LINDISFARNE, 793 by Alex Hawksworth-Brookes (3rd place, Apr22)

It was the dawn of an age of wolves and ravens. It was the eighth day of June, in the year of our Lord 793.

The bells tolled out across the sacred island of Lindisfarne. Today, they sounded different. The usual coordinated and tuneful chiming, echoing off sea and shore to God’s delight, was replaced with a hideous clangour. The bells were crying out – “Danger! Danger!” – their voices at odds with one another.

Oswald was running, his rough hair-tunic flapping behind him. The sharp breeze, not content with bringing the barbarians to Lindisfarne’s shores, now conspired to strip him naked, revealing his shame to the world. Breath rasping, Oswald paused. Bent double, hands on thighs, he looked back towards the shore. The longships had beached, their hulls cutting apart the sand.

Oswald wailed, involuntarily, the despair pouring out of him. His days were always dedicated to silent prayer and study; he could not run for much longer.

The bells continued to sound their dreadful knell. Then, they were struck into silence by a greater noise, one that completely deafened Oswald to all others: the blaring horror of the barbarians’ war horns.

Despite his fear, Oswald turned to look at the beach a second time. The brutal men, armed and armoured, were leaping from their ships, boots churning the surf, axes beating on shields. The horns blasted again, drowning out the monastery’s bells. The sound reverberated in Oswald’s ears, synchronising with the thumping of his petrified heart. He ran again.

“Brother Oswald!” Egbert, a fellow monk, almost collided with him. He had been running too, his tonsured hair beaded with sweat. “We must make to the chapel. The relics must be hidden!”

Oswald nodded, his tongue too thick, his throat too dry to give a response. He looked past Egbert’s shoulder to the mainland. His heart sank further when he saw that the tidal causeway that connected Holy Island to the English coast was fully submerged.

“There is nothing for it, brother,” Egbert said, grasping his arm. “We must put our faith in God.”

Oswald nodded again, firmer this time. “Yes,” he said. “We must.”

They ran together. The noise was monstrous now. The bells echoed off the monastery’s stone walls, mixing with the tharuuuum tharuuuum of the war horns and the relentless clatter of blades on shields. The screaming began before they made it to the chapel’s doors

“Get in,” Egbert said, holding the great wooden door. “We must block the way.”

“What about the others?”

“There is no time. Look!”

Oswald followed Egbert’s outstretched, quaking finger. A band of savage, bestial men, clad in furs and iron, marched over the top of the rise that connected the beachhead to the clifftop monastery. Villagers and monks fled before them, scattering. The barbarians carried torches and sharp steel; several thatched buildings were already ablaze.

Every time Oswald thought that the screaming would reach a crescendo, it grew louder still. The unintelligible sound of the raiders’ language mingled with the all-too-understandable pleas of the dying. Above all else, the bells continued their mortuary peal.

“Oswald, we must go. Now.” Egbert was tugging him, imploring. Oswald watched a peasant woman have her legs cut out from under her. Behind her, brother Ceorlwulf was sliced from shoulder to hip. Death had descended upon Holy Island. Oswald felt his legs begin to give up on him and then, before he could hit the floor, he had been dragged inside, the wooden doors shutting out the nightmare view.

They could not keep out the noise, however.

“We must barricade the doors!” Egbert was shouting. “We have little time!”

The words faded to a distant hum. Even the bells sounded far away now, despite being closer than ever. In a trance, Oswald shuffled towards the altar, its chalices, candles, and crucifix all shining. Behind them lay a chest of pure gold: the reliquary of Lindisfarne. There lay the blood of martyrs, the bones of heavenly saints. How could they allow this? How could God allow this?

“Have I displeased you, Lord?” Oswald muttered, sinking to his knees, not noticing how they cracked upon the flagstones. “Have I not shown you faith? Oh please, show me mercy! Mercy, mercy, mercy!”

