@Project Both. Shinko is the assistant, she appears and instructs you about the next goal, and then you go and join part 2 of the test.
|Two are hosts against one, the tongue is the head's bane,|
'neath a rough hide a hand may be hid;
he is glad at nightfall who knows of his lodging,
short is the ship's berth,
and changeful the autumn night,
much veers the wind ere the fifth day
and blows round yet more in a month.
I counsel thee, Stray-Singer, accept my counsels,
they will be thy boon if thou obey'st them,
they will work thy weal if thou win'st them:
tell not ever an evil man
if misfortunes thee befall,
from such ill friend thou needst never seek
return for thy trustful mind.
|Each man who is wise and would wise be called|
must ask and answer aright.
Let one know thy secret, but never a second, --
if three a thousand shall know.
A wise counselled man will be mild in bearing
and use his might in measure,
lest when he come his fierce foes among
he find others fiercer than he.
Not sure there's a point, unless we somehow formulate a community-driven system. Plenty on the plate already content wise.
Ketill listened intently to Basim as he appeared to bear witness to the facts Najla had wanted to bring forwards. He could feel the fumes of anger within him, rising up to his throat as they had so often done in the past years, and for once he no longer felt the need to control it. They released when Basim had finished, and Najla and Basim spoke together in Sawarimic. With a roar he smacked his fist into the wooden stand in front of him, an eerie crack signalling the power in his strike. ‘’And in what world does a man pay tribute for that which he did not accept or agree to? I never asked this bitch to safe my life, she did that on her own accord.’’ He was breezing now, and when he finished his eyes shot from the judges to Najla and Basim both, with something in them having shifted. But… it was not the same as it usually was – he’d looked angrily at her before, but never like this.
The crowd itself was content to sit by and, truthfully, it would have been a lie to say that they did not wish for Ketill to deal with the situation right now. But regardless of how Najla saw him, Ketill was a man of honour still, and his debt to the gods would be repaid either through court or other means. ‘’Yes, I struck her husband. But she forgot to mention that I was called into her room that night purely so he could insult me. It was my good right as thrall to defend myself. But it seems that in this backwards country of theirs, a thrall has no right, not even the right to live!’’
Again he sent his fist into the stand, this time breaking one of the wooden panels that was meant to hold payment in the case wergild was demanded. ‘’Any man would have done the same if he was worth his name!’’ For a moment it was silent, until sounds of agreement came from the crowd.
They were forbidden from speaking into the althingi lest they be called forwards as witnesses, but it would be a fools errant to stop everyone from talking altogether. So, it was that knowledge that the crowd used to voice their agreement with the statement that any man should defend themselves from insults, lest their honour be harmed. Some men just nodded, hummed agreeingly, others clattered their spears against their wooden shields.
When all turned silent again, Ketill continued, his temper tamed, but the anger still within him. ‘’Her family are all dead – but not because I live, it is because she married a man who saw gold and power within her, not love. I have no burden to bear in that regard and the only burden I would bear for her now is the weight of her body on my back after I kill her. I killed on her orders, I slayed Osman’s brother for her on her command, and her repayment is what, to tell me I am responsible for that too? The weight of her families death should fall on HER shoulders, not mine!’’
Fearing a conflict, the prime judge stood up and raised his hands, and in an instant everything fell even more silent. The sounds of the forest around them were eerily noticeable now, from the squawk of a crow to the sounds of a squirrel running up a nearby tree. Momentarily the judge held his breath and glanced around, with weary eyes that were tired of the conflict. ‘’I should remind you all that the judges speak law from memory. We memorized the tales of the Gods, we are keepers of the runes, and we know all the laws passed down to us from the Gods themselves. This issue is one that has never been brought to us before, and one that there is no law for. Were we to apply the laws of our own people, it would be evident that the woman is guilty of her crimes in the eyes of the Gods.’’
While the crowd seemed to think that this meant that Najla was guilty, it was not the case, and Ketill knew it. This had been a foiled attempt from the start. But he had to try it, didn’t he?
‘’BUT! These crimes were not committed in our lands, and not by our people. And most certainly not under the eyes of our gods, and therefore not under our laws. To punish this woman for something she was unaware of would be unjust. But… it is also not our place to tell you, Ketill, son of Grimhildr, that your grievances are to be forgotten.’’
The other judges stood up now and seemed ready to pass judgement, though it seemed already that there would be none. ‘’It is our judgement that we cannot pass judgement, as we cannot understand the laws of this foreign land, and we cannot know the details of the conflict. We cannot say whether the woman is guilty or innocent, and we cannot say whether Ketill would be within his right to take revenge on her.’’
The crowd seemed conflicted about this sentence, though it was unclear whether that was because they had hoped for a death sentence, or an agreement to make her his thrall. Rather, they received nothing short of a neutral answer that did not swing either way in terms of guilt. It was not as exciting as they might have hoped, despite the exotic nature of the case. ‘’We can only hope that this is resolved in a way the gods would resolve it.’’
Ketill nodded to that, as they were right. The best way to do this was to do as the gods would do – and to know that, he would need to travel to the world tree. The judges were about to turn and leave, as the althingi was coming to an end. But Ketill asked his question quick enough to stop them. ‘’The gathering at the world tree. When is it?’’
‘’In four days,’’ the reply came, again from the head judge. They then took their leave, and were not stopped. Now the festivities of the althingi would commence for the next days, though some would leave to go to the world tree. It was not too far – a conscious choice to hold the althingi close to such a holy place – and so they could easily have stayed, but Ketill did not wish to waste time.
He left the stands, leaving Basim and Najla each to follow him on their own accords. They’d be headed back to the merchants tents, but not to stay for longer, but instead to thank them for their hospitality. When they arrived, the merchant and his sons were already packing. Ketill approached the merchant himself and extended his hand, which the man took and shook with great power. It was typical of the northerners to do everything with force and power, and this was no exception, so Ketill returned the favour, shaking his hand vigorously. ‘’Thank you for your generosity,’’ he added, to which the merchant merely shook his head as if it was nothing.
‘’There is one thing you can do for me now,’’ the man answered him then, and looked towards his sons, who were packing a variety of furs. ‘’My oldest is dedicating himself to Audrun.’’ This was somewhat surprising, so Ketill glanced at the boys and saw that the oldest was wearing an amulet with the rune that signalled dedication to Audrun, so it was true. ‘’Take him with you to the gathering, if you would. I don’t think me or my wife can bear to watch it, no matter the honour it may bring us.’’
There was, in that moment, very little Ketill could have said or done, except to agree to the request. It was not like it would take a lot of effort, or any at all, as they would just have to accompany the boy. So, when it was clear that Ketill agreed, the man would finally have let go of Ketill’s hand and returned to his duties, seemingly not wanting to get into the details of the event. Ketill understood – in fact, he preferred not to talk about it himself. Dedicating yourself to Audrun was something that required strength and bravery, and it was not something that even Ketill himself could see himself doing.
Ketill then turned to Yasamin, instructing her to get the horses. ‘’We are one of the few who have horses in this land, and we are the only ones that have horses that can ride fast, so see to it that nobody hassles you for them.’’ Yasamin did not wait to reply, and stepped out immediately to get the horses. The warning to avoid anyone hassling her was likely not useful – it was not like she could do anything to protect herself at this point. ‘’As for you two,’’ Ketill then said, turning to Najla and Basim. ‘’Get ready to leave. We are heading to the world tree. A holy site. The gods are at their strongest there. I need to… I need to see what they have to tell me.’’ He completely ignored the outcome of the court ruling, seemingly not wanting to talk about it. He also failed to mention that another reason for visiting the world tree was that he’d stopped receiving visions, and had gotten worried that the gods had forsaken him for failing to kill Najla, like he had promised them. Perhaps at the world tree, he could set that right.
