“Your burns are healing, Northman. And your eyes are stronger every day.” The young priest called Symond smiles his crooked-toothed smile. “God has more sights to show you.”
“I want to see the back of you,” Bragi says.
But it’s true that his vision is finally returning. Things are grayed and blurry—behind Symond the yard’s clucking chickens are indistinct blots—but it’s far better than when he arrived, dragged to the monastery covered in burns and blind as Hod, howling against the dark. The Anglish priests have tended to him as well as any healer back home could have done.
He’s indebted to them. He hates being indebted.
“The back of me?” Symond echoes, turning the sentence over in his mealy accent. He is the only priest who speaks Bragi’s language, learned from travels in Svitjod, and Bragi has gathered only a few Anglish phrases in the past weeks. So when he speaks, it’s only to Symond.
“Go away now,” Bragi says, to make it clearer.
Symond looks startled for a moment, then smiles again. “Yes. I should get back to work.” He packs away his pastes and bandages. Pauses. “Brother Litton has gone to look at the pit. Where you were found. He should be back tonight.”
He scurries back into the abbey, leaving Bragi to sit alone until the baby goat that keeps slipping her pen ambles over to him. He scratches her chin, lets her nuzzle his hand. Then he grabs her and holds her in his arms, feeling her warm pulse through her downy fur.
“Siv, you are my only friend in this foreign and forsaken land,” he says. “Tell me your secrets, and I will tell you mine.”
Siv bleats at him and wriggles free. Bragi watches resentfully as the goat wobbles back to her mother. Then he shuts his damaged eyes and remembers back to the night he was blinded. He sees the black sky set on fire, feels the fire searing his bones. He was certain it was the end of the world. He was certain it was ragnarök.
But here he is alive. He hates being alive.
Bragi spends the rest of the daylight away from the monastery, down at the shore. The brown-clad priests let him wander. Some shift nervously as he passes by. He knows he’s a curiosity to them: his lye-bleached hair and beard, the fading blue-black designs on the shaven sides of his skull, his net of scars. They have not seen men like him.
He has not asked them yet where they hid his blade and his axe. There is a time for all things.
He climbs down the embankment half by feel, scrabbling his hands through the loose dirt, gripping for roots. Then he finds a smooth stretch of sand and sits, pulling his wool cloak around himself against the chill. The waves are the same gray as the sky; he can’t make out the seabirds but he can hear them squawk and scream.
Out across the sea lies everything the gods and the jarl have taken from him. Once the soft crash of the tide was comforting to him, a mother’s heartbeat, but now he only hears the gulls and he knows they are mocking him. They are free to go where they want. He is not.
“Fuck you, birds,” he says. “Fall your feathers and break your beaks and waste away your wings.”
The birds cry back: útlagi, útlagi, útlagi. Fuck you, too.
The priest called Litton returns at supper, and Bragi realizes he knows him—not his blurred face but his slouch and the sound of his voice. Bragi came across him once during the night, back when he was still half-delirious, stumbling through nightmares. Litton and another priest. The two of them had been rutting on the benches in near silence, muffling their grunts.
They were shocked to see him, he remembers, and neither of them extended him an invitation to join.
The priests break their evening silence as they crowd around Litton, a rising hubbub of Anglish of which Bragi understands nothing until Symond wriggles his way over to him. His crooked smile is firmly in place.
“Brother Litton says the pit is as deep as a well, and there is ash and cinder all around. The trees are splintered into pieces. He could not see the bottom, because there is a strange red dust in the air that will not settle.” He points to the oldest priest, the one with shaking legs. “Father Wilthrop says it was a falling star. It might be a sign of the end times, or it might be a natural thing. He says there is no way of knowing.”
“He should ask your dead god,” Bragi says, taking a hunk of black bread from an abandoned place at the table. The priests eat a very small nattmal, and never meat.
“Dead, and alive again,” Symond corrects, then lowers his voice. “I have asked God. I think it was a sign. But not of the end times.” He blinks his bright eyes. “I think it was a sign for you. You are like Saul, blinded on the road to Damascus. That was what brought Saul to the faith, and it will bring you also, Northman.”
“No,” Bragi says, and leaves the long table before the priests can start their next round of droning prayers. He passes the priest called Litton on his way. There’s a strange smell to him, like something rusted, and he is coughing into his roughspun sleeve.
Bragi cannot sleep in the night. The monastery walls are well-built against the cold—he has run his hands along the stonework often enough as he navigates. The hearths are kept crackling warm. He even has solitude, in the small room reserved for the sick.
But his thoughts won’t let him rest. He keeps remembering the judgement, the glee in the jarl’s voice when he was declared outlaw. He wishes he could crack open his own skull and tear out his gray brains and smear them across the sky like Ymir, just to be rid of the memory.
He is considering freeing Siv from the goat pen, so he will have company, when the priest called Litton pads inside. Bragi recognizes his slouch, but he’s moving strangely, stiffly, and his body seems bloated in the dark. Bragi watches the priest feel his way along the straw pallets.
“Northman,” he whispers. “Northman.”
“So now you want to fuck?” Bragi asks.
Litton gets to the foot of Bragi’s pallet and crouches there. His breath is heavy and the rust smell is strong. Bragi sees his hands shaking. “You, Northman. You. Cwelle.” He pauses, makes a grunt of frustration. “Kill.” His Anglish accent makes the word distended. “You. Kill.”
Bragi stares. His eyes are still weak and the darkness is thick, but there is something incorrect about the shape of the priest’s face. “Now and then,” he says.
“You kill,” Litton chokes. “You kill.” He reaches, and Bragi seizes his arm, feeling the spurs of combat kick at him for the first time in weeks. His neck prickles. Then the priest’s arm goes slack and he starts to sob in his other language, the prayer language. “Da mihi veniam, pater.”
He crawls away, then out the door. Bragi thinks of following, to see if maybe the priest is being visited by his dead god, to see what form he will take. But such things are private. Instead he lies back on the straw, and after many more tortured remembrances he descends into a dream of red dust that does not settle.
Bragi has heard the word screamed before, but this is the first time he has woken to it. He jolts upright, making his burns stretch and sear, and finds himself surrounded. The priests are jabbering in Anglish, faces red with fury. The bulkiest ones are holding farming tools. He looks around for Symond and doesn’t see him.
Because he does not want to die impaled on a wooden fork by a fat foreign priest, Bragi lets himself be dragged from the room and herded out into the yard. The sky is paling, but the sun has not risen yet. There is a huddle of priests kneeling in the dirt. They always pray early, at least once before Bragi normally wakes, but he suspects he is not being invited to join them.
They stand, part, and Bragi sees the corpse. The sight does not jar him much, but when he gets closer he is surprised that it is not Brother Litton. It’s some other priest, stripped naked, pale flesh riddled up and down with stab wounds. Blood has pooled and thickened underneath him and stretches outward into the dirt as dark red fingers.
Bragi realizes he is being accused of murder again. The unfairness drops into his belly like a stone.
“Litton,” he says, enunciating the foreign name. “Litton. Go find Litton, you fetid fucking fools.”
