The northmen came ashore along a terrifying storm, their dragon-fronted ships illuminated by angular cracks of lighting. The clouds thundered with violence and aggression, their satanic false-gods shuddering the ground around the monastery.
Gwain had seen many men in his years—both through war, and through his work with the church—but none as ghastly and gigantic as those that fought through the water that day. Inhumanly large monsters, with red and golden hair that whipped around them like sparks in a blacksmith’s forge.
The heathens seemed unbothered by the cold. Muscular animals barely covered in haphazard strips of leather and cloth, traipsing through the icy water like the frost giants their pagan myths warned of.
A small cluster of Northumbrian soldiers were garrisoned at the monastery. They came seeking salvation and God’s blessing, and were instead met with short axes, blood, and painful death. You could hear the carving of their flesh, the cracking of their bones, over the roars of thunder.
Gwain watched as blood painted the waves a sickly red, severed body parts washed out to sea.
The men burst through the doors as if they were made of parchment, nothing but a thin veil between the Christians and the heathens. They slaughtered their way through the monastery one by one, monks foolishly attempting to hold the monsters back with brooms and ornamental daggers. They demolished all that they could. The pews chopped to pieces, the shelves and lanterns demolished. Fires formed where fallen candles met broken furniture, lending the northmen a devilish red glow that reflected their intent.
Those that abandoned God in favour of their own lives, those that fell to their knees and held their hands in the air, those that begged—were chained and pulled out into the storm. They’d meet a fate worse than death. Eternal damnation and torment. A thousand lifetimes of torture and Godlessness.
Gwain stood at the alter facing them, patiently awaiting his violent end. He was old and tired, ready to embrace his peace. His bones had begun to creak as he went about his daily business, his chest rattling with each short breath. He’d reached the age where kings seemed young, and he didn’t want to live to much older than that.
The heathen that first barged into the monastery, a monster of a man with golden hair and piercing blue eyes, fixed his inquisitive gaze on him. It was the same look he gave all the monks he struck down with his dripping axe, as they knelt and bowed their heads to God. Gwain wasn’t afraid to admit his fear. No, God was not going to save him. No, God’s love didn’t seem all that comforting. No, God wasn’t going to numb the pain of what happens next.
Flames licked the air with a newfound taste for destruction, hungry for more with each passing second. The dense heat pulled sweat from each pore on Gwain’s frail body—or was that the anticipation of the death that grew closer with each step the Northman took in his direction? Each pew battered with the back of his axe? Each monk with the thirsty blade? He could feel the smoke building up in his lungs, taste it in the air.
The Northman, fixed on Gwain, headed toward him with an amused look reflected in his features. He was enjoying all the slaughter. Or was it the power? He had certainly earned his pride. Gwain had watched as he gracefully cut through the Northumbrians in all their armour. Spears, swords, and all. With nothing but a small chunk of sharpened iron and an oddly decorated wooden shield. The monks and the brooms were just the dessert.
The heathen stood before him now, a full head taller and a musculature to rival the Greek statues, a body and size Gwain—as a knight of Camelot, one of Arthur’s own table at that—could’ve only dreamed of when he was still swinging his sword. Face to face with the monster, he didn’t look all that monstrous at all. He looked the same as the hundreds of other men Gwain had faced down, just larger and less burdened by the fear of God—that of course being the fear of those that had built their countries around Godliness. Unlike Gwain, this heathen was a truly free man.
Free from duty. Free from judgement. From God.
Gwain met the man’s gaze with a look of his own. One of understanding and acceptance. His puzzlement became amusement, and then, something that resembled respect.
Another heathen came launching out from behind him, axe raised and ready to swing. The blue eyed Northman held up a hand, and the other stopped. They exchanged words in a foreign tongue. Challenging each other in whispered hisses.
After a few moments of silence, the other sighed and turned his back, continuing to destroy whatever the fire hadn’t already consumed.
The heathen looked once more into Gwain’s eyes, flipped his axe, and hit him square in the forehead with the wooden hilt.
* * * * *
Gwain awoke surrounded by the carnage—the alter, the pews, all ruined—the perfect metaphor for his faith in God.
Lungs heavy with smoke, most of the building on fire, Gwain drew his last breath with his dying wish never more clear in his mind. All he and his brothers had suffered, all they had withheld themselves from. All the restraint, the fear, and the control.
No more. The reckoning has come.
Let the church burn.
This post comes as a result of a less-than-1000-word-challenge based on the photo prompt above. A fun collaboration between myself and Ian Steventon, soon to include another wonderful writer, where we take it in turns each week to set the prompt, and get to relish in the differences between our pieces. Seeing the variation in inspiration a simple prompt can have is astounding!
I’m not entirely happy with this piece. I have had the hardest week at work so far, and I feel flat and lifeless. It took a lot of effort to not let that show through in this piece (though I think it does somewhat). I hope you all enjoy it despite the struggle it took to bring it to your screens!
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