Inside the Karggars' mountain fortress there was a large hollow carved out of the cave wall and fenced by thatch. Beyond that was a tunnel, cold and dank, which led deeper into a honeycomb of interlocked caverns and cave tunnels. The old Karggar (who Johanni now knew as Olaf Greyspear) led the way to the largest of these caverns. Barred by an iron door and lit up by three roaring braziers; it was a 22-foot tall chamber turfed with sand and reed mats (pulled from the Oakmire's bogs and woven together with thin braids of rope). It had only three walls – and a giant hole in the mountain wall where its forth should have been. The slight overhang of rock beneath the cavern's mouth had had iron poles driven into it, purposing the structure into a balcony from which one could see all the southern Grey Wilds. The town of Yveryth lay half a mile below. The Oakmire was a distant but prominent black wall on the horizon.
"This is our meeting room," said Olaf. He exhaled deep as he reclined into one of four wooden thrones furnished with wolf pelts. Johanni and the man he once called Raider, Erik Halfspear, took two of the others. "My brother, Gad Greyspear, had it built after he returned home from your father's war against the elves so that our guests might see with their own eyes the responsibility left to him to shoulder – the responsibility that Erik now shoulders."
Erik scratched his beard. "He didn't `leave' anything, his life was taken."
"A phrase, Erik," said Olaf. "Nothing more."
"What is happening here?" Asked Johanni.
Olaf gestured towards the view. "These are the Grey Wilds. They have always been harsh and unkind; the merciless winds, the pitiless cold. But these last twenty winters have been unforgiving. Our ancestors tamed these lands... but the Gods have forsaken them. The soil is hard and lifeless. Nothing grows from it, not even weeds. Have you've seen the empty lake?"
Johanni nodded yes.
"Our people once fished from that lake. Now it is dry, with not even peat to show from it. And there is no game, not even in the Oakmire. We still have water sources but in time those will dry up too. We once had dozens of settlements across this land. Now there are barely more than five, including Yveryth. My seer, Wharla Oldeye, believes that the Gods have cursed this land... and I do not doubt her."
How is this possible? Thought the boy. "How are you even surviving here?"
"We raid," said Erik. "It's not just a matter of glory for us. Our poachers fish the Great River and hunt in the northern Weald where your father's gaze is at its weakest, whilst my men raid trading caravans from the forest forts. Whatever food we find we keep, any excess weapons or jewels we trade with the Arbariis in the north for meat, grain, milk and so on. We then bring that food back to Yveryth for our people to buy."
There were thousands of Karggars across the Grey Wilds. That they could somehow survive that way for this long was remarkable, but Johanni knew that the `raid and trade' strategy would not last them much longer. The Arbariis of the Salt Shore were natural traders but also increasingly shrewd merchants – if they knew how much the Karggars were struggling then the cost of trade with them would surely increase. And as for his father? For every 1 Karggar there was around 800 Impanni. There were hundreds of farms and settlements scattered across the northern border with the Grey Wilds that had weathered Karggar raids for generations, long before the creation of the burghs and herepaths. The Kingdom tolerated these raids only because it was so difficult to mobilize troops into the Oakmire. But if King Hrathwuld or Ragnar Bloodbane marched one or two thousand legionaries north to reoccupy the northern burghs, Erik's raids would grind to nil.
"I know what you're thinking," said Olaf. His aging eyes were rheumy and heavy lidded, but they saw much, Johanni could tell. "You're thinking that raiding is not a solution to our problems. And you are right in that. My other nephew, his name is Sygardi, he has spent the solstice prior leading expeditions into the Fens. At last count nearly 2000 of us have resettled there."
"Against my wishes," said Erik.
Olaf frowned. "Your brother is doing what he thinks is best for his people."
"As am I."
"Are you?" Johanni interjected. "I do not understand, if the Karggars are struggling this badly then why have you not made an appeal to the king for aid?"
Erik's typically smug smile inverted into a frown -- an indignant one. "I would not expect an Impanni to understand."
"Erik!" chided Olaf. "You're talking to the aetheling of Grünlund. Show him some respect."
"I respect those who earn it!" The Karggar's frown deepened. "This boy and his silver tongue have done nothing to earn it. Our ancestors seized the Grey Wilds and made it their home. We did what none of the other tribes could have and proved our strength as true Woags. If I forsake these lands now, after everything we sacrificed to claim them, after everything my father did to protect them, then what sort of chieftain does that make me? When I die and join my ancestors on the Hallowed Plane, how can I look them in the eye? How can I look my father in the eye? I will not be the Karggar who abandoned the burial grounds of his forefathers. I will not."
There was zeal beneath his anger. Though he sat his seat imperiously, leant back, one leg over the other, head slightly slanted; Johanni saw through the casual demeanour and caught the earnest fervour in Erik's eye. It smouldered like coal fire. He meant every word of what he said.
"I will not wait until I am king," said Johanni. "Once I return to Drangheim I will raise your plight with King Hrathwuld and the Royal Diet, and I will have you helped in any way possible."
"For what price?" asked Erik.
"There is no price," said Johanni. "Impanni or Karggar, we are all Woags."
Erik's grin returned. "...Are we? Were the Osserians not Woags?"
"I... I am not my brother."
"...No," he said. "You certainly aren't."
The raider stood up out of his seat, his massive greatsword clanking against his back. Olaf glowered at him, but this time his uncle's ire held no sway. Erik stormed off towards the iron door.
"Where are you going?" Asked Olaf.
"To my mead hall," he answered. "Perhaps a good hard night of drinking, eating, burping, farting, spitting and shitting will help me forget how much of a disappointment I am to you. Good night, uncle. And to you, little lord."
Erik turned and slammed the iron door behind him. The sound was so loud it made Johanni's back shiver.
Olaf exhaled. "Forgive him, lord. Somewhere beneath all that stupidity and anger there is a good heart, but... it is buried deep."
"I do not understand his attachment to this place."
"It is a trait he shares with his late father," said Olaf. "Gad Greyspear loved this land. He was a great warrior who lived in the shadow of our past and devoted himself to honouring it. He joined Hrathwuld's warband because he believed it dishonoured the ancestors to live under elvish oppression. And when he returned to these dismal lands... he believed abandoning them did the same. He fought long and hard to keep us alive here, but..."
"He was killed," said Olaf. "By a man named Haakon Godwulfsson."
The name rang familiar. "Haakon? Haakon Godwulfsson?"
"You remember him?"
"Of course," said the boy. With his blood red eyes, his fang-like teeth, his grizzled blonde beard and wild braided hair, there was not a more frightening man in Johanni's memory. He wore his cunning and bloodthirst like a second skin. "He was one of my-" and then the realization hit him, "...he was one of my father's thegns..."
Now Johanni understood what Erik meant when he said the king had not always been a friend to his chieftain. Three solstices ago, there was talk in the Palace of Drang that a thegn had murdered someone of note near the Grey Wilds. Johanni had some idea it was Haakon (who fled the Weald shortly afterwards), but he had no idea it was a chieftain that he slew.
"I will never forget that day," began Olaf. "Gad had gone raiding for mules on the northern border after two of our own died of hunger. We needed them to help ferry a coming supply of meat and potatoes from the Arbarii. I warned him not to go himself. I told him he was too old for raiding, that he'd weigh the men down, but we Karggars are headstrong. He did not listen – and he had the misfortune of attacking a farm too close to Haakon's burgh. Battle was inevitable. But its outcome? Haakon Godwulfsson executed my brother with his own sword... and left our fate in the hands of his unready son. I could not convince my brother that the Grey Wilds are lost... nor can I convince Erik. Perhaps the gods have sent you here to do what I could not."
"You want me to change Erik's mind?"
"I know why you're here," said Olaf. "Gad once told me that Hrathwuld promised to send his son to seek the favour of all the Woaggish chieftains before he was crowned. If you're here, it's because of that. And if you want Erik's support... you're going to have to make him see sense."
There was not much room for comfort inside the fortress of Greyspear, but Olaf had a good room waiting for him to shelter in. Johanni's temporary quarters were small but bedded, with a desk and paper and quill as well as a water cask and two ceramic cups. The Karggars had shaved its walls down to pebble smoothness and paved the floor with their woven reed mats. There was a serving girl just outside the iron door to fetch him anything he needed. It was more than a few steps down from his lavish rooms in the Palace of Drang, but at least he no longer felt like a prisoner. "You are free to walk the fortress and village as you wish," Olaf Greyspear had said prior, "Part of our apologies for the actions of my nephew." In addition, Olaf had his men return their swords to them. Johanni thought to ask after his purse but recognized that the Karggars needed it more than he did.
The re-armed and ever stoic Eardwulf leaned against the chamber wall with a watchful eye on Johanni, who sat with Halfdan upon two stools around an oak table carved with the sigil of the Karggar Woags; the wolf. "I had no idea the situation in the Grey Wilds was so dire," said Johanni.
"Lord, they bring it upon themselves," said Halfdan. "Olaf is wise, yet these people follow the Halfspear out of blind blood loyalty."
"The same could be said of Ragnar and I, Halfdan. It is not for me to judge the Karggars on their customs, my task now is to convince Erik to support my claim as king."
Halfdan nodded. "Indeed, lord. But perhaps, in this matter, his attack was not so misfortunate. Lord Ragnar has spies nestled throughout the kingdom and he shall soon hear of the Halfspear's raid. Under threat of the Bloodbane's rage, perhaps he will be more malleable to persuasion...?"
With his arms folded and eyes tightly shut, Johanni sighed at his steward's ugly shrewdness. "I will not barter with these people's lives, Halfdan. I will make Erik see reason with reason – not with threats. Furthermore, we'll send a rider back to Drangheim to declare my safety and request fresh troops and provisions. And my father needs to know about the plight of the Karggars. The Diet will listen to him if he presses the issue."
Halfdan nodded. "Of course, lord. I'll draw up the missive myself."
The fat steward hauled himself upon onto his beefy ankles and excused himself through the iron door. Eardwulf watched him go with a poorly concealed sneer, waiting until he was gone before he spoke. "I can't stand how he constantly second-guesses you, lord."
"Halfdan is my brother's man," said Johanni. "Ragnar made him my steward because he wanted someone in my camp advising me the way he would. Let him aside for now. Let us go, Eardwulf."
"Go where, lord?"
The boy smiled. "For a cup of mead."
If the ride through the Grey Wilds' barren flatland told half the tale of the misery that the Karggars endured, then the streets of Yveryth told the other half. A young Karggar girl led Johanni and Eardwulf down to a gated exit out of Greyspear's cavernous fortress. Guarded by two men with brittle bronze spears and no armour, this exit lead to a beaten footpath that traced its way around the mountain's southwestern flank and into the town.
"Follow the path, lord," said the girl. "It'll take you where you want to go."
Eardwulf led the way with a burning torch. Johanni followed him.
Yveryth soon unfurled itself, piece by piece, the distance ahead. The town's five-foot high walls were old and decaying. Where time had rotted away or broken open the stones, the Karggars replaced them with mere logs of wood staked into the earth. There were no watchtowers or roosts, only longbow-equipped lookouts posted to the mountainside overhangs connected by cave mouth to Olaf's fortress. Upon their approach a spearman yelled for one of his people to open the gates (more woodwork and rope) from within. Seconds later they both groaned open.
