overlooked by the ones to come. Her bones turned to dust and scattered to the sea's pitiless wind.
God is not here. He cannot help you.
The girl began to cry.
Only They can help you. The Ones across the sea.
But there was no one. The sea was infinite with no sun or moon high up in the sky, no stars to guide herself by.
This was the place before Death took you.
Before her, dark clouds gathered with a swiftness she had never seen before and in the distance, booming thunders rolled like war drums.
He is coming for you.
She covered her ears like a frightened child. Who was coming?
The dark water rippled. The girl looked through blurry, tear filled eyes to witness a dark shape move like lightning.
There was no time to scream. No time to run.
In horror, she watched with words stuck to her throat as from out of the sea rose a great serpent with vivid eyes the color of the richest sky.
A storm of the highest intensity broke out with lightning descending upon the sea like a spider's web. The waves rose and lashed with abandon as the monster coiled around her with a swiftness that terrified her to her very soul. With each spiral, its grip tightened and it was all she could do not to suffocate. With barely any breath left, the serpent slowly came to a halt, its face a mere two feet from her.
Its head was enormous, three times the size of her own, but all she could see were those blue eyes staring at her. Those electric blue eyes that seemed to transcend her skin and flesh and peer straight into her soul, judging her sinful existence.
The girl tried to struggle, she tried to scream, but all was for naught. Her voice had been muted and her whole body felt like lead. There was no escape. Death had come to collect its due.
The serpent opened its maw wide, its fangs as long as her arms and as white as pure pearls—
The girl gasped as she returned to the present. There was no thrashing sea or giant serpent about to devour her. It was only her and the burning body.
She never knew what happened next in her dream. Each and every time waking up before the serpent could make its move. Its choice was unknown to her—to spare or damn her—and the girl had no desire to know. It was just too terrifying. The infinite tension she relieved each and every time in the dream was enough to age her prematurely.
This hadn't been the first time she'd dreamt of serpents, but they had never been of that stature. This dream distinguished itself from the others from the simple fact that it frightened her to her very soul. The others had been vague and sometimes damn near incomprehensible. The girl at times would forget its contents come morning and think them as insignificant. The livid ones were far and few in between and she could count them on one hand. They were the ones that were etched deeply into her mind, never to be forgotten.
The serpent is coming.
What will you do when you face him?
Cower and fear like always.
Laughter upon laughter.
"Shut up…" The girl whispered to know one.
Do not fear him. He will bring about your salvation.
Death and blood follow him. Do not listen.
The girl gritted her teeth. This was her Grandfather's funeral. Had they no shame?
Blood! Blood! Blood!
This country shall be drowned by the Old Ones.
You are stronger than you think. Do not despair.
Throw yourself off the rocks of England. Spare yourself the pain.
She covered her ears as they screamed and laughed and wailed inside her head, creating a cacophony of indecipherable noise. Blood pooled and her lower lip throbbed in pain.
Why must they torture her? Hadn't she suffered enough today?
Suddenly, as if hearing her prayers, they ceased. The girl's eyes popped open in surprise. She listened, but only the crackling of the fire was heard and the slight summer breeze.
Why did they stop? They never once listened to her before, doing as they always pleased.
But once she heard that dreadful whisper, thick as tar and full of dark promises, she knew something was terribly wrong.
He is here.
His crawl was distinctive as he made his way after his brothers and two of their men in the rich undergrowth of the forest.
Sweat dribbled down his forehead from the warm noon air. Even after all these seasons in this foreign land, Ivar still couldn't get used to its temperamental climate. He had lived most of life in the harsh winters and cold summers of Norway. This land of the Anglo-Saxons was as fickle as its people, changing from one moment after another, be it rain or shine or cold…and rain once again.
He was on edge. They had arrived yesterday on the outskirts of York and if it had been by his lead they would have attacked the town today, but no, his brothers had other ideas. They wanted to wait for a saint's day so the people would be caught unprepared for their mighty force to descend upon them unleashing death and carnage.
The longer they waited, the more chances their large force would be discovered. Patience was not one of Ivar's virtues. He wanted that town ransacked and conquered now. Instead, they were out in the forest surrounding York searching for that hunter or poacher or wayward soul that would give them some insight into their town's festivities.
What a waste of time.
