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Part VI: A.D. 912
The apprentice smith wiped away sweat from his brow before continuing his stint on the bellows. While it was only mid morning, it had already gotten insufferably hot with the work he was involved in.
"Just a bit longer, Hrothgar," the smith pronounced with a slight smile. "This piece is almost done."
The boy nodded, braided blond hair flying. He applied himself with a vengeance to the bellows, not able to see what was going on inside the clay hearth. He only knew that the heat inside the hearth was hotter than the fires of Muspellheimr.
He had only been apprenticed to the smith for four months. But, in that time, he had learned quite a bit about the art of smithing. He had also put on quite a bit of muscle in his upper body, what with his bellows work. Hrothgar counted himself extremely lucky to have gained this position. Any of the village boys would have killed to learn from the smith. Blacksmith work paid extremely well and was always in demand.
The smith used tongs to pull out a red hot piece of metal from the hearth. Setting it on an anvil nearby, strong arms and hands went to work. This was the final shaping for a spearhead commissioned by the jarl of the village.
The boy slowed his exertions on the bellows. He kept it hot, but there was no need to overdo it until the smith went back to the hearth.
The smith, long dark hair tied back in a knot, waved a dismissive hammer laden hand at the boy. "Let it go, Hrothgar. We won’t need it any more today." Sounds of the hammer being applied to steel resumed.
Smiling, the blond boy stood up and stretched. He stepped to the wide doorway and, using a long handled ladle, sluiced water over his head from the rain barrel. He took a long drink and returned to the smith to watch.
The smith wore soft boots and trousers of dark brown and a sleeveless tunic of bright red. Bare arms rippled with movement, testifying to the strength of the muscles beneath. A brown leather belt wrapped around the waist, holding a long knife and a pouch. Always near at hand was a swordbelt with sword, whip, and something the smith called a ‘chakram’. The raven hair was tied in the typical woman’s knot. Sweat and soot currently marred her face, but the blue eyes glittered as if lit from within. She focused herself on the spearhead, using a small hammer to finish out the edges. Sparks flew where the tool made contact.
Hrothgar mused that it was rather odd to have a woman for a smith. Odder still was the fact that she was one of the best warriors in the village. Not that women didn’t have the right to do what they wanted, of course. It’s just that most usually chose the way of life that all women had chosen. The boy had heard sagas of other women who, having been fed up with the men around them or in a fit of anger at the death of a husband, took up sword and avenged themselves and their kin. But never a saga of a woman who had always done it.
The warrior smith was odd in other ways, being a foreigner to the Nordic village. About the only thing she had in common with the rest of the folk were those blue eyes. No one had hair as dark as hers. No one had as much speed or strength to dispatch enemies in a fight. No one had the knowledge of healing that she had. Even the village healer had to call on Xena upon occasion. Hrothgar himself would not exist had she not been there at his birthing. She spoke Old Norse almost like a native, with just a slight accent on her words. She had been in the village for well over a dozen years. It had taken awhile, but she was now an integral part of their life. The only people to give her a second glance for occupation and appearance were those travelers that occasionally wandered through to and from Jorvik, a city a day’s ride to the northeast.
Xena of Amphipoulis held up the spearhead with the tongs, studying it closely. Satisfied, she shoved it into a barrel of water, watching the steam rise as the steel cooled. "We’ll use the grinding stone tomorrow to sharpen it," she told her apprentice. Glancing up with icy eyes that belied the small grin on her face, she said, "Let’s get this place cleaned up. Gotta get ready for the festival tonight."
The boy’s face broke out in a wreath of smiles. He dashed around the smithy, banking the hearth fire, putting away tools and sweeping the floor. Xena chuckled, setting the spearhead down and settling the tongs into place on the wall. She left the industrious apprentice to duck her head into the rain barrel out front, relishing the coolness. Throwing her head out and back, water sprayed behind her in a long arc and ran down her face. She wiped her eyes clear and took a long drink with the ladle.
The smithy behind her was located near the edge of the village of Tyrsbeck. A brook meandered along the southern edge of the village, passing the corner of her property before wandering off to parts unknown. The building she called home was made of timber and was in the shape of an ‘L’, with the shorter base being the location of the smithy itself. The rest of her home ran to the right behind her with a stick fence in a semi-circle from the smithy to the corner of the house. A dry yard held a couple of chickens, the innkeeper’s horse that she had just shod that morning, and her own horse - a magnificent reddish brown Arabian named Cleo.
