They called themselves investigators. Two men, both Royal Guardsmen, old by at least forty solstices. One had a quill, parchment, and ink. The other asked questions. Neither carried any weapons. Instead they brought a silver platter of water, wine, and buttered bread rolls. They chose a small room to host him (too cold and too close to the dungeons for Johanni’s liking), but they also provided a bear-hide cloak for him to keep warm with as their interview began.
“Lord,” said the speaker. “If I may?”
Johanni nodded for him to begin.
“During your journey you ventured into the Fens with Lord Erik and some 2000 Karggar emigrants. Can you tell me of these events?”
The scribe’s quill scratched audibly against parchment as Johanni ventured back into his recent memories. “We crossed over from the Grey Wilds by way of Ygga’s Tongue. As we waded through the marches many Karggars died. Eardwulf suggested-”
“Eardwulf?” The speaker paused. “This would be your… Osserian thrall?”
Johanni nodded, dejectedly.
“Ah, I see. Please, lord. Continue.”
“…He suggested we follow an old forded pass towards Karburgh, where we met Hruthjon the Greathammer and the other Karggar emigrants.”
“But not Sygardi Greyspear, Lord Erik’s brother?”
Johanni shook his head.
“Where was he?” Asked the speaker.
“He… he was kidnapped… by the Osserians.”
The scribe’s quill continued to scratch.
“And what happened next, Lord Johanni?”
These events were mere weeks prior and yet thinking back on them, they seemed like a lifetime ago. “I took a small party to a crypt where the Osserians hid themselves and sought conference with their chieftain, Harwald Snowhair. He said they captured Sygardi Greyspear on behalf of Haakon Godwulfsson and his Thoth army, in exchange for safe passage to a Salt Isle. After we expelled Haakon from the Fens he released Sygardi and agreed to return Karburgh but withheld his support of my claim to the crown until Norsa Hardfang got the measure of me.”
The speaker nodded. “…And during this time did you hear anything of the rebel group calling themselves The Sons of Osser?”
“No,” Johanni frowned. “I have never heard of this group until tonight.”
“Tell us about the Hardfang.”
Johanni did not care for the implication of these questions. “…Her strength is insurmountable. Her heart is hard, but it still beats. She cares very deeply for her people. All she ever sought was a better world for what remained of them.”
The speaker looked on. “And during your times together did the Hardfang ever intimate any desire for vengeance against Drangheim?”
“Her desire was justice,” said Johanni. “What are you implying?”
The speaker cleared his throat. “Tell me about your thrall, Lord Johanni. Tell me about this man Eardwulf.”
It hurt just hearing that name, much less saying it. Its every utterance sent him back to that dark night in Pearlstone when a man he once considered his friend attacked him in his bed. “He was my protector… and my confidant. We had a… a disagreement in the Salt Shore. I dismissed him.”
“And what was the nature of this… disagreement?”
“Please lord, anything you tell us may help.”
“He attacked Lord Erik,” he said. “I know not the reason, but I did not want him in my company any longer.”
The speaker paused a moment as the scribe turned to a fresh page. Then the interview resumed. “Who was informed of this attack?”
“No one,” said the boy. “Lord Bors would have had him beheaded. Out of respect for his many years of service I let him walk away with his life.”
“I see,” said the speaker. “And during his ‘many years of service’ did your thrall express any resentment towards or intent of vengeance upon Drangheim?”
There was such stupidity in that question that Johanni almost took him for a fool. Who wouldn’t hate the regime that massacred your people, devastated your lands, and stole you into slavery? “His mind and heart are his own. I cannot speak to his feelings towards us. But never did he express to me any such desires.”
The door unbolted.
Johanni turned around in his chair and the investigators paused as a now sword-armed Ragnar Bloodbane strode into the small interview room. The elder sibling nodded to the younger with a demure frown, fists perched upon his belt.
“What is going on, Ragnar?” Asked Johanni, frantically. “Why am I being questioned?”
The Bloodbane sighed. “Drangheim has suffered a terrible attack, brother. These rogues calling themselves the ‘Sons of Osser’ have lit multiple fires across the city, looted precious silver from the treasury, and worst of all they assassinated Lady Kjarlla and Lord Thorvald. Lord Erik is wounded, and you are lucky to have survived. No stone can go unturned as we root out these vile bastards.”
“She has been arrested on charges of treason,” said Ragnar.
“You cannot mean to say that she is-”
“She is an unrepentant Osserian and after her remarks to the Diet I have no doubt that she either spear-headed or was party to these events. She will be interrogated and if found guilty, put to death.”
Johanni sneered. “On WHOSE authority?”
“That of the Royal Diet,” said the Bloodbane. “They hold power until a new king is chosen, and they have ordered the Legion to bring these traitors to justice. I have no qualms in doing so.”
“This is utter lunacy!” Johanni’s fist slammed the wooden table between him and the investigators. “I fought alongside that woman, Ragnar! We saved each other’s lives in the Deepfjord! For all her fury she is no assassin! Where is she being held? I demand to speak with her!”
Ragnar shook his head. “No one is to see her until after the interrogation, not even me.”
This makes no sense! Thought Johanni. Why would Norsa have Kjarlla and Thorvald killed? Why attempt to kill Erik? What possible purpose could that serve? The more he thought about it, the less any of the accusations made sense. He turned to the investigators. “Both of you, out! I wish to speak to my brother alone.”
The speaker and the scribe paused, glancing at each other, but did not move.
“Was I not heard?” Barked Johanni. “Leave!”
They did not move.
Ragnar folded his arms and sighed. “…Thank you, men. You may go.”
The two Royal Guardsmen made their apologies, packed their quills, ink jars, and parchment (as well as the notes of Johanni’s questioning) into their satchels before they excused themselves. An increasingly angered Johanni watched them leave and seal the banded ironwood door behind them with a heavy thud. Ragnar took one of their seats, tossing a callused hand through his raven black hair.
“Norsa did not do this!” Johanni professed. “I know her, Ragnar! Whatever happened here must be accounted for, but do not spring to ill conclusions!”
