Only Bjorulf Knows
Partie 1[modifier | modifier le wikicode]
“Sigbjorn, secure the gate. Sigbjorn, kill the dredge. Sigbjorn, go get the faen mead.” The varl stopped grumbling when his traveling companions gave him strange looks. He sighed heavily enough for his mustache to flutter, rolling his strained shoulder under the burden of his great sword. “Never mind. You’re all terrible company anyway.”
The youth glanced nervously at the one Sigbjorn knew as Marteinn. “Is this trip wise? Or even necessary?”
“If you want to go against Bolverk’s orders, be my guest,” Marteinn replied, lightly punching the third man in the shoulder. “Not that you could taste Reynivik’s finest mead, eh?”
The older spearman shot Marteinn a dark glare in return, before casting his gaze to the dirt road.
Sigbjorn raised an eyebrow at the morbid comment. “Why not?”
“Show ‘em, Tomas,” Marteinn said, smirking.
Sigbjorn noticed the old man resist a sneer before opening his mouth. Between the assortment of remaining yellow teeth wagged the stump of a tongue, severed near the root. The varl chuckled dryly. “Just like Bolverk. Sending someone all the way to Reynivik for a drink they can’t enjoy.”
“And we’re the ones who get to die for it,” the youth said bitterly. He adjusted the bow over his back, one side having caught the drum at his hip.
“That’s the spirit,” Sigbjorn replied, scratching his backside.
The youth shook his head. “I’m Aron by the way.”
“I don’t care.”
Marteinn burst into laughter, and the varl rolled his eyes. The last place he desired to be was traveling Sten’s March, stuck with three yapping men and no yoxen cart. To their right was the unnamed river that ran alongside the road, flowing opposite to their direction of travel. On the left were sloping cliffs with snow, trees and shrubbery clinging to their base. Sigbjorn knew that Rake’s Crossing lay beyond the ascent, perhaps a day’s journey north.
And behind them, resting at the shore of Deepmot, was the dung heap called Boersgard.
Admittedly, it felt good to be away from the cramped city, the streets of which stunk of sweaty, fearful men. For several days, they held it from both the besieging dredge and the rioting citizens. Yet while the Ravens had brought enough food to last the Governor’s employ, their mead had long run dry. Had Bolverk Bloodaxe not discovered Sigbjorn finishing the last cask, he might have avoided this pointless death.
And he had to give me a mute, a worthless drummer and the company’s craziest lunatic, the varl thought.
“What?” Aron asked, alarmed. Marteinn perked a brow as well.
“Never mind.” Sigbjorn rolled his jaw contemptuously. Apparently, his thoughts hadn’t been as inaudible as he thought. A lack of drink had left him grumpier than usual.
“Um, so boss…” Aron said. “What do we do if we run into the stone men?”
“Good question.” The varl rubbed the base of one of his horns, feeling the engravings there. As one of the Raven’s oldest Warhawks, he knew he could stand toe-to-toe with a dredge scourge in strength and height. However, Sigbjorn glanced down at the other three and knew it was hopeless. Tomas was the tallest, yet he only came to the varl’s navel. None of them bore a shield, so forming a wall was out. Nor did the giant know how well any of them fought. “Forget it. If we see any slag, make for the river and hide. Let them find their way to Boersgard and into Bloodaxe’s care.”
“What about hiding in that forest?”
Tomas buried his face in a hand. Marteinn smacked the back of Aron’s head.
“What was that for?” The youth rubbed his struck scalp.
“Let me connect the trade routes for you,” Sigbjorn said evenly. “Have you ever heard of the Lang Loom Forest?”
Aron seemed to shrink. “I didn’t know.”
“That’s the problem with man. Us varl are always having to look out for you. Holding back slag in the north. Instructing you in swordplay without slicing off your foot. Keeping you from blundering into the world’s most dangerous forest. And how do you repay us? By dying. Yet always after you all have a few kids to annoy us with the same questions, again and again and again. My old mentor Karli was right. Life…” Sigbjorn opened his eyes wide, holding a hand out dramatically. “…is a series of humans.”
Aron blanched. Sigbjorn couldn’t tell if Marteinn was amused or angered. Tomas surprised him the most with a single cough, a wide smile on the old man’s countenance.
“I guess it isn’t all bad though. I mean, after a while you all look the same. Why, I once knew one named Gusi. Turned out he was a good drinking buddy. When he died, I dragged his corpse over to one of your pregnant women. Slapped the body down and said, ‘Raise me another one like him!’”
Marteinn slapped his thigh laughing. Even Aron cracked a nervous grin.
“Course, she got the guards t—”
Tomas waved vigorously, cutting the varl off. The mute pointed two fingers at his own eyes, then indicated the north. Sigbjorn followed his gesture, his gaze narrowing.
Dark figures meandered over the cliffs, at least a dozen total. With the sun above, their shapes were shadow-clad. Yet when Sigbjorn discerned their flattened, angular horns and strange blades, he knew who he witnessed.
The varl swallowed, and studied the elevation. The cliffs were steep, and ice lingered in the terrain’s shade. Yet the footing was not treacherous enough to deny descent. “Go to the river. Stick to the banks and give them a few moments to pass.”
The men obeyed silently. As they abandoned the path and trod softer soils, Sigbjorn dearly wished he wore something else that day. His crimson and white parti-colored tunic stood out, even from a distance. Fortune favored them however, and the varl took cover behind a gully along the river bank, completely obscuring himself. Tomas and Aron shared a boulder, while Marteinn settled behind a large bush which glowed a soft lavender in the sunlight.
Swallowing, Sigbjorn set his blade down and reached into his pouch. As he scrounged about, his fingers brushed the soft bristles of a long scarlet feather. When was the last time I mentioned Karli’s name aloud? He thought with a frown, but found his gloves. Slipping them on, he reached for the handle of his great sword.
They waited, each gripping his weapon in anticipation. Yet no telltale sounds came of stone grinding, no rustling of rock-crafted tower shields over long grass. Inhaling sharply through his nostrils, Sigbjorn risked a peek over the ditch wall, his horns accidentally shaking a tree branch.
The dredge never noticed them. Or if they had, then they didn’t care enough to charge. Instead the stone men ventured higher, towards the cliffs over Boersgard.
Sigbjorn waved the other Ravens over. The men stayed low as they rushed into cover beside the varl, prudently keeping out of sight. He spoke softly. “Give them a moment more, then we’ll be on our way.”
“Maybe we should travel along the river?” Aron offered.
Sigbjorn shook his head. “The sand and soil will slow us and leave a trail. And if any dredge are hiding in the forest, we won’t see them coming.”
The youth’s brow creased in frustration. “It’s still a day to Reynivik, and we’re going to have to fight the townsfolk or trick them into giving us the goods. That’s assuming there’s a way we can carry it to Boersgard by ship or yoxen. Why don’t we just go back? Surely Bolverk must realize this is a waste of four Ravens.”
Sigbjorn rolled his eyes. “Let me guess. You’re one of Sparr’s ‘naifs,’ or whatever that term is? Does he ever let you talk to Bolverk?”
The youth’s jaw dropped. Sigbjorn wondered how much naivety was left to expel.
“Look,” Marteinn said, scratching his nose. “If we return empty handed, Bolverk will likely murder us. If we stay here, the dredge will kill us.”
“But,” Sigbjorn interjected. “If we get to Reynivik, then at least we can drink ourselves to death.”
They slogged on.
Sigbjorn sighed, wishing he could tell the time. The sun still stood in the sky, exactly where it had been for the last several weeks. His armpits sticky from sweat, the varl undid the top button of his tunic and scratched his chest hair.
The other Ravens fared little better. Aron rhythmically bobbed his head, while Marteinn gazed intensely at the woods across the river. Tomas tried to remain keen, but the boredom clearly wore him down as well. Everywhere they looked was the same doldrums of green hills, forest or the dirt road expanse.
Sigbjorn considered calling a halt for a meal, but decided against the idea. Bolverk had furnished them only a day’s worth of rations, telling them to find food on the way. Mad as Bloodaxe could be, his reasoning was sound— Reynivik was the region’s breadbasket, the fields amazingly fertile. Rumor had it that every family there was a beekeeper.
Sigbjorn glanced to the sky again and noticed gray clouds in the distance. Rain would have been a blessing and a curse, hiding them from the enemy but slowing them with the mire. Still, the varl could tell that the clouds moved at no haste, and any precipitation would not arrive for some time.
That was when he heard an irritating sound. He tried to ignore the droning noise, thinking it a bee or some other insect. Then he realized it bore a distinct tune. Snorting, he glanced at Aron. “The faen are you doing?”
The youth tripped over a rock, but managed to regain his footing. “I… I was humming.”
“No. You were annoying me.”
Aron glanced down. Marteinn looked from the boy to the varl, before pushing the former. “Thought that was a damn buzzing in my ear. Idiot.”