"Welcome to Yveryth, lord." Said the guard.
Johanni strode past him.
Supposedly, Yveryth was the largest and most prosperous settlement in the Grey Wilds. This was according to the Overlord Manuscript, a study into the tax debt of the largest holdings in Grünlund. Commissioned by the Royal Diet it took over eleven winters to compile and resulted in a bound document nearly two and a half million runes long. It was an extensive text that both Johanni and Ragnar were forced to read and memorize during their studies. But as the boy looked around he realized that its report into Yveryth, conducted nearly thirty-three winters ago, was hopelessly outmoded.
It was a town rotting from the core outward.
Its streets were caked earth. When horses trod them their hoofbeats pounded up clouds of noxious red-coloured dust that choked those around it. In its hundreds of moulded wattle-and-daub homesteads, thousands somehow lived. They were more huts than homes, few with any hearths to speak of and relying on public kilns for burning. Johanni looked around with amazement at the townspeople. Mainly women and children, they walked the earth like draugs, decomposing alive before his eyes. On street corners and doorways poor mothers swaddled skeletal babes that they were too weak to produce milk for. Some of them begged more fortunate passers-by for food (or at least the coin to buy it) while others offered baser trade. At one water well Johanni spotted nearly a hundred townswomen with rusty buckets queuing in a long procession as a hunchbacked thrall (so told by his branding) turned the crank handle, grimacing with agony from his swollen joints. There were only few poorly equipped men of the town's guard to keep people in line, which was to say, equally poor karls equipped with little more than hoes and rakes for protection. Karggars with better weapons instead guarded the markets, for in a town like this, food and cloth were more precious than gold.
The stench of shit and death wafted throughout the air as night men hurled decaying corpses onto wagons, and little boys gathered horse dung into pots for purposes Johanni couldn't begin to fathom.
"Please!" Said an old beggar they passed by, "Just one gold is all I ask!"
The aetheling had no money to offer (without his purse) but he did have a spare pair of gloves in his belt bag. Johanni folded them into the woman's frail hands. "The silk is Silesian, the finest in all the world. I will give them to you if you can tell me where I can find the mead hall of Erik Halfspear."
Grateful, the old woman pointed out the westward part of town and told him how to get there. Her voice was dry and croaky from lack of water. "Follow the road to the nearest runestone then go north," she said. "You will hear it before you find it."
And she was right. Following the beggar's directions took Johanni and Eardwulf to the runestone and from there they traced the boom of hand drums, lutenists, flute whistles and war songs to a twenty-nine-foot longhouse called the Wyrm's Leg, built with lumber and stone and roofed with thatch. Erik's feast (supposedly for a very profitable raid on an Impanni merchant, if one listened well enough to the whispering guards posted around Yveryth) had already begun. His whole warband (250 men) was in attendance. Outside, Growler sat chained to a post as two thralls, boys no older than eight or nine, fed him salted trout and groomed his pelt. His guards in assembly, perhaps twenty or so, could not participate in the feasting but they occupied their time with japes and tales around their campfires. They did not drink, but enthralled women brought them platters of salted meat and black bread.
They let Johanni pass through without fuss.
Inside the mead hall, its tall walls decorated with round shields, wolf pelts and elf skulls; the feast and festivities resounded loud and raucous. Ten musicians crooned ballads at request of the chieftain and his twice-hundred men in attendance. Most of them sat around three massive, ale-stained long tables to plates full of roasted beef, cold chicken slices, pickled herring, apples and oranges, grapes on the vine, cheese wheels, black bread, and dozens and dozens of gourds of mead and wine. In the centre of the long tables was a huge pit fire providing light and heat, around which buxom thrall girls danced in tinkling silver underclothes. The night was not even half done yet half Erik's men were already piss drunk, many of them arm wrestling or playing knife games. A shirtless Thregg the Ghoat fought another man sword to sword whilst Frodi took bets on whether he could shoot an apple clean off a thrall's head.
Erik Halfspear, the man of the feast, sat at the centre of the main long table, with his fur-trimmed boots spread wide and a half naked thrall curled up in his lap. She whispered something (undoubtedly crude) into his ear and he answered her by shoving his hand between her thighs. She shivered. Johanni, disgusted, watched him pull his wet fingers out of the thrall girl's cunt and push them into her mouth. She licked at them like a harlot
And then Erik noticed the boy.
"Ah! The little lord!" He said. "My uncle's honoured guest! Join us! We can't drink all this ale by ourselves!"
"Your people are out there dying and you're in here," he spat, "...drinking."
"Celebrating!" corrected Erik. The thrall, a blonde-haired Thoth girl, wrapped her thin arms around his neck as he spoke. "Celebrating, lord! We're celebrating a great victory over the finest fucking soldiers that the Bloodbane could muster!" He hoisted his gilded goblet into the air. "TO US!" He cried. "AND TO VICTORY!"
He said it more for his men than Johanni. They all exploded in cheer and lifted their cups into the air, yelling, "TO VICTORY!" as Erik's triumphant smile returned to the boy. "If my people reward me with ale and beef when I bring them gold and steel, who am I to refuse?"
"A chieftain," replied Johanni. "One with obligations to those people."
Erik burped. "Not tonight, I'm not. Tonight, my only obligations are to this cup," which he held aloft, "this meat," a scrap of which the thrall girl placed between his teeth, "and these fucking lovely teats!"
The thrall cooed when he fondled them.
All the men in earshot chuckled. Johanni did not. Instead, he leaned over the table and whispered so lightly that only Erik could hear. "...You're behaving like a fool."
That, the Halfspear did not like.
"Careful now, little lord," he whispered back. "There's 3000 Karggar swords between here and Drangheim."
"You can't frighten me, Erik. I know you're wiser than that."
Erik frowned. "If you're not here to drink, what do you want?"
"I want to talk."
"And that can't wait until morning?"
Johanni shook his head "no". By now, having successfully shot three apples off the thrall's head and winning sixty golds and a new sword for his trouble, Frodi returned to his seat next to the Halfspear's. "The aetheling is persistent, lord. Why not hear him out? The feast isn't going anywhere."
Judging by the way they spoke, Frodi was as much an advisor to Erik as he was a sword-brother. Erik looked to him first, and then to Johanni, who watched his trim shoulders deflate with relent. The Halfspear sighed. "Fine," he said. "But leave your thrall here. Perhaps the feast will remind him what it feels like to be a real Woag."
Erik whispered something foul into the minxy thrall's ear who obediently climbed off his lap with a slap to the arse. As she went to join the other dancers by the fire pit, Erik pointed out Thregg, who by now had defeated his challenger and now demanded two men attack him at once, "FIFTY GOLDS ON THE GHOAT!" He bellowed. His men erupted in cheer and directed their attention to the huge Karggar as he battled two more comers. They were so enrapt with the fight that most of them didn't notice their chieftain quietly slipping away from his long table. Johanni moved to follow him.
"Lord," said Eardwulf. "I should go with you."
Frodi smiled. It was not like Erik's constant snarling grin as there was absolutely no humour behind it – only a nonchalant sort of cunning hidden by a feint of kindness. "You should stay here," said the archer. "One jarl speaks to another undisturbed and unarmed – thralls and thegns need not attend. Is that not the way of it, Hrathwuldsson?"
The boy frowned. `Hrathwuldsson' was a name he would not inherit until his father the king died. When he investigated Frodi's cold blue eyes he saw no malice, but there was a threat somewhere hidden in that statement. The Halfspear's men were clearly fiercely protective of him – but Frodi seemed to be the only one clever enough to veil it.
"I will be fine, Eardwulf." Said Johanni.
"You will remain here," The boy was already after Erik as he said it, who led him to a pit of stairs at the rearmost part of the hall. It led to a multi-chambered cellar with thick stone walls seven feet below ground, so deep below the ground that the feasting above was almost mute. Its decor was comparable to the hall above -- with trophies of long dead bucks and round shields mounted upon the walls and lit sconces guiding the underground corridors, but also with more of the ochre-painted Karggar murals such as those found in the tunnel to Olaf's fortress. These detailed accounts were older than that of King Hrathwuld or Gad Greyspear. These were tales of Karggar heroes whose names Johanni would never know. All, perhaps, were familiar to Erik, who for all his faults was a man of his history.
The Karggar chieftain took him through a muraled wooden door to a small room purposed as a sparsely furnished living quarters; an oaken cot with sheepskin throws, an inscribed table, iron-bolted chamber chest, and so on. The bedchamber was quiet and secluded.
"Go on," said Erik. There was a water bowl and cloth on the table. He wet the latter with the former and mopped up his brow. "Speak your mind, there's no eyes nor ears here except ours."
The boy took a heavy breath and exhaled. "I want us to help each other. If I am on the throne there is much I can do to-"
"I have a responsibility to my people," said Erik, "to my ancestor's heritage, and to my father, Gad Greyspear, who fought long and hard to keep his people save on their own lands. His task is my task."
"I do not doubt it. But at least some of your people see a future for themselves in the Fens, do they not? What about what them? Erik, from a throne I could help your people settle there, somewhere you wouldn't need to raid and trade to stay afloat – somewhere where the ground can feed you. Let me help you."
Having dispensed with his leather armours earlier, The Halfspear crossed his arms over his stomach, grabbed fistfuls of his undershirt, and pulled it up over his head; exposing his finely-toned and muscular back. Numerous battles had tightened his lean upper body with sinew. Like his men he wore long black warhammer tattoos honouring the half-god, Wo'ar; two along both forearms, one down his chest, and the largest upon his back from nape to buttocks.
Johanni blushed, looking away.
Erik turned around when the room became quiet. He grinned. "...Do you like what you see, little lord?"
"Of course not," he replied.
"Oh?" The older jarl took a step forward. "But your little friend downstairs says otherwise."
Olaf's handmaidens gave Johanni simple woven linens to wear whilst they cleaned his mud-stained tabard. The breeches were ill-fitting and tight and did little to hide his sudden stiffness. Johanni's cheeks flowered an even deeper shade of red as he stepped back. "Do... do not mock me, I am here to talk..."
"I'm not mocking you," Erik took another step forward, "And we are talking."
The boy's back hit the wall. He could retreat no further. And then he looked up and he saw Erik above him, so tall and brawny. His thralls had sheared the sides of his head down to the same finely sculpted grain as his beard and they had brushed the hair atop his head back into smooth chestnut waves. His eyes were the colour of copper. The scent of ale still clung to his lips. The boy froze where he stood when Erik's thick fingers curled around his oval-shaped chin. His touch was not tender like Eardwulf's. It was strong and possessive. It made Johanni shiver.
Erik's smile was imperious. "You're red as a tomato."
"Stop it, Erik..."
The Karggar's fingertips traced a line down Johanni's chin and neck and to his throat. The boy was so focused on that that he didn't notice Erik's other hand slip around his back until it dragged him forward, bringing Erik and Johanni chest to chest. The space between their lips was blade thin. "There's no shame in it, you know," Erik's voice was low and lusty, "Out here in the Grey Wilds men take other men to lay with as freely as they would women. We are Karggars. We take what we want, when we want it, and we respect no authority that tells us otherwise..."
Johanni did not move. Or speak.
"Tell me. Has this pretty throat ever swallowed another man's seed?"
"Would you like to try mine?"
