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  Click here to go to the first staff post in this thread.   Thread: The Banner Saga: A Novelisation

  1. #61
    As they approached the ‘safe place’, Bolverk noticed a light coming from the tunnel ahead, which grew larger and the stone smoother and more regular. The light was cold and tinted blue, and reminded him of the glow worms of Einartoft. There was some kind of gateway up ahead, the stone cut to form a perfectly round opening. As Bolverk walked through it, he gawped in wonder. The claustrophobic tunnel now opened up to an immense spherical room, the walls swimming in blue light which emanated from some kind of lake which occupied most of the cave. In the centre the ceiling came down in a formation similar to a stalactite, but perfectly cut and engraved with alien markings which appeared to glow as they reflected the water’s light in different colours. A stalagmite rose from the ground to meet the formation, joined in the middle by a large red gem. On the far side of the room were three pools, each set higher than the last. The walls were lined with markings, and in some places small rectangular holes which could have been doors or windows.
    “What is this place?” Nikels asked, his eyes roaming the ceiling.
    “We think it is a sanctuary of sorts.” Zefr explained. “This structure in the middle may be equivalent to a godstone. We have deciphered some of the markings based on repeated patterns, and we believe it may be in commemoration of a god named Vez’nan. Of course, Vez’nan may simply be the name of the place, or something else entirely. It’s all still speculation. We know nothing about this people’s culture. We will rest here.”

    Camp was set up, although people did not get too close to the glowing water, except for Bersi, the enigmatic Varl who had acted as the human Prince’s bodyguard, who used the light of the lake to read. After dinner, Bolverk wandered up to the three pools. Valka Zefr was there already, explaining something to Nikels, Folka and Ekkill. She looked at him as he approached, and continued talking to the apprentice.
    “Valka Irenmund studied these pools for most of his life on the council. He came to the conclusion that each pool offers an insight, if you drink from it. However, he learnt you can only do it for one pool. If you try again with a different pool nothing will happen. He brought in a team to continue this study, and found that that upper pool offers reflection on one’s past. The middle offers strength in the present, and the lower pool gives an insight of the future.” Nikels stepped closer to the pool, leaning over the water of the middle pool. His head moved between each of the pools, as if attempting to decide which one to look into. He stepped back after a minute, clearly too afraid to make a choice. Bolverk stepped forward and knelt before the middle pool, seeing his reflection staring back at him. For a brief moment the eyes of his mirror image appeared yellow and without iris or pupil, then he blinked and they were normal. He scooped up some water with both hands and paused, hesitating at the thought of putting strange glowing water into his body, then lifted it to his mouth. Immediately visions of battle descended on his mind, like the blood rage which engulfed him whenever he drew his axes. Only now he saw these images with a clarity the likes of which he had never experienced, time slowing down, each movement calculated instead of instinctive. When at last the visions stopped, he felt stronger for it. He stood and looked at the Valka. Folka began to take a step for the middle pool, but changed her mind and went to the top. Ekkill stepped up to the edge of the lower pool. Both drank and in a few moments went into a trance, staring into the water of their respective pools. A minute later they came to, thoughtful looks on both their faces. Folka walked past Bolverk, looking down with an almost mournful face.
    “I need to talk to Sparr.” she muttered.
    “He’s over by the gem, I think.” Bolverk answered. Ekkill didn’t say a word and went off to the edge of the room to sit by himself. Sparr had often acted as the Ravens’ confidant, being the oldest after Bolverk and much more likeable. Many times people had gone to him for counsel, mostly the newest recruits after their first battles. Sparr was happy to offer his wisdom and advice. Bolverk decided he’d try to find out what the problem was. As much as he hated the idea of emotions – after all, they just caused problems – he understood the importance of keeping the fighters mentally healthy, and he needed his second-in-command to be at her best. “What’s wrong?” he asked, before she’d walked too far away. She turned to him.
    “Nothing you’d understand.” she croaked.
    “Try me.” Bolverk responded. She hesitated, then sat down on a boulder. Bolverk sat on another one opposite her. Folka leant forwards, head in hands.
    “I’ve been alone a long time.” she said after a while. “I had someone, many years ago, before I joined the Ravens.” She closed her eyes. “He left me, the night before our wedding.”
    “That was a long time ago.” Bolverk said, trying to convince her to let it go.
    “It’s in the past, yes, but that’s what that pool was supposed to do.” she mumbled. “Reflections, was that the word the Valka used? The pool brought all those memories and feelings back again. A few days after that my father passed. I met you and joined the Ravens. I buried all of that. I did the jobs, killed people, got coin and spent it on drink.” she breathed strangely, and Bolverk realised a few moments later she was crying. “Sure, I may have enjoyed myself all these years, but I don’t think I was ever happy.” she sobbed.
    Ah, yes, the notorious human need to ‘find someone’. Bolverk thought to himself, though he said nothing. “I think Sparr will be better suited to helping you with that.” he suggested after thinking for a minute. Folka looked up at him.
    “Thank you for trying.” she said. “Bolverk Bloodaxe trying to help someone; the world really is ending.” she cracked a smile to go along with her joke, then stood up to go and find the old skald. Bolverk stood and looked over to Ekkill, who was hacking away at a boulder with his axe, far from the rest of the camp. Bolverk wondered what the Frostvellr man had seen, but didn’t go over to ask. Instead he patrolled the rim of the sanctuary, keeping an out for burrows from which skulkers could appear. He passed the eccentric Bak and the refugees from Ormsdalr as well as Gudmundr and the people of Bindal, advising both on their sentries. Once he was satisfied about the camp’s security, he joined the Ravens in their meal. The height of the ceiling allowed a few fires to be set up, and the Ravens fed on roasted yox meat, courtesy of Bolverk. Sparr played the lyre and told a tale of a past victory. Folka appeared to be better after her talk with Sparr, though she still occasionally grew quiet, staring into space. Sigbjorn was happy to help drain the Ravens’ mead supplies, as was Oli. Those two had become fast friends thanks to their mutual love of alcohol. Ekkill joined his five other Frostvellr fighters, who sat together along with the Ravens. After everyone had eaten, Bolverk stood to address his mercenaries.
    “With all that’s happened, there’s something we haven’t had the chance to do.” he declared. “Sparr, I trust you’ve taught them the oath?”
    “That I have.” Sparr grinned, looking at the recruits from Frostvellr and Boersgard.
    “Excellent.” Bolverk gestured for the recruits to stand. “It’s time for you to be formally inducted into the Ravens.” Ekkill and his group stood, as did Oli and the Boersgard recruits. Bersi had made it clear that he was only travelling with the Ravens, not joining them. There were two dozen to be inducted in total. Nikels excitedly jogged over from the Bindal camp.
    “Are you joining too?” Sparr asked him, with a hint of sarcasm. Nikels suddenly shrank back.
    “No.” he stuttered. “It’s just that I’ve heard so much about the Ravens, and read about them growing up. I can’t believe I’ve got the chance to actually see an induction!” The boy was shaking with enthusiasm, causing Bolverk to roll his eyes.
    “Anyway!” he barked, getting back to the matter at hand. Holfi the quartermaster raised the Black Banner, though there was no wind to make it wave. Bolverk stood before the line of recruits. He began the induction with a deep, resonating voice.
    “Who shall sing me?
    Into death sling me?
    When down to the depths I go?”

    The recruits answered with their own chorus. The sanctuary fell silent as people stopped to listen, the newest Ravens filling the cavern with their song.
    “Cattle die and friends die
    We ourselves must all die
    Early on or at day’s end
    Keep blades sharp until then
    Ne’er banner lie in the mud
    Our swords yearn for courageous blood
    And when you stand before the depths
    I shall follow with my song.”

    Bolverk began the final part of the induction, followed by a sharp cry from the recruits.
    “You are now Ravens, and what do Ravens do?” he roared.
    “The Ravens always finish their jobs!” they answered.
    The older Ravens raised their weapons and cheered. Nikels was visibly beaming at the scene around him. After a few moments the Ravens put down their weapons and went back to drinking, toasting their newly sworn comrades.

    After the next sleeping shift, the caravan prepared to leave at Zefr’s order. The path outside the far end of the sanctuary went sharply downwards, opening up more as they went on. Echoes from ahead could be faintly heard, making the caravan tense up. As time drifted by the echoes became clearer, shifting into the familiar sounds of fighting. Bolverk drew his axes, just in case, and took a few scouts forward, including Folka, Sigbjorn and Sparr. Bolverk could swear the opening ahead was illuminated, and as they reached it a breathtaking sight greeted them. A gigantic cavern, the ceiling of which was five times as high as that of Vez’nan’s sanctuary, opened up before them. Ahead of them was a path twenty yards across, with sheer drops on both sides, and colossal bones of some long dead subterranean beast rising up from the ground. The cavern was illuminated from the right by what Bolverk could only describe as unlight, which allowed them to see and soaked the cave in purple hues, but was not any kind of light which he had seen before. The sounds of combat were louder, so Bolverk walked to the edge of the cliff and looked down into the purple tinted fog. He saw dark figures moving, climbing up the incline towards him. He seethed when he recognised the figures as Dredge. He looked closer and saw at the bottom Dredge that appeared to be fighting other Dredge. He was confused; was there now a Dredge civil war? He chuckled at the thought as he readied his axes. As the first of the Dredge crested the top of the cliff he leapt at them roaring and slicing down the first two.
    “Bolverk!” a shout from behind him brought him out of his rage. “We need to get the others!” It took him a second to realise it was Folka who had yelled. He realised she was right, there were only eight of them there, against the scores of Dredge climbing up. As he retreated he realised that all the Dredge at the top were the smaller slingers, only most were weaponless, while the Grunts were at the bottom in the middle of the infighting. He rejoined Folka and the other scouts and rushed back to gather the troops. When they reached the caravan Gudmundr had his troops organised and began leading them forwards.
    “Ravens! With me!” Bolverk ordered, and a clamour from the middle of the caravan indicated that he had been heard. The warriors charged forwards back into the huge open cavern, most of them taking a moment to marvel at the sight before forming up and advancing. They charged into the barely assembled Dredge slingers, cutting them down left and right. Bolverk kicked one from the top of the path, watching as it tumbled down into the fog. Suddenly he fell to his knees, unable to see, a ringing in his ears and a sharp scraping on the inside of his skull.
    Lightning.
    A white tower.
    A dark sun.
    He blinked and the vision was gone. More Dredge had arrived at the top of the slope, more of the Grunts and a few larger warriors. He saw that the fighting down below had stopped.
    “Are you alright?” Sparr’s voice reached him above the noise of battle. He turned around and saw the old man next to him, along with the Menders. The Ravens had formed a shield wall around him. A second later, the pain returned and Bolverk blacked out.

    The Darkness was coming. He had seen it first hand, and seen what it had done to his brethren, warped and twisted by the foul unlight. In the last attempt to colonise the Overworld, they had reached the Unhorned capital, only to be pushed back by the Threadweavers. He had lost his Dear One in that war, and their young child too. In the end his kin lost the First Colony, and all of them had been cast back underground. Now though, they had to escape. It wasn’t about finding a new home anymore; it was about surviving. Each and every one of his people, even the mothers with their children, needed to head south. The Third Ascent had to begin, and their entire race had to fight.

  2. #62
    Fight. That thought brought Bolverk back to his senses. He picked up his axes and stood. The Ravens rallied at the sight of their leader well again, cheering. Then, from the edge of the cliff emerged a new threat. It was a Dredge, with a thin build, clad in light blue and orange stonesinger’s garb and standing as tall as Bellower. It looked at the Menders with eyes that were sewn shut, before donning a stone mask that covered its face.
    “It’s the Sundr Eyeless!” Zefr shouted.
    “Ravens! Forward!” Bolverk cried, and the Ravens’ shield wall advanced into the Dredge forces. To their left Gudmundr’s line did the same, while archers rushed to the edge of the cliff to shoot down at the Dredge that were still climbing. Eyeless held two long metal staffs, which it put together and slammed into the ground. In an instant the Sundr seemed to fade, and a blue flame on the left made Bolverk look around. One of the Dredge killed by the Bindal guards, whose corpse had been passed by the shield wall, stood and attacked the line from behind. The confusion of the fighters caused the shield wall to fracture as troops turned in panic. The other Dredge pressed their advantage, slamming into the wall from the other side. Gudmundr leapt forward, slicing at the knee of the Dredge then stabbing into its neck with his sword. The blue flame disappeared and Eyeless appeared again, in a different place.
    “What’s happening?” Bolverk demanded.
    “Eyeless can possess the dead!” Zefr replied in a panicked tone. “Nikels, Tell Gudmundr to escort the caravan through!” The young Mender nodded and ran towards the splintering Bindal shield wall.
    “Sigbjorn!” Bolverk called. The ginger Varl finished off a Dredge Colossus and ran over to join him. “Take a few Ravens and patch the Bindal line!” Sigbjorn nodded, called a few names and led a dozen fighters towards the left flank. Bolverk looked at Eyeless. He noticed scarring on its knee and neck. The Sundr was gesturing for a group of the slingers to begin making their way down the left cliff.
    “They’re trying to flank us!” Bolverk shouted.
    “No.” Sparr said. “I think they’re trying to get away.” At that moment Gudmundr shouted an order and the Bindal guards, bolstered by Raven forces, pushed forward, creating a corridor as they went, which the caravan began running through, towards a tunnel on the far side. Yoxen were driven hard over the rocky ground and panicked people screamed as they ran. Bellower’s cart began making its way through, and at the sight of it Eyeless clashed its staff together again, disappearing. A Dredge grunt that had fallen within the corridor stood and leapt aboard the cart, causing its yox to stampede. The grunt began tugging at the edge of the cart’s lid, before an axe thrown by Oli embedded itself in its shoulder, knocking it away. The blue flame above its head vanished and Eyeless materialised again, its arm clearly in pain. Bolverk had had enough of standing behind the shield wall, watching the battle unfold.
    “Make way!” Bolverk roared. The shield wall directly in front of him pushed forwards to make an opening, which Bolverk charged through into the Dredge ranks. The red mist descended and Claw and Fang swung left and right, cleaving Dredge on all sides on a rampage towards Eyeless. It disappeared again, possessing a dead Scourge that led a group against the cart, breaking the corridor line by the weight of their focused attack. Bolverk hesitated to act, part of him wanting them to reach the cart, but he cleared that thought and continued fighting. He looked back at the cart, and saw Sigbjorn tackle the possessed Dredge Scourge to the ground, knocking several other Dredge over. This bought enough time for Bellower’s cart to get close to the exit. The two Menders followed close behind.
    “Ravens!” Bolverk shouted. “Push through to the exit!” He charged, rallying the fighters to rush towards the far tunnel. Gudmundr let out a similar cry, the corridor folding in on itself towards the tunnel in an organised retreat. Eyeless appeared again in the way of Bellower’s cart. The Sundr slammed its staffs together, only instead of possessing a new corpse, the whole cavern started to shake. One of the giant bones cracked and fell into the fog.
    “She is trying to bring the cave down on us!” Zefr shouted. Her head zipped back and forth, analysing the situation, attempting to find a plan, her face growing more desperate with each second, until she made a decision. “Nikels!” she called. The young Mender rushed to her side. Bolverk was too focused on fighting to hear the exchange between them, but the look on Nikels’ face was solemn. He nodded and the two Menders began to trace patterns in the air with their staffs. Nikels ran up to Eyeless and glared up at it, while it looked down on him, curious about the human’s bravery. Nikels looked back at Bolverk.
    “I’m sorry if I was a nuisance.” he apologised. Suddenly, the air itself seemed tense, and the hairs on Bolverk’s arms raised. He could hear crackling in the air and an unfelt gust of wind blew Nikels’ hair before he bent over with a yelp of pain. Invisible energy surged out from his body, forcing Eyeless back. The rumbling stopped as the Sundr collapsed to its knees.
    “Go, now!” Zefr cried, and the remaining members of the caravan seized their opportunity and fled past the stunned Dredge. Bolverk stole one last look back, and saw the young Mender’s body lying still next to the Sundr’s. Then they both disappeared as Bolverk turned a corner, leaving them behind. Bolverk ordered some Ravens to act as a sternguard and rushed to the Valka’s side.
    “What was that? Is Nikels dead?” he asked. Zefr gave a small nod, tears in her eyes.
    “I doubt that ended her.” she muttered, avoiding the topic. “We must keep moving quickly.” Bolverk nodded in agreement and gave the order to get everyone going.
    “What was that light?” Bolverk asked after a few minutes.
    “I don’t know.” Zefr answered.
    “Don’t know, or is this just another Valka secret?” Bolverk raised an eyebrow.
    “I don’t know.” Zefr repeated, more sternly. Bolverk dropped it and walked to Bellower’s cart, rejoining the bulk of the Ravens. Sparr seemed to be pondering the purple light as well.
    “Do you know what that light was?” he asked when Bolverk approached. The Varl shrugged in response. “It looked…wrong.” Sparr continued. “It let us see, but didn’t illuminate, you know?”
    “Darkness.” Bolverk mumbled to himself. “It’s the Darkness.”
    “The Darkness?” Sparr repeated. “What Darkness? You have a fit in the battle, now you’re muttering about Darkness.”
    “I’ve…” Bolverk began. He wasn’t sure if he wanted this to be known. “I can’t tell anyone else.” he lowered his voice.
    “Alright, whisper then. If you can.” Bolverk and Sparr walked to the side of the tunnel wall and Bolverk knelt to get closer to Sparr’s ear.
    “I’ve been having…visions.” Bolverk managed, keeping his voice as quiet as possible. “When I sleep…” he trailed off.
    “I believe that’s called dreaming.” Sparr joked. “Most people do it.” Bolverk huffed, and Sparr stopped talking.
    “No! It’s like…memories, but not mine.” Bolverk explained. “I’ve been having thoughts that I don’t normally have. I-ˮ his eyes met the cart containing Bellower, and a horrible idea formed in his head. Could it be-? No. That couldn’t be it. He’d never heard of a psychic Sundr. “I don’t feel like myself. Among these visions is a Darkness. I think the Dredge are fleeing from it.”