“This is not my decision,” Ragnar said. “If it were, she would already be dead. I do only as the Royal Diet commands. First, I must establish how these assassins snuck into the palace. Everyone will be investigated. Missives of these occurrences will be sent to the Fens, Salt Shore and Deepfjord, and Harwald Snowhair will be summoned to account for his lapdog’s misdeeds. And until our investigation is concluded you and Erik Halfspear will remained confined to your quarters.”
This cannot be happening, thought Johanni. How could any of this have happened? He felt for all the world like a precipice was suddenly swallowing up everything around him! His mind raced trying to piece events together, to make sense of it all, and then those haunting words Gunhilda spoke during the feast sprung to his mind…
“…What if your father’s death was more than happenstance?”
And then it all started to make a grim, painful, disgusting sort of sense. Johanni’s heart sank as he looked up at the man across the table, his own brother, stone-faced yet curiously unperturbed by it all. Two chieftains dead and one injured; an utter failure of protection by his hand-picked Royal Guardsmen (by any fair metric), and yet he was so utterly unperturbed. He almost seemed to be smiling.
And then it dawned on him.
The hidden truth of it all.
No… thought Johanni, shivering in his seat. It… it cannot be…! You wouldn’t! Brother tell me you wouldn’t!
“My investigation will conclude in two days,” said Ragnar, climbing out of the oaken chair. “When it is done, we shall dine together, and I will give you my report. Come, let me take you back to your chambers. I’ll have the thralls draw you a bath.”
The moon was at its peak on the second night of Ragnar’s investigation. In that time Johanni troubled himself to do precious little. He ate and drank as anyone would, he neither read nor wrote. Instead, he kept as close an eye upon the comings and goings of his window as possible. For beyond it, along the winding stone footpaths of the palace grounds, spear-armed Royal Guardsmen marched in regular patrols of two. Two patrols by his window every hourglass turn.
That was the pattern.
Johanni followed it for two days, without fail, before finally hatching his plan. After his guards brought him supper (braised potato slices with crabmeat and leeks) the aetheling withdrew an old chest of play-toys his childhood-self once hid beneath the bed. Inside it, alongside his dolls and iron crowns and wooden swords, was a hardened ball, a smooth stone encased in woven fabrics. As Johanni held it in his fist he wrapped that hand with a thick cotton blanket and swung it like a mace into his latticed bedroom window with one hard strike. The small pane broke open. He put his arm through it and undid the latch from without (that curious design) and the window swung open.
Caressed by the first touch of fresh air in two whole days, Johanni threw the ball and cloth away and slowly (carefully) climbed through his bedroom window. It was three floors up (not a deathly height but capable of shattering a femur or two with a hard landing), so he gingerly made his way down the vine-wrapped trellis until he was low enough to drop into the bushes. He landed on his shoulder but only scuffed his tunic. He was fine. And from there he slowly made his way across the grounds, through the rose gardens and holly-ridden porticos to The Vigil, the marble walled abode of the Shieldmaidens, the guardians of the king.
Johanni hid behind shrubbery until a fresh patrol passed by, then slipped across the gravel path and up the white painted stairs to its arched ironwood doors, and gently knocked. A younger shieldmaiden, a novitiate barely fifteen solstices old, opened the door.
“Young lord!” She whispered cheerfully. “Come inside, the captain awaits!”
She took him below ground to a training chamber, dome-shaped hall with a stone floor turfed by dust and lit by ensconced torchlight. But it was not merely Captain Gunhilda who awaited him there, but another… Hereweald Ironhide.
“Lord,” said the High Thegn. “Thank the sky you are safe.”
Johanni wiped the sweat from his brow. “I came as soon as I could.”
“We play a dangerous game just meeting here like this,” said Gunhilda. “But I cannot away my suspicions any further.”
“…Ragnar,” said the boy.
The Captain and the High Thegn exchanged a solemn glare. They did not want to say it and neither did he, but he saw it in their eyes – they shared the same fears. That the hero of the Iron Circle, the warmaster of the nation, and that apple-cheeked protector of his boyhood self…
Johanni shut his eyes. “…You believe he killed the king.”
“I fought at his side during the siege of Karburgh,” said Hereweald. “I served with him in the Legion. He was trained alongside my sons. I would never raise such accusations against him if I did not genuinely fear they had merit. Your father was always of weak health, but Gunhilda and I were at his side that entire day and he did not cough or wheeze once. He was fine until the 48th Session, and then he drank some water and then he choked to death. How is that possible? How is that remotely possible?”
“Lord,” Gunhilda palmed Johanni’s shoulder. “I know this must be hard for you to hear, but-”
Johanni shrugged her hand off. “Do not patronize me. I will hear every word you have to say and then I will determine how I feel. Speak.”
The captain nodded. “I had one of my novitiates speak to the kitchen thralls. She said that the cupbearer who normally served the king took sick that day, and a different boy was given the task – a thrall in the service of Kreim.”
Twinstroke Kreim, thought Johanni. Of course, the way he slithers around at my brother’s side, always doting and preening…
Hereweald sighed. “When Gunhilda brought this to me, I sent one of my huscarls speak to every herbalist in the city, enquiring about poisons. There is a species of bitterblack weed that extracts an odourless and colourless dew, and when mixed with water it becomes a swift and silent toxin. A small jar of this bitterblack extract was purchased thirty moons ago by a thrall with a purse of 500 golds. Who but a palace thrall could muster such an amount?”
Johanni folded his arms. “This is circumstance. Circumstance is not proof.”
“My lord – consider this. No one other than yourselves stood to gain from King Hrathwuld’s death and there was no love lost between him and Ragnar. Think of the attack by these so-called Sons of Osser. I’ve been to the buildings they burned in the city, most of them were derelict before they were torched, and all were holdings of the Royal Legion. What does that tell us? And of all times to hatch this plot, why now, when the Royal Diet is poised to declare you king? By reassigning the city watchmen to the burghs and replacing them with his legionaries, this state of emergency effectively gives Ragnar dominion over the entire city. It is all too convenient to be mere circumstance, lord. Surely you can see that?”
