A gift - Editor
by Lance Young
A curse punctured the air, followed by the dull thud of a body hitting the ground. Erik Redstorm needed to rest and this spot was as good as any. Despite running all day, he slept poorly on the cold dirt ground. Hazy nightmares stalked him in his sleep. Visions of all the men he’d killed haunted his dreams. They were waiting for him in the afterlife.
In some, they greeted him as befitted a warrior, with glass of mead and a slap on the back. But most of the time they were far less welcoming. They would claw and tear at him, till he woke with sweat running down his face. Redstorm had never given much thought to the afterlife, he believed it the refuge of fools and weaklings but now he couldn’t help wonder what awaited him.
He woke with a grimace; the raising sun allowed him his first good look at where he had slumbered so fitfully. The valley he had passed through was rugged; mostly grass with the odd cluster of trees or jagged boulders.
He had trekked through it all evening, until he had collapsed at his campsite at the top of the ridge. There were a couple of knocked over trees to sit on, alongside a small stream which ran down into the valley itself. It was a far cry from the castle he used to live in. Redstorm heaved a sigh and began preparing himself for another day full of fear.
Fear, it was amazing that such a small word could mean so many different things for different people. For much of his life Redstorm had worked hard to instill it in others, but he had never truly appreciated its power until now. Because for the first time in his life, Redstorm was beginning to understand it from the other side and it was not a pleasant experience. Redstorm felt an icy numbness in the pit of his stomach and he knew it wasn’t from hunger. No, it was something far worse and it filled him with shame. He had fought in many battles over the years. So many in fact that he had long stopped counting, but he had never felt anything like this. He briefly pondered whether it was because deep down, he knew he would lose.
Redstorm let out a long weary yawn that turned into an even longer cough. Age was catching up with him. His muscles felt stiff most of the time and strained under tasks he had previously accomplished with ease. His eyes weren’t as sharp as they had been either, which was probably why it had taken him till now to spot the approaching horsemen in the valley below. They didn’t realise it, but they had picked up his track for the final time. After all these months, he was finally too tired to keep running.
The cold morning air bit deeply into his bones as he slowly rose to his feet. He lifted his arms wearily into the air, stretching as high as his aged muscles would allow. He felt twinges of pain all over, but he studiously ignored them. If this was to be his last fight he wanted to be limber. The pain subsided slowly, lingering on in the many spots where he had been wounded. He grinned absurdly as he pictured, all the old battle scars that littered his body from years gone by. Decorating him like a walking tribute to the war gods themselves.
He strolled over to the stream. He sank down to his knees and splashed some water over his face. The action had two equal purposes, to clear some of the grime from his face and to help focus his thoughts more clearly for the coming task. As the bitterly cold water ran down his face, he paused to examine his features. His formerly all red beard was now streaked with white. Vanity had never been one of his weaknesses and he was the first to admit that he would never win a prize for being the most handsome man in the kingdom. Even in Redstorm’s younger days his face had never been one to attract looks of admiration from the local village girls.
Now it showed the accumulated wear and tear from years of battle. A nose that had been broken one time too many, a chunk of his left ear missing from a blow that had nearly taken off his head. The most prominent was the scar that ran across the right side of his face. Redstorm had received it during a vicious fight to defeat the King’s previous champion, a real brute of a man, over six feet tall and built like a stone wall. Some said it had disfigured him, but Redstorm took a perverse pleasure in it. He considered it a prize he could wear all the time and one, he thought wryly, that he would never be tempted to sell.
Redstorm looked over at his sword, his other big prize from that day. It had a gold handle and a blade that could slice through anything. The day King Thomas had handed it to him almost 20 years ago now, was still the proudest of his life. Since that day the blade hadn’t left his side for a moment. During these last few months on the run however, he had been sorely tempted to part with it. But each time he had successfully resisted temptation and for that he was thankful, he could think of no better weapon with which to finish his career.
