by Josiah Olson
The feathers tickled his neck as Fire wrapped the wreath around him.
“May your arrows fly true and straight, and may the skin of your enemy be soft,” said the man in a gravelling whisper. The wish was tradition, as were the tears that he shed, but Lin Jassa knew that he meant every word and every drop.
Lin Jassa knelt now, and laced his sworn brother’s boots all the way up to his knee.
“May your feet grow strong roots.” He stood as he spoke, taking the bone coat from the table. Fire dipped his head, and Lin Jassa helped him wriggle into the coat. The bones rattled as they slipped over his slick body.
“May each arrow and every spear break upon your shield.”
Lin Jassa shed his tears as Fire reached for the stone bowl. He dipped two fingers inside and drew them out, yellow with sap. He traced the fingers from the corner of Lin Jassa’s eye down to his pointed chin. Lin Jassa bowed in thanks, then took the bowl and drew a yellow circle over Fire’s forehead. This part of the ritual was done in silence, and in that moment Lin Jassa noticed how much he was shaking. His teeth chattered, and his fingers trembled. Silently, he hoped that Fire would take no notice. Fear is contagious, and there is no place for fear today.
Lin Jassa felt his sworn brother’s hand on his cheek.
“Be not fearful,” said Fire.
“Be not weary,” he responded.
Their lips met and they shared a quick kiss. Lin Jassa thought he could taste fear on Fire’s lips, a soft trembling behind the salt of his tears. Their yellow eyes stared into each others’ in a silent promise that everything would be okay. If only we could be so sure, he thought as he turned and pushed through the beaded curtain and into the main hall.
Most of the sworn brothers were already gathered around the fire. Others joined them as they emerged from adjacent beaded doorways. Not all cherished the traditions as much as Lin Jassa and Fire, and some skipped them altogether.
Fire sat down cross-legged beside Lin Jassa, a bowl of steaming soup resting on his lap. He looked menacing in his bone coat. It gave Lin Jassa comfort to know that this man would die for him if need be. A red cloak wrapped around the man’s back, sewn from a hundred enoki furs. It was a sure show of Fire’s hunting prowess, and its fiery red color was the source of his nickname. Everyone called him Fire now, although his name was Bur Helin.
In Fire’s black beard were braided a dozen violet flowers, a promise from a dancing girl he had met on their march a fortnight ago. The brotherhood had chosen to spend the night in the warmth of a small village. She had danced for them, twirling long strands of dyed fabrics, letting them brush against the men. Fire had sworn to her that he would give her children when they returned; she had begged him not to make her wait so long.
Fire had laughed at that, saying “Woman, how vile! How selfish! The pleasure would be great, but the fruits would be weak. I will give you strong warrior sons upon my return, that I promise.”
Now he wore that promise in his beard with an expectant smile. He had been right in what he said; it was well known that a child conceived after a battle would be strong. To most, it was a great dishonor to bring a child into the world in any other way.
Lin Jassa sighed, he had never known a woman. Fire, on the other hand, probably already had enough sons to raise himself a small army. Lin Jassa was married to his bow. He trained constantly and mercilessly, and the results were clear. The arrow always went where he told it to.
Upon entering the village where Fire had met the dancing girl, Lin Jassa had come upon an old man telling stories to a gathering of children. The children listened with wide eyes as the man sang of a hero who slew a dragon with a single arrow, saving a hundred sworn brothers. Lin Jassa had laughed at that. The ‘dragon’ had really been a Triollian bull. The creature was mostly peaceful if left alone, but with thick scaled armor upon their backs and venom flowing in their fangs, they could be a lethal threat if aggravated.
They had surprised the beast on their march, walking directly in front of its nest before realizing their mistake. It awoke with a loud snort and came upon them in a rage, killing three brothers in a single swing of its armored tail. Then it had picked up another two in its jaws, crushing them with a sickening crunch. The creature didn’t make it any further, however, for it collapsed to the ground gasping for air, Lin Jassa’s arrow protruding from its windpipe. He didn’t bother correcting the old storyteller. In fact, he rather enjoyed being known as a dragon slayer, even if it wasn’t completely true.
slurped down the rest of his soup and let out a satisfied belch. Several other belches responded around the hall.
