Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Kennari and Aemilia - short story

Short Story – Kennari and Aemilia

The cold foam of the waves wash up against my feet on the sand of the harbour as once again I picked up a piece of drift wood and threw it out to sea as my family’s dog bounded after it splashing with its legs, laughter in its eyes and a lolling tongue and wagging tail. I often wonder if that is why my father got a dog, to prevent bad daughters escaping away with unsuitable young men.
But regardless of that I still managed to meet such a man and spend short nights with him amongst the horses, insects and hay. We would lie there, wrapped in each others arms, murmuring sweet nothings into the night. If I was lucky sometimes I would borrow a flagon of mead and some bread or cheese from the kitchen so he could eat as more often than not he hadn’t touched food or human contact in days. He had no home of his own, no one to look after him. But that’s what’s to be expected when you are outlawed from society.
I still remember the day of the Althing when it was commanded upon him. I remember seeing him stand tall and silent. No glimpse of emotion upon his face. No sign of fear. No sign of worry. It was almost as if he welcomed it. Some say he did and I agree to an extent it was a deserved punishment, for rustling sheep from someone else’s land into your own is a dire crime. So it is fitting that the culprit returns the sheep, pays a fine and then is deprived of money, food and clothing also so they realise their ways.
He was only outlawed for a year as he only managed to steal three sheep and two lambs which was part of a much larger flock. Yet during that time he was forfeit all human contact around Iceland. No man should acknowledge him, talk to him or support him in anyway. If an outlaw was found on an individuals land it was that individuals right to chase him away by any means necessary usually meaning a sword in the stomach or an arrow in the back. That is the way outlaws should be punished. Yet the law states nothing of how a woman should handle such a visitor especially in my situation.
On the nights I found myself in the scoundrels arms I would wish time would stand still so the night would last forever. His voice would wash over me like the sea to the shore as he recounted his many adventures whilst he was away from me, how he evaded capture time and time again, how he spiked fish in rivers and brought down rabbits and birds with a mere stone and a sling. I would ask him where he went and the only answer I was given would be the words ‘far away yet nearby’. The words like the man who spoke them always appeared to be a complete mystery, a puzzle to me, one that would never be completely understood.
If anything was true about him it was that he was as good a story teller as any Skald I know. His tales were so captivating, believable or at least imaginative that even if they weren’t true I wouldn’t ask him. To know the truth would spoil the magic. When he talked it was like I was young again sitting round my grandfather’s fireside, listening to him tell me the great adventures of the Aesir-Gods in all their disguises, betrayals, thievery and blood shed. Perhaps it was that essence that captured my heart and mind, who knows, only Freya knows the true ways of love and the heartache it brings.
In return of his stories and travels I would inform him about how society carried on its daily routine. I would tell him about the markets in the harbour town of Black Sands to the south, of the many goods traded there ranging from small pieces of golden amber fit to be turned into beads down to the scraps of cotton and wool fleece available for making clothing.
The only real information I told him about that truly caught his attention was news about his family. How they fared with him no longer included in their clan. I know he missed them for when I spoke of them his rogue appearance softened to the extent of innocence and youth that made my heart weep for him all the more. To me at least, in those moments of weakness and vulnerability, he seemed to become someone else. A young man who wouldn’t have been foolish enough to steal another’s livestock to better provide for his family. A man who my father would have been happy to see me marry but unchangeable events shrugged away that dream.
It was a silent night when things truly changed for us both. Even now I can not say if it was for better or for worse. I had not seen him for a whole week and worry was already disturbing my sleep when out of the darkness came his owl call. I leaped out of my bed, grabbed my cloak off the wall and crept out of the stables after making sure the dog stayed in his bed without barking. Drawing out a candle, I kept hidden in a pocket I had sewn into my cloak; I put it to the brier torch outside the door and ventured into the stable shack. The horses blinked mindlessly at me whilst others merely swished their tails, I looked around and found the small milking stool I used for the cows, placed my candle in the small circular hole on its lid. Casting my eyes around me I noticed a more prominent darkness against the hay pile on the floor near the back.
“Kennari?” I whispered my hand was already reaching for a pitchfork leaning against the wall nearby. A groan came out of the gloom in reply. “Kennari? Is that you?”