Sigbjorn’s brow knitted. The lunatic’s behavior implied he was something of an ass shiner. There had been rumors about Marteinn’s bloody antics, how he had impressed Bolverk enough to join the Ravens. But the varl also remembered Folka’s murmuring, that the man did something recently to cross their leader. Annoyed with Marteinn’s assumed authority, Sigbjorn decided to offer the kid a chance to redeem himself. “So, either shut up or sing your little lullaby already.”
“I…” Aron’s brow rose. He reached for his belt, but stopped. “May I use my drum?”
“Fine. Just keep it down.”
The youth took the instrument from his belt. Holding the flat frame in one hand, he started a low beat with solid rhythm. After a moment, the words poured out in a smooth baritone.
Aron finished with a rapid tapping of his fingers. A stunned silence ruled until Tomas broke into throaty, bird-like sounds of amusement. Marteinn chortled, a palm to his forehead. Even Sigbjorn felt the rumble grow within him before he burst into roaring laughter. “Not bad at all! Where did you learn this one, boy? Not vulgar enough to be one of Sparr’s pieces.”
“Actually,” Aron grinned sheepishly as he tucked a hair strand behind an ear. “I wrote it myself. I was… I was thinking it might be an anthem for the Ravens.”
“Bolverk is no lover of poetry,” Sigbjorn said as he shrugged his sword-carrying shoulder, still chuckling. “However, he may make an exception for that melody. It’s us, make no mistake.”
Aron fixed the drum to his belt again. “Maybe if we catch him on a good da—”
Marteinn came to a halt, Tomas too after another step. Sigbjorn looked toward his men, and followed their gaze into the grass off the road. Something was there, beside the bushes. After scanning the horizon and seeing nothing, the varl stepped off Sten’s March and drew closer.
It was a body.
Scratching his beard, Sigbjorn laid his sword down as he knelt to examine the corpse. It was a man, dressed in the worn smock and cap of a farmer. He had been killed recently, the blood mostly dry with no signs of putrefaction yet. His neck was almost entirely severed; Sigbjorn saw the faint pink of the chopped spine amongst the gore. Over the reek of urine, the varl smelled something burned.
Besides Sigbjorn, Tomas kept watch while Marteinn crossed his arms, studying the kill. Aron winced before turning away, his features fading to a pallor.
“The cut’s pretty clean,” Marteinn observed. “What do you think? Bandits?”
“No.” Sigbjorn pointed to the man’s leg. A burned knee was exposed through the seared trousers. “This looks like a Shatterstone wound. I think our man took a blast and dropped. Unable to rise and run, they probably sauntered over and casually executed him.”
“You think? Maybe it was a torch.”
Sigbjorn shook his head, pointing to the dirt beside the lacerated neck. There were two symmetrical holes in the soil, both puddled with blood. “That’s the shape a double-pronged blade would make going straight down. Only dredge make a weapon like that.”
Aron breathed deeply a few times, staring at the ground. “What about this trail of blood though?”
Sigbjorn studied the spot Aron pointed at, and realized the youth was right. Grass had been bent and crushed in a trail leading past Sten’s March. Standing tall, the varl focused that direction. The spoor naturally ended at the river, but there was something just beyond the tree line.
Yellow eyes flashed their way. It took Sigbjorn a moment to discern the gray lupine shapes, their snouts crimson as they dug into their prey. A faint wind began, and as the leaves shifted a ray of light fell on the carcass. It was a man, his mouth slack as blood trickled over his wispy black beard.
“Do you see something?” Aron asked.
Sigbjorn rolled his shoulders in a shrug. “Dinner for wolves.”
“Think they were from Reynivik?” Marteinn asked, gripping his seax.
“Maybe. If so, they were probably trying to petition the Governor for aid—” Sigbjorn stopped. He crouched and listened.
The other Ravens instinctively did the same. Only the wind was heard over the hilly plains, washing over tall blades of grass and whipping through the trees. Marteinn turned toward the varl, raising a questioning palm. His question was answered with a steady thump, and the clatter of rock plates. Tomas turned and wagged a finger to the northwest, where figures came over the rise.
Most were about a head taller than a man, though some equaled a varl in height. Their torsos were a touch elongated, their limbs marked with square protrusions from gray armor. Their weapons too were more geometrical, like finely wrought stone art. Strangest of all were the round pauldrons each bore over just one shoulder, always larger than their heads. The asymmetrical weight gave them a stagger.
Partie 2[modifier | modifier le wikicode]
Sigbjorn heard Aron swallow, and couldn’t blame him. There was at least a score of them, though smaller ones seemed to hide behind their ranks. Far too many for four Ravens, caught out in the open, to take on. Worse, the hills were no longer too steep to charge down.
“Back,” Sigbjorn hissed. He began to crawl in reverse, dragging his weapon across the grass. “Get to the river.”
His men obeyed, slinking along. Until a warbling scream cut through the air, a thick blade pointed their way.
“Run!” The varl screamed, scrabbling to his feet. “Pass the river! Get to the forest and stick together!”
Aron snapped around. “But you sai—”
They charged towards the wood line, fiery rock raining down around them. Most of the smoking slag missed, though Marteinn yelped as a round blazed past his ear. Sigbjorn heard the din of thundering stone. The enemy warriors pursued them.
The sound was drowned out as Tomas hit the river first, almost slipping over on a slimy rock. He recovered, and without finesse wallowed through the current. Marteinn and Aron followed, but Sigbjorn noticed the wolves still gathered about their meal. They were readying themselves to pounce on the spearman.
With a sprinting start, the varl launched himself, sailing half over the river. Descending, he took a bounding hop, splashing a geyser of water skyward and finishing his flight.
Landing before Tomas, Sigbjorn roared. His voice echoing through the trees.
The wolves, once ready to spring, instead shrank before the deafening howl. The largest turned and bolted, his tail between his legs. The smaller ones chased after him, no braver than their leader.
As Marteinn and Aron ascended the banks, the varl reached down and grabbed a large rock.
“What do we do?” Marteinn asked, huffing. His seax was drawn, as was one of his throwing axes.
“You remember the Halsar weave?”
They nodded. Tomas grinned, reaching for the hunting javelins over his shoulder.
“Aron, with me. Marteinn, Tomas, go west. And shout when you throw, dammit!”
The two men rushed to obey just as they heard the splash of the dredge hitting the water. Sigbjorn snorted and stepped away from the tree line. At this distance, he could discern their open helm faceguards and angled horns, rancorous grimaces on their beige faces.
“Right back at you, cave faeners,” he uttered as he picked a target, reared back and hurled his rock.
The payload sped through the air and struck the brow of a stoneguard who failed to raise his tower shield. Sigbjorn laughed at the agonizing, shaking yelp of his victim, and snatched another rock before dashing into the forest’s shadows.
He heard them give pursuit with renewed vigor. Aron fell into step alongside, and Sigbjorn slowed to allow the youth to maintain pace. There was a snap of tree branches as the stone men entered the woods.
Someone shouted. Something clanked.
The varl counted his steps. One, two… and on the fifth, he turned. “Throw!”
Aron spun about, plucking an arrow from his quiver and nocking. He fired without reservation and Sigbjorn saw leaves zip and flutter, caught in the missile’s flight. There was another clank and Sigbjorn waved the youth on. “Go!”
It was six or seven steps before the next cry came from the west, the sound as horrible as death. Sigbjorn feared the worst, then remembered Tomas’ ailment. He barely suppressed the urge to laugh. Don’t. It’ll weaken you.
Another five steps, and Sigbjorn spun and hurled his stone. In the flash, he counted five on their tail as the stone caught a grunt in the chest. Seeing nothing more he could throw on the ground, the varl ran. Aron pulled alongside him and he waved the youth away. “Split! Go!”
As Marteinn’s scream echoed in the forest, Sigbjorn knew it was time. Cupping a hand over his mouth, he faced the west and shouted. “Flock!”
Flipping around, Sigbjorn took his sword with two hands, holding it defensively. A trio of grunts charged, their bizarre axes raised and yellow eyes alight with fury. Angling away, Sigbjorn clenched his teeth and aimed low, launching himself into a whirling tempest of steel.
Spinning, the world was a smeared blur, but he felt the resistance against his weapon. He heard the reverberating wails and relished in their suffering. Recovering, he saw two thrashing against the leaf-covered earth, the third still standing upon a deeply gashed leg. Black oozed from the wound, dripping upon detritus.
The grunt stood, raising his weapon. Hate them as he did, Sigbjorn respected his enemy’s bravado. Before his foe could strike, the varl sank steel into the dredge’s chest. As the life went out of the grunt’s eyes, Sigbjorn kicked outward, freeing his blade.
