Necessity breeds compromise.
The late afternoon breeze was fresh like mountain water, whipping his shoulder-length hair against his face. Aelwyk’s eyes were stung by his snaking red locks, yet his steel-grey gaze was fixed on a small temple structure on the periphery of a tiny hamlet in the valley before him.
“Is that the valley?” he asked, gesturing with his war axe, making sure that as little of the party’s presence could be spotted from the dwellings.
“Aye, my Lord,” said the prisoner, held by one of Aelwyk’s burly personal guards. “That is where the baron’s guard are hiding.”
The lord turned distastefully toward the man whose hands were tied together behind his back. “And you’re sure a priestess of Rasadan is custodian of the temple?”
“Aye, and she has one brown eye, and one green.”
“As you said.” Aelwyk scratched his bushy red beard, reflecting a rare moment of hesitation.
“Am I to go now?” the prisoner asked. Despite the chilly wind, sweat glistened on his crinkled forehead, a few rivulets running down the sides of his face.
“Did you fight under the banner of the Baron of Clavell three weeks ago at Worsfalls?”
“Y…yes, I did,” the prisoner hesitantly replied.
“You lost the battle to my men, but you cut our wounded to pieces before you left.” Aelwyk’s eyes tightened, a fiery volcano was building under his strong, tightening frame.
“I…I didn’t cut anyone up; not the wounded,” the prisoner squeaked. “You said you would give me liberty if I showed you where the elite guard were. You swore an oath to Kul.”
“I did,” Aelwyk replied, leaning on the battle-smoothed handle of his axe, which rested on a lichen-clad rock. “I will free you as an enemy soldier, for your services rendered, but,” and bellowing with the rage of a hundred dragons, “I condemn you for murder!”
A second guard grabbed the prisoner’s long, greasy hair and pulled him down to a bent-over, kneeling position, exposing his neck.
“Have mercy!” the Clavell soldier screamed. “I swear, I did nothing!”
Aelwyk raised his axe in an arc, adding momentum with his mighty strength. The sharp blade cut through flesh and bone in a single sweep, causing the guard who was holding the prisoner’s head, to stumble backwards. The lord wiped his blade on the clothing of the twitching body, and spit on the bloody decapitated head.
“Would there have been value in keeping him alive a little longer?” asked one of the guards.
“No, Sigmund,” Aelwyk muttered, still heaving with anger. “My plans’ve changed. I want our men to stay concealed behind this hill while I go into the valley alone.”
“But my Lord! There would be at least a dozen of Clavell’s elite amongst those farmhouses. You can best half a dozen of them in combat, but you risk much with their number!”
“Silence!” Aelwyk roared. “I have my reasons. You may be my trusted adviser, but you’re still my vassal. Go, prepare our cavalrymen for battle, but wait until I return.”
“Aye, my Lord,” Sigmund said, bowing, betraying no fear or annoyance.
Aelwyk smirked. Hah. He knows me too well.
The Lord of Dooring climbed down the far side of the hill, treading carefully in the failing afternoon light, keeping under as much cover as he could manage. When he reached the valley floor, he followed a narrow lane that was bordered on both sides by ancient, loose-stone walls, and apple trees greening in new-leaf growth.
A half mile on he stood before a crude iron gate that led to the sandstone-crafted entrance to the Temple of Rasadan.
Lunacy. Of all the religious orders in this land, why did she choose this mad cult?
Aelwyk took a deep breath and, grim-faced, followed the short shale-stone path to the temple door. He quickly glanced behind to make sure no one was observing him. He knocked on the door.
He raised his fist to knock harder when he discerned faint, echoing footsteps from within the building.
“I told you—” A slight figure of a woman in a full white robe appeared at the threshold—with one look at the northern warlord, she froze with mouth agape. She wore her mousy hair in an austere ponytail, which was tucked underneath her robes. Despite her forty years she could not hide a classical beauty in her jaw line and high cheeks. She had a kind mouth, used to smiling, and large, intelligent eyes—one brown and one green.
Aelwyk was also speechless. He stood before her, silent, flashing a pathetic grin.
Aelwyk frowned at his nickname, from the only person in the entire Kingdom of Evyntyde who could get away with it. “Sihra.”
He could discern confusion in the priestess’ expression, but she recovered with an emphatic, “Ginger, get in right away or you will be set upon by Edrykel’s guards!”
The sandstone temple had a high vaulted ceiling with only two chambers. The first was the devotional area, centered with a giant granite sculpture of a severed hand, the symbol of Saint Rasadan. A discrete rear doorway led to the priestess’ living area, a single room where she slept, cooked, and held private meetings.
He shook his head slowly. Spartan.
She had Aelwyk sit on the lone, decrepit chair in the back chamber, and she gracefully sat on her bunk.
“Why are you here?”
Aelwyk placed his war axe against a small cupboard and clasped his meaty fingers together. “I didn’t know you were in this valley until this afternoon, Sihra. We fought a battle a few days ago against Baron Edrykel’s men, who had trespassed on our land. It is my responsibility to protect March County’s eastern borders. There’s been a dispute that’s been running for months, but not outright war. After we soundly beat them, the baron’s personal guard were separated from the rest of his army, and they headed north, deeper in our territory. I decided to mop them up.”
