Monday, January 24, 2011

Among the Skraelings

1003 AD

The crickets were terribly loud in the darkness. Leif hoped they would mask his hard breathing and pounding heart. His ears pricked, trying to hear... anything, anything other than the insects.

Instead he felt a gentle pressure between his shoulder blades, and heard the skraeling whisper in Norse, "Do not move."

Leif did not. After a moment another skraeling appeared from the shadows of the forest to his left, crept forward silently, reached out and took Leif's sword and shield. He did not resist.

"You should not kill me," he said in the 'Namgis language, to make sure they understood. "I can negotiate peace."

There was no answer. The skraeling in front of him bound his hands with rope, and he was led -- with one skraeling ahead, one behind, and one on each side -- through the humid moon-spattered forest night for perhaps half a mile. Leif tried to talk a few times, but never got a reply.

At last they came to a large bonfire, with many armed skraelings around it, eating, talking, and tending to their wounded. As they arrived, the talking died down, and in a moment all of them were staring at him.

"We have Leif Erikson," said the skraeling behind him -- not triumphantly, but with a sort of weary satisfaction. Hardly any of them moved, but Leif felt the sense of relief that washed over the assembled skraelings.

Leif was a brave man, and he did not lose hope or faith. But this was not good. He was running out of options.

His captors led him to a large log building at the edge of the light of the fire, and through a great door. Inside, it reminded him a lot of the wooden halls of the Viking warrior-kings: elaborately carved (though the carvings here were strange and alien), hung with tapestries and rugs, with a central fire and wooden tables and seating. At the head of the table, though, sat a man completely unlike a Viking lord: black-haired and unbearded, with dark skin and eyes, wearing little but what passed for jewelry here: necklaces and rings of shells, bone, and wood. He stood up as Leif was brought in.

Leif was halted a few feet in front of the door. The head man walked slowly over to him. Leif had met him a couple of times before; his name was Tall Cedar, and he was indeed tall for his people, though he stood a few inches shorter than Leif. He was not the chief of all the 'Namgis -- there was no single great chief -- but he lead a large family, and was well-respected all over the river valley.

He looked at Leif skeptically for a few moments, and Leif looked back as steadily as he could. Then he said, "Clean his wounds and give him something to eat, and then we will speak with him."

While Leif was being tended to, he tried to weigh his options. The stockade had been breached -- what, three hours ago? Four? And Leif had managed to fight his way out, along with Thorvald and a few others. The skraelings had swarmed everywhere like bees, and there had been so much confusion in the darkness that he and Thorvald and the others had been separated. For all he knew, they were now all dead. He would have to rely on his captors for information -- never a good situation.

When he was brought back into the main room of the great house, Tall Cedar and half a dozen advisors -- men and women -- were sitting in a circle on the floor by the fire. Tall Cedar gestured to indicate that Leif should sit next to him, and offered him a decorated pipe. Leif wordlessly took it and tried it. He'd seen the skraelings smoking many times, but had never taken up the habit himself, so he coughed a bit. The skraelings smiled and nodded at him.

"So, Leif Erikson," said Tall Cedar in the 'Namgis language. "You understand me?"

"Well enough," said Leif.

Tall Cedar nodded. "Good. Then hear me. The village your people built, with its walls and iron, has been broken and is burning. My family, and the other families around here, we have it now."

Tall Cedar stopped and studied him. Leif stared back, hoping his face was expressionless.

"So," said Tall Cedar at last. "There is still fighting. Up on the south ridge, some of your people came to a village and captured some of our families. They will not give up, and we will not give up. But it is time to speak of peace."

Leif nodded. "Tall Cedar," he said, "I speak for all the Norse when I say: we all want to live in peace."

Tall Cedar nodded. "So you say," he said. "Yet you attacked us without warning. Why did you do that?"

"You stole some of our gold. We asked for it back, and you refused. So we attacked. Surely you know this."

Tall Cedar smoked thoughtfully a moment. "I did not steal any gold."

"You 'Namgis did. Your people did."

"I do not think so. But even if they did, that is no business of mine, or of my family. Yet you attacked us."

Leif was in no position to argue. "I am sorry. We were not sure who had done it. We wanted to frighten -- we wanted to make sure no one would do it again."

Tall Cedar stared at the smoke from the pipe. "So tell me, Leif Erikson: if a toy is broken, do you punish all the children in the village?"

Leif shook his head. "That's not -- "

"We are not children, Leif Erikson. If you say wrong is done, then we must have words, yes? We must meet and talk. In Norse you call it a Thing, am I right?"

"An assembly, a trial, yes, that is a Thing," said Leif. "But many of my people did not believe that you would join us in a Thing, or abide by its rulings."

"So you attacked us, to punish us," said Tall Cedar. "Because you did not trust us to act as adults. And so now, we, the 'Namgis, do not trust that you will have peace with us."

Leif suddenly had the feeling that the talk was getting away from him, that things were getting dangerous. "I am sure we can have peace," said Leif. "We have to work to build trust, to -- "

"Yes," said Tall Cedar. "That would be good. But how? And will your people do that work? I do not think so. You may have fine words for me now, but in a month, or a year, some more gold will go missing, perhaps, or a child be lost. And then you will ride out on your horses, and wave your sharp iron, and we will have blood again."

"That will not happen," insisted Leif. "Listen to me -- "

"That is right, it will not happen," said Tall Cedar. "You and your people will get back on your long ships and sail back where you came from."

"There is another way," said Leif.

Tall Cedar stared at him, eyes narrowed. "Speak, then."

"We have a custom," said Leif. "Not so much now, but in the old days. If two clans were battling or feuding, and could not come to an agreement, they would have an exchange of family."

Leif waited for some indication of understanding, confusion, agreement, disagreement -- anything at all from Tall Cedar's face. The chief's face remained unmoving, so he plunged on. "There might be a marriage arranged. Or sons or daughters or siblings of the chiefs would go to live with the other clan. You see? Even among our gods it was done."

Tall Cedar blinked and blew out a long trail of smoke. He looked at the fire and then back to Leif.

"I will need to talk about this with the grandmothers," he said at last. "But I think they will like it."

Leif allowed himself to relax just a tiny amount.

"To be honest," said Tall Cedar, "I was not happy that you would be going. This thing you trade us -- what is the word? Björ? Beer. It is most excellent."

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