Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Heart of the Thief, Chapter 4

In chapter four, the barbarian Josun becomes involved in the conflict for the Heart of Rankar. Will he save Cassilda from the flames? Did the Thief survive his leap into the sea? There will be some formatting errors because the text never copies over perfectly from libre office. Also, I switched from the present tense to the past tense halfway through, and I haven't went back yet and edited previous chapters. This is a rough draft, so don't expect it to be anywhere near perfect. To catch up, read previous entries in this series here. Before I started posting whole chapters, I was dividing each section into parts. This current post is part eight.

Chapter Four
Josun leans against a tree trunk, carefully filling a pipe with dried cannabis, the night air heavy with the sounds of boisterous, drunk men. Tenderheart. The derogative sticks in his throat like an insect. Around the fire they dance in the distance, spilling beer over each other, reeking of urine and the blood of the vanquished. The prisoner, a witch, hangs from a cross before the flames, body bruised and battered, victim of a religious fervor that had seized the Barbaroise after the successful raid. We slaughtered men who did not raise arms against us. They were weak and cared nothing for their lives; that was the rationale, but it didn't sit well with the dark-haired warrior. There was no honor in killing the helpless, though the forest god demanded blood, and there were plenty who wished to spill it. He does not exist whispers Josun, though no one is around to hear his words. How many of those revelers believed in Prax? It was likely that they had given him little thought but simply used his name to justify their craving for violence. Tradition, tenderheart. That's what they would say. They slaughtered indiscriminately because they had always slaughtered indiscriminately. They raped because they had always raped. They burned ships and set fire to villages because that was the Barbarosie way. Their strict adherence to tradition was a method of avoiding thought. Terran never thinks concludes Josun, pressing the pipe to his lips. He wished to do something, perform an act of rebellion to shock them, the predator people, but instead he stood mute and solitary, lurking in the woods like a spirit, haunting the fringes of the celebration.

He had felt this way for a long time now, and had fought against his feelings, initially believing them to be a sign of weakness. Warriors who did not thoughtlessly murder were weak; any showing of empathy for a person outside the tribe was treated as an act of betrayal and considered disrespectful to Prax. Josun had went to his glen, had prayed beneath the ancient oak tree, had demanded strength, courage, and bloodlust, yet his prayers went unanswered while his doubts grew. Beneath that oak lies thousands of bones. It was true; they buried the skulls of the vanquished around its roots and hung femurs from its branches. A roost for vultures and a home for creatures of carrion. Who knew how old that foul tree was, and what had attracted the Barbarosie to it. It was not a holy place, but a living monument to a century of needless killing—they might pray to Prax beneath its bows, but no one approached the tree at night, for they thought it to be haunted by the vengeful spirits of the sacrificed dead. They were always fearing spirits, and so constantly performed gestures to ward them off, spilled wine for the dead during every meal, whispered words of protection when climbing atop a roof or passing under a ladder. It was true that the Barbarosie had an excessive number of names for ghosts, and debate was often had on what particular specter had caused what particular domestic disturbance; for instance, poltergeist were blamed for breaking a chair leg, while gremlins stole milk, though not cheese, which was the favorite plunder of fairies, who could change size and crawl into your home through the tiniest of spaces. Josun had never seen a fairy, but he knew rats ate cheese, and chairs broke either because of their faulty craftsmanship or the excessive size of their sitter. He also knew that men killed because they were savage, cruel, and fearful.

A month before, they had raided a village to the south, located just on the outskirts of the Great Woods. The people were called the Furmise, and the Barbarosie traded with them, visited their taverns, shared mead around their fires and called them friend and neighbor. Such infiltration was a tradition; you gained the trust of the people, and then sneaked in during the night and knifed them in the back. There was a boy, fourteen or so, that Josun had befriended. The lad followed the Barbarosie around when they entered the tavern, standing a respectable distance away, but eagerly approaching whenever an opportunity presented itself to ask questions and attempt to gain favor. He admired the tall, rugged people, spoke of their “savage honesty” and “noble bearing” while making it clear that he intended to join the tribe someday, seeing it as “a harmonious, communal existence with nature.” Where he had received such ideas, Josun didn't know—perhaps Coriver, who was known to enjoy fabrication and whimsey, was responsible—but the boy proved steadfast in his ideas, and repeatedly asked Josun about how to initiate himself among the Barbarosie. There was, of course, no way to join the tribe other than by being enslaved, and women were the preferred gender to take into slavery. So Josun told him that his wish was impossible, and that his idealization of the barbarians was greatly misplaced. “We're murders,” he said to the boy, looking him straight in the eyes, “rapists, thieves, and backstabbers. We glorify violence above all human virtues. When you look at me, you do not look at a human being. You look at a force of nature, a gnawing hunger that eats its brothers and sisters until its children grow old enough to devour it and take on its burden. I am not a noble savage. I am a killer of things. There is no honor in being a killer of things.”

