**********

 

3.

 

**********

 

A blue mist rolled low and thick across the soup-like, moss-covered waters of the Great Marsh. The air was musty, and the stench of peat arresting, almost viscous. Johanni stuffed his nose into a bit of cloth as his white mare ferried him along. He flicked away the mosquitoes and dragonflies with his free hand.

 

Every fifty yards a horseman encouraged the procession to keep moving; a train of more than 2500 Karggar souls (at last count), some as young as babes swaddled in their mothers' arms as their fathers trudged through the shallow waters, sweeping away the rushes with their bronze swords to cleave a path forward. The elderly, the sick and the infirm sat within horse-drawn wagons wrapped in fur-shouldered cloaks to fend off the cold. The 1000 swordsmen and 200 outriders called upon by Erik Halfspear now protected the march in parties of 20 or 30, striding alongside it with their spears and swords at the ready, their round shields and axes clunking heavily from their arms and belts. Around 30 Karggar horsemen brought up the rear, coaxing along stragglers or collecting those too weak to walk for the wagons. The full century of Royal Legionaries provided by Ragnar held the van, which was a cause of disagreement for the rump of Erik's warband (his fifty most trusted men led by his two closest thegns-in-practice-if-not-name, Frodi and Thregg the Ghoat) but Johanni pled the case for his brother's men. The eastern marshes were more familiar to them than they were to the Karggars, and their maps were far more accurate. Centurion Septio, a gaunt and snarling soldier with a greying widow's peak and a palpable distaste for his newfound Karggar compatriots, captained the century. He was not a welcoming man but having fought in the Osserian pacification, he was long familiar with the eastern sweep of the Fens.

 

Three suns and three moons had passed since the procession left the Grey Wilds and it had been a hard, hard journey thus far. When the Karggar's rocky, lifeless home soil met its eastern border, a branch of the Great River spanned by an old stone bridge known as Ygga's Tongue; they crossed over into the ancient territory of the Osserians and watched the earth beneath them slowly transform into open fields of wet swampy grassland. The rains were heavy beyond the Great River and fell hard upon them with no caves or trees around for shelter. When the men halted the train to camp they scrambled to pitch the tents, but the materials were so old and brittle that few provided much comfort from the storms. The horses were unused to such savage rains, so to keep them from bolting the men lashed them to deep wooden stakes that they bored into the soil.

 

A few of the sickly amongst their party died that night. They had no relatives amongst the procession, and no one knew their names, so to spare time Erik had their bodies burned in upon pyres in the traditional Woaggish manner.

 

The second day brought them into the Great Marsh, a gigantic sweep of wetland stretching from the distant northern estuary of the Great River to the southernmost edge of the Fens, only a few miles north of the Black Mountains. It penetrated westward for miles and historically served as a natural border between the Karggars and the Osserians, which was why the Osserians never attempted to drain it. It transformed what would've otherwise been a comfortable march into a protracted slog, those on foot wading through muck yard by yard, struggling to keep their provisions dry. Since there was nowhere in the Great Marsh to camp, as Centurion Septio informed Johanni, there was no choice but to march through the second night until they made it to relatively dry land. Inevitably some fell behind, perhaps as many 300 people, but Erik commanded his outriders to pick up the stragglers as the procession kept on. By the third morning they reached the other side of the Great Marsh on a half-mile long, sparsely forested isle called Ygga's Eye, suitable for them to camp upon. Beyond that laid the Lesser Marsh, a less torrid, partially forded portion of the Fens that the Karggar procession now walked.

 

Eardwulf rode his gelding up to Johanni's mare. "You look pale, lord. Are you well?"

 

"Yes," {Oh Gods no,} he thought. "Bu the air here is... overpowering."

 

The Osserian nodded. "Half the Fens are consumed by this marshland. The other half my ancestors settled upon after we broke off from the Impanni tribe."

 

His history was correct. As the scholars taught him back in Drangheim, the Impanni and the Osserians were once one tribe, those amongst the Woags who penetrated Grünlund to its southernmost reaches. However, for reasons lost to time, the earliest ancestor of the House of Osser abandoned the Weald with thousands of his kinsmen and marched west to settle the wetlands that would one day become known as The Fens. When Johanni flicked another mosquito from his face he noticed a pregnant woman lulling from her horse. Her skin was sweaty and gelid. He yelled at her husband (who waded ahead on foot with its reins in hand) to stop and fetch her, but it was too late. The woman's eyes rolled into the back of her head and she fell out of the saddle into the marsh. Her husband ran to her side to help her up.

 

Johanni looked ahead through the thick mist. Erik rode with the van, Frodi and Thregg at his side, and Growler yawning in his horse-drawn cage. The Halfspear's soldiers were hardy and accustomed to such long journeys from their many raids upon the Fens and the Weald, but for his townsfolk this was an arduous and perilous gamble.

 

"This is far too much for them," said Johanni, "Is there no faster way to Karburgh?"

 

Reluctantly, Eardwulf eyed the northwest. In the distance beyond the fog, perhaps a half-mile off, there was a patch of forested earth poking up at the horizon.

 

"There is an old forded pass in that direction. It's narrow and the bridgework is old but if they marched slowly it will hold. But so far as I know it hasn't been used since the war."

 

"We have to try. Let's go," said Johanni, whipping the reins and coaxing his horse ahead towards Erik, with Eardwulf close behind.

 

Not that I want to talk to him, thought Johanni. "Erik."

 

The Halfspear glanced over his cloaked shoulder. "Little lord?"

 

Clouds the colour of smoke blotted out the sun above them, yet Johanni could not help but imagine a sparkle in the Karggar chieftain's molten copper eyes. The boy blushed without meaning to, even as the image of him fucking the thrall girl beneath the Wyvern's Leg sprung to mind.

 

"Eardwulf says there's a forded pass northeast of here that will take us to Karburgh faster than the marsh trails. I think we should take it."

 

Erik scratched his beard, sniffing at the rank air. "That cheerless centurion of yours has the maps, doesn't he? What sense does it make to change course when we've come so far already?"

 

"We've lost three people in as many days. The Karggars aren't suited to marshland yet."

 

"We can handle it," said Erik.

 

"Your soldiers can handle it," said Johanni. "You have children and old folks who can't. We should find some level ground to make camp. We can take your warband and my century down the forded pass. If it's safe, we'll send a rider back with word to march the procession upland."

 

A moment of silence passed when the broad-shouldered Karggar chieftain glared down at the young lord, almost as if he was unsure of what he was looking at, until he framed his face with a more familiar, sarcastic smile.

 

"As you command, little lord," he quipped.

 

Centurion Septio was about 40 yards ahead. Erik bunched up his horse's reins and jostled his steed upfield to confer with him. At the same time Halfdan rode up to Johanni's side, chafing uncomfortably in his leather saddle. He was all eyes to what had occurred.

 

"The Halfspear is headstrong," said the portly steward. "Lord, I wonder if he has forgotten that this is your campaign, not his?"