He did not want to. The puzzle pieces were coming together before his eyes but the picture they formed was too horrifying to look at. If what Hereweald and Gunhilda were saying was true then Ragnar, his dearest brother and oldest friend, the one who loved him and cared for him and held him when his mother died – that brother had betrayed him. Sought to undermine him. Had his friends butchered and his lover wounded…
…and had their father killed.
“Father…” Johanni wiped the tears from his eyes before they fell. “…Lord, if this is true, though I pray to the gods it is not… then Ragnar Bloodbane must be brought to justice. We have to arrest him.”
“We do not have the men,” said Hereweald. “There are over a thousand legionaries in Drangheim right now. Without the city watchmen we only have my huscarls and the Halfspear’s warband at our disposal – and they’re on the wrong side of the walls.”
And even then, thought the boy, that barely amounts to a hundred men. Too many coincidences to preclude calculation. It was like Johanni suddenly woke up at a board game and realized that he was ten moves behind. Nevermind the Wulf’s Blut…
Gunhilda frowned, regretfully. “And I can be no help to you in this. My maidens are sworn only to defend the king, and until a new king is crowned, we cannot intervene, at least not openly.”
“…The Diet,” said Johanni. “The Diet is the key. They hold power until they elect the next king. We must flee the palace, the city if we must, and bring evidence to them of Ragnar’s treason. But first we must free Norsa.”
Gunhilda frowned. “Lord, if you do that, it implicates you in this false plot-”
“Norsa is my ally,” said Johanni. “I will not abandon her. Hereweald, have your most trusted huscarls free her and Erik. Keep it clandestine and bring them to the necropolis. There is a tunnel down there that leads to the sewers beneath the city, only a handful know of it. We can use it to make our escape, regroup, and safely bring these crimes to the Diet’s door.”
Hereweald nodded. “Yes, lord. When do we move?”
“Tomorrow,” said Johanni. “…after I dine with Ragnar.”
“Do you remember the night of that summer festival?” Ragnar smiled nostalgically. “We stuffed our faced with peaches and berries until we were sick!”
The thralls drew a single long table into the centre of the Grand Hall for supper that night; dressed it in fine tablecloth embroidered with stag totems, then set out hot silver platters of seared beef cuts, garlicked bread, cooked leeks and potatoes. Ewers of wine, water, and stood to hand. No thralls served them at tableside for Johanni had had them dismissed. Two hearths were lit to stave off the cold. Shadows danced from candlelight.
Johanni ate little.
“Those were the days,” mused Ragnar. He stabbed a hunk of beef (garnished by peppercorn sauce) with his carving fork, cut off a morsel and popped it between his teeth. “…You’ve hardly touched your wine, ‘Hanni.”
“Clear head,” said he.
The Bloodbane shrugged and poured himself a cup of wine as the still-faced Johanni glared across the table. “…I will have your report.”
A small smile broached the High Legate’s lips as he set his steel cutlery down and took a napkin to his mouth, wiping it clean before he spoke.
“Very well,” he said. “Three nights ago, the rebel group known as the Sons of Osser infiltrated the city of Drangheim by posing as pilgrims come to mourn Hrathwuld’s passing. That night they set fire to six legionary armouries, which thankfully were abandoned just a few moons prior, and murdered five Royal Guardsman at an outpost near the Temple of Ka-Uta. They then slipped into the Palace of Drang by donning their garb to commit acts of assassination against the chieftains assembled. As you know two were sadly killed, Lady Kjarlla and Lord Thorvald, and one injured – Erik Halfspear. According to the confessions we secured, the Sons of Osser consists of twenty members. Six were killed that night and eleven escaped, whilst Norsa Hardfang and two others were successfully arrested. She denies all charges but in exchange for commuted sentences, her accomplices offered up their confessions, identifying her as the Sons of Osser’s ringleader. Her fate is now in the Royal Diet’s hands – though I doubt they will be merciful.”
Johanni felt like he was staring at a stranger. “Well done. Such a heinous plot and yet you unravelled it so meticulously.”
Ragnar smirked. “…You grow bold.”
“Not bold enough,” said the boy. “…Did you have father killed?”
There were no thralls or guards in the Great Hall. Johanni was certain to dismiss them all before they sat to supper. The window doors by the balconies were all locked shut. The ironwood doors on either end of the hall were sealed. There was no one else within earshot – as by design. Words could be uttered freely.
“He was always more your father than mine,” said Ragnar.
It was as though a weight dropped in his stomach, a cold sinking feeling of absolute revulsion. Until that, a tiny shred of him still lingered on hoping it was all lies, but that precious scintilla of hope was dashed.
It was all true.
“Why…?” He refused to cry. “Why?”
Ragnar took a dispassionate sip from his wine goblet then set it down. “…What did you see when you explored Grünlund, Johanni? Was it a beautiful paradise abounding with life and promise? Or was it a filthy backwater struggling to survive? Starvation. Raiding. Plotting. Sorcery. Insurrection. Hrathwuld’s dithering, and his empty loghs drove this country to the very brink of collapse. The Woags must be brought to order once and for all. One nation under one crown. And I am sorry, brother… but you are not the man to do it.”
Johanni glared dumbfounded at the black phantom sat across the table from him and wondered for all the world what he did with his brother. “So, it was all a charade? You meant to betray me… from the very start?”
Ragnar frowned. “Betray you? Brother-”
“DO NOT CALL ME THAT!” Roared the boy.
“…Johanni. If it were up to my supporters in the Diet you would have been murdered in your sleep years ago. But you are my blood. You are precious to me in ways Hrathwuld could never be, and this is the only way I can protect you. You can still serve me as an advisor. You would have lands and titles, a seat on the Diet, and a household guard to command. You could even appoint your own thegns. And you would be free to bed whomever you wished, Halfspear or otherwise.”
He knows?! Johanni’s eyes shot open and trembled in their sockets. “H-how did you…? How do you…?”
“Whispering handmaidens are louder than any war horn, brother. When word spreads throughout Grünlund of its Catamite King, buggered night from night by his savage Karggar paramour in direct contravention of our loghs, how long will the populace abide by the indignity? Will its men respect you enough to follow you into battle? Or will they snicker behind your back and call you a milk-swallower, a pillow biter, a bloody dungmonger.”