He had told Coriver those same words only to have him laugh and shake his head. “Nobles and dead men have honor. It is not a luxury we can afford,” he responded. “Who has told you that we are an honorable people? When has honor been a concern of the Barbarosie? Certainly not when we lie corpses atop the roots of the ancient oak. When blood is spilled for Prax, we do not ask for forgiveness. Every life is available for the taking. The only right one has is the right to die.”

“If we do not care for honor, then are we an evil people?” asked Josun.

“All of mankind is evil, that cannot be argued. We hate each other, we long to better ourselves at the detriment of our brothers. I, as you know, cannot help myself when I see a woman that I want. This scar, here, on my left breast, is the price I paid for one such longing. The man who gave it to me died with an axe in his skull, and I took his wife only minutes afterward, tears of grief still wetting her eyes. Was that an evil deed? Yes, I suppose it was, though I am not half as bad as most, you know. If I am among the best, what does that say about men? What does it say that I hate you at this moment for bringing this argument to me? Why are you so worried with honor and evilness? You cannot change what we do, nor can you change what other evil men do. If you wish to have honor, go ahead, but I will only laugh at you for it, and no one will thank you, and eventually you will die to a less honorable man, who will have decided that he wishes to live and so seeks a dishonorable advantage that your honor prevents you from taking. Talk no more about honor and evil, Josun, for the words mean nothing to me, and they mean nothing to the world.”

Coriver's response only deepened the loathing he felt for his tribe. The burning of the shivering men was a tragedy, a needless thing that happened only because of the presence of the witch. She was not long for this world, for she had suffered at the hands of the tribe and would burn soon if the Barbarosie did not pass out from drunkenness. Did she deserve to burn? He was not sure if witches were truly abominable as the tribe insisted. Surely there were evil witches, but evidence should be presented, and what evidence did they have? The only thing he knew was that they, the aggressors, took her from her ship in chains to be abused and burned on the cross. Coriver thought that men were valueless, but perhaps it was only the Barbarosie who were.

“Honor is what separates us from beasts,” he says, taking a puff on his pipe. From his vantage point, he could see the witch rather well; her head sloped downward, long hair (so black it was almost blue!) obscuring her face. Still, he remembered that face, with its aquiline nose, jutting chin, and green, fiery eyes. She looks the ideal image of a barbarian queen he thinks before catching himself. Those times were long gone, the ancient days when the Barbariose ruled for hundreds of miles beyond the Great Woods and enjoyed tribute from forty peoples. King Cimmeron, last of his line, slayer of the dragon Gorgan, father to a thousand children… no, the old stories were fables, cobbled together by oral history and musty artifacts. Everyone in the tribe claimed to be of Cimmeron's blood, though the valor contained within his ichor must have been diluted years ago. What about you, Tenderheart? There before him on the cross was a maiden fair, like in the old stories. Already a deep calm was settling in, soothing his worries, narrowing his purpose. Damn what they say about witches. What a waste to kill a woman like that, an innocent woman who had harmed none of the Barbarosie.

Emptying the ashes from his pipe, Josun leaves the edge of the forest and moves toward the burning pyre. There are a few revelers remaining, though most have slunk off to their beds or collapsed on the ground. He steps over one drunken warrior, a lazy-eyed sot who he particularly loathes, and has to catch himself from kicking the unconscious fool in the ribs. Off to his right in the darkness someone is vomiting; close to the fire, three men sing a melancholy song in each other's ear. It is a familiar melody in a minor key, though the men sing it poorly, their words falling out of their mouths, syllables garbled almost beyond the point of recognition. The heat that radiates from the pyre is intense; the witch's cross hangs precariously close, so close that her visage wavers in the warmth like a hallucination. The wood crackles and pops—the sounds of spirits fleeing, according to tradition—and Josun pauses to listen for their voices, straining his ears. There is a hissing beneath it all, as though a serpent writhes in the pyre's center. It is simply moisture escaping the wood he reasons, yet part of him will never be content with that answer. What use does the world have for a rational man? The tribe has no use for such men and neither do the peoples that they prey upon, for Josun has been met with superstition time and time again. Human sacrifice, the burning of entrails, the mad interpretation of celestial events… and now the burning of a witch.

