Norse force couldn't be worse; a tale more elegant than coarse

House of the Dead

by Jarret Keene © 2001

The bright sun turned black. Whirlwinds, thunder. Fiery beasts lit up the sky, their shrieks piercing the steady crash of waves against the surf. Blood rained down. The stench of blasphemy filled the air, poisoning our minds. God's hand of doom was surely raised against us.

Did we feel like abandoning the monastery out of shame? Or did we want to interpret these events as the devil's handiwork, another challenge to our faith? We did not know, and so we brooded.

And then came the Norsemen.

Their arrival was not entirely unexpected. The ancient geographer Pytheas had written of a land he called Thule, and the belief in the existence of this place was strong, though its precise location remained vague. For many years, trading between the empire and the Norsemen had been conducted through merchant tribes in Bohemia.

We understood something of the violent nature of the enemy, that they had been sea-raiders since before the time of Christ. That during the spring they had committed unspeakable acts upon the lesser monastic settlements along the coast of Shetland. That they were continually at war with Christ's children. But it wasn't until that dark summer, when the Norsemen grew wicked enough to violate the dead saints' bones, that we learned the true extent of their viciousness.

Ours was a lovely, peaceful monastery, founded on the island of Gandisfarne in the year of our Lord 674. We were simple monks, subsisting on fish, seabirds' eggs, and prayer. There was little altar silver in so remote a holy place. The only riches and jewels were draped on the body of Saint Orkney, sealed in his coffin. But our church was built of stone and glass and offered side-chapels, an upper storey, and spacious living quarters, enough for nearly forty monks.

Inside, we studied and cared for the books, the sacred paintings and relics. Outside, an immense wall enclosed a few head of livestock, which we also maintained. It is too awful to consider how these meager things, things we used to help bring ourselves nearer to the mystery of Christ, led to our suffering at the sadistic hands of the heathen.

How terrible their warcraft looked! Dragon-carved prows. Blood-red shields racked on their gunwhales. Black weather vanes flickering like the tongues of Satan. Despite the speed and agility of their ships, they were in no hurry to destroy us. They had figured us as puny, defenseless monks who could offer little resistance. And they were right. It was a murky twilight when they rounded the island from the north, giving us early warning.

We felt like looking away, like pretending we hadn't noticed, but we could not tear our gaze from their awful presence. From our watchtower looking out over the islands, we discerned their approach, their heavy oars powering them through the causeway, visible at low tide across the sands from the mainland. Darkness embraced them as if they were its children. They put in and ignited a bonfire, no doubt in praise of their pagan gods. Their wretched singing; the rancid smell of their foodstuffs. We had but little time to prepare.

Blathdar assembled us in front of the wooden farmhouse at the edge of the settlement. Contentment had spread through his angular face. He brought his hands together and raised his head to the sky. "Our red martyrdom," he announced, "is within reach."

We all gasped, though we recognized it the moment the Norsemen's masts appeared on the horizon.

If any monk among us were ready for martyrdom, it would have been Blathdar. He was the most fearless, the most devout, the first to rise in the morning, the last to snuff his worktable's candle in the evening. He was also handsome, sturdy as a draft horse, and fairly cunning--or so we had thought. Secretly we envied his perfection, but our envy did not tarnish our respect.

Columcille was the abbot and our leader in spiritual matters, but now that the Norsemen had come to spatter our blood we looked to the Blathdar's physical mastery for guidance. It was a silent admission, and Columcille made no protest. Blathdar would show us how to die like martyrs, with piety and honor.

"Join me in my vow, brothers," he continued. "Though the heathens will swarm us and we will suffer the scars of Christ, we must become like lions. Let us resolve to face the hand of sacrilege with brave hearts. Let us rejoice to have to stand up against the raging sword. Tomorrow, when the golden dawn dispels the darkness and the glittering sun shines again, we will kneel before the altar and celebrate mass and offer ourselves up as soldiers of God."

We were moved by his words and grew determined to act according to their power; and as we joined together in prayer we tried to recall the vows of our youth, the smell of the incense, the image of Christ on the cross.

Some talked openly of fleeing the island. Some foolishly presumed God would intervene and smite the Norsemen. A few hoped that God might convince the heathen warriors to lay down their swords and convert. But most of us held no such delusions. The omens had been everywhere.

