Once more Ketill found himself surrounded by darkness. But neither was this one full of coldness and terror nor the blood-drenched pit. Instead, his back pressed against a soft ground and pleasant warmth enveloped him. He slowly opened his eyes and discovered that someone had carried him back to the barracks and laid him onto his bed. Warm rays of light fell into the room and caused the dust to sparkle in the air.
The young serf yawned. His muscles still ached with every movement but he forced himself to endure it and sluggishly sat up. He folded his woolen blanket only to regret it right away as the chilly air send shiver trough his body.
“Oh. You’re awake,” a cheerful voice greeted him. “The others are already up and working outside. But Uncle Vandill told me to let you sleep until you recovered when he came over. Maybe he wanted to discuss something? Oh, you should go over to him and ask him. It’s already past noon you know. So get dressed. Here is your tunic. I tried to wash out the blood, but it’s still there. All the other women said that it won’t go away but I think there’s a bit less. Not that we have a spare so we’ll use this one either way. But the men found some new ones when they opened the warden’s barrack so perhaps you can get a new one?”
Ketill groaned. His sister’s bright personality was a welcome change in this gray world but the never-ending stream of words caused him a slight headache.
“Hey. How are you,” Ida asked in hurry. Placing her hands on his forehead she raised her left eyebrow. The older brother smiled at the treatment. Their mother always displayed the same act whenever she had worried and Ida had inherited her caring side.
“I’m okay,” he reassured his sister. “Just a muscle ache so I can’t pat your head for a while.”
“Tsk. Cheapskate,” she puffed her cheek and turned around. “Anyhow. You should eat something and get going. Nobody will marry me if I have such lazy brother in my family.”
“I think your missing appeal is the bigger problem here,” he teased her back before he dressed himself.
Afterwards he went to the fireplace for his poor meal. But the bowl on his sitting stone greatly surprised him. The other serf had used the slaughtered cow and his late breakfast consisted of bread and roasted meat. Ketill never had tasted fresh meat before and he took his time and slowly savored this feast. Only then did he leave their barrack and stepped out to find Vandill.
A lively scenery greeted him. Young and old serf hurried as they carried bags from one place to another. For a moment Ketill expected yesterdays slaughter to be his imagination but the red ground proved him wrong. He sighed, stopped one of the running children and learned Vandill’s whereabout. A variety of looks penetrated his back as he made his way through the village. Some were full of hate, few contained some pity him, but most of them were full of curiosity.
A girl he had never seen before even stopped her tracks and examined him from head to toe without any reservation. She wore her silky black hair in a long ponytail and her clothes were neat and clean. A newcomer, he asked himself before he remembered the black haired men who had picked up the first sword. Was that her father? Eventually the girl sighed, turned and left without a word.
Thrown into a new village just to see her father die in a revolt. Once more the dead bodies flashed in front of his eyes as he finally understood their curiosity. He had started a revolt for his sister's chastity, got many of them killed, posed as their new leader and even survived a head to head with a dragon. But what next? I took everything from them and promised a new life, so now I have to give them a new goal, Ketill reminded himself he entered the warden’s barrack.
The wardens had divided the barrack into three sections and he had entered the familiar middle one. They had used this big single room to distribute rewards or discuss new fields. It was mostly empty save for a big table in the middle of the room, a few shelves filled with pots and a fireplace in the back. The walls at the left and right side separated the warden’s private rooms from the open area. Serfs weren’t allowed in there and thick doors promised safety and privacy.
Vandill stood alone inside the dim lit room and examined a stone plate on the table but he turned around once he heard Ketill’s steps. He still wore the same bloody clothes and dark circles showed his lack of sleep. But both his steady gaze and straight back displayed his determination to go on. Once he caught sight of Ketill, he relaxed visibly and raised his hand.
“Hey boy. Finally awake, little late riser,” Vandill greeted with a teasing remark before he examined the young serf in front of him. “Good. It seems you are fine. You collapsed right after the ritual. Sure gave me goosebumps to see you as white as snow. The little missy cried the whole time, and you didn’t react to anything. So we dragged you to the barracks and let you sleep.”
“I’m fine. And it seems I have to thank you for the care,” Ketill answered with a sigh.
I’ve caused even more trouble for everyone, he realized and convinced himself to spoil his little sister rotten once he had some free time. But for now he had to concentrate on the important things so he cleared his head, pointed at the stone plate and asked about its purpose.
