"I am the Harvest Mother's priestess, and you will pay for this sacrilege," the woman spat at Ragnorvald and all the men near him.
Eirik, Agnar and Skarpi had joined them. Eirik had stuck his fat head through the door to the hall and nearly had it cut off by some old thrall with a fire-axe. Clumsy and stupid most of the time, Eirik was quick to react during a fight. He'd moved quick enough for her to sink the blade into the door instead of him and immediately clouted her in the head with back of his own axe, dropping her like a sack of potatoes.
The freehold was one large room with a fire-pit in the middle and a wide capped hole in the roof to let the smoke out (and the cap, like a round table with legs set around the hole, kept much of the rain out as well).
The roof-pillars were all carved and the walls, which would normally be decked with old shields, weapons, banners and runes left by the skalds, was covered in cleaned and tanned lengths of hide with paintings of the Harvest Mother, her crops, sheltering the young, healing the sick, planting the dead who followed her (instead a respectable pyre to help send the spirit of the dead off to the Raven King's hall as any warrior would want).
At the back of the hall a large crowd was gathered around an ancient carving of a sitting woman, hugely pregnant with gigantic breasts and hair coiled around her that piled on the floor and hid her feet. A child suckled at her teat and she held what was probably meant to be a sheaf of wheat. Eirik backed slowly out of the hall.
Gisli was covered in shit. It wasn't the first time. He'd grown up with sheep and a cow in the single room of his family's hut at night. He rubbed the head of a sheep that was just waking. The entire flock was beginning to mill about in a nervous circle, but all the screaming, barking and shouting had died down.
He jumped over the small fence that penned in the sheep and made his way to the front of the freeholding's hall with an axe in one hand and a large knife in the other. He could throw either and most times cripple or kill the one he aimed at. Everything seemed quite but the middle of a raid was no time to get careless.
Someone had lit a torch, then another at the entrance to the hall. He could see Sven backing away from something and rubbing his hands across his face. Ragnorvald was yelling. Agnar was there and Asbjorn was holding something up to Eystein who suddenly doubled over and spewed last night's supper on his boots.
Eirik appeared backing out of the door to the hall. He turned and began screaming at Ragnorvald. Gisli paused to watch what was becoming an entertaining pantomime. He shifted his view to his right as Thorkel and Hrafnkel came trundling toward the hall. A figure was moving to the far right. For a moment he didn't recognize him. Ring looked like he'd had someone dump a bucket of blood over his head.
Where, Gisli wondered, were Aelfdan and Glum?
"Aelfdan," came a whisper from below him, "It's gone quiet."
"Shut-up," Aelfdan hissed back.
"It's gone quiet and where is everyone!" Glum said in a louder voice.
"I told you, shut-up," Aelfdan said again, his own voice even louder than Glum's."
"To the ice with you!" Glum yelled and ducked down so that Aelfdan tumbled from his shoulders.
Aelfdan felt his perch give way and rolled, cradling his longbow as he did. He jumped to his feet and reached for an arrow. Glum' s back was a wide easy target as the man marched around the curve of the wall heading for the gate. Aelfdan had his arrow fitted and aimed with his arm drawing back, but it wavered and slowly he let the tension of the bowstring pull his arm back without releasing the deadly shaft. With a shrug of his shoulders Aelfdan marched after Glum but kept a distance between them till his temper cooled.
They would have words, but later.
"This is a temple-farm," Eirik exclaimed as he turned to face Ragnorvald. He pointed a finger at the two women still lying on the ground. "Those are priestesses!" his voice rose and broke. "What have you done?" he had more than a look of mortal fear on his face as he shouted at Ragnorvald.
"You northmen," Ragnorvald shook his own head.
"You cursed eastlander, " Sven's voice was flat with shock.
"This is a wealthy farm, as I told you," Ragnorvald replied to his underling, "The men rode and marched out of here a day ago; A ripe piece of fruit."
"You've cursed us!" Eirik shouted.
"Do you think the Raven King or the Thunderer would care?" Ragnorvald asked them. "About a bunch of farmers?"
"She is a priestess!" Eirik was looking at the dead and wounded scattered about the doors to the hall. "Is that one dead?" he pointed to the bowwoman Sven had knocked out with the end of his appropriated spear.
Ragnorvald nudged the woman's body with the tip of his boot. She stirred and moaned, but didn't wake.
Eirik gave a scream and rushed at him. The rage had mostly drained away from Ragnorvald leaving a throbbing pain in his head and a numb tingling through most of his body. He was still quick enough to thump Eirik across his temple with a blow strong enough that it twisted the man's head halfway round and left him on his back gulping in shallow breaths.
"There now," laughed Ragnorvald, "you can keep her company."
