Saturday, July 19, 2014

"A Promise"-- Short Story by Hazel West

So, I know I haven't posted anything in a long time, and I think I'm going to have to admit to the fact that I'm going to put The Voices Beneath on hiatus for the rest of the summer as is the way of television ;) I just really don't want to rush through the rest of it, so I'm going to work on it in the next couple months and start it back up as a serial in September. Until then, next month I'm going to post the current challenge stories, and I'm thinking of having another mini challenge that I will let you all know about soon.

But since I felt bad for not posting anything, I thought I'd post this short story I wrote. I originally wrote it a while back from a friend's challenge to write something to make her cry. So yeah, sorry, it's a sad one, but I hope you all like it anyway. I wasn't entirely unpleased with it ;-)

A Promise

Colin allowed Neil to put his armor on. He always did it to make sure his little brother was properly protected. Colin suffered him to do it even though he fidgeted at the overprotectiveness Neil always showed him. Ever since their father had died, Neil had taken his place and been almost intolerable.
            “Neil, I’m already fighting,” he had said on many occasions. “I’m already in harm’s way, one bad blow and it’s not going to matter how tight my armor is.”
            To which he would always reply, “Just let me have a little peace of mind at least, Colin.” And then Colin would be forced to shut up until he was done.
            But apart from everything, he did still love his big brother, even if he was trying sometimes, and he would die for him as soon as Neil would do the same. But for some reason, Neil didn’t seem to see it that way, and he would never have allowed it. That had been the main fight between them. Neil insisted that because Colin was younger he didn’t have to watch his brother’s back, but Colin knew that wasn’t true. Sometimes the little brother had to look out for the bigger one too.
            That day, as the enemy approached and Neil got ready to lead his men into battle, he took Colin by the shoulders and looked him in the eye as he always did.
            “Stay in the back, little brother,” he said.
            And as always, Colin glared and shook him off. “No. I fight beside you.”
            And Neil shook his head. “No, stay in the back. No matter what happens. Stay there.”
            “Why?” he asked this time. He had never asked, knowing it was too painful a subject after their father had died, after Erik…the brother who was even younger than Colin had been slaughtered. Colin knew why, but he still thought it unjust to not only keep him from protecting his last living relation, but also keeping him from his own revenge for those they had loved and lost.
            Neil’s face was dark. “Do not ask me that,” he whispered hoarsely. “You know…” he stopped, choking.
            “Neil, you can’t do this alone,” Colin pleaded, putting a hand on his brother’s wrist. “Please, don’t burden yourself so.”
            Neil grabbed his arms desperately and yanked him forward. “Don’t you see, Colin? I can’t lose you too. It would kill me. Please, just… just do what I say. I…I can’t do it. Not again. I can’t bury another brother.”
            Colin saw the anguish on his brother’s face, but still he had to say, “Neither can I.” But, as always, he complied and hugged his brother tightly before they went out, he to the back row of soldiers and Neil on his horse to the front. And then it was only a matter of waiting for the enemy to come and the fight to begin. And torn between the love he felt for his brother and need to make him proud, and his own pride that would not allow him to stay away from the fighting, he waited, sword ready, though he knew he wouldn’t probably even meet an enemy soldier that day.
            But today was different. The opposing army was bigger, fiercer. Mercenaries had been called, large, angry men from the north, and Colin felt his hand tighten on his sword hilt as his stomach knotted with trepidation. He had a horrible feeling that something was going to go wrong. Perhaps he would fight after all that day. For some reason that thought did not sit as well with him as he thought it would.
            Neil was at the head of the men, shouting orders, and in that moment the enemy charged and gave their warriors little warning. Colin tried to see over the press to the front of the line, and his mounted brother, but he was shorter than most of the warriors and could only hear the horrible clash of metal and screams of dying men.
            He ran forward, pressing the men out of the way, but didn’t get very far. Only enough to find a vantage point among them. He caught sight of Neil, swinging his sword left and right from his mounted position and shouting orders as the men forced a shield wall and held off the opposing army with all they had.
            And then suddenly, there were three men going after Neil and Colin tried shouting to him, but he could not be heard above the roar of battle. He fought to get forward, but he was stuck fast between the men who were just waiting for their turn to get at the enemy. Neil had his sword raised, ready for the fight, when one of the men stabbed his horse in the flank at the same time he took Neil in the side and he cried out as his horse bolted, and Colin couldn’t think another minute. All he knew was that he had to find his brother and protect him as he knew he was meant to. He shoved his way forward, a new burst of energy surging through his veins. He screamed out war cries, and like a swimmer breaking the surface, he thrust out of the throng and nearly fell into one of the huge warriors of the opposing side. Colin didn’t think, just stuck his sword into the man’s chest with a scream and rushed off into the direction he had seen the horse take Neil. He heard several of his comrades shouting his name, but he didn’t look back, and no one paid any attention as soon as he was out of the throng.
