Chapter 1: I Dream of Serpents
"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.
Chapter 2: These Shackles are My Burden
Three forms walked through the thick forest, their shadows dancing across the parting leaves.
The girl felt so drained of strength as she walked with her hands bound in tight rope, led around like a dog by the white haired giant. Her limbs felt heavy as she dragged them across the cool earth while her wrists stung from the harshness of the cord. The man serpent was not far behind, crawling after them relentlessly. She had thought for someone using only his arms, he would tire more quickly, but there was not a drop of sweat on him.
They were not far now. Only a few more minutes and they would be out into the clearing, where her home was.
The girl felt the corner of her lips turn downwards. She had left Grandfather behind to be reduced to ash. The whispers had been right, his fate was to be forgotten. Abandoned even by her. It broke her heart leaving him behind, but there was nothing to be done. Her hands were literally tied.
Are you going to cry again? How ugly.
"Shh." Her frown deepened. She did not wish to hear their opinions. "Stop it."
No one will judge you. He was a great man.
Do not show your tears. They can smell your weakness.
Weak girl. You can do nothing but cry. That is why the old man left. He could not bear the sight of you.
"Shut up!" The girl exploded, startling even the man in front. He hissed in that harsh tongue of his and spat at her feet, before returning to the path ahead.
"Who are you talking to, witch girl?" The girl almost tripped as she looked behind her to find cold eyes staring her down. "You keep whispering to yourself."
Stupid. They cannot know.
Our words are not for their ears.
The girl hadn't realized that she had been doing it. She had lived so long isolated with only Grandfather for company who was used to hearing her talk out loud, that she was unaccustomed to controlling herself.
The fear was back. The other one may not understand her, but his leader did and she could see the suspicion swimming in his eyes. How the giant could defer to the cripple was uncomprehending to her. With one swing of his axe, the man could cleave the legless one with ease and yet, he obeyed every command as if he were the dog instead.
"Well?" The cripple's impatience was once again rising to the surface.
"It is nothing." She said meekly.
"Do I frighten you?"
The girl kept her tongue still.
"Look at me."
With great reluctance, she turned her head and gazed down at him, but the moment she caught his eye, they immediately darted to his cheek. She would not look in those orbs. However much they glittered deceptively pretty, she could not deny the darkness within them.
The serpent scoffed, disdain on his lips. "You cannot even do that. As you see, I am a cripple. And yet, you still fear me."
"You tried to kill me!" She snapped, her frazzled nerves making her forget her place. She was the prisoner here, not him.
Immediately, she shrunk back once that darkness threatened to swallow her. He did not look pleased with her snapish remark.
"Halvar did, not I. But you are not entirely wrong." His glower seemed to dilute as he climbed over some low rock formations. For a cripple, he was very dynamic. Evading obstacles with ease and she could see the muscles in his arms bulge underneath the leather. There was no doubt that the young man could snap another's neck with ease. "Tell me, witch. Once I get passed the gate, what will I encounter?"
The girl blinked, moving her gaze away from his arms. It would not do to stare, especially at the enemy.
"Buildings, stores, houses. More civilians than guards."
"Where is the holy temple?"
"The…church? At the center of the town."
The girl knew nothing of warfare or battle tactics, but even she realized that that would be the best place to strike. If everyone was supposed to be at Feast then it was the easiest way to murder them all. Like a herd of sheep, there would be no way for them to escape as trapped as they would be in that enclosed space.
She felt a fire bubble deep in her stomach as her vision went white—
Women terrified, cowering next to each other. Wide, unseeing eyes staring into space. A screaming man dragged across the ground by a stallion. Blood. So much blood they encompassed the entire stone floor. Gold. A rain of gold—
A deep breath. The girl shuddered as she once again could see the green forest around her. Her whole body was damp from sweat and her hands shivered lightly. Even her jaw was locked tightly. Those nightmarish images were gone, just a figment of her overreacting imagination. They hadn't been real.
Are you sure?
Yes, she unclenched her jaw with great effort. They were not real. The girl was just tired and on edge and they were taking advantage of that.
"And what of the guards?"
The girl jumped. She had been so lost in her own world that she forgot about the two men accompanying her. The cripple still had those piercing orbs fixated on her, cutting into her severely.
"I do not know how many there are, but they will be celebrating as well, probably."
She hadn't set foot in York in over three years. The last time had been the worst and she had no desire to relieve those horrible moments again. No matter how much the loneliness got to her, or how much she wished she could join other people, she forbid herself from it. Even Grandfather did after witnessing those events.
"Why can I not be normal?"
"Because you never were, child. You are blessed, but not all can see that. They do not understand the same way I do."
"I do not wish to be blessed! I just want to play with other children!"
"…Later, when you grow up, you too will understand."
Even as the years passed, she still did not understand. Whatever Grandfather saw, he alone shared those views.
"The gates…" The man's deceiving tone brought her back to the present. She seemed to drift off frequently despite the danger she was in. "Can they be taken down by brute force?"
She shrugged helplessly. His question was beyond her knowledge.
Ivar spat something in his own language before looking on with a heavy frown weighting his brows. It seemed to be a habit of his, to continuously glower at everything and nothing. Years of it had carved lines into his forehead.
Who was this man she wondered? This cripple who commanded men double his age and height? She had to remember Grandfather's words about the Northmen. Their great leader, Ragnar, had died a year ago at the hands of the King of Northumbria, Aelle. The barbarians seemed to have taken it as a personal insult as they marched upon England on a campaign to avenge their fallen ruler. From what Grandfather said, they achieved their goal. So then, why were they still here?
