ANGEL STEEL

By Randy Chandler

 

I. The Visionary

 

Brother Thomas paced the stone floor of his cell, keeping to the darkened corners and avoiding the skeletal fingers of yellow light fluttering from the single candle beside his cot. As much as the light terrified him, the darkness frightened him more, so he could not simply walk over to the candle and pinch out the flame with licked-wet fingers. That a monastic brother should be so cursed with a fear of light seemed an affront to Thomas’s religious calling, but he could find no remedy for it.

The visions always came with a burst of painful light no one else could see, with the agonizing sensation of talons hooking his head and piercing his cranium to unleash a terrible shrieking within. The insufferably luminous visitations inevitably left him with an illogical fear of light--and with the certainty that his spirit was withering, twisting into some Hellish deformity that not even God would recognize as a soul.

As his bare feet whispered over the floor, he beseeched the Lord to spare him the torment of further visions. He did not believe he could survive another. But even as he addressed the Almighty with his desperate petition, fear inflamed his soul and he broke off his prayer. It was then he knew that he feared God more than he feared the darkness and the light. The shameful impulse to hide from God, to become invisible, drove him to crouch in the darkest corner of his austere cell, where he trembled like a newborn calf. In his mind’s eye he saw the Lord’s fiery finger burning away the ceiling of the small room and pointing directly at him, singling him out from his brethren in the monastery, designating this weak, unworthy monk as the recipient of insidious visions.

“O Lord…” he cried. “No more.”

Unseen talons dug into his skull. Screaming, he jumped to his feet and bolted from his cell, clutching his head in his hands as if to hold it in place on his thin neck and narrow shoulders. Down the dim corridor he ran, alternately whimpering and mouthing delirious imprecations. He brushed past brothers who had stumbled, sleep-befuddled, from their cells to see what the matter was, and then he loped up the staircase and out into the snow-covered courtyard. There he dropped to his knees, pressed his palms together as if preparing to pray, and then he wordlessly screamed at the Heavens until his throat was too raw to scream more.

The terrible shrieking filled his skull, and like a bellows stoking flames, the shrieking brought forth the vision that filled him with mortal terror and revulsion.

Great white wings come out of the heavy snowfall, winged creatures silently gliding toward the earth, brandishing fiery blades.

Hideous giants and fearsome demons with otherworldly weapons rise up to meet their airborne enemy. Battle blades rend the cold air, clashing with steel thunder.

The snow burns red with bloodfall.

Stricken angels crash to earth. Others strive to escape on damaged wings.

Above the battle, an immense and angry God curses the world and turns away in disgust. Untouched by the raging combat, Thomas wanders for a time on bloody fields of snow, and then he is all at once hurled backward in time to witness the cause of this unholy slaughter.

 What he sees drives him deeper into madness.

He fell forward into the deep snow and into the yawning darkness beneath it. His brothers carried him back into the monastery, where he languished feverishly for three days between life and death, between this world and the next, tormented by ungodly visions.

When at last he came out of his fever, he shouted: “Something terrible is coming into the world!”

 

II. Song of Birth and Death

 

Braga’s mother often sang a womb-song to her before she was born, but once she had squeezed the infant out into the cold world, the weary mother never again sang that childbearing song. When the girl-child was old enough to understand, her mother told her that their people would sing glorious songs of Braga’s heroic exploits down the long chain of time and that she would be remembered long after her era on earth was done. She told Braga, too, that she would hear the womb-song once more, that she would recognize it at once and know it signaled her mother’s death. “But mother,” the youngster puzzled in her childish way, “how can I know a song you sang before you borned me, a song I never heard?” To which her mother replied: “You did hear it, little one. You heard it with your spirit before you had ears, and you heard it again with your tiny ears through the waters of my womb. You will know the song when the spirit-wind brings it to your ears. Have no fear.”

And now, twenty-two years after her birth, alone under a full moon on a mist-cloaked moor in the low country of the south, Braga heard the prophesied song again and knew her mother was dying. She lifted her helm off her war-braids, halted her great mount and cocked her ears to the faint music the spirit-wind carried. Her heavy breasts heaved beneath her hard-hide breastplate. Her eyes moistened with mists of sadness. Before she refitted the moon-hazed helm upon her head and turned her horse for home, she uttered one word: “Mother.”

Just before rosy dawn Braga rode hard into the village and jumped down from her mount before the horse’s hooves ceased pounding ground. Her long legs carried her on the run to her mother’s hut. The woman, now aged and frost-headed by many hard winters, looked up with rheumy eyes at her sturdy daughter and tried to smile. The old woman’s face was badly bruised and battered, one eye swollen shut and the lower lip split open.

“Mother, who did this to you?” Braga asked, struggling to keep her voice gentle.

Her mother averted her one visible eye, but nevertheless hazarded an answer. Something broken rattled in her chest as she spoke. “Nathor of the Nephs. Caught me by the stream. Thrashed me. He stopped short of killing me outright ‘cause he wanted me alive long enough for you to come home to me one last time.”

“I’ll kill him!” Braga roared. Her long war-braids shook like angry serpents beneath her helm.

“That’s why he did this. He wants you to come to him.”

“I won’t disappoint the monster!” Braga clutched the haft of her sheathed sword. “I’ll have his head on a pike.”

