Archive for January, 2012

Chapter 20: Aberration

Posted in Uncategorized on January 31, 2012 by jeremiah james strawhand

Roger wore a large gold ring and I took it as proof of his death while my men finished off the rest of the guests and similarly robbed their belongings.   I looked the ring over and I realized that I had never truly looked at gold before and the vibrancy of it astonished me.  I was keenly aware of the ever-so-slight fluctuations of shade I assumed had been created by whatever the metal had been combined with to increase its strength.

The walls sighed a blood-soaked heaving sigh.

On our way out we threw the torches around the house and fled into the night.  Another tossed me a bag of coins and jewelry he had collected from the dead.

I turned back to look at the blaze to see that the shades of gold stood out among the infinitely minute reds and blues and greens, and it was beautiful.  I found that it reminded me of a time once that I had been talking to my father and as I looked at him, I was overcome with the feeling that I was seeing him in such a way as I had never seen him before.  There had been no profound change in him and nothing out of the ordinary had happened.    It was like I was simply seeing him from an angle I hadn’t encountered before, or with a light that never shone before.

I thought to ask him if he had experienced this …if he could relate to me.   I thought to ask him if there were two sides to every man as there are two sides to every story.   As I wondered if this was some skill I had somehow accidentally discovered the feeling faded as quickly as it had come on and, though I tried, I could never regain it, and I was again locked in my singular view, unable to escape.

Until now.

As I gazed into the inferno that had been the mansion I realized that this could be bliss or destruction.  This could be beauty or devastation.

Two sides to every coin, two outcomes to every story.

The smoke filled my nostrils and I told the First Three to go home, and my shadow image told them to stay and they went.

The lost souls of the recent dead swarmed around me and I told them to go home and my mirror image said stay, and they stayed.

I began to run home.  Back to Turtannus.  I stayed off the road.

The trees swayed and swerved and melted and whispered, and in my mind I could see myself running the other way…away from walls.  Away from Brand.  Away from Edwin and Marie.   I am suddenly aware of the tear in my armor…the tear in my flesh…where the neck meets the breast.

And my shadow self is unharmed.

Two sides of every coin.  Two outcomes to every story.  Two paths to every destination.

This divergence becomes obvious to me.  Becomes plain to me.  I can trace every path backward, but the one ahead is more difficult.  I can see a choice.  The same choices we all have.   Maybe Fate is not just one path.  Maybe everything is not decided.  Maybe each of the Norns has a separate plan for us, or maybe I’ve just slipped through the cracks.

I pull the ivory coffin out from under my shirt, where it has again made its home, and roll it between my thumb and forefinger.  Am I bound by this fate or are other fates bound to me?  Do I cut through this sea with my dragon’s head spewing fire before me or do I simply follow in its wake, drawn by a power greater than myself?

I continue through the forest and before long a breeze carries with it the familiar scents of the city.  The coal and wood burning.  The sex and the sweat.  The blood and the alcohol.  Even at night I can feel the warmth emanating from the thick stone walls.  I can smell a baby crying and a mother’s tears…and I laugh.  I stop and I laugh.  A long, howling laugh from somewhere deep in my gut and I’m doubled over with tears of my own streaming down my face and I can taste them in the corners of my broken grin.

And my mirror self just watches for a while, a smirk on his face, before melding into the shadow of a tall oak.

When I’ve regained my composure I walk around to the gate on the Old Turtannus side…there would be fewer questions there.

The gate guard looks at me as I approach and he recognizes me.

“Warlock,” he says, “we were hoping you were gone for good.  You’ll have to wait till the morning for me to open the gate.”

I wasn’t willing to take the risk of Reynard probing about my whereabouts so I bribed the guard with five gold coins to let me in and ten more to forget that I had come through.

By this time I was exhausted.  My body felt ready for collapse yet strangely kinetic.  I made my way as far as the stable where I had gutted the Fool and stopped a while to rest.

I laid my head down in the hay and watched it wriggle and squirm with life, but it didn’t bother me .  Soon I fell asleep.

When I woke up the sun was bright in the sky.  It was sometime after midday and I felt alright aside from some stiffness in my back and soreness where my armor had torn.

I pulled my cloak about me to hide my injury and went to pay a visit to Brand.

I walked into the usual dismal light of The Troll to find Brand upstairs, standing over a table where a man I hadn’t seen before was seated.  He was pointing and yelling but I couldn’t make out what he had said and he stopped when he saw me come through the door.  “We’ll finish this later,” he said to the man who had now turned to look at me, his eyes squinting in the darkness.

Brand walked over to me saying, “You look like shit, Warlock.  Sit down.  Have a…have a drink.”  There was a nervous note in his voice that I wasn’t accustomed to hearing.  He was usually brimming with confidence.