We did our best to steel ourselves. Columcille invited us to pray with him in the chapel until dawn, and many did. Meanwhile, Blathdar enlisted those who were tall and robust to help sharpen the farming implements: hoes, shovels, pitchforks--the objects with which we had so innocently worked in the fields.

It was Walafrid who hit upon the idea of hiding the sacred bones of Saint Orkney in the ancient mound, the House of the Dead. He did not explain his reasons, and as we observed him tethering the coffin to a mule for transport, we doubted the integrity of his mind. Saint Orkney was highly venerated, but we knew better than to fight amongst ourselves at a time when we should be united. And so we left Walafrid to his own furtive plans and concentrated on prayer and the sharpening of tools.

None slept, and when the cock crowed and the sun began its ascent, they were upon us, the bonfire they had lit on the shore providing an infernal backdrop.

Hideous imitations of men. Hairy, foul-smelling animals bent on murder. There were ten of them. They were tattooed with pictures of trees and demons. They each wore boots and leggings of rough wool, and over this a coat of heavy fur, which reached to the knees. The horns of their metal helmets were revolting. The sight of their cruel weapons was enough to cause us to clutch our chests.

The worst among the Norsemen was their leader, who we later learned was called Ivar the Boneless. He came from the deepest, darkest reaches of hell. Not even we monks--who spent our days reading and copying the world's oldest and most complete books on the subject of the abyss--could have imagined a monster like Ivar. On his belt, he carried what looked the freshly severed fingers of his most recent victims. His sword was stained with blood and hair, and yet its edge was sharp, and in his huge arms it seemed like a pendulum waiting to be swung.

As they lumbered toward us, we gripped our farming tools and commended each other's souls with prayers and tears. Blathdar was alone in being silent and fearless; instead he looked straight at them, returning their mindless stares with one of courage. He was armed with a hoe and he canted his shoulders slightly, the way a warrior does when he is ready to swing down his sword. Though we were as good as murdered, Blathdar's defiant posture inspired in our hearts the faintest bit of hope. But could 40 weak-kneed monks beat back a force of ten bloodthirsty Norsemen?

They halted when they reached the crest of the knoll, their eyes glowing with disgust and ferocity.

Then Blathdar spoke. "If you're here to plunder our monastery," he said, "then you test the mettle of God's army."

His decree was met with laughter.

The Norsemen laughed so hard they swatted their legs. They laughed so hard they nearly dropped their weapons. They laughed so hard they choked. They laughed so hard that tears streamed down their beards. They did not laugh at Blathdar's words, because they did not understand exactly what he'd said. Rather they laughed at the sentiment behind his words, and we did nothing but stand there, watching helplessly, listening to their mocking noises.

Ivar alone refrained, his face twisted in hatred. It was he who spoke next. His voice was guttural, bear-like, and his tongue was as appalling as his visage. He indicated his disapproval, and the others ceased their ridicule. Then they all began to beat upon their shields with their swords.

And then they ran at us.

Blathdar died first. They carved a blood-eagle on his back, and cut away his ribs from his backbone and tore out his lungs. Nennius was next, impaled on a heathen spear and lifted into the air, an unholy banner. Krayke had his arms severed and rolled in the dirt for a while before all his blood poured out of him. Columcille had his entrails detached from his body and Jarrow's skull was smashed into pieces by Ivar's sword.

We tried to fight back, but our terror and our weak limbs - limbs accustomed only to the demands of handling quills and leather-bound books - made us easy victims.

Indeed, we fell like dogs before their savagery.

Some of us they slew outright, some they carried off in chains. The greater number they stripped naked, insulted and cast out, and we scurried to the miserable shelter of the ancient mound.

When they were through with us, then turned their attention to the cattle, which they quickly slaughtered, and they erected fires to cook the meat, and it wasn't long before they were feasting.

They desecrated the sanctuary of God, drinking and spilling the wine and devouring the bread. They laid waste to our house of hope, trampling the blessed things under their polluted feet. They hacked in half all the crosses. They broke apart the altars with their blades, and plundered the church's scant treasures, the goblets and plates, the painting and relics. They took even the books, whose gold inscriptions they no doubt expected to melt down. They set fire to the chapels and left nothing behind save the bare, unroofed walls.