Infuriated, Johanni slapped his hands against the table. One of the wine ewers fell off the edge and splattered over the stone ground. “And what of YOUR secrets, Ragnar!? I know about the Wulf’s Blut! I know you imbibed that dark power along with the rest of the Iron Circle!”
The Bloodbane smirked. “You are well informed. And I do not deny it. However, I suspect my secret will be harder to prove than yours.”
“Heh, heh, heh. ‘Bastard’ indeed. Showing your hand at the slightest prod? You are so young, Johanni. I love you dearly, but you are not ready for the crown. And you have a decision to make. I know about your little moot with Gunhilda and Hereweald, I have eyes and spies across this entire nation, much less my own palace. Whatever plot you think you’ve hatched, whatever gambit you seek to play, it will not work. You can either abandon it and take your rightful place at my side as a royal advisor or you can see it through, and dear old Hrathwuld can watch from the heavens as one son kills another. The choice is yours.”
A stunned Johanni looked on as Ragnar Bloodbane ate one last morsel of beef before he threw his soiled napkin upon his plate and stood up to leave. “And please try the wine before you do, ‘tis a rare vintage.”
‘Hanni couldn’t keep up with Ragnar the Fatherless – he was so fast! He yelled as much as he tripped over the stepstones and scuffed his knee on the way up, but his big brother did not stop for a second, just looked over his shoulder and said giggling, “Too slow, so slow! Too slow, so slow!”
It was the first time his brother had smiled since he and his Iron Circle returned from their adventures. No one blamed him, though. They lost a member on their last quest to the Beast Tower of the Black Mountains, Gnut the Troll, the funny and the squat and the foul-mouthed. Ragnar hadn’t been the same since. By the time Johanni finally caught up with him his older brother was already seated on the bell tower’s edge, sandaled feet dangling over the terrace. And there was a basket full of peaches waiting for them.
“Come sit with me,” Ragnar said. “Come see the view.”
Johanni was scared though, and the older boy knew it. “I will protect you, ‘Hanni. I promise. Come sit and see the view.”
And so, he did.
The city was amazing from above. The view from the palace was something, but up close like this? It was amazing! ‘Hanni’s jaw dropped at the towers, temples, terraces, and tenements sweeping across the panorama for miles in every direction. A blazing hot sun bore down upon it all as seagulls wheeled by the river. Then Ragnar put a peach in his hands.
“Eat up,” he said before scoffing his own. Johanni ate through the fuzzy skin and bit into the juicy centre. It was divine. “…This might be the last time we see each other for a spell.”
“Huh?” The younger boy frowned. “Why? What’s wrong?”
Ragnar gazed at the city as he spoke. “…I joined the Royal Legion today. I’m riding up to the academy tomorrow for my induction.”
“W-why are you leaving again? Was it me? Did I do something wrong?”
“No, ‘Hanni.” Ragnar smiled softly, wrapping an arm around his brother’s shoulders. “Never you. You are the best thing about this place. You’re the only one who doesn’t care I’m a bastard.”
“Is it father then?”
Johanni didn’t know much but he knew that Ragnar didn’t like to talk about their father (every time they did, he got angry). The older boy’s dark eyes sharpened. “He is no father to me… he never has been. I’m going to be a legate, the best one ever! And when you’re king I’ll be right there by your side to protect you. I promise.”
‘I promise…’ Ragnar’s words echoed in Johanni’s mind as he stood at the oak and iron of his bedroom door, staring at the grain for what felt like hours. There were guards that stood on the other side of it, men sworn to the High Legate, but they were not what made him hesitate.
Fate was on the other side of that door.
When he looked over his shoulder to his soft bed dressed in silk sheets, and his forgotten toy chest, and his desk full of parchment, quills, and ink; he saw all the comforts and trappings of his youth. How easy it would be and how tempting it was to just… turn back to it all. No more duty. No more power struggles. No more fighting monsters. Just… comfort and protection. How many thousands upon thousands of Woags would have sold their souls for such a choice?
And yet there was no choice.
For his father, for Kjarlla, and for Thorvald… there was no going back. The only direction was forward. Duty defines a crown, thought Johanni as his took the deepest of breaths… and opened his bedroom door. As always two spear-armed Royal Guardsmen stood by outside, standing to attention as their charge approached them.
“Lord Johanni, did you need something?”
He nodded. “I had a bad dream and I fear it portends a great ill. I must away to the Temple of the Gods and pray. Will you men accompany me?”
Now Ragnar’s investigation was complete there was no further need to hold him prisoner in his own rooms and sure enough the guards consented, although he could not be carried by palanquin (as was customary in prior years). Johanni replied that he was happy to walk. And so, the two guardsmen led the way as the young lord drew together the folds of his mink fur cloak. They walked long, winding carpeted corridors decorated with portraits, gold urns, and marble statues before descending three flights of stairs past the meeting hall down into the echoing antechamber where the other guards allowed them to pass without qualm. Johanni and his guards stepped through the palace doors and descended its hundred marble steps. Starlight speckled the moonlit nocturne as they crossed the grounds from the sanctum to the Temple of the Gods itself, where his father first gave him his life changing mission to tour the reaches of Grünlund in pursuit of the chieftains’ approval.
There can be no going back, thought Johanni, as the bushes around the footpath began to rustle. If I do not do this then Frodi, Thregg, Kjarlla and Thorvald all died in vain and I will not let that happen! “NOW!”
Arrows whistled through the night air. Johanni dropped to his haunches as two of them struck the Royal Guardsmen, one in his neck and the second in his eye, before either could raise their shields in defence. They slumped dead into the gravel tracks as four men, their killers, emerged from the bushes: the Ironhide’s huscarls. Each man was of fighting age, hardy and lightly armoured in russet tabards, chainmail vests, leather bracers and boots. Each man had a bow and a full quiver of arrows strapped to their sword belts – and bore horsehead sigils on their chests – the emblem of Hereweald’s house.
