Beneath The Church

A short story by H. R. Walker.

The soft sound of waves against the hull of the longboat was the only thing Bjarke could hear. Every man on the boat stood or rowed in silence. Anticipation was heavy in the air, akin to the static of the approaching storm.

Even the seagulls were silent. It was eerie but Bjarke was not unsettled. This wasn’t his first raid, he’d been on many before and in comparison these conditions were favourable. The full moon shone through thick black clouds, lighting the way for the approaching ship, meaning they had been able to put out their lanterns.

Next to Bjarke, Fiske shifted, his leather armour creaking a little. He was a boy of twelve winters hoping to earn his manhood. Bjarke considered him a little young for a raid. His armour was clearly borrowed, most likely made for his father. But Bjarke was not in charge of who came on the raids and as such, Fiske’s fate was down to himself.

Bjarke felt somewhat responsible for the boy, however, having a son just a few winters younger waiting for him at home. He  was clearly scared: his face was pale and his bottom lip quivered. He clutched his helmet on his lap and he repeatedly reached for both his knife and his axe, checking they were still there.

Bjarke put a hand on his shoulder, making the boy look up at him. Fiske opened his mouth as if to say something but the words wouldn’t come out. He looked away again out over the sea, staring at the approaching English coastline.

“Tyr honours the brave,” Bjarke said.

“What if I die?” Fiske asked, his  lilting voice almost musical. If Bjarke remembered correctly, Fiske had always had an affinity with the lyre and he could be found playing for coin at the local market. Maybe the Gods had intended for him to be a poet before his father placed him on the longboat.

“Then you will ascend to Valhǫll, and dine with Óðinn until the end of days,” Bjarke said.

“Only if I die honourably,” Fiske said.

“There is no greater shame than dying of cowardice, young Fiske,” Bjarke said. “If you see your death coming, face it head on, that is the way in which to prove yourself a man.”

“Aye lad,” Oluf said. “Death is an honour.”

Oluf was an experienced raider who’d been on the ships when Bjarke was a boy. He was a stout, balding man, with missing teeth and a long greying beard. He’d never married and seemed fully committed to bloodlust and war. He had many stories to tell of wars that had happened long before Bjarke had been born, and most of the time he was good for morale. However, tonight, he appeared to be scaring Fiske even more.

“Right,” Fiske nodded.

“Who do you pray to?” Bjarke asked.

“Bragi,” Fiske squeaked, and Bjarke nodded. The God of Poetry. He was wondering more and more who decided to put this boy on this ship.

“Bragi won’t help you here, lad,” Oluf said. “But it’s not too late to pray to another. Tyr, Óðinn, Thor, the ones who know how to fight.”

“I see,” Fiske said.

“Here,” Oluf said, pulling his pendant over his head and handing it to the boy. Bjarke looked  as it passed  over him: it was similar to  his own pendant but this one had Thor’s rune, Thurisaz, rather than Tyr’s rune, Tiwaz.

“I can’t take this,” Fiske said, shaking his head.

“Aye, you can lad,” Oluf said. “Thor’s guided me well for decades and now he’ll guide you too.”

Fiske ran his thumb over the raised rune before moving to tie the pendant around his neck.

“Suits you,” Bjarke said, and the boy offered him a nervous smile.

Bjarke reached and wrapped his hand around his own pendant, sending a silent prayer up to Tyr, asking him to watch over the boy too.

Lightning flashed across the sky and seconds later thunder rumbled. Oluf’s face broke into a broken gap-toothed grin.

“See, lad, Thor is with us!” Oluf said. “Victory is on our side for sure.”

Bjarke nodded as the other men on the ship broke out into excited chatter before their chief shushed them. 

Silence was important when approaching the coastline, all they needed was one watchman to alert the people of the village and their surprise would be lost. Whilst the sliver of moonlight helped the Norsemen see, it would also aid the Englishmen.

The shoreline was mostly as dark as the sea. The occasional orange firelight flickered across the black landscape but they seemed to be put out by the wind. The only light that remained was that of the church.

That was the men’s target. They’d discovered long ago that churches were where Englishmen hoard their gold. They offered it in sacrifice to their own Thorned God, but Bjarke had never encountered Him, no matter how many of His “houses” he raided.

The village people were collateral. Anyone who got in their way would be cut down with iron. They had been instructed not to take prisoners, they were to simply kill all who opposed them.