Xena stretched mightily, hearing the bones in her spine crackle in response. She swung her arms in short arcs before her to loosen up the shoulder muscles and then, scooping up her sword belt, turned back to her home. As she opened the gate, she hollered into the smithy, "And Hrothgar! Take a bath before you get dressed!"
She chuckled and moved into the yard, upsetting the chickens. She had her own bathing and dressing to contend with before the Ærre-lithe, or midsummer, celebration.
* * *
The center of Tyrsbeck had been transformed over the morning. A fire pit in the middle of the square held the spitted carcass of a sheep and several sticks of fish and fowl. The inn was open and doing a booming business with the villagemen and outlying farmers that had brought their families. Those women that weren’t tending the fire were scattered around the area, seated on benches and catching up on the local gossip as they chopped vegetables for the afternoon’s feast. Children ran screaming hither and yon with wooden swords and battleaxes, pretending to be great heroes from the sagas. The healer was relaxing in front of his hut, surrounded by the youngest children as he quietly told them a story about Thor and the great serpent. A few of the men could be seen having an axe throwing competition. The occasional chunk of metal hitting a wooden target drifted over the village.
Xena waved Hrothgar away to his family. The boy grinned thanks and ran to his mother and sisters. He didn’t get many opportunities to visit, since their farm was a distance away from the village. He had been looking forward to seeing them all week.
The dark woman had changed from red to a deep blue sleeveless tunic over black trousers. The tunic was embroidered with small pictures of animals around the arms openings, neck, and hem. Her sword belt hung from her waist and black bracers wrapped her wrists. Xena made her way to the inn, smiling and murmuring pleasantries to the people of the village she currently called home. Have to be moving on soon, she considered sadly. As soon as Hrothgar’s made his master’s piece. She hadn’t given much thought to her next move - she still had a goodly number of years before it would be necessary. Maybe Spain.
It was ironic, really. For generations Xena’s blood sang with wanderlust, never staying anyplace for too long a time. And the Amazons were always there, knowing who and what she was, offering a homeland for her to settle. But, with the death of the Amazon nations and the rise of this One God, no one knew she was immortal. And now that her thirst for seeing over the next horizon had been quenched, there was nowhere she could stay for longer than a decade or two. Questions would eventually begin popping up, speculations on the wonderfully well preserved aspects she had. Before people would get too suspicious, a death would be faked or, perhaps, a family member would suddenly be taken ill and she would have to leave the area.
Inside the inn, Xena hailed a few of the villagemen and sidled up to the bar, ordering a mead. The drink of their gods, she thought ruefully. But, like all gods, they don’t pay attention to me. She took a healthy swallow of the honey brew. It was a bit too sweet for her tastes. She drank, not for herself, but for her heart. She thought of a bard from long ago that would have loved this drink. Probably too much, she snorted to herself and turned around, leaning elbows on the bar behind her to look around the common room.
It was darker here and just a bit cooler as all the windows and doors had been thrown open to accomodate the slight breeze blowing off the brook. Several men sat around the tables, discussing the weather, farming, and politics. In one corner two men were playing hnefa-tafl, or King’s Table. Around them were seated other men and some older youths, betting on the proceedings. A handful of women clustered around another table with their bairns, enjoying the breeze and chatting about children.
Xena took another drink from her mug, wiping her mouth off with the back of her hand. She glanced to her left and saw darker blue eyes watching her. A raven brow raised and she held her mug up in salute. The stranger beside her nodded and raised his mug as well and they both drank, appraising one another.
Another man, dark hair braided with strips of leather, shoved between them with a grin. "Xena!"
The dark woman smiled. "Fridthjof, what are you doing here?" she asked of the trader.
"Well, you know. Thought I’d spend Ærre-lithe with some of my favorite people," was the flippant response. He hailed the ‘keep and got a mead.
Xena grunted sourly into her mug, hiding her grin. "In other words, you came to make money."
"C’mon, Xena, everybody’s got to survive....." The trader, face wrinkled from too much time in the sun, glanced to the man next to him. "Heilsa, Thorsteinn." He quickly turned back to the woman. "Do you know of my cousin, Thorsteinn Egilsson, then?"
"Nope," the woman drawled.
"Xena! He’s the best at glima in his area! You’ve never heard of him?!" the trader exclaimed loudly, drawing the attention of the surrounding villagers and farmers.
The smith’s eyes narrowed in feigned thought. "Hmmmm....." Icy blue eyes looked back at the trader and his cousin. "Nope...." A slight smile crossed her face. "Guess he’s not as renowned as you thought," she said in a clear voice.
Several guffaws emitted from the other patrons along the bar and nearby tables.
