The sky was dark as the carapace of the beetles which scurried hither and thither beneath the flinty, scattered boughs of the gnarled and dying trees as the man moved over the khaki hillocks of the endless moor, the traveling lamp unshuttered the world in its eastward descent unto oblivion as if following the lonely soul in his argent passage. Wind-chaffed and weary, that solitary figure trudged over a low slope and descended liken to the effulgent sphere above him as a scattering of sheep ran zig-zag about him, fleeing off down the incline to congregate about the fires of some aged vaquero. The cowherd bivouacked in a stony vale, buttressed all about by a high semi-circle of tors that girded he and his odd-baying wards from the buffets of the world. To the left of a fire-pit which had been hastily constructed and ringed about with the scarce, ashen sediment of the moor stood a diminutive palfrey, outfitted with naught but a loosely strapped saddle-cloth and whisp’d reigns of hair.
The stranger looked on a while and then adjusted his leather belt and heavy pack, his shoulder o’er thrown and looked to the storm-wall building up in the far-flung distance and then back again and made haste to the camp seeking harbourage from the ravishment encroaching.
Small flickering tongues of flame hacked away the shade from the rocky outcropping and illuminated the face of the beasts and men alike and for a brief spheres-turning all was silent save for crackling stutter of burning wood and the muted shuffling of the graze-beasts upon the heath.
The vaquero looked the stranger up and down and then bade him to the warmth of his shelter, the invitation, readily accepted.
“What queer business brings such as thee to this long-forsaken vale?”
The stranger set himself down beside the fire and warmed his aching bones and then turned to his benefactor with a countenance both dire and faraway, as if he were intensely enveloped in the contemplation of something from a time long past or yet still to come.
“No business but chance. I make pilgrimage to Caer Tor, but upon my way my horse didst fall; eaten by ague. So, with a heavy heart, I put sword to spine and ended the sorry beast’s suffering and continued on my way afoot; this barren waste the last obstacle o’er which I must leap to reach my kinsmen’s warm embrace, they unprimed of my arrival.”
The cowherd nodded as if sense had been made of the thing and some semblance of trust both established and reciprocated.
“Thou mayst call me, Ealdwine.”
As the stranger took the old man’s hand and shook it firmly he spoke with something liken to shame frittering about his dulcet tones.
“Curious name that, such that it sounds not of this thede, nor any other.”
“That alone is a story in the retelling.”
“The isolation of the moor doth unfix the tongue from its rightful wagging – but worry not, I shan’t pry. Thy business is thy own and thine own to keep.”
“I mind not, old man, but would thank thee for the comfort of thy wild-twinkling foyer, the effulgence of the firmament, for all its dazzling brightness did little to gird me from frost’s fell grasp. Hark! Hear ye that sound?”
The old man half turned upon the old log on which he sat, cocking an ear in the direction of the wide, outer dark. Then he shook his hoary head and returned his attention to the wayfarer.
“Nay, I hear nothing.”
Ealdwine leaned closer to the stranger, his grizzled visage demon-like in the interplay of dark and flame.
“There are always noises upon the heath. Sounding with great regularity, not all tricks of a frightened mind at that. There are skinks, efts, wild dogs and shrews and grouse and geese, adders and crickets aplenty. Oftimes the big-horned rams from the far mountains loose themselves from that stony prison and, wayward, wander in quizzical vexation about this lonely place. Wild hearts beating with the echoing confusion the land sings aplenty. Upon such happenings, I see them stray into the marsh which stretches like a great and black-blooded gash across the earth at the far southern end of the moor, like a wound from some titian’s own brand. If so they stray, they will invariably fall prey to the silent monster with maw eternal-arced and hunger endless and strain against the bog-hold, crying out, strangely human, into the fire-pitted welkin where nary an ear but mine can hear tell of their sorry plight. At last their rangy heads and heaving flanks will vanish beneath the sinkhole and with that disappearance so to do their cries subside and all is at once, silent and severe.”
Gunvald, sensing the old herder sought his fear, crossed his thick and iron banded arms about his cuirassed chest and raised a brow.
“Canst thou not aid the poorly beasts?”
“Fools errand that twould be, none but a scion of God could navigate that blasted place with sureness of foot. The first false step means death, to man or beast. For there is naught living that can escape that fetid pit when once it has thee in its soggy grip.”
“Tis a fine thing then that I am no horny ram.”