"You bastard," Sven mutterd.
The big man was still red as a beat and breathing like an angry bull. Ragnorvald eyed him with much more caution than he would ever have given the clumsy pup he'd just knocked out.
"Sven, how many farmers have we killed? How many holds have we raided?" Ragnorvald yelled back at the man. "Don't get squeamish on me now. So this is a temple-farm. We fought them fair and they lost. You can plant them if you like. Plant some warrior seed in the thralls. Your Harvest Mother likes babies doesn't she?"
"She will curse your seed, your manhood!" growled the older priestess. The younger one just glared at Ragnorvald, but sent looks toward her unconscious sister-priestess but still too wary to go to her.
"Priestess... in the eastland we have no priests or priestesses..." Ragnorvald spread his arms and pointed vaguely toward the east as he spoke.
"She is a priestess here, eastlander," Sven growled.
Ragnorvald turned his head. He took in the looks of his men. All were northerners and all had a nervous mien, except for Ring whose white eyes almost glowed behind the mask of drying blood he wore.
"Hey Ring," Ragnorvald called to him, "What say you? Looks like you've sacrificed enough to appease any Goddess tonight."
Ring laughed, "That I have. The Fox's children nearly had me. I've paid for whatever I take here!" he caught sight of the priestess. "But not her. Not them. The Harvest Mother has marked them and they aren't for me."
"Nor for me," said the quiet Asbjorn. "I will honor the Harvest Mother's priestess but the Fox tells me that I may take what else I like."
Many of the outlaws followed the Fox, the Raven King's bastard child. He helped thieves and tricksters, fools, madmen, and murderers. There was no Hall for those who followed him. No glorious life of battle beyond this one, but one could be reborn, sometimes as an animal, sometimes as a man with the spirit of an animal inside of him. But each new life lead to madness till one day you joined the legion of dark spirits that the Fox had at his command.
"I don't know what that will get you," Ragnorvald shook his head, "but these three we will lock in the barn with the children. I am sure there are enough thrall maidens and slaves in the hall to keep us warm today."
"You will not...!" the priestess began to shout but Ragnorvald thumped her stomach with the flat of his boot spilling the air from her lungs. The younger priestess gasped and Ragnorvald eyed her with regret. He followed the Raven King as his own people had taught him. He never broke his word whatever the cost to himself. But this craven abasement toward a Goddess that was honored by sacrifices of cakes and grain made him wonder about the strength and nerve of those who followed him. Even the older priestess had a noble bearing and an iron spirit which promised much if he took her for a slave or bargained a thralldom out of her.
"We have no slaves!" the younger priestess shouted at him before Ragnorvald could turn his back on her. "And the thralls have come here to honor the Harvest Mother. They pay her with their service."
"A thrall is a thrall," Ragnorvald regretted even more the wrestling it would have taken to have this maid now that he saw the spark of her own fire. "The Raven King wants men, and women, who do not bow their heads or turn their backs in battle. What happens to those who deny him is none of his concern. You raised that bow for your Goddess, you should have raised it for the Raven King if you wanted to die a warrior's death. Bah!" he laughed at her. "Wasted breath. Sven, Asbjorn, hey Thorkel, you three take them to the barn and tie them to a post. These three will gnaw through any ropes, so keep their hands away from their teeth. And keep them separate from each other. I don't know what witchery they and their Goddess can concoct, but make sure to gag them."
"That was quite a show," Gisli spoke loudly to the others as he made his way to the entrance of the hold.
"You smell like shit," Eystein told him as he approached.
Gisli shrugged his head.
"Ha!" Ragnorvald laughed at the mired man. "Where have you been?"
"Fighting some sheep," he said matter-of-factly.
"Screwing some sheep it looks like," laughed Ring.
"There better be more than sheep here," said Gisli looking toward the three women being led and carried toward the barn.
"Inside," said Ragnorvald, "I have no doubt."
"Hey, where's Skarpi?" Gisli eyed the gathering of the raiders.
"Over here," Skarpi was leaning up against the wall of the hold beyond the torchlight.
"What happened to you?" asked Gisli as he made his way to the torch-lit doors.
"Those little priestesses aren't shy with the bow," he told Gisli. Skarpi had his armor off and his shirt padded under his left arm. "I'm getting cold out here. Let us find some thrall maids, and maybe a cloak I can steal."
"Yes, let's find something to steal, and maybe a water barrel where I can wash some of this sheep off me." Gisli reached down and with a slow pull helped Skarpi to his feet.
"I'm staying here," said Sven, "Outside the barn."
"Don't you trust yourself in there with them," Ragnorvald said in a mocking tone.
Sven glared for a moment but then answered in an even voice, "I don't trust the Fox God's men to keep their word. He is the father of lies."
