The Night of Iron and Blood

Redemption and Justice at the Dawn of the Iron Age

- December 2022 Popular Vote Pick

The tyrant sat by the fireside, in his chair made of leather and whalebone, trying in vain to warm himself as the fear crept over him. It was a foreign feeling for Wyrdan, the great warlord of the north, one he had not felt for almost 100 years. Fear had become as rare a thing to him as love or compassion.

It had not always been so. There was a time when he cared for a great many things. Wyrdan had in fact cared so much, he had poured himself into his valiant quest. He would end war, he would end want, he would end hatred. A divided world would unite, all men joined by a common thread, the fear of their immortal ruler. Fear had made him strong, but now fear crushed him like a vice.

His quest was eventually forgotten, his good intentions washed away by the blood of those who defied him. Eventually, the blood of even his own kin would mix with those who rebelled against him, and he would spare only one to inherit his throne and cause.

Thorn. His grandson Thorn would sit at his feet and learn how to rule, how to crush any who defied, how to be a monster. Wyrdan would realize his mistake too late, that he had created his strongest adversary in his own grandson.

The monster’s greatest mistake was out there, somewhere, beyond his grasp. It was for this reason, Wyrdan sat by his fire in full armor, his heavy iron sword at his side, feeling particularly mortal on this night, as nervous fright and the ache of his many ancient battles gripped him.

But… the tyrant was not the only monster who sat in that chamber, behind that barred door, guarded by ten men, high on the Mountain of Fear, the keep of Wyrdan O’ Crom.

Thorn made his way quietly through the forest, moving like a cat along the small stream that issued forth from his grandfather’s keep. It was not a path he had ever wished to tread again, but here he was. He only wished to be away from Wyrdan’s cruelty, to no longer be a part of his grandfather’s evil. Wyrdan himself had now made that choice impossible.

Thorn felt almost sick when he thought of the wife and son he left behind, in that little mountain village, once far from the reach of Wyrdan. He knew he would never see them again. It had been years since he faked his own death to escape the tyrant, but somehow, Wyrdan knew he lived, and had reached out from his dark mountain, leaving destruction in his path, as Wyrdan always did.

Thorn had been sure that he was safe, so far from the mountain fortress, in such an obscure little village far from any trade route. He had wandered there from the forest, years ago, near death from his wounds, with only the clothes on his back. The kind villagers had taken in the wounded Thorn, and rescued the weary warrior.

The simple forest folk not only rescued Thorn’s body, they rescued his soul. He came to know peace, and fell deeply in love with a sweet widowed young woman and her infant son. The aging craftsman of the village took Thorn on as an apprentice, teaching him to work wood, clay, and iron. It was a happy time for one who had been raised by a monster, and had seen little but cruelty and death his whole life.

Still, even as peace settled on him, Thorn always prepared for a day such as this. He spoke the ancient prayers to the Mother, the sacred deity of his village, but his mind still wandered to thoughts of his tyrant grandfather, of blood offerings made to the evil man worshiped as a god. He crafted many a hunting bow, spear, or plow for his neighbors, but in the dark of his forge, he experimented with the secrets the old master craftsman had imparted to him.

Thorn hefted his pack on his shoulder, feeling the weight of the tools he carried, one of creation, another of destruction. He kept only his sharp dagger in hand as he moved through the trees, along the path that belonged to him alone, the secret path into the mountain stronghold.

It had been his only solace in his youth, in those days of darkness, the path he created for himself to escape the fortress, to be free of it, if only for a short time. He never thought he would someday need to retrace those steps, and re-enter that unholy place. He never thought he would see the evil thing that slaughtered his mother again. His jaw clenched at the thought of vengeance, but it was not really vengeance Thorn sought.

It had been barely a month since he learned that his grandfather was still searching for him, as news reached his refuge, tales of another small village, barely two days from him, that had been burned to the ground, its inhabitants slaughtered or enslaved. Wyrdan’s followers were searching for someone.

That very night, Thorn fired his forge. He had tested, experimented, and finally understood the secret. He carefully measured and mixed fine powdered ash into the molten iron in his crucible, and slowly poured the iron into a stone mold. He spent the following day re-heating, hammering, folding the iron, over and over, until it fit the shape he had in his mind, a broad axe-head with a long beard, tapering to a heavy spike.

Thorn would not see his family and friends butchered by Wyrdan’s hate. Those he loved would not suffer for his sins. Thorn knew too well how they would end, because he had not only been a witness to Wyrdan’s brutality, he had been an instrument of it. Thorn’s own foul deeds haunted him. And so it was that he set off to end it. One or both of them would have to die, or Thorn would never know peace, and all that he loved would be annihilated.

