Shield maidens.

If you know what you’re doing in your chosen profession, it usually comes down to a matter of preparation, which is informed by your years of experience. He laid out the secondary armaments he might need, even the unlikely ones like a halberd, in a neat row behind him where he stood on the bridge. Bladed weapons, despite the most careful tempering, do have a habit of shattering on impact, so a spare one was always advisable. He was about six foot back from the mouth of the bridge, just far enough in to funnel the foemen into a narrow front one man could just about manage. The city armory hadn’t yielded much, but an ancient stout square shield looked to be useful.

He was alone. His men had tokened the odds and being mercenary troops, decided discretion was the better part of valour on this occasion. He couldn’t blame them; dying for a client isn’t something anybody asks of a mercenary; it’s a way of making a living after all, not a way of committing suicide. It was a rational and practical decision which he couldn’t fault them for. A few had looked at him and hesitated, but he’d shooed them away. Go with your brothers, this was going to be his thing to do alone.

This war wasn’t the usual one of territorial expansion, but one of religion, which is to say one of extermination. Everybody in the city was going to get butchered, whether or not they fought back or surrendered. The bridge he stood on was the only way to get into it and all the inhabitants were busy fleeing for their lives, but such things take time and he was fulfilling the spirit of the original contract he’d made with the city elders before anyone knew the size of the army coming at them.

Everybody; man, woman and child was getting out of there, and his sole purpose on the bridge across the river was to give them as big a head start as he could. There might yet be an escape for him at the end of the evacuation, but he couldn’t quite see it yet.

The first attack was a cloud of arrows. The opposition leadership were obviously offended by the arrogance of being stopped by one man on a bridge. That was a poor reaction on their part which in turn led to a poor decision, which he easily survived. The old shield proved its worth as hours of work by their fletchers broke on the stone cobbles of the bridge or stuck in the shield he crouched under. When they’d finished, he used his sword to snap off the the arrows sticking out of the shield.

An army stood and watched one man win the first round. That was the not so smart decision on their commander’s part. Against leadership like that, there might perhaps be some hope.

Someone out there knew what they were doing and sent the first wave at him. They were the expendables, vassal farm workers armed with nothing but mattocks and various farming implements. They weren’t trained and got in each other’s way as they tried to get to him. He cut and hewed his way into them as they came at him until they retired. Afterwards, he crouched behind the shield again as another hail of arrows were loosed at him, while whoever was in charge tried to come up with a better plan. Raining useless arrows down on him again seemed a petulant response by whoever was in charge. That vulnerability might be useful.

He heard footsteps approaching him from the city side of the bridge and then a female voice he knew so well.

‘Tell me this is one of your sneaky plans, Setanta.’

He glanced over his shoulder at her. She was alone, without her company.

‘I’m still working on the sneaky plan. In the meantime, I’ll choke them off at this end of the bridge and perhaps you can hold them in the murder tunnel behind the city gates.’

It wasn’t a plan, it was his way of telling her to go away without actually using those words. She smiled. As if that’d ever happen, especially in a situation like this. At times, he could play the fool, but the only thing foolish about him was on occasion a touch too noble a heart. She could see he wasn’t going to be persuaded to retire from the field this day. Before she’d put a foot down onto the bridge, and like any good captain had accurately sized up the situation, she’d decided. They’d both somehow get out of here alive, or they’d both perish this very day. Her money was on the latter.

Like him, she was now a captain without a company. To lose that comradeship was bad, but a world without him in it too would be too tawdry to bear. She preferred if they both went together on the field of battle. Over the years, she’d taken lovers as her physical needs dictated, but he was always the one she’d first chosen all those long years ago. She would stand shoulder to shoulder with him and almost certainly die with him.

They’d first met in an inn perched atop a cliff overlooking an angry and tumultuous sea that hammered against the granite along the coastline. She was dressed in a soldierly style on one side of the tavern with her friends and comrades, and spotting her across the crowded tavern, he’d joined them to sit opposite her. It had to be done adroitly, otherwise he might give offense to her entourage, and then he’d have had a fight on his hands with them, which was the last thing he wanted.

He’d sat opposite her and said ‘Hello, I’m Setanta’.

A measured look.

‘I’ve heard of you. Are you that Setanta, the bastard son of Duke Elric, the one who killed his half brother Jude?’

‘The very same. Who are you?’

Most of her potential suitors would have run away at that opening salvo. This one was different. One of her retainers started moving in, but with a barely discernible sideways glance from the impudent upstart, he backed carefully away to watch from a distance.

This man had the power of the eye, the power of command.

‘I am Alanna.’

‘Alanna the unmarried, I take it’.

‘I’m promised’.

‘But as long as you remain in battle, the banns can’t be published and you stay out of the clutches of whatever chinless princeling you’ve been bargained off to by your family.’

