March 20, 2019

Fylkir’s breath hung heavy in the air, as if time itself had slowed. He had dropped her. He had dropped her, and he did not know how. Fylkir stood frozen in the middle of the street, snowflakes falling  in clusters and rogues gathering around. As their leader lunged for the Burning Girl, Hruod had already raised his fists and held a knowing, cold smirk on his bearded face, aimed at Fylkir.

Fylkir had no sword.

The girl dashed off into a sprint and Yssir charged after her. Fylkir took a step to run after them, but Hruod stood in his way, and Fylkir had to step back.

“Oh come on, play with me,” Hruod taunted.

Fylkir swallowed. Yssir and the girl were out of his sight, gone up the street with barely a sound, and rogues surrounded him from every direction.

Hruod’s wide shoulders rolled back and he looked down his nose at him, although Fylkir stood at least four inches taller. Fylkir’s lips pressed into a thin line, assessing Hruod.

This needed to be over quickly, if Fylkir were to catch the Burning Girl. And he would need something sharper than his wit to win this fight. Hruod’s two knives were strapped to his belt, but while Fylkir was fast, he couldn’t beat Hruod’s bear strength. He couldn’t get the knives without getting stung himself.

Fylkir stood his ground, and when Hruod came into range, he swung his fist first.

Without a flinch, Hruod took the punch, then grabbed Fylkir’s shoulder and shoved him down. Wincing, Fylkir’s hand met the ground and he regained his balance. Feet slid against snow as he ducked a blow. But the next one hit his cheek, and then Hruod was burying punches into Fylkir, over and over again.

Fylkir’s muscles strained, trying to get the heavy man in a chokehold, but blood sprouted from his eyebrow and turned his vision blurry and red. He didn’t allow himself to register the pain—Aruel perk. Or plain luck. But  if the beating went on any longer, the girl would be out of his reach.

If Hruod got the knives out, Fylkir would be done with. And with him, all of Noriannd, Kámwech, and the rest of the northern kingdoms.

Fylkir couldn’t die there. Not on that street. Not yet. If he went down, he had to take the Burning Girl down with him. He didn’t consider himself important in any way. Nobody had told him to stop a war. Maybe that was why it mattered.

For so long he’d taken orders. All of his life, he’d taken orders. They held an emptiness to them.

Fylkir could still catch up to the girl if Yssir had managed to slow her down. He’d just have to get rid of Yssir, and then… He wasn’t sure what he’d do then. But he knew he had to get the girl out of both the King’s and the rebels’ grasp.

Fylkir’s face stung and his gut throbbed, but he numbed the pain enough with a gurgling scream to dive down and roll out of Hruod’s way. His first steps faltered, but he struck his fist against Hruod’s side and as the man gruntingly bent forward, Fylkir went for the knife. Before turning around, he planted a firm kick on Hruod’s hunched lower back.

Taking the knife could’ve been a big mistake. But knife in hand, he ran up the street. 

“Stay out of it. Let me deal with the maggot!” Hruod howled behind him.

Snow crunched under his burning feet and his bleeding head ached with every pounding stride, his energy faltering.

He couldn’t stop. He imagined finding his home village burnt down, his clan and family slaughtered, scorched figures scattering the meadows and flat forest lands, their blood turning the lakeshores red. Fylkir’s stomach turned. He imagined things much worse than death—the Aruels weren’t foreign to slavery.

His brothers, sisters, his first love. He’d surely brought them much misery by being a such a disappointment, but he never thought he would end up causing their deaths. For years, he’d helped the general. If he didn’t catch the Burning Girl, Fylkir would be the cause of the war.

Fylkir’s breaths were loud and labored. He spit blood as he ran, and saw Hruod catching up behind him. He was panting so hard that he hadn’t heard Hruod’s footsteps.

He glanced at the knife, the metallic blade glinting in the misty daylight. The sun was a blurry shape in the sky, hidden by a veil of fog, and the air sat still in the city.

Hruod’s footsteps battered ground only meters from Fylkir, but it was impossible to run any faster.

The street in front winded into a left turn, but there was a rounded corner street with a frozen water fountain in the front. If Fylkir kept running up the street, he’d be dead, so he took a sharp turn, running straight toward the fountain.

A woman was walking across the street, a basket of dripping, steaming laundry in her arms. She glanced in Fylkir’s direction and then ran in full speed to pound on the doors of one of the houses.

Fylkir circled the fountain, catching his breath. But it wouldn’t last for long.

He steadied his breathing while crouching behind tall icicles. The fountain wasn’t Norian craftsmanship. Old towns around Noriannd’s borders had fountains like this to serve as a place where the wealthy and healthy would toss their coins to send to the needy. But every Norian was needy, so they didn’t see a point in building such things.

The clear icicles glimmered and snow fell from the fountain’s upper bowls down to the ground at Fylkir’s feet. With the knife, he began to cut into a thick, heavy-looking icicle. The metal jabbed and splinters of ice flew about.