From the mounds, we watched, huddling together, naked and scared and ashamed. We had proven useless to each other and to the service of God. The wind chilled us, saddening us even further, and we knew the Norsemen would soon exhaust the monastery's treasures and rations and grow bored. Soon they would hunt us down and kill us until their desire for malicious pleasure was sated. There was nowhere for us to flee except deeper into the mound, and that was insufferable.

The ancient mound was a place no one dare trespass. It had been built centuries ago and possessed a sanctity distinct from the monastery. The pre-Christian kings of neighboring islands had been buried there, in the outpost of the afterlife where dwelt the pagan god of power and his goddess wife. The tombs had been revered as portals to the otherworld by the Irish Celts since prehistoric times. Entry through the narrow stone tunnels into their dark interiors was barred by ancient taboos, and whatever grave goods they contained had lain undisturbed.

We took scant interest in the mound, and what little we knew came from listening to Walafrid tell stories in the late evening after we had finished our chores and prayers. He had read many ancient texts on the history of the island and its former inhabitants. He revealed how the ancient mounds housed the dead, pagan warrior-kings whose souls had never encountered the word of Christ, whose souls had no true place in heaven or hell, whose souls lay restless in their rotting bodies, waiting to be reawakened by the living.

It was a strange story, but it nonetheless stirred fear in our breasts, and we were wary of pushing our way deeper into the tunnels. But then we remembered that Walafrid had come here to conceal Saint Orkney's remains, which meant he was the only one of us to have explored the mound.

"Can we go further?" Patrick asked him.

Walafrid did not answer. He shivered, his skin pink from the cold, his red eyes were fatigued, glazed with some secret purpose we had yet to fathom. He was staring out at the Norsemen as they pillaged our church.

"Answer me," insisted Patrick, hoarse with fear.

Silently, Walafrid left the shelter of the mound and made his way towards the enemy, who were grouped around a fire, chewing on charred flanks. At that moment we felt in our spines a first faint flutter of true dread as the lone and mad monk went willingly to his doom. Oh, it was a nightmare from which we were trying to awake!

When he reached them, he gestured in our direction, to the ancient mounds, and now the treachery was too much to endure. He was telling the Norsemen of the coffin of Saint Orkney! The sacred bones would be defiled, the treasure stolen! Clearly, these enemies of God had no qualms and would happily stoop so low as to raid the House of the Dead. We wanted to cry out: bite your tongue! don't do this! but we remained mute, afraid. It occurred to us that we had never trusted Walafrid; we had always been suspicious of his esoteric studies, of his weird knowledge; for if he were not akin to us, how could he ever have been an authentic disciple of Christ?

They listened to him intently, and when he was done they smiled their terrible smiles, and Ivar commanded an executioner to cut off Walafrid's head. At once, the traitorous monk was half-dead, and before his breath was gone they threw him into the fire, and when the reek of his burning flesh reached our noses, we grew sick.

But we did not have time to be sick, because they were headed for us again, in search of the treasure sealed in the saint's coffin. They brandished torches for the cave's darkness, no doubt intending to burn us along the way.

We had nowhere to go, so we pushed deeper into the mound. The darkness was absolute and infinite - so dark and deep that at many points we almost turned back around to face the demon horde. Would we reach the very depths of the underworld?

Screeching bats and the smell of guano. Rats underfoot, tripping us. The drip drip drip of water.

We had nothing to light our way, and we scraped our hands along the cave's rough edges, and we gouged our legs on rocks and outcroppings, and we whimpered to God. There was no reply. The only sound in the tomb's cool interior was our hurried breathing.

And then we realized that it was not our breathing but something else's. We stood stock-still, listening to the loathsome noise. We heard it behind us, and in front of us. Then we heard it from another side, then another, and another.

"Is it Ivar?" someone whispered. "Has he found us already?"

"Worse," said someone else.

Afraid to go any further, our hearts pounding, we waited, but whatever horrible creature was lurking in the tomb, it did not strike at us.

"Hush," said the first voice. "Here they come."

Lights began to flicker, and into the passageway stepped the heathens, swords clanking and mail clattering. Yet still we did not move, and when they saw us they chuckled fiendishly, but their attention was short-lived. Soon there were enough torches so that we had to shield our eyes, and when we squinted it was obvious that we had reached the central catacomb.

The ancient kings and queens lay peacefully in the richly carved walls of the catacomb, and their uncorrupt appearances were more like that of men and women who had fallen asleep standing up. The vestments in which they were clothed were not entire, but they exhibited as marvelous a freshness and sheen as they had done when they were new.

