She wore an olive tunic with the sleeves rolled up. On some parts were stains of old blood blotched around crude stitches and patchwork. Her hair was braided into pigtails pulled into a bundle. Her boots were made of sheepskin with soles of pig-hide, the loose cloth of her trousers stuffed around her ankles. On her waist was a leather belt that held a pair of empty sacks. Bags hung under her eyes, marked in lines of insomnia and little pink scars.
She knelt in the underbrush by a great oak, the cold dew soaking her knees. The dirt was moist as she felt in a hollow between the roots, spiders tickling her knuckles as they scattered to safety. She moved her face in, picking up the stale scent. Something felt soft to the touch and she plucked the stem free.
She licked her lips when she saw it in the light, brushing it clean of dirt and holding it like a precious gem.
She sat up and reared her head.
The boy stood in the ancient page-rags of his father and a belt of sacks, his hands cupped before him.
‘I forgot the kind we need, so I took many.’
Ingrt stood. In his hands were mushrooms of different sizes and colors: some big and white, small and white, and others small and brown. She picked out and discarded the small white ones.
‘Those kill.’ She pointed to the big ones. ‘Those we keep to snack.’ She picked up a brown. ‘These we gather lots. Understand, little-one?’
‘Aye! I will get all I can find!’
‘Good boy.’ She returned the mushroom and he scurried off, dividing the fungi between the sacks.
Ingrt looked at the one she found, smelled it close to her nostrils, and bit her lip. A bead of sweat crawled down her forehead as her heart fluttered with warmth, the hair on the back of her neck standing on end.
* * *
The boy and Ingrt walked through the forest carrying the sacks over their shoulders.
‘Thank you for joining me.’
‘Father said I must learn for when I am Viking on my own.’
‘Farmers Viking and you make for a fine farmer.’
She looked to his little face.
‘Your mother would be thankful her husband is raising you well.’
‘Aye… she would.’
They shared a silence, the squeak of their boots on the wet grass the only sound.
‘Will you take them?’
‘I will not, Ingrt.’
‘Better to wait for battle; better time.’
‘I mean to never take them. I am afraid.’
‘What is to fear? All you see is good.’
‘Saegard went mad on the last raid; clawed out a Saxon’s eyes and ate them, remember?’
‘Saegard took more than he should; too much vision for fragile brain and he is no Berserker.’
‘Neither are you.’
She stopped and knelt in front of him.
‘True, but mine eyes have seen the gods, and are blessed to see them eternal.’ She drew closer as she spoke. ‘They love to see us kill, to take lives, and claim plunder.’ She showed him her hand as it shook. ‘My body aches for blood and the gods call on me for violent-sport!’
‘You talk mad, Ingrt. May we hurry back to camp, please?’
She laughed and embraced him, carrying the boy the rest of the way.
‘Never grow up, little-one.’
* * *
The camp was close to a foggy shore by a handful of long ships resting on the beach, their serpent figureheads like petrified monsters in the haze. On land there were small tents surrounding a large one, standards and flags fluttering in the wind as men and shield-maidens readied their gear around fires that cooked their food.
A small group of naked men cloaked in bear and wolf hides huddled around a black cauldron. An elder of thick muscle covered in tattoos stirred the soupy contents with a large spoon. Their eyes were sunk into their skulls, baring creases from age and stress. To the side their pole axes and clubs were stacked like teepees.
The elder and his fellows looked to the boy and Ingrt holding up the sacks. The group cheered and made way for the pair. They approached the cauldron and she dumped the brown mushrooms into the milky liquid as Gunnar stirred.
‘A fine harvest,’ he said to her. ‘The gods will grant you a heavy treasure at battle’s end.’
‘What of the little-one; he found more than I.’
Gunnar grinned at him.
‘How old are you boy?’
‘Ah! Not long until you are made a man, but for your service, it may happen before the day is done. You will grow fast like Vali and slew many men.’
The boy was slow to smile.
‘Thank you, sir.’
‘Soon you will call me brother! Take care, friends; combat draws near!’
They said goodbye and left the Berserkers to their soup.
In the thick of the tents she stopped and handed a brown mushroom to the boy.
