The Character of Aslaug is Copyright Â? Joan Jacobsen
The Characters of Tigermark and TL are Â? Tigermark
The Character of Aramis Dagaz is Â? Aramis Dagaz
The Characters of Joe Latrans and Annie Latrans are Â? The Silver Coyote
All other characters are Â? Joan Jacobsen.
Characters are not to be used without prior written permission of their authors.
No part of this story may be reproduced or placed on any website without the written permission of the author.
This story is copyright Â? Aslaug, 2005
A little something
“Min fjendes fjende…”/”Enemy of my enemy…”
Disclaimer: This story is not built on real events. It is purely a work of fiction and should be seen as nothing else. The central aspect of the story is not the culture depicted, but the differences of ideologies and beliefs that are presented. The cultures that are involved could’ve been any other, as well. This is not a depiction of the real world and while names used in a few cases refer to real-world people, this is not a truthful or accurate depiction of the times in most ways. The setting only serves to present two ideologies opposed to one another. And to allow one character in particular to ask himself some important questions.
“Where in the name of the Almighty ARE we??” Joe growled and shook himself off. He’d landed in a blueberry bush and he was covered in black juice.
Tigermark, ever the cool one of the three, looked around. To the coyote’s irritation, the feline had landed gracefully on his feet in an open area. He shrugged and smiled crookedly.
“I’m not sure. Honestly. But I’d say this is Earth, at least. You’ve got blueberries all over you, for one thing. And there are no alien looking cities near…no strange geographical formations. In fact…I’d say we’re definitely on Earth.”
“I wish we’d be told before we went…” Joe grumbled and scraped blueberry out of his fur.
“That’d sorta take out the fun. We’re explorers, boldly going where no fur has gone before…” Aramis said and came out from behind the only tree in sight.
“Hello Captain Furk, name’s Joe Latrans. Shouldn’t you be off exploring uncharted galaxies? Besides, there’s always a lot of furs where we go and they’re usually very HOSTILE!” Joe said, sourly. He felt sticky. Blueberry juice did nothing for his fur.
Aramis just put on that catty grin that Joe had come to think of as his ‘smug bastard’-grin.
“Laugh it up, kitty. Felines…yech…you guys always land on your feet. I’m just a poor canid for Chrissakes!”
“It’s okay, Joe. I smell water nearby…you can take a bath…” Tigermark said without the crooked smile leaving his face.
“You…smell…water. ALL RIGHT, that’s enough fun on my expense!” Joe retorted. Despite himself, he couldn’t help smirking. He felt pretty sure he looked hilarious.
Tigermark tried desperately to keep a straight face. “I’m sure we’ll find water soon enough. Hey, who knows…perhaps blueberry juice in your fur is the height of fashion here and the two of us are the ones desperately out of style…” he said and put a paw on Aramis’ shoulder.
Joe raised a finger at the tiger and narrowed his eyes…then gave up and sighed, shaking his head. “Yeah yeah…I’m the clown as per usual…” he muttered. “Now let’s go find out where the heck we are, shall we? Earth is a little too broad a description for my liking.”
“I don’t know about you…” Aramis said, “…but I could definitely do with a meal. I’m starved.”
“Yeah. They ought to include a buffet at the mission briefings,” Joe said with a nod, happy the conversation was turning away from his stickyness.
Tigermark nodded. “Can you get into the tree and take a look around, Joe?”
“ME? Why do *I* have to crawl up there? You’re the felines. You’re supposed to be fantastic at climbing trees.”
“We are. But noone included instructions in our genetic makeup of how to get back DOWN again, Joe. Up you go…” Tigermark chuckled.
The coyote grumbled again and patted his bomber-jacket. “Ohh for Heaven’s sakes…they took away my gun. Why can’t I EVER use that thing?”
“I seem to recall at least fifty missions where you could, Joe. But I’m sure we’ll get something else…” the tiger said and smiled. “Now into the tree, if you’d please. We need to figure out where the nearest settlement is.”
Joe nodded. He knew that was true and he got over to the tree. It was a large oak. It wasn’t difficult to get a grip. He climbed to a high perch and looked around. To his surprise, he didn’t see any settlements or real signs of life. He could, however, see some hills a ways off. He climbed back down.
“It’s mostly flat here. There are some hills in that direction…” he said and pointed. Otherwise, it looks like we’ve landed on a heath, with just this one solitary tree. I suppose a bird dropped an acorn at some point. There are no cities or towns nearby either. But if we head towards the hills, we may see just as far from the top of those. We might see something from over there.”
Aramis nodded. “Sounds like a sensible enough idea. Let’s go then. Oh…hey…what’s that?”
The other two looked in the same direction as the young feline. A bag was materializing on the ground. A large bag.
“Probably our equipment. Please…let my gun be in there,” Joe muttered.
Tigermark went over and opened it. “No such luck, Joe…but your sword is in here. And a bow for me…and a sword for Aramis,” he said. “And some clothes. They look…old.”
“How do you mean? Worn out?” Joe asked.
Tigermark held up a tunic and some breeches. “No. I mean as in something furs would’ve worn hundreds of years ago…”
“Oh crap, not another timetravelling experience…” Joe mumbled and facepawed.
“Well, I’m not putting that on. I’ll say I’m from…gahhh…Arabia or something,” Joe complained. “I’ll go far but there ARE limits and I’m not ditching the jacket. Period. It’s been with me for years.”
“We know…you always say that,” Aramis chuckled. “Okay, let’s get armed and going. Since there are weapons, at least we can assume this won’t be a peaceful mission.”
“When is it EVER a peaceful mission, Aramis? Damnation…how do I keep explaining this to Annie?” Joe whined and sighed. He got his sword and strapped it on his back. It was very large.
“Hmm…there’s a first aid kit in here too. Pretty impressive hardware. That at least is not old-fashioned…” Tigermark said and took it out. “Comes with it’s own bag, too…so it’ll be concealed. They do think of everything upstairs, don’t they?”
“Except the fact that we’re the ones putting our hides on the line time and time again…” Joe mumbled.
“It’s God’s work, Joe. Don’t complain,” Tigermark scolded.
“I’m not complaining but our mission briefings are…lacking. They never tell us exactly what we’re supposed to DO. Not in any detail anyway. It’s always “There is a problem, and you’re going to fix it!” which is all fine and dandy, but what would it hurt to actually tell us WHAT we have to do to fix it?”
“Again, you’re taking all the FUN out of it, old friend,” Tigermark chuckled. “Let’s get moving.”
They looked around the area one more time and moved on.
It was dark when the three reached the hills. They had wondered if they were all alone here. Normally, they landed and were immediately attacked by some very hostile lifeforms. Or they landed and Aramis immediately got pounced on by some scantily clad femme. More than once, they’d wondered if it was some big joke.
“We’re supposed to further God’s work, aren’t we?” Aramis asked when reminded of the many femmes he’d had to run away from to preserve his virginity.
“Of course. That’s the whole point,” Tigermark said with a shrug.
“So…if we’re some kind of modern knights templar, doesn’t it stand to reason that I have to stay pure?”
“Doh…” Joe muttered and facepawed again. “Annie won’t like that interpretation.”
“I’m pure for the three of us!” Aramis said and beamed.
“Sometimes, you’re so full of yourself it’s sickening, kittycat!” the coyote grumbled and pointed ahead. “Look, there’s a light up there. A fireplace I gather. At least that proves we’re not alone here.”
“Not necessarily. Could be a natural fire…” Tigermark said.
“Oh…like a burning bush, you mean?” Joe said.
“Sometimes, I’m wondering if you’re being sacrilegious on purpose, Joe…” Tigermark scolded. “Behave, will you? God’s watching.”
“Even Christ’s own disciples had their doubts, Tigermark. It’s part of faith to question,” the coyote said and shrugged.
“Amen to that.”
“Besides, I believe. There’s no need to question that. Seeing what we see, it’d be damned hard NOT to,” Joe pointed out.
“Amen to that as well,” Tigermark said and nodded. “Anyway, let’s find out if that is a natural fire or not.”
“Agreed,” Aramis said. “My feet are sore and I need to sit down a while. Besides, we haven’t had anything to eat yet and frankly I’m famished by now.”
“How do you think I feel?” Joe said. “I was hungry when we started out. We’ve walked all day and I still haven’t eaten.”
“You landed in a blueberry bush. You could’ve brought some…” Tigermark said.
Joe slapped a paw against his face and groaned. “Why didn’t anyone remind me THEN? I was so busy getting that mess out of my fur that I didn’t think of that.”
“Too late now anyway. I’m sure a lot of the berries we’ve seen on the way have been edible too, but I don’t know what they are…” Tigermark shrugged. “No sense in you eating any of those and getting sick. Just goes to show what a supermarket-culture does for you.”
“I agree,” Joe said and sighed. “Let’s hope it’s a fireplace, that it belongs to someone friendly and that there’s food to be had.”
They walked in silence a while yet. A single figure was sitting by the fireplace as they approached it. A tall figure, apparently equine and female. Aramis looked nervous. The other noticed and Tigermark looked like a big questionmark.
“How many items of clothing is she wearing?” the young feline asked, nervously.
Joe narrowed his eyes and looked. “A lot,” he said. “I don’t think this is quite a normal mission…”
“Thank God…” Aramis said and drew a sigh of relief. “Let’s go say hello…”
The figure got to her hoofs and looked into the darkness towards them. She called something out, but they couldn’t understand what.
Aramis pondered a moment. “A spell would allow us to understand…” he said.
“We’re FRIENDS!” Joe called out, not answering the feline.
There was a long moment of silence. Then a halting voice came back in what sounded like english. Or at least some very odd derivative thereof. Definitely a female voice, though.
“Friends!” Joe tried again and spread his arms out to the side, approaching the fireplace.
Again, the figure said something. Apparently, she got the basic idea and sat back down, waving them closer.
“We’ll need that spell, I think…” Tigermark said and looked at Aramis.
A moment later, the air crackled around the three amigos and Aramis smiled to himself. “There. We’ll speak something she understands now…” he said.
“We come in peace…” Joe said and grinned. He’d always wanted to say that. He stopped short of ‘take me to your leader’ but he thought it.
“Then come and join me by the fire,” the femme replied. She had a strong voice. “It’s too cold to walk around in the dark. There are evil things in the darkness…”
“Oh? What kind of evil things?” Tigermark asked and stepped forwards, getting a clear view of the femme by the fire.
“Christians!” she responded with a sneer and sat upright. She was an impressive specimen. Tall, well built and clearly quite strong. She was wearing a simple tunic and a hammer-pendant around her neck. A simple helmet with eye-protectors was laying on a rock next to her, along with a chain mail shirt. She was armed with a gigantic, single-edged axe, laying across her lap. And several smaller axes in her belt.
“Erhh…” Aramis said and felt unsure if she was talking about them or the evil things she’d mentioned. “Christians are evil?”
“You must come from far away if you don’t know. That would explain your outlandish clothing,” the equine said.
Aramis nodded and pretended to clear his throat, quickly hiding his cruficix under his shirt with the paw he lifted to his face. “Who are you, milady?” he asked, politely.
“It is customary for guests to introduce themselves first,” the equine said, evenly.
“Very well…” Tigermark said and bowed deeply. “I am called Tigermark. The feline who just coughed is Aramis Dagaz. And this coyote is Joe Latrans.”
“Strange names. I don’t know what a coyote is, but he does look like a scrawny wolf,” the equine said and beckoned for them to come closer to the fire. “I am Aslaug Larsdatter, shieldmaiden in the service of Jarl Gunnar and Freja. Have a seat and something to eat and drink.”
“Jarl…Gunnar? And…Freja? Who are they?” Aramis said before anyone could stop him.
“Freja is a goddess of love, Aramis,” Joe said, quickly. “Jarl is a noble title. I think it’s the original word for Earl.
Aslaug nodded. “Goddess of war and love, actually. You don’t know our gods?”
Aramis sat down and smiled apologetically. “I’m afraid I don’t know too much of that, no. I’m from…very far away. We all are. War and love? Strange combination, really…”
“Why’s that so strange? Does anyone feel more strongly than in love and in war?” the equine asked and shrugged. She beckoned for a bag standing next to the fire. “It’s only nuts and berries but there’s quite a lot of them.”
“Right now, nuts and berries sound like a Godsent…” Joe said and mentally slapped himself for the slipup.
Aslaug narrowed her eyes. “So I did see a cross around the cats neck!” she said and got to her hoofs again, hefting her axe. “You’re *Christians*!!” she spat.
“Whoa…WHOA…easy…EEEEASY. We don’t want a fight!” Joe said and held up his paws defensively. “Honestly, we’re peaceful furs. We’re not even sure WHY we are here…”
“A likely story,” Aslaug snarled. “Christians lie and cheat, they pillage and burn, kill femmes and young ones, force their faith down the throat of everyone they meet, or kill those who won’t convert. They have no respect for the land, for the old ways…for my people!”
“Who ARE your people?” Tigermark asked quickly, trying to disarm the situation.
“I am one of the Danes. And to forestall your next question, you are in Saxony, ours by right of *conquest*! We won’t give it up. THEY started it…YOUR kind. We just beat them in the field of battle.”
Aramis felt the pieces falling into place in his head. “Oh bloody hellfire…” he mumbled and sighed. “At least we know where we are now. She’s a viking…”
“I’m a SHIELDMAIDEN!” the equine growled, apparently not recognizing the term.
“Free us from the fury of the norsefurs…” Tigermark nodded and shook a paw in front of himself.
“Huh?” Aramis said and looked at the tiger.
“Something I read. A prayer scribbled in text from a monastary. They don’t call themselves vikings, I think.”
“I know the word. It means warrior of the sea,” Aslaug said. She didn’t put her axe down. “You say you are here in peaceful errands. What is that then?”
“We don’t KNOW. That’s the truth. I swear!” Joe said helplessly. “Look, we REALLY don’t want to fight you. Please…sit down and just talk to us. We won’t try anything, honestly. We’ve travelled very far and we had no idea that Christians…*Christians*…were behaving like you said. That’s…not what our bible teaches us.”
“Tell that to the *dead*!” Aslaug said and grit her teeth, but she sat back down. “You have come to my fire asking for hospitality. I am obliged to offer it. I will listen. But don’t try to convert me.”
“Believe me…I don’t think any of us would WANT to do that after what you just told us…” Tigermark said, somewhat shocked. “Can you tell us some more of what’s happened?”
“It’s very simple. The German king is Christian. We are not. His name is Otto. He wished to glorify his reign by subjugating the hedni. That’s us. Believers. Faithful, if you will. Those who worship the old Gods. Aser and Vaner. Force us to wear the cross and sing hymns in his despicable churches. He attacked our borders. But King Gorm, long may he reign, and his wife, Thyra, had realized that the threat from the south was great and had strengthened the old fortifications.”
“Fortifications…?” Joe asked. “You mean, you fortified strongpoints along the border?”
“No. I mean we fortified THE BORDER!” Aslaug said. “The ENTIRE border. From one ocean to the other.”
Aramis blinked. “Whoa…that’s a long fortification…”
“The biggest I know of, except the old Roman wall in the lands of the Scots and English. I heard talk of a dike there as well, as long as this one but not as tall or as strong. The Germans ran themselves senseless against Dannevirke for four days straight and we cut them down like wheat. Then we sallied and routed them. I was *there*. I got my scars to prove it. We pursued them. There are a lot of Danes in Saxony. Many villages made up almost exclusively of my people. We came across those as we followed. They were almost all in ruins. Burnt to the ground. Everyone there had been killed. Those few who hadn’t, had been converted, at swordpoint. The wise men and women had been butchered. They had desecrated all our holy places…”
“I hate to point this out, Aslaug…but don’t you plunder monastaries and churches in distant lands?” Aramis asked. He immediately regretted it.
“EVERYONE does. We’re no different than everyone else. We’re just better at it. The difference is that we don’t keep our gold and silver in our holy places. Is it MY fault that the English and Franks insist on keeping all their valuables with monks?? Furs who sing instead of fight?” Aslaug snapped back.
“No…no it’s not. You say everyone does it?”
“How do you think you pay your army when you go on a campaign? Either you plunder or you exact g??ld from your enemies,” the equine said.
“What’s that? Gahh…eld…?”
“G??ld. It’s ransom. You get your enemy to pay you to go away.”
“And then you just…go away???” Aramis asked, surprised.
“Of course! Do you think we don’t have honor?!” Aslaug asked, sounding angry.
“No…no, of course I don’t mean that. You mean to say the Danes go off to war…make their enemies pay them a lot of gold and silver to not attack, and then go back home…? Without killing anyone?”
“If we can, of course. What’d be the point if killing them. We couldn’t come back next year for more g??ld then.”
Joe looked crosseyed and turned to Tigermark. “I hate to say it but she does have a helluva point. In a really weird way.”
“It’s still taking other people’s money…” Aramis complained.
“Of course it is. We take it from the English and Franks and others try to take it from us. They don’t succeed very often, mind you…” Aslaug said. “Everyone fights for wealth and riches. Not everyone handles it honorably though.”
“But…what about slaves? Don’t you take slaves with you back from your plundering too?” Aramis asked, sounding uncertain.
“Yes? What’s the problem with that? We keep tr??lle…we don’t treat them badly, though. They’ve got some rights too. You can’t kill them like you do with outlaws, for instance. They’re valuable. Besides, most others do the same thing. At least we’re honest enough to admit it. Not like the Christians who howl up a storm about it and how wrong it is…and then promptly goes out to do it themselves. They call it something else, of course. Have you seen how a Frankish lord treats the peasants living on his lands? He can kill them like he pleases and no one can do a thing about it. Now THAT is wrong. Here, a freeborn is a freeborn and he has rights. A captive taken in battle is a captive taken in battle and he has less rights, but he’s still got SOME. And a good few of them are set free in time too. If they serve well. They’re furs too, you know.”
Tigermark thought long and hard about that. “It’s a harsher world than where we come from…” he said at last. “A lot harsher. I don’t have to like the idea of slavery. I don’t. But I can at least respect that you treat them well.”
Aslaug shrugged. “Look…last year, at our local ting, where I come from…a fur turned up with two of his tr??lle. He beat them. Without reason, mind you. Just because he was in a foul mood. No one there took him seriously after that. He was looked down upon.”
“What’s a…ting?” Aramis asked.
“It’s where we meet to discuss laws and so on. All adult, freeborn males have a right to be heard and to speak there. It’s also where we elect our kings, but that’s not at one of the local ting.”
“You ELECT your kings? How…democratic,” Aramis said, surprised.
“I don’t know that word…but yes, we elect our kings. Usually, it’s the son of the old king that wins, of course, but not always the eldest son. King Gorm had two sons. Harald and Knud. Harald was killed in England. Shot while swimming. He was the younger of the two. Knud is going to be a great king one day. He’s strong, resourceful, wise and willing to do what it takes. He’s a great warrior as well. I’ve seen him fight. Anyway, don’t you elect *your* kings?” Aslaug said, not without a measure of pride in her voice.
“In…a very strange way we do, I guess. Anyway, I see what you mean.” Aramis said and nodded, understanding.
Joe wasn’t saying much anymore. His ears stood straight up and he was going through the contents of the berry-bag quite eagerly.
The evening progressed. Tigermark could feel his confusion grow with each moment. The femme in front of them was obviously not only not a christian, she clearly held a deep seated hatred for that religion. She referred to Jesus as ‘White Christ’ all evening, and when asked, explained it was because he was always depicted wearing white robes. But what really confused the tiger was the mission. He couldn’t bring himself to believe that they were here to get rid of her. She was acting on morals that were wholly despicable to a modern fur, of course…but at the same time he told himself that these weren’t modern times.
Not for him, anyway.
He could see that Aramis was going through much the same line of thought. Joe was inscrutable.
The tiger didn’t know what to do. He trusted his gut feeling implicitly, and his gut feeling said that there was a reason they met Aslaug. A very important reason. It also told him she was not an enemy, not even a potential one, and that she was someone they’d do well to befriend. But how did God want to do his work through a heathen? How did God get served by furthering a false religion? He couldn’t make that out.
He sighed and looked at the other two. “I need a moment to talk to you two…” he said, quietly. “Just the three of us. We’ve…learned a lot tonight. Come on…it won’t take long.”
They all got up and went into the darkness.
Keeping his voice low, Tigermark looked at the other two. It was hard to make them out, now that his eyes had adjusted to the light from the fire.
“Look…am I the only one thinking she’s the reason why we’re here?” he asked.
“No. I think we all agree on that,” Joe said. “I’m wondering why though. She’s an enemy of all that we stand for, religiously.”
“I’ve had the same thought…” Aramis said and sighed. He looked lost.
Tigermark pondered. “No. I don’t think she’s an enemy of what WE stand for. I think she’s an enemy of what the Christians stand for.”
“But…*we* are Christian, TM. That’s the whole idea…” Aramis said.
“I know we are. I think we’re a lot better Christians than what she describes the locals as, too. Burning and killing innocent furs for not believing? When did Christ teach us to do that?” Tigermark asked.
