Torvald shivered. He looked wistfully at his sticks and runes. The boat rolled and rumbled, and his totems danced around the floor, tumbling haphazardly and clunking against the wood.
Ivar grinned, and Torvald felt both relieved and unnerved. The youngest son of Ragnar was a dead man walking. He was supposed to die in his childhood, like other aberrations. His legs were small and brittle, the bones weak and hollow. But he had survived, and now led this latest expedition along with his brothers.
Torvald glanced at his sister, Alva, who was fast asleep. He remembered how the other girls in their village had teased her, calling her horse-faced and callus-skinned. Alva took after their father when it came to temper. She had smashed the water bucket against one of her bullies’ face and tore her braids off her head.
She looked not like a Valkyrie of old, but like a stone-faced Frost Giant, cold blue eyes wide and small mouth pressed tight, cheeks full, flushed and blowing.
“Good luck finding a good groom now, you stupid cow,” Alva had spat before running off into the woods. She had lived a few weeks in wilderness, before wandering off to another village. She had only returned when the news of Ragnar’s death had reached the Danish kingdoms.
“The night grows old, my brethren,” Ivar bellowed. “Let’s sing! We make landfall tomorrow. Glory and Valhalla awaits!”
Those who were still awake yelled in agreement. Florri the Soothsayer smiled, toothlessly, and cleared his throat. He sang, the words echoing soulfully and deeply in his guttural voice.
“The Elder Gods were asleep
The Heavens quaked with snores
But now the time has come
To sharpen blade with whetstone.
King Ragnar was slain
By cowards and brutes and scum,
And now his sons come for their hides
To rend the flesh from their bones
And tear their backs for Eagle borns.
Thunder, and Fire, and Blood the Gods demand,
We must sate their thirst and sail to shore
Where heathens drink with bellies full
And fill their homes with gold.
Plunder, and tear asunder
The Gods descend
With blade and spear
The heathens must pay a thousandfold.
Mjolnir cracks the skies
The Valkyrie await.”
Torvald peered across the starboard, and into the sea. Storm clouds were gathering. The waters remained unwelcome and hostile, but Torvald felt emboldened at the sight of the line of boats stretching towards the horizon, sailing towards the English isles.
Torvald wondered how the English boats were, and their houses. And then, he wondered how their maidens were: flaxen, fair or plain. At fifteen, Torvald was almost a man. This voyage will cement his transition to manhood.
“You seem vexed, Torvald,” Florri wheezed, patting the young lad on his shoulder.
“Yes. I was trying to speak to the Gods,” Torvald motioned to his totems. “But they remain silent.”
“I see! There are other, more natural ways for communing with the Aesir. Faster ways, and more pleasant, too.”
Florri reached into a pouch hanging near his belt, bringing out small mushrooms and herbs.
Torvald took some of the mushrooms and chewed hesitantly. They felt dry and leafy. The herbs added a slight vinegary flavor, and helped wash it down. Florri ate some as well, munching happily, eyes twinkling with glee.
Torvald knelt against the edge of the boat and rested. His heart quickened and relaxed in alternating waves. A numbness enveloped his limbs and shoulders. His vision began to blur, and he saw faint lights swirl among the clouds, pulsating and flowing. The boats left weird, transparent shadows. Sounds faded and a numbness reigned in his ears.
Torvald closed his eyes, and he saw rainbow colored spirals, spinning in the darkness, coalescing to form a spindly, wavy path. Torvald floated and then was pulled towards the path by an unknown force.
Torvald felt his muscles spasm, and his bones break, contort and bend. The world shrank, and words and thoughts faded and popped out of existence as his brain took the form of a pea. Limbs became fins and gills sprouted on his neck, and soon, Torvald was a trout, swimming down the depths.
Torvald swam down a tunnel and surfaced in a cave. He climbed and yelped as he grew new vocal chords, and a torso, and limbs. He walked towards the sole source of light: a crack in the ceiling through which light poured through in a cone. Nearby, he saw a man chained, head bowed, hair and beard scraggy and overflowing. A woman stood nearby, holding a small bowl above his head.
Torvald recognized the man. “Why am I here? I thought I was going to see Odin and receive knowledge.”
