In ancient times, as now, the Woags burned their dead. The scholars did not agree upon the original purpose of this tradition (though their consensus was that it dated back to their days of wandering the Hyperborean Steppe), and in recent years it was more customary, as in the elvish way, for the Woaggish nobility to bury their dead in crypts or barrows. And in ancient times, as now, the Woags commemorated their dead by carving posts or ‘staves’ from the tallest ironwood bark and inscribing them with the runes of their honoured dead’s name.
“Dear Ka-Uta,” uttered Johanni. “Blessings upon your name. May your spirit guide my noble father upon his journey into the Hallowed Plane.”
The aetheling rose from his knees with a freshly forged short sword clunking at his sword belt and beheld the twelve-foot tall stave commemorating his father’s life and deeds. A horse totem flag crackled in the wind from its spike. It was one of a hundred more his men had erected, one for every mile of territory they traversed since learning of the news in Greyport – four days prior.
The days since Magnus Magnusson’s death had come and gone so quickly. Though tensions were high Bruma and the Lawspeakers agreed to form a tentative ruling council whilst Thorvald Tyrfingsson and Kjarlla of Pearlstone accompanied Johanni’s party to the capital. Although he was not permitted to attend those crucial council meetings, a grateful Bruma kept him informed of the agreements made as he recovered from his wounds. They agreed to ‘freeze’ Die Weißjagd until the new chieftain Thorvald formally ended it, and in the interim, mobilize a contingent of woodsmen, stonemasons, and builders to restore the villages razed during the chaos. They agreed to barrack the soldiers in the Deepfjord’s three key strongholds: Ice Rock’s Point, Snowhold Fortress, and the Hoarfrost Throne, and they agreed to recall the thousands of women scattered to the furthest corners of the territory. Each of the three garrisons would serve as shelter for the Thoths until the villages were in a fit enough state to return to. Where Bruma and the lawspeakers disagreed was on the matter of her and Magnusson’s children.
Neither Modi nor Gunna were of age and thus had no claim to power (yet). It was Bruma’s desire to nullify Gunna’s arranged marriage to Hrolfyr and recall Modi from the Golden Empire. The lawspeakers, devoted to breeding its new members from the bloodline of the Thoth chieftaincy, refused to abandon the match, and refused to recall Modi (lest they offend the Golden Emperor and weaken their ties to him). In the end they agreed that it was Thorvald’s duty to resolve these matters and so they would suspend them until he returned from the capital.
That was seven days ago.
Once he was fit enough for the journey, Johanni rode with Erik Halfspear, Norsa Hardfang and Gnut the Troll upon the fastest fjord horses in the Hoarfrost Throne’s stables, bound south for Shrike’s Bay where the crew of the Dragon’s Eye awaited them. The Arbarii ship was as sleek as ever and within a few days it landed at Greyport, an Arbarii port town at the mouth of the northern estuary, where they were received by the jowly steward Halfdan and a half century of legionary reinforcements from the Royal Legion garrison at Scraefling Isle, just as promised. The Impanni flag was a welcomed sight after so long, but his smile dampened as he spotted the sour glares and tear-soaked expressions of his men.
“Halfdan,” Johanni embraced him. “What has happened?”
The steward shivered beneath his sable cloak, the cold winds of the north bearing down upon the pier’s barnacled planks. He could not bring himself to look the boy in the eye as he said it.
“It is the king, lord. King Hrathwuld is… no more.”
That was four days ago.
Johanni remembered little between then and now. He recalled screaming his lungs hoarse and falling into someone’s arms as the blood rushed to his head. He recalled waking in a portside inn later that night and weeping by the candlelight until it burnt to the wick. Sometime that following morning (officially the second day of mourning across all Grünlund) Thorvald Tyrfingsson and Kjarlla of Pearlstone rode into Greyport with Erik’s warband and a small cortege of soldiers and thralls to begin the long march south to Drangheim.
That was three days ago.
Johanni glanced behind his father’s 101st memorial stave to the encampment surrounding it, a sprawl of fifty large tents surrounded by cookfires, latrines, trenches, and makeshift horse pens. Growler the Bear slept off a fat supper of trout inside his cage. Other than those assigned to guard duty, most of the men were asleep. Between the legionaries, the warband, and Thorvald and Kjarlla’s personal guard, he had less than 150 men to return home with, but it was enough.
Home was only a day away.
“…Father,” Johanni scrubbed the tears out of his eyes like an irritant. He was so sick of crying and yet he couldn’t stop doing it, even in front of the men. That was when Erik Halfspear approached him for the first time in days, his heavy boots slapping into the muddy grass, his heavy greatsword clanking against his back. The older man rested his palm against the boy’s shoulder.
Johanni shrugged it off.
“No,” he said. “…Not in front of my father’s stave.”
Erik sighed. They hadn’t shared a bed once since news of Hrathwuld’s death arrived. “…Are you alright?”
How could I be? He thought. What would father think of me now if he could see me? I’ve murdered a chieftain… and been bedded like a fishwife by another. Can you see me, father? Do you hate me? “I am fine, Erik. Do not worry.”
“Then pull it together,” said the Halfspear. “The men will notice if you don’t. I mourn your father’s loss, but you know what it means. You’re going to be king, Johanni. You have to be strong.”
It was everything he had worked for since he first set out on this infernal journey – through the Oakmire and the Beast Tower siege, and from Karburgh to the attack on Haakon’s Redoubt, from that stolen night of passion at the elvish villa to the palace of Pearlstone and the horrors of Kolskegg’s Crag, to the siege of Snowhold and the death of Magnus Magnusson. So much struggle. So much loss. So much blood. So many tears. And now here he was – at the very gates of destiny. And there was so much work to be done. Rebuilding the Deepfjord and restoring the Arbarii-Thoth sibb. Resettling the Karggars into the Fens. Capturing Haakon Godwulfsson and bringing him to account for the murders of Gad Greyspear, Thregg the Ghoat and Frodi the Archer. But most of all – atoning for the sins of the past and finally delivering justice to the Osserians.
A crown is weighed in duty.
Grünlund’s would be a heavy one to bear.
Magnus Magnusson’s dark words echoed in Johanni’s mind – dire warnings of a coming conflict between the Elvish and Golden Empires, Grünlund’s desperate need to strengthen itself. He was right. Johanni was not ready for what was to come. But Erik was right also. He had to be strong…
…because he had no choice.
