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A short story showing the brutality of the middle ages in northern europe.

Submitted:Feb 14, 2013    Reads: 78    Comments: 0    Likes: 0   

The sun was rising, a half circle of pure gold nestled on the horizon. The smell of salt and old fish permeated the air, a smell that could disgust even the regular denizens of the small fishing village. The villagers were waking, some already readying small fishing boats for the days labor, hard men with hard lives. Krav awoke to the sting of his mothers palm on his backside, shrieking in anger that he had overslept. He was fully awake and alert in seconds, shrugging off the greasy blanket that kept the worst of the Scandinavian chill from his small frame he was up and out of the dwelling in a flash. Krav could hear his mothers bleating voice behind him as he ran, it was to be his first day out on the water. His father had been killed by a wolf three years before, and so the responsibility of providing had passed to little Krav, until today he had only been allowed to mend the ripped nets, earning nothing but the last scraps of the days catch. Today he would come home with his arms so full of fish they would be slipping and falling about him like the winter snows, and his mother would smile for once. Atleast that was the plan, and what do boys know of how often they go wrong. Full of youthful optimism Krav arrived at the beach, his eyes darting from side to side in search of the vessel that would make him rich in silver scales, and precious meat. An old man had agreed to take him on at his 10th birthday, having no son of his own to help. His boat was patched and scarred, just like the man, only not as grumpy, atleast that's what Krav hoped. The mans name was Sven, his voice gruff as he called to Krav from the far side of the beach. Krav burst into motion, almost falling head on into the rocky sand in his haste. Krav jumped up over the railing of the small boat and had his smile wiped off his face by a quick cuff from Sven. "whos gonna push the boat out offa this beach if your in here hm? Get out and push us yah useless child." Still riddled with excitement Krav turned on his heels and flew from the boat, turning again as swiftly and placing his hands on the rail to push. "put yer back into it, them fish aint gonna be comin ashore and jumpin into yer fryin pan" said Sven, a glint of humour in his eyes. As gruff and tough as he showed, it would be nice to have some company on the lonely sea, that is if the skinny kid didn't drop overboard trying to heave the first catch in. Finally the boat released its tentative grip on the land with a scrape, and Krav, red in the face tumbled into the boat, his wet feet spraying water in a wide arc. Beginning his day wet was not what Sven had in mind and he cursed loudly, too busy cuff Krav again from pulling out the small sail the boat used. "take the tiller boy, and next time ya splash me ill knock a tooth out yer stinkin mouth" Said Sven rolling his eyes and sending a private prayer to Odin to give him the strength to keep his temper and concentrate on his work. "where should I steer us" asked Krav, " we could go up to the river mouth! Ive never seen it from the sea before?" Sven felt his mood begin to lighten in the face of the boys innocent excitement. "I heard theres a place out across the sea where dragons as giants live, and the fish are bigger than the bears!" squeaked out Krav, his optimism getting the better of his mouth. "Listen boy, and listen well, there aint nothin out yonder 'cept more ocean, an it only gets deeper and harder the further ya go" Sven said, a shadow crossing his face as if an old pain had suddenly flared up. Kravs face fell at the words, but he didn't believe them, his dreams were often haunted by visions of misty shores and fire, and days spent imagining his adventures in a place that he could wander green and golden fields, deep forests and clear streams and a sweet breeze unmarred by the scent of dead fish and unwashed bodies. "we're headin out off the point, my guts tellin me theres a sweet school waitin for us near Odins head, work hard boy and yer belly will be full tonight, you hearin me?" Kravs gaze snapped back into focus from his imaginings, "what?" he replied. "just head east up the coast and pay bloody attention" growled Sven. Chastened, Krav worked the tiller so that the small boat eased itself into an easterly heading. "watch them rocks over yonder" added Sven, silently impressed with the boys handling of his boat. "may not be as stupid as he looks" he thought. The sun was halfway up to its zenith now, its rays casting a shine atop the choppy waves of the treacherous green sea. A strong wind had struck up out of the north, buffeting the small craft as Sven expertly tacked it around Odins point. "can you lift that net there boy?" he asked, Krav replied by letting go of the tiller and drunkenly stumbling to the bows and grasping the oily black net folded there, a sheepish look on his face as he stumbled on the floor planks again, " you'll get yer sea legs soon 'nuff boy, now pass me them nets" Krav heaved on the weighted net, his spindly arms shaking with the strain. "that's it, don't fall over board now, theres more than fish down there that'll bite" warned Sven. With a collosal effort Krav managed to place the net close enough for Sven to reach it. "Now watch a real fisherman at his craft boy!'' bragged Sven as he took the net in his calloused hands. Stepping