A sudden stillness. My breath froze in my throat and the harsh northern air whipped and hacked at the back of my tongue. A long swallow. Around me, the bodies of the soldiers all halted in their violent acts; arms stretched out twisted at fantastic angles and then drooped, slowly, weighed down by the rough iron in their hands; horses pawed at the ground and wicked at their reigns; even the groans of the wounded seemed to lessen, or they ceased, inevitably. Mud and sod were churned under us and combined with the brittle snow in thick, slushy globules. The sky was still gray. The mountains black blue in the distance, as if they could be any farther north… here on the edge of the world.
The war’s abeyance was due to the thing that had stepped out of the clouds. Had it opened its hands, chaos may have again erupted. But it raised its arms aloft and closed them, like it was bending a high invisible wire.
It glanced over each luminous shoulder. It narrowed its eyes. Giving voice to the look on its face, the words that emanated from its perfect lips and twelve copper mouths chorused together: “Has anyone seen Olaf?”
An interminable silence. A few scabby arms raised.
The thing peered down at the bloody crowd of men and at last selected a thick, bearded fellow from among the archers. It bent down and held out one of the silver tentacles that sprouted from the tips of its golden elbows. Its mouths piped again: “Pay up, Olaf son of Erik, son of Cuthbert.”
The man glowed red beneath his braided locks and pulled a burlap purse from his jerkin, tossing it to the thing with no shortage of distaste – though borne, it seemed, more from resignation than distemper. The thing erupted into a column of smoke that dissipated quickly over the battlefield. And of course the fighting resumed.
I barely escaped with my life, being by that point bewildered by the exchange and furious that anyone would have the gall to stab me repeatedly after witnessing such a hideous transaction. To be fair, though, in retrospect, it really wasn’t any of my business.