Get it here! Got the weirdness figured out with the ‘zon – after I copyedited/prettied up the front matter on all three Colums, I and III got stuck “in review,” then went live, then weren’t actually live…. Anyway! I loved loved loved writing these stories, and at least in my mind, the series isn’t over, though who knows when I’ll get back to it.
And yes, I did a lot of research, and despite the cover art, I do know that Vikings didn’t have horns 🙂
COLUM’S VIKING CAPTIVITY – HUGE EXCERPT!!!
THE ISLAND OF IONA – 806 A.D.
What little light there had been today was fading. The normally gray skies were black now as a storm moved onto the coast. The cold drafts that crept through the cracks in the wood and stone kept attacking the candles, and the flickering light strained Colum’s eyes as he tried to focus on the page.
Brother Fedelmid would be here soon to check on him. Again. His gaze lingered on the pages he’d been assigned to scrub clean, committing the words to memory first so he could recreate them later. There was no time, no time. Brother Fedelmid would expect a huge pile of clean parchment, stripped of pagan thoughts and ready for the word of God. Fedelmid, Colum thought ruefully, had a very light tread for such a well-fed man, and had surprised him more than once.
Suddenly Fedelmid was behind him, but his heavy breathing had given him away. Colum had already started scrubbing the pages with milk and oat bran, forever removing the wrongheaded thoughts of the damned from human eyes.
“It’s time, Brother Colum,” Fedelmid panted, his heavy breathing attributable to more than just exertion, Colum knew.
Colum followed him to the Misericord, and took off his robe. Fedelmid’s breathing got even faster at the sight of Colum’s smooth, firm body, hardened and muscled from a childhood of farm labor, then made leaner and tauter at his last monastery. The admirable results of the combat training that had been a part of the routine at Clonmacnoise had not yet faded, even here in his more sedentary life.
Column assumed the submissive, penitent position on the floor – on his knees, head down, hands clasped.
“Do you know why we are here at Iona?” Brother Fedelmid asked, as he asked every morning.
“To preserve learning,” Colum said defiantly, his kneecaps already throbbing and aching from the cold, damp stone floor. It was the answer that would get him yet another day on the floor of the Misericord, another day of corporal punishment, but he didn’t care. It was worth it if he could save one more page from oblivion.
WHAP! went the leather strap across his bare shoulders. Colum squeezed his eyes shut but willed himself not to show any more reaction than that. The pain was a price to be paid. Marcus Aurelius kept him company on the floor, his words burned in Colum’s mind. “Pain that lasts a long time is tolerable; the mind stays tranquil by retiring into itself. Let those parts which are harmed by pain give their opinion of it if they can.”
“NO. We are here to praise the word of God. What is your job?”
To preserve learning! Colum wanted to shout. But he was learning how things were done here. So different from Clonmacnoise…
“To praise the word of God.” There was only so far he could push Fedelmid. This was a game, a preposterous game, but he had to play it.
“And in what role have you been most blessedly assigned in our duty to praise the word of God?”
“Whatever God wills I do each day.” Whatever you will, you fat bastard, Colum thought. He had been sent here by the new abbot of Clonmacnoise, a monk who had always hated him, and who had taken Abbot Ioseph’s death as his opportunity to send Colum away. Sent here, hell, banished here – and Brother Fedelmid knew it. When Abbot Ioseph had died, so had all Colum’s hopes and dreams.
Fedelmid’s breathing was hot and heavy. Colum couldn’t help but shiver, not only at the cold to which his near-naked body was exposed, but at the knowledge of what was going through Fedelmid’s head. Colum knew what he wanted, knew his eyes were on Colum’s rear end, tight and meaty from better days, happy days…no corpulent monks like Fedelmid at Clonmacnoise.