    “Does the Mender know anything about it?”
    “No.”
    “Hmm.” Sparr thought for a moment. “We’d probably better rejoin the caravan.”
    “Agreed.” The two of them caught up with the Ravens, keeping pace until the caravan reached a wider part of the tunnel. Gudmundr had ordered the caravan to halt, and Bolverk marched up to the front with Folka, Holfi and a few Ravens.
    “What’s going on? Why have we stopped? More Dredge?” he asked. Gudmundr was still
    “Can you hear that?” he said, in a voice close to a whisper. Bolverk strained his ears, and heard a faint noise from the wall on the caravan’s right. His hands went to Claw and Fang. Then the wall exploded, sending dust everywhere. Two Dredge emerged and jumped back at the sight of the caravan. Bolverk leapt between them and swung at them with an axe each. When they were felled, three more Dredge ran from the hole, but instead of attacking, they ran past Bolverk. One of them was a limping Stonesinger, which had dropped its staff.
    “Do we fight them?” one of Bindal’s fighters yelled. The Dredge avoided the caravan and ran towards a nearby side passage, but stopped for an unknown reason. A few moments later that reason was unveiled as the two Dredge grunts were cut down by a purple tendril that shot out from the shadows. From the darkness emerged a figure, which resembled a Dredge Scourge, but its body was contorted in unnatural ways, its armour bent and twisted. Its weapon had fused with its whole arm, becoming the tendril which had been used to strike down the two other Dredge. On either side of the Scourge came two Stoneguards, similarly warped. The Stonesinger fell to the ground in fright and crawled backwards.
    “Leave that one!” Bolverk shouted on a spur of the moment. “Kill those other three!” He charged towards them. The Scourge jumped into the approaching group of Bindal fighters and swung its arm, hitting three of its opponents. Each fighter the tendril touched recoiled back, clutching their wounds, which blackened and decayed. Bolverk swung at its neck with his axes, but as the axes made contact the three wounded fighters cried out, slits appearing on their necks. They fell dead, blood spilling onto the cave floor, while the warped Dredge turned to face Bolverk with a grating noise that sounded faintly like laughter.
    “Don’t let them touch you!” Gudmundr yelled as he organised his fighters into a shield wall, advancing slowly on the warped Dredge. Bolverk dodged an attack from the Scourge and hacked at its arm with Fang. It squealed and stepped back, allowing Bolverk to retreat back to the other fighters.
    “Archers!” Bolverk ordered. “Shield wall, get down!” Sparr led the Ravens’ archers into a line behind the shield wall, which crouched down.
    “Nock! Draw! Loose!” he yelled. A volley of arrows flew over the heads of the crouched fighters into the three warped Dredge, though many missed, as the archers had difficulty shooting only by torchlight. The Stoneguards raised their shields, but the Scourge was hit with half a dozen arrows and one of Oli’s axes. It clutched at the axe in its chest and pulled it out. Folka and Gudmundr looked at each other and nodded.
    “Step!” they both shouted in unison. “Step!” they repeated, the chant taken up by the fighters as the shield wall began to move forward. The warped Dredge charged into them, wooden splinters sent flying from shields at the strike of the distorted weapons. Spears were jabbed out through the shields, while those with shorter weapons were afraid to risk touching the enemy. Bak appeared on the right flank, running out from the shield wall with a dozen other spearmen. They started stabbing at the Dredge, one spear going through the knee of a Stoneguard before snapping in half. The Stoneguard swung its hammer at the fighter and knocked him to the ground, his skin atrophying at the touch. The others prepared to attack the Stoneguard, before Bak shouted at them to get back. Two fighters pulled the wounded man with them while others thrust at the air with their spears to discourage the Dredge from approaching. After a few moments, the wounded man’s skin began to heal, colour flooding back to the withered skin. Then Bak let out a battle cry and the spearmen charged again, impaling the Stoneguard with several spears to no ill effect on the other man. In the shield wall, one of the Ravens near Bolverk was pulled down, the Scourge having wrapped his tendril sword around the man’s ankle. The Scourge yanked him out from the shield wall screaming and pummelled him with its other fist. The third Dredge continued trying to break through the shield wall, which held under its relentless attacks. A sound like the whoosh of a newly fuelled fire erupted from the wounded Stoneguard, which by the time Bolverk had turned his head had vanished, exploding into little purple cinders. Bak and two of his spearmen fell to the ground and yelped as if burnt. Their comrades lugged them back behind the shield wall. Bak was the most vocal, and Bolverk thought he was just in the most pain, until he realised the man was pointing to his spear, which he had dropped at the death of the warped Stoneguard. One of his fighters ran back and grabbed it, barely escaping a strike from the sword of the Scourge. A second later an axe thrown by Oli landed in the skull of the warped Scourge, and it shrieked before disintegrating, the cinders sizzling on the shields of the fighters. The right flank of the shield wall swung around on Folka’s order to surround the final Stoneguard, which managed to wound the next person to attack it. Gudmundr shouted for no one to attack while the injured fighter ran back out of harm’s way. Once his skin ceased to rot, Gudmundr gave the order and the shield wall closed in from all sides. Its legs gave out under multiple sword swings, but it managed to slash five fighters with an arcing swing of its arm before Bersi the Varl brought his bearded axe down on its head. The injured five convulsed and died as the Stoneguard atomised, the ashes burning a few more fighters. Gudmundr wasted no time in ordering a dozen fighters to guard the side passage while others surrounded the Stonesinger, which had remained sitting down against the left wall during the battle. Its head darted back and forth, it raised its hands in a begging gesture as angry fighters walked towards it.
    “Wait!” Zefr commanded, and the fighters stopped. The Stonesinger stared at her, and a low intermittent humming could be heard. Bolverk, Folka and a few Ravens joined the crowd gathered around it. Zefr ran her hands along her staff and another humming sound came from the Valka.
    “She’s…” Folka started. “She’s talking to it!” The Stonesinger and the Valka took turns humming, though Zefr was not using her mouth to make the noise. Instead, it seemed to come from the staff. Throughout the conversation were long periods of silence. The crowd stood perplexed, some dropping their weapons in awe at the conversation. When they finished, Zefr turned to the caravan.
    “The Stonesinger will show us a way out.” she said.
    “Taking directions from a Dredge?” one woman angrily shouted.
    “We should kill it!” yelled a man, inciting nods and murmurs of agreement from a few dozen. Bolverk was conflicted, and some part of him wanted to keep the Dredge alive. A few of the Ravens started to edge forward, making Zefr and the Stonesinger shrink back.
    “Wait!” Bolverk barked. The Ravens stopped. Bolverk looked at Zefr. “You’re sure you trust that thing?” he asked. When the Valka nodded he glared at the Ravens, who stepped back and sheathed their weapons. “The Dredge is not to be harmed!” he ordered, raising his voice so it echoed along the tunnel. As Bolverk scanned the crowd his eyes met Folka’s, who looked confused, and Sparr’s, who clearly disapproved of the decision, and their previous conversation came to mind. However, the Ravens knew better than to question the Bloodaxe, and Gudmundr seemed to trust the Valka, although many others didn’t. Zefr turned and hummed to the Stonesinger, and it began limping. Zefr ordered a walking staff to be given to the Dredge, which it accepted gratefully.

  3. #63
    The Stonesinger turned out to be of use, as within an hour the tunnels had become a veritable maze, side passages and crossroads winding around and through each other. The caravan kept their distance from the Dredge, though Bolverk and Zefr walked only a few yards behind it.
    “How did you talk to it?” he asked, genuinely curious.
    “Are you aware of the basic idea of Mending?” Zefr responded. She seemed glad to be having a conversation to take her mind off Nikels’ death.
    “Something to do with a tapestry. All just a bunch of words to me. I like what I can see.”
    “Well, in the advanced stages of a Mender’s apprenticeship they learn about how the threads that make up the air can be made to vibrate in such a way as to make sound.” Zefr paused to allow Bolverk to process the explanation. She then ran her hands along her staff, and a few seconds later a clap sounded behind them. Bolverk turned, but the nearest people were still too far away to have made the noise. He looked back at Zefr, whose nostrils flared in what was not quite laughter. The Varl grunted in annoyance.
    “A simple clapping noise is the easiest to make, but sufficiently trained Menders can even mimic speech. The kind of noise that Dredge use to talk is for the most part too deep for Human or Varl ears to hear, but towards the end of the Second Great War some of the Valka deciphered the Dredge language by observing the threads moving around captured Dredge. They then taught themselves to copy those movements and talk to them.”
    “Impressive.” Bolverk nodded. “And stupid.” he added quickly. “I don’t think diplomacy works as well as a good axe.” There was silence for a minute, until Dytch joined them, not making a sound.
    “What were those Dredge?” he asked, which made both Bolverk and the Valka jump. “The twisted ones with some kind of foul magic?”
    “I don’t know.” Zefr replied. She hummed to the Stonesinger, who turned and looked at her sadly. “It says that they were tainted by the Darkness, whatever that is.”
    “I think it’s something to do with the strange light.” Bolverk said.
    “That might be what is forcing the Dredge south.” Zefr wondered aloud. Bolverk knew for certain, but he tried to force those false memories from his mind.

    After a couple of days, by the caravan’s reckoning, Bak had recovered enough to walk unaided, although he had a slight limp and his arm was still in a sling. The left side of his face was also visibly burnt. The caravan continued following the Dredge Stonesinger for another few days, until finally the tunnels led steeply upwards. The caravan naturally quickened their pace, hopes being raised. However, when they saw the light of day shining from an opening up ahead, something seemed wrong. The light looked like that of the height of the day, yet held the same visionless aura of twilight. Some people rushed forwards, eager to escape the claustrophobic underground tunnels. They stopped outside the cave exit, gasping and staring to the right with jaws open. Bolverk stomped up to them.
    “What is it?” he demanded. “What-ˮ he stopped when he emerged, following the clansmen’s gaze. He glanced back to the left, which he saw was south by the position of the sun, which was still high in the sky as it had been for the past few months, but over the horizon to the north was – no, it wasn’t a cloud, it was something else…or it was nothing. Sparr and Folka walked up next to Bolverk.
    “The Darkness.” Sparr ventured. Bolverk nodded. He then noticed, swarming over the hills and through the trees down the Longhalr Road, vast armies of Dredge in their tens of thousands that could be mistaken for forests if they stood still.
    “That puts the Boersgard army to shame.” Folka said.
    “I don’t think it’s an army.” Bolverk said. “I think it’s all of them.” As the last members of the caravan emerged from the caves, the group stared in awe and fear at that which they had not seen in a long time: night.

  4. #64
    Hello! I'm afraid I've been too busy to make much progress on Chapter 5, but here is the third of my Skald's Tales, called 'The Hunting God's Lesson'...

    Hridvaldyr the Hunting God was bored one day. He wondered about the mind of prey, and grew curious. To satisfy his curiosity, he became as a deer, and wandered the Old Wood. A hunter found him, and swift and sharp, Hridvaldyr evaded the hunter’s arrows. He had never before felt fear, and he found it exhilarating. He fled, and escaped, but the hunter tracked him down once more by the tracks he left. After three days of pursuit, the hunter pierced Hridvaldyr with an arrow in the flank. The hunter prepared to finish the wounded god, when a cloaked figure appeared. Revealing himself as Geirradr, the figure stayed the hunter’s hand. The arrow was plucked from Hridvaldyr’s flank, and he found he could once again take human form. The eyes of the hunter grew wide in recognition, and he knelt in apology. Geirradr turned to the Hunting God, and said “As predator, your speed and senses were beyond rival, but you never learnt how to hide yourself. As prey, this was your downfall. Never assume that just because you are skilled at one thing, you are equally skilled in another.” His lesson taught, Geirradr vanished. Hridvaldyr looked at the hunter, who stood agape, and asked for the name of he who had nearly felled him. “Finnleik.” the hunter replied, and the Hunting God picked up the arrow that had pierced him. “I would not want you to return home empty-handed, Finnleik God-Hunter.” spoke Hridvaldyr, and he hurled the arrow into the heart of a passing deer. The hunter thanked the god, and went home with both a kill and a story.

  5. #65
    Nice Person Iuliana's Avatar
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    This is awesome! Thank you so much for posting these, ajrman.
    It's always a sunny day when a bard such as yourself comes to visit our parts
    Your tales are always a wonder and joy to listen to.

  6.   Click here to go to the next staff post in this thread.   #66
    Community Manager Khatie's Avatar
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    Thank you for sharing, arjman! Love it!

  7. #67
    Hello everyone! I've finally been able to power through the dreaded Writer's Block and get this chapter done. Hopefully the next chapter, being one of my favourites, will not take as much time. Chapter 5: The Destined Day Shall Come...

    Lundar: the archer’s haven, so called for the birds its people raised for their feathers, which made the finest arrow fletchings in the known world. In the distance lay the strangely beautiful Old Wood, with giant trees of pinks and purples that dwarfed the town. Alette had often dreamed of visiting, and had once asked a travelling merchant if he would take her there.
    “Maybe I’ll take you there someday.” Father had said, laughing and waving the merchant goodbye. In a way, Father had fulfilled that promise, and Alette smiled wistfully as she looked up at the town and the woods beyond. To the south was a small copse standing back a few hundred yards from the wall. To the north were farm fields and ransacked houses. Horseborn corpses lay scattered below the south wall, pierced with arrows. The wall was speckled with javelins. On the north side, the walls were battered, and one section had been breached, the hole filled with makeshift barricades and a fair few bodies. Both attacking sides had held off for now, regrouping their forces. Prince Ludin had sent scouts, who had quickly scanned the enemy formations and returned. King Hakon and Prince Ludin were already convening their fighters and planning for the battle. Alette, Iver, Juno and Eyvind joined the meeting. Ubin the scrivener was there too. Yrsa stood alongside Ludin. Rugga invited himself along with his bodyguard Dagr.
    “Alright.” Hakon boomed, to begin the meeting. “The walls look like they can withstand the Horseborn for now, so the Dredge on the north side are our priority.”
    “Agreed.” Rugga nodded. “I have a number of fighters I can contribute, under Dagr’s command.” Rugga gestured with his left hand to the thatch-haired bodyguard, who nodded without saying a word.
    “They can join my forces, under Byrnjolf’s supervision.” the human Prince indicated to one of his sergeants.
    “If I may,” Rugga interrupted. “I am sure my fighters would find it a great honour to fight alongside the Prince himself.” Something about the way the governor spoke made Alette feel unsettled. Ludin looked at the ground in thought, considering the offer. Yrsa leant in and whispered something. Ludin’s brow furrowed as he contemplated his response.
    “No.” he answered eventually. “Though I am grateful, my own guard is sufficient.” Alette caught a slight twitch of the governor’s eye.
    “Surely-ˮ
    “Remember to whom you speak.” Ludin raised his voice. “I am the Prince of Arberrang.” A few tense moments passed, then the governor lowered his head in resignation.
    “Very well, my Prince.” he said. “Dagr, you shall obey the sergeant’s orders. What shall be our battle plan?”
    “The Prince’s soldiers can aid the townsfolk blocking the breach in the wall.” Hakon said. “They’d feel safer with their own kind entering their walls rather than us.”
    “Agreed.” Ludin nodded. “Byrnjolf, his troops, and those of Boersgard can do that. My scouts report that the Dredge have grouped together their Grunts, Stoneguards, Scourges and Slingers into separate formations.”
    “I’ll lead my Varl against the Stoneguards and Scourges, your Human fighters can tackle the others.”
    “Agreed.”
    “If I may,” Rugga began. “Their formations suggest they have a new strategy.”
    “That’s right.” Hakon said. “During the Second Great War they would simply have the larger ones interspersed throughout their lines. More recently, they’ve used the Slingers as skirmishers. If they’re grouping together their Stoneguards, perhaps they’ve adapted to our shield wall tactics.”
    “That’s possible.” Rugga agreed.
    “From what I’ve read of history, the way we fight has remained fairly constant since the horses died out.” Ludin said.
    “I’ve lived through it, boy.” Ubin chuckled. The Prince did not appreciate being called boy. “But you’re right, we’ve hardly changed at all, and we’re facing an enemy that changes each time we face them. We will have to be creative.”
    “We should fight as normal.” Rugga suggested. “To see what they do. Then we’ll know what to expect for next time.”
    “That’s gambling with the lives of our fighters.” Ludin said.
    “And my Varl.” Hakon sternly spoke. “There are not many of us left. Every Varl life lost is a step closer to extinction. I won’t sacrifice even a single one for the sake of a ‘test’.”
    “Well then what would you suggest?” the Governor asked piercingly. Hakon’s eyes darted away, thinking.
    “Our numbers are small compared to the Dredge, and we need to keep a sternguard to guard from the Horseborn.” he wondered aloud. “Gah! Vognir would know what to do.” he grumbled.
    “He’s gone now.” Ubin said mournfully.
    “Who’s Vognir?” Alette asked. The Varl all turned to face her.
    “He was next in line for the throne after Jorundr.” Hakon explained. “Before he… Then I became the heir.” He almost sounded like he would choke up. Ludin looked at the ground, with a sad, almost guilty look on his face.
    “The circumstances of his death still perplex me.” Ubin said. “One lone Dredge grunt should have been no match for him.”
    “He was focused on protecting me.” Ludin said softly. “I was too eager to fight it, he had to push me away. I didn’t see what happened next, but then he was dead. I was stupid, and I got him killed. I’m sorry.” Alette could tell by the Prince’s face that that was difficult for him to say. Hakon glowered at Ludin in a way which caused Ubin and Iver to tense up. Yrsa moved ever so slightly closer to Ludin. Alette had a thought that she should say something, but couldn’t think what.
    “Apology accepted.” Hakon huffed, allowing everyone to relax. “We have other things to think about right now.” He took a deep breath. “Does anyone have any ideas?”
    “Do you remember Greyhorn, Hakon?” Iver spoke up.
    “Your greatest battle, Yngvar.” Hakon remarked to Iver’s chagrin. “What about it?”
    “I wasn’t there myself.” Ubin began. “But if I remember correctly Hanballr led that battle, right?”
    “Yes.” Iver nodded. “Managed to coax the Dredge into splitting up and managed to surround each group one by one.”
    “Now he was a tactician, not like me.” Hakon grumbled. “Although the blizzard helped.”
    “True. We don’t have that luxury.”
    “What about the Horseborn?” Rugga said. “If we somehow managed to lure them to the north side…”
    “Silly idea, surely.” Hakon replied. “The Horseborn are our enemies.”
    “And the enemies of the Dredge.” Rugga pointed out. “Those two armies have a go at each other while we help with the town’s defences. Although it will require speed. Something the Horseborn have over us.”
    At that Alette had an idea. “What about Scathach and the others?”
    “Yes.” Ubin agreed. “I’ve been talking to them and trying to learn about them. I trust them.” Rugga scowled at the notion.
    “Can you go and fetch them please, Ubin?” Alette asked. Ubin nodded and left the meeting. The other leaders waited until he returned, the three Horseborn alongside him. Rugga had a face of disgust simply looking at them.
    “We help?” Scathach said.
    “How fast are you?” Alette asked. Scathach thought for a moment.
    “Ro’Ech most fast in herd.” he replied. “Derdriu most good throw.”
    “Good. We need you to-ˮ Alette started. “Wait, hang on.” she took her knife from her belt and knelt down. She drew an outline of the surrounding area, the walled town being the most prominent landmark. She drew three rectangles to represent each of the armies. Once she was finished, she pointed to their current location.
    “This is us.” she said to the Horseborn. “This is the town.” she pointed to the largest feature of the sketch, then at the walls of Lundar to make sure that Scathach understood. “This is the Dredge.” she pointed to the north. “This is other Horseborn.” pointing south. “You, Ro’Ech and Derdriu, go around the Dredge.” she drew a line leading from their location in a wide arc around the back of the Dredge to the southwest side of Lundar. “And get the Horseborn to follow you.” The line ended just before the Horseborn formation, then doubled back, following the same arc. Then she drew a line from the Horseborn formation which followed the first towards the Dredge. She looked up and saw the Scathach understood. He spoke to his fellow Horseborn in their tongue, and after a few moments they nodded in agreement.
    “The Horseborn probably won’t send all their warriors after three, so there’ll still be some left behind.” Hakon said.
    “Depending on numbers, we may be able to split our forces.” Ludin suggested.
    “No.” Rugga disagreed. “We have enough to split into two groups at most, and we need one group aiding the town, and I would suggest another to occupy the Dredge on their left flank while the Horseborn attack their right.”
    “Isn’t the point of luring the Horseborn in to avoid us fighting the Dredge?” Hakon asked.
    “I said occupy, not fight.” Rugga gave a sly grin. “Keep out of range, yet keep them wary. Some of their fighters will be too busy guarding against an attack that’s not coming they won’t be fending off the attack that is.”
    “After a while they’ll see through it.” Iver responded. “We’ll need some skirmishers to keep them interested.”
    “Agreed.” the Governor nodded. “I suggest a contingent of archers, my Prince.”
    “Suggestion noted.” Ludin replied, with a hint of annoyance. “They can shelter behind King Hakon’s fighters and rush out when necessary. My sergeant Iorund can take charge of the archers.”
    “Not sure how I feel about humans running about between my legs.” Hakon joked. “But I suppose it’s a good enough idea. Once the Horseborn and Dredge have worn each other down my warriors alongside yours can then move in and finish them off.”
    “We’ll still need a sternguard for the caravan.” Iver said. “Makes sense for the villages’ fighters to do that job.”
    “I’ll organise them.” Alette declared. “Does everyone have their orders?” At everyone’s nods she declared the meeting over.
    Each of the leaders went their separate to organise their fighters. Alette ran to catch up with Ludin and Yrsa.
    “Prince!” she said to get his attention. “Why were you and the Governor so hostile?”
    “He and my father…have a history.” Ludin said, leaning on his spear. “Before Rugga moved to Boersgard, he was a noble in the capital. His family was the most powerful in the city, second only to my own, also owning estates near Tolir and Akur. He had influence over half the businesses in Arberrang, and was married to my aunt, but his ambitions grew further. A decade ago, he attempted to have my father and I assassinated, which would put him at the front of the line of succession. His attempt was foiled, and led to a small battle within the Black Wall.”
    “Black wall?” Alette cocked her head.
    “The obsidian wall that surrounds inner Arberrang.” Ludin explained. “During the battle my aunt was killed and Rugga fought my father in one-on-one combat. His right hand was severed and his neck was slit, but he survived, though captured. He still had supporters outside Arberrang, and to execute him would incite a kingdom-wide civil war, so my father exiled him to Boersgard, in the hopes that his ally the Governor there would finish him off. Somehow, a few years later, Rugga rose to power. My father was unable to do anything, but did not consider him a threat, being so far away.”
    “And now he’s coming back to Arberrang.” Alette said. The Prince had a grave expression.
    “Keep an eye on him.” Ludin warned. “He is not to be trusted.”