Johanni paused and swallowed as deep a breath as he could, exhaled, then turned on his heels. Erik Halfspear followed him into the encampment’s central tent, where the foremost of all his companions had gathered – Halfdan the Steward, Norsa Hardfang, Kjarlla of Pearlstone, Thorvald Tyrfingsson and Gnut the Troll. Johanni and Erik joined them around a long wooden table with a map of Grünlund at its centre and ewers of wine and water for refreshment. No thralls or guards stood to attend them – this was to be as private a meeting as they would ever have.
“I want to thank you all for putting your faith in me,” Johanni began. “I cannot promise to be the king my father was… but your trust shall be repaid. My intention is not merely to see this nation thrive – I strive to see it flourish.”
Kjarlla smiled. “We are at your side, your grace. So where do we begin?”
Johanni pointed out the city of Drangheim upon the map before them. “At our current pace we are half a day’s ride from Drangheim. As soon as we arrive and I pay my respects to my father, I will call for a new session of Royal Diet. Each of you will be given a chance to speak in my favour, and if the Diet is swayed, they shall formerly declare me king and I will be crowned before the winter.”
Norsa’s eyes darkened. “…This ‘session’. Will the Bloodbane be there?”
“Yes,” said Johanni. “…Can I trust you?”
His meaning was plain. Can I trust you not to kill him where he stands? But deep down he knew that he could. The scar-ridden warrior was wiser now than she was when they first met. Justice would be delivered for her people – but it had to be done the right way.
“Justice demands a better approach,” said the Hardfang. “You can trust me.”
Johanni nodded. “Any news from the north, Thorvald?”
The Thoth chieftain stood close by his wife Kjarlla, each with a cup of wine in hand. After his long spell in Pearlstone’s dungeons he was fit and healthy again. “Not since arriving at Greyport, unfortunately. She’s culling the beastlings that One-Eyed Wulfstan birthed for the White Hunt, I know that much as per her last missive, and that Haakon Godwulfsson has alluded her search parties heretofore.” Erik frowned.
“Where in all’a blazing hells is that bastard?” Cursed Gnut.
“We shall find him one way or another,” said Johanni. “Halfdan, what of the missive I asked you to send to Scraefling Isle?”
The steward nodded. “I dispatched it by pigeon yester-morn. The garrison will sail 200 legionaries to the Deepfjord to assist the Thoths with reconstruction and to help preserve the peace until Thorvald’s return.”
“Good. Erik? Any news from Karburgh?”
The chieftain of the Karggars pulled a parchment chit from the folds of his bearskin cloak and set it upon the table. “The Osserians have returned to the city and peace talks between my brother Sygardi and Harwald Snowhair have begun.”
Johanni nodded. “That is good news. I am certain Harwald and Sygardi shall find an accord that suits the two tribes.”
“It isn’t all good news. More Karggar refugees are crossing the marshes by the day, and the larders are running low.”
Johanni cupped his brow. “It will take another year before the Fens can self-sustain by harvest. Kjarlla, will Lord Bors accept an impromptu ironwood shipment in exchange for a few thousand barrels of potatoes, barley, salt and wheat?”
The lady tipped her cup to him. “And help him win the favour of the future king of Grünlund? I am sure a swift word will see it done.”
“Excellent. But that might not be enough. Halfdan. Centurion Septio has contact with the Royal Legion’s garrison at Ghost Hill, yes?”
“Confer with him and see if there are any reserves of grain to spare,” said the future king. “Now, please.”
Halfdan blinked, looking to the others around the table who looked to each other in equal confusion. But he was serious, was Johanni. The steward ate his indignation and obeyed the command, excusing himself before departing the tent. Johanni held the table’s silence until Halfdan was out of earshot.
“You sent him away…” said Kjarlla.
Johanni’s cup was empty. He poured himself some water and took a gulp before he answered her. “Do not think me cruel or rude, but to his core Halfdan is my brother’s man. For purposes of this discussion I do not wish him here.”
Gnut shut his eyes. “…Wulf’s Blut.”
Thorvald turned to Johanni. “…You speak of that ancient magic One-Eyed Wulfstan used to create his beastlings? What of it?”
“My brother is infected with it, as are his closest thegns Swanstroke Knossos and Twinstroke Kreim, the Golden Brothers. Ragnar would never harm me, but… I do not think it wise to tip him off to our knowledge of his affliction,” the boy turned to the Troll. “That means he cannot know that you are alive, not just yet.”
Gnut growled softly, scratching his chest. “I’ve made me peace with the past. I’m ready to speak truth to it and be damned what comes after.”
“I know that, Gnut. It is a matter of tactics, nothing more. You will hold with the Karggar warband outside the city until the Diet declares me king and then we will confront Ragnar with the truth.”
“…Aye. As ya say.”
Johanni nodded. “Good. Then it is settled. Let us sleep, everyone. Tomorrow is poised to be a tiring day.”
They broke camp at first light after the dispatch of the riders; east for the Ghost Hill garrison, north for Kjarlling. The Halfspear’s warband held the party’s van as it rode south along the Great River by a cracked stone herepath until they reached a recently repaired bridge known as Ka-Uta’s Arm and crossed over into the Weald. From there it was a simple ride south to the capital.
Drangheim, the largest and mightiest of the three great cities of Grünlund, was like a place changed when Johanni finally returned to it. Its 30-foot walls crackled with billowing deer totem flags as they approached the northern gate, but all were at half-mast. That was when Erik’s warband split off from the rest of the party and made for one of the surrounding villages with Gnut the Troll and the encaged Growler. Johanni, Erik, Norsa, Kjarlla and Thorvald rode up to the bastion with Halfdan and the troops at the rear. In customary times the gatehouses were manned by the city watchmen, a fleet and lightly armoured force of 1500 spearmen in black leather tabards and mail skirts, but today they were manned by legionaries, all of them solemn and sombre-eyed. The king’s death is felt in all quarters, thought Johanni. He greeted them and bid them open the iron gates, but his return was not to be what he imagined. As he and the others rode forth into the city, they found it deathly silent. The Drangheim Johanni left was chaotic and loud, with costermongers and paupers and jugglers and wenches on every street corner; fishmongers and butchers and fletchers at every window; drunkard louts and miscreants stumbling out of taverns and innkeepers hurling buckets of vomitus into the carved gutters of cobbled streets whilst criers rang out new edicts from the palace – a city once alive with smoke and hearthfire, from the piss and rain soaked streets littered with fishbones and cracked crab barrels to the glittering spires of its central keep, the Palace of Drang. But now all the lechery and revelry, all the tools hammering and children stammering, all the chicken clucks and pig snorts and braying horses, all the chatter and commerce and vitality of the city had petered out into solemnity.
