By Priya Sridhar
For Ryder, whose expressive and sorrowful tales inspired this one.
Winter rattled the windowpanes on the small island of Eason, loud as a hammer splitting a man’s empty skull. Eason was one of many rocks in the sea, with slick black sand on its few beaches and thick, stubborn trees of the woods. The island and the harsh wind may as well have reflected Chief Tobias’ own struggle to put his ill captive back in bed.
“No!” The boy cried, pulling away in pure panic. “No, please!”
Odd was a small youth, with the faintest of blonde peach fuss on his chin, but unbelievably strong. Earlier, he had managed to slam the door open, bent back on its hinges, despite being bolted, to pin one guard and sending the other sprawling.
Tobias held Odd’s thrashing arms to his sides from behind, trying to hold him without causing further harm, just to ease him back into bed. If Odd didn’t have bandages wrapped around his middle and a feverish sweat that swathed him from head to toe, Tobias doubted if he could have held him.
However, he would only make it outside to collapse in the snow. Maybe if he tried hard enough, he would get to the docks to untie his boat; but in this weather, he would die for sure from his wounds.
“It’s all right,” Tobias tried to say, soothing him. “It’s all right.”
“Please. Let me go.”
Odd suffered from a fever caused by the knife wounds in his chest and stomach. Yet he had made no effort to strike Tobias, or any of the other men who had stabbed him. He only seemed to want to get away.
“Lad, if I wanted you dead, I wouldn’t have let you rest in my bed,” Tobias pleaded, his bushy brow knotted with regret and frustration. Tobias feared the weakness of Odd’s struggle to breathe within his arms.
Odd coughed, doubled over wheezing for air. Allowing Tobias to lay him on the bed, only to hear Odd retch as well and quickly fetched a basin for him. He watched the boy hack up bile, and offered him water to drink by holding the cup close to his lips.
Odd resisted, feebly, but eventually he had to give in and swallow. The water was cool, freshly drawn from the well, Eason Island’s one blessing. The rocky outcrop’s vertical layers captured the rain water filtering down to the village’s well.
“No one’s going to hurt you now,” Tobias promised Odd, as well as to himself. “You have my word.”
Odd didn’t meet his eyes. He stared at his scabbed hands, covered in salve and bandages, and then at the greenish-yellow bile in the basin. Tobias felt the urge to rub the youth’s hands, to make things better, but he restrained himself. Knowing, Odd wanted nothing to do with the man who had tried to kill him.
Tobias cursed at how deceptive things could look one way, and then change in the blink of an eye. He had almost killed the youth, in the dark of the early morning hours. Upon hearing the war horn’s bellow, signaling that an enemy had landed on his shore; half dressed, he had run from his house. His eyes drawn to the dock, the hated orange and yellow striped sail of their most feared enemy billowed in the torch light.
The enemy in the lead had easily shaken off a man who tried to grab him. Tobias’s men, weary and hardened from watching the pox devour their island, had obviously taken the gesture as an open invitation to a brawl. Only to their surprised anger, his men were being tossed aside as if they were ragdolls. Tobias hurled himself into the tangle of men, releasing all his rage and grief in a flurry of fists and stabs.
It was too easy, the way Odd shied from his harsh blows, he wasn’t even fighting back. There was only one, Tobias froze, his arm drawn back prepared to kill, realizing a boy stood before him, he looked so innocent, so shocked at his blood welling in his hands.
The priestess shoved threw the men, an elder woman named Asta, she wielded a hooked cane and she yanked his arm further back.
Odd dropped to his knees on the shore, whimpering and bleeding.
Then she rapped Tobias on the forehead with that cane, bruising his nose at the same time, and pulled him down so that they were at eye level.
“Shame on you, for hurting a child! And this one carries no weapon! Where is your sense of hospitality, and chiefly duty?”
That shame drove Tobias to listen. These days, Asta rarely emerged from her hut where she kept company with the runes. Before the pox had taken her daughters, Asta strolled the island and dispatched advice.
Asta drew a green sign in the air with her mottled stick, the rune raidho for “focus”. Tobias had seen her use that before, to interrogate most newcomers to the island.
