The Banner Saga: A Novelisation
So after I completed the game, having bought it about a month ago (all hail the Steam sale), and witnessed that absolutely beautiful ending scene I decided to write the ending up in the style of a novel while listening to 'We Are All Guests Upon The Land' on repeat. After that, I decided, why not do the whole thing? So I started a new game and started writing. As of the time of posting I have completed Chapters 1 and 2, and have made a start on Chapter 3. I'll post Chapter 2 after I've done a bit more proof-reading, but here is Chapter One: Only The Sun Has Stopped...
EDIT: There is now a pdf containing the whole story, courtesy of Aleonymous, here: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/...y%20ajrman.pdf
It had been several long months on the road. The snowfalls had accosted the caravan on its approach to Strand, largest of the trade cities on the Varl-Human border, and the caravan’s last collection before returning to the capital. Several days earlier, the sun had simply come to a stop in the sky, although no one could be certain exactly how long it had been. Some of the varl in the caravan took it as a dire omen, but Ubin, the white-haired varl who led them, was not prone to superstition, though he would be glad to be done with the year’s rounds.
As the caravan of the horned giants called Varl approached the gates of Strand, a crowd had gathered. The supply cart, driven by a large cow-like yox beast, came to a halt outside the open wooden gates. Ubin, who sat on the seat of the cart wearing a purple tunic, turned at the sound of a human voice from the crowd. A man rushed forwards, pushing his way through the crowd.
“There is fighting in the great hall!” he yelled. “You must hurry!” Ubin stood and looked up the hill on top of which Strand’s great hall was built.
Inside the great hall, the governor of Strand, an old man dressed in a grey woollen tunic, with a yellow cloak draped over his shoulders, held his sword, seeing the last of his men being cut down by the troops dressed in red. Their chieftain, a long haired ginger man with a braided beard, pointed his axe at the governor. He started to speak when the doors buckled. Everybody turned to look at the doorway, which had been barred shut. The bar splintered under another bang, giving way. Three huge figures, twice as big as any human, filled the doorway, one of them brandishing a great two-handed sword, the second holding a sword and shield. The shield varl stepped forward and cut down the first of the chieftain’s men with a strike of his sword. The chieftain lunged at the giant, but his axe was deflected by the wooden kite shield. The second varl spun round as he brought his sword around, taking down two men in one mighty swing. The shield varl bashed the chieftain’s axe away with his shield and stabbed him in the abdomen, nearly lifting him off the ground. As the chieftain’s body hit the floor, the governor dropped his sword and slumped down into his throne, resting his head on his hand.
“How did it come to this?” he sighed. “We fool ourselves believing peace will last.” He lifted his hand, gesturing to the tapestries that adorned the walls of the hall. “My grandfather built all this from a small fishing village, you know.” He turned to face the tapestry behind him, on which were decorated scenes of death and warfare. “He watched the Gods die, watched the chaos that followed, watched Man and Varl slaughter each other, even before the Dredge arose. All we’ve done is trade one struggle for another, and now there are no more Dredge to war against, we war against ourselves.” He said, gesturing at the bodies that littered the hall to show his point. He pointed at the dead chieftain, whose eyes had rolled up to look back at him. “This man meant to kill me, and he’s not the first.” He walked to the open doorway of the great hall. “A dozen families in this city would gladly take my chair. This type of wolf doesn’t stop when its head is cut off, it just grows a new head.” He leaned against the doorframe, clearly weary from the fight. “I am in a bad way, my friend. Help me finish this fight and I’ll gladly send you on your way with double our King’s tithe.” The varl who had not taken part in the fight walked over to look out over the city. He wore a purple tunic and had long white hair and a beard. His grey horns curled round as they protruded from his head. He had one lazy eye, but the other was alert, scanning everything. The other two varl joined him as he started to walk back down the hill.
A few minutes later, as he reached the bottom of the steps that led down from the great hall, Ubin turned at the sound of a human hurrying to walk alongside him. He had blond hair and experienced eyes, and wore a brown cloak and tunic.
“Eirik, steward of Strand. I manage the governor’s business.” he said, doing a slight bow. “Ubin, isn’t it?”
“It is.” Ubin replied simply.
“The governor tells me you will be lending us a hand.”
“What did you have in mind?”
“The Skalfings that you didn’t hack up in the great hall scattered after you took out their chieftain. The governor wants to make sure they stay down. There’s someone I know down in the marketplace by the docks. If they’re in hiding, he can tell us.”
As the two reached the marketplace, Ubin’s guards having gone back to join the rest of the caravan, Eirik gestured to an old man standing behind a table in a market stall with his arms folded and wearing a fur hat. He looked at Eirik with contempt.
“Hadd, I’m not in the mood.” Eirik said scornfully.
“For what?” Hadd replied, shrugging his shoulders.
“Talking to an idiot.” Hadd responded by shrinking back. Clearly similar versions of this conversation had happened in the past. “The Skalfings’ chieftain bled out a while ago, so when you tell me what hole the rest of them crawled into, nobody’s going to try and kill you this time.”
“I don’t talk to…” Hadd said, raising his hands feigning innocence. “They don’t talk to me.” Ubin said nothing. Eirik overturned the flimsy table, scattering Hadd’s assortment of junk across the ground. Hadd jumped back in fright. “Gods, Eirik. Laying it on a bit heavy, don’t you think?”
“Where are the Skalfings?” Eirik said, raising his stern voice. His hand rested on the handle of the axe that hung on his belt. Hadd’s panicky eyes darted between Eirik’s hand and his eyes. Eventually Hadd buckled.
“They’re in Nobleman, up by the east wall!” he squealed. Eirik waved him away with his hand, and Hadd grabbed all the items he could before skulking off, presumably disappearing until all of this blows over.
“Are we done here?” a growling voice said from behind the pair. A ginger varl dressed in green and yellow stepped forward, holding the two-handed greatsword he had used in the fight.
“Just a minute, Gunnulf.” Ubin said, before turning to Eirik. “That man seemed unreliable at best.” he said.
“A blind dog wouldn’t trust Hadd, but he used to be Skalfing.” Eirik said. “If they’re licking their wounds, they’ve probably gone to old haunts, not new ones.”
“Nobleman?” Ubin questioned.
“A mead hall.” Eirik explained. “As best I can tell, the name’s ironic. I know a man who would love to put some of these Skalfings in the ground. I’ll meet you at the mead hall once I’ve found him.”
“Just make sure the governor remembers his promise.” Ubin warned. “Double the usual tithe.” Eirik nodded.
“I’ll remind him.”
It was about an hour when Ubin, Gunnulf and the other varl with the sword and shield – Ubin could never remember his name; Gunnulf just called him ‘Shieldbanger’ - managed to locate Nobleman. Eirik was already there, with a weather-beaten soldier he introduced as Valgard. Valgard wore a white woollen tunic and had brown hair.
“I’ll point them out.” Eirik said. “Ready?”
“Let’s get this over with.” Ubin replied.
“That’s the spirit.” Valgard remarked. He turned and booted the door open. Wide-eyed, drunken Skalfings clambered from their tables reaching for weapons, scattering mead tankards everywhere. It was barely a moment before Valgard ran forwards, knocking away the weapon of the closest Skalfing before embedding his axe in the drunk man’s neck. Eirik was next, hacking at the legs of a Skalfing who thought he could get the jump on Valgard. The man fell to the floor with a yelp. As Gunnulf moved forwards a Skalfing who was a bit more sober than the others managed to leap between the horned giant’s legs, jumping to his feet on Gunnulf’s other side and getting in a glancing blow before the varl spun round and brought his sword down on the man. Shieldbanger took on the last two Skalfings, keeping one at bay with his shield while he slashed at the other with his sword. Ubin stood in the doorway, staying out of combat but making sure none could escape. When the fight was over, Eirik and Valgard set to work gathering the bodies. They were just finishing when Eirik spotted something out through the open door. He muttered a curse.
“I’ve got to go and wash off all this blood.” he mumbled. Ubin followed his gaze and saw a fleet of longships sailing in from Denglr’s Bay, some displaying a blue horn on white sails, others showing a yellow wolf’s head emblazoned on red.
“One banner I know well.” Ubin said, meaning the blue and white sail. “Vognir, next for Varl kingship last we spoke.” The red and yellow was the flag of human royalty.
“Important guests.” Eirik said. “Can you delay them at the docks while I make sure there are no rotting bodies or pools of entrails in the great hall waiting for them?” he asked, semi-mockingly. Eirik and Valgard quickly walked out, Eirik chucking a silver coin to the barkeep. Ubin gave an apologetic shrug before leaving for the docks.
Last edited by ajrman; 05-28-2016 at 02:44 PM.
As Ubin walked along the docks a familiar varl stepped down off the lead ship. In his mind’s eye, Ubin recalled a much younger version trampling the halls of Grofheim filled with purpose.
“Vognir.” he called. Vognir, a ginger varl with a short cut beard wearing a leather breastplate over a tan coloured shirt, laughed at the sight of the white haired varl before him.
“Gods Ubin, you’re looking ancient.” he said.
“Comes with being old.” Ubin replied. He looked at the next varl to dismount the ship. “And if there is Vognir, there must be Hakon.” This next varl had black hair and no beard, only a long moustache. He wore a similar leather breastplate over a red shirt. He held his axe over his shoulder.
“Must there?” he said with a grunt.
“Still bleeding tributes from the poor and stupid, old yox?” Vognir joked. “At what age do you lose a sense of shame?”
“Jorundr demands it. I’ll take that over lingering to death in Grofheim. Speaking of which, I had no idea you were so far from home.”
“Just arrived from Arberrang, in fact.” Vognir replied. Arberrang was the human capital city in the south. A long way from the Varl city of Grofheim indeed. Hakon motioned to the next ship to arrive, bearing the wolf’s head.
“The king’s whelp.” Hakon explained as men started to step off the ship.
“The king’s son, Ludin.” Vognir explained in more detail. “We visit their capital, they visit ours. It’s how you make alliances these days.”
“It’s a miserable waste of time.” Hakon said, turning away.
“Yes, Hakon has it. I’d almost forgotten.” Vognir japed. “I’m glad you’re around, Hakon.”
Ubin chuckled. “Then you’re going to Grofheim? I was just heading there myself. We should caravan.”
“We should.” nodded Vognir. “Give it a day. In better circumstances I’d drink away a week, but I’d rather just get this done with.”
“What he’s trying to say is that the prince is a delight to behold.” Hakon said sarcastically.
“Where is Mogr? Hakon, find him a place to put up the warriors. I’m going to see the governor.” Vognir ordered. Hakon looked around for the quartermaster Mogr. A host of horned giants followed in Vognir’s wake. Some faces Ubin knew, others were strangers.
“I guess I’ll see you in the morning.” Hakon said as he started to walk away.
“I’ll be around.” Ubin replied. The young prince of men ambled from his ship, brushing off his red and gold tunic, scanning the beach with low eyelids. Ludin looked like the sort of boy who grew up pulling the legs off spiders. The journey to Grofheim should be interesting, Ubin thought.
He found Hakon in a mead hall surrounded by other varl. Strand, being on the border, was no stranger to varl, but it rarely saw so many. Hakon waved Ubin over to his table.
“Went straight for a flagon?” Ubin asked.
“Vognir’s the one who passed up a drink.” Hakon replied, lifting up his flagon. “I wasn’t invited to the governor’s hall anyway.” He took a swig.
“You missed the massacre.” Ubin said. “Every year, I make the rounds and every year it’s the human settlements that give me trouble.”
“No surprise.” Hakon said with a smile. “What this time?”
“The hall was already full of bodies when we arrived. We added a few more.” Ubin sighed.
“Bah, humans. I guess if I only lived as long as a yox fart I might be desperate to make something of myself too.”
“It’s not too late to try, Hakon.”Ubin joked. Hakon let slip a low chuckle. Any varl could recount Hakon’s deeds, known as he was for cutting a swathe through Dredge at Vognir’s side during the Second War.
“Down here I’m just a glorified bodyguard. You might have a point. Just another reason to get back to Grofheim.”
“Soon enough I imagine.” They both returned to their drinks. Ubin drank until the mead hall atmosphere became overbearing, then stepped outside into the cool air.
A few hours later, when the men had grouped at an inn, Ubin looked for the prince. The inn was blanketed in guards, including a sharp-eyed varl who must have been working for Ludin.
“Greetings, Prince Ludin.” Ubin said as a formality. The prince looked at him with unassuming eyes. Ubin thought it was strangely impressive, for someone half his height. The prince had curly light brown hair and a few hairs on his chin.
“Yes.” he replied dismissively. “You’re with Vognir? I don’t remember you.”
“Not exactly. I’ve known Vognir a long time. I’ll be joining you on the way to Grofheim.”
“Why?” Ludin asked.
“I work for the king, carrying tithes to the capital. We crossed by chance.”
“Oh a tax collector.” Ludin mumbled, rolling his eyes. “Fine company. What do you want?”
“Just to introduce myself.” Ubin replied. An awkwardness hung in the air like a thick fog. Ubin took that as a sign to depart. The young prince had a particularly punchable face, Ubin thought. He decided to go and get some sleep.
At dawn, or what was reckoned to be dawn, with a sun that never moved, Ubin was awoken by a delivery of goods, adorned with the Governor’s crest. To Ubin’s surprise, it was all there. He wondered if Eirik had anything to do with that. Ubin had his guards take it all down to the gates and soon followed, where Vognir and his escort were waiting. A while later Ludin arrived with his men, who looked groggy and dishevelled. Mogr, the grey haired varl quartermaster, came forwards to ask if everyone was ready. With a nod Ubin and his group joined the main caravan. Usually the small door set into the gates would be enough, but the Governor had insisted the gates be fully opened. Perhaps he was expecting a crowd and wanted to make a show of it, but only a few tired and frustrated onlookers stood around.
Ubin’s group that had arrived in Strand the previous day numbered thirty six. The caravan that left consisted of three hundred and sixty six varl and eighty five humans, flying the flags of Grofheim and Arberrang. By the end of the first day the caravan had reached the aged stone bridge that crossed the Blue River, one of two rivers that went inland from Karlsfjord. They camped under the old abandoned watchtower that looked over Karlsfjord, and beyond it, Denglr’s Bay. About halfway through the second day the trees started to get a bit thicker. The caravan was called to a halt. Ubin wondered what was going on, then Mogr stepped on top of one of the supply carts.
“A gift,” he shouted, so as many as possible could hear him. “From our gracious friend, the Governor of Strand.” As he spoke some varl started to crack open mead casks. Cheers went up throughout the caravan as people started to set up camp.
Ubin sat at a table near the largest tent, along with Vognir, Hakon, Mogr, Ludin and a few others. Ubin raised his drink, to toast the alliance between man and varl. Ludin’s expression was like a stone wall throughout the speech, but others laughed. All of them drank merrily, except Ludin. The chances of anything happening to the supply cart this close to Strand was minimal, and there were not many chances to relax on the road.
The next morning Ubin rose groggily, the campsite a casualty of merriment. Mogr was starting to kick awake sleeping varl when Ludin entered the tent, sidestepping sleeping bodies. Ubin got up and shook Vognir.
“Looks like you’re needed.” he said. Vognir stood.
“Ah, Ludin. Always a pleasure. You look well rested.” he yawned, receiving a hard-eyed stare in return.
“How long to Grofheim?” Ludin asked, straight to the point.
“We’re only two days out of Strand, you know.” Vognir laughed. “Come, I’ll show you on the map.” he said as he walked to a chest. Opening it he retrieved a map which he laid on a nearby table. “We go north.” he said, his finger following the road which led past the village of Vedrfell. “Then east, past the forts.” his finger reached the castle of Ridgehorn before moving right, past Schlid. From Schlid, it was a nice easy road to Grofheim. “Grofheim’s far from Strand. It’s going to be a long march.”
“You should have drank with us, Ludin.” said Hakon, who had appeared beside the three.
“Why not take the ships to Skrymirstead? What’s the point of marching?” Ludin asked.
“The Silverstone Bay is called that for a reason.” explained Ubin. “It stays covered in ice all year; it would tear up the longships.”
“Too bad, though.” said Vognir sarcastically. “We could have shown you all the wonders of Skrymirstead.”
“A half-sunken city crawling with Dredge.” said Hakon, joining in. “Dredge and glaciers. You like glaciers?” Ludin exhaled through his nose, a poor disguise for his contempt. He left, batting aside the tent flap and shouting to his company.
“Don’t poke the anthill.” warned Ubin. “He seems no happier to be here than you.”
“Spend a few more days with the boy, old friend.” said Vognir. “You’ll be looking for a tall cliff to jump off too. Ludin’s got a shorter wick than Hakon.” he continued. Hakon scoffed in response.
“Thanks, Vognir. Let’s get moving. It’ll be another half-day to Vedrfell if we’re lucky.”
Vedrfell. Even the name meant bad weather, where cold winds swept in from the bay. The people there tended livestock, but most were just outcasts from Strand. The caravan would not stay long. As they walked through the village some people came out to see. One outspoken peasant, perhaps the elder of the village, stepped forwards.
“By Hadrborg, that’s a lot of varl for some missing cattle.” he said. Ubin was confused. So was Mogr, who replied with a simple ‘what’. The peasant now looked equally confused.
“Couple of days ago, sent word to Strand. Didn’t expect an army.” He looked pleased with himself, face slowly sinking as he realised the caravan was not there on his behalf.
“Where have your cattle gone?” Vognir asked out of interest.
“Wouldn’t know.” the peasant shrugged. “A few of my boys saw men carrying them off over the hills. Don’t know many men could carry a whole cow by himself.” Vognir, Hakon, and a few of the older varl started to tense up.
“Skalfings out here, maybe? Could they have varl working for them?” wondered Mogr.
“Not from what the governor told me.” said Vognir. “I’m going to take a look around while camp is set up.” He walked off, carrying his axe in his hands. That worried Ubin. The peasant spat on the ground, eyes anxiously darting around as the caravan started to set up tents. There was an aura of dread around the place.
“We won’t be here longer than a day. There’s silver for any food you have.” said Mogr.
“For hundreds of varl. Are you serious?” said the peasant.
“Only what you’re willing to sell.”
“Not enough for a few hunters, nevermind- ˮ
“Shut up!” said Hakon, who was now also holding his axe. “Hear that?” Ubin could just about hear the sound of metal striking rock. “Where’s Ludin?” Hakon asked hurriedly. He took off at a run.
Ludin held his spear in trembling hands. Vognir had been thrown to the floor by the stone armoured humanoid creature before him. It turned to him. It walked forwards, dragging a strange two-pronged sword in its left hand. Mustering all his will, Ludin charged at the creature, jabbing with his spear. It glided off the armour, and it responded by swinging its sword over its head and down. Ludin barely had time to raise his spear before he fell back, the spear cut in two. He must have hit his head on a rock, because he felt himself unable to get up. The stone creature looked down on him with unblinking, perfectly circular yellow eyes before turning at the sound of footsteps. Ludin turned his head to see Hakon, Mogr and Gunnulf march up, weapons drawn. Mogr swung his mace, reaching a weak point in the large creature’s armour. Recoiling back, the creature gave Gunnulf enough time to strike at its elbow. It shoved its arm forwards, pushing Gunnulf over. It then trudged backwards and did something strange with its sword, sliding it over the armour on its arm. The prongs started to vibrate, giving off a strangely deep, barely audible ringing sound. Hakon, now seemingly in a hurry, leapt at the creature swinging at its neck. As it collapsed forwards and dropped the sword the ringing stopped. Ubin approached as Ludin slowly got to his feet, feeling the back of his head and wincing.
“You trying to get yourself killed boy?” Hakon yelled in anger. “You never seen a Dredge before boy? You have to break through their armour first!”
“Where did it come from?” Ubin pondered.
“We didn’t even see it. It was just…there.” Ludin mumbled. Hakon put away his weapon and walked to where Vognir lay face down. The future varl king lay motionless in a spreading pool of blood that stained the snow red.
“He’s dead.” Hakon mumbled, as if barely believing it. “Vognir’s dead.”
Chapter Two: Cut With Keen Edged Sword...
The strange stone creature had appeared out of nowhere. It picked up the deer that had been killed by the two hunters who were hiding behind the nearby trees. It was examining the arrow that it had plucked out of the deer’s body.
“What is that thing?” Alette whispered, panic in her eyes as she clutched onto her bow. She had wrapped her green cloak tighter around her and was hoping that her bright ginger hair would not give them away.
“Shh.” replied her father, Rook. He held a woodsman’s axe with both hands, ready to fight to protect his daughter if need be. “Stay close to me.” he whispered as he started to move back away from the creature, pulling his red cloak in as he ducked behind another tree. Alette followed, but the creature turned its head and dropped the deer, drawing a strange obsidian sword.
“I think it saw us!” Alette said. Planting the head of his axe in the ground, Rook unslung the bow from his back and nocked an arrow taken from the quiver on his hip. Jumping out from behind the tree he drew his bow, aiming at the creature’s neck. He released and the arrow hit its mark, knocking the creature back but not killing it. It recovered and pulled the arrow out before starting to walk towards them. Rook put his bow down and picked up the axe.
