When Bolverk awoke, the snow had thickened, turning into a blizzard. It took a while to remember where he was as he got to his feet slowly. Sparr approached him, shielding his face from the blizzard with his cloak.
“We can’t see a thing in this storm! I guess Irynx hasn’t forgiven you yet.” he chuckled.
“Shouldn’t you have died yet?” Bolverk responded.
“Not too long, I’m sure.” Being in their line of work gave the Ravens quite a light hearted view of mortality. “On a clear day you could see Bindal’s watchtowers from here.”
“We don’t stop until we’re there.” Bolverk ordered.
The journey was tough, the biting cold affecting everyone, including the berserker. Most people wrapped themselves up in more animal furs. When the silhouette of the first tower came into view, it came as a huge relief. The first tower was abandoned and had fallen into disrepair, but the next one, a mile further, had a bonfire glowing from the top, and shouts were heard as the Ravens passed. Scores of tents were set up outside the stone walls of Bindal, probably refugees from Ormsdalr. As the Ravens approached the town gates, Bolverk noticed two people in what looked like Menders’ garb atop the gatehouse. They were talking with a one eyed fighter, probably the captain of the guard. The captain yelled and the gates opened.
“Just you.” the captain shouted.
“And my deputy!” Bolverk replied, gesturing to Folka. The captain and Menders conversed some more.
“Fine.” the captain agreed. Sparr started to arrange the setting up of camp as Bolverk and Folka entered the gates of Bindal. The captain and two Menders led them to a large stone and timber building to find shelter from the blizzard. Inside was another man in a long brown tunic, with red hair, who was muttering, seemingly, to his spear.
“What are the Ravens doing here?” the older Mender said, a woman dressed in grey robes. Her hair was pale and short. Her staff had a gold spearhead on the top. The other Mender was a young blonde man with a dark brown tunic. The captain was also blonde, but had a full beard whereas the Mender only had some stubble.
“We’re passing through on our way to the Blue River.” Bolverk answered. “We got caught in the storm. Where’s the governor?”
“Left for Arberrang. Left me in charge. My name’s Gudmundr. This is Zefr and Nikels.” The captain stepped forward.
“And what are two Menders doing this far from Manaharr?” Folka asked. There was a sense of déjà vu.
“We were sent to oversee the evacuation of Bindal. We heard rumours that Bellower was leading an army of Dredge west.”
“West. Yes, west. Lofn wants to go west.” the red haired man muttered to himself, or perhaps to his spear.
“Bellower is dead. He died at Boersgard; we were there.” Bolverk said. “Who’s the crazy man?”
“Bak.” replied Gudmundr. “He led the refugees from Ormsdalr.”
“Lofn doesn’t like slithering.” Bak muttered.
“Who’s Lofn?” Bolverk continued.
“His spear, we think. He’s rather eccentric.” Nikels, the young man, responded.
“I could never tell.” Folka said sarcastically.
“Bellower is dead?” Zefr, the female Mender, asked. Bolverk and Folka both nodded. The Menders gave each other a glance, confused at this information. “And the chasm between Boersgard and Ormsdalr. How did you cross that?”
“Two of yours. We’re on a job for them.” Folka said. The Menders shared another confused look.
“We were not aware of any other Menders in these parts. Who was it?”
“Juno and Eyvind.” Folka replied. Zefr stepped back and her eyes darted between Bolverk and Folka.
“Nikels, Gudmundr, Bak, can you help the refugees outside?” she asked as a thinly disguised excuse to have them leave the room. All three nodded and left. Zefr waited until the doors were closed and it was just the three of them.
“You have no job. The Valka known as Juno is dead.”
Hello! I'm afraid this isn't chapter three, but it has now been a year to the day since I first completed The Banner Saga, and I felt like I should say something. I'm about halfway through chapter three, so it may still be a while, but to whet your appetites, here is a short skaldic tale from the Kragsmen of southern Stromlund, which I have written to add some insight into their culture, entitled The Trial of Joravak. If people like this, I may do more in the gaps between chapters, as I have a number of short story ideas to flesh out the world of The Banner Saga (while hopefully not conflicting with officially planned lore), so please do let me know what you think.
This is a tale of a conflict born of love, as the beautiful Sibbe had long been sought by the noble Thord and the envious Joravak. To great lengths they both went to win her hand, but each time Joravak thought himself the victor, Thord would outdo him. And then, when Joravak could not best Thord in charm, or song, or game, he challenged him with sword, and slew him. They buried Thord in the Haug Fields, to safeguard his eternal rest. And then Joravak professed his love for Sibbe, and requested her hand, but she drew away, for her heart had belonged to Thord. His love caused him pain, and his pain caused him rage, and he went to the resting place of Thord and kicked his headstone and disturbed his grave. And from that night the village was terrorised by a shadow in the swamp. A frightful creature, like the image of a man twisted and swollen beyond recognition, would wander in the night, unleashing a scream which chilled the blood of all who witnessed it. Nine nights this continued, until Sibbe, who now wandered the woods in grief, encountered the creature. With a glance, she knew its nature and her purpose, and she returned to the village with fire in heart and dagger in hand. Enticing Joravak to the Haug Fields, she plunged the dagger into his chest. And then, as the last of Joravak’s life blood joined with the mud, and the headstone of Thord was righted, the creature leapt into the field, to stand before the avenger. The monstrous fiend shifted and turned, until the handsome face of Thord stood before her. And he said “This man has disturbed my final sleep, and condemned me to live as an abomination of life and death. You, Sibbe, have set me free, and I thank you.” And with his final words Thord kissed the hand of the tearful maiden and sank back into the ground, there now to remain.
Wow! Nice!! please share more of these skaldic tales, please
12-15-2016, 02:51 PM
Agree with stoicmom! I'd love to read more of your work!
Nice interval, ajrman Do ghosts exist in the world of The Banner Saga, I wonder, or is this just a rural legend? Also, I'd have enjoyed a bit more detail into the culture of the Kragsmen and theirs bogs; I don't think it would "intrude" in any official-lore plans!
Together we stand, divided we fall.
Chapter Three is here! I've chosen to shift the end of the game's chapter to the beginning of Chapter 5 in order to flesh out the middle, and even then it's still the longest chapter I've written so far. As always, please let me know what you think. Chapter Three: To Speak In All Tongues...
The groove bends to the left, stopping just before crossing its path to form a nearly complete circle. About halfway along the bend another groove shoots off at an angle, running around to the other side of the bow, ending in a two pronged swirl. A little way above that, another groove starts, straight as an arrow, before splitting into two paths which curve around to cross the line and overlap, reaching up again until that final groove at the top, the nock on which the string is held, not a part of the pattern.
Alette now traced her finger along these grooves, her eyes still closed. The pattern appeared in her mind’s eye, exactly as she expected, and her finger confirmed the image. Finally she reached the end with no mistakes, and she knew she was ready. She stood from her bedroll and lay her bow aside, donning her cloak with the hood up before pushing open the tent flap, putting on the guise of Alette the Leader. They were encamped along the Eastway Road, three days west of Ormsdalr. The road had become difficult, cracks and small ravines having opened up all along it, and looking to the west the road would only get worse. She looked up at a nearby pole, on the top of which flew a familiar red banner. A smile nearly crossed her lips. Ubba, the son of Aasa and Arnulf, had managed to climb the mast of Skogr’s ship to grab their banner before it went over the waterfall. His parents had both been scared half to death, but Alette could tell by the way they looked up at the banner as they passed it that they were proud. Nearby, Aukfrosta was playing with Bergljot and Bjorn, two other children, while Kristofer looked after them. It was Bergljot who had made a medallion for Alette’s father in the first few days after fleeing Skogr. Bergljot had also made one for Bjorn, which he was currently wearing around his neck, on which was carved a baa clover, a flower native to the woods around Skogr. The flight from home seemed like a lifetime ago now. Sounds of footsteps brought Alette out of her thoughts as she saw a group of armed men approaching. At their head was Rugga and his wild-haired bodyguard. Kristofer ushered the children out of the way of the group. Alette bowed as they approached. Rugga shook his head and bowed himself.
“Lesson number one. You are the leader of this caravan. We should keep up that appearance, especially when we reach more civilised lands.” he explained.
“Sorry.” Alette apologised. Rugga shook his head again.
“Lesson number two. As a leader, apologies make you look weak. If you are called out on a mistake, explain yourself, but do not apologise.”
“I would say that apologies make you look polite.” Alette replied.
“Politeness. Practicality. Sometimes the former must be put aside for the latter. Now then, have you got a plan of action?”
“The road is too broken to continue, we’d never get past all the gorges. We could head south…” Alette trailed off as she looked in that direction. The Ormsa was drained, now simply a muddy riverbed where once a mighty river had been. On the other side of the river were trees. Not those like the woods around Skogr or the Lang Loom Forest, these trees were dark and drooping, seemingly exuding an air of misery. Nearly black clouds hung over the swamplands, the rain visibly falling in clumps. “North would risk us meeting the Ravens. It will have to be south. Can you send some scouts along the river and find the best place to cross?”
“Lesson number three. Order, don’t ask. Asking invites refusal.”
“Send some scouts then.” Alette replied flatly.
“Of course.” Rugga bowed and left along with his cohort of bodyguards. She didn’t like that man. Freydis, one of Skogr’s women, walked towards Alette with an expectant face. Alette nodded, and the woman took a horn from her belt and blew twice: the signal to begin packing up. The fighters training sheathed their blades and started to clear up their belongings. Oddleif’s archers shot one more volley at some straw targets before unstringing their bows. More horns sounded across the camp to make sure the message reached everyone. She went back inside and grabbed her bow, without the string. She walked out of the dozen or so tents belonging to Skogr and went towards the Menders’ tent. She tapped on one of the poles with her fist.
“Just a minute.” was the reply from Juno. Alette waited, and entered when Juno spoke again. The two Menders were collecting their belongings, having clothed themselves rather hastily.
“It’s good to see you well, Eyvind.” Alette said.
“And you too.” Eyvind responded with an aged smile. He now looked older than father had. She quickly forced that thought out of her head. She couldn’t think about him now.
“I think I’m ready.” she stated confidently, holding up the bow.
“Excellent.” Eyvind smiled. “Next time we make camp I’ll start teaching you how to see the threads of the world.”
“Thank you.” Alette gave a grateful nod. “I should make preparations to leave.” As she lifted up the tent flap a joke came to mind. “I don’t suppose Mending can do anything about rain, can it?” she said before leaving.
Rugga’s scouts returned just as the caravan was nearly ready to go. They reported a less muddy area a couple of miles back east which had possibly been a ford when the river was still flowing. It was still a task to get the carts across, but easier than up or downriver. From there it was a few hours before they reached the beginnings of the boglands. The carts had difficulty with traction, but it was better than traversing around the ravines that had opened up on the road. As the caravan passed under the first rain clouds the carts were covered with tent canvases to keep their contents dry. The rain increased into a torrent, soaking through even the thickest cloaks.
“I had hoped not to visit this part of the kingdom.” yelled Prince Ludin, barely audible over the sound of the rain, despite walking right next to Alette. “Why people decided to settle here, I don’t know.”
“We should hopefully reach Grundar in a few days.” Alette replied.
The endless rains and soft ground gave no good opportunities to make camp. Some people chose to take shifts sleeping on the carts wherever there was room, while others simply stifled their yawns and soldiered on. The moss-coated trees seemed to overshadow everything, but even then the rain found its way through the canopy. The Varl had the most trouble, constantly ducking under the overhanging branches. Alette walked near the front of the caravan, talking to Ludin, when scouts dressed in red and gold arrived reporting an abandoned village ahead.
“Kragsmen.” the Prince muttered. “Abandoned, you say?”
“That’s right, your highness.” the scout replied. Ludin thought for a moment.
