Archive for the A Story About Blood Category

Chapter 16: A promise

Posted in A Story About Blood, Blood on September 19, 2011 by jeremiah james strawhand

http://astoryaboutblChapter 16: A Promise I left the Troll’s Breath again, the midday sun again blinding me to the filth that surrounded me. With enough light even the most dismal spot in the darkest corner can seem warm and inviting. In the right light, anything can be beautiful. A bag of coins jingled at my hip. Am I a monster by necessity or choice? No…certainly not by choice. No one chooses this kind of life. And again I feel the Norns plucking at my puppets’ strings. There is no life that will not come to an end and I consider myself a soul collector, although my collection is not my own. I imagine them swirling through some ethereal soup, a mess of color swarming through the air around us. If I could just see through this veil that separates our world from theirs…if I could just reach out and touch them to know that they are still there. To let them feel the breath of life just one more time before they find their way to the other realms…to hold their hands and let them know that they are not alone. Not abandoned. Sometimes I wonder if the things that I feel are truly my own, or if they are just a learned reaction to a situation. A cause and effect. The puppy dies, the child cries. A cause and effect. Something I learned, unlearned, and learned again, this reaction, and yet it seems that those who hold on most dearly, those who kick and fight and claw, are the very same that were too terrified of life to begin with. I throw my head back and my arms out and take a deep breath of sunshine. This time I walked out with not only a bag of coins, but another job. This time I would do it perfectly. No hesitation. No second thoughts. And then I would tell Brand that there would be no more jobs without knowing why. I owed myself that. I had to know ‘why.’ There is always a reason, even if an unlikely one. There is always a cause that predates an effect. My first victim…the only reason for his death was that he resembled someone else through my child’s eyes. The only reason for his death was being at the wrong place at the wrong time but that, still, is a reason. I hurried through the gates of Old Turtannus and told the guard I had business with Edwin. Time to repay an old debt. I barely felt the metal there anymore although that’s not to say it wasn’t everpresent: I had just become accustomed to it. A hundred tiny needles jabbing at my leg with every step. How much can we learn to live with? How much can we endure before we find ourselves broken? Soon I found myself staring down the once-familiar tree-lined street. Edwin’s shop sat in the middle of the block. The roof and fence still looked good, but the yard looked like a jungle. How long had it been? A month? A year? Two? Five? It becomes difficult to keep track of time when every day begins and ends the same. So many people struggle for this familiarity…this certainty…when all it does is eat their souls away. A little bit of chaos makes every day worth living. As I walked up to the house, a blonde-haired young lady in a blue dress burst through the red door and slammed it behind her. The door opened again and Edwin yelled “Marie, please!” She turned to answer him and stumbled backwards into me. I put my hands on her shoulders to stop her from falling and she turned to push me away saying, “Take your hands off of…” and then “Oh…it’s you.” “Hi,” I said, “Can I come in?” We three sat around the dinner table for a while eating a modest meal and drinking inexpensive wine. Four years it had been since we sat here, together. Me and my replacement family. Marie, the little sister I never had and Edwin, the wise old grandfather. Four years since I ran from this place to find my own way. Four years that I had spent living in filth and poverty. And yet every star will find a way to shine. They were broke. The house was in shambles and they had no customers. They were forever stained by protecting me and even my leaving didn’t change anything. Marie was ready to run off to some other city, some other country, to find a new place, a new life. After dinner I gave Edwin the bag of coins I had gotten from Brand. Half to repay my debt, and half to continue the procedure. I wanted the armor on my neck and shoulders, and covering my heart. Soon, I said, it would be of use to me. I had three days till my next job. So that night I willingly laid on the blood-stained table there in that cold back room while that familiar lantern swung on its chain, and I felt like I was home. The cutting, the stitching, the feel of cold metal. I drank to ease the pain. I looked over at Marie, in her blue dress streaked with blood and I remembered the day, years ago, when I had knocked her to the floor. The images side by side in my mind. I could see her putting her hand to her head in the place where it had hit the shelf and I can see her now, looking at me and wondering what I’m thinking. My eyes grew tired and my vision began to fade. “He’s losing too much blood,” she said, “I can see it in his eyes. You’d better hurry.” “Just about finished, my dear. Just one….more,” and I could feel the skin in my neck and chest suddenly pull tight,”…and…done!” I glanced at Edwin who smiled at me, his hands glistening red and a long needle poking out. “Go to sleep, my friend. We’ll take care of you.” And so I did. And I dreamt I was a hero. And I dreamt I saved the girl. And I dreamt I was in love. And I dreamt happily ever after. But all dreams must come to an end and I awoke to an intense burning in my chest and neck. My head was swimming and I could barely move. Marie was by my side with a bowl of water that she was using to clean the wound. When she noticed I was awake she said, “You’ve gotten an infection. Just take it easy. Are you hungry?” “No…what day is it…what time is it?” I asked as I struggled to see if any sun shone in. “It’s Thursday…Midday,” she said as she squeezed some water out of the bowl onto my chest. Of course it was. Of course I had slept until hours before my next job only to find myself in this miserable state. “I have to leave in a few hours, and I need you to make that happen. Do whatever you have to do, but I need to be able to walk out of here.” “I’m guessing if I tell you that if you get up and move around too much any time soon, you could die won’t dissuade you, huh?” she paused and frowned. “Marie, trust me when I tell you that if I had a choice, I’d stay right here. What did you two do to me?” “Nothing different than last time…Edwin thinks that because we did more this time your body was less willing to accept it. It’s trying to force it out…but it can’t. We grafted to your bones this time. It ain’t going anywhere.” To demonstrate she grabbed her arm by the wrist and shook it. “Will you be alright for a few minutes? I’ll run to the apothecary. Master is out on business, but he should be back tomorrow.” I nodded and she slipped out the door, the lantern swung gently and I closed my eyes again… I awoke to her shaking me saying , “Kol, Kol, wake up. It’s almost dark,” and I opened my eyes to find that the world seemed somehow different. Colors were brighter and crisper; sounds, more distinct. I sat up and the sensation seemed to take a second longer to catch up with the action. I stretched and yawned and felt like I had just awoken from the most peaceful sleep ever. “I gave you the medicine already. The chemist said it should take about a half an hour and you’ll feel better than ever,” she said as she handed me a small bottle. “Drink some of this if it starts to hurt again.” I leapt to the floor and, again, it felt like my mirror image was lagging slightly behind me. This is perfect. My mission tonight was a little different. I was attacking a heavily guarded man, and there would be no way to sneak in and out. It was a frontal assault. As I threw on my shirt and walked sideways to the door I realized that I wasn’t me anymore. Just some caricature of myself, going through the motions. A puppet of a puppet of a puppet. Maybe worse. Maybe better? No controls. “Kol,” a voice said and I spun around, a kaleidoscopic display in my wake, “Be careful.” And I found Marie hugging me, and I didn’t know how to react, but it felt good. I just stood there for a minute, staring at the wall and she backed up to look at my face, saying, “Holy shit…what did I give you? Are you ok?” I nodded but I was having a hard time grasping what was going on. The walls were breathing. The floor was crawling. Everything was alive. “I have to go now,” I mumbled, and as I walked out the front door I noticed an unusual spring in my step. I was ready to take on the world and my mirror image lagged a half step behind me. I made my way to the main gate quickly and the guard let me out. They didn’t really care who left or why and I guess he was happy to see me go. I avoided eye contact and moved slowly. When I stepped out into the world outside Turtannus, I became acutely aware of the feeling that I had never been there before. The world rushed at me and the lights streaked across the sky. The moon’s chest rhythmically rose and fell. I took a deep breath of the cool night air through someone else’s lungs. I headed west towards the old road. It wasn’t far but I kept getting distracted by a flower, by a star, by a blade of grass or a rock. Around the edges of my vision the blood haze crept in in undulating waves. I had to force it away, too early. I’d be exhausted before I found my mark. I reached the burnt out house on the old road and three figures stood in the dark on the hill and the moon cast long shadows that danced in stillness. I turned onto the road and noticed that the figures followed me. Slowly at first, but quickening as I quickened. No time for you. They stuttered and mumbled behind me. I couldn’t understand their alien language. They fluttered and stumbled behind me. Their footsteps sounded like a herd of cattle or horses. They were running now about to overtake me and I turned to face them and draw my weapon…had I forgotten to take one? No worries, I threw off my cloak and I couldn’t help but notice how it twitched. The three stopped short and one of them said “Kol? What are you doing? Why are you running? You’re going the wrong way.” The blood haze had taken over while I wasn’t paying attention but it was different. All energy and no fury. I realized that standing before me were One, Another, and Another Still: the dockhands I had run into after taking care of the fool and I remembered that I had asked them to accompany me. What good is building an army if you don’t utilize it? Control yet no control. This wispy world of shadow and star streaked sky, of audible heartbeats and tangible breath. “Right,” I said, in a voice that wasn’t mine, “Lead on.” And so I followed these three for what seemed like ever, and I wondered that we had not yet found the dawn. I coughed hard and sprayed green infection from my lungs. It burned and I stumbled and fell. The First Three stopped to see if I was ok and I took the bottle out of my pocket and drank some. Such a small bottle and I drank the rest. I threw it against a rock and it lit the world up in a million shimmering fragments. We kept walking for a little while as I ground my teeth to dust and then suddenly I felt nauseous. I stopped and threw up on a passing turtle who scuttled into the underbrush. I threw up again and I could taste the bitter fluid in my throat. One more time and I wiped my mouth, feeling better. When I stood up this time, there was…there was no sense in the world. Everything was upside down or sideways…or…I couldn’t even tell you. Everything was wrong. And these men in front of me? I didn’t even know them. I don’t even know who I am…this mass of flesh and bone and hair and metal and leather. This old skin tied to this liquid skeleton, melting through the dirt, eating through the grass. I oozed over the crest of a hill and someone was putting something in my hand. A sword, I think, or maybe an axe or a broom. I leaned on it like a crutch and I could feel it too, melting into the earth. I fell over and hit my head on a rock and the blood haze flickered: red, green, red, green and then stabilized. I stood up again and picked up my oar and looked down the hill towards a mansion lit with many torches and the whole thing glowed red. Enemy, enemy, enemy, my brain screamed and I looked down at my weapon: it was a sword, and it wobbled and shook and ran like water. I looked at the First Three and they looked back at me, and they were terrified and I was fearless and I began to march across the bared teeth of the soil, liquid blade in hand. ood.tumblr.com/

Chapter 15: The Ivory Coffin

Posted in A Story About Blood on August 1, 2011 by jeremiah james strawhand

I had known Hette since her family had moved to my village when we were children.

We had grown up together in the hilly village of Eingarten on the banks of the Edelstein river and, as children, we had frequently quarreled.   Nothing serious, mind you, just the usual bickering of children.

When I got a little bit older, I began to notice how beautiful she was…how her hair shone in the sun as she picked flowers with her mother and sisters.

I was a shy boy, but she was always so vibrant…so full of life.

One night during the celebration of the vernal equinox, as I sat alone listening to the musicians play, she came and sat next to me.  My heart skipped a beat but I tried to hide my feelings from her.  We talked and laughed for hours and yelled out to the minstrels to play our favorite songs, and it seemed to me that I would never come any closer to heaven.

She sang along sometimes and I became captivated by her golden voice that matched her golden hair.

When the night was drawing to a close, she took my hand in hers, leaned over and kissed me on the cheek.  I could feel the blood rushing to my face as my uncle Claus said “Way to go, Clement!” but I knew, then and there, that Hette was the girl that I would marry.

From there, we grew closer and closer, yet the closer I got to her, the closer she wanted me to be.  There were certain secrets I wanted to keep, and she would push and push and push until I got angry.  She got angry, too.  She didn’t think my feelings were true.  She said that if I truly loved her, I would tell her anything.  She said that if I truly wanted her, I would give myself to her fully.   But…I was still a shy boy.  Why couldn’t she understand?  I loved you, Hette…more than you could have ever possibly known.

I should have just told you exactly how I felt.

I began to notice there was a darkness in her.  She heard people that no one else could hear.  She saw things that no one else could see.  And these ghosts or demons…they told her that I was untrue.  They told her that she needed to run away.  They told her that she needed to find someone else, someone from her past or her future.  Someone that had meant something once.

We called on the wise woman, Unn, to drive away the darkness and it seemed to work for a while…but soon they were back again.

What could I have done?  “Go,” I told her, “I don’t want to keep you from your happiness…and if it isn’t me that makes you happy then I won’t be happy, either.”

And so she went…

For weeks, she was gone, and I kept telling myself that she would be back in my arms and that everything would be perfect with us again.  For weeks I told myself that I had made the right decision.  That by letting her be free, I gave her everything she needed.  That she would find her way back to me.

When she came home, I was lying awake in our bed, trying to sleep.  She came in and kissed me and I could immediately tell that something was wrong.  What had happened to my beautiful Hette?  Where had she been?

She said she had gone to visit an old friend…a friend she had known since before we had met.  She said she just needed to get away for a while.  She said she was sure now…and that it was me.  It had always been me, yet things only got worse.