“Well spoken, Fire!” a brother shouted through the flames. “You always were a man of wise words!”
The comment was met by nervous laughter; they were all nervous no matter how well they hid it. The father, a gray man supported by a cane, pushed himself up from a chair piled high with furs. The hall fell silent. He frowned at them, searching with glazed white eyes. The father was blind, but somehow he still seemed to see everything. He traced the worn feathers that wrapped around his neck, his wrinkled fingers remembering the many battles he had fought.
“Brothers, tonight we march!” he said in a creaky voice, authority in every word. “But not upon Triolle or Crin, not upon Yvonnie or Filiore. This is no enemy that we have ever met on the battlefield. This is no enemy that we understand.
“They fell from the heavens in a stone tent, and now they are building camp on lands that you have bled for, and your fathers before you. They may be gods, or they may be a curse come down upon us. Perhaps a plague of demons clad in white armor. Whatever they be, I ask that you will not waver to do what is asked of you.
“The armor they wear is strong, that we know. And soon enough we may also know the power of the strange weapons they carry, but I hope we will not have to. I know that you have all been trained to be fighters, and you have done so since the day you took your vows. I know that you all desire for blood and glory on this march…but I ask a different task of you tonight.”
The sworn brothers shifted in their seats, anxious to hear what the father meant. He clicked his tongue several times before continuing.
“I aim to make an alliance with these foreign people. If they desire land, let us give it to them ― but not our own. No, we will promise them the land of the Triolle, and in so, doing pit them against our enemies. If it is blood they want, we will ally ourselves alongside them and lead a conquest into the Crin territories.
“Once we understand these foreigners, then we may do with them what we wish. But leading an attack could be fatal if they prove to be more powerful than we suspect. Instead, we will play a safer game, a surer game. Together we will pave a road to greatness!” The old man raised a hand high above him and shook his fist. “Who is with us?”
He was met with cries of agreement. The prospect of making peace with the newcomers soothed much of Lin Jassa’s fears. Many in the room remained silent. however, and upon looking around, Lin Jassa saw a scattering of frowns and scowls in the hall.
“When did the viper lose his teeth?” asked a gruff voice.
Lin Jassa was horrified to see that it was Fire himself who spoke so rudely to their father. “I see the yellow sap on each one of your faces, but I fear that some of you may have forgotten its meaning.”
Fire stood and darted an accusing finger around the room, pointing out those who seemed most supportive of the father’s plan. “It is the blessing of M’ali. The blessing of nature herself to rise above all other creatures and to rule them. The yellow means bravery, strength, and wisdom. Or did you take it to mean cowardice?”
“You will not reproach me, Bur Helin!” said the father. “If you will not join us, then you may leave. But if you wish to prove yourself a brave man, then I invite you to come with us and do what none have done before, to ally ourselves with these creatures of the heavens be they demons or gods.” he smiled, wavering on shaky legs. “If not, you had best remove those flowers from your beard or bring dishonor to yourself and to that dancing girl.”
Several laughed. Fire cursed under his breath, then spat.
“My pardons father, I will come and see these creatures for myself. But I hope I may see what color they bleed before the sun is set.” With that, he sat back down, pulling his red cloak higher to hide his face.
After that, the sworn brothers were dismissed. One went to the father, placed his bone coat at his feet, and said farewell. Silently, the father wiped the sap from the man’s face and dismissed him with a shake of his hand. The one who had been sworn to him had no choice but to quit as well, for there was no fate worse than to fight alone. The rest gathered their weapons, either bow and arrow or spear and shield, and began their march.
The red dunes rose high around them, a sea of sand. These lands were infertile and home to many dangerous beasts. Lin Jassa shivered as they peaked a dune and pulled his scarf tighter around his mouth. Even so, the sand crept in his ears and stuck in his eyes.
Fire marched ahead of him, his round shield strapped upon his back. He used his spear as a walking stick to pull himself over the hills. Fire had been sulking since they left, angry with the father’s decision. Lin Jassa was sure that he wanted nothing more than to leave, but honor tied his hands.
