“Spread out.” Jorgen ordered his men. “Search the village—what is left of it—and the forest and fields. Perhaps someone survived this slaughter.”
The men obeyed without question. For more than a dozen years he had led them. Jorgen had proven his worth as a leader time and time again, both in peace and in battle. For this they respected him. Never would he ask the lowest of his warriors to do any task he would not willingly do himself. For this they loved him. And in all the years, and all the wars, not once had he failed to obtain victory, not once had an enemy evaded him for long, and not once had a betrayal gone unpunished. While no man might say he was unjust, Jorgen’s men knew that his fury knew no bounds when he or his people had been wronged. For this, though they might not admit to as much, his men feared him. The combination of feelings he inspired created in the eyes of his men, the stature of a legend, even a god—though never would any voice such a thought, fearing to displease the man who held such things as sacrilege.
Jorgen stood a moment, watching his men as they looked into half-burned homes and called out to the air. Satisfied that his instructions were being obeyed, he strode to the edge of the village and began to help move timbers and stones from a doorway.
A shout heralded the first body found. The old man was injured, but his heart beat strong. He might live yet. Slowly they worked, clearing debris, looking for signs of life. A babe’s whimper gave away a hiding place that concealed a women with her children. Two more men were found alive, but badly wounded.
Jorgen wiped an arm across his brow, smearing soot across his face. A small hand clamped on his arm with surprising force and he turned to see that it belonged to a girl with red braids and a frightened look. “Please.” She whispered, “My cousin is hurt. You must come.”
“Your cousin. And who are you?” he asked, quietly so as not to scare the girl more than the devastation around them already did.
“Marta. Marta Hjelmarsdottir.” The girl looked at him steadily, as if willing him to help her. “Will you come? You are the leader?”
“Yes, I am, and I will come.” Nodding at two of his men to accompany him, Jorgen agreed. “Hjelmarsdottir? Your father is Hjelmar Ironfist? The Jarl of this village?”
The girl, Marta, nodded and looked at him for a moment. “Have you seen him? Is he all right?”
Jorgen gently directed her gaze back in the direction they were heading. “I have not seen him. He may be on the other side of the village.”
In truth Jorgen suspected that Hjelmar Jennson was among the slain. A man with the reputation of the great Ironfist would have made his presence known, had he survived. Jorgen would have heard, if not seen, the jarl. But he was not about to tell this frightened child that her father was dead.
She peeked up at him once or twice along the way, but said nothing—hesitant with these strangers, and Jorgen could well understand.
“How did you know I was the leader?” he asked her.
Marta shrugged. “I watched for a moment. Everyone was doing what you told them.”
Shy, but clever. Jorgen could respect that. Marta put him in mind of his own eldest daughter, though the two of them seemed quite different.
“What is your cousin’s name?” He asked, hoping the child would open up a bit.
She answered without looking at him. “Maja.”
He tried again. “Maja what?”
“Just Maja.” After that, Marta remained silent.
The girl led them to a cave where several women and more children hovered in fear. A fire had been built to ease the damp and chill of the enclosure, and near it lay a woman with blood streaming down her face, dirt in her hair, and dark eyes intense with pain. The lady struggled, attempting to sit, but Jorgen knelt and eased her back down. “Who are you?” she demanded quietly.
“Jorgen Andriksson of Hilvard.” He spoke softly, and watched her wariness give way to exhaustion and pain. “Lie still. You are hurt, and I would know how bad the wound is.”
The lady allowed Jorgen to examine her head and answered his questions as best she could. Her name was Maja. She was in a village on the coast of Islak visiting family, but lived farther inland in the town of Lenuka. And while he held up three fingers, one of his companions was holding two up behind his head. That made her smile a bit, and had Jorgen turning to swat away the hand of the offending wretch. “Your head will ache for a few days, and you may bear a scar, but you shall live, Maja.”
“Tell me, Jorgen Andriksson,” she began, “does my uncle—the jarl of this village live?”
They both looked at Marta, who was watching them intently.
“I know not. My men are searching for survivors.” Jorgen hastened to tell her. Looking at the people huddled in the cave he addressed them. “The Berunians are gone from this place. If you wish to help in the search, you may do so without fear. None of my people will harm you.”
An old woman came forward, grasped his hand, and kissed it. “Lord bless you, Jorgen Andriksson!”
The people shuffled out, nodding in deference to the injured lady who lay still by the fire. A servant bustled about her, tucking the blanket more firmly, offering a bit of broth which was refused.
The lady fixed Jorgen with an intent stare. “What are your dealings with the Berunians?”
