Left and right and all around, nearby and faraway, Wulfrik heard the sounds of death and dying. Screams of fear, and anguish. As hundreds, thousands, were slaughtered. Put to the sword. His sword too.
At the time, Wulfrik was just a boy. With no more than fourteen summers to his name. He turned about the battlefield. A village on fire. The huts and the homes, the church and the chapel, the men and the women… and the children. Good men died fighting. Women wept as they were raped, and their children hung before them. Before their throats were slit. And Wulfrik looked about nearly expressionless. Not indifferently, but crestfallen. His heart hardened. Fighting back the tears.
Suddenly he heard a cry of battle behind him, surging forth, kicking up mud and sod. Wulfrik spun on his heel quickly, and struck the man down with ease, The force alone would have broken bones, but the claymore was so sharp it cut through cloth, and flesh, and nearly split the man in half. He was the eighth man he’d felled that day.
The stink of iron— blood —was in the air. Rust hung in the æther. And it stuck to his skin and clothes, fresh from his kill. But long before then too. And the ash of the burning fields, and the villagers homes, and the dead themselves fell out of the clouds and clung to the blood splattered on Wulfrik’s face. He wiped it clean, but it did no good. That moment, that day would stay with him, no matter how hard he scrubbed himself clean.
And there were so many bodies. Too many to count. Yet each corpse, would be drug over the land, and thrown into a massive pile to be burned in the end. Ordinarily, those who despaired and surrendered were sold into slavery. However, Wulfrik’s father made it clear there were to be no survivors.
Ældred, just six months younger than his brother, called to Wulfrik from across the small town. And he called again, until he raised his sabre in acknowledgement.
Not just some lean adolescent like Wulfrik, Ældred was strong. Fit enough to carry his horse twenty yards. The dashing young lad had blond hair like his mother, cut short atop his head, and growing like a weed beneath his chin and on his upper lip.
“I hear you!”
“Have you found any trace of the witch!?”
Wulfrik strode toward his horse, a brave black destrier he called Deimos, and leapt onto his back. Then as swift as the sun setting, Deimos tore up the earth, following after Ældred on his own steed.
They rendezvoused at the edge of a moor, at least a mile from the village. Moorland stretching far out into the west. Duskly clouds on its horizon were as red as the cruor pouring out of the dead. Reflecting in the murky pools across the mire of Sejettar. And there, Wulfrik and Ældred saw a lone figure running.
“That’s her?” asked Wulfrik.
“Of that I’m certain.”
“Very well. I’ll ride and tell father.”
“No!” Ældred protested. “If you tell father… who knows how cross he might become with you for letting her escape.”
Wulfrik shuddered at the thought of what his father might do to him. But still he shook his head, as he tried to be logical. “But we left our bows behind, little brother! If we go after her alone, and return empty-handed he’ll be even angrier.”
“Well then, we shall not fail.” Abruptly, Ældred trotted forth.
Though it was too late. His brother was already well into the heath. Alone and in jeopardy. Wulfrik spun his neck like an owl hoping to see someone nearby. But there was no one. Everyone he knew was entrenched in battle. So he rode after.
Soon the brothers were upon the witch. It took some time, as they had to dodge pits and puddles, but it was a trivial matter. She was small, she was out a breath, and wheezing loudly. Stumbling along as quickly as her legs could carry her. To no avail.
Jumping off their horses, they boldly rampaged into battle. Two boys. Heads pounding. Hearts racing. Blood boiling. All for glory. All for honour. All to make their father proud.
However the witch was not as weak as she seemed. She halted without warning. Her whole waist twisted nearly full around and she spread her wing like an eagle as if about to sail into the sky. Or fling a knife in their direction. Instead, something far more powerful hurtled toward the men.
Like some beam of light, a swirling blue cloud burst out of the witch’s palm, and hit the brothers like a wall. It sent both young men flying backward. Wulfrik tumbled over bramble. Ældred into a plashet.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” shouted the witch, “I didn’t mean to!”
As Wulfrik stood and saw the witch clearly for the first time, he saw the terror spread out on her face. Her brown eyes were wide and swollen from crying, tears still streaming down her cheeks. Her face was red from running. And she trembled uncontrollably as she faced the youths, she may as well have been an earthquake. Moreover, she was younger than them both. Barely a decade had passed for her.
“Help me, please!” the girl begged and whimpered, “I don’t know what’s happening to me!”
Charging in alone again was Ældred. His sword was upraised, his breast was thrust out, but before Wulfrik could yell to stop him, he was thrown back once more. A similar burst of energy sent him into the sky.
He fell into a quagmire again, but this time, his neck snapped. The spark in his keen adventuresome eyes was gone in an instant.
Suddenly Wulfrik froze. Several minutes went by, expecting his brother to get back up. To brush of the mud, and the pain, and attack. For Ældred was a bruiser. A born fighter. He was already taller and stronger than his half brother. Everyone, even their father said that Ældred would succeed him. As if it were prophecy. Destiny.
Finally Wulfrik turned to the little girl, who was now bawling so much, no sound escaped her lips. She was a blubbering, pouting mess, yet all Wulfrik saw was innocence. Sincere regret. She didn’t need to say a word for him to know that she was sorry. That his brother’s death, however tragic, was an accident.
Salty tears formed in his eyes as he stared back at that gifted child. At the same time he felt the claymore in his hand, but it was too heavy. He couldn’t bring himself to swing it. No sooner had he sheathed the weapon that she was struck down regardless. As if smited by the dæmon swarm, the Eva Noy and their master, the evil god Zàthiaraakh.
The heavens now looked so sanguine, Wulfrik wondered if the sky was bleeding. Enough people had died that day.
When Wulfrik looked behind him he saw the shape of his father on horseback in the fading light. A bow firmly in his grip. All of the screaming from the village had finally ceased, but the glow of firelight, the plumes of smoke, and the stench of death remained.
Returning from Sejettar, Wulfrik’s father said just one thing to his son. “Is your arm broken, or your sword?”
“What does that mean?”
“I rode back from the moor with the girl bleeding all over Deimos.” explained Wulfrik, “Whilst I towed my brother’s horse, with Ældred’s dead body draped on its back and withers. And my father asked why I hadn’t cut off the girl’s head. Why I let my brother die.”
Reuben didn’t reply.
Revealing his bicep, Wulfrik said, “This one, above Hilda’s feather, belongs to Ældred.” Then he pointed to the miniscule tattoo on his thumb knuckle, “and this one is the little girl’s. The witch’s feather. I didn’t know her name. And I couldn't let my father see it.”
Having debated whether to say anything at all, Reuben whispered, “That’s… awful.”
Wulfrik chuckled, “Oh I think I forgot to mention, this village was not some trader town beyond the reach of Roktar, nor the home of an enemy clan. It was in the heart of my country. My country…”
Venturing ahead of Reuben, deeper into the fog, Wulfrik resumed his melancholy humming.