Thursday, February 23, 2017

Wolves of Sorrow

Dagmar stood on the wooden platform in the middle of the forest, waiting for the ritual to end. The rich scent of the earth’s awakening to spring brought anxiety to the forefront of her mind. I should be planting crops, not grieving. I don’t even know what to say about this…She wiped the tears away, catching a slightly disapproving look from the priestess, Birgit. No more tears. That time is done.

No tears.

They would not hand her the shield if she continued to cry. It belonged to her husband. It lay over his body when his companions brought him home. Birgit took the shield from his body and presented it to Dagmar with an invitation to join the Wolves of Sorrow. Her heart full of rage at the warriors across the sea who killed him, Dagmar accepted without a thought. Now she wondered if her courage would match her desire for revenge.

Her husband’s shield had been repainted with a depiction of a wolf’s face in dark purple. A single tear appeared under the left eye, the eye sacrificed for knowledge by Odin the Allfather. She accepted the redesigned shield with a grateful bow.

She was no stranger to battle. Everyone in the village could sharpen weapons and step through the basic attack and defensive movements. With Björn by her side, she fought in a skirmish to keep raiders from plundering their village several years ago.

And now she stood with the widow-warriors, about to voyage across the sea to protect the settlements and hunt the men who broke the treaty. Her husband’s friends told her that he had been killed by the king himself.

The priestess held up a sword to the crowd of women surrounding the platform. “We know this belongs to one of King Cuthbert’s soldiers. They may not have been wearing the armor of their kingdom, but they still carried the king’s weapons. They are no more than well-paid bandits, and we’ll show them what it means to rob us.”

The resounding cheers swept her up and she held up the shield, mimicking Björn’s battlecry. As the women marched down the hill from the forest and through the village, they beat their axes against their shields, each bearing the same wolf face. Villagers paused in their tracks for the procession. Onward, thought Dagmar as she raised her axe and shield and shouted. Onward to war.

They reached the shore and waded out to the dragon ships. The Wolves of Sorrow took up three boats, followed by the vikings who made their lives by exploring and raiding other lands. They pushed out with their oars and slowly rowed out of the narrow bay.

Clouds played among the mountaintops as they passed down the bay to the open ocean. The evergreen trees towered over each other and the occasional cry of golden eagles soared over the water. Dagmar shivered suddenly at the world around her. Rarely having left the village, she now realized the vast beauty around her in a new way. That Björn didn’t return standing at the prow of the dragon ship still seemed surreal to Dagmar. For days, she expected to see him walk by the hearth and sit next to her on the bench, and share a story from his travels or offer her some mead. Alas, his side of the bed remained cold. Cold as the light breeze that came down the bay. As placid as the water that stretched out on both sides of the ships. His blanket untouched, though she longed to wrap herself up in it and sleep to forget the world without him.

No storms accompanied them across the sea. The priestess said it was a blessing. “They favor the Wolves of Sorrow,” she said. “They’ll guide us right through the king’s front gates. Cuthbert will fall to his knees and beg us for mercy. We will grant him none.” The widow-warriors shouted in agreement. Steadily and with unflagging determination, they reached the shores of Northumbria, where dark clouds began to gather.

Low thunder rolled across the sky, as though the gods grumbled in impatience. The warriors made camp near the windowless citadel where the petty king resided. A nearby monastery bustled with activity. Monks tended their gardens and loaded barrels of ale onto wagons.

Like the gods, Dagmar was growing impatient. The moment came when the king led a hunting party out of the citadel’s front gate. Accompanied by a couple dozen friends and guards, they rode out into the woods in a column.

A while later, a young scout, Askr, appeared with his bright eyes through the leaves where the warriors hid and watched. “They’re far enough away from the citadel! They’re busy setting up tents and drinking—now is the perfect time!”

The ambush happened quickly. The Wolves of Sorrow led the charge into King Cuthbert’s distracted encampment with raised axes and shields. The Northumbrian men were taken aback at first, bewildered by the sight of the women in armor. A man with a black and white striped beard laughed. Others joined him. The laughter turned to a bellow of disbelief and agony when Dagmar’s axe cut into his shoulder and almost severed his arm from his body. The men gaped and fumbled for their swords. Unprepared, they scrambled as the warrior-widows tore through them in flashes of steel and blood with the rain pounding down on them all. Lightning cracked overhead, illuminating the steel.

Dagmar advanced on the king with her axe held high. “It was you.”

She saw that he didn’t understand her words, but he trembled slightly, his path blocked from any weapon. Her lip twitched in a smile as he held up his hands. His words trembled too.

She plucked the crown from his head and hitched it on the end of the scabbard on her belt. “My son will wear this. We will make him king of Northumbria.” She drove the blade into the side of the king’s neck and it was done. Dagmar turned to the other warriors, emerging into the camp now that the Wolves of Sorrow slaked their thirst. The widows howled and bayed, their prey conquered, their pack ever stronger.