Just as she’d skewered him with her opening remark, he’d returned the favour with accuracy but no animosity. Her promised prince indeed had no chin and by rumour preferred boys more than women from what she’d heard. She smiled at their mutual situations. Setanta, being a bastard, was unmarriageable to anyone of nobility and she refused to be married off as nothing more than a pawn in a petty provincial political alliance.

They spoke further through the evening and at some point her retainers, seeing which way the wind was blowing, backed off to leave them alone. At the end of it, they retired to his chambers upstairs where they stayed cloistered and alone for the next two days. Initially, they made love like two ferociously hungry tigers, but when the first flames of passion had been sated, they talked as new lovers do, made love more gently, occasionally rolling around the room inside each other breaking furniture, making great noises and in the pauses for rest, he’d bang on the floor with the hilt of his great broadsword. The innkeeper would send up one of his slips of daughters with food and more wine to be left on a tray outside their door. From the crashes he’d heard, it could only be one or the other they required.

It was a very happy time for both of them. It was their first experience of being uncomplicated, joyous and carefree. For once in both their lives, it was a simple thing to be enjoyed.

In subsequent years, they’d both risen in their chosen profession of arms to form and become captains of their own mercenary companies. Such groups can only grow to a certain size, if only because in between contracts, the men still have to be housed and fed. When a contract came along that was too big for one company to handle alone, it was not uncommon for two or more to get together. As was essential, an overall leader for the duration of the contract would have to be elected by the captains.

Their companies had worked together on several occasions and it was telling that on each one, he’d always been elected as temporary overall commander. There was never much debate about it. As one captain remarked to her – he’s got a habit of winning, you can’t top that. He had a complete mastery of the basics of his profession, and was well respected for it, but it was his talent for coming up with unexpected but winning moves that always governed their choice of electing him to lead them. Over the years, many situations that looked finely balanced had turned in their favour because of one of his stratagems, something that Alanna called his sneaky plans.

She had born him a child, a man child, though she had never told him that. Instead of retiring to winter quarters that year, she’d journeyed to a distant farm of a former retainer called Freya who’d been too wounded in service to continue the mercenary life, but also too wounded to bear a child. She knew the child would be safe and loved by her and her man who’d also left her service to look after Freya. It was a beautiful baby. Over the years she’d visited as time allowed, posing as a distant relative and watched him grow up to be a noble child, straight of limb and clear of eye. She could see in him Setanta as a child.

One year, she found an old woman called Matilda already staying there. In the absence of inns, it was common practice for travellers passaging through such a remote area to negotiate with a local farmer room and board for a night or two. She was respectably dressed, but her accent gave her away as a commoner, although she was accompanied by a bodyguard who to Alanna’s experienced eye looked like he very much knew his business.

They were outside enjoying a light meal in the sunshine when the child appeared. He raced around the farm yard and not for the first time Alanna noticed the way anytime the child was around, the old woman’s attention changed to focus just on him. Alanna, in mid sentence, suddenly didn’t exist for the old woman.

The child disappeared off into the fields and the old woman watched him until he was out of sight. In one of those rare moments of lightning strike intuition and absolute certainty we all have, Alanna knew exactly who this commoner with the overly proficient bodyguard was. That’s where Setanta had got that particular shade of mahogany hazel eyes from. She turned back to Alanna to resume their interrupted conversation and saw the way Alanna was looking at her.

Instantly and without any discernible pause, she asked ‘How is my son?’

Such casual directness. So, Alanna thought, she’d already worked out who the distant relative actually was, but like her son felt no need to be boastful of seeing things so easily that others didn’t. She could see what the Lord Elric had seen in this commoner and provided the bodyguard for her on this journey. How she’d know she’d a grandchild was to remain a mystery, though Alanna would probe subtly but to no effect. Like her son, secretive but instantly and frighteningly perceptive.

‘A fine man. You’d be proud of him M’lady,’ replied Alanna, giving her the honorific automatically for the first time.

‘The last time I touched him he was a newborn baby still with some of my blood on him. I never got to wash him. I had to give him away to strangers in the night to save his life. His half brothers would have killed him first to protect their claims to the duchy before they’d get around to trying to kill each other.’

Alanna knew how hard it was to hide away a baby, but nothing on this scale.

‘I’m told you are his Lady, but is he your Lord?’

Such directness again. Straight to the heart of the matter, and in so few words. The question and the true intent behind it was to know her feelings towards him. Was he just someone to warm her bed occasionally or was he the one, the one irreplaceable person in her life.

‘In all the ways that matter, he is my Lord.’

‘Does the child know he’s of a noble bloodline?’

‘No.’

‘What if he’s not content to be a farmer’s son?’

