“Next!” The fat, stringy haired sheep-shearer yelled. I shuffled forward, plopping down onto the cask of whisky, my shirt balled into my hands. He gripped a fistful of my reddish-orange hair, bringing the shears around to begin his sloppy work. I stared at myself in the dingy mirror, listening to the murmur of the men around me as the man tugged on my strands, pulling out more than he was actually cutting.
A few curls fell past my eyes and into my lap. Even in the darkened barn, my eyes seemed to blaze blue. The eyes of my mother, I was told. The sharp jawline of my bastard father, I thought bitterly. A breeze blew in through the open doors of the dilapidated barn, causing my exposed flesh to prickle. I took some pride in the strength of my body, having worked hard my entire life. Weak men would perish quickly around here.
The man shoved me up after his hasty job. I threw my shirt on, dragging a hand through my ruddy curls to dust the clippings away. We were always forced to have our hair chopped before a raid. Unease grew in my gut.
I made my way out into the chilly, late autumn air. It had already snowed here, our homestead north of Mount Tier. I knew our pillaging would take us southwest. The Brotherhood always came on the winds of winter, our raids more successful as villagers stocked up for the frigid months. I spotted Rollo sparring with Murdoc, making my way to my only companions here. I was stopped as a hulking figure stepped into my path. I stared levelly at Agnar, the leader of the Blood Brotherhood. The man I hated but could do nothing about.
His long brown hair was adorned with small carved bones, braided here and there, tied away from his cruel, brown eyes. I’m sure he’d forced one of his women to fix his hair, another to fix his supper, and another to warm his bed. He smirked at me as I stared levelly at him; he knew I wasn’t afraid of anything in this world. Everything I cared about had perished long ago.
“Come, Killian. I wish to speak with ye,” he said, turning to head towards his hut. Agnar let me be for the most part, thanks to my vile, now-dead father. Ever since he’d died, Agnar had kept an even closer watch on me. I followed, unable to find a reason to protest.
His hut was stifling and massive compared to his subjects’. Furs of bears and wolves littered the ground. He made his way to the long table at the back, sitting heavily. I did the same, already sweating. I’d been in here before. It was never for good reason.
My eyes caught sight of movement to my right. I glanced to the fire, to the young red-haired woman. She sat obediently on the edge of his luxurious bed, her eyes cast down to her hands. One eye was heavily bruised. I felt a steady wave of nausea overcome me.
“Killian,” he began, pulling my attention from her. “Yer one of my best damn raiders,” he said, smirking.
“Thank you,” I said curtly, nodding once.
His finger traced the rim of his mug as he stared at me. I wouldn’t let his tactic scare me.
“We leave tomorrow to begin raiding, and I’d like ye to be there wi’ us.” He said.
“Of course.” I said. He narrowed his eyes at me.
“Killian,” he smiled, the maliciousness in his eyes barely hidden.
“Have ye claimed a woman yet?” He asked. I felt my gut wrench.
“No.” I stated simply. He nodded, his thick beard moving slightly.
“And why not?”
“Because I havena’ found the right one yet.” I lied evasively.
“Ye realize ’tis part of our Brotherhood, to claim the women? ’Tis the honorable thing to do, after we’ve killed their men. We canna leave ’em to starve.” He explained. I knew all the reasons they used to mask the simple fact that what they did was horribly wrong; I wanted no part in that. I only stole enough riches for myself and moved on. Hurting innocent people did not sit well with me.
“How else would we have heirs to our vast fortune? To continue the bloodline of our warriors?” He asked. I knew the answer he sought.
“I’ll keep it in mind, then,” I nodded, readying myself to leave.
“Please do.” He said, the threat clear in his voice. I stood and left, unable to subject myself to his prison any longer. There was nothing I could do for that girl, which only made me angrier.
I followed the sound of Rollo’s booming laugh, spying the two sitting next to the fighting pit as other men entered to begin training. I’d wielded a sword since I was five, a year after my angelic mother had perished from fever.
Murdoc wore a sour look on his lined face; he was a small man, his muscles hard and sinewy, his beady eyes black. He was in his fifties now, an age nearly unheard of around here, and his strands of gray hair showed it. He was feared by the younger group of boys; no one made it to that age unless they were a damn good fighter. I often wished Murdoc had been my real father.