In response, the rune transfigured into a new symbol, ansuz for “god” glimmered black and gold over Odd’s body. It settled on his form, like a bird finding a large perch.
“Even if he weren’t a child, the gods want him to live,” Asta said. “So you better keep him alive!”
Tobias listened. He ordered his men away from Odd, who tried to crawl feebly toward the water. He ordered them to pick the youth up as he thrashed, still losing blood. Eventually Odd fainted, and the rune vanished from his body.
“I need to get my healer’s bag. Take him to your house,” she shouted over her shoulder as she dashed off.
Tobias almost objected, they should be taking the boy to the priestess’s house, but the chief’s hut was closer. Tobias’ grief tore at him as he crossed the threshold, his house felt empty now. He had built it with four rooms, intended to fill them with laughing children and a happy wife. He chose the room he had always planned to give to the son he would no longer have.
Asta grunted her approval when she returned; though she warned Tobias that she would be watching to make sure he did not hurt Odd further. Asta cleaned and stitched up the stab wounds, and gave strict instructions on how to care for the cuts until they closed.
Tobias supposed Asta her own reasons for helping the boy. She had found letters in Odd’s boat, a surname, and relatives called the Rígrs. They could ask for a ransom, since the pox had taken everything. That reason alone satisfied the men. But for Tobias . . . he hated himself and his rages.
Three days after he woke up, Odd seemed to have given up trying to reach his boat, which remained tethered to the docks. It was a good thing, because it meant that Tobias didn’t have to put a guard on his door, but it was a bad thing because Odd seemed to have lost the will to survive. He wouldn’t eat meals, or even looking out the window longingly. The circles under his eyes grew, while flesh tightened around his face.
It was amazing, how the youth had found opportunity to run during those first three days. He didn’t talk much, but he obviously had a stubborn mind. One time Tobias had even considered tying Odd to his bed, or shackling his ankle to the wall by the bed. If not for Asta’s interference, he might have gone through with the idea.
Tobias found it worse when Odd wouldn’t eat the meat and bread he brought over from the village long house. The food lay on the simple wooden plate, forlorn and useless. The youth’s forehead burned with sweat, and he could do nothing. It was like watching a plant slowly die on a windowsill.
A letter came in response from the enemy tribe; Chief Volker offered a ransom. Apparently Odd was a useful handyman on his island, a middle child of seven. One condition stood out on the parchment; he must come back intact and unharmed, or we will not pay a single coin.
The chief pondered this last part as he shared the letter with Asta when she visited to check on Odd’s condition.
“Looks like you’ve lost your money,” Asta said spitefully, as Tobias tucked the letter into his vest.
“We can cover up the wounds,” he said. “They’re on his chest.”
“Their healer will know,” she replied. “She’ll examine him to make sure he’s well worth the ransom. Chief Volker is not stupid.”
“Then what do I do?” he asked, with frustration. “If I tell the men, they’ll gut him from spite. I can’t let them do that, now that he’s my guest.”
“Then don’t tell the men. Just tell them the rest of the ransom letter. They can find out the last bit later. You don’t have to tell them anything, because you’re the chief.”
Her harsh look demanded no compromise. Tobias said nothing as she got up and went to place her hand on Odd’s forehead, she attempted to spoon feed him holding the small bowl of soup up close to his chin with the other hand. She crooned to the boy soothingly, as if she was his grandmother, and surprisingly, he heard the sound of Odd swallowing. He also saw colored lights out of the corner of his eye, as if she were drawing more runes to question him.
“Just so you know, this isn’t my normal job,” she snapped at him when she came out to join him in the kitchen, the bowl still smoked slightly. “It’s hard enough reading the runes without playing nursemaid to a lad. If a blizzard comes and we’re not prepared for it, because I couldn’t read my runes, it’s on your head, Tobias.”
“Understood,” Tobias said. For peace’s sake, he had to make sure that Odd got well, even if the boy didn’t want to accept food or his help. And he was very aware he had to listen to Asta’s advice.