After the merchant’s family had said their goodbyes, to the son and brother that was dedicating himself, and to Ketill and his companions, the group would set out to reach the world tree. The landscape changed drastically during this trip, changing from a frozen underground with dustings of snow here and there in the areas that were located higher up. As the land rolled downwards from the mountains near the border with Broacien, the air became less thin, the temperature rose only slightly, and green life returned to the area. The ground was no longer frozen, though it was still hard, and was unsuitable for good farming, only allowing a few crops here and there in lucky places that were fertile enough to sustain life.
Trees started cropping up and, unlike in Broacien, there were no real roads, just slight trails here and there that would the next closest thing to a road. In places, the land sagged and bogged, and turned muddy. These were places that slowed down the group the most of all, as only the son of the merchant’s horse, which was shorter and stouter than the horses Ketill and his group rode on, was capable of trudging through it without problems.
This trip, which would have taken little under a day in an open, easily traversable landscape like the Broacienien forests or the Sawarim deserts, would now take them over three days. They arrived a day before the event would begin, which was lucky, for they would have time to visit the blót-hus, which would be recognized as the holy place of worship stood near the tree, where the gódi lived.
Their arrival was, in truth, quite a sight to behold, even for Ketill. He’d seen the tree before, but it was so long ago that he had nearly forgotten. But it all came back to him – that giant tree that seemed to span into the heavens themselves. It was a giant oak, much larger than your average tree, and it was stood on a slight hill, elevating it above the trees around it even more – which were tiny oaks, firs and pines in comparison to this giant of wood.
Hidden in the trees around it would be the blót-hus, a magnificent wooden house that seemed to blend in almost perfectly. The woodworking on it was incredible, of a quality that you could not find elsewhere. For their lack of technology, the Northerners were expert woodcrafters, and you would find no other people that were as crafty with the supplies they were given as the Northerners. It was seen in everything they did – in society, where surviving the winter was never a certainty, every part of everything was used, from the bones of a dead animal to the wood shavings of a finished wooden stake. Everything had it’s purpose.
The blót-hus of the world tree.
The group would leave their horses nearby, tied up to a wooden post, and then approach the blót-hus. As they entered, another group was just leaving, a family of five as it seemed, whose faces had curious symbols drawn in blood on them. ‘’Heil og sæl, bróðir,’’ the oldest man said, who seemed to recognize Ketill instantly as a Northerner. Ketill returned the favour, repeating the phrase to the man and nodding his head as a sign of acknowledgement.
Almost instantly Basim piped up, unable to contain his curiosity despite the fact that Ketill had his sister trialled. He awkwardly repeated the phrase to Ketill, who did not even recognize it at first. ‘’What he said, what does it mean?’’ the boy asked, as the group was awkwardly stood halfway into the doorway. ‘’It’s a greeting, right?’’
‘’Not so much,’’ Ketill replied, placing his hand on the ring that hung from the door, pulling it open and revealing the interior of the blót-hus. ‘’It means healthy and happy. It’s the same as… when the Sawarim use his name as a manner of greeting. It’s courtesy to wish people good health, and that is done through the gods.’’
It seemed like common sense to Ketill but, perhaps, it was not quite as sensical as he thought. But he remembered the Sawarim did things much the same way, so perhaps the boy would understand. He then entered the blót-hus, where they were greeted by an old man who wore a cloak and a hood over his head. In his hand was a bowl filled with the blood – of what the blood came, it wasn’t quite as clear. Without words having to be spoken, Ketill leaned slightly forward to allow the man to draw the runes. He remembered this much from his first time at the world tree, when he had visited here with his father. It was a long time ago, but the movements themselves seemed almost instinctual. The gódi dipped a finger into the blood and began, carefully, drawing the Ægishjálmr rune onto Ketill’s forehead with the blood. It was made with quick strokes, like a practiced artisan would do it, and the end result was good enough. Ketill then gestured towards the three Sawarim companions with him, before instructing the godi, ‘’Not them. They don’t follow our gods.’’ The godi nodded understandingly, and glanced over the three with a smile.
Ægishjálmr, the Helm of Awe, which offers strength and power
‘’Welcome to the blót-hus,’’ he told them, before turning to the merchants son and repeating the process. Ketill himself stepped further into the hall, which was a long hall with six pillars, three on the left and three on the right, down the length of it. It was equally well crafted – the woodwork was even more impressive on the inside than the outside. Perhaps most strikingly were the various statues made of wood that resembled the gods. At the far end, facing towards the door, was the largest of them all. He was a man seated in a throne, the entirety of it seemingly carved out of a single large piece of wood. One of his eyes was covered by a patch, and in his hands was a crooked staff.
At the base of every statue were a variety of offerings, as they were far from the first visitors of the gathering. Ketill didn’t think to explain it to them, and approached the statue of the man seated in the throne, reaching into his pocket and retrieving the Sawarimic ring made of gold, with the inscription that offered protection against Djinn’s. He placed it on the edge of the statue, as an offering to Audrun himself, before saying something in a cryptic, strange language that did not resemble either Broacienien or the Norse dialect. It was not even a full sentence, it seemed, though it was over before he had even started speaking it, offering no time for Basim or Najla to decrypt it. They were, however, most likely occupied with looking around the spacious room.
Normally, the offering of a small ring would not be seen as much, but this one had been won over by murder and earned by right of fighting for it, so perhaps it would be worth more to Audrun. At least, that was what Ketill had thought, though there was no way to know for sure. He stood in front of the statue momentarily, waiting for a sign, but he received none. It frustrated him slightly, for he had expected something from the gods, but had received absolutely nothing. He felt anger again, but looked up at the statue into Audrun’s one eye, and felt something. It was entirely indescribable, but it felt like a click inside of him, something that suddenly fell into place, as if he’d found his place among his people again. Somehow, he felt like just a ring wouldn’t be enough. ‘’Thank you,’’ he said to the statue, although perhaps to the others it might have seemed like he was talking to himself.
His mind was clear now, and he would have to find a way to thank Audrun for this. One glance at the merchant’s son was enough to tell him how precisely. ‘’I will dedicate you,’’ he said then, to Najla. It came abruptly out of nowhere, and she would not know the meaning of this phrase in this context. He did not let go of any more information, not even when pressed for it, and left the blót-hus, thanking the godi for his service to the gods before leaving to visit the grounds where people were staying. The area was in a green enough area to sleep on the ground, which was what the four of them would have to do with the absence of a tent, although it was far from strange given that most others were also sleeping on the ground.
It was a merry time, it seemed, for there were men and women sitting around fires everywhere, as there must have been a crowd of at least fifty to a hundred people there. Primitive music came from all corners, made with drums and strange metal and bone instruments that were placed in the mouth and then played with the fingers to produce a ‘ploink’ sound. The gaps were filled by the voices of men and women alike, producing a strange sensation for Ketill, who had been away for so long yet felt an instant connection to these sounds – not just the music, but everything around it. The forest, the people, it was just an amalgamation of home. In the distance, women were dancing around a fire, in a spectacle that would’ve reminded any Broacienien or Sawarim of something that they had imagined witches would do. To the side, the men were clapping alongside the beat of the drums, singing a song that spoke of Audrun’s journey over the mountains, where he found a group of ice giants, and how he beat them at their own games and won the prize, namely the knowledge of how the world would end. It would be a sad story otherwise, but for the Northerners, the end of the world was simply a fact of life – in fact, it was something they strove for, in Sjeahalle.
