Loud gasps echoed through the forest. Branches cracked with each hurried step. Small animals dashed away to hide in the underwood. The cacophony of sounds startled a group of red birds who spanned their wings and fled to the sky. Their high-pitched chirps assaulted the listener and caused severe earaches. The young serf Ketill warped his face but continued his jog through the trees back to the convoy.
Over 40 humans and a handful animals formed a slow moving group. The front had to wait for the unwilling cows and exhausted elders at the back which limited the distance they traveled. Therefore, it was the duty of the young and fit ones to scout ahead and search for possible resting places. They needed grass for the animals, a small stream or lake and enough space for the camps. Hence Ketill had left the convoy just minutes after reuniting with his sister and explored the unknown lands.
He had finally found a fitting place and was running back to inform the others. It was already hard to see the sun behind the never-ending walls of trees and the emerging twilight would further hinder their movement. I have to hurry, Ketill urged himself on before increasing his speed once more. The steps itself weren’t that taxing thanks to the baggage he had left with Ida but the ever-changing ground wore his concentration out.
Consequently, he breathed a sigh of relief when he saw the familiar figures of the convoy in the valley. They walked in small groups stretched out in a long line and from atop the small hill they looked like a giant snake. He whistled to get their attention before he waved his hands and signaled his success. The head of the snake changed its direction and the whole convoy groaned in frustration as they made their way up to his position.
Dóri was the first to reach his position, and they greeted each other with a smile. The bald youth had worked on the same field and was one of the few Ketill would call friend. Dóri wasn’t old enough to lose his hair but rather shaved his head. At their first meeting the golden hair had still reached his shoulders, but he changed it after a family dispute. He never spoke a word about it and Ketill didn’t ask either.
“How long,” the convoy’s headman asked.
“Two… maybe three hours for the cows,” Ketill estimated before he pointed his finger at a distant tree. “Until there and the same way two more times.”
Three more hours went by before the convoy’s middle reached the place. Twilight had fallen, and all members rushed to arrange their camps. The younger serfs would collect stones and firewood while the old ones would spread the furs and distribute the food. It was pitch-dark when they had finished their preparations and settled the animals on the meadow.
Ketill returned to Ida’s side, devoured his meal and laid down next to his sister. He didn’t need to stand guard thanks to his work as scout so he planned to exchange news and sleep through the night. On his other side lay Vandill’s fur who looked after the cows right now. An unknown girl completed their little camp and to Ketill’s surprise she was none other than the black haired girl with a few days ago.
Black hair was rare in the dragon kingdom and most serfs had either brown or blond hair. Black haired girls mostly worked as servants or prostitutes for rich aristocrats. Hence Ketill remembered her for the noticeable hair color and her curious behavior. He didn’t want to appear vain, but he still asked himself whether her participation was by chance or force.
“Oh, you two don’t know each other,” his sister realized the next moment. “This over here is Lífa. The others were a bit harsh for the first nights but she came over and we helped each other. She’s alone now and outsiders stick together, I guess?”
Ida snickered and Ketill used the pause to sit up and examine the girl in front of him. She was a tall girl, only a head shorter than him, but her slim appearance gave her a frail look. The thick furs around her neck only strengthened that picture and her long slim legs ended in a pair of huge shoes. Except for her height she was the spitting image of a kid in its parent’s clothes. After a moment she noticed Ketill’s gaze and her red lips formed a beautiful smile, bewitching the young man.
Ketill’s heartbeat sped up while he watched her smooth movements. She sat down on the opposite fur and each small gesture resembled a cat’s. Next she took her coat off and the revealed tunic stuck close to her upper body. She’s definitely a girl, Ketill appreciated in his mind. But why is she here? There’s no way someone as eye-catching as her wouldn’t rouse a nobleman’s desire. Did her father hide her? His gaze followed the curves on her upper body, stopped at her angled chin, tracked the outline of her slightly rounded face and arrived at her black eyes.
