At dusk Yarmouth Cathedral casts long shadows that are almost as dark as the stone from which the structure is wrought. As the sky reddens beneath wisps of clouds, large silhouettes glide across the sky, first in a sparse trickle and then by the hundreds. Hard to see when they are directly overhead, the silhouettes only become visible once they pass the cathedral, and emerged into the red of the sinking sun.
“Ah, the buzzards are going out to Hyslop Forest to roost,” mutters a peasant looking up at the autumn sky. True, simple peasant, quite true, and soon when cold comes in force they will leave altogether, giving up on their search for immobile carrion.
The peasant’s black beard, speckled with gray, juts from his jaw, his hide cap drapes low upon his brow, and his ragged trousers sag about his waist. Behind this ratty peasant is a cart carrying wood ready for the fire and his most valuable tool: his axe. He goes to lift his foot and carry on his way only to find his furry boots to be sunk fast into the mud as if the earth is trying to reclaim him. “Damn it,” he says. “It will be nice when the ground hardens and winter is here.” With a loud squish, he frees his boots and sets off down the road.
Small clay huts rest along both sides of the road, or perhaps a better word for them is ‘hovels.’ The sodden roofs sprout stone chimneys that spew up clouds of wood smoke to mingle with the smell of manure. Our peasant, once moving, finds it no trouble at all to slosh his wood cart through the mud until he finally stops outside one of the clay hovels, the only one from which no smoke rises. The red of the sky has darkened to maroon; a chilly wind whips up and carries in yellow oak leaves from the forest; the buzzards have vanished from the sky leaving the peasant alone on the road before the hovel. He wheels the cart up beside the wall and takes up a bundle of wood. Placing his shoulder against the wooden door, he gives it a shove and disappears into dimness.
The innards of the hovel do not greet him with warmth, coziness, and friendship. It is instead cold and dark. A woman aged beyond her years sits at the table mending a sock by candle light. She offers him no hello, and when she does not look up from the sock, her sewing takes on hostility as her needle stabs the fabric and binds it with thread.
The peasant looks at her for a moment then slams the door shut with his boot. He walks over to the hearth and sets the wood down. He adds a layer of kindling to the coals that dimly glow red in the dark little room. Upon the kindling he piles some of the wood from his bundle. He begins fanning the coals until the kindling catches fire and bright orange light plays across the walls of the hovel. The peasant crouches before the maw of flames. When the fire claims the energy from within the kindling, the peasant adds more, and the flames revive from their slow death and again light the room. Finally the wood catches, and a steady glow illuminates the single room abode. The peasant rises and removes his heavy coat, revealing a gaunt and wiry body draped in a coarse once-white shirt. Sweat stains the peasant beneath his arms and down his chest. After warming himself beside the profits of his labor, he looks to the woman. She too is thin beyond preference, and what little beauty she had possessed has fled years ago. She continues violently stabbing at the sock with her needle.
“The fire’s ready,” the peasant says to the woman.
She turns to him, one eye is sunken and closed for eternity. A scowl deforms her face. “Why should we not be the first? I am freezing,” the woman growls at the man. “Must I always freeze?”
The peasant takes no offense to the woman’s tone yet sighs with pity for her plight. “I serve those who depend on me before myself.”
“Lazarus,” the woman moans. “Should you not also serve me?”
Lazarus saunters over to the table, takes a small purse from his belt, and sets it on the table with a jingle and a clank. “I do serve you,” he responds. “Everyone in this village is always cold. The longer they wait the less they pay. And the priest is always first. You know that.”
“That is not much,” she comments, eyeing the small purse.
“When I am dead I will prefer to have been a good man instead of a rich man.”
“And dead you will remain regardless,” the woman mumbles. “I’ll fetch the pot and get started.”
“It’s heavy,” Lazarus says. “Let me get it.” He walks over to the wall and lifts the iron pot and takes it over to the hearth, where the woman meets him. There before the fire she adds water, potatoes, and cabbage to the pot, and places it upon the fire.
“Still no meat?” she asks.
The peasant chuckles. “Should today be any different than any in the past? There is no more game in the woods.”
Outside in the night, autumn finally yields to winter’s assault and snow dances down to the forlorn earth and sodden roofs.