“Kneel by me, daughter.” The dying woman weakly extended her gnarled hand. Braga knelt by the deathbed, removed her helmet and took her mother’s hand. The old woman whispered, “Nathor wants you because…he is your true father.”

Braga dropped the withered hand as if it were a fiery brand. Anger blazed in her eyes. Then she softened her aspect and took up the old hand again, saying, “The blows to your head addled your brain, otherwise you wouldn’t speak such nonsense.”

“No, my daughter, it’s true. Twenty-three years ago Nathor killed my husband, ripped open my loins and assaulted my womanhood. It nearly tore me apart, but I was big and strong then. You’re the spawn of the foul giant. You must tell no one this, as I have kept my silence ‘till now. Have you never wondered why you were so much taller and stronger than even the men of our tribe? Why you’ve grown into such a fierce warrior? It’s his blood in your veins.”

“Then why am I not as hideous as those man-killing monsters?”

“You took your beauty from my mother, the fairest of our tribe.”

Braga laughed bitterly. “So Nathor wants to be a father to me now? To bounce me on his knee? Tell me stories of his race of fiends? How can I believe this madness?”

“He wants you to carry his child,” rasped the old woman, her frail voice growing weaker still, “so your prowess and beauty might be bred into his bloodline.”

“He told you this?”

“No. I read it in his ugly face, in his bulging eyes.”

“I’ll have off his manhood before I lop off his ugly head,” Braga said through clenched teeth.

“You must not go near him. Nathor is cunning. He’ll keep you penned up like a pregnant sow until you birth him a child. Then he will likely kill you.”

Braga kissed her mother’s cheek. “Don’t tire yourself with worry. Rest now. By the time of the new moon you will be your crabby old self again.”

Sadness filled the old woman’s eyes, and Braga saw in them death and foreknowledge of death, and she knew her mother would not live to see the day’s sunset, much less the new moon.

Then with great effort the old woman spoke her last words to her daughter: “There is no shame in your dark heritage. In making you, the Great Mother took the strengths of that foul race of giants and made them human, fashioned them into something new and wonderful. My Braga…”  Thereupon, she closed her eyes and drifted for a time in the nether regions between this world and the next.

Braga heard stir of movement--a rustle of wings?--behind her and spun round with her hand on the dagger she wore on her left side. She relaxed when she saw her little tow-headed cousin Tyka clutching her pet chicken. The child’s eyes were wide and wet with innocent concern for the fatally injured old woman. The bird’s eyes were beady, dulled by such close captivity. Tyka whimpered.

Braga held her finger to her lips to shush the girl, then gently led her out of the hut.

“Is Gran dying?” asked Tyka, lips quivering.

“Yes, she’s resting for her journey to the next world.”

“Can I go with her?” Tyka clutched the chicken tighter. The helpless bird squawked.

“No. She has to go alone. And you have to stay here to grow up and try to be as good a woman as your Gran. Think you can do that?”

The child nodded. Braga tousled Tyka’s hair and sent her back to her hut, where the child’s mother would be preparing breakfast.

Braga gathered her two and twenty warriors together under the council tree, a giant oak with thick winter arms reaching into the early-morning sky. The strapping younger men were eager to take revenge on her mother’s assailant, though none yet knew the culprit’s identity. The more seasoned fighters kept a thoughtful silence and closely watched their arresting leader.

She seized the painted council stick and raised it over her head to signal her readiness to address her men. When their blustering subsided, she spoke: “I need three men to ride with me. The rest of you will stay here to guard the village. Sek, Mulki, and Taboor—you will come with me. The rest of you, be vigilant. The Nephs are close by. And the Wulfangs have returned to their winter camp and are ever a threat to us. No man sleeps tonight.”

“Who did this terrible thing to your mother?” asked Gragor, the band’s brashest young warrior.

“Nathor of the Nephs,” she said. “He is not your worry. I’ll deal his death myself.”

Gragor stepped forward, brandishing his long spear. “Then I should go with you,” he said. “You can’t best the Nephs with three old men.”

Taboor one-handed his bludgeon and knocked the younger man’s legs out from under him, and then put his foot on Gragor’s throat and hawked a wad of spit into the upstart’s face. With a wide grin splitting his wild beard Taboor said, “This old man will crack your skull and spill your brains if you don’t show proper respect, stripling. Now get off your arse and apologize to our lady.”

Before the red-faced grounded man could get up, Braga said, “I want no apologies. Just follow your orders and stay alive through the night when it comes.” Then to the chosen three she said, “Make ready. We leave before the sun’s shadow touches the blue stone.”

As Braga strode on long legs to her own small hut, her mother’s gray-haired nurse intercepted her and said, “Your mother’s gone.”

Braga bit back an upwelling of emotion and nodded. “Any last words?”

“No. Death rattled her spirit free and then she passed over quietly.”

“Bury her before the sun sinks.” Braga said as she glanced at her mother’s tiny hut and saw Tyka standing in its doorway, peering inside at the cooling corpse. A single tear escaped Braga’s eye and she silently cursed herself for showing weakness. Little Tyka began to whine like a lost puppy.

Braga strode across the cold ground to the crying child, snatched the pet chicken from her tiny arms and wrenched off the bird’s head.   

“Stop your sniveling, child,” Braga said. “You must learn to let go of worldly things.”