“You missed!” shouted Culac at the horde of monsters below them.
Both men lay on their bellies on a stone balcony that overlooked an ancient hall. Pillars carved with strange gripping beasts supported its walls and its rune covered floor was littered with pieces of broken masonry. Cracks in its high ceiling allowed a diffused glow to stream down and illumine its ruined majesty. Barely ten feet below them their enemies roared and shook their weapons in the air.
“About time to send them back to whatever hell they crawled out of, eh, Fergall?” called Culac over the din. He was a large well-built man. His strong white teeth grinned at his comrade from under a braided moustache that hung below his chin.
“Just let me catch my breath first,” replied Fergall. He was both taller and broader than Culac. While Culac was regarded by many as handsome, Fergall’s grim lantern jawed face, tended to inspire fear.
Both men wore chainmail byrnies and leather harnesses, steel helmets and splinted greaves. Fergall carried two swords, one long, the other short, while Culac carried a battle-axe and a large oval shield. They were sworn sword and shield brothers of their tribe, one to kill, the other to protect. Below them, their enemies, the dreym, were less well armed, but they made up for it in numbers and savagery. They looked like men, at least at first glance, but they were more akin to demons made flesh. They were fanged, horned and had white skin, said to burn in the sunlight. Rather than live out under the sun, they lived underground, coming out at night to raid, kill and steal, which was why Fergall and Culac now found themselves in their current predicament.
They had come across the ruins of the village of Benric, more or less by accident. It had not been pretty. Men, women and children slain, everything of value stolen and nearly every building burned to the ground. Culac got as much information as he could from the shattered survivors before promising them that he and Fergall would catch and kill the raiders and return their stolen goods. It was how they lived, after all, protecting and avenging wrongs done to the folk of Amorgh, in the name of their clan lord, Morac the Red. Dangerous work, but there was money and glory to be had and they had been doing it now for nearly twenty years.
Leaving the smoking ruins of Benric behind them, they had picked up the trail and followed it into the black foothills of the Marching Mountains. The tracks had gone cold on the stony slopes, but just as Fergall had been about to retrace their steps, Culac had spotted a wide cavern entrance above them. They took one last look at the sky before venturing in. A mile of twisting, dripping darkness led them slowly upwards, the light from their hooded lanterns hooded shining on dropped coins and bits of human remains strewn carelessly on the floor. They had found the lair of their quarry.
At last the tunnel opened into a hallway. Fifteen dreym warriors sat laughing and gloating over their loot and cooking up the remains of their prisoners.
“Prepare for death,” Culac had growled at them. Fergall had looked within himself to find the Goddess. Gone, as he had known she would be. “Run,” he said, and sprinted for a set of crumbling stairs that led to the balcony they were now on. Culac looked amazed, but followed without question. The dreym came furiously on behind them, but the stairs collapsed under their combined weight sprawling them onto the ground in a cloud of dust. For the moment, Fergall and Culac were safe.
Normally, fifteen dreym raiders wouldn’t have bothered Fergall, being a Chosen of Monda, a berserk bloodshirt. When the battle rage of the Goddess took him, he was a storm of steel. Just point him at the enemy and stand back. But Fergall had been nursing a secret shame that looked like it was going to get both him and Culac killed. The battle rage would no longer come. The long years of battle, death and strife had been weighing on him of late, and his own mortality had begun to trouble him. The rage had become harder and harder to channel, and now, today of all days, when he and Culac needed it most, it had deserted him completely. They would die in this forgotten hallway.
“What’s going on, Fergall?” called Culac. “Why are we up here?”
Fergall looked at his friend and opened his mouth, but no words would come out.
“Fergall? What the hell’s wrong with you?”
“I have no rage, Culac. The Goddess... she’s not with me anymore.”
“It’s like she’s seen the growing fear in me and I’m not worthy anymore.”
Culac stared at him in astonishment. Fergall felt shame nearly overwhelm him and… tears? Were these tears pricking at his eyes?
“Monda…” breathed Culac. “Can’t you pretend, or something? This scum will never know!”
The dreym din had faded away to silence. “We hear you!” came a hated filled voice. It was the dreym chieftain, his fanged mouth mangling the words. “You are a gutless coward! You come down, we kill you quickly!”
They had forgotten about the dreyms’ large flappy ears. Fergall made a vow to chop a few of them off if he ever got the chance. The rest of the dreym cackled with laughter. “We not eat you though! Your cowardice will poison your meat!”
“So, what now?” asked Culac, trying to keep his voice low under the dreym’s mocking noise.
“I guess we die here. It will be in battle, just not glorious battle. But then, is battle ever glorious?”
“Don’t talk that way!” snapped his friend. “I talk that way! Deep thoughts are for me! You don’t have deep thoughts! That’s not for you!”
“Sorry,” said Fergall, miserably.
“Sorry? SORRY? Monda save us…”
Fergall shut his eyes, tears leaking out of the corner of his eyes. The disappointment of his friend was like a knife in his heart.
“Well, since we are going to die here, I may as well tell you something,” said Culac after a pause. Fergall wiped his eyes and looked up at him. “I… don’t like women.”
