“Steeleye? Musclebound? Fleetfoot?”
“Your feet aren’t all that fleet. Wouldn’t be the right name for you.”
“How about Steelrod? Ya know – for the ladies.”
Hurtz waggled his pelvis suggestively, twitching his eyebrows and grinning, and Fennik and Shimpo guffawed before returning to their task of weeding the vegetable patch.
“Or Weight-Over-Wits in Shimpo’s case,” Hurtz jibed, prodding Shimpo’s ample belly through his dirty, stretched out grey tunic.
Fennik sighed and wiped sweat from his brow, feeling like his forehead was cooking in the heat of the afternoon sun. Spring had hit Shimyahein, and birds and insects had sprung up from every nook and cranny of the grasslands, it seemed. The drone of bees and flies and the chirps of birds echoed around the commune, a springtime symphony, a shrill soliloquy on the pleasures of sunshine.
“It’s not your Name Day coming up,” said Fenn; “it’s mine! So, please help me think of a name! I don’t want to be the first fool in the history of Shimyahein to be unable to come up with an adult name for themselves!”
He glanced at a nearby gravestone, one of several in a small cemetery, where the chosen name of the deceased was inscribed in red paint on a marker stone; ‘Here lies Charmer, who could talk his way out of anything.’ Fenn tried to picture what name might adorn his own grave when he passed, but nothing seemed to fit. Every name that popped into his mind seemed either too pompous or too drab.
“Don’t worry, Fenn,” said Hurtz nonchalantly, brushing his long ginger hair out of his tanned face and leaving a smear of mud on his cheek like war paint. “We’ll come up with something – even if it’s something as simple as Son of Tristar or The Kutzian.”
Gangly and quick-witted, Hurtz had a joke for every situation. Shimpo, often the butt of such jokes, was by far the kinder, more docile of the two; short, round, soft and almost bald save for the faintest fuzz, he was a peach that the mischievous monkey Hurtz trod on again and again. Fenn wondered how he took it some days. Unlike Shimpo, Fenn retaliated with a barb of his own when Hurtz hurled an affectionate insult his way. Hurtz and Shimpo were a year younger than Fenn at sixteen, but all three had been friends since their time as toddlers and had grown up together in the commune where they lived.
“How about Greenfinger?” suggested Shimpo, carefully uprooting a nettle. “Those zucchinis you planted this year are looking juicy.”
Fenn smiled at the poor suggestion, plucking a mare’s tail out of the rich black soil.
Hurtz snorted, stretching with his hands in the small of his back. “How about Brownnose when your Name Day comes, eh, Shimpo? How about that?”
Shimpo ignored him.
“How about –”
The conversation trailed off as the tumbling tattoo of hooves grew louder and all eyes turned towards the only gate into the commune; made of thick wooden poles like the palisade and secured with a bar like a tree trunk, it made for a formidable defence. Wooden ramparts had been erected on the inside of the palisade, so that those in the commune could peer over the walls.
All eyes in the commune shifted to a man with bronze skin, silvering ginger hair and a bushy crimson beard, who stood on the rampart beside the gate, when he shouted out, “Who goes there?”
Fenn strained to hear the reply from beyond the gate.
“We are the Prophet’s Blade, soldiers of the Empire,” came the curt reply. “It is our solemn duty to weed out paganism in Shimyahein on behalf of the Prophet, may his soul rest in peace in Citta Pacia. My name is Marshal Pledge. I have sworn an oath to obey my Emperor, and I never break an oath. Now, open this gate at once!”
Another figure on the ramparts snorted. Shorter and even skinnier than the lanky ginger man, this man had mottled, blotchy skin, receding mousy hair and a clean-shaven slab of a jaw. Like the ginger fellow, he wore a thin wool tunic, frilly-edged hide trousers and leather moccasins.
“I got this,” he muttered.
“You sure, Runs-Like-Wind?” asked the ginger man next to him.
Runs-Like-Wind nodded and brayed at those outside the gate, “We do not recognise the sovereignty of the Emperor. We are part of no clan. We are a peaceful commune living independently. We are self-sufficient and we trouble no one. Go away and leave us in peace!”
“You are not above the law!” the soldier barked back. “Not above the law of the Emperor and not above the law of the Prophet! We have heard rumours of a heathen community in this valley. Are you the leader of this … commune?” He spoke the word with distaste, wrinkling his nose at its foul aroma.
“I am,” replied the ginger-haired man, puffing out his thin chest. “My name is Harram Blazemane, and I am blessed to be the recently appointed head honcho here.”
“Tell me, old man,” sneered Marshal Pledge outside, “do you pray to the Prophet? Do you pray for Citta Pacia?”
Blazemane took a deep breath. “No. We renounce the Prophet’s path here. We follow the ways of the old Gods, the true Gods, as should you.”
“By order of the Emperor, Hadagosk the First,” shouted the Marshal, “all heretics must be executed. I demand that you open these gates at once in the name of the Emperor! Do it now and I will grant you the chance to convert and thus avoid execution!”
“Eat horse droppings!” Blazemane called, enunciating as clearly as he could.
“You leave us no choice!” Pledge hollered. “We will batter down your gate, torch your commune and put every heretic to the sword. You have squandered any chance for mercy. You had better pray your Gods are real, because no one can protect you now! What chance have you – a small helpless commune – against the force of our arms?”
“Archers!” bellowed the copper-haired head honcho, and the men and women on the ramparts beside him bent their bows at the soldiers with a loud creak. “We are not so helpless as you might think. Those who worship the God of Blood rarely are!”
“Kill the pagans!” screeched the Marshal. “Tear down the gate!”