Ivar's gaze scattered over the forest. While similar to his homeland's it just didn't quite match. It was moments like these that made him long for his home and its people. He didn't understand these saxons with their customs and false gods. Not that he cared much to know them, more to decimate and herd them under his rule.
He sent a veiled glower over to his brothers. Their father had entrusted Ivar with conquering all of this land, but his brothers wouldn't even hear of it. They must all have equal roles in this great invasion, otherwise in Ubba's opinion, they would fail.
Ivar found it amusing, to say the least.
Up ahead, Hvitserk stopped.
"Let us rest, brothers."
"What is it, Hvitserk?" Ivar smirked from below. His brother hid it well, but his breathing was labored. "Tired already?"
Hvitserk glared lightly, but paid no attention to his crippled brother, favoring Ubba's council instead.
My sweet brother…Always looking towards others for guidance. He was like a sword in that respect. He needed to be handle by a firm grip for him to be of any use. While Hvitserk may be strong and fluid in battle, he was not exactly the smartest of the brothers. His easily influenced nature was also another trait that Ivar found both infuriating and to his advantage.
"Alright. Let us take a small break." Ubba plopped down on the fallen trunk of a tree. The two warriors took note and settled wherever they found most comfortable. "We have been walking since daybreak."
Ivar scoffed, annoyed by this interruption, but he too was tired. He did not have the advantage his brothers had. He had to use his arms to drag his whole body's weight and it could become tiring after a while.
Settling against the base of a tree, he drank from his flask, gulping down water like an animal.
"Slow down, Ivar. You will upset your tired stomach."
Ivar glared with a tight smirk, but Hvitserk only smiled jovially. That was retaliation for his earlier jab.
Wipping the rogue droplets from his chin, Ivar stared out in the emptiness of the forest. Except for some birds chirping, there was nothing to hear. There was even less to see as nothing but green vegetation surrounded them.
Again, Ivar was reminded of the futility of their search and this time he wasn't able to contain his anger.
"This is pointless!" He threw his flask away, the leather bound object stopping with a clank once it hit the dirt near one of the warriors. "We have been walking around this forest for a day now, hoping to run into someone. And what do you see? Nothing! We are wasting time instead of taking over York."
Ubba sighed as they had went over this conversation time and time again. At this point, they were merely recycling already used words and arriving at the same conclusion.
"Patience, brother." His brother just wouldn't understand. "We cannot attack the town just on a whim."
"Why not?" His younger brother challenged him. He seemed to be doing much of that lately, to the point of sounding insolent. "Our army is big enough to crush those stone buildings. The saxons are nothing against our prowess. The only thing they can do is run and hide like the cowards they are. Even their own King laid down his life once he saw our might!"
"Because they will be on guard." Did Ubba really have to explain this? His brother was smart enough to anticipate this and yet, he still persisted. "Why lose lives needlessly when we can attack them wisely? You know this."
Something shifted in the crippled man's expression. Shadows darkened his eyes, and Ubba knew he just had something scalding on the tip of his tongue.
"Now, I never expected you to be afraid of a little tussle, brother."
Ubba gave him a pointed look, but smiled humorously. He was not Hvitserk. He would not rise to his younger brother's juvenile jabs.
"Calm down, Ivar." Hvitserk chuckled as he bit on an apple he kept as breakfast. "The saxons will not go anywhere. Plenty of them to kill."
Ivar scoffed. He was beginning to get tired of always being down-voted in these discussions. Hvitserk, like the pawn he was, always followed Ubba's lead, never mind if it was good or bad.
As Ivar glared at his brother by his place leaning against a tree, he spotted something in the distance that melted away his anger.
"What?" Hvitserk frowned as he finally noticed his brother's fixated stare. It was beginning to annoy him.
As if bitten, Hvitserk moved out of the way expecting the tree to catch on fire. Any other day it would have been amusing, but right now Ivar was far more consumed with curiosity.
Even Ubba stopped eating his berries and looked on inquisitively.
White smoke rose above the crown of the trees. It wasn't sufficient to signal a forest fire, but enough to rise their curiosity.
Hvitserk peered, shielding his eyes from the bright sun above.
"Someone is burning something."
Ivar rolled his eyes, annoyed at his brother's plainness. "I can see that, Hvitserk. My question is, what exactly? That is no camp fire."