The priests are too angry to understand him, but then a shout comes from the gates. Bragi lets himself be shoved along again. He calls Siv as they pass the sheep pen; the baby goat kicks herself in a circle, yammering at her mother. A red slice of sun is cresting the moor. There’s a tall ash tree not far from the monastery walls, and he sees a figure standing beneath it, maybe dancing.
When they get close Bragi can hear Litton’s reedy voice chanting the night words: da mihi veniam, pater, da mihi veniam, pater. He is not dancing. He is beating himself, hammering his back with a knotted rope. His body is swollen under his brown robe. One of the priests lets go of Bragi’s shoulder and takes a hesitant step forward, calling to him in Anglish.
Litton turns. His face is spattered with blood. A sob wracks his body, then he lunges.
Bragi retrieves Siv from the pen and rubs his cheek against the little goat’s silky fur while he watches things unfold. Litton has been bound, wrapped up in a fishing net. He kicks and wails and babbles in Anglish, then the prayer language, then Anglish again. The monastery has emptied itself; all thirty-odd priests are in the yard. The one they call their father is cleaning himself with water from a silver chalice, making the sign of his dead god across his chest.
Symond appears at Bragi’s elbow, carrying a small sack. His face is pale and his eyes are bulging with fear. “Good morning, Northman. Though the morning is not good.”
Bragi nods. “Tell me what’s happening.”
Symond licks his chapped lips. “Father Wilthrop says this is not a thing of nature. It is a thing of the spirit.”
“Your god inhabits him?” Bragi asks, nodding his chin at the writhing Litton. “Your god compelled him to make a blood sacrifice?”
“No!” Symond shouts the word so loudly it draws stares. “No,” he repeats, softer. “No, no. This is not a thing of God. He’s inhabited by an evil spirit. A demon. Father Wilthrop must drive it out. With salt and with water.”
“Oh.” Bragi picks a tick from behind Siv’s twitching ear—the baby goat jerks—and crushes it between his thumb and finger. Litton is moaning the same Anglish words over and over. “What’s he saying now?”
Symond’s mouth contorts. “He says he is a husband.”
“He must not like his wife much.”
“He has no wife,” Symond says heavily. “You can’t stay here any longer, Northman. Many believe that you brought this demon to us. They believe it is one of your heathen gods. So Father Wilthrop has ordered you to leave.” He holds up the sack, and Bragi realizes it must be his belongings. “I’m sorry.”
Bragi stares at the sack, rubbing his thumb behind Siv’s ear. He supposes it is the plan of the Norns that he be cast out anywhere he goes. “I’d like to barter for the goat,” he says.
Bragi’s second exile is less painful than the first, but it still stings more than he thought it would. He even wonders if the priests are right, if maybe Loki followed him to this foreign land to play one last trick, to see him driven away from his food and shelter. And from his only friend, because the priests refused to trade him Siv.
He has lost his weapons, too. The priests would not return them. That was what made Bragi’s temper boil over at last—he bloodied a nose on his way out; they chased him with sticks and locked the gates behind him. It was not a dignified farewell.
Now he is roaming under the open gray sky, across the rolling moor. Pale green grass and bruise-purple scrub and dark gray rock. His sight is sharpening by the hour. He will not be blind, so the gods have at least spared him that much. He pulls up his hood against the wind and for a while follows the crumbling remnants of an ancient wall.
The monastery is far from everything—Symond told him as much. There were no traders during his weeks there, and the nearest town is two days’ walk to the south. Bragi is not going south. He is wandering, aimless, but from the edge of a cloud-cloaked sun he knows he is wandering roughly northwest. Towards the sparse forest, where he was hunting on the night the sky caught fire.
Bragi decides to go see the pit for himself. He has nothing better to do.
The woods are a silent and blackened ruin when he arrives. He had no sense of the fire’s size or direction as he staggered through the trees that night, arms outstretched. He realizes that he was lucky, very lucky, to have stumbled out of the forest and not deeper in, to where the smoke would have choked him. Now he goes deeper in, nose filling with the sharp smell of ashes.
Half the trees have toppled; the other half are charred and skeletal, their leaves burnt away. Bragi hears no birds, no rustlings in the undergrowth. Sooty twigs crunch to powder under his feet. The woods must have burned for days, belching smoke into the sky, while he groaned and cursed and the priests put pastes on his scorched skin.
He sees the first of the splintered trees Symond mentioned to him. Not felled by fire but by force—it looks as if a giant kicked it over. The stump is jagged and the trunk is shattered to pieces. There are more of them further along, forming a rough ring, and he knows what he will find in the middle. He picks his way through the blackened wood. Every touch smears his hands.
There is a circular ridge of dirt, knee-high, driven upward by the impact like the pock left by a hurled stone. Bragi clambers over it and finds himself looking down into the pit. His neck prickles. It reminds him of a throat: the red dust Litton described coats the sides of the pit scarlet, and at the bottom it roils and undulates like a living thing.
Whatever madness or spirit took hold of Litton, Bragi knows in his bones that it came from this pit. This pit is not a natural thing. He feels a humming in the base of his skull, how one does in holy places, and he sees his bare skin turning to gooseflesh. But he is doomed anyways, so he unties his woolen trousers and takes a long hot piss into the hole before he turns back the way he came.
He hears only a single snapping branch before the creature attacks.
The priests left him his eating knife, and he finds the handle by feel. He’s pinned, the creature’s weight sinking his spine, the hot blast of its breath smelting his ear. He shoves his sack back towards its gnashing teeth, then heaves and rolls free. His knife slashes a wild arc as he goes; the creature shies away and he catches a glimpse of its malformed face, its slobbering jaws.
Bragi doesn’t come fully upright, launching from one knee instead, driving his knife into the creature’s belly. It yowls. Hot spittle smacks his cheek. He yanks the blade upward, splitting flesh. The creature scrabbles at him with its nails. He stabs twice more, deeper, keeping his elbow in its neck to turn away its teeth. The yowl trails off into yelps and then into a thick wet gurgle.
Bragi scoots backward, lungs gasping, heart beating his ribs. He blows a clot out of his nose and catches his breath while he watches the beast—a wolf—die.
“Bragi, you braw and battle-brave bastard,” he pants. “You killed Fenrir himself with a supper knife.”
A laugh burbles out of him, a half-delirious laugh he can’t stop. He howls at the sky and throws his fists, then collapses back onto the ground. Tears are trickling across his face. He’s killed a wolf, and there’s nobody for him to tell. He tries to laugh again, but it comes out coarse and wooden.
Finally he gets up and inspects his kill. There is a reason he did not recognize it as a wolf: its face is mangled, snout split, one ear torn clear away. Old wounds from an old fight. Bragi frowns, moving the death-stiffened jaws with his hands. They do not close properly—that is why its bite never came—and when he looks down the length of its body he sees it is sickly and emaciated.
The wolf was half-dead already. Left behind by its pack. Scavenging carrion. Growing hungrier, more lonely and more desperate each day.
Because nobody is there to see, Bragi buries his face in his arms and weeps. In the far distance, he hears the monastery bell ringing.
Bragi hauls the wolf out of the woods on his shoulders. He has a vague and stupid plan to skin it, sell the pelt in the town, and drink himself into oblivion. The watery ale of the monastery never did more than remind him how badly he wanted to be drunk.