 

Johanni frowned. "Erik will learn his place."

 

*********

 

According to Centurion Septio's maps there was a hillock about a half-mile ahead of the procession called Asher's Barrow. It was the burial site of a disgraced Osserian chieftain who almost abandoned his duties to ride north with an Arbarii whore. When his thegns caught and killed him he they did not bury him with his ancestors in the Osserian Crypts but interred him within a barrow that would eventually become a mere waypoint within the Lesser Marsh; a fittingly ignoble fate for an ignobly unfit chieftain.

 

The procession marched on until they found it.

 

As was its intention, Asher's Barrow, nestled on an acre of solid wetland, was a historic campground, littered with old firepits and the withered remains of old travelling parties. When the Karggar procession found it, they quickly went to work pitching tents, rolling out pallets and setting cookfires for the fruits of the morning hunt. Nearly 500 Karggar spearmen encircled the mound in defensive formation as the outriders urged their people up onto dry land and Erik Halfspear gathered his warband; Frodi, Thregg, and his fifty best men. He left Wharla Oldeye and the encaged Growler with his people, and Centurion Septio left two of his best scouts, as the warband joined with the legionary century. Together, under Johanni and Erik's direction, they proceeded northwest.

 

The pale mist, skirting over the marsh waters, thinned the closer they rode towards the pass; a serpentine trail bracketed by a sparse thicket of rushes brushed to-and-fro by a cool, salty wind. A thin stream of marsh water threaded that trail for a mile northeast, but thousands of ironwood planks woven together by rope into sturdy bridgework forded it well, just as Eardwulf said. The bridge was indeed old but still strong enough to support the weight of over 150 riders as they used it to traverse the last mile of the Lesser Marsh, the last natural line of defence between the Fens and the Grey Wilds.

 

On the other side of the pass, where the rushes and reeds receded back into the wetland, Johanni and his party came across a vast meadow stretching from one end of the horizon to the other; a sweeping emerald field beneath an ice-coloured sky. Johanni, in his awe, looked to Eardwulf, who beheld the great beauty of his homeland for the first time in half a decade. He was a stern and cheerless man who locked his emotions away inside himself – but his eyes could not hide his joy at this sight – or his sadness.

 

"We should graze and water the horses," said Centurion Septio. "Karburgh is a short ride north of here."

 

"Agreed," said Johanni. "After that we press on."

 

The grassland of the Fens was almost as lush and rich as that of the Weald – that meadow alone could have fed thousands of horses. The men took theirs to a nearby brook and let them drink their fill. They spent the better part of an hour there until they resumed their ride north, horses galloping across that vast plane of meadowland. It was the first time in days that the ground beneath them was solid enough to sprint upon. Johanni, an Impanni to his bones, permitted himself to enjoy the ride – to let the cool winds blanket his skin, to race with the others and wager on the pace he could set. Even with the weight of his mission upon his back he loved to ride.

 

And then they came upon the first of the ruins.

 

It was a farmhouse, but Johanni could only tell by the broken posts of an old paddock nearby, what remained of the property itself was barely visible beneath the grass, mere scraps of wood burned black and left to rot in the wind and rain. The men rode around it, verging onto an old dirt path half hidden in overgrown grass. As they strode on Johanni felt something `crunch' beneath his horse's hooves. When he looked down he saw fragments of a bleached pale skull pummelled into powder. And there were more bones to come as they followed the path. At first, they were barely noticeable -- a thigh bone here, a femur there; half a torso severed at the spine – until whole skeletons, one after the other until they numbered in the dozens, littered the path ahead. They yet lingered in their dirty, half-burnt rags; though their boots were gone, long plundered by scavengers. The broken blades and spearpoints of rusted Impanni weapons protruded from gaping cracks in their skulls and ribcages. Beetles and mice made homes for themselves inside fractured eye sockets.

 

Johanni blanched.

 

Eardwulf looked away.

 

Following the path ahead, all his men held their silence as it took them past the ruins of dozens of other plundered farms and homesteads razed to the ground or left to rot in the elements. Before they were even halfway to Karburgh, Johanni counted at least 30 burnt settlements and the remains of more than 250 separate people. It was only then, after all his scholarly lessons and conversations with his brother; only then did he truly begin to understand the full extent of the Osserian destruction.

 

In the Overlord Manuscript and all official documents of the Royal Household, it was known as the `Pacification of the Osserians', though the common folk called it `the war' or `the bloodletting'.

 

Johanni knew its background well.

 

For decades, even before the expulsion of the elves, the Karggars had raided the Fens with unimpeded force and regularity. The previous Osserian chieftain, the late Osser Greatfang, once pleaded with the King to destroy the herepath interlinking the Fens and Grey Wilds to stave off these attacks, but the King refused as those old military roads were a part of his grand design for a truly unified Woaggish nation. And then, five solstices ago, after a Karggar raiding party claimed nearly 100 lives in an attack on an outlying Osserian burgh, Osser Greatfang gathered the elders in Karburgh to discuss their response. It was Osser's will to petition the king once again, or sit to talks with the then Karggar chieftain, Gad Greyspear. But the elders wanted blood, and in the end, the elders won out.

 

King Hrathwuld's Codex of Logh forbade any Woag tribe from declaring war upon any other without Royal permission. The Osserians, led by a reluctant chieftain, broke that logh by gathering nearly 9,000 men and marching them across the marshes to the border of the Grey Wilds. Alarmed at this, the late Gad Greyspear met the Greatfang's army with a host of 6000 Karggars in what became known as the Battle of Ghost Hill – a battle that ended in Osserian victory. Like the Impanni, the Osserians boasted steel weapons and armour, as well as superior numbers -- Ghost Hill could not have ended any other way. What remained of the Karggar forces (perhaps as little as 2000 men) retreated into the hinterland of the Grey Wilds and fortified their fortress at Greyspear for a siege, as the now wounded Gad Greyspear expected the Osserians to follow them inland – but Osser Greatfang held his position at the border. No one knows why. Perhaps he lost too many men to lay siege to Greyspear? Or perhaps he thought crossing the border was a provocation too far for the crown? Either way, he left a garrison of 2000 men at the border and marched the remainder of his armies back home.

 

In Drangheim however there was outrage.

 

Barely twelve solstices old at the time, Johanni remembered it well; the ill feeling at court, the restlessness of the thegns, the king's apprehensive demeanour. War was in the air. The Royal Diet, outraged at the Osserians' large scale attack on the Karggars, voted unanimously for a martial response. Their logic was simple; not only had the Osserians broken one of the key loghs of the Codex, but their attack threatened to destabilize the balance of power between the five tribes. Deeper still (an unspoken truth, perhaps) if one tribe were to conquer another, the two conjoined might be enough to overthrow the crown if the remaining tribes did not pick a side. Comity amongst the Woaggish tribes was the backbone of King Hrathwuld's power. Drangheim had to act.

