Fiction Sunday time. Here’s a piece of something I dug out of my archives. It’s a little crude in places to say the least; aiming for the spirit of Pratchett without entirely getting it, aiming to poke fun at the glamourised ideas of barbaric cultures in some fiction vs the likely reality and not entirely getting it. You can see all the first draft roughness. But hopefully some of you will enjoy it, or have useful comments. Without further ado:
Men have lived up in the bleak Hoarfrosts for countless centuries – and spent most of them seeking to live elsewhere.
It was just the way of things. You could work like mad in the Hoarfrosts’ pale summers in order to make it through the endlessly dark winters, eating things that qualified as a test of courage in other lands, or you could go to those other lands and be like a block of butter; soft, rich, fat, and melting slightly. There was always just enough people who preferred life harder than frozen salted cod to ensure a next generation, but that next generation would make the same choices.
So the Hoarfrosts exported raw amber, carved bone, and people. Lots of people, with lots of skills. Smiths, singers, shipwrights, cartwrights, wheelwrights; farmers and fishers, hunters and herders, tanners and traders. Warriors too, for those in other lands were not always welcoming, but no tribe ever lived by war alone. They and their descendants could be found all over the southern lands (as they called everywhere not the Hoarfrosts) thriving away, as if driven by the knowledge that they might end up back north if they didn’t work hard enough.
Despite this, if you asked people from the southern lands who lived in the Hoarfrosts, the answer was universal: barbarians. Wild men and women, driven mad by a hard land and harder drink. Driven fighting-mad, for everyone knew the barbarians would war over anything, when they weren’t involved in even stranger habits, often involving skulls, the moon, poisonous hallucinogenics, folk music, or domestic animals. Or at least, so they’d heard, or their brother had seen, yes, the unlucky one, the one who lived by the coast. Well. Had lived.
There was some truth to those tales. Not as much as there was to other tales about the residents of the Hoarfrosts, but there was some, enough to keep them alive. After all, they were so much more memorable. Nobody wanted to hear about the hard-working farmers who’d settled the upland pasture and whose cattle and limestone carvings were highly prized. Not when there were stories about the half-naked barbarians who’d raided the monastery, set it alight, and then danced around it waving skulls and the gold they’d stolen. To the sound of folk music. Besides, the various tribes of the Hoarfrosts had heard these stories too and after laughter, and incredulity, and dark looks at Sverri Goatspear, they’d thought carefully about them. There was plenty of time for thought in the long dark winters after all. And their thoughts had gone something like this:
‘Those soft southern bastards often need a good kicking before they’ll give up any land. Sure, we can give them a kicking, but that usually means some of the lads won’t live long enough to get their land. Possibly, that lad is me. But, if they’re really scared of us, then maybe they’ll put up less of a fight. And from the sound of it, they’re scared of us. I mean, I’d be scared of us if we were like that. So, what if we make up some more stories, and make us sound even worse than they think we already? Maybe they’ll get so scared we can skip the fight altogether.’
So over the years, ever more exaggerated tales of the barbarians of the Hoarfrosts had filtered south. And been believed, even by those who’d sat on a grandparent’s knee and listen to all the stories of the ridiculous tricks they’d played when they were raiders themselves. Obviously not everyone believed the stories, but since those tended to be the same people who thought it safe to be in the front lines when the barbarians showed up, a crude form of natural selection tended to weed out the tendency.
Therefore, when the first band of professional barbarian heroes ventured south, the only real surprise was that it had taken so long for it to happen.
The idea had come from the brain of Stefan the Skald. Stefan wasn’t from the Hoarfrosts himself, being from a land so far south that even the wisest men and smoothest liars in the north hadn’t heard of it, but a number of catastrophic decisions on his part had led to him living much of his life up in the Hoarfrosts. Revenge was a grand thing, but not worth getting that cold for. Storytelling and song was his trade and perhaps it was that which gave him the idea, or perhaps it was a lifetime of being an outsider, but whatever the reason, he’d decided that there were riches to be had in taking advantage of the reputation of Hoarfrost folk down in the south. Who better to solve all the tangled and scary problems than a group of fighting-mad barbarian heroes? They were sure to end up with more gold than they could carry, Stefan thought, or at least they would with a few well placed songs. The idea also had the attractive side benefit that, should someone choose to make an issue of some of Stefan’s past indiscretions, then they would have to take it up with a group of barbarian heroes first. Thus satisfied that it was one of his many strokes of genius, Stefan had set about trying to find the right people to join him.
Caol the Cunning had been the first person he’d thought of, for the simple reason that usually what Caol said would happen, did happen. He could have settled somewhere and made himself a chief but it had never happened and Stefan reckoned that was because he was a restless soul, the sort of man always searching for something new. And Stefan had something new. Caol had listened to Stefan’s plans, not said a word for a full day, then told him to go find some warriors first and then come back and talk. Caol wanted to be sure it was a ship that sailed before he got on board.