The remaining pair still struggled. One had lost his leg, the stump spurting dark ichor. The other was wounded but intact, almost to his feet. Sigbjorn met this one with a raised blade. Yet he swerved as he chopped, cleaving his foe’s axe-arm.
The maimed grunts’ howls chased the varl as he ran east.
Shuffling from the right drew his attention, and Sigbjorn realized it was Aron falling into step. They charged on until coming to a few shrubs large enough to hide them.
“You,” the boy huffed as he ducked down. “You fought them?”
“But didn’t… didn’t slay them?”
The varl met the boy’s gaze with a stern glare. “Because it grinds them down, makes them waste food and care on the helpless. Burdens them with those who cannot fight and survive on their own, and weakens their will. You’re not the only one who should sing tales of the Ravens, got it?”
Aron’s mouth opened and closed a few times like a fish out of water. He managed a weak nod.
“Good. Now shut the faen up.”
Trembling, Aron obeyed.
They waited and listened. The forest echoed with the clamor of dredge armor, but the din came from many directions. After a moment they heard rapid footsteps, far softer than the stone men could make. Sigbjorn whistled, and Marteinn and Tomas appeared around the bush.
“Anyone pursuing?” the varl asked.
Tomas shook his head. Marteinn smirked.
“Alright, follow me.”
Sigbjorn led them north. Occasionally, they spotted the shapes of dredge wandering about the forest gloom. Each time, the varl altered their course, avoiding engagement until they at last reached the river again. Despite their urgency, they forded the slow stream as quietly as possible, keeping splashing to a minimum.
Their drenched clothes dripped over the northern bank as they rose. Marteinn whipped droplets from his sleeves, and spoke. “Next stop Reynivik.”
Slag struck the sand, sizzling and scorching the dirt.
Sigbjorn fixed his sight to the base of the hill from which the dredge had appeared. Several figures huddled there. Dredge of some kind but far smaller, more proportional to men than varl. A few whirled raised slings, preparing another volley.
The varl felt his brow twitch and he stepped toward his foes. Then took another step. He heard the men behind him follow. He began to jog. Then run, even as another salvo of hot rock sailed over their heads. He could see the slingers grow unnerved by their charge. They edged away, threatening to rout.
Sigbjorn bowed, ramming the first with his horns.
The slinger flew back, bowling into another. As the pair tumbled to the earth, Sigbjorn raised his sword and swung down, cleaving through a third. He thought he heard a high-pitched shriek as black splattered against the dancing grass. The limbless dredge dropped, grasping their fresh stump.
Taking a moment to survey the battle, Sigbjorn witnessed Tomas spear one of them, before kicking his foe away. The impaled slinger managed to remain standing, cradling a dripping abdomen and scrambling back. Marteinn guffawed during battle, twirling as he slashed a foe’s arm, then using his momentum to hurl an axe behind him. The spinning blade found its mark in a fleeing slinger, forcing them to a knee. Before that dredge could recover, an arrow found their flank, finishing the task.
Sigbjorn looked to Aron as the youth reached for another round. One of the downed dredge stood behind him, drawing a stone dirk from their belt and preparing to stab down.
The varl sprinted, and stabbed just above Aron’s shoulder. The tip sank into the slinger’s neck. The dredge’s poised arm dropped listlessly to the side before they toppled to the ground. Jerking his blade free, Sigbjorn realized that Aron stared at him with eyes more white than blue. With a grunt, he patted the youth’s shoulder.
Marteinn ducked a knife swing, and hamstringed the last foe. A pained shout reverberated from the dredge’s stone helm, black spreading over the hem of their dark orange sash. Marteinn grabbed the slinger’s head from behind and held them down, a kick to the elbow sent their stone blade flying into the grass. “Hey, Aron! Get over here!”
The youth warily approached, scanning the remaining dredge. No more had the will to fight— the remaining handful huddled together, shivering with bowed heads. Marteinn smirked and flipped his seax over, offering the handle to the boy. “Do it.”
Aron stared at the blade for a moment, before looking to Sigbjorn for approval. A faint murmur came from the cowering dredge who watched, but none moved.
You should stop this, a voice whispered to the varl. Yet he waved a hand regardless. “Go on.”
Aron swallowed, slipping his bow over his shoulder. He took the seax with both hands and focused on the restrained slinger. The dredge’s breath rattled, while the dark pool on their robes widened under a heraldic mark of a triangular sun.
“It’ll be merciful,” Marteinn promised.
Tomas glanced away.
The youth tightened his grip on the weapon. With a shrill cry, he stabbed. The tip followed the curve of the slinger’s outfit, burying itself in the grooves of the sternum. The blade stuck halfway, and Aron leaned forth to thrust further within.
The dredge gasped as the light of their eyes dimmed, before going slack in Marteinn’s grasp.
A powerful wail came from the crowd. A pair of the dredge clansfolk held a smaller, robed figure in check. The little one struggled to escape their grip, desperate to reach the dead slinger. The howl sank into a haunting and low groan, until the dredge lowered to their knees, defeated. Aron stared at the pitiful figure, his eyes sorrowful as he realized what he had done, and released the embedded seax.
Marteinn chuckled as he dropped the body, which fell against the soil with a dull thud. Something tumbled from the slain dredge’s pouch with a chime. The lunatic grinned as he plucked two blue crystals.
“I’ve always wanted to play with these,” Marteinn said, bouncing one of the gems in his palm. He stepped toward one of the shuddering clansfolk, who stared at his mad grin. Marteinn cracked the twin crystals together, causing them to glow. With a cackle, he slipped them into the dredge’s robes.
The other dredge edged away, while the one Marteinn chose stood there, strangely calm. Then they turned and ran, tearing past their peers. The dredge got a considerable distance before hurling themselves forward, the Shatterstones igniting. The flash was swiftly lost in the black cloud of smoke, the bang echoing over the plains.
As the dark mist cleared, Sigbjorn saw the ashy remains of the dredge. They were nothing more than a limp pile, split into at least two parts. The only noise was Marteinn’s sinister giggling, a haunting rhythm that the varl found himself echoing. Until he looked at the others.
Tomas grimaced, his jaw drawn tight while his knuckles whitened over his spear’s haft. Aron winced painfully, his whimpering voice cracked as he repeated to himself. “It’s what we got to do. It’s what we got to do.”
He was wrong, Sigbjorn. Fearing death is natural, but a life of terror drives us to seek our own tomb. The thoughts weren’t the varl’s own, but they came to him like a carrion bird coveting a meal. They were slag, Hadrborg damn them. They deserved it. A faint taste of the horror they’ve inflicted.
Marteinn sauntered back and stomped a boot against the corpse bearing his seax, withdrawing it with a squelch. “Well boss, what do you think? Fingers?”
Sigbjorn looked at the lunatic and saw something in him. A fetish for violence that was everything the Ravens were, are and ever would be. And for the first time in more than a century, it sickened him. Yet that was what he, and they, were. The varl shook his head. “No, no time. But we have to slow their warriors down.”
Marteinn nodded and took a step forward, before a huge hand barred his way.
“No. I’ll do it.”
The dredge clansfolk raised their gazes as Sigbjorn strode forth, gripping his massive blade to render them the mercy of steel.
No one spoke as they left the carnage. Blood dripped from Sigbjorn’s sword with every heavy footstep. With each droplet upon the grass, the wonder grew heavier in his mind. Even before the onslaught, the dredge did not run. They simply sat there, bowing their heads and accepting execution. Not one had attempted to escape. He realized that Marteinn’s Shatterstone victim had fled only to save the other clansfolk from harm.
Someone nudged him. Sigbjorn realized it was Tomas.
The mute pointed at the varl’s blade.
“Ah, right,” Sigbjorn said, taking a cloth from his satchel. Best not to leave a trail.
“That was some fun, eh kid?” Marteinn asked, elbowing Aron. “How does it feel? To be a real Raven?”
Aron said nothing, staring at the ground as he walked.
“What? Too good to—”
“No more talk,” Sigbjorn bade as he finished cleaning his weapon. Truthfully, he was in no better a mood than the youth, but thought to offer a reason. “Keep your ears keen for any more trouble. I don’t want to be caught blindsided again.”
Marteinn sneered, but obeyed.
They traveled for some time when they heard a sound on the wind. A howl of anguish, wavering at the precipice where grief becomes rage.
They all stopped to listen, glancing at one another at a loss for words to explain.
“Go, swiftly,” Sigbjorn ordered, taking off. The others were right behind him.
Partie 3[modifier | modifier le wikicode]
None of them knew how long they had run. But they did not ease until they came across a log longhouse. Aron propped himself against the walls, sliding to his knees. He rasped something a few times before finally blurting, “I… I can’t…”
Sigbjorn couldn’t protest. He put a trembling arm against the longhouse’s siding, the other letting his sword tip touch the earth. Had they been in the northern mountains, the beating his heart inflicted against his ribs could have started an avalanche.