“Alette, when I hit it, aim under the shoulder!” he shouted as he ran to meet it. It was about eight feet tall, and Rook ducked under its swing with relative ease. He swung up with the axe, striking below the rondel on its right shoulder and knocking it aside. A second later an arrow struck the creature in the now unprotected armpit. It gave a groan and fell backwards clutching its shoulder. Rook held his axe, looking around, making sure the area was clear before gesturing for Alette to come out. She brought his bow, which he had left leaning on a tree trunk.
“Was that…a dredge?” Alette asked, remembering the legends from generations past. She looked calm but Rook could tell that her heart was about to beat out of her chest.
“It was.” Rook said, examining the body and scratching his greying beard. “Are you hurt?”
“No, I’ll be fine.” Alette responded, eyes stuck to the creature. They had been drawing a yox-cart behind them when the dredge attacked. The yox had bolted, spilling their supplies everywhere. Rook looked in the direction that it had gone, but saw only more dark humanoid shapes between the trees in the distance. “All that food.” Alette said. “That was all we could gather before winter. What do we do?” Rook knew that the village would need that food, but going back to retrieve it could be risky.
“If we hurry we can gather some before more dredge appear.” he said.
“I can see them in the trees.” Alette said worriedly as she looked around. “Are you sure about this?”
“No.” Rook sighed. “But we have to try. Be quick!” They set off at a jog after the yox, finding it in a clearing. Alette calmed the large four-legged hairy creature while Rook gathered up as many of the supplies as he could, chucking them into the cart. They managed to get the yox moving as the dredge started to move towards them, and to both the hunters’ relief the dark figures receded into the distance.
It took nearly a day to get back to Skogr, by Rook’s reckoning. He never expected to see dredge with his own eyes, and he wondered what had happened in the north to make them appear. Alette gripped his hand tight for most of the journey. When they finally reached the outskirts of Skogr, crossing a bridge that went over a small stream, Rook felt more relief than ever before. Being deep in the forest, only a small amount of snow reached the ground. As they moved between the log houses Rook’s eyes darted around, eyeing each member of the village. Finally, he saw a mighty varl watching some of the other villagers practising their swordplay. He turned towards Rook, leaning on his kite shield, which was painted in blue and orange divided down the middle. He had long blonde hair and a beard, and he had wide grey horns. He wore a light grey shirt.
“Iver!” Rook called.
“Back already, huntmaster? Thought you’d be tomorrow.” the varl said with a chuckle.
“Dredge! Everywhere!” Alette shouted. Iver’s smile died.
“Dredge? How did they get through Greyhorn?” Iver thought aloud.
“Must have broken through the fort.” Rook suggested. Greyhorn was a varl stronghold far to the north. At this point the fighters had stopped sparring and gathered around them. One of them, a young man with short blonde hair, held a massive circular iron shield in his right hand. Iver was scanning the treeline past the houses.
“They’ll be here soon if they’re not already.” he said. A few seconds later heads turned at the sounds of screams from the outskirts of the village. Some people ran past, heading for the great hall. Iver turned to the man with the iron shield.
“Egil, take Alette to the great hall. Tell the chieftain what has happened.” he ordered. “The rest of you, gather up as many people as you can.”
“Come on, Alette!” Egil said, gesturing to her. “I won’t let anything happen to her.” he said to Rook.
“No, wait. I want to help.” she said, shaking her head.
“Go with Egil.” Rook said. She looked like she might protest, but then scowled and ran for safety, Egil following close behind.
“Gods, Rook. Don’t start telling them I know what I’m doing.” Iver sighed.
“I know it’s a stretch, but what’s the plan?” Rook asked.
“Just hold off any dredge until everyone’s inside the great hall, then we’ll figure it out.” More shouts alerted Rook and Iver to fighting on the nearby hill, where a couple of houses stood. Rook and Iver, weapons drawn, ran to the hill. Sure enough, dredge were gathering. Rook glanced at Iver, who looked back at him unknowingly before engaging the closest of them. There were three of the dredge like he had seen before, and one about the height of Iver, and he was twice the size of any human. The large one held a huge rectangular shield. Iver leapt at the closest of the smaller ones, swinging underneath its armour with his sword. As it crumpled to the floor the large one started to move towards Rook, who was already nocking an arrow to his bow. He drew and released, trying to knock away bits of armour. Iver fought off a second dredge as Rook backed off from the large one. Finishing off the one he was fighting, Iver rushed to Rook’s aid, swinging under the dredge’s shoulder and allowing Rook to shoot an arrow at its weak spot. The dredge fell to its knees, leaning on its shield. Iver then attacked the last dredge with a swing that nearly clove it in two at the waist. Rook looked around for signs of life, but there was only the black horde gathering at the treeline.
“Enough of this.” Iver said. “Rook, I’m doing one more sweep of these houses. See if you can find anyone.” Rook nodded. They didn’t find anyone, and were forced to flee back towards the centre of the village. As Rook looked back he could see the dredge rummaging through the houses. They reached the great hall gasping for breath.
“I’m out of practice, Rook.” Iver said.
“Look, as long as I’ve known you you’ve always wormed your way out of talking about dredge.” Rook said. “Now would be the time to start talking.”
“I can tell you they rarely stop for rest. The sooner we leave, the better. They’ll follow us until we’re tripping over tired women and children, then they’ll attack. Even after we’re wiped out they’ll keep coming, trampling corpses in their wake. There’s no end to them.”
“How did anyone survive the Great Wars?” Rook sighed.
“Ask the Menders.” Iver said. “I wasn’t there.”
“I know you’ve fought your fair share.”
“Yeah.” Iver said. “I’ve fought enough slag for one lifetime.”
“That’s why you’re going to save us now.” Rook said. He opened the doors of the great hall to see many panicked people huddling together, some armed, some not. The Chieftain, a balding, bearded man with a swirling tattoo across one side of his face, walked towards the hunter and varl.
“Rook!” he called. “Thank the Gods you made it!” Rook could barely hear over the din of dozens of terrified families.
“Don’t stop worrying yet.” Rook said.
“I haven’t.” the Chieftain nodded. “What in the depths is going on? Dredge milling around, ransacking houses?” Then, the Chieftain’s wife, Oddleif, pushed her way through the crowd to join them. She had silvery blonde hair and was clad all in whites and pale blues, with a white cloak. She had a quiver full of arrows on her back.
“They must know we’re here. Why haven’t they attacked?” she wondered.
“Don’t know.” Iver replied. “I wouldn’t expect it to last.”
“I’ve made some decisions.” the Chieftain said. “But tell me straight: what would you both do in my place?” The question was unexpected, clearly the Chieftain was less than confident in his own leadership.
“I would have left by now. They’re already outside the doors.” Iver said.
“Not so easily done.” remarked the Chieftain. “Rook?”
“I trust Iver on this.” Rook replied. To be honest, he didn’t have a clue. The Chieftain took a deep breath and slumped against the wall. He looked years older.
“I’d imagined us fighting back and saving the town.” he said, in a manner that suggested he now thought better. “But nonsense, Iver’s right. We can’t just wait to be slaughtered.”
“Where do we go?” Rook asked. “If dredge are coming down from the north…”
“Frostvellr, to the west.” the Chieftain said. “It’s close and it has walls. I intend to be free of Skogr in one push, nobody left behind.”
“I wouldn’t.” said Iver. “If they follow us, we’re done for.”
“What do you suggest?” asked Oddleif.
“Let me create a distraction, then go. I’ll catch up on the way to Frostvellr.” Iver replied.
“That sounds like suicide, Iver.” Rook said. Iver turned to Rook.
“Half the town is going to die like this.” he said, raising his voice accidentally. Some of the villagers fell silent and eyes turned towards them.
“That’s why I want you to lead, Iver.” the Chieftain said. “I know you can get us out of here.” Iver sighed.
“I’ll do what I can.”
“Then I’m coming with you.” Oddleif said, matter-of-factly as she picked up her bow. Everyone was taken by surprise. The Chieftain rubbed his beard, but didn’t argue. From the training she had given Alette, Rook had no doubt she could use a bow.
“Fine, I’ll get the townspeople ready.” said the Chieftain finally. “When you’re ready we’ll make our move.”
It took a few minutes to get everyone fit for travel, then Iver pushed open the doors and people started filing out. Dredge were in every direction, not descending upon them, but watching curiously. Rook nocked an arrow, as did most of the other archers. The villagers formed into a caravan as they started to move towards the edge of the village. Suddenly a shriek was heard. One of the dredge grunts had thrown itself at a cart of chickens. The nearby men drew their axes, and more dredge appeared responding in kind.
“Run!” yelled Iver. Terror swept over the caravan like a pox. Rook found himself surrounded by black figures and panicked townspeople in equal measure. “Get ready!” Iver shouted. Alette, Egil and Oddleif rushed up to him, ready to fight. Three dredge approached them. Iver engaged the largest, the type that had been known as a scourge during the Great Wars, bashing it away with his shield. Rook and Alette both unleashed arrows into one of the grunts, and it fell to the ground. Egil ran up to the next one, swiping at it with his sword while Iver held off the scourge that had pushed itself back to its feet. Oddleif released an arrow at the knee of the grunt, making it recoil in pain. Iver slashed at the knee of the scourge, causing it to stumble back. It limped away and drew its sword along its arm such that the sword started to vibrate, creating a deep ringing sound on the very edge of hearing. Rook charged forwards with his woodsman’s axe and hit it in the back. It fell to its knees with a crash. Egil took the opportunity that Oddleif had provided him and stabbed through the grunt’s neck. Rook noticed out of the corner of his eye a group of town guards fending off a large group of dredge, and he thought he spotted the Chieftain among them. To his left Iver was laying into another dredge scourge, while behind him an elderly man scrambled to his feet as the townspeople scattered, making them easy targets to pick off one by one. Rook knew he had to keep everyone together. He rushed to help the townsfolk, pulling one woman away from a nearby dredge, helping a child to his feet, barking orders as he ran past people. Soon, miraculously, he found himself and a lot of the villagers clear off the fighting. Iver emerged from the trees, bloodied but breathing. Oddleif also came, her face blank, holding the body of the Chieftain in her arms. Rook fetched a cloth to cover the Chieftain’s body with, and only with Iver’s insistence did the caravan continue moving. Alette ran up to Rook, her hand clasped tightly around his own.
Over the next few hours Rook performed the task of a head count. There were three hundred and forty three villagers in total, only thirty five of whom could fight. After reaching the back and counting the last, he realised that the caravan was stretched out beyond the point of safety. He was unable to see the people at the front. Iver walked up to him.
“We’ve got to pull everyone together.” he advised. “It’d be dangerous to stop until at least the godstone. The path should be just ahead.” Rook struggled with what to do, but felt that he had to do something. On a spur of the moment he hoisted a nearby child onto his shoulders and shouted.
“Fight for every step! Remember those who didn’t make it and push onwards!” The sad and demoralised people stumbling along at the back were rallied, and started to push themselves further with each step they took. Within ten minutes the caravan started to bunch up to a more comforting standard.
An hour later they reached the godstone of Hridvaldyr, a massive rock which was carved and painted with the visage of Hridvaldyr, god of hunters. The fearsome painted figure held a spear, and by his side were painted all kinds of beasts, from deer to wolves and bears. In the shadow of the rock grew a huge tree, branches hanging over the caravan. Offerings were left by the trunk, given by passing hunters, out of habit more than anything, since the gods were dead.
“Far enough, I think.” Iver said, breathing a sigh of relief. He gave the signal for the caravan to stop and the people started to rest. Rook went to look at all the carts and wagons brought with them, taking stock of supplies. Enough food to last five days or so, by his count.
“What are we doing?” Rook asked Iver. “We just left our homes because suddenly there were dredge.”
“Don’t look to me for advice.” Iver responded.
“Look at these people. Somebody needs to hold them together.”
“That’s you, Rook.” Iver nodded. “You made that speech, you rallied them to get this far.”
“How am I supposed to lead them?” Rook asked.
“Lie? Tell them everything’s going to be alright? Gods, Rook. I don’t know. Pretend you know what you’re doing, because somebody has to.”
“Thanks for the advice.” Rook sighed.
“You humans are absurd.” Iver said, throwing his arms in the air. “Furious when you’re not in control, terrified when you are. Pull it together.”
“You’re right.” said Rook.
“Think of how I feel, nursing a bunch of weaklings.” Iver said, leaning against the godstone.
“You do care.” Rook said, trying to lighten the mood. “I can tell.”
“Men are a plague upon the world worse than any dredge, I can tell you.”
“Chats like this are why we get along so well, Iver.”
Rook did not sleep well, in the open sky below an eternally bright sun. He found himself staring off into the distance in the direction of Skogr, seeing only long, low hills covered in pine trees. The godstone loomed overhead, the eyes of Hridvaldyr staring along with Rook. Hridvaldyr was sometimes depicted as a man, sometimes as a wolf, but always with his mighty spear. Rook wondered what he would think of his woods being filled with dredge now. As he was pondering a young girl walked up behind him.
“I made this for you.” she said, holding out in her palm a crudely made medallion, carved from a branch she must have found near the large tree. Rook took it and smiled. “Thank you for saving my mama.” she said, before running back to her tent. Rook looked at the tent and saw standing there the woman who he had pulled away from a dredge grunt during their flight. Over the next hour the camp was broken down and the caravan prepared to start the journey to Frostvellr, though it felt more like an ending than a beginning.
The caravan was forced to a halt when a dozen armed men and women appeared on the trail. Iver put his hand on the pommel of the sword hanging at his belt, as did quite a few of the other fighters. The man in the lead drew his sword and everybody tensed.
“We’ve seen the dredge in your wake.” the man said. He then dropped his sword at his feet. “We don’t wish to fight them alone. If you let us join you, we’ll show you a watering hole with enough animals to fill those supply wagons.” The other fighters also dropped their weapons.
“If you’ll be no trouble, join us.” Rook said, cautiously. The man proved trustworthy and led them to a watering hole hidden away from the hunting trails. It was teeming with animals, and soon the caravan’s food supplies were nicely stocked. Another three or so days’ worth of food, by Rook’s reckoning.
Two days passed before the next major event. One of the men from Skogr, called Rafnsvartr, drank too much mead and started a brawl. He ended up thrown at Rook’s feet by several angry clansmen. Rook grabbed his shirt and lifted him up to stand.
“Apologise for this mess!” he said coldly. The man babbled and mumbled but no coherent words came out. “Now!” Rook yelled, holding his shirt with both hands and shaking him.
“Sorry!” Rafnsvartr cried. “Sorry! Sorry!” he continued, even after Rook let go. Rook turned to the crowd.
“We can’t have petty troubles like this, not in times like these!” he shouted, so everyone nearby could hear. The crowd scowled at Rafnsvartr as he scuttled away.
Another day passed before they reached a small nameless village just off the main trail. They hadn’t encountered the dredge yet and were shocked by the news. Rook ordered the camp to be set up just outside the village. As tents were unfurled and put up and campfires were started, Rook decided to go for a wander. He found Egil practising his sword swings on a tree on the edge of camp. He held his iron shield in his right hand and his sword in his left. He stopped as Rook approached.
“How’s the arm?” Rook asked. “I saw you taking some hard hits out there.”
“Yeah, I’m great.” Egil replied. “Well, not great, considering, but I’m fine.” He removed his shield from his arm and leant on it. “My arm’s fine. It’s a strong shield.” He paused. “I meant what I said before, about making sure nothing happens to Alette.” Rook gave an approving nod.
“I’ve never asked you about your shield.” he said. “I’ve never seen one like it before.”
“Yeah, I doubt there’s many.” Egil replied. “My father made it. Solid metal, quite heavy.” He hoisted it back up onto his arm again. “But I’ve been practising with it since I was a kid. I used to spend a lot of time just getting used to lifting it. I’m pretty good with it now. After all, how many people get to train with a varl?”
“Iver says you fight well.” Rook said. Egil beamed.
“Did he say that? I’m not used to fighting anything like dredge.” There was a pause.
“Well, I’ll head back to camp.” Rook said to break the silence. “Stay strong.”
“I will.” Egil said as he started hitting the tree again.
A day later, as the caravan was just leaving, two men from the village, twins by the look of it, approached Rook. They were both wearing identical red clothes and both had long blonde hair and beards. The only distinguishing mark was that one of them had a scar across his face. The one without the scar started talking.
“My name is Hogun, this is Mogun.” he said, gesturing to the scarred twin. “We and a few others want to join you to Frostvellr.” At that moment a third man approached.
“Shut your mouth, Hogun!” he yelled.
“What’s going on?” Rook asked. The third man, a middle aged man with short blonde hair and wearing a white cloak, folded his arms.
“These two don’t speak for all of us!” he shouted, seething in anger. “They’ve been trying to divide the village since you got here.”
“True.” Hogun nodded. “You can keep whoever wants to stay and die.”
“The rest of us will go with the reasonable people of Skogr.” Mogun said.
“I’ll have you both gutted before I let half the village desert!” the town leader said. Two mobs of villagers appeared, some armed. “You both know what will happen to the rest of us if the fields are abandoned.” He waved his arms, fists clenched. “No one leaves!”
“There won’t be anyone left to tend once the dredge arrive!” Rook interjected.
“Dredge, hah!” the town leader scoffed. “Hogun, you got two choices. Either you can get back to work or I can finally put you in the ground.”
“Mogun, what do you think?” Hogun said, drawing his axe. “Thought it was unfair he only asked me.”
“I think I make a poor farmer.” Mogun said, following suit. Rook was torn. The brothers were right, but Rook wanted to stop a fight. He was about to speak when one of the mob lunged at Hogun, catching an axe in the ribs in return. The two mobs turned on each other. Four were dead by the time the town leader brought it under control, before leading his mob away, admitting defeat.
“You hurt, Mogun?” Hogun asked.
“No.” the scarred twin replied, cleaning blood from his axe. “We should have done that years ago.” The twins and the mob left and returned with a new handful of villagers. Ninety five villagers, of whom eleven could fight. Hogun introduced Rook to his wife and young son as the bolstered caravan left. As they marched, Rook noticed Alette walking alone a little bit away from the caravan. He went up and walked alongside her. Soon Oddleif approached, with a red bundle held in her arms.
“Alette, I have something for you.” She held up the red bundle, revealing it to be Skogr’s Town Banner. She smiled warmly as she passed it to Alette. “I was hoping you’d sew up the banner with everything that has happened since we left Skogr.” Each city, town and village had their own Banner, with each generation sewing in new events to create a history of the settlement. Skogr, only having had a few generations, still had a lot of empty space. Oddleif turned to Rook. “Come find me another time, and we’ll talk.” Rook nodded as she turned and left.
“Father, are you the chieftain now?” Alette asked. Rook didn’t like to think of it that way, but it seemed so.
“I think so.” Rook replied.
“Then that means…” Alette trailed off as she unfurled the banner. “Oddleif has been teaching me to sew.” she said, changing the subject.
“She speaks quite highly of you.” Rook said. Alette was looking for a specific point on the banner.
“Can we read the part about mother?” she asked. Rook nodded. As they were near the front of the caravan, Rook thought it okay for them to sit down and read the banner for a few minutes. They read about Aldis, who passed away three years ago.
“I wish she were here.” Alette said softly. “But I’m kind of glad she isn’t.” She fidgeted with the bracelet that Aldis had made for her sixteenth birthday.
“Why do you say that?” Rook asked.
“So she doesn’t have to deal with all…this. Dredge, and leaving home, and…” She trailed off. “Why didn’t you stop those men in the village killing each other?” Rook didn’t really know the answer himself. He struggled with what to say.
“It wasn’t my decision to make.” he eventually replied.
“Deciding what happens to other people…I wouldn’t know what to do.”
“It’s not exactly my calling either.” Rook chuckled. Alette looked and smiled at him.
“I think you’re doing a good job.” She said. They spent the next while sewing new verses into the banner, Alette using colourful designs. For better or worse, the story of Skogr was in Rook’s hands now. When they eventually rejoined the caravan, Rook went to look for Oddleif.
“How are you doing, Odd?” he said when he found her. It was strange to use her full name, Oddleif being a male name.
“I’m alright.” she said with a feigned smile. Then her face turned solemn. “Not at first. I mean, people say that when a loved one…it doesn’t sink in for a while…for me, it was straight away.” She looked at the ground. “People say I’m a ‘strong woman’.” She gave a small laugh. “It’s funny, my father named me Oddleif before I was even born. He wanted a boy so badly… ‘Strong woman’, what does that even mean?” she said, looking at Rook for an answer.
“It means people look up to you.” he tried.
“I don’t want to be looked up to for handling my feelings.” Oddleif said. “If I feel nothing about my husband dying, I’m strong. If I cry because my insides are on fire, I’m weak. Why does that feel so backwards?” she paused. “Sorry, Rook. It’s been hard.” Rook didn’t know what to say, so he decided to change the subject.
“You said you wanted to see me?”
“Yes, it’s about the banner. I thought about it a long time.” she took a breath. “He asked me to give it to you, you know. In case anything happened.”
“Why me?” Rook asked.
“He always depended on you, Rook.” she stated. “I could carry it, but I thought about why he chose you. I get it. They won’t follow a woman. Families would leave, the banner would be divided.”
“I think they’d follow you.” Rook said.
“Come on, Rook. It’s not just about our small town. What happens the first time we need something from another clan? How would that go? And the first time someone thinks they can take advantage of us? I think this is what has to happen.”
“Oh.” was all Rook could muster.