He started by preparing Odd’s meals himself, cutting morsels that he could swallow. Except for the vegetable broth he carried from Asta’s every midmorning at arm’s length, his nose turned away, which he left on the table beside Odd’s bed. Sometimes the doubtful substance gave off strange odors, or red and blue smoke, but Odd seemed to take no notice. Tobias even took it upon himself to procured soft slices bread, the first cuts from the center of the daily loaves.
Odd’s eyes were ringed with dark circles, even though he had spent most of this time resting. He turned his face away.
“So,” Tobias started on the first day. “So, we got off on the wrong foot a bit, didn’t we?”
Odd wouldn’t meet his eyes. Hands went to the bandages around his stomach, relaxing the fists for a minute.
“I understand why you don’t believe me. Our priestess believes that you should be saved, for some reason, and I am not one to argue with one who can tell the future. It must mean you have a divine purpose.”
Some sound escaped Odd’s lips. It took a few seconds for Tobias to place it as a laugh.
Odd opened his mouth to speak, and coughed. When he tried to speak, his voice was raspy. Tobias offered the broth to him; Odd pushed it away.
“My priestess would disagree,” he whispered. “Thought . . . I was good for naught. Told my da to leave me in the well when I was a baby.”
Tobias’s breath caught inside him. Wells were only used when the babes were considered disfigured, and of no use to the tribes. It was a one-way ticket to Niflheim.
“Why didn’t he?”
Odd took a moment to answer. Tobias wondered if he was hesitating, but then he saw the furrows on Odd’s brow. The boy had to think.
“Our tribe . . . is blessed,” he said. “The god Heimdall sired us all when he was a man, Ríg. That’s why we are called the Rígrs. Thus, every one of us is valuable.”
Tobias wanted to spout rhetoric about the Rígrs inflated ego, but he remembered the runes that had appeared above Odd’s bleeding body, and he remembered Asta’s anger.
“Priestess was young,” Odd went on. “Followed rules. Always thought she was right. Thought I was touched in the head. Perhaps I am.
“Da saw I was strong. Stubborn. He ignored her, and raised me.” Odd made a gesture of lifting wood. “Been working since I was three. Always using my hands, and my arms. Built my own boat. The priestess . . . couldn’t argue.”
Tobias saw the calluses on the short, deft fingers. They were a carver’s hands, dotted with odd splinters and nicks in the skin. Odd’s voice gained some strength.
“She finally stopped blathering about my touched head when I offered carvings to our shrine; the flames devoured them, and we had good fishing for weeks. Same thing happened every year when I carved and offered.”
“Why did you leave?”
“I want to explore.” Odd made it sound like it was obvious. “I had a boat. I had my tools. Whole world out there. Unlike Ríg, I do not fear the ocean.”
Then his eyes darkened, as if he remembered who he spoke to and looked away. Tobias felt a wave of guilt.
“This was your first trip out,” he said. “In the dead of winter?”
Odd gave a half-nod. His hands started to fidget against the blanket.
“You had no idea that we were in a feud against your tribe.”
“I don’t fight.”
“But you know how to.”
“I don’t.” There was finality to his tone.
Odd reached for the bowl of broth. He hesitated, and then drank it in one gulp. Several drops fell from his lips. When the wooden bowl was empty, he then squeezed it with his fist. There was a crumbling sound.
Tobias stared at the pieces in Odd’s hands. They were practically splinters, stained with bits of broth. Some orange-red drops spilled onto the floor from the boy’s palms.
“That’s why,” Odd said; his voice stronger after drinking the broth. “Sometimes I’ve broken bones and heads at home. Part of being Rígr.”
He cupped the pieces, as if to display his strength. Tobias got a cloth to collect the pieces and wipe up the mess. He felt disconcerted but showed none of it.
Afterward, it got easier, at least in terms of returning Odd to full strength. Odd drank less of her broth, so that he didn’t smell of pungent smoke and brimstone.
Different problems showed up, ones that came up when politics were involved. They hurt Tobias, because he often had to hurt Odd again.
“Why can’t I go?” Odd whispered, always in that raspy voice. “I’m nearly healed. It’s better if . . . if I leave. I want to leave.”
“I cannot allow that,” Tobias said. “If you step a foot outside, my men will assume that you are escaping and cut you down again.”
“But you are the chief. You could tell them to let me go.”