Fridthjof glared in mock indignation. His cousin’s frowning stare was more heartfelt as he glanced around at the others around them. He hated being laughed at.
"Then I guess it’s time to increase his reputation," the trader said. He looked around the common room. "Who’s your best?" he demanded, already knowing the answer.
More chuckles from the crowd. A small tow headed boy stepped forward with a grin and pointed at Xena. "She is!"
Thorsteinn’s frown deepened in confusion, brows furrowing together on his forehead. "A woman?" he demanded. "A woman is your best?" He pushed away from the bar and looked at the villagers, hands on hips. "Are you all whipped, then, that you’ve let a woman best you?"
Xena heard the answering growl from the villagers. With a flourish, she stepped away from the bar, finished her mead and slammed the mug down onto the counter. Having regained her audience, she glared at the man, fingering the whip on her belt. "I thought we were talking about wrestling. If it’s a whipping you want, I can do that too."
Thorsteinn moved closer until they were nose to nose. Two different shades of blue bored into each other. "When I’m done, I’ll use your little toy to hog tie you," he warned. He shoved past her and went out the door.
Xena let a slow, lazy grin cross her face. The villagers began pouring out of the inn and into the dusty square. Bets began to be raised back and forth as the jarl, Sturlu, cleared an area for the coming competition. With several villagers clapping her on the back, she moved out into the sun. Hrothgar came trotting up, and Xena took off her sword belt and dagger and handed them to him to hold. She watched Thorsteinn do the same.
Minutes later found the opponents in the traditional glima position. Standing close, right feet placed between the other’s legs, the right hands firmly gripping braided belts, the left ones wrapped tight in the trouser cloth on their opponent’s thigh.
"Lay on!" the jarl yelled.
The two wrestlers began a shuffling dance, turning clockwise as they tried to gain purchase with their feet to trip up their opponent. The crowd pressed in around them, villagers cheering Xena on and the merchant travelers rooting for Thorsteinn.
Dust raised up to their knees as they danced around each other, but neither noticed. The object of glima was to toss or drop your opponent by feel, rather than sight. Both peered over each other’s shoulders rather than into the eyes, making it far more difficult to gauge what the other was going to do next. Thorsteinn’s face held a look of concentration, Xena’s of enjoyment.
Xena twisted her body to the right, moving her right foot up to take out the man’s left leg. The wrestler shuffled hurriedly to the right, forcing her to lose her advantage. He felt a flush of anger as he heard the low chuckle in his ear. Grasping her firmly, he used his brute strength to force her to his left, bringing his left knee up in an attempt to knock her down. He was surprised to find that she didn’t budge. Gods, she’s a strong one!
The woman moved to the right, breaking his attempt. She hooked her left ankle around the back of his right shin, jabbing hard with her heel. Feeling her body move, he stepped right quickly and her heel barely brushed his leg. Before she could get stable footing, Thorsteinn again tried to force her to his left. Xena pulled back, planting her left foot firmly behind her and twisting her body in his grasp. Before the trader knew what happened, she pulled him close into her right side and turned further, picking him up and tossing him over her hip.
As the dust settled around Thorsteinn, the villagers hooted and hollered, laughingly passing their winnings around. Some traders grumbled as they gave up their money. Fridthjof, however, made out fairly well, as he had bet on Xena.
Thorsteinn lay on the ground, still dazed that he had been beaten by a woman. But, what a woman! He saw a gauntleted hand reach down and he followed it up to see pale blue eyes smiling at him.
"Well fought," she chuckled. She grasped his forearm and helped him to his feet. Once on his feet, she released his arm. "Would you still be wanting that whipping, then?"
Thorsteinn smiled sheepishly. "Uh.... no.... I think I’ve been whipped enough for one day." He dusted himself off. "Buy you a drink?" he asked, gesturing towards the inn that was rapidly refilling with people.
Xena nodded and he went inside. She accepted congratulations from her apprentice as she took her sword belt and dagger back from him. She settled the weapons around her waist and shooed the boy off to have fun for the evening. She stood in the clearing square, smelling the roasting meat, watching the people she had come to care for as they continued their celebration. Closing her eyes, she could almost see the red gold hair of a laughing young woman near the trader’s stalls, haggling over some bit of cloth or food. With a melancholy smile, she returned to the present and pivoted to enter the inn and collect her mead.
* * *
The next morning, the warrior smith drove her cart out of the yard. She was off to the North Jorvik Moors to look for ore. Every two weeks or so, she would take this trip. Not only was she keeping her iron ore supply up, but she was filling that need within her that craved alone time. Xena knew that within the next year, she would have to bring her apprentice with her on these trips, eventually allowing him to take them on his own. But, for now, she relished the quiet solitude of the road.
