Ketill collapsed. The moment he won all of his strength left his body and he fell down on top of the now lifeless warden. The daily work on the fields had taken its toll and following that he had pushed far behind his body’s limit. Therefore, he laid his cheek on the old men’s chest, breathed the cold air and looked into the distance.
The wind rustled through some nearby trees. Some small birds chirped as they learned to fly. A small group of rodents dug the shady earth over for some worms. A myriad of sounds, each born by another small life, filled Ketill’s world. His gaze followed the clouds on their journey. His sore muscles slackened. His heart calmed down, and each beat replaced a panic-fueled thought with nothingness.
Ketill didn’t know how long he had rested when his head finally started to work again. The scent of iron and excrement pulled him back to reality and his mind turned towards the slain people. The young serf didn’t hate the wardens in this village. He had always thought the wardens’ position wasn’t that different from his own. The whip cracks, the harsh words, and the punishments were their work as plowing the fields was his own. Even the soldiers who came to deliver new provisions or serfs looked down on the wardens.
People who lived in the frontier villages and shared each day with the serfs weren’t any better in the eyes of the society. Just an outcast to control another outcast. People with no future surrounded by even more scum. Many wardens were broken veterans, jobless guards or failed knights. Nobody wanted to breathe his last breath in this desolate place and most of them were satisfied when they could live a peaceful life. This also explained why the youngster’s peaceful behavior had gained him their favor. They would treat him well as long as he was the calming model serf.
An old memory resurfaced in his mind. Two winters ago Ida had fallen ill with a terrible cough and even his prayers to Geirhildr didn’t help. Her condition was worsening with each new day and Ketill had prepared himself to accept his sister’s last words and welcome Vebrandir. But it had been an old warden who came through the snowy night, opened the door and delivered a big bowl of meat stew and medicine. That treatment wasn’t fitting for a serf and shocked Ketill. Medicine was precious in the frontier plains and nobody wanted to waste it. It had been the wardens’ cold calculation to keep their pawn happy but Ketill just was thankful from that day on. And the bearer of such good news, the reason for his sister’s survival, was a corpse now.
More memories surfaced one after another but Ketill shook his head and slowly sat up. The white moon Örnir had begun his pursuit and soon ØygæiRR would follow his wolfs and use his rainbow arrows to hunt down the sun. There was no more leisure for old stories if Ketill wanted to arrive way back before the last sunrays faded. Therefore he staggered to his feet, took the sword and sheath from the lifeless men and began his way back to the village.
The sun had already made his way behind the horizon when he reached the outskirts. He wasn’t able to overview the whole village in the crepuscular light but the sounds told the story of their victory. The noise of battle was gone and loud lamentations filled the air. His feet sank deep into the red mud and his steps stopped as he realized the price they had paid.
Two small children cowered beside their dead father and screamed for their mother. A wife used a strand of her own brown hair to find the head belonging to her dead son. Beside her lay a middle-aged man with silky black hair, killed by hole in his chest. A bald serf rummaged through a pile of bodies. A boy Ida’s age carried a severed arm to a crying woman.
Ketill turned his head over and over but each new scene was filled with an even crueler play. Feeling sick the young serf fell to his knees. His fit of rage had changed the peaceful village into hell. Each known face he discovered sent a new wave of guilt through his trembling body. Two giant shoes filled his view and saved him from falling deeper into despair. He took a deep breath, calmed himself and raised his head, just to close his eyes again.
Ketill stood up, turned around and followed the speaker back to the lifeless outskirts. His gaze locked onto the wide back in front of him before he caught sight of the bloody sword in the right hand. Fear welled up inside him and each heartbeat felt like eternity before a joyful voice destroyed the tension.
“Worked out pretty well for you. Huh? You can go back, hug and smile and everything is fine. Must be great when the others pay the price.”
The voice was steady, but each word hit like a punch. The young serf opened his mouth, closed it again, searched for words, gulped down his fear and lost his words again. Silence filled the air while he searched for the right words but nothing came to mind.
