An hour later loud moos echoed along the coast. Forceful slaps prompted the cows to form two lines composed of nine each. A single cow would refuse to enter the cold water but ropes tied all of them to their neighbors and the herd's movement forced the first cow onward. A small splash sounded before angry and pained more moos resounded.
The serfs ignored their obvious displeasure and followed them into the water. Klefi and three other scouts took their places behind the cows and formed a line vertical to the coast. A brown-haired scout was the furthest in and the water reached his chest. He instantly shivered and begged for a fast departure.
The four horses were next in line. A handful serfs carried a small wooden frame and tied it to the horses. They had placed their coats and furs on the platform. This way they would have something dry to wear after they left the river again. Hopefully, this is enough to prevent illness, Ketill thought before he watched their biggest groups’ entrance.
Save for five all other serfs entered the water in a big throng. The cows blocked the brunt of the current and made walking much easier but the ground was bumpy and one wrong step was enough to stumble into the current. The elders walked in front, followed by the children and women, with the young and fit men at the back. They had to support the serfs in front without falling themselves.
Ketill, Vandill and three other scouts formed the last group. They had tied a long rope around their waist and their broad line would be the last safety net. Ketill was the third to enter the water. He gasped in pain the moment the cold water touched his skin. His coat and his leg furs laid on the ground and he entered the river with nothing more but his tunic and shoes. He saw goosebumps on his arms and concentrated on everything but the cold.
Vandill was the last serf and used a plank to smudge their footsteps in the shallow waters. They hoped these marks would look like a ship's and force their enemies to give up. Next Vandill threw the plank in the fast moving current and their slow journey started.
Despair soon found its way into the serfs’ hearts. The cold water drained their strength, and each step wore their mind down. They had decided to use a small forest around 1000 meter away as their hiding place but it didn’t appear to be any closer. Instead many serfs turned their heads and saw the remains of their camp right behind them.
Ketill understood their worry. He observed the sun and knew not even ten minutes passed by but his body told him he had walked this way for hours. The animals and their cacophony added another layer of mental stress to his burden. He didn’t sympathize but their cries gave a face to his suffering and constantly reminded him of the pain in his legs. Ketill suppressed these thoughts and focused on every single step before a panicked cry returned him to reality.
He stopped his steps and searched the group in front of him before a pained moo answered his unasked question. One cow in the second row had tripped and was drifting in the current. The water force pulled on the rope and threatened the other cows’ footing.
“Cut the rope,” Ketill screamed in terror. It would be their end if the row of cows struck their group. “Klefi! Don’t space out and cut the rope. Hurry!”
The direct call snapped the young scout out of his stupor. He drew his sword and stumbled towards the cow. The second cow tripped and nearly knocked him over with its sudden movement. He tried to pass the cow but his unstable footing forbid further progress.
“Cut it in the middle,” Ketill ordered. “Those two are dead either way. Just cut it to its left.”
Klefi swung his sword and with a loud snap the rope tore in two. Thankful for the view Ketill wanted to relax but the new scene brought new heights of terror. The first cow floated in the strong current and would bypass their group but the second one was dragged behind, bounced off the float and crashed into the terrified serfs.
“Prepare to catch them,” Vandill roared and turned around. He leaned his back against the current and fortified his footing. The serf beside him followed suit and Ketill turned right to observe the situation.
“Watch out,” he called towards the rightmost scout but he was too late. Their line got hit by the cows and swept two of them away. Inhuman pressure attacked his waist and Ketill screamed in pain. He barely recovered his footing before the half-drowning serfs arrived.
Two of them managed to grab the rope but five more serfs missed their last chance. They cried in terror as their figures became smaller and smaller within seconds. One wrong step killed five of them but Ketill had no time to mourn. Instead he changed his footing and secured the rope around his waist. Thanks to the rope the other serfs drifted towards the shore and found a new footing.
At least we saved two, Ketill comforted himself before more screams reached his ears. Ketill made sure the drenched serfs found secure footing before he turned around. Another chaotic scene greeted him. The middle group of serf was in complete panic and stumbled towards the safe land. They pulled and shoved each other and a few more fell and increased the chaos. The scouts at the front were busy soothing the remaining animals and couldn’t stop the pack.
A look to his left showed a dead tree. Ketill recognized it as a landmark around the halfway point. A look behind still found the remains of their camp clearly visible. We aren’t far enough, Ketill understood in terror. If we leave now… They’ll see our footsteps from a distance and follow us. We have to prevent it no matter what.
“Don’t move,” Ketill screamed. “We’ll all die if you leave the water.”
But his scream went unheard. Vandill and the other scouts chimed in but their words didn’t reach the fear-stricken group. A single figure took the lead and rushed ahead with smooth movements much faster than the terrified stumble. Black hair fluttered as the figure turned around.
“Stop, you bastards,” Lafir barked. “I don’t want to die because some old geezers shit their pants. Calm down and return in line.”
The group temporarily stopped and watched the girl in bafflement. But movement soon returned and a middle-aged man one head bigger than her took the front. He looked down with an irritated smile on his face.
“Out of the way, little girl,” the man threatened with low voice. “I don’t want to die in some suicide mission so I leave here. You guys can go on and drown to death but I’ll be dammed if I take another step. So, don’t be stupid.”
He rose his fist and tried to overpower her but the girl looked at him with calm manner. She looked directly into his eyes and saw the panic in them but she didn’t step aside. Ketill could only pray as the man howled in anger and brought his fist down.
A pained outcry echoed.
The man grabbed his left shoulder.
Lafir pointed a bloody dagger towards the wound.
“Let me be clear,” Lafir began. Her low voice reverberated through the silence. “I don’t want to die. If you want to kill me, I’ll kill you first. So better think twice. I don’t care which suicide mission you pick but next time it won’t be your shoulder.”
So she had a weapon, Ketill realized as he thought back to their forest encounter. But I’ve to thank her later. Everyone calmed down for now. Use terror to overpower fear, interesting.
“Everyone, we are half way there,” he soothed them. “So let’s go back in line. Just a bit more and we can leave the water and warm up. Be careful and don’t trip. You’ll be fine.”
His words lacked persuasive power but the serfs still obeyed. The moaning man was an effective push, and the regrouped convoy started his journey anew. It was the best outcome but Ketill couldn’t help but stare at the small back in front of him.
The sun moved and Ketill’s mind slowly drifted away. His steps became mechanical and peaceful warmth replaced the pain. After walking for an hour he finally understood how warm the water was. But pleasant water in fall was weird. Ah, I know. This water comes from the mountains and is snow, melted snow. Snow melts when it’s warm. So the mountains are warm. And the warm mountains warm the warm water. It makes sense. Maybe I should tell Ida to remove some clothes before she faints?
He searched for his sister and found her at the left side. He couldn’t see her face but her small back shivered. Lafir walked next to her and supported her forward with a cramped white hand. What? Is the shallow water colder? Should I call her over to stand here with me, Ketill mused and looked to his left. Vandill is also walking in the shallow water. So I can ask him whether it’s cold over there.
Vandill’s condition was alarming. Not only did he shiver just like his sister but his lips had turned blue. It was a harsh contrast to his unhealthily white face. He stumbled forward with drowsy half-closed eyes and each step looked more like falling onward. The water isn’t warm, Ketill realized in panic. We are as cold as the water.
He thought back to the burning pain when they entered the water and understood the danger. They had to leave right now. They only finished three quarter but there was no way they would reach their destination. A last glance behind showed nothing but the untouched shore and Ketill decided to one-up their gamble with a new one.
“Everyone,” he shouted with his hoarse voice. “We have to leave the water now.”