As Ketill and his group, namely Najla, Basim and Yasamin approached the grounds, they were immediately hailed by a nearby group consisting primarily of women and a few men scattered around. Among them he recognized the family they had ran into near the entrance of the blót-hus, who were laying around a fire. The scene seemed, upon closer inspection, perhaps not wildly different from the lifestyle that the Sultana’s lived in the palace of the golden city – constantly laying around on pillows in secluded and shaded areas of the palace to avoid the heat, all the while eating, drinking and taking whatever manner of smoking ware they could get their hands on. Except, in this case, there were no pillows, and the group was eating from a selection of mushrooms and drinking ale from horns. It almost seemed like a more primitive version of Sawarim royalty – well, that, and everyone was partaking, not just the nobility. Although, that would be a far stretch, considering that the only form of nobility in the North were the men who had the strength to take what they wanted.
And that, indeed, was a far stretch from real nobility.
‘’Come, join us!’’ one of the approaching woman told them, and without waiting for much of an answer, took Ketill by the arm and dragged him with her. Ketill followed without struggling, and Basim followed a similar fate, being taken by the arm by a woman that was, in all honesty, taller than the boy himself. ‘’Sit by the fire and feast with us!’’ they continued, forcing the two to sit down, before turning to Najla and Yasamin and likewise forcing them to sit with them. Something seemed different, however, as the men and women were all acting strange. Perhaps it was the fact that the gathering would be happening soon, but it was making everyone happy and uncaring, it seemed. Without missing a beat the women took a wooden basket filled with mushrooms and passed it around, offering them to Ketill and Basim first, then Najla and Yasamin. It would be the only food available momentarily, so there was little use in refusing it, and the cheerful nature of the gathering meant that there was little reason to doubt the mushrooms.
This part, however, was unfamiliar to Ketill, who had never partaken in this section of the gathering. His father had deemed him too young perhaps. Regardless, he took a handful of the mushrooms and pushed them into his mouth. It was certainly not a welcome taste, but it did not taste awful at least. Soon enough even the normally stoic Ketill was laughing at the stories being told, and the otherwise depressed Yasamin had found a shred of enjoyment.
Although the effects did not take hold instantaneously, it quickly became obvious that the mushrooms were inducing various effects onto the crowd, and things began getting blurrier. The effects similarly seemed to be quite different per person, with Ketill sitting back and lazying around, watching the fire and the women as they danced in front of it, listening to the beats of the drum and the lazy story being told to the right of him. Basim was dragged out of his spot and forced to dance with one of the girls, who was more his own height and had long blonde hair, that swayed hypnotically with her movements. She was more or less just pulling the boy along in her dance, but it seemed that under the effects of these mushrooms, Basim was content to follow along.
As the day continued and it got darker, the scenes changed from a gathering in the forest to an almost magical scene, with fires lit up everywhere, men and women dancing around them and the unified beats of drums that followed patterns that were wildly different yet intermingled at times. Ketill was laid on his back now, his hands under his head as he stared at the foliage above, though his mind was somewhere else at the time.
‘’Ketill,’’ a voice said. It was… a man? No, it was a woman. ‘’Ketill!’’ it said again, this time louder, and slowly the darkness lifted as he opened his eyes. In front of him was Najla, standing closely to him yet… far at the same time. They were still in the forest. Was this real? Suddenly, the space around them began warping, and transporting them through the path they had travelled. Past the Hoffburgt, past Coedwin, past the desert homestead where Ketill had taken the rings and cloaks, through the rolling desert dunes and to the Golden city. Najla was now standing there, on a balcony, overlooking the vast desert landscape. ‘’I can take you there,’’ she said to him, though it was cryptic, not sure where ‘there’ was.
But it seemed that in this drug-induced vision, there were no limits to what could be shown. The very fabric of space was being torn as the desert began to disappear and, in the distance, what looked like a city was becoming larger and larger. At the center of it was a large, tall square building that looked like a tower of sorts, something akin to the keep on the Sawarim golden city, a crown jewel but… more impressive, almost. If the Sawarim capital was ‘’the golden city’’ then what was this city? It shone brighter than the Sawarim capital, and was surrounded by more green. The rivers meandered across the city, the trees were alive, and not the liveless husks that were so prevalent in the desert.
‘’It could be yours,’’ Najla suddenly said, and with a loud bang and a white flash, he was standing on top of the tower. The breeze of wind rustled his hair, and he could see the majesty of the city clearer now. In the distance was a shrine of sorts, a giant pedestal with a gigantic statue of what seemed to be the sun. People were there, clad in white cloaks of cloth, walking circles around this gigantic sun. Some of them were laying on the ground, collapsed from the heat, and the others just walked past them. Priests walked around, and handed out food, and everyone that received this food walked up to the giant statue and touched it, then touched their forehead and touched the statue again. Despite the incredibly far distance, and the drop of several hundred meters Ketill would have to survive to come close, he could hear what was said almost as if he was standing there.
‘’Oh Zun!’’ the voice boomed, hurting his ears with its’ incredible ferocity. ‘’We thank you for your boon!’’ Almost instinctively his hands went to his ears to cover them, and he stepped back from the edge of the tower. ‘’Zun! ZUN! ZUN!’’ it echoed, and then it cut out. The people disappeared, and Najla stood there, at the edge of the tower.
‘’Come,’’ she’d say, and Ketill would do it, for there was no other option. ‘’Look closer.’’ He stared at the statue and then noticed what she meant – the sun itself, it was pure gold. If it was solid, it would’ve cost massive amounts of gold. These people must truly be rich. ‘’I can bring you there.’’ Then… he felt a push in his back, sending him over the edge tumbling towards the ground.
With a sharp inhale, gasping for air, Ketill came back to the forest. He grasped around for solid ground, and found himself staring at the fire that still blazed. It seemed he had fallen asleep, just like the others, although the mushrooms had continued working and sent him into a drug fuelled vision. Or, perhaps, it was the Gods, who were showing him what to do. Najla… she had been there too. Perhaps the boy had been wrong, and Najla was a Völva after all. A magician, she could’ve placed a curse on him, to curse him with terrible visions that steered him from the gods and into her open arms, waiting to plunge a dagger into his back.
He glanced around and, in the light of the flames, that flickered with every lick of fire that shot up before being pulled down again, he saw Najla laying there. She was asleep, and Ketill had the thought cross his mind to push her into the fire, to get rid of her now, to end the madness. But it wouldn’t work. What if the gods wanted him to visit these lands. The vision would be the truth then, and he’d need Najla. That also meant he could not dedicate her. But the gods needed a dedication, Audrun needed a dedication. His eyes shot to Najla’s right, where Yasamin was, a few meters between them.
The next day most people would awake early in the afternoon, when the sun had already passed its highest point and was moving down again, being chased by the wolf that was doomed to forever chase the sun. The mushrooms had run their course, and now the height of the event would come to bearing, with several gódi’s coming out to a ritual stone in a flat area in front of the giant tree. On it were carved runes, which had been prepared the day before with red ochre pressed onto them, ‘painted’ again to more clearly define the runes. In the stone was a deep groove cut, leading from the middle to the sides, then to a corner where the stone had been punctured entirely. Underneath the hole was a bucket, ready to catch whatever was there.
There was little time to waste that day as it was quite a big celebration, for northern standards. Ketill had woken Basim and Najla both, then taken them to the gathering, where people were stood in a big crowd around the stone. ‘’What’s this?’’ Basim curiously asked, looking upon the stone as if it were some artefact from long ago. Perhaps not entirely untrue. ‘’Those pictures look like nothing I’ve ever seen,’’ he added, his reference to pictures being the runes.
‘’Not pictures,’’ Ketill hissed. ‘’Runes given to us by Audrun. Just watch.’’