Once, around the time that Hette and I had first met, I had mentioned to a friend of mine that an acquaintance of hers’ was pretty.  I said, “Hey, Hette should introduce you to Ayla, she’s really pretty.”  It was in front of Hette that I said this, and she became insanely jealous.  Not a week went by after that, that she did not burst into tears and accuse me of being unfaithful with Ayla.

If I glanced at a girl that walked down the street or talked too long to the girl that ran the store, it meant I was sleeping with them behind her back.   If I took too long plowing the field, it meant that I did not want to spend time with her.

She began to drink too much…and every time she drank she found a reason to pick a fight with me.

The next day she would apologize…She would cry and beg for forgiveness…she would blame it on the demons or ghosts that haunted her.  And yet…she always believed that I did not love her.  That I was looking for something else.  She always felt that she was not good enough for me.

Eventually I had decided that we needed to spend some time apart…some time to think about things.  In truth, I intended to run away and never come back…I had reached my wit’s end…but in the end my heart belonged to her and only her.

I moved to a neighboring village and occasionally I would go to visit her.  The time we spent together I alternately looked forward to or dreaded.  The odds were equal that I would either see the love that I had lost, or the reasons I had chosen to leave.

After a time, I decided that we had done this long enough and I told her I didn’t want to see her anymore.  It broke my heart, I swear to you, but I didn’t know what else to do.

She began to see another man, Jeck.  I had been friends with him for years and always liked him…I had spoken highly of him.  On one of my final visits with her, she told me that he had been taking care of her.  That she had been sick and that he had watched over her.  She told me that they were just friends.  I saw a poem he had written her, wishing that she got well soon.  “No intentions,” it said.

He was much older than her and had been married before.  I saw through him.  I saw what he wanted and I tried to warn her.  She had moved in with him.  He owned a house and offered her a life of ease.  She didn’t want to hear me, she didn’t want to listen.

Soon they began sharing the same bed and I couldn’t take it any more…my true love…my one and only…yet, I hoped she just needed some time.

For months I sent no letters and heard nothing from her and then one day, a letter came in the mail.  It said, “You were right.  He is no good for me.  I’m sorry.  Can I see you?”

I immediately packed a bag and travelled back to Eingarten to see her.  She looked so beautiful and I remembered again why I loved her.  I held her close and her smell and her touch intoxicated me.  We sat and talked for hours and I asked her to please come home with me.  She said that she couldn’t…but that she would see me tomorrow.

Tomorrow came and when I went to see her, she told me that she had decided to work things out with Jeck…That she was sorry…that she had made a mistake…that she didn’t want to see me again.

I was crushed…absolutely and completely.  I felt betrayed and used.

I became angry…I called her and her new lover all manner of names…I told her again that she was making a mistake.  I told her again that I loved her…that I loved her more than anything.  What a fool I felt like, when I realized that she no longer felt the same.

What a fool I was.

Another month passed and another letter came. She said that she was sure this time…that it was done with her and him and, again, I dropped everything to run to her.  Again we talked for hours and this time we spent the night together.  Nothing could have made me happier.

When the morning came, she was gone, and she had left a letter in her place.  It said, “I’m sorry, but I realized that we aren’t the same anymore, and I am going back to him.”

…how can one person do this to another?  Have you no feelings at all?  Do you ever think of anyone but yourself?  I decided then and there that I would never speak to her again and that I never wanted to see her ever again…but what is true love if it cannot transcend all obstacles?

A year later, I decided that I had to go see her.  Thoughts of her had never left my mind, and I realized that I couldn’t live without her any longer.  I was going to do whatever it took to win her back, no matter the cost.  I was prepared to stand naked in the rain and profess my undying love for her with the whole village watching.  I was prepared to sing a song praising her beauty even though I had no musical talent.

When I reached Eingarten, the townsfolk were all gathered outside.  When my uncle saw me coming he ran up to me, saying, “You heard the news already?  I’m so sorry, Clement…I don’t even know what to say.”

“News?” I said.  “What news?  I’ve come to see Hette.”

At that, the color drained from his face and I began to understand what had happened.  I pushed through the crowd and there I saw her…her beautiful face was cut off from her body.  I ran over to her and put my arms around her…no…no…no…how can this be?  “Who did this?” I inquired.

It was Jeck…he had discovered her with another man…and he was extremely jealous.

He had fled in the night.

I spent the next months searching for him but found no trace.  He had disappeared and eventually I had no choice but to give up.  I was no hunter of men.

I returned home to Eingarten and at her grave among the flowers I found a coffin.  A tiny ivory coffin.  I don’t know who put it there.

It is with despair, now, that I carve these final words…a poem for my lost love…I hope to see you again in the afterlife, Hette.  My one and only…I can’t go on without you.

I join my lovely lady tonight.

Chapter 14: Nameless

Posted in A Story About Blood on July 31, 2011 by jeremiah james strawhand

Is there some mystical shore, some far-off place,

to save me from this murderous embrace?

I came to leave the blood behind and found it followed me.  Found it follows me.

I lied awake, watching the sun rise and for some reason I thought of my wife.  You always had so much emotion…and even though it was so often misguided, it drew me to you.  Our time together was too brief.  Cut short by the cruel hand of fate that has guided my life.  Everything you did was so purposeful.  You has so much feeling and so much to offer.   We could have been perfect together, forever.

Dark clouds and raging torrents.

I’m sorry that I pushed you away…I didn’t know what I wanted.  I didn’t know how to want you.  Your abandon attracted me.  You were freer than I had ever been.  Freer than I will ever be…

These invisible chains that bind me…this narrow path I walk…can’t I just…walk the other way?

I closed my eyes to hold back the tears that threatened to fall.  No freedom at all.  Why do I feel the need to constantly replay the worst parts of my life?  Why can’t I learn to let go?

It’s over now.   Time to move on.

This is a story about blood.

The sun shined bright in the bluest sky and I rose to face the day.  Intrepid wanderer or soulless…

Or tired soul.

I can find life.  And rip it out by the roots.  Tear it up.  Smash it up.  Burn it all.  I want to destroy.

I pushed open the door to the Troll’s Breath and as it closed behind me, my eyes had to adjust to the dismal interior.  The barmaid recognized me and nodded in my direction, so I took a seat at the bar.

“Mead, was it?” she asked.

“I don’t have any money,” I replied.

“Don’t worry about it, love.  Brand is downstairs when you’re ready.”

“…thanks,” I said as she walked over and poured me my drink.

The place was nearly deserted.  One guy I didn’t recognize sat at the bar, drinking, and two more sat at a table in the corner.  There was no fire and no music.  No conversation and no…life.

I drank my mead quickly, smiled in my grim way at the barmaid, and headed downstairs.

The same large man now sat in a chair outside the door and when he saw me coming he stood up, blocking the entrance.  I hung back while he knocked on the door and said, “That Northman with the messed up face is here.”

“Send him in,” came the reply, and I started to walk towards the door but, again, the man blocked my passage.

“Need to make sure you ain’t got any weapons,” he said as he checked me for pointy objects.  His hand came to my leg, and feeling the armor there he looked at me questioningly.  I rolled up my pant leg so he could see it and he said, “The fuck is that?  Ya know what?  I don’t even wanna know.  Looks like shit.”

“Thanks.  Am I free to go now?”

“Yeah, whatever.  Go on.”

I walked through the door and saw Brand and Caspar and one other man whom I recognized but hadn’t caught his name.

Brand grinned at me and said, “Been expecting you.  What the hell took so long?”

My stomach rumbled.

I pushed back out into the afternoon sun and again my eyes needed some time to adjust.  I started walking, sunblind, towards my usual spot to think about my new target.  Assassination mission number two, and don’t fuck it up, or we’ll fuck you up.  That’s what I’d been told.

I’m not just some simple murderer, but I guess I have to start again somewhere.

I said, “Who?” and he said, “No Name.  It doesn’t matter.”

I said “Why?” and he said, “No Reason.  Just do as you’re told.  The pay is good.”

I said “When? “ and he said, “Tonight.  He’ll go to see his mistress.  If you do it right, she won’t have to die, and we can blame her.  If you do it wrong, you’ll need to take her out and we can blame the wife.”

I said “So whether I kill her or not, I’ll still have ruined her life,” and he said, “What did I tell you?  Just do as you’re told.  I have no use for a killer with a conscience.”

I nodded and turned to walk away.

Maybe they loved each other I thought.  Maybe I can kill them while they embrace each other and they can die happy.  If they are both to be condemned then I may as well send them off in each other’s arms.  I laughed to myself as I walked down the street thinking that Brand was right.  No use for a killer with a conscience.  No use for an assassin with a soft side.  My thoughts from this morning were still fresh in my head is all…and I almost wished the plague had taken me too so that we could still be together.

How do you find vengeance against a disease?  How do you fight back against a sickness?  Do you find the source?  The first carrier?  Do you find the necromancer in his tower blighting the beauty around him?  Do you find the man that killed your mother and raped your life?  Do you find the witch that bound you to this fucking trinket, for better or for worse?

Or do you just…move on.

Night fell fast and I had changed into the clothes that Brand had given me.  The clothes of a merchant.   It was cold enough that I could wear a hood so I passed through the gates to New Turtannus and told the guards I had to meet up with Roxie for business.   The mistress lived on the corner of Arch and Market, near the park.  They said No Name passed through the park on his way there, and that would be my time to strike.

I waited there, the shadows my only friend, my only guide, behind a fountain of marble.  What a difference between New Turtannus and Old, although it comes as little surprise.  I’d imagine they think as poorly of us as we do of them.  Funny how things work.

Before long, a man approached.  He walked with a cane and wore a feathered hat.  His clothes were made of silk and he smelled like a woman.  Average height.  Overweight.  This must be him.  He walked within a few feet of me and had no idea.  I could hear his breath.

I could kill him now and quietly slip away.   He would crumple to the ground and lie in a pool of his own red, red blood and no one would see anything.  No one would know anything.  The mistress would be blamed.  He had lied to her.  She had wanted his money.  It didn’t matter how or why.  I knew Brand could make it happen.  Her life would be ruined.  She’d probably be hanged.  And in those final, failing moments of light she’d be thinking, “Why?  Why me?  My love, will I ever see you again?”

I won’t subject someone to that kind of despair.  I won’t…

No Name walks out of the park and knocks on a door.  A beautiful woman answers and she falls into his arms.  They laugh and walk inside, hand in hand.

I’ve made up my mind and tonight I must take two lives.  Two lives that could never have peace in this world can maybe find it in the next.  Why had this man been condemned?  It didn’t matter, Brand had said.  Probably sport, or politics, or money.   It didn’t matter to him but it matters to me.  I don’t even know why or when I started to care.  How many people have I killed without a second thought?  A killer with a conscience is no kind of killer at all.

I walked up to the door and turned the handle.   It wasn’t locked.

I opened the door and found two faces sitting at the table staring at me in wonder.

I closed the door behind me, threw back my hood and said, “Don’t say a word, and I’ll tell you why I’m here.”

The two sat in silence as I explained their plight and when it was over, they hugged each other tightly and I ran my sword through both of their bodies simultaneously as they embraced.

Two hearts bleeding together, and two hearts dying at once.

Beauty and love and death juxtaposed in glorious form.

And as I walked back out into the night, my conscience was free.

Chapter 13: Grave Flower

Posted in A Story About Blood, Blood on July 13, 2011 by jeremiah james strawhand

Art and love and life.

Grave flowers fed by the blood of the dead.

Out of much atrocity, much beauty can sometimes find a way to spring to life. Maybe to help us forget the horrible things we’ve done…maybe to help us remember.

I stood there watching the field of flowers blowing in the breeze.   Blood-red flowers too numerous to count.  Even the purest love can be bred from the deadliest hate and there is no cycle that cannot be broken.

They say an ancient battle was fought here and the dead were piled into mass graves.

They say at night this place is thick with the spirits of the lost.

They say you can hear them howling…

Today marks the first day of my training under the swordmaster, Ulfr Giersson.  He was renowned for his skill and had been called upon by many kings and rulers to train their sons or soldiers.

He stood in the field with his eyes closed, loose flower petals blowing in little whirlwinds around him.  He wore a plain white shirt, animal hide pants, metal boots and a gauntlet on his sword hand.

The crags of a distant shore could be seen on the horizon, jutting up like tiny gray teeth.

“Kol,” he said, as he opened his eyes to look at me.  “It is Kol, right?”

I nodded.

“From what I’ve heard, you’re pretty handy with a blade.  Yeah?”

I nodded again, although from out of nowhere a ripple passed through my body.  Starting at my toes and ended in the hairs of my scalp and arms…a ripple of doubt.

“They tell me that you fight like a berserkr…that you have no restraint.  You killed some of your own men, yeah?”

I nodded a third time, although I was starting to feel a little foolish and fidgeted a bit.  My father had woken me up early this morning and told me to come here.   As I walked out the door he had said that him and the elder had talked and decided I needed to hone my skills.  That with proper training I would be an invaluable asset on any battlefield.  That with proper guidance I could be unstoppable.