“Have you always been this talkative?” Oddleif said with a forced chuckle. “Listen, I know I’ve dragged this out. The truth is, I could never have a child, and I don’t want the banner to end here. It’ll be safe with you, and Alette. I know you’re going to take care of her.” She put her hand on his shoulder, then walked back to another part of the camp.
The next day, a group of eight of the fighters came to talk with Rook. Each had a pack of supplies on them.
“We recognise this place.” one of them said. “Spent a few years here with some kin. If they’re still around…have to warn them of what’s coming.” Rook nodded.
“Kin is kin. Do what you must.” he said.
“With luck, we’ll find you again within the week.” he said as the warriors left.
A day later, Rafnsvartr was again brought before Rook. This time, in a drunk stroll, he stumbled over some tent ropes and nearly pulled the canvas over a campfire. Rook sighed.
“You drink nothing but water from now on.” he said. Rafnsvartr nodded, disappointment on his face. Somehow, Rook knew it wouldn’t be long before he found another drink. It was sooner than he thought. No less than later that afternoon Rafnsvartr stumbled through the camp shouting “Dredge!” causing panic and fighters to ready their weapons. The caravan came to a halt and Iver sent scouts out, who all returned with no sightings. Rook had had it.
“Do what you like.” he said to the mob that brought Rafnsvartr to him. A swift beating followed.
Three days later, the caravan arrived at Frostvellr. The eight fighters never returned. Rook hoped they were alright. Frostvellr was situated on a hill, a neglected stone wall separating the city proper from the poorer huts outside. On the other side of Frostvellr lay the wide open expanse that was the Nordfelling Waste. Tents had also been set up outside the walls, presumably from other attacked villages. A crowd had gathered around the gates, which were shut. Rook and some of the others from the caravan jostled through crowds of sunken faces that looked like they had been freezing in front of Frostvellr for days.
“This is not looking good.” Rook said to Iver.
“Why are there so many people in the fields?” asked Alette.
“We can’t stay in the open like this.” grumbled Iver. The group moved towards the gates. Several bodies lay on the ground, full of arrows. Archers on the walls had arrows nocked, making it clear that nobody was getting in. Some of the men and women below called for mercy and reason, others were flinging stones and curses. Rook mingled in the crowd, asking questions. All had the same story: a couple of days ago the chieftain had shut himself in, closed the gates and refused any more refugees. As Rook was talking to one man, who claimed that the chieftain was hoarding huge stores of food, he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned to see Egil. He followed Egil out to the back of the crowd.
“I was following the outside of these walls.” Egil said. “And I found a water passage we could squeeze through. Not the whole caravan, but if a few of us sneak in we could open the gates from the inside.”
“Good idea, Egil.” Rook said. He gathered Oddleif, Iver and the twins and followed Egil to the passage. It was a narrow, wet crevice.
“I’m not fitting through there.” Iver said. “Go without me.”
“Wait for us at the gate. We’ll be quick.” Rook replied, before attempting to squeeze through the gap. Pushing past tight stonework and a rusty iron grate, the group managed to get to some stairs which led to the top of the wall. The fighters at the top didn’t ask questions and drew their weapons. There were two men and a woman, each armed with an axe and shield. There was also one cloaked man who stood at the back with a bow. Mogun rushed in, jumping at one of the armed men with a flurry of attacks. Hogun and Egil ran to help as the other two closed in, but were forced to hide behind their shields as the archer released a shot. Rook took aim and shot, but the archer ducked behind a cluster of fallen masonry and the arrow hit the back wall. Egil met the woman, knocking aside her blow with his heavy iron shield and stabbing her in the neck with his sword. Hogun exchanged blows with the third man. Mogun finished his opponent with a frenzied slashing of his axe. Oddleif aimed above the archer’s cover and waited. Hogun finally managed to hook the man’s shield with the head of his axe, pulling it aside before striking with the edge of his shield, cracking the man’s sternum and knocking him to the floor coughing blood. The archer stood up, bow drawn, and Oddleif released. The arrow hit the archer in the chest and he bent over, accidentally releasing his own arrow. The arrow hit Hogun in the calf, making him drop his weapon and grunt in pain. Egil ran to the crank which opened the gates and pulled. Several more fighters ran up the stairs behind the group, led by one man, dressed in black and wearing a half helm. He had a wild ginger beard and had a twitch in his eye that gave him the look of a madman. He had an axe and a white shield with a black raven painted on it.
“What in the depths are you doing?” he yelled as Rook and his companions were surrounded by the other armed men.
“Letting ourselves in.” Iver shouted from below, as he and a large group of refugees swarmed through the now open gate into the courtyard.
“I see that.” the crazed man shouted. “I’m very impressed.” He gestured with his axe to the caravan now entering Frostvellr. “But all those people you just let in? Dead. All those women and children with you? Dead. And thanks for killing the only ones holding this place together.” He spat at the ground by Rook’s feet, who looked at him bewildered.
“What are you talking about?” he asked. Ekkill shouted and two of his men pulled Egil away from the gate crank and closed it. More fighters formed a circle around Iver and the other members of the caravan. Ekkill led Rook’s group down to the courtyard.
“If I knew there were fighters and a varl outside, I would have let you in. I’m Ekkill. I’m in charge here. You’ve heard about the chieftain?” he asked, cocking his head.
“We heard he was hiding in the great hall.” Rook said. Ekkill laughed.
“Hiding in a grave.” he said.
“What happened here?” Iver asked.
“Soon as they heard dredge were coming, anyone who couldn’t swing an axe got one to the head.” Ekkill explained, knocking the blade of his axe against his helmet to emphasise the point. “That’s the short story, anyway. There’re at least three clans here warring for turf and food, and the worst are the gods-forsaken varl!” he eyed Iver carefully.
“We’re in more danger here than inside Frostvellr?” Rook said.
“Look, you’ve got some people who can fight, and a varl. That’s got to count for something.” Ekkill said. “I can keep your flock safe in the great hall, if you fight for me.”
“I don’t take sides.” Iver grunted. “Too hard to tell when the good side has become the bad.”
“Fine.” Ekkill said, shrugging. “Cut these sheep loose and watch yourselves, what do I care?” He pointed his axe at Rook. “Think carefully about what you want.” Rook stepped forwards, locking eyes with Ekkill.
“We’ll fend for ourselves. Inside Frostvellr.” he said sternly. Ekkill snorted through his nose, then turned and left, heading back to the great hall along with his fighters.
“Good luck then.” he yelled as he left. “I hope we don’t meet again fighting for the same scraps.”
Hello there ajrman. I've been silently reading your novelisation; what an awesome undertaking!
Here's some comments/remarks/suggestions I care to make. Please take note that I am not a native English speaker, nor a writer or versed in literature in general. All that to say that many of my points might be off OK, here it goes:
- I noticed you kept pretty close to the original text. It's your choice, but I would have strayed from it, in order to provide more depth to characters and events. For example, brief introductions to events or descriptions of the characters' expressions/thoughts or landscape traveled or the atmosphere/music that flows from the game. Little things can take the narration a long way!
- Very few typos and syntax errors, so that I barely care to mention any. You obviously write in British English, a bit in contrast with the USA English of Stoic's writer!
- Some of your POVs are kinda inconsistent. In some passages, it seems like the narrator is speaking (e.g. describing using generic/objective/real-life terms), and then the POV is passed immediately to the characters. I suggest you lock it on the characters, else use some mark-up (e.g. italics) to denote that a narrator is speaking.
- I like how you bring the in-game abilities of the heroes into the narration, e.g.: Tempest, Mark-Prey, Puncture, Battering Ram, Rain of Arrows etc. Actually, your battle scenes (all your own writing) are really well made and lively. I bet you loved the tactical combat as well
- Incorporating some of the game's left-overs in your text was sometimes funny (e.g. Ubin not recalling a soldier's name so he just calls him 'Shieldbanger' ; or making note how it's difficult to track day-time with the sun stopped ) but sometimes unneeded. I'd have proofed the language used as well, as you seem to be handling all that medieval terminology and slag pretty well.
- I suggest you use more illustrative markup for: paragraph/event splitting (e.g. breaks), conversations (e.g. indenting) and character's thoughts (e.g. italic text). The latter is almost mandatory in the parts where you reproduce the voiced-over text, e.g. when entering Strand/Skogr/Frostvellr.
- Midway into Chapter 1, you say "... flags of Grofheim and Arberrang." Flags? Seriously?
- In Chapter 2, there's a couple of parts where you should have used a paragraph break, as you move from one event to the next one, which are "spatio-temporally" distanced. I understand that inside the game they might fall under a single timeline/event, but in the text they are obviously discrete events. I can point them, if you like.
- In Chapter 2, you give needlessly accurate numbers of clansmen and fighters of the caravan. I'd have kept those more abstract and lore-correct, e.g. 5 --> "a handful", 12 --> "a dozen", 40 --> "two score" etc.
- In Chapter 2, near the end, Ekkill is named (while in Rook's POV) before he has "formally" introduced himself to Rook. Come to mention this, it's quite standard in books to cling tight to the POV, i.e. describe the events/characters/environments in the way the POV-character would do it, not falling back to generic third-person/narrator attitude. As I said again, your writing follows the game's text very closely, so it's reasonably "tight" with only a few exceptions.
That's my feedback/comments. Make what you will of them
When can we expect the next chapter?
Together we stand, divided we fall.
Hello, sorry it's been a while. Things have been busy, and my initial motivation has started to fade. That, and Chapter 3 seemed to go on and on. I'll still try to complete the story as soon as I can, but I won't make any promises, and I can't promise that I'll write up the sequel when that comes out (though I definitely will be playing it!). Thank you for the feedback, I'll try to implement those improvements, especially drifting from the source where necessary. I am kicking myself over that mistake with Ekkill! Here is Chapter Three: Little Did They Sleep...
“Hakon, we’re back.” Mogr said. Hakon looked up from the campfire he had been staring at. He remained seated on a log. “I was able to get about as many warriors from Strand as you wanted, and more weapons and supplies too.” Mogr continued. Hakon perked up, realising people were looking to him. He was the leader of this party now, and it was exhausting. “Hakon?” Mogr said again, expecting a reply.
“I heard you.” Hakon replied, though he had not really been listening. The burden of leadership now rested on him.
“I was saying the varl we sent to Strand have returned. The governor gave us most of what we wanted.”
“Good enough.” Hakon growled. “Any resistance from the governor?”
“Some.” Mogr replied. “I don’t think he liked us buying his fighters using his own money.” Footsteps approached from nearby. “He also insisted we take on a lackey of his to watch over his property. A man named Eirik.”
“Eirik?” Ubin’s voice said, Hakon and Mogr turning to meet him. Ludin was also with him, dwarfed by the three varl. “I met him.” Ubin said. “He seemed competent enough.”
“Regardless, the governor will have to deal with it unless he wants dredge crawling through his streets.” Hakon said. “We’ve put down every slag that’s wandered through here while you’ve been gone.”
“Enough flapping of mouths, then.” Ludin interrupted.
“You’re sure that wound has healed, Ludin?” Mogr asked, concerned.
“I agree.” said Ubin. “Enough has already gone wrong. If harm were to come to the prince on a mission of peace, the alliance would rot. Or worse.”
“Vognir’s dead. There’s no reason to stay.” Hakon grumbled.
“What do you expect me to do?” asked Ludin, raising his voice. “Go back to my father and say one varl died, so the alliance is over?”
“He has a point.” Ubin agreed. “As Vognir’s Kendr, you have the same responsibilities Hakon.”
“We would only be made to do this again later.” said Ludin. “I will not suffer it all a second time. Either take us through the Wandering Road, or do your job and slay some dredge.” He scowled and walked off, going back to his ring of tents separate from the Varl part of camp.
“Wandering Road’s not an option with this many.” Mogr said.
“I could crush that boy’s skull with one hand.” Hakon seethed.
“If Ludin won’t be deterred, you’ll have to deal with it. Don’t let him get to you.” Ubin said.
“Bah, let’s go.” Hakon grunted. “I’m sick of this dump.”
“What do I tell the warriors?” asked Mogr.
“Tell them we don’t stop until Schlid.” Hakon said as he walked back inside his tent.
“Glad to hear it.” He heard Mogr mumble.
Hakon found Ubin a while later, sitting at a table and writing, as he seemed to do a lot.
“Did you know him well?” Hakon asked.
“Vognir?” Ubin clarified. At Hakon’s nod he continued. “No. Well, I remember him.” Ubin paused. “Always running round with important business, but I never knew him. Never got the chance to talk much.”
“Longer than I did, in any case.”
“I suppose so.” Ubin shrugged. “When he spoke, varl listened, I knew that.”
“I could use help there.” Hakon chuckled. Ubin leaned back, considering the sentiment.
“I’ve seen worse.” he said finally. “They respect you for your ability to swing an axe. Now they need to respect you for your actions.” Now he shrugged. “But you’re not talking to the right varl. Mogr’s got some skill there. Most I can do is hold a quill.”
“What are you always writing?” Hakon asked out of curiosity. Ubin always carried his journal with him.
“I write what happens.” Ubin replied simply.
“They’ve got a banner in Arberrang for that, you know.” Hakon said.
“You mean the Long Banner?” Ubin asked. “Yes, the Menders wove up something that writes its own history…I don’t trust it.”
“No?” The Menders were an order of strange users of magic who dwelt in Manaharr, near the human capital of Arberrang. They trained their apprentices in how to bend reality to do as they wish. In Arberrang they enchanted a banner, called the Long Banner, which would record all major events from across the world, working completely by itself. Historians and writers would come from across the lands to study it.
“It tells a broad story. I think there’s value in the narrow. Whose story does it tell?” Ubin asked rhetorically. “Mine? Theirs? Ludin’s, gods forbid?”
“The gods have been dead a long time.” Hakon said. About three or four human generations, if he remembered correctly.
“Old habits.” Ubin said.
“I heard you were a terror in your day.” mused Hakon.
“Do you know how old I am?”
“Dare I ask?”
“I’m competing, you know.” Ubin laughed. “Nobody knows how old we varl can get. Naturally that is.” He thought for a few moments. “There’s one by the name of Snorri. He’s got a few years on me. Just hunkers down in Grofheim collecting rime. Might actually beat me. Another one, named Krumr, is close, though he still welcomes a fight. He’ll probably be offed before me. Although…” he said, trailing off and gesturing around, signalling the situation they were in. They both chuckled. “Anyway, what difference does it make? Now I’m just a delivery bairn for Jorundr. Can’t remember half of what I’ve done.”
“Hence the journal?” jested Hakon. Ubin laughed. Hakon decided now was the time to leave. He would go and speak to Mogr.
He found Mogr counting the supplies. Mogr stopped what he was doing as Hakon approached.
“I’d ask how you’re dealing with Vognir’s death, but I already know the answer.” Hakon said solemnly.
“Do you?” Mogr replied.
“Steady old Mogr, which is good.” Hakon said. Then he sighed. “I know most of these varl, but they’re not under my command. They came to follow Vognir.”
“To tell you the truth, I wouldn’t want to be in your position either.”
“Haven’t you ever wanted to be in command?” Hakon asked.
“Any more rope and I’d hang myself.” Mogr said.
“I doubt that.” Hakon said. Mogr seemed to be competent enough at least to lead a caravan.
“I forget, you weren’t around then. At one point I had more rope. I hung myself. So no, I’m not interested in command.” No chance of Mogr taking over then, Hakon thought to himself.
“Anything you can tell me about the caravan?” Hakon asked.
“Throw this many varl together, half of them want to hit each other; other half wants to be left alone.”
“Anyone I should keep an eye on?”
“Couple of clan leaders trying to show off for each other. Not a big deal, I’ve got it under control. The fighters we got from Strand aren’t bad, but they’re unruly. Give it a few days. There are a few moaning about fighting for you instead of Vognir. Those are the ones to look out for.”
“What about Ludin’s men?”
“They don’t want to hear anything from me, I know that.”
“Could be. Ludin’s pet varl is called Bersi. I’m not sure what his deal is. Knows how to fight, but there’s something I don’t like about him. His girl in red is scary too. Yrsa. She’s probably the best fighter Ludin’s got, to be honest. I’ve heard some of the varl call her a witch.”
“Why?” Hakon asked, cocking his head.
“Flaming arrows.” Mogr said. All varl had an innate distrust of fire. It was unreliable and was just as likely to turn on you as do what you want.
“You think we’re walking into a death trap on this mission?” Hakon asked.
“Not with this many varl.” Mogr replied. “But with Vognir dead…”
“I’m still wondering what happened. He had hundreds of dead slag to his name, and he falls to one? I don’t get it.”
“Just happens sometimes. No big moment. I’m sure it surprised him more than us.” Mogr paused, scrunched up his nose in thought. “Although I have to wonder…nevermind.” He shook his head. “Anyway, I’ll worry about the warriors. You worry about not doing something stupid.”
“That’s asking a lot.” Hakon joked. Mogr chuckled.
“Let me know if you need anything else.” he said.
“I will.” Hakon said before turning to leave. It was time to get the journey underway.
Ridgehorn was just visible in the far distance for a while before it disappeared behind the wooded mountains that the caravan had to go around. Hakon was constantly scanning the treelines as they went, sometimes spotting dark figures, though he might just have been getting paranoid. At one point Mogr joined him, pointing up into the forest.
“Look at that, in the hills.” he said. “Dredge. No more than a dozen I’ve seen. We could just as easily slip past them as kill them.”
“No.” Hakon replied. “That’s a dozen dredge headed towards Strand. Send some warriors up there to deal with them. About ten should do.”
“Will do.” Mogr said before leaving to find some volunteers.
A few hours later Hakon heard his name called by the human prince. He braced himself as he heard Ludin’s hard-booted trot.
“Don’t punch him in the face. Don’t punch him in the face.” he muttered to himself.
“Can we speak? As equals?” Ludin asked, leaning on his spear.
“We can try.” said Hakon.
“It seems clear to me you plan to kill a lot of dredge along the way. Am I right?”
“Why do you ask?” Hakon responded.
“Because since we left Arberrang, the varl have been acting like I need protection. Don’t assume only the varl can fight, do you understand me?” Ludin pointed at one of the red pennants streaming over a tent. “That is my banner we fly to Grofheim, the banner of Arberrang. I insist on joining in battle.”
“Almost gutted in your first battle and ready for more? Whatever you like prince.” Hakon said, almost mockingly. Ludin nodded.
“I expected more resistance.” he said.
“From Vognir, maybe.” Hakon shrugged. The prince cocked his head.
“They tell me you were his Kendr. That’s why you are in charge now. A next of kin…varl thing?” he wondered aloud. “Don’t you take on his responsibilities?”
“In my own way.” Hakon replied, not entirely sure what ‘his own way’ was yet.
“Then stop acting like I’m a thorn in your side.”
“When you’re nearly two hundred years it’s hard to take a twenty year old seriously.” Hakon joked.
“You had better start. We’ll both be kings someday.”
“That’s the last thing I want to think about right now.” Hakon said, though the prince had a point.
At the end of that day’s march the caravan set up camp. Here they would wait for the band of warriors to return from their assault on the dredge. Tents were put up, sentries were posted and mead was consumed in various quantities. Hakon was looking for Bersi, Ludin’s bodyguard varl. The black-haired, olive-skinned varl was sitting on a chair outside the Prince’s tent reading a book. He didn’t strike Hakon as the reading type. He had a scar that ran horizontally across his face. His horns were black.
“Do you have a moment?” Hakon asked. Bersi lowered the book. “You’re Bersi?”
“You’re Hakon. Glad we’ve got that out of the way.” Bersi replied.
“I had some questions.”
“Say what you want to say.” Bersi appeared to want to be left alone.
“What’s a varl doing working for Ludin?”
“What’s a varl doing working for another varl? What difference does it make?” Bersi shrugged his shoulders. “It looks like you’re in charge now, so do me a favour and don’t get Ludin killed.”
“He’s important to you?” asked Hakon.
“No, but that’s one way to put it.” Bersi said. That was a rather confusing response.
“I’ll let you get to it.” said Hakon.
“See you on the battlefield, oh leader of varl.” Bersi said mockingly. Then he leaned in closer. “Remember. Don’t get Ludin killed.” As Hakon stepped away he couldn’t help but wonder if there was a bit of threat in that gravelly request. He turned and left, soon coming across who he thought to be Yrsa. She was clad in a black tunic with a red cloak and had brown hair. She had a small scar on her cheek. A quiver was on her back and a number of pouches were on her belt. She held a shortbow.
“Yrsa, right?” he started. She nodded, not saying anything. “Can we talk?”
She shook her head.
“I don’t.” she said, simply.
“You don’t talk?”
“You do, though.”
“I don’t.” She smiled warmly, clearly enjoying her game of confusing the varl. She watched him expectantly.
“It’s about the flaming arrows.” Hakon said at last. Yrsa responded by raising an eyebrow. “Varl and fire don’t get along.” He continued. She shrugged. “If you’re going to use them…” Suddenly she pulled an arrow from her quiver, doing a flick of the wrist that Hakon didn’t quite catch before nocking her arrow, drawing and releasing. A bird in a nearby tree burst into flames and fell to the ground. Some of the people nearby turned to watch.
“Don’t tell me not to.” she said, staring at the smouldering bird.
“Well, this has been fun.” Hakon sighed. She folded her arms. “Until next time.” Hakon said before leaving.
