Ketill entered their barrack and closed the door behind himself. He had used the last two hours to console and pacify the surviving serfs with sweet dreams and convenient lies. But even though many serfs saw right through his words, nobody dared to speak up. Some feared Vandill’s overpowering body, but 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 before he made his way to the fireplace in the middle. He took his drenched tunic off and placed it over a wooden rack to let it dry. A few sticks and handful of shavings were enough to ignite the glowing firewood once more and soon after the dancing flames filled the bleak interior with some warmth. Hence 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. 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 was a memento as their owners had passed away long ago. Ketill felt a lump in his throat as he realized how they would burn this place. He wouldn’t only leave his birth place but he would also leave behind the last tie to his late parents.
The sound of the door interrupted his dark thoughts. He knew the owner of the soft steps 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 his head. 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 blamed herself for all the slaughter around her and had 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 his 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 bereaved who forced his 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.
After Ida had calmed down she realized that her brother needed her for the ritual, so she had sent her brother back to the barracks while she got water from the nearby well. Now she put the 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. She paid no heed to Ketill’s shiver and slowly cleaned his chest before she turned her attention to his arms.
“You are too reckless.” She eventually opened her mouth while removing dirt from his back. “You can barely stand and you want to go head-to-head with a god. Are you stupid?”
Ketill realized that 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 just to return with a big wooden bowl. She placed that bowl in front of him, sat on his 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 the older brother embraced her in silence. He perfectly understood that his actions were reckless, but he saw no other way out. Therefore he could only steel his heart and pat her head. Ida embraced the arm he had laid around here and wept once more. She was only thirteen and had experienced a day in hell. Nearly raped she saw many of her fellow slaves killed right in front of her eyes. And right when she feels save 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 you do your work properly,” he teased his sister. “So don’t mistake left for right.”
“I wouldn’t have to do it, if you wouldn’t be a good for nothing without a wife,” Ida sighed. She squeezed his arm once more and stood up. The first step in the ritual was a woman’s duty and the little sister was the last one in their small family. So she took up the bowl in front of them and dipped her hand into the cow blood inside. She dropped a handful of blood in the fire and the smell of death filled the room. Another handful of blood followed before she made a satisfied nod 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 forms 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 those runes and only her 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 her a meal. They roasted nuts and mushrooms from a nearby forest and used their best wheat to bake soft bread. Froydis was pleased by their offering and smiled.”
She looked at her drawings and used the rag to wipe a few runes away. 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. She took a deep breath and started again.
“But OhnæigR 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. The dancing flames threw obscure shadows all over the walls and his imagination turned them into the flying crow and the dark forest.
“>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 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 there.
“The boy was like all the other boys, stupid and with no respect for his sister,” she angrily narrated. “And such a stupid boy easily fell for the obvious trap. They searched the forest until they found a beautiful deer. The crow gripped a big stone with his claws and flew higher and higher before he dropped it on the deers 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 a fresh mushroom instead of the meat.”
Finished with the back Ida threw another handful of blood in the flames before 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 bit into it. Momentarily the air burned with her rage. Those humans 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 heed her order and used his rainbow arrows to burn everyone but the boy alive. She 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. So the hunter called his wolf Örnir, and they soon found the stone and a familiar scent. He returned to Froydis’ palace and told her the boy’s story. Realizing her error the goddess shed black tears of regret.”
Pleased with her work Ida stood up, went to fire and poured the remaining blood into the fire. 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. All her anger, regret and disgust filled the lake. The surface boiled and a giant dragon raised itself in the sky. The foul odor of death filed 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.”
“Brother,” she finished while gazing into the flames. “You will face this dragon. A being born from a goddess’ despair. You won’t be able to bargain with him. You won’t be able to persuade him. My runes will only help you to 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 die.”
With a final smile she left him alone in the barrack. Ketill stood up, stretched his arms and took his sword. The urge to run away grew inside his chest, but he feared the disgrace that would bring even more. So he sighed and made his way out of the barrack and towards the fields. Many torches illuminated his destination in the darkness of the night.