Winter Afternoon, Evan McGrew
(continued from The Shield Maidens of Hafrsfjord, Part Two)
TW/SA, mentions of suicide
Astrid has not stopped thinking about what Eira fears. Whenever Eira has a fear about something, she is usually correct. If one of them should die, Astrid hopes that it is her; she could never continue to live while knowing that Eira has died. Eira is the person that Astrid trusts most in the world, they rely on each other. Being without the other would never sit right with either sister. Astrid tries to have hope that Eira is wrong, maybe this will be the time where her fears do not come true. We will live to see this raid through, she tells herself.
Thigurd sits with a mug of mead in his hand as he wonders what is plaguing his daughters. They are both deep in thought with somber looks on their faces. Perhaps they are thinking of their friend Tor. Tor was a good young man, a good young warrior. It hurt Thigurd to be the one to offer him as a sacrifice, but the Gods had chosen him. Thigurd only hopes that his daughters can understand in the future. Thigurd shakes his head as he puts his mug of mead to his mouth. Around him sits some of his warriors and King Stigr.
“Do you think they know we are here?” Asmund, Thigurd’s friend, asks him. Thigurd turns to him as he recognizes the look in his eyes. The look in his eyes is the look of being on high alert. The raid along the Silk Road changed something in both men.
“If they know, they are hiding. We must be on high alert and take turns sleeping. I do not wish for another attack like the Rus,” he says. Asmund nods at his words in agreement and understanding. There is too much on the line for this raid. It is not just Thigurd, Asmund, King Stigr and their friends; Eira and Astrid are here as well. If something were to happen to his daughters, Thigurd feels that he would return to Hafrsfjord a broken man.
Eira watches her father with a far off look in her eyes. She wonders if her father has noticed her change in mood. Should she tell her father of her fears? She shakes her head in disagreement; Thigurd would only make her and Astrid sit out of the raid. Eira hopes that she is wrong, she does not want to leave her sister. If it is Eira who dies, she will wait for Astrid in Valhalla; perhaps Tor will keep her company until Astrid joins her. If it is Astrid who dies, Eira will not be far behind her. Astrid is the person that Eira cares about most in the world, she will follow her sister to ends of the earth if she had to.
From the time Astrid could walk, she followed Eira around, always wanting to be with her elder sister. The two girls shared a bed when they were small. When one would awake for the day, the other would awaken, as well. They would toddle around the great hall, chasing each other or playing with the other children in the village. There was a time where another child pushed Astrid down as they were playing and she started to cry. Eira, who had been witness to the event, hit the child in the face for pushing her sister. The young Eira wrapped her arms around Astrid until she stopped crying, then they resumed playing. After that incident, the other children did not want to play with the sisters any longer; that did not bother them, they played with each other and their new friend Tor.
Whenever it was the day of their birth, the sisters tried to get each other presents that the other would cherish for as long as they lived. On the day that Eira turned fifteen, Astrid gifted her a bracelet made from silver that had pearls embedded into it. Eira has never taken the bracelet off since Astrid gave it to her. The bracelet made Eira have one made for Astrid as her day of birth present when she turned fourteen. Astrid, who loved jewelry, was pleased with the bracelet; she told anyone who would listen that she and her elder sister had matching bracelets.
Astrid finally began her training once she turned thirteen. Eira was excited to see what kind of shieldmaiden her sister would become. Although Eira had started training earlier than Astrid, the two would train together. Astrid loved getting tips on how to be a better fighter from her sister. Their father may have had Astrid train with a stick, but she quickly was able to master it. When she started training with an axe, it seemed as if she had become one with it. The sword gave her difficulty initially, due to it being a little heavy, but after practicing with it for a few weeks, it seemed that Astrid was good with a sword as well. The two sisters would train together and somehow end up back to back.
The two daughters of Jarl Thigurd Sigurdsson were soon recognized as fierce shieldmaidens, but they still had to prove themselves in battle. Little did they know how soon they would prove themselves. Eira had already proven to be a great shieldmaiden, but when her sister was fighting at her back, they seemed to be unstoppable. One night, someone from a different village tried to take Hafrsfjord from them. The sisters, who were sleeping at the time, arose to hear the sounds of screams. They jumped out of bed to quickly dress. Their younger brothers were hiding in the corner of their shared room. The girls quickly grabbed their weapons and shields before heading out into the night.
That night, the sisters proved that they were capable of being shieldmaidens like their mother. They sliced through their enemies with ease and no remorse. A warrior that was tall with a deep red beard and burly shoulders tried to hit Eira in the side using his sword. Astrid, who was not far away from her sister, managed to slice his ankles causing him to fall to the ground. When he fell, Eira was able to kill him by burying her axe in his head. When all of their enemies were dead or captured, Thigurd told his people of how he had seen his daughters fight. It was that moment that they proved themselves to him. Thigurd allowed for them to walk around the village like the other warriors and shieldmaidens; they were allowed to walk around with their weapons strapped to their sides.