WHAP! The strap landed on his lower back, pushing his loincloth down over his tailbone. So you want to see my firm young ass, Colum smirked. Colum twitched and let it fall a little further to reveal his ass crack. Come and see the Valley of Temptation! I dare you to touch it, he thought, full of most unkind and uncharitable thoughts. You won’t, you daren’t, your fear of Hell is greater even than your lust. Other monks desired these things, too, but at least they whipped themselves for it and not others. But no, Fedelmid would punish Colum for his strength, his beauty, his defiance…
“Theophrastus believed that offences committed through desire are worse than those committed through anger. The offence which is committed with pleasure is worse than that committed with pain.” Oh yes, great Emperor, you are right, and with what pleasure did Fedelmid commit his offenses…
Fedelmid would hit his back, his legs, his rump…never his hands, though. Or his face, for fear of injuring his eyes. They were too valuable to Iona.
Colum knew his punishment couldn’t last many more days. His hand was too steady, too precise, and the abbey made too much money on its marvelous illuminated manuscripts, to keep him away from the paper and the pen for long.
Now the strap landed lower, a searing line of pain across his rump. But even so, as Fedelmid wheezed with excitement at the rapidly reddening welts, Colum smiled. They had “punished” him by leaving him alone with a pile of abominations, left him to scrub and scrape the words off the paper so it could be reused for learned theological disquisitions. And in doing so, they’d given him more to read than he’d ever had, and more time to read it. Normally he only stripped his own parchments, before copying the sun-baked ramblings of some fanatic hermit. That had meant he could only commit one or two precious pages to memory each day. Now he felt as if his mind was stuffed to bursting with knowledge.
He smiled. The physical pain was a small price to pay for a few more days of “punishment” alone with the old books. Every slap of Fedelmid’s strap meant more works saved, rescued, transcribed in his marvelous memory until the day they could be reborn on paper.
But some of the works he had literally saved, squirreling them away in secret hiding places – he couldn’t memorize everything that needed rescue. He was a scholar, certainly, and a librarian, but a librarian who needed the judgment of Solomon to decide which pagans would live and which would die. He gave a tender thought to poor Emperor Claudius, whose “Art of Playing Dice” had been flensed from the page, sacrificed to save Julius Caesar’s love poems.
One of those flashed through his mind, unbidden. How shocked the others would have been to read Great Caesar’s ode to a Greek youth’s ass. Colum had been shocked himself at the loving detail which had been given to every curve, the golden shine of the upturned flesh in the lamplight, “the sweet-honeyed tightness,” written in such a way you could think he meant the physical condition of the large muscles, or the tightness of the…place. “Your buttocks like two harvest moons, the double vision of a drunken man, looking at the sky from the ground, for so have you intoxicated me, so have I been struck down.”
Why did I save that one? Colum asked himself as his own milk-white ass went red with Fedelmid’s increasing frenzy. You can’t look down at an ass and up at the moon at the same time – it was a silly poem when you thought about it. Surely Cstebius’ “On Pneumatics” was more worthy of rescue…
“Oh! Ohhhh!” Fedelmid cried, the agony of his ecstasy overwhelming him. One hand was on the strap, which he brought down again and again now, but Colum knew where the other hand was as he gritted his teeth and took the final assault. For days Fedelmid been building up to this. Now he’d get what he wanted and that would be the end of it.
He clenched his buttocks tighter, defensively, as Fedelmid aimed the strap at Colum’s asshole, as if trying to beat back whatever devil was peeking out there, luring him in. But he couldn’t defend it completely, as the blows landed closer and closer, the agony ever greater. Colum bit his lower lip to keep from crying out, from giving Fedelmid the satisfaction. “When in pain remember that it brings no dishonor, does not weaken the governing intelligence. Pain is neither everlasting nor intolerable…”
Finally the old lecher erupted under his robe, barely bothering to conceal what he’d done. Finally the beating was done. A few more gasps, a few weak cries, the strap flapping now like a wet hen’s wings against Colum’s body. Then it was over.
“I hope you’ve learned something important today,” Fedelmid said, gathering himself.
“I have indeed,” Colum said darkly, pulling his loincloth back up. Fedelmid was silent with horror and shame, the tone of Colum’s voice striking fear into his heart.
