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|Elves Are Douchebags|
by Robert Lowell Russell
|The Millionth Soul by Franziska Louise|
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|#1 - June 14, 2013|
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MUSCLE THE MENHIR
by Robert Bagnall
On July 5, 2009, a hoard of Anglo-Saxon treasure was discovered in a field in Staffordshire, England. The Staffordshire Hoard, as it became known, provided no clue as to why it had been buried, or even if it had been hidden deliberately or simply lost.
The location where the hoard was discovered lies about thirteen miles from the village of Bradley, where there may—or may not; archaeologists disagree—be the remains of a partly destroyed stone circle.
These two facts are probably unrelated. But perhaps not...
And then there were only two.
The Jute lay on his back, semi-conscious. A brief cheer went up from the Angles and Saxons in the crowd, raucous but tired, drowning out the groans of the Jutes. Bleary-eyed they may have been, but emotions still ran high; some of them were built like oxen and had been drinking for nigh on thirty-six hours now.
Attendants ran through the circle of standing stones to drag the Jute away. Torches were no longer needed as they had been an hour ago, when the combatants still numbered a dozen or so, each man hunched against a stone, maintaining contact. Dawn had broken.
Wulfhere couldn’t have planned it better. The last two contestants were an Angle and a Saxon. Not only that; their palms were pressed against the same stone. They could look into each other’s eyes, just as they had been doing for a day, a night, and now into a second day, knowing that only one of them would be victorious.
Standing on a fallen boulder close to the action, Beornrald did his best to rouse the crowd. Several hundred had remained through the night; there must have been two thousand at the previous sunset, each straining for a view. He had fashioned a sort of horn from animal skins and sticks, with an opening bigger than his mouth. “It’s down to two now. You know what they have to do. They know what they have to do. Whoever keeps his hand on the stone the longest, wins!”
Twenty sceattas to take part, a sceat to watch. Beer and bread and roast hog for sale. The prize, a ragbag of bejeweled trinkets designed to appeal to the continental Teutonic mindset. A stroke of genius.
But even with this better-than-scripted finale, the crowd was listless. “Muscle the Menhir!” Beornrald screamed. “Muscle the Menhir!”
“Muscle the Menhir!” a few in the crowd jeered back.
“Muscle the Menhir!” Beornrald called again, and this time the crowd responded. The catchphrase went back and forth until the impetus began to die, at which point Beornrald yelled, “Let’s talk prizes!” reminding both the remaining contestants and the on-looking crowd why there were here.
Standing in the shadows behind Beornrald, Wulfhere had Ethelbald by his weasely shoulders. Beornrald may have been the public face of Muscle the Menhir—Wulfhere had hated the name ever since Beornrald suggested it, but couldn’t think of a better or more alliterative one—but Wulfhere was its instigator, its creator. He’d thought of it; he’d financed it.
“Eh?” Beornrald had said when Wulfhere had pitched the concept. “We get a load of warriors to place their hands on a rock, and whoever holds their hand on the rock the longest wins?”
“Wins what?” Beornrald had asked.
“Doesn’t matter. We can put together a bag of second-rate stuff. Jeweled dagger handles, that sort of thing. The Teutons love all that stuff. But it’s the pride of Jute beating Saxon or Saxon beating Angle that they’ll really be playing for. Legends will be written about the winners, stories passed down from generation to generation.”
Beornrald had had a faraway look in his eyes. “It’s a stroke of genius,” he’d murmured.
Yes, Wulfhere may have been the brains behind Muscle the Menhir, but at the moment it was Ethelbald, the rodent-like attendant he’d entrusted with the prize hoard, who had the upper hand. “Where is it?” Wulfhere growled.
Ethelbald grimaced at him, partly in pain, partly with the knowledge that with the fall of each warrior his negotiating position became stronger. “It’s safe.”
“If we don’t have prizes to hand out at the end of this, we’re dead. All of us. Where is it?”
“Thirteen miles hence,” Ethelbald winced. “Only I know where it is buried. Two thousand sceattas…”
“One hundred. Not a sceat more,” Wulfhere spat, trying as hard as he could not to draw attention to the two of them in the dawn’s early light.
“Two thousand, or you will have no prizes for the victors.” Despite Wulfhere’s grip, Ethelbald was not cracking. The Saxon and the Angle were not the only ones with their eyes on a prize and prepared to go through a pain barrier to get it.
“A dozen gold and jewel inlaid sword hilts for the winner!” they could hear Beornrald calling through his horn. “Enough for the elders of your tribe! Armor clasps, belt buckles—and a prize as well for the best costume!”
As thing stood, there would be nothing to hand out—in fact, the only things to be handed out would be beatings by large Teutons to Wulfhere and Beornrald.
“One hundred sceattas,” Wulfhere breathed, “and you get to live.” But even as he said it, he knew they were out of time. From the shadows where he was standing he could see a sliver of the Saxon’s face; the man’s eyes were beginning to glaze. The crowd was braying support to Angle or Saxon.
“One hundred, do you understand?”
A cry went up from the crowd; decisive, final, euphoric even, despite the chill. One man remained standing. The other lay prostrate on the cold ground. There was a winner and there was a loser.
Wulfhere could feel himself panicking. “Tell me where you’ve hidden the bag of prizes!” But all Ethelbald could do was croak, saliva bubbling at the corner of his mouth.
Beornrald appeared at Wulfhere’s shoulder. “Where’s the prize bag? We need to give out the prizes.” His voice trailed off as he followed the line of Wulfhere’s gaze to Wulfhere’s hands, which had slipped from Ethelbald’s shoulders to his neck—and at the dead Ethelbald that dangled from those hands.
Beornrald said, “They’re gonna tear this place apart, you know that?”
“And us with it,” Wulfhere agreed.
Robert Bagnall describes himself as a white, male, middle-class Briton, and a suit-and-tie-wearing corporate wageslave during daylight hours. He’s been publishing fiction since the 1990s and has sold stories to The Zone, Nasty Piece of Work, and Roadworks in the U.K., and in the U.S. to Big Pulp, The Library of the Living Dead Press, and Pill Hill Press.
He can be reached, but it’s not easy.