Updated 12/27/2016 (Fifth Draft)
As a little gift, I’ve a current draft of the first chapter of my novel for you to read. Enjoy!
1. Winning the Battle, Losing the War
Like most farmholds in Akiniwazi, the little collection of families was sitting down to eat their supper. Bountiful crops rustled lightly in the night breeze off the lake, softened by the thin screen of trees to their south. Crickets sang the lullaby of evening, with the occasional cry of a killdeer leading a predator away from her nest. The seagulls and crows no longer argued in the fields as they looked for easy meals. Cats prowled protecting the farmhold’s homes and storehouses from vermin.
The air was thick with delicious smoke from the meals over their hearths. The smell of goat and lamb stews with dense barley cakes and dark rye breads baked over the fire. Sporadic laughter could be heard drifting between the longhouses from the families inside as the farmholders sat around their hearths telling sagas, singing songs, or smoking and talking about what tomorrow might bring. It was a good time to be alive. The year was in her prime and promised an excellent harvest.
“Reimar!” Anton barked at his son. His hand shooting out a split second too late to prevent the stringy boy from tripping over the buckets of water at his feet. The harsh exclamation made Reimar flinch, sending him sprawling over the two buckets wetting the hard packed dirt floor. Anton let out a curse as the spill washed around the hearth and out the door. Reimar looked up at his father, more afraid than hurt. His eyes already starting to burn with tears.
“You better not start,” Bjorn, the eldest brother, taunted.
“Shut up,” Anton snapped back at his gloating firstborn. Little Katrin, his youngest, covered up her face by cuddling her doll as her father prepared to let loose an angry outburst, or worse. Erik, his second oldest, watched silently with his mouth full of stew, forgetting to chew while watching the eruption. Anton’s eyes, hot with exasperation, turned back to Reimar. His wife, Anette, irritated with her clumsy youngest son, crossed her arms in disappointment at her husband’s quick temper.
“Anton, not now.” When will he ever learn to look where he is going, she wondered.
“You coddle him too much,” he said turning to her. Reimar held still, clenching his teeth while keeping silent and tear free.
“This boy is a milksop thanks to your constant doting.”
“He is ten. You can have him when he turns thirteen. Till then, he is mine. Look at Bjorn and Erik. They turned out just fine, and I treated them the same.” This was an old argument. Anton seemed to believe all boys should go from babies straight to adulthood. An attitude that drove his wife to frustration. She swiped an errant lock of dark blond hair back under her coif with her uncommon grace.
“You are off in the fields or the pinery all day hunting and logging. It is my job to make sure that you have boys ready to become men when their time comes.” Anette would not allow her husband to denigrate her child-rearing skills. He may be the head of the family but she ruled the house and the children and would brook no criticism of it. Redirecting his emotions, Anton tore off another chunk of cooling bread from the iron rack and scooped another big ladle of stew then sat back down on his chair. Anette leveled her cool blue eyes on her youngest boy.
“Go get some more water,” she said.
“Jah, Ma,” Reimar said. Taking the two buckets, he awkwardly let himself out the door of their longhouse.
Torvald Skrott’e, their big orange cat sat there proudly, with a dead rat in its mouth, expecting a reward. Torvald complained with a meow muffled by the body of his prize.
“Go away, cat,” Reimar said. “You are not getting any people food tonight. Papa is mad, so eat what you caught.” The cat gave an insulted snort through his nose, and with a rude flick of his tail and sauntered away as only an aggrieved cat could.
“Even the animals are mad at me,” Reimar griped as he slumped away to get water. He scuffed his way across the square made by four of the longhouses. It was still light enough that he could see the way without a lantern, but he would have to hurry.
The farmhold had two squares of longhouses inside its circular stockade. One in the northwest quarter, the other in the southeast. In the southwest quarter, there was a set of pens for livestock. The llamas, goats, sheep, and pigs all milled about in their own corrals, pens and barns, settling down for the night. The grass was shorn nearly to the ground by the grazing animals. The chickens, who kept back the ticks and other pests, settled into their coop. The northeast corner was empty save for the stakes laid out for several small roundhouses and four additional longhouses. These were to be for the new families. Three young couples were waiting for the chance to move into them. Building the stockade had taken precedence over new homes.
