Jakte of the Nedslatt
Looking up from his labors, Jakte noticed the lateness of the hour, and that the moon had risen. Grunting, he lifted his massive axe and cleanly split another round of silver maple. He leaned on the axe to bend over and toss the halves into his cart when the ox yoked to that cart lowed fearfully. Jakte straightened and shifted his grip on the axe, moving toward the nervous animal.
“What is it, Tykk?” the large man murmured softly, resting a hand on the ox’s shoulder. The animal’s eyes were wide and terrified, and that put Jakte ill at ease. He was far from the cabin tonight, working near to the edge of Everleaf, and probably had lingered too long into the twilight. Not only would Anethe and their sons be waiting for him for supper, but at night the strange and deadly denizens of Everleaf emerged from the forest, preying on the foolish and unwary. Jakte decided the cart was full enough, and that he’d best return home.
“Come on, Tykk, let’s head back and get you some oats.”
The ox was not reassured, but responded to the mention of oats. Jakte stowed his axe and wedges in the cart alongside the cordwood, and walked alongside Tykk, making soothing sounds to the frightened beast. The animal’s behavior unnerved the broad woodsman, as it was not usually skittish by nature. Jakte quickened his gait, and the ox gladly kept pace. There was a narrow cart-path through the tall grass of the Nedslatt, the wide plains that extended west from the Blackwater, east for many leagues to the lodges and towers of Gronnskog. It was this path that they followed, the same as they had taken to the edge of Everleaf. As he walked, Jakte wondered anew what it was that had spooked Tykk. He could not have disturbed any of the creatures or spirits that haunted the wood; like all those who lived in the forest’s shadow, he knew not to venture past the ancient stone markers. Since childhood he had feared the darker depths of Everleaf; Abbed Fersk had frightened Jakte and the other children of the Nedslatt with his tales of the raseri-folk, the wild half-men, half-beasts who devoured curious youths, and the terrifying spokelse, the remains of mortal men that would not die, yet wandered through the wood searching to swell their number with the careless or the stupid.
The moonlit evening was eerily devoid of the usual sounds of the Nedslatt. The air was silent and windless; no rustling in the grasses signaled mice or snakes on their errands. Jakte’s anxiety was heightened by the stillness, and he hurried along the rutted road, stealing no glances over his shoulder, lest he spy the spectres he felt bearing down on him. He continued thus for half a mile, his foreboding ever increasing, until he topped the familiar rise in the flat land, his cottage hove into view in the verdant dell below. There was smoke escaping the stone chimney, and nothing seemed amiss with the low building or its environs, or the partially harvested acres of rye. The barn and Tykk’s enclosure were undisturbed, as were the chicken coops and the hog sty. Jakte let out a long breath, and led the ox and cart down to the paddock and into the barn.
“I’ll return shortly with your water and oats,” he murmured to Tykk, as he scratched the animal behind the ears and then secured the stall door. “I want to look in on Anethe and the children first.” Tykk lowed, seeming to understand the tightness that wouldn’t quit his master’s chest. Jakte turned away and froze. From the corner of his eye he had seen something that made his blood run cold, and all lingering dread about spirits or unnatural threats fled his mind. Evidence of a far more tangible and familiar danger was hitched in his barn. Two brown mares, saddled and harnessed well; leather with green and black trimming. Jakte’s mouth hardened beneath his thick black whiskers. These were the Thane’s men.
A few moments later he opened the front door of his timber and thatch cottage, and was not heartened by the warm glow that greeted him. There was a scent of boiled sausage and peas, and freshly baked bread, and Jakte’s stomach growled, but despite his hunger he ignored it. His attention was fixed on the two men who had risen from their seats before the hearth when he had entered. The woodsman quickly glanced about the main room of the house, and he was relieved at the sight of his wife and his eldest son on the bench opposite the strangers. Anethe’s dark face was lined with worry, and she sat, unmoving, with her hands folded in her lap, and her eyes seemed relieved and yet sad to Jakte’s gaze. Beside her, the hearth poker laid across Emund’s thick thighs, looking like a child’s toy as the burly boy gripped it. His younger son, Vesten, would be asleep in the loft.
“Put down the iron, Emund,” sighed Jakte. “If these men meant ill, it would do you no good. These are not brigands, unless they are brigands who waylaid two of Thane Simun Pil’s Svarthost and are raiding in their garb. Look at their tabards.” For the visitors were dressed in black, with the dark green tree of Gronnskog embroidered on the front. Both were lean, with long black hair unbound on their shoulders, and bore double-headed axes strapped to their backs. Their aspects were not friendly, but neither did they seem hostile.
“I know who they are, father,” muttered Emund. He put down the poker, but did not seem at ease.
“I bear tidings I am sure will be unwelcome,” began one of the Svarthost, producing a parchment scroll. “My name is Hallfred, and I am a Loytnant of the Svarthost of Gronnskog. Jakte son of Johar, I come to swear you into the Thane’s armed service, for the greater glory of Jordved.”
“There must be an error,” Jakte said simply. “I am a freeman of the Nedslatt. Gronnskog is many miles west of here, and Thane Simun Pil collects no revenues from these lands. I cannot leave my family and fields. I will not swear.” Hallfred shook his head sadly, and fixed Jakte with a look that was not unkind.
“I would not choose to resist, if I were you. We are authorized to compel you through force or other means you would find unpleasant. Swear or do not swear, in either instance you are leaving here with us tonight. You may do so as our comrade, or you may do so in irons.” The kindness had left the eyes of the Svarthost Loytnant. Drafts were rare, Jakte knew, but not unknown to the Nedslatt. Resistance often led to fields put to the torch, livestock to the sword, or worse. The Svarthost were honorable soldiers, but were not strangers to violence and destruction if needed to accomplish their tasks. Jakte had no desire to bear arms for Thane and nation, meeting his end many leagues from home and hearth. Neither did he wish to see that home burned or his family harmed to compel his service. There was a lengthy silence before Jakte met Hallfred’s gaze.
“I will swear,” he whispered; his words met by a shriek from Anethe, who buried her face in her hands. Emund sprang to his feet, and the large youth moved to his father’s side.
“Take me instead!” he cried, his round face bright red. “Father, tell them I will go in your place! Mother and Vesten need you here, and I am old enough.” He turned to Hallfred. “This winter will be my sixteenth, and I am strong as a bull, father always says so.” The thought turned over in Jakte’s mind. He felt guilty for considering it, but the boy was rugged and coming into his manhood rapidly. He would be more likely to succeed in the service of the Thane than in trying to manage the farm with only his mother and younger brother. As Jakte opened his mouth to speak, the Loytnant nodded curtly.
“We’ll take you both,” he said.