I Remember Nasker Prim
|"I remember Nasker Prim," the old man said. He pushed back softly in the old rocking chair and stared at the flickering fire. "Died during the Orc Wars in '87."
A young woman moved around the barely moving chair to place a mug of apple cider on the end table. Steam drifted up from the mug's top carrying smells of hot apples and cinnamon around the room. The old man lifted it with palsied hands and sipped noisily. The young woman smiled and patted the old man's arm as she headed back into the kitchen.
Settling back with a contented sigh, the old man kept the mug in his lap, his hands wrapped around its familiar shape for the warmth they found there. As he spoke, he would sometimes pause as he noisily tasted more cider.
"The whole company had marched for ten days solid. I can still hear the leather creaking and the men whispering to one another as the hours went by and the ground got steeper. We were climbing toward the pass at Estribane to reinforce the garrison there. On the sixth day it started snowing. It stuck to my skin in tiny patches at first, sending shivers up my arm and down my neck making goose-bumps rise. Then the little bits of snow would melt. Sometimes I would lick at them and taste my salty sweat mingled with the fresh water of the melting flakes of snow."
He sipped at his cider, remembering the salty taste. He was tired and the fire crackled wildly. He could hear it as he slurped, could feel the warmth spreading on the left side of his face. He had lost the feeling in his right side last winter. Settling the mug back into his lap, he turned to stare into the flickering fire, seeing faces and places from over forty years in the past.
"Nasker and me had joined up the summer before. The training was hard but the sergeant was fair. I only got beat once during training. Almost chopped the sergeant's thumb off with a battle ax. He give it to me good for that one. Nasker got beat four, no three times. He snuck out to the camp follower's tents twice and got caught. The other time he just punched the sergeant. Never would say why. Just punched him. They beat him good for that one."
He chuckled and shifted heavily in the chair. Cider sloshed onto the top blanket, staining one of the white squares of linen in the mosaic of cloth patches making up the quilt. Each four inch square had a different tiny picture embroidered on it - pixies, fairies, leprechauns, unicorns, dragons, knights, elves, and kings, just to name a few. He brushed at the moist spot then promptly forgot about it. You could make new blankets. Stories had to be told or forgotten.
"We was a day out from the garrison when the orcs found us. It was young Jilris Daid what noticed them first. Smelled them just before they come screaming out of the rocks. He was yelling, 'Orcs!' when four crossbow bolts found him."
"It was the first time I had seen a man killed. It hurt. I could feel it in the back of my neck and arms. Jilris used to push me over the obstacles during training. Now he lay bleeding and dying, still gurgling out, 'Orcs!'"
He shivered then, more from memory than from cold. His nose flared as he smelled the scents of that day. He jumped when one of the logs slumped inside the fireplace sending sparks dancing up the chimney to mingle with the snow slowly settling on the old man's cabin.
He looked around at the walls. Shields and swords hung on one wall along with ribbons. Several shelves held up tiny boxes containing bits of silver and porcelain gathered from all the foreign campaigns the old man had seen. A crossbow hung there without a string. That string had broken during the Shebrim Skirmishes almost costing him his life. He smiled thinking of a young girl he had met during that campaign. Then, guiltily, he glanced into the kitchen at the young woman, so like her grandmother that he sometimes forgot she had passed on three winters ago.
"We had trained for months - three men forward then slash, push with the shield then come under to hack at the legs, smash down then step back before he recovers and stab forward. We knew all of it. We could do it in our sleep. Some of us even tried it that day. Most of them died."
"There was twenty-six of us. There must have been a hundred orcs. Eight men fell when the first orc crossbows fired. Four others fell as the orcs rushed in to hack or simply claw. They didn't understand three men forward or being hacked from under a shield. They attacked the first of the three and cut off an arm or they smashed the shield aside to slash down with a rusty sword."
"Soon only six of us were left. The snow still fell but I wasn't cold anymore. You could smell the fear. It was sickly sweet and clung cloyingly back deep in the throat. There was an excitement too. So far we had survived. Maybe we could beat them. They had killed or maimed twenty of us but we had disabled more than fifty of them."
He leaned forward in the chair, staring deep into the flames. He was seeing them there, back-to-back in the knee-deep and bloody snow. He could feel the cut on his left arm where an orc sword had tried to reach his heart. It was stinging and his heart was pounding. Around them, the orcs slavered and capered in the dwindling daylight. They would rush in again soon. Six could not hold almost forty.
"I was breathing so hard Nasker asked me which woman I was dreaming about. Then he laughed and the rest of us nervously laughed back. I was about to ask him what he was laughing about when the orcs rushed in again."
"They was screaming gibberish in that foul tongue of theirs and my ears got hot. I didn't understand a word of what they was saying but I knew it wasn't nice. It wasn't how warriors should treat each other. Even during the killing there should be honor. I must of got mad because I don't remember much about the next few minutes. There is just a blur of swords swinging and men yelling while orcs screamed."
"Then there was only four of us. Orcs lay dead around us and Naskir was singing that stupid drinking song from Jubett's Tavern - 'Two maids sing and two maids dance and...' Around us men groaned and breathed out for their last time. An orc weakly tried to stand and Naskir hacked him down - still singing."
"Around us, the remaining orcs still capered. They knew they had us. They could take us anytime they wanted. But they enjoyed seeing us sweat. They could smell the fear too and it made them slaver and dance madly. They went into an orgy of pleasure every time one of us trembled and looked at a fallen friend."
"Naskir must have seen it before any of the rest of us did. They were toying with us like a cat does a mouse. And he wasn't going to let them get away with it."
"He challenged us to sing with him, to laugh at the capering orcs that, if not for the weapons and teeth they possessed, would look silly stomping about in the snow. 'Two maids laugh and two maids cry and two...' we started and the orcs screamed gibberish and attacked."
In the fire, he watched the orcs pull down Trilef Heise. As the old man, then young, hacked two of the orcs with his glistening sword, five orcs piled on Trilef and dragged him screaming toward the rocks. Naskir was still singing as he rushed by to help the struggling Trilef.
"I don't think Naskir ever saw the orc what did him in. He was singing and racing after Trilef when one of the devils simply stepped away from me and stabbed him square in the back. He turned partially and I could see the sword sticking out the front of him. He looked surprised, and a little sad, as he pitched forward into the bloody snow."
"I killed the orc what done him in as he bent to get his sword. That's when the horn sounded and the garrison came screaming in. But there was no singing. Just bloody work on sacred ground made holy by young lives lost too soon. I settled down next to Naskir as the light slowly faded from his face."
The old man was openly weeping now. He rubbed at a spot on his cheek where a Sindari Scimitar had almost taken his eye.
The young woman had slipped from the kitchen to stand quietly behind him, her hand gently resting on his shoulder. Her gossamer wings, inherited from her grandmother, unfurled behind her in concern. They fluttered there without her conscious effort as she tried to console the old man lost in memories of times long past and, perhaps, best left there.
"It was too cold, and the ground too hard, to bury them and we couldn't risk the men to take them back down the mountain. We left the orcs for the scavengers but the men we took back to the garrison."
"The next day, me and Trilef, the only two still able to walk stood with the one-hundred and sixteen men of the garrison to watch fourteen pyres burn brightly in the morning light. Naskir would have thought it funny that so many men had tears on a day they should be celebrating they was alive. Looking around, I started singing, 'Two maids sing and two maids dance and..."
©2000 Braxton S. Cook
Updated October 25, 2003