As two of the huscarls dragged the two dead guardsmen, the remaining two accompanied Johanni to his true destination – the necropolis. When he lived, King Hrathwuld took favour to the elvish practice of interning one’s dead, nor merely as the Osserians did (burying them in crypts) but commemorating them in tombs and murals. The main entrance to it sat at on the southern side of Palace of Drang, but as in all old palaces there were entrances and there were entrances. Johanni took the men to a spot only a select few knew of, a small mausoleum shrouded in moss and vines and hidden deep within the south eastern rose garden. They kept low, covered their tracks, and moved by the shadows like thieves until they reached it. The men banded together to push open its heavy stone slab. A belch of sepulchral dust rolled past their boots. A torch and flint sat nearby upon an inner ledge. Johanni brushed off the cobwebs off the former and lit it with the latter. They now had burning bright light to guide the way.
“Follow me,” said Johanni to the huscarls. There was a flight of small jagged steps before them that led into a series of hidden corridors stretching out beneath the palace grounds into the various tombs and crypts of fallen thegns, former jarls, and dead monarchs. His own mother, Lady Sunna, was here interred and very soon King Hrathwuld would join her. In its stone walls ancient poems and murals of distant battles were carved. Stone obelisks bore the forgotten names of Impanni warrior heroes – Lady Arums Burin, Bryggam the Bold, Oldblood Trystane, Garm Goathelm. Johanni led the four huscarls down that path all the way to a central chamber where the corpses were embalmed before their internment. All its torches were lit, and there were familiar faces there to meet them.
Hereweald Ironhide, fully clad in ornate steel plate armour, with his gigantic runic longaxe in hand and all forty-six of his remaining huscarls at his back. Next to him stood the Karggar chieftain, Erik Halfspear, his wounds bandaged beneath the leather hauberk he now wore. And next to him stood Norsa Hardfang, battered and bruised but standing – tortured, no doubt by the Royal Inquisitors.
“Erik! Norsa!” Johanni gave the torch to a huscarl and ran up to them. “Oh, thank the gods.”
Norsa, dressed in the same leather armours as Erik, breathed heavily. Beads of sweat dripped down her bruised skin as it turned various shades of yellow and purple. Her axes were gone, so like Erik she carried a longsword beneath her cloak. She was standing… but she looked so weak.
The Hardfang caught her breath. “They… could not break me.”
“No one can. And the men who did this to you will pay with their lives. My eyes are unclouded. I will bring you justice, once and for all.”
Norsa nodded, weakly.
“Is this all we have?” Said Erik. “Where are the shieldmaidens?”
Johanni shook his head. “They are the protectors of the king. They cannot intervene in our affairs until a new one is declared. How is your shoulder?”
The Halfspear grit his teeth. “I wasn’t stabbed in my sword arm side. My balance is off, but I can still fight.”
“Let us not tarry here,” said Hereweald. “We haven’t much time until-”
“UNTIL I CATCH YOU!” Echoed a voice.
Johanni, Erik Halfspear, Norsa Hardfang, Hereweald Ironhide and all fifty of his huscarls turned towards the northern end of the chamber where a tall figure sauntered out from the shadows of a cracked archway, slowly and mockingly clapping his hands.
It was Ragnar Bloodbane.
He wore no armour and carried no sword; only his gold-trimmed purple tunic and laurel crown. Even his feet were bare. It was as if he were mocking them.
“TRAITOR!” The Ironhide raised his axe. “You come alone and unarmed? Does your hubris know no bounds?!”
Erik and Norsa drew their swords. The huscarls fell into formation and drew arrows from their hip-quivers. But Ragnar ignored them and focused on Johanni. “This is your last chance, brother. Defy me here and there is no going back.”
His heart thundered inside his chest. The longer he looked at Ragnar Bloodbane the less he saw his brother. It was too late. Although he spoke of choice, the die was already cast and they both knew it. There was no going back. Johanni threw open his cloak and drew his short sword, freshly forged from the legionary weapon-smithies.
“Stand aside,” he said. “We are leaving this city peacefully, and we shall have congress with the Royal Diet once we are safe. And justice will follow.”
“…Justice…? Bandying lofty abstracts and proselytizing your piety before your followers like a monk. Ignorant boy. You’ve truly learned nothing. Fine. Your choice is made. But this will not end the way you think it will.”
The High Legate raised a fist and summoned two of his fellows from the shadowed archways by the northern exit. Dust crunched beneath their boots and Johanni, Erik and Norsa gaped in horror as they ambled over to Ragnar’s side, for they knew those men well.
It was Haakon Godwulfsson… and Gnut the Troll.
“Gnut?!” Johanni’s mind raced. “H-how… how is this…?”
Gnut palmed his mace. “Sorry, boy. I meant ya no ‘arm. But duty is duty.”
“The Iron Circle was never broken,” said Ragnar. “When we explored Grünlund we witnessed the same misery and disorder you did, the malaise that dear king Hrathwuld left this country to rot in… but then the gods blessed us with the power to correct this country’s course.”
Hereweald Ironhide drew before Johanni. “Lord, what is he talking about?”
“Wulf’s Blut…” Whispered the boy. “The entire time…”
“Because we love this country,” said Ragnar. “We of the Iron Circle, we who Hrathwuld’s court once maligned as bastards, trolls and monsters…. dedicated our lives to restoring Grünlund – a plan eight years in the making. We chiselled our will into this nation’s bedrock, accumulating power from the shadows and seeding spies in every village, town, and city from here to the Hoarfrost Throne. We feigned Gnut’s death so that he was free to destroy all records of the Blut’s weakness. I had Haakon kill Gad Greyspear and earn my father’s disgrace, so that he was free to observe the threat of Magnus Magnusson.”
“You?!” Erik’s first trembled. “You gave the order?!”
“One I was more than happy to carry out,” uttered Haakon, brandishing his jagged teeth as his bloodshot eyes sharpened with joyous rage. “There is no sweeter sight than a man’s lifeblood dripping from your sword…”
“Damn you all!” Only Hereweald Ironhide was strong enough to hold Erik Halfspear back as Ragnar Bloodbane’s cold smile returned to a stunned Johanni. “A plan eight years in the making, brother. When the Osserians grew too powerful, we engineered the pretext to put them down. When Magnus Magnusson grew too ambitious, we put a dagger in your hand. All in service to this auspicious moment – the moment of Hrathwuld’s death, when all the chieftains are gathered in a single spot – so we could sweep them from the board.”
