Pale sun overhead, baking the dry dust below.
He trudged over the dirt. He smelled smoke in the air. Over the next hill, he saw a spattering of squat brown buildings interspersed with black spots, tendrils of gray rising, ashes in the air.
Closer, the situation clarified into the scene he’d prophesied from the initial scent.
Remnants of burnt wreckage here and there, too haphazard to be a single instance grown out of control, too specific to be accidental.
He saw no townsfolk out of doors despite the midday hour.
Wide eyes peered from window holes set in the windworn wood. They saw him and their faces softened with a wretched hope.
An old man sat outside the shell of a home, two walls standing, blackened. He had a wrapping of cloth round his head covering his eyes. The elder heard the big man’s footsteps and turned his head.
Your feet are heavy.
The barbarian stopped and shifted the pack over his shoulder.
Had trouble here?
The blind man turned back to the remains in front of him.
You’re a Westerner.
Man come through here?
Just a wanderer.
The blind man expelled air in a wheezy chuckle.
Ain’t we all?
The other waited.
Man come through a week ago.
How long he stay?
Couple moons, though we asked him to stay longer. Need a strong man, a leader.
The old man shook his head.
Left before the bandits showed. Ain’t that luck? Folks said he looked the fightin’ sort.
He wouldn’t have done nothing.
The elder shrugged.
Maybe so. Maybe nothin’ can be done. Ain’t no law anymore, not out here. Maybe not anywhere.
The barbarian spat.
There ain’t no law in the desert and we live out there.
The elder smiled, turning his head in the other’s direction.
How many blind old men you got out there, eh?
The big man didn’t answer. He looked up at the sun.
Which direction he go?
So folks said.
The other walked away, thunderous footfalls to the blind man’s ears slowly fading.
You gonna help us?
The old man’s voice faded into the dusty air.
He went to the inn, largest structure in the village, two stories of sandstone, only building not made of wood. He dropped his pack on the ground in front of the door and unsheathed his sword.
It sang out like an instrument. Long and chipped in places, a weapon of age.
Most men would not have been able to hold it with one hand, much less wield it with two but this man came from beyond the Western towers, born of a hardy race culled by the deserts where his people lived, and feared by the Easterners. It’s why he went East, why his tribe sent him, not only because of the shaman’s warnings but to bridge a peace, to show companionship between lands.
He contemplated the door, thick and wooden, mold creeping up from the bottom, slightly askew in its place.
Why did he continue? Why not return to his homeland? To the West?
His work, despite everything, despite the fulfilling of the prophecies, was not yet finished.
He let the blade rest on his shoulder. It did not shine for it was never polished but the edges remained sharp, the steel strong. His body tensed and relaxed. An eagerness filled him. The blood of his people, tempered in struggle, coursed through him, growing warm or so it felt. His mind whirled with useless thoughts he could not get out of his head.
He kicked the door off its hinges.
It slid in a foot, upright, a strange scene, door to nowhere, hanging in balance, eyes on it, a hushed silence. It fell to the floor with a crash.
He stepped inside, dust motes swirling in the air, sunlight flooding the room around his great frame.
Silence. Time frozen. The eye of the storm. Silence filled with potential chaos.
Rough men sat at tables, a few on their feet, hands at their weapons, eyes wide.
He picked out the leader sitting in the far corner, a smile on his face, authoritative, the only one who seemed unafraid.
Beside him sat one of his men with a crossbow, string taught, bolt in place.
What an entertaining entrance. Did you not think we would notice your coming in the village? You can leave, now. Or die.
The barbarian closed his eyes and took a breath.
There was a time from before, he would’ve asked them to leave or surrender.
There was a time before that, he would’ve slaughtered them without a word, torturing them first so they would know him.
The thoughts left his mind cold and clear.
He threw his sword, blade over handle.
It took the bowman in the chest, below his wide eyes and gaping mouth. The force knocked him out of his chair and to the floor. The crossbow fell to the floor and went off, bolt flying into the ceiling.
He didn’t feel like talking.
The inevitable bloody melee ensued.
The barbarian let loose his rage. He used his hands at first, catching weapons, arms, throats, tossing the men like stones.
They crashed through tables, chairs, the wall.
He took cuts, deeper wounds, bruises, ignored them all. He tore limbs, snapped necks and gouged out eyes. He picked up a chair and broke it over a man’s skull, reducing it to a pulpy mess.
Some, seeing the carnage and the beast unleashed, ran.
He let them go, save for one. He ran the leader down in the streets and snapped his neck.
The brute stood. He closed his eyes.
The anger simmered, receding below the surface.
His skin stuck with wet blood, covering his hands, his arms, his chest.
The bitter smell flooded his nostrils, unpleasant yet familiar.
He opened his eyes.
A crowd had formed outside. They stared at him.
One man stepped forward, youthful but with eyes tainted by innocence lost…or was it wisdom?
You kill ‘em all?
The voice, heated, anger at the bandits for terrorizing the town, hatred at the Law for not being there, frustration at the chaos that had come with the Lord’s death and the lack of his ability to do anything about it.
The barbarian turned and walked back to the inn.
Some of the crowd followed him from a distance, their fear pushed aside by vengeful curiosity.
The rest looked down at the bandit corpse lying in the dust of the road.
He stepped over corpses and through a hole in the pub’s outer wall. He walked among cries of agony and moans of anguish.
The innkeeper silenced them, one by one, with a dagger. The blade made a squelching sound as it entered another man’s chest. The pot-bellied man looked up at the intrusion, sweat and streaks of red across his face, eyes wild. He made as if to explain, wringing his hands.