Rollo was the opposite of Murdoc in every way. He was hulking, his muscles bulbous and straining against his leather armor. Being Agnar’s younger brother, he was allowed to keep his hair long. He laughed louder, his smile pulling his thick, short beard up. He must have won the last round.
“Gettin’ old, Murdy.” He said. Murdoc hated the nickname we’d christened him with.
“Aye, I let ye win that round.”
Rollo spotted me.
“Ah, lookin’ quite beautiful today, my dear!” He called. I glared, stopping in front of them.
“What did that dumb brute want with ye?” He asked.
“We leave tomorrow to begin the raids.” I said. Murdoc nodded, stroking his beard in thought. I leaned against the rail, relishing the cool breeze after being in the unbearable heat of Agnar’s hut.
“I suppose there’s more, or he wouldna’ brought ye in his little castle.” Murdoc teased.
“Aye,” I nodded, feeling myself frown. “He wishes me to claim a woman. Soon.”
“Ahh, ’tis no so bad.” Rollo said. Although his brother was our leader, he rarely saw eye to eye with him on decisions. Whereas Rollo was somewhat sympathetic to how he treated women, Murdoc understood my reservations completely. He’d only ever claimed one, and they were still together. Though he would never say it aloud, I knew he loved her and held a profound respect for her. After they had lost one child to sickness, they’d never again conceived. Rollo had two women, one currently carrying his first child. Though he also treated them kindly, he’d instilled enough fear in them that made them obedient to a fault. My bastard father had lost count of the women he’d claimed. Only one had lived long enough to give him a child; the rest were killed in one of his fits of rage, or killed themselves. I was silently thankful my mother had died peacefully, consumed by sickness.
“If the man doesna’ want to be bound, then he shouldn’t have to.” Murdoc argued.
“Exactly,” I said, crossing my arms.
“Agnar doesn’t see things that way, and ye both know it. He’s a vile man, and I won’t shed a tear when he dies, but there’s only so much I can do.” Rollo said.
“Yer plenty strong enough to care for a woman,” Murdoc shrugged, contemplating my situation. My blood ran hot. No one dared to challenge my two friends, knowing they’d die if they attempted to steal away their most precious possessions. I was still untested when it came to protecting a person that was mine.
“Ye know it’s no that easy,” I growled, standing straight. Murdoc stared up at me, his eyes having seen the worst our society could conjure up. To claim a woman properly, it must be done publicly, during the raid. If I failed to do that, any man could fight me for her. The very thought of forcing myself on a woman made me sick. It was wrong, and no one could tell me otherwise. Rollo sighed heavily and shrugged.
“No, it’s not. Ye have to convince yerself that they will be better off with you than some other man, ye have to ignore everythin’ else and just let yer instincts take over…” he trailed off, his eyes wandering off in memory. At least Rollo seemed to feel some pity. As for the other men of the Brotherhood, I couldn’t say the same. I’d witnessed them laughing as they passed one woman to the next man, as they brutalized and beat them, sometimes killing them before we even returned home. Irritated even more, I walked back to my tent. They knew better than to try and talk me out of my mood.
I’d always sworn I’d be the opposite of my father. As I grew, I trained more than any boy my age, readying myself for the day I’d drive my sword through his heart. Unfortunately, someone had killed him on a raid. I wished to thank whoever it was someday. I knew there was life beyond the Brotherhood, though it felt so out of my reach. I’d be killed if I even hinted at deserting, and there were a few major reasons I could never do it.
My tent was quaint, hidden amongst the trees on the edge of Brotherhood land. I set to work packing my things to prepare for our departure at dawn. My fingers brushed over the soft white shift hidden deep within one of my packs. I pulled it out, holding it to my face. The scent of her still clung to it, just barely. My throat felt tight with tears. I could picture her thick blond hair as it cascaded down her bare back, the way her round brown eyes would smile at me as we made love.
I shoved the clothing away, hating myself for my one weakness. My memories were all I had left of our brief time together. It seemed anything good in my life could not last, so I shunned anything with a semblance of purity.
I stared at the ceiling of my tent, waiting for the sun to beckon me to my fate.