Johanni and his party rode their horses through quiet streets. All the stalls and cart-sellers had packed up business. Most of the taverns were closed and only a few inns were open to host guests. Few citizens walked the streets save for regular patrols of royal legionaries, marching in squads of five or ten. And everywhere he looked people had crafted memorials to the king. Runestones bearing his name. Tiny clay idols sculpted in his image. Flags stitched with the royal seal. Carved hazel staves. Laurel wreaths. Drangheim was still very much a city in mourning.
This is not the return I envisioned, thought Johanni.
Nevertheless, he led their way uphill towards the centre of the city, to the Old City of Drang, but more specifically to the Temple of Ka-Uta, a colonnaded marble shrine King Hrathwuld built for the common folk to worship the Impanni god. It sat at the southern end of a half-mile long marble pavilion lined by moss and ivy-wrapped statues and columns. Towering oak trees lined either side of the road, and as elsewhere in the city, the presence of the Royal Legion was felt. Around 20 or so legionaries guarded the pavilion alone.
But where are the city watchmen? Thought Johanni. There must have been some unrest in the city since my departure…
“Halfdan. Please take our guests to the Palace of Drang in my stead. I wish to pay respects to my father’s body.”
“We should come with you,” said Erik.
“No. I must do this alone. Go now. We have much to prepare for.”
Erik Halfspear, churlish rogue though he was, looked unconvinced. Johanni could not lie – it warmed his heart that Erik wished to stay with him. But he could not dismiss the feeling that it disrespected his father in some vague way – to bring his male lover into the shrine of moral chastity and virtue the late king once sought to render.
Kjarlla palmed Erik’s shoulder. “Come along now, you bloody Karggar. Let the king say his goodbyes in peace. We have our own work to do.”
The Halfspear sighed but acquiesced all the same and whipped at the reins of his horse. Halfdan ordered four of his ahorse legionaries to accompany Johanni whilst he led Erik and the others east along the city’s central laneway towards the Palace of Drang.
Johanni proceeded onwards.
Beneath a warm and pale sun, he and his four guards cantered down the white marble pavilion past small clustered crowds of worshippers and mourners. Most were Impannis, either local townsfolk or travellers from the countryside, but many were pilgrims of Karggar and Arbarii stock come down to pay respects to the king. He even saw a cloaked Osserian amongst them (so told by that distinctive scale armour) but thought nothing of it until his sombre expression seemed to stare back him, and then Johanni noticed a familiar square jutting jaw beneath the shade of the stranger’s hood.
And his heart raced...
Eardwulf?! He thought. Impossible!
And impossible it was. The figure disappeared into crowds as some of the surrounding guards of the Royal Legion began to push the mourners away, clearing the pavilion before sunfall. A trick of the mind thought Johanni. He disappeared in Kjarlling after he tried to… least of all things did he wish to think of that again. Instead he rode on to the steps of the Temple of Ka-Uta, where another contingent of men stood watch – but these were no mere legionaries; with those violet half-cloaks and white-gold tabards, steel short swords and distinctive forearm tattoos of ; these were men of the Royal Guard – the sworn protectors of the Palace of Drang and, more generally, the Royal Family.
Ragnar is here, thought Johanni.
“Lord Johanni!” The captain of the Royal Guard smiled joyfully and took a knee with his men. “Thank the sky you are safe, lord. And our commiserations to you. Your father the king was a great man. Rest assured all of Drangheim feels his loss in their hearts.”
“Thank you,” His white mare whickering beneath him, Johanni unhooked his feet from the stirrups and dismounted the steed. One of the Royal Guardsmen took its reins for safekeeping. Johanni smoothed out the white doublet beneath his cloak and proceed up the steps and past the colonnades into the temple.
It was dark and quiet within, save for the light and crackle of the burning braziers, and the echo of his sandaled feet as he walked the polished marble floors past the thousands and thousands of pilgrim offerings left by the altars and plinths across the grand chamber. The sight and scent of incense drifted through its musky air. And there in the centre of the hall, at the base of a gigantic 12-foot statue of the goddess of the sky, Ka-Uta herself, rested the corpse of Johanni Carian Hrathwuld’s noble father.
Johanni vowed to hold his tears.
There he lay, half-entombed in a stone casket supported by gilded ironwood beams. He had been well dressed in his finest gold jerkin and cloak, with his frail knobbed fingertips clutched to a replica of the Gilded Claymore of Drangheim – Gunwalla. His grey hair was perfectly quaffed beneath his pearl and ruby studded crown, and his pale skin expertly coated with resin to bring it lustre to the common folk’s eye. His soul had departed for its rightful place in the Hallowed Plane, and his body was ready for its rightful place in the necropolis.
But Johanni was not ready to lose him.
The tears gushed forth. He had no words to match them. They fell like a torrent unbound as a deep and mournful wail filled the temple from its marble floors to its frescoed dome. He cried so hard he barely noticed his brother pulling him aside and burying the boy’s face in his breast. Strong arms enswathed him and held him close until the sobs and moans ebbed.
“Be strong, brother,” said the Bloodbane. “Be strong.”
Johanni bit his lip. “…I-I will.”
For a moment, just a moment, the boy looked up and saw that sweet-cheeked teenager who once brushed away his tears when his mother died – Ragnar the Fatherless. And then as time caught up with him, he saw the man that teenager grew up to be – Ragnar Bloodbane. He looked strong in his purple and gold tunic, with his lengthy hair woven into a thick black braid tossed over his shoulder, and curiously, a laurel wreath crown upon his head.
Johanni pulled himself from his brother’s embrace and apologized for his unkempt appearance, his torn leggings and muddy boots and moth-eaten cloak. Only then did he notice that they were not alone. Two others were there as well – Gunhilda, the flaxen-haired captain of the Shieldmaidens, and the wizened yet rugged Hereweald Ironhide, High Thegn of the Northern Weald and Haakon Godwulfsson’s successor at court.
“Apologies, lords…” Said Johanni. “Forgive my outburst.”
Hereweald shook his head. “Nonsense, lord aetheling. We may have lost our king, but you and Lord Ragnar, you two have lost something far more precious.”
“Indeed,” said Gunwalla. “We shall allow you peace to mourn.”
They excused themselves, Gunwalla and Hereweald both. Johanni and Ragnar watched them both depart before turning to each other.
“Rex Aeturnus,” said Ragnar.