Johanni spat in his eye.
Erik stepped back, grinning, then wiped it out of his face with his cloth. He chuckled as the boy before him caught his breath – one he didn't even know he'd been holding. "I am not some mead hall whore to be bent over your long table and fucked! I'm-"
"A king's son," said Erik. "A king who rules a kingdom built by its former captors. I've been to Drangheim, little lord. I've seen the elf-like way you Impanni live and it disgusts me. We Karggars are true Woags. We do not farm, we hunt. We do not barter, we raid. Ours is the old way, the true way."
Johanni sneered. "You say you do not farm and yet most of your people are fleeing west into the Fens. You say you do not barter and yet you trade your stolen goods to the Arbariis. What you're doing isn't about heritage, it's about hubris. And your hubris is going to get the Karggars killed."
There was a moment, just a slight moment after that exchange, when Johanni caught a slight sliver of doubt in Erik's eye. But it flickered away as quickly as it came by, replaced with that instinctual, patronizing grin of his. "If your plan is to win me over then you are failing, miserably. This little moot of ours is over," the Halfspear unbuckled his belt. "Leave."
Johanni moved to speak again but Erik Halfspear turned his back to him and rang the soaked cloth over the water bowl before washing himself. No more words. The younger boy composed himself, his breath and heartbeat levelling out, and then left the room silently.
Had there been the heat and strength and scent of another body in his bed that night, Johanni would not have questioned it, so vivid were his dreams. In his specially prepared lamb's wool cot he tossed and turned and sweated out the moon's fall with a mind full of delirious, lusty images and imaginings evolving from phase to phase beyond the throes of logic. Sometimes he was in a forest, sometimes a fort, sometimes a bog, sometimes a city street, most times a mead hall. With his stomach pressed flat over a table and his ankles kicked as wide as its table legs; a strong pair of hands held him down by his wrists. A club-like bulge slipped up and down the cleft between his arse, as if it was a game, then popped himself free from his underclothes. The boy's whole body tensed as his russet-bearded ravisher pushed his huge swollen cockhead into his tight ring of flesh, and through gritted teeth he saw himself moan into the ale-soaked table grain. "Do you like it?" whispered this man into Johanni's ear, "Tell me you love it... tell me you want me inside you..."
The aetheling woke up in another puddle of his own seed.
Embarrassed, a groggy Johanni quickly scrubbed the sheet with the lamb's wool throw to hide his shame. His maids in Drangheim were subtle and did not whisper of his nightly indiscretions when they changed his bedding, but who knew what sort of things the thralls of Yveryth might say if they saw that? Once he scrubbed his sheets dry Johanni washed himself sweat-less with a rag and water bowl left by his bed side then dressed into a cotton tunic and some leather breeches that the Karggars had also left for him.
Such a curious thing, he thought, to dress one's self.
In Drangheim that was a labour left always to his maids. Outside of the Kingdom, with his caravans and attendants scattered, he had to do these things himself. It was not so laborious a task as one would think.
Knuckles rapped the door from without.
"Lord," it was Eardwulf, "Erik Halfspear breaks his fast above."
Just hearing Erik's name made his cheeks flower.
"...Very well," said the boy.
Eardwulf took Johanni above ground into the great hall of the Wyrm's Leg. The massive mead hall was so empty now that even light voices carried up the tall lumber work and echoed out. There was nothing left of last night's feastings except the odd bloodstain or ale spillage or broken chair which Erik's thralls now cleaned. The same slave girl the Halfspear had had in his lap last night now scrubbed his floors clean with her rag and iron-banded water bucket, inside of which floated a human ear and half a forefinger. These, Johanni was later to learn, belonged to the man whom Thregg had defeated during the feast.
Now, only six people sat to the long table at the hall's head; Frodi, Thregg, Wharla Oldeye, Olaf Greyspear, Halfdan and, of course, Erik Halfspear himself.
Erik looked to Johanni and grinned. His heartbeat quickened in his chest as he looked away and sat down next to Halfdan as Eardwulf stood vigil behind his seat. Even now he mocks me, thought the boy. All night Erik's foul words rebounded in Johanni's ears. Has that pretty throat ever swallowed a man's seed? Would you like to try mine? No one in his life had ever dared to speak to him in such a manner. He was King Hrathwuld's son. He was blood born to the most powerful clan in Grünlund. Even Eardwulf, as misguided as he was, knew to keep his feelings in check with him. But not Erik. The Halfspear was the only man Johanni had ever met who didn't seem to care about his royal pedigree. Jarl or Karl, he saw only men. There was a nobility in that, somewhere. And yet Johanni couldn't help but feel angry at Erik for treating him that way, as though he was just another thrall girl to be groped and whored for the night.
So why can't I stop staring at him?
"Lord," said Olaf. "Eat. You will need your strength."
There was a wooden bowl of boiled chicken broth with leeks and carrots and potato hunks. Next to that, a platter of salted fish chopped into strips. A thrall girl came by to fill his cup with warm mulled wine. Johanni began to eat.
"Lord Olaf has... most graciously offered us thirty of his best men to replace those lost to your caravan, Lord Johanni," said Halfdan, slurping his broth from the spoon. "With our remaining men we're are only slightly shy of our original host."
Johanni nodded to Olaf. "Many thanks to you, Oldfather."
"Young lord, it is the least we can do," Olaf eyed his nephew, "...to compensate your losses."
Erik sneered. With his fur-trimmed leather boots kicked up over his long table, he gnawed the roasted scraps off a chicken bone. With his free hand he called in his steward. The iron doors on the other side of the great hall yawned open, and in came a stooping, one-eyed man named Iodi. His was perhaps sixty winters old and barely hobbling along by means of a gnarled oaken stick. He bowed his head, first to Johanni, then to Erik.
"Lords," he said in a croaking, aged rasp.
"Ah, it's Iodi," Erik threw his chicken bone into the nearby thrall girl's water bucket. "So lovely to see you up and about. And your report?"
There was a look of reluctance in his eyes. "Lord, um... six wagons have returned this morning from the Salt Shore. However, we are missing the twenty barrels of barley and potatoes we asked for, and the furs we skinned did not fetch as much at market as we'd hoped. One of our raiding parties looted an old orichalcum cache worth about 2000 golds in the Arbarii Market, I think we should send it north today, if not, we will run out of wheat, potatoes, and grain within the week."
"Then send it north, post-haste. Anything else?"
"Come on," said Frodi. "Spit it out."
The steward shook off his reluctance. "...Lord, to the east, elf worshippers have sacked one of our loot trains out of the Oakmire and holed up in the Beast Tower."
Thregg stamped his fist. "WHAT?!"
A series of angered, affront faces passed across the long table. Thregg grit his teeth with rage, Frodi spat in disgust, Wharla shook her head in dismay, Olaf looked on keenly. Erik clenched a fist.
There were still those in Grünlund who revered the elves as their true rulers and in the fifty solstices since the dawn of King Hrathwuld's reign, their devotion to their former enslavers had transformed into a kind of twisted faith. Elf worshippers were Woags who had abandoned all honour, forsaken their gods, and surrendered their souls to veneration of evil.
"I'll suffer no elf worshippers to live on my lands," said Erik Halfspear.
"Is it not Karggar custom to take what is wanted when it is wanted?" asked Johanni.
"It is," Erik said angrily. "And as a Karggar it's my right to take it back – the Beast Tower and the loot. Thregg, gather the warband. Frodi, get the thralls to water and saddle our horses. We need to be ready to ride by noon. I want those mother-whoring elf lovers' heads on spikes!"
"Lord, there are other matters to discuss here..." said Iodi. "Would it not be wiser to have Frodi lead the warband in your place?"
"Karggars don't lead from the rear," spat Erik. "Olaf will see to your other matters. Won't you, uncle?"
Johanni looked across the table and saw hidden rage in Olaf's eyes. Leading personal raids and attacks was the same blunder that cost Gad Greyspear his life at the hands of Haakon Godwulfsson. But he was not the chieftain of the Karggars. It was not his decision. The fact was bitter, but it remained a fact. "As my chieftain commands," said Olaf.
Erik and his uncle glared at each other.
"I will come also," said Johanni.
Halfdan's eyes flared. "Lord!"
"Elf worship is forbidden under my father's Codex of Logh," he explained. "It is my duty to stamp it out wherever I find it. Whatever else, Erik Halfspear is right in this. I will take Eardwulf with me and join his warband. We will liberate the Beast Tower."
All eyes turned to Johanni as if he'd grown a second head. Thregg and Frodi both smiled at him, confused but impressed. Wharla frowned as if witnessing a mistake. Halfdan looked stunned. Olaf looked betrayed. Eardwulf's expression he did not see. No doubt the thrall did not approve, no doubt the instant they found a moment alone he would tell Johanni as much and caution him against it. It was Erik, with that same smug, dominating smirk of his, who seemed least surprised by the gesture.
"Get your mare saddled," said the Halfspear. "And your sword ready."
The chill was bone-biting. Johanni, shivering in his saddle, drew the folds of his fur-rimmed cloak closer together. It was almost noon, but you couldn't tell for the black thunderheads looming high above Yveryth. He waited for the others by the town gates; two seven-foot-high ironwood doors. The town walls were nearly 900 winters old.
"Lord is this wise?" Said Eardwulf. Clouds of cold air wafted around his lips as he spoke. "To involve yourself in Karggar affairs? To ride with this man into battle after what he did to your caravan?"
Did you not once excoriate Halfdan for questioning me? Thought Johanni. "I came here for Erik Halfspear's support to my claim as king and I won't leave until I get it. I'll take any opportunity I can get to win him over, even this."
"Eardwulf, enough. I've already made my decision."
The thrall held his tongue. Reluctantly. Until the westward advance of cantering hoofbeats and clunking scabbards shattered the silence between them. It was Erik Halfspear, heading up a host of fifty men, one fifth of his warband. As always, he had Frodi and Thregg the Ghoat at his side, as well as his war bear Growler – with plates of thick boiled leather armour strapped to its back, maw and forelegs. These were some of his best men, Johanni saw, as they carried their best weaponry; steel longswords and spears stolen from Impanni caravans (much like his own) and hand-carved ironwood round shields. Beneath their black cloaks they wore oddments of armour poached by raid and trade from other clans; Osserian scale armour, Impanni steel plate armour, Arbarii chainmail, etc. Two enthralled outriders flew twin flags from their spears; the wolf sigil of the Karggar clan and the war-hammer of Wo'ar. As they rode through the streets, the emaciated women of Yveryth cheered and waved to their chieftain and there was genuine love in their eyes. They did not blame him for their plight, it seemed. If anything, they held him aloft as a saviour.
So, he does have supporters, thought Johanni.
Two thralls unbolted the gates as the warband approached and Erik's horse cantered up to Johanni's white mare. "Last chance, little lord. Once we leave we Yveryth we won't return until heads are on spikes."
"Then you will not mind a spare pair of hands helping you put them there," he replied. He then eyed the warband as it strolled past them through the gates. "I do not see any supply wagons."
"We won't need any. The Beast Tower is only a day's ride from here. If the Gods are good to us then this should all be over by tomorrow night," Erik paused. "Have you ever killed a man?"
Johanni frowned. "...No."
