Sticks and Stones
A short story about language and war
“Did we miss?” Cūđbeorh asked Ælfþryð, his second in command. Their relentless barrage of Greek fire, boulders, and arrows pummeled Tintagel Castle, and anyone inside should have been maimed or killed. He’d traced the weapons’ arc through the air with his own eyes, a glorious flight.
They hadn’t missed.
And yet, nothing. Not a stone from Tintagel Castle was damaged, not a single cry of pain was heard, and no flames rose from the bailey.
His knights launched weapon after weapon, but it was as if they were firing into a void.
Faint stars flickered above, offering scant illumination on this moonless night. Owls hooted, halflings howled, and ogres crushed entire trees as they traversed the forest bordering Tintagel, filling the night with ominous sounds.
Cūđbeorh surveyed his troops. As knight commander, he stood between his army of two-hundred iron-armored soldiers and the castle, noting where their weapons landed and redirecting fire as needed.
Cūđbeorh drew back his crossbow and took careful aim so his arrow would fly to the closest battlement, behind which he knew an enemy soldier crouched. He held the bowstring taut, his arm steady, muscles tight. The moment before release, a shrill scream struck him, “Wandought!”
Cūđbeorh tumbled backward as if shoved by an invisible hand. Through blurred eyes, he saw that all his knights had fallen.
Slowly, his army scrabbled against the earth and stood.
Wandought! thought Cūđbeorh. They called us weak and puny. We will launch all our Greek fire and burn the castle to the ground. They are the ones who will know what it is to be weak!
Before Cūđbeorh could give the command, the word cumberworld, a worthless man, slammed into his ears, the pain so intense that the inside of his skull burned and his bones stung. A man dressed in purple robes who stood atop Tintagel Castle’s roof had shouted cumberworld. He shot a wry smile at Cūđbeorh.
Cūđbeorh’s sword fell to the ground, as did all his knights’ swords.
Taunts from Tintagel pelted them. Dalcop! Idiot. Drate-poke! A man who mumbles and fumbles his words. Ben lyk a cokewold! A cuckold husband. Women and children paraded in front of the castle’s windows as they hurled words toward the besieging army.
Tintagel’s knights stood outside the castle without helmets or weapons, screeching slurs at Cūđbeorh’s soldiers.
More of Cūđbeorh’s knights collapsed to the muddy earth.
The insults barraged Cūđbeorh and his remaining soldiers, razor-edged, invisible weapons shredding their hearts and other organs.
Within minutes, Cūđbeorh and Ælfþryð were the only invading soldiers still alive.
Cūđbeorh huddled close to Ælfþryð, speaking as fast as possible. “I know what’s happening. No time to explain. Do as I say because it’s our only chance.” Ælfþryð nodded.
Cūđbeorh and Ælfþryð shouted with inhuman energy. Gillie-wet-foot! Swindler. Mumblecrust! Ugly beggar. Scopperloit! Lazy freeloader.
Cūđbeorh raised a fist into the air and cheered as Tintagel’s walls crumbled. The moat bubbled, and agonized screams popped from within the walls. Through the windows, he watched shadows disintegrate.
His eyes glowed with hope.
A chorus of a dozen or more voices atop a turret counter attacked. Stymphalist! A rancid-smelling man. Dotard! Imbecile.
Cupping their hands around their mouths, Cūđbeorh and Ælfþryð returned fire. Lubberwort! A lazy good-for-nothing. I trowe he were a geldyng or a mare! A eunuch.
One, then two enemies plunged from the turret. The weapons were working. Ye farts! Cūđbeorh and Ælfþryð bellowed, their vile insults piercing the darkness.
Cūđbeorh downed a swig of mead to remedy his hoarseness. They were only two soldiers against a fortress of slur-wielding men and women, but when it came to insults, there was no one better than him.
If you liked Sticks and Stones, I think you’ll also enjoy my story, How to Slay a Monster.
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