That was an honor to both sisters. It was an honor because that meant that they would be seen as people who could help protect those in the village, along with themselves, and not just someone to protect. They take immense pride in knowing that they help protect their people. Protecting their people is more than just a duty or an honor. They view everyone in the village as family; they would do anything to keep those that they loved safe from harm.
Being on this raid, this journey, is something that both sisters have looked forward to since the initial talks of the summer raids. They are happy that they are here together, even if Eira’s fears linger in their minds. If the Gods decide to take one of them to Valhalla, then who are they to question the Gods? We should never question the Gods, Eira thinks to herself. She sighs as she turns in her makeshift bed to face her sister. Astrid is finally sleeping peacefully, despite everything that has happened to her. With a soft smile on her face, Eira closes her eyes to try to sleep. Eira cannot help but wonder what the next day will bring.
They wake to the sound of shouts. The sisters look around to see where the shouting is coming from and spot their father, the king, and some strange men. They run over to where Thigurd is standing to hear the king speaking in a foreign language.
“Father, what is going on?” Eira asks.
“King Stigr says that these men were sent here on behalf of their king. They want to talk to us.”
“This King Ælla?” Astrid asks.
“Yes. However, I do not think he truly wishes to talk to us. I think he means to kill us!” Thigurd exclaims. “What is he saying, King Stigr?” The king turns to Thigurd once he hears his name.
“His king wants us to leave, but he wants to talk to us first. He wants to make a deal to get us to leave,” Stigr explains.
“I think it may be a trap. We will exchange hostages to ensure that we come back to camp alive,” Thigurd says. Astrid agrees with this plan. She hopes that her father allows her to go treat with this king. Astrid just wants to see what his great hall looks like, perhaps eat some of his food if he offers them anything to eat.
“They said that they will allow eight of their men to remain here while eight of us go with them,” King Stigr says. More like they will take eight of us to be killed, Thigurd thinks to himself.
“King Stigr, Asmund, Erik, Leif, myself and three others will go,” Thigurd eventually says. Thigurd does not miss the look of disbelief from his daughters; he knows that they wish to go with him to meet this Saxon king, but he wants them to stay safe.
“Father, we will go with you. You cannot stop us,” Astrid says. Eira nods her head in agreement with her sister. She knows that her father is worried about them since they have discovered this king, but they could take care of themselves. Thigurd knows that they are capable of protecting themselves.
“I would forbid you two to stay at the camp, but I know that you will only go against what I say. Therefore, you two will be included amongst the eight of us who are going to meet with this Saxon king. I expect the two of you to stay together, you will ride either beside me or in front of me so that I can see you. Am I understood?” he says in a tone that leaves no room for an argument.
“Yes, Father,” the sisters agree. Riding beside their father does not bother either of his daughters, as they have always enjoyed riding with him.
After choosing another person to join them, the group of Northmen are given horses to ride to the home of the king. King Stigr rides in front of the Northmen so that he can translate anything that needs to be said, but the Christians are weary of him. He can hear them speaking amongst themselves asking how he can speak their language so well. The question makes him chuckle to himself, but it also reminds him of darker times.
King Stigr is no old man, but he is old enough to have heard the stories of the first raid in England. Ever since the first raid, all of the warriors in Oleifsborg had been desperate to go; they, too, wanted the riches that this new land had to offer for their taking. When Stigr had seen his fourteenth spring, his father, Leif Steinsson, had taken him on their long awaited raid to England. Stigr can still recall how excited he was about making the journey over to England, even if his father made him row along with other warriors.
That raid was supposed to be Stigr’s chance to prove to his father that he was a capable warrior, he just never accounted for the Christians to out maneuver them. They had been in a land called Kent. Those Saxons were some of the fiercest warriors Stigr had ever seen. He remembers during the battle where it looked like the Gods were on their side, but it turned out that they were on their own. They, the Northmen, thought that they had the Saxons, that they would win the battle. They never guessed that the Saxons would split their army in thirds in order to flank them from two sides. That battle was their downfall; it led to many deaths for the Northmen. One of the deaths was Stigr’s father, Leif.
Stigr remembers watching as a Saxon charged at his father’s turned back. When Leif turned around, he barely had enough time to defend himself. Sword clashed against axe as Leif and the Saxon warrior battled against each other; it almost looked as though Leif would come out of this alive. The Saxon knocked Leif to the ground using all of his weight. Leif struggled to reach for his axe and ended up reaching for a fallen warrior’s sword. As he grabbed the sword and stood from the hard bloodstained ground, so did the Saxon. When he came at Leif again, Leif was able to kill the man by slashing at his side before pushing the sword through the man’s chest. In the moment, Stigr felt triumphant for his father, but then the triumph vanished.
