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Stephen Wormwood

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72 Getting There!

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About Stephen Wormwood

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  • Age in Years
    33
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    Male
  • Sexuality
    Bisexual
  • Favorite Genres
    Fantasy
    Historical
    Horror
    Sci-Fi
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    London

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    stephenwormwood@yahoo.com

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  1. The Bogeyman didn't haunt my dreams last night. Though I spent half the evening drawing him hunt through a snow-packed field, he didn't occupy my thoughts either. I got to thinking about Jamie Durkin. Thought about his brother Junior too, though I hadn't met him yet, but mostly I thought about Jamie. Every town has a bastard, I thought, Tuckettsville has him. I couldn't stand him. It was the catty fucking way he came up to Brandon in front of his friend and uncle and broke the news about Leighann. I'd only seen him the once (and I'd be more than happy if I never saw him again) but I hated him there and then. I hated the living shit out of him. Maybe the angry thoughts put me in good rest because I woke up the next morning with a smile on my face and without a head full of Bogeyman. I felt pretty damn good actually. As usual, before I did anything, I went to my gmail inbox through my iPhone (Mr. Wimmer was cool enough to let me use the household wireless) but I noticed the little red dot marked (1) on the 'messages' tab. I tapped it with my thumb and saw my Dad's number. 8.34am, his call came. We last spoke two weeks ago when I called and told him I was spending the summer in Florida with my friend Brandon and his family. "Fine," he said, "I'll tell your grandma. She'll be disappointed." If he was disappointed, then nothing in his voice said so. There were piles of slag more expressive than Jeff McKee. We hadn't been face-to-face in a year and even in Strawberry Point we didn't see each other much but I still saw him clear in my head. He had the most distinctive face I'd ever seen on a man, hands down. Wrinkles and furrows cracked through the slate of his face, his jaw was square rock and his brow slanted over his eyes like ridges. He had the hands of a coal miner. There was always a cigarette in his perpetual frown of a mouth, even when Gramma got mad at him for it. She must've chiselled him out of stone, I always thought. He's never been the same since Mom disappeared. He never told me he loved me or said he was proud, never hugged me; he barely even looked at me. But I didn't hate him. My Dad worked like a dog on a wind farm. His boss was an out-of-towner I knew he hated and the money paying for my tuition cost almost half his savings since 2002. Between him and Gramma I never went hungry or cold or wanted for anything I really needed, despite everything (BOGEYMAN). I couldn't complain. I straightened out and thumbed Dad's tab on my contacts. "Hello?" he said. "It's me, Dad." "I'm at work," he said, his voice all gruff and hoarse. "I can't talk long." "I know. I'll be quick. I just... wanted to say I'm sorry I missed your call and I'm... I'm in Florida now with Brandon and his folks. I'll be back in New York next month. Tell Gramma I'm okay and that the Wimmers have been generous and hospitable and everything. They're taking good care of me. Tell her I'll call her when I get back." "I will," Dad said. "Was there anything else?" "No." "Okay. I'll talk to you soon." 'Soon' is next month, isn't it, Dad? "Sure. Seeya." "Seeya." *~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* That morning Mrs. Wimmer was whipped up toasted English muffins, hash browns, and sausages. A coffee pot and cream sat next to the empty plates that Mr. Wimmer handed out to Katy and me. His back pains had calmed down enough for him to get up and around, but it was obvious he was still sore from the gingerly way he moved around the table. "He's got scoliosis," Katy told me when we passed each other by the bathroom that morning. "Since he was a kid. He gets around pretty well most of the time but if he stands too long or he carries too many things the pain flares up on him." Guy looks so young for back pain, I thought. After three unsuccessful courses of physical therapy, some unhelpful experiments with Tylenol and Darvocet, and months of irate phone calls, letters and emails from Savannah; the GP prescribed him with Vicodin to help him cope with the spasms. It occurred to me that Mr. Wimmer had offended his back with that long drive up to and back from Jacksonville two days ago, and I felt guilty. "I'll help, Mr. Wimmer," I said, standing up. He didn't smile but I could tell he was grateful for the help. When I finished setting the table Mrs. Wimmer was back with five ceramic cups on a silver tray. I took them from her and set them all down and I blushed when she called me a 'gentleman'. The four of us sat down to eat. I tipped my cup with coffee and Katy was buttering a muffin when Mrs. Wimmer turned to him and smiled. "Do you know who was asking for you yesterday?" "I don't know," Katy shrugged. "Who?" "Ms. Wicks' daughter, Stephanie Lansing." Who the fuck is Stephanie Lansing? I thought. Katy sighed as though this were a dance, he'd done a thousand times before. "I haven't spoken to Stephanie in like four years." "Well she came to the store yesterday for some milk and she said it would be wonderful if the two of you caught up some time. You should really give her a call." "...Are we really going to do this, Mom?" "Do what, dear?" Mr. Wimmer glared at her. "Let it be, Savannah." I watched Katy set his cup down. "I can't believe I have to say this again, Mom. You know that I'm-" Then the door opened, and Brandon was there. He wore the same beaten jeans and shirt he did yesterday, with a depressed frown framed by a night's worth of unshaved blonde chin fuzz. He looked like he was having a hangover. "Morning, buddy," I said. He plopped into chair next to mine. "Morning." Mr. Wimmer palmed his shoulder. "How are you feeling, son?" "Lousy," he replied. "Where are my Froot Loops?" "No Froot Loops today, Kiddo," Mrs. Wimmer served sausages and hash browns into his empty plate with her aluminium spatula. "My Big College Man needs him some real food." That's not going to make him forget about Leighann. I couldn't blame Mrs. Wimmer for trying, though. The more I learned about Jamie Durkin the more it stuck in my craw that Brandon's girl would go anywhere near him, let alone date him -- assuming that was true. Brandon scratched the stubble on his chin, glaring at nothing and everything. Mrs. Wimmer poured him coffee. And when he started eating everyone else did too. Silently. And then... "Do you have any plans for the day, Brandon?" He shrugged. "I don't know yet, Mom." "Then you won't mind covering for me at the store today, will you?" I almost laughed at that. Here was my best buddy all hurt and pissed that his girlfriend dumped him for his worst enemy, and here was his mother asking him to cover for her at work. Brandon paused mid-chew. "Are you serious?" "Sweetheart, I know you're upset, and I know you're on vacation but I'm rushed off my feet here. I have to drop your father off at the chiropractor by noon, make a deposit at the bank, and collect an overdue order at market. I'll be back by three and then you can do whatever you want. And Kayden can help, can't you?" Katy moved his lips to speak but Brandon beat him to it. "You know what, Huey hasn't seen the shop yet. He'll help me. Right, Huey?" I looked at Katy and Katy looked at me. He shrugged, not caring either way, and I gave in to a fight I was never going to win. "I guess I'm in." *~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* "Iowa! Get your ass out here and help me!" Stop, Shop and Go! was one of only two small business groceries in Tuckettsville (the other one was a cash and carry on the other side of town called Timothy's). The store opened as Cushdale's Groceries in 1971 by Lloyd Cushdale, Brandon's grandfather, and he ran it proudly until 1993 when his smoker's lungs finally caught up with him. Stanley and Savannah (pregnant with Brandon at the time) were living in Fort Lauderdale when the call came from the town doctor that Lloyd was bedridden. They came up to Tuckettsville to care for him but as the months passed and it was clear that he wouldn't get any better, they spent their savings on the bungalow and settled in town. Lloyd died in the summer of '94 and left his life's work to his daughter. Savannah Wimmer ran it herself ever since. "Iowa!" There was a sliding door linking this, the office/store room, to the store. Brandon opened it, stuck his head through it, and started yelling at me;"Do you want me to get a hernia? What in the blue hell are you doing in here?" I held up Mrs. Wimmer's portable TV. "Trying to get this to work. I think it's broken." "Dude, I'll be broken too if you don't get out here and help me. Haul ass!" So, I replaced the portable TV with a box full of Golden Delicious and Granny Smiths and carried them out into the store. It was a reasonably small space at 4x4.5 metres past the counter but there were only two double-sided shelves in its centre, so it never got cramped. Brandon was behind the storefront glazing stacking lemons and oranges and bananas into slanted box compartments. He was almost done with the lemons when I brought over the apples and we finished the re-stock. After that I was sweeping floors while Brandon flipped the open sign and waited for customers. I didn't know how to work a cash register and Brandon wasn't in any mood to show me, so he handled the customers while I bagged items. Even though this wasn't really the way I envisioned my vacation, standing there like a dork in a bib apron didn't bother me so much. Brandon and I worked part time at an off-campus coffee shop to earn the money for our Amtrak tickets, so I was used to this work, and I ran a paper route for three years when I was a kid. "Dude," I said. "I've got it, you can't get this. Eddard Stark vs. Rhaegar Targayen." Brandon was waving away our third customer of the day at the time. "See now, that doesn't even count. Rhaegar was dead before the first book even started." "That's what makes it a dream match, genius." "Well what about weapons?" "What about weapons?" I said. "Lances, swords, axes, anything, nothing?" He shut the register with a ring, a cling and a slam. "It's like, Robert wouldn't be shit without a hammer." We went on like that about the challenge for half an hour, debating variables like location, weapons and armour, when the bell above the door jingled for a new customer. I made for the bags without even thinking it and bent behind the counter to get them, when I came up Brandon was still as ice. "Leighann?" My first thought was she's just Brandon's type: a tall and busty redhead. Practically every girl he'd been with at college looked like her. For a long, long moment they stared at each other like there was no one else in the world, much less the room, but it didn't last. Brandon bounced over the counter and hugged her. She didn't hug him back. Brandon held Leighann by the shoulders when he pulled back. "Damn. It's good to see you again." "You too," Leighann said, stiffly. Then she looked at me. Then Brandon saw her looking at me and explained, "This is Huey, my roommate at Rochester. Huey, this is Leighann, my-" "Hey," she said to me. I nodded. "Hey." Leighann turned to Brandon. "Can we talk in private, please?" I didn't wait for Brandon to ask me to excuse myself. I told him I'd "finish up in back" (there was no stock left to stack) and slid open the door into the backroom. Said door was not soundproof. Leighann paused before she spoke. "Sal told me what happened at the diner. I didn't want you to find out like that." "So, it's true?" Brandon. "You're with Jamie now?" "Yes. I'm sorry." Something banged the counter, probably Brandon's fist. "Damn it! Why him? Of all people, why him?" "You don't know him like I do. Not anymore. There are so many more sides to him and you'd see them too if you'd just try." "But what about us, Leighann?" "I wanted it to work, Brandon, I really did. I thought I loved you," I could tell by the strain in her voice that she wasn't lying. "You remember that night we snuck out to St. Augustine?" "...I remember." "I was so sure I'd feel like that forever. I thought 'it doesn't matter if he goes to New York because he'll come back one day, and everything will be the same'." "It still could be," Brandon said. "You know it can't," Leighann paused again. "I tried. You did too. Even if you were back for good it couldn't be the way it was. I don't feel the way I did." Silence. "Brandon?" Silence. "Brandon, say something." He snorted. "You and Jamie. How long has it been going on?" "This isn't about Ja-" "How long?" Leighann sighed. "Two months." "So, you've been screwing Jamie behind my back for two whole fucking months. Nice. So, fucking nice." "Look," I heard a scuff of fabric and steps, not really sure what to make of it. "Brandon, I'm sorry. You deserve to be mad. I just wanted you to hear it from me." A chain of hard footsteps preceded the front door's jingle. "Well I've heard. Now you can leave." There was no protest. Softer footsteps followed his, the raps of Leighann's mules, and the door jingled shut. Then there was a moment of silence, a beat, then a furious shout, and then the pulpy smash of the fruit I'd just stacked battering the floor I'd just swept. "Damn it," Brandon sobbed. "Damn it." *~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* Yo bitch I fucked your friend, yeah you stank ho I seen her on the elevator, honey grabbed my Kangol She put me onto mega-shit, 'bout to slap the bitch She shot crazy verbal, I leaned back like I'm rich "Brandon!" Katy yelled, banging his tiny fists against his brother's bedroom door. "Brandon, goddamnit! If Mom hears any of that rap shit when she gets back, she'll freak! Brandon!" It took place late night on February 17th Hands flooded like ink, my face on her magazine Just got back from Honolulu, pockets stackin' beaucoup cash Girlfriend sipped the Yoo-hoo and laughed, yo While I was on tour, whore, you went to work Quick fast, had a nigga dick in the dirt Katy looked good from behind. The folds of his white shorts rode up the length of his thigh and squeezed as she stretched up and banged Brandon's door as loudly as he could to be heard over Ghostface Killah. You couldn't wait just to kidnap the bait of my sperm Where's you at, hoe? 'Pinky house, she put in my perm' That's all you ever said to me, thought that could hold me Remember when I long-dicked you and broke your ovary? You cried bitch, chickenhead ho, eatin' heros I'm the first nigga that had you watchin' flicks by DeNiro I shrugged. "He hasn't come out yet, huh?" Katy turned to me, smiled, then turned back to the door and frowned. His fist hit it one last time before he spoke. "What the hell happened to him? He's been in a funk ever since he came back from the store." You gained crazy points, baby, just bein' with God Taught you how to eat the right foods, fast, and don't eat lard I gave you earth lessons, I came to YOU as a blessin' You didn't do the knowledge what the God was manifestin' You sneaky fuck bitch, your ways and actions told it all I fucked you while you was bleedin', held you down in malls Sexually you worshipped my did-ick like a cross So, I told Katy about what happened with Leighann at the Stop, Shop and Go! It wasn't my place to, but I didn't want him worrying about Brandon. "Let me give it a try," I said. "I'll talk to him." I had you fiend out, broke out, for a month you fell off You was my main shit, my peeps showed you love on the strength You saw how I got down, the way I thought had you tranqed But you had to fuck this rasta-head ass nigga I shoulda slapped ya but the Gods said "chill! That's your wiz fault, god, handle that in the lab" I'm wonderin' how many times your hot ass got stabbed There was very little I could say. I couldn't make him feel better. I didn't know what it felt like to be dumped because I didn't know what it felt like to be in a relationship; at least not a real one. I had crushes and ugliness (BOGEYMAN) in my past but nothing like what Brandon and Leighann did. But we were buddies and the least a buddy can do is try. "Brandon," I said knocking. "It's Huey." You dumb bitch, horny hot fuck from out the mountains Your clientele is low ho, catch you next show, bro I got jerked, gave away my pussy, that shit hurt It feel like somebody died or shot your old Earth But fuck it, I fucked you on a chair with three legs Broken tables, had you screamin' while you was bitin' on my cables "Look, I know you're mad. I would be too. You're pissed and crazy and fucked and you just wanna scream about it. I don't expect you to get over it right away. But do you really wanna lock up in your room all week while she's out there walking it off? Come on, man. Don't let her win. Don't hide away and mope on her account." I smiled. "Dude, what would Charlie Sheen do?" Whistlin' to the washing machine, I threw it on spin If your pussy dry, spit on my dick and put it in My dick's the bomb baby, marvellous hot steak Plus I'm conceited Starks' make the biggest so-called rape I'm God Cipher Divine Love my pussy real fine, that means clean, the FDS smell with a shine Word up, respect that, ho... The door clicked open and a thick hot cloud of Marlboro smoke wafted out as Brandon poked his head through it to stare at me. "He'd get shitfaced." *~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* Stop, Shop and Go! was already locked up for the night and it didn't sell any liquor so we walked across town to Timothy's. Since Tuckettsville was small and everywhere was walking distance from everywhere else it didn't take us long to get there. It was a tiny cash and carry at the tail end of a long Route 207 off ramp. Since the drinking age in Florida was 21, I figured I'd have to lie about my age and hope the guy working there wasn't a tool, but Brandon told me it wouldn't be a problem. He went in alone and came out with a jumbo bag of chips and some ice-cold Coronas. "His daughter Stephanie was cool with Kayden in high school," said Brandon, popping the cap. "So long as I never tell anyone where I get it, he's cool with selling me beer." That who the fuck is Stephanie tape did a double take in my head, but I blocked it out for Brandon's sake. We sat at the curb with Timothy's neon sign lighting up our backs. It was a pitch-black night and colder than I ever thought Florida could be. Nothing by Iowan standards of course but still pretty cold. Brandon slunk his arms on his knees and sniffed. "You know we've been together since third grade?" "Yeah?" "Yeah. She made me a card on Valentine's Day with macaroni and glitter. I thought it was stupid then. I just liked the idea of having a girlfriend." I swigged my Corona. "Got to first base in forth grade, second in sixth, third in eighth and forth in tenth. She's the only girl I ever danced with, Iowa. I took her to the prom and homecoming and my winter formal. I had all my firsts with her." "That's real," I said, snapping a chip between my teeth. "Yeah. I don't hate her though. I hate that she's with Jamie, but I don't hate her. I screwed around behind her back, too." Glad you haven't forgotten, I thought. Brandon guzzled his Corona, tossed the bottle, and uncapped the next. "Fuck man, I hate feeling like this. It's like someone slugged me. I wish I were more like you, Iowa. You're alone and its like you don't even give a fuck." Beyond Timothy's storefront glass there was a hog dog machine that hadn't been cleaned in weeks. When a fat guy parked his Chevy and barged through the doors, the stanky smell of onions surrounded Brandon and me; if it hadn't or if I'd ignored it and listened to him, I might've been hurt by what he said. I might've gotten mad and told him why I couldn't find a girl, I might've told him about what I'd been feeling for Katy. Maybe he would've freaked and kicked me out of his house. Maybe he would've pretended he didn't hear me and got on with the vacation. Maybe he would've been cool with it. All I know looking back is that this was a moment, the moment, where it all could've gone differently (BOGEYMAN). If I could go back and tell myself to talk to Brandon, to keep him there just a bit longer or leave just a bit earlier, or if we'd walked back into Timothy's to buy more Coronas and found it laying there waiting for him; how different would my world be now? "Huey, are you listening to me?" I covered my nose. "Jesus, that smell!" "Okay, okay," he bottomed the last of his last Corona and stuffed it into our empty bag. "I feel a little better now. Let’s get back to the house before Mom and Dad get home." *~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* Timothy's was ten streets and six blocks from McCorman Clay Lane, the cul-de-sac of bungalows where the Wimmers lived. We were about three streets and a block away from home when my roommate patted his back pocket and remembered something. "I left my wallet at Timothy's," he said. After five beers Brandon was a wobbling mess slouched over my shoulder. I walked him home. We were on a street called Holland Avenue, one of three offshoots of an old farm road re-paved with tarmac in the '80s. A string of old warehouses occupied the east side of the road and a leafy arm of the forests encircling Tuckettsville occupied the west. We were on the west side, walking beside a wire fence bracketing off the oak trees. "Can't you just leave it until tomorrow? You trust the owner, right?" I didn't want to go back to that smell. Brandon groaned at me. "I trust him... not so much his customers. It's just a couple minutes back, I can walk." Dude could barely stand. There was no way we could make the trip back to Timothy's and get to McCorman Clay Lane before Mr. and Mrs. Wimmer came back from the chiropractor in Jacksonville. Not together, anyway. My stomach soured as my mind resigned itself to returning that onion stink and I shuffled Brandon to a wooden bench by the fence. "Wait here," I said. "I'll get it." He yawned. "Thanks, Iowa." For a moment I wondered if leaving a half-drunk Brandon alone out here was the smartest idea (a year in New York could do that to you), but Tuckettsville wasn't Brooklyn, and I wouldn't be gone long. So, I ran the rest of the way back to Timothy's. Their black Dodge Ram passed me by on my way. I didn't notice them, and they didn't notice me, despite a clear street and their slow speed; it was just too dark. I even got there before they did. From here the only way to Timothy's by road was to drive around the town's circle of forestry and head out onto the Route 206 off ramp; but I could get there directly by a footpath called the 'Dust Trail', a shortcut Brandon told me about on our way there. The lot was quiet when I got there. The neon lights above the pane flickered over the pavement. I opened the doors, avoided the onion-soiled hog dog rotisserie and went to the counter to ask Timothy Lansing about Brandon's wallet. He recognized me and went beneath the counter to pull out a brown leather tri-fold. "Tell Brandon he aught to be more careful." I thanked him and went on my way. It must've been midnight at that point, and dark, the darkest I'd seen a sky since I left Strawberry Point. I've got to get back to Brandon, I thought. That was when I noticed the black Dodge Ram parked in the dirt track and for the first time, I saw who was in it. Jamie and Junior Durkin. When they saw me, they climbed out of either side of the Dodge and slammed the doors behind them. And I froze. I didn't run or sneer or challenge them or walk back into Timothy's and hide behind a shelf until they left… …I froze. "You?" I watched Jamie's lips curl into a smirk. "Well lookie what we got here, Brandon's New Yorker. Get a load of this guy, little brother." I'm a fucking Hawkeye, my thoughts went, but I didn't have the balls to say it out loud. Not then. Junior Durkin was a year younger than Jamie but well over a head taller. And big. Sub seven feet tall big. His faded Lynyrd Skynyrd shirt barely held onto his chest and shoulders for all the muscle packed underneath it, a fucking football body in every way and everything Katy told me suddenly seemed more real. "You're shaking like a bitch," Junior's voice was so husky you'd think he'd been smoking since the 4th grade. I said nothing. "We've been looking for Brandon's sucker-punching ass all day, haven't we, Junior?" The gauze in Jamie's nostrils made a Puerto Rican out of him. "And you know what? Couldn't find him. Then you show up." And I said nothing. "What are you, mute?" He went around his little brother and shoved me. My shoes became ice-skates me as I stumbled and slapped the storefront glass with my back. Timothy Lansing's counter was too far away to see anything. "Come on," came Jamie's nasal squeal. Any other day I would've laughed at it. "Say something you little prick!" But I said nothing. "He's chickenshit!" Junior guffawed. "He's so fucking scared he can't talk!" Then there was a brown flash of leather and the back of my head thudded the glass so hard I thought it might crack. Through the shock I heard myself gasp but I couldn't let the breath out; Jamie's hand had me by the throat. I thrashed and twisted and struggled but I couldn't get him off me. Then all Jamie's features, his gelled hair, his bomber jacket, his cigarette and chicken breath, all of them disappeared. All I saw was his eyes staring into mine, so blue and so furious, so fucking manic, so goddamned Bogeyman. "Since he's not here," Jamie seethed, "You'll have to do." Then he slugged me. I'd never been winded before, mainly because I'd never been in a real fight before. I felt it there and then, like someone just reached down into my throat and pulled the breath from my lungs. I heard myself wheeze like an old man and I dropped to my knees as everything around me turned into a black whirl. I heard Jamie yell "Get up!" as he took two handfuls of my shirt and dragged me up. I couldn't see him through the tears, only the angry blue in his eyes, but I felt him there when he caught my face with a backhand. My cheek exploded beneath his knuckles and I cried out, every bit the bitch Junior called me. When I fell over, I landed in puddle of upturned Corona extra, the beer I tipped out earlier when I couldn't finish it. Someone's big hands dragged me off the behind the Durkin Brothers' Dodge Ram: that much I could tell from the logo. Those big hands were Junior's, the boy who kissed Katy and hurt him and started it all. I only glimpsed him through the mist in my eyes. Then his foot met my stomach. Sneakers never felt more like steel-toed boots. He followed the first kick with a second, then a third, then a forth, each blow making the ball I was curling into a little tighter. I tasted blood before the fifth one. Then a stingray boot kicked my head down when I raised it. Then everything was just knocking, grunts, whimpering and blood splatter. Jamie and Junior chuckled between grunts as they stomped me. That was the last thing I remembered before I blacked out, the sound of their laughter. Then something broke inside my head. They just finished what so many other moments in my life started but they broke it. My whole world became a hot black daze and in it I saw flashes of my Mom and my Dad and Gramma, of Jacob Chambliss and every uncaring face in Strawberry Point; of Brandon and Billie, and god help me, Katy. Yes, something broke inside my head that would never be fixed, and when I woke up three hours later, I'd never feel freer.
  2. Last night I dreamt of Bogeymanland; a lifeless, endless plane of barren forests and empty snowfields. Hard howling winds toss hailstones and frost hundreds of feet into the cold air where an unbroken sheet of dark grey cloud veils the sky. A river's waters lay frozen nearby, its pike and trout and sticklebacks long since suspended in time. A boy is crucified to the bony black limbs of an oak. The wolves beyond the trees, feral and hungry from too fond a familiarity with human meat, taste his scent in the air but cannot find him; his bloodless skin blends too well with the snowstorm. The Bogeyman grins deep in the blackness of his fur-rimmed hood. His hammer arm is tired, but he is warm beneath his leathers and pelts. He is pleased with himself. He has carved his numbers into the boy's bare chest: 6 and 1 and 7 and 7 and 14 and 19. He would not be sad to lose the boy, nor would he yearn for him, yet could not leave this icy forest without one last torment. The Bogeyman reached to his back and unfurled his blunderbuss. His 3rd eye sensed the crow that his 2nd and 1st could not see, a crow that spent its morning plucking globs of jelly from the boy's eye sockets. It wheeled around in the grey skies above, barely holding its own against the hail, hungry for more of the boy's flesh yet too frightened by the Bogeyman to approach again. The Bogeyman shot it out of the sky. He took the crow, his hammer and his gun, and one last look at the corpse nailed to his oak before he returns to his massive sledge. Twelve skinless dogs bark and gnash at their restraints. The Bogeyman whips at his reins and they drive him off into storm. When he returned to his camp, he would stuff the bird with onions and slow roast it over his fire. He would eat the bird as the bird had eaten of the boy, and the boy would be a part of him until the next time he was due for a squat. *~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* When I woke up it was hot again. The heat wasn't nearly as bad as it was yesterday afternoon, and it helped that someone had turned the AC on already, but I was still a sticky mess when I pulled off the bed covers. The mattress was wet underneath my ass and there was a soggy dent in my pillow the shape of my skull. My first instinct was to catch a shower, something I suspected I'd been doing a lot of down here in Florida, but I reached for my iPhone and checked my Hotmail first. I didn't find or expect anything important but there were a few folks online I kept in touch with, mostly people I met through WoW or Deviant Art. Someone named "Coco'loco'moco" sent me an email asking me when I'd buy a tablet and give my Cloaked Ryder some computerized colour. I thumbed the reply as soon as I get the cheddar. The Wimmers had a bathroom I didn't mind hoarding time in. The floor was tiled with ligneous marble and bordered on three sides by the tub, the sink and cabinets, and the shower compartment, which they concealed by a curtain of plastic on a metal rail. Its only downside was that at 2.5x1.5 metres it was kind of small. Without windows a hot bath would fog the place up like a sauna. Maybe that was what they wanted. I cranked the faucet and ran a basin full of water whilst I looked myself over in their bathroom mirror. Too many hours online had brought out the red in my eyes and my cheeks were sinking in a little under the bones. My hair was a sticky black tangle and I hadn't shaved since I left Rochester (not really getting a chance to on the Amtrak) so two days’ worth of stubble now ran around my lip and jaw. Huey McKee wasn't the tastiest dish on the menu right now. I felt better after my shower though. Soapsuds and elbow grease scrubbed the sweat off my skin, my comb and razor brought my hair under control, and by the time was done I smelt bacon on the air. Breakfast was almost ready. Brandon's door was shut so I figured he was in the dining room waiting for me, and I was about to join him (more for the food than his company) when I walked past Katy's door and I overheard a crooning falsetto; Woke up and realized I was free To be Anything, if it was an integrity, With what I dreamed, I knew it couldn't be wrong, And would be done, I was born to be Earth's song, I didn't mean to open his door, but my hand found the knob before my mind knew about it. It was already open a little, I just pushed it, and there he was, splayed out over his bed with his eyes closed and those big blue headphones over his ears and I stood there like a jackass watching him sing, And I feel like I'm running, Not away, To but to take off and fly, Using this life as a runway... One of his knees was pulled up to his waist. His shorts rode no higher than a halfway up his thigh, smooth and tanned. The silver anklet he was wearing caught the sun through his window blinds. I bit my bottom lip. Going to sleep and other worlds I've seen Where my thoughts turn into things, Magical, intangible, and oh my how fresh we would be If we took our dreams seriously... Bogeyman. 'Cause I feel like I'm running, Not away, but to take off and fly, Using this life as a runway... I knocked the door, hard, as an attention grabber not a courtesy. Katy's eyes, that soft Wimmer grey, shot open and gaped at me. With a face full of embarrassment, he yanked off his headphones and scooted up to the wood of his headboard to straighten out his clothes. I found myself liking the way his eggshell bed sheets clashed with the black of his painted toenails. "Sorry," Katy said, mortified. "I didn't know you were there." "I think breakfast is ready." The bacon and eggs in the air was just so much background fuzz to me now. He said, "thank you" and I turn to leave. "Huey?" I stopped. "Yeah?" "Could you close the door for a minute?" He meant for me to come inside. I hesitated, and I suddenly felt embarrassed, like I'd been caught stealing panties off a washing line. But what the fuck did I have to be embarrassed about? I clicked the door shut. Katy's room was a disorderly mess. Not just untidy but cacophonous. His posters went from Fullmetal Alchemist to Drake to True Blood to a peace symbol to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World to someone called 'Andrej Pejic' to The Seagull to Final Fantasy XIII and back again in the space of four walls. I saw John Steinbeck, Sam Harris, Toni Morrison, Ian Kershaw and Rumiko Takahashi all in one bookshelf. A stack of stuffed animals occupied a corner while an obelisk of old soda cans wadded up with empty chip packets and Mike and Ikes bags stood on his window-side table. Wrinkled clothes hung from the edges of everything; his chair, his sill, his bed, his desk. His TV looked like it hadn't been dusted in months and a puddle of what had to be schoolwork laid half under his bed and half under a flattened pizza box. "I don't tidy up much," Katy said. No shit, I thought. "It's cool. Did you want to talk about something?" He looked at me, paused, looked away, I guess to think. It didn't irritate me. If anything, it gave me an excuse to ogle his thighs while he made up his mind. They'd look so damn good wrapped around a waist. "Does Brandon know that you're... like me?" Does Brandon know that you like me? For a moment I thought I misheard, and it took another moment to realize I had. He meant does Brandon know that you're a queer? "No, he doesn't," my fist balled," and he's not going to. Got it?" Katy smiled ruefully. "Huh. I don't even know why I'm surprised. I mean if he can't even look me in the face about it then why would he accept it from you?" I blinked. Ask me twice and I'd like to think I meant more to Brandon than that. I might've even had the courage to say that if Mrs. Wimmer hadn't knocked Katy's door then. "Kayden?" She had a big, warm voice with a kind of Southern twang to it. "Breakfast is ready. If you don't get yours Brandon will." Katy yelled back, "I'll be there in a second, Mom." I waited until her footsteps padded down the corridor before I spoke again. "How come she calls you Kayden?" Katy drew his knees up to his chest, rested his chin between them, and wrapped his arms around his legs. It was cute and pathetic all at the same time. "Let’s just say she isn't as supportive as my Dad." *~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* Breakfast was awesome. Mrs. Wimmer spent half her morning making a big breakfast platter of smoked bacon, scrambled eggs, French toast, fried tomatoes and mushrooms, around the dinner table. She left a pot of black coffee beside four cups and some milk and cream. By the time I sat down for mine Brandon was already halfway through his plate and Mrs. Wimmer was on the other side of the table clearing up her own dishes. Savannah Wimmer was a stacked woman, older than Mr. Wimmer by seven years and taller than him by an inch but like him she only revealed her age in pieces; a stretch mark here, a wrinkle there and so of the like. She was still beautiful though. She had a big, warm oval face and wavy brown hair splashing over her shoulders. Even in that dumpy poker-dot dress she was all cleavage and peeking tan lines, the kind of body that that would still be drawing straight hot glances well into her fifties. She said, "Morning Huey" and I said "Morning, Mrs. Wimmer". We'd already met for the first-time last night after I went to the kitchen for a glass of water and found her microwaving her leftover ribs and tater tots. She looked tired and mussed but she was cheerful with me, asked me about Rochester and Strawberry Point and my Mom and Dad. When I told her about him, she said my father "sounded like a good man" and she was sympathetic when I told her about my Mom. Mrs. Wimmer went into the kitchen with her dirty dish while I sat and helped myself to some French toast. Brandon whispered, "Remember we're going out today, Iowa" and I whispered back that I "didn't forget". I was pouring coffee into a cup when Mrs. Wimmer came back with a wooden tray and two clamshell plates and loaded them up with bacon and toast and mushrooms. "Brandon, I know you have plans," Mrs. Wimmer took one of the cups and filled it halfway, "but Kayden is sitting the first paper of his ACTs today, so I need you to drive him up to school for me." His silver hit the plate. "What? Oh, come on, Mom, we just got back from Jacksonville yesterday. I've got stuff to do." "Look, your father can't do it because his back is flaring up again and if I him drove myself I'd have to open the shop late." "Reuben could've covered for you." Brandon said. Mrs. Wimmer bit her lip with the same awkward, sheepish look Mr. Wimmer had when Brandon brought up this Reuben kid yesterday. She looked at me like she was trying to size up what I was making of the conversation and said, "We couldn't afford to keep him on." One kid at college and another on the way, I thought. Of course, she can't. Suddenly yesterday's big dinner and today's big breakfast seemed excessive and showy. "But we were gonna go see Leighann." Brandon said. "You can see Leighann afterwards. After a whole year apart what's a few more hours? Is that alright with you, Huey?" I nodded. "Yes Ma'am." "Good. Then it's settled," and with a victorious grin she kissed Brandon's cheek. "I'm going to take this tray to your Dad and then I'm off to open the shop. You two have a nice day and remember to wish Kayden good luck." *~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* Since Mrs. Wimmer left with the Ford Fusion about a half hour before Katy was ready to go, Brandon had to take his car, a '88 Pontiac LeMans. When he went into the garage and pulled the cover off, I tried (and failed) not to laugh. "I know, I know, the car looks retarded," Brandon said. "I just didn't have the heart to tell Dad that. It was for my graduation." I pictured Mr. Wimmer at a dealership and surrounded by cars while a slick-talking fat guy in a suit rambled on about oil changes and transmission. All boys love classic cars, sir! The good news was Mr. Wimmer only took it out when the Fusion wasn't free so it had near enough a full tank of gas. I opened the garage doors and got in the front seat then Brandon took the car out and down to the curb where Katy waited for us. It surprised me to see him wearing the eye shadow and nose stud out in the daylight, but there he was. Aside from that hipsterish Keffiyeh and the scrimshaw pendants, his clothes were pretty normal, just some denims and a check shirt. The silence between him and Brandon smouldered. Katy tossed his backpack into the backseat and climbed in, Brandon pulled out into the road. From time to time they would glare at each other, but they didn't say anything. I'd never seen two people be silent at each other before. It would've been awkward for me if Brandon didn't bring up Bob Dylan. "Leighann always had him on when we made out," he smiled at the look on my face. "Yeah, I didn't get it either. But maybe I should buy her a CD or something." "What?" He shrugged. "You know, a gift? I mean not right away, that'll just make me look guilty, but after we get, you know, re-acquainted." We were talking about this around fifteen minutes from their house, where all the bungalows and lawns gave way to the stores and benches and churchyards of the main road, meandering its sleepy way through Tuckettsville. That's when Brandon drove us past the corner by the town hall. You just missed my turn." Katy said. Brandon glared at him through the rear view. "Relax. I'll drop you off after we stop at The Longshoreman." The Longshoreman was the diner Leighann worked at, I recalled. "Mom said to see her afterwards." Katy said. "Oh?" Brandon frowned at the rear view again. "So now all of a sudden you care what Mom thinks?" "Does assholishness come natural to you or do you have to work at it?" "The fuck did you just call me-" "Hey!" I yelled. "Other dude in the car here? Everybody calm the fuck down, all right?" I turned to Katy and asked him when his test started. He said, "ten sharp". "And Brandon, you won't be long, right?" He blew a breath. "Ten minutes tops. It's just a quarter-hour drive from here." So, I checked my watch. "Okay, then there and back you'll have, like, twenty minutes left before you sit your paper. Is that cool?" Like he had a choice. Katy shrugged 'whatever', more aware of it than me, and I felt guilty for it. I didn't want Katy mad at me either but falling out with Brandon over this would only make it harder for me to get close to him. Six turns and five blocks later Brandon drove us up the hill of a street called Gilford Avenue. At its top the street forked off into three different directions; one back into town, one toward the interstate, and the other down the crook of a ridge heading east. From here Gilford Avenue was more a hill than anything else, overlooking the sweep of Tuckettsville on one side and a sprawl of ferns and forestland on the other. At the root of the fork past a dirt-floored car lot was an L-shaped, ceramic-roofed diner called The Longshoreman. Combine a homesick freshman with a long train ride home and you got yourself a bible's worth of anecdotes about a hometown. One of them was about this place. It was originally a seafood restaurant built in the 1930's by Nelson Knox, a retired fisherman and Brandon's grandfather's uncle. They sold seafood exclusively until the 90s when the St. Johns River became too polluted to fish. Under the current owner, Sal Knox, The Longshoreman expanded to a regular American menu and sold whatever seafood (crab and haddock and bream mostly) sold cheap off fish markets as day specials. Because of the family connection; Stop, Shop and Go! and The Longshoreman often traded excess stock. Sal and Savannah were only distant cousins but Tuckettsville was a small town and small towns meant small town values. 'Distant cousins' could be as close as brothers. Could be. Brandon pulled in the mostly empty car lot and unbuckled, then glanced over his shoulder at a sullen Katy. "Stay in the car." "Why? Don't want your fudge-packing brother embarrassing you in front of your girlfriend?" "I don't want you embarrassing me period," he said, "Now stay inside the fucking car. Huey, lets go." Brandon put an exclamation point on the order by climbing out and slamming his door shut. Katy looked away, misty-eyed. "We won't be long, I promise." I said. He scrubbed his eyes. "Whatever." When I got out of the car Brandon lead me in through a glass door and I found the nautical-theme just as prevalent inside as out. The walls were painted blue and decorated with plastic fish, barnacles, fishing nets, shark teeth and a couple of those doughnut-shaped white and red life preservers. The tables and chairs were lacquered wood straight out of a galleon captain's cable and the lampshades were all shaped like clamshells. Despite it all though, the smell in the air was all sausages and hollandaise sauce. Clearly, they were serving the breakfast menu. Brandon waved to the man behind the counter. He was bald as a baby's ass but his jaw was cushioned by one big black blanket of a beard and his white apron was decorated in a multicolour of old sauce stains. I knew him already. Sal Knox, the owner and Mrs. Wimmer's cousin, but all the kids in town knew him as 'Big Beard Knox'. "Brandon!" Big Beard slapped his shoulder. "Good to see you, son! Jesus, you're even taller than you were the last time I saw you! What are you know, 6.2?" "5.9," Brandon smiled. "This is my roommate at college, Huey." "Nice to meet you, kid," he held out his hand. "I'm Sal Knox." "Good to meet you too," I said. "Uncle Sal, is Leighann working today? I really need to talk to her." He looked slightly uneasy with the question. "Her shift doesn't start until later this afternoon, kid. But now that you're here, I've got a crate of extra stock I've been meaning to get to your mother. Come help me get it." Before either of us could even object Big Beard was in the back getting things ready. Brandon sighed. "Barely been back a day and already I'm being worked like a dog. Wait for me out here, Iowa." Then he followed Sal behind the counter and left me to my own devices. With nothing else to do I took a seat by one of the tables and thumbed through a menu. Some of the sea-themed courses tickled me; 'Anglers Angel Cake' and 'Fisherman's Fries' and 'Seafarer's Steak', but I was bored again within a minute. And then he came in. When the front door's bells jingled, I thought it was Katy coming to yell at us for taking so long but what I got instead was a lean, smirking, deep tanned bastard in stingray boots. His hair, so shiny and gelled and greasy you'd think it was made of oil, was completely slicked back into a wave at the base of his skull. He wore a beaten brown bomber jacket with a pelt of cream-coloured fur around its collar and he walked in a perpetual slouch like some fucking hood from a '70's Yakuza flick. Even then, before I even knew his name, I couldn't stand him. His eyes shot around the restaurant for something he couldn't find until they settled on me. He approached me with a smirk. "You look like you're from outta town. You see a guy come in here a minute ago; blonde, my age?" He knows Brandon. "Who's asking?" "Heh, heh, heh, heh," he snickered. "Are you for real?" Brandon and Big Beard came out from back with the crate between them. They were laughing at something one of them had said a minute ago before Brandon saw the boy in the bomber jacket and stopped cold. I saw my best friend's face twist with anger so deep it almost scared me. "Jamie," he spat. "Well, well, well," he turned from me to Brandon, grinning. "If it ain't Sex in the City. I heard you were back in town. So, what happened, Bran? Did New York get gut sick of you too?" "You ever try not having your head up your ass, Jamie? Just for kicks?" Sal moved to Brandon's side. "I don't want any trouble here, boys." "And there ain't gonna be none," Jamie stepped into Brandon's face. "Unless this fuckwad here wants to start some." "I'm here for Leighann." Jamie pulled a smile too wide by half. "Riiiight, I forgot! You're the guy she used to date." "Jamie, that's enough," said Sal. I knew Brandon well enough to know what hurt him and what didn't. That hurt him. It didn't matter who it came from. "What do you mean used to?" "What, you didn't hear? She's traded up, son. Got herself a whole new man." "Jamie!" yelled Sal. But it was too late to stop this. Brandon looked on, angry and confused and blind to the taunt. "...Who?" Then Jamie closed what was left of the space between him and Brandon with three raps of his stingrays, grinning all the way, and poked his thumb at his chest. "...Me." When I was a kid my Dad was too broke to buy me a PS2 or an Xbox (and there were no arcades to speak of in Strawberry Point), but I used to go to my friend Ralph's house and play his Dreamcast. We played the hell out of Garou: Mark of the Wolves and I got as good with Khushnood Butt as any shoto-scrub could, so it's not like I'd never seen someone throw a punch before. But damn if Brandon didn't deck Jamie hard. One-minute Jamie was pointing at himself then there was a flash of knuckles and blood and the next thing anyone knew he was planted ass-first into the chequered tile floor. There were sightless weights holding me down until that moment, and then I was up and pulling Brandon back, steeling myself against that cold, angry look in his eye. Sal dragged Jamie up to his feet but held him back as he screamed "Get the fuck off me! You and me, motherfucker, let’s go!" But Big Beard was bigger and older and stronger than any of us. He shoved Jamie back and held his collar tight, and threw a meaty, warning finger in Brandon's face. "Stop it, both of you! I'm trying to run a damn business here!" "He started it, Sal!" yelled Brandon. "Just like he always does!" A rope of blood ran from Jamie's nose to his lip. "He hits me and it's my fault? He's full of shit, Sal, that's why Leighann's with me!" "You even look at her again and you're dead meat!" "I SAID THAT'S ENOUGH!" Sal roared it so loudly I froze in my sneakers. "No small wonder what the girl sees in either of you, now knock it off! Brandon, you and your friend take that case to your mother right now. Jamie, sit down and cool off or I'll call your uncle down here and let him deal with you." He punctuated that with a shove that set Jamie on his ass in one of the cubicles by the counter. Equally angrily, Sal picked up the crate and shoved it at Brandon and me. I wasn't looking to stay any longer anyway. Brandon held the case while I pulled him toward the door. Jamie sat stewing behind Sal's shoulder with eyes full of dark promises. We left The Longshoreman behind and put the crate into Pontiac's trunk then climbed in either side. I overheard Katy asked one of us what the hell happened, but I can't remember which of us he asked because I was shaking. *~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* We took Katy to his old high school ten minutes before his test, rode the Pontiac to Stop, Shop and Go! and dropped off Sal's crate for Mrs. Wimmer then went back to the house. Brandon was silent the entire time and so was I. When Jamie stared at me and questioned me and laughed at me, I couldn't say anything. When he pestered Brandon, I couldn't do anything. Then Brandon hit him, and I found my legs. Why I am such a fucking coward? *~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* Drawing dogs was easy for me because my high school art teacher, Mr. Neitt, showed me how to after school once. I could get good definition on the torso and the teeth were convincing enough; they were sharp enough to look dangerous but small enough not to overwhelm the mouth. Drawing the sledge that the Bogeyman rode was much harder. My dreams only left me with impressionist visuals of it and when I did an image search for 'sledge' on Google I found nothing of the like. In the end I re-imagined what the Bogeyman rode as a chariot and drew him whipping at his dogs' reigns while waving his blunderbuss through the air. It was the early evening and nightfall cooled Tuckettsville down so fast that the Wimmers turned off the AC. Mr. Wimmer's back was well enough for him to come for dinner; fried steak, baked fries and greens. Mrs. Wimmer dominated talk around the table. She asked me how I was settling in, how Katy made out with his test, and how Leighann was doing. Until then Brandon was only picking at his food but after that he was gone, excusing himself from the table. Mr. Wimmer let him go. Mrs. Wimmer looked my way. "He found out about Jamie, didn't he?" She knew? "You knew?" "It's not really a secret, Huey," she said. "I don't like it but maybe it's for the best." You mean so he can drop his high school sweetheart and focus on college? I smiled to myself and kept quiet. The food was good, and I didn't feel comfortable talking about my best friend's business behind his back. Brandon would still be brooding after dinner, I knew, so when I was done, I didn't bother him and went straight to the spare room. I was sharpening one of my graphite pencils when Katy knocked on my door. I told him to come in. He came in barefoot and smiling lightly and he planted himself at the edge of my bed. My gut tickled me. "What are these?" Katy asked, spreading his fingers over the pages torn from my sketchbook. Each sheet was another sketch of the Bogeyman from a different scene in my dreams. Some were of him throwing flint spears at deer in a post-urban Des Moines while in others he pulled a cart of onions down a long stone pavilion in the middle of the Mojave. "Drawings," I said. He smiled. "Drawings of who?" "Creeping Daddy," I said, blowing the excess off my pencil. "He's the Creeping Daddy." "O-kay..." "Look," I didn't want to talk about the Bogeyman with Katy, "can I ask you something?" He shrugged. "Shoot." "What is it between Brandon and Jamie? I mean why do they hate each other so much?" Katy's eyes, that distinctive Wimmer grey, rolled to the left of me. It was a sensitive question, I realized, but he pushed on anyway. "They used to be really close. He and Jamie Durkin were best friends for as long as I can remember. They did everything together." "So, what happened?" He tucked a wave of blonde behind his ear. "I came out three years ago. And um, yeah... it was pretty horrible. Then a couple weeks later Jamie's brother Junior caught me behind the gym and he..." I frowned. "He what?" "He tried to kiss me," Katy looked away again. "I ran home and I told Brandon and I begged him to tell Junior to leave me alone, but he went to Jamie instead and let’s just say he didn't take it well." I knew what whispers were like in small towns. Brandon probably went to Jamie instead to keep it quiet, but him being the sort of guy he was he wouldn't like lightly to Brandon accusing his brother of being a fag. "Junior cornered me and beat me up," Katy blurted. Part of him is probably relieved to get it all off his chest, I thought. "The next day, I mean. I told my Mom and Dad and they got Junior suspended. But back then he was going for a football scholarship at Miami U and when he didn't get it, Jamie blamed Brandon and me." And Brandon blames you for costing him his best friend. I knew it. The bitterness Brandon had for Katy had to be about more than the queer thing. I didn't know what to say to that except "I'm sorry you had to go through that." Katy smiled at me. And I loved Katy's smile. It was small and slow but so damn warm and cute. Everything about him was cute. How many dudes could you say that about? I don't know how long we sat there staring at each other with nothing and everything to say, I didn't even notice, not until Mrs. Wimmer yelled for "Kayden" from the lounge. He stood up. "I better go." "Yeah." I scratched my skull. "Listen, thanks for talking to me. I appreciate it." "No problem," Katy said. "Come knock on my door sometime."