He shuffled closer to the altar, fishing his prayer beads out from inside his robe, clutching them like a drowning man clinging to driftwood. He began reciting the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed, over and over and over; the words that he had muttered ritualistically so many times before taking on a new and desperate meaning.

The great doors of Lindisfarne shattered, sending splinters flying into the chapel. Oswald flinched but did not cease his praying. The screams of his brothers filled the holy sanctum, before silencing abruptly. He heard heavy footsteps approach, and sensed a shadow fall upon him, eclipsing his own hunched form. Then there were only the bells and the beating of his heart.

In the golden light of the chapel, an axe blade rose.

“God,” Oswald’s hands trembled, his prayer beads rattling. “Why have you forsaken us?”

It wasn’t long before the bells fell silent, too.

*

It was the beginning of an age of heroes. It was the twenty-first day of summer, of sailing season. Of fighting season.

Snorri felt sick with dread. It was different to the sea sickness that had afflicted him in the days since setting sail; this was a heart-sickness, one borne from anticipation, from clasping axe and shield with intent for the first time. It was the weight one feels when faced with destiny, in the moments before meeting it, or falling short.

“You will be fine, young blood,” Ulf said, slapping him on the back. “There’s not a single man on this island who can wield a spear or sword. Easy pickings, that’s what the merchants said.”

“Then why attack them?”

“Because they say that their god is the only true god. That our gods are demons or falsehoods that must be forgotten.”

“And because they’ve got enough gold in there to sate a dragon,” Ubba roared, pushing past them to leap onto the wet sand. Ulf followed him, with Snorri in his wake. He could hear the bells in the distance, warning of their approach. It was a dire sound, unlike anything from back home, beyond the ship-road.

“Do not fear the bells, boy,” Ulf said. “They ring them only because they have no other defence.”

The warband marched towards the steps, narrow shelves of rock hewn from the cliffside. They were in no rush, but Snorri’s blood pulsed as if he were sprinting. He would die a boy or make himself a man this day. He gripped his axe tightly and followed the others towards the source of the bells.

They passed the summit, the monastery rising into view, its white stone shining in the sun. Panic had descended upon the English; peasants and monks ran blindly, braying. It was as Ulf had said; there was not a single warrior to be found there. Several dwellings were already burning, the heat lapping at Snorri’s face. He watched Ulf charge forwards, seeking slaughter and blood. Ubba was in the fray as well, hacking with abandon. Others had brought rope and began to herd the fittest English back towards the boats: fresh thralls for farm and forge.

Snorri strode into the battle-scene, following the path of destruction wrought by his elders. He watched as two monks, pale-faced and wide-eyed, disappeared inside the largest of the stone buildings, the door slamming shut behind them.

“Let’s break the lock on this treasure chest,” Ulf said, leading Snorri to the door. He counted them into throwing their weight against the door. A second blow made the hinges creak. A third sent cracks running across the wood before a fourth reduced it to kindling.

“We are going to be rich, young blood!” Ulf shouted as he burst inside. He was right, Snorri saw; the entire room was a treasure trove of sparkling wonder. What fools, these Englishmen were, to leave such riches unguarded.

Snorri advanced deeper into the room, walking down the central aisle, leaving Ulf to rampage behind him. The bells were still ringing, but he barely noticed them beneath the heavy pulsing of his heart, as if it knew what awaited, moments ahead. At the end of the aisle, a robed figure cowered, his head bowed, his hands clenched tightly together before a resplendence of gold.

Snorri paused and listened to the man, his nonsense repetition of some unknown phrase barely audible above the din of slaughter and the soon-to-be silenced bells. Snorri’s blood was hot, filling his ears. So, this was what it meant to go a-viking. He raised his axe above his head, feeling the weight in his shoulders. Was Odin watching? Were the Valkyries keeping score?

“Glory to the Gods!” he roared as he buried blade into the cowering man’s skull. “May their favour always fall upon me!”

Still the bells rang, but not for long.

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