Naked Threats (Entry IV)

Between the brush cover and the dangling tunics was ten feet of open space. Easy work. Except the theft needed to be quick and silent, with List-luck on our side. If we caught the attention of the three Roman's too early, it would be a tight race to the horses before enraged, half-washed soldiers overtook us. 

I signalled Keld to return to the mares and stand ready. We had picketed the horses a few steps into the trees. If seen, there would not be time to pull the spikes from the ground and mount before our pursuers caught up to us.

Keld shook his head, flared his nostrils at me. "You go get them," he mouthed. 

I did not move. 

He knew I would not. He chewed the inside of his cheek, taking his time, deciding whether to let me have my way. Was a good joke worth giving in? Keld would think it was. I let him stew, knowing time would soften his resolve. Finally, he turned away and tread lightly back the way we had come, leaving me to grab the treasure.  

Admittedly, the odds of me reaching the tree limb, claiming the garments and retreating unseen were better while the soldiers exchanged grumbles and laughs. They were not talking now. Only the gurgle of the stream and the rustle of a breeze through fledgling leaves would cover my movements.

Mitath--Keeper of Measure--whispered in my ear that this might not be the best idea. She was usually right, but her words fell softly, and I was not in the mood to listen. The ground was hard-packed, dry, free of noise-makers. And the vision of damp Roman's forced to ride bare through their garrison, stripped of their dignity in front of their superiors and their slaves, overpowered my patience to "measure" my actions. Besides, Mitath, beautiful as she was rumored to be, was upright and boring, my least favorite of the high god's children.

One of the Romans jumped to the center to the stream. He had spied something--a fish or a frog--and made two clumsy attempts to pluck it from the stream. I used the commotion to positioned myself as near to the clothing as I could get. The three were joking now, taunting the fisher-soldier.

Now or never.

I closed the distance to the branch, had the material bunched between my hands, when I cleverly thought to lift the bundle instead of sliding it, to avoid it snagging and rustling the end leaves.

This was a miscalculation. The branch leaves drew my focus but were not the danger. 

I should have listened to Mitath.

Had the bundle contained only wool and linen, I would have return to the bush undetected, and Keld and I would have been riding away before the soldiers knew of the theft. 

But as soon as I moved the tunics something dropped from under the pile of clothing, something heavy attached to a thick gold chain. The thud of it on the hard dirt, along with the clink of metal, betrayed my movements, and the soldiers whipped their heads around. They shouted at me, trudging out of the water. 

I was not interested in the gold, only the tunics. I left the shiny yellow where it had fallen and ran with my armload of material, shouting, "There coming!" I could see Keld ahead atop his mare, holding Lok, my mare, by a saddle horn. 

To look back would slow me down. I kept my head down and my pace up, but I could hear them. The soldiers shouted at me: mixed in were the Roman words for stop, arrest, beating, hanging. The smart move was to throw the clothes, give them pause and something else to chase. But in truth, I didn't want to. I wanted them to chase me, so I could beat them, so I could see a Roman out in the open, exposed, having lost something.

I ran for Keld, grabbed hold of his arm across Lok's back and used the leverage to hoist myself up, stinking tunics up my nose, scraping my chest against the saddle leather before swinging one leg over, facing backwards long enough to see the Romans free of the trees, red-faced and coming at us.

"Go!" I kicked my heals before I could get myself upright. Lok sensed the danger and shot through the low grass, no obstacles to keep her from a full sprint. We were two hundred feet away from the trees before I dared glance back again. There they were, those three Romans, stomping and cursing, loincloths sagging, getting smaller and smaller as Keld and I put more distance between us and retribution. In the moment, I would have said any punishment was worth that sight. Of course, that was a stupid, little-boy notion. I was floating on my own pride and lacked experience. Punishment to a child is a lashing, a shamed-faced apology, extra work in the fields. I did not know about adult consequences. I would soon find out.

Keld and I did not stop laughing until we crossed the last of the streams and entered Wahtwa lands. No man would get within a mile of the high priestess--the Angel of Death--without the head of the Wahtwa knowing. The Wahtwa would have scouts posted. If the Romans followed us, Keld and I would not have to face them alone. 

