The old man swung down hard, sword cutting deep into Hildr’s shield. He swung again and again, and Hildr stepped back, as she blocked each strike. The king was spry in his old age, but Hildr had seen this. She had seen all of this in the bones. Every cut. Every move. Every one of his men at his back. His weeping wives and daughters. His boy.
Hildr’s back thumped against the rough timber wall and King Serval chopped down again. Hildr lurched away from the strike and Serval’s sword stuck in the wood, throwing splinters in Hildr’s face.
Serval struggled to pull it loose as Hildr stepped away from him with her sword and shield down at her sides. She could have ended it before the king freed his sword. Hildr could have ended it with a swift invasion. She had the numbers. Her war chiefs and their bands were far better trained and seasoned than Serval’s armed peasants.
Taking control of a land on fire held no appeal to Hildr. Trampled crops would not feed her people. A ravaged people made for poor subjects. Hildr had no desire to sit on a throne painted in blood. Wisely, King Serval could also understand this and he accepted Hildr’s challenge. This war would be settled in the pit. Whoever left this place alive would be dubbed the victor, and none would leave until it was finished.
“Put the old man down!”
Hildr shot her war chiefs above a chastising glare to silence them.
“We are not fighting for your entertainment,” Hildr said. “Something important is happening here, and I will have earned my victory honorably.”
Once her men had settled, Hildr moved her gaze along the rim of the pit. Serval’s honor guard stood stoically with spear and shield in hand, prepared to jump in should they witness any foul doing. Serval’s queen stood with one hand on her only son’s shoulder. The boy would watch his father die this day, but that would not be the worst of it. Hildr had seen it.
The king freed his sword and turned to Hildr at his back. He graciously bowed his head in thanks. Hildr returned the gesture before again lifting her shield and sword. The king came at her fast, sweeping his sword low for Hildr’s front leg. She lifted her foot and allowed the sword to pass.
Serval spun too far with the effort behind his swing, and Hildr chopped into his exposed back, spraying blood onto her foot and the ground around it. Serval groaned and hefted his sword into a backhand swing, but Hildr danced away, allowing the sword’s tip to go by.
The king hunched panting for a moment as his steaming blood ran down to the ground. Hildr would have wanted to end this quickly and give the old man the rest he deserved, but she had seen it. Serval would not make this easy.
And now begins the long process of dismantling this man I have come to admire, Hildr thought.
The king charged and slammed his shield into Hildr’s. The two shields clapped together and the sound lifted into the gray clouds above. Hildr rolled to the left and cut the flesh on the back of Serval’s leg.
The king dropped to a knee and Hildr moved in for the killing blow. Serval lunged for her like a wounded bear, just as Hildr had seen. Though the bones had shown her this, Hildr still barely dodged the wild attack.
Using his shield as a crutch, King Serval rose again to his feet and bared his teeth at his opponent. Hildr did not blame him for his anger. She had marched her army onto Serval’s land to take it from him, just because she had seen that she could.
This is the way.
Hildr rushed to the right and lashed out with her sword. Serval blocked with his shield, but he did not see Hildr’s shield coming from the left. The iron rim of Hildr’s shield cracked into King Serval’s face, shattering bone.
The king sprawled on his back, spraying blood from his mouth and nose. Hildr stood over him and waited. King Serval groaned quietly and wriggled his arm free of his shield. He reached for his sword with groping fingers, but Hildr did not flinch. She had seen this.
Serval pulled his sword to him and pressed it against his chest. Hildr placed the tip of her sword over the king’s heart. Serval took several quivering breaths and finally nodded to the victor.
Hildr plunged her sword into Serval’s heart. The king made a whispered grunt and stared up at Hildr as blood ran from the bridge of his nose and into his eyes. A moment later, there was no life in those eyes. Hildr had won, just as she had seen, but this was not what frightened her this day.
“The king is dead,” Hilder said, lifting her eyes to the dethroned queen.
Serval’s widow choked back tears and sniffed once. Her lips parted, but she hesitated. Finally, she tried again. “Long live the queen.”
“Long live the queen! Long live the queen! Long live the queen!” Hildr’s war chiefs and Serval’s honor guard chanted in unison.
The honor guard lowered a ladder and four of them descended into the pit. They each took a knee before Queen Hildr and bowed their heads.
“Burry King Serval with honor in the tomb of his fathers,” Hildr said. “I have more business in the pit.”