“Pay attention boy…You may think you’re some kind of badass but this is real, and I’m not a frightened unarmed slave.  Any idiot with a sword could have done what you did.  Any idiot with a sword can raid some unsuspecting villagers and usually without taking out a handful of his own people.  You know what you are?  What they told me?  A liability.  They don’t trust you, they don’t like you, and I don’t either.  There’s a chance you won’t walk out of here today, and I almost hope you don’t.  I’m too old to be dealing with crazy fucks like you, so get out of your head and get ready.  This is going to hurt.”

When he was finished, he closed his eyes again and raised his arms up to the sky, sword in one hand and shield in the other.  Some of the little red flowers that had caught in his long hair and beard were blown away by a gust of wind.  The lines in his face were deep and he had many scars.

I was exercising restraint.

This man was intentionally trying to goad me into doing something foolish, and I saw it coming.

I did nothing at all.

“You couldn’t hit me if you wanted to, you pathetic little shit.”

This is a test…refuse to act on impulse.

“You’re father told me that he hopes I’ll put you out of your misery.  He said if you can’t fend for yourself then I should just end you, here and now.”

His eyes still closed, his arms still raised, and I did nothing at all.

“Your mother was a demon-fucking whore.”

…and in that instant all I saw was red.  The world divided into the simplest of axes.  Forward and backward, left and right.  No more flowers.  No more wind.  No more distant crags.

Just me and him, still standing there with his arms in the air.

Unable to think of anything else, I raised my axe and my sword and rushed in to attack.

If my mother was a demon-fucking whore then prepare to meet her monstrous offspring.

I swung first with Thursbanr, and Ulfr brought his shield down quickly to block my blow.  Without a second’s hesitation I swung my axe which he parried with his own sword and flung from my grasp with a flick of his wrist.

That ripple again, nipping at my toes and cutting through the blood haze like an insect distorts the surface of a body of water.

I can taste the blood, I can hear it.

Again I swung with Thursbanr, a horizontal strike and he took a half a step backwards out of range.

When my swing had passed and as I prepared for another he closed again and bashed me with his shield, knocking me off balance.

I used the momentum to swing again straight down on him, a powerful crushing swing, and again he side stepped just only enough as he needed to as the blade whizzed by his body and into the ground beside him.  Before I could raise it up he kicked it with his armored boot, but this time I held on for dear life.  I was sent reeling in a semi circle and my back was exposed so I again used the momentum to spin completely around with another deathblow.  This time I connected with his shield which was splintered from the mighty swing.  As he threw it away I lunged at the place with it had been with all the fury I could muster.  He moved too fast.  He swung from the ground up, sending my sword arm up into the air and as I skidded to a halt I could feel the pommel of his sword smash me in the back of the head.

I stumbled forward and fell on my face.  I could taste the blood, only it was mine.  My heart was racing in my chest and my demon’s blood burned in my veins.

I rolled over in time to block his next swing with my sword and tripped him as he tried to recover.

We scrambled to our feet and my ears began to drone…a barely audible hum coming from the distance like the sound of an approaching storm.

My vision began to fade and again I found my eyes could only see a target.  I have no focus, you say?  This is extreme focus and I don’t need to see anything except for you.

I took a few shallow breaths and charged again.

I put all of my energy in one final swing.  The strike to end this fight and it came down, crashing like thunder onto his blade and I could feel Thor standing with me.  I came down on his sword with so much force that it was knocked from his hands.  Without hesitation he grabbed my arm and twisted it in such a way that I could no longer hold on either and Thursbanr hit the ground with a quiet thud.

He leapt back and grabbed a handful of dirt from the ground, throwing it my eyes.

I coughed for a second but my vision was already so far gone that it barely affected me.

I could feel the blood burning in my lungs, tickling at the back of my throat.  Hot in my belly and fists.

This time, he attacked.  Maybe he expected me to be blinded by the dirt, but I dodged his fist and countered with one of my own, landing squarely on his cheek.  His head snapped sideways and I punched again, this time in his stomach.  He doubled over for a second and this time I went to kick him in the face but he grabbed my foot and pushed me backwards.

I stumbled over his broken shield and fell backwards onto the ground.  From this angle, I could again see the million flowers that swayed in the gentle breeze and for some reason I thought of my beautiful mother.

Before I had time to react he was on me again and he landed a punch with his metal gauntlet above my right eye.  The flesh tore open and blood ran out, blinding me further.

I kicked up at him, hitting him in the neck and he stumbled backwards, gasping for air.

I struggled to my feet, losing blood from both the back of my head and the gash above my eye.  I ran and dove into him, tackling him into the ground.

For the tiniest, fleeting moment, I could smell the flowers as I was beating my fists into his face.

He began to block and somehow turned me over so that I was on my back and hit me one, two, three times before I saw a flash of light and felt my body go limp.

When he saw that I could no longer defend myself he stood up and spit onto the ground.

Peering through this tiny window in the fading vision of my good eye, I realized that I had lost.

Chapter 12: Creation

Posted in A Story About Blood on July 9, 2011 by jeremiah james strawhand

Chapter 12 – Creation

It had been four days since I had seen Brand and I was starving again.

I had often wondered if this would somehow be my life.  Wasting away, a little at a time, until there was simply nothing left.  A pile of bones and skin left to rot in some forgotten alley.

Next week, he had said.  It’s been barely over half of that.  I don’t want to annoy him and risk throwing my one chance out the window.

So I wait.

Creep back into my hole…this damp, dark, corner in this miserable alley, but at least hidden from the prying eyes of the other shambling cripples and beggars.

I tell myself I’ll sleep for a while.

Sleep the day away…I’ve nothing better to do.

Sleep the day away…maybe tomorrow will bring better things.

Yet exhausted as I am…heavy as my eyelids are, sleep will not come.

I toss and turn and toss and turn again.  I roll over and over.  Try my back, my stomach.  Stick my feet this way or that, and sleep will not come.

Sometimes when I close my eyes I see faces.  A million faces all blurred into one or one face split into millions.  The mouth open in silent scream.  The nostrils flared and horror in the eyes.

One face or a million, it doesn’t matter.  It’s all the same.

One fading heartbeat.

One ebbing pulse.

One failing strength…

Everyone is afraid of death- even those that claim to believe there is something better after we pass.  There is always some doubt…some uncertainty.  Maybe this is it?  Have I wasted my life?  I should have done this or I shouldn’t have done that.  I should have treated people better.  I should have treated myself better.  Sometimes, I think, you don’t have time to think about these sorts of things, and that is the best way to go.  No regrets.

I believe that I was born for a reason.  If I must first fill this fountain of blood and build this mountain of bones before I can learn to swim or climb, so be it.  Maybe if I pile them high enough I can reach the heavens.  Maybe if I fill it deep enough no one will go thirsty again…

I awoke to the sound of the alarm bells.

It was night time and my better judgement told me to stay where I was…to not give them a reason to bother me.  My belly twisted into a tight, hard, knot and I could feel my ribs poking through.

I knew I couldn’t get back to sleep.

So I crept out just enough to glance into the street.  I saw a few of the other miscreants and lowlifes doing the same.  Glowing eyes and yellow teeth peering out of the darkness.  A few guards rushed passed but none noticed me.  A man that I recognized stumbled down the street and I asked him what was going on.  He looked at me for only a second and then continued to walk faster, saying nothing.

Why would I fool myself into thinking there was any sort of fellowship here?  At least any that included me.

I felt sick for lack of eating and it occurred to me that I could use this commotion to find some food.  To steal.  A murderer, maybe, but I’ve never been a thief.  I’d never had to be.  When death is the only life you know, taking someone’s things without killing them seems so hollow.  A wasted opportunity and an unnecessary risk.   Yet…for the first time I considered the repercussions.  To be caught killing someone here would be a death sentence.  I’d be hanging in the morning.   Were I caught stealing I might spend some time in the jail…where at least I’d be fed.  With the guards on high alert it seemed the choice had been made for me.

I wandered down to the waterfront…where a lot of the vendors hung around in the day time, yelling about their fish and pies and what have you.

It was quiet down here, except for the waves lapping against the docks and the occasional bird call.  The alarm bells continued to sound but they were distant here…they didn’t seem so urgent.

I passed by a few gruff-looking men standing on a street corner who quit talking and stared at me as I walked by.  One of them laughed.

I found a warehouse immediately behind where several of the hawkers would be found in the day and smashed the lock on the door.  It was dark inside except for a sliver of silver moonlight that beamed through the windows high above.   There were crates stacked on top of each other and I started to pry some of the lids off.  Jars, candles, utensils, wagon wheels, rope, bars of iron…Nothing particularly valuable and nothing that I could eat…I stumbled backward in the darkness, knocking over a crate of ceramic dishes which crashed and shattered on the packed-dirt floor.

Weary and starving, it took me a second to regain my footing and by that time, the dockhands I had passed earlier were blocking my exit.

“Knew he was no good,” said one to another.

“Guessin’ you probly know what’n ya dun wrong, yeh?” said another to me.

“Yeah, I dragged my bloodied and beaten body through these gods-forsaken gates to begin with,” said I to another still.

“What kinda answer is that?” asked One.

“No kinda answer really,” said Another.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” I said.  And for some reason, I meant it.

“Look’n like yer kinda outnumbered boyo,” said Another Still.

“I just want some food.  Trust me when I say that the three of you’d be broken before I broke a sweat.”

“Ya can barely stand up.  Ain’t no food in here, ‘less you kin eat that kinda junk,” said Another.

“Help me find something…and you won’t ever see me again.  And if not…then at least get the hell out of my way.”

“Mebbe we’d oughta listen to ‘im,” said One.

“Mebbe so,” agreed Another Still.

The three men stood out of the way of the door and I walked out into the night only to find myself face to face with a guard.

He started to draw his sword, saying, “What’s going o…”  But I kicked him, hard, in the chest and he fell backwards against the wall.  His sword was drawn but it was pointed down, the tip resting on the ground as he used it to stabilize and regain his footing.  I took a step forward and put my heel against the flat of the sword, snapping it in two and breaking the guard’s hand in the process.  He yelled out in pain, but only for the briefest moment before I grabbed his head in my hand and twisted his neck, his body crumpling against the wall.

The three dockhands stood there watching me, shocked.

“Mebbe so,” said Another. “Holy shit, mebbe so.”

I went through the guard’s pockets and took whatever coin he had.

“Hey…uhhh…y’know,” started One.  “uhhh…we don’t know you mister but…uhh…y’ever need anything?  You got six extra hands now…Y’know?”

This was a major turning point, I thought.  And the beginnings of another run of Kol, the leader, rather than Kol, the bitch.

I nodded.

These men…idiots though they might be, had had enough sense not to challenge me, and that is the basis of loyalty.  I knew that they would follow me to the end.

Reign of blood or mountain of bone.

Chapter 11: Burn

Posted in A Story About Blood on June 29, 2011 by jeremiah james strawhand

Chapter 11 – Burn

I later found out that in my blindness…in my rage, I had killed a dozen or so enemies and then, when the rest turned to flee, three of our own men.

And then I slept for a long time.  A sleep plagued by terrible dreams and the taste of blood always just outside my perception…flicking at my lips and nose.

I awoke to the familiar sway of the ocean, the brine and the sea breeze spraying at my face.

As soon as my eyes opened, any conversation came abruptly to an end.

My father was there.  And the village elder.

My wounds had been bandaged but I could barely move.  My body ached passed the skin and muscle, passed the bone and into the marrow and the taste of blood hung on for a moment, just outside my perception, before fading away.

It was night time.  I counted the stars.

The dragon on our ship’s bow glistened in the moonlight and I knew that at least he still smiled with me.

My father came to offer me some water, which I refused.  I thought I was doing the right thing, and yet I find myself here…a pariah among even my own family.

No one wanted me here.  I didn’t need to overhear a conversation to discern that much.  They probably would have thrown me overboard or left me to die in the field if they weren’t so damned afraid of me.

A curse.

A curse that no one wanted to be responsible for…that no one wanted to inherit.

My father said that the raid had been successful.  That three of the ships were loaded with gold and precious stones and three more with slaves and we had only lost ten men.

And three of them were because of me…I had known these men…lived with them.  Said hello to them when I passed them in the street and hunted with them.    Now their wives will be widows and their children will be orphans.  Is orphan the appropriate word?

Does any of this really matter?  Do I care only because I am programmed to or is it something else?  Do any of us really care about anything except ourselves?

Accept our own best interests.

Continue this sepulchral march towards some unintended and uneventful doom.

I slowly opened the fingers on each hand and intertwined them with each other.  First one way, then the other and then I turned my hand over to trace the scar there.   When I gripped Thursbanr did it pulse and glow?  Did it grow?  When I delivered those men to the gates of whatever afterlife awaited them, did it bleed and sputter?  Did I stutter?  Would hacking it off at the wrist, inch by inch, only appeal to my brutal fate?  Or should I wait.

When the men thought I slept I could hear them whispering.

They said that my hands brought only death…that I was possessed by demons.   They said that I was glad I was on their side.  They said I would grow up to be a monster.

Death Hand they called me.

Some of them wanted to kill me.  They were afraid that I’d stalk through the village at night and disembowel the other children.  My father thought he might awake to find me glowering over him with a knife in my teeth and I am reminded of the first man whose life I took.  That look of confusion…despair.  That look of knowing you were going to die, feeling the life-blood seeping out of your body, and there being absolutely nothing you could do about it.  And having no idea why it ended this way.