“Rex Aeturnus,” replied Johanni, wiping away his tears. “How did it happen and when?”
The Bloodbane turned to their father’s corpse. “Over a week ago in front of the entire Royal Diet. Our physicians say it was of old age.”
“He was frail when I left but not on the edge of death. No matter his age I still cannot believe it… a world without King Hrathwuld?”
“What of the chieftains?” Said Ragnar abruptly.
“I’ve largely secured their support. Erik Halfspear of the Karggars, Norsa Hardfang of the Osserians, Lady Kjarlla of the Arbarii and Thorvald Tyrfingsson of the Thoths. The work is done – but not without sacrifice.”
“Nevertheless, the work is done,” with a broad smile the Bloodbane palmed his brother’s shoulder. “You did it. Not only did you fulfil father’s wishes, but you rid this nation of a terrible threat – Magnus Magnusson and his damned Weißjagd. I am so proud of you, little brother.”
Johanni could not help but notice Ragnar’s laurel again. “…The harder part has passed but it is still for the Royal Diet to decide which of us wears the crown.”
Ragnar nodded. “Indeed. But they will not tarry, I think. Empty thrones make for troubled times. I shall call for an emergency session of the Royal Diet tomorrow morning.”
The High Legate of the Royal Legion nodded respectfully, first to Johanni and then to their father’s gilded body, before turning away and heading for the arched doorway, his footsteps echoing off the marbled walls.
The footsteps stopped.
“…I saw a great many things that displeased me when I was abroad this country,” said Johanni. “Most significant of all was the wholesale destruction of the Osserians.”
Ragnar did not look back. “Is that so?”
“Yes. When I am crowned king, I’ll need a full inquiry into those events… and no one will be beyond reproach.”
And then Ragnar looked over his shoulder and smiled at him, coolly. “If you are crowned king, I shall see to it myself.”
The city of Drangheim was a place much changed since Johanni left it, and yet the Palace of Drang was much the same. It did not seem that way to the others, of course. Erik Halfspear was absolutely astounded by the lavish beauty of its water gardens and hedge mazes (or as he exclaimed “It makes old Yveryth look like a fucking shithole!”). Thorvald was enamoured with its librariums and sat with the palace scholars to discuss mutual research, whilst Kjarlla – a prior visitor to the palace – addressed herself to old and new acquaintances alike amongst the Jarldom. Norsa was far less enamoured with it all, and Johanni was not ignorant of how disgusted she was by the presence of the Royal Legion, but she maintained her composure.
But no one was less enamoured than Johanni was. Little had changed (beyond the presence of the jarls in preparation for the Royal Diet’s 48th Session) except for the mood about the palace. It was sour. Without a king to defend until such time as a new one was elected, the Shieldmaidens barracked in their Vigil with only their captain Gunwalla to oversee the coming proceedings. The thralls (many of them captured Osserians) were visibly anxious as they milled about the kitchens and hallways whilst the jarls behaved as they were expected to – in dour grief – though in quiet corners one could hear ecstatic conversations about the future of Grünlund. Deep beneath the pall of mourning dwelt a hidden anticipation of tomorrow’s session.
It made Johanni feel sick.
As the sun set, he was escorted to his rooms by two Royal Guardsmen and found them as comfortable and extravagant as he’d left them. Cushioned footstools and a roaring hearth; velvet curtains draping tall stained glass windows and warm marble floors decorated with mink fur; glass cabinets full ancient texts and scrolls and multiple drawers containing dozens of outfits each for a special occasion of the calendar – feast days, high solstices, low solstices, festivals, reception of foreign dignitaries, and so on, along with a large bed dressed sheets woven from imported Xianese cotton. It had two conjoining rooms. One for his former thrall, Eardwulf, and the other his personal bathing chambers. Everything was well tended. Johanni couldn’t so much as find a crease in his bedsheets. The thralls had even fragranced it with lavender and jasmine whilst he was away.
And yet it all felt so hollow.
The boy took a bath and scrubbed away nearly ten days of dirt and grime from his body, then threw fresh kindling into the fire and sat to his desk. He dipped a quill into wet ink, pulled out a scrap of parchment and scratched out his intended remarks for tomorrow’s session (for it would not do to speak off the cuff) and yet a few hundred words later he put the feather down and sighed.
He did not wish to cry.
He was sick of crying.
He wanted to feel good again.
And so, Johanni Carian Hrathwuld, drew his robes together and fetched a cloak from his wardrobe and fastened its folds together with a horsehead brooch. Upon bare feet he slipped out of his chambers and walked a few doors down and knocked the grain. A few moments later it cracked open and Erik Halfspear, naked from the waist up, greeted him.
“Are you alone?” Asked Johanni.
Erik pulled a sly grin. “Come inside.”
When the Impanni stepped inside and shut the door, the Karggar pressed him up against it and crushed their lips together. The boy whimpered into his kiss and instantly went for the buttons of his robe, popping them off one by one as Erik stripped himself of his breeches. A puddle of clothes followed them all the way over to the soft cotton bed. Johanni broke the kiss and landed belly first into the sheets as Erik mounted him from the rear, grabbing his manhood and slowly guiding it towards a pink rosebud of soft flesh. The younger man moaned deliciously as all seven inches of Erik’s hard hot tumescence thrust into him.
There was a kind of delirium that overcame men in the throes of passion and lust. It was blinding and powerful, difficult to see it when it overtook you and only seemed to pass when the seed was spilt. It was intoxicating.
And it was why they did not notice themselves being watched.
Today was the day. Johanni Carian Hrathwuld, clad in the same plum-coloured and gold-trimmed tunic as his brother, sat alongside his compatriots upon the lowest and frontmost of the semi-circular stone seats set along the curved rear wall of the Royal Diet’s grand council chamber. It was not his first time visiting the chamber – in recent years, the late king had made it his business to have Johanni attend the annual sessions and learn the business of politics and statecraft – and it remained impressive. A rainbow of morning light dappled the room through that huge pane of stained glass behind the symbolically empty throne, though as was customary it was guarded by the High Thegn and the captain of the Shieldmaidens; Hereweald Ironhide and Gunhilda. The laurel-crowned Ragnar Bloodbane sat among the jarls on the eastern side of the room, with the Golden Brothers Knossos and Kreim at his flanks, and another, Jarl Sygmune, chatting with him closely from the seat behind. Johanni eyed them and the other jarls – landowners, silvermongers, traders, merchants, and warlords all – all of them powerful, all of them nattering, all of them entrenched in the overall mood of the palace; excitement cloaked beneath false grief.
