Snowfall. High Wycombe. I’m stuck in December snowdrift watching my cottage burn to the ground. Of course, it would be a Sunday, my longsword at the blacksmith’s. And of course Sir Perigord—my ex brother-in-law—knew this when he torched my home, kicked over my outhouse (with me in it), and profaned my pickles. He murdered my neighbor Rupert, I suppose, as an afterthought. Struck the poor bastard dead in his own cabbage patch.
Perigord has always hated my guts, thought I wasn’t good enough for his sis Eloise. Turns out he was right. Years before, I’d been deemed a prodigy (at six, I cleaved a man in two). But I tried to unionize during the Bedegraine Castle siege. Management outsourced to Woodland Trolls, twenty-two dudes got defenestrated, and a rookie marauder stabbed a lord. PR shitstorm. When the knight’s council caught wind they blackballed the daylights out of me. It marked the beginning of the end of my life with Eloise.
I was scraping by on under-the-table cash one-offs, B & E and muscle jobs—unsavory deeds the upper crust paid me to do then sneered at me for doing. And after a year of this beggary and mortification, Eloise left me.
At the blacksmith’s, the apprentice gives me static because I lost the repair ticket. The “best” he can do is give me a loaner—in this case, a dull scimitar that couldn’t bruise a banana. I clock his cranium, walk on him, and retrieve my longsword. On the way out, I consider giving the place a bad review, but settle for emptying the till.
In a square fight, I’d stomp a mudhole in Sir Perigord’s ass, but likely as not he’s got gold for private security, and that is above my weekend-warrior-paygrade.
What I need is a wingman, so I call on my questing buddy Ogrid. He lives in a pig shack behind the livery and when I roll up he’s in long johns, smoking dirt weed, and cutting morning wind. Ogrid is hairy and stouter than a hay roll. His eyes look like two tiny berries stuck in a bear’s bottom. But he’s great with an axe.
“Tom,” he croaks, “What’s the word?”
“Sir Perigord. Roasted the rental. Whacked my neighbor.”
“Fucking with me just for fun. And he fucked up my winter pantry.”
“Been dreaming fried pickles for weeks! What’s the move?”
“I say we make a play for the big time—clip him and his flunky crew, bring his head back to town. No more of this PT-no-benefits bullshit. I’m talking security contracts. Retainers. Fat stacks.”
“Sounds money to my ears.”
Two hours later we’re saddled up, a pair of marauder lifers, plenty of back, hip, rotator cuff problems between the two of us, riding out atop two fleabag rentals from Bayard the Chiseler. In this life, only Bayard Pimp of the Pawn wins—I always get fucked with the small print.
Snowfall. Ogrid’s extra coat fits me like a boat sail. On the way out, by the county line, we yield to upper crusts on the frozen road. The carriage passes, the blanket window opens, some city bitch sneers. We shoot her the bird; the woman shrieks at her driver, who turns and gives us the bird. Ogrid picks up a brick of ice and tags the man in the back—the driver slumps and the carriage crashes into a ditch. Ravens in the trees cackle. We ride past the wreck without giving it a second glance.
The early morning nastiness makes Ogrid sentimental: “Do you remember the Witching Campaigns?” he says. “Those were some high times.”
I don’t want to remember the things we’ve done, the people we’ve murdered. But I do.
I’m old. I lie awake at night with misery on my chest like an iron blanket and a sea of memory filling my lungs.
Ogrid has years on me and wounds whose numbers defy counting. He was at the Siege of Acre, Third Crusades. When the English rolled out trebuchet catapults, the men cheered, but Ogrid swears the second they fired the fucking things the age of marauding ended.
“Disruptive automation,” Ogrid says. He’s a workhorse, a union man, but some people need a hobby. Something to smooth out the edges. I took a gardening class on cruciferous greens. My beautiful plot a charnel pit now for unripened vegetables. Piece of shit Perigord. It chafes my buns, but that ain’t the half of it: he stomped out Eloise’s rose bushes too.
We ride off the road, find a clearing in the trees and dismount.
