Owain the Mighty

Submitted into Contest #140 in response to: Write a story that involves a flashback.... view prompt


Fantasy Historical Fiction

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

When people talked about the raiders they said they would come by boat. That they would leap from their beast headed longships to burn and raid and rape. 

Bearded killers with long hair and coats of mail, wielding swords and axes that did not worship the nine or fear death. 

I was told over and over to be wary of the horizon and the distant waves. To fear the Viking and all the death that he bought with him. 

When they did come to my home, they came on horses from inland. I was as surprised as anyone. They were unmistakably Danes, they wore Thor Hammers and talked in a language none of us knew. 

My father, a lumberjack, was killed in the street by a tall man with a braid of hair running down his back. He was laughing when he did so. My father was no warrior and the Dane parried the swing of his axe and stabbed him in the heart. 

He died in the dirt while our village burned around him. 

I was hiding with my mother in the thatch roof of our home. We could hear the screams and the sounds of men taking their pleasure. Two burly men kicked down the door to our house and ransacked it. They flipped tables and scattered the floor rushes. Our dog, Rufus, leapt at one of them and they kicked him and buried an axe into his face. I've never forgotten the whimpers Rufus made as he died. They did not find any silver, as there wasn't any to find. One of them climbed into the thatch and my mother pushed me deeper to hide me. 

The man's head lifted over the thatch and she kicked him in the nose. 

The man shouted in pain, then he and his companion dragged my mother down to the floor and killed her. I covered my ears and curled smaller into a  ball. 

I was just a boy then, but I remember the fear and hatred I had for the Danes even then. Hatred for myself for being unable to protect my family and my home from them. I knew at that moment I would be a warrior if I lived. I would grow tall and strong, I would protect people from the Danes and their savagery. 

I would do just that in time, but first I had to survive. 

The Danes did not stay for long, perhaps half an afternoon before they gathered the captives they wished to make into slaves and their meagre haul of silver and coppers. They rode back out of the village and into the heart of the country, away from the ocean.

After they had gone, it appeared there were other survivors. Some but not many. The wise woman who lived on the forest's edge walked among the dead. 

Helena, as she was known in our village, but my mother had told me she went by many names. When anyone in the village fell sick Helena would visit and give them herbs and care. She spent the rest of her time secluded in a hovel. 

I was frightened of her but at least I knew her face. She was caring for a boy that had grown his first beard that spring. He had been stabbed by a Seax and blood oozed from his wound. Helena looked up at me and the hard lines of her face did not move. 

"You are Ullor's boy." She said, naming my mother. I nodded. 

"Hold this against his wound. It will slow the bleeding and ease his pain." She said, She handed me a tightly knotted pack of leaves and wool. I did as she said. The boy groaned and recoiled from the pain but I held the bandage as best I could. 

The boy soiled himself and the stink of shit made me retch. 

"It's alright boy, this will ease you." Helena said. She poured a milky liquid into his mouth. The boy shuddered and his eyes closed. 

The bleeding stopped and he died. 

"A small mercy." Helena said. She scowled at the ruin of the village, a handful of others had revealed themselves. 

Mostly children, I knew most of them but their names are clouded by time. Lyla was there though many of the faces and moments of that day are hazy to me now, but I remember Lyla's face, she had a gap in her front teeth, did not speak barely a word but she laughed when we played. Helena tutted and beckoned for us to follow her. 

Lyla walked beside me and held my hand.

She led us to her hut at the forest's edge. I had never been brave enough to go near it before. She packed a bag of supplies and emerged with a walking staff and a heavy cloak. 

"We must go to the Lord. He will provide for you." She said,

Helena stopped me and led me to the side of the road. 

"What is your name, boy?" She said. 

"Owain." I said. 

"Owain, they are your family now." She said. 

I nodded. I had seen Lord Calway once, he'd come to hunt in the woods. He'd had a dozen riders with him, hard men like the Danes. I'd expected him to be a tall and powerful man but he didn't look that different from my father, grey at the temples and just as stern. 

They hadn't caught anything when they hunted and so had never returned.

I don't remember the walk too well, nor the nights we must have spent in the forest before we reached the Lord's hall. 

I do remember looking back at my home one last time. I have returned, of course, since, once or twice, and people still live there. It was not the same though and for me it was as though it had been burned from existence by those Danes. I turned my back on it, on my childhood and any dreams of an easy life. I turned to vengeance and hatred and the sword path, the way of war without ever leaving it. I expected to be cut down in battle while carrying my hatred into the Danes and all like them.