“Good point. Very good point,” Joe said and nodded. He looked back towards the fireplace. “Besides…I like her. She’s brusque, she’s about as smooth as a porcupine, and she definitely lives by the sword. Or in her case, the axe. But I still like her. She’s forthcoming, she’s honest and she’s willing to stand up for her principles. I think those are definite points in her favor. And we *can’t* judge her actions and way of life by a 21st century standard. We really can’t. This is a different world, entirely. We might as WELL be on some distant planet in the far flung future…”
“You’re right…” Aramis said. “All evening I’ve tried to tell myself that she’s just doing what everyone else around here is doing. And I’ve had a really hard time coming to terms with it. But I have this really *ugly* thought that won’t stop biting my tail…”
“That sounds unpleasant. What thought is it?” Tigermark asked.
“That if she’d been a Christian, I’d never have given it second thought. I’d just have put it down as major cultural differences, based on a huge gap in time. We all think of Vikings as either a football team or a bunch of heathen savages, killing and maiming at random.”
“Well, they’re heathen and from what she tells us they’ve got the capacity for enormous savagery…but at least that’s something everyone else here seems to have too. Killing femmes and youngins just for not believing in their idea of Christianity? What are they THINKING of??” Joe asked.
“It’s settled then? We go with her if she’ll let us and we find out more?” Tigermark asked the others.
They both nodded and they went back to the fire.
Aslaug laughed merrily. The canine, or a coyote as he called himself, proved to be very talkative once he sampled a bit of her mead and ale mixture, but the tales he spun where so ridiculous that she couldnâ??t help laughing at them. The story where furs used devices to think for them was especially amusing, especially considering that said devices were described as failing often.
“So you’re telling me you come from a place where furs leave thinking to boxes,â? she said. â??What do you do when the boxes make a mistake? It’s hard to tell a box it’s wrong.”
Aramis shook his head and rubbed his temples. “Actually, you can, it’s just very difficult at times. The boxes only do what they are told to do, even flawed instructions. It’s fixing the flawed instructions that’s the hard part.”
“I think it’d be easier to tell a fur he’s wrong, anyway…” Aslaug said. Then she went rigid. The equine’s ears swiveled towards the surrounding woods. Her face became grim as her paw strayed towards her axe.
She gritted her teeth and looked into the darkness. It was hard to see anything, since her eyes were accustomed to the fire. She got up and walked a few steps into the darkness. “Who goes there? Stand and speak!” she demanded.
The clink of chainmail reached the ears of the two felines. Quickly they grabbed their weapons and stood, Joe immediately following their lead.
A wolf and a ferret stepped out of the darkness at the edge of the light. The wolf was dressed in a mail shirt, a large shield emblazoned with a crucifix on his left arm and a sword in his right paw. The ferret only wore a thick, quilted jerkin. He carried a primitive but deadly looking polearm and looked ready to use it.
Aslaug wrinkled her muzzle. “Christians…” she muttered, then spoke up. “Turn back and leave. You are not welcome here. You are trespassing on the land of the Danes, ours by right of conquest. Even *your* ilk acknowledge that right,” she sneered. She kept her axe over her shoulder, but any fur with any knowledge of such things would realize it could be ready for use in an instant.
The wolf frowned. “The King still reigns, and by God’s will, these lands are entrusted to him,” he replied sharply. He leveled his sword at Aslaug. “You are under arrest for trespassing upon royal land and for the worship of the dark powers. Come quietly and you will be granted mercy.”
Aslaug nodded with a smile. “Oh yes, King Gorm still reigns, and may he long do so. His Jarls hold this land, and his Hird defends it.” She elegantly swung the axe off her shoulder, the long handle and the narrow, curved head drawing a line of light in the night air. “I know your idea of *mercy*, Christian. It’s laughable. Last chance. Leave now, and go back to your churches of wood and stone and ask White Christ for answers if you must. Stay here, and face me in combat.”
“Hold!” Tigermark said with a raised paw and addresses the armored wolf. “Brother, would you please explain to me the nature of the crimes you have levied against her? My companions and I have traveled all day and we have found that this land is not properly marked to warn passersby not to trespass.”
“Sloppy work, if you ask me,” Joe said sardonically.
The wolf’s hard eyes regarded the three coolly, the sword point never straying from Aslaug. “If you be fellow believers of the one true Lord, then help me apprehend this barbarian and I will overlook your association with it.”
“And if we refuse?” Joe ventured. He didn’t like the way Aslaug was being referred to as an “it”.
“Then you will be guilty of heresy and of aiding and giving refuge to an admitted enemy of God,” the wolf finished. The ferret took a step towards the travelers and gripped his polearm tightly.
“She’s the one giving refuge to us, actually,” Joe grumbled. “We’re the ones that came to *her* fireplace.”
Aslaug shook her head. “This is getting *nowhere*,” she muttered. “I declare my allegiance to King Gorm and his son, Knud, rightful heir to the throne of the Danes and the lord of these lands, and as Freja is my witness, I have given you due warning, Christian,” she said and took a step backwards, hefting her axe properly.
“As have I,” the wolf said, adopting an aggressive stance. “Surrender, or perish before the might of God.”
Aslaug spat at the ground and sneered again. “Piss off, Christian. Go wear your white robes and sing hymns to White Christ…I’ll HELP YOU GET THERE!!!” she shouted and swung the axe, describing a beautiful arch towards the wolfâ??s shoulder. He raised his sword to block, but it shattered at the impact of the axe…which continued, cleaving the canid from shoulder to groin.
The ferret cried out and charged at the equine, but his movement was halted by a sudden paw on his shoulder. He turned towards his assailant, only to see Joe’s fist flying towards his face.
“Sweet dreams,” the coyote muttered as the ferret fell unconscious in a heap.
Aslaug looked at the three amigos and slung her axe back over her shoulder, before nudging the corpse with a hoof. “Give him whatever last rites you use. He fell in battle with honor. He deserves that much,” she said and moved to sit down by the fire again.
“Actually,” Aramis said quickly, his ears twitching, “I think we’d better leave. Now.”
The cat held up a paw and spoke a single word. Three arrows halted in mid-air as if they had just materialized.
“Archers!” Tigermark shouted as he grabbed his shortbow and nocked an arrow.
Aslaug looked at the three arrows and grabbed two smaller axes from her belt. “Cowards. They don’t have the courage to at least fight with honor. Shooting from the dark is niddingsv??rk.” She spat the last word as if it tasted badly and turned back towards the darkness.
Aramis spoke another word and a strong breeze blew in the direction where the arrows came. “That should hold the archers momentarily,” he shouted. “Come on! Let’s get out of here!”
Aslaug shook her head. “I will not run. I will fight…and die if I must. But I do not turn my back on my enemy.” She listened…and smiled. Flicking one of the smaller axes over in her paw, she suddenly launched it through the air. A sickening sound came out of the darkness. She hefted her longaxe in one hand and headed into the darkness.
“Is she crazy?!” Aramis cried.
“More so than owl shit,” Joe muttered and hefted his greatsword. The coyote ran into the darkness after her. The clangs of metal striking metal and of furs dying rang out in the night.
“Damn warrior’s pride,” Aramis muttered as he drew his katana and followed with TM right behind him.
“I think it’s more than pride,” the tiger said with a frown. “I think it’s religion.”
Aramis sighed and rolled his eyes. “Just great.”
In the woods the two found Aslaug and Joe fighting back-to-back against a score of foes. The equine’s fury was equal to that of ten furs, but many more where pressing in around them.
“I’m ready to die. If my thread is cut now, then it’s the will of the Gods that my life doesn’t last any longer,â? Aslaug said and crushed the shield of a charging weasel with an overhead blow. The weasel screamed in pain and clutched his shattered arm as he withdrew. â??You have no reason to fight these bastards. I will not consider you a coward if you run for safety.”
Joe swung mightily at a nearby canid, cleaving the soldier at the waist. “Like hell I’d run!” he snarled. â??Iâ??m not in the habit of abandoning friends. Even very new ones.â?
“You fight well,” Aslaug chuckled and drew a sharp breath between her teeth as an arrow hammered into her shoulder. She reached up and broke it. She flexed her fingers to make sure she could still use that paw and landed a kick in a soft spot on a charging enemy.
“At this rate, we won’t last much longer,” TM observed as he fired an arrow at the archer that had crept upwind of the breeze.
A small grin appeared on Aramis’s muzzle. “Time to even the odds, wouldn’t you say?” He held his paws close, a small sphere of flame forming in the space between them.
He threw the sphere at the largest concentration of troops. The ball detonated and threw them several feet into the air. The soldiers outside the blast radius gaped in horror at the spot where their comrades were standing just moments before.
Aslaugs head snapped around to the explosion and she narrowed her eyes. “Sejdmager” she muttered. It didn’t sound like disapproval but clearly she wasn’t sure what to make of it. The shocked Christians never saw her coming. Instead of gaping at the blast, she gritted her teeth, and with blood running from the wound in her shoulder she swing her axe in a mighty arch severing the head of the closest enemy. “You’re not *done* with us yet, Christians,” she growled and narrowed her eyes. “Or have you had enough? Run like the cowards you are, then. You won’t see *me* flee. Either you kill me, you die, or you run, and I don’t think the first option is valid. What’ll it be?”
The surviving soldiers felt their courage waver. They had an advantage in numbers, but the ferocity of the Dane and the sudden deaths of a third of their number in a heartbeat turned the tide of the battle against them.
“Damn you, you cowards!” a heavily armed badger cried out to the rest. “God is on our side! We will not be defeated by this pagan!”
“You keep your femmes locked away at home. You tell them they’re worth less than your males. You tell them they’re weak and inferior and now you’ve just had your ARSES HANDED TO YOU BY ONE!!” Aslaug raged and shook her axe at the soldiers. “Do you want some more or will you realize you’re *beaten* or will you at least have the good sense to send one of your number to face me in single combat HONOURABLY?? Holmgang. I am already wounded and if your warrior defeats me, you’ve won anyway. If I win, *you* retreat, with your lives. What say you? Have you ANY honour in life or are you just as *worthless* as your promises of good will and no ill intent?”
The badger’s reply was cut short by an arrow flying a hair’s breath from his nose. He looked in the direction of the projectile, only to see a terrible sight.
A small feline with glowing eyes and a long-bladed sword hovered at the edge of the clearing. Arcs of energy crackled from its left paw.
“Flee, if you value your lives,” he thundered, “or face destruction by my paw!”
Aslaug couldn’t help a chuckle. “You’d have to get to them before me, sejdmager.” she said and looked at Joe. “Is he always that boisterous? I know *I* can be loud, but by Hel’s face…he’s turning it into an artform.”
â??Actually, he tends to be very quiet,â? Joe replied with a shrug. â??But he does have his moments.â?
“He’d make a good skjald,” Aslaug commented.
The remaining soldiers needed no second bidding. Soon the badger found himself alone before the monstrosity.
He feebly held his sword before him, the weapon shaking in his trembling paws. The feline made a single slash with its sword and the badger’s blade separated itself from the hilt.
A ball of energy grew ominously in the feline’s left paw. It held it out at the badger.
“Now you shall die, fool,” he said with quiet menace.
Aslaug looked at the feline. “Halt,” she said and held up a paw. She walked up to the stricken badger. “You are defeated. Many of your soldiers are dead. Your blade is broken. You’re facing someone you can’t beat. I do not kill the helpless or the defenseless. Unlike *you*. Now go in peace. Tell your king that the Danes will rule themselves and we will hold true to our Gods as our ancestors did.
The badger looked past her shoulder at the feline, then turned and fled.
Aramis floated back to his feet and the glow faded from his eyes. “Aww, you ruin-” The feline coughed and cleared his throat. “Excuse me. You ruined my fun. I wasn’t even going to kill him. See, it isnâ??t even a combat spell.” He sheathed his sword and flicked the orb from his paw. It hovered lazily for a moment before glowing brightly and flitting about. It then floated up in front of Asluag’s face. “Boo,” it squeaked in a tiny voice.
She grumbled something at the glowing ball. But she couldn’t help smiling.
“Perhaps,” the equine answered, “But this way I get the message to his king.”
Joe looked about the scene of the battle. “Well, he certainly will either think twice before doing that again or just send more soldiers next time,” he said grimly as he wiped down his greatsword.
“Either way, I think we’d best move on before someone else drops by,” Tigermark said.
Aslaug nodded and looked at the dead. She shook her head and sighed. “There will be weeping mothers and young ones in the empire tonight,” she said, quietly. “I will pray for these soldiers.” She looked at her wounded shoulder and took out a knife. “Someone hold my axe.”
Joe thrust his sword into the ground and took ahold of the large weapon.
Tigermark stepped forward. “If you need medical assistance, we can help you,” he said. “We have techniques to heal wounds like that.”
Aslaug reached up and gritted her teeth. Snarling with pain she made an incision across her shoulder to enable her to take out the arrowhead without tearing half her shoulder off. “That’ll be sore for a tenday,” she muttered and looked at Tigermark. “A warrior deals with pain as it comes. It is a matter of courage. I will heal, but I will feel the wound until I do. As it should be.”
Tigermark looked at Joe and Aramis before returning his attention to Aslaug. He knew that there was no reasoning with such deep-seated beliefs. “As you wish,” he said with a small inclination of his head. “But please let us help you sew the wound closed when we find a new place to make camp.
“Very well. That I could use help with. Thank you,” she said.
Morning brought clear skies. The heath looked nice with the dew still clinging to the bushes. It wasn’t cold. Just not really warm either. Tigermark thanked God for his fur, and scratched his neck as he sat up. Aramis looked about to wake up as well. Joe was still fast asleep. A sound like a saw, stuck in wet wood, came from him with every breath. Tigermark prodded the coyote.
“Mmmf…” was the only answer.
Tigermark prodded again.
“MMMFF!!” Joe grumbled in his sleep and rolled over. “Another half hour, Annie. I don’t have to get up for another thirty minutes,” he muttered in his sleep.
Tigermark sighed and shook his head. Then he extended a single claw and prodded Joe again.
Suddenly the coyote was very awake. He looked around with the distinct confusion of someone who’s not really aware where he is. He rubbed his head.
“Wha’…whu…” he began and looked at Tigermark.
“You wouldn’t wake up. I had to persuade you. Looks like our hostess has already left, while the three of us slept.”
“What time is it?” Joe asked and yawned.
“I don’t know…I left my electronic wristwatch in another timeline,” Tigermark chuckled. “Try to remember where you are.”
Joe nodded and yawned again. Tigermark always wondered how canids yawned so widely without dislocating their jaws.
Aramis blinked as he woke up. “What time is it?” he asked.
Tigermark just shook his head and chuckled, getting up. “Like I already told Joe, I have no idea. I do know it’s after dawn though, and our new friend has already left.”
“That’s a problem…if she’s the one we’re supposed to stick with…” Joe said and got to his feet. “Where could she have gone?”
Tigermark spread his arms out and gestured to the surroundings. “Take a pick of directions. She could be anywhere.”
“Not really a problem. I’ll be able to track her down…I’ve still got my nose, y’know,” Joe said.
“You’d look rather silly without it,” Aramis said and rubbed his face. “Well…if she doesn’t want us to follow, though, it could get messy. I remember how she fought last night. I’ve rarely seen that much sheer carnage compacted into one fur.”
“It’s her choice of weapon that does it, Aramis. Axes are very, very messy,” Joe commented and looked around. “We won’t have to look for her for very long though…”
“Because she’s right down there and coming this way. With a fish.”
Joe chuckled and sat down on a rock, waiting. It only took a few moments before Aslaug came up the hill, carrying a large trout. “It isn’t much but I think most cats have a thing for fish…and I’m sure you won’t die from eating it…” she said and looked at Joe.
“It’s fine. Don’t worry, I like fish,” he said and smiled. “We were worried that you’d gone away.”
“I don’t intend to leave you here on your own. You might run into someone who’s a lot less friendly than me.”
“Like Christians, you mean?” Aramis asked, still finding it difficult to cope with the way things had been turned around this time.
“For instance. Or other danes who won’t give you a chance to explain yourselves before taking you apart, when they realize you wear crosses around your necks,” the equine said with a shrug, kneeling to stoke the embers in the fireplace. She took some leaves out of her bag and wrapped the fish into them, then placed it in the still smoldering coals.
“It’ll be done soon enough,” she said and looked at the three amigos. “I suggest you eat something before we go. I’ve got a few things to show you today…”
“It’s very kind of you to supply us with food like this. Where are we going?” Tigermark asked.
“I’m headed back to Jarl Gunnar’s hall. I suggest you tag along. You’ll see a lot of things you don’t like, but I think you should still see them,” she said.
“Why’re you out here anyway?” Joe asked. “I mean, all on your own, in lands that are apparently swarming with hostile soldiers.”
“I wouldn’t say swarming. But that’s why I AM out here. I’m looking for them. Sometimes, others come along. Sometimes I meet someone who travels with me a while. But I’m not going to sit in a comfortable hall, eating and drinking by a warm fire, while Christians hurt my people.”
“Admirable sense of loyalty…” Tigermark said. “You must excuse us of course…it is still a little difficult to hear of Christians as the enemy…”
“You said you came from very far away. Are Christians not like this everywhere?” Aslaug asked.
“No!! That would be too terrible to think about. There are always those who twist faith into whatever they want it to be…you’ll find that anywhere. But where we come from, Christians are taught to be merciful and kind, and not to harm other furs. In fact, one of the scriptures teach us that if someone strikes us, we mustn’t strike back but instead turn the other cheek,” the tiger explained.
Aslaug leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. “I see,” she simply said. Then sniffed the air. “Hmm…is that burnt fur I can smell?”
Aramis cleared his throat and looked down and away, catching the reference.
“Besides…” Aslaug said and shrugged, “…turning the other cheek is bloody stupid. If someone strikes me, I strike back. The point is, if he knew what he was doing he’d make sure to strike hard enough to knock me out because I sure as Fenris bites WILL knock him from his senses for having lifted a paw against me. Forgiveness is all well and good, but there is such a thing as honor and not letting yourself be treated like a lesser.”
Joe chuckled and facepawed. “Give it up, fellas. Just…give it up,” he grinned then looked at Aslaug. “I like your attitude. You’ve got some cojones…”
“What’s that?” the filly asked.
“It means balls…” Joe explained. “It’s just an expression where I come from. It means you’re tough.”
“I know I am. It’s how I stay alive,” she answered, looking a touch confused. “You’re stating the obvious.”
Joe had to work hard to keep a straight face.
Aslaug fell silent and waited for the fish to be all done.
Aramis stood as if someone had driven rivets through his feet. He realized if he moved a muscle, his knees would refuse to support him. Tears were pressing their way to the fore. He wouldn’t cry, he told himself. He’d be strong. There was a time for tears. It wasn’t in front of Aslaug, that was one thing he felt completely certain of.
Joe was growling. He’d been growling since they came here. He couldn’t stop himself. His fingers flexed time and time again…forming a fist, relaxing, forming a fist again. He wanted to hit something. He really…REALLY wanted to hit something. Preferably very hard. He looked around the whole area again, trying to make the sights burn themselves into his mind forever. He swore to himself that this was one thing he’d never, ever forget.
Tigermark had managed to stay calm, but only through the most extraordinary exertion of force of will. He looked at the filly next to him. She had her arms crossed over her chest, and she seemed quite impassive about it all. However, she’d probably seen it before. Either that, or she was keeping something locked away for that rage she unleashed in battle.
“I take it this is what happened in all the other villages too?” the tiger finally asked, quietly.
“Oh no. This is quite mild. From what I can tell, they didn’t kill everyone. There are relatively few corpses. Either the villagers are now captives, or they managed to escape to a safe place.”
Joe knelt by a very small corpse on the ground and picked it up. He looked at the others and growled again. He tried to speak but he couldn’t. There was an utterly feral and hateful look in his eyes. The child he was holding couldn’t be more than three or four years old.
“They have no concept of mercy, as you can see,” Aslaug said, flatly.
Tigermark swallowed something and didn’t answer. He didn’t want to lose his temper.
“Do you?” Aramis finally asked. “Don’t you kill innocents?”
“Only if they take up arms against me. I don’t see a point in killing senselessly. I’ve taken part in looting and plundering, like I told you. Sometimes, some of them resist,” Aslaug said and pointed to the child in Joe’s arms. “How did he resist?” she asked.
Aramis swallowed and nodded. “I don’t understand this place. This is madness. This is not what we are taught…”
“No, Aramis. It’s not what we are taught. But if any of you have any doubts left why we are here, then tell me now?” Tigermark said, in a forced even voice.
Joe just growled again. He hadn’t even blinked since picking up the child. His incisors were showing.
“We’ll stop here for a day or two,” Aslaug said and looked around. “To see if any of the survivors return. If not, they’re captives. And for me to be able to send the dead off to the Asgard.”
“Are you a priestess too?” Aramis asked.
“We don’t have priests or priestesses. We have goder and gydjaer…but everyone can be one. If they feel they are ready to stand before the Gods and speak for themselves and others, and if no other hedni taking part objects, then that fur can do so. Usually, it’s the same fur doing so every time…that’s the closest we come to what you would think of as priests. I am the only one here and I have performed numerous rites before. Now, do me a favor and start checking the huts. Find out how many dead there are exactly,” Aslaug said.
“What are you going to do in the meantime?” Tigermark asked.
“I’m going to that hill over there to see if the enemy is still within sighting range. The embers are still warm. They can’t be far away.”
