They took the building apart with wood-axes, and picks, and bars of iron. The dead from the night's battle had been buried near the walls of the smithy, but now thralls and outlaws were stamping atop the loose earth while they pulled the building apart. They used a section of wall to bear Sven's corpse and laid him over the pit of coals. The bodies of the men he'd slain were dragged from their graves and placed beside him to either side. Sven's arms were across their shoulders. Ragnorvald had the bodies of the dogs placed at Sven's feet then he carried in Eirik and draped the younger man atop the dogs.
The young priestess had left the tending of her older and still unconscious superior to that of a thrall while she walked silently about the preparations for Sven's pyre. There was mostly silence, only Ragnorvald's voice saying what he wanted done. She peeped for a moment when the bodies of her men were taken from the ground but her voice was stopped by one look from Gisli who was as angry as any of the other outlaws and no longer concerned about what curse the Harvest Mother might lay upon them.
Ragnorvald placed the axe in Sven's right hand. Bales of hay had been taken from the barn and placed near the pit of coal and wooden planks that had been the smithy were layered about the bodies. A tent of thicker wooden beams was built above them. No words were said as none were needed. Sven would be at the Raven King's table or frozen at the base of the Life Tree with all other unchosen warriors. This body they honored, but Sven was gone.
Each outlaw lit a torch and stuck it into the piled hay. The flames spread quickly and soon the planks were burning. The tent of wooden beams held a leaping and joyous fire within. Ragnorvald smiled. This was as much honor as any man could wish.
"He wanted to serve the Harvest Mother!" the young priestess shouted. "He wanted the earth! Not the fire!"
"You are lucky that I did not use your temple for his pyre," Ragnorvald answered her. "Thank these men," he waved an arm at the assembled outlaws, "that I did not add you and all your people to serve him in the Raven King's hall. I would see this place a blackened ring of earth if not for these men."
For a moment fear overwhelmed the young woman and she backed away with her eyes glistening with panic and tears. The moment passed and she yelled back at Ragnorvald. "You are cursed. You are evil. All of you!"
They let her leave them and walk back toward the temple hall. Slowly the crowd of thralls began to move as if to follow her. Ragnorvald grabbed one by the back of his shirt, an old wizened thrall, and stopped him. "Ho!" he shouted loud enough to stop them all. "You are going nowhere but to load our wagons. Gisli, take this bunch and get them to work. Skarpi, you've no doubt tried them all but pick out the best half-dozen thrall-maids to take with us,"
Gisli laughed and with slaps and pushes moved the sullen thralls toward the barn, while Skarpi rubbed his hands and began pulling aside the women he had in mind. Behind them the pyre burned and smoke rose into the sky like a pillar holding up the blackening clouds.
"The day grows worse," Hord said to his brother.
"This day started bad enough," Soti replied. He walked between his younger brother and the Jarl's man Gold-Button. The three led their horses while a score of warriors followed on foot behind them. "But I see the sky."
"I see it too," Thorstein replied. He was called Gold-Button by the Jarl's followers from clan chiefs to freeholders because of the fine clothes he wore, but he was still a fighter of wide respect.
In the sky the storm was coming but a dark finger of smoke poked up at the clouds curving and stretching toward them on the wind.
"It is calling us," said Hord coming to a stop and letting his horse walk to him. "Time to mount."
"Past time," Thorstein agreed, "but what has happened has happened. No use running the men when we may need them with the breath to fight."
"If we walk we may not get there in time for a fight," Soti objected.
"How far off is the temple?" asked Thorstein.
Hord pointed to the finger of smoke, "About that far off I'd say."
"An hour or more at a faster pace than this," Soti answered.
"Then we should move at a faster pace than this," said Thorstein, "but not at a run, not yet."
The gates were torn down and pushed to the side. Ragnorvald wished to despoil the hall, at least burn the walls, barn, small buildings, but the anger of his men dissipated even as the pyre for Sven reached its height. The last timbers were thrown on the flames, the tent of beams now collapsed on the roasting bodies. Finally the gates were added as the last of the loot was stored on the wagons.
The oxen were slow but they could pull a heavy load. The women were split between the two wagons, Eystein sat beside Glum in the first while Ring sat near the back with his strung bow and his arrows at the ready. Aelfdan did the same in the second wagon while Skarpi sat beside Thorkel near the front.
"I will not be missing this place," said Gisli as he walked beside Ragnorvald.
"Sven was a loss it is true," Ragnorvald looked back at the hall with disgust. The wagon's were making their way through the gate and the outlaws marched behind, some keeping a hand on the high sides of the beds or hanging from a leather strap so that they were carried along without the bother of walking. "Now what is the bitch-priestess up to?"
From the hall the old priestess walked unsteadily by the younger one's side. She held a staff to help her along and the girl held a familiar copper box.
"Nothing good," said Gisli.
Behind the two women came the thralls till they emptied the hall. Gisli touched the head of his axe and prepared to draw it into his hand, but the thralls stopped in a group outside the doors of the temple-hall, only the two women came forward. When they were a score of feet from Ragnorvald they stopped and the older of the pair reached into the copper chest and pulled out the skull by its long red braid. She pointed at Ragnorvald with her free hand and began to chant.