Her face is different, having changed as he approached. Her hair is lighter, auburn almost, and those sharp features that were so intriguing have been replaced with softer, rounder edges. Pretty, yes, but this is not the same woman who had fascinated from a distance. Am I seeing things? he wonders. Perhaps she had cast a spell to manipulate her visage, though that is impossible, for she was immediately placed in lead shackles. He doesn't know what to think. That face before, the one he saw while approaching, looked like a face that could understand him. This woman, wavering in the fire, looks coquettish to the point of deception, not unlike some tavern wench desirous of the coin in his pocket. Still, he walks around her, circling the cross like a wary animal, wondering how it has not burst into flame. They have torn her clothes, bruised her flesh, beat her about the face, yet the witch looks peaceful somehow, as though she were simply resting and not smoking before a pyre. The shackles bubble on her wrists; she breathes a low sigh of exhaustion, sagging toward the heat like a burned blade of grass.

“You can't burn a sorceress, you know,” she says sleepily, eyes closed, sweat evaporating on her face. “Not with heat this timid. She must be placed in the middle of a huge fire and doused with oil and be made to swallow charcoal and lard. Even then, some won't burn, especially those who have the gift of fire. You barbarians must have never burned a real witch if you think this will harm me.”

“They will cut your head off if you don't burn, believing you to be a demon or a hellspawn or a nattmara,” replies Josun.

“What if I am a werewolf? Do you know the proper way of killing one?” asks the sorceress.

“You must skin it and strangle the person inside,” says Josun.

“That sounds right. I really don't know. I was asking you.” She straightens, pulling her head back, eyes still closed. Her right cheek is swollen and purple, and a large gash oozes above her right eyebrow. “Well, what are you here for? To gawk? I am beaten, good sir. I have been too cavalier, too indiscriminate in my planning. I have erred, so to speak. Tell me, though: where is the Heart?”

“Terran, the chief, has your things.”

“What will a fool like that do with the Heart of Rankar? You know what it is, right? I could eat the world with the thing. Do you know of Pliny the Black? He is the greatest sorcerer that ever lived. He was born a thousand years ago and has traveled through dimensions, attaining a form that is, more or less, immortal and indestructible. But I will see him in agony for millennia; I will reduce him to a mute, limbless creature that cannot see or hear and who must crawl on its belly, trapped in darkness, isolated in pain. Revenge is my life's work, barbarian. Certainly a savage like yourself can appreciate that.”

“Do you deserve to die?” asks Josun.

“Who doesn't? Death is inevitable, even for someone like Pliny the Black. Without death, life could not adapt, and our species would've vanished long ago. Death is necessary. Everything will die, even the universe. Some say that it has already started to happen, that we are entering the twilight of the world. Rankar's sacrifice was not enough, and his heart beats slower and slower. Do you know that there were other organs, once? His entire body was divided amongst one-hundred civilizations. His liver went to the Atlanteans, his lungs to King Osiris, his brain to the darkest regions of Zerrica. One after another, they consumed his holiness out of desperation, eager to stave off the darkness, the entropic coldness that lingers, waiting for the final death. The Heart is all that is left. Your chief holds the lifeblood of the world in his uncouth hands. How does that make you feel? Even now he could be smashing it to bits.”

“The old myths are lies, stories made up to fool the weak-hearted, to explain that which has no simple explanation. There are no gods,” replies Josun, shaking his head. “The Barbarosie use Prax as a pretext for their love of killing. He does not give us strength, nor does he watch over us. If I denounce him, he will not rise up from the earth to strike me down. He is no more real than your Heart of Rankar.”

“The gods are dead, that is true. Maybe we did invent them to use as foils. Perhaps the Heart was created by man or some vanished ancient race. Regardless, it is powerful and not a thing to be trifled with, and I want it back. Will you aid me, barbarian? Will you rescue the fair maiden? Honestly, I am very fair; these wounds your tribesmen inflicted will disappear as soon as my shackles are removed.”