The old bear had called it an invasion. The barbarians from the North would not contend themselves with only a few deaths. They were born raiders, they would want everything their eyes could see. A king's death would not satisfy them. News reached that they had marched upon Mercia months ago, their war horns deafening the lands and their heavy steps creating tiny earthquakes throughout the earth. After the barbarians left the center of Mercia ransacked and destroyed, King Ecbert had been found dead, although the manner in which he died was unknown to her.
From there it had been months of raids and then…nothing. The great Nordic army disappeared only to reaper weeks later in York's vicinity.
The girl took a furtive peek behind her. This man couldn't be the head of the army. Perhaps someone important inside their rankings, but definitely not their leader. He was a cripple. It was inconceivable.
"Why do you wish to see my home?" She asked, grunting as the giant tugged on her rope. "It is by no means impressive. I have nothing."
"I guess you could call it curiosity."
"I have nothing of interest." She tried to persuade him. She wished to be out of these bonds and away from these people. "I am just a beggar living in the woods."
Would they let her go?
You are not so foolish to think that.
The man scoffed. "A beggar who crafts decoctions and ointments and seemingly talks to herself." His cerulean gaze moved to hers with cutting edge. "I think I have enough to be inquisitive about, do you not agree?"
The girl said nothing as they proceeded forward in silence.
A small meadow was what they came upon. Hills as far as the eyes could see enclosed a small building and down in the vale, hidden behind a small patch of forest, was York, no bigger than a toy fort. Even from this distance, the people of the town could bee seen bustling outside the fort with their appointed chores of the day. Like ants on an anthill, they busied themselves to forget the dreary lives they lived.
Ivar dragged himself down the pebbled path. The girl's house was tiny, built out of stone and wood and straw. A large garden, its surface wider than even that of the building's, surrounded the home. On one side there were developing vegetables, their leaves still freshly green, and on the other, flowers of all colors and plants of all breeds. Even Ivar couldn't name all the herbs present as he dragged himself across the cobbled path. The sweet perfume floating in the air attracted a parade of bees that created an energetic sonata.
Ivar detested this place. This little corner of paradise rubbed him the wrong way. The peaceful atmosphere had him on pins and needles and he wanted nothing more than to burn it to the ground. He'd never come upon a place such as this. Even the remotest cottage back home had no such dainty touch to them. They were gloomy, some poorly kep while others smelled of dirty animals and manure.
Halvar pushed open the door, his axe in one hand, weary of any surprises. Once deemed safe, he pulled the girl inside, Ivar following not far behind.
A powerful aroma hit Ivar the moment he crossed the threshold. It was intoxicating, as strong as wine and almost as dizzying. He could do nothing but cover his nose, the smell making his eyes water.
"What is that stench?" He coughed between words.
To his displeasure, the girl seemed to suffer no consequences. She seemed right at ease in this syrupy, dense incense.
"You are making mead?" He asked in surprise. Now he knew from where that faint bizarre scent the girl carried was originally from.
Her head shook, making her long hair ripple like waves. "It is herbal wine, along with other more potent spirits. We have—had to live somehow and making spirits is the most profitable one."
"You are just full of surprises, witch girl."
Attempting to breathe as shallowly and as far apart as possible, Ivar regarded the abode with a curious eye. It had minimal furniture and all of it was plain, unlike the hilt of the deadly stiletto. What impressed the boneless one was the many alembics and glasses, either filled with translucent or colored liquid or emanating whitish vapor. The source of the thick smell, Ivar mused grudgingly. Even the wide open shutters could not get rid off it.
Plants of all breeds hung from the ceiling, some dry while others remained as fresh as the day they were plucked. Pots with mushrooms and other herbs were strewn across the floor and shoved in corners. There was a smaller stone table near the alembics, covered with mortars and pestles, grains and cereals, buck antlers and some still bloodied animal organs.
Ivar picked up a jar filled with greenish ointment, but he could not understand the writing on the label. "What do you do? Sell these to the townspeople?"
"The ointments and elixirs to the healers, priests and monks. And the spirits to the merchants. They never pay enough, though." A frown deepened her soft forehead. "They are greedy and cheap, not worth the sweat Grandfather and I poured into our work."
The legless man scoffed, placing the jar back among its different colored siblings. There were so many, a library of them of all shapes and sizes stacked against a wall. Next to it another collection was present, of tomes and parchments, all emanating their own aroma of age and deterioration. Her grandfather's room had the nauseating sweet smell of sickness and death, and Ivar set no hand in it. He preferred not to remain with that stench in his mind. In the girl's room, Ivar found other volumes, with yellowed papers thrown around the floor, the obsidian ink barely dry. The walls seemed to have been carved in different places with symbols or writing and then swiftly painted over, but Ivar did not explore further.
The girl was learned, to his greatest surprise. She had the ability to read and write which was a strangeness in itself. Most of lower birth—or vagabonds as she called herself—had no notion of these skills. What would reading a piece of paper help with growing crops or sewing cloth? This grandfather of hers must have been a cultured man, passing down his knowledge to her. A healer perhaps? A herbalist?
He had seen enough.
"I think I am starting to see why people consider you a witch." The man said as he returned to the alembic room. People were simple minded. They heard woman that grew herbs and crafted out of them and thought the stereotypical witch stirring her cauldron. "Take Halvar, for example. You make him nervous. If I had followed his advice, your head would have been rolling on the ground by now."
Ivar looked around the abode one more time. For a tiny house it was clustered beyond imagination, barely leaving any space to walk through.
"You have an impressive collection. Even our own healers would be amazed."
