On the morning of my second day, after I had called myself hoarse, I took out my journal and began transcribing Valka’s story. I felt obligated to write it down, not only because it was a good tale, but because I felt connected to her. I had found this cave, yes, but it ran deeper than that. Explaining myself becomes more difficult, now that I am attempting it. I thought about my mother as I wrote. What was she doing right now? I wasn’t hopeless, not yet. Even if no one came down to the beach, my Mom would know I was missing within a couple of days, and people would come looking for me. I just hoped I didn’t have to wait too long. The wound on my arm had been re-wrapped, but to be honest I was running out of t-shirt. Not to mention I was hungry. I had done okay with water so far, but by tomorrow I was sure my difficulties would increase. I didn’t even want to think about going to the bathroom. I slumped down against the wall after taking a swig of water, slipping my headphones into my ears. At least I could enjoy some music. Until that battery died, too, of course. With a defeated sigh, I picked up the rune-covered pages, and continued to read.
We rode through Hrothgar’s city, the skies above us dark grey in the fading light.
“No walls, no moat…not even a presentable fence!” I heard Rethel’s voice ahead of me in the line, speaking to no one in particular.
“Women, children, not a man between fifteen and fifty,” Hyglak added solemnly.
There was a great evil here, whether it was the Wendol or otherwise. We entered the Great Hall, where Hrothgar sat waiting, his queen beside him. She was not young in years, older than I, to be sure. Still, there was strength in the way she squared her shoulders, a resolve in her eyes that came easily to the married women of these parts. Also in the room was a young man who I guessed was Wyglif, Hrothgar’s older son. I remembered Wulfgar speaking of him when he asked for aid. Wyglif had an angry look on his face, shooting daggers at Buliwyf in particular.
The Herald made to speak. “My Lord,” He began. “This is Buliwyf…”
“I know the man,” Hrothgar said, his voice like boots against a pebbled beach. “I sent for him…you’ve grown to a man,” He continued, as Buliwyf walked forward. “Into a fine, fine man…”
Buliwyf leaned down and spoke to the king, but I did not hear his words.
I stood on the upper level of the Great Hall, watching the mountains as the sun set in earnest, leaving long trails of gold in its wake. Behind me, workers were setting up a table and chairs for us. I could smell food cooking, and I would be glad of a decent meal.
“Is it difficult, to fight alongside men?” I heard the Queen’s voice.
I turned to my left—she stood there, in a white gown, looking out. Her brown hair hung to her waist; from this close I could see the many lines on her face.
“As of yet, we have not fought, My Lady,” I said to her, a drop of humor in my voice.
She laughed. “You will…”
“Valka,” I said, in reply to her searching words. “Daughter of Voltarr.”
“I have heard of the Captain,” She said. “His deeds are known, and any kin of his are welcome here. I am Queen Wielow.”
I nodded, though she could not see it. My gaze moved away from the horizon, and back down to the hall. Hrothgar was there, looking around for someone. I made a guess, and spoke.
“Your husband looks for you.”
She thanked me and returned to him, her hands grasping his arm. It was the same gesture I used with my father, whom I sorely missed. It had been many weeks since we left, and if the Wendol were indeed the cause of this, I doubted that all of us would return.
“What troubles you, Valka?” Buliwyf asked.
I did not turn to face him, although he had surprised me with his presence.
“They come with the mist, do they not?”
“Walk with me?”
I smiled inwardly at his repetition, but followed without a word. As we walked, I found myself closer to him, to the point where our shoulders almost touched. Our boots against the wood made the only sound for a few minutes, and I found myself enjoying the silence.
“You are afraid,” He said at last.
“No! I would not have learned to fight, were I afraid.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Have you been in battle before?”
I was silent; he knew the answer as well as I.
“You mustn’t let them see,” He told me. “Fear makes you a target, remember that. Show them no mercy, Valka, for you shall receive none.”
I nodded. We came to rest back where our walk had begun. I put my hands on the rail, breathing in the evening air.
“I am afraid,” I said quietly. “But your words bring me comfort, and for that I am glad.”