Erik grinned. It was the answer he expected, no doubt. "Perhaps today is the day. There is nothing quite like your first kill, little lord, except perhaps your first fuck," and then the Halfspear leaned into the boy's ear and whispered, "Tonight could be the night for that too, should it suit you..."
Johanni blushed, looking away.
"Lord, we must not tarry here," said Eardwulf, snatching at his reins and urging his horse after the Karggar warrior party.
Erik shrugged when he was out of earshot. "Your thrall doesn't like me. I wonder why...?"
Traversing the Grey Wilds was as arduous as traversing the Oakmire. Its hard soils made for hard riding, even for the horse-master Impanni. Johanni bounced and bounded in his saddle as he rode eastward with the warband. Their path was clear. The Beast Tower stood around 30 miles from Yveryth which (on horseback) was not so great a distance, but since horses were such a precious rarity in the Grey Wilds, Erik Halfspear's men did not push their steeds. The warband moved in a slow canter across the rocky earth following the flattened slope of tableland bordering Greyspear to the barren plateau. No roads were necessary as the land was so flat and open it was almost impossible to lose track of your position. Erik explained this to Johanni as their horses marched together in lockstep. "Greyspear is the centre and the Oakmire marks the south," said the Halfspear, "that's all you need to find your way around these lands."
But it wasn't what defined those lands. As he rode through the Grey Wilds, Johanni found that it wasn't the simplicity or harshness of the terrain that alarmed him -- it was the desolation. They had barely ridden an hour before they spotted the first abandoned village. A rotting pockmark, its forgotten homesteads stripped of its lumber and thatch and workable stone by scavengers; leaving behind little more than crumbling ruins and old dirt paths strewn with bones. Frodi called it Little Haven and from what Johanni recalled in his readings of the Overlord Manuscript, the ancient Karggars built the village atop an old orichalcum mine. It was useless to them (since only magic could forge weapons from orichalcum ore) but it traded well with the elvish, back in the days before their invasion. During their rule the elvish had that mine gutted of its riches by hordes of Woag slaves. Then once it ran dry and the elves lost interest, the village above ground fended for itself until a lack of food and water forced its people to abandon it. It was a tragedy.
The warband passed five more abandoned villages on their way east.
They paused only once, to feed and water the horses at the edge of an old ironwood forest (which was now just thousands and thousands of ankle-high tree stumps sticking out of the ground) before pushing on across the plateau with the wind at their backs, until they veered upon an old crannog built a quarter of the way into a gigantic empty basin that once would have been a lake. The ironwood piles (as well as the mortice and tenon joints interlocking them) were still sturdy, as was its conical thatched roofing and roped logwood bridge. There were burning torches staked into earth around the dead lake's edge, lighting the way around its span as the clouded sun fell into the horizon. Three Karggar horsemen awaited the warband at the bridgehead. They looked weary but alert.
"Hold," said Erik Halfspear. His men brought all their horses to a stop. "Frodi? Little lord? With me."
The two nodded and followed the Karggar chieftain as he approached his scouts at the crannog, and Eardwulf begrudgingly held his position with Thregg, Growler, and the rest of the men.
"Hail, Halfspear," said one of the scouts. "Iodi brought you word."
He nodded, his horse whickering. "What do we know?"
"There's about thirty of the old goat-fuckers holed up in the Beast Tower," It was the second scout who said this. "And they have the spears we raided off that travelling armourer in the Weald. It's good steel and it'll serve them well in a scrap."
"Do they have any horses?"
"Twenty-three of them," said the third scout, "all good Impanni horses, well fed and well trained. Still, if we met them in the open we'd have the advantage in numbers."
"If they have the Beast Tower there's no chance of that. Anything else?"
The first scout grinned, pointing his thumb over his cloaked shoulder toward the crannog. "There's a gift for you inside, lord."
The scouts all dismounted and took a torch each then led the way across the logged bridge. Erik, Frodi and Johanni dismounted and followed them through the entranceway into the inner chamber. What awaited Erik was an elf worshipper, stripped naked, gagged and tied up by the wrists, his skin turning purple and blue where the scouts had beaten him half to death. Blood slopped out of the cord knot wrapped around his mouth. He stank of piss.
Grinning, Erik knelt to his haunches, his heavy greatsword clanking behind his back, and undid the knot in his captive's mouth. The elf worshipper choked and coughed at the sudden intake of air, sodden with blood.
"I'll make this quick," he said. "What are your demands?"
The beaten man struggled for breath (and words). "...a thousand... golds..."
"Is that all? Gods be good!" Erik unsheathed his dagger. But rather than slit the elf worshipper's throat with it, he cut the man's bonds and stood him up on shaky legs. "Steady now! Steady! Now hear me plain. My men are going to give you a horse. And you are going to take that horse and ride it back to the Beast Tower and inform your scum-sucking, pig-fucking, mother-whoring compatriots that Erik Halfspear accepts their demands. Tomorrow morn, I will send three of my riders to the tower with the ransom – you will take it and then you will leave. Do you understand?"
He nodded weakly.
"Good, now away with you. Frodi? Help him to a horse."
The archer shrugged as Erik shoved the beaten man into his arms. "If I must. Come along, bastard."
Frodi half-walked, half-dragged the man outside to the bridge.
"We aren't really going to pay them off, are we?" Asked the 2nd scout.
"Oh, don't be so mutton-headed," muttered Erik. "We attack tonight."
The crannog was far too small to seat a host of fifty-three, so Erik's men made camp (such as it was) around the banks of the dried-up lake, whilst Erik's inner circle took the crannog. As was the Halfspear's wish the band had provisioned lightly (to move more quickly) so no tents pitched; they simply kindled half a dozen campfires with fatwood then tied their cloaks to their spear poles and spread them wide against the eastward winds. Food was light for the Karggars – nut bread and salted beef strips to roast. And there was no ale. Erik wanted his men sharp for the attack. The mood around the camp was light and frivolous – contending with elf worshippers was not new to them. They sang songs and played knuckles, sharpened their blades and cleaned their boots. Those who needed it caught a few hours' sleep, those who didn't stood watch.
Johanni tried to sleep on one of the pallets stashed away inside the crannog but sleep wouldn't take him. He spent dusk listening to the men outside as they prepared for what was to come, and he ate only portions of the broth and bread Erik's men provided. Johanni had no hunger that day, and he wasn't tired. That was why, when Erik, Eardwulf, Frodi and Thregg all slept in their pallets, Johanni climbed out of the folds and drew the short sword that his brother Ragnar commissioned for him. When he crossed the bridge into the Karggar encampment, a few of Erik's men asked him where he was going. When Johanni said "to train" they chuckled and returned to their water cups and war tales. They left him free to walk beyond the confides of the camp, so he walked and walked and walked until its torchlights were bright specks in the distance. Only there, out of eyesight and earshot, did he start to practice the steps Eardwulf taught him.
Johanni practiced his thrusts and guards by a leafless oak tree. It made for a poor opponent but at least it measured how strong his strikes were – by the size of the nicks his hackings dented into the bark (they were not very deep). But his sword arm felt stronger than it did all those solstices ago when Eardwulf first started teaching him the art of the blade.
"Ha!" Johanni cried, walloping the tree with blow after blow. "Ha! Ha! Ha!"
Then he heard applause behind his back.
The boy swung around and found Erik, clapping his hands together and grinning at the performance. His cheeks flamed red with embarrassment. "What are you doing here?"
"A man walks where he will on his own lands," Erik said. "Why are you attacking my tree?"
"Well, if it's on my land..."
Johanni lowered his sword arm. It took thirty strikes to tire it out – two solstices ago that number was ten. "I was practicing my swordplay for tomorrow. I am glad it was poor enough to amuse you."
Erik smiled, earnestly. "It's not poor, Johanni, it just doesn't suit you."
The king's son smiled.
"What?" said Erik.
"That is the first time you've called me by my name," said Johanni.
The Halfspear sighed. He unbuckled the strap of his greatsword, which fell to the dusty ground with a heavy clank, then took Johanni's sword out of his hands. The young man watched him lift it into the air to test its balance, watched him flick the flat of the blade for its sturdiness, then twirled it with a single swing. "Do you want my earnest word?"
"Your guards are better than your strikes," he said. "And your blade is strong for its light weight, good for parrying. There's no power in your swing, but you've a good thrust. Everything I see says `defence' so if I'm guessing, I'd say your brother trained you for swordplay as a last resort."
Johanni frowned. "You're saying Ragnar does not think I'm capable of killing a man?"
"I'm saying Ragnar doesn't want you to," Erik swung the sword again. "And as his rival to the throne I'm not surprised."
"You do not understand Ragnar," said Johanni. "He doesn't seek the throne, he never has. He only contests my succession because the Royal Diet obligates him to do so. They have no faith in me, but he does. He's been at my side for as long as I can remember. He wants me to be safe, unbloodied."
Erik glared at Johanni sceptically. "If he wanted you to be safe he should have taught you how to kill – and offered a better shield than a damned Osserian."
"Eardwulf is loyal, Erik. He's a good man. He was the one who taught me how to wield a sword."
"Well that makes sense," chuckled Erik. "He desires you, you know. All that sombreness and glowering does piss-all to hide it."
The Hrathwuldsson paused, almost affronted that Erik would say such a thing openly – then he remembered who he was talking to. Is it so obvious? Thought Johanni. He'd never known of the ardour that slept within Eardwulf's heart until the thrall kissed him in the Palace baths that night – but looking back on their times together Johanni did notice a hidden pattern of affection. Eardwulf awoke before him and slept after him, always at hand and alert. Some nights he woke and found Eardwulf just standing over him, watching him. His touch was always so tender, picking him up from a fall or even wiping the dust off his leathers after a long ride. It was more than devotion to a lord or a thrall's obligation to his master, and it was more than the carnal appetites Erik hinted at. It was love.
I don't know what to do with him anymore, Johanni thought.
Erik gave Johanni back his sword. "...You won't be fighting tonight. Stay behind me and only draw your sword if you're attacked. This is routine for us, but first blood for you."
Johanni smiled, sheathing the blade. "My father... he says that bloodshed is always an option... but that it should never be the first one."
"Well my father always said that you aren't a man until you whet your blade – and you cannot rule until you're a man. Even old allies have their differences."
"And here we are, walking in their footsteps."
"Don't misunderstand me," said Erik. "You're only here to piss off my uncle. I can't fathom why you'd want to fight but it won't change my mind. Karggar feet will always walk Karggar land."
Stubborn as an ox, thought Johanni. We weren't even talking him about supporting my claim. "I just misliked your talk of the Impanni as `elf-like'. We've learned from them, true, but no Woaggish tribe suffered under their heel as we did. Elf Worship is anathema under my father's loghs and as future king I will do all in my power to stamp it out. So, act the child all you want, Erik. Play churlish games with your uncle at your fancy. But I'm here because it's my duty to be here and no less. Now... I should be getting back to camp."
The skies above them were black as pit coal without so much as a blade of light in the horizon. If they lingered here too long the men at camp would wake. Johanni, adjusting his sword belt, turned to leave until Erik (his strength as ox-like as his stubbornness) took the younger boy by the wrist and dragged him back. Johanni yelped, spinning on his ankles and landing in the raider's boiled leather armour, and when he tried to pull himself free Erik's sturdy arm slipped behind his back and locked him in place. Heart in his throat, Johanni looked up and saw a brilliantly arrogant smile beaming down at him – arrogant and lusty.