I decided then and there that I would never kill another man while he slept.

When the sun rose that morning I felt energized and I sat up, finally able to survey my surroundings.  There was some commotion and I was able to ascertain that one of the slave ships had disappeared in the night.

Visibility was excellent and two of the ships were appointed to backtrack and search for the missing ship, mine among them.   To someone that is unfamiliar with sailing, the concept of searching for a vessel on the open sea might seem like a waste of time, and generally speaking, it was.  The thought process was that maybe the slaves had somehow overpowered the men on the boat and turned it around to sail back home and so we had a pretty good idea of where to look.  Our men were more skilled, and our boats less encumbered so catching up to them would be the easy part.

We were to search for one day and then turn back if we didn’t find anything.  For the purpose of speed we used both sail and oar and set immediately to our task.

For a half a day we found nothing and then one of the men sighted a dark speck on the horizon.  We were too far out to sea for it to be the shore we had left and it was too big to be an animal.  With our new course we were able to close the distance quickly and it soon became apparent that this was our missing ship.  The sail was tattered from improper use and my father said they rowed like half-wits, with no form or conjunction.

Like scared rabbits they fled only to find the beast breathing down their neck and nosing at their burrow.

As we approached, I could hear women and children crying.  I saw some men standing on the ship waving swords and clubs around, but most were unarmed.   They had stopped rowing and we stopped just out of range for arrows.

One of their men stood on the ship, yelling at us.  I couldn’t understand him, but someone said he was begging us for mercy.  Begging us to spare their lives.

We rowed a little closer and the bows went up but before the first volley could be fired the elder raised his hand saying “Wait, stop.”

He called my father over and they talked privately for a moment before he ordered the men to get close enough that we could board their ship.

He nodded at my father and looked at me.

“Kol,” he said, “There are a lot of people that want you dead.  They are afraid of you, and they don’t want you coming home with us.  Your father, your own flesh and blood, is among them.  You are to board that ship and kill every one of those slaves.  If you survive, no one will ever question your place with us again.  This is your death sentence, and I hope that by placing the act in these fools’ hands I spare myself from your curse.  Are you ready?”

I glanced at my father and he turned away…ashamed that he had agreed to this.

I asked for some water and then for Thursbanr and the axe I had taken from the battlefield.

When I tell you I was afraid, that is a massive understatement.   There were no less than 50 men on that boat and then women and children too.  My hands and knees shook as I drank the flask and my grip felt feeble and pathetic.

I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths as the ships came together…

Smile, Kol, and remember.

Remember that your destiny is not yet fulfilled.

Smile, and let the blood haze take you.

Think about the life you used to have.   The life you could have had.

Think about Unn, the Wise, with that cackling old blackened maw.

Think about the man with the red cape and eyes of cerulean blue.

Open your eyes and step onto the ship, calm as a perfect arrow in flight.

The man on my ship that could understand the slaves said something to them and they looked at each other and attacked.

There was nothing they could do.  They couldn’t even scratch me.   I could sense their fear…I could smell it, like a dog and I turned it against them.  A woman came at me, scratching and biting, and I flung her into the sea, her neck a red ribbon.  A child, too, and his head cracked open like a melon.

One by one by one by one the corpses piled up and still they kept coming.  When half of them had been killed, some tried to flee by jumping into the ocean and swimming and they were shot, floating and bleeding into the water.

One by one by one by one I killed them all…and I never lost control.  Methodical, calculated, surgical.  And not one could even scratch me.

There was nothing they could do.

A Story About Blood 1-10+bonus

Posted in A Story About Blood with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 18, 2011 by jeremiah james strawhand

This is the first ten chapters of my new story plus a bonus chapter that fits in somewhere.

Prologue

I don’t know anything.

My experiences do not culminate in a greater understanding.

My years have not made me wiser, only more aware of my own glaring faults.  You may say I am self-absorbed but how else can I be?  There has never been anything as constant as me.  My father died with an axe through his skull and I watched him as he pissed himself and shook with death.  My revenge was short lived and it didn’t bring him back.  He toasts with Odin or Freyja.  My love and child were taken by plague and there is no peace for them.

I sometimes wonder that the world has outlived me. That maybe I am someone’s ghost or vision.

Ghost or not, I haunt this place.  The people here don’t like me.  They can tell it by my smell.  I came to seek a new life and yet I beg in the streets.  I have no skill other than war.  They can see the death in my eyes and they do not pity me.   If they knew me I’m sure they would run me through in my sleep.

Self-doubt can be a valuable asset or a miserable curse.  Never believe too much in your own ideas or you will surely find disappointment.    I used to believe in the glory of battle, and the power of the gods.  I wonder now if Odin smiles or frowns; if there is anyone laughing with us.

Disease is everywhere in this section of town.  The place I don’t get run out of.  The place where the sick, dying, and poor are welcome, and yet there are no welcoming arms.  They say that this used to be the wealthy area before the earth shook.  The former epicenter of an epicenter.   Now the buildings crumble to the touch and the rats that live among us vie for the same scraps.

I came to leave the blood behind and found it follows me.  Dark cloud or raging torrent.

This is a story about blood.

Chapter 1 Tides

Do you believe in fate?

Sometimes I think about all the choices I have made, every minute detail and insignificant point, and wonder if I changed any one of them how different my life would be.   Sometimes something so profound happens to you that it becomes impossible to imagine life any other way and sometimes even to remember what life was like before it.

Sometimes our choices are made for us, but usually we are just too shortsighted to predict their outcome.  Most people act purely on impulse…

My name is Kol.  When I was a young boy a strange thing happened to me.   I was playing in the stream that ran near my village when I saw the sun catch on something.  A single brilliant beam of light reflecting through the murk I had stirred up.  I reached my tiny hand into the water and pulled out what was a gleaming white, roughly rectangular object marked with unfamiliar runes.  I would later find out that it was a coffin.  A miniature coffin fashioned of the purest ivory.

I immediately ran home in childish excitement to show my mother what I had found, finding something entirely else.  For this to make sense you must understand that our family’s hut was set near the edge of town, and the path there was infrequently travelled and that anyone could have come and gone without much notice.   Anyway, I burst through the door yelling “Mommy, mommy, look wh…” but that was as far as I made it.  My mother was home and well, but there was a man I had never seen before standing behind her with his pants around his ankles, and she was bent over in front of him with her dress pulled up and her hands on the fireplace.

Not a second passed before the man took two steps towards me and shattered my jaw with a mighty fist.  It is true, we were all raised to fight, but I was just a little thing.  There was nothing I could do.

When I awoke, I felt like my face was a solid object.  Like someone had replaced it with a rock or a tree stump and all the individual parts had become one.  Someone was shaking me and among the many voices, I picked out my father’s.  It was trembling and he kept asking me “What happened here?  Who did this?”  I tried to open my eyes and found that I could not.  I tried to speak and found that my mouth wouldn’t move and my tongue felt 20 sizes too big.  I thought I would choke.  I thought I couldn’t breathe.  I managed to force one of my eyes open a slit and saw my father’s face with tears streaming down it for a brief moment before I succumbed again to blackness.

The next time I awoke it was to the sound of thunder.   A deep rumbling boom shook the ground and I could smell the electricity in the air as my hair stood on end.  I opened my eyes to find an old woman with a heavily scarred face and wispy hair standing over me.  She held a jeweled staff and I recognized her as a Vala, a seer.  I had never personally interacted with a Vala before, but they had come to the village from time to time to cast spells at the behest of other villagers.

The old woman, noticing that I was awake, began to speak.  “I am Unn, the Wise”, she began, “and I have been called here by your father and the village elder because they believe you are cursed. Are you cursed, child?” she asked with an unnerving grin.

It was at this time that I first noticed I was lying naked, except for my undergarments, on the stone slab near the stream that we sometimes used for sacrifices or executions.   A fire crackled behind Unn and several beautiful girls mesmerizingly pulsated around it.

I watched as she reached her hand into the fire and pulled out the ivory coffin, uttering some phrase I couldn’t understand.  She then took my hand and placed the coffin in it, forcing it closed.  I screamed as my flesh began to boil and yet she only forced me to close my hand more tightly.  I was too weak to offer much resistance.

“This…trinket…they feel, stole away your mother’s breath and brought a curse upon your life.”

I couldn’t focus on what she was saying…too much pain…she must have sensed this and released her grip, so I instantly threw the coffin away, gazing at my ruined hand.

“You’ll want to keep that, boy, and keep it close.  I don’t know if you were cursed, but by this ritual you are now bound to that coffin and it to you.  It will bear the curse in your place, but only if it remains intact…”

I shifted back to her words from a moment before and replaced the pain in my body with pain in my soul.  “…My mother’s…”

“Dead.” she said.  “Raped and murdered.  They think it was a demon, and wonder why your life was spared.  Maybe you belong to him now.”  I can see a mischievous glint in her eyes.

Not a demon: a man, I thought.  Just a man.   I saw him clear as day.  He had blue eyes and glass beads in his beard.   I wasn’t yet familiar with rape, but in hindsight I can clearly say that she was willing.

I wanted to cry but no tears would come.  My heart iced over.

“Your hand will heal in time, and a scar will form.  They’ll call you Kol DeathHand.” the old crone chuckled. “A fitting name for one such as you.”

Chapter 2: Ashes

I had carried this trinket for what seemed like ever.  This…coffin.  A symbol of death.  The reason for my terrible name.  I had often wondered why someone would have crafted this.   Why would anyone want a constant reminder of their own fragile mortality?

I had turned it over so many times in my fingers that the edges are worn and the once gleaming white is now a dull shade of gray.

I took off my glove, despite the chill in the air, and traced the scar in the palm of my hand.   Around and around until it was raw and sore.  And then I traced it some more.  That vicious scar caused by that miserable object…

That coffin.

I had spent countless nights wondering if I should just throw it away, or smash it to pieces, or destroy it in a bonfire, or bury it in the earth…

…and more time yet trying to keep it safe.

It took me many years to even consider that it had no value to me.   That maybe I bore no curse.  The old woman had clearly said she didn’t know.  She didn’t even know!  Why would she do this to me, knowing that she didn’t know anything at all?

It took me years after that to think that maybe she had cursed me herself, and manipulated me…controlled my entire life with this stinking chunk of ivory.

I drilled a hole through it once so that I could wear it around my neck back at a time that I wanted people to see it, for fear can be a great ally, I thought.  I was afraid, though, that if I changed it in any way, the magic might wear off and the curse would take me.  I spent months, maybe years, debating the issue.   When my son died, I decided that no curse could be worse than the life I had been given and, though I meant to destroy it, lost my nerve and drilled the hole instead.

That was as close as I ever came to being done with it.

She is dead now, I’m sure of it, that fetid wench.  How could she be alive all these years later, being so ancient as I remember her?

Unn…Unn…Unn…You rotten whore.  You filthy old corpse, where are you now?  Did you laugh into the grave, thinking of me?   Did I kill all of your enemies?  Have I spilled enough blood?  Have I crawled through enough putrid swamps, suffered enough festering wounds?  Crushed enough skulls? Extinguished enough lives?

How many have I sent to the halls of the gods, and will they be there waiting for me, conspiring against me?

I tightened my fist until my nails tear the skin and clenched my jaw until my teeth threatened to crack.

Not even the other beggars will talk to me, this hulking monster of a man that I am.  They call me the Warlock, I don’t know why.  If there was any magic in these bones I’d have spent it long ago.

They avert their eyes when they near, and they murmur when they pass, these insipid swine.  I try to stay away from them, so that their sickness does not pass to me.   I try to find a dark place, where I can lick my myriad wounds in peace.  Yet there are too many of them here, always shuffling here and there, moaning and crying out to whatever gods they believe in and beating on their chests.    It seems like the guards have a never ending supply of them to toss, beaten and bruised, through the gates that mark this place.

Sometimes one stands out, like maybe they don’t belong here, but usually it’s all the same:  filthy rags and unkempt hair, flea-bitten scraps of cloth where shoes should be…and a look in their eyes.  An unmistakable look of despair.  No one comes here willingly, but few ever leave.  A one-way ticket, this trip to Old Turtannus, where the sick, the destitute, and the misfits come to spend their pathetic lives.

Deathhand or Warlock, I’d rather they just called me Kol.

Chapter 3 Blood Lust

I didn’t talk much after my mother died.  It took a long time for my jaw to properly heal, and I didn’t really have much to say.

My father kept asking me if I had seen anything, but I didn’t tell him I knew who it was.  I didn’t tell them I saw anything at all.  I wanted to destroy his family and burn his crops.  I wanted to ruin his life and I wanted to do it quietly.  I wanted him to think he was cursed, and then I wanted to watch the life drain from his eyes just as recognition entered them.

Even as a boy, I was capable of these thoughts.

My life had been changed forever, and I became consumed with this banal desire for revenge.

No fire had ever burned more brightly.

My father knew that something was wrong with me.  I think he might have had me killed if he weren’t afraid of the consequences for killing a demon’s thrall.   Maybe he thought he, too, would be cursed.  The few times we did talk in those early months, he couldn’t stop his eyes from wandering first to the patchwork mess that had become the right side of my face and then to the glistening red horror show that was my hand.  He made no attempt to disguise his disgust.

