I took a seat at the foot of the stage, exhausted. In front of me lay a middle-aged man wearing a cloak of embroidered gold. I figured he was probably the village lord. His spine was crooked and an arm and both legs were broken. No doubt he had been trampled to death in the opening moments of the attack.
A woman and a boy in similar attire lay next to him with similar injuries. I pitied them; it was an ignoble way to die. I looked out over the square, over the veritable blanket of wriggling, squirming bodies.
A tall man sat cradling his hands, which were each missing several digits. A young girl whimpered pitifully, curled on her knees and hugging the hole in her belly. A teenage warrior crawled slowly on her belly towards her severed arm, tears streaming down her cheeks as pulled herself along with her one good limb. ============ Jenny lay in a charnel heap of blood, flesh, and corpses. She had been one of the warrior trainees who had attempted to resist the invaders in the square.
She had stood shoulder-to-shoulder with her brothers- and sisters-in-arms in the second rank as a crazed mob of foreigners charged. Cynthia, a real warrior of twenty-two summers, had stood in front of her, and Jenny had felt confident Cynthia could handle any enemy that came at them. Jenny's only job was to stick her spear in the gap to the left of Cynthia's spear as a deterrent. Her confidence was shattered moments later.
A shirtless, burly raider with blue face-paint had charged straight at her spot in the line. Deftly, he had sidestepped Cynthia's thrust with enough control to avoid being spitted on Jenny's own spear. In one fluid motion, he had dragged his sword across Cynthia's belly and repositioned it for a strike against Jenny. Jenny's impending doom had played out in slow motion.
Rooted in fear, she could only watch as he drew back his sword, then thrust it forward straight into her navel. Ice had filled her guts and she had gaped in shock as he roared triumphantly in her face. The strength had faded from her legs and she had fallen forward as he'd drawn out the blade.
Now, Jenny cried miserably as she lay in a pile of Cynthia's warm, squirming intestines. Her long, flowing red hair clung to her face, slick with sweat and blood. Cynthia herself was still alive, screaming shrilly on her back a foot away from Jenny, frantically trying to stuff her guts back inside her. How could it have come to this? Jenny wondered. How at fifteen could she be slowly dying in the center of her hometown? How could her killer have been so cruel as to give her such a painful, slow death?
Jenny couldn't have known that he had stabbed her in the belly because he had wanted to ensure he could pull out his blade quickly. She wouldn't have cared. Desmond, a boy a year older than Jenny, had his chest crushed by an axe and now lay across her legs. His body jerked one last time as shit exploded from his bowels and onto her legs. Jenny couldn't stand it any longer; she had to get away from the filth and stench of death.
She reached out her arms and with a titanic effort tried to pull herself forwards. But Desmond's weight was too much and her ruined abs shot white-hot pain throughout her body.
Jenny lay heaving in the dirt, having only moved an inch. She tried again, shoving with her feet and lifting herself forward with her forearms. Fire erupted anew in her midriff and she fell forward with a short cry, squishing some of Cynthia's intestines. With agonizing slowness, Jenny pulled herself slowly forward with her hands and her toes. Wriggling mightily, she finally managed to drag herself out from under Desmond's corpse.
Cynthia's guts proved too large of a field to cross though; Jenny's legs were still mired in them when she collapsed, too weak to move any further. ============= A few meters down the line, Emmy had suffered a similar fate.
At a few months over fourteen, Emmy wasn't the youngest trainee in Zavala. Formal training began for Zavalan girls and boys at thirteen summers. However, unlike the other trainees her age, Emmy had already been training formally for over three years. Emmy had hung out by the barracks since she was a kid. In informal sessions at a young age, she had demonstrated a high aptitude for combat of all kinds. She was an expert shot with a bow--the equal of all but the best village hunters.
She had keen instincts and was very good at wrestling and with a spear. Emmy had worked hard to translate her natural gifts into real skill. Despite her size disadvantage, she could out-run and out-fight many of the older male trainees by the age of ten.
By the time she turned eleven, she could beat a few of the blooded warriors in wrestling and archery, and was getting close to mastering the spear. And nobody, not even Head Instructor Kimmel, was more deadly with a knife. Warleader Simmons accepted her as a formal recruit that same year.
He had joked that Emmy would soon be taking over Head Instructor Kimmel's job. The assembled warriors had all laughed—except Kimmel, who suspected there was more than a little truth behind the joke.
