“One more man has to die.”
Ketill shook his head but these cruel words kept ringing in his ears. They had already lost so many lives. Or rather he himself had sentenced so many of them to death. And now they would shed even more of their blood?
“But how do we decide who has to die,” Ketill thought aloud. “They are following us because they can’t see another way but that won’t matter if we name someone. We aren't as frightening as the army so there's no way we can control them through fear. They’ll blame Ida and demand her life. We can’t do that!”
“We could draw lots to decide the unlucky fellow and hope that the relieved families pressure them into obeying. But there’s no guarantee that’ll work. We are only three people and the bigger groups can easily snatch our leadership position.”
“Or what if I’m the one drawing the lot? Ida would be alone with no chance to survive between those resentful bereaved. Even worse Ida could draw the lot herself. I can’t send her to death by chance. Everything would be worthless without her.”
Ketill started to panic. Each new thought brought another worst-case scenario.
“There has to be another way,” he began. “We can leave a horse behind. A human can’t outrun a horse. But a horse can! Let’s light the barracks and flee on horseback afterwards. With this nobody has to die.”
“So now you’re feeling guilty, boy,” Vandill retorted. “You already sent so many to death and now you hesitate? It was alright when Kili died but Ida would be too much? Boy, don’t make such stupid jokes. You became our leader, so it’s your duty to sacrifice some for our survival.”
“But…,” Ketill hesitated. “But we have already lost so many lives to save Ida. I… I already killed so many lives. If we sacrifice her now, none of that made sense. Yesterday it was in panic but now we can take our time. We can find another plan. If we shed our own blood, each time we encounter a problem we won’t have anybody left to survive.”
“You are free to find a way, boy. I tried all morning, and this is the best I got. We can’t risk everyone to save a single life. Even if it is your sister’s life. So if you can propose a better plan convince me. But you have to face reality and pick the plan with the biggest chance for success. That’s part of the determination you vowed to have.”
“So if we use our horses…”
“That won’t do, boy,” Vandill interrupted. “Can you ride a horse? I can’t. The others can’t. So will you learn how to ride a horse? Do you think half a circle is enough time to learn it? Our enemies are trained horsemen and untrained serfs won’t be faster even on horseback.”
Ketill’s shoulders drooped down limply in response. He understood the flaws in his plan even before Vandill had pointed them out so mercilessly. It was idiocy to risk all survivors for a single life but he still tried to find a way. Yesterday he had sacrificed many known faces to save his little sister. How could he risk her life now? It didn’t make sense.
Is there another way, Ketill asked himself with closed eyes. We could run away and leave everyone behind. Should we travel to another country and start anew? Or we sacrifice someone? One more life is enough. We can draw lots and just flee if the outcome is unfavorable. There are still a lot of survivors so the chances for that are slim. Ida will survive. I will survive. Even Vandill will survive. We only need a single unlucky fellow and everything will be fine. So why do I feel so uneasy?
His thoughts returned to last night. Dismembered corpses lay in the red mud as Ketill made his way back to his sister. He had to watch his steps or he would trip over severed body parts. Young and old serfs cried side by side. Sorrow and despair filled the air and made each breath painful. A small running child nearly bumped into him so he quickly stepped aside. And his gaze fell on a corpse with silky black hair.
Black hair? Where have I seen this before? Ah… the girl this morning. Did I kill her father? But her gaze was… different. There was no hate in it. Thinking back most of the gazes he encountered were full of curiosity and expectation. He had paid no heed to the gazes back then but now he realized how sincere each one of them was. I see. I asked to be their leader and they accept it. So now I'm bound to protect them like my sister.
They are fools. Don’t trust anyone so easily. There’s no way you are so important. Like my sister? There’s no way I would risk my life to save them.
Yesterday Ketill had followed Vandill’s suggestion out of pure self-preservation. He had felt bad for the dead but it had been the sword in front of him that had given birth to his determination. He had lied and deceived the other serfs but they still accepted him as their leader. They had seen through his lies and they still bet everything on him. But what would happen if he let them down? There was no way he could control all of them with fear.
