A one-sided battle had defiled the field.
The first dead man’s eyes gawked unseeing at Volkmar. The attached mouth was agape and browning teeth filled the hole.
“Well,” said Cerveux, crouched beside another corpse barely three feet away, “they’re still warm.”
Volkmar covered his mouth and stared vacantly at the sporadically spaced dead. “I would prefer not to meet whoever did this.”
There must have been twenty in all. His foot squelched in bloodied grass. He nudged one of the bodies, rolling it onto its back. None of them had fled, as far as he could tell. They’d taken all of their wounds to the front.
Emicho whistled through the gap in his teeth. “Would you look at that? Soldiers. And White Crosses, at that.”
Indeed, they each bore a crucifix patch over their hearts.
“An enemy of Christianity?” Emicho snorted.
“How are you amused by this?” Volkmar snapped, glaring at him.
Emicho shrugged. “I laugh when I’m nervous.”
Johann slid from his donkey to stand on his own two feet. He patted her lovingly on the back, soothing her nerves. “There, there, Kriemhild. It’s alright.”
They moved on. On either side of the path was high grass. More bodies littered the natural gutters. Volkmar could smell a fire, and roasting meat.
“Brigands,” Cerveux suggested. “They’re common enough in—”
Volkmar talked over him, “It would require slightly more than a dozen louse-ridden pickpockets to kill over a score of armored warriors.”
“You’re right, my lord,” said Richter. He wasn’t looking at his master, but staring into the distance. “How about a giant, then?”
Two haystacks lay ahead, a weathered barn behind them.
“That way.” Richter pointed. “I saw him. A figure.”
“Be on your guard,” Volkmar told his men before leading the way forward.
One of the haystacks was aflame, the other soaked through by passing rain. Circling around the second, he beheld, leaning against the stack, the most massive man he’d ever seen. The stranger’s hair was much the same as the straw that cushioned his back: yellow and coarse. The stringy, oily strands fell to his waist. In one fist he clasped a horse leg, which he poked into the flames.
Another of the dead White Crosses lay between him and the fire. He tapped the corpse in a slow rhythm with his iron-toed boot. Then, as the flames thinned and began to hiss, he kicked the body into them. Sparks leapt upward and drifted slowly toward Volkmar.
“Holy Virgin Mother,” Ekkehard rasped.
Volkmar approached the giant, keeping his weight on the balls of his feet.
The man’s head swiveled and his eyes examined the German. His free hand fingered a battleaxe. “Say something,” he demanded, his accent foreign.
Volkmar paused. “What?”
The giant nodded. “You aren’t one of them, then. They have only fire and poison on their tongues. Theirs is not the speech of men.” He seemed to be speaking mostly to himself, at first, but then he included Volkmar, “You carry yourself like a man of the sword, but your eyes still see the world as clean of blood.”
Volkmar struggled with the strange tinge to the man’s accent for a minute.
It must be Danish, or something close to it, he realized.
“Did you kill these men?” he asked.
“I killed,” said the huge man. He took a bite from the roasting horse leg, wiping the grease from his long beard. “But these things were not men.”
Volkmar said nothing, waiting for the other to continue. His men, Emicho, Cerveux and Marteau followed his example and stayed close to him. Although they took care to also remain behind him, he noticed.
“Wolves are plenty in Gothland, where there are many sheep. You learn from the fields. It is plain that most men are sheep. But not these. They were rabid. Froth at the mouth like a birthing cow.”
So, the man was a Goth: the best goat herders the world could house, and formidable warriors. The Old Germanic blood ran through their veins, their race having destroyed the Roman Empire. Every kingdom in Christendom had, once upon a time, known the acrid taste of their stings.
This one is certainly worthy of his lineage, Volkmar thought as he scanned the blind-eyed corpses once more.
The hooded ones had been archers, but the Goth didn’t appear to have been struck by a single shaft. Either they were all terrible marksman, or they hadn’t had much time to loose a shot.
The Goth gestured toward the barn behind him, the pungent odor of cow pies wafted from its doors, ajar.
“They whined of hunger,” he said. “They were starving, they told me. ‘There are animals’, I answered. But they had no interest. They wanted my only my flesh.”
“Cannibals?” Emicho whispered in Volkmar’s ear, “Sounds like an excuse.”
“I tell no lies,” said the Goth.
Emicho jumped slightly. He nearly lost his grip on his crutch.
The giant raised the arm that had been caressing the axe. The skin he bared had been pierced by two rows of small, square tears. Volkmar stared dumbly for a moment. A tooth stuck out from one of the gashes. A human tooth.
“I had to remove its head to stop the biting.”
The Goth pointed toward a ruptured skull some distance away. There was a glint from his shoulder.
“You, uh—I think you have a dagger in your back,” said Cerveux. He couldn’t keep from obsessively combing his hair behind his ears.
“I try not to notice these things,” said the Goth.
He pressed his hands to his knees and stood. Moving toward Volkmar, he extended a hand the size of a small dog.
The Germans shot forward, some drawing steel.
“Calm yourselves, fools,” said the Goth.
“It’s alright.” After a moment’s consideration, he shook hands with the giant, who said, “I am Ulrich.”
Released from that crushing grip, the lord said, “Volkmar von Bremen. Now, why are you here? What were you doing?”
“I make for Genoa. Godfrey of Bouillon, the Frank, is building an army,” said Ulrich. He accented ‘Frank’ with a minor twitch of his lips. “I grew tired of tending sickly goats. I’m a better fighter than a shepherd.”