“Fire,” said Lin Jassa.
Fire turned and met him with angry eyes. “What is it?” he said gruffly.
“Do not do anything stupid,” said Lin Jassa. “Please.”
Fire grunted, turned, and continued down the dune. The head of the march was peaking the next dune, and a whisper was passed, ear-to-ear, all the way down the chain.
“We are here.”
The words filled Lin Jassa with fear once again. We are not fighting them, only allying. He had told himself so a thousand times already, yet still he was afraid. Fire and Lin Jassa were motioned to the dune, and slowly the expedition spread out to cover as much ground as possible. Although they had been told not to, Lin Jassa chanced a look at the camp below. The father had been right, yet somehow his words hadn’t been able to prepare Lin Jassa for what he saw.
Five of the stone tents were gathered in a circle, their shiny legs sprawled out beneath them and their needle-sharp tips pointed toward the sky. Many of the creatures wandered around between the tents, carrying the strange weapons that the father had told of.
In the center of the camp stood a tall pole and from it hung a red cloth with five yellow stars. Carts moved around the camp loading and unloading materials. Lin Jassa gave a shout of wonder when he saw that the carts weren’t pulled by any creature, but rather they seemed to pull themselves.
Fire pulled Lin Jassa back behind the cover of the dune.
“You should not have looked so long!” he said angrily. Lin Jassa saw fear in the man’s eyes. I have never seen fear in him before, not like this.
“They look like us,” whispered Lin Jassa. “They wear white armor, but I swear that beneath the armor they are the same as us.”
“They come from the heavens. We come from the earth,” Fire reminded him, grabbing ahold of Lin Jassa’s shoulder. He shook his head. “You see water where there is only sand. But you are mistaken, we are not the same.”
Lin Jassa nodded, wishing that they could return home. He wiped sweat from his brow; the heat here was unbearable.
“When you hear the horn,” came the whisper down the line. Lin Jassa counted his arrows once more. Thirty, he thought. I can kill thirty. There had been at least a hundred visible when he had peeked over the dune, and most likely many more within the stone tents.
Baaaawooo! Baaaawooo! Baaaawooo!
The horn reverberated into the valley. It was formed from the hollow fang of a Triollian bull. The fanghorn was a symbol of peace for their people, a once-deadly weapon transformed into an instrument. All along the dune rose the sworn brothers.
Fire stood crouched with his shield held out in front of him and his spear poised to strike. Lin Jassa followed, bow in hand, fingers resting on the arrow pouch that hung from his belt. Fifty shields shimmered in the sun as a hundred sets of eyes assessed the enemy.
In the camp, the movement had stopped. The carts halted, and each creature turned to face them. Their faces were hidden beneath masks, but even so, Lin Jassa could feel their surprise—and their fear.
The brothers took a step forward. Breathing in. Breathing out.
Another step, steadying shaky hands.
The creatures below had abandoned their work and rushed away, hiding themselves inside the carts, or darting back within the strong walls of their tents. Alone, the carts began to move again, but now they were coming toward the sworn brothers.
A hundred feet rose and fell. The carts came a little nearer before stopping.
The brothers halted at the order. For a moment, silence reigned in the valley. Then came the soft sound of the father’s cane in the sand as he made his way to the front. When he arrived at the edge of the semicircle they had drawn, he stopped. With an extravagant bow, the father held out the fanghorn and lay it on the ground before him.
“We bring no war!” he called to the cart that stood only fifty feet in front of him. “We desire for peace, and come to―” he stopped with a flinch.
A hatch opened on the side of one of the carts, accompanied by a loud screech. Out of the cart stepped three of the creatures. Lin Jassa saw that the armor they wore was, in fact, very thick, and covered them completely.
Painted on each one of their chests were the yellow stars of their tribe, and upon their heads were helmets like no others Lin Jassa had seen. They were round and shone like water, vaguely reflecting the world around them. So they must be gods! Two of them carried the twisted black weapons, and Lin Jassa was surprised to see that neither had any sort of blade.
The three creatures walked to within ten feet of the father; then they halted, and the center one raised a hand. He spoke from behind the helmet in a foreign tongue. It sounded as if his words were travelling through water.
