Friday, June 15, 2012

Flash Fiction Friday #11: Thinning the Herd

One of my favorite novels is Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth, a story set in 12th-Century England during the time of the Wars of Anarchy. Often raw and emotional, I became so enthralled with the characters' lives during this time-period, I find myself time and again returning to their world of violence and passion where Good often does not triumph over Evil. However, when Right does prevail over Might, the set and setting of the Middle-Ages makes it seem that much more chivalrous and delightful. For this Flash Fiction Friday, I have opted to enter into a third-person view of a very evil man set in the 1100s of England. Warning: this is pretty dark. Read on to see how it ends.

* * * * * * *

Bartram was not a very nice guy.

No wonder, really. All his life he had either been beaten, bullied, or polluted with the idea that to live in this world, a man had to take what he wanted, and take it by force. It worked well for his father Eldrich as it suited him, also, as he replaced his father. Bartram was a big boy and it was easy for him to push around others.
"The evil men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones."  -  Julius Caesar

It wasn't always that way. When he was young and small and his father would beat him, he did not cry or wallow in a corner, but set out to eat and to grow. Despite the daily beatings his father issued him after his evening mead, his bruises armored him with both a callous body and soul. These callouses, hardened by years of drunken cruelty, and tougher than chain mail, served him well when he finally fought back. 

When he was fifteen, Bartram was much bigger than the pip he had been as a child. He came home from gathering turnips for the fall crop with his younger brother. It was already dark in early October, when the air had that nice, fresh chill to it that made Bartram feel alive. As he approached his cottage, he could see the ruckus stirring inside by his father's body see-sawing up and down through the window. His father's shadow cast a dread over him and every time he raised his hand to strike his mother, his figure obscured the warm firelight within.

Terror was not an option for Bartram. Even at fifteen, he knew what he must do. The villagers say they never had seen a man beaten so badly. Bartram, for his part, said that his father died falling down the east hayloft. Everyone knew it wasn't true. They knew Bartram had killed his father and the man had suffered terribly. But, aside from the mother and the brother, there were no witnesses. Bartram lived on. And he, as the eldest son, became head of the household. He took the role of his father.

Now, in the springtime of 1143, Bartram was older, wiser, and much, much crueler.

The Norman army he had joined had twice given him the opportunity to advance in the ranks. Why? It was not because Bartram was at all a natural leader. He had advanced, because, quite simply, he was the meanest bloke of the bunch.

When it came time to kill, Bartram did it with overt enthusiasm. His sword and halberd he liked to keep sullied from the blood of peasants he would kill. Often he would sharpen the blades without first washing the offending offal from the metal. Bartram called this "thinning the herd" as he believed that he was doing good by wiping the countryside clean of peasants.  This, in its own right, was an irony in that Bertram was raised a peasant. However, in his evil, twisted mind, he saw in every man, woman, and child he killed, he cleansed the land of another person who would become his father. The other mercenaries took this as a good omen, that they had such a treacherous demon in their midst. They believed, of all things, that it gave their unit more power.

When it came time to rape, he, too, was first in line, and often would take seconds where he would kill his victim as he raped her. This he saw as a bonus payment for his good work he was doing. Good, in that it satisfied his lust for power and destructive will.

Bartram was a bad man. As a mercenary, the wages garnered in pillaging were to him the perfect spoils for his most enjoyable employment.

The other men in his rank, for the most part, feared and honored him. And the enemy, when soldiers would actually fight other soldiers (instead of slaughtering common peasants) in this battle now called "the Anarchy", they saw him as a vicious monster they wanted to destroy.

They wouldn't get that opportunity, however. For Bartram's fate would be legendary for both the Norman and the English side.

It all happened one afternoon when Bartram entered the house of an unknown village's miller.

Bartram lead his men to the mill; he knew that villagers would be inside, protecting the precious economic resource. The rest of the village had already been set ablaze and he had satiated his bloodlust with the lives of a dozen villagers.

He laughed as his men broke down the flimsy, wooden door and entered inside the mill. He heard the screams of several women from the mill's attic. Good, he thought, playtime for after the battle. He unsheathed his sword, already stained with blood, ready for more. When he entered, the anteroom where villagers traded their grain was empty. "Search the premises! Take no one except the women alive!" he ordered.

The room was a small trading center for farmer's grain. It was worn and the wooden floor had seen dozens, perhaps hundreds, of years' wear. The entourage returned with a report: "No one is here."

"What?" he said. "Of course they are! I heard the screams as well as you. The bluebloods are somewhere. Let us finish this battle and have us some wenches!"

Still, not a soul could be found. He stomped up the stairs to the mill proper, where the grinding of the two, gigantic stones powered by the creek running below them slowly turned. "Where is everyone?" a soldier asked.

"They must be here. Who has searched the attic, where the grain is stored?"

Bartram's underlings answered him, that the mill was abandoned.

He roared with rage, and said, "They must have escaped! The cowards! Chase after them and skewer them like pigs!"

The guards left. Leaving Bertram alone with one sergeant.

He let out a huff and said to his sole companion, "Perhaps they are hidden. Let us look in the mill proper."

Bartram and the sergeant entered the dusty mill and saw the two stones grinding against each other. They also saw a boy. Bartram took a double take and pointed his sword to the boy. "There!"

The boy spoke: "Bartram, son of Eldrich, your time has now ended. The unnamed One has seen your treachery and bloodlust. He has opted to take you now."

Bartram stopped in his tracks, looked to his sergeant with surprise and rage, making sure he had heard the impudent boy correctly. He turned toward the boy, sheathed his sword and took out his dagger. "You shall die slowly and without mercy. Prepare for your gutting, boy!"

The boy stood fast. Bartram advanced toward him. The boy stepped back, behind the two grinding stones. Did this rascal think he might escape me? This is going to be enjoyable! he thought.

But just as Bartram came within a yard of the boy, his foot caught on an exposed nail from the wooden floor. Bartram tumbled into the grinding stones and the giant boulders seized the corner of his mail shirt, pulling him into the mill.

He let out a scream, not from horror, but from rage that a boy and an exposed nail had cheated him out of his prize. The sergeant watched as the boy stood firmly, silently watching as the stones slowly dragged him into the mill. His scream became a gurgle and the sergeant could hear Bartram's bones crushing, even above the din of the mill's gears and clamoring machines.

* * * * * * *

To this day, the good people of Norwich know their flour is ground mixed, ever so lightly, with the bone-meal of Bartram, the Norman butcher and enemy of the people.

The herd grows, well-fed in the knowledge they are safe, at least for the time being, from the vicious predator they once knew.

1 comment:

Kari said...

That's an ugly story--which it's supposed to be, so that's a compliment ;) Recently, I've been reading old newspaper articles as part of my genealogy distraction. I'm struck by how blunt and descriptive some of the articles are--describing a man whose head was crushed by a wagon wheel comes to mind most quickly. It's so odd--we talk about how violent our culture is, yet would never write the gory descriptions of death our ancestors regularly put in the newspaper. Somehow we manage to be both violently destructive and overly dainty at the same time.