Prompt: The origin story of a mighty berserker wearing a wolf hood and wielding two axes.
One of Barliot’s hands was empty. He stared at his palm in the dying light, sitting there next to the placid lake. He saw the calluses and the chips in his yellow nails. He saw all the lines. They angered him. He should never have to see such things, never address the signs of his aging. The wolf hood hid all his gray hairs under its own. Its amber glass eyes drew the attention of his foes, drew it away from the crow’s feet around his eyes.
Barliot flexed his hand open and closed, knuckles popping every time, sometimes more than what seemed physically possible. Empty. Why was his vagrant of a right hand empty? His left had done its duty and hidden its lines, wrapping them around the hilt of a slag-slate hatchet. Ever since he’d gotten the weapon, more than three months ago, he’d never dropped it. Not during sleep. Not during rolls in the hay. He shoveled his food with the flat edge of its blade.
The right had nothing worth holding. No weapon was as good as the hatchet, not yet. A finger on his right hand had pulled him in a direction, pointing off into the forest, towards the lake he rested by. Barliot wasn’t a thinking man anymore. He gave that up when his wife left to be a scholar among the castle folk. With her gone there was no need for pretense anymore.
The thinking parts of his brain went to sleep, slumbered in the back of his skull like a bear with so much muscle that it couldn’t even find the energy to use it. Now his mind and body moved mostly on their own. His hands were like hounds on frayed leashes. His legs were thick serpents that would slither away if they weren’t attached. Sometimes they kicked at each other when he slept, vying for territory.
His eyes opened in the dead of night. There was a ripple in the lake. His serpents brought him to his feet. His left hand tightened around the hatchet. His right curled into a claw. His body was a marvel under the moonlight, both sculpted and chaotic, like an artist’s work piled together, prepared to become a pyre. Only the wolf’s pelt kept some of the ivory light off his skin. It wrapped his waist, climbed his back, bristled on his shoulders, and covered his forehead. Barliot watched the ripple from between the remaining teeth in his hood. The wolf only had three left.
“You!” his voice boomed. Rabbits within the Earth dug their burrows deeper at the sound of him. Crickets stopped chirping, and fell over in shock. His voice was just as separate as every other part, and it spoke on its own while the bear slumbered away. “Monster in the water. My hand is empty. I will fill it with your carcass. Come out.”
The creature of the lake was not one to reject a challenge. More ripples. Bubbles. Froth. As if a flame was lit under the lake. An eye the size of a wagon wheel poked out. Another. A giant pair of lips emerged and sneered. Barliot saw a mouth full of white, shining, quill-like teeth. Rows of them, fanning out as its sneer grew.
“What are you, creature?” Barliot’s voice asked. The beast didn’t have the speech of men, and Barliot, even back within the confines of the slumbering bear, didn’t have the education to identify it. It had been there before the forest, when its mud was connected to the sea. Its brethren were mostly off in greater, darker, colder waters, leaving it as the mightiest swimming thing in all the freshwater world. Its rubbery back and sides were covered in quills of their own. It drew in air through its sneer, inflating itself, extending its spears. What was left of Barliot’s human intellect saw a cross between a porcupine, a demon, and a blowfish.
His left hand would wait no longer. The right did its best to intimidate with its filthy nails, but the empty thing was too cowardly to make the first move. The left dragged him into the water, making swimming motions, turning the slate hatchet into a paddle. The serpents slithered and kicked to make sure they wouldn’t drown. While the rest handled swimming, the right grabbed what it would need to stop being empty.
It plucked one of the last three teeth from the wolf hood. That was how Barliot made things now that he’d given up on thinking. He’d slain a magical wolf, and its powers were stored in its teeth. Each tooth was magically forged to create death, and it would do whatever it could to achieve that, even outside the mouth of a vicious predator. Anything touched to one of the magic teeth would become a powerful weapon. Most would consider any of them worth holding, but not the loose association of wills and instincts that was Barliot. He needed something special.
He grabbed the lower lip of the puffer-pine. Enraged, it squealed like the largest boar in the forest. Its fleshy tail thrashed as its body inflated again. It rolled backward, pulling Barliot out of the water. His left flailed, slamming the hatchet against its hide repeatedly, but it just bounced off and rattled the quills. The puffer-pine rolled again, submerging him, disturbing the bear.
The left struck again, aiming higher, splitting the monster’s lip. Its blood gushed out, pressurized by its defensive inflation. It dyed the froth under it an unearthly red. It rolled Barliot under again, forcing him to swallow water. The right needed to act quickly, or Barliot would be forced to think once again. He might chop the limb off for disturbing his peace so.
His hand needed one of the puffer-pine’s teeth. Only its hidden weapons were good enough for the magic. The right plunged into the giant writhing mouth, pushed past its bristly purple tongue, and grabbed the base of a tooth. It yanked with all its might, just as the puffer-pine’s hide rejected the hatchet again. Barliot was thrown off, into the shallows.
The berserker’s mind stirred. All the old hurt was still there. The slumber hadn’t locked it in ice. He saw his wife leaving, choosing a pursuit of the mind over the warmth of their bed. Rage gritted his teeth, sanded his tongue. A scream that could fell trees rumbled in his throat. The empty hand had no time left. It pressed the wolf tooth to the puffer-pine one. Tink. Nothing. The magic had not worked!
Barliot’s eyes focused on the puffer-pine as it swam towards him. Its speed was incredible, like a dog sled drawn across a lake’s frozen surface. He could see the empty spot in its mouth. A new tooth emerged immediately, shooting out of its slimy gums and filling its grin once more. A baby tooth! The dumb empty hand had taken a baby tooth! No wonder the magic of the wolf would not accept it.
The puffer-pine was nearly upon them, mouth opened wide enough to step inside. It would swallow Barliot whole and digest him piece by piece. No matter how much the bear of his soul tried to nap through it, the acid would eventually come for him.
The empty hand needed help, but there was strength in the other pieces of Barliot, fractured as his will was. A tooth offered itself. Of Course! What fang was more fearsome than one from Barliot’s own mouth? It sacrificed its roots, shook loose in his mouth, and urged the empty hand to take it.
Barliot ripped out one of his own canines, tossed it in a closed fist with the wolf tooth like a pair of dice. They clicked against each other. The spray from the puffer-pine hit his knees. The clicking stopped, because there was only one piece in his palm.
The empty hand circled around the hilt of a beautiful new hatchet: the second true fang of the broken berserker Barliot. Both hands, full as they could ever be, hoisted above his head and came down between the eyes of the charging puffer-pine.
Hruuuuuuuuuh! The ancient fish roared. The hatchets hacked and hacked, until there was little brain left. Its body deflated all at once, skipping across the surface of the lake and then plunging into the depths. Without a word, Barliot turned and walked back into the forest. He was so close to waking, to acting like a whole man once again, but his hands were full. He was just hunger and bloodlust, not a man with leaking red wounds.
The bear curled up once more, to dream away his memories.
Author’s Note: This flash fiction story was written based on a prompt provided by NordicForge during a livestream. I hereby transfer all story rights to them, with the caveat that it remain posted on this blog. If you would like your own story, stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade during one of my streams and I’ll write it for you live!