He picked it up and looked at it as if greeting an old friend. His only friend, he thought bitterly, the others were gone now. Chased down like him and run into the ground. There would be no one to mourn his death, not anymore. He hadn’t had any contact with his family since he had left his hovel of a village. A more surly and disagreeable bunch you would be hard pressed to find and when the time came he couldn’t leave fast enough. For all that he missed them and regretted not going back at least once. He had no children, at least none that he knew of. His first love had always been battle, now even that was turning against him. A bitter string of defeats had set him on this path and he hadn’t stopped running since.
Well today, he thought grimly, the running stops. Redstorm ran through a few quick sword exercises, working himself up for the final confrontation. It was a routine he had put himself through everyday for the last 40 years, ever since he had first held a sword as a boy. Fueled by fear, Redstorm trained until sweat dripped down his face. He was disappointed that fatigue had got the better of him so soon. In his youth he wouldn’t even have broken a sweat with such a task. Now, well, now everything was different. He strapped on his sword and mentally prepared himself for the coming confrontation
Redstorm wondered what was worse, the anticipation or the actual fight itself. He just wanted it to be over, to stop running, and to finally rid himself of the fear. But equally he was afraid to fight, because he knew the result would not be in his favour. It was a mishmash that made him extremely uneasy. But he knew soon that would no longer be a problem.
Redstorm cautiously peered around at the small gully behind him; perhaps it was not to late to run. Even a few more days of life was something. A small gift to cherish. Even if it did mean running like a dog. For the briefest of moments Redstorm began walking towards the gully, when he suddenly stopped and began shaking his head. No. Living like this, always worried that the next day would be his last, fear occupying his every waking moment. That wasn’t living, that was just waiting to die.
So Redstorm waited. Refusing to flinch when one of the horsemen finally spotted him and pointed out his position to the others. The half dozen horsemen made their way relentlessly through the valley and up the hill to his campsite. Redstorm tried hard to appear casual as the horsemen pulled to a halt in front of him. They were young, theirs eyes ablaze with fanaticism and they all bore the grim look of experienced killers. He got up from the log he was sitting on and extended himself to his full height. He greeted them with a confidence he didn’t feel. “Morning, can I help you gentlemen?”
One man clearly in charge and young enough to be his grandson, swung easily off his horse. He had short black hair and cold grey eyes that radiated authority. He gave Redstorm a cursory examination, contempt in his eyes. “Erik Redstorm, in the name of King John, you are under arrest for crimes against the kingdom.”
Redstorm gave them a smile, “I don’t suppose I can hear the nature of these so called crimes lad.”
The leader narrowed his eyes angrily at the word lad. He grimaced, “My name is Lord Walbroke and your many crimes include murder, theft, witchcraft, consorting with demons. I could go on but that isn’t really necessary is it?’
Redstorm smiled, “You look a little young to be a lord, but I hear there have been a lot of openings since the new king came to power.”
Walbroke replied with a cold smile, “A necessary clearing of the deadwood, but,” he looked pointedly at Redstorm, “its nearly over now. We’re here to take you back home to answer for your crimes.”
“You’re right lad, I have done a lot of bad things which I’m not very proud of, but everything I did was in the name of the real King. My only real crime was backing the wrong horse when it mattered most. Foresight was never my strong suite.” He gestured to his tiny, grubby looking campsite. “As you can plainly see.”
A disinterested Walbroke replied, “You had a good run Redstorm, but things change.”
Redstorm nodded his head slowly then replied, “Aye lad, that’s true. I hope for your sake you never find yourself in the same situation.”
Walbroke laughed, the words shooting straight over his head. He spoke with the invincibility of youth, “Unlikely old man, we control the kingdom now and that’s not going to change.”
Redstorm commented softly, “That’s what we said.”
Tired of the conversation, Walbroke signaled his men and they drew their swords. Redstorm shivered involuntarily from fear. All his life that sound had meant only one thing, death.
“All right, Redstorm enough talk. We can do this the easy way or the hard way, it just depends on what sort of condition you want to be in when we drag your sorry corpse back home. I’m tired of chasing you. This ends today.”