“Not until your tribe decides to pay a ransom. My men have not attacked because they believe you are of value to your tribe.”
“So I’m a prisoner?” Odd’s voice gained an unnatural squeak. “All because I landed by boat on your island?”
“Yes,” Tobias said, gritting his teeth.
That drove a wedge between them. Not that Tobias cared about anything other than pleasing Asta and easing his conscience, but even if Odd had the option to leave, Tobias didn’t want him to go. He liked having an innocent youth in his house, filling the empty space with warmth.
To prevent Odd from skipping meals again, Tobias would give him small objects and chores with which to occupy his time; a chisel and file for carving wood. He made Odd swear to not carve a key for the lock on the chief’s house, or to try and escape. Odd barked a laugh, but promised, though the idea of carving a key probably hadn’t even crossed his mind, and he whittled little creatures instead. He proved to be an adept housekeeper, keeping the chief’s hut neat while locked inside for the day.
Tobias had to admire how well Odd carved; small squirrels and dogs seemed to scurry on the windowsill. Odd actually smiled when receiving the compliments, and mentioned carving them for his brothers and sisters.
“They love the animals,” he said, when setting a tiny boat among the wooden menagerie. “Often when Ma and Da had to work, I was to watch them, so I’d carve and they’d watch. Sometimes they’d make a game out of it. They’d ask me to make new creatures, or ones I’d never seen, like the World Serpent.”
“They must have loved you a lot,” Tobias said. “Did they miss you when you left?”
“Aye. I carved several hundred carvings, promising to only be gone for a month. They are to play with each carving for every day that I’m gone.”
There was an awkward silence. Tobias turned to the blank walls, and wondered what it may be like to parent a child who went off and nearly died.
“How come you don’t have any . . .?” Odd gestured at the empty hut.
“No available women on the island,” Tobias told him plainly. “At least, not as many as there were; pox wiped out more than a few of our numbers. I just became chief this year, after my father died. We haven’t been able to seek new numbers.”
Silence. Then pity filled it; for the first time Odd didn’t look at Tobias with fear. His eyes, not crazed with fever or panic, were soft and compassionate.
“The pox must have been hard,” he said. “We got it a couple of years back. Nearly killed my wee brother Njord.”
“He’s stubborn.” Odd smiled with wistfulness. “Day after his fever broke; he was banging at the door, demanding to play outside.”
When Odd smiled like that, it made Tobias regret a hundred times over how he had treated the boy, the fact that they had met under unfortunate circumstances.
Nor were the circumstances over; Odd’s tribesmen would come, see the scars, and refuse to pay the ransom. Then Tobias’s men would start a skirmish, the blood would stain the sands . . .
Tobias looked down, and Odd noticed.
“Everything all right, chief?”
“Fine,” Tobias said. “Just thinking about the future.”
Another silence passed. Odd was touched, but he also knew that the day his tribesmen came would not be a pleasant day.
“You could let me go,” he said. “I could make my way there, and not trouble you again. Your men would just think-”
“No,” Tobias said firmly.
“Da and the chief won’t like ransoming me. Always said I ought to have stayed and done handiwork.”
“I know,” Tobias said. “But it has to be done.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Odd said. He looked down at himself, stroking the bandages and stitches.
Tobias didn’t respond. He sometimes wished that Odd would understand. If Odd went and left on his own, it would be a failure for the tribe for not keeping their enemy confined. They had already suffered many losses, and the failed attempt to gain the ransom would drive his men to rage.
A knock interrupted the silence. Asta walked in, less hunched, with a ceramic jar of strange green salve tucked under her bony arm. She was only nice to Odd, shoving past Tobias, she offered the boy a flat smile.
“I need to check you,” she said without greeting. “We need a room, Tobias.”
The chief stood aside, and allowed the two to enter Odd’s room. He stared at the woodcarvings on the windowsill, at how the animals pranced around the boat. Then, for the first time in months, his mind drifted back to the plague.
They had to burn all the bodies, to stop the infection. Men, women, even wee babes. The woman that Tobias was set to marry fell victim to the pox as well. Purple pustules littered every corpse, making them swell without dignity.
