Chapter 19: Tower of Bone
After our battle with the Koli, the ones that were left were as terrified of me as my kin were. We walked into their villages and they came out of their homes, offering us their jewels and gold, their daughters and sons. We razed one village to the ground with the people trapped inside because they didn’t give us enough. We herded them into the largest hut and shut the door and set it ablaze.
The blood haze waited just on the edge of my vision and out of the corners of my eyes it identified everyone as an enemy.
Then we watched the screaming fire turn to ash and some of the men were laughing and drinking. A woman tried to escape, her hair wild forked tongues of orange and red. She broke through one of the walls and ran and then there was an arrow through her leg and she was pushed back into the fire. Her horrified eyes met mine for a split second before she became one with the flames.
And I felt nothing at all. Not happy, not sad, neither unrepentant nor remorseful. Just…vacant. Matter-of-fact. A way of life, nothing more. I began to wonder if there would come a time when I would no longer be able to distinguish the lines between when I should and shouldn’t care. When I could and could not.
When the hut was nearly demolished I noticed, for the first time, that the image of a serpent consuming itself had been etched into one of the eaves. I recognized the symbol as that of Jormungandr, the world serpent, and wondered if he protected this place. If so, we were surely doing the work of Thor, and that was enough to make me happy for a moment. I smiled as the walls made their final collapse and some charred bones poked up out of the rubble.
We stayed in the area for a week or so, travelling from village to village, collecting valuables and slaves, and always asking about the tower of gold, but never finding it.
Eventually the boats were full of bloodied and beaten slaves or piled with gold and precious stones and weapons and we set sail back north up the river.
I was in the boat with the elder this time and as we went up the river the Koli started to appear on the banks again. They wore their masks and face paint and waved their spears. They beat on drums and danced an evil dance.
After a time, their numbers began to thin out and eventually there was just one and he stood on an island in the middle of the river, naked except at the waist and with a short stick in his hand. He didn’t watch as the boats in front of ours passed, he just looked straight ahead. Straight at me it seemed, or straight through me. A boat full of slaves passed by him, pleading and crying and he did not waver.
As our boat neared, the rhythmic, wave-like drums began again, from players unseen. The beat quickened and soon it became a frenzied rush of noise. Our boat passed and the single man turned to follow us with his gaze. When we were about five boat lengths away, he put the stick to his mouth and the drums stopped. A moment later, the elder put a hand to his neck and pulled out a tiny arrow, and the man disappeared into the brush.
The elder jabbed the dart into the side of the boat as he muttered something under his breath.
Within an hour, he said he wasn’t feeling well.
Within two, he was puking and shitting blood and the boat of slaves near us was silent as the grave.
And then he was dead.
Someone sounded a horn and we pulled the boats off onto the nearest bank and made a solemn camp.
Men were stationed on the perimeter in case of attack, but no attack came.
A boat was lined with sticks and reeds and a bed of furs was made in it. Someone had begun sewing the elder new clothes for the afterlife, but the elder’s son feared attack and procured some relatively untarnished ones for him. The elder’s nails were cut close, lest Naglfar find us soon, and his beard and hair were trimmed. The boat was loaded with gold and riches and a saddle and stirrups and all the elder’s weapons and armor. Two of the new slave girls were made to drink mead until they were drunk and led to sit in the boat and finally the elder was laid on the furs, his hands folded across his chest. A bonfire raged on the shore and the sparks and embers floated into the night as the boat was pushed out. Three men lined up behind the fire with their bows drawn, and when the boat had floated about three lengths out, they fired their resin-soaked arrows through the bonfire and lit the funeral boat ablaze.
The slave girls shackled to the boat screamed and howled and the ones on the shore wailed and wept.
The men stood stoically and watched as the ship was consumed and the flames slowly sunk beneath the water and I fell asleep against a tall tree, as the bonfire died.
I was awoken in the pre-dawn by a commotion and I opened my eyes to see that a group of my kinsmen surrounded me. They all talked at once until the elder’s son, the new chief, stepped forward saying, “Both our fathers are dead, and you are to blame. That dart that killed my father was meant for you, and we don’t want you here anymore. Go, now, before you bring more bad luck upon us.”
I looked at the men assembled there, some whom I had known my entire life. Some I had grown up with, and they all seemed to have grown old overnight, their faces heavy and dark.
I said nothing as I stood and gathered my things.
I contemplated destroying them all…but I knew that was not the answer, and I knew they were no threat to me. They were afraid of the consequences that killing me might entail. They were afraid of the demon’s black blood that supposedly burned in my veins.
I owned nothing more than my implements of war. A sword, an axe, some mismatched armor. I looked over the armor and kept only the chainmail shirt I sometimes wore, and the weathered shield I rarely used.
Oddr, a man I had barely known, came up to me as I prepared to leave and handed me a small bag of coins. He said he wished me luck, and that he hoped to someday avoid my vengeance, if it ever came to that.
I slung the shield and axe across my back and Thursbanr at my side and walked away without looking back, so that no one might see the tears that welled in my eyes. Loss…you know.
Sometimes even the raging bear feels the loss that separation brings.