The Ravens Beneath the Ash

The Saxons sailed up the river on a cool day in early spring. Halden was gathering firewood on the ridge above his village when he saw the boats. The lead ship had an unusual prow, a falcon head carved out of wood, and flying above the mast was a flag with three falcons on a field of bright yellow. None of the other villagers saw the boats gliding up the waters, oars dipping and flashing in the sun, and as Halden’s father was caulking one of the Danish longships with moss, the Saxons docked their boats, and their men unloaded and charged up the embankment into the Danish camp. Halden yelled to his father, but he was too far away to be heard or to help.

The village was filled with mostly women and children and old men. The better part of the Danish army was fighting across the sea in England, and the Saxons sensed the people’s vulnerability and fear, and so they murdered, raped, plundered, and burned everything in sight. Halden could hear the screams and the ringing of steel in the valley. He dropped the pile of sticks he was carrying and ran down the hillside. In his fear and rage, tears streamed down his face. He wanted to kill them all, to make them suffer, to show them the strength and the fury of a Danish warrior. The forest was overgrown with brambles and roots, and Halden scrambled down the ridge, and when he reached an outcrop of boulders, he stopped. His eyes were on his father, who was standing by the riverbed, and as his father turned toward their house, two arrows struck him in the chest, and the impact of the iron points driving through his lungs and heart forced him to his knees. He attempted to break the shafts from his chest, but a Saxon rammed a spear through his throat, and he collapsed on his face in the sand. Halden wanted to scream, but he had no breath. His skin went cold, his legs began to shake, and he grabbed one of the boulders to keep from falling. He watched as the Saxons ran up the shoreline, and he watched as they slew his two half-brothers and as they raped and killed his father’s wife. The smoke was thick, and the wind carried it across the river, and Halden could smell the charred scent of wood and thatch mixed with the sour aroma of flesh. He could do nothing. A real warrior would not be afraid, he thought. He remembered his father telling him how real warriors were born in the lines of battle, and in his youth, his father had fought in many shield walls, and one day Halden had hoped to stand with him shield to shield in the embrace of battle. Halden had yet to fight in his first shield wall. He was only eleven. He had yet to experience the crashing of shields and swords and spears and to feel the edge of his blade enter a man’s flesh to kill. It was there, his father had told him, in the dance of men and wood and steel that a true warrior was born, and Halden felt ashamed he did not continue down the hillside and defend his home against the invaders.

The Saxons were escaping back to their ships, and Halden saw them load several of the Danish women and children onto the boat with the falcon head prow. He remained by the rocks as the fleet slid away along the river. The hulls of their warships carved ripples in the waters as they headed north. They were going farther into Danish lands. Their oars dipped, and their sails furled in the wind, and they were gone as quickly as they had come.

Halden sat by the rocks until dusk. Tears and smoke blurred his eyes, and as the purple of twilight fell across the land, he ventured down to the waters and crossed the river. He came to his father’s boat and found his father lying facedown in the sand. Halden turned the body over, and he saw the gash in the neck matted with blood, and he saw the two arrow shafts still protruding from the chest. Blood stained the front of his father’s tunic, and his father’s eyes were wide, frozen in pain and terror and death. Halden closed the eyes, and then trembling, he headed up the embankment to his home.

Outside, he found his father’s wife, Eir, and his two half-brothers, Eilif and Ejnar, dead. Eir was stripped naked, and Eilif and Ejnar both had slits in their throats. He felt nothing at the loss of his father’s wife. She was not his mother. His mother was a half-breed of Briton and Frankish blood, some woman his father had ploughed and then sent away after Halden’s birth. His father never talked much about her, but he had kept the child, and for that, Halden was grateful. Halden was a Dane, and like his father, he was born to fight and to kill and to do the will of the gods.

“Tell me about the gods,” Halden had asked his father several years ago.

Higlac, Halden’s father, laughed and ran his hands through his son’s hair. “What do you want to know?”

“Are they always watching us?”

“Odin watches us, yes. The ravens, Hugin and Munin, are his eyes and carry messages back to him in Asgard. Odin is the chief of all gods. The god of wisdom, war, battle and death.”

“And Thor?”

“He is the eldest son of Odin. The strongest of gods and men. He protects Asgard and Midgard.”

“Do the gods speak to you?”

Higlac was busy shaping an oar with a flint knife. “The gods speak to all of us.”