"We don't have time for your games," said Johanni. "Not tonight."
"You are an odd one. You say you want my support and yet at every turn you accuse me of playing games or acting the fool. I am a very serious man, little lord. A serious man riddled with equally serious needs and desires..."
Heat flowered Johanni's cheeks a deep crimson. He looked away, not daring to meet Erik at the eye, even as his body betrayed him, as his small hands settled peacefully at the older man's hips. So warm, the boy thought, even in this cold land he feels so warm... He wanted to pull away, to rebel, to scream at himself of his father's loghs. So why didn't he move? Why couldn't he move? Why was it that when Erik Halfspear curled the tip of his finger beneath his oval chin and tilted his head back and leaned down and kissed him... he kissed the churl back? Why did he moan, gutturally, and collapse into those strong, battle-hardened Karggar arms like a waif? Erik was strong, arduous and passionate, an intoxication. And Johanni couldn't resist him. He could only lean up on the tips of his toes and grab the Halfspear by the russet-coloured scruff of his beard and smother himself in the older man's lips. The cold Grey Wilds and all beyond it, disappeared into a background nothingness. All was Erik Halfspear and his kiss. Johanni, so consumed by it, failed to notice a witness to his indiscretion, lurking in the leafless shrubbery beyond the whittled old oak tree.
It was Eardwulf.
The tunnel was old but well-tended, supported by ironwood beams every few yards and turfed with Karggar-woven reed mats. Like the caverns of Greyspear and the hallways beneath Erik Halfspear's mead hall, ochre-painted wall carvings decorated its expanse. But these murals were older and more... archaic than those he'd seen before, crafted by the earliest Woag settlers of the Grey Wilds. These depicted grand but nameless battles on sweeping planes and towering obelisks crumbling from the sky as the belly of the earth broke open and out spewed draugs and drakes and ogres. Johanni observed them from behind as Eardwulf's flickering torch illuminated them inch by inch as they crawled together down the tunnel.
Frodi, crawling just behind Johanni with two full quivers (one on his back, the other on his hip) noticed the boy observing the murals. "You won't find any recent histories of Karggar bravery here, young lord. These are quite old."
"What are they?"
"They depict the Age of Monsters," said Frodi. "They say it was a time of great fear, a time when evil sorcerers used magic, the language of the gods, to erect dozens of these Beast Towers across the land. Upon these towers they sacrificed countless men, using their blood to summon monsters and unleashing them on the countryside. That was until our champion, Wo'ar the half-god, took up his legendary hammer and declared war on all the sorcerers, killing their creatures and bringing down their towers one by one. Wo'ar brought the Age of Monsters to an end... and to this day only a few Beast Towers remain."
That's one interpretation thought Johanni. His education had been slightly different in Drangheim. The scholars taught him that the Beast Towers predated Woaggish arrival on Grünlund's shores and that no one truly knew who built them. The Overlord Manuscript said the same, declaring that the remaining towers held little strategic value and were now only sites of pilgrimage for mystics and adventurers. Even his brother Ragnar underwent a journey to a Beast Tower, back in his day.
Erik Halfspear (who led the four of them down the tunnel into a small hatched enclave) whispered for them all to be quiet as he pressed up at the wood and iron door bolted above his head. It yawned open and Erik slipped through, hauling himself up by shoulders and elbows. Once above he helped Eardwulf up, then Johanni, then Frodi.
Johanni observed his surrounds.
It was an old storage cellar. It was cold and dank and dark, with nothing to see by except their torches. Old, empty crates lined the walls and broken pieces of pottery littered the cracked flagstone floor. Johanni drew his cloak's folds closer together. Somehow it was colder inside the Beast Tower than it was without.
"Follow me," said the Halfspear, taking point with one hand around his dagger's haft. The others tailed him through the cellar to a stone stairwell that spiralled upwards by 50 or 60 steps to a partially crumbled arched doorway half consumed by rubble. They hid in the shadow of that debris as Erik leaned out and observed what lay before them – the great hall of the Beast Tower – and the Elf Worshippers infesting it.
They were Woags of Karggar stock; pallid-skinned, lean, grey-bearded and dreadlocked, but that was where the similarities ended. They wore no boiled leather armour or woollen boots or fur-trimmed cloaks; these cultists wore beaten iron half-plates strapped around their thin necks and torsos, as well as skirts of studded leather strapping tied with cord, and wiry straw sandals. To honour their former elvish masters, they tattooed black chains around their necks, wrists and ankles; and whittled their own ears into elf-like points by carving at them with daggers. There were ten of them inside the hall. Johanni balked as he watched nine of them sway back and forth in an oddly timed, almost arrhythmic dance around a gigantic sandstone monolith stacked at the centre of the hall like a hearth. The tenth cultist stood at the top of that structure, arms outstretched, with a gigantic bronze basin before him. His head leaned back as he muttered an ancient, song-like incantation in the Elvish tongue;
Come back to us,
From beyond the mountains.
Do not forsake us,
You, the blood of fountains.
Ye Children of the Gods,
Your orphaned sons,
Await only you.
Erik Halfspear, Johanni, Eardwulf and Frodi all looked on as a bright glint of light speckled the air above the cultist and the monolith. It was as if the air then parted, cutting itself open like a knife to a calf, and from that void oozed out thick, flowing rivulets of black-coloured blood that dripped into the bronze basin.
Magic! Thought Johanni.
"I've seen enough," whispered Erik, "Thrall, you're with me. Frodi, cover our charge. Johanni, you stay here."
"But I want to help," said Johanni.
"You'll help me by staying put," said Erik. "Leave the rest to us."
The plan was already underway before the boy had time to protest it. Erik unsheathed his greatsword for the first time since the attack on the caravan, its honed steel glimmering in the pale orange light of the lit braziers and sconces. Looking to Frodi, he gestured at the elf worshipper atop the monolith whose blood magic had nearly filled the bowl to breeching. Understanding the signal, the archer nodded back and quickly nocked an arrow from his quiver. Then, a second later, that same arrow sunk straight through the cultist's neck -- THUNK! He jerked stiffly, gargling blood, then fell backwards from the monolith onto the ground. The elf worshippers, stunned, scrambled for their bronze swords as they saw Erik Halfspear and Eardwulf charge at them from across the hall.
The Karggar chieftain's war cry was huge and bestial, roaring up dust from the sandy stones as he threw himself into the fray. When the first elf worshipper swung his sword, Erik parried the blow and slit the man's throat open with a single, effortless swing of his greatsword. A second attacker reared up with a hand axe, whom Erik quickly rushed, shoving his shoulder into the man's gaunt stomach and throwing him back, off his balance, dropping to the flagstones like a fish before Erik sunk his blade clean through the cultist's heart. A third man came up in Erik's blind spot, too quickly for him to see, but one of Frodi's arrows caught him in the chest before he even drew his sword. Closer to the monolith, Eardwulf was carving his way through the elf worshippers, two men already dead and fallen in his wake as he twirled upon his heels and parried each blow of his current prey, metallic clap after clap after clap, until the Osserian broke through the elf worshipper's defences and plunged his sword through his neck.
Erik and Eardwulf's swordsmanship could not have been more different. Though of similar stature and muscle tone; Erik was all power -- wide swings, short parries and war cries. Eardwulf's skills were sleeker, dominated by footwork, swift movement and counters until he could guard break and sink the perfect thrust. Between the two of them, and Frodi's archery, the elf worshippers were light work.
Johanni looked to the sheathed short sword lulling at his thigh and suddenly felt valueless. Would I have just... gotten in the way? He thought. Is this what it means to be king? Standing back silently as others do the killing? Is that the kind of king Ragnar would be?
Frodi slung his longbow over his shoulder, climbing up to his feet and compelling Johanni to do the same. "Come, young lord. We're not done yet."
Eardwulf sheathed his blade. Scowling, Erik wiped the blood and entrails off his greatsword with one of the dead cultist's studded leather skirt straps.
"That's just under half their number," said Frodi. "The rest are camped outside with the horses, waiting for the ransom."
"Then we send the signal now," said Erik. "You and the thrall, bar the great hall doors so that the worshippers outside can't get in. Johanni and I will light the beacon."
Eardwulf sneered. Johanni watched his lips part to speak a sudden quip of anger, but the boy quickly interceded; "Go quickly, Eardwulf. Help Frodi." The Osserian's fist shook at his side as he watched Erik Halfspear stare curiously at him, but he did as Johanni told him to and went with Frodi to the arched ironwood doors on the other side of the great hall and together they sealed them shut with a massive plank of wood. Meanwhile, a great spiral stairwell climbed up and around the curved, sandy walls of the great hall and inched up and up and up to the top of the Beast Tower. Erik and Johanni ran those steps, nearly 400 of them, until they reached the tower's moonlit summit where two stone platforms crossed each other over and upheld a now quenched stack of kindling and coal; a beacon. Beneath the starless black sky Erik threw a torch onto the bonfire and a tremendous flame soon reared up from the heap. It burned brightly, visible clear across the Grey Wilds for at least half a mile, and even less, to just a hundred yards away where Thregg the Ghoat, Growler and the rest of Erik Halfspear's warband spotted their signal. They charged accordingly, surging down the flatland on horseback towards the elf worshipper's encampment curled around the base of the Beast Tower. Johanni peered over the edge. The cultists scrambled for their spears and horses as arrows started to fly and Growler bounded towards them with an outstretched paw and wide-open jaws – the elf worshippers stood no chance now. Screams and war cries abounded, with the whistle of loosed arrows and the slurp of unsheathed steel. But the whirlwind of battle was short, with Thregg's axe and Growler's fangs and arrow volley after arrow volley transforming the insurgent elf worshippers into a pile of corpses in mere moments.
"It's over," said Johanni. "The Beast Tower is liberated."
Erik said nothing.
"Erik, didn't you hear me? We've won."
But still the Halfspear said nothing. Johanni turned to him and balked as he saw a look he never thought he would ever see in Erik's eyes – fear. The older man stood behind the sandstone merlons glancing south to the Oakmire, his breath visible in the nightly cold, watching with stunned silence as soldiers, thousands of them, marched out of the dark forest in a unified formation of four huge columns. Johanni gasped. At first, he wondered if they were elf worshippers. But as he looked more closely at the emerging army he saw banners baring the familiar totem of the Impanni clan, the horse.
"It's the Royal Legion," sweat dripped down Erik Halfspear's face like blood. "It's Ragnar Bloodbane."
Time was of the essence. Johanni whipped frantically at the reins of his white mare to keep pace with the others as clouds of pounded earth and dust trailed behind their steeds. It was the Karggar custom to go light on their horses (since they were so hard to replace in the Grey Wilds) but Erik Halfspear and Frodi spared their creatures no quarter either. They neighed viciously at the sudden and sustained need of speed, but they had no choice but to work the horses bare. There was no time to lose. With Eardwulf bringing up the rear on his gelding the four of them rode hard across the open tracts, the grey and lifeless earth, brushing by the lake-less crannog and the depleted ironwood forests and the abandoned villages they passed yesterday, one after the other, until the level lands up above began to ridge.
Eardwulf rode close by.
"Is it truly your brother?" He asked.