I get a cookfire going, Ogrid cooks. After we get beaned up, we go on into North Oxford looking for our old CI (criminal informant). He’s a cellar dweller, a skulking repository of rumor/hearsay. He lives on the outskirts of Oxford with his mother. Riding through town, Ogrid goes hot and heavy from all the coeds. He tries to reel them in with a spiel about organic yogurt, but the girls smell a turd: no one’s interested in crusty goats on rented mules. Unless they’re pervert poets. Oxford’s a university town. It’s not a place I’d want to stay for the next thirty years or even the next thirty minutes.
We roll up on the CI’s house, a prefab shit-a-brick stinking of bad bread and tragic bachelorhood in ways I wish were unfamiliar. It’s empty.
We investigate the outhouse. An upright coffin by a ravine.
Currently it’s shaking. The occupant is yelling. The plaintive fog of a masturbatory battle looms. We pull back and Ogrid fires up a roach, the only thing to do on a stakeout this depraved.
The violence inside the privy reaches fever pitch.
Ogrid rolls his eyes.
The CI exits the shitshack and finds the two of us mad-dogging him.
“Tom,” the CI stutters, “what…what are you two here for?”
“Jerry,” I say, “you sing for your supper—scuttlebutt bullshit, etcetera, etcetera.”
“I…I…d-d-don’t do that, anymore.”
Ogrid puts a meaty mitt on Jerry’s shoulder.
“Oh, God,” Jerry says. His hands quiver.
“Listen here you snitch, tell us about that scumfuck Sir Perigord. How many men? How many swords?”
Ogrid pats his axe. “But if you bullshit us, it’s curtains for Jerry’s berries.”
Jerry collapses on the ground. His legs shake a bit.
“Good God, I think he’s having a heart attack,” Ogrid says.
“Warwick brothel,” Jerry whispers. “Econo-whores.”
And just like that, our CI is dead.
After that, there isn’t much to do but dump poor old Jerry in the ravine behind the shithouse. We don’t bother making it look like an accident: most of the time people assume the worst anyway, and most of the time they’re right.
We get a fire going again and Ogrid cooks fava beans. For the second time today. He starts whistling a maudlin melody he calls “Marauder’s Theme.” Ogrid’s a questing fool—he’s having a splendid time—but I’m balls deep in gloom.
“Again with the fucking beans!”
I’m pissed about Eloise, the dead CI, our general lack of particulars, and having nothing but a steaming pile of beans to fill all the holes in my life. But I can tell I’ve gone too far.
Ogrid stops stirring and looks at me, hurt.
“You’ve got a mean sarcastic streak, Tom. It’s why Eloise left you.”
I huff and burrow underneath a horse blanket, too embarrassed to eat dinner. I turn away from him, remembering Eloise in our house—in our bed.
Ogrid eats his beans, climbs beneath his own blankets and nods off. I let the fire go. The embers vanish before I face the black and weep.
In butt-clenching cold, we ride through Banbury, a bleak famine ravaged town, filled with bleak looking residents, who would likely say bleak things if they opened their bleak mouths. We pass by a contraption: The good people of Banbury have stretched an accused thief on a rectangular rack. They’ve put the brown rats on him too, as a personal touch.
There’s things I’ve done that made the world a worse place, I don’t know why I’m still surprised when others do the same.
The next day, we pack it in for a hot spring soak. It’s awkward. And not at all relaxing.
I see two pairs of eyes staring from behind a log, bearing down on us.
“What the fuck?”
Ogrid turns, sees them, and grabs his junk.
The two heads start yelling Troll at us.
“What the fuck are they yelling?” Ogrid asks.
“This is a hell of a way to spend a Wednesday.”
The two Woodland Trolls vanish into the brush, leaving us standing there, uncertain of reality. Spa day ruined. Two naked geezers in the silent forest. The naked forest. Not even birdsong.
After that, we ride without talking.
Tall pines fence the road. Heavy rain starts. A lot of things turn out this way.
We stop for the night at a slummocky inn from the old berserker days.