“Hadrbo—” the varl’s mouth was too dry to finish the curse. Yet when a faint memory of the god’s face came to mind, Sigbjorn figured that for the best. Shaking his head, he forced himself to survey behind them. There was nothing. Just fields upon fields of grass and snow, spanning on and on to the Wyrmscale Mountains. There were no distant, gray figures. Only gray clouds. The Ravens had lost the enemy entirely.
Marteinn coughed, holding his knees. Tomas held his stomach and breathed through his mouth, making smacking noises. Sigbjorn chuckled without a sound and patted the mute’s shoulder. “At least you don’t have a tongue to parch.”
Tomas bared his teeth and gave the varl a rude gesture, to which he smirked.
“We ain’t… gonna run no more,” Marteinn gasped. “Are we?”
Sigbjorn bobbled his head and dragged his weapon to the corner of the longhouse, tiredly clinging to the walls. On the other side was a pile of split firewood. Afar, he saw farm fields that led to a few more homes. Beyond were several more stretches before a small gathering of halls and huts, the center of Reynivik.
The varl took a massive breath, then exhaled slowly, his aching heart finally slowing. He felt the weariness in his limbs and grunted. Although they were smaller and weaker, he knew from experience that humans often possessed as much stamina as his kind. Sigbjorn sighed.
“It would be foolish to march into the village now. If these folks want to fight, we’re in bad condition to meet them.” He patted the structured logs. “Let’s see if anyone’s home. Eat, drink, rest and then say hello.”
They circled about the longhouse and came to the door. After knocking, Sigbjorn found it unlocked and ducked to enter. It was dark inside, the shutters closed and the firepit dead. The varl found space to stand under the ridge boards, but knelt to check the ashes of the pit, discovering them quite cold.
“Hmm,” Sigbjorn murmured, setting his blade down. “Aron, grab me a few logs from that pile outside. Tomas, Marteinn, check for food and valuables. Doubt you’ll find anything, but check anyway.”
It didn’t take long for them to confirm Sigbjorn’s doubts. The cupboards and pantries had been emptied. There were a couple of cots, but the dressers were ransacked. Tomas kept looking as Marteinn growled angrily and kicked over a stool. “Sorry boss. There’s nothing. Even found a cubby hole behind one of the beds, but that’s been pinched too. And no water.”
“Then the family who lived here bolted.” Sigbjorn shrugged over his flint and steel. “It is what it is. What’s taking that boy so long?”
“Sorry,” Aron announced as he returned. Under one arm were some logs, the other bore a sloshing bucket. “I found a well on the other side of the house. Fresh water.”
“For that, I forgive you,” Sigbjorn said with a smile, taking the bucket between two fingers, the container like a cup to him. Opening his mouth, he tossed it back and downed the contents. More than fresh, the water was slightly sweet as though cleansed over rocks. When he lowered his head, he saw Tomas and Marteinn both giving him the sorrowful look of thirsting dogs.
The varl grunted and set the bucket on the ground. “Go on, wet your lips. But bring back more wood.”
The two rushed to obey as Sigbjorn took Aron’s logs, setting to work.
They kept the fire small and low, enough to stave off the chill that came with the rainfall. Over it they warmed a meal consisting of stale oat bread, salted goat cheese, dried fish and some leeks they had discovered growing outside. Once they finished their repast, Sigbjorn ordered his men to sleep. He would take first watch.
Carefully, he removed a single shutter board from each window so he could watch almost all directions. He allowed the flames to dwindle into little more than embers, wanting neither smoke nor light to draw attention. Gray skies were the closest thing to night those days, and the varl had no wish to attract either the dredge or Reynivik’s citizens.
And his watch began.
Boredom didn’t take long to seize him, his eyelids growing heavy with each passing moment. Only the occasional pop of the firepit broke up both the monotony of the rain’s trickling and Marteinn’s powerful snoring. Sigbjorn quickly regretted volunteering, and sought something, anything, to occupy his mind.
He spotted a stick on the ground and plucked it, spinning the twig about his fingers to keep his mind occupied. The longing for mead returned, for the tang over his palette would surely have kept him awake, thirsting for the next sip.
He’d even settle for a sour wine or thin beer, as the quiet solitude made his wits begin to wander. Many of his kind preferred being alone, but Sigbjorn had never cared for it. Even the annoyance of man was better than the memories which bubbled to the surface in silence. He shut his eyes, trying to block out the faint whispers only he could hear. Voices that called to him from old graves.
There was a better way, Sigbjorn.
“Shut up,” he muttered.
“Who are you talking to?” The voice belonged to Aron, who slunk into the ember’s light.
The varl inhaled sharply through his nostrils, caught unaware. “You should be resting.”
Aron sat down beside the pit and rubbed his arms. “I tried, but… I’m shaky. The fighting I think.”
Sigbjorn nodded. In truth, he was glad for the company. “Today wasn’t your first kill, was it?”
“No…” The youth’s voice trailed off as he stared long into the fire before continuing. “Maybe my eighth or ninth. Most of my tallies are from a distance, so it’s hard to tell. Nor was it my first slinger but I… I never thought of them as having family.”
Sigbjorn didn’t reply. It was better Aron not know. The silence lingered as the varl bent down and checked all the peepholes in the shutters. He could see people in the distance around Reynivik, but no one approached. There were no dredge to be found.
“Can I ask a question?” Aron started, holding his palms towards the warmth.
Sigbjorn shrugged, rolling the stick over his fingers.
“Are varl immortal? Do you live forever if you don’t get cut down?”
The giant smirked and rubbed the engravings on his horns. He considered teasing the youth, but decided against it. Aron had performed admirably enough to deserve a modicum of respect. “Truthfully? Faen if I know. For a lot of us, ‘died of old age’ is a polite way of saying ‘got slow with the axe.’”
Aron barked a laugh, but stopped immediately when Tomas stirred on his cot. When the sleepers settled, he spoke again in a low voice. “Was that how your mentor, Karli, went?”
Sigbjorn pulled a knee to his chest, pondering the question. It dawned upon him that all day long, the nagging voice had belonged to that long dead graybeard. It took the varl a moment to realize he was holding his breath. Slowly he released it, dreading the thought of digging up those bones again. “Easiest way to put it, I guess.”
“Did Karli instruct you in ways of battle?”
Sigbjorn’s chest froze. He had fought so long that his methods were second nature, simply instinct. Not merely taught but beaten into him. He closed his eyes and saw his instructor… a black-horned figure, staring out over the snow-covered peaks. The dark varl clenched his fingers as though desperate to choke the sky itself.
For no other save a god could bear such passionate rancor for life.
Sigbjorn’s eyes shot open. His neck throbbed from his quickened pulse, and the hint of sweat began to tickle his brow. Yet still, the warlord’s name eluded his recollection. He swallowed before he spoke. “No…”
The youth waited. Sigbjorn took a deep breath, seized the reins of his emotions, and continued.
“There was a varl, a veteran of both Great Wars, who had this… grand vision. This idea that combat, fear and life were all just the same thing. He said every day, we fight our terror or we battle to survive. Or by living do we fear, so through fear do we fight. No matter how one arranged the words, his thinking was… sound, reasonable. His views made sense then and still does, for the most part.
“But he took it one step further than any other. And he began to see more and more value in fear itself. One day he took a handful of his favorite pupils and spoke to us. ‘Survival is the greatest and only true justification. Thus, it is not enough that fear is conquered, for mastery of horror is mastery of everything.’ We called him the First Warhawk.”
Sigbjorn stared into the embers, his gaze stinging from his refusal to blink.
“He trained us in his techniques and his vision. He dreamed… that someday, we would march south and slay all men. To finish what we began in the First Great War. Our king then forbade it of course, as did the one that followed. Instead, we hunted dredge in the north for sport.”
Aron hugged his knees as he listened, enraptured by the tale.
“One day, we came across a dredge party almost three times our size. Ambushing them, we cut almost all of them down. All save two.” Sigbjorn paused to swallow, forcing himself to remember the images, the memories of that day.
“He took one and sliced off an arm and leg on the right side. For the other, the limbs on the left. Then he cauterized the wounds, and bound the two together at their stumps. ‘Tell your clans, you misbegotten freaks,’ he said. ‘Tell them what we did to you.’ He sent those dredge home, stumbling, trying to walk and move as one. Their survival wasn’t really important… our message was in the scars we gave them.”
Sigbjorn closed his eyes, finally relieving his agonized whites in the darkness. When he opened them again, he noticed Aron staring with a sorrowful countenance. “This guy wasn’t Karli you said? And Karli was a mentor?”
“Yes. And a friend.”
Aron gulped. “What did he teach you?”
Something welled in Sigbjorn’s chest, like a flood mounting from the rain. Inside he struggled, desperate to keep the words from escaping his mouth. Yet Karli’s countenance flashed before his sight, and his will failed him. “He taught… he reminded me, that there is no god of death.”