The sun rises to no ovation in the morn. Gray clouds shield the land from the warmth of light, and the fiery disc is already sinking in the afternoon when a loud rapping disturbs the peasant’s abode—preventing a peaceful rest. The peasant throws off his blanket and climbs to his feet, leaving his wife still and alone before the fire. The snow has stormed the earth the entire night and most of the day. Who would go out in such weather? Who would leave the warmth of a fire to rap on a hovel’s door?
With some effort the wooden door opens. Even before the visitor can be identified, mischievous snow tumbles down from the snow bank residing outside. It begins to melt into the earth.
“Lazarus,” a voice moans from outside. “Hurry up!”
Shivering and hugging himself outside in the dimming light slouches the innkeeper, another gaunt specimen. His withered and chapped face wears fright. His cheeks sink deep into his face and his mummified lips can’t fully cover his yellow teeth. “There are travelers at the inn.”
“Close the door,” the wife snarls from the floor.
The innkeeper peers around Lazarus to the source of the snarl and then ignores the woman. “There is no wood,” he goes on. “We are out of wood. They ask for fire. Help me.”
Lazarus nods. “I understand. I will bring some of mine.”
“You mustn’t!” screams his wife. “We will freeze!”
Lazarus motions for the innkeeper to leave then closes the door. Turning to the inanimate lump before the fire, he stands motionless for a moment then says, “Travelers are our guests.”
A snort arises from the earthen floor, but no more argument is made. The wife knows Lazarus will be hospitable to a fault and sometimes resents him for it. She goes back to sleep with the sunken eye shut and the other open and reflecting the fire.
The peasant takes a step towards the stack of firewood in the corner of the hovel. His left foot drags lifelessly on the dirt. He looks curiously at his foot and then shakes his leg and stamps his foot. “I’m getting old,” he thinks to himself with a small smirk. The natural stages of life charm and amuse our little peasant. He takes another step, and his foot works properly. He separates a fair amount of wood from his personal stash and sticks it in a sack. Three logs remain. He looks back to the lump before the fire, smiles, unslings his satchel, removes two logs, and adds them to wood he is leaving behind. Without saying a word, not wanting to disturb his wife, the peasant departs the hovel, closing the door as silently as possible.
The streets are deserted. The villagers have forsaken them on this first heavy snow of the winter. They need time to adjust. They are not yet willing to admit that fall is gone and that the temporary death of winter is upon them. They stay inside next to their hearths, clinging to the lively memory of fall and summer, but eventually they will accept winter for what it is, and the longing for the past will disappear from them, and all that will remain is the peaceful quiet of winter.
The inn is on the opposite side of town from Yarmouth Cathedral and trudging through the snow makes for slow going. Faint candlelight escapes from the inn’s windows, and a torch flickers beside the door. Sitting at the table nearest the dead hearth, is a noble looking group. They drink mead and speak in rowdy voices. Two broad and powerful men clad in armor, a long bearded dwarf in chainmail, an Amazon archer, and a stealthy looking fellow in a cloak comprise the company of travelers. “What a fascinating bunch,” Lazarus thinks.
A cheer arises from the table. “The wood is here,” bellows one of the large men. He has long golden hair and commands the respect of the others. Lazarus quickly sets about starting the fire. The innkeeper emerges from the kitchen with a steaming pot of stew made from the same recipe that Lazarus’s wife had used the night before.
“I’m sorry for the delay,” he says nervously. “We don’t get many travelers these days, so it’s just me doing everything.” He sets the pot in the center of the table. “Let me get the bowls. I’ll be right back.” He scampers back to the kitchen.
The two large men begin stirring the stew to examine its ingredients. “We should have stayed in the woods,” the dark haired one, who is obviously the brother of the blonde-haired man, mumbles as quietly as his brutish voice will allow. Lazarus still over hears him.
“How do these people survive,” the man in the cloak adds in a whisper.
The innkeeper returns balancing a stack of bowls in one hand and holding spoons in the other. When he reaches the table, Lazarus rises. Several logs burn steadily in the fireplace.
“It’s about damn time. It was colder than death in here,” bellows the blonde warrior.