    Scathach, Derdriu and Ro’Ech left to begin the plan, galloping off to the north, while the forces of Hakon, Ludin and Rugga marched to their positions. Quarter of an hour went by, then to the southwest a dust cloud could be seen moving on the far side of Lundar, which could only be the Horseborn. Alette had ordered the fighters from Skogr, Hofn, Skanvik and Reynivik to form a perimeter around the caravan, with archers positioned in the middle along with the non-fighters and the carts. Ubin’s escort, consisting of seven Varl, was also with them. To the northwest, the noise of clashing blades could be heard. Up on a hill, the giant Varl could be seen, while down below some of the taller Dredge were visible. It had been a while since she’d stood back from a battle like this, and she had forgotten how agonisingly tense it was. She found herself pacing along the perimeter, checking on everyone. She kept her bow in hand, regularly checking that it was strung correctly, checking that her arrows were straight, and checking that her dagger was still on her belt. She was almost relieved when shouts from the southern perimeter reached her ears.

  8. #68
    “Horseborn!” the cry was repeated. The non-fighters rushed to the northern side, taking cover behind carts. Alette grabbed a few more fighters from the northern side and ran over to the south, forming up the archers as she went. A dust cloud stretched from the copse of trees on the south of Lundar.
    “Tighten up that shield wall! Spears in front! Archers nock arrows!” Alette barked orders. The Horseborn crested the hill in front of the caravan and charged towards the shield wall. “Archers, draw!” Alette shouted, drawing her own bow. “Loose!” A volley of arrows flew over the shield wall into the approaching Horseborn. The Horseborn warriors slowed as they approached the shield wall and saw the spear points waiting for them. A few of their bravest – or most reckless – continued their charge, smashing into the shields, flails swinging. Although a couple of the human fighters was knocked down by the impact, the Horseborn were easily riddled with spears and swords. As the Horseborn warriors fled down the hill others approached, armed with javelins. Riding in a circle, the Horseborn began pelting the caravan with javelins.
    “Archers behind the shields!” Alette shouted as she ran for cover. She found herself hiding behind Skogr’s Olrik and Dagne. Javelins thudded against shields. Dagne screamed, and Olrik looked at her with a panicked expression. Alette looked down, and saw that a javelin had pierced through her shield and into her arm like a nail.
    “Dagne!” Olrik cried. He looked at Alette. “What do we do?” he asked hurriedly. Alette’s mind raced through possible tactics. The Horseborn had the speed advantage, so charging at them was useless. She could try and use the archers, but the Horseborn javelins would be a problem. A fighter fell a few yards away, a javelin through his leg. A couple of others dragged him behind the shield wall and plugged the gap.
    “Alette!” Iver’s voice reached her from further down the shield wall, urging her to hurry. He was kneeling down, barely covered by the shields of those in front of him. A few more Varl had been struck by javelins, their size a disadvantage. She had an idea, but needed to test it first.
    “Olrik, Dagne, when I say, open up.” She stepped back slightly, nocked an arrow and drew, aiming between the two fighters. “Now!” she yelled, and the two fighters stepped aside, opening up a gap in the shield wall. She released her arrow through the gap and the couple closed up again. She didn’t know if she had scored a hit or not. One of the other nearby archers, who had been looking to her, communicated with the shield men in front of him and copied her technique. Once he had shot, he looked back to Alette.
    “I’ll pass the idea along!” he shouted, before rushing away to the other archers. Soon that entire section of the shield wall was following suit, opening up gaps for split seconds for the archers to shoot through. Peering through, Olrik examined the battle.
    “The Horseborn are taking casualties!” he said. Alette realised that this would be a matter of the two sides whittling each other down, but she hoped that the shield wall and the longer range of the bows would act in their favour.
    “Alette!” a voice came from her right. She turned, and saw Hogun. “Dust on the other side!” he yelled and pointed towards Lundar. She looked over and saw that a dust cloud was now moving on the far side of the town, back towards the copse. The Horseborn were retreating from the Dredge.
    “Banners from Arberrang!” another voice, this time belonging to Aleo. Alette looked to the north and saw archers in red and gold livery running down the hill towards them. Hakon’s Varl and Ludin’s fighters had charged against the Dredge. The archers assembled alongside the caravan and as one unit drew their bows. Scores of arrows flew overhead into the Horseborn. Shouts in strange tongues rang out and the Horseborn began to retreat. The shield wall began to relax, though staying vigilant amid cheers of victory. Once the Horseborn were out of range Iorund, the sergeant in charge of Ludin’s archers, ran over to Alette. By his side were Scathach, Ro’Ech and Derdriu, and the two other Horseborn. They had both been mutilated, their lips, ears, tails and fingers had been removed. Alette gasped in horror at the sight.
    “Eagecánnthach, Aiodhmír...” Scathach searched for the next word. “Steal. Stoled.”
    “Stolen? You mean they were captured?” Alette tried to help. Scathach nodded.
    “Captured.” he said. “Trigecánnthae captured they. Them.”
    “Trigecánnthae? You mentioned him before.” Alette said. The Horseborns’ tails swished angrily at the mention of his name.
    “Bad leader. Bad herd. Do this...” Scathach gestured to Eage and Aiodhmír. “...to many. Do it to Derdriu’s brother.”
    “That’s horrible.” Alette muttered.
    “Alette.” Iorund called to get her attention. She nodded at him to speak. “The battle is won. The Dredge managed to break through the walls again, but Sergeant Brynjolf’s forces are holding them off at the breach and the forces of the Prince and the Varl King are routing them in the field.” Cheers were raised across the caravan at the news.
    “Good.” Alette nodded. She turned to face everyone else. “Prepare to move!” she ordered. “I’ll go ahead to the gate and negotiate entry.”

    After the caravan had entered the gates Alette walked to the north side of Lundar to see the aftermath of the battle, Iver alongside her. The breach in the wall was filled with bodies, Dredge, human and Varl. Prince Ludin’s soldiers were clearing away the bodies with the help of some of the townsfolk. King Hakon’s Varl carried the larger Dredge corpses. Two men walked by carrying a body Alette recognised as Brynjolf, one of Ludin’s sergeants, with a wound in his back. Nearby, Dagr was talking to Rugga while cleaning his sword. Ludin and Hakon were talking to one of the townsfolk, an elderly bearded man. Both of them looked exhausted. Ludin was practically held up by the spear he was leaning on, while Hakon had put his axe down on the ground and stood with arms crossed. Alette decided to join them.
    “Again, thank you.” the man was finishing as Alette approached. “Who are you?” he asked, turning towards her. “I don’t recognise you.”
    “I am Alette of Skogr, leader of this caravan.” she replied.
    “You are leading these people?” the man asked with a hint of disbelief.
    “Yes.” she responded with a hint of annoyance. The man looked at the two royals, who both nodded to confirm the fact. Iver held in a chuckle.
    “You are free to stay here as long as you like.” the man said warmly.
    “Thank you for your hospitality.” Alette put on a smile. “We shall stay here a day to recover and restock our supplies, then we are heading to Arberrang. The people of Lundar are welcome to join us.”
    “I shall put it to the townsfolk tomorrow.” the man nodded. “But I have a feeling many will want to remain here.”

    A few hours later the dead were gathered on pyres and burnt. The corpses of the Dredge and Horseborn were gathered in a pile a few miles from town. Afterwards, the people celebrated the victory and the lives of those lost with feasting and drinking. Music was played, skalds told tales. Aleo put on another performance of the Battle of Boersgard, or the ‘Saga of the Sundr Slayer’ as he called it this time. The people of Lundar were incredibly moved by it. Scathach and the other Horseborn preferred to stay as far away from everyone else as possible. Juno and Eyvind had seen to the injuries of Eagecánnthach and Aiodhmír, and mended them as best as they could. The following day, as the caravan packed up to leave, the five Horseborn left the walls of Lundar ahead of everyone else. Alette, Hakon and Ubin decided to join them.
    “What will you do now?” Alette asked.
    “Go back to herd.” Scathach said. “Trigecánnthae herd leave food of dead Horseborn. Eagecánnthach, Aiodhmír take back to herd. I help them. Ro’Ech, Derdriu stay with you.”
    “I can help them get back.” Ubin suggested. “You can stay here if you will, Scathach. In all my travels I’ve never got the chance to see Dalalond, and given the way the world’s going I might not get another chance.”
    “You’re leaving?” Alette was surprised. Hakon simply sighed.
    “Good travels, scrivener.” he said, smiling and laying a hand on the Varl’s shoulder.
    “Good travels, my King.” Ubin grinned, returning the gesture.
    “Stay safe, Ubin.” Alette said. “Come back if you can, you know where you’ll find us.”
    “Maybe I’ll have a few more stories to tell. Farewell, Alette.” Ubin reached down to pat her shoulder. “I’m going to say a few more goodbyes first, then we can leave.” he told the Horseborn, before he, Hakon and Alette went back inside Lundar. Once Ubin and the two wounded Horseborn had left, Alette noticed that Scathach, Ro’Ech and Derdriu looked almost mournful.
    “I’m sure you’ll see them again.” Alette tried to reassure them. Scathach gave her a grave look and slowly shook his head.
    “Trigecánnthae...” his head turned back and forth as he thought of the word. “...cripple them. They not use for herd. Herd...” he had to force the next word out. “...cull them.”
    “Cull?” Alette gasped. “They’re going to kill them?”
    “It is Horseborn way.” Scathach looked at her with almost teary eyes. “Live of herd bigger than live of two Horseborn. Cull to have more food for herd.”
    “That’s horrible!” Alette said. “I-I understand the thought behind it, but still, that’s horrible.” It sounded an awful lot like the things Rugga had a habit of saying. Perhaps, if he got over his initial prejudice, the governor would agree with them. “So what you said about Derdriu’s brother...?” Alette trailed off. Scathach looked at the ground, while Derdriu turned away.
    “Derdriu cull own brother.” Scathach muttered quietly. “Derdriu hate Trigecánnthae more than most.” Behind him, Derdriu swished her tail. Alette gave her a sympathetic look, but couldn’t think of anything to say. Derdriu turned away, unable to make eye contact. Ro’Ech stepped closer and hugged her.
    “I’m sorry.” Alette managed at last. “I’m going to go now. Goodbye.”
    “Goodbye.” Scathach nodded.

    The tents of the caravan filled the town’s market square. When the mayor of the town put forward Alette’s case, most refused to leave, saying they would stand and fight against any future invasions. A few dozen families did decide to join the caravan, including the man Alette had spoken to, who was now wearing a blue travelling cloak and green hat.
    “If what you say is true, then Arberrang is our only hope.” the man said when he reached Alette, who was greeting the new members one by one. “I’ve tried to convince as many as I can, but most are determined to stay. ‘Weather the storm’ as they say. I’m Josurr, by the way.”
    “Nice to meet you, Josurr.” Alette shook his hand. “We’ll be heading north, to rejoin the Eastway Road, then follow that to Arberrang.”
    “Can’t do that.” Josurr shook his head. At Alette’s quizzical look he continued. “There’s a chasm that way, like the one you described at Ormsdalr. We’ll have to go through the Old Wood.”
    “Is it dangerous?” Alette asked.
    “Strange things happen in that place.” Josurr looked towards the strangely hued forest in the distance. “I’m sure you can tell that’s no ordinary wood. There’s a path which heads through Ettingbekr to Fiskivik, so I’d suggest that way.”
    “Thank you.” Alette said. Josurr continued along and allowed her to greet the next family. Once they were done packing the people of Lundar said their goodbyes to those staying behind. A couple of the families had brought their livestock with them. The caravan, now bolstered by another three score or so, left Lundar behind and made its way towards the great and mysterious Old Wood.

  9. #69
    Colossal trees of pinks, purples and stranger hues towered over the caravan as it approached the border of the Old Wood. The grass on the approach to the treeline faded from green to an unnatural lilac. Strangely, it was the people of Lundar who looked the most fearful of the forest which loomed over their home. They were the most familiar with the stories of what lay within. Alette decided to talk to Aleo and see if he had any tales to tell. He was walking alongside his wife and the other people of Skanvik.
    “Hi Aleo.” Alette smiled as she approached. The Skald bowed his head, smiling back.
    “Hi Alette. How can I help you?” He said before his eyes turned back to the trees.
    “How’re your people doing?” Alette asked.
    “We...lost two of our fighters in the battle.”
    “I’m sorry to hear that.”
    “Thank you.” He paused for a moment, staring at the forest as he walked. “Lots of strange stories come out of here.”
    “Care to tell any?”
    “I could tell you about the Eversleepers, people who wander the Wood in a trance, and respond to any attempt to wake them with violence. Or I could tell you about the Allsummer Glade, which remains warm and vibrant even in the harshest winters, and its neighbour the Allwinter Glade, over which snow always falls no matter the time of year. There’s also tales of music which leads travellers deeper and deeper into the Wood and makes them lose their bearings. Maybe when we next camp, I’ll tell a story or two over dinner.”
    “That would be nice.” Alette smiled. Still curious, she decided to ask the people of Lundar about their stories. Josurr was leading them at the back of the caravan. He had a couple and two children walking alongside him.
    “Hello Josurr.” Alette greeted him.
    “Ah, hello Alette. This is my son Ivar, his wife Tola, and their children Bram and Aldis.” Alette was taken aback by the last name.
    “Aldis.” she repeated, looking at the ground. “It’s nice to meet you all.” When they noticed the drop in her facial expression, she forced a smile. “Sorry. Aldis was my mother’s name.” Quickly changing the subject, she turned to the old man. “Josurr, can we have some of your people at the front of the caravan please? The ones who have experience in the forest. They can act as guides.”
    “Of course. Ivar, can you gather some of the woodsmen and lead them at the front?” Josurr asked his son.
    “Of course, pa.” Ivar smiled. He gave his wife and children a quick kiss each and ran off to complete his task.
    “What can you tell me about the Wood?” Alette asked as they kept walking. “Aleo’s already-ˮ At the old man’s confusion she clarified. “The chieftain of Skanvik. He’s also the village Skald. Anyway, he’s told me about Eversleepers and the Allsummer and Allwinter Glades. What else is in there?”
    “The Eversleepers and the Glades are stories dating from the earliest days when Man first settled in the area. I don’t know how accurate they are, or whether some drunken Skald simply made them up.” Josurr said. “But there are mysterious things in there, some of which I’ve seen with my own eyes.”
    “Like what?” Alette was intrigued.
    “When I was a young man hunting in the Wood, I came across a game trail. I followed it, and it came to the base of a hvelfing tree – that’s the giant ones with the pink leaves that make a dome shape – where the trail split into two, going off either side of the tree. I chose a path at random, though I can’t remember which one, and followed it. Yet after an hour or more of walking I came back to the hvelfing tree. Well, I thought that maybe the trail had simply gone around in a circle without me noticing – after all, it’s very easy to lose your bearings in there – and that the other one would lead away, so I followed the other path. Again, I found myself at the crossroads. Now I knew something was odd. I decided to go back he way I came, now just wanting to get home, but once more I found myself back at the crossroads, somehow having reversed direction. I didn’t know what to do now, whichever way I went brought me back here. Only now something was different. A leafless branch protruded from the base of the tree at about head height, which I’m sure wasn’t there before. The ends of the branch extended like fingers, and it looked as if the branch itself was a large arm reaching out from the tree. I tried to walk away again, and again I found myself at the hvelfing tree. This time, I stepped in front of the branch and noticed it was different. Some of the twigs were bent inwards, except for one, and it looked like a hand pointing down. I was now desperate to get away, and I ran off down the original path. When I again reached the tree, I noticed the ‘fingers’ of the branch were again outstretched, looking like a hand with its palm facing up. I realised now that the branch had previously been pointing at the pouch on my belt. Taking a guess, I took a silver coin from my pouch and put it in the palm of the branch, then turned and went back along the original path. After several hours of walking I finally made it out of the Wood. On all my future trips into the Wood, I never saw that tree or those paths ever again.”
    “That really happened?” Alette said sceptically.
    “Well, according to you there’s a world breaking serpent on the loose.” the old man replied rather defensively.
    “Good point.” Alette conceded. If a world serpent, Dredge, and Menders who can shoot lightning and float rocks could exist, why couldn’t a magical forest?

