AOG Short Story | The Search For A Slab of Stone

DISCLAIMER: This was a fantasy story I wrote years ago taking place in a fictional world resembling Dark Age England.

 

The rushing of the Langoth River appeared soothing, but it couldn’t compensate for its crashing waves. It also couldn’t deny the reflection of a knight, clad in animal hide, boots, and dull, iron breastplate, gauntlets, and helm, with a buckler at his waist. Such a knight was standing over it, clutching his ax, the blade wrapped around his neck, preparing to rip apart his throat with one fell swoop. Tears bubbled under his reddening eyes, barely lifting his upper eyelids due to lack of sleep. The tear drops traveled along his face, meeting with the crusted vomit within his brown beard.  He hesitated as he continued to remember.

The burden of holding the ax made Cluthar weary and losing of muscle. He dropped the ax and fell to his knees before the river, crying bitterly. He stared down at the river, contemplating whether to rip out his throat or to drown himself.

“No!” Cluthar concluded, “A slaughtering animal such as myself deserves to be slaughtered by the very same ax!”

He felt that, at this moment, his fate had already been decided, that he will spend an eternity in Hell. Cluthar had little energy to purge any further, he just looked down at the river, with all of its algae and fish and eels populating it.

He then turned around and saw the burh, a castle strategically located on a mountainous hill surrounding itself with walls, barbicans, gateways, and murder-holes.  Now Albobur was nothing more than a pile of shit on the earth, with its insects dwelling on it, him the ugliest, most vile insect in all of Natland.  He could remember the holding he and his wife, Warthelma, once had.  It had animals for harvest, for plowing; it had exotic animals from the Spring Empire and beyond for Lord Gunthild’s delight; it had over forty acres of paradise. Cluthar and Warthelma had tenants and cotters of their own right, something Cluthar once was; they also had the biggest house in the burh.

It wasn’t enough to begin with. He had wanted to please Warthelma ever since they first laid eyes on each other. Cluthar, a lowly cotter, who dwelt in the cottage of his late father, raised up the ranks as Lord Gunthild’s retainer, and Warthelma, the daughter of a merchant family, known for buying up holdings or parts of holdings in Albobur, were destined for each other.

That damned slab!  That Slab of Odokyn was said to have promised him whatever he wanted for a price, as the oracle told him during her trances. Cluthar remembered finding a sorcerer, living in the Cave of Fate, in possession of the slab, who immediately granted him whatever he desired. Such a slab granted him that glorious holding, making Warthelma the happiest woman in the entire burh. A year later it was all gone. His bitter sadness turned to rage.  He took the ax away from his neck, put the blade on his palm, bled it, and deposited the blood into the Langoth River.  The drops of blood spread and contorted in the river until it was all gone.  He then exclaimed to the seemingly never-ending plains, “I, Cluthar son of Vilhelm of Albobur, will kill the sorcerer of the Slab of Odokyn!”

#

After swearing the vow underneath the Albobur walls, the wedding, and the bridal party, Cluthar still felt burdened, having no connections to the Lord Gunthild of Albobur due to his commoner status. Atop the inner walls of Albobur, staring down, through the crenellations, at the plains beyond terraces of meadows, the only thing that he was grateful for was not meeting an end like the knight Walchomund the Short-lived; The moment he was knighted he was beloved, a month later he was killed by members of another clan for his relation with the Lady Mykilogifa. That was different, he thought. They were not married. Then again, Cluthar himself was a commoner while Walchomund was Lord Richard‘s son. What truly saddened him the most was that he was only granted a small amount of acres, a measly acre with an overreaching meadow surrounding it.

“My husband,” said a voice behind him. He turned, knowing very well that it was his wife, Warthelma, a beautiful woman with yellowish brown hair, round face, and blue eyes, garbed in a red dress, made from the finest cotton of the Spring Empire, as bragged by her family as her wedding gift.

He wrapped his arm around her waist, and said softly, “A woman risks her life appearing here. What do you want?”

“I was about to ask you that,” she said. Something was on her mind, he knew, something in that soft girl he first glimpsed at during his training. Never had she felt the way he appeared now.

“All I want is you.”

“You haven‘t been happy, have you?”

“There‘s nothing to be happy about, for you to be married to the son of Vilhelm Cairnbuilder,” said Cluthar, pitying himself.

“You are an honorable man, upholding the protection of Albobur…”

“I was just a poor cotter, who killed an ale-taster for attempting the lord‘s life. A big oaf that thrust a cleaver into his back became a big oaf with full body armor patrolling the walls of Albobur.”

“Enough!” she cried, “You are a knight! You are the symbol of honor and respect!”

“I would believe that if it had any benefit,” said Cluthar, “Amongst the walls, inner, outer, east, west, rear, I feel lower than a drunkard and a prostitute-hoarding monk.”

“You are one of the closest people to Lord Gunthild. A knight is one of the most respected individuals, by commoner and lord.”

“Not if you’re the Corpserobber‘s son.” Vilhelm was one of the lowest people in Albobur, constantly stealing from the graves of honest men and women before burying them. Hopefully the spirits of the people that he ravaged will haunt him for eternity.

“I know you better than that,” she said, with a wavering voice, “You were willing to risk paying the carnal fine in that meadow between the outer walls and the inner walls, where we knew each other very well.”

“You are worth more than any fine, but I don‘t know how to please you.”

This brought a quick silence, that was immediately shattered, when Warthelma said, “That‘s it…You‘re sad about something, what? After all the avoidances, with only Os to watch our fucking, all the wedding gifts, all the bread, beer, meat, and pies treated during the bridal party, what am I doing wrong?!”

