The sea heaved and swayed with the fury of a mother bear defending her cub, but the ship held. A fierce wind orchestrated the spray of the waves, dancing it across a sodden mass of dripping beards, hunched shoulders, and gritted teeth. The crew of thirty operated the ship’s oars with the rhythm of a single heart, their weathered skin capturing droplets of water that mapped their faces and caused them to glisten in the moonlight. Erik, standing at the steering oar of the ship, wore a knowing smile as he pointed in the direction of travel.
“Land! I see Land!” he shouted, his low voice snagging on the crash of the waves.
The crew erupted into a synchronised cheer, giving the men a new found strength. Leif drew back his oar with a swift jerk before leaning forward to speak to Bjórr.
“We have proven ourselves to Thor!” he shouted, “Now, let’s prove ourselves to Odin and return as the men who buried the boys they left as!”
Bjórr turned his head to reply, carving a smile onto his face.
“Yes! May the gods show us the way!” he shouted.
He turned his head back and lowered it as another spray of water exploded over the edge of the ship.
“Or we shall be forever lost,” he muttered to himself, his comment hidden by the chorus of raging waves and billowing sail.
The ship tilted and dipped as it moved toward their destination, elegantly traversing across the water to bring the distant mass of land closer and closer. It was freshly built, using the best shipbuilders they had to create the perfect harmony between strength and weight. Erik had overlooked its construction personally. Now, he watched as its body twisted and curved with the waves: lost in a dance that would see its crew through.
As it pulled up on to the shore, the crew disembarked with haste. Sodden and submerged to the knee, they moved into formation on either side like a newly released eagle spreading its wings and glided the ship onto the stones. Once beached, they gathered at the ship’s head where Erik climbed up to address them.
“The gods have returned us to the West,” He said, bashing his sword upon his wooden shield to create a dull thump laced with clanging metal, “This time, we shall not leave so quickly.”
The men returned the gesture in approval, creating a sound that was carried off by the roar of the wind. All, but one. Bjórr did not join in, instead he tightened his grip on the hilt of his axe and clenched his jaw: a silent defiance that did not go unnoticed. Erik threw him a look of contempt before continuing on with his speech.
“In fact, we’ll be here for quite some time,” he said, “So, I hope you pleased your women before you left.”
The air was filled with the bouncing ripple of laughter, which Erik soon brought to a stop by raising his hand.
“Tonight, we rest on the ship,” He said, “Jorundr, take five men with you and bring the sail down.”
Jorundr nodded, mumbled, and pointed at five surrounding men before setting off to drop the sail and cast it over the boat to create a tent-like roof.
“The rest of you, start sharing out the food and water. No mead till the morning. Make sure to leave some for Jorundr and the others,” Erik continued, “There will be no fires, tonight we embrace what the gods have given us.”
He smiled a wry smile and leant casually against the figurehead of the ship: a snarling horned serpent.
“If you get cold, get close to the man next to you and think of your wife at home,” He said.
Erik nodded and the group began to move below a low buzz of layered voices, Leif grabbed Bjórr by the shoulder and shook him in the spirit of comradery.
“Come, Bjórr,” he said “don’t look like that, are you not glad to be back?”
“Of course I am,” Bjórr replied.
Kafli knocked him with his shoulder as he passed, “Then act like it,” He said.
“Bjórr!” Erik shouted, moving through the rabble of men towards him, “Let’s move up that hill so we can get a better look at why we have come.”
Leif sucked his top lip, patted Bjórr on the shoulder and joined the movement of the group. Erik and Bjórr ascended the coastal hill in silence, their tunics and hair lagging behind them as they became weighted by the wind. Once at the top, they saw their first target: a solitary settlement silhouetted by its own torchlight, aglow amongst the darkness like an ember amongst ash.
“It seems the fates have smiled upon us,” Bjórr said.
“Do you think I am stupid?” Erik replied, taking Bjórr off guard.
“What do you mean?” Bjórr said.
“I know you did not want to come back,” Erik said, “and I am yet to find out why.”
A silence swelled between them. Erik sighed and turned around to leave, taking a few steps before stopping to stare into the distance. He ran his hand through his greying beard.
“We attack as the sun reaches over the horizon, not before” he said.
He paused for a second, turned around, and placed his hand on Bjórr’s shoulder. His blue tunic contrasting against Bjórr’s rust coloured cloth.
“Just remember, we are here for the gods and for our people,” he said, “Do not put me in a position where I have to choose between you and them.”
After Erik walked away, Bjórr stared a little longer at the glowing settlement, turned around, and collapsed into a sit upon the hill. He watched the moon pour down on the men, the gushes of wind causing the loose strands of his hair to rise and dance. The wind soon settled and it did not take long for his thoughts to become entangled with visions of her, his eyes fixed on a speck of light floating on the horizon, glimmering like the eye of a distant god.
