The Cycle of Axer Carrick
Part IV -- Reading the Endtrails
The Revised Version
by Henry Wyckoff
Nat studied the still clouds of smoke as Axer leaned back, his eyes distant. He had paused in his tale so that she could bring up some food and drink. Kate had fallen asleep with the rising of the sun, and so she wasn't around to raise any eyebrows. Nothing had happened between Nat and Axer anyway, so it was a good thing all around.
"So what happened next?" asked Nat, sipping on some coffee.
"Well, we were married that very week, so as not to give rise to suspicions later. But it wasn't like some romantic fairy tale, where everything becomes nice and rosy. For the next five years, my life was a living agony, and I know that hers was too. What compounded the problems was my absolute refusal to learn her language, and her inability to learn mine. We could get by with Saxon, and as the years passed, she could speak it as well as I could..."
As I mentioned, several years had passed, and Ulla bore several more children by another man -- Sidhatt, his name was. The only problem was that he didn't know it. He always assumed that they were my children, because they all resembled their mother, instead of him.
I only knew him by name, and I suppose I had mixed feelings about the whole thing. I adored the children, and cherished the rare opportunity to bring them up. Though I knew that I could not give her children, I felt very possessive of Ulla and couldn't accept the fact she might in fact love another man more than myself. In my attempt to grasp the one I loved, I totally forgot love's meaning.
It was a wedge that drew us apart. She spent more and more time with Sidhatt for a reason that I couldn't understand, and so as a form of revenge, I spent more of my time in the growing village, mending bones and making children better during the years of endless sickness. I don't think I spent more than two waking hours with her a day.
Our actions drove us even further apart. We were now just like any other married couple -- miserable, spiteful, and cynical about everything.
Her family, and Ulaf especially, didn't think anything of our marriage problems. Those kind of problems were rampant, and if anyone thought anything was wrong, even the women believed that Ulla was the one to blame.
If I had faced her like a man and confronted our problems, I would have never been on the road that day, and perhaps I wouldn't have changed all of our lives forever. But it happened, for better or worse.
I felt the sensation at the edge of my senses, coming gradually closer. Curious, I approached what I knew would be another immortal. Though I was unarmed, I was not afraid. After a few minutes, I saw her. She was a young woman by appearance, with a focused and stern gaze, and a scowl that would curdle milk -- add that to the fact that if she would only smile, she would be absolutely breathtaking. On seeing her, my heart began to race and -- well, you don't need to know about the other details.
She seemed to sense my feelings, and she actually did smile, "I thought I was the only one on this island."
"No," I smiled back a little shakily, a stutter in my voice. "You haven't won the Prize."
And that was how I met Ingrid. After saying our hellos, we said our good-byes and went on our own ways. I believed quite naively that she was as peaceful an individual as I had become, and that she meant me no harm. I put her out of my mind and prepared for a silent meal at home, and another evening without conversation. Perhaps Ulla forgot that only a few years ago, things were different -- I know I had.
It was several days later when I met Ingrid at the village tavern. Some Christian monks had heard of me and wanted to hear songs from faraway Ireland. I obliged them, singing the old songs and playing the harp that I had made a year before, and the flutes I had brought with me. Ingrid, as it turned out, was not born in Iceland -- rather, she was born of a Viking family transplanted to Scotland, and she was enchanted by the music. Before long, I had forgotten my vows to Ulla and was singing songs only for her, mindless of the now blushing monks -- and the laughing Vikings -- and began to share the same glass of red wine with her.
How could the Vikings be laughing, you ask? Well, they weren't laughing at my Gaelic, which they couldn't understand -- or, most of them anyway. They laughed at the expressions on the monks' faces and understood there was only one thing that could make them react that way.
One song led to another, mixed in with glasses of wine and mead. I spent the whole day there, and when night came, I was unfaithful to my no-longer loving wife for the first time. We stayed in the selfsame tavern as the monks, and I took her in plain sight of everyone.
Don't look so shocked -- read your history books: that was a popular form of entertainment, even as late as the 10th Century in the Viking world. Lords would often... ah... 'know' their servants on the feasting table in front of all the guests.