Alanna looked at her. This woman took no prisoners in conversations that actually mattered, so she considered her response very carefully before she replied. Freya had already had that conversation with her. The child would never be a farmer. This child was going to be a warrior, never a son of the soil content to till it and worry only about the rains and this year’s crop. He was different, a dragon slayer by inclination and a fearless soul by nature.

Alanna had looked at Freya’s face and they’d embraced because sometimes that’s all you can do in the face of such hardship – comfort each other. One who’d already given away a son and one who knew with absolute certainty that she’d one day lose her beloved son to an adventuring spirit. In placing his life in Freya’s care, Alanna had chosen wisely.

‘He doesn’t know.’

Matilda considered that for a time before replying. She’d already seen within the child running around the yard chasing chickens that restless soul that would eventually drive the man he’d eventually become. When she eventually spoke, there was a sense of a pronouncement, an acceptance of an inevitability about the child’s fate, but her eyes pierced Alanna after she looked up from her contemplation and spoke.

‘At some point he’d have to be told, and should be. He is the bastard son of a great warrior and a shield maiden of legendary repute.’

Over the next two days, Alanna talked of Setanta, of what his nature was, his exploits and adventures, and their always interrupted lives together. Matilda listened and rarely interrupted. Alanna had the feeling that Matilda was bathing in news about her son she’d last touched on the very first day of his life and had never seen since. This was an incredibly strong woman and Alanna wanted to give her everything she had about him.

When they parted, instead of the usual cuddle and air kiss on each cheek, Matilda had offered her hand to shake. It was a peasant mannerism of that stock, but instead of shaking it, Alanna took it in her own hand, instantly dropped to one knee to kiss the back of it. She did it before she even realised she’d done it and before Matilda could quickly draw back her hand. Alanna held onto that hand. She stood up and they both looked each other in the eye.

‘Promise me two things’ said Matilda.

‘I promise.’

‘You don’t know what I’m going to ask of you.’

‘I do.’

‘And that’d be?’

‘Look after him and never tell him we’ve met.’

In the resultant silence, Matilda stepped in to give one of those crushing killer hugs that was reciprocated. Don’t worry, I’ve got him, Alanna whispered in Matilda’s ear. I’ve got him she repeated, I’d never let go. That was the one and only time they’d ever meet.

The day on the bridge wore on, they fought shoulder to shoulder. Given its narrowness there was never more than four enemy soldiers in front of them at any one moment, and that they could handle. After they’d repulsed the latest wave, they’d look at each other and grin at having survived and at each other’s blood spattered faces. They both shared that sinful delight in fighting. This was combat, this was glory, this was being truly alive.

Between attacks, the arrows would hail down and they’d both shelter under the old shield. After one wave they’d beaten back, she realised he had been downed. She stood over his prone form, straddling it with the old Roman shield raised and felt the impacts of the latest wave of arrows hit it. From underneath the bottom edge of it, she saw one cut through the soft flesh of his leg. Straight through the calf and no reaction. Her Lord was truly gone.

She saw the next cloud of arrows rising high into the air, but before they could arrive, she turned and lay on his chest to give him a kiss before all his body warmth went away. A final kiss. She laid the shield down beside them and the arrows arrived.

The city fell over the trampled bodies of the slain lovers, but it was a city devoid of people to slaughter.

There’s a bridge called Bifröst that’s built atop a rainbow and it runs towards a distant city called Asgard. In there, there’s a banqueting hall where those who die in battle or with courage and honour will feast forever. Like innocent children again, Setanta and Alanna, hand in hand, walk along it towards that city.

As with all folk tales of bravery and honour, there are alternative endings.

He’s badly hurt but mebbe he’s not gone, she thought. She picks him up with her hands under his shoulders and bent over with the shield strapped to her back, drags him between her legs back slowly over the bridge and towards the city gates as the arrows rain down on them. The commander of the company of archers looks at his men and they look at him. He can tell, the mood isn’t good. They’d fought legendary battles together with these two renowned commanders.

For once, the money doesn’t matter, nobody’s heart is in it, which he can tell from the progressively more inaccurate archery of a company whose expertise with the bow was legendary. Not one man Jack of them wants to fire that fatal arrow into such dogged courage. Within the mercenary circle, they all knew of the legendary Setanta and Alanna. They were family and perhaps in a distaff way, all they had in the way of royalty in a narrow world their employers’ though had no honour, but it had. Nobody wanted their name anywhere near to being connected to ending the legends that surrounded them.

He orders the ceasefire and watches in silence one great commander drag the body of another great commander towards the city gates, and hopes he’s still alive. His whole company are doing the same. A flunky dispatched by his current employer appears at his side demanding he open fire again. He ignores him and continues to watch, wondering if she’s still got the strength. She looks to be flagging. He can see from the blood and exposed red meat on her that she too has been badly hewn.