The witch stretches her body away from the cross, pulling on her chains. She was dangerous; he saw it in her eyes, knew it in his bones by the supple way she moved. When have you run from danger? He was not a coward, but he was also not a fool. Taking his ax from his holster, he approaches the cross and strikes at its base, quickly hewing through the wood and causing the gibbet to fall away from the fire. She lands hard on the earth, twisting her bonds, immediately trying, he notices, to bring the lead shackles closer to the fire where they would soften and melt. Not so fast he thinks, seizing the chains and pulling her away from the heat and out of the light. The witch doesn't make much noise as she struggles and digs her heels in the ground like a stubborn mule, but one strong tug of the chain sends the sorceress sprawling to the earth, and Josun doesn't give her a chance to regain her feet, pulling the along easily, as though the captive weighed nothing. Seeing her thrashing about, legs kicking and arms flailing, seeds desire in his heart, bringing forth old thoughts from a time when he naively enjoyed his rapine and slaughter. It was ill-advised to lie with a witch, for it was said that doing so would make a man impotent and only capable of siring demons. Josun did not believe such nonsense, yet he was hesitant to take the witch, for such behavior, though normal for a barbarian, was unbecoming of a warrior. Besides, he wished to work with this woman, though what particular use she would be was not yet clear. He was not above striking bargains or asking for ransom, though it was possible that he could work something out with the sorceress involving the stolen Heart. 

Regardless of what the future may hold, he would not remove her bonds for the time being, since he knew nothing of her powers, though his doubt was substantial. Finally reaching a moonlit clearing, he stops and gathers the chain in his arms, pulling the witch close before sitting himself on a tree stump. A pond lies nearby, and the chorus of the bullfrogs is loud and constant. Somewhere in the distance a wolf howls, a long, meandering wail. Josun clears his throat before staring at the witch, willing her to speak.

“You are not a gentleman, Barbarosie,” says the witch, spitting grass from her mouth.

“I have not touched you, witch. I am speaking with you, having freed you from the gibbet. We do not know each other, therefore trust has not been established. Tell me: what bargain can you make? Why should I value your life?” Josun stares into her eyes, his face stoic as though carved out of granite.

“Removes these shackles and I shall grant thee three wishes,” replies the witch, smiling her battered lips.

“What a fool you must believe me to be. I know you are not a djinni. You are obviously not from Zerrica. You are a sorceress and they have elemental powers, no? What is your talent, witch? Be truthful; I can tell when you are lying.”

The witch's gruesome smile grows. In the moonlight, she looks deformed, as though pale nodules grow from her cheeks and chin.

“I am an electrician, a conduit, as they say in the more refined schools. Through means not entirely understood, I am able to draw energy from extradimensional sources and manifest said energies in an electrical form. That is my base talent; I have many other powers taught to me by a great wizard who lies at the bottom of the Sullen Sea. Listing them all would take too long, and besides, you wouldn't understand. What's important is that you know that I am powerful and capable of great destruction. I am someone you want to work with, not against.”

“This Heart, what will you give me if I steal it for you?” asks Josun.

“Do you want money? I can get it for you. Do you desire to be the chief of your tribe? I can plant an idea in their heads, and they will think that they thought it. Is there someone you wish dead? A woman you want? Ask and you shall receive. What shall I call you?”

“Josun,” replies the barbarian. “What is your name?”

“Cassilda,” says the witch. 

“I will steal the Heart and then we will talk. There is a cave close to here. That is where I shall place you.”

“I am not a piece of furniture, Josun. If you remove my shackles, I can retrieve the Heart myself and save you the trouble, and reward you just the same.”

“Let us go to the cave,” replies Josun, ignoring her argument. “We will talk later.”

Cassilda knew there was nothing more she could say. The Barbarosie, after all, were not known for being open to persuasion.

The sun beats down upon his face like a roaring fire. Something crawls on his leg, something with sharp legs ending in a point. As consciousness comes, so does an intense thirst, as well as an awareness of parched lips and aching muscles. Where am I he wonders, fluttering his eyelids and immediately blinking in the harsh light. The sound of waves crashing against the shore; the smell of salt and rotten fish; a general feeling of having been abused and beaten by the sea. Groggily, he struggles to raise his torso from the sand. There, on his leg, is the source of the stabbing pain—an enormous blue crab crawls over his limb, stabbing at something attached to his right boot. With all the strength he can muster, the Thief kicks the creature, which results in it moving little, as well as a retaliatory blow, this served by the monstrous crab's gigantic pincher. Pain shoots through his calf muscle as chitanous claws sink into his flesh. His hand instinctively moves to his belt, where he finds his knife—thank Rankar—and with one deft lunge, the Thief severs the offending pincher, leaving it still attached to his leg. “Run, you bastard,” he spits as the crab waddles away, greenish fluid leaking from its body. It takes all of his might to peel the still-twitching claw apart from his flesh. As he discards the pincher, he notices what the crab was after—a juvenile lion shark, its twin-jaws fasted tightly around the heel of his boot. What luck I must possess. Thrown from the ship, yet washed ashore and narrowly escaping dismemberment by shark and crab—there must be a god watching over him. There was a god of thieves, after all, though he couldn't remember his (or her) name. Religion was a subject that he generally preferred to avoid thinking about.

