The daily life in the farming villages was one of many hardships. Not many merchants or traveling bards would make their ways to the outer frontier of the kingdom, so both news and entertainment were an unheard of luxury. The never changing circle of sowing and harvest wore even the minds of the strongest men down and the standard medical treatment consisted of a prayer to Geirhildr, the patroness of the weak. But the one thing that painted their days gray was the lack of a future. Nobody would come and teach the younger serfs so everything they knew was the knowledge they got from their fellow serfs. A serf would forever stay a serf. This truth depressed even the optimistic newcomers sooner or later.
The first thing every serf learned was a simple threat. “Raise your hand against the warden and the whole village will bleed,” was the first rule Ketill’s mother taught him. A simple but effective threat. Taking the other serfs hostage was an easy way to establish a balance of power. The serfs with family or loved ones would keep the more aggressive newcomers in check and thus a small number of well-trained warden could monitor a whole village. Raise your hand and the kingdom’s army will destroy this place, was Ketill’s first thought as his mind started to work again.
The suffocating silence cooled the heat in his chest and he soon felt the cold clutch of fear. My life is over. And they’ll kill Ida, too. I didn’t save her, I just killed her. His raging mind ran in circles to find a way out but he only gathered more and more cold sweat in the process. The moment he had raised his fist was the moment he had forfeited his life. It didn’t matter that the village chief would survive his punch. Obstreperousness meant death. Resistance meant death. Revolt meant death.
The only way to survive was the disappearance of the whole accident. A dead village chief couldn’t beat his sister. A dead aide wouldn’t accuse them of their crimes. And the kingdom’s army would never march without the dead wardens’ cry for help. Everything was fine as long as he could trade their lives for Ida. This small spark of hope stopped shiver running down his spine. It sounded so cruel yet it was so easy. It was the only way out so he had to bet everything on it. He took a look around and realized that everyones gaze focused on him.
If the other serfs act quick and restrain me, they might get away with their lives. Harsh punishment is unavoidable but their loved ones might survive. Many of them have their own families so they’ll take action soon and trade my live for their survival. The solution was simple. He had to change this single punch into a full rebellion and force the situation before the other side escaped their daze. To save his own life and to save his sister’s life, he took a deep breath and shouted as loud as he could.
“What are you doing? We have to kill them all! They’ll call the kingdom’s army! We can’t let them get away!"
Another moment of silence passed. Ketill squatted down to take the whip before turning his head again. “Ivan. Banki. If you want to save your family, now is the time to act. Those bastards will punish you guys just because we are in the same barrack. Vandill, run to stable so that they won’t get away. Just five more and we have our freedom!”
The youngster gave out his orders without hesitation. It didn’t matter whether they would take action or not. The important part were the orders themselves. Just a few words changed his single act of resistance into a planned rebellion. The three wardens had no choice but to expect the worst and draw their swords in response. And those drawn swords became the motivation for the serfs to act. Each name sentenced another person to death and those lived could only be saved through blood. The fear for their loved ones was the easiest way to overcome the fear of the swords in front of them. Thus a single swing in panic turned the place into a butchery.
The first one to act was a weak looking newcomer. He only had to endure a few weeks on the fields and dreams of freedom and luxury still remained in his head. Ketill had talked to him a number of times but he wasn’t even able to remember his name. Maybe something like Ulfarr, he asked himself while the nameless youth was cut down. A lone flash of steel took a life and the untrained serf saw his own arm falling to the ground. The rest of the body followed right behind and soaked the ground red.
Two more serfs pounced on the aide and tackled him to the ground at the price of another deep wound. This was the only option left to them. The chance to reach a peaceful middle ground had long vanished. But they had no weapons, no armor and no experience and an overwhelming number was their only forte. They would win if they just used four or five of their own lives to bring one warden down. This proved all the more true for the surrounded aide and his cries pitched higher with each new impact on his body.
The remaining three wardens managed to withstand the first wave and killed five serfs in the blink of an eye. They consisted of former soldiers, trained in battle and full of experience. One moment of hesitation was enough for them and they quickly regrouped back to back. Their formation looked simple but the lack of decisive blind spots made it hard to attack. Hence the serfs switched to a battle of attrition and used their own blood to slowly drain the enemies strength. Youngsters, old men and even women took their last breath in the warm mud and soon piled up knee-high.