The flunky, wanting his attention, lays a hand on him, a big mistake, and with a downward flick of his right arm, the knife that was always strapped to the inside of his forearm in a spring loaded scabbard flicks out and with a single upstrike, he cuts the throat out of the flunky without ever taking his eyes off her.

Go on, you mad magnificent bitch he thinks, make it back to the city gates, get him to safety. It’s a slow, dread, painful effort, but she finally gets there, opening the city gates and pulling him through them before slamming them shut in their faces behind her. After a moment, they’re opened just enough for a barrel of some liquid to be tipped out onto the bridge. The commander of the company of archers grins because he’s worked it out – it’s so Setanta. The perfect mistake he’d been trying to lure them into making by his sheer insolence of standing alone against an army on a bridge was finally revealed.

St. Elmo’s fire. Burn up any invading army swarming across the bridge but also destroy the bridge at the same time. She throws a burning torch, slams the city gates closed again, and he watches as this whole campaign comes to an unsuccessful and fiery conclusion.

It’s up to you to pick which ending you want to be true.

©Pointman

Click here for other Pointman fiction.

Comments
10 Responses to “Shield maidens.”
  1. Ellywn Robert Montle says:

    Sir. You are a MASTER of your craft. These words hit me like a battering ram and made me, a grown man of 71 years get misty eyed.
    Don’t ever stop writing.
    Please!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. john says:

    Stunning stuff Pointman.
    I thought at first you were writing about Pres trumps journey against the Democrats!!

    Like

  3. Felicia says:

    Thank you. Totally enjoyable and beautifully written Pointy

    Like

  4. NoFixedAddress says:

    I prefer the second ending thanks Pointman.

    Appropriately sneaky plan whether they died then or not.

    Like

  5. Aliceodowd says:

    Thank you, a lovely tale and well told. I’d guess you paint, but I know you can paint with words. You’re very visual in your writing. I too prefer the second ending and I’d like another story about their adventures together. Please, please, pretty please and thanks before I get it!

    Like

  6. Pointman says:

    Setanta, Alanna was one of those stray ideas that grew outrageously and I had to publish it to stop it growing. As a writer you do fall in love with characters. It’s really a story about women and how strong they can be. It think that falling in love with a character was gainsaid by the dual ending.

    The first one was the complete story. It was finished, hot to trot, ready to rock, locked, loaded, empty the bloody magazine with it all stopped with them dead on the bridge, but I couldn’t do it, hence the second optional ending. Since at the suggestion of a few readers for more about them two, and acting on on an idea suggested by a blog stalwart, the black swan, and being out of immediate ideas, the first few paragraphs of their next adventure together. Mebbe evolve their story.

    All you have to do is contribute the next paragraph or two, if you’re brave enough. I’ll kick it off.

    “They were camped on the edge of a dark forest at night sitting cross legged about a fire and looking at each other. What are we doing here? he asked. Everybody knows there’s stuff in those trees nobody messes with. She looked at him. This is personal, I’ll be heading in when the moon becomes full. He thought about it and replied – not alone”

    A bit of fun. Your go at a bit of bending the storyline.

    Pointy

    Like

    • Felicia says:

      Dawn broke and they both woke up. He kicked soil over the smoking fire while she watered their horses. All the chores had been done and he looked at her. She was looking at the forest and he’d a feeling her sword was already in her hand though it was still in the scabbard.

      Like

  7. Graeme No.3 says:

    O/T but for your Go Woke, Go Broke section.
    The publisher of the Miami Herald, The Kansas City Star and dozens of other newspapers across the US has filed for bankruptcy protection. Wall Street Journal.
    McClatchy Co. said it filed for bankruptcy protection on Thursday. The 163-year-old publisher of the Miami Herald, Sacramento Bee, Kansas City Star and other well-known newspapers said it initiated a Chapter 11 restructuring in the US Bankruptcy Court in New York.

    The Wall Street Journal found in a review of the industry last year. The result was the closure of some 1,800 newspapers between 2004 and 2018, leaving roughly half the counties in the US with only one newspaper, and 200 with none, a University of North Carolina study found.

    Like

  8. NoFixedAddress says:

    “They were camped on the edge of a dark forest at night sitting cross legged about a fire and looking at each other. What are we doing here? he asked. Everybody knows there’s stuff in those trees nobody messes with. She looked at him. This is personal, I’ll be heading in when the moon becomes full. He thought about it and replied – not alone”

    “Standing and facing toward him she lifted her face and nodded. He stood beside her as they watched the harvest moon arising. They both drew sword and went to knee in silent prayer to the Gods of the Harvest.

    As the moon gained its fullness they stood side by side facing the forest. ‘It is Harvest Time’ she murmured. With that they ran into the forest”.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: