The Ashes of Orik
by Martin Bolton
He had never seen a funeral pyre burn so high. The flames soared upwards, and their fierce glow seemed to dim the light of even the brightest stars. It was as if the raging spirit of Orik’s father, for so long captive in his dying flesh, reached with undiminished fury for the sky. As he was in life, thought Orik, so he was in death.
Orik closed his eyes and felt the intense heat of the pyre on his face. As he did so his short life passed through his mind. He remembered every act of anger, compassion, jealousy, courage and cowardice he had ever committed. And with every memory he measured himself against his father. He realised he knew nothing that his father hadn’t told him.
Every thought he had ever had was poisoned by his father’s bloody outlook. Every emotion he had ever felt was spiked with his father’s rage. Every value, every belief, every opinion he had ever formed was not his own. His father had lived through him. Now the man was dead, and Orik was empty.
He remembered his first raid. He was fifteen. His father had taken him, as was the custom, to blood his first axe, make his first kill, and win himself a name. He had gone to become a man. He did not feel like a man now, he felt like a monster.
The memory of that night haunted him, every detail pricked him like the point of a sword. He only had to close his eyes and he was there again, his senses every bit as sharp as they were the first time, and the gods knew he had relived the scene a thousand times.
He heard her shrieking as she ran from the burning hut. He saw her contorted face – one side in black shadow, the other illuminated by the flames that consumed her home – wide-eyed and shrieking.
“Take her, boy!” his father shouted, “She’s yours!”
But he was too frightened. He felt her fear, and some tiny voice within him told him this was not the act of a man. So with his fear came shame, and with his shame came anger, and before long the only voice he could hear was his father’s, telling him to take her as his slave.
She was even younger than he was. Barely seen life at all, hardly a blemish on her smooth skin. Scrawny arms held up, as if they could protect her from a hefty war axe of sharpened steel. She’d have been a pretty girl, if her face hadn’t been all screwed with fear up like that. Orik reckoned she’d have grown into a rare beauty, if she’d only been allowed.
The axe was a gift from Orik’s father. He’d had it made especially and it was a thing of beauty; a weapon fit for a mighty warrior. A polished lump of unforgiving steel the size of Orik’s head, the keen edge sharpened so fine you could split a hair with it.
It went through her head easily enough. Too easily, if anything. Orik wasn’t sure he could look at that face every day, and hear the voice inside him, and feel the shame of what he’d done. So he’d taken the easy way out and killed her. Little did he know that he would relive that moment every time he closed his eyes.
After that night, somehow, he’d found it easier. He buried the tiny part of him that made him feel ashamed. Buried it under the weight of his anger. And every time the girl’s face appeared in his mind, it only fuelled the fire. As if to banish the memory of the act that defined him, he thirsted for blood. Only the din of slaughter could smother the sound of the voice that whispered deep inside him. He became the most fearsome warrior for miles around. The bards sang of his unquenchable rage. Thus Orik Thirst-Axe earned his name.
As his father’s fire roared and spat and danced, Orik’s eyelids parted a hair’s breadth to let go the tears. They were tears of grief, but not for his father. He mourned the fifteen year old boy who had a choice. The boy who was now dead and gone; buried beneath a mountain of bloody corpses.
As his tears flowed down his cheeks, he made himself look at the girl’s face. He cried for her, and he wondered if his father had smothered the same voice.
He watched the girl rush towards him, arms held up in vain, just as he had so many times before. He saw her pleading eyes, he felt her fear. With her fear came his shame, and with that his fury.
“Take her, boy!” his father roared, “she’s yours!”
“Run!” Orik begged the girl, “run away from here!”
But she cowered as she always did, awaited the flash of his axe, and with it her death. But this time, his axe never came. He reached out with one gentle hand and pushed her to one side, then buried his axe in his father’s chest.
When he turned back to the girl, she was gone, and he found him self instead staring into the flames of his father’s burning corpse. As he watched the funeral pyre, Orik’s burning rage turned to ash, joined his father and floated away on the breeze.
Rest in peace, Ted Bolton