Sihra climbed to her feet and used her tinderbox to start a fire in her small hearth. She poured water in a pot in preparation for tea. “That explains their presence…and yours. This valley isn’t in March’s domain.”
“No, it is Crown land, as you well know, but it is protected by my lord.”
She hung the pot over the fire. In contrast to her usual strong, confident voice, she timidly asked, “So why did you come to my home?”
The ruthless warrior lord of legend fidgeted with his gold and onyx rings. “I…I am unsure. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you.”
“Yes, and nine months.”
“You know I deliberately found this place to—” She bit her lip.
“To hide from me?” he asked, trying his best to sound strong, but the failed attempt did not escape Sihra’s attention.
“Yes, but not entirely for that reason. It is a long story.”
“Let me finish this first.”
Sihra poured two steaming cups of herbal tea, fragrant with the hardy flowering plants of the highlands of the northern counties of the Kingdom.
“I was the only girl-child of my parents and brought up in the rough-and-tumble life of the north. I resolved from an early age not to be second to a husband, nor to be content making tapestries in my father’s castle. I found a calling among the followers of Rasadan and it was helpful that this temple needed a priestess.”
“You left me.”
She placed her mug carefully on a bench, the corners of her mouth forming a frown. “Ginger, don’t you remember? We agreed to part. We had…a wonderful time together at first, but we were not suited to each other. It was a mutual agreement.”
“We said we could still be friends. It didn’t take long before you used any and every excuse to avoid me. You moved from your parent’s castle to your cousin’s. You never told me. You rarely came from your room to see me when I visited.”
Sihra sighed. “I wanted to be friends as well, but you followed me like a puppy. Don’t you understand, you were not after friendship.”
“Poppycock! My intentions were just for your companionship—”
“Are you certain? You hounded me. It was clear that ‘no’ was not going to be good enough for you.”
“I…I…” Lord Aelwyk’s voice fell away in the discomfort of his confusion.
“I wanted to be your friend, but it was clear you only agreed because it was better than losing me altogether. With, in your mind, the chance to win me back. While I understand why harsh laws and the rule of the sword are a necessity in March County, I sought the peaceful side of human nature, hence my turning to the Rasadan fold. You, on the other hand, are a warrior—and always were. It was not long into the time when we were together—you in your prime and I was…was a young maiden, when I realized that what we had could not be sustained.”
Aelwyk leaned forward, eyes glistening with pain. “We were so good together. You were smart and made me laugh. No woman could make me feel so comfortable—so alive, than you.”
“I heard tales of your exploits, your battles, your leadership. Each time more bloodthirsty; cruel. It is said you never laugh or smile, except when you drink too much ale. You have become a grumpy, cruel man.”
Aelwyk sat in his chair, still leaning forward, stunned. The memory of the sound of his axe cutting the Clavell soldier like a cleaver chopping porker meat rang in his ears. “And I never married.”
“Who would willingly marry such a man as you?”
His left eye developed a slight tick. “No one has ever said these things to me. No one.”
“That is because they are all afraid of you.”
“Because you love me, and because we share memories that would be a crime in the eyes of the gods to taint.”
He sat stiffly back. “Aye. And yet those precious memories plague me night and day for near on sixteen years.”
This time Sihra fell silent.
“Do you have any idea how much pain I’ve endured for all these years, because you would not honor at least a friendship?”
The priestess jumped to her feet, her mismatched eyes blazing with anger. She said, voice loud and trembling, “Have you learned nothing from this conversation? It was you who pushed me away. A friendship was impossible.”
A sharp, repeated knocking echoed from the temple’s front door.
“Shit,” Aelwyk muttered. He lightly touched Sihra’s hand. “I am so sorry to have put you in danger.”
She rose, ignoring him, and stepped through the connecting door.
Aelwyk followed, axe in hand.
Sihra opened the temple door after Aelwyk had hidden behind the monolithic idol near the rear of the chamber.
Four armored men stood before her, brandishing longswords.
“Woman, we believe you have a March County soldier in your temple. We want him,” one of them said.
“I am not just a ‘woman’, sir. I am a priestess of blessed Saint Rasadan. I deserve your respect.”
The soldier spit before her feet. “Rasadan is a false saint and an abomination to the gods, Rydon curse him.”
Sihra exploded in anger, to a degree Aelwyk never heard before. “Scum! You have no right to disrespect the beliefs of the people here, and in fact no rights to be in this valley! Be gone!”
Aelwyk heard a slight scuffle and, “Move, woman, and be thankful we don’t cut you down!”
Aelwyk’s blood boiled at the thought of a man touching her. He leapt from behind the holy symbol of Rasadan, lifting his axe in the same motion. An officer of Clavell’s guard stood transfixed with the sight of a six foot six warrior, blazing red hair, and screaming a blood-curdling battle cry.