The man raised his head, surveying Torvald before smiling. “Odin has no time for young boys. And you forget, I am not only Loki Laufeyson, God of Mischief, but also the God of Stories. Stories are knowledge, too.”
Torvald drew close. He was a simple boy, and he had simple queries.
“Are we going to win this war?”
“Perhaps. But I would wager no. The time of the Gods is passing, and is the time of Norsemen. You will gain plenty of plunder, at any rate.”
Torvald nodded. “Will I die?”
Loki cackled. “All men do, eventually. Not in the war, though, no.”
“Can you tell me more about the heathens?”
Loki smirked. “That’s a funny thing to call them. From their point of view, you are the heathen.”
“Be that as it may be. What can you tell me about them?”
“Only that their sun rises, while your sun wanes. They have a nasty tendency to improvise and adapt. I liked things a lot better when the land was occupied by Celts. Ornery druids, brutal rituals and beautiful maidens.”
“What of the Gods? Shall they not help Midgard?”
Loki laughed, loudly and with malice. The woman’s hands trembled, and green venom spilled from the bowl, singing Loki’s face. Loki yelped through gritted teeth.
“The Gods are dying. They are going the way of the dinosaurs. High time, if you ask me. I like my good share of debauchery, but the orgies and rapes were getting old.”
“You don’t look like you are in any shape to participate in any kind of debauchery, Loki.”
“Everyone’s a critic. Anyways, you will get yours soon, boy. Men will endure, yes, but only by embracing their base, vile natures. Remember this, my boy…
The cruel men always come at dawn.”
Torvald wondered what that meant, before being pulled upwards through the cracks of the cave, everything dissolving into an overwhelming whiteness.
The battle was all but won. The pillaging remained.
The pikeman thrust his spear, aiming for Torvald’s chest. Torvald dodged, raising his shield to block the spearhead. He drove his own sword at the pikeman’s torso, whose defenses were open after the thrust.
The pikeman screamed as Torvald’s sword plunged through his ribs. Torvald drew back and sliced the spear in half, before knocking the man down with a kick. Torvald forced the helm open with the edge of his sword, uncovering a grime covered face and wild, bulging eyes.
The pikeman yelled in a foreign tongue as he tried to recover, but Torvald would have none of it. He crushed the man’s throat with his boot, before impaling the heart for good measure.
Torvald huffed, feeling the weight of his armor clamping down on his shoulders. He gazed upon the pastoral lands, and wondered how long it had been since he had seen the fjords of his own homeland. Dusk bathed the lands and the patched roofs in orange and blue. In the distance, cows grazed and viewed the slaughter with mild confusion.
Torvald looked to his rear, seeing that the others in his regiment had finished with their stragglers as well. He yelled at them, and signaled towards the church in front of them. The remaining soldiers had routed and retreated to the harbor.
There was no one in the church except for unarmed civilians.
“How many do you think are in there, brother?” Alva asked, wiping the blood smeared across her face like warpaint.
Alva had grown into a formidable woman, with imperilous eyes and sharp cheeks, hair shaven at one side and braided at the other, reaching down to her waist. She had carved the handle of her war axe, as well as the hilt of Torvald’s sword, with runes that spoke of the old Gods and kings.
Alva smiled, and it was a smile that bore mischief and malice. “At least sixty, I wager. With gold and other treasures.”
“Hah, you jest. They are peasants. There is no treasure to spare for this dung heap.”
“We shall see.”
Torvald waited for the rear to catch up, carrying the weathered, almost frail-looking battering ram. With mighty yells, they slammed the church doors with it, again and again, until the doors splintered and swung ajar.
Dozens were huddled together, most of them women and children. They were headed by a resolute nun, clutching an unlit torch tightly across her chest.
Torvald advanced, shield and sword raised. Alva matched his pace, more tense and impatient. Others joined their flank, forming a concave arc. As they approached, the nun lit her torch and prayed in hushed tones.
“Do you smell that?” Alva asked. Torvald sniffed, finding a faint whiff of kerosine in the air. He glanced at the ground, and saw faint spatters of glistening oil strewn around them.