The tiger nodded and started checking the huts, taking Aramis along. He left Joe alone. The coyote was in no fit state to do anything except growl at the moment.
Aslaug started off towards the hill in the meantime. Joe eventually put the child down on some sacks. He started collecting the other corpses, one by one. His mind felt numb. To think that furs wearing the cross had come here, and in the name of Jesus Christ, had comitted these atrocities. It turned his stomach. It angered him beyond anything he could remember having felt before. These were merely youngins and old furs. He found one…a young badger, probably no more than fourteen or fifteen. He was clutching a pitchfork in his paws, even in death. Apparently, he’d tried fending off his attackers. Apart from him, Joe did not find a single armed fur amongst the dead. Not one.
He sat down after a while. There were more to collect but he couldn’t deal with it right now. He needed to think and to breathe. He looked up as Aramis approached him. The feline looked like he’d been shaken to the core.
“This is not God’s work, Joe…” he said and sat down, heavily, next to the coyote.
“No. It isn’t.”
“Why have we been sent here? We are His servants. We do His bidding. Why are we *here* of all places? Where His name is being abused so?” Aramis asked.
“I hate to tell you this, Aramis…but this is how Christians behaved for hundreds and hundreds of years. They still do in some places, back home,” Joe said, quietly.
“I can’t…believe that this is what Christians would do. They must be misled…we have to make them see the error of their ways…” the feline said. His voice was barely a whisper.
“No, Aramis. They wouldn’t listen to you. They are fanatics. Fanatism is ugly, no matter what form it takes. Christian fanatism is just as ugly as any other religious extremism,” Joe said and put a paw on his friends shoulder, giving it a light squeeze.
Aramis looked at his paws. “For all my magic, and for all my power, Joe…I wasn’t able to save a single one of these…” he whispered.
“You weren’t here. You couldn’t have done anything. You can’t save the whole world all by yourself, Aramis. It’s not possible.”
“But it’s WRONG, Joe…look around you. LOOK AROUND YOU!!!” the feline shouted and sprang back to his feet. “We found a young vixen in one of those huts. She’d been raped and then she’d had her throat cut. She can’t have been more than fifteen years old. There are old furs and young ones EVERYWHERE. This isn’t a battlefield, Joe, it’s an ABATOIR. They’ve been BUTCHERED. SLAUGHTERED LIKE TURKEYS ON THANKSGIVING!!!”
Joe nodded, calmly. Aramis had tears streaming down his face.
“We’ll help Aslaug, my friend. She has a right to believe what she does,” the coyote said. “And frankly, I think that’s why we’re here. To help her…against this.”
Aramis looked around and tried to regain his composure. “Helping her will mean killing other Christians, Joe…” he said after a while.
Joe stood up and walked over to where he placed the dead child and picked him up. “Is this…the work of a Christian, Aramis? Is this what we stand for?” he asked, very calmly.
“No! How can you even ASK me that?”
“Then where is your conflict of interests?”
“There isn’t one. It’s just a first…we’ve never been on the other side of the fence before…we’ve never been the ones opposing the Church before…” Aramis said and looked down. “The Church can’t be behind this…it can’t…”
“You have such strong beliefs, Aramis…” Joe said and placed the small corpse back on the sacks, carefully. “I assure you, the priests here know exactly what’s going on. Do you think you can keep this kind of atrocity secret? If you convert someone at sword point and leave a priest behind to make sure the newly converted stay converted, what does that tell you about the priest?”
“That he’s just as bad as those who did the conversions…” Aramis said after a while and nodded.
“I told you, my friend. It is a part of faith to *doubt*. This is perhaps a test for you…who knows. That may be the deeper reason why we are here.”
Aramis blinked a few times. “You think so?”
“I don’t know. It’s certainly a possibility.”
Aramis nodded and nodded towards the hill. “She’s coming back. She isn’t running so my guess is she didn’t see them.”
“Good observation,” Joe said. “Let’s get these poor furs collected, shall we?”
“Yes. Let’s get to it…” Aramis said and sighed. “I’ve counted twenty four dead…so far.”
Aslaug lifted the last of the dead bodies up on the great pyre. The three amigos had been working with her all day building it. It was an impressive creation to say the least. There was a lot of firewood in the town. Collected for the upcoming winter. Now…it would serve a more somber purpose. It had been hard work stacking enough of it up properly to build a pyre large enough for sixteen adults and eleven kids. All in all, they’d found twenty seven dead in the village. Aslaug had taken a look around. The enemy had managed to escape, but she felt sure that there were villagers in hiding nearby.
“They wouldn’t have been able to leave that fast if they were transporting prisoners. I’d have seen them from the hilltop,” she’d said, when Joe had asked her why she was so sure of herself.
It made sense.
The three amigos stood back and looked at each other, uncertainly. They weren’t sure if they should go away while the ceremony took place, or stay.
Joe shook his head in the end. “I’m not leaving,” he said, making up his mind. “The least we can do for them now is to see them off well…”
“You’re right…” Aramis said and nodded.
Tigermark silently agreed as well and folded his arms over his chest.
Aslaug picked up a torch and lit it in the small fire they had kept going nearby for the same reason. Then she walked around the pyre, slowly, setting fire to it in many places. Evening was upon them. The long shadows had been replaced by soft darkness. Not completely smothering the last rays of light but very nearly. The pyre lit up the night sky.
Two ravens cawed above. Loud and very clearly.
“Hugin and Muninn honor us with their presence,” Aslaug said, somberly, and came up to the three.
“Who?” Tigermark asked, looking slightly confused.
“Odins ravens. I saw them…once before. In Asgard.”
It took a moment before that one fully sank in. Then Aramis raised a finger. He opened and shut his mouth and looked like a big questionmark on legs.
“You’ve BEEN to the realm of your Gods?” Joe asked.
“Of course? Why does that surprise you?” Aslaug asked.
“Errhhh…” was all the coyote could say.
Aslaug shook her head. Sometimes she didn’t understand her new friends. She headed back to the pyre and made sure the fire had taken everywhere.
Joe looked at his friends and rubbed his neck. “Either she’s full of it, or she’s had a hallucination or something, is what I think…” he said.
“You’d think so…but did you notice the way she looked when you questioned her?” Tigermark asked.
“Yeah, she looked like I asked her if water was wet…”
“Exactly. Here’s my thought…” Tigermark began. “You know how we travel in time a lot. You also know how we sometimes end up on planets that are…ahem…very *distant*. And far into the future. Right?”
“Right. Usually inhabitted by ferocious beasts, hostile furs and at least one scantily clad femme.”
Aramis mewled pathetically.
Tigermark ignored that for now and nodded. “Precisely. I’m thinking this time, we jumped back in time…and sideways in dimensions. We’re on Earth, yes. But not *our* Earth.”
“Now you’re starting to loose me…you’re saying we’ve entered the fifth dimension here?”
“Something along those lines.”
Aramis put up a paw. “Whoa…hold it. God is omnipotent and omnipresent…” he said. “He is everywhere and everywhen.”
Joe looked like a whole lot of marbles had slid out of his mental abacus and now they were forming an entirely new pattern on the ground. “Oh, He is…but who’s to say what form the Almighty would take in other dimensions? Who’s to say what he’s like *here*.”
“That’s not quite what I was getting to,” Tigermark said, but Joe interrupted him.
“No, listen to me, guys…bear with me for a moment okay? I think I’ve got a believable theory here.”
Aramis looked incredulous. “You should leave the thinking to the mages, you know…”
“Guys…please…stop bellyaching and *listen* okay?”
The felines nodded. Joe tried to collect his rapidly rolling thoughts in front of him. He gestured with his paws as if he was trying to underline something.
“Where we are from, the Christians are not the badguys. We’re taught lessons of love and kindness and this kind of thing…what we’ve witnessed here…is not acceptable. Even though we know it’s happened in the past…we don’t accept it today, as Christian behavior, okay? We agree that far, right?”
“No question about it.”
“Good,” Joe continued. “Now my theory is this. What if each dimension is autonomous? What if…in this realm…God is not the ‘real’ God. But *hers* are? Now, don’t look at me like that. It’s not like I’m on my way to converting or anything. We know what we know but she seemed so *sure* of herself. And guys, I just held a four year old child in my arms, killed in cold blood by *Christians*. I don’t buy it. That’s not the way Christians behave. When have we EVER been sent on a mission to a place where the faith has been perverted that badly?”
“I don’t like that theory, Joe…” Tigermark said. “God is everywhere…”
“I know he is. But a hundred and fifty years ago, furs couldn’t fly unless we were talking one of those really strange squirrels that glide. Two hundred years ago, furs kept slaves in our own country, and the mere NOTION of setting them free was laughed at. And a thousand years ago, guys…the world was FLAT. Every fur knew that. Every fur knew that if you sailed far enough, you dropped off the rim of the world and fell into Hell. EVERY fur knew that…it was basic knowledge even for youngins. Now we fly, we go to war against countries that enslave their own populations and we have sent furs into space, circling the Earth. Things we KNOW…things that are absolute truths…aren’t necessarily absolute truths in a hundred years…”
“So you’re saying in a hundred years, God doesn’t exist because someone proved it?” Aramis said, crossing his arms and setting his jaw. “You’re really testing us, Joe…”
The coyote *groaned*. He couldn’t make himself clearly understood. “I’m YAE close to giving up on you two right now. LISTEN to me will you? I’m saying God is everywhere, everywhen…the way we know it. But this is not OUR place. This is not our dimension. What if things are different here? Who are we to say we have all the answers? Are we so full of ourselves…so righteous…that we think we have the right to say we have all the answers because if we DO, guys, WE are no better than the ones claiming they have all the answers HERE…” he said and spread out his arms to his side to gesture to the ruined village.
“Ouch…” Tigermark said and rubbed his jaw. “That stung…that was really below the belt line…honestly.”
Aramis swallowed. “You said earlier that this whole thing might be a test of my faith. Now you’re saying that part of that test could be to humble us? By letting us see what always thinking we know the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help us God, will result in. Isn’t that what you’re trying to say.”
“Finally…” Joe said and sighed in relief. He finally made them understand. “Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m saying. I think she’s right. I think she HAS seen her Gods. I think they ARE real here. At least I’m not going to shut myself off to the possibility.”
Tigermark shook his head. “If what you’re saying is true, Joe…I’m going to have a very long talk with an angel or two when we get out of this because this is one *mean* way to test us if that’s the case…”
“Tigermark…I told Aramis already a dozen times or more…doubt is an important part of faith. Sometimes, you have to stop…and ask yourself if what you believe in is the RIGHT thing. Because when you get out on the other side, you’ll be stronger for it.”
“That is true…” Aramis said. “That’s very true. But this is still a very, very harsh way of testing the three of us if that really *is* what this is all about.”
Joe looked at the filly who was coming towards them again and turned to his friends once more. “Who knows…” he said and shrugged. “Perhaps we are not the only ones being tested…”
Morning brought fresh air and a little chill. The three amigos had eventually gone to sleep in the one remaining hut in the village that hadn’t been burnt completely to a cinder. Aslaug had stayed outside until releived on watch by Tigermark. Come morning, she quickly got up to stoke the embers in the campfire. Then she went out to find some wood. She sighed and looked around the devastation one more time. It didn’t get any better over night.
Her new friends had been strangely quiet all evening. Except for the one who called himself Joe. He said they’d been arguing about religion and left it at that. She didn’t want to really get into it. Arguing something that was a matter of personal interpretation seemed silly to her anyway.
She prodded the embers in the campfire with a sturdy branch and sighed. She wondered if the survivors would come back or go elsewhere. If any *had* in fact managed to escape. Shaking her head, she turned to find the three males.
It wasn’t difficult. The young one, Aramis, was sitting outside the hut they had slept in. He looked upset.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, approaching.
Aramis looked up, disbelief on his face. “Look around you!”
“I know. But we have to move on. There’s no time to waste,” Aslaug said, matter of factly.
“How can you be so callous about this? About this kind of horror and devastation?” Aramis asked, slightly angrily.
Aslaug looked surprised for a moment. “Callous? I don’t know where you come from, originally, but here, this is not uncommon. And I can promise you, the first chance I get…I’ll pay the Christians back good and proper for this!”
“But…GRIEVE…for goodness sake, femme…how can you stay so calm about all this?”
“Because if I allow myself to react *now*…I’ll have less rage to drive me when I do meet up with those who did this.”
“That’s…that’s cold. Sorry, it’s just difficult for me to deal with.”
Aslaug shook her head. “What is it you want? For me to throw dirt over my shoulders and wail like an old, toothless femme? What good will that do those who were murdered here? I serve them better by making sure I can wring the necks of the next group of Christians I come across. Present company excluded. Now get yourself together, we have a long way to go today.”
Aramis looked after the femme as she headed off again to find water. He was about to speak up in retort when he felt a paw on his shoulder.
“Don’t,” Tigermark said behind him. “She’s right. By her standards, she’s right. We can’t judge her for it.”
“It’s not going to stop *me* from grieving!!” Aramis snapped.
“I know. I wouldn’t dream of trying. But it’s not her way.”
Aramis sighed and slumped. “I don’t understand this world,” he said, quietly. “We’ve seen some pretty weird things, the three of us. I mean really *bizarre* stuff. But this has to be up there amongst the worst.”
Tigermark nodded. “It is. Because it concerns something we consider essential in life. But the more I think about what Joe said last night, the more I think he’s right. This is a test of some sort. Not just for us, but undoubtedly for Aslaug as well.”
“Perhaps you’re right. Anyway…let’s get our stuff. She said we’ve got a long way to go.”
“That’s going to be a little bit difficult,” Tigermark said.
“Because Joe has already gone. He got up…well…let’s just say early…muttered something about finding the survivors and snuck off. I think that while you and I are uncomfortable about all this, it’s really having a serious impact on the old canid.”
“I’ve noticed. We’d better tell Aslaug then. She’s not going to like it,” Aramis grumbled and shrugged.
“I don’t know if she will or not. I am having a lot of trouble second guessing her. She’s not acting the way a viking should in my book…” the tiger said, thoughtfully.
“It’s hard to put a finger on. I guess it’s just that I always thought they were unwashed, uncivilized and thoroughly barbaric savages. That’s how they’ve been portrayed for centuries after all.”
“Well…she does have an odd code of honor, compared to the rest of us,” Aramis tried.
“She lives in a different kind of world,” Tigermark said and shrugged. “Let’s go and tell her about Joe.”
The sun was getting up and Joe had still found nothing. It was starting to annoy him, when the thought occurred that while he might be a good tracker and very adept at living rough…he wasn’t on his home ground, and the furs hiding *were*. If they didn’t want him to find them, he probably wouldn’t.
He felt like slapping himself around a bit for being so stupid. He didn’t exactly look like one of the locals, after all. Most likely, they all knew where he was, and all thought he was one of the Christians.
That thought made him stop dead in his tracks.
“But I *am*…” he told himself and squinted.
He shook his head and looked around again. It wasn’t too difficult to hide here. It was a typical heath. Lots of shrubbery…a few trees and taller bushes here and there, windswept and looking lonely…and an occasional stream of water. Any fur with even basic understanding of camoflauge could hide ten feet away and not be noticed.
He grumbled to himself and turned around to walk back. He stopped again and looked down at the spear-tip, mere inches from his stomach.
“Hey, watch it with that thing. You could’ve skewered me!” he said, automatically and again felt like hitting himself immediately afterwards.
The fur holding the spear didn’t look like he was more than fifteen or sixteen years old. But the look in his eyes was hard and cold, Joe noted. A young badger. There seemed to be a lot of badgers around here. Quite a lot of the dead from yesterday had been badgers. He sighed as he realized many of them were undoubtedly family to this one.
“Look, I’m not your enemy. We arrived at the village yesterda…” he tried. The spear jabbed at him again and he grumbled, falling silent.
“You expect me to believe you, Christian? More lies?” the youth said. There was pain and hatred in his voice. “More lies about the love of White Christ before you kill me? Stab me down from behind like your kind does?”
Joe flinched. “Easy kid…easy, put that spear down okay? I’m not one of them. I’m just a traveller…from very, very far away. Honest. I have two friends with me, and we’re just as shocked and appalled as…”
“Shocked? Appalled? Shut up, Christian. I’m TIRED of your lies. My mother…my father…my brothers and sisters…my grandfather, so old he couldn’t even hold his spoon himself…all dead before my eyes, because of LIES!! I’m going to make you *scream* before you die, Christian. I’m going to make you *beg* for mercy and there won’t *be* any!” the youth said and raised the spear until the tip was right under Joe’s muzzle. Unpleasantly close to his Adam’s apple, in fact.
Joe slowly raised his paws and swallowed. “Easy…please…take it easy. We really aren’t your enemies. We came across an equine…her name is Aslaug…”
That made the badger stop, momentarily. “And you’re still alive? The shieldmaiden is well known to me. If you somehow managed to hurt her…”
“STOP that and PUT THE SPEAR DOWN!” Joe shouted. He was starting to get really nervous. “Aslaug is back at the village. She was the one who brought us here. She is on her way home, and she brought us along. I give you my word of honor!”
“Honor? That word stings in the mouth of a Christian. But show me. Start walking, I’ll be right behind you…and if you try any tricks, I’ll skewer you.”
Joe nodded and took a step backwards to get away from the spear. Then he turned around and began walking.
To say Aslaug wasn’t happy was putting things very diplomatically indeed. She looked like a small, localized thunderstorm.
Aramis really didn’t like the situation. Tigermark was at least handling it well, the young feline thought, but every cell in his own body screamed at him that he had to get away from this world. That this whole mission was a big mistake.
Tigermark and Aslaug were talking. About Joe having gone off on his own. Aramis didn’t hear much of it. His thoughts were circling the whole test-thing. Over and over. Why did God test him? Or the other two, for that matter? What had they done wrong?
Aslaug shook her head at something and raised an admonishing finger at Tigermark. The older feline sighed and seemed to agree with whatever the filly had just said. At least he didn’t argue. Then they both stopped and looked sideways. Aramis let his eyes follow theirs.
Joe was approaching them. He wasn’t alone and he didn’t look particularly pleased about the situation. Behind him, a young badger was holding a spear. Very firmly. Pointing at Joe’s back. The coyote probably had a nasty prickly sensation somewhere around his lower spine, Aramis realized.
A moment passed. Then Joe slowly turned his head towards the badger behind him.
“See? I *told* you, she brought us here. Now will you put that thing away before someone gets hurt?” he asked.
The badger looked for himself…then slowly removed the spear tip from Joe’s back. He nodded, respectfully, to the equine.
“I’m sorry I can’t offer you the hospitality of my home, Shieldmaiden. But the Christians burned it. It would be up to me to have the honor, however. I am the oldest male left in my family. I am the *only* member left of my family,” he said, gritting his teeth.
Aslaug nodded back. “And I am sorry I wasn’t here to help you. But I am glad someone made it to safety. Are there others? If so, you need to get them and we have to move on, quickly. I’ll take you to Jarl Gunnar’s hall. That’s where I’m headed, myself.”
The badger shrugged. “It wouldn’t have made a difference if you’d been here. It’d have taken an army to stop them. There were a lot of them.”
“I can’t count beyond ten,” the badger said, sounding like that fact annoyed him right now. “They did run around in groups of four or five, though. And there were more than ten groups.”
Aslaug nodded. “That *is* a lot. How many more than ten groups? A *lot* more?”
The badger nodded again. “They didn’t even all come into the village. Most of them stayed on the hillside, just waiting. There were too many to count there. I’d say there were probably as many of them as…as…well…they filled up most of the hillside.”
Joe looked sidelong at the hill. It was a *big* hill. He sighed and looked at Tigermark. “How many grown, armed furs would you say it’d take to fill that hillside?” he asked.
“Two…three hundred?” the tiger responded.
Joe nodded and scratched his neck. “That was my thought. That’s not a raiding party. That’s a company of soldiers. They must be up to something…”
“It’s not enough to attack Dannevirke again,” Aslaug said. “Not nearly enough. But…it may be they’re heading for a camp to join up with others.”
Joe and Tigermark both nodded.
Aslaug turned her eyes back to the badger. “What’s your name?” she asked.
“Bjarke,” was the answer.
The filly looked at the three amigos and bit her bottom lip in thought. Then she looked back at Bjarke again. “These three males are from very, very far away. They helped me fight a patrol of Christians the night I met them, and they killed many. They can be trusted. They are Christians themselves but not like any we know. I vouch for them.”
Bjarke nodded, reluctantly. “I won’t question your guarantee then, shieldmaiden. But I’ll keep an eye on them until they’ve proven themselves in front of me.”
“That is fair enough. I think they realize they’ll need to prove themselves many, many times. Now, I have to ask, before you go and get any other survivors…did the furs attacking your village fly a banner? Did they have any markings on their clothes that showed them fighting for some lord?”
Bjarke nodded. “They did. They had a banner on the hill but I couldn’t see it clearly. There was a lot of smoke and it’s a bit of a distance after all. But I did see that many of them wore a tunic that was made up of two different colours of cloth. One half was blue like the ocean and the other was black. Split right down the middle, like this…” he said and illustrated by drawing a paw down his front.