            There were more bodies littered around there. Everyone seemed to have scattered after the initial onslaught. He ran another warrior through, and then whipped around, catching sight of the horse his brother rode. His heart clenched in his chest as he saw a limp figure lying beside the dead beast. He stumbled as he ran toward it, falling to his knees.
            “Neil!” he choked out and gently touched the shoulder, flinching as he turned the body over quickly, seeing it flop lifelessly. He gasped and vomited into the ground as he saw the face smashed in. He could not longer recognize his brother’s features, but the golden hair was his. Colin choked on a sob. Maybe it wasn’t Neil, it could be anyone, but his hand was clutched around an amulet he always wore, torn from his throat, maybe for Colin—it had been their father’s. He sobbed as he pulled it from Neil’s stiff fingers and looped it around his own neck.
            “I’m so sorry, brother,” he whispered. “I wasn’t there.”
            “Colin!” Hogan, one of the house warriors ran up to him and hauled him to his feet, stopping only a moment as he saw Neil’s lifeless body. “Colin, come, it’s not safe here.”
            “They killed him,” he whispered. “They killed him! I’ll kill them all!” He jerked away from Hogan, but the older man held him tight.
            “Colin, it’s suicide!”
            “I don’t care!” Colin screamed. “My brother is dead! I have no wish to live anymore.” And he slammed his head back into Hogan’s face and ran away, his sword held above his head as he screamed for vengeance.
            The enemy did not know what hit them. This young dark-haired demon flew at them with all the rage of a berserker, curses of revenge on his lips. Everyone he faced fell, even the greatest warriors. He took wounds but didn’t notice. He didn’t care. He didn’t plan on coming out of this fight alive; all he wanted was to kill the scum who had slaughtered his family. He was the only one left to avenge them and, as was his right, he would do so.
            And then there seemed to be no more enemies in front of him. He spun around, looking left and right, but they were all subdued, or running away. This angered him. How dare they run? He was not finished with them yet!
            “Get back here, cowards!” he screamed, starting after them. “Get back here you scum, you’ll pay for this! You’ll pay for it all! My sword has not drunk enough blood to repay your foul deeds yet this day!”
            Then a spear lodged itself in his thigh and he went down, trying to struggle back up, but found he could not. The moment he rested, the moment the sword left his hand, he felt all his wounds, and realized he had gone too far already. He sobbed in grief, for his brother and the fact that he could not fight another moment.
            “Come back!” he sobbed. “Come fight me. I’ll fight you lying here!” He threw his sword at their backs but none returned, and he simply lay there and cried.
Neil opened his eyes blearily and hauled himself into a sitting position. He remembered being hauled from his horse by the warrior and having lost his sword when his horse dumped him, he had been forced to use a rock to smash the warrior’s head in. After that he had tried to get back to his men, but had been weakened by the loss of blood from his wounds and fell into a stupor before he could call for help. He now looked around, seeing that the enemy seemed to have retreated. He was shocked, he had been sure they would never last the day out. He quickly ripped the tail off his tunic and stuffed it under his armor to stop up the wound in his side the best he could before he could see a healer. He crawled to a spear lying close by and used it to push himself to his feet.
            He made his way back to his men and called out to them, but no one seemed to hear him. They were sorting through the wounded and dead, picking their own out from among the far greater number of the enemy. Finally he came upon Hogan.
            “Hogan!” he called. “What happened?”
            The warrior spun around, surprise on his face. He hurried over to the wounded man and steadied him with a hand to his shoulder. “Neil, I thought…you’re alive. I thought I saw your body, by your horse…”
            “That was an enemy,” Neil replied already looking around. “Where’s Colin, is he all right?”
            Hogan was forcing him to sit down. “Colin won the day for us. He fought so fiercely that he sent the enemy into retreat.”
            “How?” Neil asked, not wanting to sit. He groaned as he stood. “Where is he Hogan? Tell me!”
            “I don’t know,” Hogan said quietly as Neil started off across the field. “Neil, he…he thought you were dead. He wanted revenge.”
            Neil stopped, his breath catching in his throat and then he suddenly took off into a staggering run as Hogan called after him.
            Neil looked frantically around the field, calling his brother’s name, asking everyone if they had seen him, if he was wounded—dead—but no one had seen him after the retreat.
