Light broke over the mountains to the east and lit the temple-farm, but the darkness had ended some time before as black night gave way to gray-blue. It was a cloudless day and cold but the wind was up and moving the trees on the hillside and to the forested path to the south.
Ring sat atop the roof of the hall swathed in furs like a small bear on an empty hill-top bare of trees. He called to Ragnorvald when he saw him leave the hold.
"Hey! Send someone up here to watch while I sleep," he yelled down.
"I need you up there," Ragnorvald yelled back.
"I can sleep up here fine. Just send someone to watch while I do it."
With an eye at the barn Ragnorvald turned back to the door of the hall.
"I'll drag someone out of the furs," he called to Ring.
The entrance to the hall was a bloody mess. Four of the men who'd defended the door were dead and they'd gathered them and their bits and pieces and tossed them in a heap to the side of the entrance. To Ragnorvald's surprise the bodies were now laid out some distance away beside the low building the temple used as a forge and smithy. Three of his men were busy with picks and shovels digging holes in the ground.
He frowned and veered from the hall.
"I see you have moved in here," he said to them as he approached.
"What?" asked Asbjorn pausing in his work and leaning on his shovel. Next to him Eirik wore a piece of cloth tied around his head and from his jaw to his crown. He was knee deep in his hole and didn't bother to look around. Hrafnkel was chopping at the ground with a pick and pulled up his downward swing when he heard Ragnorvald speak.
"You look to be planting potatoes," laughed Ragnorvald.
Eirik suddenly stopped his digging and turned to face Ragnorvald with his shovel wavering in his hand halfway between tool and weapon but acting as neither in the young northman's grasp.
"Eirik," Ragnorvald said quietly but with unhidden menace in his voice, "you going to try planting me?"
For a moment a red sheet fell before Eirik's eyes and his body tensed to spring, but his spirit was weak and the rage did not take hold. The moment passed. The shovel fell from Eirik's hand and he turned his head away.
"Maybe it is better that you do stay here," Ragnorvald said with contempt and disappointment.
"I will keep planting potatoes," Asbjorn said and dispelled the dangerous cloud that had formed around them.
Ragnorvald looked at the squat powerful warrior digging in the ground like a farmer or a thrall and laughed. "Hrafnkel," he turned to the third man. "I need someone to take a turn at watch on the hall roof."
"I do not like," Hrafnkel began and paused for words. "...the temple. The Harvest Mother..."
"You can dig... you can stay awake and watch," Ragnorvald said evenly.
"I can watch," Asbjorn said.
"Do you challenge?" Ragnorvald asked him casually.
Asbjorn locked eyes with the chief he'd sworn to obey and felt that this was not his day to die.
Hrafnkel threw down his pick and, not glancing at Ragnorvald, headed for the side of the hall where they had left the ladder.
Inside the hall the thralls, except for a half-dozen of the women culled aside by the outlaws, milled about the base of the Harvest Mother's statue. A pile of goods had been dragged to the front of the temple-hall near the doors. Several fine wooden chests, tools, several barrels, piles of furs, whatever weapons could be found and foodstuffs that had been kept near the small cooking fire toward the back of the hall. The center firepit, wide enough to roast an oxen, was blazing merrily with a week's worth of logs and items such as Ring's torn and bloodsoaked clothes. They added to the thick smoke and burned amid the timbers.
"Well I'm glad to see you've been busy," Ragnorvald boomed out as he looked about him.
"Nothing keeps us from loot," Skarpi called back. He had planted himself near enough to the blazing fire to roast, and Ragnorvald laughed when he saw the spear behind him with a hunk of meat charring on the end set leaning against a bench and dangling just outside the flames.
Gisli wandered up with a small chest in his hands. He had clothed himself in his old stained garments and wore his armor. All were clean and looking none the worse for their roll in the sheep pen.
"Found this back there," he said and nodded toward the back of the hall with the looming statue of the Harvest Mother. "Even the thralls didn't know what it was."
"That sounds promising," said Ragnorvald.
"I brought it up here because it is stirring up the thralls."
"Afraid of those," Skarpi teased his friend.
"I'd rather not slaughter them," Gisli said seriously, "and not here." He set the small chest on the ground by his feet. It was old and coated in a moldy looking green with a lock half as big as a fist. "I'm not worried about the Harvest Mother and her priests or her temple," he held up his hand, "my people have never been farmers, both the men and women always sought a place in the Raven King's hall, but this is a holy place, and I'd rather not have even the Goddess of farmers and pregnant women angered with me."
"Save me from pregnant women," Skarpi mocked.
Ragnorvald rolled his eyes, but he knew better than to disregard the worries of his men. Well, the worries of Gisli and Skarpi who were two of his better men.
"Let us see what we have here," he said to Gisli.
