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Fiction by J. Leslie Adams

Everyone seeks an ultimate reward. Whether it is love, success, wealth, power, longevity, status or something else, the goal is a hunger for something unachieved more often than not. Edward the monk dreamed of a simple prize, one with no monetary value but every bit as coveted. He aspired to understand. 2

Edward stood on the cliff where the path from his village began its twisting descent to the sea. It was an uncommon morning. The brazen sun washed everything before him in pure and dazzling light. He swept his eyes across the sharp horizon, searching again for the flash. They had come two years before. He knew they always returned, to places marked by the easy riches they had taken. The people fled to the hills and left everything behind. The men from the ships that shine on the

sea took the gold crosses and silver vessels from the church, the worthwhile goods from the houses, and they killed the animals they could not steal. All they left were fly-covered carcasses and burned-out homes. Something caught his eye. The monk searched the far-off line again. He thought there was a tiny dot to the north, but it disappeared. The people always came back and rebuilt. They went to other towns and farms to replenish what they needed. It took some time,

but the flocks and herds grew again, and the roof men made repairs, the masons worked hard. Everyone soon prospered. The dragon ships did not return the following year. This day was his to watch the sea. The last time had been near a saint’s day, whose name he could not recall. But that had been winter, and he knew they never came in that rough season. Now it was late in the growing time, and the harvest was in a few weeks. It was a time to be cautious and to watch for raiders with a keen eye. 3

A sudden movement startled him, left, above the point of rock that swept like a finger straight out to sea. A pole swayed back and forth. Edward turned and fixed on the spot. A mast and crossbar! A boat was coming! He heard the dip and splash of oars. Then a first boat appeared at the point and began to round the rocks. Behind it appeared a second and a third boat, each prow cursed with a dragon’s head! The monk rushed headlong to the village to warn that the Northmen had returned! 4

The old-timers and children were first to flee. The able-bodied, men and women rushing in and out of the houses, filled carts and hung their goods on the backs of their beasts. Edward the monk helped a few of them before he went to the church and carefully

hid the crosses and his vestments in a chamber he had prepared behind a cellar stone. Then he went into his larder, selected two corked crocks of fired and glazed earthenware and carried them to the front of the sanctuary. By the time he stepped out of the church

the village was emptied of all souls but his own. They came soon enough, but the monk prayed constantly to salve his anxiety. When he saw them they had formed a column, ragged to the rear, six in line at its head. He figured there were over a hundred men, all carrying their round metal shields that flashed in the sunlight like they shined when hung on the gunwales of their boats at sea. Some were bareheaded. Some wore dull helmets. All had long hair, dark, red and some the color of fresh5

cut wood. Their thick fur boots and leggings stirred the road dust and he saw the tips of spears and pikes above their heads. A big man seemed to turn and shout them forward. Edward stood in the middle of the village street. He had the two jugs at his feet, his arms near his sides, and his hands formed a prayer at his chin. He must have been a sight to behold when the raiders came upon him. The monk was portly, short and hairless. He stood hoodless in his coarse brown robe, tied at his 6

waist with rope, and the oversize cloak touched the dirt beneath his sandals. His arms gave up the prayer and he stretched his hands away from him, in a gesture of welcome that may also have been a sign of the cross. As the pillagers approached, he stood silent and unmoving. They slowed when they saw the monk and their leader stepped forward, away from the rank of armed men, who now began to break apart and cautiously peer through windows and doors along the street. A thinner man

who carried a huge axe stepped from the center of the group and joined the leader. They halted only fifty paces from Edward and his crocks. The larger spread his feet and squared his shoulders at Edward. The other, a leaner, taller man stood sideways toward his leader, his battleaxe at the read in both his hands. Edward began to voicelessly recite the Lord’s Prayer. “Who are you?” The axewielder shouted in Edward’s own tongue!