 

Despite a reluctance to take up arms against his own people, King Hrathwuld ratified the Royal Diet's decision. His own loghs were clear – any tribe who raised an army against another tribe would suffer the Royal Legion. And thus, Ragnar the Fatherless, High Legate of the Legion, rallied and marched his forces across the Great River and garrisoned at a burgh beyond Ka-Uta's Arm.

 

Osser Greatfang, understanding (perhaps better than anyone) how far this could go, sent personal missives to both the king and to Ragnar's camp explaining their motivations for breaching the King's loghs in the hope of avoiding further bloodshed, but neither received reply and he received no terms of surrender. As Ragnar would one day explain to Johanni, "It wasn't about justice or obeisance – it was the passing of a sentence."

 

Ragnar divided the Legion into two halves. One, led by his then chief thegn Haakon Godwulfsson, marched north and devastated the Osserian garrison at Ghost Hill; the second, led by Ragnar himself, marched west toward Karburgh and utterly ravaged the countryside on his way. Every town, every village, every temple, every farmhouse they came across – all looted, its people massacred, and then burnt to the ground. Ragnar spared no one. He had his men kill all women whether pregnant, elderly or sickly; let them rape those they pleased and capture the fittest as thralls. He has his men herd up and slaughter the children, boys and girls, that might one day grow up and retaliate. He had his men smash every stag statue they came across (the Osserian totem) and replace each one with a flag of the Impanni horse. For nearly one solstice he soaked the very soil in Osserian blood.

 

In Karburgh, the elders coaxed Osser Greatfang into summoning the army, but disagreed on how to proceed. Osser wanted to draw the fighting men into Karburgh's walls and wear down the Legion with a siege. The elders wanted to take the fight to the Legion. And, as before, the elders won out. The Osserian Army marched east toward Haakon Godwulfsson's detachment, who by then had mobilized from their victory at Ghost Hill and crossed the Great and Lesser Marshes to conduct the same rape and pillage tactics across the eastern Fens. The elders' plan was to defeat Haakon's smaller detachment and force Ragnar's men to relieve them, thereby coaxing him away from Karburgh and towards the marshland where the Osserians had the advantage. What the elders did not realize was that Haakon's men had fortified every herepath they found, blocking the roads and holing up in a now ironwood-bulwarked burgh on the edge of the Lesser Marsh, known as the Charnel Tower. This forced the Osserian army (who expected a pitched battle) to lay siege to the legionary fort, a siege that lasted nearly eighty moons, as was Haakon's intent.

 

Ragnar's forces attacked Karburgh within weeks. The city's walls were strong, but the Osserians had less than a thousand fighting men to man them and a few thousand common folks (mainly women and children) who fled the carnage in the countryside. Ragnar's men attacked day and night with trebuchets and battering rams, surrounding the city from all points and bombarding the ramparts with fire and rock. At this point Osser Greatfang knew that this conflict was over. He appealed to the elders to permit an offer of terms to Ragnar, but when they refused, he had them detained by his personal guard and sent a rider beyond the walls to Ragnar's camp offering a writ of peaceful surrender.

 

Ragnar sent those terms back to the Greatfang inside the mouth of that rider's severed head.

 

Three days later, the Royal Legion successfully broke the eastern gate. The few remaining Osserian men, led by Osser Greatfang's most loyal thegn, Eardwulf, helmed the defence. He fought and killed one of Ragnar's own thegns, the `Spear Dancer' Trygga, in single combat, but by then it was hopeless to resist – he and his surviving men soon laid down their arms and were swiftly detained.

 

Ragnar's forces sacked the city.

 

A few, most notably Osser Greatfang's daughter (Norsa) and his closest advisor (Harwald) escaped capture and disappeared into the northern forests. But for most it was too late. Once order was re-established in the now decimated Karburgh, Ragnar had Osser Greatfang and the Osserian elders publicly executed – by blood eagling. He had Eardwulf (and around 200 men like him) enthralled and sent back to Drangheim for sale at market or drafting into the Palace of Drang's own stable of thralls. He sent half his forces east towards the Charnel Tower to relieve Haakon's detachment. Caught between two (and no doubt hearing of the fall of Karburgh) the Osserian army quickly surrendered. Haakon had all 4000 men stripped of their weapons and armour, separated into groups of 100, and then one by one each group was systematically slaughtered. With news of this, Ragnar then sent word to King Hrathwuld and the Royal Diet that the Osserians were now `pacified' and would no longer trouble the Karggars.

 

And so, `Ragnar the Fatherless' became `Ragnar Bloodbane'.

 

As they rode past the wreckage that made his brother's name, there was another ruined farmhouse just a few yards shy of the van. As the horses passed it by, Eardwulf stopped his mare and stared blankly at its blackened husk. Johanni stopped alongside him.

 

"What is it?"

 

"This..." Eardwulf paused to gather his thoughts, then looked to Johanni with such an overwhelming look of sorrow it broke his heart. "...This was my mother's home."

Johanni felt his shoulders deflate. "I am so sorry, Eardwulf."

 

The `pacification' spared neither man, nor woman, nor babe. Ragnar put all to the sword. Though he couldn't speak them in front of Halfdan or the legionaries, Johanni's thoughts were clear. This was a crime, thought the boy, a great and terrible crime.

 

Johanni palmed Eardwulf's shoulder. "Let's not fall behind. We can come back later and pay our respects. We will build a proper memorial for her."

 

"Yes lord," said Eardwulf, solemnly. "Let's press on."

 

The path ahead grew wider and less damaged as they proceeded onward, a dusty track littered with rubble and relics of the pacification; broken blades, rotting axe hafts and spear shafts, crumpled skulls, tattered banners, discarded boots, looted chests, abandoned spike walls, fractured wagons and so forth -- but the path ahead was largely clear and over time they began to see the ancient walls of a ruined city rise into the horizon.

Karburgh, the old seat of the House of Osser, was the first city the Woags ever built in Grünlund, predating Drangheim by nearly 400 solstices. It grew out of a cluster of closely interlinked villages and fortified settlements that struck up trade with other prominent communes (like Drang and Yveryth) and slowly transformed into a large walled city of tenements, towers, markets and streets that at its peak housed nearly 15,000 people.

 

But what emerged from beyond the horizon was nothing more than a shattered reflection of that old and fabled greatness.

 

Though its sixteen-foot high limestone walls still stood, cracks and fractures riddled them from ground to parapet. Burnt and tattered scraps of cloth bearing the Osserian stag totem still flocked in the cold winds from their rusting flagpoles, but the banners and standards that once swung prominently from their hooks beneath the crenels were now gone, replaced with the Karggar's wolf totem. The many and many hundreds of wattle and daub homesteads, shops and market stalls that once surrounded the city were nothing but blackened piles of lumber that the Karggars now picked at for kindling.

