Ninth in a series of Flash Fiction shorts that I’m writing while in Thailand. I’m allowing myself a maximum of two hours per story so please forgive the rough edges. Cheers!
Sweat, fire, and blood. Those were real, at least.
Njall looked over the battlefield in horror. Peasant bodies writhed in pain, screaming long enough for his fellow warriors to silence them with the hard points of their swords.
They’d been raiding these villages for months. The ritual beforehand was always the same: Chewing on the sacred herbs, cutting runes into their skin, working themselves into frothing rages.
Knute The Orange would navigate their ship up a shallow river, they’d slide out under cover of early dawn. There they would slay the monsters.
Beasts big and small. Faces like dragons and evil birds. Long fangs. Wolves that walked as men do.
Njall distinguished himself, finally. He was called Tepid Njall for his whole life. Since childhood he’d tried to hide his fear of battle but there are some things you cannot hide. At long last, he found his rage and charged ahead to slay monsters by the dozen.
That day he fought against himself, then he fought against the monsters. He won both battles and came back to the longship a man among his brothers.
The next battle he refused the sacred herbs. He didn’t carve the runes into his arms. He sat in silence and fought himself again. What good was being a hero if you borrowed your courage from the gods?
The coward in him regretted the decision.
Now, here he stood on the field of battle and his brothers were busy in their furies.
Without the sacred herbs he saw that his brothers were not slaying monsters, but men and women and children. Dirty people shrieking in fear.
Njall ran along the river bank, his heart thumping fear in his chest.
The village burned.
He followed the river’s curves until he came upon another village. Silent and sleepy. He had to save these innocent fools from their fate.
Njall charged down the mud road toward a cluster of sod houses.
“Beware!” He cried out. “The vikings are coming for you!”
A door opened to reveal a dirty faced man, all skin and bones. “Who are you that comes into our town?” He pulled a long wood axe from the behind the door.
Njall’s chest tightened. The farmer gripped his axe. Njall took a step backward but something sharp stopped him. He went down to his knees, his back on fire with pain. Warmth washed down his legs.
He rolled over onto his back to see a maiden holding a pitchfork, its tines red with his blood.
“Please, I came to save you-.” The maiden swung the handle of the fork around and knocked the words from his mouth. The blue sky went black.
“We can’t keep him here.” It was the maiden.
“But what if he’s right?” The man, maybe. A man.
Njall’s vision cleared, revealing the maiden standing above him, holding her pitchfork. She reached a hand to the side of his face and pulled at his skin. Her own face wrinkled into a grimace.
“Why would you warn us about your people? Are you a traitor?” The maiden spat the words from curled lips.
“I’m no traitor.” Njall tried to push himself upright but the pain knocked him down again. “I saw the last battle with clear eyes, unhazed by the god’s poisons. I saw what we did to the last village.”
The maiden traded looks with the man. She set the pitchfork aside. “Who are you?”
“Tepid Njall, son of Ulr Long Toe.”
The maiden again looked to the man, this time she motioned with her eyebrows and he left the room. “We may save ourselves yet. Thank you, Njall The Brave, son of Ulr Long Toe.” She leant and placed her lips on his forehead. “You rest here.”
The door shut. A latch clicked over after.
The war cries came just before dawn. The shrieking came soon after.
Njall prayed that the villagers put up strong defenses. He wept for his brothers outside, but how could he let them kill innocents like they did?
The hero’s path cannot be the easy one.
The cries grew louder, the cries of men who he had called brother.
He could not sit in the bed like a dying grandfather. Like a traitor.
Njall’s bleeding back screamed as he rose from the bed. He threw himself into the locked door. It gave, slightly. He slammed it again. Again.
The door came off its hinges.
The field of battle raged before him, as bloody as he’d ever seen. His brothers staggering through smoke and fire.
The maiden stood not twenty feet from him. She faced away, her skirts covered in fresh blood. She held a ball of yarn at her side.
She turned toward Njall but her face was not that of a woman. She was a monster in woman’s clothes and she stared at him with red eyes, blood dripping from her fangs. The ball of yarn was not yarn but the head of Knute The Orange.
Njall charged her, sword drawn.
Many seasons passed.
Njall The Brave directed his crew to slide their longship to shore. Gunnar The Young shivered against the cold, or perhaps he shook with battle nerves.
“Eat these, Gunnar and carve the runes into your flesh.” Njall held out the sacred herbs. “For today we fight monsters.”