"Fine. I'm putting Aelfdan and Ring on the rooftops," Ragnorvald told him. "Since you don't trust the Fox's boys I'll have Aelfdan on the barn. He worships that bow of his. Ring, once he has washed off some of that blood will be up on the hall roof."
"That is a temple," Sven reminded him.
"Temples," Ragnorvald shook his head then slapped Sven on the chest, "your heart is the only temple that the Raven King cares about."
"So you say," Sven said seriously, "There are more Gods than the Raven King."
"He is the one that matters," Ragnorvald said over his shoulder as he left the big man standing stiffly in the cold night air against the door to the barn.
Ragnorvald had seen what he needed when they opened the doors. Oxen, milk cows, two wagons they could use to haul away what they looted from the hold. Temple-farm, he corrected himself.
Inside the hall the shouts and screams had died down. The old and the children had been weeded out. They took the children to the barn to spend the rest of the night and probably most of the next day with the priestesses for company. Sven had removed their gags, and they'd cursed him as soon as their mouths were free, but even he wouldn't free them from their bonds.
"There are three or four toothsome thralls in the lot," Ring told Ragnorvald when he entered the hall. He had washed most of the blood from himself and wore a shirt too big but warm and clean. His leather shirt was gouged and heavily stained and would probably remain so till Ring could replace it.
"You've tried them all I take it," smiled Ragnorvald.
"One, one and a half," Ring laughed back. "Those dogs wore me out more than the thrall maids. I did take the best of those Harvest Mother's women's bows and they had whistling fire arrows aplenty."
"Good," said Ragnorvald. "Take them to the roof. Bury yourself under some furs but keep an eye out."
"Still some time before dawn," Ring grimaced. "I'm not going to see much further than the yard in this light."
"Do what you can. Use your ears, but even a little warning is better than having everyone caught with their pants down." Ragnorvald told him and clapped Ring on the shoulder.
He nodded and shouted for Hrafnkel to pull up his pants and bring him some furs before departing for the ladder they'd taken from the barn and then the perch on top of the temple-hall, bow and quiver over his shoulder.
Ragnorvald made his way further into the hall past several grunting fur piles. Gisli was stripped naked, watching as an old thrall woman scrubbed at his clothing and another worked over his armor. Skarpi was nearby leaning against a wall with a leather tankard beside him. He was doing his own work with knife and huge steel needle to fix the cut strap of his own armor. Two thralls tended a fire where the smell of roasting mutton made Ragnorvald's mouth water as he approached.
"They're cooking Gisli's sheep-girl," Skarpi smiled grayly but his crushed arm and chest wound made his work both slow and painful.
Gisli made a rude gesture at the wounded man then padded over to the fire and grabbed a knife. He cut a hunk of meat from where it snapped and burned and carefully bit at it then spit out his mouthful and snatched a bowl from the top of a wide barrel.
"You are going to burn more than your mouth if you aren't careful around that fire," Ragnorvald warned him.
Gisli took another bite of the hot mutton and a quick gulp of whatever was in the bowl before trying to talk with his mouth full. Ragnorvald left him happily wolfing down his fatty, blackened meal and made his way to the back of the hall.
The statue of the Harvest Mother eyed him with wooden disdain. Ragnorvald felt nothing. He could take his axe and chop the old wood to kindling and he'd feel nothing. Sven was fearless, a wildman in battle, but one look at this tree-stump and he's knees weakened. Ragnorvald would never understand.
His people lived far to the east but were still kin with these northerners, even their language was almost the same, but this burden of priests and temples, and the many Gods they worshipped made his head hurt. There was the Raven King, the Allfather, and his children. This Harvest Mother was something dragged in from some other people that the northerners fought and traded with, some land of song-smiths and wizards who lived along the black ice where the sun barely shone. Maybe if he'd ever taken to the sea he would call out to the Thunderer to guide his path and keep the ocean calm, but he was no sea-king and the Raven King was enough God for him; Ragnorvald needed no other.
Well, his people were gone. Plenty of eastlanders left but his tribe had ventured south and come against the people of the Empire. The fighting had taken them all and the slavers come to raid the tents of the young and the women had found that they had a tiger by the tail. Only Ragnorvald had survived.
Behind him Eystein came limping up. The wound to his leg had been bound, but it still bled slowly.
"Come to pay respect to the Harvest Mother," Eystein asked him, but it wasn't a question.
"I was brought up too close to the Southrons. The old tales weren't real for me though we left our offerings at harvest like the others and hung the gifts for the Allfather on the year's last day," said Eystein, but still he looked up at the carven statue with respect and perhaps a little fear.
Copyright March 2014 By Jason Zavoda
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