Luzio sat on a nearby hill and watched the smoke plume from his saving grace, his nostrils flaring as the smell of burning timber and divine flesh crept across the landscape towards him. He ran his hands through his hair and let them fall onto his lap, causing the rings on his fingers to clink as they touched. He brushed off his stone-coloured linen trousers and well fitted thick brown tunic, and fiddled with the drawstring around his waist before looking behind him to watch the boat of his captors head back out to the horizon. The two men silhouetted against the morning sun reminded him of how they had both mimicked eagles flapping their wings as he disembarked on the shore. For now, it was good to be dry.
His thoughts returned and he raised himself up, lifting his dark brown hood to protect him from the cold, and made his way down the grassy slope towards the soon to be ashen monastery. His fingers played with his rings as he walked, and he pondered the Viking life. He thought of their travels, then he thought of home. The smell of the basil in his wife’s cooking and the laughter of his daughter echoed across his memory, causing a small smile to leak out the side of his mouth before a stronger waft of burning wood brought him back. A sick feeling made itself at home in his stomach as he approached the monastery and he found a small pocket of woodland to crouch in, peering through the branches of an autumn glazed tree to assess the situation.
The first thing he noticed was the silence. All the birds had taken flight and their birdsong had gone with them: it was as if the world was holding its breath to avoid drawing any attention to itself. Luzio wiped the sweat from his palms onto his tunic and decided that the world was smarter than he was. The second thing he noticed was that his view of the church was obscured by the large wooden building that had, until recently, been the place that the nuns had called home. As he focussed his ear, the low rumble of male voices made itself known and he was able to determine that where there was smoke, there were Northmen.
He drew a deep breath and took a step forward, causing some twigs to snap and crack underfoot as he did so. Before he could take another, he was frozen by movement catching his eye. A nun and a Northman appeared from beside the dormitory, panicked and frenzied. He was big, his long hair and neat beard a deep oak brown. She was beautiful, but bloody, parts of her golden hair had come free from their braiding and trailed behind her as she moved. The whites of their eyes shone in the morning sun and they ran hand in hand. Luzio watched, smiled, and hoped.
Bjórr and Ava ran, laden with heavy chests and burning limbs.
“Bjórr, please, I can’t go on,” Ava said, digging her heels into the ground and pulling on Bjórr’s hand.
They shuddered to a halt. The outside world returned to them, revealing a shrunken and distant monastery to their backs.
“We cannot stop, Ava, I know what they will do to us if they catch us,” Bjórr said, in between breaths.
“It can’t be-”
“It is worse!” Bjórr said, cutting her short, “If you really knew, you would not stop.”
Ava threw her head forward and started sobbing into her hands, her blonde hair pouring over her fingers like heated honey. She looked up and stared into Bjórr’s eyes.
“Why did you come back?” she said, a subtle tremble in her voice, “Was the first time not enough?”
Bjórr took a deep breath, exhaled slowly through his nose and looked to the ground before meeting her gaze.
“They came back to raid,” he said, pointing towards the smoking monastery.
A dull thud filled the space between them as he landed his palm on his chest.
“I came back for you,” he said.
Before Ava could reply, they heard a deep horn hum in the distance. Bjórr jerked his head towards the sound.
“And now he knows that,” He said.
Ava raised her robe to lift the hem off the floor and began to run again, causing Bjórr to watch her for a moment before doing the same. The terrain gradually became woodland, causing the rays of the midday sun to reach through the branches like fingers. As their surroundings thickened, their pace slowed to a walk. The cracking of twigs, the bellowing of breath, and the scratch of woollen tunics catching on outreached branches became their soundtrack. Then, suddenly, Bjórr lifted his arm and signalled for them to stop.
He crouched, holding the sheathed knife that hung from a piece of string around his neck: Ava crouched too, squeezing the cross that hung from hers. She could not see what Bjórr was looking at, but she watched his eyes track something before slowing to a halt. She heard the sound of movement, a loud snort, and then frantic hooves hitting the ground and fading into the distance. Bjórr tensed, releasing his grip on the knife.
“What was it?” Ava said.
“It was a deer,” Bjórr replied, “And our chance at some warmth and food.”
They did not get another chance as they walked through the forest. Day became night and their exhaustion overpowered their fear. They found themselves a small clearing that had been caused by a large fallen tree and Bjórr paused for a moment before breaking off a thick branch. With this, he began to pound the hard soil just in front of the trunk to soften it up. Then, he began to dig. Upon seeing this, Ava grabbed her own branch and began to help him. Between them, they dug a small hole beneath the trunk and sat in it: partly covered by the tree.
Ava shivered as the cold settled on them, so Bjórr put his arm around her and drew her close. Their stomachs groaned to each other as they stared at the night sky above them, the darkness pinpricked with starlight and threaded with the glow of the moon.
“Bjórr,” Ava said.
“Yes?” he replied.
“What you’ve done,” she said, pausing.
