Burnt Einar

Einar was a fisherman, whose family had lived on a remote shore in eastern England for as long as any could remember. Einar was old and alone, his gray hair and wrinkles telling their own tale of his life. His wife had passed some years before, leaving him without an heir and forced to fend for himself. But despite his loneliness, his health was good and his faith was strong. 

With no son or daughter of his own to whom he could pass on his knowledge, he grew close to his sister’s son, Rolf, a spoiled young man of fifteen with scrawny limbs and lank hair, whose father had died in one of Henry’s wars. He was indulged by his mother and, given all he demanded, was growing into a petulant arrogant man. Einar hoped that one day Rolf would mature and be proud of his ancestry. 

“Fishermen? Why should I be pleased I come from fishermen? Where is the glory in that?”

Einar shook his head. “You should honour your history, boy. You come from a line of brave men and women, who fought the sea to provide food and who were always faithful to the gods.”

“The gods.” Rolf sneered in a way Einar had grown to hate. “Stories old crones tell children to frighten them.”

And so it went, every conversation ending the same way. Still Einar hoped. For there was reason, kept hidden, to keep trying to make the boy respect his history: Einar still worshipped the old gods. In these days of change, when a mad king put his wives to death as easily as bed a whore, and had declared himself the head of the church in England, belief in anything other than the enforced doctrine was dangerous and best kept secret for fear of severe reprisal from the Church. 

Einar had no interest in the Christian god, whom he felt demanded too much and gave little in return. HIS gods were fair and generous, had always helped and been kind to his ancestors. 

He worshipped in private and had a few of the icons and images associated with Christianity scattered around his house, to deflect attention should anyone visit. As he grew older, fewer people came to call on him as they were forced by the Church to purchase their fish from the bishops, so he was left in peace to his devotions. With fewer visitors to interfere, from whom to hide his true beliefs, he grew careless. 

“Uncle! Are you here?” Rolf walked through the house uninvited and without warning.  “Uncle?” He came across his uncle, approaching Einar from behind and stopped suddenly. “What are you doing?”

Einar turned, startled. His prayers had been so focused he hadn’t noticed his nephew until it was too late.

Rolf stood beside him, staring at the crude altar stone. A small pig lay dead; its neck cut and blood running down a groove carved into the stone and collecting in a wooden bowl. “Uncle?” 

Einar looked down at the bloodied knife in his hand, then back at his nephew. “Rolf, why have you come?” It was a stupid question but the only words he could think to speak. 

“What are you doing? I don’t. . . what is this?” 

“Rolf, come with me.” He led the boy back to the cottage and to the hearth, his ritual abandoned. The gods would understand. As he gathered cups and poured ale, he spoke. “It’s time you learned, understood. There are no others to keep the rituals, to honour the gods who’ve always helped our family.” Einar handed a cup to Rolf and sat across from his nephew, the wooden chair creaking with age.

“I keep the old faith, the old ways. The Christian god,” he spat into the dirt floor, “he is weak. He does not appreciate the faith of his people. He demands they follow rules, so many rules; do this, don’t do that, you may have this but only on that day. It’s ridiculous and no god worth anything would make it so difficult to love him, so confusing to know what to do to please him.” He shook his head. 

Einar had himself been on the receiving end of a priest’s tongue for breaking dietary rules on a saint’s day. Despite his disgust at the priest’s rebuke, Einar had considered himself fortunate, for it wasn’t that he was dishonouring the saint by his actions; it was because the saint had been so unimportant to Einar and his life that he had completely forgotten it was a holy day.

“But uncle, that’s what the priests are for. To instruct us on God’s will.” The self-assurance was returning to his voice. 

“To instruct us? Tell me, if they are so wise, and claim to know their god’s thoughts, why do they serve such an unjust master? What good master would demand such punishments be meted out in his name? What mystical powers do they possess that they can read a god’s mind?”

Rolf frowned. “They are trained to understand the scriptures, by the Holy Father in Rome. You know this.”

“Hah! The father, who rules and claims infallibility. Is he himself not appropriating the powers of a god?” He sighed. “Is this itself not a sin, according to the scriptures you mention?”

His nephew stood, glaring at his uncle. “You fool. You’re mad, completely mad. And you won’t continue your heresy, I’ll see to that.” Storming towards the door, he stopped and turned back to his uncle. “And once you’re gone, I’ll take this,” he waved a hand in the air, “your home. And your land. I’ll sell it and move, finally be free of this place. You can watch me from hell.”

Hurt by his nephew’s words Einar watched the young man hurry from the cottage. He knew his time was short and prepared himself as best he could. Returning to the pig, he ran his fingers through the still-warm blood in the bowl, painting lines and symbols on his face and arms. He prayed to Odin, the All-Father, to give him the strength he would need in the coming days. 

Retribution came sooner than he thought; he only had time to clean himself and change into his best clothes before a crowd gathered at his door. 

“Heathen! Blasphemer! Open this door!” 

