Ketill’s words were a blessing for the freezing serfs hence they reacted right away. Ketill had feared more chaos would break out but the big bulk of serfs stumbled in a more or less orderly fashion towards the shore. They supported each other and dragged the weak ones with them while flashing hidden glances at Lífa.
So one brutal action was enough to make her the leader, Ketill realized to his frustration. A battle for leadership might end in more violence and crueler acts. And no one knows what she’ll do. I have to establish my role before she can go after us.
All survivors had lost a friend or loved one and the forced march damaged his standing even more. Many serfs only followed him thanks to the lack of options. It was easy to imagine what choice these serfs would take if another candidate appeared. And there was no better way to assure one’s position than going after the unpopular predecessor.
Grim visions filled Ketill’s head, but he had no time to ponder. Hence he shook his head and concentrated on the task at hand. He kept the drenched serfs from sitting down and let them move around with unstable steps. Meanwhile, his line of scouts stumbled to the front and helped to bring their float ashore. At last they pulled the cows out of the water and finally left the border river.
“Everybody come and take a woolen blanket,” Ketill called towards the shivering serfs. “Undress and dry yourself before changing into the coats. We don’t have extra shoes so wrap your feet into furs. And don’t sit down. Move and warm yourself.”
They used two big woolen blankets to separate the male and female serfs so that both sides could change without shame. Most of the older ones didn’t care but Ketill wasn’t keen on presenting his changing sister in public and insisted on it. He stayed back and looked after the cows while Vandill distributed the blankets and coats.
The impatient serfs pushed and pulled each other, searching their clothes and bickering over the best blankets. Two old women fought other a dry fur while a middle-aged man took a blanket from someone else’s child. Small groups formed and seized the best pieces as the separate and weak serfs had to wait for their turn.
A young serf groaned in frustration. His clothes lay at the bottom of the pile and had become wet despite the makeshift float. Next he looked with envy at the surrounding serfs before his gaze fell on scrawny widow rejoicing over a warm blanket. His eyes narrowed with greed but a quick glance at Vandill’s sword prevented shortsighted actions.
Again it’s the threat of violence that keeps them in line, Ketill complained to himself as he watched the scene. They behave less like humans and more like wild animals. Is this how it works? Do we have to swing a whip to escape a whip?
Another argument reached his ears. Two young girls wanted the same tunic and accused their counterpart of theft. Next their parents joined in and insulted the children’s upbringing. Their raised voices stirred the bystanders up and only Vandill’s quick reaction defused the situation.
The convoy had brought the dead’s clothes along, and he took a spare tunic to resolve the conflict. But even then they continued their dispute and compared the quality of the two pieces. Eventually a game of chance decided the new owners and the two groups separated. Peace returned but Ketill didn’t miss the loser’s resentment.
He was dumbfounded.
They destroy their relationship for a single piece? And a washed out stain on the hem is their proof? We have enough spare clothes for everyone and they still fight over a rag? We have to distribute the remaining clothes equally or else envy will split the convoy.
Thankfully the warm clothes and reliable ground raised the convoy’s spirit and cooled the heated emotions. The arguments died down, and the serfs gathered in a handful circles for refreshment and consolation. Some groups still glared at each other but Ketill decided to change himself.
He left the cows to the returning Vandill and made his way to the float when he noticed the black hair in front of him. In front of him Lífa was rummaging through the clothes but Vandill chose to ignore her and prioritized the search for his own clothes. Unbeknownst to the others he had stored his sister’s clothes at the dry top but he didn’t spot his coat or furs in the remaining mess.
They’re probably under the other side, Ketill realized, but he didn’t want to risk a confrontation in the middle of the convoy. He pretended to comb through his pile again and waited until he heard her rustling clothes and diverging steps. Hence he switched to the other side and soon found his own clothes.
Still, he couldn’t help but sneak a peek at the slender body behind him. The drenched clothes adhered closely to her body and the visible curves left nothing to the imagination. Maybe we should have changed in one group, Ketill enjoyed her back view. The handful of girls born in the village didn’t compare to the scene in front of his eyes.
But as if she heard his thoughts Lífa suddenly stopped on her way to the curtain and turned her head. Ketill hastily pretended to search for more clothes but the piercing stare on his back assured him of his failure. Therefore he surrendered to fate and faced Lífa. The young woman locked eyes with him and flashed a teasing smile before she disappeared behind the blanket.
