The convoy continued its travel through forests and plains without further problems. They rose with the first sunrays, marched until exhaustion stopped them, continued after a short break, and only stopped with the fall of dusk. This taxing circle wore even the young serfs out turning motivation and hope into discontent and grumbling.
Ketill was soon fed up with the mood and used his scout duties to flee the other serfs. He wandered deeper and further and chose distant camps to force the convoy onward. Yesterday they had to use torches made of sticks and rags to reach their destination but their complaints fell on deaf ears as Ketill ventured even further.
He had examined the edge of the forest and found a shallow lake. Access to water, nearby firewood and an open plain for the animals turned this place into a perfect candidate but he feared the convoy wouldn’t make it in time. We have to make more progress, Ketill complained as he sat on a boulder and ate his bread. But another march in the darkness might break the convoy.
The warden’s map was useless and nobody knew how much longer their way to the border river would be. Hence Ketill and Vandill had decided to advance as fast as possible. But the uncertain end unsettled the slower serfs and the mindless repetitions turned the convoy into a stormy sea. They progressed on a thin line between the impending slaughter and the convoy’s collapse.
Ketill finished his meal and decided. If we slow down for just a day, it’ll be hard to increase our pace once more. I’m sorry for Vandill but he must bear it. Vandill had stayed back with the convoy and handled the elder serfs. Most young ones didn’t dare to order the elders around therefore Vandill used his advanced age as link between the groups.
The young serf sighed, stood up and returned into the forest when he heard rustling to his left. Such sounds weren’t anything special but the last days had taught him the slight difference in sound between a small animal and an actual threat. He took a deep breath and unsheathed his sword before he changed his position for better footing.
“Come out,” he bellowed into the woods. He tried to put enough force behind his words to scare small carnivores off but even he detected the tremor in his voice.
“All right. You got me,” a familiar tone answered. “Just put that sword away and relax.”
More noise followed before a girl stood in front of him. Yet the silky black hair didn’t calm the young serf down. Lífa smiled at him but he tightened his grip on the sword and stayed silent. His heart raced, his breath sped up and his gaze jumped all over place searching for steady soil. He saw no weapons in her hands but the long furs around her upper body obscured his search for hidden ones.
“Wow. That’s quite the reception. I’m honored,” the girl eventually broke the silence, but a raised eyebrow displayed her dissatisfaction. “Aren’t you our mighty leader who will lead us to freedom and peace and happiness? Surely there is no need for you to be afraid of a frail girl like me.”
“A frail girl? Don’t make me laugh,” Ketill spat out. “You kept up with my pace and hid yourself at the same time. There is no need to cloud your skills.”
“Skills? There’s nothing like that. You get good at running when you flee every day of your life. You also learn to be quiet when clumsiness alone was enough to kill your father in front of you. So relax… It’s not like I trained myself to kill you.”
“Your father? But didn’t he die in the village,” the boy asked in confusion. Does she belittle her father’s fighting skills, he wondered but her next words proved him wrong.
“My father,” she scorned his question. “Isn’t it stupid to think all black-haired people are relatives? I don’t ask whether some mutt is your parent because of its filthy hair.”
“Um… I-I’m sorry,” Ketill stuttered. He had readied himself for a fight but her sharp words destroyed his concentration and disrupted his thoughts. The blank look on his face was rather comical so Lífa giggled and a more pleasant smile bloomed on her face.
“Oh? It seems not all of Ida’s words are lies,” she accepted his apology. “Okay, let’s continue. That man was someone from my native village so we stuck together. After all this kingdom really hates us. So we had to help each other.”
Here she stopped and used the silence to inspect the boy once more. Her gaze wandered over his large figure and muscular arms. He was wearing similar furs but those couldn’t hide his superior strength. Hence Lífa narrowed her eyes while her gaze lingered on the drawn sword.
“But…,” she switched to a displeased tone, “This wasn’t your real question? Your attitude is aggravating so come out with it.”
“All right then,” Ketill consented. “Why do you hate me? Because of your dead friend? You should have scouted another area so did you follow me for an ambush?”
Now it was Lífa’s turn to look startled as their topic switched to an unexpected one. She stepped back and observed his face with a wary gaze. Ketill also readied himself once more. Her movements had become sharper, and he still feared a surprise attack. They both stood there in silence and waited for the first move.
“Oh man,” the girl eventually sighed and relaxed. “And here I thought I had disguised it. The others couldn’t see through me so maybe I’ve been careless? But even your sister didn’t catch on. Well, not that it matters anymore.”
“I hate you,” she declared in a low voice. “I hate you, I hate your sister, I hate this village, I hate this kingdom, and I hate everything around here. But I’m also lost. I want to burn every village, every town and every city to the ground and dance on the ashes. But I don’t have power. All I can do is grovel through the mud and survive.”
“But don’t misunderstand,” she looked him straight in the eye. “I don’t hate you more than everyone. Your village will burn like my village burned. And your people died like my people died. So I’ll play nice and follow you. I’ll stay beside you and I’ll use you so I can become stronger. Strong enough to reach my goals. Strong enough to slay my foes. Only then will I turn my back and leave you.”
Ketill sighed and sheathed his sword. Why did she have to make it so dramatic, he complained to himself. It was a pain in the neck as the boy didn’t care about her past at all. Every serf in their convoy had lost someone they had held dear so her circumstances weren’t anything special. Thus he ignored her rant and concentrated on his most important aim.
“If you lay a single finger on Ida, you’re dead,” Ketill emphasized before he gestured towards the forest. “We have wasted enough time with this. So, after you.”
Lífa understood the underlying meaning and jogged in front of him. Her thin legs looked vulnerable but her pace was steady. She used smooth shifts in direction to navigate through the underwood and lightly jumped over branches or stones. Ketill was proud to be one of the most robust serfs in the convoy but he barely followed her. She could easily outrun me. I threatened her and now she shows off, he complained. But somewhere in the back of his mind he understood her frightening potential.
At last Lífa stopped and Ketill caught up with her. Sweat drenched his tunic and his breath had become ragged. They had used only a fraction of the time he had needed this morning. Her pace was too much for the heavier boy but his pride barred him from asking for slower one. Hence he did his best to keep up and conceal his weakness as much as possible.
Commotion filled the air. Ketill observed the convoy, and the scene shocked him. They had stopped for no apparent reason and big groups of serfs argued with each other. At first Ketill thought the convoy had collapsed but Vandill’s figure disproved his fears. The middle-aged man walked from group to group and gestured in a calm manner.
At last the tumult died down and left Ketill in wonder. The other serfs had listened to Vandill, so this wasn’t a breakdown. He looked for dead bodies but found no signs of struggle. They accept Vandill and there was no fight, he mused while he studied the small groups. It looks like they panicked but I can’t find any reason. Did they ask for another break? Or to lower the pace?
“Over there,” Lífa signaled after she got his attention with a tug. “Look at the sky.”
Ketill turned his head and understood everything. Thick gray smoke filled the sky behind the convoy’s tail. Their village was burning. A small weight fell from his shoulders and he relaxed visibly. After they had witnessed the rain he had been more and more anxious whether the smoke would come. Another shower and soaked barracks would be enough to ruin their plan.
Soon after he understood the smoke also signaled the last breath of the old woman. So he closed his eyes and prayed for her soul. The black dragon loved tales of heroic fights and self-abandonment so Ketill hoped he would see her again in the afterlife. He wanted to thank her more but now wasn’t the time for it. They needed to reassure the other serfs and continue their way to the border river.
Their enemy was coming.