The girl did not seem pleased by his compliment. In fact, she stood rigid by Halvar, her bones rattling as goosebumps pin-pricked her skin. In the forest, she had trembled like a pup in a storm. Out of thin air, the shakings rained upon her and the smell of sharp sweat reached his nose. The girl had acted strange after, skittish and rigid, afraid of even the slightest gust of wind and he was becoming tired of her cowardliness.
"Why are you shivering?"
She inhaled sharply, desperately. "I do not wish to die."
"You think you will die here?"
"You have satisfied your curiosity, what else could you want?"
The edge of his lips curled. "Perhaps I want more."
The girl sucked in a short breath, her body trembling in even more terror than before, to the point of being violent.
"Would you like that?" He asked deceptively suave.
She clasped her hands to her ears, her head shaking frantically. Those silver eyes of hers were out of focus as they seemed to have left the room. Wherever her mind was, it wasn't on her dismal situation.
Ivar's lips thinned as that familiar red haze began to settle over his mind. He despised being ignored, more so by some tiny saxon wench beneath his notice.
His strong fingers ripped the cord out of the giant's hands. With annoyance plastered all over his face, Ivar harshly tugged on it, making the girl fall to the ground before him. The little wench squeaked once he caught her jaw in a iron hold.
"Well?" He hissed crossly. "Is that not a better alternative to dying?"
With unsteady fingers, the girl clutched at his wrist, hanging onto it like a drowning kitten. Behind that timidity and fear, Ivar could see a tiny spark of defiance. Anger brewed in those silvery orbs like distant storm clouds.
"There are w-worse fates than death in this world." Thunder and lightning flashed across her eyes despite the stammer in her voice. "I would r-rather choose eternal slumber than to be de-degraded in such a manner."
Ivar couldn't help himself as a string of laughter escaped him. The girl shied away from his demeaning howl, but he would not let her go far. Her life was in his hands and if he wanted, he could strangle her there and then.
"Oh? A pious witch! How amusing!" Just as suddenly as his laughter had appeared, it finished into a sneer. "You are correct. Reality is a harsh mistress and we do not all get to have our wish. I have no intention of letting you have your easy way out, saxon!"
Ivar could not have foreseen it. He had not believed the girl to posses any sort of bravery, but for once he had been wrong on his assessment.
The girl stirred.
A vicious glare pushed away the distraction in her eyes and that intense focus settled grimly on him. Ivar's surprise was understandable and so was his slight unease. The girl staring at him with those cold, dead eyes was no the one from before, who shied away from his touch. This was someone else entirely.
Her hand struck.
Outrage did not even begin to describe Ivar's state of emotion. A black, blinding fury rose from his gut and poured out his throat, making his jaw clench painfully. The girl's nails had broken the skin of his cheek and his fingers came back coated in blood.
Before he could get his hands on her, Halvar had pulled her away and delivered a brutal series of kicks. The girl coiled into a fetal position, shielding her face as much as possible from his merciless blows. She wailed as those boots connected with her exposed ribs and spine, bruising her white flesh.
The giant snarled at the girl.
"Can I kill her now?"
"No!" Ivar yelled as he crawled towards them, intent on having his revenge. "She is mine!"
Halvar moved away as the crippled reached them. The girl was coughing, spit drooping to the cool floor, as she held her sides in ache. With no compassion, Ivar's fingers curled around the back of her head and pulled on her hair until her cheek was pressed to his. He could see the immense agony he was putting her under and Ivar relished in it.
"That was a foolish mistake, little witch." He heard the girl sob as strands of her hair broke underneath his powerful grip. Good. "I am not a merciful man—not to men, not to women and not to children. In my eyes you are all just sacks of flesh and blood that can easily be cut down. Why? Because you are weaklings that even a cripple like myself can defeat! I would have given you a painless death if only you had just begged me, but now…" His lips pressed against her ear as he hissed vehemently. "That time has passed."
His fingers clenched even tighter and Ivar pulled spitefully, making the girl cry out in pain as a lonely, thin drop of blood rolled down her temple.
"You will wish you had never laid your eyes on Ivar the Boneless!"
With propelling force, Ivar slammed the girl's face into the floor, rendering her out cold.
His breath rasped against the silence of the house. Bright, piercing eyes fixated on the giant. The wild fury was still palpable; a fire prepared to scorch anyone that dared touch him. This tiny creature had managed to enrage him beyond words. If he had had more control over his emotions, he would have applauded her effort. But in this moment, Ivar wanted nothing more than to kill someone.
"Pick this bitch up. We are leaving."
Cold water splashed over her.
"Wake up, slaves!"
The girl's eyes popped wide open in startle. Where was she? What happened? A hundred questions all rang at ounce through her head as she tried to make sense of her surroundings. Her forehead ached badly and her vision blurred and spun nauseatingly slow. Even her scalp felt tender. Touching her forehead, the girl felt a coarse crust pasted over her skin. What was that?
As her vision began to clear, she came face to face with half a dozen other women. Some old, some young, but all dirtied, wet and wearing the same expression of terror on their weary faces. Even the small ones, no older than her, seemed to have aged ten years by their sunken cheeks, pasty skin and hollow eyes.
Panic began to brew in her heart. She did not know these women. Where was she?
Wide alarmed eyes searched for answers. Sludge and wet earth was everywhere and around her a pen had been erected like the ones she'd seen the people of York keep pigs in.
We are trapped.
You have been captured. You idiot! Why did you not run?
…Captured? As she listened to them, she came to the startling realization that the last time she had been awake, she had been in the company of two savage northmen.
They spirited you away to an evil place. You must flee.