  3. Johanni shivered beneath his cloak watching the snow fall from a bone white sky upon the vast grey waters of the northern sea. He stood at the prow of the Dragon’s Eye as its oarsman (and a strong, chilly wind buffeting the linen sail) propelled the ship towards a distant yet distinctive landmass upon the horizon – the Deepfjord. Behind him the others mulled about the ship preparing for what was to come. A seated Norsa Hardfang drew a whetstone across her hafting axe, Gnut the Troll stocked extra quills into his belt pouches from the supply bags, and Erik Halfspear surveyed the maps that Thorvald Tyrfingsson’s huscarls provided him with. The boy caught himself wondering where Eardwulf was… until recollections of his violent ardour struck his mind. Even so, Eardwulf not being at his side seemed to underline just how much had changed (and just how far he’d come) since he first set off on this journey all those weeks ago. It had begun as a simple pilgrimage to accumulate the support of the other chieftains for his bid as king, and now, he was sailing into the most dangerous region of Grünlund to prevent a madman from overthrowing the entire Hrathwuldic line. Three days ago, when One-Eyed Wulfstan confessed to Die Weißjagd under torture and Bors began deploying guards to all key ports and markets across the Salt Shore; Johanni had gathered with Erik, Norsa, Gnut, Thorvald and Kjarlla in an audience chamber within Pearlstone to discuss the idea of sailing to the Thoth homeland to convince Magnus Magnusson to abandon his plans. He was met with little support. Both Erik and Kjarlla rejected the idea as foolhardy. Frodi was less sceptical but agreed that the likelihood of convincing a warlord to dissuade himself from war was a stab in the dark. Gnut made it quite clear that although Drangheim was no longer his concern, he had a duty to put Haakon Godwulfsson out of his misery and halt the spread of Wulf’s Blut before it ruined any more lives than it already had. And when Johanni looked to Thorvald for backing he received the same cautionary doubt. “Lord, you must understand,” said the Thoth, his voice slowly returning to him after his gaoling. “My uncle Magnus Magnusson is a warlord who speaks only one language – that of the sword. Before my birth he duelled my father Tyrfing for my mother’s hand and lost – but rather than kill his own brother he had him exiled – and Magnusson sailed east to the Golden Empire. When my father died two winters ago my mother tried to convince the lawspeakers to elect me the new chieftain before he returned but they hesitated… why, I don’t know, perhaps because of my marriage to Kjarlla. A few moons afterward Magnusson returned a changed man; focused where once he was wild, driven where once he was idle, commanding where once he was foppish; and he brought with him new styles of farming, weapon making, shipwrighting and smithery. He demanded that people call him ‘Khan Magnus’ and whether from fear or reverence, the lawspeakers not only made him chieftain but proclaimed him this generation’s Champion of the White Spirit. With his power solidified he exiled me from the Deepfjord and reclaimed my mother as his own. The Thoth tribe has been in his grasp ever since.” Johanni and the others looked on as Thorvald had explained these things to them. “We Thoths are as fierce and as battle ready as any Woag could be – but understand that the true power lies with the lawspeakers. Our god is the White Spirit, the essence of all things lived and yet to live, and the lawspeakers are its priests. We consider their word the word of god and as such it is law. So long as the lawspeakers support Magnus Magnusson as the Champion of the White Spirit, my people will follow him into the very mists of the underworld. Do you all understand? The only way to stop the Weißjagd without a war is to prove to the Thoth tribe that the lawspeakers are wrong – Magnusson must die.” The young lord had balked at Thorvald’s suggestion when he first heard it, but as he had looked around the table he saw nothing but concurrent faces. It hurt most to see Erik Halfspear’s agreement, even though this was the same Erik Halfspear who excoriated him for letting Eardwulf escape with his life – the same Erik Halfspear he had to physically restrain from pursuing the Osserian with an unsheathed greatsword the instant he was back on his feet. And the others were just as resolved. The boy sighed. “I came this far seeking the support of the Thoth chieftain, not to murder him. Just kings do not rule by assassination. If I sanction this then how am I any better than my brother?” “Johanni, this isn’t like One-Eyed Wulfstan plotting to murder us in our sleep,” reasoned Kjarlla. “Magnus Magnusson is in open rebellion and my father’s already sent word of it to Drangheim. If we stop him before his fleet sets sail, then we could prevent the war. If we don’t, then thousands will die, regardless of the outcome.” “They have the right of it,” said Norsa. Kjarlla nodded. “Better still, if Magnusson dies then Thorvald is next in line to become chieftain of the Thoths. You’d have his support for your claim to the crown!” Thorvald had nodded at that and fished an ornate seax out of his tunic. The sheath was made of whalebone and a polished pearl adorned the pommel. He put it in Johanni’s hands. “I doubt any of us wants it to be this way, lord. I certainly don’t revel at the thought of my uncle’s demise. But this is not about us – it’s not even about you. Take this dagger. It belonged to my mother, Bruma. I still have allies in the Deepfjord, this will prove that they can trust you.” It was beautiful. And when Johanni pulled it open the blade was polished enough to reflect the face of a wary, sceptical boy. He turned to Thorvald and whispered to him in the Old Northern Tongue, so as not to shake the others any further by his reticence. “(How can my reign begin with a murder?)” Frowning, Thorvald whispered back in his mother tongue; “(If it doesn’t, it might never begin at all.)” ********** Once again Johanni found himself staring at his sullen reflection in the blade of the whalebone seax as the ship’s crew moored Dragon’s Eye against a sixty-yard-long ironwood berth protruding from the pebbled shoreline. It was old and rotting, its thick wooden pillars mottled with seaweed and barnacles, but it was sturdy, and it was the only berth for miles around that allowed them to land with any degree of secrecy. Erik Halfspear and Frodi went to work offloading the supply bags whilst Gnut helped the oarsmen bring the fjord horses off the knarr. One by one Gnut guided them into a harness attached to the pulley at the edge of the berth, as three of the oarsmen tugged at the rope to lift the horses out of the hull. “Heave!” They cried out together. “Heave!” The remaining oarsmen brought the horses to shore and dressed them in the bridles, saddles and saddlebags provided by Kjarlla’s huscarls. Johanni walked over to pebble beach and unfurled a map. The Deepfjord was an elongated landmass protruding from the north-western edge of Grünlund and curling eastward around the northernmost atolls of the Salt Isle. A gigantic fjord, the very namesake of the Thoth territory, bisected its northern lands into two prongs known as Westspitze and Ostspitze; whilst the heartland of its southern half was a gigantic and desolate wasteland of mountainous glaciers, tundra and dormant volcanoes. Johanni drew his finger down the map to an undulating spot on the eastern shores, Shrike’s Bay, where they were now. It was around 450 miles southwest of the Ostspitze; at the highest point of which stood the ancient castle known as the Hoarfrost Throne, the ancestral seat of the Thoth chieftains. That was where they would find Magnus Magnusson. Reaching it from Shrike’s Bay required them to ride upland for another fifty miles and then ride across country through a mountain pass. The pass was well marked (which meant well-trodden) and rightly so since most of the Deepfjord’s villages dotted either the eastern or the western coastlines and without it the Thoths would need to sail around the northern coast to trade with one and other. But it wouldn’t be an easy path. Without even assuming the presence of Magnusson’s Weiße Jäger and beastlings, according to the map the trail pushed throughout miles of wolf-ridden forests and craggy mountains. By then all five horses were ready, and their collective supplies mounted. Erik thanked the oarsmen for their trouble and reminded them to return to Shrike’s Bay in a week’s time to collect them. The ship’s captain nodded “yes” as his men went to work unmooring Dragon’s Eye. They were hardy sailors long familiar with the northern sea but even they did not seek to linger there. Johanni folded the map into his cloak as Norsa Hardfang approached him from the beach. The chill air made clouds out of her breath as she spoke, “Have you decided upon killing Magnusson yet or not?” 'Why must we Woags answer all crises with violence?' Thought the boy. “Killing a chieftain is a high crime, the crime that cost Haakon his thegndom.” “You’re to be a king, not a thegn. And a king shouldn’t be so indecisive,” then Norsa sneered cruelly at him. “Though from an Osserian perspective, a ‘Khan Magnus’ might be better than another Hrathwuldic king.” Johanni scowled at her. He was gradually growing weary of the Hardfang’s sullen bearing. “Would you serve a ‘khan’ who claimed his crown upon the curse of Wulf’s Blut, Norsa?” “It is a curse the Bloodbane shares, is it not?” “Then that makes ME the better choice,” said Johanni. She grinned at him. “That will be for me to decide, boy. I will do what is best for my people and nothing else.” “And I will do what’s best for ALL peoples,” spat the boy. “Impanni, Karggar, Thoth, Arbarii AND Osserian.” ********** The dun-coloured fjord horses provided by Kjarlla (along with Dragon’s Eye and seven moons’ worth of provisions) were chosen by Thorvald himself for their hardy gait and temperate nature, but most of all, for their sure-footedness; and as Johanni, Erik Halfspear, Frodi the Archer, Norsa Hardfang and Gnut the Troll rode out they saw for themselves just how well chosen those horses were. From Shrike’s Bay there were two paths north; the rocky beaches following the coastline’s winding path, and that which they took, the towering woodland plateaus overlooking the coast. Snow wafted from grey skies upon the beaten dirt tracks, half-freezing the grassland and shrubs crunching beneath the hooves of the fjord horses. Frodi (who amongst all of them had the best eyes) led the ride north, and as Erik and Norsa observed the shores, Johanni kept his eye to the map. They headed for a small inland settlement north of Shrike’s Bay by a mile – a town called Ragnhild’s Reach. Their intention was to gather information on the movements of Magnusson’s armies and use them to carefully plot their path toward the Hoarfrost Throne. The others would hold fast as Johanni (with his Thoth-like blonde hair and knowledge of the Old Northern Tongue) went amongst the townspeople to enquire upon the Weiße Jäger and return with news. However, when they eventually came upon Ragnhild’s Reach, they found abandoned. The cliffside trail led straight through the archway of its three-foot-high logwood walls. They rode in unimpeded through its long-smashed gates and found naught but the desolate husk of a once thriving town. Its nearly 100 homesteads, huts, paddocks, stables, kilns, smithies, and pigsties had been razed to the ground; the burnt lumber slowly vanishing beneath the snowdrifts. The grounds were strewn with the half-rotted, half-frozen remains of abandoned livestock. Frodi pondered aloud if the town was subject to some sort of attack, but as Gnut dismounted and scouted the ruins he found no human remains or weapons within the rubble. There was only one structure left standing in all Ragnhild’s Reach, a mead hall, right in its centre. Though the fires had singed its walls and collapsed portions of its roof, the hall withstood most of the disaster intact, and was now surrounded by a circle of foot-high stone cairns and half-foot hazel staves pounded into the hard earth. Johanni, Erik, Frodi and Norsa all dismounted then walked with Gnut over to the edge of that circle. “What is this?” Asked Erik. Gnut knelt before one of those staves and observed it. Someone had taken the time to carve deep runic shapes into the grain and paint them in red ochre. He passed his gloved fingertips over the grooves of those markings. The runes were not Woaggish and were arranged in complex concentric patterns. “It’s a ward,” Gnut said. “The ancients used them to drive off evil spirits.” Smirking, Erik Halfspear drew his greatsword and strode past the staves and cairns as if they weren’t there. “Lucky for them I’m not evil,” he said as he marched up to its oaken doors and booted them open. Johanni (sighing) and the others followed him in. The mead hall, much like the rest of Ragnhild’s Reach, was derelict. Snowfall from the roof fissures had smothered the coals of its hearth pit and its long tables stood abandoned with uncleared platters and goblets, but its support beams remained sturdy and its adornments unmolested – the mounted ironwood round shields and scabbarded claymores. Blanched white whale vertebrae lined the ceiling like a spinal cord. The snow bear pelts dressing the jarl’s throne remained where they were. “No sign of looting,” said Frodi. “Whatever happened here, it wasn’t a raid.” The wooden planks croaked beneath Johanni’s boots as he trod the hall for himself. And as he looked around he found it odd that there were no bear totems – the Thoth tribe’s ancestral sigil – anywhere to be seen. There were no banners of it, no paintings of it on their shields or walls. The only symbol he discovered was one embroidered on a frayed bit of cloth left behind on a long table by one of the mead hall’s prior occupants. The sigil was of a mountain lioness with its jaws clenched around the haft of a spear. 'What sigil is this?' He thought. 'Whom does it belong to?' He did not notice a shadow moving behind the chairs on the other side of the table – at least not until he heard that shriek, that woeful shriek of rage, as a girl bounded over with an outstretched dagger. Johanni stumbled back as Erik snatched her back by the neck of her tattered dress and hurled her to the damp wooden floor. She landed so hard that the dagger bounced from her grip and slid beneath the table. The Halfspear stepped between her and Johanni as she scuttled back behind another wooden seat. Thin threads of dusky blonde hair obscured her frantic blue eyes, ticking from one figure to another as Norsa, Gnut and Frodi surrounded her. Mud stained her pale russet dress in darker patches of brown, and her bruised breasts swung free from a tear in her bodice. She had blood in her teeth. “S-scheißkerl!” She spat. “D-du wirst mich n-n-nicht nehmen!” Johanni stood up. “(No one will take you, but you must stand down now.)” The girl did not budge. “Look at her,” said Norsa. “She’s been beaten.” The Osserian woman told the others to stand back. Understanding this, the men stepped back from the pair of them. The girl span around to find the muscled warrior above her, equally as wary of her as she was of Erik and Johanni. As the two locked eyes, Norsa pulled her throwing axes free and dropped them by her boots, one by one, until she was weapon-less. The girl glared back, confused, and heedless, Norsa Hardfang reached beneath the table for her knife and placed it at the girl’s feet along – along with her water cask. “Tell her we mean no harm,” said Norsa to Johanni. “{We will not hurt you,}” he said to the girl. “{Trust us.}” Warily, she looked first to him, then to Norsa, then to the knife and cask at her bare feet. She chose the water – uncorking the cask and gulping it down as fast as her throat would allow. ********** The girl’s name was Brynhildr. They learned this as Gnut kindled a new fire from the old pit coals to keep warm, and Erik Halfspear fetched some carrots and potatoes from their saddlebags for Frodi to chop and boil, adding some bass that they caught on Dragon’s Eye. Johanni poured helpings of the fish broth into six wooden bowls taken from the abandoned long tables, one of which Norsa gave to Brynhildr. She ate well of it and began to speak more of herself as they all sat down and ate before the fire. She covered up her loose breasts with one of the snow bear pelts cushioning the jarl’s throne. “{W-w-who a-are you?}” An unwonted stutter plagued her voice, “{Y-you aren’t c-c-c-children of the W-w-white Spirit?}” Johanni wasn’t naïve enough to believe that he could trust this girl just yet. It was Thorvald Tyrfingsson himself who warned them to treat the journey through the Deepfjord like an excursion through enemy territory. There was no telling where or where not Magnus Magnusson had ears. “{We are travelling,}” said Johanni in the Old Northern Tongue. “{Let us leave it at that for now.}” “What’s she sayin?” Asked Gnut. Johanni spooned another helping of fish broth into his mouth before he answered. It was a poor meal without any seasoning, but the boy was too hungry to complain. “She wants to know who we are. I told her we’re travellers.” “Does she know anything about Magnusson’s army?” Asked Erik. “Anything at all that can help us?” Norsa sneered at him from across the fire. “…She’s a frightened girl, you fool, what do you think she knows?” “I’m growing tired of your mouth, Norsa. One more word and I swear-” Brynhildr looked to the angry glares exchanged between the Halfspear and the Hardfang and turned to Johanni in confusion, “{W-w-what are they s-s-saying to each o-other? A-are they f-f-f-fighting...?}” Johanni warned them both to calm down before they frightened the girl anymore than she already had been. Norsa snorted, returning to her bowl of fish broth. Erik eyed her heatedly. “{Do not worry,}” said Johanni to the girl. “{It has been a long journey and my friends are tired, but they will not fight. They want to help you, Brynhildr. Can you tell us what you were doing out here all on your own? What happened to this town?}” She frowned at him. “{Y-y-you really don’t… k-k-k-know?}” Johanni smiled back hoping that Brynhildr would do the same but she was too guarded to trust him. A few moments later she showed him why. She put her empty bowl down, pulled her dress’ sleeve up to her forearm, and showed him her slave’s brand. She was a thrall. Norsa frowned. Looking away, Brynhildr rolled her sleeve back down. “{I’m s-s-s-sorry. It’s n-not f-for me to s-s-say. I’m just a th-th-thrall. I-I-I just need to g-g-get back to my m-m-mistress, Bruma.}” Frodi blinked. “She just said Bruma. She means Thorvald’s mother, right?” Brynhildr turned to him, then Johanni. “{H-h-he said T-Thorvald? He knows the mistress s-s-son?}” 'And now I’m beginning to understand how clever he is', thought Johanni. 'No wonder Bors wanted him locked up'. The boy withdrew Thorvald’s whalebone seax from his cloak and watched a glint of recognition brighten Brynhildr’s eyes. “{If you know what this is then I believe we can trust you. Thorvald Tyrfingsson sent us here and we will help you get back to your mistress if you help us in turn. Whatever you know, please tell us.}” Thrall though she was, she was attached to her mistress, and almost as soon as she saw the seax (and was promised help in getting back to her) she poured herself out to Johanni and his followers. Brynhildr, as Johanni went on to translate, was the daughter of a Thoth fisherman and his Arbarii wife on a Western Salt Isle called Angler’s Point. She was six winters old when Magnus Magnusson’s ships raided the isle, murdered her parents, and claimed her as a thrall before sailing back to the Golden Empire with his spoils. When Magnusson returned to the Deepfjord to claim the chieftainship, she was given to Bruma as her own personal handmaid. However, over time, they came to care for each other (or so Brynhildr claimed). So, when Thorvald was exiled, and the lawspeakers declared ‘Khan Magnus’ the new Champion of the White Spirit; Bruma escaped with Brynhildr and most of her closest followers to an outpost known as Snowhold Fortress, where they she had spent the last two years beckoning other disaffected Thoths to flee from Magnusson’s tyranny. “She says, ‘This was all until about three days ago,’” Translated Johanni to the others, “She says, ‘When Mistress Bruma received word that the high lawspeaker, Hrolfyr, was burning villages on by the sea. We rode out with some of her followers to stop him, but they attacked us and captured the mistress… I ran into the forest to escape Hrolfyr’s men after they beat me…’” The boy paused as his thoughts envisioned Eardwulf, “‘…and then I escaped to this mead hall. But there was nothing I could do. Hrolfyr has Bruma. What if he burns her too?’” “We won’t let that happen,” said Erik. “We just need to know where he is.” ********** He stank of ale and blood and sweat as he lumbered above him, slobbering and engorged, ravenous, pawing at him from throat to thigh. His frightened screams could not penetrate the thick fingers wrapped tight around his mouth. He could not speak – he could barely breathe. Piece by piece were his clothes ripped from him, each article a fragment of his dignity, until nothing was left but a naked whore. It didn’t matter if he screamed. It didn’t matter if he said no. Eardwulf wouldn’t stop. ******** Johanni shot up with a start, sweat dripping down his nose and brow. He caught his breath. 'Another nightmare?' Thought the boy. It was his third one since that night in Pearlstone. The same images over and over, himself lost within the dungeons of Kolskegg’s Crag, falling into a pit and landing upon a bloody battlefield surrounded by skulls and swords as a drunken Eardwulf’s crawled up his torso and attacked him. The boy shivered. At his side Erik Halfspear slumbered peacefully beneath his pallet’s bearskin covers. Mere weeks ago, that would’ve been Eardwulf, protectively close and yet respectfully distant, ever ready to spring for his blade at the slightest necessity. 'Why did he do that?' Johanni wrapped his arms around his knees. 'Why? He’s always… always protected me. Never so much as raised his voice to me… he even said he loved me. So why? Why would he-' “Johanni,” Erik opened his eyes. “Are you alright?” Everyone else was asleep. A snoring Gnut slept next to a long table, Frodi slept in the throne, whilst Norsa had given Brynhildr her pallet. The Hardfang sat by the pit fire to keep warm. None of them would have heard if they spoke, but he didn’t feel like talking. The boy smiled softly, scratched at Erik’s scruffy brown beard, assured him he was fine, then slid back into his pallet and willed himself to sleep. It didn’t work. ********** A weak sun greeted the morning. Its pale light barely pierced through the thick grey clouds looming over the shoreline, leaving it dark and morose. Snowfall was light but constant as it froze over the muddy roads and blanketed the leafless inland forests. Johanni observed all of this as he mounted his fjord horse. 'This lack of light makes it easier to ambush us,' he thought worriedly. 'And the snow far easier to track us…' Fortunately, Gnut the Troll already seemed to realize this. As Johanni and Erik Halfspear tightened the saddlebags, Gnut and Frodi concealed their boot prints by spreading snow over them as they walked backwards towards the fjord horses. As Johanni mounted his steed, Norsa Hardfang helped the frail Brynhildr climb onto the rear half of its saddle as the others mounted their own. “{Hold on to me, Brynhildr}” said Johanni. The thrall nervously grasped his waist as she was told. “{Good. Now can you direct us to where your mistress was captured?}” She told him “ya” and urged him to follow the trail. Johanni and Brynhildr took the lead, followed by Erik and Frodi, then Gnut and Norsa Hardfang. The road ahead was so thickly sheeted in snow that it was difficult to judge between path and grassland but Brynhildr’s directions were clear and the cliff’s edge had a distinctive bend naturally demarking the northern trail. As they rode on for miles upon miles of snowy ground Johanni watched the coastal panorama transformed before his eyes. Shrike’s Bay disappeared into the south as the cold northern sea pulled further away from the cliffside and the shoreline became a mile wide from cliff to shore. In years gone by that tract of shoreline (stretching from Shrike’s Bay in the south all the way to the northernmost tip of the Ostspitze) was known as Fisherman’s Reach, so called for its dozens of densely scattered fishing villages and hamlets. But as Johanni and the others observed Fisherman’s Reach from above, they saw nothing except ruins. It was just as Brynhildr said. Every village along the coast had been razed. The huts and homesteads either burnt or torn down, the burial mounds looted, the fishing nets abandoned, and the frozen carcasses of hundreds of cattle, horses, pigs and chickens were left to waste in the snowy wreckage. What struck Johanni as odd was that there were no human remains in the rubble. It was as if everyone had disappeared. “{I-I-It is H-Hrolfyr,}” said Brynhildr as the boy asked her about it. “{I h-h-h-heard Lady Bruma t-talking to her th-thegn about it. He’s b-been preaching to the p-p-people about the W-W-White Spirit and c-c-convincing them to b-b-burn their own h-homes…}” Johanni translated this to the others. “But why?” wondered the Halfspear. “What sense does it make to cook over your own damn homes?” Frodi frowned. “It makes perfect sense. Magnus Magnusson plans to conquer the mainland and overthrow King Hrathwuld, no? His men will fight all the harder if they have nothing to come back to.” Frodi’s logic was accurate. Like Thorvald said, the Thoths were sworn to obey the White Spirit and the lawspeakers were its prophets. Disobeying Hrolfyr meant disobeying their god, and with all their villages and livestock destroyed the only way to survive the winter was to march south with Magnusson’s armies and complete the Weißjagd. Perhaps that redoubt that Haakon Godwulfsson built in the Fens wasn’t just to investigate the Wulf’s Blut, perhaps it was also to be the staging point of Magnusson’s invasion? Worst still, by burning down the coastal villages the Thoth chieftain pre-emptively forestalled any possibility of a seafront attack. If Ragnar (or the Royal Diet) ordered Lord Bors to sail his fleet to the Deepfjord, they had nowhere to land and nowhere to seek shelter – not without marching inland into terrain that favoured the Thoths. Johanni shivered thinking about the terrifying logic in Magnus Magnusson’s plans. It was increasingly evident that he was no mere pirate but a master tactician and manipulator... and conceivably one of the few commanders in Grünlund truly capable of matching Ragnar Bloodbane on the field. “{Look!}” Brynhildr pointed to the shores north. “{There!}” Though the fishing villages had been reduced to ash, the coast was by no means defenceless. The Thoths had raised a series of small forts, one for each ten mile stretch of Fisherman’s Reach. Built from limestone, ironwood and clay; each one was around 100 yards wide from keep to outer wall. It was one of those forts that Brynhildr pointed to. Johanni yelled for the others to stop. They reined in their horses to dismount and followed the boy up to the edge of the cliff from which they were afforded a bird’s eye view of the fort. In the northern portion of its icy dirt track courtyard stood a wooden construct; a platform with six shaved tree trunks staked into its boards and surrounded by piles of fatwood faggots and thatch. Six Thoth were chained to each stake. Just ten yards away a crooked-backed old man stood next to a seventh stake with another Thoth woman chained to its trunk. Brynhildr’s eyes flared. “{That’s her!}” She said. {Th-th-that’s Lady Bruma!} The cliff edge was close enough to spot Thorvald’s mother by her features; tall, buxom, middle-aged, blond-haired and blue-of-eye, a true Thoth beauty. She wore no dress or chiton but a warrior’s tunic, a warrior’s leather boots and a warrior’s iron mail. Pale slices of turkey-coloured flesh mottled her white skin – battle scars. Her azure eyes were alert and watchful. Bruma was no broodmare. She was a fighter. Erik peered over the edge. “Who is that next to her? That old man?” Johanni asked this of Brynhildr in her tongue. “{That’s H-H-Hrolfyr Lawspeaker,}” she said. The lawspeakers’ leader was a squat man, balding at the crown and dressed in thick brown pelts of bear’s fur (decorated with garlands of wolves’ fangs) one saw little of him beyond his wrinkled visage and bony hands wrapped around the haft of a gnarled oaken staff. Johanni gestured for Erik to come to his side. The Halfspear edged over from his spot next to Frodi and Gnut to settle between Johanni and Norsa. “What is it?” He asked. “How would you approach this,” began the boy, “if you wanted to save that woman?” Erik surveyed the fort. Hrolfyr had Thoth soldiers posted at key points across the fortifications and all were heavily armoured – iron breastplates, greaves, conical helms, leather boots and gauntlets and knee-length gambesons. Each fighter had a scabbarded sabre at his side. “They’re well equipped but few in number,” observed the Halfspear. “Frodi has enough distance to kill those four guards at the walls. Me and Norsa can use that front gate as a choke point whilst Gnut covers our rear.” Johanni nodded. “I see. What do you want me to do?” “You stay put with Brynhildr,” he said sternly. “We’re outnumbered but you’re the last person we can afford to lose.” “Erik, I-” “A king doesn’t always need to bloody his hands,” said the chieftain. “Stay put and let us handle this.” There was no arguing with him when it came to battle. Erik Halfspear looked first to Frodi and made a three-fingered gesture towards the three soldiers manning the fortress’ wall. Frodi nodded back, fetching an arrow from his quiver. The Karggar then whispered to Norsa and Gnut who reluctantly followed him down one of the icy dirt paths tracing its way down to the shoreline. Frodi quickly moved into position; low enough to hide but high enough to shoot. Johanni grumbled under his breath as he watched Erik sneakily move into position by the shore. He had been coddling him since Eardwulf’s attack, treating him like some precious earthwork fit only for safeguarding. Brynhildr shivered next to him. “{Hey,}” he said. “{Do not worry. My allies are strong, and they will save your lady, you have my word.}” But it was not Bruma she worried for in that moment – it was Johanni. He did not understand at first – not until he felt a sliver of cold, sharp metal broach his neck flesh. A knife. The boy froze where he knelt as a pair of soft lips whispered into his ears. “{Do. Not. Move.}” It was a woman’s voice. Close to Brynhildr was a second Thoth woman who held another knife, this one to Frodi’s throat. And from the snowy white forests beyond the road emerged a dozen Thoth women – tall, strapping and flaxen-haired – each one in boiled leather armour and battered tunics with longbows in hand and half-empty quivers swinging from their dagger belts. Their snow bear cloaks shielded them from the cold… and hid them well in frost. And they were so swift-footed that even Frodi could not see them coming. “{S-S-Sigrid, no!}” said Brynhildr. “{He’s h-here to help us free the lady!}” The woman behind Johanni (who he was soon to know as Sigrid Stonebow), sneered at the girl. “{You hold your tongue, thrall, this is no concern of yours. He helps nothing, he endangers our plan! And now we must move!}” Sigrid raised two fingers into the air. Around the fort, what looked like snow piles heaped in corners and archways and nooks suddenly burst open as one by one another dozen Thoth women archers rose up from their carefully concealed spots and loosed arrows across the courtyard, shooting the male guards dead where they stood. Those manning the walls fell headfirst into the frozen shrubbery beyond with arrows in their necks, those on the ground flocked to secure a gasping Hrolfyr or ducked for cover, but those Thoth women closest to Bruma swarmed his guards with spears. They screamed fierce battle cries as they pounced upon Hrolfyr’s men and buried their polearms deep, scattering blood and broken bone into the snow. The ambush of the ten Weiße Jäger ended almost as quickly as it began. One chopped Bruma free from her stake with a pilfered sabre, striking the chains until they broke, whilst two of her other followers kicked Hrolfyr Lawspeaker into the snow and bound his arms with rope. Bruma, frowning, glared at the ridge where Sigrid Stonebow, Johanni, Frodi and Brynhildr observed the carnage. “{You just ruined the mission! I pray to the White Spirit itself that you’ve a damned good reason for doing so!}” ********** The Deepfjord’s inland forests possessed a kind of savage beauty. Snowfall had settled firm beneath the cold air and blanketed the entire woodland as leafless oaks towered overhead twice as tall as the tallest man, their bony branches encased in casts of glazed frost. Frozen cobwebs and icicles dangled above. A weary Johanni permitted himself a moment to admire the icicles and frozen cobwebs dangling above as his fjord horse cantered by. Since the dense thickets were unnavigable by horse, the only way through was by the footpath; a two-yard-wide trail twisting inland from the cliffs by the shoreline. Ahead of the party rode Bruma (with a relieved Brynhildr perched upon her saddle’s rear) whilst Johanni, Erik Halfspear, Frodi the Archer, Norsa Hardfang, and Gnut the Troll rode two by two. Close behind was Hrolfyr Lawspeaker, bound and gagged and draped across the leather saddle of a packhorse led ahead by Sigrid Stonebow. She was on foot along with her twelve Thoth archeresses. About 200 yards ahead he spotted the looming ramparts of Snowhold Fortress, the seat of Lady Bruma’s resistance against Magnus Magnusson and the Weißjagd. Johanni looked ahead to Bruma and Brynhildr. The thrall grinned from ear to ear, eyes shut tight, her thin arms curled lovingly around her mistress’ waist. The older woman whispered sweet words to her in the Old Northern Tongue, one of which Johanni couldn’t translate but given the sentence (and their shared body language) it approximated to ‘darling’ or ‘sweetling’. 'Not just mistress and servant then,' thought Johanni. 'Nor do they hide it'. Despite himself (and despite the situation) he glanced at Erik and thought back on the chieftain’s tacit disregard for his father’s loghs. “There’s no shame in it, you know,” he’d said, “Out here in the Grey Wilds men take other men to lay with as freely as they would women.” There was such tremendous liberty in that, liberty of thought and feeling and behaviour. As king, could he afford to be that free? Or was it his fate to uphold loghs his heart could not abide by? “Does he know I’m alive?” Bruma’s hoary voice snapped Johanni out of his reverie. He saw her glance back at him with her whalebone seax bouncing from her belt – Johanni felt it right to return it to her. “Thorvald, I mean. Does he know I’m alive?” Bruma spoke the Southern Tongue fluidly, like she’d been using it her whole life. The boy was genuinely impressed. “I do not know. But once this is all over, I am certain he will return to Deepfjord to see you.” The Thoth woman smiled bitterly. “Forgive me, aetheling, I say this not to patronize you – but we who have fought Magnusson these past two years with no help in sight from Drangheim; we are given pause to wonder how you of all people can bring an end to this. You should have sent your brother – and his 10,000 men.” Johanni frowned. He would have said more – if not for the spear that flew whistling out of the trees and landed just a few yards shy of Bruma and Brynhildr’s horse, staking the dirt beneath the snow. “{Halt!}” Cried out Bruma, “{Form up!}” The horses came to a stop, all of them, as her leather-armoured archeresses moved into position around the group; five to either flank and two to the rear. Erik, Norsa, and Gnut looked to the trees. Frodi drew his longbow and nocked an arrow. The woodlands were still and almost silent save for the winds whistling through the icy branches and the distant howls of its wolves – and then, just a few more yards ahead of the fallen spear emerged a man from the forest shrubbery, dressed in a huge hooded cloak stitched together from the hides of three skinned snow bears. He strode calmly into the centre of the trail, snow crunching beneath his boots, and pulled down his hood with gloved hands. Erik Halfspear scowled. “Haakon!” The blood-eyed thegn grinned at the Karggar as Gnut, frowning, went for his crossbow. Neither of them noticed what Bruma’s archers saw; dozens of Thoth men emerging from the forest around them. They were all naked from the breeches up, their muscled arms and torsos festooned in elaborate blue war tattoos. They grinned collectively and menacingly, their braided blonde hair swaying in the snowy winds, none of them fazed by the arctic bite of their surrounds. “{Bruma the Whore,}” said Haakon Godwulfsson. “{I see you’ve made some new allies, eh? They cannot help you! But if you surrender them and the lawspeaker to me… I will allow the rest of your flock to live.}” Brynhildr quivered against Bruma’s back. “{My lady…}” “{Worry not, sweetling,}” The older woman rested a hand upon her seax’s hilt and smiled at Haakon. “Your mother was an Impanni, was she not? Tch. Play the ‘Thoth’ all you want, Godwulfsson, you are not one of us. Let us speak in what is native to you, the sly and smug southern tongue, for it suits you well.” Haakon frowned. “{Whore. Give them to me now or I will TAKE them.}” “Foreigner,” chuckled Bruma, “You couldn’t take them if you tried.” A dark glare uncurled Haakon Godwulfsson’s lips as his sabre rattled in its sheath beneath his cloak. He did not lay hands upon it. Instead he shot his blood red eyes to his men on either side of the road and gestured for them to attack. Bruma, Brynhildr, Johanni, Erik, Frodi, Norsa, Gnut, Sigrid and the twelve archeresses looked on in horror as Haakon’s assembled men began to shake in their boots. Their very bones vibrated beneath their naked skins as its colour shifted from pig white to pitch black and their fingers melded together into three scything claws and their sulphurous throats howled out monstrous cries of rage that echoed across the forest. “Ride!” Screamed Bruma. “{Run!}” The beastlings swarmed the party just as she whipped her horse’s reins and bounded past Haakon, who dove aside lest its hooves trampled him. Johanni’s horse followed, as did Gnut’s and Frodi’s and Norsa’s. Sigrid Stonebow commanded the archers to cover Lady Bruma’s escape as she mounted Hrolfyr’s horse and trundled after them, but the trail was too narrow to fend them off by longbow. Each woman drew her long blade and swung for the beastling’s throats but were thrown back with a single swing of the claw or disarmed by the bone-crunching bite of their fangs. The beastlings tore open their leather armours and gored their stomachs, gnashing teeth gouging down into their pale quivering throats, gnawing open the pink threads of muscles and tearing out the bloody cords below. Hot blood dashed about the trail and stained white with red. Severed limbs flopped into the snow. The beastlings proceeded to feast on the corpses like pigs upon slop. An arrow whistled into one’s eye, killing it. Frodi nocked another arrow as his horse propelled him towards Snowhold’s walls. It was as he was aiming for Haakon Godwulfsson that a hidden beastling leapt out from the trees above and collided with the archer. Erik and the others looked back in horror as Frodi was thrown screaming from his saddle into the tundra. The beastling landed on top of him and snarled. Erik’s blood went cold. “Frodi!” “No!” Yelled Bruma, “Make for the fortress or we all die!” From the ramparts one of Snowhold’s guards spotted six horses bounding for the western gates. She bellowed for them to be opened (declaring the return of Lady Bruma) as Haakon watched them ride away into the safety of its walls. He marched up to Frodi, immobilized by the beastling, and smirked at his new captive. *********** According to Thorvald’s maps the distance between the Deepfjord’s west and east coasts was slightly less than 500 miles. Impassable tundra and dormant volcanoes overran a large portion of the Thoth heartland’s lower half, but its northern half’s dominant feature was its frozen woodlands. Both regions were nigh impossible for large groups to traverse except for a solitary mountain pass that Thorvald’s maps demarked. Along that mountain pass, about 50 miles east of the western coast and another 55 miles northeast of Shrike’s Bay, lay Snowhold Fortress. One of the three key strongholds across the Deepfjord (the other two being the Hoarfrost Throne, the castle of the Thoth chieftain; and Ice Rock’s Point, the great southern citadel) it guarded both the mountain pass interlocking the coasts and the great fjord’s southernmost offshoot flowing through the aqueducts beneath the fortress’ walls. With the mountain pass being the only land-based means of travel between the eastern and western coasts (without sailing clean around the northern coast) Snowhold Fortress had tremendous importance in Thoth life. Merchants used it to trade between the coastal villages under the strict taxation of the chieftains and during historical times of intratribal conflict, no chieftain had ever effectively ruled the Deepfjord without it – because without Snowhold, it was impossible to march troops from one side of the territory to the other. For all his power even Magnus Magnusson required Snowhold to launch his Weißjagd. And somehow, Bruma had held it for 182 moons. The fortress’ walls were over thirty feet high, arrayed with merlons and secured by two large ironwood gates – east and west. It had a working forge, kilns, tanneries, barracks, and a small temple that they had repurposed into an infirmary. And it was manned by roughly 300 people, all of them women. Women young and old, tall and short, fat and thin, strong and waif. They mended each other’s armour, stitched each other’s linens, and sharpened each other’s weapons. Across the bailey these women boiled water, cut fletching, plucked chickens, slaughtered pigs and smoked fish. Most had no combat experience whatsoever. They were wives and mothers and daughters, handmaidens and thralls. Those who did served directly under Bruma herself, or alongside her de facto thegn, Sigrid Stonebow; manning the ramparts or hunting in the forests. Johanni was impressed. He told Bruma as much when she sat down with them to the long table of her feasting chamber; along with Norsa and Gnut. Sigrid had gone down to the stables to check on the horses. Brynhildr placed a broth bowls of venison, carrots and potato hunks before each of them. Everyone except Erik ate well of it. The Karggar chieftain stood pensively beside a crenel, peering out at the activities of the forecourt. Johanni’s stomach churned watching his lover brood so distantly. He wanted to hold him close and cry with him, pray with him, but all he could do was sit aside and listen to what Bruma had to say. “You say you’ve held this place for half a year?” Asked Norsa. Bruma nodded. “Held off a siege as well. We’ve no scorpios or tar but our walls are strong. The greater worry is supplies. The larders ran dry a hundred moons ago and we’re barely surviving off what our hunting parties can scavenge. After their own fathers and husbands burned down their villages, those women looked to me for protection, but we’re just one more siege away from starvation. And the war hasn’t even begun yet.” “It never will,” said Johanni. “I won’t let Magnusson deploy his fleet.” Bruma frowned. “And you shall stop him by doing what?” “Killing him,” said Norsa. “…If needs be,” added Johanni, frowning. There was a cut upon Bruma’s left forearm. Once Brynhildr finished serving the broth she tore a fragment of her dress and carefully wrapped the wound with it, smiling to herself. “{I am so glad you are alright,}” she said. “{Why did you not tell me it was a plan?}” “{To do so would’ve put you at risk,}” Bruma turned to Johanni. “You said my son helped get you here, yes? What is your plan?” The Impanni boy looked to his small wooden bowl. It was empty, but he was still hungry. “I will do as I intended to and speak with him.” Bruma paused sceptically. And then she burst out laughing, throwing her head back and cackling from the pit of her belly. Gnut (who in his hunger took Erik’s full bowl for himself) watched her demure only to catch her breath. “…Speak?” She wiped the tears from her eyes. “Oh, bless you, boy.” Johanni clenched a fist. “My father desires me to be king when he dies. That is why he sent me to acquire the support of the chieftains. Would you mock the will of your own king?” Bruma sighed. “Sweet child. Out here, where my people have given their own minds over to lunacy, Hrathwuld is no more ‘king’ than I am. I don’t think you understand the situation you’ve walked into.” “Then enlighten us,” said Norsa. “Or do you bloviate?” There was a cup of mead next to her bowl. Bruma chuckled at Norsa as she took a swig of it. “I loved him once,” she said. Everyone around her at the table, except an embittered Brynhildr, looked shocked. Bruma merely cuddled her thrall tight and continued. “Is it so hard to believe that when I was as young as you, aetheling, Magnus Magnusson stole my heart? But as the daughter of the last leader of the lawspeakers, I was betrothed to his brother, Tyrfing. We were wed at the Hoarfrost Throne, and upon the death of their late father, chieftain Magnus Thorsson, Magnus the Younger challenged Tyrfing to holmgang – for the chieftainship… and me. It was a fierce duel, I remember that, but Tyrfing triumphed. Yet instead of killing him… Tyrfing exiled Magnus from the Deepfjord for five years. So, he took a ship and sailed east to the Golden Empire, leaving me behind… and for a time I loathed Tyrfing for it. But I respected his sense of duty, and looking back on it now, he was wise in all he did to quell tensions with the Arbarii. I came to share his sense of duty and eventually I bore him a son, Thorvald. But as soon as his exile ended, Magnus returned to the Deepfjord with twenty ships – faster and sleeker than our rotting old knarrs – he had better weapons, new crops, more ideas, and an even greater ambition. But it wasn’t just that. Magnus was a changed man. He wasn’t the brash, romantic boy of his youth. He came back wiser, calmer, more focused. And even then Tyrfing saw that Magnus was dangerous and offered him the title of thegn as placation. But he was wise to it and he refused. It was a bold move,” Bruma gulped another mouthful of mead. “That very same night Magnus snuck into my chambers and told me he would win me back. He said – “For all the swarthy wanton whores of the Golden Empire, I have never forgotten you,” – and for the briefest moment all my sense of duty washed away… and I fell in love with him again. We shared a bed for the first time in five years. It was senseless. I was weak. And Tyrfing caught us.” Johanni looked on. “Magnus fought his way out of the Hoarfrost Throne,” explained Bruma. “I wanted to follow him, but I was too ashamed, and he sailed back to the Golden Empire without me. And Tyrfing? My loyal, unloved husband? He needed to save face, but he refused to kill me… so his compromise was to imprison me here, in Snowhold Fortress, where I gave birth to my twins, Modi and Gunna, and my own people began to know me by the name ‘whore’. Tyrfing raised Thorvald alone whilst my twins and I called this place home for the next thirteen years... until about two and a half solstices ago…” Bruma swilled what was left of her mead then poured herself another cup from an earthenware jug – then she finished that. So, she poured herself another. “It was spring. Tyrfing was leading the whale hunts into the northern fjord when his boat capsized… or so I’m told. By then Thorvald was already married to that Arbarii girl. As soon as he sailed back to the Deepfjord he freed the twins and I, but the stain of ‘whore’ doesn’t wash out easily. The lawspeakers, now led by Hrolfyr, refused to declare him chieftain and sent word to Magnus of his brother’s demise. And that bastard went to the grindstone as soon as he returned. He declared himself ‘Khan Magnus’ and immediately exiled Thorvald, he exhumed Tyrfing’s corpse and burned it; he sent Modi to be ‘educated’ in the Golden Empire and betrothed my daughter Gunna to that gnarled old bastard, Hrolfyr Lawspeaker. Sure enough, Hrolfyr convinces the other lawspeakers to not only name Magnus Magnusson as chieftain of the Thoths but to declare him this generation’s Champion of the White Spirit, the first since his grandfather, Thors the Great. Then he summoned fighting men from every corner of the Deepfjord and ordered them to move south to Ice Rock’s Point. That’s when Hrolfyr started burning the villages. I was already at my wits’ end… and then came Haakon Godwulfsson.” Gnut’s eyes narrowed. “He came to the Hoarfrost Throne and declared King Hrathwuld a weakling. He said that he was the true Bloodbane, and that the ancients had bestowed upon him a gift – the Wulf Blut.” “He transformed.” Asked Johanni. “You say that unsurprised,” said Bruma. “You know of it?” The boy nodded. “Haakon butchered one of our companions with it.” “My apologies. When he shed his skin like a snake and became a monster before mine and Magnus’ eyes, and Magnus made him thegn in exchange for this dark power, that was the last for me – I had to flee. I took Brynhildr and those precious few guards left in the castle still loyal to Tyrfing and fled south back to Snowhold. With some love and toil, I turned my prison into a bastion and provided refugee to the Thoth women and babes fleeing the burnings at the coast.” “You slowed down the Weißjagd,” 'Magnusson’s armies might’ve already attacked the mainland if she hadn’t', thought Johanni. “All of Grünlund owes you a great debt, Lady Bruma.” Bruma frowned. “Debts are yet to come, aetheling. As I said our larders are empty. In a few moons time we will have nothing to eat except ice and horsemeat. Snowhold will not survive another siege.” “BASTARD!” Screamed Erik Everyone seated at the cold bark of the old long table turned to him. “What’s abroad, Halfspear?” Asked Gnut. The Karggar chieftain sneered and ran out of the hall, greatsword clanking at his back. Johanni stood up and went to the crenel he was watching. Out beyond the fortress’ eastern walls and 100 yards shy of the gates stood Haakon Godwulfsson. The snowy winds whipped at his heavy pelted cloak and wild blonde hair. Beside him knelt Frodi, naked from the belt up, and shivering, as blood dripped from his battered eyes and lips upon the snow. And behind the two of them, gathered tightly together in the narrow trail threaded through the forests, were over 300 howling black-skinned beastlings; eyes pulsing, shoulder’s pumping. “It’s Haakon!” Johanni ran for the doors, “He’s going to kill Frodi!” Bruma, Gnut and Norsa followed Johanni as he followed Erik out of the great hall and up the cold stone steps of the inner wall to the Snowhold battlements. Three of Bruma’s Thoth archeresses manned the crenels and each one had nocked an arrow. Erik, Johanni, Norsa, Gnut and Bruma joined them. Off in the distance, Haakon unsheathed his sabre and curled its edge beneath Frodi’s chin. “HALFSPEAR!” He yelled. “I HAVE YOUR FRIEND! WILL YOU COME OUT AND SAVE HIM OR WILL YOU HIDE BEHIND THOSE STONE WALLS LIKE A COWARD!?” Erik’s gloved fist quaked with rage as clouds of hot breath steamed out the gaps of his gritted teeth… but he did not fall for the ploy. Erik Halfspear resisted every instinct and restrained his naked fury as he stared down his father’s murderer. Haakon frowned at that as he looked to Norsa. “HARDFANG! YOU TURNED YOU BACK ON OUR BARGAIN! WOULD YOU DEFY US ONCE AGAIN?” “IN A HEARTBEAT!” Yelled back Norsa, “OSSERIANS DO NOT LIE WITH DOGS AND THAT IS ALL YOU ARE, HAAKON! A MAD FUCKING DOG!” Gnut frowned. And Haakon’s smile returned to him as he spotted the Troll up above at the battlements, his helmed head barely poking over the parapet. “AH! GNUT THE TROLL! ‘BACK FROM THE DEAD’, I SEE! IT IS NOT TOO LATE FOR YOU TO ATONE FOR YOUR BETRAYAL, GNUT! SURRENDER NOW AND I WILL SPARE YOUR LIFE.” “I REFUSE!” Shouted Gnut. “THE HARDFANG HAS THE RIGHT O’ IT, HAAKON! YA NOTHIN’ BUT A MAD DOG! AND I SWEAR BY ALL O’ THE GODS, I’LL PUT YA DOWN!” “FOOL! AFTER ALL THESE YEARS YOU STILL KNEEL BEFORE THESE IMPANNIS?” He glared at Johanni. “THAT BOY UP THERE IS WEAK, AND RAGNAR IS A TRAITOR TO THE WOAGS! NEITHER ONE IS FIT TO RULE GRUNLUND!” Haakon then turned to Bruma. “{NO MORE GAMES, WHORE! SURRENDER SNOWHOLD FORTRESS NOW OR SO HELP ME, WHETHER BABE OR CRONE, I SHALL PUT EVERY SINGLE WOMAN INSIDE IT TO THE SWORD! SURRENDER!}” Bruma sneered down at him. “{WE HOLD, HAAKON!}” She yelled. “{WE HOLD!}” So Haakon slit Frodi’s throat. Johanni and the others gaped in horror as a crimson haze spritzed the snow. The archer’s torso jerked crudely as it slowly slumped over his own broken knees and fell still. He was gone. Haakon whipped his sabre clean of blood and sheathed it. He did not look up at the battlements (where Erik Halfspear cried with rage and swore to kill him) nor did he cast an eye to his hundreds of assembled beastlings, their ravenous rage now piqued by the fresh new blood scent in the air. Instead he held up a single hand. Off in the distant forests a fire arrow shot into the grey skies. Only Gnut and Bruma noticed it. Only Bruma realized what it was – not an attack – but a signal. But none of them noticed a harried Sigrid Stonebow scrambling up the steps to the ramparts – they couldn’t hear even her coming, not over the screech of a hurled boulder booming through the air over one fortress wall before colliding straight into the other. The whole fortress trembled as the explosion of stone upon stones threw Johanni, Erik, Norsa, Gnut and Bruma off their feet and disappeared into clouds of dust. Sigrid, coughing but still afoot, pushed the rubble out of her way and scuttled over to her mistress’ side. “{Lady!}” said Sigrid from Bruma’s shoulder. “{Are you alright?}” “{W-what… what happened?}” “{There’s a host of White Hunters at the western gates, lady,}” said Sigrid. “{And they have three trebuchets!}” Bruma spat out a knot of blood. “{How many men?}” “{…Thousands.}”
  4. The guy sitting next to me, middle-aged and crown-balding, asked me what I called him. Unusually for me I wanted to answer. It's not like I wanted some long conversation or anything, but I dreamt of the Bogeyman for the first time in months last night, and to be honest, I'd been looking for an opportunity to talk about him with someone. "The Louisiana Monk," I said. I don't normally draw in public because it attracts too many curious onlookers and it telegraphed a bohemianism that wasn't really me, but ever since I was a kid I always drew what I dreamt of him. I only remembered the Bogeyman’s actions in pieces, but I never forgot what he looked like, that beneath the hood of his windbreaker shadows hid everything but the outlines of a face: a broad nose, hollow cheeks, and a stout jaw. He always smiled at me, and I hated him, but the Bogeyman was everywhere and everything, he was the shiver down my back and the lump in my throat, the chill in my gut and the ache in my cock. I didn't dare not to draw him. "Hey, Iowa!" Brandon was back. The moment I heard his voice I put my sketchbook and graphite away, along with all thoughts of the Bogeyman; nothing I wanted him to know about. From the corner of my eye I saw the balding guy tug a little smile at me, encouraging me for an elaboration about the picture he saw, but when got none he sighed and returned to his copy of yesterday's New York Post. Brandon sat next to me with two pizza slices in napkins and a big stupid grin on his face. "Ask me how much for these." "Six bucks?" "Nada!" He handed me a slice. "There's nothing a fat chick and some flirting can't get you." It was Chicago-style, like I liked. "This doesn't have onions, does it?" "Nah, I know you hate 'um. It's pepperoni and mushrooms, extra cheese, and it's better than that hot garbage they were serving out at breakfast. The fuck did you eat again? Crab cakes?" I wasn't really sure if we were allowed to eat in the lounge car but nobody said anything so I didn't make a big deal of it. Brandon ate a few bites of his slice (beef, chicken and peppers) and swivelled his seat toward the window. I did the same. It was hard to tell where we were by looking outside. The landscape flashed by in a green and blue blur, one minute we were hurtling through trees, the next open fields and plains. Off at the horizon hills bobbed up and down, while the sky morphed colours by the hour. Last night I fell asleep to a cold grey sky, this morning I woke up to a warm orangey one. Brandon was so enamoured with it all you'd think he was watching a movie; but he had a thing about countryside anyway so I didn't expect any less (Amtrak had been his idea after all). Wherever we were, it was getting hot. When nothing was left of my pizza slice but a hunk of crust in a napkin, the first thing I wanted was a little something cool to throw back. "What drinks did they have?" I asked, working my collar loose. "Huh? Oh shit, the bar. Yeah. Uh, iced tea, coke, lemonade, I guess. What, you want a soda?" "I wouldn't mind. Damn it, aren't you hot?" Brandon smirked. "Careful you don't melt down here, Iowa." "Go swivel on one," I told him, and pulled off my jacket. I'd fallen asleep in it while we were still in New York, and that had been the better part of a day ago. The first thing I'd do when I got to his house was shower. "Looking forward to being home?" His smile was soft then, his head taken to a place I'd yet to see... or a person. Not that I didn't know about her. "It's weird. A year ago, I couldn't wait to get the hell outta there. Now I can't wait to go back. Hometowns, huh?" "Hometowns and the girls we leave behind?" I didn't have much of a back catalogue when it came to girls. It was the opposite for Brandon. Even at Rochester he had a kind of flair with women that most guys didn't, the first freshman in our dorm to hook up with a senior. I was nothing like that and it wasn't the only way I didn't match up to him. We were friends, but we were different. I didn't bother ignoring it. "Am I that see-through?" I squeezed a little space between my fingers. "Just a little." "She won't call me back," he threw his head back and sighed. "My Mom told me long distance don't work but I thought she was just saying that to keep my mind on college. Maybe she was right." "Dude, you fucked a philosophy major six weeks ago." The bald guy on the other side of me coughed awkwardly. "Which philosophy major?" "Kathleen Weatherman," I said. "The blonde with that weird tribal neck tattoo? How can you not remember?" Brandon wiggled in his seat. "Hey, I remember, I just... didn't know what her major was. And you know what, I only screwed with her when Leighann stopped calling me so get off your high horse. Like you haven't dropped a few high hard ones when your girl's back was turned." But then that was the thing. I hadn't had a girl to cheat on since I was thirteen, and I hadn't wanted a girl to cheat on since I was eight. *~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* When the superliner pulled into Jacksonville Station, it was half-three that afternoon with a high sun as hot as hell. When Brandon took down our luggage from the racks overhead I changed shirts for the second time that day. A little girl pair three seats ahead got a good giggle from that (non-existent abs can do that I think). Between the two of us Brandon and I only had four excuses for luggage; two suitcases, a laptop case and a duffle bag. He took his suitcase and my laptop while I took my suitcase and duffle and jostled with everyone else around us to disembark. Compared to the crystalline glass, metallic framework, electronic signboards and WiFi of Penn Station, with its eleven platforms and its shopping mall of a concourse, Jacksonville Station may as well have been a drive-thru McDonalds. The platforms were tiny, and the roofing was dirty, the kind of conditions I might have spent a minute or two bitching about, but the second I saw those sun-kissed palm trees my inner critic took a breather. This was Florida, all right. With my shirt and shades and sandals and what I'm sure was a very goofy smile on my face, I suddenly felt a little like a tourist, but who could blame me? I'd never been south of the Mason-Dixon before, much less to Florida. But Brandon couldn't have looked more at home. He handled our tickets; waved away some Amtrak guy with a pamphlet, cut a way for us through the throng down the platform and out of the station to the car park. There was a Ford Fusion parked by a plot of trees in the bottom corner of the lot and a man sat waiting on its buffed black hood. I stood back and watched as Brandon smiled, dropped our bags, and threw himself into his arms. "Dad!" Mr. Wimmer chuckled. "Oh, it's good to see you too, son." I didn't have that kind of relationship with my Dad. *~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* Back home in Strawberry Point I couldn't say there was anyone his age I really liked that much, all I remembered of those older folks were cross looks and whispers behind my back. Somehow, I'd gotten it into my head that that was an Iowa thing, up until I hit Rochester where I found freshmen doing the exact same thing to Brandon and me. That shot a little hole into the bubble of my theory. Still though, old habits die hard, and even though I wasn't a kid anymore there was this infantile, lingering piece of me that didn't trust 'the adults'. So needless to say, I was thrown when I found myself liking Mr. Wimmer a little. We'd spoken over the phone a couple of times, so we knew things about each other; I was his son's roommate at Rochester University and he was an English Lit teacher in their hometown of Tuckettsville, but this was my first time meeting him in the flesh and I sort of marvelled at how alike he and Brandon looked. Aside from his glasses and some creeping definitions of age, the crow's feet at his eyes and those furrows through his brow, Stanley Wimmer was just an older version of his son. They had the same dusky blonde hair, the same grey eyes, the same square, dimpled jaw. He didn't look that old either. By my guess he was probably in his late thirties. No doubt he'd had Brandon young. Once we'd put our bags in the trunk the three of us climbed into the Fusion (with Brandon and me in back) and Mr. Wimmer drove off onto what Google Maps told me was US One. Brandon spent most of the ride down to Tuckettsville fishing for local updates. He was all, "Has Leighann been by the house lately?" and "Did Mom get me my Froot Loops?" and "How come they haven't fired Mr. Morris yet?" and "What happened to the Kirklands' Jack Russell, did they finally put it down?" and after about a half hour of it I ended up tuning him out. I was dying for a smoke and there was a pack of Camels burning a hole in my shorts, but I didn't know how Mr. Wimmer felt about smoking (or how he felt about people smoking in his car) so I spent most of the ride down watching Jacksonville and all its dusky freight terminals, boarded-up businesses and rundown trailer parks evaporate into baking hot highways. As shitty as its 3G was I followed the trip by my iPhone; over the Matthews Bridge and down the long stretch of the Arlington Espy off onto Atlantic Boulevard. We turned south onto St. Johns Bluff Road and then onto the interstate, 295, just a few minutes later. Southbound, we took the I-295 past Beachwood and Deercreek then turned off it into Philips Highway, and west along Old St. Augustine Road, where we eventually joined the I-95. The rest of the way down to Tuckettsville was less complicated than that, just a long straight drive south beneath a throbbing hot sun. Without a breeze the air was stagnant, if not dead, and even with the windows rolled down my every inch of flesh was a sticky mess. We didn't lack for drinks since Mr. Wimmer was smart enough to bring a cooler full of sodas with him, but I spent more time rubbing ice down my neck than I did chugging Pepsi. The traffic petered down the further we got from Jacksonville. The car was crossing yet another flyover when I saw Mr. Wimmer adjust his rear-view and fix a sudden, sharp stare at Brandon. "You haven't asked about Katy," he said, almost gruffly. His son winced. "Who's Katy?" I asked. Brandon said nothing. "Dude," I said. "Who's Katy?" He stared at me blankly. "It's Kayden." I heard Mr. Wimmer sigh, even as I shrugged. "Okay, who's Kayden?" Brandon turned to the window. "...My brother." A year ago, I met Brandon Wimmer on a bed in our dorm, snoring underneath page 312 of The Stand. We roomed together, smoked together, drank together, studied together, watched DVDs together, bitched together; and in all that time not once did he mention he had a brother. Not fucking once. You could've hung laundry from my jaw. "You have a brother...?" "I 'm not talking about this," Brandon said. And so, we didn't. Then. *~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* I didn't remember what I was expecting coming into Tuckettsville since Brandon told nothing of the town itself, but he always called it a 'small town' so I suppose I thought it might feel a little like home. Tuckettsville turned out to be a lot of things but one thing it wasn't was Strawberry Point, Iowa. My town sat between two straight state routes, 3 and 13, and sprawled out from there. It kind of looked like Texas on Google Maps. Tuckettsville? It just seemed to yawn out of Route 207 into a heartland of forests and fields. Aside from the long row of stores either side of the main road (in the centre of town) Tuckettsville had no shape I could make sense of. It had fewer corners than I had thumbs, but no road I saw was straight. Each street seemed like it bent into the next and gone were the glitzy palm trees that kissed me hello at Jacksonville, high-ass oaks bulwarked everything here. And goddamn if it didn't look poor. I didn't make a habit of talking shit about another man's hometown, at least not to his face, but Jesus did Tuckettsville look poor. Fences were rusted, sidewalks were cracked, and if those weren't three old cracker houses at the dusty exit off Route 207, then I was a Knicks shooting guard. There was an empty canning factory just ten minutes shy of the high street. All its windows were either broken or boarded and someone had been kind enough to redecorate it with spray paint and profanity. But it was warm, too. Not hot, because, well, this was Florida and what would Florida be if it weren't as hot as an ass fuck? This town was warm, warm in a sense that Strawberry Point never was. Where I came from no one looked anyone in the eye unless they had a snide point to score. Here, every "hello" came with a smile. Four old black men sat on deck chairs by a barbershop, fanning themselves with folded magazines and nattering like a sowing circle. A little kid played with his collier by the steps of a church. Some painters lavished a store wall with a new coat of eggshell white while an old stereo sat pounding to 'Whipping Post' by their paint cans. Brandon grinned through the window like a sailor on leave. "God-holy-damn it's good to be back." "You mind your language in my car, Brandon," said Mr. Wimmer. "Sorry Dad," The telling off didn't bother him long. "Hey look, Iowa!" he pointed to the grocery store we were passing by, tritely dubbed Stop, Shop, and Go! "That's my family's business. My Grandpa passed it down to my Mom before he died. Dad, is Reuben on shift today?" Mr. Wimmer's shoulders tensed. Brandon didn't look like he noticed it, but I did. "No, your mother is. We had to let Reuben go." *~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* The Wimmer Household was one of a row of sixteen white stucco bungalows arranged around a grassy hill behind the bulk of the town. It wasn't high enough to see all the town from since the oak trees were just too damn high, but you got a good view of the potato fields holding up the town's rear a mile on. Mr. Wimmer pulled the Ford Fusion into the driveway and shut off the gas. Brandon tossed me his keys. "Go open the door while my Dad and me get the bags," he said. I shut the car door behind me and went to the door, separating our dorm key (which I was familiar with) from its more pertinent cousin and slotted it through. The carpeted steps made whispers of his bare feet, but sixteen raps of sixteen steps and then he was there. I'd like to think that I knew the moment I saw him. Is it strange to think that now? I'd like to think that he knew too, but if I'm honest, when I saw him I didn't really see him. He was a guy in the house and logic told me he was Brandon's brother. My heart didn't skip beats. The stars didn't shift. In that moment of time I couldn't have told you a damn thing about him; what clothes he was wearing or the colour of his eyes or the tint of his hair or whatever-in-the-fuck, but it was an instant. An instant of many, an instant that passed, an instant followed by the most- "...Who are you?" He said. "I'm Huey, your brother's roommate. At college. Didn't Mr. and Mrs. Wimmer tell you that I was-" "Yeah, right, sorry," he shook his head and smiled. "I forgot. I'm-" "Katy!" Mr. Wimmer yelled from behind me. "Come say hi to your brother." He passed me by like I'd never been there. Brandon came up the driveway with his suitcase and my duffel bag. He muttered "hello" under his breath and brushed by his brother with a face so stolid you could've cut it from stone. I couldn't see Katy's face from where I was standing but I didn't need to. His shoulders just deflated, a balloon pissing helium, and Brandon couldn't have cared less, and that was when it hit me. Why would any sane, straight kid call himself 'Katy'? Brandon slapped my shoulder. "Wanna see your room?" *~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* It probably had something to do with the stucco but the Wimmer's spare room was cool. They had AC in the hallway and the living room and the dining room, but none in the bedrooms or bathroom, so I was expecting a lot of sweaty nights in here, but I was presently surprised to find otherwise. There was a foldable bed with laid out blue sheets and chest of drawers wedged into the corner opposite. A wooden table sat beneath the windowsill with some towels stacked on it. An aerosol left the smell of apples and bark on everything. It was small, but I could be comfortable here. I was folding my clothes (mostly t-shirts, boxers and pants) into the chest of drawers when Brandon knocked the door. He caught a shower before I could mine and changed into stonewash denims over a Black Rebel Motorcycle Club shirt. Guess it was cool enough in here not to chafe. "My Dad told me to ask you if there's anything you need," He threw himself onto the bed and stretched out. "Damn, it's good to be home." "I'm cool. Tell your Dad thanks for the towels." "Tell him yourself," said Brandon. "And don't get comfortable and sleep in tonight because tomorrow we're going out and getting me my woman." "Dude, I just rode Amtrak across the fucking country." "Well suck it up, it can't wait. You know the last time Leighann called me? Six weeks ago. Six weeks! Look Iowa, I need to know what's up with her and you gotta help me. I mean what else are we gonna do, hang around here all day?" I knew it wasn't fair to him to bring it up, but... "...With Katy?" Brandon scowled. "His name is Kayden, alright? Kayden-Taylor." "So, you just kinda-sorta have this brother you forgot to tell me about?" "It's not that I didn't want to tell you, it's just that I didn't know how to." "So, you have a brother, big deal. But he's..." "Queer? Yeah, okay, he's a queer. Can we not talk about it?" "Come on, there's a shit-ton of queers in Rochester. They may as well have had a fucking gay pride parade when Obama came out for gay marriage." "This isn't New York, Huey," Brandon looked at me like I was clueless. "You don't know what it's like down here." "You mean Flor-ee-da, where we keep all our old folks?" "I mean North Flor-ee-da; a hop, skip and jump from Georgia. You don't know what his shit's put my family through." I shrugged. "Your Dad seems fine with it." "Look, just forget about Kayden, alright? This is my fucking vacation and I'm gonna enjoy it, even if it kills me, capisce?" "Yes sir, Sergeant Hartman, sir!" *~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* The Bogeyman has a special relationship with faggots. Last night I dreamt of a crumbling great shit of a world, yours and mine, all our skyscrapers humbled, our technology voided and our roads broken open. Herds of deer stomp down our tarmac while nukes rot away in missile silos spreading radiation across the earth. The sky's a black pitch speckled with bright white flashes of lightning. Fire is everywhere, everything burnt, and nothing is whole. Welcome to Bogeymanland. Sixteen filthy, unshaved slaves pull his cart full of onions down the black crispy roast of a highway. They're all boiling in their sweat but they lick the salt from their lips for nourishment. They're hungry and tired and ready to keel over any minute, but the Bogeyman just doesn't give a shit, he hurls his whip forward to drive them along, promising to eat the liver of the first man who dares stop in his tracks. A flock of pregnant bitches waddle in his wake. They don't hate the Bogeyman though, oh no. They willingly open their legs to the promise of his heirs, and in the ruins of the world the Bogeyman would have himself many an heir. Oh yes he would. His word was their command, his seed their drug, his dick their idol. But those bitches weren't the only ones who worshipped the god of Bogeymanland. Way, way, way, way there in the back was a scrawny little boy in filthy flea-ridden rags, the Bogeyman's fuck of choice; the whimpering faggot. No one saw him, no one cared, and no one should. Watch him cry and wail and scream at night. Watch him fall and crumble, everybody. Everybody watch. Everybody watch! Everybody watch, everybody watch; everybody, everybody, everybody watch. Everybody watch, everybody watch; everybody, everybody, everybody watch. Everybody watch, everybody watch; everybody, everybody, everybody watch... ...and don't you do a damn thing to help. *~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* "Everybody dig in." The smell of ribs was tempting me all through my shower. My mouth was literally watering when I came down to find a hot BBQ rack of them waiting for me at the Wimmer's dinner table. Smaller plates of food surrounded the rib dish; corn on the cob, grilled carrots, tater tots and garlic and herb fried potato wedges. A spoon and bowl full of thousand island dressing sat next to a pitcher of ice tea and four glasses. I wasn't a very big eater (and it showed when I was naked) but I was practically licking my lips when I sat down. Mr. Wimmer was already cutting Brandon and Katy their share of ribs with his snail fork and his steak knife already slathered in sauce. He reached across the table and cut me mine. The dinner table was big enough to seat six but only four places were set tonight. Since Mrs. Wimmer was working late at Stop, Shop, and Go! a plate was wrapped up for her and left it in the cooler. I sat next to Brandon on one side, Katy sat across from us on the other, and their Dad sat at its head. Mr. Wimmer saddled his son with questions about Rochester and papers and course units. I took breaks from my wedges to remind him of things he forgot and laughed when he told outright lies (like a flood in the library forcing him to turn in an essay late). "So Huey," I looked up at Mr. Wimmer with a cheek-full of pork meat when he called me out. "What do you study, son?" "Political science, ecology and epistemology. PS is my major." Brandon kicked me underneath the table. "Oh. So you've already chosen your major?" "...Eh, yes sir." I said. Mr. Wimmer glared to my left. "And why haven't you chosen your major yet, Brandon?" Brandon gave me that you're gonna catch hell for this later look but he answered his Pop all the same, "Come on, Dad, we already talked about this. I want to major in musicology, but Mom said no." "What else do you do?" Katy asked. "I mean I'm a grown man, right? But she's all, "there's no job prospects in that" so what am I supposed to say? And you know what it's not like I'm the only freshman without a major. Professor Maxwell told us he had sophomores who hadn't even decided yet." I watched Katy wilt. "Brandon," Mr. Wimmer put his fork down. "Your brother just asked you a question." The furrows Brandon's brow drew were so deep you could run water through them. He sharpened eyes at his dad, then Katy, then he went back to his ribs and the table went silent. "You know what, Brandon? Screw you." He said. Katy threw his cutlery into half-eaten food and stormed off, out of the dining room, down the corridor and out the front, slamming the door behind him. Mr. Wimmer sighed. "Are you happy now?" "What? He knew I was coming home with a friend and he still threw on the make-up and silverware just to tick me off! I'm done playing along, Dad, and you should be too." He looked at me then. "I'm sorry about this, Huey; we must be making the worst impression." "N-no, it's... it's fine, sir. Siblings and stuff." "That's nice of you to say," then Mr. Wimmer returned to Brandon. "You. Go bring Katy back here." "Dad, I'm eating." So I stood up. "Why don't I talk to him? I could use the fresh air." It must've looked weird for me to volunteer like that. I think if Katy had been a girl then Mr. Wimmer would've seen through me right there and then. Whatever his thought he didn't stop me, he didn't even say anything to me, but the whole thing between Brandon and Katy (or perhaps just Katy himself) was probably too embarrassing for him to hash out any further. "Don't be a hero, Iowa." Brandon said, but I just told him to stay away from my tater-tots and went out the front. It was night now. The sky was so clear and dark you could see the colours in the stars. I hadn't seen a night sky that beautiful since I left Strawberry Point a year ago. There was too much light and pollution in New York to see a good one. I found him sitting on the curb with his head in his arms. Most of the bungalows had their lights on but we were the only ones out on the street. It was just a quiet night besides the crying. Katy stirred when I sat next to him, but he didn't say anything, and neither did I, so I took the matches from my pocket and lit a Camel. I offered him one, but he said he didn't smoke. "...He can be a real fuck sometimes." Katy said. It was true. Live with a guy for a year and you'll learn something about him. If I learned anything about Brandon Wimmer it was that he could hold a grudge. "He's not trying to be a prick; he just can't deal with it. My hometown's small too, I know what it's like." Katy made a noise too bitter to call a laugh. "You don't have a clue." Heh. There was a clique of gay freshman back at Rochester I always thought of as the Folsom Street Gang, skinny guys in dungarees, pink highlights and baby tees. Clouds of them walked the quad with espressos and satchels, fangirling about Hung and Whole Foods and Nicki Minaj in their high pitched, mincing voices. You called them queers and they called you queer chasers. And do you cum with some lube and a reach-around? I used to think at night why they did that, why they were so fucking candid about it, and it wasn't hard to figure out. College came with freedoms that high school didn't. The Folsom Street Gang just wanted to hit the ground running. I met one of them in the library once. His name was Billie; a boy from Owensboro with a face full of freckles and eyes like almonds. We needed the same book for our assignments, the library's last copy of Ellen Grigsby's Analysing Politics, so we spent the afternoon sharing it, and eventually we started talking. He told me about his ultra-Christian parents and how 'cool' it was to finally meet people like him. He made me laugh a couple times. Then he smiled at me and gave me a piece of paper with his dorm number on it. I didn't have the guts to go. Nearly a year later and I still think about it. What would've happened? What would we have done if I did go that day? In my fantasies (and I fantasized about it a lot back then) I see Billie pull that warm Kentucky smile at me as he pops open the buttons of his shirt, one by one. I kiss his lips and his neck and his nipples and I taste apples. His skin is so tight and milky that every bite leaves him a rosy red hickey, everything I do has him mewling like a kitten, and the sex is always amazing. Sometimes I imagined his throat bobbing up and down my cock, other times I'm shooting a wad over his chest. Sometimes I'm fucking him so hard he faints. Whatever we did it was always perfect. I'm not afraid, he's not afraid, everyone cums and everyone cums hard. But then I wake up or I stop daydreaming and I'm alone with a guilty little stain in my bed. Reality sets in. Two months after I stood him up, I found Billie on Facebook. He had a boyfriend by then, some black sophomore from Jersey. There was a picture of them kissing at an off-campus house party, fag-friendly, apparently. I spent the better part of an hour blowing cigarette smoke at my laptop thinking he could have been mine and that could've been me. But I didn't cry though. Not because I didn't want to but because I couldn't. My Mom had stolen away every last drop of my tears years ago. I don't believe in souls but if they were real and I had one then mine just didn't run that deep anymore. "I get it," I told Katy. "I do." He looked at me then, and I looked at him back. Wet black tracks of mascara ran down his cheeks. Moonlight glinted off his silver nose stud. I held his eye for as long as it took him to see what I was, why I understood, and he did. Eventually. He looked surprised at me, then he smiled, then he looked away, but I didn't. I wouldn't be a coward this time.
  5. No, you're right these chapters are huge and there's always a break between uploads. I'm going to try and trim each chapter down a bit and make more frequent updates. Thanks for the feedback!