“What do yo—”
The stick snapped. The varl glanced down and realized his fist trembled. He forced his muscles to relax and tossed the broken twig into the fire. “No more questions, Aron. Since you’re up, you can take watch.”
The youth nodded.
Sigbjorn leaned back, propping his head on the ground. He regretted mentioning the old varl’s name almost a day ago, even in jest. When was the last time he had thought of him before yesterday? Years? Decades? Sigbjorn still couldn’t remember. But ever since he had uttered Karli’s name aloud, it was as though he had permitted a ghost to haunt his life.
Someone shoved him awake from the inky blackness of dreamless sleep. “What?”
“Footsteps,” Marteinn whispered. He was armed.
The varl sat up. The embers had long died, and everyone else was alert and ready. Sigbjorn stood and took his blade, crouching low to escape through the door swiftly, if needed. With everyone silent he realized the rain had stopped, replaced by the patter of a runner.
“Did anyone see them?”
“They were moving too quick,” Marteinn said. “And there’s fog outside. I couldn’t tell if they were dredge or man.”
Sigbjorn nodded. “Wait for my command.”
The steps drew closer. The varl heard Aron’s bow stretch as the youth readied to loose. Whoever it was moved quietly enough, perhaps a grunt. Sigbjorn swallowed and tightened the grip on his great sword.
The door jerked open.
A man, dressed in the battered tunic and trousers of a farmer, gazed inside. His jaw dropped, stunned at the sight of three armed men and a giant.
Aron eased his bow without firing, and Marteinn and Tomas lowered their weapons. Their leader breathed easy. “Sorry about that, we thought you wer—”
Sigbjorn shut his eyes as something squelched, and hot sputters struck his cheeks and brow. He wiped his vision clear to find the farmer blanching. A double-pronged blade pierced his stomach, viscera dribbling onto the ground.
The varl charged, horns first.
The farmer fell while the scourge freed his blade in time to meet the giant. Sigbjorn yelled as the weapon nicked his forehead, yet pushed on. He rammed the scourge’s stomach, his momentum carrying them past a few more attackers. When he finally stopped, the scourge tumbled over, sliding in the mud. The varl’s sword rose fluidly then chopped the recovering dredge’s crown, the helm splitting with a thunderous crack!
Sigbjorn didn’t study his kill. He turned in time to witness Marteinn step in for Tomas, who cradled his wounded side. The lunatic stabbed a gasping grunt in the abdomen, tendrils of black blood seeping down his seax. With his foe wounded, Marteinn ripped an axe from his belt and slashed across the dredge’s neck. The grunt knelt, gurgling as the lifeblood gushed out and spilt over his chest.
“Any more?” Sigbjorn asked.
A twang answered his question. He glanced to Aron, and followed his shaft to a dropped slinger. The arrow protruded from the downed dredge’s back, suggesting an attempt to flee.
“Not bad.” Sigbjorn nodded at the youth, then turned his attention back to Tomas.
The mute sagged, hanging onto his spear for dear life, his countenance a rictus mask of pain. Sigbjorn took one glimpse at the spearman’s red soaked tunic and knew the wound was serious. “Marteinn, patch him up immediately.”
“You’re bleeding,” Aron said.
Sigbjorn didn’t realize he was being spoken to until something tickled his nose. Wiping his bridge with a wrist, the varl found smeared blood on his skin. Aron approached, pulling a bandage from his pouch. Sigbjorn knelt so the youth could study the wound, wincing from the sharp pain caused by his touch. “How bad is it?”
“It’s a decent gash. Not terrible, but I wouldn’t ignore it.” Aron pulled a small wooden container from his pouch. As he opened it, Sigbjorn smelled the sweet scent of purple bellflowers, their petals crushed into the concoction. He grunted his approval as Aron dabbed the unguent over the cut.
A few moments later, a bandage circled the varl’s head. Testing it with a finger, he found it bound firmly but not uncomfortably, and nodded. “Good work.”
A horrific, throaty moan turned Sigbjorn’s attention to Tomas, as Marteinn tightened the dressing about his hip. The bloodspot had expanded to the bandage, the linens a vivid red.
“Can you run?” The varl asked.
Tomas sneered, but shrugged.
Sigbjorn took a moment to survey the path to the village. There were a couple of dark shapes in the mist, though whether human or dredge he could not guess. After a moment, he returned to the longhouse’s door. Sighing at all the blood, he lifted the corpse, throwing it over the crimson half of his tunic. Cradling his blade in his other arm, he turned back, double burdened. “Alright, we’ll make our way to Reynivik. Move briskly but quietly and stay away from anything you can’t identify.”
“We fightin’ the villagers?” Marteinn asked, perking his brow at the body.
“No, I got an idea. Don’t mention the Ravens or Bolverk while we’re there. In fact, just shut up and let me do the talking.”
The Ravens moved with the right mix of speed, guile and patience. Whenever a solitary figure approached they made their numbers known, sometimes splashing puddles to scare off the possible interloper. When the silhouettes were more numerous, they ducked down and waited patiently until the coast seemed clear. Despite their urgency, Sigbjorn slowed the pace whenever Tomas lagged, allowing the wounded spearman to catch up.
As they neared the center of the village, they walked more casually on the muddy roads. The mist eased around the few clustered homes, and people peered from windows and regarded them from corners. When they stopped, a woman approached, hesitating before the varl.
“Who are you and what do you want?” she asked.
Sigbjorn glanced down at the gray robed woman, who barely came to his thigh in height. Her hair was blonde but her wrinkled features suggested some white hidden among those strands. He wasn’t sure if her blue eyes were on his horns, or the corpse slung over his shoulder. “We’re from Boersgard. The Governor sent us to safeguard the city’s best food source.”
“Since when did Governor Rugga begin employing varl?”
He carefully set the body down, trying to be gentle and reverent. “Since the dredge began invading. We found this man murdered on the road here.”
She sighed through her nostrils while checking the body. After a moment, she turned and spoke to a girl. “Jofast, please go and tell Hjolp to come here. I will tell her about her brother.”
As the girl ran off, the elder woman turned her attention back to them. “I am Freylaug.”
“Are you in charge here?” Sigbjorn asked. He suspected not only the answer, but that she would not surrender her role readily.
“I am. Our chieftain died two days ago, so I ordered a few of our men to petition the Governor for aid. Did they make it to Boersgard?”
Marteinn brushed the hair from his eyes. “Not exactly lady—”
One look from Sigbjorn silenced him. He turned back to Freylaug. “No, I’m sorry. We found their bodies, just as the slag attacked. We lost good comrades getting here as well.”
His lie had the desired effect. Freylaug’s shoulders eased, as did her brow. “I see. Thank you.”
“Ma’am, my name is Sigbjorn. How many survivors are there, and how much food is left?” It was important not to show his real goal with too much haste. “Are there any ships or yoxen left?”
“Just arrived and already wanting to leave?” Freylaug’s sharp edge returned. “There are perhaps a few dozen of us left. Anyone who had a boat packed up and drifted to Deepmot. Most of our yoxen carts have already taken what they could to Boersgard. Yet the stone men have killed, stolen or eaten our remaining beasts. We have a fair amount of supplies, but no means to carry them.”
Then we will die here after all. Something withered in Sigbjorn, his head wound suddenly throbbing as his eyes went to a sign over a drinking hall. He had been to this mead house a lifetime ago, but he remembered it served some of the best drinks he ever sampled. The gold thirst overtook him, and he found himself wandering towards the entrance.
“Where are you going?” Freylaug’s voice stopped the varl’s steps. “Do you seriously think that three men and a giant can protect us here? Or on a march to Boersgard?”
Sigbjorn frowned, thinking of the fastest lie he could. “There’s a relief force… coming in two days. We’ll make ourselves defensible and just hold on until they arrive.”
“Is there really, giant?” Freylaug asked.
Sigbjorn turned. For a moment, he considered a show of strength to put this human in her place, but decided against it. His eyes swept the crowd, meeting each of their gazes. “Listen carefully! More fighters will arrive in a few days with carts. Use this time wisely. Gather whatever crops you can, pack what you need, keep your loved ones close and stay the faen away from the west. The dredge have been drifting in from that direction. If you see any, and I mean more than just a few, give the alarm. Go!”
The varl suppressed a wicked smile as many of the faces watching him lit up. They urgently obeyed, his words having stoked the fire of hope within them. Freylaug seemed ready to call to them, to tell them not to trust the giant’s promise. Yet Jofast returned with another girl, and the elder woman frowned. Shaking her head at the outsiders, she went to attend to her grim duty while Reynivik itself prepared to depart.
All over a lie.
Bolverk would never spare anymore Ravens. Sending more men would risk failing their contract, and Bloodaxe’s word was the only thing he still considered sacred. No aid was coming, yet the ruse had purchased a few days to drink their fill before dying. As far as last requests went, they could do far worse.