In a worried frenzy, she looked around for the tall beastman and the cripple, but found nothing but a gaggle of frightened women hugging themselves for dear life. The cripple…he had slammed her head against the floor of her house. As her fingers touched her temple once again, she realized it wasn't mud on her face. Was that blood, she questioned with horror.
"Get up, you cows!"
A crack of a whip. Too close to her liking.
Her eyes pinpointed the source of the sharp crack and found a tall woman with straw colored hair and pale skin, almost white, standing at the wide opening of the pen. Her hair tumbled down her back in heavy braids and she had fair features, but her eyes were as welcoming as a deep sea holding predators at every turn.
The women around her began to stir as they swiftly rose to their feet., fear propelling them forward. A clang of different notes captured the girl's attention and a whimper escaped her as she found the source—chains. Their wrists, their ankles. Each and every one of them were bound in iron manacles with chains connecting them, leaving no room to run. Even their bony necks were garbed in collars of metal. The women did not mutter a world, prudently obedient with downcast eyes, avoiding the gaze of the northwoman holding the whip.
But as the women moved, the girl felt a tug at her feet and arms. With tears pooling at her lower lids, her eyes dropped onto her own limbs and she wailed in dismay. She too wore the same iron jewelry that connected her to the other women. She had been bound as well like a…a slave…
No. No. No.
This couldn't be happening. What has she done to deserve this?
"Time to work!" The tall woman barked in her strange, harsh tongue as her whip cracked over their heads. The women ducked for safety, trembling in their either clothed feet or bare ones.
The girl was still on the muddy ground, her whole body quivering as her mind worked itself into a fever. She could not understand what the northman had said but it was clear from the other women actions. Mechanically, she followed still in a daze. Outside the fence, she could see northmen everywhere. Sitting at fires eating, drinking, laughing, while others walked about in their respective tasks. With absolute dread, the girl realized she was in their camp. As the girl watched the many foreign faces, all pale and most of light colored hair, she felt her heart continue to hammer in her chest until it turned into an earsplitting drum. She physically stopped once it became too much to bear. Her rational mind urged her to follow, but her limbs were glued to the ground. She felt dizzy, her mind spinning in circles. She wanted to faint, she wanted to vomit, she wanted to cry and yet, she simply stood wide eyed and open mouthed like a fish.
That cripple had brought her here…Why?
Because of what you did.
She had done nothing, she thought indignantly.
We saw you. You hurt him.
She had not been the one to scratch him! It hadn't been her! It had been them! She hadn't even been present when her arm swung! There was a blank space where the memory should be!
Your arm. Our arm. It does not matter. We are the same.
No, they were not. These whispers were a plague, a cursed rained down upon her for some sin she was unaware of. Their actions did not reflect her own. She was innocent!
We are one.
The laughter continued until it turned into a cavalcade of deafening screeches. The girl had to press her palms against her ears, physically hurting. Her headache throbbed mightily, feeling on the verge of spiting her head in two like an overripe melon.
"Get up, I said! Are you deaf, girl?"
The whip cracked once more, only this time it met skin and not thin air.
The pain had been blinding. The tip of the leather whip licked her naked skin and left an open gash on her forearm. The girl howled as every nerve was set aflame. She had never tasted anything so painful before, not even when Grandfather once beat her with a branch for venturing into town without telling. Blood wet her pale arm creating such a bright contrast that it was almost a shame to spoil her pretty skin.
The voices shrieked and wailed. They cursed and they accused. They pleaded for her to obey, to run, to fight, until finally they agreed on listening to the barbarian. But the girl would not have it. She was beyond listening to anyone, especially them. Rationality flew out of her mind and left her drown in pure instinct and it was screaming at her to flee.
The girl shuddered. Her head was void of any thought save for the voices that pleaded with her against her current set path. It was folly, but her mind was beyond listening. Her body moved on reflex as she began pulling on the chains like a wild animal. The other women balked as they got dragged along, some protesting while others stumbled over their own two feet. Pandemonium erupted as the women tried to stop her mad quest, but the girl was deaf to the world.
This is your life from now on.
Stupid girl. You got yourself captured!
Why did she let this happen?
Because she is weak.
They wouldn't stop. The voices dogged her relentlessly, some encouraging while others damned her for her idiocy. She was not a slave. They had gotten it wrong. She had been born a free woman, not to whither away to the caterings of others while wearing a metal collar. She will not die like this.
You will be worked to death and even when your limbs stop moving and your breath leaves your body you will slave away for them in the afterlife. Your soul is now chained here, to the northmen.
"No. No. No. You are a liar!"
She pulled harder, her arms shaking from the effort. Why won't this chain brake?
She will never find eternal rest. Even their pagan Gods will put her to work once she expires from this mortal realm.
Tears gushed from her eyes. She could not even remember the whip's pain. The voices cut her deeper than any physical object ever could.
I am sorry.
You will know the kiss of the whip.
You will die if you do not obey! Submit! Conform! Follow!
There is no escape.
"No! NO! NO! Stop it!"
She wanted out of these chains. She wanted to go back home. She wanted to be back in her cottage with her plants and parchments. She wanted to work in her garden, her arms soiled with earth…She wanted Grandfather back. But the voices wouldn't stop talking…taunting. Screaming!
"I am not going to die here! I want to go home!"
The voices cackled while some wailed in despair, sympathizing with her plight, but the majority grieved for her disobedience. They feared for her life.
The girl's pale eyes snapped around her wildly. The world became a spinning top and she could barely keep her focus in one place.
"Let me go, you savages!" The girl cried loudly, her voice ending in a high-pitched cry.
"Stupid saxon wench!" The northwoman scowled heavily as she witnessed the pandemonium the girl created. "Have you lost your senses? Do as you are told!"
The whip rose threateningly.