It started with animals – a bull was led out alongside a cow, placed side by side with buckets underneath their heads. The crowd began talking then, seemingly excited, as the gódi raised a ritualistic knife in the air and showed it to all those around them. Then, with a vigorous and fast movement he slit the throat of the bull, who reared heavily and had to be restrained by the rope around it’s neck. Whoever had ‘donated’ these animals was surely a wealthy man that was trying to earn the favour of the gods, or perhaps to enhance the prestige of his name. It was the only option there was as further north, the traveling tribespeople did not have cows or other animals, and among those south near the mountains in the regions they were in now, there was simply not enough wealth to have many animals.
The crowd erupted in cheers and even Ketill himself raised a fist into the sky as the bull was killed, and as they cheered the gódi moved to the cow, and slit her throat too, catching the majority of the blood in the two buckets. When most of it had been drained, the blood in the buckets were combined and set aside for future use – although, to Najla and Basim, the purpose was much unknown.
It was only then that the merchants’ son made a reappearance, dressed in a fine white tunic that had clearly been washed a few times over, as it seemed to be as white as the snow in the mountains. He had his hands held out sideways, representing a cross, as two gódi’s flanked him and held on to him by his wrists, although it seemed that the man was not going to run regardless. He had a look of stern dedication in his eyes, and the moment of his appearance everyone else had gone silent. It was very clear that what was going to happen now was, by far, the most important thing.
The gódi’s brought him to the ritual stone with the runes, and now Najla and Basim would see its’ true purpose. ‘’Is he a priest?’’ Basim asked then, subconsciously pushing against the man standing in front of him in an effort to see better. ‘’Then why was he with us? Isn’t he too young to be a priest?’’
His question was soon answered, as the son laid down on the ritual stone. His eyes were teary but he had a smile on his face, and when the gódi’s helped him out of his tunic there was a rune drawn onto his chest, the same one Audrun had drawn on himself, with ochre. It was a sign of dedication to the gos, and Audrun in specific. Again, the nearby gódi held up the ritual knife, but instead of cheering, people bowed their heads or looked at the dedicated man with a level of sternness. Ketill, too, looked at the man with a stoic gaze. Dedicating yourself to the gods required a lot – sacrifice, bravery, strength. These were all traits that were respected in the Northern societies, no matter what tribe or homestead you visited. All of them were equally fond of these traits. It was therefore no surprise that a dedicated man held a lot of respect, which was worth a lot in the eyes of the gods. It was certain that the son would go to Sjeahalle – no doubt. ‘’Not a priest,’’ Ketill finally answered, ‘’a sacrifice.’’
The flash of the blade was the only warning they received, as the cut was made quick to prevent the man from changing his mind – once dedicated there was no way back – cutting open his neck from one side to the other. As the man gurgled in his own blood, drowning in it as it filled his lungs through desperate attempts to breathe which only caused him to inhale more and more blood, his fingers clenched around the stone he was laying on, grasping at the edges. His knuckles and joints in his fingers turned white from the strength he was exerting in his final death throes, and his leg tried to rise up to gain footing to move, but it was futile.
Rather than cheer, it was deadly silent, making the last gurgles the man made even more audible. For a moment time stood still – as it usually did to Ketill when important events occurred – but he was brought back by a splatter of liquid in his face. He flinched, raised a hand and smeared it away, only to look at his fingers and see blood. He looked up again and saw that a gódi was going around with the buckets of cow and bull’s blood, and used a bushel of twigs to dip it into the blood, and then splatter the blood onto the crowd. Basim and Najla would, of course, follow a similar fate – to deny it would have been a mistake, as the blood had been blessed by the speaking of ancient words of power. So when Basim raised his hand to wipe it away, Ketill quickly grabbed the boys wrist and forced him to leave it on.
‘’It gives you strength,’’ Ketill remarked, looking at Najla first before his eyes turned to Basim again. While the one gódi went around splattering the people in this blood, the other gódi took the bucket under the hole in the stone and began carefully rubbing the blood onto the runes, mixing it with the ochre. People began talking again, as if it were second nature to them that someone had just been sacrificed to the gods. Ketill took one last look at the, now dead, man on the stone before a cry in the background forced him to turn around.
Behind them a woman with dark hair was being led to the tree, also dressed in a white gown. She was struggling slightly, but seemed malnourished or just weak. Even then, the two men leading her there were obviously strong men and thus they had no problem holding her down when another gódi fastened a noose around her neck. ‘’Ketill,’’ Basim silently started, looking as the noose was fastened and the woman stopped resisting. ‘’What are they doing?’’
Instead of an answer, the sound of drums beating rhythmically erupted from around the tree. The men beating the drums began chanting in a strange language, presumably the same in which the Northerners said their prayers. The gódi standing next to the woman spoke some words to her, and she finally calmed down completely, and the two men who had constrained her earlier were now moving alongside the tree, and threw the long end of the noose around a branch, then prepared to haul it up. She was clearly being hung – but before that, once more, the gódi flashed the knife again and with a razor sharp cut slit her throat. Instantly the woman was yanked into the air, the blood spilling down onto the pure white gown, running down her clothing along her neck until drops of blood started dripping from her feet onto the ground.
At the same time, other bodies were raised into the air too, hung from the world tree. The crowd began moving in the shimmering light of the moon that was starting to appear, exchanging itself with the sun that had started to settle and dip below the horizon. There were torches spread around the world tree, illuminating the area and shedding an eerie, flickering light on the dead bodies that were dripping blood, all clothed in white gowns.
The group approached the world tree, where the gódi who had cut the womans’ neck held the bucket of human blood from the dedicated man. ‘’With this blood!’’ he began, his voice echoing through the entire area, the people listening on in awe. ‘’And with these sacrifices!’’ A wide gesture followed, gesturing towards the bodies that were hanging from the trees. There were a good amount of them, and they swung eerily in the wind, the flickering light from the fires only adding to the eeriness. ‘’We feed the tree and ask for its’ blessing and that of the Aldafadr and his daughters and sons!’’ Then the gódi splashed the blood onto the ground next to the trees roots, and the people cheered again, before everything devolved into the same manner of festivities as the night before. Immediately mushrooms were handed around and ale was consumed, and people retreated back to the other areas to avoid having to sit amidst the corpses of those who had been sacrificed.
Ketill himself, however, did not leave yet. Instead he remained there, staring at the bodies that were hanging there, watching carefully how the blood seeped down their gowns and dripped down their feet to the ground. This place felt so powerful, with the echoes of hundreds of years worth of history thumping in his head. He wasn’t sure if the others felt the same history but everyone could tell there was something in this place, something that held a power. Whether it was real or not was another matter – it could’ve just been the combination of the cold that didn’t seem to bother the northerners, the eerie wind, the flickering lights, and the mist in the distance that covered the forest, seemingly rolling in from the nearby bogs and swamps.
‘’Aldafadr,’’ Ketill muttered under his breath, looking up at the woman that had been hung. ‘’I have rejoined you. The offering will please you – in return, grant me the strength I need.’’ As if on queue, the wind picked up and the body of the dark haired woman swung side to side, twirling slowly. When it had come around fully, both Ketill, Najla and Basim could see the face – one eye was missing, and the features of the face left little to the imagination about who it was. Yasamin.
Basim almost reared over and had to work hard to control his stomach to keep the contents inside – the combination of mushrooms, alcohol, blood and dead bodies left him with very little control. All that went out the window the moment Ketill spoke up again, without even turning his head to face Najla. ‘’That was meant to be you. I don’t know who or why, but the Gods favour you. It seems there is more to your story than an untimely death. It’s a shame your fate is tied to mine.’’ It seemed that the thought of the noose being intended for Najla was too much for Basim, and now he completely let himself go, splashing the contents of his stomach all over the ground.
