A Short Story by Bekah Ferguson.
(35 min read)
The midnight sun hovered over the sea horizon like a glowing pumpkin.
Stian anchored his clinker-built sailboat out of sight from the mainland and jumped onto the rocky shore, scrambling up over the outcrop on all fours and keeping cover behind spruce trees and towering pines. It didn’t take long to reach the sleeping village through the forest: a fenced-in cluster of longhouses surrounded by fields, forest, and highlands. Smoke billowed from holes in the thatched roofs and spitz dogs with pointed ears and curled tails roamed about behind the fence, keeping guard. Stian passed the village and went toward the nearest sheep pen where the night watchman lay fast asleep in his covered bed box. A roaming spitz dog served as a second set of eyes and ears.
Keeping cover, Stian pulled a poisoned chunk of whale meat from his tunic and tossed it near the bed box. It didn’t take long for the dog to sniff it out and eat to his demise; he soon lay in a heap in the grass, the hairs on his stilled shoulders twitching in the breeze.
Stian approached the sheep pen with slow steps, careful to avoid any sounds that might alert the shepherd, and took a little lamb from the group; killing it with a seax dagger. In the green shelter of the woods, he gnawed on the lamb’s body enough to make a mess, and pulled a vial from a pocket in his woolen tunic, filling it with blood. Tossing the carcass out into the open, he went back to the fence surrounding the longhouses, and set the dogs to barking. He then retreated to the forest to wait, inhaling the metallic scent of blood on his chin.
The village came to life as men left their homes and gathered together with the dogs, heading for the fields where they soon found the mutilated lamb. Knowing they would suspect a wolf or a bear rather than a man and would search the woods, Stian scaled the fence and went straight for the longhouse he’d scoped out days before.
He crept up to the door in the dull lighting and rapped the door with restraint, knowing the residents might not open it if he pounded.
It opened a crack and a maiden peered out through the gap. Before she could scream, he reached in, grabbed her by the neck with both hands, and kicked the door inward with his foot as he yanked her outside. She flailed but soon went limp with unconsciousness. He dropped her to the ground, pulled the capacious hood of his cloak up over his head and went inside.
A fire burned in the center of room, benches topped with sheepskin and woolen blankets lining the walls. A young boy was retreating to a far corner, his eyes wide with evident fear.
Without removing his hood, Stian dropped on all fours and lunged at the boy, his clawed nails scattering ashes and dirt on the packed floor as he went. If he didn’t grab the child immediately, the boy would cry out, alerting the men folk to his peril.
In a split second he was upon him, one furry hand covering his mouth, the other gripping the child’s torso at his side as he stood up on his hind legs and carried him from the room.
Outside, the boy’s mother still lay in a heap in the grass though her chest rose and fell with sound breathing. She would soon come to. Shouts and barks sounded from the hillside, indicating the men were on their way back, so with a quick look to and fro, Stian left the village and entered the forest path, sprinkling some of the blood from the vial here and there. When he reached the boat, he held the boy at his side, pulling a scarf and a length of rope from the pocket of his tunic. He lost no time tying the scarf around the child’s mouth and the rope around his wrists. He then removed the boy’s overtunic, replacing it with one of his own from the boat, and again took the vial of blood from his pocket. With quick movements, he shredded the child’s tunic, emptied the remainder of the blood on it, and tossed it up on the outcrop. He then plunked the boy down on a crate in the center of the boat.
After quickly adjusting the square-rigged sail and rudder, he unanchored the boat and sat down on a bench, taking hold of the oars and maneuvering the boat away from the shore. They were soon off, rowing toward the orange globe that hovered just above sea level. The men from the village might attempt to come after them on the sea once they discovered the child was missing, but he hoped the bloodied tunic would at the very least disorient and slow them. They would suspect the child was dead and hopefully waste time searching for his body in the woods; but if not, if they indeed thought him kidnapped, they hadn’t seen the boat, and wouldn’t know which direction Stian had set sail for. That is, so long as he could be out of sight by the time they reached the outcrop.
The boy’s expressive eyes, as dark as walnut, were as wide as when he’d first been captured, his skin chalky. But he made no attempt to speak or move, and sat solemnly beneath the sail. An hour of vigorous rowing later, when the shoreline was far out of sight and they were heading south, Stian let go of the oars and crept around the roped cargo to the center of the boat where the boy sat, about two meters or so away. He removed the scarf and untied his ankles. It no longer mattered if the child screamed—there was nowhere to escape.
“What’s your name?” he growled in Old Norse.
The boy blinked but said nothing.
Stian tramped back to his seat and reached into a nearby crate, pulling out a chunk of whale jerky and a loaf of bread. It was the last of the loaves he’d stolen after his body had been changed. Taking the seax dagger from his boot, he halved the jerky and offered it along with a section of bread to the boy, who caught each piece in his hands, set them down beside him, and made no move to eat. With a harrumph, Stian made short order of his own meal; tearing at the jerky like a savage and chugging from a waterskin as well. Once done, he wiped his hairy chin with a handkerchief and was half startled to see blood all over the handkerchief as he stuffed it back into his pocket—he should be used to that by now. The boy watched him with what seemed both curiosity and alarm, likely trying to discern his features beneath the shrouding of his hood. There was no hiding his grotesque hands.
“What’s your name?” Stian repeated in a low voice.
“It is Josva.”
“Eat,” he said, gesturing at the untouched food with an outstretched claw.
Josva’s eyes widened again but he did not move.
Stian held the child’s gaze for a long time, each surveying one another as water lapped the sides of the wooden boat and a breeze bathed their brows. He looked so tiny in the giant overtunic, not at all like a ten year old. His tawny hair hung straight to his chin.
“Can I see your face?” the child asked after a time, breaking the silence.
Stian hesitated, fingering the edge of his hood with a claw. He felt overheated keeping it on but didn’t want to be gawked at. After all, it was only because of his face that he’d abducted the boy in the first place. He could no longer trade on the coasts; his boat filled with valuable quarry he had no hope of selling.
“Here’s how it’s going to be, boy,” he said, leaving the bulky hood in place. “We’ll go from village to village, and make sales at market until all this is sold.” He made a sweeping gesture at the various crates cluttering the center of the boat. Crates filled with stolen wheat, wool, furs and pelts, honey, armor, and weapons. “After that . . . I’ll take you back to your family.” This was a lie but he needed the boy to cooperate. What he really intended was to eventually train the boy as a shipmate, the start of a new crew. That’s why he’d chosen him. An older boy would have been far too difficult to tame.
He lowered his voice to a growl: “But listen closely. If you dare to cross me, or try to escape, I’ll burn your entire village.”
Josva glanced around, a look of sorrow in his limpid eyes, but he said nothing. They were surrounded on all sides by Nile-green water; the sun darkened to an ember on the edge of the western horizon. Was the threat enough to keep the boy from running or yelling once they reached shore? Stian hoped fear was a sufficient rope for now.
Tears welled in the boy’s eyes and dropped to his lap when he blinked. He seemed so frail then, alabaster and innocent. A child missing his mother. Heat coursed through Stian’s veins, his breathing raspy as it picked up speed. With a roar he lunged at the boy and grabbed him by the shoulders, preparing to shake him for all his worth. “Man up,” he thundered, the hood slipping from his head. Cool air bathed the back of his neck and he let go. Grabbing an empty crate instead, he flung it out across the water with all his strength. It landed with a distant splash and bobbed on the surface.
Beside him came the sharp intake of breath.
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