Buliwyf put a hand over mine. His fingers and palms were calloused, but the strength of him was not. He leaned his head toward me, a lock of white-gold hair brushing my face. I felt a strange warmth in my stomach, and resisted the urge to turn my face up to him and meet his mouth. Nothing needed to be said, and so we remained there as we were for a few quiet moments.
“Valka? Buliwyf! We are ready!” I recognized Skald’s voice as he called from the Hall below.
“I will go first,” I offered.
He nodded, and I made my way down to the feast.
“How can you sleep at a time like this?” I heard the Arab ask.
“The All-Father wove the skein of your life a long time ago,” Herger replied to him. “Go hide in a hole, if you wish. You’ll live not one second longer; your fate is fixed!”
I could almost hear the Arab’s eyes as they rolled back into his head. I smiled, and it did not go unnoticed.
“It would seem, Herger,” Edgtho said with a grin. “That you have the uncanny ability of making women happy, even if you are not speaking to them.”
Herger laughed. “Do I make you happy, Valka?”
“You would make me happier if you were dead,” I said to him, bringing forth laughter from the others, including the Arab. “Now leave me be, I am tired.”
Herger held up his hands in defeat before folding them behind his head and closing his eyes. I do not know how much time passed, then. I drifted in and out of consciousness, and then at last I remained awake, the snores (however genuine) of the men ringing in my ears. I looked up to see Rethel perched like a hawk among the rafters. The other men had their eyes open…it would begin soon. I put my hands on the hilts of my axes, and waited. Do not let them see; fear makes you a target. Show them no mercy, for you shall receive none. The doors of the hall burst open, the Wendol following with the mist. They were strange creatures, with bodies of men and heads of bears. Their growls were animal, but their weapons were human. One of them charged at me, a mace held high. I threw my axe at him; it struck his chest with a loud thud. He fell backwards, motionless. I yanked it out of him, a gurgling sound issuing from his mouth. There was no rest for me, as another rushed forward with a knife. I dodged out of his way and rolled, my face getting covered with blood as Hyglak’s head was torn from his shoulders. I was pinned down a moment later, the crimson in my eyes making it impossible to see. The creature on top of me forced my head to the side and began to carve into my face with his knife, just above my ear. It felt like he touched bone as he drew the blade down. I screamed, agony flaring through me like fire. My head was spinning, and I thought I would die as the blade reached my jaw…
An arrow, then another, pierced the creature’s chest. He fell from me, landing on the floor and dropping the knife. The pain in my face was unbearable, but I was certainly going to die if I did not keep fighting. I felt the heat of my own blood as it ran down my face. I slashed across the chest of one, decapitating another moments after I had finished his comrade. Within minutes, it seemed like the creatures were retreating. I did not see the Arab anywhere, nor did I follow the rest of the men as they drove the creatures from the doors. When it was over, I sat down, my back braced against a pillar. Herger was seeing to the Arab, who had three deep scratches across his face. There was a strange tenderness in the way he touched his face, and I thought to ask him about it when I got the chance.
“Little Valka,” Helfdane cried, running over to me. “That is a mighty wound, and one no woman should have, first battle or not!”
“Would you prefer if I went back to my father?” I asked him weakly, my vision fuzzy and my mind floating far above my body. “I can marry, have children…”
He laughed as he examined my wound. “No, I cannot see that life for you now. Come, let us see to this wound.”
“I will do it,” Queen Wielow spoke.
She stood near the throne at the head of the hall, leading the women and children up from a storeroom beneath, where they had hidden during our fight.
“We have lost Ragnar and Hyglak this night,” I heard Edgtho saying.
“The heads?” Herger asked.
“None,” Edgtho replied.
“They always take the heads…”
Wielow brought a damp cloth, as well as a needle and thread.
“You will need stitches,” She said to me. “It will hurt.”
“It will protect against infection,” Helfdane said, as if that would make all the difference.
I watched him as he helped Skeld carry the headless Hyglak out the doors. Edgtho and Roneth followed, with the gnawed remains of Ragnar between them. Wielow began her stitches, and I didn’t try to wipe the tears away as they rolled down my face. It seemed agonizing hours before she was done, but finally she put a paste of boiled-down cow urine over the wound. Gods, how it stung! There was no question that our next task would be to build defenses for the city. The Wendol would be back, and no doubt in great numbers. As soon as the Arab’s wounds were tended to, our work began. The townspeople helped dig the trenches; we set to work before dawn.
