Chapter Fifty – Ghost from the past
Max’s tribe welcomed the young newcomers with open arms after he had introduced them. Work was underway to make the already well defended village into a near impregnable, heavily fortified redoubt. Tihke coordinated foraging teams to retrieve anything that could be turned into a defensive weapon. Shaila and Torinn organized the women into medical teams and runners, to tend wounds and supply arms to the defenders on the ramparts of the fortified earthwork. Manouf and Goran helped construct spike filled pits covered with reed mats, manufactured from the plentiful supply that grew in the marshy lands beyond the defended perimeter. Max and Tihke, together with Max’s two sons, made more bows and arrows using Goran’s fine weapon as an example.
The news of the raiders working their way steadily towards them, unnerved the village. The bloodshed caused by fighting other tribes over territorial boundaries was bad enough, but the chaos after a raid by the female berserker cannibals was quite another thing altogether. The violent females struck fear in the hearts of the strongest berserkers, whenever they raided. No mercy was shown even by berserker standards. It was said that their queen ruled by strength and fear within the tribe. To challenge her meant agonizing torture, before she finally delivered you into the arms of their god, in the mountain of fire. Death was a welcome release for all her victims. Some of her finest warriors had dared to question her and paid for it with their lives. She favoured none among her kind. While she was strong enough to fight off any challengers to her position, she would continue to rule in her cruel way. Her warriors were glad to be away from their home on the hunt for males. At least she was not with them. The women almost felt sorry for their captives, knowing what was in store for them on their return.
Max and Goran sat together outside Max’s humble home, taking a well earned rest after the day’s heavy workload. “Tell me more about yourself, Goran; you’re not of berserker blood are you?” Max asked.
“What do you mean, Max? Of course I’m berserker; my father was Khan’s son!” Goran replied, hurt by the berserker’s friendly observation.
Max looked at Goran for a long time before shaking his head. “You’re not. You’re from some other tribe, probably taken in battle when you were young. You bear no resemblance to my brother Khan. Although,” he added, “you’re strong and angry enough to be his grandson, I grant you that.” Max laughed as Goran’s eyes narrowed to slits thanks to his friendly taunts.
Max’s wife called them in for the evening meal. Sitting around the room afterwards, the friends relaxed. Goran had calmed down and was sitting by the fire listening to the chatter of the household. Max’s two sons were doing their best to attract the attention of Torinn and Shaila, but neither of the young women even glanced their way. Tihke and Manouf joined Goran and Max by the fire, arguing with Shaila over what to expect when the female berserkers finally arrived. Torinn sat quietly with her head resting on Shaila’s thigh, talking to Max’s wife.
Inevitably ,Max’s two sons went outside, frustrated and angry at the refusal of their awkward teenage advances by the two young women. Max’s wife opened the door to call her sons in when it was time for bed, but they had vanished. Max and Goran searched the village, asking the whereabouts of the two headstrong young teenagers. No one had seen them since they slipped over the wall earlier in the evening. Max cursed them for their stupidity. “Leave them. Let them spend the night in the cold; it’ll do them no harm.” With that, he and Goran returned to the warmth of the house and retired for the night. In the hour before dawn, the mystery of Max’s missing sons was revealed. The female berserkers had arrived, hundreds of them.
One of the villagers hammered on Max’s door and told him the news. Goran and his friends joined him on the earth wall of the redoubt. Across the marshy ground, three hundred meters away, they could see the two unfortunate youths spread eagled by crossed saplings, tied with rope to stakes, driven into the ground. A powerful female warrior stood in front of them with sword in hand. “Surrender now,” she called out. “Turn over all your males and we’ll leave you in peace.”
The village responded with a rain of arrows. The berserker leader glanced up at the two boys then cut the rope holding the saplings. Max uttered his war cry as his two precious sons’ lives tragically ended when they were torn apart by the force of the saplings’ release. Their hideous deaths were the signal for the hundreds of female berserkers to attack. The defenders made every remaining arrow count as the frenzied female warriors charged across the marsh and through the pits, which trapped many. By sunrise, the battle was at its height. Goran, Tihke, Shaila, and Manouf fought back to back like demons in the bloody battle for survival. The pits filled with their sharp stakes had taken their toll of the frenzied women, but the female berserkers’ numbers were greater than their own, and soon the battle was over. Torinn and Manouf both died from their wounds along with the great majority of the villagers, and as the captives were being led away, the friends said their silent farewells to the dead.
Max and his men, together with Goran and Tihke, were manacled together for the long journey south-east. Shaila was bound hand and foot to a pole suspended between two of the strongest female berserkers horses. Later that day when the leader of the berserkers signalled the column to stop, they camped beside a river. The leader made her way along the line of captives, stopping from time to time, checking the captive standing in front of her by slapping his legs and arms with the flat of her sword. Eventually she found what she was looking for. The unfortunate man was unchained and beheaded. The women fed from his spit-roasted body that night, sending waves of fear and revulsion through their captives.
Shaila was not so lucky. There was no quick death for her. For the remainder of the journey, she would be a plaything for the grisly cannibalistic female warriors. By the end of the week, she was begging to be killed. The captives dreaded the end of each day, not knowing which one of them would be on the menu that night.
As the weeks dragged on and the column grew closer to the women’s homeland, only the weak were culled from the captives. Shaila was almost at deaths door after enduring weeks of depraved torture at the hands of her tormentors. Goran and Tihke swore they would end her life if they could, if only they could find some way of getting free. By the end of March, steam and ash clouds could be seen rising above the home of their captors on the slopes of Mount Etna. No more captives were killed for food. The female berserkers needed to have enough left to please their queen. Shaila was allowed to recover, spending all her time tied up on the pole between the female warriors’ horses.
The triumphant return of the hunting party was signalled with blasts from hunting horns. The queen emerged from her hut to see what her warriors had brought back. Her face was hideously scarred and partially hidden from view by her long black hair. She was not like her berserker sisters. Her figure was that of a woman in her early forties, yet it retained the firm muscular tone of someone much, much younger.
“Great queen, we return bringing gifts for your pleasure. If it pleases you, will you inspect your new batch of slaves?” The leader of the party bowed as she spoke; no one ever looked directly at their queen unless she commanded it; to do so would bring death. As the ranks of female berserkers parted, she stepped down onto the ground. The leader of the hunting party proudly announced, “Make way for our queen, Meral.”
Next time – Chapter Fifty-One