Johanni felt his heart sink. “This cannot be true…”
“Think of it,” said Ragnar. “When the Halfspear is gone, the Karggars will be ruled by Sygardi and Olaf Greyspear, a soft boy and an old man, easy to browbeat. With Kjarlla dead, Lord Bors has no more heirs, so when he dies the Arbarii chieftaincy will be ours to allot. With Thorvald dead, and Modi Magnusson abroad, the closest blood male to the Magnusson line is now Haakon. He will rule the Deepfjord. And once I execute the Hardfang for her ‘insurrection’, I will have licence to finish off the Osserians once and for all. Your task, my dear brother, was to bring them all to me. And you did. I am so proud of you.”
“…Monster,” spat the boy. “You are a monster!”
Ragnar brandished his teeth with a grin. “No, brother. The ‘monster’ sleeps inside of me… and pray you never meet him....” He chuckled. “We created a framework with which to author a greater Grünlund. A loyal army. A full treasury. Docile chieftaincies. But you have not become the man I hoped you would. You are weak and you are pious. You have inherited Hrathwuld’s smug virtues but none of his great strength. You are not ready. Morality exists at the whims of the strong, brother. And where the strong lead, the weak must follow. Thus, it falls to me to become king and steer our history towards its proper course.”
…The entire time, the thought went over and over in Johanni’s head like a curse. The entire time I was nothing more… than his puppet! Damn you, Ragnar! Damn you! His fist trembled around his sword grip. “…DAMN YOU!”
Ragnar stepped back. “Gnut. Haakon. It is time. Johanni is not to be harmed but the others are yours to kill.”
Steam seeped from the cracks between Haakon’s teeth as he drew a glorious grin, whilst a more sombre Gnut slotted away his mace and squared his feet.
“Enough!” Roared Hereweald. “Archers! FIRE!”
His assembled huscarls loosed a volley of arrows at Ragnar Bloodbane, only to be intercepted by Haakon Godwulfsson, who dove in front of him. Shafts gouged him in the right eye, left thigh, left shoulder, right knee, lower stomach, and upper abdomen – but he did not fall. Blood dripped to the dusty stone floor in rivulets but the half-Thoth merely grinned at the archers as his body mutated before there very eyes. Each shaft snapped in half as his bulking limbs spat out the arrowheads and the skin calcified and scaled over into rigid, scaly grey armour. Behind him Gnut the Troll’s human form was all but gone when his stunted limbs snapped out into elongated boughs flecked with thorny spurs, oozing puss from the fleshy pulp pulsing beneath his sprouted plates of armoured flesh. The bones of lower skull jutted out into a goring snout lined with gnashing tusks as his goat-like limbs raised his new-born mass up to heights of twelve lumbering feet. His heavy hooves cracked open the flagstones beneath them and his roar thundered throughout the hall, rustling the torch flames, and billowing their cloaks. The Troll and the Godwulfsson… were no longer human.
Ragnar smiled coldly. “You made the wrong choice, ‘Hanni.”
After that it was all a blur of motion and madness. Johanni’s sword lulled at his side as Beast Gnut charged towards him, his every hoofbeat pounding the earth like a pestle. It was Norsa Hardfang who shoved him aside and out of the way, just seconds before Beast Gnut’s gigantic tusks bored through leather armour, smashed through her ribcage, and jutted out through her back in a bloody tangle of intestinal matter. Hereweald’s huscarls launched a second volley but not a single arrow pierced its hide… and they were utterly defenceless as Beast Haakon flexed its full wingspan and dove through their ranks, his bare claws slashing and scything as a chorus of horrified screams filled the chamber. Erik Halfspear threw himself into the onslaught, tears streaming down his face, but Beast Haakon threw a single claw backward and repelled his sword so hard it spun out of his hands and clattered to the ground. Johanni looked on in horror as the grinning monster scooped Erik up into the air and slammed him down, pinning him in place. The Karggar grit his teeth but try as he might he could not struggle loose. That was when Hereweald Ironhide brought down his longaxe with a furious battle cry, and the blow clanked against Beast Haakon’s armoured skin like steel against stone.
That was the last he saw of the massacre in the necropolis – Norsa dead, half the huscarls slaughtered, Erik Halfspear pinned down and Hereweald’s axe seconds away from breaking point – when he rose to his feet to help, a pair of gloved hands muzzled his mouth and snatched his wrists from behind. “No!” yelled Johanni but the leathered fingers muffled the sound as he was dragged away into the darkness until the dying shrieks and animalistic roars ebbed into the distance. He thought it was Ragnar dragging him away, but as the older man span Johanni around he saw a different face staring back at him.
Johanni shivered. “You?”
The Osserian apologized as he drove his gloved fist into the boy’s stomach, winding him. The dusty corridor spun around him as he lost consciousness.
It was the absence of screaming that was the first thing he heard – an unmistakable silence proceeding a horrific chaos. Next came the slosh of still waters breaking against oars. And then the whistle of cool winds against his sweaty ears.
…I’m on a boat…? He thought.
Johanni’s eyes slowly drifted open. He saw a tired reflection gazing back at him through dark waters… and across those waters he saw the slopes a muddy riverbank overrun by thick fog.
Where is this? He thought. The Great River? The fog was thicker than smoke making it impossible to tell. But then he remembered the boat and the man rowing it. The man who stole him away from that hellish chaos.
Johanni watched him from the corner of his eyes. Dark circles marred the Osserian’s bloodshot eyes and a dishevelled black beard now swallowed up his square jaw. His hair had grown out shaggy and grey, his face muscles gaunt and taut, his skin yellowing with jaundice. He was a shadow of the man Johanni remembered. But there he was, manning the oars, pulling back then forth then back and forth then back. His scale armour rattled beneath the folds of his deerskin cloak.
“You’re awake?” Eardwulf smiled. “Thank the gods.”