Johanni nodded. The Beast Tower was less than a mile north of the Oakmire so spotting the purple and gold colours of Ragnar Bloodbane's personal banner was not difficult. As soon as the tower was secure, Erik ordered Thregg to round up and burn all the cultist's corpses, retrieve their stolen loot and whatever other valuables the attackers may have had, then load up the horses and make their way back to Yveryth as soon as possible. After that it was a mad dash for the four of them to race back towards Greyspear and spread the word of the Legion's arrival.
"There can be no doubt!" His horse's gallop was so loud Johanni had to yell over it, "I don't know how he mobilized so many men so quickly, but we have to stop this now!"
The ridge ahead smoothed into two natural concourses from years of use as a trading road. One bent towards the miles and miles of sweeping plains and flatland between Greyspear and the Oakmire, into which Ragnar slowly marched his forces. The other one climbed up towards the mountain itself, where Yveryth and Olaf's hidden fortress lay. Johanni's eyes flashed with alarm as Erik and Frodi rode up the latter, and he whipped his mare harder to catch up to their horses. "Where are you going?! The Legion is approaching Yveryth from the lake bed!"
"We're not going to the Legion!" Snarled Erik.
What is he...? He cannot be serious! Johanni blinked in complete disbelief, almost not believing what he was hearing, until he saw Erik's defiant smirk and saw the truth – he was serous. The boy yelled "Whoa!" to his horse, "Whoa, girl!" and eased her down into a trot, petting her mane. Erik, Frodi, and Eardwulf, looking back, quickly slowed their horses to a stop as well.
"Johanni!" Yelled the Halfspear, "What are you doing?"
"We have to stop this before it gets out of hand," said the boy. "We have to talk to my brother before it's too late!"
Erik sneered again, his restless horse cantering in circles beneath him. "You mean beg the Bloodbane not to slaughter my people like he did the Osserians? Have you learned NOTHING about us? Karggars do not bend. We do not bow! I'll shelter my people inside Greyspear and there will be no attack – not whilst I have his younger brother at my side."
"Reconsider this, chieftain," said Eardwulf, who cantered back to the prince's side. "I speak as a first-hand witness to Ragnar Bloodbane's fury. He will not hesitate to exact vengeance on his enemies, imagined or otherwise. And as a rival claimant to the throne Johanni would make for a poor shield."
"Spoken like a truly gutless thrall," spat Erik. "Ragnar wouldn't drag half his host out here into the Grey Wilds if he didn't want his brother back alive!"
But by now Johanni had had enough of this. "For Ka-Uta's sake, Erik, think! Say you did take me prisoner and hid your people inside the fortress, you don't have enough food to survive a siege. From what I've seen you'd last perhaps a week at best? If that? Meanwhile, the Legion puts Yveryth to the torch and plunders whatever precious little valuables it has left."
Erik frowned, his bombast flustering slightly. "I have 3000 swords across these lands, boy."
"Not enough to defeat the Legion. I may not be a warrior, but my brother schooled me well in war craft. He has the horses, the armour, the weapons and a supply chain stretching back into the Weald. And you? Good Gods just look around you! Look at the terrain! It's open ground for miles – how long do you think your 3000 men will last against a fully provisioned heavy cavalry? And what are your men equipped with? Old bronze swords and brittle leather armour? Pitchforks and fire sticks? Ragnar's men have steel swords and steel spears and wheeled scorpios -- let's see what happens when those match up in open combat!"
Erik grimaced, but held his silence, almost as if stunned. It was clear that in all his life as chieftain no one had ever dared to speak to him like this.
"Understand that thousands of lives hinge on the decision you're about to make," said Johanni, sombrely. "If you make it out of pride rather than concern for your people... then you're every bit the fool your uncle thinks you are, Halfspear."
Frodi nocked an arrow.
It was such a fluid and sudden motion that Johanni didn't even realize it was a provocation, not until a scowling Eardwulf unsheathed his sword and brought his horse ahead of Johanni's. Frodi didn't flinch as the Hrathwuldsson locked eyes with Erik Halfspear, whose dark smouldering eyes wrestled with the weight of what the boy had said. Pale sunlight glimmered off Eardwulf's sword. Silence abounded. Someone could have died in that moment.
But Johanni spoke first – and calmly.
"Put your sword away, Eardwulf," he said. He broke eyes with Erik, turning his horse around. "I will speak with my brother. Do not stop me."
Tugging the reins again, Johanni propelled his horse down the wend the in the ridge towards the Royal Legion, with Eardwulf closely behind.
Erik did not follow.
The Royal Legion's march ended two miles south of Yveryth where Greyspear's looming shadow met a host of over 2,000 heavy infantry legionaries (divided into four cohorts) and 500 armoured cavalrymen; 200 thralls assigned to each century in groups of twenty, and an auxiliary force of 150 builders, smiths, alchemists and engineers for support. There they quickly built a field encampment with materials from their supply wagons, erecting tents and digging latrines and cookfires. The first cohort established a mile-wide perimeter as the auxiliary units went to work constructing fortifications to their position; spiked pits, pitch traps, etc. With the barren earth beneath them so flat and lifeless it was impossible to mount any surprise attacks on their position, but Johanni knew that Ragnar was a shrewd commander and he always provisioned for the worst. No one knew the Grey Wilds like the Karggars after all – the Legion was on unfamiliar ground.
Where the ridge levelled out to the dusty flatland in the dark shade of the mountain, Johanni and Eardwulf rode out towards the Legion's perimeter where a small squad of outriders guarded an old dirt road. Two of the mounted spearman crossed their weapons warily at their approach, warning them to "turn back" if they valued their lives.
Johanni scoffed indignantly. "I am Johanni Carian Hrathwuld, second son of King Hrathwuld and aetheling of Grünlund. This is my thrall, Eardwulf. My brother Ragnar Bloodbane holds this camp and you will take me to him immediately."
Never was Johanni expected to `prove' himself to his subordinates of his name and pedigree, but then he had never approached a military encampment before either. The outriders mulled over his claims, one jeering at the very notion, claiming that the Legion was here to liberate Johanni Hrathwuld from the Karggars after they ransacked his caravan. But these men were idiots and there was no getting around them without assurances. So, sighing, he unbuckled the short sword from his belt and threw it into one of the mounted men's gloved hands.
"Take that to my brother's tent," he said. "Show it to him. He will know it's me."
The captain amongst them, a stout and gravel-chinned six-footer, nodded for the rider to corroborate Johanni's claims. He turned his horse southward and rode for camp whilst Johanni and Eardwulf remained in detention. Less than an hour later three horsemen returned to the outriders' outpost, one of them being the earlier rider, but the other two accompanying him, however, were far more significant.
They were Knossos and Kreim.
A pair of identical twins, no more than thirty winters old, of middling height, with pale grey eyes, cropped flaxen-hair and sun-kissed olive skin. They wore gilded versions of the traditional legionary armour; gold-coloured laminar plate cuirasses and mail skirts over a pearl white tunic. Their horses, like Johanni's, were both white mares and they both bore the Impanni horse totem on their half-helms. They were so similar that Johanni could only tell them apart by their choice of weapon. Knossos carried with him a halberd, bright and sharp and deadly, his skill with the weapon earning him the title "Swanstroke Knossos" whilst Kreim carried two curved edge short swords, one on either hip, his proficiency as an expert dual-wielder earning him the nickname "Twinstroke Kreim". Together, for their hair and armour, they were known as the Golden Brothers.
Not only were Knossos and Kreim Ragnar's most trusted thegns but they were also two of his oldest friends, back during his days as "Ragnar the Fatherless" when the Golden Brothers (along with Haakon Godwulfsson, Trygga the Spear Dancer, and a warrior named Gnut the Troll) were part of his legendary warband – the Iron Circle. Their ties to the Bloodbane went deep.
Knossos, his glittering halberd slung from a leather strap at his back, greeted Johanni with a deep baritone. "Apologies, lord. My men would not have detained you had they known who you were."
The softer-voiced Kreim nodded his apologies as well. "My brother and I are here to personally escort you to the High Legate's tent."
Johanni nodded. "Lead the way."
From there, he and Eardwulf followed Knossos and Kreim from the outrider outpost on the north-eastern rim to the heart of the now brimming encampment. The Legion had already pitched nearly 100 tents and provisional paddocks and guard walls. Those men not on guard duty sat to cook fires around the camp, peeling off their armour, sharpening their weapons or running training drills as the thralls milled from tent to kiln to well to paddock; fetching water and firewood and whetstones, passing messages, feeding the mules, etc. The camp was alive with laughter and shouting, chicken roosts, clanking metal, roaring cookfires, and whickering horses.
Knossos and Kreim took Johanni and Eardwulf to the largest, centremost tent, where they unhorsed themselves and bid two thrall boys to come and fetch their horses. Johanni and Eardwulf dismounted also.
"You may see your brother," said Kreim. "But the Osserian stays here."
Grim faced but silent, Eardwulf said nothing, merely nodding obediently to the two thegns and standing aside by the tent door. He was not unaccustomed to this treatment by now. Johanni thanked the Golden Brothers for their help and then walked through the tent flap.
Ragnar, fully dressed in his legionary military fatigues; steel plated armour, mail skirt, iron-plate gauntlets and long sword. He was helmless, his long black hair flowing freely down his back, and poured himself some water from a tin ewer as Johanni entered, red-faced and smiling.
Ragnar smiled back.
"Rex Aeturnus," saluted the Legate.
"Rex Aeturnus," saluted the boy.
They then strode up to one and other and embraced, shoulder to shoulder.
"Are you alright, `Hanni?" Said Ragnar. "Did they hurt you? How did you escape?"
"I am fine, brother. Do not worry yourself. Whatever you've heard, I am safe and well."
Ragnar turned back to his table, frowning. "Which is more than can be said for the half-century I sent with you on this little expedition. Forty good men butchered like pigs by these damned Karggars. I always knew they were an ill-bred horde, all the poaching and raiding and raping stood as fine testament to the fact, but even I failed to realize just how savage these bastards are. And to think – I pacified the Osserians for them."
"Ragnar," said Johanni. "What the Karggars did to my caravan was wrong, no one can say otherwise. And there will be justice for your men. But I beg you, I implore you – stay your hand."
Ragnar frowned, lit with confusion. "You advocate for these barbarians?"
"To what end? These insolent Karggars kidnapped a potential aetheling to the throne of Grünlund. If I show them mercy now, what message does that send to the other tribes?"
"You don't understand. The Karggars are a stone's throw from oblivion!"
Ragnar's frown deepened. "I'm aware of that, Johanni."
"I know that the Grey Wilds are devoid of game and vegetation," said the Bloodbane. "I know that the Karggars rely on trade with the Arbariis to feed themselves and that they barter with the loot they pilfer from our territory. I know that their current chieftain, Erik Halfspear, oversees many of these raids. I know that his brother, Sygardi Greyspear, has led nearly 2,000 Karggars west into the Fens for re-settlement. I know that their uncle, Olaf Greyspear, holds the power in their mountain fortress. I know their weapons and tactics, their few remaining outposts, I even know how many thralls they have. I've eyes and ears in every corner of Grünlund, Johanni. Little is unknown to me."
Johanni, flabbergasted, stood back. "You knew these people were starving to death...?"
"Yes. As did father and the Royal Diet."
"And we did NOTHING?"