The nun yelled, lighting herself on fire before dropping the torch. The church roared to life, the flames engulfing every Saxon, who rushed towards the Norsemen.
Torvald raised his shield high and hoisted his sword above, signaling the rest to form a shield wall. Terror surged through the surface waters of his mind, but in his depths, he felt oddly thrilled, as though he were battling fire demons from Muspelheim.
Torvald held his ground as the burning nun slammed against his shield. He threw her off and continued to rush back, racing against the spread of the flames. Some of his compatriots weren’t as fortunate. One was stabbed in the foot by a girl, and another caught fire.
The line broke, and there was little choice for everyone but to break ranks and run.
“Archers, lay covering fire!” Alva barked, turning over chairs to slow down the Saxons’ advance.
Torvald and Alva ran past the doors, where archers had nocked and set their bows. Arrows flew and found their mark, bringing down half a dozen civillians. The rest of the Norsemen exited the church, but not before the Saxons caught up to another straggler. Alva and Torvald slammed the door shut, ignoring both their kinsman’s scream as well as the Saxons’ howls.
“Hafnar, bar the doors with the battering ram! Don’t let them through!”
Hafnar, a fresh-faced grunt barely sporting a beard, sprang to his feet, pulling the ram off the ground and pushing it up against the door. The doors were starting to burn by this point. Torvald and Alva pressed on the beam as well. Slowly, the screams dimmed and faded from hearing.
Torvald sighed, slumping down to the ground. “Anyone want to go through that again?”
Alva coughed and spit blood. “Bet’s off. Just my luck.”
“There will be other churches. We need to sweep the rest of the town.”
“I hear you.”
Torvald dusted himself off and moved further inwards into the town. People were fleeing even then, before being cut off by arrows and riders. He groaned as he felt his knees ache and ankle hurt with sharpness. This was the last time he needed a sprained ankle.
At least, he wasn’t dead.
He looked at the smoldering husk of the church. Its ramparts were beginning to fall apart. He remembered the first church he ransacked seven years ago. They were praying when the Norseman had burst through the door.
They had been cut down with impunity. Some attempted to rape women, but Alva had put a stop to it. Torvald had seen a nun then, too, but she had cut her wrists already. She collapsed in Torvald’s arms, gasping and staring into his eyes as she died.
What difference, between those empty eyes and the fiery ire he had seen today.
The Saxons had changed. They were adapting. And the Norsemen were adapting too, but perhaps, not for the better.
The waves roared and splashed. As the moon retreated from view, the North Star shone dimly, lighting the way home. Torvald dipped his toes into the waters tentatively, shivering as the coldness hit his extremities. He gulped down a swig of mead, treasuring the ripe sweetness as it hit his taste buds, flowing smoothly down his parched throat.
For a moment, Torvald considered walking into the ocean and sinking into its depths. He remembered the night he had dreamt of the cave. He missed Florri, and his songs. The old man passed away last year.
He wondered if Valhalla waited for him, or if he would go to the Christian hell. He hated the entire notion of hell. Norse Gods were wily and brutal, but the Christian God was downright cruel. Their lives on this world were supposed to be free. There was enough suffering and difficulty in the world. Torvald didn’t need the threat of eternal damnation to weigh on his mind as well.
There were enough monsters in this world. Torvald fought with, and against, many of them. Give it a few years, and he might become one of them, too.
“Care to share some of that, brother?”
A gangly, frail man walked towards him, his cane knocking softly against the sand. His blue eyes shone dimly, and his badly cut hair blew gently in the breeze.
“Who are you, kinsman?”
“Donal Bjarson. A healer by trade and poet by heart.”
“Hmm. I am Torvald Gunarsson. Swordsman by heart and trade.”
“I see. You are younger than your gaze suggests.”
“And perhaps, you are dumber than your profession suggests.”
“Hah! Let’s see how good that mead is,” Donal outstretched his hand, and Torvald passed the gourd flask to the healer.
Donal chugged down the mead, parsing its flavor and smacking his lips testily before smiling. “That’s some good mead, indeed.”
“Aye. Some of the last home-brewed stuff we brought over. My sister has been harvesting new brew from the vineyards here, but that will take a while to age properly.”
“You know your alcohol. Who did the vineyards belong to, you reckon?”