“I have never heard them speak to me.”

“In time, they will. When you are ready.”

“How will I know when I am ready?”

Higlac set the oar down and pointed to the sky. “Look to the ravens. When it is time, they will find you.” Higlac clasped Halden on the shoulder and then went back to shaping the oar staff.

It had been four years, and Halden had heard nothing from the gods. What is my fate? Halden thought as he looked down on his two half-brothers. What is my destiny? Am I to be the one to avenge my family since I alone am left alive? Rising out of the ground near their dead bodies was an ash tree, and it made Halden think of Ygdrasill: the ash tree born from the body of Ymir to support the entire universe. He pictured the three Norns – Urdur, Verdandi and Skuld – sitting at the base of the tree carving out his fate. Halden was still looking at the dead bodies of his brothers and Eir. Surely the gods would not expect so much. He cared nothing for his father’s wife, but he hated his brothers. Part of him wished he could have been the one to slash the knife across their throats. He stared at them, and they stared back up at him, and Halden moved on without bending to shut their eyes.

His two older brothers had always despised him for being a half-Dane and for the fact their father had loved Halden more than them. Eilif and Ejnar took their anger out on Halden when their father was not around. They beat him with sticks, threw rocks at him, plunged him into the river, and once, they had tied him to a tree and left him to the wolves. Halden was fortunate, and Higlac found him before nightfall and untied him and walked with him back to the village. Higlac beat his two oldest sons for what they had done, but the punishment they received did not stop them from picking fights with Halden. Only when Halden used his father’s axe to cut off Eilif’s ear did they finally leave him alone.

Halden was nine at the time. Eilif was thirteen, and Ejnar was eleven, but Halden was nearly as big as Eilif. Their father was proud of Halden’s size and often spoke of how he would one day be a great warrior for the Danes, and this gave his brothers one more reason to be jealous of him. They fell upon him while he was chopping firewood. Eilif tried to take a log and smash it over Halden’s head, but Halden was quick. He dodged the blow, and he struck with the axe. As the blood poured from the hole in his brother’s head, Halden thought of himself as a real warrior, a true Dane. His father beat him and told him that cutting off his brother’s ear did not make him a warrior, but Halden knew from that day forward he, like his father, would become a warrior Dane. He would fight in many battles; he would do the will of the gods; and when he died, the Valkyrior would carry him to the hall of Valhalla – the hall of the chosen – and he would fight all day and feast around Odin’s table at night.

“Will you teach me to fight in the shield wall?” Halden had asked his father months later.

The wound in his brother’s head had healed, but the scar still remained – an ugly welt of blue and pink skin crusted with scabs. Every time Halden saw it, he smiled. Eilif would just stare at him and say nothing, and Ejnar would always hide behind his mother, and Eir would tell Higlac to send the bastard child away, back to the whore from whom he was born. Halden would leave the house whenever Eir started yelling at his father. He would slip away into the moonlit forest and play like he was a ghost as he moved silently in and out of the trees.

“When you are older,” Higlac said. He was scraping out the hull of a longship. “I will teach you to fight in the shield wall.”

“I already know how to use a sword and axe and spear. Why can you not teach me this as well?” Halden was holding his father’s blade and admiring the shining metal in the sunlight.

“Because war is for men. And you are not yet a man.”

“Then when will I be a man?”

“When you are older.”

“And when I am a man, you will teach me to fight in the shield wall?”

“When I think you are ready to learn, I will teach you.”

“I want to go to England and kill Saxons. What is it like across the sea, father?”

“I would not know.” Higlac began to walk along the keel toward the stern. “I have never been.”

“Why? Don’t you want to kill Saxons?”

“I want to build ships, and our armies need ships if they are to kill Saxons.” Higlac jumped out of the boat and took his sword from Halden. “In time, I will teach you. And if it is your fate, if the gods will it, you will kill Saxons.”