 

Johanni's century and Erik's warband stopped before the eastern city gates, those once destroyed by Ragnar's forces. The Karggars had rebuilt them anew with old Grey Wilds ironwood, debris from the farmhouses, and banded iron. Three Karggar spearmen lined the parapet above the gates, exchanging curious glances at each other and the legionaries.

 

"WHO GOES THERE?!" Yelled one of them.

 

Johanni moved his lips to speak, but Erik yelled back, "ERIK HALFSPEAR, SON OF GAD GREYSPEAR AND CHIEFTAIN OF THE KARGGARS! NOW OPEN THE BLOODY GATES BEFORE I FEED YOUR BALLS TO MY BEAR!"

 

The spearman grinned and shouted for some men below to open them.

 

As the makeshift arched doors yawned open, Johanni whispered to Halfdan to send a rider back to the others at Asher's Barrow and inform them that the path ahead to Karburgh was safe. Nodding, Halfdan ambled his horse over to Centurion Septio, who promptly passed the message onto his swiftest rider, turning back towards the prairies whence they came as the century and the warband rode into Karburgh -- as broken within as it was without.

 

Half of its of homesteads (which numbered in the thousands) had crumpled into heaps of lumber and thatch. Those that still stood became the dwelling places of their new Karggar occupants, hundreds of whom busied themselves rebuilding what little they could out of the city. Where they could, the burly Karggars cleared the rubble and built newer (and simpler) cabins and paddocks. These men dug ditches, chopped wood, knotted rope, and tinkered pales as hunters and fishermen traded their wares for grain and hacksilver in small common markets and Karggar blacksmiths went to work restoring the old Osserian forges. Although the city was a crumbling ruin, a corpse of its former self, the influx of Karggar migrants had breathed hopeful new life into its wreckage.

 

Erik, with Frodi and Thregg closely behind him, led the party. As he rode into the sandy streets his people showered him with cheers and chants of adoration. The grinning chieftain returned his people's love with waves and kisses. Frowning, Johanni's horse cantered up to his side.

 

"We don't have time for this," said the boy. "We have to find your brother."

 

"I'm well aware, little lord," said Erik. He then leaned over his saddle at a gravel-haired spearman standing guard in the street. "You there! Tell me where Sygardi Greyspear can be found."

 

The spearman pointed northeast towards one of the highways leading into the city centre; a three-mile ring of stonework tenements and towers protected by an older (and shorter) limestone bulwark. "There's an old fort in the centre of town, lord. That's where your brother and his guard have headquartered."

 

"Horn Hall," said Eardwulf. His voice bore a nostalgic lilt. "Where the House of Osser once ruled."

 

"Then that's where we go," said Johanni.

 

The sun hit its midday peak as the party traversed Karburgh's partially burnt, partially crumbled stonework centre and verged upon the towering walls and spires of Horn Hall. More a palace than a fort, it sat upon a paved hillock ringed by a series of old stone walls and rotting flower gardens with two tall and sloped bridges climbing up to its heights from the city streets at the north and south. Its design was like that of the Palace of Drang – though on a much smaller scale. Four long blue banners bearing the Osserian stag still flew from its tallest spires (too high for anyone to bother taking down) but the many dozens of stag totems carved into the surrounding walls were all defaced or cracked with hammers.

 

He wasn't content with killing them, thought Johanni. It's like Ragnar went out of his way to crush their shared soul...

 

At the apex of the southern bridge stood a hulking yet hoary man dressed in thick boiled leather armour, fur boots and a long grey cloak shouldered in wolf's pelt. His greying woollen hair fell as low as his waist in thick, clumped locks and his meaty hands clasped the haft of a massive iron warhammer, its ironwood haft inscribed with ancient runic script. This man was Hruthjon the Greathammer, a famed and formidable Karggar warrior. Once thegn to Gad Greyspear he was now thegn to his younger son Sygardi and served him as devoutly as a priestess would the gods. Behind him stood a small retinue of huscarls, each of the five clad in Karggar leathers and armed with Osserian steel swords, no doubt pilfered from their old armouries.

 

Erik climbed off his horse. Johanni did the same (him closely followed by Eardwulf) and they climbed the stone bridge to address Hruthjon together. He replied back in a deep, gravelly voice, "Olaf sent word of your arrival in the Fens two days ago. Would that you had come to your brother's way of thinking sooner."

 

Erik frowned, but said nothing.

 

From that, and that alone, Johanni realized that Hruthjon commanded as much respect amongst the Karggars as Olaf Greyspear did – Erik would've allowed no one else to disrespect him so. The towering man then turned to Johanni. He did not bow, but he nodded respectfully. "Olaf also said that we have you to thank for that, lord. My deepest apologies for what happened to your retinue. Not all Karggars share our chieftain's love of raiding."

 

"Greetings Oldfather," said Johanni. "But I must say that despite the circumstances of our meeting, your chieftain has treated me well. May we speak with his brother, Sygardi Greyspear?"

 

"If only you could," Hruthjon's expression turned solemn. "But Sygardi... he has been taken prisoner."

 

"What?!" yelled Erik. "By who?!"

 

"The Osserians."

 

Instantly, stupidly, a snarling Erik unsheathed his dagger and spun towards an alert Eardwulf. "Thrall! Did you know about this? Huh?"

 

"Erik, calm yourself!" Pleaded Johanni. "How could Eardwulf have known of this?"

 

Eardwulf did not reach for his sword – nor did he flinch. Erik, seething through his teeth, only stopped when Hruthjon grabbed his shoulder and cast him an irritable frown, "We do not have time for this nonsense, boy. Come inside. We have much to discuss."

 

**********

 

During his brief occupation of Karburgh, as his men swept up scattered bands of Osserian loyalists marauding Impanni caravans into the Fens, Ragnar Bloodbane established Horn Hall as his base of operations. As such, the palace did not suffer the same level of destruction as the rest of the city, but in the intervening four and a half solstices it had fallen in disrepair. Soot from the original burning of the city blackened its forest glass windows and thick sheets of soggy moss grew along its outer walls. Rats overran its unattended pantries and dozens of pigeons roosted in all its towers, its painted walls slowly moulding over as cobwebs as thick as fur blanketed the banners, round shields and steel spears that decorated its halls. The stench of rot and decay was everywhere. Yet still the Karggars did what they could to make Horn Hall functional again, repairing its damages as they went.

 

One such place was the Great Hall, where members of the House of Osser once dined upon the finest pheasant, salmon and wine in Southern Grünlund. Hruthjon's thralls had done much to restore it, polishing up its massive long table (large enough to seat fifty men), restoking its hearth, and scrubbing clean its smooth stone floor. They hung black-coloured Karggar banners from the walls (emblazoned with the wolf totem in golden embroidery) and at the huscarls' orders brought out platters of goose eggs, chicken slices and baked bread for Hruthjon and their newly arrived guests. Hruthjon sat at the head of the table, Johanni and Halfdan to his left, and Erik Halfspear to his right. Eardwulf, arms folded and lips silent, kept a respectful distance from the long table by the far wall – but was well within earshot of it.