“Oh that? We got lucky boy. That’s a calendar,” Vandill explained.
Ketill took a second look and realized that the round plate wasn’t even instead some capable craftsman had carved many small pits all over the plate. The middle part was a white filled circle the size of his hand. Around the inner circle was an annulus divided into small numbered sections. A pit filled each section and Ketill could see a small yellow marble in one of them. A second outer annulus had the same sections, but each pit contained a white and black painted bottom half with many unknown words written on it.
“You can tell time… with that,” the young serf exclaimed in disbelief. Vandill knew he couldn’t read, so he was probably just messing with him.
“Don't make that face, boy,” Vandill snickered. “I’m not messing with you. My father was a free farmer, and he taught me. It’s quite easy and you’ll know when it’s time for the sowing.”
“The inner circle is white on one side and black on the other side,” Vandill began as he removed the inner circle and flipped it around. “The white side stands for the light circles, the black side is for the dark circles. We just had our harvest so we are in the light circles with the white side up.”
“The inner annulus is numbered from one to fourteen and the marble tells you the day,” he continued. “It shows that we have the seventh day. The outer annulus counts the circle. The words tell you if something important happens in the circle. We are in the thirteenth circle and here the white side it says >9 - Froydis<. So normally we would hold a small ritual to thank Froydis for our harvest.”
“Each morning you take the marble and move the days one further,” Vandill finished his explanation. “When you reach the first pit, you move the red marble for the circles and if you reach the first circle, you turn the inner part. And each day time you reach the first day of the first light circle we thank our gods for another year.”
“So. If it's the seventh day, then we only have one, two, three,” Ketill used his fingers to count, “eight days until the patrol arrive.”
“I see you get it, boy,” Vandill smiled before his face turned grim. “We are lucky we found this. It’s three days less than we thought, a race against time.”
“A race? But there's so much time left? We’ll pack our stuff, burn the barracks and leave.”
“Boy. Don’t you forget something,” the older serf sighed. “The patrol teams use horses to travel between the villages. Didn’t you notice something when they visited us in the past?”
“Notice? I had my work on the fields, so I never stopped to watch them.”
“Really? Oh boy. You have to keep an eye on everything. Their horses are always in good condition. Their travel speed is low so that they can react to anything as fast as possible. They’ll make haste the moment they see the smoke in the sky and probably arrive a day or two later.”
“But that’s plenty,” Ketill showed a happy face. “We burn the houses when we leave and are long gone when they arrive.”
“Boy! Don’t be stupid,” Vandill rebuked him. “They’ll send their scouts out and they’ll find our tracks. The old ones and children will slow us down and we need to find warm shelter for the night. And we have to carry enough food to survive. Two, possibly three hands of kilometers. We’ll be lucky if we can travel that much every day.
“Ten hands,” Ketill shivered. “They only need one day for five of ours.”
“That’s it, boy. We can’t outrun horses. Even if we can push ourselves to three or four hands a day, they’ll catch us before the next sunset. Each patrol team has twenty horseman. It’ll be a massacre.”
“So… we are dead,” Ketill summarized and dropped his shoulders. He thought about the other serfs and their expectations and sighed. “Is there anything we can do?”
“There may be. I already told everyone to pack up. We’ll send the slow ones ahead tomorrow morning. We can use the cows for the heavy load. Our young ones stay here for another two or three days. We have to fill the ritual pit again, we have to imitate a battlefield and finally we have to cover our tracks as we catch up with the first group.”
So that’s why everyone was running around, Ketill realized and continued to listen.
“We might get a day or two out of it. They’ll arrive in the dark, if we lit the fire in the evening. So they’ll have to camp one night in the open before they can start to look for us. We’ll keep the horses and leave some trails in all directions. That’s another day if we’re lucky. With this they’ll catch up to us on the tenth day.”
“So if we can find a save place or lose them in nine days, we survive,” Ketill pondered. “Let’s try to reach the big river. They are a small patrol squad so they won’t follow us.”
“But there’s one more problem,” Vandill diminished the new found hope. “This plan only works if we light the fire the day before they normally arrive. We can’t outrun their horses and they aren’t allowed to capture one alive. One of us has to stay and light the fires, burning himself to death.”
Vandill sighed deeply and emphasized.
“One more man has to die.”