A Saxon wearing a grey tunic, dark trousers, and chainmail stabbed Leif in his heart. Leif stumbled to his knees, but not before he killed a man for the final time. He used both of his hands as he mustered all of his strength to slash the man’s body diagonally in half. As the Saxon’s blood splattered across Leif’s face, he lost his balance and fell to the ground. Stigr watched his father stop breathing as his blood continued to stain the once green grass around him. Stigr screamed in agony as he continued to cut down men who stood in his way, trying to reach his father’s body. When he was able to reach where his father lay dead, he fell to the ground to cradle his father’s head in his lap. Tears started to stream down his dirt-and-blood covered face as he noticed the air change around him.
The sky turned pink and he saw a woman like no other. He knew that she was a Valkyrie and that she was coming to take his father to the hall of the slain. Stigr shakily moved away from his father so that the Valkyrie could gather his soul. When she took Leif’s soul, Leif smiled at his son for the final time and happily went with the Valkyrie. Seeing his father smile at him one last time gave Stigr enough hope to know that his father was satisfied with his death. Stigr was so focused on his father that he never realized that the battle still raged around him. He wiped his tears from his face and picked up his father’s axe. Stigr made a vow that he would only die a warrior’s death because he knew that his father was waiting for him in Valhalla.
Despite that vow, Stigr spent almost five summers as a hostage to the Saxons of Kent. He learnt their language, their customs, and the way they behaved. The entirety of his captivity, Stigr wanted nothing more than to die, but he would not risk his chance at Valhalla. He dreamed of seeing Oleifsborg and his people again; Stigr thought for sure that he would die in Kent. When his fifth summer in Kent neared, he heard rumors of a raiding party in the nearby area. Much to his advantage, the Saxons exchanged him as a hostage, but they did not know that the Northmen they traded Stigr to were his own people.
Upon learning that the son of one of their most famous warriors lived, the Northmen began to lay a trap for the Saxons. All Stigr wanted in return was to be able to kill those that kept him hostage. Before having to return to the Saxons, Stigr made another vow. He vowed that he and those who agreed to his plan for vengeance would live wealthily; they would have everything that they ever dreamed of. He made this vow in the presence of his people and in front of the Gods. When the time came for the battle, Stigr succeeded and slaughtered those who wronged him. After everything was over and all of the treasures were loaded into the ships, the warriors from Oleifsborg named Stigr their king. He was named king because he did everything that he said he would and then some. For them, there was no better to follow.
Stigr has been so deep within his memories, that he did not realize how long they have been riding. They have been riding for a few hours, and the Northmen have been complaining about the slow pace at which they are riding. The Saxons are doing what most of the Saxons do; they are complaining about sharing their horses with Pagans, or heathens as they love to call the Northmen. As they continue to ride, the path has started to lessen with trees; they must be near where the Saxon king lives.
From their horses, they see battlements where guards are standing with their weapons drawn. The gates to enter are closed, but they are being guarded by two men carrying shields and spears. Upon seeing the Northmen, the guards put their shields to their chests and pointed their spears in their direction. Those on the battlements knocked their bows, but they do not let the arrows loose. They are only holding.
“Wé hwæt hie,” one of the guards says. After looking at the group of Northmen, the gates open.
As the group rides through the gates, they hear the sounds of gasps, then angry shouts. None of the Northmen, save for King Stigr, know what they are saying. Astrid studies with curious eyes at the way the people are dressed. The women wear long dresses with their hair pulled back in strange styles. The women wear little to no jewelry, their dresses are plain, but the colors of the dresses are light colored. One woman has a long cloak over her shoulders, but she is not wearing anything to bind the ends of the cloak together. The men are dressed in different colored tunics that have embroidery on them. The tunics are long and seem to be tight around their wrists. The trousers that the men wear do not look like the trousers that Astrid is used to seeing. The trousers that Astrid and Eira wear are loose around their legs and waist; these trousers look as if they fit the men that are wearing them.
When the group of Northmen get off of their horses, the people of Northumbria quickly move away from them. Eira looks at them in confusion. They moved away from them as if the Northmen were carrying a sickness. Why are they so afraid? We will not hurt them. We will only hurt them if they try anything to harm us, Eira thinks to herself. The sound of a booming voice sends chills down Eira’s spine. The voice is loud and groggy, yet it also sounds as if the speaker has something lodged in their throat.
“This is King Ælla of Northumbria. He permits us entry into his villa,” King Stigr translates to them. What is a villa? Is it like a great hall? Astrid asks herself. Nonetheless, Astrid trails after the group. As they walk into the villa, she notices an intricate rope craving into the doorway; seeing this reminds her of the great hall in Hafrsfjord. The craving seemed to be connected to each other as they combined in the middle of the archway of the door where they met a figure. Astrid assumes this figure in the middle to one of great importance to the Christians. Perhaps it is their God, or their God’s son.
The further they walk into the villa, the eerier Eira feels. Astrid is enjoying looking at the carvings and different artworks in the villa so far, but Eira feels as if this treat with the king will go terribly. The room that they are currently walking into is large with stone poles upholding the room. The floor beneath their boot-covered feet is hard, but it is a darker shade of stone. There, in the middle of the room, sits a charge large enough for two people. There are four steps to climb in order to get to the chair. On either side of the chair hang large, swaying banners with the face of a man wearing a crown. A long, red and gold rug sits in front of the chair and runs down the stairs.