We dismounted at the stream and allowed the horses to drink. We filled our water-bladders, and I unrolled the stolen bundle so Keld could see our prize. We had gotten the best of the soldiers, barely, and we buried a portion of bread with three smooth stones in the soft earth near the stream as an offering of thanks to List for our good fortune. 

Unreleased energy pounding at my temples and pumped through my limbs as I told Keld of the fallen gold. He waved the tunic before him, pretending he was a Roman soldier chasing me. I grabbed the tunic from him and wrestled the imaginary soldier, punching red, wrangling the cloth...

...until it bit me. 








A Gift from the Trickster (Entry III)

Keld and I did not need to know the path we traveled to understand what direction we must go. We knew how the water flowed. That was enough. 

Our fathers had built our Amal clan longhouses near a river. Oescus River, the Romans called it. The Romans had named their military fortress and city after it. 

The Oescus flowed south to north, feeding into the imposing Danau — Danubius to the Romans — a couple miles to the north.  

Streams branched from the Oescus and trickled east over our laeti lands. Every child above age six in our clan knew the streams, and Keld and I could mark our distance from our Amal homestead by the strength and position of the small currents. Thus we were never lost. 

Sometimes the water pooled where the land dipped slightly. Around the pools, the terrain softened, trees grew thick, and beasts and critters flourished. So as Keld and I rounded the edge of a particularly lush grouping of green and saw squirrels and hares scrambling from the brush, we knew two things. First, we had reached the lowest point of our half-day journey to the Angel, so we were nearly to the edge of Wahtwa lands. And second, something had disturbed the balance within the trees.

I slowed Lok--my mare--to a stop.

“What are you doing?” Keld asked. I heard the warning in his voice but chose to ignore it.

“A winter-old sack of grain is no gift for the priestess,” I said, scanning the tree line.

“Stay the course, Karig. We need to do what we were told this time.” But Keld turned his eyes to follow my gaze just as a doe darted into the open. "Well," he reconsidered, "it would be impolite to ignore such a sign from the gods." 

Keld loved the hunt.  

I edged Lok closer to the tree line.

Twigs snapped from somewhere inside the brush, and the doe scampered off. 

“Whatever is causing the ruckus, it is not small," I said. 

“Maybe too big. It could be a boar. Remember Radlig...”

...our unfortunate uncle, his leg torn open on the hunt. We had lit the fires for Radlig's journey to the Warrior's Table before we had roasted the wild pig that had sent our uncle on his way.

I hesitated. “If it is too much for us, we will continue on with our stale grain.”

“This is a bad idea,” Keld said, but not like he meant it. 

I smiled and took off toward the trees. Keld called me a name before he followed.  

At the trees line I dismounted and walked low and softly through the first layers of light brush. Only a few steps in, I froze, waited for Keld and pointed thirty paces ahead where a lowland stream had pooled. There, on the water’s edge, was the source of the commotion. 

Not a boar. 

Men. Three of them. Stripped to their loincloths, scrubbing at their limbs in the shadowed stream. 

If they were Flatland Greuthungi or even Tervingi, Keld and I would have retreated from the woods and been on our way. 

But these men were Romans.  

They had hung their red legion tunics and un-dyed leggings from trees branches to keep the clothes clean and dry. Stupid, arrogant arses that they were, they had not tried to cover the red, but left the material to swing like flags marking territory that was not theirs to mark. 

Keld and I hated the Romans, though we had never spoken directly to one. Our fathers fought along side the legionnaires—made camp with them—yet were never on equal standing. The pay for an auxiliary man was half of a Roman's. Food, weapons and living quarters went to the garrison of Oescus and the regular legion first. Our fathers got the scraps. And this was not how it should be.

On the Steppe, where Keld and I were born, the Greuthungi were strong and fierce and ready to bleed for what was required. A man fought and hunted, helped to feed the clan, had honor. Not like here. Within Roman territory we were not called citizens, and if there was an agreement between Roman and Goth, a Goth could only trust that it would be honored.

And I did not trust.  

