Chapter 17: Broken

Chapter 17: Broken

Ulfr had thrown me over his shoulder and carried me home.  Beaten, bloodied and broken, maybe, but with a different persective.

This gift of anger, this seething rage and cutting steel, it had its limitations.

I spent the trip home fading in and out of consciousness.  When he wasn’t yelling at me to hold on, he was filling my head with spoken knowledge of swordplay.  When to strike and when to defend, what to do against an opponent bigger or stronger than you and against one faster.   When to run.  When to hold fast.  How to flank a unit of archers and how to beat an opponent on horseback.  So many things I hadn’t ever even considered and I wondered if I could ever master them all.

My strength, he said, my determination and my abandon might be enough to beat most opponents but not all.  Skill trumps strength.  Skill trumps speed and aggression.  I had the potential to be a great warrior…among the best, but I had to learn to temper my energy with skill and knowledge.

We arrived home and there was no one to greet me, and no one to care if I was ok.

When I had recovered, we did it again.  And again.  And again.  Each time I got a little bit better.  A little bit closer to victory.  Each time I learned from my mistakes and I didn’t repeat them.  The rage and the blood haze…each time I learned a little bit more control.  A rampaging beast is of no use to anyone.  An angry bull will occasionally turn on the cows it aims to protect and have to be put down.

Once…maybe just once…I want to be the hero.

Slowly…a little bit at a time…I transformed from a liability into an asset and my body transformed into a tangle of old scars and fresh wounds.  After a month I was able to stumble home on my own.  After three I could jog.

Once…maybe just once…I want to be someone’s shining knight.

There came a day when I was sure my skill had surpassed my master’s.  I ran to meet him in the field of blood flowers and he was nowhere to be found.  I waited and waited and waited until the sun began to set and still there was no sign of him.  I went home sullenly and found that he had been by my house while I was gone and left a note with my father.

“I can train you no further, Kol.  I wish you luck.

Ulfr.”

That was it.  And I never saw him again.

Maybe just once…I’d like to know that everything isn’t going to end in the blink of an eye.

The spring came quickly after that and the men began preparing for another raid.  This time we were headed south along the big river to find the brown men, the Koli, that lived in the deserts.  It was said they had towers of gold that reached the clouds and their women were strong and beautiful.

I spent a few days cleaning my armor and sharpening my weapons and the next thing I knew the men were loading the boats with food and supplies and hugging their friends and families goodbye.

I was put into a different ship than my father this time, and none of the men talked to me, and no one waved goodbye.

We sailed out into the ocean, and then turned east to meet the mouth of the big river.  This far north the water was still freezing cold and off in the distance ice floes could be seen shifting here and there.  We reached the big river and one by one our ships turned south.  As we passed through the mouth a red spot appeared on the ice along the bank and it grew as we watched, its tiny tendrils creeping along in crystalline patterns.   After it grew to a certain point, about as big as a wagon, the center started to melt and cave in and we all watched in awe as it crumbled into itself.

Someone said it was an ill omen but the ships kept sailing two by two through the mouth of the river.    I turned to look around just as the spot disappeared and a carcass floated up through the hole and from here, it looked as if it was swarming with flies.

We picked up speed as we caught the prevailing wind and the river opened up and the men started to talk a little bit more.  One of them, Oddr, said that a Koli had come to the village and tipped us off about the tower of gold; that he had sold out his own people and that he hadn’t wanted anything in return.  He said he guessed it was about a woman and laughed and the rest of the men laughed too, but I noticed as he glanced back towards the mouth of the river that there was no joy in his face.   Our eyes met for a second and he turned away, spitting into the water.

A week down the river and the weather was getting warmer and the grass was getting greener.  We saw a few of the Koli here and there and it looked to me like they wouldn’t have any gold at all.  The ones we saw were old and hobbled and barely wore any clothes or jewelry or even shoes.

Some gathered on the river banks as we passed by and yelled things I couldn’t understand.  Oddr said that they were telling us to go home and threatening us with curses.  He couldn’t understand them either, he said, except for a few words.

The further down river we went, the more of them appeared, and the quieter they became.  Some of them had painted faces at first and then some of them had masks and shields and spears.  The men started to pull on their armor and shields and I did the same.  Not five minutes later, the lead boat sounded a horn and the boats began to dock along the eastern bank of the river in a clearing.  Some of the Koli had gathered here and they moved only far enough to allow the boats to dock without being run over.

When most of the boats had docked, the Koli started to bang their shields and spears together or clap their hands, or stomp their feet, one by one, like a rolling wave, and the sound produced a dizzying effect.

I ran to catch up to my father who was consulting with the elder as I approached, saying, “Hey, hey, what’s going on?” he turned around and pushed me backwards onto the ground and at that exact same moment, the noise stopped.

A second later a spear whizzed through the air, impaling one of the men, and then they were just everywhere.  We were surrounded and I leapt to my feet, and the blood haze crept in and my toes and fingertips boiled.  I meant to run to them but they ran to us.  I cut them down like the reeds along the river bank and they bent and crumpled all around me.

I had gotten separated from my father and I as I tried to find him, one of them tried to sneak up behind me.  I heard his breath, I smelled his blood.  I felt his bare footsteps in the sodden earth and I turned to strike, Thursbanr coming down across his shoulder and cutting through to his sternum as the top half of his torso kind of peeled away.  I turned again and just as I did so I saw one of the Koli driving an axe through my father’s face.  I watched as his eyes went dim and the blood poured out of his nose and mouth.  Instantly, reflexively, I threw my own axe and the Koli that had taken him suffered the same fate, but I felt the same.  Devastated?  Relieved?  Free?

Right now, angry would serve me best, and so I embraced it, and I became that raging beast.   As the corpses piled up around me, I eventually became aware that none of my people were even fighting anymore.  They were just watching me slaughter these poor brown men…one by one, or three by three, or ten by ten.  It didn’t matter.  Some of them tried to throw their spears, some of them threw rocks or shot darts.  One of them blew a sparkling dust in my face…and there was just no way I was ever going to stop.  My heart felt ready to burst and my veins burned and I breathed like a raging bear and I had suffered countless wounds, but I maintained control, and they just kept dying.

No challenge, here.  None at all, and I spit and threw away my weapons.  And still they kept coming and I broke their bones and I shattered their skulls and I cracked their ribs.  Some that lay moaning on the ground beneath me tried to trip me and I ground their hands into bloody chunks of bone.

Eventually one came, and he had no weapons, and he had no armor.  His face was painted and his hair stood on end in a crazy spiral.  He entered into my pit of death and he nodded to me and then he came at me.  He was fast, but I was faster.  He was strong, but I was stronger.  He drew blood, but I drew life, and I watched as he coughed his final cough and bled out into the soil, atop the bodies of his friends and family.

And I turned to find that my kin had registered in my mind as the enemy, and what was funny about it was that it wasn’t me losing control. I fell backwards, exhausted, landing on a pile of soft flesh and jagged bone, and closed my eyes.

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