In Death Bedrenched

Copyright © 2022 Stanley Wheeler

All Rights Reserved


Ulf Thorsen plunged his hand into the frigid waters of the small bay along the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The cold meant nothing to him. Growing up in a small village near Mikilvik, the largest of the towns founded by his Viking forefathers, had not inured him to the temperature. He was accustomed to the cold, but a darker, heavier thing protected him from the near-freezing temperature where the waters of a small river splashed down a series of falls and into the bay. Ulf’s fingers closed upon the red and silver creature beneath the clear water.

He raised the yard-long monster from the flood. It instantly slashed its razor-finned tail along Ulf’s side. The fins cut through his shirt and the skin over his ribs. He gripped the thrashing thing behind the tooth-filled jaws. The thing twisted and slashed again. The fins along the sides of the snake-like tail cut through his leather breeches and opened an incision across his thigh.

Ulf gripped the monster in one hand. He held a dark, round stone in his other hand. He called upon the power from the stone. The vibration of the power ran up his arm like a horde of scurrying mice. It moved across his shoulders and down the other arm to the hand that held the monster. The silver-red scales of the thing might turn spears and bayonets, but they could not withstand the force of Ulf Thorsen’s grip as enhanced by the power of the stone.

The beast wriggled and turned in a frenzy of twisting slashes. The sharp fins cut his shirt, but missed his skin. The tail whipped up to catch Ulf beneath the upper arm which held the stone. As blood dripped from the fresh wound, Ulf focused the building power from the stone into his grip. His fingers constricted behind the thing’s jaws. The shimmering scales spread, splitting apart. The vertebrae crunched. His fingers tore into the warm flesh of the thing. Its blood ran across his knuckles, down his hand and wrist. He continued to squeeze. The yellow eyes of the thing bulged from their sockets. The blood trickled in a wavy path down to Ulf’s elbow to drip into the bay. The thing hung limp and lifeless.

This was power. This was the joy in life. To feel an opponent’s blood beneath one’s fingers. To feel the life force flee from the cabinet of its soul. This brought pleasure to Ulf Thorsen. The strange creature’s death was but a small thing. He flung it upon the bank. A pair of gray dogs snarled and snapped at one another as they tore into the bloody carcass.

Ulf brought a hand to his face. The blood-stained fingers stroked his yellow beard. His fingertips toyed with the silver cylinder where the ends of his beard were gathered. A fingernail traced the shaft of one of the many runes upon the cylinder. Ulf’s thoughts drifted away from the thrill that came from physically crushing an enemy to an even greater delight: mastering an enemy’s mind, bending another’s will to his own.

The fingers of his other hand caressed the dark stone. His thoughts reached back to the time he had acquired the stone. “Acquired” was the precise word to describe the manner of his coming into possession. He had gained it through his own efforts. He had been in the Skraeling village of a band of the Wendat. Haronyateka, chief of the band, was known to possess a spirit stone. A certain Skahete, an exceptionally lovely Skraeling girl, had first lured Ulf to the village. Although he had not lost his desire for her, a new desire had claimed him.

The Wendat said that Iosheka, the creator, had gifted spirit stones to men, but men had to take the stones from the evil firebirds, made by his evil brother Tawiscara. The firebirds had eaten all the spirit stones while Iosheka was making the first humans. The firebirds had not been able to swallow the spirit stones. The stones had lodged in their mouths and worked into the noses of the firebirds. It was there that a brave could obtain a spirit stone. No one had seen a firebird in many hundreds of moons, but Haronyateka had a stone. Word was that he claimed to have been gifted the stone. He never allowed anyone to see or touch the object.

Ulf, in his dark trousers, leather boots, and dark green blouse, lay beside one of the ten longhouses in the village. He had watched Haronyateka for a month now. He never approached the chief, but observed him from afar. He had not wanted to draw the powerful chief’s attention. The old chief carried a pouch which hung at his neck. The chief never opened the bag, but he did touch the bag with one hand from time to time.

Haronyateka stood before the entrance of the central longhouse. He said something that Ulf did not clearly understand. Ulf spoke the language of the Wendat and other Skraelings, but he did not speak any Skraeling language well. He knew French, and spoke English in addition to his native tongue. Haronyateka called the village to assemble.

The chief moved one hand to the bag about his neck. “Go. Gather the people. I will proclaim the Feast of the Dead,” he said to two young men who attended him.

The young men in loincloths raced away, calling for the people to gather to Haronyateka’s longhouse.

Haronyateka wore moccasins and a loincloth. One turkey feather stood upright in his headband. Another dangled from a silver concho tied in his long black hair. Above the loincloth, a wide belt circled his waist. Figures and porcupine quills adorned the belt. He had draped a folded red blanket over his left shoulder. A bag or satchel crossed from his left shoulder to his right hip. His right hand rested against the satchel.

The Skraelings gathered, the men in their loincloths and moccasins, the women in their dresses of leather or cloth. The men wore a variety of hairstyles. Some had plucked the hair from one side of the head, leaving long locks flowing on the other. Some wore a Mohawk style from forehead to nape. Others had plucked all the hair from their head except for a single lock. Nearly all wore a turkey feather in their hair. The women adorned their dresses with quills, bones, glass beads, and small shells. Some women wore cloth streamers in their hair. Skahete wore a pink streamer, a few inches of which she had woven into her hair. The rest of the pink streamer hung loose against her neck.

Ulf rose and mingled with the Skraelings. He found a position near Skahete.

“People,” Haronyateka began. “It is time. We have stayed in this place for many moons. It has been good to us. The land and the river here grow weary of our tread. We must move the village. During all our stay here, many of the people have passed from the walking way. These warriors, mothers, daughters, sons, and fathers have we laid beneath the earth or raised toward the sky to rest for a time. Before we move the village, we must move our kindred dead. We must move them to a permanent rest. I proclaim a Feast of the Dead.

“You,” Haronyateka gestured to four braves, “Skahoat, Shumenduat, Teyatak, and Yandisra. You will go to the base of the pleasant hill. You will dig the final resting place. You will go today and mark the circle. Tomorrow you will dig. I will send others to take your place that you might return to feast with us, and to gather your kin.”

The young man called Teyatak said, “I cannot go today. I must…”

Haronyateka cut him off, “You will go today.”

Ulf noticed that the chief had seized the pouch at his neck with one hand as he spoke.

Teyatak reacted as if struck. He stumbled back two steps. His head wobbled upon his neck. “I will go today,” he said.

“Tomorrow we feast. The day after, we prepare our dead. We will feast again before we begin the trek to the pleasant hill.”

Several men yipped with excitement. The talk among the Skraelings grew animated but joyful. Many of the children began dancing, bowing and hopping with their hands waving and gesturing.

“Prepare yourselves,” Haronyateka proclaimed.

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