Heart wakes me. I can feel it bleeding like a sea into some barren place far from me — far, far away from the ash tree. Heart thumps, and I feel like a post, heart beating and beating me into rough, trodden soil. Worms crawl against burned, aching skin. Wind and sound barely reach me, feeling like they have come from far, far away from the ash tree. The pain starts at heart and races, spreading from my center, radiating with heat. I would moan but mouth is dirt as well.
I don’t want to move. Movement is life and I am dead – I know this as ravens know the sky and wolves know the forest. I know where I belong.
Yet impulses run through fingers – I still have fingers, some but not all. There is new pain that awakens when I try to move two middle fingers of my left hand. I clutch it, move this hand, squeezing the dirt. I lick lips dry as salt. Eyes I don’t want to open but they fold of their own accord, greeting me with soil-sodden light, warm distantly. The left eye is dark, however. I reach my good hand to the socket, and it is gone. Autumn leaves float stilled on the air and one lands on my face. I blow it and the dirt from mouth. With agony I shake skull and arms and legs from dirt. I turn toward the ash tree.
Steel, stone, soil. I am compelled by the elements of life to survive beyond the rending of my flesh. Bone, blood, belief. These are the parts of me I have to sacrifice. Far, far away from the ash tree horses beat their hooves of bone, shod in iron, cresting the wake of each gallop like the breaking of waves. I know these pale horses ride for me. And the men that ride them in their mail coats huddle themselves in the wool of their animals’ making, crouched against the autumn cold.
Stakes in the ground raise the wan light of the torches. White chalk on the ground, configured in patterns swirling around the ash tree, cavorting in symbols only I can see, beckons to and repulses me. My one eye drowns in them, but I must look away. The flames of the torches dance to the sound of drums still beating like heart from moments past, before the ritual’s completion.
The bones of my many brothers and my many brothers’s many sons litter my feet and crack and break brittle as I crawl towards the ash tree. Their empty blackened skulls stare at me accusingly, but to them I pay notice little. Blood weeps from deep in chest, soaking through my armor and mail, bathing the ground and the bones beneath me. Blood drips from tongue and lips and the inside feels hollow and stricken. Air flows from between broken teeth in gasps.
I approach the ash tree. I approach the tree with no more leaves, burned and twisted. I approach the two leaking bodies of my enemy’s sons, hanged at the neck from a mottled branch. Ichor, venom, lies drip from my enemy’s sons and this I am at least gladdened to see. I hear the horse’s hooves grow nearer, growing closer and closer to the ash tree like the rise of a tide. I have no time to mourn my brother’s losses or my own. Work is not yet done. Price is not yet paid.
I reach the base of the ash tree and embrace its blooded soil. I take it in my hands again. Breath steaming in the cold grey, misted air, I stare up and up at the ash tree and heart beats fit to break from chest. The drum lies to the side abandoned amidst the bones of my brother’s youngest son and it I take, dragging it towards me with broken hands.
Obey, I say. Obey, ash tree. I give myself to steel, I say. And with a short, curved dagger I cut myself. I give myself to stone, I say. And I beat two small stones together. I give myself to the earth, I say. And with lips frothed with cold and thirst, I partake of the blooded soil, cupping it in rent hands, and choking it down swollen gullet.
The lines of chalk begin to move, just as they did before. They eddy and flow and become like rivers, gliding beneath me and the ash tee.
I have bone enough, I say. And I take up my brother’s bones and beat them on the drum. The flames dance and sway to the beat. I have given blood aplenty, I say. I believe and I demand the destruction of my enemies, all of them, the ones who took to the killing of my daughter, her husband and her son, who were of my blood, the end of my line. I demand the blood price, I scream at the ash tree. Heart races screaming with me.
I point to the hanging bodies. I have given you his sons, I scream, and with his blood I demand as I did before you took all from me the price, the blood price, as has been paid in blood and blood again. Give me, ash tree, give me vengeance on my enemy!
I feel earth as it moves and I move with it. The tree rages, curling and twisting with the winds, spinning its twin hanging refugees like dancers on a wedding day. Leaves leave ground and climb through the air and dance with them in the maelstrom. I am animal, lips foamed in rage and sickness, body torn and empty.
I gave you everything, I say, louder, louder than the hooves of the creatures and their masters flowing into the grove with the ash tree. I gave you all! My life and my brother’s life and the lives of my brother’s sons! I am old and cannot pay the blood price in return, the destruction of my enemy’s armies, the destruction of his clan and all his bloodline. Blood for blood I demand the price! All of him for all of me. Finish what you started!
The animals beat closer as heart beats fleeting. My enemy’s horses stir in the wind, wild and afraid as their masters. They reach closer and closer to the ash tree. Yells, screams, pain. I hear it all but for a moment.
Limbs are torn from me. The one eye remaining falls from my socket and spins into the wild winds and I see everything, the bones, my enemy, mail clad and afraid as he should be. The flames burn bright and brighter. My form is wrecked and broken, skin and blood spinning off into the sky and the earth and the wind howl like a mad, crying beast and asunder a thousand times over is the world torn.
They would later find nothing of the scene but bones. Bones around a blackened ash tree.