Thorn told no one of his plan. He set off into the forest, saying that he was going to collect wood to build a plow, and was never seen again. It took him many days to reach the Mountain of Fear, and as he crept through the woods, ever closer, he felt a strange calm. He thought of the awful things he had done in Wyrdan’s name, of the suffering he had wrought with his own hands, and a fire ignited within him. Anger and hate began to consume Thorn, as a wicked smile crossed his face. He would need all that anger, all that hate, to defeat Wyrdan. Or so he believed.

Within his chamber, Wyrdan felt a shiver, even as Visha placed another log on the fire. She moved toward him, to climb into his lap as she often did, but he pushed her away. He enjoyed the exotic girl, the dark foreign beauty that had been brought to him by slavers as a tribute, mere weeks prior. She spoke none of the northern tongue, only her own language, and a bit of Mediterranean “gibberish”, as Wyrdan called it. He did not know her name, and called her “Visha” based on what little of her jabbering he could make out.

She was a good pet, who knew when to submit to him, and when to resist. She could even take a strike well, and would cry when she knew it would please Wyrdan. He would keep her around, at least until she bored him. He had already decided that her tattooed skin would make a fine decoration for his wall when he was done with her.

The dark girl held up his empty jug, suggesting that he may want more wine.

“Of course, you stupid brown cur!” Wyrdan barked at her, and swung his heavy sword toward her. Visha scampered away, unbolting the door and dashing out with the empty jug.

Wyrdan huffed, his anger now the only thing keeping him warm.

Thorn slipped the iron bar from his pack, and wedged it under the wood grate that plugged the drain from the fortress that fed the little stream. He pushed at it slowly, until it broke free, and fell away. He left his pack there, and pulled out only the things he would need to end his grandfather.

Minutes later, Thorn emerged into a corridor, not far from the inner chamber of the keep. He crept like a stalking wolf toward the first sleeping guard, and with a perfect stroke, cracked his skull with his blacksmith’s hammer. There would be many more guards, and the rest would not be as easily dispatched.

He slipped past the cell where Wyrdan kept important prisoners, the kind he would usually sacrifice to himself. Thorn hoped he may find help there, but there were only two, from what he could tell, and while they both appeared to be warriors, breaking the lock would raise an alarm he could not afford. It was too much to risk, as they may seek only escape, and be no help at all. He would have to continue alone.

Thorn stalked slowly, extinguishing each torch that he passed as he grew ever closer to Wyrdan’s chamber. He needed no light, he knew the way all too well. He stepped back into the shadow, as another guard stumbled toward him, his face twisted in agony. Thorn ended the guard’s pain, when his axe found the man’s head. Something else was happening here.

Thorn continued up the corridor, until it began to narrow. He steeled himself. He would meet the strongest resistance here, at the choke point. He paused, and watched as the silhouettes of three guards filled the narrow corridor. He crouched in the shadow, until the first of the three staggered past him, then he sprang forth, like a flame from quenching oil. The three put up little resistance, not even crying out, as Thorn caved in the skull of one with his hammer, and made short bloody work of the other two with his razor sharp axe.

Another shadow appeared, slim and dark. It was a woman, her tattooed skin bare in the faint light. Incredibly, she did not shiver from the cold of the stone hallway. She moved toward him, as if to embrace him, licking her lips and smiling. Thorn held up his axe to keep her away, but she continued toward him nonetheless. She paused, just short of him, her mouth open in anticipation, as if she were about to kiss him. She looked down at the split-open corpse of one of the guards, and her expression changed.

“Shimry di M’tta?” she whispered.

It was clear to her that Thorn did not understand. She sighed, and tried to recall what little of the northmen’s language she knew.

“Way is…” she said, “door is free… no blocked…”

Thorn nodded. He understood what she was trying to say. He did not know who she was, or why, but this woman was trying to help him. She must have poisoned the guards. The heavy door to the inner chamber was not locked. He would not have to break his way in.

He may yet be able to surprise Wyrdan, and end it. He may even be able to survive the fight. A tiny spark of hope glimmered deep in Thorn’s soul. He quickly extinguished it with hate and anger, the only way he knew to complete his task.

The woman turned, and began to make her way back down the corridor, her hand brushing over the bloody blade of the axe, as if she knew why Thorn was there.

“Sic seimpire tyrannaes,” she said, words Thorn knew not, even though he faintly recognized the southern tongue.