Ragnar swallowed a cup of water. "What we did was allow them passage into the Fens unimpeded -- from there they will be much easier to control. The idea was to empty the Grey Wilds then burn the Oakmire and pave the eastern herepaths all the way to the Salt Shore, as was King Hrathwuld's ambition."
Anger sudden found its way into Johanni's heart. "Why wasn't I informed about any of this?"
"Ask father," said Ragnar. "As High Legate I only implement strategy, I do not craft it. Nor do I seek to."
"But you have leeway! The Diet respects you! You can end this before-"
"Before what? Before I destroy the Karggars like I did the Osserians?"
"The Karggars are wild and unpredictable," said the Bloodbane, "especially those who hold out with the Halfspear. Their kind will never rise high enough to challenge the crown, but they might aid those who one day would. It's my instinct to cull the whelp before he grows fangs... so I'd need a damned good reason to go against my instincts. So, to that end, what do you proffer, `Hanni?"
Johanni imagined there were few men shrewder than Ragnar Bloodbane. A cynical blade of truth ran through his every thought and expression, disarming dissent in the face of a cold and dispassionate resignation to bloodshed. He pitied anyone who made an enemy of his brother.
Just then, a legionary walked into the tent, taking a knee with his spear.
"High Legate," he said. "We have a captive who requests a word."
Ragnar sighed. "Poorly timed, lad. Nevertheless, send him in."
The legionary nodded and left the tent. A few moments later, he returned with a tall chestnut-haired Karggar man tied by his wrists with rope. His scabbard and dagger belt were empty and there was a scroll of parchment tucked into his belt. Johanni's eyes went wide with recognition as the legionary shoved the man to his knees.
"And who is this?" Asked Ragnar.
"Erik," said the Karggar to the Hrathwuldssons. "Chieftain of the Karggars."
What is he doing? Thought Johanni.
There was a wooden chair, tall and gilded, next to his table. With his boots and armour suddenly weighing heavy, the High Legate reclined into the seat and dismissed the legionary.
"So... you're the Halfspear, eh?" He said. "Why do they call you that?"
Johanni watched Erik visibly struggle not to be snide. "Me being half the man my father was, it was my uncle's nickname for me. It stuck."
Ragnar chuckled. "That's a dilemma every man in this tent can understand – that no son is ever his father's equal. Very well then, Erik `Halfspear'. Are you here to surrender?"
"Then why are you here?"
It was then in that moment that Erik swallowed something that looked very much like pride. "I am here... to ask you... to spare my people."
"Hah! That's a popular request today," Ragnar poured himself another cup of water and sipped it. "Answer me this, Halfspear. After you raided my brother's caravan, slew forty of my men, kidnapped the survivors and dragged them back to your little brown puckered shithole of a lair... why should I spare your people?"
"Because my people aren't responsible for my actions."
"No, they're not," another sip. "Should I kill you instead? Blood eagle you on your own lands? A hanging, perhaps?"
Erik grimaced. "I ask that you don't."
Ragnar set his cup down. "And why should I care what you ask?"
"Because of what I offer."
"...And what do you offer?"
There was true weight behind what Erik was about to say. Johanni saw that from the heavy droop in the Karggar's shoulders and posture. His habitual smirk and cocksure demeanour was gone – their recalcitrance replaced with a kind of reluctant, morose acquiescence. "I offer a permanent halt on all raiding of the Weald. I've already sent word to all my men. No more raiding, no more ransoms. You have my word."
Johanni looked to Ragnar, who looked upon the kneeling Erik Halfspear with sudden pause. The proposition calmly intrigued him, like kindling quietly coaxed into a blaze by errant embers. "Interesting. But I'm going to need more than your word, Halfspear."
"And you'll have it," despite his tied wrists Erik still pulled the scroll from his belt. Ragnar stood up, took it from him, and unfurled it.
"It's a map of the Oakmire," said Erik. "The black circles represent the forest forts, the lines between them are the hidden trails that only we Karggars know about. As chieftain of the Karggars of the Grey Wilds, I'll allow the Kingdom of Drangheim to claim the forts as burghs. The fortress in Greyspear, and all our trade routes to the Salt Shore will be yours. I only ask for two things in exchange. One, is that you allow the Karggars to peacefully resettle in the Fens. And two... that you allow me to accompany your brother, Johanni Carian Hrathwuld, on his journey."
Johanni was speechless (and bright red).
Ragnar, cold-eyed and remote, frowned. "...Why?"
Erik turned to Johanni, still on his knees, half smiling in defeat and acceptance. "Because as chieftain of the Karggar Woags, I pledge my fealty to him... and support his claim as king."
Johanni, stunned and robbed for words, looked at his shoes instead.
"Do you accept my terms?" Asked Erik.
Ragnar's face was an expressionless mask. He was still and placid, unmoving, until he parted his thin lips to say, "Yes. I accept your terms," and snapped his fingers. Four spear-armed legionaries marched into the tent. Two of them grabbed Erik by his tattooed arms as the other two stood guard. They cut his binds. "Go to your uncle and invite him to my camp. We have a lot to discuss."
Grinning, Erik Halfspear rubbed his swollen red wrists. "Pleasure to," he said, casting Johanni one last hidden smile before Ragnar's four spearmen escorted him out of the tent. The Bloodbane sighed, fetching two cups from his table and filling them both with water. He offered one to Johanni.
"Do you have any wine?"
"Ha!" chuckled Ragnar, "The Diet will mislike my allowing him to live... but many of them have property in the north. I can only hope an end to Karggar raiding and the promise of greater trade ties with the Arbarii will appease them. But do you trust that man? And should I trust him to protect you?"
Johanni smiled. "I am my brother's brother. I will be fine."
Night unfurled like a shroud over Yveryth. The grey clouds above in their starless swirl, the low fog rolling through the streets like smoke, the bitter nocturne chill of a sunless land. All seemed to scream against the Karggars. While it was impossible to say if Wharla Oldeye's talk of a curse was true, for the first time in centuries they were beginning to understand that the Grey Wilds were no longer a suitable home for their people.
Thralls, in groups of five, went through the black streets of Yveryth lighting tapers, sconces and braziers in any corner they could find them. Others knocked on doors to spread word that Erik Halfspear himself summoned all the townsfolk to the Wyvern's Leg. Across the hours they climbed out of their cots, pallets, straw piles and alleyways to hoof it to the village centre, whispering amongst themselves about the bitter night's cold and the Impanni army camped at the bottom of valley. The prevailing question seemed to be – why they hadn't attacked yet. And then by the darkest hour many hundreds of people gathered together in the clearing surrounding the Wyvern's Leg. Hundreds of braziers and torches gave them light and dozens of thralls from Erik Halfspear's household, women and boys, began sharing out cups of wine and hunks of bread to the townsfolk.
A cheerful Johanni watched all of this from the saddle of his white mare, alongside Olaf Greyspear, Wharla Oldeye, Halfdan and Eardwulf. Over by the mead hall doors stood Frodi and Thregg, with a slumbering Growler chained to a nearby post. And then, upon the roof of the hall, emerged Erik; his burly body enswathed in his fur-trimmed russet cloak and clanking greatsword. With one hand he held aloft a torch so that all could see and know him. And in response the Karggars of Yveryth assembled beneath his feet cheered and roared and wept for him. "HALFSPEAR! HALFSPEAR! HALFSPEAR! HALFSPEAR!" They hailed.
Even after everything, thought Johanni, they still love him.
Even then, as he watched the Karggar chieftain standing on the roof of his mead hall like a grinning fool, the boy blushed as he began to understand why they loved him so.
Erik gestured for his people to quieten down.
"I'm glad you came," he said to them. "Not the fittest weather for a talk I'll grant you that... but it's needed. My father... was Gad Greyspear. All of you know who he was. Some of you may even remember him. He was our chieftain. He was my father. I've spent my whole life living in his shadow... just as my father did my grandfather, and my grandfather his father, and on and on and on. I hope to join them all on the Hallowed Plane someday. I want to hunt with them, ride with them, fight with them. I want to know if I'm truly worthy of them. I've always wanted that. In the past, I thought that the best way to do that, to honour my ancestors, was to protect the way of life they forged for us. Our ancestors took these treacherous lands and made a home out of them... they built Yveryth and the villages, carved a fortress out of the heart of Greyspear; they tamed the ironwood and charted the Oakmire, they raised the forest forts. They made the impossible possible. Who am I, I thought, not to respect that? That's why I've fought so long and so hard to keep us all alive here. I fought... and I lost."
Everyone assembled stood and awaited his word.
"Some fights cannot be won," said Erik. "As a Karggar it's not easy for me to admit that – but it's the truth. Sometimes the only way to win is not to lose any more than you already have... and right now... `losing' means staying here."
Light murmurs began sifting through the crowds.
The Halfspear raised his flame. "You all know me. I love this land. It's a cold, windy, dusty, blustery, piss-stained little puddle of rocks but I love it. It's home. It's our home. But our home can't sustain us anymore. The Grey Wilds are dead and there is nothing left for us here. No game to hunt, no crops to grow, no wood to build with... soon there won't even be any water left. We can't stay here. Our only hope is to go west into the Fens and build a new life for ourselves. We will join with my brother Sygardi's followers and start afresh, just as our ancestors did when they first came to these shores from the Hyperborean Steppe. Friends... it's time to go. I've sent riders out to every compass point calling on every able Karggar to join me on the march west. There will be wagons for the old folks and cripples. Anyone who wants to stay here can... but you will die here."
There was a wineskin hanging from his dagger belt. Erik uncorked it with his free hand. "Friends," he said, "it's time to start a new history. Tomorrow is our new beginning. But tonight... WE CELEBRATE!"
A huge cheer erupted. Hundreds of Karggars of all ages threw their hands and goblets into the air and chanted the Halfspear's name, defiant and proud as ever. Erik swigged from his wineskin and swung his torch aloft, as a band of minstrels emerged from behind the mead hall to play songs for those gathered. More thralls brought more baked bread and wine, along with apple slices and salted beef strips. Frodi and Thregg opened the doors to the mead hall where another feast awaited, this time for as many of the townsfolk as the hall could contain. It was a night of revelry, dance, feasting and, Johanni sensed, relief. The people of Yveryth resigned themselves to a bleak existence slowly whittling them down into nothing, but there was true hope for them now.
Later that night, Johanni joined the others at the mead hall feast where all amongst the Karggar inner circle assembled; Erik Halfspear, Olaf Greyspear and his attendants, Wharla Oldeye, Frodi, Thregg the Ghoat, even Iodi the Steward. The prince of Grünlund took a place next to Olaf with a cup full of wine and a platter full of grapes, pheasant breast, half a cheese wheel, and baked black bread. Halfdan did not join them for the festivities. Instead he rode south to report to Ragnar at the Royal Legion's camp about all that had occurred since the attack on the Impanni caravan. No doubt he would put some of his cynical colour on events but Johanni tried not to worry – Ragnar was committed to Erik's proposal, that much was certain.
Johanni ate as much as he could but he could barely put down half the platter, no matter how much wine he washed it down with. "Eardwulf," he called out, not seeing him but knowing he was never too far away, "Come and eat with me!"
The Osserian, stood closely behind, looked to the Karggars along the long table. None seemed to notice or care about the request. Eardwulf hauled his boots over the wooden seat and sat down.