I took a seat at the bar and nodded at the barmaid who brought me my usual.

“You’re doing good, Kol…doin good…doin good,” Brand said as he patted me on the back.  “This was…uh…this was an important job.  That guy over there?  He thinks I should dispose of you.  Kill you in your sleep.  Poison your mead.  Something like that.”

I glanced at the drink in my hand and he chuckled, “Haha…don’t worry.  I think he’s wrong.  Those people you killed?  You said you wanted to know right?  That guy Roger?  He was the leader of the Turtannus Merchant’s Guild, which is just a fancy name for more crooks and thieves.   My competition…that’s all.  Only they paid enough to the guards and kings and dukes or whatever to become officially sanctioned.  Just more thieves in prettier clothes.  That bastard Reynard’ll be here any minute I’m sure.  Better hide you somewhere before he shows up.”

I handed him the ring I had taken from Roger’s dead hand and he rolled it over for a second before handing it back to me.

“I don’t want that, it’s all yours,” he said as he smiled and stood up, ushering me to the hidden basement door.

“I have somewhere to be,” I began, “I’ll stay out of trou…” and the door swung open and he pushed me inside.

“You’ll stay here until I tell you to leave.”

I’m tired…I’m always tired…and so I walk down the stairs where the large man waits before the door.

He stands up, checks me for weapons, and lets me through.

The door opens to an empty room.  The chandelier has only one candle lit and it casts a dim light over the room.   The empty chairs, the scarred table cast shadows across the old salt and blood stains.  Water drips down from a crack in the ceiling.

Drip.   Dripdrip.  Drip.  Dripdrip. Drip.

I walk across the room and lean against the corner, letting my back slide down the wall until my elbows are resting on my knees.

I can hear the door open upstairs followed by raised voices.  The ceiling between us makes it impossible to hear what is being said.  A minute later and he door at the top of the stairs opens and people come scrambling down and I swallow Roger’s ring.  A second after that the door bursts open.

I don’t look up.

I hear Reynard’s voice saying, “I knew the ugly bastard was in here somewhere,” and the blood haze is creeping in.

Brand is here too and he says, “Tell him to fuck off, Kol.  You’ve been here all ni…oohh,” and I look up to see him falling on the floor.

Reynard says, “I know that’s not true.  I know you were outside of the city.  You think a little bit of gold will buy your way out of this, you’re seriously fucking mistaken.”

He walks over to me and puts his hand under my chin to force my eyes to meet his.

Take your hand off me…and I clench my teeth.  Take your hand off me.

“I know you did it, Warlock.  Maybe you’re fine with being this sonofabitch’s errand boy, but not on my watch.”

I say nothing.

Brand scrambles back to his feet and wipes the blood from his mouth with the back of his sleeve saying, “I don’t think you know who you’re fucking with, Captain.”

Breathe, Kol.

Reynard turns to look at him and then back to me.  “What?  This piece of shit?”  He brings his hand back to punch me and I stand up, and he shrinks back.

I don’t say anything.

He looks at me for a long minute and says, “How’d you get so fuckin’ ugly?”

And I say something… “My mother was raped and murdered.  I was lucky enough to see it happen.”

He doesn’t know what to say.  He stutters.  “I…I ahh.”

“It was a long time ago.  You don’t have to say anything.”  And my face is a shattered stone mask.

Reynard looks back at his men and makes a motion with his hand and they come up and start to search me.

They pat me down and one of them feels the armor there and tells me to open my shirt, so I do.

It’s a mess.  I’m covered in blood and exposed bone glistens through.

“What the hell?  You see this shit captain?”

“Yeah I see it.  What’s the deal Warlock?  Let me guess, you fell.”

So I laugh and I tell him that I fell and he walks up and jams his finger into the wound on my chest.

I don’t flinch.

I grab his hand and push it away.

“I fell.  I was walking through the woods and I tripped over a stump.  It wasn’t healed yet and it tore open.  That’s all.”

The men finish searching me and find nothing.  No weapons.  No clues.  Just me, laughing and bleeding.

I glance at Brand and he winks.

Reynard says, “I know you did this, Warlock.  And I’m gonna watch you burn.  Your time is almost up.”

He turns and walks away.

Chapter 19: Tower of Bone

Posted in Uncategorized on January 4, 2012 by jeremiah james strawhand

After our battle with the Koli, the ones that were left were as terrified of me as my kin were.   We walked into their villages and they came out of their homes, offering us their jewels and gold, their daughters and sons.  We razed one village to the ground with the people trapped inside because they didn’t give us enough.  We herded them into the largest hut and shut the door and set it ablaze.

The blood haze waited just on the edge of my vision and out of the corners of my eyes it identified everyone as an enemy.

Everyone.