"It is too thick to be one." Ubba stepped beside his brother and watched, a glimmer in his bright blue eyes. "I think we found our guide."
The oldest of the brothers looked to his men and siblings with a small smile playing on his lips, his breakfast forgotten on the forest floor.
"Come. Let us see what the fire reveals."
The northmen picked up speed, with Ivar following as quickly as his arms could carry him.
Dirtied fingers parted the tall grass out of his field of vision.
Ivar looked on as a young woman stood next to a burning pit, oblivious that she was being watched like prey. She was hunched over herself, covering her ears as if shielding herself from a loud sound. She was shouting, though Ivar could not tell to who.
The fire raging beside her was from a burial and if that wasn't an indicator, the stench of burning flesh that engrossed the area, was.
The burning body wasn't of interest to Ivar. The girl's peculiar gestures were what made him frown in confusion as there was no answer to be found in sight. Who was she talking to?
"See, brother?" Ivar concentration broke as Ubba smiled knowingly at him. "The Gods are on our side. We just have to have patience."
Ivar said nothing, preferring to keep his own council. Perhaps this girl knew nothing and then they would be back at square one.
His older brother wasn't of the same mind as he motioned towards their two men. They knew what they had to do—capture her alive and unharmed. They wanted her talking, not a blubbering mess. People under extreme duress would say anything, even if it wasn't the truth, to save their lives.
He is here.
The girl froze in terror. That…was not something she was accustomed to hearing.
Someone is here.
Who is it?
Her heart beat faster in her chest.
Get away. Run.
Why are you not listening?
Stupid girl. Always too slow.
What was going on? They had never reacted in such a manner. There was clear anxiety in their words and she could feel the urge behind them to listen.
As the girl remained engrossed in the others ominous whispers, she did not hear the crackle of dried leaves or the snap of a twig.
They are coming to get you.
Run! Run! Run!
You are in danger.
Listen to us! Flee!
What felt like droplets of ice rolled down her spine, pinpricking her skin. She would not listen. They were just messing with her mind, as always. The girl took in a deep breath. Their treacherous words had gotten her in trouble more times that she could count. If she ignored them, they would go away for a time.
It had been final, and for once the girl listened to that pitch black voice out of pure instinct.
Never before had she ever felt glad for their guidance.
Behind her, just a mere couple of feet away, were two large shaggy beasts brandishing large weapons that glimmered like jewels in the blinding sun.
She felt time dilate around her. A sharp ringing in her ears encompassed the overflow of loud and harsh voices battling for dominance. The hairy beasts were coming closer and her feet felt like they had taken root in the ground.
Tears finally pooled at her lower lids.
They are coming to get you.
Why are you just standing there?
She wanted to go home.
They will kill you!
Die, you stupid little girl. Nobody can help you.
This had been such a grueling day…
One of the beast's reached for her, its hand large as her head. She felt like crumbling to a hundred pieces out of fear.
Within a fraction of a thought, all sound vanished from her spectrum except for one loud voice.
Time cracked and exploded, propelling her into the present.
The girl screamed as if she had been the one on fire.
Wasting not another second of precious time, she sprinted as fast as her legs allowed her. Thick fingers brushed past light chestnut locks, missing by a mere few inches. Leaves and thin branches cut her skin as she dashed across into the forest, her pursuers right on her trail, yelling in an obscure tongue.
Her scorching Grandfather was far removed from her mind. All that had happened this morning—the dream, his death—all evaporated in a blink of an eye as her survival instincts took over. Escape, run away—that was all that she could think off.
Where are you running off to?
You have no escape.
They are right behind you.
They were not helping. Their loud banter was similar to a hornet's nest stirred by a naughty child. The least they could do in this dangerous situation was to keep quiet and let her think.
Do not go that way.
You are heading towards death.
Fool! Turn away!
Turn where? She was flanked by those two brutes. If she deviated from her straight path, they would catch her, no doubt. Every second counted. She was faster than their massive frames, but if they even got one hand on her it would be the end. There was no possible way she could ever overpower those walking mountains.
She could not understand. How did this happen? One moment she was mourning over her Grandfather's cremation and now she was running for her life. Where had these two monsters appeared from? Were they bandits? They towered even over her Grandfather, who had been the tallest man she had ever known. Dressed in furs and leathers with large axes and hungry eyes, they ran after her like hounds on a trail of blood.