All was still on the boat, all except a swinging lamp, a beating heart, and a bead of cold sweat orienteering its way through coarse stubble. Luzio began to feel the ache from being on his knees too long and shuffled to get comfortable. His black shoulder-length hair, though wet and weighted, was loose and swayed with his movements. He spared a glance to the distant shoreline, the shape of a beached ship revealed itself as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. A harsh intake of breath from one of the men indicated a decision had been made, and he knew his moments were numbered.
“Blood is heavier than gold, my friend,” he said to the backs of his captors, trying to get their attention.
The boat was not big, and they were not far from him as they conversed near the lamp. To his rear, there was a chest that housed his clothes.
“Then you obviously don’t know gold,” Gisli grunted, not turning around.
“Oh,” Luzio continued, “I know gold and I know blood too.”
Luzio moved his hands out in front of him as he spoke, animating them like his words were puppet strings that caused the chains of his shackles to rattle and clink. His white under tunic was drenched, sticking to his skin, and his bare feet had long been numb from the cold.
“You see,” he said, “gold you can put down or give away, but blood: blood stains you in places you can’t get to. Yes, it’s light to begin with, like a cup of wine, but eventually it gets heavier, and heavier. You can’t put it down even when your soul burns like fire,” Luzio lowered his head, “Oh no, my friends. You can’t put blood down, even when it starts to become heavy.”
Gisli turned to look at him, the light of the lamp turning to shadow in the deep scar that ran down his cheek. He strode forward and struck Luzio across the face with the hilt of his axe, “Keep your tongue or lose it,” he said, his wet hair blending into the darkness of his clothes.
Luzio spat the blood from his new wound onto the planked floor.
“All I’m saying,” he continued, wiping his mouth, “Is that I can get you the gold, but you’ll always have my blood on your hands.”
Gisli raised his axe, scrunching up his face in anger.
“Wait!” his companion said, raising his hand.
Gisli stopped short, looking around to the source of the command. Dýri turned, moved forward, and squatted so he could meet eyes with Luzio. His hair was tied into a bun, revealing his gaunt face and short black beard in full.
“Now” he said, grasping Luzio’s hands as if he were addressing a child, “How do you expect to get this gold?”
“I know this shoreline, there is a monastery near here,” Luzio replied “We can raid it, take the gold.”
Dýri laughed, lowered his head and shook it side to side. He looked up and grabbed Luzio by his cheeks, causing his lips to move away from his face to mirror those of a fish.
“Are you trying to get us killed? Do you not remember that Erik has exiled us? He will kill us if we go ashore,” he said, throwing Luzio’s face to the side.
“I don’t keep up with your Northman squabbles,” Luzio replied, straightening himself up, “But it doesn’t matter, I can go.”
Dýri and Gisli both laughed.
“Why should we trust you?” Dýri said.
Luzio surrendered the palms of his hands, “Life’s in the risk,” he said, smirking, “Plus, we all know we barely made it through that storm. How many more do you think you’ve got until the gods take your sea soaked bodies? The way I see it, you kill me, you’re goldless. You let me go and I don’t come back? You’re goldless, angry, you find me and we do this all again.”
He clenched his fist and pointed with his other hand.
“But, I get your gold and I return it to you? I can live my life with all its joys and sorrows,” he leaned his head back and kept a stern expression, “Don’t take away my chance to do just that.”
Dýri and Gisli stared at each other, communicating in a dance of facial gestures instead of words. Luzio watched the lamp swaying with the rocking boat, like a glowing pendulum that slowly chipped away the barricade between life and death. The communications stopped and Dýri walked over to his captive with a deliberate slowness, squatting to make himself level again.
“You’ve got one chance,” he said emphasising his point by raising a single finger, “I don’t know how you’re going to do it, and I don’t care. If you don’t come back, I’ll hunt you down and blood eagle you on burning coals.”
Luzio smiled, “Shall I leave in the morning?”
Bjórr re-entered the world of the woken in a rush of consciousness, he grasped at the air in front of him and removed the fur blanket that was now sticking to his dampened skin. He gasped and coughed before he managed to regain his composure, his outburst causing the surrounding men to do nothing more than briefly scrunch up their faces in a sleep filled disapproval. He stood up, still trembling, and focussed on his clouded breath that misted a backdrop of a sky still full of stars.
He grabbed the point of his beard in his hands and pulled on it, a reassuring sense of pain spread across his chin. He was here, here was real. He looked to see if the light from the night before was still on the horizon, it wasn’t. The noise that had woken him sounded again, the ringing bell of the nearby monastery galloping across the black.
“Something worrying you?” a voice said.
Bjórr turned around to see Erik sitting on a nearby rock, his sword laying across his knees.