“Tell Sven to get his forces spread out in a line and advance on the village slowly.” Ludin ordered. The scout bowed and ran to give the orders. Ludin led a contingent of fifty of his troops to search the village, while everyone else stayed back out of sight. Hakon also took a few of his Varl. Alette shifted from foot to foot in an effort to stay warm, completely numb from the rain. She hugged her arms tightly and looked around at everyone else, all of whom were shivering as well. Nid’s yellow cloak stood out among the crowd, her three boys huddled underneath. Alette gave Nid a small forced smile. As Alette looked around she noticed a small tear in her cloak. She heard squelching as someone walked up behind her. She turned to see Oddleif, her once white cloak now sodden and grey, stained with mud at the bottom. The two of them embraced, both as greetings and to warm each other. Alette buried her face in Oddleif’s shoulder. She found herself hugging tighter and her breaths became more irregular. Was she crying? She wasn’t even sure, her face too numb to feel the tears. She found herself three years younger, when her mother had just passed away, and Oddleif came to comfort her when her father was too crippled by grief. Her left hand went to her other wrist, to feel the bracelet mother had made for her sixteenth birthday, a month before she took ill, but her wrist was bare, the bracelet having been given away for food in Sigrholm. She remembered how father had been reluctant to give it up to the trader, but when she collapsed he practically threw it at him. Maybe if she had been stronger then she’d still have it, a physical reminder of her mother. Then again, if there was something she’d learnt over the past several months, it was that sentiment must sometimes be put aside for survival. Gods, that sounded like something Rugga would say. She cried into Oddleif’s arms until shouts were heard to alert the caravan to the scouts’ return. Alette released herself from Oddleif’s embrace and did her best to wipe her tears away before greeting Ludin, who by the expression on his face had clearly noticed her sadness.
“The village is clear.” he stated. “We could stay the night, but the houses aren’t big enough for Varl.” He glanced at King Hakon, who had trudged up to them. “Sorry.” Ludin apologised, in an almost derisive voice. Hakon scowled.
“Nevermind. Ground’s solid enough for tents.” he said nonchalantly, though clearly bitter. The caravan moved into the village and set up tents over the supply carts and for the Varl, while the humans lay out their bedrolls in the houses, the walls of which were made using compacted mud and the ceilings of thatch that kept the interiors, including the timber floors, surprisingly dry. It was a tight squeeze to fit people into the two score or so hovels, and some volunteered to stay outside in tents instead. Alette shared her house with Oddleif and eight others from Skogr. There was Kristofer and Aukfrosta, Sigrod, the twins Dageid and Dotta, and finally Ylva and the Torgrims, Elder and Younger. One thing that was strange about the village was the presence of the timber cages, as empty as the rest of the houses. Alette forced it to the back of her mind and went to sleep on her bedroll on a wooden floor, the best night’s sleep she’d had since Ormsdalr.
After everyone had woken up and had breakfast, Alette decided to do some work on the banner. She was alone, sewing the events at the chasm into the banner when someone knocked at the door.
“Come in.” she shouted. As the door opened she noticed that the rain was lighter. In the doorway was Eyvind, with his staff, wearing a brown hooded cloak over his shirt to try and stay dry.
“Good morning.” he said as he took off his cloak and closed the door. “Is now a good time for our lesson?”
“Of course.” Alette responded, putting the banner away to the side. Eyvind sat next to her, laying his cloak and staff on the floor.
“Remember what I said about the key part of mending?” Eyvind asked.
“There are threads that go in a tapestry that makes up the world. A Mender can see the threads and change them.” Alette spoke. Eyvind nodded.
“Those patterns on your bow, if you know them well enough, will allow you to see the threads. Have a go.” he gestured to the unstrung bow, which was leaning against the wall. Alette picked it up and closed her eyes, tracing the patterns with her fingers as she had spent many hours doing. After she had gone through the pattern she looked at Eyvind, who gestured for her to continue. She carried on, each twist and turn familiar to her. After half a dozen times Eyvind spoke.
“Continue with the pattern, but open your eyes.” he instructed. She did, and something felt different about her vision. She blinked a few times, thinking it was a loose eyelash or dust in her eye, and her sight was normal again.
“You had it.” Eyvind said calmly. “I could tell. Then you lost your concentration. Do it again, but focus on something close by.” Alette looked down at her cloak and tried again. It took a few iterations of the pattern, but soon that strange blur started to appear. Focusing more at the cloak, she saw that the blur was turning into patterns. Across the fabric of the cloak were threads of a different kind, weaving around each other and holding the material together. There was a part near the edge, where the threads were no longer regular, but in disarray, the fabric of the cloak having been torn. She had forgotten about that. She now used her mind’s eye to picture the nearly invisible lines coming back together, and after a while the woollen threads of the cloak started to move, once broken, now joining together again. Eyvind remained silent. Alette became oblivious to the passage of time, not thinking about anything except the joining of the threads of the cloak. When she was done, Alette blinked, the threads disappearing and leaving only the slightest hint that there had been a tear at all, like a small scar on skin. Alette felt out of breath, only now realising she was sweating from the effort. She looked at Eyvind, who had a broad grin on his face.
“Most new Menders can barely see the threads in their first lesson, but you…!” he jumped up excitedly. “I have to tell Juno!” he declared, before snatching up his staff and his cloak, which he haphazardly flung over his head, and running out the door into the rain. Two minutes later Eyvind returned, Juno following him. Juno crouched down and examined the mark on Alette’s cloak while one hand ran over her spear.
“Well done, Alette.” she smiled, looking into Alette’s eyes with an almost maternal gaze. “You seem to have a knack for Mending.” She stood and turned to Eyvind. “And you’re a good teacher.”
“Thanks.” Eyvind grinned. “Should I do lesson three now?” he asked. Juno nodded. Eyvind sat down, as did Juno. “Now that you can see the threads – lesson one – and you can manipulate them – lesson two – now I’m going to teach you about different materials. Fabric is the easiest to Mend. The threads of the world simply overlay the threads of the fabric. Materials like leather or wood are tougher, but still fairly easy to manipulate if you concentrate hard enough. Metal and stone, that’s where things get difficult. But the worst materials to Mend are living tissue, skin and flesh and bone. It takes immeasurable focus to Mend even a small wound on a person. If you make even a small mistake, it could hurt that person more than it helps. A broken bone could be put back together wrongly, or an artery could be cut and the person would bleed to death. It will take a year or more of study before a Mender can even attempt to Mend a living person or animal, and being on the road like we are, don’t count on it.”
“Eyvind.” Juno gently chastised him.
“Sorry. Halstein – my first teacher, Alette – was very cynical.”
“Well, he was one of Valka Dusi’s students.” Juno joked. Both of them chuckled. “What Eyvind means to say is don’t expect to be healing wounds as simply as fixing that cloak. Learn how to Mend armour and stick with that for now.”
From there Juno and Eyvind explained the methods behind repairing armour, from simply fixing leather straps to putting chainmail back together to undoing dents in helmets. The lesson went on for about half an hour, before someone blew the horns to pack up and leave. Alette must have spent more time fixing the cloak than she thought she did. The caravan left the village about an hour after the horns blew. At least the rains weren’t as bad now, but the mud that they had left behind still slowed the caravan, and the flies and other bugs had come out in swarms. Alette walked alongside Iver, whose usual grumpiness was doubled by the swamp.
“Must’ve been nice, having a roof to sleep under.” he grumbled.
“Jealous, Iver?” Alette chuckled. Iver huffed as his horn caught on an overhanging branch.
“You seem to be feeling a bit better now.” he said once he had freed himself and continued walking.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re smiling more today.”
“Eyvind and Juno have been teaching me to Mend.” Alette said.
“Oh gods, don’t become a magician now.” Iver joked. Alette laughed aloud, surprising herself.
“I suppose it helps keep my mind off…everything.” she said, her voice dropping. Iver placed a hand on her shoulder and looked down at her.
“I’m not good at this sort of thing, but I’ll be here for you if you need it.” he said comfortingly. Alette gave a small nod of gratitude and rested her head on Iver’s hand as they walked.
“He was the best man I ever knew.” Iver said after a few minutes of walking. “And how many humans can say they took down a Sundr?” A small sob forced its way out of Alette’s mouth. She had forgotten that Iver, like so many others, didn’t know the truth about Bellower’s death. Those guilty pains in her heart that had plagued her in the days immediately after Boersgard came rushing back. Of course, she didn’t blame Iver. Only four others knew. Eyvind, Juno, Ludin and Yrsa were the only ones there when she shot the silver arrow, before father pushed her down to save her.
“How many Varl can, Yngvar?” Alette asked in response. Iver sighed.
“I suppose I walked into that one.” he muttered. Iver’s true name, Yngvar, and his actions during the Second Great War were things he had tried to bury in his past. He had killed the Sundr Raze, though he was not proud of it. “The ground’s more solid here. Must be approaching another village.” he said, changing the subject. He was right. There was a clearing ahead, though no houses stood there. Instead there were stones everywhere. They weren’t arranged like typical burial cairns.
“Strange.” Iver mumbled as the caravan started to walk across the clearing. Alette ran her hand over a stone as she passed. She wondered what rituals the Kragsmen do here. She was just reaching the treeline on the other side of the clearing when her question was disturbingly answered. A high-pitched cry rang out, making the entire caravan turn as one and causing some of the fighters to draw their weapons. Alette pushed her way through the crowd, accidentally pushing a stone marker askew as she ran. She stood next to Kristofer, who was holding Aukfrosta, and a few others from Skogr, who were all looking at a hole that had opened up next to a stone. Bjorn, one of Skogr’s children, was covered in thick mud and crying while a woman did her best to comfort him. The crowd was murmuring with fear and disgust.
“What happened?” Alette asked Kristofer.
“Bjorn and Auk were playing among the stones and the mud just gave way.” Alette stepped forward, and what had caused Bjorn to scream. A skull was visible in the mud. Looking closer, Alette saw some ribs and a bony hand. She now looked around at all the stone markers.
“This is a burial ground.” she said. “We should get away from here!” she shouted. The people who were gathered around hastily moved on. Aleo approached her.
“I should have known.” he said. “Whereas we inter our dead in cairns or burn them, the Kragsmen bury theirs under the dirt and leave a simple stone marker like these. We must hope they do not find out. Mistreatment of the dead is the worst crime in Kragsmen culture.”
“How do you know all this?”
“During my travels, before I settled down in Skanvik, I journeyed south, to Aros, Etiltorp and Ollerholm. I learnt many things about the people there, listening to their stories and telling my own. Many of their stories tell not of Gods and Great Wars, but of spirits and monsters that dwell in the swamps. Of course, they have their own heroes as well.”
“What else do you know about them?” Alette asked.
“They are fond of song.” he replied in his usual merry voice.
The caravan, somewhat shaken by the discovery of the graves, continued on their march through the mud, again taking sleeping shifts on the carts until they could find another place to make camp. During Alette’s shift, she noticed a tear in a folded up tent canvas. Instead of sleeping, she chose instead to try and Mend it. Running her hand along her bow, she focused on the tear, just as she had done with her cloak. Losing track of time, she managed to get a few threads to join together, but eventually her eyes drifted closed, her mind tired.
“Alette.” a voice coaxed her out of sleep. “Alette, it’s time to wake up.” Her eyes opened slowly to see Dageid, one of the blonde twins from Skogr. Dageid was a year or so older than Alette, and they had been good friends back home, although they hadn’t spoken very much since Boersgard.
“Your shift now?” Alette yawned as she sat up. Dageid nodded.
“You don’t have to get up just yet though.” she said as she sat on the cart alongside Alette, their feet dangling off the edge. “We could talk for a while, like we used to.” she smiled. Alette smiled back.
“How’s Dotta?” Alette asked, in an attempt to make conversation.
“Talking to Sigrod.” Dageid gave a sly grin. “I’m pretty sure she likes him.”
“Good to hear. How are things with that boy from Reynivik?”
“Still going well. What about you?”
“What?” Alette hadn’t expected the conversation to turn her way.
“Is there anyone?” Dageid asked. Alette felt her face warm up, in a mixture of embarrassment and sadness.
“There was.” She mumbled. Dageid looked down at the ground and nodded in a way that suggested she knew who.
“Did anything ever happen betw-ˮ
“No.” Alette interrupted. “Too late now anyway.”
“I’m sorry I brought it up.” Dageid sighed. Alette buried her face in her hands. Dageid hugged her, and Alette rested her head on Dageid’s shoulder.
“I just don’t see how there’s time for any of that when we’re all just trying to survive.” she cried. Dageid thought for a minute.