The father remained kneeling and now, he lifted the horn higher, his head still bent low.
“Take,” he said.
The creature that had spoken came near and took the horn from his hands, but instead of blowing it and finalizing the peace, he handed it to one of the others who slung it over his shoulder. The sworn brothers shifted uncomfortably. Why don’t they blow it? We could kill them easily. Don’t they know what that means?
The three creatures turned to leave, weapons lowered as they trudged through the red sand. A loud shout broke the silence as Fire charged forward.
“No,” said the father, a pained look on his face. But it was already too late.
Fire threw his spear with all of his might, sending it soaring through the air. The one who had spoken turned in time to see the spear before it ran through his gut. Apparently, the armor they wore wasn’t as thick as it looked.
Another spear flew from another sworn brother, this one piercing the neck of the one who held the horn. The third creature lifted his strange weapon and pointed it toward Fire. Noiselessly, a beam of light flew from it.
Fire held up his shield, but the moment the light had stopped, he collapsed to the ground. There was another beam of light, and a third brother who was on the verge of throwing his spear fell onto his back. Lin Jassa’s arrow flew, shattering the mask of the creature before he could shine his deadly light anywhere else. He crumbled, with the arrow rising from his face.
Lin Jassa ran to Fire and knelt beside him. His eyes were clenched shut, and a cry of pain left his lips as he clawed at the wound on his shoulder. Lin Jassa eased his hand away and saw a gaping hole where his arm met his torso. A foul-smelling steam rose from the wounds, wafting in the air. The tunic beneath his bone shirt was a dark purple, almost black, soaked in Fire’s blood. It was the same color as the flowers in his beard. The color of life.
“To your feet,” said Lin Jassa in a calm whisper. “You are not dead yet.”
Fire sat up and spat, “Then why does it feel like I am already in hell?” He ground his teeth as he rose to his feet. He leaned on Lin Jassa and together, they went to retrieve Fire’s spear.
A group of brothers had swarmed the cart with the open door. Beams of light shot from the opening, toppling three sworn brothers in a burst of violet. The top of the cart had a long pole that began to swivel, knocking a few brothers to the ground.
A loud explosion came from the pole, and out of it shot a flaming stone. It flew over the heads of the brothers, across the camp, and into one of the stone tents. All of the brothers fell silent as the giant tent burst into flames. Black smoke funneled through doors and windows, thick and poisonous. A dozen of the creatures broke through the main entrance and collapsed into the red sand, rolling to put out the flames that clung to them like a living thing.
A shout rose up from the brothers―a cry of victory. Lin Jassa joined the chorus, raising his bow above his head and shouting. Several of the creatures had been dragged from the cart and stabbed by a dozen spears. They didn’t look very menacing now.
The brothers were interrupted by a buzzing sound. One of the carts rushed toward them, kicking up a cloud of red sand behind it. A dozen spears were thrown at the cart, but each one bounced from its thick armor. The line of brothers broke as the cart came upon them, but it turned at the last moment and crushed two of them beneath its wheels.
Lin Jassa looked around hopelessly―there was nothing he could shoot. The carts were well-armored. A buzzing sound came from behind him. He turned and saw that the third cart had looped around from behind and was now upon them at full speed.
“Break!” he shouted. A moment too late. The cart shot by Lin Jassa and ran down nearly a dozen brothers before the wheels stuck, spinning in place over their broken bodies, spitting up violet blood.
Lin Jassa walked toward the cart with caution, picking up a spear from the broken body of one of his brothers. He saw a door on the side, and above it was a patch of the solid yet clear material that the creatures used in their helmets. He rammed the spear into the material with both hands. A crack formed, like the breaking of ice. Lin Jassa brought the spear back and shoved it again. This time it caved in, revealing the masked creatures within.
There were only two of them, and they shied away from him in fear. One grasped for his weapon of light, which lay on the floor in front of him. Lin Jassa ended that notion quickly, sending the spear through the creature’s neck. Then he drew his bow and sent an arrow into the throat of the other. They bleed red, he noted. I was wrong, they are not like us.
