(Rough Draft) The Sword and the Serpent

(Rough Draft) The Sword and the Serpent

A Story by Kieran Shuttleworth

The sun crept slowly over the horizon, and the night fled in its wake. The mighty standing stones, tall and proud, cast long shadows over the young spring grass, glistening with dew. But the most dazzling sight was of the steel, the red light of dawn glinting off its keen edge. The sword of the tribe, the Sword of Power, rested upon the slab of black rock which sat at the centre of the ring of stone pillars. The Old Man, garbed in white robes, waited within the ring, while the rest of the tribe waited without, watching keenly. 

The crowd parted in reverence, and through their midst walked a young man, newly come to his full growth. The breadth of his shoulders, the leanness of his hips and the strength in his arms denoted a warrior, while his generous growth of beard made him seem a man older than what he actually was. Save for rings of gold about his arms and the swirling tattoos about his chest the warrior had discarded all other garments, so that he may show his humility before the gods. 

Such a ritual Kormak had been through once before, when he and the other boys of his age had passed their trials and were initiated into manhood. But he had shared that day with the others, this day was for him alone, for only one man may be worthy to bear the Sword of Power. Forged from ancient steel whose art of making was lost long ago, it belonged to the tribe as a whole, yet may be entrusted only to a warrior who has proven worthy of it. The names of those who bore that blade have gone down into legend, and now Kormak’s name would be listed among them.

That previous winter, hunger had driven the Beast-men from their hidden caves in the mountains and into the plains of the shepherd peoples. Terrible bloodshed ensued; whole families were butchered in their homes, and many young warriors witnessed their first and last battles. Kormak, newly a man, was among them with axe in hand. He not only survived his first blood-letting and proved his right to be a warrior, but had also lived where older men had fallen, in the storm of weapons where the fighting had been the fiercest. The scars he earned from that fight still glistened redly on his bare skin, but he had won more than scars that day. The War-chief of the Beast-folk himself had taken to the field and had brought low many a proud warrior, a towering monster of painted hair and muscle. But Kormak had killed the thing and struck the monster’s head from its shoulder. That had won the battle for the people of the plains, and the Beast-men slunk back to their lairs to nurse their wounded pride and empty bellies. The Elders took council, and it was decided that Kormak should be awarded the highest honour. 

And so, before the witness of gods and men, Kormak stood naked now in the Ring of Seven Stones, before the rising of Grand Father Sun. The Old Man took up a golden chalice and dipped his hand into its contents, drawing out his bony fingers red with blood. Kormak knelt, and the priest smeared the blood upon the warrior’s face and chest, drawing the mystic symbols. This done, Kormak was bidden to rise and, turning towards the black stone, reached out for the hilt of the Sword and took it up in his hand. Blade aimed heavenwards, Kormak held the Sword aloft for all to see. Red sunlight glinted from the tip of the blade, and a great cheer arose from the people. 

The swelling tide of crying voices thrummed in Kormak’s ears and his veins ran hot, his heart aflame. The patterns of blood upon his face began to slither down his cheeks until it touched his lips. Kormak smiled as the iron-taste of blood touched his tongue. This then was what it meant to be a man, this then was what it meant to be a hero. 


Whisper did not stand amongst the crowd, rather, she sat upon the branch of a tree as was her wont, like a slender squirrel. The tree was quite distant from the crowd, but the height of her branch gave Whisper a better view of the ring of stones than most. 

The air shook when Kormak took up the sword. The people cheered for him, but she did not. Whisper knew she should be happy for her friend, for to be chosen to bear the Sword of Power was an honour bestowed only to the most worthy men. She remembered Kormak as a boy, playing at being a warrior, waving around a stick which Whisper had caught him calling his Sword of Power, much to Kormak’s embarrassment. But the boy was a man now, and he was no longer playing at being a warrior. When the crowd cheered for their new champion, the sound had seemed to rend at her heart like a wild beast, and when she looked upon Kormak as he took up the sword, eyes peering bright from a ghastly mask of blood, she was filled with dread.

Whisper felt ashamed. Nimbly jumping down from her branch, she walked solemnly away from the site, following a lazy stream that twinkled in the morning light. Her slender fingers brushed against the reeds, and she watched with sad eyes at the butterflies which fluttered this way and that. Her memory returned to the spring afternoons of years gone by, when she and Kormak would chase such butterflies and cool their feet in the streams, laughing and singing all the while. She had not known how dearly she had missed that silly, happy boy before that day. They had been the closest friends, but Kormak had grown distant from her, spending his spare hours at practice with weapons, and scoffing at all things childish. It wasn’t his fault, Whisper told herself, he had only grown up. So why then could she not be happy for him?

The hours passed her by as she forgot all other things, idly wandering along the old tracks through forest glades and bubbling streams, alone with her thoughts. She new that land well since her young exploring, and so she allowed her memories to carry her as she willed. She continued along until she was in clearing amidst a great clump of foreboding trees, the sun shining down on the purple flowers that grew there like a soft bed. It was only much later that she noted how high the sun had risen in the sky. The day was wearing on, and she would undoubtedly be missed back at the village. She picked herself up and took one last, longing look at the clearing, her secret place which only she, and Kormak, knew of. 

The noise of heavy footfalls from outside clearing made her pause. Whisper turned to look at the direction of the noise, ready to flee at a moment’s notice. Had a beast picked up her scent? An outlaw? She cursed herself for not having a dagger at her side, prepared to turn and run, when a man stepped into the circle of the clearing, sword in hand. 

Kormak was wearing his finest clothes now, all red wool and golden trims, fur cloak draped about his great shoulders. His gold rings still flashed bright about his fingers and arms, like the colour of his hair and beard. A smile showed on his face when the warrior saw Whisper in the clearing. A smile that had once come so easily to his face years ago whenever  he had joined Whisper to play. For a brief moment he seemed a boy again, but Kormak banished his smile and tautened his jaw in that grim, serious manner he always bore now.

“Lady Whisper,” he said, giving a curt nod of his head as though she were a stranger to him. “I did not see you after the ceremony…”

“I…” Whisper started, but the words she wanted to say did not come to her. “That is kind of you…”

“These woods are not as safe as they once were.” Kormak said in an imperious tone. “We don’t know what sort of things were driven here by the Beast-men. This is no longer a place for childish games.” 

He was right, Whisper knew, but the way he said that brought a sting of sadness to her. “I’m sorry,” she managed to say “I… I won’t do it again.”

She turned to go.

“Wait.” Kormak said. 

Whisper halted, looked back at that warrior, tall and grim. He stood there like a stern, vengeful god like out of the elder stories. She suddenly felt that she did not want to be alone with this man anymore. 

“I had hoped to talk with you privately anyway, Lady Whisper, but now is a good time as ever. I would have you listen to what I have to say.”

Whisper could not explain the cold fingers of dread that touched her now. She was fearing this stranger more and more now, wishing desperately to be anywhere else but that place with that man.

“W-what would you have of me… great Champion.” She could not bring herself to say Kormak’s name.

If Kormak saw her hesitation, he did not show it. “I have spent a long time getting to where I am now. Now I am a man. Now I am foremost of all our peoples’ warriors. None can say I have not proven worthy of anything I might ask for.”

He stepped closer, his booted foot crushing flowers beneath it. Whisper couldn’t help but take a small step back, her heart beating loudly in her ears.

“I have worked long and hard for this moment, Whisper. Now, I can ask for the hand of any woman I desire, and none will say I am unworthy. Now your family will accept me, and we can be wed.”

Whisper said nothing, could say nothing. She wanted to run, run far away and pretend nothing had happened. She wanted to be away from this stranger. 

“Whisper, all these years I have wanted…” he reached out a hand to touch her shoulder. Yet without thinking Whisper shirked away from his touch. 

“Why do you recoil from me,” said Kormak, “like I were some common beggar?” He took a step forward, but Whisper kept her distance from him. A wild rage filled his eyes. 

“I’m sorry,” breathed Whisper. “I’m so sorry, but… I…” 

“Come to me now!” His hands were clenched in fists, his teeth clenched together like a snarling animal.

“I’m sorry… Goodbye Kormak.” Whisper turned and made to hurry out of the clearing. 

“You fickle she-dog!” Kormak stormed after her. “I have bled for this moment, killed for it! Get back here!” 

Whisper broke into a panicked run, dashing through the trees like a doe, and Kormak barrelled after, howling like a madman. He shouted after her, but Whisper did not hear the words. She only ran, not daring to look back, eyes swelling with tears. She soon outstripped Kormak, who stumbled clumsily through the woods. His Sword of Power, hanging in its sheath from his belt, became caught in his legs and sent him sprawling to the dirt. Kormak rose up in a bluster, spitting dirt from his mouth, and Whisper was nowhere to be seen.


Kormak drew his sword, the prize he had fought so hard to earn. He threw the sheathe away contemptuously and glared at the steel hatefully. He swung the blade about madly, hacking away at branches and tree trunks as though all the world were to blame for his anger. He wanted to kill something, wanted to run away to nowhere and die in a hole. He hated everything; the forest, the damned sword, himself. He thought of Whisper…

He hurled his head back and howled to the open sky, sinking to his knees to sob pitifully in the dirt. For a long time he only crouched there, wallowing in his grief and shame. Slowly, his sobs began to lessen. He opened his eyes looked for his sword, thought of throwing himself upon its point and making and end to his worthless life. His hands searched blindly in dirt, felt a the leaves of a gorse bush, flattened against the earth. He paused, looked at the bush, half of which had been curiously crushed. For the first time he noticed a faint scent upon the air, like the smell of rotting carcasses. 

Kormak launched himself to his feet, suddenly wary as a wolf. He looked about, and saw that he was standing along what seemed like a trail of crushed undergrowth, winding amongst the woods like the passage of some great serpent. The hairs on the back of Kormak’s neck stood on end, and he knew he was not alone in the forest. His grief was forgotten now, only to be replaced by a cold fear.

“Oh gods no… Whisper…” 

He looked about for his sword in a panic, took up the dirt smeared blade and raced off, hurtling along the trail. He threw off his cloak and his arm rings as he ran but held tightly to the sword. He would have sore need of it now. 

The trail led deeper and deeper into the forest, winding this way and that erratically. Kormak saw the signs of struggle along the way, the spoor of deer and boar, their tracks swallowed up by the larger trail. Kormak spurred himself to run faster. 

The monster was on the hunt. 

On he went, crying out Whisper’s name to no reply. The corpse-smell of serpent grew heavier in the air, and Kormak’s fear gave way to mad panic as he hurtled on, heedless of the danger. 

Suddenly he heard the sound like the cracking of branches ahead. Kormak crested a small ridge, sword at the ready.  Before him rose a tree, a tall and scraggly thing. Coiled about the tree’s trunk was a monstrously sized serpent, its colossal head nosing amongst the lower branches where the distant figure if Whisper could be seen, desperately scrambling from limb to limb to get away from the creature. 

The tree swayed dangerously when the serpent shifted its great weight, the gnarled trunk threatening to break apart. Whisper clung desperately to the branches. The serpent followed after her, tasting the air with flicks of its tongues. It’s mouth yawned open with a hiss, its fangs bared. Whisper broke a stick with her free hand and speared it at the creature, thrusting into its opening mouth. The monster recoiled violently, tearing the stick from Whisper’s hand. She took the chance to climb higher, but the serpent recovered and was pursuing her again, his breath misting in the air.

A great cry rang out in the forest. Whisper looked up to see Kormak, hurling himself towards the serpent’s coils, sword flashing bright in the evening sun. With a great downward sweep, Kormak cut a bloody gash into the serpent’s side. The monster shook with pain, nearly causing Whisper to be hurled from the tree. Kormak rose his sword again for another blow, but the serpent’s head speared for the warrior. It’s fangs sank into Kormak’s forearm, causing him to drop sword from nerveless fingers. He howled in pain, fighting to not be knocked from his feet. The creature jerked its head from side to side, trying to tear Kormak’s arm from his side. Gritting his teeth against the searing pain, Kormak’s free hand drew his knife from his belt and stabbing it savagely into the serpent’s snout. The monster hissed and spat as it loosed the warrior’s arm, its mouth and fangs dripping with blood. 