I am old now. Old and grey. My bones ache in the winter and the cold, my piss dribbles out four times a night and I cannot hear so well as I once did. My young wife tiptoes around me and whispers to the servants which is irritating as I cannot hear what they say. 

She fears my temper and my cruelty but I have never felt the need to be cruel to women. 

I wake in the night and remember Lyla's face and the sounds of my mother being raped.

I watch my children's children play and wonder which of them will carry the sword and axe and shield into the terror and death of the shieldwall. Who will cut down the Danes and the Northmen and all the other bastards that would burn and loot everything that is good and fair in this world. 

They do not listen to me. I would not have listened when I was a boy. Not before that day the Danes came. I did not know then what cruelty the world held. 

I had my first taste of that bitter drink then and many more would follow. 

There are some though, my youngest son is no fool and neither are his children. His eldest sits with me sometimes and listens to my stories. He scribbles them down and sings songs in the alehouses about his grandfather Owain the Mighty. 

He thinks I do not know that he just replaces my name with the names of the great heroes of ages past. I always hated warriors that paid poets to sing about them. Vain cowards that had never smelt the stink of ale breath when the battle drove you close as lovers. Men that hadn't learned to use the deadly blow under the shield. When you could stab a Seax between a man's legs and hear him scream like a girl as he died. 

I raged at him sometimes, calling him a yellow bellied pisspot and a fool. The boy always laughed and said that he told the truth. I was a mighty warrior and to sing of me was an honour. 

If I was a decade younger I'd have beaten him in the street for such insolence. 

I settle for calling him a green eared boy instead. I have lost my strength and much of my balance. 

Even walking the palisade in the morning leaves me wheezing for breath. 

That evening when my grandson came to speak with me he asked about my youth. 

"Tell me about Lord Calway and the first Danes,”  he said. 

"They were not the first Danes, you fool. They had pestered us for years before they came as settlers. There is nothing between your ears you stupid boy." I spat at him. 

He laughed. 

"Yes grandfather, I am a young fool who dreams of nothing but fame and fair women. Not the first Danes then, the ones that came as conquerors. Tell me of Lord Calway, King Alwin and when the dead would rise as Draugr. " He said. 

I touched a hand to my sword’s hilt when he mentioned Draugr, to avert their evil and keep them at rest in the dirt. Then I sighed and told him my story. 

Lord Calway's hall was ringed by a stout palisade and an earth breastwork. It seemed like a towering fortress to me then. Now I know it was little more than a burgh, a simple fortification that could only house a hundred or so warriors. 

There were spearmen on the fighting platforms when we approached, they swung open the gates and helped us inside. There were other refugees that were gathering in the yard outside the longhall. 

The spearmen and warriors did what they could but I could sense their shame. It was their duty, theirs and their Lords, to protect us. They had failed. 

I stayed close to Lyla and made sure all of the younger children had food and water. There wasn't much but more than nothing. Helena was busy helping the other refugees with wounds and sickness. One of the warriors stayed with us, he was perhaps twenty summers old and had a short warriors braid. 

He smiled cheerfully and tried to make us laugh with some tricks using his warrior rings. The iron bands men of war carried on their arms. The man grinned at us and threw it high into the air and caught it every time. 

None of us laughed and after a few attempts he asked each of us our names. 

"I am Leofan, if you need anything you come and find Leofan. I will help if I can." He said. He didn't talk about the Danes, or ask us about what had happened. 

He never spoke to me once about his past but I came to learn that he had been orphaned by a raid just as I had been. I can still see Leofan's smiling face and hear his jokes. Behind his humour and welcoming friendship there was sadness and rage. When the others had gathered near the fires for warmth he tapped me on the shoulder. 

"Let me see your arm." He said. I lifted it and he gripped the muscle there. 

"You want to be a warrior?" He said. I nodded. 

"We will speak to the Lord, you and I. He has a soft spot for strays. Tuloc will make a killer of you." He said. I nodded again. He left us to sleep and I lay close to Lyla. 

She curled close to me and cried. I didn't know what to say or do so I held her hand and listened to her sobs .There were others weeping in the darkness, but I did not cry. My grief was hardening into anger and hatred of the Danes. I would not weep, not yet, I would not weep until every Dane in our lands was dead and their blood made our crops grow high. I knew it in my heart. 