 

The Greathammer, flanked by two of his huscarls, downed a goblet of wine that the thralls found hidden the cellars. "It happened two days ago. He went out into the northern forests, charting the lands for ironwood sources to aid the building effort, as is his wont. I told him to take more men with him, but he refused. That night, a half dead rider returned to Karburgh. He was all that remained of Sygardi's scouting party. They'd stumbled upon a foggy thicket and struggled to find their way, so they camped there for night to wait out the mist. But then the Osserians attacked... swamping their tents with arrows, snatching up Sygardi and slinging him on one of their horses, then butchering the remaining scouts. He was the only one who survived."

 

"Haven't we sent out any search parties?" said Erik.

 

Hruthjon frowned, "Of course we have. I have fifty men out there in the marshes searching for your brother. But the Osserians are slight in number and far more familiar with this land -- they have hidden themselves very well."

 

Erik's platter was untouched. "Cunts. What's their ransom?"

 

"They haven't offered one. No word from them has reached us – yet."

 

"Oldfather," said Johanni. "You have done well so far, I see that. But let Erik and I take over the search for Sygardi. We have fresh maps and my thrall Eardwulf is a native of the Fens. I promise you, we will find your jarl."

 

Hruthjon, although clearly not a man partial to it, broke a small smile.

 

"You remind me of him," he said. "Polite and hopeful. Very well. I will allow you and the Halfspear to lead this. Leave Karburgh to me, and I shall oversee preparations for the arrival of the Karggars at Asher's Barrow."

 

"Lord," began Halfdan. "Is it necessary for you to accompany this search party? Why not remain here in Horn Hall whilst Erik and I see to it?"

 

Johanni shook his head. "A king can't lead from behind, Halfdan."

 

"Well said," said the Greathammer. "I do not share Olaf's reservations in this matter. Besides, if you seek to win the support of ALL the Woaggish tribes, then you must confront the Osserians, one way or another."

 

"Indeed," said Johanni. He then stood up from his chair. "We should all get some sleep. I fear that tomorrow shall be a long day."

 

Hruthjon and Halfdan grunted their agreement, as a thrall girl came to collect their platters and goblets. The two older men, along with the Greathammer's surly huscarls, made their way out of the Great Hall. Johanni followed them.

 

"Little lord," Erik called out. "Can I have a private word?"

 

The Halfspear threw a cold glance at the mulling Eardwulf, who glanced at Johanni to see if that was his wish also. When the boy briefly nodded "yes" the thrall excused himself through the same iron doors that Hruthjon and Halfdan disappeared through.

 

Aside from the hearth's snapping embers, the Great Hall fell silent as Johanni and Erik found themselves alone together for the first time in days. There was a cold pit in the boy's stomach as he thought of that, and a sudden rush of blood to his cheeks. In front of others he could control himself, his feelings and urges, but whenever they were alone together...

 

"You're too forward with my men," snapped Erik.

 

Johanni blinked. "...W-what?"

 

"You heard me. You've been doling orders ever since we abandoned the Grey Wilds. Understand this – you may be an aetheling to the throne but the Karggars are MY people. I will be the one who leads them."

 

The boy scoffed. "All Woags are my people, including the Karggars. That's the sense of responsibility I grew up with, `Halfspear'. You've spent your entire life running away from your responsibilities; with all your drinking and whoring and revelling – don't presume to lecture me on mine."

 

Angered, Johanni turned to walk away. And then Erik snatched his wrist and pulled him back.

 

"Don't walk away from me," he spat. "What's the matter with you? You've been curmudgeonly ever since the feast at my mead hall."

 

Unwanted memories of Erik fucking that damned thrall girl flashed through Johanni's mind. Try as he might he couldn't discard them. All he wanted to do was collapse in Erik's arms, to give in to that bastard urge in his groin, but he just couldn't un-see the seen. Johanni tried to pull away. "Let me go, Erik..."

 

"No."

 

"I said let me go!" Yelled the boy, "See to your whores, the night is young!"

 

The iron doors groaned open again. Erik and Johanni glanced over to them as Eardwulf stepped in; eyes steeled, his gloved palm cradling his sword pommel.

 

"Is everything alright, lord?" He asked.

 

The young lord snatched his hand free.

 

"...Yes. I am well," he said. "Come, Eardwulf. Let's go."

 

Johanni's blood pounded in his ears as he strode away from a bemused Erik and left the Great Hall with Eardwulf. His shoulders were tense, his hands were shaking. Why? He thought, why does he have this power over me? No one; not father, not Ragnar, not anyone has ever been able to upset me so! But him! What is it about him that sets me aflame so keenly?

 

"Are you sure you're alright, lord?" Asked Eardwulf. "Did he offend you?"

 

I find him offensive in a great many ways, thought the boy. "...Pay him no mind, Eardwulf. It was a long ride, I'd like to retire."

 

Fortunately, Hruthjon had had some of his thralls prepare rooms for all of them. Eardwulf accompanied Johanni to his living quarters for the night, a large room near the summit of Horn Hall's central spire. Its hearth roared, lit by fatwood, casting a smouldering amber glow over the linens, drapery, and mounted elk skulls decorating the room. The stone floor was warm and blanketed with bearskin rugs. It was nowhere near as lavish as his quarters in the Palace of Drang, but it was undoubtedly the best accommodation he'd had since he began his journey.

 

"You will be comfortable here, lord." Said Eardwulf. "These rooms once belonged to the Greatfang's daughter, Norsa. Sleep well."

 

The thrall turned to leave.

 

"Eardwulf?"

 

Then he stopped, his leather scabbard rattling at his hip. "Yes, lord?"

 

Johanni paused for a moment. He was always one to think before he spoke his mind, sometimes to his detriment. Moreover, he saw how emotionally draining it was for Eardwulf to return to the Fens; his sunken demeanour and sullen silence even more pronounced than usual. Johanni did not want to ask him the question, especially after the way Erik had behaved earlier, but he had to.

 

"Do you know where your people may have taken Sygardi?"

 

The Osserian sighed.

 

"Please, Eardwulf," said the boy.

 

The joined leather spaulders atop his shoulders lowered visibly. What could be going through his mind? Wondered Johanni. Since I started this journey I've paid him so little attention. Do you resent me for that, Eardwulf? The young lord felt a sudden need to recant, to apologize for the rudeness of the question, just as Eardwulf turned back around to him and said;

 

"The Ghoul's Wood."

 

"The what?"

 

He folded his arms, rattling his scale mail. "Before the war we had many forts and hideaways across the Fens. Most of them, Ragnar destroyed. But there may be one left he wouldn't know about... it would have been a rallying point for the Osserian resistance if not for the Bloodbane's wroth; the ancient Osserian crypts beneath the Ghoul's Wood, twenty miles north of Karburgh. Deep below its earth resides a dense skein of tunnels and caverns where the noble Osserian dead are laid to rest. If I were chieftain, that is where I would take the survivors."