  6. Straining not to display his discomfort in front of the others, Johanni wiggled in his leather saddle, coaxing the white mare along the beaten herepath tract with his men. Yet no matter how he tried he couldn’t find a comfortable position. The ride north had been long, but his soreness had other origins too. The boy threw a secret glance over at Erik Halfspear, enswathed from shoulder to saddlebag in his wolf’s pelt cloak to blunt out the chilly winds hissing throughout the Osserian forests. Johanni’s cheeks flushed red as he watched Erik finger wind-swept threads of his wavy, russet-coloured hair from his brow. A sudden hard beating in his chest sent a none-too-subtle rush of blood his under-linens. He could not help it and he folded his own plum-coloured cloak over his crotch to conceal it. As a child he’d always considered engorgement such an indignity, such a guilty thing. Even so, even as the spectre of Haakon Godwulfsson’s monstrous transformation loomed over them – Johanni’s thoughts could not help but wander to the night they shared together in the elvish villa. It was a night he’d forget none too soon. But such thoughts did not plague Erik’s mind. The Halfspear’s face was solemn and Johanni was not ignorant of the reasons. In the distant southeast a hundred Karggar warriors escorted his friend’s corpse from Karburgh back to the Grey Wilds. Though burning the dead had been Woaggish custom for centuries; the Karggars, Impanni, Osserians and the Arbarii had slowly adopted the act of burial to commemorate the deeds and legacy of their fallen. It was only right that Thregg the Ghoat be interred with his ancestors in the Grey Wilds – and it was Erik’s great regret that he could not take him there himself. {He hunts with Wo’ar now}, Johanni had said to Erik that very same morn in Karburgh, {in the Hallowed Plane}. Such words were paltry comfort against the weight of a friend’s death, but Erik thanked him all the same and redoubled himself by leading the ride north into the Salt Shore territory of the Arbarii tribe. The herepath ahead was treacherous, its old flagstones crackled into shingles and its accompanying burghs all abandoned. Long winters of disuse allowed the woodland to retake whole portions of the road until it was barely wide enough to fit their wagons; it was a trail in desperate need of repair. All the same, Norsa Hardfang assured them that this was the fastest route from the Fens to the Salt Shore and surely enough (hours hence) one of Erik’s scouts returned to report that the Arbarii fishing village of Saetch was none too far ahead of them, perhaps only half a day’s ride if the weather held its peace. “Lord,” Halfdan’s mare strode up to Johanni’s as the herepath took a bend through the forest. “When last did you visit upon the Salt Shore?” Johanni thought on it. “Many a solstice ago. My brother and I arrived with my father’s retinue for the marriage of the Arbarii chieftain, Lord Bors, to his… third wife, I believe?” “Lady Salla,” Halfdan smiled contemplatively. “I recall that day well. It was my own men who safeguarded the wedding and I had a hard time warding them off drunkenness. The Arbariis are a festive people.” “I do remember that. My father was none too sober either, even at his age. But I never understood why it fell within the Royal Legion’s remit to protect the festivities.” Halfdan nodded. “Nor did I, until I was posted there. We’ve had a standing garrison of 500 legionaries on Scraefling Isle for the last twenty winters, its purpose onefold – to keep the peace between the Arbariis and the Thoths.” Johanni sighed. The old enmity between the two tribes was notorious throughout Grünlund. They both hewed to seafaring cultures, the Arbariis of the Salt Shore were legendary fishermen who traded wine, ironwood and orichalcum as far east as the Golden Empire. The Thoths of the Deepfjord were habitual whalers and adventurers, marauding the northern seas as far north as the Hyperborean Steppe, the prehistoric Woaggish motherland. Between their two territories dwelt the Salt Isles, a clustered archipelago riddled with hundreds of game-and-mineral rich islands and islets. For centuries, ownership of the Salt Isles and its waterways was bitterly contested between the two tribes, whom had skirmished upon land and sea for them. “It was the king who finally brokered a sibb between the two,” said Johanni. “Yes,” replied Halfdan, “some six winters ago. King Hrathwuld divided the Salt Isles into two clusters, granting the western half to the Thoths and the southern half to the Arbariis, and then he sealed the sibb by betrothing the two chieftains’ heirs; Lady Kjarlla and Thorvald Tyrfingsson, who would marry when they came of age. This was at great cost to him, however. Rumour has it that the king sought Lady Kjarlla as your match.” The boy smiled softly at that. In times gone by (before he was even old enough to understand the significance of inter-tribal marriages) Johanni had heard talk of suitors, most commonly Lady Kjarlla of Pearlstone and Lady Norsa of Horn Hall. He imagined that King Hrathwuld favoured Kjarlla over Norsa – such a match would strengthen Drangheim’s ties with the wealthy Arbarii traders, but his father was a shrewd man and no doubt saw that animosity between the Arbariis and the Thoths was a far more pressing danger to his interests. If not for his brother’s ‘Osserian Pacification’ a solstice or so later, Johanni would have been betrothed to Norsa. Johanni looked to her. Norsa Hardfang rode near Erik at the van, having taken Thregg’s raucous black stallion for her own (as the only one amongst them capable tempering its foul mood). Atop her maroon-coloured scale armour she wore a heavy grey velvet cloak with a mantle of dotted doeskin stitched to its shoulders. He watched her run a gloved hand over her shaved head then adjust her leather belt – from which her recently sharpened hafting axe hung. Halfdan caught Johanni’s wandering eye. “Can we trust her?” “What?” “She captured Sygardi Greyspear and spied for Harwald Snowhair at Haakon’s Redoubt, did she not? And she has no love of the Impanni for obvious reasons. How can we be certain of her fealty to your cause, prospective or no?” Johanni sneered Halfdan’s habitually uncharitable (yet plausible) logic. None of his legionaries trusted her, nor did any of Erik’s warband, some of whom fought at Ghost Hill. Worse still Thregg the Ghoat had died by a plan half-concocted on her intelligence. Of their number only Eardwulf seemed willing to consort with her – but she despised him almost as much as she despised Ragnar Bloodbane. “Halfdan, I won’t ask you to trust her,” the boy gathered up his horse’s reins. “I only ask that you trust me.” The steward frowned. “Of course, lord.” Johanni coaxed his horse forward to the van with Norsa, hoping that none of the Karggars or legionaries had overheard that conversation. The Osserian warrior’s cold eyes flicked to his for but a moment, then returned to the path ahead. “The fuck do you want?” She spat. “To enquire upon you,” said Johanni. “I can only imagine what it must be like, having protected your people for so long, to have to leave them behind like this, even if it’s just for a short time. Have you ever been so far from home?” The Hardfang frowned, angrily. “Spare me your feigned interest, boy.” “My interest is not feigned, Norsa. It was difficult for me the first time I left the Weald. My father used to say that the world is equal parts beautiful and frightening… when it is unfamiliar. I do not believe Grünlund is any exception.” Another chill passed through the trees as the herepath lead up a small slope within the woodland. Norsa pulled her cloak’s grey folds closer together to blunt its bite. “Oh, truly? Said he so? Such kingly wisdom. A far cry from my fucking father. Mine was a fool whose timidity cost him his life, gods bless the poor bastard.” “I meant no offence,” said Johanni. Norsa said nothing in return. Instead, she watched warily as two legionaries rode up a few yards behind them, keeping a watchful eye on her interactions with the aetheling. She was as suspicious of them as they were of her, but she was too wise to lay a hand on her hafting axe – and it was then that Johanni saw Norsa’s circumstance from her perspective – as if she had thrown herself into a snake pit. “You needn’t worry,” said the boy, sensing the shift in tension. “These men are here to protect us on our journey. They will not harm you.” “Sweet boy,” Norsa grinned, bitterly. “Have you ever been defiled?” Johanni blanched. “…I…” “Have you ever been ridden into the dirt, one after the other, surrounded on all sides by the stench of sweat and seed and blood? Pray to the gods that you never learn what men bearing those colours are capable of.” Gods, thought the boy. Norsa… Just when he considered the vast barrel of Ragnar’s atrocity drunk to the last drop, it suddenly sprung forth with another frothing cup. Norsa smirked at him, coldly, then turned her gaze forward. “That…” Johanni swallowed his words before he spoke them, “…that should not have happened. In a different world, it would never have happened.” “In a different world I would have been your queen,” retorted Norsa, “I do not wish to speak of ‘different worlds’.” “Look!” Yelled Erik, “Up ahead!” Everyone cast their eyes forward. There ahead the narrow herepath widened into a dirt track as it left the forest floor and verged out into a flat of damp grassland bombarded by heavy winds. The squalls were so strong that the horses neighed warily, and Growler the Bear roared within his mule-drawn cage. But there, at the very edge of the Northern Forests, was where the boundary between the Fens and the Salt Shore finally crossed. There, the hoots and snaps of the woodlands were replaced with rime scent and gull song. The thick grey cloud above began to part and throw beams of light upon a panorama of rocky grassland, pebble beaches and steep cliffs shouldering the immense blue waves of the northern seas. Johanni overheard those waves crashing against the distant shores. “Keep moving,” said Norsa to Erik. “Saetch is close by now.” It was but one of many fishing villages dotting the rivers and the coastline of the Salt Shore; rings of tightly bunched oak-and-thatch huts, stone watchtowers, wooden piers and moored fishing boats, each settlement hundreds of solstices old. The herepath road before them forked in three directions half a mile ahead, one road to the western villages, one road north to the coast, and one road east towards the Arbarii heartland. It was Frodi (whose eyes were the best amongst their retinue) who spotted the distant 200-strong procession ambling up the trail from the east. “Eyes east,” he said. “Something comes this way.” In response Johanni, Erik, Norsa, and Eardwulf galloped around the bend to meet them (as Halfdan ordered the legionaries to dismount, pull up the supply wagons and form up a shield wall around the caravan) but there was no antagonism in the coming procession. Before Johanni even spotted the first twinkles of their sequin skirts or the ripples of their crab totem flags, he felt the rhythm of a pounding drum being played to by three cheerful flutes as a lutenist and a harpist strummed softly the chords of ‘A Dance of Swords’ for three buxom singers to mewl against. The musicians played from a great ligneous contraption of Arbarii making; a six wheeled stage with cushioned stools and lacquered dais bolted to the scaffold, drawn by six powerful horses of Impanni import. Alongside them swayed nearly two dozen dancers -- thralls of Arbarii, Thoth, Karggar and even Osserian stock -- twirling, prancing and thrashing in the sequined skirts to the rhythms above. Behind them marched a row of thrall boys, no older than nine or ten, bearing banners of the Arbarii totem, the crab, as well as the bident sigil of the goddess of the sea, Shora. Behind them rode (by Johanni’s count) over 150 spear-armed Arbarii outriders swathed in ornate gold-coloured mail armour to match the gilded barding and sequin saddlebags of their steeds. And behind them hoofed a contingent of sixty or so adult male thralls draped in lush violet tunics hemmed with gold lace and white half-cloaks fastened by metal crab brooches, carrying with them crates and casks of unknown (but no doubt lavish) goods. Erik Halfspear smirked. “Wug’s eye, even their slaves look richer than me.” “Ssh!” Said Johanni, “Here they come.” Two people ahorse led the Arbarii procession up the herepath’s eastern trail. The first was a narrow-jawed man of fifty or so solstices dressed (by comparison) rather conservatively in thick brunet robes and a hooded white cloak; his woollen grey hair casting shadows over his thin nose. There was a wrinkled packet of flesh where his left eye should have been. Next to him was a noblewoman who sat side saddle upon a placid gelding being led at the reins by another perfumed male thrall. Shapely, olive-skinned and lithe; her lengthy chestnut hair splashed atop the brooch clipped shoulders of a sunflower yellow chiton. She was unmistakably beautiful. The woman held up a dainty hand and her six musicians, three songstresses, twenty-four dancers, six flagbearers, one-hundred-and-fifty outriders and sixty labourers immediately came to a stop. “Lord,” she said sweetly. “We’ve been expecting you. On behalf of my father, Lord Bors of the Arbarii, may I welcome you and your retinue to the Salt Shore. It has been a long time since we last saw each, has it not? Perhaps ten solstices or more?” Johanni smiled back. “Lady Kjarlla. It has indeed been a long time. Please, allow me to introduce you to my compatriots,” he gestured first to Erik, “this is Lord Erik Halfspear, chieftain of the Karggars,” and then to Norsa, “and this is Lady Norsa, thegn and heir to Harwald Snowhair, the elected chieftain of the Osserians. Erik, Norsa? I introduce to you Lady Kjarlla of Pearlstone, daughter of the Arbarii chieftain.” “My lord,” she nodded first to Erik and then to Norsa, “My lady.” The Hardfang frowned. “I’m no lady.” A flash of remorse lit Kjarlla’s eyes. She was not ignorant of the events five winters ago, no one in all Grünlund was. “As you say. What happened to your tribe was a great tragedy.” “And so, you have your pampered flock of minstrels bleat out a song that commemorates the slaughter of my people?” Johanni frowned. “Norsa, I’m sure Lady Kjarlla meant no offence…” “No,” said Kjarlla, “You are right, a Dance of Swords was in poor taste. My apologies.” The daughter of Bors bowed repentantly to the daughter of Osser Greatfang, but the latter said nothing in reply, merely averted her eyes to pet the ebon black mane of her new stallion. Kjarlla took no offence to it. “Lord Johanni,” she said. “I must also introduce you to my father’s court mystic, One-Eyed Wulfstan of Kolskegg’s Crag. He was most adamant on escorting me to your reception.” As Jarls of a certain standing, Johanni and Kjarlla were taught from a young age to be as refined and respectful to fellow Jarls as possible. But good breeding and etiquette could not mask the little twinge of irritation Johanni heard in Kjarlla’s voice as she addressed her father’s aide (who himself did not seem to notice). “Greetings,” he said. “It is a great pleasure to meet you all.” Johanni demurred. “You say you’re a mystic?” One-Eyed Wulfstan smirked. “Former mystic. As you no doubt know, King Hrathwuld’s codex forbade the use of magic, so my role now has more of an… advisory quality to it. But as Lady Kjarlla says I was most insistent on receiving you. I have heard great things about you, lord. Please. Accept these gifts from us as an additional welcome to the Salt Shore.” Wulfstan clapped his gnarled hands twice. That very instant ten of the male thralls left their positions in the procession and knelt before Johanni’s horse. They placed their lacquered caskets down. “Behold,” One-Eyed Wulfstan addressed the contents of each box as each thrall opened his own for Johanni to see, “fifty pounds weight of hacksliver, forty pounds weight of gold, thirty pounds weight of jade stone, ten pounds weight of Xianese silk, three hundred freshly picked figs, twenty bottles of red grape wine, twenty more of white grape, five pearl-encrusted seax daggers dating back to the Age of Monsters, all nine books of the Epic of Ka-Uta bound in dragon’s leather, and the title deeds to twenty thralls, ten male and ten female, ungelded and freshly purchased from the slave markets – curtesy of the great lord Bors.” Johanni blushed, suddenly adorned with such lavish gifts and fineries. And he was grateful for all of them except the last one. “…Many thanks to you and to Lord Bors for such… gracious offerings. I accept them in my father’s name. And to you, Lady Kjarlla, thank you for receiving me. It was to my great shame that I was unable to attend your nuptials to Lord Thorvald, I hope to redress this in good measure.” Kjarlla’s expression chilled vividly at the mention of Thorvald Tyrfingsson. Johanni noticed it, as did Norsa, whilst Erik was more interested the gift chests at his horse’s hooves – but the grimace faded away almost as quickly as it came and Lady Kjarlla regained her sculpture perfect smile. {Odd,} thought Johanni. {Is something wrong here?} “Lords,” said Kjarlla. “You must be tired from your journey. Allow us to accompany you to our city, Kjarlling, where my father invites you to recuperate, dine, and re-supply.” Johanni nodded courteously. “We would be most honoured if you would, Lady Kjarlla. Please lead the way.” ********** Kjarlling was a gigantic city built upon the shores of the Salt Bay, and one of the two original landing points of the ancient Woags as they sailed down from the Hyperborean Steppe. What began as a small fishing village became a key port, over time that port became a port town, and as trade routes slowly expanded in all compass points, that port town became a port city, second only to Drangheim in size, yet vastly exceeding it in wealth. A nine-mile sprawl of tenements, piers, hovels, villages, fisheries, market plazas, temples, slaughterhouses, lumberyards, shipyards, inns, brothels, tea houses and merchant halls all interlocked by an extensive network of fully-paved streets; cosseted by a thick limestone wall towering twelve-feet high and curling around the city from east to west. According to the Overlord Manuscript, nearly 30,000 people called it home. A few hours after their meeting at the fishing village of Saetch, their mutual retinues arrived at the city’s western gate; a nine-foot high archway secured by sturdy ironwood doors operated by intricate internal mechanisms. At Kjarlla’s ushering, she and Johanni led the way with Erik Halfspear, Norsa Hardfang, Eardwulf, and One-Eyed Wulfstan taking up their rear. Behind them rode in the fighters; Kjarlla’s 150 mounted Arbarii spearmen, Halfdan and Johanni’s 25 remaining royal legionaries, as well as Frodi at the head of Erik’s 50-strong Karggar warband. Behind them walked the thralls and the mules and the carriage train full of supplies. The doors were opened upon their approach. As Johanni and Kjarlla emerged from beneath its heavy black shadow to enter the city, a riotous cheer of townsfolk numbering in the hundreds roared up around his ears. The boy gasped. The streets were full to breeching with screaming, ecstatic Arbariis, waving their makeshift stag totem flags and cheering for the handsome young aetheling. Throngs of men, women and children gathered around street corners, alleyways and rooftops to get a glimpse of the passing future king as he and Lady Kjarlla made their way across the city to Pearlstone, the ancestral palace of the Arbarii chieftains. Erik leaned into Johanni’s ear. “Who knew you were so popular…?” “Would that you’d afforded me such a reception when I came to the Grey Wilds, Lord Halfspear…” The Karggar grinned. They did not notice Eardwulf glaring at their exchange. Their informal parade continued for another boisterous hour before it found its way to Pearlstone. It was an enormous pentagonal palace rising from the ground upon a hillock one-hundred steps high. By height alone it overlooked the sea from the city centre, and its estate encompassed dozens of individual water gardens, hedge mazes, libraries, and mausoleums. Shrouded spires soared up from its ringed walls which were decorated with ornate frescos and friezes bearing tales of great voyages of long dead Arbariis. A massive statue in the likeness of the goddess of the sea and patron of the Arbarii, Shura herself, cast a large and imperious shadow from her equally massive marble plinth sculpted with bas-reliefs of the long line of chieftains who built Pearlstone and the city of Kjarlling into the grandiose trading centre it had become. Johanni dismounted (his ears still throbbing with applause) and observing his manners, helped Lady Kjarlla down from her own horse. Erik, Eardwulf, Norsa, Halfdan, and Wulfstan did the same. At once a group of tunic-wearing young thrall boys scampered out from the portico’s shadows to take the reins of each horse and lead them out of the palace’s central plaza and away to the stables where they could be fed, watered and rested. But these palace thralls were not like the others seen so far. These thralls had an unusual eye-shape, almond-like, their ears thin but clubbed and their skins freckled like rust. Erik frowned at them. “Those thralls…” “Half-elves,” explained One-Eyed Wulfstan, “shipwrecked escapees from some sort of slave uprising in the Elvish Empire. They had the temerity to come here seeking refuge, so we gave them chains instead… and now they serve Lord Bors.” The aetheling, Kjarlla and the others scaled the hundred steps to Pearlstone’s main forecourt where the chieftain of the Arbarii tribe awaited them. Lord Bors, grinning from ear to ear with wine-stained teeth, was much as Johanni remembered him; huge, boisterous and jolly. His thick red beard ran the circumference of his face like a mane and consumed the lower half whole until all that remained beneath the nose was the pink of his lips. He had gold rings set with onyx stones for each of his fat fingers and his silver-buckled belt barely withheld the tremendous gut bulging against his custom designed doublet. A plum half-cloak (affixed by an amber brooch) swung from his left shoulder and dangled just shy of the ornate ivory pommel of a long unused longsword strapped to his belt. Behind him stood his three wives; the wise and aging Lady Gorla, the fair-haired and spiteful Lady Dunhild, and the timid Lady Salla, youngest by far of the three. Kjarlla, somewhat reservedly, kissed either of her father’s rotund cheeks. “I am returned,” she said. “I see!” said Bors, opening his arms wide. “And with the aetheling no less, eh?! Ah, Lord Johanni Carian Hrathwuld, welcome! Welcome to Pearlstone! Oh, look at you! Just look at you! How tall and strong you’ve grown! You know I always said you’d season into a strapping young warrior and I’m pleased to see I wasn’t wrong! How have you been, tell me?” Johanni flushed. “…Uh, t-thank you, Oldfather, I am well.” “Indeed! Indeed!” Bors turned to Erik, with whom he exchanged dark grins. “But I do hope this ill-bred Karggar barbarian hasn’t poisoned your mind with his loutish ways, young aetheling…” The Halfspear chuckled. “Truly? Every ‘loutish way’ I have I learned from you, you randy old boar…” They embraced then, heartily. Johanni blinked. “You two have… met?” “Lord Bors used to oversee Karggar trade out of the Grey Wilds in my father’s time. If not for him, we would’ve starved to death winters ago.” The Arbarii chieftain frowned. “Erik. You’ve no idea how sorry I was to hear of your father’s murder. Gad Greyspear was family to me. One day, Haakon Godwulfsson will pay for that crime.” The Halfspear nodded, not mentioning the developments on that score. Those were things to be discussed within the privacy of the palace. “I know.” “How are Olaf and Sygardi? I had heard a rumour that the Karggars had settled over in Karburgh, hence the slowing of trade to the Grey Wilds.” “Lord,” said Erik, “We have much to discuss.” Bors grinned, stroking his fiery beard. “Indeed. Come on then! Your men and your horses shall be seen to, quarters shall be provided, and tonight we shall dine and drink wine and opine of fates to come…” ********** The sleeveless tunics of the Arbarii tribe were as colourful as the people themselves. Weft from three types of dyed wool and sown with sequined gilding; they wore lighter fabrics during the summer solstice until the leaf-fall season when they adopted pelts of all varieties; wolfskin, doeskin, bear hide, mink, ermine, etc. When Johanni was shown to his quarters he found a perfectly pressed orange and black tunic, a mink-shouldered half-cloak and brooch, along with fresh under linens and an ewer of rose wine at the bedside. Ten of the palace’s halfling thralls (none of whom were so well-dressed or well-fed as those Woaggish thralls of Lady Kjarlla’s early retinue) arrived in his chambers bearing gourds of steaming hot water which they poured into the black marble baths adjacent to his sleeping chamber. They also provided scented oils and kernels of lime soap (at Lord Bors’ insistence) and offered refills of the aetheling’s wine ewer. He had not touched a drop. But Erik Halfspear, who stood pensively by a glassless window overlooking the city of Kjarlling, had already availed himself of three cups. As Johanni dressed into the clothes provided by his hosts Erik ordered them to send another ewer. “We’re to attend Lord Bors’ banquet soon,” said Johanni, admiring his new clothes in a full-body mirror. “I hardly think it’s necessary…” “For later then,” Erik waved the halfling thralls away. They all bowed in well practiced concert then excused themselves and shut the ironwood door behind them. The second they were gone Johanni felt a pair of strong, tattooed arms snake around his waist and draw him into a warm and muscular chest. His embrace was tender and protective. The boy felt himself melt into it. And yet he couldn’t help but notice the club-like engorgement poking at his back, so stiff and unattended. “Erik!” He protested. The Karggar grinned. “As I said we have a banquet to attend,” said Johanni, “I hardly think we have the time for… for that.” “There’s always time for a hump, my young lord aetheling. Gods alive, Bors knows as much judging by that army of wives.” Johanni turned within Erik’s arms and leaned up upon the tips of his toes to kiss the brutish swordsman. But a kiss was all he would get for now. “Why didn’t you tell me you knew Lord Bors?” “I never thought it mattered. And it won’t move him to back your claim to the throne. Overly fattened drunkard though he is, he’s no fool. This reception and all those gifts will come with a hidden price.” That wasn’t something Johanni hadn’t considered. Bors sending his daughter to receive him rather than a thegn was no accident. And those chests full of luxuries? His annual allowance of 1000 golds wouldn’t fetch him the contents of one much less ten. Bors was the first chieftain to openly accept Johanni into his territory, there had to be a game at play here. As the boy took a moment to ponder that there was a knock at the door. Johanni quickly pulled away from Erik. “Come in.” The ironwood door creaked open. It was Eardwulf. “Lord, you have been summoned to the banquet hall.” “Thank you, Eardwulf. I will be out soon.” The Osserian grunted yes. His sunken grey eyes shot a queer glare at Erik Halfspear (or rather his proximity to the boy) until he withdrew and shut the door to await them outside. Johanni sighed. Eardwulf was not a man of much emotion but what little he possessed he wore around his neck like a noose, plain for all to see. His return to the Fens had drained him – witnessing the charred wreckage of his family homestead, Johanni refusing his advances in Horn Hall, the disgust Norsa Hardfang and Harwald Snowhair held for him, as well as the battle at Haakon’s Redoubt. It was as though pieces of his loyal protector were being slowly chipped away. Johanni felt so much pity for him but could do nothing to help. “You need to send that thrall away,” said Erik. Johanni frowned. “His name is Eardwulf.” “*Eardwulf*. Whatever you wish to call him, Johanni, he’s a broken man. You can see it in his eyes. And a broken man is like a broken sword, useless.” Johanni’s frown deepened… but he did not retort. “I don’t say it to be cruel,” explained Erik, “but can’t you see what I see? His spirit is ebbing. His presence alone offends Norsa to her roots, and you need her more than you need him. Send him back to Drangheim, or better yet set him free. Give him a horse and a purse full of gold and let him ride back to Karburgh to reconcile with his people.” Johanni folded his arms together, sighing. “Would that I could. His title deed belongs to my father and he protects me on my brother’s orders. I don’t have the authority to dismiss him and even if I did I don’t believe that would comfort him.” “What would?” {Me,} Johanni thought, {but just don’t feel that way about him… especially not since I met you, you rogue}. “We have other concerns at present. Let me worry about Eardwulf. Our focus now should be securing Lord Bors’ support, so let’s begin with this banquet.” The truth of that forestalled any witty quip the Halfspear held in reserve – so instead he shrugged and bid Johanni ‘lead the way’. Together they left Johanni’s chambers on sandaled feet where Halfdan (dressed in his own extravagant Arbarii tunic), the grim-faced Eardwulf, and a demure halfling girl awaited them. “Where is Norsa?” asked Erik. The halfling thrall bowed. “I went to fetch her but Lady Norsa has refused to attend the banquet, lord.” {Damn,} thought Johanni. “All of you go. I shall speak to Norsa myself.” “But lord, she specifically requested-” Yet it was too late, by the very breath of her protestation the boy was already trundling down the marble corridor to Norsa’s chamber doors. Eardwulf and Erik both moved to accompany him but Johanni warned them that it would leave a bad impression if all of them were late to the feast. As they made their way towards the banquet hall (the halfling girl directing them through Pearlstone’s maze-like innards), Johanni knocked Norsa’s door and found it unlocked. He pushed it open. Her quarters were largely undisturbed – the hearth was not lit, the bed pristine, the ewer full and the grape platter untouched – all there was of Norsa was her scale armour, leather belts, and fur-trim boots all cobbled together in a muddy pile on the bearskin rug. Johanni did not find her inside her chambers but rather outside of them. He found her on the balcony wearing nothing but her cotton under linens. She had woollen wrappings taping down her heavy breasts as she practiced her axe swing with a series of swift movements and hearty battle cries. Johanni watched the sweat drip down her pale skin, disfigured by countless scars – scratches, dog bites, arrow piercings, blade cuts – huge welts of bulbous pink scar tissue ran down her back from nape to hip, as thought she’d been sliced open by bear claws. He’d never seen a woman’s body so marred. “Norsa…” The sweat beads fell from her brow like raindrops as she stopped, mid-swing, to see her uninvited guest upon the balcony. She sneered, then dropped the axe and snatched up a cloth upon the ledge. She mopped up her face with it. “The halfling girl says you’ve refused to attend the banquet?” Asked the boy. “The halfling girl has the right of it,” she replied. Her reticence irritated him. And yet he looked upon her scars and thought upon her words earlier that day (‘have you ever been defiled…?’) and wondered what right he had to be offended at her behaviour. “Lord Bors might take umbrage at you refusing to dine with him… and like it or not we need his support if we’re to prevent Ragnar from sitting the throne.” Norsa hadn’t bathed since before the battle at Haakon’s Redoubt. The cloth was filthy with mud, sweat and blood smears when she was finished with it. “When Bors uncovers the bargain Harwald made with Haakon and the Thoths he mightn’t be so welcoming with me. Besides. I’ve long since lost my taste for luxury and feasting.” Such things were customary to Jarls, even ones from the poorer tribes like the Karggars. Johanni had to imagine Norsa’s last feast would’ve been in Horn Hall, five solstices ago, before the weight of destiny smashed into the Fens. She’d spent the last quarter of her life on the run from his brother’s minions, hiding in crypts and foraging for food in the northern forests, the noble trappings of her past gone and forgotten – all because of his brother’s atrocities. “…Is it your intention to kill Ragnar?” Asked Johanni. Norsa did not look back. “Is it your intention to spare him?” “…There are better roads to peace than vengeance, Norsa.” The Hardfang chuckled, then scoffed, then threw away her rag and took up her hafting axe once again. “Ya!” she cried, whirling the weapon in powerful overarm strokes, “Ya! Ha! Ya!” Realizing that there was no reasoning with her, Johanni withdrew. ********** As befitting a city with trade ties in every direction of the seas, Bors’ feast was more bountiful than even Johanni could have predicted. The oaken long table of Pearlstone’s banquet hall was large enough to seat thirty guests and stretched from guarded entrance to roaring hearth. Lord Bors sat at the head of the table, with Johanni to his left and Kjarlla to his right. Beside Johanni was his retinue, first Erik Halfspear then an empty seat where Norsa Hardfang ought to have sat, then the steward Halfdan. Across from them sat the Arbarii nobles; Kjarlla, then Gorla, then Dunhild, then Salla, then finally One-Eyed Wulfstan, whom Bors regarded as his right hand. One by one the halfling thralls served six courses of the meal. First came half-shell oysters with horseradish and black pepper sauce, then a round of hot barley soup with a thick slice of day-old flatbread. The third was garlic-buttered king prawns atop bowls of a delicious steamed grain from the tropics that Kjarlla called ‘rice’, followed by a sea salad of mussels, onions, celery, salt and crabmeat drenched in white wine sauce. The main course served them whole cuts of a huge, freshly caught trout served with bacon, almonds, beetroot and roasted potatoes; then finally came rolled whorls of sugar-coated sweet dough served with dates, raisins and figs. It was all delicious. Erik ate like a man half-staved and Halfdan was forced to unbuckle his belt he was so full. Johanni was moved to ask Eardwulf to join them (as he stood guard so patiently by the bolted entrance doors), but he could not risk offending Bors by seating a thrall at his long table. Instead he whispered into one of the halflings’ ear and whispered for her to save some of the meal for his ‘friend at the door’. “Lord Bors!” began Halfdan, “May I compliment you on procuring such wonderful cooks. I dare say they put our own back home in the south to shame.” The rotund chieftain grinned. “Many thanks. Indeed, my greatest regret is that I might not have another chance to sit King Hrathwuld to my table. On his last visit he stressed such fondness for the food of the seas.” “I fear my father is too frail to travel,” said Johanni. “But he did speak highly of Arbarii cuisine. I concur with Halfdan, this meal was a delight.” Lord Bors extended his empty goblet towards a halfling girl with a wine ewer in hand. She poured him his eighth cup of the night. “My father was one of his outriders in the Great Woaggish Army, you know. They may not have been much call for ships on an inland march, but we provided food, ale and steel as well as men. He often said that serving alongside Hrathwuld in the expulsion of the elves was his life’s greatest honour.” Johanni nodded. “Mine own father would be honoured to hear that.” “King Hrathwuld is very respected here,” said One-Eyed Wulfstan, sipping from his own goblet. “However, there are some on the Salt Shore who are unhappy with his rule. His inaction on the Thoth threat for example…” The aetheling frowned – but when he looked to Lord Bors for rebuttal he found a look of concurrence to match his half-drunk smirk. “I am afraid my advisor speaks truly, young lord. Though your father did great work in expelling the elves and brokering the sibb between us and those barbarous northern savages, I fear more recent events have escaped Drangheim’s notice…” Halfdan, like Johanni, recognized the shift in the mood around the table. Erik did nothing but pick his teeth and observe, much like the chieftain’s three wives who sat like patient dormice waiting for their husband’s dismissal of them. Kjarlla sat pensively at her father’s right side and scarcely restrained what Johanni would soon realize was anger. “What events would those be, Oldfather?” Kjarlla tensed. “Father…” “What, my child? Would you have me withhold vital information from a forthcoming king of Grünlund? Hang me if I do,” Bors glugged his cup whole then extended his meaty wrist for another re-fill before he continued, “as you know, King Hrathwuld authored a sibb between our two tribes by dividing the Salt Isles into east and south… and then he sealed it by betrothing my daughter to Thorvald Tyrfingsson, son of the previous Thoth chieftain, Tyrfing Magnusson. But Tyrfing died some two solstices ago and since then new Thoth chieftain has slowly crept to the fore, someone far less amenable to peace than dear old Tyrfing…” “Magnus Magnusson,” said Johanni. “Correct!” Bors gulped more wine. “I see you’ve heard of him?” {I have,} thought Johanni. {And I’ve heard nothing good.} Magnus Magnusson was the only chieftain that Ragnar specifically warned him to be weary of and worst still (based on his own words at the Redoubt) Haakon Godwulfsson seemed to be in league with him. Erik spat out a fishbone. “Where is Thorvald?” Bors glared darkly. “He is rotting away in the dungeons beneath our feet.” Angrily, Kjarlla slammed her hands upon the table so hard that it knocked her wine cup over and smattered red over his step-mother Gorla’s pearl-coloured dress. Everyone paused where they were as the fuming Arbarii heiress launched out of her seat to leave. “Sit down,” snarled Bors. “You will not disrespect our guests.” Father and daughter glared at one another as the mood around the banquet hall curdled into something ugly. From the moment of their reunion Johanni sensed tension between Kjarlla and the others – finally he was beginning to understand the source of it. “Kjarlla,” it was Bors’ third wife, Salla (younger than the heiress by nearly four winters) who called out her. “Please be seated. We’ve spent so much time and effort in preparation for this evening, yourself included. Please do not spoil it.” The brown-haired woman looked to Salla, perhaps in irritation, then to the curious Johanni and the slightly amused Erik, before returning to her father’s cold iron glare. She sat down. One-Eyed Wulfstan broke the silence. “Twenty moons ago a Jarl named Bersi came to Pearlstone to report sightings of a small fleet of Thoth raiding vessels moored near the border waters of the Southern Salt Isles – our territory. Bersi was murdered a day later and we have reason to suspect Thorvald’s involvement.” “Fish shit!” Spat Kjarlla. The Halfspear tittered. Johanni kicked his foot beneath the table. “Lady Kjarlla, please articulate your concerns,” said the boy. “There is no proof whatsoever that Thorvald murdered Bersi,” said Kjarlla. “I understand why my father and the Jarls of Kjarlling are suspicious of him, he is a Thoth and our history with the Thoths is well known. But Thorvald is also my husband. I know him better than I know myself – he is a peaceful man! He’s never so much as raised a sword in anger his entire life! He is not a murderer!” “That will be for the other Jarls to decide,” said Bors. “They will arrive in the next three days to deliberate on Thorvald’s guilt. If he is found innocent, then he will be released. If not? Then blood will follow blood.” Kjarlla, for all her grace, looked fit to rage that moment – and bury a carving knife somewhere in her father’s direction – but her eldest step-mother, Gorla, took her by the hand and tried to sooth her angers. Bors just swilled more wine. It appeared that King Hrathwuld’s brokered peace between the Arbariis and the Thoths was more precarious than Johanni once thought. If the Arbarii Jarls found Thorvald guilty and gave their chieftain consent to execute him then the Thoths would have a pretext for retaliation. The danger of this wasn’t lost on Erik either. He nudged the younger boy in the shoulder (“we’ve got no choice” as if to say) and leaned across the table for the wine ewer. “I know nothing about this Thorvald,” said the Karggar, pouring his own cup full. “But I do know this – the Thoths are plotting something. Haakon Godwulfsson led 500 men and nearly twenty ships into the Fens, built a fortress near the northern woodland, and strong-armed the Osserians into kidnapping my brother.” “To what end?” Asked Bors. {I know where this is going,} thought Johanni. “…Erik.” “There’s no purpose in keeping it secret,” said the Karggar chieftain. “They were poaching ironwood, no doubt. But we think they were searching for a secret hidden within the ruins of a Beast Tower… something called Wulf’s Blut.” One-Eyed Wulfstan’s one good eye sharpened. “Wulf’s Blut?” “You’ve heard of it?” Asked Johanni. He frowned. “…No. There are hundreds of legends about the Beast Towers and Wo’ar and his war against the ancient sorceries. None of them speak of this… Wulf’s Blut. But if the Thoths have any interest in the Beast Towers then what they seek will be an ancient sorcery… perhaps this ‘Wulf’s Blut’ is one of them.” Johanni mused. “Is there anything you could tell us that might help us, considering your… background?” Wulfstan smirked smugly. The boy misliked it. “The king may think it evil,” said the old magus, “but the truth is undeniable. Magic is the language of the gods… and those precious few words within man’s ken, sorcery itself, were translated at their sufferance. Whatever the Thoths may have unearthed in the bowels of that Beast Tower… it was not meant to be sealed away.” Bors belched. “Enough Wulfstan. These are matters of politics, not philosophy.” “Of course, lord. Apologies.” “Pearlstone has an extensive library with tomes dating back to the Age of Monsters… or so I’m told,” quipped Bors. “If it helps you in anyway then feel free to use it to conduct your research on this Wulf’s Blut. Kjarlla will accompany you.” Kjarlla shot him daggers. Nevertheless, it was a kind offer. They needed a better idea of what Wulf’s Blut truly was before they contended with Haakon Godwulfsson once again. Johanni nodded his gratitude, “Thank you, Oldfather. But as you can imagine I did not come here for word of ancient legends. I have another motive.” Bors’ grin grew. “…Go on.” “My father is in poor health and by his insistence the matter of succession to the throne must be resolved before his passing. Although King Hrathwuld favours me as his successor, the Royal Diet of Drangheim favours my brother Ragnar, and ultimately, the Royal Diet elects the king. If I am to sway them in my favour, then I must do as my father once did and win the favour of the other four chieftains. That is why I am here. Thus far I have acquired the support of Erik Halfspear, chieftain of the Karggars, who you know well. Harwald Snowhair offers provisional support, to be confirmed by his thegn, Norsa Hardfang, the daughter of Osser Greatfang. And so, I come to the Salt Shore seeking your support as well. I ask you, Lord Bors of the Arbarii tribe, to back me in my claim to the crown.” “Young lord, y-you do honour me. Truly, you do. As my father once rode with yours into battle against the elves, nothing would please me more than to join you and the other chieftains in solitude… however, based merely upon what I’ve told you and all you’ve seen… do you truly believe we can find concord with a man like Magnus Magnusson? I assume you would need his support also?” “I…” “Magnusson is a canker,” said Bors, “We may not know what he’s planning but rest assured it will begin with the Salt Shore. Your brother is indeed a bastard, young lord, but he is also a seasoned soldier with proven battle experience. Would the Bloodbane not prove a better shield to my people’s safety? Ragnar has 10,000 legionaries at his back and you have… what at last count? 3000 half-starved Karggar infantrymen? 200 aging Osserians? Fewer?” Johanni grimaced. “Oldfather, I might not be my brother’s measure on the battlefield, and I may not command the numbers he does, but I am devoted to my country. I have my father’s blood and backing, and as king I would be as staunch a protector of Arbarii interests as him. Supporting me would be an investment in your future, I promise you.” “Promises are wind, Johanni, no matter how earnest they are,” Bors leaned into his ear. “Consider it from my perspective – say I were to throw my weight behind your claim and it failed – what would happen to my standing with the Bloodbane? And all my trading partners within the Royal Diet, should I risk offending them and losing their custom for a kingship that might never take root? No, no! Supporting you would be a gamble, young lord, not an investment. If I were to take such a risk I’d need an assurance… yes, I’d need a binding assurance cementing your loyalties to the Arbarii… as a mutual deterrent against the Thoths.” For all his gluttony and drunkenness, Bors was not a man to underestimate. If this conversation was a battle, then Johanni was losing it. “…And what would that be, Lord Bors?” “…You could accept my daughter’s hand in marriage…” ********** Erik Halfspear seethed. “That fat old bastard…!” Johanni grinned privately as the Karggar chieftain fumed upon the other side of the bed, pouring himself another cup of wine from the ewer. He was wont to join him, but the bedding was so comfortable – plum-coloured coverings of Xianese silk stuffed with lambswool and two large goose-feathered pillows – he didn’t want to move. He luxuriated in their soft warmth as Erik lumbered back into bed and folded himself around the boy’s thin body. Johanni never felt safer as he did with Erik’s arms wrapped around him. “Spit on a marriage,” said Erik. “You see what game Bors is playing.” “Of course. Self-interest motivates him above all else. It’s no secret that he was unhappy with Kjarlla’s betrothal to Thorvald either… but marriage is a way of the world, Erik. You will be expected to take a wife one day.” The Halfspear nuzzled his russet-bearded chin into Johanni’s neck. “But I don’t have to like it.” “Carefree buck as you are,” Johanni kissed him. “I have no intention of betrothal. We shall find another way to win Bors around.” A thin blade of blue moonlight cut across Erik’s chambers from a small gap between the fine silk curtains decorating the balcony’s threshold. They were only a few hours from sun-up. Sighing, Johanni reluctantly climbed out of bed, nuzzling his feet into the soft rug laid out beneath the bed. “Stay a while longer,” said Erik. “The buck is still in heat.” {No doubt of that,} thought Johanni. His arse flushed red from the repeated slap and thrust of his muscular thighs, and his rosebud arsehole oozed thick gouts of Erik’s seed. They’d had each other every night since the villa but maintaining secrecy grew more and more difficult. Johanni stood up and went for the washing bowl at Erik’s bedside. It was still warm. The boy dipped a nearby cloth in it and wiped himself down from his sweat-soaked brow to the curly patch of blonde hair growing around his flaccid cock, caked with crispy white flakes of his own seed. “If we keep at it like this we will be caught,” Johanni said. Erik smirked. “I’m a Karggar, I don’t fear the eyes of others.” “Then it’s a pity I’m not a Karggar,” said the boy, dressing into his new tunic and sandals. “I’ll come to you again tomorrow night but for the morn I want to investigate Pearlstone’s librariums. Perhaps I will uncover something useful about Wulf’s Blut.” “And me?” Johanni leaned over his bed and kissed him again. He was wont to kiss him elsewhere as well – upon his neck, his chest, his contoured abdomen, his bulbous cockhead – but if he did then they would fall into bed together again and repeat the labours of the night… and he wasn’t sure if his arse could take it a thrice. “I want you to speak with Lord Bors,” said Johanni. “Reason with him, find out all you can, gain some leverage. Halfdan will sail to the legionary garrison at Scraefling Isle to replenish my guard, Norsa and the warband can rest. We will make this work. Now good night to you.” “Fine,” Erik stole another kiss from him before he left. “Away with you.” It did pain him to leave Erik Halfspear (and his exquisitely comfortable bed) behind but there was much work to do in the morn. Johanni smoothed out his robes, tightened his belt, then quietly crept out of Erik’s chambers into the corridor. He shut the door with a careful click (for Pearlstone’s grey marble floors such an echo of everything) and turned to leave. Kjarlla stood waiting for him. {Great gods,} he thought. {If she has even the slightest idea of what was going on behind that door she could ruin me!} “…Lady Kjarlla, I-” “I will not marry you,” she said. Johanni exhaled. “I hadn’t come seeking a bride.” “Lord, however long it’s been since we last met I still consider you a friend. You’ve heard my father’s side of these affairs; won’t you hear mine? Would you grant me an ear?” He had to wonder if they were being watched. By Ragnar’s own admission the Palace of Drang was riddled with secret spyholes and hidden tunnels – slim chance Pearlstone was any different. But when he looked in Kjarlla’s eyes he saw no hidden motives there, no hint of malice or deception, just resolve. Resolve… and love. “Of course, my lady,” said Johanni. Kjarlla smiled. The corridor was lit by ensconced torchlight. The Arbarii woman unbolted one of those torches and handed it to him. “Follow me,” she said as she led the way down the dark marble floors and charted a path through Pearlstone’s eastern wing, always out of sight of the guards patrolling the hallways with spear and short sword at the ready. Eventually, Kjarlla took Johanni to an archway beneath the porticos of an old mosaic shrine to the sea goddess Shura. Placing one of her soft hands against its neighbouring wall stones, she felt across them for a loose one, and when she found it, she pushed it. Whirling internal gears creaked together as the slow grind of stone against stone growled into the night and the shrine wall slowly drew back by a yard – revealing a hidden aperture bolted shut by ironwood doors. Johanni opened them with his free hand. Beneath those doors ran a narrow flight of wooden steps. Kjarlla went first, then Johanni, as his hostess pulled a lever that moved the shrine back into place along the corridor wall. The wooden steps led them down into the very underbelly of Pearlstone, until they emerged within its dank, crypt-like catacombs nearly forty yards beneath the streets of Kjarlling. The tunnel was rancid. The ceiling dripped with condensation. Sheets of moss dotted its rounded walls, along with the webs and eggs of long dead spiders. Its unpaved floor was a muddy mulch of cracked earth and weeds. Kjarlla and Johanni kept close to each other as she led him on down the curve of that tunnel until it took them to another ironwood door. This one was locked. But Kjarlla hiked up her sunflower skirts and withdrew a key taped to her shin to unlock it. They then stepped forward into the dungeons of Pearlstone. Iron bars and instruments of torture were everywhere he could see. But most of the cells in this wing were empty, save for a one confining a pale-skinned young man. Dirt encrusted his ragged clothes and coiled blonde hair. Tight iron manacles turned his wrists and ankles pink. He sat slumped against the damp wall of his cell with hazy eyes until the orange glow of torchlight cut through the musky darkness. “Thorvald Tyrfingsson?” He smiled at the boy, weakly. “It’s you… King Hrathwuld’s son… Kjarlla said you’d come.” The Arbarii woman cried out his name and ran to his iron bars but he was too frail to reach out to her. His feeding bowl was bone dry. “It’s as I said, my love. He can help us. Take your time and tell him everything you can,” she said. “What is going on here?” Asked Johanni. “…I won’t… tarry,” Thorvald’s voice was wiry and frail from lack of water. “I did not… kill Jarl Bersi. But I suspect… that the real killer… intended for me… to take the blame.” “Perhaps it is was my father’s work,” said Kjarlla. “Perhaps he orchestrated this whole debacle to justify divorcing me from you and marrying me to Johanni.” Thorvald exhaled. “W-we don’t… know that, Kjarlla. But what we do know… is this. Whoever killed Jarl Bersi… and implicated me… wants to break the sibb… by Arbarii hands…” {But that means…} “You’re saying this might be a Thoth plot?” Thorvald nodded, scratching a flea bite on his neck. There was a dangerous sort of sense to it. An Arbarii Jarl with important reconnaissance about Thoth ships in Arbarii waters is murdered in Pearlstone. Bors quite predictably retaliates by imprisoning his unwanted Thoth stepson who by appearance alone is the only person in the whole palace with a clear motive. Thorvald stands for a (sham) trial that undoubtedly ends in execution, which then gives Magnus Magnusson all the pretext he needs to break the sibb and retake the Southern Salt Isles. {And with Haakon Godwulfsson on his side,} thought Johanni. “My uncle… is a madman,” croaked Thorvald, “Magnus, he… he doesn’t care… about the sibb… but he knows that… Bors does. And he’s planted… an assassin… in the heart of Pearlstone… to pull the strings…” “If you suspect all this why haven’t you told Lord Bors?” Asked Johanni. Kjarlla sneered. “We did, he doesn’t believe it. He only sees an opportunity to marry our bloodline into the Royal Family, nothing else matters to him. And if Magnusson’s spy discovers that we know more than we should then who’s to say they won’t come for us next?” Johanni turned to Kjarlla. “No assassin would dare murder the daughter of a chieftain in his own household, it’s unthinkable.” “If they killed a Jarl there’s no telling who they wouldn’t. Help us, Johanni. Help us find the real assassin. You are the only soul in this whole palace who is too important to kill – which means you have a free hand. Help us, please. If you don’t then Bersi’s true killer goes free, Thorvald dies, and Magnus Magnusson has free reign to retake the Salt Isles…” ********** The librariums of Pearlstone were extensive. They were built nearly fifty winters ago within the eastern wing of the palace and it indexed over 14,000 tomes, scrolls and documents from sources all over the known world. There were testaments of the Elvish Messiah and catalogues of the ancient Woaggish runic script, dialogues on the principles of archmathematics, histories of the lineage of the Golden Emperors, epics of foreign gods, spell books, poetry, and however many hundreds more interesting topics that Johanni could have sojourned with for hours upon hours in a different time and circumstance. His innumerable visits to Drangheim’s Grand Librariums taught him to worship knowledge and respect its curation. But time was preciously short, too short for personal indulgence. With the bookkeeper’s permission Johanni unfurled the index and looked to Woaggish history (which they kept in the fifth section of the sixteenth aisle) under which he found only two books even vaguely related to Wulf’s Blut – On Ancient Woag Constructs by Autuloch, and A Study of the Age of Monsters by Sage Aethelhard – and the bookkeeper sent a halfling to fetch the two books. Johanni spent most of the morning reading them (or rather reading their most pertinent passages). On Ancient Woag Constructs was not particularly useful. It only covered hypothetical building methods and only briefly mentioned the Beast Towers, there was no reference to its history or rituals. It was A Study of the Age of Monsters that provided more insight on the Beast Towers; “‘It is said in our many oral histories’,” recited Johanni, “‘That the half-god Wo’ar took up the adamantine warhammer granted to him by his father Wug (the war god) and smote those constructs to end an era of false conduct and abuse of magical rituals, inculcating for posterity those sparks of a burgeoning Woaggish pride that our King Hrathwuld so readily embodies. But can it all be so simple? I believe the answer lies in a passage written by Sage Ogbher…’” What followed was a revisionist interpretation of Woaggish history that would’ve gotten Sage Aethelhard hung in a pre-Hrathwuldic era. He alleged that the Beast Towers were built by an ancient race of natives who pre-dated Woaggish arrival on Grünlund’s shores by hundreds of winters. He argued that these towers were probably sites of religious significance to this race and that the ancient Woags systematically destroyed them to ‘break the spirit’ of the native population. It was a provocative mode of thought. But nothing on Wulf’s Blut. What it did have however was a map of Grünlund on its rearmost page. What was special about this map was that it charted sites of all the known Beast Towers across Grünlund as well as their condition (‘survived’ or ‘destroyed’). There was one in the southern Weald (destroyed), one in the northern Fens (destroyed), one in the southern Grey Wilds (survived), one in the eastern Deepfjord (destroyed), one the Black Mountains (survived) and one upon an unnamed Salt Isle (destroyed). Johanni called over the halfling boy, Sahr, who the bookkeeper had sent to attend to him. “Can you tell me the name of this island?” He asked, pointing to it on the map. Sahr nodded. “Yes, lord. It’s called Kolskegg’s Crag, lord.” {That’s where Kjarlla said One-Eyed Wulfstan is based}, thought Johanni. {Perhaps he knows more than he alleges.} He would speak with the sorcerer again at some point – but in the meantime there was work to do – it was already noontide. The aetheling asked Sahr to return the two books to their shelves. Johanni snuffed his desk candle then went to the bookkeeper’s chambers, where his own candle had melted down to the wick as he carefully scratched quill to parchment for some unidentified purpose. “Sir,” Johanni smiled. “Thank you for your time today.” The aged man did not take his eyes off his page (nor did he stop writing) but he offered the boy a nod of acceptance. “Oh? Oh, think nothing of it. I hope what you unearthed was of use to you.” “Indeed, it was. But if I may, those two tomes I searched for in the index, would you happen to know if anyone else has expressed interest in them recently?” The bookkeeper squelched a sudden cough. “Well, off the top of my mind, no, not recently. The common Woag is of superstitious stock and does not regularly inquire upon ancient artefacts or mysticisms. However, I do recall Lord Bors granting permission for a local scholar to conduct research into these topics… but this was about… oh… five or six days ago, I’d say?” “And what was his name?” “Hmm…” the old bookkeeper paused. “Turki, I believe it was.” ********** The city of Kjarlling, after which the chieftain Bors had named his daughter, was alive in every road, corner and alleyway. Its cobbled streets flowed with Woags of every tribe and foreigners of every hue – Xianese silk merchants and Golden Imperials, umber-skinned Desert Dwellers, saturnine High Northerners, etc. And there was commerce every turn in the form of seafood stalls and bear tamers, tonic peddlers and career beggars, alehouses and brothels, blacksmiths and tanners, masons and fisheries, butchers and bakers, wandering sell-swords and street-side apothecaries. Fish scent was everywhere (both fresh and rotting), along with the scents of spices and wine and smoke and rime as the gulls wheeled around in a bright and cloudless sky whilst the ructions of hagglers, laughter, chatter, cheering and shouting filled up Johanni’s ears. The boy did not mind. Despite the differences between the two cities, Kjarlling very much reminded him of Drangheim. And much like Drangheim, when he wanted to explore its dark underbelly he had to go disguised. Much to Eardwulf’s displeasure, he and Johanni walked the streets in hooded cloaks. Few townsfolk would have guessed who the boy was by sight alone but there was always a risk (and with that risk came danger). “I do not like this,” whispered Eardwulf. He had to lean in close to be heard over the noise. “Lord, we should have conducted this search with an armed guard.” Between the two of them their only weapon was a carefully concealed seax Eardwulf hid beneath his tunic and belt strap; his sword and scale armour remained in Pearlstone. Johanni’s reasoning was simple – going in lightly equipped attracted less attention. A retinue full of troops trundling down the streets protecting a royal litter achieved the opposite. There was a danger in this, based on everything he’d learned from Kjarlla and Thorvald, for if their alleged assassin was following him then it was here in the streets of Kjarlling where he was most vulnerable. But he also knew that he had to take the risk. The deeper he probed into these matters the more he suspected that Bersi’s assassin and the Wulf’s Blut were interrelated somehow – but he wouldn’t raise it with the others until he was sure. He wanted them to rest after everything they’d been through thus far, particularly Norsa. There was no point in bringing mere suspicions to his followers unless he had something ironclad to support them. Besides, he had… reasons to be alone with Eardwulf for a time. According to the bookkeeper, the scholar Turki was one of sixteen tutors that Lord Bors summoned to oversee Kjarlla’s girlhood tutelage. Ancient history was his speciality and he had a small school on Crab-Catcher’s Street. Johanni and Eardwulf followed the directions given to them by ???? (who was more familiar with Kjarlling’s streets than the old bookkeeper) around a roadside spice market off the main thoroughfare, and into a quiet alleyway huddled between Crab-Catcher’s Street and the tenement buildings of Roe Square. “Lord,” said Eardwulf, “This city reminds you of Drangheim, doesn’t it?” Sheets of tarp were tied to the rooftops above to blot out the hot beams of the sun. There was a similar custom in Drangheim. Johanni smiled in the shade as they made their way on. “It does. City life agrees with me, I think.” The door to Turki’s school stood at the end of the alley. Eardwulf knocked its grain when he came upon it. “They say that at the edge of the Golden Empire there’s a chain of merchant cities much like this one.” “Truly?” “They say anyone can start a new life there,” there was a bittersweet glint in the Osserian’s stone grey eyes. “Imagine that. A fresh page. No ties. No duty. All you have is what you can make for yourself… and the freedom do it. Johanni, have you ever wondered what it would be like to cast it all away and just… disappear?” “Eardwulf…” He smiled softly. “Imagine if we went there… together. What sort of life would we build, do you think?” “Eardwulf, when this is over we need to-” The door swung open. It was a boy at the threshold. A boy with the naturally swarthy, nut-haired look of an Arbarii but his ears’ club-like shape gave him away for what he was – a halfling. “Are you here for lessons?” Johanni smiled. “Not quite. We’re seeking a man named Turki, I’m hoping he can help us.” Smiling back, the boy stepped aside and allowed Johanni and Eardwulf in. It was a circular room with a domed ceiling and a stone floor obscured by dozens of fox-fur cloaks woven together into a rug. Twelve children (some of them halflings, the rest Arbarii Woags) sat upon that rug, and before a gravel-haired man in rough spun robes paced back and forth upon bare feet. It was Turki. And his students listened patiently to him; “History tells us that understanding other peoples is the secret to a successful people,” he said. “What I know my neighbour may not and what I don’t know my neighbour might. The challenge is overcoming our natural fear of one and other… finding concord… and exchanging our ideas. What shapes others?” A halfling boy raised his hand. “What they believe?” “Correct. The best way to understand others is to discover what drives them. Take the Thoths for example. The Thoths are Woags but they no longer worship any Woaggish gods. They worship a concept they call Weißer Geist, ‘The White Spirit’. It is an accumulation of the spiritual essence of all things lived and yet to live. ‘Es ist der Wind und das Wasse’, they say, ‘der Sand, die Sonne und der Boden. In allen Dingen lebt es und alle Dinge müssen sich ihm beugen’. Do any of you know what that means?” “It is the wind and the water,” translated Johanni, “the sand, the sun and the soil, it lives within all things, and to it, all things must bow.” Turki smiled at his new guest. “…Indeed. If I understand that, then I can understand, for example, why the Thoths do not fear death. Who would fear death if it meant becoming one with a god? And if I understand, for another example, that the Thoths believe that once every hundred solstices the White Spirit choses a champion to shepherd its will, then I can also understand why the Thoths pick their leaders differently from us… I can understand what those leaders might mean to them… and more importantly, I can understand what it might take for those leaders to understand us.” Turki patted his robes. “But I think that’s enough for today. Run along now, we’ll pick up where we left off at noontide tomorrow. Go on! Away with you.” Curious and confused and excited, the young ones gathered together and scampered off, one after the other, to return to their lives (just a bit wiser than they were before). Eardwulf held the door for them. When they were all gone, scholar Turki sat upon his prayer mat and poured himself a cup of water from a clay gourd. He held it aloft. “Water?” “No thank you,” said Johanni. “Perhaps a word instead.” Turki patted the rug. “Come join me then.” Humbly, Johanni and Eardwulf sat down. “You can remove your hoods,” said the scholar. “I know who you are, Hrathwuldsson. And I know what you’ve come for… Wulf’s Blut.” When Johanni and Eardwulf pulled their hoods down they saw a small smile play upon the old man’s lips – but there was a sense of wariness in him too. Turki paused a moment and looked to Johanni as Johanni and Eardwulf looked to him, his face curious and speculative. He held a thoughtful gaze for a moment then lowered his head, his smile relieved. “My lord asked you a question,” prompted Eardwulf. “Indeed, he did,” said Turki. “But I am a man of both instinct and intellect. I only needed a moment to allow my gut determine what my mind suspects.” “And what does your mind suspect?” Asked Johanni. “…That you are a man of honour.” Johanni smiled. “It was five days ago,” began Turki. “A warrior came to me seeking knowledge of an ancient power called Wulf’s Blut. He said it endangered everything around me; my school, my students, the city, and the entire Salt Shore besides… and that he needed my help to unearth some sort of weakness. It was a strange request, but his earnestness frightened me, so I did what I could. I even requested permission to visit the librariums of Pearlstone… but after three days of research I found nothing. The warrior returned and paid me for my troubles, thanking me, and swearing to find a weakness “before it was too late”. He then warned me… that someone from Drangheim may come looking for me… and then, two days later, half my students come to lessons, wide-eyed and breathless, with talk of a great parade… led by our Lady Kjarlla and King Hrathwuld’s younger son, aetheling Johanni. I knew it was only a matter of time before you knocked on my door.” {And yet another impasse} thought Johanni. {Not even the scholars have any insight into this power}. “This warrior who came to you – what was his name?” Turki frowned. “…Do you mean him harm?” “Not if he means to destroy the Wulf’s Blut, no.” “Very well. His name is Gnut,” he said. “Gnut the Troll.” Johanni blinked. “W-what?!” ********* He had so much to think about. Bersi’s assassin. Winning over Norsa. Winning over Bors (without marriage). His feelings toward Erik. His lack of feelings toward Eardwulf. His becoming king, his relationship with Ragnar, and his father’s ill-heath… so many concerns fighting for dominance in his mind. But the moment he heard that name – Gnut the Troll – he was thrown back into the analogues of his comfortable childhood, his days at Ragnar’s side (when the ‘Bloodbane’ was still ‘the Fatherless’) hearing tales of the Iron Circle and their exploits. ‘He was a stout fighter’, his brother had said of Gnut, ‘short of arm of course, and perhaps a bit squat, but he was hardy soul and a fierce fighter’. But he’d died. The Iron Circle fought their last campaign in the Black Mountains in search of the legendary warhammer of Wo’ar, a relic fabled across all Grünlund. It was the one campaign Ragnar never spoke much of – because it led to the death of one of its members; the mace-wielding Gnut the Troll. {How is it possible that Gnut is alive?} Thought Johanni. And that thought reoccurred repeatedly as he and Eardwulf followed Turki’s directions across Kjarlling’s dark reaches, through its piss-soaked alleys and shadowy backstreets all the way to Kingfisher’s Crawl; hundreds of squalid claystone dwellings stacked into tenement rows within the poorest parts of the city. Whores and drunkards and miscreants seemed to ooze out of every crack and corner. Poor fishermen built fires in the streets to stave off the cold as their boy children hunted mice and stacked manure (dog, horse and human) into terracotta jars at the back of rickety wooden wagons. Eardwulf kept a close hand to his hidden dagger. He led Johanni up a flight of sandy stone steps to a simple wooden door with the number ‘109’ smeared upon it in red ochre. The Osserian did the tenant the curtesy of knocking first. When he did not get a reply? He put his boot to the grain. Its rusted iron lock broke off and the door swung inward by the hinge, banging off the wall. The noise drew the tenant out of his pallet; a gaunt, unshorn and short man of Arbarii birth. Johanni hadn’t seen his face in nearly eight winters. “It really is you…” whispered the boy, “…Gnut the Troll.” He held a hand over his eyes to block out the sudden glut of sunlight pouring into his lodgings, reaching out instinctively for the iron mace near his thigh, until Johanni pulled down his hood and revealed himself. Gnut pulled a slow, drunken smile. “…I knew it. I knew ya’d come…” ********* Gnut had an old woven reed mat in his storage chest. He rolled it out for Johanni and Eardwulf to sit upon then fetched some water from the drinking gourd in the courtyard. He had no food to hand, only empty ale bottles and bowls full of fish bones (picked clean of every scrap). The aetheling gave the troll time to work off the vapours of a hard night’s drinking and it took some time before he could piece together his sentences. But eventually (after brewing some herb tea off his small clay hearth) the fog of alcohol left him. “Ya was only a child when I saw ya last,” said Gnut. “Now look at ya. A man fully grown, almost. Ain’t that a pie?” Johanni smiled. His memories of Gnut were faint but he remembered well the mace-wielder’s penchant for odd sayings. “I have so much to ask you,” said the boy. “So much has happened. Ragnar told us all that you’d… you’d died.” Gnut frowned, nodding. “Aye, I bet he did.” “He lied to us.” “He had to,” said Gnut. “But lord, that ain’t why you’re here.” Johanni nodded. The pieces of this puzzle were slowly coming together. Haakon Godwulfsson spoke of an ‘ancient power unearthed within the bowls of the Black Mountains’ – Wulf’s Blut – which Johanni now realized was the same mission that supposedly cost Gnut’s life. But what was secret behind the secrecy? What was he missing? It was then that Johanni decided to tell Gnut everything. Everything. Everything from his supposed “death” up to the current day. He explained how Ragnar returned home from the Black Mountains a changed man, how became High Legate of the Royal Legion and led the Pacification of the Osserians, how Haakon Godwulfsson was stripped of his title as thegn after killing the late Karggar chieftain, Gad Greyspear, before retreating to the Deepfjord. He detailed King Hrathwuld’s failing health and explained how his father had sent him on this pilgrimage to all five corners of Grünlund for the support of the chieftains. He told Gnut about the raid on his caravan by Erik Halfspear’s warband, about Ragnar marching the Legion into the Grey Wilds only for Erik to surrender; about the march into the Fens and bargaining with the Osserians, and then finally of the events at Haakon’s Redoubt – and the monster that the Thoth warrior transformed into. It was an exhaustive tale. Gnut sighed soberly. “I’ve told you my side,” said Johanni. “Now tell me yours. What happened in the Black Mountains all those winters ago? Why did Ragnar lie about your death? And by the gods, what is Wulf’s Blut?” Gnut’s brow furrowed. “I got the answers ya seek but I promise ya won’t like everything I’ve got to tell ya. Are ya still prepared to hear it? There ain’t no turning back after this.” {I am prepared,} thought Johanni. “Tell me.” Gnut grunted fine but there was wariness in his cloudy eyes. “If you wanna understand what happened back then, ya gotta understand what made us what we was. The Iron Circle were a band o’ outcasts. Ragnar were a bastard. He had everything in him to be a king but for his father’s nightly deeds… and cruel loghs. Haakon was the son o’ King Hrathwuld’s thegn, Godwulf the Good, but he was a fishy cunt right from the outset, foul-tempered and bloodthirsty, and misliked for it at court. Trygga the Spear-Dancer was what her namesake suggested. The way she twirled, the way she cleaved… the shieldmaidens was groomin’ her to be their next captain… but she wanted to do what no woman’d done before her… be a legate. And she was shunned for it. The Golden Brothers, Knossos and Kreim, now those two were destined to be thegns. right couple o’ pretty boys, they was. But they was also the children of elvish slaves, long since perverted in the mind, and rumour had it that they favoured each other’s company to that o’ women… if ya get me meaning. And me? I were a poor fisherman’s son raised right here in Kjarlling. Me father brought me up on tales o’ the great Woaggish army, him serving as a boy of ten with nothing but a reaping hook and a butcher’s knife to his name. All I ever wanted to do in me whole bloody life was go to Drangheim and follow in his footsteps; to kill elves and serve me king. But I’d no land or titles or wealth… and I were far too ‘squat’ for the Legion, or so they told me. So, I was an outcast. We was outcasts. Ragnar the Fatherless, Haakon Godwulfsson, Trygga the Spear Dancer, Twinstroke Kreim and Swanstroke Knossos, and Gnut the stumpy little Troll. That’s how we found each other… and that’s what bound us to each other. No one may’ve wanted us. No one may’ve respected us. But we had each other. ‘All we do, we do as one’, we used to say… that’s how the Iron Circle was first forged… in that spirit.” Gnut sipped some more herb tea before he continued. “Across three winters we rode to every corner of Grünlund in search of adventure. We fought in tourneys and tracked bandits, we whaled the northern seas and hunted hinds in ironwood forests. We outdid each great deed with an even greater one until we settled on one final feat before we returned to Drangheim. Ya see, Trygga won 100 golds and a map during a card game in Yveryth. It was a map of a secret trail into the eastern side o’ the Black Mountains, where one o’ the last surviving Beast Towers yet withstood. Legends tells it that Wo’ar were buried there by his followers, along with his warhammer – and what a prize that would’ve been. If I knew then what I know now I’d have burnt that bloody map in a fire… but all we saw were the promise o’ glory, and so we went, six young fools on horseback. We rode for nine whole days and followed the trail into a valley in the eastern mounts where we happened upon a camp o’ elf worshippers. Ragnar and Haakon wanted to fight. Kreim and Trygga cautioned against it, but Knossos and I sided against ‘em and we attacked. We made short work of ‘em, the filthy scum, but Ragnar made us keep one o’ ‘em alive to give to Haakon to torture, and sure enough by moonrise he had the skinny little cock-gobbler singing. He said that him and his men went into the mountains in search of a secret power. He called it ‘Wulf’s Blut’ and he said they planned to use it to destroy Drangheim.” {Just like in the Grey Wilds,} thought Johanni. {Those elf worshippers we defeated… I had almost forgotten...