Cold air greeted Ketill when he stepped out into the darkness. A light breeze caressed his bare skin, and he shivered right away. Yet he still forced himself to forget the warmth inside the barrack and began his way through the silent black world. Ketill had walked these tracks countless time hence he let his thoughts fly free and smiled at all the old memories he recalled.
Long ago his father had told one of his old hunting tales. He had described unknown forests in many radiant colors and weaved words into trails and clues. He proudly described how he chased down a beautiful red fox and used the pelt for the liner in their shoes. But what fascinated Ketill the most was his fight against a wounded female bear. She had just given birth to her cubs, so she attacked and wounded Ketill’s father right away. It was a bloody story and his scars gave weight to each word he spoke.
“Back then I wanted to close my eyes and die,” the father secretly confessed as soon as his son had become old enough. “But then I closed my eyes and so many memories flashed through the darkness. I saw your pregnant mother, I remembered your small hands grabbing my finger, and new power flowed through my veins. I believe our ancestors sent those scenes to remind me of my duty. A man always has to protect his family, and he’s not allowed to die.”
“Hey father,” Ketill chuckled and asked into the darkness. “Are you sending me these memories right now? I have to fight a beast much worse but it seems you won’t allow me to die. How unfair.”
Ketill continued down the trail but now confidence filled his chest and determination strengthened each of his steps. More and more memories flashed through his mind and only faded when he reached the illuminated field.
There Vandill and the other serfs had dug a giant pit. It was over three horses long, four men wide, and so deep Ketill’s height wasn’t enough to peek over the edge once he stepped inside. A small ramp led down into the pit while they had painted the walls with cow blood. A big heap of earth showed how hard they had worked for the last two hours. Now the family heads and elders carried burning torches to illuminate their work.
Ketill gulped his returning fear down and stepped into the light. Some of the smaller children took one step back when they caught sight of him but Ketill couldn’t resent them. He already had quite the imposing physique for his age. He had a broad back, his height already rivaled an adult’s one and his muscles grew faster with each new day on the fields. The red runes glowed in the light, his unkempt beard, and long dishwater blond hair gave him the looks of a mighty warrior. Only the dark black brand mark on his left shoulder reminded everyone of his status as lowly serf.
Ida always had teased him that his muscles were big because his brain was bad but Ketill didn’t care. His body was the reason the adults would follow a young boy of seventeen years into the unknown future. Therefore he flashed a confident smile before he made his way down the ramp and stopped in front of the small wall at its end.
His sister stepped to the edge and began another long story but Ketill used all his concentration to fight his urge to run away. Whenever Ida’s story reached a new height, she would stop and give a hand signal to the elders. They lined up at the long border to his left and right and the shine of the flickering torches turned the blood-drenched walls into the living and contracting dragon stomach.
Ketill closed his eyes in terror and took deep breaths. Time stretched until he finally heard Vandill’s steps beside him. Vandill wasn’t allowed on the pit’s ground so Ketill had to turn around and lead a frightened cow to the end of the pit. His sister began a prayer to Vebrandir spoken in their ancestors’ language and he tightened his hand around the sword grip. He didn’t understand the meaning but as soon as Ida stopped he raised the sharpened sword and used all his strength to split the cow’s nape in two.
Vebrandir’s meal died at once and collapsed to his right. New blood slowly filled the pit as the prayer started once more. Ketill walked back to the ramp to take the reins of a big black horse but it took a lot of soothing words until the horse stayed to his left. The serfs needed as many horses as possible for their escape but they still had to sacrifice on of the few. A horse’s strength and endurance was the biggest treasure a remote farming village had and they had to prepare one for the treasure seeking dragon.
Ida’s prayer stopped for the second time and tension filled the air. The horse neighed in fear but Ketill caressed the mane whispered words of thanks. They had plowed the fields together, and the horse seemed to trust him as it calmed down visibly. He tickled the big lips, rubbed the belly and killed it with one fast strike. Regret filled Ketill’s chest as he experienced the difference between killing food and killing something dear for the first time. But his sister’s prayer continued without time for rest so he turned around to receive their sacrifice.
They had prepared food to his right so that Vebrandir could eat his fill. They had prepared a treasure to soothe the dragon’s greed. And now they would call Vebrandir. Ketill’s gaze fell onto the unconscious village chief Vandill had dropped before him. The rather fat man was the cause of today’s terror and Ketill heart became lighter as he dragged the chief towards his sister. The black dragon Vebrandir still heeded Froydis’ order so he would only come to judge a dead soul.