These Romans on laeti land were breaking an agreement. This was an insult…and a threat. What would happen if clan children came across these trespassers? The area was well-tread and free of kindling which meant the nearby clans--Goths, who would be women and children when the men were away—hunted and foraged here.

I looked at Keld, whose lips were drawn tight. I wanted to throw stones at the bare Roman backsides, heckle these men. But we were alone, without clansmen behind us. Even I knew it was too dangerous to make ourselves known. And what good would a few stones do, anyway? None.

It is a terrible thing to feel angry and helpless all at once. 

And yet…

There were only three bathers, and they had taken no precaution for their security. Their backs were to us, all three were nearly naked, barefooted and wet, with their clothes twenty paces from their reach. The Roman soldiers, who bragged of their superiority and called Goths backwards, had left their hindquarters and their honor exposed.

I laughed silently and whispered thanks to the gods for our good fortune. 

Keld placed a hand on my shoulder to stop whatever I was about to do. He threw me a quizzical look, heavy warning still nestled in his brow. I tilted my chin up to the swinging tunics. 

His grim face lightened. He swallowed a laugh and caution left him. I knew it would.

This opportunity could only be a gift from List -- the Trickster. And List was Keld’s favorite of the many gods.

Together, we moved through the trees toward our new prey. 





The Return of the Dead (Entry II)

Mid-Spring (344 AD)

The last time I saw my father—before the Romans carried me arse-up from the Gothlands—he appeared in the middle of day, riding from the north toward our fields, three auxiliary men to each side of him.

It was mid-spring. After a quiet, well-stocked winter on laeti lands with their families, the men had gone to see about trouble north of the Danau. Now seven hazy shadows crested a rise in the land, my father two paces in front. 

Their return meant nothing good.

I should have understood this. But at twelve, I was all impulses and gut reactions and could not see past strong emotions. When the men approached--my father astride Agil, his prize stallion--I was proud. Then, when the men took better shape, my pride turned to outrage...and shame. 

My father—the highest ranked man among the group—was strapped to a long, low-sided cart like a pack mule. 

I knew what the cart meant. The cart held crusted blood and stink and the wails of women. It carried death.

My father had never overseen the return of the dead before. As commander of the auxiliary, he was needed at the front of the fighting. Yet there he was, lowering himself to the rank of messanger. Something was wrong. But all I could see was the mud-caked cart creaking and thumping behind him, when it should have been attached to one of the others.

I shouted to Keldamar and Dagmar.

We escaped from our duties and ran through freshly plowed dirt to meet the men. My younger brother Matthi, always underfoot, ran after us. I did not bother shewing him away. He would not have listened. 

When we neared the men, Keldamar slowed and grabbed hold of my arm at the elbow. I was annoyed to break stride, then felt a tremor in his hand. One of Keld’s five remaining brothers could be dragging along behind my father, cut up, wounds seeping, and Keld took his time whenever the deathguard appeared. 

I slowed with him. Some of the pressure released from my head. Keld and I approached the party together, after Dagmar, for it was right Prince Dagmar meet the men first.

From the back of Agil, my father acknowledged Dagmar with a tight nod, then looked past him to Keld.

“Rest easy,” he said and Keld released a breath.

In the cart there were three bodies for the fires. Two were Greuthungi, neither from our clan. They hailed from a forest clan to the west of us. My father said their names, names we knew but not well, and maybe Keld would be relieved his brothers were probably still alive.

We were the clan of Amal, royal, but we had lost our share of men, too. Cousins, all. One day they were drinking and laughing and bragging of their exploits. Then they weren’t. Deaths were normal, especially in summer—the fighting season—the bodies returned to us by younger clansmen of no rank.

Keld raised his head to the third man on my father’s right, Thiuden, a prince among the forest clans. “They earned their place at the table,” Keld said to him.  

Thiuden bowed his head. 

I should have said respectful words, too, except my eyes were fastened to the straps connecting my father to the cart, my arms folded across my chest. 

