Black Petals Issue #84 Summer, 2018

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Mars-News, Views and Commentary
Goodbye to Nowhere Land-Fiction by Roy Dorman
Just a Minute-Fiction by Mark Joseph Kevlock
Nobody Should Be in 1610 Maple-Fiction by Roy Dorman
Next Stop: Napper's Holler-Fiction by A.M. Stickel, Chapter 1
Next Stop: Napper's Holler-Fiction by A.M. Stickel, Chapter 2
Next Stop: Napper's Holler-Fiction by A.M. Stickel, Chapter 3
Prey-Poems by Michael Keshigian
Asunder-Poems by Mick Rose

berserker.jpg

Chapter 2



Berserker


by A.M. Stickel

 

         

Armor wasn’t the only weight dragging Aylric into the depths. The entire longship was sinking. A huge vortex had opened up during the bloody boarding by another vessel, and the Harvyr slipped into the watery gullet as easily as a raw herring down a hungry man’s throat. The other ship sat perched on the edge of the vortex, her victorious crew peering at their enemies in open-mouthed amazement.

Clinging to the top of the mast, Aylric still had air…but for how much longer? Harvyr’s fallen warriors had not been so lucky. Along with the enemy’s dead and wounded, their corpses plummeted past him, faces set in grimaces that showed their last seconds of life had not been pleasant.

Aylric held to his perch with both legs and removed his helm, and, with the aid of his sword, his breastplate. Next, he sliced the thongs holding the leg guards. Lastly, he gripped the mast and kicked off his heavy boots. Youth and agility abetted the warrior’s desperate swing toward the boarding rope left dangling from the other ship. He leapt and gripped at the right moment, just as the vortex closed.

A massive arm hauled the prisoner aboard, and the arm’s owner held Aylric aloft like a prize catch. While the loser hung there, the red-bearded chieftain, Gunnar, beat his chest in triumph, and sneered crookedly into the youth’s face, roaring, “GUNNAR’S SLAVE!” to the cheers of his comrades.

Gunnar’s triumph was short-lived. A huge gray head rose above the ship’s cracked railing, and  jaws lined with dagger teeth gripped Gunnar to yank him toward the gap. The braggart dropped Aylric, who lay there stunned, watching him swing his sword uselessly at the sea dragon. The monster’s teeth put a stop to Gunnar’s struggles. Still clutched in the hand of the severed arm, the sword clanged to the gore-covered deck. Gunnar gave a gurgling moan as the sea dragon tossed him high and swallowed him whole.

Aylric reached toward the arm and sword to defend himself. Then he noticed that the hungry sea dragon was more interested in Gunnar’s noisy shipmates falling over one another in their efforts to escape. The young captive decided to remain where he was, prone and quiet as a dead man.

So greedy was the sea dragon that it gorged until it vomited undigested body parts. Swords and arrows merely bounced off its thick hide, and scaly eyelids protected the otherwise vulnerable amber eyes. Finally, the creature was satisfied, and turned its attention upon the ship Targyr. Aylric almost laughed when the amorous sea dragon rubbed its neck against the neck of the painted prow and gazed longingly into the imitation eyes, curling a formidable body around the ship in an attempt at seduction.

The beastly lover’s frustrated cries nearly deafened the human survivor. Aylric almost wished the ship could respond. Then he spied the horned helm lying not far from Gunnar’s severed arm. One of the horns had broken off. He crawled to the horn, put it to his lips, and blew with all his might. The sound rose above the wails of the creature, eliciting a surprised “MEEP?” in response. Encouraged, Aylric blew the horn again, but not quite as hard.

The sea dragon withdrew its bulk from the vessel, and proceeded to do a series of dives and prodigious leaps of joy. On the final leap, the creature displayed enough of its body to show that it was most definitely male. Aylric couldn’t help but admire such an efficient, though simple-minded, killing machine. A serrated ridge of tough armor ran along the top of a gray-green body easily twice as long as the Targyr. Four sturdy, web-footed legs with retractable claws were folded underneath.

The sea dragon, finally exhausted, swam back to the ship to rub against the side opposite where Aylric lay. Waves gently slapped the wood, which rocked the ship like a cradle.

Save for the vortex and this active monster, the water has remained as flat as a lake on a summer’s day—odd! thought Aylric.

Runes glowed on the dragon’s neck. Reading them, Aylric realized just who this was: Harvyr. The youth sat up, shook his head to clear it, pinched his arm, and blinked several times. Poof! The runes did not disappear, but the dragon did. They hung in the air and then dispersed into a rising mist.

Mist soon obscured the sun’s red eye and the smell of greenery wafted across the water as the tide drew the dragon ship landward. Aylric stood and stretched his long limbs, heading for the prow, tossing scattered body parts overboard as he did so.

