“Ragi, how did you survive?”
Ragi turns as if I have poked him in the back.
“You have no marks at all!”
Valdr is sitting as before and the intensity on his face matches my own.
Ragi stands up and drops the rope he is knotting. He pauses longer than I want. I want to know now. I move menacingly towards him.
“Stop! I hid. I heard them screaming and I ran.”
“Where? Where did you hide?”
“In the caves above the beach.”
“And you stayed there while all of them, even the babes, were massacred!”
Ragi hangs his head. “There were too many. Hundreds of them.”
Valdr speaks now: “How do you know, you ran!”
“I heard them.”
I feel anger rising like a red snake in my belly. “Tell me now what you know, all of what you heard and saw.”
“I was at the north end of the village, returning home after leaving skins for Ingar. I cannot for sure say how but they were inside the village walls before anyone saw them. Gunnar screamed the warning first and the men sought their arms. The women, those outside, turned and ran into their houses and bolted the doors. I had left my sword at home, There had been no need of it. To defend myself, I had nothing. I thought only of my farm and the flock built up from a few weak lambs to a herd worth having. I wanted to save them. So I turned and ran for the back gate and locking it close behind me sought the caves above my beach.”
I am fuming now and want to kill him myself but I need to know what happened more.
“Who were they? Were they like us?’
“Some were…men. Those I could see. There was also something else. A feeling of some such thing moving, a kind of blurr. Our men I saw fall holding their blood-streaming throats with nothing near them.” Ragi begins to groan and hold his head. “I can’t stop seeing them fall! Will Thor forgive such as I?”
Valdr raises himself up to see Ragi better, “What do you mean, something invisible?”
Ragi tries to control his pain, “Something was moving with… a great fastness… Many men fell quickly without the chance to fight back, yes.”
“So there was none of them killed by us?”
“None as I saw with my looking, brief as it was.”
“This explains why I found no evidence of them, the warriors. Who were they, Ragi? Did they have markings on their shields?”
“I who ran fast as I could but cannot for sureness say of the colours nor the workings on their shields. If I saw, the memory of them is lost. I expected my throat out too.”
“Now you must tell me of my wife!”
“I have not news of her, as I have said before. Only the cloak…”
“And from the cave, as I remember from my boyhood searches there, you can see the beach!”
“Aye, as one does look. Would I my face shown then, after such sights in the village!”
“I expect not. But for the sounds perhaps of men moving off into the ocean, do you recall any of THAT?”
“I heard them yelling as of a triumph. Of victory they did chant.”
“Aye of a victory, then you must have heard them in a tongue known to us?”
“Nay, of words a few only, and then in a Norseward tongue unspoken by us.”
“Which words did you understand?”
“They sang only a few I know. They spoke of the ‘victory of the markmaker’ and ‘we have her.’
“And you thought not to tell me this until NOW!”
Ragi looks at me in a puzzled way. “I did attend your needs first, Asmundr and of your brother’s.”
I cannot deny his help and to show him I wish him no harm, I sit down again next to Valdr.
Valdr turns to me, “Asmundr, it may be her they have.”
“I would wish it so and then not. Both.”
“You wish her alive!”
When the injury has left me, when the winter begins to thaw, when Valdr is fit, then we will go to the mainland and consult the Thing as to what can be done. I know in my heart this is a god-driven outcome: The massacre, the loss of Isla, our injuries. All of it is nothing more than we deserve.
I tell him. He shakes his head, “Asmundr…”
“I know, it looks bad but I need to know.”
Ragi enters the hut and is surprised to see Valdr sitting up.
He smiles and offers the young man a drink of fresh sheep milk which he readily drains. I hold out my hand and breakfast on the sweet cup too. I look at Ragi and he nods. I begin to strap on the splint and reach for my crutch again. Together we set out to the beach.
There is fresh green seaweed washed up in lumps all over the small grey beach. Driftwood litters the ground and I resist the impulse to collect it as I have so many times before on our own section of the beach. Gulls coarse cries add an eerie backdrop to the grey crashing waves. A storm is brewing out to sea, the sharp tang of rain is on the air. Ragi moves nimbly over the rocks unlike me. I am as awkward as a crab. My eyes hurt from concentrating on each and every shape around me, searching for anything that might give me a clue to what happened to her. Ragi waits patiently while I catch up. “Here, he says,” This is where I found the cloak.” I drop to the sand and rub my hand over its surface, willing the essence of her to spring up out of the sand or her sense to tell me what I need to look for. The cloak had dropped, fortunately out of the reach of the waves. Ragi has enough sense to let me watch and feel for a while. He wanders off up the shore, gathering the driftwood that keeps us all warm without effort.
