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For the Love of a Sister
Out of the darkness flames of a bonfire licked up over the hill. I knelt on the wet earth, the mud soaking through my dress. I could hear the Norsemen laughing and singing in the distance. I crawled forward to get a better view. My cousin Godric ran up and knelt beside me putting his thick hand on my shoulder. The cool spring wind blew my dark curls into his face. “Wait Alis!” he whispered, panting in my ear “Let me go up first to see if it is safe.” He crawled up past me towards the crest. I waited watching the bright flames dance against the black sky. They brought back memories of another dark night. A night twelve years ago when different flames rose into the sky. A night that is seared into my heart like hot iron brand.
It was midnight when they attacked the monastery. Everything was still except the night breeze howling through the straw huts and groaning in the trees. I was laying on my mat, listening to the wind whistle through the cracks of the girls’ hut. Most all the buildings of the small monastery were straw. The chapel was the only stone building in the small yard. A low stone wall enclosed our little priory, giving it definition but not protection. I slept with ten other orphan girls who had, like myself, fled to the monastery for safety after the Norsemen slaughtered our families. The boy orphans slept in a separate hut and there were only five of them. I was more fortunate than the rest, I had escaped with a sibling, Elvina, my older sister. My parents and my brother Rowan were killed in our fields back home. I tried to put the ugly memory from my mind. We had been there for many months now and I had turned seven years old. Word had been sent from our Father’s family in the south saying that they would come for us soon. I reached over and held my sister’s hand with my sticky fingers. She was fast asleep and I could feel her hot breath on my neck. I snuggled up next to her and fell into a light sleep.
I woke up with a start and looked around. It was pitch black still, and I wondered what could have awakened me. Elvina was awake and siting up on her mat, staring into the darkness. Frightened I sat up and clung to her arm. Then I heard a shout in the night, a sound I had heard once before. It was the blood-curling cry of raiding Norsemen. Elvina jumped to her feet. Some of the other girls woke and asked what was happening. “Quiet!” she whispered “They’ll hear you!”
“Who?” asked one girl out of the darkness.
The hut was silent, some of the little girls started whimpering. We heard the shouts and screams of the Brothers outside. I started to cry and Elvina grabbed my hand. She raised me to my feet and together we raced outside the hut. “Come back!” someone cried “They'll kill you!”
Elvina ignored her. We ran out into the yard. The Norsemen were there, they had already torched two of the huts and were trying to break into the chapel. We ran in the shadows towards the woods beyond the priory. I tripped and in my panic I began to cry. When they heard the noise they turned and spotted us. One of them came after us, his long hair braided behind his back and an ax in his hand. Elvina pulled me along as fast as she could. I tripped again, but Elvina caught me beneath the arms and pulled me to my feet.
A Norseman on horseback swooped down upon us from behind, grabbing Elvina and flinging her across his saddle. I tried to scream, but nothing would come out. “Alis!!” Elvina shrieked as the Norseman rode away. I felt a hand on my arm dragging me away. I fought back kicking, scratching, and biting. “Alis! Alis it is me!” said a familiar voice, I stopped. Brother Wilfrith picked me up and ran with me over to the wall. He lifted me over and jumped over it himself.
Wilfrith was one of the younger Brothers, he was sixteen and not quite yet a monk. I liked him best of them all. He would give us rides on his back and play games with us when the Fathers were not around.
He pulled me towards the woods, “Come on Alis! Run!” he gasped. I ran with him to the woods, tears blurring my vision. He kept glancing behind us to see if we were followed. We entered the woods, hiding ourselves in the shadows. The sticks and brambles on the forest floor cut into my bare feet. Wilfrith fell to his knees gasping for breath. I clung to his hand for dear life, shaking uncontrollably.
I looked back the way we had come. The whole priory was aflame even the chapel. Screams drifted up to us on the wind. I put my hands over my ears, sobbing. Wilfrith hugged me, holding me tight to calm me. It was a long time before I could stop shaking.
We stood together watching the flames rise higher. I was sobbing quietly now and Wilfrith was praying. I listened to him pray, as I watched the smoke rise to the heavens among the stars. A bitter anger grew in my heart. I cursed the One who made the stars for letting the Norsemen take my sister away. I vowed I would find her again.
Now twelve years had passed since that night. I breathed deeply to clear my head.