Aslaug growled, long and low. “Get the other survivors, Bjarke. Hurry up,” she finally said and turned around, walking away to collect her things.
Aramis looked after the leaving equine. He shook his head and looked at his friends.
“I think she recognized that coat-of-arms from the description…” he said, matter of factly.
Joe nodded. “I think *that’s* a given. I’m sure we’ll find out more soon enough. Come on, let’s get our gear. I’ve got a feeling we’ll have really sore paws come nightfall.”
Tigermark rubbed his feet, sitting on a bundle of firewood. He was grinning, widely. The sun was setting, and he found himself surrounded by a steadily increasing throng, mostly made up of very young furs.
“Well, clearly they’ve never seen a tiger before…” Joe said and looked at Aramis with a crooked grin.
“As opposed to a ‘scrawny wolf’ and an ordinary feline, you mean? He’s the physically impressive specimen around here…” Aramis responded.
“My wife would probably have a thing or two to say about that, Y’know,” Joe chuckled.
Aramis stuck a finger in one ear and wriggled it with an expression of unease spreading on his face. “I didn’t need to hear that, Joe. I really, honestly did NOT need to hear that.”
“Then don’t walk into them, Aramis. It’s too easy sometimes,” Joe grinned and looked around. He’d lost track of Aslaug.
Then again, they had only just arrived and hadn’t familiarized themselves with the place yet. It was a much larger village than the ruined and burnt down one had been while still standing. Joe realized it was probably large enough to be considered more than a village by the local standards. He counted sixteen very large houses. Long and rather tall buildings, set in squares of four. Many smaller houses that clearly only held one family each sprawled around the larger ones. He’d guess that maybe just under a thousand furs lived here. Certainly enough to be considered more than a mere village. There was a marketplace, and he could hear the clanging of a hammer from a smithy nearby as well.
“You know, having just come off that heath…this really *does* feel like returning to civilization,” the coyote said and looked at Aramis again.
The feline nodded and smiled. “I know exactly what you mean. This place is welcoming enough. Look at those kids. They’re certainly taking a shine to Tigermark.”
“They just like my stripes…and the fact that I’m something new!” Tigermark chimed in from the middle of the throng. He picked up a female wolf cub and let her sit on his knee. “Hey there. What’s *your* name, little lady?”
Joe smiled and looked back at Aramis again. “Well…if I were to venture a wild guess, I’d say that building over there is Jarl Gunnar’s hall. It’s the largest and most ornamented of the houses here.”
Aramis looked towards the building Joe was talking about. “I think you’re right there. It does look pretty impressive. Those longhouses are *big*. I wonder how many furs live in each.”
“Probably more than we think. I’ve noticed one thing already about this place…” the coyote started.
The young feline nodded. “Me too. There are a lot of armed furs here. Not armed as in carrying a simple sword but *soldiers*. What was that word Aslaug used? Herd?”
“Hird, Aramis. Hird. From what I can gather, it’s a term used for household troops. Probably the elite. This place *does* have a kind of ‘frontier garrison’ feel to it, doesn’t it?”
Aramis was just about to answer when a *scream* made him clamp his mouth shut and spin around. The cub that Tigermark had picked up was holding the large feline’s crucifix in one paw. The look of absolute terror on her face was unmistakable. The other children were fleeing in all directions, shouting about Christians. Then she jumped down and ran away as well before Tigermark had a chance to stop her.
Joe swallowed and looked at his friends. “Okay, this could get really ugly…really, really fast…” he mumbled.
Tigermark looked stricken. “Joe…Aramis, in all my years, I don’t think I’ve ever felt something *quite* that painful before. I’ve been shot, stabbed, beaten, bruised, broken…but I’ve never been hurting so badly as I am now…” he said, his voice faltering. “Did you see the fear…because of a *crucifix*?”
Aramis nodded and stepped up to his older friend and put a paw on the tiger’s shoulder. There was nothing he could say. To see tears lining the tigers eyes was something he’d hoped never to experience, and yet…there they were, glistening, fighting to escape.
Joe cleared his throat. “I hate to say this, friends, but we have a really *immediate* problem arising here…” he said and looked around. Adult furs were closing in. Lots of them. Most of them armed. All of them looking both angry, hurt and hateful.
“If we fight them, we prove them right…” Tigermark said, trying to regain his composure. He whiped his eyes and looked up. “This is one situation where, no matter what, we’ll have to turn the other cheek.”
“But remember what Aslaug said about that? This isn’t that kind of world, old tiger…it’s not OUR kind of morals at work here!” Joe said. He didn’t like the feeling of the circle growing narrower by the second.
“So what do you suggest, Joe? That we *fight* them? That’s *precisely* what they’ve seen Christians do all along. Are we REALLY going to heap bloodshed on top of bloodshed?” Tigermark asked, sternly. He got to his feet, forcing himself to calm down again. He’d deal with the emotional stress of the child’s reaction later.
“Are you saying we should LET them kill us???” Joe asked.
“If we must. Christ set an example there, Joe. We *cannot* prove them right in their fear of us.”
Aramis nodded and sighed. “He’s right, Joe. If we fight them…everything they think Christianity stands for is proven right. We’ll hurt them before they take us out and what good is that going to do anyone?”
Joe didn’t know how to answer that one. He didn’t particularly feel like getting killed but his friends had a point. At the same time, the angry mob was unpleasantly close by now. One of them raised an axe.
A forceful, deep bass voice rang out. “PUT that axe down, or I’ll treat you to the same when you’re done with it!”
Joe felt a deep, deep sense of relief run through him. He turned around to look at a very large, old bear. Grizzled didn’t even begin to describe him. He was scarred and despite his age, he was clearly tremendously fit.
Joe let his instincts guide him and he bowed, deeply. “Jarl Gunnar, my friends and I ask for your hospitality,” he said.
The bear looked at the coyote for a long time. “The children are shouting that you’re Christians. Is this so?” he finally asked.
“Yes. I won’t lie. That is true. But we do not agree with what is being done to your people or your villages. It is not what we stand for, or what we believe in. Aslaug was kind enough to listen to us instead of attacking us. And she decided to bring us here. We will not dishonor your hall, should you grant us hospitality.”
The bear thought for another long moment, before nodding. “If she says you’re not like the others…and that’s what she told me…then I believe her. She has, as far as I know, never told me a lie. You are guests in my hall. I shall expect you to live up to *your* responsibilities as guests, and honor my house and my hospitality in return.”
Joe felt a sense of relief was over him and he looked back up. “Thank you. We will not fail your trust.”
Jarl Gunnar grumbled something about not trusting them, but trusting the shieldmaiden, and headed off towards his hall again. The crowd started to disperse.
Aramis looked around. “Suddenly…this friendly oasis of civilization became very hostile indeed…” he said, sadly.
Tigermark nodded. “If you’ll both excuse me…I need some time alone to deal with this,” he said, quietly.
The other two nodded and headed towards the great hall.
The mood in the great hall was not good, but at least it was improving. The first half hour, Joe had seriously wondered when someone was going to walk up to him and hit him. The next thought had been if whomever did so would hit him *with* something. There was certainly no shortage of sharp objects present in the hall.
But alcohol had been brought in and consumed and that had helped loosen up the tension just a little.
Aramis was looking into his drinking bowl, not sure if he really wanted to try it.
“What is this, anyway?” he asked and sniffed it. The dark liquid had a sweet scent. Not unpleasant at all.
Aslaug looked at the shorter feline. “What do you think it is? It’s ale. Drink, kitten. It’ll put hair on your chest. You could probably use it.”
Joe did his best to keep from laughing aloud.
Aramis looked dejected. “I have a perfectly fine, furry chest, thank you. I don’t shave it,” he mumbled.
Aslaug grinned and went back to eating.
Tigermark drank a little from his bowl. He’d specifically asked for water, much to the amusement of everyone else. Joe took a sip of his ale, too.
“It tastes rather nice. Is it strong ale?” the coyote asked.
“It could be stronger. It’s just meant for mealtimes after all. The stronger drink will be brought in later…”
“Ahhh…mead, I take it?” Joe asked, feeling smug.
Aslaug looked crosseyed. “You’re not sitting there, telling me to my face you’re going to drink that without mixing it with ale first, are you?” she asked, disgusted. “Your teeth are going to stick together. It’s made from honey…it’s so sweet it’s sickening if you don’t mix it.”
Tigermark grinned. “So much for your viking lore, Joe Latrans.”
Joe deflated like a ruptured balloon and mumbled something about not being right *all* the time, before looking back to the meat in front of him.
“Grouse. Eat it. It’s good for you,” Aslaug answered and looked away for a moment as one of the other danes said something to her.
Joe nodded and bit into the meat. It had a very rich flavor for fowl, but he had to admit it was tasty.
He snapped out of his thoughts regarding the food at a loud voice. “HEY!!!”
“Got some right here,” Aslaug chuckled and took a pawfull off her plate and showed it to Aramis. The younger feline crossed his arms over his chest and fumed.
A roar of laughter went through the crowd. Joe looked at Tigermarks. The feline’s shoulders visibly sank a few inches in relaxation. Clearly, the locals were forgetting what God their guests prayed to. Or at least, they didn’t care as much anymore.
“What did I just miss?” Joe asked, looking slightly confused.
“She just told me that a young feline at my age probably wouldn’t have any difficulty finding a femme to keep me warm tonight,” Aramis grumbled.
Joe smirked and looked at the equine. “Aramis is chasteâ??and he’s got a big problem with femmes taking a major shine to him, all the time.”
“You meanâ??he’s a fully functional male, with all the bits in the right placesâ??and femmes fawn over him constantly and he’s NOT taking advantage of it?” Aslaug asked, sounding like she found that hard to believe.
“I don’t know if all hisâ??bits are thereâ??” Joe said, trying his very best to maintain something resembling a straight face. “I haven’t checked. But I assume they are and yes, femmes are usually all over him and no, he doesn’t take advantage of it.”
Aslaug looked at the coyote in abject disbelief. Then she looked at the young cat next to her. Then back to Joe. “I see. He’s sick. I’ve heard of that before. Some furs lose their mind totally. Poor him, and at that age to. He’s too young to lose his wits,” she said, not unsympathetically.
“HEY!!!” Aramis tried again.
Aslaug just held up a pawfull of her food again. “I don’t need any more. I already have what I need.”
Aramis just groaned and put his face in his paws. Joe reached over and patted his shoulder with a chuckle.
“You need to get a girlfriend, kitten,” the canid grinned.
“Et tu, Latrans?” was the only answer he got.
Tigermark maintained his dignity and just kept eating, in silence. Joe chuckled at the demonstration and sat back, looking at the host assembled around the tables.
“Let’s hope we can earn their trust,” Aramis finally said to his friends, trying to move the conversation to something else. “I’d really hate being on their wrong side.”
“I think they’ll accept us first…trust *may* come later,” Tigermark commented. “Personally, I really want to find that little girl from earlier and try to get her to stop being scared of me.”
“That really hurt you, didn’t it…” Joe asked, looking at the tiger.
“You have no idea. I mean…an adult, I could’ve dealt with. I could’ve taken abuse, rage or even a good punch better than that. But a child being scared of me? That’s awful, Joe. And for that reason? That only makes it worse. I have to say, I’m agreeing more and more with your thoughts on why we’re here.”
“You mean…the Boss is trying to take us all down a notch or two?” Joe asked and nibbled on a leg of grouse.
“Something like that. If you think about it…we haven’t failed a mission yet, right?” Tigermark said, quietly, leaning over the table.
Joe nodded. Aramis leaned forward as well to hear what the tiger had to say.
“Go on…” Joe said, beckoning for his friend to continue.
“Well, I can’t stop thinking that maybe…just maybe we’d started getting a little too full of ourselves because of that. Maybe we’d forgotten something very essential to a good Christian,” the large feline said and took a bite of his own fowl.
Aramis nodded. “Humility,” he just said and looked at the other two.
Joes face split in a wide grin. “Sometimes, the youngster really can be quite perceptive when the mood takes him, wouldn’t you say so, Tiger?”
Tigermark just nodded and smiled.
Aramis muttered something about not being a youngster, tossing the picked off husk of a wild dove over his shoulder. It seemed to be the general way of disposing of the garbage. A pile was gathering in the middle of the room, near the fireplace.
Unfortunately, the feline hadn’t counted on his own irritation adding to his strength, and the bony remains performed a beautiful arch over the pile of bones…landing with a *thunk* on the table on the other side…
Then a *squish* as it skid a few feet…
And finally a *thud* *crash* *splotch* as it hit a drinking bowl, knocking it over.
A very, very large bovine got to his feet and cracked his knuckles. “That’s it. It’s *bad* enough that we have to eat at the same table as Christians, but I’ll kiss Hel before I let them knock over my ale!” he growled.
A few furs looked at him. Aslaug groaned and turned. “Tormod, sit down. He didn’t mean to do that. Take a seat, fill your bowl again and get drunk like you always do.”
The bull shook his head. “Not this time, shieldmaiden. I’ll not stand by and let this insult pass!” he growled then pointed at Aramis. “Stand up, Christian, and take what’s coming to you.”
Aramis looked at Aslaug and frowned.
“No weapons, just a fistfight…” the equine said and shrugged.
“But he’s six times bigger’n me!!!” Aramis complained.
The feline grumbled and got up.
Then he cracked his knuckles and looked upâ??and then up a bit furtherâ??and then all the way up on the face of the bovine. This was flatly ridiculous. How could anyone seriously expect him to get into fisticuffs with someone that large? He shook his head and muttered a few words under his breath. His eyes shone with an inner light and his whiskers bristled and briefly snapped straight from energy released.
When Thormod lungedâ??Aramis was no longer there. The feline was moving around the hall at an impossible speed, attacking Tormod from all angles. Each punch didn’t do much to the huge warrior, but there were so many of them, and so fast.
The muttering around the hall started to grow in volume, Joe noted. It didn’t sound very comforting or reassuring. Tormod was starting to sway a little.
Aslaug stood up and tapped the bovine’s shoulder. If it was from confusion or uncontrolled anger, the large male swung around and brought out his fist, catching Aslaug squarely on the jaw. She took a step backwards and shook her head, to clear it. Then she grinned and spat a little blood.
“Thank you. That’s all I needed,” she said and landed a vicious one two on Tormod. One in his guts, the other on the side of his face.
The giant went down like a sack of grain.
The zipping form of Aramis stopped and blinked. “What did you do that for?” he complained “I had him under control.”
Aslaug’s paw shot out and grabbed the feline by the scruff of his neck, pulling him close. “Listenâ??” she hissed lowly. “And listen really good. The next time someone here challenges you to an honorable duel, you fight it honorably, you hear?”
“But he was huge!! He’d have have *flattened* me!!”
“And is your *pride* so strong it can’t take a beating? This wasn’t holmgang. It wasn’t to the death. It was just a matter of him blowing off some steam and if you’d taken your beating like a male and stood up afterwards, he’d probably have poured you the next bowl of ale. All you’ve accomplished is to make everyone here think you’re a *coward*.”
Aramis looked like he was the one the filly had just punched. “A coward…why? I used what means I have at my disposal.”
“You turned simple fistfighting into a chance for showing off. These furs all know sejd when they see it. But it does not scare them. It’s something we use when worshipping our Gods, or when healing the wounded. NOT in battle. In battle, you make do with a strong arm, a good weapon and *courage*. Be happy Tormod hit me, and gave me an excuse to lay him out. If you’d done it, none of them would’ve ever spoken to you again! You’ve got a LOT of proving to do after this,” Aslaug snapped.
Aramis nodded, slowly. He wanted to retort but it was pointless. If what Aslaug said was true, he knew there was nothing he could say that wouldn’t just make everything worse. That feeling that he really didn’t want to be here was coming back, with a vengeance. He didn’t understand this world.
He sat back down at the table and sighed, putting his head in his paws again. Tigermark reached out and patted the younger felines back, reassuringly.
Joe was about to say something, but stopped himself at the sight of someone approaching them. Joe got up. Ever the the gentlefur, his first instinct was to help the very old, bent over female squirrel approaching them. She supported herself on a staff, and walked very slowly indeed.
She waved a paw dismissively at Joe’s attempt at supporting her.
“I’m old, Christian…I’m old, but I’m not in the ground yet,” she chuckled, goodnaturedly.
Joe noticed her voice wasn’t malicious in any way. He smiled and nodded. “Well, where I come from, it’s customary to rise to let an elderly lady have your seat.”
The squirrel looked up at him and chuckled. “Oh we do that too. These young rascals know if I they don’t stand up, their names might just appear on the next runestick I make.”
A shudder ran through the nearest group of danes, overhearing that.
Joe raised an eyebrow. “And that’s a bad thing…why?”
“There is power in a name, Christian. Great power. For me to carve their names in wood…well, who knows what that wood will be used for? I could sacrafice it to Tyr, for courage and strength in battle. I could bury it in the ground and let v??tter find it…who knows what that kind of creature would do with it? I might even do something really…unpleasant…with it, and let Fenris have a sniff at it…” the squirrel said and winked, knowingly, before sitting down.
The coyote nodded, trying to understand what the old femme meant. He did notice that the look on the faces of the nearest danes was one of awe and deep, deep respect…perhaps even mixed with a tiny, healthy amount of fear, whenever they looked in her direction.
“My name is Gudrun…” the squirrel said and got herself comfortable. “I am…a seer, you might say. I know sejd and I know runes. I speak to the gods…and they speak to me. And I am curious what three Christians would do, peacefully visiting Jarl Gunnar’s hall…”
Tigermark cleared his throat and looked at Gudrun. “We’d answer that…if we only knew. We’re travellers from very far away…”
Gudrun narrowed her eyes and looked at the tiger for a long, long moment without saying a word. Then she nodded. “Yes….you are. Very far indeed. Across oceans…oceans of time and oceans of water…” she said, thoughtfully. “Sailing on a ship called Faith…and the Helmsman…”
“…would be the one you call White Christ,” Tigermark concluded and nodded. “Well, at least we’re dealing with someone who understands where we’re from. We haven’t told anyone though. Just that we’re from very far away. We thought it…most prudent.”
Gudrun nodded again. “You are wise, Christian. Wise enough to lead. I see something in all of you. I see wisdom…I see the courage to question…and I see vigour. You would not do well without each other. But together you are a whole…”
Aramis swallowed and looked at Joe. “This is getting creepy. Who handed her the ‘Three Amigos manual’?”
Joe shrugged. He had to admit it was a little unnerving too.
Gudrun turned and looked at Aramis. “I will have words with you, concerning your sejd and how you use it. Soon, Christian,” she said, and got up. She nodded to each of the three and walked away, as slowly as she approached.
It took a moment before any of the three friends found their voices again but finally Joe shook his head and looked at the other two. “Am I the only one who feels we just passed some sort of small test?” he asked, then lowered his voice and leaned over the table. “And I mean that, because if you look around, the danes have stopped glaring at us and there are no more growls to be heard.”
Tigermark nodded. “I think she holds a position of enormous authority here. She must be their…well…Aslaug said they didn’t have priestesses the way Christians know it but she must be a lorekeeper of some kind.”
“She’s…a witch of some sort. Not black magic but definitely *something*,” Aramis said and scratched his hair. “And I think it’s a given she’s the lorekeeper as you call it, around here. I think she looked straight through all of us. Literally.”
The other two nodded. Again, silence spread between them. It was getting very late. Most of the danes were leaving the table to get some rest. There were already snores from various places.
“We’d better find a place to sleep, too…” Joe noted.
Tigermark looked around. “Well, there’s plenty of room. But I’d rather not risk falling asleep in someone elses spot.”
“Good thinking…hmm…” Joe looked around again. “Maybe we could just curl up on the benches or something.”
The other two nodded.
Ten minutes later, the hall was quiet, except for the sounds of sleeping furs.
Tigermark sat up and scratched his head. Next to him, Joe was stretching and yawning in that peculiar canid-only fashion…curling tongue and all. Aramis was still sleeping. On his own, Tigermark noted. Not that it surprised him. But on the other paw, it wouldn’t have surprised him too much if one of the young femmes had taken the opportunity to cuddle up with the younger feline in his sleep. He had that effect on females, in general.
In fact, he was surprised that Aslaug had seemed so unaffected.
Admittedly, Aramis had an extra level of attraction to females of a feline species, but Bast’s ‘blessing’ basically meant ALL femmes tended to look twice at the youth.
Aslaug hadn’t given any indication that she’d noticed this until the evening before when she’d mentioned that some femme might take an interest in Aramis.
Tigermark blinked. Realization struck him. He just wasn’t sure what it was he realized. Reaching out, he prodded Joe’s shoulder. The coyote looked at him and murmured some kind of sleepy aknowledgement.
“Joe, I’ve had a thought…”
“Don’t, Tiger…it’s not healthy. Especially not this time of the morning. Thinking is bad for you,” Joe mumbled. He looked like he could do with another hour of sleep.
Tigermark thwapped the coyote over the neck with a chuckle. “Behave Joe. I’m being serious here. Did you notice something strange about Aslaug so far?”
Joe looked crosseyed. “Well…erhm…could you ask that question again and ask me instead of I noticed something *ordinary* about her? The list will be a lot shorter that way,” the coyote said and rubbed his eyes. Clearly he was having difficulties waking up.
