His boots sank in the mud. He heaved the sword over his shoulder so it wouldn’t suffer the same fate. The warrior beside him seemed to glide magically through the soggy land. The man’s armor was nearly pristine, only a chink here and there from previous battles. Battles that, Amrok imagined, the man had won without much effort. While Amrok himself was short and stocky, as most helpers were, the warrior was a man who towered over everyone else. Even without his armor, the man must have been at least twice as big as any warrior Amrok had seen before. While helping the man dress, Amrok noticed muscles he hadn’t observed before, bulging from the man’s arms and legs. It was as if this man had been bred to battle, which wasn’t far from the truth.
“Sword.” The man’s deep voice commanded.
Amrok swiftly offered the sword and the man took it with no hesitation. They were approaching the battle site, and as the weight of the weapon fell off Amrok’s shoulders, he peeled away from the warrior and off to the side where the others waited in a circle around the other tribe’s warrior. Another perfect specimen covered with imperfect armor. Amrok’s warrior stepped forward, and both men drew their weapons. The rain stopped and the mud began to solidify. The earthy aroma bounced inside Amrok’s nose as he took a breath to cheer on his warrior, like the others in the crowd had started to do.
Groans and chants.
Pumped fists and clapping hands.
Whistles and cheers.
The ruckus gained momentum as the warriors grew nearer, and in a matter of seconds the field burst with noise as the clanging sounds of swords rang out. The two men, caught in the middle of a battle between tribes, tangled and danced inside the circle as the crowd cheered on. Mud flung up from the tussle, sending smatterings into the crowd. Amrok wiped his face and kept cheering. The clouds overhead parted, and the grizzly gray day slowly brightened. As the men continued to twirl and outmaneuver each other, stray sunbeams caught their armor and shined throughout the audience.
Amrok had always been on the winning side of battles, as their tribe was the strongest. The warriors who fought for them came and went, but the helpers were always there. The unsung heroes, hauling and prepping and cleaning. It wasn’t a bad life, but there was no honor in it. The lowest rung of the village. His gaze turned to the ever-widening blue sky, and for the briefest of moments, he experienced joy, before he was startled back to the battlefield. His warrior, his giant, oversized, battle-hardened warrior had fallen to his knees, and in the smoothest of motions, the other tribe’s fighter sliced through an exposed neck. The exposed neck of Amrok’s warrior. The exposed neck of the man who Amrok assumed was perfect. The exposed neck of the tribe’s proxy. The strongest they had to offer. The one who wasn’t supposed to lose.
Amrok froze. The tribespeople at the edges of the circle shuffled around in confusion. The warrior in the middle paused, momentarily, before reaching down to collect his bounty; new weapons and armor. The armor Amrok was supposed to carry home. Grumbles started among the crowd, slowly at first, and then, like a wave, came crashing around and sweeping in everyone around it. Fights broke out, first with fists, then with weapons. Amrok shook off his confusion and reached for the bag of supplies at his feet. Untying the satchel, he tossed aside the hardened rolls and extra rags. In the bottom, he found the dagger. A dagger from a prior warrior. A warrior who won all his battles and retired. A dagger that finished off countless challengers. A dagger that had given its wielder a power from somewhere unknown.
Amrok gripped the handle and goosebumps ran up and down his skin. An electrical current jolted through his body and his heart skipped a beat. His vision became clearer, and the details of the half-liquified mud beneath his feet popped into focus. The blades of scattered grass were sharp. The sky was extra blue. The world seemed to slow down as he breathed in the magnified earthy smell. He took a step forward and all of his muscles were in harmony.
He effortlessly pulled his boots from the mud and walked toward the nearest enemy. As if he had done it for years, he slashed the dagger forward and the enemy fell. Amrok kept walking, deflecting unfamiliar swords and gliding through the battlefield. One stab dropped another soldier, another quick motion fell another man. Amrok’s body count piled as the chaos around him slowed. Helpers and soldiers from his tribe stepped back and cleared the way. Amrok went through and cleaned up what remained of the enemy, without falter. It was the best moment of his short life.
A hero among fellow helpers and tribesmen.
A fluent fighter without fear.
He was unstoppable.
“Amrok!” A voice from the crowd.
No one in sight.
“Amrok!” A shadowy figure emerged from the crowd.
His grip loosened. There were no enemies left.
“Amrok!” The face, now growing clearer, squinted from the newly-exposed sun. It was a fellow helper.
“Amrok, you’ve been stabbed!”
Confusion. Amrok dropped his dagger and his gaze followed it to the ground. A pool of blood settled at his feet. A gash ran across his chest. The blood was still warm.
“Amrok!” The helper reached out and grabbed Amrok. Suddenly weak, he fell into the helper’s arms. He coughed. Blood spurted forward. The helper wiped his face. A battle still raged in the background. The bag of supplies undisturbed at Amrok’s feet.
He fell toward the muddy earth. His last moments had been his best. A life imagined. A life unobtainable.