Looking around, the Thief notices that the beach is littered with the wreckage of the ship. A few corpses lie across from him, already being picked apart by gulls and crabs. Most of the Shivering Men were likely swallowed by the sea; he couldn't imagine such an apathetic people swimming for their lives. Picking himself up, he finds that his clothes are intact, though he has to surrender his boot to the locked jaws of the shark. Hobbling toward a corpse, he kicks the birds away and again rejoices at his luck, for the dead man has the same size feet as him. With a new pair of boots and a terrible thirst, the Thief turns and makes for the woods that lies just beyond the beach to search for a fresh-water stream or a road to civilization, his thoughts on immediate needs rather than the Heart or Cassilda.

The woods is cool, its heavy canopy offering protection from the hot sun, the trees old and twisted, with limbs winding like snakes, curving out and upward. Having spent his life entirely within Capetia, he knew nothing of the forest, though he was quite certain that trees like these did not exist anywhere around his home city. They possessed an ancientness, however, that was familiar—he had the sense that they were saplings when the cornerstones of the Duke's palace were laid. Heavy vines hung from their boughs, along with flowing blankets of moss, creating a yellowish-green palate that enveloped details. Indeed, not long after he entered the forest, he knew that he would be unable to return to the beach, so similar were his surroundings. This fact made him uneasy; he was a man who always identified any possible escape routes of wherever he was, but here, in the woods, with the fresh air and constant bird chatter and impenetrable vegetation, he was at the mercy of his wandering feet rather than his wits.

After hours of blind walking, he stops at at the first discernible change in the environment, a wide clearing. Finding a nice spot on a stump, the Thief sits down and removes his boots to rest his aching feet. The grass is high in the clearing, yet there are stumps all around, a sign that trees have been felled by human hands. Some sort of civilization must be close—a small village, likely—and that knowledge raises his spirits. During his hike, the facts of his situation dawned on him—he was at least one-hundred miles from home, possessing no knowledge of how to return, without coin, and without the Heart—and depression started to spread its tendrils into his brain. His love of wine and women came from the fact that they improved his mood, which could become quite dark if his mind had too much time to wander. Self-reflection was an examination that he avoided, choosing not to think too long on his deeds and past, a helpful survival strategy, in all likelihood, considering his career. The Thief did not consider himself to be a good man or a bad man, but simply, just a man. Still, he was burdened by a particular moral code that had been established when he was quite young, and although he didn't consciously know it, he did do his best to adhere to those principles even while he was, for instance, robbing the remaining inheritance of a fallen family.

On the edge of the clearing, he spots a plume of smoke rising. The wind changes, bringing the smell of a pyre. Shouts carry, deep, masculine voices of triumph and inebriation. Likely the Barbarosie he thinks, putting his boots back on. He would receive no hospitality from them, but there would be provisions to steal, and very possibly, the Heart. Shrugging off fatigue, he heads in the direction of the smoke, keeping himself low to the ground, hiding amongst the tall grass, taking long, soft strides while minding his foot placement. The power he possessed would not work in the daylight in an open field—he needed people and shadows to disappear—but he was still skilled at sneaking, no matter the environment. Soon he reaches the edges of the clearing. A thin line of trees separates the field from a small village of thatch-roofed dwellings, simple structures constructed of logs and held together by mud. In the center lies a large building that resembles an overturned boat. The mead hall reasons the Thief, also concluding it to be the probable residence of Terran, who would have claimed any notable possessions of the sorceress. A great pyre has been built on the outskirts of the village and men dance about it, laughing and drinking. Out of the crowd comes a woman with a cross on her back; she falls, and the men spit and kick at her before dragging her to her feet. This will not go well he thinks, as they stretch her shackled hands, binding them to the cross with chains. Despite Cassilda's betrayal, he had an inclination to help the witch—death by burning was a terrible way to go—but there was nothing he could do in the daylight against a tribe of barbarians. He would have to wait until nightfall to descend into the camp.