The girl yelled in agony as the jagged leather kissed her once again. She fell to her knees and brought her hands close to her face to inspect the damage. They shook uncontrollably and the girl almost fainted at the sight of the crimson color covering her knuckles entirely.
"Get up and keep moving!"
In complete madness, the girl refused. She might not understand their harsh language, but she understood the gesture. Without a single lucid thought left in her brain, the girl rose to her feet and began pulling on her chains again, never mind that blood dripped down her hands, coloring even the dull metal. At this point, she was no smarter than a cornered animal, hysteria taking over completely.
The voices howled in laughter at her futile attempts while other cried in shock.
Stop! She will kill you!
Listen to the barbarian woman! She will show you no mercy otherwise!
Why are you being so stupid?
But it was too late for words as the whip lashed once more, this time marring her back. The gril fell on her stomach, her eyes almost out of their sockets from the pain. The cloth had parted as easily as butter and barred her naked skin to the whip's wrath, leaving nothing but pain and blood.
The girl's howls came to abrupt stop. Her pupils dilated heavily until they left nothing but a thin ring of stormy grey. Her features froze and even her breath slowed until it seemed as if she was sleeping.
Outside her self, the slave women howled in fear as they tried to get away from the mad girl, pushing and pulling, and around northmen laughed at the absurd scene they had just witnessed.
This had all fallen on deaf ears. The girl was in a different state of mind altogether. The present was a distant dream, almost a fantasy. She could not even feel the coldness of the earth seep into her flesh nor the mud soaking her clothes. It was only her and no one else.
Such a strange sensation this was. She was floating above them all, looking down as they talked and gestured. The girl was free of the pain, free of worry and sorrow. She felt as light as a feather and for once in her life, she was at complete peace as even the voices could not reach her here.
She wished she could remain in this place of tranquility. Detached from the world below, from the pain of her fleshy prison. Here nobody could touch her or hurt her. Not even the howling laughter that rang in the surrounding area at her worldly body's plight could disturb her.
"What is wrong, Inga? Slaves giving you a hard time?"
Ghoulish laughter echoed out in the small clearing. They were all mocking her pain and at the northwoman's struggle to control her. Somehow, it did not even surprise the girl that she could now understand their brittle words. It seemed like she had known their tongue all her life.
"Shut up!" The woman barked viciously at the warriors.
In her fury, she let the whip land on her back once again and the girl let not even a peep out. The girl below was just a husk, devoid of humanity. You could not hurt someone that was gone, both in mind and soul.
A pang of pity enveloped her at the sight of her maimed body. Such a shame it was to destroy it in such a manner.
"Come on, wench! Get up!"
Again and again the whip fell until the girl could see nothing but red. It will be over soon, either ways.
"What is going on?"
The man that she had seen in the forest approached. The blond, blue eyed one with a beard and handsome features. Only this time, he looked around the chaotic scene with anger and annoyance at the cacophony of screeches the women made combined with the howling laughter of his warriors.
"My lord Ubbe." The northwoman breathed heavily from the exertion, beads of sweat gathered on her forehead. "I am just disciplining this unruly slave. She has yet to understand her place."
The girl watched as the man crouched near her vassal and peered at her face curiously.
"Is this the girl we found in the woods?"
"I would not know. Halvar just threw her at my feet and told me to collar her."
Despite the likeness in color, his eyes were not as bitter or harsh as the cripple's. This man, while solemn, held a geniality in him that the girl appreciated.
"No…It is her." The man gripped her chin and turned her blank face to him. "The witch girl."
Inga's grip on her whip tightened as a sneer contorted her features and the girl could only chuckled in good-nature. She had seen the minute spark of fear that crossed her pale features.
"Allegedly, although I do not believe it." Ubbe rose to his feet and wiped the mud from his fingers. His electric blue eyes peered distantly, fixed on something beyond his immediate vicinity as he mused inquisitively. "Why has my brother brought her back, I wonder."
"My lord, pardon my saying, but what use do we have of a frail girl? She barely looks able to carry a bundle of sticks."
Yes. Her vassal was weak compared to most other women her age. A lanky things with small breasts and willowy body. Barely any muscle lined her arms or legs, leaving only soft, pliable flesh. Grandfather had taken care of most of the heavy tasks, leaving her to her gardening, alchemy and studying. She was not built for it, Grandfather had often told her whenever she tried to aid him, but sometimes she wondered if this wasn't just a way to subtly control her.
Guess she will never know now.
"I am wondering that myself…" Ubbe rubbed the bridge of his nose in annoyance. "I see I must have a word with my brother and sort this whole mess out. Until then, send her to the healer. A slave is no good to us dead."
Inga nodded before throwing a sharp glare at her unruly ward. "If she will even rise to her feet."
The girl felt an urgent pull and knew time was up. She did not wish to. She resisted the pull with all her might but it was like trying to withstand the tide. The girl felt herself pushed towards the surface with increasing force as a heavy pressure weighted on her body, especially her chest.
She could see the light and within moments, she breached the surface, taking the harmony away and leaving her with harsh reality.
The girl gasped, back in her body, unaware of what had just happened. But it did not matter as the excruciating pain hit her like an anvil, making her forget her momentary blackout, even her own name.
The man in the small tent was richly engrossed in the parchments before him. The upcoming battle had to go smoothly and with no hindrances. His plan was absolute and Ivar would suffer no folly. York had to fall. They could not run around this godforsaken land without a temporary base. The continuous and volatile rain was causing breach in morale in his—their troops. Anymore foraging in the wet forests and muddy vales and the warriors would start lamenting for home.