I somehow managed to turn this pain into rage.  Not some silly fist-flying, stomping rage, but rather seething and boiling just below the surface.  I used my experience to improve, or so I thought.

And so I practiced.  I discovered that I could go from calm and collected to venom-striking ferocity in a split second and all I had to do was glance at my hand, or feel the severed tendons pulling at that ugly grimacing mask I called a smile.

When no one was around I would take my father’s sword and axe and go out into the fields or the forest and pretend that every blade of grass or chirping insect was that man.  That man that had taken my mother away and made my father resent me.

That man with the beads in his beard and the piercing blue eyes.   That man with the blonde hair braided near his temple on the left side.  That man who’s red cape had been left on, probably so as not to waste unnecessary time.  That man who’s gemmed brooch momentarily reflected the last time I would see my face in one piece.  That man who’s red and blue shield leaned in the corner in front of his long spear with the black haft.

He came ready for war, and war he would have.

I was sure that the details that had been etched into my mind as if they had been carved in immortal stone would be enough for me to find him.  I realized that it might take some time…some planning to do it right.  What I didn’t realize was that the very moment that I had decided on this course of action I had left my childhood behind and that I would never find it again.  What I didn’t realize was that this quest for revenge or reprisal or retaliation or what have you would mark the beginning of the rest of my life: that I was only setting the tone for who I would be from there on out; that I was following exactly the destiny prescribed to me, good little boy that I was.

Skuld, guide my hand.

Chapter 4: Echoes

“Ain’t nothin’ out there”, yelled the beggar that everyone referred to as The Fool.

“Ain’t nothin’ in there”, replied someone from up above, followed by some raucous laughter, but The Fool paid no attention.

I sat in my usual corner with my hood pulled up over my head, peering out into the street at the man.   How elemental a name, I thought, for this man.  This Fool.  Every so often he could be heard ranting and raving about some nonsense or another, until someone got tired of hearing him and kicked him in the ribs a few times.

“Ain’t nothin’ out there”, he repeated, “and ain’t no reason for any of it.  They throw us in here like crim’nals but they dun know we got it better.  Ain’t nothin’ out there but a storm cloud comin’ to wash it all away.”

As if on cue, at that moment, the clouds that had been hovering overhead broke and rain began to pour into the streets, washing the garbage and the awful smell away, if only for a little while.  I don’t want to move.  I want to just sit here and let it wash over me.  Let it soak into my skin and bones and drown my heart and soul.  If it cannot wash me clean then let it take me away from this place.  Let the cold sink in and drive out what life yet remains…

But I still have a purpose yet, no?  Enough with the whining self-pity I’ve grown so accustomed to.  Enough with the ‘O gods, let me drown in this Sea of Despair’ poetic nonsense.   Stand up, Kol, and prove that you aren’t as miserable as you pretend to be.  Prove that you aren’t just some other worthless wretch infecting this place.

As I stood up, someone threw a piece of trash which hit The Fool squarely in the forehead as they yelled, “Look watcha did ya crazy old bastard.”

Look what you did indeed.  Forced me out my reverie to seek shelter from the storm.

…and you just stand there, dazed and gaping like a fish.

I intentionally pushed passed him on my way out of the alley causing him to stumble and fall backwards on his ass.  I glance down at him as I pass by and I can see that his lips are trembling.

Pathetic.

No use for you here, old man.  Find some corner to die in.

I hurry down the street towards the Troll’s Breath Tavern.   A haven for degenerates and criminals, but you can find anything you want there- except peace of mind.

But peace of mind was the last thing I wanted.  The incident had stirred up some of that old fury: stinging at my eyes and burning at my throat.   The taste of bile and blood.  The crunch of hammer against bone and axe against shield.

The people here didn’t know me.  Didn’t know the things I had done or what I was capable of.  Maybe it was time they found out.

I sat at a small table in the corner and ordered a mug of mead.  They don’t know what good mead is here, but anything is better than nothing, I thought.   The wench made eye contact only for a moment and then looked away.   I was used to this treatment, but I smirked anyway.   No one wanted to look at me, and I didn’t blame them.

I sat by myself in the corner and listened.   I waited for something to catch my interest, but in a place like this people guard their conversations carefully.  A glance around the place wouldn’t reveal its true nature.  A couple at a table with enjoined hands.  A few men drinking and laughing.  A group gathered by the fireplace for some game of chance, but it wasn’t the obvious ones you had to look out for.  It was the ones like me.  The quiet men sitting alone, or the few whispering over dimly lit tables.

A few mugs later and I was ready to give up when someone tapped me on the shoulder.  I turned, not knowing what to expect and found a skinny little man with a hooked nose and pale lips gazing back. He nodded towards a table on the opposite edge of the tavern and said, “The master would like to have a word with you.”

A cursory assessment of the table showed four men looking in my direction, one of whom I recognized as the one they called Brand The Bloodless, for he was as pale as death’s shadow, they said.  He had a reputation around town as a particularly vicious man, with a hand in many of the less-than-public dealings that went on.

“Good,” I thought, “Exactly what I’ve been looking for.”

I stood and turned to nod at the sniveling rat behind me before making my way across the bar.

Chapter 5 – Traces

Do you ever feel like you will never experience anything new?   Like you are doomed to forever drone on through your meaningless life, even while you chase after some fading dream?  Sometimes the things you desire, the things you covet most, whether physical or psychological or ideological, the things for which you would give up everything and tear out the bloody roots with broken fingernails are the very things that will perpetuate the same stagnation you detest.

It had been about 3 years since my mother was killed.

At first, I was as ardent as the winter wolf stalking my elusive prey.  When my father would go off to the fields for the day I would immediately sneak out, first in one direction, then the other, then circling around.  I kept to the shadowy places around the main roads, waiting, watching and biding my time.

Any time someone passed by with a glimpse of red or blue, I watched them intently.  Anytime I saw the shimmer of metal or the glint of gem my eyes became transfixed as I scrambled for a closer view.   I learned to come and go without being seen.  I learned to move silently and use misdirection to my advantage.  A creeping little rodent with bloodshot eyes and a rabid bite, waiting for the right time to strike.

But it never came.

One time I arrived at a road just as a man with a red cape passed by on horseback and I followed his trail for days with no food and no water.   I came to the place that he had gone, some tiny snowbound hamlet, and hunted him down, finding him in his bed. I gazed upon a stranger’s face, my blade in my teeth.  Not a demon.  Not a murderer.  No glass beads or eyes of deepest ocean blue.  Just a man with a red cape.

Just a traveller sleeping soundly.

Be still, my heart.

Just a man.

It was all I could do to contain the rage and stop my hands from violently shaking.  I said I had learned that I could easily bring it on, not turn it off.

I thought I could see into this man’s mind and soul by peering through the blood haze, this fog that simultaneously obstructed and clarified my vision.  I thought he was an enemy.  I thought he stood between me and my quest for revenge.  I thought he meant to stop me, or alert his master that I was coming for him.  I thought he had reached for his blade or yelled for the guards.

I thought he had awoken.

I leaped back as the blood soaked through the rented bed the man had peacefully slept in, unaware of my presence until my dagger found his throat.

He couldn’t scream.

He gasped and choked as his eyes snapped open in horror, and he looked at me, confused…lost, as I stood over him panting like a wild beast, and I saw that his eyes were brown.  As unmistakably brown as the very earth into which his blood now seeped.

Soon the man would cease to gasp and soon that smell of iron, pass.

Soon the crimson’d turn to rust, ash to ash, dust to dust.

As I watched the man die, I couldn’t help but think about how alone he must be.   Had he been going home to see his son after a long absence?  Was he dreaming of his wife’s embrace?

This man had done nothing to me.

I did not know him and never would.  No matter how much I rationalized my actions there was some tiny far off place that felt some sting of remorse.

But enough of those thoughts…were he meant to live he would have awakened.  He would have reacted.  He would have caught my scent on his trail and left me crippled in the wilderness.  He would have done something other than lay there and die.

He was still struggling a bit and had managed to pull the knife from his wound.  He had his hands clamped around his throat, desperately clinging to what light he had left.

Pathetic.

Don’t fight it.  It’s over.

Give my regards to Lady Holle.

Chapter 6:  A New Beginning

It was dusk when I first saw the city gates looming in the distance.    The orange glow of the watch fire embers twinkled and tiny plumes of smoke rose above the walls.   Before the gates green fields and farm land spread out and the workers were beginning to stir for the day’s labor.

I stumbled onto the main road that led to the city, dragging my wounded leg along and leaving a trail of jagged crimson in the dust behind me.   I was stripped, except for a loincloth, the mark of a “barbarian.”  I had no weapons and no valuables aside from the ivory coffin which I had taken from one of my captors before I had fled.  I had nothing to offer anyone.

I didn’t have any sort of plan…I was just walking blindly towards what seemed like the only salvation that would have me.  Maybe it was a sign: this enormous city rising slowly as I plodded along.   Step, drag, step, drag, step, step, drag.  Maybe it was a sign: this stalwart bulk of stone and oak.  The smoke drew up like great arms in the sky, welcoming me home.

As I continued down the road, people began to stop and stare, and call out to one another.   I could understand only bits and pieces of that they said, but I didn’t really care anyway.  A few mangy dogs had begun following me and licking up the blood that dripped behind.

As I got closer to the city, I could see a mass of guards assembled near the gate.  I stopped at about 30 paces so that I could try and focus but the sudden loss of momentum caused my injured leg to crumple and I stumbled to my knees, stopped from eating a mouthful of dust only by my hands which quaked and threatened to give.

No one said a word.   They just stood there, watching me.  Maybe it was out of some sense of schadenfreude or maybe they just had no idea how to react.

One of the dogs that had been trailing me seeing this moment of weakness as an opportunity, came behind me and chomped at my leg.  I was not so beaten as to let some mutt take bites out of me and I pushed myself back to my feet, kicking the dog with my good leg, while grimacing through the pain that this sent through my bad one.

I turned around to find a man staring me down.  He wore a similar uniform to the rest of the guards but in addition to the leather armor and grey and blue shields, he also donned a royal blue cape.

I intended to continue my stumbling gait toward the group but the what-I-assumed-to-be guard captain interrupted my plans by smirking, “What brings you to our fine city, traveler?”

I could tell by the expression on his face that he didn’t care what I had to say, and I knew I couldn’t tell him the truth.

I began to speak but choked instead, coughing out a spray of blood.

As good a time as any, I thought, and the world turned upside down.

When I awoke I was lying flat on my back and a dim lantern swung on a chain above my head, casting eerie shadows across the ceiling.

I tried to lift my head but something prevented me.  I tried to struggle to my elbows but found that my arms were bound.

“He’s…he’s awake, master,” trembled a young girl’s voice.

“Well, I’m afraid there isn’t much we can do about that now,“ said a man’s voice.

Suddenly, the face of a middle-aged man appeared above me.  He had cloud-grey hair neatly combed back at the temples and a furrowed brow.  “It’s unfortunate that you’re awake.  We’re only mid-way through the procedure, and this is going to hurt.”

“…are you a healer or a butcher, old man?” I asked, a bit unsure of my fate.

The man laughed heartily, saying, “A bit of both, friend.  I don’t usually do this sort of thing, but no one else would tend to you.  Edwin, the Barber, they call me.  And this pretty little thing over here is my assistant, Marie.”

I was able to turn my head just enough to catch a glimpse of a small fair-haired girl wearing a blood-streaked blue dress, before having to rest again.

“We found this bauble stuffed into your garment.  Some sort of coffin, yes?  It should make for adequate payment.”

“You can’t have it,” I growled as I focused my strength and snapped the band that held my right arm in place.

I reached for the strap that held my other arm and as I attempted to undo it I felt a small set of hands wrap around my arm.  I swung wildly and impacted with the girl as she tried to restrain me, knocking her into a shelf on the side of the room and several bottles clanged and smashed onto the floor.

“Owww….he’s strong,” Marie said as she rubbed the place where her head had hit the shelf.

“Easy, friend,” said the barber quickly, “we aren’t here to hurt you.  If that coffin isn’t acceptable payment we can find another way to settle your debt, when you’re healed.   For now, you need to relax and let us finish the operation.”

“Alright,” I began, struggling against the void that threatened to take me after my sudden burst of exertion, “but…you can’t have it.”

“We’ll worry about that later…for now, hopefully I can coax Marie here into getting back into arm’s reach from you.   Is it alright if I strap you down again?  I’m afraid you may hurt yourself further if I don’t.”

I nodded, realizing I didn’t have the energy to escape, even were I not bound.

“Excellent.  Now let’s get on with it,” said the barber as he bound my arm with a piece of rope. “Marie, if you would?”

I don’t remember much about the next few hours.  The lantern continued to cast its demonic shadows while I drifted in and out of consciousness.   Cutting and stitching and cutting and stitching again and finally the touch of cold steel against my skin followed by more stitching.

I could hear the barber saying, “This’ll make me famous, love, if it works.  A soldier’s best friend, ” but I was too out of it to even ponder what he meant.

After what seemed like days or weeks of being strapped to this table I finally awoke with some clarity.