 

"Then that is where we shall start our search. Thank you, Eardwulf. Thank you. I cannot imagine how hard these past few days must have been on you."

 

The Osserian cast an eye to one of the sooty forest glass windows lining the east wall. "As a child, I... was not fond of this land. My parents were farmers scarcely surviving from harvest to harvest. All I remember of those days was hunger... and wanting to run away. As soon as I was old enough I stole my father's sword and went to Karburgh in search of a new path. I served in the city guard for a time, manning the parapets or aiding the builders with structural repairs, but I wearied of the boredom and leased my sword to a caravaner trading furs out of the cave bear territories. It was vigorous work, but I distinguished myself defending his train from a bandit raid. When the chieftain, Osser Greatfang, heard of my skills he bought my lease and made me one of his personal huscarls. I defended him on his excursions into the north and his visits to Drangheim, won his favour, and in time he made me one of his thegns. I had no land or men or wealth behind my name, and I suspect others in Horn Hall resented me for it – but the Greatfang uplifted me regardless and for that I will always be indebted to him," Eardwulf sighed. "I don't even know where he is buried."

 

There was a glint in Eardwulf's eye, a brightness unbound, something that Johanni never saw before; the relief of unburdening himself of his memories. It was the first time the Osserian ever spoke of himself or his history. He suppressed these memories over many solstices, ever since his enthrallment, thought Johanni, and now they're overflowing.

 

Eardwulf continued, "When I took Trygga's head, we fought as equals. Even we Osserians had heard of Ragnar the Fatherless' prized thegn. I bore her no hatred. We were warriors on the field of battle. My lord's life hung in the balance – and her lord's orders were clear. What choice did either of us have?"

He alluded to his thraldom.

 

Trygga, Ragnar's beautiful spear-wielding thegn, was rumoured to be his lover as well as his closest ally. The Shieldmaidens groomed her as a potential successor to their captain, Gunhilda, but she defied their wishes by joining his old warband, the Iron Circle, and once he came into his lands as the High Legate of the Legion, she was the first in Ragnar's ranks to ascend to thegn. Johanni knew the truth of it – Eardwulf's thraldom was punishment for slaying Trygga, a punishment far worse than death. His brother's every act was a ruthless calculation. And now, this man and the ghosts of his people suffered for those calculations. Johanni, taken aback, slipped his hand into Eardwulf's.

 

The Osserian paused.

 

"I'm so sorry, Eardwulf," said the boy. "What Ragnar did was wrong, terribly wrong. My house may never be able to make amends for what we did to your people, but I swear to you on my father's name – when I am king I will do everything possible to provide for the remaining Osserians. And once your title of ownership passes to me, I shall tear it up and make you a free man again."

 

Johanni felt Eardwulf's gloved hand squeeze his own. When he looked up he saw a smile, small and childish, chiselling its way into the swordsman's stony face. And when he looked into his eyes, as he did once before in the Royal Bath House and during the encampment at Ka-Uta's Arm, Johanni saw once again that same insurgent emotion he so feared – love.

 

"Free?" Whispered Eardwulf, "I don't want to be `free' of you, `Hanni. I want to be at your side. Always."

 

A strong, gloved hand took Johanni's back, the other his hip, and then Eardwulf's lips took his own. The boy froze, moaning, more out of surprise than alarm, and felt himself wilt in the Osserian's thick, battle-sculped arms – or at least for a moment. Bottle-green eyes fluttering open, Johanni caught himself and pulled away, catching his breath. An almost equally breathless Eardwulf loomed over him, tall and imposing, arms still nestled around his waist.

 

"Eardwulf..." whispered the boy, "...I can't."

 

"Why? Because of the Halfspear? That whoremongering rogue? That man will bring you nothing except misery and misfortune, I can see it. I can see it plain. Choose me, `Hanni. My sword, my heart and my strength are yours – take them."

 

Just hearing Erik's name made Johanni snatch himself from Eardwulf's arms. What if he caught us like this? He wondered woefully. Despite Erik Halfspear's churlishness and irresponsibility, despite what he saw beneath the Wyvern's Leg, the thought of him storming in and coming to the wrong conclusion frightened Johanni. How did I let him gain such power of me so quickly?

 

"Eardwulf," the Impanni youth looked away. "It was a long ride from the Grey Wilds and I am very tired. Please let me rest."

 

The taciturn swordsman wore his disappointment visibly (and heavily) but Johanni couldn't bring himself to look into those dark eyes again. Eardwulf wasn't just his protector, he was a trusted advisor and a dear friend, closer to him these days then perhaps his own brother Ragnar, but so far as his feelings for Eardwulf went, they extended no further than friendship. How could he offer that truth to someone who loved him so dearly? How could he break Eardwulf's heart, especially now of all times, as he wrestled with the ghosts of his past? How could he be king and rule over Grünlund if he couldn't even rule his own feelings?

 

Eardwulf stepped backwards.

 

"I love you, Johanni," said the Osserian. "I think you see that in me. I love you and I will fight for you if I must. I just... needed you to hear me say it. Rest well. I will leave you and withdraw."

 

He bowed politely, scale-mail rattling, and excused himself through the door, leaving a confused and troubled prince in his wake.

 

**********

 

The sun was a distant phantom the next morning. Johanni, looking up from his saddled white mare, saw only pale blades of its light peeking through the slightest breaches and gaps between the thick grey clouds discolouring the sky. Dark black thunderheads coalesced in the west, from the direction of the Great and Lesser Marshes. The air felt damp against the skin.

 

A downpour was coming.

 

"Lord," it was Frodi who called out to him, skinning teeth beneath the hood of his cloak. He anticipated rain as well. "Are you sure you want to do this? There may be danger, as there was in the Beast Tower."

 

Where I hid behind rocks and did nothing, thought Johanni. He wasn't naďve enough to assume this wasn't Frodi's meaning also. He glanced over at the archer, whose gloved hands gripped his horse's reins. "I thank you for your concern, but I do not require it, nor do I anticipate bloodshed. We're to find the crypts beneath the Ghoul's Wood and parley with the Osserians, not kill them. That is why we're leaving my century and the rest of the warband in Karburgh. We go to free Sygardi in peace. Or do you object?"

 

Frodi shrugged. "My lord loves his little brother. If he's returned to us unharmed, my quiver will stay full."

 

Some fifty yards away, the iron-banded northern gates of Karburgh's wall opened and out rode Erik Halfspear, his wolf's fur-trimmed cloak whipping in the wind, his scabbarded steel greatsword rattling at his back. Anger charbroiled in his amber brown eyes. His bear, Growler, and Thregg the Ghoat (mounted upon an ebon black stallion, the only Karggar horse powerful enough to seat so large a man) joined Johanni and Frodi at the edge of the northern road. Eardwulf's horse cantered ahead, surveying their path.