“The only afterlife is a hangover,” Sigbjorn said to himself as he entered the mead house.
The double doors permitted the varl entry without squeezing through or ducking his horns. Once inside, he marveled at the massive hall. Large barrels stood stacked on either side of the entrance, with a massive tub in a corner. The floors were stone except for a center of patchwork wooden panels. A long pit for fire coals rested to the right, and several long tables and benches ran alongside the walls.
“Sorry about the mess,” a man said as he approached. “How can I help you?”
“Spot a drink for a few fighters?” Sigbjorn asked.
“Yeah, liquid courage isn’t just for the ladies,” Marteinn added.
“I…” The man Sigbjorn judged to be the barkeep stopped himself, rubbing the back of his neck. “We were kind of hoping to save it.”
“Reinforcements arrive in a few days. We’re fighting to protect you, so what’s the harm in us lightening the load?”
Partie 4[modifier | modifier le wikicode]
“… And I kid you not, that is how Sparr joined us!”
The end of Sigbjorn’s tale, which never once mentioned Bolverk or the Ravens, left Marteinn and Aron laughing. Even Tomas cackled, the sound like a crow’s caw as he clutched his side with a pained expression. Aron raised his drinking horn with a wide grin. “Skal!”
“Skal!” Marteinn and Sigbjorn echoed the word and gesture, Tomas the latter, and they downed their mead. The varl smacked his lips after, feeling a weight lifted from his shoulders. It felt amazing to drink again, his cares melting away as his mood improved.
Aron sputtered during their revelries, coughing mid gulp. Marteinn burst into hysterical laughter, prodding Sigbjorn with an elbow. “No wonder they sent the dead weight with us, eh?”
It was more of that ass shiner behavior. The varl found himself loathing the excuse-for-a-man more and more. “And what exactly did you do to earn your place on this critical duty?”
“How do you think?” Marteinn smirked, then took a long sip. Sigbjorn figured it was a feint to buy the lunatic time to scheme a lie. “A girl of course.”
“Was she pretty?” Aron asked with a perked brow. The varl snorted in exasperation.
“Aye, you know it. Fine girl with hair the color of straw. Ruddy complexion with freckles, and a goodly bust. Her father didn’t let that one go hungry!” Marteinn burst into lewd laughter as Aron’s brows rose from whatever image his imagination painted for him.
Sigbjorn’s scowled, rather glad Hadrborg never deigned to curse varlkind with such distractions. “So, a woman got you in trouble, did she?”
“Well, heard the Governor took a fancy to her.” Marteinn replied, scratching his nose. “May have complained to Bol— the boss.”
Now it was Sigbjorn’s turn to smirk as Marteinn’s big mouth solved the puzzle. “Yox dung.”
Marteinn said nothing.
“Heard a little tale from Folka last week. Somethin’ about a meal in the Governor’s court to discuss our defense strategy. She heads off to relieve herself and happens across one of our men getting a little forward with a girl. Or rather, a well-dressed lady too deep in her cups to know better. So, our trusted shieldmaiden escorted her away, but not before a huskarl got an eyeful.”
Marteinn’s head moved in a twitchy fashion, like that of a bird, as he turned his attention elsewhere.
Sigbjorn continued. “So, the huskarl whispered something to one of the Governor’s guests. Some merchant or caravan master, who knows. Unfortunately, this trader is one of the last with ample food supplies, and enough guards to protect it. And our well-meaded little girl just so happens to be his daughter.”
Tomas coughed laughter, his stump of a tongue wagging between his open lips. Aron shook from a giggling fit, covering his face to hide his amusement. For a moment, Marteinn scrunched up, as though ready to explode in fury. But soon, even he grinned. “Faen maiden-shield of a shieldmaiden.”
Sigbjorn guffawed. So Marteinn could take some humiliation after all. Perhaps the varl could like him, someday. Until then, drink would help, and the varl tossed his back. Yet he frowned when he realized his horn, so tiny in his hands, was already empty.
“Hey barkeep…” He spoke loudly enough to be heard in the other room. “Uggi, you there?”
There were some mutterings before a middle-aged man peeked into the hall from the kitchen door.
“You got anything more fit for a varl to drink from? Maybe a bit to eat too?”
Uggi groaned and stepped away. A moment later he returned, polishing the dust off a large metal stein. It was tall as a man’s forearm and wide as one’s neck. Uggi’s arm trembled from strain as he poured from a massive barrel in the collection.
“My wife is preparing something,” Uggi said, his voice tense as he carried the hefty drink to Sigbjorn. “I can have some fruits and cured meats brought out in the meantime. We did not anticipate guests.”
“Sounds good Uggs,” Sigbjorn replied as he accepted the drink, his host frowning at the nickname. The varl’s eyes lit up as his lips touched the stein, the foam washing over his tongue with a bouquet of sour cherries and something vibrant. “What is this fantastic drink?”
Uggi stopped in his tracks and spun. After studying the carving on the cask’s top, he slapped his forehead. “That… that is one of our best brews. Made with Tistelberries for an added kick. We call it Bjorulf’s Blessing.”
As he disappeared into the kitchen, Sigbjorn stood. He took his blade from the wall and sauntered over to one of the small barrels.
“That’s a fine-looking sword you got Sig,” Marteinn said, as though the compliment was a peace offering. “Steel?”
“You bet your scrawny ass.” Sigbjorn gently stabbed the top of the tiny keg and removed the lid, still stuck on the point. Setting his blade on a bench, he lifted the container with a single hand and began to chug.
“Has it got a name? All great ones do.”
Yeah, it’s ‘shut the faen up and let me drink, you slack jawed idiot.’ Sigbjorn thought as he finished off the keg, then ran his tongue along the roof of his mouth. The dry mead was without fruits or spices, cloyingly sweet over his tongue. He carried the empty container to the larger barrel and began filling it with Bjorulf’s Blessing, wanting to save some for later. “Hmmm, a name.”
“How about Dredgehamarr?” Aron offered.
“Vedrstal!” Marteinn countered.
“Both terrible,” Sigbjorn said. The keg filled to the brim, he plucked the lid from his sword’s point and began resealing the container. “I name her… Olkerbani.”
“Cask slayer!” Marteinn screamed in delight. He slapped his leg, roaring with laughter before raising his horn again. “Skal!”
The axe whirled through the air, clattering against the stone wall as it missed.
“Dundr’s beard, you’re terrible.” Marteinn shook his head. “Guess those skills with the bow don’t transfer over.”
The youth rubbed the back of his neck, the last of his throwing axes expended. “I guess not. Anyway, your turn.”
Sigbjorn downed another stein of mead. The men were getting tipsy but his buzz had only begun, the pain of his headwound long abated. Leaning back in his seat, he slapped against a barrel which echoed from emptiness. It was the second they had finished, and the varl began to feel hungry. In the far corner, a table stacked with dirtied dishes marked all that remained of the snacks Uggi had provided.
Marteinn took his place and readied his axes. The first hit the bottom of the target mounted on the wall. The second whipped across the room and sank a hand below the bullseye. Marteinn was about to toss his third when the kitchen door opened. Uggi’s plump wife Drifa stepped out, carrying out a steaming bowl. The lunatic grinned lecherously. “What’ya got for us?”
Drifa scrunched her face at Marteinn’s leer. “Skause.”
Sigbjorn grunted. He couldn’t say he was in the mood for stew, less so after catching a whiff of the meal. He spotted bits of white carrots and cabbage leaves, and smelled no spices but the muddy scent of river carp. The woman’s hostility suggested she hadn’t even bothered to remove the bones. Sigbjorn had no doubt his hosts were ridding the worst of the pantry over unwelcomed guests. As she set the large bowl down on a table, Sigbjorn reached for his sword.
Steel whooshed through the air. Drifa screamed, the bowl spilling over as the blade sank home.
The target cracked and fell, split from the bottom.
“I win!” Sigbjorn declared, raising his fists victoriously. He stumbled a bit, blinking in surprise before glancing at the panic-stricken Drifa. “Oh no, our meal. I’m sure you make a most delicious carp skause too.”
Marteinn snickered while Tomas smiled meekly. Aron, to the varl’s surprise, giggled. Uggi’s wife trembled, her features twisted in a mixture of anger and terror.
“I suppose you don’t have anything else to share? Perhaps something more rib sticking?” Sigbjorn offered, smirking as he cracked his knuckles. “We are fighters, after all.”
Drifa paled, her temper outmatched. She retreated to the kitchen over Marteinn’s laughter.
“Woo,” Sigbjorn said as he tried to sit down. He misjudged his balance however, and landed hard on the bench. The wood cracked and broke off-center, the varl sliding sideways onto the floor.
His men burst into hysterical laughter. Even he found it hilarious.