“Maybe being barely able to survive inspires people to really start living.” she said.
“Sounds like something a skald would say. Did Aleo tell you that?” Dageid let out a small laugh, which faded after a second.
“We’ve lost so many people.” she said. “There were three hundred or so when we left Skogr, now there’s a tenth of that.” There was a lasting silence, with only the sounds of distant conversations, yox steps and cartwheels rolling in the mud, before Dageid tried to change the topic.
“Remember Oddur’s bread rolls?”
“With the salt from that trader from Strand?”
“And the huge deer Ari caught?”
“That was a good feast.”
“And then Rafnsvartr got drunk and threw up on the Chieftain.”
There was a pause.
“That was a good feast.”
Alette and Dageid spent hours sharing nostalgic tales of back home and laughing, for a while forgetting the state of the world around them. It was only when the caravan ground to a halt that the two of them realised how much time had passed, and Dageid realised how tired she was.
“I’ll see if I can find some space somewhere.” she said as she hopped down from the cart to allow her replacement to get on. Alette said goodbye and walked up to the front of the caravan, where Rugga was waiting for her, looking disappointed.
“Where have you been?” he asked.
“Talking with someone.” she replied.
“Instead of organising rations, scouting parties and guard shifts? Fortunately I took over in the meantime. You are a leader, Alette. You need to act like one at all times. It is a heavy responsibility, I know, but it is necessary. Anyway, my scouts have discovered a village a mile or so ahead. Unlike the other one, the people are still there.”
“I’ll take a small group with me and see if I can persuade them to let us camp there for a while.”
“Now you’re acting like a leader.” Rugga remarked, with an approving grin. “If I may, I would like to join you, and observe how you handle things.”
Alette took representatives of each part of the caravan forward to greet the Kragsmen village. Rugga had brought his thatch-haired bodyguard Dagr with him. Prince Ludin was there with Yrsa and a soldier bearing the banner of Arberrang. King Hakon and Finbjorn of Wyrmtoe were also there, Finbjorn holding up the banner of Grofheim. Aleo was representing Skanvik, along with Hogun from Hofn, Nid from Frostvellr and the village elder from Reynivik. Ubin the writer also joined them. When they neared the treeline they stopped to examine the settlement. The village was larger than the other, with a huge open space in the middle. There were wooden stakes placed in a circle around the village pointing outwards as a defensive measure, with a gap large enough for two Varl to walk abreast on the eastern side, facing the direction of Alette’s group.
“They may not react too well to the Arberrang banner. There have been several wars between our peoples over the generations.” Ludin warned. “Maybe you should go without me first.”
“They’ll have to know about you eventually.” Alette replied. “We should be honest from the start.”
“Don’t mention the burial grounds, whatever you do.” Aleo said. Alette nodded and walked forwards out of the treeline. Everyone else followed. Several people in the village stopped what they were doing and started to run about, gathering weapons. Someone blew a horn. Alette stopped outside the entrance in the stake wall.
“We are not here to hurt you!” she shouted. “We are passing through and would like a place to stay!” Several people armed with crude wooden shields and peat iron weapons marched forwards. All were dressed in dull olive green and brown colours. One of them, an elderly man who used a staff to help him walk, was unarmed.
“I am Braesi, leader of this village. Who are you?” he asked.
“I am Alette, of Skogr. I have with me representatives from Arberrang, Grofheim, Boersgard, Wyrmtoe, Skanvik, Reynivik, Frostvellr and Hofn.”
“Most of those names mean nothing to me.” the old man replied. “But we Kragsmen have no good to do with Arberrang. I am afraid you will have to move on.”
“I am Prince Ludin of Arberrang.” Ludin said, stepping forwards. Some of the villagers held their weapons more tightly. “You can come with us to Arberrang and I will ensure my father offers you sanctuary.”
“Why would we need sanctuary behind your walls?” the elder said, his face contorting in anger.
“We have been facing Dredge all along the Ormsa.” Alette explained. “It won’t be long before they cross the chasm and reach here.”
“Dredge?” the elder repeated. “Chasm? What are you talking about?”
“You don’t know?” Alette muttered.
“We’ve heard of Horseborn in the west, and there’s this business with the sun, but there have been no mentions of Dredge for a hundred years!”
“Well there are mentions of them now.” said Hakon. “Grofheim is destroyed, razed to the ground by the Dredge. They have also taken Einartoft and are moving southwest. The people in our caravan have all had to flee our homes. If you were wise, you would too.” The elder thought for a while.
“Do these new Dredge have anything to do with the quakes we’ve been feeling?”
“Possibly.” Alette replied. “A snake, large enough to break mountains, has been going across the land for the past couple of months, making chasms wherever it goes.”
“The sun, Dredge, a giant snake.” the elder muttered to himself. “I only have evidence for one of those, and it doesn’t seem like enough reason to abandon our homes.”
“We need to offer them something.” Rugga whispered. “Words alone clearly aren’t enough.” Alette thought for a moment.
“Have you any wounded? We have people who can help.” she said.
“As it happens we do.” the elder replied. “But our own healers are tending to them.”
“Were those healers trained in Manaharr?” Alette asked rhetorically.
“Manah- You have Menders with you?”
“Yes.” Alette nodded. The elder turned to one of the other Kragsmen and spoke quietly. The Kragsman ran back into the village, disappearing into one of the larger houses. Alette could feel the tension build as everyone’s hands drifted subconsciously closer to their weapons. Ludin’s hands gripped tighter to his spear; Yrsa’s fingers fidgeted with the flights of the arrows in her hip quiver; Dagr’s left hand moved his shield to cover more of his body while his right hand lay on the pommel of his sheathed sword.
“What is that man doing?” Alette asked.
“He is talking with our healers, that is all.” The elder reassured her. She relaxed slightly, as did her companions. A minute went by, then the man re-emerged from the healers’ house. He exchanged words with the elder, who then nodded.
“If we let you stay, your Menders will aid our wounded?” he asked Alette. He sounded nearly desperate.
“How many of you are there?”
“Several hundred, including many Varl.”
“It will be difficult, but we will make room.”
“Thank you. We will go back and get the others.”
Tents were set up all throughout the village, with a great number of them outside the stake wall. The Varl were mostly outside the wall, along with the army of Arberrang and most of the population of Boersgard. Rugga and his nobles demanded to be placed in the centre of the village alongside the people of Skogr. Alette left her bow down by her bedroll. She couldn’t be bothered to unstring it. Juno and Eyvind joined the healers straight away. After a short rest, Alette visited them. She noticed the odour of blood and infected flesh as she approached, but when she opened the door of the healer’s house it was as if she had walked into a wall of miasma. She immediately coughed and brought her cloak up to cover her mouth. There were half a dozen wounded inside on tables, with only three Kragsman healers and a handful of assistants. Eyvind was working on a man with a missing arm, while across the room Juno examined a woman’s head. Eyvind was closer, so Alette went to him first. He was using his Mending power to cut away infected flesh on what remained of the man’s bicep, of which there was a lot. As she watched, the village elder came in and joined Juno. Two of the healer’s assistants picked up a covered body from a table and carried it out. The elder watched them go with a look of remorse. Eyvind paused for a while and took a breath, but did not look up at Alette.
“Smaller than a Varl at least.” he stated, wiping sweat from his brow. It had been Eyvind who helped heal Iver after his fight with Bellower at Einartoft. The Kragsman, clearly a grizzled warrior, grunted in pain as he tried to sit up. Eyvind eased him back down.
“I’m not done yet, I still need to stitch the stump together.” he said. “Alette, this part is trickier, I may need to concentrate more.” Alette nodded and walked over to Juno. She had not been able to see the woman’s injury from the door, but now she could see horrific detail. The left side of her face had been nearly crushed in, her jaw horribly one-sided. Her left eye was sealed shut, her cheek swollen and misshapen. It was fortunate that the woman was unconscious.
“What happened?” Alette gasped.
“Horseborn.” the elder responded. “A herd of them have been raiding out west. These people were trading with Grundar when the herd came in, led by a huge white horseborn. Four managed to hide from the herd and were able to bring these people back. According to Hoskuld, the large one kicked poor Thyri in the head.” he sighed. “Is there anything you can do, Mender?” Juno stared at the woman with a grave expression on her face.
“I do not know. I can maybe fix some of the damage to her face, but her brain…” The elder let out a sigh as Juno trailed off.
“Do what you can.” he said, his voice breaking. Juno took a deep breath.
“Could you both leave? This will take a lot of focus.” she asked. Alette and the elder agreed. As Alette exited the healers’ house she wondered about the Horseborn, and whether the caravan would run into them when they left the bogs.
The Kragsmen planned a feast, which consisted of a bear meat stew cooked in two massive, differently sized cauldrons. To the larger one were added strange looking mushrooms. Kegs of Kragsman ale and the caravan’s mead were cracked open. Children were given bowls of stew from the smaller cauldron, while adults ate from the stew with the mushrooms. Alette was sat on a log alongside the other leaders of the caravan, having a bowl of the mushroom stew. Ludin was sat to her left, Aleo to her right. Once everyone had eaten their fill a man stood up on a thick tree trunk next to the cauldrons. Another man passed him a lyre, and as he strummed a few notes the revellers fell silent. The skald began his performance with a voice the likes of which Alette had never heard. Aleo leant forward, drumming his fingers, clearly interested in the skald’s tale.
“…And then, when Joravak could not best Thord in charm, or song, or game, he challenged him with sword, and slew him…”
Alette looked to her right to see Aleo’s eyes practically gleaming, fixed on the skald, his fingers brushing the lyre which he had at his feet. He beckoned to one of the other Skanvik people, who leant in next to him. He whispered something, and the person nodded and ran off into the crowd.
“…A frightful creature, like the image of a man twisted and swollen beyond recognition, would wander in the night…”
Alette glanced around at the enraptured crowd, the children gasping in fear at the description of the monster. On one of the other benches, Nid’s three boys were huddling with their mother. Aleo’s messenger popped out from the crowd and spoke to the boys, who rushed off into the crowd with joy on their faces. Alette looked at Nid in confusion, and Nid replied with a knowing smile.
“…And with his final words Thord kissed the hand of the tearful maiden and sank back into the ground, there now to remain.”
Finishing his song, the skald bowed, and the audience applauded. When the applause died down, Aleo stood and dramatically raised his arms. Confused murmurs flared up, before Aleo started to speak.
“A wonderful story from our most gracious hosts!” he yelled, bowing before the local skald. “If I may, I would like to answer your story with my own! It is a performance I have been hoping to put on for some time.” He strummed a few notes on his lyre, and two children emerged from the crowd, a girl from Skanvik, dressed in a green cloak, and one of Nid’s boys, dressed in a red cloak. The red cloaked boy held a small red banner, which he waved over his head. Alette was puzzled, but then her eyes warmed as the realisation crept up on her of who the children were representing.
“This is a tale of a time, when the sun stopped in the sky, and the people of Skogr were forced from their homes.” Each line was accompanied by a few notes from Aleo’s lyre. The two actors walked on into the middle of the clearing, the girl holding on to the boy.
“On their journey, many joined under their banner.” A boy, blonde with a red tunic, walked out from the crowd and joined behind the lead pair. Then, a girl in a gold cloak, a larger boy, Nid’s eldest, with two small twigs strapped to his forehead, and Nid’s youngest, who had a white woollen beard, all walked out of the crowd from different directions to fall behind the lead pair.
“They came to Boersgard, but they were pursued…” Aleo let the silence hang in the air for a few moments. “…by the Dredge.” he struck an ominous chord on his lyre, and four boys dressed in black appeared as one from the crowd, raising their arms in an attempt to be menacing. Some of the Kragsmen children gasped in terror.
“These stone foes were led…” Another pause, a short sinister tune. “…by Bellower, the mighty Sundr.” An older boy dressed in red and black appeared, walking through the four Dredge actors to lead them. He held a spear with the head removed, and a kite shield painted red. He raised the spear and roared. Aleo started playing a fast-paced song on his lyre, joined by drumming from one of the Skanvik women in the crowd. The four caravan actors began to fight the four Dredge actors, while Bellower slowly walked towards the lead pair.