Memories of the necropolis flashed through his mind; Ragnar standing imperiously with Haakon and Gnut at his flanks, Norsa Hardfang gutted alive, Erik pinned beneath bestial claws… “Where is everyone else? Where is Erik?!”
Eardwulf’s smile fell. “I could save only you.”
“Lies… Go back! Go back, we have to save Erik!”
“If we go back, we die!” Yelled the Osserian. Scowling, Johanni tried to move but his arms wouldn’t budge and when his looked down he saw why – ropes were tied around his torso from shoulder to elbow. A second line bound his wrists together behind his back. It was futile. He was helpless.
“Untie me, Eardwulf!”
The swordsman looked away as he pulled the oars. “I cannot. Johanni, the others are lost. Returning to Drangheim now would be a death sentence. The most we can do is escape and be safe.”
Johanni shook his head. “…How did you even find me?”
“…I was drinking myself to death in Kjarlling’s taverns when I heard of the king’s passing. I knew you’d return to the capital at some point. All I wanted was one last look at you before I crawled away and died somewhere… and so I rode back to the capital… and waited for you by Temple of Ka-Uta.”
So that was him, thought the boy.
“The following night I was saddling my horse when I saw legionary soldiers sneak into the stables and don Osserian garb. I followed them… and they went across the city burning old Legion armouries. Then when the townsfolk began to whisper about a rebel group called the Sons of Osser, I knew it was a plot… and I knew in my heart you were in danger. I had to come. And I am so glad I did.”
His smile left Johanni cold.
“Let me go, Eardwulf. I am safe now.”
“You are not safe until you are far from the Bloodbane’s clutches,” declared the swordsman. “There is a Salt Isle at the furthest reaches of the archipelago, barely twenty people live on it. No one would know who you were. We could live there together in peace.”
“I love you, Johanni,” he said. “I love you and there is nothing I would not do to protect you. I never meant to hurt or frighten you.”
Johanni frowned. “If you love me then let me go.”
There was no plainer way to state the words and yet as he looked at the older man it was as if he never spoke. Eardwulf ignored him as he glared into the foggy distance and drew back at the oars in that mechanical way of his. He did not notice the long black shadow trailing its way behind the skiff.
Nor did Johanni, at first.
“Love is a seed,” said Eardwulf. His voice was low and sombre. “It must grow. And I will keep you safe until it does.”
A hand grabbed the side of the boat. It hit the rim in a wet slap, calloused and strong. Johanni looked on and Eardwulf held at the oars as the skiff rocked, and an enraged figure wrenched out of the water and hurled himself screaming at the Osserian – Erik Halfspear. And then panic replaced Johanni’s brief sigh of relief when two men wrestled each other off the skiff, plunging together into the waters in a desperate struggle. The sudden jolt of force tossed the boat onto its side, left oar twisting into the air and hurling the restrained Johanni into cold black waters.
Bubbles and debris surged around him as the tools, rope and supply bags sunk into a murky abyss. He would follow if he did not hurry. The boy searched his surrounds until he saw a broken reflection of moonlight and kicked his feet towards it as hard as he could until he broke through to the surface, gasping for breath.
“Erik!” He yelled, coughing. “Erik, where are you?”
No one replied.
A few yards ahead of him the skiff floated down the river keel-side up. But no Erik and no Eardwulf. But either way he couldn’t stay in the water. Johanni grit his teeth, leaned to his side and kicked his legs hard against the tide to steer himself towards the riverbank. He sloshed up on the muddy slope like a hooked trout, wriggling in his bonds and gasping for breath, hair darkened brown with damp, his clothes heavy and soaked. And it was cold. It was so cold that his frantic breaths clouded around his lips.
“Erik!” He called out. “Erik, are you out there? Erik!”
I must find him! Thought the boy. But there was no way he could go back out there for him tied up like this. There had to be something nearby he could cut himself loose with. Johanni took one last look at the still waters then rolled himself onto his belly, his back sodden with mud, and drew his knees up underneath him to press himself up to his feet. He struggled up the mud slope, one foot at a time, then fell over face first into the mud.
Damn! He seethed. Just a little further…
He pulled his visage from the dirt puddle, dragged himself back to his feet and trudged up the sloppy bank once again until he fell through the fog and landed in wet grass. Mud caked his face. Blood dripped from his lip. His clothes were heavy with damp. And then, in the cloudy black skies above, a flash of lightning lit up the field before him.
And it was littered with corpses.
Johanni’s jaw went slack at the sight. Heads severed from their necks. Brittle leather armours split open as the wounded torsos below spewed up their pulped intestinal tracts. Spearpoints had broken off in shattered ribcages. Rain-soaked warhammers lodged inside crushed craniums. Arrows in eye sockets. Abandoned cookfires. Burnt tents. It was a camp. And then Johanni saw the tattered remnants of a mud-soiled wolf totem flag billowing in the breeze from the haft of a broken spear. It was the Karggar camp.
And then the lightning faded, and it all went dark again.
The waters behind him burst open. Johanni rolled onto his back and looked back, praying it was Erik, but instead saw Eardwulf, wading over to the riverbank and pulling himself out of the waters.
Thunder rumbled across the blood-soaked field.
Eardwulf, gasping for air, tore off his cloak by the broach and its sodden weight flapped to the ground. He had a line of rope in his hand, and his eyes ticked back and forth until they spotted Johanni through the fog. Then the thrall called out to him – “JOHANNI!”
“Stay away!” Cried the boy. “Get away from me!”
A desperate chase began. Johanni hauled up onto his feet to run away, just as Eardwulf took after him in pursuit. The roped boy stumbled through the cadaverous vestiges of the Karggar warband, huffing and heaving, fallen arrows snapping beneath his boots like twigs until he skidded against a puddle of entrails and landed in bloody mud. Another bolt of light lit up the battlefield. Johanni opened his eyes. A disembowelled soldier smiled at him.
Heavens help me, he thought. Please!