    Barely a hundred paces from the treeline the outside of the wood seemed to vanish behind alien trees, as if the flora itself had closed up behind them. They were relying on Ivar’s guides now. The Varl were claustrophobic, constantly bending under branches and grumbling. Yet all the newcomers were mystified, like they had entered another world. It wasn’t long before the sky became barely visible, the dappled sunlight reaching through a choking canopy only in some places, yet the forest appeared as illuminated as an open field. The path which Josurr had described was barely wide enough for two yox carts in most places. At times they had to go single file. Other game trails split off from the main path, but Ivar and his guides knew where they were going. When the caravan tired, they found a clearing in which to set up camp. As promised, Aleo picked up his lyre while others were eating and found a tree stump to stand on.
    “Hridvaldyr the Hunting God was bored one day...” Aleo told the story of how Finnleik God-Hunter, a man of whom Alette had heard a few tales, came to earn his epithet by piercing the god with an arrow. Only a timely arrival by Geirradr stayed his hand from finishing Hridvaldyr off. When the story finished, the camp applauded. Alette thought it was strange that there was once a time when gods lived and interacted with the people. All the Varl were around at that time, which made her wonder if Iver or Hakon had ever spoken to any of the gods besides Hadrborg.

    Ivar’s guides continued leading the caravan, knowing which way to go seemingly by instinct, even as all sense of direction was lost. However, a couple of days after Aleo had told his tale, the guides called the caravan to a halt, along a path to the left of which was a hill rising sharply upwards, a gentler slope going down to the right. Alette rushed to the front, pushing her way past murmuring crowds.
    “Ivar, what’s going on?” she asked. Ivar pointed ahead down the path, at a blue flame in the distance. It took her a while, but Alette soon saw that it was heading towards them. She looked behind her, at the crowd of confused people. “How far back was that last crossroads?” Alette demanded.
    “Too far.” Ivar said nervously. “The fire will catch up before we get back.” The flames accelerated, as if fuelled by the fear of the front members of the caravan.
    “Alright, everyone move to the side!” Alette shouted, struggling to be heard above the crowd. She waved her arms to her left, the caravan’s right, and some of the frontmost clansmen began to move, rushing their families off the path. Yoxen started to panic, their handlers fighting to lead them down the slope. A few people cried out as a cart tipped over, spilling its contents across the forest floor as its yox was dragged down the slope. The Varl were especially scared as the blue fire grew into an inferno, catching on the trees around them, their phobia freezing them in place or causing them to drop their things and run. The flames spread down the hill as well, some people clawing their way back up the slope and clashing with those on their way down. Alette slipped on a wet patch of ground and rolled down the hill, coming to a stop in front of the spreading flames coming straight for her. She grabbed her cloak and drew it in front of her face to try and protect herself from the searing heat that never came, even as the flames spread past her, over her, and continued on past. She gradually lowered her cloak, looking around her at the fire and the screaming people, and the trees and leaves that failed to blacken even as the fire engulfed them. Taking a risk, she cautiously reached out her hand into one of the flames and felt nothing. With a sudden realisation she darted to her feet.
    “It’s not real!” she yelled. “The fire’s not real! It’s safe!” she jumped up waving her arms to try and get people to notice, but only a few heard her and started to calm down. Realising that shouting and waving wasn’t going to work, Alette ran to each person in turn, telling them the fire was safe. Elsewhere, she saw a couple of others realise the truth and attempt to show the people near them. Over by the royal banner of Arberrang, Yrsa calmed the prince, once she’d finished inspecting the flames with an unsettling curiosity. It took several minutes to restore any kind of order, and once the majority of people were calm the fire dissipated. There was still the issue of the yoxen, most of which were still spooked, and their carts, with several contents having spilt. The Varl were almost all still shaken, which Yrsa appeared to find funny, smirking to herself in that quietly arrogant way.
    “Everyone make your way back up onto the path!” Alette ordered, before jogging over to the people of Skogr to check on them. Kristofer was wiping some dirt off the banner of Skogr, which had been dropped and trampled in the chaos.
    “Is everything alright here?” Alette asked concerned. Most people nodded.
    “What in the depths was that?” Dageid wondered aloud. “How can there be...what, fake fire?”
    “Josurr warned me strange things happened here.” Alette answered.
    “Well, I certainly hope there’s nothing more like that.” Iver grumbled.

    The caravan got moving again after a while, though Alette ordered that Ivar’s guides go a bit further in front, and Alette now travelled at the head of the caravan. Not long later, the guides reported shouting ahead. Alette followed two of them at a light jog, until she heard the voice too. It was a man with an odd accent that she recognised as being from the Kragsmen.
    “Urmas? Kjotvi? Skaggan? Anyone?” Alette and the two guides slowed down and crept around a bend in the track. They saw a young man in dirty green clothes with the wild orange hair common amongst the Kragsmen. He was clearly scared, and jumped back when he saw Alette and the guides.
    “Easy.” Alette said softly, stepping forwards with her hands raised in a gesture of peace. “I’m Alette of Skogr, who are you?” she asked. The man seemed hesitant to answer.
    “I’m Otta. Of Tojby.”
    “Where’s that?”
    “The bogs near Grundar. We left a month ago – or more than that, I don’t know – to go to the Rundwall King. Urmas Bearlord, Tojby’s chieftain, said we could find safety there. He said there was a darkness coming. He said the dead were restless. Chieftain Braesi of Sepja wouldn’t listen.”
    “Braesi?” Alette remembered the elderly Kragsmen chief with whom the caravan had stayed for a night. Perhaps Tojby was the abandoned village they had passed through. The Bearlord the man had mentioned made the empty cages make more sense now.
    “You know him?”
    “Yes.” Alette did not want to say too much, given what happened. “I think we passed through your village, when it was empty. Where are the others now?”
    “I don’t know.” Otta shrugged. “There was a fire, bright blue, and I panicked and ran. Only it wasn’t real.”
    “We know. We saw the same thing.”
    “Well, by the time I realised, I was lost. That must have been an hour ago, I think, and I haven’t been able to find anyone else.”
    “You’re welcome to come with us. We’re headed to Arberrang too.”
    “Thank you, so much!” Otta nodded gratefully. Alette gestured for him to follow her.

  10. #70
    Alette led Otta back to the caravan, to the surprise of the clansmen. She took him over to the Skogr part of the caravan and introduced him to the people there. A short while later Governor Rugga arrived to talk to her, with Dagr and a couple of other fighters wearing brown and blue.
    “Alette, some people have told me their friends and family members are missing.” he informed her.
    “What?” Alette gasped.
    “They must have run off during the fire and got lost, like this stray you’ve picked up.” Rugga gestured to the Kragsman.
    “His name is Otta. He’s from that abandoned village we passed through.”
    “Hmm.” Rugga thought for a moment. “He might be useful if we come across his people. Now, what should we do about the missing clansmen?” Alette could tell by his voice that Rugga was testing her.
    “The guides from Lundar know this wood better than anyone. Some of them could go back and search.”
    “Good. I’ll send a messenger.”
    “Surely, if it’s my order, it should be one of my messengers?” Alette raised an eyebrow. The Governor was taken aback, looking very nearly impressed.
    “Very well.” he bowed his head and left with his entourage. Alette turned to look at the people of Skogr. Nearest to her was the fighter Olrik.
    “Olrik, can you find Ivar Josurrson at the front of the caravan and tell him to send a search party to look for missing clansmen please?”
    “Of course.” he nodded. As Olrik ran off towards the head of the caravan, Alette considered stopping the caravan to wait for the stragglers, but decided that they needed to keep moving. Ivar’s search party would be able to bring the stragglers back to them.

    Once Ivar’s woodsmen returned hours later some people were happy to be reunited with their lost friends and family, yet others were disappointed, not seeing theirs. Though she hated it, Alette ordered the caravan to continue regardless. The next day, as they were marching, Scathach, Ro’Ech and Derdriu seemed alarmed.
    “What is it?” Alette asked. Derdriu stomped her hoof repeatedly while pointing at the ground. Beneath the tracks of the clansmen lay hoof prints that had gone unnoticed by the woodsmen.
    “Horseborn. Front.” Derdriu said, whipping her tail. “Trigecánnthae.” Her eyes narrowed and she started to canter angrily towards the front, alarmed clansmen darting out of the way. Ro’Ech followed her, flail in hand. Scathach looked at Alette.
    “Must fight Trigecánnthae. Derdriu kill Trigecánnthae.” he said sternly. Alette took off at a run, telling a fighter nearby to alert everyone. As she ran, Scathach alongside her, a horn blew from ahead, bringing the caravan to a halt. She reached Ivar to see him overlooking a village that lay in a clearing through which a stream ran. The houses were burning as Horseborn ran down the inhabitants.
    “Ettingbekr.” Ivar explained.
    “Trigecánnthae!” Derdriu yelled, pointing at the far side of the village. Alette saw a white-haired Horseborn covered in blue painted patterns. He also had green spiked hair on top of his head. He wielded an iron sword, probably looted from a previous human victim. Derdriu and Ro’Ech became enraged at the sight of him, charging down into the village.
    “Spears!” Alette ordered, a fighter next to her blowing a horn. “Form a shield wall!” The rough terrain would slow the Horseborn and prevent them from retreating to javelin range as they had at Lundar. Here, the caravan had the advantage. The few remaining fighters in the village rallied at the sound of the horn and started ushering people towards the caravan. Once the shield wall was formed, Prince Ludin led the battle cry.
    “Forward!” he cried. The battle line charged. The Horseborn attempted to gather together to face the new threat, some throwing javelins that took down a couple of fighters. Unsure how to deal with the continuous wall, the Horseborn rode in groups, attempting to smash through the line in three different areas. So focused on the approaching humans and Varl were the Horseborn that they missed the three of their own kind slipping past and heading straight for their leader. The Horseborn clashed and fell against the spears of the shield wall. Some tried to throw javelins from afar. Alette and some other archers loosed arrows at them over the shield wall. One or two Horseborn broke through the human and Varl line and cut down a few fighters before they could react. Alette loosed another arrow, taking down a Horseborn who was just about to throw a javelin, then looked for Scathach and the others, just catching a glimpse as they and their target disappeared inside the village’s burning main hall, out of sight.

    Scathach was the slowest of the trio, Ro’Ech and Derdriu both ahead of him, fuelled by their intense hatred of Trigecánnthae. He arrived inside the main hall to see Trigecánnthae flanked by two of his warriors. Behind them, the chieftain of the human village, a largely built man with a two handed axe, stood shielding his family from two other Horseborn. The flames were mostly in the rafters, of no danger to the people below.
    “Who are you?” Trigecánnthae demanded in the Horseborn tongue. “And why do you travel with humans and giants?”
    “My name is Derdriu.” Derdriu said scornfully. “I am here for vengeance.”
    “For what? I’m guessing I killed someone close to you, though I can’t think who.” Trigecánnthae almost seemed to be taunting Derdriu. By now, the human chieftain had caught on that not all the Horseborn were on the same side, even if he couldn’t understand the language. The two that were threatening him and his family had their attention divided, and he saw an opportunity. He struck out with his axe, at the leg of one of the Horseborn while she was looking at Derdriu, and with a pained screech she fell to the ground dropping her weapon. Ro’Ech and Derdriu charged at Trigecánnthae as did Scathach a second later. The other Horseborn turned and kicked with its back legs, striking the human in the head. He was knocked to the floor and did not move. Trigecánnthae was fast, and parried blows from both Ro’Ech and Derdriu as Scathach engaged the other Horseborn. He swung with his flail at his opponent’s head, his strike blocked by the other’s bronze spear. He jumped back as the other Horseborn thrust his spear at Scathach’s abdomen. Behind him, he heard the fighting between his two friends and Trigecánnthae, and behind his opponent, the screams of the chieftain’s family, begging for him to wake up. Scathach had an idea, and retreated slightly to begin circling. His opponent did the same. When Scathach was closer to the wall, he jumped up at the wall and pushed off it, leaping up above his opponent, who was so stunned by the daring move that he was unprepared for Scathach’s flail, which came down from above as Scathach landed, striking him in the jaw. The blow caused teeth and blood to fly, and the Horseborn dropped his spear, but Scathach did not stop. Scathach swung at the Horseborn’s knee, knocking him to the floor, and then raised his flail with both hands for a final blow on the top of the head. There was a crunch as the flail met its target, and Scathach’s opponent slumped on the floor. He now turned to the battle with Trigecánnthae, which was still going, all three of them now having sustained wounds. Trigecánnthae, seeing that he was outmatched, backed away from the other Horseborn. He backed up until he stood directly in front of a burning wooden pillar. He scowled at Derdriu and kicked back at the pillar which, weakened by the flames, gave way. Fiery wooden beams fell down between the combatants as a section of the roof collapsed. Scathach, Ro’Ech, and Derdriu all jumped back shielding their face from the heat as Trigecánnthae used the confusion to escape. By the time Scathach had recovered, their target was out of the hall. He was the first to react, leaping over the debris to chase the warlord. He cantered out of the hall to find himself in a rout, the human and Varl fighters chasing down the members of Trigecánnthae’s herd. Scathach saw Trigecánnthae disappear into the treeline and gave chase. Glancing behind him, he saw that Derdriu and Ro’Ech followed, though hampered by their injuries. As he looked back forwards, he saw a human fighter with blond hair and dressed in red approaching, axe and shield ready. The fighter assumed him to be an enemy and charged. Scathach spun and kicked the man’s shield to knock him back before continuing the pursuit. He had lost valuable seconds, and by the time he reached the treeline Trigecánnthae was working his way up a ridge, doing his best to knock loose logs and rocks down the ridge to delay his pursuers. Scathach followed, taking care to avoid the loose stones. He crested the ridge and chased Trigecánnthae along mostly flat ground. Trigecánnthae chopped at a low purple branch as he passed under, causing it to fall as Scathach approached. He darted to the side to avoid the branch and continued. Trigecánnthae looked back at Scathach, surprised by his persistence. He kept glancing back, each time more anxious as Scathach gained distance, and didn’t pay attention to where he was going. Trigecánnthae suddenly slipped and fell down out of sight. Scathach slowed to a trot and caught up with his target. He stood at the top of a ditch into which Trigecánnthae had fallen, and looked down at the Horseborn, who had broken a leg in the fall. Wincing as he tried to move, both Trigecánnthae and Scathach then noticed a sharp branch protruding from the warlord’s abdomen. Scathach slowly and carefully trod his way down as Trigecánnthae grunted in pain and anger.
    “Go on then!” Trigecánnthae taunted through gritted teeth, glaring at Scathach. “Finish it!”
    “It is not my place to do so.” Scathach replied calmly, looking at the top of the ditch to see Derdriu, Ro’Ech beside her. The couple made their way down to join Scathach.
    “Ah.” Trigecánnthae grimaced. “The broodmare.” Ro’Ech recoiled at the insult to his partner, but Derdriu simply walked forwards, unfazed, a javelin in hand.
    “This is for my brother.” Derdriu declared, before plunging the javelin into Trigecánnthae’s heart. The warlord let out a final gurgle as he died. The three Horseborn stood in silence for a minute, Ro’Ech placing a hand on Derdriu’s shoulder as a comforting gesture.
    “We should go back now.” Derdriu muttered after a while.

    With the battle was over and any surviving Horseborn having disappeared into the trees, Alette walked through the village, assessing the casualties. A few shouts came from her left as three Horseborn emerged from the trees, causing a few fighters to draw their weapons.
    “Wait!” Alette barked, seeing that it was Scathach, Derdriu, and Ro’Ech. The fighters, one of whom was Hogun, whose shield was splintered, looked at her in confusion. “These are the ones from before.” Alette clarified. Realisation crossed the fighters’ faces, and Hogun looked at Scathach.
    “You broke my shield.” he said with a hint of humour.
    “You try kill me.” Scathach replied, nonchalantly shrugging.
    “Yeah, sorry about that.” Hogun apologised, before both of them chuckled.
    “What of Trigecánnthae?” Alette asked, hoping she’d got the pronunciation right.
    “Trigecánnthae dead.” Derdriu answered. Alette nodded, glad that Derdriu had been able to get vengeance.
    “Alette!” someone called from the direction of the main hall, the entire roof having now fallen in. It was Oddleif, her white cloak covered in soot and ash, comforting a woman and two young daughters as she led them away from the hall. “This is the chieftain’s family.” Oddleif explained. “He...he himself is dead.”
    “Thank you, Odd.” Alette nodded gratefully. She turned to the family. “I’m sorry about your loss.” The wife of the chieftain nodded tearfully, unable to say anything. “We’re going to Arberrang. Your people are welcome to join us.” The woman looked around at the burnt out houses of the village, and at her fellow villagers who were still recovering. She nodded at Alette and went to join a nearby group of villagers.