Unnoticed, a shadowy figure crept, cat-footed, slowly forward from the stern, bending to retrieve Gunnar’s sword. Hidden below in a tiny space, one other had survived—Gunnar’s daughter.

“I, Gunnilda, heir of Gunnar Larsyn, say you are a dead man!” shouted the girl, springing at Aylric and swinging the sword from behind—SWOOSH—just as he bent over to retrieve the last body part.

Aylric dropped and rolled away from the weapon which had nearly cut him in half. He kicked out at the girl’s legs ere she could remove the blade tip from wood. Red-haired Gunnilda thudded to the deck.

Gunnilda bit and clawed the stranger, who pinned her beneath him. “Your magic may have given life to a sunken vessel, but your life force cannot overcome and enter me. I would rather die!”

Instead of taking her then and there, Aylric let Gunnilda wear herself out in venting her fury. Finally, the two lay side by side, equally spent and breathless, until he said, “Listen, we’re both in the same boat and headed for strange soil. Your father killed mine, along with my brothers, in the sea battle. I don’t know how, but my ship came to life and killed Gunnar and his crew, yet spared you.”

“You didn’t use magic against us?”

Aylric prodded himself in the chest, replying, “Were I, Aylric Wulfsyn, able to use magic, I’d have saved everyone aboard the Harvyr, not turned the ship into a sea dragon.”

Gunnilda’s next question was prevented by a sudden lurch. Targyr had grounded. Water gushed through a breech in the hull, but the sound of the surf told the two survivors they were nearly ashore.

“If you have supplies aboard, you had better lead me to them, girl. We don’t have a second to waste…unless you plan to go down with the Targyr.”

“We were looking for land to replenish our stores before we met your ship. The only thing left was the water—two half-full barrels,” said Gunnilda, ignoring Aylric’s offered hand to stagger sternward.

“I suggest we lash ourselves to those barrels and float ashore. Too bad we can’t see where to go through all this mist,” said he, following her, “but you’d best let me help you lose that armor first.”

“Keep your hands off me! I can do it myself.” Gunnilda slapped Aylric’s help aside.

“Very well, then, get to it!” snapped Aylric. “I’ll roll out the barrels if you point the way to them.”

Soon, two heads—one blond, the other red—attached to bodies too long away from the sun, were splashing behind the barrels to shore. Two pairs of eyes—one set blue, the other green—watched for a safe landing spot below the massive cliffs that appeared through the mist. Nearly all of the sand was under water by the time the shipwrecked youngsters hauled themselves up on the last bit left below the rocks.

“Come here,” ordered Aylric. He pulled Gunnilda to the lip of a ledge and boosted her to safety.

Gunnilda lay shivering on the rocks, but reached down to rescue Aylric from his slippery perch. He used the last of his strength to scramble up, and eyed the overhanging cliff with a frown.

“I smell smoke!” said she, pointing off to the side, where trees came nearly to the water’s edge. “Too bad we had to leave our weapons aboard ship to save our hides. We may need them. I hear drums.”

“Well, we can stay here and freeze to death, die trying to climb this steep cliff, or take our chances with whoever has made that fire and beats those drums you say you hear. I can’t make out anything above the sound of my chattering teeth and the surf.” Aylric groaned, sat up, and peered toward the forest.

“The drums! They’ve stopped,” said Gunnilda, her eyes on the forest.
          Screams sounded from the cliff above, followed by loud chanting. The sing-song chant continued as a naked, dark-skinned body hurtled past the pair, splashing into the sea below their perch. They watched the churning water turn red. Aylric held Gunnilda to him as several more bodies joined the first. None of them surfaced. She buried her face in his chest, no longer the fearless warrior maiden.

 “It looks like the locals are not the friendly type,” said Aylric into Gunnilda’s ear. “If this is what they do to their own people, imagine how we’d fare?”

“Now I wish you could call your sea dragon back and turn him loose on these murderers,” said she, her green eyes huge in her pale face. Her lower lip trembled, making her look more child than woman.

“So do I,” said he, cupping her chin in his hand, “but I need you to keep a clear head and help me figure a way out of this situation…if there even is one.”

“When the tide goes out, I say we head for those woods and spy on their camp. Their ferocity may have made them careless. We might be able to steal food and skins to protect our own. Yes, I’m afraid, but I’m not ready to give up yet.” Gunnilda put her face to Aylric’s, glared into his eyes and kissed him hard on the lips. “I just want to give you a better reason to succeed.”

“You realize we’re both nearly as naked as those sacrifices we just witnessed,” he replied, winking, “so why not—”

“Later,” she cut him off, giving him a slight shove, “after we rescue each other. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” he replied, looking downcast. Back home, no woman denies me. But he was pleased that, as they rested on the ledge, she let him hold her so they could share their body heat under what sun the mists allowed through. Her back to the cliff, his to the sea, they were sound asleep in no time.

