Windborn

Chapter One: A Glut of Plunder

 

The longship was too small.

Men and women, stained from our raid, dripped sweat and worse onto the wet sand. They shouted and pointed, trying to be the first to load their spoils.

The taste of blood still bothered me and I turned back to the small waves clawing at my feet. As I crouched down to wash the blood from my face, the taste of salt seeped past my lips to mix with the iron. I spat a glob of blood and seawater onto the sand. Up and down the shoreline others did the same. We stained the sea red.

“Edda.”

I splashed another handful of water on my face before I stood and faced Atli.

“What is it?” I snapped. This was our first rest in what felt like forever and we were about to be stuck together on a sea voyage for five days, if we were lucky, longer if we weren’t. Ask any raider and they will tell you their last moments of solitude are precious.

“Go and get Bjolfur,” he said and pinched the bridge of his nose.

I pushed myself to my feet and stormed over to the longship. It was beached in a sheltered cove near to the temple we had raided. The temple was too large for us to raid alone, but we had joined forces with other longships who had beached themselves further along the shore. Each of them would be hauling their plunder onto their ships and making ready to leave before nightfall.

The argument had grown more heated, and the air was heavy with a tension that suggested bloodshed was a single misstep away. I sighed as I heard my husband in the middle of it, his voice the loudest, and saw him jab a finger at the raid leader.

“—need to get home. We took the hostages to put them to work. We shouldn’t wait to see if anyone comes to ransom them back. We need to sail.”

A chorus of agreement from the fighters behind him.

Malka, our raid leader, raised a hand to try and placate the crowd. “We should give them a few days to pay the bounties, Bjolfur. Gold is easier to carry across the sea. If they come for the captives by then, we should still be back with plenty of time for you to do your work on the farm.”

Some of the others looked unsure. Whatever Bjolfur had told them, he likely hadn’t told them the whole truth.

“I took my hostage to help me with the farm. What good is gold when I need to get the flock in for the winter?”

Malka balled her fists and looked around. She saw me and relief washed over her face.

“Can you talk to him?”

Bjolfur spun around but his anger faltered when he saw me. He looked ready to continue the argument regardless, but my arrival provided enough of a disruption and most of the onlookers had started to move away to collect their shields for the return journey. Bjolfur came over to me as he grumbled to himself. I took his hand and dragged him to the sea.

“She wants me to leave the hostage behind,” he said as I bent and soaked a strip of cloth in the water.

“Do we really need an extra pair of hands on the farm?”

Bjolfur huffed. “You can never have too many hands.”

“Maybe,” I conceded and passed him the wet rag. “But we’ve managed fine so far. And if Malka takes the gold and silver instead of hostages then we’ll be able to hire help. If we get enough gold we might even have enough to start our own farm.”

He stopped washing his face and frowned at me. “We need help more than we need gold.”

We looked at each other. His face shone with half-washed blood and dirt and there was a blunt tiredness in his eyes. It had been a long raiding trip and Bjolfur always worried about the farm, even if we were only away overnight.

I sighed and went to him. His arms fell around my waist and he rested his head on my chest. I leaned down and kissed the top of his head.

“If you keep arguing with her, Malka will never let us leave.” I tugged softly on his braided beard. “And then it won’t matter if we have extra help or not. We’ll be stuck here, watching the winter storms. What’ll happen to Scratcher or the rest of the chickens? To the sheep?”

Bjolfur scowled then kissed me. The taste of iron and salt pressed against my lips again.

“She wants to keep us waiting here, anyway. What do you suggest, wise wife of mine?”

I shoved him playfully. “Let’s see if we can convince Malka to leave tomorrow. If they don’t come to get their loved ones by then they probably never will, and if we leave any later then we risk winter storms.”

Bjolfur looked unconvinced. He scrubbed his hands over the stubble on his head that had grown in the weeks we’d been raiding.

“Look, one day’s delay won’t matter and the longer we talk about this, the less likely we can set sail today anyway.”