A grinning Johanni passed the platter to him. "It's good!"
Eardwulf, despite himself, pulled off his gloves and helped himself to a bite of the pheasant. "I think you've had too much wine, lord."
"My constitution is unquestionable and all I've imbibed I've earned the right to... or something like that," Johanni didn't even realize he was slurring his words until Eardwulf pointed it out. He wasn't a drinker, but he wasn't unaccustomed to it either. Still, there was an ewer of water next to the wine jug, Johanni filled his cup with that instead. "...I'll have the water..."
Eardwulf smiled. "Indeed."
"Ah! First smile I've seen on you in days," said the boy. "We should be joyful. The Karggars are leaving the Grey Wilds and I have Erik's support, now I can seek out the other chieftains just like we planned."
And then as fast as it appeared, Eardwulf's smile vanished. "May I speak my mind, lord?"
Glowering, Eardwulf ate more of Johanni's food. "The Fens are the ancestral homeland of the Osserians, my people. Surrendering our lands to the Karggars so freely, I... I do not know how I should feel."
Johanni blinked. Despite the wine's cloudy haze saw his protector's point. It was no small thing. Ragnar's destruction of the Osserians created a vacuum in the Fens that the Karggars were now set to fill – without the blessing of its prior occupants, who still dwelt within them in small, scattered clusters. "I understand your misgivings, truly I do, but... they have the chance at a better life now. Try to see the good in this, Eardwulf."
The Osserian frowned. "It's not just that. Lord, we should never have gone to the Beast Tower. This journey has barely even begun, and you've already taken so many risks..." The space between Johanni and Eardwulf's seats was thin, barely anything. It was so small no one noticed the older man's gloved hand slide onto Johanni's thigh beneath the table. The boy froze.
Please don't do this here, he thought.
"If I lost you..." Eardwulf whispered, "I'd lose everything..."
And then a jubilant, half-drunk voice yelled out, "THRALL!"
Eardwulf quickly retracted his hand as Johanni exhaled, glancing over his shoulder. It was Erik, a goblet of wine in hand and a herring bone between his teeth (which he spat out). "Be a good servant and fetch my uncle some more wine," said the Halfspear. "I need to speak with your jarl."
Eardwulf was a stoic, hard-boiled man not prone to ill temper or humour. But at once Johanni saw the anger in the Osserian's gloomy eyes as Erik loomed over him barking orders. For a second, a split second, the aetheling thought he saw Eardwulf reach for his sword. It must have been a trick of the eye, however, because the thrall then stood up from the long table and stalked away, grumbling silently through gritted teeth.
Johanni exhaled a breath he didn't even realize he was holding.
"You ought to keep your dog on a tighter leash, little lord," said Erik.
"Do not speak of him that way. Thrall or not he remains a person."
The Karggar chieftain took his seat next to Johanni. Where he and Eardwulf left the platter Erik resumed eating, stuffing grapes and cheese into his mouth. He followed each bite with a swig of wine. Throughout the feast Johanni watched Erik devour three pheasant breasts, a full rack of ribs, six boiled potatoes and a whole smoked herring and yet he still had room for more. Maybe it's his fault Yveryth is starving, he thought.
"We leave in two days," said the chieftain. "My warband, your troops, and however many Karggars are ready to travel. My uncle will arrive with the second wave in a fortnight. We'll meet up with Sygardi in the Fens, find some place to settle down. Maybe we can rebuild Karburgh, assuming the Bloodbane didn't completely destroy it."
Johanni watched him eat.
Erik noticed it. "...What?"
"Why did you change your mind about staying here... and supporting me?"
The older man scrubbed the crumbs from his lips and chased down the food with yet another cup of wine from a fresh ewer. "I thought honouring my ancestors meant fighting for the world they built... but I was wrong. The only way to honour my ancestors is to provide for my people... and I can't do that here. And you? Call it a calculation. One way or another there will be a king... and I think you would be a better king to us than Ragnar. That's all."
"And what about...?"
"What about what...?"
Johanni blushed. "What about what happened... last night."
Erik's lips curled into a slow, purposeful smile. "...Well. That's in your hands, little lord."
They heard shouting. Erik and Johanni glanced over their shoulders and saw two Karggars brawling, bare knuckle, only the gods knew over what. The Halfspear sighed and climbed off his seat to break them up before they ruined the feast. Johanni watched him go, his cheeks flushed a deep rouge. With all that had occurred since the Beast Tower his mind hadn't spent much thought on their kiss beneath the leafless tree, but now it was all Johanni could think about. Johanni watched Erik as he broke up the scuffle. He shoved the two men apart, ordering one to help feed Growler and the other to polish his greatsword. Erik wore his strength like a mantle, exuding an aura of pride like that same wolf totem embossed upon the Karggar shields and armour. And his smile... that cocksure, smug, sly little smile. He wore that like a mantle too. Johanni alternated between loving and hating that smile. It spoke so well to Erik's hubris... and yet it sent shivers down the boy's spine. When Erik smiled at him it was as though the world around him was nothing more than a set piece, a backdrop to what he witnessed. In all his life the boy had never been so enrapt by another's mere smile.
What is wrong with me? Thought Johanni. Why can't I stop feeling this way?
His knew his father's loghs better than most. As a child his tutors made him study the Codex from cover to cover and burn each logh and its purpose into his memory. Section Six of `Immoral Acts' -- for a man to lie with another man as he would a woman is an act of depravity punishable by death. Historically, Woags made few bones about the deed, none of the old loghs proscribed it. They considered it a boyhood vice -- like playing with your cock. It was something you did when you were young or when your choices were thin. But the licentiousness of the elves left a foul taste in his father's mouth and he devoted himself to purging all such acts from his kingdom.
Johanni sighed, swapping the water for wine.
The way Erik made him feel, the things he wanted Erik to do to him, all were in contravention of his father's loghs. What sort of king would he be if he only obeyed the loghs that suited him? He did not know. He could not think clearly. Perhaps Eardwulf was right about the wine. Not that it mattered to him. For as the night marched on the feast slowly died down and the revelry ended. Hundreds of drunk Karggars slumbered over the floor, next to the walls, on top of the long tables. Snoring and farts replaced the lutes and flutes and bard song. Every cup and ewer were dry, every platter empty. And then, in the drunken silence, a patient Johanni climbed off the long table and picked his way through the sozzled men strewn about the floor and made his way below ground to Erik's chambers.
His face was hot. His heart was racing. His cock was stiffer than a spear. He was shaking... and scared. But he knew what he wanted. When Johanni came to Erik's door and found it ajar. He did not mean to open it. When he went to knock it yawned open before his knuckles even touched the wood. Nevertheless, the boy peered inside, hoping to catch a glimpse of the slumbering Halfspear before he woke him up... and asked to lie with him.
I'm going to do this, he thought. I want to lie with him...
Instead he found Erik lying with another.
A thrall girl, black-haired, of Arbarii origin maybe, tits swaying and naked from her stomach up as she squealed and gyrated on Erik's hips. The Halfspear laid across his bed, panting and sweating, thrusting his cock up into her snatch as she rode him like a buck.
"Yes!" She cried, "Oooh! Fuck me! Fuck me! Fuck me deeply, lord! Oooh!"
Johanni shut the door.
The sun almost never appeared in the Grey Wilds. The fog-like presence of its thick grey clouds blotted it out too well. But those clouds were at their thinnest for many moons, making it the brightest day in a long time. The Karggars didn't even need torches to see by as they marched in the thousands through the streets of Yveryth to its arched ironwood gates. Some had barely enough possessions to fill the meal sacks they slung over their shoulders. Others carried old axes, tools, knives, wood, iron rods, water gourds, and so on. Mothers walked with babies tied to their backs by cloth. Able men helped the lame and the elderly into wagons. Half of the 3,000 swords Erik Halfspear so often boasted about heeded his call that morn. Armed with bronze swords, spears, axes and round shields they marched exultantly with the procession as it made its way west.
Johanni, his head thumping from last night's feast, watched the Karggars mobilize from his saddle. Eardwulf sat ahorse alongside him, as did Halfdan.
"The High Legate has generously bequeathed us a full century as your new armed guard," said the steward. "They are waiting for you outside Yveryth. The survivors from our first caravan are returning to the capital with the bulk of Ragnar's forces. He's left 1,000 legionaries and 200 thralls to supervise the evacuation of the Grey Wilds and he's also assigned dignitaries to convene with Olaf Greyspear on supplies and aid."
"Good," said Johanni.
"There is still time to see him before he goes, lord."
"No there isn't. When the Halfspear's warband arrives we're to ride ahead into the Fens and lead the Karggars to Sygardi Greyspear's camp, after that we'll press on and find the Osserian chieftain... and what's left of his people."
Halfdan glanced at Eardwulf. "Thrall. With Osser Greatfang dead, who leads the Osserians?"
"...He had a daughter named Norsa," said Eardwulf, soberly. "But it'll be the Greatfang's advisor... Harwald Snowhair. I would bet my life that he is chieftain now."
"Then he is who we need to find," said Johanni.
Hard hoofbeats pounded the beaten earth from a hundred yards to their right. Johanni, Eardwulf and Halfdan turned to see Erik Halfspear, Frodi, and Thregg (all ahorse) leading Growler and fifty of his finest Karggar warriors to their position.
"Little lord!" Yelled Erik as he rode up to the boy. "Are we ready here?"
Johanni didn't even look him in the eye. "Let us go."
Ragnar watched from his saddle as 2,000 boots pounded the barren soil beneath their synchronous march. His soldiers' discipline and training spoke for themselves. None broke formation, none straggled behind. The Bloodbane watched as each column of men proceeded south into the forested wastes of the Oakmire, where he would leave Knossos and half the remaining host to chart and occupy the forest forts, whilst he and Kreim returned to Drangheim. It was then, as he watched them march, that he felt it grip his chest.
His second heartbeat.
It was powerful, insurgent and unmistakable. He felt it thundering beneath his plated cuirass, thumping twice as hard and twice as fast as his natural heartbeat. It had been many long solstices since last he felt this feeling.
"You feel it too?" Said Kreim, his horse whickering next to Ragnar's.
"Yes. The Wulf's Blut is stirring inside us."
"Then that portends only one thing. Haakon Godwulfsson is close."
The Bloodbane nodded.
"Should we inform the Royal Diet?"
"...No," he said. "They know he is in league with Magnus Magnusson and the Thoths. If we tell them... they will deploy the Legion into the Fens and further disrupt my plans. Let it lie. Let us see what ploy Magnusson has up his sleeve."
Kreim frowned. "What of your brother?"
"He has three more chieftains to sway before he returns to the capital but make no mistake – he will succeed. All we need is time... and patience."
"You take an enormous risk," said Kreim. "If he dies, your plan is moot."
The Bloodbane grinned coolly at his loyal thegn. Kreim was far more cautious than his brother Knossos. Ragnar thought of this as he calmly rubbed his chest, soothing and slowing his second heartbeat until it throbbed in tandem with his natural one. Once the Blut stirs it was difficult to control. He could not afford to lose that control.
"Even if he transforms, Haakon is wise beyond his bloodthirst," said Ragnar. "And Johanni is far stronger than people realize. Worry not, Kreim. Time and patience, that's all we need."
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