I went to lift my head, expecting the restraint to stop me and found that I was free.  A wool blanket covered me from waist to toe and I saw Marie seated at a small desk in the corner of the room.  The room itself was filled top to bottom with shelves of various shapes and sizes, some containing books and others unfamiliar bottles or instruments.

She glanced at me before calling into the next room, “Master, it’s time.”

Not a moment passed before the barber entered the room and said “How are you feeling?  Better I assume?”

“Ughh…I feel like I’ve been sleeping for a lifetime…am I…better, then?”

“Better, yes.  Much better I hope.  Can you sit up?”

“I think so,” I said as I leaned first on my elbows and then rose to a sitting position.

“Good,” said the barber as he handed me a cup of water.  “Drink that.  It will put some life in you.   Marie, go and fix dinner, yes?” he commanded, without diverting his attention from me. ” It hasn’t been easy getting you to eat, you know.”

“The coffin…is it safe?”

“Safe?  Yes.  I wouldn’t risk upsetting you again seeing what you could do half-dead and strapped to a table,” Edwin said, as he retrieved the coffin from a shelf and handed it to me.  “An odd thing for you to be carrying, that.  You are a Northman, no?  Do you know what it says?”

I shook my head.   I could read some runes, but these were alien to me.

“It’s a poem of sorts.  It says ‘’Cross the fields and passed the lake, there my lovely lady lays.  Flower bloom and flower wilt, my lovely lady’s blood was spilt.  Icy night and moon-bit dawn, my lovely lady’s head was gone.  Who has done this, who had the right?  I join my lovely lady tonight.’  Sad, no? “

Nonsense, I thought.  Only a coward takes his own life.  I pushed the blanket down so that I could stow the coffin in my pants only to find that I wasn’t wearing any and then I saw it: it looked like a piece of chainmail with stitching poking through it draped over my leg where the wound had been.  I reached down to remove it when the barber stopped me.  “Oh, right, that.  You can’t take it off, it’s been grafted into your skin.  Think of it as a kind of permanent armor.  How does it feel?”

“It hurts…take it off.”

“I…uhhh.   I’m afraid that…uhh.  I’m afraid that that’s impossible.  It’s been stitched into your muscles and ligaments and…they’ve grown into it.  It’s a…it’s a part of you now.  There was no other way.  Can you stand up?”

“So…I can’t take this off…ever?”

“Well…no.   You have to understand…I’m not a surgeon.  This was the only way I could keep you together. ..by…by the way, while you were out some slavers came looking for you.  The guards sent them right to me.   I paid them off to keep you here…they said you killed a lot of them…it wasn’t cheap, you know?”

I wasn’t really sure what to think.  I could count the people I had met in my life that I could trust on one hand.   All I knew was that this armor in my leg made it feel like I was constantly walking through a thorn bush.  I supposed there was an upside though.

I stood up and put some weight on the leg and pain immediately shot up the side of my body.  It started off as rather intense but quickly turned into more of a dull ache.  I could deal with it.  “What happens if it breaks?  Can it be repaired?”

Edwin nodded, saying “You should be able to repair it much the same as you would repair standard chainmail.  If you can’t do it then feel free to come back here and I’ll do it for you.  There is the matter of your…debt we’ve yet to talk about.  You can start by helping out around here with some odd jobs – fixing up the outside of the shop, running errands, that sort of thing.”

“Master, dinner is ready,” called Marie from the other room.

“Ahh…excellent.  You must be starved.  We can talk more later.   For now, let’s go eat.”

Chapter 7:  Banahogg

It was around the time of my tenth birthday that my father decided I was old enough to go to war, but the village elder had decided that I needed more training as I would be a liability to the other warriors without it.  I had kept my own practice as secretive as possible, and surely no one knew that I stalked the roads or paid special attention to particular passers-by.

My father’s idea of ‘training’ was to pluck out my remaining milk teeth, of which there were five (not four, not six: five), one at a time, with a pair of tongs and a hammer.

Now that I was a man, he said, I was allowed the honor of wielding my great-great-great-grandfather’s sword, Thursbanr or ogre-slayer.  My father took this opportunity to tell the oft-recited tale of Banahogg The Ogre, as I sat with a rag stuffed in my mouth to catch the blood that dripped from the empty sockets where my teeth had been.

“Back when the world was a simpler place there was born a seventh son of a seventh son, Asvald, your great -great-great-great-grandfather,” he began.   “That fair-haired baby grew into a child, and that child into a man.  He grew tall and strong, quick as a hare and handsome as Balder himself.   One day, as he was out hunting for game, he fell through the earth into a cavern that had been dug in ancient times past by a spirit of the mountain.   As he searched for a way out, he stumbled upon a skeleton still clutching the haft of a beautiful sword.  Asvald took the sword and climbed out of the cavern to continue on his hunt.

“Now, for years there had been rumor of an ogre named Banahogg that terrorized surrounding villages, maiming the peasants and eating their livestock.  They said he had been violently born as the offspring of an ice giant and a human, abandoned by both, wanted by neither.  Asvald’s village frequently made sacrifices to Tyr for protection and, until one cold winter’s night, it had worked.

“It was far past midnight when the animals began to stir and rustle and bleat and whinny.    The dogs growled and howled and several villagers had grabbed their arms and begun to peer out into the night, torches in hand.  From the distant hills came a boom, boom, BOOM, BOOM, getting closer and closer until Banahogg’s forsaken form could barely be seen stomping towards them and swinging his massive axe to and fro, knocking away trees and boulders.   His eyes glowed red as a blood moon and from his miserable black maw several jagged teeth bit through the darkness.

“He was as tall as three men and as powerful as a whispering oak.    A kick from his mighty leg could crush any man and a blow from his axe could cleave a longship in two.  As the men of the village prepared for the inevitable assault, Banahogg roared a deafening roar that shattered the silence like a thunderbolt and called out ‘I’ve come for blood, you frail sacks of meat, and I shall have it!’  One by one the men fell to Banahogg’s tremendous strength and not a single able-bodied man was left standing save your great-great-great-great-grandfather, who lay asleep in his bed, still drunk from celebration the night before.

“When the morning came Asvald awoke to find his children and livestock slaughtered and his village in ruins.  His wife wept with his only surviving son and when she saw that he had awoken she ran over, beating him with her fists and calling him lazy, worthless, drunk and any name you can imagine until she was out of breath.

“Now, Asvald began to believe that he was nothing but a worthless drunk after all and decided that the only way to atone himself would be to take up his sword and hunt the ogre down, killing him in his own black lair.

“And so, on the night of the full moon, Asvald set out to slay Banahogg.  He followed the ogre’s giant tracks for three days and three nights when he found himself knee-deep in a foul bog, awash with insects and the nauseating smell of decaying plant and animal matter.   After a week spent wandering around in that muck he came to dry place- an island of bone and ash.

“Warily, he crept out of the mire to a place where the bones were piled high and he could get a better view of his surroundings.   In the distance, a raging bonfire burned and Asvald could see Banahogg’s monstrous bulk asleep on its far side.

“Slowly, slowly, carefully, he proceeded to close the distance between himself and the ogre, picking every step so as not to make a sound but he could not keep the bones beneath him from rattling and shaking and falling into one another.   When he was within striking distance of the beast, he began to draw his blade, intent to slay the ogre in his sleep, but found that it had become jammed in the scabbard and he could not pull it out.

“As he struggled to retrieve his sword, the bones beneath him gave and he slipped, falling backwards and making a terrible racket.  Banahogg awoke immediately, and sprang to his feet.  When he saw Asvald lying on the ground, his sword still stuck in his scabbard, he began to laugh a deep, menacing, laugh so powerful that the bones all around clattered and shook from the vibration.  ‘You’ve come to kill me…ME?  Banahogg, son of an ice giant, destroyer of mortal men, and you cannot even draw your sword to strike me?’  He laughed again, for a long minute, while Asvald lay on the ground, paralyzed by fear.

“Banahogg said ‘Well, you’ve been enough entertainment for the night, now you will make a tasty snack!’ and reached down to crush poor Asvald in his hand when, just at that moment, Thursbanr was freed from its scabbard and thrust into the ogre’s palm.  ‘GrrrRRRAHHHHH!’ Banahogg roared, grabbing his injured hand.  ‘Now you die!’ he said as Asvald scrambled to his feet and raised his shield.

“Banahogg’s crushing fist pushed Asvald backwards thirty paces through the piles of bones, cracking his shield into splinters and yet he remained unharmed.   Banahogg grabbed his axe and charged forward with all the power a half-giant could muster but when he was within only one mammoth step from Asvald, his enormous weight sunk through the bone and into the mire causing him to trip and fall.

“Your great-great-great-great-grandfather saw this as the one chance he would get and swung Thursbanr with all his might, severing Banahogg’s right arm.   Banahogg, in great pain, shrieked so loudly that the sky split open and it began to pour down rain as his severed arm wriggled like a serpent, the axe still in its grasp.  His foot still caught, the ogre looked up just as Asvald was bringing Thursbanr down on his skull.  A great miscalculation on Asvald’s part, as no sword forged by mortal hand could have pierced that ogre’s crown and all he succeeded at doing was making Banahogg even angrier.

“Knowing that his undoing was at hand, Banahogg summoned his remaining strength and forced his leg free from its swampy prison.   Rising to his feet, the ogre bared his awful teeth and breathed his awful breath then reached down to pick up his own severed arm, intending to free his axe from its grasp.  Yet, Asvald was quick with his blade and swung again while Banahogg shielded himself with the arm.  The blade struck true, lopping off the severed arm’s hand and sending the axe clanging to the bones which made a peculiar sound that no normal man should ever have to hear.

“But Banahogg would not be beaten so easily so he used what he had at hand (harharhar) and swung the arm like a club, sending poor Asvald rolling and tumbling head over heels and causing him, too, to lose his weapon somewhere in the pile of bone.   Asvald, taking the ogre’s cue, found two fragmented bones with jagged edges to defend himself.

“The two clashed again, with Asvald’s superior speed being his only boon, allowing him to dodge Banahogg’s lumbering strikes, and stabbing again and again at his legs with the sharpened bones.  Eventually, both man and beast became tired and Asvald, fearing defeat, remembered the slaughter of his family and the destruction of his village and tapped into a well of strength he hadn’t know he had.

“Finding his lost sword among the glistening bones, Asvald took advantage of his newfound strength and said “No, ogre, now YOU die!” before taking one great swing and severing Banahogg’s miserable head which fumed and sputtered as it rolled onto the ground.

“Asvald slumped down near the bonfire after cleaning his blade on the ogre’s tunic and then slept in that forsaken place for two days before recovering enough to begin the journey home.”

My father sighed a heavy sigh, having finished the tale, saying “Big shoes to fill, Kol, and I’m not sure that you will do the name justice, but this sword, Thursbanr, is now yours.  May it serve you well.”

I soon drifted off the sleep to battle ogres all night long and entertain thoughts that I could one day be like my ancestor, Asvald, Thursbanr always at my side.

Chapter 8 – Nighstalker

Finally a bit of good fortune to punctuate my usual run of bad.

Brand had said that this would be a test. A measure of my skill.

He had said he needed someone just like me to carry out a few odd jobs here and there.  Someone without any ties to this place and someone with nothing to lose.

…nothing to lose…

I had watched and I had waited.  I knew where he slept and where he shit.  I knew who he talked to and I knew who his enemies were.  I had painted a map in my mind of the paths he took, the streets he avoided, the places he went to seek shelter from a storm.

The candle flickered its last flicker and a sent a tiny wisp of blue smoke curling into the room and I knew that it was time to go.  Tonight was the night, there was no turning back.  I pushed out into a chilly night with no moon.  It was dark and oppressively damp and the cobblestones twinkled with the moisture.

He would be asleep now.  There would be no noise and no struggle.  No witnesses and no clues to point to me.

As I crept through the night, stalking the shadows, I heard footsteps around the next corner.  Before I could even see their torch light I ducked into an alley and waited for them to pass.  Crouched low in the alley, I watched the guards go by, the only sound being the tapping of their boots against the cobble.   I supposed they had nothing to talk about after so long of walking these same streets together…how many times can you comment on the luminance of the moon or the chill in the air?  How many times a week can you talk about what your kid did at school; what you ate for dinner?  Anyone’s company gets boring after a while, and you can accept that or deny it, but your opinion can’t change the truth.  That girl that you love so much and can’t wait to see tonight?  Some day that girl will be the woman you can’t stand.  Some day that girl will be the woman you wish you had the balls to pay someone like me to get rid of.

Believe it.

Anyways, when they had passed, I slipped back out onto the street to continue to the place that I knew he would be sleeping peacefully, dreaming up the nonsense that he spewed day in and day out, this wretch of a man.

As I passed the blacksmith, I heard a shout in the distance and the alarm bells began to sound.

Lights twinkled on in every window and turret and tower.

A trap, this.

Brand, you’ve set me up, you spineless bastard.  I knew I didn’t trust you.  But…maybe not.  Maybe this is just coincidence.  So close now, maybe I can still finish the job.  Maybe this is part of the test.  Speed is now my greatest ally.

