“Do you hear the Gods my love? Thor and Hod are riding the sky tonight driving the long winter days before them, pushing the frost and chill across the lands.” Toothless old Agritha stopped her knitting. Needles poised in mid clack, her pale eyes took on a faraway look and Tarmen knew she would stay that way, transfixed by days long gone, lost in memories until she was pressed to continue the story.
Tarmen listened to the tale, although half an ear had lent itself to the torrential downpour and the intermittent claps of thunder. He sat at the crone’s feet and leant against blue veined legs, wrapped in the pelts of wolf skins on the edge of the fire pit. Flames spun shapes of the gods who walked the earth before men were born and the shadows they threw out rose into monsters. But he wasn’t a child anymore, he had bragged as much to his father, so the grasping fingers of shadowed things didn’t scare him. Agritha’s eyes, cloudy as they were, watched the yellow dancing gods.
The young boy wondered if it was raining where his father was. ‘Wait another season. Wait a little longer, then you can raid with us.’ He had heard the words before and yet, despite his anger at being stuck with old Agritha and the slave his father had stolen from across the sea, Tarmen’s envy matched the weather outside.
“Agritha?” Tarmen’s voice drew her away from the dreaming.
“It will snow, mark my words.” The clacking began again, a familiar sound to the raging tempest screaming its fury around Skarken.
“Will the gods protect my father?” A small voice beside Agritha asked.
Agritha worked her tongue into the space where two teeth used to be. It was a habit of hers when she took to thinking. Tarmen looked up, straining his neck backwards. Old skin, wrinkled and loose, wobbled as she spoke.
“They are a strange lot. Envious and capricious, for unlike us they are immortal with fancies and tempers rife enough to raise the Basilisk from his long sleep. Your father is a fearless man, a warrior with heart my child, but the gods choose who they want to protect and wishing won’t make it so.” She dismissed his youthful worries with a pat on the head.
Gnarled fingers caressed the long fall of loose hair on the right side of his skull. He slept with it unplaited and the kinks in his unbound hair were a delight to Agritha. Tarmen tolerated the old nurse’s affections and looked back to the fire.
The door opened with a bang and the wind wailed at the slave’s back. He carried in each hand a bucket; one brimming with dried dung and the other with peat. Cristof, as he liked to be called, smiled at the pair. This was his fifth winter with the family and to his surprise, whenever he thought about it the man had to admit he was happy.
Agritha ignored the slave, as was her privilege. She had been with the boy since his first breath and smacked his backside so they could all hear the arrival of the little lord. Tarmen on the other hand smiled back.
“Cristof will it snow tonight? Agritha said it would.”
“She knows best boy.” The slave set about dumping the contents of both buckets into a wooden box near the fire.
The wooden needles clacked away, as though the slave’s chores were a thing of inconsequential imaginaries. The three lived together in a harmonious state of wellbeing, though a certain someone waited more impatiently than others for Tarmen’s father to return.
Not even Cristof heard the raiders approach. Who would have been stupid enough to risk a night such as this? Even the trees, sheltered by their many companions in the great Helgard, bent and swayed as the god bidden storm bellowed its rage. The party reached the edge of Skarken and not a living soul greeted them or watched, as each giant wrapped in heavy furs and leather took to the streets. Sneaking about as if the muddy tracks were already theirs. House by house the men crept, axes and blades lovingly held, each one ready and waiting for supper.
Skarken’s screams were muffled in the night. Blood ran a river as the Unglers looted and sacked the village. The young were collared, dull-eyed with a slaves ring and herded to the far side of the village.
An axe splintered the door into shavings and lumps of wood. A great brute with a filthy black beard stuck his head through the hole and a growl showed a mouthful of rotting teeth. The trio started. Agritha twisted and pushed herself up and as old as she was, took her needles in one hand and held them high, a threatening gesture causing the brute to laugh.
“You be easy pickings you old cow. I’ll break your bones, and then cut off your head for you ain’t worth a shingle’s fart to me.” The remnants of the door shattered and he barrelled in.
Agritha’s bulky skirts hid Tarmen and he felt a foot nudge him. He made not a peep, but from the corner of his eye the swaddled boy caught Cristof hunkered down in the shadows. The slave’s hands were busy with a lock. Tarmen looked back and another stood in the doorway, someone who thought to see if a treasure lay beyond its shattered hinges. This one had a mad gleam in his eye. Perhaps he was touched by the gods and thought he was doing their work. It was a frightening prospect to be at the mercy of a raving lunatic. In one hand the shaven head man held a blade as long as his forearm and in the other, a long piece of chain. As he stepped through the door the metal links clunked on the ground.
Agritha stood to her fullest, shoulders back no matter the pain and now Tarmen was fully hidden. Again, her foot nudged him and his eye again caught Cristof. A hand was waving, still no more than a shadow in the corner, but fear had gripped his heart, shrivelling the man he had told his father he was. How often he had seen deer act like this, startled and dazed moments before the arrow claimed its prize.