Bowls and spoons clank on the oak table. Lazarus turns to the travelers and smiles. The innkeeper mutters apologies as he distributes the dishes.
“Christ,” the big blonde man shouts as the innkeeper moves past him. “Does no one in this town bathe?” The man gives Lazarus a few sniffs and scowls. “You people smell corpses. Hurry up and get away from me before I lose my appetite.” The others in his company burst out in alcohol enhanced laughs. Only the woman remains quiet and glares at the rude man. The firelight casts deep shadows over every face present.
“What a beauty,” Lazarus thinks. He hasn’t seen a woman this young in many seasons. “Oddly dressed,” he muses. Indeed she is oddly dressed. She sits shivering in scanty armor which barely covers her breasts and reveals her midriff. Her long supple thighs are exposed and pair of knee-high boots protects her feet.
After the bowls are distributed and the innkeeper has left, the party of adventurers sits around the table drinking and talking and telling stories. The Amazon finally sighs, stands up, and serves stew to herself and all the others. She sits back down and begins to eat ignoring her companions. Lazarus walks over to her. Her eyes dart to him and then return to her bowl. The peasant looks at her bare shoulders and cleavage.
“Oh my,” he says as he slides out of his overcoat. “I’m sorry that it is such an old and worn out thing, but I’d like you to take this,” he tells the woman as he drapes the coat over her shoulders.
The Amazon flinches, and instinctively reaches towards the dagger strapped to her thigh. She stops and crinkles her nose at the odor of the coat. The others laugh.
“Hey,” the raspy voiced dwarf slurs. “Look who made a friend!”
The Amazon glares at the dwarf. “Thank you,” she says to Lazarus.
“One shouldn’t be dressed so scantily in this country,” the peasant scolded her.
“I had little choice,” she grumbles. “This is the only female armor the blacksmith makes.”
“He’s a damn good man, that blacksmith,” the blonde man chimes in eyeing the Amazon’s breasts. “That armor keeps our morale high!” All the others laugh and also eye the woman. Her face shows no emotion as her hand once again falls upon the hilt of her dagger. Her eyes flash around the table taking note of all those laughing and, reluctantly, her hand moves away from the dagger.
“Your morale would not be an issue had you not led us on a wild goose chase after fairytale monsters,” she points out to the leader.
Laughs die away into graves of silence. The leader, finally turning serious, says, “You will see. The necromancer is no fairytale.” The others nodded. “Our strength,” he says, indicating himself, his brother, and the dwarf, “his stealth,” he continues pointing at the cloaked man (he pauses for a moment and cannot suppress a smile), “and your breasts will fell the villain.” All the others laughed.
“Bow,” the Amazon corrects before eating a potato from her bowl.
“Be gone, peasant,” the leader says to Lazarus. “We have no more need of you, and I will take care of her tonight.”
“Take your coat,” the Amazon says as Lazarus turns to leave. “You’ll freeze.”
“Keep it. I’ll make it home just fine,” Lazarus insists as he leaves the travelers to their raucous dinner.
The next day there comes more rapping on Lazarus’s door, and once again the innkeeper stands outside. Over one arm hangs the old overcoat. “The woman says, ‘Thank you very much,’” the innkeeper says with musty breath. Lazarus takes the coat.
“Yes. A few hours ago. They made a mess of their rooms and refused to pay for the food because there was no meat. Your lady friend slipped me a silver piece. She was the only decent one in the lot. That fellow in the cloak is a straight up thief. He nicked the blanket off his bed.” Shaking his head the innkeeper turns and leaves.
In the evening, the buzzards make their last tour over the village before heading south for the winter and all is quiet. The wind creaks the door on its hinges. Then from edge of the village a scream awakens the evening.
“What was that?” Lazarus’s wife asked.
“Stay here by the fire,” Lazarus tells her, “I’ll go find out.”
Outside is not as dark as it should be. An ominous glow rises from edge of the town. Shadows of villagers are rushing down the street, and Lazarus follows them as fast as he can without seeing where he is going and stumbling in the high powdery snow.