“They fought for their very survival, but Bellower had no weakness.” One of the caravan actors attacked Bellower, who shrugged off the blow and struck back with his spear. The other actor let out a yell and fell to the ground.
“Until the heroic Rook…” The actor of father pulled a branch from beneath his cloak, which had been turned into a small bow using some string. “...smote the Sundr with an enchanted silver arrow, to save his daughter.” The boy with the bow also pulled from his cloak an arrow with the head removed, which had also been painted white, and shot it at the Bellower actor. The large boy let out a hoarse scream, dropping his spear and shield.
“I, Rook of Skogr, have slain you!” the actor of father yelled, holding his bow aloft.
“But in his dying moments, Bellower exacted one final vengeance…” Bellower ran forwards and picked up the boy in the red cloak. He held him up in the air for a few moments and screamed again before putting him down and falling to the ground clutching his chest. The actor of father lay on the ground unmoving. Alette’s actress rushed forward as the Dredge actors one by one slipped back into the crowd. The drumming stopped and Aleo’s tune became slow and mournful. Alette cradled her father in her arms, holding his head against her own and sobbing, and the Alette who was watching also found that a tear rolled down her cheek.
“Rook, who had led his people so far, had passed a hero.” The Alette actress gently put the boy down, picked up his bow from the ground, drew up her hood and stood. Aleo’s tune became hopeful, yet still sombre.
“His daughter, Alette, took up her father’s position and continued to lead his people as her own, onwards to safer lands, never forgetting her father’s sacrifice.”
Aleo played one final sad note and bowed his head, while all the child actors lined up with him, also with their heads down. They all began to sing a familiar song.
“We are all guests upon the land,
Never to stay in one place,
A noble name shall never perish,
He will not be forgotten.”
Alette choked on her breath as she broke down weeping. Ludin laid a hand on her shoulder. Aleo looked at her and his theatrical persona faltered, guilt crossing his face. Alette wiped her eyes, took a deep breath and stood up.
“It was a wonderful performance.” she said through her sobs. “Thank you.” The crowd started to applaud, and Aleo’s smile returned as he bowed. The Kragsmen elder Braesi approached Alette, with a wooden tankard in his hand.
“On behalf of my people I offer my condolences.” he said. Then he raised his drink, and his voice. “To Rook, of Skogr!” he cheered.
“To Rook!” the crowd cheered, cups raised everywhere. The deep, resounding roar of the Varl surpassed in volume the fiercest human shout.
“And to Alette, of Skogr, may she lead on to further greatness!”
After the toast, Alette was overwhelmed by people approaching her to talk or simply offer condolences. It wasn’t long before Alette started feeling odd. She had had a few cups of mead, but she suspected the mushrooms had also had an effect. Moving her head, a lag between her will and her body, she glanced around, unable to fully focus, and saw that everyone else was also rather inebriated.
“Hah, you won’t find anything like that up in the north!” Braesi slurred, seeing the mushrooms had taken hold. Alette chuckled in response. A large space was cleared around the largest bonfire, and people began dancing in a circle around it while others banged on drums. Alette found herself joining in and laughing, feeling like a different person entirely. The revellers jumped about, some of the Kragsmen wearing silly wooden masks and shaking small hollow instruments to add to the drums. She slowed down and stopped when she recognised a familiar face through the crowd, on the other side of the bonfire the image distorted by the heat haze. She stared for a while, then a tap on her shoulder drew her gaze away. It was Dotta, who beckoned for her to dance. Alette grabbed Dotta’s hand and resumed her dancing, forming a small circle with Dotta, Sigrod, Dageid, and Dageid’s ‘friend’ from Reynivik.
“Not sobering up, are you?” Dageid laughed, holding out her hand, in which were five more of the mushrooms that had been in the stew. “Well, come on!” she yelled. Each person took a mushroom and on the count of three put it into their mouth. Unlike in the stew, this time it took less than a minute to have an effect. The five of them continued their dancing, stumbling and giggling much more. Sigrod slipped and was caught by Dotta, hurriedly apologising as he tried to support himself, though still holding on to Dotta’s arms. She laughed and pulled him closer. Alette glanced at Dageid, who gave her a look that said “called it”. Alette, Dageid and the Reynivik boy moved away from the other two to give them a moment alone and continued dancing, but it wasn’t long before the familiar face caught Alette’s eye again. He was closer this time, in the crowd on her side of the bonfire. He had short blond hair, a chiselled, beardless jaw and bright blue friendly eyes. He walked out of the throng of merrymakers, carrying a sword in his left hand and a huge iron shield in his right. He stopped a few yards away, laying his weapons down on the ground, and grinned at her. She returned the grin, and he stepped towards Alette, taking her hands in his. A tear rolled down her cheek and she closed her eyes. For a brief moment she could have sworn she felt lips pressing against her own, but when she opened her eyes there was no one there. She wandered back to her tent, walking past a couple of men bent over and throwing up against the wall of a house on the way, and sat down on her bedroll, weeping into her cloak. She felt better afterwards, be it due to some sense of closure, or simply the lingering effect of the mushrooms, and she found herself smiling as she lay there. The noise of the festivities continued for another couple of hours or so, before beginning to dwindle as the revellers turned in one by one. Finally, once the party had died down to only a few, she was able to drift asleep. Despite the smell and humidity of the swamps, and her hallucination, Alette felt good. The feast had certainly raised spirits in the caravan, and despite Ludin’s worries, the Kragsmen had accepted them.
“Alette, wake up!” Iver shouted, bringing Alette out of her sleep. “Now!” It was definitely urgent, and Iver sounded almost panicked. Alette yawned and stretched as she put on her cloak. She hurried outside, nursing her throbbing head, to see a terrifying contrast from the previous day’s mirth. All the Kragsmen bar the children and elderly were armed and shouting at the similarly armed caravan members. Families screamed as they were forced from their tents at sword point. One of the Varl was about to swipe at a Kragsman only to be held back by two others, shouting for him not to escalate things further. Many were visibly hungover, no doubt shortening their temper.
“What’s happening?” Alette shouted. The elder stormed towards her flanked by two spearmen. He thrust an object towards her, his face contorted in anger.
“Does this look familiar?” he barked. Alette rubbed her eyes and focused on the object. It was a wooden medallion, with a flower that she recognised as a baa clover carved into it. As soon as recognition flashed across her face the elder withdrew the medallion and held it in a clenched fist by his side. “Kolskegg found it when he went to pay his respects at the Haug Fields, alongside collapsed graves and uprooted headstones!” The elder paced back and forth, seething. “Do you realise what you have done!?” He stopped pacing, then huffed in remorse. “I want to believe you are good people, and that your desecration of the Haug Fields is only out of ignorance, not malice.”
“It is.” Alette pleaded. The elder stared her in the eyes.
“Then go.” he sighed. “Leave!”
“What!?” one of his guards, a thickly built axeman, yelled. “They have disturbed the dead! You know what the price is!” the man glared at Alette and pointed his spear at her. “We cannot let them live!”
“I am the leader of this village, Kolskegg, not you!” The elder shouted, loud enough for the whole village to hear. “And if I am making a mistake then may I and only I suffer for it!” He took a deep breath. “The caravan shall be allowed to leave unharmed!” The elder’s order gave rise to protests from many of the Kragsmen, but they respected his seniority and lowered their weapons. The caravan was allowed to pack up their tents, though the armed Kragsmen still supervised anyone who was carrying a weapon. An hour later the caravan was on the move, back into the sticky mud and low hanging willows of the bogs. Alette walked alongside Skogr’s people, Torgrim the Elder currently driving their yox cart, which contained, along with food, weapons and supplies, the folded up banner of Skogr.
“Well that could have gone better.” Iver grumbled.
“Could have gone worse.” replied Arnulf, as his wife Aasa, with little Ubba on her shoulder, helped him limp along. Despite Eyvind’s Mending, his leg wound still pained him. Alette heard crying, and slowed down a bit to go to the rear of the cart, where Bergljot and her mother Edla were sitting trying to comfort a crying Bjorn. Kristofer and Aukfrosta were walking alongside them.
“It’s my fault.” the boy sobbed. “I lost your necklace.”
“That’s alright.” said the ever well-mannered Bergljot, hugging Bjorn in the way only a child can. “I’ll make you another.”
“If I hadn’t lost it, they would have let us stay.” Bjorn cried.
“We would have had to move on anyway, Bjorn.” Edla said softly, wiping the boy’s tears away. Edla had effectively adopted Bjorn after he lost both his parents in the flight from home.
“Where do we go now, Alette?” Kristofer asked.
“We just keep heading west, to Grundar.” Alette replied.
They continued west for two days, before the ground started to become more solid and the trees thinned out. Another day, and they reached a strange formation on the edge of the swamplands, which looked like giant tree roots, burnt and blackened. The land around it was also cracked and dry, as if a forest wildfire had recently spread. Despite its menacing countenance, the fact that it signalled the end of the bogs made it a welcome sight to many in the caravan. The Varl, however, visibly shrank at the sight of it, hesitating to go forward.
“The godstone of Baldringr.” Aleo declared as they approached, rushing a little ways ahead of the caravan to address them all in his melodramatic skaldic fashion. “The god of war. In the First Great War, when the Varl were dominating humanity, it was Baldringr who gave man the gift of fire, as a means to fight back against the giants. When man and Varl made peace, the god Baldringr fell from grace, as did this godstone, but the petrified flames still scorch the land.” Alette stepped forward.
“We’ll set up camp here.” she shouted. “Prince Ludin, I want double the guards posted around the rear of the camp.”
“If it’s alright with you, the Varl will camp separately.” Hakon boomed. “This place is unnatural.”
“Very well.” Alette nodded.
The main camp was set up in between and around the roots of the godstone. The Varl encamped in the plains half a mile further ahead. Ludin’s soldiers encamped at the back, just out of the dark, thick treeline. Alette wandered the camp, ensuring that everything was in order. Looking past the camp into the treeline she couldn’t help but feel uneasy. She had placed the extra guards at the rear in case the Kragsmen changed their minds about letting the caravan go. She went to see Rugga when she reached the Boersgard area of the camp. She found him in his tent, with Dagr standing outside. Dagr was wary of her as she walked past him, his untrusting eyes never leaving her through his helmet.
“Rugga.” she announced herself.
“Alette.” he said, as he stood from the table at which he was sitting.
“What are your opinions on the Kragsmen situation?” she asked.
“Well you managed to not get us killed, which is something.” the governor said. “Offering to help with their wounded to get on their good side; that was a wise choice. Then, while it might not have been deliberate on your part, using Aleo’s performance to garner sympathy was also most advantageous.” That struck a nerve, but Alette stayed silent, accepting that Rugga only looked at the pragmatic side of things.
“Thank you.” Alette nodded. “What can I expect from the road ahead?”
“Grundar is little more than a trading post. Once we cross to the west side of the Ormsa, we are back in civilisation proper. We’ll arrive at Lundar, a walled town famous for its breeding of birds for arrow fletchings. Then we can go north to rejoin the Eastway Road straight to Arberrang through Tolir. Then, we only have the cutthroat politics of the capital to deal with.”
“Joy.” Alette sighed sarcastically.
“When we get to Arberrang, remember: think only in terms of what you have, what you need, and what you can get. There is no room for sentiment or misplaced honour.” He paused to make sure Alette understood, then was about to speak again when a horn interrupted him. Shouts and cries of pain followed. Alette and Rugga rushed out of the tent, Alette reaching for the knife at her belt, having left her bow and arrows in her tent. The horn had come from Ludin’s part of the camp, next to the treeline. As Alette and Rugga reached it they saw a hasty shield wall had formed, with archers lining up behind the shields. A number of bodies in red and gold were scattered about, javelins protruding from their corpses. One of Ludin’s sergeants, dressed in a simple iron helmet and chainmail byrnie over a red and gold tunic, saw Alette and ran towards her.
“Kragsmen, miss!” he yelled. “Get down!” Alette looked towards the trees to see javelins flying out at the camp.
“A bow!” Alette ordered. The sergeant ran towards a group of archers as Alette ducked behind the shield wall. The sergeant returned with a bow and back quiver, which he chucked over to her. She slung the quiver over her back and nocked an arrow. The sergeant shouted to the line of archers, who at the moment were all crouched behind the shield wall.