“You waste no time.” Jorgen almost smiled. “I seek to put an end to Morgyt’s false dealings and ambitions. He has harassed my people, my lands too long. I am sorry that I could provide the people of this village with no warning, but I looked for him to attack elsewhere.”
“Morgyt.” The woman spat out the name. “He has killed many, and knows no remorse. Any foe of Morgyt’s is an ally to me.” She declared boldly.
Jorgen’s gaze probed hers. “What has he done to you?”
Maja’s eyes dropped to her hands. “There are those I loved who have perished because of his schemes. I am an orphan and a widow, thanks to Morgyt. Of close family all that remains to me is a brother, and I know not where he is, or if he still lives.”
Comprehension apparent in his eyes, Jorgen spoke again. “You were in Lenuka when he struck.” It was no question, and yet she answered him.
“No. I was here. My family sent me to my uncle, fearing an open attack from Morgyt’s forces. I had word later of my parents’ deaths, and my husband’.” Still, she would not meet his gaze.
“And your brother?” he asked, suspicions forming in his mind.
“A band of men smuggled the prince out of the city.” Finally, she looked up. “My brother was with them.”
“The prince—what of the princess?” Jorgen asked. “It has been nigh on six months. Have you no word of her?”
“No more questions.” The servant nearly shouted. “My lady must rest.”
Jorgen nodded. “As you wish, good woman.” He turned his attention back to this Maja. “One of my men shall bring news of the survivors if you wish.”
“There is no need,” Maja asserted. “The villagers will bring word.”
“Surely.” The Lord of Hilvard agreed. “You must be anxious for your uncle. Come, men.” With that he and his companions departed the cave.
"That was close," the servant whispered. "Too close. You must guard your words carefully."
"I know, I know, Lene." Maja agreed. "But if I do not answer his questions, he will become suspicious. He must believe that I am no more than some woman, born to wealth perhaps, but of little importance."
Lene sighed. "I shall do my best to shield you from further questioning, at least until you are recovered. Now drink this." The servant ordered.
Maja sat up, with the servant's assistance and drank the offered broth, though she did not taste it. "There, I have drunk your broth. Go now and find out if my uncle survived. And if my other cousins are keeping quiet about who I am."
"I would not leave you..." Lene trailed off when she saw the determined look in her mistress' eyes. "Very well, but only if Marta will stay and keep an eye on you. And no argument, princess!"
Marta nodded her agreement and watched Lene leave. When she had gone the girl went and sat by her cousin. “Do you think Papa is all right, Maja?”
“I do not know, Marta. I hope so.” Maja took the girl’s hand.
Marta was a quiet and sweet as her twin brother Martijn was loud and tempestuous. She lacked her eldest sister’s confidence, but there was a calm sort of competence about her that had her younger siblings treating her with more respect than they might have otherwise.
Maja sighed as she lay back, wishing there were more she could do for Marta, for everyone. But every time she attempted to rise she became dizzy. The last thing anyone needed was for her to fall and injure herself more. Her eyes welled with tears which she tried to blink back. If only there had been more time. If only she had thought as far as Morgyt looking for her in this village. If she had gone anywhere else, all these people might now be safe.
A voice in her head told her that she had saved lives, and that should count for something, but she could not help fearing that the entire village was a ruin now, and far more lives lost because of her presence. Her aunt and uncle would never have turned her away, but she might have found another place to hide, and they might live yet. Of course she did not know that they were dead. It only seemed likely. Her uncle would have fought, of that she had no doubt. Her aunt might have run to safety.
Maja fought the urge to beat her fists on the ground and let one tear fall down her cheek. If she had not stumbled over that root, she would at least be able to help search for others, and tend to the wounded. As it was, she could only lie by the fire and wait for news to be brought. Perhaps she would not have been of much help, but anything would be better than being forced to wait and watch, unable to even rise from the pile of furs in which she had been deposited.
"Maja?" a small, thin voice called.
"I am here, dumpling." She called back as Marta rose to relinquish her place, making way for her baby sister. Maja reached a hand out to the youngest of her cousins. "What news, Dagmar?"
The little girl shook her head, but took the offered hand and sat. "None yet. Do you think Papa and Mama..." she could not finish the question.
"We must have hope, little one." Maja pulled her close and placed a kiss on her soft golden hair. "They will be found."
"What if they are not?" tears sparkled in Dagmar's eyes, and in Marta’s.
Maja fought back a wave of grief; it was like her parents' deaths all over again. "Then you shall live with me, and I shall care for you." She snuggled the girl closer and prayed her aunt and uncle would be found alive.
Copyright 2022, all rights reserved. Do not copy without permission, etc. If you made it this far, thank you, and please consider letting me know what you thought either in the comments below or via email (The Amazing Contact Form!) or Twitter. Part 2 will be posted in a few days.