Contest entry for the Fantastic Fantasy Contest
He awoke to the sound of squabbling carrion birds. They fought over scraps, when all about them lay a feast.
His head, under the burden of sharp pain, began to make sense of this new world. The sky above him was uncomfortably bright and the ground he was lain upon frozen solid. He was pinned beneath the weight of a fallen warrior, whose body reeked of foul putrification. Resisting the urge to retch, he forced his aching arms to push the corpse off of himself. It was not easy work; the corpse was stiff and still tangled with the nearby remains of the horse it had once ridden. Eventually he managed to create space enough to wriggle free and, panting from the exertion, staggered to his feet.
His heavy breath hung glittering in the cool air. It was a cold, late-autumn morning and he stood alone amidst the bloody remnants of a battlefield. He removed the leather gauntlet from his right hand and reached around to examine the back of his head. He had felt the axe's blow, had felt the weight of it and strength with which it was swung. He shuddered at the memory, and yet his hand could find only dried blood still clinging to his matted hair.
This had been his eighth death. Whilst every return had begun to sting a little less fiercely, even after all these centuries it still didn't feel normal. Soon his mistress would seek him out and assign him a new life. Until then he occupied a strange limbo.
Now he stood where he had fallen, amongst the fields of Lesterwyk, twenty-eight leagues west of Branorn. The bodies that lay strewn about him had already been picked at by hungry beaks and their belongings picked through by the hands of human scavengers. As he pulled the gauntlet back over tired fist he glanced down at his own arms and armour. Aside from his sword and his horse, both of which he had lost during the battle, all was still there.
He recalled having seen king Rhinvor fall near the oak tree that grew upon a ridge, roughly two hundred paces across the field. It was there he now hobbled upon his numb legs to see what had become of his past life's lord . Given the stench of decomposition he supposed that he must have been dead for around a week this time. No wonder he felt stiff.
He saw Rhinvor's head before he saw Rhinvor's corpse. The pike upon which the head was impaled was visible from some distance. The crows had already had the eyes, but the large red beard still marked it out as belonging to his former king. Beneath the pike lay the corpse itself, butchered, mutilated and stripped of all it once wore.
As he stared at this desecrated mass of flesh and blood, he thought of his own past life. He had been known as Filor von Estermark; a life he had lived for over thirty-five years. At his mistress's bidding he had earned a place as a knight and commander in Rhinvor's court.
He wondered at his mistress's aims; during this lifetime she had him crush eastern fiefdoms beneath Rhinvor's rule, and then convince Rhinvor to fight a losing war against king Merick of the north. Her commands would plunge the Renthar valley into the chaos only an interregnum could cause, but to what end? He understood her plans as well as one might understand the intricacies of a cathedral by its shadow.
She would be here soon, to issue fresh commands. He did not wish to serve her any longer. Indeed in other lives he had tried to disobey her, and yet she had a way of compelling him. He wondered if he could escape her.
His musings upon what to do with the limbo of Filor were interrupted by the sounds of a braying horse. The noise had come from the other side of the ridge. Drawing the dagger which hung at his hip, Filor sneaked up the earthen bank to the side of the oak tree. From this position he could easily spot the horse and its owner, who was knelt examining a corpse by the very edge of a thicket. He was clearly another vulture come too late to the banquet.
Filor was considering his plan of attack when the man suddenly looked up. For a heart stopping moment he thought he had been spotted, but then he realised that the man was looking past him. Instead he had seen Rhinvor's head atop the pike. Clearly the hope that he might find some trapping of a king's wealth was overwhelming. Leaving the corpse that he had been examining, he led his horse towards the ridge.
As the man led the horse over the ridge and down the bank Filor pounced. He leapt on the man and used the force of their fall to grapple him to the ground. The man let out a cry of fear. He was young, but undisciplined. Though he flailed to break free he had no real chance of escaping Filor's veteran grip. Filor had already bunched his fingers into a fist which he slammed firmly onto the man's snout.
“Stop! Please stop!” the young man yelled, as he persisted with his flailing, “lord of mercy, just don't kill me!” Filor punched him on the nose again, breaking it for good measure.
“Stop your squirming boy, or this won't go well for you”. Beneath Filor's weight the boy ceased his twitching and stifled back a sob.
“Yes sir. Take what you will from me, just please leave me my life?” He begged.
“Up onto your knees lad, facing that way” He said, gesturing towards the bank of earth. The young man did as he was told. Filor stood behind him and pressed the dagger firmly against the back of the man's neck.
“Take off your cloak and untie that purse from your belt. Otherwise this blade” Filor said, jabbing the point hard enough to draw a little blood, “will end up sticking out of the other side of your throat.”