His heart jumped and accelerated further. A shiver ran down his spine and cold sweat formed on his back. He took a deep breath while his right hand moved to his sword. Her black eyes stood in complete contrast to the blooming smile. Cold and sharp eyes looked at him like a predator. He couldn’t find any warmth or kindness in her gaze. Assassin? After me, he screamed in his head as he remembered old tales full of killing gods and scheming women. But the only answer was turmoil. Ketill’s body readied itself for a fight before a sharp pain ran through his side and ended his stupor.
“You are rude, brother,” Ida admonished him. She had nudged him with her elbow and gestured towards the other side. “I told you her name, so don’t stare and answer!”
Embarrassed Ketill coughed a few times and introduced himself. “I’m sorry, Lífa. My name is Ketill and I’m Ida’s brother. Thank you for taking care of my sister while I stayed behind,” he thanked her with a light nod.
Lífa accepted his words with another smile and silently ate her meal. In the meantime Ida and Ketill informed each other about their past days. Lífa listened in silence but Ida soon dragged her into their conversation. In fact Ida did most of the talking while the other two kept a wary eye on each other.
His sister’s task was to rise early and cook a simple stew for breakfast so Ketill took the chance and ended their chatter early. He lay down on his fur and closed his eyes. But he only fell into a fitful sleep after he made sure his sword was within reach.
The night flew by with no accident and a gray morning sky greeted him. The girls were long awake, so he woke Vandill and they left the warmth of their furs to get a lukewarm bowl of stew. It wasn’t a feast but still an improvement over the past days so they ate their breakfast with smile while they teased Ida for her cooking.
This day Ketill stayed behind and helped his sister’s with the cows. They had tied long ropes around the cows’ necks and a few serfs pulled these from the front. Ketill and Ida carried long sticks and lightly slapped the reluctant cows. It was an easy work, and the siblings had enough time to talk.
“You’re leery towards Lífa,” the sister eventually stated. “Did something happen between you in the village? She’s so nice so your behavior was weird.”
“Oh? Was it so obvious,” the brother inquired. There was no need to go out of his way and befriend the other side but open distrust would hinder his leadership.
“I don’t think she noticed,” his sister reassured him. “She probably just thought you liked her looks. I mean, you stared at her way too long. If this goes on, my lazy brother will become the perverted brother and nobody will marry me.”
Ketill smiled at their usual banter but played along. “It wasn’t like that. There’s no way any girl can enchant me after I lived with such a beautiful sister. You better worry whether your husband manages to open his mouth and ensnare you between his stares.”
Ida’s face turned beet-red, and he basked in his small victory. But soon after he returned their discussion to the topic at hand. “I’m wary of her, that’s true. But nothing happened. I saw her dead father in the village so I’m anxious. It’s great if you two can become friends but it’s my job as your big brother to protect you. It’s not just her but the others, too. I’ll be cautious until everything settled down.”
His sister looked at him with round eyes before they continued their duty in silence. But it wasn’t a forced or awkward one. Instead the calm peace eased their minds, and they enjoyed the warm feeling of security. It reassured them they were on the right way as they swung their sticks to goad a stubborn cow.
At noon they heard thunder and turned around. Black clouds released their load and small beads fell on the ground. It wasn’t a soft drizzle but rather heavy rains. Ketill sighed and urged the others forward. Even a light drizzle was deadly to them. Their flight left no room for long breaks so they would continue in the rain. And with so many old and weak serfs a soaked tunic was enough to cause severe illness.
Hence they hurried until the exhausted ones collapsed in front of them. Many serfs watched the rain in despair but thankfully the black clouds missed their convoy and no rain fell on their heads. Warmth filled Ketill’s chest as he watched the resting serfs. They had avoided the worst case, and the rain had left a new ray of hope.
The heavy ran had washed away their tracks. It wasn’t enough to completely erase their footprints but it would slow down the pursuing scouts. Every hour was one more step towards freedom so Ketill closed his eyes and thanked Froydis for her blessings.