Rowan huddled, wrapped in a thick woolen blanket—a shadowed knot on a hill overlooking Lakewood. The moon painted the valley deep blue, making it easy to see but also—be seen. A risk, but he couldn’t wait. In one of the shadowed buildings in the town below was the man, or men, Rowan would kill.
Distant lanterns succumbed to the late hour and glowing windows vanished one by one into darkness. The innocent believed him to be a dead killer and the guilty knew he lived unstained by innocent blood. They’d framed him perfectly. Now, his enemies waited for him to defend his name. They knew him, but he not them. His only hope for justice was to leverage this hazy, absurd connection.
He opened his blanket enough to free an arm but short of letting the fall air steal his warmth. His blades glimmered. Long, shiny, and sharpened to perfection, they were more an extension of his body than tools. A generous gift from his father in recognition of his skills. Tailored for his style, elegant and strapped to his hands, they allowed him to shear in an apparent reckless fury. And without a single scratch to the sheep. Other men were lucky to shear one to his ten, and people came from distant towns to watch. He was that good.
Knives, swords, or fists were more effective weapons, but he knew the shears. Someday a bard would sing a mocking tune of the foolish shepherd who perished on a pathetic path of vengeance armed with farmer’s tools, but so be it. These were his best chance.
He waited until nearly every lantern in town had died, then stood. The blanket fell to the ground, and he tapped his fury. The chill would no longer be a problem. He rarely allowed his blood to run hot, but it was time: his chest tightened, bulged. Rage infused him with power. Father had once explained it like fire in the stove. Controlled and in strict moderation, it warmed and cooked. But if the fire became fierce, it could destroy not only their house, but the entire town.
Looking over his shoulder, the valley shadows hid the distant, charred remains of his farmhouse. Where she had loved to spend afternoons in the garden—waving, calling to him. Even the memory soothed the monster inside. He could almost feel her soft skin under his calloused hands, smell her lavender scented hair, see the dark green eyes that so effortlessly calmed him.
Father had said it was it her gypsy magic, but Rowan knew better. Rather than cower at a beast, she accepted—even loved—him. How she trusted a man tormented by chaos, he has never understood. They married, despite objections from the townsfolk. The Archbishop married them anyways. Her faith had turned him into a kind, loving husband. Then, a father. He closed his eyes, and a tear fell.
The musing brought anger and heat pulsed his chest; she would object. He hesitated, giving her spirit a chance, but … nothing. She was truly gone. They all were. Tonight the beast inside would be tapped to destroy a bigger monster. He snapped his shears; the steel rang like music.
Stay in control, he thought. The last thing he wanted was to punish the innocent—something guaranteed if the rage took him. But the guilty? They would pay—if he could find them. He began a silent, hurried pace towards a large building in the middle of town.
Rowan reached town, slipping through shadows until he reached the building in every child’s worst dream—the butchery. The massive structure loomed, ready to suck those venturing too close into a bloody room of rotting flesh. Rumor had it that a man once journeyed past the bloodstained counter into the forbidden area and was slowly fed back to the town. Although it sounded like a story children tell to scare one another, even adults stayed away. If you dealt with Butcher, you walked in only as far as required—then left fast. Without looking back.
Rowan paused. This placed still scared him.
A grown man—half-barbarian no less. Afraid? He released fury: heat to bury cold fear, and crept to the front door. With a slight push, a wave of pungent, raw meat pushed him back. A smell his darkness craved, but made his human side want to vomit. He hadn’t been inside Butcher’s shop for years, and the putrid odor stirred nightmares.
The Butcher had always tormented their family: Rowan figured ‘cause Mother had rejected him and chose Father, instead. But Father had said Butcher had always been a mean son-of-a-bitch. After Mother fell ill and passed on, Butcher became a nightmare. If it wasn’t for the fact that he was as skilled in butchery as Rowan at shearing, the Baron and Archbishop would have thrown him in the dungeons years ago. Rowan was sure of it. Everyone seemed to tolerate the arrogance and vulgarities because Burcher could hack up a scavenger and make it taste like a prizewinning steer.
Rowan slipped through the door.