The barbarian gave him no more than a glance. He found his sword, embedded in the bowman on the floor. He put his foot on the corpse and with both hands on the handle, he withdrew it. He ripped off cloth from the dead man’s tunic and wiped the blade clean as best he could.
The innkeeper returned to stabbing those that were still alive, almost as if performing a mercy but with a frenzied glee.
The other walked out front and grabbed his pack. He went inside, behind the bar and grabbed a spare key. He addressed the innkeeper.
Bring me hot water when you’re finished.
He walked upstairs with his sword and pack. He found the room, down a tight hallway, the walls wooden and without decoration.
The key slid in and unlocked it, door opening to show a cramped room, wooden wash tub in the corner.
He threw his pack on the bed and leaned the sword against the wall, point down. He shut the door. He let himself feel the pain.
It came from cuts on his hands and along his arms, a shallow stab wound in his side, soreness from bruised knuckles and aches from his muscles and bones. All at once, it nearly felled him.
He concentrated, feeling each wound in his body, focusing on it. He let the anger come forth, boiling in a flash. His body shook with rage.
The wounds healed, skin knitting together, body repairing itself.
At the end, he fell to one knee, hand hitting the bedding and gripping it tight. He swallowed back bile, body quivering. He stayed on one knee, eyes closed, breathing.
After a time, he removed his blood-soaked clothing, sticky and cloying. He tossed the mess into the corner.
A knock came at the door.
He opened it a crack and peered out.
Two buckets of steaming water sat outside.
He brought them in and shut the door. They felt heavier than they should, a reminder of his weakness after such a fight. He struggled to carry them over to the wash tub and set them down with a sigh.
He poured one bucket into the tub, steam rising as the water fell, hot and clean. He stepped in. He poured water from the other bucket over his body, washing the blood from him.
The water in the tub roiled, red and filthy.
He dried himself with a towel hanging on a hook on the wall by the tub. He went to his pack and pulled out spare clothes, a tan pair of breeches and vest. He put them on, a more difficult task than it should have been. Finished, he sat on the bed and leaned back against the wall, breathing hard.
He heard a knock at the door.
The young man from before entered. His eyes were shadowed, a fear in them that had not been there before, and also…a hopefulness, an eagerness. He’d seen the death below, grotesque, nauseating but also exciting. Such is humankind, civilized yet primitive, instinct battling order.
The Westerner leaned his head against the wall and closed his eyes..
How did you kill those men?
The barbarian sighed.
If I said I’m a great warrior from the West, would that suffice?
Your wounds, they’re gone. Are you a wizard? A healer?
The West has no wizards or healers, only shamans and I am not one of them. My gift comes from the ancients of my people. What is it you wish of me?
My name is Baran. I…we, the people of the town, wanted to thank you for helping us. For killing those men.
There will be other men.
The young man hesitated, question held in his throat, perhaps guessing at the answer he already knew the Westerner would give.
Will you stay? You could help us.
Voice filled with need.
With you, no bandit or rogue would dare attack us.
I will not stay.
We’re farmers, not fighters. Without the law, we’re doomed when the next group of scoundrels comes along. We need someone like you. We need a leader.
The townsman spoke true and the other knew it. He could stay, train them, fortify their defenses. In a few months, they could be strong. He looked at his hands, still bruised, still stained with blood he could not wash away.
That is not my purpose.
You’re him, aren’t you. The Westerner who came East. I thought you were a hero.
The young man turned away and opened the door.
Hold. Listen to my words.
The barbarian opened his eyes and leaned forward.
The townsman looked over his shoulder.
Take the weapons below and give them to your most able-bodied men and women. Have them train as best they can, every day. Take the corpses, cut off the heads and put them on pikes around the perimeter of the town. Send boys on horseback to your neighboring towns, send messages, keep in contact. If need be, bring folk here or pack up and move to a more fortified town. The more people you have, the harder it will be for anyone to take advantage of you.
The townsman left.
The innkeeper brought a plate of bread and a bowl of stew. He left it on the bed.
The barbarian wolfed it down and left the remains in the hallway. Outside, he could hear townsfolk calling out, arguing in the streets. Downstairs, he heard movement, the dragging of bodies, debris being cleaned up as night fell.
Firelight encroached the dark window and the smell of burning flesh rose in the air.
He slept. He dreamed of the fiery wastes, the underground cities, ancient temples filled with sand, phantoms and monsters, wisps and water, blood, his companions.
He woke, packed his things and grabbed his sword.
The sun had yet to peek above the horizon, evidence of its inevitability growing in the east, pink and orange blobs growing from a single point.
Below in the common room, the corpses were gone but the stains remained, saturating the wood.
The innkeeper was no where to be found.
He went behind the bar and into the back, into the kitchen.
Slices of bread and cheese lay on a plate left out for him.
He brought the plate into the common room and took a seat at one of the tables that had remained undamaged. He ate as the sun rose.
The villagers had been busy.
Outside, a dark bed of coals and ashes lay in the center of town, bones and scraps of human hair the only evidence of what had been burned.
He walked to the western end of the village, passing folk who looked tired yet determined.
Most gave him a nod or a ‘how do ye do’ but not much else. More than a few gave him scant glances and held their breath as he went by, but they went about their business. They were busy with purpose. They didn’t need him, or so he told himself. They were still untrained, without true warriors or guardsmen to hide behind. They could just as easily be slaughtered in a week.
He kept walking.
They would survive or they would not.
On the faint road that went west of the village, he passed the man from before, leading other young men.
They set spears and sticks into the ground, and carried a large cloth sack with dark stains.
As he watched, they pulled the bandit leader’s head from the sack and stuck it, neck down, into the top of one of the spears, squishing it down as best they could.
He walked on.