Four of them surrounded me, spears, and axes in hand. The battle was over. We lost. The evidence was all around me. Dead and dying men, hacked, poked, and flayed. I would not survive this, but I must not submit. Cowards are not admitted to the hall of my fathers.
And so I sneered, baring my teeth and tightening my grip on the haft of my ax. Still, they circled. They knew they would end me, but they also knew I would fight them to my final moments. How many would I take with me to the afterlife? And so they waited for more of their warriors to finish off the last of my carls.
Lungeing at the first, I swatting his spear point away with my hand and sunk my ax into his shoulder. He stuck on the blade, so I kicked him off and turned, but it was too late. Another spear point plunged deep into my flesh. It had punched through my middle, so I ran at the spearman, driving all the way up the shaft. My ax bit into his chin, sweeping him off his feet.
I pulled the blood-slick shaft from my back and swung the spearpoint wide to keep the others away. One of the two was bold enough to charge anyway, and I drove the point onto his throat. The last backed away, swinging his ax wildly. Two more ran down the hill toward me whooping and cursing me. I threw the spear into one of them, he staggered and tumbled, breaking the shaft off in his chest.
My lifeblood leaving me, I lunged at them, sweeping the legs out from under one with my ax, catching an ax blade in my back as a result. I wrenched my body, jerking the ax handle from his grip. One lay on his back, groaning about his knees I had cut from under him, and the other stood in front of me, unarmed with fear in his eyes.
As I lifted my ax for the killing strike, a searing pain punched through my neck. I couldn’t breathe. A bloody arrowhead gleamed in the sunlight in front of my face. Stuck from behind with an arrow. I pulled the shaft from my neck, warm blood rushed down my throat and into my lungs.
I coughed and turned. Another arrow punched into my chest. I dropped to my knees and found the archer standing just out of my reach. He smiled.
“Coward,” I tried to say, but it just came out as a bloody sputter.
He nocked another arrow and began his draw, but he stopped, lowered his bow. The man behind me took my ax from my limp grasp, but my eyes were locked on the archer. Then, a sharp strike sent me into blackness, numbness, nothing.
They buried their dead in shallow graves and covered them in stone. They didn’t bury our dead. They left me and my carls out in the open for the birds.
I lifted my head and found I was in a strange place. Black bark armored each tree’s trunk and its naked branches. The sky glowed bright enough to see, but there was no sun to cast shadows. This whole place was a shadow. I picked myself up to find my wounds were gone. The grass under my bare feet crunched and crumbled to the touch. I looked about me, but my ax was gone. They had taken it and my boots from my corpse.
I have been cast out. None shall sing my name. I will fade into nothing in this wretched place.
“Have I not died gloriously in battle?” I called out into the darkness. “Why am I barred from the hall of my fathers?”
“Keep your voice down,” a voice hissed from the thicket.
I swung to meet the stranger with fists clenched and teeth bared. An old man stepped out into the open.
“If you wish to feast in the hall of your fathers, you must first get there,” he said. “You will not make it if you are calling out into the darkness. You never know what might be waiting.”
“I have proven myself in battle many times and I have died in combat,” I argued, but the old man lifted his hand to stop me.
“You must travel across the lands of dusk and survive the lost souls. During your life, you have collected knowledge and skill. Here, you will be tested.”
“Where is the great hall?”
The old man pointed his bony finger to a distant mountain range, visible only as jagged black stabbing upward into the dark sky.
“Between here and there are marshes, forests, canyons, dead places of salt. There are evil things that lurk through the lands of dusk. Serpents, bloodsuckers, changelings, witches, and the lost souls of others like you. Survive your journey, or you will become like them.”
“I have no weapon,” I said. “They left me without it.”
“Make one,” the old man said, gesturing to the trees and rocks around them.
I crouched down to pick up a stone but when I stood again, the old man had vanished.