A throat is cleared as that same voice begins to speak in the language of the people of Northumbria. Eira does not know what the voice, which belongs to a man, is saying, but she notices the way all of the Christians drop to one knee. Walking with a cloak draped across his shoulders is a man with dark, graying hair and a full beard. His beard is streaked with gray, he has a long, wide nose and bags beneath his hard, blue eyes. The man is a little tall, but he is not as tall as Thigurd, nor King Stigr.
As the man looks upon the Northmen, his face turns into a look of disgust. With his mouth shaped into a sneer, the bags under his eyes look more like wrinkles in his skin. His eyes are filled with hatred. He takes a seat in the chair in the middle and starts to speak. The Northmen look at each other as the man starts to point at them in a mocking manner while the people around him laugh.
“What does he say, King Stigr?” Eira asks. The King turns to her with an angry look on his face.
“They mock us,” he says. “They call us heathens and believe that none of us understands their language. The one sitting in the stone chair in the middle is their king. King Ælla. He said that we should have been hung from their cross as their God did the second we stepped onto the beach.”
“Of course he would say something like that. Even if they did hang us from their cross, the Gods would find a way to protect us!” Asmund exclaims, outraged. His anger is felt throughout the group of Northmen. What have they done that causes the Saxon king to say such things about them? Is it due to their religion? Their way of life?
“I would like to see him try to hang me from his cross. Thor would strike him faster than he could begin to hang me,” Astrid says. The thought of this king hanging any of her people fuels her with rage.
“Tell him that if wishes to treat with us, then it should be done respectfully, or we will kill them where they stand. King Stigr, my father, and he are somewhat equals,” Eira says. The group of warriors hum in agreement with Eira’s suggestion. As King Stigr starts to speak to the Christian king, the color drains from his face. Initially he seems afraid, but as the conversation continues, he seems to grow angry. What had King Stigr said to him?
King Ælla is still reeling from his conversation with the Pagan king. The Pagan king demanded that King Ælla, God’s chosen king, give the Pagans thirty thousand pieces of silver, twenty thousand pieces of gold, and two hundred fathoms of iron. Who did they think they were to demand such amounts? The king of Northumbria did not believe that any of the heathens could understand their language. To say that he was shocked to learn otherwise would be an understatement. Learning that the Pagan king could speak his language angered him. How did he learn it?
The questions keep pondering King Ælla as he tries to figure out what to do about them. Should he give into their demands? He wants them gone, but he does not want to force his people to give up their possessions for the heathens. What kind of king would he be if he did such a thing? Who would Ælla be if he gave into the demand of a godless heathen? The king, who had been lost in his thoughts, did not hear the sound of footsteps approaching.
“Sire, what have you decided?” Lord Athelwyn inquires. The king’s head snaps in his direction as he contemplates what he had said. The king is silent for a while before he speaks.
“We will fill a cart with poisoned chests. Those heathens will be too overjoyed at seeing the cart that they will not hurt us. As soon as they touch the ten thousand pieces of gold or silver, they will have made contact with the poison; the poison is said to kill anyone who touches it within minutes. If any of our men are loading the chests, their hands must be covered. We will be rid of these heathens once and for all!” The king’s plan is met with roars of agreement from his advisors and commanders.
That night, the king of Northumbria settled for sleep with a smile on his face. By the end of the week, or early next week, the Pagans would be defeated. King Ælla would be known as the king who defeated the heathens and kept his kingdom from being overrun by them. I will kill them. I will kill them all for daring to cross me, the king thought as he finally closed his eyes to sleep. If only the king knew what would await him in the coming weeks.
Ever since they have arrived on this land, Eira has been on edge. She feels it in her bones now, more than ever, something terrible will occur. Eira has not been sleeping due to what she has seen in her dreams. Every night Eira sees someone dying, but she does not know who it is. Could the person be her father? Astrid? Is it her? The thought of one of her family members dying pains her to think about. She does not want to see her family die; it would destroy her.
Her dreams seem to start off the same way. They are in the shield wall in the middle of a vast field. The field is bright green, the air is crisp, and there is a breeze blowing through the air. The trees are tall with leaves casting shadows on the ground. On the opposite side of the field are men on horses, and the ground, wearing chainmail with long red tunics underneath. The men have shields, swords, and spears. Leading them is someone sitting on a horse, but Eira does not know who their leader is. Eira wonders if their leader is meant to be King Ælla or someone entirely different.
Each night, Eira does battle in her dreams. She runs at a man before he can try to kill her. She watches as he gurgles on his blood, the blade of her sword twisting in his throat; it brings her satisfaction. As she watches the man die, she does not see another Saxon coming up behind her with his sword pointed towards her abdomen. She feels the twisting of the sword as it is inside of her body. Eira drops her sword to the ground as she doubles over in pain. As she falls to her knees, she manages to catch a glimpse of Astrid, who is staring with a look of horror on her face. When the sword is yanked out, Eira stays on her knees as she watches the blood trickle down her armor. Within the next second, Eira is stabbed in the chest; the last thing she sees is Astrid screaming as she runs towards her.