Ketill turned around and faced towards the area where the rest of the groups had gathered and, instead of gathering in a multitude of smaller groups, had now formed one big group. In the center there was a giant pile of logs and, the moment Ketill turned towards it, it was lit up – as if on command, it almost seemed magic how it lit up specifically when he turned round. With the light of the fire on his face, reflecting off of the rings in his beard, it almost looked like he was a whole different person from when Najla had first met him. The only remembrance of that time were the three red dots on his forehead that would, allegedly, never fade. ‘’We’ll leave tomorrow. Enjoy this night, because it’ll be the last time you get to enjoy your time here. In the north, everyone earns their share of the meal, so you two had better learn to pull your weight, and fast.’’
Perhaps it had sounded like a threat, but a singular glance around the environment made it clear that there was no joking around. The area was cruel and unforgiving and they had yet to even get prepared for the winter, which would be even more cruel and unforgiving. If Audrun did not grant Ketill’s request for his strength, then the winter would be the end of their tale.
As they rejoined the group, Ketill leading a bit ahead as he’d left Basim and Najla behind while Basim recovered from his sickness, they were immediately handed more mushrooms and ale to wash it down. Ketill was not going to deny them now, and shoved a hand of mushrooms down his mouth before taking a big gulp from a horn of ale that he was handed. The rest of Ketill’s evening and most of the night was filled with more mushrooms and ale. It was, to him, a welcome release from the years spent under Sawarim rule as nothing more than an object. But, even after escaping their tyranny, he was unable to feel truly at ease, at least until now, when he felt like the all-father, Audrun, had accepted him into his fold again.
The rest of that night was a blur, occurring so fast that there was little time to remember or even recognize what was happening. All Ketill could remember the next morning was an innate, new feeling of being at home. It was like a missing part inside of him had returned to it’s place and fit in without a problem.
The rest of the morning was slow, as it was for most people, who struggled to gather their items after the festivities. For Ketill, it was as simple as retrieving Najla and Basim for where ever the had wandered off to, and forcing them to the horses. Although Ketill normally held his alcohol rather well, the continuous drinking throughout the night had given him a splitting headache, and as a result, he wasn’t really in the mood to argue with Najla or Basim. In the event that they refused to cooperate, he’d simply force them by grabbing them and pushing them, although for their own sake as well as his, he’d hoped they would cooperate on their own accord.
After mounting up on their horses, they would make way to the east, towards the coast of the Crashing Gulfs, the ocean that laid to the North of Broacien, and slightly east of the North before it transferred into the Frozen Wastes. To travel all the way to the coast would have taken them many days, up to even a week, due to the terrain being unforgiving. Perhaps unluckily for them they did indeed go all the way to the coast – or close, at least. It was a calculated effort by Ketill, who understood the intricacies of the Northern land better. Although he was not aware of the recent politics and so forth, he knew the best areas to farm, or live all together. Living near the coast was one of those places, with good land, access to the sea, and forests to hunt in. The problem was, however, that the winters grew colder here too as the frozen wastes crept into the bay and, similarly, the land froze over and heavy snowfall stopped any and all activities for most of the winter.
It was more or less suicide to head there now without a place to call home, but never the less Ketill seemed intent to go there – despite not having any food to even make the journey. This meant that they were confined to foraging for food along the way – something Ketill was decent enough at, and Basim picked up on quick. But it certainly wasn’t a princely meal, and there were many days where they went to bed hungry.
It was notable that the forests got thicker and thicker the further along they trekked, which was something that Ketill had only hoped for. They would finally stop upon reaching an open lake, in the middle of the forest. It was quite a large lake, but not large enough to the point where you’d not be able to see the other side, which was a large benefit to Ketill. It was evident that they were further north, as they had left the original mountain ranges behind and these instead had made place for a new, smaller mountain range, that was however still impressive in it’s own right.
The mountain range, with the forest in the foreground
This, as would soon be shown, was to be their encampment for the winter. It didn’t seem like much – there was little shelter… yet. Ketill dismounted his horse, and tied it to a nearby, smaller tree, then turned around and walked a short circle in the area, inspecting it for a good place to build their ‘shelter.’ ‘’What are you looking for?’’ Basim asked, tying his horse up too while curiously glancing at Ketill, who seemed to just be staring at… nothing.
‘’Home,’’ was the only answer he received.
‘’Home? Here?’’ Basim asked again. ‘’This is no home. This is wilderness. And it’s.. cold.’’
‘’You’ve never worked a day in your life, have you? Any home starts from nothing. A good home will keep out the cold.’’
‘’Isn’t there some city here where we can go, and stay there?’’
‘’You’d be lucky to find a single home. The people here don’t usually stay in one place – there are few merchants and farmers that do, but they try to stay close to the mountains, where it gets less cold and the crops have less change of dying. We are… on the border area, here. You could farm here, but you need to have good luck.’’ He looked up at the sky momentarily, and decided against telling Basim that even luck would be dependant on the gods. Farming here would require many sacrifices.
‘’That’s… no cities…?’’
‘’Yes, no cities. Go out and find something to eat. And look for animal tracks, because we’ll need to eat something other than stale roots and berries soon.’’
It was a fools errant to send Basim off to forage, and look for tracks, but it’d probably have been even worse if Basim was left to build a fire and shelter. Basim hurried off to do as he was told, walking at his own pace and taking in the area around them. Curiosity still seemed to drive him, as opposed to his sister, whose driving forces were more hidden than those of Basim. ‘’Najla,’’ Ketill started, as he worked on chopping down some smaller trees that were still growing. ‘’Go collect firewood.’’ No longer did he ask her to, no, it was an order. ‘’And make sure to collect the dry wood. Not the wet ones. Unless you want to freeze to death.’’
Once she too had wandered off, no doubt with every intention to not do as she was told, Ketill continued constructing the shelter. It was small, too small in fact, for three people, but it would have to do as the cold was beginning to set in. Things were moving slowly – but steadily, at least – up until Ketill was alarmed by the sounds of approaching footsteps. It didn’t sound like Najla or Basim – over the course of the trek up to this location, as well as the previous years, Ketill had gotten used to the sound of the both of them, but this sound was.. different. Heavier.
He turned around and, to his surprise, was met with the sight of an unknown man, holding an axe in one hand. It was a primitive, stone axe, but it looked lethal none the less. Out of instinct, Ketill’s own hand reached to the axe on his belt, forgoing his sword in favour of something a bit more wieldy in this area. For a moment the two men were silent, staring at each other waiting for movement.
‘’Who are you?’’ the man finally asked, his glare spelling out distrust. Ketill could not blame him, as he himself would likely distrust strangers in the area too.
‘’I don’t know a Ketill. Or a Grimhildr. What are you doing on this land?’’
‘’Whose land is this?’’ Ketill replied, taking out his axe and moving it around in his hand to get a comfortable grip on it. Just in case.
‘’How did you get this land?’’
‘’I inherited it from my father.’’
‘’Inherited it from his father.’’
‘’He killed for it.’’
‘’I’ll kill you for it.’’
These were the laws of the lands – that was, there was no law, except that of the gods. Ketill would be within his right to kill the man for his lands, if he had wanted to. The man glared at him, looking him up and down while adjusting his position to prepare if it came to blows. In the distance, Ketill could see Basim and Najla both returning, and he silently prayed that they would spot the man before he spotted them. The one way to mess this up was to add more people and more confusion to the situation.
‘’No need,’’ the man finally said, ‘’I’ve no quarrel with you. You can stay here for the winter, if that is what you intend.’’