Bjarke checked his own belt for his axe, Fiske’s nervousness seemingly rubbing off on him, which was not a good sign.  He had left an offering for Tyr at home before he’d left but now he worried if it was enough.

Lightning flashed across the sky once again and thunder rumbled as the first few drops of rain fell. Thor was here and that would have to be good enough. 

As they approached the shoreline the men prepared to unload,  leaving a few behind to man the boats. Their leader, Asbjorn, called for them to jump out and they did without hesitation, plunging their feet into the icy water below.

Fiske gasped as water filled his boots but Oluf pushed him forward, not giving him a chance to think. Bjarke followed close behind.

The crew followed Asbjorn, up onto the beach, pulling out their weapons. They stalked up the sand, towards the rocks, making their way up the narrow trail carved out in the cliff face. Fiske slipped a little, and Bjarke reached out and steadied him. Asbjorn pulled them all to a halt at the top of the cliff, splitting the group up and directing some to head towards the village and others towards the church.

Bjarke, Oluf and Fiske were told to go to the Church. Asbjorn let out a yell and the men lunged forward.

The silence of the night was shattered with Asbjorn’s battle cry. The men joined in, including Bjarke and Oluf. Fiske remained silent. The responding screams of terror were almost melodic, like a high pitched flute to the drums of clashing axes.

Oluf led the charge up the hill towards the church, cutting through the wooden houses. A man with sleep still in his eyes and a blade in his hand came running towards Bjarke. The Norsemen cut him down without any hesitation. 

They were attacked by multiple warriors on their way, and they cut down every single one of them. One got a little too close for Bjarke’s liking, slicing him across the shoulder. Thankfully the blade didn’t pierce through his armour, but the force did make him stumble. He righted his footing and swung his axe at the man. He smirked as his weapon hit the man’s head with a satisfying thunk and he fell to the ground, boneless.

Bjarke spun around, realising he’d fallen a little behind his group. He pushed himself to run faster. He was breathless by the time he reached them, his waterlogged boots seeming to weigh more with each step. But still he pushed onwards.

The path to the church was a steep one, undoubtedly the people of the village had wanted to be closer to their god. Fiske looked as tired as Bjarke felt, but he still pushed forward. Adrenaline had already kicked in for Oluf, he ran ahead of the group just a little, his head down like some kind of lumbering bear.

As for the other men around them, Bjarke didn’t know them as well. He recognised Akarn, simply because his sister baked bread at the market. Another he only knew as Torson,  having briefly been acquainted with his father on a hunting expedition many winters ago.

They were all good warriors, he was sure, and they all kept pace with Oluf in front. Bjarke just would have been more comfortable with warriors he knew. Warriors he could trust with his life.

Unlike Asbjorn, Oluf didn’t stop to rally his men before attacking, he simply charged at the wooden door of the church. It had been barred shut, as expected, but Oluf had an axe and the strength of ten oxen.

As the rest of the men caught up, there was already a deep gouge in the dark wood, where Oluf’s axe had struck. Bjarke joined in the fray, bringing his own axe down on the wood. It splintered around his metal blade, giving way to the men.

Bjarke could hear the startled shrieks of the religious men inside. He doubted anyone else had the time to seek shelter here before they’d arrived, as the Norsemen’s ambush had gone perfectly to plan.

Oluf was the first through, pushing his body through a gap that he’d created that looked too small for him, yet nothing stood between Oluf and his prey, not even the Gods. Fiske followed, easily slipping through the gap, and with a heave and a grunt he removed the bar from the doors,  allowing them to fall open. Bjarke let out a yell of encouragement and the boy blushed, ducking his head.

The inside of the church was not extravagant as the ones Bjarke had seen before. There was no gold or silver on display, just poorly carved wooden pews and a tapestry outlining an unfamiliar story.

Brown cloaked monks crowded together, sobbing in the corner whilst trying desperately to avoid Oluf’s axe. One had not been quick enough and lay bleeding on the stone floor; the thick crimson of his blood stained the iron grey stones, highlighting the divots in the floor.

Bjarke supposed they could take the tapestry. Someone would surely pay for it. But it wasn’t worth the whole raid. He watched as Akarn went up to a long table at the far end of the hall and picked up the candle holders.

“Is this it?” he said, letting the metal holder fall to the floor.

“It can’t be,” Torson said.

“What’s there supposed to be?” Fiske asked, playing with the rune at his throat. 