But the town is far, and he wasted the daylight lying on the forest floor talking to imagined versions of all the people he will never see again. So when he finds a sheltered outcropping of stone on the moor, charred with remnants of a shepherd’s fire, he drops the stiff and bloated wolf and starts to search for kindling. He rubs his aching shoulder as he goes. Even a half-starved wolf is heavy, and his skin there is still tender from its burns.
Dusk falls as he builds the fire. The monastery bell clangs again and again—he imagines it has something to do with their death ritual, with the burial of the murdered priest and maybe the burial of Litton, if they executed him. The ringing has barely stopped for the past few hours. It’s annoying, but it also reminds him of the paste Symond put into his sack for him.
Once the fire is crackling, Bragi undresses. He spreads the paste over his waxy pink burns, soothing them, then dresses again and settles in against the rock. There is a loaf of black bread in the sack as well. He’s working on an overlarge mouthful of it when he hears someone approaching.
If it is the shepherd, Bragi will scare him off. If it is a bandit, Bragi might have to test his fighting hand a second time today. He grips his eating knife and eases slowly to his feet. The stranger stumbles into the firelight.
“Oh,” Bragi says. “You.”
Symond’s robes are streaked with gleaming blood. For a moment he stands there, swaying. Then he sinks to his knees. “We need your help, Northman,” he says. “Please come back to the monastery.”
Bragi throws new branches onto the fire, so it spits and crackles, then takes a seat. Symond is staring into the flames, rocking back and forth on his haunches. The young priest’s eyes are elsewhere. His cheek twitches, like someone is prodding it with an unseen finger.
“I don’t understand,” Bragi says. “He is one. You are thirty.”
Symond looks over. He shakes his head. “Brother Litton is not a man anymore. The demon that drives him makes him as strong as a bear. And there is worse. Brother Eckhart.” He sucks in a breath. “Brother Eckhart, who was killed, now walks. I saw it myself. I saw his body revived. He walks and does the demon’s bidding. So do the others who Brother Litton felled with his hands.”
Bragi considers the story, looking into the mangled face of the wolf. He knows of men who gain the strength of wild animals in combat, but it’s hard to imagine Litton as one of them. As for the slain returning to do battle, he never believed the stories of savage draugar guarding their own graves. Such things happen only in Odin’s hall.
“Whatever’s happened is not my doing,” Bragi says. “And not the doing of my gods unless they’re very drunk.”
“I agree,” Symond says. “I agree, I agree. But this is why you are here, all the same.” He looks at him, eyes glistening with tears. “You were sent here to help us fight this evil. To redeem your soul. That is why you came here, even if you did not know it.”
Bragi snorts. “That is not why I came here.”
“You are a fighter.” Symond’s voice is pleading. “We are not. We need your help.”
“You ask me to fight spirits.” Bragi spits into the fire. “You’re a priest, and you ask me to fight spirits.”
“I ask you to fight the bodies of men.”
“Men strong as bears?”
Symond shudders. “Only Brother Litton. The dead ones, they are no stronger than they were in life. But they are fierce, and there are six of them. Maybe more now. It happened very quickly.” His gaze goes to the dead wolf, as if he is noticing it for the first time. “How did you kill that beast?”
Bragi clacks his teeth together. “I bit it.”
Symond nods solemnly. “You are a fighter,” he repeats. “We are not. There are twelve of us barricaded in the bell tower. I climbed from the window and over the wall, to search for you, so now there are eleven. Five brothers have locked themselves in the scriptorium. We called to them. And there may be more scattered around the monastery, hiding.”
“Maybe your dead god punishes you,” Bragi says. “And I should not interfere.”
Symond’s voice grows angry for the first time. “You would be dead without us, Northman. You would have wandered off a cliff, or your wounds would have festered. We saved you. God put us in place to save you, and now he has put you in place to save us. Why else would a man like you find yourself in a monastery?”
Bragi hates being indebted. He rises to his feet. “Oh, I’ve been in a monastery before, priest. Did you not know that? Did you not guess that?”
Startled, Symond shakes his head.
“Two years ago we came ashore in the place you call Northumbria,” Bragi says, looming over the young priest. “We found a strange stone temple and we slaughtered everyone inside. We took anything that shone. There was an old man, like the one you call father, and we drowned him in the sea.”
Symond’s eyes are welling with tears again. His face twists. “I know you are wicked,” he says, voice trembling. “I know you are pagani. But all deeds can be forgiven.”
A pang of guilt slices through Bragi’s gut. He sits back down. “I am even more wicked than you know,” he says. “I did not come here by my choice. I am útlagi.”
“I do not know this word,” Symond whispers, staring into the fire.
“Better you don’t,” Bragi says.
They are silent for a moment, then Symond raises his head. “Brother Abelforth saved the baby goat. He scooped it into his arms as we ran. It’s in the bell tower with us.”
Bragi barks a sharp laugh. Then he grinds his teeth together. He does not think he can be redeemed in a foreign land. He does not think he can fight spirits and win. But he has nothing left to lose. He reaches over and cups Symond’s face in his hand.
“I will go with you,” he says. “I will help you. But only because you remind me so much of my daughter.”
“Your daughter?” Symond echoes.
Bragi nods. “Now, where is my axe?” he demands. “And where is my bitter-biting blade?”
It feels good to go víkingr again, even if his only shield-mate is a small and terrified foreigner. They approach the monastery from the north and circle around. The bell has stopped ringing, which seems to worry Symond, but the gates are still shut, as they were when Bragi left. That means the count is unchanged: eleven priests in the bell tower, five in the scriptorium, six who may be in hiding or be living corpses, six who are certainly living corpses, and one who has the strength of a bear. Bragi recites it in his mind as they cross the fallow field.
Out of old habit he moves low and silent through the tall grasses. The thrill of raiding thrums in his bones and bubbles in his blood. He still only half-believes the priest’s story. Maybe there is a spreading madness within the walls of the monastery. Maybe the panicked priests are hiding from shadows, from each other. But if there is anything to be killed, he wants to kill it. Fighting the wolf has reawakened him.
“Under the ash tree,” Symond whispers.
They go to the tree where Litton beat himself. It takes only a few moments of scrabbling in the dirt to find the spot where the soil is loose. They dig with their bare hands, clawing up the damp earth and flinging it aside. When Bragi sees the shape of his axe shaft emerging he shoves Symond away to dig on his own.
He frees his axe first, then his sword in its wooden scabbard. Both edges of the blade are still keen, but the axe head is not as sharp as it should be and he wonders if the priests used it to chop wood while he was sick abed. He straps both weapons into place, familiar weight against his hipbones. He has no shield, but Symond says the living corpses bear no arms, so it will not be missed.
There are flecks of dark blood on the pale bark of the ash tree. Litton’s blood, or else the blood of the priest he murdered. Bragi sees a knot in the trunk that reminds him of a gaping eye socket. For a moment the ash tree is Yggdrasil, and he can picture Odin hanging from it, dead for nine days and nights. He puts his hand against the smooth bark and mutters a prayer even though the gods detest him.
Clouds split apart overhead. The fields and monastery are illuminated now by a sliver of moon, Odin’s remaining eye cracked open to watch the coming bloodshed.