The sand draws me back. The only hope she is alive is if she is slave again as she came to me, captured in her native land, the islands above the Pictish Isle, the Norseman’s new realm. But how, after all these weeks to know if the cloak is ripped then dropped as men flee here, more like monsters not men, dropped by them or by her? After I look well for many moments, the dragging shape of their keel as it was heaved back into the surf appears to my tired eyes. I touch the edges of the furrow the keel drew in the sand, the edges softened now by weeks of wind over the beach. Its definition is too sandblasted for me to tell if the keel is one we use or not. I drag my bad leg alongside the shape and touch the sand as I go at intervals hoping, with my heart bursting that I can make something tell me here messages I must know. Ragi comes back weighed down by sticks, concerned, I can tell at my anguish. “Stay till the storm”, he advises.
I continue my searches. A dried fish, a seal skull and the curved half of a leather shoe are all I find after some time. The sky blackens and the surf begins to roar with increasing violence. I look along the empty beach and try to visualise her last moments here. Would she think I had survived? I had left her in the hut and this is the last I can remember until I woke up with my face in my own vomit. How long were we together? One winter to one winter, a year. Was this time enough to forge a bond unbreakable or was the pull of her own islands still strong in her heart and the chance to escape stronger still as a way back. But what of the monsters? Did she witness their carnage of her fellow countrywomen? And why she, of them all, was saved to be taken away? If she was at all.
She was a woman of skill. In the time I knew her, she was adept at the arts of healing and taught me some of her ways: the use of herbs and plants to stem blood flow or take away pain; the grinding of poultices to draw out the poison in a wound; the setting of a broken limb. She birthed babies I saw discarded on the hillside and I wish, I hope, her eyes did not take in those awful sights, her handiwork all wasted, their mothers never to birth again. She surprised me by how willingly she gave of her sweet loving and how expert she was at bringing me pleasure and prolonging the ecstasy. For many a moon’s progress from fingernail to coin, she spoke her own language and laughed at me trying to copy until I made her speak mine which she did one or two words a day, repeated often. Soon the daily round of food, weaving and helping me with the forge was spoken in our native tongue with her strange and weird accent. She and Valdr began to speak of our island and our life and after a long time, she spoke of hers. She described her island and their customs similar to our own. Her speech had sounds like ours too and I detected some common heritage for us both. She would never say her real name or her family name so I called her Isla because she made the island new for me.
I walk back to the hut in my crab way. I am bursting with questions.
I feel nothing until the first light and then I sit up and remember the dream: There is smoke swirling up from the heath to the ceiling of our hut. Isla bends down and places food in my lap. I don’t look at the food because it’s not food I want. I pull gently on the shoulder of her cloak and pull her towards me .I taste her wet lips in mine and brush her teeth with my tongue. She responds with a low grunt and maneuvers the bowl out of my lap and drops her warm rump there instead. She can feel me and she grinds her loins over mine until I am gasping for breath. I have her cloak off and am taking her shift over her bare white shoulders. Her breasts flop into my face and I kiss them all over and tongue the nipples softly. She tugs at my trousers…
I groan now, feeling the effect of the dream as I force myself to turn and look at Valdr. He has raised his upper body with his arms and is trying to sit up. “Asmundr, please…” I get up off the platform and pull him up into a sitting position.
“Well, little brother, back from Valhalla?”
He looks at me with gritty, blurry eyes and tries to grin, “I stink!”
“You do, did you expect me to wash you every day?”
Valdr begins to sway and I steady him with an arm. “More ale?”
“NO! I want to know…”
“So do I..ah.. first, you are in Ragi’s hut. We have been here some days now. He’s helped a lot, in fact…”
Valdr looks at me from under heavy lids. His young face has dark shadows and his beard growth is very black against his white skin. He attempts to speak again through lips dry and cracked. He forces the words out: “Will I walk?”
I shake my head and then realize how that looks, “You have two legs. How they will act I do not know.”