Now, out of the moonlight, he was blind. For an eternity, he waited for the counter to materialize from darkness. He vaulted over the waist-high counter and ducked into the shadows. Waiting for the Butcher to split his skull. Not because Rowan had the blood of a barbarian. No, the butcher didn’t need a reason. He’d do it for the hell of it. And if the townsfolk knew his secret—they’d help. Barbarians were no more human than rabid wolves—according to humans.
Father had suspected the hot blood it in his own lineage, but once Rowan had hit puberty, it was obvious. Sheep were destroyed, tools were smashed, and once, the entire barn had been lost. Closer to the village, the rage would have been noticed, but with the solitude of the farm and Father’s understanding, he survived the transformational years.
Rowan’s eyes adjusted, and the opening to the back appeared. The place where he’d imagined Butcher chopping. Killing. Dressed in his white smock: streaked, spotted, and splashed crimson. A place no sane man would ever go.
This was a bad idea.
Rowan had been barely eight, but remembered like yesterday the time the wild boar just didn’t taste right. When Deke, his purebred dire wolf, didn’t return for three days, Father went looking and returned with a lie: Deke saved the town from a rabid bear but lost his own life in the process. Father never requested the services of Butcher after that incident. Years later, Rowan confronted Father for the truth. That’s the day the barn burned to the ground. Father had later admitted they were lucky the fallout hadn’t been worse. The memory made Rowan’s eyes burn.
No, this was a good idea.
Rowan tightened the strap on his right hand, holding the blades in place, then crossed to the back. The large room was windowless, but streaks of moonlight streamed from roof cracks—splitting gloom and silhouetting large, hanging carcasses. Giant hooks and chains hung haphazardly at various heights and large tables stood in the center of the room. A glow in the back beckoned and he moved cautiously.
One year ago, Father had traded with the gypsies. Most people didn’t like them, but Butcher downright hated them. Had Father not helped last winter, the entire gypsy lot would have starved. Butcher was furious. Then, last month, the massacre at the farm. All logic pointed at Butcher.
Rowan would not destroy an innocent man, even a cruel one. But a confrontation tonight meant the end of his quest for justice: guilty, and the Butcher would die. But if innocent—well, Butcher would never keep his secret. By sunrise, the whole town would know the supposed maniac killer, Rowan, lived. Everything hinged on how Butcher received him: would he be shocked to see a dead murderer or would he grin for an opportunity to finish the job?
A stairwell dropped, and light spilled from a half-open door at the bottom. Despite misty breath, sweat formed on his brow and he wiped it clean. He descended, putting his weight easy on each step. Halfway down, a muffled voice from beyond the door froze him, leg in midair. Another voice, angry, responded.
Two people? He should walk away. Alone, Butcher was a fight he might win, but two? Who was with Butcher? Nobody went past the counter. He’d find out, retreat, and make a new plan. Maybe even approach the Baron and Archbishop with proof.
He hid each step downward behind the mumbled chatter. At the door, he positioned his ear near the opening and a strangely familiar voice, not Butcher’s, spoke.
“No excuses! You can or you can’t. And if you can’t, you are useless to me.”
A loud crash—Rowan jumped. Bumped the door, and watched horrified as it slowly swung halfway open. he backed into a slim shadow as light streamed up the stairs. The shears were ready. If they rounded the corner, they would fight a barbarian.
“I don’t care who you are.” Butcher’s throaty yell filled chamber as another crash sounded.
“Nobody tells me what to do!” That second voice. Who was it?
A green glow flashed and all fell silent. Rowan breathed through his open mouth—heart pounding. The mystery voice spoke again, controlled. Serene.
“Perhaps you forgot who you are dealing with? You will find the wayward shepherd after you locate the camp. Now stay your pathetic excuses because this time I won’t tolerate failure.”
They know I’m alive.
Despite the rage, his blood ran cold. They both would die. Just not tonight—he couldn’t take both of them as man, and wouldn’t risk freeing the inner barbarian. But he needed the face of the second man. He slid from the shadow for a glance.
His eyes widened. Before him, the Baron stood with outstretched fingers channeling a cragged green light that surrounded Butcher’s throat, holding him in place. The fat, choking man, so fearsome and brutal, hung helpless as his purple lips struggled for breath. This couldn’t be! A fire swelled in his chest and he stood tall and shoved the door. It swung back and shattered against the wall. The Baron and Butcher turned—Butcher clutching his throat, the Baron amused.
“A friend of yours?” the Baron asked Butcher.