“Dead Saxons. Who cares. We own the land now.”
Donal frowned. “If that is the kind of respect you show towards the dead, then perhaps the same will be shown to you when you join their ranks.”
“Perhaps. But I will worry about it when I am dead.”
“I see. Tell me, Torvald, you ever wonder about why we are here?”
“Here, as in the English isles? Or here, as in alive?”
“Both, I suppose.”
Torvald downed some more mead and contemplated on the matter. “We came here for revenge. Now, we stay for riches, plunder and glory, I suppose. As for the latter, being alive is simply a state of being, like being a sword or being mead are different states of being.”
“That’s a reasonable way of looking at things.”
“It is. Why are you alive, though, healer? Surely, you have an opinion on the fact.”
“Not an opinion, more of an inkling. Sometimes, I feel as though I am dreaming, or sleepwalking. When people pass into the afterlife after battle, I see the agony on their faces as they fight to hold onto their last breaths. Yet, is there really that much to fight for?
Perhaps, things were supposed to be different. Sometimes, I see things, as though they were memories from another life. I see a woman, with beautiful flowing locks, smiling and finding comfort in my arms. I see a bridge of fantastic colors, extending out into the nether and a man guarding it. I see myself soaring through the clouds and feasting with strange people in strange lands.”
“You are a good storyteller, Donal. You should write these down.”
“Hah, let’s see.”
Donal rose to his feet. Torvald grasped the cain, but struggled to lift it. He felt perplexed, but Donal simply smiled and grabbed it raising it effortlessly.
“See you later, Torvald Gunarsson.”
Torvald finished the rest of his mead before returning to his tent. He felt forlorn when emptiness greeted him, surrounded by nothing other than his spoils.
He remembered Cwen, and how she recoiled when he first touched her. He had tried to be kind, but over time, he realized that something fundamental inside him was broken. He let her free for brief periods of time, and he would bring her food, tokens and mementos from his raids.
She loved books the most, and sometimes, she read them aloud to him in her foreign tongue. He had tried to learn it, and could speak certain words in broken blocks.
He didn’t know what he felt for her was love, but he felt gentle and vulnerable when he was with her. Once, he had cradled her and fallen asleep, and when he had woken, he found her asleep too, with a hand on his hair. And Torvald felt as though Frigga herself was with him, and he was Woden, fierce, protective and passionate.
Over time, he found that he had something to look forward to when he returned to the camp. He liked it, and others had taken notice of that, too. One day, he returned to see his tent in a mess, and Cwen curled in a corner, her garments torn and her visage bloodied and bruised.
He beat Dane bloody for that, and if there weren’t others to restrain him, he would have done worse.
He took her with him on the next raid, and he was glad he had done so, for she felt more comfortable and at peace. She smiled and laughed that night, and when he looked into her eyes that night, he saw a mixture of sadness and understanding.
He awoke the next morning to find her gone, leaving nothing but a letter and a bracelet made of leather and reeds.
He still kept that letter with him, in the hopes that one day he would understand the Saxon tongue well enough to know what she had said.
Torvald lay down on his bed and stared at the tent’s flaps, waiting for sleep to descend.
He sang a song he remembered, whispering softly and tunelessly.
“My bones creak
My heart weeps
My soul is marred
By scars many and untold.
I wish to sail
And leave for home
Brave the tides
You will be there by my side,
my flaxen maiden fair
With braids of red and breeches of gold
And we shall brave the tides together
And see our lands again.
And we shall build a homestead new
On our plains, by the fjords and the sea
And build our shrines to our Gods
to bless our harvest, of flesh and fields.
But will we ever set sail again
And leave this land behind?
Strange shores with strange homes
Strange folks and strange gods
Where is Wotan in these woods?
Where is Baldr in daylight?
Or Frigga in their hearths?
My hands ache
My neck is bent
My health ails
Oh, I only wish
To sail again
And feel the wind
Before I pass,
From the Earth’s embrace
To Hel’s cold gates
And slumber forevermore.”
Sleep descended on Torvald soon afterwards, and in the moment before it took him completely, he saw a glimpse of the sea, the stars and Cwen’s flowing locks.