“No more than usual,” Bjórr replied. He coughed and spat, “Do you make it your hobby to watch men as they sleep?”
Erik laughed, “Sometimes,” he replied, tapping the hilt of his sword, “Sometimes a sleeping man is closer to the gods than one who is awake,” He stood up and walked towards Bjórr, placing the flat of his blade upon Bjórr’s chest.
“I’ll be watching you today,” he said, “Don’t let me down.”
Bjórr stared back, his lip quivering in anger.
“Get up!” Erik shouted without diverting his gaze.
The surrounding men stirred, some of them opened their eyes only to close them again. Erik began to hit the hilt of his sword upon a nearby rock, causing the clang of metal and stone to wash over the sleeping men.
“I said get up!” he shouted again, “If they are starting their day, then so are we.”
With this, he walked past Bjórr, almost knocking him aside with his shoulder, and started to kick those still asleep. Once all of the men had submitted to the new day, they fuelled themselves on a cocktail of hard bread, dried fish, sticky mead, and the desire to smother the glisten of their blades with the enemy’s blood. Some prayed to Odin that this would be the day he sent his Valkyries to take them to Valhalla, others had no desire to rush the process: this world had its own pleasures.
In preparation for first light, the men washed the salt from their skin and hair, made peace with the gods and limbered up in pockets of contained, muted sparring. Once the light of the sun began battle with the night, Erik gathered his raiders.
“We know that it is not the first strike that fells the tree, so we should not expect the first raid to bring the glory,” he said, “the last time we were here the injuries of my son caused us to leave early, this is true. I spoke to each and every one of you about my decision before you agreed to come back, before you took the oath once more.”
He shuffled in his spot, rested his arm on the hilt of his sheathed sword and bowed his head slightly.
“I thank you for doing so,” he continued, raising it again, “the building over that hill is full of soft flesh and hard gold.”
“And soft women that make the flesh hard!” One of the men shouted out, causing the men to laugh and nod.
Erik raised his hand. Silence.
“We know that it is undefended,” he continued, as if nothing had happened, “the only dangers that we have to fear are the ones that we bring upon ourselves.”
He paused, unsheathed his sword and raised it.
“Let us go and show these Christians that their God is no match for ours.”
The men poured over the hills as a silent shadow, wraith-like in their approach to the monastery. Erik stopped the advance and took a moment to view their target under the light of the day. He noticed that the two, large wooden buildings on either side of the church now featured areas of brighter and newer timber.
“What are we waiting for?” Jorundr said.
“They have repaired since we were last here, and the church, it’s now made of stone.” Erik replied.
“Yes, but-“ Jorundr said, before Erik raised his hand.
“Shh,” Erik said, “listen.”
The raiders stood in silence, poised and ready. The soft singing of male and female voices mixed in with their own heavy breathing, seeping through the church door like a siren’s seduction drawing them in. Jorundr and Erik smiled.
“I expect they are praying for us not to return,” Jorundr said.
“I expect so, too,” Erik replied, unsheathing his sword.
The new day sun stretched across the buildings, bringing a subtle warmth to the crisp morning air. The first birds had begun to sing, and the beauty of everything felt as fragile as thin ice on a summer’s day. The crunch of frosted grass under Viking boots surrounded the moving mass of men, which slowly began to eclipse the fingers of sunlight creeping through the heavy timber door of the church. Erik placed his hand on it, and paused to listen to the singing before it became screaming.
Inside the church, the monks and the nuns were taking part in their morning service. Too lost in prayers and the thoughts of salvation, none of them had noticed the sun disappear from below the door. A young monk found himself lost in the ray of light coming in through one of the church windows, illuminating the specs of dust as they flittered around the house of God. He smiled, his eyes twinkling with the warmth of his soul, before returning to his prayer.
The creak of an opening door applauded the end of the hymn, causing the abbess who was leading the song to look up from her book. The horror on her face, wide eyed and open mouthed, alarmed the rest of the church. Like a ripple in a pond, the monks and nuns turned their heads to see the cause of her fear, and the calmness of morning was dashed to pieces in an instant.
A splatter of blood climbed the coarse stone walls before the wailing and begging begun. The Vikings flooded inside the church, moving either side of the wall that ran lengthways down the church to separate the men and women from their temptations. The monks and nuns began to exit through the doors on either side of building, causing a swarm of bodies to crash into each other. Erik, noticing this, turned to Kafli beside him and grabbed him by the shoulder.
“Take some men and chase them down! Split up! Don’t let any of them escape, and don’t kill them all!” he shouted.