            Finally he went down to the beach where the enemy had disappeared into their longboats and saw several bodies lying there. One dark-haired and small. Neil forgot his wound and ran, calling out to his brother and nearly bit his tongue in pain as he jarred his wound, falling to his knees beside Colin’s body. He gently gathered him into his arms and brushed his hair away from his bloody forehead.
            “Oh Colin, little brother, I’m so sorry,” he whispered.
            Colin’s eyes fluttered, giving Neil an inkling of hope. “Col?”
            “N-Neil?” Colin asked, and then his eyes opened wide. “Neil? Am-am I dead?”
            Neil’s face broke out into a grin and he stroked his brother’s cheek comfortingly. “No, no, brother, you’re here with me, you’re going to be all right!”
            “B-but you were dead,” Colin protested, trying to make sense of it all. “I saw you. I, Neil, I didn’t want to-to survive the battle.” He choked on a sob as he clutched at his brother’s cloak, feeling every wound he had sustained. “I’m so sorry, Neil!”
            Neil held him tighter. “Shh, it’s all right, don’t give up, it will be okay. Everything’s going to be all right.”
            “Neil,” Colin pleaded, clutching his cloak tighter. “I—I can’t, please,” he choked on another sob and Neil felt tears slide down his cheeks as he realized he was losing him. And he couldn’t.
            “It’s all right,” he whispered finally, planting a kiss on his brother’s forehead. “Just close your eyes, little brother. Sleep. I’ll—I’ll be there when you wake up. I promise.”
            “Promise?” Colin choked out.
            Neil nodded against him. “Don’t I always keep my promises?”
            Colin nodded against his chest and then closed his eyes, slumping instantly. Neil held his limp form in his arms, clutching him tightly to his chest, as he sobbed, before he gently lay his brother down and fell beside him. His wound might not have been irreparable, but he had no will to survive it. He clutched Colin’s hand tightly, setting his forehead gently against his, and closed his eyes, allowing the encompassing darkness to take him.
Hogan had followed Neil but held back as he watched the two brothers meet for the last time. He felt the pain in his own chest, knowing that he was watching the passing of the last of the village’s chieftains. When neither stirred for a long time, he approached slowly, calling on several warriors to help bear them back to the village. He went to Neil first, seeing instantly that he was dead, limp and cold, but when he went to Colin, he still felt warm under his touch and as he put a hand to the boy’s throat, he felt a weak pulse.
            “Colin still lives,” he told the others urgently and then took the boy up into his arms and carried him back to the longhouse himself while his older brother was bourn back on a bier.
            Before he got back, Colin stirred and began to come around again. Hogan looked down to meet his eyes as they opened. He looked confused.
            “Where’s Neil?” he asked. “He—he said…” he looked around further. “I—I’m not dead, am I?”
            Hogan smiled at him. “No lad. We’ll get you patched up.”
            “Where’s Neil?” he asked again.
            Hogan didn’t answer. Colin struggled from the warrior’s grasp. “Hogan, where is he?”
            “Colin, don’t—” Hogan tried but Colin twisted in his grasp and saw the warriors bearing the bier.
            “No!” he screamed, tearing himself away from Hogan. “No! Neil! Stop!”
            He stumbled over to the bearers and commanded they put his brother down. He fell on his face, and drug himself the rest of the way to Neil’s body.
            “Neil?” he pleaded, hesitant to touch the still face, but brushed his fingertips against it, finding it unnaturally cold. “Neil?! Someone help him! Please!”
            “Colin,” Hogan tried, reaching out a hesitant hand to the boy. “There’s nothing we can do now. He’s with the rest of your kin now.”
            A choked whimper escaped Colin’s throat. “No,” he said. “No, he promised…he can’t…”
            “I’m sorry, Colin,” Hogan told him, grief in every line of his figure for the last surviving brother.
            “No, Neil…” Colin tried, but his grief choked him and a broken sob escaped his throat before a scream of anguish tore out of his chest, causing Hogan to grab him and hold him tight against him as if fearing he would fly apart.
            The pallbearers silently took up Neil’s body again and carried him into the longhouse to dress for his pyre. Colin allowed Hogan to see him back as well, and the healer to dress his wounds, but he felt nothing. There was no wound that could pain him more than the loss of his brother.
            Later that night they all stood out on the beach and watched as Neil’s deathship sailed, burning, out on the ocean. Colin watched, dry-eyed, his grief too deep for any more tears, an empty, hollow ache the only thing he had left.
            Hogan stood beside him, looking out to the blazing ship as well. “You won the day for us, Colin. You have won the respect of every man here as our new chieftain. Your father would be proud.”
            Colin didn’t turn to look at him. He only replied in a flat voice devoid of all emotion. “Do you think I care a wit for that, Hogan? It doesn’t matter how much blood I spilled in vengeance. I am still all alone in this world.” And then he turned and limped back to the longhouse, indeed very much alone with only the hole of his grief for company.

Copyright© 2014 by Hazel B. West