“We won’t speak of this,” Fedelmid muttered. “Go back to the scriptorium. Be back on your pen tomorrow.” And he was gone.
Colum did not go back to work. Fedelmid wouldn’t dare punish him for what he was about to do, not after…that.
He walked through the scriptorium, the monks shivering as they worked by the broad open windows onto the cloister walk. The windows gave them what light was to be had this stormy day, but took the warmth from their bones.
Colum’s own talents had bought him a solitary chamber. He wished it hadn’t; the days were long and lonely in there by himself. Well, at least it was warm in there, or not as cold, anyway. His hands were less chapped and cramped and red than those of the others, his nose less runny, his feet not as numb.
He walked past Niall, cocking his head slightly towards the door. Niall was dark-haired and dark-eyed like Colum, but slimmer, fairer-skinned, like a younger brother to Colum, the same but different. Niall knew Fedelmid wasn’t nearby, but a year of well-instilled fear made him look anyway towards the big desk by the door. You didn’t know real silence, Colum smiled, until you heard the sound of two dozen monks’ pens stop scratching. Shocked at the violation of the rules, they could only stare open-mouthed as Niall left his desk and followed Colum out the door.
Colum was learning how to survive here. He could do as he pleased, within reason, as long as he accepted the punishment, the penances. He could have been expelled had the abbot known of his many transgressions, but of course it pleased Fedelmid to keep them to himself. Who knew what Fedelmid would expect next…but he willed himself not to think of that.
They left the grounds, heading for a field on the other side of the hill. The wind and the first trickles of rain were invigorating to both young men, and they began to run as they got further away from the walls of their home, sometimes more like a prison than a home. The storm picked up and they whooped with joy, watching the lightning play over the water.
An old carter rode past, hell bent for leather. “Take shelter, young fools! The devil’s afoot!”
They laughed at him and he shook his head, riding on. They rambled out into the field.
“Come on then,” Niall said, ready to wrestle and taking the defensive stance Colum had taught him. “Let’s see what you’ve got left after Fedelmid’s done with you.”
“You’ll see, all right,” Colum said, and jumped. They fell to the ground, grappling, bodies rolling in the mud. Niall was a good student, a fast learner. He might even beat Colum some day, but not today.
Niall had him on his back, his surprisingly strong legs wrapped around Colum’s, his hands working furiously to pin the other man’s, but he had scholar’s hands, thin and bony – not like Colum’s, thick and meaty from farm labor and combat training. Colum wriggled free and used Niall’s robe to throw him.
Niall responded by pulling his robe off over his head and tossing it away. “There!” he cried triumphantly. Niall’s body was hard and strong now from their practice sessions, Colum thought. When they’d met, his friend’s wiry frame had gone soft from sitting at a desk all day. Niall was proud of his body now, proud in a way that would have mortified the abbot.
Clonmacnoise! How Colum missed it. How he missed the raucous, violent town and the battles between the monasteries. Wrestling, stave fighting, punching…those had been as much a part of a monk’s day there as writing and praying and farming and gardening. Abbot Ioseph had known how to handle young men – you didn’t stick them in a cubbyhole and make them sit there all day! You made them study, indeed, but then you took them out and wore them out so they slept the sleep of the dead, and then they were ready the next day to work, knowing all that pent-up energy would be released in the yard again.
But here, Abbot Cellach disdained the active life. “Have not a care for the body!” he lectured them with a quaking hand and an accusing finger. “In the life to come you will have no need of it! Begin to think of that life and let not the material world and its desires drag you down!” How many of the monks had flushed red at that speech, Colum thought, their own material desires all too apparent when they looked at him and Niall and the other young bucks. And for a man who had not a care for the body, Colum thought, Abbot Cellach certainly had a healthy appetite at dinner time.
Colum threw off his own robe, relishing the cold storm as its power increased. Niall gasped. “Your back!” The red welts were growing angrier now, only aggravated by his scratchy robe.
“You should see my ass,” Colum laughed, and attacked again. Now their grasps were slick with rain and mud and sweat. Colum was on his back in the mud now, and he let Niall pin him to give him the practice…and froze in shock.