When we walk into the roadhouse dining room, there’s twenty funky day laborers in there and it smells like it. It’s not the kind of place you’d want to stuff your face with mutton. They’ve got pictures on the wall. Vile deeds from the bad old days. There’s even a painting of Ogrid dunking a woman underwater. The pain looks real.
“My first witch,” Ogrid says. He whistles high and low.
That’s the exact moment a demon child attacks my right leg like a sex-crazed wolverine. I try to shake it off. Unsuccessfully.
“Who’s the father?” I ask the fetid gathering.
Most of the men drunkenly raise hands.
“They think you asked, ‘Who’s the farter?’” Ogrid says.
“Great,” I say. “That’s just great.”
Two hours later, we’re picking the bones of a bad meal, half-drunk on shit ale. The kid-wolverine is still attached. I’m too old to shake my leg anymore, and I don’t want a bad scene in here—I’m too old for that too. Ogrid and I look at our half-empty pints, not longingly. By middle age, booze no longer dulls your disappointments: it spreads like a rank fog in your brain. Ghostly anger. A bitter elegy for the twilight years of violent men.
“Cheese fries,” Ogrid says, expelling gas from both ends. “This place needs cheese fries.”
When the kid-wolverine finally cuts loose and gallops out of the room on all fours, the melancholia falls from the room into my head.
We ride out the next morning underneath an overcast grey dawn. Riding into Warwick, we don’t talk, we don’t plan. We ride towards an end that’s been galloping towards us for a long time.
We hitch the ponies and dismount outside the brothel.
We open a short door to a larger room, where we stand blinking and unmoving, our eyes refocusing in the dark.
The room feels small and mean. We’re unwelcome and obvious, like a cock and custard pie. Twelve sets of dagger eyes. Ruined marauders getting tanked. Suffocating on anger. When this many people get ape drunk in the same room, somebody dies. In this grim incest-hole, we seem likely candidates.
All eyes watch Ogrid and me walk to Perigord’s table.
When we get to him, he sits eyeing us drunkenly. We eye him warily too. With Perigord, it’s equal chance he passes out, raises up, or starts profaning pickles again.
He passes out.
Goon One drunk-ass parries, and Ogrid snaps his neck.
Somebody slices my Achilles.
Goon Three deadens Ogrid’s knee with a maul.
Goon Five vomits, and Ogrid cleaves his spine like an apple.
I find a blade in my back.
Goon Two dies mid-surrender, supplicant hands cut from him.
A spear blossoms in Ogrid’s chest.
Perigord opens his bloody eyes and says, “Tom.” I push my sword down his throat till he becomes a scabbard.
Ogrid is gone.
Perigord is gone. I’ll give him this much: he didn’t complain on the way out.
All those men, over all the years, all their eyes said the same thing, “I can’t believe this happened to me.”
We were all of us at Bedegraine. Perigord the highborn skated and I was cast out. Later, Eloise turned from me. Silence shadowed our home. I wasn’t good for her anymore. I wasn’t good for anything. We lived together for six years. But all I had left of her burned in the cottage.
“Retrain,” Eloise always said. Retrain. “Do something else.”
Reinvention. The big lie. After a certain age, you outlive the known world, your skin tightens, hardens. There isn’t enough flesh to be more than what you already are.
I look around at the room, at the debris of the realm. Ogrid, my dead friend. A wrecked room of dead marauders. Maybe all this will become a bad painting in a tavern. I’m cut. My own ticket’s close to punched. Now no one will even say my name. I let myself slip into memory.
I remember meeting Eloise by the lake behind Halvert’s tavern. I was drinking alone, when a beautiful girl strolled up to me, as though she’d materialized out of the fine summer dusk, a matchless comet lighting the dark solely for me. I was still working for the council—I was still someone people talked to back then. We sat there, and that evening was like a first drink, glowing and hopeful, without the dark, hurt, and aloneness that often follows, and for once I was absolutely certain luck had turned in my favor.
Mike Itaya lives in southern Alabama, where he works in a library. His work appears or is forthcoming in New Orleans Review, BULL, and Storm Cellar, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He holds an MFA in Fiction from Pacific University.