The buzzing sound was nearing again, and this time Lin Jassa knew exactly what it meant. He shouldered his bow and removed the spear from the creature’s body. The once-black tip was dripping with the strange red blood that ran through their enemy’s veins.
“To me!” came a familiar voice. Fire held his spear high above him, anger burning in his eyes. Six other brothers ran to his side, balancing their spears as the cart sped closer. Lin Jassa ran to them, yelling the whole time.
“The armor is too thick!” In the chaos, however, his cry was left unheard.
“Now!” shouted Fire, and seven spears flew. The first one stuck in the clear shield of the cart. The next four bounced off of the armor uselessly. Another stuck, and Lin Jassa saw that it was cracking. The final spear shattered the clear shield, impaling the creature that hid beneath it.
“Break!” yelled Fire, and the brothers dove out of the way as the cart sped through them and then eased to a stop.
Laughing, Fire walked toward Lin Jassa. “We have traded blood for blood. I couldn’t be happier.”
Lin Jassa threw down his spear and notched an arrow to his bow. “It is not over yet,” he said grimly.
“Ah yes,” smiled Fire. “But when it is over, I will have a dancing girl to warm my bed. I can see her already.” He ran a hand through his beard, pulling out a violet flower and holding it between two fingers.
“Lin, it is about time you found yourself―” he stopped short, interrupted by a flash of light that passed through his head. His eyes bulged, and steam ran off of his body as he crumbled to his knees and fell onto his back.
Lin Jassa turned and sent an arrow into the throat of the creature holding the weapon. It had climbed from the wreckage of the cart but now fell back inside. Three others emerged from the cart, light flying generously from their weapons. A volley of arrows met them and dropped each one before their light could find its mark.
Lin Jassa ran to Fire’s side. His head was smoldering, melting from the inside. He is gone, Lin Jassa knew, yet the words didn’t sink in. This fight is folly, we came to make peace.
Fire’s eyes stared upward, as blind as their father’s, yet seeing even less. His head rested in a pool of violet that was quickly sinking into the sand. In his hand, he still held the delicate flower. There will be no warrior sons for the dancing girl.
Silently, Lin Jassa kissed his fallen brother. It would be their last kiss, and Lin Jassa would have no place in the brotherhood anymore.
“Goodbye brother,” he whispered. “I will not let you die in vain.” He closed his brother’s blind eyes and rose to his feet. All around him was a world of chaos.
Brothers had swarmed the three fallen carts and dragged out each creature from within. Now they lay dead in the sand, their once-white armor painted red, their beautiful helmets cracked and broken.
The father stood in the middle of it all with tears in his eyes. He took slow steps, feeling with his cane as he walked through the battlefield, stumbling over bodies. Lin Jassa could see the old man shaking even from where he stood.
In the camp, the burning tent leaned, bent, and finally collapsed into another, which erupted instantly into flames. Several dozen of the creatures were leaving the camp and running toward the brotherhood.
“Father!” yelled Lin Jassa. “We must run!” The father turned toward the voice and began to slowly make his way toward him. Lin Jassa saw the flash of light in the distance, but it was already too late. Their father was pierced by a dozen bolts, dead even before he hit the sand.
The remaining brothers were forming a line. Spearmen in the front, and behind each one an archer. Lin Jassa only had time to duck behind the remains of one of the carts. From his hiding spot, he faced his brothers as they marched slowly forward, this time without the sound of their horn to lead them.
Volley after volley of arrows flew, and from their shouts, Lin Jassa could guess that many had found their marks. But the brothers were falling too. He watched as a beam of light pierced the shield of one and burned the spearman and the archer behind him. Both collapsed instantly.
Another beam dragged along horizontally, burning the faces of five and leaving them in steaming heaps on the ground. We can’t win this, Lin Jassa thought. But only a moment later, the beams of light stopped coming and Lin Jassa dared to leave his hiding spot.
Upon turning, he saw a field littered with bodies, more than he had ever seen. Equally theirs and ours. The air was thick with steam, and the red sand turned black with the blood of Lin Jassa’s brothers. At his feet lay a fallen brother who had been cut in half at the waist by the evil light. His legs lay intact, eerily normal looking, but a bloody foot of sand separated them from his torso.