He wants to put them to the ground. I shake my head. He swivels around anyway and drops the broken leg down. I wish I am not so near him as his scream sets off my jaw aching badly again. I roll my eyes.
“Take the moment slow. Just sit up for now.”
“I want…” The conversation goes on and on the same. I fetch this and that for him. Finally I say. “No more, I want to look for my wife.”
He grimaces, “News?”
I dream and their faces are black, black as a fog on the high seas at night under a heavy sky. Their breath is stinking like the most putrid rotting fish. Their huge grey hands are slippery with grease, red grease and yellow fat. They scream like a pig in its death throes, like a seal bashed on the rocks in the mouth of a whale. The sound carries across the clearing near my house like a wave crashing against cliffs and their weapons hack at me and my brother, thwack, thwack as a sharpened scythe razes wheat to an even tuft of dry stalked roots and the sheaves fall like tresses of hair onto the soil. And I see among the golden sheaves more golden tresses, a woman’s hair beautiful, silken sheared off like the wheat, flat like the wheat…
Ragi is shaking me awake. “Asmundr, I have found something as you should see.”
Ragi’s reddish face begins to focus in front of my eyes. “I have something,” he repeats.
“What? Show me.”
He drops a piece of cloth into my lap. It is brown like lichen. It’s a brown we don’t see in cloth here. Our sheep are white. This cloth has been made from a sheep that is a throw back to a breed we no longer see. I recognise the cloth well. It is Isla’s cape, fine and warm, the cape she was wearing when I first spied her as she left the ship.
“It is my wife’s” I choke out the words. “Show me now! Show me where you found it!”
“Stay, you are tired and it is no use.”
I jump up and hurt my leg. He hurries to placate me. “It were on the shore, near the rocks. Drenched in seawater. I searched… everywhere… along the shore and back up to the cliffs. I found nothing else. No shoes, no shift, nothing. You hear me?”
“Nothing else? You sure?”
“Yes, I am sure. You must show me where.”
He shakes his head. “It’s dark now. I will show you tomorrow.”
I demand to know more. He tells me all he can. I nod dumbly. It’s her cloak. She’d need it to stop from freezing and now she has it not. Is she floating into some bay over the seas? Has another island become her last home? Are her beautiful tresses cloyed now with stinking seaweed? Have I my brother back to find my wife is now truly gone? Ragi thrusts a potent drink in my hand warmed by the fire with herbs and honey to cover the bitterness of the brew.
“Drink, drink,” he says and I cannot refuse.
Soon the first grisly corpse is evident, a twisted and shrunken hand is stretching out from its snowy blanket beseeching me to take more care. I see by its ring that the owner is a man. I bend down to discover more of his death. Scraping away the snow with one of my gloved hands, I can see his neck has been severed making the whole head hang at a strange angle right down on his chest. I decide to lift the head to check the wound. The bile rushes into my mouth and I dry reach on the side of the body. Instead of a clean blade wound across his neck or the line of knife, his whole neck is missing, torn down to the very spine so that all the sinews are hanging loose and the whole flesh of the neck is gone. It’s an horrific wound savagely inflicted. I look for evidence of wolves, for it is them that deal such massive damage to a corpse. But there are no parts of the man dragged away into the snow, nothing to indicate that an animal has in fact torn his throat out.
I enter the hut and strip off the furs and the heavy bandaging on my leg. I hop to the bed platform and lever my aching leg up to relieve the awful pressure on it from walking. Ragi is away. Valdr is sound asleep and his breathing is even and quiet. His chest no longer has the rattle of illness and his face has some of its colour back. Even the heat is dissipating from his brow. Could he really be recovering?
As I topple back to rest, the questions I need to ask Ragi swirl in my brain: Where was he when the raiders came? Why did he hear and see nothing, even the smoke which was coming from the burned huts? No vessels in the bay either? And why, all those months back, did he not take a woman as we all did who were alone, from the bought captives of the slave traders? And generally, I need to ask myself: Was it something to do with the women all this? But how when they too and their babes were slain? Rescuers of their own people would have freed them.
Ragi returns to the hut and unwraps his furs and slings them onto the bed platform to dry.
He stamps his feet to shake off the snow. “You should try the leg,” he says to me. “A little standing may help to strengthen the bone.”