Butcher’s face contorted into a bitter snarl, and the green light vanished. Butcher stumbled then rose to his monstrous height. He probably outweighed a horse. Rolls of fat drooped from his neck and arms and he locked his beady, red eyes on Rowan. “I’ve been looking for you, shepherd.”
Butcher picked up a massive, bloody cleaver from the table and, one-handed, raised it above his head. Two men would struggle to hoist that much steel, yet he brandished the weapon like a dagger. He brought it crashing to the table between them—wooden shards showered the room and the table vanished. No wonder he could cut up a full steer in minutes, one chop with that could rip a horned demon in two.
“Stop!” yelled the Baron.
Butcher paused. Rowan’s rage waited to explode.
“Shepherd, where is the gypsy camp?” The Baron scowled.
Gypsy camp? Why did the Baron care about the gypsy camp?
The Baron leaned closer, extending his fingers. “Tell me, and I promise you will die quickly.”
The gypsies left months ago. “I don’t know where—”
Green light shot from the Baron’s hands, surrounded Rowan, and he screamed. The light burned like acid. Rowan imagined Deke, the burning farmhouse, his crying son, and … her. He burned. No! Heat rose. He fumbled for control, but his darkness twisted and churned the fury. His body shook. Blood boiled. Rage exploded.
His clothes ripped, body contorted, and fingernails expanded like hungry knives. With a howl that rattled the earth, the Barbarian made an almost complete transformation.
At last. Free.
The green light faded, Butcher and Baron gaped.
“A barbarian?” the Baron sounded like he doubted what had just happened.
The Barbarian saw the world red, ripe for the shredding. Hatred burned like an inferno, and he would kill them all. This town was his. With eyes on Butcher, a low growl escaped his chest. He heard Butcher’s heartbeat quicken, smelled his blood. He salivated and shot across the room—an arrow sprung from a bow. The collision sounded a sickening crack, and Butcher fell to the floor.
The Barbarian straddled Butcher and grabbed his shoulder—squeezing until his fingers sank beneath flesh. Crimson life spilled to the floor. Both the Barbarian and Butcher howled—one in delight, the other in anguish. The Barbarian swiped with razer claws. But instead of a killing blow exposing the innards of the Butchers chest, streaks of bloody lines appear. The Barbarian roared at the mess of straps and metal on his hands. The once elegant shears were like shackles to his real, natural weapon.
Butcher kicked, and the Barbarian stumbled back to the wall and shook his bound hand. Banged it against the wall. Straps broke. Metal clanged to the ground. The shears—destroyed.
Green light again shot from the hands of the Baron, and the Barbarian’s arms felt like twenty men had grabbed them. He tried to step, and twenty more men kept his legs from moving. He pulled, pushed, and shrieked like a demon. His skin burned. The room swayed. Then, one foot moved slightly forward, defying the Baron’s magic.
The Baron’s face paled, “Get out! I can’t hold him.”
The Butcher rolled to his feet, the Baron took a labored step towards the door—struggling to keep his lightning-tipped fingers focused. The Barbarian pushed forward again, against the Baron, against the pain, against the confusion. Rage made his body tremble, and he took another step.
The Baron screamed and the room exploded in green. The Barbarian fell to the floor as blurred images of the Baron and Butcher vanished through the doorway. The room darkened.
Rowan opened his eyes to blackness. The need for mayhem was gone, but he remembered everything. The hatred—for everything. What kind of monster was he? He’d been a father … a husband. That was who he was. Not a monster. His life, the entire town, had all nearly been lost because of… If that beast tasted blood, it would never relinquish his soul. He could not allow a complete transformation.
He touched his arms, chest, and caressed his face. Safe from the Barbarian. That could not happen again. Never. Even if it meant abandoning his quest for revenge. The evil was too great. He had no doubt the Barbarian would destroy everyone in Lakewood.
Pain would never ease, he knew. Memories of his family and the men who took it from him were a yoke he must bear. Because the town could not be forced to pay for the deeds of two wicked men. By destroying evil, he became evil. Tears streamed his face with the truth—he must walk away. The Barbarian must never be allowed free.
He crawled towards faint moonlight on the stairway and felt a stab to his hand. His blades—or what was left of them. His beloved shears. The last connection to his life, destroyed like the life he’d loved. Fitting. He would search to the south, find, and start a new life with the gypsies. Yes, She would want that.