Johanni wondered if his father once felt the same trepidation he now felt. Glancing at the jarls assembled, it was as though he’d stumbled into a den of adders. But then he saw Erik smiling at him. And Norsa. And Kjarlla. And Thorvald. He could do this.
He could do this.
Jarl Sygmune, who had no small seniority among the jarls, rose from his seat as he slowly clapped his hands thrice, and the dozens and dozens of chattering jarls felt silent.
“I call to order the forty-ninth session of the Royal Diet!” He exclaimed. Silence. “And on behalf of this assembly may I offer condolences to the two Hrathwuldssons here gathered. Hrathwuld was no mere king, no mere ruler. He is the first in millennia to unite the Woags as one people. He was the great liberator who freed us ALL from Elvish chains and for that, all Grünlund owes him an unpayable debt. Though he be taken from us, young lords, know that the Hallowed Plane will not receive a mightier soul for years to come.”
“HERE, HERE!” Cried the jarls collectively. “HERE, HERE!”
“Welcome, all of you, to the capital,” said Sygmune. “And may I be the first to congratulate our young lord, Johanni Carian Hrathwuld, for defeating the upstart menace Magnus Magnusson, before his White Hunt ever left those frozen fjordic shores!”
Johanni blushed as the surrounding jarls all shouted another hardy “HERE, HERE!” and showered him with a brief smatter of applause.
“Now lords. Though the pain of these last few days has been immeasurable, the time has come to select a new king to lead us into a shining new future. The two sons of the king, Ragnar Leif Hrathwuld and Johanni Carian Hrathwuld, each have claim. But it is for the Diet to decide whose claim is strongest. As our late king’s own loghs dictated, we shall hear from both claimants and their supporters before we adjourn. Who will speak first?”
A single hand clad in white and gold painted armour rose.
It was Twinstroke Kreim.
“I will speak on behalf of the High Legate,” he said. Sygmune took his seat and Kreim arose to speak, plate armour clanging. “I am not a learned man, nor do I come from privilege. I am a soldier by heart and trade. I have known Ragnar most of my life. I fought beside him, served under him, and dealt justice to our kingdom’s enemies in his name,” the Twinstroke’s eyes fell upon a scowling Norsa as he said this. “I can think of no better man to lead us than he. He is cunning and clever, he is strong, he inspires loyalty in his men, and he is devoted to protecting this nation from its enemies both within and without. I say that Ragnar should be Hrathwuld II.”
Kreim took his seat, and Johanni watched the jarls as they leaned next to their neighbours to discuss the Twinstroke’s words amongst themselves. Most looked unmoved. Norsa growled as Ragnar raised his hand.
The Bloodbane took to his feet to address the jarls.
“I thank my thegn and shield-brother, Kreim, for his words. I need no more.” He cleared his throat. “King Hrathwuld… was a great man. He liberated Grünlund, united the tribes, and gave us loghs and art and purpose. And I do not doubt that my brother shall also be a great man someday. He is brave, kind, and dedicated. We would all be fortunate to have him as our king. But…”
Ragnar glanced at the throne.
“…if there are members of this Diet who seek to have me crowned, then for duty’s sake I am obligated to tell you what I would do if I were king. My friends, there is tremendous work to do. There is hunger in the Grey Wilds, strife in the Fens, corruption in the Salt Shore and insurrection in the Deepfjord. We have a slave army of 20,000 malingering on our southern border. Our herepaths are broken and our burghs are severely undermanned, which forced me to redeploy the city watchmen to our northern outposts. The Royal Legion is depleted and stretched thin. Last year we had a 20% shortfall on our tax collection. This year will be worse. My friends, Grünlund is in disorder. We are weakened and divided. And a nation divided is fit only for the slaughter. But I submit to you, lords, that a stern hand with a firm plan can correct history’s course. The Royal Legion is the backbone of our country. If I am elected king, I will make it my business to see the Legion expanded fourfold with soldiers drawn from all five tribes, not merely the Impanni. I will recruit and deploy an army of builders to restore our herepaths and fortify our burghs, and they will extend our roads all the way to the Salt Shore so that stronger ties can be forged with the Arbarii trade network. I will sit with our loghmakers to draft a new taxation plan so that all peoples of this great nation pay their fair share. I will renovate our fleets and suppress banditry; I will create a nation that shall send shivers of powerlessness down the collective elvish spine. I will make Grünlund strong… if I am king. Now. I will hear no more remarks on my behalf. Let us hear from my brother and his companions. I yield the floor.”
As Ragnar took his seat (and Jarl Sygmune whispered into his ear again) Johanni looked to the jarls and saw nodding and assenting faces. Far more than he would’ve liked. That was when the man beside him (and always behind him) Erik Halfspear, took to his feet. Gone were his greatsword and bearskin cloak, replaced with a silver buttoned leather jerkin over a knee-length aquamarine tunic. His hair was washed and cut to grain at its sides, and his russet beard shorn down to a trim goatee. The palace thralls had done well.
“I’m no wordsmith,” said the Halfspear. “So, I’ll just say this. We Karggars were the first to join King Hrathwuld’s Great Woaggish Army. And my father, Gad Greyspear, was the first of the chieftains to declare him king when the war was won. And we Karggars were repaid with silence when your former thegn, Haakon Godwulfsson, cut him down on the border. I’d wager that few of you know how deeply we felt that loss. I’d wager you’re more in mind of our raids upon your northern farmlands. That’s fair. It’s also fair to say that when our lands withered beneath our feet, when we were at the brink of starvation, Drangheim did nothing to help. Not until this one came.”
Erik pointed at Johanni.
“I made a foolish mistake when I attacked his caravan. But I made an even greater mistake by underestimating him. He stood by my side when elf worshippers desecrated our Beast Tower and negotiated peace with the Bloodbane after my blunder. He even freed my brother Sygardi from captivity. In all my years I have yet to meet a braver, kinder soul. Do not let his youth fool you – he is wise beyond it. He has tasted battle and he knows how to lead. Johanni will make for a brilliant king. And I am honoured to support his claim.”
“Lords, pray you heed the chieftain’s words,” said Lady Kjarlla. She and Thorvald stood next, hand in hand, to deliver their remarks together. “And pray you heed ours. This man, Thorvald Tyrfingsson, is dearer to me than my very breath. And due to the deceptions of our former court mystic, One-Eyed Wulfstan, my father had him scheduled for execution. But Johanni prevented that! He put his own life at risk to help us and for that we stand before you here today. Before he came to our shores the Arbarii-Thoth sibb was near total collapse. And now Thorvald and I are poised to make it stronger than ever. I know I am not my father’s voice in these matters, but I am his heir and for what it is worth… there is no king I would sooner serve than Johanni Carian Hrathwuld.”