Wilfrith and I had traveled south to stay with my Father’s family. We received a warm welcome there and Wilfrith was soon established in a nearby monastery. My cousins tried to make me feel at home, but I did not forget my vow. I haunted the local places of trade and begged to Uncle to take me when he went to the port towns on the sea. It was improper, but he humored me and took me along with my cousin Godric. I learned the Norse language quickly and would question every Norseman trader. I would ask them about a blonde Saxon captive, but they had never heard of her. Godric felt sorry for me and began to help me in my search. It was only two years ago we had word of Elvina from a Norse tradesman who was visiting the town of Hamwic. We had been searching for a long time, years watching for any returning captives and questioning every Norseman to cross our path. This time it was different, this trader did know of a pale-haired girl captured as a child. His name was Bjorn Leifson, he was a tall fellow and his dark hair was streaked with grey. He had come to trade furs and ivory. He was surprised to hear me speak in his own language, but spoke to me in fluent English. The girl, he said, had come to his village with a slave trader only just before he left. His brother, Enok Leifson by name, had felt sorry for her and bought her to be a servant in his fields.
Godric and I had rushed home to tell the news. We begged Uncle to go there and bring her back, but he told us he could not. “It is a long and dangerous voyage,” he said “How could I leave the farm that long, on trip I might never come back from?”
So Godric and I, along with Wilfrith, made our own plans. Together we stowed away on a trader’s boat and where not found until it was too late to turn back. They were furious with us, but Wilfrith told them our story and convinced them to help us.
I shuddered in the cool spring breeze. It had been a hard voyage. I wondered if I would recognize Elvina, I wondered if she would recognize me.
I shifted the sword at my waist to keep the belt from cutting into my skin. We had come a long way to this place, traveled in the unpredictable spring weather. I looked into the darkness ahead of me. We had no idea if these Norsemen were friendly or not.
I heard someone approach behind me. I turned, it was Wilwrith. He had come ashore with us, tonsure, monk’s tunic and all. He now wore a black cloak with the hood drawn to cover his face. It was difficult to see him in the dim firelight. He knelt beside me and withdrew his hood.
“I secured the boat as you asked,” he said
“Thank you Wilwrith.”
I pointed up the hill, “There.”
He nodded and drew a short bow from the folds of his cloak. It was made from a white wood and was curved on both ends. He took an arrow and notched it in the bowstring then laid it ready on the ground.
“I pray to God I won’t have to use this,” he whispered softly. I said nothing and looked away. I just prayed his god would not interfere with our undertaking this night.
Soon we could see Godric come crawling back down the hill towards us. “There are six of them sitting around the fire,” he whispered, “No women or children, they are all in the houses. One man has just left the fire and is walking towards the animal pens, if we hurry we might be able to catch him and question him about Elvina’s whereabouts. Come on!” We ran towards the village crouching low. The houses were small with brick walls and thatch roofs. They were spread just enough apart, so that each house had room enough for a large garden and yard. Some were larger than others and had room for their own animal pens, but most of the livestock were put in the communal ones on the outskirts of the village.
We skirted around the houses keeping in the shadows. We found the Norseman leaning against the pig pen fence rail and looking up at the stars. Godric signaled us to stay hidden and crept forward. He seized the man from behind, covering his mouth with his hand and holding a dagger to his back. I came up to them quietly, “Drop your weapons,” I demanded in Norse. The Norseman hesitated, Godric pressed the knife into his back. “Drop your weapons,” I repeated. He hesitated, then took a knife from his belt and threw it on the ground. “What do you want with me?” he growled, “Kill me now if you come to kill.”
“We don’t come to kill you, if you tell us the truth we will leave you unharmed.” I said. He struggled under Godric’s grip, “What is it you want to know?” he asked. I walked in front of him and placed the flat of my sword against his chest. “Is there a Saxon captive in this village, a fair-haired girl, residing in the house of Enok Leifson?”
A look of confusion came over his face. He scrutinized me, his gaze settling on the sharp features of my face. A thought seemed to come to him and a laugh, harsh and low, welled up in his throat. A chill ran down my spine and I backed away holding him at sword point. “Is there or isn’t there? I demanded, trying to keep a tremble out of my voice. He looked me up and down, “Yes,” he said still chuckling darkly “Yes there is such a girl.”
“And where do I find her?” I asked, relief giving me more confidence. He pointed towards a house on the far side of the village, “You will find her in the house of Enok’s son Soren. It is small with a red door.”