It had been the happiest day of Emmy's life. Emmy's body reflected her years of dedication to training. She was thin and lean, though slightly more muscular than the average village girl. But not by much—she wasn't old enough for her muscles to develop mass like that yet.
Her chest was flat and hard, her breasts little more than pert nipples over her tight pectoral muscles. Her mother said it was because she'd trained too much during her developing years. Emmy kept her brown hair short to make sure it didn't fall in front of her eyes during training. Plus, she had learned the hard way that boys liked to tug at a girl's hair while wrestling—especially when they were losing.
Her flat chest and close-cropped hair gave her a rather boyish appearance. Either out of jealousy or spite, some of the other trainees made fun of her for it. The girls would ask where her breasts were or would flaunt their own in her face. The boys would ask if she was actually a girl and make crude jokes about her private parts.
Most of the time Emmy tried to ignore them, but their words did make her more than a little self-conscious. She avoided hanging out with the trainees her age and took care not to seem over-aggressive. She always wore panties when she was walking through town, even though she thought shorts were more comfortable. She usually wore a bra too, despite the fact that it was totally unnecessary.
When she was training though, all of that stuff--her self-consciousness, her shyness, her clothes—went by the wayside. None of it was practical for combat, and when she was training that was all she cared about.
Emmy was hanging out near the barracks when the first arrows started to fall. A dozen of her nearby comrades, including Instructor Kimmel and Warleader Simmons, fell to targeted arrow fire. Emmy dodged the shots and ran inside the barracks. She immediately armed herself with a spear, strapped her favorite knife to her thigh, and ditched her white panties and bra. Then she helped arm the others. When they rushed outside, Emmy took a place in the front rank in the center of the line.
As she gazed upon the enemy host for the first time, Emmy felt fear grow in her stomach. From their swagger and the way they held their weapons, the men and women attacking Zavala were clearly seasoned warriors—seasoned killers.
Defending the town were a bunch of sniveling trainees and a handful of ritually blooded but untested fighters. Emmy put her fear out of her mind and focused on the task at hand. A well-built man with a ginger beard was bellowing and charging straight for her. Emmy set in her spear and prepared to receive his charge.
The man feigned right then went left. Emmy read the move with ease and repositioned her spear accordingly. He ran straight onto it, his war cry instantly choking out as the spear punched through his chest.
Emmy had no time to savor her victory. A wiry man with a dark mane was almost on top of her. Her first victim held tightly to the spear stuck in his chest as he fell, a look of horror on his face.
Emmy couldn't spare the time to extract the spear, so she released it and drew her knife. He came at her and slashed down with his sword. She dodged the blow and launched herself at him in a counterattack. She impacted hard onto his shield but was unable to get around it with her knife. She redressed quickly, barely avoiding a stab from underneath. Her opponent was good--clearly an accomplished veteran. They stared at one another warily, each one sizing up the other.
Around her, her friends and comrades were slaughtered as invaders crashed through the spear wall. Emmy though remained focused on her opponent.
She smiled a grisly smile. She could practically feel the adrenaline rush flowing though her veins. This is what she had been born to do! The man shouted and charged, blade extended in an attempt to skewer her. Emmy sidestepped and lunged with her knife, but again he took the blow off the shield. She spun, thrusting the knife around the shield's edge, but failed to connect with anything. His sword came at her from below and she deflected it with her knife.
She slashed at his exposed shoulder and scored a hit, but failed to penetrate his heavy leather shirt. He skipped back with a yelp. The hair on her back suddenly stood on end, and Emmy twisted away as another blade slashed in from behind. A blonde invader had carved his way through the line to Emmy's right and had turned to eliminate her. Her dodge was just a tad too slow, and the vertical swing cut a shallow groove down her back. Emmy grimaced in pain, angry that her duel had been interrupted.
Both opponents, the wiry one and the blonde one, eyed her cautiously. Emmy glanced down and spotted the sword belonging to her first victim. She knelt down to pick it up. The wiry man—her initial attacker—charged, believing her to be vulnerable. But Emmy's move was a ruse; she kicked out her leg, connecting with his shin.
He flew forward, landing hard, face-first in the dirt. Like a wild lion, Emmy rose up, ready to bring her knife down on him in a finishing blow. Again, her senses alerted her to a threat from the rear.