The door was indeed unlocked when Thorn reached it, after stepping over the dead or dying bodies of the rest of his grandfather’s guard. He closed it behind himself with care, making no sudden noises, even as he heard the voice of the tyrant.

“It’s about time,” Wyrdan said, “bring me my damned wine, dog. And bar that damned door!” The old warlord was careless not to look, not suspecting it was the one he feared. His mind was too occupied by the cold and by the sore aches that gripped him. He was sure that Thorn would come, but not expecting him this night, not without some kind of alarm.

There was a clink of metal, as Thorn shoved a small iron rod into the lock of the door, wedging it shut so it couldn’t be opened from outside at all. Wyrdan turned to yell at what he thought was his slave, to see the hulking shadow that stood between him and the heavy door.

Thorn looked very different than the last time Wyrdan had seen him. He was bigger, his muscled frame hard like stone. His thick beard was cut short, trimmed to guard against stray sparks from the anvil, his long dark hair braided carefully and tucked into his leather and iron armor. Even so, Wyrdan knew his grandson immediately, from his deep blue eyes that seemed to glimmer in the faint light.

“So, you have returned,” Wyrdan said smugly, with a hint of fear, “Good, I have work for you, once you’ve been properly punished for your infidelity.”

Thorn said nothing. There were many things he could have said, but he was incapable of speech. Only the hate in his blue eyes spoke for him now. He dragged his steel axe along the stone wall as he approached Wyrdan, and a spray of sparks cascaded to the floor.

“Very well then,” Wyrdan said, “I was going to kill you anyway.”

The warlord sprang from his chair, and swung his heavy iron sword at Thorn. It was foolish hubris, trying to use such a weapon in such close quarters. The sword, scarcely more than a toothed club of iron, was quite deadly from horseback, and no bronze weapon could stand against it. Wyrdan would count on that sword, and his unnatural speed, to defeat the last of his kin.

Thorn dodged the blow, and the next, as the warlord crashed the heavy blade about, destroying his own chamber. A clatter arose at the door, as more of Wrydan’s guard had arrived, alerted by the smashing of the cell door, and escape of the two prisoners. The guards crashed at the door, but without success. The heavy door could only be opened from inside now.

Wyrdan laughed, knowing that there was no way Thorn would escape. Thorn’s look did not change. He had come there to kill his grandfather. Whatever happened after did not matter, only that the tyrant would die, and Thorn’s family would live. They would never know what he had done to protect them, but they would be safe.

Wyrdan swung again, and Thorn quickly rolled aside, slashing the tyrant’s leg with the axe as he went. Wyrdan wheeled, surprised that his grandson’s speed matched, even surpassed his own. Wyrdan’s fear gripped him by the throat. He truly believed that he could not die, but in that moment, he felt death closing in rapidly.

The warlord swung the sword wildly now, trying every attack he knew, too frightened to realize that Thorn knew them as well. He thrusted it forward, and swung upward, trying to catch Thorn by the chin with the barbed tip. It was the move Thorn was waiting for. It was Wyrdan’s final mistake.

Thorn stepped back, and caught the sword in the beard of his axe. Sparks flew as he slid the axe down the iron blade, until the spiked beard caught between the third and fourth tooth. If Wyrdan understood iron, he would have had that sword remade. Thorn understood. With a twist, and a great shift of his weight, Thorn snapped the iron blade like a piece of driftwood.

Wyrdan stood dumbfounded, staring at the broken symbol of his power. Thorn smiled. His axe had done exactly what he had made it to do. Wyrdan made one last futile swing with what was left of his sword, and Thorn buried his hammer deep into the tyrant’s bronze breastplate. Death had found the immortal warlord, as Thorn’s hammer occupied the space where Wyrdan’s black heart once resided.

Before Wyrdan could fall, Thorn took off the monster’s head with his axe. It rolled unceremoniously across the floor, and landed next to a plate of uneaten food, the supper that Wyrdan had been too anxious to eat.

Thorn sat in his grandfather’s chair, listening to the guards pound the door, satisfied in a job well done. He wondered, would they run when he showed them the head of their god? Would they part, and let him pass when he rolled it down the stairway, down to the crooked road that led up the Mountain of Fear? It did not matter. He no longer feared for himself. His anger washed away, and a great peace fell on him. He mumbled the ancient prayer once more, the prayer to the Mother. The prayer of thanks.

Thorn was still at peace when the guards finally breached the door, and even when they beat him and tossed him into a cell. They offered him as a sacrifice to resurrect their god, and nailed him to the great tree that grew in the center of the stronghold. Thorn cried out in pain, but not in despair. Even a crucifixion could not take Thorn’s victory from him.