Emicho smiled uncomfortably, sidling away from the body near his feet.
“We have a common end,” said Volkmar. “But these men…” he frowned.
“They bore the cross,” said Ulrich.
“Yes. And, yet, their desertion isn’t what fuels my present unease. Twenty men against one—how did you manage that, alone?”
“Thirty,” said Ulrich with a shrug.
“I beg your pardon?”
“There were thirty. I have been feeding the slow fire for some hours now. Ten I have burned away, though many remain.”
Volkmar didn’t know what to say to that.
“Sir,” said Richter, hunched over, “look at this. Look at their faces.”
Ulrich nodded. “Their eyes are like pits.”
“Black eyes and pale faces. Snarling even in death.” Richter was just speaking to himself now. “Hah! Maybe they weren’t men at all.”
“Don’t start babbling about demons,” said Volkmar, squatting to give the nearest corpse a second appraisal. “We don’t know what happened here. I, for one, don’t even feel much like touching them, but we owe them a burial.”
“Aye,” said Wolfgang, smiling at Richter, “if they’re demons we’ll have to bury them upside down, or they’ll come back. My grandmother always used to go on about that. It’s the only cure for them waking in the night and walking among the dormant living.”
“To Hell with your mockery,” said Richter. He flung his arm out to indicate the field of death. “Do you have a better explanation for what we’re seeing?”
“Better than simply labeling them evil spirits? Give me three minutes.”
“Burn them,” said Ulrich, chomping on the horsemeat.
Johann, who, along with Kriemhild the donkey, had kept a respectful distance, now edged closer. He bit into his apple and then absentmindedly fed the rest to the animal.
One of Volkmar’s men swallowed. “Funeral pyres are a horrible Pagan tradition. I don’t want to tarnish my soul by denying a man’s right to be buried proper. This age is dark enough, isn’t it?”
The Goth looked down his impressive, broad nose at the soldier who’d spoken.
“Won’t your Christ forgive you?” he said, cocking his head. “He has forgiven me my crimes, at least. They were washed away with the early morning rain; for, I say again, these were not men I killed.”
Volkmar watched the soldier’s face shrivel into an expression of pained confusion and fear. But there was nothing for it.
The lord said, “We have to burn them. We can’t leave them here for the crows and I wouldn’t want to linger in this unholy place. Christian burials are for Christians. If they attacked, all at once, a single man then they are nothing more than cowards. Christians are not cowards.”
The man remained a malcontent. “We have only this brute’s word to account for what happened in the night. What proof do we have that he speaks the truth?”
Ulrich said, “They challenged me, but the Lord preserved my life over all of theirs. Last night, I faced trial by combat. I am victorious, and of that much you have much evidence. Are you still not satisfied? Search the bushes nearby if you think I hide confederates or traps. Though, I tell you, if I’d wanted you all dead, you would be dead by now.”
Volkmar believed him.
“A pyre is all we owe them and the land they have befouled.”
The soldier’s next protest was much weaker: “We mustn’t anger God. To bury our dead is right.”
Ulrich’s voice was soft and sharp then, like slate grinding over wood. “These creatures are not our dead. They are not living, nor are they dead. And they were not men.”
Volkmar said, “The Pope has shown us that God hates a good many people now. The Turks, the Jews, all of the heretics marauding… The sinful are beyond number; they pollute nearly every foothold in the world. We seem to have stumbled upon a nest of wickedness this morning, one which Ulrich here has capably destroyed. I ask you, soldier, with so much evil roaming the earth, how can you believe that God has the time to concern Himself with you.
“Blasphemy! God is all-knowing.”
Wolfgang was about to step forward, biting comment readied, when Johann intervened. “God, my son, abhors plague more than pyre.” The priest crossed himself. “We must protect the living, and ask for forgiveness.” He crossed himself again, wooden crucifix pressed between thumb and forefinger. The man lowered his eyes and said no more.
Finally, the soldier seemed appeased, having been stilled by a voice far more authoritative than Volkmar’s. The lord made a mental note to keep an eye on this Johann, lest he divide the loyalties of the men.
With Emicho, Cerveux, Marteau to monitor, I’m afraid my attentions are quickly becoming quite stretched. He turned toward the nearest corpse. “Ulrich, could you help—” Volkmar began.
The Goth already carried two bodies, one dangling over each shoulder. He lightly tossed them into the flames.
Richter nudged a corpse with his scabbard.
“They’re dead,” Wolfgang said, slapping him upside the head. “You’re such an idiot.”
He then fell onto his ass to trade his pair of boots for a less fresh, but much higher quality, set.
Reluctantly, the God-fearing soldier, with a final glance heavenward, tugged one of the corpses toward the fire.
Their blood crackled and the flesh oozed and dribbled from between bone and leather. Marteau grinned, his scars snapping dryly.
When they left, Ulrich followed.
Emicho said, “What’s he doing?”
“Madness,” mumbled Wolfgang.
“No one told him he could come along,” said Cerveux, casting an accusing glance at any who would meet it. “Did they? Did they?”
“Would you like to try to shoo him off?” said Volkmar.
No one spoke after that.
They marched. Ulrich marched behind, each of his steps counting for three of theirs. He whistled tunes Volkmar didn’t recognize, and sang words of those songs made by the people who broke themselves against the Huns.
The shaft of Ulrich’s battle-axe thudded into the dirt again and again. And Volkmar gritted his teeth.
In that moment, to be responsible for the lives of others was a curse.
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