‘Think on what I said and take it if you find your feelings changed.’
He made a half smile and pocketed the cap.
‘I will, Ingrt. Thank you.’
She hugged him one last time and the boy ran off.
* * *
Inside her tent was a simple bedroll, woolen blanket, and a mug. Against the center-pole leaned her gear: a vest of leather and chainmail, a hand-axe, and shield. It was colored in a blue field with nine yellow spiral arms pointing to the center boss.
Ingrt put on the vest and placed the axe in a loop upon her belt. She knelt by her bedroll and pulled away the blanket. Lying underneath was a small charm of an eight-legged horse tarnished emerald. She picked it up and gave it a long kiss before slipping the charm into the side of her boot.
A horn bellowed outside and a toothy smile grew across her face.
* * *
The warriors were gathered in front of the ships facing the camp. The Chieftain stood before them, dressed in thick black furs with a heavy gold necklace and an iron helm. Beside him were his Thanes, a personal guard of six half with spears and half with bows.
The Berserkers sauntered into view carrying the cauldron like a litter on their backs. They planted it before the Chieftain and formed a line. A Thane passed him a bowl and took a liberal scoop of the soup.
Gunnar was the first in line and knelt. The Chieftain poured the steaming liquid into his mouth and the elder swallowed every last drop before joining the warriors. Each Berserker drank, some of them puking it up after standing. Upon rejection they would fall to the ground shove it all back in.
When the Berserkers were fed the Chieftain faced his warriors.
‘You lot know the plan: I want those bastard Stalvnar boats intact. I want no cut rope, no split oars, no slave-claims, and every pound of their gear wet in only blood. If you cast one into the sea, dive in, bring him up, and kill him right…’
Ingrt was clenching her teeth while tightening and loosening the grip of her shield, rocking back and forth with a subtle motion.
‘Finish your talk and put us to work, old man,’ she said under her breath.
‘Aye,’ said another at her side. ‘I want some meat and gold.’
‘Not an ounce of either on those ships; the Stalvnars would have packed light to be fast on the water. This is just a fight; no plunder, no quarter.’
‘What’s to gain then?’
‘He talks of claiming their blades to keep fighting,’ said another.
‘‘Tis preparation for war,’ said another. ‘If we kill all of them but they kill most of us, we would have more gear than men to wear it and less to row the ships. There will be no one left to stop the Stalvnars from taking our lands.’
‘My wife could stand in my place. I pray she will fight into old age before I see her again,’ said another.
‘All we have to gain is time to live or a sending to Valhalla,’ said Ingrt. ‘The gods call to feast, but my man calls for bed and company. To Hel with the feud; let this be the end of it.’
The men around her paused and nodded.
‘Aye,’ said one.
‘Our lives and homes are our plunder and what we have to lose,’ said another.
‘…I want that iron,’ said the Chieftain pacing in front of the warriors. ‘I want that iron to kill more of them bastards. Do you want that iron?’
‘Aye!’ said the warriors.
‘Do you want to spill their blood and take all they have?’
The warriors cheered, bashing their weapons against their shields.
The Chieftain fisted his shield, turning to his Thanes to see they were doing likewise. He let it go on before raising his hand.
‘To the ships!’
The warriors cheered and separated into the boats.
* * *
Her arms and shoulders felt sore, tight and firm from repetitive use. With every pull she inhaled; with every push she exhaled, stroking to the rhythm of a drum. At the front she could see the boy sitting close to the gunwale beside his father. Huddled at the bow the Berserkers shivered with blood-shot eyes. The Chieftain stood holding the figurehead as he watched forward. At the side the ships glided across the water in a flawless motion, maintaining a straight-line formation. Mountains capped in snow stood sentinel in the distance and grey overcast clouds choked out the mid-day sun.
‘Ramming speed!’ said the Chieftain. The order was echoed across the line and the drumbeat quickened.
Her breathing turned into grunts as she fought her body’s pain. The wait felt like hours, a murderous stalemate made worse by her flesh crying out for respite; an end to the tedium for battle’s start. She lost feeling in her arms as her elbows seized into stiffness.