Watching this scene Ketill panicked. It wasn’t the death toll or the one-sided slaughter that got him. Despite all the blood he never doubted their victory and simply accepted the price they had to pay. The death of the remaining five wardens was the price attached to their freedom. It was the price for his sister and he was prepared to pay even more if necessary. Therefore he didn't understand. Why was he feeling so anxious? He should feel pleased with this scene but felt dread instead.
What am I missing? Ketill turned his head and watched the aide’s face turning into a bloody mess under the constant rain of more and more punches. He had long lost the will to resist and only prayed for a fast death. A middle-aged man with silky black hair took his sword from the ground and turned towards the remaining wardens. Those three would accompany him soon enough. Those three? Finally, Ketill opened his eyes wide in realization, kicked the ground and ran.
He left the place, turned towards the sinking sun and ran. He didn’t stop to answer the angry cries from behind and focused on every step. The long day had drained his strength and the long strides turned into unsteady stumbles when he passed the first field and pressed forward. This whole area was meant to become another field, and they had worked hard to change the wilderness into a wide and soft plain. Seeing an old man’s back, Ketill slowed down and made his way towards the last warden.
“The new chief,” Ketill answered. They didn't need long conversations to understand each other. The old warden already worked here when Ketill opened his eyes for the first time. Later he became something akin to a grandfather when Ketill and his sister were left behind alone. They even shared some memories that could bring a smile on another gray day. But one glance at the whip in the boy’s hand told the whole story, and they both knew the ending for this story. There was no hope for another memory and the short sword sang as it left the sheath. A long silence followed.
“Youngster. I’ll grant you the mercy of a quick death,” the old warden proclaimed. It was the tired voice of an old man and no fighting spirit resounded in his words. But he wasn’t allowed to step back and slowly pointed his sword at Ketill. He showed off the form of an experienced fighter with no opening and he towered over Ketill like a dragon over his prey.
The young serf swung the whip with all his might. His muscular body and higher endurance were the only advantages that could bring a slight chance of victory. The whip in his hand was a terrifying weapon and the small nails in the leather would rip off the skin with each hit. But Ketill had never held a weapon before so he obviously didn’t understand how to use it. A weak attack equaled an invitation to his enemy so the first move was crucial for survival. So instead he began to use the long leather straps like a simple rope and rotated them around his body.
The horizontal attack appeared fast but posed no real threat. One simple step back was enough to evade the swing completely. Ketill continued with swing after swing after swing and his back cried in pain with each new strain. And step after step after step was enough to render all his attacks useless. The pair fought each other to death, but it looked more like a dance as the two of them slowly made their way through the plain.
Ketill soon started to gasp for breath. His lunge was on fire. Each step he took to follow the old warden made his legs feel like rubber. The flat plain looked bumpy every time his view blurred. His swings had long become weak. But he never stopped his attacks. One more swing! Just one more swing! I can do one more swing just fine, he screamed inside his head. Each attack pushed his enemy a bit further down the plain and each step was a step closer to his victory. So he ignored everything and moved his arm again. And again. And again.
All thoughts had long left him. Ketill just repeated his attack over and over again like a brainless beast before he could finally see his sole chance. A single trench made its way through the plain. It was the early preparation for the watering and the old warden found himself with his back right to a small bump in the flat land. The sheer never-ending mindless repetition won against the experienced fighter and wore his concentration down. One single moment of uncertainness was enough to decide the fight.
The last swing forced the old men on unsteady footing. Ketill didn’t miss his chance and threw the wooden handle. Reflexes alone were enough to cut that simple attack down. Hence the sword pointed towards the ground. Three steps. Two steps. One step. And the difference between life and death was a single clumsy shoulder tackle to the stomach.
Both men gasped in pain as they rolled down the slope. Small stones and pointed sticks sent explosions of pain through their body before they stopped in a dusty cloud. Ketill hurried and delivered a punch to the temple before he brought his trembling hands to the throat.
The dazed warden tried to grasp his sword but couldn’t find it anywhere. The stronger youth knelt on his chest and each second made it harder to breath. His resistance soon faded but he wouldn’t stop breathing. It was a useless fight, a predetermined fight, but the old man never stopped. Every new breath he took was filled with his pride and a last glimpse of superiority.
It was the first time the young serf killed another human, and the difficulty shocked him to the core. A serf’s live was cheap and Ketill had seen death over and over again. It looked so easy. Mere seconds were enough to turn a smiling face into an unmoving corpse. But the little movements under his knee, the powerless twitches of the old hands and the pride in the slowly closing eyes before him filled him with terror.
Ketill’s powerless hands had to strangle the old man for a long time before this battle found its end.