“They can be annoying,” replied Fergall. “But, you know, they have their-”
“No,” cut in Culac. “I like women , but I don’t like women.”
“Can’t live with ‘em can’t live without ‘em, don’t I know it?” Fergall welcolmed the distraction, but he really couldn’t see where his sword brother was going with all this.
“Monda’s TITS!” blasphemed Culac. “I mean, I like men!”
Below them the laughter had died away, as the dreym all huddled closer, biting their hands to stop themselves from laughing. High pitched sniggers threatened to erupt at any moment.
“I like men too,” said Fergall slowly, feeling that he had mislaid his brain somewhere.
Culac sighed with exasperation. “You know how you… get with the barmaids after we’ve finished a job?”
“Well, I like to do that with men.”
Fergall’s feeling that he had mislaid his brain now became a certainty.
“Never mind how!”
“Why? I don’t know why! Why do you like girls?”
“But I’ve seen you go with girls!” protested Fergall.
“You’ve seen me leave with girls, but you’ve never seen me with a girl!”
“No,” conceded Fergall. “What do you do with them, then?”
“Not much. Talk occasionally. One needed a babysitter once. Usually I make an excuse and slip out the back to seek my pleasures elsewhere. I like men the way you like women!” said Culac. “Always have.”
Fergall felt a throbbing sensation begin behind his eyes. “All these years… We’ve been to bathhouses together… Washed in rivers… Have you been looking at my…”
“No!” said Culac hastily. “Well, maybe once. Or twice. But you’re not my type.”
Type? wondered Fergall.
“Do people know? About you, I mean?”
“Aye, a few do. Quite a few do, really. It is hard to keep a thing like this secret. I have to tell people that we are not together and that you like girls, sometimes. Makes it easier for me to have my way. You’re pretty intimidating.”
Spots were beginning to dance in front of Fergall’s eyes. His lips curled back from his teeth and a high pitched noise was beginning to sound in his throat.
The noise became a keening wail.
“Really? This is what brings your rage on? Well, thank you very much.”
The wail deepened and became a growl.
“Aye, well, don’t mind me. I didn’t choose to be this way, any more than you chose to have the rage-”
The dreym horde exploded into howls and shrieks of laughter. “HAH!” yelled the dreym chieftain. “A coward and a big sissy! Come down and die, big sissy!”
A deafening roar emerged from Fergall’s throat. DON’T CALL MY SHIELD BROTHER A BIG SISSY was screaming in his mind, but the rage of the Goddess was in him, and that rage needed no words, only steel, blood and death. Suddenly, he was up and moving. Swords in hand, he leapt down from the ledge. The dreym leader’s eyes widened in horror before his head was violently scissored from his body and went tumbling backwards. His comrades mocking laughter changed to howls of alarm.
“Guess we are back on then!” Culac hefted his shield up and nimbly sprang down after Fergall. He smashed one dreym aside with his shield and hacked its leg clean off at the knee with his axe. It fell, screaming.
Fergall was hewing his way through the enraged dreym like a farmer scything wheat. His blades moved almost too fast to follow, but even with the fury of the Goddess and his skill he couldn’t kill them all. Already they were beginning to flank him, surround him. Without his shield brother, it would soon be over. Culac charged, uttering no war cry.
So intent were they on killing Fergall that the dreym failed to see Culac until it was too late. Three dreym fell to Culac’s axe before they finally turned to face him. Sword and shield brother, finally working as one. One to kill, one to protect.
The dreym fought fiercely, but they were no match for the two warriors and the battle rage of Monda, Goddess of the Crows. Finally only three remained. One tried to surrender and was hacked down by Fergall. Culac smashed another into a nearby pillar with his shield and felled the last one standing with his axe.
Fergall swayed on his feet slightly..
“You hurt?” asked Culac.
“No, just tired. You?”
“No. Well, maybe my feelings.”
Fergall looked at Culac. Culac sniggered. Both men began to laugh as heartily as their tired bodies could manage.
“So, are we… good?” wheezed Culac.
“Aye, we’re good,” said Fergall. “Sorry about my…” He waved his hand at all the dead dreym.
“Well, it saved our lives, didn’t it? You got your rage back.”
“I did, didn’t I?” Fergall pulled off his helmet in a shower of sweat. “What do you think that means?”
Culac thought for a second and then shrugged his shoulders. “That the Goddess works in mysterious ways? Who knows?”
“What do I do if she doesn’t visit me again when we need her?”
“I’ll pinch your bum!” said Culac.
“Don’t you bloody dare!” roared Fergall.
“See?” laughed Culac. “I don’t think your rage is going to be a problem from now on!” Fergall grinned sheepishly. “But that’s enough thinking and worrying for one day. Let’s collect their heads and get out of here! That ought to cheer those villagers up. That and the loot of course.”
Peace between them restored, the two sworn battle brothers set to work on their grisly task, whistling cheerfully as they did so.
© December, 2014 Timothy Ide.
Timothy Ide is a South Australian freelance illustrator, probably best known for hisy work as a sketch artist of local court proceedings. He has also illustrated children's books, most notably Tom the Outback Mailman by Kristin Weidenbach which won one of the Childrens Book Council of Australia awards in 2013. He collects swords, armour and bruises from playing in the SCA.