He found the door and climbed the stairs to the room with the tables, chains, and hooks. He stumbled through the butchery, climbed over the counter, then heard yelling. Angry yelling.
He pulled the door enough to peer out and his hope fizzled. Hundreds of men with torches stood a short distance from the building—taunting and threatening. He shut the door. How long had he been in the dark? It had only seemed like moments.
“Barbarian!” It was the Baron. “Come out in man form and confess your crimes before the Archbishop of God! Free yourself or burn in hell.”
The Baron’s words stirred the crowd and they echoed the demand with a roar of jeering. Rowan cracked the door again and scanned the mob. To the right of the Baron was Butcher with his giant cleaver and a shoulder wrapped in red-stained bandages. To the left was the Archbishop. Even the Archbishop? The crowd extended around the building.
He opened the door enough to yell, “I have not harmed a soul. Butcher killed my family and I came for revenge, nothing more. I wish to leave in peace.”
“You are a barbarian,” the Archbishop said. “You can’t remember the horrors you’ve committed. We understand. Will you spread your destruction beyond your family? No! It ends tonight. No more shall perish! Your life is over, that is certain. But I can cleanse your soul and save you from damnation.”
Rowan shut the door, and rested against the counter. Laying his head on his arms in fatigue and frustration, he took heavy breaths. It wasn’t true, he had never transformed. Had he? No, of course not. He didn’t remember the fire because he had been out hunting. He’d come home to the burning farm. The carnage. But what if he’d been the one to … no. Impossible. He’d never hurt his family. He was damned, yes, then she had tamed him. But where was she now? Why had she forsaken him? If she still loved him, believed in him, and wanted him, she would touch him … direct him. Wouldn’t she?
He looked to the heavens, pleading.
“Barbarian!” The Baron sounded impatient.
What did it matter now? Life held nothing for him. Death was welcome. Maybe they could cleanse him and he would find her waiting.
Rowan opened the door, and the crowd fell silent. Rowan stepped into the night. Dropped to his knees. “Finish me.”
“The Archbishop will now cleanse the monster,” the Baron announced to the cheering crowd.
The Archbishop left the mob and, rob swaying, walked to Rowan’s side where he knelt. “Barbarian,” the Archbishop whispered, “don’t give up so easily.”
Rowan looked up into the thin, war-scarred face of the Archbishop and begged, “Just kill me and end this.”
The Archbishop’s eyebrows lowered, and he continued to speak in a hushed tone. “Such a strange request for a Barbarian. I’ve known your kind, and you are unlike any I have encountered. How is it you can control your passion?”
Rowan didn’t answer, but turned instead to the angry men demanding his execution. He filled his lungs and exhaled slowly while focused beyond the torches and shouting.
“I know your desires, I know of the burning, the thirst that drives you.” The robed vicar leaned in closer. “I know how your soul burns to avenge Butcher’s sins against your wife.”
Rowan’s eyes shot a quick glance at the Archbishop, then back to an imagined land.
“Oh, yes, Barbarian. He bragged about the horrible things he’d done to her before he slit her throat. How he made your son watch.”
Rowan’s breathing intensified and the corners of his mouth turned down, but his eyes remained focused. He spoke quietly. “Why are you doing this? Cleanse me so I can face God!”
“God?” The Archbishop laughed quietly and shook his head. “God has abandoned you.” He looked back at the villagers. “He abandoned all of us long ago. Look around, what do you see? A town that conspired to have a good family tortured and murdered for helping the gypsies.” He shook his head in shame and disappointment. “Now you tell me Barbarian, what kind of God would allow that happen to good people? And let such evil to go unpunished?”
“It wasn’t them, It was Butcher,” Rowan said. “I know that.”
“But who do you think ordered Butcher to do it? Who do you think helped hide the deed? They never accepted your marriage or how your father helped the gypsies.” The Archbishop pointed to the mob, “And now they are ready to execute an innocent man.”
Rowan panned the eyes glowing from torchlight. It appeared every man in Lakewood was present—armed with torches, axes, and daggers. And not a single understanding or half-sympathetic soul in the lot of them. They wanted blood.
And they call me Barbarian?
