Flash fiction: Narrow Ships

Darksilvertree sent this link to Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenge, to write a fantasy piece under 1000 words on one of five themes. The theme I chose was: a charming watchman is engineering the downfall of the Empire. Here it is.

Narrow Ships

Sigurd pulled himself lazily to attention. Dusk was falling; the long autumn night was beginning. Wulfgar Blood Hands tramped through the gates of his little kingdom, his huscarls in tow. As he passed, Sigurd presented him with one of his beaming smiles.
“All quiet out there, Wulfgar? No sign of the terror from the sea?”
Wulfgar glared through his thick brows. “Just keep your eyes peeled and your mouth shut, Sigurd.”
“I will watch the river like a hawk, silent as a dead dog.”
Wulfgar glared again, unsure if he was being mocked. Two of the huscarls pushed the gates closed and barred them with a heavy oak beam. Sigurd climbed up to the parapet that ran along the inside of the palisade, and took up his post.
The evening was calm, but cloud had bubbled up along the western horizon, where the river ran into the sea. Soon it would be dark, the lights in the night sky hidden behind raincloud. The wind would blow the narrow boats landward and hide the sound of the landing party. Sigurd chuckled to himself and looked down across the little burg with its untidy thatched houses, and the pigs rootling between them. Wulfgar had come to this place as a conqueror. He had driven away the tribe settled along the river and built his burg, thinking he had done a fine thing.
Sigurd found Wulfgar too funny to despise him, too stupid to defy. Wulfgar had never understood that the barbarians who lived along the river knew more than he ever would, should he live to be a hundred. The huts Wulfgar destroyed were flimsy, makeshift affairs without complicated defences, because the barbarians never intended to defend them. There had been no treasures kept in the huts by the river, no rich halls or temples. Those were in their settlement on a hill, much further inland, behind a high palisade of pointed stakes, behind a wide ditch filled with more pointed stakes. Long before Wulfgar, the raiders from across the sea had found the river, and no one left anything of value within the dragon ships’ reach.
Children ran here and there with sticks, driving the pigs into their pens for the night. An older girl tried to round up the children. Cattle lowed in the byres, and a group of drunken men called after the girl, making her duck and weave to avoid their wandering hands. Sigurd sat up, the grin wiped from his face. Elsa. His eyes followed the girl as she grabbed a small boy by the back of his shirt, calling out at two older ones to finish with the pigs and get themselves inside. The boy struggled. Elsa slapped him hard and he yelped. Sigurd nodded approvingly. Elsa had spirit. She would make a good wife.
He watched as she herded her brothers home. She stopped before the house door, and turned to scan the palisade. Her eyes lingered on the lone sentinel, and Sigurd could almost see the blush spread across her cheeks, feel her racing heart. He raised a hand in salute. Shyly, she waved back and disappeared through the door beneath the thatched eaves of the house. Sigurd would visit Heremod’s house later, when it was time.
Until then he watched the river, still gleaming faintly with the last of the daylight, and the sombre woods beyond. Beyond the bend in the river lay the sea, and on the sea were the narrow ships. A sharp smell made his nostrils twitch. He turned back to the huddle of wooden houses, his gaze instinctively resting on the hut on the edge of the burg, the völva’s hut. Smoke rose from the chimney hole, pale green and pungent. The freshening wind caught it and flattened it across the thatch, then snatched it away into the darkness. But Sigurd saw, and he knew what the old witch was up to.
* * *
Urdar threw another handful of dust, dried and ground nameless things, onto the fire. Her old eyes watered but she saw what she wanted to see. Narrow ships on the black sea: a red-haired chieftain in the prow of the largest. Clouds and rain, and Wulfgar’s hall with bloodied walls. Wulfgar with his huscarls about him, sleeping their last sleep. She saw other things in the smoke too. She saw her sister’s man stabbed while he slept. She saw her sister taken by Wulfgar’s men time and time again, until they slit her throat and ended it. She saw the baby stabbed in his cradle and the maid child stabbed as she ran screaming from the house. All that Urdar saw, without the help of magic.
* * *
The green smoke died, and Sigurd saw the wiry silhouette slip out of the door. He leapt down from the parapet and unbarred the gates. Urdar pulled up the cowl of her cloak as the first heavy drops fell, and looked at Sigurd from the depths.
“They are coming,” was all she said, and disappeared into the night.
Sigurd watched her leave, watched the silent river, and the trees beyond that sighed in the wind, listened to the rain clattering on the leaves. Only he heard the narrow ships riding up the strand, and boots crunching through the pebbles. Only he had been shown the vision in the flames, of the red-haired chieftain and his bloody sword. It was time to get Elsa.