As he nears Yarmouth Cathedral he can see orange flames pouring from the windows and licking at the stars from the roof. In the middle of the street the dwarf, the golden-haired warrior and the Amazon stand shoulder to shoulder with weapons at the ready. They are lit by the burning cathedral. Running along the street with torches and setting fire to every roof are the cloaked man and the dark-haired warrior. A crowd of villagers gathers and stands in shock as their Yarmouth Cathedral burns and their homes soon follow.
“All of them!” the lead warrior shouts. “My God…It’s all of them!” With those words the group of adventurers set to the villagers with their swords and axes, decapitating anyone unfortunate enough to get close to them. It takes a moment for the villagers to react and try to flee, but the poor undernourished souls, tripping over themselves, cannot make an effective retreat. Heads are split, bellies slit, and limbs are hacked asunder.
Lazarus flees pursued by the blonde haired warrior who remembers him from the night before. The warrior laughs as he pursues the peasant. Reaching his home, Lazarus rushes in and grabs his wife by the wrist and drags her to the door.
“We must flee!” he shouts at the confused woman. Just as they step out the door a gleaming blade of a broad sword narrowly misses Lazarus but splits his wife’s head like a melon. Both Lazarus and the corpse fall into a snow drift.
He blinks up at the stars still holding his wife’s dead hand.
He smells the burning village.
Eclipsing the stars is the bulk of the blonde warrior. He pants out clouds of steamy breath. The warrior looks at the peasant in disgust. “You abomination,” he mutters as he raises his sword to the heavens, preparing to cleave the peasant in two.
Suddenly the warrior’s head jerks back, and his face grimaces. A dagger plunges deep into the warrior’s throat and wretches clear across his neck with strength denoting true hatred and nearly decapitating the man. The giant muscle-bound adventurer collapses into the snow, where his hot blood melts its way towards the earth.
Standing over the body, the Amazon looks down on the peasant. Her expression belies uncertainty and suspicion. As Lazarus gets to his feet, she takes a step backwards, readying her blade. “You should run,” she says in a distrustful voice.
Lazarus does nothing but blink dumbly.
“Go north. We will be going south,” she says.
Lazarus looks at what remains of his wife. The flames of the adventurers are spreading ever closer to his home. Soon it will be aflame and then gone.
He looks at the Amazon.
What should he say? Why is this happening?
The Amazon takes another step backwards.
Finally, unable to speak or even think Lazarus turns and runs down the dark deserted street and into Hyslop Forest.
In the darkness, he knows not where he goes. Behind him the raised village glows a deep red in the night, revealing the dark trunks and branches of the trees. He trips. He stumbles. He does not stop. The woods make running hard, but they also shelter him from any pursuit.
Is there anyone pursuing him?
He can see nothing.
How long has he been running?
Suddenly the ground disappears from beneath his feet, and he falls. There he stays, unable to see anything in the dark of night, swaddled in his overcoat, and unable to process what has befallen his existence. He cannot sleep; he is too scared to move; he waits.
In the grayish light of dawn, Lazarus stiffly climbs out of the pit. He is in a clearing in the forest. All around him stand Hyslop’s scraggly evergreens frosted with white snow. He turns about, shivering and in shock. To his right and to his left, in front and behind him, everywhere in the small clearing the sacred earth is pocked with empty gaping black graves. Bewildered and confused, he limps past the old crosses and tombstones and into the trees of Hyslop Forest leaving Yarmouth Cemetery behind forever.
About the AuthorNathan Henderson was born in Texas and now lives in Boston. In between he lived all over the world. He has been writing fiction for ten years and has completed one novel and started work on another.
©2012 Nathan Henderson
“Madoc, I’m COLD!”
Madoc would have flexed his hands in anger if his damn fingers weren’t stiff with the cold. He stopped to look back at Brynn. The lummox was a few feet behind, standing in the snow that was hip deep on both the men. “Bryn, if you don’t shut your bloody yap, I swear by St. Daffyd himself that I will slit your stupid throat just to get some peace and quiet!”
Bryn’s eyes widened. “You would NOT! Da would…”
“And just when would I see our Da, eh? It’s been five years since he threw us both off the farm. He’d never know I’d done for you. Now shut up and get moving, or we’ll both freeze to death out here in the middle of bluidy who knows the hell where!” Madoc whirled, or tried to in the deep snow and started walking once more. The only sign they were even on a road at all was the wide aisle of open space through the forest to either side of them. Damnation!
