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Wulf's Blut - 6. The Thoths of the Deepfjord, Part 2

Sorry for the extremely long hiatus, please keep reading (or re-reading if still interested).

Siege weapons were not native to the Woags. They were elvish imports (like many of Grünlund’s more recent technological advancements) but the knowledge of their construction was borne by the Royal Legion which was one of the many factors that made it such an effective fighting force – none of the other tribes possessed this knowledge.

Until now.

Groups of Thoth men loaded massive boulders into the slings and the siege engines hurtled them into the air to either crash into Snowhold’s walls or sail clean over them and smash its central tower. None of the trebuchets were within range of the archers at the western wall, forcing them to focus on the Weiße Jäger charging it from below. War cries and pounded earth echoed up to the heavens along with the crash of rock as hundreds of Thoth warriors broke off from the three-mile-long cluster of thousands that had marched into the western side of the forest trail. They slung thirty-foot-high siege ladders against the walls and began climbing them. The two dozen archers scattered across the crumbling battlements tipped oil-coated arrowheads into the burning coals of their braziers, lighting them up, then shot stream after stream of flaming arrows at the wall climbers. One caught the eye of a Weisser Jäger and his whole iron helm caught fire, and his thrashing screams caused the ladder to fall backwards and the other four men climbing it to be crushed under its ironwood weight, skulls and ribs shattering at the impact.

When his ladder men failed to make any headway, the Thoth commander ordered fifty of his archers to move forward through the throng and form up at the van. The longbowmen aligned in a single chain and loosed fifty flaming arrows into the air, arching into the battlements and raining down on the guarding archeresses who dove for cover. As the fifty archers paused to nock, another fifty archers formed up ahead of them, and drew. Another fifty fire arrows assaulted the walls as the trebuchets hurled more boulders. The archeresses could not respond as a unit, the bombardment was too consistent, too sustained. As fires spread across the ramparts and portions of the walkway crumbled into dust from the impact, they scattered apart and shot at will as the Weiße Jäger on the ground began scaling the ladders again.

All this as Sigrid Stonebow and two dozen of her closest fighters scoured the fortress from room to room and ordered every single woman and child to flee below ground to the catacombs. “{Take nothing with you!}” Said Sigrid. “{Go below now or you die!}” She warned them that fires had already consumed half the western wall and all the northern, it was only a matter of moments before it spread to the keep. Hundreds of women gathered to escape down the cold stone flights to the ancient catacombs built deep below the grounds of Snowhold, where its underground aqueducts had forded the southernmost tip of the Deepfjord into a subterranean canal. Moored to the footpaths on either side of that canal were dozens of small boats and each one carried two days’ worth of supplies for six people.

Bruma had prepared for this day.

The Thoth woman led the descent, Brynhildr’s hand in hers, closely followed by Johanni, Norsa Hardfang, Gnut the Troll, and Erik Halfspear (who carried a chained and gagged Hrolfyr Lawspeaker over his shoulder). The cold flagstones beneath their boots trembled with each impact of the trebuchets. Johanni saw the shockwaves ripple throughout the water.

He and Bruma and the others helped the women onto the boats. First the children and the elderly, then those women strong enough to pull the oars and row out. “{Make for the nearest village!}” She told them. “{Spare the rations for as long as you can! Keep your wits and watch out for each other!}”

Once most of the boats were afloat down the river, Bruma boarded her own with Brynhildr and asked someone to take the oars. Norsa and Gnut complied, there was no time to argue about manners or station.

“Where are we going?” Asked Johanni.

“Snowhold is lost,” said Bruma. She unyoked the mooring rope from its bollard, rolled it into a spool and threw it inside the boat. “Now is our only chance to escape. Sigrid shall collect the remaining girls down here to the boats and lead them south to the surviving villages. But us? We’re going north. We’re going to the Hoarfrost Throne – and we’re going to kill Magnus Magnusson.”

The ceiling boomed. Streaks of dust and loose rock trickled out of the gaps between the mossy stones arching it over. “{…I never agreed to that.}”

“{Boy!}” Yelled Bruma. “{You want to be king, yes? Sometimes a king’s only means is bloodshed! Your father brought love to his people, but he also brought the sword to his enemies. If you want to be king, our true king, then you need to find the courage to do the same. Now, get in the boat!}”

Erik watched pair of them bicker in the Old Northern Tongue and sneered, hurling Hrolfyr into the boat. “Whatever you’re saying, save it for river! We have to move now!”

Johanni took his wrist before he climbed aboard. “Erik…”

“What is it?”

“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I’m so sorry about Frodi.”

The Karggar frowned. “…Don’t let it be for nothing.”

**********

With the river currents quickening over the hour, Snowhold’s battlements were no longer visible over the forest canopy, but you could still make out the thins stacks of smoke drifting eastward as they burned into rubble. The fires of destruction were a terrifying sight. Johanni looked away, snivelling at the cold and the sooty scent in the air and watched instead the fifty small boats drifting down the river towards the south. As Bruma said they were women and babes all, hundreds of them, many of them frail from lack of food. Those who hadn’t taken oars huddled together for warmth and wept. Others tried to distract themselves by singing songs or offering prayers to the White Spirit for salvation.

The remaining ships, led by a dispirited Sigrid Stonebow, caught up to Bruma’s half none too long ago with only a handful of her archeresses amongst their number. “{The others held in Snowhold to cover our escape,}” said Sigrid, her boat rowing up to Bruma’s upon re-joining them. “{I weep for them, they are peerless in their honour. May the White Spirit bless them.}”

Bruma concurred.

“Will they pursue us?” Asked Johanni.

“Not by the water,” said Bruma. “All the boats are gone. Haakon and his creatures will try to track us through the forest.”

It was the one advantage they had. There was no time to load any horses (not that any of the skiffs were large enough to contain a fjord horse) which meant that as soon as they landed they were on foot – and there was no way they could outrun a whole army of beastlings. Survival meant staying as far away from Haakon’s men as they could until they reached the Hoarfrost Throne.

“We should land soon,” groaned Norsa at the oar, “The further south we go, the more ground we have to make up.”

Bruma disagreed. “We keep on. The longer we stay on the water, the harder it will be for Haakon’s creatures to track us.”

The Hardfang grumbled audibly but did not disagree. This was unfamiliar country and for all her anger Norsa knew that Bruma was far better acquainted with it. And so, they continued down the river. As time passed by the forests beyond the riverbanks began to recede, and their fifty émigré ships passed the first villages by – but they were all burnt to a crisp. Johanni, Bruma and the others looked on in mournful horror at the sight of charred lumber, crumbled walls, and broken fishing piers. Half-frozen cattle corpses disappeared beneath the snow. Nothing salvageable was left of this village – and it was merely one of another six they passed by, all of them razed and derelict.

“{T-T-They’ve been doing this all over?}” Wondered Brynhildr. She sat in her mistress’ lap, their arms firmly wrapped around one and other, sharing each other’s warmth.

Bruma nodded. “{Yes, sweetling. Do not look at it.}”

Johanni glared at Hrolfyr Lawspeaker, the aging ‘priest’ shivering beside his boots in the bottom of the boat. “{You think this is what the White Spirit wants for your people? To burn down your own homes and slaughter innocent people on the mainland? You do not speak for the gods, charlatan.}”

He couldn’t respond, not with that knot of cloth lodged in his mouth, but there was an angry glint in his eye. As a Lawspeaker no doubt he was unfamiliar with dissent.

“Why are we keeping him alive?” Asked Johanni.

“He’s the leader of the lawspeakers, and the lawspeakers are the backbone of Magnus’ power over the tribe. We can use him, whether as a bargaining chip or as a shield,” Bruma then pointed to the riverbank. “We’ll alight here amongst the burnt villages. If Haakon follows us this far south, he might confuse our tracks with those of looters.”

It was a good plan. Norsa and Gnut rowed the boat over to the western side of the river and yoked the skiff to a rock just long enough for everyone to climb out (Norsa, Gnut, Johanni, Bruma, Brynhildr, Erik, and Hrolfyr Lawspeaker) then set it adrift with the other forty-nine boats. Sigrid smiled softly at her leader as the remaining boats drifted by without her. “{Good luck to you, my lady.}”

Bruma nodded. “{And to you. Take care of these women, Sigrid. See them to safety. And may we meet again someday.}”

**********
It was so cold.

Johanni shivered beneath the frail warmth of his fur-trimmed cloak as he watched his every breath waft off into the dark air ahead. His toes were so stiff that every footstep felt like needles pricking into his frozen flesh. It was no better for the others either. Erik trudged ahead at the van with his greatsword unsheathed in one hand and a burning hessian torch in the other. Bruma and Brynhildr were close behind him huddling together for warmth. A scowling Norsa dragged along Hrolfyr Lawspeaker by his lash, and Gnut guarded the party’s rear – though his mace and crossbow swung idle from their leather straps – having speak much of recent years in the sunny climes of the Salt Shore, he worse than the others was unused to the extreme cold. There was a sort of unrelenting savagery that defined the wilds of the Deepfjord.

They proceeded inland from the fjord by a narrow dirt trail gutted from the heart of a leafless forest. Throughout the day, the increasingly savage winds howled through that dense thicket, turning a slight snowfall into a bitter hail that buffeted the party on all sides. For all the miles they covered they could have covered five more if not for those channelled winds – but by Bruma’s telling there was no safer path upland than that trail (it was an old hunting path used by the ancient Thoths during the warm season). There was even a hidden fort at its end where their rangers once slaughtered their captured greatbears and wolfhounds. Bruma went to great lengths to maintain it, for it provided discreet access to the highlands. By some miracle, the Weiße Jäger had not yet discovered it.

“It’s not too far now!” Bruma had to yell to be heard over the wind. “The fort should be just up ahead!”

A high moon loomed above when they finally found it. A degraded half-burgh built of stone slab and ironwood, but stunningly preserved for its age. It lay nestled between the barren forest and a steep sloped overhang of sheer rock jutting out into the bone-chilled panorama of the Ostspitze. It boasted no protective walls or towers, not even any fencing, but it would do for the night. Johanni helped Erik unbolt its wind-bleached wooden doors and they gave way to a small hall, only fifty by fifty yards long, and ushered everyone inside. The snowy windstorms battering their ears became a muted wail as they closed them shut again.

There was a hearth nearby. Gnut and Erik Halfspear went to work setting a fire by stripping the fort’s contents for kindling, of which there was plenty (broken tables, chairs, tanning racks and grinding wheels, etc). Bruma had Brynhildr forage for pots to boil some water whilst Norsa secured Hrolfyr Lawspeaker to the wall by knotting his rope around an iron hook. Johanni lit the surrounding sconces with Erik’s torch before squelching it – they would need it when they set out in the morning.

Once the hearth was lit Johanni helped Brynhildr bring a small fish soup to boil with the supplies they took with them from Snowhold’s escape boats. There was dried bread and potatoes but Bruma warned against eating any of it for now.


“We have hundreds of miles to cross before we reach the Hoarfrost Throne. We must ration what we have.”

Everyone was given a bowl, even Hrolfyr, though a mistrustful Bruma had Brynhildr feed him rather than loose his bonds. Johanni, sat betwixt Erik and Gnut, gobbled up the soup as fast as it was poured for him. The hearth’s heat felt prickly sharp against his skin, but he was abundantly grateful for it. Soon he and the others were warm enough to let their cloaks dry near the fire – but they ate in silence.

There was a mood about the party ever since the fall of Snowhold.

Frodi was gone. And against all the chaos of their flight it did not escape Johanni how bitterly Erik must have felt that loss. He loved his warband like all great leaders should, but Frodi was more than a mere kinsman-in-arms. The wily archer was a brother to him, a protector, and an advisor. There were no words for that sort of loss.

Johanni watched him stare wordlessly at the ripples in his untouched bowl.
First Thregg, now Frodi, thought Johanni. Oh Erik. I’m so sorry.

And both met their end at Haakon Godwulfsson’s hands – not to mention Erik’s late father, Gad Greyspear. All Johanni wanted to do was wrap his arms around the Karggar chieftain and cry with him until daybreak, but he could do nothing before the others.

Gnut, with fishbones caught in his thick black beard, set his bowl down and addressed the others. “…I know it ain’t the right ‘o times but we ought to trade words ‘bout our plan ‘ere.”

Bruma, with Brynhildr seated kittenishly in her lap, answered him. “With Snowhold fallen, the Weißjagd is free to march south to the fleet ships at Ice Rock’s Point. Once word reaches Magnus, he shall sail down the western coast to join them for the invasion. Our only hope is to get to the Hoarfrost Throne before he departs.”

“So, we’re agreed?” Said Norsa Hardfang. “We gut Magnusson in his own fucking hold and end the war before it starts.”

Johanni frowned. “That is not yet decided.”

“Bloody hells! Grünlund isn’t some helpless damsel content to wait for you to waddle along and save her at your leisure! If you mean to spare her a war she can ill-afford, then Magnus Magnusson must die. I know this. They all know this. Your damned thrall, wherever the hell he is, he knows it. So why don’t you?”

Erik frowned. “Govern your tongue, woman. Today is not the day.”

“I speak to the aetheling, not his pet Karggar.”

An embittered growl as the Halfspear tossed aside his bowl and launched up to his feet. Johanni and Gnut quickly stood and threw themselves between him and Norsa as she snarled back at him.

“Enough!” Yelled Gnut. “You ain’t helping matters, Hardfang!”

“Are you helping them by keeping the secret of the Wulf’s Blut to yourself?” Spat the warrior woman. “Don’t suppose for a second that any of us have forgotten that, ‘Troll’.”

Bruma frowned. “He speaks true, Osserian. You help us not with this ire.”

“Heh? And you? You question me? Did your thrall tell you want happened when you left her to her own devices on the coast?”

The Thoth woman paused then turned to Brynhildr, who noted at once the startled look on her mistress’ face. “{M-my lady, what is w-w-wrong?}”

“{Whilst I was away did… did someone hurt you?}”

Brynhildr looked away, sheepishly.

“Norsa, enough!” Yelled Johanni.

But by then she had already had a belly full. The Osserian woman growled spitefully at them, cursing their cowardice and weakness, then snatched up her cloak and war axe before bounding away towards the fortress doors.

Johanni frowned. “Where are you going?”

The Hardfang fixed her cloak onto her shoulders and unbolted the door. The external winds billowed through the fissure. Gusts of snow and hail blew in with it. “This hall’s stench overpowers me. I need a good night’s air to blunt it.”

The arched doors slammed shut behind her as she left, and the hall returned to silence. An incensed Erik pulled his arms from Johanni and Gnut’s grasp and stalked over to the weapon rack to sharpen his greatsword. Norsa’s attitude had not improved throughout this journey if anything it had worsened.

Even so, Johanni thought, she stands for the Osserians…

“I will fetch her,” The younger Hrathwuldsson quickly retrieved his cloak and short sword.

Erik warned him not to go alone.

“I have Norsa with me,” he replied. “I shall be fine. Rest.”

Johanni drew his cloak folds tighter together as he approached the doors. He had no desire to venture out into that teeth-chattering hailstorm again, but he had no choice. As he slowly opened one of those heavy iron-bossed doors the frosty chill beyond bit into his flushed cheeks.

He stepped outside.

The night sky was now a churning grey malaise that permitted not one mote of moonlight or starlight to pass through. The winds blew whole drifts of snow and ice into the air and whirled them above the forest. What was once a gale was fast becoming a storm. Johanni had to find Norsa as soon as he could. The boy brought his leathered arms over his face to block out the snowfall, but he could barely see a foot ahead of him. Everything was white.

“Norsa!” He cried. “Norsa, where are you?”

When he overheard a female voice warning him to “go back inside” his boots trudged left to follow it. Johanni slowly ambled through the snow to the top of the crag-like overhang. He found Norsa there. The ridiculous winds billowed her cloak behind her back, but still she stood, stolid and unmoved (and yet it was all he could do to keep his balance). Hundreds of feet beneath their boots unfurled a sweeping vista of the Ostspitze; a landscape strewn with dormant volcanoes, leafless forests, frozen rivers, upland tundra, and mountain glaciers. Somewhere out there at its northernmost tip sat the Hoarfrost Throne… where Khan Magnus Magnusson awaited them.

“Burning their own homes…,” Norsa’s arms were folded as she gazed out at the view, “…willingly transmogrifying themselves into hideous monsters… these Thoths are more insane than any Impanni legionary. Just imagine what they will do to the mainland once Magnusson’s fleet sets sail.”

Johanni shivered. “It will not come to that…”

“Not if we kill him.”

The aetheling frowned.

“If the Royal Legion and the Weißjagd clash it will break Grünlund in two. Find the courage to whet your blade, boy… if not then the Osserian fate will occur again. Are you prepared to accept responsibility for that?”

Johanni demurred.

His father always said responsibility was what defined a crown. It was a duty, not a right. A duty to preserve one’s lands, to uphold its laws and to protect its people. Responsibility. But his father also taught him to lead by diplomacy. Words must precede swords. But where and when did the time for words end? And why did it seem to counter-intuitive to use violence to prevent more violence? These were the questions plaguing Johanni’s mind, why he could not give her the answer she wanted. He was even moved to tell her as much, but he stopped short when she turned swiftly about and hurled a dark glare over her shoulder. Johanni turned around too. And, there at the foot of the overhang, the Impanni and the Osserian saw a caped figure stalking towards them through the crunching snow.

Haakon Godwulfsson.

His cruel smirk and bloody eyes were unmistakeable. And at his back, palpably visible by the contrast of their coal-black skins against the wind-tossed snow, trod two muscled beastlings.

Norsa drew her hafting axe, Johanni his short sword.

“Did you fools truly think you could elude me?” Haakon’s sabre rattled against his side as he approached them, then stopped as he stopped. His monsters gnashed their teeth behind him. “The Weald may have reared me, but I am a Deepfjorder to my bones, child. The chase was over before it even began.”

Johanni sneered. “You will pay for your crimes…!”

“Spare me,” Haakon pointed at the pair. “Take them alive.”

The former thegn then turned his back to them as the two beastlings guards followed his command, dropping to all fours and bounding up the overhang’s slope towards their prey like dogs. All those long-fought hours of training at Eardwulf’s side seemed to abandon a trembling Johanni as the beastling hurled itself off the snow towards him. It was all he could do to lift his sword as its scythe-like claws bore down upon it and hurled him backwards. His back slapped against the ice beneath the snow, a jolt of searing hot pain surging up his spine, as his muscles struggled to support the sword as it staved off those terrifying ivory claws. The boy shut his eyes at the jagged fangs dripping salty spittle over his face. The beastling, roaring, almost tore the sword from his fingertips, until a whirling axe cracked open its skull. Johanni opened his eyes at the death cry and the creature collapsed on top of him, clouds of heat leaking from its jaws, until its breaths gradually ebbed away.

Johanni looked to his right.

There stood Norsa, weapon-less, grappling with the other beastling with her bare hands. The aetheling grit his teeth and slid his short sword over to her as he struggled to shove his own attacker’s dead weight off his body. Norsa Hardfang tilted back and reached for the sword as the beastling tumbled with her, then with one solid thrust jammed it through its thickened shoulder blade. The black wight howled into the nocturne and rolled away from her, skidding backwards towards the edge of the overhang as its claws sliced into the frost. Johanni and Norsa helped each other onto their feet.

And then they heard a crack. Then another and another, until visible fissures appeared along the breadth of the crag burdened by the additional weight. That was when they realized that that overhang was not made of rock at all – but ice.

And it shattered.

The beastling, Johanni’s sword still buried in its neck, fell screaming into oblivion along with the corpse of its compatriot, as the cold ground beneath Norsa’s boots ruptured and cracked open. She would have plunged into the abyss along with them, if not for Johanni snatching her wrist. The sudden burst of weight almost broke his arm and shoulder, but he embedded his fingertips into a gap in the ice and held onto her for dear life.

“N-Norsa!” His back and shoulders were on fire. “Hold on!”

Certain death lay below.

“…You aren’t strong enough to pull me up,” said the Hardfang.

Eyes crushed shut and teeth fixed together, Johanni’s arm felt like it was about to tear off. He yelled at her to hold on, but as her boots dangled in the air, a faint smile crossed her scarred lips.

“…It is fine,” she said peacefully. “I am ready. Just let me go.”

The boy felt his shoulder pop. It was audible. It was painful. He screamed aloud. But he did not let go.

“NO!” He barked. “NO! YOU’RE NOT GIVING UP! YOUR PEOPLE STILL NEED YOU! NOW GRAB MY ARM AND FIGHT!”

There was a brief but solemn moment then, upon the knife’s edge of death, where Johanni truly though she would not heed him. She had suffered so much. How much easier would it be to just let it all go?

Instead she snatched his arm.

It burned from the strain, but she climbed up until she could get a handful of the cracked overhang and haul herself back onto the ledge. They rolled onto their backs together, gasping for air, and thanking the gods.

“You…” the Osserian caught her breath. “…You saved me.”

Johanni bit his lip. His upper back was on fire and his arm was so pained it was going numb. Haakon! He thought. “We… we have to help the others!”

Norsa, nodding, climbed back onto her feet then helped Johanni to do the same. He clutched his injured arm as close to his chest as possible as he followed the older woman down the overhangs snow-ridden slope towards the hunting fort – its wooden doors were torn off and smashed to splinters across the snowy threshold.

It was already too late.

Gnut the Troll and Erik Halfspear were pinned to the floor by their legs and shoulders, belly first, two beastlings to either man. Bruma was held similarly but she was screaming, desperately reaching in vain for her lover thrall, Brynhildr, who lay limp and glutting from a sabre wound deep between her breasts. Rivers of blood flowed down her dress and torso into the damp floorboards beneath her feet. Haakon Godwulfsson, smiling imperiously with his whetted sword, chopped the rope holding Hrolfyr Lawspeaker captive. The frail old man, muttering profuse thanks in the Old Northern Tongue, stretched out his arms and savoured his freedom, just as Johanni and Norsa ran into the hall.

They froze.

“Ah! I was wondering what that crash was!” Haakon chuckled. “As you can clearly see I slew another of your number, this… traitorous thrall girl, this Whore’s whore. Shall I kill another?”

You unbelievable bastard, thought Johanni. The aetheling looked to Brynhildr’s corpse with pity, and utter disbelief. He was in pain enough to make it difficult to think, but that thought rose above others. This long journey brought Johanni face to face with many cruel and angry people, but Haakon Godwulfsson eclipsed them all.

“Why did you do that!?” He yelled. “She was innocent!”

Haakon flicked Brynhildr’s blood from his sword. “I asked you a question! Shall I kill another of your retinue? The Troll? The Whore? The Halfspear?”

Johanni and Norsa held where they were. His sword was gone, fallen into the ravine along with her axe, and the rest of their weapons were clustered together by the roaring hearth, far behind Haakon’s position, alongside Hrolfyr. There were six halflings within the hunting hall and judging by the bestial roars emanating from the surrounding forests, more were on their way.

There was nothing Johanni could do.

“Stop,” the boy looked away. “No more.”

Haakon grinned at him. “…Surrendering so easily? Your father backed the wrong son, boy. But the Bloodbane’s day will come… as will yours. Now get down on your knees. I’m taking you to Khan Magnus. The glory of your deaths will be his to savour…”

**********

There was a loose scrap of fabric hanging loose from his soggy doublet, torn during the clash with the beastlings. Johanni ripped it off and wrapped it around his arm to help cool it down. It was the best he could do at that point. Even if Haakon’s creatures had any herbs or tinctures at hand to treat it, they would never provide it. Ragnar always taught him to treat his captives fairly… but that was a lesson Haakon Godwulfsson had missed.

It had been two days since they were captured at the hunting fort.

With Hrolfyr Lawspeaker freed, the former thegn marched his captives through the frozen forests back to the battered ramparts and crumbled walls of Snowhold Fortress, where all of them, particularly Bruma, looked on in horror.

The archeresses of Sigrid Stonebow, the fearless women who held the castle for their escape, had not only been slaughtered, but blood eagled. On Haakon’s orders the Weiße Jäger suspended their broken corpses from rope-rigged poles left along the westward highway to greet them.

Remnants of the siege laced the highway alongside Bruma’s fallen warriors. Abandoned tents and encampments, squelched cookfires, half-frozen latrines, lost pots and flasks tossed aside with picked animal bones, potato peel and fruit rinds. Unusable or damaged armour was left to gather snow. The Weiße Jäger burnt their dead at the pyre, Johanni saw of hundreds of blackened tinder stacks along the way.

The fort itself was now held by a small contingent of Weiße Jäger, no more than a hundred men by Gnut’s estimation, most of whom were tasked with structural work – repairing the curtain walls with scaffolds and disassembling the trebuchets for transportation whilst the rest of the army marched south for Ice Rock’s Point. But Johanni and the others were not held there for long. Haakon had them taken to the dungeons whilst his engineers constructed wooden cages upon carts for the detainees, all of which to be ferried by Bruma’s powerful fjord horses – and they were ready by sunrise.

Johanni Carian Hrathwuld and Norsa Hardfang shared a cage. Erik Halfspear and Gnut the Troll shared another. Bruma the Whore rode her own in silence. A victorious Haakon (ahorse of a white-maned gelding), a mounted Hrolfyr Lawspeaker and his cortege of beastlings accompanied the carts as they set off along the westward highway, bound for the Hoarfrost Throne.

Once his arm was set, Johanni looked out through the bars of his wooden cage to check on the others. Gnut he could not see from that angle, but Erik he saw plain, and his rage was unmistakable. Bruma’s cage rolled by to the left of Johanni and Norsa’s, and she was equally as morose. He blamed neither for their misery.

Johanni’s journey had cost Erik Halfspear two friends as close to him as brothers, and Bruma was forced to watch as Haakon sliced open her lover Brynhildr in cold blood.

So much blood spilt, thought the boy, only for it to end like this.

Norsa stared at him.

“What are you thinking?” She asked.

Johanni’s body rocked along with the wagon as its wheels bounced against the icy trail. “This all started with my father’s decree. When he summoned me to the Temple of the Gods, he told me that his successor must be a builder, not a destroyer, that I must be the next king. He sent me out across these lands to acquire the consent of the chieftains, just as he once did. But what have I found? Karggars starving half to death in the Grey Wilds, the Osserians driven to near extinction, a fattened and greedy lord ruling over the Arbariis, and the entire Thoth tribe in open rebellion. I was ordained to rule this country, yet I barely knew anything occurring in it! So many lives lost since I began this quest. And for what? To have it all end like this?”

Norsa frowned.

“Maybe it was all hubris,” he thought aloud. “Right from the start.”

Their wagons were passing a narrow ravine at the time. Hundreds of feet below wound the serpentine banks of the Snowsnake River, the established halfway point between Snowhold Fortress and the Hoarfrost Throne.

Norsa addressed Johanni but glared at its icy waters. “…When your brother’s forces sacked Karburgh, my father had Harwald and I escape into the woods. Men with horses and dogs were sent in pursuit of us and in the chaos, my detachment was separated from Harwald’s. They caught up to mine, butchered it, then they… they took turns on me.”

Johanni’s heart sank.

“When it was over, when they were too drunk to stop me, I escaped from their camp to join Harwald and the others. And few months later I realized that one of those men had sired a bastard upon me. I carried it in the wild for another six months before giving birth to a little baby girl. I named her Aslaug. And for the briefest of moments I even felt a mother’s love. And then, as she was crying, I had one of my men take her into the woods and silence her.”

Stilled, the boy said nothing.

“They burned her and scattered her ashes to the winds. I did it because I knew that if I allowed myself to love her then I could never follow the path that I was destined to take. And I swore an oath to the gods that no Osserian woman would ever have to face that agony again.”


“…I’m so sorry, Norsa,” said Johanni. “There is nothing I could say to ease your grief.”

“When that cliff edge broke beneath our feet you could have let me fall. You could have told Harwald I died in battle and feigned my support… and yet you saved me… even when I wouldn’t save myself. Is that not the quality of a great king? To risk his life for the people he loves?”

“…Norsa…”

“If you sincerely wish to build a better Grünlund that this fucking shit heap we have now then I swear to you, you have my support, Johanni. And I will live on to make sure my people have a place in that world… but you must swear to me that you will live. Live on and be the builder your father always dreamed of… for as long as we live, by the gods above, we have a chance! Well?”

The boy was still.

And then he smiled.

“I swear,” Johanni said softly. “I swear it.”

**********

It was a long road north up the Ostspitze. Johanni spent most of it fading in and out of sleep as his arm recovered. With a firm but painful shove Norsa Hardfang had set his arm bone back into its shoulder socket, then whilst the wagon cage slowly rolled by, she slipped her arm through the wooden bars and cupped a palmful of snow to apply to the joint, which remained bruised and swollen. ‘Careful not to strain it,’ said the Osserian. He had no plans to. Instead, as sleep took and released him, he distracted himself from his pains by watching the Deepfjord’s frozen countryside pass them by.

Like the rest of the domain, the Ostspitze was riven by self-destruction. They passed by dozens more razed villages up the highway. Hundreds of yak farms and cattle holds, mead halls and longhouses, kilns, and forges; all reduced to ash and blackened rubble. Unlike the rest of the domain these burnings were not fresh (as most of those sites were half-buried beneath the snow at that point), it was the epicentre of the lawspeaker-mandated home burnings.

Johanni sighed at the incensing stupidity and savagery of it all. How could the lawspeakers, the oldest and wisest of the Thoths, and amongst those precious few Woags outside of Drangheim and Kjarlling learned enough to read and to write and to count, how could they betray their people by swaying them toward such self-destructive barbarity? Only then did it dawn on him how little influence his father’s rule had had here.

The Deepfjord was the only region in Grünlund without a permanent Royal Legion outpost. Its trade links with the mainland were minimal, and Drangheim’s close ties with Lord Bors and the Arbariis (the Thoths’ longstanding maritime rival for dominance in the Salt Isles) was no doubt alienating.

We must shoulder some of the blame, thought Johanni. Although his father’s rule was a largely peaceful one (save for the ‘Pacification’ of the Osserians), many of the old bonds between the five main Woaggish tribes had been left to rot since the expulsion of the elves. Drangheim had turned a blind eye to the decline of the Grey Wilds, the plight of the Osserian survivors, as well as the Thoths.

Perhaps that was why father sent me on this journey, thought the boy. To see for my own eyes what he always suspected. The Woags were a hardy people, a nation of rugged settlers, but the dividing lines were clear. The tribes were in sheer disarray. They needed reunification. That was why King Hrathwuld sent Johanni across the country, because deep down he knew that Ragnar Bloodbane was not the man for that task.

The Deepfjord, as well as Grünlund overall, had seen more than enough destruction. What the country truly needed was a builder, not of mere marble or stone, but of ties and devotion. The relationship binding the crown to the Woaggish people had to be re-forged.

I understand now, father. Johanni looked to Erik Halfspear, who sat silently and brooding in his cage alongside his. This journey had cost him so much and re-opened the festering wound of his father’s death too. If they gave up now, then it was all for nothing.

I will not let Frodi and Thregg’s sacrifices be in vain, thought Johanni. I will not give up. Not whilst I still breathe…

All was thought as a rime scent touched his lips for the first time in days. Johanni looked to the right of his cage, to the west, to the sea. According to the Overlord Manuscript the Thoths called cold dark waters surrounding the Ostspitze the Bay of Thors (named after the last great Champion of the White Spirit). Johanni watched its waters crash against the pebbled beaches far below the steep slope of headland that the wagons broached. The road ahead was littered with war tents and battle banners bearing the White Bear totem of the Thoth tribe. Thousands of Thoth warriors, the second half of the Weiße Jäger army, had gathered there at Khan Magnus’ beckoning from all corners of the Deepfjord. Some were older men with wintering beards, some were young boys barely old enough to shave, but most were combat-seasoned men of peak fighting age and the encampment was alive with their activity. Smithies pounded thick iron breastplates into shape and fletchers feathered whole drums of arrows. Hundreds of roaring cookfires brought gallons of goatmeat and potato broth to boil, steaming bowls of which were handed out around the camps by their own personal thralls. They sang songs and told war stories whilst playing knuckles or arm wrestling or pissing into latrines. Some wagered on the odds of their survival whilst others cackled over which tribe had the best women to wife.

They had nailed dead thrall girls to 15-foot high posts for every fifty yards of encampment – tributes to the White Spirit to bless the coming campaign against the mainland. White bear flags crackled in the wind.

Johanni, Erik, Norsa, Gnut and Bruma all looked on as the wagons ferried them all the way up to the central stronghold around which the army had gathered – the Hoarfrost Throne.

The castle was one of the oldest in all Grünlund, built atop the ruins of a primeval hillfort (of the Ancient Ones) at the peak of the sloped headland crowning the Ostspitze. Its pentagonal curtain walls climbed thirty feet high from bastion to bastion, protecting a central citadel capable of housing 10,000 souls in a siege. Those walls, and the many watchtowers and battlements that secured them, were partially frozen over with huge slats of crystalline ice, ensorcelled by the forbidden spell craft of the ancients. The Hoarfrost Throne had seated the chieftains of the Thoth tribe for centuries and not once in all Grünlund’s history had it ever fallen to an enemy. The spike of headland approaching it was a mile long and a quarter mile steep, making it easy to barricade and giving it a tremendous vantage point from which to observe incoming attacks, whilst its seaward side sat atop a cliff face looming over 500 feet above the shoreline. Whether by land or sea it was nigh on impossible to storm.

The guardsmen at the main gate yelled for his cohorts to raise the portcullis and Haakon’s cage wagons rolled into the outer bailey, a gigantic stone courtyard. The beastlings accompanying them broke open the restraints securing the bars and dragged the captives out by their chains, one by one. And one by one Haakon made them kneel as a young woman (flanked by two burly spearmen) approached them through the fog and kiln-smoke.

“{Gunna…?}” Bruma’s eyes flooded. “{Gunna! Gunna, it’s me!}”

Johanni blinked.

The girl, Gunna Magnusdottir, could not have been older than 14 or 15 solstices old, though it was difficult to tell with her whole body covered from neck to toe in a russet cloak collared with mink fur (rather than the snow bear pelts of her compatriots) and embroidered with the white bear totem. There was no doubt of her pedigree, however. She was the spitting image of her mother Bruma and her half-brother Thorvald; blue-eyed and blond-haired and fair-skinned, but there was no warmth or innocence in her expression at all. She glared at her own mother with the coldest eye Johanni had ever seen upon a child.

“{You are no mother of mine,}” said the Khan’s daughter. “{You are a traitor to both the White Spirit and the entire Thoth tribe, and you shall be punished accordingly.}”

A tear slipped Bruma’s eye. “{W-what has he done to you…?}”

Behind their back, the gnarled Hrolfyr Lawspeaker dismounted his horse on weak knees and approached his wife-to-be, Gunna Magnusdottir, with outstretched arms. A half-smile crossed the girl’s lips as she kissed him upon both wrinkled cheeks and accepted his embrace.

“{Thank the White Spirit you are safe, my beloved Hrolfyr,}” Gunna turned to Haakon. “{And to you, cousin. Thank you for returning my betrothed to us.}”

A smirking Haakon nodded respectfully. “{I fight to serve, Lady Gunna.}”

She then turned to Johanni. “{He is the one?}”

“{Yes, my lady. Johanni Carian Hrathwuld, the second son of the false king. The tall one is Erik Halfspear, chieftain of the Karggars. The woman is Norsa Hardfang, daughter of Osser Greatfang and heir to what is left of the Osserian tribe.}”

“{And the short man?}” Asked Gunna.

Haakon grinned at Gnut, chafing in his binds. “{…The Troll is of no consequence. We should throw him into the sea.}”

“{Not yet. Father will want to speak with them first,}” Gunna turned to her future husband once again. “{My dear Hrolfyr. The other Lawspeakers will arrive soon to bless the army for the march. Once you have eaten and warmed yourself by our fires, will you start the preparations?}”

“{I shall. And I shall come for you tonight.}” said Hrolfyr. “{Praise be to the White Spirit.}”

“{Praise be.}” said the Khan’s daughter. She kissed him away with another practiced smile and he and his walking staff ambled off towards a makeshift temple on the other side of the bailey, built of slag and thatch.

And then Gunna came before Johanni.

“…Welcome. To. Deepfjord…” she said crudely, then to Haakon. “{Take them to father, he awaits in the Great Hall.}”

With a brief flick of the hand Haakon summoned six spearmen over to take them by their restraints and drag them up to their feet. The guardsmen marched Johanni, Erik, Norsa, Gnut and Bruma away into the keep of the Hoarfrost Throne, past its narrow corridors and towering archways, all the way to its gigantic Great Hall.

The chamber was enormous, larger than any inside the Palace of Drang, serving as both a throne room and a feasting hall. Hundreds of rows of colossal whalebones and mammoth tusks lined its arched ceiling. Its walls were decorated with black banners bearing both the White Bear totem of the Thoths and the sigil of the House of Magnus – a spear in the jaws of a mountain lioness, along with woven tapestries and murals honouring the tribe’s ancient chieftains, most notable amongst them Thors the Great.

And there before its rearmost wall, seated upon a white-painted ironwood throne embellished with gold studs and pelted by sable fur, was the chieftain of the Thoths, legendary pirate of the Hyperborean Seas, self-declared ‘khan’ of the Deepfjord and the architect of the Weißjagd.

Magnus Magnusson.

Johanni beheld him for the first time after hearing his name bandied about for so long – and by the gods he was imposing. Though well over fifty solstices in age, his tall and broad-shouldered frame was undiminished by time, with only faint creases of flesh at the corners of his emerald eyes denoting his season. His hair was a snowy blonde brushed towards the back of his skull in wavy tufts, with a similarly coloured (and carefully trimmed) beard to match it. He sat clad in an ornate and helmless armour with its breastplate, gauntlets, pauldrons and greaves coloured in streaks of crimson and black. And upon his head sat a golden circlet embedded with pearls stones. A crown.

When Haakon stopped, just twenty paces shy of the throne, the guardsmen stopped as well and dropped Johanni and the others to their knees.

“{You have done well, Haakon.}” The Khan’s voice was gravelled and authoritative, “{Snowhold Fortress is secured, and you have delivered to me the Bloodbane’s brother as well as the Karggar and Osserian chieftains. Your blunder in the Fens is accounted for – thrice over. When my reign commences I shall have you ordained as a Jarl with a dominion of your own, and thegns to follow you. You have my word.}”

Haakon’s smile deepened. “{My khan honours me…}”

“{Rest now. Tomorrow, after the lawspeakers deliver the final blessing, we march for Ice Rock’s Point.}”

The wild-eyed thegn bowed in acknowledgement, then turned to depart, his scabbarded sabre and chainmail rattling along with him. Erik Halfspear watched him go with eyes overflowing with fury. If the chains were not on him, he would have gone for the bastard’s throat with his teeth. The Great Hall’s ironwood doors yawned open and then shut.

And then Johanni frowned.

“{…May I speak…?}” He said.

A cold silence hit the hall. It went so silent you could overhear the embers snapping inside the sconces. All heads turned to the aetheling as the aetheling glared back at his captor.

“You may,” said Magnus. “Shall we converse in your southern tongue? I am rather fluent in it, after all.”

“As you like.”

“As I like? Your generosity is boundless, young lord.”

“Like the generosity you’ve shown your own people?” Johanni spat back. “Have you any conception of the devastation wrought upon the Deepfjord by this… this campaign of yours?”

Magnus smiled coolly. “I more than most, boy. I more than all, perhaps. And aye, ‘tis an evil. ‘tis a great and terrible evil. But it is an evil I must do to ensure the future of Grünlund… a future your family refuses to secure.”

Johanni frowned. “…What do you mean by that?”

Heedless, Magnus Magnusson lifted himself out of his throne onto his bearskin boots and descended the steps toward his captives. But it was not Johanni or Erik Halfspear he first approached – it was Bruma. He met her searing frown with a cold smile. “{My love… how I’ve missed you…}”

She spat in his face.

Still smiling, Magnusson wiped it off his nose and cheek with the knuckles of his rose-black gauntlet. “{I take it the feeling is not mutual?}”

“{You. Stole. My. CHILDREN!}” Roared Bruma. “{You poisoned Gunna’s ear and sold her off to that grey-haired letch Hrolfyr like some tavern wench! Was it not enough to take my sons away from me? Well? Answer me!}”

The Khan’s armoured fingers rattled as he flicked the spittle and phlegm from them. “{Thorvald is not of my seed and he left the Deepfjord of his own accord. Our firstborn, Modi? He flourishes in the Golden Empire under the tutelage of the world’s finest scholars, swordsmen, and mystics… and Gunna? Once I take the throne, she shall sire a new generation of lawspeakers that will unify Grünlund beneath the one true god, the White Spirit, and she will be worshipped as a goddess incarnate. Would that your vision matched your fierceness, my beloved. But I will tame you yet,}” Then Magnus snatched Bruma’s jaw and whispered into her ear, “{They won’t call you ‘whore’ anymore once you’re my queen – or rather my khanum…}”.

Bruna wrested her oval jaw free, as Magnusson then turned to the chieftain of the Karggars, whom he eyed with both cunning and caution. “…You must be Erik Halfspear. Did you know that I once met your father in Drangheim? Gad Greyspear was a great man.”

“And this is how you treat his son?! A fellow chieftain?!”

Magnusson smirked. “Does his son not trespass on my lands and consort with my enemies to undermine me?”

“And what of you? And that mad dog of yours, Haakon Godwulfsson, the bastard who murdered my father and butchered two of my closest allies! You even had the Osserians kidnap my brother, Sygardi! Who accounts for that!?”

Magnusson folded his armoured arms behind his back and turned his smirk towards Norsa Hardfang. “…We did have a bargain in place, did we not? What occurred?”

“We saw the light,” said Norsa.

“Oh? Truly? And what great truths did this ‘light’ un-skein? That this apple-cheeked Impanni boy is a worthy successor to dear old Hrathwuld?”

“That great man is your king!” Shouted Johanni. “And I am his trueborn son and heir! You will not mock his name!”

Silence.

Magnusson’s cold smile then turned to Johanni. As the older man lumbered over to him in clanking armour, his large shadow swallowed the boy whole. And when the boy looked up, he found a black-armoured jötunn of old fable towering over him, imperious and implacable, bearing down like a boot to a toad. But instead of stepping on him… Magnus Magnusson knelt to meet Johanni at eye level.

“Apologies. You are right,” he said. “Hrathwuld did the impossible once. He took five disparate, bickering tribes and unified them against a common foe. He freed us all from 110 years of Elvish rule and for that he deserves my respect. But I refuse to call him king.”

Johanni and Magnusson glared at each other.

“What do you know of me, boy?” Asked the khan.

“…That you are a chieftain. And a pirate. And a warmonger.”

“Such lofty titles. I am all those things, perhaps. But I am also a second son, much like you, though unlike you I was never groomed to rule. That honour was reserved for my older brother, Tyrfing. And when our father died, I challenged and lost to him in combat for the chieftainship. A stronger man would have killed me but Tyrfing? He exiled me for five years as punishment. And so, I stole a ship and took to the seas. I went as far north as the Hyperborean Steppe and as far west as the Isles of the Deadwreck Sea before my journeys took me east… to the Golden Empire.”

A scabbarded long sabre rattled at his side. Magnus palmed its jewelled pommel as Johanni (and the others) listened on. “If only you could see it, boy. A land of endless sun where the soils feeds the millions, where magic is studied freely and men make their beds with whomever they please, male or female, highborn or low. I’ve seen streets of gold in its capitals, I’ve seen men with skin as dark as copper and pale as snow, I’ve seen warriors ride into battle on the backs of elephants… do you even know what an elephant is, boy?”

“I care not for your stories,” spat Johanni. “State your meaning.”

“My meaning is plain,” chuckled Magnusson. “If you had ears to listen.”

His armour clanged once again as he returned to his throne. A thrall fetched him a cup of wine and a full ewer. He waved the girl away. “When I went to the Golden Empire and met men from every corner of the world, it dawned on me how small a country Grünlund really is. What we produce in grain and potatoes in a solstice, the Golden Empire produces a thousand times over. Our fastest ships can cross the sea in a month, their slowest ships can cross it in a week. We have swords and spears; they have crossbows and bombards. Do you understand my meaning now? We are WEAK, boy. Grünlund is WEAK.”

Johanni frowned.

“There are only two great powers in this world,” spoke Magnus. “The Elvish Empire to our south and the Golden Empire to the east. One day, those two great powers will clash and with our proximity to both nations this whole country will be a key battleground. If Grünlund is not strong enough to withstand the coming war, she will be destroyed by it.”

Magnusson leaned forward and eyed his captives.

“Do you know what I see when I look at you all?” spoke the Khan. “I see fools. I see blind, backwater, unprepared fools. I see a tempestuous woman ruled by sentimentality rather than sense. I see a lecherous little shit bellyaching about his dead father as he blithely runs his greatsword through the next man without a single thought of the political cost. I see a vacillating little girl confusing her scars for wisdom. And in you…” Magnusson chuckled cynically at Johanni, “…in you, boy, I see the sheer stupidity of choosing our leaders by bloodline and birth order. Do you honestly believe that because your mother was ‘legitimately’ married to your decrepit father that that… somehow makes you a better leader than your brother? Or me? Have you ever led men on a field of battle? Have you ever even worked a field? Little boy, have you even as much as popped your prick into a woman?”

Johanni’s fists balled behind his back. “I am-”

“YOU ARE A CHILD!” Magnusson’s roar was so loud it echoed throughout the hall and sent ripples into his wine glass. “And yet you DARE to command ME to respect your father when he would seat a mere boy to the highest throne in this land?! Nonsense!”

Silence.

And then the Khan regained his composure with another gulp of wine.

“…The next ruler of Grünlund must be strong to make it strong. He must be a seasoned warrior and a practiced leader of men. He must have the resources and the knowledge necessary to reform our military, agriculture, and shipwrighting. Most of all he must have the willingness and fortitude to use any tool at his disposal to strengthen his nation, even one as repugnant as the Wulf’s Blut. And I will be that leader. I will make Grünlund great. Once I crush the Royal Legion on the field and bury the Bloodbane beneath it, I will march my Weißjagd to the very gates of Drangheim and tear it down stone by stone if I must. Mark my words. I, Magnus Magnusson, will be declared Khan of Grünlund… and woe betide any who stand in my way.”

It was not in the boy’s nature to mock but if his hands were free, he would have clapped them together in the most mocking manner possible. Johanni, glaring at the Khan of the Deepfjord, settled for shaking his head in derision. “Call me boy all you wish but I see you for what you are, ‘khan’. You think you see a bigger picture but you’re just too cowardly to envision a world that isn’t written in blood – a world where men like you are unnecessary. I am Johanni Carian Hrathwuld, son of Hrathwuld I, and so long as I draw breath… you will NEVER rule this land.”

Magnus Magnusson paused.

Then he smiled.

And then he burst out laughing.

“Heh, heh, heh! Oh! You backed the wrong player, Bruma.” Magnusson gestured for his guards to lift Johanni and his compatriots to their feet. “I tire of talk. This is how it shall be. The Halfspear and the Hardfang will be detained. I will send missives to Sygardi Greyspear and Harwald Snowhair informing them that so long as the Karggars and Osserians agree not to interfere with the Weißjagd, no harm will come to them. The Troll? I see no reason why we cannot keep him as a thrall. And as for you, ‘aetheling’…”

Johanni tensed.

“Tomorrow my remaining 6000 soldiers shall gather in the courtyard to receive blessings from the lawspeakers. I will execute you before them.”

Erik’s eyes flared. “What?! Damn you, Magnusson, don’t you dare-”

One of the Thoth guardsmen rammed his gloved fist into Erik’s stomach and winded him. The Karggar doubled over and buckled against his restraints. Then with a single wave of Magnusson’s steel-clad hand those same guardsmen ferried him away, along with Norsa Hardfang, Gnut the Troll, and a stunned and dejected Johanni Carian Hrathwuld.

***********

Johanni had cried oft since his journey began. He cried in the Royal Baths when his father first sent him on his way. He had teary eyes when he caught Erik Halfspear bedding that thrall girl in his chambers. He cried that night in Horn Hall when the Eardwulf first declared his love and the vengeful ghosts of Osserian dead weighed heaviest upon his shoulders. He cried when Haakon Godwulfsson, transmogrified into a hideous beast, disembowelled Thregg the Ghoat before his very eyes. He cried with joy when Erik first made love to him in the abandoned elvish villa. He cried when Eardwulf tried to rape him in Kjarlling.

His tears that night felt different somehow.

It wasn’t for his surrounds. The cobwebs and rat shit didn’t bother him, not even the cold. It was a small cell turfed by straw with a stone bench for a bed, but it was a haven compared to the conditions he saw in Yveryth and the Osserian Crypts. And it was not because of hunger. When the guards stationed to his cell (whose sworn job it was to watch him closely lest he escape his coming execution with suicide) provided him with a plate of goatmeat and bread. The smell was so rancid it swiftly purged him of his appetite.

He did not cry for himself, either.

Perhaps many would, knowing they were due for execution the next morn, but not him. It was not because he was strong or brave that he felt this way, nor was it because he wanted to die, but because he had failed.

Like Magnusson said, King Hrathwuld raised him to rule, and had him schooled in statecraft, numerology, history, philosophy, and topography for that purpose. And when the day came, he gave Johanni men and supplies and a stipend to go about his task. He was, in so many ways, made for this. And yet he failed. It was the one duty for which he was always reared, that nearly cost him his relationship with his brother, and yet he failed.

When he attempted sleep he found himself plagued with nightmares of a brutish beast pawing at him in a deluge of blood. He woke, he cried, and he pondered his fate as well as that of all Grünlund. What was to come?

Tomorrow he would die. The Weißjagd and beastlings would then set sail for the mainland to attack the Weald on two fronts – north and east. The Legion would be drawn into battle, perhaps even the fyrdsmen would be summoned to assist, that much was certain. What was not certain was the outcome. If the legion lost, then there was almost nothing standing between Magnusson and the crown. If the legion won, by aid of the Arbarii fleet incepting the beastlings before they made it to shore perhaps, or the Karggars and Osserians defying Magnusson’s missives to intervene maybe, either way, if Ragnar survived, he would become king.

King Bloodbane or Khan Magnus.

Johanni knew which outcome he preferred – but neither outcome fulfilled his father’s wish. And gods, there was so much work yet to be done. If the crown did not help the Karggars resettle the Fens, then thousands would starve to death in the Grey Wilds. The sibb between Thoth and Arbarii was broken – who would mend that rift to maintain the coastal supply lines? And who would ensure that some measure of justice, however small, was done for the Osserians? Certainly not a King Bloodbane. Either way… so much left undone. So much left unfulfilled.

It made Johanni feel sick… and foolish… and so angry. But most of all he felt ashamed. He failed. He would never see his brother again, never go home again, never see his Erik again.

He failed.

And that was the thought that brought him to tears. He cried all night. He cried until his eyes burned. He cried until a shadow slipped beneath the bars of his cell door and darkened the blades of moonlight piercing through its window. Johanni opened his eyes and saw a man standing beyond, smirking at him. It was Haakon Godwulfsson. The two guards were gone.

“Kings do not cry,” he said mockingly.

Bastard, thought the boy. “…Your cruelty is boundless. To creep down here taunt me like a child the night before my death…?”

A dark smile brandished a set of jagged teeth. “An observation, not a taunt. I am no skald… I sing better with a blade… or claws…”

“What do you want?!”

He had something in his hand. Something wrapped in cloth and bound by strong. Johanni watched as Haakon slipped it through the bars and rolled it towards his bench. The boy refused to touch it.

“Take it,” said the Godwulfsson.

“…What is it?”

“A gift….” He said. “…See for yourself.”

Despite all his misery Johanni still had enough emotion left in his heart to hate this man. More than enough. He took Gad Greyspear. He took Thregg. He took Frodi. How many others had he sent to the Hallowed Plane in his life of ravenous bloodshed? Nonetheless… what did he have to lose at this point? Johanni scowled at the mad swordsman one last time before taking his ‘gift’, undoing the string, and opening the cloth. And he gasped at what he saw inside it.

“Why are you giving me this…?” Barked Johanni. “What game are you playing?”

“As I said. It is a gift. And you have until sun-up to decide how you will use it, so make your plan and follow it through…” Haakon smirked again. “Do not let us down, boy…”

**********

The guards returned for Johanni at sunrise. He does not like me; my youth makes him angry. His eyes were tightly shut but he was not asleep as a rusty key twisted the mechanisms of an old iron lock and the cell door swung open. Two grey-haired Thoth spearmen in clanking armour lumbered into his confines. They brought no food or water with them. They knew the sentence.

Johanni opened his eyes. “{Have you come to take me?}”

“{You speak…}” the second spearman paused in shock. “{Yes. You are to come with us. Khan Magnus has summoned you to The Spire.}”

He does not like me; my youth makes him angry. “{Fine. Let us end this.}”

The first spearman took him by the chain of his manacles and dragged him off the stone bench. They walked him out of his cold cell through the freezing gaols deep underground beneath the Hoarfrost Throne. The surrounding cells were full to breeching with prisoners – Arbarii fishermen caught near Shrike’s Bay as spies, dissenting lawspeakers who refused to declare Magnusson the current Champion of the White Spirit, Weißjagd deserters attempting to flee the Deepfjord before the onset of war – since he could not sleep Johanni had no choice but to listen to them as they whispered laments to each other across the night. He does not like me; my youth makes him angry. What he did not see was his friends. No Erik, no Norsa, no Gnut and no Bruma. Magnus Magnusson had no plans to kill them (so he knew they were safe) but still he worried for them – particularly Erik.

Since this campaign began, he had lost so many people. His century, Frodi, Thregg, Eardwulf; but he always had Erik Halfspear.

Until now.

Now, as the two Thoth guardsmen marched him up the damp stone steps spiralling up out of the bowls of the dungeons into the towers of the castle, he was truly alone. He does not like me; my youth makes him angry. The aetheling’s solstices on this plane were precious few and short but he cared not for the prospect of his own death. The Hallowed Plane did not scare him. If he had only one last wish fulfilled before destiny came calling… it would be to see his brother again, and to spend one last night warm in Erik’s arms.

He does not like me; my youth makes him angry.

As they climbed the Spire’s cold stone steps Johanni heard roars beyond the keystones of its walls. Men. Thousands of them. Their cries grew louder and louder the higher they went until the guardsmen brought Johanni to an ironwood door, opened it, and shoved him through. And out he stumbled into a massive stone balcony towering a hundred feet high over the heads of over 6000 roaring Weiße Jäger. The balcony was enormous – 30 yards wide from left to right and 10 yards long from rear wall to balustrade. Along that rear wall was a stone grandstand large enough to seat a hundred people. Now it sat more than fifty of the Deepfjord’s most renowned lawspeakers, the Council of Lawspeakers. At the top of the grandstand were four stone thrones. Two were occupied by Hrolfyr Lawspeaker and his wife-to-be, Gunna Magnusdottir. The third was seated by a reluctant and dismayed Lady Bruma, whom had been dressed for the day in a bone white bridal gown and leaf laurel (though anyone close enough could see the tears in her eyes). The fourth throne, intended for the Khan himself, was empty.

He does not like me; my youth makes him angry.

Magnus Magnusson, fully armoured, stood before the stone rail waving to his thousands and thousands of tribesmen. Close behind him stood a cloaked Haakon Godwulfsson, smirking smugly next to a bloodstained ironwood chopping block with an equally bloodied woven reed basket beneath it.

Johanni Carian Hrathwuld had never been so scared in his entire life.

He does not like me; my youth makes him angry…

“{CHILDREN OF THE WHITE SPIRIT!}” Roared the khan to his army as they cheered and waved their many thousands of White Bear banners, “{WHO ARE WE? WE WERE THE ICE FOREST MEN AND THE MOONFANGS, THE BEAR-HUNTER CLAN AND THE WILDLANDERS! WE WERE BROKEN UNTIL MY ANCESTOR THORS THE GREAT, THE LAST CHAMPION OF THE WHITE SPIRIT, UNIFIED US ALL AS ONE TRIBE! AND NOW? WE ARE THE THOTHS!}”

He does not like me; my youth makes him angry…

Magnus drew his sabre and pointed its tip at Johanni. “{WHO IS HE? THERE STANDS THE MEWLING MILKSOP SON OF HRATHWULD THE ANCIENT, HRATHWULD THE CRIPPLED, HRATHWULD THE TRAITOR! HE WOULD SEAT THIS BABY UPON THE THRONE WITH THE ELVES AT OUR THRESHOLD! WILL WE ALLOW THIS? NO, MY BROTHERS! NOT SO LONG AS WE DRAW BREATH!}”

He does not like me; my youth makes him angry…

The crowds roared again. And then, Magnus Magnusson raised his sabre into the air. “{AND WHO AM I? I AM YOUR CHIEFTAIN! I AM THE NEW CHAMPION OF THE WHITE SPIRIT! IT HAS CHOSEN ME TO UNITE ALL WOAGS AND BRING US TO GLORY! I AM MAGNUS MAGNUSSON! AND ONCE WE DEFEAT THESE TREACHEROUS SOUTHERNERS, I WILL BE THE KHAN OF ALL GRÜNLUND! NOW WATCH, MY BROTHERS! WATCH AS I BRING THE FURY OF OUR MIGHT TO DRANGHEIM’S GATES!”

He does not like me, “You are a coward, Magnusson…” my youth makes him angry…

Magnus frowned. “…What did you say…?”

“I said you’re a coward,” He does not like me; my youth makes him angry! “You fear the elves, you fear the Golden Imperials, you even fear the tribesmen gathered here today because once they see through your veneer of strength, they shall see what I see… a coward! A coward with an empty scabbard!”

The sound of clunking armour approached the boy and a heavy, gauntleted hand snatched at his throat with surprising strength. Furious emerald eyes bore down upon him. “Mind your tongue, wretch!”

But Johanni only smirked and turned to Magnusson’s followers in the one place in all the Deepfjord where he could speak to them directly, “{CHILDREN OF THE WHITE SPIRIT, YOUR ‘KHAN’ IS NO CONQUERER! WHAT WOULD HE DO AGAINST THE BLOODBANE WHEN HE FEARS EVEN ME, A HELPLESS LITTLE BOY! HE DOESN’T EVEN HAVE THE BALLS TO FACE ME IN HOLMGANG!}”

Jeers.

Magnusson’s furious eyes shot towards his people, then back to Johanni.

“{ALL OF YOU! LOOK AT HIM! HE WON’T FIGHT ME MAN ON MAN! AND WHY?}” Johanni smiled cunningly. “{BECAUSE HE’S WEAK! BECAUSE HE’S A FUCKING COWARD!}”

Magnusson’s fist exploded into Johanni’s face. The boy cried out as his knuckle irons punched him back-first into the stone floor. And as his murmuring soldiers looked on at what was unfolding above, the ‘Khan’ reached to his side and drew his sabre. Bone-coloured sunshine glimmered off its blade – one strong cut could separate a man’s head from his shoulders. Magnusson walked up to the felled boy and tossed it at his feet.

“{…Haakon,}” spoke the Khan. “{Unlock this tadpole’s cuffs… and give me your sabre.}”

Gunna Magnusdottir shot out of stone throne in alarm. “{Father, no!}”

“{Be quiet!}” He spat. “{May the White Spirit damn me to oblivion before I let a mere child disrespect me in front my own men! Haakon, do as I order!}”

Even the bloodthirsty Haakon had a glint of scepticism in his eye. The thegn first eyed his master and then the soldiers below – backing down from a challenge of holmgang on the eve of war would lose their faith. And so, as ordered, Haakon Godwulfsson unbuckled his sabre belt and handed the sword to his khan, who drew its razor-sharp steel and tossed the scabbard aside. The left half of Johanni’s face swelled purple as Haakon wandered over to him and unfastened the iron restraints around his wrists. They fell with a heavy clank, a sudden weight removed, and Haakon, Bruma, Gunna, Hrolfyr, the Council of Lawspeakers looked on as he took up the sabre and lumbered back onto his feet to face off with the Thoth chieftain.

“{First blood?}” Asked Johanni.

Magnusson sneered. “{…To the death.}”

Below them, the many thousands of White Hunters assembled began to bang their axes and swords against their round shields like a cacophonous drumbeat, all the while chanting, “HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU!” The ear-splitting chants flooded the Hoarfrost Throne from spire to gaol, somewhere deep down inside its bowls dwelt Erik and the others, completely unaware of what was occurring – he could not think of that either. He had to focus on the man before him.

Magnus Magnusson.

He was tall as an oak, especially in armour, well over six feet in height. His onyx and crimson painted armour protected most of his vital points – his shins by his greaves, his lower arms by his gauntlets, his chest and torso by his breastplate, his shoulders by his pauldrons. That left only upper thighs to slow him down, and his throat for the kill.

“HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU!”

Johanni moved first, roaring from the pit of his belly, and charged forth with a forward slash. Almost instantly, Magnusson stepped forward in kind and parried the stroke with a single blow. The sudden impact nearly knocked the sword from Johanni’s hand and threw him off his gait. The boy stopped, adjusted, then slashed forward again, and again Magnusson stepped towards the attack with a parrying blow and bounced it away. This time it flew out of Johanni’s hands and clattered to the stone floor.

Magnusson smirked. “Pick it up.”

“HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU!”

Johanni blinked, panicking, wondering where the sword went until he spotted it lulling by the gnarled old boots of a lawspeaker. The boy quickly fetched it and drew back from Magnusson, whose once furious demeanour had now cooled down to a dominant sneer. Johanni caught his breath. He was tired from lack of sleep and his sword arm was still agonized from pulling Norsa off the ledge of that cracked overhang. But it was not just that. The sabre itself threw him off. It was not balanced the way his custom designed short sword was, and although its blade was thinner, the sabre somehow felt heavier against his wrist. And Magnusson himself? Despite his age he was all muscle beneath that armour. And despite that armour his movements were sharp. He was a fighter as well as a commander. Maybe even as skilled a fighter as Erik or Eardwulf.

But what choice to I have? Thought the aetheling. Except to fight!

“HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU!”

Once again Johanni opened on the offense and once again Magnus met his whirling sabre blade with a parrying blow, this time with a sidestep. Their steel blades clashed as sparks of friction lit up the gelid air and Johanni’s boots fell into Magnusson’s outstretched leg. The boy fell face first into cold flagstones.

“HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU!”

Snickers passed through the ranks of the lawspeakers. Hrolfyr and Gunna looked on with amusement. Johanni grit his teeth. His sword-bearing wrist was on fire from the impact of each exchange, every hit like a thunderclap to the bone. But still he had no choice. He had to get up. He had to fight. Then, as he drew his knees beneath his weight to lift himself up, his eye spotted a sudden whirl of silver force that split open his other cheek like a whip.

“HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU!”

Johanni screamed as the sabre’s tip sliced open the fat of his flesh and splattered his rich blood over his face and tunic. Tears and blood welled in his eyes as he backed away, stumbling for enough space to get his footing back, and once again the boy threw himself at Magnusson’s guard. The Khan’s thin lips pulled an arrogant smirk as he parried and blocked each blow that came at him, one after the other, each one slower and weaker than the last. After the sixth attack Magnusson responded with a sudden slash at Johanni’s unprotected right shin. The swift bite of agony stopped him cold, mid-stance, and Magnusson brought his boot to the boy’s chest, punting him across the balcony by a yard.

“HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU!”

Johanni’s back landed hard against the stone floor. The back of his head bounced off the flagstones and the sabre whirled out of his wrist again, flying clear over the balustrade into the throng of roaring soldiers below, leaving him weapon-less. The boy was dazed by the blow to the head, his mind fogged, his memory struggling to catch up to his senses. His eyes burned with blood and tears, but they slowly came into focus… and they saw the bloodstained tip of Magnusson’s sabre perched one solitary inch over his throat.

“Stupid boy,” whispered Magnusson. “It is over. I will send your head back to Drangheim in a basket. I will break its legion and seize the crown. I will rule this land and I will make it strong…”

Then he turned to his people, lifting his armoured arms in victory. “{LET NO MAN BE IN DOUBT! I AM THE CHAMPION OF THE WHITE SPIRIT! AND I WILL BE THE KHAN OF ALL OF GRÜNLUND!}”

“HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU!”

Last night Haakon Godwulfsson gave Johanni a gift and bid him use it – and Johanni’s plan was simple. He does not like me; my youth makes him angry. He angered Magnusson, back in the throne room. And so? He would anger Magnusson once more. He would make Magnusson so angry that that anger could not be contained. And then he would then challenge Magnusson to a fight he could not lose in front of all his men. After that? He would bide his time and wait for just the right moment to use the ‘gift’. And it was then, when Magnus Magnusson turned his back to the boy to address his soldiers, that the moment presented itself.

“HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU! HU!”

Johanni, weakened and bloody, bruised and in agony, scrambled up to his feet and threw himself at Magnusson’s back – and he buried Haakon’s gift hilt-deep inside Magnusson’s neck.

“HU! HU! HU! HU! HU…! HU…! HU…? HU…? HU…”

The ‘gift’… was Bruma’s whalebone seax.

Blood glutted Magnusson’s throat.

“…Compliments of ‘The Whore’…” spat Johanni into the khan’s ear. “And your nephew Thorvald…”

Gunna screamed her father’s name as gasps of utter shock rang through the ranks of the lawspeakers, and a stunned silence suddenly stuck 6000 baying Thoths. Johanni landed on his back against as a glaze-eyed Magnus Magnusson dropped his sabre and stumbled away from him on ambling greaves, armour clunking, the knife lodged so deep its bloody tip jutted out the other side of his neck. His lifeblood oozed down his armour as he stumbled into the balustrade and it tipped him over, and thousands looked on in horror and alarm as Magnus Magnusson fell over the edge and plummeted hundreds of feet from the balcony to his death.

Johanni heard a crash of pulp and metal. Baffled gasps gave way to a knife’s edge silence. Bruma, Gunna Magnusdottir, Hrolfyr Lawspeaker, the Council of Lawspeakers and over 6000 Thoth soldiers looked on as the victory, Johanni Carian Hrathwuld, rolled onto his knees, stood up, and made his way over to the balcony’s edge to shout, “{HERE ME, CHILDREN OF THE WHITE SPIRIT! THAT MAN WAS NEITHER KING NOR KHAN! AND HE WAS NOT THE CHAMPION OF THE WHITE SPIRIT! HE WAS A CHARLATAN WHO WOULD HAVE LED YOU TO RUIN! NO TRUE KING INVITES POINTLESS WARS UPON HIS LANDS! NO TRUE KING ASKS HIS PEOPLE TO BURN THEIR OWN HOMES! HEAR ME, BROTHERS, WE ARE ALL WOAGS! WE ARE ONE PEOPLE! NOW IS NOT THE TIME TO FIGHT BUT TO REBUILD, TO RETURN TO YOUR FAMILIES! END THE WHITE HUNT, END THE MADNESS ONCE AND FOR ALL! PLEASE, BROTHERS! LAY DOWN YOUR WEAPONS!}”

Silence.

All was silent – save for the savage roar of the sea winds and the collective clinks and clunks of thousands of swords, spears, axes, and armour all boxed into the courtyard of the Hoarfrost Throne. It was the sort of moment that destiny hinged upon, a coin toss moment, where the slightest whim could reshape the course of history.

And yet?

Silence. Until…

“{Guards!}” Screamed Gunna Magnusdottir. “{GUARDS!}”

The ironwood doors into the balcony burst open. There were four Thoth spearmen standing guard outside and all four marched in at Gunna’s call. All four moved to surround Johanni. The boy, now at spearpoint and too weakened to even consider fighting against it, raised his hands in submission. Furious tears drenched the Magnusdottir’s eyes as she pointed him out. “{That coward STABBED the khan in his back! Seize him!}”

Bruma launched out of her throne. “{Stay your spears, men! The rules of holmgang were fought and observed, to the death it was! No wrongdoing has been committed!}”

“{I am the khan’s daughter!}” Yelled Gunna. “{I order you to arrest him!}”

Johanni (through very tired eyes) watched the four spearmen glare at each other with uncertainty. The chain of command was suddenly very unclear. When the men would not move (and the thousands of soldiers beneath their feet looked on in utter silence) Gunna turned to her speechless husband.

“{Hrolfyr!}” She yelled. “{Do something!}”

But even he, for all his crookedness and cunning, was at a loss. He looked instead to his fellow lawspeakers, and all of them were the same. Dumbstruck and absolutely shaken to their core. Faith in the White Spirit was the absolute centre of Thoth life and the man they had proclaimed as its champion had fallen. No words were had. But then, just as Johanni thought the stalemate might never end, a single lawspeaker stood up from the front row of the grandstand. His eyes were white with cataracts, his snowy beard dangled low as his ankles, and his gnarled old fingers clutched to his staff by withering sinew. His name, as Johanni would learn, was Knut Lawspeaker, oldest of the priests and second only to Hrolfyr in seniority. And he slowly rose to his feet.

“{Hrolfyr…}” He said, weakly. “{Enough, Hrolfyr. You were wrong. We were wrong. It is not the destiny of the Champion of the White Spirit to die in holmgang. It is the destiny of that Champion to bring glory to the Deepfjord. Where is the glory to be had here…?}”

Hrolfyr blanched. “{W-what are you saying, Knut?}”

Knut Lawspeaker shut his exasperated eyes. He lifted his staff up. And then he dropped it. From the courtyard to the balcony the atmosphere was so silent that that single sound of wood hitting stone seemed to resonate amongst them. And then another, younger lawspeaker dropped his staff, and then another, and another, until all the lawspeakers dropped theirs. The four guards surrounding Johanni followed suit and lowered their spears. And then, as they watched the events unfold up above them, a loud wave of clattering weapons overtook the courtyard as 6000 Thoth soldiers collectively disarmed themselves, thousands of spears and sabres lowered to the frosty flagstones, all before the lawspeakers. No matter what, they were the voice of their god. And above all, it was for god to be obeyed.

“{Cowards!}” Cried Gunna. “{All of you!}”

Knut frowned. “{Forgive us, Lady Gunna. But the khan is no more. By tribal law, our rightful chieftain is now your half-brother, Thorvald Tyrfingsson. Your father’s White Hunt cannot proceed without his command…}”

Thank the gods, thought Johanni. He did not notice himself fading out of consciousness, not until Lady Bruma gathered her skirts and ran to him, dragging him in her strong arms.

“Johanni!” She whispered, “Johanni, y-you did it!”

Gods, he was exhausted.

“H-Haakon…” He whispered. “Haakon…”

That was when Bruma looked up. She saw Hrolfyr, Knut, and the other lawspeakers in tears, she saw the guardsmen kneeling before them, she saw Gunna storming out through the ironwood doors back down the Spire. But she could not see Haakon.

“{Where is he?}” She cried. “{Where is Haakon Godwulfsson!?}”

**********

The Temple Priests struck the city bells at noontide as per the Royal Diet’s request. Criers were sent to every square and pavilion in the city and missives were drawn up for the Woaggish chieftains across the country. By evening all Drangheim would learn of the king’s passing. By tomorrow night all Grünlund would know the same. A mourning period of three suns and three moons would be observed before King Hrathwuld’s funeral procession carried his body to the Temple of Ka-Uta in central Drangheim, allowing the commons to pay their respects and the masons time to prepare his crypt in the necropolis.

Ragnar Bloodbane heard each peal from the bedrooms of his domus. He stood still, arms out and chin high, as his thralls calmly dressed him in one of his most austere tunics (plum-coloured fabric with gold garnishes and emblazoned with the Impanni horse totem) as well as his sandals, an onyx and gold signet ring, and a laurel wreath crown. The Golden Brothers Knossos and Kreim stood patiently by the chambers doors until the thralls had finished. The Bloodbane excused them, then poured himself a goblet of wine.

“What news from the north?” He asked.

“Snowhold has fallen,” said Kreim. As usual the younger brother had a tinge of doubt in his voice. “Your brother and Bruma the Whore have escaped, no doubt heading for the Hoarfrost Throne. Haakon Godwulfsson leads the pursuit.”

Ragnar smiled. “Then this is almost over. Excellent. Magnusson will be dead within the day and Johanni will return to the capital as soon as word reaches him of the king’s death. Have the preparations been made?”

Knossos nodded yes. “The city watchmen have all been redeployed to the northern burghs. Twenty legionaries have sworn blood oaths to absolute secrecy, and we’ve stockpiled cashes of swords, oil, scale armour and deer totem flags across the city. They await only your signal.”

The Bloodbane took a sip of wine to his delighted smile. “Then our labours at last bear fruit. My friends? These coming days shall re-shape the very destiny of Grünlund. And now? All we have to do is wait.”

Thanks for reading!

Copyright © 2018 Stephen Wormwood; All Rights Reserved.

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I'm super happy to see an update to this story! It's been a while and I'll probably have to re-read everything but even after so many months I legit got excited when I saw the update notification. 

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