I shall not want… Unwilling to interrupt his invocation, the monk licked his dry lips and remained motionless. The raiders were entering the houses, weapons first, and he heard the clatter and bang of looting. He maketh me to lie down… “What are you doing here?” The one who spoke the Gael tongue yelled. A Northman leaped from a doorway with a bed cloth and spread it on the ground. Then he returned through the door and

brought out an armful of metal wares and dumped them on the blanket. The monk hurried to finish his plea to God. His blood surged with such force from his racing heart that he forgot the last stanza and surrendered his reply in a cracking voice. “I welcome you, brothers, to my village.” They glared back at him and looked around as if they suspected a trap. Most of the raiding band had gone to work and paid the monk no notice. Edward saw that they all had found cloths

to use for sacking their booty. A cacophony of sounds echoed up and down the village. Metal and glass tinkled. Wood was rendered and ripped from nails. Furnishings were tipped and shoved across floors. The big man said something to the other, and the speaker stepped half the distance to Edward. He stopped and squinted at the monk then gestured with the tip of his axe at Edward. “Why have you not run away?” Edward gained his courage and felt a comfort in the man’s 7

question. They had not rushed to kill him, and that was a sign that calmed him, too. “I am a man of God. I am not afraid. It is my duty to welcome you and offer prayers on your behalf.” Curious that a Northman knew the Irish tongue, he became the questioner. “Tell me, please, how do you know our speech?” The man hesitated and looked back at his leader. The big man stood where he had stopped and slowly shook his head as the 8

interpreter relayed Edward’s greeting in the lilting language of the boatmen. When he turned back to Edward, the monk spoke first again. “Are there Northmen who speak the Gael?” “I am from these islands. I was taken with them as a boy. So I know how to say your words and theirs.” “Tell your head man that I am a man of peace and no danger to you.” The armed man turned and spoke to the helmeted leader,

and the big man walked forward to the interpreter’s side. He said something and the axe-bearer translated for Edward. “He is called Aalgard the Broad and I am Harald. He wishes to know your name.” “I am Edward the monk.” The speaker repeated it to Aalgard, who sniffed and wiped his nose against his thick shoulder. He carried a sword as wide as his hand and the length of an axe handle. It floated in his grip like a feather. “Is there gold in the church?”

Edward had held his arms outstretched and he brought them to his chest with his palms up in a sign of supplication. “Boatmen came two years ago and took everything,” he said. “We only have simple goods here. You may take what you find and God be with you.” “We have many gods. We don’t need yours to help us,” the interpreter said. Edward decided it was not the right time to spread the gospel among these heathens, so he offered his long-planned invitation

to the armed men who could have cut him down without hesitation. The appearance of the interpreter was a miracle, because he knew the Northmen despised priests and had plundered monasteries wherever they found them for hundreds of years. Always, the aftermath was a complete slaughter of the monks. He stood alone, and that was different. He presented them with a mystery and that made them pause. “Will you accept the wonderful drink of our village?” Edward slowly leaned over to 9

slip a finger through the carryhole of one jug. He lifted it and the weight of its contents strained his back. With the other hand he twisted out the cork. The leader cocked his head at the thin one and mumbled something. “What is this drink?” “Our people make it here. It is sought after all over the island. It is called ‘usquebaugh,’ the water of life. We share it when our men sit down to talk.” Again the interpreter relayed his message and the headman 10

changed his demeanor. His eyes fixed on the jug and he stepped forward. The other followed close beside, still holding his axe at the ready. “Do not fear me,” Edward said in a calm voice. “Taste this and let us be at peace.” “Let him have the vessel,” the thin one said. Close-up, the monk saw that he was much younger than his chieftain. His woolen tunic and fox vest made him seem older at first, and the monk noticed a recent cut on one of his arms.