Ragnar’s faction, Jarl Sygmune and the Golden Brothers, looked on stoically as Thorvald took the floor from his wife. “Lords,” began the Thoth chieftain. “I am probably the least welcome voice in this room given recent affairs, and while I played no part in the White Hunt, as chieftain of the Thoth tribe I take full responsibility for it. Regardless of whomever is king I shall strive to repair the damage my uncle did to this nation. But make no mistake – Lord Johanni is the man for the task. Forget saving my life, he saved us all from war! We would not be here speaking here today if not for him. He has inherited his father’s strength, wisdom, drive, and purpose. He has my full backing, lords. He deserves yours as well.”
Thorvald and Kjarlla took their seats. There was a moment of stillness (broken only by light coughs and casual whispers) before the stern Norsa Hardfang took the floor and fixed her cold grey eyes upon Ragnar Bloodbane.
“…I was here once before,” she began. “Many a year ago when my father Osser Greatfang was still in this court’s good graces. You called me Lady Norsa of Horn Hall then. Now they call me Hardfang. I… once dreamt of a day such as this… and of all the things I would say… but these are things I will keep to myself. No emotional bile shall pass my lips. Only the truth.”
“THIS COURT SANCTIONED THE EXECUTION OF MY PEOPLE,” she spat, glaring at the jarls assembled, before settling her eyes upon Ragnar. “And the man who sits across from me was the executioner. He truly is the Bloodbane. And a man like that will never have the fealty of the Osserian people... what is left of us. But Johanni? He has the morality and the fortitude to right the past’s wrongs. I have seen it with my own two eyes. If tribal unity means anything to the people here assembled… know that Johanni Carian Hrathwuld is the only one who can bring it about. As the daughter of Osser Greatfang and granddaughter of Osser Blackfang, I back his claim to the crown of Grünlund. May no bloodthirsty tyrant ever wear it.”
Jarl Sygmune, glaring at the stolid Norsa across the floor, addressed the younger Hrathwuldsson. “We… have heard from the chieftains and their surrogates on this matter. Now, Lord Johanni, would you be so kind as to offer your remarks?”
Destiny felt like a weight upon his shoulders. The trepidation of the moment was palpable to him. It was what his father sent him on this great journey for… and he was terrified. But he knew that he had to rise to it… because there was a country out there that needed him to. Destiny could not wait any longer.
Johanni rose to speak.
“Assembled lords. Let me begin by thanking our honoured guests for their remarks. They have tribes of their own to lead and yet they all journeyed south on my behalf and for that I am eternally grateful.” Erik, Kjarlla, Thorvald and even Norsa all smiled back with encouragement as he said this, “My brother, High Legate Ragnar, is a remarkable warrior and a seasoned commander. He taught me much. And he is correct to say there is tremendous work ahead of us. Grünlund must indeed become stronger. But where the High Legate sees strength through weaponry and fortification, I see strength through our inherent unity. We Woags are the first human nation to successful expel the elvish invaders and we achieved that not merely by force of arms but by banding together as one people. That is our strength. And our strength, I am sad to say, is now a sword left to rust in the rain.”
Johanni and Ragnar eyed each other.
“When I journeyed to the Grey Wilds, I found a barren wasteland and a half-starved people. Drangheim abandoned them. When I journeyed to the Fens, I found ruined towns littered with Osserian bones. Drangheim expunged them. When I journeyed to the Salt Shore, I found a bustling land enriched with trade from foreign lands. Drangheim ignored them. And when I journeyed to the Deepfjord, I found a frozen frontier fit to explode in rebellion. Drangheim neglected them.”
The younger Hrathwuldsson gestured to his friends.
“For too long this court has side-lined the concerns of our Woaggish brothers and sisters, and this will change with my rule. When I am king one of my first acts will be to expand the Royal Diet – Karggar jarls, Arbarii jarls and Thoth jarls must all have a seat at our table. Fealty will be rewarded with aid. We will help the Karggars to settle the Fens and produce a sustainable harvest. We will help the Thoths to rebuild their villages and bring peace to the Salt Isles by strengthening their sibb with the Arbarii. We will open trade links with the Golden Empire and learn everything eastern ingenuity can teach us. And we will conduct a full investigation into the so-called pacification of the Osserians, for we cannot move forward until we reconcile our past. Yes, we will rebuild our herepaths and fortify our burghs, that is a given. But first and foremost, our duty must be to our people.”
No small portion of the jarls murmured amongst themselves.
“Some of you may contest these proposals. I welcome the debate. But unless we heal the rifts between our five tribes and become one, united in duty and resolve, we will never become the great Kingdom of Grünlund that our forebears once dreamt of. I am my father’s will. And I shall dedicate my rule to his example… if I am crowned king.”
Johanni took his seat as both Kjarlla and Erik cupped his shoulders and congratulated him on his ‘rousing’ speech. But across the divide his eyes met with Ragnar’s. The Bloodbane smiled back as one of the Golden Brothers mouthed words into his ear. Suddenly the whole hall was filled with chatter and whispers amongst the jarls. Congregation had begun. And his and Ragnar’s fates were being authored with every breath.
It was the biggest feast Johanni had been treated to since that sumptuous seafood banquet in Pearlstone. The conjoined long tables were large enough to seat 300 men and women and they were overflowing with dishes from across the country – trout, crab meat, salmon hanks, rump steaks, pork shoulders, chicken thighs, pheasant breast, roasted guinea fowl, cabbage and beef, boiled duck eggs, baked bread rolls, potatoes (boiled and roasted), carrots and leeks, beetroots, and so on. There was wine, beer, and ale to spare and the tableside thralls made it their business to let no cup run dry. The surrounding hearths, all ten of them, were lit and roaring with coal fire. Off by the northern wall a bard, a flutist, a lutenist, a hand-drummer, and a zither player provided music for the festivities as a rotating cortege of poets, dancers, jugglers, sword-swallowers, and fire-breathers provided the entertainment.
