by: Christy Boston
Jaswyn reached the crossroads at the end of the forest not more than a league from her home. She sensed that something was different about today though she could not say what it was.
On the outskirts of where her village lay nested between two ridges of mountainous rock, she passed a farmer with his pigs and though they exchanged no words; his demeanor was business as usual. Clouds hung lazily overhead, the puffy white kind that your mind could spend hours imagining pictures in. The breeze caressed the treetops much like it did on any other mild afternoon, causing the leaves to titter. All seemed in order, though she could not shake the feeling that something was amiss.
The distant mountain with its gray-green foliage rose up like a storm cloud before her as she made her way up the side of the ridge. The mountain looked ominous even on a clear day. Jaswyn’s village, that hideaway for a clan of petty thieves and dishonest traders, was now well out of sight behind her.
The path narrowed as it wrapped around a jagged cliff. From here Jaswyn could see the vast blue ocean. She dreamed of venturing onto the sea, skirting to lands not too distant or too hostile and unknown to most of the world. Some of her clans-people got to go out there, but in order to get a spot in one of their few boats you had to have either wealth or popularity.
Jaswyn had neither. She could do nothing about her poverty, and she wouldn’t do what it would take to make herself popular with the bandits, drunkards, and immoral women who lived there.
In the grand scheme of things, like the village elders once said, her clan was small and insignificant. “We’re like dust when compared to the rest of the world, making our way through time by cheating and deceiving other small, insignificant peoples.” Being forgotten makes a great cover; the villagers could carouse, cheat, and party to their heart’s content because no one of any power took notice.
Jaswyn quickened her pace up toward the cliff, deftly balancing the bushel of berries she had gleaned from the forest on her hip. As she detoured from the main path, she recalled the child she had born many summers ago as she often did when alone.
What empire was she living in? Is she serving a king, or some baseborn miscreant? Could her sweet Maisie be on a similar shore, looking out at the horizon and thinking about Jaswyn, too?
Jaswyn’s thoughts turned to her own mother as she mindlessly caressed the dragon stone which hung from her neck. The stone was all that she had left of Grace, given to Jaswyn as a symbol of hope in a dark and dying world.
Grace once spoke about the Vikings. She cautioned of a strong race sprouting up in local legend, one that her clans-people dismissed as a complete myth. They didn’t like the tales (as they referred to them) that were spun around the notion that the Vikings are a much more powerful clan than hers, so powerful in fact that even great empires feared them.
The Vikings can siege a walled fort within a day. Whatever will they do to a village without walls? The idea made the people of her village very uncomfortable, so they chose instead to believe that no such people existed.
For Jaswyn, this idea of cultivated savages seemed glorious, magical, and frightfully terrible, but if they were real people, then they had homes and families and friends. Certainly they couldn’t be all bad. She found the Norsemen often at the center of her daydreams when she was not thinking about her lost child.
Just a little bit more to go and I can rest while taking in the view of the sea. I’ll spend a few minutes to look upon it before heading onward to collect my wages for the berries.
The sea beckons like a beautiful siren with wide open arms, filling Jaswyn with a longing for adventure and the hope of connecting with her sweet, lost daughter.
But the sea, like men and warriors and kings, will carry away only the pretty ones, like her little girl had been.
Jaswyn can’t be pretty, not with all of her hair shaved and her body scarred from the beatings she had suffered at the hands of her own people. Maybe Maisie is the lucky one. She’ll never have to live in this village full of scoffers with no chance of ever breaking free. Jaswyn can only hope that wherever she is, the people there celebrate her sweet beauty. Such goodness is only scorned here in this place where the darkness hates the light.
The invaders that took Maisie came quickly and left just as quickly, sailing away unseen in a thundering gale. Jaswyn tried to swim after them that stormy night, but her hope was killed with each crushing wave. Whoever they were, wherever they came from, they must have been very skilled to navigate such treacherous waters.
As she grabs at the last of the vines and branches that stand in her way, Jaswyn decides that she will bring her one and only friend up here. Meep, shy and weak and mistreated much like herself, will enjoy the great open waters, but they will have to steal away on a day when they will not be noticed or all hell will break loose….
Is that smoke?
Jaswyn’s brow wrinkles. She is much too far removed from the village now to be able to smell its cook fires. The smell of smoke up this far cannot precede anything good.
With breath held, Jaswyn listens as the sun ducks behind a puffy cloud shaped like a squid. Its tentacles are laced with white fire before the thick body moves in and puts them out, plunging Jaswyn and the whole face of the cliff into cool shadows. An uprising of wind carries faint voices along with the crashing of the waves, and Jaswyn guesses that there must be about twenty people at the base of the cliff.
She tries to get a better look when a horrible sound erupts up to meet her.
Such a sound can only mean one thing, and her eyes confirm what her terror suggests when she inches up to the thicket to peer down below.
Water foams near the beach as the monster pushes through it. An elusive dark mass amidst the waves, it reaches aggressively for the shore. When it crawls upon the sand, the great beast breaks up into a multitude of men, each bearing sword and axe and shield, moving and charging as one great army. Their weaponry glints in the light that flashes off their armor.