Bryn, to give him credit, managed to keep quiet for at least a half an hour before he spoke again. This time it was in a hoarse whisper: “Madoc? Are we gonna’ die out here?”
Although he didn’t stop moving the question shocked the smaller Welshman. The brothers had been in some very bad spots in their short careers on the wrong side of the law and not once had Bryn brought up the subject of either of them dying. Madoc kept pushing his way through the snow, not daring to stop and let Bryn see the expression on his face. The truth was that for the first time in his own life Madoc was having the same thought. He shook his head. “Bryn, you best not let me hear you ask that again or I’ll slit your bluidy throat.” He didn’t bother to think about the lack of logic in the threat. Besides, Bryn would probably just fall over in the snow and wait to die if he didn’t keep on him to move. “Now keep walking!”
Madoc risked a glance back over his shoulder and cursed loudly as he saw his brother had fallen to his knees ten paces back. He trudged back through the snow and grabbed the taller Bryn under the arms and heaved him to his feet. “Don’t you start getting lazy on me, Bryn. Here,
you’re bigger than me! You should be in front making it easier for me to walk after you!”
“Walk where, Madoc? We’ve been walkin’ for hours and we haven’t seen any sign we’re gettin’ closer to Camelot. It’s gonna be night soon, and we’ll be out here in the dark and the snow. Where are we gonna walk to, Madoc?”
It was a good question. Now Madoc knew they really were in trouble if Bryn was doing more thinking about their situation than he had been doing himself. He looked desperately at the woods to either side for an answer, then grinned as he saw the smaller road leading off through the trees to their right. “Look! Down that way.” Far off a brief glimmer of yellow could barely be seen through the falling snow. “It has to be a farmhouse or an inn. We’ll go there.”
Bryn squinted into the distance. “What if they won’t let us in?” “They’ll let us in,” Madoc said, then patted the hilt of his sword. “And if they won’t, we’ll make them. You kept your bowstring dry?”
Bryn nodded. “Just like Da taught us.”
“Good.” He turned Bryn in the direction of their new destination. “Now move!” He gave his brother a shove in the back to get him started.
“Hullo the house!”
The light at the end of the road turned out to be coming from a medium sized farmhouse that looked like it had seen better days. The fence around the house (where it could be seen above the snow) sagged at an angle and the henhouse door hung from one hinge as the wind blew it back and forth.
Madoc might have thought the place was deserted except for a glimpse of firelight between the tightly shuttered windows and the fresh tracks in the snow they’d come across as they’d made their way here. He drew his dagger and walked towards the front door, silently pointing out to Bryn the tracks of horses leading toward the nearby barn. He reversed the dagger in his hand when he reached the door and used the pommel to bang on it. “Let us in, for the love of God and all His saints! Give us shelter!”
“We’ve no room!” It was a woman’s voice.
Madoc quickly sheathed the dagger; she sounded frightened enough already without opening the door to a man with a dagger in his hand. If she opened the door at all, that is. “Please, Mistress, we’ll freeze to death before we reach the next shelter. We mean you no harm!”
“Mistress, we cannot. We mean you no harm, but if you do not open the door and let us in of your own free will, we will have no choice but to break it in.”
There was a faint murmur of voices from within and then the sound of the bar on the other side of the door being slowly lifted. The door swung open to reveal a woman and small boy huddled together before the shining fireplace. Madoc was nearly bowled over by his brother as Bryn rushed through to warm himself by the flames before he stepped inside himself.
The door slammed shut behind him.
He barely had time to curse himself for forgetting the tracks they’d seen outside before someone grabbed him by the hair and pulled his head back while setting a sharp edge at his throat. There was a harsh laugh before his captor whispered in his ear. “Well, well, look what the cat dragged in from the snow!”
Madoc was jerked backwards and his captor leaned over to look him fully in the face. “Madoc! It’s been awhile since I saw your sneaky little face.” The knife blade tickled freely at Madoc’s throat before it was withdrawn and his hair released. “You left the city in a hurry, eh?”