But the Norsemen paid no attention to this miracle; neither did they glance at us. Instead they were stricken with the sight of Saint Orkney's bejeweled coffin, which sat in the middle of the room, where Walafrid had left it for reasons we had yet to fathom.

It was Ivar who used his sword to pry open the lid. Inside was the skeleton of the dead saint and his dazzling ornaments.

Their gold-lust rivaled their bloodlust.

They snatched at the jewels like seagulls on crumbs of bread, knocking against each other and spilling the coffin's contents onto the cavern floor. Now, on their hands and knees, they grabbed and punched and cursed and laughed like wild animals. Over what? Mere trinkets. And we felt a sharp tug of disappointment, which changed at once to shame, deep shame, for we were not sufferers to a Satan-directed conspiracy against Christ's followers. Rather we were victims of an overestimated company of brigands. Indeed, these were not the harbingers of the day of reckoning; these were well-armed pickpockets masquerading as demons. The omens were wrong, or we had misread them. Ours was to be a pathetic fate: dispatched by smelly bandits. How would we be remembered? Surely not as blessed saints, but as the weakest of God's warriors. But perhaps there was a chance that the church would make the mistake of seeing us as more in a long line of martyrs.

By this time the breathing had grown louder, as though the terrible thing had been engaged in strife. Suddenly rocks crashed and part of the wall gave way as the monster got into motion.

Ivar's mighty figure bolted upright and stepped sidewise. And as he drew his sword, his beady eyes were sharpened for sight of the peril that rushed him.

The size of the horror was shocking, as tall as five men. It smashed through the heavy stone like a battering ram, causing the Norsemen to scatter like rabbits. Its hide had a pebbled look, somewhat like a crocodile. Its rear legs were massive, and it used its great tail to balance itself. The two forelegs were frightful claws, tiny in proportion yet still thicker through by far than Ivar's body. The most ghastly aspect of the thing were its teeth; they armored a blunt, revolting snout, from which emanated the odor of a carnivorous thing--the stench was of decaying flesh.

The Norsemen were frozen, startled, and it was Ivar alone who gave a curdling scream to wake the dead and swung his giant sword.

As he did, the creature struck, severing his arm, chewing it down hungrily.

Ivar shrieked and fell to his knees, his face a mask of agony. Blood spattered the walls of the tomb and his fellow heathens, hissing as it came into contact with the torches.

But now the monster had trod between us and the heathens. Agitated by the light, it seemed unaware of our presence in the shadows. The Norsemen were its prey, and for them to escape they would have to fight their way past it, and when they joined the battle their shouts mingled with the monster's noisy breathing. There was terror and confusion and great wracking and rending of the tomb.

Quietly we made our way out of the cave.

The screams of the dying Norsemen pursued us through the darkness, our bare feet broken and cut by the jagged terrain. We banged our heads and saw brilliant white spots like stars before our eyes, and we thought we would be faint, but we did not. We had to push on. We heard in each other's ragged breathing that there was no hope for delay. How long before the creature was finished with the Norsemen and hungry for more helpless food? Those screams--even if they came from our enemy--will haunt us for the rest of our days.

Finally we reached the blessed sun, though it was weak enough so that we could look straight into it. At the mound's entrance, we used our feeble shoulders to pitch a moderate boulder, causing an avalanche and sealing the Norsemen and the monster they'd awakened inside the House of the Dead.

Afterward, we debated as to whether we should record the event as it truly happened. Should we have confessed that our lives had been rescued by a snake-like monster spawned in the inferno? A monster that one of us had been keeping as a pet inside the burial mound of the ancient warrior kings?

Not likely. Instead we recorded that Blathdar and the others had died heroically in the service of Christ--that is, as martyrs. That Walafrid had used the coffin of Saint Orkney to lure the heathens into the cave and told us to close the entrance with stones, thereby sacrificing himself. This last part was mostly true, of course, and allowed us to feel better about the larger falsehood.

It was no surprise that the Norsemen continued their raids against the empire that summer, but our island would be free of intruders for many years. Word had no doubt spread to the countries in the far north that ours was a place of death for those who dare trespass. We were assessed as soldiers in the army of God, ready to decimate Satan's minions with no quarter given, and woe be to they who test our mettle!

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