Screaming murderously, many fierce men begin to sweep across the sands and into the trees. They swarm before vanishing into crevices in the cliffs only to be replaced by more angry warriors. On the clean line of the horizon where cobalt sea meets azure sky, a new horror spreads like black mold across what should be a peaceful view…
Watching in disbelief, Jaswyn begins to make out the muted colors of their sails.
They are coming closer.
The people of Jaswyn’s village can’t see what horror is coming for them. They won’t see it until it descends upon them in all its fury. If the raiders get to Meep, they’ll cut her down for certain. She is so weak, so feeble… not worth the effort to capture.
Jaswyn clambers backwards out of the thicket as fast as she can, panic making her heart thrash within her chest. It takes all of her will and then some to tear down the path without stumbling. For one moment she turns to look back, but before she has a chance to turn forward again, her body slams into something excruciatingly hard.
She finds herself suddenly on her butt, her hands scraping across the dirt beneath her. Searing pain in her jaw is followed by the sweet, metallic taste of her blood. She spits it out and opens her eyes warily to see one of her teeth soaking in the dirt amidst her blood and spit. Slowly, carefully, she looks up to see what it was that blocked the path.
It could have been a wight staring down at her for all the fur and leather and horn and iron, albeit a very effective iron. It had, after all, knocked out one of her teeth. This is no wight, however. The figure in the path raises up a black axe with a blade so hewn she knows it will split her in two with one stroke.
This thing is a man, a living man whose breath she can see with the rising and falling of his shoulders. Merely a man is all he is, but a mighty and strong one, and from what she can gather, probably not a nice one, either.
The great warrior looms over her, a solid pillar of brute strength. Behind him the sky darkens with smoke. First the tendrils float up from beyond the trees, then a billowing cloud flecked with embers and ash blackens the sky.
Jaswyn hears her mother’s voice echoing through her memory. She recalls the warnings given to prepare her for an attack like this. What was it she said?
If they ever come, these elusive Vikings, whatever you do, do not fight them for you will never win.
Never win. As she looks up at the warrior towering over her, she can’t imagine anyone ever winning against him.
Give them all you have, it is all you can do, and be glad should they give you your life in return, for suffering and loss have made them hard. Do not hate them if they come, for fighting and hating is all they have come to expect of the world they relentlessly crave and so desperately need.
Terrified, Jaswyn realizes that all her worthy possessions were left back in the thicket. The bucket of berries, all picked neat and clean and ready to eat, were forgotten when she panicked at the sight of the raiders and will be of no help to her now.
Under the keen eye of her assailant, Jaswyn carefully fumbles for her mother’s stone. If she doesn’t give him something, he’ll strike her down. Even if she gives him the stone, he may strike her down anyway, but it is worth a shot.
With a shaky hand, she pulls her mother’s stone from where it hangs around her neck and raises it up over her head. It glistens in the sun; rich crimson and fiery amber shimmer from deep within its ebony surface.
“It isn’t much.” She wavers, wondering if the warrior speaks the same language. “But it is all I have.” Tears run from her eyes. They trickle down to mingle with the blood on her chin. “I am so sorry.”
A strange apology, though truly one well meant. Her people cheat so many others, his people have to kill in order to survive, and she can do nothing to make any of it right.
The great warrior lifts his helm to reveal liquid blue eyes amidst a face much younger than she could have anticipated. He mutters something when he sees the stone, a curious glimmer of recognition in his features. He begins to speak a smooth jargon of words she can not understand in a language more beautiful than her own.
The axe lowers then drops, finding its way into the warrior’s belt. Adalrikr sweeps the stone from Jaswyn’s hand in one swift motion. She reaches for it, but he grabs her wrist.
“You. Come. Adalrikr take woman with dragon stone.” His silvery blue eyes penetrate her, the weathered lines creasing ever so gently as he half smiles beneath a windblown tangle of wiry beard.
Jaswyn collapses at his feet. The smoke from her village continues to rise, and in that moment she mourns for her friend who she can not save. It is too late for Meep, she knows. Meep will get to see the ocean from a much better place than Jaswyn can ever show her now.
Leagues of Vikings sated with victory come out from the forest. They swagger back toward the sea, their arms loaded with plunder, their weapons stained with blood. Jaswyn watches them for minutes upon long minutes from her place on the ground. Their multitudes pass behind Adalrikr’s boots, and not one captive does she see; not one slave, not one villager spared.
As Adalrikr gently binds Jaswyn’s wrists with rope to usher her into captivity, she barely notices the way it scratches against her skin. Some of the other warriors notice Adalrikr toting his new slave and shake their heads. Some even laugh, but no one stops him from bringing her aboard the ship.
She wonders if Adalrikr will be a good master or if he will be harsh. She wonders what it was about the dragon stone that made him decide not to kill her. She isn’t pretty, and he will have to feed her and give her a place to stay. Will he eventually tire of her? If he does, what happens to her then? Will he turn her out into the cold nordic wilderness to fend for herself? She hoped not.
Hope. It was all Jaswyn had left, and it is what had saved her. Adalrikr saw it in her when she offered up the dragon stone to him. Sure, she was scarred and broken, but those eyes, they reminded him so much of the little slave girl who helped the women in his village. So full of life, that one, and so sweet. All the village people love her like she is one of their own.
They’ll be good for each other, thought Adalrikr. Maisie was never one to judge a book by its cover.
© 2013 Christy Boston