So Stefan had spent the winter scurrying from one hall to the next looking for warriors who were suitably heroic. Mighty champions, but with honour, or at least enough honour not to stab him and scarper with the money, or pick fights with everyone, or just run off the moment it got hard. It wasn’t until the river-ice started to break that he was able to find two warriors able to meet such exacting requirements and willing to go south with him. Magni and Signi were cousins from a tribe who called themselves the Raven Feeders, with a reputation for insane courage, yet still alive to talk about it. He found them easy going, genial, imposing looking and not too inclined to ask questions. In other words, perfect recruits.
Caol agreed to join them after that and suggested the last member of their band; the Boy. The Boy wasn’t his real name – his real name was Kalatamani – but that was too much of a mouthful so they called him the Boy. Stefan hadn’t been sure about the Boy but after the two Raven Feeders joined with Caol in calling for him, he’d been left with little choice. So the Boy was in too. After that, Stefan had stopped looking. Five ways was more than enough for splitting rewards.
And as spring turned to summer, the first band of professional barbarian heroes traveled south.
Marc the Watchman was the first to see them, or at least the first to see them who wasn’t some forest dwelling recluse that no one wanted to talk to. He had the evening watch at Frodshom, a heavily fortified village up on the borders of civilisation, and was settling down to a fervently hoped for eight hours of boredom when he saw them walking up the road.
At first sight they didn’t look that impressive to him. Yes, they were big and well-armed, but Frodshom was used to barbarians. Barbarian warbands might impress the villagers, but not a mere five of them, loudly arguing with each other as they approached. They stopped outside of bowshot then their leader walked forwards a little further from the others, close enough that he could be understood.
“We wish to enter the village,” he shouted.
“You can’t. No barbarians.”
“We’re not barbarians though. We’re barbarian heroes.”
Marc’s brow creased up as he tried to make sense of that one. He couldn’t.
“What’s the difference?”
“Barbarians go around raiding and pillaging everywhere. Barbarian heroes only pillage after killing ravaging monsters or unjust tyrants. Everyone else is safe. Big difference, you see.”
“Then what do you want here? We’ve got none of those.”
“Well, we were hoping maybe you’d heard of where we could find some. And to trade and drink at your inn.”
“Oh. That makes sense.” Marc paused to see whether it actually did and got nothing better than a fifty-fifty answer from his brain. “I’m not sure barbarian heroes are exempt from the rules though. Still barbarians, right?”
“If we were barbarians,” the leader said in a very reasonable tone, “We wouldn’t be having this conversation. Me and my mates would be hiding in the forest three miles over there, and then we’d be up over the wall come night time, slit your throat, burn the village down, then be back out again with your gold, beer, and women.”
“Only if they agreed to it!” a higher pitched voice shouted from behind the leader.
“Of course,” the leader agreed. “So, you can see, we’re not really barbarians at all, right? Look, I can see where the confusion lies. How about you go ask the council about it? We can wait a bit. All we want is a drink and a warm bed and we’re going to pay for it. Or not, if you choose.”
Marc hadn’t been chosen to be a watchman because of his superior intellect. He’d been chosen by men who used their superior intellects to ensure they were out of the cold all night long. The situation was confusing him and the idea of passing it on to someone else was extremely appealing. Therefore, the only blemish he could see to the barbarian’s idea was the bit at which he had to explain the entire thing to the council. Who’d be mostly drunk already. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Marc waved to one of his neighbouring watchmen.
“Got some travellers wanting a place in the inn tonight. They’re armed. Go check with the council it’s alright to let them in while I keep an eye on them, will you?” he called out when the man was close enough to hear.
As his fellow watchman ran into the village, Marc relaxed in the guilty but pleasurable knowledge that whatever happened next, it wasn’t his problem, and that he probably wasn’t going to get his throat slit that night.
The Frodshom village inn was doing a thriving trade that night when the barbarian heroes walked in. Not only were there the usual crowd of farmers staying overnight and craftsmen escaping their wives but the council had been meeting, then had ended meeting, and were now a exhibit of the various types of inebriation.
It was just rotten luck that the first one to see them was Drunkenly Belligerent.
“Hey! What are you doing here? Didn’t the watch tell you no fucking barbarians?”
“The watch let us in. We’re just here for a drink and a bed,” said Caol.
“Why the hell did they do that?”
“You’d have to ask them. Innkeeper, can I get some ale please?” Caol held up a full looking purse, two golden armbands glittering as he did so.
“Well I’m telling you to let yourselves out!”
Caol glanced at Drunkenly Belligerent in the same way a cat might look at a mouse who insists on disturbing its nap, then shrugged and turned his gaze to the other council members, looking for Gregarious Drunk, Relaxed Drunk, or even Apathetic Drunk.
