“One more man has to die.”
Ketill shook his head but these cruel words kept ringing in his ears. They had already lost so many lives. Or rather he himself had sentenced so many of them to death. And now they would shed even more of their blood? He couldn’t believe it. Or rather he didn’t want to believe.
“There has to be another way,” he began. “We can leave a horse behind. A human can’t outrun a horse. But a horse can! Let’s light the barracks and flee on horseback afterwards. With this nobody has to die.”
“So now you’re feeling guilty, boy,” Vandill retorted. “You already sent so many to death and now you hesitate? It was alright when Kili died but some nameless corpse will be too much? Boy, don’t make such stupid jokes. You became our leader, so it’s your duty to sacrifice some for our survival.”
“But…,” Ketill hesitated. “But we have already lost so many lives. I… I already killed so many lives. Yesterday it was in panic but now we can take our time. We can find another plan. If we shed our own blood, each time we encounter a problem we won’t have anybody left to survive.”
“You are free to find a way, boy. I tried all morning, and this is the best I got. We can’t risk everyone to save a single life. So if you can propose a better plan convince me. But you have to face reality and pick the plan with the biggest chance for success. That’s part of the determination you vowed to have.”
“So if we use our horses…”
“That won’t do, boy,” Vandill interrupted. “Can you ride a horse? I can’t. The others can’t. So will you learn how to ride a horse? Do you think half a circle is enough time to learn it? Our enemies are trained horsemen and untrained serfs won’t be faster even on horseback.”
Ketill’s shoulders drooped down limply in response. He understood the flaws in his plan even before Vandill had pointed them out so mercilessly. It was idiocy to risk all survivors for a single life but he still tried to find a way. Yesterday he had sent the other serfs to hell just to save Ida but today was different. He didn’t regret their sacrifice but something small changed unbeknown to him.
Why am I so reluctant, Ketill asked himself with closed eyes. One more life is enough. What is the difference between this life and all the others? Ida will survive. I will survive. Even Vandill will survive. We only need a single unlucky fellow and everything will be fine. So why?
His thoughts returned to last night. Dismembered corpses lay in the red mud as Ketill made his way back to his sister. He had to watch his steps or he would trip over severed body parts. Young and old serfs cried side by side. Sorrow and despair filled the air and made each breath painful. A small running child nearly bumped into him so he quickly stepped aside. And his gaze fell on a corpse with silky black hair.
Black hair? Where have I seen this before? Ah… the girl this morning. Did I kill her father? But her gaze was… different. There was no hate in it. Thinking back most of the gazes he encountered were full of curiosity and expectation. He had paid no heed to the gazes back then but now he realized how sincere each one of them was. I see. I asked to be their leader and they accept it. So now I'm bound to protect them like my sister.
Yesterday Ketill had followed Vandill’s suggestion out of pure self-preservation. He had felt bad for the dead but it had been the sword in front of him that had given birth to his determination. He had lied and deceived the other serfs but they still accepted him as their leader. They had seen through his lies and they still bet everything on him. And it was his duty to take his lies and make them reality. Now he had to be as sincere as they were.
The young serf finally understood the difference and continued to argue with Vandill. He suggested every idea that came to mind and Vandill dismantled them one by one. He became angry while his ideas became more and more useless. But he struggled and fought for that single life. I have to protect everyone like my sister. I can’t let anyone die in vain.
The approaching twilight eventually ended their discussion after three more hours. Exhausted both of them made a compromise. They would use Vandill’s plan to flee to safety as long as someone volunteered for the crucial part. Ketill knew it was only for his own conscience but he didn’t want his first act as leader to be an order to die.
“So it’s finally settled,” Vandill advanced their discussion. “Now we have to choose our destination. I looked through all the shelves in here but the only map is this piece of shit.”
He took a thin board from one rack and placed it beside the calendar. Ketill took a look and immediately understood Vandill’s disapprovingly attitude. The creator had used a glowing metal rod to leave scorch marks on the surface. Crude houses showed the farming villages on the mostly empty map. Some spikes stood for the nearby mountains and a few separates lines appeared to be rivers.
“This map is useless, boy,” Vandill sighed. “According to this our village is in the middle of the mountains and the next river is two villages away.”
“There aren’t many details on it,” Ketill agreed. “But maybe we can use the general directions to make a plan? Both the south and the east are full of other villages so we won’t be able to find peace there. So it’s either north or west.”
“That’s right, boy. We have the mountains in the west. We can shake the patrol teams off when we use small dirt tracks and climb to the top. There’s no settlement in the area so we could hunt in the forest and let the cows graze on the plains.”
“But they’ll know we are still alive,” Ketill countered. “We only have a handful of capable fighters so we’ll die when they find our trail. They’ll send troops to slaughter us and we can’t hide forever.”
“So the north it is. Earlier you said they might stop their pursuit when we cross the border. But boy, how do we cross it? The northern border is a river and the wardens always said it’s too big to cross without ships.”
“But the other kingdoms cross it all the time for their war. So we only have to find a shallow part. We’ll cross it there and find a new place over there.”
“A new place? I don’t know, boy. We are serfs. Do you think they’ll let us start anew in peace? And even us serfs are part of the dragon kingdom. Why should they give shelter to their enemy? We’ll be lucky if we end on a field again.”
Both men kept quiet and tried to find a solution. They could only find death in all four directions. The twilight slowly turned into the darkness of the night. They started a fire and used the dancing flames to stare at the map. The mountains are attractive for living. But we can’t hide forever. The north gives us piece from our pursuers but we can’t live there.
Ketill’s mind ran in circles. He repeated each thought over and over again although he already knew the conclusion. I’m like a horse with blinkers and can’t see anything else, he realized and shook his head. Finally freed he took a deep breath and closed his. The north gives peace. The mountains a place to live. But we need both peace and a place to live. So if we need both we should go…
“That’s it,” he exclaimed much to Vandill’s surprise. “We don’t have to settle for either one. Let's go north and cross the border and turn west afterwards. We can settle in the mountains in peace and start a new life. And we won’t have to hide because nobody will search for us.”
Vandill’s relieved laughter was answer enough. At last they had found their path to freedom and a place for a new home. Now it was time to gather the other serfs and explain their plan. They had to ask one of their own to die but in exchange they would preserve their dream of freedom. Ketill opened the door, left the barrack, and stopped after a few steps.
Countless stars shone in the sky. The three moons were still low but began their never-ending pursuit of the sun. Ketill took a deep breath and searched the northern sky for a radiant blue star. His mother had once called this star the light of freedom. He still remembered that dry summer night. He had sat on his mother’s lap and his mother’s gentle words had reached his ears.
>>Somewhere in the north is the border river with many different kingdoms behind it. I’m content with my life and I’ll one day rest here beside your father. But sometimes when I'm lonely in the night, I look at that bright star and ask Froydis for a single favor. I beg our godly mother to let this star shine for all eternity so that my children will one day find the freedom they deserve.<<
Ketill looked at the light of freedom and decided on his first order. Tomorrow they would start their march towards that gentle blue light.