 

As Erik Halfspear rode up to Johanni and Frodi, he glanced about their group sceptically. "The five of us and my bear are going to rescue Sygardi?"

 

Johanni frowned.

 

"If we march into the woods with 100 Impanni legionaries and 50 Karggar swordsmen, they will take it as an act of aggression. We go to talk, not to fight. What about the Karggars at Asher's Barrow?"

 

"They're here and they're safe," said Erik. He went to the western gates that morning to receive them, collecting Growler from his cage wagon and checking upon Wharla Oldeye. "Hruthjon's huscarls and thralls will see to their needs. And I've given him orders if we don't return in three days."

 

Johanni's eyes thinned. "What orders?"

 

"To march."

 

Damn you, thought the boy. "That is not what I-"

 

"We're wasting time here," Erik whipped his horse's reins. "Let's move."

 

The northern herepath extended from Karburgh's walls all the way to the Salt Shore of the Arbariis. As one of Grünlund's most ancient thoroughfares it was a well-trodden and familiar trading route, lined with at least six burghs (according to the Overlord Manuscript) and tracing its way through the Fens' wild northern forests. Johanni, Eardwulf, Erik Halfspear, Frodi, Thregg the Ghoat and Growler followed the path that the northern herepath provided.

 

According to Eardwulf, the Ghoul's Wood was a dense ironwood forest hidden within the heart of its most arboreal territories. Golden stags once ran through that forest, which led the ancient Osserians to believe that Ygga, god of the hunt, had blessed it, thusly it became favoured ground for the burial of their noble dead. But the legend of the golden stags faded through time and the Wood's only purpose became burial, earning it the nickname "Ghoul's Wood". The last Osserian buried there (nearly thirty solstices ago) was the previous chieftain's father; Osser Blackfang.

 

Though the Ghoul's Wood was barely a day's ride from Karburgh, the incoming downpour fell upon them halfway up the road to the first burgh. Black clouds drenched the countryside in heavy rains, pelting down like hail and reducing the road to muddy sludge. They dismounted and walked the horses through that storm, slowly, until they made it to the first burgh of the herepath and sought shelter.

 

It was a small fort fortified by a spiked trench barely covering fifty yards of territory, manned by a small band of Karggar sentries, ten poorly-armed veterans of Sygardi Greyspear's initial excursion. They welcomed their chieftain with open arms, sheltering their horses in a sturdy stable and leading their newfound guests into a central chamber to take shelter from the rain. The captain of the band offered them food.

 

"We will not be staying long," said Johanni, urging them to spare their rations for themselves. "But thank you."

 

For nearly half a day the rains would not stop. Thunderclaps rattled the fort to its cobwebbed rafters and frightened the horses, neighing loudly in the stable. Bright flashes of light filled the chamber through its arrow slits, lightning bolts streaking down from above. When Johanni smelt smoke, one of the Karggar sentries went through the iron doors to investigate and he saw a blackened tree burning from its crown – a bolt had struck it.

 

Over time, however, the storm passed. Johanni, Erik, Eardwulf, Frodi, Thregg and Growler emerged from the burgh to find a water-logged grassland, the herepath now a flowing river of mud. They mounted their horses (who the Karggar sentries were kind enough to feed) and proceeded onward beneath a darkening sky.

 

They rode on for perhaps another turn of an hourglass, despite some calls from Eardwulf to find shelter and see out the night. Johanni said no. We can't stop, he thought. If we don't get back to Karburgh in time, Hruthjon will send his men into the Ghoul's Wood and there will be no hope of winning the Osserians to my side. Another hourglass' turn later they found a weak wooden foot bridge traversing a westward stream of the Great River. Its currents were not strong, but the rainfall had bloated its waters to breeching and flooded its muddy banks over. It was also too deep to walk through. The log bridge, twelve feet long and rickety, was their only hope. So, the group unhorsed and one by one they slowly crossed it. Frodi went first, then Erik, then Growler, then Johanni, then Eardwulf, and then finally Thregg; holding their respective horses by the bridle. On the other side of the stream was another burgh, the second of the six marking the route north, but unlike the first this one was derelict.

 

It was another small stone fortification protected by a spiked ditch, but whether by war or by storm its eastern parapet had partially crumbled. Sheets of moss covered the rubble. Those violent rains flooded the ditch as well as the stream but the plank bridge negotiating it was sturdy. The fort sat at the bottom of a sloped hillock, at the top of which stood a small copse. Frodi climbed to the top of that slope and spied ahead, coming back down with a victorious grin.

 

"Ironwood," he said, "Acres and acres of it."

 

"The Ghoul's Wood is just ahead," said Eardwulf. "But we should camp here for the night. The Wood is as thick as the Oakmire and very difficult to traverse at night."

 

"I agree," said Johanni, knowing full well the others' wouldn't accept his thrall's suggestion without him acknowledging it. "Tomorrow morning, we shall meet with the Osserians and free Sygardi."

 

Grumbling (but not complaining) Erik ordered his compatriots to set up the camp. Frodi went back up to the copse for firewood, Thregg went through their saddlebags for pallets and cooking pots, as Erik investigated the fort further, tying his horse's rains to a tree truck and proceeding with an unsheathed sword.

 

Johanni and Eardwulf followed him across the plank bridge, until he stopped suddenly at what looked like a grassy knoll and knelt to investigate. When Johanni drew closer he realized that the `knoll' wasn't a knoll at all, but a corpse hidden within the tall wet grass. The body was rotting and horrifically bloated, eaten alive by beetles and pecked at by crows – it was not a fresh corpse. It wore a long black surcoat with the upper torso decorated in a mantle of corroded copper scales.

 

"An Osserian?" Johanni said.

 

Their penchant for scale armour was well known. But there were other signs too. His leather gauntlets had withered yet elaborate embroidery sown into it; Ygga's name written in the ancient runic script, and the cone of his dented helm had the stag totem painted onto it.

 

"How did he die?"

 

Erik's gloved hands rifled through the corpse and found a puncture mark halfway up its ribcage. He picked a broken sword tip out of that wound. But it was most unusual – the blade fragment had a curved edge.

 

"Odd," he said. "What kind of sword curves like this?"

 

Johanni studied the bloodied sword fragment as Erik turned it between his gloved fingertips. "The scholars in Drangheim told me that the soldiers of the Golden Empire use curved swords. Sabres, they call them."

 

"What would a Golden Imperial be doing up here in the cold fucking north sticking Osserians in the gut?"

 

"I don't know."

 

The moon was high and bone white. A cold wind whipped through the grass.

 

"We should hurry and set up camp," said Eardwulf.

 

Frodi brought the wood, Thregg brought the pallets. They fetched water from a well behind a collapsed stable and built a cookfire. Johanni lit wall-hung sconces with a torch and then dropped it into an old coal brazier. With this additional light, the burgh's ruin became more palpable. There were old iron hooks hammered into the walls – clearly for mounted round shields or scabbarded swords – but they were all empty; as was the pantry, the weapon racks, the cellar, and the stables. The kiln was dead and pig bones littered the sty. Whatever happened there happened some time ago.