“Hakon.” she said unexpectedly. He turned back to face her. “I am a witch. So be careful.” she chuckled, raising a finger to her lips. Hakon wasn’t sure what to make of that.
The next morning the caravan continued its march. Along the way Hakon overheard a conversation between a group of varl.
“I’m as happy to stomp some slag as any varl, but I didn’t join to take orders from Hakon.” one of them said. He had short black hair – short for a varl, anyway – and grey horns. He hadn’t realised who was walking past him. Hakon decided to let his presence known.
“Not sure Vognir would be happy to hear that.” he growled as he walked past. The varl flinched and the others started laughing at his misfortune.
Soon, a small gathering of tents came into view. Hakon guessed that it was a group of merchants. They approached and the lead merchant met them.
“Well met.” said Hakon. The merchant gave a small nod; he looked down, weary, like he had an invisible weight resting on him. “Where are you headed?” Hakon continued.
“We were gathered at the godstone ahead.” the merchant said. “Leaving an offering to Denglr, as one does.” He hesitated, then continued speaking. “Dredge started appearing out of nowhere. Some of us stayed. Thought the godstone would be safe. Damned if I know why.” He gestured to the rest of his band, all of whom looked tired and scared. “We’ve been dodging the Dredge ever since.”
“Don’t worry.” Hakon said reassuringly. “The way to Strand is clear.” The merchant gestured to his comrades with a shout and they started to pack away.
“Thank you.” he said, forcing a smile. “If you’re passing by Denglr, can you do me a favour?” Hakon nodded. “My wife’s brother stayed behind. You’ll know him from a necklace with many rings on it. If you see him, can you tell him we’re safely in Strand?”
“Of course.” replied Hakon. The merchant thanked him again before going back to help pack away the camp.
A day passed. The occasional shadow was seen moving in the treeline. It was late the next morning when the front of the caravan slowed unexpectedly. It took a while for word to travel down the convoy to where Hakon was in the middle, but the fact that some of the Varl ahead were drawing their weapons told him all he needed to know.
“Dredge know we’re coming.” shouted Mogr as he approached, working his way backwards through the caravan. “Probably saw us near Vedrfell and did their usual lurking. Could’ve been bad if we’d plodded into them, but we saw them first.” The caravan became a hive of activity as more movements emerged from the edge of the forests on both sides. Mogr stepped by Hakon’s side. “When was the last time you commanded a few hundred?” he asked.
“Um…” Hakon murmured as he thought. He knew from memory that there were about five hundred varl and two hundred humans, though that could be overestimating. Looking around he saw that there were at least four hundred or so Dredge, with more coming out from the trees.
“Shield walls!” Hakon yelled at the top of his voice, drawing his two handed axe. The command was repeated throughout the convoy. Varl locked shields in lines facing outwards while other warriors stayed back, ready to fill in any gaps that appeared in the formations. At the back of the caravan the human forces rallied around the red and gold banner, setting up similar formations at Ludin’s command. Hakon and Mogr joined the group defending the supply cart, along with Ubin’s treasure cart. The supply cart would likely be the target, so the fighting would be thickest there. That was how Hakon liked it. A shout alerted him to the first wave of Dredge troops charging towards them. The shieldwalls braced themselves, Mogr among them on the right side, swords and spears held outwards.
“Hold!” Mogr shouted. The Dredge grunts smashed into the line, pushing against the shield walls. The same was happening at several points in the caravan. “Push!” yelled Mogr, and his section of the line pushed forwards with their shields, stunning the Dredge enough for each Varl to stab at them, felling the first line of Dredge troops. Minutes passed as the line was held. Several screams made Hakon turn around to see that on the left of the caravan a huge Dredge stoneguard was smashing his way through the defences.
“With me!” Hakon yelled to the group of reserve warriors gathered around him. With a fierce battle cry they charged into the gap created by the stoneguard, holding back the grunts that would otherwise have swarmed in through the Varl formation. Hakon assaulted the stoneguard, ducking under its swing and jumping behind its tower shield to hack at the back of its knees. As the stoneguard fell to one knee two more Varl took the opportunity and slashed at its face and chest before it finally fell dead. However, Hakon was now on the wrong side of the shield wall. He swung his axe in a wild swing to keep any Dredge from nearing him. Two or three of them gave each other nervous glances before they decided to charge him all at once. He parried one attack to the right but was caught on the left arm by one of the grunt’s rocky mace. He let out a growl, turning his pain to anger, and hooked the mace with his axe, briefly letting go with one hand to punch at the one on his right, before striking the grunt with the end of the handle of his axe. As more Dredge joined the fray he realised he couldn’t keep this up. Luckily, some Varl warriors launched themselves forward to relieve him. Hakon stepped back as the line started to reform. He looked around and saw that the Dredge were being repelled on all sides. The human part of the caravan saw volleys of arrows launched over the heads of their warriors into the rear ranks of Dredge. Splashes of flame gave away the presence of Yrsa; a Dredge stoneguard stumbling away on fire here, a dozen grunts ablaze there. Looking back to the right of the caravan, Hakon could see that Mogr’s shield wall had gained several yards, the Varl now trudging over fallen Dredge. The enemy were being pushed back, their formations starting to break. Hakon gathered up any loose warriors and made another charge through the left. It did not take much to finally make the Dredge break. The first sections to be relieved spun their lines round to attack the remaining Dredge from the side, and soon the whole army was routing.
“Keep position!” Hakon shouted, and the warriors pulled back from their pursuit to hold formation in case the Dredge regrouped and struck again. It was unnecessary, however. The black stone figures retreated into the trees and weren’t seen again.
It took about half an hour to count the dead. They had only lost eight humans and a score of varl, a surprisingly low figure. They were buried in twenty-eight hastily made cairns of rocks and the caravan continued on its march.
In response to the battle, Ludin ordered scouts to go ahead of the caravan. The human scouts were quicker and more nimble than the Varl. Two days after the battle one of these scouts told Ludin of a village under attack by about a thousand Dredge, a day’s march away, and Ludin relayed the news to Hakon.
“Send a small group of shieldbangers to get their attention and split them up.” he ordered. It was about half a day before the varl returned, a smaller contingent of Dredge plodding after them. Hakon drew his weapon and ordered a charge. Ludin joined him, spear at the ready.
“Forwards, men of Arberrang!” he cried as the forces ran towards each other. The humans, being faster, met the Dredge first as they hurried into loose formation. By the time Hakon and his warriors had reached them the Dredge were already in disarray, some at the rear rushing back to get reinforcements. Bersi immediately jumped to the Prince’s side, swinging at the Dredge with his axe. Gunnulf spun round as he clashed into the line, taking down three grunts with a single swing of his sword. Mogr pushed the Dredge back with his shield. Yrsa was hanging at the back, shooting at the fleeing Dredge with flaming arrows. Eirik darted around wounding Dredge for others to finish off. Hakon jumped into the fray with his axe, finding himself against two Dredge stoneguard. He jumped to the side as one brought down its shield. He tried to attack the other, but his strike was parried. Seemingly from out of nowhere, Eirik jumped in, climbing up the tower shield of one of the stoneguards such that he was standing on its shoulders. He hacked at the neck of the Dredge with his axe. Hakon could now focus on just the one stoneguard. He ducked under a swing then attempted to pull the shield away by hooking it with his axe. He pulled it aside just enough to slip the axe through into the Dredge’s chest, punching out with his hand near the axe head. The stoneguard stumbled back and Hakon pressed his assault, swinging again at the knees. Finally when the Dredge was down on its knees he swung at the head, nearly cleaving its helmet in two. Looking to his side, he could see Ludin impaling a nearby grunt and kicking it off the end of his spear. He yelled and a group of human fighters pushed forward. Soon the Dredge were falling back and Varl looked to Hakon to see what to do.
“Hunt them down!” he shouted. He couldn’t afford to have them rejoin the main group. The Varl around him rallied and pursued the remaining Dredge, cutting them down as they fled. The army stopped as they neared the village, fearing that by going too far they might draw the main force of Dredge into battle. They pulled the dead back and made another set of cairns. As they were doing so Hakon was approached by a familiar varl.
“My name is Griss. We had…words earlier.” the varl said. Hakon recognised him as the one who had questioned his leadership. “You were right in what you did. Let me fight by your side.” Hakon was taken aback, but he saw only sincerity in the varl’s eyes.
“Very well.” he nodded. “You’ve got one chance. Go and report to Mogr.” Griss nodded and left to talk to the quartermaster.
Another day of skirting around the village, picking off small groups of Dredge, whittling the enemy down, passed before Hakon felt confident enough to assault the main force. The army attacked from multiple directions, Hakon leading his force into the town square. Griss was at his side armed with a shield and spear, eager to prove himself. Yrsa started the battle by setting fire to the buildings, burning Dredge crawling out. Hakon led the charge into the group in the middle. Griss jumped at a Dredge stoneguard, knocking away its shield with his own and stabbing into its shoulder, killing it nearly immediately. Hakon was impressed. The Dredge force soon crumpled under the onslaught. As they rounded up the bodies, having suffered a few more casualties, Mogr approached Hakon.
“This was a tough couple of days.” he said. “I hope this won’t be a sign of things to come.” Hakon nodded. He wandered through what remained of the village, where the snow had turned black and red. The bodies of the villagers were all put onto a pyre and burnt, which took several hours. At one point Yrsa held up her hand when she walked past an unburnt house.
“Hear that?” she whispered. Hakon listened closely, and heard what could be crying. He kicked down the door of the house and peered in. There was a trapdoor in the centre of the ransacked room. Yrsa and another human fighter stepped in. The fighter opened the hatch to reveal a group of people, hiding for their lives. They filed out of the house into the square, parents shielding their children’s eyes. Some burst into tears at the sight of their home destroyed.
“What do we do now?” asked one woman.
“Go to Strand.” Hakon replied. “We’ve cleared the way, but we’ll send a few warriors back to escort you.” He gathered fifteen of his varl to go with the villagers. Eirik approached him as the group left.
“I almost feel guilty about this.” he said. “I know Strand. Even if they make it there, the locals will tear them apart. I’ll go with them.”
“As you wish.” said Hakon. Eirik said a hasty goodbye to Ubin before running to catch up with the villagers.
The caravan continued, glad to be free of the Dredge force, for now. After a day of marching another Varl caravan was spotted a half-day ahead, coming towards them. A few hundred, as far as Hakon could see. When they met, a large, brown haired Varl stepped forwards. He wore a red tunic and carried a shield, a spiked cudgel hanging at his belt. The ends of his pale horns were painted gold.
“You must be with Vognir.” he said, noticing the white and blue banner as he and Hakon greeted each other.
“Was.” Hakon replied, shaking his head. “Vognir didn’t make it.” The other Varl looked taken aback.
“You’re serious? It’s getting grim around here, but I didn’t expect that.”
“You’re flying the Schlid banner.” Mogr noticed, having joined Hakon. “What’s happening there? Isn’t Ulfar in charge?”
“I’m Fasolt.” the red shirted Varl said. “Ulfar’s still in Schlid. He sent me to meet Vog…well, you.” He looked around at the battle-weary fighters of Hakon’s caravan. “Nothing’s happened in Schlid yet.”
“What do you mean?” Hakon asked. He had assumed that the Dredge they had been facing had been going past Schlid.
“The Dredge never came past Schlid. They’re all pouring out of Ridgehorn. We only just found out about it. One group went that way, we came here.”
“Ridgehorn?” Mogr asked, scrunching his nose. “That fort has been abandoned for years.”
“Maybe that’s why they’re there.” Fasolt shrugged. “By all accounts it looks like another invasion.” Fasolt looked over Hakon’s shoulder at the humans that were joining them.
“Wait a godless minute.” Ludin said, forcing his way into the conversation. “What did you do?”
“Careful now.” Hakon grumbled.
“What did you start? You don’t think men remember history? The Long Banner hangs in Arberrang!” he threw his arms vaguely towards the south. “The Second Great War nearly killed us all! What did you do this time?”
“Who is this?” Fasolt said, followed by a curse.
“The human prince. Take him to Grofheim, I’ll lead my warriors to Ridgehorn.”
“Are you insane?” Ludin yelled. “An army of Dredge is pouring out of this fort!”
“Go to Grofheim then!” Hakon raised his voice. “Having your blood on my hands would be worse than doing nothing.” Ludin responded with silence. There was a battle raging in his head, about whether to go to safety or whether that would be cowardly to do so.
“We’ve already come this far.” he said finally. “If this is the Varl’s doing, my father will hear of it. Besides, you need my help, and my fighters. If I go, so do they.” Mogr let out a brief chuckle at the prince’s bravery, and with Hakon’s bewilderment. Hakon thought about punching the prince in the face, as he had wanted to do for so long. He sighed angrily.
“Do as you like, Ludin.”
“Painting me as the villain, what do I care?” Ludin shouted. “You see to be the only one to do as he pleases in this supposed alliance!”
“These are Varl lands!” Hakon said. “We’re facing an army of Dredge! How much experience have you got in such matters?”
“True.” Ludin nodded. “Mankind have never provoked them into a war, but now you’re going for a third! Is drawing the Dredge into genocide a game for your kind?” Hakon clenched his fists. It would be so easy to just knock the prince flat and have Fasolt take him to Grofheim. However, as much as he hated to admit it, Ludin was right about needing his fighters. Eventually Hakon stormed off fuming.
Mogr did the rest of the negotiations. Fasolt’s group, made up of three hundred and thirty Varl, joined the caravan, putting their number to about nine hundred. The caravan was now passing by the western side of the Hanged Man, a single solitary peak surrounded by ravines on both sides that divided the roads to Schlid and to Ridgehorn. They clambered up the great hill on top of which sat the godstone of Denglr, god of fortune. The path winded round near the edge of the ravine on their side of the mountain, with thick trees on the left.
Suddenly, black rocks were whizzing past Hakon from the left, exploding into sparks and fragments wherever they landed. A few Varl fell, having been hit by the strange projectiles.
“Dredge!” yelled Mogr. “Get behind the shields!” Hakon ducked behind Griss, who held his shield up. Dredge started to pour out of the treeline. The ambush was effective, and soon the Dredge forces were starting to overwhelm the leftmost parts of the caravan.
“Form walls!” Hakon shouted. “Hold them off!” But Dredge were already slipping through gaps in the defences, heading towards the supply cart. Hakon drew his axe and headed towards the nearest one, a strangely small, thin Dredge with some sort of pack on its back and several pouches on its belt. It looked at him and revealed a sling with which it launched one of the obsidian projectiles. Hakon barely had time to react before he was knocked to the ground, blood seeping from a wound on his head. He found himself unable to move, his vision fading. As he started to lose consciousness, he saw Gunnulf wrestle a Dredge that had attacked the treasure cart. He succeeded, but not before the whole cart started to slip off the edge. Gunnulf threw himself at it, holding on, but he wouldn’t be able to pull it back up, and there was no one close enough to get to him in time.
“…Gunn…” Hakon started to say before he slipped into unconsciousness.
Hakon awoke to the sight of Denglr staring down at him. Denglr was the god of fortune, a favourite among men, who believed that Denglr would give them luck, wealth, whatever they wished they had or couldn’t get on their own. The word fortune has a lot of meanings. The entire caravan was in mourning from what was clearly a huge loss. Everyone around him looked broken.
“You’re awake.” muttered Ubin, who was sat near him. He felt that he had cloth or something bound round his head.
“What…happened?” Hakon groaned.
“Two days have passed.” Ubin said. “We lost the treasure cart…along with Gunnulf.” he looked on the verge of tears. “He wouldn’t let go.” he sobbed. “We lost near a hundred and fifty or so Varl, and about fifty humans. That Dredge ambush…cost us.” Hakon tried to stand. Ubin put a hand on his shoulder to support him. Hakon took a few breaths, then stood, feeling uneasy. He waved Ubin away, then started to move through the caravan, who were briefly resting. At the foot of the godstone lay many human bodies. Hakon thought of the merchants.
“Wait!” he cried to some varl who were taking the corpses away. Hakon checked each one, cut apart by Dredge, their faces frozen in fear, until a glitter of gold caught his eye. Reaching into the jerkin of one of the dead merchants, he pulled out a gold necklace, on which were threaded five rings. Hakon sighed. He put the necklace away in a pocket, with intent to give it to the dead man’s brother-in-law if ever he saw him again.
“Don’t know what made them think the godstone was safe.” said Mogr mournfully from behind Hakon. “We’re completely exposed up here.”
“You’re right.” said Hakon. “Here.” he took out the necklace again and tossed it to Mogr. He could trust the quartermaster to keep hold of it. Mogr put it away and called for everyone to move down the hill into better cover. They set up camp in the cover of trees at the bottom of the hill. No one slept easily, under an eternal sun and the fear of attack.
The now weary caravan watched the trees even more fervently than they had previously, setting up camp closer together and posting more sentries. They were never far. Like shadows, they never went away, always clinging to the caravan’s heels. There always seemed to be Dredge watching. That was the worst part; they just watched. Only in groups of a dozen at most, standing on some rocky outcropping or the top of a hill, unmoving.
One such group, four grunts and a single stoneguard, caught Hakon’s attention, standing on a promontory staring at the passing caravan. They were little more than silhouettes in the distance, but Hakon still felt their yellow unblinking eyes boring into him.
“Hakon.” a voice said from somewhere behind him. It was Mogr.
“Yes?” he replied, standing still, keeping his eyes on the Dredge group.
“I’ve seen some of the warriors disappearing.” Mogr explained, standing by Hakon’s side looking at the Dredge. “At first I thought it was my imagination, but now I’m certain.”
“Dredge?” Hakon wondered aloud. “Could they be picking us off in small groups?” He remembered back to the Second Great War, back when the sun still gave way to night, when the Dredge would nibble away at the allied armies in the weeks before a battle, coming always in the dead of night, ambushing a sentry, maybe massacring a scout party, leaving without ever being discovered. In the first few years of the war, before the Menders came and started to push the Dredge back, the allied armies lived in fear, sleeping with swords in hand if they could sleep at all. They always found a few dead come morning.
“Could be.” Mogr said. “Could be desertion. Either way, you have to do something about it.”
“Agreed.” Hakon nodded, never looking away from the shadowy figures. “Have any returned?”
“Yes. Mostly men, but some varl as well. I’ve questioned them already.”
“Couldn’t get a straight answer. Some denied it outright. Couldn’t even ask the humans directly.”
“Damned if Ludin doesn’t have anything to do with this.” Hakon grunted.
“Should I go and fetch the Prince?” Mogr asked. Hakon still stared at the Dredge. Slowly, the stoneguard turned and disappeared behind the top of the hill, followed by the grunts.
“No. I’ll go.”
Hakon walked to the rear of the caravan, where most of the human soldiers marched. He headed straight for the biggest banner, below which Ludin marched with his entourage.
“Men are disappearing.” Hakon yelled as he stepped in front of Ludin, who came to a halt. “I don’t suppose you would have anything to do with that, would you?”
“I ordered it.” Ludin said dismissively. “I sent them to bring back the gold from the cart you left behind. If you don’t like your warriors joining them, you should keep them under control.”
Hakon grunted in anger. “Why does the gold matter at a time like this? Each fighter we send to retrieve trinkets is one less fighter we have to battle the Dredge.”
“You left a pile of gold at the bottom of a ravine.” Ludin raised his voice, as if that was argument enough. “What are the chances it’ll still be there a month from now?”
“No more.” Hakon ordered simply.
“I’ve already stopped.” Ludin said, with a smirk. “We’re too far now anyway.” Hakon sighed before leaving. He had gotten what he wanted – for the disappearances to cease – but he still felt that the Prince had won.
The time passed in waves. Sometimes a day would pass in what Hakon was sure was a few minutes, and yet sometimes it would seem that hours passed, only for them to have made little progress at all. Hakon felt strangely tired. He should be used to these treks, but now each step was a labour. Just one foot after the other, he told himself, though his feet would seem to get stuck in the ever-deepening snow.
“We should rest.” Mogr said, sitting on a fallen tree trunk that Hakon was sure had not been there in front of him a few seconds ago. Behind Mogr, in the distance, stood Ridgehorn. Just about visible from Strand, on the top of a hill standing watch over Denglr’s Bay, from where the caravan now stood the several crumbling stone towers could be discerned, the great central spire rising up above the rest. One of the six Horns, castles built after the end of the First Great War to defend against the newly discovered Dredge, Ridgehorn had proven invaluable during the Second Great War, but with the threat of Dredge diminishing it had fallen into disuse. It was only through the marvel of Varl stonework that it still stood at all, instead of crumbling to rubble as any human structure would have by now, exposed to the biting winds that blow from the Vast that lay to the west. A flock of ravens flew overhead in the direction of Ridgehorn. Mogr sat watching them, seemingly entranced, then looked at Hakon.
“We should follow them.” he said with wonder in his voice.
“What?” Hakon mumbled. That was a strange thing for Mogr to say. Mogr stood, drawing his weapon and looking into Hakon’s eyes with anger, then turned and ran towards the tower. Suddenly, he was in the air, flapping his arms, joining the birds in their flight.
Is this a dream? Hakon thought as he watched the bizarre spectacle. Now, flames came from the northeast, one of them reaching for Mogr like a fiery finger. On contact with the blaze Mogr burst into flame and fell to the ground outside Ridgehorn, the tower collapsing like a smouldering log.