Once York was taken, tempers would be appeased and they could start preparing on their next move. Ivar had no intention of stability. He was a conqueror as his father intended him to be, as he commanded him to be. This entire forlorn rock in the middle of the sea would blaze with the fires of his mighty invasion and only then will Ragnar's soul be appeased. When Ivar died, he wished to greet his father with open arms and tales of his grand achievements. Only then will he be able to stand on equal footing with his legendary father. He will not go into Valhalla empty-handed, or else shame his father.
A rustle and light breeze crept into his abode. Ivar spotted from underneath his lashes his elder brother march inside with an air of exasperation.
What does he want now?
"Brother." Ivar saluted cordially, his gaze returning to his maps and designs.
Ubbe stopped right next to his low table with many parchments strewn across the entire surface of it. Ivar had not wanted a normal table. He had not wished the hassle of always having to climb a piece of furniture just to read something. A great cushion and a short table were much more easier to transport.
"Ivar, what is that girl doing here?" Ubbe placed his hands on his hips, his eyes slightly wider than usual. A sign of his annoyance.
Ivar scrunched his nose in minute confusion. "Who?"
"The one we found in the woods."
"I brought her here, obviously."
"Do not mock me, Ivar." Ubbe snapped, intolerant with his brother's derisive nature. "Give me a straight answer. You do not just pick up strays without a reason."
Ivar sighed as he begrudgingly turned his attention away from his plans. He did not have time for his brother or that little creature. He confessed he had forgotten about her the moment he immersed himself into his schemes until Ubbe barged in demanding answers, but now the real question came—What was he to do with her?
"She annoyed me." The painful reminder of that was still visible on his face to Ivar's greatest displeasure. She had surprised him. He had not thought her unpredictable, but she had taken the upper hand in her shabby little home. A fraction of a second it had taken for her features to morph into a dead man's look and for her hand to strike, nails and all. It had happened too fast for Ivar to react and for that she had to pay.
Ubbe looked at him pointedly. "That is all?"
"Do I need more?" Ivar shrugged nonchalantly, but in fact there had been more. The fact that the saxon girl would rather have died than be touched by him—a cripple—hurt his ego worse then her nails ever could. Memories of a certain woman always came back whenever thoughts of that nature crossed his mind. It never failed to dampen his mood sourly. "She is my toy, not yours. I will deal with her how I please."
And he will, after the battle. Right now, he had no time for some heathen wench.
"Oh, really?" Ubbe scoffed, his blue eyes probing his skin with amused interest. "Tell me, is your source of annoyance that scar on your cheek?"
Ivar glared, feeling his insides whither. It seemed his sweet brother had finally connected the dots concerning his scratches. But it still did not please him. In fact, Ivar felt like breaking something…or throttling a skinny, pale neck.
"Just kill her, Ivar, and be done with it." Ubbe said as he sensed the heady anger wafting off his brother.
"That would be too easy." Ivar grumbled, his eyes narrowing into irate slits. The slight against him had too much impact for him to forgive so effortlessly. Ivar was not a man made to forget. He remembered every little indignation and patiently bid his time to strike.
Ubbe sighed in exasperation, no doubt groaning at Ivar's tumultuous temper. He should be used to it by now, Ivar thought unmoved by his brother's irritation.
"If your goal is to have her beaten bloody, then you got your wish. Your slave already received numerous lashes from Inga. She flew into hysteria and would not listen."
Ivar frowned. He had not expected this. The girl had not seemed frenzied when they had caught her, but then again the hefty stress of the day might have been too much for such a simple girl living isolated in the woods.
"Take control of her or I will." Ubbe glared displeased, his electric blue eyes darkening in the shadow of his transient threat. "We do not need troubles now that we are just two days away from attacking York."
Ivar bared his teeth, feelings that bottomless, black rage inside him stir. It coiled and tensed, ready to strike at any moment's notice. He did not like being told what to do, especially by his brother whom he considered unfit to stand beside him in this war of theirs. They might be kin, but their father entrusted this Great Invasion in his hands alone. Ubbe and Hvitserk were only guests he had to tolerate, but even those times were seemingly coming to an end. Ivar would not share this glory indefinitely. There will come a time when they will part ways, and only Ivar will remain to savage this pagan country, as intended.
"Do not tell me what to do with my slaves, brother!" Ivar hissed maliciously, his eyes burning with violence.
"I am not telling you, Ivar. Simply saying." Ubbe took a deep breath, steeling himself against his crippled brother's violence. For a half-man, Ivar was the worst of them when it came to tempers. The reason he always had to dance on eggshells around him and it was increasingly becoming tiring."We cannot have a wild woman among us. I think we have enough difficulties as is, do you not agree?"
Ubbe waited for not answer. He just gave his brother a knowing look and left his presence. The older son of Ragnar would not remain for what would eventually become a hissing contest with Ivar. He had cured himself of those a long time ago.
Ivar picked up his small jar of ink and threw it just as Ubbe left the tent. The dark ink smudged across the pale material, soaking it in while the jar rolled across the hard ground, spilling its remaining contents for the earth to drink. Ivar did not care. The storm inside his was growing erratic by each passing second and he needed an outlet, lest he burst.
His brother had displeased him greatly. He could not barge in here, unannounced, and just command Ivar what to do, especially with his property. Ubbe might be older, but that was where the dissimilarities ended. He did not hold any ranking in his army.
The tall man entered his tent not a few second later. He had been posted outside, brandishing his axe. After their excursion, Ivar had thought it best if Halvar remained close. He wondered why he hadn't thought of this before. Having a lackey to do his bidding was much more time saving than having him crawl around camp, getting dirty, for every menial task.
"Bring the girl."