That was when Eardwulf snatched him. The Osserian, heavy of breath and bleeding from a gut wound, dragged Johanni kicking and screaming through the slop as he screamed “Let me go! Let me go! LET ME GO!” whilst the field went dark again. There was a leafless oak tree nearby. The soaked Eardwulf ferried his captive over to it and shoved him against its bark before pressing their dirty lips together. Tears streamed down Johanni’s muddy face as he wretched with disgust, tasting blood and dirt and ale on the older man’s tongue.
Eardwulf broke the kiss as another lightning bolt lit the grounds. With his emaciated face and bloody smile, it was as though Johanni was staring into the very face of insanity. “I love you so much,” whispered the thrall as took his second line of rope and tied Johanni to the tree with it. He then kicked a longsword out of the hands of a dead Karggar outrider and took it up, turning towards the river.
“This will not take long,” he said softly. “And then we can be together…”
The river waters broke open again.
It was Erik Halfspear, swimming stroke for stroke to the riverbank to pull himself out of the drink. He caught his breath beneath the thundercrack as Eardwulf edged towards him, his muddy sword dragging through the wet grass behind his boots. Johanni yelled at Erik to RUN AWAY but his voice was too weak for the thunder’s din. And when the lightning came again it showed the Halfspear what had become of his warband. His horrified eyes broke Johanni’s heart.
And then Eardwulf entered his line of sight.
Karggar dead made up most of the mutilated husks strewn about the sludge, but there were a handful of fallen legionaries amongst them. One had a longsword stuck in his belly. Erik Halfspear, eyes occluded by dirty wet hair, ripped that same longsword free as the thegn-turned-thrall approached him from the high ground.
“This all began with you,” Eardwulf raised his sword. “LET IT END WITH YOU!”
The darkness fell.
Thunder clapped thrice, not of the heavens, but of steel against steel, echoing into the distance as the skies above cast down a sudden rain with which to shower the field. It was as if Ka-Uta herself was expressing her rage. Torrents of mud, blood, and rainwater began flowing into the Great River. Thunder broke, lightning followed…
…and Eardwulf dropped his sword. It fell into the sodden grass. His blood followed it there, a stream of it, flowing down his breeches and armour from the gaping wound across his throat. The gut of red dropped him first to his knees and then to his face.
And once he fell, he did not move again.
The Halfspear, gasping for breath, lowered the bloody tip of his sword as his eyes searched the field until they spotted Johanni, tied to a tree on the other side of the carnage. He dragged himself up, first to his haunches and then to his feet. Erik’s soggy, weighted steps then slowly ferried him over to the Impanni boy’s side. He raised up the longsword, dripping with Osserian blood, and hacked off the ropes holding him prisoner. His eyes were awash.
“I’m sorry…” Johanni brought their foreheads together. “I’m so sorry…”
Erik Halfspear let the heavy longsword fall from his fingertips, wrapped his trembling arms around the boy, and burst into angry tears.
YES, MY SON?
TELL ME WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A KING.
IT MEANS DUTY. IT MEANS RESPONSIBILITY. BUT MOST OF ALL, IT MEANS…
The only unburnt tent had collapsed. Erik and Johanni worked together to post its tent poles back up to secure the fabric and netting. They then spread an abandoned bearhide cloak over the drenched grass and huddled together for warmth. The tent was riddled with arrow holes, but it was all they had for shelter as they waited out the storm.
When it finally passed (and the sun returned) they stepped outside and saw the horrors of the previous night with fresh eyes. All fifty men of Erik’s warband had been killed whilst six dead legionaries lay with them in the mud. They were hit with a cavalry charge, judging by the many hundreds and hundreds of hoofprints beaten into the earth from the north-eastern side of the camp. And Growler, Erik’s tamed bear, had been stabbed with spears whilst locked inside his cage.
There were too many bodies to bury, and with the ground so wet and there being so little kindling nearby, they could not be burned. They had no choice but to leave them for the crows, which were already wheeling the skies in wait for a meal. For a moment Johanni considered burying Eardwulf, but it passed just as quickly. That was the kind and merciful thing to do… and Johanni was sick of being kind.
Feed the crows, he thought. I will not mourn you.
Instead they scavenged the camp for supplies (procuring an unbroken longsword and a short sword, boots, a spear, a hammer, a purse of gold, and a spool of rope) before loading it all into shorn leather saddlebags and following the river north. They caught up to Eardwulf’s skiff (trapped between some mossy rocks at the edge of the eastern bank). Thankfully, it was not damaged. Together they swam out to fetch it, flipping it right side up, then ferried it back to the riverbank where they loaded it with their supplies and climbed inside.
Johanni took the oars. The Halfspear offered, but he refused to let him. He was still weak from his stab wound and the fight with Eardwulf – better to let him rest. Rowing was more strenuous than it looked but Erik directed Johanni through it.
“Everyone is dead,” said Erik, soberly. “Frodi and Thregg. Norsa. Kjarlla. Thorvald. Even the Ironhide – if not for his longaxe I never would’ve gotten free long enough to come after you. What now? Karburgh?”
Johanni shook his head as he pulled the oars. “We’d endanger your brother if we went to him. We are the only ones left who know the truth about Ragnar. Nowhere in Grünlund is safe.”
“East,” said the boy. “As Magnus Magnusson once did. We will rest and we will grow strong, and then we return to take back what is ours… I swear it.”
“What of Ragnar?”
Johanni’s heart felt cold. “I will have his head…”
TO BE CONTINUED IN WULF’S BLUT – THE GOLDEN EMPIRE
* Aaaaand that’s a wrap, folks! Thanks so much for reading, we got there in the end (eventually). I forgot how much I enjoyed this story and its characters, and as I was going over my notes for the last two chapters I realized that I had more I wanted to do with it (particularly Johanni and Erik’s relationship and the wider global context that Magnus Magnusson eludes to in chapter six). So, I re-wrote then ending to continue the story in a future sequel entitled, “Wulf’s Blut: The Golden Empire”. It will not be as long as this was, and I have some other updates I want to do before I start working on it, but if you enjoyed this story keep an eye out for it in the near future.
* Comments and constructive criticism always welcome. You can contact me here or at email@example.com, I always enjoy feedback. I also want to try my hand at writing short stories so if you have any ideas on you, let me know.