Redstorm grinned, “Easy lad, your mother will still be there to tuck you in.” As they advanced angrily towards him Redstorm drew his sword and raised it threateningly towards them. “All my life I’ve had to do things the hard way, even when I didn’t have to. I guess old habits die hard.” He smiled menacingly. “If you ladies want me, come and get me.”
Walbroke sighed, “That’s a fine looking sword, it will make an excellent trophy.” He turned to his men. “Try not to damage it. Feel free to damage him”
Then with a nod of his head they moved forward. Redstorm broke into a grin. Time to end the fear.
In a fit of speed even he found surprising, Redstorm rushed forward. He raised his blade and cleaved the closest man in half. As the next man in line charged towards him, Redstorm swept his blade across, sending the man’s head tumbling from his shoulders.
The three remaining warriors eyed him differently now. They had heard tales of his prowess with the blade, but they had not believed them, until now. They moved carefully to encircle him in a ring of steel. When Redstorm was surrounded on all sides, they made their move.
The one in front of him lunged forward; Redstorm blocked his attack, but not the one that came at him from the right. The blade bit into his shoulder, forcing him to stifle a scream. The third man grabbed him from behind in a vice-like bear hug. Redstorm’s left arm reeled behind, he jabbed his thumb deep into the mans eye until it popped. The man let out a loud shriek. Redstorm drank it in like a fine wine, but he had only a second to savour it, before the man in front of him, moved in to finish him off with a two handed sweep to his head.
Redstorm ducked down, just in time to avoid losing his head. But he felt the blade cut across his head, taking a piece of his scalp with it. He ignored the pain and rammed his sword between the man’s ribs. The last man was on him before he had time to remove his blade.
Redstorm sidestepped the lunge; he grabbed the man by the scruff of his shirt. He pulled him in close with one hand, while he pile drove his other fist into the man’s face. There was an audible crack and the man went down like a stone.
Redstorm felt a searing pain in his leg and looked down to see a small crossbow bolt sticking from his thigh. He looked up to see Walbroke holding a crossbow, a smile on his face.
Redstorm roared, he pulled the bolt from his leg and charged forward. The smile vanished from Walbroke’s face. Panic seemed to overtake him and he ran for his horse. He was just about on when Redstorm grabbed him from behind and tossed him to the ground, “Where do you think you’re going lad? We’re just getting started!”
Redstorm pulled Walbroke to his feet, then started pounding him with his fists. Suddenly a massive pain in his chest stopped Redstorm in his tracks. Walbroke saw his chance. His fists thudded into Redstorm, knocking him to the ground. Through his blood-filled mouth Walbroke said, “I’m going to enjoy this. You’ll excuse me if I take my time.”
His boot thudded into Redstorm’s chest, making him see stars. Though his body was wracked with pain, Redstorm knew he had to focus or he would die. He raised his arm. “Please no more. I surrender.”
Walbroke saw a broken man before him. He pulled Redstorm to his feet and laughed, “You want it to end. Beg me old man, beg me.”
Redstorm raised his head wearily, blood clogging his eyes. Then he smiled and Walbroke realised he’d made a big mistake. Redstorm grabbed Walbroke's head and bit down hard on his nose. Walbroke screamed as Redstorm removed a large chunk and spat it to the ground.
Redstorm followed that up with a massive punch to Walbroke's face, which sent Walbroke flying back several feet. Walbroke started crawling along the ground with a whimper. Redstorm laughed, “You can’t go yet.”
He wandered a short distance away and pulled his sword from the dead mans chest, “You wanted my sword didn’t you?”
Walbroke raised his arm, “No, no, keep it.”
Redstorm shook his head, “I insist.” Then he rammed the blade into Walbroke’s chest. “Here! Take it! Take it! Take it!” As he pulled the blade from Walbroke’s chest for the third time, he suddenly felt quite weak. Redstorm fell to the ground, his eyes heavy, heavier then they had ever felt before. Well, Redstorm thought, he had earned a rest. A rest he thought, without fear.