Josun entered the mead hall in a drunken, foul mood. He was never one to lack for courage; that was true, yet it took more than steady resolve to confront the leader of his tribe and demand his property. Barbarosie could claim anything as their own if they were willing to fight for it, though the owner could refuse and pick another to fight in his stead. If conflict was not desired, the defendant would often chose someone dear to the challenger, such as a family member, and thus the matter was abandoned. Josun was not sure that Terran would defer, since he obviously thought the young barbarian weak, and one of a chief's primary tasks was to make sure that every fighting member of the tribe was a worthy raider and capable of unprovoked violence at a moment's notice. Still, he wanted to be certain that the chief would fight him personally, and so consumed a great deal of mead in a short amount of time. Unlike his tribesmen, usually Josun refrained from drinking because it dulled his inhibitions and incited his worst traits—at his drunkest, he was a mad, spitting demon, unable to discern friend from foe, and likely to lash out at anything that moved. Alcohol stirred up a ferocious anger that the normally stoic man kept hidden deep within himself, even during the heat of battle. For once that rage might be called upon for a purpose.

The hall was full of Barbarosie in various states of inebriation. Some lay comatose on the long table, snoring in their own spilled mead, while a few danced to a captive lute player, who had somehow managed to keep himself alive by his art, which mainly consisted of singing bawdy songs. He was quite skilled at improvisation; he interpreted events as they occurred, inserting the names of his audience in each lyrics, till the song became something of a nonsensical record of the drunken doings of the tribe. As Josun passed him, he caught a bit of the music, which was uncharacteristically a dirge:

How long we wait for fair Agrippa,
Tossed upon the ravaged plain,
A maiden youth, who walked alone,
With beaten brow and heart of shame,
Her hands as white as shimmering seas,
Frozen like the arctic bends,
I cannot wait forever, my love,
Forgive me for your banished name

Agrippa was not a maiden fairthe grizzled raider sat on the floor before the musician, his eyes swimming in his head—but the song seemed to have an effect on him; tears streamed down his cheeks and into his silver-flaked beard. The dancers, if they could be called that, lazily sauntered back and forth, heads downcast, their mood a slow, dying rhythm in time with secret currents of melancholy that flowed beneath the floorboards, ending in Terran's head seat. An omen thought Josun suddenly. The lute player had changed; he didn't look the same, though he wore the same stained green tunic and played the same battered lute. His eyes were sullen and his cheeks sunken in, as though he had had nothing to eat for a great while, and his cup, which before had always been overflowing, lay overturned on the floor. It is just the end of the revelry reasons Josun, but his doubts did not leave him. 

The chief sat at the head of the table, Coriver at his right, a slave wench on his left. The two men were engaged in heated conversation, their great hands and giant heads moving in frantic gesticulation, while the wench leaned on Terran, looking neglected and bored. Josun noticed bits of food scattered about in front of them, half-gnawed chicken legs and broken pieces of bread, discarded like the leavings of beasts. Coriver seemed to be getting the best of the debate; his eyes were impassioned while his lips moved rapidly, spitting out words like curses. Ultimately, who was wrong or right did not matter, for the chief ended the conversation with a raise of his hand and a single dismissive word. “Ale!” he yelled, slamming his tankard down against the table and rattling every objection on it. The waiter came quickly, nearly stumbling over his feet, terror plain on his submissive face. He reached for Terran’s tankard, but before he could seize it, the chief had grabbed him by the edge of his tunic and pulled him close. “Ale, not mead!” he screamed, giving the waiter a good shake before sending him sprawling backward with a push of his arm. His companions laughed as the skinny youth crashed into a misplaced stool and bounced his skull against the floor. “That’s my favorite tankard! It’ll be your head if you dent it,” screamed Terran, shaking his head. As he looked up, he saw Josun staring at him, and a wide grin grew across his ruddy face.

“Tenderheart! What a pleasant surprise! You have returned from your sulking, I see. Coriver, I do believe he has shed tears for the Shivering Men. What terrible deaths they had. Does it bother you, my friend, that they died in a terrible manner? What say you, Coriver?” asked the chief.

“Nay,” said Coriver, smiling at Josun.

“Wench, why does he answer so?” asked the chief.

“Because he is a warrior,” stated the wench, shooting daggers at Josun with her eyes.

“Aye! Because he is a warrior and not a tenderheart like the creature who stands before me. I do not understand what has happened to you, Josun. Your father had red blood; he murdered and raped hundreds before his passing. I have had patience with you because of your father, who was a true Barbarosie. Yet I feel I have been too lax, too generous in my judgment. You are not a warrior, Tenderheart. The time has come for you to leave the tribe.”

“Perhaps,” said Josun, holding eye contact with the chief. “Terran son of Gerard, I claim the Heart of Rankar as my own. Give it to me or meet me in battle.”

Terran looked taken aback. His ruddy face grimaced and his porcine eyes narrowed. Coriver seized his shoulder and whispered in his ear, glancing periodically at Josun, lips moving quickly, concocting a plan. The revelers in the hall stopped what they were doing and stared at the chief, glasses of ale held limply in their hands. A heavy ambiance settled over the room, a tenseness that was exacerbated by the sudden cessation of the lute player's music.

“What is this Heart of Rankar you speak of?” murmured Terran finally.

“A relic belonging to the witch. It should have been found on her person,” replied Josun.

“And how do you know this? Who has told you of this thing?” asked the chief.

“The thief wanted it, the one who disappeared during the raid. It was the organ he referenced.”

Terran smiled and reached underneath the table, removing an object wrapped in cheese cloth from his satchel. He placed it on the table and gestured toward it, as if to say this minor trinket? 

“On what grounds to you claim this possession?” asked Terran. “Why do you want it?”

“That is irrelevant,” said Josun. “Will you accept my challenge?”

“Coriver will accept your challenge in my stead,” replied Terran, staring down at the Heart.

Josun's spirits lowered. He had grown up with Coriver, and although the two men no longer saw eye to eye, he had too many fond memories of battles fought together and conversations had after drinking ale, sharing in triumphs and tribulations, to callously draw his ax and take the man's life.

“You have not the stones to face me yourself?” he asked.

“Dissension! One cannot call into question the courage of the defendant!” roared Coriver, jumping up from his seat. “And you, of all people, question the chief! The man in you has died, Josun. You do not accept our ways; you belittle them, you speak of alternatives that do not exist. We are raiders, wolves of the land and sea, and our glories are done in the name of Prax, lord of the woods, god of the Barbarosie. His spirit demands blood, and we are his arm in the world, feasting on the dead, taking their possessions as payment, as gifts from our deity. What would you have us do? Hang our swords on our walls and plow the earth? How many men have you seen bent over, kneeling before diminutive sprouts, clasping their hands together and praying for rain and good fortune? We do not ask for such luck. Prax favors the bold, and so we reap and maim. Such is the way of the world and to claim otherwise is a denial of one's true nature. So question Terran not; either leave and never return, or draw your weapon and do battle against Coriver, a true barbarian who remembers the names of his fathers.”

The audience erupted into cheers and the stomping of feet. Josun knew that he had lost, that his plan had failed, and that he had no escape beside dishonor. Reluctantly, he drew his ax from its holster.

“Meet me then, Coriver, who fights in the stead of Terran. I will kill you, though I have loved you as a brother, and after I have taken my ax from your throat, I will claim the Heart of Rankar and leave this woe-begotten tribe who has forgotten that the Barbarosie once ruled a vast empire stretching for a thousand miles. I will make my name in the world, and when I have, I will return to bring honor back to my kinsmen. Prax is not my god; I pledge allegiance to myself and not something that I have never seen and never will.”

Coriver had removed his gladius and taken a step forward to meet his former tribesman when the doors of the hall parted and a barbarian stepped through, shouting and waving his hands. “The witch! The witch has escaped!” he said, drunken eyes swimming. During the ensuing ruckus, no one noticed a cloaked figure step out of an alcove and move toward Terran. He held an ale pitcher in his hands along with the chief's favorite tankard, and after filling the cup and placing it before the distracted man, he departed, slinking back into the shadows from whence he came.

“It was you, wasn't it?” asked the chief of Josun, rising from his seat. “The thief didn't call it the 'Heart of Rankar.' You must've freed the witch, and now you do her bidding. Seize him!” he said. The tribesmen encircle Josun, who slowly lowers his ax. “You will not have a challenge, for you are guilty of treason, and therefore lose your rights and privileges. Wait… where is it? The Heart, it is missing, you have stolen it, haven't you? Does your witch walk among us, invisible? Grab him, take him outside! We will burn him in her place to satisfy Prax, and then we will search the woods until the witch is found.”