She parried blindly and managed to deflect the blonde man's sword. But it wasn't quite enough; his sword sliced into the meat of her right thigh, delivering a deep gash.
Snarling in anger, Emmy reversed the grip of her dagger and slammed it into the blonde man's chest. He gurgled wetly and blood vomited down his front. Emmy tried to twist the knife and pull it out, but it wouldn't budge as he collapsed.
It seemed she needed to stop stabbing people straight in the chest if she wanted to keep her weapons. She filed that knowledge away for a later time. Emmy looked around for something to fight with.
As the wiry swordsman got to his feet, shaking his head to clear his vision, Emmy limped over to her first victim's sword and picked it up. It was a one-handed weapon slightly shorter than the length of her arm. It was heavier than she expected--not at all like wielding a knife.
All around, the battle for Zavala was over. The Zavalan defenders--Emmy's friends and comrades--had been slaughtered. Merciless invaders chased down those who fled, slaughtering them in the streets. A few invaders gathered around her, weapons raised. Emmy didn't care that the situation was hopeless; all that mattered was the man in front of her now.
She was too busy enjoying the thrill of her duel, and she would not be satisfied until her fight with the wiry man in front of her was settled. Emmy yelled and charged, swinging the sword first low then high. Her opponent parried both swings with his sword, then responded with a jab at her ribs.
Emmy knocked the blade aside then delivered a punishing overhand blow that splintered his shield. He staggered back dazed, then shook the shield off his arm.
Emmy let him recover. Her injured leg was throbbing and was starting to stiffen up. She was content to let him come to her on equal terms without his shield. He circled her warily. Step by step, he moved to his right. Emmy stayed put, rotating left to match her opponent, keenly aware he was trying to reposition on her non-dominant side. Suddenly he attacked, swinging diagonally down at her shoulder.
She caught the blade on her own and winced as the impact jarred her arm. He hacked again, and Emmy was forced to roll away. Pain shot through her injured leg as she stood and a hiss escaped between gritted teeth.
The wiry man tried to exploit his advantage, but a wild slash sent him scrambling back. He recovered quickly and came at her again. Emmy deflected the blade and countered with a thrust at his gut, which he parried at the last moment.
As the last Zavalan in the square fell, Emmy and her opponent continued to trade blows. Although Emmy had had the advantage early in the fight, her injuries had ceded that advantage to him. With every second that gap grew as blood loss and fatigue sapped her strength. Emmy parried yet another blow and shoved him away, earning a brief respite as he backed off. Emmy readied her sword once more, breathing heavily.
She was not doing well and she knew it. Blood seeped from the long cut in her back and flowed freely from the gash in her leg. Her thigh was burning and she could feel herself swaying slightly, dizzy from loss of blood.
If she continued sparring with him, she would quickly tire and be killed. If she was going to win, she had to settle things with one blow. With a battle cry, she charged, swinging horizontally at his chest with all her might. But her speed and power were too diminished, and he easily blocked the blow. Her sword clanged off of his and rebounded out of her control, leaving her wide open. With a roar of victory, the wiry man lunged forward. Emmy twisted desperately to dodge the blow, but fatigue made her a touch too slow.
The blade cut deep into her flank, slashing her left side wide open. Emmy slid off the blade onto all fours, her borrowed blade clattering into the dirt. She pressed her hand to her bleeding side, blood streaming between her fingers to pool on the ground.
Contemptuously, he kicked her over and she sprawled out on her back, panting. Her hand briefly came free of her flank, and a few loops of intestines peeked out of the wound. They felt squishy to Emmy's touch as she tried to re-apply pressure with her hand. The victor stood over her, triumphant.
Emmy looked up at him and beamed. What a great fight it had been! Her first and only taste of real combat had been such a rush, and she'd loved every second of it--from the triumph of victory to the sting of her wounds.
Emmy reached up and extended her hand to him. The wiry man rocked back as if struck. What matter of madness was this? Here this girl lay bleeding and with her guts sticking out, probably fatally wounded, and yet she seemed happy and exhilarated.
He had just struck her down, yet she seemed to be congratulating him. Truly, what a strange girl. Still, he could not deny her skill. Hjalmar and Idar had both been veterans of the Clan Wars. They had both killed several grown men, and yet this girl--little more than a child really-- had dispatched them with relative ease.
Killing Idar despite fighting two-against-one was especially impressive, and he doubted he would have won without Idar's intervention and sacrifice. Such skill deserved recognition and praise. The wiry man took her hand and shook it. Clan law allowed heathen warriors of great strength and skill to join Clan society as a free person.