“Gods, how much have we drunk?” Marteinn asked, slurring.
“Only Bjorulf knows,” Sigbjorn replied, feeling a bit dizzy. Drifa had provided them with steaks after her chastisement, but whatever rejuvenation the meal offered was wearing off. He leaned over and knocked on several now-empty barrels. He, of course, had downed the whale’s share of drink.
“You ever think of owning a mead house, boss?” Aron asked, his eyes half-closed dreamily.
The varl took another sip while he pondered the question, his tongue too coated to taste the sweetness anymore. “Now there’s a thought. Sigbjorn’s House of Mead.”
“Hey, that’s got a nice ring to it,” Aron replied.
“Yeah, not bad at all! What do you think Tomas?” Marteinn asked, turning to the man.
Tomas was hunched over, head drooping and eyes shut. Marteinn snorted and brushed the spearman with his elbow. The mute fell off his seat, clattering upon the stone floors. He did not move.
Marteinn covered his forehead, his mocking laughter a harsh bark. “Tomas passed out!”
“No.” Sigbjorn paused, catching a glimpse of Tomas’ soaked bandage. “I think he’s dead.”
Marteinn guffawed and thrust a finger at the mute. “You weakling!”
However, Aron stood and ran over to his comrade’s side, his expression full of concern. After checking his breath, the youth felt for a heartbeat, his jaw dropping. “He’s… he’s gone.”
“Maybe we could prop him outside with a horn and a sign that reads, ‘Welcome to Sigbjorn’s!’” Marteinn offered. The varl found the idea amusing.
“Hey, enough jokes already. He was a comrade,” Aron said, balling a fist. “Are we at least going to bury him?”
Sigbjorn sighed and set his stein down, pointing a finger at the mug as he rose. “Don’t move, I’ll be back real soon.”
Near the nameless river’s edge, they placed several logs and sticks, and laid Tomas’ remains upon the bed. At his side they placed his spear, a capped drinking horn, and a purse with a few coins inside. It was paltry, but all they could spare.
A part of Sigbjorn’s mind screamed at him that a funeral pyre was a terrible idea, that the smoke would attract the enemy. And like all varl, he had no love of fire. However, that voice seemed muddled and distant behind the hazy layers of alcohol clouding his wits. Just before he lit the bed of firewood beneath Tomas’ body, Aron spoke. “Aren’t we going to say something?”
The varl’s shoulders drooped and he heaved a sigh. Tomas meant little to him, and his inebriation did nothing to expound those feelings. Burying the dead was tantamount to regaining his freedom, but if a few words could give Aron peace, so be it. “Fine. Marteinn, you start.”
The lunatic rubbed the back of his head before finally commenting. “Tomas, I’ve fought with worse. May you prove yourself a master spearman to Lauga on the other side.”
He concluded his eulogy by patting his crotch.
Sigbjorn rolled his eyes at the gesture. “Aron?”
The youth stood perfectly still, staring at Tomas’ peaceful form. He didn’t speak until the varl moved to start the pyre. “He told me through notes once, that he used to be a gothi.”
Aron’s statement stopped Sigbjorn cold, the bed still unlit. “What?”
“A gothi, a priest. He had a wife and daughter and lived in some small village. Kept preaching and preaching about an afterlife where the gods awaited us. The villagers got rather tired of it too. Then one day, bandits struck. They raided, seized the crops and took advantage of his family. And he… he kept screaming at them that only Baldringr’s inferno awaited them for what they were doing.”
“The bandits left soon after killing his family. But the surviving villagers, they were furious. Tomas kept ranting about divine justice, so they forced him to the ground and took a knife to his tongue. ‘Have a real taste of Baldringr, you lying, worthless faen,’ one said as they cauterized the stump. Then they left him alive.” Aron rubbed a tear from his cheek, lowering his voice. “I don’t think Tomas ever really bothered to grieve for his family. He was… broken. He buried them, picked up a spear and just… marched. Ended up in the Ravens sometime after.”
Sigbjorn almost ignited the pyre, but stopped again. Something about Aron’s story gave him pause, a nagging sense of uncertainty. “Why?”
Aron blinked. “Why what?”
“I never understood why there were humans who felt a compulsion to become ‘priests,’ other than madness really. The gods existed, although they died long before you or Tomas ever knew them. They carved their words in stone and taught their children. When they lived, they spoke for themselves. So why should anyone speak for the long dead?”
Aron stared at the sight of Tomas’ body for a hard moment before finally replying. “Is it true that Hadrborg himself created you?”
“It is.” Sigbjorn closed his eyes, letting the darkness envelop his sight. The trepidation grew, his pulse quickening, but he forced himself to see the radiance of Hadrborg. His memory of the god’s profile may have grown hazy through the years, but he could never forget. “We all meet him on the day we were taken from the fire. Varl are born fearing, and so we’re ready for the rest of life.”
All except one. Sigbjorn’s mouth twitched.
“And we are human,” Aron replied. “We put on airs and feign bravery, but we die afraid. And can only hope that when that day comes, we will see our creators and ancestors. That is what many of us hope for.”
Sigbjorn considered this, and slowly nodded. He still didn’t believe that the dead, divine or not, cared. But it did no harm to let the old spearman have his spiritual comforts. When no one added anything else, the giant touched the torch to the pyre bed.
As the flames took, the three watched. Despite the urge to edge away, Sigbjorn forced himself to stand before the heat. He watched through stinging vision as the fire blackened the old man’s flesh and turned his clothes to cinders.
They waited until the blaze died down and Tomas’ remains were more ashes than flesh. Content, Sigbjorn dusted his hands and then jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “I’m thinking a drink to his memory.”
“Aye!” Marteinn said. Aron sighed with melancholy, and solemnly followed.
Unfortunately, they were greeted by perhaps two dozen people as they returned to the mead house. Frightened faces huddled in the corners, next to travel packs. Some had drinks in their trembling hands, trying to soothe shaken nerves. A few even nursed wounds.
Sigbjorn already knew the story as Freylaug approached. “The families from the outskirts have been pouring into town. Dredge, they claim. Some were even attacked,” her voice turned frantic. “You promised us protection!”
The varl rolled a palm over his temple, glancing at his mug in the corner. Admittedly, a fight did sound good about then, but score-to-one odds didn’t sound appealing. Instead, he reclaimed his sword from the wall. “Whatever you say, ‘Laug lady. Aron, Marteinn, split up. Gather any lingering villagers and bring them here.”
“Where are you going?” Aron asked as Sigbjorn pushed the door open.
“Well no one wants to visit Sigbjorn’s Pisshouse, do they?”
Partie 5[modifier | modifier le wikicode]
Sigbjorn moaned as he finished relieving himself against the side of a small shed. He couldn’t believe how long he had held it, and his mood improved as nature was satisfied. Redoing his leggings, he took in the view of the eastern horizon’s forest.
Just over the tree tops and upon a hill laid Bjorulf’s godstone. If Hadrborg had created varl, then the god of drink and mead was the kind uncle Sigbjorn had grown fondest of. He had promised himself that he would visit the godstone one day, and felt a pang of guilt. He had not done so yet, and today would be no exception.
He remembered that some folks buried their dead in the earth, carving stones over the burial site. Tombstones they were called, the domain of sentimental fools. Despite himself, Tomas’ immolating corpse came to his mind. Would the old spearman, once a gothi, have preferred that to a pyre? The thought made Sigbjorn wonder if the gods themselves were buried under the slabs dedicated in their honor. Surely after they died, they too left mortal coils…
A flock of birds took flight from the trees around the godstone. Something moved amongst the forest. When Sigbjorn squinted he thought he could see… people, leaving the woods. He couldn’t be sure, but it looked almost like a caravan.
A cry stole his attention. Grabbing his great sword, the varl ran towards the clamor.
When he arrived at the yox stable however, Sigbjorn discovered a familiar, weeping girl struggling in Marteinn’s grasp. Something glinted in his hand.
“Come on now,” Marteinn said with a leering grin. “This isn’t all I could take if I wanted.”
“What the faen are you doing?” Sigbjorn asked with strange calm, his drunkenness making the situation seem surreal. “I told you to get everyone to the mead house.”
“Can’t I enjoy a little Reynivik hospitality?” Marteinn twisted his head to ask. The girl took advantage of the distraction to scratch his cheek with her nails, drawing blood. Shouting painfully, he slapped her hard across the face, sending her back. Her tunic ripped as he tore the necklace, her chest spilling out. Marteinn raised the prize high, and Sigbjorn saw the shine of crafted gold.
“What is going on?” Freylaug approached, her eyes widening at the girl’s exposure. “What is he doing with Jofast?”
Marteinn snarled and raised a fist at Jofast, who was about to pounce to reclaim her property. She cringed away, cradling her bared chest and grimacing with rancor at the man and varl. Something about her reaction angered the lunatic and he stepped before Sigbjorn. “I fight and kill dredge like the rest of us! These people owe us their lives, so why the faen can’t I claim payment? You know who we are better than anyone!”