As he trudged his way toward the well, Reimar wondered if he would ever be accepted by papa. He could not help that he did not fit the image or ability his father demanded. Bjorn had so many physical gifts and Erik was smart for his age, but he was clumsy and always at the wrong place at the wrong time, he thought, kicking a clod of dirt.
On the stockade walls, Reimar saw the farmhold’s vordr change shifts. Dayvordr replaced by nightvordr, keeping watch for any threats from beyond the fields. It looked like Jouni Kortsson was the one coming off the scaffold. He was a big strapping man who kept his blond beard cut short, but his hair streamed down his back. Many of the girls fawned over him as he took his time to choose a bride, enjoying the attention much to his widower father’s irritation. Reimar’s tangled mop of hair was nowhere near as long, but had the same uncontrollable waves as Jouni.
Reimar arrived at the farmhold’s courtyard. In the center stood a large well boasted by many to have excellent water. frue Kirsten was drawing water as he rounded the corner between two longhouses.
“Good evening, Reimar,” she said.
“Good evening, frue.” She saw his dejected look and the empty buckets.
“Your mother needs more water, eh?” she asked. Anton’s angry shouts had made it as far as the well. Reimar’s reputation was infamous among the farmhold.
“Jah. I spilled it,” he admitted, shame burning in his cheeks.
“You poor dear,” frue Kirsten consoled. “Do not worry. Some day you will grow out of it. I was a terrible clumsy oaf till my second child. Then, pouf! It changed, and I became as graceful as a cow,” she teased, coaxing a small smile out of the sad little boy. Satisfied that she managed that much, she shouldered her own heavy buckets on a yoke.
“Your father does not sound so happy right now. Do you wish some help?”
“No, thank you, frue. I better do this myself or he might get even more angry.”
“Greithr,” she said, nodding in understanding. “God bless you, Reimar.”
“God bless you too, frue,” he said in farewell.
One bucket at a time, he drew the water. Reimar lugged the heavy buckets back home, being careful so he would not have to make the trip a second time.
Evening laid a quiet hand on the farmhold.
The Skaerslinger warband arrived in the fading purple minutes of twilight. Like shadows dancing among the trees of the pinery, they followed their fire shaman who gave off light like a giant orange torch. They came to the fields of Aattaettirstrond in the late summer air, their minds set on blood.
“Skaerslinger! Skaerslinger! They have a Fire Shaman! To arms! Fill the buckets! To arms!” the Nightvordr cried out, his voice shattering the peaceful night as he saw the firelight moving behind the tree trunks.
Shouts of alarm spread from the top of the stockade. The approaching flames flailed above the pole beans and corn as they came out from the cover of the pinery, advancing on Aattaettirstrond. The families sprang into startled action, scrambling for the tools to defend their homes and fight the coming fire. The women and even the children hauled a clacking pile of buckets to the center courtyard. The men went up the ladders with axes, bows, and javelins, climbing atop the crude plank scaffolds placed against the stockade. Buckets were lowered and filled to overflowing.
Reimar stood in the bucket brigade. From there he could see through the northern gate. A Fire Shaman trotted toward them, his limbs an inferno, but his flesh and ceremonial clothing was not consumed. Skaerslinger warriors were ranging around him dressed and painted for battle. Their warclubs, tomahawks, and bows ready to draw blood. The shaman slowed, striding toward the farmhold and projecting a warrior’s arrogance and savored the terror his visage caused. A pillar of smoke twined in a snaky rope above his head. His mohawk trailed zephyr-like hellfire as he approached. The Forsamling men slammed the crude stockade gate shut blocking out the terrible sight.
As the doors sealed, angry howls rose from the painted barbarians, and the shaman threw a large gout of flame against it in retaliation. The rest of his warband fired arrows and javelins began to fall scatter-shot inside the farmhold trying to hit anyone with blind luck. The return salvos were weak with poor aim as few had ever used a weapon in anger.
“Water! Bring the water!” the men shouted.
“Throw it on the gate!”
“Wet the wood!”
