Two days flew by in a never-ending chaos. Ketill, Vandill and two other young serfs had stayed behind to conceal their battle’s traces and cover the small convoy’s tracks. All serfs had endured their strenuous life for a long time but Ketill still had a headache when he opened his eyes after some fitful sleep. At first they had planned for 10 people to stay behind but most of the young ones needed to protect the convoy. Therefore, their struggle against time became more taxing than a day on the fields.
Ketill yawned and made his way to the fireplace but he couldn’t find the warm world he hoped for. The glow had died down over the night and cold air assaulted his bare skin. He sneezed, took a coat from one of the sitting stones and wore it over his tunic. They had found these coats in the wardens’ quarters and the thick fur offered the wearer some warmth in the cold fall air.
Today’s meal was a loaf of hard bread baked two days ago. The young serf tore a small piece off, dipped it in some cold water and wolfed it down. Even his normal breakfast didn’t taste as bad but the dark bread was long lasting and perfect as rations. He saved half the bread for later and left his barrack.
A horrible stench welcomed him outside. Under attack the village would barricade inside the wardens’ barrack so they had scattered the dead bodies all around. But two whole days were enough, and some corpses started to decay. Ketill sighed and walked through the village. He checked each barrack and path for overlooked marks. It was his fourth round, but he still felt uneasy. Their survival depended on the ploy so everything had to be perfect.
He found some new footprints at the village's outskirts. It was another forged trail leading into the nearby forest. He discovered many semicircle hoof marks leading to and from the village. There was no way to reenact a full scale raid, so they settled on disturbing the patrol’s scouts and left three trails behind. Their small group would use this new trail to travel through the forest before they would cross a small stream and catch up to the convoy.
After all, our biggest bet is their unwillingness. Those soldiers have seen so many burning villages, some negligence is bound to appear. And we are only serfs, so there’s no way they would go out of their way to punish the enemy for our deaths. A quiet neighing pulled him back to reality, and he turned his head to spot Vandill approaching. Ketill raised his hand in greeting and turned around.
He continued his round and soon found himself on top of a small hill. The serfs had used this hill as burial site for years and both his parents lay here. He made his way to a polished black stone on the left side and knelt on the hard earth. Ketill knew that their souls had long been eaten by Vebrandir however he still started a small prayer towards them.
“Mother. Father. Today I’ll leave this village,” he began. “The air is so cold already and the snow will soon come. Only three or four circles and snow will cover the mountains. We took all the food and tools we found but I have so many doubts. Still Vandill told me to smile for Ida and the others. Something about motivation and spirit. Is it really alright to lie to them?”
Here Ketill stopped and closed his eyes but no answer reached his ears. He let his thoughts wander to the coming struggle and his chest became heavy. They had to flee for their lives, find a new home and build a wooden shelter against the snow in just a few circles. Last summer they had built a new shed in three circles but now they would try to build a home for everyone with less helping hands.
“I don’t think I’m fit to be their leader,” Ketill sighed. “I’m always asking Vandill for help and act depressed when I should smile. Sometimes I even think this is my punishment for raising my hand. Do I have to suffer through this because I killed so many serfs?”
He remembered his mother’s teachings and his father’s pride. The words they had left behind were his signpost through all the years he had endured. But now they had led him to this cruel outcome. Could it be... that those words are wrong, he started in his mind but banished this thought right away. Instead he took a deep breath and continued.
“Mother. Is this the freedom you dreamed of when you told me your stories? Father. Did you hope for this ending when you taught me to protect my family with my own life? I always followed your words and now I’m here. I’ll leave this place to find a place where Ida can smile every day. For the first time there is a future worth dreaming of. So please watch over us. And help us to reach that place. We need every possible aid.”
Afterwards Ketill bowed and remained in silence.
Slow footsteps approached the hill. Ketill didn’t turn his head and only listened as they reached the top. His heavy chest became even heavier and the all too familiar urge to run surfaced again. The steps stopped and silence enveloped them once again.
“I knew you would be here,” a gentle voice called out to him. “The young ones always run to the dead when they look for answers.”