“Do you really think this is what I wished for,” he finally asked the man in front of him.
“It doesn’t matter what you wished for,” the man roared. “Vandill do this, Vandill do that. What do you thought would happen if you spout my name out like this? Run to the stable? Fight for our freedom? Don’t fuck with me! Is this mess your thanks for the last years?”
“But I didn’t want it to-”
“Are you deaf? I don’t care! You didn’t want to? Look into my eyes and say that again,” Vandill retorted before he turned around, his eyes burning in silent rage.
“I… I didn’t…,” Ketill started before he dropped his gaze back to the muddy ground. He couldn’t lie to the man in front of him. Vandill and his son lived in the same barrack, worked on the same field and had become family after Ketill’s father had closed his eyes forever.
“I see,” Vandill quietly muttered.
Silence returned and suffocated the scene. He unconsciously hardened the grip on his sword and waited. Some cries of despair echoed through the darkness before they became quit moaning and got drowned by the overpowering silence again. More and more cold sweat ran down his back as he silently waited for the clash.
“Tell me,” the giant serf was the first to speak again. “Tell me honestly. After you stood there in all the blood. After you saw all the suffering. After you saw the price, we had to pay for you. Would you do it again?”
“I…,” Ketill began. “I never wished for that. At least, please believe me with that. Back then I saw my sister. And that pig was on top of her. And I just couldn’t stop. I never expected so many of us to die. I never wanted all the blood and death. But… if I stood there again. Seeing Ida like that again. Feeling that hate again. I… I would do the same thing again.”
“I see,” Vandill responded before he sheathed the bloody sword. “At least you don’t dishonor the dead with misplaced pity.”
“Kili? How is he,” Ketill asked to break the returned silence.
“I told him to take the horses and run. But when he heard the cries, he went to fight them. That idiot attacked them without a second thought,” the father complained. His shoulders slumped, and he looked older than ever before. Ketill knew Vandill’s wife had died many years ago. Kili was their only son and with him gone the old man had lost both the future of his family and the last memento from the late mother.
“I… I’m sorry. You know, I…” the youngster started but couldn’t find the right words.
“I know that, boy,” a calm voice answered. “When I saw them going for little Ida, I nearly forgot myself. That chief smelled like danger. He went for her because his old bitch died. But I decided that I would pay her life to save my son. I decided to sacrifice her for our future. One bad memory and we would all laugh and smile in the future…”
Ketill kept quit. He understood that every halfhearted answer would only bring more pain, so he stood there and waited. A cold breeze blew over his drenched back and he sneezed. His fatigued legs started to twitch and cramp but he ignored it. He just silently stood there and watched the man who had once become their own father figure. A lone father who had to decide which child was to be sold to the devil.
“Honestly… I hate you,” the man finally started again. “My mind is full of rage and my hands wants to pierce you with that sword. You are the reason my son is dead. You are the reason I won’t be able to die with a smile on my face. You are the reason I my life turned into hell. My whole body screams for revenge. You sacrificed my son. You sacrificed so many of us. Just the thought of you happily hugging your sister… makes me puke.”
Vandill took a deep breath and calmed himself down before he continued.
“I hate you. But I also hate myself for that. If I could trade your life for Kili’s, I would do so right away. I’m not better than you. So I’ll quell my desire for now. I can’t take you away from little Ida. And I can’t break my promise with your old man. I can’t kill you… so I’ll make you take responsibility for the lives you’ve taken. I’ll have you go out there, take those families you destroyed and lead them into the freedom you promised them.”
“What? I… leading…” Ketill muttered. “But why?”