Gone in an instant, just as he arrived. I scooped up a strong stick with a crook on one end. I used strips of the tough black bark to lash the stone into the crook. When I gave the improvised club a good swing, everything held together.
I needed to reach high ground. I turned my toes uphill and began to walk. Slowly, I ascended the slope. As I rose over the landscape, the air smelled more toxic. Whispy pillars of smoke waved and whipped near the hill’s peak. As I drew closer, I could see they were campfires, each blue flame cast cold, dim light upon the hillside. Small figures hunched around each of the fires and they jabbered to each other in a strange tongue. I began to crawl to get a closer look.
Goblins were all I could guess they were. I had never seen a goblin, but I had heard tales of the little creatures. They were cooking something over the fire. Limbs of some giant insect glistened on spits, giving off that toxic odor. One of the little creatures crunched through the shell with his sharp teeth. Then he slurped the slimy flesh from inside.
The glint of iron caught my eye. Each goblin was armed with crude, but menacing-looking weapons. More effective than my rock tied to a stick, perhaps. I crawled to the nearest goblin at the edge of their camp. He sat with his back to me and with a nasty curved knife tucked into the back of his belt. The others faced away from him, focussed on their meal.
Slowly I crept closer. When I had him within arm’s reach, I rose to my knees behind him, careful not to make a sound. My fingertips brushed the hilt of his knife as my other hand moved up to his face. At the same time, I cupped my hand over his mouth and pulled his knife from his belt. I plunged the blade up under his ribs and held him tightly against me until he stopped thrashing.
I lowered the goblin’s body to the grass and pulled my new knife from his ribs. When I lifted my eyes to the others, I found one looking right at me with a mouth full of insect meat. We stared at each other for a moment, when I felt something leaned against the dead goblin’s rock. A bow and a quiver full of arrows.
Then the goblin screamed, alerting the others. I threw my club and it whooshed through the air, striking the screaming goblin in the face with a pop. The others shot to their feet and brandished spears, maces, axes, and even a few chipped swords. I scooped up the bow, nocked an arrow, and drew. With a snap, the bow broke in half. It was never meant to be drawn by a human. The closest goblin charged with his spear. I grabbed it just behind the point and pulled it to the side. Then I lifted my foot and drove it into the goblin’s face breaking his hooked nose.
Several more charged forward, but now I had a spear. I poked and stabbed and slashed, leaving four more dead. A crooked arrow flitted past my face. I lurched back and stumbled over a dead goblin. The hillside punched me in the back a moment before two goblins dived on top of me stabbing down with their swords. I caught their wrists and turned them.
I drove my forehead into one, spraying foul-smelling blood into my eyes. I blinked rapidly, and when I could see again, I found I had knocked that one unconscious, and I was holding his wrist for nothing. I released him and pulled the wicked curved knife from my belt. Terror filled the second goblin’s eyes and I stabbed into him once, twice, and then threw him away.
I shot to my feet, scooping the spear up with me. The archer had already nocked another arrow, but I threw the spear first. The spear struck the archer in his belly, knocking him from the rock he stood on. The remaining goblins took off into the darkness jibbering angrily.
I searched the camp for anything of use. The axes were crap, the bows were fragile, the spears were short. The only thing worth taking was the curved knife, but that wouldn’t get me very far if what the old man said about this place was true. So I picked up two swords. More like big knives for me, swords for the goblins.
Taking a bite of insect flesh, I fought to keep it down. I continued my climb up the hill. The sky had not lightened or darkened since I had arrived here. Perpetual dusk as if the sun had barely ducked below the horizon and froze there.
Reaching the top of the hill, marshland stretched out before me, for what seemed like an eternity. Something large and winged skimmed across the water’s surface. It let out a screech and flew in sweeping arcs until something larger exploded from the water and pulled it under.
“Nothing in the songs about this.”
Thank you for reading. Make sure to stop by next Friday for part 2 of this 6 part series. I wanted to write something a little more along the lines of traditional dark fantasy but, of course, with my twist on it.
Until next week,