An unnatural calm came over Ketill and he used his left hand to grab the chief’s chin. His sister’s prayer became more and more heated and ended with a long scream. The young serf closed his eyes and renewed his determination. He opened his eyes, caught a last glimpse of his sister’s illuminated face, and slit the throat with his sword. Warm blood pulsed out of the wound and ran through his fingers. Ketill released the chief and used his drenched fingers to paint the empty circle over his heart red. Connected by blood he awaited the gurgling last breath, raised his arms to the sky and screamed the black dragon’s name into the darkness.
Nothing happened. His heart beat. One time. Two times. Three times. Four times. Each beat an eternity. Suddenly the air cooled down. The blood on the walls froze in beautiful red crystals. Another beat. The burning torches froze. Another beat. Too slow to belong to the living. Ketill stood alone in absolute darkness. And his heart beat stopped.
Perfect silence filled the world. The bloody soil underneath his feet had vanished. Black vastness had replaced his sister’s silhouette. Ketill looked up but he couldn’t spot a single star. But is this way up, he asked himself before he gave up. Drifting in the darkness, without his own heartbeat, he slowly lost himself.
“Huh? Who am I,” a confused voice asked itself in darkness.
But no answer came. So it waited.
“It’s cold,” the voice complained.
But it found no warmth. So it waited.
Suddenly an odd sensation overwhelmed everything else.
“Oh! Do I exist down there,” the voice asked itself. “I see. I have legs and they touched each other.”
But there was no ground to stand on. So it waited.
And it felt another strange sensation.
“Oh? I see. I have arms, too,” the voice exclaimed happily and curled up as a ball.
But it was still cold. So it waited.
“Maybe I can warm myself,” the voice spoke to itself and began to rub its hands over its cold body.
“What is that,” the voice wondered as it found something strange.
Its fingers followed delicate patterns with a cold and smooth surface all over its body. These patterns fascinated the voice because they were too perfect to be natural. Someone did this to me, the voice wondered but couldn’t understand. So it tracked the pattern again and again, rubbed all over the smooth surface and tried to understand the reason.
But it found no answer. So it waited. And traced a single pattern over and over.
A small light blazed in the dark. The traced pattern startled the voice as it emitted a warm red light. The light grew stronger and awoke the next pattern. Pattern after pattern started to light the darkness. Soon all the patterns on its left arm glowed together. The voice waited.
And a girl’s gentle voice broke the silence. Words with no meaning embraced the lost voice and filled the nothingness. The lost voice was enraptured and teared up. Eventually the patterns on its back grew warm and a woman’s gentle voice assisted the girl. Together they sang a beautiful song that drove the cold away.
“Mother,” the lost voice asked in disbelief but the woman never stopped her song.
Each new pattern freed another gentle voice, and they all sang the same song together. At last the song came to an end, the lights grew weaker and weaker and the voices slowly faded. Black vastness once more enveloped everything. But the warmth remained. Stand still and tell our story, Ketill recalled his sister’s last words.
“Vebrandir. Old dragon of death. Justice bringer. I called for you,” he opened his mouth and began his story.
Ketill didn’t know how long he had talked. His mouth was dry and his throat had become sore. But he never stopped and told the story of this village. He told his father’s stories about the beginning. He borrowed his mother’s words for their peaceful life. His sister’s phrases calmed and praised the dragon. And at last he used his own voice to describe today’s event.
“We can’t give our dead the rituals they deserve. We can’t prepare them for your judgment. They are neither warriors who died with glory nor are they honorable men who found a peaceful end. They’ll only rot in the ditch and that is my own fault. So I pray for your lenience so that those who paid with their lives can still meet our ancestors.”
Next he stood still and waited for Vebrandir’s decision. Each passing second tortured him in the timeless darkness and soon he lost track of time again. Eventually a giant claw scratched over his body and broke the runes on his chest with ease. His body trembled in terror as he realized his own foolishness. This dragon was Froydis child and its power wasn’t something mere mortals could resist. So Ketill closed his eyes and waited for his end.
A roar exploded in the darkness and his mind went blank.
Ketill stood in the darkness. But the first thing he felt the soft touch of the soil beneath his shows. He could see stars and the three moons up in the sky and he even saw shadows on the edge of the pit. He was back in his world, in the blood-drenched pit in front of his sister. So he used pure determination to calm his trembling body down. His pulse normalized. And Ketill stood there and waited.
He breathed a deep sigh of relief when the first ray of the new days reached his eyes. Ida’s sobs reached his ears, and he chuckled in relief. He discovered the chief’s corpse to his feet, but he found no trace of either the horse or the cow. Ketill touched his chest but both the runes and the blood-connection over his heart were missing. Our road to freedom was blessed by a god, he realized. And collapsed.