To this Ketill only nodded. It was his intention to stay here for longer than that, but he had no intention to tell this man that. ‘’And your name?’’
‘’I am sure we will meet again, Björn.’’
‘’As am I.’’
Without wasting more words, the man took his leave, pushing past some bushes. He headed back to what Ketill supposed was the mans’ homestead – though not many people lived in this area, as it was particularly rough for both hunters and farmers. For the hunters, there were not enough animals during winter to survive, and for the farmers, the ground was too unfertile and they were forced to add fish to their diet, adding the burden of fishing to their already full plate of duties. This made Ketill’s decision to live here all the more strange, but none would question a man that was stranger to them.
Najla’s explanation did little for the men in the tent, as they had had no expectations regarding the inscription. However, the explanation as to the true meaning of the words and its purpose were far more enlightening. It brought a grin to Najla’s face, for she had flattered him more than she knew – in fact, she had probably anticipated to insult him, but it was more the opposite. He glanced at the merchant and his sons, speaking when Najla had offered her initial explanation. ‘’Djinn is what she – they – called me. And supposedly what they would call you, were you to travel here. So great is our prowess that they need their god to protect them from us.’’ When she requested to leave, Ketill waved his hand in a bored manner, completely inattentive to Najla’s needs. As far as he was concerned she was still a free person, just like Basim and Yasamin. She did not need his approval for anything – though, she was likely wise enough to know that she needed him to stay around. Just like when they had originally travelled through Broacien, he would not care if she tried to escape. He knew that she’d find her death that way.
But the title she gave him when she gave back the ring struck a nerve with him, and he would attempt to reach back before she left, grabbing at her clothing but missing by an inch. He grunted at this, but did not pursue her further. ‘’Thief’’ was a title far more dishonourable than anything, and most of all, it was untrue even. ‘’Didn’t ‘’steal’’ it. Killed a family for it.’’ He glanced at Basim then, who was there, outside the walls, when he had done so. ‘’I needed their water and cloaks. Where they are now, they won’t need it anymore. Fought for it – and earned it. I’m no thief.’’
He could not tell what Basim thought about it, but also knew that it mattered not what the boy thought. When Najla had left, one of the younger boys had gone with her, as was expected. No words were spilt on it either – the boy just did it on his own. A good boy, that, Ketill thought. The family must’ve been raised well as, even in their wealth, the sons had been made into warriors before anything else. Not that there were any other options – even a merchant was at risk here, and if it was not the winter that could kill you, it were the others. A bloodfeud was easily unchained and hard to settle before the occurrence of the althingi. The one difference was that many of the northern and central tribes moved around in their tents, but merchants like this one lived in the south and frequently lived in small wooden huts. They were more protected, but it was easier to find them as they never left their spots.
His eyes returned to the merchant then, who seemed eager to hear more about these lands. ‘’There are many houses like these, in those lands. The desert is harsh and you need a guide to get through it, much like the north for us. You can die if you don’t know what you are doing. Someone like…’’ He didn’t finish the sentence and merely gestured with his head towards Basim and Yasamin. It would almost seem like he was trying to create value in the two, something that they would desperately need to survive here, as men and women were counted according to merit and usefulness, not their blood. ‘’But even then, the road is too long from here, and you’d lose all your profits before you even returned. It’s worth it, however, for the wisdom.’’
Once again wisdom reared its head as a factor for doing things. The focus on wisdom seemed ever present and, in fact, any action could be motivated by it. ‘’There are many things that can be learned there, but you will find no wealth in them. An endeavour perhaps better suited to your sons, who are still young and can use the fame from such travel.’’
Ketill was about to continue when the man’s son returned, with Najla being pushed out in front of him into the tent. Ketill fell silent and his eyes fell upon Najla first, then the boy. When he was handed the dagger and given an explanation, Ketill took it and nodded at him, thankful for his service. He held the dagger up, eyeing it curiously before looking at Basim. There was a flash of anger in his eyes, something that he had not felt towards Basim before, before he glanced at the young boy, who had rejoined his brothers. ‘’Should’ve let her do it,’’ he answered him finally, in retort to his claim that she’d tried to cut herself. It earned a grin from the other sons, but this was quickly replaced when jealousy when Ketill pushed out his arm quickly and threw the dagger towards the boy. What was originally Basim’s was now his, and the gold-inlaid ceremonial dagger was a prize of prestige to be sure. ‘’Consider it a payment for your service, though I did not ask you to. I suppose that in return you can serve as a witness for the althingi. There’s no greater admission of guilt than trying to kill yourself.’’
The merchant nodded at this, and although it wasn’t exactly a ‘’rule’’ that someone who tried to kill themselves admitted guilt, it was not hard to see why her act could be seen as such. But, this would indicate there were ‘’rules’’ to begin with and although there most certainly were, they were not written anywhere and most commoners, like the merchant and like Ketill, were not aware of the rules at all. In fact, the only ones who knew the rules and laws of court and society were the judges, who spent years in hermitage to study them, learn them by memory and recite them. No scriptures, no lawbooks. Just memory.
And despite that, the judges were the most trustworthy people to exist in society, and the only people who you could trust to be up front and honest. Perhaps because they did not have to fear for winter or thieves – none would dare touch them because that’d be inciting the wrath of the gods themselves.
‘’I will be your witness then,’’ the boy answered, seemingly eager to take a place in front of the judges. It would be a good way to show his face and make his name known. ‘’Thank you for the dagger.’’
Ketill waved that last remark away too, but with less disinterest than he’d waved Najla away. ‘’Just don’t use it for anything other than cutting bread or looking good. It’s weak, made for ceremonies, not fighting.’’
‘’Ceremonies? Like the blood sacrifices?’’
‘’No,’’ Ketill laughed, ‘’feasts the size of Broacien, with gold and splendour.’’
‘’The yellow stuff on the dagger. A weak but rare metal. They have plenty of it, and we have none.’’
‘’Well,’’ the boy then answered, holding up the dagger for all to see. ‘’We have some now.’’
Ketill grinned at this, and the two brothers that did not receive a gift looked on, even more jealous than before. ‘’I should take my leave now, but I thank you for your hospitality. I need to find a place to slee-’’
‘’Nonsense, the tent is big enough, so you and them will stay here. For the next three days, you will tell us stories, and they will tell us of their lands, and in return you can stay here. That sounds fair to me.’’ The merchant seemed determined to attach Ketill’s name to his own, and although Ketill was wary to become connected to anyone at this point, he also felt reluctant to sleep in the snow. So, Ketill nodded, and smiled politely.
Over the course of the next three days, Ketill, Basim, Najla and Yasamin were fed and taken care of, even given extra furs when the nights were too cold. Ketill had denied, as he was quickly becoming accustomed to his homeland climate, and the fire that was kept going constantly helped with that too. Their hospitality seemed to know no bounds and, despite their exotic status, as well as being seen as ‘servants’ or outsiders, Najla, Basim and Yasamin were treated as equals. It must have been strange for them, as it was almost customary among the Sawarim to treat the slaves like dirt under your feet, yet here they were seemingly not better or worse than even the merchant himself. A rule they would come to understand later in time, perhaps.
It was three days later, also, that the althingi reconvened. Ketill and Najla were brought forwards. It was not uncommon for the althingi to last this long, although it was uncommon for it to take this long for a singular case as simple as this one. The eldest among the judges would speak first, standing up as Ketill and Najla were both in their respective stands. ‘’After careful deliberation we have decided to continue the hearing, as there is no precedent for settling the disputes of outsiders and those who have been away for so long. We would be ready to pass judgement, lest you wish to call on witnesses to strengthen your case?’’