I choose to ignore this comment and instead ask:” When you went into the village did you see any of the enemy slain on the ground or anywhere?”
“The bodies were covered in snow when I saw them. A poke to see if they moved was all I did.” He looks at me with wide, sad eyes. “By Thor, the sight of them was hard to take, my heart moved heavy and I found after a while, I could look no more.”
“What does the weather?”
“Snow has stopped falling. By the morn, I expect it fine.”
He throws more wood on the fire and sits with his broth pot filled to eat.
“Tomorrow, I will go again to the village,” I say.
“Valdr will be in Valhalla or he will not. Whether I stay or go will make no difference to him but going will make a difference to me.”
“Rest long then and drink deep tonight, so you may have the strength.”
“I will and again I say my debt to you and your animals, without you and the food, I would be frozen under the snow.”
Ragi merely nods and quietly sips his soup.
As Ragi predicted the morning is fine and the sun, feeble though it is, spreads its white fingers across the snowscape. Valdr sleeps as though in a trance still. His leg looks less red and the hole is beginning to cover over with new skin. If he can just live long enough my surgery may heal him but his whole body is much weakened. I wipe his forehead with a cloth dipped in warm water and I moisten his lips with the broth. I dare not feed him lest he choke. My decision is made and was the night before. I will go into the village to see more for myself as to what became of my fellow islanders.
Ragi is not in the hut so I busy myself with furs and leggings to bind the weak leg. I decide to take the sword in case I have need of it.
I take the skis from the door and painfully adjust the bad leg into the ski. I am immune to the pain now, it makes no difference to me, the pain in my heart is worst of all.
Out the door, I lift one leg and then the other carefully onto a path Ragi has already made in the snow. With the sword in my belt hanging down my back I begin to make my way across the path and point into the direction I know where the village lies.
As I go, in my own slow way one foot after the other, plod and place, plod and place, I see more nimble footed animals like the hare have left footprints in the snow. Without the snow flurries of my first attempt to the village after the attack, I make much better progress, soon I am on the track that leads up to the village wall. Rocks denote the edges of the track, as a few still rise above the surface of the snow like rows of black teeth.
As I gain the village entrance through its wall, I can see that foxes have run through the place and there are signs of wolves as well. My stomach churns at the thought and my earlier inability to cover my countrymen’s bodies. It must bring evil the neglect of the dead and I touch the hammer of Thor which hangs around my neck as a talisman against ill luck.
I feel the bile of Ragi’s mutton broth rise into my gut.
“I have done what I can with his wound” I slur out in answer. “It has worked in the past but I don’t know if it’s too late for him now. He did not even scream.”
Ragi sits near Valdr and rests a weather-worn hand on his forehead.
“If the death-voice comes into his throat, I can help him leave us and float to Valhalla.”
“No!” Blood rises to my face and my hands sweat.”I’ll staunch the wound again if I have to!” My voice rises to a shameful screech. I drag myself closer to the fire and stare into its comforting ever flickering motion.
After a moment I look Ragi in the face again.
“Is it your food we consume too fast?”
Ragi until now, the simple-faced farmer, glances at me in a sideways flick of the eyes that is strangely disturbing.
“Nay, I have sheep enough to sell, let alone to feed half the village through Winter. I seek only to stem his death agonies.”
“I am his brother. I will take that decision upon myself alone, do you heed me?”
Ragi nods as if wounded himself and the momentary sharpness dies from his features. “As you want. I go to tend the flock awhile. Is there more from your farm you have need of?”
“Do not trouble yourself, my friend. Food and company are all my needs at present, I thank you.”
I realise I am very hungry. I go to fill up a bowl of broth and just as the spoon is lifting the broth to my lips, I put it down again. Something troubles me. It is three weeks or more since the attack on our island. Valdr’s screams of that night were what keep me passing to Valhalla myself, I am sure. He was calling my name, “Asmundr!” His screams were gut-wrenching. When I drag myself to the hut, he screams still but there is something else he is saying. Or rather there is something he isn’t saying. He makes no mention of who has attacked him. I cannot remember either. How is it possible I can’t remember the most important fact about the whole attack. Who came? How could something like that be blocked from my memory? And when I searched the village in a state of dreaming, I found no things left by the attackers. My friends would have fought to the death. They would have wounded some of the enemy and killed them too but I found none of their bodies. How can that be?