This is a short story for Sue Vincent’s Thursday photo prompt. The subject matter is very much in my mind at the moment, so get ready for a book plug.
The sentinel watched the last light reflected on the water and tried to see beyond the sand banks and tidal pools to the receding tide line. He could hear, but only just, the gentle sound of waves breaking. There was no wind, the winter night would be cold, and though the gathering cloud announced rain, there would be no storm, more’s the pity.
In the shelter of the rocks, a beacon fire was waiting. He had checked the wood was dry enough to burn, checked his tinder was dry and his steel sharp. But he knew he would see nothing if cloud obscured the moon and the rain began to fall. They were there, in their dragon ships; there could be no doubt. The raiders had been driven off further down the coast. They would not return over the bitter sea empty handed.
There was nowhere to run to in the empty winter landscape, no haven, no stone fortress to hide within. He had a bow and a quiver full of new arrows. He would defend his home until there were none left. His throat tightened as he thought of Halla still in childbed and the new bairn.
He could see nothing beyond the sands, and would see nothing later when the tide turned and the sea flowed back into the firth. He would see nothing and hear nothing unless the cloud broke, until the long ships were in the bay. Then he would light the beacon, and as soon as he saw an answering light on the next hill, he would run for home to be with Halla when the wolves came.
If you like this kind of thing, there are more Tales from the Northlands here:
Here’s a taste of the next series, Angel Haven. Also YA fantasy it follows on from The Green Woman. It’s jumping the gun a bit (a lot) but it’s what I’m reading and writing at the moment.
The last rays skimmed the oak grove while shadows swallowed up the forest paths. Scyld stared down the mountain, across the treetops, his gaze unfocused. Deep in thought he did not hear the creaking of the ropes, the sighing of the branches beneath the dead weights. He did not hear the noise of his feasting thegns or the raucous cry of the birds.
Scyld was reliving his blood dream. His fists clenched and his lips parted as he watched himself splash across the ford, a war cry in his throat. His thegns were about him, axes and swords swirling, throwing up great fountains of river water. In the dream the river ran red, red blood splashed and fountained, and the warcry in his throat was the death knell for the fools in the unguarded settlement.
The dull thunk of a heavy blade slicing through human flesh, the screams and shrieks of the villagers taken by surprise filled his dream ears. The river ran red, and the earth was black with blood. His parted lips curled into a smile. Donar was with them; the god sang in the sweep of the axe stroke, laughed in the whistle of arrows, and roared in the sacking of the wattle huts.
At his back the bodies twisted in the breeze. Sacrifices to Donar. He stepped closer, and peered with cold curiosity at the swollen tongues and bulging eyes, his nostrils flaring in distaste at the smell from the soiled breeches. A price well worth paying, he thought as he pushed the redheaded corpse, setting it twisting slowly.
The sound of feasting reached him at last, and a sudden thirst dried his throat, a desire to be with company to celebrate the sacrifice that would bring certain victory in the coming raid. He licked his lips and turned towards the fort. Deep in the grove yellow eyes stared, unblinking. Scyld looked from the yellow eyes to the twisting redhead.
The god comes for you, Hrothgar. He grinned, almost laughed, but that would have been unseemly in the holy place, and left the wolves to their own feast.
Feasting, he heard, and the raucous sound of birds. Scyld raised his head. Against the fire-streaked sky above the fort two black birds flapped with ragged wings.
More guests for the feast, Osmund.
This time he laughed out loud. The blood dream had shown him war and slaughter, he had made two sacrifices from among his finest warriors. Donar would be pleased with his offering; he would be in Scyld’s right arm on the morrow.
The raucous cry of carrion birds broke into his thoughts of massacres and bloodletting. Scyld paused at the gates of his fort and frowned. Two ravens. Flapping with their steady, powerful wing strokes they flew over the fort, then turned and back they came again. Scyld followed them with his eyes, waiting for them to reach the sacred grove. Suddenly uneasy, he started back; anxious to see them settle on the god’s feast. Before he could move they turned about, not reaching the grove, ignoring the enticing smell of dead men. Against the fiery sky they turned about, gracelessly, flying low, back through the open gates of the fort.