“Nock…Draw…” Alette stood and drew her bow along with the others. Before he could shout the order to loose, a javelin flew through a gap in the shields and straight through his throat. Blood spurted over Alette’s shocked face as the man fell to his knees gargling.
“Loose!” Alette shouted once she regained her senses. The bow was longer and heavier than she was used to and her arrow went higher than expected, while the others flew in a unified barrage. Another volley of javelins, slightly fewer this time, came out of the dark treeline, striking down more of the Prince’s men. Alette heard a battle cry from the left, and saw a score of soldiers charging towards the treeline in a column formation, shields raised. The javelin throwers started to focus on them, taking out a couple before the contingent disappeared into the trees.
“Hold!” Alette ordered to halt the archers. The sound of swords clashing and cries of pain emerged from the woods. Then came a new sound, a deep roaring. Yells of terror emerged from the woods. The troops in the shield wall anxiously leant from foot to foot, flexing the grip on their weapons, heads darting to and fro. A few soldiers emerged from the treeline screaming in fear. A few tense moments passed as the last screams faded. Then, the undergrowth exploded as a bear charged out from the treeline. The shield wall faltered as gasps of shock spread throughout the troops.
“Loose!” Alette shouted, fumbling to nock an arrow in her panic. A hasty volley of arrows followed, most missing the beast. It flinched but continued in its frenzy, smashing into the shield wall and knocking men flying with a swipe of its claws. Alette was pushed to the floor as the man in front of her was thrown backward, splinters of his now broken shield raining down on her. Her bow was knocked from her hand as she fell. She scrambled out from underneath the soldier and sat up as the bear rampaged through the defensive lines. Javelins started to fall from the treeline again, picking off the dazed troops of the collapsed shield wall. Alette glanced about, seeing to her right the bear ripping into an unfortunate fighter, to her left a wounded man, his arm scratched and broken and his leg impaled with a javelin, crawling along the ground away from the Kragsmen. A javelin landed a few yards away and she rushed to grab the nearest shield, holding it up as she crouched behind it. She heard a grunt and looked left again to see the wounded man dead, another javelin having gone through his chest. There was a thud, and she looked forward to see a javelin point sticking through her shield, having stopped just before her face. She scanned the battlefield to find other fighters, but saw mostly corpses and scattered weapons, and the bear which was biting into the neck of a fallen soldier, its muzzle coated in crimson. The bear looked up as Kragsmen burst forth from the trees with a fearsome battle cry.
“Arberrang!” came another cry from the other direction, as more soldiers in red and gold, led by Prince Ludin himself, ran into the killing field. Fighters in Arberrang colours clashed with the Kragsmen as Ludin charged towards the bear, spear raised. It turned to roar at him and he hesitated, thrusting his spear out as far forward as possible, clearly terrified. Alette stayed behind her shield as the Prince’s fighters formed a defensive line ahead of her to hold off the Kragsmen. She reached for the dagger at her belt and clutched it in trembling hands. Ludin steeled himself and let out a battle cry, lunging at the bear and stabbing at it with his spear. He caught it in the shoulder and it recoiled. The Prince pressed his advantage, running forwards again, only to jump back as the bear swiped at him with bloody claws. Ludin ducked under another strike and thrust under the bear’s neck, the spear hitting its target. The bear howled as it tried to step back, but Ludin pushed the spear further in. The two of them struggled for a few moments, then with one final whimper the bear collapsed. With the bear dead, Ludin rejoined the defenders, who were starting to push back the Kragsmen. More soldiers approached from behind and joined the fray, before the remaining dozen or so Kragsmen fled back into the trees. One of them chose to stay, swinging with his two handed axe at any who came close. Eventually two spearmen managed to get behind him while he was engaged with two fighters in front and stabbed at the backs of his knees. With an angry cry the man fell to the floor, dropping his axe. Alette put her shield down as one of Ludin’s sergeants helped her stand. The sergeant helped her walk over to the Kragsman, who was now surrounded by a mob of soldiers.
She recognised the axeman as the Kragsman who had been most vocal against the village elder’s decision to let them leave. One of the fighters was about to finish the Kragsman off when Ludin shouted.
“No!” he barked, standing before the wounded Kragsman. “Why did you do this?” he demanded.
“Have to.” the man grunted through gritted teeth. “For the good of the village.” His breathing was laboured and he nearly fell forward, only barely keeping himself upright. “Braesi doesn’t realise the consequences of releasing you. The defiled dead must be avenged, or ill will come to our village.”
“If we bury you here, will that be enough for you, or do you want to be returned to your village?” Alette asked. The man chuckled softly.
“Here’s fine.” he said, nearly a whisper. “Just as long as you bury me.” He bowed his head and sighed. “May my soul rest easier than those whose graves you’ve desecrated.”
The Kragsmen bodies were buried in a line, with branches placed upright by the heads of each, which would serve until the other Kragsmen were able to fashion gravestones. The casualties from Ludin’s troops were cremated on pyres. The caravan marched off as soon as the funerals were complete. The bear had been carved up for meat. The Varl had packed and were ready to go by the time the caravan reached their camp, and the whole caravan was ready to head to Grundar. When they next rested, Prince Ludin and his fighters feasted on bear, whilst Alette practised her Mending to extract splinters from her arm. Her work was flawed, and she managed to cut herself, though the splinters came out. Rather than try to fix her new injury using Mending, she chose instead to simply wash and wrap the wound in cloth. It felt good to be marching on solid ground again, with rolling hills and open sky. To the south could be seen the Foulwind Hills, which separated Stromlund from Swartbog, a vast marshland stretching all the way to the Graywater and Gruin Seas, which would make the swamp they had just traversed look like an arid desert by comparison. The caravan made fast progress, reaching sight of Grundar in a day and a half. At the top of the last hill overlooking Grundar, in the shadow of a lone tree, was an odd sight. Five strange creatures, who no one among the caravan had ever seen before. Horseborn, like the upper half of a human on the body of a long extinct horse. All of them had bronze weaponry. There were five of them, three of whom were clearly injured. There was also a large cart of food, with two empty harnesses protruding from the front such as might be found on a yox cart, but clearly designed for the Horseborn’s bodies. One of them, the first to notice them, was a brown haired female with several javelins slung over her back. She readied one as the caravan approached the top of the hill. Alette held her hand up to signal the caravan to stop, the Varl, the most visible, copied the gesture to ensure the message reached the rear. Alette looked at Oddleif, who had an expression of pure fascination on her face, and gestured for her to follow as she cautiously walked up the hill. Both of them had no weapons and held their arms raised, palms open. They stopped when the Horseborn showed signs of agitation, stamping their hooves and swishing hair. The female prepared to throw her javelin, but the other standing one, a blue-grey haired male, held out his arm to stop her. He spoke quickly, in a strange tongue with many flowing syllables. The female huffed and put her javelin back with the others. The male looked at Alette and Oddleif and spoke slowly, struggling with the unfamiliar words.
“H-Help…please.” He said. Alette looked at the three wounded Horseborn, who were all sitting down, their human halves still upright.
“We can help.” Alette said, gesturing to the wounded. She turned to Oddleif. “Can you go back and get Eyvind and Juno?” Oddleif nodded and jogged back to the caravan. The female eyed her tentatively as she went.
“I…” the male thought for a moment. “I have name…” he said, uncertain of the correct grammar. He then said a word, of two syllables, that Alette assumed was his name.
“Skathak?” Alette repeated, the male nodded. The male gestured to each Horseborn in turn.
“Dirge Ree-oo” was the female with the javelins. “Row Ech” the pale haired wounded male with a bronze mace. “Eethmeer” the wounded female, with chestnut coloured hair, with javelins and a slightly curved bronze sword on her back. “Eeg-cairn-thack” was the black haired Horseborn with a spear by his side, and a bronze bracer around his wrist. Row Ech, Eethmeer and Eegcairnthack were covered in a variety of wounds, from hoof prints to stabs and slashes.
“What happened?” Alette asked. Skathack cocked his head with a confused look. “How did they get hurt?” Alette tried again. The words ‘how’ and ‘hurt’ were understood, and the Horseborn bowed his head with a hint of sorrow and anger.
“Tree-cairn-thay” he muttered. Alette guessed it was another Horseborn. “Try to take food. We fight and we…” his eyes glanced about as he searched for the right word. “…hurry go away.” Alette guessed he meant ‘escape’. “Many Horseborn in Treecairnthay herd.” They must be the raiders the Kragsmen had spoken about.
“How do you know our language?” Alette inquired. Upon Skathack’s quizzical expression she tried again. “How can you talk like me?”
“My herd trade with Kragman herd.” Skathack explained. Dirge Reeoo’s eyes narrowed, looking over Alette’s shoulder. She turned and saw Oddleif returning with the Menders. Juno and Eyvind were both awestruck at the unfamiliar creatures.
“These people will help.” Alette said gently as the Menders stepped forward. Dirge Reeoo’s hand went for her javelin. “Help.” Alette repeated slowly. Skathack said something in their language, and the other Horseborn relaxed.
“You should probably tell the caravan about the Horseborn, so they’re not shocked when they see them.” Oddleif suggested. Alette nodded and returned to the caravan, going to each leader in turn and telling them to spread the news. When she got to Ubin, he sighed nostalgically.
“It’s been decades – no, nearly a century, possibly more – since I last saw Horseborn.” he said. Alette told the writer the names of the Horseborn. “Styrlaug the Roamer devised a way to write the Horseborn language in common script. Let’s see if I can remember how the spelling goes…” he mumbled as he grabbed a spare patch of scroll and started scribbling with his quill. Alette watched as he wrote, and tried to remember how the Horseborn names were written.
“Scathach.” he muttered. “There was a famous Horseborn by that name back in my younger years. Led a herd bigger than ever before, and ransacked every human village right the way to Tolir. They were stopped at Hunters’ Bridge by a man named – oh, what was it – Hafodd the Tall, I think.” Ubin thought a bit more. “Then there’s Derdriu. Ro’Ech, they do this strange mark in the middle of names sometimes; never saw the point in it. Aiodhmír, don’t let the dh fool you. And finally, what was it? Eeg-Cairn-Thack? Well the end is obviously ‘thach’, I’ve heard of a few Horseborn with ‘cánn’ in their names. Eeg, Eage, maybe? I’ll go with that. Eagecánnthach. There we go. It’s odd that they’ve come so far north. And they said there was a herd raiding around here? Led by a Horseborn called Trigecánnthae? We may have to be careful ahead.”
When Alette went back to the Horseborn Ubin and Hakon joined her. By that time the Menders had done their work and all of the Horseborn were back on their feet.
“Thank.” Scathach said, bowing his head to each person in turn. A questioning look crossed his face. “Varl. Man. Same herd?”
“Not exactly, but we’re no longer enemies.” Hakon replied.
“Last time the Horseborn had any dealings with Varl, it was the beginning of the First Great War.” Ubin explained to Alette. “Man and Varl were still fighting then, as the Dredge hadn’t appeared yet.” The black haired Horseborn, Eagecánnthach, said some things to Scathach in their language. Scathach nodded and looked back at the humans and Varl.
“Eagecánnthach and Aiodhmír take food back to herd.” he said. “We join you?”
“Yes, you can join us if you want.” Alette replied. Scathach smirked.
“Man. Varl. Horseborn. Same herd. Funny.”
The village of Grundar was having a festival, as could be seen by all the brightly coloured decorations adorning the houses. A line of people carried a giant serpent over their heads crafted from wood and thatched straw, marching it through the village. Alette recognised the celebrations as Radormyr’s Day, a festival where people praised the god Radormyr for a bountiful year and praying for a good harvest in the next. If it was Radormyr’s Day, that meant that it was just over five months since the flight from Skogr. Alette, and probably many others, had been so busy taking things day by day that her perception of the passage of time had faded, which was certainly not helped by the eternal daylight. After bartering for enough food to get to Lundar, the caravan began their march across the plains, three of the Horseborn joining them while the other two took their cart of supplies back south to their kin. The caravan crossed to the west side of the River Ormsa and within a couple of days were in sight of the walled town of Lundar. However, it was not as they’d hoped. The outlying houses and farms were in ruins, smoke rising from ransacked structures. The walls were battered, but still standing and manned. To the south were Horseborn; to the north, Dredge. Lundar was besieged.