Skarpi moved himself over but didn't stand. Gisli squatted by the small chest and pulled a short broad knife from his belt. It was a stabbing blade which would split bone and leave a wide wound though not a deep one. Its broad handle was as long as the blade so a man could get a strong grip and tear it loose if it became wedged. Ragnorvald watched as Gisli scrapped the blade between the lock and the edge of the chest. The dagger left a sharp copper scar where it parted the verdigris of years. When he had the hilt up to the side of the lock he turned, twisted and pulled, his face went red and he put his knee on the top. With a snap the old metal parted and the lock shot free, barely missing Ragnorvald who had backed away from the arc of the freed dagger as Gisli tore it loose.
The top of the chest sprang back. Inside the box was a swirl of copperish rope coiled into a long braid. Ragnorvald bent down and brushed at the tangle, then lifted the box in one hand and poured the contents out into the other; A round and leathery object fell out amid a shower of copper braids.
Skarpi laughed and Gisli gave a curse. Ragnorvald tilted the box back and rolled the withered skull inside, but the braids dangled from it like a coiled serpent.
"Not even any gold teeth," Ragnorvald sighed. "I thought they buried their dead?"
"This is something of the priestesses," said Gisli more than a little dismayed to see the skull, "some secret that they have."
"Put it back then," Ragnorvald said with disappointment. "Or toss it in the fire. Or hang the cursed thing from the ceiling so Ring and Aelfdan can shoot at something," his voice rose and then he chuckled. "Close it up and put it back. I was hoping for a chest of gold, but I knew it was too light."
"Little gold or coin we've found here," Skarpi complained. "They seem to like fur, cloth or bones. Not even much metal except for some blades."
"They don't like metal," spoke a voice through the fire.
Eystein came limping around the outer edge of the great center fire. "We won't be finding gold here," he told them in a strained and hollow voice. A small trail of blood followed him as he approached and he fiddled with the cloth tied around his thigh. He looked pale, though the light from the fire danced orange and red across everything, but still a drawn and grey face stared at them.
Ragnorvald held back a grimace. Eystein had the face of death on him. His time did not look far off.
"Hah," Eystein snorted than swayed a bit on his feet.
Skarpi caught his leg and Eystein stiffened then dropped himself to the floor. "You'll be in the fire!"
"It doesn't matter," Eystein rubbed at his leg, "I've bled too much. I'll never make it back to the cave. To the ice with this place, some bitch cuts me down with a bow..."
"We will carry you back if we need to," Ragnorvald assured him, but to himself he silently agreed.
"If I could have made it to those spearmen..."
"Hold yourself together," Ragnorvald reached down and gripped Eystein's shoulder. "You charged into the fight. This is a battle wound, be it from a bow or spear. Those women were no thralls. The way you treat these priestesses they sit above a jarl."
"I didn't care," Eystein muttered, "I said to myself I didn't care. The Crow-Maiden's would never carry me. I would never go to the Raven King's hall. Now it is my hope. My time is near."
"Your time will be when it will be," Ragnorvald told him. "You know you cannot hide from your fate. If this is your death it came with honor, but while you still breathe fight, fight for that last breath."
"Morning is here..." said Gisli without looking up. He worked to stuff the braids of the skull back into the metal chest but clanged it close with a long tail of it hanging down.
"Yes, it is time for us to be leaving," Ragnorvald agreed. "Everyone up!" he yelled and his voice echoed through the temple-hall.
The doors to the hall were pulled wide. Ragnorvald led his men out with a gaggle of thralls carrying their former possessions and those of the temple. The morning was changing from cold, clear and bright to a gray which promised snow. Clouds half-filled the sky and they sailed like the sea-kings own dragon-prowed ships over the waves. Darker tidings were on the move, a storm was coming, Ragnorvald could taste it in the air.
"We need those wagons," Gisli looked toward the barn.
"Where has Sven gotten?" Ragnorvald replied but really asked the question to the air.
"What is all the noise?" the air asked back.
Ring sat on the roof-peak above the entrance to the hall.
"Time to go," Ragnorvald told him. "Stay up there, but send Hrafnkel down to help get the wagons and the oxen. We're leaving."
"About time," Ring called back and then yelled for Hrafnkel to get his ass over to the barn.
"You get things sorted out here, Gisli," Ragnorvald nodded toward the throng of men and thralls. "Keep watch on Eystein. He can ride in a wagon. We take him or his body with us."
"Right," Gisli replied, "Skarpi should stick around too. He took a good beating last night."
Ragnorvald nodded then called to the others, "Agnar, Glum, Thorkel, up to the barn. We have those wagons to prepare."
The temple-hall, barn, forge, sheep pen, and small buildings were held in a big circle of logs that formed a short wall, taller than a man but no defense against a real foe or even a dozen raiders such as Ragnorvald and his men, and the barn was only a score of yards distance away.
"Where is Sven?" Ragnorvald muttered aloud. The men beside him gave the exclamation a sidelong glance but offered no reply.
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Copyright March 2014 By Jason Zavoda