The coppery disk of a summer sun slid silently into a band of cloud and a night began that would change a small boy’s destiny forever.
In the gathering dusk, a nine-year-old orphan boy and his dog climbed the hill above the Somerset village of Stowey. He was dressed in ragged cast-offs, given him by the villagers and to an outsider, he looked a little like a vagrant, perhaps an outlaw. He was tall for his age, but very thin, he seemed to have a wiry strength, the skin of his face and arms were tanned to a chestnut brown and his mop of dark, almost black hair fell to his shoulders in greasy tails. Near the top of the hill, where it was steepest, the boy stopped and glanced about. There was no one around. Alone, he slid into the familiar protection of a dry, sandy hollow beneath the low branches of an ancient willow.
From his hiding place he had a clear view into the heart of the village that had grown around its small church on the floor of the valley. He saw women gossiping as they took up their water from the spring and he watched the children playing in the shallows of a stream. The boy’s dark, blue-green eyes revealed a sadness, a deep disappointment that was well beyond his years. The damage to his trusting child-innocence had been done two long years before this dusky night, it had come in the shape of a vicious raid by the Norsemen that they called The Vikings.
On that night he had watched as his father was butchered and his gentle mother repeatedly raped by a band of huge men. Then they had killed her with the bright flash of a sweeping sword, before setting fire to the thatch of their simple house, which had once been a happy home.
How those men had howled and laughed. Just like the demons in the nightmares that invaded his head every night since that awful day.
~ ~ ~
Despite the dry, dusty warmth, the boy shivered and pulled his sheepskin jerkin tight around his body. He was supposed to be tending the few sheep of the village flock but, as on most nights, he had penned them up next to the coast watchman’s hut on the hilltop above the village. The young orphan-boy had no relatives and had been told by Lord Odda, the King’s appointed Ealdorman, to stay with the old monk at the church house. But until he was forced by the storms of winter, he preferred the open spaces to the frightening closeness of walls and the stifling pity of village matrons. They didn’t seem able to understand that nobody could replace what had been torn from him. He was no fool and knew that he made most folk feel uncomfortable with his stiff, unbending silence and soul-piercing gaze. Mainly they left him alone and he was happy with that.
He had a voice, though not many people had heard it. To comfort and quieten the sheep he often sang them the simple folksongs that his mother had taught him, and in a quiet breath of a whisper, he would tell his young dog the very deepest secrets of his heart.
The dog curled up against the boy’s feet and rested his dusty head on his thin legs. On the footpath, behind his dusty bower, he heard the tramping footsteps of the night-watch guard, as they went up to relieve the day men. They complained boisterously as they went, grumbling about the misery of their duty, the missed comforts of the homes and women that they had all left behind. But he knew differently, in truth the men enjoyed the rough camaraderie of the evenings that they spent drinking, gossiping and gambling until they fell asleep. The importance of watching the nearby coast for invaders had faded in their minds with the passing of time. Their new leader, an outsider only recently arrived in the village, enjoyed the profits that he made from his sales of wine and the proceeds from the gaming, so he was unlikely to change anything.
One-by-one the gleam of cooking fires in the village below faded and he could imagine the settling of the people in their tiny houses. The fumbling of fingers in the gathering darkness, the giggles and soft whispers of the lovers and the muffled snores of men that had drunk one cup of ale too many.
The boy drifted into sleep and immediately, the usual spirit people came to play in the early restlessness of his dreams. They were a grey shadowy folk, no features to speak of, not frightening, just ghosts from happier times. Sometimes they would laugh, tell stories and sing, sometimes they were quiet. Tonight, they seemed to huddle around him, soft, but strong in their silence. The lonely child felt comforted, but somewhere beyond the dream was an urgency that he couldn’t quite grasp.
It was much later, in the cold hours before dawn, when the chill creeps into your bones and the damp air settles the beaded jewels of dew on leaves and spider’s webs. It was then that the grey shadows of the dream vanished with an almost physical tug and the fires of his nightmare began. Flames, bright and flickering danced in his brain and the screams of terrified people cut through the sound of crackling laughter from the sword wielding demons.
A sweat, cold as ice, bearded the boy’s young face and prickled across his scrawny chest. Plucked from sleep, he sat up with a shout and covered his ears to stop the awful screams. He rubbed his eyes to move the awful scene, but the rippling flicker of flames burst through between his sleep soaked eyelids. The screams were louder and the pleading hysterical.
It was happening again.
They had come.
Just as he had always known that they would.
Painful sobs blocked his breath as he watched a struggling naked figure roughly hauled by his neck into a tree by a rope. The Norsemen laughed and danced around the figure slicing into him with the star-bright steel blades of daggers and swords.
The boy’s cold hands began to shake with shock and horror, he reached down for the familiar warmth of his dog. The hard muscles beneath the smoothness of the animal’s silky hair quivered with a low rumbling growl. The dog stood, his eyes concentrating on a patch of moving darkness behind them. The boy swung onto hands and knees, ready to run. The animal, lips curling away from long sharp teeth, leapt across the boy’s small body, snarling as it launched itself into the face of a bending Viking warrior.
The boy’s wide eyes took in the scene in an instant. He could see three of the devils, they were coming down the path from the lookout and each had their feet wrapped in rags for stealth. Dark blood glistened on the sword and arm of the man that peered under the low branches of his sanctuary. The night watch wouldn’t have known anything about their deaths, the Viking devils would have murdered them while they slept.
The dog’s teeth tore a long gash in the Viking’s face before the man swept him aside and into silence with the blade of his long sword. Unbelieving, the boy looked through his tears at the small unmoving body as it crumpled against the trunk of the tree. The man mopped his face with his grimy sleeve and, with the flames glowing in his eyes, he stepped under the branches and moved crab-wise towards the child. The mighty blade swung again but, restricted by the ancient tree, the blow glanced across the side of the boy’s head. The razor-sharp edge of the broad blade bit into the scalp and soft bone. The big man swore, pulling back his weapon for a second sweep. But the boy was already moving. As he scrambled over the lip of his hiding place, he flung a handful of the soft white sand into the leering face. The devil swung his head away, but not quickly enough to avoid the blinding effect of the tiny grains.
With sticky blood oozing across his face and neck the terrified youngster turned away from the terrible flames and screams of the village and headed up the sloping valley. He kept to the side of the narrow track as he hurried away.
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