What would happen if they caught her?
You know what.
The girl whimpered. She did not want that to happen to her.
"You were not built for a sword, child. You are too small and too frail to pick up a hunk of steal heavier than your own body, but that does not mean you need be defenseless. You must be quick on your feet and strike like lightning when the time arises."
Her hand gripped the leather handle of the stiletto hanging near her pouch. She had never used it. The dagger had a virgin blade and right now, for the life of her, she couldn't remember the lessons her Grandfather taught he. Her mind simply drew a blank.
Oh, how she wished she had half the courage that old bear possessed. Despite being a scholar and a man of the world, her Grandfather had known how to swing a broadsword as good as any experienced knight. She wished he had had half a mind to share his secret to his immeasurable courage because right now she was seriously lacking in it.
Her hand shook as she took out the thin blade.
Use it. Kill them.
She cannot do it. She is too scared.
Kill yourself! What good are you now?
Look at her. She is close to soiling herself in fear.
Spare yourself the pain that will follow.
She balked. She wished, just once, they would not put her down so cruelly.
Rough fingers caught her ankle.
The world spun like a children's top and the girl fell face first, eating dirt. The impact jarred her whole body and the stiletto dropped out of her hand, falling lonely onto the soil.
Go! Do not stop!
Do not let them catch you!
You are going to die.
Fear and the voices propelled her forward and she crawled on hands and knees. She did not even care that there was dirt all over her face or that her knees were scrapped, the rough ground ripping through her dress.
She barely got two feet away when gloved fingers snaked around her ankles. The girl screamed as she was pulled back with shocking force. Hands clawed the ground in search of anything that would hinder her attacker and they came across the abandoned stiletto.
With swiftness surprising of her, the girl turned and faced her assailant. It was one of the shaggy men that ran after her. On close inspection, the man had a grim expression with violent eyes and harsh features ending in a rich grey beard. His snow white hair was long and unkempt, with many braids with tokens woven into them. All in all, he looked like a savage that had lived for far too long on a mountain with barely any company.
The stiletto flashed.
The man howled in pain.
You hurt him. He will not be merciful.
She did it! We knew you could.
Eyes the color of gloomy clouds watched in fascinated horror as the man observed the stiletto embedded into his arm. His yellowed teeth gritted in pain until she could hear them crunch under the force. With a bold flick, the man pulled the blade out. The crimson splashed over the gleaming steel caught her focus with a mesmerizing intensity.
I thought you had no bravery in you.
Stupid girl! He will kill you now!
Run! You are not strong enough!
The girl bayed deep in her throat as the beast man turned his hostile focus on her. She tried to get away for a third time only to have a heavy boot crash over her, leaving her without breath.
A coughing fit overcame her and she desperately tried to inhale oxygen, but the heavy pressure obstructed her air paths. She was slowly suffocating.
A man she could not see shouted something in that same strange tongue and the boot disappeared, much to her relief. The girl took deep gasping breaths, her chest throbbing in pain. It felt like a boulder had fallen onto her rib cage, caving it in.
Again, that voice boomed and the girl felt herself being raised from the ground like a toddler, muscled arms trapping her to a wide, hard body.
They will kill you! Fight!
This is what awaits you! Pain and death!
God is cruel, is he not?
Loud, sardonic cackling.
You must fight!
Why are you like this? Fight!
She cannot do it. Look at her.
Fight! Fight! Survive!
With growing alarm, the girl struggled and fought against her captor, but it was useless. It was like a mouse fighting against a lion's paw. She was no more threatening to them than a baby chick.
Why was this happening? Tears flowed down her cheeks. She had never done anyone any harm. She had lived a life far away from the bustle of the towns, away from getting into anyone's path. She harbored no more ill will towards those that had cursed and yelled at her, those that threw stones and eggs and anything hard enough their hands could carry.
Was it because of them? Was she such a repulsive, cursed creature that even the heavens could not spare her the least bit of mercy?
—Was she only born to suffer?
The men spoke in that foreign tongue. It was one she had never heard before, coarse and with a thick accent, quite unpleasant to the ears.
"Put her down."