Her hands moved on their own pulling the oar in. She stood and took her shield off the gunwale, putting it in the grip of her left hand. Out in the water the enemy came towards the formation at speed. Ingrt swallowed three mushrooms and drew her axe. The ship lurched forward in a violent halt and she was thrown off her feet.
* * *
It felt as though she crashed through a wall of glass when white light flashed into her eyes. Her clothes were torn off by a torrent of hot wind as she fell into a space of blue and white sparks that rushed past her like clusters of shooting stars. A black figure materialized in the distance, jerking and twitching like the animated charcoal scribbling of a mad artist. The creature had no face and four limbs in a human fashion. The wind blew harder as she dove to meet it, her bundle of pigtails coming loose.
She presented it her shield and hit the figure with a slam. She swung her axe but it ducked and struck her leg, the blue sparks flashing red. Ingrt shrieked and buried her axe in its head. The figure exploded into nothing and the blue sparks flashed yellow.
The sparks stayed yellow and from the light emerged giant oblong heads with the warped faces of men, made from glossy obsidian. They remained still at a distance on all sides around her. Their colorless eyes opened wide and their mouths became agape with white light, familiar screams and cries echoing from their shining maws. The sounds were so loud she could hear nothing else.
From behind came two more black figures, running as if on a flat surface. Ingrt hit one with her shield and swung her axe at the other. It went to its knees and she spun away to finish it off, the sparks flashing green. She took slashes in her side and thigh and retorted with a hit that divided the creature’s leg. Ingrt was quick to move in for the kill.
The sparks stayed green and the screaming heads exploded into small spheres. They formed around her is a tornado shaped like a strand of DNA and closed in. The spheres slowed to a crawl and morphed into black fetus effigies. She could hear a mass of waling, but the obsidian infants’ mouths were not moving. Ingrt held her ears in vain and squeezed her eyes shut.
She felt something warm and saw blood gushing from between her legs, dripping off the tips of her toes.
Her scream was an impossible cry that turned her face red. The sheer volume of her anguish sent the fetuses away like a shockwave as another creature came towards her. Her cry did not end as she bashed the creature with the rim of her shield. She hit so hard and frequent the nails and bindings gave way and the shield fell apart. It yet lived and in her ravenous sorrow Ingrt sank her teeth into the figure, tasting iron.
When it disappeared, the sparks did not flash as a white light consuming the space like a wash of paint. Ingrt thought herself blind when there was no color left and the light burst open to a plain of grass. She hit the ground in a tumble, feeling her wounds open wider and fill with dirt. She stopped on her back, staring at an empty sky of azure.
The sun was warm and the breeze cool against her naked skin as she came to her feet. Before her was a vast landscape of rolling hills. Standing tall in a lake was an ash tree, bare of leaves and earth around its thick roots. In the distance were forests clustered at the feet of great mountains of blue and white. From the peaks rose a single rainbow.
Ingrt smiled as her heart calmed, a lone tear creeping down her cheek. When she turned round her eyes became awash.
The giant man had a single eye that blazed like a fiery sun and a hollow socket for another. He had a white beard that stretched down to his chest from a shiny helm of wings. A cape of crimson flanked him and on his chest was a cuirass of silver scales. His legs were clothed in a kilt of the same color, greaves, and leather boots. Vambraces hugged his forearms as he held a great boar-spear planted in the grass. On each shoulder was perched a raven, one with black eyes, and another with white. By his legs, staring at her with a hungry curiosity were two wolves, twin beasts of grey and black fur.
Ingrt’s mouth was open in awe before she raised her hands high.
The air escaped her lungs. She looked down at a lone dagger in her lower abdomen as silence snatched her voice. She blinked and a hand formed around the hilt, the blade now stuck between the links of her vest. Another blink and bodies appeared beneath her feet. The prang of swords-to-shields and the cries of men came to her ears as Ingrt found the hand belonged to a foul smelling ginger that stood in her face.
She hyperventilated before screaming aloud, grabbing hold of the ginger and bringing him down atop the bloody corpses. Between punches she dug her teeth into his face, tearing out and discarding each piece before another mouthful. A pair of Berserkers strong-armed her off the man, leaving him to cry lip-less, the tendons of his face chewed loose. Another warrior silenced the ginger with his axe.