I am not as stealthy as I once was, despite my practice as a boy.  This armored leg has made me slower…less agile.  Less quiet.  But there was no more need for stealth.  Move in, find the mark, kill him and slip away.  Quick as an arrow.

I can see the stable from here.  Behind it, I knew The Fool would still be asleep, comfortable in his bed of hay.  A quick few steps across the street and around the corner and…damn…there he is, sitting up, awake.

A look of shock on that wizened old face.

Neither of us exchange a word, just a glance.  I think he knows why I’m here.

Your time is up, nothing personal.

I reach behind to pull out the knife that Brand’s croney had given me.  A silver dagger with a pearl handle.  I’m supposed to leave it where the guards can find it.

He doesn’t move.  He doesn’t cry for help.  He knows why I’m here and he accepts his fate.

An admirable quality…for a fool.

I have no love for this man and yet I find that I hesitate, for the briefest of moments.  Self doubt can be a miserable  curse.

“Warlock…” he finally says, “You will find no peace.”

One second later and it’s over.  The blade punctures his heart and he dies with a blank look on his face.  Maybe he was just ready to find out what was on the other side.  What lies beyond the grave…

No time to waste, Kol.  You can think later.  For now, get out of here.  Crawl back to your hole.

A glance around the corner reveals nothing.   The alarms continue to ring and…oh fuck…here they come.

Five armed guards with torches heading my way.  I recognize one of them as the guard captain that I had met at the city gate.

Turn the other way…sneak around the back…mad dash towards the next corner.

Damn this leg for slowing me down.

An arrow shot by a crossbowman in the guard tower whizzes past, grazing my arm.   I don’t stick around for the second shot.

“There he is!” someone yells as I duck back through the alley.

Follow the escape route I had planned.

No one here.  Cross the street and into the next alley. Through the door to the abandoned house and push the table against it just in case.  Climb the stairs to the second floor and out the window onto the balcony.   Slowly and carefully…just like I practiced.   Don’t attract attention.  Stick to the shadows.  Use the chimney smoke to obscure your form.  Use the shadow to disguise your shape.  I notice that the humidity has condensed on the rooftops making them slippery and difficult to properly navigate.

Run and jump to the next roof…two steps later and jump again to roll onto the flat roof, there.   Climb the overhang to the red roof, run the length of it to build enough speed to jump to the…grey roof.  Regain your footing and…slip…stumble backwards.   Pull out your knife and jam it through the roof to keep yourself from falling off the edge.

The one detail I had overlooked…the one thing I had forgotten to plan for threatens to ruin me.  Next time I will not be so careless.

Struggle back to your feet, retrieve the knife.  Amazing that no one saw or heard that surely-fatal error.  Maybe the gods just aren’t done with me yet.  Vault over the place where I had pushed past the Fool in the street weeks earlier and I can almost see him sitting there on the ground in the rain…Just another innocent man…and yet, I am now so jaded that I can barely conceive what innocence is.  There is no innocence, I tell myself.  Nothing is pure.  No one is free.  No one deserves to live if I can take their life.  No one deserves to love if I can end their bliss.  No one deserves their wealth if I can burn it all down.

No peace?  Maybe peace is not what I’m looking for.  Maybe peace is just a lie you tell your children to help them sleep at night.   War is all I’ve ever known and blood is all that drives me.

And if this blade finds your heart, and if my aim is true, and if my strength does not fail me, and if your body goes cold…then you have only played into fate’s hand.  Then you are just like me.

Do you believe in fate?

It believes in you.

There is no other deciding factor.

Chapter 9 – Deathhand

“There is no greater honor than to die in battle,” my father began.  “And any true Austmann would gladly die by the sword.”

I have no plans to die just yet.

“There may even be room for an ugly bastard like you in Valhalla’s great hall.”

Too much left to do.

“How does the armor suit you?  I know it’s a little big…”

I still have to find him.

“And the shield?  Made just for you.”

And murder his family.

“And Thursbanr?  Asvald might almost be proud.”

And grind his bones to dust.

The waves broke over the edge of our ship and a million twinkling points of light guided our path.  Our very own map in the sky.

My father ran out of things to say after the first week and so he began to repeat himself.

Valhalla.  Valhalla.  Valhalla.

I think he wanted me to die.  I think he wanted to be rid of me.  He was hoping I didn’t make it home.

I turned over the coffin in my pocket, feeling the runes with my fingers.

A symbol of power or a token of death?  A cursed talisman or a fetish of life?

My savior or my destroyer.

I opened my palm to look at the scar it had given me.  A longish shape with 6 sides…the coffin fit almost exactly into it, like some kind of key.  The key to my future, or my fate, or my doom.

Some of the runes used to be visible in my hand, but they had since faded, leaving only an ugly blotch behind.  A symbol of my failure.

My father said he hoped we didn’t run into any sea monsters.

We were headed west to find the people with a lot of gold.

We would probably be cramped on the trip home, he said, as we’d be taking some of them back.

We’d be taking some of them back in chains and we’d turn around and sell or trade them to the people that lived far to the south of us.  They never had enough slaves.

My father said he hoped my sword didn’t get stuck in my scabbard like poor Asvald.

I think he wanted me to die.

One morning we came to a river that led inland.   One of the men said that the people here always built their cities on rivers and that we were bound to find something here.

The dragon on our ship’s bow winked at the trees that lined the muddy river banks.

You know why we’re here, old friends, and you’ve nothing to fear.  I can’t breathe fire while I’m stuck to this ship.  Tell us where the men are…tell us where the gold is…

…and the trees that lined the muddy river banks swayed in the summer breeze.

Another two days of sailing downriver and we caught sight of a farm house.  The dragon on our ship’s bow winked at the men working in the fields, but they couldn’t understand him.  Through their eyes he was breathing fire.

Flaming arrows were shot from one of the ships ahead of us and the farmhouse was soon ablaze.  One of our ships docked and the men working in the fields were gutted as they tried to run.

My father said that there was no gold here, but we didn’t want them ruining our surprise.

My father said that this meant we’d come to a city soon.

Another farmhouse received the same treatment.

And another.

One of the men working in the fields tried to fight with his pitchfork instead of running and we cut his head off and hung it on the bow of our ship.

The dragon winked as the blood ran into his eyes and mouth.

A grey mass could be seen in the distance and my father said that it was a city.

As we got closer I could see the gates begin to swing shut and a horn sounded.

We docked our boats and began to make camp.

The next few days were spent constructing siege equipment.  One of our men was a skilled engineer and he said they would be necessary to destroy the city’s fortifications.

The eastern side of the city was not walled, and nestled up against the river we had sailed in on.  The north and south walls each had a gate with two artillery towers and the western wall had a single tower in its center.  The plan was to deploy the catapults and mangonels on the eastern wall to destroy the sole tower there where we would be out of range of the other towers and breach the wall.  The forward force would rush the breach and when they had entered the city, the reserve force would sail in and dock on the eastern edge while the guards were occupied with the breach.

My father and I were to be part of the forward force and we were to kill anyone that offered any resistance, including women and children, although these were more valuable alive than dead.

The attack began the following day.  We moved fast so that the city would not have time to receive reinforcements.

I was allowed to help with loading the stones into one of the mangonels and I marveled as each giant boulder flung through the air, smashing into the wall so far away.  Some were loaded with flaming bundles of lumber instead of boulders and they whistled as they were sent into the sky, leaving a trail of embers and smoke behind, one by one, like miniature comets.

The single guard tower fired back but was vastly outgunned and we received minimal damage.  The wall began to crumble in several places and the guard tower was soon decimated.

My father said that it was almost time and he made some last minute adjustments to my armor and put on my helmet.  I complained that the armor was too big and made it hard for me to move around.  I complained that the helmet made it hard to see.

Fires began to break out at several places inside the city and acrid smoke filled the air.

I helped load another boulder into the mangonel and watched as it soared towards the city wall, finally smashing through and making an opening that we could fit through.  Within seconds men began to pour out of the city, some armored and with sword, some with simple clothes and wood axes.

The dragon on our ship’s bow winked as they screamed towards us.

My father said we thought this might happen, and our plan was almost the same.  We were to wait until they got a little closer and charge and once we had clashed with them the reserve force was to ride in by horse and attack their rear.

They should have used their archers, he said, as the men began to load their bows and aim skyward.

Hold…hold…hold…fire!  And I watched the volley of arrows arc into the charging men and some of them collapsed to the ground.

And the second volley found its mark.

And the third volley sent them reeling.

“Charge!!! Charge!!! Charge!!!” our elder said and the men began to run.   I drew my sword and ran with it above my head, yelling like the other men did.

Watching the world race by through the tiny window in my oversized helmet, I could feel my heart beating louder and louder.  My breath came fast and shallow and I began to drip with sweat.  Run, run, run, Kol, run.   Show them who you can be.

Down a hill and up a hill and clear the crest of another and BAM face first into the enemy.  Skid to a halt and swing.

The first man crumpled before me and I pulled back and swung again, this time catching only air.

I found myself off-balance and as I tried to recover I felt a heavy THUD on my shoulder as my armor absorbed a blow.  I turned to strike again, and this time Thursbanr found my would-be slayer, piercing him through the gut.  I could see fear…fear in his eyes…fear in all of their eyes.

And the dragon on our ship’s bow winked as I pulled my sword out of the dying man.

Another man came at me with an axe and I raised my shield as it collided into the freshly painted wood.  The blade came through just enough to bite at my arm that held the shield.  I gritted my teeth and swung at the man, cutting him across the chest.  He let go of the battleaxe still sticking through my shield and stumbled backwards as I swung again, severing his head.

I had to drop the shield…the axe kept tearing at my arm and it was too unwieldy now.  I threw it down and put my foot on it and pulled out the axe.  I could feel the blood dripping down my arm and I grimaced as I raised the axe, realizing that the earlier hit to my shoulder was not entirely deflected by my armor.

Smile, Kol, and think of the coffin.  Think of your mother.  Feel your ruined face and let it take you away…

Throw off my helmet…I didn’t need it anymore.  Take off your breastplate and let the blood flow freely.  Mist come and take me…and I felt as though I was looking through a red fog.   Anything extraneous was gone and there were only my enemies, with their knives and spears, axes and clubs.

Another came but I was too fast for him now…too focused…and my axe found his leg an easy mark.  Behind me now and Thursbanr drove right through his neck.  Blood splattered on my face and chest and yet they kept coming.

Who’s next?  Do I appear so easy a target?

You, with the spear, come and see how your advantage fairs.

Too slow, friend, and I sidestepped your feeble attack and cracked your spear in two with my boot.

Spin, now, Kol, a whirlwind of death and three more fell to axe and sword.

You think I have lost my balance, that you have found my weakness?  I’ll slice you from brow to groin.

And you?  And you?  And you?

Your shields will crack to splinters and your swords will be flung away.  Your axes will not take hold and your spears will stab at the places I used to be.

And you?  Will you face me and find your intestines on the ground?  Will your skull crack open and your brains seep out?  Will your arms or legs be torn away, leaving only bloody stumps behind?

My head was pounding now and my heart felt like it would explode.

My vision was locked to a ruinous slit and I could see only red.  Impossible to tell friend from foe.

Some of them had turned to flee and yet there were still more.  Behind me, before me, surrounding me.

I turned and swung and Thursbanr found another mark, but someone gripped me from behind.   I smashed my elbow into his face and brought the axe down onto him.

I swung again…this pack of wolves will not take me.

The taste of bile in my throat and I could hardly breathe…a sharp pain in the back of my head and I fell to my knees.

Someone threw a net over me and kicked me in the face.  My weapons were wrestled away and I could hear a familiar voice.

“…K…Kol?  It’s over, son…we’ve won.  You can…you can stop fighting now.”

And the dragon on our ship’s bow winked.

Chapter 10:  Heads or Tails

I passed that night huddled in one of my less common spots.  It was uncomfortable, cramped and damp, but saw little traffic.   From the peak of shadow to the first glint of dawn, the alarm bells continued to ring and guards hustled here and there.  No one passed my way and no one asked me any questions.

I spent most of the night running through the events in my head.   Where could I have been faster?  Where could I have been stronger?   What were the flaws in my plan?  I suffered only a minor wound but, still, I had been seen…If only for a moment.

I realized at one point that I had forgotten about the blade…the blade with the pearl handle that I was supposed to leave as evidence, but it was too late now.   I decided to leave it here when I went to meet Brand at noon and ask him what he wanted me to do.   I knew I had fucked up and I didn’t want to fuck up further, or by chance get seen dropping it somewhere by some nosy old lady.

I managed to sleep for a couple hours when the sun had come up and then I headed back to the tavern to wait for Brand.

I walked in from the early morning sun to find the Troll’s Breath every bit as dark and gloomy as it was at night.  There were no windows.  A few people were scattered about and I took a seat at the bar to order a drink.  Before the barmaid could even give me my drink I was tapped on the shoulder by the same crook-nosed pale-faced rat that had approached me last time and, again, I hadn’t seen him coming, the sneaky bastard.

“Don’t say anything,” he whispered, “Just watch where I go, finish your drink, and follow me when you’re done.”

The barmaid came over to deliver my mead as I watched The Rat scuttle to the back of the bar and open a door that I hadn’t seen before.

As I was paying for my pint the front door opened and in came the guard captain and two guards.