“Yes?” Bjórr said.
“Will it not anger your gods?” she said.
Bjórr sighed, “Maybe,” he said, “Maybe not. Maybe they aren’t listening, maybe they aren’t there at all.”
“You really believe that?” she said.
“Sometimes,” Bjórr said “When I look up to the sky on a night like tonight, I find it hard not to believe they are there. It seems so obvious that a world like this could only be made by something that loves its craft. But then, when I saw what was to happen to you, and what has happened to the people in my life, I can’t help but feel that we’re alone. That, or the gods do not love beautiful things.”
He paused to kiss her on the forehead.
“So, I will do it for them,” he said.
The burdened expression on Ava’s face was broken as a smile slipped through, before a sound caused her to flinch. The fragile moment took flight and she gripped onto Bjórr’s tunic which caused it to stretch over his tensed bicep. They both sat, and watched, as the bush in front of them rustled far too much for a windless night.
Erik sat upon a hillside near the woodland, looking across the horizon. The cold night air clung to his nose and ears as he rested his forearms on his arched knees, his limp hands cradling his sword across his shins. The men slept, huddled together on the grass and full of stolen food, fury, and the chase.
“Bjórr,” he whispered to himself, his clouded breath trailing from his mouth, “What have you done?”
Hours before, he had thrown his shield against the outside of the dormitory wall and paced next to the bodies.
“I knew it!” he shouted, “I knew he would do something like this! He’s always been weak to our ways.”
“He will pay for what he’s done,” Kafli said, leaning against the building wall, his arms crossed and one leg resting on top of the other.
Erik stopped. He stared in front of him for a moment, clenched his jaw and turned on the ball of his foot towards Kafli. He walked up to him, scratching his bearded cheek as he did so. As Erik approached, Kafli pushed himself off the building with his shoulder and straightened up. His leather breastplate creaked with his movements.
They stood face to face, eye to eye. Erik placed his hand on Kafli’s shoulder, Kafli smirked. They froze like this for a moment, before Erik lightly nodded to himself. He grabbed the back of Kafli’s neck, pulled him forward and tripped his legs out from underneath him. A wet thud sounded as Kafli landed on the floor, face down in the blood and pulp that was once Jorundr’s head.
Erik placed his foot on the back of Kafli’s head, applied some pressure, bowed slightly, and leant his elbow on his risen knee.
“Do you think your words mean anything to him?” he said, “Killed by a coward, by one of our own, do you think the Valkyries came for him? Do you think he will be dining in Valhalla tonight?”
Kafli produced a muffled sound, gripping onto the grass with both hands.
“Do not speak such useless words. All we have are bodies and footsteps in the mud,” he said, pushing down harder with his foot for a moment before lifting it off.
The rest of the men watched in silence, a few of them shuffling on the spot, a few lost in sideways glances. Kafli got to his feet, wiped the fragments of Jorundr off his face and looked at Erik. They stared at each other for a moment, Kafli wild eyed and jolting under sharp, short breaths.
“Why did you blow the horn?” Leif said, fiddling with the hilt of his axe, “Now he knows we’re coming.”
“That’s the point,” Erik said, drawing his glance from Kafli to Leif, “Nothing exhausts a man more than constant fear. It’s the quickest way we’ll catch him and his little prize.”
“He did seem, inspired, to learn their tongue from the monks we brought back with us last time,” Harald said, a lean man with a harsh face and a copper beard.
He crouched by the body of Hakon and inspected the blade wedged in his skull, “Now we know why.”
“Gather as much food as we can carry, burn the gold out of the texts,” he said, “Leave the bodies to rot, the buildings to burn,” He paused, “Once we have him, we’ll spill his blood on our soil. If he thinks he can run from who he is, he is wrong.”
Erik had left the monastery full of rage, now he sat under the starry sky in a different form.
“You better run, boy,” He whispered to himself, “and I pray to the gods we never catch you.”
The bush vibrated as if it was shaking with excitement, overflowing with the anticipation that hung in the air. The movement caused it to shed a handful of auburn leaves, which floated to the ground in a falling sway. Ava’s grip tightened on Bjórr’s arm, Bjórr’s grip tightened on the hilt of his knife. They sat and waited, waited for Erik to appear with his men on leash and evil in his grin. The bush stopped moving, followed only by silence.
“How boring,” Luzio said, causing them both to spring to their feet and turn around.
Bjórr pushed Ava behind him as they took a few steps backwards, unsheathing his knife and readying it with a trembling grip. He looked at the silhouette in front of him, a dimly lit man arranged in a relaxed pose: a branch of ivy trailing from his hand into the nearby shrubbery.
“You didn’t do a thing,” Luzio said, tugging on the ivy to cause the bush to wriggle like it had before.
He let the ivy roll off his fingers and drop to the ground, crossed his arms and tapped his booted foot.
“So,” he said, “Love across waters, across gods. Cradled by nature’s embrace under a starlit sky.”
He kissed his fingers.