Ivar felt a blood vessel burst on his temple.
Ivar sighed tersely once the giant left. Idiot.
Sniffles and groans of pain accompanied the duo trekking across the muddy grounds of the northmen's camp. The girl balked as she once again tripped from the pace of the giant's walk. His strides were too far apart and she had to make thrice as much as a single of his steps considering her bound feet. That couple with her injuries, the girl was considerably slower than usual. The shaggy giant would not have it, and all but dragged her to his intended destination.
The chains chafed her skin raw. The healer had barely managed to start cleaning her wounds when the giant burst in, growled some coarse words and took her by the arm, managing to catch her right one of the lash marks. The pain had been blinding. She had fainted at that point, only to be woken by a harsh slap and an angry white beast. The northman had not even waited for her to even be fully conscious before taking her away, to the visible protests of the healer.
So the girl was dragged, still red with blood through the dirt of the camp. Tears poured down her face as whispers of returning hysteria nipped at her heart. Everything in her body hurt and this beast was making it all worse with his brutish treatment.
"Come on, witch!"
He kept barking words at her. The girl could not understand, but from his tug on the chains, she tried to keep up even as excruciating as it was. Wherever he was leading her to must be urgent as they walked deeper into the encampment. Not even the passing glances or the northmen trying to converse with the giant seemed to deter him. He had a single-track mind and purpose.
The girl at this point was so engrossed on her present pain that she did not even wonder where she was being taken. It might be to her death, for all she knew. Or worse.
The white giant stopped at the entrance of a tent and pushed aside the flap, urging her inside. The girl meekly obeyed, wincing all the way. Inside was barren save for a few blankets in a corner, a piss pot and a low table with a fat cushion next to it. But who was inside was another matter completely as it iced the blood in the girl's veins, all thoughts of pain vanishing like wisps in the morning.
The girl's pupils dilated in fright once her eyes settled on the cripple. The glare on his features could have scared off even the mightiest of warriors, but his murderous eyes seemed to have her as their sole focus.
"Give me her chain and then leave us." The cripple spoke, not once breaking contact with the girl.
The giant passed on the metal link and exited, sparing no glance at the wounded girl.
She trembled as she was now left alone with him. Even from her distance she could feel his anger scorching her skin, burning almost as fiery red as the northwoman's lash. Why was she here, before him? Because she had caused a scene earlier? Was she to be punished again? The girl could not think she could take another beating, not without her body giving in completely.
The cripple stared at her intensely. Those electric eyes of his glowed like two exotic sapphires, but behind that beauty stood only cruelty and dormant fury.
"Why do you not listen?"
His sudden words had her jump in agitation. Sweat pooled on her skin, mingling with the blood and dirt and she could feel her skin around her manacles itch fiercely.
"Do you not understand your place, witch girl?" For all the duration of their brief reunion, he had been chillingly calm, but a second was all it took for the tides to change and for the maelstrom to form. "You are a slave! You do as you are told, nothing more and nothing less! That freedom you took for granted is now gone!"
He pulled harshly on the chain and the girl fell to her knees, having no defense over his strength. Even if his legs were in shambles that did not mean his arms had been idle all these years and the girl felt his frightening dominion it in that one tug.
"I do not need to be told by my brother that you are causing an uproar! I brought you here! You are my property, and what do you do? You piss on my name! Look at you!" He looked her over, disgust contorting his handsome features nastily. "Covered in blood and mud and shit! Very flattering!"
The girl hiccuped as a fresh set of tears began to gather. Her tremble became violent as fear raked her entire body. This man had a fierce temper and the girl just knew he would take it out on her.
"Are you crying?" He laughed mockingly before, again, his temper shifted, a coarse growl escaping his throat. "I hate it when you women cry. It disgusts me!"
Her wrapped the chain around his forearm with a flick and began pulling, bringing her to him by force. The girl struggled and wept under his brute strength, instinct screeching at her to flee his poisonous presence. She tried to resist, but the man only laughed. She was no stronger than a mouse against him and he knew it. Her desperation was nothing more than entertainment before his wicked eyes.
Once she was just a foot away, the cripple snatched her by her collar and brought her even closer, so close that his breath brushed against her skin causing her extreme dismay. Those piercing eyes of his felt like they were stripping her bare and carving her bones to fine powder. The girl had to escape them lest they damn her soul to their hell.
You are his. The northmen and their cruel gods.
You cannot escape. He has cursed you. God has turned his gaze from you. You have been tainted by the northmen.
The girl whined deep in her throat as she felt her heart shrivel like a dried prune.
"Now, listen to me, little witch." The cripple hissed menacingly. "You will listen to every command given you. If someone wants you to wash their dirty rags, you will do it without a fuss. If you have to dig a pit, you will with your bare hands if necessary. If one of the men wants you to bend over, you will do it joyfully. Otherwise, you will have me to deal with!" His teeth showed and they were as white as pearls and as tightly clenched as clams. His blue eyes seemed to brighten as his animosity heightened, almost hard to look upon. "I will take out those eyes of yours and wear them as baubles, and after that I will continue on breaking your other limbs. Do you understand?"
The girl nodded without further need of threats. She would do as he asked, anything, as long as it put as much distance between them as possible. His presence was too overwhelming and it made her want to break into a thousand pieces. She could not be near him least she lose herself completely.
The cripple looked her over. She knew what he saw—a terrified willow of a girl covered with dried blood and mud, tears running down her cheeks while snot gathered in her nostrils. She must look as disgusting as he thought her. There was a flatness about him and the girl could not read his intentions at all which only served to petrify her further.
Brilliant blue connected with stormy grey.
"Scratch me again."
