Night has fallen; we are gathered round the fire. The old man who is the repository of our tribe’s history and lore begins to chant, slowly and softly at first, using the ancient tongue brought to this land by his ancestors. But we do not need to understand his words: we know the tales that he tells for the last time this night. Of how our tribe first came to this land, driven across the sea to escape persecution at the hands of our enemies. The desperate flight with the invaders at our heels, the anguish of leaving so many behind to face death or slavery, the razing of our homes and destruction of our way of life.
Our strongest survived the voyage across the unknown ocean, guided by the stars and the visions that our gods imparted to our spiritual leader. The gods were kind to us in those days and led us to a land of riches: plentiful animals to be hunted, fish in the rivers and sea, and fertile ground for our crops. We raised new homes and dedicated new sacred sites to our gods in thanks for our deliverance. Over many generations we grew in numbers and spread across this new land, but in all that time we never met other men: no other human tribes inhabited this place and we lived in peace.
But this soft life made us weak and complacent. We started to forget the old ways. We stopped visiting the sacred places and they were allowed to return to nature; we neglected our old gods. Like fruit left unharvested they withered and died, and we did not notice that we no longer had their protection until it was too late.
New people came across the sea from the North: strong, pale-skinned men in two long ships. At first we were fearful of them. It had been so long since we had had any contact with other humans that we had started to believe we were alone in the world. They were few and we approached them. They traded cloth and tools for food, restocking their provisions for their journey home. They did not linger on our shores and we thought little of their visit. Until they returned in their hundreds with fearsome beasts at the prows of their ships; ships filled with fierce warriors and iron swords.
They built a settlement by the shore where they had landed, using timbers from their ships to construct their halls and raising tall earth banks around to protect them. We realised then that they were here to stay. The returning traders had obviously told of the rich land across the sea and these Northmen wanted it for their own. We sent messengers to them bearing gifts and offering friendship; they demanded tribute and submission. Although we were many and they were few, we were weak and most of our tribe were afraid of the newcomers. We had abandoned our old gods, and they had now abandoned us, leaving us to our fate.
This small band now gathered around the fire is all of our tribe that remains free. The rest bent their knees and are ruled by the Northmen, worshipping their gods, obeying their commands, paying tribute to their lords. They are no longer free men. We stood against the invaders and many of us were slaughtered in battle or taken into slavery. Our warriors did not lack courage but could not overcome the strength and iron weapons of our foes. We survivors fled to the farthest reaches of this land, hoping that we could remain free. That was four summers ago.
Today we saw a band of Northmen scouting near our homes. We know it can only be a matter of days before they return in overwhelming numbers to destroy us in a final battle, so we are spending the time in recollection of our heritage, trying to summon back our old gods to support us. But few of us believe in the gods any more. The gods have forgotten us as we forgot them. We must face the enemy alone, and when we are gone none will remember who we were or where we came from: our gods and our tribe will be lost to the memories of men, and only the invaders from the North will remain here. It will be their land then to settle with their new gods and new ways. Perhaps they in their turn will be swept aside by a stronger people. That seems to be the way of things: either submit to those who are stronger than you, whether willingly or at the point of a sword, and become like them, or fight for your beliefs and way of life – fight to be your true self – and die proud and free.
Perhaps one day there will be a third way and all the different tribes of humans will find a way to live together in peace. But as long as the strong continue to simply take what they want from the weak that day will never come, and men will not be truly free: free from fear, persecution and harm. We will stand and fight to the death for our right to be free because we truly believe in it.