“Aemilia…” the voice that had enchanted me so many times sounded so unfamiliar, so unlike him almost unnatural. Fear and worry quickly clawed their way up my spine and into my heart, filling my mind with imagined possibilities of severed limbs, open wounds, tongue-less mouth and gauged out eyes. All the injuries that had been inflicted on past outlaws when caught on now forbidden lands.
I grasped the stool and carried it in a rush to the dark mass before me. Only when I set the candles light against his body did my worst fears confirm themselves. The patch of darkness was Kennari lying milk white and his blood draining in a torrent around him. The source was a clogged black rag held tight by his trembling hands on his chest just above his waist. On instinct and vain hope my hands went to the rough piece of jet carved into a hare that I wore round my neck as a follower of Freya.
“Ken what has happened to you?” I whispered, swallowing hard in an attempt to control the wave of tears that longed to pour from my eyes at such a sight.
“Got caught…didn’t I?” He muttered back, his voice so weak and hoarse.
“When? By who?” As I asked I untied my cloak from my shoulders and began tearing strips from the bottom seam without a moment’s hesitation or thought.
“Uncle…Sven… I was trying to…steal some cheese…from pantry.”
“Oh Ken! Why didn’t you come to me? Why didn’t you come here for food if you were going hungry?” The frustration and disappointment acted as a firm barrier in my throat to the sorrow I felt inside. From the wincing look in his eyes it was hard for me to decide whether he was wincing at my anger or the pain.
“I couldn’t…you said your father noticed…the bread missing…last time. Didn’t want…to get you…into trouble.” At that response I bit my bottom lip hard trying to contain the growing number of emotions that tossed and turned in a vicious current within me.
“We’ll argue about this later. First you must let me put a clean swab of cloth in that wound.” He nodded slowly, swallowing hard himself as I gently prized his chilled trembling hand away from his chest. In doing so a fresh river of blood began flowing but as soon as I had gotten most of the rags out of it I pushed in my ball of stripped cloth into it, fixing his hand back on top. I didn’t want to leave any already soiled material in there in case the wound began to fester and become infected. “I can’t believe Sven did this to you. How did he do this?”
“His dogs…he let them loose…upon me.”
“Those two big black mongrels? How did you escape?”
“Dragged myself up…a tree. Sat there…till morning…then made my way here.”
“Was the wound this bad then?”
“No, only a small…wound. Opened up…when I fell on some rocks crossing the fjord.”
“Is this why you took so long to visit? I hope Frey curses Sven’s flock with disease for this.”
“Not his fault.” That remark surprised me because I was boiling over with anger and frustration at this unfortunate situation.
“It is his fault Ken; I doubt you would set your dogs upon your own nephew like this. Families should support each other not…treat others with such dishonourable behaviour.”
“I’m an outlaw Aemilia, I have…no family.”
I groaned to myself. “Don’t you start this talk again Ken, you do have a family but due to your own foolish actions they are forbidden from supporting you when you need it most. Just thank Odin you have me at least.”
A smile appeared within his eyes even though his own mouth was chattering with the cold. Very little of clothing was left upon him now. “I do…every day.” For that moment he seemed like the cheeky rogue I knew before.
“Right, you need proper medical help for this would Ken; it needs cleaning out and patching up. I can’t provide that care here in the stables. We’re going to have to take you into the house. Away from all this…”
“NO!” his voice bellowed out in a short burst before immediately collapsing deeper into the hay with the strain causing fresh agony upon his body.
“Why in Hel not? Ken you will die if you stay here and do not get that wound treated.”
“Your family…”
“My family will just have to either help or keep out of it. I’m old enough now to make my own decision and make my own mistakes. Personally I do not view you as a mistake Ken.”
“I don’t want…you to be…punished…”
“Ken shush! One thing at a time hey? First we need to clean you up and tend to that wound. Mother should have the right herbs to do such a thing. Can you stand or walk?” I demanded more than asked whilst staring deep within his eyes pushing my feelings of worry and determination to the front in hope that he could see I’m serious about my actions with no hesitation or regret. He nodded weakly. “I’ll get a pitchfork for you to lean on whilst I lift you under your other arm.”