He would remember her, and if she survived, he would vouch for her. If she survived, he could duel her again, uninterrupted, as equals. As the wiry man released her hand and walked away, Emma flopped back into the dirt with a wide smile. Despite being close to death, she had never felt more alive. What a fight! She wasn't even mad that her duel had been interrupted; it had just added an extra challenge.
And she'd been so close to winning! She laughed aloud, still giddy with adrenaline, but stopped and winced as her torn side protested. She looked down at herself, curious about how badly she'd been injured. The cut in her back stung, doubtless contributing to the growing pool of blood that expanded beneath her.
The gash on her leg still bled heavily, blood running down her thighs and crotch. But it was the gaping hole in her side that was the real problem. Blood poured from the wound and pooled on the ground, like a waterfall pouring into a basin.
Pinkish entrails poked their heads out of the hole. Some of the heads had been sliced, and the fluid oozing from them smelled awful. Carefully, Emmy pushed her guts back into the rent in her side, then did her best to hold them in with her hand.
She knew it was pointless though; no doctor in Zavala could heal her torn innards. Her fate was inevitable; she would either bleed out and die in the next few hours, or she would die in the next few days of infection. Surprisingly, the pain of her wounds and the fact that she was about to die did little to dampen her high spirits.
She was still reveling in the exhilaration, replaying and analyzing each part of the fight in her head. She was pissed that she wouldn't be able to have a rematch with that wiry man, but if he ever met her in the afterlife, she was determined to know how to beat him.
============ All the screaming and moaning was making it difficult to concentrate. I wanted to take over Zavala in order to convert it into a base of operations. It was perfectly situated within a week's march of King Hrothgar's new lands along the coast. More importantly, the town had access to the river, which would allow Clan forces to raid deep in-land. Those forces would need supplies, boats, lodging.
Any loot they took would have to travel back to Zavala in order to reach the coast and ultimately the Viking homelands. And I would control all of it. I could see it clearly now. Zavala would become a crucial garrison and trading post. Warleaders would require my blessing to travel through Zavala on their way to raid along the river. I could favor those who pledged loyalty to me, or demand tribute from those that did not.
War parties would rent my lodging, buy my goods, sail my boats, carry my weapons, and trade in my markets. I could use Zavala as a staging ground to take more territory along the river, giving me dominion over vast tracts of river land. No more would I be a simple Baron—I would become a Jarl, second only to the King!
Unfortunately, the carpet of bodies complicated things in the short-term. When I initially planned the attack, I had expected to surprise the town while everyone was still in the homes. There, the townsfolk would have been easily subdued and taken as slaves. Instead, I'd been forced to butcher most of the townsfolk in the square and on the beach.
I wasn't sure there would even be enough slaves left to carry away the bodies. Corpses rotted so quickly in this hot country, and if we going to occupy Zavala I couldn't afford to have it be a diseased cesspool. A soft cough behind me stirred me out of my reverie. I stood and looked around the stage. The priestess with an arrow in her crotch, who I could now see was a mature woman in her late twenties, lay curled on her side.
Her blood-and-juice-stained hands rested limply on the stage, an expression of agony forever frozen on her face. The elderly shaman lay at the end of the stage curled around an arrow just above his hip.
He groaned once and shifted slightly. I could feel my gaze drawn behind the shaman, and my eyes locked with those of the young virgin sacrifice. She was still alive! Well, I guess that wasn't so surprising since it had barely been half an hour since she'd been gutted. She remained tied to her post with her hands above her head. Blood was everywhere. It covered her belly, and sheeted her crotch and legs. Blood drooled from her mouth, running down her chin and neck.
She coughed weekly and blood flecked her tiny breasts. Her belly lay open from her crotch to her sternum, blood dripping from the ragged flesh. I could see her stomach and liver hanging down into the now-empty cavity. Her guts were still connected to her ass, and a single strand hung from the bottom of the cut. The rest of her intestines—loop upon seemingly endless loop—lay like a bed of snakes in a pool of blood at her feet.
I hopped onto the stage and she slowly lifted her head to follow me. She grunted to get my attention, then flicked her eyes and chin in the shaman's direction. I understood and nodded. I walked slowly over to the shaman, taking care to avoid stepping on any of the girl's intestines. The shaman had seen me and was feebly attempting to crawl away.
