The Last Journey

by jaywcoombes

The sound of horns echoed across the valley. Their deep, haunting notes bellowed out, casting roosting birds from their nests who took the sky, screeching in answer. Here, on this rocky outcrop on the edge of the great grey sea, a hundred men stood.

Breaking waves covered them with cold sea spray and a fierce wind battered them with mist. Their faces were crisscrossed with blue woad and, to a man, they held axes, swords and maces proudly to the sky.

On a large rock sat a wooden boat stacked with tinder. Even through the strong wind, I could smell the acrid stench of oil that soaked the timber. After the song of the horns died down, subdued by the righteous noise of the sea and wind, a man with hair white as snow approached the boat. He was old, an ancient warrior ravaged by time and battle, but not bowed.

With strong, sure strides, the old warrior made his way to the boat. As he stepped across the rocks, a low rumble started in my throat, rising with each step the old warrior took. A hundred other voices joined my own, and a mournful song began. The song spoke of great loss, a cursed man ousted by the Gods and banished by his people into exile. Redemption lay in bloody battle, in sacrifice and in violence. My heart thumped in my chest, my voice breaking like the waves as the song reached its crescendo. On the edge of the highest cliff, the cursed man fought a mighty demon. The man was mortally wounded and, in a last act of contrition, he threw himself at the demon plunging them both onto spiky rocks and into the icy embrace of the sea.

The old warrior had reached the boat. The song stopped and weapons were lowered. The old warrior leaned into the boat and raised up the body of a man. My King. My brother. His body was lifted onto the stacked wood. A battered helmet, near cleaved in two, and a broken sword were placed across his chest.

Without a word, I stepped forward and walked towards the boat. A dozen others joined me in this silent march. The smell of oil grew stronger, mixing together with the salt of the sea. As I got closer, the stench of death overpowered both. Just before reaching the boat, I stopped. The other men continued forward in a line, each placing something of worth around the body. When the last man had finished , laying a ring of a snake devouring its own tail on my brothers chest, I stepped forward.

Looking into the boat, I felt a sense of revulsion. The pitiful body that lay there looked nothing like my brother. He was a man attuned to life, and death did not suit him. His face held a look of contempt, as if he couldn’t stomach what has happened and wanted all this ceremony sped up so he can enter the halls of our ancestors.

Onto his body I placed a ragged strip of cloth. Although dirty and stained, it still smelled, faintly, of rosemary and lilac. I hoped his spirit could smell it too, and that it would lead him to what he desired.

The dozen men around me surrounded the boat and, together, we lifted it down into the water. The old warrior walked towards me and held out a burning torch, its flame buffeted by the spray and wind.

The swell of the sea had started to take the boat, claiming it for itself. With a final glance at what was my brother, my King, I threw the torch. Flames sprang up and greedily ate at the oil-soaked wood. The fire grew, and with it, so did the fire in my heart.

I will avenge you, brother, I swear this now and forever.