Last edited by ajrman; 03-06-2017 at 09:32 AM.
Wow! keep 'em coming, ajrman
I compiled Chapters 8-9-10 (Saga2) into this PDF for whomever it might concern: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/...h8-9-10%5D.pdf
Hope I get the time to read it, soon
Together we stand, divided we fall.
The skald raises his lyre once again! Chapter Four is about halfway done, so as people seemed to enjoy The Trial Of Joravak, here is the second of the 'Skald's Tales', The Brothers Eskil and Eid...
In the village of Vist, on the coast of Denglr’s Bay, were born twin brothers, Eskil and Eid. At the age of five the brothers found their home pillaged and their parents killed by raiders, first among whom was the warrior Haeming Hardeye. Taken as thralls, they were raised as the Hardeye’s sons in the mead hall of Biornshus for a dozen and three years. Eskil was trained in spear, Eid in axe, and they joined the Hardeye on his raids until a week before a Radormyr’s Day, when he was slain by the envious Sigwulf Snakeaxe. Only the brothers had witnessed the deed, so the charge was placed on them by the usurper, and they were forced to flee. Knowing that to return and accuse the Snakeaxe of his crime would be to invite the blades of his supporters, the brothers conspired to provoke a confession from the killer. From Eskil’s mind a plan spawned, and the brothers travelled to the godstone of Bjorulf, that patron of the merry drink. The god appeared before them, and upon hearing of the brothers’ woe gifted unto them a keg of mead and spoke, saying “This is my finest creation, strong as the toughest yox and thrice more again, aged as the eldest son of Hadrborg and thrice more again, sweet as Lauga’s love and thrice more again”. On Radormyr’s Eve Eid approached Brenna the Summerhaired, a maid of Biornshus with whom he had shared several nights, as she picked berries in the woods. She concurred with the plot, and gave the brothers two cloaks in exchange for their weapons. As the sun set on Radormyr’s Day, and the raiders and their thralls gathered for a night of feast and drink, the cloaked men arrived before the revellers and presented Bjorulf’s blessing to the Snakeaxe, citing the god’s words. The Hardeye’s slayer drank heartily of the mead, and within the hour his wits were banished beyond the power of any brew of Man or Varl. In this state the Snakeaxe boasted of the Hardeye’s murder, and his followers recoiled in shock, and none did speak or lift a hand as Eskil and Eid revealed themselves. To them Brenna threw their weapons, and they turned on the befuddled murderer. With Eskil’s spear the Snakeaxe was skewered, and with Eid’s axe his head was hewn from his neck. Having exacted their revenge on the Hardeye’s killer, the brothers were celebrated by those who had been his friends. However, they knew that those closest to the Snakeaxe would forever harbour bitterness towards them, so they opted to stay for only one night. As a parting gift, Brenna gave Eid a lock of her hair, which he received gratefully. From Biornshus the brothers then departed to journey and explore, with no true destination in mind.
Last edited by ajrman; 02-26-2017 at 03:06 PM.
Nice tale, interweaving various stuff from the in-game lore. But, ...
The "Halfhand" recalled memories from ASOIAF, and with that the tradition of "guest-right" which Eskil and Eid so savagely abused And all that to avenge the killer of their parents' killer?
Together we stand, divided we fall.
The 'replacement father' situation with Haeming was inspired by Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Stories, in which the main character (a saxon) is enslaved by a dane as a young boy, yet grows to respect him as a father. I will admit that the halfhand epithet may have been a mistake, but I was struggling to think of a cool sounding alternative so I just went with it.
A little bit of Orwellian revision later...
Haeming has always been called the Hardeye.
Chapter Four is here! With the wildly different scenery, certain revelations and the first glimpse of the mysterious Darkness, this was one of my favourite parts of the game to play, and I hope to have captured the same atmosphere in the writing. Chapter Four: Where A Foe May Lurk...
Bolverk was alone in the woods. He liked to be alone, with nothing and no one to disturb him, only the oddly soothing sound of the wind through the trees. This took him back to his days in the wild before he earned the title of berserker. The berserkers were Varl who rejected the notion that Hadrborg made them from man and yox, choosing instead to believe that they were the merging of man and bear. Tracking a great snow bear of the Brattabreck Peaks, clad in nought but his skin, he climbed up to its lair and battled the beast. Now clad in his new cloak, his final act to become a true berserker was to break off his horns in defiance of his yoxen heritage. He had then had them crafted into the handles of his axes, Claw and Fang. At that time the berserkers were a waning group, only two Varl alive with the title at the time of Bolverk’s initiation. Now, he was the last one.
A new sound drew his attention away from his reminiscing. He stood up to his full height and his hands went to the handles of his axes. Glancing around, he could see only the nearby trees and the snow, the ongoing blizzard obscuring any vision past twenty yards. Then a silhouette started to form, the size of a large human, approaching him. Then another, further to the left of the first. A third joined on the right, and as they got closer the outlines of their stone armour became visible. Bolverk drew his axes and roared, charging forward. The Dredge turned and fled as he came into sight, but with animalistic speed he pounced on the first, slashing at its neck with Claw as it raised its stony hand. It let out a shrill screech of pain as Fang severed its hand, before a third strike from Claw crushed through its helmet, silencing it. He wasted no time in pulling his axes from its corpse and bounding after the other two, who by now had disappeared into the blizzard. The second came into sight, but too far away for him to catch up easily, so he judged the distance and hurled Fang, which caught the Dredge in the back. Not missing a step, Bolverk ran over to the fallen Dredge and hacked at its back with Claw. Stone splinters flew across the snow as the Dredge became less and less recognisable with each swing. Finally Bolverk ceased his redundant strikes and huffed. He looked around for the third Dredge. It could be long gone, he thought, before he saw a small crevice next to a fallen tree. He stomped over to it and peered inside, seeing a pair of terrified yellow eyes staring up at him. He growled and dragged the third Dredge out from its hiding place as it squealed with a rocky, grating voice. He raised Claw and chopped three times, bellowing with each strike. When he was done he sat on the trunk of the fallen tree, Claw still embedded in the stone cadaver. He stared closely at the face of the Dredge, nearly split in half, each unblinking eye looking blankly in different directions, and he felt almost remorseful. He cleared his head of those thoughts and retrieved his axes. This was obviously a scouting party, and more would be coming. He turned west and began sprinting back towards Bindal.
It took Bolverk about half an hour to reach the first watchtower. At the second, a horn blew. In the refugee camp outside the walls people darted out of his way, and he kicked over a cart of food that hadn’t been moved fast enough.
“Ravens! Man the walls!” he roared. The Ravens, who had coerced their way into having a camp right next to the gates, took up arms and ran towards the gate. The Bindal guards stood their ground, reluctant to let the mercenaries through. The one-eyed captain stood on the top of the gatehouse.
“What’s this?” his yelled.
“Dredge you fool!” Bolverk responded angrily. “A few miles out!”
“Dredge!? Guards, let them pass!” the captain ordered, and the gate guards parted to allow the Ravens through. At the mention of Dredge, however, some of the refugees began to panic, shouting to be let into the town.
“Holfi! Coordinate a defence with the captain! Folka, with me!” Holfi, the Ravens’ quartermaster, set into action.
“No!” the captain replied, joining Bolverk at ground level. “I need to speak with Valka Zefr. Einar, Organise a defence!”
“Yes Gudmundr!” was the reply from one of the Bindal guards, who began to speak with Holfi. Bolverk, Folka and Gudmundr ran up to the great hall. They practically burst through the doors, making the two Menders jump as they turned around.
“Dredge are approaching.” Bolverk and Gudmundr said in unison, giving each other an annoyed glance afterwards. Zefr looked down at the floor for a moment before addressing Bolverk.
“You arrive here with a mysterious cart given to you by a dead Mender, and now an army of Dredge arrives? I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Bring the cart here.”
“No. Explain how Juno is dead when we were with her a week ago.” Bolverk replied. The Valka sighed.
“I do not know how she is alive. The Juno that I knew was put to death by the council for altering minds – one of the worst offences in Mender law.” she explained. “Eyvind, her apprentice and lover, stole her body and fled.” Bolverk started to wonder. He had felt odd since leaving Boersgard, especially around the cart, and he wondered if some of his thoughts were truly his own. Had that Mender been playing tricks on him? Now he questioned her orders to keep the cart closed. Besides, some small part of him was curious.
“Fine. We’ll open the cart.” he said. It took a while to get the cart from outside the gates into the great hall, as the refugees were swarming through like a flood of useless meat. The Ravens had lined the walls alongside the green clad guards of Bindal. Sparr and Holfi stood atop the gatehouse, Holfi holding aloft the Black Banner. The blizzard still obscured the view, but the flame atop the nearest watchtower could be faintly made out among the snow. Once they had the cart inside the great hall Bolverk dismissed the driver, who exited the room hastily. Bolverk, Folka, Gudmundr and the Menders gathered around the cart, Nikels taking some time to pet the yox which had pulled it.
“This has been sealed with an enchantment. It may take me some time to undo it.” Zefr said after laying a hand on the cart.
“Time is something we don’t have.” Bolverk grunted.
“I agree.” said Gudmundr. “Be as quick as you can.” The Valka set to work while the others remained silent. Painstaking minutes went by, and Bolverk’s patience wore thin. Any minute now they would hear the horns signalling the arrival of the Dredge horde. When eventually Zefr was done, she gestured for Bolverk to push the lid of the cart open. He placed his arms on the lid and groaned with effort as he forced the lid aside. The humans had to climb up to see inside, and what they all saw shocked them. Grey skin, red armour, a silver arrow. The corpse of Bellower lay before them.
“So you were telling the truth.” Zefr mumbled after a minute of shocked silence. “Bellower is dead.” She contorted her face in confusion. “That’s impossible. Bellower is invulnerable.”
“Looks pretty vulnerable to me.” Bolverk jested, reaching towards the silver arrow.
“Don’t!” Zefr exclaimed. Bolverk withdrew his hand and glared at the Mender. “It’s possible the arrow is what’s keeping him dead.”
“You’re saying Bellower will come back if this arrow is removed?” Folka asked.
“I’m not certain, but it’s the only thing I can think of.” Zefr replied. Bolverk grasped the lid of the cart and pulled it closed.
“We can’t let those Dredge get it then.” he said. “We might have to fight our way out though, I’m not confident about your defences.”
“I wasn’t planning on staying here or fighting our way out.” Zefr said, turning to Gudmundr. “How long will you need to prepare the demolition?”
“An hour. Possibly lower if we divert men from the walls.” the captain replied.
“Demolition?” Folka said questioningly.
“The mines lead to a cave system which we can use to escape.” Gudmundr explained. “We’ve got the entrance set up to be destroyed from the inside. We just need to prime it and get everyone inside.”
“You go and do that.” Bolverk said dismissively. “We’ll buy you time.”
“I’ve got men on it already.” Gudmundr nodded, drawing his axe. “Let’s get to the walls.”
Standing atop the walls in the blizzard was clearly uncomfortable for many of the fighters standing watch. Some had been lucky enough to obtain furs with which to wrap themselves. Bolverk had no such qualms about the cold. By now all the refugees were inside the walls and moving into the mines while Gudmundr’s builders prepared to collapse the entrance. The gates had been sealed, but Bolverk wasn’t confident about these defences. The walls were only half as tall as those of Boersgard and the gates were simple wood, rather than the iron reinforced wood common in larger cities. A half decent battering would knock them down. As such, Bolverk had ordered Folka and a contingent of spearmen to guard the gate at ground level. Bolverk himself stood atop the gatehouse, making sure he had the most central location. Sparr stood next to him, as did Holfi, who bore the Black Banner. Gudmundr’s guards were concentrated to Bolverk’s right while the Ravens stretched to the left, although they were spread out to overlap. All stared into the white storm ahead of them, the flame of the distant watchtower somewhat comforting. Then a horn blew, a long alarming blast from the watchtower. Those who had their weapons sheathed drew them and arrows were nocked.