In this case, a few of the local fishermen stayed at this tavern, as did the monks. Perhaps they were as perverted as the rest underneath those robes. To the delight of everyone, Ingrid took charge once I began to tire. It was a long night.
When I returned home late in the morning, Ulla was the first and only one to greet me, and it was in a very bad way. She slapped me and immediately began to curse in Danish.
I never physically hurt a mortal woman in my life -- except for this time. I didn't care what she was trying to say, or even why. I slammed her in the face so hard that she was knocked out on contact, and she was a pretty tough woman to begin with.
Regret never came, oddly enough. In fact, it even felt good. I was smiling and whistling to myself as I grabbed some mead from the cupboard and got horribly drunk.
And so, that was how the next few months elapsed. I would go to the tavern, get drunk, sing less and less each time I was there, and go on public display with Ingrid more and more. We became quite a hit in the village -- even the resident Christians loved it. Underneath all their self- righteousness, they were human and unafraid to admit it.
I think this was where my drinking practices had changed. In the old days, I only drank on festivals or during sacrifices -- I had begun to drink all the time now. It got to the point where I didn't even sing anymore -- I just drank and screwed around.
When I got home, exhausted and hung over, I would drink myself into a coma for a few hours. Ulla had learned to keep quiet, because if she ever raised her voice to me, she would get a bash in the face for her efforts. Although her jaw had been set by the bone-mender, I think the signs of my violence were visible to all, and would be for the rest of
Ulla was now just a name I knew in the back of my mind, my children were strange faces that stayed away from me, and Ingrid was the name that popped into my mind more than any other. Ingrid probably sensed it and acted on the plan that she had concocted many months before.
My senses screamed at me to wake up, and I felt it. It was an immortal -- it had to be Ingrid. It could be nobody else. Through my hangover came a clarity that I had lost years ago, and I'll never know why, because it wasn't until after that clarity that I noticed the house was torn up and my family gone. My adrenaline kicked in as I ran half-naked out of the house. Ingrid sat on a horse a few hundred yards away and rode off. I followed her on the closest horse I could grab. I didn't put on a saddle or reins -- I hopped on its bare back and grabbed the mane. The horse must have been pretty shocked.
She was perhaps a mile away from the house when she slowed down and entered a clearing, where she dismounted. I was weaponless, and had this mad idea of running her down with the horse, but she stopped me with a glance and gesture. Ingrid was grinning madly as she pointed at my wife and children, tied up to separate posts, suspended over dead brush and wood.
"If you value your family," she said, "you'll walk forward slowly and let me take your head. If you fight, they die." To make her point, she showed me a torch that she was ready to throw it on the wood. My family would die a slow and endless death. In her right hand, she drew a sword.
My mind raced for options, and I realized I had only one. I walked forward, surprised at what I said. "Go ahead. Take my head -- see if you can stand it."
That confused her, "What do you mean? Explain yourself!"
"Have you ever taken an old one?" I asked, walking ever so softly forward, and she didn't notice. "How old are the heads you *have* taken?"
"What does it matter?!" her confusion made her angry. It was making her lose control, and that was the one thing she required to maintain her balance.
"You haven't," I smiled. "We've survived as long as we have because we've taken many, many heads. You might take my head, but you won't survive the Quickening! I've taken the power of countless immortals -- I've had the time to take them all in, but you'll get them all at once, and you'll never survive!"
I know -- from what you've been told, that doesn't make any sense. You're right -- it doesn't -- but then again, I was LYING! I'm not God, you know -- everything I say isn't the Gospel Truth! I might be lying, mistaken, or deceitful, as well as correctly informed or truthful -- and I might even be lying right now! Think on that!
She certainly hadn't learned that lesson -- she doubted, but in her heart, she trusted me because I was an old one. She shook her head in confusion, "It can't be!"
"Just think about it," I whispered softly, inching further towards her. "Think about what a single Quickening feels like -- now think about the sensation of a hundred Quickenings at once! You'll go mad! You won't be able to assimilate it!"
