A dream of fire is a fantasy short story by Author Charles Gramlich
A DREAM OF FIRE
Far to the rear of the army, in the heat and dust, the baggage train toiled. The oxen that pulled the supply wagons plodded along in their traces, too strong yet to be worn down. It was harder on the camp followers—the women and children—harder yet on the wounded whose pain made them cry out in the carts for surcease.
The baggage train guards were the lightly wounded or older warriors no longer suited to the battle charge. Among the latter was a giant of a man, six-foot-five or more, with iron gray hair braided in the Viking fashion. He limped slightly on his left leg from an old wound, and carried a strange axe that he struggled to fix. His muttering anger at missing the upcoming fight was palpable. Less salient was his depression at knowing that advancing age would soon keep him from all battles. He had no wish to die in bed, grasping after one last breath.
The axe the old warrior worked on was made from two axes fitted together, with the haft of one inserted through the head of the other. But they’d come apart and only a thin silverish chain connected them. The warrior had gotten the one axe reinserted into the other but realized they wouldn’t stay without being bolted together. He didn’t have those tools.
That was when the attack came.
Through accident or design, a horde of enemy warriors mounted on horseback had found the pack train. They descended in a cloud to the slaughter. Badly outnumbered and on foot, the guards rushed to set up a perimeter to defend their women and their wagons.
The big, gray-haired warrior did not join the others. Realizing that his broken axe was useless, he used the smaller weapon to hack through the chain that bound the two together. Then he swept up the bigger axe and launched a mad charge straight into the face of the oncoming enemy.
Hooves pounding, dust rising, the foe rode down upon the old warrior. But he sheared through the first wave of attackers, sundering armor and hacking through limbs in a berserker’s rage. The momentum of the enemy charge faltered. Men shouted. Horses milled.
Enemy riders lunged with lances and curved blades to take the life of the lone giant, but he lashed around himself wildly, keeping them at bay. He took wounds; others took death. Many foes began to back away, until one horseman in boiled leather armor rode forward and threw a hide bag of liquid and a lit taper onto the big man. In an instant the axe-wielder became an inferno.
The old warrior roared in a voice as loud as the flames; he charged against the man who’d set him afire. The other’s horse reared back from the heat, throwing its rider to the ground. The burning man bashed the fallen rider’s head open with his axe.
Wheeling about, the warrior leaped into the midst of the enemy horde. Flames roared around him like a furnace. Horses screamed and reared. Men were thrown and trampled. Some caught a spark on their clothing and began to burn. Within moments the enemy attack broke and the horde fled in rout. Only the burning man remained in the field of battle, his legs braced against the earth like the trunks of great oaks.
Now, others among the baggage train guards came rushing. Someone screamed to, “put him out, put him out!”
The burning warrior collapsed to his knees. And in that instant the flames snuffed themselves, as if having exhausted their fuel. Everyone could see the old man plainly then. He was horribly blackened, with threads of smoke curled up from his body. His right eye was a smoldering cinder, but his left was open and a perfect blue within whorls of cooked flesh.
Someone rushed forward with a blanket, but there was no need. The old warrior fell face forward to the earth, his head turned to the left on the battle-churned soil. Even in death, his one eye did not close. In it, there was no anger or pain or fear, only a quiet satisfaction.
He’d beaten the straw death.
— end —
Notes on “A Dream of Fire:” Most of the time in my dreams, I’m myself or some variant of myself. And whatever happens to that character, it seems as if it’s happening to me. That’s why so many of the dreams in this collection are told in first person. Rarely, though, I seem very much to be an observer watching what happens to a character who is not me. It’s more like “watching” a movie rather than acting in one. This was such a dream. It also inspired the ending of a story of mine called “Harvest of War,” which is a much more complete piece.
About Charles Gramlich
Charles Gramlich moved to the New Orleans area in 1986 to teach psychology at a local university. He’s since published four novels, two nonfiction books, two collections of short stories, and a chapbook of vampire haiku.