The young serf finally understood that he had to become their leader if he wanted to save his sister. Hence he continued to argue with Vandill. He suggested every idea that came to mind and Vandill dismantled them one by one. He became angry while his ideas became more and more useless. But he struggled and fought for that single life.
The approaching twilight eventually ended their discussion after three more hours. Exhausted both of them made a compromise. They would use Vandill’s plan to flee to safety as long as someone volunteered for the crucial part.
“So it’s finally settled,” Vandill advanced their discussion. “Now we have to choose our destination. I looked through all the shelves in here but the only map is this piece of shit.”
He took a thin board from one rack and placed it beside the calendar. Ketill took a look and immediately understood Vandill’s disapprovingly attitude. The creator had used a glowing metal rod to leave scorch marks on the surface. Crude houses showed the farming villages on the mostly empty map. Some spikes stood for the nearby mountains and a few separates lines appeared to be rivers.
“This map is useless, boy,” Vandill sighed. “According to this our village is in the middle of the mountains and the next river is two villages away.”
“There aren’t many details on it,” Ketill agreed. “But maybe we can use the general directions to make a plan? Both the south and the east are full of other villages so we won’t be able to find peace there. So it’s either north or west.”
“That’s right, boy. We have the mountains in the west. We can shake the patrol teams off when we use small dirt tracks and climb to the top. There’s no settlement in the area so we could hunt in the forest and let the cows graze on the plains.”
“But they’ll know we are still alive,” Ketill countered. “We only have a handful of capable fighters so we’ll die when they find our trail. They’ll send troops to slaughter us and we can’t hide forever.”
“So the north it is. Earlier you said they might stop their pursuit when we cross the border. But boy, how do we cross it? The northern border is a river and the wardens always said it’s too big to cross without ships.”
“But the other kingdoms cross it all the time for their war. So we only have to find a shallow part. We’ll cross it there and find a new place over there.”
“A new place? I don’t know, boy. We are serfs. Do you think they’ll let us start anew in peace? And even us serfs are part of the dragon kingdom. Why should they give shelter to their enemy? We’ll be lucky if we end on a field again.”
Both men kept quiet and tried to find a solution. They was only death in all four directions. The twilight slowly turned into the darkness of the night. They started a fire and used the dancing flames to stare at the map. The mountains are attractive for living. But we can’t hide forever. The north gives us peace from our pursuers but we can’t live there.
Ketill’s mind ran in circles. He repeated each thought over and over again although he already knew the conclusion. I’m like a horse with blinkers and can’t see anything else, he realized and shook his head. Finally freed he took a deep breath and closed his. The north gives peace. The mountains a place to live. But we need both peace and a place to live. So if we need both we should go…
“That’s it,” he exclaimed much to Vandill’s surprise. “We don’t have to settle for either one. Let's go north and cross the border and turn west afterwards. We can settle in the mountains in peace and start a new life. And we won’t have to hide because nobody will search for us.”
Vandill’s relieved laughter was answer enough. At last they had found their path to freedom and a place for a new home. Now it was time to gather the other serfs and explain their plan. They had to ask one of their own to die but in exchange they would preserve their dream of freedom. Ketill opened the door, left the barrack, and stopped after a few steps.
Countless stars shone in the sky. The three moons were still low but began their never-ending pursuit of the sun. Ketill took a deep breath and searched the northern sky for a radiant blue star. His mother had once called this star the light of freedom. He still remembered that dry summer night. He had sat on his mother’s lap and his mother’s gentle words had reached his ears.
>>Somewhere in the north is the border river with many different kingdoms behind it. I’m content with my life and I’ll one day rest here beside your father. But sometimes when I'm lonely in the night, I look at that bright star and ask Froydis for a single favor. I beg our godly mother to let this star shine for all eternity so that my children will one day find the freedom they deserve. <<
Ketill looked at the light of freedom and decided on his first order. Tomorrow they would start their march towards that gentle blue light.