M. Lachlan: Lord of Slaughter

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M. Lachlan Lord of Slaughter
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    Lord of Slaughter
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M. D. Lachlan

Lord of Slaughter

From there come the maidens mighty in wisdom,

Three from the well down beneath the tree.

Uthr is one named,

Verthani the next -

On wood they scored — and Skuld the third.

Laws they made there, and life allotted

To the sons of men, and set their fates.



The Rain

Under a dead moon, on a field of the dead, a wolf moved unseen beneath the rain’s great shadow.

The downpour had started with nightfall as the battle ended. There was too much blood for Christ to bear, said the victorious Greeks, and he had decided to wash it away.

The wolf slipped through the ranks of dead and dying, past the little cocoons of light where men nurtured lamps or candles in their sagging tents. Even there it was just a smudge in the darkness, a spectre made by the rain.

The boy Snake in the Eye looked out of the imperial tent for signs of a break in the weather. Any moon would have made looting possible but its slim crescent had faded the previous evening and the clouds had rolled in. He saw nothing in the sodden night beyond the weak glow of the lamps.

He was sure men would try to claim what plunder they could, even in that black deluge. The ground was a mire, though, and not all the wounded were beyond defending themselves. Why die ingloriously in the dark to the knife of one of the rebel’s half-dead Normans or Arabs? If you were going to die, better to do it where your fellows would see you and credit you for your warrior’s heart.

Snake in the Eye often dreamed of a famous death — surrounded by a press of enemies, their spears bright under a cold sun, his sword flashing arcs of sunlight and crimson — filled with the elation of killing and dying.

‘Twenty faced him and twenty went with him to the halls of the dead, to cheer him to the mead bench at the All Father’s side.’ So the skalds would sing for him one day.

He had never feared death and thought it a fine thing to die well and live for ever in the tales of his kin at the fireside and in the marketplace, though he would not throw his life away. For now he would sit tight behind the ditches of the camp and begin searching the bodies and the baggage train with the crows in the morning light. After that, he would go dancing with his loot to Abydos, to see the grateful town throw open its gates to the men who had lifted its siege. Then he would enjoy all the pleasures available to the liberator, including that of watching the rebel leaders impaled on the walls.

The rain fell so hard that no lamp or fire could be had outside and men huddled in their soaking tents waiting for dawn — those who had tents. In the summer most of the army slept in the open. When the rain had come in, fast, cold, unseasonable and heavy, the soldiers had crammed into any available shelter, fighting for cover before the blind blackness fell. The unlucky and the weak stood shivering and stamping in the bare scrub, clinging together for warmth in the sightless dark.

The horses of the cavalry moaned under the onslaught of the water and the warriors sang in the night to keep up their spirits. Snake in the Eye heard the songs of the Rus, of how Helgi won the battle at Kiev. He heard those of the Greeks, who called themselves Romans and sang of how Constantine had raised the greatest city in the world. And he heard those he loved the most — old songs of the north, from the Viking warriors, his people. Songs of heroes, dragons and battles against incredible odds. He understood each language. He’d been a market boy at Birka in Skania and it had paid him to be able to speak to as many varieties of men as he could.

He heard more than songs under the beating rain. Men and animals still lay dying in the storm and, to Snake in the Eye, their cries were a sort of music too. They filled him with a physical joy that tingled from his boots to his tongue.

‘Any sign of this weather clearing, boy?’ A voice from inside the tent.

‘No, lord.’

‘I thought not. Come back in here. I need to talk to you.’

Snake in the Eye turned away from the guard who sat shivering at the tent’s dripping entrance despite his three cloaks.

The emperor was alone, his war council having finished digesting the events of the day. He gestured for Snake in the Eye to sit next to a small and ornate brazier. The boy did so. The brazier fascinated him. The basket that held the fire was wrought with little lizards that seemed to wriggle in the heat, black against the light of the coals. At the emperor’s feet lay something equally as fascinating — the head of the rebel Phokas, scarcely recognisable as human — the rebel had fallen from his horse and been trampled by his own cavalry — but Snake in the Eye knew it was him. He had been there when Bollason, the famous Viking, had found the body and decapitated it.

The emperor’s eyes flicked momentarily to a trickle of water dropping from a corner of the tent.

‘You did us good service today in translating my commands. You are a Varangian but you speak Greek like a true Roman. How did you learn our language?’

‘I make it my study, sir. I have travelled this way with my father trading furs, and your countrymen come to our market.’

‘You speak impressively.’

‘I find all tongues easy, sir. I can converse with the Arabs as well, enough to trade anyway.’

‘Then you can be useful to us. I should order you castrated so you can attend me formally at court.’

The boy paled.

‘Don’t look so terrified. Many poorer sons have made that career choice. The chamberlain who rules in my place in Constantinople when I am on campaign is a eunuch and not of good family. Do you think he could have risen to be so mighty had he stayed intact? Of course not. He would not have been allowed as close to the purple.’

Again, the boy said nothing.

‘Don’t worry, I shan’t command it but it’s an option you should consider. You handled yourself well under the pressure of the battle today. You would benefit by ongoing access to my presence. It’s not so much to give up. You’re not even a proper man yet, it’s apparent to any who look at you.’

‘I am a man, sir.’

‘Listen to your voice. Look at the smoothness of your chin. I’m a Roman emperor, boy, I’ve seen enough eunuchs and ordered enough cut to know the difference between a man and a boy. You can’t miss what you’ve never had. What is your name?’

‘Snake in the Eye.’

‘Why so?’

The boy pointed to his left eye. The emperor beckoned him forward. Snake in the Eye held the eye open wide and the emperor peered into it. Around the pupil curled a second blackness, a deformity of the eye.

‘It does look like a snake,’ said the emperor. ‘What is its meaning?’

‘Death,’ said Snake in the Eye, ‘so my mother told me.’

The emperor pursed his lips, impressed.

‘I have always paid attention to things like this. It is an important mark, something from God.’

‘Our people say it is an image of the world snake — a serpent whose coils stretch across the whole earth. When it shakes, the seas boil and the land splits.’

‘Would you shake the earth and boil the seas, Snake in the Eye?’

‘I would, sir, on your behalf.’

The emperor touched his tongue to his upper lip.

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