} “Ragnar is a bastard,” continued Gnut. “Sometimes in both senses o’ the word… but he’d fight to his last breath for his home. ‘We have to stop them’, he’d said, ‘no matter what it takes’. He led us to the Beast Tower itself, looming large over the whole bloody mountain range, I’ll never forget that sight. The fucking elf worshippers had it camped, around thirty o’ ‘em, but we waited until nightfall then swept in and cut ‘em all down. I killed four o’ ‘em on my own that day, and gods’ tits, was I proud. We stole inside to the central chamber and that’s when we saw it.” “Saw what?” Asked Eardwulf. “A ritual,” said Gnut. “Some sort o’ priest working magic on top of an altar. An eye o’ green light opened above his head and blood poured out o’ it… Wulf’s Blut. We didn’t understand, we didn’t know. I’d have stopped it all if I knew what was coming…” “What happened?” Said Johanni. “The sorcerer drank the Wulf’s Blut… and turned into a monster. It grew twice a man’s size with fangs and claws like razors, its skin glowing up like a torch at dusk. It swore it’d tear down the Palace of Drang and murder ya and ya father in ya sleep… and Ragnar went mad. He attacked the fucker but not even a steel sword forged by the greatest smiths in Grünlund could kill it, the blade bounced off his hide like an arrow off a crag. We ran to help him but none o’ our weapons could hurt it – it was like its skin was made of solid rock. And then… it pinned Trygga.” Gnut paused for a moment. “We all knew they was humping, her and Ragnar. It’s hard to miss sharing a camp every night for three fucking winters… but when that monster dragged Trygga to the ground by its claws and gnashed its fucking teeth over her neck… I saw what we’d all failed to see. Ragnar loved her. A monster had her defenceless and no weapon we ‘ad could kill it. So, he did the only thing he could do to save the woman he loved…” Oh no. A shiver went down Johanni’s spine. “…You mean…?” “Yea. Ragnar drank the Wulf’s Blut.” {Oh no...} The boy shivered. {Oh no! It couldn’t be! He wouldn’t have!} “He must’ve thought it was the only way. Mayhap he was right. And when he drank o’ the Wulf’s Blut, he became a monster far more powerful than the sorcerer. I watched Beast Ragnar break open its ribcage with his bare claws and tear its living guts out. And then he snarled at the night until he slowly returned to his human form. We was stunned. For the first time in me life I had no words… it was Haakon, only Haakon, who looked upon this with a smile. The damned northern fool told Ragnar he could use this power to protect Drangheim from elves and their worshippers and whoever else with balls enough to challenge its power, and that we’d finally be given the respect we deserved. I told Ragnar that that was nonsense and that we’d all be shunned as monsters if we used it. But Ragnar was so shocked by his own transformation that he just… stood there, muttering the same thing to himself over and over. ‘I am a monster,’ he kept saying, ‘I am a monster?’ and Trygga held him in her arms and said words that have haunted me ere since… she said ‘It is not for you to shoulder this burden alone… I too will drink’. And then it was just… pieces, tumbling down one after the other. Haakon, that bastard, I’ll never forget that sneering grin of his, he turned to the Golden Brothers and asked them what they would choose. Try to understand, Knossos and Kreim were the children of Woag slaves, their parents’ mind snapped by the perversity of their captors. Those two would’ve took any power that’d keep ‘em from ever falling into elvish hands. Kreim agreed first, then Knossos, and then I was alone. ‘All we do we do as one’, Haakon said, twisting those noble words to his own horse-shitting ends. And one by one the other members drank of the Wulf’s Blut… Trygga, Haakon, Knossos, Kreim… all except me. I watched them transform into these monstrous, hulking, hideous creatures… until Haakon turned to me… ‘Drink’, he said, ‘Drink! We swore a vow! All we do, we do as one!’. But I… I couldn’t. He was right… I did swear a vow… but I couldn’t join ‘em in that folly, I just couldn’t. So, I ran. I fled the Beast Tower. Haakon, that monster, he flew out and chased me into the snow drifts, sliced open me arm with his claws…” Gnut folded up his tunic sleeve to show Johanni and Eardwulf the scar; a thin streak of brown tissue running up his arm from wrist to shoulder. “Luckily for me he weren’t used to his new powers yet, and I got away. It weren’t righteousness what kept me running ‘till me feet were bloody though. It were fear. It were cowardice. My cowardice broke the Iron Circle.” The Troll composed himself and rolled his sleeve back down. “I couldn’t go back to Drangheim knowing what I knew,” he said. “I rode back to Kjarlling and made a hireling of myself, swearing to forget everything I’d seen... and I had done, at least until a few moons ago when Jarl Bersi returned from the Salt Isles. I had a friend on his ship, and this friend told me that not only had Thoth ships been sighted near Arbarii waters, but there was whispers off the deck that a silver-scaled monster, half-man and half-dragon, was seen flying over those ships.” Johanni clenched a fist. “…Haakon.” “Yea,” said Gnut. “There ain’t no doubt. Specially not after Bersi’s death. I’d heard about Haakon’s exile… and that Magnus Magnusson took him in as his own thegn. I knew it was him. And I knew, better than anyone, how much danger it put us in. So, I paid every bloody scholar and scrollkeeper I could find in this city to dredge up something that could give me an edge…” “What did you discover?” Asked Johanni. Gnut demurred. “…Lots was lost to time. The Old Woags wasn’t so fond o’ the written word. But what I do know? The ancients built the Beast Towers as a kind o’ beacon to call on the spirits o’ gods and animals. They used magical rituals to bind those spirits to a blood-coloured wine. And if a man drinks it, he becomes all three… animal, man, and god… a monster. It heightens ya strength, ya speed, it turns ya skin into an unbreakable armour and lures out the frankest part o’ ya personality. It’s what makes Haakon is so damned bloodthirsty, the Wulf’s Blut feeds into that urge. The ancients created it to protect themselves from elves and Woags, but Wo’ar smashed most o’ those Beast Towers before they had a chance to use them. It should’ve been left a dead legend… but now, thanks to me own folly, that dead legend’s come back to life.” Johanni didn’t realize he was shaking until Eardwulf held his hand. That was when he caught himself. The boy quickly drew his hand out of the thrall’s grasp and placed his palms in his lap to stop the trembling, but his shoulders were shaking too. {How is this possible?} He thought. {My brother… my protector… my blood. How is it possible that he shares the same evil power as Haakon Godwulfsson? Oh Ragnar… how could you keep this from me? Why couldn’t I see?} “A w-weakness,” muttered Johanni. “…Did you find one?” Gnut frowned. “…What if there was? What would you do with it?” Johanni’s body stiffened, even as the tremors refused to abate. Eardwulf asked him if he was well. The boy lowered his head. How right Gnut was. He wasn’t ready to hear this. “…I…” “Would you use it to kill your brother?” Johanni blinked. “W-what?!” “Ya’in open dispute for the crown,” said Gnut. “Say ya can’t sway Lord Bors or Magnus Magnusson. What then? Do ya use what I tell ya to kill ya kin?” Eardwulf sneered. “You retain loyalty to the Bloodbane even now?” “I knew ‘the Bloodbane’ before he was ‘the Bloodbane’, thrall. Ragnar was a victim of circumstance, he didn’t seek out that power. I scarpered ‘cause I saw Wulf's Blut for what it was – a curse. Me goal’s to free Ragnar and the Golden Brothers from that curse ‘fore it consumes ‘em all, no matter how much they may end up hatin’ me for it. I don’t wish to kill ‘em.” “What of Haakon?” Asked the aetheling. Gnut sighed. “…Haakon Godwulfsson ain’t like the rest. He’s completely drunk on Wulf’s Blut, there’s no saving him now. But that’s another matter. So, I’ll ask ya again. If there was a weakness… would ya use it to kill ya brother?” Johanni re-pictured the ruins he saw in the Fens. He thought of what was left of the Osserian people, forced to hide themselves in crypts for solstices. He thought of Norsa Hardfang and all the damage done to her by that war. But most of all he thought of the man next to him, Eardwulf, the thegn-turned-thrall, and how much he had suffered these past six winters. Still trembling, Johanni balled his fists in his lap. “It is not my intention to kill Ragnar,” he said. “For all he has done… despite all the misery he left in his wake… I love my brother. I would never wish to kill him. But I cannot ignore that misery. I won’t. When I become king, I shall hold an inquest into the events five winters ago. Ragnar Hrathwuldsson will be tried before gods and men… and execution is not a penalty I will exclude.” Gnut’s demeanour shifted. Growling low, the man they once called ‘the Troll’ climbed onto his feet. “Out o’ loyalty to ya brother I’ll end this conversation here. Whatever new information ya’ve gleaned ya may do with as ya please. But beyond that, I won’t help ya.” “What?!” Johanni stood up. “What about Haakon?! I watched that butcher EAT my companion alive! He must be defeated!” Gnut grunted yes. “He will be. I’ll deal with Haakon me-self when the time is right. Now leave, I won’t tell ya twice.” For perhaps the first time in his life Johanni felt true fury. He wept tears for this man. When Ragnar came home from the Black Mountains, visibly drained, cold and distant; he said that Gnut died nobly in battle with ‘elf worshipping scum’. The court may not have favoured him, but common people sung songs for him in the taverns, they drank toasts to his memory, and wished him well on his journey to the Hallowed Plane. But here he was alive… and he was a coward. Suddenly Johanni shook with rage, not fear, and moved to launch his fist into Gnut’s face, but Eardwulf grabbed his shoulder before he started something the thrall would have to finish. “Stop,” he said. “Let us withdraw for now, he won’t change his mind.” ********** They sat to a yard-long silver platter of smoked herring, black bread slices, cheese wheels, grapes and pears in Erik Halfspear’s chambers; Johanni, Erik, Frodi and Norsa Hardfang. She and Johanni hadn’t much of an appetite but they left the others to eat as hungrily as they could whilst they poured themselves goblets of red wine from their shared ewer. As ever Eardwulf stood guard by the door, arms folded, watchful and attentive to the conversation even as it ignored his existence. It was a pity. Although Johanni valued Eardwulf’s counsel he couldn’t offend Norsa by giving him a voice. Having him stand by the inside of the door (rather the other) was the only other trade off. Johanni drank in silence as the others shared their exploits of the day; Erik sitting to drink after meal after drink with Bors, Frodi testing his bow arm in one of the city galleries. Gnut’s revelations left him with much to say and even more to think about – and he couldn’t stop thinking of Ragnar. Was he merely a ‘victim of circumstance’ as Gnut put it? The aetheling could not say. All he could do was question. {Why didn’t he tell me? Is this why he went so far in the Fens? Has he ever used this power? What did he intend for it? What does this mean for my rule?} “Everyone,” the boy frowned. “I must speak.” He told them everything. About Kjarlla and Thorvald and Bersi’s assassin, about going to Pearlstone’s librariums and meeting with Turki in Kjarlling, and then finally about Gnut the Troll and the Iron Circle’s dark compact with the Wulf’s Blut; the secret ritual of the ancients that made monsters of men. “You shouldn’t’ve gone into the city alone,” said Erik Halfspear, the first amongst them to scold him. He glared angrily at Eardwulf. “And you should’ve taken an armed guard.” Eardwulf glared back mutely, but if glares were words he was screaming. “Do not blame him,” said Johanni. “It was my doing.” Norsa, fist in hand, sneered. For the first time since coming to the Salt Shore she had surrendered her Osserian scale armour for an Arbarii tunic – but somehow her scarred, muscular frame fitted it well. “The same fucking power as Haakon flowing through the Bloodbane’s soul… monstrous bastards. They deserve each other.” Despite everything Johanni bristled at her words. Norsa threw a cold eye his way. “If this is true then we need Gnut’s secret. We can’t bring the Bloodbane to justice without it.” “I know that,” said the boy, “but right this minute there are other concerns.” “Not for me,” she spat back. Johanni and Norsa frowned at one and other. “He’s right,” Frodi said this as he picked the herring bones out of his teeth with his fingernail. “Haakon fled to the Deepfjord when the Impannis exiled him for killing Gad Greyspear. He’s Magnus Magnusson’s thegn now. Do you think he kept his powers to himself?” Erik mused. “You think he told Magnusson about it?” “Wouldn’t you? If you were a Thoth and you’d spent your whole life in service to an Impanni chieftain and then you suddenly showed up at the Hoarfrost Throne looking for refuge – would you expect to be trusted? Or would you give Magnusson a reason to trust you, a reason he couldn’t refuse? Maybe Haakon bargained with Magnus Magnusson for the Wulf’s Blut.” Johanni thought back to the altar that the Thoths constructed in the ruins beneath Haakon’s Redoubt. It was identical to the one the Elf Worshippers used in their own Wulf’s Blut ritual back in the Grey Wilds. Frodi was right. There was little doubt that Magnus Magnusson now knew of the Wulf’s Blut. He sighed. “I’ll raise all of this with Magnusson when we finally meet.” Erik, Norsa, Frodi and even Eardwulf turned to the boy, stunned, as that statement left his lips. “You cannot be serious,” said the Halfspear. “Think on all we know so far – Haakon building a fortress over the Beast Tower in the Fens, having Sygardi kidnapped, Jarl Bersi’s death – everything points to Magnus Magnusson and the Thoths. They’re plotting something. Going to the Deepfjord now is just delivering them a hostage.” Johanni frowned. It bit him a bit that Erik did not support him but when he looked around the room he saw nothing but opposition on their faces. He asked Frodi what he thought. “Erik is right,” he said. So, Johanni asked Norsa for her opinion. She scoffed. “I didn’t join this host just to surrender your pampered arse to a Thoth gaol. The Halfspear has the right of it, for once.” There was no point in asking Eardwulf what he thought, the answer was obvious. When he looked over his shoulder at the Osserian swordsman he saw only a reluctant nod. All of them were against him on this point. But how was he to win his crown if he couldn’t collect the final chieftain’s approval? “If you all feel like this, then…” the boy sighed, “…then we’ll re-think how we proceed with the Thoth chieftain after we win Lord Bors’ support. For the time being let’s focus on Bersi’s assassin. Frodi, take a few men into the city tomorrow and seek out his ship’s crew – maybe there’s something more they can tell us. I’ll send a pigeon to Scraefling Isle and ask Halfdan to rally the legionary garrison. And then Erik, Norsa and I will pay Gnut the Troll another visit.” Frodi chuckled. “He’s already said no, lord.” “I won’t be asking nicely this time,” said Johanni. “All of us should get some rest now. I suspect tomorrow will be a long day.” That much was certain. Agreeing, Norsa and Frodi hauled themselves onto their feet and lumbered out of Erik’s chambers one after the other. The Halfspear poured himself another cup of wine from the ewer then made his way over to his feathered bed and climbed on top. Johanni half expected him to throw a lusty look his way, ‘come to my room tonight’ being the implication. Instead Erik pulled out a sheaf of parchment, a wet ink jar, and a quill. Though his lettering was poorly formed he began writing a letter – undoubtedly to Sygardi and Olaf Greyspear – informing them of events thus far. {More and more the chieftain each day,} thought Johanni. He did not inquire further. Instead he called Eardwulf to his side and left Erik’s chambers quietly. He would return later when the moon was high. For now, he walked with his protector down the hallways of Pearlstone until they came upon a quiet arched alcove, out of the way of prying eyes and ears. He asked Eardwulf to hold. “Lord?” Johanni drew Eardwulf into the alcove with him. No guards stood on either end of the corridor and no thralls passed them by. The hallway was hushed enough to speak privately. “Eardwulf, I’ve been meaning to talk with you properly for days but there has been so little time. I don’t think it can wait any longer.” Johanni realized he’d chosen his words poorly when the Osserian’s eyes lit up with hope. A strong, calloused hand slipped up the bare flesh of the boy’s arm, already tanning into a pale bronze beneath the coastal sun. Trembling at the tenderness, Johanni pushed his hand away. “You mistake my meaning,” said Johanni. “I wanted to apologize for dismissing you during the talks with Harwald. That was wrong of me. I see that. I will atone for that. Eardwulf, I care for you. No one, not even my brother, understands me the way you do. I could not have come this far without you. You are not merely my shield or my counsel, you are my friend, and a dear one at that, but… that is all we ever can be. My heart is… no longer my own to give.” Johanni watched the hope evaporate from the Osserian’s eyes. It hurt his own heart like the jut of a blade. {I’m so tired of hurting him,} thought the boy. But then that palpable heartbreak billowed away, and a darker emotion took its place. Anger. Eardwulf clutched his gloved hands into shaking fists; his eyes sharpening, his brow furrowing, it was almost terrifying. “The Halfspear?!” Roaring, Eardwulf drove his gauntlet into the wall and cracked open the fragile marble fresco beneath it. “The FUCKING Halfspear!” Johanni shivered. He’d never known the thrall to swear. He’d never known him to even raise his voice. “Eardwulf, hear me. You will always have a place at my side. When I become king and I tear up your deeds, I shall need a thegn… and I can think of no one better than you. You would have a great hall and wealth, land and livestock, titles…” “But not your heart…” Johanni looked away, “…No. I’m sorry.” Eardwulf dragged his fist out of the wall. His gauntlet was split open, its leather and iron plates hanging by the stitches, his knuckles bloody. A crimson smear befouled the fist-shaped crack in the mural. “Eardwulf, I…” the boy sighed. “…Take the night for yourself. Go into the city, enjoy the taverns, the music. Do not trouble yourself to-” “You’re dismissing me again?” Said Eardwulf, his smile wry. “No, of course not, I just…” The thrall pulled his broken gauntlet off and shook the blood from his hand. Thick black droplets splattered over the marble floor as he turned heel and slowly stalked away. It was in Johanni’s mind to go after him – but what could he say? What could he possibly do to make up for this? It wasn’t in his hands anymore. He saw Eardwulf disappear beyond the bend of the corridor before quietly returning to his own chambers down the hall. As ever they were readily freshened and tidy, his bed made, his sword polished, his ewer full, his chamber pot empty. Everything was in place – but there was an addition. Kjarlla. The Arbarii noblewoman sat upon the edge of his bed in another shimmering sunflower yellow dress and sequinned slippers. She carried the free woman’s seax from a leather garter wrapped around her right thigh. “Lady Kjarlla,” he said. Her glare was blank. “Have you found Jarl Bersi’s real killer yet?” He was beginning to think this day would never end. Tiredly, he shut his chamber door and sat upon the other side of the bed. He thought of her husband Thorvald withering away below their feet in Pearlstone’s dungeons -- this wasn’t about him. “I am sorry,” he said. “I will not lie, I have spent most of the day seeing to my own affairs in the Salt Shore, but I promise you, the hunt for Bersi’s assassin begins in earnest tomorrow. My closest followers are at work.” “I hope so,” said Kjarlla. “Do not misunderstand my haste, lord, but I… I fear for my husband. Every moment he spends locked away in that wretched gaol is another piece of my marriage I shall never get back. I miss him so much...” Johanni eased somewhat. “I understand.” “I did not want to marry him at first,” she said. “But when your father arranged it, I objected to none but myself. I knew my duty. I knew that peace between the Arbariis and the Thoths depended on it. I never expected to fall in love with him.” Johanni watched Kjarlla’s sweet hazel eyes wander off into a private, blissful memory. “He gets this little twinkle in his eye when he talks of trade of all things. I’ve never known a kinder man. There’s a kind of magic in love, Johanni. You’ll start to feel it too soon enough.” Johanni paused. “W-what do you mean?” “In this world love is the only game men allow women to play, so we learn it well. I can read the signs. You and Erik Halfspear,” she smiled. “It couldn’t be clearer between the two of you. I saw the way you looked at each other at the banquet. He looks at you the way Thorvald looks at me. Perhaps he doesn’t understand the depths of his feelings yet, but… they’re there.” {Could I… could we be so easy to read?} Like before in Gnut’s hovel, Johanni’s limbs started shaking. His heart thumped in his chest. Sensing his unease, Kjarlla palmed the boy’s shoulder. “Settle yourself,” she said. He eyed her. “…You don’t disapprove? You aren’t disgusted by it?” “I can’t pretend to understand it, but love makes for an undeniable sight when seen. We do not choose love, love chooses us.” “…My father would not gather that, I think.” Kjarlla nodded. “Indeed. The elves were rapacious lovers, partaking in every form of sexual pleasure imaginable. Their enslavement of our people left an ugly scent around their customs and this, unfortunately, is one of them. I don’t share that disgust, Johanni, but I will say this – as king you will be expected to marry and sire heirs. You are free to love who you wish but consider that your future queen might deserve more than life as an unloved broodmare.” {Bersi’s assassin,} he thought. {Ragnar’s secret. Gnut’s reluctance. Eardwulf’s anger. And now this… yet another burden to shoulder}. He needed some air. Johanni walked out of his room onto the balcony overlooking the vast city of Kjarlling. The streets were dark but lit in flickers by lanterns and torchlight. Off in the northern distance he watched the dark waves of the Salt Sea crashing against the beaches and piers and ports. A few moments later Kjarlla joined him by the balustrade. She draped a shawl around her shoulders to fend off the cold night air. “Have I offended you?” She asked. “No,” replied the boy. “You’ve said nothing untrue or unkind. It’s just… I never considered how many concerns and responsibilities come with kingship.” “You seem like you would be a thoughtful ruler, lord. If you cannot reconcile with King Hrathwuld’s loghs then you must change them. Following in his footsteps does not mean being who he wants you to be.” What did his father want him to be? A kind ruler? Perhaps. A strong one? In certain ways. A wise one? Unquestionably. But was it wise to bed the Karggar chieftain like a doting fishwife? Would it be wise to put Ragnar on trial and risk alienating the Royal Legion, the backbone of Drangheim’s power? Was it wise not to try him and break his oaths to Norsa and Harwald – and then who would believe in his word if he himself betrayed it? Johanni exhaled a deep breath. “It won’t be a queen I shall need when I become king, it will be wine… by the barrel. Wait here, Kjarlla, I’ll fetch the ewer.” He walked back into his chambers. But the second he stepped over the threshold, he felt that something was wrong. It was like a feeling in the air, an ‘off-ness’. The boy stopped where he was and looked around. The room was the same, nothing disturbed. Besides the embers snapping in the hearth or the howl of the chill winds, all was silent. Too silent. The silence continued until the very second Johanni began to think he was being paranoid, and then, just as he went for the wine ewer, the woven reed doors behind him suddenly snapped shut. Johanni turned back to open them but they would not budge. Try as he might he couldn’t open them! “What is this?!” He said. “Magic?” The room grew cold. Beyond the reed doors Johanni heard Kjarlla yelling but from the other side it sounded like muffled babble. The sudden chill down his back made him turn around and as he did he saw a small black dot atop the cold marble floor. That dot grew larger and larger until it was the size of a puddle, and from it arose a thick black ooze in the shape of a hooded man, climbing out of his own shadow which dripped off his cloak like droplets of tar, burning the marble beneath their feet. The hooded man pulled a curved dagger from his sleeve. The assassin! “Wretched Hrathwuldsson,” his voice smouldered like coal. “Let it fall to me to end your meddling once and for all, boy…” Johanni went for his sword. The second he moved the hooded man crushed his free hand into a fist and a gaseous grey powder plumed up from it like a cloud. The fumes enveloped the boy, going from foot to shin to knee to waist to chest to chin to nose and the second he breathed it in was the second his body betrayed him. Johanni fell to his knees when his fingers were just inches from his sword’s hilt. {I can’t move!} His whole body was paralysed. {I can’t move!} It was like his limbs were bound to his body by rope – as though the link between his thoughts and his body were severed. He could not move an inch in any direction no matter how he squirmed. The assassin walked through the clouds, immune to his own magics, and drew his dagger into the air. “Die!” A single slippered foot crashed open the threshold doors from without. The hooded man froze. The grey clouds began to dissipate as the cold night winds sucked them out into the open balcony and Kjarlla ran inside, seax unsheathed. “No,” seethed the assassin, “No!” As the paralysing powder clouds ebbed, Johanni felt a tingle of sensation return to his arms. He couldn’t move – but he could grab a bundle of the assassin’s cloak as he bolted for Kjarlla. The sudden jerk pulled his hood down. And Kjarlla’s eyes shot open as realized who he was beneath it. “You?!” she whispered. “But why?” Growling, the assassin shoved her out of the way and ran frantically towards the balustrade. He set a foot to it and hurled himself into the air as his cloak’s russet shroud enveloped his plummeting body and burst forth into a squawking flock of ebon-black ravens flapping off into the night. A now empty cloak floated down into the city. And as the last of the paralysis clouds abated Johanni fell from its clutches and his numb body collapsed onto the marble. Kjarlla sheathed her seax to help him up. It was bloody at the tip, she’d cut him just as he’d pushed past her. But… “Who is he?” Asked Johanni, tiredly. “Who’s the assassin?” Kjarlla looked stunned. “…One-Eyed Wulfstan…” ********** The morning sun bore down upon Kjarlling as twenty horsed Karggar spearmen rode through its streets. Their horses whickering, their looted oddments (Impanni spears and half-helms, Osserian longswords and ironwood round shields painted over with the Karggar wolf totem) rattling noisily as hundreds of townsfolk watched them pass by. Johanni Carian Hrathwuld (now clad in the white-gold tabard and hoary laminar plate cuirass of the Royal Legion) rode at the head of this guard, alongside the Karggar chieftain Erik Halfspear (steel broadsword strapped to his back) and his loyal friend and advisor Frodi the Archer (with his yew tree longbow and a full quiver), the Osserian thegn Norsa Hardfang (hafting and throwing axes clattering around her leather belt) atop her black-backed stallion. The horses trundled through Kingfisher’s Crawl. Erik, reins bunched in his hands beneath his fur-trimmed russet cloak, leaned towards Johanni and his white mare. “There’s been no sign of Eardwulf since last moon, little lord. Do you want to send some men to search for him?” Johanni frowned privately. Just hearing his name reminded the boy of how badly he’d hurt the Osserian. His mind could not un-see Eardwulf’s crestfallen eyes and bloodied knuckles. Though it haunted him remembering it, he couldn’t lose sight of the task at hand. “There is no time to wait for him we must do this now,” said the boy. When he spotted the tenement building, he pointed it out to the others. “There!” Erik nodded. “Let’s go.” Frodi held up a hand. The twenty Karggar horsemen behind him came to a stop as Johanni, Erik Halfspear and Norsa Hardfang all dismounted. The three of them crossed the cobbles to the scuffed sandy steps and scaled them all the way to Gnut’s rickety door. Norsa’s ‘knock’ was unpleasant – and this time the gnarled Troll emerged from his hovel sober, frowning at the reception at his door. “What’s this?” He said. “Here to arrest me?” Johanni stepped forward. “Last night an attempt on my life was made by the Arbarii court sorcerer One-Eyed Wulfstan. He is one who assassinated Jarl Bersi, we suspect to provoke Lord Bors into killing Thorvald Tyrfingsson. In a few hours we will sail to his Salt Isle, Kolskegg’s Crag, to arrest him.” Gnut stone-faced them. “Well I wish ya good fortune in that.” Johanni gripped his sword’s hilt. “Do not jape. You know as well as I do that there are Beast Tower ruins on Kolskegg’s Crag. Magnus Magnusson clearly has designs on the Wulf’s Blut and One-Eyed Wulfstan is clearly in his employ, along with Haakon Godwulfsson. There is a plot at the heart of this. Now, last time I was here you spoke of a weakness in the Wulf’s Blut. If you don’t share that secret, then you imperil all Grünlund – and as my father’s heir I will not abide by that. Now SPEAK. Tell us what you know.” Gnut smiled. “Ragnar was right. There is strength inside you.” “…” The Troll withdrew from the threshold. “I got it off a scroll trader who winters in the Golden Empire. It were written in the old Woaggish runes but after a few hundreds of golds I got it translated. It told o’ a special resin that stops ‘em from turning when it gets into the blood.” “Forever?” Gnut shook his head. “No. It only lasts about half-an-hourglass. After that the Wulf’s Blut burns out the resin so you gotta kill ‘em beforehand. It’s the only way I know.” Gnut went to his goods chest. There was a set of worn armour inside; plated leather gauntlets, a beaten steal breastplate embossed with the Arbarii crab totem, a pair of greaves, and a half-helm plumed with horse hair. Beneath all of this was a bow-shaped wood and iron contraption, a kind of miniature handheld ballista. “What is that?” Asked Norsa. “It’s called a crossbow,” said Gnut. “Its quarrels can kill an armoured man within thirty metres o’ me and each one is coated in the resin. I were saving this for Haakon.” Gnut put the crossbow down then withdrew his old armour from the goods chest and piece by piece he began strapping it on. “What are you doing?” Spat Norsa. “Coming with ya,” said Gnut. “The secret o’ the resin stays with me – but I will help ya. I have debts that I owe and it’s time I paid ‘em.” ********** Johanni watched frothing white waves crush through the sparkling sapphire waters of the Salt Sea from the prow of Lady Kjarlla’s dragon-headed longship, the Krake. Since Johanni had no ship of his own and it would be days before Halfdan returned from Scraefling Isle with refreshed legionary troops, the noblewoman loaned it to him for the excursion to Kolskegg’s Crag. It was a 55-foot clinker build, designed by its shipwrights for the swift transportation of soldiers from the Salt Shore to the Salt Isles. The Krake came with an experienced crew of forty oarsman and one cox, sturdy rigging, and a massive 40-foot sail bearing the Arbarii crab totem in glorious crimson and gold. With the aid of a strong northern wind the Krake was almost skating over the seas. Over his shoulder, the city of Kjarlling and all its ports, spires and bell towers became an anomalous black shape in a distant panorama of land. Ahead of him? Nothing but open sea. As an Impanni, Johanni was more partial to riding than sailing, but it was an exhilarating thrill to sail through those waters at speed. If not for recent events he might have allowed himself to enjoy it. As he gazed out into the distant northern sea Erik Halfspear made his way up the ship to stand with him. The Krake sailed so swiftly that he grabbed the forestay to steady himself. “First time I’ve been on a ship,” said the Halfspear. “It’s a passing thrill,” said Johanni. Erik drew closer. “Are you alright?” He wasn’t sure. So much had happened in such a short amount of time. It was like his mind barely had time to cope with one crisis before another one struck. And truth be told he felt nervous without Eardwulf at his side. It felt like walking toward battle with an empty scabbard. “I’m only tired, Erik. Nothing more.” “Johanni, someone tried to kill you last night,” the Karggar scowled thinking about it. “When I get my fucking hands on that one-eyed bastard…” There was a long line on that score. As soon as Wulfstan escaped that night, Kjarlla had the halflings sound the bells across the entire palace and ordered her guards to surround the sorcerer’s quarters but he’d already abandoned them. All his scrolls, documents, tomes, tonics and herbs were gone. Regardless he accompanied Kjarlla to Lord Bors as she professed everything to him and demanded Thorvald’s release from the dungeons. But the Arbarii chieftain remained shrewd and said that he could not release Thorvald until One-Eyed Wulfstan was ‘captured and brought back to Pearlstone for questioning’. Sensing an opportunity to ingratiate himself, Johanni offered his services to that end and requested a mere ship to ferry him to Kolskegg’s Crag. Kjarlla immediately offered him a snekkja from her own personal fleet, the newly re-rigged Krake. With the Crag only ten miles northeast of Kjarlling, it wasn’t long before its rocky hillocks bore up on the horizon. The cox roared for the men to ease as they gradually pulled close enough to beach upon the shoreline. Johanni, Erik, Norsa, Frodi and Gnut leapt off at the prow as the ship’s crew began securing its moorings. Kolskegg’s Crag was a grim island, no wider than a mile in either direction. Sixty paces ahead there was a dirt road joining the beach to its ‘inland’, a foggy patchwork of rocky outcroppings, dense bushes and fly-infested marshes. At the highest point of the isle where the land rose into a steep mound visible from all its compass points, stood a small logwood hall ringfenced by piles of slag and roofed with thatch. According to Kjarlla, that was One-Eyed Wulfstan’s dwelling. Johanni led the way and the others followed. The pathway to Wulfstan’s manse was ragged, and further inland, muddy. It made a trudge of what should have been a quiet trek. Johanni waded through mud and peat carefully, lest he lose his step. Gnut ambled up and joined him. It went as deep as his knees and yet he moved comfortably (almost smugly) ahead. “Where’s your Osserian?” He asked. Johanni looked down at him. “…He needs rest. I’m happy to allow it.” “Ya a shit liar,” said Gnut. His crossbow and mace rattled behind his back. His belt was stitched full of pouches and each one carried ten quarrels. “Ya thinking about ya brother I expect. That’s why ya face looks so fucking grim. It don’t suit ya.” Sighing, Johanni spoke low so as not to be heard by Norsa, who walked ten paces behind them with Frodi. “He is my brother. I thought we shared everything. I do not understand how he could keep something like this from me.” “They might’ve killed him if he didn’t,” said Gnut. “See it thus-ways, boy. From the day your mother first whelped ya, the court saw Ragnar as nowt more than the by-blow o’ an illicit affair. Me, Trygga, Haakon, the Golden Brothers? We was his only real friends. He supped the Wulf’s Blut to guard us from a nightmare o’ our own making. I suppose, once ya grew, he didn’t wish for ya to see the monster he’d become.” Johanni frowned, silently. “Will ya help me free him from this curse?” asked the Troll. The boy glanced over his shoulder at Norsa again as she ambled up the muddy slope of the hillock, axes slapping against her thighs. She was as unfussed with the terrain as Gnut – having spent a quarter of her life hiding in forests from legionary soldiers. He made a pledge to help her in her quest for justice, did he not? Was there a way to help both Norsa and Ragnar? He asked himself that as the party moved through an inner thicket of woodland. It was sparse and thorny, and at its edge was an acre of cleared grassland with half a dozen wattle-and-daub houses spread out around it, along with empty livestock paddocks, a stable, a kiln, and a dry well. The village was abandoned. The Halfspear grimaced. “This is where Wulfstan’s tenants lived?” “And they’ve cleared out,” said Norsa. “The bastard knew we were coming.” On the other side of the village was the knoll atop of which was Wulfstan’s manse. Around the rim of that hillock in the squat shadow of the slag piles ringed around the summit, there was a second dirt trail winding around to a cave mouth. Outside of it, there were dozens of empty iron cages and almost hundreds of open shackles and chains piled together into a gigantic iron cairn. Like the village, the iron cages were empty, marred by blood smears and thousands upon thousand of fowl bones and feathers rotting away into mulch. “Gods a’mercy, what the hell was happening here?” Said Frodi. Johanni picked up a dead torch from a nearby brazier. “Let’s find out,” he said. They followed the second trail to the cave mouth. An iron bar gate guarded the dark tunnel within. It was locked tight so Erik and Norsa took turns putting their boots to it, kick after kick, until its broke loose from the hinges and collapsed into the sandy ground. Gnut collected some flint and struck a light to Johanni’s torch as Erik unsheathed his greatsword and warned them all to draw their own weapons. Steel and leather sucked free as Norsa pulled her hafting axe, Gnut drew his mace, Frodi nocked an arrow and Johanni unsheathed his sword short. Erik advanced at Johanni’s side. The sloping tunnel, carved out of rock and soil, was only a few yards long and ended with a wooden door (which Erik kicked in) leading to a stone chamber. It was dark, but the walls were lined with whalebone sconces that Johanni lit one by one. The added flames revealed rows of worktables and cauldrons, ink jars and quills, scattered parchment and scrolls, glass jars of tonic, bottled herbs and resins, pouches of fine powder, whole racks full of embalming tools, and many dozens of structural sketches of plinths, daises and stacked constructs analogous to the ritual altars of the Beast Towers. One of them was identical to the one they found beneath Haakon’s Redoubt. Further along the paved floor there was a pit. Erik called the others over to look at it; two yards wide and six yards deep, its walls completely smooth. If you fell inside, you wouldn’t come back without help. Frodi gazed over the edge and saw something white at the bottom – like snow or salt. He asked Johanni to bring the torch a bit closer. When he did, and they both got a better look, they realized it was neither snow nor salt. The bottom of the pit was filled with bones. Thousands of pale white bones picked clean and sucked free of their marrow – thighbones, hipbones, anklebones, shoulder blades, kneecaps, rib cages, skulls… Johanni gagged. “By the gods,” whispered Gnut. “It’s a feeding pit.” “A feeding pit for what?” Questioned Norsa. And then they heard the screams. Johanni, Erik, Gnut, Norsa, and Frodi turned to a second door on the other side of the stone chamber. The tormented wails scratched out from behind it. Erik snatched the torch out of Johanni’s hands and ordered the boy to stand behind him as he advanced. “Frodi, get the door,” he said. Arrow still nocked, the archer booted it open and the others followed him in. But no sight heretofore seen could have prepared them for what was on the other side. There were monsters in the dark. Hundreds of them. Twisting, snarling, shrieking. Teeth gnashing, claws snapping and scraping, their pitch-black muscled hides slick with sweat and soot. Like smouldering coals their eyes glowed red in the dark, eyes so hot their tears turned to steam in their sockets. A hundred snorting snouts smoked with sulphur as cloven feet scraped at the sweat-soaked flagstones and ethereal screams belted out of their throats in naked rage, ferocious with hate. All of them were chained by their hands and feet to the walls of an enormous underground dome stinking to its ceiling with shit and blood and piss. Erik was speechless. Frodi’s jaw slackened. Johanni almost brought up his breakfast – if for nothing else but the smell. Even Norsa was wide eyed with fright. Only Gnut, swapping his mace for his crossbow, it was only he who did not flinch. He advanced to within a yard of one of them – and it snarled at him like a starved dog. Gnut inspected its ears. They were clubbed. “These creatures weren’t human,” said the Troll. “They were halflings.” “Correct!” Said One-Eyed Wulfstan. Everyone turned to him. He stood smirking by an open door across the room, slowly clapping his hands. There were cotton wrappings around his wrist where Kjarlla had cut him with her seax. “You bastard!” Spat Erik. “Did you do this?!” There were sixty whalebone sconces around them. With a single snap of his fingers, One-Eyed Wulfstan lit them all up in pale green fire. His hundred creatures all snarled in ravenous disconcert at the sudden emerald glow that overtook the dome. Their ‘guests’ now saw their creator smirking darkly in the torchlight. “Brilliant, I think. A townswoman or two might be missed no matter where she comes from. But a hundred worthless halflings bought on the cheap in the slave markets? Who would care? Who did?” Johanni could barely breathe with the shock. “What… have you… done?!” “I’ve unearthed the hidden wisdom of the ancients too long suppressed by pious cowards. What you see before you, unfortunately, is only an… approximation of the true Wulf’s Blut. I call them beastlings. Unlike Haakon, these black beauties’ skins are un-armoured, they do not retain their human mentality, and they cannot return to their human forms. But they still possess the strength, speed and savagery of their progenitive font.” “To what end?!” Yelled Johanni. “Why would you subject these poor souls to such torture!” Wulfstan’s smile fell. “No one has the authority to deny mankind access to such power, not even your father. Your soul might be too shallow to see it but make no mistake – a new world is coming, one that shall be shaped by Magnus Magnusson – and my creations will be the foot soldiers in the war that shall birth it.” “I’ve heard enough,” spat Erik. “You’re coming back to Pearlstone to answer for your crimes, Wulfstan!” The sorcerer smirked at the chieftain. “No,” he said, raising his fingers, “I won’t.” Wulfstan snapped them. And then, in unison, every single shackle and ankle cuff in that stinking stone dome unlocked themselves and all hundred of the beastlings leapt free. One-Eyed Wulfstan ran laughing through the rear door. As the beastlings swarmed around them Gnut screamed “RUN!” and everyone bolted for their lives towards the opposite door. Erik and Norsa charged ahead. The first beastling to attack met the latter’s throwing axe with its brow, splitting its skull open mid-air. Erik repelled a second’s swinging claws with the flat of his sword before wheeling left and cutting its belly, splitting open its abdomen as its slopping guts spilled out over the flagstones. Johanni, Frodi and Gnut followed the path Erik and Norsa cut through the throng as half of the beastling horde pounced ravenously upon their dead sibling’s corpses and began to feast. The others followed them to the opposing door. Erik ran through, as did Johanni, then Gnut, then Frodi. All that was left was… “Norsa!” Yelled Erik. “What the fuck are you doing!?” She stood her ground, swinging her axe at monster after monster, taking an arm or a leg or a snout or a claw until another beastling pounced at her blind spot and slashed open her scale mail. Three bloody welts spat blood streaks across her boots and abdomen as she doubled over, gritting her teeth. A second beastling, bounding towards her on all fours, leapt out only to be blown back by one of Frodi’s arrows plunging into its blood red eye. He loosened more shafts to stave off the throng as Gnut and Erik dragged the Osserian back to the hallway and Johanni slammed the iron door shut. “Are you alright?” Asked Johanni. “Are you insane?!” Asked Erik. “You thought you could kill them all on your own, you fucking idiot!?” Norsa pulled a bloody grin but said nothing. The beastlings banged into the door from the other side. They would break their own skulls open just to get through. Fortunately, there was a wooden beam resting by the left wall. Gnut helped Frodi lower it onto two iron rungs to bar the door. “Go,” said the archer. “I’ll stay here with Norsa. Go, before Wulfstan gets away.” {Wulfstan!} Thought Johanni. Past the hall was a flight of stone steps. Johanni clutched his sword and ran after him, followed by Gnut and then Erik, who ordered Frodi to watch after Norsa. The three of them ran up the sandy stone steps to a second cave mouth. It led to the other side of the mound where the dirt trail resumed and declined down the slope of the hillock, through the forest and towards the beaches surrounding the isle. Johanni eyed his environs. And then, past the brushwood, Johanni spotted a shadow running down that slope. “There!” He yelled. Gnut loosed a quarrel into the bush. A scream sounded out. Johanni, Erik and Gnut went after him and as they got to the edge of the slope they saw the sorcerer rolling down it, falling through clouds of dust and grass and pebbles until he skidded out through a thicket of bush and slammed against a rock behind it. Johanni jogged down the slope following the trail that the sorcerer’s body cut through the dirt but by the time he reached the rock he was already gone, with nothing left of him except a bloodstain and the loose quarrel he’d pulled from his thigh wound. “Wulfstan!” Roared Erik. Johanni watched the Halfspear and Gnut the Troll run past him along the dirt trail, then quickly joined them. Yards ahead One-Eyed Wulfstan limped gripping his leg and bleeding out into the dirt. There was a skiff by the distant shoreline. The Arbarii hobbled over to when his sandals skidded onto the beach. The second that Erik, Gnut and Johanni caught up to him a shrieking howl sounded out across the sand as another beastling leapt out from the shrubs. Erik shoved Johanni out of the way as both claws clashed against his greatsword and the two figures crashed into the sand. Gritting his teeth, the Karggar growled hard and held off the monstrosity with all the strength he could muster, but every second he spent beneath its weight brought his steel an inch closer and closer to his throat – until Gnut the Troll shot a bolt into its back. The beastling froze, jerking suddenly, shaking and quivering and trembling. It fell off Erik’s sword and landed onto the sand next to him, screaming, as the resin began to flow through his veins. Johanni pulled his face out of the sand. He looked left and saw Erik climbing onto his feet. Gnut, crossbow outstretched, advanced on the fallen beastling. When he looked to his right he saw One-Eyed Wulfstan bundling himself into the skiff. And then the fury came back. Growling, snarling, the boy shot back onto his boots and scrambled off across the beach towards the skiff and threw himself into it, grabbling the old sorcerer, mounting him, punching him, again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again until he stopped moving. He caught his breath. Blood matted his hair, his face, his knuckles, his tabard. Johanni collapsed onto the oaken bench plank, gasping for breath, then grabbed a spool of rope from inside the ship and tied the sorcerer’s wrists and ankles together. He spat in the bastard’s bloody face. “Johanni!” Yelled Erik, “Are you alright?” The boy controlled his breathing and then lumbered out of the small boat. One-Eyed Wulfstan was unconscious and bound up by rope now, he wasn’t going anywhere. He tiredly made his way over to Erik and Gnut who watched as the immobilized beastling’s body began to regress. The pitch-black skin pigment grew paler and paler until it faded into cream, but its bulbous veins still bulged through, its claws half-fused into twisted finger-like digits, the packed muscle receding from its thighs but not its arms, its face half-paralyzed as half its bone moulded back into a human-like shape as the other half retained its beast-form. One blue eye, one red. Half-man, half-monster. Half-transformed, half-not. “W-what’s happening to it?” Asked Johanni. Gnut shut his eyes. “Whatever Wulfstan did… it’s only half done… so the resin’s only working halfway…” “…k-kill…” he/it whispered. “…kill… me… k-kill me… kill me… kill me, kill me, kill me, kill me, kill me! Kill me! Kill me! Kill me! KILL ME…!” Johanni covered his mouth. “…It’s in pain.” “KILL ME! KILL ME! KILL ME! KILL ME!” Erik cut its head off. ********** His knuckles were terribly sore. He had never seen them turn such an ugly shade of purple and blue before – and they stung! Johanni grit his teeth as a smirking Erik Halfspear dabbed his bruised hand with tonic and carefully wrapped a line of cotton cloth around it. They were back in their rooms in Pearlstone. “You’re taking after me now,” chuckled the Karggar. “How did it feel, finally losing your temper?” {Gods, it felt good.} “Enough, Erik. That was a mistake.” “Beating the lights out of an arseling like Wulfstan isn’t a mistake.” His hand said otherwise. It would be difficult to swing his sword for a while, even by Erik’s admission. “If you don’t rest it, it won’t heal,” he’d said. “Leave the fighting to me from now on.” Johanni didn’t object to the order. Instead, he leaned over the bed and kissed the towering swordsman, dragging his slim fingers through the rough russet kink of his beard. “Thank you,” whispered the boy. Johanni climbed into Erik’s arms and nestled himself upon his lap. He never felt warmer or safer than he did in the Halfspear’s arms. And he longed to feel safe at this point. His wandered thoughts constantly to the horrors on Kolskegg’s Crag, and the more he thought of it the more frightened he became. With that whoreson One-Eyed Wulfstan in their custody they sailed back to Kjarlling before nightfall, but they had to leave those poor souls locked inside the underground vault. They were starving – how long would it be before they started feasting on each other to survive in that rancid black pit? {And now that scourge slumbers beneath Ragnar’s skin, he thought. Gnut was right. Damn the Wulf’s Blut! It’s nothing but a curse…} “Johanni,” Erik Halfspear sighed. “Come now, we have to see Bors.” “…You should know I hate it when you’re right.” Erik smiled softly. No longer wearing their armour (but rather the coloured Arbarii-style tunics provided to them by Pearlstone’s halfling thralls) Johanni and Erik left the former’s rooms. The aetheling half expected to see Eardwulf outside his door awaiting him dutifully as always, but he was unseen since the eve prior when the guards allowed him to venture into the city by Johanni’s leave. {Once this is all done we shall have to search for him,} thought Johanni. {Stay safe, Eardwulf…} Erik called on one of the halflings to show them to the dungeons. He took them two flights down from the palace’s lavish marble ground floor to its uglier stonework foundations. There they followed the halfling down a narrow corridor into Pearlstone’s dungeons. Chills flickered the flames of the ensconced torchlight and Johanni sniffled at the rime scent of the damp air. It was an unkind place with a punishing atmosphere, but the cells were mostly empty, save for a few gaoled Thoth pirates and one new addition. One-Eyed Wulfstan. The halfling thrall took Johanni and Erik to his cell door and excused himself as the Arbarii guardsmen moved to unlock it for the atheling and chieftain. Inside it a furious Lord Bors clutched the stock of a bloodied whip. And gyved to the wall before him was his former court sorcerer and advisor, One-Eyed Wulfstan. The guards had stripped him naked for Lord Bors to put the whip to him, his back ran red with deep puckered welts suppurating with pus. They washed his face clean of the blood which only highlighted his facial injuries – his nose broken and his good eye swollen shut. He was essentially blind. And he stank of piss. No doubt Bors whipped it out of him. “Lord Bors,” said Johanni. “Is he able to speak?” Bors’ fat hand slapped him. “Open your mouth, wretch.” Wulfstan’s jaw slackened. He spat out a wad of phlegm and blood (inside of which was a broken tooth). “Y-yes…” “Good,” Johanni strode up to him. “No more games. No more chases. Tell us everything you know or your last days on this plane shall be your worst.” Wulfstan pulled a slow grin. “…H-how n-noble of you…” Bors slapped him again. Recoiling, the aging sorcerer spat up another knot of blood. “…Magnus Magnusson, he… he calls it Die Weißjagd…” “Die Weißjagd?” Johanni blinked. “…The White Hunt…?” One-Eyed Wulfstan nodded. “Magnus Magnusson… has amassed an army… of 12,000 Thoth warriors… and 2000 beastlings… and built a fleet… of over 300 ironwood warships. He plans… to sail my creations… to the Weald’s eastern shores… and march them on the capital… forcing the Bloodbane… to send the Legion east… leave Drangheim defenceless… and allow the Thoths… to march south… and capture it. That’s why Haakon… made the Osserians… kidnap Sygardi Greyspear… leverage… to force the Karggars… not to interfere.” {Oh good gods,} thought Johanni. This was worse than he feared. Magnus Magnusson wasn’t content to expand his power in the Salt Isles. He planned to overthrow King Hrathwuld! Now suddenly everything made sense; Sygardi’s kidnapping, Haakon’s campaign in the Fens, the stolen ironwood, Bersi’s assassination. All of these were merely pieces in a larger plot to seize the crown. Johanni glanced over his shoulder at Erik. “We have to warn my father.” “…You’re too late,” said Wulfstan. “It’s already… begun.” But by now, Bors had had enough. “Erik,” he said. “Lend me your dagger.” The Karggar chieftain was more than happy to oblige. Seconds later Bors thrust that dagger through One-Eyed Wulfstan’s neck. The old sorcerer spluttered up huge gouts of blood, gagged upon them, and then slowly ebbed away. “Lord Bors, he might have been more useful alive,” said Johanni. “I have no use for traitors,” said Bors. “I WARNED you about Magnusson! I KNEW it would come to this! Well no more. He hasn’t merely violated the sibb, he’s bent over and SHAT on it! Well, DAMN HIM! Damn twice and thrice, that worthless Thoth dog! I swear! I SWEAR I shall sail my entire fleet north and gut him alive in his own FUCKING castle!” “I caution against it, lord.” “What?!” Johanni stood upright. “Arbarii trade is the lifeblood of Grünlund, especially for those Karggars still trapped within the Grey Wilds. Sailing your warships north will only disrupt that trade.” Bors snatched the dagger out of Wulfstan’s blood-soaked neck and returned it to Erik. “Then what do you propose I do? Nothing?” “No. Bolster your defences, fortify your ports and checkpoints, call in every sword and spear you have to protect the key points of trade across the Salt Shore. I will deal with Magnus Magnusson myself.” “…By doing what?” “By meeting with him,” said Johanni, “face to face.” Erik frowned. “Johanni, we discussed that before when-” “I know that. But events have taken a turn, Erik, and not for the better. Confrontation with Magnusson cannot be avoided but war must always be the last resort. That’s why my father chose me as his heir and not Ragnar. I will talk before I fight. Now,” he turned to Bors. “Lord. I believe your daughter is waiting for us.” ********** The halflings kindled all six hearths of the audience chamber in preparation for Lord Bors and his three wives (all seated to the throne behind his) for Lady Kjarlla and her retinue – eight handmaidens, her steward, and her minstrel – as well as for Johanni and his companions; Erik Halfspear, Frodi the Archer, Norsa Hardfang, and now, Gnut the Troll. Of his household troops twenty men (each of them armed with spear and buckler and short sword) stood guard whilst another two opened the chambers and a final three allowed in a newly released prisoner from the dungeons. It was Thorvald Tyrfingsson. The halflings had bathed, fed and dressed him anew in a lavish red, gold and green striped Arbarii tunic sashed by ivory-buttoned belt, but his step remained weak and his eyes sunken. Pearlstone’s gaol took a heavy toll. Nevertheless, his smile was bright – and all the brighter for finding his beautiful wife Kjarlla eagerly awaiting him in the chambers. Johanni watched the Arbarii heiress gather up her skirts and run to him, defying all rules of custom and decorum, nearly knocking him over as she flung herself into his arms. “Thank the gods!” she wept, “Thank the gods you’ve come back to me!” Bors scoffed. Johanni could not help but take some small pleasure in watching the rotund chieftain do this. His plans to wed his daughter to the royal family were quashed and now he was obligated to do what men of his ilk were often loath to – humble himself. “Lord Thorvald,” said the old boar of Pearlstone. “Please accept my apology. Charges of murder were brought against you – falsely – but now that the true killer has been dealt with, I ask you to move forward with me in addressing the mutual concerns of our two chiefdoms.” There was a wry hint to Thorvald Tyrfingsson’s ‘thankful’ smile that did not go unnoticed. The stepson bore the father even less love than the father did him. But their mutuality was in Kjarlla, and it was for her sake that Thorvald held his peace. “Lord,” he said weakly. “I accept your apology. But as you say… let us look to the future. We share… a common enemy in Magnus Magnusson… and rest assured…I will do all in my power… to assist you against… this threat.” Bors nodded in acknowledgement then turned to Johanni. “And you, young lord, to you I must also offer thanks. You have done myself, the Salt Shore, and the entire Arbarii tribe a great service in unmasking the dark treachery roosting within my palace. I am indebted to you and I shall see to it that your extraordinary work here is fully repaid. However,” Johanni frowned. “I am sure you will agree with Thorvald and I that our more pressing concern is the threat of the Thoth chieftain, Magnus Magnusson. His plan, the Die Weißjagd as One-Eyed Wulfstan called it, presents mortal danger not only Drangheim but to all Grünlund itself. Considering these events, I must unfortunately withhold any declarations of support with regards to King Hrathwuld’s successor.” Johanni clutched a fist. “You cunning bastard,” he heard Erik whisper. There was a scintilla of a smile upon Bors’ thin lips. No doubt he’d had that planned from the moment they dragged One-Eyed Wulfstan into his dungeons. No one in all Grünlund bore the Thoths more hatred than Lord Bors of Pearlstone. In a way, the Die Weißjagd presented him with an opportunity as well as a threat. If the scale of this crisis necessitated a martial response from Drangheim then there was no better opportunity than now to rid himself of Magnus Magnusson and quell the Thoth threat. But such a campaign might take many solstices to complete, and when the dust settled, who was to say what the playing field between Johanni and Ragnar would look like? If Bors offered his support now and Johanni died (for whatever reason) how favourably would a newly crowned ‘King Bloodbane’ look upon him? No, Bors was far too shrewd for that. If nothing else Die Weißjagd would buy him the time he needed to make more ‘informed’ decision about who and who not to back as the next King of Grünlund. To men like him, politics was a card game; he might have had a weaker hand than his opponents, but he knew how to play it. There was nothing Johanni could do. The boy bowed. “I understand, Lord Bors. I expect we shall discuss our mutual path forward tomorrow but for now my allies and I must retire. It has been a trying day.” Lord Bors grunted his acceptance and Johanni quickly withdrew with Erik, Frodi, Norsa and Gnut closely behind him. The guards opened the heavy iron doors and they strode out together, footsteps echoing angrily down the marble corridors. What they did not notice was Lady Kjarlla following them, not until she called out Johanni’s name. He stopped and turned where he was with his companions around him. Kjarlla embraced him with her arms and two kisses to either cheek. “Thank you,” she said softly. “I say that from the bottom of my heart. I care not a whit what my father says, you first and foremost shall have the backing of the Arbariis, Johanni Carian Hrathwuld. I swear it.” He smiled. “You’re welcome, my lady.” Kjarlla kissed his brow one more time before returning to the audience chamber. The palace guards then shut its heavy iron doors behind her. As they resumed their march towards their quarters, Norsa Hardfang edged up to Johanni’s side. Upon their return from Kolskegg’s Crag the palace thralls quickly stitched and bandaged her wounds – but her movements were frail. She needed time to recover before she was ready to fight again (not that she would ever admit it). “And now what, boy? We’ve come all the way to the Salt Shore for nothing?” “Magnusson should be our focus now,” he replied. “I’ll send a rider down to Drangheim with our fastest horse to warn my father of what’s coming. We shall discuss our next move tomorrow, agreed?” “…Agreed,” spat Norsa. Norsa left him then, along with Frodi. Gnut (who had been offered rooms by Lord Bors as thanks for helping to capture One-Eyed Wulfstan) was taken to his quarters by one of the household’s halflings leaving Erik to walk Johanni to his chamber door alone. The boy longed for a kiss but there were spearmen posted at every alcove along the corridor – Lord Bors had doubled the palace guard to 400 men. “I’ll call on you later,” said the Halfspear. “Rest for now.” Johanni smiled back. “…Don’t take too long.” Erik bowed (un-sarcastically) and turned heel towards his chambers on the other side of the hallway. Johanni watched him depart as he opened his own door. He strode in feeling more tired than he’d been in solstices. He could’ve collapsed upon his bed and not awoken for another three days. And perhaps he would have… if he didn’t find Eardwulf, drunken and unshaven, lulling in wait by his bedside with a near-empty ale bottle in his right hand (sloppily bandaged after punching the marble fresco the night prior). “Eardwulf!” Johanni said. “Where have you been?” He didn’t reply. Instead, he set the ale bottle to his lips and swilled what was left of it in a few quick gulps. And then he hurled that empty bottle across the room into the roaring hearth where it smashed to pieces. Johanni’s shoulders jumped at the impact. {He’s drunk…} thought the boy. There was even a blood smear upon the Osserian’s tunic collar. “Are you hurt?” He asked. Eardwulf remained still as stone as Johanni approached him to check on it. He unbuttoned the top fold and peeled it back, but there was no wound. “It’s not mine…” he heard Eardwulf whisper this as the older man clutched his arms around the boy and shoved him against his chest. He stank of ale and blood. “Eardwulf,” Johanni tried to pull himself free but the Osserian was too strong, far too strong. “Eardwulf, you need some rest. Let me help you to your rooms.” “To… to the slave quarters? Where I belong?” He sneered, wryly. “No. No, I am exactly where I should be.” Eardwulf pressed his lips against Johanni’s. The boy went still, eyes shooting open. The kiss was so sudden that for the briefest second, he could not think, not until the sour taste of ale and chicken fouled his mouth. Johanni wretched reflexively and pulled away, murmuring “no” beneath his breath. Eardwulf growled hungrily, snatching a fistful of Johanni’s golden curls in his bandaged hand. The sudden jerk paralysed him – and Eardwulf responded by crushing their lips together again. It was nothing like their kiss in the Royal Baths. With that there was at least some sense of tenderness or love. But this? This was crude and drudging and gormless, nothing but longing and frustration. Johanni tried to yell “stop” but all either of them was a formless muffled moan as Eardwulf’s tongue prised open his lips and twisted with his own. He thumped his tiny fists against the older man’s shoulders in protestation but Eardwulf snatched both of his wrists and wrestled him onto the bed. The muscular Osserian’s weight landed atop of him heavily, knocking the air out of his lungs. And as Johanni caught his breath Eardwulf thrust his wrists into the feathered pillow, holding them both in place with only one of his hands whilst the other slipped down the boy’s body, caressing his soft cheeks and slender neck until curled his fingers beneath that gold-trimmed tunic collar and tore it open, exposing Johanni’s bare beating chest. His muffled cries of alarm droned between their joined mouths, “Nmmn!” and “Stmp-id! Pyees!” Eardwulf broke the rough, laboured kiss just long enough to admire the young lord’s soft chest, and the faint contours of muscle that the journey was beginning to sculpt from it. He was ensorcelled by Johanni’s baby soft, cream-coloured breast as it heaved up and down beneath him, his stiff pink nipples garnished by rich amber hearth-light. Johanni screamed through gritted teeth, plunging his head into the pillow as Eardwulf bit down upon his nipple. The pain of it was like a jolt of energy, searing and frank, and he writhed helplessly at the grinding gnaw of his teeth. The scream was so loud his throat went hoarse. The Osserian clamped his free hand around Johanni’s mouth to silence it. “Stop fighting it,” he said. “You mustn’t be scared, ‘Hanni, I won’t hurt you.” Johanni bit his finger. Scowling, Eardwulf withdrew his hand as the boy seized his moment and desperately screamed for help from the top of his lungs. The unlocked chamber door swung open and Erik Halfspear barrelled in. He blinked. “What in hells?” When Eardwulf glanced over his shoulder at Erik, there was a growl that escaped his lips more carnal and ferocious than any beast could summon. “You!” He spat. If either of them had had swords in that moment, they would have been drawn. Instead Eardwulf climbed off Johanni and charged at the Karggar, smashing his fist against Erik’s jaw. The Halfspear slammed into the ironwood door (the impact sealing it shut) before another punch thrust into his gut, doubling him over. “It’s all YOUR fault!” Screamed Eardwulf, “DAMN YOU!” He kneaded his fingers together and brought them knuckle down into Erik’s back with one powerful swing. The Karggar’s legs collapsed beneath him. He landed with a thud upon the cold stone floor. Five whole solstices of pent-up rage and utter frustration suddenly released itself like a torrent as Eardwulf climbed on top of the chieftain and barrelled down punch after punch after punch, splattering his own bruised fists in bloody spittle and tooth fragments; growling and screaming like an uncaged animal, determined not to stop until Erik’s skull was nothing more than a cracked husk. Johanni drew his short sword. Eardwulf froze mid-punch, his bandaged fist aloft, when he heard the distinctive slurp of unsheathed steel and his lord brought the blade’s cold tip to his neck, warningly. “Move away from him,” said the boy. Erik coughed up a gout of black blood as the Osserian climbed off him and slowly moved aside. Johanni, clothes in disarray, his exposed right nipple swollen red and glistening with spittle, guardedly trod between the two fighters, protecting the Halfspear whilst keeping his sword trained on Eardwulf’s throat. “…‘Hanni…” “Don’t!” He spat. “Do not dare to call me that!” Eardwulf’s shoulders and chest heaved as he caught his breath and his once cold grey eyes now burned molten silver, sparkling with un-spilt tears. Johanni felt no pity for him. For the first time in his life, Eardwulf genuinely frightened him. “If I called the guards now,” he began, “they would behead you tomorrow. Take this one chance, Eardwulf. Leave. Saddle your horse, ride away, and never return to me again.” “Johanni, I love you, all I want-” “I am NOT a possession to be seized!” He cried. “GET OUT! Get out now or I swear I shall summon the guards and be damned what follows!” The blade tip was deep enough to draw blood, and it did. Just an ounce of force would slide it through Eardwulf’s throat. He was the man who taught Johanni how to use a blade – but his pupil would skewer him with it if he took another step forward. The thrall scrubbed the damp from his eyes and slowly left the room. As soon as the door clicked shut the aetheling threw his sword away and knelt by Erik’s side. “Erik! Erik! Are you alright?” He came around groggily and spat out a wad of blood as his eyes fluttered open again. His jaw was badly bruised – so he cradled it with his thumb and fingers. “Gods alive,” he groaned. “I’m… fine. Did he hurt you? Did he-” Johanni threw himself into Erik’s arms and wept. ********** It was the 48th Session of the Royal Diet. Ragnar, fully dressed in royal legionary armour with two spearmen at his side, observed from the upper gallery as all sixty jarls of the Impanni tribe gathered together in one place to discuss matters of state with King Hrathwuld. In times gone by the old chieftains took advice from their jarls by way of witans, and before those folkmoots; those ancient convocations of freemen and karls. What the Diet represented was the next natural step – a witan as formalized by logh. It was Ragnar’s suspicion that his father conceded to such a thing to allay (or stifle) any trepidations the Jarls might have had over his election as king; one of his many acts of overindulgent diplomacy. Hrathwuld was no fool, however, and he’d had his masons build this meeting hall in a manner that reflected well his position of dominance. The jarls’ stone seats were arrayed in semi-circular fashion around the wall’s curved rim – centred on the king’s lacquered oak throne, beyond which stood a massive pane of stained glass overlooking the city. When the sun’s light passed through that glass and showered the king in all its multi-coloured glory, the effect (and meaning) was implicit – that the king was chosen by the gods, as well as men, to rule. Ragnar looked on. His Royal Guardsmen were posted two to each door. As the nattering jarls arrived they greeted each other with saccharine pleasantries and japed, fast to run their mouths yet slow to take their seats – at least until King Hrathwuld arrived. He required two shieldmaidens to help him to his seat where two others stood astride to guard him; one was Gunhilda, the ice-eyed captain of the Shieldmaidens, and the other was Hereweald Ironside, the man who replaced Haakon Godwulfsson as his most favoured thegn. As everyone took their seats some thrall boys served them with refreshment – water, grapes and cheese. Ragnar watched as one of them presented his father with a cup of water. He did not drink this water. Instead he clapped his hand twice, plunging the chamber into silence – and thus began the talks. As Ragnar predicted, Jarl Sygmune was the first to speak. “Lord King, I speak for everyone when I begin by wishing you good health, by wishing the young lord Johanni good fortune in his continued endeavours abroad the country, and by congratulating High Legate Ragnar for his successful destruction of the Oakmire. In burning it down we can begin incorporating the old forest forts into the burghs and extend the Grey Wilds’ herepath roads all the way to the Salt Shore as has always been your ambition.” King Hrathwuld pulled a weary frown as more than half the jarls recognised Sygmune’s declaration with cries of “here, here!” “Indeed,” said the old monarch. Jarl Sygmune held aloft a rolled document. “Lords, I have in my hands a missive sent to us by our spies in the Elvish Empire. Their emperor has amassed a contingent of over 20,000 slave soldiers. According to this missive that army is now garrisoned on the southern side of the Black Mountains.” Ragnar observed quietly as anxious murmurs abounded throughout the chambers. Naturally, the jarls with land or property in the southernmost reaches of the Weald appeared most alarmed. One of them was the young Jarl Eygfried, one of the richest men amongst the Diet (upon inheriting his late father’s mountainside gold mines). “Lord King,” said the boy-child, “This is troubling news. 20,000 soldiers? That’s more than double the Royal Legion’s numbers, is it not? Perhaps we might consider calling in the fyrds?” King Hrathwuld sighed visibly. Ragnar wondered if those few rounds of agreement rattled him. The aging man held up his hand – a call for silence. When the jarls quietened down he permitted himself a sip of water to clear his throat before he spoke, as was his wont. Ragnar looked on. “Lords,” began the king, “the fyrdmen belong as they are… tending to their land, crops and livestock. I will not call for a single spear or reaping hook until… unless… our spies send word of ‘invasion’.” Half the jarls shared unsatisfied murmurs amongst themselves. “However. As I am mindful of your concerns… I shall have High Legate Ragnar dispatch 300 legionaries into Black Mountains, one century for each pass. There, they will re-fortify the checkpoints or seal them if needs be.” He was an old man. He was closer to a hundred than he was to fifty. Yet King Hrathwuld remained as shrewd and tactical as ever. And he was right. Besides his son he was the only military commander in that hall and he knew that mobilizing too many men without warrant was dangerous. The elves no doubt had spies on the northern side of the Black Mountains – if they called the fyrds and sent them south, such an act might provoke the elves and return their attentions to the Woags. The day of final confrontation with the elves would come… but Grünlund was not yet ready. Jarl Eygfried addressed the throne again. “Lord King, I am relieved to hear that more men are to be sent into the mountains. But I suggested calling the fyrds because many of us worry that the Legion is already stretched too thin. The 50 original legionaries of Lord Johanni’s caravan were slaughtered and another 100 were sent to him in the Fens. There are 500 legionaries garrisoned on Scraefling Isle and another 1000 now stationed at the northern border with the Grey Wilds. If we send another 300 men to the Black Mountains, that makes nearly a fifth of the entire Legion scattered across the nation. Surely the other tribes must honour their obligations to both crown and country by providing men as well as taxes?” Ragnar watched the jarls, almost all of them, agree. He then watched to see how his father would respond. “(Harrumph),” The King held his throat, as if something was tickling it from within. “Jarl Eygfried, these are…” he coughed, “…matters to be discussed…” he coughed again, sharp and throaty, “…in light of our…” Gunhilda lowered her spear and knelt by his side. “My king, are you well? Quickly now, you must drink some more water…” The Shieldmaiden handed Hrathwuld the half-drunk cup but as his coughing became a fit the spasms were so strong the cup fell out of his hands. The jarls began murmuring amongst themselves again as their sire clamped his gnarled hand around his mouth. When he coughed again, black blood spluttered between the digits of his fingers. Ragnar cried out (“Father!”) loud enough to heard by every man in that room as he ran out of the gallery and down the stone stairwell into the meeting hall and towards his father’s throne. But it was too late. By the time he joined Gunhilda and Hereweald Ironside at his throne the king had already slumped over the armrest, froth speckled with blood oozed from his lips as his eyes glassed over in the direction of the galleries. Absolutely stunned, Gunhilda brought her hand over his eyes and shut them. The entire hall lurched into silence save for the snap of the flames burning in their sconces. “H-he’s gone…” Gunhilda said solemnly, “…the king is dead…”