Kafli nodded, turned around and began to move through the crowd, tapping men on the shoulder as he told them to follow him. Bjórr, still with a clean axe, darted his gaze around the church. He had not seen her, to his relief she had not yet joined the blood soaked bodies that carpeted the floor. He leant down, grabbed the tunic of a dead monk and smeared blood on his blade. Then, he pushed his way through the crowd and made his way outside.
Erik cut his way through monk and nun alike as he made his way to the abbess, the matriarch who knelt at the pulpit in a desperate attempt to connect with God. Once he reached her, he threw the pulpit to one side and the bible landed on the ground with a heavy thud. He grabbed onto her robe and pulled her close.
“Gold?” he said in her mother tongue.
She responded by gazing up to the ceiling, spilling words beyond his understanding. He grunted in frustration and grabbed hold of her wimple. He pulled it off of her head, causing her to stumble as she fell off balance. He threw it to the ground and grabbed her again, his gaze climbing her face and falling upon the roughly shorn head of hair now revealed. When he saw this, he laughed and ruffled it as if she were a child.
“Gold?” he said again.
She responded the same, her aged face heavy with sorrow and her eyes shiny with tears. This time, Erik sunk his blade into her stomach. She tensed, her gaze distant, and a single trickle of blood dripped from her mouth. He pulled the blade out, released his grip, and left her to twitch and fade on the sunlit floor.
He turned to see that the men had finished, there were no monks or nuns alive inside the building. Erik, sword still in his hand, moved down the church and out the door they had come through. He raised his arm to shield his eyes from the sudden brightness. When his eyes adjusted, he could see a trail of bodies spewing out of the church doors, Bjórr was walking up and down one line of them. He went over to greet him.
“I see you took part this time,” he said, pointing at the blood on Bjórr’s axe.
“This can’t be all of them,” Bjórr said, “There must be more.”
Erik nodded, “I hope so, they may know where the gold is kept.”
“Erik!” Jorundr shouted, interrupting them, “We have the last of them.”
Erik knelt, wiped the blood off his blade on the robe of a monk, stood up and sheathed his sword.
“Come,” he said.
Bjórr, axe at the ready, followed Erik to the other side of the church. Here, he could see that Jorundr had lined up a group of nuns and monks on their knees, clammy and trembling. Bjórr saw the fear in their eyes, clenched his jaw and exhaled. She wasn’t there.
“Where is Kafli?” Erik said.
“He has found one that he likes,” he said, tilting his head towards the wooden building next to them, “He won’t be long.”
Erik snorted, and drew his attention to their captives.
“I have one more here!” Kafli shouted, appearing from behind the building with a triumphant smile.
In his hand he was holding a nun by the arm. Her wimple had been ripped off and the braids in her hair had been partly destroyed, falling across her shoulders. She looked young and beautiful under the swelling and cuts that covered her face. Bjórr stared at her torn clothing and felt like a frozen man falling into burning fire, the blood on her white tunic igniting something inside him.
Erik laughed, “I hope you had your fun with her Kafli, bring her over.”
“Wait!” Bjórr shouted, hoping to hide the desperation in his voice.
“Let me have my fun with her too,” He said.
“Fine” he nodded, “We can save her until last.”
“I would like my turn too,” Hakon, a short stocky man, said.
“And me,” said Jorundr, a dumb smile spreading across his wide and hairy face.
“Well,” Erik said “Why don’t you all go together then?”
The three men approached Kafli and the nun, he passed her to them and returned to the rest of the men. They led her behind the building as Erik questioned the remaining monks and nuns.
“Who wants to go first?” Jorundr said.
“Why don’t you go first, Jorundr?” Bjórr said, “Then we can get the disappointment out of the way.”
Jorundr snarled and grabbed the woman, who now desperately stared at Bjórr. He bent her over and lifted her tunic. As he was lifting his own, he felt a flurry of wet droplets hit his hand and face. Shocked, he looked over at the men to see that Bjórr was struggling to remove his axe from Hakon’s skull.
He pushed the woman away from him and ran towards Bjórr, tackling him to the ground. Hakon slumped onto the grass, his pupils disappeared as his eyes rolled back.
“Ava!” Bjorr said, pointing to one of the buildings and straining against the strength of Jorundr.
Ava crawled across the ground and sat against the wooden wall, hugging her knees and hiding her face.
Jorundr straddled Bjórr, raining blows down upon his face. Through the flash and pain of collision, he raised one arm to cover Jorundr’s mouth, just in time to muffle a shout. With his other, he patted the ground around him until soft grass turned into jagged rock. He rolled it close to him with his fingertips and managed to get a solid hold.
With his other arm, he pushed Jorundr’s face away from him and the blows began to miss. He brought the rock up at speed and landed it on Jorundr’s head, knocking him onto the ground. Bjórr rose onto his knees and hit Jorundr a second time to stop the groans of pain. He hit him again and again. He hit him until he hit mud.