 

Aylric awoke dry-mouthed, muscles stiff and sore, stomach growling, and backside raw from too much sun and Gunnilda’s scratches. She was already awake and squirming in discomfort.

“I need to make water,” said she, nearly shoving him off the ledge in her haste.

Aylric gasped and grimaced when he rolled onto his back. She paused and commanded, “On your belly! Show me your back. Maybe those wounds I inflicted are already festering. You won’t be much use to me if they worsen.”

Aylric did as bid, asking, “And how do you plan to stop my decay?”

In answer, he felt a hot stream hit his back and buttocks—pungent urine—an old wives’ remedy he’d often heard his father mention. “They’ll be able to smell us before they see us!” he complained.

Gunnilda gave his right buttock a sound slap and warned, “We can either do this my way or the wrong way. Which do you prefer?”

“If that didn’t burn like fire from the hot place, I’d beg you to slap the other cheek.” Aylric peered down from the ledge instead of where he wished to peer, and changed the subject, “Looks like the tide is out and we can jump safely to the sand. I’ll go first…and add my own water to the sea while I’m at it.”

“Speaking of water, the barrels with ours are wedged in those rocks.” Gunnilda pointed, and jumped to the sand first, taunting, “Need any help, warrior?”

“Not so loud. You’ll call the whole pack of savages from the woods.” Aylric joined her on the sand, and strode stiffly toward the barrels. “To what or whom were they sacrificing, I wonder?”

“Perhaps…to us, fair-haired boy? I do know this: the meat I smelled cooking was human flesh.” She laughed and gulped water straight from the barrel after pulling the cork in its side, and kicked the other barrel toward Aylric, who hefted and drank from his.

Then he wiped his chin, eyed her curiously, and asked, “How would you know what roasted man-flesh smells like?”

“My mother, Elnda, was a berserker. She ate all seven of my brothers as soon as they were born, although my father was always away at sea fishing and never witnessed it. He discovered her true nature when he came home unexpectedly in time to save my newborn hide from the stew pot. After slaying her, he swore off wiving, and we became raiders. His first slave was my wet-nurse, who knew enough magic to keep him and his crew from between her legs…but not enough to stay alive after weaning me.”

Aylric offered, “Targyr was Uncle Ragnar’s ship before Gunnar took her. Your family owes my family a blood debt. It seems Harvyr was to be Gunnar’s next prize, had not the vortex claimed our ship.”

“Well, Harvyr is the first male longship I’ve come across, and I’ve lived aboard several,” said Gunnilda, adding, “and I suspect the vortex and these human sacrifices are somehow connected.”

“I know we’re both hungry, but if we steal and devour human meat, won’t we become berserkers like your mother? We’d be no better than these savages.” Aylric eyed the forest for a sign of movement.

“You’re only worried that, should we survive, I’d devour what you plan to begin in me.”

“I haven’t thought so far ahead. But, right this moment, I’m about ready to eat you if nothing better comes along. Your own succulent flesh should settle the blood feud between our families.”

“I promise not to eat our children, but I can’t promise not to sample sweet dark meat, should it be the only nourishment available,” teased Gunnilda. “Try to stay alive, warrior.” Bottom and breasts bouncing under her damp shift, the saucy beauty dashed off down the beach and into the trees.

Aylric could only envy the girl’s nerve and agility as he ran after her, his tender back prickling at whatever might be watching that had been powerful enough to produce the vortex. Once in the trees, he forgot about the weird watcher and concentrated on Gunnilda’s tracks. She has vanished! How?

By the time Aylric climbed a tree to get his bearings, he discovered his companion’s fate. A pale form with long red hair struggled in the arms of a tall, dark-haired, golden-skinned brave, who carried her into a tent not far from a lazy river. Beside the tent, fish bones were strewn next to a small campfire. One finely-crafted, sturdy little boat rested upon the sand, well away from the water.

I only hope I’m not too late, thought Aylric, descending from his perch and heading for the river.

Aylric crept up to the tent, alert for the sounds of a fight, but only heard muffled whimpers and shifting from within. He slowly pulled the tent flap aside, and saw to his horror how cleverly Gunnilda had been bound and gagged to expose her supple flesh to the whims of the naked savage about to invade it. He was rubbing himself down with a pungent oil and chanting.

The chanting stopped. He who had positioned her upon bearskin, addressed her in an unknown language, and then in the one Aylric had spoken all his life. “This day I, Bear Paw, son of Chief Ragnar of the Rainbow Falls Bear Clan, claim my manhood and vengeance for the blood of my father’s people. I claim first rights to your womb. I have been watching you from land and sea and drawing you to me.”

