“If you don’t hurry your fat arse up, we’ll be late for the Games and get crappy seats,” complained Sunthwart for the umpteenth time. His fish-belly white face loomed into view in the beaten brass sheet Gruelbane used for a mirror. Surrounding the narrow, long-nosed, pale face was a lank curtain of dark hair. Two piercing blue eyes stared out from beneath the greasy bangs; they were his best feature—the eyes, not the bangs.
“Hold your horses, Sunny,” Gruelbane said, struggling to close his belt over his not inconsiderable girth. His round, red face sheened in sweat, he held his breath and sucked in as hard he could, exhaling in pained triumph when the metal hasp finally found purchase in the very last hole in the belt.
“Gotta start working out again,” Gruelbane noted, slotting the handle of his weapon into the loop on his belt.
Sunthwart, of course, carried his weapon unsheathed.
Gruelbane gave his reflection a last, critical look. His head, shaped like a millstone—almost perfectly round—was capped with straw-like red-blonde hair. Two little brown eyes were set deep in the fat of his face, his moon-cheeks glowing like polished apples around his broad, flat nose. His teeth, square and blockish, made his mouth seem enormous.
“I guess I’ll do,” he noted, patting his belly where it swelled above his beleaguered belt.
They hurried from Gruelbane’s hut, Sunthwart taking the lead, his beanpole figure casting nary a shadow beneath the broad umbrella of the weapon that had been gifted him at his Naming.
Gruelbane, his own weapon, a heavy metal ladle, clanking dully against his flabby thigh as he struggled to keep up with his long-legged best friend, panted, “Do you think She’ll be there?”
As always, there could be only one girl who earned the capital S in the indefinite pronoun. They never said her actual name. (Not out of reverence, though. Mostly because the one time Hilda’s brother Henke had overheard them talking about her, he’d beaten them both to a panting, bloody pulp in the town common.)
“Everyone’ll be there,” Sunthwart answered, his typical sarcasm apparent in every syllable. “It’s the Games.”
The Games were held in a wide, circular meadow just to the west of the village of Arkenwald, where Gruelbane and Sunthwart had grown up. The Arkenwalders came out weekly during the Thaw to watch the men of the village pummel each other with a variety of weapons and test their stamina, strength, and virility against inanimate objects like boulders and rafter logs.
Though technically Sunthwart and Gruelbane were eligible for the Games themselves, they’d never been asked to play, a fact about which they had mixed feelings. While neither of them particularly relished the idea of systematized public humiliation, they both harbored fantasies of overcoming their loathed enemies—Henke chief among them—in front of the gathered naysayers of their village.
Sometimes, they went so far as to practice archery, fencing, and pole-throwing in their hideout deep in the forest to the east of Arkenwald, where no one was likely to see them groaning and sweating and courting shin-splints and bruises. Most of the time, though, they settled for lying on their backs in the tall grass of their secret place and talking about what they’d do when they were grown.
They neatly overlooked the fact that they were allegedly adults already, given that they’d had their Naming during the Blood Harvest last year. In fact, the only acknowledgement they made in favor of that rite of passage was by answering to their new names. Otherwise, things went on much as they had before they’d entered into manhood: Henke and his posse hunted the two relentlessly when the Horde, as they called themselves rather grandiosely, weren’t off doing manly things to impress the ladies, and Sunthwart and Gruelbane avoided their fellow villagers as much as they were able.
If it hadn’t been for the aforementioned Hilda, over whom Gruelbane had been lusting since they were old enough to understand what certain uncomfortable nightly dreams actually indicated, the two of them would never have gone within a half-league of the Games.
As it was, they found seats on the side of the gaming circle nearest to the forest, into which they could flee for cover should it be necessary. In the umbrage of the great pines that soughed and swayed overhead, Sunthwart closed his weapon and leaned it against the empty stump he had chosen for a seat. Gruelbane chose the stump beside him.