The bucket brigade began shuffling water toward the stockade. The well’s crank groaned as they drew three and four buckets up at a time. Flames rumbled under the wavering war-cries outside. The men hearkened back to their ancient Viking warrior heritage, roaring against the shrill cries. They were outnumbered by the Skaerslinger who surrounded the small farmhold, but the crude stockade gave them a fighting chance.
Reimar’s young arms began tiring. Fear could only drive his young body so far. Reimar looked up just as Aksel Bjornsson was struck down, an arrow protruding from his chest. The man slumped with the wound and slid off the thin scaffolding, landing at its foot in a rag-like pile. From her place in the bucket brigade Unn screamed at the sight of her husband falling off the wall. She ran to him and attempted to render aid. Men ducked as gouts of flame swept up to the top of the wall from the fire shaman’s hands. The spear-like tops were lit like giant candles.
“The gate is burning through!”
“We need water down the front. Now!” someone screamed. The gate steamed and sizzled as bucket after bucket of water was thrown against it unable to quench the flames on the front.
“How many?” Old Man Kort shouted.
“I think more than two dozen, plus that tambakkji shaman!” came the answer.
“Where did he go? I cannot see anything through this smoke!” another demanded.
“God’s blood! They lit the fields!”
Horror flashed through them all. The Skaerslinger were burning up the crops and hiding in the smoke. Everyone was coughing as the winnowing wind wafted the black clouds over the Forsamling farmhold. Above, the once gentle purple wash of stars was now hellish black and orange billows.
The flames were spreading as ashes caused little fires to break out here and there in the fields.
“Where did he go?”
“I cannot tell! The fires are spreading too fast!”
“I cannot see through the smoke and sparks!”
Reimar’s arms were now so tired, he could not hand over another bucket. One slipped from his numb fingers and splashed him, wasting it.
“Mum!” he cried. His mother looked at him while pulling a bucket from the well. She could see he could do no more.
“Take over,” she said to one of the older girls and went to her son. Reimar’s eyes betrayed his shame at failing.
“Honeycomb, go help the men,” she said quickly stroking his hair and face. “Find the Shaman. We must kill him.”
Reimar nodded and ran to the stockade. His leaden arms would not let him climb, so he put his eye to every gap he found, peeking out into the fields for signs of his quarry. The crops were all ablaze by then. Sporadic silhouettes ran by Reimar. The Skaerslinger were running along the base of the stockade, whispering as they went. As Reimar continued around the stockade he checked still another small hole.
A flaming finger almost poked him in the eye!
He fell back in surprise. The Shaman was on the other side. Suddenly the Skaerlinger’s plan became clear to Reimar. While all the men were distracted by the noisy display and taunting cries which kept them looking the other way, their enemy would burn their homes down from behind!
The Shaman tore at the daub between the logs with his fiery hands. The two warriors came beside him and chopped at the wall with their tomahawks. Working together, the small hole became wider. Reimar’s terror grew along with it.
Again that flaming finger tip poked at the now ragged hole. Then it retracted. Reimar sensed that this was his chance. He reached down into the sandy dirt, picked out a fist sized rock and waited. The shaman’s finger, like a tiny worm of flame, wiggled its way through the widened opening. A chuckle of triumph came from the Skaerslinger’s lips, then he took a deep breath. The boy raised the rock over his head and readied to strike.
The finger stiffened like an archer ready to let his arrow fly.
Reimar brought the rock down as hard as he could.
With a snap that finger was flattened to the wall in a cloud of smoke and sparks!
As the shaman’s middle knuckle broke, his shrill scream echoed over the deep roar of fire and battle. The men of Aattaettirstrond heard it, realized they had been fooled and came running! The Fire Shaman mewled like a wounded cat, his finger, wedged tight into the sharp edges of the hole, trembled. He jerked back but could not pull out.
Reimar struck again, wedging it even tighter. The shaman’s scream was even more shrill as the rock pulverized his crippled finger.
Alarmed at seeing their leader trapped, the two Skaerslinger, out of instinct, took hold of the stricken Fire Shaman. Their flesh sizzled on his flaming body and made them shriek in concert with his cries. The Shaman gave another hard jerk, but he remained trapped. His finger could not straighten for Reimar’s blow had wedged it in tight. Splinters sawed the Skaerslinger’s flesh. The smell of burning blood rose from the hole as the wood cut deep into his trapped digit. The scaffold bounced under the running feet of the responding men. Reimar’s third swing missed by the narrowest of margins just as the shaman pulled his mutilated hand free with a gut-rending crunch.