Einar hesitated a moment before stepping outside. People from the nearby town were watching his door; news had spread fast. There was also a priest who stood at the front of the crowd, soldiers at the edges, and his nephew. If their eyes had not darted towards Rolf every so often, Einar wouldn’t even have noticed the boy lurking behind the priest. 

“What do you want? Why have you come?” Einar waved his arm at the gathered spectators.

“Einar Eriksson, you have been accused of heresy and crimes against the Church. What do you have to say?”

These people might falter in their beliefs when confronted with authority but he would not dishonour his gods by doing so. “I have nothing to say.” He stood, arms crossed over his chest. 

The priest snarled. “You do not deny these accusations?” 

“I do not.” 

The crowd erupted into shouts of ‘heathen!’, ‘sacrilege’ and other less savoury abuses. The soldiers rushed forward and grabbed him, forcing him to the ground, and chaining his neck, hands and feet. As they began the march back to town, Einar glanced over at Rolf. His nephew was deep in conversation with a senior-looking priest, both of whom were glancing over at Einar periodically. He caught Rolf’s eye but the boy ignored him. 

Einar was placed in a small stone building at the back of the church used to hold those who had been accused of some heretical activity or behavior. Three rooms were connected to a short hall leading to the outside entrance. He heard the lock turn in the heavy wooden door and footsteps walking away. His surroundings were bleak: stone walls, stone floor with a few scattered rushes. A wooden bucket to use as a privy, he guessed. The door with its small barred window. He sighed and gathered the reeds, sat on the pile and closed his eyes. 

After a short while his stomach reminded him that he hadn’t eaten since yesterday. Standing, he went to the door and looked out the window. “Is anyone there? Hello?”

A door opened. “Shut up in there! Or I’ll shut you up myself!”

The door creaked as it closed. “Wait! I need food!”

The annoyed voice was louder this time. “Food? What are you, the king? I know: why don’t you ask your heathen gods to bring you food!” 

Einar heard the laughter as the door closed. Dejected, he sat back down on his pile of reeds and, shivering, he pulled his cloak more tightly, looking out into the darkness. 

The noise of the outside door being opened woke him, and, unaware of how much time had passed, he crawled to his cell door, stiff from the cold that had seeped through the meager reeds. Climbing to his feet he peered out the small window. “Is someone there?”

Instead of a reply the sound of feet shuffling met his ears. A moment later a weathered, lined face appeared at the door window. “I’ve brought you food.” A wrinkled hand pushed a package through the bars. It landed on the floor and opened, revealing cheese and bread within. Einar grabbed the food and shoved it into his mouth, looking out at his visitor. The old man had dragged a wooden stool to the outside of Einar’s cell and sat with a grunt, using his walking stick for balance. Einar, still chewing too large mouthfuls of bread, watched as the old man removed his leather hat and placed it on the floor beside him, shaking the long white hair out of his face. He then took out a flask and drank deeply before standing again and offering the contents to Einar. The fisherman hesitated. “Go on, drink all you want.” Grateful for the invitation, Einar drank long, not realizing until that moment how thirsty he was. The wine was watered down but refreshing and allowed him to forget his situation if only briefly. 

He handed the empty flask back. “Thank you grandfather, I’m grateful for your charity.” 

His visitor sat down once more, leaning back to peer through the bars at Einar’s face. “What evil act brought you to this place?”

Einar frowned. There was something odd about the old man’s accent. The fisherman shrugged; perhaps he was just tired. “Grandfather, I am a heretic. I worship the old gods. You should leave if you don’t want to be caught associating with me.” 

“Pshh.” The old man’s face screwed up and he murmured something in a language Einar didn’t understand. “I’ll decide when I leave.” He reached into his pocket and withdrew a pipe, worn smooth with age. Filling it, he pointed it at Einar and nodded before lighting it. “For now, I want to hear your story.”

“There’s no story. I worship the All Father and his family. I always have, as did my ancestors before me. I tried to keep it secret but my nephew reported me. And now I’m here.” Einar voice cracked. 

“I think I saw the young man, he was outside while you were brought here. Skinny lad, dark eyes.”

“You were there?”

“Oh yes. I try to keep an eye on those who might have need of my help.”

Einar frowned. “Do you live in the village?” He hadn’t seen the old man before. 

“No, I was passing through. I wander; I’m not content to stay in one place for long. Used to frustrate my wife terribly!” He chuckled, a deep comforting sound, like distant thunder. 

Einar found himself calming, becoming drowsy. “And why are you here?”

The old man took a puff of his pipe before replying. “I knew I was needed.” 

Unsatisfied by this answer, the fisherman found he could not reply. He was so tired, his limbs heavy and warm. But from a long distance he heard the old man continue to speak.

“You’ve done well, my son. You are the last and I’m pleased with you.” The voice was proud, like a father speaking to a favoured son. “Sleep now, it’ll be over soon.”

Einar was wrenched from sleep by his cell door being pulled open. Groggily he sat, looking around him. The memory of the previous day came crashing back and he crawled away from the uniformed man coming toward him.