With a harsh shove, she is settled on the ground and the girl backed away in fright until she hit the base of a tree. She did not even mind the bruises, she only wanted to be as far away from this situation as possible. If only angels really existed…
Wild eyes darted in every direction, her breath coming in in short episodes. There were more of them than she initially thought. Two more stood before her but they were not as frightening as the mountain giants. The taller one had a beard and mustache with both sides of his head shaven, leaving a trail of hair swept over his head and plaited into a long braid. The other's features were clean shaven with untamed hair pulled back with a few decorative braids. Both resembled each other in their dark blonde hair and striking blue eyes.
The bearded one took a few careful steps towards her. Shrinking back in fright, the girl flattened herself against the tree trunk, her heart wishing to leap out of her chest.
She wasn't supposed to be here.
"Calm down." The man spoke in a broken form of English. He raised his hands in a placating gesture, but the girl was not fooled. Those eyes were craved out of icy, precious stone. "We not here hurt. We talk."
"W-Who are you?" The girl stuttered, unable to contain her dread. "You are not from here."
His accent was too thick for him to be from here, that coupled with the strange tongue he used with the two beastmen.
"We are…an interested party in your fair land."
Someone else answered and it hadn't been one of the other three. This was a different voice, smooth and sharp as a knife.
A rustle came from the foliage, near the formation of moss covered boulders. Fingers gripped the hard stone and a form appeared overhead. It was a man, looking down on her with a wicked smirk and the cold eyes of ice covered mountains. But unlike other men, he crawled down the boulders, using only his hands to pull his body forward.
As the man approached, she realized with utter astonishment that he had the bluest eyes she'd ever seen. They were so bright they encompassed all her vision and she could do nothing but gaze into them, hypnotized. She had only once seen the color blue so vivid before and it chilled her to the bone.
One of the voices hissed with trepidation. They were frightened.
Do not let him near you! He will cause you harm!
The serpent has passed its judgement.
Do not let him touch you. Listen!
Her eyes widened in horror. That awful dream came hurling before her very eyes as the man crept purposefully slow to incite her growing dismay.
Tears threatened to drown her. This was not real. The serpent was not real. It was only a dream!
The girl tried to mold herself into the tree, without a care that she was hurting her back. She wanted to get away from this demon.
It was not real!
It is real. Why do you keep running away?
Why do you not listen?
Poor, poor girl.
Those glimmering orbs watched her fixedly.
"We are looking for some information that we think you may be able to help."
His voice was like velvet gently stroking a sharp blade, deceiving in its softness. If one was of a more simpler mind, they would have been drawn into that fallaciousness. They would have only deceived themselves as they realized only too late that the executioner's axe was hanging ominously above their necks.
The girl was not so easily tricked by devils with forked tongues and sweet words.
"We wish to know when the next saint's day will be." His smile was sharper than even her own stiletto.
Somehow, out of the deepest pits of her mind, came forth a piece of information that illuminated her fogged mind. These men with their battle leathers, shrill weapons, fair complexions and strange tongue…She had heard about them before.
For a year now, the feared barbarians from across the vast sea had been running across their country, pillaging and killing anyone in sight. York hadn't seen hide nor hair of them, and thought they would be spared the incursion since the savages seemed to concentrate on taking the south.
How wrong they had been as she now sat face to face with their plague.
The man serpent's smile spread into a terrific grin. He actually seemed pleased. "So you have heard of us. Good. This will make everything more easier."
"What do you want to know about the next saint's day?" She could not understand. These northmen were pagans that worshiped animals and giants, what was it to them to know of Christian festivities? "Is this a jest? Are you mocking me?"
"On the contrary. We are very serious." The man with electric blue eyes seemed to lose some of his amusement as it gave way to impatience. "I suggest you answer our question."
Do not tell them. They are the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Death will follow.
Corpses upon corpses…
A red sun shall rise.
The girl whimpered. No, that won't happen.
You know that is why they are here.
Those fools in the valley have forgotten this looming presence.
Only the strong survive. The weak shall perish. You shall die. All will die.
Why deny it? Death is staring at you. Look! He is watching ever so closely.
The girl did and Death had the most beautiful and terrifying eyes she had ever seen.
"Th-The Feast of Ascention. It's three days from now."
She was not a brave woman. There was nothing in her current condition she could do but comply to their demands.
The man serpent smiled triumphantly and held up three fingers for the others to see.
"We are lucky, brothers. We get to fight sooner rather than later."