The young man was blubbering now, but he did as he was told. “They're yours,” he managed to say between the sobs, “take them”.
Whilst the boy worked clumsily at removing the items he was to be relieved of, Filor moved away to retrieve the horse. She was an old mare with a dun coloured coat. She had wandered away frightened during the fray, clearly more used to pulling ploughs than traversing fields of war.
Filor grabbed the mare's harness and led her back to the boy, who was still muttering unintelligible pleas beneath his breath.
“Hand the cloak and the purse over your shoulder.” Said Filor, who proceeded to grab them from the boy's offering hand. He stuffed the woollen cloak in one of the empty saddle bags, and opened the purse to count the meagre coins it contained. Once done he tied it to his belt and turned back to the boy.
“Now tell me, what date is it?” Filor asked.
“It's, erm, a Tewesday, sir”
“That's not what I asked.” Said Filor, giving the boy a firm blow to the head with the back of his fist, “Which Tewesday is it?”
“Urgh” The boy had not expected the strike and shook his head to regain his senses, “I don't know calendars, sir, but please don't hit me again. I can tell you it's the third Tewesday after Hoaten feast?”
That would mean he had laid unconscious for over a week and a half. Merick's army was probably heading south. If he headed east hopefully he could avoid the war and maybe escape his mistress.
“I'm afraid I'll be taking your horse as well, lad” He said gruffly.
“No! Not Shemmy! She's all I've got!” The young man pleaded. He began climbing to his feet. Filor was having none of it, however, and simply kicked the off-balance boy face first into the dirt.
“Silence, you idiot!” Filor roared, “I've killed men for far less than a horse before. Be glad you've got your life, it's what you begged me for wasn't it?”
The boy rolled over onto his back and coughed up some dirt.
“B-but, the nearest town not burnt or pillaged is over seventy miles from here. All of my food is in her bags, I'll starve before I make it so far! What would you have me eat?” The boy asked with an ashen face, as Filor with one foot already in the stirrup swung his other leg atop the horse's saddle.
“You came here seeking the spoils of war, did you not?” Said Filor, “Then why don't you learn to eat as your fellow vultures do?”
Filor gestured at the corpses that lay about to emphasise his point. The boy's face turned green at the suggestion, but Filor didn't stay around to his complaints. Instead he dug his heels into Shemmy's sides and was away. As he left this cursed place he thought he felt stare of hidden eyes upon his shoulders, but when he glanced around he could see nothing. He dug in his heels deeper, in the hopes of leaving ever sooner.
When he finally felt far enough away from that horrible place he settled Shemmy back into a steady trot. As he rode he recalled his distant past. He had sought out the witch Mignon as an ageing knight afraid of his mortality. He had begged her for freedom from death's icy clutches. She had granted his wish, but had bound him to her, as a slave is bound to a mistress.
Travelling with these thoughts, Filor eventually reached the banks of the river Wyndell. A few hours had passed since he'd departed the battlefield, and a murky midday sun had begun to warm the world around him. He decided to pause here. The axe to the head was not the only wound Filor had taken during the battle and, though he felt fine, he wished to examine them and clean himself in the river's waters.
He tied Shemmy's harness to a nearby willow tree and laid out the woollen cloak on the bank of the river. Piece by piece he removed his armour down to his linen undergarments which held the brown stains of dried blood and sweat.
During the battle Filor had felt the blow of a pommel break several ribs. He had felt the wicked slash of a fauchard tear a deep gash up the side of his left leg and the stray bolt of a crossbow skim the flesh off his shoulder. But, when Filor inspected these wounds, he found no injury to speak of. No scab or scar, just unblemished skin.
As he strode into the Wyndell's cold embrace he felt more awake and alive than he had all day. Indeed, he allowed himself a moment to believe that maybe this time he could escape Mignon and live a life of his own choosing. Eventually he plunged himself fully under the waters.
When Filor emerged from the river he felt reborn, and yet as he climbed the bank he felt sinister eyes watching him once more.Atop the willow tree sat a woman - Mignon. She was clad in tattered black rags and her dark hair was wildly unkempt, but framed between all this blackness was a face whiter than virgin snow.
The figure rose steadily to its feet and perched firmly upon very thinnest point of a bough, as though she weighed not an ounce. She opened her mouth and roared with a mad laughter like the wind of a thousand storms rushing through a forest. Filor grimaced and clutched his ears at its cacophony.
“Is that any way to treat your saviour, my dark knight?” She said in a voice that spoke of thunder.
Filor felt his knees buckle beneath him. As his willpower drained he resigned himself to another lifetime of servitude.
Word Count: 1998