The sun had made her way up and changed the cold morning into a mild fall noon. Four young men stood in the village’s outskirts and took one final look. An old woman watched their faces as she waited for their departure. Eventually she decided and approached the young ones. The scene had already continued for 20 minutes and she understood they would waste too much time without a proper sendoff.
“It’s time for you to go,” she addressed them with a tender smile on her face. The men in front of her jumped in surprise before wry smiles crept on their faces. Each one knew it wasn’t the time to lose oneself in thoughts but for them it was the first time leaving their lifelong home. Even Vandill had only left the village as part of a few carrier duties so their next step was a giant one.
“Klefi. I’ve seen you grow up into a fine man,” she spoke to the first in line. “You always helped me with the taxing work and even shared your food in the cold winter days. Please, master life with that gentle outlook and make your mother proud.”
“I will,” the russet-haired boy answered. In this group he was the smallest one but his back was just as broad. Klefi had lived in the same barrack and considered the old woman part of his family. Their bleak daily lives gave birth to many such bonds so nobody belittled him for his falling tears.
“That’s good, that’s good. Now turn around and don’t look back,” she instructed before she turned her head towards the next person. “Lófi. I’ve known your father for a long time. He was a great hunter and even shared some of his game with me. It’s a hard thing to ask from such young life but please feed the others in time of need.”
“I’ll bring pride to my father’s skills,” Lófi answered. He was a lanky man with mud-brown hair and his malnourished physique had hampered their hard work over the last days. But his father had taught him valuable skills and he would cover the many unnoticed tracks and marks. Lófi was one of the important pieces in their plan but now he meekly nodded and made his way towards the nearby forest.
“Vandill,” the old woman continued. “I can imagine how hard it is for you. I once lost my child, and no day goes by without regret and questions. And here I see you standing in the front, shielding the young ones from the pain and helplessness. I don’t understand where you find this strength but I pray that your fountain won’t wither.”
“Please do so,” the oldest man smiled. “But it’s this boy’s duty to shield and guide the younger ones. But I stand before you and swear I will aide them to the best of my ability. Until we meet again in Vebrandir’s maw.”
Vandill’s parting words were calm and his steady steps carried him towards the forest without turning back. At last only Ketill remained. His gaze on the ground he waited for her voice but no words broke the silence. He shifted his weight from one leg to another and back but the quiet continued. This wasn’t a gentle stillness like this morning but rather a displeasing and forced one. Finally he couldn’t take it anymore and lifted his head.
A tender smile entered his view, and the silence changed. A peaceful calm embraced the youth and forced an honest smile to appear on his face. Ketill had only known this old woman thanks to his mother’s stories but now he feared their separation. This morning he had promised her to part with a smile so he hung his head and tried to conceal the pain in his chest.
“You are looking down again,” a tender voice reprimanded him. “Such behaviour is for the old people with bad spines. But the young ones should jump around and present their chin. And you have to smile. A smile attracts happiness. So it’s okay to fake it until you can show a sincere one.”
“But sometimes it’s okay to cry,” she continued. “I’m happy so see the pain in your eyes. It’s the proof I left something behind. I’ll take this old body and spark a fire. That’s why I volunteered. Now you’ll take those feelings with you and lead the young ones to their smiles. It’s funny but I can see it right before me. Somewhere in the future you’ll sit at your fireplace, a small child on your knees and tell them the story of that crazy old woman and that single spark of hope. But remember what I told you. That happiness only comes when you smile. So leave your tears behind and smile at the future.”
Hearing her heartfelt parting words Ketill teared up. So he presented his chin to her and forced a distorted smile. Tears started ran down his face but no answer left his mouth. He wanted to thank her for the last days but sadness filled his mind. Those words were unfitting, so he kept quit and smiled. He imagined the future she had described and remembered the stories of gods and heroes his mother had told him.
A single scene filled his mind. One seen in so many stories. So Ketill knelt. His left leg was bent with the foot on the ground. His right knee touched the ground. It resembled a knight’s salute in front of his king but the posture was mirrored. The left hand grabbed his sword and presented it in front of him. The tip hit the ground, and the grip pointed towards the sun. Finally he placed his right palm on his chest, right over the heart. This was a traditional salute towards a hero. A silent farewell to the old woman before he stood up and left.
Ketill progressed step by step. He felt the old women’s gaze on his back and forced himself to stare at the front. It was a silent show of determination to leave more than just tears behind. So he used one of their fake trails to enter the forest and reunite with his companions.
The start of their journey was an easy one. Lófi let the group, Klefi took care of the two horses while Vandill and Ketill shouldered two big waterskins. Their permanent changing form were too unhandy for the horses so the young men had to take turns and carry them. One hour of silent travel passed before they heard the sound of water. Their fake trail led right into the small stream.
The young men took of their shoes and stepped into the cold water. The horses neighed in protest but Vandill shortened their reins and coerced them forwards. They didn’t cross the stream right away but followed the course for an hour until they reached a stony ground. Here they left the stream with frozen feet and continued their travel through the trees. Lófi stayed behind and used brushwood to cover their tracks.
They traveled for another four hours before dusk fell around them. A dim forest was dangerous hence they stopped their feet and camped in a shallow pit. The young men ate hard bread with wild berries and spread extra coats on the ground. Klefi formed a small stone circle, and they lit a small campfire in between. Ketill kept watch while the other three got ready to sleep.
The whole process took place in complete silence. They had discussed the order multiple times over the last days and there was nothing left to say. Therefore Ketill found himself alone with his thoughts in the dark forest. The small campfire spent light and warmth but he sat outside the pit and looked into the darkness. The steady breaths behind him showed he was the last one awake.
He hummed a quiet melody and listened to the forest. Branches cracked somewhere to his left. A bird screamed. A small animal rustled in the underwood. One of his companions turned around in his coat. A world full of life surrounded Ketill. He let his mind wander and raised his gaze. A gentle blue star shone through the foliage. The three moons started their way across the stars. Ketill sighed.
His thoughts turned towards Ida. Is she watching the same sky, he asked himself. His sister had left with the first group and it would take them two more days to catch up with them. He had seen her every night of her life so their sudden separation filled him with loneliness. He understood that she was save but worried, nonetheless. Did she get enough food? Are they treating her well? Maybe they exclude her thanks to everything that happened? And so he spent his time fighting imaginary fears.
The night went by in peace. The three moons stood high in the sky and Örnir soon passed Yngvarr’s constellation. Thus Ketill jumped down the pit, woke Vandill and crawled into the furs. A gentle warmth enveloped him and exhaustion soon overwhelmed him. He closed his eyes and lost himself in the welcoming blackness.
The next two days followed the same sequence. Lófi woke them up, and they ate their poor breakfast in silence. Vandill and Ketill shouldered the waterskins while the other two led the horses. They would swap their roles whenever someone was exhausted. They only stopped to fill waterskins and focused on speed for the rest of their travel. After dusk they camped in a sheltered place, ate their bread and some nuts and fell asleep.
Two days later Ketill led their small group through a small valley when he heard an outcry from the front. Bewildered, he raised his head to see his jumping and waving little sister on top of the next hill. A smile bloomed on his face as he realized that the first part of their plan was a success.