The bearded one smiled in relief. "We should prepare out army. Ask her when everyone is in their holy temple, praying to their God."
Those aching sapphires returned to her.
"At what part of the day does your celebration start?"
She only hoped that whoever was up there would forgive her for her cowardice…She hoped that her Grandfather wasn't turning in his grave right now.
"And does everyone attend?"
The girl nodded. "The people of York are very religious."
"And what of you, girl? Hmm?"
Her head shook vehemently, almost startled. "I do not go there."
She did not like these questions. She did not wish to be the center of their attention.
"I am not welcome."
"Why is that?" He stressed, not pleased with her reluctance.
Because they fear you.
Foolish people. They think you are cursed. A walking plague. They know nothing.
We are more awake than those talking corpses with barely any thought except for the next crop season.
They hate you!
Her lips pursed and she shook her head. They did not need to know. These savages would kill her on the spot. Her Grandfather had told her stories about them, how they threw away their weak and deformed babes, killed their cripple and abandoned the sick.
And yet, why is this legless one still alive?
Only stories told to a child.
Was the old man telling the truth? Or was he a liar?
"The Northmen are a merciless breed, keeping only the strong alive. They are berserkers who are granted immense power from their pagan Gods. And once they fall in battle, they are greeted with wide open arms in their heaven, with no regards of their earthly deeds, good or bad. That is why we are so terrified of them. They do not fear death, they embrace it. The do not stop even once injured. Not even the loss of a limb can hinder them."
What chance did she have against that?
Shhh. Everything will be alright
Liar. She will be gutted and skinned and thrown into the fire right next to the old man.
You have to live.
Laughter all around, a flock of crows cackling at her dark future. She could not think from all the noise.
The cripple's eyes thinned, thinking she was impudently addressing him. A fingerless gloved hand caught her jaw in a bruising grip. Her focus returned to the now glaring eyes of the legless northman.
"Answer." He hissed dangerously low. She would not dare defy him.
"They think I am a witch." She sputtered out uncontrollably. She hadn't even been able to think properly when her mouth opened and the words came pouring out.
The man looked at her with an eerie blankness before he barked out a laugh that scared even the spectating brids out of their tall branches. He laughed so mockingly amused that it ignited a spark of hatred inside the small girl. She hated this man at the moment. Him and his cutting eyes and sharp smiles. He loathed him with every fiber of her being for the fact that he reminded her so much of her dream that she couldn't shake off the dread that followed with it.
And now this bastard was laughing at her.
What will you do? Scratch at him like a kitten?
You can do nothing. You are weak.
Do not listen. Strength does not lie in brawn alone.
"Are you now?" His laughter lowered to a sardonic chuckle as he stared her down taciturnly despite the same height. "Then how come we caught you so easily, hmm? Should you not have cast spells or curses that would turn us into toads?" He looked down on himself in jest. "I see no toad here."
The girl grimaced in humiliation, her ears burning.
"You are no witch, just a little girl lost in the woods." He then paused as a light frown descended over his features. "Why were you burning a body, little witch?"
"He was my grandfather. He died early this morning."
Poor, poor man. We will miss his rants.
Fool. For all his grandiose stories, he died alone and forgotten by all but one scrawny creature.
"Hmm…The you should be glad. He will not get to experience our mighty hoard descend upon your little town, slaughtering everyone in its path." He lightly brushed some strands of her long curly hair, and the girl felt the menace behind that seemingly simple gesture. "He got off lightly…but the same cannot be said for you."
The tension was cut in half like a knife by the one with the clean features.
"Ivar, are you done flirting with the girl?"
The legless one's eyes flattened like an annoyed cat's and he turned to the other.
"We should head back to the camp, do you not agree?" The man said with a whimsical smile.
"Hvitserk is right." The bearded one agreed as he looked to the crippled with a pointed stare. "We are waiting time. Let's be done here and move on."
He signaled one of the giants with a swift flick of his hand and turned his back on everyone. When the girl saw the man she had stabbed, brandish his axe with a hungry look in his eye, was when all hell broke loose. The girl forgot all her senses and scrambled to her feet.
She did not get far as she tripped over some overgrown roots and fell to the ground a second time. Before she could even think of getting to her feet, a boot crashed over her back and pinned her to the cool earth.