He stopped scrubbing his head and stared at the horizon through the gap in the cove’s cliff walls.

Gulls laughed above us. People shouted to one another as they gathered supplies and weapons. At the other end of the cove, a larger longship slithered into the sea. Compared to our band of fighters their crew moved with a slick precision that they had mirrored on the battlefield.

“Fine,” Bjolfur said, then slapped my hand. “Stop picking your scabs. They’ll scar.”

“I like my scars,” I said. “They remind me of things. You see this one? I got this three years ago the last time we came raiding in Ertland.”

“I remember,” Bjolfur muttered. “Some fucker stuck you with a knife and was about to finish you off.”

“And you leapt out of nowhere and killed him.” I ran my thumb over the puckered skin with exaggerated affection. “It reminds me that you love me.”

“Atli’s wife is content with jewellery,” Bjolfur said, shaking his head. “He gave her a gold ring last raiding season.”

“I might lose a ring. Come on, let’s talk to Malka.”

After I had taken Bjolfur away, the dissidents dispersed to tend to their equipment. Malka and Atli were the only two people on board, moving sacks around to pack as much as they could into the small vessel. The line of twenty-seven bound captives huddled in the longship’s shadow ducked their heads as we approached. Too many to fit comfortably on our longship, but they were hard-won and could fetch a pretty price.

“Malka!”

Bjolfur’s voice echoed through the cove. Everyone glanced up like feasting crows from their carcass. For a little man, my husband can make a lot of noise. Two heads appeared above the shields hung over the side of the longship. Malka squinted against the setting sun, then rolled her eyes when she realised who it was.

“You were supposed to talk some sense into him, Edda,” she called out and leapt down onto the sand.

Bjolfur bristled. I put a hand on his shoulder.

“I tried, but I think you need to reconsider what he’s been saying.”

Malka narrowed her eyes. “Edda, we took those hostages to be ransomed back. We have no room on the ship, and no room at home for them.”

“Here we go again.” Bjolfur threw his hands in the air. “You and Dagnur don’t have room for them, maybe, but there’s plenty of us who’d appreciate the help over winter. Try thinking for yourself instead of thinking like that gold-hungry bastard.”

Malka took a step forward, putting Bjolfur into the shade of her bulk. “There’ll be none of that talk, Bjolfur. This is Dagnur’s ship and I’m his representative out here. You speak ill of him, you speak ill of me.”

“Malka,” I said, stepping between her and Bjolfur. “We’ve been out here for weeks. Dagnur wouldn’t want us to get back so late we miss the harvest, or can’t get our animals in, would he? All for a little extra gold?”

Malka bit her lip. She played absently with the ring of woven copper on her arm, the ring Dagnur had given her to show the oath sworn and loyalty owed. “We wait another three days for them to pay, one day for each of the sacred trees. Then we leave.”

I could almost feel the heat behind me as Bjolfur’s anger rose again.

“It’s taken us longer than that to drag them back here,” I said.

She looked at me. I saw the tension in her jaw loosen. We’d been on enough raids together to know that the longer you held hostages, the less likely it was their ransom was paid. She was wavering, and I was about to try and push her over the edge when a couple of rocks tumbled down from the nearby cliffs. Something about the stillness that followed made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. Malka felt it too. She straightened and looked away.

The beach was silent.

No one packed or spoke. Not even the gulls made a sound. Atli threw us our shields, then jumped from the longship and picked up a spear. We looked around, trying to find the source of our unease. All I could hear was the wind swirling in the cove and the rhythm of the waves, but years of raiding had taught me to trust my instincts and my fellow raiders. We gathered our weapons.

Something snapped. A tiny sound nearly lost under the quiet hiss of the sea. It came from the rocky path leading out of the cove. The path that led back to the temple.

We moved together without a word. Malka, Bjolfur, and I layered our round shields to make a shield wall as Atli moved behind us, ready to stab his spear over our shields at whoever came too close.

A bush beside the path twitched.

“Form up,” Malka shouted out over the beach. “Shield wall.”