At this, Aylric flung himself through the tent flap and pounced on Bear Paw. He gripped him by his long black hair and bent him back, locking his arm around the brave’s neck to cut off his wind. Pinned, Bear Paw glared up at his attacker with one blue eye, one green. Then the brave went limp in his grasp.

Aylric was so startled by the strange eyes that he let up just enough to allow Bear Paw to breathe. The brave’s chest heaved and he choked out, “Thank you for bringing me the last of Gunnar’s seed, cousin. My mother’s bloodline gives me power even over the flesh eaters who sacrifice to the sea. But my father’s bloodline unites you and I. Why not share the girl? Together, we will make her a woman; her firstborn will be sons from both of us. Trust my potent magic.”

Aylric appeared to consider the offer, eyeing Gunnilda with a wry smile that made her writhe in her bonds. He let his cousin sit up and lowered his sunburned bottom to the bearskin. “Are you sure you want a berserker for a mate? If you are so powerful, you must have overheard her say her tastes run to sweet dark meat. That might include he who emerges from between her thighs.”

“I’ll take my chances,” said Bear Paw, his attention on the place where he planned to plant his seed. Gunnilda eyed Aylric and blushed, then grimaced at his confident smirk.

“Undo her gag and we will hear what the mother-to-be has to say about the matter,” suggested Aylric in a friendly tone of voice, thoroughly enjoying himself.

Chuckling, Bear Paw did as he was bid, but pulled his hand back so the girl couldn’t bite it.

“I swear I’ll give you so many daughters you will both become the laughing stock of the Bear Clan!” said she, her green eyes aglow with wrath and scorn.

“If they are as beautiful as you, so much the better for us,” taunted Bear Paw, his arm around Aylric’s shoulders. Aylric shrugged, his hands turned palm-up in agreement.

“Should we toss bones to see who begins the first daughter?” asked Aylric, winking at Bear Paw.

“No,” said Bear Paw. “I think I should show her the gifts I’ve prepared. Once she sees them, I am sure will she prefer me.” The brave stood up, went to a corner of his tent, and returned with a bundle. He unrolled two soft rabbit skins and rubbed one against Gunnilda’s cheek, murmuring, “For our newborns…if you take me first.”

“Not unless you release me and let me do this my way,” said she, her face livid as she watched Aylric grin and shake his head.

Again, Bear Paw went to a corner of the tent and brought forth another bundle. Bowing, he unrolled a doeskin dress decorated with porcupine quills and tiny seashells. “Mother’s dress will fit you even when your are swollen with twins. What do you say?”

Gunnilda shook her head, refusing even to look at the dress.

Next, Bear Paw lifted the dark bearskin and pulled out a huge, leather-wrapped bundle. He shook out a plush white bearskin, and placed it under Gunnilda’s hips, saying, “To receive your birthing blood.”

“I have to make water,” she complained. “Your lovely bearskin will stink and rot ere I give birth.”

“Don’t fall for that, Bear Paw. She already made water on my back,” said Aylric.

“I know. I saw her do it,” said Bear Paw. “She has the makings of a good medicine woman.”

“Put a blindfold over my eyes and let me sample each of you. Whoever tastes best to me will determine who goes first. And you won’t need to keep me tied up because I promise by my father’s blood to surrender to the tastiest man.”

“What do you think, Bear Paw? Does that sound fair to you?” said Aylric, sure he would win because she knew his scent from their many hours together in close contact.

“Let’s bathe in the river and scrub ourselves with soapstone,” said Bear Paw. He pulled his white bearskin from under Gunnilda’s hips and placed a carved gourd there to catch her urine, which he emptied for her. After they emerged from the water, wily Bear Paw rubbed Aylric’s sunburn with pungent oil, and insisted they both shave their faces and heads…

 

Once the three arrived at Rainbow Falls Village, Bear Paw barely had time to prepare the white bearskin and help Gunnilda with her dress. Aylric held her, despite the curses she screamed at him, Bear Paw, and even Chief Ragnar. As curious villagers waited outside the tent, the berserker squatted upon the bearskin and strained to deliver the first payment on the blood debt.

Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when the new mother finally delivered her identical, golden-skinned, red-haired boys—Argyr and Arvyr. Bear Paw swaddled and laid his prizes on the rabbit skins beside her. His father Ragnar and his people came forward to congratulate him…

But Aylric fell to his knees, weeping and pounding his fists on the ground, until he felt the nursing mother’s hand gently stroke his cheek. While Bear Paw rubbed her feet, she pulled Aylric close to whisper in his ear, “Be patient, my love. When you insisted on doing things your way instead of the right way, I was too angry to have you first. Never bait a berserker. Besides, you and your persuasive cousin taste exactly the same: delicious.”

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