Eirick looked up at his friend’s head. The tears were stinging the sores on his face. The blood was still dripping from where the taskmasters separated Rolph’s head from the body. Nora stood behind him and held him. He was clearly shaken by what had happened. Earlier this morning he had been awoken by Nora, who had told him, that the man who had stood by him since he was a small child, was dead. The grief had yet to set in. Even though his life had been dominated by death, Rolph had been a fixed point in his life. At least he had only been decapitated. Eirick had seen and heard of worse things the Sorians did when they wanted to intimidate their slaves or their populous in general. Rolph was gone. Now he had no one else.
The slaves were moving along the mountains on the wide dirt road. They had been rousted up by the taskmasters and started walking as the sun rose above the Svartr mountains. Examples had been made of some of the apparent leaders among the slaves. Rolph had been one of them. Because they had not been able to extinguish the flames, ten slaves had to pay with their lives. Eirick did not know if Rolph had ever told the taskmasters about the master’s mysterious escape from the camp and he did not walk with the other slaves. He was in the cart for the wounded with Nora, who was nursing men, women and children with burns or wounds from whips. Eirick was laid out on a stretcher, but he had started walking after three days in Nora’s hut.
The first days after the fire, the taskmasters were without purpose. Some of them, the cruelest, raped the women and some of the young boys. Barath was one of them, but Nidhar had taken charge, and his strong personality and strict discipline had made the raping stop. He may have been a cruel master, but he did have some sense of justice. After three days they had decided to move the slaves to the slave auctions in Svartrhamn. Cal’s family had never been interested in the mining business, so the taskmasters had taken the decision to sell the slaves and send the money to the city of Syrenthal, where the older brother in the family lived. They had huge interests in the spice trade from the south of the Sorian Empire and the slave trade between Sor and Ismark.
The wagon, where Eirick was laid down, had a canvas overhead to protect the wounded slaves from the rain, but it did not protect them from the wind. The other slaves were coughing and squirming in pain. It was drawn by a big Ismark Jak, a domesticated longhaired cow with large horns. Eirick had begun to sit upright. Nora insisted on this. She was tired of him wallowing in his loss, even though she had cried for Rolph herself, she showed Eirick a strong attitude. This was part of their life. People they knew had died before, like Sigmund. Nora had comforted Eirick with the fact that it was quick and at least he was still alive, but Eirick felt alone now.
He looked out at the landscape as it passed slowly by. Summer was over. There was a chill in the air. Soon the snowcapped mountains would not the only things white in the landscape. Nora looked at him. She crawled over the other wounded all the way to the back where Eirick was sitting up. She looked out at the landscape with him.
“How are the wounds?” She did not turn to look at him. “Better. The ointment works well.” She looked at him. Half of his face was covered by a mix of leaves and cloths. The burns were spread down his arm. His right hand was now covered by the ointment. It was a miracle that she had been able to save the hand. Eirick knew that he had walked on the brink of life. He even thought he had seen his parents in his dreams. The dreams had seemed so real. He could remember talking to his parents and a woman had been there. A beautiful woman, yet she seemed like she was watching over Eirick, almost like she would decide if he would live or die. Nora looked at him.
“Where is your mind, Eirick?” She usually called him boy, so Eirick looked at her a little surprised. “I was just thinking…” He paused. “…about my dreams. I dreamt while I was lying in your hut.” Nora looked thoughtful, but she smiled. “Our dreams are the closest we come to the gods while we are alive. It is there messages from them come.” Eirick looked at the landscape again. The convoy of slaves and wagons passed a statue. The head had been removed and it was placed between the legs. It was Magnar. She had been dressed in her battle garments and held a sword down between her legs. She was the Daughter, the Guardian of life and mountains. Grim was her father, the god of poetry and death. His daughter judged all in their lives and brought before Grim when their lives have ended. Grimshall in Denosh was where the righteous dead would gather. Rolph was probably there, if the gods were real and if they had not abandoned Ismark. Eirick shook his head. “I do not believe the gods care anymore.” Nora stroked his back. “Do not say such things. Life is hard, but the gods rewards those who toil in life.” Eirick looked at her with tears in his eyes. “Have we not toiled enough in this life? Have we not suffered?” Magnar’s eyes seemed to follow Eirick. It felt to Eirick liked they pierced his soul. Nora hugged him. “Just let me know if you need anything.” Eirick just nodded. The wagon continued on down the road. The trek had only just started and Eirick felt like it was going on forever already.
The jak moved slowly along the road. Its huge frame made it perfect for dragging huge amounts of coal in carts and wagons along the road to Svartrhamn, the main harbor in the occupied area of Ismark. Eirick had been there once before, when he and Rolph had been sold to Cal’s mining operations in Svartrfjell. He looked up the mountains again and they seemed to scream doom and death. The mountains were rumored to be filled with the souls of the Ismarkings who died in the invasion of the Sorians. On stormy nights the slaves could hear the voices of the dead moaning and sometimes screaming in pain. Eirick had heard those calls and he cringed every time he thought about them. What if Rolph was now among them? He had not been avenged and he had not been laid to rest. Since Eirick was very small, he had heard about how the spirits of the dead, the draugr, had to be avenged to be able to rest in Grimhall. The hall that held all the warriors that had died an honorable death. The hall was where they prepared themselves to the last battle. The draugr were warriors who had not been avenged by their brothers-in-arms or had run away. Eirick thought about it. Had he stopped believing? The only memory he had of his parents, was the lessons he had received in the Ismark belief and Rolph had continued that. They had often prayed to Magnar, Grim and Himrer, the three principal gods, and Eirick had learned how the three had led the Ismark people to their land from the continent of Daner.