Be calm, Kol.   They don’t know anything.   Mind your own business and drink your drink.

I sat, looking straight ahead, pretending to study the bottles that were shelved behind the bar when the two seats next to me were pulled out and the guard captain sat to my left while a guard sat to my right.  I glanced behind me to see the other guard standing at the door.

“Well, well, well, what do we have here?” said the guard captain.  “I thought it stunk worse than usual in this dump.”

Take it, Kol.   Don’t be stupid.  Don’t give them a reason.

I took a slow sip of my drink before saying , “Something I can do for you?  I was busy trying to make the place smell like home.”

Never was much for humor.

“I’ll be happy to slap that smirk off your face if you don’t keep your mouth shut and listen,” he said.

“I’m listening and, again, what can I do for you?

“Yeah.  Where were you last night?”

“Sleeping…or trying to.   Not that easy with those bells ringing all night and you lot clanging around all over the place.”

“None of the guards reported seeing you where you usually lay your lousy head.”

“None of your guards are worth a shit then, or they’d know that I have a few ‘usual spots’, not just the one by the square.  I was lucky too, ‘cause no one bothered me all night.”

“What did I tell you about that smirk…Warlock, they tell me you’re called now?  I prefer barbarian scum.”

I sighed and took and took another drink of my mead.  Play the part.  “I don’t care what you call me, but I’m not bothering anyone here so, do you mind giving me a little space?  What happened anyway?”

“A certain…unpopular…individual was murdered, not that it’s any of your business.   Some might say he had it coming, but we don’t tolerate that sort of thing in Turtannus.  We try to keep this place safe and you trash down here step on us every chance you get.  We’ll find out who did this, and he’ll be hanging by week’s end.  Mark my words, scum,” said the captain as he pushed out his chair to get up.

“Oh, and don’t try to leave town.  We’ll be watching you,” he called from the front door as he and the guards were leaving.

I waited for a few minutes to be sure they weren’t coming back, finished my mead and headed to the back of the bar to the door that The Rat had opened earlier.

The door led to a stone staircase that went downward.  I descended the stairs and came to a crumbling hallway with water dripping through cracks in the ceiling and a torch hung on the wall mid way.  A large man that I didn’t recognize stood in front of the only door, which was at the other end.

“Stop,” he said.  “What are you doing here?”

“I’m Kol.   Supposed to meet Brand.”

“Oh are ya now?  Is that what ya told Reynard?” said the man as he cracked his knuckles.

“Reynard?  I guess you mean the guard captain?  I didn’t tell him anything.  He just doesn’t like me.”

The man paused for a moment, studying me.  He stared at me and I stared back, no expression on my face, and none on his.

After what seemed like a long time, he concluded “Alright, but know that if you’re lying you’re dead, one way or the other,” and knocked three times on the door.

The door unbolted from the inside and swung open and I could see Brand, the Rat, and a few of the others that had been with them at our first meeting seated at a large round table.  There were piles of coins stacked on the table as well as various bottles and cups.  Brand motioned for me to come in.

“Have a seat, Warlock,” said Brand and pointed at an empty chair opposite the table from him.

“Call me Kol,” I said as I sat down.

“I’ll call you maggot-infested horse-shit if I damn well please, Warlock, and you’ll do damn well to remember it.  Especially if you keep fucking things up!” replied Brand as I felt two giant hands come to rest on my shoulders.  “That guy there?  He’ll snap your neck like a twig and send your rotting corpse to Reynard with a signed confession if you don’t tell me what I want to know.”

I glanced behind me to see that it was the same man who had been guarding the door.

I could take him if I had to.

Breathe, Kol, breathe.   Now is not the time.

Close your eyes and breathe.

“Look at me when I’m talking to you, you scum fucker.  What happened to the dagger?  You dimwit.  I was counting on you,” continued Brand, while the other men at the table were laughing and drinking and making jokes with one another.

Breathe, Kol.

“The dagger!” brand slammed his fist on the table and stood up.  “Where is it?”

I could taste bile in my throat and my muscles began to tighten.   The mist began to creep into the room, lying low on the floor.

I took one more deep breath before saying, “I still have it.  I know, I was supposed to leave it, but at least the man is dead, no?  Most of the job was finished.”

“You think I give a fuck about the life of some…beggar?  You idiot!  You fucked up, Warlock, and you cost me a lot of money.  The dagger was the whole point.  The dagger was the reason.”

Money…gambling.  I killed that man for sport?  I had figured before that the dagger was for some sort of set-up, that someone had to take the blame.  It hadn’t occurred to me that this was just a game, fool that I am.

I wondered for just a second who it was that was supposed to take the fall.  Someone rich, considering the quality of that blade.  Why…why?  Who cares Kol, this is the first opportunity you’ve had since coming here, don’t screw it up.  Make I can finally pay back Edwin now.

And the men at the table just kept laughing.

Brand sighed a heavy sigh and said, “What am I going to do with you?  To be fair, it was a…difficult first mission.”

“The odds were against you, and shut your damn mouth, Caspar, I’ve had enough of your gloating,” he said and shot a glance at one of the men.

Caspar, a short, fat, balding man, with an overly red, round face and expensive looking clothes took this opportunity to do something besides guffaw and said, “You’re just mad that you lost, Brand.  Maybe this Warlock ain’t as tough as he looks.”

I could smell his perfume from across the table.

Sensing that Brand was the only important person to me here, I responded, “Try me, fat man.  Maybe I can help Brand make some of his money back.”

At that, the expressions on Caspar and Brand’s faces traded places and Brand stood up laughing, and said, “I knew I liked you, Warlock.  So how ‘bout it, Caspar.  Think you got what it takes?”

The fat man leaned back in his chair and said “Well, maybe not today,” as he poured himself another drink and shot a dirty look in my direction.

“Well, Kol.  You really messed this up, but I think I may have a use for you yet,” said Brand as he tossed a single gold coin from one of the piles that lay on the table to me.  “Come see me next week.”

Well, maybe now I can eat for a couple of days.

Chapter ??  The Ivory Coffin

I had known Hette since her family had moved to my village when we were children.

We had grown up together in the hilly village of Eingarten on the banks of the Edelstein river and, as children, we had frequently quarreled.   Nothing serious, mind you, just the usual bickering of children.

When I got a little bit older, I began to notice how beautiful she was…how her hair shone in the sun as she picked flowers with her mother and sisters.

I was a shy boy, but she was always so vibrant…so full of life.

One night during the celebration of the vernal equinox, as I sat alone listening to the musicians play, she came and sat next to me.  My heart skipped a beat but I tried to hide my feelings from her.  We talked and laughed for hours and yelled out to the minstrels to play our favorite songs, and it seemed to me that I would never come any closer to heaven.

She sang along sometimes and I became captivated by her golden voice that matched her golden hair.

When the night was drawing to a close, she took my hand in hers, leaned over and kissed me on the cheek.  I could feel the blood rushing to my face as my uncle Claus said “Way to go, Clement!” but I knew, then and there, that Hette was the girl that I would marry.

From there, we grew closer and closer, yet the closer I got to her, the closer she wanted me to be.  There were certain secrets I wanted to keep, and she would push and push and push until I got angry.  She got angry, too.  She didn’t think my feelings were true.  She said that if I truly loved her, I would tell her anything.  She said that if I truly wanted her, I would give myself to her fully.   But…I was still a shy boy.  Why couldn’t she understand?  I loved you, Hette…more than you could have ever possibly known.

I should have just told you exactly how I felt.

I began to notice there was a darkness in her.  She heard people that no one else could hear.  She saw things that no one else could see.  And these ghosts or demons…they told her that I was untrue.  They told her that she needed to run away.  They told her that she needed to find someone else, someone from her past or her future.  Someone that had meant something once.

We called on the wise woman, Unn, to drive away the darkness and it seemed to work for a while…but soon they were back again.

What could I have done?  “Go,” I told her, “I don’t want to keep you from your happiness…and if it isn’t me that makes you happy then I won’t be happy, either.”

And so she went…

For weeks, she was gone, and I kept telling myself that she would be back in my arms and that everything would be perfect with us again.  For weeks I told myself that I had made the right decision.  That by letting her be free, I gave her everything she needed.  That she would find her way back to me.

When she came home, I was lying awake in our bed, trying to sleep.  She came in and kissed me and I could immediately tell that something was wrong.  What had happened to my beautiful Hette?  Where had she been?

She said she had gone to visit an old friend…a friend she had known since before we had met.  She said she just needed to get away for a while.  She said she was sure now…and that it was me.  It had always been me, yet things only got worse.

Once, around the time that Hette and I had first met, I had mentioned to a friend of mine that an acquaintance of hers’ was pretty.  I said, “Hey, Hette should introduce you to Ayla, she’s really pretty.”  It was in front of Hette that I said this, and she became insanely jealous.  Not a week went by after that, that she did not burst into tears and accuse me of being unfaithful with Ayla.

If I glanced at a girl that walked down the street or talked too long to the girl that ran the store, it meant I was sleeping with them behind her back.   If I took too long plowing the field, it meant that I did not want to spend time with her.

She began to drink too much…and every time she drank she found a reason to pick a fight with me.

The next day she would apologize…She would cry and beg for forgiveness…she would blame it on the demons or ghosts that haunted her.  And yet…she always believed that I did not love her.  That I was looking for something else.  She always felt that she was not good enough for me.

Eventually I had decided that we needed to spend some time apart…some time to think about things.  In truth, I intended to run away and never come back…I had reached my wit’s end…but in the end my heart belonged to her and only her.

I moved to a neighboring village and occasionally I would go to visit her.  The time we spent together I alternately looked forward to or dreaded.  The odds were equal that I would either see the love that I had lost, or the reasons I had chosen to leave.

After a time, I decided that we had done this long enough and I told her I didn’t want to see her anymore.  It broke my heart, I swear to you, but I didn’t know what else to do.

She began to see another man, Jeck.  I had been friends with him for years and always liked him…I had spoken highly of him.  On one of my final visits with her, she told me that he had been taking care of her.  That she had been sick and that he had watched over her.  She told me that they were just friends.  I saw a poem he had written her, wishing that she got well soon.  “No intentions,” it said.

He was much older than her and had been married before.  I saw through him.  I saw what he wanted and I tried to warn her.  She had moved in with him.  He owned a house and offered her a life of ease.  She didn’t want to hear me, she didn’t want to listen.

Soon they began sharing the same bed and I couldn’t take it any more…my true love…my one and only…yet, I hoped she just needed some time.

For months I sent no letters and heard nothing from her and then one day, a letter came in the mail.  It said, “You were right.  He is no good for me.  I’m sorry.  Can I see you?”

I immediately packed a bag and travelled back to Eingarten to see her.  She looked so beautiful and I remembered again why I loved her.  I held her close and her smell and her touch intoxicated me.  We sat and talked for hours and I asked her to please come home with me.  She said that she couldn’t…but that she would see me tomorrow.

Tomorrow came and when I went to see her, she told me that she had decided to work things out with Jeck…That she was sorry…that she had made a mistake…that she didn’t want to see me again.

I was crushed…absolutely and completely.  I felt betrayed and used.

I became angry…I called her and her new lover all manner of names…I told her again that she was making a mistake.  I told her again that I loved her…that I loved her more than anything.  What a fool I felt like, when I realized that she no longer felt the same.

What a fool I was.

Another month passed and another letter came. She said that she was sure this time…that it was done with her and him and, again, I dropped everything to run to her.  Again we talked for hours and this time we spent the night together.  Nothing could have made me happier.

When the morning came, she was gone, and she had left a letter in her place.  It said, “I’m sorry, but I realized that we aren’t the same anymore, and I am going back to him.”

…how can one person do this to another?  Have you no feelings at all?  Do you ever think of anyone but yourself?  I decided then and there that I would never speak to her again and that I never wanted to see her ever again…but what is true love if it cannot transcend all obstacles?

A year later, I decided that I had to go see her.  Thoughts of her had never left my mind, and I realized that I couldn’t live without her any longer.  I was going to do whatever it took to win her back, no matter the cost.  I was prepared to stand naked in the rain and profess my undying love for her with the whole village watching.  I was prepared to sing a song praising her beauty even though I had no musical talent.

When I reached Eingarten, the townsfolk were all gathered outside.  When my uncle saw me coming he ran up to me, saying, “You heard the news already?  I’m so sorry, Clement…I don’t even know what to say.”

“News?” I said.  “What news?  I’ve come to see Hette.”

At that, the color drained from his face and I began to understand what had happened.  I pushed through the crowd and there I saw her…her beautiful face was cut off from her body.  I ran over to her and put my arms around her…no…no…no…how can this be?  “Who did this?” I inquired.

It was Jeck…he had discovered her with another man…and he was extremely jealous.

He had fled in the night.

I spent the next months searching for him but found no trace.  He had disappeared and eventually I had no choice but to give up.  I was no hunter of men.

I returned home to Eingarten and at her grave among the flowers I found a coffin.  A tiny ivory coffin.  I don’t know who put it there.

It is with despair, now, that I carve these final words…a poem for my lost love…I hope to see you again in the afterlife, Hette.  My one and only…I can’t go on without you.

I join my lovely lady tonight.