“Beautiful,” Bragi says.
Symond makes the sign of his own hanged god, and they go together to the wall.
There are cracks in the weathered stone, enough for a toehold, a fingerhold. Bragi has scaled cliffs, and this wall gives him no trouble. He’s pleased to find that Symond climbs well despite his soft hands; they are at the top in only a moment. He hooks his elbows over the edge and anchors himself while he surveys the yard. At first he sees nothing, even with the moonlight.
“In the shadows by the gate,” Symond breathes.
Bragi looks, squinting as hard as he can. His eyes are still weak. Finally he sees it: the shape of a man crouched unnaturally still. Symond points out the others in turn. They’re scattered around the yard, some of them naked, some still cloaked in their rough robe. All are crouched and still, more like carvings than men. It makes the skin of his neck prickle cold. He counts eight and guesses that one of them must be Litton.
“The pen,” Symond murmurs.
Bragi hauls himself up onto the top of the wall for a better vantage point. The animals are all dead, piled in a single heap of blood-sticky wool and hooves—he cannot tell if Siv is among them; he has to trust Symond’s word. But something else is moving in the straw. A single priest slinks around the heap of carcasses. His movements are jerky and frightened. Bragi watches as he creeps toward the gate.
Symond grunts, pulls, joins him on top of the wall. “He doesn’t see the one waiting there,” he says. “We have to warn him.”
Bragi nods, then reaches and hooks his axe blade under Symond’s chin. He holds it there without taking his eyes off the scene. “If you shout, Litton will hear us,” he says. “They are dead, and maybe deaf, but you say he’s not. So you will not shout.”
Symond’s throat bobs, but he stays silent as the priest scurries toward his doom. Bragi watches intently. The priest is reaching for the iron locking bar of the gate when the crouched corpse jerks upright. It makes no sound, but it moves quickly, reaching both hands for the priest’s throat. He stumbles back with a hoarse wail.
The other crouchers are rising now, drawn to the commotion. They move like sleepwalkers, scuffing their feet in the dirt, arms hanging by their sides. Bragi sees the one called Eckhart, naked and riddled with black wounds. They surround the escaping priest in a swarm, hiding him from view.
An eerie keening noise makes the hairs stand up on Bragi’s arms. The crouchers go still; he can see the movement of the priest’s struggling, trying to wriggle out from under their weight. A figure emerges from the monastery, and Bragi knows it must be Litton, but it no longer moves like him. There is no slouching.
Instead he moves with an uncanny grace, predatory, like the tuft-eared ló Bragi once hunted through a snowstorm. He has grown taller: his limbs are longer and nearly skeletal. The flesh of his upper body seems disconnected from the rest of him, wobbling under his rough robe as he walks.
The Litton-beast stalks to the gate and bends down over the pinned priest. Bragi can’t see what it does to him, but the priest’s struggles stop. The Litton-beast goes back to the monastery main. The crouchers scatter again, sleepwalking back out into the yard. They each find a place in the dirt and hunker down and grow still.
By the gate, the newest corpse slowly pulls itself up into a squat.
“Nine of them now,” Bragi says, pulling his axe away from Symond’s throat. He keeps his voice smooth even as his heart hammers him. “We’ll go to your scriptorium first. Then the bell tower.”
They creep along the top of the wall until they are a stone’s throw from the east range, the open arched hallway that always reminds Bragi of a giant’s ribcage. It leads to the scriptorium and to the five priests hiding there. He can see only two crouchers in the way.
“Ready, priest?” Bragi asks.
“Call me Symond. My name is Symond.” He swallows. “And you are Bragi.”
Bragi stares. None of the priests struck him as seers. “How do you know my name?”
“You spoke to yourself often in your sleep,” Symond says. “You are very rude to yourself.”
Bragi shrugs. “Are you ready, Symond?”
“I’m ready,” Symond says, but he doesn’t lie well.
Bragi drops, angling his scabbard up so it doesn’t strike the ground. He stands. Breathes deep. The rust smell is everywhere, now, but so is the stench of blood. By the time his shield-mate thumps down to the dirt behind him, Bragi is on the move, axe in hand. He comes up behind the first croucher and swings hard and fast for its neck.
He feared in the back of his brain that his weapons would carom harmlessly off the corpse-flesh, or worse, pass through it as through a mist. But the blow feels like any other: it sends the croucher sprawling and blood spurting up toward the moonlit sky. Bragi meets the second croucher as it turns and this time swings upward, cleaving away its lower jaw. More blood splatters his face and a tooth or chip of bone bounces off his forehead.
He looks back to where Symond is standing like an idiot. “Go to the door,” he snaps. “Tell them to let us in.”
Symond blinks, then rushes past him through the first archway. Bragi is moving to follow when the croucher stands back up. Its jaw is hanging by only a few threads of flesh, dancing in the air, as it reaches for him with both hands. He ducks underneath and swings for the kneecap. The blow rattles the bones in his axe hand, but it also brings the croucher down with a sickening crack.
Bragi flips the body over and hacks through the tendons of its calves and thighs, then does the same to the other croucher, methodically as if he is dressing an elk. He will take no chances. A chicken can walk with no head, but nothing can walk with no legs.
The keening sound comes across the yard as Bragi turns and hurries down the giant’s ribcage, passing under the great stone arches. Symond is slapping his palm against the door to the scriptorium, pleading in Anglish. He hears muffled voices debating inside.
“Why aren’t they opening the door?” he demands.
Symond ignores him and keeps pleading. Bragi knows what makes the keening noise, and now he looks back to see the other crouchers sleepwalking toward them and the Litton-beast looming behind like a stretched shadow. His skin goes gooseflesh again. He tells himself it’s from the keening noise and not from terror.
The crouchers pass under the archway, but the Litton-beast has grown too tall—Litton’s bowl-shaved head cracks against the stone and snaps backward at an angle. It barely seems to notice. Skull scrapes against stone as it moves forward, leaving a dark smear. Litton’s neck flops and twists.
“Make them open this fucking door,” Bragi says. “Please.”
The Litton-beast hunches lower, coming faster now, shoving the crouchers aside as if they are a child’s dolls. Symond is howling in Anglish, pounding on the door. Bragi’s swordhand is singing, so he draws his blade and axe both. He clenches his teeth.
The door swings open and they barrel inside. Bragi catches a jumbled glimpse of the priests, illuminated by lamplight, then he whirls and shoves the door shut with his shoulder. The priests are dragging a heavy table forward to barricade it. Bragi braces himself for the wood to break and splinter against him, for the Litton-beast to crash through it with the strength of a bear.
He waits for one breath. The table catches against the floor with a screech.
Two breaths. The table rises; Bragi helps them turn it and slam it up against the door.
The Litton-beast’s blow never comes. Bragi exhales. The priests step back from the door. They start babbling at Symond. They are ruddy in the face. Bragi catches a familiar scent, so he grabs the nearest of them by the chin and thumbs back his lips. The man gives an indignant squawk. His teeth are stained wine-red.
“Let’s be friends,” Bragi says. “Where is the cask?”