His father’s pyre was the largest, and it burned for the longest time. The smoke swelled into the air, entering the evening sky. Tobias watched it, wishing that battle rather than pox could have come, so that his father could have entered Valhalla and died a hero.
Tobias blinked. Asta came out, looking calmer than she had in days when looking at the chief. Her hair was tied back, and she wiped her hands on a stray cloth.
“He’s recovering neatly,” she told him. “His vital organs have healed, and he should be ready to sail in days. Good to know there’s no long-term damage.”
“Except the scars,” he reminded her. “They will see that, and war will break out on our shores when they do not pay the ransom. According to Odd, the pox did not wipe them out. If they bring an army, we will be overwhelmed.”
“Then you should have thought of that before striking an enemy who would not strike back,” she said.
“We thought he was a berserker. Besides you’re the one that thought of the ransom.”
She didn’t look concerned at the accusation, but her tone turned brittle.
“That was to keep him alive. You would have had a youth’s death on your hands, which would have dogged you to your last breath. And there’s been enough death on these shores as it is.”
Tobias sucked in a breath. Asta’s gaze softened. Tobias decided not to point fingers at the priestess, at such a time. It was disrespectful, and chiefs did not disrespect wiser elders.
Odd listened from the door, a curious expression on his face. He clutched the jar of salve, holding it with curiosity.
The day came, as did the ships: a trio of longboats bearing the enemy crest, with about a dozen armed Norsemen on each of the ships. They were armed to the teeth with freshly polished axes and maces, wearing masks that made them look more menacing. Their chief wore no faceplate, but he had no need; only a skilled archer would be able to aim at his face, the sole naked part of his metal form.
Tobias knew that his armor bore rusty spots and had started to crack in one place; his sword and shield needed polishing. The blacksmith had died with the pox, and no one had felt in the mood for battle recently. He had warned his men not to attack, since they were similarly bedraggled, although one attempted to press a blunted knife to Odd’s throat. Tobias cursed and shoved him away.
“You don’t make the demands here,” Tobias said to him sternly. “You are not the chief.”
The man sulked and slipped to the rear of the group. Tobias consented, however to several guards surrounding the boy. Odd looked upset, but he had no choice but to stand stiffly within them, like a temple statue.
Chief Volker was a large man, with blue tattoos running along his biceps, but his eyes softened on seeing Odd. Another man beside him with dirty blond hair in a braid and a scar on his neck nearly rushed forward, but the chief held out an arm to block him. Tobias saw a small knife with a carved wooden handle hanging from the man’s waist.
“Odd,” the man called out. “That is you, isn’t it?”
“Aye. Hi, Da,” Odd said, looking abashed as he met his father’s eyes. He then turned away, as if expecting to be struck for being captured. His guards shifted, holding their weapons stiffly.
“You’re alive,” Odd’s father said, in wonder. “They kept you alive.”
“And intact, I hope, or there is no deal,” Chief Volker said, his voice curt. “Has he been harmed at all?”
The men looked to their chief, waiting; the one in the rear fingered the knife he had wanted to use. Several drew their weapons; and the sound of weapons leaving their scabbards sliced through the air. Several of Volker’s men smirked their own weapons ready in hand.
Tobias didn’t know what to say, because seeing Odd’s father made the reality strike him. He had hurt a child, someone’s child, and this man wasn’t much older than Tobias’s father had been. Oh, his hands were more callused and his furs were rougher, but he was a father who loved his son.
“No, sir.” He answered in a small but sturdy voice. Tobias didn’t understand.
“No,” Odd repeated firmly. “They didn’t hurt me. I showed up in the night, with our sail, but their priestess stopped them and found the letters from home.”
Tobias turned, mouth open. So did the men surrounding Odd; their expressions were comical. Odd was pulling up his shirt now, showing bare skin underneath.
Volker came forward, and examined Odd’s chest. He tapped a finger against the boy’s pale breastbone, and rested it against his heart
“Is that what they told you to say, Odd?”
“No, sir.” This was the truth; Tobias hadn’t even thought of telling Odd to lie. “They need help. More than half their tribe was wiped out by pox.”
