Authors: A.J. Dalton
As he slid, he was helpless to slow his momentum and smacked into the back wall of the house with bone-jarring force. Dizzily, he made his way round to the other side of the dwelling and pounded on the door.
The door creaked open several inches and a beady eye peered out at him from the darkness. ‘Took your time!’ whispered a voice with unidentifiable emotions running through it. ‘Left it any longer and you wouldn’t have survived at all. Then how would you have made me and the gods look, huh? Embarrassing it would have been. Last thing we need is the next chieftain doubting our holy and wise words just because you can’t be bothered to pick your feet up. Bit full of yourself, are you, huh? Wouldn’t be surprised. Often the way with warriors, particularly young ones. And now you’re letting the cold in! You must be crazy.’
With that, the door slammed shut in Aspin’s face. He rocked back on his heels, confused and at a loss for words. Crazy man! Aspin pounded on the wood again. Nothing. And again.
The beady eye ogled at him. ‘Go away!’
‘Let me in, Torpeth!’
‘Why should I?’
‘I’ll die otherwise. I’ll give you payment!’
‘Not so crazy after all then. In, quickly!’
Aspin squeezed through the small gap he was permitted and entered near darkness. A small fire crackled in a hearth at the other end of the room and he wasted no time heading for it. His teeth chattered and his hands were shaking as if he had the palsy. Shadows near the fire shifted and he suddenly realised there was someone ahead of him.
‘So, come to challenge me, have you?’ growled Braggar, the chief’s brawny and cruel-eyed son. ‘Torpeth said a challenger would come, although I found it hard to believe any would dare stand against me.’
Aspin was already shaking his head in denial. ‘Nay, chief’s son, I bring no challenge. All agree you will be the next leader of our tribe.’
Torpeth was suddenly at Aspin’s shoulder. ‘Ah, but you promised the gods payment, son of the snow! You bring a challenge in with you whether you know it or not. During the weeks of snow ahead, Braggar will abide here and learn the tribe’s secrets so that he may one day rule. Son of the snow, you have insisted on abiding here, so you will also learn these secrets. You will be a challenge to Braggar’s rule whether you will it or not. You have made your choice, warrior.’
‘B-but I didn’t know! I had no choice.’
Torpeth tutted. ‘There is always a choice. You may leave if you wish. That will mean your death, of course, but the choice is yours.’
Aspin frowned at both of them and then shrugged. ‘Then it appears I must be a challenger.’
‘You will regret that!’ Braggar promised darkly.
Torpeth giggled and pushed Aspin closer to the fire.
The days that followed blurred one into the other, for there was little to distinguish them. There was little light in the place, whether it was night or day; they ate from the same giant pile of pine nuts for every meal, and they did and said very little of significance.
Aspin would always awake to find himself lying closer to Braggar and Torpeth than was comfortable, but there was as little heat as light in the place, so it was not surprising their bodies would look to share warmth. Unfortunately, Torpeth snored loudly and smelt so bad that he would often keep Aspin awake. On one occasion Aspin had been determined to shake the holy man and push him away, but the lunatic’s wide and rolling eyes had scared him off.
Once Torpeth was up, he would insist the other two keep perfectly silent – he called it making observances to the gods. If either Braggar or Aspin moved too noisily or even breathed too heavily, he would scream in outrage. He would froth at the mouth and pull handfuls of matted hair from his head or beard. Then he would invariably start to cry, snot running freely from his nose, begging for forgiveness from the roof, the chimney and the cellar. He’d attacked Braggar once, his movements so fast that they’d blurred and Braggar had been unable to defend himself. Just as it had looked like the chief’s son would collapse, Torpeth had become distracted, stopped and started talking nonsense to the air. Another time the holy man had thrown himself into the fire on his back and begun to writhe around like a dog scratching its back: they’d had to drag him free by the heels and then pull him out the door into the snow.
After they’d made their observances to the gods, Torpeth would stare at each of them as if for the first time and mutter to himself. He’d absently scratch at his armpits or crotch, and then pick his nose. Aspin was sure the holy man had fleas. Then Torpeth would ask them the same inane questions as he did every day – what were their names, who were their parents, what was their favourite colour and so forth.
