|East of Sweden
Author: Nate Davis Volsungassonnr PM
The western Roman Empire has fallen and the world is up for grabs. Three outlaws--a Goth, a Hun and an Irishman--meet in a tavern and join in on a raid deep into the heart of Russia to rob an eastern trade caravan.Rated: Fiction T - English - Adventure/Western - Chapters: 2 - Words: 3,864 - Reviews: 4 - Follows: 3 - Updated: 03-29-11 - Published: 03-14-11 - id: 2898853
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
East of Sweden
I. The Gathering of the Outlaws
I know of a tavern not far from here
Where you can get some mighty fine beer
The company's true and the wenches are pretty
It's the greatest damn place in the whole of the city
If you're looking for crewmates, you'll sure find 'em there
Cutthroats and lowlifes and worse i should dare
Ol' Nancy don't care who comes to her inn
It's a den of debauchery violence and sin
When the Hun walked into the tavern, everyone noticed.
He was garbed just like any other Germanian, but if his bowed legs, narrow eyes, and swarthy complexion hadn't given him away, he was clearly marked as one of the Little Father's horse-lords by the two identical scars on his face, one on each cheek; in the Little Father's day, the Huns had cut the cheeks of their babies with knives (allegedly so that they would know blood and pain from infancy and thus grow to be fierce warriors, but in truth they just didn't find beards very fashionable). And a man so marked would have to be a Hun of great stature from some old family, for it had been many long years since that dark day when the horse-lords came out of the east like a hurricane to smash the walking walls of Rome.
The Germanians—being naturally suspicious of foreigners—eyed him warily, and he noted that many dropped hands to belts and boots where axes and knives were kept ready, but one of the tavern patrons was waving him over.
At a table near the far wall, half hidden in shadow, two men sat drinking and playing at dice. One was short—barely five feet tall—and scrawny, with wild black hair and crystal blue eyes. His companion, the man who had waved the Hun over, was enormous—nearly seven feet tall, with bulging muscles and a sagging gut—with a shock of unkempt blonde hair and a great blonde beard. He said in broken and heavily accented Hunnish, "Good day to you, my friend! You are not going to find many friends here, I think. No, they don't like Huns around here. But me, I am Ostrogoth. My grandfather dies at the Catalonian fields, even. Sit here, and I am buying you a drink."
With a cordial smile, the Hun sat down and said in Gothic, "Thank you. What is your name, friend?"
"I am Alek the Outlaw. We—my father and I—were exiled from Gothland some years ago. This fellow here is a Hybernian, and I've given up trying to pronounce his name."
"Padraig," said the little man. "My name is Padraig MacConnaught."
The Hun tried to fumble his way through the Hybernian's name and quickly gave it up. "My name is Eliak, the son of Kalna, who was the son of Mundz who rode at the Little Father's side."
"A princeling, eh?"
Eliak scowled. "I should be a chief. The blood of chiefs runs in my veins."
"My father and grandfather were both famous war leaders. We could've been chiefs if we had wanted to. What say you, Celt?"
The Hybernian, not knowing more than a few polite phrases of Gothic, took another drink of wine and cursed quietly in Old Irish. Alek nudged him and said slowly, "Your father, my new friend. Who was he?"
Padraig gazed into the Goth's eyes with a red hatred. In his slow and careful Gothic he said, "I never knew my father. Until three years ago I was a slave. Ask me again and I will kill you."
Alek's beard drooped as the Celt's words melted his good-natured grin. He said, "I meant no offense, new friend.
"Do you speak Low Saxon?", asked Eliak in Low Saxon.
The Ostrogoth's big grin returned, and even the short Hybernian's grim countenance softened slightly. "Fluently," the Hybernian said.
"Good. You aren't the first Irishman I've met, and—no offense—your language is unintelligible to me."
"None taken. Gothic is a hard tongue, and Hunnish may as well be the twittering of birds. I'd not even have bothered with Saxon if it wasn't the tongue of the Masters, may Crom and the Morrigan gnaw their bones in Hell."
A serving-wench, big and young and German, walked up and asked in Saxon, "Do you need anything?"
Padraig smiled up at her and said in Old Irish, "I'd like to bend you over this table and shag you like a dog."
"What was that, darling?"
