To Cast off Death’s Embrace
by Dav(id, e) "Vawn" Hayden
Sometimes people will talk about heroism in terms of "a calling", as in one's destiny being to do great things. In the warrior culture far to the North and West of the Realms, known as the Vaargha, there is a similar concept known as "a growling". For, honestly, nothing embodies the beckoning one feels to accomplish a particular task or goal quite like the gnawing emptiness of true hunger and the quest to end it.
Of course, sometimes a growling is just a growling, the sound one's stomach makes when it's been four or five hours since one's last meal and the threat of perishing from starvation is both real and imminent.
Sometimes the two growlings collide...
Tharak’s face was a swollen, bloody ruin, more open wound than skin, but still he fought on. It was possible that some part of his body was not bruised or broken, but he could not be sure as many areas had gone numb from the brutal blows his foe had landed time and time again. A brief glance at Beladin, his pathfinder companion, found a combination of concern and confusion. Tharak expected that, should he somehow survive this encounter, she would surely lecture him again on the value of occasionally dodging or blocking an enemy’s strikes. Perhaps she had a point…
Noroc, the glowering, traitorous shaman he fought, landed another solid blow on Tharak’s forearm. The force would have snapped both the bones in an ordinary man’s arm, but Tharak was neither ordinary nor just a man. He was his tribe’s champion, and he fought not just for his honor or vengeance, but for the whole of his people. The pain did cause him to wince, briefly, but he felt sure the moment of weakness did not show through the mask of war he wore, of grim determination. Or at least not the gore that marred that mask, small blessing though that might be.
While his appearance may have been unflinching, the cacophony inside Tharak’s skull was unbearable. So close to death, he felt the breath of his ancestors upon him, and the spirits were all giving advice at once. Were he not fighting for his very existence, he would have surely beat his head against the nearest tree to silence the different voices that berated and pleaded with him. Time slowed as his spirit guides advice blurred together. Confused by the contrary commands and the multiple head wounds, Tharak’s strikes were slow and uncoordinated. His enemy easily parried them aside.
“By all the dead!”, bellowed the Harvester of Souls, strongest of those who guided him from beyond, “you prattle like old women.” The assembled spirits fell silent, heads bowed. Wrath danced in the Great Spirit’s eyes as he surveyed those before him. His gaze focused on Braak, Tharak’s older brother, who had fallen to a troll’s greatclub just two seasons before. “You,” he boomed, “finish this!” Braak nodded solemnly; aware of the honor and burden he had been given. He turned back to the struggle and saw Tharak swat away Death’s tendrils, refusing to acknowledge that it was his time.
Noroc’s witchstaff struck again, and Tharak staggered back, dimly aware that the spirits had stopped speaking to him. Surely it was a sign the Harvester’s Handmaidens were approaching to gather him. Or worse, that his pitiful performance had caused them to turn away, lest they bear witness to his shame.
He dodged a killing blow, as surprised as his opponent that he was able to do so. The shaman spun his staff, building the power to smash through Tharak’s battered armor. Tharak looked for an opening, but the blood flowing into his eyes making it difficult to see, and he could not anticipate from where the final blow would come. Tharak felt the cold caress of the afterlife seep into his wounds. All seemed lost. Then from the silence,Braak roared a single command. “Cleave!”
Tharak felt the rage of the spirits the shaman had violated flow through his weary arms and into the ornately carved bone handle of his war axe. Unearthly power coursed through his broken body as the will of his brother helped him to draw his weapon high. Thought gave way to fury, technique to instinct, and the steel edge lacerated the air before driving deep into Noroc’s skull. Thick bone parted easily before the force of the blow. Blood and brains sprayed both men.
Noroc faltered. What remained of his face contorted in shock and disbelief that triumph had been torn from his grasp. Ichor streamed from the wound as Tharak planted a foot on the shaman chest and pried his weapon free.
The defiler of corpses stubbornly refused to accept the Harvester’s call, still unwilling to recognize defeat. His mouth twitched in protest, the far-off look in his eyes showed the struggle to comprehend. With a final swing Tharak severed Noroc’s head and watched with satisfaction as the shaman’s spirit was torn from the broken body and dragged to meet its judgment.
Tharak swayed unsteadily. He looked at the shaman’s severed head on the ground in front of him. “I shall gnaw on the bones of the elk by the fire this eve, while the vultures pick your cold corpse clean.”, he muttered thickly. Beladin sighed loudly and, muttering to herself, moved to bind the warrior’s many wounds.
In the unnatural quiet that blanketed the barren land that surrounded him, he could hear the spirits speaking amongst themselves. They congratulated Braak on his wise counsel and Tharak’s fortitude. The praise was brief but respectful. “He has much iron in his blood”, the Harvester observed. The gathered spirits merely grunted in assent. Braak beamed at the recognition and honor. Tharak could feel Braak's swelling pride and the warmth of well-earned glory, and he wrapped the emotions around him like a cloak as the blood slowed and then stopped flowing from his wounds, Beladin’s curses all but ignored. He would eat such a steak this night…