Halden passed by his dead brothers and went into his home. Most of the houses in the village had been burned, but his had been spared. The gods had spared it. Halden did not know why, but when he stepped into the one-room structure, he saw why. He walked across the room and lifted his father’s sword from the wall. Surely, it is a sign from Odin. The sword was carved from iron and edged in steel. Runic inscriptions ran down the center of the blade and along the crossguard, and tiny swirls appeared and disappeared as light shifted on the metal frame. The handle was made of wood and threaded with silver wire, and a dragon’s head molded of iron was attached to the end of the handle. He felt the weight of it in his hand, and as he flicked it through the air, he felt his father’s spirit guiding the blade. He walked back outside into the twilight and down to the river’s edge where Higlac lay. He knelt in the sand beside his father’s body. There, Halden sat on the shoreline and listened to the waters gliding away into the gray mist, and he prayed to Odin for wisdom. When the purple of twilight deepened and the stars and moon lit the night sky in silver, Halden rose and drug his father’s body up a wooden ramp into one of the boats. He placed his father deep in the hull, and he piled firewood around him, and he wrapped Higlac’s fingers around the hilt of a sword and laid the blade on his chest. His father would need a weapon when he entered Valhalla. It was not Higlac’s sword, but another sword Halden had found in the village. Halden kept his father’s blade, and with it, he would one day march to war. He would become a great warrior, and his father would be proud.

Halden took a burning log and touched it the pyre, and he stepped back and watched the orange and red flames lick the night sky.

“Go to the gods,” Halden said. “May Odin receive your body in Asgard.” As the flames rose higher, Halden thought he saw his father’s gray spirit ascending into the clouds and the flashing of the Valkyrior in the northern sky as they rode forth to meet him.

Then, he saw the ravens. The first one flew beneath the moon and perched on the dragon prow of one of the Danish longships docked upriver. Its black feathers ruffled in the wind and glowed in the firelight, and then a second raven joined the other, and the two birds walked along the railings of the boat. They watched Halden for a long time – their black eyes glimmering red – and Halden remembered his father’s words about the ravens being Odin’s messengers. He wondered if they had come to tell him what to do, to speak to him of his fate, and he could feel the weight of the three Norns pushing against him. Halden sat there for hours in the darkness listening for the voice of Odin. He heard no voices except his own. He thought of his father, and he wept, and then he pictured the ghastly faces of his dead brothers and Higlac’s wife, and he almost laughed. Sometimes, fate was cruel, and it took a man where he did not wish to go. Halden prayed the gods would show him favor. He wanted them to speak, to tell him to go and take Saxon blood for the life of his father. If they wished for him also to avenge his brothers, he did not know how he would accept such a fate. But he was not to judge the decision of the gods, only to do their will.

As he listened in silence, he thought about the Danes in England. Part of him wanted to join them, to fight alongside other warriors as his father had once done. He was only eleven, but he was strong. I can kill Saxons there, he thought, and still avenge my father. But he knew the Saxons who killed his father were still here, and besides, he did not know to get to England. He also thought of his mother. He could not picture her face or hear her voice or feel her touch. He blamed Eir for her being sent away. Part of him wanted to learn the truth about his mother, but he had no idea of where to search for a Briton or a Frank, and after all, he was neither Briton nor Frank, he was a Dane.

Halden did not sleep. He watched the ravens and the fire and he listened for voices, and in the morning, when the white of dawn washed over the rim of the earth, the ravens took to flight and circled over the charred heap of Higlac’s funeral pyre and then beat their wings and headed north up the river. They were following the line the Saxons had sailed the previous day. They were going back to Odin. And Halden knew what he must do.

Halden stood before the smoldering heap of wood and flesh, and he vowed to Odin to avenge his father’s death. He raised his father’s sword, and it glinted in the morning sunlight, and he prayed to Thor for strength. The Saxons had made a new enemy, and that enemy was a boy of eleven, and his name was Halden, son of Higlac, a warrior of the Danes.

As the sun rose in the pale sky, Halden strapped his father’s sword to his belt, and he marched north. He followed the curve of the river for days, and at night, he could see distant fires, like fireflies flashing in a black sky, and he knew his enemies had torched another settlement. He followed the river until he came to a fork. It was the seventh day since his village burning, and he was surprised when he saw four Saxon boats docked at the fork. He recognized one of the ships, for it had an unusual prow. He had seen the same boat from the ridge above his village, and he remembered the falcon head and the flag with the three falcons on a field of bright yellow. Halden watched from the woods behind the trunk of a large oak, and when it was apparent the Saxons were not leaving, he waited until dark and then crept down to the edge of the river. The water was black and tumbling over rocks, but upstream Halden found a smoother current, and he waded through waist deep water. His bones almost froze, and the current tugged at the sword hanging from his belt, but he made it across. No one had seen him. The moon was hidden in the clouds, and the night was as black as pitch. Halden moved along the edge of the river down to where the boats were docked. No sentinels were posted there. They were all inside the camp near the fires.

