By Neil Beynon
The wind slips icy tendrils over my bare back as I come over the ridge and look down at the valley below. I’ve taken my time coming back, there are men abroad with horses three times as high as me and sharp, ugly swords that glint in the autumn sun.
The ridge is exposed; I long to be down from here but instead I pause. The air has changed, the ice on my back has moved from my back to my stomach where it takes root; a ball of bile and frost. There was rainfall not a few hours ago, wet grass has perfumed my journey for the last few leagues. Not so now.
Something is burning.
I cast my eye down to the river worming its way across the valley. I do not want to look. I know what I will see, my legs are folding under me, if I don’t look it won’t be true.
The war has come to me.
The wood of the bridge is barely still aflame, its charred skeleton fallen partially into the river, probably the intention of the raid unless one of the villagers talked. The final flames are finishing off the supports securing it to the land.
The bodies lie on the bank. There are three. The men have been very efficient.
I lie on the grass for I don’t know how long. My face buried in the damp soil as I try to wipe away the image forged on my mind’s eye for all eternity, all of my eternity anyway, that might not be all that long if the men are still near by.
I pull myself up from the grass, stumbling down the mountainside with uncertain jarring steps. My wife lies, intestines spilt over the grass like so many worms that will soon be feasting on her cold flesh, her eyes are closed. She does not look serene.
My boy, my beautiful boy is prone on the edge of the bridge, his hand burned, the top of his skull ruined by a horse. My daughter. Of her I will not speak. It is too much.
The water is warm with the flow of blood, jumping into it is actually pleasant, it eases the tension in me as I slip towards the carcass of our home; I slide under the water. My eyes trace the miasma of fluids separating and reforming in the river before coming up on the bank underneath one of the collapsed sections, a last embrace of my family.
The may have taken the weapon but I don’t think it likely, they will have assumed that they killed everyone in the first pass.
The axe is there; buried in wet clay and wrapped in oilskin still, as it had been on the day I placed it in the ground. Sharpening it does not take long, my people make good, strong steel that swirls in the light with our smith’s art, but I give it back its sharp deadly bite in the warm, fetid dark of what is left of my home. It is less exposed than the cold light of day and I can pretend.
As I leave the valley I take a long look over the grey of my shoulder at my family before turning my back on them for the last time. I swing my axe leisurely, it sings through the air, happy in my hand once more. I am heading for the village now. That is where it will have started.
They will not run. I am safe. But I can see the boot marks leading back in that direction and I know what I am, what I need to do, where the line must be drawn.
I am the story told to keep children safe, the terror lurking next to the dark flow of the river. I know my duty though I have forgotten it for many a year. My thick grey hand tightens on my weapon and I wait for the rider who has turned to face me.
Oh yes – this troll knows his duty.