"Thou hast hither"
"For the last time"
"With death-fated feet"
"Trodden the ground"
"Before the sun sets"
"The Mother's curse"
"Will justly reward thee"
"For thy evil doings!"
And with a scream she swung the skull on its braid and let it sail toward Ragnorvald. It hit him in the chest and fell to the ground at the entrance to the temple-farm with its vacant eyes looking at him and its blackened withered flesh resting on the coils of its red-braided hair.
The smoke from Sven's pyre was dying down. Perhaps the thralls were quenching it with well-water Ragnorvald thought but he had stayed long enough for Sven to be little more than bones and ash. They could plant that if they desired.
On the southern track the forest was nearest to the temple-farm. The hills to the east were a more direct route to the cave dwellings that the outlaws had converted into their lair, but they could take the wagons for miles yet to shave away some of the distance they would need to carry the loot. Even with the help of six strong thrall-maid backs it would be work.
Though there had been precious little coin within the temple-farm they had furs and clothes, boots, small luxuries and a handful of weapons. The bows that the priestesses had wielded were especially fine, though their arrows were mostly headed with bone or flint, little use against an armored man. Ring was most pleased to replace his hunter's tool with a weapon, though just as short, designed for the killing of men.
Ragnorvald regretted the death of Sven. Better if he had died killing the enemies or the victims of their band of outlaws, but Ragnorvald knew that his challenge would have come sometime this winter when they were trapped in their frozen caves waiting for spring. Weeding themselves of Eirik was to the good, but Eystein would be a loss, he was fated for death from the wound, and Skarpi's arm was in the Weavers' hands. How they wove his fate could not be guessed. The wound in his side could fester or even the arm caught by the gate, or it might never regain strength. Ragnorvald had seen all such things happen. His own wound was sewn and padded with strips of cloth. It was a warm reminder of Sven's challenge.
He walked beside Gisli behind the last wagon. The oxen were even slower than he'd imagined. Pampered, lazy beasts, they'd no doubt walk themselves back to the temple-farm when they abandoned the wagons. No way to walk them over the hillsides where the outlaws would need to go. They would drag most of the heavier sacks of grain and the scrap metal from the smithy and hide it for later retrieval when he could bring more of the men down to carry it. These would all be welcome supplies when winter made travel nigh impossible and game scarce. The real storms would come and they would hibernate like bears inside their caves.
The passageways went down and fresh water pooled in the lower depths fed by some stream that ran cold from the nearby mountains. They had no need to work the rock. Someone had once lived in the complex of passages and caverns. Stairs were carved leading to the stream, wood, just rough boles that had turned hard as stone, braced openings and held against ceilings. Crude drawings filled one cave and a deep chamber was half choked with bones. No one could tell how far down it actually went. But no one had lived within the caves in many lifetimes.
"Ho!" Aelfdan shouted and stood up in the back of the second wagon. "Ragnorvald! Look!" he pointed in the direction of the receding temple.
More than just Ragnorvald turned to look behind them. Men dropped from the sides' of the wagons and the oxen were slowed if not halted from their steady pace.
From the west three riders could be seen, tiny and distant, with a small dark shape moving behind them.
"You have good eyes," Ragnorvald said to Aelfdan. He pulled himself up the back of the wagon bringing one leg over the tail then standing beside the archer.
The riders slowly grew in size; the dark shape behind them splitting apart into many men; Too many.
"I see spears and shields," said Aelfdan, "and the riders look to be in mail."
"Cursed good eyes," said Gisli who was below them.
The wagon halted, rocking Aelfdan and Ragnorvald slightly, and men began to form around its tail.
"We will never outrun them with these wagons," said Gisli.
"We could leave the wagons and cut into the woods, then into the hills," said Thorkel who had dropped down from the driver's bench and joined the others.
"Is that what we could do?" Gisli replied then laughed, "You think you could outrun those men, Thorkel?"
"I am in no mood to run," said Ragnorvald, which settled any other thoughts.
Eystein limped around the wagon-side and smiled a grey smile full of pain up at Ragnorvald. "I am in no mood to run either."
"I see the Raven King has decided to honor your fate there, Eystein."
"At least one of us will get his desire today, Ragnorvald."
A panicked look came over Thorkel, but then glancing at the rising forested hill to the east and the caves which might have hidden him, grim resignation buried any hopes he might have had.
"The Fox God's tricks," Agnar said in his deep and even voice.
"Or the Mother's curse?" asked Asbjorn.
"We will wait for them here," said Ragnorvald. "Turn the wagons and let the oxen go. Aelfdan, you and Ring can use the wagons for an archer's roost. The rest of us can keep them at our back."
They had spears and shields from the fallen at the hall and those who wished had taken them. Gisli preferred his axe though he also set a pair he'd looted near to hand and ready to be thrown. Ragnorvald held a spear in his right hand and an axe in his left. They hadn't been geared for battle with spear and helm and shield but instead they had travelled light and armed and armored for a raid. The line of spearmen that were slowly nearing looked all too ready for a fight.
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Copyright March 2014 By Jason Zavoda