“I think your friend might need a lie down,” he suggested.
The council members looked at him, then the wide-shouldered, petulantly red Drunkenly Belligerent, then back at Caol and the other barbarians. Caol had the sort of dark, sleekly muscular and handsome look associated with the more glamourous type of predator animals, his bare arms decorated with blue spirals and rings alike. He was the tallest man there apart from Magni, who was simply the biggest man any of them had ever seen, a mountain with wild red hair and eyes the colour of lightening. Signi’s pale blonde hair was cut short, revealing the long scar that ran from just below her right eye to her neck. Independently, they all came to the same conclusion, and a couple of them got up to soothe Drunkenly Belligerent and lead him away.
And that might have been that had it not been for Magni.
“If he’s that drunk,” he said in a very loud whisper to Caol, “Do you think his wife might be wanting some company?”
With a great roar, Drunkenly Belligerent broke free from his two minders, arms flailing as he charged at Magni. With an absent-minded frown, Magni jabbed once, leaving the burly councillor sprawled out on the inn floor, motionless apart from the odd twitch.
“Look! There’s nothing to worry about,” Stefan sprang to the front of the group, convinced that Caol was going about it in all the wrong way. “They’re just barbarian heroes, you see, and that is just a bit of high spirits.
They’re not going to actually kill anyone.”
“High spirits?” one of the minders spluttered. “He nearly killed him. And you can’t say things like that to a man’s face, not about his good lady.”
“That’s true,” Caol nodded.
“And we’re glad he’s alive. Truly. We didn’t mean to make a fuss,” Signi said. “Did we, Magni?”
“No. I’m sorry,” Magni mumbled. “It was just a joke.”
“See? Nothing’s the matter. Now we can all get back to drinking and, in the morning, you can tell us how we can make your lives better in exchange for your gold. Or other valuables,” Stefan added considerately.
The minder got up from where he’d been checking Drunkenly Belligerent’s pulse with the very deliberate slowness of a man trying very hard to ignore his emotions and do the right thing.
“In the morning, you and your friends will go. No more trouble. You can stay the night but that’s it.”
“Of course. Decent of you,” Caol said then turned to Stefan. “No, no, you can stop whatever you were about to say. This has gone far enough.”
“But you’re mighty heroes! You can’t let people talk to you like that. You’ve got reputations to maintain, you-”
His words were lost to posterity as the minder solemnly pulled his right arm back, then swung his whole body around in a haymaker that sent Stefan flying halfway across the room. He was following him ready to mete out more retribution when Caol stepped in his way so, with the simplicity of the enraged, the minder rose to his tiptoes and tried to headbutt him.
That meant Magni hit with a flying tackle, and that meant the farmers whose table Magni broke starting kicking him as he lay prone, and that meant Signi picked up another table and threw it at them, and that meant the village blacksmith tried to restrain Signi but ended up with a broken arm.
And that meant a general brawl.
The people of Frodshom were used to bar brawls. They lived on a road that plenty of soldiers moving back and forth. Their population mainly consisted of bored and frustrated farmers. And the inn mainly served a particularly potent form of barleywine that could get statues drunk and reduce angels to babbling incoherently about how you were their best friend. They weren’t experts at it, or the sort of psychotics who kept a sharp edge somewhere on their person for such an occasion, but they knew their business.
Stefan watched in half-dazed astonishment as his new friends proceeded to demolish the place. Magni was the heart of it, constantly under attack from a stream of the villagers, periodically throwing them into each other and the furniture to roars of laughter. Signi seemed intent on taking on the other half of the room, smashing plates over people’s heads and then stealing their tankards to throw at their neighbours. Caol made sure no one could get at her back, using the blunt end of a broken chair leg as a makeshift cudgel. There was nothing for him to do but dodge the odd stray thrown object and person. It was, he thought, beautiful. His only worry was that it would go too far and someone would get killed. That wouldn’t be heroic at all.
Just as it occurred to him he’d brought four barbarian heroes with him and he couldn’t see the Boy anywhere, there was three hollow booms and the fire raged up, stunning the room into stillness.
“That’s enough of that,” the Boy said from a seat besides the bar, carefully sipping at a flagon. “And you can put that knife down, Sorrel Herdman. Wouldn’t have ended well for you if you used it.”
Stefan had long reckoned there was something eerie about the Boy. Maybe it was his paleness, or maybe it was the way he seemed to be looking at something else half the time. But as the flaring flames threw shadows over their faces and Sorrel Herdman went nearly as pale as the Boy was to begin with, Stefan decided that what was actually going on with the Boy was just completely outright weird. Maybe in a good way, but definitely weird. Maybe more weird than he could handle. The only noise was the crackling of the flames and then, a knife falling on the floor.
“Good. We’ll leave in the morning. You can leave now. It’s not fair but everyone will be alive at the end of it. Don’t ask for more than that.”