Raiders all over the beach grabbed their weapons and scrambled toward us. A shout echoed out from the cove and caught the attention of the crews of the distant longships, though they were too far to tell what was happening.

Ahead of us, a warrior leapt from the bushes.

“For Edwyn,” he cried and drew his sword.

As he ran forward more figures emerged from the shadows of the cliff path and joined the charge. Chain shirts and half helms glinted in the dim afternoon sun.

“Where were these fuckers when we attacked the temple?” Bjolfur muttered.

“They must have gone for help,” I replied and slipped the knife from my belt.

More and more fighters spewed from the cliffs like a tide of steel and vengeance. Ertland had rallied its defenders, though some clutched woodcutting axes and wore no armour. There were so many, they threatened to overwhelm us with numbers alone.

“Shield wall!” Malka shouted, voice strained with urgency.

A few fellow raiders caught up to us and slammed into our shield wall. It wouldn’t be enough.

The rest of our raiders sprinted across the sand. They wouldn’t reach us in time. We had dragged the longship too far up the beach, our crew had gone too far in their need for solitude, and we would pay the price. The charging Ertlanders enveloped us like a sea serpent’s jaws.

“Brace,” Malka called.

We set our feet in the sand and they hit us.

The first charging warrior bounced off Bjolfur’s shield. Atli stabbed at him, but the spear scraped off their chain shirt.

Someone rammed into my shield. The force of it pushed me back in the sand. I held firm.

A woman’s face, mad with grief and rage, appeared above my shield. She reached over to bludgeon me with a hammer. I shoved her back and sank my iron knife into her gut as she fell. She screamed and crawled away.

Two more fighters battered my shield. Axes swung down at me. I ducked and their shafts bounced off my shield’s rim.

“There’s too many,” Malka said. “Fall back to the longship.”

As we tried to retreat the Ertlanders charged around the edges of our shield wall and cut us off from the longship. They slashed and stabbed at us from all sides. Atli cried out and went to a knee as an axe found his leg. He speared his attacker through the rib but another warrior took their place. We were stones in a river and the Ertlanders washed over us with murder in their hearts.

More raiders joined the fray. Too late to help the shield wall, but they evened the fight. The sounds of battle became mixed with cries of anger and pain as we sank iron teeth into our enemies.
Bjolfur and I pressed our backs together. Our shields swung wildly to try and deflect the mad horde’s attacks. A knife slashed and I blocked. An axe hacked at Bjolfur and I twisted to save him.

Something clawed across my back, ripping easily through my shirt, tearing deep into my flesh. I yelled and spun to face my opponent. The man wore a light tunic and trousers, no armour. One of his arms hung bloody and limp at his side and in his good hand he held a small knife. He slashed at me. It was clumsy and I ducked to one side before my own knife tore out his throat. He put his good hand to his neck as though to keep the blood in, but it was too late. He was already dead.

People shoved at me as they rushed past to get to the hostages. I tried to stop them with knife slices and shield bashes, but there were too many.

The once quiet cove echoed with the cries of the dying and the laughter of gulls above us, waiting for the dead.

A hostage sprinted away from the longship. Rope still dangled from his wrists and ankles. He tried to leap through the gap between Bjolfur and me, but Bjolfur turned and caught him with his shield. The man scrambled up and jumped onto Bjolfur’s shield. He clawed at Bjolfur’s head and gouged bloody tracks across it.

I lunged and stuck my knife into his back. He yelled as I stabbed him again and again. Then, he screamed and dropped to the ground.

Before I could check on my husband, the man grabbed my shield and yanked. The force of it took me by surprise and I was pulled down to one knee.

I let go of my shield and slashed at him. The knife caught his chest, bouncing off his ribs before slicing into his jaw. He went down.

“Are you—” Bjolfur’s question was cut off as another opponent found us.

This man had a woodcutter’s axe gripped with both hands and swung it at Bjolfur with all his might. The axe stuck in the shield and the force sent Bjolfur stumbling backwards. The Ertlander let go of the axe and, without pausing for breath, pulled a knife and came for me.