The words echoed in the small abode, only having the light breeze as its sole companion.
Her eyes widened in shock. The request had been made so clear-headedly, so grimly that she realized he was baiting her in a trap. Whatever his thoughts were, she would not play into them. She did not need another bruised forehead.
The girl shook her head, her face lowered in submission. She dared not look at him as she refused, fearing provoking him.
"Do it." He firmly shook her. "I dare you."
When the girl refused to respond, the cripple's hand moved like lightning and caught the girl by the hair, disturbing her already sore scalp. The girl yelled at his vicious grip, but it did not dissuade him as he brought her face to his, shy a few centimeters.
"Look at me."
She did and those haunting blue eyes hypnotized her, captivating her body and soul. They peered deep into her heart, molesting it with his authority. The girl felt weak against him and could not even raise a finger in self-defense. She was lost in the tumultuous sea behind those all encompassing orbs, drowning without a hope for the light of day again.
"What do you see?" He hissed deceptively soft, darkly charming her into compliance.
The words tumbled out without a thought. She would not have been able to stop them even if she had been in control as if a force beyond her spewed them out of her being.
"A great serpent."
His pupils shrunk.
The girl found herself on the floor as the cripple flung her away. The girl cried as her wounds once again reopened and bled. The dizzying spell had been broken and harsh reality crashed over her head. She was a captive—a slave—and he was her cruel abductor. Her life and death were now in his hands to mold and do as he pleased.
"Get out!" He bellowed mightily. "Halvar! Take her back to the healer!"
The giant came in without a word and dragged the crying girl away, leading her out by the chain. The girl did not understand what just happened or why the cripple suddenly rebuked her, but she was glad for it. She did not think she could have endured another moment longer in his suffocating presence.
Darkness was all around her.
Dusk had settled long ago and the girl was as wide-eyed awake as never before. She could not sleep, could not rest, not here in enemy territory. Every creak and rustle had her jump in fright, fearing that the northwoman would show up with her whip again, or that the white giant will carry her off into the night, or worse…he would come for her.
This entire day had been grueling. After her encounter with the cripple, the girl had been taken back to the healer's where she had been properly taken care off. But once bandaged, the healer sent her off to work without a second thought. The girl's luck had been her injuries, otherwise she would have been put to heavy labor. But until the gashes clogged without the threat of bursting, she would be given only light tasks. A respite.
Work had taken her mind off the cripple and her blackout. She still had no recollection of what happened that moment after the northwoman struck her until she woke up with the pale woman glaring down at her hesitantly. Like a thief, her body had been robbed of her senses, leaving her deaf, blind and dumb to everything around her. The girl had no explanation, and this was the second time it happened without her control. She was beginning to fear even herself. It was bad enough that the cripple had stolen her, collard and threatened her, but now they have taken even her faith in herself? Must she have nothing, not even her identity anymore? The girl never felt more alone than ever in these quiet moments with only her bleak thoughts for company.
New whip marks had sprouted on her body once she returned to the present and with it, the pain gushed forth like a wave. It had taken all her will to stay conscious and even drag her legs towards the healer's tent, but from the frying pan into the kettle as the giant whisked her away to the violent cripple.
The girl shuddered at the recollection of their meeting. The man was too much for her. She could not stand in his presence for too long without having her strength and will drained to the last drop. Even the meer sight of him had her want to retch in agitation. His company brought a strange reaction out of her, a pull and push feeling in her belly that left her stomach in knots and her mind faint. The voices whispered in hushed tones and whenever the girl tried to strain her focus to hear them, a headache bloomed across her temple. She was not ready to hear, they said. For what, she wondered nervously, but something in the pit of her being told her that soon she will learn and there would be no blissful ignorance she could lie in anymore.
Events were shifting as if a great mechanical device was finally moving its cogs after gathering dust and spider webs from disuse, and the girl found herself right in the middle of it. Where these trials would lead her she was frightened to learn. At the back of her mind, she had the dreary inkling that she would not return from them alive.
—Those eyes…Those cerulean eyes of his were the Angel of Death.
The girl shivered once again, feeling a icy chill pass through her bones. She felt exhausted, both physically and mentally. She wanted to go home.
She sniffled as tears gathered. Her arms tightened around her body as she sat huddled against the pen's fence, as far away from the other slaves as the chain bounding them together permitted. It was a chilly night and her wounds troubled her greatly.
She wished Grandfather was still alive and with her. There was no one to comfort her in the cold darkness. The other women shunned her like a leper because of the scene she had caused. They were most likely afraid that she would lash out again and they would be the ones to pay the price. They feared displeasing their masters more than she understood. She tried to make them understand—she was apologetic for what she had to put them through, but they were heedless to her pleas. The girl had even spied some of them watching her with fearful suspicion. She remembered with bitterness how she had loudly talked to them, at that moment uncaring that others could hear, and now she reaped what she had sown—the others must think she was not quite right in the head. It was understandable that they did not wish to be associated with her. Others, more ignorant, probably feared they would catch her sickness.
She was not welcome in their fold, that was made painfully clear. Even in these trying times she was banished from her own kind. No matter what, her situation never changed. She was still the pariah. Alone and forsaken, the girl began to cry silent tears.
This had been only the first day. Once her injuries healed, she will be put to hard work. How many days will she be able to endure before she dies of exhaustion or heartache? How many days until some northman sets his eyes on her and violates her? How many more until she is whipped bloody and broken?
These dark thoughts had her stifle her cries with her palm. They could not hear her cry. They could not know her weakness otherwise they would eat her alive.
There was no one to save her. With that thought the girl cried herself to sleep where only more nightmares awaited her.