As a tipsy Johanni looked around the table he saw all sixty members of the Royal Diet in attendance, along with Ragnar Bloodbane, Halfdan, Knossos and Kreim. The High Thegn Hereweald Ironhide and his closest huscarls also sat to dine, as did most of Johanni’s companions, Erik Halfspear, Kjarlla of Pearlstone, Thorvald Tyrfingsson and their retainers. The only one amongst his party not in attendance was Norsa Hardfang who, understandably, did not wish to break bread with Ragnar at a table served by Osserian thralls. Johanni did not begrudge her for it. In earnestness he was not much for revelry that night. His wounds from holmgang against Magnus Magnusson had yet to fully heal, the ride south from Greyport was frantic and tiring, and that was to say nothing of the emotionally draining session with the Diet – all left him exhausted.
The young lord ate lightly (a few potatoes and some salmon) and favoured the wine, but even the capital’s finest red lost its lustre after a time. What he needed was some fresh air. Johanni politely excused himself from the table (although the feast was so raucous hardly anyone noticed) and made his way over to the balcony wall opposite the hearth wall. He unbolted one of its stained-glass doors and stepped outside, quaffing a cool breath of nightly air as its breeze caressed his skin. The din of music and laughter faded in the background.
It felt good. But he was not alone.
Johanni blinked as he found the captain of the Shieldmaidens, Gunhilda, sat upon the balcony’s vine-wrapped white balustrade gazing out across the expansive greenery and marblework of the palace grounds. Her polished steel greaves, plate bracers and embossed breastplate all glimmered under the moonlight.
“Captain Gunhilda?” Johanni quashed a burp so as not to be rude.
Seeing him then, the noble shieldmaiden bent a knee in respect. “Forgive me, lord. I needed only a moment of peace to think.”
“Do not apologize,” he gestured for her to stand. “Rise.”
Gunhilda nodded and took to her feet once more. Johanni turned his light smile to the palace grounds where all the hedge mazes and rose gardens now lay in darkness, save a few flickering flames prancing up and down the gravel footpaths – torchlights of the Royal Guardsmen’s nightly patrols. They were fewer in number tonight, though Johanni could not say why.
“Does the feasting displease you, lord?” Asked Gunhilda.
Johanni frowned. “Denying that would be a lie, but Ragnar insisted upon it. It is customary after a session, I am told. It appears I still have much to learn.”
“I… understand your misgivings.”
Gunhilda nodded. Her flaxen braided hair danced upon her shoulder as she did so. “The atmosphere around the palace has soured since the king’s death. Those feelings cannot be squelched with a glut of beer and meat.”
It did displease him to see the jarls laughing amongst themselves as his father’s body lay cold in the Temple of Ka-Uta. Tomorrow (thankfully) his body would be interred within the crypts beneath the palace. He could finally rest in peace. “I miss him so much. When I envisioned my returned to Drangheim I always pictured him here to receive me. I never dreamed he might die in my absence.”
Gunhilda demurred. “Lord? How did the king seem to you, when last you spoke? Did he seem frail at all?”
“No more so than usual,” said Johanni. “Why?”
“…My words must be measured.”
The young lord frowned. “Gunhilda, speak.”
“My lord, what if…” the shieldmaiden sighed and threw a cautious eye over her shoulder. “…What if your father’s death was more than happenstance?”
Johanni froze where he stood. Despite his six cups of wine he heard that charge clear and true. And he had not even considered the possibility. Surely not? Thought he. “…Captain, are you suggesting that…?”
Her lips moved to speak but she held her tongue as a figure approached from the other side of the glass doors – Erik. “I will say no more here. When the moon is full come to the Vigil of the Shieldmaidens and we shall speak further.”
The doors opened.
A half-drunk Erik Halfspear waddled onto the balcony, grinning from ear to ear. Gunhilda put a fist to her breastplate and bowed respectfully, dismissing herself so that Johanni and the Karggar chieftain could speak privately. The younger man watched her return to the feast with a stunned glare.
“Stop looking so fucking grim,” barked Erik. “You could be declared king by this time tomorrow! Everything you’ve fought for! Everything you’ve wanted.”
Johanni frowned as Erik stumbled closer to him on shaky boots. He stank of ale and chicken. “…It was a matter of duty, Erik. This was never about what I wanted.”
“Oh? So then, what do you want?”
A drunken hand grabbed Johanni’s arse from behind. The boy’s eyes bulged as he shot away from Erik’s grasp and recoiled. “What are you doing? Not here! Someone might see us!”
Erik glowered at him. “A king shouldn’t be so meek about what he wants or where he wants it. What will you do when you’re crowned, hide me in the bloody cupboards?”
He blushed (but more from the wine and anger). He forgot how ridiculous the Karggar could be when he got some ale in him. But he had to admit, with the Weißjagd and his father’s death and the session before the Diet all occupying his mind, he had not thought much of his relationship with Erik – or what would come of it. Duty was duty. Loghs were loghs. And yet lust was…
“Kings cannot do as they please,” said Johanni. “They rule by consent of the Royal Diet who will seek a political marriage for me. Gunna Magnusdottir, or a princess of the Golden Empire? I know not who. But it will come.”
Erik’s frown deepened. “And you will say no.”
“You are being impossible!”
“And you’re being weak,” spat the Halfspear. “…What sort of king cannot govern his own bed?”
Damn you! “You are drunk! And you will not goad me into a fight! Now is not the time! We will speak of this later, control yourself!”
The older man went to grab the younger one’s wrist and force him to stay, but he shrugged away from it and re-opened the stained-glass doors, slipping back into the revelry before they were caught. An angered Erik followed him inside but said nothing more as they both sat to their seats and returned to their wine cups.
More entertainment was called forth by Ragnar, who summoned a tamer and his tasselled bear Balgaff to dance for them – and this was followed by a small troupe of actors performing a comical play of the expulsion of the elves. The feast had hours left in it before it finally wound down. When the music finally stopped the moon was high and every belly was swollen. Some jarls snoozed at the table side until their huscarls came to fetch them. Others had already departed for their beds; Kjarlla and Thorvald left earlier with glinting smiles that laid plain what was to come of the rest of their evening. Ragnar Bloodbane bid his brother goodbye half an hourglass ago, along with the Golden Brothers, whilst a drunken Halfdan sat speaking rubbish and nonsense to an equally drunken Jarl Sygmune.
Now was a good time to leave.
Johanni, frowning, nudged Erik’s leg beneath the long table. The Karggar chieftain woke from a brief slumber, wiped the drool from his lip, and he followed the Impanni out of the Great Hall. Thralls passed them by scrambling to clear the cups and plates and platters, though neither man paid them much mind. The two walked back to Erik’s room in the palace’s guest wing and locked the door behind them.