“TRY to be serious about this, Joe??”
“I AM! I’ve never seen a femme like her. And we’ve seen a lot.”
Tigermark nodded. He had to agree here, but he wanted to make sure they were thinking of the same things. “Go on. How do you mean?” he said and looked around the room. Most of the danes were still asleep but a few were waking up.
“For one thing…I don’t know if you noticed how she fought. We’ve seen a LOT of action, the three of us…and you know JUST as well as me what an unwieldy, cumbersome and downright clumsy weapon an axe is. It’s brutal and anyone hit by one is going to meet the Almighty REALLY fast…but it’s not an elegant weapon like a sword is,” Joe began.
The tiger simply nodded for him to go on.
“She wielded it like it was a natural extension of her arms. It was scary. I feel pretty confident I’m a better shot than her, Tiger…since she’s never seen a gun, but I would really…really…*really* hate having to face her in close combat. I’m no slouch. In fact, I’m pretty damned lethal with a sword in paw, but I think she’d cut me off by my knees, remove my arms, scribble her name on my chest and be home in time for the ale to be carried in, before I ever landed a blow. It was *scary* to see her fight.”
Tigermark nodded again and sighed. “I’ve seen that kind of thing before, actually. I think it’s all she’s got. I think it’s her whole life, Joe.”
“What? You mean *war* is her life??” the coyote began, then stopped himself and nodded. “You know…I think you may be right. I’m good, but I don’t fight with my soul. I fight *for* somehing. For Annie. For God. For you two. For a cause. She fights…because it’s all she knows. It’s all she is.”
Tigermark sighed and shook his head. “Such a waste, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know if it is, my friend. In our world, yeah, it would be. But this is a different world entirely…and she’s probably happy with it.”
“You can’t seriously think she’s *happy* in the knowledge she’ll die young, in some violent, messy way???” Tigermark asked, blinking.
Joe nodded again, very slowly, clearly thinking. “I can’t remember this for sure…but I seem to recall reading somewhere, that the vikings believed a warrior shouldn’t die in bed of old age. It was…ignoble somehow. I think she wants it this way. Damned…I really don’t understand their way of thinking.”
“There’s one more thing I’d like to point your attention at, Joe…” Tigermark said.
The large feline pointed towards Aramis’ sleeping form. “Him.”
Joe frowned. “Yeah? That’s Aramis…sleeping alone, as always. Much to my surprise, may I add. I’d have thought one of the locals would’ve gotten comfy with him when he fell asleep. We’d have had a panicky cat on our paws when he woke up but we’ve tried THAT a dozen times before…”
“That’s the entire point. He’s sleeping alone. And not only is he sleeping alone, have you noticed that Aslaug doesn’t seem to have been caught by his…shall we say supernatural powers of attraction?”
Joe opened his mouth to speak. Then shut it again and blinked. “Damned…you’re *right*…she *hasn’t*.”
“She’s not normal, Joe. There’s something about her that sets her apart…I just can’t put a finger on it.”
“You mean apart from the fact that she runs around armed to the teeth, she doesn’t react to Aramis’ involuntary pheromone-explosions and she’d probably charge a Sherman tank head on given half a chance?” Joe said and raised an eyebrow. “Do you need her to be MORE unusual than that?”
Tigermark groaned and shook his head. “I’m being serious, Joe. It’s not like the three of us are your basic, average run-of-the-mill furs.”
“I used to be…” Joe mumbled. “I used to have a perfectly ordinary life…happy and content, with a fantastic wife, whom I miss very badly, and some pups that anyone would envy. Now look at me…jumping around dimensions and timelines, doing the work of God…”
“What’re you getting at?”
“If he’s the Almighty, why do WE need to run around doing all the dirty work, Tiger?”
“Joe…that’s dangerously close to blasphemy,” the feline said, sternly.
“Sue me! I miss Annie…” Joe said and got to his feet.
Most of the danes were waking up. Even Aramis was stirring.
Aslaug was sitting one one of the benches, working her way slowly through some sort of dark grey porridge when Joe joined her. To his surprise, the filly’s mane was wet and she looked freshly scrubbed.
He scratched his hair and shoulder and stretched with another tongue-curling yawn. “You look like you’ve just come out of your annual bath…” he said, when he regained the use of his jaws.
The filly blinked and looked at the coyote. “You furs only bathe once a year? How do you cope with the stench? Most of us bathe at least once a week…”
Joe blinked. “So much for the ‘unwashed barbarians’-theory,” he mumbled to himself and scratched his hair again. “I’d like a bath too if that’s possible. I stink…not to mention I’ve still got residual blueberry juice in my fur.”
Aslaug nodded. “You do stink. And I’m pretty sure you’re sticky. If you want to bathe just jump in the stream outside. That’s what we all do. The water for everything else comes out of the well, so just get in and get wet.”
The coyote nodded, absently. Aramis sat down opposite of him, looking remarkably well rested. “Good morning. What are we talking about?” the feline asked.
“Bathing,” Joe answered. “Seems we’re free to use the stream that runs through the camp if we want to get scrubbed off. I know I’m going to do that as soon as possible, at least. If I never see a blueberry again, it’ll be a LOT too bloody soon!”
“Erhh…Joe…” Aramis said and blinked.
“The *stream*…that runs through the *camp*??”
Joe nodded. “Yes? What’s the matt…oh…damned, you’re right. Erhm…Aslaug…when you say it runs through the camp, I don’t suppose you have an area that’s shielded off so that people don’t SEE you bathe?”
Aslaug shook her head. “Why bother? The married femmes and men generally bring water into the houses to bathe but if you haven’t noticed, this place is an army encampment. The villagers that live here are here because it’s safer when there are armed furs around and the Christians have made life unsafe for many of them in their own villages. This place was never meant to accomodate so many furs, at least not permanently.”
Joe nodded. Then shrugged. “I see.”
Aramis blinked again and looked at the filly for a very long time. “Your mane is wet, Aslaug…” he pointed out.
“How astute of you, Aramis. Yes, I just took a bath.”
“In the stream…that runs through the camp…” Aramis went on…slowly, as if worried that the filly might corroborate the theory.
“Where else would I go?” Aslaug asked and started to look slightly amused.
“You’re telling me…that you took a bath out there, completely naked, and it didn’t *bother* you?” Aramis tried.
“I think I know where this is going,” the filly said and looked at Joe.
“So do I…” the coyote said and pulled over a bowl of porridge. “And I don’t want it to…oh damned is that BLUEBERRY in this porridge??”
“No, it’s blackberry. Eat it, it won’t kill you,” Aslaug said.
Joe looked relieved and shoved a spoonful into his mouth, eating with a healthy appetite.
Aramis still looked like he couldn’t come to terms with this. “So you’re telling me that in this culture it’s okay to be naked in public like that?”
“No Aramis. You won’t see furs running around naked in ordinary villages but I just told you, this is not an ordinary village. This is a war encampment and we make *do*.”
“I just…I’m sorry, but Aslaug…” the feline tried.
The equine simply looked at him, expectantly.
“Erhm…you’re kinda…you know…”
Aslaug motioned for him to please continue.
Aramis sighed. His forehead dropped to the table and he groaned. “Why must the world be so COMPLICATED?” he whimpered, then looked back up and set his jaw. “You’re a very shapely filly, Aslaug. You’re heavily muscled for a femme, compared to where we come from, and you’re powerfully built, but you’re definitely shapely. I mean…seeing someone like you naked would drive most males up the walls…”
“…as opposed to seeing an old decrepit crone, is what you mean?” Aslaug asked.
“Yes…no…ARGHHH…don’t you turn this one around on me, filly. Just for *once* let me get away with something!” Aramis snapped. “You can’t just go around naked like that. It’s…it’s…indecent. What if the males saw you??”
“The males did see me. I don’t really think any of them want to tangle with me, anyway…”
Aramis raised a finger and opened his mouth to answer…then his face betrayed his absolute confusion and he looked at Joe. “I give up…” he whined. “I just give up. I don’t get this. Are they blind or stupid or something?”
Joe smiled crookedly and pointed at his bowl. “Good porridge. DAMNED good porridge!” he said and went back to shoving more of it into his mouth.
Aramis narrowed his eyes and growled at the canid. “Yeah sure, leave me hanging on this one all by myself,” he mumbled.
“Hey, you’re the one who started it, Aramis. When are you going to learn to stop questioning the way other cultures live?” Joe said, bobbing his spoon at the feline in an admonishing way.
“I’m……..” the feline began then blinked. “Wait a moment…I think that might be part of what I’m supposed to learn from this. They do things differently but I can’t come walking in, demanding that they do things the way I do, can I?”
“I don’t know. But it doesn’t sound like a bad lesson to learn,” Joe said and went back to eating. He pulled over a second bowl of porridge.
Aslaug wiped a smile off her face and looked at Aramis. “No they’re not blind and they’re not stupid but they also know I’m not available and no one here wants contest THAT.”
“Ohhh…I didn’t realize you were spoken for. I’m sorry,” Aramis said and sighed in relief. “What’s he like then? Knowing you, he’s gotta be bigger and stronger than Tormod, even if that’s hard to envision.”
“She. I’m a shieldmaiden, Aramis. My life…my thread…belongs to Freja.”
“But…how does that work? She’s a goddess of Love and War isn’t she?” Aramis asked.
“She is. And I really love war, my Christian friend. No, seriously…I am good at war, and I love her, very dearly. She’s given me much. More than most furs get,” Aslaug said with a warm little smile on her face, that left both Aramis and Joe no doubt of the truth of her words.
Aramis sighed and looked for a bowl. “I was going to say something about her being female next…but I’m not going to bother…”
“Good. Because I’d have asked you if you don’t pray to White Christ, and claim to love both him and his father? And if they aren’t both male?”
Aramis forehead met the table again. “I hate it when she does that, Joe. I really hate it when she does that. I want to go home. I don’t like this world. I don’t understand anything and everything is being questioned, constantly.”
Aslaug reached over and patted the felines head gently. “Don’t worry, Aramis. No one here likes it when I do that either. I doubt everything and question everyone. Even the Gods.”
Joe looked at Aslaug for a long moment, then put aside his bowl of porridge. “Excuse me. I have a tiger to find. I think I need to talk to him about something…” he said, quietly.
The camp was coming to life. Tigermark looked around at the place as more and more furs became visible. Most looked a bit tired. But he realized it was still very early. The sun wasn’t even fully up yet. Almost, but not quite.
He looked down at the ground. A couple of rather scrawny looking hens were pecking the ground. He smiled a bit and sat down on the edge of a barrel, content with watching for the moment.
Despite Aramis’ misgivings about the place and the unpleasant situation yesterday with the children, Tigermark found that he liked the camp. And the furs there. They were rough, and it went without saying that they were a bunch of heathen unbelievers. He grinned to himself and shrugged. As heathen unbelievers went, they were very decent furs.
One of the children came running. It was one of the same youngins as yesterday. A young bear…maybe seven years old. He stopped, dead in his tracks and looked at Tigermark with a worried expression. Then took a step backwards as if he wanted to run away.
The feline realized it was probably going to be his only open chance to do something about the mess from the day before and he smiled warmly at the child. “Hi there…don’t be afraid. I’m not one of the bad ones,” he said and got off the barrel, crouching.
The small bear nibbled his lips and stopped moving away. He didn’t go any closer either. He looked afraid, and he didn’t say anything. Afraid…but curious.
“You had Christians hurt you too?” Tigermark asked in what he hoped was his most reassuring voice.
He only got a nod as response.
“What’s your name? A big strong bear like you’s gotta have a name,” Tigermark said with a wide smile.
Tigermark tried to curl his tongue around that a few times to himself. “Styrbjorn?”
Styrbj?¸rn smiled and shrugged. “Almost. You’re not one of the bad ones?”
“No…not one of the bad ones at all,” Tigermark said. He felt elated. He’d made contact.
“But you’re Christian, aren’t you?” Styrbj?¸rn asked.
“Yes, I am. But not like the ones you know who call themselves Christian. In a very different way.”
“Don’t you kill others then?”
Tigermark felt his words stick in his throat and he sighed and nodded. “Yes I do. But only really bad furs, or those who try to kill me. I’d never…ever harm a child. Ever.”
“But the Christians here say they only kill bad ones too, but that we’re all bad because we’re not Christian. They came to our village one night and killed many…” Styrbj?¸rn said, sadly.
Tigermark held out a paw. “Come here…I’m not going to do anything to hurt you. I just want to shake your paw…”
Styrbj?¸rn came closer, blinking as he held out a tiny paw for Tigermark to take. “Why?”
“Because I think you’re a very brave young bear, and you’ll grow to be a great fur one day. And I’m glad I met you,” Tigermark said, softly and shook the little paw gently.
Styrbj?¸rn smiled uncertainly but looked about to answer. Then he opened his eyes wide and darted away very suddenly.
Tigermark was about to call out after him when he noticed Joe coming from the opposite direction of where Styrbj?¸rn had run off to. “Oh well…even little heroes can face too many Christians all at once,” he mumbled and looked at Joe with a nod.
“I see you’re making contact again, Tiger?” Joe said with a crooked smile. “That’s good.”
“It’s more than good. It’s necessary. Yesterday was really nagging me. At least…I got through to one of them. Maybe he’ll talk to the others. I can only hope.”
Joe nodded and put a paw on his friend’s shoulder. He was about to say something else when a shout went up from the gate. Neither of the two friends could make out what was going on but judging from the commotion it immediately caused, something serious was happening. Femmes were grabbing children and heading inside, fast. Males were arming themselves with grim facial expressions.
“Local Christians?” Joe asked, looking at the tiger next to him.
“That’d be my guess. I thought this place was supposed to be *safe*,” Tigermark said and gritted his teeth.
“Frankly, I think ‘safe’ is a relative term around here…” Joe answered. “Come on, we’d better get inside and find Aslaug and Aramis.”
Tigermark nodded and they headed inside.
“Jarl Gunnar, you can’t be *serious*??”
The speaker, a large, broadshouldered wolf with enough scars to make Aramis think of a map of Los Angeles and just one eye, growled and showed fangs.
The old bear sat in his chair and frowned. “And what would you have me do, Ulf? WHAT?? Deny them hospitality? Go against Prins Knud’s EXPRESSED orders?”
The wolf looked like the bear had punched him. “No…no, not that. I would not go against the Prince’s orders. I knew nothing of that. What are his orders?”
“To avoid direct confrontation with Otto’s armies until he brings reinforcements. We are nowhere NEAR enough to stand against the entire might of the imperial army at this time. We’ll beat them, Ulf…when the prince arrives. You’ll have your battle. Tyr will wait another week or two.”
Ulf nodded, grimly.
“As will Freja,” Aslaug said and slung her axe over her shoulder. “If they do arrive under a banner of truce, we should listen to them. Peace would be welcome. We’ve beaten them. We’ve taken much of their lands. Now they’re resorting to butchering children and old femmes. They can’t beat us in open battle unless they bring their southern army this far north, but if they do that, and Otto KNOWS this, they’ll leave their backs open to an attack from their enemies further south. They can’t afford to take that chance.”
“Listen to the shieldmaiden, Ulf. I do not question your bravery or your skill in battle. And you’ll have your chance. But she speaks with the voice of *reason* in this madness,” Jarl Gunnar grumbled. “Very well, bring in the Christians. Have my hird present. I will not face them unarmed.”
Ulf nodded and turned, heading out to gather the rest of the hird. He passed Tigermark and Joe coming the other way.
“Seems they already know…” Joe said and looked at the warrior passing them.
“Would seem so…” Tigermark said and looked for Aramis.
The younger feline had taken a seat to a side, watching what was going on with interest.
Warriors entered the longhouse and took up position along the walls. Armed, grimfaced and clearly ready for the worst. Joe couldn’t help thinking once again how different this world was from anything he knew. Violence seemed endemic to these furs. A natural part of life. There was no fear to be seen.
He shook his head and sighed. He just hoped it wouldn’t come to a fight.
The doors opened again and through it stepped a group of perhaps 25 furs. Joe felt a sense of relief run over him. Surely they wouldn’t be foolish enough to start trouble. There were at least four times as many danes in the room. And most of the new arrivals looked young and untested in battle. He even saw a monk between them. The brown robes and tonsur gave the weasel away.
The coyote sat down with his friends and watched as a self important looking fox stepped out from the group. He bowed, deeply, to the old Jarl, and stood back upright. When he spoke, it was clearly in the language of the danes. But he seemed to have some trouble with it, and spoke slowly.
“Jarl Gunnar…We thank you for your…welcome. Your hospitality. I am Adalbert…a lowly baron in the…service of His Majesty, King Otto.”
Jarl Gunnar nodded, sternly. “I’ll hear what you have to say Christian, and then I’ll be obliged to ask you to take your furs out of here. None of my warriors feel particularly honorbound to treat you well, considering what you have done to our villages, and once the drinking starts tonight, I don’t know if I can…keep them all at bay.”
Tigermark frowned. He looked at his two friends. He could see what the Jarl was saying. Most of the danes around the walls looked like the only thing keeping them from outright ripping the Christians apart was the word of the old bear.
Aramis nodded to Tigermark, as if to say he had noticed too. Then he felt an odd twinge in his whiskers. He reached up to scratch it, but it wouldn’t go away.
He tried to figure out what it was and looked around again. No one else seemed to have noticed anything. Not even his friends.
“I understand…from your guards…that other Christians are visiting your hall, Jarl?” Adalbert asked.
“That’s none of your damned concern, Adalbert. I am not obliged to answer any of your questions. The only reason I don’t have your head on a pike already is *honor*. I know fully well that your troops are some of the most active in the attacks on our villages. Do you think me a na??ve old fool??” Jarl Gunnar growled, angrily, leaning forward a little.
Aramis’ whiskers twitched again. Harder.
“No, of course not, Jarl Gunnar,” Adalbert said. The smile on his face was oily enough to marinade sardines in.
Aramis prodded Joe’s side and leaned over. “Something’s going on but I don’t know what it is,” he whispered, urgently.
Joe shrugged, looking like he didn’t understand what the feline was referring to.
“My whiskers…it feels like someone’s trying to yank them out, constantly. It’s getting very annoying and more than a little painful,” Aramis continued, still at a whisper. “H…hey…Joe…you’re *bleeding*…”
“Don’t be ridi…” the coyote began, then blinked. His right palm was getting decisively sticky. He looked at it. A wound had opened on his forearm. “Aramis…I got that wound over a year and a half ago, and it healed up *nicely*. What’s going on?”
Aramis didn’t answer. He was concentrating. Tigermark blinked and reached up to wipe his forehead. His fingers came back bloody.
“What the…” he began. “I’ve only had one headwound and that’s *ages* ago. What’s happening?”
Many of the danes groaned and started collapsing, clutching wounds that were opening in various places. An old, grizzled badger collapsed more or less on top of Joe. The coyote swallowed. The wounds on that particular dane were gruesome. He doubted the old warrior would survive.
Aslaug took a step forward. She too was bleeding from many wounds but her teeth were gritted against the obvious pain. She raised her axe and advanced on Adalbert.
“Treasonous *filth*,” she hissed. But the fox was already making a run for it, along with three of his companions.
Aramis jumped up. Most of the danes were trying to hold themselves together by now, literally. The christians were drawing their weapons and advancing on the wounded warriors with gleeful expressions. The monk was still standing in the same place, but a strange glow was coming from his fingertips. Magic. The feline narrowed his eyes.
“JOE, TIGER…GIMME A PAW HERE! I’ll take care of that one…KEEP THE REST FROM THE JARL!”
Then all hell broke loose.
Aramis stood bent over the fallen form of the monk. He was short of breath. The fight had been harder than he’d expected, and he wasn’t sure how long it’d take the singed areas of fur on his legs and arms to look normal again. He was bleeding from a few wounds as well.
Joe was wiping blood off his sword and looked around the room in disgust. “Someone neglected to tell them about the ten commandments,” he mumbled.
Tigermark wiped his forehead again. The bleeding from his headwound had slowed but not stopped yet. It looked rather gruesome by now. “You mean “thou shalt not kill”?”
“What about “Thou shalt not carry falste testimony” or “Love thy neighbour”?” Joe asked and gave a fallen German warrior a prod with his sword. No response, the fur was stone dead.
Aslaug was sitting next to the Jarl, trying to staunch his bleeding. The old bear clearly was in a bad shape. Many danes around the room were faring little better. Quite a few had already expired.
“I think now’s the time to not give a damned about any objections our equine companion has about modern medicine,” Joe commented. “TM, you still have that first aid kit, right?”
“Yeah, but it’s more than just a first aid kit, really. I’ve had a look at it. It’ll probably fix up the survivors nicely, before being spent.”
“Ahh…you mean “miracles in a box” sort of thing?” the coyote asked. “Good, we can use it right about now.”
Aramis nodded. “I think if you get to work on that, I’ll go find that old squirrel from yesterday…what was her name? Gudrun, wasn’t it? I’m sure she can help with this. If anyone here’s likely to have knowledge of medicine and healing arts…it’d be her.”
“I think that’s a given…you go do that,” Tigermark said and went looking for the first aid box.
Joe knelt down besides Aslaug and took a look at the equine. She didn’t look like she was doing too well, either. But clearly, she didn’t care about her own wounds so long as the old bear was bleeding.