He hid his hand with the knife behind him as Hruod came into view.

Snow stuck to Hruod’s beard. The man walked over the fountain and took a wide stance in front of Fylkir. He spat on Fylkir’s face, and Fylkir stood up, wiping his sleeve across his cheek.

Taking a step forward, Hruod’s foot nearly slipped on the ice, and Fylkir felt a smile welling up inside. Hruod curled his hands into fists.

“The king keeps recruiting little, entitled city boys and then wonders why they show up headless on his doorstep, huh,” Hruod said. “I’ve heard it’s a quite a problem there, in Hordrigg—dead soldiers showing up here and there.”

“I wouldn’t know about that.”

Hruod huffed. “Huh, wouldn’t know?”

“Never was a city boy,” said Fylkir.

“Doesn’t matter.” Hruod knocked his fists together. “I still have to kill you. And you still don’t know how to fight without a sword, do you?”

Fylkir hunched his shoulders forward.

“You King’s pigs don’t know how to draw blood without your metal, do you? You’re not like our ancestors. You’re weak.”

The blade in Fylkir’s hand cut through air, but it only scraped Hruod’s forearm. Hruod caught the hilt in his large hand, and even with two hands, Fylkir couldn’t thrust it into the man’s barrel chest. His nostrils flared, but Hruod didn’t budge.

Fylkir let go and jumped down from the fountain’s ice, circling the round pool’s rim that had risen with frozen water. Hruod mirrored his movements on the other side, but when Fylkir didn’t move, Hruod came to him.

Fylkir glanced at the cut off icicle at his feet, but then Hruod shoved him down on the ground, knife in hand, and Fylkir couldn’t get back up, or reach the icicle. He pushed and groaned.

The blade inched closer. Blood gleamed along the blade’s edges—it was Hruod’s blood, but if Fylkir couldn’t push him off, he’d get his face sliced off. Not that his face mattered, but he needed his face to stay on his shoulders for a little while longer.

Hruod hissed through gritted teeth at Fylkir’s attempt at knocking him out with his feet, and then he was slashing into Fylkir’s cheek. Warm blood splattered across his left cheek and into his eyes. It turned his vision red, and he clawed at Hruod, tried to push him away, but the blood blinded him.

Blinking furiously, Fylkir’s vision came into focus just before Hruod cut him again. Fylkir screamed. He tasted blood and held onto the hilt of the knife with both hands, trying to unhitch Hruod’s fingers around it. He held the knife back with all of his strength, muscles straining and every breath burning in his throat. 

Fylkir usually thrived in fights—each blow that hit his sword giving him more motivation to push on. But now, he had nothing to fight back with. He was that helpless child again, biting his tongue to keep himself from showing the pain. Each lash cutting deeper into his flesh, but making him stronger in his silence.

The girl would be far out of his reach now. Yssir must’ve gotten to her and hidden her somewhere already. Ready to turn her into a weapon to bring Noriannd down, and every other north kingdom with it.

Fylkir let go of the knife, as there was no point in getting his fingers cut off, too. A gash in his lip bled over his chin and filled his mouth with a strong salt and iron taste. Fylkir thrust his fist against Hruod’s chin.

He stretched his arms around Hruod’s abdomen, and holding the thick leather belt, he grappled Hruod over with his thighs. The knife cut into Fylkir’s arm. He ground his teeth, fists pounding into Hruod’s throat and face, slick with blood. Hruod threw Fylkir into a heap on the ground. He spat red into the snow and bent Fylkir’s arm, the bone creaking and Fylkir groaning in agony, holding back a screech.

The knife stabbed his rib twice, and Fylkir was left bleeding on the ground. He blinked blood from his eyes, Hruod hovering above him, ready to put him out of his misery.

Fylkir drew a sharp breath and stretched his arm out on the ice. His fingers curled around the broken icicle. 

He kept his eyes on Hruod’s. “Please,” he pleaded, sputtering blood. His dignity hung in tatters.

Hruod mused. Fylkir struck.

The icicle hit Hruod’s temple with a loud crack. Hruod blinked, and Fylkir hit him again. The fourth time, the ice broke and Hruod fell back, eyes rolling back in his head. Fylkir scrambled up from the snow. He spat blood and wiped his face on his sleeve, wincing from the fabric touching his fresh, stinging cuts.

Head light at heavy at the same time, Fylkir started away from the fountain and Hruod getting covered by snow.

Fylkir’s ribs stung horribly. He struggled to keep upright. With a hitched breath, he froze and bent down with his hand on his left thigh. He pulled the leathers and wools of his jacket and tunic up carefully with his fingers. 

Hot blood welled from the cuts in his ribcage, forming blotches of dark blood on his clothes. His fingers poked the stab wounds and he bit down hard on his lip.

Jaws clenched, Fylkir murmured, “Gods.”

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