  11. #71
    Having lost their banner in the fire, the people of Ettingbekr became indistinguishable from the rest of the caravan as they joined the march to the capital. Among them was a middle aged Mender, who wore a red travelling cloak and walked with the aid of his staff. He introduced himself as Vikar, and explained he was staying in Ettingbekr to study the Old Wood and the phenomena that occurred there, and had been for several years. Naturally, he spent most of his time talking to Juno and Eyvind. The path remained fairly well maintained for a good while once they’d left the village, but after a day’s march it began to become more overgrown, the branches lower, the path thinner. The plants around them grew stranger. A most interesting flower seemed to thrive in this part of the forest. It had a blue centre with beautiful yellow and pink petals. As Alette found herself walking closer to one, reaching out to hold it in her hands, she noticed coloured specks floating through the air. She began chasing the specks as a child chases a feather caught on the breeze. She crossed the bridge over the stream into the village and saw the familiar great hall with the chieftain discussing things while Oddleif advised him. Nearby was Oddur selling the day’s bread. She walked past Iver as he trained the men and the boys. Egil was standing victorious over a stunned fighter. Perhaps she would ask him to go for a walk with her tomorrow. She turned and went back over the bridge, only this time Eyvind stood there, his staff raised. Alette started to run, but Eyvind brought the staff crashing down and the bridge began to crumble. Falling into the freezing water she felt herself slipping away. She rose up out of the water and carried on rising, propelling herself towards the old watchtower, where Father stood. She landed near to him and reached out, but no matter how much she walked towards him he always seemed slightly out of reach.
    “Alette.” a voice said. Behind Father was Juno, who was reaching out for her. Alette followed the Valka through the forests, soon wondering why the yellow, blue and pink flowers were disappearing. She realised she must have entered a dream, for this old wood she was in seemed unfamiliar. She looked back and saw dozens of people shuffling along, with many more behind obscured by the pink foliage.
    “The things...” Alette weeped. “Where are the flowers? Why are they all gone?”
    “Shh...Alette.” Juno replied soothingly. The Mender left to go somewhere else and Alette continued walking, her feet knowing where to go, as though down a well-travelled road. Her hand collided with the stone a split second before her face did, the shock bringing her to her senses. She looked up and saw a kindly face staring down at her, runes winding their way through its hair. It was a godstone.
    “I’m confused.” a voice murmured behind her. She turned and saw Kristofer of Skogr. “I was walking with Tindra. Where did she go?”
    “Tindra?” Alette’s memories dripped back into form and they came to the realisation at the same time. Kristofer’s shoulders sank and he looked down at the ground.
    “Oh.”
    “I’m sorry, Kristofer.” A tear ran down from Alette’s eye as she thought of the things she had seen; a vivid dream, and nothing more. That tomorrow would never come, replaced with a sword in the neck. As she leant against the godstone her hand found a tiny alcove at waist level, covered with some moss. Prising it away, Alette reached in and found something small and dry. When she pulled her hand out along with the object, she saw that it was a lock of hair, an orange that was dulled by time, but clearly used to be bright and summery. It was tied to a necklace of some sort, perhaps placed there as a tribute or a memento. She decided to put it back, and inspected the face on the stone again. Examining each facet of the carving closely, and in her mind’s eye peeling away the lichen and ivy that covered much of the stone, she recognised a scene inscribed below the face, which showed a cloaked man holding out a hand over a downed deer, another man armed with a bow and dagger on the other side. Recognising the scene as being the tale of Finnleik God-Hunter, she deduced that this was Geirradr’s godstone. A god of counsel and wisdom, Geirradr was one of those often prayed to by people in overwhelming situations. Looking around, she saw the caravan gathered together, having naturally come to a halt both due to the godstone and the confusion of the strange ordeal. Juno walked back over to Alette, out of breath, leaning on her spear. Eyvind was close behind, a supporting hand on her back.
    “Hello Alette.” Juno panted. “There were...there was a plant of some sort. The seeds it releases affected everyone’s minds. I managed to realise quickly enough and bring myself out of the trance. I’ve been spending the last few hours guiding everyone else.” She took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, but I wasn’t able to save everyone. Some wandered off before I was able to reach them. Chances are they’ll still be in their trance, lost. I’m so sorry.”
    “Don’t blame yourself.” Alette reassured the Mender once she’d processed the information. “I think we all need to rest.” She jumped up on top of a nearby boulder to address the caravan. “Everyone!” she called. She repeated a few times before everyone was silent and listening. “I know you’re confused about what happened. I am too. Valka Juno helped us get here, but I’m afraid she couldn’t help everyone. Let’s set up camp, and could every clan leader please count your people. Those who are missing...I’m afraid we can’t go back to get them, or we may all get lost.”

    At least a score of people were missing, when the clan leaders came to report to Alette. Among those missing were Ivar’s son Bram, Dageid, Olrik, and the Mender Vikar. Alette was worried that Aukfrosta was among the lost, until she saw Kristofer sprint across the camp to scoop up the wandering girl in his arms. Alette found herself smiling as she saw how relieved the man was, then her smile faded as she looked across the camp, seeing several people crying for lost family and friends. As she travelled, greeting friends and offering sympathies to grieving clansmen, she came across Eyvind, who was standing by a boulder on which Juno sat, talking. Juno’s face seemed different, gaunter, or perhaps her wrinkles had deepened.
    “Are you alright, Juno?” Alette asked, concerned. Juno nodded.
    “I’m just tired.” she said.
    “Did you know Vikar before?” Alette was curious, and also wanted to offer her sympathies.
    “We met once or twice at Manaharr, but we didn’t know each other very well.”
    “I’m sorry for your loss.”
    “He didn’t mean much to either of us, but thank you anyway.” There was an awkward pause in the conversation, before Alette changed the subject.
    “So this is Geirradr’s godstone?”
    “Yes.” Eyvind confirmed. “Been here a few times. You wouldn’t believe it, but just over that rise there...” Eyvind pointed to a nearby group of trees which seemed thinner than the others. “...is the Ormsa.”
    “Really? We’re that close to the edge?”
    “Just a few minutes’ walk and you’re out of the trees. There’s a path down the hill to the river itself.” Eyvind now pointed towards a well-kept path leading in a different direction. “That’s the easiest way to Fiskivik though, so I wouldn’t suggest we go the river route.”
    Alette thought for a moment. “I might lead some people down to the river to collect some water.”
    “Good idea. In the morning though, I’d like to go over some of our Mending lessons again.”
    “Of course.” Alette smiled. The Mender’s warm smile in return proved his youthfulness in spite of his aged face.

    Alette asked a dozen or so people to follow her bringing buckets and barrels down to the river. Once they were out of the trees, she saw that the ‘path’ Eyvind had mentioned was a winding track down a veritable cliff which went down for fifty or sixty feet before meeting the river. She and her companions made their way down slowly and steadily. She thought about the river, and wondered what the water would be like. Further upriver, it was muddy sludge, the water having drained into the great chasm at Ormsdalr. Here was apparently downriver enough that water was still there. To Alette’s relief, it was still safe to drink. They returned up the hill struggling with full containers of water, but Alette knew the effort would be worth it. When the caravan was having dinner Aleo told a tale of a young man from one of the Old Wood villages who came to Geirradr’s godstone eight times in as many days to seek counsel on the matter of a girl who had pricked his heart. On the eighth day, when the man’s words were heavy with the weight of unanswered prayers, Geirradr finally spoke, and said “She is not at my stone, fool boy. She lives where you live, sleeps where you sleep. She cannot love a man who is not there.” After the tale was told and people had eaten and drank their fill, the sentries set about their watches and everyone else settled down to sleep. It was easier to sleep here than anywhere else she had slept recently, Alette noticed. Perhaps it was the overhanging trees blocking the sun’s rays, covering the camp in an artificial night. When she awoke, she had breakfast, greeted clan leaders and assigned tasks, then rushed off to the Mender’s tent. Juno was walking off into the forest, glancing at Alette in a way that suggested she didn’t want to be disturbed. Alette was about to reach for the tent flap when it opened, Eyvind standing there.
    “Ah, hello.” he said, surprised.
    “Good morning.” Alette replied. “Is Juno alright?” Eyvind scratched the back of his head.
    “Yeah, she’ll be fine. She just needs some time alone right now.” He was staring wistfully in the direction she had gone, towards the hill overlooking the river. “Oh, the things I wish I could say.” Eyvind muttered. “If you knew...nevermind. On with the lesson?”
    For hours Eyvind and Alette practised, him teaching her more about Mending theory as well as practical lessons. She was mentally exhausted by the end. They were interrupted by a familiar grumbling in the ground.
    “That felt like it was far away.” Eyvind said reassuringly. A minute later the grumbling returned, the ground shaking more vigorously this time. Everyone knew what was coming, and it was getting closer. “We can’t see a thing through these trees! I’m going to Juno.” Eyvind took off towards the edge of the forest, Alette close on his heels. They reached the edge of the trees and saw Juno standing at the top of the path, lost in thought. The rumbling reached a crescendo and the river down below burst, rocks and dirt thrown with the water as a giant shape emerged from the ground beneath it.
    “Juno!” Eyvind shouted as he ran towards her. The shape reared up, the serpentine head now level with the forest and rising. Eyvind stopped running, as if responding to an unheard command, and turned around, grabbing Alette’s arm as he did so. The serpent came crashing down, the shockwave sending Eyvind and Alette to the ground. When they stood, the ground in front of them had collapsed, and Juno was nowhere to be seen. The serpent lifted up its head once more, staring at Eyvind, then it turned and began to slither away. Alette peeled her eyes away from the monster to look at Eyvind, whose face shifted between despair and anger.
    “No.” he stated quietly, as if to himself.

  12. #72
    “Eyvind. Run!”
    Those words were all she remembered. She felt as though she was just waking from deep sleep, frozen, able to think but not to move or see or sense anything. She wasn’t even aware of her own body. Then, she thought something. No, it wasn’t her own thoughts. It was as though someone was talking in her mind, as she had done to warn Eyvind away, only the language was different, ancient. She eventually realised the presence of...something else. Something strangely familiar.
    “How?” the presence spoke, a deep cadence in its voice. “How is it you are still alive? What are you?” The last question made her remember. She remembered the tower. She remembered the hilltop. She now knew where she was.
    “I am...you ate me.” she thought, and the presence recoiled.
    “Yet you are still alive, inside me. Why do you not die, like so many others?”
    Juno’s mind raced, scanning through possibilities. The presence reacted to each of her thoughts, so that when she came to the final realisation, so did it.
    “I’m not sure I can.” those thoughts made the presence, which Juno now remembered as the Serpent, hesitate.
    “Troublesome.” it said, simply. “You take that which is rightfully mine and use it to sustain yourself.”
    “Yours?” Juno thought, with a hint of anger. “You should not be here, so nothing is yours.”
    “False. I was created by a god to become a god. It is you who should not be here. Then why? Have I become so pathetic that I cannot consume even you?” Juno felt a slight shaking, though she was not sure where from.
    “To what end must you destroy all that lives?”
    “To the end. All things must end; so must this world.”
    “And so must you.” Had Juno spoken this implied threat aloud, her tone would have been sharp enough to cut the air itself. “The others will find a way.”
    “Ah, yes, the others. Those you control...You can control all of them, yes?” At that thought, an image of a pair of broken horns flashed through Juno’s mind. She forced it out but it was too late, for the Serpent had already caught her hesitation. “There is one you cannot.” It stated, as if it was something it expected. “He could be my...salvation. But-ˮ
    There was another quake, and Juno could feel pain, somewhere. The quakes continued, and a rush of thoughts raced through Juno’s mind, as she became aware of her body, arms, legs. Then pain again as she was smothered by some kind of liquid. A bright light pierced the darkness, visible even through her sealed eyelids. A few seconds later, she felt something on her shoulder and she could breathe. She heard a familiar voice, muffled by the liquid in her ears, but still warming her heart.
    “It’s alright, Juno. I’ve got you. You’re alright.”
    Coughing for breath, Juno felt arms around her as she forced her eyes open. She was looking down at purple grass, splattered with the thick green liquid which she realised coated her whole body. She looked up and saw the face of Eyvind, with his warm smile. Her eyes went next to the wrinkles on his face and the grey hairs in his beard, which were more prominent than she remembered. Juno slowly and carefully turned her head around, and saw a mass of the green liquid, from which she had been dragged. The realisation came slowly that she was looking at something much larger. Purple-grey scales stretched out as far as she could see in either direction, and she realised it was the Serpent with which she had been conversing. The green liquid was its blood, and she had been pulled from a large gash in its side. She looked back at Eyvind, and knew from his face that he had done this.
    “What did you do?” she asked weakly as she buried her head in his shoulder.
    “Hush, Juno. You’re safe now. I’ll always keep you safe...”

    Alette held her hand over her mouth in shock when she saw Juno, her skin pale and delicate, her clothes stained with the Serpent’s blood. Iver stood next to her, inspecting the wound on the Serpent’s body.
    “We should get away from here.” the Varl growled.
    “You’re right.” Alette agreed. “Eyvind, we need to go.” Eyvind slowly helped Juno to her feet. From the hill they were standing on, at the edge of the Old Wood, Alette could see a coastal village near the horizon, which she assumed to be Fiskivik. It was no more than a couple of days march away. She looked around at the caravan, tired and fearful, numbering far fewer than she remembered. They had lost so many when the Serpent attacked. She didn’t even know who was dead, or simply lost.
    “Iver, could you lift me up, please?” she asked, looking at the one-armed Varl. He obliged and let her clamber up onto his shoulder. “Fiskivik is not far now! Just a little bit further, then we can rest!”

    It took a little longer than Alette had thought to reach Fiskivik. The people were exhausted, trudging along in silence as if they were ants bringing food to the hive. On the first rest, Alette gathered the clan leaders to ask for a head count. Representing the people of Lundar was Ivar, Aleo for Skanvik, Hogun for Hofn, Nid for Frostvellr, Hakon for the Varl, Ludin for the Rundwall soldiers, along with the chieftain of Reynivik and the former chieftain’s wife for Ettingbekr. Governor Rugga was absent, which made Alette feel slightly relieved, and then ashamed for feeling that way.
    “Where’s your father?” Alette asked Ivar. He hesitated before speaking, his eyes refusing to meet hers, and she understood. “I’m sorry.” she said. The man gave a quick nod in gratitude. “What about Governor Rugga?”
    “Last I saw, he was gathering Boersgard’s people when the Serpent attacked.” Hakon stated.
    “It may be that they are lost.” Alette said after a while. “We need to focus on those we have with us now. I want all of you to count the people in your clans. We need to know how many of us are left.”
    “Ever since we joined you, we’ve lost our people.” The leader of Reynivik spoke up. “Dredge, Horseborn, the chasm, this godless forest!” He was getting progressively angrier with each word. “Now this giant Serpent! You don’t know what’s going on, why should you be in charge?”
    “None of us know what’s truly going on.” Aleo interrupted, sharing a look with Alette to let her know he was on her side. “Alette didn’t have to stop her boats to save Skanvik – in fact, she was advised not to – but she did anyway. My village have lost people too.” He paused. “But she has followed in her father’s footsteps and kept on walking. That is why I follow her.”
    “Very poetic, Skald, but you never knew her father. Rook was a man of resolve and strength. He fought in the shield wall! You-ˮ The man pointed an accusatory finger at Alette. “- are just a scared little girl playing at chieftain!”
    “Rook made mistakes too.” Nid shouted, silencing the other leader. “Everyone does. Things happen that no one can predict. How exactly would you deal with a giant snake?” The question seemed to pierce the chieftain’s windpipe, as he struggled to try and speak before stopping himself. At that moment, a familiar rumble shook the ground, and all eyes turned towards the Serpent behind them, which had begun to move.
    “It’s still alive.” Ludin gasped. “All that lightning didn’t do a thing.” A frightened murmur began to spread over the caravan, but to the relief of everyone the Serpent was moving away from them, sending up huge plumes of water as it slithered across to the other side of the Ormsa. It took a few minutes for the caravan to gather themselves and begin moving again, but it seemed as if the unruly chieftain had been stunned into silence. The chieftains all set about making a head count as ordered, and the results were not good. There were barely three hundred left. Alette gathered the people of Skogr, and the true depth of their losses became apparent. Dotta, Sigrod, Dagne, Torgrim the Elder and Ylva – but no sign of Torgrim the Younger – Aasa and Ubba, Kristofer and Aukfrosta, Oddleif, and finally Iver. These were all that remained of the people of Skogr. As they walked in silence, they took turns carrying the red banner. Prince Ludin had a score and a half of his entourage. King Hakon had three score Varl. The few survivors from Hofn, Frostvellr, Reynivik, and Ettingbekr made up another couple of dozen. Skanvik had two dozen, as did Lundar. There were also two score from Boersgard. Over the next day or so stragglers managed to rejoin the caravan, but there were not many. Alette noticed Iver had been talking to Juno and Eyvind, and he looked more solemn afterwards. The people of the caravan avoided the Menders even more vigorously than before, having seen Eyvind’s untamed power. He had brought down bolt after bolt of lightning on the great Serpent as he gave chase, at one point even lifting a chunk of land – as he had done at Ormsdalr – and floating upon it, flying to keep pace with the beast. He relied on his staff more and more now to walk, and during Alette’s lessons – which were longer and more frequent now – she could tell he was exhausted by even simple acts like standing. When they reached Fiskivik, Alette would make sure the clans had a long rest.