The cask is empty. Bragi finds it sitting on one of the carved writing tables and shakes it, but there is not even the smallest slosh. He sticks his tongue through the hole and licks the wine-soaked wood. Symond and the other priests are debating in Anglish, but he clangs his axe against the floor until they all stop and look over at him.
“You greedy-gutted guzzlers,” he says. “I had nothing but watery ale while you hid this wine from me, and now you’ve drunk it all. Burst your bellies, you greedy-gutted guzzlers.” He points at Symond. “Tell them what I said. Make it rhyme in the Anglish way of rhyming.”
“I cannot rhyme it,” Symond says. “But they do apologize to us.” He gives the other priests an acid glance. “For not letting us in. They thought it was the demon’s trick. They say Brother Litton visited them some hours ago and spoke to them through the door.”
Bragi remembers the Litton-beast’s head thrown backward, the jagged nub of spine emerging from its flesh, and doubts it can speak like a man any longer. “They are drunk,” he says. “And they are cowards. What did he say when he spoke?”
Symond grimaces. “He begged for death. He said again that he is the husband.”
Bragi nods. “I need paint.”
“Paint? For what?” Symond is distracted; the other priests are muttering again, voices pitched with panic. “On the tables,” he mutters. “There’s ink on the tables.”
Bragi half-listens to the swelling storm of argument while he goes down the row of tables. This is where the priests make their runes, with delicate stretched skins and paints instead of stone and chisel. The markings are incomprehensible, but there are images in some places, colorful figures with their heads ringed in light.
He finds a small pot of dark blue paint and brings it back to where the priests are now shouting over each other. Symond is defiant, chest puffed out, and he barks the same word over and over until the older men fall silent. Bragi can’t understand the speech, but he knows the young priest is staking a claim. His eyes have a fury in them, and he looks at each of his brothers until they look away. When he finally stops speaking, they raise no protest.
“Good,” Bragi says. “You shut them up.”
“I offered them a theory,” Symond says, voice clipped. “They believe this demon is God’s punishment visited upon us. But I think it may be a natural thing.”
Bragi laughs, but Symond only frowns. “Oh. You are not joking.”
“We have all seen plagues that drive men to madness,” Symond says. “They are a natural thing, as they also affect animals, who have no spirits. I think Brother Litton is infected by a plague, a star plague, and his touch passes it on.”
“To the dead?” Bragi asks. “The dead cannot be sick. They are dead.”
Symond shakes his head. “I don’t know. But I know that when you cut them down, they bled like living men. The important thing is that our death is not God’s will. So we can escape it.” He finally sees the pot of paint in Bragi’s hand. “That is our most valuable color. It’s made from crushed shells.” His face is wistful. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
“I like it,” Bragi agrees, and smashes the pot against the floor. He drags his fingers through the slime and paints circles beneath his eyes, draws clawmarks outward across his cheeks, so that when he battles the Litton-beast he will be a beast himself.
On impulse, he reaches out with his fingertip and smears Symond’s forehead. The young priest blinks in surprise, but doesn’t pull away. Instead he dips his own fingers in the spilled paint, avoiding the shards of pottery, and after only a moment’s hesitation he drags them across his pale face. He bares his crooked teeth.
“It looks funny when you do it,” Bragi says. “Anyways. On to the bell tower.” He claps Symond solemnly on the shoulder. “If you lied about Siv, I’ll cut off your penis.”
Symond’s grin shrinks away.
They reach the scriptorium unimpeded. The crouchers have wandered off again—in that way, they are like dumb beasts or small children—and there’s no sign of the Litton-beast. But Bragi sees it in every shadow. His eyes play tricks, and his nerves are strung taut. It doesn’t help that two of the priests are truly drunk, staggering behind the group and hush-hushing each other.
Bragi is thinking not only of the Litton-beast but of Symond’s suspicions. Bragi does not like plagues. He knows that he touched Litton when the priest came to him in the night, and worse, he himself was twice at the pit. Maybe he will go mad as well. Maybe his body will twist itself into a new shape. Or maybe, once again, he is carrying the plague but will not grow very sick from it himself.
He puts it out of his mind as they move back along the east range, ducking through swathes of silvery moonlight, feet scuffing the stone. They will have to pass through the temple, which Bragi normally avoids, to get to the bell tower’s winding staircase. Somewhere the crouchers are waiting. Somewhere the Litton-beast is roaming.
“Cwelle me, cwelle me,” whispers a voice behind him. “Iċ eom se bonda.”
Bragi remembers the words; Litton wailed them while he writhed around in the fishing net. He whirls and stabs twice. The first glances off a rib and jars his hand, but the second slides deep with the sound of shearing flesh. Dark blood burbles out of the priest’s gut, soaking into the brown cloth. His eyes widen and he jabbers something to Symond before he collapses to the floor.
“What did he say to you?” Bragi asks.
Symond’s eyes are just as wide. “He said it was only a jest.”
“Oh.” Bragi stares down at the sputtering priest and realizes it’s the drunkest one. “Oh! Tell him it was funny.” He wipes a trickle of sweat from his eye socket. “It’s just that I am very tense.”
The priests murmur in their prayer language and one muffles a sob in his sleeve, but when Bragi walks onward they follow him. He wishes he was drunk, too.
There is no lamplight and little moonlight inside the temple. Bragi can see the pronged shapes of the candlesticks in the corners, but they are unlit. He tries to fill in the shadows with what he remembers of the room. He knows there’s a wide open space, where the priests stand or kneel, and beyond it the gold-gilded altar where no blood is ever spilled. Their symbol is everywhere, in silver or wood.
As his eyes adjust he can make out the largest of the crosses. It hangs on the wall, above the altar, depicting the priests’ dead god with his head bent unnaturally to one side. Symond mouths in the prayer language as he looks at it.
The staircase to the bell tower is off to the left, behind a heavy wood-and-iron door. Bragi sees no crouchers in their path. He motions for the priests to pass him.
Something moves in front of the altar.
Symond draws a sharp breath, gripping his arm. Bragi peels his fingers away. He missed it in the dark, the spindly figure splayed prostate beneath the dead god. Its back is humped and swollen beneath Litton’s blood-spattered robe. He wonders if what remains of the priest is begging his god for death.
Bragi tightens his hold on his axe and pushes Symond past him, towards the staircase. The Litton-beast is unwary. Unseeing. This might be his best chance to kill it. He creeps forward as the priests scurry past behind him. He sets his feet and takes aim with his axe.
He hurls it. The axe spins and its blade buries deep with a meat-sound, jerking the Litton-beast forward. It doesn’t screech or howl. Instead it gets to its feet, axe haft poking out from Litton’s robe like a broken bone, and turns to face him. A strange ripple moves through its bloated body, and for a moment Bragi remembers the roiling red dust at the bottom of the pit.
Then the Litton-beast splits apart. Something hooked and sharp punches through the priest’s flesh and his robe, dragging, slicing. Chunks of muscle and fat splat against the stone floor. The torn robe follows. A leaner shape is emerging from the swollen mass, cutting its way free. Bragi sees Litton’s head and part of his shoulder topple backwards.