“Hey…let us help him. And the others,” the coyote said, quietly, putting a paw on the filly’s shoulder. “You need to lay down. You’re a bloody mess, literally.”
“You take care of him first!” Aslaug said through gritted teeth. “It’s not his time yet. It’d be an honorable death but it’s not his time yet!”
“Aslaug…if he dies…it *is* his time…” Joe began. He regretted it instantly.
“It’s *not* his time!” the filly snapped and looked directly at him. “I *know* it isn’t his time yet. Don’t ask me how. Just treat him first. He cannot die now!”
Joe nodded and beckoned Tigermark over. He knew better than to contradict the shieldmaiden right now.
It was around noon when Tigermark left the bloody hall behind to get some fresh air. He needed fresh air. The sheer amount of blood in there was enough to sicken him. Gudrun had arrived. She’d done the best she could. Both for those they saved andâ??for those beyond salvation. He sighed and shook his head. Despite the difference of faith, he couldn’t help respect the warriors in there. Every one of those who had died, despite all their efforts, had done so quietly and peacefully. None of them seemed afraid. It was almost eerie.
He wiped his paws for the fiftieth time since this morning. They felt dirty. They *were* dirty, he realized. He’d held more wounds together than he cared to count. The first aid kit…or whatever it had been…had worked it’s wonders. But it hadn’t lasted more than halfway through the wounded.
The word crept out from somewhere in the back of his mind. The duty of sorting those who would live, from those who would die.
Swallowing heavily, to forget it, he looked around to see if he could spot Joe. The coyote had left only a few minutes before himself.
Tigermark sighed. The word just wouldn’t leave him alone. He hadn’t had the stomach to do it. Choosing who were to live and who were to die was unbearable when looking into the eyes of the one he condemned. And it wasn’t made any easier by the fact that they all just…accepted it. Not one word of protest. None. Gudrun had done it. She had walked amongst the wounded and dying and calmly administered the last words of comfort to those who were so far gone that no hope remained.
Like an angel of death.
An old, bent over angel with graying fur.
“If I have to go back in there, my feline friend…I’ll retch…” Joe’s quiet voice said from slightly to the right and behind Tigermark.
“I know,” Tigermark responded, without turning around. “I think we both feel that way. Aramis is still in there. Either he’s blanketting the horror of it all out, or he’s got some strength none of us have really seen before.”
“Either way, I think it deserves respect. He’s worked hard all morning. God Almighty…this is not the way things are supposed to *be*!” Joe said. His voice was still quiet but there was a note of pleading in it.
Tigermark realized his friend wasn’t speaking metaphorically. He really *was* adressing the Almighty. Finally, he turned around and looked at his friend. Joe was sitting on the side of a tipped over wheelbarrow, mostly hidden by barrels. He looked pale.
“Treachery happens everywhere, Joe. It has happened for as long as furs have been sentient,” the feline said, trying to put Joe’s mind at ease.
“I know. And it’s *hardly* like we haven’t seen blood and guts before, either. But…this was different.”
“Well, for one thing, we USUALLY see blood and guts at fifty paces or more, while holding some kind of firearms. It’s a little different when you LITERALLY get a sticky feeling on the side of your face and you wonder *what* just hit you, and if you really WANT to know!” Joe burst out and clenched his fists, tightly.
“That’s true. But we’ve seen paw-to-paw combat before, as well. Why’s this affecting you so strongly, Joe?” Tigermark asked, calmly, crouching be the canid’s side.
“I don’t know…”
“I think you do.”
Joe sighed and put his face in his paws. His shoulders slumped. “Yeah…I do,” he whined.
“So out with it. It won’t do you any good to keep it locked up inside you like that,” Tigermark said, shrugging. Clearly, his canid friend was in a bad emotional state.
“You know how I asked why it was that *we* have to run around, doing all the dirty work? And you said it was nearly blasphemy?” Joe asked, quietly.
“I remember, yes? Go on.”
“This isn’t *right*. Look around you. These furs don’t deserve what the Christians here have done to them. They want their way of life, and by *our* standards, they have a right to choose,” Joe sighed.
“We can’t use modern morals on what happened in the past. Even if it’s…an alternative past. We both know that the Church in our own world spread the Faith by fire and sword as much as by preaching and kindness. But we can’t *judge*, Joe.”
“Who says we can’t? This isn’t *our* world, all right? I am tired of not being able to judge. I WANT to judge. I see something here that is wrong and I want to speak up against it. This is not the way Christians are supposed to behave. This is NOT what the bible tells us or teaches us,” Joe said. He was getting angry. Not at Tigermark but at the situation…the world as a whole.
“I don’t think there’s any argument there. It’s not. But Joe, don’t we see enough hatred in our own time? Hatred based in misconceptions about religion?” the feline said, still patient.
“Yes. What’s your point?”
“My point is…what do we usually say about such furs? Those who really shout up a storm about their own superiority, based in faith…what do we *usually* say about them?”
Joe blinked and nodded. “You’re right. We usually say they don’t get it. That they’re forgetting something.”
“Are the killings you see here…in the name of God…the *work* of God, Joe?” Tigermark asked, patiently, leading his friend along a train of thought.
“No, they’re the work of some really sick, twisted furs.”
“And do we agree that…however much I might dislike the idea…it sounds like Aslaug has actually…seen her deities?”
“We…hey…wait a moment…” Joe began and looked at the tiger beside him. “I see. This isn’t the work of Christians. They just call themselves that. They probably *think* they’re doing God’s work. But they are so tied up on hate and rage that they’re driving God *away*…”
Tigermark just shrugged again. “Don’t confuse religion with God, Joe. You know what He is.”
The coyote sighed and looked relieved. “Yes. I know. I know what I believe in. I don’t have to blame myself for being Christian…by comparing myself to the ones using the same term *here*.”
“Precisely. Now…there’s someone at the gates again. Just think about this.”
“I will. Thanks, buddy. I needed someone to put things into perspective for me.”
Tigermark grinned crookedly and got up. “We all do, from time to time. Now let’s figure out who the ones arriving might be.”
The stench in the great hall was finally becoming too much for her, and Aslaug got to her hooves, stumbling towards the door. Gudrun nodded to her, as if to say it was all right for the shieldmaiden to leave. The filly smiled gratefully…wearily…back at the old squirrel and pushed her way outside. Covered in blood, and frankly dreading what she might see outside. Adalbert and at least a few of his henchfurs had escaped. How much carnage would she face once outside, she asked herself.
Fresh air hit her in the face like a hammer. She straightened her back and hefted her axe, in preparation for the worst. She was pleasantly surprised. Everything seemed to be calm and normal. Somehow, the Germans must’ve made good their escape, without bothering anyone else. However surprising it was. She let her eyes wander over the circular encampment and nodded to herself.
Yes. Everything was as it should be.
There was some commotion at the main gates though. She slung her axe over her shoulder and headed towards the noise.
A horn sounded. A loud, clear sound. Then another. Drums were beating. A steady rythm. Easy to march to. A few pipes chimed in.
Aslaug smiled, grimly.
Yes. Everything was *exactly* as it should be.
Now the Christians would pay for their crimes.
She looked around again. There seemed to be some confusion about what was happening amongst the civilians. A throng of warriors had already gathered at the gate.
Aslaug jumped up on a cart and stretched her neck. She saw the tops of several banners. A few recognizable furs. She nodded and smiled. Then she put her paws to her mouth and took a deep breath of air.
“ALL HAIL PRINCE KNUD, SON OF GORM AND THYRA!!”
The result was notable. The word spread like wildfire amongst the civilians. Aslaug jumped down from the cart and approached the new arrivals. She had to elbow her way through a growing throng of furs but that wasn’t really a problem. She had the strength to do so. The sight that met her was a welcome one. A tall, well built wolf wearing a scarlet cape over his chain-mail coat had led a group of troops inside. She looked out the gates and saw many more troops arriving outside.
The reinforcements. As had been promised. She looked back to the wolf and bowed. “Prince Knud, your arrival is most welcome. I regret to say we’ve been under attack only this morning. A group of Christians arrived under a banner of truce and asked for hospitality to speak to Jarl Gunnar. They counted amongst them a sejdmager. There are many dead.”
The wolf nodded, slowly. He took in the information and leaned over to one of the furs next to him, whispering a few commands. Then he looked back to the shieldmaiden as the soldier scampered back outside. “Jarl Gunnar?” he asked.
“Alive. Amazingly enough, thanks to three Christian travellers who are our guests. They have proven their honor three times now. First the night I met them, where they fought off a raiding party with me, and killed many. The second time at a village, just over a day’s travel south and east of here. And now, during the attack where they protected Jarl Gunnar with their lives and the youngest of them killed the enemy sejdmager in a contest of craft. The enemy leader, Baron Adalbert and five of his guards, escaped. As for our new allies, I vouch for them, as Freja is my witness,” Aslaug said and stood back upright.
The wolf frowned deeply. “*Christians*?” he asked, “You *trust* them? After what they’ve done?”
“I do, my Prince. They’ve earned it.”
Prince Knud stiffled a growl. “If they saved Jarl Gunnar’s life, then I will at least see them, peacefully. Where are they from? Germans?”
Aslaug shook her head and shrugged. “I think when you see them, my Prince, you will realize they are from very, very far away. They say they are Christians but that they don’t agree with what the Christians *we* know and fight, are doing. It is, I admit, a little confusing at first.”
The wolf nodded and pushed his way through the throng. “Then take me to them. And when you have, you pick as many companions as you need, Shieldmaiden, and you chase down Adalbert. I don’t care what you do with him when you catch him, as long as it sends a message to those like him what happens to those who stand against the Danes. I want him *dead*, shieldmaiden. Do you understand? I want him to *suffer*.”
The filly turned and followed the prince. “I need only three furs to take him and his guards out.”
“Three? Four against six? Are you *certain*?” Prince Knud asked and looked askance at Aslaug.
“I’ll bring the three Christians I mentioned. And I will bring you proof of Adalbert’s death, my Prince. Or I will die. On my honor,” the shieldmaiden said, still looking straight ahead.
The wolf stopped and looked about to protest. Then he shook his head and growled. “War makes for the *strangest* of allies. I would wish the Danes to live in peace. Not war. But such is not our fate.”
Aslaug couldn’t help grinning grimly. “We’d still send ships against the Franks and English, my Prince. For glory and riches,” she said and shrugged again.
“I would rather send a fleet, shieldmaiden. A fleet to conquer. Once and for all. That they too could live under the rule of the Danes. I would remake the Danelaw that Ragnar’s sons founded. Make England our realm. Then I’d land in across the canal, and take Dorestad, and make it ours. Permanently. I would make Dan’s Mark such a nation, as to stop all attacks on us. I would do so for *peace*, shieldmaiden. Do you understand? I would do so for the glory of us all. I’d bring freedom to the serfs of the Frankish lords. I’d stop the German king from subjugating more innocent furs. I’d march my armies to *Rome* if I had to. If *that* is what it takes to ensure that the Danes can live in peace!” the wolf said and looked directly at Aslaug. His voice was gravely serious.
The shieldmaiden felt her jaw slacken. Just for once, she wasn’t entirely sure how to respond to something. What the wolf was saying sounded too fantastic to be true. “My Prince…how can we do this? No warriors are fiercer than the Danes but we are not many. How would we conquer lands so vast?” she asked, at last.
“We’d do it one area at a time. I would not finish this while I live. Others would complete it. And for each land we make ours, our numbers would swell. But to do so, the kings of the Danes, myself and those to follow…would have to be wise, and just. Good kings. Honest, upstanding and brave.”
“How would you ensure that, my Prince? We cannot foretell what those who come after us will be like,” Aslaug said, quietly. “I don’t mean to question you…it is a noble plan. But…it seems too grand for me to take in.”
The wolf nodded, sighing. He rubbed his face and turned, looking at the equine behind him. “What is your name, Shieldmaiden?” he asked, quietly.
“Aslaug…I am not saying we’ll succeed. But I am saying we must try. If we don’t, our way of life, our beliefs…all that we are…is lost. Would you die fighting? Die *trying* to achieve greatness and peace for the Danes? Would you die for such a cause?” he asked, very quietly.
“With a smile on my lips, my Prince. Such would be a noble death. An honorable end,” Aslaug said with a little nod.
“Have you seen the lands of the Franks, Aslaug?” Prince Knud went on. “Have you…ever landed on a white beach, and marched inland to see what they live like? Have you ever seen the gallows? The misery? The violence?”
Aslaug nodded with a sad sigh. She ran a paw through her mane and recalled a conversation where she’d mentioned that very thing to her new friends, not long ago. “Indeed I have. I don’t know who they are the most afraid of…us or their own lords. Where’s the honor in killing one’s own subjects? One’s own vassals and serfs? Just for…entertainment?”
Prince Knud nodded. “I’d let them live like our peasants do. As free furs, with a vote on any ting. With rights. Law and justice.”
Aslaug nodded again. “Let me find the three Christians I told you about, my Prince. I’ll be right back,” she said and headed off to locate the three amigos.
The prince nodded and leaned against a barrel, waiting. He folded his arms over his chest and sighed. So the camp had been attacked. That meant the Germans were aware of the possibility that it’d be used to stage an attack on *them*. He had no doubt that King Otto was already amassing his own troops.
Many…many more troops than the Danes could possibly muster.
He also knew there was no way to avoid a battle, now. So, maybe his dream would never come true. He had to admit to himself, it was a plan too great to fathom. But the Christians wouldn’t stop coming. He knew that much. The only way to make sure they would stop, was to be too strong for them to attack, or to defeat them. To crush the army of the Christian king, and turn the tide. There would be no other way.
Joe kicked up some dust. The gates of the fortified encampment had long since closed behind him and the others. Now, they were on the road again. Or rather, on the heath again. Four furs. Three of whom were completely out of their time and element. And they were hunting.
Hunting the surviving ambushers.
There was no way he would let them get away, that much he knew. The carnage in the Jarls hall had been more than he’d been willing to forgive. To Hell with turning the other cheek. At least that was one issue where he agreed with the heathens, by now. The baron had hit him…but not hard enough for him to stay down.
The memory of the burnt down village sprang to mind. So did the words spoken when the Baron had arrived. He was responsible for many such atrocities.
Another memory…that of a four year old child, dead in his arms…sprang to mind.
Joe growled and his hackles rose.
Tigermark looked at his friend and raised an eyebrow. “What’s wrong?” the big feline asked.
“I want to catch these. I’m not sure we’re moving fast enough,” Joe said, grumpily.
Aslaug looked over her shoulder. “We can speed up some, but we risk losing their trail. Look…” she said and crouched. “They’re not running. They ran for a while, but they stopped. I don’t think they’re counting on anyone having the guts to follow them.”
“What does that mean?” Aramis asked and crouched as well. To him, the heath looked just like heath. Clearly, the equine could see tracks *he* couldn’t. It wasn’t a skill one needed in a modern city, most of the time.
“It means that either they think we’re too cowardly to follow, they’re too stupid to believe we might…or they have nothing to fear,” Aslaug said, grimly.
Aramis nodded and looked at his two friends. “What does that mean exactly?”
“I think we can discount that the coward-option. I don’t think they’re that dumb. That also deals with the second option,” Tigermark said and pondered.
Joe nodded and looked at Aslaug. “You’re thinking the same as me, aren’t you?” he said, sighing. “We’re walking into the teeth of their army.”
Aslaug nodded and stood back upright. “I think so. That’d explain why they’re taking their time. They know they’ve got an army backing them within convenient reach. That does mean we’ll have to hurry to catch up with them before they make contact, though. I just don’t know if we can keep their trail then.”
A quick expression of anger flashed over Tigermark’s face. “What alternatives are there to running?” he asked.
“None,” Aslaug said and sighed. “Let’s go. We have to catch up with them before the army finds them. And if possible, we have to make sure the army finds them *afterwards* It’ll hopefully give them just a few hours pause.”
Aramis sighed and nodded. “There will be a battle, won’t there?” he asked.
Joe nodded and patted his young friend’s shoulder. “Oh, I think that’s a given,” he said, and broke into a dead run.
Aramis and Tigermark followed close behind. Aslaug stayed ahead. She wouldn’t be able to do much tracking while running but she still had the best chance.
Joe quickly lost track of time. The heath seemed endless. After the first mile or two, his mind shut out and his legs took over. At first, he’d felt short of breath, but it quickly faded as he found a rythm. That wasn’t unusual. He was in good physical condition but running that much wasn’t normal for him. Besides, he wasn’t as young as he had been once.
The oddity of that thought struck in his mind. No one was ever as young as they’d once been. Age was rather linear. That helped keep his mind busy while running. Shrubbery replaced shrubbery. Everything seemed so flat. There was barely a hill anywhere. The coyote couldn’t help wonder when they’d see their enemy. Adalbert couldn’t be far away.
It wouldn’t be long.
Adalbert did not like the scent the wind carried with it. He’d stopped his soldiers and told them to prepare for a possible fight. He wasn’t sure, though. But something told him he was being followed. Out there, on the heath, someone was catching up. The question was if it was intentional.
He had to assume the Danes had been foolhardy enough to send someone after him.
Bah. Heathens. Heathens and their sense of honor. It’d get them killed, this time. He snarled and flicked his cape over one shoulder, drawing his sword.
He could try to run and reach the army, but if he failed, he might just wear himself out. That wouldn’t be bad, if it wasn’t for the fact that he didn’t know how many furs were catching up. If he was going to fight, he’d rather fight well rested, against furs who had just been running. Especially if he was going to be outnumbered.
His soldiers didn’t look very keen on the situation. They were well trained. But they hadn’t seen much actual combat before. He’d specifically picked furs for this mission that wouldn’t be affected by the spell the priest had used. The one that opened old wounds. Now the priest was dead, but at least he felt sure the Jarl was gone as well. Not to mention most of his personal guard.
It’d be a severe blow to the morale of the danes. Not to mention it’d remove their most battlehardened troops in this area, almost completely. The king’s army would march right up to Dannevirke and overrun it. Then, the danes would be Christened. By the sword if needs be. He didn’t care. Heathens didn’t deserve better.
He didn’t even approve of those who *had* converted. He found himself constantly questioning the sincerity of their faith. But God would prove him right. That much he felt completely sure of. Those who stood against him, and against his liege Lord, would die. There was no alternative.
Besides, he enjoyed the killing.
What he didn’t enjoy was the constant feeling that someone was catching up.
He narrowed his eyes and tried to see a bit farther.
“They’re very close,” Aslaug said and brushes her fingers over the ground. “They’ve come past this place recently. The grass is still bent.”
Aramis looked at the ground and nodded. “You know, I’m starting to get the hang of this,” he said, not without a certain amount of pride. “There…you can see a footprint there. And there as well.”
“That’s right,” the equine said and stood back up. “You’re learning to use your eyes in new ways. Very good.”
Aramis blushed furiously and shrugged. “It’s one thing to see it when you point it out like that. You follow those tracks on the run. There’s a big difference.”
“There is, but you have to start learning somewhere. You’re attentive. That is a good way to begin,” Aslaug said with a shrug of her own. “Anyway, they were here very recently and we know what direction they went in. We should catch them soon.”
Joe nodded. He was holding one paw flat above his eyes to shield them from the sun, gazing off into the distance. “We’ll catch them very soon,” he mumbled. “Because I can see them from here.”
Tigermark pulled a long arrow from his quiver and knocked it.
“You’ll never hit them from this far away. It’s at least a mile and a half away,” Joe said to his friend. “But we do need to to get going.”
Aslaug picked two small axes out of her belt. “Adalbert is mine,” she said and set her jaw.
“Whoa filly…I think we *all* want a piece of that one,” Joe said, taking a firm grip on his sword.
“Did he attack *your* villages?” the shieldmaiden asked, flatly, looking at the canid.
“Ouch. No fair. Okay, we’ll deal with his lackeys…” Joe mumbled.
Tigermark and Aramis just exchanged glances and broke into a run. Two miles wasn’t a long run for fit furs, and the three amigos had certainly experienced worse. The difference this time was, that the enemy they were charging were other Christians. At least…by name. And it was personal, this time. Tigermark set his jaw and narrowed his eyes. He recalled the sight of a livid Joe Latrans, holding the corpse of a four-year old child in his arms. He remembered the stench from the funeral pyre. The carnage in the Jarl’s hall.
He remembered the terror on the face of a child at the sight of his crucifix.
Oh yes, this time it was personal. Rage boiled in him, barely contained by sheer willpower. Out the corner of his eye, he could see Joe. The coyote didn’t even try to contain his. The snarl on his face and the resulting visible incisors made him look like a scrawny dire wolf. Tigermark couldn’t help thinking that scrawny or not…that was one dire wolf he wouldn’t want to tangle with for all the tea in China. On his other side, Aramis had an expression of quiet determination on his face. Despite all his confusion and honestly not liking this mission, the younger feline was clearly as affected by all they’d seen as Joe. He just didn’t show it as openly. Tigermark knew this mission was probably taking a serious toll on Aramis, overall. Many things the young fur had taken for given had been questioned thoroughly and he hadn’t known how to deal with it.