"No! No! Please!" She struggled futilely, tears streaming down her dirtied face. "Not like this! This is not how I die!"
For once, the voices in her head were silent. They would not utter a word, nervous of disturbing this solemn moment.
Was this to be her end?
She could feel them watching with hollow eyes as the beastman raised his axe up high. Not a word of comfort or ridicule was there to be heard, only the solitary stillness of her own thoughts.
She never felt so alone than in that moment.
"In the end…we all die alone, child."
Ivar glared, hoping to burn holes into his brothers backs. He wished they would stop interfering in his affairs.
Once the girl started yelling in despair was when his focus returned to her. Halvar was standing over her, preparing to swing his mighty axe.
A witch, eh?
The only supposed witch he knew had been his dear mother who swore she had prophetic dreams. And, of course, there was the Oracle of Kattegat. That deformed old man which surpassed time itself. Ivar had never once used his services, never needing the Gods guidance, but he'd herd of his reverence, sometimes even surpassing that of a Jarl's.
Ivar watched the struggling and weeping girl with indifference, but there was a spark of curiosity hidden in those bright orbs. Who had she been talking to? She had not been just screaming her grief. She had been shouting at someone to keep quiet. But who?
He took out the bloodied stiletto he had pocketed and observed it carefully. The blade was sharp and the handle carefully sculpted out of animal bone. There were tiny carvings into it depicting a hunting scene—a ravenous wolf running after a nimble deer.
Was she really a witch?
He looked towards his warrior and the frail girl, so similar to the carvings in the bone.
It would be interesting to meet one.
Halvar hesitated, the sun reflecting off his sharp axe.
With a huff, Ivar slithered over to the pair, not wholly understanding his decision. It felt more like an impulse than a thought out choice.
The man cleared the path and Ivar settled next to the labored girl, shaking like a leaf in a gale. Her cheeks were wet with tears, tracing clear paths across the smudges of dirt. Those stormy eyes were wide in shock, but Ivar cared nothing for her state of mind. He caught her jaw and raised her face to meet his.
So close to her, he could smell a faint trace of sharp liquor mixed with spicy herbs. It was an odd combination that both made Ivar want to shrink away and get closer.
"Who made this knife, little witch?"
"I—I…" The girl swallowed even as her throat was dry. "My grandfather."
"Was he also a sorcerer?" He mocked.
The girl shook her head. "He was a scholar and a healer."
"A medicine man?"
The girl gasped as she finally moved from her frozen state. "We made decoctions and elixirs and ointments."
"You are versed in the healing arts then?"
The girl paused in hesitancy. "More or less. I am more knowledgeable in herbal crafting."
Ivar's mind spun cunningly. It could never hurt…
"Where do you live, witch girl? Since you are not welcome in York, that makes me believe you live somewhere near."
"At the edge of the forest, north of here. There is a small cottage." A fresh set of tears threatened to gush forth. "My home…"
Her eyes widen in disbelief.
The man looked towards his two brothers, who waited for him in the distance with the warrior.
"What are you doing? We need to leave." Ubba stated disapprovingly of this delay.
"You go ahead! I will reach the encampment later!"
"Do not tell me you took a fancy to the girl." Hvitserk laughed in high spirits. "Even you must have better taste than that."
Ivar's irritation fluttered and it was felt in the girl's jaw as his grip tightened bruisingly. "I am merely interested in some things she said. She proclaims to be a witch."
The warrior beside Ivar stirred and took a half step back, spitting curses.
Simple-minded fool, Ivar thought as his eyes rolled.
Ubba sighed. "We do not have time for this, Ivar. She is simply trying to prolong her life."
"Go on ahead. Do not worry about me. Halvar will stay and be my bodyguard." He indicated the white haired man who had been moments away from killing the girl.
Ubba gave him that exasperated wide eyed stare, but Ivar would not back down. This was one matter his brother had no say in.
"Fine. Do as you please, but return by nightfall."
Ivar nodded, smirking lightly.
Hvitserk looked to his brother incredulously. As they marched away from their crippled brother, he joined his side, confused in this turn of events.
"Are you serious, brother?"
"If Ivar wants to chase fairy tales, let him. He always does what he wants. I learned soon that it is better to keep him content when it comes to his curiosity."
Hvitserk looked behind him one last time, before shrugging casually.
Ubba wasn't wrong in that regard.