Then we watched the screaming fire turn to ash and some of the men were laughing and drinking.  A woman tried to escape, her hair wild forked tongues of orange and red.  She broke through one of the walls and ran and then there was an arrow through her leg and she was pushed back into the fire.  Her horrified eyes met mine for a split second before she became one with the flames.

And I felt nothing at all.  Not happy, not sad, neither unrepentant nor remorseful.  Just…vacant.  Matter-of-fact.  A way of life, nothing more.  I began to wonder if there would come a time when I would no longer be able to distinguish the lines between when I should and shouldn’t care.  When I could and could not.

When the hut was nearly demolished I noticed, for the first time, that the image of a serpent consuming itself had been etched into one of the eaves.  I recognized the symbol as that of Jormungandr, the world serpent, and wondered if he protected this place.  If so, we were surely doing the work of Thor, and that was enough to make me happy for a moment.  I smiled as the walls made their final collapse and some charred bones poked up out of the rubble.

We stayed in the area for a week or so, travelling from village to village, collecting valuables and slaves, and always asking about the tower of gold, but never finding it.

Eventually the boats were full of bloodied and beaten slaves or piled with gold and precious stones and weapons and we set sail back north up the river.

I was in the boat with the elder this time and as we went up the river the Koli started to appear on the banks again.  They wore their masks and face paint and waved their spears.   They beat on drums and danced an evil dance.

After a time, their numbers began to thin out and eventually there was just one and he stood on an island in the middle of the river, naked except at the waist and with a short stick in his hand.   He didn’t watch as the boats in front of ours passed, he just looked straight ahead.  Straight at me it seemed, or straight through me.  A boat full of slaves passed by him, pleading and crying and he did not waver.

As our boat neared, the rhythmic, wave-like drums began again, from players unseen.  The beat quickened and soon it became a frenzied rush of noise.  Our boat passed and the single man turned to follow us with his gaze.  When we were about five boat lengths away, he put the stick to his mouth and the drums stopped.  A moment later, the elder put a hand to his neck and pulled out a tiny arrow, and the man disappeared into the brush.

The elder jabbed the dart into the side of the boat as he muttered something under his breath.

Within an hour, he said he wasn’t feeling well.

Within two, he was puking and shitting blood and the boat of slaves near us was silent as the grave.

And then he was dead.

Someone sounded a horn and we pulled the boats off onto the nearest bank and made a solemn camp.

Men were stationed on the perimeter in case of attack, but no attack came.

A boat was lined with sticks and reeds and a bed of furs was made in it.  Someone had begun sewing the elder new clothes for the afterlife, but the elder’s son feared attack and procured some relatively untarnished ones for him.   The elder’s nails were cut close, lest Naglfar find us soon, and his beard and hair were trimmed.  The boat was loaded with gold and riches and a saddle and stirrups and all the elder’s weapons and armor.   Two of the new slave girls were made to drink mead until they were drunk and led to sit in the boat and finally the elder was laid on the furs, his hands folded across his chest.  A bonfire raged on the shore and the sparks and embers floated into the night as the boat was pushed out.   Three men lined up behind the fire with their bows drawn, and when the boat had floated about three lengths out, they fired their resin-soaked arrows through the bonfire and lit the funeral boat ablaze.

The slave girls shackled to the boat screamed and howled and the ones on the shore wailed and wept.

The men stood stoically and watched as the ship was consumed and the flames slowly sunk beneath the water and I fell asleep against a tall tree, as the bonfire died.

I was awoken in the pre-dawn by a commotion and I opened my eyes to see that a group of my kinsmen surrounded me.  They all talked at once until the elder’s son, the new chief, stepped forward saying, “Both our fathers are dead, and you are to blame.  That dart that killed my father was meant for you, and we don’t want you here anymore.  Go, now, before you bring more bad luck upon us.”

I looked at the men assembled there, some whom I had known my entire life.  Some I had grown up with, and they all seemed to have grown old overnight, their faces heavy and dark.

I said nothing as I stood and gathered my things.

I contemplated destroying them all…but I knew that was not the answer, and I knew they were no threat to me.  They were afraid of the consequences that killing me might entail.  They were afraid of the demon’s black blood that supposedly burned in my veins.

I owned nothing more than my implements of war.  A sword, an axe, some mismatched armor.   I looked over the armor and kept only the chainmail shirt I sometimes wore, and the weathered shield I rarely used.

Oddr, a man I had barely known, came up to me as I prepared to leave and handed me a small bag of coins.  He said he wished me luck, and that he hoped to someday avoid my vengeance, if it ever came to that.

I slung the shield and axe across my back and Thursbanr at my side and walked away without looking back, so that no one might see the tears that welled in my eyes.  Loss…you know.

Sometimes even the raging bear feels the loss that separation brings.