The boy was carrying his father on his back, blood splashed across his face and clothes. He watched Ingrt hugged by the berserkers as the battle went on across the boats. She thrashed and screamed in their arms, her eyes red and crying without end.
* * *
Half remained, rowing at a mournful pace as they towed a new ship. Down the center were stacked the bodies of their friends from bow to stern.
The boy rowed as he watched his father’s guts pushed back in and sewn up. At the bow he saw Ingrt huddle by the Berserkers while an apothecary pulled the dagger free. Her face was a pale, sickly green, shivering and sweating as she mumbled incoherent nothings. Her face puffed and she leaned over the gunwale, emptying the contents of her stomach into the sea.
* * *
She awoke to the crackle of a fire and a clear night sky. She turned and boy was sitting before the flames beside his father in a bedroll. His clothes were covered in stains of brown
He came closer.
‘Do you feel well?’
She sat up with a groan, the blanket slipping off her chest. Around her sides and stomach were fresh lines of stitches amongst old scars.
‘Are we still…’
‘Too many wounded. We burned some this morning.’ Her eyes looked to his father. ‘He sleeps still… Are you thirsty?’
She nodded and the boy stepped back to his seat. He returned with her mug filled with water and a sack. She finished it off in one gulp.
‘Is there anything to eat?’
He pulled a piece of dried meat from the sack and watched her chew it whole.
‘Who fell; I cannot recall their faces last I was awake?’
‘Bragi, Modi, Idunn’s father… Thurd, and some I did not know. All the Berserkers survived; the Stalvnars were too afraid to fight them.’ He made a half-smile. ‘I am thankful you yet live.’
She took his hand.
‘And I pray your father will wake just as I.’ After kissing his knuckles she let go and laid on her side.
He went back to his place and stared into the fire.
‘…Will you lay with me, little-man?’
The boy’s chest went stiff and he looked to her.
‘Ingrt… your husband—‘
‘Oh, you have such narrow thoughts!’ she said with a chuckle. ‘I mean share my bed, not my flesh.’
He smiled and took off his boots before getting under her blanket. He laid with his back to her as she held him tight, nuzzling him with her nose. The boy fell asleep, her eyes fixed on his bedded father.
* * *
Her things were wrapped in the bedroll at her feet. The rhythm was slow and the cargo light with only the claimed boat loaded with swords, axes, scraped shields, and chainmail. It was a thankful pace, leaving little for her wounds to complain. She watched the boy on the opposite side, sitting with his father between them wrapped in a blanket. The boy carried the man’s sword on his back.
* * *
The town stood on a shore of stones with docks extending over the water. A crowd of wives and children waited there. The ship slowed to a halt and tied on. The wives cheered for the men’s return and cried when they received only a sack of ashes.
Ingrt and the boy stood. He slung his father’s shield on his back while she took the man over her shoulder and the two disembarked. They walked through town, the streets alive with jubilation. She felt her hand pulled and stopped.
Her man had a great blonde beard that made his face took small. The excess cloth of his right sleeve was rolled up over a scared stump as he held onto her.
She smiled at him and he replied with a nod.
* * *
The boy’s house was outside of town on the side of a hill. They were alone as she laid the body down by the front door, sheep bleating from behind the fence.
‘Do you need help tonight?’
He shook his head.
‘I must carry him to shore. There is spare wood I can use. Thank you, Ingrt.’
She knelt and hugged him.
‘Come stay with us. Maybe not now but when you are ready.’ She pulled away and looked at him. ‘We always wanted a son…’
The boy smiled.
‘I must settle with father and the gods, then I will think on it.’
She kissed his cheek.
‘When you are ready, speak to the Chieftain about selling your land. A plot like this is too big for you alone, little-man.’
* * *
Ingrt could hear the goats whine when she approached the farm, her man waiting out front. They embraced each other in a kiss.
‘I have longed for your touch,’ he said.
‘Mine eyes are heavy, but I shall keep them open, my love.’ He put his arm around her shoulders and walked to the door. ‘I am sorry I lost your shield again.’