“Helm the Younger,” my father said to me, to answer my unspoken question. His face was grave. Maybe he was disappointed in me. Did I care? My father had lugged a stinking Terving body behind him for days, and it did not sit well in my spleen. Why not give the job to one of the Tervingi who sat pompously on lessor bred horses to my father’s left? I thought of them laughing among themselves behind my father’s back, and I wanted to curse them or at least glare at them. I didn’t dare do either, but I wanted to. 

Still, I fumed and pouted. And showed my father my ignorance. 

“Who’s that?” my brother asked. I had forgotten Matthi was there. Matthi stretched his neck as if he would be able to see inside the cart from where he stood.

“The Balthi prince,” Keld answered. 

The three Tervingi with my father— dirt eaters, we called them—towered over us, pila at the ready, knives hanging from their belts. They would defend any slight to their Balthi leaders, otherwise even Keld--watchful of his words--would not have referred to Helm with any respectful title. 

Matthi, only eight, spit in the dirt upon hearing the Balthi name.

My father was off his horse and had Matthi by the back of the neck before the welp could retreat two steps. 

“Never again,” he growled low, barely a whisper. I snapped out of my thoughts, afraid for my brother.

If it had been me or our mother, Matthi would have spit again, daring us to do something about it. My brother wasn’t afraid of pain. But facing our father, he lowered his head and said only, “Yes, sir.”

My father let go of him and turned to Dagmar. “Have Fenja help your mother prepare a horse and travel bag for you. You are old enough, thirteen summers. It’s time you learned this.”

“Yes, sir.” Dagmar paled. He ran a hand through his straight, wheat colored hair, a nervous habit. 

“I will go with him.” I stepped forward. It should have come out as a request. Somehow it sounded like a demand. 

My father looked at me, “You and Keldamar will go to the Wahtwa. Tell them of the prince’s death. Ask if the priestess will see you. It would be right that the Angel oversee Prince Helm’s passage.”

I felt my face flush. I could not hide it. He was sending me to fetch an old woman when my duty—and Keld’s—was to protect Prince Dagmar. Matters involving the Angel were a mystery and belonged in the realm of woman. I swallowed a menacing lump. “Yes, sir,” I said and turned from him. 

The dead were not allowed among the longhouses. My father stayed with the rest of his men. They would guard the cart until the bodies were with their families. 

I gave no further thought to my father’s grave face or the dead in the cart or what any of this meant. We ran to our cluster of longhouses—six for sleeping and two for workshops—my brother calling for our mother the whole way through the fields. 

“Quiet your racket,” my mother said from her garden. 

“Father’s returned!” Matthi said.

I halfheartedly followed my brother around the corner of our longhouse where our mother and Aunt Brunhilde hunched over newly transplanted rows of cabbage in the family garden. 

My mother brushed off her course brown tunic, a crease in her brow, dirt in her auburn hair. “Why?”

Keld and I explained.

She cocked one eyebrow at Dagmar, then at me. “No,” she said and marched to the edge of our longhouse cluster where she scowled across the fields at my father. 

“But…” I protested. I had been insulted by the meanial task Keld and I had been assigned. Now it looked like we might not even get that. A day’s journey down well-worn paths was hardly an adventure, but anything beat farm chores. 

She held up a hand, cutting me off. “I’ll prepare food for the men, but you boys will not be leaving this farm.” 

If she stood her ground, I would go nowhere. Neither would Keld or even Dagmar. My father might lead a thousand men, but the women lorded over the farm, the longhouses, the children. Until we were men, my mother’s word was law as far as me and Matthi were concerned. And Dagmar, too, because his mother was not usually up to saying anything that made sense. 

“Aunt Fenja…” Keld interjected, his tone more reasonable than mine had been. 

“No,” she said again. “Brunhilde,” she called to her sister. The two women whispered their way to the storehouse.  

Dagmar stood quietly. He did not look as eager to travel as Keld or I. Who knew what he was thinking. I looked between the men in the distance and my stubborn mother and started after her ready to tell her what I thought. 

“Wait.” It was Dagmar’s tone that stopped me. Under the unsteady cracking, his voice had grown a backbone. “I will go talk to her,” he said and did not give me time to answer. 