Oluf let out a yell of displeasure, swinging his axe at the monks, prompting startled screeches from them.

“There’s supposed to be treasure,” Akarn said.

“Oh,” Fiske said.

“Treasure,” One of the monks said, his accent sounding strange to Bjarke as it wavered in fear. “Below.”

He pointed at a small door in the opposite corner of the room. Bjarke frowned at the man.

“Show me,” Bjarke demanded.

He stepped past Oluf, making him snarl. Bjarke grabbed the man who spoke by the sleeve of his robe. The man protested in his native language but Bjarke didn’t know it. The other monks tried to grab a hold of the man but Oluf swung his axe, making them jump back.

“Show me,” Bjarke repeated, pushing the man towards the door. He stumbled a little and then paused, his gaze drawn by the crumpled body of his friend. Bjarke pushed him again and this time he headed towards the door.

His hands shook as he tried to unlatch the door. Bjarke clenched his fist around his axe, ready to swing at the man himself but finally he managed to open it. Bjarke beckoned for Fiske to follow him, not wanting to go down there alone. The monk did not seem very threatening but Bjarke knew that when a man was cornered and his life was in danger he’d fight with the force of a wildcat. They could claw and bite as good as any man when pushed to it.

Fiske followed behind, seemingly calm, but he refused to look at the body of the fallen monk. Bjarke frowned to himself: an aversion to blood was not good for a warrior.

Bjarke followed after the monk. The doorway led down some stone steps into darkness. For a brief moment Bjarke couldn’t see anything, it was like the monk completely disappeared from in front of him. Only the sounds of his panicked breathing and his leather soles on the steps that assured Bjarke he was still there. Behind him, Fiske gripped onto Bjarke’s belt, crowding up to him in order not to lose him. 

Bjarke could see ahead of them, however, a flickering yellow light. It was tinged orange around the edges. The warm colours of firelight felt foreign in the cold staircase, yet they beckoned the men ever closer, like a campfire on a winter’s night. But when they reached it, Bjarke realised it was just a wooden sconce. 

They rounded a corner and all breath left Bjarke’s chest. Beside him Fiske gasped and the monk seemed even more nervous than before.

“Treasure,” he said.

“That’s not treasure,” Bjarke said, and the monk nodded again.

“Angel.”

There in the dimly lit underground room, was a creature. A creature Bjarke had never seen before. It looked like any woman, at a glance. Maybe a mere girl. She had pale skin with a greyish hue one might mistake as sickness or grime. Bluish black veins could be seen under her skin and blood stained her lips. Bjarke couldn’t determine whether it was hers or not. Her hair was as black as her veins and it hung limp at the side of her face, greasy and tangled.

She was tied to a wooden crucifix attached to the stone wall. Thick ropes encased her wrists and ankles, waist and throat. Iron chains were also closed around her wrists, keeping her firmly in place.

What set her apart from all other women and what truly established her in the realm of creature were the coal black wings that burst from her shoulder blades. The feathers were matted with blood, which Bjarke quickly realised was because of the thick iron nails embedded in them. There were four nails in each wing, pinning them to the wooden crucifix. Blood dripped from the wings, staining the wood and stone behind her

She lifted her head when the three men approached, hissing at them and baring her pointed fangs. Blood and venom dripped from her mouth onto her simple brown dress; the tattered hem reached just above her knees.

“Angel,” the monk repeated.

“A Valkyrie,” Bjarke said.

The creature hissed again and her wings twitched, making the wood of the crucifix groan. The monk flinched, taking a step back, bumping into Fiske.

“How dare you chain a Valkyrie?” Bjarke snarled, surging forward. The creature snapped her teeth at him as he tore at the ropes around her wrists. She cocked her head to the side and fell silent when she realised Bjarke wasn’t intending her harm.

The monk began to yell when Bjarke moved to untie her waist. He leapt at Bjarke, tugging at his arms, trying to get him to leave the ropes alone. He babbled along in his own language, and took to hitting Bjarke when he failed to move him.

Bjarke shoved him back, continuing to untie the ropes until only the chains remained. Fiske grabbed a hold of the monk, struggling to control him a little with his smaller frame. The creature tugged at the chains, a deep rumbling growl bursting from her chest. Bjarke scowled, bringing his axe up to slam against the chain holding her right wrist back.