“Beautiful,” He said.
Bjórr took a step forward, “What do you want?” he said.
“I know what you have done,” Luzio replied, “and I know you will need safe passage to escape.”
Luzio moved forward, revealing himself fully in the clearing. The rays of the moon settled in the black of his hair and his eyes.
“I have a group of men waiting at the shore with a boat,” He said.
Bjórr lowered his knife slightly for a moment, before raising it again.
“But I need your help first,” Luzio said.
“What makes you think I will help you?” Bjórr said.
“Because I know that you’re being chased,” Luzio replied, unfolding his arms to show his palms, “and I’m offering you a way out.”
Bjórr sighed and looked at Ava.
“What do we need to do?” he said, not taking his eyes off her.
“The monastery you just left, it has gold. I need that gold,” Luzio replied, placing his thumbs in his drawstring.
“We’re not going back,” Bjórr said, turning to look at Luzio: who laughed.
“Oh, but I’m afraid you are.” Luzio said.
“We never found the gold the first time, that’s why we came back,” Bjórr said.
“Well,” Luzio said, “You better hope you find it this time or I’ll be leaving you here.”
“What is your name?” Bjórr said, pointing his knife at him.
Bjórr looked him up and down and lowered his knife.
“And you speak our tongue?” Bjórr said.
“A question for a different time,” Luzio replied, waving his hand, “I am a travelling trader, from a distant land. That should feed your curiosity for now.”
“I will help you find the gold,” He said, “But if I find out you’re lying, or you touch her, I’ll kill you.”
“I’ll add that to the list of threats made against my life by bigger men,” he said.
“It will be the last one you do,” Bjórr said.
He looked at Ava. She forced a smile that did not reach her eyes, still holding the cross around her neck.
“Before we move, we rest. I will keep my eye on you though,” Bjórr said, pointing his knife at Luzio.
Luzio raised his hand, surrendering to the request.
“Fine by me,” He said.
He made his way past them and sat down in front of the fallen tree, removing his hood and rolling it up to make a pillow. He laid down, put the pillow on the floor and bounced his head on it a few times to get comfortable. Bjórr and Ava stared at him for a moment, before making their way back to their spot under the tree. They sat, huddled together, listening to Luzio deliberately change his breathing to that of a man in slumber. Not one of them slept that night, and, before long, the sun rose to offer them a new day.
Luzio opened his eyes and sat up to see Bjórr and Ava staring at him from across the clearing.
“Good morning,” he said, rubbing his eyes.
He stood up, stretched, clicked his knuckles and peered up at the clear blue sky.
“Well,” he said, “It certainly seems like the gods are smiling on us today.”
He placed his hands on his lower back and looked around, before crouching down to rummage in a nearby bush for some berries. He looked up and peered at the couple under the tree, still watching him with a careful stare. He straightened up, empty handed, and sighed.
“You know,” he said, “We are working together, right?”
“So you say,” Bjórr replied.
“Fine” Luzio said, “Listen, why don’t you stop giving me that eye and help me find some food?”
Bjórr stood up and opened a small leather pouch that hung from his belt, rummaged in it and pulled out a piece of dried fish. He tore it in half and handed a section to Ava. She chewed down on it, enjoying the salty taste that oozed out of the spongey flesh once her teeth had got through the crunchy exterior. It seemed to warm her somehow. Luzio looked at Bjórr, raised his eyebrows, jolted his head forward and held out his hands. Bjórr responded by taking a bite out of his own fish, chewing it with a static expression. Luzio dropped his hands, drew his head back and curled his lip.
“How does a Viking come to know such good English?” He said.
“A story for another time,” Bjórr said, waving his hand with a smirk.
Luzio shot air out of his nose.
“And you. Woman,” He said, pointing at Ava, “How did yo-“
“It’s not your concern why I’m here or who I’m with. We help you get the gold, you help us get out of here,” she said, interrupting him as she stood up.
Luzio laughed, raising his hands in surrender. A glint of admiration failing to hide in eyes.
“I will not ask again.” He said, “But it is a long walk and I bore easily so I will welcome any talk that you have. Though, you know what they say, ‘Gold is not silent, it never whispers nor stutters, only talks and shouts.’”
There was a silence between them. Luzio cleared his throat.
“You know, I always thought that that was the reason the rich seem so disinterested in the problems of the poor. It is simply that they cannot hear them over the sound of their shouting gold,” He said, laughing.
The silence returned. Bjórr looked at Ava who was staring straight ahead, placed his thumbs in his belt, and looked back at Luzio. As their expressions failed to change, Luzio’s smile sunk into a frown and he swallowed.
“Well, yes, anyway,” he said, clapping his hands and rubbing them together, “much to do.”
He turned around and approached the edge of the clearing, the colours of the surrounding woodland set ablaze by the morning sun. Before he re-entered the forest, he turned his head.
“Are you coming?” he said. Then, all that was left of him was a rustle of the leaves.