Soon there is nothing of Litton left. There is only a beast, a sort Bragi has never even heard tales of. Its slick skin is deep blue and scab red, a confusion of colors, but as he watches it slowly darkens to black, matching the shadows around the altar. Its body is hunched and angular, with legs long and knobbly as a stork’s.
Dangling arms end in talons, and another set of limbs wait behind them, these ones folded against its back like featherless wings. They are tipped with blades, hooked butcher knives made of something black and gleaming. One stretches now to scrape the last few strings of Litton’s flesh from its leg, like a man scraping the last scrap of meat from a chicken bone.
And Bragi sees it true face at last: a fleshy bulb that peels apart like a flower, revealing rows and rows of bone-needle teeth. It has no eyes, but a sort of whip sprouts from its dark skull and hangs out in front of its maw. The tip of it glows a soft pale blue in the gloom.
One of the priests shrieks. Bragi thinks he would shriek too, if his throat were not dried shut. He draws his blade as the beast stalks forward.
Its first few steps are languid, unhurried, and it has no eyes, but Bragi can tell he is being measured, judged as either predator or prey. The keening noise comes again, and this time he sees how it’s made: by the beast’s folded knife-limbs rubbing back and forth against each other. From close, the sound sends shivers through his teeth and jaw. It raises every hair on his body. He wonders if the beast is calling to the crouchers, if maybe —
It lunges at him. He ducks under its outstretched talons and slashes for its belly, but the beast curves itself away from his swinging sword. It hooks his foot out from under him and he slams against the stone floor. His breath leaves in a single slab of air. The talons come clawing. He thrusts, and this time feels flesh. Silvery liquid, too cold to be blood, spatters his face.
The beast doesn’t make a sound, but it jerks backward. Bragi scrambles to his feet, bellowing for the both of them, and swings hard. One of the knife-limbs flicks out and catches his blade. Bragi pushes; the beast pushes back. Steel grinds. Sparks spit off into the dark. The knife-limb is made of something strong. Bragi is briefly curious.
Then its twin rises from the beast’s back and suddenly he is fighting two armed men at once. The knife-limbs dart and slash in a blur as he staggers backward, blocking and parrying but giving up ground. The talons swing low; he leaps over the first blow, but the second sends him sprawling.
He howls. Rolls. A knife-limb pins his arm, shearing through his sleeve and nicking his skin. He can’t bring his sword up to block the twin and now it hovers over him like a butcher’s blade. The beast’s fleshy beak peels open. The pale blue light is dancing in front of his eyes, blinding him. He tries to think of a good curse as the knife-limb falls toward his throat.
Someone shouts a battle-cry in Anglish. Bragi feels the beast’s body shift, and its black razor clatters against the stone, knocked askew. The wool of his shirt tears as he wrenches his arm free. His shoulder screams in its socket. He screams in the air, and he swings. Blade meets flesh. A silvery spray arcs across the wall, spattering the carving of the dead god.
He throws his head back and sees Symond still clutching the heavy candlestick with both hands. “We’re the last two!” the priest gasps. “The others are waiting to shut the door!”
Bragi leaps to his feet, and they run to the stairwell. The beast darts after them. The wood-and-iron door is open; hands beckon them inside. A croucher, drawn by the commotion or by the beast’s call, staggers out of the dark. Bragi cuts it down at the calves with a cleaving blow, not breaking stride. The beast is trailing by a hair’s breadth.
The priests pull them through and slam the door shut; the beast crashes against it. Bragi is in a tangle of limbs, smelling sour fear-sweat and feeling rough robes against his face. He struggles upright to see the tip of a knife-limb poke through the hinge gap. He readies his sword.
The knife-limb pulls away. A priest’s leg trembles against his. They wait and wait and do not breathe until beast’s keening noise recedes into the distance.
“This night is madness,” Bragi says, and claps Symond on the shoulder.
Then he’s off, scrambling over and through the frightened priests, accidentally putting his foot between one’s legs as he climbs the staircase. He shoves and clambers until he is at the top of the tower, a bare circle of stone with the great iron bell hanging from wooden beams. Five or six priests are huddled beneath it. Bragi recognizes the very old one that they call Father Wilthrop. More importantly, he recognizes the small white muzzle poking out from behind him.
Bragi seizes Siv by the middle and hauls the baby goat into his arms. He kisses her head, the nubs where her horns will grow, and buries his nose in her silky fur. “Siv, I was wrong to leave without you,” he murmurs. “Tell me if you are angry. I will understand.”
Siv bleats. She nibbles at his blood-stained fingers.
Bragi tucks the little goat under his arm before he stands back up. Symond has joined him at the top, exchanging tearful greetings with one of the younger priests. The others from the stairs have climbed up as well. Two of them have wooden staves. One is the fat priest with the pitching fork. Bragi counts, lets Symond finish his embraces, then grabs him by the face.
“You weren’t lying about Siv,” he says. “That’s good.”
Symond’s mouth twitches. “I’ll keep my penis, then.”
“Yes.” Bragi tongues his teeth. “I’m ready to leave now. If you like, we will all leave together.”
Symond’s eyes drift towards the staircase. “You are not scared.”
“We have numbers,” Bragi says, not bothering to correct him. “I crippled three of the crouchers. So they are now six at their fewest, twelve at their most, if all the hiding priests have been found and turned.” He thumps a nearby priest on the chest; the man flinches and Siv bleats. “We here are seventeen. And while they are scattered, we are together.”
“There is also the demon,” Symond mutters.
“It’s not a demon,” Bragi says. “It’s a beast.” He wipes a fleck of the silvery fluid from his neck and holds it up. “I think it bleeds. I think this is its blood. So it can be killed. I will kill it.” He surveys the huddled priests. “We’ll make a svinfylking.”
Symond shakes his head. “I don’t know this word.”
“We will move all as one,” Bragi says. “Down the stairs, out of the temple, across the yard to the gates. We will be a charging boar.”
Symond looks at the priests seated under the bell. “Some are old. They’ll move slowly.”
“They’ll be in the middle,” Bragi says. “So will you. With my goat.” He places Siv into Symond’s arms. “Keep her safe, priest.”
Symond bundles her against his chest. He frowns. “When you said you had a daughter, was that the truth? Or was it one of your jests?”
Bragi blinks. “I had a daughter years and years ago,” he admits, because Symond’s face is painted with the same blue ink as his, and because Symond knocked the beast’s knife-limb askew, and because it’s possible all of them will die tonight or soon after. “And a wife. And an unborn child. Then there was a plague.”
“I’m sorry,” Symond says, and his eyes dart to Bragi’s arm.
Bragi looks too, and realizes that the beast’s knife-limb sliced skin as well as sleeve. A dark blot of blood is growing there. His stomach churns, but he hides his fear behind his teeth. “If I start to feel strange, I will slit my throat and the tendons of my heels,” he says. “Don’t worry.”
But he is worried. His belly is filling with thick dark dread. Beasts can be killed, but plagues can’t. He binds his cut and tamps down his fear while Symond explains the svinfylking to the other priests. The one called Father Wilthrop listens and nods his gray head.
Bragi watches as they all kneel together, chanting in their prayer language. When they stand up there is a sort of determination in their sweaty faces. It’s time to organize them, so he places the pair with staves beside him, at the front of the wedge, and the one with the wooden fork as the rearguard. The oldest and weakest are in the middle.