If Lord Calway would have me then I would kill Danes for him, if not I would find someone who would train me. The Danes would pay. 

The Lord Returned in the morning, he had been out with two dozen retainers, all men in mail with swords and shields. He barely spared a glance for us before going into his hall. Helena was quickly summoned though. Leofan went with her and winked at me before going inside. 

I stared at the men on their tall, strong horses. Each of them had sleeves heavy with arm rings. Bands of iron melted from their enemies' weapons. A mark of a man who had not wealth of gold, but of reputation. The Danes wore theirs in silver and gold rings, but not our people. They were hard men, killers and fighters that loved battle. I was struck by the need to be like them. To study and learn from them until I could walk and talk as they did. That I could be able to stare death in the face and defy it by standing in the shieldwall. 

We ate a poor meal of hard bread and cheese that had been sitting for too long. The warriors told us little, only that they had tracked the Danes to a larger force which was camped on the Desnari river. When one man, a greybeard that had turned blind with age, asked how many one of the warriors just shrugged and said. "Many."

Leofan exited the hall shortly after that and greeted me.

"Boy! Come, the Lord wishes to see you." He said. He gestured to me and rubbed at my hair when I passed him. He nudged me forwards and into the hall. 

It was a fine place, built with good oak and thatch. Then I was afraid of the dark corners and the stern man sitting at its hearth but I came to know it far better than any other home in time. Thinking of it now, it is the only safe home I have ever known.

Lord Calway was as I remembered him, middle aged with more grey than black in his hair. His beard and hair were both kept cropped short and he wore simple but well made clothes. There was a thin wisp of a woman beside him who was easily twenty years his younger. She was serving him a bowl of stew and fussing overtravel worn clothes. 

"Enough woman, you would have me starve while you fret." He said. His voice was authoritative and commanding. 

Helena sat opposite him in  place of some honour. A large man with enormous arms and a chest like a barrel of ale stood behind Lord Calway. He had a face that looked like it had not smiled in a lifetime. 

His mouth and brow were stuck in a permanent scowl. 

He glowered at Leofan and then at me. I met his gaze for a moment and when he growled I lowered it. I silently cursed my cowardice and raised my eyes to meet him again. 

He grunted and then went back to eating his stew. 

Calway looked at me then, taking me in from head to toe. 

"Owain." He said. 

"Yes." I said, then Leofan slapped me around the ear. 

"Yes, lord." I said. 

"Young Leofan tells me you would be a warrior. As does Wise Helena. What do you say?" He said. 

"I want to be a warrior Lord." I said. 

"So you can be rich and famous?" He said. 

"No Lord, so I can kill Danes." I said. The large man barked in what might have been a laugh. 

Calway sighed and turned to the man. 

"What do you think, Tuloc?" He said. 

"Too skinny lord, he will not even make a meal for the hounds when he fails." The man, Tuloc, said. 

Leofan squeezed my shoulder reassuringly but said nothing.

After a pause Tuloc finished his soup and burped loudly. 

"I will see what he can do. We can put him in the front rank to die instead of someone with any skill, if he is not good for anything else." he said. 

I glared at him. Tuloc stood and walked into the space at the hall's centre. 

"Fight me." He commanded. I looked at Leofan who nodded encouragingly. 

I squared off against Tuloc and lowered my stance to be closer to the ground. He mirrored me, his huge arms swinging just above the floor rushes. 

"I said fight me." Tuloc said. I darted forwards to try and go between his legs. He caught me and shoved me backwards. I stumbled and then threw myself at him. My shoulder hit his chest and I bounced away. 

"Fight me, boy!" Tuloc shouted. I swung my arms at his head and felt them land. It was like striking a stone. I punched and screamed and kicked at Tuloc, but he did not budge. 

I collapsed exhausted on the floor and gasped for air. Tuloc laughed and clapped his hands together. 

"A little milk boy. I will make a warrior of him, lord, either that or feed him to my hounds." He said. I screamed and charged him again. Tuloc spun and kicked my legs from under me. 

"A brave little bastard. But still a little bastard eh, lord? I will do what I can with him." He said. 

Which is how I came to be one of Lord Calway's retainers and to be trained by Tuloc the Mighty, the greatest warrior I have ever known.

April 01, 2022 15:29

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