“What does he say?” asked Godric.
“He says she is here,” I breathed “He just told me where to find her.”
“Thank God!” Godric whispered, and began to bind his prisoner with a bit of rope he had in his belt. The Norseman cursed at us as I held him at sword point.
We left our prisoner gagged and tied to the fence of the pen. “We had better hurry,” Wilfrith whispered “I don’t think that will hold him long.” We stalked carefully among the houses until we found the one with the red door. I stopped in the shadows and gazed at it. It was a small hut, but neatly tended. There was a garden at the back of the house, it looked bare and empty in the moonlight. My heart beat like a drum in my ears, Godric put a hand on my shoulder and I trembled under it. “Alis,” Godric whispered “Would you like me to go and look first?” I shook my head “No, I should like to be the first to see what has become of her.”
He nodded “Wilfrith and I will keep watch. Be careful now lass.”
I slowly made my way up to the house, light was coming through a small window on the eastern side. I crept up to it and cautiously peered inside.
My heart seemed to stop in my chest, a young woman stood in front of the hearth with her back to me. Rich locks of fair golden hair fell down to her waist, but in the gleam of fire light you could see tints of red in it. Elvina's hair was just like that; it would glint red in the golden summer sun.
I gazed at the lovely form and became aware of my own appearance. Would she even recognize me at all, much less windblown and crusted with mud? I checked myself, I wasn’t even sure this woman was Elvina. There was only one way to find out.
I started towards the small red door. Just as I was turning away I saw another figure enter the room out of the corner of my eye. I stopped and turned back. My heart sank in my chest; it was a Norseman.
He was tall and he possessed a great mop of curly hair and a bushy beard. Underneath it I saw that he was young, maybe even handsome. A great heat rose to my face, so this was the man who kept my lovely sister a slave. I reached for my sword, ready to call for Godric and Wilfrith if necessary. The lovely woman turned around and I knew she was my sister. She really hadn’t changed at all, of course she was older now and looked so, but her features remained the same. She had the same turned up nose and dimpled cheeks, though the cheeks were gaunter than in our childhood days. She smiled at the Norseman as advanced towards her. I raised my hand to signal to Godric, then I noticed something else. She held a small bundle in her arms and a tiny pink face peeped out of it. The Norseman stroked the little head and played with the baby’s nose, it giggled and Elvina laughed. Elvina and her husband talked together in Norse, much of which I could not hear or understand. I watched them for a long time, but I could not catch half of what they said. Then I heard my name, I looked behind me, but Godric and Wilfrith had not called me. “Alis,” it was the Norseman speaking, he was addressing the baby, “Alis.” Baby Alis was gripping his thick finger with her pink hand, he kissed it and laid it back on her little chest. Then he looked up and saw me.
He gave a loud shout, I jumped back away from the window, and Elvina screamed.
“Alis!” Wilfrith whispered from the shadows. I turned and ran beside Wilfrith, Godric was just ahead of us. I could hear baby Alis wailing behind us as we fled. An arrow whizzed pass my ear and another struck me in the shoulder. I cried out and stumbled forward, Godric ran back to me and supported me onward. Wilfrith raised his bow to shoot back, but I grabbed his arm, “No Wilfrith!” I gasped “Don’t shoot them, don’t shoot them.” We ran out of the village and back up the hill. The village was on alert now and from their shouting I gathered that they found the man we tied to the pig pen. Godric stopped and looked back “What about Elvina?” he cried “We can’t just abandon what we came so far to get!” I grabbed his arm “No Godric, leave her!” He tried to shrug off my grasp, but I didn’t let go “Trust me!” I pleaded “She is happy here, that’s all that matters to me. Come on!” He looked at me confused for a moment then nodded reluctantly and went on. We found the boat where Wilfrith had tied it and pushed off to join the larger vessel waiting for us beyond the shore. I sat in the back of the boat as Godric and Wilfrith rowed us out to sea. The stars shone bright and clear in the cool spring night but were made bleary with my tears. The cold sea breeze whipped around us making me shiver with cold. Warm blood trickled down my back where the arrow was still lodged, but the pain in my shoulder was less than the pain in my heart. “Are you alright Alis?” Wilfrith asked from out of the darkness. “I will be,” I answered, looking up to the stars, and for the first time in years I prayed to the One who made them.