Then he woke up to the sight of a campfire. When had he ordered to set up camp? They were much closer to Ridgehorn than he remembered. Mogr approached as Hakon stood. He looked at Mogr, then over his shoulder, then to the sky, then finally at Ridgehorn, all with a look of confusion. Mogr followed his gaze.
“So you saw it too?” he asked timidly. Hakon simply nodded, his expression frozen in bewilderment.
“Let’s keep it to ourselves.” he said.
“Agreed.” Mogr nodded. After an adequate rest, Hakon called for the caravan to continue. He had Griss follow him closely and warn him if he was acting strange. The Varl gave him a weird look, but nodded.
The caravan was almost at Ridgehorn. Between them and their destination lay a thick wood. Behind them the Dredge still did their lurking, but were now in larger groups, some made up of a few score.
“Into the wood.” Hakon ordered to the caravan. “We should be able to lose the Dredge in there.”
The Varl hated trudging through the undergrowth, but Hakon’s plan seemed to work. Apart from a few followers, the Dredge remained in the treeline. Hopefully the caravan could outpace them to the other side.
Several hours passed and the number of shadows behind them dwindled. However, their hope was short-lived, as a number of figures could be seen to the front and sides. Hakon ordered the caravan to stop as he thought about what to do. He leant against a tree as he pondered. He heard a woman clear her throat and looked around. It was Yrsa, fiddling with an arrow.
“What if we were to set a fire as a distraction?” she suggested. Hakon didn’t like the idea of fire, but it was their only option bar fighting their way out.
“Okay.” Hakon agreed reluctantly. They trekked through to the south, Hakon brushing away the branches which Yrsa simply walked under. Neither of them said a word. Eventually Yrsa stopped.
“Here should do.” she said, looking around. She reached for the pouches on her belt. From one she revealed a number of rags, from another a strange flask. She soaked the rags and the smell told Hakon that it was oil. She then draped the oily rags over some of the drier looking bushes and clumps of twigs. She then nocked an arrow to her bow. Hakon noticed that on her glove was attached a piece of flint, which she struck against the arrowhead. The flint created sparks and the arrowhead, obviously having been treated beforehand, let off a flame. She drew her bow and shot at one of the rags, watching a few seconds to make sure the fire caught, before turning and giving Hakon a smile.
“Clever.” Hakon remarked before also turning to leave. After a minute or two he looked back to see a large number of trees ablaze.
When the pair reached the caravan again, Mogr congratulated Yrsa on her plan.
“The Dredge are heading to that side of the woods. Now’s our chance.” he said. Hakon looked around and saw the way through the trees mostly free of Dredge. Yrsa let out a cackle as she looked at the inferno going on to the south.
“We’d better get going before that fire starts to head this way.” Hakon said. He drew his axe and formed everyone up in an attack formation, ready to plow through any straggling Dredge.
“Charge!” he shouted. The caravan let out a mighty battle cry as they sallied forth from the trees into the scattered Dredge, who hurried to band together. Hakon swung his axe as he ran, cutting down Dredge left and right.
“Keep moving forward!” he cried. The supply carts were drawn forwards, the yoxes being driven on by Ubin and some of his guards. Hakon looked to the south and saw the main force of Dredge start to appear, silhouetted against the flames, looking around in confusion. They were far enough away that the caravan could be clear of the forest before the Dredge could mobilise. Some of the smaller Dredge slingers attempted to fling their stone projectiles, but they fell short, exploding on bare snow. The caravan moved forwards with haste even after the last of the straggling Dredge were killed. Hakon intended to put as much distance between them and the forest as possible.
About an hour passed before Hakon saw fit to slow the caravan down to marching pace again. It would only be a day’s travel to Ridgehorn now. Lightning arced across the sky and crashed down around the tower, illuminating it against the storm clouds that hung overhead. There was something strange about the way the lightning struck, as if it was aimed at the tower in a way that was not natural. Hakon’s mind flashed back to his dream, before he snapped himself out of it. They were almost at their destination, and Hakon had a feeling there would be a fight waiting for them there.
As the caravan passed the top of the last hill before Ridgehorn the stone bridge that led to the castle became visible. The bridge was only wide enough for three varl, and it took a while for the caravan to cross as a result. Scorch marks and the occasional Dredge corpse around the fortifications told of a recent battle. There was no gate, the gateway having decayed to a gap in the walls. Crumbled houses littered the lower part of the castle, a winding staircase leading up to the central spire. The entire structure was made of the smoothly cut stone of varl handiwork, rather than the rough bricks of human hands. On a clear day the whole of Denglr’s Bay could be seen from the ramparts, including the city of Strand. However, there was a low lying fog that obscured all but the highest mountains. The wind whistled through cracks in the rock, a single sound in the eerie silence that accompanied the convoy. Hakon called the caravan to halt in the courtyard at the bottom of the stairs.
“Looks like there was a battle, and recently.” said Mogr, trying to break the silence rather than provide any useful information.
“There are only Dredge bodies.” Ubin pointed out.
“Maybe we’ll see better from the top of the tower.” Hakon said. “Mogr, take some varl and search the buildings down here. Make sure there’re no Dredge waiting to spring on us.” Mogr nodded and started to walk away. “Don’t set up camp or make any fires. We’ll search the place, then leave.”
“I’ll come with you.” Griss said.
“So will I.” agreed Fasolt.
“I’ll come too.” said Ludin. “To make sure nothing goes wrong; or should I say more wrong?” Bersi and Yrsa stood by his side, not having to say a word. Hakon called over a few more of his warriors, and Ludin called some of his, and the party started to climb the steps leading up to the great tower. It took a while, and the stairways were angled such that from the bottom the journey appeared shorter than it was. The varl did not include windows much in their architecture, so the inside of the tower was dark, save for a single shaft of light that shone down from a hole in the roof. Rubble in the middle of the main chamber indicated the source of that hole. The party was reaching the upper levels when a shadow loomed over them. Hakon looked up and saw a familiar silhouette against the light.
“Dredge!” he yelled, drawing his axe and taking the steps two or three at a time. Everyone else drew their weapons and Yrsa released an arrow at the figure. It ducked away from the opening and Yrsa muttered a curse. Hakon burst through the withered door that led to the uppermost floor and immediately a rock shattered next to his head, exploding in a burst of light. Ducking, Hakon jumped behind a cluster of rubble. Griss was the next to come out, holding his shield aloft to deflect the projectiles. Hakon peeked over the collapsed stonework and saw four Dredge slingers on the other side of the crack in the floor. Propped up against the far wall lay two small human figures, motionless. There was also a Dredge grunt and one of the giant Scourges. Another stone flung by the slingers forced Hakon to duck back down. Ludin, Yrsa and Bersi had joined him while Griss and Fasolt locked shields, advancing slowly.
“Yrsa!” Ludin yelled. “Can you take out those slingers?”
Yrsa nocked an arrow, then jumped out to the side of the rubble, drew and released, then ducked back down. “Next?” she said.
“Bersi, with me!” Hakon shouted. Bersi grumbled at being given orders, but stood. They both charged at the Grunt, which was standing in front of the slingers, blocking their way to the right of the hole. Griss and Fasolt broke into a run on the left, smashing into one of the slingers, Fasolt knocking it into the hole with his spiked cudgel. The Scourge charged at them, enraged, nearly breaking Fasolt’s shield with the strike of its two-pronged obsidian sword. Hakon and Bersi both struck the Grunt with their axes, Hakon immediately moving on to one of the slingers while Bersi kicked the corpse away. An arrow soared over Hakon’s shoulder and embedded itself in the chest of the slinger in front of him. He would have a word with her about that shot; it had been far too close. Hakon jumped to the side as the remaining slinger flung a rock at him, then he leapt forwards and decapitated it with his axe. He looked towards the Scourge, which had knocked down Griss and was about to kick Fasolt down into the hole. Ludin ran out and stabbed with his spear, striking the Dredge in the inner thigh. It dropped its weapon and let out a gravelly cry. Fasolt grabbed his cudgel and swung upwards, knocking it backwards into Griss’ waiting spear. Griss pushed the heavy body off his weapon and all of them looked around. That was all of them. Hakon turned to the two human bodies, who seemed to have a strange blue light emanating in the stonework around them. The door, which had been blown closed by the wind, opened again with a crash and everyone turned, hands tensing around their weapons, relaxing at the sight of Mogr, and Ubin behind him.
“I heard fighting.” he said, looking around at the bodies.
“We dealt with it.” Hakon said. They all approached the two humans. “Any idea who they are?” he asked.
“No, but maybe the slag came here for them.” Mogr replied. There was a man and a woman. The man was dressed in clothing unsuitable for the frigid north, wearing a simple blue cloth tunic with thin trousers. He clutched a strange looking staff. He had a gaunt face, with short, but unkempt, brown hair and a shortly cut beard. The woman, a few years older than him by the looks of it, with long black hair that ran in a single braid, was dressed a bit more appropriately, with a blue and black cloak that wrapped around her. Ludin knelt down and put his ear over the woman’s face, waiting for a few seconds before shaking his head. Doing the same for the man, his face turned to one of surprise.
“This one’s alive!” he exclaimed.
“I’ll take him.” Ubin said, stepping forwards and picking up the unconscious man. At that moment shouting was heard from below, barely audible above the wind. The shouting grew louder as more voices joined in, and even though the words were inaudible Hakon knew what they were saying. He ran to the crumbled parapet and looked out across Ridgehorn, seeing an army lining the cliffs on the other side of the bridge, bigger than they had ever seen. Perhaps to the aid of their now dead comrades, the Dredge had come.
“Shield wall in the gateway!” Hakon yelled as he exited the tower, sprinting down the steps.
“Archers on the parapets!” Ludin shouted, struggling to keep up with the much bigger varl. Human and varl alike rushed about, forming up to defend against the oncoming wave of Dredge. Cries of “nock”, “draw” and “loose” were heard, followed by volleys of arrows launched against the front ranks of Dredge that were crossing the bridge. Stone projectiles flew out from the other side of the cliff, pelting the varl and human defences. Mogr, Fasolt and Griss joined the line of varl that were blocking the entrance to the castle, shields held outwards and any spears held down in front at the ready. Hakon stood up on a heap of rubble from which he could see the battle. Yrsa, standing on the wall with the other human archers, threw some sort of container onto the bridge in front of the oncoming Dredge. It cracked, resulting in a pool of black liquid. She then ignited the head of her arrow using the technique Hakon had seen in the woods, and shot at the pool. It erupted into flame just as the first Dredge reached it, flailing about as it was engulfed before stumbling off the edge into the chasm below. The other Dredge stopped and held their ground, those with shields holding them up to defend against the arrows that rained down on them. Suddenly stone hands appeared at the edge of the cliff on the Ridgehorn side, Dredge climbing up to their feet having descended into the chasm to take the defenders by surprise. These Dredge, too close for Yrsa to use her fire, ploughed into the varl shield wall. The varl held, but were gradually pushed back under the onslaught. Human fighters, as well as other varl, ran in to fill the gaps that were opening up, but slowly the wall started to break.
“Hakon!” Ubin shouted from the doorway of one of the buildings. Hakon turned and ran towards him.
“What is it?” he asked hurriedly. Ubin was carrying the blue shirted man, who now seemed to be coming to. With a groan, he reached for his staff, which was leaning against the wall. Hakon picked it up and put it in the man’s hand. The man raised it to the sky, which within seconds had darkened. A deep rumbling was heard, and Hakon looked back at the gateway. Suddenly, lightning came down and struck the Dredge, leaping from each one to the next, miraculously leaving the varl and humans untouched, until all fell dead. The Dredge still on the other side of the bridge backed away into the trees. Hakon looked back, and saw that the man had again fallen unconscious, the staff slipping out of his grasp. Ubin looked at Hakon in wonder.
“This man is a mender.” he said. What would a mender be doing this far from the human kingdom? As Hakon was thinking Mogr approached from the gateway.
“I think that’s the end of them for now. They seem to be hanging back.” he explained.
“Get fresh warriors in the gateway and bind up any wounds.” Hakon ordered. Ludin joined them, his spear worn from the fighting. “Shore up the defences, we need our troops to be rested before they attack again.”
“As long as we wait, more and more Dredge are gathering.” Ludin said. “How many will there be tomorrow? Double? Triple?”
“Hakon, if we try to leave, we’ll have to leave our dead, and quite possibly our wounded as well.” Mogr said, his nose wrinkling. It was a tough decision indeed. We could really use Vognir’s leadership right now. Hakon thought. As much as he hated to admit it, he agreed with Ludin. “The prince is right.” he said at last. “We can’t wait.” He gave Mogr and understanding look. “We have to take the risk.”
“I don’t like this.” Mogr grumbled. He took a deep breath. “If we’re going to get the caravan out, we’ll need something to draw the majority of the Dredge away.
“If we send a group forwards to break through, then lead them off to the right…” Hakon wondered aloud. He shook his head. “But no, that would be a death sentence.”
“I’ll lead.” Mogr said. He had a steel face of grim determination. “I can make sure you and the others escape.” Hakon stared at him, processing what was being said. Mogr was volunteering for what was effectively suicide. “I’ll do it.” Mogr said again, making it clear there was no convincing him otherwise.
“I know you will.” Hakon said, resting his hand on Mogr’s shoulder. Mogr returned the gesture.
“If we make it, I’ll see you in Grofheim.” Mogr said.
“If you don’t, I’ll see you in the depths.” Hakon replied, forcing a smile. Mogr gave Hakon one more pat on the shoulder, then stood up on a rock, banging his shield with his spear to get attention.
“We need to get the caravan out of here.” he yelled. “But we can’t do that while those Dredge are in the way.” Man and varl alike gathered round. “I am looking for volunteers to help me lead the Dredge away. I must tell you that whoever comes with me will likely die.” He fell silent, allowing the words to sink in. Suddenly, a small voice shouted from somewhere in the crowd.
“We’ll likely die anyway!” the man yelled, eliciting a few chuckles across the group. It amazed Hakon how in the dark situation that they found themselves in, humour could still be found.
“Who will come with me, and allow our princes to escape? There is no shame in not stepping forward.” Mogr asked. For a while there was silence, and then…
“I’ll do it.” the same man said again, stepping forwards. “Maybe Denglr will smile on us, I did lose a few coins back there.” The man joined Mogr on the rock, a smile on his face that seemed to inspire others much more than Mogr’s words.
“I will too.” another voice said, another man joining them.
“And us.” a group of varl said, stepping forwards. Soon there were about three score of volunteers, weapons ready, looking up to Mogr. He gave one last look to Hakon, and nodded.
“With me!” he cried, raising his mace, and the group followed suit. The shield wall guarding the gateway parted and allowed the diversion party through. Hakon saw Mogr leading the charge as they thrust themselves into the Dredge ranks at the far side of the bridge. Some were cut down immediately, others broke through until they were surrounded and engulfed by the stone masses. Hakon heard a barely audible shout from Mogr, and he started to lead the group to the right, into the woods. The Dredge followed, leaving only a token force still guarding the bridge. Hakon continued to look for Mogr, distinguishable only as an orange blur in a sea of grey, slowly disappearing along with his staunch followers. When the diversion party could no longer be seen, Hakon jumped up onto the rock and raised his axe.
“Don’t let their sacrifice be in vain!” he yelled, and led the caravan forth across the bridge, cutting down the straggling Dredge. The yox driving the supply carts were driven as hard as possible to get away. It was not long before the sounds of fighting waned and faded to nothingness, and Hakon marched with heavy heart, not likely to see Mogr ever again.
Two weeks had passed since the battle at Ridgehorn. Once the caravan had reached Schlid it was a nice easy road to Grofheim. The Mender had woken up, calling himself Eyvind. He had asked about Juno, the woman he had been found with, and had sunk into depression when told that she had been left behind. The caravan was nearing the hill that would grant them their first view of Grofheim. It had been months since Hakon had last been there, but he still remembered the view. Situated at the base of the twin peaks called the Two Spears, Grofheim was a mighty city, rivalled in size only by Arberrang in the south, but standing above all in its majesty. Hakon longed to sit in its great feasting halls drinking the finest mead, and to walk its streets and alleys, reminiscing about times past. But what he saw when he crested the hill stole the breath from his lungs. Smoke and fire rose up from the once glorious city, dark masses of Dredge in their tens of thousands crawling through, destroying as they went. Grofheim had fallen.
Wow! Thank you for this
Last edited by stoicmom; 02-18-2016 at 08:50 PM.
Pretty improving transposition from game to text. I tip my hat to you.
Very nice, it makes me understand more.
Hello readers! This chapter we have one of my favourite moments of the game, the arrival at Einartoft and seeing our two bands of heroes come together. One thing that's surprised me is just how long chapters 3 & 4 have been compared to the first two; I'm not sure if that's just my writing or the way the game is. Here is Chapter Four: Lest They Not Come Home...
“Ekkill!” Rook yelled at the top of his voice. He stood at the bottom of the steps that led to the great hall. Around him lay a small battlefield. A score of bodies, some of Ekkill’s thugs, some of Rook’s clansmen, were scattered in various contorted shapes. What had been a simple argument over supplies had escalated into this. Fortunately, the warriors of Frostvellr had underestimated the ‘simple village folk’, not knowing that most of the villagers had been personally trained in sword and axe by a Varl. Iver, Egil and Mogun, along with half a dozen fighters, stood by Rook.
“Don’t bother.” a voice coughed from nearby. “The man’s a lunatic.” One of Ekkill’s thugs, a blue-shirted man wearing a spectacled half helm, slowly stood up, seemingly fine. He had a brown moustache and sharp eyes that pierced outwards through his helmet. Rook had thought that this man had fallen too easily. Egil rushed forwards and held his sword against the man’s throat.
“Wait!” Rook shouted, and Egil reluctantly lowered his sword.
“Rook, we need to leave now.” Iver said impatiently. “The Dredge have probably flooded the north, east and west by now and it won’t be long before they get here. Our only choice is across the Wastes, to Wyrmtoe. I might know someone there who can help us.”
“We can’t cross the wastes; we’re too low on food.” Rook replied.
“I know where Ekkill keeps his supplies.” the thug suggested. “I’ll tell you, if you agree to take me with you. I also know a few fighters who’d like to get out of here.”
“We can’t trust this man.” Egil growled, still clutching his sword.
“It’s worth the risk.” Rook sternly answered. “Crossing the wastes otherwise would be a death sentence.” Egil shrunk back.
“What’s your name?” Iver asked.
“Onef.” the helmeted man replied.
“Onef.” Iver repeated. “Onef is the name of the man whose face I’m going to break if things go wrong.” Iver waited until Onef’s expression showed understanding. “Lead on.”
Onef lead them to a rather inconspicuous building on the other side of Frostvellr. Upon their entry a number of fighters inside reached for their arms, but Onef waved his hand. “This is them.” he said. Rook furrowed his brow. The way he said that, and the way the guards understood, suggested that Onef had planned this out before the fight. The guards put down their weapons and revealed crates and barrels of food and other supplies. Rook had sent Egil to gather the rest of their group, and soon he returned. They loaded as much as they could onto yox carts and escaped, hopefully never to see Frostvellr again. Rook guessed there were about two weeks’ worth of supplies that they had stolen. He prayed that it was enough to see them across the Nordfelling Wastes.
Once a lake that sprawled for hundreds of miles, the Nordfelling had drained away when cracks appeared in the ground beneath it, leading to caverns unknown. Since then, it had become an icy stretch of nothing. As the caravan descended into the once filled basin, a heavy feeling of dread mixed with the relief that Rook was now feeling. He slowed down his pace to be with the rear of the caravan, where Hogun was limping, supported by his twin.
“Are you alright to walk?” Rook asked. “We could make some space for you on one of the carts.”
“I’m fine.” Hogun replied, giving Rook an annoyed glance. Rook looked at Mogun, who shrugged. He decided to leave it there. He increased his pace to a light jog to catch up with Alette, who was walking with Egil. She smiled when she saw Rook approaching.
“I’m glad we’re out of there.” she said, nodding back towards Frostvellr. “But it looks so empty out here. There aren’t any trees.”
“I know.” mumbled Rook. It felt wrong. The land was so flat and bare. Neither of them had been very far out of Skogr, and the new landscape was unnerving to them. Looking around, Rook saw that it was the same for most of the other people of Skogr. Onef and his group of fighters, about a score and a half, walked noticeably separate from the rest of the caravan. Iver trailed them, not exactly inconspicuously, clearly untrusting of the thug, even though he had kept to his word about the supplies. They had made it a few miles out of Frostvellr when a number of figures were spotted following them. Mumbles about Dredge carried round the caravan, but Oddleif silenced those rumours, standing up on a cart to get a better view.
“They’re people!” she yelled. Rook signalled for the caravan to slow down, though not stop completely. Eventually the followers caught up. It was Ekkill. “He’s after you.” Oddleif guessed, speaking to Onef.
“We should give him to them.” Egil grumbled.
“We’ll work this out.” Rook said. “Onef, Iver, and you six over there, come with me.” They met with Ekkill and the dozen fighters that were with him.
“There needs be no bloodshed!” Rook yelled as the groups met. He had left his weapons behind on one of the supply carts, to help reinforce that point.
“Why, my old friend!” Ekkill shouted, embedding his axe into the permafrost by his feet. “We come to parley, not kill!”
“Why would I believe a word you say?” Rook asked angrily.