“Have you lost your wits?” Barked Johanni. “Why would you act that way when anyone could have caught us together?”
Erik slumped onto the bed, half-smiling and slurring his words from the ale, “I lost my two greatest friends for this. My father’s killer is still free. My people are dropping like flies from hunger. And you mean to tell me now, atop all that, and after everything we’ve been through… that you and I are…”
His shoulders slumped low. He hanged his head. And for the first time since they met Johanni saw something in Erik that he never once considered he might see – sadness. They had had so little time for each other since Kjarlling, and then with defeating Magnus Magnusson and the preparations for his return to the capital, he hadn’t spent much time thinking about their relationship. And now...
“What becomes of us?” Asked Erik.
Johanni looked away. He had no answers. “I… I do not know.”
“You do know,” he spat back. “Be a man and say it.”
“FUCKING HELL, JOHANNI!” He roared. “Just say it!”
They were the words he dared not speak. This had to end someday. It was not a new thought. It came to him many a time since that sweet night they shared in the elvish villa. But it remained true. Duty defined the crown, not power. And duty demanded a sacrifice.
A tear slipped free from Johanni’s eye as he spoke. “I have a responsibility to my nation to be responsible, Erik. Kings require queens. Personal desire does not enter into it…”
“Empty platitudes,” Erik grinned bitterly. “Do you remember that day when Ragnar’s forces marched into the Grey Wilds? And you defied me? So frail and yet so brave. Where has that Johanni gone? And who am I looking at now? The man who fought with me at Haakon’s Redoubt? Or some lost orphan boy parroting his father’s idioms?”
Damn you… thought the boy. “You speak as if I wanted it to be this way…! I did not choose to feel this way, and I did not choose to be my father’s heir! If it were up to me, I would never leave your side…!”
“But it is up to you,” said Erik. “Fuck me, fuck the Diet, fuck your father, and fuck your brother. Only you get to choose what you want. And you aren’t choosing me.”
“No.” The Karggar man sighed, kicking his boots off. He leaned back and let his torso fall into Xianese silk sheets. “I’m tired of talking. Let me rest.”
It was sudden and loud, like glass and stone smashing against each other, and it came from the adjacent rooms. Both Johanni and Erik froze where they were, silent and stunned, until Erik climbed back onto his bare feet and cautiously padded his way over the marble floor to the open doorway. “Hello?” He called out. “Is someone in there?”
A cloaked figure pounced out of the side room with a readied dagger like a phantom. Johanni blinked. All he saw was a flocking wave of black and a glinting shimmer of steel bearing down upon Erik, who crossed his wrists above his head to block the blow. Johanni moved to help him, but a second pair of hands took him from behind, one around his mouth and the other around his wrist, which was then twisted painfully behind his back as he was dragged back into the shadows beneath the blue velvet drapery. Johanni struggled to get free, his protests smothered into whimpers by the gloved hand clamped around his mouth, but it was no use.
“Hold still, young lord!” Whispered his attacker into his ear. “We will not harm you; I swear it!”
As Johanni tried to wriggle away Erik wrestled desperately with his own assailant, grappling wrist to wrist as the dagger hovered listlessly over his exposed chest. That was when the folds of the attacker’s cloak slipped open and revealed the rattling metal beneath it – Osserian scale armour.
Johanni’s eyes widened. It can’t be…!
And then a growling Erik launched his forehead into the hooded man’s nose. A sickly, pulpy crack of bone and blood rang out, and a pained cry, as Erik then drove the flat of his bare arm into the other man’s throat and ran him back-first against the wall. The round shield and elk-skull mountings juddered. The two men groaned together, struggling for dominance. Erik kept him pinned by the throat and strained to starve the attacker of air, then screamed in pain as the dagger was driven into his left shoulder.
Erik! Johanni’s heart sank. No!
A Karggar war cry ripped through the air and Erik’s knee flew up into the hooded man’s stomach, winding him. He toppled over wheezing, blood streaming from his broken nose, and Erik gritted his teeth hard as he wrapped his fingers around the leather grip of the dagger buried hilt deep in his shoulder and wrenched it out.
“Blast!” Barked Johanni’s attacker. He pushed the boy aside to draw his own dagger, just as Erik drove his compatriot’s blade into the back of his neck. When the second man rose to attack, Johanni pulled him back by his leathered ankles and threw him off balance. The second hooded man landed hard against the rugged stone floor. Roaring again, Erik Halfspear sprinted over to the felled assassin and stamped his wrist with his bare foot until he dropped the dagger, leaving him utterly defenceless as Erik then stabbed him hard through the eye.
The second man fell as still as the first, joining him in death.
Erik Halfspear, panting for breath, palmed his shoulder wound and slumped to the ground. He caught his breath.
“Erik! Erik!” Johanni quickly came to his side. “Are you alright?”
The chieftain grit his teeth. “I… I’m fine. Summon the guards!”
There was no time to waste. Johanni took to his feet and bounded past the two pooling corpses on the ground, unlocking the door and charging out into the hallway to scream for help. But there was none. Johanni glanced up and down the long-carpeted corridor but there were no guards in sight. The palace bells rang out. Distant screams of an ‘attack’ and ‘fire’ abounded. What was he to do? Run and seek help or stay by Erik’s side until help came? And then, just as soon as he made his decision, Johanni noticed an unlocked chamber door just two doors down from Erik’s – Kjarlla and Thorvald’s room.
Oh no! Oh no, no, no! Thought the boy, as his legs ran him over to the doorway before his mind could convince him it was dangerous. He couldn’t help it. He almost fell over his own sandals stumbling into their quarters and caught his breath as he checked to see if they were alright.
Johanni’s jaw dropped as he saw their room utterly torn to shreds. The bed overturned and its pillows slashed into feathers, the tables broken and the drapes on fire. Two lifeless naked bodies clung together at the base of that broken bed; their lithe figures swathed in matted sheets. Clumps of chestnut hair torn from the scalp lay next to a limp hand severed from its wrist. The blood flowed like wine beneath their bodies.
Oh, gods no… Tears blotted out Johanni’s sight. Thorvald…. Kjarlla…
Butchered in their bed.
More bells began to sound. Smoke scent wafted in through a broken window as bell towers across the capital sounded the alarm. Whimpering, Johanni scrubbed his eyes dry and stood up to see what was going on outside. That was when he saw over the bed. That was when he saw Thorvald’s corpse, fallen over his murdered wife’s body. And that was he saw it. A cruel message crudely carved into the Thoth chieftain’s muscular back…