“Did Geirhildr created you without ears? Listen to your elders. You are the one responsible for this mess. You are the one who destroyed the last bit of life we had here. You forced all of us into this. So you’ll return their lives back to peace. Many here lost someone. They are struggling through their own darkness and hate and they’ll ask you for the answer. You forced their hands. You promised them freedom. Will you go out there and tell them that they lost everything for a stupid brat? Or will you make the words you screamed so unreasonable and make them into reality? Tell me, boy. Are you ready to take them to the light?”
“I… don’t know.”, Ketill stammered. “I never thought about that until now. I only thought about Ida. For the future…”
“>I don’t know?<,” Vandill bellowed. “That’s not good enough! This half-assed attitude will hurt everyone. They’ll curse you and they’ll curse your sister. They’ll raise their hands against you and your sister… they’ll finish what that bastard couldn’t finish. You have to give them something bigger than your stumble. Give them the dream of peace and freedom. Give them the hope that their loss wasn’t just for your own sake.”
“But how,” the boy answered anxious after a long silence. “How can I lead them if I don’t see the way? Where is a place we can call home? The next patrol will call the army and burn this place down. Even if we flee, we’ll just die in some ditch.”
“Then lie to them. Tell fairy tales. March right in the ditch and call it a plan. Build a wall around that ditch and call it home. And afterwards… take your lies and their dreams and make them reality. That’ll be your punishment.”
Heated Vandill drew his sword again and pointed it right at the young serf.
“If we stay like this, we’ll just crumble and rot away. We can’t sit here and scream. We will mourn when it’s time to mourn and we will cry when it’s time to cry. But now we have to make our move. And you’ll be the first person to make that move. Take despair worries and tell them sweet lies. Hear their mourning and praise the dead. Take this mess and make it into our first step.”
Vandill turned around an pointed his sword towards the blood-drenched ground. A small sigh escaped him before he continued in a quiet voice.
“Hey, boy. We already shed our blood. All we need is determination. To make the first step. To have a dream again. As long as you show that determination I’ll stay beside you as your strongest ally. Show me that future. Show me that Kili didn’t die in vain. Look at all the people you sacrificed today and make them into your determination. Save more people than you have killed. Kili was a great son, the best son. So save 10 other lives to make up for it. Hey, boy. I don’t want to hate you. I don’t want to slay you from behind because you lost your way. So don’t falter anymore. Hey, boy. Just… make it so that I can die with a smile again.”
Hearing the earnest plea Ketill couldn’t stop himself from tearing up. Do your work, huh, he questioned himself before his thoughts turned towards Ida. Seems like I won’t have a choice.
“Hey, old man,” he finally found his words again. “Peace and dreams. That’s the same future I want for Ida. So if it’s determination, I’ll have enough. So let’s find that ditch and die with a smile. Let’s go and bury our dead, so that we can leave soon.”
“We can’t do that,” Vandill objected. “The first thing we have to do is get away from here. Luckily the Froydis’ circle has just begun so we should have another 10 days before the next patrol squad arrives here. Hey, boy. Let me ask you this: What will happen after they find an empty village? They’ll follow our tracks, they’ll use their horses to catch up and they’ll kill us long before a smile can bloom. So instead we’ll stage a raid on this village and use this as cover to run away. There’s no way they’ll go and count the bodies or mourn for the fallen.”
“But that would mean to burn the barracks and leave the bodies,” Ketill exclaimed. “They won’t be able to rest in peace. We would condemn them to eternal suffering. That is…”
“That is the price we have to pay for our freedom. And your first task is to tell this to everyone. You have to tell them that their loved ones will be left behind to rot. You’ll explain to them that they won’t see their loved ones ever again. Persuade them, lie to them, pressure them. I don’t care how.”
“I can’t do that. That is too much to ask for.”
“So your determination was just that? Do you really want to die tonight? With that you won’t be able to take respon-”
“I can’t ask them to sacrifice the dead ones,” Ketill interrupted. “But I’ll pay the price for them and call Vebrandir!”
“Oh. Really?”, Vandill asked impressed and for the first time a small smile crept on his face. “Hey, boy. That determination might work.”