They’re nearly ready when a younger priests shouts. He’s clutching one of the stone pillars, leaning out to look down over the yard. Bragi worms his way over to find that the crouchers are no longer scattered. They have assembled themselves in front of the gate in a single mass, blocking the means of escape, and the beast stands behind them as their leader, its skin now the same sandy color as the yard.
Bragi wraps his fingers around the hilt of his sword. This is what the svinfylking is made for, to break through the enemy line. The only strange thing is that all of them are turned the wrong way—they are facing the gate.
“Tell everyone to yell as we go,” he says to Symond. “It makes it better somehow.”
He draws his blade and takes his place at the front of the wedge. Together they will be a charging boar, and he will be the tusks.
They stopper up against the door of the bell tower, then spill out all at once. The priests are hollering in Anglish; Bragi doesn’t understand the words but he likes their enthusiasm. He leads them through the temple, past the silver-smeared carving of their god, and down the arched hall. A croucher he cut down earlier reaches feebly as they pass; he spares it a kick.
Out into the moonlit yard. The dirt has dark spots from spilled blood. Their enemies are still facing the gate. The Litton-beast is the first to notice their approach. It turns around, and then the crouchers do the same, moving like stiff puppets. They sleepwalk forward. Bragi smells the priest beside him, his sharp sour sweat. He pats his face with his free hand.
“Don’t be scared, or I’ll kill you,” he mutters.
The priest nods, uncomprehending, and raises his stave. Bragi raises his arm and they all surge forward as one. He meets the first croucher mid-stride, lopping through its leg and striking bone. He flips it over as it falls and drives his sword into the back of its thigh. Beside him the terrified priest batters another croucher over the head; it flails backward, and Bragi takes the opening to lift its robe and slash up the bends of its knees.
Arms grip his waist. He drives his elbow into soft neck and dumps the croucher to the ground. He stabs straight down, into its spine. His chest swells with a scream. The priests were not fighters in life and they are not fighters in death, and he feels almost berserker, invincible. But now he sees his true foe is in motion, stalking across the yard with its blue light bobbing like a lantern.
Bragi takes two tries to yank his blade free; the croucher’s body sucks at it like thick mud. Around him the priests have broken shape, either chasing too far out or panicking and moving backward. One runs for the gate, and the beast stretches a knife-limb to catch him. He’s impaled and flicked off the end in two quick motions. The flung priest lands in front of Bragi with his belly peeled open, quivering organs exposed. Bragi’s own guts lurch.
The beast lifts its knife-limbs into the air over its bent back and grates them slowly against each other. Maybe to sharpen them, maybe to give another unspoken order to the crouchers, maybe just to intimidate him with the spine-tickling screech.
Nobody will get to the gate until the beast is gone, so Bragi darts away from the svinfylking, causing a cry of alarm. He casts a glance back to find Symond and Siv. The young priest is clutching her too tightly and might strangle her, but hopefully he understands what is happening and will keep the others together. Bragi grabs his eating knife from his belt and scrapes it along his sword edge.
The beast twitches at the noise. Bragi does it again, moving sideways, pausing to untangle himself from a croucher and chop its arm off. The beast mirrors him, moving away from the gate. Its knife-limbs are poised over its hideous head.
“Come to me,” he says, watching its languid steps. “You fucking...” His word-well is dry; his namesake would be ashamed. “Thing.”
The beast hunches low and then springs, closing the gap in an eye blink, leading with its black blades. For a moment Bragi wishes for his shield, then has no more time to think. He ducks under the first slash and deflects the next; the impact sings up his arm to his wrenched shoulder. He screams through his teeth and swings an arc. The beast turns his blow aside, returns it. Bragi throws up his eating knife to parry, and its blade snaps apart a finger-length from his face.
He drops it, drops away from the beast’s darting limbs, and uses both hands to drive his sword into a bony leg. Silver sprays out, bright in the moonlight. The beast lurches. A ripple goes through its body; for a moment its dark skin flashes poisonous yellow. A knife-limb flashes towards him. Bragi heaves his blade free and swings to meet it with all his force.
The steel slips off the black blade and bites deep into the beast’s joint, nearly severing it. Bragi gives a ragged cry. He launches upright, and now he’s the one taking ground, jabbing and cutting as the beast scuttles backward with one knife-limb hanging limp. Its taloned hands keep reaching up to touch the wound. Its pebbly skin keeps flashing yellow.
When it turns and runs, Bragi follows.
Even hobbled, the beast moves quickly, dragging itself along on one leg and two lanky arms. Bragi jogs after it, sucking back the cold night air, triumph swelling in his chest. It’s the raiding thrill and the hunting thrill put together. Skin, muscle, bone: his whole body is hungry for the kill. The beast leaves a spattered silver trail as it limps through the archway, onto the range.
Bragi is so intent on his prey that he doesn’t see the huddled shape on the stone until it’s under his feet. Hands shoot up and pull him down. He yelps a surprised curse. The croucher scrabbles at him, reaching for his neck. He slams its head against the floor and wrestles free. It’s the drunk and funny priest, the one he stabbed, but now there’s a fresh chest wound that must be the beast’s handiwork.
“I forgot about you,” Bragi admits, and yanks up the croucher’s robe to slice through the backs of its haunches. He leaves it wriggling on the stone.
The beast is gone. Bragi eyes the walls for its outline, remembering its camouflaged skin. His own skin prickles. He listens for movement but only hears the croucher shifting. He wipes his blade on the back of its robe before he continues on.
Silver smears lead him to the dormitory, the room where the priests sleep together but each on their own pallet. He’s glanced inside before during his night wanderings.
A faint blue glow is coming through the open doorway. Bragi flexes his hand, adjusts his grip on his sword. He peers inside. The beast’s light is bobbing in the dark like a lure, suspended over one of the straw pallets. He can almost make out its hunched shadow in the corner.
“I’m not a fucking fish,” he whispers, and slips inside.
Bragi knows that predators are most dangerous when wounded and cornered, so he approaches the wiggling light slowly. The edge of his blade glints pale blue as he readies to strike. Then the light whips over his head, impossibly fast, tracing a glowing line through the gloom. He throws his head back to follow it, and as the beast drops down from over the doorway he realizes that he is a fucking fish.
The impact slams the wind out of his lungs and sends his sword flying off into the dark. He hears it clang against the stone but has no chance of scrambling after it; the beast has him pinned, talons puncturing his clothes and skin, and its remaining knife-limb is falling at his face. He jerks his head to the side and feels the blade shear off a tuft of his beard, the lobe of his ear. He tastes his own hot blood on his lips.
He jacks back onto his shoulder blades, kicking high. One of his feet finds the wound he opened with his sword; he digs his heel in. The beast shudders. Its fleshy beak opens for a moment, giving him a glimpse of its sewing-needle teeth. He twists his foot into the cut and the beast’s talons pull back. He hauls upright, searching for his blade, for anything that might be a weapon.
The knife-limb slashes sideways. Bragi spins; the beast’s weight carries it past and for an instant he sees its turned back. The head of his axe is still lodged there, splinters of the haft sticking out like wooden feathers. He lunges low how he would in a wrestling match, taking the beast’s bony legs out from under it. They crash together to the floor and Bragi scrabbles for the axe head.
