Ketill entered their barrack and closed the worn curtain behind him. He had used the last two hours to console and pacify the surviving serfs with sweet dreams and convenient lies. And even though many serfs saw right through his words, no one raised his voice. Some feared Vandill’s overpowering body behind him, but for most it was their desperate situation that made chasing dreams easier than confronting another gray morning.
The youth shook his head to chase those depressing thoughts away and made his way to the fireplace in the middle. Someone, probably his sister, had already ignited the fire, so he took his drenched tunic off and placed it over a wooden rack. Afterwards he sat down on one of the big stones surrounding the fireplace, closed his eyes and enjoyed peace.
His hands moved over the smooth stone surface. Each sitting stone was polished by the thousands of times somebody had sat on them. The young serf gazed into the flames as old memories surfaced in his mind.
Only hardworking serfs earned the right to keep a stone, and he remembered his father’s proud face as he brought this same stone home. Each stone in here was a memento as their owners had passed away long ago. Ketill felt a lump in his throat as he realized they would soon burn this place. He wouldn’t only leave his birth place but he would also leave behind the last tie to his late parents.
Soft steps on the ground interrupted his dark thoughts. He knew the owner without turning around as the other serfs accompanied Vandill to the fields where they would start the preparations. Soon those steps stopped beside him and he turned around. His sister’s long light brown hair filled his view as she had turned her back towards him. A wry smile appeared on Ketill’s face when he realized that Ida tried to hide her embarrassed face.
“You are still against it,” he softly asked but only silence answered him.
When Ketill had finally found the time to comfort his sister, she had looked worse than he had imagined. She had blamed herself for all the slaughter around her and fled into one of the sheds. Her quiet weeping was the only reason he finally found her huddled behind some bags full of crops. It took nearly 20 minutes full of comforting whisper before she was willing to come out.
But it wasn’t the crying that embarrassed her this much but the tantrum she threw when he explained their next steps. Vebrandir’s call was a dangerous ritual and she couldn’t stand to lose her older brother. She screamed, called him reckless and even insulted the bereaves who forced her brother’s hand, before she broke down and laughed. Such display attracted looks full of scorn and only a few of the lenient elders found pity for her.
Only after Ida had calmed down did she realize that Ketill needed her for the ritual, so she had sent her brother away while she got water from the nearby well.
Now she put a bucket full of water between his feet and knelt in front of him. Her eyes still refused to met her brother’s, but she used an old rag to wash his undressed upper body. Paying no heed to Ketill’s shiver she slowly cleaned his chest before she turned her attention to his arms.
“You are too reckless.” She eventually opened her mouth while removing the dirt from his back. “You can barely stand on your own feet. You stagger like drunk and you still want to go head-to-head with a god. Are you stupid?”
Ketill knew she only wanted to vent her anger, so he kept silent. He closed his eyes and quietly endured as his treatment became rougher and rougher. Finally Ida was pleased and left him on his own.
He sat still, almost like a statue, and watched the flickering shadows in silence. Despite his patronizing behavior in front of Vandill, he had secretly thought about other ways out. But he had found none. He had to follow up on his big words.
Ida returned and piled a handful small bowls, a knife, a few rags, washed linen and sachets full of herbs in front of him. A new water bucket and a big bowl full of cow blood completed her preparation. Seemingly pleased with herself, Ida nodded, sat on her brother’s lap and took his hand into her own.
“I’m sorry,” her small voice apologized. “I know you have to do it. But… I don’t want you to die.”
The corners of her eyes sparkled with fresh tears so Ketill embraced her in silence and waited. He perfectly understood how reckless his actions were. Or at least thought he did. But out of options out he could only steel his heart and pat her head.
Ida embraced the arm he had laid around her and wept once more. She was four years younger, still only a child, but had experienced hell. Nearly raped she saw many of her fellow slaves killed right in front oh her eyes. And right when she feels safe again, I come and risk my life Ketill mused by himself as he waited for her tears to stop.
“I won’t die as long as you do your work properly,” he teased his sister. “So don’t mistake left for right like you did with mother’s dress.”
“I wouldn’t have to do it, if my brother wasn‘t a good for nothing without a wife,” Ida retorted in exasperation. She squeezed his arm once more and stood up.
The ritual‘s first part was a woman’s duty and the little girl was the last one in their small family. Therefore she filled one of the small bowls with blood, threw a handful of herbs on top and mixed everything with her small hand, tasting and changing the mixture until she was satisfied.
Afterwards she dropped a handful of blood in the fire and the odor of death filled the room. But mixed inside the stench was the sweet smell of the herbs, easing their tension. Another handful of blood followed before she made a satisfied nod, filled a new bowl with fresh blood and different herbs and turned around to draw on her brother’s body.
The first thing she drew was a circle right above his heart. From there she drew many lines and from all over his chest. Ketill knew those were runes, but he didn’t understand their individual meaning. It was the duty of one’s wife or lover to learn and paint hose runes and only his sister had learned this art from their mother.