I watched him go after the women, stunned, then looked at Keld. 

Keld shrugged. “His father had to be in there somewhere,” he said, then laughed. “It’s about time he inherited the family jewels.” 


Aunt Brunhilde appeared at the storehouse door first. She returned to the garden muttering to herself. Eventually, my mother emerged, Dagmar by her side. Each carried grain sack bulging with necessaries.

They crossed to us. Dagmar handed the smaller of the sacks to Keld. My mother set the larger in front of me. 

“That is for the men,” she indicated the sack at my feet with a curt nod. She flashed her hazel eyes and inhaled sharply. Her jaw muscle pulsed. I was sure Dagmar had angered her, which was more dangerous than riling my father. 

“You will go to the Angel and return directly,” she said. 

As I was remembering how to speak, she raised her eyebrow again, this time at me. 

“Yes, ma’am,” I said and heard Keld say the same.

“No fishing, hunting, fighting or diverting your course.”

“No, ma’am.” 

“Come,” she said to Dagmar. “Your mother was not feeling well this morning. I will see to your supplies.”  

Color had not returned to Dagmar’s face and his hair stuck to the left side of his head where he had continued to run his hand through it. He was full of fears and strange cautions I did not understand. He lived with his mother and two younger sisters at one end of our family longhouse, because the fighting men in their own family were dead. Dagmar followed my mother inside, where his mother slept much of the day and forgot her son’s name for the rest of it. 

My mother poked her head back through the door. “Well,” she snapped, “the horses will not ready themselves.”

Keld and I raced to the stables, now thankful to be going anywhere, I let go of the last of my anger. 

When we returned, leading three saddled mares between us, Dagmar was leaning against the weathered longhouse boards. He had a leather sachel slung over his shoulder. My mother was not with him.

“She is tending to my mother,” he said. 

“It will be Harvest Sacrifice before she speaks to any of us again,” Keld said.

“Probably longer.” Dagmar’s face remained solemn. 

We walked the horses across the field toward the waiting men. 

I was not worried about my mother, only about Dagmar. It would be the first time he would be away from Keld and me, and he was riding to the center of Tervingi territory. It felt all wrong.  

“Dags,” a familiar voice called behind us. Somehow, my right foot caught the edge of my left. I stumbled, twisted myself in the horse reins and felt my face flush hot again, this time for a different reason.

Dagmar’s oldest sister, Ishild, ran to catch up to us. 

“Here,” she held out three small willow twigs—the length of her fingers, thin and white as bone—to her brother. “Alba the Witch blessed them. For luck.”

Strands of her white blond hair had escaped from her braid and fell across her face. 

Dagmar smiled at her. Bent to kiss her cheek. 

Keld was closest to Dagmar. Ishild handed willows to him as well. 

To me, she said, “Do not do anything hot-headed, Karig.” She lay the willows in my hand, and I frowned at her. She was a year younger than me—a child—what did she know? Then she smiled, her ice blue eyes dancing. She stepped closer, reached out for the metal arrow—the rune of Tiews—that always hung from my neck, rose to the balls of her feet and kissed it. 

While I stood there frozen, she ran back to our longhouse. 

“Did she bless it, or curse it?” Keld asked. 

“Shut up,” I scowled. I walked in front of Keld and Dagmar, my face even hotter. I could not look at Dagmar the rest of the way to my father. 

The men had taken seats in the damp spring grass to wait for us. When they saw us, they remounted and prepared to depart. 

“Is he coming too?” One of the Tervingi motioned, and I turned to see my little brother riding like the wind up the small incline. He was on an unsaddled, half-trained pony, two years old.

Our father dismounted again and caught hold of the pony. He looked up to Matthi, but not too far because my father was nearly as tall as the pony and my brother together. 

“I am old enough,” Matthi said. 

“Not for this.” 

I waited for Matthi to argue. He only slumped. 

From his broad leather belt, our father drew his bone-handle knife. It had been presented to him by the Camp Prefect of the Legion. He shifted the handle to face my brother. “You are old enough for this,” he said. 

Matthi looked at him, eyes wide. He hesitated, wrapped his hand around the handle. 