“P-Please.” whispered the brother, blood leaking from a burned hole in his neck and flowing from his nose and mouth. “I want to s-see M’ali.”
Lin Jassa nodded and drew an arrow. “Rest, my brother,” he said, as he sent it to the man’s forehead. When the deed was done, Lin Jassa knelt and let out what had been churning in his stomach the whole time. Why did everything go so wrong?
The remnants of their force wandered through the fallen. Two brothers went to retrieve their father’s body. When they lifted him up, one of his arms sloughed off and fell to the ground. One of the brothers picked it up in his free hand and lay it on the dead man’s chest.
“Brothers!” called Lin Jassa with tears in his eyes. “Have we had enough death for one day? Let us leave!”
“No!” called a brother with steam rising from a bloody hole in his leg. “We have won the battle. Now we will see what they hold within those stone tents of theirs.” The brother hobbled off, using one of the strange weapons of light as a crutch. The rest followed suit, and Lin Jassa was left to walk up the dunes by himself.
He was blind with tears, and when he wiped them away he saw that his hands were covered in red and violet alike. This was not supposed to happen, he thought, but that didn’t change anything.
He reached the top of the dune, and that is when he felt the light pierce his back. It burned like a blade that had gone through him. He looked down to see steam leaving his gut. Clutching the wound, he fell over the dune, his hands quickly filling with his life’s blood. He rolled himself over and peaked into the valley.
The remaining brothers had entered the main camp and were kicking over the bodies of their fallen enemy. Nearer to Lin Jassa, a creature in white armor dropped his weapon and scrambled up the side of the cart with the large pole atop it. Once inside, it closed the door and the pole turned toward the brothers.
“No…” cried Lin Jassa in a whisper.
The flaming stone landed among the brothers, sending bits and pieces of them in every direction. A few tried to run, to find shelter. Then there was another shot, and they were defeated.
Even from atop the dune, Lin Jassa could see the darkness of the sand as it drank their blood. A thousand chunks of flesh lay sizzling in the sand. The valley became silent after the echoes of the last shot had died, and now it lay motionless.
The sun was a spot of yellow on the far side of the camp, a dying light. With a loud squeal that echoed in the valley, the door of the cart opened, and the little creature exited. He took a few painful steps and then collapsed.
Lin Jassa pulled himself to the very top of the dune and notched an arrow. He could feel his strength fading by the second. Please M’ali, give me enough strength to finish this thing, he prayed.
He peered down the shaking point of his arrow, barely able to see through his tears. The creature below reached both hands to his head and in one swift motion, removed his helmet. He gasped for air, and Lin Jassa lay down his weapon. The creature had a face much like his own, only smaller and weaker somehow.
Lin Jassa pulled himself over the dune, the sand sticking in his wound and burning with each motion. One arm after the other, he crawled back into that bloody valley, needles of pain stabbing deep into him.
By the time he reached the cart, the dune had swallowed the sun and the burning tents were the only source of light. Lin Jassa finally found himself beside the unmasked creature. It turned to him with a look of fear…and regret.
“Dewbuki…” it said in its strange tongue, gasping for air as it spoke. “Dewbuki…” The man had three broken arrows protruding from his chest; his armor was slick with blood.
“I’m sorry,” whispered Lin Jassa, trembling as he reached for the man beside him. Their hands met, and they held one another. The dune that had felt so hot earlier grew suddenly cold.
Hell is not a fiery place, he realized. It is an eternal cold. Lin Jassa looked up to the sky and saw a thousand stars standing in place. He wondered what secrets they held. He shivered, teeth chattering. He felt the man’s hand go soft beside him, and he no longer gulped for air.
Nobody won today, thought Lin Jassa. Nobody ever wins.
He shivered, and shivered, and then shivered no more.
Josiah Olson writes short stories, music, and screenplays. Although his work varies greatly in genre and content, the thread that runs through them all is the focus on humanity. The connections, conflicts, and moments that make life what it is and the experiences that shape us most. Josiah aims to ask the tough questions, and to open up discussion of topics that are too often ignored. He lives in Moorhead, MN where he studies Psychology at MSUM.