clear of the short mast and its barely noticeable rigging, Sven heaved the net up to waist height, the thick muscles in his shoulders tensing for the throw. With a grunt and an explosion of a movement that gave a lie to his aged appearance, Sven threw the net out in a spinning motion to lie flat on the surface. Immediately it sank below, the weights on its edges pulling it down into the depths where the Arctic Char swam. "See you've got to throw it spinning so it doesn't get caught up on itself, wont catch no fish with a tangled net, will you boy?" Sven asked, "No sir" said Krav, receiving only a grunt in response. After a time Sven motioned to the ropes attached to the net still tied off in the boat, "when I tell ye, heave on them ropes as strong as ye can, we'll see if you'll make a proper fishermen yet" Nervously Krav wrapped the ropes around his small hands, scenes of an overloaded net pulling him into the dark water crossed through his mind, and he began to sweat in fear and anticipation. "Alright, pull her up!" shouted Sven. They both pulled the ropes, at first feeling only the resistance of sea, then something pulled back. Krav could feel the wriggling of their catch through the ropes that burned his hands as he struggled. He pulled with all his might, his breath ceasing in concentration. He could hear Sven grunting with exertion to his left, "pull boy!" he shouted and Krav, gasping for air, pulled a few more inches of rope over the rail. The ropes were shaking under the strain, and kravs hands were engulfed in a burning pain from the rough material. Tears began to form in the corners of his eyes and he shook his head to clear them, not willing to show weakness to his new mentor. Bit by bit they managed to pull in the net, after many minutes that seemed like hours to Krav, they had the net alongside the boat. "hell boy, I told ye thered be fish here today! Look at them beauties!" The net squirmed and writhed with its submerged captives, thumping against the side of the boat in their panic to escape. Sven was beaming at what must be a big haul, Krav could barely enjoy the moment with the pain in his body. His shoulders and back twitching and burning from the long process. "I reckon shes to heavy to pull out, we'll have to tie her off and head back" said Sven, still boiling over with his good fortune. "Yer lucky boy, I might just keep yerself around" he said, clapping Krav on the the shoulder. As Sven tied the ropes off, Krav slumped into his seat in exhaustion. The day was barely halfway done, he hoped Sven wouldn't want to come back for another netfull after dropping their first. Sven sat at the tiller with a satisfied grunt and turned the boat back into the west, its movements sluggish with its load. The net was full of good arctic char, more than Sven had ever caught in two days of fishing, let alone one try. He eyed Krav slumped in the bows, feeling a tingle of affection stirring. He wondered at the feeling for a moment before shaking it off, no room for softness when life was so difficult. An hour later the boat bumped alongside the sole dock of the whole village, its rotting legs far beyond the prospect of safety. Sven leaped from the boat to the soggy boards of the dock, bawling demands for assistance with their overloaded net. A few women mending nets on the beach eyed him with distaste before rising to help. "Crusty old hags" chuckled Sven, "they wont be whinin' when their stuffin their faces with Svens catch will they boy?" Krav was to tired to reply, leaning against the rail dreading the moment he had to pull the rough rope again. The women had carefully made their way down the dock to them, pulling up their grubby sleeves to reveal sinewy forearms made hard from labor. Krav dragged himself onto the dock to join them and choosing their footing carefully they each took a grip on the ropes. "On three now" muttered Sven as he leaned his weight back to take the slack from his rope. "one, two, THREE!" They all threw their weight back on the ropes, the net and its occupants slowly rising from the cold water. Though the rough ropes caught on the splintered planking of the dock, they were able to wrestle it atop and they stood gaping at such a huge catch, Sven most of all. Krav felt his energy begin to return at the sight of so much food, he did not yet know how much he would be allowed to have but even one would be a bigger meal than he and his mother had seen for months. If he got two he might even be able to trade one for some of the goatsmilk butter he had seen others cook with. The four of them dragged the net down the dock towards the beach where they could process the fish, some would be eaten then and some would be pickled in stout oak barrels for the hard winter to come. It was then that they heard the horns, all of their heads perking up to the unfamiliar sound. Krav recognized the deep notes, not from his ears but from his dreams. He looked to Sven and saw the fear dawning on his crinkled features, and followed his gaze to the north. Men were there, many of them, the afternoon sun reflecting off what could only be the tools of war. As they came over the hills north of the village they seemed to Krav as a monster from one of his dreams, a mass of deadly points and barbs, shielded in glistening steel. He stood stunned for a moment before almost being knocked into the sea by the two women, running to their children or to grab what small valuables they owned. Some of the villagers had already seen and fled in