The metal snapped, leaving only the cuff on the creature’s wrist. She looked back at the other one that was still chained on the wall before yanking it harshly. Bjarke was sure her arm would break, yet she proved her strength by snapping the chain herself.

For a moment, the four of them stared at each other. Then the monk turned and bolted. The creature hissed, baring her fangs again before kicking off the wall and lunging after the monk.

Fiske squeaked as the creature’s wing struck him in the chest. He fell back into the wall, sliding down it to the floor.

The monk’s screams cut off abruptly and blood splattered against Fiske’s face. The creature’s wings flared out and she flapped them, fluffing out her feathers. She made a clicking sound in the back of her throat before she jumped towards the stairs, bolting up them on all fours.

Bjarke stepped forward, wincing when he heard screams coming from above. He bent down, picking up a single black primary covert, running a finger over the tattered and torn feather, a mixture of unfamiliar emotions churning in his chest, making him feel uneasy.

“Bjarke?” Fiske whimpered, pushing himself to his feet, grunting. “What just happened?”

“Relax, young Fiske, the Valkyrie deemed that it was not your day to die,” Bjarke said. Fiske rubbed at his blood stained cheek, looking at his fingers when they came away sticky.

“That’s what a Valkyrie looks like?” Fiske said. “I thought they’d be beautiful.”

“She was chained and bleeding, maybe she isn’t healthy,” Bjarke said.

“Or maybe the poets have been lying?” Fiske said.

“Maybe,” Bjarke said, not in the mood to discuss the merits of poets. “Their rhymes are beyond me.”

“Well she certainly didn’t have golden hair and a winged stallion.”

“Come, let us go and check on the others,” he said, stepping over the remains of the monk.

Bjarke led Fiske up the stairs, glancing at the blood dripping down them. Exhaustion was catching up to him as bloodlust faded from the forefront of his mind. Fiske slipped on it and he let out a gasp, slamming his hands out on either side of the wall. Bjarke turned back a moment, but when he saw Fiske was fine, he continued.

The thick scent of blood hit Bjarke as he got up the stairs. For a moment, his heart was in his throat as he feared he had lost a fellow warrior. But Oluf, Akarn and Torson were still standing.

“Oh, thank Óðinn you’re alive,” Akarn said. “We thought that black beast had got you for sure.”

“She went after the monk. Left us alone though.”

“Same here,” Oluf grunted, nudging the nearest body with his foot.

All of the monks were dead. Their throats had been torn and their mouths were open in silent screams of agony. Oluf stood in the middle of them, covered in their blood and it looked almost as though he’d been the one to kill them. That was if it wasn’t clear that the throats had been torn with teeth.

Fiske cleared his throat and looked up towards the ceiling. This was a rough scene for the boy to experience on his first outing. The scent of blood turned even Bjarke’s stomach. It was immeasurably thick, and it felt as though Bjarke were breathing in more blood than air.

“Was there any treasure?” Akarn asked.

“That black beast was the treasure,” Fiske muttered.

“She was a Valkyrie, no beast,” Bjarke said.

“Truly?” Akarn asked. “You saw one? Not just a woman with feathers?”

“How many women with feathers do you know of? She had wings – of course she was a Valkyrie.” Bjarke said and Akarn nodded.

“Well, I’m glad she was not the one taking me to dine in Óðinn’s halls,” Oluf said. “I’d much rather a fair maiden than that thing.”

“Well it’s not like she wanted you either,” Bjarke said.

“What do you think it means then?” Torson asked. “That she took those men but not us. Surely they’re not to dine with Óðinn ?”

“I don’t know,” Bjarke said. “The monk called her Angel but I don’t know what that means.”

“They had her chained,” Fiske said. “Maybe they were scared of their deaths. Maybe they were trying to prevent it from happening?”

“Maybe she took them to Hel instead?” Akarn said. “Cowardice is no way forward.” He leant over one of the bodies and spat at it, before wiping his chin. 

“If all we have to show from this church is a few candle holders, Asbjorn won’t be pleased.”

“Well Asbjorn can come check it for himself,” Oluf said. “There’s not much we can do about it. There’s nothing here.”

“What do you think they did with it all?” Fiske asked.

“Who said they had anything in the first place?” Bjarke replied. “Poor people are poor, no matter how big they build their temples.”

“Still seems odd,” Akarn said. “Feels like there should be something here.”

“Come, let’s go find the others,” Oluf said. “There’s nothing more we can do here.”