The mad one cocked his head. Listening to a ghostly voice, his eyes widening slightly. “Those toothpicks you hold, scrag. They would suit me fine. Give them to me and I will only take one of your hands. The other, I would leave for you, to show that even the Unglers can bestow a measure of kindness to those that do not fight back.”
Her old face wrinkled in disgust. “You know the gods despise the Unglers. Your lot live in caves like beasts and rut in the dark, painting your bodies in yellow ochre to create the illusion your men are fearless. You are nothing. Sneaking up on an old woman to steal the little she has.” Agritha made a scraping sound in her throat, a loud rude noise and with practised aim hawked a glob of spit at the foot of the bearded man.
A rustling of skirts and it was Tarmen’s cue to leave. He shook his head, unable to comprehend what would happen on his leaving. Agritha was giving him time and her life. He skittered across the room. A hand snaked out and dragged him the rest of the way, Cristof placed a couple of fingers to Tarmen’s lips. Round eyes met very serious ones. The slave didn’t hesitate and with a shove the boy was pushed down the hole.
He landed heavily on the freezing ground under the stilt house. It was a space high enough to crawl through. Screams and blood curdling cries filled his ears, heavy footsteps splashed mud and muck in all directions. The clash of steel against steel sounded hollow, as the last men left to watch over the safety of the village sought to defend it from the Unglers. The young boy found himself alone and very much afraid. He thought about wriggling a way towards the cow pen. It lay vacant for the animals lived inside, keeping warm and as he set about seeking a path, Cristof dropped to the ground. In one hand the slave held a short knife. Digging about in the slops the slave wiped mud onto his face blending in with the darkness. He gestured for Tarmen to do the same, grinning all the while.
Above Agritha cried out. It was wretched sound, full of pain and anger, then laughter rode its tail, gripping hard in the bellies of her killers. Tarmen felt the tears fall and the young man, the one he had boasted so often about wondered if he could stop them.
“There is nothing you can do.” Hissed the slave. “Nothing. Best you look to yourself for without your father’s warriors Skarken is lost.”
“Did they know he would be gone?” There was a tremor in the asking.
“Perhaps it was a ploy to lure them away. This way the Unglers could take slaves and whatever else they fancy. Your father is a wealthy man Tarmen.”
Tarmen turned away, looking down through the long crawl toward the stand of trees beyond.
Cristof carried on in a different voice. “We may, if your luck holds get through this night, but only if you follow me, listen to me and do everything I say.” This time he was serious.
This man didn’t speak like a slave. His voice had taken on the tone of someone expecting to be obeyed, like his father when speaking to men who should do his bidding.
“Who are you?”
“I am only a man, now follow me.”
Cristof began sliding in the mud, wriggling like an awkward snake and Tarmen followed, face covered in muck like his companion. Agritha’s voice followed him. Her curses, wild and without restraint called on the gods to help her. She bellowed Odin’s name as the mad one took her hand. Cried to Vioarr as they took the other and then there was quiet.
The mad one laughed as he took Agritha’s head and brandishing it high above her cooling body he stepped out into the wailing wind and howled.
Tarmen stopped crawling and watched on in horror, biting his lip until the blood ran down his chin, dripping into the mud. Cristof stopped and beckoned the boy forward. Even with all the wet muck on the slave’s face Tarmen could see the wild delight in his eyes, a joy full of mischief. Wordlessly Cristof mouthed for the boy to follow, begged him with gritted teeth in a mouth bursting with mirth.
Tarmen nodded and wriggled forward, averting his eyes to the butchery above. The slave poked his head out looking to see if the way was clear and satisfied, scrambled in a flurry of mud to gain his feet. Tarmen quickly followed and together, fear bubbling in his heart, the pair ran for cover.
Tear quietly slid down the young boy’s face as he followed the slave.
“Hurry Tarmen.” For a moment the boy thought he heard the slave snigger.
Mutely, the boy shook his head and the wind picked up. It swept through the forest with howling glee, like mad laughter it thrashed the leaves and tore up the ground, creating thin twisters as it gained momentum. Thunder crashed above and the clouds; though mostly lost in the night sky churned and roiled. Lightening sparked and struck, setting fire to the trees around Skarken. The Unglers ignored it all, so lost in the thrall of looting and murder that not a man noticed the obvious.
Cristof looked up, cocked his head and listened as if the storm spoke to him. He turned and smiled. “We need to be away from here.”
“But to where? We have nothing. There is nowhere to go.”
“Oh, I know a place.”
Tarmen turned and through the trees he saw a man looking at him, a wild painted smile on a tattooed face and a spear in a thick hairy arm. It was pointed at the pair in the woods, the head of the spear twirled in a man made circle, it was a gesture that boded ill, even murder. “He can see us.”
The boy’s hiss caught Cristof’s attention, but the slave only turned and winked at the watcher. “So what? Come on let’s go.’
The slave turned back to the dark. Tarmen edged backwards, step by step as he kept both eyes on the staring man. Another joined the brute, a long blade and a length of chain, dragging ridiculously behind him nodded as the first man said something. Then another stepped up and stood apart from the first two. He wore his hair in long braids, decorated with clasps of gold and silver. A cloak trimmed with bear fur hung about his shoulders and even the mad one looked to this one for guidance.
