The Barbarian Bard

Tales and Musings by Michael A. Espinoza

Victory’s Price

The shrill calls of ravens split the cloudy sky, the black shadows of their wings made misty by the ever-present fog that choked the land in its grey embrace. Like metal shells strewn on some unearthly beach lay the armor-clad bodies of countless soldiers. Old, young, man, and woman, the dead lay as they had fallen; some on their backs with eyes turned ever skyward, as if searching the up-heavens for some answer as to their sudden demise, whilst others lay in broken heaps, limbs or skulls shattered into ivory-hued splinters that lay scattered on the red-stained snow.

The conflict had been fierce, and whilst it had seemed to last for a full day in the minds of its participants, the battle had taken a mere hour to resolve. Ehrhardt the Usurper’s war band, wind billowing their crimson cloaks, had come screaming through the valley on horseback, making for the pass that ran between the Iron Tusk Mountains. Sigvarth the Champion and his loyal host exploded from their hidden hollows and sprang from behind great bolders and rises in the land, converging in a tight formation on Ehrhardt’s raiders, whilst archers from both forces peppered the air with hissing death.

The horses were the first to die, fatally shot from afar or skewered by Sigvarth’s pike men. For all their posturing, Ehrhardt’s men were unprepared for the ambush. Frantic warriors leapt from screaming, dying mounts and closed ranks, slinging shields over their arms and forming into a well-practiced shield wedge. Sigvarth’s men pulled back, and his archers held their bowstrings taut, ready to exploit even the slightest weakness in Ehrhardt’s formation. For his part, the sable-haired Sigvarth pulled his sword from the corpse of a slain adversary and rallied his men behind him, forming their own wedge to engage with the ruthless enemy.

Ehrhardt, his dark eyes ablaze with hatred, fixed his gaze on Sigvarth and spat on the snow, cursing his attacker. With a bestial roar, each leader spurred his men into a charge, and the great shield walls smashed together with a mighty clash. There is nothing like the press between shield warriors; men stood face to face with those they would kill, not knowing who might be their bane, pushing forward, never giving even a single footstep. Swords were neglected in favor of long-knives and short-hafted spears, the best suited weapons for sticking a man in the gut or below the hem of his mail shirt. Some warriors dropped to their knees, hacking at the legs of their opposition and counting on their brethren to keep the shield formation closed. Even the most minuscule of errors–a misstep on the blood-slicked snow, a shield held too low or two high, or watching the wrong man in the opposing formation–spelt instant and painful demise. The first blade wounds were not often lethal, but leaving one’s self open or falling beneath the feet of even one’s own allies wrought a bitter end for many a fine combatant.

Neither side gave back, not Sigvarth and his defenders, nor the wild-eyed Ehrhardt and his savage raiders. Men fell away from their formations like leaves stripped from a tree by biting winds, until both wedges grew too small and dissolved into a frantic skirmish. Soldiers split off in clashes of single combat, knives and spears now cast aside in favor of sword, axe, and hammer. The individual fights moved in a haphazard fashion along the narrow valley, each man left to his own trial.

Sigvarth and Ehrhardt faced each other, their expressions naught but masks of the manner of deep hatred born of a grudge that festered for years like a corpse left to the summer heat. The Champion of the Hearth swung his great blade with both hands, delivering a blow that ought to have shattered Ehrhardt’s weapon, but the Scarlet Usurper had seen that attack many times and nimbly leapt to avoid it, countering with a thrust of his thin, needle-like sword. Sigvarth twisted away from the strike, letting his momentum carry him in a full spin and bringing his broadsword up in a vertical cut.

Ehrhardt fell back and the two circled for a moment, lost to all the world in the haze of bloodlust. Ehrhardt advanced first this time, feinting a high swipe but dropping to one knee mid-swing and converting the attack into a thrust at his rival’s abdomen. Sigvarth parried the thrust and cursed aloud when a sharp pain erupted in his right thigh. Had his eyes been less befogged by battle madness, he might have seen his challenger deftly palm a tiny knife and send it streaking from his hand like an archer’s arrow. He stepped away and, in one agonizing motion, wrenched the keen-edged missile from the corded muscles of his leg, hurling it aside and regarding Ehrhardt with venom in his eyes.

Blood spilled down Sigvarth’s leg and the pain burned like a hot brand, but he was not to be deterred. As though the injury had waked some slumbering fiend within him, the Champion sent a howl up to the dome of the sky, his features contorted in inhuman fury. This time, when he pressed the attack, he swung his reddened sword as though it were an extension of his very arm. Muscles coiled and extended with supernatural grace and speed, and Ehrhardt the Usurper could do naught but parry the blows that forced him into a steady retreat. Before long, Ehrhardt felt the cold, unyielding presence of a bolder behind his back; there would be no escape, only triumph or death.

The Usurper’s flesh stung from multiple wounds along his arms, where Sigvarth’s blade had broken the links of his mail. In turn, Sigvarth’s leg shook and gave forth what seemed to be an endless torrent of blood. More than once, his knee had buckled, but such was the ferocity of his advance that Ehrhardt had yet to seize the advantage. Both fighters breathed heavy, and anger warred with exhaustion upon their scarred faces. At last, Sigvarth gave too greatly into one swing, which sailed high over his cornered quarry, and Ehrhardt struck like a viper, the tip of his weapon gliding neatly through Sigvarth’s mail.

Yet, the Champion was not undone. Even through the searing pain, his lips curled in a vicious smile, like a wolf exposing his fangs. He plunged forward onto Ehrhardt’s blade like a skewered slice of meat, but did not succumb to the brutal impalement. Instead, his calloused hands seized Ehrhardt by the throat, his muscles expended the last of their power, and he squeezed until tendons snapped and the Usurper’s eyes rolled back in his head. Only then did Sigvarth the Champion fall back–his vision blurred with the mist of fading mortality–to crash like a felled oak upon the snow.

As if moving of their own volition, his nigh-lifeless fingers grasped at a sturdy cord about his neck and prized from beneath his shirt a tiny disk, etched with his family insignia: a wolf with its jaws opened to engulf a silvery full moon. Mere feet away, Ehrhardt the Usurper’s hands clasped over the very same wolf and its gleaming prize. In silence, but for the cries of carrion birds, brothers divided in life were united in death.

Advertisements

Single Post Navigation

2 thoughts on “Victory’s Price

  1. The end of this story reminds me of one that my 8th grade US History teacher told us. After one of the worst battles during the Civil War, wounded and dying men were witnessed from afar desperately drinking from a river. Red uniformed soldiers lay amongst blue uniformed soldiers. At that point in time, they were only Americans (no Yankees, no Confederates) and died together as brothers like the men from this story. Needless to say, the message is beautiful.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: