Laddy pondered over how to continue his telling of the dream, then like water released from a flood gate, it all came rushing out.
“The morning of that last day Hunter had finished making a knife from blacker than black stone he had found on a different hunt some days before. He had been working on it lovingly, carefully, spending hours at a time shaping and honing it. The blade looked like deep water where the sun doesn’t reach, and it was very sharp. Sharper than the normal knives we used, even sharper than knives used only for skinning. Hunter attached the blade to a bleached white, bone handle using bone pins he had carved himself. It was, is, a thing of beauty.”
“We left before the dawn, several hours into the hunt we stopped at a beautiful stream to rest and drink our fill. With clean hands and faces we sat back to catch our breath. Hunter sat leaning back on his elbow. He turned to me with the black and white knife in his hand. With a serious look on his face he said to me, ‘give me your hand little brother.’”
”I looked at him suspiciously, but did it anyway. I trusted Hunter more than anyone in the world, and I would do anything he asked of me, with or without explanation. He took my hand and drug one edge of the knife across my palm fast and with the same skill he used to dispatch animals. I didn’t even feel it. I wouldn’t have known he had done it at all if I hadn’t been watching.”
Laddy looked down at a thin white scar on his hand. Tilly saw a clean palm, Laddy saw blood welling up in his cupped hand.
“I looked to Hunter horrified at what he had done, I tried to pull back but he gripped my hand firmly. He held the bone handle of the knife in the well of blood pooling in my hand. When about half the handle was full of my blood he released me. I thought I was going to be sick, then he did the same with his own hand. Slicing it with the opposite edge of the blade then soaking the remainder of the handle in his own blood. Mixing our blood, incorporating it as part of the nature of the blade.”
“He explained to me his actions in these words, ‘Now this knife holds both of us. Keep it safe, and I will always be by your side.’ I was surprised at his actions and grateful for the gift. Hunter simply nodded and cut a piece of deer skin off of his own jacket to bind the wound on my hand. Hunter then bound his own hand and we continued on the hunt. I felt a heady buzzing sensation throughout my body. I felt as though the blood in my veins was on fire. I loved the little knife, and I loved my brother. I vowed that Hunter’s knife would be with me for the rest of my life.”
Laddy rested his hand on a small dagger that to Tilly had appeared from nowhere like magic. The handle was a deep rust color and the blade was made of pure obsidian. It was well cared for. As soon as she had seen it Laddy whisked it away stashing it in some place Tilly could not see.
“We tracked the boar to that place and met those men. For the first time in his life Hunter gave up on a hunt, we instead headed for home. That night, the last night, we ate venison from a deer Hunter had taken a few days before. We finished it together as a family while the sun fell and the land faded into darkness.”
The weather was fine out, only a little chilly, and rather than sleep in the tent I laid out to watch the stars. My mother bundled me deeply in soft furs against the cold.” Laddy coughed out another tremble from his voice and laid one hand on his chest near the base of his throat and rubbed slowly back and forth towards one shoulder, remembering that final touch. When he was sure he could speak again he went on. “They were so beautiful, the stars, they were endless. I felt like I was swimming in a sea of blackness and light. I drifted off to sleep warm and full.”
“Then, I was awake again. Suddenly. I heard a rustle in the tall grass not too far off. At first I thought it was a wild animal. So I held very still. But then I heard other noises. A broken twig, a swish of leather on leather, and shallow breathing muffled by cloth. There were the quiet but quick steps of men, and they were all around. I could see our camp surrounded by the shadows of more than a dozen of them. They were deeply hooded, and armed with clubs, rock headed axes, spears, and knives. And they were drawing closer to my family in the tent.”
Tilly sat poised on the edge of the log gripping white knuckled at her cloak. Her breathing came in little gasps and she looked as if she wished to call out a warning to Laddy’s slumbering family. Laddy looked directly at her but he seemed not to recognize her, so lost in his story was he.
“Before I could react, or even call out a warning, they closed the distance from the edge of camp to the door of the tent. They must not have seen me laying on the grass outside in their haste to reach my family. The monsters fell upon the tent cutting their way through the hide and tearing down the poles that held it up. They drug my family from within still struggling to wake from their deep sleep.”
“As they descended upon us I cast off the furs my mother had wrapped me in, shouting I leaped to my feet falling on the savages with my bare fists and gnashing at them with my teeth. But I was still only a boy with too few winters on my muscles. I had no real effect on the devils binding and gagging my family.”
“I was trussed up too. My wounded hand wrenched behind my back, and lashed to the other so tightly my fingers tingled with lack of circulation. A man pinned me to the ground with a foot in between my shoulders. My eyes and mouth, my whole face, filled with dirt. I couldn’t even scream or call out to my family. I could barely breathe, I could see nothing.”Laddy gripped his own hands and rung them recalling the leather binding that had held him, fear filling his mind once again and scattering his thoughts.
“At first I struggled with all my might, squirming like a stuck bug, beneath that monster’s boot. But it was useless, I was bound too well and the weight of the man nearly crushed all the breath from my lungs. Then a harsh voice called out and the struggles of my family ceased. Turning my head to one side, and scraping my nose of most of it’s skin in the process, I made out the moonlit silhouette shapes of my family as they knelt before a man dressed in a pale white deerskin cloak.”