“Hullo, Torrin. Fancy meeting you here.” Madoc moved away from the other man and scowled. A quick glance to either side of the room was enough to tell him Torrin wasn’t here alone but then again Madoc had never seen the other thief without his henchmen nearby. “And here’s Jesse and Edric. Out for a stroll in the country, are you, boys?” As usual the only response he got from either of them were their black toothed smiles. There was a third man that Madoc didn’t know and who didn’t smile. “Right. So, why are you out here, Torrin? I thought you have never been out of sight of the walls of town.”
Torrin had begun cleaning the grime out from under his fingernails with the dagger point. He spoke without looking up. “We did a little job a mile from the city and next thing we knew, there were patrols all over the countryside, riding about getting folk ready for this storm. We had to find a place to wait out the storm and well, we found sweet Huldah here and young Jack all alone, without a real man to look after them.” Now he looked up to leer at the woman before turning to grin at Madoc. “You can have some if you behave yourself, Madoc. None of your
tricksy Welshman antics.”
“Tricksy? C’mon Torrin, you know me and Bryn aren’t known for our wits in The Hook. All we want is to bide a while here until the snow stops and then we’ll be on our way. Fair enough?”
“Sure, Madoc, sure. Why don’t you just go over by the fire with your brother and keep the boy quiet whilst me and my lads have a long…private conversation with his ma, eh?” He beckoned the woman to him with his finger. “Come on over here, sweet Huldah. We don’t want your young Jack to get hurt trying to be the hero defending his ma’s honor, do we?”
Madoc walked over to where Bryn was warming his hands. He could tell what his brother was thinking by the troubled frown on his face. “Bryn, you aren’t going to do something foolish are you?” They were close enough so that they could whisper without being heard.
“It ain’t right, Madoc. They’re gonna kill her and the boy after, aren’t they? Ain’t right to kill a woman an’ kid.”
Madoc sighed. “Bluidy hell, man. They most like will kill us, too. That worries me more. But you can’t go off half-cocked on me.” He looked over his shoulder, then back to Bryn. “You kept the bowstring dry? And the bowstave?”
“Just like Da taught us.” Bryn patted the long oilskin wrapped bundle leaning against the nearby wall. He’d carried it slung over his back all along the journey together with the quiver of arrows.
“Good.” Now Madoc turned to the young boy. “Alright, the name’s Jack, is it?”
The boy nodded.
“Well then, Jack, we’ll help you and your ma, but I need you to stand clear once things get loud, alright? Good man. Now all we need is—”
Huldah let loose with a loud scream behind them.
“—that. Bryn, when I nod you get that bow strung and ready.” Madoc turned and called across the room. “Oi! Torrin, that’s not a very bright thing to do out here. Screams carry a long way and there was a patrol coming down the road awhile back.”
Torrin looked up. Huldah had put up a good defense and he’d only gotten one button on her blouse open so far. “I warned you.”
“Fine, don’t believe me. Me and Bryn will go back up to the road and check to see if they heard.”
It went as Madoc expected it would. Torrin was by nature a very suspicious man and he stayed true to form. “And have you call them down on us? I don’t think so. Jesse! You take Edric and see if he’s lying.”
Jesse and Edric looked less than pleased as they went out the door. If they made it back to the farmhouse it was not going to be with love in their hearts for Madoc. That left Torrin and the new man to deal with. Huldah slowly rebuttoned her blouse as Torrin stared angrily at the Welshmen in silence. Madoc turned to Bryn and slowly nodded.
Silently, his brother began unwrapping the bow stave.
“Here now, what is he doing?” Torrin started across the room.
“Stringing his bow.”
“Bryn’s going to deal with Jesse and Edric.”
Torrin’s smile was wolf-like. “He’ll have to deal with me and Alf first.”
Madoc shook his head as he drew his sword. “No, that would be my job.”
“You?” Torrin gave a loud laugh as he drew his own blade. “You’re going to fight me to save a woman? Who do you think you are, Madoc? A bluidy knight? “
“Bryn and me, we may be nothing but a couple of thieves and poor ones at that, but we have standards, you see? We might kidnap a woman here or there for ransom, but we never harm them. And we damn well sure never killed one, or a kid neither.”