On the far left, Tigermark saw their new friend. If anyone ever really made friends with the shieldmaiden, at least. He felt pretty sure that despite her gruff demeanor, she liked the three of them. She simply didn’t show it by lavishing hugs and flowery expressions on everyone. The tiger had come to realize that an approving nod from the filly was probably the highest praise imaginable from her.
He could see the enemies coming closer. Or rather, they were waiting in place while their attackers came closer. Tigermark felt his heart beat a little faster. Battle always did that. There was a chance of getting hurt. Even getting killed. Indiference would only make that chance greater, so he saw the increased heartbeat as a healthy thing.
He knew both Aramis and Joe felt the same way. But looking sidelong at the shieldmaiden, he wasn’t sure what *she* felt. She clearly didn’t fear a violent death.
Still, the distance to the enemy lessened. They were about halfway there. He could feel himself getting slightly short of breath.
Aslaug’s voice snapped him out of his thoughts and he ground to a halt. Aramis and Joe stopped as well, looking confused.
“Why? We’re gaining on them,” Joe said, blinking and pointing towards the group of Germans.
“And if we run all the way, we’ll be tired when we get there, and we’re already outnumbered. They aren’t running. They’re preparing for us. Look,” the shieldmaiden said and shrugged.
Joe narrowed his eyes and nodded. “You’re right. They are.”
“I can make us stronger for this fight…looks like we can use it,” Aramis said and looked at the others.
Tigermark and Joe both nodded. Aramis looked at the equine to see if she wanted to be included.
“No thank you. You know how I feel about sejd in a fight,” Aslaug said and shrugged. “I won’t stop you from this, but count me out.”
Aramis muttered something about stubborn Danes and put one paw on Tigermark’s shoulder, the other on Joe’s arm. He mumbled a few, obscure lines, feeling his muscles tighten. Not much, but any little thing would help. The feline wasn’t particularly keen on the situation. There were quite a lot of enemies and he wasn’t in any mood to get run over on some obscure heath in some Godforsaken alternate reality…literally.
He let go of his friends and rubbed his neck, wearily. “This could get messy…” he said, looking up at Tigermark.
“Not really. We’ve fought enough hard fights to know how to work as a team. They haven’t. They didn’t start bleeding in the great Hall. My guess is they’re comparative rookies at this, Aramis. Adalbert is going to be dangerous but somehow…I’ve got a feeling he’s in for more than he can deal with. Which reminds me…I wonder why *he* didn’t start bleeding. I’m sure he’s got more than his share of fights under his belt.”
“Heh…he probably had some kind of protective charm or something similar. Anyway, I take it you mean he’s going to run into our very own one-equine hurricane of destruction? You know…I’ve been thinking about that,” Aramis said and looked sidelong at Aslaug who seemed to be off in her own thoughts. Possibly prayer, for all the feline knew.
“What’s that then?” Tigermark asked.
“We’ve already gone over how she might be in this because she’s being tested too, right?” the shorter feline asked. “I can’t help thinking…she’s not one-dimensional but her entire life does seem to somehow center on issues like violence, death and honor. Preferably mixed up in some ratio she finds reasonable.”
“I’ve been thinking much the same thing. I’m pretty sure she could be a nice femme with some work…but right now, ‘nice’ is probably not a word I’d use about her. Don’t get me wrong, I like her…but she doesn’t live in a ‘nice’ world,” Tigermark said. “Maybe this is also done to teach her a new thing or two…along those lines.”
“You mean how to say ‘please’?” Aramis asked, evenly.
“Something along those lines. Look, she’s moving again, we’d better catch up,” the taller feline pointed out and broke into a jog. The speed wasn’t overwhelming but apparently, the group up ahead had stopped and were waiting for them.
Adalbert nodded to his soldiers. They tightened their rank and lowered their spears. Always a sound formation when faced with a charging foe. He rolled his neck on his shoulders and smiled grimly. He knew he probably wouldn’t continue with as many troops as he had left now, but he was certain he’d be the one walking away. He outnumbered the oncoming enemies and they’d been running to catch up with him.
He kept his eyes firmly locked on the Dane. The three outlanders were annoyining and he particularly didn’t like the idea of the younger of the two felines knowing magic. The tabby had killed his monk and left him without magical defenses. Somehow, though, the threat of magic didn’t seem to be quite as big a threat as the female with the axe. She had set a course directly at him. No doubt seeking some kind of personal combat with him. From what he could see…she was wielding two small axes. That was hardly going to be a problem. Few furs could use both paws equally well and even so, a good sword was infinitely more reliable than a short-handled axe. He’d have been a lot more worried if she’d wielded one of the long-axes that the danes were infamous for making. Some Demon out of Hell no doubt taught them how to make those. He’d seen those things split a fur clean down the middle, armored or not.
An ignoble weapon, no matter how one looked at it. A noble fur would wield a sword. He knew the Danes considered the spear the noblest of weapons. The *spear*…a *peasant* weapon. To Adalbert, that said everything about the unbelievers north of the border. Danes. Norsefurs. Even the Swedes, for all he knew. They’d take care of old, feeble king Gorm first…then continue to the other Viking realms.
A sound of something swishing past his ear told him his enemies were very close. The equine had thrown something…one of the small axes. A rattling sound behind him told him she’d hit her mark.
“CLOSE THE RANK!” he shouted and switched stance to duck. The next axe came at him and he ducked away from it.
This wasn’t right. The equine wouldn’t be throwing away her weaponry unless…
Adalbert’s hackles rose as he saw the female reach behind her, under her cape, pulling out one of those accursed axes.
Another sound of something swishing past him momentarily made him glance towards the other three. One of them was holding a bow. He’d fired on the run and the arrow had slammed into the shield of one of the soldiers behind him. Judging from the string of obscenities…it had hammered *through* the shield and into the arm holding it, on the other side.
“ATTACK!” he shouted and broke into a run.
His soldiers followed…right behind him.
Adalbert levelled a slash at the equine. She stopped abruptly, making the blow fall short, but taking the momentum out of her charge. That was all he had wanted.
“I’ll have your head,” he sneered, taking a step back. His troops were already squaring off against the three outlanders. He’d never seen anything like the large feline before…and the canid was certainly different. He might have to have them skinned, to bring their hides as trophies. Certainly, no Godly fur could look that way.
He swung again, but the equine sidestepped his attack. It brought her too close to swing her axe.
It didn’t bring her too close to land the handle on his jaw. Hard.
Adalbert growled. He could taste blood and a few teeth had been knocked loose.
A scream told him that one of his soldiers had fallen. He was getting angry. He had expected his soldiers to make better use of their numbers.
“Nice one, Joe…” a voice said, beside and slightly behind him. “No, leave him. Aslaug said he’s all hers!”
“I want to cut him. Just a little. I REALLY want to cut him!” another voice snapped.
Adalbert couldn’t remember when he’d heard that kind of seething, raw hatred in a voice before. Hatred he could cope with, though. What he didn’t like was the way the femme in front of him was quiet as the grave. He could see something in her eyes…but he wasn’t sure what it was. There was something there, though.
“Cut them *down* already!” he spat and jumped out of the way as the female brought her axe about and down. It wasn’t a wild swing like he had hoped. The long axe was a deadly weapon but it was difficult to master. He’d seen many danes who could carve their way through undisciplined rabble, but who had so little control over their swings that any warrior with even rudimentary skills could cut them down. Admittedly, most of those he had seen had been peasants…not warriors.
He was facing a *warrior* now. There was no doubt about that. One of those ungodly Shieldmaidens he heard about. They were very rare. The idea of femmes fighting was disgusting to him.
Still…he wished he could figure out what it was he saw in her eyes.
Another scream broke him out of his thinking. Again, it was a known voice rattling off.
He lunged. The sword-tip met the equine’s stomach, but she rolled backwards, chain-mail taking the last of the force out of the thrust.
Adalbert had been in enough fights to know when to press his advantage. He surged forwards, bringing the sword around and up, overhead. He grasped the handle with both paws…then realized he’d been fooled.
The equine smiled…grimly…those terrible eyes still looking straight at his. She used the momentum from stepping backwards to swinging around her own axis. The axe came out in a wide arch, gaining tremendous velocity. It was as if time slowed down, briefly…
In the distance, Adalbert heard one of his soldiers pleading for mercy, invoking God’s name, begging whatever outlander he was facing not to kill him.
He couldn’t stop his movement. There was too much momentum. The equine was still spinning. He could see what was going to happen already.
Time started moving at it’s normal speed again.
Adalbert gasped in sheer agony as his sword hit the ground…and the shieldmaiden’s axe bit into his stomach and intestinces. Blood sprayed from his mouth as he tried to cry out in pain. He dropped his sword and dropped to his knees, clutching his stomach…his lacerated insides falling out between his fingers.
Slowly, he raised his head…the pain so terrible he couldn’t think straight.
But he could *see* straight.
He knew now…he could see it so clearly. Right there, in the shieldmaiden’s eyes. That…which he hadn’t recognized before.
He saw Death.
Aslaug picked up the head of her enemy and looked behind her. Three young Germans had surrendered. The rest were dead or dying. Joe didn’t look like he was in any mood to dispense mercy, but he controlled himself.
She looked at the canid with a shrug. “I won’t hold it against you if you kill them.”
“I will!” Joe answered. “I’m a better *Christian* than them and I will not sink down to their level. I don’t kill the defenseless and the feeble.”
One of the Germans opened his mouth and started to speak…only to be shut up by a terrifying right hook from the coyote. He promptly shut up, shaking his head repeatedly to avoid losing consciousness.
“I said I won’t *kill* you, you sick bastard…but I’ll hurt you as much as I feel like if you don’t behave *exactly* as I want you to. Every part of me screams at me to take your head off your shoulders, you babykilling sonofashit!” Joe snarled.
The German just stayed quiet. It was safer that way.
Aslaug shrugged again and tossed the head of Baron Adalbert in front of the three Germans. “I have seperated his thoughts from his deeds, Christians. I’m going to let *one* of you go. You will take proof of his death to King Otto with a message from the Danes. I will leave it up to yourselves to figure out who goes…and who stays.”
The three Germans began whispering between them, quickly becoming aggitated. Then one of them shook his head and looked at Aslaug. “Draw lots…” he said.
Joe smiled widely. “Let me do this…please…”
“Feel free,” the shieldmaiden replied, wiping the blood off her axe at last, using her cape.
The coyote smiled wickedly and cracked his knuckles looking at the other two amigos, before raising his right paw in a tight fist.
“Joe…!” Tigermark started, reaching out, ready to stop the canid.
Joe’s paw came down fast…stopping half an inch from the face of the first German, extending his index finger to point right between the fur’s eyes. “Eenie meanie miney moe…” he began…counting his way down the line and back again.
Aramis just started laughing.
Tigermark hid his face in his paws and turned away, reminding himself again and again not to laugh. There were corpses around…it wouldn’t be fitting to laugh. But he wanted to.
“This one…” he said and pointed to one of the prisoners, looking at Aslaug. “He’ll go.”
Aslaug nodded and looked at the German, a canid of some species she hadn’t seen before. “Show me your right paw…” she said, calmly. “Don’t worry…I’m not going to cut it off…”
The youth held out his paw. Aslaug spun her axe around and brought the back of it down.
The young fur screamed and looked at his smashed appendage, gasping for breath and looking confused.
Tigermark stared at the shieldmaiden. “You promis…” he began.
“I promised I wouldn’t cut it off. I’m not going to let a soldier run back to the German army, capable of holding a weapon. It’ll mend…if he get’s it set properly,” Aslaug growled and looked at the other two prisoners. “You will keep pace with us…*ahead* of us…or I will cut you down where you stand. Am I clear?”
They both nodded. Tigermark opened his mouth to protest again. His fur was bristling.
“Don’t…” Joe said and stuck his paws in his pockets. “I don’t think she’s heard about the Geneva Convention for treatment of Prisoners of War. Don’t bother…she could kill them right here without breaking a single law…”
“How about *pity*, Joe! How about showing some simple respect for life??” Aramis snapped, standing next to Tigermark.
“Tell that to the four-year-old who’s corpse we burned at that village,” Joe said, grimly, and walked up to the shieldmaiden, leaving it at that.
Tigermark opened and closed his mouth repeatedly, lifting a finger as if to make a point. Finally he groaned and shook his head. “I *hate* it when he does that…” he mumbled and looked at the prisoners. “I suggest you two run fast enough…I really do.”
They both nodded.
Their friend was already stumbling off into the distance, clutching Adalberts coat-of-arms in his left paw.
‘My prince…as you ordered, I bring proof of Adalbert’s death,” Aslaug said.
She’d just shoved open the door to the great hall. The light came in behind her, outlining her in the double doorway, holding her axe over her shoulder. Behind her, the shapes of the three amigos moved into place.
Prince Knud looked up. He was sitting in the Jarl’s chair, while the old bear was standing next to his lord. They had been discussing something drawn in the sand on the floor before them.
The wolf nodded, calmly. “Then show it, shieldmaiden,” he said, matter-of-factly.
Aslaug reached behind her, under her cape and drew the severed head of the German baron forth. “Give me a long spear, My prince…and I shall have it gracing the gates to warn others what happens to filth like him.”
Jarl Gunnar nodded to one of his guards who reached out, holding his spear towards the shieldmaiden as she entered the room, followed by her friends. She took it and skewered the head onto it, hammering the end into the ground.
Joe cracked his knuckles. The one responsible for the sacking of the village was dead…and somehow, it didn’t make the itching in his fingers go away. That scared him.
Prince Knud scratched his chin. “His followers?” he asked, leaning forward.
“We have two prisoners. I broke the right paw of one, and sent him back to the German army with Adalbert’s coat-of-arms. The remaining ones are dead. The problem…is that the German army is very close,” Aslaug said. She sounded tired all of the sudden.
“How close?” Jarl Gunnar asked, gruffly. “We expected them to be at least a week away.”
“If we march tomorrow morning, we may not have the option of picking the battlefield…” Aslaug answered.
Tigermark heard the increasing weariness in the filly’s voice. In a way, it was comforting to know she could get tired too. He realized she’d probably kept herself going on pure adrenalin for days on end, and that by now, sheer exhaustion was catching up with her. Fast. The problem was…there was no time to be tired.
Jarl Gunnar looked back at the prince. “I guess Ulf will have his battle sooner than later,” he mumbled. “I’ll have him assemble the hird. I’ll see to the rest of the army and the provisions myself, my prince. We may still make it to Dannevirke if we march immediately.”
“No!!” the prince snapped and stood up. He straightened his back and stood at his fully height. He was an impressive fur. Strong of build and with power in his voice.
Tigermark noticed this, but he wasn’t quite sure what the argument was about. He remembered Aslaug talking about the fortified border…Dannevirke…when they had first met her. What he didn’t know was exactly how far it was from the camp.
The jarl blinked and spoke up in protest. “My prince, we can’t hope to defeat them if the entire southern army has come to reinforce King Otto’s northern forces. Not all at once. We’ll be outnumbered five to one at *least*!”
The prince shot a glance at his old general that stopped the bear from speaking further.
“What would you have me do, Gunnar? WHAT? Turn tail and run? Flee like *cowards*? The Gods are watching, and I will *not* let them down. If I am to die, I will die in battle, not running away. And what would you do with the refugees? Those who have fled the murder parties of Adalbert and those like him? Old furs, children. No, Jarl Gunnar…we will march and we will *fight*. Get the refugees moving towards the border. Even if we die, we will buy them as much time as we can.”
“Yes, my prince,” the bear replied, sternly. His resolve had clearly been stiffened by the wolf’s words.
“Prince Knud…” Tigermark said, stepping forward. “If I may…offer advice.”
“Speak, Christian…” the wolf said and turned to face the tiger.
Tigermark sighed. He was getting a little tired of that. “My name is Tigermark. Not ‘Christian’. What I believe in doesn’t matter here. This is about justice…honor…decency. I’m not going to tell you to fight or run. But I’d suggest a strategy…”
Prince Knud stopped momentarily…then nodded and sat back down. “Very well then…tell me this strategy…Tigermark.”
The tiger smiled a hard little smile. If this had to be done, it had to be done *right*. “If the German army is that close, they’ll have scouts outside the camp already. They’ll know the moment you march, and their army will have time to pick the field. If you want to do this…you have to use cunning. Let the refugees leave. Send them off with an armed escort. Just a few pawful of armed furs. Make sure that most of your warriors mix with the refugees, in disguise. Once they’ve gotten far enough away from the camp to no longer be able to see it, they swing around, and perform a forced march towards the flank of the German army. Aslaug…is there an easily recognizable terrain feature around here that they can use as a gathering point?”
The shieldmaiden nodded. “There are two tall hills if you walk towards the river from here. They’ll have time to get there, if we start sending them off in groups *now*. It’s a good battlefield. We’ll have the high ground.”
Prince Knud looked at the Jarl next to him. The old bear nodded in confirmation.
“She knows the terrain very well. She’s been patrolling since we conquered this area,” he said.
Tigermark nodded and cleared his throat to get everyone’s attention again. “The scouts will realize something is wrong unless the ruse is complete though. We must leave some of the warriors here. I know they probably won’t want to but they’ll serve an important function. They have to patrol the palisades and make a lot of noise. Keep the bonfires burning. The rest of the army sneaks out in groups of ten or twenty, during the night…to join the main force. When dawn comes…we’ll be in place and ready.”
“Damned tiger…I didn’t know you were such a strategist,” Joe mumbled and nudged his friend’s ribs with an elbow.
“It just came to me,” Tigermark mumbled back.
“Well, it’s an intelligent plan at least,” Aramis said and nodded. “Plus it gives our equine friend here some time to sleep. Look at her, she’s keeling over. She’ll be leaving with one of the last groups, I think.”
“As will we. We’ll stay here and help make sure everyone makes noise and that the place still seems to be populated,” Tigermark said.
Prince Knud and Jarl Gunnar were talking between them again. Finally, the wolf looked up and nodded. “If this works, Loke will have a good laugh at it. If it doesn’t…we’ll have divided our army in the face of an already overwhelming foe. So be it. We will do as our outlandish friend here suggests.”
Then he got up and left the great hall with the Jarl. Slowly, everyone sifted out after him. Before long, only Aslaug, more asleep than awake, and the three Amigos were left in the room.
“You know…” Aramis said and looked around “I wonder what had happened…if the Christians had tried to convert the Danes peacefully…”
“Some did…” Aslaug said and fell into a seat at one of the tables. “Merchants. A few priests. We never said they weren’t welcome as guests. Then…the killings started in the south because King Gorm refused to convert when King Otto demanded it. There are Christians in Dan’s Mark…and they’ll probably remain there. They’re welcome to. But they won’t be allowed to spread their faith anymore. Not after what has happened.”
Joe sat down next to the filly. “You need to rest some. There will be a battle tomorrow. You’ll need your strength,” he said, kindly, putting a paw on the equine’s shoulder.
She simply nodded. She looked tired…and sad, Tigermark noticed.
“We never wanted this war…but as Freja bears witness…we *will* finish it,” she said…and slumped over the table, falling asleep.
Joe got a couple of blankets from one of the sleeping anexes and draped them over her before looking at his friends. The expression on his face was difficult to deciphre.
“Do we have any chance of winning?” Aramis asked, quietly. Speaking the question everyone clearly wanted to ask.
“No,” Joe said, simply. “None. I think this is it, friends.”
Tigermark nodded. He sighed, but he had to agree with the coyote. “It’s not like it’s the first time we’ve looked death squarely in the face. But I can’t remember the last time I was going into a battle I really didn’t believe I stood the slightest chance of winning. The strange thing is…it’s *okay*.”
Joe nodded again. “I know it is. I feel the same way. I commend my soul to God, and I have only one regret…”
“What’s that?” Tigermark asked.
“I wish I could tell Annie…that I love her. Just one last time,” the coyote said and sat down. His eyes were getting shiny.
Aramis sat down next to his friend and gave his arm a squeeze. “I think she knows, oldtimer,” he said, then looked at the sleeping shieldmaiden. “Do you think…we succeeded?”
“I don’t know if we did what God expected of us, if that’s what you mean…” Joe said and shrugged. “But I know I have done the *right* thing. And in the end…that has to count for *some*thing.”
“I think it counts for everything, Joe…” Tigermark said, somberly. He sat down on the other side of the table, folding his paws. “And if you two would join me in prayer right about now…I’d be very grateful.”
Aramis and Joe both nodded and closed their eyes, folding their paws as well.
It was morning. A clear, crisp smell hung on the air, of fresh dew and wet leaves. It was going to be a beautiful day. A beautiful day marred by the ugliest of deeds. And the bravest.
All night, small groups had slipped out of the camp to the north, circling around to join forces with those already at the two hilltops. All there was left to do was hope it had worked. It seemed to have. The German army wasn’t there yet. They’d march right into a fight they hadn’t prepared for. Everyone in the Danish camp knew the butchery would be magnificent. They also knew it could only postpone the inevitable. Not one fur said it aloud though.
Tigermark was standing on the tallest of the two hilltops, looking at the heath in front of him. Next to him, Aramis and Joe were already waiting for what was to come. The tiger shook his head and sighed. “It will be such a waste of life. God help us for taking part in this…but it has to be done.”