  13. #73
    Three days it took for the caravan to reach Fiskivik. A quaint coastal village, its people murmured of the Serpent, having seen the storms raging to their north. According to them, one of their fishermen had sighted the Serpent in Fiska Bay, heading towards the open ocean. In its wake, a green fluid spread, dead fish rising to the surface wherever it went. The fisherman had dared not take those fish, for fear of the poison. The caravan were fed and clothed with fresh, clean fabrics. Alette announced – once agreeing with the village chieftain – that they would stay there in Fiskivik for three days to recover from their ordeals and give any other survivors a chance to catch up. The people muttered in relief, and many did not even put up their tents, only laying out a bedroll and going straight to sleep. On the morning of the second day, Iver woke Alette up, bending down into her tent with a grim expression on his face.
    “Alette. I’d like you to walk with me. There’s something we need to talk about.” he said with no inflection in his voice.
    “What is this about?” Alette asked nervously as Iver led her through the village.
    “Listen.” Iver sighed, as if having rehearsed what he was about to say. “I know what you’re like. Believing that every little bad thing that happens is your fault. But I need you to know that you don’t need to punish yourself for the losses you’ve suffered.”
    “But-ˮ Alette interrupted. “These people depend on me, and I’ve failed them. I gave them my oath that I would get them to Arberrang.”
    “Then keep going. From the moment you left Skogr, you knew not all of you would make it, but the rest of you still can. Alette, you will stay alive, and as long as you do, they will follow you.”
    “You keep saying ‘you’, not ‘we’.” Alette pointed out, a feeling of dread rising in her gut. Iver simply sighed, as they rounded the corner of a hut and arrived at a pontoon sticking out into the bay. Juno and Eyvind stood there with a small fishing skiff moored to the dock. Juno was wearing a new set of robes and a new cloak, donated by a kind villager, though it looked like a simpler version of what she had worn before the Serpent attack.
    “Hello, Alette.” Juno greeted her. “How much has Iver told you?”
    “What’s going on?” Alette asked, her voice quivering as she already knew the answer. Iver was looking down at the ground, then shifted his gaze to look her in the eye.
    “These two are leaving. I must go with them.” he explained.
    “B-b-but I don’t understand. Why are you leaving?” Alette choked on her own words.
    “We are no longer good for the caravan.” Juno stated. “Our presence only scares the clansmen, and as we found out a few days ago, it puts them in serious danger. Beyond that, the Serpent’s attack has clarified our need to move quickly, which we cannot do with this caravan.”
    “But this caravan needs you. I need you. I need you to help me get these people to Arberrang.” Alette could feel her eyes beginning to well up.
    “Here.” Juno nodded to Eyvind, and he drew a folded piece of parchment from his bag. Alette took it and opened it out to see that it was a map. “The gods may be dead, but a few of their secrets remain.” The map seemed ordinary. “Alette, remember our lessons.” Eyvind prompted her. She looked at him, and he nodded encouragingly. She unslung her bow from over her shoulder and ran the fingers of one hand along the patterns while holding the map with the other. It took a couple of minutes, but eventually she started to see the threads in the parchment. They twisted and deformed, until it seemed as if the ink itself was shifting, new lines appearing as if the material itself was ripping. One large blot appeared cutting north to south passing through Ormsdalr, and Alette began to realise what was happening. To the north, the threads became discoloured and warped, and the ink seemed wrong to look at. A circle of this discolouration spread south, stopping around the Red River.
    “What is this?” she asked. Iver looked confused at what appeared to him to be a plain map.
    “That is the Darkness.” Juno said, with a heavy weight on the last word. “It is what is driving the Dredge south, and what has caused the Serpent to begin its rampage.”
    “And these...” Alette ran a finger along the newly appearing lines. “These are the chasms?”
    “Yes.” Eyvind answered. The further north Alette looked, the worse the chasms got, until deep in the heart of the wild region of Valkajokull there was simply a hole the size of the Lang Loom Forest.
    “This map will change as the Darkness spreads further.” Juno explained. “Eyvind and I need to stop it.”
    “But I don’t know why you need Iver.” Alette pleaded, a tear worming its way out of her eye.
    “A one-armed Varl brings good luck.” Iver joked, completely deadpan.
    “Iver’s strength and resolve will be necessary for us in the days ahead.” Juno said. “It is the same resolve you use every day, and you have Hakon, Ludin, and the others around you for strength.”
    “But Iver’s my friend.” Alette sobbed, tears coming loose from both eyes.
    “In all my years, you and your father are the only two I’d ever call my friends. That will not change even if I live for another century, and it will certainly not change with distance. Understand?” Iver placed his hand on Alette’s shoulder, snorting as if trying to keep from crying himself. Alette responded by throwing herself at him, her arms wrapped as far around him as they could go. Iver knelt down to embrace her, and she buried her face in his shoulder. After a few moments they separated, both with tears flooding down their cheeks. Alette wiped her eyes and hugged Eyvind and then Juno.
    “In Arberrang, you will need all of your strength and your wits to survive.” Juno said, once Alette had drawn back.
    “How will I know if you succeed?” Alette asked.
    “You will know because you will still be alive. Just hold out until the Darkness breaks.”
    “Alette, I know of no one more suited to help these folks.” Iver said encouragingly. “Remember that.”
    “Till we see each other again?” Alette said, the tears coming back.
    “In some form or another, I imagine.” Iver smiled. Alette couldn’t help but smile back. She looked back at the Menders.
    “I’m so proud of you.” Eyvind said. “I’ve put some hidden patterns on your bow. They’ll become clear with practice. Take care, Alette.”
    “You too, Eyvind.”
    “Iver, Eyvind, can you get the boat ready please?” Juno asked. The other two nodded, each hugging Alette one last time before heading to the skiff. Juno turned to Alette once they were out of earshot. “I’m sorry for the hardship that has become your life.” she said sorrowfully. “Though it probably means little coming from me, you’ve done great work making it this far. Continue to push for the capital. With luck, we will face and defeat the Darkness before it reaches you. I hope our efforts will not be in vain.”
    “Then I hope luck is with you as well. Take care of Iver.” The two embraced again before Juno followed the other two, climbing aboard the fishing skiff and making the final preparations to leave.

    Iver’s eyes never left Alette’s as he loosed the sails and set the boat on its way. She continued standing there on the pontoon watching them leave, shrinking into a tiny green candle. Once she was out of sight, Iver began looking at the water, which had wisps of the Serpent’s blood floating about. He did not know if he would see Alette again, or any of the other ten of Skogr’s people. He remembered walking into Skogr for the very first time, after the end of the Second Great War. He could have been King. Throstr, Fourth of the Varl Kings, had named him Kendr for what he had done. ‘King Iver, imagine that.’ he chuckled at the thought. No, he was glad he’d left Grofheim. All the Varl had wanted to do was celebrate the fact that he’d killed a defenceless mother and child, and even name him hero for it. If he’d taken Throstr up on his offer, he wouldn’t have found Skogr. He wouldn’t have met Sten, and all the village chieftains after him. He wouldn’t have met Rook, the only person who ever seemed to truly understand him. He wouldn’t have watched Alette grow from a little girl to the brave leader she was now. He never felt more proud than when he looked at her. He was sure that she would do the right thing.
    “Where is it we’re going?” Iver asked, looking back at the Menders.
    Juno replied with a single word. “Manaharr.”

  14.   This is the last staff post in this thread.   #74
    Community Manager Khatie's Avatar
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    This is so good.

  15. #75
    Happy New Year everyone! I thought I'd start it off by posting an interlude. However, rather than a Skald's Tale, this one is a prologue of sorts for Chapter 6 which takes place at roughly the same time as the beginning of the chapter and explores a consequence of one of my decisions when writing TBS1. Chapter 6 is coming soon, but for now enjoy 'The Line in the Snow'...

    “Kvig!” A shout from the northeast tower got the young Varl’s attention above the sounds of battle. Kvig recognised the voice as Arn, former chieftain of Stikill and de facto commander of the Seahorn garrison. He sprinted along the curtain wall as the glowing projectiles of the Dredge flew overhead, exploding as they landed. The defenders were mostly human, with a few Varl who had arrived with Kvig. The Varl had come from Einartoft, having barely survived the battle there. The Varl general Fasolt had fallen at Einartoft, and his kendr Hvaldr had led the score and a half Varl down the Wandering Road, fighting off Dredge along the way. By the time they reached Strand, the city was already under siege and only a dozen of the party were left. They had been forced to head towards Seahorn, a cliffside fort built during the Second Great War, which had already been inhabited by the people of the nearby town of Stikill. If Fasolt had been alive, Kvig thought, he would have led them further south, perhaps even as far as Arberrang, rather than let them get trapped in this veritable ruin with an army of Dredge and that unnatural darkness approaching. Kvig reached Arn, who stood with a shield and mace directing the other defenders.
    “Little giant!” Arn acknowledged his arrival. Being the youngest Varl alive at just under a century old, Kvig could perhaps be compared to a human teen, with not yet a full beard and standing little more than a foot above the tallest human, with short blunt horns protruding from his forehead. This had led to the humans referring to him by that nickname, which he hated. The Varl tended to call him calf, which was not much better. “See if you can take out some of the Scourges with that bow-thing of yours!” Arn was referring to the gift Kvig’s kendr had given to him. Iorthr had been an inventor of sorts in Einartoft, and had designed the great bolt-throwers that used to guard the bridge. Iorthr had been developing a smaller, handheld version of the bolt-thrower, but had only made one working prototype by the time the Dredge arrived. He had given it to Kvig before joining King Jorundr in the defence of the great hall. That was the last time Kvig had seen his kendr, who had looked after him like a human father looks after his son.
    “Got it!” Kvig nodded. First drawing back the string of his bolt-thrower and securing it behind a small metal nut, he took one of the four remaining bolts from the quiver at his belt and placed it on the wooden stock. He then lifted it up, putting the back of the stock into his shoulder to aim at one of the large Dredge Scourges that was approaching the gate. He aimed at the neck, below the helmet and before the chestplate began, and pulled a trigger on the bottom of the stock. With a loud thunk the string snapped forwards, propelling the bolt faster and with more strength than a conventional bow. Hitting its mark, the Scourge fell clutching its neck.
    “Nice shot, little giant!” Arn yelled. Kvig drew the string again and aimed at another Scourge when the bolt was in place. He pulled the trigger. This time, his aim was off and the bolt hit the Dredge’s shoulder plate, piercing it, but not all the way through. He cursed as he drew back the string for another shot.
    “What’s that?” one of the defenders, a Varl named Tharmund called out. He pointed at a strange cuboid shape moving through the crowd of Dredge. Looking closer, Kvig saw that it was Stoneguards, their shields held to the front, side, and top in such a way as to completely enclose them, leaving no gaps. It almost resembled the shell of a sea turtle. They moved as one object towards the gate.
    “Kvig, can you get a shot in?” Arn asked, having to yell over the din of battle. Kvig aimed down the stock of his bolt-thrower, but couldn’t see any openings.
    “Don’t think so!” he shouted.
    “Get some rocks down on ‘em!” Arn ordered. The defenders on the top of the gatehouse, who had been throwing chunks of rubble down on the Dredge, now focused their shots on the turtle formation. “Hvaldr, be ready!” Arn shouted to the Varl in the courtyard, who had formed a shieldwall along with human fighters facing the gate. Arn ran over to the gatehouse to aid them. Kvig continued aiming at the turtle, holding steady and waiting for an opening. A rock thrown by one of the gatehouse defenders knocked one of the corner Stoneguards enough for his shield to drop – only slightly, but enough to fit a bolt through. Kvig pulled the trigger and a second later the formation buckled as the Stoneguard fell dead, its body falling into its comrades. Kvig spotted a glimpse of something blue inside the turtle. Swiftly pushing the corpse outwards and filling in the gap, the formation continued, reaching the gate. The front of the turtle was now obscured by the stonework, but they were clearly acting quickly while the rear Dredge held their ground. Kvig noticed the rest of the Dredge army were falling back.
    “What are they doing?” Arn wondered aloud. A few moments later, the Dredge at the gate began running back, having left a large blue rock by the gate. Looking back at the Dredge lines, which had by now retreated a fair distance, Kvig spotted a slinger preparing to throw one of its rocks, and his heart sunk as he realised it was a smaller version of what lay at the gate. He glanced over at Arn, who had the same realisation. The slinger took its shot, aiming at the rock at the gate.
    “Gedow-ˮ Arn began, before a burst of blue fire enveloped him. Kvig was thrown from the tower by the force of the explosion, plummeting towards the sea. He seemed to fall for an eternity, before the cold dark water engulfed him.

  16. #76
    Hello! Our final Bolverk chapter is here! Now, there is a problem I've thought of regarding Chapters 7 and 8. When I wrote the ending of TBS1, I had the benefit of having played TBS2 and being able to use that hindsight to determine how I wanted my novelisation of the first game to end. Obviously with TBS3 not yet here I don't have that luxury for this game, and with the somewhat more complex events in Chapter 7 I'm not sure if I want to write it without that hindsight. I'm wondering whether I should wait until the third game is released before I finish off TBS2's novelisation, or whether I should go ahead and leave some things ambiguous (certain possible deaths etc.) to give myself some wriggle room in the future. As a sort of compromise, I could split Chapter 7 into two parts, writing and posting the events up until the arrival at Arberrang, but then leaving the actual Battle of Arberrang and Manaharr until after the third game's release. Please let me know your thoughts. Anyway, here's Chapter 6: The Fetters Will Burst...

    The godstone of Bygglaerer looked out over the Fingernail Weald. Behind the Ravens and their refugees-in-tow, the passage back into the caves loomed. Ahead, the piles of slate that made up the godstone stacked up into the form of a bearded head with a hammer next to it, rather fitting for the god who built the world. The eldritch Darkness provided an eerie backdrop for the view. Coming over the horizon, working their way down the Longhalr Road, were Dredge in their tens of thousands, possibly more. It was impossible to distinguish between the black stone figures and the trees as they poured over the hills like a swarm of ants. Looking south, the prison town of Gaular could be seen, a small collection of longhouses on the edge of the forest, about a day away. Beyond that, the Eastway Road led to Old Ford, where it joined the Longhalr Road to head into the Rundwall heartland. Clouds covered the sky, moving south as if they themselves were retreating from the ever encroaching Darkness. From these clouds came blizzards which covered the landscape, getting thicker further north. Bolverk attempted to estimate how long the hordes of Dredge would take to reach Old Ford, at which point the Ravens would be cut off from their destination. He needed to go to Manaharr. He needed to find answers. Another, more gut feeling, told him that he would find something else there too. Someone else. Ten days, by Bolverk’s reckoning. If the Dredge travelled at the same speed as his own caravan, that was too soon. Taking rest into account, the Ravens and their tow were about two weeks away at least. Unless...
    “Bloodaxe. You going to stare at them forever?” The question made up his mind. He turned and grunted as Sigbjorn, who had spoken. The mead supply had run out in the caves, and Sigbjorn had become more irritable in response.
    “Remember Nordfelling?” Bolverk asked. Sigbjorn cocked his head, as if acknowledging an implication without fully accepting it.
    “You’re going to...” the Varl blinked repeatedly, his brow furrowed. “Now? With these people?” Bolverk followed Sigbjorn’s gaze over the crowd of refugees.
    “Yes.” Bolverk climbed up aboard the hammer of Bygglaerer. “Everyone! Our destination is Manaharr! We won’t be stopping for anything, rest included. This is what we Ravens call a Death March!” The phrase was repeated among the refugees and newer Ravens, while the veterans simply had grim faces.
    “Bolverk?” Sparr and Folka joined Sigbjorn in questioning their leader.
    “We’ll be outpaced otherwise.”
    The Valka Zefr pushed her way through the crowd. “No rest? That’s insane! What if we’re attacked? The wounded will need rest.”
    “The wounded will either die or make it to Manaharr.” Bolverk stated. “That’s as simple as it gets.”
    “What about food? Sleep?”
    “Eat on the move. Don’t sleep. If you do, we’re leaving you behind.”
    “That’s-ˮ the Mender was out of words. She turned and stomped away. Bolverk simply looked forward and began marching, along with the rest of the Ravens. The people of Bindal and the other refugees followed more grudgingly.

    The Death March was a last resort among the Ravens, used only when it was strictly necessary. The last time they had done it, they had been pursuing a target across the Nordfelling Wastes. That was five or six years ago. Each time had cut down the Ravens’ numbers from people either refusing to go on and thus abandoning the Ravens, or from those who were more determined simply dying of exhaustion or exposure to the elements. The same would likely happen here, most of the newer Ravens having never experienced it before. And these other people...Bolverk was not exactly filled with optimism.

    “I’d swim across Fiska Bay...” someone sang.
    “For forty silvers!” a chorus erupted.
    “I’d jump across Burra Pass...” someone else began.
    “For forty silvers!” came the response.
    Not this stupid game, Bolverk thought. It was derived from an old marching song from the time of the Human Civil Wars. The idea was to suggest the most ridiculous thing the singer would do for forty silvers, which was presumably the wage for one of the human armies at the time. Often it wouldn’t take long before the suggestions became impossible, lewd, or both.
    “I’d arm wrestle Dundr...”
    “I’d drink against Bjorulf...”
    “I’d sweet talk Lauga...”
    It wasn’t long before Bolverk was annoyed to the point of anger.
    “I’d get a yox and make a Varl...” That was the last straw.
    “I’ll rip out your tongues!” Bolverk roared. There was a moment of silence, and then...
    “For forty silvers!” some brave soul cried from near the back of the caravan. Unable to see the culprit, Bolverk begrudgingly let the matter go, simply huffing and marching faster.
    “Ah, come on Bloodaxe.” came a familiar old voice as Sparr the skald moved to Bolverk’s side. “Let them have some fun. Good for morale.”
    “It’s a distraction.” Bolverk replied.
    “It’s not like they’re slowing down or anything.” Sparr shrugged. He then frowned looking back. “Although those clansmen, I’m not sure how long they’re going to last.”
    “They fall behind, they can stay behind.” Bolverk grunted.
    “Naturally.” Sparr nodded.