A quick jolt throughout the wagon ripped Erirck from his train of thought. He looked back and he saw the statue of Magnar disappear in the distance. His skin started to burn again, and his agony made him scream. He had almost forgotten about the pain he was in as his mind had wandered, but now the pain was back in its full force. Nora scrambled towards him from the front of the wagon. She took out a small glass flask from her bag and she brought it up to his mouth.
“Eirick, drink this.” The taste of the medicine was bitter and Eirick forced it down. The burns ached, but a numb feeling started to spread throughout his body. He had been fed the vile drink once every day now and he was getting use to effect. He looked up at Nora. Her dark skin seemed to blend in with the trees overhead. “Better now?” she asked as her voice seemed to be drawn out and the world melted away.
Eirick walked up to a clearing in the forest. There was fog everywhere he looked. His burns were healed and he felt a heavy armor encumber his movements as he went into the clearing. There was a log cabin at the end of the clearing. A young man was chopping wood on the outside. Eirick walked closer to the cabin and the young man. He thought he knew him. The build, the gait, everything screamed like he knew who he was. He looked at the young man. It was Rolph. Eirick tried to speak, but he couldn’t form the words. Rolph didn’t seem to recognize him and something was wrong. He was too young. Eirick saw a little boy sneak up on him. The little boy had dark hair and a broad smile. He had seen the boy before, in reflections in the water as he grew up. It was himself. Eirick staggered backwards.
All of a sudden he remembered the cabin. It was where he had been born. He looked back at the cabin. A broad shouldered man stood in the doorway. He had the same dark hair as Eirick. A woman came up behind him and she put her arms around him. The man kissed her. The little boy Eirick startled Rolph. Rolph started to chase the boy who laughed hysterically and the couple laughed. Eirick looked at them and smiled. He looked around. The sun was setting and the warm breeze from the south brushed across Eirick’s face.
Then he saw them, a large troop of Sorian soldiers led by a well-dressed Sorian Lord. They carried weapons and torches. The woman screamed. The boy was startled. Eirick tried to run towards the soldiers. He wanted to protect his parents, Rolp and himself. Rolph picked up the little boyand ran for the woods. Eirick was being dragged away from the battle. He saw his father cut down by the soldiers after he had killed the first ten that came for them. The soldiers set the cabin on fire and Eirick could hear his mother screaming. Rolph ran like crazy deeper into the woods. Eirick saw a woman. She killed soldiers that ran after Rolph and the little boy, but they were getting closer and closer.
Eirick woke up startled as the wagons rolled into the wide open space. This was the halfway point between the mines and Svartrhamn. They would probably stay there for the night. The other slaves were chained together and gathered in the center of the field. This was to decrease the chance of escape. Eirick looked around. Could he make the tree line and disappear? He tried to sit up, but the burns flamed up and he went down in the wagon again. Nora looked at him from the tent the tent some of the slaves were setting up. She walked to the back of the wagon where Eirick where lying. He looked at her approaching. She had seen over 40 summers, but she was still a true beauty. Her dark skin was not uncommon among the slaves, but she was uncommon in Ismark. She was educated as a healer and she was literate, something that was very rare among the slaves and especially among the populous in the Sorian Empire in general. Women in the Sorian Empire were not supposed to be educated and well-read.
“Did you sleep well?” she asked as she approached him. “I dreamt of Rolph and my parents.” She looked up him. He tried to read her reaction, but as usual she was a calm and serene surface. “Maybe the gods tried to tell you something?” she asked. “Which gods would that be? My gods or yours?” He was tired and grief-stricken. Nora looked at him. “Aren’t all the gods the same? They only have different names as you move around in the world.” The dark skinned woman looked at Eirick. He averted her gaze and looked at the setting sun. The western mountains looked even bigger than Svartrfjell. The huge looming peak of Grimjökull dominated the range of mountains. It was under that peak that King Erik had beaten the last of the fire Ettins, who had lived in the land before Erik and his tribe had set foot in the land. He had often thought he was named after the ancient king, but he didn’t share anything with him. Shackles, whips and bonds dominated his life, while Erik had his sword Ettinsbane, his shield Grimsward and his throne in Magnarborg. He could never have that. Nora stroked his dark hair. “You are a good boy, but you must not be so glom. The gods have a plan for us all.” Eirick did not answer. He simply continued to look out at the dark peaks and he remembered some words from an ancient tale. It was what Erik had said to his brother when they left Grimshall in Daner – A true Ismarking makes his own destiny.
He thought of those words and he was sad. How could he change his destiny?