Torrin spat on the floor. “That for your standards, Welshman. Fine, I was going to kill the pair of you anyway afterwards so I’ll just get it over and done with now.” He stepped forwards, blade at the ready.
“Bryn, best hurry up.” Madoc kept his eyes on Torrin. “I don’t know how long before the others turn around to come back.”
“I’m nearly done.”
Then all hell broke loose as Torrin attacked. He came in low and Madoc tried to block him as fast as he could, but even so he felt a line of pain like fire along his right side.
Madoc began to think that this hadn’t been one of the brightest ideas he’d ever had.
“Bynnnnnnnnnnnnnnn?” Madoc drew out his brother’s name as he warded off another of Thorrin’s thrusts. “Are you done YET?”
Torrin cursed as Madoc blocked his sword. “Are you completely mad, Welshman? They threw you both out of the Archers because you were both poor marksman.” He lunged forwards, once more attacking Madoc’s wounded side.
Then this was it. Madoc blocked once more. “Make your arrows count, brother.” He lurched a step ahead, convinced he was about to die. His only hope was to move in within Torrin’s guard and try to get a death blow in before Torrin killed him as well. He drew back his sword, his intent to smash the hilt into his opponent’s face. His arm moved forward but his feet slipped on the wet floor. Madoc desperately stabbed at Torrin’s chest before the other man could move to parry and the blade struck home.
Torrin crumpled lifeless to the floor.
Behind him, bloody kitchen knife in hand, stood Huldah the farmwife. The man Torrin had called Alf was slumped in the corner with a shocked look on his dead face. “Is that true, your brother was dismissed from the Archers because he was a bad marksman? Give me the damn bow, I’ll do it!” She tried to push past Madoc, then slapped him when he wouldn’t move.
Madoc probably would have yelped except the pain from his side was much worse. “Bryn is a good marksman. Let him do what must be done. “He reached out to grab her as much to steady himself as to stop her. “Bryn, go!”
His brother nodded and walked out the now open front door as Madoc, Huldah and her son followed. The storm had let up but the afternoon sky was slowly darkening. Bryn had strung the bow and slung the quiver up over his shoulder, his first arrow already nocked. He stepped out into the narrow lane that led back up to the road and aimed at the pair of figures struggling back through the snow to the farmhouse. He pulled back the string of the longbow.
Huldah tried to shake Madoc loose. “What is he doing? If he’s such a poor archer, shouldn’t he wait until they are closer? If he misses, they will be on him and you’re in no shape to fight again.”
“He won’t miss.” Madoc concentrated on Bryn, ignoring the growing pain. He didn’t dare look anywhere else; if he saw the snow stained with blood at his feet, he’d be worthless. “Bryn, don’t miss.”
“Hush. I’m ready. “And with that Bryn let fly his arrow. As one, the heads of the other three swiveled to look at the approaching brigands.
Huldah shook her head. “Too far.”
And then one, Jesse from the color of his cloak, slumped to his knees and fell backwards into the snow. Edric turned to look back at his companion and Bryn’s second arrow caught him square between the shoulder blades. A second later he too lay dead on the ground.
Huldah looked from Madoc to Bryn. “I don’t believe it!” She yanked her arm free from Madoc’s grip to go check the brigands.
And Madoc decided he was going to lie down right there in the snow.
It was amazing how warm and soft snow could be, Madoc thought, and if it weren’t for whatever it was that insisted on shaking him, he could just lie here for a long, long time. He tried to swat it away and found his arm entangled in sheets and comforter. A boy’s face stared intently at him.
“Wha?” Madoc tried to remember where’d he’d seen that boy.
“Ma says you’ve slept long enough. Your wound’s healing and I’m to help you sit up on the side of the bed. She’ll bring you some broth and she says she’s not feeding it to you anymore.” The boy, who the groggy Madoc now recalled was named Jack, reached out a hand to remove the warm covers.
“Here now. I need these still!” Madoc gripped the covers tightly with one hand and with the other slowly pushed himself up to a sitting position. He winced at the pull of stitches in his wounded side, then allowed Jack to help swing his legs over the side of the bed. The room spun around him for a few seconds but gradually it righted itself and Madoc waited in silence for his meal.