What’s her deal, Ketill complained but his anger was solely directed at himself. It was one thing to enjoy a nice view but getting caught by an opponent was plain stupid. He had no choice but trudge to the other side and change his clothes in silence. Clad in warm furs Ketill started to relax but he couldn’t release his tension just yet.
A short whistle got him everyone’s attention, and he ordered everyone to pack up and prepare to leave. The scouting group destroyed the float and threw the parts in the river. The biggest evidence of their flight drifted away and soon vanished behind the horizon. Now they only had to take the cows and follow the convoy to the nearby forest line.
Fatigue slowed them down, and they reached their new campground while the sky turned red under the sinking sun. The air cooled down but they couldn’t light a campfire as it would reveal their location to patrol group. Ketill used this excuse and ordered the serfs to huddle against each other. He hoped this harsh experience would heal the arising splits.
It was dusky when the camp quieted down. Ketill took a fur for himself and settled beside a tree. He planned to observe the shore from the edge of the woods and peered into the crepuscular light. The small animals fled from the convoy and left a quiet forest behind. Some insects buzzed through the air and a small nocturnal bird flapped his wings. But Ketill finally calmed down and enjoyed the rest.
Hushed steps approached him. Grass rustled and branches cracked. He guessed the owner of the cat-like steps but didn’t bother to react. She didn’t hide her approach, and he was too exhausted to waste energy in another confrontation. The steps stopped at the other side of the tree. Silence returned as the unequal pair watched the dark shore in silence.
“You didn’t draw your weapon,” a soft voice stated.
“I’ll lose face when I show fear in front of the others,” Ketill declared. “And you would lose your place when you attack me without reason. One shout is enough so your brutality can’t help you here. Also you didn’t hide your steps.”
“I see,” Lífa muttered and fell silent.
“So you have a weapon,” Ketill broke the peace this time. “Anything else you lied about? Some hidden intention? Being the leader might suit you.”
“A lie? That sounds so unpleasant. I never lied to you. I… just didn’t tell you everything. And you never asked me either. So it’s less lying and more… self-preservation.”
“Oh? That’s a convenient view. So what’s with your actions today?”
“Really,” Lífa groaned. “Are you that insecure? I said it back then and I say it again. It’s simple. I don’t want to die. And those panic-fueled fools nearly killed us all. A bit of blood is a small price for my life.”
“And you expect me to believe that?”
“I don’t care. Sleep with one eye open if you must. It’s just as I’ve told you. I want to use you. You can play leader and collapse under all those whiny complaints. Brutality? If you are that indecisive you can use me to keep them in line. I’ll follow you until I’m strong enough to turn my back on you.”
Ketill sighed but kept quiet. Both asking for help and showing discomposure would weaken his position.
“But speaking of today’s actions,” a teasing voice reached his ears. “Did you enjoy the view?”
“T-the view,” he coughed. “Not really. It was so meager I felt the bones pricking just by watching you. You should eat more and get some meat on your hips.”
“So you tell me those were the eyes of someone repulsed,” she snorted. “But meager? I would eat more if it wasn’t for someone rushing me through the wilderness. A nice meal in a warm cabin might change the poor view. But that’s your duty now. Give me a nice home and enough food to make me all tubby.”
Ketill sighed again. These talks wore him down but to his surprise he realized he didn’t hate them. It differed from his soothing sister or the stern discussions with Vandill. He couldn’t work her out but the diversion countered his exhaustion. It was a welcomed change of pace.
This on the other hand is an unwelcome view, Ketill complained when he saw small lights flying through the darkness. Torches? Three, four, five, six. So all of them are riding through the night?
The flickering lights made their way to the shore and stopped in a circle. Just turn around and leave, Ketill prayed but his hopes didn’t reach the patrol group. They split in two groups and searched the shore up- and downriver. Ketill hold his breath. Two lights slowly advanced towards them and it wouldn’t take long to reach their new tracks.
Turn around. Go away. Just leave us alone, Ketill screamed in his head, gripping his sword. Can we surprise them in the darkness? Or will they wait until morning and slaughter us? There’s no way out. I have to wake Vandill and the other scouts.
Ketill stood up and left for the camp when a soft “Wait!” reached his ears. The patrol group had stopped their horses and scanned the area. They had only ridden half the distance so there was no way they could see the convoy’s tracks in the darkness. As expected they turned their horses around, reunited with the other group and vanished into the distant forest.
“You’re lucky,” Lífa commentated. “But now you really owe me a nice meal and a warm bed.”