Niall’s erection pressed up against his own crotch, like a log, Colum thought. So big! Niall’s body suddenly felt different to him, their grasp on each other no longer the struggle of opponents. Niall looked him in the eyes from above him, a question, a fear, a… Colum wanted to reach out, embrace him, pull him in closer, deeper. It was such a lonely life…
No, Colum thought. It’s only the excitement. Young men’s humours raging. He thrust himself up and threw Niall off. Then he had the other man pinned beneath him, pretending Niall’s hard stave wasn’t there. He laughed. “You’re not the master yet.”
Niall smiled. “Someday, Colum.”
Colum willed himself not to think of that day.
When they headed back, Colum knew something was wrong. The bell was ringing, and monks were scrambling across the fields, heading for the monastery gate.
“What’s going on?” Colum shouted at one of the brothers.
Colum’s blood went cold. Vikings…they had been here before, he knew, pillaging and plundering, but four years had passed since the last time, and complacency had set in. Now, as if to make up for it, hysteria took its place.
Abbot Cellach was standing on a barrel, the monks on their knees around him in the courtyard, crying and praying. “The day of judgment is here! The Lord has willed this to be our last day in this vale of tears! Prepare to meet your Maker!”
Rage rose up in Colum. Black clouds blacker than the sky filled his mind. Without thinking, he picked up a stave and stormed to the front of the kneeling crowd, facing the lambs so ready for slaughter.
“Close the gates. Arm yourselves. Nobody is dying today.”
“God wills it!” The abbot shouted. Colum whirled with the stave and took his legs out from under him. The others watched, horrified, as the abbot fell to the ground.
“Who’s with me?” Colum said.
“I am,” Niall shouted, looking around him. “Do you really want to die today?”
“No!” Brother Diarmait said, getting to his feet. “No!” shouted the others, rising too.
“Come on then.”
The walls of the monastery kept away the outside world, but only symbolically. They were low, with no parapets, no defensive positions. Colum shook his head. Even after ten years of Viking raids, it was unthinkable, unfathomable, that something be done to make it harder for them to kill everyone and steal everything.
He had the monks collect all the ladders and threw them up against the wall. Barrels were stacked in pyramids to create makeshift towers. Colum stood atop one barrel, Niall to his right, as they watched the Viking ship run aground on the beach, its twin prows making it easy for them to take off again in the opposite direction.
“You told me Vikings land at dawn,” Niall said. “For surprise.”
Colum nodded. He had made a study of them, absorbing every letter and tale he could get his hands on. One day he would write a chronicle of the Viking raids, he knew. And now, he thought with a flush of excitement, it would be a first hand chronicle! The thought that he might not survive this one did not occur to him.
“Usually. But the storm is forcing their hand today.”
“Get down from there!” Fedelmid shouted. “We must run!”
“Shut up,” Colum said. “Fetch me those stakes that were cut yesterday for the garden.”
“I will do no such…” Fedelmid’s protests fell away when he saw the look in Colum’s eyes. The tables were turned now, he realized. It would be Colum doing the punishing if he didn’t obey. He scuttled away to get them.
“Will they…” Niall said hesitantly. “Will they kill us?”
“Generally. They enslave the younger ones and kill the old ones, for the most part.”
Niall swallowed. “Slaves? Do they…with men as well…?”
“Yes,” Colum said. “They do.”
The abbot had heard him. “God forbid such sin befall you! I will pray for your death instead, and a fast trip to heaven!”
“If you’re going to do that,” Colum said sharply, “do it in the chapel, and stay out of the way.”
He watched the Vikings as they made their way up from the sea, clambering over the rocky coastline with ease.
“They’re so big,” Niall whispered. Colum nodded, the first tendrils of fear wrapping themselves around his guts at the sight. He knew the raiders were big men, generally a foot taller than the average man, but to see them for himself…he suddenly felt smaller, weaker.