Happy laughter filled the cold air, but he kept quiet. Ketill wanted to show his respect, but he didn’t know how to face the person behind him. He would turn around and see the small old woman who had volunteered to everyone's shock. All young serfs knew her as the oldest person in the village and he would look at her thin figure and a tender smile on her wrinkled face. She would notice the forced smile on his face and shake her scarce white hair in concern. Instead he remained silent on the ground.
“Oh? Maybe I’m a nuisance? But this isn’t good. Old people should lament and the young ones should laugh. It’s good to remember the dead but you can’t hear their answer. So why don’t you try to ask the living for advice? So, what is on your mind?”
“Hmm? Silence? At least you don’t chase me away. So let me just talk to myself here. The young ones always panic when something new happens. But each time they forget the old ones. Let me tell something rude to you little boy. You aren’t anything special. The things you feel and fear aren’t anything special. The thoughts you think aren’t anything special. The adversities you face aren’t anything special.”
“You young ones always forget the most important thing. That long ago the old ones were young just like them. You look up to your father and mother but to me they were just young ones running the same circles. And you are the same. So let me make something clear to you. I’m not afraid to die and I don’t resent you.”
“But… why,” Ketill opened his mouth. “You’ll die in the flames because I saved my sister.”
“Because of you,” she laughed. “Don’t be funny young one. I’ll die because Froydis decided to end my life now. Our godly mother endowed me with a long and peaceful life and now it ends. I’ll tell you a secret. Even if your mother had never given birth to you, I would still have to die. You aren’t ending my life. I decided to end my own life here.”
“It’s rude to interrupt your elder. Don’t do such things. You gave all serfs the chance to decide for themselves and I did so. Many years ago I saw my daughter and her lover die in this desolate place. I never saw my grandchildren and instead I witness another young one's death with each passing day. There's no joy in that. I know that all this sorrow weights you down but that’s just the fate of the young ones. On the other hand I saw years of sorrow and brutality in my life and your actions are just a small drop in the sea of life.”
Suddenly Ketill noticed her bony hands on his shoulders and stiffened. But the old woman ignored his reaction and pulled him into a gentle hug. Her chin rested on his shoulder and her words flowed directly in his ears as she continued.
“Long ago I was a free citizen. My husband had a small blacksmith’s shop, and we repaired tools for our neighbors and sold horseshoe to the army. But one day a troop of soldiers stormed into our shop. A horse had lost his shoe and tripped and a general fell to death. That’s what they told me as they took my husband away. They hanged him for treason and I became a serf to atone for his deeds.”
“Freedom alone isn’t enough,” she continued. “The whole world is full of sorrow and slaughter. A new home alone won’t protect your loved ones. What you need is power. You must become strong. And you have to be cruel to those threatening you. Ah, young one. You’ll see so much more sorrow and suffering. Prepare yourself and become strong enough to save the weak. But for that to happen, you must take the first step.”
“First step,” Ketill asked in a soft voice.
“Right now the young ones resent you. Some even hate you. And even when they understand your actions they won’t support you. They don’t forgive you because you brought them sorrow. It’ll take a long time and more sorrow until then you have to convince them with actions. Only after you have brought them peace will their wounds slowly heal. Heal them and earn their forgiveness.”
“But before that… you have to act. Act without any doubt. Painful thoughts will slow you down and self-doubt will kill you. So if you want to earn their forgiveness you have first forgive yourself. Accept the sorrow. Say your farewell to the dead and concentrate on the living. And for that… you’ll have to cry. Don’t pretend to be strong. A house will crumble on a weak foundation. So forgive yourself and accept the dead. Cry for the dead and mourn their deaths.”
The old woman tightened her embrace and continued her gentle words. Ketill slumped and silent sobbing filled the air. Once again he saw the slaughtered serfs in front of his eyes. Kili’s pitiful corpse in front of the wardens’ barracks. The strands of silky black hair he had found on his rounds. The blood-drenched soil and his red-stained tunic. A single tear fell to the ground. A second one followed. And soon he wailed in sorrow as gentle words slowly filled his chest.