“Where d’you think yer going?” A beefy hand grabbed Einar by the shoulder and heaved him to his feet with ease. The fisherman stopped struggling and resigned himself to his fate. 

He winced at the bright sunshine outside, taking a moment to focus on the crowd who had already gathered. The priest from yesterday was also there, as well as a tall man with a large hooked nose wearing a bishop’s mitre. 

“Bring the prisoner.” The man’s reedy voice made Einar shiver. 

Einar was dragged before the bishop and forced to his knees. The bishop looked down at him, disdain clear on his face. The fisherman glanced to his right to the clearing some distance away from the church. A large pyre had been constructed; men were still placing the last of the wood. “So,” he thought, “my fate has already been decided.” Looking back towards the crowd he saw the same old man who had visited him, leaning against a tree. Their eyes met briefly and in that instant Einar felt his mounting fear disappear. 

“You have been accused of heresy. And you have confessed your crime, is this correct?” The bishop continued to glare down at him. 

Einar glanced back toward the old man before looking up at the senior churchman, defiance glowing in his eyes. “Yes.” There was no point in wasting words, he knew that.

The crowd roared as the bishop gestured to the guards. They dragged the fisherman toward the pyre and bound him to the post. He felt the burn of the ropes as they tightened around his wrists, ankles and neck. The crowd quieted as the bishop approached. 

“Einar Eriksson, you are condemned to burn for your sins against the Holy Mother Church, so that the flames may wash you of your heresy and purge your soul.” 

The crowd erupted in cheers, drowning the sound of the first crackling of flame licking at the pyre. Soon Einar was surrounded by fire and smoke, chest heaving with the effort it took to breath and eyes streaming tears. But through the smoke and tears he saw the old man, standing at the edge of the crowd, nodding. Then all he saw was the blaze growing closer, and all he felt was the heat blistering his skin. He began to struggle, his body taking over. But it was too late. The flames engulfed him from all sides, and he felt searing pain. 

Then nothing. 

“Where are we?”

“Here. In your village. But also not.”

Einar looked down and saw himself burning, his body slumped forward, lifeless. He felt nothing. “What happened?”

The old man laughed but it was a sad sound. “You died.”

This news didn’t affect the fisherman at all. He just shrugged, accepting what the old man said as truth. “Who are you?”

“You know who I am.”

“I don’t, I mean, I’m not sure. . .”

“You’ve worshipped me every day of your life.”

Einar looked more closely at the older man. He was wearing thick hose, a rough jerkin and a worn cloak. And his leather hat. “Odin?” 

The old man tipped his hat slightly. “Indeed.”

The god nodded his head in the direction of the pyre. Einar returned his attention to his lifeless body. The fire burned brightly and the town watched in fascination. Einar saw Odin raise his hand and a sudden wind rose around them. With a further gesture the wind rushed toward the pyre, scattering flames and cinders. 

The townspeople held up their arms, covering their faces, but were still burnt by the glowing embers thrown by the gale. The flames leapt with life and caught those nearest the pyre: the praying priest, the watching bishop and Einar’s nephew. 

The townspeople fled in panic and there was no one to help the three men beat out the flames. Einar watched as they ran screaming in pain, reaching out for each other. He saw his nephew’s jerkin catch fire, the boy frantically searching for help. Finally, one by one they fell, their screams fading. 

“But. I don’t understand.”

The All Father looked directly at Einar. “The pain they caused you was an insult to me. The insult had to be redressed and honour restored.” He led Einar away from the place of his death. They wandered and Einar lost track of how long they walked or how far. “You are my last worshipper. The rest of the world now worships a new god.” He looked up at the sky and at the trees that surrounded them. “I’ve been waiting for you. My journey is now ended as well.”

Einar walked in silence beside the old man/god, thinking. “What happened to the others? Where are they?”

“When people stopped their rituals, their worship of us, we began to tire, grew weary of life. Some fought against the ennui, tried to integrate with humans, live among them. And a few were nearly successful, but they couldn’t escape the draining of their life force. Others travelled the earth, searching for worshippers, but were also struck down by the malaise. For what use is a god without followers?” 

He sighed and shook his head. “Finally they could no longer fight the tiredness and took the shapes of nature, trees, stones, rivers. All waiting to be worshipped and adored once more.” The All Father put a gentle hand on Einar’s shoulder. “But I think our time is finally over. With your death there is no longer any hope for us.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know.” The fisherman bowed his head as he spoke. 

“My son, you have no need to apologise, this is the way of things. And as my last follower you’ll have a place with us.”

“Us? I thought you said. . .”

“I’ve sent my ravens to whisper to the trees, rocks and rivers. To bring together my family once more.” Odin looked to the skies. “We’re going home.”

The white mist descended so quickly Einar had no time to orient himself. But he wasn’t afraid, for the presence next to him was strong and protective and his soul rejoiced as he took his place among the gods he had so loved in life. 

Copyright Kelly Evans

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