    The woods seemed strange under the Darkness. It reminded Bolverk of nights spent alone in his berserker’s rites, bracing against the cold winters with naught but the bear skin pelt on his back for warmth. Only now it felt different, unnatural, wrong. It almost felt like the memories weren’t his; like his thoughts weren’t him. Let the bear take over. Was it the bear, or something else? Was he losing himself? There was something else there, in the back of his mind. His mind, or its? He knew who it was, but couldn’t accept it. It was impossible. Bellower was dead. His body was in the cart. Bolverk realised he had unwittingly began walking alongside it as he was lost in thought. He looked at the cart and then ahead, seeing the Dark Sun and the White Tower. Stone hands clawed at him, and he soon realised they were reaching to help. It was the Threadweaver’s fault. They caused it. They were responsible. They would die. Once Bellower reached Manaharr...
    “Halt!” A cry from ahead broke Bolverk out of his mind and back to his senses. A fighter dressed in a red and gold tunic worn over chainmail was blocking the road, a spear lazily held in one hand. Looking around, Bolverk saw that the settlement ahead was surrounded by a palisade wall, inside which were many wooden longhouses. More soldiers in the livery of Arberrang paraded back and forth, herding lines of dirt-covered workers towards a man giving out weapons. This was Gaular.
    “Ravens, keep moving!” Bolverk shouted, and the guard now gripped his spear with both hands, though still not in an aggressive stance.
    “What is your business here?” the guard demanded before stepping out of the way. Bolverk looked at him as he pushed past.
    “Clever man.” he grunted. A man in a finer looking tunic, holding an iron half-helm under his arm, stepped forwards from a nearby group of people. Bolverk didn’t slow, forcing the man to walk in front of him.
    “You are the Ravens.” he said. “I am the man in charge of this army. We are recruiting fighters to defend against the Dredge.” Bolverk looked at the line of men in ragged brown linens, getting their weapons from a quartermaster.
    “I wonder how much choice these prisoners are getting in their recruitment.” Sparr spoke. The sergeant glared at the skald.
    “These men will be fighting for the glory of Arberrang and their King.”
    “Dying, more like.” Quartermaster Holfi said as he held the Black Banner aloft. “Look at this one.” He pointed at one of the men in the line. “So stick-thin I could snap him in half with one hand. The others aren’t much better.”
    “I see you’ve had contact with the Dredge already.” Folka nodded towards a group of fighters sitting around a campfire, clearly exhausted, their red and gold tunics stained with mud and blood. One of them had something on the front of his helmet. Looking closer, Bolverk was alarmed to see what looked like a Dredge face.
    “Scouting party.” the sergeant said. Seeing Bolverk’s expression, he looked at the masked warrior. “Andvettr.” he answered the unasked question. “His first battle sent him a bit loopy. Decided he’d make a Dredge mask, thinking it would somehow help him. Helps him get a reputation, I suppose.”
    “So your army is slaves and madmen. Even Denglr’s fortune won’t save you.” Bolverk said in a deadpan voice. Sparr chuckled.
    “We need more troops. Better troops. Like you.” the soldier said.
    “Nice flattery, but we’re passing through and nothing is changing that.” Bolverk stated. The sergeant’s face twisted in frustration.
    “I demand in the name of King Meinolf that you-ˮ
    Fang flew, as did a head a moment later. All of Gaular went silent as eyes turned to the commotion. Bolverk nudged the sergeant’s body aside with his leg as he stepped past, blood seeping from the open neck. Bolverk glared at each of the nearby fighters, who all had hands on their scabbards, and continued walking. One by one, the soldiers had second thoughts and left their weapons where they were. Some backed away. No one demanded anything of Bolverk Bloodaxe.
    “Ravens, keep moving!” Bolverk repeated. As the caravan moved through the town, they passed a group of soldiers drinking from horns of mead. Sigbjorn walked up to them, his sword resting on his shoulder in an ever so slightly threatening manner, and cleared his throat. After a few moments the fighters timidly handed him their horns, all but one of which he downed one after the other before rejoining the march. The final one he gave to Oli, who downed his before topping it up from the flask on his hip. Some of the soldiers noticed the cart containing Bellower’s body and looked confused, wondering what amount of treasure required a cart that big. Then they saw the cart directly behind it, in which the Dredge stonesinger sat. Their curiosity was tamed by the glares they got from the passing mercenaries. Looking back, Bolverk saw that Gudmundr had a disapproving expression fixed on his face as he glanced at the sergeant’s body, and when their eyes met Bolverk felt the hate from the guard captain.

  17. #77
    As Gaular disappeared behind them the weather began to get worse, the snow starting to billow in from the north, and the march was beginning to wear the people down. Normally, Bolverk would call a camp about this time, but not now. He heard what sounded like a low singing voice from nearby, and it took him a while to figure out it was coming from Sigbjorn. Sparr was walking alongside, listening intently to the song. Listening in, Bolverk only caught the last verse.
    “And so, leave me where I lie,
    Thus all who pass shall know,
    And pin the sun in the sky,
    So they’ll see our colours flow.”
    “I like it.” Sparr nodded after a moment. “What was this naif’s name again?”
    “His name was Aron.” Sigbjorn answered sadly.
    “I’ll remember his song.” the skald said respectfully, to the gratitude of Sigbjorn.

    Ankle deep in snow, Bolverk continued to march. Knee deep, the humans tried to follow.
    “Bolverk!” a female voice cried from near the back. Bolverk glanced behind, but the blizzard now obscured the rear of the caravan. “Bolverk!” the cry came again, but he ignored it, instead chewing on the yox leg he held as he walked.
    “Bolverk!” a male voice yelled, much closer than the female. Bolverk turned and saw Gudmundr and Zefr pushing their way through the Ravens.
    “What is it?” Bolverk grunted.
    “The clansmen...” the Valka panted. “They can’t go on. They need rest.”
    “Then they die. I explained this already.” He saw Gudmundr’s face twitch before the man said something quietly to Zefr. She nodded and he turned back to Bolverk.
    “We’ll rest, or the people of Bindal will make our own way to Old Ford.” the guard captain said sternly. Bolverk simply shrugged.
    “Fine.” His immediate agreement threw Gudmundr off. The captain opened and closed his mouth, having prepared for an argument with which Bolverk would not humour him. He huffed and walked off, Zefr glaring at Bolverk before following. There was a mass of movement as the back half of the caravan began to split off. Bolverk noticed that Zefr was guiding the cart on which lay the Dredge Stonesinger. Presumably she wanted it to come with her. A few minutes later, Folka joined Bolverk. She had wrapped a cloak around her sleeveless tunic.
    “The refugees have split off to make camp.” she said. “Are you sure we shouldn’t stop?” The shield maiden was shivering.
    “Not getting cold feet are you?”
    “Literally speaking, yes. Figuratively, not a chance.” she grinned at her own joke, then grimaced as a freezing gust of wind passed over the caravan. “I wish this damned blizzard would stop though.”
    “I’ve been through worse.”

    The Ravens’ caravan looked a lot smaller now that the couple of hundred or so refugees were gone. Bolverk instructed Holfi to do a quick head count. The quartermaster returned later and reported that they numbered about four score. Food supplies were low, the refugees having taken more than they should. Hours passed, blurring away as the Ravens trudged through the snow, legs and lungs burning. One of the younger Ravens fell to his knees, collapsing from exhaustion. As two others went to help, Bolverk turned to face them.
    “Leave him!” he barked. “If he stands on his own, he can keep walking. If he cannot, he dies a Raven’s death.”
    “There! Ahead of us!” someone shouted. Bolverk looked back to the front and saw something in the snow ahead. There was movement. Bolverk drew his axes.
    “Ravens, be ready!” he ordered, the fighters lining up in a ramshackle shield wall. Fighting on a Death March was to be a last resort. His fighters would be worn out and less effective. Surely the Dredge can’t have caught up with them yet? It could be a small scouting force.
    “You six!” Bolverk pointed to a nearby group. “Go ahead and scout them out.” he ordered. One of them, that twitchy red-bearded man from Frostvellr, took point and led the other five onwards into the snow, and towards the shadows that moved there.

    War and death. That was all Ekkill had seen in his future. He was good at it. He had fought at Frostvellr, in Rook’s caravan, in the caves, and now here. He wondered how Alette was doing. Would she have made it to Arberrang yet? He thought about Onef. How could he have fallen for that monster’s tricks? That man had ruined many lives. Alette had killed him, shoving an arrow into his neck. Even his death destroyed someone’s innocence. Ekkill should have been the one to do it. Not out of vengeance for his sister, but because it would spare someone else from the task. He was already beyond saving, but the way he saw it, the innocent were a dying breed. Those too far gone should try to keep those they can from being corrupted by the world. For people like him, fighting was all life was. He was tired of it. That was why he was glad for what the pool had shown him, and he was ready. The shadow that had been spotted had now disappeared behind a ridge. Ekkill had his axe ready and looked at his companions. There was Konell, a good swordsman who had saved his life several times over the years; Reinn, the eagle-eyed archer; Gaettir a spearman who used to be hated by many of the men in Frostvellr...and loved by the women; Gudrik, a fellow axeman; and Halvserk, a swordsman renowned throughout Frostvellr for being able to drink anyone under the table. Ekkill had tried to outdrink Halvserk once...the owner of the Oldhands Hall had never forgiven him for the mess and had never managed to scrub the smell out of the floorboards. These five were all that remained of his fighters of Frostvellr. There were a few others from home in Alette’s caravan, but these men had stuck by him. They now followed him in clambering up to the top of the ridge. When they crested the ridge they saw Dredge. Not the horde which was still in the distance, but a group of three score or so that were ascending from a fissure in the ground. Ekkill crouched and gestured for the others to do the same. The lone Dredge grunt they had spotted was running through the crowd towards a large one, similar to the one on the beach at the waterfall.
    “There, look at that cart.” Reinn whispered, pointing to the edge of the fissure. There were several slingers and a few grunts pulling a cart of some kind the contents of which were hidden by a beige cover. As they looked closer, the wind blew the cover away, giving the fighters a glimpse of what was in it before the leader grabbed the cloth out of the air and secured it to the cart again.
    “Something blue...” Gudrik muttered.
    “I think it’s the same thing the slingers use.” Reinn commented. “A pile of those blue stones.” An idea formed in Ekkill’s head and he grinned.
    “I have a thought as to how we can stop them coming out of the ground like that.” he explained. He pointed to an overhang at the top of the fissure. “Do you reckon, if we can get the stones in that cart to explode, it’ll collapse that overhang and block off the fissure?” The startled faces of his companions brought him amusement.
    “You’re mad.” Konell said. “Six of us, how many Dredge?” Ekkill shrugged in response.
    “Do you want to live a long, happy life and die a peaceful death in your bed surrounded by your grandchildren?” Ekkill cocked his head, his eye twitching.
    Konell paused for a moment. “Nah.” he smiled.
    “Well, come on then!” Ekkill stood and raised his axe. The others did the same one by one, each raising their own weapons.
    “Axe time! Sword time!” Ekkill roared before charging down the hill towards the fissure and the Dredge. His companions repeated the cry and joined him. The Dredge saw the six fighters and formed up, though only half-heartedly, as they didn’t see much of a threat. A few of the slingers took shots at them, the projectiles smashing against their raised shields. Reinn stopped halfway down to draw an arrow. A rock smashed against Gudrik’s knee, causing him to cry out, but he powered through and kept going. A piece of the blue stone exploded on Ekkill’s shield, and he noticed splinters flying off. Halvserk was the first to reach the Dredge, leaping into the nearest and knocking away its weapon with his shield before slashing at its neck with his sword. Gaettir was next, ducking low and thrusting at a Grunt’s groin. Ekkill screamed in rage as he charged straight at a Dredge Stoneguard. He slid underneath its legs as it crashed its shield down, sending snow flying. Ekkill stood up behind his opponent and hacked at the back of its knee, a weak point in its armour. The Stoneguard fell down in pain and Ekkill continued, blocking a Grunt’s strike with his shield and slashing at it in response. His attack deflected off the Grunt’s chestplate and the Dredge attacked again as another closed in from the side. Ekkill took a step back so that he could face both simultaneously. The second, attacking from his right side, thrust forwards with its two-pronged blade. Ekkill parried it with his axe, hooking the blade to pull it down before punching forwards, hitting the Grunt in its face with the head of the axe. At the same time, he blocked another blow from the first with his shield. An arrow shot past into the second Grunt, which had been recoiling from the impact of the axe. Ekkill did not look back at Reinn but now simply focused on the other Grunt, aware that more Dredge were fast closing in. He punched with his left hand, hitting the Grunt in the chest with the rim of his shield and sending it back clutching its dented armour. He wasted no time in embedding his axe into the Grunt’s now weakened chestplate, kicking the body away as he did a quick survey of his surroundings. Each of his fighters were on their own facing two or three Dredge each with more realising they had underestimated the threat and joining in the fight. Konell stood atop a dead Scourge facing four Dredge. Gaettir had his spear impaled in a Dredge corpse while another Grunt rose up behind him. Gudrik was darting between Dredge, moving fast, striking once then moving on regardless of whether or not his blows landed. Halvserk was heading towards Gaettir to help him. Ekkill began to run towards Konell. As he did so, Konell turned to parry a blow from a Grunt which opened him up to an attack from behind. A two-pronged blade sliced his calf and he fell down to one knee with a bark of pain. An arrow from Reinn hit one Dredge while Ekkill jumped at the other, who was raising his sword for a strike. Ekkill tackled the Grunt, both of them rolling off the Scourge’s corpse into the snow. Ekkill smashed the rim of his shield into the Grunt’s face to stun it then raised his axe, bringing it down in the same place, the Dredge shuddering once more then going still. He looked at Konell, who was attempting to stand as two more Dredge rushed him. Ekkill threw his axe at one of them, the axe head embedding itself in the Grunt’s shoulder but not killing it. The other struck a blow which was deflected by Konell’s shield, then kicked at the man’s wounded leg. Konell let out a whelp of pain as he struggled to maintain balance, throwing out his shield arm to steady himself. The Dredge attacked again, slashing at Konell’s neck. Blood gushed as the man fell into the ground.
    “No!” Gudrik yelled from nearby. Ekkill picked up the sword of the Dredge he had just killed and raised it.
    “Together! The cart! The cart!” he cried. Gudrik ran to join him, while Halvserk supported a wounded Gaettir. Ekkill barely parried a swing from a passing Dredge, unused to the weight of the blade. Arrows cleared the way as the four pressed on towards the fissure. From the side, a stone flew, striking Halvserk in the head. Both he and Gaettir fell to the ground. Ekkill stopped for the briefest of moments, seeing that Halvserk’s face was red and disfigured, his eye dislodged by the impact. That did not stop him. The swordsman clutched his sword tightly and turned as he stood, swinging wildly at the nearest Dredge. Gaettir stood with him, thrusting his spear to keep the Dredge back. Ekkill and Gudrik continued, the cart coming into sight through the crowd. A sharp cry was heard and the arrows stopped coming. Ekkill ducked under a Scourge’s swing as Gudrik dived to the side to dodge a Stoneguard’s shield. Ekkill smashed his shield into the knee of the Scourge, the Dredge falling under its broken leg, but the splintered shield now broke, the planks falling loose from the iron rim. Ekkill let go and held the handle of his new sword with both hands. Two more yelps sounded out and then there was silence from behind. He looked forwards and saw the Dredge leader guarding the cart, the fissure beyond, its strange weapons held ready. A boulder lay to its side. Gudrik was faster than Ekkill, and charged the Dredge, which raised its left arm, in which he held a shield of some sort, and punched down at the ground. Burning hot ash sprayed out, covering Gudrik who recoiled and screamed in agony. Smoke sizzled from the axeman’s body as he writhed and fell to the ground. Ekkill charged past his now dead comrade, the soles of his feet burning as he ran through the ash at the Dredge and its cargo. He knew what would happen. The pool had shown him. He was ready. The Dredge swung at him with its clawed blade, and Ekkill ducked under the blow. He jumped at the boulder and launched himself from it, holding his two-pronged sword with both hands ahead of him as he crashed into the Dredge, knocking it back into the cart. All went over the edge of the fissure and for Ekkill time seemed to slow as he went into freefall. The blue rocks scattered as the cart fell and Ekkill let go of his sword to pluck two out of the air. He smashed them together, hearing a spark as the stones cracked, before throwing them at the cart. The darkness of the fissure turned to blue light, like the light of the pool.

  18. #78
    “Six men did all of that?” Oli slurred as the Ravens watched the fissure collapse in on itself, most of the Dredge killed by the explosion.
    “Six Ravens.” Sparr muttered respectfully.
    “Let’s keep moving.” Bolverk ordered, as he began to descend the hill. A few straggling survivors of the Dredge fled before the caravan, some carrying wounded comrades. On the ground, a slinger dragged itself towards one of those packages they tended to wear on their backs, before a throwing axe landed in its head. Bolverk felt strangely disgusted by the sight as some of the Ravens set about finishing off the injured and the slow, like their namesakes pecking at corpses. No, that was the other mind that felt revulsion and even pity. How could he, Bolverk Bloodaxe, feel pity for slag? Over the next few hours Bolverk focused on quelling those feelings as the Ravens continued their march, battling both tiredness and the cold.

    Six days or so they had marched now, and the weather had only got worse. Huge snowdrifts had built up, and two more Ravens had collapsed from exposure. They had also needed to put down a yox that refused to go on. Sigbjorn and another Varl were now begrudgingly pulling the food cart.
    “Bolverk!” a voice cried through the howling winds. It was Folka, who used her shield to try and block the gale. “We need to find shelter!”
    “No!” Bolverk replied. “Death march! Nearly there!” His lungs seemed to burst with the effort.
    “Pass ahead!” one of the scouts shouted. A pass? Here? It must have been formed by the earthquakes.
    “Keep eyes out!” Bolverk ordered. “Good place for ambush!” The pass was formed from a natural ridge below which the road ran, and a less natural cliff where the earth had shifted and risen on the other side of the road. The cliff, on the northwest side, provided shelter against the wind, for which the Ravens were grateful. Still, Bolverk didn’t like it. He scanned the tops of the pass as he walked. When the caravan was about halfway through the pass, there was a rumbling.
    “Another quake!” one man yelled, steadying himself against the cliff. Ahead, an avalanche came from down the ridge on the left, the snow and boulders sealing off the pass ahead of them. Bolverk glanced about, and saw that no snow was falling from anywhere else.
    “That’s not a coincidence!” he growled, drawing his axes. The others followed his example and drew their weapons.
    “Up top!” a fighter shouted, pointing with his sword at the top of the ridge. Dredge slingers lined up and began pelting the caravan with their stone projectiles.
    “Shield wall!” Bolverk ordered. “Backs to the cliff!” He crouched down behind Bellower’s cart, hoping that the Dredge would stick to ranged attacks and not engage in hand-to-hand, as he knew his fighters were too weary from marching. A few fighters were struck down by the incoming rocks.
    “Bolverk!” Folka yelled from nearby. “What do we do?”
    “Take a dozen men. Start clearing the snow!” Bolverk replied. Folka nodded and gestured to some fighters. Bolverk looked to his left, back the way from which they had come, knowing what the next logical step in this ambush would be. Folka’s fighters were hacking at the snow, swords and axes not being the ideal tools for the job. She sent a couple of them to run to the supplies cart and grab spades.
    “Just enough to get the carts through!” Folka shouted. “The men can climb!”
    “Hurry! Dredge are coming from behind!” Bolverk alerted everyone to the Stoneguards advancing up the pass in a shield wall of their own.
    “We can’t fight them without exposing ourselves to the slingers!” Sparr warned.
    “Folka, move out of the way! Varl, pull the big cart up!” Bolverk ordered.
    “What about our food?” Holfi the Quartermaster demanded as he held up the banner behind a comrade’s shield. Bolverk ran and jumped up on top of the rubble and peered ahead, the weather having cleared enough to make out a horizon. Closer than expected, there was Old Ford, and the river that led through it to Northfjord.
    “Old Ford is just there! We can get supplies there, but we need the large cart.” Some of the Ravens looked apprehensive, the Varl standing still as Folka’s men kept digging. “Get to it now!” Bolverk roared. The Ravens sprung to action, Bersi – that black-haired Varl who had been the human Prince’s bodyguard – driving the yox which carried Bellower’s cart while several other Varl pushed from behind.
    “Archers, give cover!” Folka yelled. “Diggers, stop!” Bolverk, standing exposed on top of the rubble, felt a sharp sting in his shoulder. Growling and peering down, his white bear pelt turned red, a stone protruding through it. He yanked it out with a grunt of pain and lobbed it back at an unfortunate slinger who fell back with the impact. He glanced at Bellower’s cart and the Dredge behind, who had quickened their pace, then jumped down and grabbed the yox by its horns, dragging it along up onto the rubble while it huffed in protest. By now the shield wall had fractured as the Ravens began to climb individually over the avalanche, some being picked off by slingers. Oli stood somewhat unbalanced atop the rubble, throwing his axes at the slingers. Bolverk climbed back up the rubble, pulling the yox and its cart along with him while the other Varl pushed. The Dredge Stoneguards were still approaching fast. Sigbjorn glanced back at them, then stepped away from the cart.
    “Sigbjorn!” Bolverk barked, ordering him to keep pushing, but the Varl didn’t listen, instead beckoning to Oli.
    “Oli, our deal!” he yelled. The drunk took a flask from his belt and threw it over to Sigbjorn, a slightly confused look on his face. Sigbjorn took a swig, downing the flask’s contents, and threw the flask back, it landing on the other side of the avalanche. He then drew his sword from his back and faced the oncoming Dredge. Oli and Bolverk realised his intentions. While Oli’s face was filled with emotion, Bolverk’s stayed cold and hardened. Sigbjorn hummed a tune, the same to which he had sung earlier, and charged the Dredge shield wall, swinging his blade in an elegant circle as he clashed against their line. Bolverk saw some of the Varl and fighters slow to watch the valiant act.
    “Don’t stop!” Bolverk shouted, bringing them back to speed. He made one final pull and the yox crested the rubble, drawing the cart over the top. The last of the climbers made it over, Oli being the last to drop down, walking to pick his flask from the snow. Bolverk turned to those who were now gathered out of the pass.
    “Old Ford.” he pointed at the landmark, an hour away at most. The Ravens began to move again, in a hurry in case the Dredge followed. They didn’t.
    “Must’ve just wanted the food.” Sparr wondered aloud as the Ravens began their final push. With the rush of battle having gone, Bolverk realised how tired he was. They all needed sleep and a cooked meal. When they finally reached Old Ford, Bolverk couldn’t keep himself going any longer. As soon as he got onto the bridge he let his weight take over, collapsing into the snow.

