An Arm’s Length
The wind rustles the leaves on both shores, the branches swaying and cracking under the sustained breath.
An exhale that seems to go on long past when it should have ended. It is a deep sigh, foreboding, in many ways a lament. As if the very air shared in their mourning. The wind has a chill to it, the first bite of the upcoming winter. The promise of cold far deeper and greater than this. For now, it is enough for some of the men to pull their cloaks a little tighter. For others, it hardly seems to register.
Save for the shuffle of the trees the night is still, the only other sounds coming from the longship. It rocks gently on the placid water of the fjord, the surface reflecting the bright moon that hangs overhead, broken only by the nearly syncopated dip of the oars. The wood comes up dripping, the remnants of the river falling back into place, adding their echoes to the silence. The ship creaks and groans slightly as it pulls along under the power of the men propelling it, far fewer now than when they had left earlier in the spring.
At the mouth of the fjord they had struck the mainsail and bundled it to the yard. Perhaps it was foolhardy to row during the darkness, but Frode knew the river better than any of them, and they all knew it like their own lovers. The moon is a beacon save for the thin wisps of clouds streaking across it, like the last strands of hair clinging to an old crones scalp. It casts discomforting shadows on man and shore, yet it gives Frode ample enough light by which to guide them through the channel. The oars turn and tumble in their ports through the gunwale, the jarring sound at odds with the strange serenity around them. Another breeze whistles through, flapping a loose section of the sail above. The men pull on. They want to get home. They need to get home.
He sits on an upturned bucket, his arms draped over his own thighs, his hands clasped around a cold hand. The man it belongs to is laid out before him on the other side of the mast, his lips as blue as his fingers, his skin a waxy pale. An odd smirk sits permanently affixed to his mouth, while his eyes remain locked open, reflecting the stars above but seeing none of them. The man’s other hand is wrapped around the hilt of a sword. It isn’t Trygg’s, there had been no time to find his own sword, but it is a sword nonetheless. Fist wrapped around the grip, it lies across his chest, barely covering the gaping hole in his mail and flesh.
The man on the bucket feels the sting in his eyes again. It happens more often now, the closer that they are to home. He bows his head a bit more. The men at the oars look on, staring straight at the stern. The blood on their skin had at least flaked and fallen off somewhat over the last few days. Early on he had taken his turn at the oars. Every man was expected to pull, he was no different, even in light of what had transpired. Yet the closer to home they came the more he felt the need to be with his friend. No one complained, even short handed as they were. The others saw it. Without turning their heads they saw it. Even now, as he lowers his head between his legs some more, they don’t look. They don’t hear the sobs. Someone graciously coughs when the wind dies down. In the dark he can’t tell who it is that bestows this small gift upon him, but he is grateful for it all the same.
Trygg. Faithful, honorable Trygg. If ever a man was made by the Gods and placed on this earth for the benefit of others, it was he. Since boys they had known one another. They had herded cattle together, helping Trygg’s father’s with his stock, practicing swords with wooden sticks in the fields while the cows grazed. Forever they had dreamed of the time when they could join the raids, venture off with the warriors to prove themselves in battle. They had longed for glory, for cutting men down, stealing their wives, and returning with sacks full of plunder. To earn the favor of their Chieftain, to have arm rings bestowed upon them. To have Odin look down upon them and be pleased. Those dreams of the young, before they had tasted the saltiness of blood, or smelt the excrement of the disemboweled. If only he could go back and grab those two fools by the scruff of their necks and dunk their heads. What fools they had been. What damned fools.
How many summers had come and gone since they had first raided? Twenty? Thirty? All those years, all those battles, all those lost. What of the losses here at home? He had never married, but Trygg. What would he say to Eldrid? He would have to be the one to tell her. Honor dictated it. But how? How could he do that when he knew he couldn’t even face her? What of their children? Of Trygg’s sons and daughters, his grandchildren? How could he look into their eyes and tell them that their father, their grandfather, was no more? The thought is too much to bear. His head sinks again. Drips hit the wood, water that does not fall from the oars.
The summer had not gone well. Too few had gone raiding to begin with. Their enemy, after so many summers of bloodshed, had learned not only how to fight them but how to anticipate them. Upon drawing up to the shores they found themselves besieged, an action that proved costly in terms of loss; stores, men, and time. When they had finally broken the ring around them they found the countryside abandoned. Every peasant and farmhand had drawn back into the burhs, taking with them anything of value. They roamed the hills, burned some towns, took what they could, but all in all it was not nearly enough to compensate for the men they had already lost. Then the armies had appeared.
Their scouts spotted them approaching early one day, as the summer had waned through autumn. The warriors rallied to meet them, especially the younger ones, hungry for a fight face to face, against men of flesh and blood, not walls of brick and stone. They just never saw the other army approaching from the west. Their lines broken, they had been driven, hounded to the coast. They raced to get there before their enemy could, before their ships could be fired, but the troops were fast on their heels. He and Trygg had been amongst a group that stayed a short ways back atop a hillock, fighting desperately to delay the onslaught. Buying precious minutes for their escape.
The fighting was some of the most brutal he had ever witnessed, that he ever inflicted. The lines were broken on both sides at some point, all intermixed with one another, so that in the chaos you didn’t know if the man behind you was friend or foe. They had been separated at that point. As he fought, smashing in the skull of a would be attacker with the pommel of his sword, there was a cry. It was Trygg, pierced through the hip by a spearhead, surrounded by three men.