Volker met the boy’s eyes. Odd kept the gaze, polite but unmoving.
“We didn’t hurt him,” Tobias said. “We have kept him intact, so that we could receive the supplies we needed.”
Volker turned to Tobias, who stood his ground. If a mere boy could lie to a chief’s face, then so could Tobias. Tobias had to thank Asta for the green salve, if they all survived this exchange.
Minutes stretched. The chiefs locked gazes. Several of Tobias’s men held out their old swords.
“Very well,” Volker said. “Release him, and you shall have your ransom.”
Tobias signaled the men to move away; only then did Odd walk, then run to his father. There were a few joyful yells from the other tribe, and then Tobias received the small wooden box that contained gold, precious stones, and even rare herbs that did not grow on Eason.
“He’s worth a lot to you,” Tobias said, with surprise.
“Of course he is,” Volker said, his voice dismissive. “He is the best woodcarver in our tribe, and boat repairman. He is not going to be leaving our island for a while. You understand that, boy?”
“We need to get my boat,” Odd protested. “It’s at the dock.”
“We know; we saw that.” Volker reached to ruffle Odd’s hair. They had the same gray eyes, the same wariness tempered with soft pity. And in that gesture, Tobias saw love between them, and wondered if they shared blood. Not father and son, but close enough to warrant bruising affection.
Tobias swore that he could feel Asta’s cat-like grin from her hut. So that was why she had told him off for attacking Odd, and for letting his men do so. He owed her his life, and the tribe’s life.
“You were very lucky not to have harmed him,” Volker went on, as Odd went with his father to gather the boat. “We protect the ones we love, and avenge them. It would have been disastrous for the lot of you.”
He eyed the small number of men by Tobias’s side, who had gathered to look at the box of precious metals. It was enough for them to start over, to get new tools and recruit more, maybe even bring more women to the island.
“We can sign a treaty perhaps, to avoid future exchanges like this,” Tobias said. “We need more people, and trade. This will be enough for us to recover from the pox.”
“Aye. A treaty would be more . . . convenient, and less messy. You need a smith to make better armor for starters.”
That was a barb, and it hit home. The men surrounded Tobias tensed; he gave a signal for them to stand back.
“Why is he so important to you?” Tobias asked. “Even if he carves well, he cannot be this valuable.”
Volker only smiled, with the quiet triumph of a warrior who has bested his enemy, or perhaps the triumph of a smug god facing a mere mortal. Tobias had no doubt that he could slaughter the remains of Tobias’s tribe, and leave their skins out for the sun to dry.
“Is he really the descendant of a god?” Tobias pressed on. “Is what he says true?”
“Ríg, whom later became Heimdall of Asgard, sired us,” Volker said. “All of us. He knew we would become a glorious and honorable people. That’s why we bear his name.”
“Is that why Odd carves so well?” This came out before Tobias could stop himself. “The boy has filled my . . . the chief’s hut with his work. I . . . well . . . you knew my father, and I am not him. I am willing offer a truce, to set aside our feud for the meantime.”
“Heimdall was not a carver,” Volker said bluntly, “may my respect show for the gods. But my nephew has always been full of surprises, from the day his father spared him from the well. He surprised me today. Perhaps you are honorable after all.”
With that, he strode away with his small contingent of bodyguards, confident that no one would shoot him in the back. Then he stopped, and paused.
“I am sorry for your loss,” he said. “No tribe deserves the pox, or senseless slaughter. We shall have a ceasefire, so that you may become strong again.”
Tobias gave the signal for his tribesmen to withdraw. They sheathed their weapons, reluctantly. Volker’s men did the same, as they retreated with their shiny armor.
“What now, chief?” One of his men asked. “What do we do?”
Odd was talking to his father, as the larger man was running a hand through Odd’s hair and murmuring softly. The boy turned around, and gave a respectful smile to Tobias, before returning the affection.
Tobias knew that a feud didn’t end in a day. He had to keep an eye out for stray disagreements. Skirmishes could break out again, so easily, but something had changed. He had changed, after spilling a boy’s blood.
“We start over,” Tobias responded, staring as Odd and his father clambered into the little dinghy. “But first, we have to thank the gods.”