He grinned good-naturedly and said in Saxon, "I said, 'You are the most beautiful girl I have seen in all of my travels.'"
She smiled, patted him on the shoulder, said, "Well aren't you just the sweetest thing?"
Each man ordered a meal and a fresh pitcher of wine. The wench took their orders and walked off, smiling.
"Ah, I love these Germanian women," said Padraig. "German women, German wine, German songs. A man can be happy in a fat land like this one, even if it is colder than Hell."
"You don't miss Hybernia?", asked Eliak.
"I was only a whelp when King Cormac took us across the sea to Caledonia, and barely twelve when he sold me to the Saxons. I can barely remember Ireland, and from what I do remember it is a gloomy place full of gloomy men. I'd rather be a free man in a foreign land than a slave in the land of my birth. Still, I would like to return someday."
"I was born on the banks of the Blue Danube," said Eliak, "but I'm a man of the steppes for all that. I'd like to look upon the homeland of the Little Father before I die."
Alek interjected, "I hear rumors that they still sacrifice to Tyz and Votan in far Gothland, so I know I would have friends there. But it is not my home."
"Now," asked Eliak, "what can a hungry outlaw do to earn some coin around here?"
"A few miles up the road some ambitious young chief is building himself a hill fort, and his wood-axes don't care if they are swung by outlaws. The Celt and I are drinking our day's pay."
The Hun turned up his nose. "Hardly work befitting a chief. But beggars can't be choosers, I suppose. I shall go with you come morning; until then, I'd like in on this game of yours."
Alek scooped a pair of dice into his cup, pushed a few denarii to the center of the table, and said, "Nine."
"Nine?", exclaimed the Hun. "That's a roll of long odds. Why not seven?"
"Nine is his lucky number," explained Padraig. "Something to do with his god."
Alek shook his cup and rolled the dice out onto the table. They came up a five and a four.
"Morrigan!", cursed Padraig angrily.
Alek grinned and scooped up the money on the table. "Votan is a good god, yes, Votan is a very good god."
"Methinks he'd be a better god if he wasn't so free with other people's money."
"Which god do you call upon, Irishman?"
"I honor all the gods," he said, "but I try to keep the favor of the Morrigan, the War-Crow. It's she who decides the outcomes of great battles. She's also strong in magic, and a very bad enemy."
"Crows are sacred to Votan," Alek said, as if to establish some common ground. "Have the Christians come to your country yet?"
"I don't know if they've made it as far as Hybernia, but Caledonia is well on its way to giving up the old gods. A gaggle of cowardly old women, those monks are. I'll stick with the gods of my fathers, if it's all the same to them."
"The Christians got to us many years ago, around the time of the Little Father. Of course, my father would never consent to give up Tyz and Votan—" he beamed with pride—"and for this I was exiled."
"I've seen a monk best a druid in feats of magic, but I'm still not impressed. This Jesus Christ speaks of turning the other cheek, and of loving your enemies. Surely not a god for a warrior!"
Eliak got no rest that night.
At first he was kept awake by the racket of Padraig and the tavern wench in the next room, the voluptuous Teuton giving the diminutive Gael shag after shag after shag on into the wee hours of the morning, leaving the poor Hun tossing and turning on his cot. Even after that, what few moments of sleep he managed to grab were plagued with nightmares. In his nightmares he saw a green field stretching out as far as the eye could see, and on that green field raged a battle. Franks, Alemanii, Visigoths fell before the thundering charge of squat, bow-legged, slant-eyed, yellow-skinned cavalrymen with scars on their cheeks and spears in their hands riding big, powerful black stallions, stallions of the same fine stock as had once upon a time borne the Hittites and Acadians and would one day in the future bear the lancers of Tamarlane and the Great Khan. As the shield walls broke and the Germans were cut down, those who survived the charge formed up into schiltrom, tight circles of desperate warriors who saw no escape save death. No charge of horses could disrupt such a formation bristling with spears like the quills of a riled porcupine, and so the grinning Huns abandoned their mounts and resumed the slaughter on foot. Eliak could see and feel and hear all of it, but the electric excitement, the burning passion, and the red joy that comes with the crashing of shields and the spilling of blood were gone, leaving only fear, the desperate gnawing fear of a man facing his death, and the sickness of slaughter. Eliak killed and killed and killed, he could feel the spray of blood and the heat of dying breath, and he knew the face of every man he slew. Here was the Hun who had tried to steal his woman, here were the Alemanii warriors who had tried to raid his village, and again and again, until finally he felt the pain of a sword-stroke rending his gut, and he woke up drenched in his own cold sweat.