It was always apparent to her that Cluthar was never happy, knowing that he rarely smiled, always calling himself an “animal” after they had their way with each other. It never came to this point and it was clear that she really meant all that she said. He now knew he couldn’t hide this façade of resilience any longer.

Her face was becoming red and tears were streaming down her face. “Look at me! Acknowledge me as a loser, as the worst thing to ever happen to you but say something!”

Cluthar said quietly, “It isn‘t that I don‘t love you, it‘s that I love you so much and I have no practical way of pleasing you.”

#

He suddenly realized, out here in the Nanut Plains, half a merchant’s journey from Albobur, that he was disoriented from lack of sleep, food, and drink. He fought back his desire for sustenance, wishing to die on the Nanut Plains. Cluthar wanted only to be a shriveled, frail corpse upon the grass, where the wild hounds and crows would feed on him. Animals eat animals. The way he kept walking would help assure his wish. The moment he will continue living is when he reaches the Cave of Fate.

Cluthar turned back, the burh becoming more and more obscure and fading of color. The grey-blue of the morning sky surrounded by clouds was within his view beyond that. He turned back to his facing direction. As he could see, there were no holdings around, no mountainous burhs, no imperial fortresses or towns, no one settled amongst the Nanut Plains, only some deer and rabbits. Was there no gain, or no one to even brave it? It made no matter.

Suddenly, he saw four obscure figures coming towards him. Apparently, they must have saw him, as they raced towards him. Cluthar pulled out his ax and his buckler and braced himself for those four. His suspicions were correct, as he could see the tattered wear of their armor, one of them wearing a red cape, each armed with a gladius and a buckler in their hands. They were foederati, upon looking at their armor and their diversity. Natlandians are mainly characterized by their round faces and dark hair, whilst these deserters before him had square faces and aquiline noses. Clearly they were soldiers from the kingdom of Isen, bordering the Spring Empire and the sea that Natland rested on.

They surrounded Cluthar. He looked at all of them, readying himself for the first strike by tightening his ax. His heart started racing with adrenaline as the possibility of death awaited him; a good death if it meant an end to all the suffering or a gruesome death which he most deserved.

“You’re only one person,” said the leader, the one in front of him, “No matter, you are still dead.”

“I don‘t want any trouble,” said Cluthar, with a whinny in his voice due to thirst. Apparently, THEY want trouble, since they’re the ones surrounding me.

“You‘re after the Slab of Odokyn, aren‘t you?!” yelled the one behind him.

“We deserted our blithering Chief Wighelm for it,” said the one next to him, “Or ‘Vigelmus‘, or whatever that traitor to his tribe wants to call himself. More Spring than Isenian.”

“I just want to help my wife!” shouted Cluthar, “She‘s dead!”

“A shame,” said the leader, “I was hoping to have her for myself.”

Cluthar tightened his ax and clenched his teeth real hard. Forget the Slab! Or the sorcerer! Or the burh! Or anything! This cowardly bastard had the audacity to betray his own king and to badmouth the happiest woman in Albobur. However, as a knight, he wasn’t stupid enough to lunge first, he would have to wait for his opportunity, so he only allowed his rage to keep boiling.

“No matter, my replacement as king is much greater than your little wife,” the leader said, then raced towards him, gladius raised. Cluthar blocked his downward cut, pushed him back, and planted his ax into the ringleader’s throat. Blood sprayed all over him.

He turned around and immediately blocked another attack. He dashed forward from another attack behind, taking his ax with him. Cluthar was now facing three deserters. Cluthar rushed at one of them with a sideway swipe, who immediately blocked him. He quickly got defensive when the others joined their attacks. Suddenly, the one he tried rushing at kicked his heels, causing him to fall upon the grass. As the others were about to kill him, Cluthar swiped his ax towards one of the deserter’s feet. He howled as he fell on top of Cluthar, who pushed him off and quickly brought himself up, parrying every cut coming towards him. He dashed backwards to face two of the deserters.

It was clear to Cluthar that they were panicking at the sight of this Natlandian knight, who already took down two Spring foederati. One of them stabbed with his blade, but missed. The other attempted to cut Cluthar, who blocked him. Cluthar struck, but was guarded. The other rushed at him, pushing him, and just as he was about to kill him Cluthar dodged it barely, only to have a gash on his arm. Ignoring it, Cluthar ran his ax against his back. Cluthar was feeling lightheaded from the wound, already adding to his hunger and thirst. The last one had a sighs of relief, knowing he might still have a chance to live. Immediately he charged at Cluthar with an undercut. He guards against it. Cluthar guards against multiple strikes. The last deserter lunged forward, only to have his neck exposed, which Cluthar took the chance to strike. He falls.

Cluthar heard the moaning of the one deserter who lost his foot.  He found him and silenced him with his ax gashed between his eyes. Still lightheaded, he tore piece of the cape from the ringleader and wrapped it around his wound, which was bleeding badly. He also found a sack carried by one of them. He opened it, finding bacon and other military rations. Ravenously, he ate, quelling his hunger. At the bottom, he found a skin of wine, which he drank at the same rate. He was still lightheaded, then everything in his sight became obscure, an amorphous blur, the plains becoming fuzzy greens and yellows and the sky becoming greys and whites. The satiation of his hunger and thirst did not alleviate his case of sleep deprivation or blood loss. The only things that mattered to him were the Slab, the sorcerer, and that ringleader who wanted to rape his wife had she been alive. Rage continued to quell within him as the plains and the sky became black.

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