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by Jason Fischer

‘It’s raiders,’ says my da, but I know what the big drum means. Last time the smith was bellowing and beating on it, a longship bore down on us from some distant land. The prow was carved into a serpent’s head, and the boat bristled with oars like a hedgehog.

I was too young, they sent me up to the wood to hide with the women and children. The raiders leapt from their ship with flame and axe. Butchered six men that day and burnt half the village down.

We were lucky. A passing company of the Duke’s men saw the smoke and drove the reavers back into the sea. This wasn't so much for us but to defend the monastery from pillage. Now the drum beats again, but the Duke is off fighting another Duke. Our luck is run out.

Da gets his sharp hatchet, passes me the pitchfork. Twelve years old and now a man.

‘That God-house brings them,’ my da says, ‘when they come driving across the seas for plunder and killings. They know the monks keep treasures in there.’ The abbey stands high, on top of the big hill. You can see it for miles. Will God help me today, when a raider drives an axe into my head? I’ve never raised a hand in anger.

I can see the long-ship now, the sail limp against the mast, torn in several places. They’re not even driving the oars. When the prow pushes into the sand I can see the raiders on the deck, their helmets reflecting the sun. There’s movement on board, but they don’t leap over the sides like last time.

The first of them falls over the railing, landing heavily in the shallows. He gets up, an axe tethered to his wrist with a thong. He isn’t gripping it, and leaves his shield bobbing in the water. He takes a teetering step towards us, then another. An almighty stink comes from the boat now, the worst thing I’ve ever smelt. Even from here the raider doesn’t look well.

‘Plague!’ someone screamed, but we’ve seen plague. There’s none can walk under the pox, let alone sail the seas.

Another raider slips into the water, and when they notice us standing on the shore they begin falling over themselves in a rush. We can hear their groans now, their excited slaverings.

Two dozen of the reavers are shuffling through froth and foam, groaning and gnashing their teeth. Now I can see the flesh fallen from their faces, yellowed bones where there should be muscle. They trudge out of the water, all reaching hands and hungry eyes.

‘Run!’ someone says, and by God we run.

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