The guards lifted Serval’s limp body and several more pulled him out of the pit. Hildr bent down and wrapped her hand around Serval’s sword. Fire shot through Hildr like lightning. Then she was washed in the cold sea. She gasped, and her mind was filled with visions.
A life wasted. A lifetime of no life at all.
Hildr had feared this, but now she was sure.
“Boy,” Hildr said, lifting her eyes to Serval’s son. She attempted to soften her face, but there was only so much she could do. Years of fighting had left her scarred and hard as stone. “I have seen your destiny.”
The boy stared down at Hildr with dried tears on his cheeks.
“I have the eye,” Hildr continued. “Some men call me a witch because I have seen their future. Do you believe me, boy?”
He nodded his head quickly.
“Would you like to know your future?”
“No,” Serval’s widow interjected.
“I am not talkin’ to you,” Hildr said. “I am addressing the boy.”
Hildr returned her attention to the son of Serval. “Your mother, your father’s other wives, your sisters, and you will be banished in disgrace. You will travel far away and live in squaller. You will grow up with revenge in your heart. You will not rest for many years. You will break your body to grow strong. You will dream of breaking my body in the pit and this idea will drive you mad.”
Hildr paused to allow the young boy to understand. He appeared as though he knew all of this already.
“One day, you will travel back to this land but you will not have an army at your back as I did. You will climb the steps of your father’s great hall. You will approach the throne and challenge me to a duel in the pit, just as I challenged your father.”
Anger rose up in the boy. He furrowed his brow and narrowed his eyes. Fresh tears streaked down his cheeks following the paths of the tears before them.
“I will kill you in the pit, just as I have defeated your father.”
A life wasted. A lifetime of no life at all.
“Why do you torment my son, witch?” Serval’s widow cried.
“I do not wish to torment him,” Hildr said. “I offer peace. A peace this boy will not know for many years should he choose to follow this path.”
Hildr lifted Serval’s sword.
“Take up your father’s sword and face me now,” Hildr said. “The outcome will be the same, but you will not have thrown your life away for a hopeless obsession. Die now with honor, and I will allow your mother and sisters to stay. They will live their lives as my closest advisors in the comfort of your father’s house. If you do not face me now, I cannot offer this, for you would kill me in my sleep on one windy winter night. I cannot allow this.”
The boy glared down at her. His hands trembled at his sides and Hildr could only imagine what emotions flowed through the boy. Anger. Fear. Dread. Finally, the boy nodded.
“Aye,” He said. “I accept your challenge.”
His mother sobbed and grasped for him, but the boy pulled away from her.
He slowly walked to the ladder, not taking his eyes away from Hildr. It was not until he climbed down that Hildr fully realized her own dread. Today, she would kill a child in the pit. The guards pulled the ladder back up. No escape.
The boy tilted his father’s shield to its edge and slipped his arm into the straps. When Hildr saw that the boy could not lift it, she loosened the straps on her own shield with her teeth and threw it away. The boy did the same.
She offered the boy his father’s sword hilt first, and the boy took it. With some effort, he lifted it, keeping the tip between them. Hildr lifted her own sword crossing its blade with Serval’s.
“I am ready, boy,” she said.
The boy growled and swung the sword in a wild arc over his head. Hildr swatted it away and lunged. Her sword punched right through the boy’s chest and out the back. He dropped his father’s sword and his mother screeched.
Hildr retracted her sword and the boy staggered. She allowed her blade to drop to the ground and she caught the boy as he collapsed. She sunk to her knees holding him tightly. His wide eyes danced over her face, searching for something. Comfort, perhaps. His pale lips opened and closed as if he wanted to say something, but couldn’t. A drop of water fell on his face and Hildr realized she was crying.
She held him until he was gone. When his life had all leaked out of him, she gently laid him down. His mother wailed behind her, but she seemed so distant. Hildr couldn’t look at her.
The bones could not have prepared her for this.
Thanks for reading. Please let me know what you thought of it in the comments below. Remember to share it with any friends who might enjoy it. I would also like to thank my regular readers. Last week’s short story, The Little Wooden Box, was my most popular by far with ~300 views. Click here to read The Little Wooden Box if you haven’t already. Also, be sure to check out my guest author’s short story from the week before. Click here to read The Dowsing of Bolsom Ranch by Kaylun D. Rice.
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