Although none were close enough to have ever called him a friend, he’d always thought that a mutual respect existed. An appreciation for his services, often given freely for those in need. But now he could see the anger and hatred that burned in them. Truly, God had forsaken Lakewood.
Sweat formed on Rowan’s forehead. “To hell with them all. Cleanse me, I want to face God and see my wife.”
“Do you feel your wife? Does she abide in your heart? And what is this God you speak of? Did he protect you? Did he protect your family? What God rewards sacrifice and kindness with horror? Where is the punisher of evil? Your God never cared. Why would he receive you now?”
Rowan’s eyes burned, he locked them with the Archbishop’s. “If what you say is true, why shouldn’t I start my massacre with you.”
The man smiled back at him, and whispered, “Because I am the only one here willing to help you. If by chance God exists, did you consider that you are his avenging angel? Sent here to make them atone for their sins? And if no God is watching, well, who will punish the wicked? Either way, Barbarian, I can help you, and you can make them pay.”
They all had betrayed him. And who was to say that she wouldn’t want this? Maybe God did want him to punish them. After all, doesn’t God destroy evil? They had taken her life, a good woman, and yes, they must be punished. And if he was wrong, then he wanted no part of a God that would let them go free. Maybe the Archbishop was right. Maybe he was the angel of death. But like the Archbishop said, even if he wasn’t, it didn’t matter. Somebody had to make things right.
From the corner of his eyes, he saw Butcher raise his cleaver in mocking degradation. Comfort seethed Rowan’s chest; tonight, Butcher would die. The thought churned a brewing hunger for carnage. It was time to free the Barbarian.
“How do I get past the Baron’s magic?” Rowan said.
The priest smiled and carefully removed a small stone figurine from inside his coat. “This can protect you for a moment, not long, but long enough. Go to the mine. When they search for you, you’ll fight them in small numbers instead of at once.”
Rowan took it and the Archbishop continued.
“I’ll tell them the cleansing will begin and stun them to give you time—keep your eyes closed. Then, run. Don’t stop until you are deep in the mines. They are stocked with food and you can survive for years. The cavern becomes your lair. Without their precious metals, they all suffer. But…” He grinned. “The Baron most of all.”
Rowan nodded, turned to the Archbishop. “Why are you doing this?”
The Archbishop frowned and his eyes narrowed. The top of his lip began to shake. “Because these people are blind, ignorant, fools. They hate, they kill, and come to me for forgiveness. I left my people, the ones they call gypsies, thirty years ago thinking I could change them. But these monsters get worse every year. You and I, we are different. And fear drives them to destroy anyone who is different. Anyone who doesn’t agree with their warped ideas. If they want to be afraid, let’s give them something real to fear. And if you kill them all, so be it. I’m going back to my people.”
Rowan hesitated. This wasn’t the right way. These people … he looked at the crowd. Torches burned. They wanted blood. They’d taken blood. A growl escaped his throat. He’d give them blood. Destroying them wasn’t the right way, but maybe it was the only way. “Let’s show them terror.”
“Remember, eyes down and closed,” the Archbishop whispered. Then, stood and yelled, “The Barbarian has confessed and wishes to be cleansed before his execution. All kneel and look to the staff of God!”
Rowan, along with the rest, dropped to a knee. He released every horrible, buried memory to fuel his rage. Father. His son. His wife. He saw their burned bodies. Murdered by the bastards around him. His heart quickened. His skin burned.
The Archbishop raised his staff and chanted words. Rowan closed his eyes and bowed his head. Through closed eyelids he saw a bright flash and thunder cracked, ripped the sky. Half transformed, he opened his burning eyes and jumped to his feet.
In two giant leaps, he reached the wall of kneeling men, and cleared them in a bound. Two more steps and a man behind yelled. On the third step, a green light surrounded him and the charm in his hand burned hot. On the fourth step, he heard the frantic, fading voice of the Archbishop ordering everyone to pursue the monster. But it was too late. He would easily reach the mines before they could stop him.
Rowan passed through the cavern opening and into the mountain where dark tunnels glowed to his fiery eyes. He descended, deep into the heart of the mines where a large chasm had been converted to a dining hall for the laborers filling it during the daylight hours. Tables and chairs filled the room, cheap art attempted to brighten the walls. The room offered space to fight yet limited from attacking as one. Perfect. Small corridors fed the room from various directions offering an escape if needed and he quickly scouted them for the advantage.