Every morning, Eira awakes drenched in sweat, terror filling her veins. She feels the sob lodged in her throat as her eyes release silent tears. Eira hates what she sees in her dreams because it has started to plague her. Her fears fill her days with worry and dread; she never knows if it will be the day she goes to sup with the Gods or not. Whenever Astrid or their father asks Eira if she is okay, she tells them that she is fine when she is far from it. The recurring dream makes Eira feel as though she is going mad.
Could Eira be having the dream due to the land that they are in? Perhaps the journey over took a lot of Eira’s energy due to lack of sleep. Sleeping while on the ship is not that good. There are storms, the waves rock the ship, and people are being sick over the side of the ship. Eira shakes her head at the thought. The dream was clear; someone I love will die in this land, she thinks to herself. Of all the things Eira has seen, why did she have to see this?
Eira decides that in order to protect her family, she has to stay near them at all times. Eira will do everything in her power to make sure that what happened in her dreams does not become a reality. At that moment, Eira decides that she should offer a small sacrifice to the Gods; she does not need anyone else to be present. Getting up from her makeshift bed in the shared tent with Astrid, she secures her weapon belt around her waist before leaving the tent. As she pulls the flap of the tent back, she sees her sister standing with one of their warriors, listening to a story that is being told. With determination to see her family alive in her mind, Eira sets her path towards joining Astrid.
Astrid sees her sister coming towards her with a look of determination on her face. She wonders why Eira has that look on her face. Could it be due to her dreams? Eira’s dreams have been plaguing her, but Astrid does not know how much because Eira will not speak about them. Perhaps Eira’s dreams frighten her to the point where she does not wish to speak about them. As Eira walks up beside Astrid, Astrid gives her sister a look of concern, but she says nothing. Eira moves closer to Astrid and it feels as if Astrid can smell Eira’s worries as they radiate off of her body.
While the group continues to talk and exchange stories, Eira searches for her father. I must find him, she thinks to herself. As she searches the camp with her eyes, she manages to spot her father’s blonde hair across the camp. He is talking with King Stigr; Eira guesses that they are planning for battle, if there should be one. As she hooks her arm through her sister’s, Eira makes a beeline towards her father.
“Why are you dragging me with you?” Astrid demands, trying to free herself from Eira’s grasp.
“I believe Father and King Stigr are planning for a battle without us. Do you not believe we should have some say in the battle plans, little sister?” she asks as she stops walking.
“I agree with you, however, must you grip my arm so tightly? You act as if I will go to Valhalla today,” Astrid says with a laugh. “I do not plan on going to Valhalla for a long time, but I will go early if I must.” Eira looks at her unconvincingly before she releases her hold on her sister.
“I am sorry. I should not have grabbed you as hard as I did,” Eira says sheepishly. Astrid smiles softly at her.
“It is okay. I felt your hovering this morning before you grabbed me. Are your dreams troubling you?” Astrid asks concernedly. Eira looks to her as Astrid gives her full attention. Eira ponders if she should tell Astrid what she has seen in her dreams. Would Astrid be as worried as she is? What should be more careful?
“I am always worried, but do not be troubled sister,” Eira says unconvincingly. Astrid narrows her gray-blue eyes at her elder sister. “I am sure all will be fine. The Gods will guide and keep us.”
After looking at her sister again, Astrid resumes walking towards their father with Eira following closely behind her. Astrid steals glances back at Eira as Eira walks with a dazed look in her brown eyes. Eira is not being truthful with her and she wants to know why. What could Eira have seen that frightens her so? How can Astrid help her sister? Perhaps Thigurd will know what to do; Astrid decides that she will ask him at a later time.
A smile grows across Thigurd’s face at the sight of his two daughters. They both favor their mother, although they favor him a little as well. They walk towards him with lost looks in their eyes, but their mouths are smiling. Thigurd knows that something is amiss. He wonders what it could be. Maybe they are worried that they walked into a trap when they met with the Christian king.
“Daughters,” Thigurd greets. “We were just discussing plans of battle in case the Saxons try to trick us.”
“Yes, we were making a strategy. I was thinking that we should encircle them. If it comes to battle, we should pick the location and use it to our advantage,” King Stigr says. The king watches as the younger daughter’s eyes light up at the mention of battle, but he does not miss the way the elder daughter seems to recoil.
“Do you really think it will come to battle, King Stigr?” the younger daughter asks.
“Astrid, the king has fought against the Saxons before. They love to use trickery on our people,” Thigurd explains.
“Perhaps they are like us after all. If anyone uses trickery, then they have been praying to Loki for help,” Astrid says. King Stigr chuckles at her foolishness.
“Young Astrid,” he says with a sigh. “This will be your first time fighting against the Saxons. I lived amongst them for three summers because they kept me as a hostage. I know the way they think and how they fight. I can assure you, we will have to do battle. Are you prepared? Is your elder sister prepared? Some of us will die. Some of us will go to Odin’s hall while others will go with Freyja.”