Fear gripped Scyld as the harbingers circled the houses, passed over the huts of wattles, and the finer halls of the wealthy thegns, circled once and settled on the roof of the big hall. Scyld’s hall. Cold settled in Scyld’s stomach. Harbingers.
The blood dream came rushing back. In consternation he saw the fording of the river, the bloody water splashing before his face, heard the war cries, the screams and shrieks as blades sliced through flesh. He heard the whistling of arrows. Cold turned to ice. He heard the whistling of arrows growing to a whine. The whine grew to a shriek, and he heard at last the death song the air crooned in his ears. Silhouetted against the blood red sky, two birds waited. Harbingers.
Aisha’s eyes opened wide, still full of dream images, her vision lagging slightly behind the sound that had woken her. She thought it came from the street, but her tiny room, little more than a cupboard had no window. Curious, she slid out of bed and tiptoed into the communal room. The sound of marching boots had stopped, but the vibrations still hung in the air, and she felt the presence of the booted men though there were no voices, no shuffling of feet or coughing as they waited.
She raised the window blind a crack and peeped out into the dark street. The lamp at the far end shed a ghostly glimmer that caught the edge of a long coat, the line of a visor, the toe of a boot, but left the faces in darkness. Four men in long, belted coats waited on the other side of the street, cap visors throwing their features into shadow. Motionless in their high black boots, they waited: the Pure Ones.
More boots tramping, this time in a disorderly fashion, spilled into the street from both ends: Black Boys. They spread out to bar the way, forming a roadblock radiating violence.
Aisha had never witnessed a visit of the Pure Ones before. No one who had been visited was ever seen again to tell about it. Neighbours in adjoining apartments must have heard what happened, but they never said. Nobody ever heard the voices raised in fear, or the scuffling as unwilling bodies were pushed down the stairs and into the street.
Midnight. The city slept. Except for the unfortunates in the building opposite, and a girl watching.
The street door opened and the four Pure Ones disappeared into the shadows of the stairwell. They climbed the stair in a silent glide, one floor, another. The street door gaped wide; the sharp rap of a gloved hand on an apartment door floated out into the stillness. The night air quivered as fear settled on the street, and Black Boys muttered and shuffled their feet impatiently. Aisha shivered.
A light appeared at a second floor window, muffled voices, a shrill cry followed by a blow, a slap, a fist perhaps. The light was extinguished, and the air vibrated loudly with the tumbling of unsteady, sleep-heavy feet. Then they were there, the four of them, pouring from the shadows into the dim street, carrying a pale lumpy bundle between them, a bundle that spun helplessly like a poor swimmer caught in a river current. A bald head gleamed dully, feet in slippers stumbled. A hastily donned bathrobe flapped around thin ankles.
Another figure appeared in the doorway, pale and fluttering anxiously. A voice rose, a faint piping that was rapidly silenced by a blow from a fist, and the fluttering figure fell to the ground. Aisha gasped in shock and disbelief, and pushed the blind higher. A head turned and she ducked down. Behind her a door opened, flooding the room with light. Her brother, Adam stood, bleary-eyed and sleep-tousled in the doorway of his room.
Aisha gave a strangled cry, “The light!”
He snapped the switch, but the damage was done, and they both stared at the blind, not pulled tight, the narrow crack a gaping, treacherous chasm. Adam crouched down next to his sister and together they peered into the street.
Black Boys slunk into doorways, waiting to beat back anyone who had the temerity to try and intervene. Nobody ever did. The streetlight shone balefully on three Pure Ones dragging a pale, blundering figure towards a waiting vehicle, a black, windowless van. Their struggling prisoner was pushed inside and the door clicked closed, the sound ringing out in the midnight air with the finality of the last trump.
Framed by the yawning black hole of the street door opposite, a single figure remained. Neon-lit, the Pure One stood statue-still, his shadowy face lifted to Aisha’s window, invisible eyes fixed on the crack in the blind.
In the dark, she felt for her brother’s hand. The countdown had begun to another midnight.