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(A short story of 4823 words)

By the River

Historical Fiction Literary

by Sue Wilsea

Terrible things happen down by the river: it is a place of despair where humans do their worst to each other. Yet it is also a place where ghosts can be laid to rest. In this story, originally published in Umber (2011), the voices of a bereaved 60 year old woman, a teenage boy who’s lost his way in life and a murdered Viking are woven into a dark story of revenge and tragedy.

It was such a very wide river that only when the sun came up did Ivar realise that they had left the open sea. There was little wind so he ordered the sail to be lowered and the oars to be pulled. Always at this point he imagined his snekkja as a creature miraculously transformed into another; with a butting full sail it was a galloping stallion but with oars splayed out from both sides it became some exotic insect scuttering across the surface of the water. Either way it was magnificent, big enough to carry thirty men and supplies with ease but small enough to move swiftly and secretly onto enemy lands, its prow like the arching stem of a deadly flower, ready to spit venom. Their intended destination was at least one more day’s travel and the men would be expecting an uninterrupted sail there but, spotting a small indentation on the left hand side of the river, Ivar ordered his men to pull towards it. From a distance it resembled a fingernail, a white crescent of sand not big enough to accommodate his party, but as they drew nearer he was glad to have followed his instincts. There was space enough for the men to get some exercise and spread themselves out after food had been found and eaten. The high riverbanks were fringed by dangerously dense forest, meaning a permanent guard would need to be mounted, but there would be animals to hunt there and maybe fresh water. Anyway, his men would prove better warriors for a break. Ivar removed his gauntlet and put his hand on the side of the boat, his ritual whenever he made a strategic decision. Already the wood was starting to absorb the early morning warmth and he was comforted by the familiar feel of the grain against his palm. The ship was a living thing, stretching now as it woke up, gently creaking as it flexed its muscles.

Of course he realised that some of his men were complaining at the change of plan but nothing would be said to his face. They knew better than to question his orders and anyway what choice did they have so far from their own land and with nothing between them and death but trust in his authority? He also knew that others would secretly be relieved, the inevitable delayed.

Ivar watched Mordi as he only pretended to put his weight behind hauling the boat up onto the shore. He was the strongest man by far, with massively broad shoulders and sinews like twisted hanks of rope, but he was also the most volatile – a born troublemaker. The timbers groaned as the hull stuck in the mud and, moving swiftly forward, Ivar leant over the side and switched Mordi with his leather strap. He’d meant only to catch him a warning blow on the shoulder but at the last moment Mordi turned and the strap caught him across the cheek. Their eyes locked and seeing not only shock, but hate glittering there, Ivar was surprised. He had never considered the man’s hostility to be personal and he, Ivar, treated his men far better than many he knew. Already a curved red weal, an obscene smile, was erupting on Mordi’s face while a vein throbbed in his forehead like a worm under the skin but it was only superficial and would heal...

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