“Rook, we were good friends. What happened?” Ekkill said somewhat mournfully. Had Ekkill experienced the past few days differently to everyone else? Rook wondered.
“You tried to kill us! Just leave us alone!” Alette shouted, having joined them.
“My friends, how could I forget everything you’ve done for me? Broke into my city, took my food, took my best men!” He glared at Onef, giving him his crazed look with his head tilted. “How are things? Are they treating you well?”
“If you’re here to try and kill me let’s get it over with.” Onef said, drawing his sword. On second thoughts, Rook should have instructed Onef to leave behind his weapons as well.
“Nothing like that…” Ekkill shook his head. “You must think you know me.” he smiled at Rook. “What did he tell you? That I’m crazy?”
“Actually, I figured that out on my own.” Rook said.
“I didn’t survive in Frostvellr by being crazy. I survived because I did what I had to. My only mistake was you. What kind of a man are you, Rook?” He tilted his head again. “You look like a normal man. Just trying to get by. Worried about his daughter. About his people. So why do they follow you, Rook? Fight for you? What kind of a man are you really?”
“The kind who protects his own.” Rook answered.
“It’s more than that, isn’t it? You think everyone was born to lead? To make decisions? To yourself, you’re an ordinary man looking out for those he cares for, but what are you to them?” Ekkill gestured to the caravan. “A leader? A hero? Maybe it’s more important than who you really are.”
“What’s your point?” Onef shouted.
“I’m your prisoner, Rook. Bind my hands.” Ekkill said, holding his wrists together. Rook was confused. “Frostvellr is done. I can’t survive there anymore. You may not have cut my throat, but you sentenced me to death. I don’t think that’s the kind of man you are.”
“Is this some kind of apology?” Rook asked.
“You don’t trust me. I know that.” Ekkill said. “Take me and my men as prisoners. I’m not above begging.”
“Alright, we’ll take you with us.” Rook said reluctantly. “But if any of you step out of line, all of you lose your heads.”
“I understand.” Ekkill said. Rook turned to his fighters.
“Barri, go and get some rope to bind their hands. The rest of you take their weapons.” The six fighters carried out their instructions, and soon the caravan was moving again, though everything seemed somewhat more complicated now.
After about a day of travel the land started to angle up again, though Iver said they were only about halfway across the Wastes. At the top of the gentle hill was a jutting rock, and as the caravan approached Rook saw that it was etched with markings typical of a godstone. A few tents were set up and about fifty people gathered around the godstone, which was devoted to Radormyr the Sun God. One of them, a jovial man with a short grey beard, wearing a grey robe, came to meet the caravan.
“Well met, travellers. Have you come to pay homage to Radormyr?” he cheered, lifting his arms in a welcoming gesture.
“No, but I would be happy to.” Rook answered. There was something about these people that seemed jolly, a rare thing in these dark times. Perhaps joining them in their tributes might lift the spirits of the caravan.
“How long have you been here, might I ask?” said Iver.
“About two months, by my reckoning.” the robed man responded. Rook and Iver glanced at each other. It had been about two months since they’d been forced from Skogr. These people probably had no idea about the Dredge.
“Do you know about what is happening?” Rook asked.
“Radormyr is reigning at last!” the robed man said, pointing at the unmoving sun.
“You have no idea?” Alette muttered. The man’s brow furrowed.
“About what?” he asked.
“The Dredge? Frostvellr? Any of it?”
“Dredge?” The man mumbled. “They haven’t been seen in generations!” he said dismissively.
“Well they’re back.” said Iver. “And in more force than any before. They’ve forced us and many others from our homes. That’s why we are here.” The man’s face shifted slowly, suggesting that he now believed them.
“If what you say is true, these are dark times.” he said at last. “Even more reason to offer tribute, in hope of light.” He walked over to one of the tents and brought back a bowl of strange oily liquid. “This is Gullenfyri, a gift from Radormyr. It allows those who touch it to see the world clearly.” Rook examined the odd liquid.
“So, do I just…” he muttered, reaching out towards it. The man batted his hand away.
“Lie down.” he said. “And lift up your shirt.” Rook did so, exposing his chest to the biting cold. The robed man slowly and carefully tilted the bowl until a few drops fell out, landing in the centre of Rook’s sternum. There was an intense burning sensation and Rook grunted in pain, the oil sizzling on contact with his skin, but the pain subsided within seconds and Rook was left with a warm feeling that permeated his whole body. He stood and pulled his shirt back down over his chest. While anyone else in the caravan who wanted performed the ceremony Rook went to examine the godstone. The carvings depicted a great serpent wrapping itself around the sun. It was said that the tail of Radormyr could be seen passing through the clouds on a sunny day. He was the god who sailors went to for good weather, farmers for good harvests. When the Nordfelling had drained away the people had found the godstone sitting in the middle. Nobody knew why or how it had been put there, as nowhere in recorded history – not even on the Long Banner – was there a record of the Nordfelling having been dry before it became a lake.
The caravan slept under the godstone, their tents mingling with those of the worshippers. In the morning, as everyone packed away, Rook went to see the robed man.
“Are you sure you don’t want to come with us? It won’t soon be safe here.” he said, quietly.
“We’ll stay here.” replied the man, shaking his head. “It’s kind of you to offer, though, and good luck in your travels.”
“Thanks, and the same to you.” Rook replied, giving the man a nod, before joining the caravan on the next leg of their journey.
The clouds cleared over the course of the next day, allowing the sun to provide some meagre warmth, although the icy winds still chilled to the bone. Some people started spotting vultures flying overhead, taking advantage of the clear weather. They were obviously used to seeing travellers crossing the wastes…and the usual outcome. Rook could only hope that the birds would not be satisfied. Several hours of walking went past, the vultures still circling. Eventually Oddleif had had enough, shooting an arrow into the air.
“Get lost, no dead down here!” she yelled. She continued shooting.
“What are you doing?” Rook asked.
“What does it look like? Target practice.” She shot an arrow that hit its mark, a vulture plummeting to the ground with a blue-feathered arrow protruding from its heart. Rook gave her an impressed nod.
“You know…” she said as she pulled the arrow from the dead bird. “I was thinking about training some of the other women to do this.”
“Good idea.” Rook replied. “We could always use more people who know how to fight, and you’ve proven with Alette that you know how to train people with a bow. I say go for it.” Oddleif smiled at him, before picking up the vulture and going away to find willing students.
A day passed, during which Oddleif managed to find about a score of women to train. She found snowdrifts which she could shoot into without damaging the arrows and used those to demonstrate. Eventually they came across a small farm, barely a hut with a couple of livestock. The family that lived there stood outside the door, crude weapons in hand. Rook gave someone else his weapons and approached alone.
“We mean no harm.” he said, hands raised. “It’s not safe here. Dredge are coming. We’re heading west, you should come with us.” The biggest of the men stepped forwards and spat at the ground.
“This land is our lives. If we lost that we may as well be dead. Let the Dredge come, we’ll die defending our home.” The man’s words made Rook think back to Skogr. Should they have stayed and died fighting? Or is it right to, as they did, give up sentiment and flee for your life? The man’s words reminded him of other words he had heard.
He thought of the Chieftain. I had imagined us fighting back and saving the town.
He thought of the elder in Hogun and Mogun’s village. I’ll have you both gutted before I let half the village desert!
Finally, he thought of Ekkill. Why do they follow you, Rook? Ekkill’s sentences started to blend together in Rook’s memory. Because I did what I had to. You’re worried about your daughter and your people. That’s got to count for something. Keep your flock safe. Cut these sheep loose. Keep your flock safe.
“Well?” the farmer said, breaking Rook out of his thoughts.
“If you’re set on not coming with us, I guess we’ll have to leave you.” Rook said, somewhat mournfully.
“Indeed.” the farmer said. Rook reluctantly called the caravan to keep moving, and as they passed the farm Rook turned back, and his eyes met those of the farmer one last time.
Another day after the farm the land started to slope upwards, signalling that they were nearing the end of their journey across the Wastes. Trees became visible in the distance, at the boundary of what was the lake. After another day they reached the former shoreline, and set up camp in the treeline, finally sheltered from the unrelenting wind.
“It’s not far now.” promised Iver. “Another day at the most.”
It was sooner than that before they reached the Varl of Wyrmtoe. A band of giant warriors approached, led by an old Varl wearing a steel chestplate over which was draped a blue cloak. The Varl wielded a polehammer with both hands. He had long white hair and a beard and his horns curved up over his head. A scar went through his right eye, which was blank. His face dropped when he saw Iver, a glimmer of recognition in his one good eye.
“Well, I’ll be…” he started.
“Krumr.” Iver nodded. “It’s been a long time.”
“So it has.” the Varl called Krumr replied. “So what brings Yngvar to Wyrmtoe with his own pack of humans?”
“Bad news.” Iver shook his head. “Dredge are coming down from the north. We barely made it this far.”
“Dire news indeed.” Krumr agreed. “Come, we have food and drink. We’ll talk more in the mead house.” As Krumr walked away Rook could have sworn he heard him mumble “If it had been anyone else…”
For the next half an hour Krumr and Iver talked in the mead house, with Rook and Alette sitting awkwardly beside them, discussing the Dredge and what to do about them.
“Half of my warriors want to head north and find out what happened at Blotsbalkr. Some want to go to Grofheim instead. None of them are happy you’re here.” he looked at Rook with that last statement. At least he was actually being acknowledged.
“What do you think?” Iver asked, resting his elbows on the table.
“If I had it my way, I’d just stay here and let the Dredge come.” Krumr looked at the two humans. “But you’ve made it awkward now, haven’t you?” He looked back at Iver. “We don’t have enough food to feed this many for long.”
“We could work.” said Rook. “Many of us were farmers. We could make this place livable.”
“Most of the varl here came to get away from civilisation, not make one.” Krumr said.
“It’s your call, Krumr.” Iver nodded. “It won’t be long before the Dredge come here too.”
“No, it won’t.” Krumr shook his head. “If there’s one thing we should do, it’s tell Jorundr what’s happening.”
“Who’s Jorundr?” Alette asked. Iver and Krumr both looked at her. “Varl King.” Krumr replied simply, then looked at Iver mockingly. “Yngvar, where’d you find these people? Anyway, I’m going to see off the Blotsbalkr party. As soon as your people are rested, we make for Grofheim.” With that Krumr left the room. Rook looked at Iver.
“Why does he call you Yngvar?” he asked.
“Doesn’t matter.” Iver said quickly and dismissively, then walked away. Rook met Alette’s eyes and shrugged.
The caravan rested for the day and the Blotsbalkr expedition set on their way north. As Rook’s caravan, with the three score of Krumr’s remaining varl joining them, were packing up to leave, Krumr called for quiet, to try and ease the human’s apprehension at having so many varl with them.
“Grofheim’s quite a long way out.” he began. “But nothing as bad as crossing the Wastes. If there’s anywhere you’ll be safe from the Dredge, it’ll be there. Now let’s go.”
The varl of Wyrmtoe were not good travelling companions. Several times over the next few days arguments broke out between Rook’s clansmen and Krumr’s. Rook found Krumr walking near the front of the caravan with a group of his varl warriors. Rook was somewhat intimidated, but he couldn’t give that impression.
“Krumr, we need to talk.” he said. Krumr and his varl turned to face Rook. He felt like an ant. Krumr nodded to his varl and they continued walking, leaving Krumr and Rook on their own, a move that Rook was thankful for.
“What is it?” Krumr said, crossing his arms.
“Things have been…tense between our people.” Rook said, choosing his words carefully. He was afraid he might anger the old warrior, but his fears were apparently unfounded.
“I’ll bring my warriors to the front of the caravan, a little bit ahead of yours.” Krumr said after some thought.
“Thanks.” replied Rook, surprised at how quickly an agreement was reached. As he turned to go back, Krumr tapped his shoulder.
“You must understand.” he said. “We chose Wyrmtoe for the space, to get away from everyone else. Now there is no time for that. Strangers are forced together by circumstance and must simply bear it and move on. It may be difficult for my varl, but we’ll try. Make sure your people do too.”
“I will.” Rook nodded.
Now the caravan entered the foothills of the Wyrmscale Mountains, the longest mountain range in the known world, which stretched from Gimfell Peak and the Sky Irons in the northeast, to the mining town of Bindal in the southwest. The caravan would be taking a pass through these mountains, passing to the east of the legendary Burra’s Pass, and would then go past the fields of Kingsbarrow, where the varl dead were interred, spreading out from the walls of Grofheim. Then, hopefully, the caravan would finally have some shelter between the Two Spears. As the caravan travelled deeper into the mountains, the snowfall became thicker and the each step became tougher, to the point where the snow reached higher than the children’s heads and they had to be carried. At one point Rook was alerted by a shout from further ahead in the caravan. His hand instinctively went to the axe on his belt, but it was unnecessary. As he trudged through to the location of the shout, a small crowd had gathered. Pushing his way through, he saw a small girl being held by one of the clansmen. Rook didn’t recognise her. Her face was blue and her chest rose and fell only slightly.
“I nearly stepped on her.” said the man holding her. He was bald, with a short blonde beard, and wore a dark green tunic. A woman with brown hair and a black dress joined the man, having fetched some fur blankets.
“Even carrying her along could kill her like this.” the woman said. “We need to stop and nurse her back to health.”
“We can’t stop.” one of the other women nearby interrupted. “There could be Dredge out there. It’s not safe.” Rook thought for a minute, then finally spoke.
“Call the caravan to a halt.” he said to one of the nearby men, who immediately ran off towards the front. Rook turned to the man and woman who had found the girl. “Do what you can. We’ll wait a day.” he said.
Although some were confused or annoyed by the stop, everyone was in a way glad for the rest. Tents were pitched; fires were started. The next day Rook went to the girl again. As he entered the tent she was devouring a bowl of hot broth. The man and woman, who Rook had learnt were married, were still taking care of her. The woman smiled when she saw Rook walk in.
“She’s much better now.” she said. “Probably well enough to move, though we’ll have to take it easy.” Rook nodded in understanding.
“Has she said anything? About her family, or anyone else who might be nearby?” Rook inquired. The couple shook their heads.
“She hasn’t said a thing.” the man said.
“Come and find me if she says anything.” Rook said, then exited the tent, ready to call the march again. As he was walking through the camp telling people to start packing up, he came across Alette walking back from the outskirts of the camp. She walked with her shoulders hunched and head facing the ground.
“What’s wrong?” Rook asked when he got closer.
“Everything’s changing so quickly.” Alette mumbled. “I’ve been talking to Ekkill.”
“What has he been telling you?” Rook interrupted sternly.
“He told me how he and Onef are kin.” she started, sitting down on a log. Rook followed. “Onef married Ekkill’s sister, but she died years ago. Since then, Onef and Ekkill have been bound together, but then Onef left Ekkill behind without a word. That’s why Ekkill came after us.” Rook took a minute to process the information.
“I’ll talk to them, Ekkill and Onef. But I don’t want you talking to them, especially Ekkill. Understand?” Alette nodded. Rook stood up and went to find Onef.
Onef was at the rear of the caravan, near where Ekkill and his group were being held, discussing things with his fighters. He stopped talking when he saw Rook approaching. He gave a simple nod as greetings.
“Is it true you were married to Ekkill’s sister?” Rook asked. Onef looked down at the ground after a pause.
“Yes. She died of a fever soon after we were married.” He looked back up again, a quizzical look on his face. “I’m surprised he opened up like that. He had had problems before, but it only got worse after all this started happening. He would be fine one day, and ready to kill his own men the next. Some days he would. So I left him in Frostvellr. He is a madman, not to be trusted.” Rook was glad to have confirmed the story. Now to confront Ekkill about talking to Alette. He looked over to where Ekkill’s men were walking along, hands bound. He stormed over there and grabbed Ekkill, pulling him away from the caravan, giving a nod to the guard as he did so.
“What did I tell you? One wrong step!” he yelled.
“She came to talk to me.” Ekkill said shrugging. “Seems like she’s the only one who cares about the people around here.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“You’re running around saving people, making decisions, fair enough.” Ekkill said, then started to nod at the people walking past, most of whom looked depressed or afraid. “But what kind of life is this? I see Alette helping the old and the sick and the wounded and playing with the children. Talking to the outcasts.” Ekkill paused. “When I said you were a leader, I meant they join you. But they follow because of Alette.” Rook thought for a minute.
“Just stay away from her.” he growled at last.
“As far away as you like.” Ekkill nodded. “Just don’t try to change who she is, or who she will become. These people need one of her, not two of you.” Rook drew his cloak about him and walked away. The guard came and nudged Ekkill to join back with the other prisoners.
After a few more days the weather cleared a little bit, and the caravan came to the godstone of Marek. The godstone was perched on top of a hill with a view of the Nordfelling Wastes, albeit a view slightly obscured by clouds. A carving of some great ocean beast was carved on the rock, which had sharp edges jutting out like fins. The stone of Marek served as a reminder that the Nordfelling had once been a vast lake.
“We’ll make camp here!” Rook shouted for all to hear. The rock would give them some protection from the wind. As he walked closer to the godstone to admire the stonework, he heard a crunch from below. Looking down at his feet he saw what looked like a silver scale.
“A blessing!” he heard from behind, and turned to see a man holding up another of the scales. Rook picked up the one by his feet and inspected it, turning it over and seeing the rainbow pattern that shone as it moved.
“Over here!” a little girl’s voice said, and Rook looked over. The girl, who Rook remembered as having given him the wooden medallion that he now wore around his neck, when they were at the godstone of Hridvaldyr, was showing her mother another of the scales.
“Perhaps they’ll give us luck.” said the mother, and soon more and more people looked around for the scales.
It was strange. Rook had meant to spend a day here at most, but with the sun staying still and the passage of time so difficult to measure the caravan’s search seemed to have dragged on longer than he thought. Krumr had come to him rather annoyed.
“We need to get moving. I appreciate the rest, but we’ve spent three days here.” Krumr’s words brought Rook back to his senses. Rook climbed up onto the branches of a nearby tree, bare of leaves, so that people could see him.
“We’ve spent enough time here. We need to get moving.” he shouted. The spell that had enchanted the caravan seemed to wear off, and people went to and fro packing things away. As they were just about to leave, a few of the fighters came to Rook with a strange garment. Looking closer, Rook could see that it was a vest woven using the silver scales.
“We made this for you.” one of the fighters said. “It should keep you safe.”
“Thank you.” replied Rook, taking the vest and undoing the clasp on his cloak so that he could fit the gift under it. He turned at the sound of hurried footsteps behind him. Oddleif had appeared, looking excited. She took a second to admire the scale vest and then gestured.
“Come with me.” she said. Rook followed her over to a line of trees, where a line of women of varying ages stood about twenty yards away, holding bows and with quivers on their backs or hips. “Go ahead.” Oddleif shouted. The women each nocked an arrow, drew and released. Every arrow hit one of the tree trunks. Oddleif turned towards Rook expectantly, as did the line of women. Rook nodded with approval.
“Well done.” he said.
“I think they’re ready to fill some Dredge with arrows.” she said, hands on her hips, clearly proud. The woman closest to Rook and Oddleif nocked another arrow, everybody turning to look at her in confusion. She held her bow in her right hand and drew with her left, shooting not at the trees, but at a rabbit that had scurried out, frightened by the noise. The arrow went straight through its eye. The woman looked at Oddleif.
“Dinner.” she said. She had long braided red hair and wore a yellow cloak over a blue dress. Rook was about to ask her name when a number of Krumr’s Varl rushed past, weapons drawn. Rook ran towards Krumr.
“What’s going on?” he shouted.
“A Varl caravan ahead, with Dredge in pursuit.” Krumr yelled back, running forth with his polehammer in hand. Rook ran to his tent and grabbed his axe, not having time to string his bow. As he ran back he passed the women again.
“Ready to put your new skills to test?” he shouted. Oddleif picked up her bow, which had been leaning against a boulder, and called the women to follow her. As Rook joined the fighters running to the front, he saw the Varl caravan coming down the hill ahead of them, with a swarm of large black figures behind them. Krumr’s group, having longer legs, reached the other caravan first and with reinforcements, their lead Varl called a halt to their retreat, forming them into lines to face the oncoming Dredge, Krumr’s Varl joining to the right of the other caravan. Rook and his fighters caught up and joined the left flank of the Varl shieldwall, the archers forming a line behind them. Oddleif shouted and the archers nocked their arrows, shooting up into the sky. The arrows came down on top of the Dredge, about half finding their mark. The remaining Dredge stormed into the Varl and Human formation. The leader of the new caravan, a red-shirted Varl with the ends of his horns painted gold, wielding a kite shield and a spiked cudgel, held fast with his shield wall. Krumr and his Varl, preferring a more offensive approach, counter-charged, smashing into the oncoming Dredge, hammers and axes swinging. Rook readied his axe and ducked under the first swing of a Dredge grunt, swinging up with his own axe at the grunt’s now exposed armpit. The grunt stumbled back and another pushed its way forwards to fill in the gap. Onef and his fighters had formed a small shield wall and slowly pushed forwards. The twins led the fighters of their village in breaking through the Dredge line. Iver and Egil were working together to take down the larger Dredge stoneguards. Rook hacked at the next Dredge, attempting to break through the weaker parts of its armour. The Dredge parried his strike with its mace and then struck back, hitting Rook in the chest. Rook fell to the floor winded. The Dredge looked down at him with its unblinking golden eyes and was about to strike the killing blow when a shield appeared above Rook, The attack bouncing off the shield instead. A man then followed, stepping over Rook to stab the Dredge in the neck with his sword. Kicking the body away, the man glanced back to check that Rook was alright, and Rook saw that it was Rafnsvartr, the former drunk. Rafnsvartr now had a face of steel determination as he fended off two more Dredge, a group of fighters joining him to push forwards. Rook crawled back to give himself room to stand, coughing as he did so. He looked around for his axe, and as he reached for it a hand fell on his shoulder. Rook turned and saw the man who had given him the scale vest.