A sliver of wood slides under his thumbnail like a hot needle. He ignores it, wrapping his hand around the iron and wrenching it free. The beast’s knife-limb twists to jab at him. He blocks it with the axe head but loses hold of his foe. It tosses him to the floor again. As it dives onto him he comes up to meet it, swinging the axe head at its beak. Silver splatters his face and he hears a crunch as its delicate teeth are shattered.
“Bent and blistered beast,” Bragi pants. “I’ll tear out your teeth, mash in your maw. I’ll break your black blades.” He seizes the thrashing whip on its head. “And I’ll lop off your fucking lure.”
He slices it at the base and it flies across the room, blue light spinning wildly. The beast swings its knife-limb again and this time Bragi can’t move quickly enough; it opens a gash down his hip. Blood spurts across his stomach. He falters but manages to catch the next blow with the hook of his axe head, and when the beast’s maw flicks open he screams and drives his his axe hand inside to the elbow.
The needles shred his forearm. He jerks the axe head upward, through the roof of its gaping mouth. Something yields. Splits. A shudder goes through its entire body. He keeps screaming even after the beast collapses, even after he drags his bloody hand free. He watches it twitch and go still.
“You fucking thing,” he gasps. “You fucking thing.”
He slumps onto one of the straw pallets, trying to calm his hammering heart. He pushes his uninjured palm against his hip. Blood is still welling out, but it’s a trickle, not the torrent he feared. He cuts a strip of wool from the blanket and binds his shredded hand, then cuts a longer strip to wrap all the way around his hipbones. He’s trying to knot it when he hears a familiar voice from the hall.
“Bragi?” Symond sounds unsure whether to shout or whisper. “Bragi? Bragi?”
“Symond,” Bragi says. “Symond, Symond.”
The young priest appears in the doorway. His wide eyes roam over the beast’s corpse. His arms are empty. “The goat’s with Father Wilthrop,” he mumbles. “Safe. All the crouchers, they’ve stopped moving.” He stares at the beast again. “You killed it.”
“I killed it.” Bragi stands up. “Help me drag it. I want to show everyone.”
Symond reaches with a tentative hand. He pokes the beast’s foot once, twice. Then he looks up, and Bragi sees his crooked-toothed smile slowly returning.
They haul the beast’s body out into the yard, where the priests are embracing each other, some of them weeping with grief, others weeping from relief, some of them singing to their dead god. One is on his hands and knees, vomiting. Siv skips up onto the man’s bent back, as if it’s a boulder on a hill, then springs nimbly back down again.
Bragi looks around for the crouchers. He sees one pulling its way through the dirt, belly-down like a serpent. It’s heading for the pen, where all the slaughtered animals are piled. His gaze goes to the sticky mass of dead flesh and he realizes it’s not just animals anymore. The crouchers who could still walk have thrown themselves onto the mound. The ones who crawl have crawled to its base and gone still there. It’s as if they’ve built their own funeral pyre.
He drops the beast’s leg and Symond drops the other. Splayed out on the ground, skeletal limbs stretched outward, it’s a huge and hideous thing, and Bragi wonders how he killed it. Its skin stays dark against the pale dirt. The surviving priests crowd around to look at it.
“I did it with my teeth,” Bragi says. “It tasted like eel.”
Siv comes ambling over to nip his lacerated fingers; he yanks them away with a hiss but manages to rub the goat’s head with his good hand before she darts off again. She’s sniffing at the mound of the dead. He remembers that the nanny goat is in it.
“Bragi. Father Wilthrop wants to thank you.”
Bragi turns. The old man is holding onto Symond’s shoulder for support, and to have an interpreter. He mumbles Anglish into Symond’s ear. The young priest nods.
“He says it was a mistake to drive you out of the monastery,” Symond relays. “And he says that the Northmen’s loss is Anglishmen’s gain. You are welcome in our land. You are a heathen, but you are welcome here.” He hesitates, then speaks for himself. “I think you are unable to return to your land. Is that what it is to be útlagi? You were driven out?”
Bragi is tired of carrying the judgement like a stone in his belly, so he nods. “It was by my own doing. A drunken man tried to console me during Freya’s festival. He said to me that plagues are the gods’ way of weeding out the weak.” Siv has wandered back to him; he kneels to scratch her chin. “And so in the night I weeded him with his own dagger. His back was turned. He had no weapon. He was the jarl’s half-brother. But even if he wasn’t, I am a murderer and I deserve my exile.”
Symond is silent for a moment. “I think there is purpose for you yet,” he says. “Even if it’s not in your land or among your people. You’re alive. And we’re alive because of you.”
“That at least is true.” Bragi gives Siv a long look, then sticks her up on his shoulder. “Open the gate for me. I want to go to the ash tree and make a blood sacrifice.”
Symond’s eyes bulge.
“Not Siv,” Bragi says sharply. “I’m bleeding enough for Odin on my own.”
Symond nods. “Alright. But I won’t tell this to Father Wilthrop. What should I tell him?”
Bragi shrugs. “Tell him I want to be alone for a while and look at the sea.” He casts a glance at the mound of crouchers and dead sheep and goats. “And tell him to burn the bodies.”
Symond mutters to the old man, then shouts to his fellow priests. Two of them hurry to the gate to lift the heavy iron bar.
As Bragi steps forward with the baby goat on his shoulder, he notices something strange. The rust smell is getting stronger, and he feels a humming again in the base of his skull. When he gets to the gate he spots tendrils of dark red dust creeping underneath the crack. His neck prickles cold.
The two priests shove the gate open, smiling at him, saying something in Anglish.
Bragi is rooted to the spot by what he sees.
It’s the size of the whale carcass he found once in the fjord, enormous and bloated, a slithering mass of tongues and spines. His eyes can barely make sense of its shape. The hide is wet and grease-yellow. Red dust leaks from puckered orifices all across its body. Only its mouth is familiar, a gaping hole with rows on rows of needle-thin teeth.
The creature makes him think of the kraken of sailor’s tales, but he knows it wasn’t dredged from the bottom of the dark sea. It came up from the pit.
“Bragi! Behind you!”
Bragi whirls and sees the beast clawing its way towards him, uncannily quick, not a corpse after all. He dives to the side, but he is not its goal.
He watches as the beast crawls into the mass of undulating flesh, how Litton crawled in the night, and somehow attaches itself. Its dark skin slowly fades to grease-yellow. Its limbs fold away.
Iċ eom se bonda. The beast was only the husband, preparing food and den, and now the wife has joined it.
One priest has the presence of mind to try shutting the gate, but the monster forces its way through, its bloated body contorting. It looms over Bragi. He steps backward, tucking Siv under his arm.
“Should we make the svinfylking, Bragi?” Symond calls hoarsely. “Or are we doomed men?”
Bragi doesn’t know the answer, but he knows he doesn’t want to die easily. “Your god has more sights to show you, Symond,” he says. “Get everyone behind me.”
He draws his bitter-biting blade. The monster surges forward, and Bragi’s eyes are strong enough to count every tooth in its maw.