“The man in the cloak spoke in a harsh guttural tongue. In one hand he raised a knife. My sister screamed. I fought once more against the man holding me down and I received the blunt end of a spear to the side of my head for my struggles. My mind went all foggy. I clung to consciousness by a thread. Then the screams of my sister stopped. Even clouded as my mind was I knew she was dead.”
Tilly gasped. Laddy closed his eyes tightly, but pressed on.
“My mother was next. As she passed from this world my father and Hunter roared in defiance. I groaned in agony.”
“A slow chanting from the beasts in the form men rose in their throats, it was low and rhythmic and one voice above the rest let out an eerie keening noise that sounded like wolves crying. I blacked out for a moment, and when I came to, the dagger had already spilled my father’s life out upon the ground.”
“Hunter raged, he struggled with all his strength, the chanting grew to near hysteria. Hunter tumbled one man to the ground and rammed another in the stomach with his head, but that’s as far as he got. He was dragged back before the man in the deerskin cloak and his life ended just the same.”
Laddy looked up to the heavens once more and spoke in a language Tilly had never heard, he seemed to ask the sky a question. She assumed it was ‘Why?’ When he received no answer his eyes fell once more to her. His face was a blank, void of expression, the skin pale as though even his own blood retreated from the telling of the rest. When he spoke again his voice was hollow, empty of any emotion.
Then the man in the deerskin cloak came for me. I was hauled to my knees and held before him. He stood before me, arms raise in black magic religious rites. It’s strange, the things you notice when you’re about to die. I could hear the chanting, I could smell sweat and dirt. The dagger he held before my face…” Laddy trailed off and couldn’t describe that gruesome detail but Tilly understood. “But all those things seemed far away. What I noticed in that final moment was the man’s hood. It was different from the others. The top of it was wreathed in crown made with stains of blood painted on with what looked like the flat point of a knife. A blood crown.”
“My eyes filled with tears of hatred and mourning. As the man spoke my unholy requiem I thrashed with inhuman strength against those holding me. Blood from the wound on my hand soaked my bindings, and my hands slipped free.”
”I escaped briefly from their grip earning myself one chance, not at life, but at revenge. I rolled onto my back and kicked one of my captors with the flat of my foot across the top of his kneecap breaking it backwards. He dropping screaming to the ground. I ducked away as he fell.”
“Hunter’s knife was in a leather scabbard that hung from a cord around my neck. I ripped it out as I sprung to my feet. I charged at the man with the blood crown. I was raging with insanity. As I rushed at him I screamed that I would rip him end to end. He merely smiled at me.”
“I roared as I took my final steps, then I felt a warm piercing pain in my side a little above my hip. It brought me to a complete standstill.” Laddy looked down at his side as though he expected to see the knife of the man whose leg he had broken still there. He could recall that pain perfectly, it was excruciating and strangely exhilarating at the same time. He looked to Tilly and explained it. She had been wounded in battle too and accepted the reality of what he said. In a weird way that level of pain, that brush with your mortality, enlivens as much as it kills.
Laddy continued, “My blood ran down my side soaking my clothes and filling my boots as it emptied out my life. I felt light-headed and stupid, I pulled the dagger from my side by stepping on the arm of the man who had plunged it there. I vaguely heard his arm snap. I had only one thought remaining to me. Revenge.”
“I charged the Blood Crown again ignoring the men that had surrounded him. They filled my chest with spears. The last piercing my heart.” Laddy laid a hand once more on his chest.
“I fell with tears in my eyes. I failed. I failed to recognize the danger in time, I failed to warn my family, I failed to fight for them, I had failed to avenge them. And as you see me here, I even failed to die for them.”
“But how did you survive? ” Tilly asked.
“I didn’t.” Laddy replied. “I died with the rest of them. But something brought me back. I awoke the next morning, my family dead around me. I crawled and pulled my way between their bodies seeing if somehow they too had revived. But they had not. Stopping at each in turn I laid my forehead against each of theirs, our traditional farewell to those we’ve lost. That was all the funeral they had. I came to Hunter last.” Laddy again spoke words in that ancient tongue. He sobbed quietly once. Then held his breath, covering his mouth with one hand, until he could speak again. Tilly didn’t move a muscle.
“I dug their graves with my bare hands.” Laddy continued. “The foul men had taken all our belongings, including our tools. They took our animals, our clothes even the bones from our dinner. Hunter’s knife was gone too. As I buried all the people I had ever loved beneath mounds of black earth and river rocks, I vowed to get back Hunter’s knife, my knife, our knife.”
“When this dream comes to me, the last thing I see is four poor burial mounds and five white markers above them.”
“Why five?” Tilly asked in a barely audible whisper.
“Because I died too, Tilly. I just didn’t do it very well.”
Laddy wiped his eyes with the heels of his palms dragging away the tears that had gathered there. Tilly looked on with eyes wide and sad.
“I’m so sorry, Laddy. I didn’t know.”
Laddy nodded slowly. “No one does. In all the years I’ve lived I’ve never told another soul that story. I suppose it’s because you can make pork like my mother. Thank you. For the pork, and for listening.”
Tilly rose from her place by the fire and took Laddy’s hand. She said nothing but the gentle pressure she applied was all that needed to pass between them. After a moment she let go and roused Veron for the next watch. They had talked all through Laddy’s watch and now sleep was much-needed. Tilly fervently wished Laddy a dreamless night. But in his heart he hoped for the dream one more time, just to see his family’s faces again.