I tried to regain my shield but he was driven by righteous fury and I had no time. He thrust the knife at my neck.

A spear burst through his chest. The man’s eyes went wide. His relentless fury carried him forward and I was forced to dodge out of the way of the gore-soaked spearhead jutting from him. The Ertlander stopped himself and looked down at the wooden shaft coated with his insides. His eyes fluttered and he collapsed.

I looked past him to see who had saved me, but I saw no one, only the distant silhouette of a woman running into the cove. The spear quivered and ripped itself out of the corpse, though no one held it, and floated above my head. Bjolfur moved to stand next to me and grunted as he pulled the axe from his shield.

A shadow passed over us and we looked up to see a man’s silhouette cut through the clouds like a falcon. I felt the tension ease in my chest.

Bjolfur turned to me and grinned. “The Windborn are here.”

The floating spear twisted in the air to point at another would-be rescuer, then flew off as quick as an arrow. An anguished cry told me it found its target.

The rage in the air distilled into fear as the two Windborn took to the field. The Ertlanders spun to face their new foes. Perhaps they wanted to try and slow the Windborn, to give the rescued hostages time to run. The fools. There weren’t many stories about the Windborn on this side of the sea, but they had to know that each of those resurrected warriors was worth five strong fighters. Or ten Ertlanders.

I looked back down the beach and saw several Ertlanders converging on the woman with crow black hair. Dalla Thyrisdottir. The Windborn who could move objects with a thought. She walked with predatory grace. Knives and axes, picked up from nearby corpses, floated in the air around her. Whenever anyone stepped too close she flicked her fingers and a blade sundered flesh. With every few steps she took, she found another spear and threw it at an Ertlander.

As I watched her pick her way purposefully through the battlefield, two burly warriors wearing chain shirts charged at her from either side, trying to catch her in a pincer movement. Dalla raised open palms and they were lifted off the ground. They kicked and clawed at their necks as though they hung from a noose. Dalla closed her fists and the warriors’ necks twisted with a crunch. They fell limp to the ground.

The fighters ahead of Dalla began to retreat.

“Have mercy.”

“They have brought demons to our shores. Demons!”

“Gods save us.”

She smiled and walked forward. An axe lifted from the ground and, with a twitch of her fingers, Dalla sent it spinning through the air before it sank deep into someone’s chest. More screams filled the air.

It was too much for the Ertlanders to watch their friends killed without a weapon being touched.

They broke.

Any fighters that escaped Dalla’s deadly projectiles met Finnr Gellirson; the Sky Treader.

Finnr struck like an eagle snatching rabbits. He brushed the clouds in slow circles then swooped down towards the fleeing warriors. He swung a massive piece of driftwood like a club and cracked open skulls as easily as I would crush a dry leaf.

A few of them tried to stand and fight Finnr. They hunched low to the ground and jabbed up at him with spears. Before the spear-fangs could sink into the Windborn, he twisted in the air and launched the driftwood at them. Spears snapped and Finnr slammed down into the fighters and lay about his enemies with Windborn fists. Shields cracked and skulls crumpled.

We had all stopped, mesmerised by the show of supernatural force. As Finnr crushed an Ertlander’s chest with a well-placed kick, another Ertlander, the last one standing, stabbed their shattered spear into Finnr’s shoulder. The Windborn snarled and whipped his hand out to grip the Ertlander’s throat. The man clawed at Finnr’s iron-strong fingers as the Windborn lifted him off the bloody sand then began to float above the ground.

I marvelled at his speed, his power to lift himself up off the ground as easily as I could walk. Finnr raised his captive into the air, higher than our longship’s mast, and then let him fall. I shuddered as the man flailed before he hit the ground. I prayed I would never have to face a Windborn myself.

After a few more heartbeats of pained yells and wet crunches, it was over.

*

 

I hope you enjoyed the first part of Windborn!

I’ll be announcing a release date soon so you can hear the rest of Edda’s tale!