In Sight of Ravens – An Epic Poem

 

The man trailed through the black burn of a forest,

The girl with fire in her veins scampered behind him.

As the black tower rose in the west with windows glowing red as forge fires.

 

“We’ll rest here for the night,” said the man.

“Is there nowhere safer?”

“Nothing is safe,” said the man. “Not here.”

 

The man woke at the first light, expecting birdsong

In the moments of waking, he forgot where he was.

But the birds did not come when they sky was all ash.

 

He crouched over the girl

The first signs of light dawning on the horizon,

The man tugged at her blanket.

A quick, sharp pull to test her reflexes.

The girl had taken to sleeping with her short sword by her side.

In the beginning, she was slow to hone her defenses

She would fumble to retrieve the blade from its sheath.

But this was not the beginning.

 

The point of the blade at the man throat

Before he’d a chance to sit back on his heels.

The girl’s eyes glowed with the fire in her veins

Held at bay by her will

But she swallowed the fire out of the waking world

And the glow sank below the surface.

Recognition came and she lowered her sword. “I’m sorry,” she said.

“Don’t be,” said the man. “You’re learning.”

 

That night, the man found a rock that speared the apex of a hill,

Filling its descent in shadow. He urged the girl under the stone’s shelter

Then followed after

When the rain cleared they opened their bedrolls

He made a paste of nuts and acorns for the girl, crushed between two rocks.

When she’d finished her supper, the girl climbed into her bedroll

Sleeping, teeth chattering.

But the man couldn’t sleep, so he gave her his cloak

She didn’t shake as much, then.

The man thought he saw the girl hugging her sword to her chest.

But the dark was a shroud about them.

He wondered how it could be that there were some in the Enemy’s lands who liked the dark.

But those who like the dark weren’t fond of them. 

 

The next day they came upon a hill with a steep climb

A hill that was half a mountain

The girl followed, making breathless

A child’s imitation of war.

 

“Fwsh, fwsh” she would mutter before lying flat against the slope:

An imitation of arrow flights.

She hissed her words, shouting pretend orders to pretend soldiers.

The two climbed over the hill to find a cobblestone road.

He’d let her have her fantasies

Soon war would come to her

And she was not like to play pretend then

 

They traveled down the cobbled road

The man had smelled it before he saw it. It was a stink he knew all-too well.

They halted when they spied a tavern where the road crossed two ways.

The girl sniffed the air, wrinkled her nose. “What is that this foul smell?

“You’re not going to like it.”

“What is it?” she asked.

“You don’t want to know.”

Scorch marks had clawed their way up the side of the tavern.

The roof had caved in, and the black burn was strong.

But the tavern did not hold his attention for long.

 

They littered the ground—the burned and black figures, sprawled on the ground

Limp as discarded tunics.

They stood there and studied it.

“What are those gray men?” the girl asked.

She did not look away.

 

“They’re statues,” the man lied. “I’ll look inside.”

“I don’t want you to,” said the girl.

“There might supplies. We could—”

No!” The girl said. The fire flared beneath her eyes.

“Okay,” the man said. “Let’s move on.”

 

Those bodies were only the first of many.

Some were bloated and burned in crow-cages

Where their namesake were pecking at their flesh and their eyes.

Others hung by a length of hempen rope,

Their bodies gray and their mouths slack.

The flies would settle on their face, only to lift into a black cloud

When the two approached.

 

The corpses of men scabbed the road; dried to leather.

The man wondered if they should return if they ran out of food.

Strips of dried meat were easy to ration.

But he did not let the thought linger for long.

 

But as they progressed down the road he found patches of cloth

Clusters of dead spiders within.

He knew what that meant. The clicks, the insects.

They were coming

The Swarm was coming

“You are not to wander off, understand?”

The girl nodded.

 

The road ended, abruptly,

Leading to a valley below, and in its center:

A mockery of a holdfast

With stones that poked out at odd angles,

Hastily built by the Enemy

The man checked the crenellations along the battlements for anyone inside.

There was a flash of movement, browning cloth fluttering behind.

He dragged the girl roughly out of sight

Her protests died on her lips

As something emerged from the shoddy stone structure.

It was a bandaged form almost resembling a man,

Save for the lumps crawling across whatever lay inside

The linen that covered its form like a burial shroud

“What was that?” the girl asked. “A corpse?”

“Swarm,” the man told her.

“What are Swarm?”

“Creatures enchanted by dark magic. Watch.”

There was movement again in the holdfast.

The man watched one of the Swarm exiting the holdfast.

In a small hole where its eyes should be, the spider poked through the bandages

And scuttled across the bandaged skull,

Only to squirm back inside another linen opening.

More poked out all over its body, only to duck back in.

 

The girl squeezed the man’s fingers until they went white. “How does it stay together?”

“I don’t know,” the man said. “Those bandages give it concrete form, I’d venture.

“I’ll not pretend to know the workings of the Enemy.”

“How do we stop them?”

“It might be time to use that fire,” the man said.

“If there’s one in that holdfast, there’ll be many.