Ketill nodded at this and gestured to the left, where the young boy was stood, the ceremonial dagger that was originally Basim’s hanging from his belt. People watched in awe as the young boy walked up, being no older than eighteen and yet already having such an expensive weapon. It was very rare that you would see northerner with iron weapons, let alone such a fancy dagger made of gold and weak steel, the imposing nature of which was only strengthened by the jewel inlaid on the pommel. It was undecidedly useless in combat, but that mattered little since the people here had never seen such a thing, much less would they know of the properties.
‘’This boy here was witness to her as she tried to kill herself,’’ Ketill announced it, which caused a gasp of shock to rouse around the althingi. Suicide was seen as the lowest of deaths and, in their faith, was doomed to an eternity spent lingering in Hel itself, on the worst of places.
‘’Yes, ‘tis true. She had this blade at her neck,’’ he said while holding up the dagger, before letting it fall against his leg again, held up by a leather strap. ‘’She said something in her strange language, and I was just in time to stop her. She fought back, and even bit me, but I managed to restrain her.’’
The judges nodded, and one of them stood up and asked further. ‘’Do you think the words she spoke were seidr, magic?’’
Another stood up then, and joined him. ‘’Did it strike you as something a Völva does?’’
The boy looked at Najla then, and despite his anger at her for biting him, he shook his head. ‘’No. She’s no völva. There were no runes or anything.’’
It seemed that despite what Najla or Basim would’ve thought, the hearing would be quite fair, as Ketill himself had little leverage here. Although the stories of his trip would be interesting to many, he also had little in the shape of connections or fame, which would be a problem when it came to trusting his word over hers.
‘’Any further witnesses?’’ the leader of the judges asked, and Ketill shook his head, to which he looked at Najla. It seemed now that she would also be given the chance to call on witnesses – though those would likely be limited to Basim and Yasamin, and Yasamin’s usefulness was something Ketill himself doubted too.
It was unbearable for Najla to wait out those next few days, despite how comfortable their hosts had tried to make them. For one, the cold was even worse than her nights in the castle, and she’d spent much of her time huddled under those thick furs, which seemed slightly amusing to those who were used to it. For another, it seemed as if she were always being watched, trapped under the curious eyes of those who hosted her. It was a strange sensation, and it ripped away any chance she had to give in to grief, being entirely unwilling to do so in front of these strange people. Her relationship with Basim had been soured, and worse of all, she’d been unable to take her own life. Now she was made to wait, until they gave Ketill hers.
It came as no surprise then, that her hosts had found Basim to be a far more pleasant subject than either her or Yasamin. The girl still had not gotten over the loss of her eye, or perhaps more importantly, her beauty. Najla did not blame her, though she found that she could conjure no pity for the girl. And Najla’s attempt clearly had not sat entirely well with the northerners, especially the boy she’d bit. For her part, Najla was unreceptive when any but Basim spoke to her, mostly responding with a vague frown as if she could not understand what they were saying. Perhaps true, but her brother seemed to manage with some effort, and his curiosity as to their ways made him easier to engage.
It left Najla in silence for a the next few days, something that was preferable for her and likely, the others in the tent. Basim was the only one who she’d truly engage with when speaking, and their relationship had turned strange, for he had not forgotten her attempt. He was not angry with her, not entirely, though perhaps if she had not been waiting to die, he would have been. Najla believed he had every right to be. Yet, he said nothing of it, and it seemed more like the gravity of the situation had put a distance between them. He would make efforts to bridge it, just as Najla did, knowing any day could be her last here, but any talks of the future were usually soured. They only spoke in memories now.
She’d clutched her hand around another horn of ale her hosts had given her, as she had refused food once more. Najla had tried not to, since her first night here, but only to ease her brother. Now, she drank the ale slowly, her eyes resting on the golden dagger the boy had snatched from her hand, now hanging on his hip.
<“Take a bite of my bread, at least.”>
<“I won’t eat it.”>
<“What will you eat then?”>
Najla was silent for a mere moment, glancing back at her brother with a slight smile.
<“Pomegranates. Don’t you miss them? Mama always yelled at me when I’d stain my dress with them, but it was worth it.”>
<“They’ve been generous hosts, but I don’t think they’d be able to find us that.”>
They had been generous, something that had sat oddly with Najla at first. It was a common teaching of her people to be generous to those under their care, but she had never shown that, nor had she seen need to. Basim had, he seemed incapable of doing anything but, yet their wealth and power had a substantial effect on what they had considered generous. It had been a generosity to give Yasamin to Ketill, though perhaps Ketill had never noticed. It had been a generosity not to cut Ketill’s tongue out. Najla had rarely sought to treat others as her equal, for few could come close to a Sultana, but it did not seem quite so odd to her brother, who had merely been pleasantly surprised. Najla however, treated it almost with wariness, waiting for what they’d ask of her. Still, it was a strange thought that these people followed the teachings of her God more closely than she did.
<“Pity.”> Her eyes fell upon that dagger again, so intently that she did not notice the merchant’s young daughter approaching. <“Everything else tastes like ash now.”>
Najla was suddenly startled, feeling a presence just before she looked up to see the girl standing just beside her. Her surprise did not last long, and the frown quickly returned to her face, as if she could not understand the girl's words, though she had not spoken any yet. Rather, she simply held out a piece of bread towards Najla, probably not realizing that she had already been offered food. She had been about to refuse, but a glance back at Basim was enough to convince her not to, though she had not been eager to eat before. The added guilt of refusing her host seemed to convince her well enough, and Najla reached up with her free hand, taking the bread with a grateful nod. She had meant to turn away once more, but the girl reached toward her hand as if to grab it, causing Najla to pull her hand towards her with a sudden jerk before she could touch it.
“Can I see?”
The frown returned to Najla’s face, angrier than before, though it would not last long. The girl had not meant to insult or frighten her. Rather, Najla’s glance moved onto the three sons at the other end of the tent, feeling as if they were eyeing the interaction curiously. She had not been receptive to anything they’d said, but perhaps they were wondering if it’d be the same with their sister. It seemed not, for Najla hesitated only a moment before moving the bread to her left hand, raising her right up for the girl to inspect as she pleased. The girl took her hand softly, and Najla eyed her warily as she looked over it.
“What is it?”
She pointed at the tattoo on her hand, though Najla would not have needed the clarification. There was little else that could have drawn her attention, perhaps other than the color of her skin.
“An olive tree.”
Najla smiled as the girl repeated the word back to her, drawing her hand out of hers, though with no harshness this time. “A fruit.” She held up her hand, using her fingers to illustrate the size of an olive to her. “They are purple or green, and the tree has many.”
“What do they taste like?”
Najla turned her head then, looking back at her brother. Basim was watching the interaction closely, perhaps surprised that his sister was speaking so openly about her homeland when she had been somewhat unwilling to do so with the other strangers. Especially because she was talking about the famed olive trees, the symbol she’d always associate with Osman now.
<“How would you describe the taste?”>
“You cannot eat it off the tree. Too bitter. It is soaked in salt, to give flavor.”
Basim’s explanation seemed to satisfy the girl, who took Najla’s hand again softly once more, her eyes tracing over the tree. It must have been a curious sight to the girl, and Najla braced for another question, but it seemed her decision was quickly changed. Najla felt the girl’s fingers trace against the scar that cut across her fingers, accidentally at first, but then, she turned her hand over. Her eyes widened slightly as she looked over the scar, an odd sight on the body of someone who had never worked.
“Did he do that?”