  7. Thanks! I love Skyrim too, its one of my favourite games of all time.
  8. A blue mist rolled low and thick across the soup-like, moss-covered waters of the Great Marsh. The air was musty, and the stench of peat arresting, almost viscous. Johanni stuffed his nose into a bit of cloth as his white mare ferried him along. He flicked away the mosquitoes and dragonflies with his free hand. Every fifty yards a horseman encouraged the procession to keep moving; a train of more than 2500 Karggar souls (at last count), some as young as babes swaddled in their mothers’ arms as their fathers trudged through the shallow waters, sweeping away the rushes with their bronze swords to cleave a path forward. The elderly, the sick and the infirm sat within horse-drawn wagons wrapped in fur-shouldered cloaks to fend off the cold. The 1000 swordsmen and 200 outriders called upon by Erik Halfspear now protected the march in parties of 20 or 30, striding alongside it with their spears and swords at the ready, their round shields and axes clunking heavily from their arms and belts. Around 30 Karggar horsemen brought up the rear, coaxing along stragglers or collecting those too weak to walk for the wagons. The full century of Royal Legionaries provided by Ragnar held the van, which was a cause of disagreement for the rump of Erik’s warband (his fifty most trusted men led by his two closest thegns-in-practice-if-not-name, Frodi and Thregg the Ghoat) but Johanni pled the case for his brother’s men. The eastern marshes were more familiar to them than they were to the Karggars, and their maps were far more accurate. Centurion Septio, a gaunt and snarling soldier with a greying widow’s peak and a palpable distaste for his newfound Karggar compatriots, captained the century. He was not a welcoming man but having fought in the Osserian pacification, he was long familiar with the eastern sweep of the Fens. Three suns and three moons had passed since the procession left the Grey Wilds and it had been a hard, hard journey thus far. When the Karggar’s rocky, lifeless home soil met its eastern border, a branch of the Great River spanned by an old stone bridge known as Ygga’s Tongue; they crossed over into the ancient territory of the Osserians and watched the earth beneath them slowly transform into open fields of wet swampy grassland. The rains were heavy beyond the Great River and fell hard upon them with no caves or trees around for shelter. When the men halted the train to camp they scrambled to pitch the tents, but the materials were so old and brittle that few provided much comfort from the storms. The horses were unused to such savage rains, so to keep them from bolting the men lashed them to deep wooden stakes that they bored into the soil. A few of the sickly amongst their party died that night. They had no relatives amongst the procession, and no one knew their names, so to spare time Erik had their bodies burned in upon pyres in the traditional Woaggish manner. The second day brought them into the Great Marsh, a gigantic sweep of wetland stretching from the distant northern estuary of the Great River to the southernmost edge of the Fens, only a few miles north of the Black Mountains. It penetrated westward for miles and historically served as a natural border between the Karggars and the Osserians, which was why the Osserians never attempted to drain it. It transformed what would’ve otherwise been a comfortable march into a protracted slog, those on foot wading through muck yard by yard, struggling to keep their provisions dry. Since there was nowhere in the Great Marsh to camp, as Centurion Septio informed Johanni, there was no choice but to march through the second night until they made it to relatively dry land. Inevitably some fell behind, perhaps as many 300 people, but Erik commanded his outriders to pick up the stragglers as the procession kept on. By the third morning they reached the other side of the Great Marsh on a half-mile long, sparsely forested isle called Ygga’s Eye, suitable for them to camp upon. Beyond that laid the Lesser Marsh, a less torrid, partially forded portion of the Fens that the Karggar procession now walked. Eardwulf rode his gelding up to Johanni’s mare. “You look pale, lord. Are you well?” “Yes,” {Oh Gods no,} he thought. “But the air here is… overpowering.” The Osserian nodded. “Half the Fens are consumed by this marshland. The other half my ancestors settled upon after we broke off from the Impanni tribe.” His history was correct. As the scholars taught him back in Drangheim, the Impanni and the Osserians were once one tribe, those amongst the Woags who penetrated Grünlund to its southernmost reaches. However, for reasons lost to time, the earliest ancestor of the House of Osser abandoned the Weald with thousands of his kinsmen and marched west to settle the wetlands that would one day become known as The Fens. When Johanni flicked another mosquito from his face he noticed a pregnant woman lulling from her horse. Her skin was sweaty and gelid. He yelled at her husband (who waded ahead on foot with its reins in hand) to stop and fetch her, but it was too late. The woman’s eyes rolled into the back of her head and she fell out of the saddle into the marsh. Her husband ran to her side to help her up. Johanni looked ahead through the thick mist. Erik rode with the van, Frodi and Thregg at his side, and Growler yawning in his horse-drawn cage. The Halfspear’s soldiers were hardy and accustomed to such long journeys from their many raids upon the Fens and the Weald, but for his townsfolk this was an arduous and perilous gamble. “This is far too much for them,” said Johanni, “Is there no faster way to Karburgh?” Reluctantly, Eardwulf eyed the northwest. In the distance beyond the fog, perhaps a half-mile off, there was a patch of forested earth poking up at the horizon. “There is an old forded pass in that direction. It’s narrow and the bridgework is old but if they marched slowly it will hold. But so far as I know it hasn’t been used since the war.” “We have to try. Let’s go,” said Johanni, whipping the reins and coaxing his horse ahead towards Erik, with Eardwulf close behind. {Not that I want to talk to him,} thought Johanni. “Erik.” The Halfspear glanced over his cloaked shoulder. “Little lord?” Clouds the colour of smoke blotted out the sun above them, yet Johanni could not help but imagine a sparkle in the Karggar chieftain’s molten copper eyes. The boy blushed without meaning to, even as the image of him fucking the thrall girl beneath the Wyvern’s Leg sprung to mind. “Eardwulf says there’s a forded pass northeast of here that will take us to Karburgh faster than the marsh trails. I think we should take it.” Erik scratched his beard, sniffing at the rank air. “That cheerless centurion of yours has the maps, doesn’t he? What sense does it make to change course when we’ve come so far already?” “We’ve lost three people in as many days. The Karggars aren’t suited to marshland yet.” “We can handle it,” said Erik. “Your soldiers can handle it,” said Johanni. “You have children and old folks who can’t. We should find some level ground to make camp. We can take your warband and my century down the forded pass. If it’s safe, we’ll send a rider back with word to march the procession upland.” A moment of silence passed when the broad-shouldered Karggar chieftain glared down at the young lord, almost as if he was unsure of what he was looking at, until he framed his face with a more familiar, sarcastic smile. “As you command, little lord,” he quipped. Centurion Septio was about 40 yards ahead. Erik bunched up his horse’s reins and jostled his steed upfield to confer with him. At the same time Halfdan rode up to Johanni’s side, chafing uncomfortably in his leather saddle. He was all eyes to what had occurred. “The Halfspear is headstrong,” said the portly steward. “Lord, I wonder if he has forgotten that this is your campaign, not his?” Johanni frowned. “Erik will learn his place.” ********* According to Centurion Septio’s maps there was a hillock about a half-mile ahead of the procession called Asher’s Barrow. It was the burial site of a disgraced Osserian chieftain who almost abandoned his duties to ride north with an Arbarii whore. When his thegns caught and killed him he they did not bury him with his ancestors in the Osserian Crypts but interred him within a barrow that would eventually become a mere waypoint within the Lesser Marsh; a fittingly ignoble fate for an ignobly unfit chieftain. The procession marched on until they found it. As was its intention, Asher’s Barrow, nestled on an acre of solid wetland, was a historic campground, littered with old firepits and the withered remains of old travelling parties. When the Karggar procession found it, they quickly went to work pitching tents, rolling out pallets and setting cookfires for the fruits of the morning hunt. Nearly 500 Karggar spearmen encircled the mound in defensive formation as the outriders urged their people up onto dry land and Erik Halfspear gathered his warband; Frodi, Thregg, and his fifty best men. He left Wharla Oldeye and the encaged Growler with his people, and Centurion Septio left two of his best scouts, as the warband joined with the legionary century. Together, under Johanni and Erik’s direction, they proceeded northwest. The pale mist, skirting over the marsh waters, thinned the closer they rode towards the pass; a serpentine trail bracketed by a sparse thicket of rushes brushed to-and-fro by a cool, salty wind. A thin stream of marsh water threaded that trail for a mile northeast, but thousands of ironwood planks woven together by rope into sturdy bridgework forded it well, just as Eardwulf said. The bridge was indeed old but still strong enough to support the weight of over 150 riders as they used it to traverse the last mile of the Lesser Marsh, the last natural line of defence between the Fens and the Grey Wilds. On the other side of the pass, where the rushes and reeds receded back into the wetland, Johanni and his party came across a vast meadow stretching from one end of the horizon to the other; a sweeping emerald field beneath an ice-coloured sky. Johanni, in his awe, looked to Eardwulf, who beheld the great beauty of his homeland for the first time in half a decade. He was a stern and cheerless man who locked his emotions away inside himself – but his eyes could not hide his joy at this sight – or his sadness. “We should graze and water the horses,” said Centurion Septio. “Karburgh is a short ride north of here.” “Agreed,” said Johanni. “After that we press on.” The grassland of the Fens was almost as lush and rich as that of the Weald – that meadow alone could have fed thousands of horses. The men took theirs to a nearby brook and let them drink their fill. They spent the better part of an hour there until they resumed their ride north, horses galloping across that vast plane of meadowland. It was the first time in days that the ground beneath them was solid enough to sprint upon. Johanni, an Impanni to his bones, permitted himself to enjoy the ride – to let the cool winds blanket his skin, to race with the others and wager on the pace he could set. Even with the weight of his mission upon his back he loved to ride. And then they came upon the first of the ruins. It was a farmhouse, but Johanni could only tell by the broken posts of an old paddock nearby, what remained of the property itself was barely visible beneath the grass, mere scraps of wood burned black and left to rot in the wind and rain. The men rode around it, verging onto an old dirt path half hidden in overgrown grass. As they strode on Johanni felt something ‘crunch’ beneath his horse’s hooves. When he looked down he saw fragments of a bleached pale skull pummelled into powder. And there were more bones to come as they followed the path. At first, they were barely noticeable -- a thigh bone here, a femur there; half a torso severed at the spine – until whole skeletons, one after the other until they numbered in the dozens, littered the path ahead. They yet lingered in their dirty, half-burnt rags; though their boots were gone, long plundered by scavengers. The broken blades and spearpoints of rusted Impanni weapons protruded from gaping cracks in their skulls and ribcages. Beetles and mice made homes for themselves inside fractured eye sockets. Johanni blanched. Eardwulf looked away. Following the path ahead, all his men held their silence as it took them past the ruins of dozens of other plundered farms and homesteads razed to the ground or left to rot in the elements. Before they were even halfway to Karburgh, Johanni counted at least 30 burnt settlements and the remains of more than 250 separate people. It was only then, after all his scholarly lessons and conversations with his brother; only then did he truly begin to understand the full extent of the Osserian destruction. In the Overlord Manuscript and all official documents of the Royal Household, it was known as the ‘Pacification of the Osserians’, though the common folk called it ‘the war’ or ‘the bloodletting’. Johanni knew its background well. For decades, even before the expulsion of the elves, the Karggars had raided the Fens with unimpeded force and regularity. The previous Osserian chieftain, the late Osser Greatfang, once pleaded with the King to destroy the herepath interlinking the Fens and Grey Wilds to stave off these attacks, but the King refused as those old military roads were a part of his grand design for a truly unified Woaggish nation. And then, five solstices ago, after a Karggar raiding party claimed nearly 100 lives in an attack on an outlying Osserian burgh, Osser Greatfang gathered the elders in Karburgh to discuss their response. It was Osser’s will to petition the king once again, or sit to talks with the then Karggar chieftain, Gad Greyspear. But the elders wanted blood, and in the end, the elders won out. King Hrathwuld’s Codex of Logh forbade any Woag tribe from declaring war upon any other without Royal permission. The Osserians, led by a reluctant chieftain, broke that logh by gathering nearly 9,000 men and marching them across the marshes to the border of the Grey Wilds. Alarmed at this, the late Gad Greyspear met the Greatfang’s army with a host of 6000 Karggars in what became known as the Battle of Ghost Hill – a battle that ended in Osserian victory. Like the Impanni, the Osserians boasted steel weapons and armour, as well as superior numbers -- Ghost Hill could not have ended any other way. What remained of the Karggar forces (perhaps as little as 2000 men) retreated into the hinterland of the Grey Wilds and fortified their fortress at Greyspear for a siege, as the now wounded Gad Greyspear expected the Osserians to follow them inland – but Osser Greatfang held his position at the border. No one knows why. Perhaps he lost too many men to lay siege to Greyspear? Or perhaps he thought crossing the border was a provocation too far for the crown? Either way, he left a garrison of 2000 men at the border and marched the remainder of his armies back home. In Drangheim however there was outrage. Barely twelve solstices old at the time, Johanni remembered it well; the ill feeling at court, the restlessness of the thegns, the king’s apprehensive demeanour. War was in the air. The Royal Diet, outraged at the Osserians’ large scale attack on the Karggars, voted unanimously for a martial response. Their logic was simple; not only had the Osserians broken one of the key loghs of the Codex, but their attack threatened to destabilize the balance of power between the five tribes. Deeper still (an unspoken truth, perhaps) if one tribe were to conquer another, the two conjoined might be enough to overthrow the crown if the remaining tribes did not pick a side. Comity amongst the Woaggish tribes was the backbone of King Hrathwuld’s power. Drangheim had to act. Despite a reluctance to take up arms against his own people, King Hrathwuld ratified the Royal Diet’s decision. His own loghs were clear – any tribe who raised an army against another tribe would suffer the Royal Legion. And thus, Ragnar the Fatherless, High Legate of the Legion, rallied and marched his forces across the Great River and garrisoned at a burgh beyond Ka-Uta’s Arm. Osser Greatfang, understanding (perhaps better than anyone) how far this could go, sent personal missives to both the king and to Ragnar’s camp explaining their motivations for breaching the King’s loghs in the hope of avoiding further bloodshed, but neither received reply and he received no terms of surrender. As Ragnar would one day explain to Johanni, “It wasn’t about justice or obeisance – it was the passing of a sentence.” Ragnar divided the Legion into two halves. One, led by his then chief thegn Haakon Godwulfsson, marched north and devastated the Osserian garrison at Ghost Hill; the second, led by Ragnar himself, marched west toward Karburgh and utterly ravaged the countryside on his way. Every town, every village, every temple, every farmhouse they came across – all looted, its people massacred, and then burnt to the ground. Ragnar spared no one. He had his men kill all women whether pregnant, elderly or sickly; let them rape those they pleased and capture the fittest as thralls. He has his men herd up and slaughter the children, boys and girls, that might one day grow up and retaliate. He had his men smash every stag statue they came across (the Osserian totem) and replace each one with a flag of the Impanni horse. For nearly one solstice he soaked the very soil in Osserian blood. In Karburgh, the elders coaxed Osser Greatfang into summoning the army, but disagreed on how to proceed. Osser wanted to draw the fighting men into Karburgh’s walls and wear down the Legion with a siege. The elders wanted to take the fight to the Legion. And, as before, the elders won out. The Osserian Army marched east toward Haakon Godwulfsson’s detachment, who by then had mobilized from their victory at Ghost Hill and crossed the Great and Lesser Marshes to conduct the same rape and pillage tactics across the eastern Fens. The elders’ plan was to defeat Haakon’s smaller detachment and force Ragnar’s men to relieve them, thereby coaxing him away from Karburgh and towards the marshland where the Osserians had the advantage. What the elders did not realize was that Haakon’s men had fortified every herepath they found, blocking the roads and holing up in a now ironwood-bulwarked burgh on the edge of the Lesser Marsh, known as the Charnel Tower. This forced the Osserian army (who expected a pitched battle) to lay siege to the legionary fort, a siege that lasted nearly eighty moons, as was Haakon’s intent. Ragnar’s forces attacked Karburgh within weeks. The city’s walls were strong, but the Osserians had less than a thousand fighting men to man them and a few thousand common folks (mainly women and children) who fled the carnage in the countryside. Ragnar’s men attacked day and night with trebuchets and battering rams, surrounding the city from all points and bombarding the ramparts with fire and rock. At this point Osser Greatfang knew that this conflict was over. He appealed to the elders to permit an offer of terms to Ragnar, but when they refused, he had them detained by his personal guard and sent a rider beyond the walls to Ragnar’s camp offering a writ of peaceful surrender. Ragnar sent those terms back to the Greatfang inside the mouth of that rider’s severed head. Three days later, the Royal Legion successfully broke the eastern gate. The few remaining Osserian men, led by Osser Greatfang’s most loyal thegn, Eardwulf, helmed the defence. He fought and killed one of Ragnar’s own thegns, the ‘Spear Dancer’ Trygga, in single combat, but by then it was hopeless to resist – he and his surviving men soon laid down their arms and were swiftly detained. Ragnar’s forces sacked the city. A few, most notably Osser Greatfang’s daughter (Norsa) and his closest advisor (Harwald) escaped capture and disappeared into the northern forests. But for most it was too late. Once order was re-established in the now decimated Karburgh, Ragnar had Osser Greatfang and the Osserian elders publicly executed – by blood eagling. He had Eardwulf (and around 200 men like him) enthralled and sent back to Drangheim for sale at market or drafting into the Palace of Drang’s own stable of thralls. He sent half his forces east towards the Charnel Tower to relieve Haakon’s detachment. Caught between two (and no doubt hearing of the fall of Karburgh) the Osserian army quickly surrendered. Haakon had all 4000 men stripped of their weapons and armour, separated into groups of 100, and then one by one each group was systematically slaughtered. With news of this, Ragnar then sent word to King Hrathwuld and the Royal Diet that the Osserians were now ‘pacified’ and would no longer trouble the Karggars. And so, ‘Ragnar the Fatherless’ became ‘Ragnar Bloodbane’. As they rode past the wreckage that made his brother’s name, there was another ruined farmhouse just a few yards shy of the van. As the horses passed it by, Eardwulf stopped his mare and stared blankly at its blackened husk. Johanni stopped alongside him. “What is it?” “This…” Eardwulf paused to gather his thoughts, then looked to Johanni with such an overwhelming look of sorrow it broke his heart. “…This was my mother’s home.” Johanni felt his shoulders deflate. “I am so sorry, Eardwulf.” The ‘pacification’ spared neither man, nor woman, nor babe. Ragnar put all to the sword. Though he couldn’t speak them in front of Halfdan or the legionaries, Johanni’s thoughts were clear. {This was a crime,} thought the boy, {a great and terrible crime.} Johanni palmed Eardwulf’s shoulder. “Let’s not fall behind. We can come back later and pay our respects. We will build a proper memorial for her.” “Yes lord,” said Eardwulf, solemnly. “Let’s press on.” The path ahead grew wider and less damaged as they proceeded onward, a dusty track littered with rubble and relics of the pacification; broken blades, rotting axe hafts and spear shafts, crumpled skulls, tattered banners, discarded boots, looted chests, abandoned spike walls, fractured wagons and so forth -- but the path ahead was largely clear and over time they began to see the ancient walls of a ruined city rise into the horizon. Karburgh, the old seat of the House of Osser, was the first city the Woags ever built in Grünlund, predating Drangheim by nearly 400 solstices. It grew out of a cluster of closely interlinked villages and fortified settlements that struck up trade with other prominent communes (like Drang and Yveryth) and slowly transformed into a large walled city of tenements, towers, markets and streets that at its peak housed nearly 15,000 people. But what emerged from beyond the horizon was nothing more than a shattered reflection of that old and fabled greatness. Though its sixteen-foot high limestone walls still stood, cracks and fractures riddled them from ground to parapet. Burnt and tattered scraps of cloth bearing the Osserian stag totem still flocked in the cold winds from their rusting flagpoles, but the banners and standards that once swung prominently from their hooks beneath the crenels were now gone, replaced with the Karggar’s wolf totem. The many and many hundreds of wattle and daub homesteads, shops and market stalls that once surrounded the city were nothing but blackened piles of lumber that the Karggars now picked at for kindling. Johanni’s century and Erik’s warband stopped before the eastern city gates, those once destroyed by Ragnar’s forces. The Karggars had rebuilt them anew with old Grey Wilds ironwood, debris from the farmhouses, and banded iron. Three Karggar spearmen lined the parapet above the gates, exchanging curious glances at each other and the legionaries. “WHO GOES THERE?!” Yelled one of them. Johanni moved his lips to speak, but Erik yelled back, “ERIK HALFSPEAR, SON OF GAD GREYSPEAR AND CHIEFTAIN OF THE KARGGARS! NOW OPEN THE BLOODY GATES BEFORE I FEED YOUR BALLS TO MY BEAR!” The spearman grinned and shouted for some men below to open them. As the makeshift arched doors yawned open, Johanni whispered to Halfdan to send a rider back to the others at Asher’s Barrow and inform them that the path ahead to Karburgh was safe. Nodding, Halfdan ambled his horse over to Centurion Septio, who promptly passed the message onto his swiftest rider, turning back towards the prairies whence they came as the century and the warband rode into Karburgh -- as broken within as it was without. Half of its of homesteads (which numbered in the thousands) had crumpled into heaps of lumber and thatch. Those that still stood became the dwelling places of their new Karggar occupants, hundreds of whom busied themselves rebuilding what little they could out of the city. Where they could, the burly Karggars cleared the rubble and built newer (and simpler) cabins and paddocks. These men dug ditches, chopped wood, knotted rope, and tinkered pales as hunters and fishermen traded their wares for grain and hacksilver in small common markets and Karggar blacksmiths went to work restoring the old Osserian forges. Although the city was a crumbling ruin, a corpse of its former self, the influx of Karggar migrants had breathed hopeful new life into its wreckage. Erik, with Frodi and Thregg closely behind him, led the party. As he rode into the sandy streets his people showered him with cheers and chants of adoration. The grinning chieftain returned his people’s love with waves and kisses. Frowning, Johanni’s horse cantered up to his side. “We don’t have time for this,” said the boy. “We have to find your brother.” “I’m well aware, little lord,” said Erik. He then leaned over his saddle at a gravel-haired spearman standing guard in the street. “You there! Tell me where Sygardi Greyspear can be found.” The spearman pointed northeast towards one of the highways leading into the city centre; a three-mile ring of stonework tenements and towers protected by an older (and shorter) limestone bulwark. “There’s an old fort in the centre of town, lord. That’s where your brother and his guard have headquartered.” “Horn Hall,” said Eardwulf. His voice bore a nostalgic lilt. “Where the House of Osser once ruled.” “Then that’s where we go,” said Johanni. The sun hit its midday peak as the party traversed Karburgh’s partially burnt, partially crumbled stonework centre and verged upon the towering walls and spires of Horn Hall. More a palace than a fort, it sat upon a paved hillock ringed by a series of old stone walls and rotting flower gardens with two tall and sloped bridges climbing up to its heights from the city streets at the north and south. Its design was like that of the Palace of Drang – though on a much smaller scale. Four long blue banners bearing the Osserian stag still flew from its tallest spires (too high for anyone to bother taking down) but the many dozens of stag totems carved into the surrounding walls were all defaced or cracked with hammers. {He wasn’t content with killing them,} thought Johanni. {It’s like Ragnar went out of his way to crush their shared soul…} At the apex of the southern bridge stood a hulking yet hoary man dressed in thick boiled leather armour, fur boots and a long grey cloak shouldered in wolf’s pelt. His greying woollen hair fell as low as his waist in thick, clumped locks and his meaty hands clasped the haft of a massive iron warhammer, its ironwood haft inscribed with ancient runic script. This man was Hruthjon the Greathammer, a famed and formidable Karggar warrior. Once thegn to Gad Greyspear he was now thegn to his younger son Sygardi and served him as devoutly as a priestess would the gods. Behind him stood a small retinue of huscarls, each of the five clad in Karggar leathers and armed with Osserian steel swords, no doubt pilfered from their old armouries. Erik climbed off his horse. Johanni did the same (him closely followed by Eardwulf) and they climbed the stone bridge to address Hruthjon together. He replied back in a deep, gravelly voice, “Olaf sent word of your arrival in the Fens two days ago. Would that you had come to your brother’s way of thinking sooner.” Erik frowned, but said nothing. From that, and that alone, Johanni realized that Hruthjon commanded as much respect amongst the Karggars as Olaf Greyspear did – Erik would’ve allowed no one else to disrespect him so. The towering man then turned to Johanni. He did not bow, but he nodded respectfully. “Olaf also said that we have you to thank for that, lord. My deepest apologies for what happened to your retinue. Not all Karggars share our chieftain’s love of raiding.” “Greetings Oldfather,” said Johanni. “But I must say that despite the circumstances of our meeting, your chieftain has treated me well. May we speak with his brother, Sygardi Greyspear?” “If only you could,” Hruthjon’s expression turned solemn. “But Sygardi… he has been taken prisoner.” “What?!” yelled Erik. “By who?!” “The Osserians.” Instantly, stupidly, a snarling Erik unsheathed his dagger and spun towards an alert Eardwulf. “Thrall! Did you know about this? Huh?” “Erik, calm yourself!” Pleaded Johanni. “How could Eardwulf have known of this?” Eardwulf did not reach for his sword – nor did he flinch. Erik, seething through his teeth, only stopped when Hruthjon grabbed his shoulder and cast him an irritable frown, “We do not have time for this nonsense, boy. Come inside. We have much to discuss.” ********** During his brief occupation of Karburgh, as his men swept up scattered bands of Osserian loyalists marauding Impanni caravans into the Fens, Ragnar Bloodbane established Horn Hall as his base of operations. As such, the palace did not suffer the same level of destruction as the rest of the city, but in the intervening four and a half solstices it had fallen in disrepair. Soot from the original burning of the city blackened its forest glass windows and thick sheets of soggy moss grew along its outer walls. Rats overran its unattended pantries and dozens of pigeons roosted in all its towers, its painted walls slowly moulding over as cobwebs as thick as fur blanketed the banners, round shields and steel spears that decorated its halls. The stench of rot and decay was everywhere. Yet still the Karggars did what they could to make Horn Hall functional again, repairing its damages as they went. One such place was the Great Hall, where members of the House of Osser once dined upon the finest pheasant, salmon and wine in Southern Grünlund. Hruthjon’s thralls had done much to restore it, polishing up its massive long table (large enough to seat fifty men), restoking its hearth, and scrubbing clean its smooth stone floor. They hung black-coloured Karggar banners from the walls (emblazoned with the wolf totem in golden embroidery) and at the huscarls’ orders brought out platters of goose eggs, chicken slices and baked bread for Hruthjon and their newly arrived guests. Hruthjon sat at the head of the table, Johanni and Halfdan to his left, and Erik Halfspear to his right. Eardwulf, arms folded and lips silent, kept a respectful distance from the long table by the far wall – but was well within earshot of it. The Greathammer, flanked by two of his huscarls, downed a goblet of wine that the thralls found hidden the cellars. “It happened two days ago. He went out into the northern forests, charting the lands for ironwood sources to aid the building effort, as is his wont. I told him to take more men with him, but he refused. That night, a half dead rider returned to Karburgh. He was all that remained of Sygardi’s scouting party. They’d stumbled upon a foggy thicket and struggled to find their way, so they camped there for night to wait out the mist. But then the Osserians attacked… swamping their tents with arrows, snatching up Sygardi and slinging him on one of their horses, then butchering the remaining scouts. He was the only one who survived.” “Haven’t we sent out any search parties?” said Erik. Hruthjon frowned, “Of course we have. I have fifty men out there in the marshes searching for your brother. But the Osserians are slight in number and far more familiar with this land -- they have hidden themselves very well.” Erik’s platter was untouched. “Cunts. What’s their ransom?” “They haven’t offered one. No word from them has reached us – yet.” “Oldfather,” said Johanni. “You have done well so far, I see that. But let Erik and I take over the search for Sygardi. We have fresh maps and my thrall Eardwulf is a native of the Fens. I promise you, we will find your jarl.” Hruthjon, although clearly not a man partial to it, broke a small smile. “You remind me of him,” he said. “Polite and hopeful. Very well. I will allow you and the Halfspear to lead this. Leave Karburgh to me, and I shall oversee preparations for the arrival of the Karggars at Asher’s Barrow.” “Lord,” began Halfdan. “Is it necessary for you to accompany this search party? Why not remain here in Horn Hall whilst Erik and I see to it?” Johanni shook his head. “A king can’t lead from behind, Halfdan.” “Well said,” said the Greathammer. “I do not share Olaf’s reservations in this matter. Besides, if you seek to win the support of ALL the Woaggish tribes, then you must confront the Osserians, one way or another.” “Indeed,” said Johanni. He then stood up from his chair. “We should all get some sleep. I fear that tomorrow shall be a long day.” Hruthjon and Halfdan grunted their agreement, as a thrall girl came to collect their platters and goblets. The two older men, along with the Greathammer’s surly huscarls, made their way out of the Great Hall. Johanni followed them. “Little lord,” Erik called out. “Can I have a private word?” The Halfspear threw a cold glance at the mulling Eardwulf, who glanced at Johanni to see if that was his wish also. When the boy briefly nodded “yes” the thrall excused himself through the same iron doors that Hruthjon and Halfdan disappeared through. Aside from the hearth’s snapping embers, the Great Hall fell silent as Johanni and Erik found themselves alone together for the first time in days. There was a cold pit in the boy’s stomach as he thought of that, and a sudden rush of blood to his cheeks. In front of others he could control himself, his feelings and urges, but whenever they were alone together… “You’re too forward with my men,” snapped Erik. Johanni blinked. “…W-what?” “You heard me. You’ve been doling orders ever since we abandoned the Grey Wilds. Understand this – you may be an aetheling to the throne but the Karggars are MY people. I will be the one who leads them.” The boy scoffed. “All Woags are my people, including the Karggars. That’s the sense of responsibility I grew up with, ‘Halfspear’. You’ve spent your entire life running away from your responsibilities; with all your drinking and whoring and revelling – don’t presume to lecture me on mine.” Angered, Johanni turned to walk away. And then Erik snatched his wrist and pulled him back. “Don’t walk away from me,” he spat. “What’s the matter with you? You’ve been curmudgeonly ever since the feast at my mead hall.” Unwanted memories of Erik fucking that damned thrall girl flashed through Johanni’s mind. Try as he might he couldn’t discard them. All he wanted to do was collapse in Erik’s arms, to give in to that bastard urge in his groin, but he just couldn’t un-see the seen. Johanni tried to pull away. “Let me go, Erik…” “No.” “I said let me go!” Yelled the boy, “See to your whores, the night is young!” The iron doors groaned open again. Erik and Johanni glanced over to them as Eardwulf stepped in; eyes steeled, his gloved palm cradling his sword pommel. “Is everything alright, lord?” He asked. The young lord snatched his hand free. “…Yes. I am well,” he said. “Come, Eardwulf. Let’s go.” Johanni’s blood pounded in his ears as he strode away from a bemused Erik and left the Great Hall with Eardwulf. His shoulders were tense, his hands were shaking. {Why?} He thought, {why does he have this power over me? No one; not father, not Ragnar, not anyone has ever been able to upset me so! But him! What is it about him that sets me aflame?} “Are you sure you’re alright, lord?” Asked Eardwulf. “Did he offend you?” {I find him offensive in a great many ways,} thought the boy. “…Pay him no mind, Eardwulf. It was a long ride, I’d like to retire.” Fortunately, Hruthjon had had some of his thralls prepare rooms for all of them. Eardwulf accompanied Johanni to his living quarters for the night, a large room near the summit of Horn Hall’s central spire. Its hearth roared, lit by fatwood, casting a smouldering amber glow over the linens, drapery, and mounted elk skulls decorating the room. The stone floor was warm and blanketed with bearskin rugs. It was nowhere near as lavish as his quarters in the Palace of Drang, but it was undoubtedly the best accommodation he’d had since he began his journey. “You will be comfortable here, lord.” Said Eardwulf. “These rooms once belonged to the Greatfang’s daughter, Norsa. Sleep well.” The thrall turned to leave. “Eardwulf?” Then he stopped, his leather scabbard rattling at his hip. “Yes, lord?” Johanni paused for a moment. He was always one to think before he spoke his mind, sometimes to his detriment. Moreover, he saw how emotionally draining it was for Eardwulf to return to the Fens; his sunken demeanour and sullen silence even more pronounced than usual. Johanni did not want to ask him the question, especially after the way Erik had behaved earlier, but he had to. “Do you know where your people may have taken Sygardi?” The Osserian sighed. “Please, Eardwulf,” said the boy. The joined leather spaulders atop his shoulders lowered visibly. {What could be going through his mind?} Wondered Johanni. {Since I started this journey I’ve paid him so little attention. Do you resent me for that, Eardwulf? } The young lord felt a sudden need to recant, to apologize for the rudeness of the question, just as Eardwulf turned back around to him and said; “The Ghoul’s Wood.” “The what?” He folded his arms, rattling his scale mail. “Before the war we had many forts and hideaways across the Fens. Most of them, Ragnar destroyed. But there may be one left he wouldn’t know about… it would have been a rallying point for the Osserian resistance if not for the Bloodbane’s wroth; the ancient Osserian crypts beneath the Ghoul’s Wood, twenty miles north of Karburgh. Deep below its earth resides a dense skein of tunnels and caverns where the noble Osserian dead are laid to rest. If I were chieftain, that is where I would take the survivors.” “Then that is where we shall start our search. Thank you, Eardwulf. Thank you. I cannot imagine how hard these past few days must have been on you.” The Osserian cast an eye to one of the sooty forest glass windows lining the east wall. “As a child, I… was not fond of this land. My parents were farmers scarcely surviving from harvest to harvest. All I remember of those days was hunger… and wanting to run away. As soon as I was old enough I stole my father’s sword and went to Karburgh in search of a new path. I served in the city guard for a time, manning the parapets or aiding the builders with structural repairs, but I wearied of the boredom and leased my sword to a caravaner trading furs out of the cave bear territories. It was vigorous work, but I distinguished myself defending his train from a bandit raid. When the chieftain, Osser Greatfang, heard of my skills he bought my lease and made me one of his personal huscarls. I defended him on his excursions into the north and his visits to Drangheim, won his favour, and in time he made me one of his thegns. I had no land or men or wealth behind my name, and I suspect others in Horn Hall resented me for it – but the Greatfang uplifted me regardless and for that I will always be indebted to him,” Eardwulf sighed. “I don’t even know where he is buried.” There was a glint in Eardwulf’s eye, a brightness unbound, something that Johanni never saw before; the relief of unburdening himself of his memories. It was the first time the Osserian ever spoke of himself or his history. {He suppressed these memories over many solstices, ever since his enthrallment,} thought Johanni, {and now they’re overflowing.} Eardwulf continued, “When I took Trygga’s head, we fought as equals. Even we Osserians had heard of Ragnar the Fatherless’ prized thegn. I bore her no hatred. We were warriors on the field of battle. My lord’s life hung in the balance – and her lord’s orders were clear. What choice did either of us have?” He alluded to his thraldom. Trygga, Ragnar’s beautiful spear-wielding thegn, was rumoured to be his lover as well as his closest ally. The Shieldmaidens groomed her as a potential successor to their captain, Gunhilda, but she defied their wishes by joining his old warband, the Iron Circle, and once he came into his lands as the High Legate of the Legion, she was the first in Ragnar’s ranks to ascend to thegn. Johanni knew the truth of it – Eardwulf’s thraldom was punishment for slaying Trygga, a punishment far worse than death. His brother’s every act was a ruthless calculation. And now, this man and the ghosts of his people suffered for those calculations. Johanni, taken aback, slipped his hand into Eardwulf’s. The Osserian paused. “I’m so sorry, Eardwulf,” said the boy. “What Ragnar did was wrong, terribly wrong. My house may never be able to make amends for what we did to your people, but I swear to you on my father’s name – when I am king I will do everything possible to provide for the remaining Osserians. And once your title of ownership passes to me, I shall tear it up and make you a free man again.” Johanni felt Eardwulf’s gloved hand squeeze his own. When he looked up he saw a smile, small and childish, chiselling its way into the swordsman’s stony face. And when he looked into his eyes, as he did once before in the Royal Bath House and during the encampment at Ka-Uta’s Arm, Johanni saw once again that same insurgent emotion he so feared – love. “Free?” Whispered Eardwulf, “I don’t want to be ‘free’ of you, ‘Hanni. I want to be at your side. Always.” A strong, gloved hand took Johanni’s back, the other his hip, and then Eardwulf’s lips took his own. The boy froze, moaning, more out of surprise than alarm, and felt himself wilt in the Osserian’s thick, battle-sculped arms – or at least for a moment. Bottle-green eyes fluttering open, Johanni caught himself and pulled away, catching his breath. An almost equally breathless Eardwulf loomed over him, tall and imposing, arms still nestled around his waist. “Eardwulf…” whispered the boy, “…I can’t.” “Why? Because of the Halfspear? That whoremongering rogue? That man will bring you nothing except misery and misfortune, I can see it. I can see it plain. Choose me, ‘Hanni. My sword, my heart and my strength are yours – take them.” Just hearing Erik’s name made Johanni snatch himself from Eardwulf’s arms. {What if he caught us like this? } He wondered woefully. Despite Erik Halfspear’s churlishness and irresponsibility, despite what he saw beneath the Wyvern’s Leg, the thought of him storming in and coming to the wrong conclusion frightened Johanni. {How did I let him gain such power of me so quickly?} “Eardwulf,” the Impanni youth looked away. “It was a long ride from the Grey Wilds and I am very tired. Please let me rest.” The taciturn swordsman wore his disappointment visibly (and heavily) but Johanni couldn’t bring himself to look into those dark eyes again. Eardwulf wasn’t just his protector, he was a trusted advisor and a dear friend, closer to him these days then perhaps his own brother Ragnar, but so far as his feelings for Eardwulf went, they extended no further than friendship. How could he offer that truth to someone who loved him so dearly? How could he break Eardwulf’s heart, especially now of all times, as he wrestled with the ghosts of his past? How could he be king and rule over Grünlund if he couldn’t even rule his own feelings? Eardwulf stepped backwards. “I love you, Johanni,” said the Osserian. “I think you see that in me. I love you and I will fight for you if I must. I just… needed you to hear me say it. Rest well. I will leave you and withdraw.” He bowed politely, scale-mail rattling, and excused himself through the door, leaving a confused and troubled prince in his wake. ********** The sun was a distant phantom the next morning. Johanni, looking up from his saddled white mare, saw only pale blades of its light peeking through the slightest breaches and gaps between the thick grey clouds discolouring the sky. Dark black thunderheads coalesced in the west, from the direction of the Great and Lesser Marshes. The air felt damp against the skin. A downpour was coming. “Lord,” it was Frodi who called out to him, skinning teeth beneath the hood of his cloak. He anticipated rain as well. “Are you sure you want to do this? There may be danger, as there was in the Beast Tower.” {Where I hid behind rocks and did nothing,} thought Johanni. He wasn’t naïve enough to assume this wasn’t Frodi’s meaning also. He glanced over at the archer, whose gloved hands gripped his horse’s reins. “I thank you for your concern, but I do not require it, nor do I anticipate bloodshed. We’re to find the crypts beneath the Ghoul’s Wood and parley with the Osserians, not kill them. That is why we’re leaving my century and the rest of the warband in Karburgh. We go to free Sygardi in peace. Or do you object?” Frodi shrugged. “My lord loves his little brother. If he’s returned to us unharmed, my quiver will stay full.” Some fifty yards away, the iron-banded northern gates of Karburgh’s wall opened and out rode Erik Halfspear, his wolf’s fur-trimmed cloak whipping in the wind, his scabbarded steel greatsword rattling at his back. Anger charbroiled in his amber brown eyes. His bear, Growler, and Thregg the Ghoat (mounted upon an ebon black stallion, the only Karggar horse powerful enough to seat so large a man) joined Johanni and Frodi at the edge of the northern road. Eardwulf’s horse cantered ahead, surveying their path. As Erik Halfspear rode up to Johanni and Frodi, he glanced about their group sceptically. “The five of us and my bear are going to rescue Sygardi?” Johanni frowned. “If we march into the woods with 100 Impanni legionaries and 50 Karggar swordsmen, they will take it as an act of aggression. We go to talk, not to fight. What about the Karggars at Asher’s Barrow?” “They’re here and they’re safe,” said Erik. He went to the western gates that morning to receive them, collecting Growler from his cage wagon and checking upon Wharla Oldeye. “Hruthjon’s huscarls and thralls will see to their needs. And I’ve given him orders if we don’t return in three days.” Johanni’s eyes thinned. “What orders?” “To march.” {Damn you,} thought the boy. “That is not what I-” “We’re wasting time here,” Erik whipped his horse’s reins. “Let’s move.” The northern herepath extended from Karburgh’s walls all the way to the Salt Shore of the Arbariis. As one of Grünlund’s most ancient thoroughfares it was a well-trodden and familiar trading route, lined with at least six burghs (according to the Overlord Manuscript) and tracing its way through the Fens’ wild northern forests. Johanni, Eardwulf, Erik Halfspear, Frodi, Thregg the Ghoat and Growler followed the path that the northern herepath provided. According to Eardwulf, the Ghoul’s Wood was a dense ironwood forest hidden within the heart of its most arboreal territories. Golden stags once ran through that forest, which led the ancient Osserians to believe that Ygga, god of the hunt, had blessed it, thusly it became favoured ground for the burial of their noble dead. But the legend of the golden stags faded through time and the Wood’s only purpose became burial, earning it the nickname “Ghoul’s Wood”. The last Osserian buried there (nearly thirty solstices ago) was the previous chieftain’s father; Osser Blackfang. Though the Ghoul’s Wood was barely a day’s ride from Karburgh, the incoming downpour fell upon them halfway up the road to the first burgh. Black clouds drenched the countryside in heavy rains, pelting down like hail and reducing the road to muddy sludge. They dismounted and walked the horses through that storm, slowly, until they made it to the first burgh of the herepath and sought shelter. It was a small fort fortified by a spiked trench barely covering fifty yards of territory, manned by a small band of Karggar sentries, ten poorly-armed veterans of Sygardi Greyspear’s initial excursion. They welcomed their chieftain with open arms, sheltering their horses in a sturdy stable and leading their newfound guests into a central chamber to take shelter from the rain. The captain of the band offered them food. “We will not be staying long,” said Johanni, urging them to spare their rations for themselves. “But thank you.” For nearly half a day the rains would not stop. Thunderclaps rattled the fort to its cobwebbed rafters and frightened the horses, neighing loudly in the stable. Bright flashes of light filled the chamber through its arrow slits, lightning bolts streaking down from above. When Johanni smelt smoke, one of the Karggar sentries went through the iron doors to investigate and he saw a blackened tree burning from its crown – a bolt had struck it. Over time, however, the storm passed. Johanni, Erik, Eardwulf, Frodi, Thregg and Growler emerged from the burgh to find a water-logged grassland, the herepath now a flowing river of mud. They mounted their horses (who the Karggar sentries were kind enough to feed) and proceeded onward beneath a darkening sky. They rode on for perhaps another turn of an hourglass, despite some calls from Eardwulf to find shelter and see out the night. Johanni said no. {We can’t stop,} he thought. {If we don’t get back to Karburgh in time, Hruthjon will send his men into the Ghoul’s Wood and there will be no hope of winning the Osserians to my side.} Another hourglass’ turn later they found a weak wooden foot bridge traversing a westward stream of the Great River. Its currents were not strong, but the rainfall had bloated its waters to breeching and flooded its muddy banks over. It was also too deep to walk through. The log bridge, twelve feet long and rickety, was their only hope. So, the group unhorsed and one by one they slowly crossed it. Frodi went first, then Erik, then Growler, then Johanni, then Eardwulf, and then finally Thregg; holding their respective horses by the bridle. On the other side of the stream was another burgh, the second of the six marking the route north, but unlike the first this one was derelict. It was another small stone fortification protected by a spiked ditch, but whether by war or by storm its eastern parapet had partially crumbled. Sheets of moss covered the rubble. Those violent rains flooded the ditch as well as the stream but the plank bridge negotiating it was sturdy. The fort sat at the bottom of a sloped hillock, at the top of which stood a small copse. Frodi climbed to the top of that slope and spied ahead, coming back down with a victorious grin. “Ironwood,” he said, “Acres and acres of it.” “The Ghoul’s Wood is just ahead,” said Eardwulf. “But we should camp here for the night. The Wood is as thick as the Oakmire and very difficult to traverse at night.” “I agree,” said Johanni, knowing full well the others’ wouldn’t accept his thrall’s suggestion without him acknowledging it. “Tomorrow morning, we shall meet with the Osserians and free Sygardi.” Grumbling (but not complaining) Erik ordered his compatriots to set up the camp. Frodi went back up to the copse for firewood, Thregg went through their saddlebags for pallets and cooking pots, as Erik investigated the fort further, tying his horse’s rains to a tree truck and proceeding with an unsheathed sword. Johanni and Eardwulf followed him across the plank bridge, until he stopped suddenly at what looked like a grassy knoll and knelt to investigate. When Johanni drew closer he realized that the ‘knoll’ wasn’t a knoll at all, but a corpse hidden within the tall wet grass. The body was rotting and horrifically bloated, eaten alive by beetles and pecked at by crows – it was not a fresh corpse. It wore a long black surcoat with the upper torso decorated in a mantle of corroded copper scales. “An Osserian?” Johanni said. Their penchant for scale armour was well known. But there were other signs too. His leather gauntlets had withered yet elaborate embroidery sown into it; Ygga’s name written in the ancient runic script, and the cone of his dented helm had the stag totem painted onto it. “How did he die?” Erik’s gloved hands rifled through the corpse and found a puncture mark halfway up its ribcage. He picked a broken sword tip out of that wound. But it was most unusual – the blade fragment had a curved edge. “Odd,” he said. “What kind of sword curves like this?” Johanni studied the bloodied sword fragment as Erik turned it between his gloved fingertips. “The scholars in Drangheim told me that the soldiers of the Golden Empire use curved swords. Sabres, they call them.” “What would a Golden Imperial be doing up here in the cold fucking north sticking Osserians in the gut?” “I don’t know.” The moon was high and bone white. A cold wind whipped through the grass. “We should hurry and set up camp,” said Eardwulf. Frodi brought the wood, Thregg brought the pallets. They fetched water from a well behind a collapsed stable and built a cookfire. Johanni lit wall-hung sconces with a torch and then dropped it into an old coal brazier. With this additional light, the burgh’s ruin became more palpable. There were old iron hooks hammered into the walls – clearly for mounted round shields or scabbarded swords – but they were all empty; as was the pantry, the weapon racks, the cellar, and the stables. The kiln was dead and pig bones littered the sty. Whatever happened there happened some time ago. Erik skinned and jointed one of the rabbits they caught in the morning’s hunt, as Frodi prepared the broth – carrots and potatoes. Thregg fed Growler some fish given to them by Hruthjon’s thralls, whilst Eardwulf sat aside from the others and sharpened his sword with a whetstone. Johanni passed around wooden bowls and spoons. They eat well of the stew, hungry as they were, though by now Johanni longed for the culinary sorcery of his Drangheim cooks. When his bowl was empty the boy wrapped himself in his cloak, watching his own breath drift away in the chill night air, drawing closer to the fire. He listened to its snapping embers as Frodi cut fletching out of feathers and Thregg cleaned his mighty axe, as a morose Erik petted the slumbering Growler and Eardwulf sat at the boy’s side, silent and sullen. It was a downcast mood that night. When Johanni looked to Erik and Frodi and Thregg, he saw their nervousness and anger – they were truly concerned for Sygardi. {Perhaps this is how Ragnar feels,} he wondered, {as father sends me out in search of the other chieftains.} Yawning deeply, Johanni decided to sleep and refresh himself for the morning’s ride into the Ghoul’s Wood, or so he planned. As leaned down to his pallet and pulled his cloak over his shoulders, he spotted Erik and Frodi exchanging deeply focused glares. When Erik’s amber brown eyes tick left, Frodi’s ticked right, and the archer ever so slightly tapped his knee two times. The Halfspear then yawned, audibly, leaning his face to his left, but rolling his eyes right. {They’re signalling each other,} he thought. {But why? } It was then that Johanni noticed something so small and seemingly so insignificant that mere weeks ago he might have ignored it. He saw the brazier’s flames flicker – just for a moment – and then burned as before. But the flicker was distinct. {Movement,} he thought, realizing what was going on. {There’s someone in the shadows.} Frodi bolted upright and loosed a shot into the darkness. A brief scream rang out, as two armoured men launched out of the shadows behind Erik. The Karggar chieftain leapt out from his pallet as one of the attackers swung his curved sabre straight through it, hacking the feathered pillow into two. Erik rolled onto his feet and drew his greatsword then lunged forward at the second swordsman as he did the same. Their blades met in the centre of the camp with a loud ‘clap’, metal pounding metal, but his attackers’ sabre was no match for his greatsword as it broke the blade in two and collided with his conical helm, crushing his ear and skull. The man fell screaming, thrashing on the ground like a hooked trout, until Erik grit his teeth and sunk his sword through his neck. Before the third man attacked, Growler’s roar rumbled through the abandoned fort and it pounced across the camp fire, smashing the armoured swordsman into the ground. Helpless and screaming, he could not move as Growler’s massive brown paw held him down. He shivered inside his own armour as the bear’s dripping, bone-crunching jaws hovered over his face – one swift bite could tear out his throat. “Growler!” Yelled Erik, “Down, boy, down! I need him alive.” Snorting a stinking cloud of hot visible air, the war bear ambled away to the other side of the camp. The attacker exhaled the breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding, with a paw-shaped dent in his thick iron breastplate. Frodi, bow fully drawn and arrow nocked, advanced on him. “Drop your sword! Do it now!” The swordsman didn’t comply. Dressed in leather gauntlets and clunking iron greaves, a conical iron helm and a knee-length russet gambeson encased with a black iron breastplate; he shivered, clearly scared, and muttered in a language no one (except one of them) understood. His dented conical helm rattled on his half-bloodied head. His long cloak (shouldered by a thick snow bear’s pelt) was trapped beneath his own weight. He looked to his two compatriots, one lying dead in the shadows with an arrow shaft through his eye, the other glutting with blood from his neck wound. They were gone, and he knew it was over for him. Frodi kicked the sword out of his hand. “Who are you? You don’t look like an Osserian! Who sent you?” The swordsman, teeth bloodied from the impact of Growler’s pounce, grinned at the archer like a madman. “Du kannst mich nicht töten! Ich diene Khan Magnus! Und sogar die Toten sind in seinem Dienst!” “Is he addled?” Asked Erik. “No,” said Johanni. “He’s a Thoth.” With a sword-drawn Eardwulf close behind, the boy knelt beside the failed assassin and addressed him. “(A son of the White Spirit, eh? What are you doing so very far from home, warrior?)” The Thoth warrior looked, momentarily, stunned. “(Y-you speak the Old Northern Tongue?)” “(My father taught me),” said Johanni, “(Now answer the question. What are you doing in the Fens?)” He chuckled. “(I will tell you nothing, southerner.)” And then with one swift motion he nipped up and pulled Johanni’s short sword from its scabbard. He rolled back onto his feet with the blade outstretched and scanned his odds as the others surrounded him; Erik with his greatsword, Eardwulf with his broadsword, Thregg with his axe, Frodi with his nocked arrow, and worst of all Growler, panting with rage behind Erik Halfspear. “(Think what you do),” said Johanni. “(You are outnumbered. In the name of the White Spirit, put the sword down and surrender!)” Smirking, the Thoth put the sword to his throat and slit it clean. ********** Ironwood was one of the most precious resources Grünlund had to offer. But unlike orichalcum, which was only of use to mages and sorcerers, ironwood’s potential ran from weapon making to castle building. Everyone from shipwrights and fishermen to blacksmiths and masons found an application for it. This was why one of King Hrathwuld’s first loghs was to outlaw the logging of ironwood without a royal writ. He assigned foresters and a detachment of legionaries to every known ironwood forest to enforce that logh, often being based in the nearest burgh. This was also why Johanni was so surprised to see that the Ghoul’s Wood had absolutely no protection from woodcutters. Nestled in the heart of the wider northern forests, this mile-long grove of ironwood trees somehow escaped the Overlord Manuscript’s notice. Johanni, Erik, Eardwulf, Frodi and Thregg carefully cantered through one of the wood’s dirt trails (with Growler following close behind). The dust and pebbles beneath their horseshoes was loose – the footpath was heavily trodden but well-tended – which meant that the Osserians were likely close. “I still don’t understand,” said Frodi, “What is a Thoth doing in the Fens?” Erik Halfspear shrugged. “The Thoths once raided the Salt Shore, did they not? Perhaps his people strayed too far from the estuary and got lost?” Johanni swatted a mosquito away. “That cannot be,” he said. He’d studied Centurion Septio’s maps very well during their nights in the Great Marsh. “The main arm of the Great River flows from the north then cuts east, dividing the Grey Wilds from the Fens until it forks at the Weald. The nearest sailable part of the Great River is miles away – and Thoths don’t move inland unless they’ve camped close to a body of water.” Frodi smiled beneath his hood. “Very impressive, little lord. But none of that explains what those three men were doing here or what they want.” {You’re right,} he thought. {It doesn’t.} The Thoths, one of the five great tribes of the Woaggish people, were the reclusive settlers of the icy Deepfjord, a gigantic hook-shaped landmass on the north-western edge of Grünlund’s shores. Thousands of solstices ago they intermingled with a race of fair-haired, pale-skinned, blue-eyed natives and adopted their god -- an omnipresent being known as the White Spirit -- to whom (it was said) they made regular human sacrifices. Prone to piracy, whaling, and raiding, they were a customarily seafaring people with little interest in the other tribes. In recent generations they bickered with the Arbarii tribe over control of the Salt Isles, but overall the Thoths were a secluded people – who despite having the second largest tribe contributed the least amount of men to the Great Woaggish Army (a scant 8,000). Their current chieftain, a legendary pirate named Magnus Magnusson, would be the last chieftain that Johanni had to sway, and from what Ragnar’s spies told him, he was by far the most dangerous. “And why did he kill himself?” Said Frodi. “What information did he have that was so important that he wouldn’t risk capture?” Erik Halfspear sneered. “Piss on it, they’re dead and we’re alive. Freeing Sygardi from these damned Osserians is the only thing that matters.” Up ahead, Eardwulf’s horse cantered through the dirt path, brooked by a long procession of towering, white-barked ironwood trees. He turned rightward as the path curled east into a shallow slope that bottomed out about five yards below ground level. It was a long trench dug out of the earth and wide enough for two horses to walk side by side. Eardwulf, Johanni, Erik, Frodi, Thregg and Growler walked that trench, two by two, for a half-turn of the hourglass until the thicket of ironwood trees grew denser, the forest canopy closing together and submerging their surrounds in darkness. Not a single streak of light pierced the tree crowns, they had to light their torches to proceed. “THAT’S FAR ENOUGH!” Eardwulf drew his reins back, stopping his horse. The others stopped as well. He drew his blade with his free hand, held the torch aloft with the other, and glared into the darkness as a woman emerged from it, one woollen boot after another. Clad from head to toe in the Osserian fatigues; steel-bit scale armour and a coal black long cloak shouldered by a deer-skin pelt, thick leather gauntlets and boots, and a thin silk under-tunic embroidered with the stag totem. Four arch-headed throwing axes dangled from straps upon her leather belt. One hand carried a wrought iron hafted axe and the other a stag-painted ironwood round shield. Her eyes were dark with rage, her nut-brown hair shaved down to the grain. Faded pink scars streaked across her brow, nose, and mouth. Johanni watched Eardwulf’s eyes widen. “Norsa?” He whispered. Little lights suddenly sprung up on both side of the trench wall. Johanni and Erik looked up and saw men in scale armour, around half a dozen, stand up with burning torches in one hand and steel swords in the other. Next to each of them knelt a scale-mailed archer, their arrows nocked, and bows drawn. Erik, Johanni, and Thregg went for their scabbards, Frodi went for his quiver, and Growler reared up onto his hind legs and roared aloud -- but their Osserian ambushers were unfazed, most markedly their surely leader, Norsa. “Lay hands upon your weapons and die,” she spat. All five calmly, but grudgingly, obeyed. “Norsa,” repeated Eardwulf, “It’s you. You’re alive?” She scowled venomously at him, confused eyes ticking to-and-fro, sizing up his scale mail and steel sword. “That’s Norsa Hardfang, interloper. Sworn thegn and protector to the chieftain of the Osserian people. And who in all the cunting hells are you?” Eardwulf sheathed his sword. “I was one of your father’s thegns…” “My father is food for the worms,” she spat. “What is your name?” Johanni watched Eardwulf hesitate to say it. “…Eardwulf.” Norsa’s eyes flamed anew. “Eardwulf,” she seethed his name through gritted teeth, “THE Eardwulf? The thegn-turned-thrall! You honourless fucking weasel! I’ve heard of you! Bowing before the Impanni like a slave! I’d sooner cut off my own head than take orders from the shit-eating bastards who SLAUGHTERED our people! You’re an affront to Ygga himself!” Norsa cast her blazing glare at Johanni and the others, yelling; “WHO AMONGST YOU LEADS? I’ll not exchange one more word with this miserable fucking slave!” Johanni dismounted. “Me,” he said. “I am Johanni Carian Hrathwuld, son of the King of Grünlund and potential aetheling to the throne,” he pointed to Erik, “This is Erik Halfspear, chieftain of the Karggar tribe. We come in peace, with only our close allies to protect us. Our only wish is to speak with your chieftain.” For the first time a thin grin passed Norsa’s scarred lips – it was not a grin of amusement, rather one of a dark and vengeful bloodthirst. “Ah! The Bloodbane’s brother, eh? Neither one of you will speak to my chieftain. In fact, I’m minded to gift him your severed fucking heads…” “That would be a mistake,” said Johanni. “Oh?” “There are over 4,000 Karggars in Karburgh right now,” he explained, “and nearly a third of those are fighting men. If we don’t return to Karburgh safely in the next two days, Hruthjon Greathammer has orders to march on the Ghoul’s Wood. Kill us and you kill yourself.” Norsa, nonplussed, spat at the ground. “Your threats are but wasted breath.” “I didn’t come here to threaten,” he said. “My brother and I are in contention to be crowned king of Grünlund after my father dies. I have come seeking your chieftain’s support for my claim, and in the interim, to broker the release of your captive, Sygardi Greyspear, and to perhaps negotiate a peace between yourselves and the Karggars.” Norsa paused for a moment, genuinely confused, then burst out loudly with a bombastic, almost manic laugh. “Ah, ha, ha, ha! Ha, ha! Peace? Peace?! There won’t be any fucking peace. There won’t be any fucking talks. Your very presence on my land offends the souls of the Osserian dead, Impanni.” “Peace will bring the dead rest,” he retorted, “only a coward would fear it.” “What did you just call me, boy!?” Roared Norsa. Johanni was unmoved. “I demand to speak to your chieftain. Tell your men to lower their weapons and stand aside.” Silence fell upon the trench. Erik and Eardwulf, hands mere inches from their weapons, watched anxiously as Norsa Hardfang advanced upon the Impanni prince step by step; but the second they drew steel was the second those Osserian archers shot and killed them all. Norsa’s shadow consumed Johanni whole. She was taller than him by nearly a foot (even taller than Eardwulf), muscled and battle-hardened, unlike any woman Johanni had ever seen. A chill went down the boy’s spine as the Osserian woman’s rageful eyes bore down upon him, but he did not move. He did not buckle. “The only way you will speak to him, boy, is to go through ME.” He had few instincts for combat. And yet, in that moment, the trappings of civilization failed to suppress the boy’s Woaggish blood, and he felt ever so keenly the presence of his short sword. He drew it, stunning everyone around him (even Norsa) and pushed a foot back to brace himself. “Very well,” he said, “as our great ancestors once fought and died within the hazel staves… I accept your challenge.” ********** Holmgang was one of the most ancient Woaggish traditions. It existed before the Woags left the Hyperborean Steppe and persisted until this day; the settling of disputes by combat. The rules varied from tribe to tribe. The Impanni favoured first blood, the Arbariis first blood or yield, the Karggars -- to the death. Although King Hrathwuld thought of the practice as crude and primitive, his Codex of Logh did not forbid holmgang, it was too embedded in the collective Woaggish culture. Never in his dreams did Johanni think he might fight one. The dozens of surrounding Osserians roared with anticipation as Norsa readied herself for battle, swinging her axe and thrusting her shield in sudden bursts. One of her men had taken her cloak. Across the way (where Frodi and Thregg and Growler had given him room), Johanni did the same. He swung his sword overhand and thrust it, mentally reciting all the steps and guards and strokes Eardwulf taught to him, as he and Erik both struggled to dissuade the boy from doing this. “Have you lost your wits?” said Erik Halfspear, “For what reason do you either want or need to fight this woman?” Eardwulf, unusually for him, concurred with the Karggar. “Let me fight in your stead, lord. You need not do this.” “I cannot ask you to kill your countrywoman,” said Johanni, still testing the balance of the blade. On his other arm hung a stag-crested round shield that one of the Osserians fetched for him -- all weapons were equal in holmgang. “And perhaps it won’t come to that. Yield or death is the custom in the Fens, is it not? All I have to do is make her submit… and not die in the process.” Erik frowned. “What are you trying to prove, Johanni?” The young atheling paused mid-swing, and blushed. It still caught him sideways when Erik Halfspear called him by his name. “Erik, I’m not trying to ‘prove’ anything, I’m trying to get us an audience with the chieftain.” “This is folly!” He yelled, “You’re going to get yourself killed!” “If I am to be king then both my words and my deeds must be respected. And aetheling or not, I am still a Woag. I cannot bow before a challenge. You better than anyone should know that, Erik. Do not worry over me, either of you. And do not interfere. I will be fine.” Eardwulf blanched as Johanni stepped forward towards Norsa, who bounced her shoulders and rolled her neck in readiness. He moved to stop him but Erik (realizing there was nothing he could do to stop this) held the thrall back. “Let him go,” said the Halfspear. “He’s made up his mind.” Eardwulf scowled. “You expect me to just watch as she kills Johanni!?” “I expect you to do as you’re told,” replied Erik, “so be quiet and trust him.” They had no hazel staves to plant into the earth so Norsa carved out a circle with her axe’ head. It was six yards long and two yards wide (from one trench wall to the other). {I have hardly any room to encircle her,} he thought tactically, {but that also means she only has room for an overhead swing. I just need to keep my shield up. The terrain favours my thrust, I have the advantage.} “Last chance,” he said. “Stand aside and I won’t kill you.” Norsa Hardfang, axe and shield at the ready, spread her arms open and roared aloud with a screaming war cry, “RAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGHH!” that rocked Johanni to his very bones – and in a berserker’s rage she barrelled forward. {Shield up, shield up! } The hafting axe crashed into the ironwood round shield with a loud wooden clap, splinters thrown about the air. The blow was so powerful that Johanni’s arm and shoulder locked up; so powerful that he felt his boots skid backwards in the mud. Roaring, Norsa rained down another mighty swing, pummelling Johanni’s shield into his forearm. The boy gritted his teeth at the stinging pain, but it was nothing compared to what followed – Norsa shoving her shield’s iron rim straight into his stomach, punching the air out of his lungs and hurling him off his feet. The Osserians above all cheered ecstatically as Johanni landed shoulder-first in the mud and coughed for breath. {Gods, she’s so strong!} He thought. {She’s even stronger than Eardwulf! } “Get up,” barked Norsa. “GET UP!” For the first time in his life Johanni tasted blood. It was salty and iron-like and he spat it out with a wad of phlegm as he caught his breath. Groaning, he rolled onto his belly, dirtying his tunic, then pushed himself up by his hands and knees until he was on his feet again. {She’s far stronger than me,} he thought. {I cannot let her set the pace of the fight!} He turned heel and thrust forward with his short sword. Norsa, alert, parried the attack with her axe and shoved her shield forward. Johanni repelled it with his own, the loud wooden clash resounding like a thunderbolt, but the chasm between their two strengths was so vast he stumbled back from it – and nearly tripped over his own boots. Norsa grinned broadly. “…Is this your all, Hrathwuldsson?” Johanni frowned. “Underestimate me at your peril…” Norsa’s grin grew fierce. Yet another raging war cry rippled from her throat down the Johanni’s spine as she swung her war axe at the boy’s skull. He heard Erik scream at him to keep his guard up, raising his round shield in time to block it, but the impact was so hard Johanni’s arm tensed up again and slammed backwards into his shoulder. Then, with one single backhanded axe swing, Norsa clapped it out of his hand with her own. Erik, Eardwulf and Frodi all looked on with alarm as the ironwood shield whirled away and left Johanni without any defence what so ever. It was all the boy could do to cross his arms and fall as Norsa charged into him, shield first, hurling him backwards by a yard. Mud and pebbles and worms spluttered up as he landed on his back. He heard Norsa scream again, and by nothing other than sheer reflex rolled away as she swung her axe down, inch deep into the mud. {She means to kill me,} he realized. {She won’t wait for a yield! } Johanni swung his sword at her as he struggled up, Norsa blocking it, then went for another thrust. Almost effortlessly she side-stepped it, bringing Johanni in with her into her ‘striking zone’, and then swung her shield back around, flat and hard, smacking him clean in the face. Eardwulf grimaced at the boy’s scream. Blood exploded like fire from his nostrils. He saw first the grain of ironwood and then a clap of white, bright as lightning, before his world went dark. Moments later that same world returned to him… in pieces. First came sound – or rather noise – most notably a loud and irritating screech ringing in his ears, then the cheers of the Osserian warriors echoing into the forest canopy. He heard something that sounded like Eardwulf, yelling loudly and frantically at someone else, but Johanni could only make sense of fragments of it, words like “Norsa” and “mercy” and “stop this” and the like. As the ringing died down he heard another voice – Erik’s. “Come on, Johanni, get up!” He cried out. “You can still do this! Get up onto your feet and fight!” {Erik,} he thought woozily, {if I die… I’ve never get to…} Johanni’s eyes slowly opened. He saw only the trees and their green foliage as obscured by the darkness. And then he felt the pain. His left arm, his shield arm, was on fire. His stomach too, and one of his ankles, but worst of all was his face. He choked back blood when he tried to breathe. From jaw to temple the whole right half of his face seared, and thick black blood clotted his nostrils shut. His skull throbbed. But he held on to Erik’s screams, his calls for him to rise, and slowly he leaned up onto his elbows. Norsa stood a few yards away, thrusting her shield arm into the air victoriously. It was only as the boy carefully found his feet that he saw her hunker over defensively again, shoulders pumping, axe and shield upraised. Johanni didn’t notice Erik and Eardwulf’s smiles of relief. He didn’t see the habitually sceptical Frodi break a little wry grin, nor saw he Thregg pounding his chest. He only let his shaky mind slip back into focus, focusing on Norsa and her nearly impeccable guard. Nearly. “Yield or die, boy.” She said. Instead, Johanni charged at her. He heard Eardwulf yell “No!” as he ran forward as fast as his muddy boots could, drawing back his sword arm for a charging thrust. Norsa scowled as if watching a fool throw himself into the flames, readying not her shield this time, but her axe. The Osserians above hooted for blood. And blood there was as Johanni dropped skidding to his knees, sliding forwards in the mud, and swung his sword across Norsa’s unprotected shins. She yelped aloud as the blade tip sliced open her bare white flesh from one leg to the other and spattered a gout of blood over her fur-trimmed boots. As she doubled over her left hand unclenched and the round shield fell from her grasp into Johanni’s, who skidded to a stop behind her and stumbled upright. “YES!” Roared Erik Halfspear. Norsa glanced over her shoulder at him, stunned. Johanni, panting and breathless and bloodied and filthy, held up Norsa’s own round shield and rested the tip of his blade against its iron-rim, the traditional guard stance of Osserian shield-and-swordsmanship. “…Y-yield or die, girl…” He said. Norsa’s war cry tore through the forest. It was an ear-splitting howl so strong that even Growler snarled in alarm. Johanni saw the anger flow into her blazing blue eyes and ripple outward through her torso as it flexed muscle, snapped joints, and devoured energy by the breath-full; she turned upon her boots that instant and ran screaming for Johanni with rageful bloodlust, her powerful stride unfazed by her slit shins. The boy met her axe with the round shield, but his arm was too weak, and her swing was too strong; he staggered back. Roaring, Norsa swung blow after blow against the shield, each one banging cracks and fractures into its planks until a final swing broke through just inches away from Johanni’s nose. When she tried to pull the axe free it wouldn’t budge, so deeply was it lodged inside the shield, so an enraged Norsa tore it from Johanni’s weakened arm and cracked his face with her gloved knuckles. Johanni’s lip burst open. He fell backwards. His short sword slipped free from his hand and he landed in another mud puddle. Norsa mounted him from the waist, grabbed him by the throat, and drew back her fist. “THAT’S ENOUGH!” Norsa froze. The Osserians stopped cheering. Erik, Eardwulf and Frodi gazed into the darkness beyond the trench at a thin and pale-skinned man with long white threads of fraying hair falling from his skull as low as his tunic’s belt. His eyes were dark and weary, his grey beard closely shaven. His long black cloak bore stag totem embroidery. Two Osserian spearmen flanked him at his approach. Norsa climbed off Johanni, then knelt respectfully as the white-haired man took the battered boy by the forearm and lifted him up. “The Hrathwuldsson, no?” Johanni was too weak to reply. “My name is Harwald,” he said. “Come with me.” ********** The innermost sanctum of the crypts of the noble Osserian dead served as a meeting hall (and now audience chamber) for their current chieftain. Repurposed from an ancient burial chamber, its stone walls were almost twenty feet high, sculpted with stone faces and stags, and bore the names and the deeds of those solemnly interred within the catacombs. Around those walls the Osserian survivors hung testaments of their former greatness; tattered but proud banners of the stag totem, painted ironwood round shields from bygone eras, ceremonial long swords rusting peacefully in their scabbards, and boiled stag skulls mounted upon hooks, the skulls of a hundred felled golden stags. At the head of the hall stood a varnished wooden throne painted in white and decorated with spotted deerskin throws, where the Osserian chieftain known as Harwald Snowhair now sat. His servants assembled rugs and pillows and spread them out before his seat, enough of them for Johanni, Erik, Frodi, and Thregg to sit. Eardwulf stood behind Johanni as another Osserian attendant saw to the aetheling’s wounds. He cringed as she applied a special balm to his cuts and bruises, asking him to lift his shirt to wrap them in cloth. She was gentle but grudging in her ministrations, clearly only doing so because it was her lord’s wish. Osserian grievances ran very deep. When done she gave Johanni a tonic to drink and warned him to avoid mead for three days, and to rest. He thanked her and received no reply. Norsa, standing protectively by Harwald’s throne, wore long iron greaves to hide the wrappings around her shins where Johanni cut her. Her fury had stilled but her disgusted scowl spoke volumes about her feelings towards this informal ‘moot’. With a nod, Norsa gestured to the eastern doorway. A servant girl emerged with a wooden platter topped by six clay cups of water. She gave her chieftain and his thegn a cup each, then did the same for their guests. Johanni tippled some of the tonic into the water and drank it. It was bitter but (eventually) it would help. “Apologies,” began Harwald. “But we have no ale or wine.” Johanni, weak but wakeful, nodded. “Regardless, many thanks, Oldfather.” “Spare me your pleasantries. I only indulge you because I see no fruit in killing the Bloodbane’s brother, no matter how well deserved it might be. Norsa’s rage is ill-thought but not misplaced.” Johanni glanced at the shave-haired axewoman, sour-faced and ferocious. Many a solstice before the pacification there was talk of Osser Greatfang’s daughter being a great beauty, even talk of her as a possible match for one of the king’s sons. How far had Ragnar’s actions diverted their histories from their proper course? “I believe it is misplaced,” said Johanni. His voice was muffled and high pitched from the clotted blood in his nose. “I am not my brother.” Harwald frowned. “And thank the gods for that. Do you have any idea how much destruction the Bloodbane wrought across these lands? Can you even begin to fathom the death dealt in service to his ambition? We Osserians once numbered in the tens of thousands but now…? Now there are only 217 of us left, hiding away like rats this moulding tomb. I play a dangerous game with my own people just by allowing you to live – much less granting you an audience. Speak. Say what it is you wish.” “Where is my brother?” Barked Erik. Harwald sipped his water cup. “…The boy is fed and watered and unharmed, which is far greater respect than you Karggars have ever offered us.” “Oldfather,” although Harwald rejected his use of the endearment, Johanni couldn’t help but say it, “I do not believe that kidnapping is the way to resolve this issue. Understand that the Grey Wilds are a dying wasteland, and that the Karggars come not as invaders but as emigrants escaping starvation. Sygardi Greyspear’s only goal is the salvation of his people.” “As is mine,” said Harwald. “But so far as I see it the two greatest threats to my people’s salvation are sitting before me in this chamber.” Silence fell upon the hall. Johanni always knew that the Osserian chieftain would be one of the hardest (if not THE hardest) to win over, but he had not prepared for Harwald Snowhair. Cold and shrewd, he was the perfect counterpoint to Norsa Hardfang’s tempestuous rage. But although Johanni understood why they chose him to lead instead of Osser Greatfang’s heir, he also understood that Norsa’s anger was the beating heart of the Osserian existence at present. They were a once great people reduced to ruin by one man’s commands, a man who had never truly answered for those commands, a man who Johanni wasn’t even sure he wanted to answer for those commands… for how could he condemn his own brother? These were his thoughts, thoughts disturbed when Eardwulf uncrossed his arms and stepped forth, his boot steps echoing up to the arched ceiling. “Lord,” he said soberly, “if I may?” Norsa reached for one of her throwing axes. Harwald, weary but calm, rested a hand upon hers and ordered her not to attack. Scowling, she complied. Eardwulf walked into the few yards of empty space between Johanni, Erik, Frodi and Thregg and Harwald’s throne. He knelt upon one knee, head bowed toward the flagstones, and said, “Lord. Lady. I am Eardwulf. I am Osserian, no less as much as you or any of the noble dead here interred. No matter what you may have heard of me, I served loyally as Osser Greatfang’s thegn and defended Karburgh during Ragnar Bloodbane’s attack. I slew his own thegn on the battlefield. I speak now not as an ally to the Impanni tribe nor as a subject of the crown, but as a son of the Fens who wishes to see his people grow and prosper,” Eardwulf paused to gather his thoughts, “Johanni Carian Hrathwuld is not the Bloodbane. The young lord is kind-hearted, brave, and wise beyond his age. He comes here seeking your support for his claim as king and I urge you to acknowledge it, for he will do all within his remit to atone for the sins of his brother. It is in our own interests that Ragnar does not sit the throne… but it would also be to our great benefit if Johanni becomes king. My lord and lady, please hear him out.” Silence. Johanni stared at the bowed Eardwulf as if he’d grown a tail. Never had he heard Eardwulf speak so fluidly, so passionately, and it was all to help him. Though it hurt to smile the Impanni boy curled a lip – or so he did until he looked to Harwald’s throne and found him utterly unmoved. “Stand up,” said Harwald. Eardwulf did so, sword and mail chattering. “I know who you are. I know what you are. You serve those who slew your own people like a whipped dog. Whatever truths gild your words, thrall, you are not the one I would hear them from. Get out. I entertain you no further.” Johanni watched the hurl strike his friend worse than any arrowhead. His chieftain Harwald had no ear for him, and his thegn would sooner put an axe through his throat than hear it speak another word. And yet, when he turned to the aetheling, the young lord could not meet his gaze. “Eardwulf,” he whispered guiltily, “…Perhaps you should go.” The Osserian gaped, stunned. “Now? You dismiss me now of all-” “You’re offending them. Please go. We will talk later.” His shoulders dropped at his sides. Johanni almost buckled at the look of hopeless defeat in Eardwulf’s eyes. {I can’t stop hurting him,} thought the boy, {the one person who knows and loves me more than any other. Oh Eardwulf, I’m so sorry. Please understand…} And he did. Or he seemed to. The Osserian’s hurt expression returned its habitual steeled glower and he excused himself from the hall, marching over to the other side of the room and exiting post-haste. Johanni swallowed his guilt. “Is what your slave said true?” Asked Norsa. “Eardwulf is my friend and protector, he is not-” “Is what he said true?” She spat. Johanni nodded. “Yes. I am the legitimate heir to King Hrathwuld, but the Royal Diet elects the king, and the Diet now favours Ragnar. If I do not rally the support of the other chieftains to demonstrate the strength of my claim, then my brother will become king when my father dies.” And then, there and then, Johanni saw a blade of doubt pierce Harwald’s icy objection. The prospect of a ‘King Bloodbane’ was as unfavourable to him as it was to Norsa and all the other Osserians – but he was the only one amongst them who could help forestall that risk. Harwald reclined into his throne, thinking on what he’d heard a spell, before settling his gaze upon Johanni again. “Before I give you my answer,” began the Snowhair, “Let me explain our situation. We Osserians and you Karggars are not alone in the Fens at present. All lands north of the forests are in the hands of a Thoth raiding party, with perhaps as many as 500 fighting men amongst their score. They landed on our shores half a year ago and burned down three of our scouting posts on the forest’s edge.” “We’ve met them,” said Frodi, “We were attacked by some of their scouts on the way here. But who leads them?” “A man by the name of Haakon Godwulfsson.” Erik’s eyes burst wide. “…WHAT?!” “You know him, Karggar?” Asked Norsa. “He…” the Halfspear shook with rage, “…he killed my father…” “Is there anyone in this room who hasn’t killed someone’s father?” “Norsa, enough…” Harwald frowned. “Haakon has more than twice our number, he knows we cannot defeat him. That’s why he made us an offer.” “What offer?” Asked Johanni. “In recent weeks they have captured new Salt Isles from the Arbarii. He will grant us one of those isles to resettle upon along with safe passage to it, in exchange for Sygardi Greyspear.” Erik stamped his fist on the flagstones. “You can’t trust a WORD he says!” “I don’t trust him anymore than I trust you,” said Harwald. “But as I said we don’t have the numbers to fight him. I bear your brother no ill will but if I must deliver him to Haakon to provide a new life for my people then so be it.” “Oldfather, I-” “Do not call me that,” said Harwald. Johanni baulked. “…Very well, Harwald Snowhair. You do not need to trade Sygardi’s life for your own. You may not have the men to defeat him, but we do. Let us deal with Haakon for you. In exchange, all we ask is that you free Sygardi and consider my claim. Let us help you. Let this be the first step in atoning for the crimes committed against your people.” The Osserian chieftain leaned back in his throne to ruminate on the proposal. Johanni watched him think about it, then look to Norsa Hardfang, who nodded grudgingly in agreement. There was consensus there. {Praise be,} thought Johanni. Harwald’s throne creaked audibly as he leant forward. “...I cannot guarantee that my people will ever be able to co-exist with the Karggars. They are abettors to our demise and always will be. However, if you can defeat Haakon and expel these Thoth attackers from the Fens… I will have no further grounds to imprison Sygardi. Then, and only then, will I consider your entreaty.” ********** His head hurt. But gazing at his reflection in the river water Johanni realized that he looked a lot worse. A knot the size of a dormouse bulged through his blonde forelock and a shiny purple bruise swallowed up half his face. His lip had stopped swelling but his shield arm still felt sore. His injuries hurt like hellfire, but they were so minor that complaining about it made him feel guilty. Someone called out to him “Johanni!” They cried. When the boy looked back he saw Frodi (with a full quiver and a taut bow) standing at the bottom of the cliff-face, his cloak beating against the wind. Behind him was Norsa Hardfang, and behind her an increasingly morose Eardwulf. He hadn’t spoken a word since Johanni dismissed him from Harwald’s hall. Dark circles enveloped his eyes, and he looked haggard, like he hadn’t slept all night. Johanni couldn’t imagine the thoughts running through the mighty swordsman’s mind and every time he thought to reach out to Eardwulf he realized he had nothing to say. What could he possibly say to sooth that man’s heart after everything he’d been through? “Little lord,” said a pensive Erik Halfspear, striding up to Johanni’s side. His russet-coloured long cloak completely concealed his muscular body against the icy night winds, only the hilt of his shoulder-strapped greatsword was visible. “Are you certain you want to do this? You still need time to recover from your injuries.” Johanni glared up the eight-foot high cliff face overlooking the river, to the heavily fortified stone walls looming above that. Haakon’s Redoubt awaited them. Just a half-mile away behind the grassy hillocks occupying the bottom of the cliff’s slope, 600 Karggar swordsmen and 100 Impanni legionaries waited for the call to charge the fortress. “Neither my father nor my brother would let these little blemishes steer them away from a battle,” The young lord’s cloak billowed in the wind. “I know I’m a poor warrior, but I will see this plan through. I will not lead from behind.” They spent the better part of the prior eve devising their plan. Down in the crypts of the noble Osserian dead, Norsa led Johanni and Erik to a smaller chamber filled with ash urns and lit candles. In its centre was a small round table with a map of the Fens rolled out over it, and across that map long needles tipped with oaken carvings dotted the landscape – wolves’ heads for the Karggars, a horse’s head for the Impanni, a bear’s head for the Thoths and stags’ heads for the Osserians. The map markings were very accurate, at least with regards to the Karggars. One pin represented 100 men. Asher’s Barrow had 1 horse’s head and 20 wolves’ heads pinned to it, Karburgh another 20. The Ghoul’s Wood had 2 stags’ heads pinned to it, and a fortress at the edge of the northern bend of the Great River had 3 bear’s heads pinned to it. The map was accurate to the last two days of their journey – a testament to the skill of the Osserian scouts. Johanni, Erik and Norsa had drawn chairs around that table. “Our scouts say that bastard Haakon has around 350 fighting men holed up in his redoubt, along with 100 horses and at least 50 thralls,” explained Norsa. As loath as she was to mix words with Impannis and Karggars the situation demanded a more temperate attitude than was customary to her. “The Thoths built it over the ruins of a Beast Tower, about two days ride south of the northern shore, where his other 150 men guard his fleet of ships, around eighteen or more.” Erik peered over the map. “Even better for us then. 600 of my men will be more than enough to wipe out Haakon’s forces. Marching them north won’t take long either. Our only worry is the redoubt’s defences. What do you know?” Norsa frowned. “The bastards have spikes, pitch barrels, scorpios, and slings. They’ve also a high ground advantage since they built the fortress on a slope. Not to mention high stone parapets manned by three dozen highly skilled archers and two fully stocked larders to last them half a fucking year. Take this lightly and the Karggar dead will litter those slopes. Not that it matters much to me… lord.” Norsa and Erik glared menacingly at each other. “Does the redoubt have any weaknesses?” asked Johanni, interrupting. “One,” she replied. “There’s an underground tunnel at the riverbank beneath the cliff that leads to a chamber beneath the Beast Tower’s ruins. Haakon doesn’t seem to know about it. That will be our way in.” “Then that’s the plan,” said Erik. “My men and Johanni’s century march north from Karburgh to attack the gates as a smaller team sneaks in from the river to kill Godwulfsson.” Johanni nodded. “It’s decided then. We’ll send a rider back to Karburgh for Septio and Halfdan to rally the men. Me, you, Frodi, Thregg and Eardwulf will take the riverbank tunnel. First thing tomorrow we make for the Great River.” With their plan set they retired for the night and made their way north to the cliffside riverbank beneath Haakon’s Redoubt the next morning. The air around the riverbank was cold and biting, its waters skirted by blue mists rolling across from the eastern marshes. Hours had come and gone but the main force hadn’t yet sent the signal. Johanni shivered beneath his cloak. “I need to know you can keep a cool head up there,” he said to Erik, “that you will not let vengeance cloud your judgement.” The Karggar chieftain scoffed at the idea. “Sygardi’s freedom is in the balance. Don’t belittle me.” “That wasn’t my intent, I merely-” “Enough. Let it lie,” said the Halfspear. Johanni became quiet. He looked to the river (like Erik) noting the current’s present strength. If the Thoths had any boats tethered to the bank somewhere, they could make a fast escape. But almost as if it opposed his wont, Erik Halfspear broke the silence, muttering, “Don’t you find it odd that the Snowhair sent us only one fighter?” They both glanced over their cloaked shoulders at Norsa Hardfang, resting listlessly against the chalky cliff as she sharpened her hafting axe with a stone. “More a spy than a soldier I suspect,” said Johanni, “Harwald is no one’s fool, if we fail then he’ll deny any Osserian involvement in the attack and deliver Sygardi as promised. The real question is – what does Haakon want with your brother?” “We’ll find out soon enough,” said Erik Halfspear. “Lords!” Yelled Frodi from the cliff, “Look!” Everyone looked up into the starry night sky. A tiny orange light bent through the darkness above the redoubt in a smooth arc before it disappeared in the distance: a fire arrow. {That’s the signal,} thought Johanni. “The men are on the attack, we must move!” Johanni and Erik returned to Eardwulf, Norsa, Frodi and Thregg as they ran up the sodden, grassy riverbank to the hidden tunnel the Osserian scouts discovered beneath the fortress. Covered by a thick woven awning of reeds, thatch and thistle and held in place by a cairn-like rockpile fashioned as a monument to the gods, the six of them dismantled its concealments and slipped inside the dark tunnel. It sloped into a partially flooded trench that they slogged through by the fur of their boots. Thregg, leading the group, lit a torch to light the way. About fifty yards along they found an old but sturdy rope ladder reaching all the way up into an overhanging cave shaft. One by one the six of them scaled the ladder and one by one they climbed out of the shaft into a large limestone chamber beneath Haakon’s Redoubt. The chamber was cold and wet and riddled with moss. Its walls were tall, its ceiling domed, its stonework decorated in ancient runic script that not even Johanni could decipher. Tall ironwood beams supported the weaker corners of the structure and they had rebuilt its ceremonial altar (identical to the one that the Elf Worshippers had worked their blood magics upon in the Grey Wilds) in marble and hacksilver. This was the inner chamber of the ancient Osserian Beast Tower. And it was guarded. On the other end of the massive 100-yard-long underground chamber sat five Thoth warriors, spears aside and swords scabbarded, huddling for warmth around a log fire. {So, they do know about the tunnel,} thought Johanni, {but it’s so poorly guarded, perhaps Haakon doesn’t know that we know about it…? } Portions of the dome had fallen loose from the ceiling and crashed into the flagstones below, the fragments as large as aurochs. Frodi took one for cover as the others slowly crept around them and advanced on the Thoth guards from the shadows. The archer loosed two shafts, one through a Thoth neck and the other a Thoth eye. Both men slumped dead. The remaining four, shrieking with angry fright in the Old Northern Tongue, reached for their spears – or rather tried to. One of Norsa’s throwing axes separated the third Thoth’s hand from his wrist before it laid hands upon his spear. He screamed in agony, until a growling Erik reared up and took off his head with a wide, clean sweep of his steel greatsword, splattering his northern compatriots in blood. Snarling, the remaining three Thoths now found themselves surrounded by the weapon-drawn Eardwulf, Norsa, Thregg and Johanni. “(Put your weapons down),” said Johanni in their tongue. Warily, they obeyed his commands, unbuckling their sword belts and daggers. The boy then ordered them to take off their armour piece by piece. The three scowling Thoth men took off their conical iron helms and greaves, unfastened their bear-hide cloaks, slipped off their leather gauntlets, unbuckled their carved iron breastplates, and peeled off their padded gambesons until there was nothing left of them but long blonde hair and a trio of swinging cocks. Thregg and Norsa led the three men behind a large fragment. By the corner of his eye Johanni saw their shadows hack the Thoths to bits. The Hardfang emerged from the rock with a blood-soaked axe head. “Now?” “Now we play Thoth,” said Erik Halfspear, throwing her one of the dead Thoths’ iron helms. “And how do we justify carrying our own weapons?” Asked Johanni as he peeled off the protective steel plate pauldrons. Frodi said to pretend they were captured from enemy Karggars whilst out hunting, if anyone asks. There was a ten-foot-high archway supported by ironwood beams beyond the campfire, and on the other side of it, a 500-step stone stairwell spiralled up into an arched-walled, dirt-floored corridor lined with blazing torches in bolted iron rings. A party of six ‘Thoths’, led by the smallest of their number, emerged from the underbelly of the fortress and marched out through the glowing corridor into the courtyard, where hundreds of other Thoths now scrambled to deal with the enemy at their gates. Fire arrows sailed over the ramparts and set alight the thatch-roof pigsties, huts, kilns and stables as Haakon’s men ran with pales of water to douse the flames. Clusters of Thoth archers (two or three sharing a drum-full of arrows every six yards of the wall walk) returned the favour in sporadic bursts. Down below, young male thralls boiled pitch and ferried rocks for the battlements, whilst support teams scrambled to the reinforce the front gates with logwood. Though they were built of sturdy ironwood the attackers had rams and battered them hard every few moments. BOOM, it crashed, BOOM! BOOM! Johanni, clad in Thoth armours, led the others across the now chaotic yard as warriors and thralls ran hither and yon in each direction to help defend against the siege. It was so busy no one noticed these brown-haired ‘Thoths’. A man screamed as he fell from the wall above with a flaming arrow lodged in his eye, landing a yard or so from them with a bloody, clanking pulp. Johanni grimaced but he held their course to the central tower, where a half-dozen Thoth spearmen stood guard. Johanni addressed their captain in the Old Northern Tongue. “(We’re here to relieve your men. Join the others at the merlons and repel the Karggars, we will protect the thegn.)" The captain looked sceptical. “(I have received no such commands from the Godwulfsson. Who gave you the order to relieve us? Ognar? Baldnute?)” That very second a flaming arrow blazed past Norsa’s ear and caught one of the captain’s men in the throat. He dropped his spear and fell to his knees, choking to death. “(There’s no time for this!)” Johanni pointed to the beleaguered ramparts. “(Now go! Help our brothers!)” The captain and his four remaining men gathered their resolve and ran off to help support the defence of Haakon’s Redoubt, the captain yelling for a nearby thrall to fetch them longbows. “Let’s go,” said Johanni to the others. Haakon’s Tower was a nearly thirty-foot-high rounded column of stonework, ironwood lumber, thatch and dried mud and it stood tallest of all structures within his redoubt. Lodged into the western battlements, it overlooked the Great River and from its wooden brattices one could see as far afield as the northern forests or the misty wetlands of the Lesser Marsh. Moonlight and the amber glow of fire bled in though its abandoned arrow slits, but lit sconces provided most of the illumination. All the guards were gone, down in the courtyard to help bolster the redoubt’s defences, plunging the tower into a foreboding quiet, broken only by the distant war cries and shouts of the dying. The party of six scaled its smooth stone steps until they reached its summit and approached the arched oak doors of a private dwelling. Without prompt Thregg smashed those doors in with one stroke of his battle-axe. They caved in from the hinges and landed with a loud splintering crash into a sizable chamber decorated with mounted whale bones, bear pelt rugs and wall-hung round shields. There was a round table in the centre of the room that held a map of the entire country, alongside an ewer (half-full) of wine, a platter of rabbit bones and sauce smudges, and a scabbarded dagger. Beside its roaring hearth was the commander of the fort and leader of the Thoth raiding party occupying the northern Fens. Haakon Godwulfsson. He was just as loathsome and frightening as Johanni recalled him being at court all those solstices ago; blood-eyed and lean-bodied with a dirty-bright mane of wild blonde hair. Dressed only thin leather breeches and woollen boots; he was shirtless from the sword belt up. The hearth’s glow lit up the muscular contours of his battle-scarred chest, shoulders and abdomen. Silver cup of wine in hand, Haakon’s disarrayed and fang-like teeth curled into a grin. He turned to his newfound guests, eyes falling upon on the shortest and foremost amongst their number -- Johanni. Haakon pointed him out. “The Younger Hrathwuldsson, no? Look at you, boy, almost fully grown now! Apple-cheeked and doe-eyed, ever your brother’s opposite. Have you yet wetted your sword…?” “MURDERER!” Erik Halfspear roared the accusation like an animal, growling through his throat, raw and bestial; drawing his greatsword and hurling himself across the divide at Haakon. Johanni yelled for him to stop but the Karggar chieftain heard nothing of his words through the blind rage – and the Godwulfsson stood unperturbed until Erik’s swing came within inches (and seconds) of cracking his cranium – and instead met his sword. Haakon drew it in one swift motion, a curving cold-steel sabre engraved with glowing, ice-coloured ancient runes and a thin, sleek blade. Their swords locked, yet with one hand Haakon’s sabre held back the two-handed grip of Erik’s greatsword – all the Karggar’s strength bearing down on the Thoth’s one arm – and somehow, they were evenly matched. Johanni went for his short sword. “Don’t interfere,” said Frodi, “You’ve the right to holmgang, and so does he. Let him fight.” “This was not the plan,” said Johanni. Norsa, arms folded, watched with ambivalence. “…If that mutton-headed Karggar falls in battle to Haakon and we miss this chance of killing him, then your whole ‘plan’ is moot.” {You bastard…} thought Johanni. {You promised me…} Erik was suffused with rage; with his gritted teeth and furrowed brow, flexed muscles and snarling growl, yet Haakon merely grinned amusedly at his challenger and shoved him back, breaking the sword lock. He sipped from his wine cup, still in hand, smirking. “Do you know who I am?! Huh?!” Yelled Erik. “I’m Erik Halfspear, son of Gad Greyspear! Son of the man you cut down like an animal!” Haakon’s bloody eyes rolled leftward and up, as if in thought, and then a mocking smile crossed his face. “Ah! I remember. The Karggar chieftain. The mule poacher who raided a farm on my lands? The one who lost to me in single combat? The ‘warrior’ twice as old as his oldest man? I put your father to rest, boy, and it cost me dearly. You ought to be kissing my boots in thanks.” “WHORESON!” Raged Erik. Hands double gripped, the Halfspear swung his greatsword overhand aiming for the exposed flesh of Haakon’s shoulder, but the Thoth merely stepped aside and let it strike the flagstones of his chamber. The stone cracked open and Erik hauled it up again, swinging upright. Smirking, Haakon Godwulfsson almost danced around the cumbersome weapon and repelled the blade on its upward stroke, then stepped forward and slashed across Erik’s face. The Karggar seethed as a bright scarlet smile cleaved across his cheek, the blood splatter matting his stolen iron breastplate. It knocked him out of his stride for a moment – but then the chieftain’s roared his ferocious battle cry, an act of sheer defiance, and swung his sword so fast overhand that Johanni only saw a flash of metal clap against Haakon’s glowing cold-steel sabre. The two weapons clashed tonally and repelled each other, but just as swiftly Erik Halfspear swung another overhand swing that Haakon Godwulfsson (who became more watchful as Erik’s rage re-powered him anew) parried back with his sabre. Then came another and another and another, one mighty swing after the other, on and on, not giving the thegn a single chance to counterattack. Thregg and Frodi both cheered him on as the Halfspear pushed the Godwulfsson back, one boot at a time. Perhaps sensing the change in momentum, Haakon blocked (rather than parried) the last swing, catching the younger warrior’s greatsword with his sabre’s cross guard and locking their swords. Despite the Karggar’s superior height, weight and muscle, the lean and shirtless Haakon somehow held him off, at least until Erik’s boot caught him in the ribs. Haakon staggered back with a hard grunt, breaking the sword lock and clutching his exposed ribcage. He grinned. “You’re going to die, Godwulfsson,” spat Erik. The golden-haired Thoth spat out a wad of blood. “You broke a rib,” he said. “I’ll grant you this, boy, I did underestimate you. When you’ve spent as many winters as I have culling weaker stock, you forget what a real fight is like,” Haakon smiled at his sabre. “My sword skills have rusted, I think.” The Thoth warrior threw it at Erik’s boots. The five spectators, Johanni, Eardwulf, Frodi, Thregg, and Norsa, watched his sabre clatter to the flagstones with an array of confusion, curiosity, and concern. {Why would he disarm himself?} Thought Johanni. {Has he given up?} “Surrender?” Erik frowned. “Are you so afraid to die, Haakon?” Smiling, he curled his fingers into his palms and made fists. “Nothing would please me more than to fall in battle with honour and join my ancestors on the Hallowed Plane. Unfortunately, I have work to do before I die. You’re not the only one seeking to revenge himself, boy. I’ll not rest nor die until I’ve slayed the ones who betrayed me…” Haakon threw a glance at Johanni. “And now I have the opportunity to send them a message…” Haakon Godwulfsson peeled off his doeskin gloves, kicked off his boots, and oddly, dropped his breeches. Norsa scoffed at his pale cock, thick and flaccid, and watched with amusement as he hunkered down to his haunches and growled beneath his breath. “What are you doing?!” Barked Erik. Haakon, heedless of his would-be assassins’ amusement and confusion, kept up his low, atonal growl until it rose and rose and rose into a bestial howl rippling from his throat and echoing up to the high ironwood rafters. It was then that Erik, Johanni, Eardwulf, Frodi, Thregg and Norsa saw something unseen by the common eye since the landing of the first Woags upon Grünlund’s shores. They watched as the pupils disappeared from his eyes like pearls plunging into a pool of crimson blood, as the sinew beneath his skin bulked atop a bout of inhumanly rapid bone growth, his legbones and arm bones thickened and grew beyond human dimensions as his ten toes moulded together into two cloven hooves. Haakon’s howl became agonizing screams as the digits as his index figures merged with his middles, and his ring fingers merged with his littles, his thumbs sharpening out as the skin across his body coarsened into thick porridge-coloured scales; suppurating pus at the joints and climbing up his elongating face like mail, a face that broadened out from its skull into a snout, a snout girded by a set of snapping jaws and skirted by rows of gnashing, serrated teeth; his nostrils flaring with noxious fumes as his blood eyes sharpened in their sockets with a reptilian blink. As his belly and abdomen stretched to accommodate the growth of his spine, the screaming Haakon’s sides split open, bursting blood and pus and severed muscle threads, as two claw-like protrusions carved their way out of his body and lengthened into a second set of arms, doubling over with the first. The flesh at his shoulder blades did the same and out of their wounds grew a third, thinner set of arms kited over by a scaly grey membrane and extending out into bat-like wings. Erik and the others stepped back, stunned, as the creature before them lumbered up onto its barrelled legs and dwarfed them all in its twelve-foot shadow. “MY FATHER WAS GODWULF THE GOOD,” it bellowed, “HE DIED FIGHTING AT HRATHWULD’S SIDE FOR NO REWARD! I DFEEATED THE GHOST HILL GARRISON AND HELD THE CHARNEL TOWER! THE BLOODBANE OWES HIS NAME TO ME! YET IN DEFENDING MY OWN LANDS FROM YOUR BASTARD OF A FATHER, I WAS CAST OFF LIKE DROSS! I WILL NOT REST NOR DIE UNTIL THOSE WHO BETRAYED ME SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES! I WILL NOT REST NOR DIE UNTIL I BRING THE FURY OF MY RAGE TO DRANGHEIM’S DOOR! BEHOLD THE SECRET THAT THE IRON CIRCLE UNEARTHED FROM THE BOWELS OF THE BLACK MOUNTAINS! BEHOLD THE LEGACY OF THE BEAST TOWERS OF THE ANCIENTS! BEHOLD THE POWER OF THE WULF’S BLUT!!!” Beast Haakon lunged at Erik Halfspear with its gigantic claws, slashing open the iron breastplate with one stroke. He staggered back, too stunned by what he was seeing to think clearly as his body did his thinking for him, drawing back his greatsword and swinging down upon its wrist, but the steel merely rebounded off its scales, not even carving a dent. The edges of Beast Haakon’s snout curled into a grin. “THAT SWORD CAN’T HURT ME NOW,” it growled. “FOOL!” The shorn breastplate fell from Erik’s body as Beast Haakon snatched him by the throat and whirled him screaming overhead, landing brutally into his round table, smashing the oaken structure in half. He coughed blood. “Erik!” Cried Johanni. The holmgang was over. Frodi was the first to act, reaching behind his back into his quiver, withdrawing and nocking an arrow, then drawing into a hold, but his loosed shot, like Erik’s greatsword, bounced off Beast Haakon’s scaly hide. Johanni tried to run to Erik’s side but Eardwulf dragged him back by the arm, pulling the aetheling behind him and unsheathing his sword as Norsa Hardfang and Thregg the Ghoat drew their axes and rushed the creature lumbering before them. Thregg hit first, striking Beast Haakon’s scaly right thigh as Norsa hit his left flank, but neither blow broke his armoured flesh. “OSSERIAN WHORE,” spat the Beast, “YOUR PEOPLE COULD HAVE LIVED TO SEE ANOTHER DAY. BUT NOW…!” Beast Haakon swung the back of his ivory claws across Norsa’s face and threw her backwards onto her back, spluttering blood and phlegm. And as Thregg drew back his great axe the creature caught its head mid-motion. Thregg blinked. His swing was strong enough to cut an aurochs in half – yet to Haakon it did nothing! Snarling amusedly, Beast Haakon lifted the hulking Karggar axeman off the ground by his throat and tossed the axe away. He glanced over his folded wing at Erik Halfspear, lying dazed in the wooden wreckage of the round table. “VENGEANCE IS A HEARTH,” said the beast, “ONE CAN ONLY STOKE THE FLAMES… OBSERVE, HALFSPEAR, OBSERVE…” As Beast Haakon’s upper left arm held Thregg aloft, his bottom right arm snatched off the Karggar’s pilfered iron breastplate whilst his bottom left arm tore open his underlying chainmail as his upper right arm drew back – and he punched its claws clean through Thregg’s stomach. From the front, Erik Halfspear saw his head jerk forward as his throat spewed up a sudden gout of blood and bile that spluttered over his exposed chest and oozed off Beast Haakon’s arm, now buried wrist-deep in Thregg’s torso. From the rear, Johanni, Eardwulf and Frodi saw Haakon’s long, ivory claws jutting out of Thregg’s back by inches – until he pulled them free. The Ghoat dropped dead to the flagstones with his stinking intestinal tract dangling from his killer’s bloody claws. Beast Haakon gobbled them up. “No…!” Erik cried, “NOOOOOO!” An outraged Frodi, tears streaming down his eyes, strafed left and nocked an arrow, but not quickly enough to draw before Beast Haakon picked up Thregg’s great axe and hurled it at the archer. He ducked down and skidded below as it whirled into the far wall like a thunderclap. As Erik struggled to get back onto his feet, Beast Haakon opened his full ten-foot wingspan and flew across the flagstones towards Eardwulf and Johanni, throwing the Osserian swordsman back before he even lifted his blade and snatching up the trembling aetheling with both his upper arms, driving him down to the ground. “Johanni!” Erik yelled out, “Johanni!” The boy froze with fright as the long jawed, snarling, scale-skinned monster gaped down at him with amusement; saliva laced with Thregg’s blood dripping from his teeth onto Johanni’s face as he shivered from head to toe. His short sword rattled at his side, but he was too scared to reach for it. He had heard stories of the Age of Monsters and the Beast Towers in his childhood, he knew of magic and blood magic, but he’d never seen anything like this… this being. As he lay paralyzed with fear, Eardwulf scrambled back onto his feet and sliced at the arm holding Johanni down but his broadsword skidded off the armoured skin like a pebble off a rock. Nothing could penetrate that hide. Beast Haakon grinned. “AH, THE THRALL. I RECALL YOU NOW. STILL LICKING IMPANNI BOOTS, I SEE…” He slapped Eardwulf away with the back of his lower right claw, and leered over Johanni with that devilish, bestial grin. The boy winced and shut his eyes. His breath’s stench after consuming Thregg’s guts was foul. “I’M TAKING YOU TO THE DEEPFJORD,” said Beast Haakon, “MY MISSION MAY HAVE FAILED BUT THE BLOODBANE’S BABY BROTHER SHALL MAKE A SUITABLE GIFT TO KHAN MAGNUS… COME!” Norsa was just about coming to consciousness when she, Erik, Frodi and Eardwulf witnessed Beast Haakon opening his wings again and ambling for the far wall, one pounding hoofbeat after another. Johanni, finding himself, struggled to get loose as the creature carried him away but it was no use. He couldn’t get free. “No,” Erik, tears in his eyes, clawed his way out of the broken table and staggered up to his feet. His breastplate fell from his shoulders and waist, broken at the straps. “Let the boy go!” Heedless, Beast Haakon drew back his free left arms and punched them both through the northern wall. It cracked open like an egg, the black coloured stone fragments smashing out into the dark night sky. Johanni, shaking, saw Erik reach for his greatsword. {He won’t give up,} thought the boy. {Even though he can’t win… even though he can’t hurt his enemy… even though he’s lost his friend… he’d never give up.} Johanni’s squeezed his eyes shut. {Please,} he thought, {please don’t take me away from him…} Beast Haakon opened his wings to full span and leapt out into the night. {Stop,} thought Johanni, {Stop! Let me go! Let me go!} “LET ME GO!” Without thinking, Johanni drew his short sword and jutted it into the one and only vulnerable point across Beast Haakon’s entire twelve-foot high body – his eye. “GRAAAAAGH!” he roared, “YOU LITTLE SHIT!” It all happened in an instant. In one moment, Johanni was being carried away, and in the next he embedded his sword in that monster’s eye. His claws reflexively opened as he went to pluck it from his bloodied socket and Johanni fell from his arms. Beast Haakon flapped away to the north as Johanni found himself tumbling through the air and thought, for a moment, that he was truly about to die – until he heard someone scream his name above. The boy opened his eyes and saw Erik Halfspear leap through the hole that his father’s monstrous killer punched through the walls of his own redoubt, and dive towards him. They met in the air with the beating winds whipping in their ears as Erik enswathed Johanni in his arms and they plunged headfirst into the surging black waters of the Great River. ********** Wide eyed, nostrils flaring, Johanni gasped for air as he came to consciousness, hacking up gobs of slime, blood and river water he didn’t remember swallowing. His chest thrust up and down as he caught his breath. His drenched clothes felt wet on his body, his wet hair twisted together into damp brown tendrils, and his empty scabbard rattled against his thigh. And then he realized it. {I’m alive,} he thought. {I survived…?} He heard someone else coughing too. Johanni rolled onto his side and saw Erik Halfspear next to him, dripping from every inch of himself and resting on his elbows as he caught his breath. “You saved me…” whispered Johanni. Erik, still bleeding from the cut to his face by Haakon’s sabre, nodded. “Are you alright? Are you hurt?” “I don’t think so…” The Halfspear said “good”, got up onto his feet, then helped Johanni do the same as he looked around and studied their surroundings. Past the muddy slopes of the river bank where they washed up was a dense thicket of trees stretching both north and south for as far as they could see. The current dragged them downriver by miles (at least) and there was no telling how far afield Haakon’s Redoubt was. Johanni’s breath clouded over in the cold. “Where do you think we are?” “There’s no telling,” he replied. “But we need to find shelter.” They overheard a wolf’s howl from within the forest’s heart. “Give me your hand,” said Erik Halfspear, drawing his dagger. Johanni gave it to him. “Let’s go.” Going north in search of the fortress in soaked armour and linens was not an option so they made for the forest instead. Erik Halfspear lead the way by hacking at the liana and underbrush to cleave a path for Johanni to follow. The boy kept his hand in Erik’s and stayed close. He alerted himself to the sounds of the forest; snapping twigs, hooting owls, wild howls, grass snakes slithering over crispy fallen leaves. It was not silent, but it was peaceful. “…Erik,” Johanni bit his lip, “I’m so sorry about Thregg.” The Halfspear kept walking. “If I’d have known what Haakon truly was, I would have never-” “Don’t you do that,” said the Karggar. “You aren’t to blame. Thregg the Ghoat was a warrior, he was a true Woag. He didn’t care about politics or tribes or monsters. Give him a man to fight, a deer to hunt, or some ale to drink, and he was happy. He’s been at my side for as long as I could swing a sword. I was the one who failed him. There was a moment in the fight when Haakon threw down his sword… if I’d killed him then, he’d never have had the chance to become that… that thing. If I’d just followed the plan, Thregg would still be alive, Sygardi would be free, and my father’s spirit would have been avenged. Instead I let vengeance consume me… and now my friend is dead.” There was no telling what had transpired at Haakon’s Redoubt since they fell into the river, but if the battle went their way then Johanni would see to it that his men recovered Thregg and made him whole again for burial. Johanni squeezed Erik’s hand. Erik squeezed Johanni’s hand in return. They walked on sore feet until they stumbled upon a wide, grassy clearing, and at the centre of it was an old abandoned elvish villa. Though it stood strong, its once lavish trappings were stripped away slowly by time – its white-painted walls peeling away, its tiled slate roofing broken and disarrayed, its rear shack (no doubt a former slave quarters) growing green with wood rot. Something, at some point, had broken open its eastern wall and corridor leading into the atrium, where weeds and moss and fungi sprouted up over its crumbling statues, withered thrones and cracked frescoes. “That will do,” said Erik. “Come, quickly.” Erik led Johanni into the villa via its broken wall into the corridor, which they followed to the triclinium; its mouldy flooring trod soft as soil beneath their boots. The living space provided shelter from the cold. Erik broke the legs off one of its aged klinai stretching couches for the two of them to sit upon, then went to fetch lumber from other parts of the villa. When he returned he used a dagger (and a stone) to make a fire from the kindling. Once the room was warm enough Johanni took off his Thoth armour and sat freely in his gold-trimmed white tunic, which became more comfortable as it dried. Erik did the same with his Thoth boots and gauntlets. Then, he reached into his cloak and pulled out a thin cask of wine. Johanni smiled. “Where did you get that?” “I found it in the cellar,” he said. “It’s aged well, not like that blood-coloured Arbarii piss we traded for. Seems the elves were good for something other than slavery and murder after all.” Erik passed Johanni the cask. He unfastened the stop and took a swig. It was indeed good. The boy took a few more and let the alcohol do its workings upon his senses. His bruise across his face (from his fight with Norsa) and the newer one upon his back (from being grappled by Haakon) became a bit less painful. “The others,” Johanni handed Erik back the bottle and stretched his hands towards the fire. Their numbness slowly ebbed away, “Do they fare well, you think?” Erik Halfspear glared at the flames as he quaffed another mouthful of wine. “Depends on the outcome of the battle. If our men took the redoubt, then the others should be safe. If that’s the case, then they’ve probably sent out a search party out to find us.” “And Haakon?” The Halfspear bristled. The cut across his face had stopped bleeding but it would reopen unless stitched. “No doubt that bastard is flying back to his ships on the northern shore, rallying what’s left of his men to return to the Deepfjord. We didn’t kill him but Harwald has his wish.” “What was he?” Johanni shivered just remembering his scaly great snout bearing down upon him with dripping hot serrated teeth. Haakon Godwulfsson was like a creature from the epics, one of the Beasts that Wo’ar the Half God once battled in the Age of Monsters. “Who knows? He mentioned something about the Iron Circle. Wasn’t that your brother’s old warband?” {The Iron Circle…} thought Johanni. “My brother forged it in his youth. Ragnar the Fatherless, Haakon Godwulfsson, Trygga the Spear Dancer, the brothers Twinstroke Kreim and Swanstroke Knossos, and Gnut the Troll; my brother’s greatest followers. Their last adventure was in the Black Mountains eight years ago. He doesn’t speak much of it. But I always sensed that he returned… different.” “How so?” “Sharper, more focused… less kind,” said Johanni. “Gnut the Troll was killed in battle, and the Iron Circle never recovered from the guilt. They disbanded and joined the Royal Legion; my brother becoming High Legate; Haakon, Trygga and the Golden Brothers rising as thegns. But there was never any talk of ancient powers or monsters or… ‘Wulf’s Blut’…” It was the term Haakon had used. Wulf’s Blut, or rather, Wolf’s Blood. But what did that mean? And how did it connect to Ragnar and his old warband? Johanni took the bottle back from Erik and gulped another mouthful. “I’ve always known that my brother went too far here,” he said. “But these past five days it’s truly dawned on me how heinous his actions were. It seems the farther I go on this journey the more it seeks to pull me away from Ragnar… and yet… he’s still my brother. Other princes in his position would’ve hated me… but Ragnar? He’s cared for me, he’s protected me. He was my closest friend. How can I reconcile my kindly big brother with the villain of Norsa’s nightmares?” Erik smiled softly. “People aren’t one thing, Johanni. They’re just people – many-sided, unpredictable, ever-changing. They can be cruel, but they can also be kind. They can be stupid, and they can also be clever. ‘All people can be all things’, that’s what my father used to say. I don’t think he’s wrong.” “So… what do I do about him…?” Said Johanni. “If I become king?” That was a question even Erik Halfspear struggled to answer. “You can’t kill your brother… but you can’t ignore what he’s done, not if you want the Osserians to back you. If we have Harwald’s support, then there’s only two chieftains left – you need to decide what you’re going to do with Ragnar before we find them.” Johanni sighed. Before he even realized it, he lowered his head upon Erik’s shoulder and gulped down more wine. The bottle was nearly half done. “Why can’t my brother be more like your brother?” “Tch!” Erik grinned churlishly, “That little turd? Sygardi’s a pious bore fluffed up on his own arse. He hates fighting and warfare, doesn’t eat meat or imbibe… he’ll probably be an old man before he even gets his cock wet. But… that doesn’t mean I don’t love him. There’s no one I know who cares more about the people around him than Sygardi… except maybe you.” Johanni smiled. “What’s funny?” Asked Erik. “It’s just I’d never picture you speaking so freely of love.” The Karggar smirked. “You underestimate me, aetheling. I’m more than the mead-swilling, hard-fucking, battle-hungry ox my uncle Olaf thinks I am. There are heights to my person. Dizzying ones.” “I do not doubt it.” “I should hope so!” “Erik,” Johanni steadied himself for something he hadn’t realized he was ready to say. “I mean it. I’ve always known there was more to you than… what lies upon the surface.” He smiled. “Thank you.” Erik Halfspear was much. A great warrior and a relentlessly stupid tactician, a revelry-prone drunk hopelessly devoted to the welfare of his people; and an honourable devotee of his people’s traditions no matter how outmoded they were. He was kind and brutal, careless yet relentless. And although in his person he was every bit the contradiction his father Gad Greyspear once spoke of, there was no such inconsistency in his beauty. Johanni found himself (and not for the first time) utterly taken with that beauty – the Halfspear’s molten copper eyes and scorching russet beard, his strong arms and muscled chest, his broad white grin; all exuded ardour. Was it the wine that made Erik’s intoxicating beauty so akin to wine in Johanni’s humble eyes? He could not say. All the boy could say was that as he stared at those pursed cerise lips, all was in his mind to kiss them – and kiss them he did. ********** When the morning sun pierced the clouds above its light fell upon the abandoned villa in thin blades through crack and crook. Johanni, nestled contently in Erik’s arms, watched the dust motes dance in them; such a beautiful sight. He could have stayed there like that for the rest of his life. But there was work to be done. The old elvish villa being about half a mile east of the eastern bank of the Great River, Erik and Johanni returned to its banks and made their way north. A gentle nightly rain had softened the soil (turning their trek into a trudge) and more of that wonted blue mist, thick as smoke, rolled across the river waters from the marshes. They were about a mile north of the villa, cutting their way through the tall grasses of a particularly profuse reed bed when they heard voices carrying on the wind. Erik and Johanni kept low and silent, black shapes hidden in the long, wet grass, until a familiar voice rang out, “Lord Johanni!” Yelled Eardwulf, “Are you there!?” The Osserian rode with Frodi at the head of a sixty man search party, torches aloft. Johanni leapt out of the rushes. “Eardwulf! Thank the gods you’re alive! How fares the battle?” The Osserian suppressed his sigh of relief, especially as Erik Halfspear rose up alongside the boy. “Lord! Praise to Ygga you are well,” he said. “The battle is long won; the fortress is yours. There are over a hundred Thoth captives, the rest are either dead or escaped. The Karggars sustained around fifty dead, along with the Ghoat. Norsa is with the main army at the redoubt.” “And Haakon?” Eardwulf frowned. “He escaped to the north with his ships.” Erik sheathed his dagger. “Just like I thought.” “Eardwulf,” Johanni addressed him. “Do any of the men… know about what we saw of Haakon?” The Osserian shook his head no. “Good. Let us agree to keep it that way until we truly know what we saw in those chambers. The best thing to do now is reunite with our forces at the redoubt and return to Harwald.” ********** “If Haakon Godwulfsson still lives,” said Harwald Snowhair, “Then you have not fulfilled your bargain. You disappoint me, boy.” The winter-haired chieftain, scowling, reclined into his throne beneath the crypts of the noble Osserian dead. Beside it stood the brooding Norsa Hardfang. Before it sat Johanni and Erik Halfspear. It had been three days since the battle at Haakon’s Redoubt. Under Erik’s instruction, half his assembled host would remain at the fort while the remaining Karggars pushed north to secure the shores. “I concede that was poor planning on our part,” said Johanni. “In hindsight we should have sent a separate detachment north to burn his ships at the bay and cut off his escape route. I apologize. But I must stress that we have at least honoured a portion of our bargain by ridding your lands of the Thoth threat.” Norsa frowned. “You don’t have more to say?” “Lady Norsa…” Harwald turned to her. “Speak.” “Haakon is no ordinary foe,” she said. “Sneaking into his fortress was easy enough, but when we confronted him in his tower my word to Ygga’s ears that bastard became some sort of… creature, a creature from the pits of the underworld. His skin was impenetrable, lord. Our weapons couldn’t even scratch it. He spoke of something called Wulf’s Blut… right before he escaped. We were lucky only one of us was killed in the fight.” Johanni felt Erik Halfspear bristle at her allusion to Thregg. His loss was still a raw wound. Frodi had had his body stitched and wrapped for transport to the Grey Wilds where they intended to bury him with his axe and ancestors. Harwald mused upon his thegn’s words. “Wulf’s Blut. I have not heard of this. But I do not doubt your words, Norsa. And alive or dead, we are at least rid of Haakon Godwulfsson. In light of this…” The Snowhair held up a hand. Two scale-armoured Osserian spearmen stood at the tall crypt doors across the chamber. One of them opened those doors. A few moments later and in walked two more spearmen in the company of a freckled and diminutive boy. His face was kind, framed by braided locks of chestnut-coloured hair. The Halfspear rose. “Sygardi!” “Brother!” He cried. Johanni, smiling, watched as the young Sygardi Greyspear ran into his older brother’s arms. It put him in mind of himself and Ragnar in their youth. How could it not? The Impanni boy turned to the more cynical Harwald Snowhair. “Thank you for this, lord.” The Snowhair frowned. “As to your proposal… I will agree to co-existence with the Karggars but only on Osserian terms. I would like to see my people safely re-settled in an enclave of Karburgh that will be guaranteed royal protection.” “You have my word,” said Johanni. “I will leave Centurion Septio and half of my century to ensure this. No further harm will come to your people.” Harwald’s glower remained inflexible. “Good. However, aetheling, I cannot pledge support to you on a whim, even if it means staving off a King Bloodbane. Norsa and I have agreed that she is to accompany on your journey. She is to be my proxy. She will observe you. And if she is happy to do so, she will offer you our support in my stead.” {This is not the result that I was hoping for,} thought Johanni. “I understand… and I accept these terms.” Norsa Hardfang, grim-faced and stalwart, stepped forward. She and Johanni stared at one another as the Karggar brothers parted. “You’re unlike any Impanni I’ve ever met. I’ll even admit that you’re brave. But challenging me was stupid, and as you say, your lack of foresight on Haakon’s ships allowed him to escape with 150 men, men your Karggars could have easily caught and killed.” {But could those men have killed Haakon?} Thought Johanni. “Even if it’s between you and the Bloodbane for king, I want the measure of you first. I need to be certain you are who you say you are,” said Norsa. Johanni nodded. This was not the result he wanted, but at least there was still hope. “Very well, Norsa Hardfang. You are welcome to travel with me until you find out.” ********** The peristyle of Ragnar’s domus was rich with the scent of jasmine, watered and pruned by his own personal thralls. As the moon bathed his fragrant white flowers in its light, the High Legate leisurely walked the portico in his plum-coloured, gold-trimmed tunic, corded at the waste by a tasselled rope hanging from which was a small leather pouch and side dagger. His sandaled feet trod the soft marble floor towards an oaken bench overlooking the central gardens. This was where Jarl Sygmune, one of the most prominent of all sixty lords of the Royal Diet, sat to receive him. Ragnar watched as the aging Jarl availed himself of his garden’s scents. “As rich as a fine wine, High Legate. My compliments.” The elder Hrathwuldsson took a seat next to Sygmune. “Cultivation is the key,” said Ragnar. “And like flowers and wine, a fine plan must receive the same if it is to succeed.” Sygmune frowned. “So, you agree then that there must be a plan?” “Indeed. And to that end…” There was a small chit wrapped by thread in Ragnar’s pouch. He handed it to Sygmune; who untied, unfurled, and read it. His snowy eyebrows shot upright. “Is this accurate?” “My spies confirmed it this morning,” he said. “The Elvish Emperor has amassed an army of over 20,000 slave soldiers on the southern side of the Black Mountains.” “And you believe he will attack?” Asked Sygmune. “No,” said Ragnar, “The army was raised to suppress a rebellion in their western territories, some sort of slave uprising. But perhaps this is a detail you might omit when you present the information to the Royal Diet.” After pausing a moment to digest Ragnar’s suggestion, Sygmune sighed audibly, his shoulders visibly sunken. Clearly, the task weighed more heavily upon him than the Bloodbane would have expected. “A lie,” he uttered. “An omission,” corrected Ragnar, “Who is to say when the Elvish Emperor will turn his eye towards Grünlund? And when he does, what will he find? Impanni, Karggar, Osserian, Arbarii, Thoth? These disparate tribes? These separate fingers of a hand? But if a king, a truly strong king, could close those fingers into a single Woaggish fist, then no matter how many slaves the elves may muster, we will repel them.” Sygmune folded his hands into his lap. He ruminated upon what he heard. As heavy as the weight of his words were, their truth won through. “I’ve secured 29 votes. But some in the Diet look to Lord Johanni’s work with the Karggars as proof of his ability to unify the Woags.” Ragnar smiled to himself, thinking of his little brother. “My brother is a kind-hearted soul. But kindness cannot unify the Woags nor defeat the elves. The next king must be strong enough to weather the coming storms – and he will be. Take this missive to the Royal Diet, Jarl Sygmune. Summon the king as well. Hold his feet to the fire and I assure you… the Diet will see the truth of my words for themselves.” Nodding knowingly, Sygmune took the missive and excused himself. Two Royal Guardsmen held the door; they followed him out. And as the Jarl left the cloister, a golden figure emerged from its shadowed pillars. It was Twinstroke Kreim, and he had listened to every word. “Lord,” the Golden Brother took a knee before the High Legate, his short-bladed sabres rattling against his armour. “I have news from the north. Knossos reports that he has destroyed most of the Karggar forest forts, he’ll start burning the Oakmire in a few days.” Ragnar Bloodbane rose from his bench. “Good. But send a rider north and tell him to leave it to his men. I want him here, in the capital, ready for what’s to come.” Kreim smiled. “It is time then?” “Indeed,” There was a small jar of ice-coloured liquid inside the Bloodbane’s pouch. He placed it in his thegn’s armoured hands. “It takes time to act, but it will do the deed. Give that to your most trusted thrall and have him serve the water at the assembly.” “Time and patience,” said Kreim. Ragnar nodded, smirking. “Time and patience.”
  9. Thanks everyone, really appreciate the comments! 😋
  10. Inside the Karggars’ mountain fortress there was a large hollow carved out of the cave wall and fenced by thatch. Beyond that was a tunnel, cold and dank, which led deeper into a honeycomb of interlocked caverns and cave tunnels. The old Karggar (who Johanni now knew as Olaf Greyspear) led the way to the largest of these caverns. Barred by an iron door and lit up by three roaring braziers; it was a 22-foot tall chamber turfed with sand and reed mats (pulled from the Oakmire’s bogs and woven together with thin braids of rope). It had only three walls – and a giant hole in the mountain wall where its forth should have been. The slight overhang of rock beneath the cavern’s mouth had had iron poles driven into it, purposing the structure into a balcony from which one could see all the southern Grey Wilds. The town of Yveryth lay half a mile below. The Oakmire was a distant but prominent black wall on the horizon. “This is our meeting room,” said Olaf. He exhaled deep as he reclined into one of four wooden thrones furnished with wolf pelts. Johanni and the man he once called Raider, Erik Halfspear, took two of the others. “My brother, Gad Greyspear, had it built after he returned home from your father’s war against the elves so that our guests might see with their own eyes the responsibility left to him to shoulder – the responsibility that Erik now shoulders.” Erik scratched his beard. “He didn’t ‘leave’ anything, his life was taken.” “A phrase, Erik,” said Olaf. “Nothing more.” “What is happening here?” Asked Johanni. Olaf gestured towards the view. “These are the Grey Wilds. They have always been harsh and unkind; the merciless winds, the pitiless cold. But these last twenty winters have been unforgiving. Our ancestors tamed these lands… but the Gods have forsaken them. The soil is hard and lifeless. Nothing grows from it, not even weeds. Have you’ve seen the empty lake?” Johanni nodded yes. “Our people once fished from that lake. Now it is dry, with not even peat to show from it. And there is no game, not even in the Oakmire. We still have water sources but in time those will dry up too. We once had dozens of settlements across this land. Now there are barely more than five, including Yveryth. My seer, Wharla Oldeye, believes that the Gods have cursed this land… and I do not doubt her.” {How is this possible?} Thought the boy. “How are you even surviving here?” “We raid,” said Erik. “It’s not just a matter of glory for us. Our poachers fish the Great River and hunt in the northern Weald where your father’s gaze is at its weakest, whilst my men raid trading caravans from the forest forts. Whatever food we find we keep, any excess weapons or jewels we trade with the Arbariis in the north for meat, grain, milk and so on. We then bring that food back to Yveryth for our people to buy.” There were thousands of Karggars across the Grey Wilds. That they could somehow survive that way for this long was remarkable, but Johanni knew that the ‘raid and trade’ strategy would not last them much longer. The Arbariis of the Salt Shore were natural traders but also increasingly shrewd merchants – if they knew how much the Karggars were struggling then the cost of trade with them would surely increase. And as for his father? For every 1 Karggar there was around 800 Impanni. There were hundreds of farms and settlements scattered across the northern border with the Grey Wilds that had weathered Karggar raids for generations, long before the creation of the burghs and herepaths. The Kingdom tolerated these raids only because it was so difficult to mobilize troops into the Oakmire. But if King Hrathwuld or Ragnar Bloodbane marched one or two thousand legionaries north to reoccupy the northern burghs, Erik’s raids would grind to nil. “I know what you’re thinking,” said Olaf. His aging eyes were rheumy and heavy lidded, but they saw much, Johanni could tell. “You’re thinking that raiding is not a solution to our problems. And you are right in that. My other nephew, his name is Sygardi, he has spent the solstice prior leading expeditions into the Fens. At last count nearly 2000 of us have resettled there.” “Against my wishes,” said Erik. Olaf frowned. “Your brother is doing what he thinks is best for his people.” “As am I.” “Are you?” Johanni interjected. “I do not understand, if the Karggars are struggling this badly then why have you not made an appeal to the king for aid?” Erik’s typically smug smile inverted into a frown -- an indignant one. “I would not expect an Impanni to understand.” “Erik!” chided Olaf. “You’re talking to the aetheling of Grünlund. Show him some respect.” “I respect those who earn it!” The Karggar’s frown deepened. “This boy and his silver tongue have done nothing to earn it. Our ancestors seized the Grey Wilds and made it their home. We did what none of the other tribes could have and proved our strength as true Woags. If I forsake these lands now, after everything we sacrificed to claim them, after everything my father did to protect them, then what sort of chieftain does that make me? When I die and join my ancestors on the Hallowed Plane, how can I look them in the eye? How can I look my father in the eye? I will not be the Karggar who abandoned the burial grounds of his forefathers. I will not.” There was zeal beneath his anger. Though he sat his seat imperiously, leant back, one leg over the other, head slightly slanted; Johanni saw through the casual demeanour and caught the earnest fervour in Erik’s eye. It smouldered like coal fire. He meant every word of what he said. “I will not wait until I am king,” said Johanni. “Once I return to Drangheim I will raise your plight with King Hrathwuld and the Royal Diet, and I will have you helped in any way possible.” “For what price?” asked Erik. “There is no price,” said Johanni. “Impanni or Karggar, we are all Woags.” Erik’s grin returned. “…Are we? Were the Osserians not Woags?” “I… I am not my brother.” “…No,” he said. “You certainly aren’t.” The raider stood up out of his seat, his massive greatsword clanking against his back. Olaf glowered at him, but this time his uncle’s ire held no sway. Erik stormed off towards the iron door. “Where are you going?” Asked Olaf. “To my mead hall,” he answered. “Perhaps a good hard night of drinking, eating, burping, farting, spitting and shitting will help me forget how much of a disappointment I am to you. Good night, uncle. And to you, little lord.” Erik turned and slammed the iron door behind him. The sound was so loud it made Johanni’s back shiver. Olaf exhaled. “Forgive him, lord. Somewhere beneath all that stupidity and anger there is a good heart, but… it is buried deep.” “I do not understand his attachment to this place.” “It is a trait he shares with his late father,” said Olaf. “Gad Greyspear loved this land. He was a great warrior who lived in the shadow of our past and devoted himself to honouring it. He joined Hrathwuld’s warband because he believed it dishonoured the ancestors to live under elvish oppression. And when he returned to these dismal lands… he believed abandoning them did the same. He fought long and hard to keep us alive here, but...” “What?” “He was killed,” said Olaf. “By a man named Haakon Godwulfsson.” The name rang familiar. “Haakon? Haakon Godwulfsson?” “You remember him?” “Of course,” said the boy. With his blood red eyes, his fang-like teeth, his grizzled blonde beard and wild braided hair, there was not a more frightening man in Johanni’s memory. He wore his cunning and bloodthirst like a second skin. “He was one of my-” and then the realization hit him, “…he was one of my father’s thegns…” “Indeed.” Now Johanni understood what Erik meant when he said the king had not always been a friend to his chieftain. Three solstices ago, there was talk in the Palace of Drang that a thegn had murdered someone of note near the Grey Wilds. Johanni had some idea it was Haakon (who fled the Weald shortly afterwards), but he had no idea it was a chieftain that he slew. “I will never forget that day,” began Olaf. “Gad had gone raiding for mules on the northern border after two of our own died of hunger. We needed them to help ferry a coming supply of meat and potatoes from the Arbarii. I warned him not to go himself. I told him he was too old for raiding, that he’d weigh the men down, but we Karggars are headstrong. He did not listen – and he had the misfortune of attacking a farm too close to Haakon’s burgh. Battle was inevitable. But its outcome? Haakon Godwulfsson executed my brother with his own sword… and left our fate in the hands of his unready son. I could not convince my brother that the Grey Wilds are lost… nor can I convince Erik. Perhaps the gods have sent you here to do what I could not.” “You want me to change Erik’s mind?” “I know why you’re here,” said Olaf. “Gad once told me that Hrathwuld promised to send his son to seek the favour of all the Woaggish chieftains before he was crowned. If you’re here, it’s because of that. And if you want Erik’s support… you’re going to have to make him see sense.” ********** There was not much room for comfort inside the fortress of Greyspear, but Olaf had a good room waiting for him to shelter in. Johanni’s temporary quarters were small but bedded, with a desk and paper and quill as well as a water cask and two ceramic cups. The Karggars had shaved its walls down to pebble smoothness and paved the floor with their woven reed mats. There was a serving girl just outside the iron door to fetch him anything he needed. It was more than a few steps down from his lavish rooms in the Palace of Drang, but at least he no longer felt like a prisoner. “You are free to walk the fortress and village as you wish,” Olaf Greyspear had said prior, “Part of our apologies for the actions of my nephew.” In addition, Olaf had his men return their swords to them. Johanni thought to ask after his purse but recognized that the Karggars needed it more than he did. The re-armed and ever stoic Eardwulf leaned against the chamber wall with a watchful eye on Johanni, who sat with Halfdan upon two stools around an oak table carved with the sigil of the Karggar Woags; the wolf. “I had no idea the situation in the Grey Wilds was so dire,” said Johanni. “Lord, they bring it upon themselves,” said Halfdan. “Olaf is wise, yet these people follow the Halfspear out of blind blood loyalty.” “The same could be said of Ragnar and I, Halfdan. It is not for me to judge the Karggars on their customs, my task now is to convince Erik to support my claim as king.” Halfdan nodded. “Indeed, lord. But perhaps, in this matter, his attack was not so misfortunate. Lord Ragnar has spies nestled throughout the kingdom and he shall soon hear of the Halfspear’s raid. Under threat of the Bloodbane’s rage, perhaps he will be more malleable to persuasion…?” With his arms folded and eyes tightly shut, Johanni sighed at his steward’s ugly shrewdness. “I will not barter with these people’s lives, Halfdan. I will make Erik see reason with reason – not with threats. Furthermore, we’ll send a rider back to Drangheim to declare my safety and request fresh troops and provisions. And my father needs to know about the plight of the Karggars. The Diet will listen to him if he presses the issue.” Halfdan nodded. “Of course, lord. I’ll draw up the missive myself.” The fat steward hauled himself upon onto his beefy ankles and excused himself through the iron door. Eardwulf watched him go with a poorly concealed sneer, waiting until he was gone before he spoke. “I can’t stand how he constantly second-guesses you, lord.” “Halfdan is my brother’s man,” said Johanni. “Ragnar made him my steward because he wanted someone in my camp advising me the way he would. Let him aside for now. Let us go, Eardwulf.” “Go where, lord?” The boy smiled. “For a cup of mead.” ********** If the ride through the Grey Wilds’ barren flatland told half the tale of the misery that the Karggars endured, then the streets of Yveryth told the other half. A young Karggar girl led Johanni and Eardwulf down to a gated exit out of Greyspear’s cavernous fortress. Guarded by two men with brittle bronze spears and no armour, this exit lead to a beaten footpath that traced its way around the mountain’s southwestern flank and into the town. “Follow the path, lord,” said the girl. “It’ll take you where you want to go.” Eardwulf led the way with a burning torch. Johanni followed him. Yveryth soon unfurled itself, piece by piece, the distance ahead. The town’s five-foot high walls were old and decaying. Where time had rotted away or broken open the stones, the Karggars replaced them with mere logs of wood staked into the earth. There were no watchtowers or roosts, only longbow-equipped lookouts posted to the mountainside overhangs connected by cave mouth to Olaf’s fortress. Upon their approach a spearman yelled for one of his people to open the gates (more woodwork and rope) from within. Seconds later they both groaned open. “Welcome to Yveryth, lord.” Said the guard. Johanni strode past him. Supposedly, Yveryth was the largest and most prosperous settlement in the Grey Wilds. This was according to the Overlord Manuscript, a study into the tax debt of the largest holdings in Grünlund. Commissioned by the Royal Diet it took over eleven winters to compile and resulted in a bound document nearly two and a half million runes long. It was an extensive text that both Johanni and Ragnar were forced to read and memorize during their studies. But as the boy looked around he realized that its report into Yveryth, conducted nearly thirty-three winters ago, was hopelessly outmoded. It was a town rotting from the core outward. Its streets were caked earth. When horses trod them their hoofbeats pounded up clouds of noxious red-coloured dust that choked those around it. In its hundreds of moulded wattle-and-daub homesteads, thousands somehow lived. They were more huts than homes, few with any hearths to speak of and relying on public kilns for burning. Johanni looked around with amazement at the townspeople. Mainly women and children, they walked the earth like draugs, decomposing alive before his eyes. On street corners and doorways poor mothers swaddled skeletal babes that they were too weak to produce milk for. Some of them begged more fortunate passers-by for food (or at least the coin to buy it) while others offered baser trade. At one water well Johanni spotted nearly a hundred townswomen with rusty buckets queuing in a long procession as a hunchbacked thrall (so told by his branding) turned the crank handle, grimacing with agony from his swollen joints. There were only few poorly equipped men of the town’s guard to keep people in line, which was to say, equally poor karls equipped with little more than hoes and rakes for protection. Karggars with better weapons instead guarded the markets, for in a town like this, food and cloth were more precious than gold. The stench of shit and death wafted throughout the air as night men hurled decaying corpses onto wagons, and little boys gathered horse dung into pots for purposes Johanni couldn’t begin to fathom. “Please!” Said an old beggar they passed by, “Just one gold is all I ask!” The aetheling had no money to offer (without his purse) but he did have a spare pair of gloves in his belt bag. Johanni folded them into the woman’s frail hands. “The silk is Silesian, the finest in all the world. I will give them to you if you can tell me where I can find the mead hall of Erik Halfspear.” Grateful, the old woman pointed out the westward part of town and told him how to get there. Her voice was dry and croaky from lack of water. “Follow the road to the nearest runestone then go north,” she said. “You will hear it before you find it.” And she was right. Following the beggar’s directions took Johanni and Eardwulf to the runestone and from there they traced the boom of hand drums, lutenists, flute whistles and war songs to a twenty-nine-foot longhouse called the Wyrm’s Leg, built with lumber and stone and roofed with thatch. Erik’s feast (supposedly for a very profitable raid on an Impanni merchant, if one listened well enough to the whispering guards posted around Yveryth) had already begun. His whole warband (250 men) was in attendance. Outside, Growler sat chained to a post as two thralls, boys no older than eight or nine, fed him salted trout and groomed his pelt. His guards in assembly, perhaps twenty or so, could not participate in the feasting but they occupied their time with japes and tales around their campfires. They did not drink, but enthralled women brought them platters of salted meat and black bread. They let Johanni pass through without fuss. Inside the mead hall, its tall walls decorated with round shields, wolf pelts and elf skulls; the feast and festivities resounded loud and raucous. Ten musicians crooned ballads at request of the chieftain and his twice-hundred men in attendance. Most of them sat around three massive, ale-stained long tables to plates full of roasted beef, cold chicken slices, pickled herring, apples and oranges, grapes on the vine, cheese wheels, black bread, and dozens and dozens of gourds of mead and wine. In the centre of the long tables was a huge pit fire providing light and heat, around which buxom thrall girls danced in tinkling silver underclothes. The night was not even half done yet half Erik’s men were already piss drunk, many of them arm wrestling or playing knife games. A shirtless Thregg the Ghoat fought another man sword to sword whilst Frodi took bets on whether he could shoot an apple clean off a thrall’s head. Erik Halfspear, the man of the feast, sat at the centre of the main long table, with his fur-trimmed boots spread wide and a half naked thrall curled up in his lap. She whispered something (undoubtedly crude) into his ear and he answered her by shoving his hand between her thighs. She shivered. Johanni, disgusted, watched him pull his wet fingers out of the thrall girl’s cunt and push them into her mouth. She licked at them like a harlot. And then Erik noticed the boy. “Ah! The little lord!” He said. “My uncle’s honoured guest! Join us! We can’t drink all this ale by ourselves!” “Your people are out there dying and you’re in here,” he spat, “…drinking.” “Celebrating!” corrected Erik. The thrall, a blonde-haired Thoth girl, wrapped her thin arms around his neck as he spoke. “Celebrating, lord! We’re celebrating a great victory over the finest fucking soldiers that the Bloodbane could muster!” He hoisted his gilded goblet into the air. “TO US!” He cried. “AND TO VICTORY!” He said it more for his men than Johanni. They all exploded in cheer and lifted their cups into the air, yelling, “TO VICTORY!” as Erik’s triumphant smile returned to the boy. “If my people reward me with ale and beef when I bring them gold and steel, who am I to refuse?” “A chieftain,” replied Johanni. “One with obligations to those people.” Erik burped. “Not tonight, I’m not. Tonight, my only obligations are to this cup,” which he held aloft, “this meat,” a scrap of which the thrall girl placed between his teeth, “and these fucking lovely teats!” The thrall cooed when he fondled them. All the men in earshot chuckled. Johanni did not. Instead, he leaned over the table and whispered so lightly that only Erik could hear. “…You’re behaving like a fool.” That, the Halfspear did not like. “Careful now, little lord,” he whispered back. “There’s 3000 Karggar swords between here and Drangheim.” “You can’t frighten me, Erik. I know you’re wiser than that.” Erik frowned. “If you’re not here to drink, what do you want?” “I want to talk.” “And that can’t wait until morning?” Johanni shook his head “no”. By now, having successfully shot three apples off the thrall’s head and winning sixty golds and a new sword for his trouble, Frodi returned to his seat next to the Halfspear’s. “The aetheling is persistent, lord. Why not hear him out? The feast isn’t going anywhere.” Judging by the way they spoke, Frodi was as much an advisor to Erik as he was a sword-brother. Erik looked to him first, and then to Johanni, who watched his trim shoulders deflate with relent. The Halfspear sighed. “Fine,” he said. “But leave your thrall here. Perhaps the feast will remind him what it feels like to be a real Woag.” Eardwulf glowered. Erik whispered something foul into the minxy thrall’s ear who obediently climbed off his lap with a slap to the arse. As she went to join the other dancers by the fire pit, Erik pointed out Thregg, who by now had defeated his challenger and now demanded two men attack him at once, “FIFTY GOLDS ON THE GHOAT!” He bellowed. His men erupted in cheer and directed their attention to the huge Karggar as he battled two more comers. They were so enrapt with the fight that most of them didn’t notice their chieftain quietly slipping away from his long table. Johanni moved to follow him. “Lord,” said Eardwulf. “I should go with you.” Frodi smiled. It was not like Erik’s constant snarling grin as there was absolutely no humour behind it – only a nonchalant sort of cunning hidden by a feint of kindness. “You should stay here,” said the archer. “One jarl speaks to another undisturbed and unarmed – thralls and thegns need not attend. Is that not the way of it, Hrathwuldsson?” The boy frowned. ‘Hrathwuldsson’ was a name he would not inherit until his father the king died. When he investigated Frodi’s cold blue eyes he saw no malice, but there was a threat somewhere hidden in that statement. The Halfspear’s men were clearly fiercely protective of him – but Frodi seemed to be the only one clever enough to veil it. “I will be fine, Eardwulf.” Said Johanni. “But lord…” “You will remain here,” The boy was already after Erik as he said it, who led him to a pit of stairs at the rearmost part of the hall. It led to a multi-chambered cellar with thick stone walls seven feet below ground, so deep below the ground that the feasting above was almost mute. Its decor was comparable to the hall above -- with trophies of long dead bucks and round shields mounted upon the walls and lit sconces guiding the underground corridors, but also with more of the ochre-painted Karggar murals such as those found in the tunnel to Olaf’s fortress. These detailed accounts were older than that of King Hrathwuld or Gad Greyspear. These were tales of Karggar heroes whose names Johanni would never know. All, perhaps, were familiar to Erik, who for all his faults was a man of his history. The Karggar chieftain took him through a muraled wooden door to a small room purposed as a sparsely furnished living quarters; an oaken cot with sheepskin throws, an inscribed table, iron-bolted chamber chest, and so on. The bedchamber was quiet and secluded. “Go on,” said Erik. There was a water bowl and cloth on the table. He wet the latter with the former and mopped up his brow. “Speak your mind, there’s no eyes nor ears here except ours.” The boy took a heavy breath and exhaled. “I want us to help each other. If I am on the throne there is much I can do to-” “I have a responsibility to my people,” said Erik, “to my ancestor’s heritage, and to my father, Gad Greyspear, who fought long and hard to keep his people save on their own lands. His task is my task.” “I do not doubt it. But at least some of your people see a future for themselves in the Fens, do they not? What about what them? Erik, from a throne I could help your people settle there, somewhere you wouldn’t need to raid and trade to stay afloat – somewhere where the ground can feed you. Let me help you.” Having dispensed with his leather armours earlier, The Halfspear crossed his arms over his stomach, grabbed fistfuls of his undershirt, and pulled it up over his head; exposing his finely-toned and muscular back. Numerous battles had tightened his lean upper body with sinew. Like his men he wore long black warhammer tattoos honouring the half-god, Wo’ar; two along both forearms, one down his chest, and the largest upon his back from nape to buttocks. Johanni blushed, looking away. Erik turned around when the room became quiet. He grinned. “…Do you like what you see, little lord?” “Of course not,” he replied. “Oh?” The older jarl took a step forward. “But your little friend downstairs says otherwise.” Olaf’s handmaidens gave Johanni simple woven linens to wear whilst they cleaned his mud-stained tabard. The breeches were ill-fitting and tight and did little to hide his sudden stiffness. Johanni’s cheeks flowered an even deeper shade of red as he stepped back. “Do… do not mock me, I am here to talk…” “I’m not mocking you,” Erik took another step forward, “And we are talking.” The boy’s back hit the wall. He could retreat no further. And then he looked up and he saw Erik above him, so tall and brawny. His thralls had sheared the sides of his head down to the same finely sculpted grain as his beard and they had brushed the hair atop his head back into smooth chestnut waves. His eyes were the colour of copper. The scent of ale still clung to his lips. The boy froze where he stood when Erik’s thick fingers curled around his oval-shaped chin. His touch was not tender like Eardwulf’s. It was strong and possessive. It made Johanni shiver. Erik’s smile was imperious. “You’re red as a tomato.” “Stop it, Erik…” The Karggar’s fingertips traced a line down Johanni’s chin and neck and to his throat. The boy was so focused on that that he didn’t notice Erik’s other hand slip around his back until it dragged him forward, bringing Erik and Johanni chest to chest. The space between their lips was blade thin. “There’s no shame in it, you know,” Erik’s voice was low and lusty, “Out here in the Grey Wilds men take other men to lay with as freely as they would women. We are Karggars. We take what we want, when we want it, and we respect no authority that tells us otherwise…” Johanni did not move. Or speak. “Tell me. Has this pretty throat ever swallowed another man’s seed?” Johanni frowned. “Would you like to try mine?” Johanni spat in his eye. Erik stepped back, grinning, then wiped it out of his face with his cloth. He chuckled as the boy before him caught his breath – one he didn’t even know he’d been holding. “I am not some mead hall whore to be bent over your long table and fucked! I’m-” “A king’s son,” said Erik. “A king who rules a kingdom built by its former captors. I’ve been to Drangheim, little lord. I’ve seen the elf-like way you Impanni live and it disgusts me. We Karggars are true Woags. We do not farm, we hunt. We do not barter, we raid. Ours is the old way, the true way.” Johanni sneered. “You say you do not farm and yet most of your people are fleeing west into the Fens. You say you do not barter and yet you trade your stolen goods to the Arbariis. What you’re doing isn’t about heritage, it’s about hubris. And your hubris is going to get the Karggars killed.” There was a moment, just a slight moment after that exchange, when Johanni caught a slight sliver of doubt in Erik’s eye. But it flickered away as quickly as it came by, replaced with that instinctual, patronizing grin of his. “If your plan is to win me over then you are failing, miserably. This little moot of ours is over,” the Halfspear unbuckled his belt. “Leave.” Johanni moved to speak again but Erik Halfspear turned his back to him and rang the soaked cloth over the water bowl before washing himself. No more words. The younger boy composed himself, his breath and heartbeat levelling out, and then left the room silently. ********** Had there been the heat and strength and scent of another body in his bed that night, Johanni would not have questioned it, so vivid were his dreams. In his specially prepared lamb’s wool cot he tossed and turned and sweated out the moon’s fall with a mind full of delirious, lusty images and imaginings evolving from phase to phase beyond the throes of logic. Sometimes he was in a forest, sometimes a fort, sometimes a bog, sometimes a city street, most times a mead hall. With his stomach pressed flat over a table and his ankles kicked as wide as its table legs; a strong pair of hands held him down by his wrists. A club-like bulge slipped up and down the cleft between his arse, as if it was a game, then popped himself free from his underclothes. The boy’s whole body tensed as his russet-bearded ravisher pushed his huge swollen cockhead into his tight ring of flesh, and through gritted teeth he saw himself moan into the ale-soaked table grain. “Do you like it?” whispered this man into Johanni’s ear, “Tell me you love it… tell me you want me inside you…” The aetheling woke up in another puddle of his own seed. Embarrassed, a groggy Johanni quickly scrubbed the sheet with the lamb’s wool throw to hide his shame. His maids in Drangheim were subtle and did not whisper of his nightly indiscretions when they changed his bedding, but who knew what sort of things the thralls of Yveryth might say if they saw that? Once he scrubbed his sheets dry Johanni washed himself sweat-less with a rag and water bowl left by his bed side then dressed into a cotton tunic and some leather breeches that the Karggars had also left for him. {Such a curious thing,} he thought, {to dress one’s self.