Inspired by R.K. Milholland's Last One Standing
It was a red age, and the tides washed the blood back and forth across the sands. The beach was strewn with the bodies of invader and defender, the sea-wolves from the north and the lambs who had found their teeth and come out to meet the Norsemen head-on. Now, the long battle was over, the monastery burned, and the birds and crabs settled in for their great scavenger feast.
In one corner of the beach, set apart from the rest, lay the great slumped hill of a Viking. He was farther from the others, and the few prints that lay in the wet sand showed he had run straight up the beach in great haste, only to be brought quickly and decidedly short. The vermin of sea and shore scurried and skittered over the leather armor and furs, seeking the meet within. A little farther on, some feet from the body, rested the man’s head, eyes already plucked from the sockets by some swift and hungry gull.
The warrior’s helmet had rolled farther on, to a part of the beach where the sand was more firmly packed and strewn with tiny pebbles and pieces of broken and discarded shell, and sat there like a small cave or pagan temple, engraved with dragons above the high-slit and down the nose guard. It was an iron helm, gouged and dented by sword and spear but still whole, without crack or break. Before the dragon-helm aligned themselves two armies of hermits. The largest ones, nearest the metal shell, were of exceptional age and size.
To the north was a speckled battler, who used as a home a bronze-banded ram’s horn. The drinking vessel had been a prize from another such battlefield, a crab’s age ago, and to gain it he had savaged his opponent, and his weighty, rock-like claws had been oozy with the thin, pale blood of the rival hermit and covered with bits of quivering flesh. The cup had saved the speckled hermit’s life many times, but now it chafed and grew weak in places. It was time to trade up.
To the south was a dark challenger, almost black in color, and the hermit’s claws protruded from the gaping remnants of a human skull. The dark hermit’s eyestalks floated like disembodied pupils in the remnants of the eye-sockets. A deadly blow had crushed the face of the skull from the nose bridge on down, and from this terrible wound the dark hermit’s needle-nose claws extended. A thin tuft of leathering skin and hair yet remained at the very top of the skull, beyond the reach of the dark hermit’s claws, but all the rest had been picked clean to fuel his growth.
The two hermits had each come across the dragon-helm at about the same time, and immediately sized each other up. The giant hermits had attracted their share of straggles; smaller hermits who waited to scavenge the leftovers and to move into their hand-me down shells, and when the two hermits had begun the preparations for battle, the smaller ones arrayed themselves in line by size, keen to take trade their old shells for the discarded mansions of those just slightly larger. The two lines sat facing each other expectantly, one eye-stalk on the shell they prized, and the other on their potential rivals.
Without signal, the skull-backed hermit launched itself forward, thin claws grasping for the speckled hermit’s vulnerable eye-stalks. The older hermit scuttled backwards, then brought down its heavy claw to crack against the bony eye-ridge of its rival’s shell. The dark hermit skittered left and right across the loose pebbles, dodging the heavy, crushing claws, poking and prodding with its narrow, sharp claws, probing for a weak spot. The speckled hermit dragged itself forward and back, great claws opening and grasping at the edges of its opponent’s shell for purchase.
The lines of waiting hermits wavered as the two great ones battled. Every now and again a few of the smaller hermits crossed over, to insinuate themselves into the neighboring queue. Some, because their size was middling, found a place; others were forced to fight with crabs their own size for a place in the new line, or were sent scuttling back to the other line.
Finally, the horn-shelled hermit found purchase on a cheek bone, and began to wedge its claw into the gap between cheek and ocular cavity. Ensnared, the dark hermit struck out blindly, stabbing at its hardy opponent and grasping at its legs, but the majority of its blows bounced off the iron rim of the drinking-cup, or simply scored the hard shells. The claw of the speckled hermit was inexorable, and with ever increasing pressure it forcibly pried the dark crab from its skull, and with a splurt the great claw began digging into the soft underbelly.
The speckled victor scuttled away from its dying rival; the smaller hermits were already falling on the dark hermit, wrenching its soft meaty mass from the previous skull-shell. Alone, the great hermit disengaged itself from its long home. It turned and carefully inserted itself into the dark recesses of the dragon-helm. The metal was cold against is vulnerable abdomen, but the great muscle found a place to attach itself, and in a few moments the speckled crab was well-situated, eye-stalks looking out through the bronze eye-slits, much as the skull-backed hermit’s had.
Before him, there was a line of movement, as the smaller hermits systematically abandoned their shells to move into that of their larger neighbors, the two lines sorting themselves out. Now new hermits wore the ancient drinking-vessel, new eye-stalks peeked out of the gore-stained skull with its tuft of hair, and all down the line the hermits adapted to their new hermitage.
Bracing itself against the packed sand, the bronze-helmed hermit rose up to its feet. The new shell was large and would last for a long time, but it was heavy and would take a little getting used to. It scuttled forward, heavy claws before it, back toward the waiting feast of Viking flesh, and the army of hermits followed, in their own time.