The first game—Board Her in the Smoke—was well under way. Six men wearing green bandanas were struggling to keep their feet on a rolling log while simultaneously aiming the log for six men in blue bandanas similarly perched. Each of the dozen men carried long, hooked lances, with which they tried to yank an “enemy” off of his “boat” and into the fatal “water” of the dirt below the logs.
Meanwhile, four boys—two for each side—ran about frantically fanning a smokepot of stinking pitch to obscure each “boat” from the other’s view.
Given that there was a wide, glassy blue fjord glinting brilliantly just to the north of Arkenwald, one might legitimately wonder why this game was played on land.
They could have played this particular game in the water of course, using their fierce-prowed longboats to rush at one another over the waves, heavy, carven oars knocking one another good-naturedly into the frigid waters of the fjord.
That had been the tradition for generations, actually, until the year Eric the Incredibly Virile had gone to the Games drunk off his hairy white arse, taken an oar-blow to his thick skull, plunged head-first into the fjord, and never been seen again.
After that, the village elders agreed that it might be best to keep things dry, since the summer pillaging season would soon be upon them and they needed all the able-bodied berserkers they could get.
Today’s were the final Games of the season, and the men were feeling their oats, having spent the Thaw recovering their muscular physiques from the lean winter’s paring down. The hooks slashed rather more violently than usual, eliciting grunts and groans from the men who were unceremoniously dumped into the dirt and then scrabbled, crab-like, away to avoid being crushed by the rolling logs.
At last, there were only two men left standing, and much to the duo’s disgust, the green team’s champion was Henke the Hulk, as they called him, though his official name was Henke the Hacker. (He had an extremely unpleasant predilection for the carving knife and had once, so the story went, popped an enemy’s eyes out with the point of his blade and then carved his screaming mouth into a wide, bloody smile. No one much liked Henke, but they couldn’t argue with his success rate.)
Gruelbane wasn’t paying much attention to Henke’s posturing, however. (Sunthwart was, but he’d never have admitted to his best friend that it was one part wanting to be Henke and one part something a lot harder to admit to anyone, himself included.)
No, the large boy’s gaze was fixed with wide-eyed longing on the object of his most ardent fantasies: Hilda, whose long, blonde plait glinted like spun gold in the spring sunshine, green eyes like new moss in a sunny forest glade, milky white hands moving like edelweiss petals blown by a gentle southern zephyr, peaked breasts straining against the laces of her…
Sunthwart’s urgent tone cut through Gruelbane’s reverie, and he turned toward Sunthwart with an irritated expression, while trying to surreptitiously remove the pearl of drool he could feel sliding down his chin.
His best friend look paler than usual, which was saying a lot, considering that Sunny typically resembled a drowned corpse. With a shaking index finger he was pointing to the meadow, where Henke, evidently the victor, his fallen foe writhing red-faced at his feet, was pointing his boat hook directly at Gruelbane and saying something Gru couldn’t hear through the rushing of blood in his ears.
“It’s an honor challenge,” Sunthwart gasped, dropping his finger and shrinking back, as though the shadow of the forest could make him invisible.
Gruelbane wished for a moment that he could swallow his own tongue and die on the spot. An honor challenge?
“For ye have looked with lust upon my sister, whose maidenly face should not suffer the brazen glance of one so unworthy as thee!” Henke was exclaiming in his typical, bombastic fashion.
In vain, Gruelbane shook his head as the crowd noise swelled into one long chant, “Ho-nor, ho-nor, ho-nor.”
He had no choice. To refuse an honor challenge meant exile or even death.
Knees watery with terror, Gruelbane’s left hand clenched the handle of his weapon, and he stood, swaying a little in the light spring wind, and then, with the heart of a condemned man choking his throat, he stepped out onto the field of battle and approached his sure demise.
Note: This series is a work in progress, but I already have eight complete episodes, so fear not, gentle readers: There is more.
Note II: I will publish each episode in two parts, one complete episode per month. The second part of this story will be published on or about 15 January 2016.
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