“You should not make light of such turnings, for there is a ordering to things beyond our comprehension and a truth it seems to me that those who scoff at the plight of that whom The Creator hath deigned to snatch away laugh also at Him, for is not such cessation but part and parcel of his plan? What greater sacrilege could there but to scoff at the very pathing of the world. So take heed, traveler, thy laugh at thy own peril for thy laugh unto the very face of God.”
Gunvald furrowed his brows and then adjusted his belted scabbard such to bend better towards the heat and there a moment refreshed himself and then straightened and addressed the old man.
“Thy words well become a man of your occupation. Tis rightful that men of the earth should, with their deeds as with their tongue, extol it.”
“Yes. But ye yet say naught pertaining to the truth of it.”
“It is not for men of my station to interpret such eldritch things. I’ve not the brain for it and, lacking the intelligence, lack also the words. My voice is in my sword for redder conversations than this.”
“A soldier then?”
“Aye. Hark. Again I hear it.”
Before the old man could speak three vast shadows subsumed the rocky outcropping and footed there, three men, feral eyed and brigandined. There was between them several swords and daggers, all of which reflected like ghostly fires neath the cool sheen of the shrouded, waning moon.
The cowherd and his compatriot rose with suddenness, Gunvald’s hand flying instinctively to the leather-bound pommel of his gilded blade, gifted him by his father, late. He drew the blade in the same instant and stepped forth with a fencer’s feline grace, eyes steady as poise, emotion cold as the brand which glinted orange with the low-crackling fire.
“Put that away afore ye hurt yeself,” a pudgy member of that ratty trio mouthed with a wide, sinister grin.
Another, the shortest and ugliest member of that threesome, a hunchback, swiped the air with his weapon, a cudgel as loathsome as the visage of its wielder, which caused the sheep to bah-bah and retreat civilly to the very edges of the high, stone cliffs.
“Looks as if we’ve a froggy one! I’ll take him myself and to our master bring his head!”
“Silent and still be the both of you,” Thundered the tallest member of that sordid corp, a man some thirty years of age, angular of face and form, he wielding a grain scythe in his leather-strapped hands.
Gunvald knew not the providence of such beings but their intention was plainly writ; the Narrow War had made many such fell creations, the ungainly trio being but lesser manifestations of the insurrections twisted deviance. Their movements furtive. Eyes more beast than man.
“You must excuse my friends, tisn’t oft we chance upon such ill-girded company.”
Gunvald smiled fractionally.
“So you think.”
“So I know.”
“Try me then, brigand, and may Marta bless the better man.”
Malefactorous, the night-stalker advanced hesitantly across the muddy ground, well-slicked with welkin-mourn, farm scythe held awkwardly before him, as if it were some mighty polearm. All the while the thief drew forth Gunvald moved nary an inch, his eyes and bones and blade fractions of a singular whole, still as the stone surrounding. At the last, as the dread-scythe arced through the air with a furious humming, the soldier tore himself from his rooted shade and feinted the blow with the mid-side of his great-brand and delivered a sunderous riposte that severed the brigand’s arm from its socket.
A faint mist of red fluttered through the air like tiny moths from some otherworld of dreams and portents and landed upon the ground as the gory limb flopped down beside them like a huge and malformed fish. A startling howl tore from the rouges’ throat, as if it were his soul that had been rent from the body rather than a mere arm, the sound resounding throughout the high towering outcroppings and fading up into the night as if suffering were drawn unto the dark.
The flock bah-bah-ed nervously and stomped their hooves as their Shepard starred on, wide-eyed but resolved.
Gunvald turned to the remaining cretins who paused a moment, looking to the triumphal warrior, clad in moon-glint mail, then to the leaking appendage that still clutched the scythe and then to the man to which the arm used to belong, some seven feet away, flat on his back, writhing like a punctured horseshoe crab, his agony so great that nothing now but muted moans escaped his wide spaced maw, lips flexing like roiling bait-worms fresh off some fisherman’s hook.
With a startled cry the felonious duo turned tail and fled off into the night, their lanky shadows odd-angling under the skies auspicious glow, shortly thereafter wholly swallowed up into the hazy outer null. Gunvald made to swiftly follow but was held aback by the vaqueros cry, “No! They fly to the marshlands. Heed my words: Let them fly, no man can traverse such cursed terrain under the pall of night!”
Gunvald nodded and watched them fade off into the wide sea of black and then exhaled heavily, as the old man looked mournfully towards the dying thief.