I kicked him onto his back and he moaned in pain. I stood over him for a second and he stared back at me, eyes wide with fear. Then I knelt and pulled a knife out of my belt, and proceeded to ram it straight into his belly.
I twisted it around a little before pulling it upwards towards his breastbone. Cloth, skin, and muscle tore as the shaman screamed in agony. Grey intestines squirmed through the gash. Satisfied with my work, I wiped my knife clean on the shaman's clothes, then sheathed it and stood, turning back towards the girl as the shaman squirmed. Kelly smiled weakly and nodded her thanks. She knew the strange man had gutted the shaman in order to please her and she appreciated the gesture.
It gave her a small amount of comfort in an otherwise horrifying ordeal. She was glad this man and his comrades had slaughtered the townsfolk who, moments earlier, had taken delight in her own slaughter.
He nodded back, acknowledging the thanks.
She had one more request of him. Coughing once, twice, then a third time, she worked to clear her throat and lungs. Her diaphragm had been torn and each breath was a struggle unto itself. Her small chest heaved and her guts wriggled as she strained to breath.
"Kill… me…" she rasped. He paused, a questioning look flashing upon his face. Kelly figured he hadn't understood her. "Kill me," she repeated, looking insistently at him, then at herself. He had understood and now paused, seeming to weigh the decision in his mind. Then he nodded, drawing the dagger from his waist.
Very carefully, he used his foot to push the slimy entrails to one side. His boot accidently stomped on a loop of small intestine, causing it to burst. Kelly didn't even notice. She was beyond pain now. Kneeling down, he cut the ropes binding her ankles. Then he stood, reaching above her head to cut her arms free.
Kelly immediately collapsed and he caught her, gently lowering her down and letting her head rest in his lap. He said something, then began to stroke her cheek gently and hum a sad, soothing melody. Kelly didn't understand his words, but the tune reminded her of something her mother used to sing to her when the pain of hunger or cold was too much to bear. Her mother would take her head in her lap just like this, stroke her cheek, and sing softly until Kelly fell asleep.
Now, at the end of her life and in the arms of a total stranger, tears welled up in Kelly's eyes for the last time. The pain of the shaman's knife, the horror of watching her insides splatter on the ground, the sadness of knowing that she would never get to enjoy any more of life's pleasures—all of her pent-up emotions released and washed over her.
The man continued to hum soothingly as she cried like a baby in his lap. When she had finished, when she was at last ready to accept her fate, she looked up at his face. He stared far away but eventually looked down, catching her gaze and smiling warmly. She coughed a little blood, then nodded. He didn't acknowledge and continued to hum and stroke her cheek with his left hand. Slowly, he brought his knife up in his right hand, the smile never leaving his face. Kelly felt a slight pressure on her neck, then a sudden release as he slashed open her throat.
Her eyes went wide with shock and she blinked once, then twice, as blood vomited from her mouth. But she felt no pain. She glanced down at her ruined body, but saw only unmarred flesh and fields of grain.
Her mother waved to her in the distance. His humming and the feel of his hand on her cheek were beginning to fade. She looked up at his smiling face and beamed with joy. This stranger had understood her, comforted her, and cared for her more than anyone in her short life. It made her happier than she had ever known. She wanted to love him, hold him, get to know him, laugh and smile with him, and thank him from the bottom of her heart.
In the end, all she could offer him was her smile. I continued to soothe the girl as her body ceased its struggle and the light faded from her eyes. The look of joy on her face contrasted starkly with the gore that covered her body. She had died at peace, and that made me glad. Death was something that was ever-present in our lives as warriors, but every killing left a mark on our souls.
I didn't dare to count the number of people I had killed. Many more had died on my word. How many lives had I cut short, how many families had I torn apart? How many of my own men and women had I provided comfort as they lay dying carrying out my orders? Yet killing her had turned an evil deed on its head; killing her was a mercy, to let her live would have been evil.
By killing her, I had fulfilled her last request and granted her freedom, and perhaps redeemed a bit of my soul. In a way, our attack was only possible because of her sacrifice. She had bravely distracted the townsfolk while my warriors moved into position and attacked.
I hoped that this would be enough for the gods to find value in her life and therefore accept her sacrifice. For my part, comforting her in her dying moments was the least I could do. "Thank you," I whispered as I closed her eyes, "Rest easy now young one."