The men gathered together, stepping over the fallen forms in their way as they left the church. The fresh night air was soothing and serene, and the rain felt good on Bjarke’s face, cooling and refreshing on his beard.

Lightning flashed across the sky again, making the five of them look up. The black clouds were, for  a moment, illuminated grey, and the moon seemed like a silver coin in the sky. But then darkness absorbed them all again.

“Well Thor, you got it wrong this time,” Oluf muttered. “But I’m sure it was you who saved us from Bjarke’s Valkyrie, so I take it that my offering pleased you.”

“What did you offer him?” Fiske asked.

“My best goat,” Oluf said. “Thor loves goats, boy, that’s why he has two pull his chariot.”

“I see,” Fiske said, reaching up and taking a hold of the rune around his neck again.

The five of them headed down the hill. The darkness made it difficult and the rain made it even worse. The grass was slippery and the mud was sticky. But the men didn’t slow, they marched down the hill, single file. Oluf led them towards the village.

Any flames and torches that had been lit were no longer burning and the village was as still and quiet as the rest of the landscape. The group slowed a little, scanning in between houses for any sign of their friends.

The village, however, showed no signs of life.

As the men walked they stumbled across body after body. Man, woman, child, sheep, mule. It was like nothing had been spared, except for the fact that none of them were familiar faces. Bjarke frowned, knowing the warriors wouldn’t have done this.They wouldn’t have slaughtered animals and left their carcasses to rot.  In fact he remembered one trip many years ago where they’d tried to get a rather impressive looking cow back home. 

“This is a bad omen,” Torson said.

“We should return to the ship, the others will be there,” Akarn said.

The group all turned, intending to head down the cliff faceto where the boat was waiting, but as they moved, a flurry of movement caught Bjarke’s eye.

“Down!” he yelled, and the others dropped to the floor as the Valkyrie flew directly toward them. She dived at them, talon-like hands outstretched. Bjarke swung his axe towards her, the metal connecting with the softer part of her wing first, before digging down and striking bone.

The creature yowled out in pain and she scrambled to her feet. She flared out her blood-soaked wings, making herself look bigger and more intimidating. Her left wing drooped a little in comparison to the right, marking it as the one Bjarke had hit.

“There has been enough bloodshed today,” Bjarke said, adjusting his grip on his axe. The rest of the men got to their feet, readying their own weapons.

“You are the one who freed me,” the creature replied. Her voice was hoarse, like ice crackling and metal against rock. It sent a chill down Bjarke’s spine, but he remained standing strong. “I will spare you today, but if you come back to my village again, I will destroy you.”

“We’re trying to leave,” Bjarke snapped. “So let us.”

The creature let out another hiss; her teeth were now stained red. Her wings quivered with effort and she took a step back.

“Go!”

The men didn’t hesitate. Maybe it would have been seen as cowardice to an observer, but to them they’d been given a second chance by a Valkyrie no less. They couldn’t take that for granted with families waiting at home. They leapt down the cliff face, stumbling and tripping all the way.

Thankfully, Asbjorn and the other men were waiting for them on the beach, a little worse for wear but nonetheless alive.

“Oluf, Bjarke,” he cried out. “You’re alive. We thought that creature had got you all, especially when it came from the church.”

“Bjarke saved us,” Fiske said, and the other men nodded.

“From the Beast?”

“Aye,” Oluf said. “He stood toe to toe with it.”

“He struck her from the sky,” Akarn said.

“The iron of his blade drove into its coal black wings and like that he’d bested the beast! He’s shown her not to mess with the likes of Norsemen,” Fiske said, and Asbjorn’s men cheered. “He didn’t flinch when she bared her fangs and spat poisonous spit. He forbade her to do us any harm – she feared him!”

Bjarke looked at the young man in front of him, his brow furrowing in confusion. Those were clearly not the events that had unravelled. But maybe that was why the Gods had deemed Fiske a necessary addition to their trip. Maybe he’d been here to witness Bjarke’s supposed triumphs over the Black Beast. Maybe he was the one who was going to tell Bjarke’s story.

Asbjorn ushered them back through the water to the boat. All the while, Fiske was talking. He started the tale from the beginning, describing everything in detail Bjarke didn’t know was possible.

The men hung onto his every word, and by the time they reached the shores of Iceland, Bjarke was the hero of the trip.


Read more about the author H R Walker HERE.

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