With great struggle I managed to haul him to his now unreliable feet, locked the pitchfork under his arm and with me at his other side, stumbled and dragged him into the house. Carefully lowering him upon a bench against the wall before raking the fires ashes up for warmth and light. He had not uttered a word or groan since the stables, the only noise that came from his pale face was his chattering teeth.
“Do not worry; once the fire is alive you will get warmer. Here rest your head on this.” I whispered softly as a mother to an injured child, wrapping my cloak into a rough pillow and placing his head upon it. “Just try and get some sleep. I’m just going into the pantry to find some of those herbs and pieces of clean cloth. I will return shortly never fear.” I gave him a delicate kiss upon his forehead as he closed his eyes the weariness and pain of his travels sweep sleep across his mind.
Walking away from him gave chance to the rush of tears I had controlled before but I only wept once I was in the pantry and alone. I had brought the family dog with me for fear of it becoming curious and licking Kennari’s wounds which would not do him any good. When inside the small back chamber of the house I felt my spirit crumble and allowed myself to slide down to the floor. I do not know how long I knelt there crying. During those moments of despair I felt lost to all time and place, an oblivion of darkness and emotion. I only woke from the nightmare to the warm touch of my dogs tongue licking my face of tears.
Looking into the dogs shimmering eyes ignited a feeling of resolve and vigorous determination inside me with which I quickly searched and found the herbs and cloth I needed before striding smooth and quietly away from the pantry. When I stepped into the living area once more I stopped still as if I’d been hit on the head from a blow of Thor’s great hammer Mjöllnir. A figure was kneeling beside Kennari and ever so silently covering his body in wool blankets. Only when they turned did I realise it was my mother in her nightdress but I still did not move for I was unsure of her reaction to his presence.
“Did you bring some of the dried dock leaves?” She asked, holding out her hand as uncontrollably I walked towards her and placed the small pot jar into her hands.
“You’re not angry at me?” I asked my voice seemed distant with shock and a strange mix of surprise.
She raised her free hand and cupped my chin in it lightly, my eyes were transfixed in her own that shone ocean blue in the fire, that I had not noticed until then, which was quickly devouring kindling wood that wasn’t there before. “Dear child of mine, I would not be a good mother if I were not to know where you crept off too each night would I?”
“You knew?”
“Yes, I knew.” She turned about to face Kennari once more, pulled out the wooden stop in the top of the jar and gently pulled back the blankets to reveal his bloody chest, the cloth strips I had inserted into his body earlier already a dark red. “We can discuss this another time for now I will need your help to stop the bleeding. He has lost too much already.”
“What do you need me to do?”
“Get a bowl from the kitchen and place it on the floor here, that way any blood that comes out will be caught in the bowl and not stain the floor. Otherwise I don’t know how we will explain it to your father in the morning.”
I did so without question and continued to serve as my kind mother bid as we unplugged my ball of rags from the wound, dabbed it with clean cloth and hot water, causing Kennari to groan several times but I held and stroked his hand trying to soothe him, to convince him that things will be better soon. Once the wound was clean I held thick piece of leather to it whilst mother formed a paste out of herbs and fat which she then spread with her finger tips around the edge of the wound. Next came the difficult part. We had to lift Kennari up into a sitting position so whilst I held a mix of leather and cloth over the wound mother could wrap over it around his body long strips of wool and cloth before fastening it tight with an apron broach. Doing so was tough work for Kennari who struggled hard to not groan out loud in pain and somehow managed to contain it behind clenched teeth.
Once that was done we laid him to rest upon the bench once more, covering him in a thick layer of woven wool blankets and stoked up the fire some more. Mother and I cleaned up any mess as silently as possible, my father was only at the other end of the longhouse sleep, as of yet unaware of mother’s presence being absent beside him.
“He is a brave young man. He dealt with his pain nobly.” She commented to me as we both knelt by the fire watching Kennari breathing in his sleep, a lot more relaxed than before.
“He wouldn’t be in this pain if he hadn’t tried to steal some cheese from his uncle Sven. It was Sven who set his dogs on him and then he had to fall on some rocks when crossing the fjord making the injury worse. His blood’s all over the hay stack in the stable. Don’t know how we’re going to explain that to father.”