    He felt a presence all around him, as though a crowd had gathered. Vision came slowly, first the lightning, emanating from that Dark Sun. Next he made out the tower, clearer than before. The lightning was drawn to it as though by that Mender’s staff. He saw dark figures and glowing eyes, and felt hands around him, dragging him, to where he did not know. He fought back with red-clad arms, yet the presence of the crowd was oddly comforting. Away from the dark figures he was pulled and soon he was released. He turned his head and saw a great snow bear looming over him. Looking back at the tower, the dark figures approached. Part of him wanted to go to them, the other part wanted to stay with the bear. The lightning crackled again, and among the sharp booms of thunder a raven cawed. The bear charged at the crowd and scattered them. There was a tapping on his shoulder which started gently and irregularly, as if reluctant, before becoming firmer. A sound accompanied it.
    “Wake up.”

    Bolverk’s eyes gently opened to the sight not of dark suns and white towers but of wooden rafters and a thatch roof.
    “Ah, finally.” the voice said again. Bolverk realised he was under a number of furs, with a rather stout old man stood beside him. Bolverk reached for his belt and lunged at the man, before realising Claw and Fang were gone.
    “Where are they?” he roared. The man stumbled back.
    “Safe. Just over there. I took them away for this very reason.” he pointed at a table on the other side of the room. Bolverk trudged over, muscles aching, and examined his axes to ensure no damage had been done.
    “Where are we?” he asked as he stowed them away in their rightful place at his belt.
    “Old Ford still. We dragged you lot inside and tended to those who needed it.” The man took a breath, habitually stroking at his grey moustache. “A few didn’t make it. Passed out from exhaustion and just stopped breathing. What in the depths did you put them through?”
    “How many are left?”
    “Four dozen.”
    “Are they awake?”
    “No, I woke you first. You are the leader, right? Bloodaxe?”
    “Yes, that’s me.”
    The bear roared in defiance.
    “The others are still sleeping. I thought I should wake you first and explain what’s going on.”
    “How long have I been asleep?”
    “A day and a half. The main force of Dredge are nearly here.”
    At the mention of Dredge, the dark figures rose again. Behind them, an eerie presence, larger than the others, loomed in the shadows.
    “The cart, the large cart we brought with us. Where is it?”
    “Safe, just outside this building.”
    “Have you looked inside?” Bolverk’s hand moved towards an axe.
    “No.” the old man replied, edging away. Bolverk’s hand rested again.
    “Good. Now explain.”
    “Come with me.” the old man led Bolverk outside. The Darkness was still as imposing as before, and now that the weather had cleared somewhat it could be seen all the more vividly. Old Ford consisted of a small village on the south side of the river, a simple stone bridge crossing it. The banks of the river were too steep to climb, which meant the Dredge would have to take the bridge. The fighters scattered around the village looked ramshackle, their arms and armour clearly secondhand and mismatched. The main body of Dredge were pouring over the horizon, a day away at best. Other smaller groups were even closer, like the scouting parties the Ravens had already encountered.
    The figures began to march closer. Bolverk felt a strange sense of pride looking out at the horde. He turned his head away.
    “My name is Hadr. We’re fighters from Akur and Whithagr. The rear guard of the clans’ army that’s gone to challenge the King in Arberrang.”
    “Challenge him?”
    “Word says he’s refusing people entry to the city. Just holed up in there with all the rich lot. It’s not right. The King should be looking out for all his people.”
    “I was in Boersgard. I know what it’s like to have an overcrowded and scared city with limited resources. The King’s right.” Hadr narrowed his eyes at Bolverk in response, but decided not to debate the issue.
    “I said we’re fighters. We’re not. We’re farmers with weapons. I was hoping you could help us with the defence.”
    “If I leave now the Dredge will roll through here and catch up, so I guess I’ve got no choice.”
    “Can you train us? Lead us when the battle comes?”
    “Alright. Gather the rest of your men. I’ll wake mine.” Bolverk agreed. Before he went to wake the others he crouched down, picking up a handful of snow and crushing it in his fist, a trickle of water falling in tribute of those who had died on the Death March.

  19. #79
    Bolverk woke the Ravens and gave them the same explanation Hadr had given him. He then instructed some of his best fighters to train Hadr’s men, while he examined the incoming Dredge. A couple of hours went past while he barely noticed, too lost in his thoughts, in that battle that raged in his mind.
    The bear and the stone figures clashed.
    A horn awoke him. A sentry pointed at a group of humans approaching. Bolverk stood and waited at the end of the bridge, hands on his hips. It was the refugees from Bindal and Ormsdalr. Ahead of them stormed a figure in green. Gudmundr held his axe ready as he approached Bolverk screaming obscenities.
    “You left us! People died because of you!” By now the Captain was right in front of Bolverk, who looked down at him sternly.
    “You really want to do this?” Bolverk growled, glancing at the Captain’s axe. “Here? Now?” Bolverk leaned down close to Gudmundr’s stone cold face. “I’d like to see you try.”
    The bear stood proud, ready to pounce.
    The two continued staring into each other’s eyes, neither backing down, until a third voice cried out.
    “Enough!” Zefr yelled. Gudmundr let a moment pass before he stepped back and sheathed his axe, instead choosing to help the refugees across the bridge. Bolverk put away Claw and Fang and looked at Zefr, hands on his hips again.
    “You made it then?”
    “Not all of us.” Zefr answered in monotone, refusing to meet Bolverk’s eye. “And no thanks to you and your Ravens.” She walked past him to join Gudmundr. Bolverk would let Folka deal with them. He continued to sit by the bridge awaiting the oncoming horde.
    The sounds of fighting drew his attention to a nearby hill, on which a number of Dredge stood. Over the rise rose a tattered red and gold banner, followed by a couple of dozen human soldiers. They pushed through the Dredge and ran for the bridge. The Dredge stopped pursuing when they got too close, wanting to wait for the main force to arrive before attacking. The humans ran past Bolverk, including that madman with the mask from Gaular.
    “So much for the glory of Arberrang!” Bolverk laughed as the soldiers stopped and rested, covered in blood and dirt. Behind them, Old Ford’s militia were beginning to form an at least functional shield wall, though Bolverk did not know if it would hold up. He decided to test it. He walked towards them, slowly at first, then with an animalistic roar he charged them. The fighters broke and jumped back, scattering before him as he slowed to a standstill. Folka simply looked at them with annoyance.
    “Thank you, Bolverk.” she said with more than a hint of sarcasm. Bolverk let out a grin and went back to the bridge while the shield maiden chided her students.
    Out of nowhere, a stone figure stood.
    “Zefr!” Bolverk called as he approached the Mender. “What happened to that Stonesinger?”
    “It’s dead. Died protecting us from its own.”
    The new figure landed a blow on the bear.
    “Well, he’s-ˮ Bolverk paused. “It’s gone now.” He felt sad, not overwhelmed with grief, but as if a friend of a friend had passed away. He tried to shake the feeling as he watched Folka train the hopeless militia. He found himself looking at the ground in front of him, his eyes glazing over as the fight began anew. Suddenly he felt as though surrounded by enemies. There was one he could trust. He stood and marched to the cart, placing his hands on the latches which held the lid shut. He flipped them open and got a grip on the lid itself.
    “Bolverk!” Folka’s voice rang out, bringing him back to his senses. “What are you doing?” Folka reached up and shut each latch closed again. Bolverk tried to find an answer to her question. “You know what’s in there! It needs to stay shut! You’ve been obsessed with this thing ever since Bindal!”
    “I know, I just-ˮ He stopped. He just what? He didn’t even know.
    The bear lay battered and bruised as the stone figures closed in. The larger presence got nearer, but was still obscured by fog.
    “We should just drop it in the river and make a run for it.” Folka suggested.
    “We can’t. We swore an oath.”
    “An oath isn’t worth all our lives!” Folka raised her voice.
    “We’re Ravens!” Bolverk shouted. “That’s exactly what our oath is worth!”
    “It doesn’t have to be!” Folka cried, her eyes welling up. “We could go to Arberrang!”
    “It would be twice as bad as Boersgard, even if we got in in the first place!”
    “Then south, to the Horseborn lands! Or we could find ships and go over the Vast! We don’t have to die here!” She was now in tears, leaning on her spear. Bolverk had seen this same desperation in dozens of Ravens over the decades, but had never thought he’d see it in Folka.
    “We can’t go anywhere. We need to push them back here to buy us time to reach Manaharr.”
    “But why? What’s so important there?”
    “I need answers. About him!” Bolverk gestured to the cart. “About...” He didn’t know, he only knew there would be answers. That thing in the fog knew, as it loomed ever closer.
    “What’s wrong with you Bolverk?” Folka wailed. “You’re not the same. It’s this cart, it’s Bellower! He’s done something to you!”
    The large figure walked forwards, revealing himself in his crimson armour.
    “Agh! He’s in my head!” Bolverk fell to his knees as a warbling sound rang in his ears, confirming his worst suspicions amidst the wails of a dying bear. “He’s not dead, just asleep!” He reached for the cart lid again and began to push it open. An iron-rimmed shield found its way into the bridge of his nose before he made any progress, causing him to lurch back. The anger brought back his most innate instincts and he locked onto his target – the shield maiden that had climbed up onto the cart. A horn sounded and fighters began running towards the bridge. The shield maiden jumped down from the cart. The Ravens called out in song.
    “Our blades yearn for courageous blood!”
    The song allowed Bolverk to focus his anger, and he stepped back from Folka, letting the fire burn slowly as he marched to the shield wall that had formed on the bridge. The Ravens covered the centre, with Hadr’s militia on the right and the remnants of the Rundwall army on the left, along with Gudmundr and the Bindal fighters and Bak’s Ormsdalr men. Sparr looked at Bolverk and gestured to his nose in confusion, but accepted Bolverk’s angry grunt as an answer. The mass of Dredge on the far side of the river stood still, their shields locked. Behind them, tens of thousands of Dredge stretched out for miles, entirely covering the landscape as the snow had done before them.
    “How do we fight all of them?” one man stammered. Several others were wavering.
    “They’re not all fighters.” Sparr said reassuringly. “We only need to push back these ones in front.”
    “They’re moving apart!” Gudmundr yelled, waving with his axe at a point in the Dredge shield wall. Stoneguards parted to reveal a lone short figure, limping forward with the aid of a staff.
    “No...” Zefr muttered as the figure moved closer, wearing a tattered brown tunic and sporting dirty blond hair.
    “Nikels?” Gudmundr called.
    “No! It’s not him!” Zefr cried. “It’s Eyeless, look!” A faint blue flame burned above Nikels’ head. The Dredge shield wall began to move forwards past the dead Mender. Bolverk fought to keep the fires of his rage burning, knowing it was the only thing keeping himself in control.
    Bellower and the bear charged at each other.
    “Archers, nock!” Sparr ordered, the archers from the Ravens as well as the militia and refugees following his command.
    “Loose!” he cried, shooting from his own shortbow. The arrows cut down a few Dredge, but most were deflected by the shield wall as the Dredge continued across the bridge. Bolverk saw the Stoneguards, with their great tower shields, and looked at his own lines, seeing the scared humans. He knew that a wall-to-wall fight would give the much larger Stoneguards the advantage, even with the odd Varl dotted throughout their lines. He need to break it up into a melee. He jumped over the shield wall and charged, releasing his rage as a primal roar. He leapt into the Dredge, Claw and Fang swinging wildly cutting down Dredge left and right. The Dredge line collapsed as they turned to deal with the berserker, giving the human and Varl line and opportunity.
    “Charge!” Folka shouted. Gudmundr and a Rundwall sergeant repeated the cry and the shield wall rushed the Dredge. Sparr’s archers and Dredge slingers exchanged shots across the river. Bolverk ducked and dodged before striking out, keeping his eye out for Eyeless amongst the other Dredge. In his mind, Bellower and the bear swapped blows, the bear fuelled by Bolverk’s rage, strengthened with each kill he made. He jumped at two Dredge Scourges and hacked at them both with Claw and Fang. He followed that with a kick to a Grunt that sent it flying back before he jumped at another Stoneguard, hooking Fang around its shield to pull it away and strike at its neck with Claw. Finally he saw Nikels, limping quickly behind a line of Stoneguards. Bolverk charged them and burst through their shields, knocking them aside. One of them slashed his arm as he passed, but the wound only fuelled his anger and spurred him on. He threw Fang, which caught Nikels in the back. The Mender fell down, lying flat and unmoving. A blue flame sparked nearby, and Bolverk turned to his left to see Eyeless leaning on the wall of the bridge for rest, clutching its back in pain.
    “There!” Bak yelled, as he led a group of fighters through the melee against the Sundr. Eyeless swung with one of its staffs and slashed a spearman across the chest, blood spurting onto the stone. Bolverk ran towards them, throwing Claw as the Sundr clashed its staffs together. Claw landed in its shoulder before falling to the ground as Eyeless disappeared. Bolverk picked it up and scanned the battle, seeing a Dredge Scourge corpse rise up, though not moving its arm. Folka led a dozen Ravens in a charge across the bridge, taking down several Dredge along the way, some Ravens on the ends dispersing to tackle others. The bridge was now chaos, with no discernible lines remaining. Exactly the way Bolverk liked it. He ran over to Nikels’ corpse to retrieve Fang, then re-entered the fray, cutting down several Dredge as he worked his way over to Eyeless, who was fighting off several humans. Bolverk reached them as the possessed Scourge lifted a swordsman high into the air impaled on its blade. Bolverk hacked at its arm from both ways with both axes, slicing the arm clean off at the elbow. The Scourge stepped back letting out an unearthly screech as it held the stump of its arm for a few moments. Bolverk and the group of humans closed in, but the Dredge simply fell down to the ground like a puppet whose strings were no longer being held. A clanging sound alerted Bolverk to a metal staff that lay on the ground as the screech continued. Eyeless stood leaning on its one remaining staff, looking at the stump where its arm had been.
    “We’ve got it!” Gudmundr shouted, leading troops to finish off the wounded Sundr, who with only one arm could not perform its spell. Bolverk could let them finish her off.
    Bellower and the bear grappled, neither at an advantage, each one seemingly winning over the other for a moment, before their opponent gained the upper hand only to be overthrown a second later.
    Eyeless swung with its one remaining staff, knocking back a couple of fighters and sending splinters of their shields flying. Some Dredge moved in to support her, engaging Gudmundr’s men to draw them away. Bolverk began walking towards the Sundr, Claw and Fang in hand.
    Bellower reached out in desperation as the bear stood triumphant atop him, snarling in his face.
    Bolverk reached Eyeless, who now knelt down in fear, dropping its staff and raising her hand in surrender.
    The bear looked at Bolverk one last time, giving him all the confirmation he needed.
    Bolverk raised his axes to Eyeless’ neck, preparing to give the finishing blow as the battle raged around him.

    He couldn’t do it.

    Bellower, with a new burst of strength, threw the bear off and stood, picking up his spear and grinning at Bolverk with sinister pride. Stone figures appeared from all around him and reached for him, holding him down as he cried out for the bear. The golden eyes all watched him as he was dragged down to the depths, the white tower and the dark sun disappearing behind rocky faces, their hands on his neck suffocating him. He tried to struggle and fight back, tried to breath, but all his strength was gone. The weight of the stone figures held him down, trapping him.

    Bolverk watched as Bellower lowered his axes.
    “Bolverk, what are you doing?” Folka cried out. Bolverk tried to strike out, to kill the Sundr once and for all, but he couldn’t move. He felt as if he was locked in a night terror, watching as his body failed to respond to his commands. Bellower dropped the axes and grabbed the Sundr’s robes, lifting it up and over the wall of the bridge. There was a splash as Eyeless landed in the freezing water, and Bellower retrieved Claw and Fang, stowing them away at his belt. Bolverk heard his voice, though he himself said nothing.
    “The Dredge are falling back. Folka, hold here. Valka, let’s go to Manaharr.” his voice said. Folka looked at him questioningly, but followed his orders.
    “Ravens, get the wounded and regroup!” she yelled. Zefr nodded, but first ran over to Gudmundr.
    “Lead the refugees to Arberrang.” she said. The guard Captain nodded and shouted for the people of Bindal to follow him. Bellower drove the yox that held his cart on, Zefr walking alongside him. Onwards, to Manaharr. To vengeance.

    Bolverk screamed soundlessly, short of breath, clawing to be free, but the stone arms kept their grip. Slowly but surely, Bolverk’s will to fight faded, and he resigned himself to his fate.

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