“You can’t fight any longer.” the man said, moving his arms to support Rook’s shoulders. “Good thing I made you that vest, or you couldn’t do anything any longer.” Rook looked down at his chest and saw the scale vest, which was now on the verge of tearing. Still, he was grateful for the partial protection it had provided him, ensuring his injury was only temporary. The man half-dragged Rook away from the battlefield and back up the hill towards Marek’s godstone. Rook, intent to see the outcome of the battle, was happy to see the Dredge start to give up and retreat, Krumr’s warriors cutting down a few as they fled before coming back to help with the aftermath.
Rook was given aid by the healers, though the worst he had was bruising on his chest. He was advised to avoid any more strenuous activity for a while, including fighting. Alette had come to see him and he winced in pain when she hugged him.
“Krumr spoke to the leader of the other Varl.” Alette explained. “The other one, I think his name was Fasolt, said Grofheim was gone, destroyed by the Dredge. The Varl king Jorundr has gone to a place called Einartoft.” Rook took a minute to process the news, then steadily attempted to stand.
“Well, I guess we’re going to Einartoft then.” he grunted as he walked out of the tent, ignoring the healer insisting on his rest. He saw Krumr and the Varl who he assumed was Fasolt arguing outside the tent across from him and walked over to them.
“You know the laws, Krumr. Unless you’re a king or a mender, no humans in Einartoft!” Fasolt said, his voice raised.
Krumr opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted by a rumbling that shook the trees and caused cracks to appear in the godstone. The rumbling grew louder, and eyes turned to the north, to see the distant mountains splinter and crack, falling apart with a crash. In the midst of the clouds of snow thrown up by the breaking of the mountains on which it lay something could be seen moving, that was neither rock nor snow. Rook could only see a glimpse, and was unsure of how much he could trust his eyes, but he thought the moving shape was almost serpentine, with fins regularly placed along the top. Then the shape was gone, obscured by a mountain that had fallen in the way. The caravan hurried, wounded were packed onto carts to be tended to on the move. All were afraid that whatever was causing the quakes would move their way. As they crested the hill over which Fasolt’s caravan had appeared Rook saw another godstone, on a hill to the west.
“Go! That way, to Hadrborg!” Fasolt yelled, struggling to be heard above the rumbling, which was thankfully receding. Still, the people were scared. The landscape was changed, and the new sights unsettled them. Rocks and cliffs were formed in ways that should not be possible, forced up from the earth by the collapse of the mountains.
About a day later they arrived at the godstone of Hadrborg, where large wooden stakes had been set up in a defensive ring. Varl moved to and fro, all armed, ready to defend the godstone of their creator at a moment’s notice. A couple of the closest Varl came over to Fasolt to ask what had happened. Fasolt turned to Krumr.
“We rest here for a while, then we move on.” he said before looking at Rook. “Your humans can go somewhere else.” Rook was dumbfounded.
“Go where?” Rook shouted. “Mountains just fell into the Earth! There’s an army of Dredge coming!”
“We will go to Einartoft.” a voice came from behind Rook, filled with tranquil rage. “All of us.” Rook turned and saw Iver standing there. Fasolt looked taken aback, a flash of recognition on his face. Some of the nearby Varl also stopped what they were doing and stared.
“Yngvar…” Fasolt whispered, and the name was repeated throughout the camp.
“I think this might be the one person you do want to let into Einartoft.” Krumr said. Fasolt stared at Iver, who glared at him. Fasolt backed down.
“Fine.” he said, and walked away. Rook looked at Iver with a newfound curiosity, as did the other humans.
“Iver, who are you?” Rook asked. He had known Iver for his whole life, but now he felt like the Varl was a stranger.
“Another time, Rook.” Iver responded. Rook didn’t like how Iver avoided the question, as if it were an old shame, but the other Varl treated him like a legend.
As the caravan camped here all of the conversation was about the Dredge, or the thing that had caused the mountains to break. Rook looked at the godstone, the carving showing a bearded face surrounded by animals of all sorts. The myths said that Hadrborg was a disciple of the Loom Mother, the goddess that created the world and humanity, who taught Hadrborg how to make life. At first Hadrborg created simple beasts, but then grew bored of that and combined Humans and Yox to make a new race: the Varl. But the creations were flawed, or perhaps limited by the Loom Mother’s own guidance. Whereas humans and the animals of the world could have children of their own to continue their species, each Varl had to be crafted by Hadrborg’s own hands. Now that the gods were dead, Hadrborg included, there would never be any more Varl children. The Varl alive now would be the last Varl to ever exist. This thought filled Rook with sadness, and looking around at the Varl setting up their defences around the stone of their creator, he saw that they too were mournful of this fact. Occasionally one of the Varl would take a break from his work to come and place his hand or head against the godstone, praying to a dead god for some hope that their race would survive.
“It is good to pay respects.” Krumr said from nearby, walking over to place his hand on the stone and muttering a prayer. He held a giant studded belt. “Give this to Yngvar.” Rook took the belt, having to hold it in both arms, and nodded. “It was his once, and being the stubborn yox he is he refuses to take it back from me.”
Shouts were heard, some frightful, some simply warning. Varl grabbed their weapons and rushed to the northern barricade, where in the distance a black shadow was making its way down the valley from the direction of Grofheim. With the lack of trees and clearly visible against the snow, the Dredge army could be seen in its entirety, and their numbers overwhelmed Rook. He could see thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, stretching out for miles.
“We should go.” said Krumr. Rook nodded and went to gather the caravan, but Krumr went to say goodbye to some of the Varl defenders, who would stay to defend their godstone to the last. Fasolt led the caravan down the hill to the west. Rook walked alongside him.
“There’s one more village until we reach the Burra Pass. We cross that…Einartoft.” the Varl explained.
As the caravan walked Rook was startled by the sound of singing coming from near the back of the caravan. A woman’s voice, singing about the journey that they found themselves on. The song was sad and nostalgic, reminding Rook of better times in the chieftain’s hall in Skogr, and filled him with yearning to be back in those past years. After she had finished a man joined in with a verse of his own, this time more hopeful, about their ability to fight their way through the bad times they were going through and push on. The woman started another verse and the man responded in kind. Fasolt came to Rook.
“This needs to stop; we need to keep moving.” he warned. Rook suddenly realised how much the caravan had slowed down, and went over to where the two singers were performing.
“Apologies, but we need to stay vigilant.” he said. “Our journey is not yet over.” With understanding but fading smiles the clansmen stopped their activity and continued walking. Rook thought of Ekkill’s words. What kind of a life is this? Rook was saddened by the necessity that had forced his hand.
No time was wasted when they reached the village. Fasolt and Krumr set out to organise defences, while Iver saw to stocking up on supplies. Rook had been told that Burra Pass was a bridge, constructed during the days of the first Varl king, which took three days to cross, and ended at the gates of Einartoft.
“Dad.” Alette’s voice surprised him, and he turned to greet her. “I miss the old Iver.” she continued. Rook nodded. Since they had left their village Iver had been all business, rather than the big friendly giant of Skogr.
After a few hours, only enough time for a short nap, the caravan left. They had about a week’s worth of food, enough to get them to Einartoft with a few days spare in case something went wrong. As they entered onto the bridge Rook admired the stonework and craftsmanship. Looking over the edge, he could not see the bottom of the great chasm, yet mighty pillars of smooth stone brick reached down from the bridge and vanished into the fog below. There were two roofed areas, set at regular intervals to provide shelter to those crossing. At the far end of the bridge Rook could just make out some kind of structure built into the side of the mountain at the end, but by halfway through the second day he could see Einartoft in more detail. A great cavern stretched into the mountain, the buildings and towers and a great stairway carved out of the rock itself. A strangely cold blue light shone from the inside, of which he could not discern the source. When they reached the end of the bridge they saw legions of Varl, formed up and armed with spears, swords, axes and shields, ready to defend the Varl’s last stronghold. Along the walls of Einartoft weapons of war the likes of which Rook had never seen were fitted to repel the enemy.
“All these warriors…” Krumr muttered. “This truly is another great war. This is the third time I have seen such a thing, and there are far fewer of us now than ever before.” Rook reluctantly agreed with Krumr’s statement. Looking around, the Varl armies could be counted in hundreds, or perhaps low thousands at best. Not nearly enough to drive off the Dredge army he had seen from Hadrborg, but he knew that these Varl would not let their numbers let them down. Each one of the warriors stationed here would fight with all they had for their home, be it against a thousand Dredge or a hundred thousand. Rook looked at each face, knowing that such a zeal would mean their death, and the death of an entire race.
Krumr, Fasolt and a few dozen other Varl entered the great city, climbing the stairs that led up to the great hall, the entrance visible by the blue light emanating from its doors. It was an hour before they returned, during which time Rook’s caravan set up camp outside the walls. It seemed they were not the only humans there. Red and gold tents were already encamped along the bottom of the walls, and men in similar livery and armour marched along practising drill. When Krumr returned he explained the situation.
“As you may have noticed, the Prince of Men is here.” Krumr said, gesturing to the golden wolf banners. “They’ve also brought a Mender with them. Remember the last time you were here, Yngvar?”
“Yes, I remember it well.” Iver mumbled.
“What now?” asked Rook.
“You can stay here outside the walls; keep your people out of trouble. Jorundr is already not happy that you’re here. I’ll try and get you an audience with him.” With that he walked back towards the gates. Rook realised how tired he was; he felt like he could sleep for a week.
“Rook.” He heard his name being called, but by who he could not tell.
“Rook.” Was it a woman? Strangely authoritative, yet it sounded almost like pleading.
“Rook.” This was different. A man for sure.
“Rook! Wake up!” A voice he knew. He opened his eyes slowly and saw Egil looking down at him, above him was the canvas of his tent. Rubbing his eyes, Rook sat up on his bedroll. Iver stood in the doorway of the tent, leaning down to peer through.
“How long was I asleep?” he asked.
“Nearly a whole day.” Egil replied. “Fair enough, though. I’d still be asleep if not for Iver.”
“Krumr’s got you an audience with Jorundr.” Iver said. Rook glanced over at the other bedroll in the tent, on which Alette still slept, then put on his cloak and walked out. Iver and Egil decided to walk Rook through to the bottom of the stairway that led up to Einartoft’s great hall. To get there, they had to go past the camp of Prince Ludin’s escort. Straw dummies were set up, at which soldiers trained. Lines of guards patrolled the camp, giving the three suspicious eyes. They walked past what appeared to be a group of higher ranked soldiers discussing plans.
“The Varl have the bridge locked down.” one of them said, pointing to the formations of giants that held the bridge. “We need to construct a palisade wall to defend against the north. If the Dredge break through, our line of retreat is to the south and then west, heading to Nautmot.”
“We don’t have enough wood to make the palisade, and do you see any forests around?” one of the other soldiers asked. The first considered this for a moment.
“It’s a long shot, but if Prince Ludin can come to an agreement with Jorundr, we could demolish some of the less vital buildings and use the rubble from those for the wall.” he said at last.
“I say destroy the bridge, then get the Varl to stand in the way of the north.” said a third soldier.
“That’s what the Prince is trying to negotiate at the moment, but you know what these Varl are like.” the soldiers stopped talking, noticing Rook, who had slowed down to listen. Rook quickly averted his eyes and quickened his pace to get out of the Arberrang camp as soon as possible. As they reached the steps, Iver laid a hand on Rook’s shoulder.
“Don’t speak unless addressed and even then keep it short.” he said. “Good luck.” Rook nodded and then started his ascent with Iver, Egil staying at the bottom watching them.
He made his way through the city, making sure not to make eye contact with the many Varl that were milling around, going about their business. All the same, he could feel their eyes on him. Only royals and menders were allowed in Einartoft, and even that was straining it. Here was Rook, a woodsman from a village few out here would even have heard of. He was relying on Iver to take some of the attention away from him. Then it struck him that the gaze that he thought was out of contempt for him may have just been in recognition of Iver, or Yngvar. He couldn’t bear it anymore, and looked around at the marvel that was Einartoft. He finally figured out what the light was. There were no torches or braziers, the Varl having a natural distrust of fire. Strange glowing worms adorned the walls in clusters, letting out the iridescent blue green light that allowed Einartoft to function as a city. At the entrance to the great hall Krumr stood leaning against a pillar talking to the two guards. As they saw Rook and Iver the guards perked up, holding their spears plain to see.
“It’s alright, they’re with me. To see the King.” Krumr said, holding out his hand. The guards relaxed and let the trio through. The hall was massive, intricately carved pillars leading the way to the throne that stood at the end. A human would have to climb up onto the seat, but the figure that currently occupied it did so with a regal comfortability. In front of the throne was a wooden table, around which several figures, both Varl and Human, were gathered. A black haired Varl wearing a leather breastplate over a red shirt stood leaning on the table. A man in a red and gold tunic, with light brown curls, stood by the arm of the throne. Another man, wearing a blue shirt and with short brown hair and a beard, stood next to him leaning on a staff. He had a noticeably sullen face. An old looking Varl, probably about the same age as Krumr but less muscular, wearing a purple shirt, sat at the table with a book and inkpot set out and a quill in his hand. Finally, Rook looked at the one who must be Jorundr. The Varl king wore a long flowing blue cloak trimmed with white fur. His horns were engraved with elaborate patterns. He had long grey hair and a beard that started at the chin on his wrinkled face and reached down to the large gold medallion hanging at his chest. However, Jorundr’s regal appearance was diminished by the bandage over his right eye and the sling in which he held his left arm. These injuries must have been from the battle in Grofheim, Rook thought as he tried to imagine the King valiantly leading the Varl in defence of the capital he had never seen.
“No, Eyvind. The bridge stands. Find some other way.” Rook heard Jorundr say once they got within earshot. From the King’s exasperated tone it was clear that this argument had been going a while.
“But we have to - ˮ the staff-holding man started.
“Jorundr.” Krumr announced, all faces turning to the trio. “We’ve come from Wyrmtoe.”
“Who are these people?” the man in red and gold, who Rook assumed to be Prince Ludin, asked. Jorundr looked at Iver and raised his left eyebrow.
“Is this…Yngvar among us again? Is this what the end of the world looks like?”
“I didn’t have any other choice.” Iver replied. “You look like death.”
“The Sundr came through Grofheim.” Jorundr explained. Even with Rook having never heard of Sundr before, the word had a weight to it that made everyone in the room tense. “We would still be there otherwise.”
“There are a few thousand of us here.” the Varl with the black hair said. “Bellower has been following us since Grofheim.”
“What will you do?” Iver asked.
“We will make our stand here in Einartoft.” Jorundr said, standing. “But even if Einartoft falls, the Varl will not be wiped out. I am sending Hakon - ˮ he nodded to the black haired Varl. “– and some of our warriors to Arberrang.”
“We are needed here.” Hakon argued.
“This is not a debate.” At that moment a Varl messenger burst through the doors of the great hall.
“A stonesinger has been sighted on the bridge!” he shouted.
“Gods, can we not have a moment’s respite?” Jorundr muttered.
“A stonesinger?” the staff-holding man asked. “Let me bring down the bridge as I said. It will buy us time.”
“The bridge stands, Mender!” Jorundr shouted, slamming his right fist on the table. His voice was filled with rage. “I say it again to you, and to the Prince of Men, and to the whole Mender council were they here! Hakon, to Arberrang! Eyvind, do not touch that bridge! Am I understood?” The mender looked timidly at the table.
“You are.” he said after taking a deep breath. “Then I’ll confront the stonesinger myself.” He walked away towards the exit, clutching his ornate staff. Jorundr’s eyes followed him with a seething distrust.
“We should help him.” Iver said. Krumr nodded. The trio left as well, following the mender. As they descended the stairs Rook struggled to keep pace with the two Varl.
“What’s a stonesinger?” he asked. Iver looked at him.
“Closest thing the Dredge have to a Mender of their own.” he replied.
“So, the Dredge have magic?”
“Something like that.”
Egil was waiting at the bottom of the steps, with Iver’s sword and shield. Half a dozen of Krumr’s warriors were with him. One of them handed Krumr his polehammer. Obviously they had arranged this beforehand.
“Where’s my axe? I want to help.” said Rook. Iver turned to him.
“We both know you’re in no condition to fight right now.” he poked Rook in the chest. Rook winced, proving Iver’s point. The eight Varl now ran towards the bridge. Rook and Egil followed, but stopped just behind the last line of Varl, who were watching with fearful anticipation the scene that was unfolding. Eyvind, the eight Varl behind him, stood facing a tall but strangely slender Dredge draped in yellow robes. It held two staffs which it started to wave in graceful motions. Some of the Dredge warriors behind it moved forwards, rushing into combat with the Varl. Eyvind started to wave his staff, and clouds gathered above the bridge. The stonesinger thrust its staff in the direction of one of Krumr’s warriors and the Varl was blown back by an invisible force. He did not get up again. Krumr glanced at his fallen ally with a look of dismay. Eyvind aimed his staff at the stonesinger and a bolt of lightning shot down from the sky. The stonesinger raised its own staff and the bolt froze, the energy from it seemingly dispersing in a sphere around the slender figure. Then there was a flash and the lightning was gone, the stonesinger standing unharmed in the centre of a ring of scorched stone. The stonesinger locked eyes with Eyvind and waved its staff again, aiming at the Mender. Eyvind held his staff out in front of him and both he and the stonesinger moved as if parrying blows, shooting projectiles that only they could see, only the occasional spark or flash giving any indication that they were locked in battle. Eyvind tried the lightning again, putting in more effort than he did before. The sky rumbled and the bolt came down, again blocked by the stonesinger’s staff. This time it was stronger and more persistent, the Dredge slowly sinking to its knees. Eyvind held his staff out, sensing that the end was near. Then the stonesinger started to stand again and Eyvind faltered. Suddenly, one of Krumr’s varl warriors ran towards the stonesinger, a look of determination on his face, and thrust his sword through the sphere of lightning and into the chest of the stonesinger. The lightning conducted along the sword in both ways, both the Varl and the stonesinger letting out cries of anguish and pain. Then the lightning was gone, and both of them fell to the ground, smoke rising from their corpses. Time seemed to stop for a minute, both Man, Varl and Dredge halting whatever they were doing. Then a howl like a hurricane shook the bridge, and from the black stone sea of Dredge a crimson figure rose, easily twice the size of any Varl, with an enormous shield and spear, walking through the parting army of Dredge. A wave of sheer terror swept across the Varl, all of whom shrank back. All except Iver.
“Get back!” shouted Krumr, and he and his four remaining warriors, as well as Eyvind, stepped backwards towards the Varl defensive line, where Rook and Egil stood. Iver stood facing the behemoth. Now the two stood alone, the behemoth striking down at Iver with its spear. Iver dived to the side and thrust with his shield at the Dredge’s leg. The behemoth fell to one knee and Iver slashed at its chest with his sword. The creature’s breastplate cracked, but the wound seemed to heal itself, the stone of the armour forming back together until it was as if Iver had never hit it. The creature stood, Rook sure that he could hear it laughing. It raised its spear and struck down, too fast for Iver to dodge. Iver raised his shield and the spearhead crashed through it, wood splintering everywhere, and continued going, slicing through cloth, skin, flesh, bone, flesh, skin and cloth again, Iver’s left arm completely severed. He collapsed to the ground clutching at the bleeding stump. The Dredge prepared for the killing blow.
“Sundr! Face me!” Eyvind shouted. Rook had not seen him run forwards, but he now stood by Iver’s body, staff held high, though there had been fear in his voice. The crimson Dredge examined this new challenger, deeming him a bigger threat than the crippled Varl at its feet. Suddenly the ground shook and out of the fog of the chasm emerged a gigantic serpent, which stared at the events on the bridge with gleaming green eyes. Everyone on the bridge was paralysed in fear. The Dredge, even the red giant Sundr, retreated back. The snake gave a disinterested hiss, and then slithered away towards the west behind the mountains, the sound of rock cracking and crumbling heard for several more minutes.
“Push forwards!” Hakon’s voice rang out, rallying the Varl forces, and the defensive line ran forth, coming to a halt between the Dredge and Iver. Rook and Egil ran to Iver’s body, Rook ignoring the throbbing in his chest. Iver’s chest still rose and fell slowly but the Varl had passed out from loss of blood.
“Get him inside!” Eyvind shouted, and a couple of Varl warriors dropped their weapons to come and drag Iver back towards the city.
“Put him here!” Eyvind said, and the two Varl lowered Iver’s body onto a stone table. A number of people from Rook’s caravan had rushed to see Iver, and Alette now clung to Rook’s arm.
“Can you save him?” she asked.
