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.