The stamp and shuffle of footsteps signalled the Prophet’s Blade’s charge; Fenn guessed not all of them were on horseback. Then, a transient darkness descended as a volley of arrows sailed up and over the palisade from outside, scattering themselves throughout the commune, landing in vegetable patches, thatched rooftops, dirt streets, livestock pens and water troughs. Most failed to do any damage, but Fenn heard a wail from somewhere off to his left and knew someone had been hit; he hoped they were not severely injured. Then, he saw a couple of bodies fall from the wooden rampart to the ground below and realised there had been more than one casualty.
“Archers,” Blazemane called, “loose!”
Bowstrings twanged as a flock of arrows flew down out of Fenn’s sight beyond the palisade, but he heard the thumps, screams and gurgles that indicated that at least some of the arrows had found their marks. Few archers manned the ramparts, however – fewer still since a couple had been slain already. Only some eighteen people in the commune were proficient enough to be handed a bow. Of roughly eighty folks living inside the palisade, only thirty were young and strong enough to wield a blade.
Fenn frowned as a strangle rumble sounded and then jumped in surprise when the gate gave off a boom and shook violently, creaking and cracking.
“They either have a battering ram or some huge bloke with a hammer,” muttered Hurtz, ogling the gate with wide eyes as another boom reverberated through the commune and the gates rattled once more.
“Keep shooting! Don’t let them break down the gate!” Blazemane shouted, before descending a set of wooden steps down from the rampart and crossing a path to stand before Fenn and his friends. Behind him, the archers continued to shoot frantically even as enemy shafts buzzed over their heads and into the compound.
“Hurtz, my son,” said the slender honcho, clapping a calloused hand on the young man’s shoulder. He smelled of dung and sweat. “You and Shimpo, come with me. You’ll help Rathkar and I fetch weapons and ally the warriors. Fenn, I need you to go to your mother. Ask her if there is anything she can do, any way out of this for us. Will you do that for me, please?”
Fenn opened his mouth to grumble about Hurtz’s father’s foolishly superstitious nature, thought better of it, nodded, turned and took off across the compound. He wished he was with Hurtz, Shimpo and the other warriors; it rankled him to be running away from the fight. He knew, however, that the honcho held his parents’ occult knowledge in high regard even if he did not. He had long suspected his mother was nothing but a deranged phony, his father senile and demented by nightmares of the wars he had waged in his youth. Still, Fenn respected Blazemane and would not refuse an order.
He flew down dirt paths and across green swards, leaping flower patches and then zigzagging between mudbrick houses until he found his parents’ hut; round and single-storeyed with a conical, thatched roof. He rapped urgently on the door with his knuckles and then pushed inside without waiting for an invitation.
“Listener, I – by the Gods! What are you doing?”
Fenn swiftly averted his gaze and covered his eyes with his arm, the sight before him scarring his mind. All the furniture had been shoved up against the walls, out of the way. In the middle of the sole room in the hut, his father was splayed out naked on the floor, surrounded by intricate drawings of circles within pentagrams within circles within pentagrams. The whitewashed walls were likewise adorned. The drawings looked to have been done in blood, the artwork on the walls slowly trickling down the smooth stucco. Where the blood had come from was readily apparent; Fenn’s mother was also nude, sitting on the floor beside her husband and wringing a dead chicken over a clay bowl like she would a wet rag, while blood poured from the chicken’s slit gullet into the receptacle. Another chicken, already dead and desiccated, lay gruesomely folded in on itself in the corner, feathers sticking out at all angles. A frightened goat was bleating in another corner, the corners of the circular room being comprised by the clustered furniture.
Both husband and wife were flecked with blood, their ageing bodies saggy and wrinkly, loose folds of flesh hanging in strange places. Fenn thought they looked a little like living porridge or like lepers, their flesh melting off their bones with age. His mother’s jowls hung heavy, making the skin below her eyes droop and reveal the tender red velvet inside. She had a bulky frame, withered and weathered by the passing of time and hard living, so that now her bones poked through her stretched tan skin. Her long white hair was so fine her scalp could be seen underneath. His father’s face was gaunter, skull-like, surrounded by clouds of storm-grey dreadlocks. His body was lean, chiselled and crisscrossed with jagged scars after years of constant skirmishing in his homeland, Al Kutz.
“Come in, come in, child,” said Fenn’s mother, Listener-To-The-Dead, offhand. “Close the door behind you. You’re letting in a draught.”
“What in the name of Kagen’s bloody arse is going on here?” Fenn demanded, abbreviating the Blood God’s name and still avoiding eye contact.
“Do you not remember what we taught you growing up?” asked Listener-To-The-Dead, her voice husky, dreamy, wallowing in the clouds. “This is an ancient ritual used to invoke the power of the Blood God, dear. Once your father bathes in this goat’s blood, Galush-Kagen will imbue him with the strength to slay these invaders.”
“Trust us, son” said Fenn’s father, Tristar Jal Klundun.
“What the – whatever. Blazemane sent me to ask you if there was anything you could do … so is there anything you can do to help us – besides this?”
“I am doing all I can, my son. Trust me.”
Fenn sighed. “Alright, I’ll tell Blazemane.”
He turned to leave, but was stopped by his mother’s breathy tones. “Wait, Fenn. I have had a vision, given to me no doubt by the Gods. In this vision I saw death stretching out his hand for you, cutting down those closest to you. I will pray for you.”
Fenn clenched his jaw; of course death was coming, they were in a battle.
“Take care, my son, and may the Gods watch over you.”
Fenn ran back across the compound, his heart pounding at the thought of his mother’s words; he feared his friends might have already died in his absence. Crossing the lawns and darting around the flowers and vegetable patches again, Fenn soon came within sight of the gate and his heart faltered in its tracks, stumbling in its rhythm.
The gate had been torn open, the massive bar snapped. The Prophet’s Blade were inside the compound.
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