The Ærre-lithe lasted into the wee hours of the morning. There had been feasting, music and dance, a ceremony to their gods. A few more glima bouts had been fought, though none had been foolish enough to challenge Xena again. Axes and spears had been pulled out for throwing competitions. The dark woman had been hounded into doing a chakram demonstration by one of the traders. After she figured the angles and let fly, resulting in the loss of half his mustache, the man didn’t pester her further.
Around the fire that night, tales were told, songs were sung, riddles were spoken, more music was played. Everyone in the celebration contributed. Xena herself had sung an ancient Greek ballad, entrancing them with the strange language and tune. Late into the night it continued until people eventually wandered away to find their bedrolls.
Xena had finally collected a tipsy Hrothgar and bade good bye to his family as she escorted him down the road to the smithy. She kept one hand on his shoulder to keep him aimed in the right direction, a smirk on her face as he rattled on about the news from his family.
"Xena?" he had asked, peering up at her.
"Could I hold that chakram of yours?"
Xena had looked down at the eager eyes. With a slight shrug, she had said, "Sure." She had unhooked it from her belt and handed it to him gently. "Be careful, the edges are razor sharp."
Hrothgar had held it reverently, studying it in the moonlight. "Will you show me how to use it sometime?" he had asked, feeling the heft of the weapon.
The dark woman had thought about it for a few moments before smiling to the boy beside her. "You bet. We’ll start right after I get back with the ore, okay?"
Xena had ruffled his hair. Within a few minutes, they had arrived back at the smithy. She had spent the next little while, getting the drunk boy up to his pallet in the loft above the smithy before heading to her own bed.
Back in the present, Xena’s horse shied away from a pheasant that had been flushed from a bush near the road. She soothed the animal and continued on. Smiling ruefully to herself, she realized that she had never retrieved the chakram from the boy. He had fallen asleep with it.
* * *
It had been a productive four days. Cleo trudged towards home, pulling the heavy cart behind. Xena walked beside her, hand on bridle. The smith anticipated a decent meal, some ale, and a nice bed. You’re going soft. She chuckled to herself.
The sun was setting, but the woman decided to press on. She was only an hour or so away from Tyrsbeck and on a decent road. The call of home was too strong to deny. Besides, anyone in this area would know her and be fool to try anything. Xena wondered if Hrothgar had finished up that batch of nails that needed to be forged.
The sky was dark, shot with reds and golds as Helios made its descent at the end of the world. The summer air was cool, filled with birdsong and rustling of leaves. As it grew darker, she began to look forward to catch sight of the village, lamps and torches lit inside the homes. It smelled of coolness, green things, dust from the road. And something else.
Xena’s brows furrowed and she took a few steps closer to the village. In the dark, she could just make out the opening of the trees that marked the beginning of the cleared area near home. There were no lights. Another smell assailed her nostrils, a familiar one of smoke. And blood. And death.
Eyes wide, senses on alert, the warrior halted the horse. She unsheathed her sword and stepped off the road, circling around the village to enter near the brook. Xena almost tripped on something along the bank. When she looked closely, she saw that it was a woman.
She ducked down and checked for a pulse, knowing from the stench that it was already far too late. Keeping aware of her surroundings, she glanced down quickly to see that it was the innkeeper’s wife. The woman had been gutted like a sheep. It had been at least two days. Face twisted into a snarl, the immortal moved further into the village.
What she found was the universally recognized signs of a slaughter. What hadn’t been burned down around the villagers’ heads had been looted. Anyone who had stood up to whoever had raided Tyrsbeck had been slain. Two day old corpses littered the square. Near the inn, Xena found the remains of the traders that had been visiting - even they had not been exempt from this wrath.
The woman growled, teeth bared as she moved silently through the destruction towards the smithy. Knowing that it wouldn’t have been spared, praying that it had, she approached.
The ruin that had once been her home was still smoking. Stepping into the smithy, she glared around. The cracked and tumbling remains of the clay hearth was the only thing still standing. Even the blackened timber cornerposts had fallen aside. Rooting through the rear of the smithy, she found what she was looking for.
* * *
Tenderly, Xena placed the remains of her apprentice onto the pyre. He was surrounded by the family and friends that he had been born to. She refused to pray for their spirits, for the gods wouldn’t listen anyway. With a silent word of thanks for their acceptance of her, she touched a torch to wood.