In the afternoon Torpeth would wonder out loud if they needed more firewood, and Braggar and Aspin would argue for the privilege of going to collect it from the covered store at the side of the house. They were both eager to leave the claustrophobic and smoky home of the unpredictable holy man whenever they could. They weren’t just revolted by him, they were also scared of his violent passions. Whichever of them it was who was left alone with Torpeth while the other got firewood, they would try to stay at the other end of the room and avoid eye contact.
In the evening Torpeth would gather them round the small fire and tell them some crazed tale or other. He would add a strange evil-smelling fuel to the flames – Aspin suspected it was dung or something like that – the smoke from which made them choke but also experience the occasional hallucination. Braggar’s eyes would become overly dilated; he’d sweat profusely, and his face would take on a haunted look. He would request the tale of the naked warrior again and again.
‘There was a man,’ Torpeth whispered and whistled through his brown teeth, ‘who was faithful to the old gods of our people. He spent his days watching the sky to read the whim of Wayfar of the Warring Winds, bathing to know the course of Akwar of the Wandering Waters and working the earth to understand the ways of Gar of the Still Stone. Where the sun bespoke the earth, the warrior saw himself directed by Sinisar of the Shining Path, saw himself instructed to bring those lit by the sun to the worship of the old gods. And so he waged war across the world wherever the sun touched.
‘Much was the suffering, but finally all people bowed down as the warrior demanded and commanded. The people were united but they did not prosper as the warrior had hoped, for Wayfar remained warlike, Akwar still wandered, and Gar was unmoved.
‘The warrior realised the people simply bent the knee rather than embracing the old gods with their hearts and minds. Therefore, the warrior continued his war on all people touched by the sun, punishing them for their lack of faith.
‘So great was the suffering, and so little did the people have left to lose, they decided to throw off the warrior’s rule and put aside the old gods, even though it cost them many a life. The gods became angrier than ever before and sent storms, droughts, plague and famine against the people.
‘When the others came, they found a broken land. There was dissent among the people, disarray among the gods and terrible division between the two. There were none who could stand against the others and all was theirs for the taking.
‘Most of the people had no choice but to bow to the rule of the others. The old gods were overthrown and their few remaining followers were forced into the mountains, a place of merciless winds, frozen waters and cruel, stony ground. Even when Sinisar dared show something of himself, he no longer illuminated anything with sufficient power to transform it into anything god-touched.
‘As for the warrior, he was left with nothing and he realised that it had been his desire to understand and have everything that had been his very undoing. He had sought to encompass the people and the gods themselves, when he was still one of them, and this had been the undoing of the people, the gods and himself. He had nothing, he understood nothing and he was made nothing.
‘No weapon or armour was left to him. His mind was undone. Truly, he was a naked warrior, fit to fight none but himself.’
In the dim and crackling light Aspin and Braggar watched Torpeth in owlish silence. Surely this holy man, who wore nothing but his own dirt and hair, couldn’t be the naked warrior, could he? The coming of the others must have happened many ages past.
‘Did the naked warrior die?’ Braggar asked thickly, making Aspin start. Neither of them had ever asked a question before.
Torpeth giggled and farted. ‘Where would the lesson be in that, silly ox? The naked warrior exists still, fighting himself forever and ever. It was his punishment to witness the undoing of the people and the old gods forever more. Where once he had been god-touched and lived in a god-touched world of life and death, now he is but a shadowy memory or cry on the restless wind.’
And the night would always end with Torpeth jumping and scampering around the house, apparently becoming angry and then demanding to know if they’d learned anything that day. The young warriors would invariably nod, as that was all that ever seemed to mollify the holy man.
Whispering brought Aspin out of his dreams of complaining, shouting and rowing gods. Torpeth was crouched near the sleeping Braggar and murmuring in the ear of the chief’s son. The holy man yelped and leapt back when he saw Aspin watching him. Then the filthy creature hissed, ‘Braggar, awake! There is your enemy.’
With a roar, the chief’s son threw back the goatskin under which he’d been sleeping and rolled to his feet. Aspin got unsteadily to his own feet, trying to shake the remnants of sleep from his head. He moved to put the small fire between the two of them.