My father returned to his horse, and we rode away, leaving Matthi sitting alone on his pony watching us. 

I did not think about my brother after that. 

Keld and I had been given a mission. It promised to be a boring ride over mostly flat land to speak to an old woman who might not agree to see us, but we were off the Amal farmlands and on our own.

As my father and his men disappeared down a path through the trees, I was stupid enough to wish that maybe a little danger would meet us along our way. 


The End of the Tale... (Entry I)

  The Angel of Death was a priestess among specific Goth tribes. Perhaps chosen in childhood by a reading of the runes, raised by the Angel who came before, her word was thought to be the word of the Goth gods.  

The Angel of Death was a priestess among specific Goth tribes. Perhaps chosen in childhood by a reading of the runes, raised by the Angel who came before, her word was thought to be the word of the Goth gods. 

My father is called Sakarig the Silent, a Greuthung Goth, a hunter from the borderless Steppe. Once a lessor cousin of the royal clan of Amal, he trained as a forger—a metal worker—like his father before him, along with his brothers, those that lived. But the Iudex—Reiks Dagmar the Elder—died. Reiks Dagmar’s only son was three, too young to lead, and the Eldermen of the Goth clans gathered, argued, then called on the Angel of Death to read the runes. 

Now my father, Sakarig the Silent—though not a reiks—leads the Amal. With this position comes the leadership of all the military age men of the displaced Northland clans—Greuthungi and Tervingi alike. Twelve hundred eighty three men between the ages of 17 and 45, at last count. These clansmen followed Dagmar the Elder into battle, then, upon Dagmar's death, followed my father to the banks of the Danau River and to the edge of the Roman Empire. My father spoke for the Greuthungi and the many clans who had sworn allegiance to the dead Reiks. In their name, my father pledged service to Rome so that these Gothmen, now refugees, might have lands within the Empire. 

One day, the Eldermen will call on the Angel, and she will cast the runes. If it is Tiews’ will, the Eldermen will elect Prince Dagmar the Younger, raise him to reiks, maybe to Iudex. Then my father will step down, and Prince Dagmar will lead the fighting men and be the voice of the Northland Goths within the Roman boundaries.

I once believed this to be the destiny of the prince. I once believed I would fight by Dagmar's side.

Fate laughed at my arrogance.


I, as eldest son, was given the name of Sakarig, after my father. I was Sakarig the Younger. The name of a forger’s son. Called Karig by all who knew me.

At the time of my birth, the Angel of Death recited the words and read the runes and shed the sacraficial blood. 

The runes spoke of a son of Sakarig carving a warrior’s path. This son would lead without title, be a great defender of the old ways, a light when the Greuthungi lost their way. It was read that a son of Sakarig would guide the Greuthungi back to their homelands, back to their gods and their honor. 

When the Angel finished her reading, she commanded the symbols written down--etched into the stones of the Steppe near my birthplace, the rough and wild home we were about to lose. 

Once written, a prophecy holds weight. It cannot be wrong. 

Even after the birth of my stubborn, fire-headed little brother, the Northland clans believed the Angel of Death—the runes, Tiews—had spoken of me. I, Sakarig the Younger, would be a warrior-leader without a title. And I believed in the will of Tiews, had accepted it without argument or doubt, until the moment the thin blade slid across my throat, and I broke through the serene surface of the swollen Danau, her violent undertow drawing me down to her depths, to an unread fate.

Now you know the end of this tale. 

But as the world of the Goth breaks into pieces—and black forces swirl about my misguided brother’s head—let me tell you the beginning of the story.  

My brother will seek his answers to what really happened to me. Whether Tiews grants him answers—justice—or more questions, the mystery, and my memory, will guide him through dark tunnels and inside the gray hearts of men.  

If he finds truth, it will be his own. 

Here, in this other-world, I’ll share with you my truth, all I know about the secrets of the Goths, the Angel of Death, the garrison, the friends I thought I could trust and the enemy on whom I should have never turned my back. I’ll tell you the beginning, so that you might understand the end. 

Come. Let us begin my story.