Footsteps and hushed voices began to echo off the stone walls. In his heightened state, he felt stronger and had new abilities, yet retained his mind. Perhaps he could survive this partial-transformation and retain humanity. Maybe he could still find the gypsies.
He positioned himself in the shadows, or what would be shadows once the torches arrived. The hallway feeding the room was narrow. At most, three could reach him at once.
They approached, Butcher leading with a torch in one hand and cleaver in the other. The somber, somewhat fearful townsfolk behind the fat slob made Rowan laugh—a deep, maniacal sound that echoed the corridors. All but Butcher stopped, and Rowan laughed harder. Several of them turned around.
“Coward!” shouted Butcher. “Come fight like a man.”
“If we are agreed I am a man, why do you hunt me like a monster?” Rowan yelled.
Butcher bellowed and destroyed an old chair with his oversized blade. “Come and face me!”
The townspeople shuffled back. Seems they liked the idea of a Butcher-Barbarian brawl. Rowan advanced into the glow of their torches, but it didn’t have the reaction he expected. They straightened and fear drained from their faces.
He looked at his hands and saw the nimble fingers of a shepherd. A chill shot through his body. Barbarian! Anger! Kill Butcher. His mind raced, fear making him crazy as Butcher advanced. He killed your wife, your family! But the confidence was gone, panic and mounting fear his new battle companions.
Now Butcher laughed. “You are nothing but a coward!”
Rowan stepped backwards; the cleaver rose into the air, and Rowan dove. A shattering crash shook the ground as Rowan rolled over the dusty floor. He bounced up, but dropped again as the shiny blade cut the air above him, whooshing past. The Butcher stumbled, and Rowan rushed to knock him to the ground. He may as well have butted a stone column. The failed charge sent a wave of pain through his shoulder, and Butcher spun his elbow, striking and throwing Rowan to the wall. His head struck rock. Light flashed, pain seared his mind, and he fell to the ground.
“Such a disappointment, young shepherd.” Butcher gripped Rowan’s neck and hoisted him into the air, then whispered, “Your wife put up more of a fight. Even after I ripped off her right arm.”
Rowan kicked and grabbed the meaty hand choking him. A loud clang, the cleaver had dropped, Butcher wrapped his other hand around Rowan’s throat.
Feet swinging in the air, Rowan twisted, punched as his neck began to collapse. His life flashed before him: working with Father and hearing Mother sing while preparing stew. His son’s first laugh. Then she appeared, smiling. She opened her mouth, perhaps to call or beckon him.
“What began with your mother,” Butcher mumbled in Rowan’s ear, “ends with you. Nobody even suspected her sickness came from me.” His fat lips curled up, showing the rotting teeth behind them. “And now, I win, Shepherd. Again.”
Mother’s final days, feverish and gaunt, flashed through his mind. Not sick? Poisoned? Rowan kicked, furious. Pulled at the fingers on his throat, but the world faded and there she was again—in his mind. His wife … his love. But … her eyes. Something wasn’t right. Her mouth drew back in terror and backed away from him, awkwardly. Afraid. Flames snapped around her, teasing, torturing. He saw her stained dress and to his horror, the meaty bloodstained stump where her right arm had been. She grabbed a goblet from the table and threw it at him. Screamed. He reached to help her, and it was Butcher’s arm reaching for her throat. The Butchers voice laughing. The Butcher killing her.
Rowan began to shake. Heat burned like a furnace in his chest. And the Barbarian exploded into the world—throwing Butcher across the room.
The Barbarian stood to full height and roared. On his back, Butcher’s eyes bulged at the monster before him.
The Barbarian advanced, picked up the cleaver. His hand surged with heat on contact with the hilt, a burning that climbed his arms and filled his body with crazed passion. He opened his mouth and the sound of hell rattled the town of Lakewood.
He sliced and blood splashed the walls as the right arm of Butcher fell lifeless.
The Barbarian watched dark liquid pump from the bare shoulder. No celebration or satisfaction, just death. He swung again.
Covered in gore, he turned to face the mob and found the chamber empty. Torches, farm tools, and swords littered the floor behind their retreat. He raised the cleaver and his howl shook the mountain. A threat heard by every man, woman, and child in Lakewood. This was his home. And by God, he would kill any living thing that ever dared enter.