I had removed my mail and leather jacket about halfway through the morning. The sun had grown hot early, and digging in the mud made it no easier. I rolled up the sleeves of my faded blue-grey tunic until they were above my elbows, and I had plaited my hair into a thick braid. Still, sweat ran down my forehead, and it was only going to get hotter as the day wore on.
“Valka!” Weath’s brogue met my ears.
He ran down to me and took the pick-axe from my hands.
“Go on,” He said. “Get some water in the Hall. I’ll dig for a while.”
“Thank you,” I said to him.
He nodded and began to work. The Hall was rather empty, save for several women milling about with jugs of water. I filled a horn and drank, grateful for the cool liquid as it moved down my throat. I walked about the great room, stopping when I reached a short hallway. The door at the end was ajar, and I could hear sounds within. Slowly, silently I walked forward. From here I could see well enough that it was a store room. I realized within a moment that the sounds I heard were two people, breathing heavily. I looked inside and my breath caught. Herger was there, his mouth pressed firmly against that of the Arab. After a moment, Herger drew back, kissing instead down Eben’s jaw, his neck, his shoulder, leaving a trail of wetness in his wake. He took the Arab’s skin into his mouth once he reached the shoulder, sucking and biting. His mouth, once he had removed it, left a bruise in its place.
“We should get back to work,” The Arab said, breathless.
I felt a rush of heat move up my spine, unsure what to think. Could I really be feeling arousal at the sight of two men? My heart began to race as I saw three women headed this way, dispelling my thoughts. I cleared my throat loudly, and Herger’s eyes met mine through the crack in the door. He released Eben quickly, and began rummaging through a barrel. The Arab, confused at first, quickly realized what was going on as the voices of the women drew closer.
“Excuse me,” I said to them, making my voice heavy and tired. “Can you get me some water? I cannot take one more step.”
Two of the women nodded, concern filling their eyes. One went for a jug and horn, the other for a damp cloth. The third woman went past me into the store room. As she opened the door, I saw that Herger and the Arab now looked completely normal, and very lost.
“We came in here looking for extra hammers,” The Arab said.
“Can’t find an Ox in this room,” Herger said irritably.
The woman gave him a stern look, but seemed to take pity on Eben, who (even I must admit) was very good at looking confused. “Come with me,” She said to him, not caring if Herger followed.
She led the Arab out, upon which Herger put a hand on the wall, next to my head. Effectively, he barred my way.
“What you saw…” He began.
“Will not leave my mind,” I told him. “You can be sure of that. I will mention this to no one.”
He smiled gratefully, planting a sweaty kiss on my forehead. “Little Valka! Thank you.”
I nodded. Herger had been my friend for many years, and if he decided to love someone, be it man or woman, I would be no friend if I did not support him.
“You choose well,” I added. “He is quite handsome, for an Arab.”
Herger kept his face impassive, but I saw the blush that came to his ears. He let his arm fall away, and I returned to Weath, who was leaning on the pick-axe and panting like a dog.
“Go on,” I said to him.
He smiled and limped into the Hall. For a good while I worked, thinking of nothing but the task at hand. A drop of sweat ran down my neck, and the image of Herger’s mouth on Eben returned to me. Again, I began to dig, but now with a sudden anger welling in my chest. The thought of Herger loving who he pleased! It seemed so wrong, when I thought of what I must do when this is over.
I spat on the ground. I would rather die! I cleaved at the muddy trench, rage grinding my teeth together. Oh, how I wish I were a man! I brought the pick axe up again, but it never came down. Buliwyf had grabbed the handle, stopping me.
“Is your fury for the earth, Valka?” He asked me in his smooth, low voice.
I let go of the axe, which he placed on the ground.
“It’s the heat,” I lied. “I’ve had about enough of it.”
A corner of his mouth turned up in a smile. “Come, rest a while.”
Who was I to refuse?