They came at him all at once, lunging at all sides, and his hand was caught before his ax could find a scalp. Strong arms took hold of his limbs and pulled backward, dragging Josun toward the door. Outside, the fire had burned down considerably, but they soon transformed it into a roaring pyre by adding old dried wood to the flames. The cross was pulled down and Josun tied to it, though it took several men to hold him as they bound his wrists. Their faces were joyful as they did the work, and no one questioned the ethics of Terran's hasty verdict. Josun was silent even as he resisted and his eyes stared ahead, mind blank with the realization of his fate. He had not expected Terran to fight him, and Coriver would have been his match, so death was an option he had considered, though to have his life ended by fire would require much stoicism on his part, for he would die with dignity. But is there any grace in death? He had rejected the fatalism of the Barbarosie, who saw death as the natural state of living things. It didn't matter to a barbarian how they died, as long as they killed and maimed many beforehand. To glorify death as a transcendent experience was a foreign idea; Josun, despite his iconoclasim, could not quite wrap his head around the idea of a death meaning anything other than a loss of life. What point was there, therefore, to remain dignified? Those who took part in his killing would likely not remember it; too many deaths remained in their future to find something special about his own. He, of course, would not remember it, having ceased to exist. It was part of the old ways he concluded. Like his honor and his ideas about raiding, the desire for dignity in death was an atavistic trait somehow preserved in his blood.

As they raised the cross and held it up with ropes before the fire, Terran approached and held his arms up high, signaling for quiet. The gathered tribe stood silent and grim; Josun could feel the heat drying his face. They seemed less a tribe of men at this moment and more a gathered will, a mob force that acted by impulse, driven purely by their immediate needs and aggressions. Tall, lean, hungry men with jutting brows and arms like meat hooks—they stood silent, motherless, awaiting judgment from the only authority they recognized. They could never be civilized he realized, looking over the crowd and seeing the same savage face. As he did so, he lingered on the visage of a youth who stared intently at him as though he was particularly aggrieved by Josun's actions. Is it the Furmise boy? It certainly looked like the youth who had wished to join the Barbarosie. Same fair features and blonde hair and ingratiating eyes. Yet it was impossible—they had slaughtered the Furmise, killing every man, woman, and child in the village before burning it to ash. A specter then? Come to witness my demise? “I warned you!” shouted Josun suddenly. The boy kept staring, his mouth curling upward into a sneer. “I told you I was a killer of things!” said Josun. Traitor mouthed the boy, eyes unblinking. Honorless, disloyal traitor. It was true, for he had betrayed them in his heart, and the weight of that betrayal came crashing down on him, pushing him closer to the flames.

“Tenderheart,” began the chief, “you are no longer a member of the tribe, having made a treasonous plot against my person, as well as conspired with a known witch and engineered her escape. The Barbarosie do not forgive, nor do they forget, and so you must die by fire, the burning of your flesh serving as a sacrifice to Prax, who shall wipe your weakness from this earth. You may beg for your life, if you wish, though it will do you no good, unless Prax himself intervenes. I judge you guilty. Tribesmen, let go your ropes and let the criminal...”

At that moment, the sky changed. The moon had been out, big and full, yet suddenly clouds came and blotted out its light. A rumbling uttered from the clouds; lightning flashed unnatural colors, crimson reds and emerald greens. Rain poured down in heavy streams as though a deluge had been unleashed from some celestial river. The unusual appearance of the storm immediately unsettled the Barbarosie, and many rushed for their homes, though Terran, Coriver, and their men remained. Through it all, the old chief glared up at the heavens, his countenance expressing rage and wonder at the source of the disruption. “It is Prax,” said the men who held up Josun, yet Terran shouted at them to be silent and wait for the passage of the tempest. “It isn't Prax, it is sorcery!” said the chief, pointing at Josun before removing his knife. Seconds after his utterance, he was struck by a bolt of lightning; his entire skeleton was briefly illuminated in green, glowing fire. Tendrils of electrical energy sparked from his person, showering the earth and jolting everyone present. The men holding Josun let him go and fled; the cross toppled onto the smoldering coals of the pyre. Only Coriver lingered, gazing transfixed at the electrified corpse of his leader, whose eyeballs were leaking from his smoking sockets. Everything had happened so fast—the image of Terran's electrocution was seared into his mind's eye, however—that his brain was still processing information and had yet to give him any direction in what course of action to pursue. When the second bolt of green lightning struck a nearby tree, incinerating it in a flash, Coriver made the correct choice and fled with the rest of the men, abandoning Josun to the elements.

He lay there in the coals, his flesh charring with the heat, every second a pain-filled eon. Eventually she pulled him out and let him lay in the mud, rain stinging his marred face. Even before she spoke, he knew it was her, that she had somehow escaped from the cave, for how else could the storm have saved him? Her first words were not, however, an expression of pity or remorse.
“Where is the Heart?” she asked.

He didn't know what to tell her.

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