It had taken all night and most of the following day, but she had finally accounted for everyone. Whoever it had been was not intent on getting slaves. Xena had found evidence or a large band of horses moving south.
As the fire licked at the bodies of her people, the warrior turned and mounted her horse. She had taken the time to sharpen her sword to a fine edge. The chakram was gone - whether it had been taken by the raiders or simply lost somewhere in the rubble, she didn’t know. Regardless, she didn’t have time to look for it. It was time for payback. With a final look at the fire, eyes of blue flashing, she whirled the horse about and rode after the villains.
* * *
James of Dartmouth trudged along the track with the rest of his mates. God, I hate being in the last troop, he complained to himself.
It had rained the last day and a half. The ground was nothing but mud, sucking at his boots. His thighs were becoming sore from the unnatural walk of lifting his booted feet high from the muck only to step back into it again with a squelching sound. It hardly helped being in the last troop, with three others ahead churning the ground up.
The Company of the Wolf moved along with agonizing slowness. One of three companies belonging to King Guthfrith of Jorvik, its current goals were to convert the heathen population of His Majesty’s to the proper religion of the One God. They had been traveling for close to two weeks, demanding obedience and obeisance to the king and the god. While most of the villages in the outlying territories of Jorvik easily fell sway to their cause, there were always a few nests of heathenry that had to be completely cleansed.
James didn’t care one way or another. Religion and gods meant nothing to him. What did matter was being paid, and well, to do something he loved doing. It wasn’t just the battles and the bloodlust. In fact, he would have to say that the fighting just wasn’t what he craved. It was the taste of blood itself. The pain. The fear. Looking into another pair of eyes as he lovingly choked the life out of them.
Sometimes, the blond man regretted his soldierly calling. While it gave him leave to do what he loved to do, he always felt that something was missing. Like that boy in Tyrsbeck. I would have loved to have spent an entire day with him. He revelled in the remembered screams as he castrated the young man before gutting him.
And that was the problem with raiding - cleansing. No time. No experimentation. No finesse. He sighed and continued to march forward. Someday, he vowed to himself. Someday.
His thoughts were interrupted by a strange warcry and a scream. Whirling around, sword raised, he saw her - the Angel of Vengeance.
Black trousers, chainmail shirt with no sleeves, bare arms strong and muscular holding a sword. The Angel used a booted foot to kick the body of a man off her sword. Her ebony hair was wild and pale blue eyes sparkled darkly. The grin on her face promised an eternity in the pits of Hell.
She reached out, almost negligently, and ran another soldier through. This broke the troops’ tableau and they surged forward. There were shouts and orders as the company’s captain and sergeants tried to get to the fray. The muddy ground impeded the men, yet failed to slow the Angel. She seemed to be everywhere, with sword and fist and foot. Her warcry pierced the ears like a banshee.
In moments, there were bodies all about her. She was splattered with blood not her own, further connecting her in James’ mind with a demon spirit from the nether world. The smile never left her face, even when a soldier caught a lucky break and sliced her arm open.
And then, she was before James. Grey eyes stared fearfully into the blue. There was a flash, like an arc of lightning between the two of them. Do I know her?? The man thought he saw a flicker of recognition in her eyes before it was clouded over with the manic glare of a berserker. He swung at her, using all his strength. The Angel idly knocked him aside and ran him through.
As he lay dying, his one thought was that he’d never get to try out all the interesting things that his mind had conjured up during the long marches hither and yon. And that round thing he’d picked up from the boy in Tyrsbeck. He’d never discover what it was. James lost consciousness.
* * *
He opened his eyes slowly. God, it stinks! It was full dark now. Shouldn’t it be? The man wondered if he was in Hell. If it’s just a place of stink, I could get used to it. He tried to reconstruct what had happened. Where he was.
As memory trickled through, he realized he felt movement. I’m moving. The steady rocking of a cart shifted him back and forth. He was bumped and jostled from all around. His brow furrowed at this new information. Where am I?
James of Dartmouth gathered his strength and fought his way to a sitting position. He was amidst several dead bodies. They thought I was dead? Why?
He suddenly remembered the Angel of Vengeance. She.... she killed me! His grey eyes wide, he felt his chest. There... there was the hole from her blade, went right through his armor. His shirt was covered with a stiffening substance that he recognized as blood. "My God!" he exlaimed.
The driver of the deathcart spun around, heart in throat at the sound behind him. He saw the dead man sitting in his cart, moving, talking. With no thought, he bailed from the cart and hit the ground running. James watched him disappear into the dark.
I’m alive! his mind rambled. "I’m ALIVE!!" the man yelled, standing.
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