“Easy.” Gudmundr said calmly. A second blast sounded and was suddenly cut off. The distant flame died out seconds later.
“Finally!” Bolverk yelled, clutching Claw and Fang tightly. Sparr then launched into song with a powerful voice that belied his small, elderly frame.
“Stand tall! My blade yearns for courageous blood!” The other Ravens added their voices to the chorus as the song continued, perplexing some of Bindal’s guards. The song was just finishing by the time the Dredge could be heard, though still unseen. Minutes passed, then a hail of bright flaming objects the size of fists flew from the blizzard.
“Shields!” Gudmundr cried, as the objects pelted against the wall. Yelps of pain rang out as a few fighters were hit. Bolverk simply crouched and turned his back, grunting as at least one of the projectiles clattered against his bear skin cloak, leaving a small black singe mark. Some of the projectiles landed on wooden roofs behind the wall and the fire caught. After the volley was over, he stood and looked out from the wall, seeing dark shapes materialising from the snow. He let out a roar, which inspired similar angry shouts along the wall, as bowmen, including Sparr, let loose arrows. Dredge could be seen falling down, while others continued their charge. Three of the largest Dredge, Scourges, each standing as tall as a Varl, crashed into the gate and began hammering against it with their axes.
“Focus arrows on those three!” Bolverk shouted, pointing. The smaller Dredge Grunts brought up ladders to rest against the walls.
“Push them off!” Gudmundr shouted. As several troops sheathed their weapons to grab hold of the ladders another volley of bright flaming projectiles came soaring in over the walls. Fighters rushed to get their shields up or were cast down crying in pain. Fire spread in more places as the projectiles added to the already aflame buildings of the town. By the time they’d recovered the first Dredge Grunts were climbing atop the walls, cutting down several troops who had yet to ready their weapons. Bolverk leapt at the nearest ladder, striking the first Dredge with a kick so powerful the ladder was thrown back away from the wall. He saw to his right a few Dredge had dispatched the defenders by their ladder and were turning towards him. He yelled and charged into them, blocking one’s strike with Fang while he swung at the other with Claw. Hooking the first’s weapon with his axe, he swung the Dredge around to come between him and the other, before hacking at it with his other axe. He kicked the corpse away and jumped at the second Dredge with both axes as a third crested the wall and clashed blades with one of the Bindal guards.
“Bolverk!” Sparr’s cry distracted him, and he barely parried the strike from the opportunistic Dredge. He made a low swing that caught the Dredge in the leg, hooking Claw behind the knee. Bolverk pulled the Dredge in and swung with Fang, the axe head embedding itself in the Dredge’s neck. He then pushed away the nearest ladder and rushed to Sparr, who hurriedly pointed down from the gatehouse. The three Dredge Scourges were making progress, the gate beginning to splinter under the onslaught. Bolverk briefly thought about jumping down and taking them head on, but even his blood rage wouldn’t get him out of that mess. Nearby to the left he saw the drunk axe thrower from Boersgard, who was fighting alongside Sigbjorn the Varl.
“Axe thrower!” he yelled, pointing at the Scourges. The man ran over to him.
“Oli!” he shouted before jumping atop the battlement and hurling axes down below. Bolverk took Oli’s place, joining the fray alongside Sigbjorn. He killed two Dredge before Oli shouted that one of the Scourges was dead. Bolverk ignored him and continued fighting, parrying an incoming blow before swinging outwards with both axes to decapitate the Dredge. A second Scourge went down twenty seconds later, but with a huge crack the third bust the gate open, the surrounding Dredge pouring in.
“They’re through the gates!” Folka shouted. Her shield wall stood fast in the gateway as the Dredge rushed in. A few moments later a horn blew from the mine entrance. Bolverk looked past the burning houses, but could see no further due to the blizzard.
“The builders are done!” Gudmundr yelled as he finished off one Dredge while blocking an attack from a second. An arrow from Sparr killed the other Dredge and Gudmundr ran over to Bolverk, stepping over several corpses on the way. “We can start to fall back!”
“The Ravens will continue holding them off.” Bolverk said. “Your fighters set up a shield wall further up the road, then we’ll leapfrog.” The captain nodded and shouted for his guards to follow him. Bolverk darted along the wall, gathering up his fighters as the Bindal guards ran down the stairs to ground level. He parried a blow from a Dredge and knocked it off the wall with his shoulder, sending it tumbling into the army down below. Four Dredge rushed to surround him, two on either side. He turned and struck at each one with his axes in four fluid movements. While the area around him was clear, he looked around him. Folka was still holding the shield wall steady in the gateway, though they had been pushed back slightly since he last looked. Oli and Sparr stood next to each other atop the gatehouse, throwing axes and shooting arrows into the Dredge while Sigbjorn defended them from any Dredge that dared to get close. Holfi was performing the difficult task of fighting while holding the Black Banner aloft, but he seemed to be doing well.
“Holfi!” Bolverk yelled. The banner bearer shouted in reply but did not turn to face Bolverk, too focused on fighting to look away. “Lead everyone behind Folka’s shield wall!” Holfi dispatched the Dredge he was engaged with and held the banner up high.
“Ravens, with me!” he cried, and one by one the Ravens fighting on the wall headed for the stairs to ground level. Bolverk simply leapt from the wall, rolling as he landed. Once everyone was behind the shield wall, Folka raised her voice.
“Ravens, fall back! Step! Step! Step!” Each member of the shield wall repeated her chant, stepping back in unison before the Dredge horde. Bolverk and those fighters not part of the shield wall walked backwards watching the sides for any Dredge who might be attempting to flank them. Glancing back, Bolverk saw the green and yellow shields of Bindal’s fighters about a hundred yards away. Oli said something to Sparr and knelt, holding his shield horizontally above his head with both hands. Sparr climbed on top and Oli raised the shield, lifting Sparr up. Sparr shot an arrow into the Dredge over the shield wall, and some of the other archers and shield bearers followed suit. The shield wall continued their slow retreat until they were only yards away from Gudmundr’s fighters.
“Men of Bindal!” he shouted. “Make way!” The shield wall of green clad fighters split into two.
“Ravens! Push!” Folka shouted, and her shield wall rushed forwards with a ferocity only found in those fighting under the Black Banner. They forced the Dredge back ten yards, then swiftly ran back behind the other shield wall, which closed up before the stunned Dredge could recover and attack again. Now Gudmundr’s troops bore the onslaught and the Ravens ran back another hundred yards, setting up a shield wall between two houses. Once Bolverk shouted that they were ready, his mighty voice reaching the other shield wall with ease, Gudmundr ordered his fighters to begin their retreat, each step marked with a shout as the Ravens had done. When at last the wall reached that of the Ravens, they switched positions as before, the Ravens once again taking the mantle. This continued thrice more, before the Ravens were at the entrance of the mine. This time, Gudmundr’s shield wall bunched together in the entrance, one of them, a thin man in a dark blue cloak, climbed up to a beam and began smacking it with a hammer. The shield wall backed away into the caves as the scaffolding gave way, collapsing wood and rock falling onto the closest Dredge. By the time the dust had cleared, the entrance was completely blocked.
“Good fighting” Gudmundr congratulated his soldiers, who cheered, the joyous sound echoing through the caves. Bolverk looked around at the cold stone walls, lit only by the yox-horn lanterns of the passing people. He didn’t like it. He felt trapped, like the walls and the ceiling were going to close in on him at any moment.
“What now?” he grunted, his annoyance clear in his voice.
“Valka Zefr has taken the people into the central cavern, further in.” Gudmundr explained. “There’s a cave system that leads back to the surface on the other side of the mountains.”
“Well, let’s get on. I prefer to spend my time on the ground, not under it.” Bolverk said. It took them ten minutes of walking through the tight corridor, with Bolverk and the other Varl constantly bending down to avoid the low ceiling. Bolverk rarely envied humans, but seeing them strolling along comfortably while he couldn’t even lift his head made this one of those times. When they finally entered the relatively open space of the central cavern, Bolverk stretched out. The cavern was like a huge open room with many regular corridors carved from the stone, leading off to different sections of the mine, lit all around with oil lamp fixtures. At the far end was a large, more natural looking passageway ending in a flat stone slab. The refugees were spread out across the huge cavern, the two Valka in the middle. Bolverk, Folka and Gudmundr walked over to them.
“I’m glad you made it safely.” Zefr smiled when they were close enough.
“Not all of us did.” Gudmundr said.
“Nikels, can you tend to the wounded?” Zefr asked, turning to the young Mender, who nodded and took off towards the fighters, some of whom were limping or supporting injured comrades.
“How long will it take to reach the surface?” Bolverk asked impatiently.
“Five or six days.” Zefr answered. Bolverk’s nose twitched.
“Brilliant.” he snorted sarcastically.
“After Nikels is done getting everyone fit to move, I’ll need his assistance to open that gateway.” The Valka pointed to the blocked passageway. “I suggest you and yours get some sleep.”
At the Valka’s suggestion, the caravan set up camp. The Ravens were able to claim a section of the cavern, clearing out those who had already settled down and forcing them to move. Bolverk didn’t bother with a tent, he just lay down some furs and drifted to sleep once he had eaten. When he awoke, Zefr and Nikels stood by the door, running their hands along it, clearly concentrating on some strange Mender magic. Bolverk watched them out of curiosity. The door had an ominous presence, and didn’t look like the craftsmanship of even the Varl of Einartoft. Eventually, the two Menders stepped back as the door began to open, seemingly of its own accord. Zefr shouted, and a couple of Bindal’s guards who had been keeping watch scattered to wake the caravan. Once everyone was fit to move, they began their descent into the caves beyond the strange door. The passageway was not lit like the rest of the mines, plunging the view ahead into complete darkness. Valka Zefr led the caravan, Nikels by her side with a lantern in hand. Bolverk walked along near Bellower’s cart, a little ways back from the Menders. When he was by the cart, he felt strangely at ease with the claustrophobic cave walls, whereas away from it he felt uncomfortable. Next to him, Folka carried a flaming oil lamp, keeping it on the far side from the Varl.
“I can’t believe that’s Bellower in there.” she muttered.
“Now I see why the Valka wanted it disposed of.” Bolverk replied. “Although that thing about her being dead and all…” He trailed off.
“I don’t trust any Mender.” Folka said. “Something about them and their magic feels wrong.”
“Let’s just get the job done. Maybe we can go back to Rugga afterwards. I don’t think he’s quite paid us in full yet.”
An unknowable length of time passed as the caravan descended still further. The people of Bindal formed the vanguard, along with the Menders. At the rear were the refugees from Ormsdalr. In the middle were the Ravens. Bolverk, bored and uncomfortable, decided to discover more about these oppressive passages. He pushed his way through to the front to talk to the Menders, several people giving him dirty looks as he shoved them aside.
“What is this place Menders?” he asked. Nikels shook his head to indicate he was as clueless as Bolverk was, while Zefr took a deep breath.
“Up until now, only a select few among the Valka council have known about these tunnels. We think they were built by an ancient subterranean race.”
“Like Dwarves?” Nikels chimed in.
“Possibly.” the Valka replied. Bolverk scoffed and stifled a laugh. “All legends have truthful roots.” Zefr said, giving Bolverk a disapproving glare. “Of course, these ancient people are long gone.” she continued, mostly for Nikels’ sake. “Some remnants of their civilisation remain, which Valka going back generations have tried to study. We have been able to map some of these tunnels, which lead to the surface at several points across the known world, and we Valka often use them when we are required to travel discretely.”
“Where else do they go?” Bolverk asked.
“I’m afraid I can’t tell you.”
“Hmmph. Valka secrets.” Bolverk snarled. Nikels’ shoulders dropped in disappointment. Zefr remained silent. Bolverk gave up and began walking back to the Ravens. Along the way he bumped into the strange thin man who had knocked down the mine entrance.
“Ah. Um, hello.” the man stammered. He was clad in a dark blue cloak and hat over a purple tunic. He had brown hair and a braided beard. His grey eyes were set deep into his gaunt face, constantly darting back and forth, nervously scanning everything and everyone.
“What do you want?” Bolverk growled.