He shook it off. “Get as many men’s heads poking above the fence line as you can.” Niall scrambled down to direct the others to make an impression on the rapidly advancing men. Sixty-eight brothers could give even a Viking pause, or so he hoped.
They were close now. They were in their standard V formation, and the man at the front of the wedge would be the one he’d have to deal with.
Colum’s eyes met those of the leader. He was taller, and leaner, than the rest, well over six feet. His dark beard was short, not the great barbarian bush that Colum had imagined, and it accented his sharp jawline. His eyes were blue, steel blue, sky blue…they locked on Colum’s dark eyes and held him fast.
Something other than fear grew inside Colum now. The man’s eyes possessed him, owned him, told him what was coming without a doubt. Not death. Something else.
Colum blinked. He took one of the pointed stakes and threw it like a javelin. His aim was true, and it landed short of the leader, but not by much.
“Halt!” he said in what little broken Norse he had. To his surprise, they did. “Turn back now and save yourselves!”
The leader heard him. He looked over his shoulder and repeated it to the others, who burst into raucous laughter.
“We never turn back, Christian. Not empty-handed,” their leader said in Gaelic, startling Colum. They had been raiding Ireland for ten years, though, so it shouldn’t have startled him that one of them had picked up the language.
“This is a place of learning. You’ll find little treasure here,” he lied. The monastery was the recipient of innumerable rich gifts, and also the place of safe-keeping for even more treasure – it was the bank in places like this, far from real civilization.
An arched eyebrow was the response. A subtle man, Colum realized, who’d have thought?
“Then we will make up for it by taking handsome young captives.” He thrust his hips forward and grabbed his crotch for emphasis – so much for subtlety. The others knew what that meant – the gesture had been meant for them, and they roared their approval, banging their swords on their shields. If there were no women to be ravished, Colum knew, handsome young men would do just as well.
Colum felt a twinge in his insides, some cold feeling that wasn’t fear. Excitement…
Colum played his last card. In Norse, he said, “Your god Odin has a thirst for knowledge. What would he think of you, watching you destroy knowledge?”
They froze. The leader looked at him more intently now, seeing prey but something more, too.
Colum went on in Norse. “Odin says learning must be fought for. Well then, we will fight for it.”
There was a pause as the Viking considered this. “Your accent is terrible,” he said at last in his own tongue.
“As is yours,” Colum said defiantly, though it wasn’t true. “I am Colum mac Fáeláin, a scholar. Who are you?”
“I am Viggo Haraldsson. A prince and a warrior.”
Colum looked down at the other monks. They were quaking with fear. He thought of the great historians’ words about the barbarians of old, how they had broken the lines of seasoned veterans solely with their bellowing, their insanity, their fearsome recklessness, their eagerness to die – so unlike orderly warfare with traditional armies. And what chance would these poor bastards have against what was out there?
He made a decision. What was here was worth saving. Those who were here…well, other than Fedelmid…were worth saving.
He held his stave over his head. “Viggo Haraldsson, I challenge you to single combat. Winner take all.”
Colum saw Viggo’s eyes change as a strange-looking character stepped up next to him and whispered in his ear. Their priest, or what passed for one with them. He showed Viggo a few stones – runes, Colum knew, probably being used now for fortune-telling. Viggo was being told whether the gods intended him to win or lose.
What was in Viggo’s eyes as he looked back at Colum gave the monk a surge of confidence. Surprise, for the first time. If his gods thought he would lose, all the better.
“I accept your challenge,” Viggo said.
Colum wasted no more words. He jumped down from barrel to barrel as the others watched silently. Suddenly the foolishness of his challenge occurred to him. I have no sword. No helmet. No shield.
Then, with a wicked grin, it occurred to him. Good thing I’m half pagan myself, he thought, picking up a hatchet from the chopping block and heading for the church. The hatchet itself was too small, its reach too short, to serve as an effective weapon in combat.
Inside, he headed for the large silver crucifix on the altar. To the gasps of the others, he picked it up. It was heavy, but not too bad, if you could get the base off. He laid it on the floor and raised the hatchet.
“Blasphemy!” Fedelmid shouted.
