The Barbarian Short Story By Jeremy W. Dailey | 4/10/21 “They hunt me..." A staunch muscular man, bare-chested and coated in a viscous crimson, mutters between exhausted breaths from under a horned iron helm; “they hunt me, they hunt me, they hunt me...” The searing pain of a fractured foot transmits in unison of every agonizing step, yet the beasts that are in pursuit of him offer compelling motivation to keep moving. Using a crude and hefty broadsword as a makeshift walking cane, he thrusts it into the soggy forest floor with each stride, shifting his weight to lean against the hilt. Some of the blade’s steel catches the torchlight in between the thick blood and sludge smeared across its surface. He stops to catch his breath as he kneels against an old stump, taking his first real rest since leaving that filth-ridden den. It feels like days since he found the small shaft that led to the daylight. It had only been about six hours. In his moments of brief reflection, visions of a beautiful woman, with pale skin and chestnut hair, begin dancing in and out of the flickering flame. Her voice, as soothing as the day they wed by the brook, gently caresses his mind. “Keep me always, as I keep you always.” Even one as tough as he could not hold back the tears that found their way out to weave with the blood and dirt. “I keep you, always” he replied to the ghost of his love. The moment of serenity fades as the sound of a distant war horn grows louder, riding the wind up the ridge. His eyes widen from beneath the slits of his helmet. His chin of stone begins to faintly tremble. Far below hundreds of torches pepper the valley as if the stars had fallen to the world, bringing death with them. A second horn sounds, then a third, followed by terrible shrieks, howls, and the eager cries of an insatiable craving for the flesh of man. In a panic, the wounded man strains to rise to his feet however the pain is too much to bear. He stumbles back down onto his knees, the weight of despair pressing heavily on him. He understands now that there is no escaping this. He brings his large sword close to him, glancing up and down at the blood-coated blade. “One more fight, one more for her”, he says as he begins to slowly stand on weakened legs. He exhales a deep breath, filling the air with a dense cloud that dissipates around the light of the torch. He turns to face the valley below, looking at his death head-on. The distant shrieks, the snapping of branches and twigs becoming ever louder. The glow of their fires growing brighter with every tense second. As he begins to see movement in the darkness ahead, he tosses his torch down in front of him, bringing his free hand over to meet the other and grasping the hilt of his sword tightly. A volley of arrows hidden in the night whir past, piercing into the trees all around. He glances quickly at the skull tied with leather bindings on his belt. A small, delicate skull, still fresh with the flesh of the one it belonged to. Another few sad tears bring their way out of his wide eyes as he says, “I keep you, always”. Suddenly horrific creatures of various sizes clad in dark warpaint and black tarnished plate, tear through the trees and leap towards him, mangled blades swinging through the smoke. The sounds of metal clanging against metal and screams of agony echo across the valley, before finally falling silent. The torch in the mud fades to embers as a horned helm, still resting upon the severed head of the barbarian warrior, falls to the ground. Lifeless eyes froze in perpetual terror as another life fades away.