‘I am glad it kept you safe and whole until the end. I will have make one better and stronger for this coming season.’
* * *
She traced the scars on his hairy chest as she lay under him. She watched sweat drip from his nose and onto her chest as he moved, his face scrunched in effort. He grunted with every thrust but all she could do was remain silent. Ingrt closed her eyes, shutting off all senses except one, and he stopped.
‘Do I hurt?’
She smiled and opened her eyes.
‘No, my love. Please go on.’
‘You look in pain, lest you find me unworthy.’
She placed her hands on his cheeks.
‘You make me happy; you always make me happy… Please go on.’
He stared at her with droopy eyes and laid down chest to chest, his arm around her back. She held on and kissed his ear.
* * *
She awoke alone, birds chirping and roosters cawing from the backyard. The floor was cold when she slid off and winced as a soreness shot up from her lower half. Ingrt went to the kitchen, each step causing pain, and found a wrap of spare cloth. She covered her whole abdomen and thighs, tying them off with string.
She returned to the bedroom and found her old work dress. It was a simple garment with small open cuts and black dirt stains on the skirt and sleeves. She combed her hair, undoing the braids that still remained and settling on a simple ponytail. When she put on her boots there was something rigid and hard against her sole. She took her foot out and held the thing in her fingers.
The charm was greasy with old sweat, the scent of her odor upon it. She wiped it on her skirt and gave it a kiss, leaving it atop the chest at the foot of the bed.
* * *
Red cuts formed on her forearms as unruly poultry flapped about in a tantrum. She was moving them out of the coop to deposit their eggs into a basket before cleaning out the putrid waste. When the work was done she rallied her goats to a stool and milked them dry with her man.
Ingrt rested on a bench outside, taking sips from her mug. She looked at her boots caked in feces and mud. It was a light brown color but all she could see was red. Her left hand was formed in a slack grip as if it were holding something. On each finger was a callous that seemed to ache a phantom pain.
‘I miss it too.’
She looked up to her man standing in front of her.
‘My nerves are restless,’ she said. ‘Next season seems so far away.’
He sat beside her.
‘Someday the Stalvnars will come for vengeance. It may happen before winter and you will be back on the shield wall, fresh and ready.’
She made a half-smile.
‘We lost many. Perhaps you will join me to fill our numbers.’
He shook his head.
‘One must stay to mind the home while the spouse goes Viking.’ He kissed her head, ‘I am more useful honoring your bravery working the land and keeping the bed warm for your return.’
Her expression warped into sadness.
‘I was ready to die; on every raid I was ready to meet the gods. But no matter how much I yearned to fight, I only wanted to come home to see you again. Now, in your embrace once more, I wish to return; my bones beg me to abandon this tedious work and carry my axe into combat.’ She wiped her eyes on her sleeve, her face red. ‘Forgive my selfish heart for no matter my desire, I will always love you.’
He pulled her close to his chest before she cried. He stroked her hair.
‘There is no shame for you to feel. Long have I dreamt myself back in the thick of the wall with my brothers. Every day I ask the gods to restore mine arm to fighting shape so that I may Viking at your side. The Norns yet wove a different fate and I find myself supporting your turn on the wall with the one arm they let me keep.’ He pulled her head out and looked on her. ‘You are not wrong in your wants, my love. What ever you desire, be it bloodied and frenzied or warm and naked, I will always be at your side and do the best I can to keep you happy.’
Ingrt made a tear soaked smile and kissed him.
* * *
She worked in the garden with her man clearing out weeds by the house. After picking up a thick bushel her eyes grew wide.
In the shadow of a hole in the stone foundation was a cluster of small brown mushrooms. Her hand trembled as she plucked them, smelling dirt and old rain. She stopped herself from swallowing them whole.
Ingrt came from behind, wrapping her arms around her man’s chest. He angled his head to meet her lips. She showed the mushroom and he chuckled.
‘Where is the battle?’
She moved around to his front in a straddled position. He laid on his back as she pulled off her dress and broke apart the mushrooms. Ingrt came down and put one in their mouths as they kissed in the dirt.