"No!" she screamed, perhaps thinking about the implications of such statements -- namely, that the young ones had no chances of survival, regardless of what they did. For a Viking, she seemed quite afraid of the possibility of death. I was close enough now to grab the torch from her loose hand and throw it a few dozen feet away. Her eyes snapped back to reality, and she swung her sword at me... and missed.
I know what you're thinking -- I was some master of Kung Fu -- but I didn't travel to the Orient until after the time of Marco Polo, and the only thing I learned there was philosophy and science. No, it was a lot of things -- her inexperience and my experience. All you need is good reflexes, a healthy body, and a qualitative understanding of physics. And don't get that look in your eye -- physics does have some applications in a good fight, and it has nothing to do with a calculator!
The Viking sword is an edged weapon without much of a tip, so I had a lot of warning. Those things are pretty heavy and have only a single-handed grip -- *now* do you understand why I use a glaive-sword?
You mean you don't know what it is? Mine's a leaf-tip sword with a two-foot long handle, and a tang so full that I can actually feel the metal in the grip. Never mind what a tang is -- if you don't know, it doesn't matter. Anyway...
If I didn't move back or duck, I jumped over the blade when it swung low. She didn't thrust with the sword, not only because the weapon wasn't designed for it, but also because it never occurred to a Viking that sword thrusts could revolutionize warfare.
Ingrid was more maddened, and swung even more viciously, wearing herself out with each movement. I didn't attack or defend -- I simply danced with her, and apparently, the tables were reversed for once, and it was Ingrid who didn't know how to dance.
Who knew how long the fight lasted, but the time came when she sank to her knees in exhaustion, and could barely lift a finger. I was winded, but felt an unusual energy rush fill my being. It wasn't the first time it happened, and it certainly wasn't the last. It comes as odd moments when I really need it.
I grabbed the sword out of her hand kicked her so solidly in the gut that she was lifted off the ground for a foot. When she landed, I stomped so hard on her hand that she screamed -- or tried to, as the wind was totally knocked out of her. She looked up at me with utter terror. I believe I must have smiled, because she frantically tried to beg for mercy, again unable to breathe or say a complete word.
"I'm a simple man," I told her, "and the thing I hate most is a damned Byzantine!" I kicked her in the face this time, flipping her over lengthwise so that the back of her head slammed into a rock so hard that the crack made everyone else jump. The blood flowed like a river.
Ulla and the children didn't know my secret, and so I made it appear that I, a mortal, had killed another mortal. They were shocked by the whole affair, but not really concerned once I had killed her. It was more like they were a captive audience than potential victims, they way they saw it. Though it was dishonorable for a man to kill a woman, they wisely forgot about that fine point in Danish culture -- besides, I was technically a foreigner and a bad husband and father anyway, so the rule didn't apply to me.
"I think you should take the children home," I told Ulla. She was about to protest, perhaps to ask why in the world I would say such a thing, but then she stopped in mid-sentence. Perhaps she saw something in my eyes. Ulla nodded and took the children away, using the two horses. A few moments later and they were gone.
By now, Ingrid was waking up. I sat on a rock and watched her head wound heal, and her eyes open up with full consciousness. A few moments later, she sat up groggily and tried to find her sword.
I whistled gaily, holding up the sword towards her. She groaned in defeat and sank to the ground as she realized her situation, numbly looking at the posts that had once held my family captive. Smiling maliciously, I kicked her in the face and sent her sailing through the air once more. This time, I dragged her over to a post and tied her firmly to two of them by her wrists.
When it comes to the last moment, many immortals get as melodramatic as vampires, saying something like, "There can be only one." I think it's silly, if I say so myself. I did say something, much more dignified and meaningful; "Why?"
It shocked her in a way that a kick in the gut never could. Her face blanched, and she realized precisely what she had done. She couldn't speak.
"You *will* die today," I assured her, "so tell me why."
She never did answer me, and so I took her head. When the Quickening came and went, I came to my senses -- I suddenly realized what I had done. A single woman had succeeded in turning me into the man I had become.