Shortly afterwards Huldah came in with a bowl of broth and a spoon.
“Are you able to hold this?”
She handed it to him but kept her hand beneath it to catch it should he lose his grip. Once she saw he was not going to drop it she stood back, then took a seat in a chair by the bed.
Madoc paused in filling his spoon with broth. “About what?”
“That man, Torrin. He said you and your brother were dismissed from the Archers because you were poor marksmen, and yet Bryn brought those two men down with ease.”
“Ah. Well.” Madoc swallowed a spoonful of broth. “He was only half right. I am a very poor archer. Bryn, on the other hand, is a great one. But when I failed the marksmanship trials, he realized we would be separated So….”
Huldah laughed. “ He pretended to be as bad as you?”
“Yes. Of course, if he’d stayed in the Archers like I told him he’d have made enough coin to get us both a room somewhere in town, but all he knew was I was leaving him.”
“Well, that strikes me as very loyal and brotherly.”
Madoc didn’t tell her he thought it had been very stupid. She did, after all, have his trousers... somewhere. He concentrated on finishing the broth and then handed the empty wooden bowl back to Huldah. The woman looked vaguely troubled as she took it. He waited, having a good idea what was coming.
“You can’t stay much longer. Maybe two or three days but no later.The patrols are increasing again.”
Madoc nodded slowly. “What happened to the …?”
“We buried them down behind the chicken coops.” Huldah stood and smoothed her skirts with one hand. “I’m sorry I cannot let you stay any longer than that, but you and your brother are thieves aren’t you?”
“Among other things, aye.”
“Then I’m sorry, I can’t risk you being caught here. They might think I am an accomplice and I can’t gamble the happiness of my child if I’m arrested. You understand?”
“Yes.” Madoc leaned back in the bed. “I need to start eating solid food, meat to get my strength up for traveling.”
Huldah nodded. “And you can have two of the horses. I’ll keep the
third.” She moved away and then stopped to look back. “And Madoc?”
“Thank you. If there is ever anything else I can do, I shall.”
“Well, there’s one thing.” Madoc grinned. “ Keep Brynn fed, will you?
Judging from the look on Huldah’s face, she’d already discovered that Bryn was always hungry. Madoc concentrated on his bowl of soup. They’d miss their meeting in the city, but for the moment, he and Bryn were warm and fed.
That was enough for now.
About the AuthorBill West is a former bookseller who's been hooked on the sword & sorcery genre from the day he first read "Conan the Conqueror." He has had poems published in Renaissance Magazine and writes about his family history on his "West in New England" genealogy blog.
© 2008 B.West
January 31, 2012
Welcome to the inaugural issue of Swords and Sorcery Magazine. I started Swords and Sorcery to be an outlet for the kind of fantasy I enjoyed when I was growing up—stories of magic and monsters and daring deeds done with sword in hand. Great traditional fantasy is still being published—I’m a big fan of Lois McMaster Bujold’s fantasy novels—but it is hard to find a market for short stories in today’s marketplace. I know plenty of people who are still writing them, though. To meet the needs of frustrated writers—and readers—of traditional fantasy Swords and Sorcery Magazine was born.
Swords and sorcery as a subgenre usually refers to the kind of horror fantasy stories epitomized by the Conan stories of Robert E. Howard. I would be happy to publish well written stories in that vein but my definition of swords and sorcery is broader. Any fantasy story set in a world with pre-industrial technology, without factories and steam powered machinery, fits my vision. The settings could be pseudohistorical or entirely imaginary. As the name suggests the stories may feature action or magic but neither is necessary.
This first issue features two stories with pseudohistorical medieval settings. “The Spoils of Chivalry” by Nathan Henderson examines the typical violence of traditional fantasy worlds from the point of view of a surviving victim. “Shelter from the Storm” by Bill West is a tale of harsh weather and honorable thieves. Enjoy!
I’d be happy to hear your comments about Swords and Sorcery Magazine. Email them to editor@SwordsandSorceryMagazine.com
. I’m also looking for submissions for future issues. See the submissions page for more information on what I’m looking for.
Until next month,
Editor, Swords and Sorcery Magazine