The Man in the Axe
Bright sunlight flashed on the wheel-sharpened edge of an iron axe as it arced through a leaf-limned sky and dove down again to bite into knotted, striped flesh. Little green bits of a creeping vine flew away like so many starlings at the rush of a kite. The axe dropped down, came around and up, hovered weightless on the wind before folding its wings and crashing down again. Thunk! And a sound like leaves across sand as a calloused hand slid up the haft and jerked the head free. Down, around, up, woosh, thunk! Again and again, bite after bite, the gap grew wider in the dense wood.
Velkis let the axe head fall to the ground and leaned on the handle. He groaned and twisted around first this way, then the other, every joint creaking, vertebra popping. He extended his right arm and braced his hand against the trunk of the tree, then he turned his body to the left and pushed against the tree, pushed until he the deep scars that wrapped his upper arm like the vines on the trunk of this tree stretched to near tearing. He grimaced as the muscles pulled up tight, but he did not let up until it felt as though the skin might rip apart like the seam on a fat man’s coat. His disfigured arm would never fully straighten again, and the wounds pulled tighter all the time. If he didn’t stretch it every day, the arm would be entirely useless before a year had passed.
He turned his back and leaned against the tree. It remained a sturdy leaning post in defiance of his strength and blade. Many times in the arena Velkis had borrowed strength from the resistance of an opponent, but never had he turned his back on one.
He reached up with his left hand and massaged the stiff arm and shoulder opposite. The hardened, knotted tissue beneath the rigid skin was alternately tender and senseless. The long scar was sunken and white down the center like a glacier-filled valley. Hard, gnarled fingers traced its brown, red, yellow, and puckered borders, weather worn ridges full of hidden defiles. The skin elsewhere was loose and given to the myriad tiny wrinkles which age and the loss of youthful motility had endowed it. Six years in the desert. Five more on the wharfs of Galepileta. Then three decades in the Empire’s arenas. He had witnessed and caused more death than a mouser in a grain house, but the years were beating him down, besting him as it bested all mortals.
Velkis looked up at this old boxwood and wondered now which was he, the tree or the axe? And he wondered if it mattered. The dense wood must surrender to the iron in time, but with each strike the axe grew duller. Rage, though it might, its fate was inevitable: be useless without action or become useless because of it, but the axe, at least, could be sharpened.
The old fighter pushed himself away from the tree, shouldered the axe, and steeled himself to deliver a few more blows before fading light and mounting exhaustion forced him to retire.
Deep breath. Velkis inhaled as he lifted the axe, exhaled as he turned his hips and slid his right hand down the haft, pulling the head down and around with all the force he had left. He felt something was not right in the swing even before the impact—too far from the tree. The toe of the axe bit into the tree where the heel should have struck; the head turned aside, glanced off the trunk, and continued its arc. Far too late to arrest its momentum, Velkis felt the wood turn in his hands, and his heart turn in his chest, and in that eternity between the tree and his shin he had just the time to think No! before the axe collided with his leg.
The shock still rang in the bones of his hands as he gaped uncomprehending at his unharmed leg while his mind labored to interpret the conflicting input. Where there should have been torn flesh, broken bone, and a spreading crimson stain, there was only polished bronze.
“Burn me,” Velkis wheezed and sank to the ground. “Burn it,” he said, louder now, panic giving way, drowning beneath a flood of relief and anger.
He fell on the ground, laughed and struck the earth with his good fist. “Burn it to the lowest, demon lanced hell!” He sent after the first a succession of curses, each more creative and fearful than the last until it became a crude and boyish game. At last he lay still and whispered a prayer of thanks to whatever spirit had reminded him to buckle on those greaves that morning. He turned his head to look up slope toward the peak of Mount Dievakaj.
“Ha!” he scoffed. “You thought you had me with that one, didn’t ya?”
And he remained there, watching the late afternoon clouds drift overhead as he returned, one breath at a time, to the world of mortals, dry throats, and growling stomachs. At long last he pushed himself to his feet, retrieved his axe, and turned his feet toward home and to quiet his stomach.