“Swarm don’t travel alone.”

“They’re not hurting anyone,” the girl protested.

“It’s going to hurt us if you don’t do something about it.”

“If I use the fire it’ll die.”

“That’s the idea.”

“I don’t want to kill things.”

The man set his jaw. “Okay.”

“Okay?”

“Okay.”

 

The man had told her to stay where she was atop the hill.

Stay and watch.

He hoped she listened.

He couldn’t chance to look over his shoulder to be sure.

He was already quickly approaching the holdfast.

Two Swarm were outside the hastily-built watchtower

Talking in clicks and screeches.

With bandaged hands clutched at spears.

 

The man drew his longsword at cut one at the neck

And it crumpled into rags and spiders.

Then there were screeches.

Or as near as the Swarm could manage:

A loud, long, clickickickickick.

Two more came out of the holdfast

And the windows on the spires

There were dozens descended the steps.

 

He cut the next upon the belly

And it spewed a spray of unraveling and spiders.

By that time one had fallen,

There was another who had circled the watchtower,

A spear at the ready

And a spider crawling across the back of its hand

Only to disappear in the strip of cloth around its wrist.

The man pivoted away as the spearhead flew past the bridge of his nose,

And then opened its belly as he pivoted back.

But he’d not time for respite.

More were coming from all sides with axes and swords at the ready.

He gave ground until found his back to the wall as the Swarm were converging on him.

Some running, others scuttling on all fours,

And more were crawling down the wall, all browning rags and scurrying spiders.

But then both spider and linen burst into flames and they hit the ground like sacks of flour.

The man did not stay to watch the rest of them die.

Instead he stepped over the pile of burning rags and spiders

Then trudged back into up the hill to fetch the girl.

The girl glowed as the fire within her came pouring to the surface.

Rivulets of tears raced down her cheeks,

Where they dried and steamed.

“I didn’t want to kill them. I don’t want to be a murderer.”

“You don’t have a choice.”

The glow faded

He hugged her.

She was hot to the touch, but he didn’t let go.

 

Under the Moon and In Sight of Crows

Edible Arrangements of Arsenic (1)

TO Ragnild, Queen of Untherland,

FROM Darza, your lover and servant–under the moon and in sight of crows,

 

I do not wish to bore you with long digressions of the raids I’ve been conducting here in northern Untherland. Rather, I would ask how you fare. Up north, I seem the only person unaffected by the sickness that’s passing through my camp. Perhaps it is due to my time spent here as your envoy to my Uncle Thorgal in years past. It matters little. The camp reeks of vomit all the same. And your brother’s men harry us while our defenses are weakened.

I call him Uncle, you call him brother, we call him enemy, others call him King. Thorgal has collected so many names that I wonder if he can still remember his own. But I swear to you he’ll not impose his false claim as King. He’ll be put down like the rabid dog he is.

But as I’ve said, I’ll not bore you with such digressions.

You’ve sent me many letters over the past few months. Doubtless I should return the favor. So what to write about? The weather? Well the weather’s fucking wet, and it’s all anyone talks about when they’re not retching, or bitching about the retching. Now coupled with this sickness, the rains have produce a field of small lakes dribbled with retching, or loose bowels.

The mud is polite as a Lady, at least. It curtsies right off my boots so I don’t have to clean it. Though the rain makes it difficult to re-read your letters when I find myself alone and lonely at night.

I can’t say I have much time for loneliness during the day, though. That’s when the fighting happens. That’s when arrows and spears break upon my shield, when I dodge blows that cut might my arm or life from me. That’s when men on all sides scream for help as they lie in the grass and dirt with broken lances and cloven helms, or heads.

I enjoy seeing Uncle’s holdfasts fall and timbered towers burn. I love seeing Uncle panicked, trying to rally his forces—would that he wore a cooking pot upon his head. Mayhaps that would lend him a little more authority.

All the same, I’m far from home, swaddled in an old, damp cloak. The other day I sailed past forests decorated with hanged men and women swaying in the wind. But the weather had been to work on their sigils. Who’s to say whose side they were on?

And by the Nailed God, but I am hungry—that might be the worst of these misfortunes. It’s the quiet discomfort that hurts the most. You don’t see it coming, and then it twists your guts while you’re trying to concentrate on important matters.

I’ve dreamed of roasted duck and honeyed chicken almost as much as I’ve dreamed of you. My comfort comes in the letters you send me. I would read them again were it not for the fucking rainshower that never seems to stop.

I have, however been keeping them on my person at all times It’s a comfort to touch them. Your script is a comfort, for I can imagine how your fingers danced to make it so beautiful.

I must assure you that you do not send me, “too many worries” in your letters, as you say. You are my Mother. Your worries only serve to rally me. Sometimes it seems I fight more to crush your fears than to crush Uncle Thorgal himself.

Keep writing me, please. Send me more of your worries. Send me your loves and fears and secret little things. It’s good for my morale—and my forces’ in turn.