Sigbjorn’s cheek twitched in annoyance, vexed as to why Marteinn would expound justification to him. The yelling and violent motions Marteinn made cut through his inebriated state, triggering something primal. Something defensive, as though the varl was the one being accused. He growled, low and dangerous.
“I can’t believe you!” Freylaug screamed with an aggravating shrill. “Who are you to do this to our people? You’ve done nothing for Reynivik except drink yourselves senseless, and now you think you can take that which isn’t yours?”
Sigbjorn’s teeth flashed. He was on the red edge, the cliff beyond which there was no reason. Freylaug, realizing something terrible was amiss, stepped back and silenced herself. However, Marteinn recklessly waved his seax as he shouted, his face both rouged and bloodied. “Who the faen do you think you are t—”
Sigbjorn palmed Marteinn’s head with tightened fingers, and deftly twisted.
There was the sound of eggs cracking, and the seax fell from nerveless fingers. Marteinn’s convulsing body dropped into a pile on the ground, his eyes rolling upward in death.
“You…” Freylaug stuttered. “But, he was…”
“Was what?” Sigbjorn asked, his tone calm. He gazed at Marteinn’s fresh corpse and felt… little. No remorse, no pity for the lunatic. At best a coldness swept over him, a sensation that might have been regret for losing control. But not for the consequences.
“I…” Freylaug swallowed, her complexion lighting to a pallor. Her gaze went to Jofast, who clutched her torn shirt as she stood. “We are, grateful, for your justice. But we need fighting men,” Freylaug’s hands trembled as she raised them defensively. “Perhaps, disciplining him for… assaulting Jofast, could have been less severe? Or after we are safe?”
Sigbjorn took the void within him as a sign, and rolled his shoulders in a shrug. “Being an ungracious guest would have gotten him a warning. It was mouthing off that got him killed.”
Freylaug’s gaze widened, her mouth gapping like a fish out of water. Rubbing her stricken cheek, Jofast stepped to the corpse. She pried open Marteinn’s clutched fingers and reclaimed her necklace, before again covering her chest. “Freylaug? Shall, we go?”
“Yeah,” Sigbjorn said. “Let’s all go back.”
The women huddled together as they walked, checking the varl behind them several times. His brooding presence kept them silent as they entered the hall.
Aron awaited them, armed and ready. “Didn’t find anyone. You see Marteinn?”
“Yep. Dead.” Sigbjorn responded in a nonchalant tone.
Aron was stunned, but recovered. “Dredge?”
Aron opened his mouth to reply, but glanced at Freylaug and the half-naked Jofast, both of whom whispered to the crowd. The villagers whom they spoke to glared at them in horror.
Sigbjorn snorted and walked over to his drink. After downing the mead, he turned to a large barrel, setting his sword against the wall before tapping the spigot. The slowness of the pour told him that it was the last of Bjorulf’s Blessing, save whatever was stashed in the keg under the nearby table. As he sipped, his mood rapidly improved. Faen Marteinn, he thought. He knew he would not miss the ass-shining lunatic.
Yet when the respite passed, the hall’s oppressive silence bothered him, and his mind sought relief. Before long, a hum built in his throat, a joviality that even the villager’s scared looks couldn’t kill. He remembered the gist of it, but not the lyrics. “Hey Aron. The mood in here is a bit cold, don’t you think.”
“I…” Aron started but didn’t finish, his mouth twitching. The youth refused to meet Sigbjorn’s gaze.
“How about you sing that song again? How did it go?”
“Uh, if it’s alright, I’m going to check Marteinn’s path again. He may have missed someone,” Aron said glumly, opening the door.
“Fine, do that.” Sigbjorn replied as the youth departed. He took a long gulp, then another. His head began to spin, and the silence and stares were getting to him. At last, he stood and pointed to a group of people. “What’s a matter with you all?”
The people of Reynivik froze.
“You’re alive, dammit!” The varl sloshed some of his drink as his arms swept to either side. “You’re alive and surrounded by mead! C’mon! Have a drink while you still can!”
The villagers glanced at one another. Uggi was the first to get a horn and give himself a pour, followed by his wife. Others soon followed, some trembling as they did.
Sigbjorn laughed. What was it about fear that could be so funny, so amusing? He raised his stein in a toast. “To Reynivik! Skal!”
He drank it all. When he returned his gaze to the room, he realized he might have been the only one to partake. Their eyes were turned away, or stared at nothing. There was resignation to them, a death of the spirits that was worse than death itself. Snorting derisively, Sigbjorn turned to a different keg and refilled his stein.
“Well, I’m not about to leave all this for the dredge!” He gulped it down, coughing slightly when a more tangy, spiced flavor washed over his palette. When he finally lowered his stein, he caught something in his molars and chewed, recognizing the pulp of a tart elderberry. Laughing giddily, he wiped the blue from his lips, relishing the taste of the melomel.
Still, few partook, their features remaining glum and empty. A woman in a corner crumbled onto her knees, sobbing. Sigbjorn couldn’t believe it, and shook his head despondently. What was with most humans that they so often fell into this pit rather than enjoy what little time they had? A long life only proved that most of it was overrated. Scoffing, he opened his mouth to berate them again.
“Sigbjorn! Sigbjorn they’re here!”
Slamming his stein on the table, the varl charged out of the mead house, grabbing his sword on the way. Turning a corner around a home, he saw Aron in the street. A grunt was down before him, an arrow sticking from the slag’s neck. But more figures approached, including a few larger ones from behind.
“Aron!” Something seized the varl just then. An inexplicable dread, a need to save the youth. He ran, trying desperately to reach the fellow Raven as the dredge closed about him. But no matter how hard he pumped his legs, time slowed. Time slowed as a scourge stepped from behind a corner, raising his double-pronged great sword.
The youth screamed, gurgling as the scourge ran him through. The bow fell, and blood splashed against the muddy road. Aron’s face contorted in agony, his eyes pleading with the varl to help him, before he went slack.
And the century-old cracks in Sigbjorn’s heart painfully grew wider.
He roared and charged, his world a blur of speed and drunkenness. The dredge were ill-prepared. A grunt turned in time to take his speeding sword through the throat. A stoneguard swung but Sigbjorn stepped behind, his head spinning dizzily as steel bit his foe’s back. The scourge too staggered forth, and as Sigbjorn parried he recognized a familiar, triangular sun rune on the dredge’s chest.
With a burst of bitter laughter the varl turned and ran, the dredge giving chase. A thrill overtook him, a taste of life that could only be appreciated on the keen edge of death. A place where skill was the only immortality. He had forgotten that morbid joy, and relished it as he hid behind a home. Taking several deep breaths, he struggled to contain his laughter.
And his tears.
How drunk was he that he could ride on the high of battle, and ache within like this? Sigbjorn grit his teeth and shut his eyes. But a tear escaped anyway, running down his cheek to be lost in his beard. He tried desperately to block it out, but arrow wounds hurt less.
“He didn’t… didn’t deserve…” He swallowed, unable to say the youth’s name. His resistance crumbled as he knew he was alone again.
Just remember Sigbjorn. I often joke about men and their short lives, but… the final kendr will be a man. So if you find yourself the last of us alive, just do me a favor. Die as we have lived. Die laughing. Laugh so that the mountains rumble as they join in. Laugh such that the wind will forever echo with our mirth, on and on until the end of time. So that the heir of our people will never forget us.
Sigbjorn winced and rolled his jaw contemptuously as the memory came back to him. It was too much. He would, could not, do it. He would not be the last of his kind.
Then he saw them.
People. In the distance, a caravan with an incredibly long red banner. Probably the very same ones who had spilled out of the forests near Bjorulf’s godstone. But his joy turned to horror when the scattered dredge began to amble their way.
“No,” Sigbjorn muttered, his voice building with his ardor. “They’re mine. This is my death, not yours! Not yours! Hey slag! It was me! It was my sword that carved your clansfolk!”
A stoneguard unleashed a warbled scream, pointing a weapon Sigbjorn’s way. With a howl of delight, the varl ran back. Back into the mead house, where he slammed and bolted the door.
“What have you done?” Freylaug screamed hysterically. “We saw you cry out to them! You’ve led them here!”
The doors thudded. Then thudded again as wood splintered, a piece falling away. The villagers huddled in horror as the dredge continued to chip away at the entrance. Still, it would hold long enough for one final drink. Sigbjorn wobbly sauntered over to collect his stein, then scooped the keg from the table.
“And I was hoping to enjoy this on the road.” The door buckled and the beam securing it cracked down the middle. As Sigbjorn drank, he finally remembered the lyrics. Lowering his stein, he licked his lips and chuckled as he began to sing.
“Fly the black and let them know… fly the black and let them know.”