Sunday, October 2, 2016

Portrait of the Invincible Overlord as a Young Man by William Squirrell

William Squirrell's visceral fantasy flash about a man born and bred on violence.

The screaming of the peasants was a lullaby from long ago. Aethelwulf could hear Mummy singing her tra-la-las: up and down their voices went, up and down, up and down. The shafts of cold light pierced the dust, and the smoke and the fog were sunbeams through the nursery shutters. The grime and the sweat and the blood tasted of oats and milk and honey. He was happy, happy at his work, happy to feel the heft of his sword at the beginning of its arc, happy to feel its weightless zenith, happy at the jarring shudder of contact. They weren't much of a challenge, these tithe rebels with crooked spears and dull axes, no challenge at all, but better than nothing, better than playing cards in some dreary barracks, better than drunken arguments at the Spitted Pig, better than putting the city militia through their paces again and again and again in the cat-piss stink of the drill yard at the north gate.



The air was alive with arrows and he was seven, running through the courtyard for the open gate and the moat; Beryl had knocked down the nest with the first throw and a spinning, glittering cloud had swept up out of the grey wreckage. They were screaming and laughing as they ran, Aethelwulf and Beryl, screaming and laughing at the brilliant pain of the stings, diamond-bright and shrill, laughing as they leapt into the water. In the cool salve of the water they laughed and laughed; laughed at the sentries' agonized dance; laughed at the hornets swarming under the helmets and into the mail; laughed as the sentries jerked and twisted like puppets on their strings. It was a funny thing to see a man hit with an arrow: it wasn't there, and then it was; wasn't, was. Fat Ungel had been dispatching some scrawny ditch-digger when all-of-a-sudden a shaft protruded from the base of his neck where there hadn't been a shaft before; it looked as if it had sprouted there, a funny sort of flower, in the lovely hollow between the collarbone and the neck. Fat Ungel looked up and another arrow appeared in his left eye. They buzzed and buzzed about and the Captain was shrieking. The Captain was always shrieking: shrieking about retreats; shrieking about charges; shrieking about the flanks; shrieking, shrieking, shrieking.



They were in the wet grass behind the wall and the arrows falling about them. Aethelwulf smelled the yeasty ferment of damp hay and mushrooms. The archers were in a copse on the other side of the meadow. They filled the air with volley after volley, they filled the air with noise - whizz-whizz-whizz - a blade against a whetstone - whizz-whizz-whizz. Mummy always woke him with a song: "When, oh when will the cows come home? Cows come home? Cows come home?" They went up and over the wall. They ran across the meadow, the mist coiled about the tops of the trees, teasing them, tickling them, the mist was turning into rain. An arrow hit him in the shoulder as he ran, bouncing off the mail, turning him in a circle, a flash of blue through the clouds, Beryl was pirouetting across the ballroom floor, he had never seen her in a dress before, her hair piled up on top of her head, around and around she spun with the Baronet of Twisted Peak and Aethelwulf was in the copse. Old Farts-and-Glory was yelling at him in the training pit, something about tightening up your swing in the trees, something about no swing at all, jabs and crafty edgework and elbows and knees and the brim of your helmet against their fragile noses, the sound of snail shells under boots. Old Farts-and-Glory was a mad bastard, a bad bastard, a bastard's bastard, breaking broomsticks against their backs, beating them black and blue. "Boo hoo hoo," Daddy laughed when Mummy complained, "boo hoo hoo," but he'd be dead soon enough, Daddy would be: dead; dead as Mummy; dead as Old Farts-and-Glory; dead, dead, dead; dead as the archers at Aethelwulf's feet.



The Captain was slammed against a tree, pinned there by a spear with a shaft as thick as Aethelwulf's wrist. He had stopped shrieking. His mouth was moving like a fish's: no words, no sound. His mouth was a perfect "O." Oh Beryl, how could you, thought Aethelwulf, and with Twisted Peak yet, with Peaky Twist, Sneaky Pete.

"O," said the Captain: "O."

"O."

"Ogre."

A great grey hand yanked the spear out of the poor Captain and he burped up a bellyful of black blood: a bellyful of shrieks. What to do about an ogre? What a to-do about an ogre. They like a bit of drama, ogres do. They like to pause and roar. Just like Daddy. They like to let you know that they are in control; that they are there; that you are there; they want you to know; to know about Mummy; Mummy and Daddy; poor dead Mummy and her tra-la-las. Obliteration; eclipse; grey skin; twisting muscle; eyes as big as swollen udders; yellow fangs like shards of bone; charnel stink. Up the spear goes, wait for the pause, wait for the pause, wait for the rush of air as it fills the barrels of its lungs, wait, wait, wait for Daddy to let things lapse, wait for Daddy to think things done, wait, wait, wait for the roar: "I AM!" A flash of steel across its throat, a startled gasp, a startled gasp, the worst sound in the world, the best, the worst, the best sound in the world, Mummy turns when you call, she spins, her eyes are blue, her eyes are blue, her laughing stops, her laughing stops, you hear a startled gasp, she pirouettes, she pirouettes, the ogre grins behind her, the ogre grins, the ogre falls, the ogre falls, I hate you Daddy, I love you Daddy, I hate you Daddy.

6 comments:

  1. Totally wow!

    This is quite brilliant. I shan't begin to think too deeply about the subconscious symbolism because I would probably end up in tears.

    Brilliantly told: respect to the author.

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  2. A skilful flash that captures the relentless cycles that violence generates. The language is deft and playful and contrasts powerfully with the dark content. Thanks, Ceinwen

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  3. brilliantly descriptive, relentless violence, there seems to be a lot simmering just below the surface here. powerful stuff.

    Mike McC

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  4. Amazing, gripping, startling - so much in this brief piece. Well done! Thank you.

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  5. This is a magnificent story, more an extended poem than a narrative. I was particularly impressed by the descriptions of arrows appearing from nowhere.

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  6. I really enjoyed this, both poetic and polemical, pulling my brain all over the place and back again, tra-la-la, I love it, I hate it, no I love it.
    S.Lucas

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