Joe nodded, gravely, and patted his friends shoulder. “God would not aprove of what the Germans have done, Tiger. But I admit, it does feel strange to fight in a religious war *against* the Christians. Even with all we’ve seen. There are going to be two armies here…and we’ll be fighting the Christians.”
Aramis scowled. “Those furs aren’t Christian, Joe, you said it yourself! They’ve *twisted* the word of Our Lord and turned it to their own ends. The heathens are the ones defending their right to exist. Conversion shouldn’t happen at the tip of a sword. That wasn’t what Christ taught us. It’s shameful, that’s what it is.”
Joe smiled and patted his feline friend on top of his head. “Seems like you put *your* doubts aside at last, Aramis. Good timing.”
Aramis just nodded, gravely.
Tigermark sighed, quietly. He pointed out to the horizon. “There. That cloud of dust. They’re coming,” he said.
Joe narrowed his eyes and nodded. Aramis put a hand up over his eyes to shade from the sun. “God Almighty…they are so many,” he whispered and looked over his shoulder to the Danes.
Joe sighed. “I can’t see anything but dust. How many are they?”
“Thousands, Joe. *Thousands*,” Tigermark said.
“So are the Danes,” the coyote said.
“Not that many thousands. Believe me,” the tiger said, wearily. “I wonder if the entire southern army did make it here or not…”
Aramis turned and looked at the viking host. Fully four thousand five hundred furs sitting around their campfires. A pawful of unarmored, generally older furs were walking around between them. Talking to a few of the younger ones.
“What’re they saying, I wonder,” Aramis said, quietly.
Joe smiled, without turning around. He blessed his good hearing. “That there is nothing to be afraid of. That death is not the end. They’re saying the Gods alone decide the length of our lives. And that if we are to die today…then we will die well. They’re saying that if we are to die today, it doesn’t matter if we are here or at home. We’d die anyway. They speak of old heroes…of great deeds. They speak of the femmes waiting at home. Of the cubs and youngins who pray for victory.”
Aramis nodded, slowly. “They know they’re going to die, don’t they?”
Joe nodded. “Yes Aramis. They know they’re going to die.”
A horn sounded. The Danes stood up and looked at each other. A few words were exchanged. Then the host began to move. Up the hill, slowly. As if they were already an army of ghosts, not a word was spoken. A grim, quiet determination seeped from the army. Tigermark pulled his friends aside, moving out of the way of a unit.
“They are so calm. Like they are not afraid at all. They *know* they’re going to die. And they still march. Have you ever *seen* that kind of bravery before?” Aramis asked, with a little awe on his voice.
“Yes my friend. Every time I look at the face of Christ on the cross,” Tigermark said with a little smile. “But nowhere else.”
The young cat nodded, smiling. “I think we should pray again. I…would rather like to commend my soul at least…” he said, quietly. His friends both nodded and they all bowed their heads, praying quietly to live to see nightfall.
Gudrun came out in front of the host and looked at them all before holding out her paws, fingers spread, palms down. She spoke very softly and the three amigos couldn’t hear what was being said. In the distance, the cloud of dust was getting bigger.
Tigermark narrowed his eyes and scouted. “They’re flying a lot of different colors. Adalbert wouldn’t be able to muster an army that big, anyway. I guess…the southern army did make it here. I see…eagles on their banners.”
Joe nodded and did the sign of the cross in front of himself. “God, forgive us for what we are about to do here, today,” he whispered.
Jarl Gunnar and Prince Knud stepped out in front of the viking army. They turned to look at the host. Line after line of grim furs.
“DANES! HIRD! HUSKARLE! DRENGE! FREE FURS!” the prince shouted at the top of his lungs. “LISTEN TO THE WIND. IT CARRIES THE SOUND OF OUR ENEMIES! OUR ENEMIES…MARCHING ON US.”
As if on cue, every head in the host turned towards the young, handsome prince. A deathly quiet fell over the hill. No one said a word. The prince continued. He didn’t have to shout anymore. “We are Danes, all. Our ancestors have fought and bled for our freedom for generations. Your fathers and grandfathers fought each other. Sveas and Norwegians, saxons and wends. All of them strong. All of them numbering more than us, but we are STILL here. Dan’s Mark is still ours! Each of you standing here today is a hero. Each of you worthy of songs of bravery. You do your ancestors proud. *My* own line counts heroes such as Rolf Krake and Ragnar Lodbrog. And I know…I KNOW…that today, they sit in Valhalla, looking down upon *me*, expecting me to fight with the same honor…the same *courage* that they showed. Rolf died on the swords of his enemies, but when he lept over the fire in his burning hall to face them…DID HE SHOW FEAR?”
“NO!!!” the host responded.
“And Ragnar died in Ella’s snakepit in England. But when they tossed him down the hole, and the serpents bit him, did *HE* *SHOW* *FEAR*?”
“Then *we* shall not shame them. We shall not show fear. We shall face our enemies with honor. DANES…WILL YOU DIE WITH ME AND DRINK WITH ME IN VALHALLA TONIGHT?”
As with if on cue, the host roared in response. “FOR PRINCE KNUD. FOR THE GODS. FOR DAN’S MARK!”
The prince nodded to Jarl Gunnar and smiled. The old bear patted the young furs shoulder and smiled back.
Aslaug stepped out of her unit and ran up to the prince, falling to her right knee and bowing her head. Her cape flowed around her and she held out her axe in both paws, towards the prince. “My prince, let me have the honor of dedication,” she said, respectfully.
“So be it, shieldmaiden. Yours is that honor. Do the Gods proud,” the prince responded and looked to Jarl Gunnar again. The bear nodded and they both returned to the line. Aslaug got to her hoofs, and remained standing fifty yards in front of the Danish lines. Axe in one hand, spear in the other.
Tigermark blinked. “She’s *asking* to be shot out there. What is she DOING?”
“I don’t know,” Joe said “But damned, you have to admire her guts.”
Aramis swallowed and looked to the sky. “Lord, if you can hear me now…don’t let her get shot. Not now, Lord. Not now,” he whispered and folded his hands again.
A huge shadow fell over him and he looked up, seeing Tormod grinning at him. The gigantic bull patted the young cats shoulder. “Pray all you want, young one. You’re all right. I never thought I’d die fighting next to a Christian. But it’s not a bad death,” he rumbled.
Aramis blinked and nodded, extending a paw. Tormod grabbed Aramis’ arm by the elbow and shook it.
Joe shook his head. “They speak about it as if it was…nothing. I don’t get it. I really *don’t* get it.”
“I don’t think any of us do, Joe,” Tigermark said, quietly. “I don’t think we’re supposed to.”
Aslaug was still standing in front of the army. Her helmet, devoid of any decoration, shone in the sunlight. The piece protecting her eyes framed a look of absolute determination. The German army was lining up. She turned her head towards the host of Danes raised her axe above her head. “SVINEFYLKNING!” she bellowed. The Danes began to move slightly. Lining up in giant triangles.
Tigermark blinked. “Oh God no, let it be a lie…” he whispered.
Aramis looked at the larger feline. “What?”
“They’re going to charge, Aramis. They’ve got a perfectly defensible position…high ground. They could massacre the enemy coming up the hills, and they’re going to *charge*…”
Joe smiled thinly. “It’ll be glorious at least. Worthy of a song.”
Tigermark nodded slowly. “I’m going with them,” he said, quietly. “If God sent us here to do his work…I believe that work was to stop the abuse of His name. I’m not going to stand here and watch these German…wretches…soil His name.”
Aramis nodded. “Amen,” he said and drew his sword.
Around them, a sound like thunder was rising as the Danes started rythmically banging their weapons against the rims of their shields.
The Germans were in place. The mighty host lined up in front of them seemed infinitely larger than that of the Danes. A cloud rolled in front of the sun. Aslaug did not move a muscle until the enemy was in place. Then she slung her axe around her back and approached their lines…alone. Walking…not running. Fifty more yards, she walked alone. The Germans looked at her in quiet puzzlement.
Aramis covered his eyes. “I’m not going to look. She’s going to get killed,” he whispered.
Joe reached out and removed the covering paw. “Oh you’ll look. We owe her that much at least,” the coyote said through gritted teeth. Aramis realized his friend was trying to control his emotions.
Finally, the equine stopped. She was perhaps sixty yards from the German lines. Then she hefted her spear and drew back her arm and with a *roar* she launched it, over the enemy army. It flew straight and true. The clouds parted and a ray of sunshine caught the spearhead, making it gleam proudly for a few seconds before it landed just behind the German lines.
“I can see why she knocked out Tormod so easily. That was one *amazing* throw,” Joe said, swallowing. “She’d have won Olympic gold with that one…for males…*easily*. That wasn’t natural…”
“But why?” Aramis asked.
Tormod looked at him. “The spear is Odins weapon. She gave their souls to him.”
Aramis nodded. Aslaug was returning towards the host of Danes. He felt himself draw a sigh of relief. She’d be safely within the lines soon. A single German stepped forward and raised a bow.
He took careful aim and launched his arrow.
Joe jumped forward, running towards the equine, shouting for her to get down. She turned her head and looked towards him, clearly not understanding what he wanted.
The arrow slammed into her back. She gasped and fell to her knees. Joe reached her and dropped off his feet too.
“Hang on, there, filly. We’ll get you to safety. Don’t worry.”
Aslaug shook her head. She wheezed for breath. “Break it,” she said.
“You’re not going to fight like this??” Joe hissed. “You can’t be serious!?”
“*Watch* me, Christian. Now *break* the damned arrow,” she growled.
Joe nodded, breaking the arrow off. Aslaug got to her hoofs again, shaking her head.
Tigermark raised his bow and launched a single arrow. The German archer stumbled and fell. “Shooting brave furs in the back is *definitely* not the way of Gods warriors. If we *needed* any more proof that we’re on the right side here we just *got* it.”
Aramis smiled grimly. “Was there really any doubt in your mind?”
Tigermark turned his head towards Aramis and shook it, without a word.
In front of the army, Aslaug reached for her axe. She spat blood on the ground and raised her voice. “Let ANY FUR who wishes…follow me to Asgaard. Tonight, I’ll drink in Valhalla. TOMORROW, I FIGHT WITH THE EINHERJAR!!” she roared and hefted her weapon before spinning around. She ran. As fast as she could, directly at the enemy lines.
A shout went up from the host. And they started moving. Not as fast as the equine…large bodies of furs never did move as swiftly as one. But they charged.
Tigermark looked at Aramis and smiled. “You know what they say, Aramis,” he chuckled and drew his blade.
“Today is a good day to die?” the shorter cat asked.
“How did you know?”
“There *are* times, old tiger, when you’re just a wee bit predictable,” the cat chuckled. Then he looked towards the Germans and followed the Danish host.
Out in front of the army, spots were dancing in front of Aslaugs eyes. She swung her axe, shaking her head to clear it. But it was no use. She knew the wound would kill her. There was no honor in being shot in the back. She’d find her death, gloriously, facing her enemy. She reached the lines. Two spears were hacked over and a kick landed on the German in front of her. A wild, uncontrolled swing of her axe kept the enemy furs at bay.
One fell, screaming, clutching his leg at the knee. Everything below that was missing. Aslaug didn’t hear. She didn’t hear anything except the sounds of hooves, beating a gallop in hear ears. She smiled, emptily. *They* were coming for her.
Joe came up beside her. “Hey filly. Here we go again. We have to stop meeting like this,” the coyote grinned and hacked the head of a weasel in half with a swing of his greatsword. He hoped…he dearly hoped…to get a response.
He didn’t. He cast a glance at the equine shieldmaiden and realized from the look in her eyes that she was already gone. A knot in his stomach unwound and he snarled in rage. The Danish host crashed into the German lines all around them. But he didn’t notice. All he knew was that he was fighting next to a fur…who was already dead.
Aramis and Tigermark made contact with a German flank. The cat thought about launching a fireball but he realized that it’d hit just as many Danes as Germans and they were already outnumbered badly enough. But everyone was mixed up in between each other and he shook his head. Instead, he made sure his sword was just a little keener.
The way the head left the shoulders of his next enemy proved his magic had worked just fine. The larger form of the tiger next to him was tearing into the line. He’d dropped his weapon already, relying on claws and sheer, natural ferocity.
A unit of archers began to waver. They fell back. Aslaug blinked. The dots took up her entire field of vision by now. She swung again, letting instinct guide her. A soft, soothing voice in her head was whispering to her. But she couldn’t make out the words.
She stumbled. She could hear Joe shouting to her from far, far away. Something deep inside her snapped. The sounds of hoofbeats in her ears were so strong. A laughing voice mocked her. And that soft, female one was still whispering. She tried to concentrate. Wanting to make out the words.
“You are my warrior, Aslaug. Do not forget…” it whispered.
The equine fell to one knee. Joes sword came in a beautiful arch over her crouched back a moment later, hacking the German who was about to administer the coup-de-grace into oblivion.
“GET UP, ASLAUG,” he shouted. “Don’t you die on me now!”
Slowly, the shieldmaiden raised her head and shuddered. Her eyes were bloodshot and she rose to her hooves. She tossed her helmet aside and snarled, gripping her axe tightly with both paws. “I see my ancestors…my father…my mother…my whole family,” she whispered, stumbling a few steps, before her knees grew firm enough to hold her up. “I see them all, watching me, Joe…I can’t fail them.”
The coyote didn’t answer. His elbow messily removed most of the teeth in the mouth of a canid charging his side. “Don’t give up on me, Aslaug…please…” he growled.
The shieldmaiden swallowed blood and shook her head. “I can see him, Joe…” she said, her voice growing stronger. “I can see their general. Odin…Freja, guide me and let…him…*FALL*!”
Joe felt his jaw go slack. The sheer amount of desctruction the equine caused as she started making off in a new direction was unbelievable. He shook his head and tried to follow but the German ranks were already closing behind the filly. He shouted in defiance and attacked again but he couldn’t get through.
Aramis was seperated from Tigermark. He wasn’t exactly sure when it had happened. His sword was wreathed in flames and a group of Germans had surrounded him. “Ein Z?¤uber,” one of them whispered and pointed to the flaming sword. The others nodded. “Gott ist mit uns!” another one said and attacked.
Aramis smiled and carved the incoming fur in two with a single blow. “I guess my language spell must be failing. But that I *did* understand. No…He isn’t!” he growled and a spread of flames shot from his paw, slamming into three of the Germans and setting them alight.
Tigermark was knee deep in death and he couldn’t see his shorter feline friend anywhere. He ducked as a boar swung a sword at him and landed a paw on the side of the wild pigs skull, knocking him reeling with blood gushing from a dreadful wound. He wasn’t even aware how the battle was going. He knew he’d never killed that many in a single day before. The realization started to sicken him.
He looked around himself. No enemies seemed particularly interested in tangling with a giant, very angry feline. He spotted Joe, trying to get through a group of German swordsfurs. He couldn’t see Aslaug anymore…but his eyes ran over the scene in the direction Joe was trying to move in. He saw the equine facing down two furs with spears. She despatched one of them swiftly, the other stabbed her in the thigh. She looked down at the wound and landed a blow with her fist on the spearhandle, breaking it, before swinging her axe with her other hand and cutting the enemy down.
“God…if that is what berserkers were really like…I’m starting to understand why everyone was so afraid of vikings in general,” he said to himself and swallowed. He knew the wounds he could see even at this distance were lethal.
Joe spotted the tiger and moved over. “Come on. We have to get to her. We can’t let her get killed!”
“It’s too late Joe. She’s already dead,” the tiger said, quietly. “Look at her…look at those wounds. She’s gone berserk. I don’t know how she keeps standing. It’s not natural.”
Joe shook his head and growled. “Then I’m not going to let her die *alone*,” he said. “Come on.”
Tigermark nodded and they launched back into the fray. The German lines were wavering all around them.
Aslaug didn’t see anymore. She didn’t feel anymore. She wasn’t sure where she was on the battlefield anymore. She was so tired. And so angry. The hoofbeats were thunderous by now.
The voice in her head still whispered to her. “See clearly, shieldmaiden. See your enemy.”
Aslaug opened her eyes again and saw a stoat between a group of bodyguards. The banner that one of them held was easily recognized. Prince Otto. Son of the German king by the same name. He wasn’t looking at her. Three of his bodyguards were headed her way. She wasn’t angry anymore. It faded out of her. The pain set in.
She forced herself to stand. She wasn’t sure where the spear tip in her thigh had come from. It didn’t matter anymore. She grabbed her axe. She knew she’d never make it through the three bodyguards facing her. She took a single step backwards…raised her axe above her head…
She threw it. Just as a sword entered her body.
Darkness claimed her and she heard Joes voice, as she collapsed in his arms. “We’re here. You’re not alone Aslaug.”
Tigermark tore the three bodyguards asunder and looked over their bodies. The German prince was on the ground. His skull had been split wide open and Aslaugs axe was imbedded in the rest of it.
A horn sounded. The Germans wavered again…then they turned…
Joe looked at the filly in his arms. He was angry. But at the same time, he knew she got the end she wished for. She was smiling, he noticed. In unconsciousness, she was smiling. She looked peaceful.
He sighed and looked at Tigermark but the feline didn’t notice. He was looking at the battlefield. The corpses of thousands were spread around. Many Danes. Many more Germans.
“If I hadn’t seen this with my own two eyes, Joe…I would’ve called anyone telling me about this a liar,” he said, softly.
Aramis came running up to them and dropped to his knees by the crouching coyote and the unconscious equine.
“Is she…” he began
Joe shook his head. “Don’t ask me how…but she’s hanging on. She’s alive. I don’t know how long it’ll last, though. She can’t survive these wounds. There’s no way. Look at her…she’s looking like she’s been through a meatgrinder.”
Aramis swallowed and nodded. “We won…” he said and looked around. “But right now that feels really hollow.”
Joe nodded, holding the filly in his arms. “I know what I’m fighting for now,” he said and gritted his teeth. He looked up at the skies. “DO YOU HEAR ME?? I KNOW NOW!” he cried out, tears beginning to run down his cheeks.
Tigermark knelt next to the two. “If she dies now, Joe…she dies the way she’d have hoped.”
“I don’t care!” Joe growled. “Remember the way she looked when Jarl Gunnar was wounded? Remember?? She said she KNEW it wasn’t his time yet. It was his time *today*, Tiger, I *saw* him die. He’s laying out there on the battlefield…and I don’t know how many he took with him but it was a *lot*. She KNEW this would happen. And now I’m saying the same thing she said…it’s *not* *her* *time*!”
Aramis swallowed and cleared his throat. “Erhm…guys…something is…something’s happening here…”
Tigermark looked up. “I think…we’re going home now. Joe, you have to let her go.”
The battlefield was fading. Movements were slowing down, like time was going into slow motion…to a complete standstill. Joe looked up and shook his head. “She’s not going to die, Tiger. I don’t care what you say. I did not fight this fight to see her die. She’s *better* than this. She saw her gods, just like we’ve seen Him, and I don’t think they’re so cruel that they’d let her die now.”
“Joe…that’s blasphemy…” Tigermark said, quietly.
“*FUCK* THAT!” Joe snapped. “Blasphemy was a word invented by furs like you and me. I don’t take God’s name in vain and apart from that I don’t think it’s up to us to decide! The God I believe in would want me to speak plainly and evenly and I’m saying this is NOT her time. I know what I fought for now. I don’t know what *you* two fought for but I know what *my* fight was about.”
Everything around the three amigos had ground to a complete halt. The landscape was growing translucent.
“What did you fight for, Joe?” Tigermark asked, patiently and quietly. He knew his friend well enough not to argue with the kind of rage the coyote displayed.
“I fought for the right to *doubt*. I fought to realize what I believe in. I fought what our faith COULD have been in our world. I fought because I have to go back and make sure it never…NEVER becomes that. I fought because *she* showed me that blind faith is *worthless*. That only faith that’s been reaffirmed by doubt is any use to anyone. She can’t die…she doesn’t deserve it…” the coyote growled. He was so angry he couldn’t see straight. Angry and hurting.
Tigermark nodded. “Not…by our standards but by hers…this is exactly the death she deserves. Remember that, Joe.”
“It’s not her time!” the coyote repeated, stubbornly.
Aramis had gone quiet. He was still looking around. “Guys…I think our canid friend has a point. Look…”
Joe looked up reluctantly. There was nothing to be seen. Nothing…at all.
Everything had gone white on white. Like they were sitting inside a clean sheet of paper. It was pleasantly warm.
Aslaug was still there, though. The battlefield was gone. The corpses…the living furs…everything was gone. Except the three amigos and the wounded shieldmaiden.
“Erhm…what’s she doing here?” Tigermark asked. He was confused. They normally couldn’t bring anything back with them.
“I told you…” Joe smiled and closed his eyes. “It’s not her time yet. I think from now on…it’s going to be the ‘Three Amigos…plus one’.”
Aramis looked at the tiger and smiled. “I can think of worse things…how about you?”
Tigermark smiled and nodded. “I think a quartet sounds good. How’s she doing, Joe?”
“Sleeping,” the coyote said. “Her wounds are closing. Y’know…Annie is going to kill me for bringing a femme home like this, but she’s going to need a place to stay.”
Tigermark couldn’t suppress a laugh.
“Nahh…” he said, as the four furs started to fade as well. “It’s not your time yet, Joe. It’s not your time yet.”