Then all was sheep-call and bird-caw and fire-hiss and the hideous bleating of a lost and dying soul.
At length, Gunvald turned to his fallen foe who instantly began, once more, to shriek unto the vaulted sphere of night. His eyes bugging into enormous disks, strange-lit by the dancing flames of the softly crackling fire. Just as swiftly the man’s howling was silenced by the point of Gunvald’s blade piecing his armor and heart, there pinning him to the ground as he wriggled like some great and misshapen insect. Then his eyes rolled up in his head and a final gasp of breath escaped his mouth, issuing high up into the moist and roiling air. Then nothing but the clacking of hooves and the whistling of clay-scented wind, raving out over the great and scoured ambit of the rain-washed plane.
At length Gunvald, put his boot to the silent brigand’s chest and pulled free his bloody brand and then bent to the dead man and from his head cut a thick and charcoal lock of hair. He moved from the site of execution to the firepit and knelt before the red, closing his eyes and uttering a strange mantra unto the dancing embers, as if they’d ears to hear it.
What has gone, is what is come.
And from my hands, I give to yours.
That which is rightfully owed.
His life to your light, now and forever unending.
Give us both your pardon.
Let him keep his rest.
May your light engulf the world and every other.
When the soldier had finished his prayer and tossed the lock of hair into the fire and watched it burn with keen intensity, as if revelations would speak in shocking tongues from beneath those puffs of thin, gray smoke. When they did not he rose from the ground and set himself down upon one of the flat stones which the vaquero had hauled to the pit to keep himself well clear of the ground as he warmed his old bones. The vaquero looked to the knight a moment, then the fire, then the knight and spoke, his voice uneven, afeared.
“The hunchback mentioned they’re master.”
Gunvald nodded vaguely and gestured towards the old man for something to drink for which he was rewarded with a flask of sour, salty rice-wine. The soldier grimaced but downed it all the same, feeling a hot sensation in the pit of his stomach. He leaned over the flames, cradling the flask between his heaved gloved hands and addressed the cattle-herder with deadpan seriousness.
“Likely to me it seems that such those that fled were but part of some larger band. Raiders. From the hillands. Long have they warred with Tor. The nature of the conflict lost to the annals of history and the sands of time. T’would be unwise of thee to tarry.”
“Aye, they were at that. Though lonesome it may appear to thee, across the bogland there is green grass than this. It is there I’d graze my woolly friends were there space to do it. Alas, the land is owned and off I’d be run in not half a minute. Greedy land owners to the south and bloody thirsty raiders to the north, such is my plight, traveler, so much as it might behoove me to pack up and flee, I’ve no where to go.”
The vaquero fell silent a good long while, his eyes cast to the flames, as Gunvald took the information in solemnly and stroked his burgeoning beard as if in meditation. When at last the old man raised his face from the fire there was great sadness in his eyes.
“Ye didn’t have to kill him.”
Gunvald paused a moment and then met his elder’s gaze with dark amusement shinning in his steely eyes.
“So even thee questions the order of the world. Thee, thyself said it twas paramount to a question of the very nature of God. Is this your project, vaquero?”
The old man, shocked by his own hypocrisy, fell silent and did not respond. The soldier continued on, heedless.
“Of course it is, what else could it be. It is the project of any and all sane and questioning men. It was this very project that led me to reject The Eternal Being, for such a presence, he who is eternal, all powerful and everywhere at all times and places is said to lack in nothing – a fatal error, he lacks in one thing and one thing alone, limitation. As such there is none to bear witness to He, none to say that He is this and they are that. A being beyond witnessing is thus a being beyond our ken.”
“A warrior-poet. How singular. Yet you keep to Lady Marta?”
“The Prayer of the Dead you mean? Something my mother taught me – an old habit. Nothing more. Nothing more.”
With that silence fell once more over the stony outcropping as a chill wind swept in from the norther mountains, bringing in its wake a dreadful downpour that washed the blood from the body of the arm-less brigand and carried it out and down the trough of the encampment to puddle in the sodden moor. In that fetid broths reflection were the wings of a dozen crows who cawed madly and scrapped the sky with their metallic talons and torn off in wide wheeling circulations through the closing storm-wall as thunder and lightening fell upon the plain and redressed the world in the garments of the mad.
Their cries were like lamentations.
For the dead. The dying.
And all those still to die.
Sample from my forthcoming novel, Tomb of the Father, provided for the purposes of critique and commentary.