He rounded the prow of the falcon boat and stopped. Standing a few feet in front of him was a Saxon. Halden had not seen the man before, as he was hidden in the shadow of the ship. The soldier had his back turned. Halden slipped behind the prow away from the light of the fires. The river surf thumped against the hull of the boat, and the campfires crackled, and Halden could hear the Saxons snoring and coughing as they slept. He gripped his sword, and he remembered all his father had taught him – how to kill a man by thrusting the blade between a man’s ribs and up into his heart – and he began to shake and sweat when he thought of what he was about to do. His hand clinched the sword hilt until his knuckles turned white. His chest ached; his head spun; he felt like he would vomit. But he also thought about his father and the pain he had suffered, and he knew Odin was guiding him.

He slid his sword from his belt and held it with both hands. He felt Higlac’s presence in the blade, and he prayed to Thor and then he stepped out into the firelight. The Saxon guard still had his back turned, and Halden crept up behind him. His feet sank in the sand as he moved up the shoreline. Halden was breathing heavily. He tried to control his breathing, but he was both scared and angry, and his fear began to outweigh his rage, but he could not turn back now.

With all his strength, Halden thrust his blade forward. The steel point struck the man just below the left shoulder. Halden felt the sword sink into the Saxon’s flesh, and without thinking, he twisted the blade up as hard as he could. The man wriggled and coughed and sputtered blood and then crashed to the ground. Halden was crying. He pulled the blade free and stabbed and stabbed until he was sure the man was dead. The guard had pissed himself, and the stale scent of urine permeated the man’s clothes. Halden grabbed the dead Saxon by his tunic and drug him with both hands through the sand and reeds and dumped his body in the water. He sat beside the corpse for some time, watching the waters roll over the man’s feet and hands and face, the eyelids wide with shock, and Halden wanted so desperately to close the man’s eyes, but he could not even feel his own legs, and so he crouched there in the shadow of the boat listening to the surf and the crackling of the fires. He stared at the man for a long time, wanting to look away, but his gaze was frozen like his legs. Chopping off his brother’s ear had been so easy. He had felt no fear, only anger. But killing a man – the steel edge cutting through flesh, bone, and tissue – was different. His insides churned like liquid, and his heart thumped in his chest. The gods had dealt him his fate, and Halden did not know if he was strong enough. Where else can I go? Halden thought. My home is destroyed, and my enemies are here. Odin had led him to the Saxons for a purpose, and that purpose meant he must go back into the camp.

Halden wiped the tears from his face and the blood from his sword. He watched the camp and waited for more Saxons to wake. He thought they must have heard, but no one else appeared, and Halden crept along the edge of the camp in silence. He came upon an unattended fire along the southern edge. He took one of the logs buried deep in the ash and carried the flaming torch back to the falcon boat.

This time the Saxons came streaming from their tents when they smelled the wood smoke and saw the flames licking at the hulls of their ships. Halden had managed to light all four ships on fire before anyone noticed. He was frightened when he saw the terror and rage in the Saxons as they rushed to the waters, and Halden fled. He slipped back across the river under the moonless sky and watched from the opposite bank as the boats burned into the night. The orange and red flames engulfed the wooden hulls and oars and masts, and by morning, there was nothing left, and Halden went north. He left the Saxon army there on the shoreline, miles from home without any of their ships and deep in the Danish kingdom. Halden was sure an army of Danes would find them, for his was not the only village they had pillaged, plundered, burned, and raped. And when the Danes found them, they would slaughter the Saxons, and the gods would have their revenge. Odin had brought him to the Saxons, and Halden had done all he could. He prayed he had done enough.

As Halden walked north through the deep woods and marshes, he thought of his father and of his true mother, and then he thought of the Danish warriors who fought against the Saxons in England. He wanted to join them, to fight with them in a shield wall, but he also knew the people of the kingdom might need his sword if other Saxons came up from the south, and he prayed to the gods to show him the way. That night, as Halden huddled under the shelf of a rock, he watched the stars streak through the sky, and then two ravens landed on the branches of a nearby ash tree.

Copyright © 2007 Steven Till