Did the great warriors in the old songs have nightmares like mine?, he wondered silently. Ah, what nonsense! I am Eliak, the sun of Kalna, who was the son of Mundz who rode with Attila! I am the equal of those great warriors. No, I am greater even than they. So surely their nightmares must have been much worse. He chuckled. A cold comfort.
When he sensed that the sun was about to rise, the Hun pulled himself off of his cot and went to wake his new friends. They dressed, packed their gear, checked on their horses in the inn's stable, and trudged on foot toward the construction site. They had walked for only ten minutes before their ears started to pick up the song of axes ringing against tree-trunks. At length they heard a chorus of deep German voices singing a war chant, a song of the meeting of Donar the Thunderer and Thrym the ice-giant, in time with the swinging axes. On one side of the road, the oppressively dark Baltic forest broke away suddenly to a wide open field where barley grew and oxen grazed. A man-made hill loomed up in the center, steep-sided and cyclopean. A legion of workmen rushed about it like angry ants, axemen felling trees and dragging them to the earthwork, men with shovels digging a moat deep and wide around it, and all this before the sun had even made it all the way over the treetops.
A tall, red-haired Germanian strode up to them and waved. "Alek, Padraig, you are back," he said in Low Saxon. "And you have brought me another pair of hands?"
"Aye," said the Goth. "This is Eliak."
Eliak turned up his nose proudly, showing off the scars on his cheeks that marked him as a horse-lord. He said, "A Hun can swing an axe just as well as any German, if not better."
The foreman laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. "That's the spirit, lad. You three get to the forest; Lord Godfred wants the outer palisade completed by sunset."
They walked up to the edge of the forest, where each man picked up a double-bitted axe and picked out a tree. The Germans had started up another war-chant, this one of the slaying of Fafnir by Sigurth the Volsung. Though none of them broke rhythm, they were all eying Eliak suspiciously. The Hun removed his tunic, gave them all a haughty stare, hefted his axe, and laid into the trunk of an oak tree. He soon had the tree on the ground, and his friends helped him in clearing off the branches and tying ropes around it to drag it over to the battlement.
"I ask you," said Eliak as he dug his feet into the earth and pulled harder on his rope, "is this the sort of work that true men are suited for?"
"Find me a true man," barked Padraig, "and we can ask him."
"Cutting timber like common slaves! Bah! And dragging it like this; is this not exactly what the Great Mother made oxen for?"
Alek said, "Lord Godfred pays better than you'd think, and from the looks of things we'll be in work for a while. Quit your complaining and pull harder."
"I need real work," Eliak moaned. "Men's work."
"And what kind of work is that?"
"Knife-work! There must be a war underway somewhere in this forsaken country."
The Goth smiled, but said nothing.
"Gods!", Eliak exclaimed as they walked back to the tavern, "Now that was a day's work. Gods, my hands!"
"We told you to wear gloves," barked Padraig, "but no, you just had to show off in front of those Germans. Typical of a little princeling."
"How dare you speak to me so insolently, you dog! You're nothing but an escaped thrall of the Saxons."
"And you are a pauper who thinks he's a king."
"The Irish eat horses and worship their dead."
"And the Huns worship horses and eat their dead."
"Was your father as short as you?"
"You bastard! I'll kill you! I'll fucking kill you!"
Padraig pulled a knife from his belt, and Alek saw that there was murder in his eyes. The big Goth ran foreward and threw his big bear arms around the Irishman. "None of that," he boomed, "none of that! Calm down, you two, and quit your bickering. We'll be back at the tavern with the plump whores and strong drink soon, and I have a proposal to put the both of you which would best be discussed over cups. Now are the two of you going to be friends or will I have to crush someone's skull?"
"You can let me go," growled Padraig. "I won't kill him, at least not tonight."
"Good! Excellent! Now let us get to our drinking, like good friends, yes?"
He released the flustered Hybernian and they continued on their way, though Eliak made sure to keep his eye on Padraig all the way back to the tavern.