Above, men loosed their arrows at the Skaerslinger. Groans were heard and bodies fell. One of the barbarians screamed out an order and began to flee as the Forsamling men fired many arrows driving them off. The others nearby repeated the call and they retreated into the smoke of the burning fields. Forsamling arrows narrowly missed the savages as they escaped into the trees.
“They are fleeing!” shouted someone from the other side of the farmhold. A cheer went up with the triumph, and the farmholders turned their attentions toward the fires that continued to burn.
“Open the gate! Open it!” herr Vils commanded. Mindful of the heat, Reimar’s brother Bjorn lifted the bracing bar out of the way. Anton and herr Jorgensson each pulled the latches and then jumped back. The flaming gate swung in as a curling mass of fire. The bucket brigade threw water, dousing the fire on the doors before it spread.
The last of the crops burned. Ash and sparks rained down in the cooling air. Herr Vils descended a ladder to Reimar.
“Well done! Well done! We must tell your father. Come, we have much to do!” herr Vils congratulated the boy and they ran to the main gate.
Reimar’s arms shook as they regained their strength, and it took focus to be sure of his handholds while he climbed to the top of the stockade. He looked over and saw the fields had become a blackened brule. The oats and barley had burned away. The mounds of sweet corn, beans, potatoes and squash were piles of glowing coals. A llama cart smouldered a few dozen yards from the gate. Silently, Reimar thanked God the animals were all safe. The fire was almost out and had become a narrow ring at the base of the towering wall of the pinery that bordered Aattaettirstrond. The flames, too weak to jump into the canopy of the trees, sizzled in the wet ferns and grasses beneath. The smoke began to thin as the fires died out.
The farmers wondered if the Skaerslinger would return. They most likely had enough.
“Anton! You should have seen your boy!” herr Vils said, pointing up at Reimar on the scaffold.
“What did he do now? I saw he left the bucket brigade. Was he hiding somewhere?” he scowled and looked up to see his son on the stockade wall.
“I sent him when he could not lift a bucket anymore! He went to find the fire shaman so you could kill him!” Anette scolded. Pride in her son drew out her passionate words. “So do not take that tone! You needed help and he could not pass buckets anymore.” Her fury was fueled by the disaster that surrounded them all. Herr Vils used the awkward silence that followed to continue.
“He found the shaman and stopped him with a rock. Reimar saved Old Man Kort’s home,” herr Vils added.
“Did he now?” Anton’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. His son was known more for being underfoot than for being helpful. He lavished his praise on his eldest son, Bjorn, or his little daughter Katrin. Praise for Reimar was something new and strange.
“That is right. I saw him. He hit the shaman as he poked his hand through a hole in the stockade. Trapped him against the wall, and before he got away we put two arrows in him.” herr Vils testified. Reimar blushed as he looked away over the black fields, unable to bear his father’s awestruck stare.
“Is he dead?”
“No. That tjovekjakji shaman got away into the smoke. The devil watched out for his own this time.”
“Reimar? Come down here,” Anton ordered. His son obeyed. The whole farmhold was gathering as Reimar descended slowly and walked over to his father.
“Did you do this thing?”
“Jah, Papa,” his voice quavered. There was a beat of silence as his father realized what his boy had done.
“What a fine young man you are, Little Spruce!” he said, hoisting Reimar up to sit on his shoulder. Everyone gave a small cheer then crowded around, patted the boy and thanked him. Reimar felt wonderful, but the ruined fields beyond the gate made the moment bittersweet.
As the congratulations trickled away, unease settled in. The people of Aattaettirstrond saw the remains of their crops. All the fields were smoldering ash before them, black as the night sky with flickering points of small scattered fires. It was clear they had only delayed the inevitable. The Skaerslinger had suffered defeat, unable to increase their own fortune, but their demonic masters achieved a greater goal. In a few months, the farmhold would starve in the icy clutches of winter.