When she died, it wasn't in the heat of battle, but in cold blood. I wanted her to suffer, and I wanted her to die. Even though she died that day, she won the war. I also realized that though she had schemed to take my head, I loved her more than I did Ulla. It wasn't lust -- that had faded long before my mental clarity did with the drinking. I had loved Ingrid because she understood me. Forget the fact that she had been a Byzantine schemer -- she understood me, my needs, my loves, my hates... Ulla never could, and I could never make her understand.
Memories came back as I regarded the headless corpse. I remembered the good times we'd had, the joking, the laughter, and the tales we'd both had to tell. I might have been married to Ulla, but I was much closer to Ingrid -- and could still call her a friend.
My heart emptied that day, and though my soul ached, I didn't shed a tear for her. I stared at her body, desperately wishing that her head was back on, and her Quickening would return. In a moment of madness, I even put the head back on, and howled when it rolled back off.
The memories still flooded through me, and I realized it was time to move on, but I would do it the right way. I went to Sidhatt's house and called out for him. Warily, and seeing me half-naked with the blood all over me, he approached. I engaged him in a fight, and he killed me in front of some witnesses.
As I lay dying, and he stood above me with a half-baffled face, I whispered so that only he could hear, "This is all for a reason. I had to leave this land with honor -- it is the only way you could be with the one woman you love: Ulla. Yes, I know about it! You have slain me in a fair fight, and so you have every right to take my woman!"
And so I died. Nowadays, it was becoming popular to bury all corpses, but they waited for seven days to make sure I was dead. In order to keep up appearances, I would strangle myself to death every time I woke up. The seven days passed, and I was buried without any ceremony. The church did it, and I had no witnesses at all -- friends or enemies. When the time came, I clawed my way out the ground, and was surprised to find Ulaf sitting on a rock, waiting for me. His head was tilted, and he wore a frown, "How do you feel?" I looked shocked, perhaps with the sanest face that I had for years. I was suddenly afraid of how Ulaf would think of me. "I'm alive."
He pointed to his heart, "But how do you feel in here?" He pointed to his heart.
I understood, "Better in some ways."
"Sometimes, a man needs to walk through the darkness, and I think you did well. It's only a sin if you stay in the darkness."
I must have looked at him oddly then. "Who are you?" Many suspicions ran through my head.
Ulaf smiled. He understood what I meant. "Ulaf, priest of Heimdall."
I wasn't interested in his religion, and he understood. He took it well -- it was like my refusing a cup of tea -- nothing serious or offensive.
With his help, I made my way to the village disguised as a monk. I learned that my name was spoken with great hatred, but at least I was a dead legend. Nobody ever suspected my true nature, and satisfied, I moved on. Ulaf would make sure that nobody ever put all the hints together.
As luck would have it, I found the selfsame captain who'd brought me here to Iceland. He was much older now, but remembered me and greeted me with a warm heart. "Remember what I said? If you don't chain down those you love, they return."
The next day, we sailed for France. Ireland and the Isle of Britain were forgotten from my mind -- I would not be returning there for a few centuries. There was a whole world to see and I was going to discover it.
Nat was dabbing at her eyes and nose with a Kleenex, sniffling a little too.
Axer blew out a puff of smoke, "Just like truth and humor come from simple things, so does great evil arise from the simplest things. Tell Nick that when he starts moaning to you about his great evils.
"But I would ask you a favor, Doctor. Don't breathe a word of this to anyone. I had totally forgotten about this until the nightmare brought my memories back up."
"Will you tell Kate?" she asked softly.
"What good will it do for her? Both of us were happy without the knowledge -- it would be kindest to let the past remain buried by the past."
"Why did you tell me, then?"
"We all need to tell someone our stories, but only to someone objective. I love Kate with all my heart, and I would spare her any pain that my past might give her."
Kate had sat on the other side of the door the whole time, listening in. Nat may have heard a sad story, but Kate had gained something pretty profound from it. She closed her eyes very tightly.
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