The officer’s skull cracked open like an egg, and in a heartbeat later, the axe was imbedded in another guard’s chest. With a quick kick, the weapon was freed.
Aelwyk sought out the remaining guards, finding them crumpled on the temple’s threshold. One was grasping his throat as blood gushed from between his fingers like a failing dam, while the other man lay still with a long dagger imbedded in his chest. Sihra was standing over them, head bowed, muttering prayers.
On seeing Aelwyk, she said, “They were warned.”
“Aye, they were.”
“You have to leave now. There are more of them, and it is unlikely you will have the benefit of surprise.”
The warlord shook his head. “No, Sihra. If I leave, those men will burn the temple down, and kill you.”
“They would desecrate the temple whether you came here or not. It is just a matter of time.”
He nodded. “Don’t worry, blossom. I have men in the valley to the south. I will be back within the hour.”
“Good.” She smiled for the first time.
Sihra stepped over the bodies and onto the temple’s path. As Aelwyk approached the doorway, a Clavell guard leapt into view, grabbing Sihra from behind, pinning her arms to her body with one of his arms, and holding a dagger to her throat.
Aelwyk knew he had to act immediately, before the guard could offer an ultimatum. He lifted his axe and rushed.
A swish sound came from his left; it was too fast to parry as his axe was in his right hand. He twisted, lifting his left arm reflexively. A sword bit deeply into his wrist, almost severing his hand.
He roared in pain, but his training, experience, and raw anger, took control. A single sweep of his axe instantly slew his assailant. Others were only seconds away. Blood oozed strongly from his mangled wrist, its rich scent wafted to his nostrils.
Aelwyk saw Sihra on the ground, having separated herself from her captor. The guard had drawn his sword and lifted it to strike the priestess. The warlord’s axe intercepted the sword strike, shattering the iron, and a second, swift arc of the heavy weapon made short work of the elite guard.
He had no time to check further on his beloved. Three men were rushing toward him, weapons drawn.
With a rage still erupting from his soul and heart, he swung his axe in a figure eight arc, a blur to his foes. He barely registered Sihra’s gasp on seeing his wound.
The guards were encouraged with Aelwyk’s wound—which dropped great dollops of crimson on the path—and lunged for him as one.
The warlord laughed maniacally as the pain was transformed into a bloodthirsty euphoria. Swords were parried and flung from the soldiers’ hands, and in the blink of an eye they were chopped down.
With the aid of the light of six moons in the night sky, filtered red through his berserker eyes, he saw no other assailants. He groggily approached his beloved Sihra, splashing his lifeblood in a semi-circular cascade, and collapsed to the path, unconscious.
“Ginger, can you hear me?” Sihra’s voice seemed distant, like she was calling from the hilltop.
“Aye. How long?” he whispered weakly.
“It is morning. You are fortunate that our order has skills in healing. You will be fine…but—”
“My hand.” It was a statement of fact. He peered to his left and blearily saw a bandaged stump. He groaned, “As I suspected.”
“I am so sorry. Your hand was almost cleanly cut off. It could not be saved.”
He smiled grimly and mentally cursed himself for being caught so easily out with the ambush attack. “At least it was my left hand. What of the remaining Clavell guard?”
“Your men heard your battle cry in the other valley. The Clavell guard fled when hearing the horses riding in. Your men are waiting outside, concerned for your health.”
“They’re good men. And I won’t hear the end of this.”
Sihra unwound the bandage and checked the wound. “You know, there is irony in what has happened.”
“Rasadan’s story. He was a nobleman from the southern lands who forsook his wealth and privileges, travelling north by foot, visiting each of the counties of Evyntyde. He healed the poor and preached the virtues of peace. He suffered from the animosity of noble houses and the established religions. Eventually he settled in the northern mountains on the plateau of Sanctam, and when the time was deemed right, he ascended to the heavens, leaving one of his hands as a symbol of his connection to his followers.”
“Why are you telling me this story?”
“You dolt! He loved his people but there eventually came a time when they had to part. He departed—less a hand.”
Despite the pain caused by Sihra rewinding the bandage, Aelwyk laughed. Genuinely. From the heart. For the first time in sixteen years. “And it’s time for me to leave, because the time’s right.”
“Right.” Sihra’s eyes brimmed with tears.
“And bequeathing you my hand.”
“Right,” she laughed and wept. “Although I have buried it. It would not do to have it hanging in my temple.”
Aelwyk climbed stiffly out of Sihra’s bunk.
“You can stay for a few more days,” she offered.
“No, blossom. The time’s right.”
She said nothing.
He gathered his loose possessions with his good arm and carefully walked to the front entrance.
He glanced momentarily back, and disappeared into the morning sun’s glimmer.
© July, 2015 Gerry Huntman
Gerry Huntman lives in in Australia and regularly publishes speculative fiction. His work has appeared, among other places, in Aurealis Magazine, Stupefying Stories, Lovecraft eZine, BLEED charity anthology, and Night Terrors III pro anthology (Blood Bound Books). His story "Husks" appeared in Swords & Sorcery in 2014.