every direction. The soldiers were advancing on the collection of houses, relentlessly, their terrifying features only focusing as they neared the village. Krav wondered what they could possibly want from such a poor place and then panic gripped his heart with a steel gauntlet, he had to save his mother. Shrugging off the exhaustion of the days work he fled from the dock, winding through the the paths in between the homes of his neighbours to reach his mothers hut. He burst through the rotted oak door to find the place empty. Panic gripped him once again before his sharp eyes noticed the one blanket they shared was gone, and the tinderbox that always sat on the end of the bed was missing, as well as the one knife they owned that hung from the ceiling. His mother had left, and been thorough in preparation, except he was still there. His mother had been rough with him and beat him often but Krav could not imagine she would leave without him. With tears brimming in his eyes he spun around and called for his mother as loud as he could. He turned east and ran through the village, throwing caution away in his desperation. "mother!" he called over and over as he skidded around the twists and turns of the paths. As he came to the outskirts of the village he saw the soldiers were only a stones throw from the village, another group coming up the beach from the east, herding the would be runaways ahead of them. In horror he saw that his mother was one of them, stumbling and tripping in her terror. The screaming warriors were but steps behind her and Krav screamed to see them gaining on the group of villagers. Fear overwhelmed him and he stood rooted in place, watching the scene unfold with wide, wet eyes. The soldiers overtook the villagers and his mother was one of the first to fall, a gleaming sword disappearing into her back. In a spasm of agony her back arched up until she stood on her toes, the sword pushing the front of her ragged shirts out in a point for a split second before being pulled back out. The soldier who had stabbed her laughed and ran over her, stepping on her lifeless hand as he ran on. Krav felt his chest tighten and he stood unbelieving as his stomach wrenched in pain. Doubled over he regurgitated the contents of his belly onto the sandy soil, his knees weakening to the point of collapse. Overwhelmed by fear and grief he stood his ground, unable to think of anything but his mother. His eyes streamed tears freely and his hands shook with emotion, choking out a sob he fell to one knee. He looked up and through blurry eyes saw the lead attackers were only feet from where he knelt frozen, screaming and waving their weapons, still dripping from fresh death. The leading warrior barely checked his charge as he reached Krav, his sword slicing downwards in search of his neck. Krav closed his eyes in helplessness as the sword came down, the pain of his loss numbing him to his own fate. The blow never struck, he opened his eyes at the sound of steel on steel and saw Sven standing over him, a rusty sword in his hand. The strange warrior screamed in rage to have his kill stolen from him and swung at Svens head. Krav watched in awe as Sven nimbly ducked the blade and flicked his own across his attackers neck, opening the vein. The warrior dropped, trying to hold his blood in with slippery fingers and choking as he writhed on the ground. "get up boy! We'll be safe at sea!" yelled Sven, Krav still knelt, stunned into inaction by all he had seen. With a curse Sven took hold of Kravs torn shirt and lifted him bodily from the ground. He set off at a jog, the bloody sword still held in his other hand. Krav fought for consciousness as he bounced along in the old mans grip, not knowing wether he was dreaming or not, surely such pain would have woken him. Sven ran down the village dock, paying no attention to its creaking woodwork, he reached the boat and tossed Krav into the bows. With a deft flick of his wrist he severed the mooring ropes and leapt over the rail, practiced fingers setting the small sail without panic. Having seen their companion fall the attackers had followed them to the docks and they came surging down the dock in a mass, hungry for revenge. Sven reached out and pushed off from the dock with all his strength, in doing so realizing it would not be enough. The soldiers were too close now, and he knew they would kill him slowly, he only hoped they would show mercy to the boy. As the boat drifted Krav passed completely into unconsciousness, not hearing the cracking of the dock supports as the weight of the soldiers and their armor breached its limit. Sven knew a glimpse of hope as he saw the dock shift, then twist as its supports collapsed, a whole section halfway down falling into the water with a crash. Two of the soldiers were to slow to notice and went in after it, their steel armor dragging them down without a sound. Sven rejoiced as he saw they could not reach his boat, and took hold of the oars he had stowed away for windless days. Setting them in their mounts he rowed for the safe solitariness of the open ocean, his eyes drifting from the soldiers to the skinny boy who lay defeated and unseeing in the bows. Sven felt a pang of regret for the child, knowing too well how he would feel when he awoke. As the sun set and its fading twilight rays played on the smoke of his burning home, Sven rowed further out, wondering that even in sight of land, he was lost at sea.


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