} In Drangheim that was a labour left always to his maids. Outside of the Kingdom, with his caravans and attendants scattered, he had to do these things himself. It was not so laborious a task as one would think. Knuckles rapped the door from without. “Lord,” it was Eardwulf, “Erik Halfspear breaks his fast above.” Just hearing Erik’s name made his cheeks flower. “…Very well,” said the boy. Eardwulf took Johanni above ground into the great hall of the Wyrm’s Leg. The massive mead hall was so empty now that even light voices carried up the tall lumber work and echoed out. There was nothing left of last night’s feastings except the odd bloodstain or ale spillage or broken chair which Erik’s thralls now cleaned. The same slave girl the Halfspear had had in his lap last night now scrubbed his floors clean with her rag and iron-banded water bucket, inside of which floated a human ear and half a forefinger. These, Johanni was later to learn, belonged to the man whom Thregg had defeated during the feast. Now, only six people sat to the long table at the hall’s head; Frodi, Thregg, Wharla Oldeye, Olaf Greyspear, Halfdan and, of course, Erik Halfspear himself. Erik looked to Johanni and grinned. His heartbeat quickened in his chest as he looked away and sat down next to Halfdan as Eardwulf stood vigil behind his seat. {Even now he mocks me,} thought the boy. All night Erik’s foul words rebounded in Johanni’s ears. 'Has that pretty throat ever swallowed a man’s seed? Would you like to try mine?' No one in his life had ever dared to speak to him in such a manner. He was King Hrathwuld’s son. He was blood born to the most powerful clan in Grünlund. Even Eardwulf, as misguided as he was, knew to keep his feelings in check with him. But not Erik. The Halfspear was the only man Johanni had ever met who didn’t seem to care about his royal pedigree. Jarl or Karl, he saw only men. There was a nobility in that, somewhere. And yet Johanni couldn’t help but feel angry at Erik for treating him that way, as though he was just another thrall girl to be groped and whored for the night. {So why can’t I stop staring at him?} “Lord,” said Olaf. “Eat. You will need your strength.” There was a wooden bowl of boiled chicken broth with leeks and carrots and potato hunks. Next to that, a platter of salted fish chopped into strips. A thrall girl came by to fill his cup with warm mulled wine. Johanni began to eat. “Lord Olaf has… most graciously offered us thirty of his best men to replace those lost to your caravan, Lord Johanni,” said Halfdan, slurping his broth from the spoon. “With our remaining men we’re are only slightly shy of our original host.” Johanni nodded to Olaf. “Many thanks to you, Oldfather.” “Young lord, it is the least we can do,” Olaf eyed his nephew, “…to compensate your losses.” Erik sneered. With his fur-trimmed leather boots kicked up over his long table, he gnawed the roasted scraps off a chicken bone. With his free hand he called in his steward. The iron doors on the other side of the great hall yawned open, and in came a stooping, one-eyed man named Iodi. His was perhaps sixty winters old and barely hobbling along by means of a gnarled oaken stick. He bowed his head, first to Johanni, then to Erik. “Lords,” he said in a croaking, aged rasp. “Ah, it’s Iodi,” Erik threw his chicken bone into the nearby thrall girl’s water bucket. “So lovely to see you up and about. And your report?” There was a look of reluctance in his eyes. “Lord, um… six wagons have returned this morning from the Salt Shore. However, we are missing the twenty barrels of barley and potatoes we asked for, and the furs we skinned did not fetch as much at market as we’d hoped. One of our raiding parties looted an old orichalcum cache worth about 2000 golds in the Arbarii Market, I think we should send it north today, if not, we will run out of wheat, potatoes, and grain within the week.” “Then send it north, post-haste. Anything else?” Iodi sighed. “Come on,” said Frodi. “Spit it out.” The steward shook off his reluctance. “…Lord, to the east, elf worshippers have sacked one of our loot trains out of the Oakmire and holed up in the Beast Tower.” Thregg stamped his fist. “WHAT?!” A series of angered, affront faces passed across the long table. Thregg grit his teeth with rage, Frodi spat in disgust, Wharla shook her head in dismay, Olaf looked on keenly. Erik clenched a fist. There were still those in Grünlund who revered the elves as their true rulers and in the fifty solstices since the dawn of King Hrathwuld’s reign, their devotion to their former enslavers had transformed into a kind of twisted faith. Elf worshippers were Woags who had abandoned all honour, forsaken their gods, and surrendered their souls to veneration of evil. “I’ll suffer no elf worshippers to live on my lands,” said Erik Halfspear. “Is it not Karggar custom to take what is wanted when it is wanted?” asked Johanni. “It is,” Erik said angrily. “And as a Karggar it’s my right to take it back – the Beast Tower and the loot. Thregg, gather the warband. Frodi, get the thralls to water and saddle our horses. We need to be ready to ride by noon. I want those mother-whoring elf lovers’ heads on spikes!” “Lord, there are other matters to discuss here…” said Iodi. “Would it not be wiser to have Frodi lead the warband in your place?” “Karggars don’t lead from the rear,” spat Erik. “Olaf will see to your other matters. Won’t you, uncle?” Johanni looked across the table and saw hidden rage in Olaf’s eyes. Leading personal raids and attacks was the same blunder that cost Gad Greyspear his life at the hands of Haakon Godwulfsson. But he was not the chieftain of the Karggars. It was not his decision. The fact was bitter, but it remained a fact. “As my chieftain commands,” said Olaf. Erik and his uncle glared at each other. “I will come also,” said Johanni. Halfdan’s eyes flared. “Lord!” “Elf worship is forbidden under my father’s Codex of Logh,” he explained. “It is my duty to stamp it out wherever I find it. Whatever else, Erik Halfspear is right in this. I will take Eardwulf with me and join his warband. We will liberate the Beast Tower.” All eyes turned to Johanni as if he’d grown a second head. Thregg and Frodi both smiled at him, confused but impressed. Wharla frowned as if witnessing a mistake. Halfdan looked stunned. Olaf looked betrayed. Eardwulf’s expression he did not see. No doubt the thrall did not approve, no doubt the instant they found a moment alone he would tell Johanni as much and caution him against it. It was Erik, with that same smug, dominating smirk of his, who seemed least surprised by the gesture. “Get your mare saddled,” said the Halfspear. “And your sword ready.” ********** The chill was bone-biting. Johanni, shivering in his saddle, drew the folds of his fur-rimmed cloak closer together. It was almost noon, but you couldn’t tell for the black thunderheads looming high above Yveryth. He waited for the others by the town gates; two seven-foot-high ironwood doors. The town walls were nearly 900 winters old. “Lord is this wise?” Said Eardwulf. Clouds of cold air wafted around his lips as he spoke. “To involve yourself in Karggar affairs? To ride with this man into battle after what he did to your caravan?” {Did you not once excoriate Halfdan for questioning me?} Thought Johanni. “I came here for Erik Halfspear’s support to my claim as king and I won’t leave until I get it. I’ll take any opportunity I can get to win him over, even this.” “But lord-” “Eardwulf, enough. I’ve already made my decision.” The thrall held his tongue. Reluctantly. Until the westward advance of cantering hoofbeats and clunking scabbards shattered the silence between them. It was Erik Halfspear, heading up a host of fifty men, one fifth of his warband. As always, he had Frodi and Thregg the Ghoat at his side, as well as his war bear Growler – with plates of thick boiled leather armour strapped to its back, maw and forelegs. These were some of his best men, Johanni saw, as they carried their best weaponry; steel longswords and spears stolen from Impanni caravans (much like his own) and hand-carved ironwood round shields. Beneath their black cloaks they wore oddments of armour poached by raid and trade from other clans; Osserian scale armour, Impanni steel plate armour, Arbarii chainmail, etc. Two enthralled outriders flew twin flags from their spears; the wolf sigil of the Karggar clan and the war-hammer of Wo’ar. As they rode through the streets, the emaciated women of Yveryth cheered and waved to their chieftain and there was genuine love in their eyes. They did not blame him for their plight, it seemed. If anything, they held him aloft as a saviour. {So, he does have supporters,} thought Johanni. Two thralls unbolted the gates as the warband approached and Erik’s horse cantered up to Johanni’s white mare. “Last chance, little lord. Once we leave we Yveryth we won’t return until heads are on spikes.” “Then you will not mind a spare pair of hands helping you put them there,” he replied. He then eyed the warband as it strolled past them through the gates. “I do not see any supply wagons.” “We won’t need any. The Beast Tower is only a day’s ride from here. If the Gods are good to us then this should all be over by tomorrow night,” Erik paused. “Have you ever killed a man?” Johanni frowned. “…No.” Erik grinned. It was the answer he expected, no doubt. “Perhaps today is the day. There is nothing quite like your first kill, little lord, except perhaps your first fuck,” and then the Halfspear leaned into the boy’s ear and whispered, “Tonight could be the night for that too, should it suit you…” Johanni blushed, looking away. “Lord, we must not tarry here,” said Eardwulf, snatching at his reins and urging his horse after the Karggar warrior party. Erik shrugged when he was out of earshot. “Your thrall doesn’t like me. I wonder why…?” ********** Traversing the Grey Wilds was as arduous as traversing the Oakmire. Its hard soils made for hard riding, even for the horse-master Impanni. Johanni bounced and bounded in his saddle as he rode eastward with the warband. Their path was clear. The Beast Tower stood around 30 miles from Yveryth which (on horseback) was not so great a distance, but since horses were such a precious rarity in the Grey Wilds, Erik Halfspear’s men did not push their steeds. The warband moved in a slow canter across the rocky earth following the flattened slope of tableland bordering Greyspear to the barren plateau. No roads were necessary as the land was so flat and open it was almost impossible to lose track of your position. Erik explained this to Johanni as their horses marched together in lockstep. “Greyspear is the centre and the Oakmire marks the south,” said the Halfspear, “that’s all you need to find your way around these lands.” But it wasn’t what defined those lands. As he rode through the Grey Wilds, Johanni found that it wasn’t the simplicity or harshness of the terrain that alarmed him -- it was the desolation. They had barely ridden an hour before they spotted the first abandoned village. A rotting pockmark, its forgotten homesteads stripped of its lumber and thatch and workable stone by scavengers; leaving behind little more than crumbling ruins and old dirt paths strewn with bones. Frodi called it Little Haven and from what Johanni recalled in his readings of the Overlord Manuscript, the ancient Karggars built the village atop an old orichalcum mine. It was useless to them (since only magic could forge weapons from orichalcum ore) but it traded well with the elvish, back in the days before their invasion. During their rule the elvish had that mine gutted of its riches by hordes of Woag slaves. Then once it ran dry and the elves lost interest, the village above ground fended for itself until a lack of food and water forced its people to abandon it. It was a tragedy. The warband passed five more abandoned villages on their way east. They paused only once, to feed and water the horses at the edge of an old ironwood forest (which was now just thousands and thousands of ankle-high tree stumps sticking out of the ground) before pushing on across the plateau with the wind at their backs, until they veered upon an old crannog built a quarter of the way into a gigantic empty basin that once would have been a lake. The ironwood piles (as well as the mortice and tenon joints interlocking them) were still sturdy, as was its conical thatched roofing and roped logwood bridge. There were burning torches staked into earth around the dead lake’s edge, lighting the way around its span as the clouded sun fell into the horizon. Three Karggar horsemen awaited the warband at the bridgehead. They looked weary but alert. “Hold,” said Erik Halfspear. His men brought all their horses to a stop. “Frodi? Little lord? With me.” The two nodded and followed the Karggar chieftain as he approached his scouts at the crannog, and Eardwulf begrudgingly held his position with Thregg, Growler, and the rest of the men. “Hail, Halfspear,” said one of the scouts. “Iodi brought you word.” He nodded, his horse whickering. “What do we know?” “There’s about thirty of the old goat-fuckers holed up in the Beast Tower,” It was the second scout who said this. “And they have the spears we raided off that travelling armourer in the Weald. It’s good steel and it’ll serve them well in a scrap.” “Do they have any horses?” “Twenty-three of them,” said the third scout, “all good Impanni horses, well fed and well trained. Still, if we met them in the open we’d have the advantage in numbers.” “If they have the Beast Tower there’s no chance of that. Anything else?” The first scout grinned, pointing his thumb over his cloaked shoulder toward the crannog. “There’s a gift for you inside, lord.” The scouts all dismounted and took a torch each then led the way across the logged bridge. Erik, Frodi and Johanni dismounted and followed them through the entranceway into the inner chamber. What awaited Erik was an elf worshipper, stripped naked, gagged and tied up by the wrists, his skin turning purple and blue where the scouts had beaten him half to death. Blood slopped out of the cord knot wrapped around his mouth. He stank of piss. Grinning, Erik knelt to his haunches, his heavy greatsword clanking behind his back, and undid the knot in his captive’s mouth. The elf worshipper choked and coughed at the sudden intake of air, sodden with blood. “I’ll make this quick,” he said. “What are your demands?” The beaten man struggled for breath (and words). “…a thousand… golds…” “Is that all? Gods be good!” Erik unsheathed his dagger. But rather than slit the elf worshipper’s throat with it, he cut the man’s bonds and stood him up on shaky legs. “Steady now! Steady! Now hear me plain. My men are going to give you a horse. And you are going to take that horse and ride it back to the Beast Tower and inform your scum-sucking, pig-fucking, mother-whoring compatriots that Erik Halfspear accepts their demands. Tomorrow morn, I will send three of my riders to the tower with the ransom – you will take it and then you will leave. Do you understand?” He nodded weakly. “Good, now away with you. Frodi? Help him to a horse.” The archer shrugged as Erik shoved the beaten man into his arms. “If I must. Come along, bastard.” Frodi half-walked, half-dragged the man outside to the bridge. “We aren’t really going to pay them off, are we?” Asked the 2nd scout. “Oh, don’t be so mutton-headed,” muttered Erik. “We attack tonight.” ********** The crannog was far too small to seat a host of fifty-three, so Erik’s men made camp (such as it was) around the banks of the dried-up lake, whilst Erik’s inner circle took the crannog. As was the Halfspear’s wish the band had provisioned lightly (to move more quickly) so no tents pitched; they simply kindled half a dozen campfires with fatwood then tied their cloaks to their spear poles and spread them wide against the eastward winds. Food was light for the Karggars – nut bread and salted beef strips to roast. And there was no ale. Erik wanted his men sharp for the attack. The mood around the camp was light and frivolous – contending with elf worshippers was not new to them. They sang songs and played knuckles, sharpened their blades and cleaned their boots. Those who needed it caught a few hours’ sleep, those who didn’t stood watch. Johanni tried to sleep on one of the pallets stashed away inside the crannog but sleep wouldn’t take him. He spent dusk listening to the men outside as they prepared for what was to come, and he ate only portions of the broth and bread Erik’s men provided. Johanni had no hunger that day, and he wasn’t tired. That was why, when Erik, Eardwulf, Frodi and Thregg all slept in their pallets, Johanni climbed out of the folds and drew the short sword that his brother Ragnar commissioned for him. When he crossed the bridge into the Karggar encampment, a few of Erik’s men asked him where he was going. When Johanni said “to train” they chuckled and returned to their water cups and war tales. They left him free to walk beyond the confides of the camp, so he walked and walked and walked until its torchlights were bright specks in the distance. Only there, out of eyesight and earshot, did he start to practice the steps Eardwulf taught him. Johanni practiced his thrusts and guards by a leafless oak tree. It made for a poor opponent but at least it measured how strong his strikes were – by the size of the nicks his hackings dented into the bark (they were not very deep). But his sword arm felt stronger than it did all those solstices ago when Eardwulf first started teaching him the art of the blade. “Ha!” Johanni cried, walloping the tree with blow after blow. “Ha! Ha! Ha!” Then he heard applause behind his back. The boy swung around and found Erik, clapping his hands together and grinning at the performance. His cheeks flamed red with embarrassment. “What are you doing here?” “A man walks where he will on his own lands,” Erik said. “Why are you attacking my tree?” “…Your tree?” “Well, if it’s on my land…” Johanni lowered his sword arm. It took thirty strikes to tire it out – two solstices ago that number was ten. “I was practicing my swordplay for tomorrow. I am glad it was poor enough to amuse you.” Erik smiled, earnestly. “It’s not poor, Johanni, it just doesn’t suit you.” The king’s son smiled. “What?” said Erik. “That is the first time you’ve called me by my name,” said Johanni. The Halfspear sighed. He unbuckled the strap of his greatsword, which fell to the dusty ground with a heavy clank, then took Johanni’s sword out of his hands. The young man watched him lift it into the air to test its balance, watched him flick the flat of the blade for its sturdiness, then twirled it with a single swing. “Do you want my earnest word?” Johanni nodded. “Your guards are better than your strikes,” he said. “And your blade is strong for its light weight, good for parrying. There’s no power in your swing, but you’ve a good thrust. Everything I see says ‘defence’ so if I’m guessing, I’d say your brother trained you for swordplay as a last resort.” Johanni frowned. “You’re saying Ragnar does not think I’m capable of killing a man?” “I’m saying Ragnar doesn’t want you to,” Erik swung the sword again. “And as his rival to the throne I’m not surprised.” “You do not understand Ragnar,” said Johanni. “He doesn’t seek the throne, he never has. He only contests my succession because the Royal Diet obligates him to do so. They have no faith in me, but he does. He’s been at my side for as long as I can remember. He wants me to be safe, unbloodied.” Erik glared at Johanni sceptically. “If he wanted you to be safe he should have taught you how to kill – and offered a better shield than a damned Osserian.” “Eardwulf is loyal, Erik. He’s a good man. He was the one who taught me how to wield a sword.” “Well that makes sense,” chuckled Erik. “He desires you, you know. All that sombreness and glowering does piss-all to hide it.” The Hrathwuldsson paused, almost affronted that Erik would say such a thing openly – then he remembered who he was talking to. {Is it so obvious?} Thought Johanni. He’d never known of the ardour that slept within Eardwulf’s heart until the thrall kissed him in the Palace baths that night – but looking back on their times together Johanni did notice a hidden pattern of affection. Eardwulf awoke before him and slept after him, always at hand and alert. Some nights he woke and found Eardwulf just standing over him, watching him. His touch was always so tender, picking him up from a fall or even wiping the dust off his leathers after a long ride. It was more than devotion to a lord or a thrall’s obligation to his master, and it was more than the carnal appetites Erik hinted at. It was love. {I don’t know what to do with him anymore,} Johanni thought. Erik gave Johanni back his sword. “…You won’t be fighting tonight. Stay behind me and only draw your sword if you’re attacked. This is routine for us, but first blood for you.” Johanni smiled, sheathing the blade. “My father… he says that bloodshed is always an option… but that it should never be the first one.” “Well my father always said that you aren’t a man until you whet your blade – and you cannot rule until you’re a man. Even old allies have their differences.” “And here we are, walking in their footsteps.” “Don’t misunderstand me,” said Erik. “You’re only here to piss off my uncle. I can’t fathom why you’d want to fight but it won’t change my mind. Karggar feet will always walk Karggar land.” {Stubborn as an ox,} thought Johanni. {We weren’t even talking him about supporting my claim.} “I just misliked your talk of the Impanni as ‘elf-like’. We’ve learned from them, true, but no Woaggish tribe suffered under their heel as we did. Elf Worship is anathema under my father’s loghs and as future king I will do all in my power to stamp it out. So, act the child all you want, Erik. Play churlish games with your uncle at your fancy. But I’m here because it’s my duty to be here and no less. Now… I should be getting back to camp.” The skies above them were black as pit coal without so much as a blade of light in the horizon. If they lingered here too long the men at camp would wake. Johanni, adjusting his sword belt, turned to leave until Erik (his strength as ox-like as his stubbornness) took the younger boy by the wrist and dragged him back. Johanni yelped, spinning on his ankles and landing in the raider’s boiled leather armour, and when he tried to pull himself free Erik’s sturdy arm slipped behind his back and locked him in place. Heart in his throat, Johanni looked up and saw a brilliantly arrogant smile beaming down at him – arrogant and lusty. “We don’t have time for your games,” said Johanni. “Not tonight.” “You are an odd one. You say you want my support and yet at every turn you accuse me of playing games or acting the fool. I am a very serious man, little lord. A serious man riddled with equally serious needs and desires…” Heat flowered Johanni’s cheeks a deep crimson. He looked away, not daring to meet Erik at the eye, even as his body betrayed him, as his small hands settled peacefully at the older man’s hips. {So warm,} the boy thought, {even in this cold land he feels so warm…} He wanted to pull away, to rebel, to scream at himself of his father’s loghs. So why didn’t he move? Why couldn’t he move? Why was it that when Erik Halfspear curled the tip of his finger beneath his oval chin and tilted his head back and leaned down and kissed him… he kissed the churl back? Why did he moan, gutturally, and collapse into those strong, battle-hardened Karggar arms like a waif? Erik was strong, arduous and passionate, an intoxication. And Johanni couldn’t resist him. He could only lean up on the tips of his toes and grab the Halfspear by the russet-coloured scruff of his beard and smother himself in the older man’s lips. The cold Grey Wilds and all beyond it, disappeared into a background nothingness. All was Erik Halfspear and his kiss. Johanni, so consumed by it, failed to notice a witness to his indiscretion, lurking in the leafless shrubbery beyond the whittled old oak tree. It was Eardwulf. ********** The tunnel was old but well-tended, supported by ironwood beams every few yards and turfed with Karggar-woven reed mats. Like the caverns of Greyspear and the hallways beneath Erik Halfspear’s mead hall, ochre-painted wall carvings decorated its expanse. But these murals were older and more… archaic than those he’d seen before, crafted by the earliest Woag settlers of the Grey Wilds. These depicted grand but nameless battles on sweeping planes and towering obelisks crumbling from the sky as the belly of the earth broke open and out spewed draugs and drakes and ogres. Johanni observed them from behind as Eardwulf’s flickering torch illuminated them inch by inch as they crawled together down the tunnel. Frodi, crawling just behind Johanni with two full quivers (one on his back, the other on his hip) noticed the boy observing the murals. “You won’t find any recent histories of Karggar bravery here, young lord. These are quite old.” “What are they?” “They depict the Age of Monsters,” said Frodi. “They say it was a time of great fear, a time when evil sorcerers used magic, the language of the gods, to erect dozens of these Beast Towers across the land. Upon these towers they sacrificed countless men, using their blood to summon monsters and unleashing them on the countryside. That was until our champion, Wo’ar the half-god, took up his legendary hammer and declared war on all the sorcerers, killing their creatures and bringing down their towers one by one. Wo’ar brought the Age of Monsters to an end… and to this day only a few Beast Towers remain.” {That’s one interpretation,} thought Johanni. His education had been slightly different in Drangheim. The scholars taught him that the Beast Towers predated Woaggish arrival on Grünlund’s shores and that no one truly knew who built them. The Overlord Manuscript said the same, declaring that the remaining towers held little strategic value and were now only sites of pilgrimage for mystics and adventurers. Even his brother Ragnar underwent a journey to a Beast Tower, back in his day. Erik Halfspear (who led the four of them down the tunnel into a small hatched enclave) whispered for them all to be quiet as he pressed up at the wood and iron door bolted above his head. It yawned open and Erik slipped through, hauling himself up by shoulders and elbows. Once above he helped Eardwulf up, then Johanni, then Frodi. Johanni observed his surrounds. It was an old storage cellar. It was cold and dank and dark, with nothing to see by except their torches. Old, empty crates lined the walls and broken pieces of pottery littered the cracked flagstone floor. Johanni drew his cloak’s folds closer together. Somehow it was colder inside the Beast Tower than it was without. “Follow me,” said the Halfspear, taking point with one hand around his dagger’s haft. The others tailed him through the cellar to a stone stairwell that spiralled upwards by 50 or 60 steps to a partially crumbled arched doorway half consumed by rubble. They hid in the shadow of that debris as Erik leaned out and observed what lay before them – the great hall of the Beast Tower – and the Elf Worshippers infesting it. They were Woags of Karggar stock; pallid-skinned, lean, grey-bearded and dreadlocked, but that was where the similarities ended. They wore no boiled leather armour or woollen boots or fur-trimmed cloaks; these cultists wore beaten iron half-plates strapped around their thin necks and torsos, as well as skirts of studded leather strapping tied with cord, and wiry straw sandals. To honour their former elvish masters, they tattooed black chains around their necks, wrists and ankles; and whittled their own ears into elf-like points by carving at them with daggers. There were ten of them inside the hall. Johanni balked as he watched nine of them sway back and forth in an oddly timed, almost arrhythmic dance around a gigantic sandstone monolith stacked at the centre of the hall like a hearth. The tenth cultist stood at the top of that structure, arms outstretched, with a gigantic bronze basin before him. His head leaned back as he muttered an ancient, song-like incantation in the Elvish tongue; Come back to us, From beyond the mountains. Do not forsake us, You, the blood of fountains. Come hither, Ye Children of the Gods, Your orphaned sons, Await only you. Erik Halfspear, Johanni, Eardwulf and Frodi all looked on as a bright glint of light speckled the air above the cultist and the monolith. It was as if the air then parted, cutting itself open like a knife to a calf, and from that void oozed out thick, flowing rivulets of black-coloured blood that dripped into the bronze basin. {Magic!} Thought Johanni. “I’ve seen enough,” whispered Erik, “Thrall, you’re with me. Frodi, cover our charge. Johanni, you stay here.” “But I want to help,” said Johanni. “You’ll help me by staying put,” said Erik. “Leave the rest to us.” The plan was already underway before the boy had time to protest it. Erik unsheathed his greatsword for the first time since the attack on the caravan, its honed steel glimmering in the pale orange light of the lit braziers and sconces. Looking to Frodi, he gestured at the elf worshipper atop the monolith whose blood magic had nearly filled the bowl to breeching. Understanding the signal, the archer nodded back and quickly nocked an arrow from his quiver. Then, a second later, that same arrow sunk straight through the cultist’s neck -- THUNK! He jerked stiffly, gargling blood, then fell backwards from the monolith onto the ground. The elf worshippers, stunned, scrambled for their bronze swords as they saw Erik Halfspear and Eardwulf charge at them from across the hall. The Karggar chieftain’s war cry was huge and bestial, roaring up dust from the sandy stones as he threw himself into the fray. When the first elf worshipper swung his sword, Erik parried the blow and slit the man’s throat open with a single, effortless swing of his greatsword. A second attacker reared up with a hand axe, whom Erik quickly rushed, shoving his shoulder into the man’s gaunt stomach and throwing him back, off his balance, dropping to the flagstones like a fish before Erik sunk his blade clean through the cultist’s heart. A third man came up in Erik’s blind spot, too quickly for him to see, but one of Frodi’s arrows caught him in the chest before he even drew his sword. Closer to the monolith, Eardwulf was carving his way through the elf worshippers, two men already dead and fallen in his wake as he twirled upon his heels and parried each blow of his current prey, metallic clap after clap after clap, until the Osserian broke through the elf worshipper’s defences and plunged his sword through his neck. Erik and Eardwulf’s swordsmanship could not have been more different. Though of similar stature and muscle tone; Erik was all power -- wide swings, short parries and war cries. Eardwulf’s skills were sleeker, dominated by footwork, swift movement and counters until he could guard break and sink the perfect thrust. Between the two of them, and Frodi’s archery, the elf worshippers were light work. Johanni looked to the sheathed short sword lulling at his thigh and suddenly felt valueless. {Would I have just… gotten in the way?} He thought. {Is this what it means to be king? Standing back silently as others do the killing? Is that the kind of king Ragnar would be?} Frodi slung his longbow over his shoulder, climbing up to his feet and compelling Johanni to do the same. “Come, young lord. We’re not done yet.” Eardwulf sheathed his blade. Scowling, Erik wiped the blood and entrails off his greatsword with one of the dead cultist’s studded leather skirt straps. “That’s just under half their number,” said Frodi. “The rest are camped outside with the horses, waiting for the ransom.” “Then we send the signal now,” said Erik. “You and the thrall, bar the great hall doors so that the worshippers outside can’t get in. Johanni and I will light the beacon.” Eardwulf sneered. Johanni watched his lips part to speak a sudden quip of anger, but the boy quickly interceded; “Go quickly, Eardwulf. Help Frodi.” The Osserian’s fist shook at his side as he watched Erik Halfspear stare curiously at him, but he did as Johanni told him to and went with Frodi to the arched ironwood doors on the other side of the great hall and together they sealed them shut with a massive plank of wood. Meanwhile, a great spiral stairwell climbed up and around the curved, sandy walls of the great hall and inched up and up and up to the top of the Beast Tower. Erik and Johanni ran those steps, nearly 400 of them, until they reached the tower’s moonlit summit where two stone platforms crossed each other over and upheld a now quenched stack of kindling and coal; a beacon. Beneath the starless black sky Erik threw a torch onto the bonfire and a tremendous flame soon reared up from the heap. It burned brightly, visible clear across the Grey Wilds for at least half a mile, and even less, to just a hundred yards away where Thregg the Ghoat, Growler and the rest of Erik Halfspear’s warband spotted their signal. They charged accordingly, surging down the flatland on horseback towards the elf worshipper’s encampment curled around the base of the Beast Tower. Johanni peered over the edge. The cultists scrambled for their spears and horses as arrows started to fly and Growler bounded towards them with an outstretched paw and wide-open jaws – the elf worshippers stood no chance now. Screams and war cries abounded, with the whistle of loosed arrows and the slurp of unsheathed steel. But the whirlwind of battle was short, with Thregg’s axe and Growler’s fangs and arrow volley after arrow volley transforming the insurgent elf worshippers into a pile of corpses in mere moments. “It’s over,” said Johanni. “The Beast Tower is liberated.” Erik said nothing. “Erik, didn’t you hear me? We’ve won.” But still the Halfspear said nothing. Johanni turned to him and balked as he saw a look he never thought he would ever see in Erik’s eyes – fear. The older man stood behind the sandstone merlons glancing south to the Oakmire, his breath visible in the nightly cold, watching with stunned silence as soldiers, thousands of them, marched out of the dark forest in a unified formation of four huge columns. Johanni gasped. At first, he wondered if they were elf worshippers. But as he looked more closely at the emerging army he saw banners baring the familiar totem of the Impanni clan, the horse. “It’s the Royal Legion,” sweat dripped down Erik Halfspear’s face like blood. “It’s Ragnar Bloodbane.” ********** Time was of the essence. Johanni whipped frantically at the reins of his white mare to keep pace with the others as clouds of pounded earth and dust trailed behind their steeds. It was the Karggar custom to go light on their horses (since they were so hard to replace in the Grey Wilds) but Erik Halfspear and Frodi spared their creatures no quarter either. They neighed viciously at the sudden and sustained need of speed, but they had no choice but to work the horses bare. There was no time to lose. With Eardwulf bringing up the rear on his gelding the four of them rode hard across the open tracts, the grey and lifeless earth, brushing by the lake-less crannog and the depleted ironwood forests and the abandoned villages they passed yesterday, one after the other, until the level lands up above began to ridge. Eardwulf rode close by. “Is it truly your brother?” He asked. Johanni nodded. The Beast Tower was less than a mile north of the Oakmire so spotting the purple and gold colours of Ragnar Bloodbane’s personal banner was not difficult. As soon as the tower was secure, Erik ordered Thregg to round up and burn all the cultist’s corpses, retrieve their stolen loot and whatever other valuables the attackers may have had, then load up the horses and make their way back to Yveryth as soon as possible. After that it was a mad dash for the four of them to race back towards Greyspear and spread the word of the Legion’s arrival. “There can be no doubt!” His horse’s gallop was so loud Johanni had to yell over it, “I don’t know how he mobilized so many men so quickly, but we have to stop this now!” The ridge ahead smoothed into two natural concourses from years of use as a trading road. One bent towards the miles and miles of sweeping plains and flatland between Greyspear and the Oakmire, into which Ragnar slowly marched his forces. The other one climbed up towards the mountain itself, where Yveryth and Olaf’s hidden fortress lay. Johanni’s eyes flashed with alarm as Erik and Frodi rode up the latter, and he whipped his mare harder to catch up to their horses. “Where are you going?! The Legion is approaching Yveryth from the lake bed!” “We’re not going to the Legion!” Snarled Erik. {What is he…? He cannot be serious!} Johanni blinked in complete disbelief, almost not believing what he was hearing, until he saw Erik’s defiant smirk and saw the truth – he was serous. The boy yelled “Whoa!” to his horse, “Whoa, girl!” and eased her down into a trot, petting her mane. Erik, Frodi, and Eardwulf, looking back, quickly slowed their horses to a stop as well. “Johanni!” Yelled the Halfspear, “What are you doing?” “We have to stop this before it gets out of hand,” said the boy. “We have to talk to my brother before it’s too late!” Erik sneered again, his restless horse cantering in circles beneath him. “You mean beg the Bloodbane not to slaughter my people like he did the Osserians? Have you learned NOTHING about us? Karggars do not bend. We do not bow! I’ll shelter my people inside Greyspear and there will be no attack – not whilst I have his younger brother at my side.” Johanni frowned. “Reconsider this, chieftain,” said Eardwulf, who cantered back to the prince’s side. “I speak as a first-hand witness to Ragnar Bloodbane’s fury. He will not hesitate to exact vengeance on his enemies, imagined or otherwise. And as a rival claimant to the throne Johanni would make for a poor shield.” “Spoken like a truly gutless thrall,” spat Erik. “Ragnar wouldn’t drag half his host out here into the Grey Wilds if he didn’t want his brother back alive!” But by now Johanni had had enough of this. “For Ka-Uta’s sake, Erik, think! Say you did take me prisoner and hid your people inside the fortress, you don’t have enough food to survive a siege. From what I’ve seen you’d last perhaps a week at best? If that? Meanwhile, the Legion puts Yveryth to the torch and plunders whatever precious little valuables it has left.” Erik frowned, his bombast flustering slightly. “I have 3000 swords across these lands, boy.” “Not enough to defeat the Legion. I may not be a warrior, but my brother schooled me well in war craft. He has the horses, the armour, the weapons and a supply chain stretching back into the Weald. And you? Good Gods just look around you! Look at the terrain! It’s open ground for miles – how long do you think your 3000 men will last against a fully provisioned heavy cavalry? And what are your men equipped with? Old bronze swords and brittle leather armour? Pitchforks and fire sticks? Ragnar’s men have steel swords and steel spears and wheeled scorpios -- let’s see what happens when those match up in open combat!” Erik grimaced, but held his silence, almost as if stunned. It was clear that in all his life as chieftain no one had ever dared to speak to him like this. “Understand that thousands of lives hinge on the decision you’re about to make,” said Johanni, sombrely. “If you make it out of pride rather than concern for your people… then you’re every bit the fool your uncle thinks you are, Halfspear.” Frodi nocked an arrow. It was such a fluid and sudden motion that Johanni didn’t even realize it was a provocation, not until a scowling Eardwulf unsheathed his sword and brought his horse ahead of Johanni’s. Frodi didn’t flinch as the Hrathwuldsson locked eyes with Erik Halfspear, whose dark smouldering eyes wrestled with the weight of what the boy had said. Pale sunlight glimmered off Eardwulf’s sword. Silence abounded. Someone could have died in that moment. But Johanni spoke first – and calmly. “Put your sword away, Eardwulf,” he said. He broke eyes with Erik, turning his horse around. “I will speak with my brother. Do not stop me.” Tugging the reins again, Johanni propelled his horse down the wend the in the ridge towards the Royal Legion, with Eardwulf closely behind. Erik did not follow. ********** The Royal Legion’s march ended two miles south of Yveryth where Greyspear’s looming shadow met a host of over 2,000 heavy infantry legionaries (divided into four cohorts) and 500 armoured cavalrymen; 200 thralls assigned to each century in groups of twenty, and an auxiliary force of 150 builders, smiths, alchemists and engineers for support. There they quickly built a field encampment with materials from their supply wagons, erecting tents and digging latrines and cookfires. The first cohort established a mile-wide perimeter as the auxiliary units went to work constructing fortifications to their position; spiked pits, pitch traps, etc. With the barren earth beneath them so flat and lifeless it was impossible to mount any surprise attacks on their position, but Johanni knew that Ragnar was a shrewd commander and he always provisioned for the worst. No one knew the Grey Wilds like the Karggars after all – the Legion was on unfamiliar ground. Where the ridge levelled out to the dusty flatland in the dark shade of the mountain, Johanni and Eardwulf rode out towards the Legion’s perimeter where a small squad of outriders guarded an old dirt road. Two of the mounted spearman crossed their weapons warily at their approach, warning them to “turn back” if they valued their lives. Johanni scoffed indignantly. “I am Johanni Carian Hrathwuld, second son of King Hrathwuld and aetheling of Grünlund. This is my thrall, Eardwulf. My brother Ragnar Bloodbane holds this camp and you will take me to him immediately.” Never was Johanni expected to ‘prove’ himself to his subordinates of his name and pedigree, but then he had never approached a military encampment before either. The outriders mulled over his claims, one jeering at the very notion, claiming that the Legion was here to liberate Johanni Hrathwuld from the Karggars after they ransacked his caravan. But these men were idiots and there was no getting around them without assurances. So, sighing, he unbuckled the short sword from his belt and threw it into one of the mounted men’s gloved hands. “Take that to my brother’s tent,” he said. “Show it to him. He will know it’s me.” The captain amongst them, a stout and gravel-chinned six-footer, nodded for the rider to corroborate Johanni’s claims. He turned his horse southward and rode for camp whilst Johanni and Eardwulf remained in detention. Less than an hour later three horsemen returned to the outriders’ outpost, one of them being the earlier rider, but the other two accompanying him, however, were far more significant. They were Knossos and Kreim. A pair of identical twins, no more than thirty winters old, of middling height, with pale grey eyes, cropped flaxen-hair and sun-kissed olive skin. They wore gilded versions of the traditional legionary armour; gold-coloured laminar plate cuirasses and mail skirts over a pearl white tunic. Their horses, like Johanni’s, were both white mares and they both bore the Impanni horse totem on their half-helms. They were so similar that Johanni could only tell them apart by their choice of weapon. Knossos carried with him a halberd, bright and sharp and deadly, his skill with the weapon earning him the title “Swanstroke Knossos” whilst Kreim carried two curved edge short swords, one on either hip, his proficiency as an expert dual-wielder earning him the nickname “Twinstroke Kreim”. Together, for their hair and armour, they were known as the Golden Brothers. Not only were Knossos and Kreim Ragnar’s most trusted thegns but they were also two of his oldest friends, back during his days as “Ragnar the Fatherless” when the Golden Brothers (along with Haakon Godwulfsson, Trygga the Spear Dancer, and a warrior named Gnut the Troll) were part of his legendary warband – the Iron Circle. Their ties to the Bloodbane went deep. Knossos, his glittering halberd slung from a leather strap at his back, greeted Johanni with a deep baritone. “Apologies, lord. My men would not have detained you had they known who you were.” The softer-voiced Kreim nodded his apologies as well. “My brother and I are here to personally escort you to the High Legate’s tent.” Johanni nodded. “Lead the way.” From there, he and Eardwulf followed Knossos and Kreim from the outrider outpost on the north-eastern rim to the heart of the now brimming encampment. The Legion had already pitched nearly 100 tents and provisional paddocks and guard walls. Those men not on guard duty sat to cook fires around the camp, peeling off their armour, sharpening their weapons or running training drills as the thralls milled from tent to kiln to well to paddock; fetching water and firewood and whetstones, passing messages, feeding the mules, etc. The camp was alive with laughter and shouting, chicken roosts, clanking metal, roaring cookfires, and whickering horses. Knossos and Kreim took Johanni and Eardwulf to the largest, centremost tent, where they unhorsed themselves and bid two thrall boys to come and fetch their horses. Johanni and Eardwulf dismounted also. “You may see your brother,” said Kreim. “But the Osserian stays here.” Grim faced but silent, Eardwulf said nothing, merely nodding obediently to the two thegns and standing aside by the tent door. He was not unaccustomed to this treatment by now. Johanni thanked the Golden Brothers for their help and then walked through the tent flap. Ragnar, fully dressed in his legionary military fatigues; steel plated armour, mail skirt, iron-plate gauntlets and long sword. He was helmless, his long black hair flowing freely down his back, and poured himself some water from a tin ewer as Johanni entered, red-faced and smiling. Ragnar smiled back. “Rex Aeturnus,” saluted the Legate. “Rex Aeturnus,” saluted the boy. They then strode up to one and other and embraced, shoulder to shoulder. “Are you alright, ‘Hanni?” Said Ragnar. “Did they hurt you? How did you escape?” “I am fine, brother. Do not worry yourself. Whatever you’ve heard, I am safe and well.” Ragnar turned back to his table, frowning. “Which is more than can be said for the half-century I sent with you on this little expedition. Forty good men butchered like pigs by these damned Karggars. I always knew they were an ill-bred horde, all the poaching and raiding and raping stood as fine testament to the fact, but even I failed to realize just how savage these bastards are. And to think – I pacified the Osserians for them.” “Ragnar,” said Johanni. “What the Karggars did to my caravan was wrong, no one can say otherwise. And there will be justice for your men. But I beg you, I implore you – stay your hand.” Ragnar frowned, lit with confusion. “You advocate for these barbarians?” “I do.” “To what end? These insolent Karggars kidnapped a potential aetheling to the throne of Grünlund. If I show them mercy now, what message does that send to the other tribes?” “You don’t understand. The Karggars are a stone’s throw from oblivion!” Ragnar’s frown deepened. “I’m aware of that, Johanni.” “…What?” “I know that the Grey Wilds are devoid of game and vegetation,” said the Bloodbane. “I know that the Karggars rely on trade with the Arbariis to feed themselves and that they barter with the loot they pilfer from our territory. I know that their current chieftain, Erik Halfspear, oversees many of these raids. I know that his brother, Sygardi Greyspear, has led nearly 2,000 Karggars west into the Fens for re-settlement. I know that their uncle, Olaf Greyspear, holds the power in their mountain fortress. I know their weapons and tactics, their few remaining outposts, I even know how many thralls they have. I’ve eyes and ears in every corner of Grünlund, Johanni. Little is unknown to me.” Johanni, flabbergasted, stood back. “You knew these people were starving to death…?” “Yes. As did father and the Royal Diet.” “And we did NOTHING?” Ragnar swallowed a cup of water. “What we did was allow them passage into the Fens unimpeded -- from there they will be much easier to control. The idea was to empty the Grey Wilds then burn the Oakmire and pave the eastern herepaths all the way to the Salt Shore, as was King Hrathwuld’s ambition.” Anger sudden found its way into Johanni’s heart. “Why wasn’t I informed about any of this?” “Ask father,” said Ragnar. “As High Legate I only implement strategy, I do not craft it. Nor do I seek to.” “But you have leeway! The Diet respects you! You can end this before-” “Before what? Before I destroy the Karggars like I did the Osserians?” Johanni frowned. “The Karggars are wild and unpredictable,” said the Bloodbane, “especially those who hold out with the Halfspear. Their kind will never rise high enough to challenge the crown, but they might aid those who one day would. It’s my instinct to cull the whelp before he grows fangs… so I’d need a damned good reason to go against my instincts. So, to that end, what do you proffer, ‘Hanni?” Johanni imagined there were few men shrewder than Ragnar Bloodbane. A cynical blade of truth ran through his every thought and expression, disarming dissent in the face of a cold and dispassionate resignation to bloodshed. He pitied anyone who made an enemy of his brother. Just then, a legionary walked into the tent, taking a knee with his spear. “High Legate,” he said. “We have a captive who requests a word.” Ragnar sighed. “Poorly timed, lad. Nevertheless, send him in.” The legionary nodded and left the tent. A few moments later, he returned with a tall chestnut-haired Karggar man tied by his wrists with rope. His scabbard and dagger belt were empty and there was a scroll of parchment tucked into his belt. Johanni’s eyes went wide with recognition as the legionary shoved the man to his knees. “And who is this?” Asked Ragnar. “Erik,” said the Karggar to the Hrathwuldssons. “Chieftain of the Karggars.” {What is he doing?} Thought Johanni. There was a wooden chair, tall and gilded, next to his table. With his boots and armour suddenly weighing heavy, the High Legate reclined into the seat and dismissed the legionary. “So… you’re the Halfspear, eh?” He said. “Why do they call you that?” Johanni watched Erik visibly struggle not to be snide. “Me being half the man my father was, it was my uncle’s nickname for me. It stuck.” Ragnar chuckled. “That’s a dilemma every man in this tent can understand – that no son is ever his father’s equal. Very well then, Erik ‘Halfspear’. Are you here to surrender?” “…No.” “Then why are you here?” It was then in that moment that Erik swallowed something that looked very much like pride. “I am here… to ask you… to spare my people.” “Hah! That’s a popular request today,” Ragnar poured himself another cup of water and sipped it. “Answer me this, Halfspear. After you raided my brother’s caravan, slew forty of my men, kidnapped the survivors and dragged them back to your little brown puckered shithole of a lair… why should I spare your people?” “Because my people aren’t responsible for my actions.” “No, they’re not,” another sip. “Should I kill you instead? Blood eagle you on your own lands? A hanging, perhaps?” Erik grimaced. “I ask that you don’t.” Ragnar set his cup down. “And why should I care what you ask?” “Because of what I offer.” “…And what do you offer?” There was true weight behind what Erik was about to say. Johanni saw that from the heavy droop in the Karggar’s shoulders and posture. His habitual smirk and cocksure demeanour was gone – their recalcitrance replaced with a kind of reluctant, morose acquiescence. “I offer a permanent halt on all raiding of the Weald. I’ve already sent word to all my men. No more raiding, no more ransoms. You have my word.” Johanni looked to Ragnar, who looked upon the kneeling Erik Halfspear with sudden pause. The proposition calmly intrigued him, like kindling quietly coaxed into a blaze by errant embers. “Interesting. But I’m going to need more than your word, Halfspear.” “And you’ll have it,” despite his tied wrists Erik still pulled the scroll from his belt. Ragnar stood up, took it from him, and unfurled it. “It’s a map of the Oakmire,” said Erik. “The black circles represent the forest forts, the lines between them are the hidden trails that only we Karggars know about. As chieftain of the Karggars of the Grey Wilds, I’ll allow the Kingdom of Drangheim to claim the forts as burghs. The fortress in Greyspear, and all our trade routes to the Salt Shore will be yours. I only ask for two things in exchange. One, is that you allow the Karggars to peacefully resettle in the Fens. And two… that you allow me to accompany your brother, Johanni Carian Hrathwuld, on his journey.” Johanni was speechless (and bright red). Ragnar, cold-eyed and remote, frowned. “…Why?” Erik turned to Johanni, still on his knees, half smiling in defeat and acceptance. “Because as chieftain of the Karggar Woags, I pledge my fealty to him… and support his claim as king.” Johanni, stunned and robbed for words, looked at his shoes instead. “Do you accept my terms?” Asked Erik. Ragnar’s face was an expressionless mask. He was still and placid, unmoving, until he parted his thin lips to say, “Yes. I accept your terms,” and snapped his fingers. Four spear-armed legionaries marched into the tent. Two of them grabbed Erik by his tattooed arms as the other two stood guard. They cut his binds. “Go to your uncle and invite him to my camp. We have a lot to discuss.” Grinning, Erik Halfspear rubbed his swollen red wrists. “Pleasure to,” he said, casting Johanni one last hidden smile before Ragnar’s four spearmen escorted him out of the tent. The Bloodbane sighed, fetching two cups from his table and filling them both with water. He offered one to Johanni. “Do you have any wine?” “Ha!” chuckled Ragnar, “The Diet will mislike my allowing him to live… but many of them have property in the north. I can only hope an end to Karggar raiding and the promise of greater trade ties with the Arbarii will appease them. But do you trust that man? And should I trust him to protect you?” Johanni smiled. “I am my brother’s brother. I will be fine.” ********** Night unfurled like a shroud over Yveryth. The grey clouds above in their starless swirl, the low fog rolling through the streets like smoke, the bitter nocturne chill of a sunless land. All seemed to scream against the Karggars. While it was impossible to say if Wharla Oldeye’s talk of a curse was true, for the first time in centuries they were beginning to understand that the Grey Wilds were no longer a suitable home for their people. Thralls, in groups of five, went through the black streets of Yveryth lighting tapers, sconces and braziers in any corner they could find them. Others knocked on doors to spread word that Erik Halfspear himself summoned all the townsfolk to the Wyvern’s Leg. Across the hours they climbed out of their cots, pallets, straw piles and alleyways to hoof it to the village centre, whispering amongst themselves about the bitter night’s cold and the Impanni army camped at the bottom of valley. The prevailing question seemed to be – why they hadn’t attacked yet. And then by the darkest hour many hundreds of people gathered together in the clearing surrounding the Wyvern’s Leg. Hundreds of braziers and torches gave them light and dozens of thralls from Erik Halfspear’s household, women and boys, began sharing out cups of wine and hunks of bread to the townsfolk. A cheerful Johanni watched all of this from the saddle of his white mare, alongside Olaf Greyspear, Wharla Oldeye, Halfdan and Eardwulf. Over by the mead hall doors stood Frodi and Thregg, with a slumbering Growler chained to a nearby post. And then, upon the roof of the hall, emerged Erik; his burly body enswathed in his fur-trimmed russet cloak and clanking greatsword. With one hand he held aloft a torch so that all could see and know him. And in response the Karggars of Yveryth assembled beneath his feet cheered and roared and wept for him. “HALFSPEAR! HALFSPEAR! HALFSPEAR! HALFSPEAR!” They hailed. {Even after everything,} thought Johanni, {they still love him.} Even then, as he watched the Karggar chieftain standing on the roof of his mead hall like a grinning fool, the boy blushed as he began to understand why they loved him so. Erik gestured for his people to quieten down. “I’m glad you came,” he said to them. “Not the fittest weather for a talk I’ll grant you that… but it’s needed. My father… was Gad Greyspear. All of you know who he was. Some of you may even remember him. He was our chieftain. He was my father. I’ve spent my whole life living in his shadow… just as my father did my grandfather, and my grandfather his father, and on and on and on. I hope to join them all on the Hallowed Plane someday. I want to hunt with them, ride with them, fight with them. I want to know if I’m truly worthy of them. I’ve always wanted that. In the past, I thought that the best way to do that, to honour my ancestors, was to protect the way of life they forged for us. Our ancestors took these treacherous lands and made a home out of them… they built Yveryth and the villages, carved a fortress out of the heart of Greyspear; they tamed the ironwood and charted the Oakmire, they raised the forest forts. They made the impossible possible. Who am I, I thought, not to respect that? That’s why I’ve fought so long and so hard to keep us all alive here. I fought… and I lost.” Silence. Everyone assembled stood and awaited his word. “Some fights cannot be won,” said Erik. “As a Karggar it’s not easy for me to admit that – but it’s the truth. Sometimes the only way to win is not to lose any more than you already have… and right now… ‘losing’ means staying here.” Light murmurs began sifting through the crowds. The Halfspear raised his flame. “You all know me. I love this land. It’s a cold, windy, dusty, blustery, piss-stained little puddle of rocks but I love it. It’s home. It’s our home. But our home can’t sustain us anymore. The Grey Wilds are dead and there is nothing left for us here. No game to hunt, no crops to grow, no wood to build with… soon there won’t even be any water left. We can’t stay here. Our only hope is to go west into the Fens and build a new life for ourselves. We will join with my brother Sygardi’s followers and start afresh, just as our ancestors did when they first came to these shores from the Hyperborean Steppe. Friends… it’s time to go. I’ve sent riders out to every compass point calling on every able Karggar to join me on the march west. There will be wagons for the old folks and cripples. Anyone who wants to stay here can… but you will die here.” There was a wineskin hanging from his dagger belt. Erik uncorked it with his free hand. “Friends,” he said, “it’s time to start a new history. Tomorrow is our new beginning. But tonight… WE CELEBRATE!” A huge cheer erupted. Hundreds of Karggars of all ages threw their hands and goblets into the air and chanted the Halfspear’s name, defiant and proud as ever. Erik swigged from his wineskin and swung his torch aloft, as a band of minstrels emerged from behind the mead hall to play songs for those gathered. More thralls brought more baked bread and wine, along with apple slices and salted beef strips. Frodi and Thregg opened the doors to the mead hall where another feast awaited, this time for as many of the townsfolk as the hall could contain. It was a night of revelry, dance, feasting and, Johanni sensed, relief. The people of Yveryth resigned themselves to a bleak existence slowly whittling them down into nothing, but there was true hope for them now. Later that night, Johanni joined the others at the mead hall feast where all amongst the Karggar inner circle assembled; Erik Halfspear, Olaf Greyspear and his attendants, Wharla Oldeye, Frodi, Thregg the Ghoat, even Iodi the Steward. The prince of Grünlund took a place next to Olaf with a cup full of wine and a platter full of grapes, pheasant breast, half a cheese wheel, and baked black bread. Halfdan did not join them for the festivities. Instead he rode south to report to Ragnar at the Royal Legion’s camp about all that had occurred since the attack on the Impanni caravan. No doubt he would put some of his cynical colour on events but Johanni tried not to worry – Ragnar was committed to Erik’s proposal, that much was certain. Johanni ate as much as he could but he could barely put down half the platter, no matter how much wine he washed it down with. “Eardwulf,” he called out, not seeing him but knowing he was never too far away, “Come and eat with me!” The Osserian, stood closely behind, looked to the Karggars along the long table. None seemed to notice or care about the request. Eardwulf hauled his boots over the wooden seat and sat down. A grinning Johanni passed the platter to him. “It’s good!” Eardwulf, despite himself, pulled off his gloves and helped himself to a bite of the pheasant. “I think you’ve had too much wine, lord.” “My constitution is unquestionable and all I’ve imbibed I’ve earned the right to… or something like that,” Johanni didn’t even realize he was slurring his words until Eardwulf pointed it out. He wasn’t a drinker, but he wasn’t unaccustomed to it either. Still, there was an ewer of water next to the wine jug, Johanni filled his cup with that instead. “…I’ll have the water…” Eardwulf smiled. “Indeed.” “Ah! First smile I’ve seen on you in days,” said the boy. “We should be joyful. The Karggars are leaving the Grey Wilds and I have Erik’s support, now I can seek out the other chieftains just like we planned.” And then as fast as it appeared, Eardwulf’s smile vanished. “May I speak my mind, lord?” “You may.” Glowering, Eardwulf ate more of Johanni’s food. “The Fens are the ancestral homeland of the Osserians, my people. Surrendering our lands to the Karggars so freely, I… I do not know how I should feel.” Johanni blinked. Despite the wine’s cloudy haze saw his protector’s point. It was no small thing. Ragnar’s destruction of the Osserians created a vacuum in the Fens that the Karggars were now set to fill – without the blessing of its prior occupants, who still dwelt within them in small, scattered clusters. “I understand your misgivings, truly I do, but… they have the chance at a better life now. Try to see the good in this, Eardwulf.” The Osserian frowned. “It’s not just that. Lord, we should never have gone to the Beast Tower. This journey has barely even begun, and you’ve already taken so many risks…” The space between Johanni and Eardwulf’s seats was thin, barely anything. It was so small no one noticed the older man’s gloved hand slide onto Johanni’s thigh beneath the table. The boy froze. {Please don’t do this here,} he thought. “If I lost you…” Eardwulf whispered, “I’d lose everything…” And then a jubilant, half-drunk voice yelled out, “THRALL!” Eardwulf quickly retracted his hand as Johanni exhaled, glancing over his shoulder. It was Erik, a goblet of wine in hand and a herring bone between his teeth (which he spat out). “Be a good servant and fetch my uncle some more wine,” said the Halfspear. “I need to speak with your jarl.” Eardwulf was a stoic, hard-boiled man not prone to ill temper or humour. But at once Johanni saw the anger in the Osserian’s gloomy eyes as Erik loomed over him barking orders. For a second, a split second, the aetheling thought he saw Eardwulf reach for his sword. It must have been a trick of the eye, however, because the thrall then stood up from the long table and stalked away, grumbling silently through gritted teeth. Johanni exhaled a breath he didn’t even realize he was holding. “You ought to keep your dog on a tighter leash, little lord,” said Erik. “Do not speak of him that way. Thrall or not he remains a person.” The Karggar chieftain took his seat next to Johanni. Where he and Eardwulf left the platter Erik resumed eating, stuffing grapes and cheese into his mouth. He followed each bite with a swig of wine. Throughout the feast Johanni watched Erik devour three pheasant breasts, a full rack of ribs, six boiled potatoes and a whole smoked herring and yet he still had room for more. {Maybe it’s his fault Yveryth is starving,} he thought. “We leave in two days,” said the chieftain. “My warband, your troops, and however many Karggars are ready to travel. My uncle will arrive with the second wave in a fortnight. We’ll meet up with Sygardi in the Fens, find some place to settle down. Maybe we can rebuild Karburgh, assuming the Bloodbane didn’t completely destroy it.” Johanni watched him eat. Erik noticed it. “…What?” “Why did you change your mind about staying here… and supporting me?” The older man scrubbed the crumbs from his lips and chased down the food with yet another cup of wine from a fresh ewer. “I thought honouring my ancestors meant fighting for the world they built… but I was wrong. The only way to honour my ancestors is to provide for my people… and I can’t do that here. And you? Call it a calculation. One way or another there will be a king… and I think you would be a better king to us than Ragnar. That’s all.” “And what about…?” “What about what…?” Johanni blushed. “What about what happened… last night.” Erik’s lips curled into a slow, purposeful smile. “…Well. That’s in your hands, little lord.” They heard shouting. Erik and Johanni glanced over their shoulders and saw two Karggars brawling, bare knuckle, only the gods knew over what. The Halfspear sighed and climbed off his seat to break them up before they ruined the feast. Johanni watched him go, his cheeks flushed a deep rouge. With all that had occurred since the Beast Tower his mind hadn’t spent much thought on their kiss beneath the leafless tree, but now it was all Johanni could think about. Johanni watched Erik as he broke up the scuffle. He shoved the two men apart, ordering one to help feed Growler and the other to polish his greatsword. Erik wore his strength like a mantle, exuding an aura of pride like that same wolf totem embossed upon the Karggar shields and armour. And his smile… that cocksure, smug, sly little smile. He wore that like a mantle too. Johanni alternated between loving and hating that smile. It spoke so well to Erik’s hubris… and yet it sent shivers down the boy’s spine. When Erik smiled at him it was as though the world around him was nothing more than a set piece, a backdrop to what he witnessed. In all his life the boy had never been so enrapt by another’s mere smile. {What is wrong with me?} Thought Johanni. {Why can’t I stop feeling this way?} His knew his father’s loghs better than most. As a child his tutors made him study the Codex from cover to cover and burn each logh and its purpose into his memory. Section Six of ‘Immoral Acts’ -- for a man to lie with another man as he would a woman is an act of depravity punishable by death. Historically, Woags made few bones about the deed, none of the old loghs proscribed it. They considered it a boyhood vice -- like playing with your cock. It was something you did when you were young or when your choices were thin. But the licentiousness of the elves left a foul taste in his father’s mouth and he devoted himself to purging all such acts from his kingdom. Johanni sighed, swapping the water for wine. The way Erik made him feel, the things he wanted Erik to do to him, all were in contravention of his father’s loghs. What sort of king would he be if he only obeyed the loghs that suited him? He did not know. He could not think clearly. Perhaps Eardwulf was right about the wine. Not that it mattered to him. For as the night marched on the feast slowly died down and the revelry ended. Hundreds of drunk Karggars slumbered over the floor, next to the walls, on top of the long tables. Snoring and farts replaced the lutes and flutes and bard song. Every cup and ewer were dry, every platter empty. And then, in the drunken silence, a patient Johanni climbed off the long table and picked his way through the sozzled men strewn about the floor and made his way below ground to Erik’s chambers. His face was hot. His heart was racing. His cock was stiffer than a spear. He was shaking… and scared. But he knew what he wanted. When Johanni came to Erik’s door and found it ajar. He did not mean to open it. When he went to knock it yawned open before his knuckles even touched the wood. Nevertheless, the boy peered inside, hoping to catch a glimpse of the slumbering Halfspear before he woke him up… and asked to lie with him. {I’m going to do this,} he thought. {I want to lie with him…} Instead he found Erik lying with another. A thrall girl, black-haired, of Arbarii origin maybe, tits swaying and naked from her stomach up as she squealed and gyrated on Erik’s hips. The Halfspear laid across his bed, panting and sweating, thrusting his cock up into her snatch as she rode him like a buck. “Yes!” She cried, “Oooh! Fuck me! Fuck me! Fuck me deeply, lord! Oooh!” Johanni shut the door. ********** Noon. The sun almost never appeared in the Grey Wilds. The fog-like presence of its thick grey clouds blotted it out too well. But those clouds were at their thinnest for many moons, making it the brightest day in a long time. The Karggars didn’t even need torches to see by as they marched in the thousands through the streets of Yveryth to its arched ironwood gates. Some had barely enough possessions to fill the meal sacks they slung over their shoulders. Others carried old axes, tools, knives, wood, iron rods, water gourds, and so on. Mothers walked with babies tied to their backs by cloth. Able men helped the lame and the elderly into wagons. Half of the 3,000 swords Erik Halfspear so often boasted about heeded his call that morn. Armed with bronze swords, spears, axes and round shields they marched exultantly with the procession as it made its way west. Johanni, his head thumping from last night’s feast, watched the Karggars mobilize from his saddle. Eardwulf sat ahorse alongside him, as did Halfdan. “The High Legate has generously bequeathed us a full century as your new armed guard,” said the steward. “They are waiting for you outside Yveryth. The survivors from our first caravan are returning to the capital with the bulk of Ragnar’s forces. He’s left 1,000 legionaries and 200 thralls to supervise the evacuation of the Grey Wilds and he’s also assigned dignitaries to convene with Olaf Greyspear on supplies and aid.” “Good,” said Johanni. “There is still time to see him before he goes, lord.” “No there isn’t. When the Halfspear’s warband arrives we’re to ride ahead into the Fens and lead the Karggars to Sygardi Greyspear’s camp, after that we’ll press on and find the Osserian chieftain… and what’s left of his people.” Halfdan glanced at Eardwulf. “Thrall. With Osser Greatfang dead, who leads the Osserians?” “…He had a daughter named Norsa,” said Eardwulf, soberly. “But it’ll be the Greatfang’s advisor… Harwald Snowhair. I would bet my life that he is chieftain now.” “Then he is who we need to find,” said Johanni. Hard hoofbeats pounded the beaten earth from a hundred yards to their right. Johanni, Eardwulf and Halfdan turned to see Erik Halfspear, Frodi, and Thregg (all ahorse) leading Growler and fifty of his finest Karggar warriors to their position. “Little lord!” Yelled Erik as he rode up to the boy. “Are we ready here?” Johanni didn’t even look him in the eye. “Let us go.” ********** Ragnar watched from his saddle as 2,000 boots pounded the barren soil beneath their synchronous march. His soldiers’ discipline and training spoke for themselves. None broke formation, none straggled behind. The Bloodbane watched as each column of men proceeded south into the forested wastes of the Oakmire, where he would leave Knossos and half the remaining host to chart and occupy the forest forts, whilst he and Kreim returned to Drangheim. It was then, as he watched them march, that he felt it grip his chest. His second heartbeat. It was powerful, insurgent and unmistakable. He felt it thundering beneath his plated cuirass, thumping twice as hard and twice as fast as his natural heartbeat. It had been many long solstices since last he felt this feeling. “You feel it too?” Said Kreim, his horse whickering next to Ragnar’s. “Yes. The Wulf’s Blut is stirring inside us.” “Then that portends only one thing. Haakon Godwulfsson is close.” The Bloodbane nodded. “Should we inform the Royal Diet?” “…No,” he said. “They know he is in league with Magnus Magnusson and the Thoths. If we tell them… they will deploy the Legion into the Fens and further disrupt my plans. Let it lie. Let us see what ploy Magnusson has up his sleeve.” Kreim frowned. “What of your brother?” “He has three more chieftains to sway before he returns to the capital but make no mistake – he will succeed. All we need is time… and patience.” “You take an enormous risk,” said Kreim. “If he dies, your plan is moot.” The Bloodbane grinned coolly at his loyal thegn. Kreim was far more cautious than his brother Knossos. Ragnar thought of this as he calmly rubbed his chest, soothing and slowing his second heartbeat until it throbbed in tandem with his natural one. Once the Blut stirs it was difficult to control. He could not afford to lose that control. “Even if he transforms, Haakon is wise beyond his bloodthirst,” said Ragnar. “And Johanni is far stronger than people realize. Worry not, Kreim. Time and patience, that’s all we need.” **********