“Shut up,” Niall said.
Colum severed the base from the cross. He picked it up by what was now the hilt. Silver made a poor sword, but it was better than none, and at least the end was sharp where it parted from the base. Then it was the turn of the large Communion goblet, the one too big to actually use, donated by some guilt-ridden merchant. Again the hatchet fell and the stem was parted from the cup.
Colum put the jeweled cup on his head. It looked ridiculous, he was sure, but it fit, and so it was a helmet. He headed out for the gate.
“What about a shield?” Niall asked.
“What about it?” He’d thought about that, but what on earth did they have that would work? There was no time to think about it. “Open the gate.”
He walked out alone, feeling foolish. One of the warriors started to laugh at his preposterous appearance, but Viggo raised a hand. He too broke from the crowd, walking out to meet Colum.
“Do you think your god will protect you?”
“No,” Colum said. “I think a helmet will, though.”
Viggo smiled. “You don’t sound like much of a believer. What are you doing here, then?”
“I’m a scholar,” Colum said, surprising himself by saying out loud what he’d thought all his young life. “If I want to be a scholar, there is nowhere else for me to go.”
“So let us kill these Christians, and join us.”
It was Colum’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “Join the league of Viking scholars?”
Viggo laughed. “You could be the first. At least you wouldn’t spend your life arguing over exactly what day of the year your god rose from the dead.”
Colum was shocked. He knew about the endless theological dispute over the exact date of Easter…as if records were so precise eight hundred years ago that anyone could ever know.
“I’m not here to defend God. I’m here to defend…my friends. My home.”
Viggo’s eyes darkened. “Do you know why we raid monasteries?”
“Because that’s where the money’s at?”
“You know what the Franks have done to our people.”
Colum knew of Charlemagne’s homicidal mania, his burning desire to vaporize paganism, and pagans, from the face of the earth. “They destroyed Irminsul,” Colum said. “Your holy tree. They conquer your people, baptize them, then kill them anyway. Those who aren’t put to death are converted, and then put to death if they break any church rule, even if they only eat meat during Lent. The Franks wish to exterminate you rather than see you live as unbelievers. To you, killing Christians in turn is only fair. Especially if they have treasure.”
Viggo looked down at him from his great height, at least a head and a half taller than Colum, with those startlingly cool blue eyes, the whites so clear from a life of physical exertion, with none of the red, watery look of the heavy drinker. They seemed to pierce Colum’s soul more deeply than his sword ever could. Colum was scared – terrified – but even so, what was in those eyes made him want to never look away.
Finally Viggo broke the eye contact, and nodded. “You are indeed a scholar. But I will kill you nonetheless if you stand in our way.”
Colum nodded and raised his makeshift sword, rain dripping off his makeshift helmet into his eyes. “Here I stand.”
A murmur of approval went through the Vikings. They didn’t understand the words, but there was no need. One of them stepped forward – the seer, the man with the runes. He handed his shield to Colum.
Colum thought Viggo would stop him, but he knew that a Viking leader was not an autocrat. And perhaps he approved of the gesture himself.
Viggo unbuckled his sword, took a club from one of the others. At least it would be a fairer fight, Colum thought.
Until Viggo attacked, with unbridled ferocity. Only Colum’s shield, and his own firm frame, kept Viggo’s assault from succeeding instantly. But he knew he had one advantage, and that would be Viggo’s presumption – that a monk would have no fighting skills, no experience.
He would have only one chance to surprise Viggo. As he went to his knees under the assault, one arm singing with the shocks of the club’s pummeling of the shield, he swung his cross low, aiming for Viggo’s knee.
His aim was true. He heard the sharp sound as Viggo’s knee buckled. Viggo’s eyes widened as he fell to the ground. Then, with a look of pure anger that finally put true fear in Colum, he rose back to his feet, and with one blow and a great shout he smashed Colum’s shield to pieces.
Colum looked up at his death. Viggo’s face was that of the avenging angel whose advent had been so often promised…beautiful and deadly…
Then the club came down on his head.