“Don’t you worry about that Aemilia I will tell you father I was just doing a midnight offering to Freya, he has no reason not to believe me.”
“It will have to be a big offering to leave such a lot of blood behind.”
“I’ll say I killed several of the chickens.”
“How will you make our chickens disappear then?”
“Kill them and give them to him. That way at least he need not risk his life again for food.”
“Why are you helping us? You know he’s an outlaw.”
“Yes I also know love when I see it.” I looked down into the fire overcome with a gush of embarrassment and guilt.
“Then you must now why I could not tell you about him.” I replied, looking at her once more sitting opposite me, her eyes sparkling in the light and her black hair glistening like jet brought up fresh from the sea.
“I know. But do not always presume I will be in the same frame of mind and thought as your father would be in this situation.”
“Then there is no chance Father will accept our love?”
“I’m sorry Aemilia but no. Your father does not dislike or hate Kennari but to have your eldest daughter announce her love for an outlaw and reveal she has been seeing him secretly would bring great shame and dishonor upon him. He would never want you to be unhappy my child but your father is a well respected farmer and friend to many within community. If your relationship with Kennari were to be made public your father would not only suffer great humiliation but you also would be punished equal to Kennari’s sentence. You must understand it is not the humiliation and shame your father fears the most but loosing you.”
“Then what are we to do but meet in secret mother? How else are we to be together?”
Mother was about to reply but she paused then stood up and went and collected something from a shelf nearby on the opposite wall. “Do you remember my brother Ragnar?”
“Yes but…”
“I received this letter from him a few days ago. He is traveling here, meant to arrive in Black Sands tomorrow I think, in order to deliver some cargo and trade. He has set up a large farming estate in northern Norway and is quite successful. He mentions in this letter how he is always short of workers as many businesses there like here are family run. If I write a letter to Ragnar explaining your situation I am sure he would have no difficulty accepting Kennari aboard his ship on the condition that Kennari works for him.”
“He would be so far away though. Father would never let me travel to Norway on my own. If he went to Uncle Ragnar it would be impossible for me to see him again.”
“Yes child but if Kennari were to work with Ragnar he would earn a good reputation and maybe enough money worthy of your bride price so when his sentence is over he can travel back here and propose to your properly without the stigma of his crime and having worked close to the family your Father would welcome him most easily.”
“But Mother…”
“I know it means spending many months apart dearest but wouldn’t it be worth the chance to spend the rest of your lives together at the end of this year? You know as well as I that if he stays in Iceland it will only be a matter of time before he is caught and suffers injuries far worse than this.”
Considering mothers proposal I glanced over at Kennari who lay so still and peaceful, his chest raising in jagged breathes as each stretch of his muscles still caused him pain. Memories of the past nights we met fluttered past my eyes, of all the chances we were nearly caught in the stables or myself stealing food from the pantry. Deep down inside I knew that our love wouldn’t last long in such trapped conditions.
So it was decided that me and Kennari should be separated in the hope of being reunited again on much more agreeable terms which conform to societies rules. The following morning at dawn mother and I helped lift Kennari who seemed to have much more colour in his skin into our cart, hitch a horse to it and set off at a brisk trot to Black Sands. Along the way I explained the plan to Kennari who agreed to follow it through but with as much reluctance as I. He told me how he feared that whilst he was away father might push me to marry other suitors that are bound to come along and he wouldn’t be around to stop them. I expressed the same concerning him in Norway. In truth we both swore to remain loyal to each other despite the distance.
I surprised myself for no tears came forth when we said our farewells. A gentle, tender kiss, a warm, comforting hug and then he was gone being led away aboard my Uncle’s ship who had proved as understanding as my mother was about the situation and promised to take good care of him until he was fit enough to work.
So it is that I find myself, nearly six months on from that silent night, walking alone along the harbor’s sands, throwing sticks for my dog to catch; whilst my eyes look to the distant horizon across the flowing and ebbing waters, waiting for my love to return home. My mothers words echoing in my mind as those memories fade to my hearts depths once more, “true love comes to those who wait.”

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