“Back in the old days Froydis came down to our lands,” Ida began an old tale. “She turned into a beautiful swan and flew over plains and hills as she watched her children play in peace. Men and animals lived together in harmony and our ancestors fell to their knees, sang her praise and offered their best meals. They roasted nuts and mushrooms from a nearby forest and used their best wheat to bake soft bread. Froydis ate the delicious meal and a pleased smile appeared on her lips.”
She looked at her drawings and used the rag to wipe a few runes away. To other eyes those runes weren’t badly drawn, but she refused to accept them. The spell she painted was meant to guard her brother in the coming ritual and now it was her turn to protect him. Any rune that looked different from what her mother had shown her was erased and drawn again as she continued her story.
“But OhnæigR, the god of death, was jealous. He had courted Froydis for many centuries but now she smiled at those worthless mortals. So he took the form of a black crow and spread his wings. He soon found a grumbling boy in the nearby forest. The young man had no talent for farming and couldn’t find any mushrooms hence he wasn’t allowed to receive the goddess’ blessing.”
Ketill had never heard this story before so he couldn’t help but be captivated by his sister’s voice. Inside the sweet smoke his awareness wavered as the dancing flames threw obscure shadows all over the walls. His imagination turned them into the flying crow and the dark forest as he listened.
“>You don’t have to be upset.<, OhnæigR whispered in the boy’s ear. >I am Froydis’ servant and I know her favorite foods. If you help me catch it, we can get her blessing and she’ll reward us plenty.<”
Here Ida stopped for a moment. She had tried to speak with a deep and tempting voice, but her sole reward was her brother’s snicker. She pinched his arm as hard as she could, circled to his back and continued her painting with a new bowl of blood.
“The boy was like all other boys, stupid and with no respect for his sister,” she angrily narrated. “And such a stupid boy easily fell for the obvious trap. He didn’t ask his wise sister for help but instead searched the forest until he found a beautiful deer. Now the crow gripped a big stone with his claws and flew higher and higher before he dropped it on the deer’s head.”
“The boy danced in joy, made a small fire and grilled the best meat. He hurried home to get two pieces of the soft white bread and put the juicy meat in between. But OhnæigR tricked the boy and wove a magic spell so that all others would see fresh mushrooms instead of the meat.”
Finished with the back Ida mixed another bowl and threw one more handful of blood into the flames. A pungent stench filled the barrack as she began the last runes on her brother’s arms.
“Froydis used her lovely voice to reward our ancestors with a song when the boy arrived before her. He proudly showed her his meal and Froydis was pleased. She took his offering but meat juices filled her mouth as soon as he she bit into it. Momentarily the air burned with her rage. Those humans had tricked the mother of all life into eating one of her children. In her anger she called for ØygæiRR to destroy the village. The heavenly hunter heeded her order and used his rainbow arrows to burn everyone but the boy alive. Froydis sentenced him to live alone and to die alone.”
“Froydis soon left the village but ØygæiRR stayed and questioned the boy. The ignorant youth cried and told his story but they couldn’t find the crow no matter how hard they searched. But when the hunter called his wolf Örnir, he soon discovered a familiar scent and found a single black feather. He returned to Froydis’ palace and told her the boy’s story, presenting his find. Realizing her error the goddess shed black tears of regret.”
Pleased with her work Ida stood up, went to the fire and poured the remaining blood inside. She stayed silent while both siblings watched the boiling blood and breathed the smoke again. At last she opened her mouth once more and finished the story with a gentle voice.
“Those black tears formed a lake in front of her feet as all her anger, regret and disgust flowed into it. Soon the surface boiled and a giant dragon raised itself into the sky. The foul odor of death filled the air, the flowers shriveled and black clouds formed in the sky. This dragon was Vebrandir, and he was death himself. Froydis looked at her new child and ordered him to descend to the human world and eat our ancestors’ souls. Since then Vebrandir eats the souls of the dead so that the righteous ones can meet their loved ones again.”
Forcefully inhaling the smoke, Ida grabbed her small knife and cut her own palm in one smooth motion. Dazed, her brother watched as she filled a fresh bowl with blood, added herbs and some finely ground stones and took her place on his laps. With her left hand bound in linen, Ketill had to hold the bowl as she added fine patterns around the first circle.
“Brother,” she said after she had finished her task. “You will face this dragon. A being born from a goddess’ despair. You won’t be able to bargain with him. And you won’t be able to persuade him. My runes can only help you survive his presence but nothing more. A single breath from him and your soul will never find its way to our ancestors. Stand still and tell our story. And no matter the outcome… please don’t be stupid.”
With a forced smile Ida left the barrack. But opening the curtain, she turned around and tried to burn his figure into her memories. Tears filled her eyes as she opened her mouth one last time.
“May ÓhnæigR hate you. So much that he doesn’t want to see you in front of him and force you to survive. May... may ÓhnæigR hate you.”