‘Braggar, I’m not your enemy! I’ve only just woken up.’
Torpeth clapped his hands and capered in the corner of the room. ‘You are the challenger, son of the snow! You are Braggar’s enemy. Unless he can defeat you, his rule is forfeit.’
Braggar pulled a bright branch from the fire and hurled it at Aspin. Then he leapt over the fire pit and sought to lay hands on his adversary. Yet Aspin was not so simply caught, despite his disorientation. He easily ducked the branch, rolled forward beside the fire and away from Braggar’s grasping hands. As he rolled, he dashed embers back over his head in a cloud.
There was a shout of anger as Braggar was stung by the glowing motes of wood. Aspin hoped the chief’s son had been blinded in both eyes and had inhaled a deadly amount as well, but he felt the other’s breath on the back of his neck and knew he’d not been so lucky. Instead of coming fully to his feet, he kept low and swept one leg back round. He took his opponent at the ankles and knocked him flat on his side. He considered following in with fists and elbows, but the savage grin on Braggar’s face made it clear that coming too close would be a grave mistake.
Aspin skipped forward and then ran flat out for the far end of the house, where he knew Torpeth kept a small pile of stones, although what purpose the holy man had for them Aspin had no idea. He took one up and turned to face the enraged warrior bearing down on him.
Braggar was only six long strides away. Aspin raised the stone. He envisioned it striking Braggar in the middle of the forehead and imagined he heard cracks in the bone radiating out from the point of impact. He felt the soft part of Braggar’s brainpan compressing and beginning to bleed. Pain, darkness and then death. The tribe would be grief-stricken and all would gather round to watch the old chief struggle to break the cold stony ground so that his only son could be buried. Then the families with sons would begin to argue as to who should be the next to lead the tribe. Factions would emerge and the tribe would be slowly torn apart. There would be foul murder and feuds to last generations.
All because of this small stone in Aspin’s hand. Why didn’t Braggar stop? Surely he knew he was all but forcing Aspin to kill him. But Braggar was not himself. He was not behaving with any care for himself; it was as if he’d taken complete leave of his senses.
Aspin hurled the stone at Braggar’s leg. It had the desired effect – staggering the chief’s son and knocking him off balance – but Braggar’s forward momentum was such that there could be no escape for Aspin. Braggar slammed into his small challenger and pinned him against the back wall of the holy man’s house. The large hands of the chief’s son found Aspin’s neck and began to squeeze.
Aspin thrashed wildly, but Braggar used his weight to bear him to the ground. Aspin tried to claw at Braggar’s eyes, but the chief’s son had the greater reach so managed to hold his head up and out of the way. The pressure around Aspin’s neck increased and he heard his spine creaking where it joined his skull.
Maybe he should have hurled the stone at Braggar’s forehead after all. If he’d pulled the throw slightly, maybe it wouldn’t have been fatal and would have just knocked Braggar out instead. Now he would never know. Stupid to die like this in a filthy turf-walled building that was hardly fit for goats. Stupid to die like this because of the whispered ramblings of a mad man. Stupid to die so young. Stupid to die because of a deer. Stupid to have lived at all. It had been no life of which to speak. Stupid.
His vision darkened at the edges and narrowed to a small point as if he were lying at the bottom of a deep well and looking up. Then Torpeth was at Braggar’s ear and whispering again. Braggar’s grip slackened, his eyes closed and he slumped down on top of his victim.
‘Heavy ox!’ Torpeth panted as he hauled Braggar off Aspin. ‘He will be a good chief though, and breed strong sons and shrewd daughters.’
Aspin didn’t give a flea for Braggar’s future husbanding skills right at that moment. He was too busy trying to get his throat to open so that he could breathe. He coughed hard and then gulped in half a breath. How sweet, if uncomfortable, it tasted.
‘Wh-why?’ he asked hoarsely.
‘Well, no need to thank me!’ Torpeth harrumphed, acting as if he were the injured party.
Feeling far from solicitous, Aspin struggled up so that he was sitting with his back to the wall. He glared at the holy man crouched before him. ‘He could have snapped my neck!’