“Do not ever presume that I am not prepared for a fight. I may be young, but I am capable of defending myself and those I care about. I may be a young shieldmaiden, but I have the spirit of someone far older than I,” Astrid says fiercely. Eira smiles softly at the ground as she hears the way her sister has spoken to the king.
“Ah, so you are headstrong. That will get you killed one day,” Stigr states sternly.
“If I die then I die; at least I will die with honor.” As he looks between the two, Thigurd clears his throat.
“Right so, we will encircle them. Eira, how would we achieve this?” Thigurd asks her. Eira walks slowly over towards her father as she recalls her father teaching her different battle strategies and tactics.
“The army will be split into three different groups. We will have the main group be the center, make them think that we are a small number. While this happens, two flanks will be sent out to entrap them should they try to retreat. One flank will come from the left, the other from the right. In each flank, there should be at least twenty archers. The archers will stay towards the back of the shield walls. We will need a signal so that they know when to encircle them. Once we have them encircled, we slaughter as many as we can, but we leave the king alive. Their king should be the one to tell the story of how we decimated his army,” Eira says. King Stigr looks at her with his jaw dropped.
“Close your mouth, Stigr. Do not be so surprised that my sister has a mind for battle,” Astrid says. Thigurd looks proud of Eira for the sound plan that she has come up with, although he does have a question.
“Eira, as sound as this plan is, I have a question. Do you think we should send scouts to see the number of the Saxon army?” Thigurs asks.
“That is a great question, Father. I may not know how to plan a battle, but I say we send the scouts. If we send the scouts then we could get a good estimate of how large our flanks need to be,” Astrid says.
“You are correct, sister. Father, will you send Asmund and Leif? Stigr,” Eira begins.
“I am a king,” he says. Astrid rolls her eyes. If I sent you to Valhalla you would no longer be a king, she thinks to herself.
“King Stigr, what kind of tricks do the Saxons use in battle? You say that you have fought them before, correct? Help us so that we may win the day.
“We must start to build catapults. They are something that the Franks use. We can fill them with fat from animals and set them ablaze. From there, we can launch them at the Christians,” he says. Eira cocks her head to one side as she considers what he is suggesting.
“If we build catapults, would we not risk our people getting hit with the fire?” Eira inquires. Astrid hums in agreement with her sister. She does not think it is smart to use such devices if their people will be hurt as well.
“What if we keep our people back a certain distance? If we were to keep the flanks at a distance, we could set enough of them ablaze without the first or second lines of the flanks being hurt from the fire,” Thigurd suggests. King Stigr places a hand on his chin as he thinks it over.
As the king thinks over Thigurd’s suggestion, Astrid revels in how intelligent her sister is. Eira has always had a mind for such things, but they have never appealed to Astrid. Astrid prefers to fight, whereas Eira prefers to plan. The plan to use two flanks to encircle them is a great plan, but the catapults seem to make Astrid think otherwise. Maybe Thigurd was right in saying that their flanks could be at a far distance. She tries to picture it in her mind, but all she can picture is herself swinging her axe or sword against a Saxon. The sound of the king clearing his throat brings Astrid out of her thoughts.
“I agree with the plan and your suggestions. I will also send two of my own scouts in case they need to split up. The scouts will leave at once. We will start on the catapults today. I will send people out to collect the wood that is needed,” King Stigr says.
“How many catapults are we building? Do we even have a builder?” Astrid asks.
“Astrid asks a great question. I do not have a builder among my people from Hafrsfjord, do you?” Thigurd asks.
“I say we build four, maybe six catapults. I have some builders with me who can help teach your people. We can have them finished before the battle. Is everyone in agreement?” the king asks. Those that surround him nod. “Let us begin.”
Astrid did not expect to spend her day hacking at wood with Eira beside her. Astrid wanted to explore the land a little, maybe have a wash in the river. Despite this, Astrid knows that things get done faster when all of them are working together. She turns around to see the king talking to one of his warriors from Oleifsborg; it makes her wonder what they are talking about. When they met with the Saxon king, Astrid and Eira noticed that the King Stigr said something more to the Saxons; they just wished that they knew what he said.
There is something about the Oleifborg king that rubs Astrid the wrong way. He knows a great deal more than what he tells Thigurd. He spent three summers as a hostage to the Saxons, but how did he gain their trust? Did he remain in a dungeon the entire time? Did he fight with them? Who taught him their language? King Stigr had to have learnt their language from someone who speaks it. That would mean that he talked to people from this land during the time of his captivity. What if he is planning to betray them on the battlefield? If it comes to that, Astrid will gladly run him through with her sword.
King Stigr is not the only person behaving in an odd manner. Eira goes from hovering over Astrid to making an elaborate battle plan. It does not make any sense, but if it helps to distract her from whatever is plaguing her, Astrid does not mind. She noticed that their father watched them closely as they approached him, perhaps he too has noticed Eira’s odd behavior. Astrid feels Eira’s elbow dig into her side. She yelps in pain as she shoots her sister a hard glare.