Aalgard snatched the crock from Edward and brought it up to his lips. “Tell him to sip, not swallow too much at once. It is very strong and will burn the throat.” The interpreter cautioned his leader, who directed one eye at Edward and tipped the whisky jug. Immediately, his eyebrows shot up to his forehead and he nearly spit. “It is difficult to make this brew, but it has many charms.” Edward bowed to lift the other jug and the interpreter’s axe came 11

close to his hand. He carefully brought it up and handed it to the man. “Please. Take a taste. It calms the heart and soothes the soul. It makes pain and injury more bearable. We even use it to clean sores and cuts. I see you have a wound.” The interpreter glanced at his arm. The monk stepped cautiously close and took the hem of his own sleeve in his fingers. He held his other hand out to the second jug. “Let me clean your wound. It will heal faster.” 12

The interpreter let him have the whisky. Edward splashed a small amount of liquid onto his sleeve and softly rubbed it in a circle around the two-inch cut. Then he pressed the cloth to the redness and the man jerked but Edward held his arm long enough for the whiskey to sear the open flesh. “It will only hurt for a moment. Don’t touch it. It will heal well.” The axe remained at the man’s side. His leader had taken several swigs of whisky, and licked his lips and sighed. He told

the interpreter to ask the monk something. “Aalgard wants to know how you make the drink.” “Let’s go sit in the sanctuary and I’ll tell you,” Edward said, and they followed him to the stone church. On the way the leader shouted a command over his shoulder. Edward led them to seats in a simple wooden pew and many of the men followed them, gathering around the jugs and the monk. He began, “We make ale every harvest time. Long ago, when

some of the brew went bad, my people would boil it in a large copper vessel with a narrow spout on top. They collected the steam at the end of the spout and let it cool. Then they stored it in wooden casks. In a few years it was a worthy drink, much like this. Later, they began to make the brew especially for this purpose, and they now roast the barleycorns over peat smoke. The smoke gives it that flavor, like the smell of wood and leather.” “How much do you have?” The interpreter relayed his leader’s

question. The jugs began to pass from hand to hand and soon all the men had sampled the liquor. “This is all. It will be weeks until we can harvest our barley and make more.” He spoke back to Aalgard, who wrinkled his face and asked another question. “He wants to know when there will be more of the drink so we can come back for it.” “The summer has been hot and dry. There will not be enough to make much whisky. The people will need the grain for bread. But

I have a solution, if you will let me explain.” The interpreter nodded. “I have heard that you plant barley in your home islands north of the land of Scots. If you have more grain than you need, bring it here in your boats and my people will make the drink for you.” “Your people fear us. They would run to the hills.” “Ah. You are wrong! We will be happy to make the drink if you trade for it in peace. People come from villages and towns all over this island to trade goods for it.” 13

“Trade?” Edward raised a slight hand. “That is what it is called. You bring grain and we give you the drink we make from it. We will keep a little of the barley here as payment.” Harald explained to his leader and the men watched Aalgard for his reaction. One of the jugs had come back to his hands. He pondered the offer and took another sip. Edward wondered how much the man had swallowed by then. “If you agree, we may live in 14

peace that way. You will gain much more from our village than a few trinkets every couple years.” The interpreter spoke to Aalgard, who nodded and sipped. The monk explained to them that too much of the brew would make them unable to walk, and they should not drink it like beer or ale. His admonition fell on deaf ears, and within a short time they were all showing the effects of the drinking. When the sun fell they had managed to stumble back to the street and gather their spoils for the walk to the boats.

Aalgard had maintained his command bearing and ordered the raiders to leave their loot where it lay. He announced to Edward through Harald that they would send boats in two full moons to trade grain for the drink. He said that the village must provide casks, but the vessels would be returned the following year with a new cargo of grain. When the longboats came, they would not plunder the houses or steal animals, but he cautioned against a trap to catch his boatmen off guard.

Edward promised to keep his word. “We shall be at peace from this day on. I offer my head as your guarantee.” “We will take these with us,” the interpreter said and he tapped the two half-emptied jugs. Edward the monk walked with them to the edge of the village and from there he watched the raiders go over the cusp of the road near the cliff. When they were gone he began the long trek to the hills where his people had sought refuge. Along the climbing

trail he thought about what he had achieved that day. Edward had dreamed of a simple prize, one with no monetary value but every bit as coveted. He began to understand.

Fiction by J. Leslie Adams ©2005 Cover headline: Charlemagne 72 pt. Body text: Cochin 12 pt.


The Gift of Barleycorn  
The Gift of Barleycorn  

An illustrated short story, this is my first experiment with issuu. I did it in Adobe InDesign in three hours, saved as a PDF at the High Qu...