The girl looked over at Ketill, but before she could even return her gaze to Najla, she had ripped her hand away. The bread in her left hand, she dropped into Basim’s plate of food as she stood, walking away from the two without another word. She did not have anywhere to go but out into the snow, if only for the barest of moments. If anything, at least the cold cleared her mind faster. None would try to stop her, but the girl watched her as she walked away, clearly wondering what she’d done to offend her.
“It was not Ketill” Basim was quick to explain, reaching down to pick up the bread Najla had dropped for him. At least he wouldn’t let it go to waste. “Her husband did that.”
“She is married?”
That gave him reason to pause. He didn’t know. It was a question Basim had not thought about, for good reason. It simply didn’t matter. None this far north cared if she was married or not, and none of those south cared either, they’d gut her either way. Legally, however, it was an interesting question. The Sultan had died before he could finish the vows, but their names had been inked in agreement long ago. After a brief moment of thought, weighing out various thoughts, he glanced back up at the girl.
“By our laws, yes. By yours, I do not know.”
The night before the day of her trial, Najla had been unable to sleep. Rather, she’d spent her night huddled under the furs, trying to ignore the cold, her tongue mindlessly repeating prayers as if they’d bring some comfort. Prayers that she’d join her family, that Basim would be kept safe, that Osman would never have children, prayers that kept her mind racing through the night. She did not know if they were good for anything else but to keep her busy, for the more she spoke, the less she believed her God was listening anymore.
Still, it gave her some comfort as she was brought before that mass of people again. Larger this time, she noticed, the story of the southern warrior and his former slaver must have drawn quite a great deal of attention. Najla did not seem to care, none of them would help her. Her fate was in the hands of a land she’d never set foot in before, and she could do little but await their judgement. Thus, Najla was ready to hear her fate, but was surprised when Ketill stalled, calling forward a witness.
The boy strode forwards, and Najla’s eyes traced him as they had in the tent. There was little question as to what he’d say about her, she was not surprised to hear the words come from his mouth. She had not expected the shock of the crowd in response however, though her eyes snapped up to the judges, knowing their reaction mattered far more. It was not quite a sin among her people, and in many cases, better than life itself. Still, it was not her attempt itself that brought a reaction from the judges, but they had stood when he relayed that she’d spoken in her own tongue. Najla tried to understand what they were saying, but these were unfamiliar words to her now. She’d never heard of a volva, what even was it that they were accusing her of? She looked back at Basim, as if his expression would provide some explanation, but it seemed she did not need to. The boy shook his head, denying whatever accusations they’d put forth. A relief, but a miniscule one.
Then, it seemed it was her turn. Witnesses? Witnesses to what? She’d done all that Ketill accused of, there was no denying it. She’d done plenty more, crimes far worse than those she’d committed against Ketill, though that was not to be judged now. Perhaps those would be left to her God, at least. Her eyes moved over the crowd, resting on the only two faces who’d bear any tie to her story. Yasamin would not help her. Najla knew this even as her eyes rested on the girl, supporting Najla meant taking a side against Ketill, which was hardly wise in her current position. Najla would not have spoken if she was her. Rather, she lifted her hand, gesturing the one person she knew would vouch for her, regardless of her crimes.
“My blood, will you speak for me?”
She spoke in Broacienian, a conscious choice after she’d noted their apparent wariness regarding her own tongue. Besides, doing so would keep out any notion that she’d speak to Basim, to tell him what to say. It was not as if she’d be able to do so anyways. Still, he did not even answer her words, only walking towards her without a second thought. He stood by her, looking up at the judges, before down to his sister once more.
“What would you have me tell them of?”
“Tell them of the scars he brandishes. Who ordered them?”
There was a moment of hesitation, and Basim looked down at her, confused. Najla nodded at him, as if urging him to continue. It was not the question he’d wanted to answer, but it seemed Najla would leave no room for any to claim she’d brought her brother to lie for her.
“Ketill punched your husband.” He looked up at the judges then, speaking slowly so they would understand. “In our land, for a slave to strike a free man is… not forgivable. For any reason.”
“And then, when he killed free men after that? Why did I stay my hand?”
Again, Basim looked down at her with some confusion. To him, the reasons were obvious, and to Ketill, they would likely be as well. It had been upon her orders that both Sa’aqr and Yazan died, it would have been unfair to kill Ketill for a service to her. They had been fair duels, after all, there should have been no reason for punishment. But her brother was a clever boy, and Najla watched as he fit the pieces in his mind. There were many reasons she shouldn’t have hurt him, but the reason Ketill bore no lashes from these deaths was not because she have been persuaded by morals. More than that, Basim knew Najla had little care for her own life now, with few opportunities to denounce her own guilt. There was only one she cared for.
“I told her not to. Osman called for it, both times, but I told her it was not fair.”
“Who is Osman?”
The question came from one of the judges on the stand, and Basim glanced up, as if suddenly realizing the audience to his story. He’d been speaking slowly, cautiously, making certain they understood, and yet, had simultaneously lost himself in those old memories.
“Her husband. If I had known what she bore to refuse him…”
He had meant to continue it seemed, likely to begin speaking about Najla in a way that might have shed some of her guilt, though she did not seem intent on doing so herself. Still, Najla would not allow him, her harsh words cutting her brother off swiftly.
“Tell them what I bore to refuse him.”
Basim would not have a choice to answer, for Najla would quickly continue, her words rising in volume as she spoke, the slow, careful pace in which they’d said their words before, to make certain as much of them as possible could be understood, it too, would slowly fade as her emotions heightened. As she spoke, it was clear she was no longer worried about making certain Basim could not be responsible for her crimes, nor her own guilt. Her eyes would turn to Ketill as she spoke, her words directed at them the more she continued speaking.
“Tell them! How many of my blood had to die because Ketill breathes? How many? How dare you ask for my blood, any crime I have committed has been repaid a hundredfold! Beast! If only if I could have slit my throat, if only I would have been able to join them in death, how could you keep me here to suffer? What more could I owe you?”
The crowd had begun to react as she spoke, for while such shows of anger were seemingly not uncommon in their courts, Najla was clearly losing control of herself. It was Basim that silenced her, reaching out and taking his sister in his arms much as he had the night of her wedding. Now, no sobs escaped her, and her mind felt even clearer than before as she heard the judge speak, clearly directed at Basim, not her.
“Is this true? How many of your family did he kill?”
“Ketill? By his hands, none.”
“So she is lying?”
“No.” Basim replied again, releasing his sister. She seemed to have calmed herself somewhat, though her eyes still rested angrily on Ketill. “Hundreds did die. We are the last of our blood.”
“My brother is innocent of any crime, and yet, he suffers. Whatever imaginary crimes I have committed, I have repaid them a hundredfold. If I must die, let me do so by my hand. I owe no more to this beast.”
Her final words had not sat entirely well with the crowd, who did not seem enthralled by Najla’s death wish. Still, the bits and pieces of their story they’d been fed had been fascinating to the crowd, though Najla would allow Basim to give no more. Rather, she turned around, grasping his cheek tightly before she reached up to kiss the other.
<“Leave me to my fate. Whether I live or die, go. Don’t stop to bury me.”>
She turned now, making it clear to the judges by her silence that she had nothing left to say. Her witness testimony had done little but to clarify her own guilt in the matter, that she’d complied to her husband’s demands. At best, there could be no doubt that Basim was not involved in her crimes, and for that, Najla was grateful. More than that, she could not know just how much of their words they had truly understood, likely the easier words had been decipherable, but their accents were thicker than she'd even realized. She could only wait for her fate now.
<“I mean it, my blood. Don’t bury me. I want to be with Jalil.”>
Three teenagers, ages 18, 17, and 16 respectively broke into someone's home to rob them. After discovering them in the act and 'exchanging words,' the home-owner gunned all three boys down. Thoughts?