  11. {You know all the steps!} Thought Johanni to himself, {you can do this!} His left foot forward, Eardwulf took the high guard; his sword held aloft in a two-handed grip. That meant he could only attack or counter-attack with a downward, vertical stroke. Offensively or defensively, he had only one attack at his disposal. {And he leaves himself open that way,} thought Johanni, {which means he wants me to attack!} In response the boy took the two-handed mid-guard. Eardwulf smirked. {He’s smiling? } Johanni tensed. {He wants me to take this guard?} He was a towering figure was Eardwulf. Six feet tall and lean; not a bead of sweat marred his dark widow’s peak, all throughout their training. Betwixt that height and that guard, Johanni felt dwarfed, like a toad caught between a boot and the bog. {But this is the right guard! If I wait for him to attack and parry the downward stroke, I can turn boots and counter with a swing to his ribs.} But Eardwulf did not move. He kept his guard up and his left foot forward, but he did not attack. {He’s so good at this,} thought Johanni. Eardwulf called it the ‘dance of steel’, and he was indeed proficient. {Or maybe that’s what he wants – for me to let him set the pace. He’s probably anticipating the counter. Fine then. I’ll do this!} Johanni lowered his stance to waist level – and then thrust at Eardwulf with a forward step. The older man (almost startled!) side-stepped it and swung parallel, bringing his training sword down hard on Johanni’s right wrist. The boy seethed through his teeth with stinging pain, dropping his weapon. {Again,} he thought. {He beat me again!} As Johanni dropped to his knees clutching his sore wrist, Eardwulf swung his wooden sword unto his shoulders, pulling what could only be described as a victorious frown. “If we bore iron into this, I would’ve taken your hand off,” he said. “Then my hand is most grateful we didn’t,” chuckled Johanni. “This is no jape, lord. Your form is improving but you’re also overthinking the steps and in a real battle you won’t have that luxury. Those extra moments you take will be your enemy’s opening to attack you. You have to-” “‘Anticipate, not predict’,” recited Johanni. “Yes, I remember. But it might just be that I’m not very good at this, Eardwulf.” The boy seethed again. His wrist really was swelling now. They wore no wrist or shin guards today, as Johanni came to believe his training might progress further with fewer safeguards. {If ever there was a decision to regret…}Eardwulf knelt and asked Johanni to show it to him. The boy unbuttoned the sleeve of his white-gold tunic, the colours of the Royal Banner, and exposed the swollen red mark around his wrist bone. Eardwulf’s touch was careful, almost tender, as he inspected the reddening welt. His fingers were surprisingly soft for such a skilled swordsman. “Nothing is broken but it will be sore for a day or two,” said the older man. “Have it soaked later.” “I shall.” Eardwulf did not let his wrist go. “I’m sorry I hurt you,” he said. “That wasn’t my intent.” Johanni smiled. “We were training. I do not mind.” It was a curious sort of tenderness was the swordsman’s touch, as he slowly smiled back at Johanni with a warmth that softened all the chiselled hallmarks of his warrior pedigree; his furrowed brow, blade-scarred cheeks, his weary grey eyes. In his thirty-three winters of life, Eardwulf had seen far more of the world than had Johanni, and his experiences of it had hardened him like tempered iron – yet there remained within him those tell-tale signs of kindness, that soft touch and that un-habitually warm smile. Johanni blushed. {Let me go, Eardwulf,} he thought. He hadn’t the heart to say it. “Your smile is my intention,” said Eardwulf. “And your safety.” Then a third voice cut the moment in half, booming down from above. “You need a better teacher, brother, or at least someone with better footwork.” Both Johanni and Eardwulf looked up at one of the four oaken balconies built into the training hall walls. Perched atop the balustrade was the former’s older brother, Ragnar. He wore a churlish, competitive grin upon his lips. Eardwulf let Johanni go. “Come now,” said Ragnar as he descended the wooden steps to the training hall floor, “Pick up your sword. I’ll show you a thing or two.” As he approached them, Johanni did not notice Eardwulf scuttling back with a restrained grimace, collecting the two wooden training swords into his arms; he only smiled as his older brother up and embraced him. “Brother, do you intend to have me humiliated twice in one morn?” Ragnar smirked. “I intend to have my brother properly trained in sword craft so that he may defend himself should ever the need arise.” Johanni gestured to Eardwulf. “I have Eardwulf to defend me.” As his brother turned to his protector, the mood darkened in the hall. That, Johanni did indeed notice. “Thrall,” said Ragnar to Eardwulf. “You are dismissed.” Frowning, Eardwulf nodded. “Yes, lord.” Ragnar watched him return the two wooden training swords to the rack and excuse himself through the door-less archway. “You needn’t insult him so,” said Johanni. “You’re too lenient with him,” replied Ragnar. “Never let him forget his place… or his purpose.” {His purpose is to protect me,} thought Johanni. {And he always has. Despite…} Despite Ragnar Bloodbane. The bards had a rich catalogue of lore from which to poach fodder for their ballads. But no event since the Elvish Fall had quite captured their fervour like the Suppression of the Osserians. From here to the Salt Shore they sang songs of the carnage; ‘Bogs of Blood’, ‘A Dance of Swords’, ‘The Bastard’s Bolero’ – unintentionally carrying word of the destruction to all corners of Grünlund, propelling his brother into infamy. Within one short solstice ‘Ragnar the Fatherless’ became ‘Ragnar Bloodbane’ – High Legate of the Royal Legion and scourge of the House of Osser. He inspired fear in allies and enemies alike. But bards only ever tell half the tale. To those that called him Bloodbane, he was not the sweet boy who used to sneak freshly baked sweet buns into Johanni’s chambers. He was not the kind-faced boy who taught him how to ride a horse and make music with leaves, who protected him from their father’s bullying wards and lit candles with him when his mother, Lady Sunna, had died. The bards didn’t know Ragnar like Johanni did. “Let’s go for a walk,” said Ragnar. “To our old place.” Happy to do so, Johanni took off the heavy mail jacket atop his cloak, draped it over the wooden dummy next to the weapon rack, and followed his brother out of the training hall. They climbed one of the palace spire’s together, a long spiralling stairwell climbing up to a parapet that soared over both the Palace grounds and the city itself. Johanni and Ragnar walked up to the ledge and (not for the first time) beheld the city of Drangheim from its highest point. It was a massive stonework sprawl stretching from one edge of the panorama to the other; a breath-taking vision of bell towers, shrines, markets, tenements, warrens, watchtowers, shacks, bridges, cabins, laneways, and underpasses. The city was the beating heart of the Kingdom of Drangheim and the cultural capital of Grünlund. {I will never tire of this,} thought Johanni. He shut his eyes and luxuriated in the cool winds whipping against his skin, at the melody of the distant seagulls wheeling off the river, and the distant echoes of his people, the Impanni Woags, the lifeblood of the city; hammering their swords, bridling their horses, hawking their wares, baking their bread, butchering their meat, weaving their cloth. Their father’s words – freedom and civilization -- echoed in his mind. “Remember when we used to sneak up here as children?” Said Ragnar. The view left even him a grinning fool. “I will never forget.” Sneaking up to the spire was one of their many childhood games. Sometimes they were even bolder and snuck out of the palace to see the chariot races in the coliseum, the two of them screaming their voices hoarse with excitement as brave men and their stallions fought tooth and nail in the encircled sands. {Aggrosh the Wild wheel-to-wheel against Storri Stonehoof,} thought Johanni. {Oh, those times.} Johanni nodded. “Neither will I. You said, “This is our father’s legacy – and it’s your destiny to rule it -- so rule it well”. Remember?” Ragnar frowned. “Yes. I remember. But the skein of destiny is cruel, ‘Hanni. The time may have finally come for you to leave this place.” The younger brother asked the older what he meant. “It is the Royal Diet,” said the Bloodbane, sombrely. “They have decided to contest the succession in my favour.” The boy’s shoulders dropped. “…Why?” “…I do not know. But I cannot oppose the will of the Diet. Speak to father. He’s waiting for you at the Temple of the Gods.” ********** The inner sanctum of the Palace of Drang sat upon a broad hillock at the apex of the original settlement. At all four of that hill’s compass points, a hundred marble steps (burnished by ivy-wrapped porticoes and sculpted statues) descended to a massive mile-wide diffusion of villas, rose gardens, ponds, and hedge mazes. Here one found the domus of the Legate, Ragnar’s palace-within-the-palace, and the Grand Librarium, where all the King’s scholars worked from morn to eve translating its over 30,000 books and scrolls into the Woaggish runic script. Here were the Royal Bath Houses and Sauna, the Garden of Heroes, the Necropolis, the barracks of the Royal Guard, the Treasury, and most notably, the Temple of the Gods. Whenever commoners came to the palace, Johanni beheld their stunned gapes and swinging jaws with amusement. That was not to say he mistook it for anything less than the architectural wonder that it was; in fact, he too was once in awe of it, but for him the Palace had long since lost its lustre. Johanni descended the east-side hundred steps with Eardwulf close behind. Waiting for him there was a wooden litter, accompanied by four men of the Royal Guard, a 500-strong detachment of the Legion serving as sworn guardians to the Palace of Drang. Known by their distinctive broach-fastened violet half-cloaks, white-gold tabards, and steel sword swords; each man bore the tattoo ‘Rex Aeturnus’, upon his left forearm. Johanni once asked Ragnar why the Royal Guard boasted of the King’s eternal rule in the elvish writ rather than Woaggish runes and he answered; That they may know the strength of our resolve should ever they return. The Royal Guardsmen lowered the litter. Johanni climbed inside. “Take me to the Temple of the Gods,” he ordered. Due to the sheer size of the palace grounds the journey from the hundred steps to the temple was around a quarter-fall of an hour glass. The four men ferried him along through a path brooked by water gardens and colonnades until they finally brought him to the temple steps. Eardwulf helped Johanni climb out of the litter when the guardsman set it down. A woman amongst six smiled from above. “Greetings to you, Lord Johanni, on this glorious morn. Your father the King awaits you within.” It was not a priestess that addressed him. At the top of the temple steps, guarding the threshold of its ten-foot limestone archway, were six of the most skilled fighters in Grünlund – the Shieldmaidens. Forty specially selected women raised from the age of five for only one purpose – to serve and protect the King. Subjected to solstices of savage, spartan training in combat, hunting, and archery, they emerged as deadly warriors with zealous dedication to their calling. As ever they stood imperiously, clad in deep steel greaves, ornately-embossed breastplates, iron-plate bracers and winged iron half-helms. Pelts of wolf fur decorated the shoulders of their ankle-length cobalt cloaks and their weapons of choice – the spear and round shield. Ferocious in battle and unmatched in their courage, tales of the Shieldmaidens travelled to all corners of Grünlund upon the bard’s tongue. All Woags knew of the legendary strength, skill and beauty of their order. Even warriors as skilled as Eardwulf knew better than to challenge them. “Sorry to have kept him waiting,” said Johanni. “If I may pass.” The Captain of the Shieldmaidens, Gunhilda, smiled down at Johanni with thin, icy-grey eyes. She stood aside. “You may.” Two of her maids uncrossed their spears from the archway. As Johanni scaled the steps (and Eardwulf closely behind him) the four Royal Guardsmen did not advance – instead they carried the litter away with not a word spoken. It was no secret in the Palace of Drang that there was old enmity between the Shieldmaidens and the Royal Guard. The Temple of the Gods lived up to its namesake. Its looming walls carried the reverent songs of its priestesses up to its arched roof and beyond. Betwixt its porticoes stood burning braziers to provide light and heat. And at five points along its walls, two to the left and two to the right, semi-circular domed apses held titanic, twelve-foot high marble statues carved in the shape of the gods of the Woaggish pantheon. One to Wug, god of war, one to Ygga, god of the hunt, one to Shora, goddess of the sea, one to Uta, god of the sky, and one to Ka-Uta, goddess of the earth. Here, it was Ka-Uta who stood most prominent with the apse behind the sacred altar. It was to her whom the Kingdom of Drangheim prayed. And there, standing before her pedestal carved in runic script, was his aging father; King Hrathwuld of Grünlund. Both Johanni and Eardwulf took a knee in reverence. “My King,” said his son. “Good morn to you and to all who love you.” Hrathwuld stifled an oily cough. “Come… closer, boy. Leave your thrall at the door.” Wincing, Johanni advanced forward as a kneeling Eardwulf held his position at the entrance. His sandaled steps echoed throughout the temple. When he came into his father’s presence he again knelt and kissed the withered, wrinkled hand that the King offered him. “Stand up, my son.” Johanni stood. “Take it in,” said Hrathwuld. “The elves built this place to honour their gods. When we expelled them from the city we smashed all their idols to pieces, but over time I grew weary of rubble and ruins. I wanted to replace them with our gods, you see? But to my dismay, no one in all the kingdom knew how to sculpt! So, I gathered all our readers versed in elvish tongue and script, and I had them study all the texts that the elves left behind in their librariums, to harness their learning.” Hrathwuld glanced up at his commissioned testament to Ka-Uta. “I have prayed to her every morn for nearly thirty-eight winters. It has been so long since I first had these statues built. So many have followed in the smaller shrines they have in the city. And yet, after all this time, our sculptures still pale in comparison to the elvish ones.” “My king?” Sweat fell freely through the wrinkled grooves in his brow. “Destruction is easy, Johanni. Building is difficult. Remember that.” The boy sighed. “Ragnar sent me.” “I know,” answered Hrathwuld. “The Diet has been swayed in his favour. In a few fortnights, once all the Jarls of Drangheim arrive for the diet, they will vote to declare him aetheling to the throne. And they have every right to in accordance with my loghs. And that is why… the time is right… for you to finally go.” {The journey,} Johanni thought. Blood pounded in his ears. They had spoken of this privately for many fortnights but now? Now of all times? “Father,” the boy sighed. “I think it is too late.” “If I had said that fifty solstices ago, then our people would yet languish in Elvish chains.” The King pointed a crooked finger at the murals decorating the far wall. “Look to your history, boy. Tell me what you see.” The murals, crafted in the old way of the Woags, were testaments to both their ancient and recent past. And as the King wished, his son described them to him. “I see ships,” said Johanni. “Hundreds of them. Sailing down from the cold Hyperborean Steppe to land on the rich beaches of the Salt Shore a thousand winters past. These ships carry the Five Great Clans of our people, the Woags, who spread out across this new territory we call Grünlund. The seafaring Arbarii clan settled the Salt Shore and the Salt Isles, whilst the pale-skinned Thoths marched north into the Deepfjord and the unruly Karggars occupied the Grey Wilds. Our clan, the Impanni horsemasters, venture further south with our close cousins the Osserians; crossing the Great River into the Weald. The Osserians then penetrate further east into the Fens. For hundreds of solstices, despite all the clan wars and rivalries, the Woags remain a strong people. Until the arrival of the Elvish Empire…” “Go on,” said Hrathwuld. Johanni continued where the mosaics depicted a vast army of elvish soldiers. “Led by one of their imperial margraves, the elves march into all five corners of Grünlund, subjugating us with their magic and sailing thousands of our people to their imperial capital as slaves. For nearly 110 solstices our proud people are mere subjects to their power. Until…” Johanni continued from a mural depicting a man with a striking likeness to his father. “…Until a boy warrior named Hrathwuld, son of the Impanni chieftain, undertakes a journey. He and his warband traverse Grünlund to rally the remaining four chieftains to his cause – the end of elvish rule. Together they form the mighty Woaggish Army and march south, laying siege to the margrave’s holdfast and driving their remaining army back across the Black Mountains.” Hrathwuld smothered another cough. “…And then?” “Jubilant at their victory, the five chieftains convene a moot and declare the boy Hrathwuld king of all Grünlund. He fortifies the southern border, builds up a new legion of soldiers, constructs a great city called Drangheim, and he authors the Codex of Logh, outlawing the evil practice of magic. He selects a Diet, a learned band of Impanni elders and scholars, to ratify his decisions and, when need be, elect a new king.” “Quite a tale, is it not?” Johanni glared at the murals. “It is our history.” “Indeed,” Hrathwuld sighed. “But I fear… that Ragnar and the Diet see only the last 160 solstices of our history. In their hatred of our enemies to the south, they have forgotten our allies to the north, east and west. We are Woags all, Johanni. Diet or no Diet I rule by their consent. Yet despite my teachings, your brother does not understand this.” Johanni threw a brief guilty glance at Eardwulf, still kneeling silently and dutifully by the archway. “You’re speaking of the Osserians?” The King frowned. “The Osserians were traitors… but they did not deserve the sentence that Ragnar passed. He would be a strong king… but also a cruel one. And cruelty cannot unify the Woags behind one banner. The next King of Grünlund must be a builder, not a destroyer.” Hrathwuld’s bony fingers, weakened by age, took Johanni by the shoulder and he smiled up at his young son through his wintry white beard. “The next king must be you, Johanni.” ********** Though there were a great many elven inventions in this world but the best (at least to Johanni’s belief) were the hot baths. As boys he and Ragnar often snuck out of the sanctum to visit the Royal Bath Houses – there was nothing better than a long, luxurious soak after a hard day’s training and tutelage. Johanni smiled to himself recalling the days. Sometimes they were so excited that they dove into waters in their tunics. Sometimes it seemed like there wasn’t a bad day the hot baths couldn’t cure. {So why am I so…?} The boy perched himself up against the bath’s limestone edge, his back to the silhouetted screen where Eardwulf kept a respectful distance, standing beside a stone bench with Johanni’s carefully folded mauve tunic and sandals. Johanni looked to the steamy waters of the caldarium and beheld his rippling reflection; his closely cut blonde hair, wide green eyes, his oval chin and chubby cheeks. He was still such a boy, even in his own eyes. Yet when one looked to Ragnar Bloodbane one saw only a man. His brother was tall and dark and strong, his long black hair splashing over his shoulders; his sinewy body honed and toned by long solstices of harsh training and three successful military campaigns. One could see a king in him. Johanni did not see a king in himself. “Eardwulf?” He said. “Yes lord?” “Is the door locked?” Johanni turned to his thrall’s silhouette and watched him pat the iron lock securing the doors into the baths. “Yes lord.” “Then come join me,” he said. Eardwulf hesitated. “…My lord, I do not think…” “Are you confusing a command with a request? Hurry, please.” The Osserian gave a heavy sigh of relent. Even when they were alone, when matters of etiquette between jarl and thrall mattered not, Eardwulf was ever dutiful and obedient. Johanni watched his black shadow wrestle loose the inner straps of his traditional Osserian scale armour. It fell onto the wet flagstones with a heavy splash. He pulled his woollen under-shirt up, unbuckled his belt and scabbarded long sword, unbuttoned his leather breeches, and peeled off his boots. Eardwulf emerged from behind the screen with only a wrap of thin cloth around his waist and cautiously stepped into hot waters next to Johanni. For Johanni, they went as high as his neck. For Eardwulf, barely above his ribs. But he enjoyed them all the same. Johanni smiled as the older man shut his eyes and relaxed into the warmth. It was indeed soothing – when you could enjoy it. “The heat’s good for the muscles,” said the boy. By the bath’s edge there was a silver platter of red grapes and cheeses alongside a cup of wine. Johanni pointed at it. “Eat.” Eardwulf sighed. “That food is for you, lord.” “I’m not hungry. Eat.” Hesitantly, he did. One by one he took helpings of the platter between his thumb and index fingers, like a child would. It almost annoyed Johanni to see a man eat so reservedly. But he ate well (after all, even in the Palace of Drang, the food allotted to thralls was little better than pig’s slop) and the platter was soon gone. Johanni kept the cup of wine for himself and took a sip. “My lord has sadness in his eyes,” said Eardwulf. “Do I?” the boy shrugged. “The heat, perhaps.” Johanni let his eyes stray from the cup. They found Eardwulf watching him, intently. He had that look about him that said, ‘I will not let this go, although I cannot press you on it’. The boy chuckled to himself. {The thrall is the only one in this whole palace who cares about what I think,} he thought. “Lord?” “Were Ragnar not a bastard,” Johanni suddenly sputtered, “then there would be no question of his succession to the throne. That… puerile old logh still found its way into my father’s Codex. He raised us knowing that it was his intent to see me crowned king. And yet… Ragnar was no less a brother to me. He cared for me. More so than our father did… at times. The night my mother died he held me in his arms and told me that no matter what happened he would always be at my side. But sometimes these days…” Eardwulf watched him pause. “These days… it’s as if…” Johanni scrubbed his eyes. “…it’s as if…” “Lord?” “…I fear that… Ragnar will not except me as his king.” Eardwulf drew closer to Johanni. “…Do you want to be king…?” As a boy he did. As a boy he often dreamt of his coronation, of sitting his father’s throne and donning his father’s crown and inheriting his father’s sword, Gunwalla, the Gilded Claymore of Drangheim. But now? Now the great shadow of responsibility eclipsed those dreams. {“It is responsibility that defines a crown,”} thought Johanni in his father’s voice, {“not power or glory.”} The Thoths and the Arbarii were in constant contention over ownership of the Salt Isles. Would he pick a side? If the next harvest was bad, how would he feed his people? Who would he prioritize? Such decisions his father had wrestled with for fifty solstices without showing the slightest sign of hesitation. Yet hesitation was all Johanni felt. “Duty is all,” said the boy. “It does not matter what I want.” “It does matter,” said Eardwulf. “Do you *want* to be king?” There were tears in Johanni’s eyes as he whispered “…no…” The hot waters sloshed as a strong pair of arms drew Johanni’s wet body into a warm embrace. Eardwulf held the wide-eyed boy close and whispered in his ear, “Do not cry, ‘Hanni. You will always have me. You will always have me.” ‘Hanni. Only Ragnar and Hrathwuld had ever called him that. Thralls did not speak the names of their jarls. They said only ‘lord’ or ‘king’ or ‘master’. Nor were they permitted to embrace their masters. But he was warm and strong was Eardwulf. Johanni felt safe. And without realizing it, he returned the cuddle, his arms curling around Eardwulf’s broad muscular back. The thrall’s woolly pelt of chestnut-coloured chest hair felt coarse against his slick torso but Johanni did not mind. He felt safe. He felt so safe he did not notice the slow circles that Eardwulf’s blunt fingertips drew into his back as they slipped slowly down to his small hips. He did not notice Eardwulf’s engorged and club-like phallus swinging beneath his cloth – not until the Osserian kissed him. Johanni’s eyes shot open. It was so sudden. His cheeks flamed red. In that moment, a moment that could not have lasted more than a few seconds, the boy was so stunned he daren’t even move. His arms fell to his sides, still as a doll in a child’s grip. The thrall’s lips were thick and hungry, as was his tongue, as it prised open Johanni’s lips and thrust into the boy’s warm mouth. They moaned together – Johanni with speechless confusion, Eardwulf with the hungry rage of a long-frustrated passion. And then the Osserian’s left hand snatched at the stiffened cock between the boy’s legs… and Johanni snapped back into reality – and he slapped Eardwulf so hard the sound echoed up to the ceiling. The thrall pulled away, let Johanni go, and caught his breath. Johanni, outraged and stunned, caught his own. “My father would KILL you for doing that…” he finally whispered. “My brother would blood-eagle you…” “But you would not allow it,” Eardwulf said. “I know you wouldn’t.” The boy’s cheeks were blood red. “…Get out…” “Let me stay. Let me explain how I-” “I SAID GET OUT!” He was serious. He was shaking. And he was furious. Eardwulf seemed to see it in his eyes. Frowning, the thrall recalled that he indeed was only a thrall and climbed out of baths. He went behind the paper screen to re-clothe into his shirt and armour and sword belt. Eardwulf then turned to the door. But as his hand made for the lock to unbolt it, he uttered something, almost out of compulsion. “Lord,” he said. “It’s your fear of the crown that makes you worthy of it. It’s the Bloodbane’s hunger for it that makes him unworthy, not his bastardy.” “Don’t speak of my brother…” spat Johanni. “Leave me!” Eardwulf left quietly. ********** Johanni’s slumber was unpeaceful that night. His feathered pillows and silk sheets couldn’t grant him a good night’s rest. He tossed and turned as his mind wrestled with the day’s events. So, when he could not sleep he took quill to inkwell and wrote letters intended for members of the Diet when he returned from his journey. This did not occupy much of his time, so he then summoned a servant to his quarters and asked them for wine. A quarter-fall of the hourglass and she brought him an empty cup and a full ewer. The drink helped. He was soon asleep. But memories both cruel and kind plagued his dreams. Some were happy. He and Ragnar, running through the rose gardens together when they were young. Some were sad – his father beating him over a broken urn in his late mother’s chambers. Then came Eardwulf. All night long he dreamt of the muscled Osserian, of his looming frame and unrelenting grip, of his smothering lips and jutting manhood. Johanni saw visions of himself trapped beneath Eardwulf’s weight in a field of grass, his legs spread open and wrists pinned into the dirt. He saw himself groaning with pleasure and pain, writhing beneath him, begging the thrall to stop and not to stop. Eardwulf silenced protestation with a rough kiss and rewarded each call for ‘more’ with a deeper thrust of his jutting cock. Johanni awoke the following morning face down on the wrong end of the bed. His pillow propped up his feet whilst his entangled arms clutched desperate fistfuls of the silk sheets, which were damp with sweat. And there was an uncomfortable cold spot beneath his belly. Horrified, Johanni wondered if he’d pissed himself during the night. But it didn’t smell that way. When he climbed out of bed and looked at it, to even greater dismay, he found a cooling puddle of his own seed. His cock was still sticky with it. {Damn you, Eardwulf...} The boy seethed. {Damn you!} Johanni had not spent much thought on his tastes. As an aetheling, a potential claimant to the throne, it was inevitable that the Royal Diet would pair him with a noblewoman. In spring there had been talk of such a match with Jarl Elkregyn’s daughter, Lady Tanne. A fine girl, perhaps. Dainty, buxom, flaxen-haired. She appeared kind. But she kindled no fire in Johanni. It was in his twelve or eleventh winter when his body began to change; growing hair where previously there was none, his voice deepening; and when his attractions came into being he noted that women and girls garnered no interest from him. Those he did notice, those who did inspire the poetry of lust, those savage and carnal needs, he dared not speak their names. He dared not tell them or even look too long upon them. He was a king’s son and he could not have want he wanted – because the king’s own loghs prevented it. The elvish, in their day, were notoriously licentious. They took male brides as freely as female ones; held balls and masquerades ending in wanton acts of profligate bacchanalia, and often bought whole households of slaves, many of them Woags, to serve their appetites. The King, an old devotee of Ka-Uta and her call for moral temperance, outlawed all these ‘immoral’ practices. His Codex of Logh forbade ‘men from laying with other men in the manner he would a woman’ under penalty of execution. For many a solstice Johanni struggled to lock away those fancies. On an almost daily basis he reminded himself how wrong it was to look upon other men with desire and how devastated his father would be to learn that his own son partook of such vices. He resisted temptation wherever he found it – a gold-haired travelling minstrel, a roguish royal legionary, etc -- and devoted himself to his studies. He had been doing so well. And then yesterday… {Damn you, Eardwulf…} When first light broached the Palace of Drang an hour later, one of the servant girls knocked his chamber door. “Lord Johanni? The King calls upon ye to attend the great hall.” Already cleaning himself with a bowl that another servant girl had brought him earlier, Johanni called for a fresh tunic and under clothes. When dressed, he opened his chamber doors. Eardwulf stood there, waiting for him. Johanni blushed, looking away. “Lord?” He had nothing to say that would not alarm the servants. Johanni stalked off down the corridor without a word. By obligation Eardwulf followed him to the Great Hall, where a lavish meal of smoked salmon, baked bread and hard-boiled eggs graced the long table. There were platters of cut oranges and bowls of freshly picked berries to sup on. And he had a cup of hot mulled wine to join with it. But there was only one seat. Johanni asked one of the servants for his father. “The cold night last moon seized his knee,” she said. “The King eats in his private chambers.” “And Ragnar?” “Lord Ragnar prepares your caravan,” she said. “He broke his fast before dawn.” And so, he sat to eat alone. He did not ask Eardwulf to join him (as often he would during similar occasions in the past) and let the dutiful thrall stand guard by his table at he ate. The salmon and eggs were delicious. The bread was over browned, and he did not care for it. The wine went down well. The oranges went down better. One of the serving girls then cleared his empty platters. {I suppose I won’t be eating like this for a while…} thought Johanni. {What will it be like out there… in the wilds of Grünlund? } He contemplated it. Eardwulf’s prior actions had fogged Johanni’s mind but as the morning unfurled, it dawned on the boy that the journey his father had planned for him for so long… was finally a reality. He returned to his chambers (with Eardwulf close behind) for his dressers to robe him in his traveller’s garb; long brown breeches and thick leather boots rimmed with fur, a white-gold tabard bearing the Impanni sigil (the prancing mare) upon its back and secured by a sword belt. The weapon was a steel short sword customized in balance and weight for Johanni’s sword arm by Ragnar’s favoured blacksmith. ‘Hopefully you will never need to use it’, his brother had told him prior, ‘but you must take every precaution’. Once dressed and armed, Johanni left the inner sanctum of the Palace of Drang. At the bottom of the hundred steps four Royal Guardsmen bore him by palanquin to the palace’s eastward gates. There, he found Ragnar Bloodbane awaiting him with his entire caravan fully prepared and provisioned. Fifty Royal legionaries armed with the traditional Impanni spear and greatshield. With a total of twenty whickering horses and five mules, the caravan boasted a baggage train of ten supply wagons. It was a cold morning. The winds were savage. Ragnar stood before the retinue with his arms folded beneath his buffeted cloak. There was an anxious look in his eye. But he saluted his brother’s approach. “Rex Aeturnus,” he said. “Rex Aeturnus,” replied Johanni. “The day has finally come.” Ragnar frowned. “Indeed. Everything is ready for you. You have a half-century of some of my finest legionaries. All are combat tested and have sworn to protect you with their lives. Fly the king’s banner high and you should be safe… but always be careful. Not all Woags respect the crown’s authority… and be especially mindful of the chieftain of the Thoths, Magnus Magnusson. I hear disturbing reports from my spies in the Deepfjord.” “Brother,” Johanni smiled. “Our father has been preparing me for this my entire life. I will take every precaution. Do not worry.” Ragnar’s expression hardened. “You are the trueborn son of King Hrathwuld of Drangheim. There will be those who seek to challenge his authority through you. You must always be alert. You must always be cautious. And understand that should anything befall you – a heavy price they shall pay.” He was serious. Johanni saw the icy resolve in Ragnar Bloodbane’s eyes as he said this – it was no boast but a statement of fact. The destruction of the Osserians proved that he was a man of his word and he was ready to soak the herepaths in blood if forced to. So, it was up to Johanni to make sure the need never arose. The young man embraced his brother tight. “Gods keep you brother,” said Johanni. “Watch over father for me.” Ragnar smiled. “I will.” At the head of the caravan was Johanni’s horse. It was a saddled white mare. Eardwulf helped Johanni climb onto its back and slot his feet into the stirrups. He was not the best rider, but it was important for the men to see him broach the saddle – the Impanni Woags were historically an equestrian people and he was the King’s son, if nothing else. “Very well,” he said. “Let us go.” ********** In ancient times, before the elvish conquest, the Kingdom of Drangheim was known merely as ‘The Weald’. It was a massive sweep of dales, glens, forests and farmland extending out for a thousand miles from the Great River of the west to the Frozen Shore of the east. The Weald was the single largest territory in all Grünlund, nearly thrice as great as the second largest, the Deepfjord. Historically, the Impanni clan settled the Weald by mastering the horse to traverse its massive fields. They learned to farm and plough as well as hunt (for by their very nature the Woags were an ancient seafaring people) and built villages throughout the territory, the foremost being Drang, the village that was destined to become the city of Drangheim. In those eras the Impanni repelled attacks from other clans by fortifying the borders to the two neighbouring territories, the Fens and the Grey Wilds. Though the Great River and its strong currents provided a natural border with the Fens, the ancient Impanni chieftains kept watchtowers at the bridges. The more vulnerable border was to the north. The Karggars often raided northern Impanni villages from their forest forts which made them difficult to pursue by horseback. Thus, the old Impanni chieftains built a chain of small stone forts along the northern border to repel Karggar raids. When the elvish imperial army marched across Grünlund and cut down Woaggish resistance like a scythe through a wheat field, they found that their great challenge was not conquest but suppressing dissent. Uprisings were common in that era. It was not in the Woag nature to submit meekly to another’s dominion. To suppress these rebellions, the Margraves of Grünlund (a line of elvish vassals to the emperor) emulated the old Impanni fortifications across the entire country. Called burghs; some were repurposed from older Woaggish hillforts and barrows, some newly built from the limestone up in the elvish fashion – festooned with archer’s roosts, ditches, and spike fields. The margraves then interlocked these defensive points by a series of roads, some paved and some merely well-trodden dirt tracks, known as herepaths. These allowed the elvish infantry to quickly mobilize and respond to Woaggish rebellions throughout Grünlund. They also served to foster trade, linking cities like Drangheim to smaller villages and allowing safe passage of goods. But in the fifty solstices since King Hrathwuld’s victory over the elves, the burghs and herepaths had fallen into disrepair. Johanni witnessed that now for himself. His caravan left the city that morn and travelled quickly up the herepath road to the north. Those paths closest to the city were well-tended. But as they marched further and further north he noticed how damaged they became. Cracks in the flagstones flowered up with weeds and shrubs. Some were so old they smashed to pebbles beneath their horseshoes. By noon that day the caravan had taken one of the herepaths’ north-western routes towards their first destination, the Fens. Past a certain point the paving vanished beneath them and the road became a muddy sludge of broken stone and weeds. When they came across their first burgh, they found it poorly manned, perhaps only fifteen legionaries to its partially crumbled walls. Hours passed. The winds remained strong and howled around them. Johanni shivered beneath his cloak as he guided his mare forward in a slow canter. The legionaries marching behind him occupied their minds by singing songs of war; ‘Woe to the Margrave’, ‘A Spear for the Spear-Ears’, ‘The Bastard’s Bolero’. Eardwulf did not sing with them. In time they overheard gull song and smelt rime in the air. Soon afterwards the herepath became more stable, the stones older and better tended, as they verged upon a sixty-yard long stone bridge traversing the savage currents of the Great River; Ka-Uta’s Arm. They made to cross it. “Wait,” said Eardwulf. “What is it?” Asked Johanni. Instead of answering, the thrall climbed off his horse and approached the bridgehead. Frowning, Johanni held up his right hand. Halfdan, an ex-Legate of the Royal Legion and Ragnar’s appointed steward of the expedition, saw this and yelled for the men to halt. In well-disciplined unison the legionaries stopped the march, yelling back collectively, “HOO!” All eyes went to Eardwulf. They saw him walk the flagstones and stop where a deep crack ran up one of the parapet’s stones and stomped it hard. The right-hand parapet shook, and a flagstone beneath the belt course came loose, dropping into the drink. Eardwulf returned to the party. “The bridge isn’t stable,” he told Johanni. “We cannot cross it with a caravan this size.” “How is that possible?” said the boy. “Traders have been using this bridge for centuries.” {And my brother marched the Legion into the Fens with it.} Halfdan scratched his salt and pepper-coloured beard. “Structural damage, lord. The bridges and herepaths into the other territories are all derelict. Solstices ago, the king tried to have them repaired, but…” {But the Royal Diet controls the treasury,} thought Johanni. “Send a rider back to Drangheim. Tell them that Ka-Uta’s Arm is in desperate need of repair.” “Understood,” said Halfdan. “But what now, lord?” Johanni cast an eye to the greying skies above. They had thought to cross into the Fens before nightfall and camp outside the nearest village, but now… “We’ll make camp here and plan our next move.” ********** Eardwulf lit tallow candles mounted on spikes to provide a portion of light to Johanni’s tent. The legionaries had set it up with oak post poles, cloth and rope; and brought in a small table for his maps, a feathered pallet to sleep in, and his goods chest of personal provisions. Johanni and Halfdan sat around the table, a cup of wine each, evaluating a map of Grünlund. Platters of picked hare bones and sauce smears sat at their feet – a few of the outriders had had a good hunt that day. “The King’s plan,” began Halfdan, “was to march into the Osserian Fens and locate the chieftain there,” his finger tapped a point on the map, the old Osserian city of Karburgh, then it moved eastward, “we would then move into the Grey Wilds and seek out the Karggar chieftain, then from there we were to go north to the Salt Shore for the Arbarii chieftain, then sail northeast to the Deepfjord for the Thoth chieftain. It’s the fastest way to travel all five territories. If we wait for our builders-” “It could take weeks to repair the bridge,” said Johanni. “That’s precious time I don’t have.” Halfdan nodded. “…Then the only solution is to change course and go for the Karggar chieftain first. Ka-Uta’s Leg is a half-mile northwest of here at the western offshoot of the Great River. We can cross it into the Grey Wilds.” Eardwulf interjected. “Forgive me, lord, but the southern Grey Wilds are enclosed by a thick forest they call the Oakmire. It’s dense and dangerous and infested with bandits. Should we not wait for the builders and take the safer route into the Fens? As the King wished?” Halfdan’s meaty jowls spun towards Eardwulf, his jaw gaping. “By the gods! What makes a mere thrall think he has either the right or the authority to question my judgement?” Frowning, Eardwulf apologetically bowed his head. “Forgive me. I spoke out of turn.” “Halfdan,” Johanni turned to his steward. “Though he is a thrall, Eardwulf is my sworn protector who has served me well and I value his insight. You need not respect him. But out of loyalty to me as a potential aetheling of the crown of Grünlund, I ask that you respect my trust in his counsel.” Halfdan sneered. Not at Johanni, but at Eardwulf. Yet he said no more. He fixed the wine cup to his lips and muttered “Of course, lord…” after taking a deep swig. Johanni pitied the hatred in he saw in Halfdan’s eyes. He was not a young man, perhaps forty or so winters in age, and thus old enough to hear personal tales of elvish slavery. Although Woags had taken thralls for millennia, the subjugation of the clans left a fetid stink around the status of ‘thrall’ and ‘slave’. For Woags, thraldom was a fate worse than death. The ignobility of it was a disgrace to gods and ancestors like. It meant that you were a failure as a man; living on your knees rather than dying on your feet. In his former life, Eardwulf was a thegn to the old Osserian chieftain. He slew one of Ragnar’s own thegns, Trygga the Spear Dancer, on the battlefield. It was not happenstance that the Bloodbane’s punishment for his transgressions was thraldom. These two men, Johanni saw, would not get along. “Eardwulf,” he said. “Walk the perimeter to see if our scouts have returned.” “Yes lord,” said the thrall. Halfdan, disgusted, watched him walk out of the tent. “Lord,” he said. “Forgive me but I do not trust that man. Why would an Osserian be content as a thrall to the Bloodbane’s brother? Unless…” {Unless he awaited an opportunity for vengeance,} thought Johanni. He had wondered the same in his more cynical moments. Did Eardwulf resent him? Was his dagger lying in wait for the just right night? But always the boy quashed those thoughts as nonsense. Eardwulf was his loyal protector for nearly five winters now, if revenge was his goal then he had had more than enough opportunities. And after last night… “We won’t wait for the builders,” said Johanni, changing the subject. “At first light we proceed as you say – through the Oakmire. Inform the men and get some rest. It will be a long day tomorrow.” “Yes lord. In the morn, then.” Said Halfdan. The steward took to his feet and left through the tent door. Johanni soon followed him. As Halfdan passed word throughout the campfires that the caravan would make for Ka-Uta’s Leg and cross into the Grey Wilds, Johanni walked past the cooking pots, tents and guards to the rim of the encampment, where a pensive Eardwulf leaned against an oak tree, his eyes focused upon the black forests across the river. Beyond them was his homeland, the Fens. This was the closest Eardwulf had been to his lands since Ragnar destroyed them – and now they were going the other way. “Eardwulf,” he said. The thrall cast his master a sad smile. “Yes lord?” “What you did to me yesterday… you had no right to do.” “…I know, lord.” Johanni frowned. “Under my father’s Codex of Logh the penalty for your actions is execution. Do you realize that?” “I do, lord.” “Then why?” Eardwulf was not an emotional man. One saw little depth in his craggy expressions and flat voice. But for that moment, in the forested darkness beneath the stars, as distant songs of Osserian destruction echoed around the camp, Johanni at last saw something in those thin, weary eyes. Love. The boy caught only a flicker of it before Eardwulf returned his gaze to beyond the river, but he knew what he saw. Love was what it was. “Because a man wants what he wants,” he said softly. “And I want you.” The blood rushed to Johanni’s cheeks, as it was wont to. He looked around to see if Halfdan or any of the legionaries were within earshot. They were safe. “…I…,” Johanni paused. “…I care for you, Eardwulf. I consider you a friend, in fact. So please… understand that…” there was a lump in his throat. The boy swallowed it as vivid recollections of their kiss in the bath house raced through his mind, “…you cannot have me in the way you want. For both our sakes, let it lie and help me honour my father’s dream.” Eardwulf’s eyes hardened. “…Your father…? The same ‘father’ who let his son sack my home and slaughter my people? The same father who ordered the execution of my lord and chieftain, Osser Greatfang? The same father who-” The Osserian stopped himself. He swung towards the river, frowning, his eyes alert. When Johanni asked what was wrong the thrall said “Quiet!” as a row of little flickering orange lights appeared throughout the forest. At first Johanni thought they were fireflies. But the row was so orderly, so tight. And then came that distinctive snap – the snap of a loosed arrow. “Get down!” Yelled Eardwulf, snatching Johanni with him as he dropped into the wet grass. The boy landed with a thud as a wave of flaming arrows, maybe twenty or so, sailed overhead into the encampment. One caught a horse. Two, a legionary’s left eye and right knee, his scream of agony piercing through the songs, cricket chirps and water rush. Three caught a tent each, including Johanni’s own. And then cries of war roared up from south of their position. Dozens of men clad in crude boiled-leather breastplates, fur boots and half-helms charged across the flat grassland towards their camp, where all but the guarding sentries were unarmoured or asleep. “Shieldwall!” cried one of the legionaries. Around five or six of the armed guards scrambled to his side and in well-disciplined formation they closed their embossed, five-foot high greatshields together. Then a roused legionary near Halfdan’s tent blew his tusk horn to alert the other men as the attackers crashed into the defensive shieldwall. The wall was strong and held against the first push – they repelled the charge then collectively thrust their spears at the attackers, sharpened steel piercing through their poor armour. Two of the wild men collapsed into bloody slop puddles of their own disembowelled guts. But all it took was one – one man swinging his sword tip through the eyes of a legionary whose spear caught in the ribcage of his felled foe. The blinded warrior stepped back, screaming, until the ambusher ran his sword through his neck, silencing him for all. That breech in the shieldwall left an opening for the rest to pour through, their bronze swords hacking and cutting and slicing without any finesse or mercy, just savage Woaggish war rage. They cut down the five legionaries in moments, blood and bone fragments whirling into the crisp night air. The camp was defenceless. Those legionaries who slept rose from their pallets, but there was no time to don their armour – only grab their weapons. Four tents were now completely ablaze. And in that light, Johanni and Eardwulf watched the savage warriors cut and gut the finest men of the Royal Legion. “Karggars!” spat Eardwulf. Distinguished by their wild braided hair and old bronze weapons, they were doubtless men of the Grey Wilds. They watched powerlessly as some of the guards at the northern rim of the camp, armed with spear and greatshield, tried to form a phalanx around Halfdan’s tent. The captain yelled for a charge; if they could get into formation perhaps they could drive the Karggars back long enough for a few men to secure the horses and go on the offensive. But it was not to be. The captain froze like ice when a loud and terrifying roar boomed out over their heads – not of a man but a beast – and he saw to his horror a huge bear, russet-furred and long-toothed, barrelling down at them from the east. It crashed into one of their shields, the impact so strong that the soldier toppled over; right before the bear swept its long, sharp claws through his throat. One spearman caught the bear’s right shoulder with a good throw. It roared in both pain and outrage, then bounded on top of him and gored his neck. By now more than half of Ragnar’s handpicked men were dead as the Karggars swarmed the camp. Some were already looting the supply wagons moored at the wayside. Halfdan was nowhere to be seen. The camp and the caravan were both lost. “We have to run,” Eardwulf snatched Johanni’s wrist. “We have to run!” The thrall scrambled to his feet and pulled Johanni up with him. It was too dangerous to go back for a horse but if they ran down river as far as the nearest burgh and hid themselves away, maybe they could survive the night. But as two ran down the river bank a spear sailed over their heads and landed a yard from their feet. “Hold!” Eardwulf and Johanni stopped where they were. Behind them were three mounted Karggars, horses whickering. One a young, doe-eyed archer with a quiver full of arrows; the second a towering and muscular one-eyed axeman, and the third a lean-bodied and chestnut-haired man with a smouldering smile and a steel greatsword strapped to his back. This man had the look and composure of a leader as the camp behind him burned into ash and blood. Eardwulf pulled Johanni behind him and drew his sword. “Who are you?” “Call me Raider,” he said boastfully. “After all, we are what we do.” His two cohorts snickered. “And who is that flaxen-haired youth behind you?” said Raider, pointing a gloved finger at Johanni. “Is he your patron? Or am I mistaking who and whose arse is for sale?” “How dare you?!” Seethed Johanni. “How dare you do this?!” Raider smirked. “Hmm. That’s more steel-tongued than you’d expect from a travelling merchant, isn’t it?” Johanni stepped forward. When Eardwulf tried to hold him back he swatted the thrall’s hand away. “I am no merchant!” Spat the boy. “And you have no idea what you’ve just done…” A sliver of Raider’s cockiness slipped away. “…Who are you…?” “My name is Johanni Carian Hrathwuld, son and heir to King Hrathwuld of Grünlund and brother of the Bloodbane…” ********** The Oakmire was foul. The pitiless stench of its bogs made Johanni nauseous. Its tall trees loomed so high above that the canopy blotted out the sun and left the forest floor in perpetual darkness; the Karggars lit tapered torches to see their way through. There were no roads to walk by, only a network of well-trodden dirt paths hemmed by thick thorn bushes and underbrush. These paths were narrow (barely wide enough for the Karggars to haul through the wagons) so they marched Johanni and the other captives two by two, each pair of captives separated from the next by a pair of Karggars. Though the smell made him feel faint, Johanni kept his head and studied both his surroundings and his captors. They had tied his hands and lashed the rope to Raider’s saddle. That bloody-jawed bear, which Raider’s men called Growler, ambled forwards on all fours just ahead of Raider’s horse. Bear-taming was an ancient skill of the Woags (in its day King Hrathwuld’s Great Woaggish Army boasted nearly a hundred armoured war bears) but no clan was better at the art than the Karggars – Growler was living proof. Johanni then looked to his men, and what remained of his caravan. The raid had reduced Ragnar’s half-century of legionaries to six men, two of them badly wounded. Though stripped of their weapons and armour (loot for the Karggars) their captors took no chances and constantly kept them at spearpoint. Close behind was Halfdan and a disarmed Eardwulf. The steward had taken a few cuts and burns in the fighting, but he was alive and (largely) unharmed, growling bitterly at the circumstances. Eardwulf on the other hand maintained his habitual calm. Raider, mindful of the Osserian’s martial skill, had had his hands tied behind his back rather than his front. Every hour or so Eardwulf glanced over his shoulder to check if Johanni was alright. The boy tried to ignore that as he looked to his captors. The Karggars were indeed a roguish lot, hardy and strong, with their knotted, wildly overgrown beards and their long, braided brown hair. They wore pendants and tattoos of a war hammer, the sigil of Wo’ar the half-god, son of Wug. They sported their spoils like oddments; where one wore a legionary’s helm the other carried a legionary’s sword and the next wore a legionary’s boots and so on. Those weapons and armour they could not carry were either slung from the supply bags of the captured mules or bundled into the wagons with the rest of the provisions. Raider’s men numbered at around thirty, eight of them archers. Five of their men died in the fighting, their corpses now draped over the saddles of their pilfered mares. But although his men saw this as a great victory, Raider seemed shrewd enough to recognize otherwise. Johanni watched him exchange anxious whispers with his archer companion (a youth by the name of Frodi), perhaps sensing that he’d made a mistake. Frodi listened to Raider’s concerns then said something that appeared to be reassuring, briefly reaching over to stroke a loose thread of hair out of Raider’s brow, with a touch too tender for friendship. Johanni then stumbled over a rock. He fell flat on his face, the sudden tug of the rope startling Raider’s horse. A few of the Karggars burst out laughing. Eardwulf tried to double back to help him up but the second he turned around, one of the Karggars drew his bronze sword and warned him to stay back. Raider stopped the march. He got off his horse, took a water cask from one of his saddlebags, then went over to help Johanni back onto his feet. “Take a sip of water,” he said. Cautiously, Johanni did just that. He uncorked the terracotta jug and swigged deep from it. He hadn’t had anything to eat or drink since the raid – and that was half a day ago. “My brother is a molossus,” said Johanni, “…and you’ve just given him every pretext he needs to sink his fangs into your chieftain’s throat.” Raider’s dismissive smirk didn’t mask his underlying doubts. Earlier, he had his men throw the naked corpses of the dead legionaries into the Great River to let the currents sweep them off. In half a day’s time they would wash up in the Fens, miles from the campsite, where perhaps they would become an Osserian problem. “Word hasn’t gotten to the Bloodbane yet, I’d wager. And meaning no disrespect, your ‘lordship’, but until I have proof that you are who you say you are, you’re only what I thought you were – a trader,” then Raider leaned into Johanni’s ear and whispered, “Of course if you’re telling the truth…” Johanni yelped like a little boy as Raider lifted him up off his feet and swung him towards his horse. He quickly threw his leg over the saddle (so as not to break it) and dropped hard on the leather as Raider climbed up and sat the rear. Outraged, Johanni meant to curse him, but froze when Raider’s strong, tattooed arms curled around his hips and snatched the reins. The boy blushed. He fell silent. Eardwulf frowned. “I could slit your throat and dump you in the bog before the Bloodbane ever found out about this…” whispered Raider into Johanni’s ear. The boy suddenly felt hot. “…Then why don’t you?” “It would be a waste of a very pretty throat,” crooned Raider, wrapping his gloved hand around Johanni’s milky neck. “And a waste of what could prove to be a very fine ransom -- a prince’s weight in gold…” ********** The Karggar raiding party marched their captives through the Oakmire’s secluded trails from morn to eve, stopping only briefly for water from a hidden well. They eventually came to a secluded clearing within the heart of the forest. Hundreds of solstices ago the Karggars cut down an acre of this woodland and built a small fort from the lumber, heaping stacks of heavy stone around its foundations and digging a yard-deep ditch around its walls. Hundreds of sharpened stakes filled this trench, and the bones fragments of long dead men and animals littered the gaps between them. It was one of at least two dozen other forest forts nestled throughout the Oakmire, and though difficult to find, they were infamous in Drangheim. The Karggars used these forts as outposts from which to mount raids on the border villages in the Weald and the Fens. They also represented halfway points in the Oakmire – supply points to re-provision or store loot. According to his father the elves considered the forests forts an irritation rather than a threat; but it was one of King Hrathwuld’s ambitions to join them as burghs to the herepaths. Johanni was beginning to see why. Raider’s men camped at the fort. They tethered the horses in a logged stable at the fort’s rear wall and dropped kindling into old pit fires dug by prior occupants. There was almost no game to hunt in that wilderness, so they cooked salmon they caught from the Great River and baked potatoes stolen from Johanni’s supply wagons. Sat around their campfires, they drank casks of foreign wine and sung songs in reverence of the War God Wug and his son, the half-god hero Wo’ar. They arm wrestled, played knuckles, and traded tales of their greatest raids. The Karggars locked Johanni, Eardwulf and Halfdan in a wooden paddock with two spear-armed men to guard them. They locked the remaining legionaries in a separate paddock across the clearing. There were only six left now, the two wounded men died on the trail. Johanni asked Raider to bury them – so he allowed the legionaries to dig the graves. They left them unmarked. “These foolish men,” muttered Halfdan. His fat wrists chafed red in their tight binds. “I always knew the Woags beyond the Weald were an uncivilized horde of rabble-rousers and sheep-fuckers and bloodthirsty madmen. And here lies the proof of it, as bright as Uta’s sun. Bastards! Not worth one Impanni life…” “Johanni, are you alright?” Asked Eardwulf. The King’s son said he was “fine” and kept his eye on the camp. At the centremost campfire sat Raider, with Frodi the archer and the one-eyed axeman he now knew as Thregg the Ghoat (because of his goat’s horn half-helm) sharing a horn-full of mead. Or they were, until two Karggars guarding the northern footpath into the clearing uncrossed their spears. A rider trundled into the camp on an exhausted gelding and dismounted before Raider’s campfire. It was a woman, dark-haired and pale, outfitted in thick grey pelts of wolves’ fur woven together into a full-bodied coat. She embraced first Thregg, then Frodi then at last Raider, who gestured towards the fort. Johanni watched the woman take a torch from campfire and walked her bare feet across the greensward into its innards. Then Raider made his way over to the paddock. “What does he want?” Said Halfdan. Raider had his men unbolt the paddock door and walked inside, eyes only on Johanni, whose forearm he snatched. Eardwulf, angered, moved to stop him but his ropes were too tightly bound to a stake in the earth. He could barely move. “Leave him be!” Growled Eardwulf. “Calm yourself, Osserian,” said Raider. “If I wanted to kill any of you I would have done it by now. The boy will be safe.” Johanni frowned. “The boy will go nowhere unless you promise him his companions will be kept safe.” Raider smirked again, more out of surprise than humour. “You’re stronger than you look,” he said, right before snatching Johanni up by the hips and slinging him over his shoulder. “Come along!” The boy flushed red as a tomato as Raider slapped his arse and carried him across the camp like a sack of flour. His half-drunk men erupted in laughter. “Put me down!” Yelled Johanni. “Put me down!” Raider said no. {Animal!} Thought Johanni. {It’s not enough to slaughter my people and loot my caravan, now he humiliates me? } Raider carried him across the bridgework over the spiked ditch into the dark guts of the forest fort. Though they lit the sconces along the walls and ignited braziers of fatwood to brighten its innards, the inner hall remained nocturne. Raider set Johanni down on a spot in the darkness where the Karggars swathed the dirt floor with red-painted cedar bark cloth. The woman in wolves’ fur stood there. Torchlight lit her facial features up in orange hues; her black eyes and fanning crow’s feet, her hooked nose and wrinkled brow. She was not young – perhaps fifty winters old or more – with skin the colour of almond milk and her ebon-black mane of hair running in thick, elongated braids as low as her ankles. “This is the one?” She said to Raider. Her torch’s flame snapped loudly in the dark, empty hall. “That’s for you to scry,” he replied. “Consult the Gods.” She then looked to Johanni. “Do not fear, little one. I am Wharla Oldeye, Seeress of the Gods and the Half-Gods. Trust in them as you would yourself.” The self-declared seeress staked her torch into the dirt then unfastened the bone brooch holding her cloak in place. It fell from her shoulders into a lump around her ankles. Johanni blinked. Save for a small skirt of goat’s wool hanging from her hips and a necklace of wolf fangs hanging from her neck; Wharla Oldeye was completely naked. Though old, her skin was tight, her stomach flat, and her breasts yet firm; the face of a sage and the body of a maid. There was a bowl nearby her. Wharla withdrew a pouch from her cloak and knelt to pour its ingredients into this bowl – foal bones, sacred herbs, myrrh, and grey ash. Raider passed her a cask of mead. She took a mouthful then spat the mist over the bowl, then gestured for Johanni to give her his hand. He hesitated, then looked at Raider, who had his hand on his dagger. “Do it,” He said. Johanni gave her his hand. Wharla put his fingertip between her lips – and bit it. He snatched his hand back. She smiled, his blood on her teeth, and spat it into the bowl. And then she muttered a series of strange, woeful incantations in the Old Tongue; the ancient language that the Woag mystics once spoke upon the merciless ice of the Hyperborean Steppe a thousand winters past. As she did this, a pale green smoke rose up from the bowl like a fog and surrounded Wharla Oldeye from toe to nostril. Her eyes went white as they rolled backward into her skull and her mind shifted unto a plane utterly distinct from the one her body occupied. Now Johanni understood was going on. “Magic,” he said. “The King outlawed magic!” Raider scoffed. “You really think Hrathwuld’s Codex applies out here in the Grey Wilds? We Karggars are true Woags. We follow only the Old Loghs,” he then turned to the enrapt Wharla. “What do you see, Oldeye?” “THE BOY…” Her voice became gravelled and ashen, louder than her slim throat ought to be capable of. It was a voice that was not her own, “…THE BOY… SON OF THE KING… IN FLESH AND IN HEART… HALF-BLOOD OF THE BLOODBANE… A KEY THREAD… THE KEY THREAD… IN THE SKEIN OF THE HALFSPEAR’S FATE…” Raider frowned. “TRUST… IN THE GODS,” she said, “… TO LIGHT… YOUR WAY…” And then Wharla collapsed. Raider quickly grabbed her naked body before she fell. Johanni, speechless, watched the pupils return to her dark eyes. Raider helped her back into her cloak. “What did they say?” Asked Wharla. “That he speaks the truth,” said Raider. “…THREGG! THREGG, COME IN HERE!” In moments Johanni heard heavy footfalls booming toward them like horse hooves. Then Thregg lumbered in. He was so tall he had to bend down just to fit through the entrance. Raider told the Ghoat to take Wharla to his tent, so she could rest and regain her strength. Nodding, the Ghoat hauled the seeress into his arms and carried her out of the fort. Raider and Johanni were now alone. The silence was deafening, save for the snap of the torch’s embers. The Karggar had his proof now. The boy was no trader. He was the son and potential aetheling of King Hrathwuld, and yet somehow more importantly, he was the half-brother of Ragnar Bloodbane – whose men Raider had so unceremoniously put to the sword. How deep could you bury a blunder like that for it not to come back and haunt you? Johanni and Raider locked eyes… and a chill went down the former’s spine as the latter went for his dagger. “Please…” Johanni stepped back. “…don’t.” Raider drew it. Its steel was thin and sharply honed, perfect for a quick and merciful thrust between the ribs. It gleamed in the torch light. He cut Johanni’s ropes with it. “Apologies,” he said earnestly. “I… may have erred this day.” ********** A day after Wharla Oldeye saw the truth of Johanni’s heritage through the word of the Gods, Raider and his party emerged on the northern side of the Oakmire. From the saddle of his own horse, the white mare, Johanni watched the thorny woodland around him disperse into a gigantic plane of open flatland. The territory of the Karggars was enormous. East or west, one could ride for days before they saw so much as a hill upon the horizon. But worse than that… the land was barren. Its soils were dry and rocky. Take up so much as a clump of it and it crumbled to dust in your hand. There was not a single blade of grass in sight for miles around. And no game, either. No deer, no hares, no birds, not even worms or beetles. There was nothing to eat nor anything to grow. These were the Grey Wilds. Cold and blustery, and darkened by a crown of perpetually grey clouds that almost never rained. {How can anyone live here? } Thought Johanni. Raider and his warband provided the aetheling and his men with wolf’s pelt cloaks to stave off the cold. Halfdan, his horse returned to him, rode alongside Johanni as Eardwulf led the remaining legionaries on foot, unbound, no rope nor chain. Raider retained their weapons. ‘Not even your sword I can return,’ Raider had said, ‘not until we reach Greyspear’. Johanni (and an utterly affronted Halfdan) agreed to his terms. Reaching an accord did not change the fact that at this moment in time they were at Raider’s mercy. There was a mountain in the distance. It was the only visible spec for miles in any corner of the horizon beyond the south. Johanni pointed it out. “I saw that mountain in the murals in the Temple of the Gods,” he said. “That is Greyspear.” “Yes,” said Raider. His white-maned stallion cantered just a few yards behind Johanni’s mare. “Our chieftain, Erik Halfspear, lives inside the fortress our ancestors carved into its guts. At its base sits Yveryth, the largest village in the Grey Wilds. It’s the grim little turd stain we call home.” They did not reach it for nearly half a day. The ride was long and cold but as their hoof prints beat dust clouds out of the cracked earth, and the savage winds bore down upon them from the west; the mountain of Greyspear climbed higher and higher in the horizon like a spearpoint, until the group rode in its shadow. Less than half a mile from Yveryth, Raider led them to the rim of what seemed to be a deep hollow in the earth. In truth, as Frodi went on to explain to them, it was a dried-up lake. Raider, Frodi and Thregg all dismounted. “From here on we six are alone,” said Raider. “Me, Frodi, the Ghoat; you, your steward and your thrall.” “Your game?” sneered Halfdan, scratching the rope welts around his wrists. “There is no game here. We go to Greyspear while the others proceed to Yveryth. Your men will be safe,” Raider looked to Johanni. “You have my word.” Johanni nodded. “Lead on then.” The lake’s slope slanted sharply from its pebbly bank – the only way down was to slide down. Raider and Frodi went first then Thregg second. Eardwulf followed Johanni as he slid down next, then came Halfdan (in more of a tumble than a slide, earning him a few chuckles from Raider and Thregg). Wharla Oldeye, the Karggars and the surviving legionaries proceeded onward towards the town. Bone dry weeds snapped beneath Johanni’s heels as Raider led him and the others to an arch-shaped tunnel bored through the hard soil wall of the lakebed. Frodi and Thregg lit torches (sticks swathed in oil rags) by striking sparks with flint. They lit the way for Raider and Johanni to follow. Eardwulf and Halfdan followed them. The tunnel was long and deep and black. The walk felt long, especially after such a long ride to Greyspear from the Oakmire; but as they drew closer to the fortress in the heart of the mountain, Johanni noticed something along the walls. “Murals…” He said. They were crudely carved but detailed, the indentations painted in yellow and red ochre. They depicted events of Woaggish history both old and new. Before long he spotted a carving that appeared to be a crowned rider at the head of an army, pointing a bejewelled sword at a horde of spear-eared infantry. “Is that my father?” “It is,” said Raider, as he pointed out another figure in the mural, “And the man next to him is Gad Greyspear; the previous chieftain and father to the current chieftain, Erik Halfspear. Gad was the first one to join Hrathwuld’s quest and the first to declare him King. They were war-brothers, those two. Even amongst us Karggars, Hrathwuld’s name still commands respect.” “Then why you would attack men bearing his banners?” “Well lord, to be fair to us it was dark and we could not see your banners,” when Johanni did not return the smile Raider sighed in defeat. “But to be blunt… the King has not always been loyal to our chieftain…” Eardwulf frowned. “Did he not destroy the Osserians for you?” “Ah! The thrall speaks! But it was the Bloodbane who destroyed your people. We were just his excuse.” “What did you mean when you said that my father has not always been loyal to your chieftain?” Asked Johanni. “Oh, fret not, lord! He will like you,” Raider leaned into Johanni’s ear but whispered loud enough for everyone to hear it, “He’s keen on blondes, you see…” Eardwulf clenched a fist. “Mind your foul tongue around the aetheling,” warned Halfdan. Raider smirked at him but didn’t bother to retort. Just ahead of Frodi and Thregg were two arched wooden doors secured by iron. Raider’s allies gave then a shove. Internal bolts gave way and the twin doors yawned open into an enormous cavern fitted with logwood platforms and pillars, wooden beams, stone pillars and a pendulous network of rope ladders and bridges interlocking dozens and dozens of tunnels and cave dwellings. As many as a hundred Karggars, both male and female, dotted the fortress from cave floor to cave wall hauling fire wood, boiling water, mending linens, hammering new weapons or sharpening old ones. There was a twenty-step ramp to a central platform guarded by two Karggar spearmen. Johanni watched those men nod to Raider with surprising deference as he led him and his cohorts up the steps where an aging man, white of hair and tattooed across his face, arms and body with wolves’ teeth, stood in wait. Though his back was crooked and hunched, he looked to have been a tall man in his youth. “Uncle,” said Raider. “You’re looking well! I’ve… brought guests.” The old man glowered at him. “Wharla told me about the message you sent her before she rode off to meet you,” he coughed. “…I always knew you were reckless. But I never fathomed you could be so stupid. Ignorant boy! You bring shame to your father’s name!” Johanni expected some clever retort or sarcastic smile to come from that. Instead Raider looked away, like some chastised child sent off to bed with a ringing ear and an empty belly. {So at least he respects his chieftain…} the boy thought. He stepped forward and knelt, respectfully. “Oldfather,” he said. “I am Johanni Carian Hrathwuld, trueborn son of King Hrathwuld, Chieftain of the Weald and elected ruler of all Grünlund. Though I mislike the circumstances of my arrival I thank you for receiving me. On behalf of my father, I have urgent matters to discuss with you.” The old man smiled. “So respectful. So polite. You are your father’s son indeed. But I am not the one with whom you must speak.” “I… don’t understand. Are you not Erik Halfspear, chieftain of the Grey Wilds and lord of the Karggar Woags?” “No,” He pointed a hooked finger at the now silent Raider. “He, in all his boundless stupidity, is Erik Halfspear…” ********** Night reigned over the Palace of Drang. Though the city it ruled yet churned with life in its secret markets, raucous mead halls and clandestine brothels, silence preserved the Palace. Unknown to all but to a few, a silent cortege of Royal Guardsmen broke their scheduled patrol around the High Legate’s domus; and stood watch around the porticoed entryway of the necropolis; a sweeping forested cemetery where once the elves interred their noble dead and honoured them with towering stone monuments decorated with frescoes. Though it was in the Woaggish tradition to burn their dead the Impanni adopted this practice of burial. And so, deep below the boneyard sprawl of the necropolis, ran a network of subterranean tunnels entwining various underground crypts and mausoleums purposefully dug and paved to house the dead; one of which specifically built for the interment of fallen shieldmaidens. Inside this crypt, known as the Hall of the Shieldmaidens, was an eleven-foot limestone statue built in commemoration of the women buried beneath it. Her name was Knuthilde. Ragnar Bloodbane knelt before her tomb. He was deep in thought; of the past, of the Diet, of the succession. But he was a soldier to his core and ever-alert. He heard his father approaching long before that raspy voice ever spoke a word; so distinctive was the echo of his walking staff and the shuffle of his slippered feet. Tap, tap, tap as it wrapped the cold mossy flagstones. “The crypt is dank,” said Ragnar. “The wet air is not good for your health.” King Hrathwuld smiled. “Is that your… charitable way of suggesting that I am not welcomed down here?” “Take it as you like.” The King’s smile fell into a frown as he turned to Knuthilde’s painstakingly crafted obelisk. It had taken his finest sculptors nearly two solstices to make it, but the work was worthy of her. Even in death she bore her spear and round shield, her winged helm and her side sword. A warrior must have her weapons if her soul is to traverse the bowels of the underworld and make it to the Hallowed Plane, the sacred realm of Wo’ar, where history’s greatest heroes could forever hunt, ride, drink and battle under the half-god’s eye. “My son,” said Hrathwuld. “Understand that I loved her too.” Ragnar frowned. “I do not believe that any more than she did. She was your whore, like all the rest of the shieldmaidens. She was just the only one unlucky enough to be sired with a bastard. I pity her.” “My Lords!” Sudden footsteps scuffled down the distant steps into Knuthilde’s crypt. A messenger trundled in on urgent footsteps, catching his breath. “My lords,” he said, huffing and puffing, “an urgent missive!” Ragnar took it and dismissed him. As the messenger withdrew, he untied the small roll of parchment, opened it, and read it. He frowned. “What is it?” Asked the King. “It’s Johanni,” said the Bloodbane. “He’s been captured by the Karggars…” **********
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