Kormak collapsed to his knees, nursing his bloodied arm. There was a sound like thunder, and the tree caught in the serpent’s coils splintered and shattered. He caught a glimpse of Whisper, entangled in the branches as the tree fell crashing to the earth. 

“Whisper!” Kormak cried, staggering to a run to reach the ruin of shattered branches beneath which Whisper could lay. Yet in an instant, the serpent had disentangled itself from the remains of the trunk. The tail caught Kormak in the legs, sending him to sprawl in the writhing coils. The serpent wound its terrible frame about the man, tightening like a hangman’s noose. 

Kormak managed to tear his arms free, yet his legs and his chest remained in the monster’s grip. Already the pressure of the serpent’s crushing strength threaten to break his bones. The serpent’s head hung over its prey, blood dripping still from hits fangs. Kormak caught hold of the monster’s jaw just in time, wrestling to keep its fangs from this throat. The coils pulled tighter, the air came rushing out Kormak’s lungs in gasp, fighting to keep hold of the terrible head, even as he felt his bones pushed to their limits against the strain. His legs broke first, shattering like dried kindling. Even his ribs fractured and broke, one by one. A terrible pain filled Kormak’s chest as blood welled up in his throat. 

With a defiant cry, Kormak spat blood from his mouth, gritting his teeth as he allowed his rage to consume him. He forced himself to forget the pain, put all his remaining strength into forcing open the serpent’s jaws. The monster hissed furiously, but Kormak held firm, and with a final surge of strength, he tore away the lower jaw of the monster in a shower of blood. The coils of the serpent jerked and spasmed, leaving Kormak to fall into the tangled mass. 

Whisper desperately scrabbled her way out of the ruin of the fallen tree, bleeding from several cuts. She saw the writhing frame of the dying serpent, saw the blood pool on the ground beneath gory head. And there, freed from the crushing coils, was Kormak laying broken upon the ground. Whisper scrambled over to where he lay, breathing come in ragged gasps. She saw in horror the terrible wounds that marred his body, his twisted legs and his savaged arm. 

“Kormak!” she cried, ignoring her own hurts to kneel beside the fallen warrior. She cradled his head in her arms, looking at his wounds and desperately trying to think of ways to help. But it not take long to know the Kormak was beyond all help now.

His breathing was wheezing, pain-filled rasps. Whisper looked into his face, tears streaking down her cheeks to fall upon Kormak’s cheeks. His eyed flicked open weakly, looking up into Whisper’s eyes. A big, oafish smile crept across his bloodied face, as though seeing Whisper for the first time. 

“Sorry Wisp,” he managed to say between breaths. “You told me not to fight those older boys. But I was too stupid to listen…”

Whisper was lost for words, an old memory slowly stirring within her. “It wasn’t stupid of you Korm, you were very brave…” 

“I got really mad when I saw what they did to your favourite lamb Wisp, when you cried. I wanted to make them apologise. But they got angry and thrashed me.” 

“You faced them all down Korm, like a true warrior would.” Whisper said. 

“I wish… Wisp?

“Yes?”

“When I grow older, I want to become a hero. Then I could marry you, and you can keep as many lambs as you want, and no one will make you cry ever again. I’ll be worth something, once have I become a true man.”

“Don’t be silly, Korm. You always have been…”

Whisper pressed her lips to Kormak’s. When she drew away, his eyes were closed, and his pallid face bore a boyish grin. There came one, last breath, and then Kormak was still. 

© 2018 Kieran Shuttleworth


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Added on February 27, 2018
Last Updated on February 27, 2018

Author

Kieran Shuttleworth
Kieran Shuttleworth

Bonnells Bay, NSW, Australia



About
Hi there. Like most everyone here, I am an aspiring writer, looking to practice my technique amongst like-minded people. I like to keep my reading varied, but my passion truly lies with gritty adve.. more..

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