Many days would pass before the two captives of Wyrdan would return, with an army at their backs. “Visha” had told them, after their escape, of the strong warrior who had come to the Mountain of Fear that night, the night she rescued them. The two warriors, the wild Sumerian known as Anun, and the tall beauty called Scatha, knew what Thorn truly was as soon as she told them.

The two had come to talk with the immortal warlord, Wyrdan, to sway him from his wickedness, to show him the truth. But Wyrdan would have none of it, and called them blasphemers. He did not know that one of their own was already in his camp, a sort of back up plan, the girl known as Sira the Vishakanya.

A Vishakanya, a monster. Bred and raised far to the east, Sira was the only of twenty girls of her kind to survive her cruel upbringing. Fed poison from infancy, her lips meant agonizing death to any who dared taste them. Sira was a weapon. It was Grace that had saved her, helped her to escape her masters, and put her on a ship, to eventually find her recruited to a higher purpose by men bearing red and gold banners.

It was Sira who opened the gates of Wyrdan’s stronghold upon their return, after killing three more of the slain warlord’s soldiers. Anun and Scatha poured in with their troops, and ended the legacy of the brutal tyrant forever.

Sira was the first to reach the great tree, at the center of the keep. There, before the crucified man, rested the broken pieces of the iron sword on a stone altar. She quickly pushed the broken end to the ground, and wrapped the hilt up in the hide on which it rested. Her true mission.

She turned to look on the brave man nailed to the great tree. He stirred, slightly. There was life in Thorn still. She ran to him, but she knew she could not help him. She drew close as he looked up and spoke.

“It was you…” he whispered, “you helped me. You gave yourself to him, weakened him…”

Sira only sort of understood his words. He was not wrong, but how did he know? She had told Wyrdan she was Vishakanya, knowing he wouldn’t understand, even as her body slowly poisoned the immortal.

“She showed me…” Thorn said, “she… you… you are Sakai…”

Sira was now torn. No one was to know who she truly served, but how could she kill this brave man? No redemption could be found in slaying a hero. Perhaps, in his broken state, death would be blessing. She took out her dagger, and pricked her thumb. Her blood would bring him a quick death. Still, she hesitated, unsure of her actions.

The choice was made for her, as the night sky lit up like the sun, and a blast pushed her back. Lightning struck the great tree, tearing it almost in two. Sira fled, fearing some foul magic. She slipped past the troops of Anun, and off into the forest, her true mission completed.

She was not there to rescue Wyrdan’s captives, she had come for the sword. To be more precise, she had come for the oily black stone that decorated the sword’s pommel, the stone that had been stolen from the Sakai.

They dared not let it fall into the hands of Anun or Scatha, not yet.

Anun reached the smoking ruin of the great tree, to find a broken Thorn still clinging to life. His legs were gone below the knee, and his right eye was practically burned out. He had been saved, in a way, as the lightning destroyed his body, but spared him from Sira’s kiss of death.

The black haired Sumerian pulled Thorn’s still-smoking body from the tree, and lay him down on the grass, looking over his injuries. Thorn did not bleed, but was badly burned.

“Three…” Thorn whispered, barely conscious, “three will be lost, or all is lost.”

“One for honor. One for love. One for Grace.” Anun could barely hear Thorn’s words, and was more concerned with getting him some medical attention to care.

“The end…” Thorn continued, “the end… the end…” he muttered, “is the beginning.”

Brave Thorn would survive, and in time, would learn to live without his legs and missing eye. He would be given something else in return, as his remaining eye would show him many things. His sight would help guide them, this family he never knew he had.

They would build for him a new forge, and he would mount his grandfather’s wicked head on a post above the entry. He would never see his wife or her son again, despite Anun’s encouragement. He could not bear for her to see him, a mere fragment of the man she loved. He would not be remembered that way.

Centuries passed, and Thorn lived on, and would pass his knowledge and skills of the forge to many others, to those known among his kin as Alchemists.

One evening, on a small green island, far from the cold mountain of his childhood, Thorn the blacksmith closed his eye and looked beyond, as he often did. He saw a chaotic gunfight erupt at a derelict roadside motel. Another of his kind, another soul with nothing to lose, bravely faced his end to protect others from a cruel death, as Thorn had done all those centuries ago. Except… this man was facing certain death to rescue complete strangers.

The one-eyed man sat back in his comfortable leather chair by the fireside, and whispered that ancient prayer of thanks to the Mother, followed by seven words:

“Kill them all, lad, kill em’ all.”