“To, um, introduce myself.” the man said. “Dytch.” He hesitated before outstretching his hand. He glanced at Bolverk’s clenched fist and slowly withdrew. “Oh, um, sorry.” Dytch’s eyes went to the floor. “I’m good at sneaking.” he stuttered awkwardly.
“Why are you telling me this?”
“I want to help you fight.” the thin man replied.
“And you’ll do that by sneaking?” Bolverk asked sarcastically.
“I can move fast. Get behind the enemy.”
“Seems like a coward’s way to fight.”
“It’s still a way to fight.”Dytch shrugged. Bolverk grunted nonchalantly in response.
“Don’t dismiss Dytch so readily, Bolverk.” Gudmundr interrupted, joining the man and Varl. “He has proven useful in many a battle.”
“As long as he doesn’t get in my way.” Bolverk said threateningly. Dytch looked about at the smooth tunnel walls.
“Strange place.” he mumbled. “The miners had all sorts of stories about the wall. Well, door now I suppose. I remember when a group tried to mine their way through it.”
“They broke our best pickaxes.” Gudmundr grumbled. “Cost a fair bit to replace them.”
“Not even a scratch on the wall.” Dytch continued. Bolverk, tired of the conversation, plodded back over to the Ravens and the cart. Bolverk stayed silent, occasionally overhearing one of the other conversations, which echoed through the tunnel. Hours went by, the caravan eventually setting up camp at Zefr’s order. They needed to stretch out along the stone corridor, which was only wide enough for three Varl walking abreast. Bedrolls were unfurled against the walls of the tunnel, which was too small for tents. One group of idiots, some of the refugees from Ormsdalr, tried to start a campfire, which Bolverk quickly stamped out.
“Are you trying to suffocate us?” he roared, his voice magnified by the tight confines of the cave walls. The bravest of them timidly apologised and Bolverk stormed away. He stopped at Bellower’s cart. One of the Ravens brought him a loaf of bread and some vegetables. He wished for some meat but there was no way to cook it without clogging the tunnel with smoke. That made about a quarter of their rations useless. Once he had eaten his fill he sat down leaning against the cart, staring at the stone wall in front of him.
He looked up from the wall, standing to examine his warriors, the vanguard of their kind. They were ready for the Ascent. No longer would they cower under the rocks, clawing for every scrap of cave they could find as they struggled for survival against the Nameless Things in the deep. They would rise, and their armies would conquer the kingdoms of the Overworld, and their people would find new lands and new homes. He would lead them.
An eerie howl echoed down the corridor. Bolverk awoke, unaware that he had fallen asleep at all, and reached for his spear and shield. Failing to find them, he grabbed his axes, the momentary confusion having passed. The Ravens unsheathed their weapons as a scream was heard, this time from the other direction. Another scream came from behind, and a group of the refugees from Ormsdalr began surging through the tunnel, stopping when half a dozen Ravens blocked the passageway with their shields.
“Let us through!” a woman cried.
“The things are coming!” a man yelled. Bolverk stormed over to them.
“What things?” he barked. The man simply pointed, a look of terror on his face.
“It killed Luta and disappeared!” he exclaimed. At that moment a yelp of pain from behind Bolverk drew the attention of all. A Raven fell dead, a bloody gash from shoulder to hip. Bolverk spotted a flash of movement from near the corpse, which was gone in a blink. Folka ran to the dead man. The other Ravens watched the walls and ceiling. Ekkill, the crazed man from Frostvellr, grunted, blocking something with his shield. The thing fell and landed next to a lantern that had been placed on the ground, illuminating its stony-textured skin for a brief second. Ekkill rushed forward, but it jumped away causing his axe to simply graze it. No sooner had the creature made contact with the wall than it appeared to vanish. Further up the tunnel, another fighter carrying a lantern was struck down, the light source clattering onto the floor. Bolverk heard sounds of fighting from the front of the caravan. Angry shouting, which sounded like the voice of Gudmundr, was barely audible over the fighting and screaming, though individual words could not be understood. Bolverk stepped close to the wall and put his head against it, looking along the side of the tunnel. He noticed a bulge a few yards in front of him. Bolverk grinned and readied Claw. He swung at the bulge, which attempted to move away at the last second. Too slow, the creature squealed as the axe pinned it against the wall. Bolverk swung vertically at its head with Fang and silenced it. Ekkill and Folka gathered around, Folka holding up her lantern to inspect the dead creature. It was an odd beast, wolf-like in shape, with skin textured so as to blend with the stone walls and in place of a mouth were a number of fleshy tendrils. The tunnel went quiet again, only the occasional murmur of frightened people breaking the silence. Some Ravens lit more lanterns and held them up to the walls, inspiring people further along both ends of the caravan to do the same.
“Not too many, we need to conserve them!” Bolverk shouted. After a few minutes of tense inactivity, Bolverk decided to head to the front. He pushed through groups of frightened families banding together for comfort until he reached Gudmundr and the Menders. Gudmundr’s guards were patrolling the tunnel walls.
“What are those things?” Bolverk asked. Gudmundr and Nikels turned to the Menders, the same question running through their minds.
“The Valka call them skulkers.” Zefr said quietly, trying to ensure her voice didn’t carry down the tunnel. “They are one of the many dangers that inhabit these caves. No doubt they’ll continue stalking us, so we must keep everyone together.”
Extra sentries were put on duty as the caravan continued moving, and balancing the extra need for light with the number of available lanterns became difficult. Candle wax was reused with makeshift wicks wherever possible. Several times over the next few hours there would be an alarm, sentries drawing their weapons and claiming they saw a flash of movement or heard scuttling feet. Most times it was a false alarm, but on one occasion a blood curdling scream was heard from the rear of the caravan. Bolverk rushed to the source to see a wailing couple reaching into some kind of burrow in the wall, which was large enough for a child to fit. Bolverk pushed them back and held up a lantern to illuminate the hole, seeing nothing but stone and darkness. He looked at the couple and walked off, signalling for the caravan to keep moving. As he left them he glanced back and saw the couple being gently urged to follow. Reluctantly, they began to shuffle away from the burrow, clinging onto each other and weeping. Another hour or so passed, and Bolverk saw two Bindal guards stationary, watching one point in the wall. As Bolverk got closer, he saw that they were keeping watch over another burrow, larger this time. He walked past them, giving them a nod, then turned back again when he heard a scuffle. The Bindal guards had been knocked aside and their swords were gone.
“What happened?” Bolverk demanded. “Skulkers stealing weapons now?”
“No. It was people.” one of the guards said as he stood up and righted his helmet. “A couple of the refugees from Ormsdalr. They took our swords and climbed into the hole.” Bolverk examined the burrow. It was probably the same couple from earlier.
“What are we going to do about them?” the second guard asked. “Nothing.” Bolverk said, standing to his full height. “No time. Keep moving.” The two guards looked conflicted, but decided to obey, remaining where they were. Bolverk ushered the caravan to continue and walked back to the Ravens, strolling alongside Folka and Ekkill.
“Losing a child. Terrible business.” Ekkill uttered sympathetically. “No wonder they did what they did.”
“Those two were crazy.” Bolverk replied. Folka gave him a look of disbelief.
“Do you have a Kendr?” Ekkill asked. “That’s a Varl thing, isn’t it?”
“Berserkers don’t have Kendrs.” Bolverk answered.
“Imagine then.” Ekkill continued. “Now imagine losing your Kendr.”
“Your human idea of family seems pointless to me.” Bolverk stated. “Varl Kendrs are just another way of saying second-in-command.”
“That’s not the way I’ve heard it.” Ekkill said. Bolverk grunted to signal an end to the conversation.
Another few hours and the caravan slowed to a halt. Bolverk barged through to the front and was shocked to see a rickety wooden bridge, only just wide enough for a yox cart. Down below, up above and to the sides was darkness. Bolverk tested his foot on the first of the wooden planks of the bridge, and recoiled when it creaked.
“Nikels and I may be able to reinforce it, but we will have to salvage wood from one of the carts.” Zefr explained. “Send word to rest here. We will be done by the time everyone has had some sleep.”
The Witch Mother had killed the Creator, and now all the gods were dead. His people had established their home above ground, but now the Horned Ones pillaged their settlements and hunted them for sport. Although the First Colony still stood, held by the remnants of the vanguard, they needed more to withstand the onslaught. To this endeavour, he had retreated back underground and mustered an army the size of which had never before been seen. Ten thousand warriors now stood at his command, ready to carve out their mark on the Overworld for good.
“Bolverk.” Folka’s voice brought him out of his sleep.
“What?” he murmured as he raised his head.
“The bridge is done.” Folka explained. She paused and cocked her head. “You spend far too much time around this cart, considering what we know about it.”
“I’m keeping it safe.” Bolverk said as he stood up. “Making sure no idiot tries to get a look inside.” Folka’s brow furrowed.
“I think you should spend some time away from it.” she said, in a voice which suggested it was almost an order. Bolverk glared at her, and she backed away. Gudmundr approached from nearby, but eyeing Folka’s retreat decided to keep his distance.
“The Menders are just getting the first of the carts across now.” he explained. Bolverk nodded. It took half an hour for Bellower’s cart to reach the bridge. Nearby was a skeleton of a cart, which had been taken apart for materials. Next to it was the yox that used to pull that cart, standing still and looking around timidly. Bolverk gave the order to get Bellower’s cart across the bridge, and also asked Sigbjorn the Varl to stay behind. Once all the carts were safely on the other side and only a few straggling refugees and fighters remained, along with the yox and its handler, Bolverk turned to Sigbjorn.
“Sword.” he said. The red headed Varl held out his great sword for Bolverk, who grasped the hilt with both hands.
“What are you doing?” asked the handler. Bolverk raised the sword and brought it down on the yox’s neck, cleaving it with one stroke. The handler was frozen in shock with his mouth agape, as blood splattered onto his face. His eyes darted between the yox’s corpse, Bolverk and Sigbjorn.
“Well it’s not doing anything useful anymore.” Bolverk explained nonchalantly, giving the Varl his sword back. Bolverk drew his axes and made a few cuts on the yox to begin the process of skinning it. “May as well use it for food.” The handler’s mouth opened and closed as he looked at Sigbjorn, who shrugged and wiped the blade with some cloth. After the sword was clean Sigbjorn tossed the red stained cloth to the handler, chuckling as the man fumbled with it.
Two Varl carrying a sack and a rather traumatised man joined the back of the caravan on the other side of the bridge. Uneventful hours passed, the sound of multiple separate conversations shifted into unified murmuring spreading from the front of the caravan. Bolverk overheard a few people talking.
“They’re saying they hear water.” one woman said. Bolverk went to the front and saw Valka Zefr trying to dissuade a few of the people of Bindal from going down a side passage. Listening closely, Bolverk heard
“But there’s water!” a man pleaded. “Actual running water, can’t you hear it? Look at us, dirty and covered in soot, without enough water to spare for bathing. We could really use this.”
“Trust me!” Zefr said. “We must not stray from the path.” The man, along with a dozen others, refused to listen and ventured into the side passage. Zefr’s face was that of hopelessness.
“Why so scared?” Bolverk smirked. “They can join on the back when they’re done.”
“Remember what I said about the dangers of these caves?” Zefr muttered.
“They have a few fighters with them.” Bolverk said reassuringly. “They’ll be fine.” Zefr looked at him with a face of fear and shook her head. The sound of running water stopped.
“Hmm, that’s odd.” Dytch mumbled, having suddenly appeared by Bolverk’s side. Screams rang out from the side passage, the echoes magnifying them.
“Skulkers?” Bolverk guessed, furrowing his brow. A few moments later the sound of panicked footsteps began echoing from the passage, getting louder. A single man emerged, with wide shock-stricken eyes.
“It killed them!” he cried. “A plant made the noise! I told them not to go near it, but they did, and now they’re dead!” The two Menders exchanged glances while Gudmundr walked up to the man, putting his arm on his shoulder to comfortingly guide him back to the caravan.
“A plant?” Bolverk inflected.
“This is why we must stick to the mapped out paths.” Zefr said mournfully. “There are strange things here.” she took a few deep breaths, then began walking along the main passage. “There is a safe place ahead, another hour or so.”
Single Sign On provided by vBSSO