“Get out of your head. We must keep chopping the wood,” Eira says sternly.
“I would not be in my head if some people were not acting so strangely,” Astrid retorts. Dropping her axe into the grass, she faces her sister.
“What is that supposed to mean?” Eira demands.
“It means exactly what I have said. You are acting strange. I feel as if you are planning something and not telling me. We tell each other everything,” Astrid says while still chopping wood. She sighs as she sticks her axe in a piece of wood that is lying before her.
“I cannot tell you,” Eira says softly. Her answer makes Astrid scoff.
“You cannot or you are choosing not to? You would rather let your dreams plague you than tell me so that I could help you?” she asks.
“I never mentioned that it was about my dreams.”
“You did not have to, Eira! We have shared a room for all of our lives, you do not think I would know when you are sleeping or suffering with one of your dreams? Do you think me to be so daft?” Astrid expresses.
“Of course I do not think you to be daft. I just think that I can handle what I saw in my dreams on my own; that is why I cannot tell you,” she says. At this moment, Astrid rolls her eyes and squares her shoulders.
“If you could handle what you saw in your dreams on your own, then you would not hover over me as if I would disappear before your very eyes. These past three days you have followed my every move. I cannot even piss without you being near me!” Astrid yells. The sound of Astrid yelling has earned them a few heads turning in their direction. Upon seeing people staring at them, Eira grabs Astrid by the arm to drag her to a more quiet area.
“Do you know what it is like to be plagued by such things? Of course you do not! You only think about fighting and earning fame. I am trying to save your life!” Eira exclaims.
“Trying to save my life? I have spent the past few months wishing that I could die. You once told me that you fear that one of us will die here. If it is I who is to die here, then so be it. I am tired of fighting with myself on the inside. I can go around pretending that I am healed from Knut, but I am not. I still wish death every day that I open my eyes. Do you know how many times I have begged and pleaded with Freyja and Odin to take me to their halls? This battle, if it should be, will be my chance to die a warrior’s death. I will be at peace with that,” Astrid says with the fight having gone out of her.
“You would want to die in battle? You want to die and leave me alone?” Eira asks.
“No sister, you would never be alone,” Astrid says. “I am already dead.”
“You are not dead; you are very much alive. I plan on keeping you alive,” Eira says.
“Do you not understand? Have you not heard what I said, Eira? I am dead on the inside! I have been dead since Knut raped me during the celebrations of the scarifice. I am tired!” Astrid exclaims. She huffs in annoyance at her elder sister. I just want Eira to understand how I feel, she thinks to herself. Eira’s continued silence makes Astrid scoff as she storms away from her sister.
Eira wonders how could she have not realized Astrid’s feelings. I was thinking of what I saw in my dreams and not of her, she thinks to herself. Of course Astrid is still suffering from Knut, how can she not? Eira applauds Astrid for waking up everyday when Astrid has made it perfectly clear that she does not wish to. Her sister truly is the strongest person that she knows. Eira would have been a coward and taken her life as soon as justice was taken. If Astrid was going to die, she would have found a way to achieve the warrior’s death. If this upcoming battle will give Astrid what she wants, then who is Eira to stop her? Of course Eira will miss her sister, should she die, but Eira would live for the both of them. Eira wonders if she should seek Astrid to apologize to her, but she decides against it. I have hovered enough, she thinks to herself. The last thing she wants to happen would be Astrid running off to get away from Eira.
Astrid cannot believe her sister. She understands that Eira wants to protect her, but Eira must understand that she cannot protect Astrid from everything; there are some things that Astrid must face alone. Eira has grown paranoid due to her dreams and now it has affected her relationship with Astrid. Why would the Gods show Eira such a thing? Astrid shakes her head as she continues walking. She was going to return to chopping wood, but she feels as if a walk would help clear her head. The land around her is very different from the land of Hafrsfjord.
The trees are tall; they almost stretch into the sky. The brown overgrown tree trunks look as if they could be used for sleeping during the night. The mix of dark and light green leaves hang down from the branches as they cast shadows while they blow in the wind. The ground crinkles beneath her shoes as she walks over sticks and rocks. She watches with curious eyes as small animals that she has never seen before race across the ground. The animals chase each other around the trunk of a tree that is covered with a thick layer of moss.
Astrid wonders what it is like to be an animal. Animals do not have to worry about making life altering decisions. What she would give to not have a care in the world the way these small creatures do. Animals can make their own homes, scourge for their own food, and run free. That is all Astrid truly wants; she just wants to be free. She wants to feel the way a bird does when they take off in flight. She wants to soar, but yet she feels as if she is swallowing dirt. She has no freedom. She is the daughter of an earl. She is a shieldmaiden. Freedom is nothing in her life.