“We could go to my father.” Whispered the boy. It was a plea of sorts. He didn’t know where his father was, but Cristof might.
“Run.” Stated the slave in a calm voice.
Tarmen watched as the man in furs and jewellery waved an arm towards the village behind him. A few more Unglers made up a crowd and with a whoop the mad one began to run towards the pair.
“I said run.” Cristof laughed.
Tarmen didn’t need any encouragement. Legs pumping, the boy entered the dark with Cristof. Behind them shouts and the clanging of metal against shields drew every ear in Skarken and Tarmen, though his thoughts were wild with fear, wondered why they all thought chasing him was a good idea?
Tarken and Cristof ran into the dark and a mist rose around them. It was as silent as the storm was blustery. The white fog floated up and covered not only Tarmen, but the raiders as well.
“I can’t see.” Tarmen couldn’t help but shout for Cristof had disappeared.
“Open your eyes then.” There was power in the voice now. “Do you remember what your old nursemaid said?” A hand reached out from the mist and grabbed onto the boy’s shoulder. Fingers of iron, a grip that propelled him sideways, causing him to stumble, but not to fall. “Keep walking boy, quietly as if you were strolling.”
“But… but those men. The Unglers. There are a dozen or more of them out there. I can hear them shouting and banging their shields, shouldn’t we run? You said to run.” The boy was stammering, ashamedly so, he should have been a man. He had always said as much.
Cristof was silent and in the mist, as an outline Tarmen watched the slave raise a hand. He opened it wide, stretching out his fingers and then he did the same with the other. Wasting time. Making the boy’s heart skip several beats. The Ungler’s were nearly upon them.
“Get the boy. Kill the man.” The mad one called to the others.
“We have to leave Cristof. Now!” Tarmen stepped up behind the slave, who no longer looked very much like the man he had grown up with. “We have to hurry.” Tarmen was confused, upset and more than a little afraid. He wanted to be gone.
“Spread out or I will have your tongues.” Growled the bearded man. He was so close the fleeing pair could hear his rattling breath.
“Very well my little friend. Gone we will be. It is a simple enough thing to do.”
Tarmen suddenly felt a little sick, light headed and the world around him shimmered. Everything had a sharper edge to it. Everything shone, exasperated by the wind and the wet, the storm above played music or at least, he thought it was music. And then there was laughter, hearty mirth falling all around them from the heavens.
The boy tried to call out again, but there were no words. Not a peep was heard instead, a raucous cry fell from his young mouth. His world had suddenly become larger, taller. Tarmen reached out an arm to touch Cristo and yellow eyes blinked in confusion. His mind screamed, ‘Cristof! What is happening?’
The man patted his shoulder. “Tarmen did you not say you wanted to leave? Come, sit on my shoulder and we will do our best to catch up to those brothers of mine.”
An Ungler’s axe swept over Tarmen’s head and the brutish fellow cursed then spat at the ground close to the boy. He called out to the fellows around him. Leathers creaking in the mist, blinded as he was by whatever spell was floating in the air.
“He was here. I swear it by the gods, I saw the little bastard here.”
“How can you see anything in this cursed fog?” Growled another and the mad one cocked his head.
“He’s here. I can smell him or what was left of him.” The voice sounded puzzled, angry at being duped of his prize. “Find him you fools. He’s the key. That boy must be caught.” Agritha’s head was secured tightly to a loop of leather around his waist, her dead eyes staring down at Tarmen.
Tarmen closed his eyes and with a thought found himself on Cristof’s shoulder, pushed up against the man’s ear, shivering and hoping more than anything he would wake from whatever nightmare it was that plagued this winter’s night.
The Ungler’s were behind the pair. In front of them, on both sides, circling like wolves and the boy knew it was the end. But he had a question. It was important and he needed the answer before he took the first step into Valhalla. “Who are you?”
Cristof laughed and the face of the mad Ungler loomed in the mist, pushing its way to the forefront of death. “Do you remember what Agritha told you Tarmen? About the gods.”
Tarmen thought he frowned. “I asked them to protect my father and she answered that the gods choose who they will protect and wishing doesn’t make a difference.”
He could feel Cristof’s head nod next to him. “Yes quite right and it was a terrible ending for poor Agritha, lofty sow that she was,” he gaily replied, “She didn’t deserve what the Unglers did to her Tarmen, so I will answer your question this once. I am Loki,” and the man who had lived with his family for five long years, who had served his father dutifully and had been his companion in most things, shook with laughter. “They are an ugly lot those murdering men and your nursemaid was right. The Unglers are an ugly lot and we don’t care much for them. Little Raven, hold your breath for we are about to catch the storm. We’ll follow my brothers, Thor and Hod back to my Father’s Hall and if they think to race me, let them try for I fear no man or god. I am Loki.”
Skarken – A coastal village
Basilisk – The Serpent of Souls
Helgard – A forest next to Skarken
Scrag – A whore
Unglers – A northern clan
Cristof – Slave
Tarmen – Boy
Agritha – Tarmen’s Nursemaid