But it’s just now stopped raining, and I can see the sun through the shade of this tent. I think I shall go outside and reread your letters at last. I’ll be sending a raven your way with this letter. I pray it finds you well.

I will quell this uprising. I swear it under the moon and in sight of crows.

 

Your Sworn Sword, Daughter, and Obedient Servant,

Darza

 

 

The Mongrel and the Murderer #3

Mordred’s knees shook, and he stumbled onto Bedivere, who caught him for support. “Stand up,” the knight said. “Stand—”

Mordred seized Excalibur and ripped it from its scabbard. His hands felt alive again, carrying a blade. He pivoted, bringing the sword up in a swift deadly arc. Steel met steel with a bone-jarring clang. Somehow Bedivere had gotten his own blade out in time. Mordred laughed as his hands vibrated “Very good, mongrel.”

“Give me the sword.”

“I plan to.” He drove at him, the longsword alive in his hands. Bedivere jumped back, parrying, but Mordred followed, pressing the attack. No sooner did he turn one cut than the next was upon the mongrel.

The swords were waves, clashing, only to fall back and clash again. Mordred’s blood was singing. He balanced death on every stroke. And with my wrists chained together, the mongrel may even give me a contest. His chains forced him to use a two-handed grip.

High and low, he rained down steel upon him. Left and right, swinging so hard that sparks flew when the swords came together, upswing and sideslash, always attacking, moving into him. Stepping and striking and moving and slashing faster and faster and faster…

…Until, breathless, he stepped back and let the point of the sword fall to the ground, giving them a moment of respite. “Not half bad,” he acknowledged. “For a mongrel.”

Bedivere took a slow deep breath, watching him warily. “I swore I would not hurt you.”

“As if you could.” He whirled the blade back up above his head and flew at him again, chains rattling. This is my birthright, he thought. This is what I was born to do. Excalibur in my hand, killing traitors.

Mordred could not have said how long he pressed the attack. It might have been minutes or it might have been hours; time slept when swords woke. He drove him into the trees.  Bedivere stumbled once on a root, and he went to one knee before bouncing back to his feet. Fall, damn you!

His sword leapt up to block a downcut that would have opened him from shoulder to groin, and then Bedivere cut back, again and again.

The dance went on. Mordred pinned him against an oak and cursed as he slipped away. Their duel brought them to a brook, half choked with leaves. Their footwork was done on a sodden brown mat. Steel rang, steel sang, steel screamed and scraped. Bedivere had started grunting, tiring, yet somehow Mordred could not reach him. He blocked every blow like an iron cage about him.

“Not bad at all” Mordred again acquiesced.

“For a mongrel?”

“For a squire. A green boy.” He laughed a ragged, breathless laugh. “Come on, come on! The steel’s still ringing. The music’s still playing, and might I have this dance?”

Bedivere’s steel came at him, blade whirling, and suddenly it was Mordred struggling to keep steel from skin. One of his slashes raked across his brow, and blood ran down into his right eye. God’s bloody bones, he thought. Damn him to Hell! His skills had gone to rust and rot in Tintagel, and the chains were no help. His eye closed, his shoulders were going numb from the jarring they’d taken, and his wrists were raw. He knew he was not swinging as quickly as he’d done earlier.

Bedivere forced him back into the brook again, shouting, “Yield! Throw down Excalibur!”

A slick stone turned under Mordred’s foot. As he felt himself falling, he turned mischance into a diving lunge. His point scraped past Bedivere’s parry and bit into his upper thigh. A red flower blossomed. Mordred had but an instant to savor it before his shin slammed into a jagged rock. The pain was white and blinding. Bedivere splashed into him and seized him by his hair. “YIELD!”

Mordred drove his shoulder into Bedivere’s legs, bringing the knight down on top of him. They rolled, kicking and punching until finally the mongrel was sitting astride him.

Mordred managed to get Excalibur overhead, but before he could cleave the knight, Bedivere caught his wrist and slammed his hands on a rock. Again the white pain roared. Excalibur fell from his hands and Bedivere grabbed it.

“No—” Mordred screamed, but Bedivere was already lunging for the rock in the brook that Mordred had slipped on. He drove Excalibur into the stone. Blue flame shot up and danced about it.

Morded lay there, stunned. Before he could collect himself there was a boot rushing down to meet him.

When he awoke, he was bound by the ankles again, and sitting by a fire. He smelled nothing but the iron of his blood, and he tasted copper. His face had been bandaged. He rolled over to see Bedivere poking a fire with a stick. “You didn’t kill me.”

“This is not news to me.”

“Let me free it,” Mordred said. “Let me free it from the stone. I am the true king. I can prove it.”

“No.”

“Let me free it!” Mordred said, struggling against his bonds. “Let me free it.”

“No.” Bedivere rose, and put the fire out. He hauled Mordred by his collar and threw him over his horse like a sack of flour.

“Let me free it. Please.”

“No.” Bedivere swung into his saddle and booted the horse forward. Mordred watched as Excalibur shrank as Bedivere rode downhill and it looked to Mordred as though his birthright was swallowed up by the ground.

“Let me free it…”