Trygg fought ferociously, he always had. There were just too many, and there was no one else near enough to help him. As the wounds surmounted, he had looked up. The man hadn’t been afraid to die. He welcomed death in battle, as they all did. But when Trygg looked across the field at him, he saw in his friend’s eyes a pleading, no a begging, for him to help. He rushed to get to him, but there were too many. So many bodies between them. As his friend killed one of his assailants with his axe he was pierced through the chest with another spear. To his credit, Trygg buried his axe into the neck of the man that killed him, before slumping to his knees, the spear shaft sticking in the mud and keeping him propped up. As he reached his friend’s side he gutted the third man, sinking his blade up to the crossguard in his stomach, but what did that matter? His friend was already gone. He smashed the shaft with a boot, hoisted the man over his shoulder, and fled to the boats casting away into the sea. Ottar saw what happened. He had been the one to grab a sword for Trygg. He would remember Ottar’s kindness, after everything else had been resolved.
The shipping of the oars breaks his trance. He looks up, seeing that they have slid next to one of the piers. A few boys are already scurrying up the hill towards the hall, where torch and hearthlight spill from the open door as much as the raucous din of dozens of voices. A firm hand falls on his shoulder, but he doesn’t look up. “Come Halvor.” It is Frode speaking. “Let us see to him.”
He looks back down at his friend’s face. His body begins to shake. They had reached the end of their journey together, and it was too soon. More than forty years, and it was too soon. He lets go of his friend’s hand and gingerly stands up. “I cannot. I’m sorry.”
With that he turns and gathers his things, taking his sack and axe from the floor, and his shield from the gunwale. He drops over the side and splashes into the water up to his knees, already icy with the oncoming chill. The men watch him go, but they do not protest. They know what they see. No words can stop it, no argument change it, no sympathy mend it. They bear no ill will, for they know it could happen to any of them. As he stalks onto land and walks away down the shoreline, the men of the longship go about their business, preparing for the arrival of the villagers to help them with unloading their meager collection of trinkets.
He walks for some time, aimlessly winding his way to the outskirts of the village. He is only half surprised when he looks up and finds himself in front of Kort’s house, right on the water. Unlike him, his brother had followed the family’s trade, learning to fish the fjords from their father. Standing at the door, he raises a hand to knock but holds, thinking better of it. The hour is late. His brother may very well be at the hall, but Solveig his wife would be inside, along with the children. Should he wake the little ones, there would be hell to pay from her, and he is in no mood for that.
His fist frozen in the air, he catches sight of the blood. Trygg’s blood, caked on and cracking, falling off even now as amber snow. The image crosses in his mind with that of the children inside, and then that of Trygg’s children across the village. Suddenly it dawns on him, and he backs away. He races around the side of the house. He scrapes and pulls, first at the blood, then at the implements hung about him, his weapons of war, his tools of death. He throws down his shield and axe and claws at his belt, loosening and dropping it along with his sword to the ground. He backs away, unable to tear his eyes from them, wanting so desperately to do so. He tries to leave but he knows he can’t, that this isn’t enough.
He goes to a nearby pile of fishing nets. All of them have value to Kort, but some are more frayed and strained than others. He picks one of the worst, not wanting to disrupt his brother’s fishing too much. He would replace it with a new one. He’s sure his share of what little they came back with could provide for a new net, and if not, he could go into his stash for the necessary silver. Besides, young Cnut probably already had another in the works. The boy was quite proficient with his weavings, last he saw.
Spreading out the old net, he takes his mail from his sack. It’s pocked and broken in many sections from the fight, one sleeve practically hanging off the shoulder. More blood stains it, and a tuft of someone’s hair clings to the links. He drops it into the center of the net. Reaching into the sack, he pulls out his helm and places it on the mail. The sword goes onto the pile next, and then he lays his shield over it all. He picks up his axe and chops it down, the head burying into the wood. He pulls the sides of the net up and wraps them around the shaft of the axe, tying them off against it. Hefting the entire bundle, he slings it over his shoulder and walks down the small dock his brother uses to launch his fishing boat.
He stands at the edge of the pier, staring at the calm water, watching as it laps up against the pylons and shore alike. A moment of consideration passes before him, one of logic and contemplation. Could this truly be it? An end to all he has known, all that has defined him. Could he really leave this life behind, cast away by his own hand?
Trygg’s face flashes before his mind’s eye. Enough. He has had enough. Twisting the sack around, he swings it a few times before heaving with all his might. The weight of the contents is considerable. The net only travels a foot or so before splashing into the water and sinking to the shallow bottom. He can see the light of the moon shimmering with the flow of the water, gleaming off of the metal surfaces. Disappointed, he thinks to go in and walk the net out further. From here he need only lie down on the dock and reach in. Then he could pull the weapons back out whenever he wanted.
And in that, there is a new dawning. He turns and walks away. He had been a warrior all his life. He had lived by delivering death, by seeing others die, friend and foe. Trygg’s death had been the last one that he could bear witness too. He could do it no more. He longed for peace, for an end to the tumultuous, never ending battles. To the screams, and the blood, and the eviscerating horrors of what one man could do to another.
Yet he knows. He knows that he is still a warrior. That no matter what peace he finds, no matter what he does the rest of his days, that part of him will always be there. For once you are a warrior you can never truly cease to be one.
And so the weapons will stay where they lie. Near. Just under the surface. Where he can reach them if need be. He will seek peace, but may the Gods help anyone that tries to harm those he loves again. For then, and only then, would he reach out and become.
They are close. It is close.
At an arm’s length.