Why does freedom come with a cost? Must Astrid pay with her life to truly be free? She wants to be free of the nightmares that still haunt her. She does not want to be the daughter of an earl anymore; she wants to do as she pleases. Astrid wants to be able to be joyful when she awakens. She wants to be able to look upon people and not see Knut’s face evilly grinning down at her as he rams into her repeatedly. Astrid wants to feel clean again, to feel like herself again.
The problem is that Astrid does not know who she is anymore. She was a warrior, a shieldmaiden of Hafrsfjord. She wanted nothing more than to fight and gain a reputation. Astrid wanted to be known as one of the greatest shieldmaidens in the world, but how could she if she could not defend herself against Knut? She was weak, frail. Why should she be alive when everything that she represented was taken from her?
The wind blowing in her face reminds Astrid of her surroundings. She is in an unfamiliar territory yet she feels as if these lands are calling out to her. The wind whips around her as if it is speaking to her. This is where you were meant to be, she hears the wind say to her. Is she truly meant to be here? These lands, as unfamiliar to her as they are, seem welcoming to her. Perhaps this is the solace that Astrid has been seeking these past few months. As she continues walking, her newfound solace takes her to the beginning of a clearing that leads to a vast field. The light green grass blows in the breeze as if it were hair. The overhanging green tree leaves cast light shadows on the Earth’s floor as the sun lightly beams down. Is this what serenity looks like?
Astrid’s peace is interrupted when she spies men with red tunics and chainmail riding on horses that are pulling a large cart. She backs away into the trees so that they will not see her. She watches as one of the men gets off his horse to go over to the cart that has stopped. From what Astrid can tell there are two, maybe three large chests in the back of the cart. Astrid knows that chests that large can only be used for silver and gold. If that is the case then the king has agreed to their terms. Astrid smiles in triumph, but her smile quickly fades from her face.
The man that is standing at the back of the cart has pulled two large vials of something out of the bag that sits across his shoulders. Astrid watches as the chests of treasures are opened and the Saxon carefully pours the contents of the vials onto the gold and silver. It dons on Astrid what they mean to do with those chests; the Saxons mean to kill them. A poison like that must start to take effect within minutes; the Christians were careful not to let any of it get on them. If Astrid or any of the other warriors were to touch the gold or silver, how long would they have before they died? I must warn the others, Astrid thinks to herself as she turns her back on the men before breaking into a sprint.
By the time Astrid reaches the camp, she sees the warriors have gathered around the makeshift entrance to the camp. They are standing with smiles on their faces at the look of the cart filled with their treasure. The king is talking with the Saxon men, but Astrid cannot understand what they are saying. Astrid pushes through the crowd of people in order to reach her father. When she reaches Thigurd, he pulls her into a side hug.
“Daughter, where did you go?” he asks her.
“Father, there is no time for that. This is a trick. They mean to kill us. I watched as they poured a poison over the gold and silver,” she says quickly. At the sound of her voice, King Stigr turns to face her.
“Are you sure of what you have seen?” King Stigr asks her. Astrid glares at the king’s question.
“I know what I saw. Tell me, King Stigr, would poison not be a way to get rid of us? Do you truly believe that this King of Northumbria wants to give us his gold and silver? We are his enemy; this man wants us dead. If you truly believed that this man would actually agree without any sort of retaliation, then you are a fool,” Astrid says sternly. The king stares in silence at her before turning back to the Saxons. Eira watches the exchange and watches as the Saxons slowly reach for their swords. Before the one standing closest to the cart can pull his sword from its sheath, Eira has thrown her axe at him; the axe buried itself in the man’s chest and he crumpled to the ground.
With wide eyes, the Saxon that was talking to the king watches as his men pull out their swords and the Northmen are suddenly surrounding them. The call for a shield was made before the king could draw his own axe. As the Saxons started to run away, some of the Northmen charged after them, breaking the shield wall. The Saxons were running as fast as they could, but they could not run faster than the arrows that Northmen archers were letting loose. In their haste to save their lives, the Saxons left behind the poisoned charts full of gold and silver.
“What are we to do with their gold and silver?” Leif asks.
“Bury it,” Astrid states. With a look to her father for permission, the warrior sets off to see it done.
“Now we rest. We have a battle to prepare for,” King Stigr says.
“For how long will we rest?” Eira asks.
“Three days. We will send more scouts out to see of their whereabouts. When the scouts return with word of their moves, we will put my daughter’s plan into motion. All who agree with the plan, raise your hand,” Thigurd says firmly. Eira watches as everyone quickly raises their hands. The moment that Eira has dreaded is arriving; one of her loved ones will die in the coming battle.
About the Author
Sherena Willford · Virginia State University
Sherena Willford, from Carrollton, VA, is an English major with a creative writing concentration at Virginia State University. When she is not studying, she enjoys writing and listening to music. This piece first appeared in One Twenty One.
About the Artist
Evan McGrew, James Madison University
Evan McGrew graduated in 2012 with a degree in writing rhetoric and technical communication, along with a passion for writing. A self-taught photographer, Evan looks forward to combining writing and photography into a career. This piece first appeared in the 2011 volume of plain china.