“Yes.” the Mender replied confidently. “Probably.” he said, less so. “Give me silence.” He held his staff over the stump of Iver’s arm and closed his eyes. With one hand he held the staff, and he ran his other hand along the inscriptions and markings engraved into the staff. There was no change at first, but as time passed the bleeding slowed and scabbing started to appear over the wound. When the end of the stump was completely covered Eyvind stepped back, dropping his arms, his staff clattering on the floor. He was out of breath, and beads of sweat dripped down his forehead.
“That is as much as I can do.” he said between exhausted breaths. “He should…” He only got those words out before collapsing.
So I have now failed my objective of completing this before the sequel comes out, but nevermind, The Banner Saga 2 is awesome! Maybe I can set myself a new aim of writing the sequel before the third game arrives, as there are some sections that I would absolutely love to write (cough, chasm scene, cough) Anyway, here is the relatively short Chapter Five: Weary The Weight Of The Sun...
Her face rested on cold, hard stone. Forcing her eyes open through the layer of frost that had condensed over her eyelids, she struggled to recall her memories. She tilted her head to look around. She was on a tower of some kind. Rubble lay around and there was a gaping hole in the middle of the floor. It was clear that this hadn’t originally been the top floor of the tower, but now where she lay was open to the sky. She noticed blackened marks dotted around the stone. Memories started to come back. Flashes of lightning, dark hands, an ally. Where was he? She pushed herself up onto her knees and searched frantically. Where was her ally, her friend, her… Eyvind? She remembered his name now, and her own was…Juno. This place was Ridgehorn. Why had they been here? They had been looking for something. She grasped the spear that lay nearby, carved with Mender’s runes, and used it to stand up. She pulled the hood of her blue and black cloak up over her raven-black hair to protect against the icy wind. She walked over to the crumbling wall to look out across Denglr’s Bay. Then there was a deep rumble resounding from below. Looking down, she saw the water becoming agitated, then parting way as a great grey serpent rose up out of the blue, reaching above the top of the tower. It gazed down at her with curious green eyes. With a strangely echoing, cadent voice the serpent spoke, without even moving its mouth, as if the words were being spoken directly into Juno’s mind.
“Who are you?” it asked.
“What does it matter?” Juno replied, after a pause, avoiding the creature’s question. It tilted its head in a manner that could be interpreted as annoyed.
“Perhaps you miss my meaning. What I wish to know does matter. What are you? What is your purpose?”
Still being elusive, Juno answered. “First, tell me what you are.” The creature’s eyes narrowed, its irritation now clearly visible.
“Do you ask the hammer what the blacksmith is making? This conversation becomes more meaningless by the word.” The snake peered closely at Juno, examining her attire, and the runes on her spear. “What do your prophecies say? Is there no child waiting to slay me with a magic sword? Do the stars not foretell of this disaster? Have the Gods not told you?”
“The Gods are dead.” Juno answered.
“The Gods are silent and here is one who knows not what they have done.” the serpent said. “Listen now, for I will give you prophecy.” It now rose up further, as if to intimidate Juno. “I am the end. The world, this tapestry, I would devour. It is my purpose. But I cannot. Instead, now comes a wall of night to consume your pitiful world.” As the creature spoke the sky turned dark, into the blackest of nights, the stars all shining as faint little dots. Juno could see that this was an illusion, as snow still fell from the cloudless skies, and the night sky appeared as if a reflection on a still lake.
“Wall of night.” Juno pondered. “The Dredge?”
“Dredge?” the creature said. “Stone men marching across a long bridge? No, it is darkness. The egg white that has turned black.” The serpent bent down again, almost as if sulking. “I am meant to devour the tapestry itself, not idly witness the dusk smother this rock. I am incomplete!” The creature now turned to anger, twisting its head and body this way and that. “A worm crawling across a field of dung! Because of you! What are you! Return what is mine!” It opened its mouth and a blue glow started in its chest and rose upwards until it spat out a jet of blue flame. Juno raised her spear in front of her and a shield formed, deflecting the attack onto the nearby stone. The serpent then shook its head and sank back into the water, sending waves in every direction. Feeling an onset of fatigue, Juno lowered herself to the ground, sitting and closing her eyes. She reached out with her mind, entering a sort of dream state.
“Eyvind?” she said. She waited, feeling his mind at work. He was concentrating on something. Ages passed, then she felt his mind relax, as if he had passed out.
“Juno?” he responded at last. “You-You’re alive! Where are you?”
“I am in Ridgehorn. There was a serpent. My memories…The serpent said something about a long bridge.”
“Yes, we saw the serpent at Einartoft. Are you alright?”
“It tried to kill me, but yes. I am fine.”
“That thing could tear the land or crush cities if it wanted. What do we do?”
“It told me a prophecy. It said that it was supposed to eat the world, but there is a darkness seeping through from the north, consuming whatever it touches.”
“That would explain why the Dredge are heading south…”
“Eyvind, are you in danger?”
“You could say so. Bellower is here. The Varl are holding him off, but they won’t last forever. Of all the Sundr, why the immortal one?”
Juno thought for a minute. “Listen to me. I will return to Strand and find passage down the Red River. You must meet me in Sigrholm.”
“Juno, I won’t make it to Sigrholm. Bellower and his armies are about to overtake us and the Varl won’t listen to a thing I say!”
“You must find a way. Do whatever it takes.” Then she felt her mind awakening, returning to her body from the dream state.
Rook entered the room in which the Mender slept, adjacent to the room in which Iver was healing. Rook had left the gift from Krumr - a belt from Iver’s time in the Second Great War – on Iver’s bedside table. Alette was sat on a stool in the corner of the room, although it being a Varl stool, her feet dangled off the floor. One wall was lined with shelves on which lay scrolls. They could be anything from stories to history to financial records. It would all be destroyed if the Dredge won. Rook stood leaning against the doorframe with his arms folded. He had left his cloak and weapons in his room. Eyvind’s staff lay resting against the wall next to his bed. The bruising on his chest was much better. Not much progress had been made on either side in the battle that was constantly raging on the bridge. Rook’s caravan had been allowed to relocate into the city, a score of houses being made vacant for them. The Arberrang soldiers had gone with Prince Ludin and a number of Varl under the command of Hakon. Rook heard a mumbling, and Alette jumped down from her seat. Eyvind was stirring, slowly opening his eyes.
“How long was I asleep?” he asked once he was awake enough to think.
“You were out for a couple of days.” Rook replied. “How do you feel?” Eyvind’s eyes widened, as if remembering an important fact.
“Juno! She’s alive! I need to meet her in Sigrholm.” Eyvind rushed to his feet, resting his hand on the bed to steady himself. He grabbed his staff.
“My…mentor. On the Mender council. She contacted me while I was unconscious.”
“How?” Alette asked. Rook was eager to know too. The thought of being called in your sleep reminded him of his dream, and that voice.
“She’s not like most Menders.” Eyvind said, as if that answered the question. “What’s happened here while I’ve been out?”
“The Varl are holding the Dredge back, barely. Bellower’s disappeared for now. Iver’s still out.” Rook explained. “Jorundr sent Hakon, the Prince and his escort, and a couple of hundred Varl to Arberrang. I don’t know how long we’ll be able to hold out here.” The Mender looked down at the floor, considering his options.
“Rook, I need your help. Take me to Sigrholm. Juno will meet us there.”
“And just abandon Einartoft?” Rook asked.
“We might have to. Unless - no, Jorundr will never agree to it. Gah! I could destroy that Gods-forsaken bridge myself!”
“Why won’t Jorundr demolish the bridge?” Rook asked.
“I can’t completely understand it.” Eyvind said. “He’ll let the city, and the rest of the world, burn before that bridge.”
“What’s going on, with Bellower, and that serpent?” Alette said.
“How much do you know of history?” Eyvind asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Not much. We’re from a small town on the edge of Setterlund.” Rook answered.
“Very well, I’ll keep it short. In the First Great War, the armies of Varl and Men fought for land and dominance. Then one of the Gods, jealous of Hadrborg and the Loom-Mother, created the Dredge, who were such a threat that unless the Varl and Humanity put aside their differences they would both be wiped out. So they worked together and pushed the Dredge into the north, forming an alliance that has held ever since. A few generations later, the Dredge rallied and struck back, defeating the Varl who watched the borders and laying waste to the world in what would become the Second Great War. They were led by powerful warlords we called the Sundr. Both Humanity and the Varl were on the brink of extinction until the Valka, the most powerful of the Menders, came forth and pushed the Dredge back to whence they came. For the most part, the Dredge haven’t tried to return, until now. Juno is from the bloodline of the Valka who fought in the Second Great War.”
“So now, this is a Third Great War?” Rook asked.
“If I didn’t think the world was ending it would be incredible. History is being acted out before us.”
“What about the serpent?” said Alette.
“That’s another story.” Eyvind sighed. “There is absolutely nothing in the Mender’s libraries about that thing.”
“It must have something to do with the Dredge coming back.” Alette pondered aloud.
“That seems likely.” Eyvind said.
“So what do we do about Bellower?” Rook asked.
“I can’t do anything, but Juno can. That’s why we need to get to Sigrholm.” Eyvind paused. “Now bringing this bridge down, that will take time and concentration. Or we could just leave…”
“And let the Varl die to give us a head start?” Alette gasped.
“No, maybe we can’t do that. But to destroy the bridge I’ll need your help. The Varl will try to stop me. We could end up fighting both Dredge and the Varl. Are you prepared to do that?”
Rook remained silent, staring at the floor. “I need time to think about this.” he said at last.
“I understand.” replied Eyvind. “But please come to a decision quickly, because either way we can’t stay here.”
Over the past few days the city had been completely mobilised for war. Redoubts had been constructed at various points in the city to prepare for the event of the Dredge breaking through. Regiments of Varl warriors rotated in and out of bridge duty, repelling the seemingly endless waves of Dredge. One of the devices Rook had seen on the walls of Einartoft had been repositioned onto a hastily constructed stone tower at the end of the bridge. These weapons used twists of rope to bend what looked like a giant bow laid on its side, shooting long bolts of iron. This weapon fixture was manned constantly, with Varl taking shifts. Each of the bolts shot by one of these weapons could pierce several Dredge.
Rook entered the great hall with trepidation. He would have to convince the King to allow the destruction of the bridge. The pillars that had given him such wonder the first time now filled him with dread. Fasolt was already talking to Jorundr by the time Rook reached the throne.
“You’ll do as I say.” Jorundr commanded.
“I’m not here to argue, I’m saying that we’re dying by dozens every day now. You sent our best away with Hakon, how long do you expect us to last?”
“You asked for command of the defence, Fasolt. It is your duty, and your responsibility, not to let them across that bridge.” The King seemed angry, not what Rook wanted to see. Fasolt simply sighed and walked away, meeting eyes with Rook as they passed each other. Rook did a small bow before the King.
“Thank you for the audience.” he said respectfully.
“I forget your name.”
“Rook, of Skogr.” he replied.
“How is Yngvar? Will he survive?” Jorundr asked.
“I think so. The Mender seems to have done a good job healing the wound.”
“Do you know of why Yngvar faced down Bellower alone on that bridge?” Jorundr raised his left eyebrow. Rook shook his head. Jorundr continued. “Yngvar confronted a Sundr during his youth, in the Second Great War. He won that fight. That is why he is so…legendary…among us Varl.”
“So why did he change his name and move to Skogr?” Rook asked.
“You’ll have to ask him that, when he wakes. When my predecessor named him Kendr, heir to the Varl throne, Yngvar left without a word. Had he not done that, it would be he on this throne rather than I.”
Maybe that would have been better. Rook thought to himself, though he dared not say it.
“Why are you here?” the King asked, getting to business. Rook braced himself and took a deep breath.
“I am seeking your permission to destroy the bridge.” he said. Jorundr’s face started to twitch in anger and Rook quickly looked down at the floor. “As Fasolt said, the defenders won’t last long. Something needs to be done.”
“Human, if there is one more mention of that bridge I’ll…!”
“Why?” Rook asked. “What is so important about the bridge?” Jorundr stood.
“Every human I’ve ever met would think he’d rival the Gods himself, were he in charge. I am over four hundred years old, and I know that I know little! You are a child, an infant, yet you apparently know everything! Here, why don’t you sit upon the throne?” He slowly sat down and leaned his forehead on his free hand. “Listen, human. This story isn’t about you. If you jumped from that bridge today, the world would not change. Now either help defend it, or leave. I don’t care which!” Jorundr waved his hand dismissively. Rook knew there was no convincing him. He bowed and stormed off out of the great hall. Krumr was waiting by the exit.
“Well?” he said. Rook shook his head. Krumr sighed.
“If it helps, I agree with you. We need to demolish that bridge.” he said as they walked down the stairs. “And I have a plan to do it.”
They were gathered in Eyvind’s room. There stood Rook, Krumr, Eyvind, Alette, Egil, Oddleif, Onef and the twins. There was also one of Krumr’s warriors standing by him, a ginger bearded Varl with a leather breastplate.
“The bolt-thrower is manned in shifts of six hours.” Krumr explained. “I’ve spoken to Fasolt and I’m afraid he is not with us. If we want to have any hope of holding out until Eyvind can demolish the bridge, we have to deal with it. Finbjorn here –ˮ he gestured to the Varl standing next to him. “- has got the next watch. During his watch Eyvind and an escort will go onto the bridge to fight. I’ll lead the escort. A group of my warriors will defend Finbjorn while he uses the bolt-thrower to aid us.”
“Alright.” Rook nodded. “I’ll go with Krumr and Eyvind. Onef, bring your fighters.” Onef crossed his arms and nodded. “Oddleif, your bow skills will be best suited to defending the bolt-thrower. Egil, lead some of Skogr’s fighters too. Hogun, Mogun, Alette, I want you to coordinate our caravan. We’ll have to leave in a hurry, and may even have to fight our way out so be ready.”
“I want to help fight with you!” Alette pleaded.
“No.” Rook said sternly. “I want you out of danger. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if…” He couldn’t finish that sentence. Alette’s shoulders sank and she looked at the ground.
“We have a plan.” Eyvind said, moving things along. He looked at Krumr and Finbjorn, frowning. “We will be fighting other Varl. Are you prepared to do that?”
“Yes.” Krumr grunted after a pause. “We have to.”
“Very well. I believe the next shift begins in two hours.” said Eyvind, looking at Finbjorn, who gave a simple nod.
“Don’t be stupid.” Fasolt said to Rook and the fighters he had brought with him. “Kill a few, then come back.” Rook, Eyvind, Krumr, Onef along with a dozen of Onef’s fighters and a dozen of Krumr’s warriors stood with Fasolt behind the Varl line of defence, which was being battered by a wave of Dredge. Looking up at the tower, Rook saw Finbjorn operating the bolt-thrower, with Egil, Oddleif and some of Krumr’s warriors standing at the bottom, trying to be inconspicuous. He looked back up at Fasolt and nodded. “After this wave ends, you go in.” Fasolt said before walking away. Rook turned towards the fighting and looked at the Varl there. He may very well be fighting them soon. He was already afraid, but now he was filled with a fearful doubt that stabbed at his heart and constrained his breathing. They would be betraying the King who had accepted them into his city despite centuries of tradition, who had given them shelter and food, who had trusted that they were on the same side in this war. Looking at Krumr and his warriors, Rook could see that they were also having their own troubles. Krumr’s chest rose and fell more heavily than Rook had seen before, a strange sort of fear evident on his face, and those of his kin. For them, it was not just betrayal. Rook searched his admittedly limited knowledge of world history, but while there had been many wars between men, Rook could recall no such conflict between Varl. They had always been a unified people, and Krumr would have to break that. Rook stepped closer to the aged warrior and heard him mumbling to himself.
“We have to.” Krumr managed at last, speaking to all present as he held his polehammer in two hands. Rook drew his woodsman’s axe from his belt and held it near the axe head. Onef had his sword and shield ready, as did his fighters. Eventually the Dredge assaulting the Varl line let up and fell back.
“Go!” Fasolt yelled. Krumr led the way, his warriors forming a line in front of the shieldwall, who started to fall back, relieved that their shift was over. Looking back, Rook saw Krumr’s warriors take up a more defensive formation around the tower. His breathing was getting more and more erratic. This was it, he thought. They were making a move that would change everything. Of course, it was up to Eyvind to take the final step. Rook and Eyvind locked eyes, a look of determination hiding doubt on both their faces. Eyvind turned and stepped forwards, raising his staff. Clouds started to gather. The Dredge, who were currently rotating the warriors round in shift changes of their own, started to back away. The group formed round into a circle surrounding Eyvind. Rook and Krumr faced the Varl, who looked confused at their strange action. Then the first bolt of lightning came down, striking one of the bridge supports with a crash.
“What are you doing?” Fasolt roared. Eyvind stayed focused, summoning another lightning bolt.
“I’m sorry Fasolt.” Krumr shouted back. “We have to.” Fasolt’s face turned to rage and he drew his cudgel, bellowing orders to his warriors, telling a handful to fetch Jorundr, and most to assault the Mender and kill if necessary. Rook held his axe ready. He had not brought his bow. Fasolt and his warriors charged forwards, hoping to knock the group down with their shields rather than kill them. Krumr let out a cry and the fighters charged. For the first time in history, Varl fought Varl. Krumr met Fasolt head on and started exchanging blows. Rook slid under the attack from one of Fasolt’s warriors and ran between the giant’s legs, slashing at the back of his knee. The warrior let out a growl of pain and fell down to his knees. Rook tried to smack the warrior at the base of the skull using the flat of his axe, but the strike didn’t knock the giant out as intended. The Varl struck back with his elbow, hitting Rook in the chest and igniting the pain in his ribs. Rook groaned and clutched uselessly at his chest. The Varl arduously pushed himself up to stand and face Rook again. It was now that Rook realised he was on the wrong side of the battle. Glancing back he saw another Varl warrior coming at him with an axe, and he barely had time to jump out of the way, his ribs silently screaming at him to stop. The first Varl was about to strike again when he stopped, a bloody sword appearing from his neck. Onef held onto the giant’s back, pushing the sword through further until his hand was also red. He jumped down as the Varl fell dead. Rook turned to face the other threat, who now stood still but limp, a great iron spear jutting from his chest into the ground at an angle. Some of the nearby Varl warriors were turning towards the bolt-thrower, where Finbjorn was reloading the machine. Egil stood halfway up the stairs of the tower with his shield ready while Oddleif stood further up, shooting arrows into any Varl coming near. At the bottom stood three of Krumr’s warriors holding off the attacking loyalists.
“Skapti!” Fasolt barked to one of the other Varl. “Get the bolt-ˮ He was cut off as the breath was forced from his lungs. He crumpled forwards dropping his cudgel. The snow beneath his mouth was sprinkled crimson as he coughed blood, his cracked ribs piercing his lungs. Standing over him stood Krumr, his polehammer ready. With a slight hesitation Krumr lifted up his hammer and brought it down on Fasolt’s head. The Varl crumpled into the ground, the back of his skull turned to pulp. A rumble and cracking shook the bridge and the fighting ceased.
“Run!” yelled Eyvind as a final bolt of lightning broke one of the support columns, splinters of stone shooting away and falling into the abyss. There was a long moment of uncertainty, during which all the fighters looked at each other, unsure whether or not to continue their battle, but as chinks and fissures started to appear in the rock beneath their feet they became unified. Everyone present ran in the direction of the city, some dropping their weapons in their hurry, some whose weapons had just been clashing helping each other to their feet to escape the oncoming collapse. Rook’s legs had a mind of their own as they carried him with the crowd, making it to safety. He looked at the bridge as it collapsed, Fasolt’s body falling along with the others. Finbjorn had let go of the bolt-thrower and Oddleif put her nocked arrow back into her quiver. Angry jeering broke the silence and Rook and his allies were pushed towards what was now the edge of a cliff by the resentful Varl. Many of them were calling for the traitors to be cast into the ravine. The clamour was brought to a halt by a single voice.
“Enough!” roared Iver, who had jumped up onto a boulder to be seen above the crowd. Rook’s heart leapt to see his friend well again. Iver’s left sleeve was folded and pinned to cover the stump of his shoulder. “Enough blood has been spilled! Let there be no more!”
“Indeed!” yelled Jorundr, who had just descended the stairs from the city. He shoved his way through the crowd to come face to face with Eyvind. “Was there not just one thing I demanded of you?” he roared. “You’ve broken this alliance, Mender! Man and Varl are no friends of each other.” Iver gave Jorundr a scornful look. “This is my reward for allowing men into Einartoft?” Jorundr continued.
“Do not blame all of humanity for my actions.” Eyvind said timidly. Iver stepped down from the boulder on which he stood and the crowd parted before him until he looked Jorundr in the eye.
“This fight could not have been won.” he said. “They did what you were unwilling to do.” The King’s face contorted with anger. “You would let our entire race die to protect that bridge?”
“We are already dying! There are no more Varl being made today, tomorrow, or a thousand years from now! We that are here now are all that there ever shall be, and we will all die someday. You have destroyed that which we have made. What else will be left of us? Shall we leave no trace behind, as if we never existed?” Jorundr’s rage turned to sadness. “We have nought left but ruins.” He looked at the humans and the varl who had helped them. His face hardened again. “Get out of my city!” Iver sighed and nodded at Rook. Rook waved for the party to leave. As they walked towards the caravan that had now been organised by Alette and the twins. As Rook looked back over his shoulder at the Varl city and the now fallen bridge, he couldn’t help but wonder of the old King had a point.
I've just noticed a typo. AAAARRRRRGGGGGHHHHH!!!!!
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