 

Erik skinned and jointed one of the rabbits they caught in the morning's hunt, as Frodi prepared the broth – carrots and potatoes. Thregg fed Growler some fish given to them by Hruthjon's thralls, whilst Eardwulf sat aside from the others and sharpened his sword with a whetstone. Johanni passed around wooden bowls and spoons. They eat well of the stew, hungry as they were, though by now Johanni longed for the culinary sorcery of his Drangheim cooks.

 

When his bowl was empty the boy wrapped himself in his cloak, watching his own breath drift away in the chill night air, drawing closer to the fire. He listened to its snapping embers as Frodi cut fletching out of feathers and Thregg cleaned his mighty axe, as a morose Erik petted the slumbering Growler and Eardwulf sat at the boy's side, silent and sullen. It was a downcast mood that night. When Johanni looked to Erik and Frodi and Thregg, he saw their nervousness and anger – they were truly concerned for Sygardi. Perhaps this is how Ragnar feels, he wondered, as father sends me out in search of the other chieftains.

 

Yawning deeply, Johanni decided to sleep and refresh himself for the morning's ride into the Ghoul's Wood, or so he planned. As leaned down to his pallet and pulled his cloak over his shoulders, he spotted Erik and Frodi exchanging deeply focused glares. When Erik's amber brown eyes tick left, Frodi's ticked right, and the archer ever so slightly tapped his knee two times. The Halfspear then yawned, audibly, leaning his face to his left, but rolling his eyes right.

 

They're signalling each other, he thought. But why?

 

It was then that Johanni noticed something so small and seemingly so insignificant that mere weeks ago he might have ignored it. He saw the brazier's flames flicker – just for a moment – and then burned as before. But the flicker was distinct.

Movement, he thought, realizing what was going on. There's someone in the shadows.

 

Frodi bolted upright and loosed a shot into the darkness. A brief scream rang out, as two armoured men launched out of the shadows behind Erik. The Karggar chieftain leapt out from his pallet as one of the attackers swung his curved sabre straight through it, hacking the feathered pillow into two. Erik rolled onto his feet and drew his greatsword then lunged forward at the second swordsman as he did the same. Their blades met in the centre of the camp with a loud `clap', metal pounding metal, but his attackers' sabre was no match for his greatsword as it broke the blade in two and collided with his conical helm, crushing his ear and skull. The man fell screaming, thrashing on the ground like a hooked trout, until Erik grit his teeth and sunk his sword through his neck. Before the third man attacked, Growler's roar rumbled through the abandoned fort and it pounced across the camp fire, smashing the armoured swordsman into the ground. Helpless and screaming, he could not move as Growler's massive brown paw held him down. He shivered inside his own armour as the bear's dripping, bone-crunching jaws hovered over his face – one swift bite could tear out his throat.

 

"Growler!" Yelled Erik, "Down, boy, down! I need him alive."

 

Snorting a stinking cloud of hot visible air, the war bear ambled away to the other side of the camp. The attacker exhaled the breath he didn't realize he'd been holding, with a paw-shaped dent in his thick iron breastplate.

 

Frodi, bow fully drawn and arrow nocked, advanced on him. "Drop your sword! Do it now!"

 

The swordsman didn't comply. Dressed in leather gauntlets and clunking iron greaves, a conical iron helm and a knee-length russet gambeson encased with a black iron breastplate; he shivered, clearly scared, and muttered in a language no one (except one of them) understood. His dented conical helm rattled on his half-bloodied head. His long cloak (shouldered by a thick snow bear's pelt) was trapped beneath his own weight. He looked to his two compatriots, one lying dead in the shadows with an arrow shaft through his eye, the other glutting with blood from his neck wound. They were gone, and he knew it was over for him.

 

Frodi kicked the sword out of his hand. "Who are you? You don't look like an Osserian! Who sent you?"

 

The swordsman, teeth bloodied from the impact of Growler's pounce, grinned at the archer like a madman. "Du kannst mich nicht töten! Ich diene Khan Magnus! Und sogar die Toten sind in seinem Dienst!"

 

"Is he addled?" Asked Erik.

 

"No," said Johanni. "He's a Thoth."

 

With a sword-drawn Eardwulf close behind, the boy knelt beside the failed assassin and addressed him. "(A son of the White Spirit, eh? What are you doing so very far from home, warrior?)"

 

The Thoth warrior looked, momentarily, stunned. "(Y-you speak the Old Northern Tongue?)"

 

"(My father taught me)," said Johanni, "(Now answer the question. What are you doing in the Fens?)"

 

He chuckled. "(I will tell you nothing, southerner.)"

 

And then with one swift motion he nipped up and pulled Johanni's short sword from its scabbard. He rolled back onto his feet with the blade outstretched and scanned his odds as the others surrounded him; Erik with his greatsword, Eardwulf with his broadsword, Thregg with his axe, Frodi with his nocked arrow, and worst of all Growler, panting with rage behind Erik Halfspear.

 

"(Think what you do)," said Johanni. "(You are outnumbered. In the name of the White Spirit, put the sword down and surrender!)"

 

Smirking, the Thoth put the sword to his throat and slit it clean.

 

**********

 

Ironwood was one of the most precious resources Grünlund had to offer. But unlike orichalcum, which was only of use to mages and sorcerers, ironwood's potential ran from weapon making to castle building. Everyone from shipwrights and fishermen to blacksmiths and masons found an application for it. This was why one of King Hrathwuld's first loghs was to outlaw the logging of ironwood without a royal writ. He assigned foresters and a detachment of legionaries to every known ironwood forest to enforce that logh, often being based in the nearest burgh. This was also why Johanni was so surprised to see that the Ghoul's Wood had absolutely no protection from woodcutters. Nestled in the heart of the wider northern forests, this mile-long grove of ironwood trees somehow escaped the Overlord Manuscript's notice.

 

Johanni, Erik, Eardwulf, Frodi and Thregg carefully cantered through one of the wood's dirt trails (with Growler following close behind). The dust and pebbles beneath their horseshoes was loose – the footpath was heavily trodden but well-tended – which meant that the Osserians were likely close.

 

"I still don't understand," said Frodi, "What is a Thoth doing in the Fens?"

 

Erik Halfspear shrugged. "The Thoths once raided the Salt Shore, did they not? Perhaps his people strayed too far from the estuary and got lost?"

 

Johanni swatted a mosquito away.

 

"That cannot be," he said. He'd studied Centurion Septio's maps very well during their nights in the Great Marsh. "The main arm of the Great River flows from the north then cuts east, dividing the Grey Wilds from the Fens until it forks at the Weald. The nearest sailable part of the Great River is miles away – and Thoths don't move inland unless they've camped close to a body of water."

 

Frodi smiled beneath his hood. "Very impressive, little lord. But none of that explains what those three men were doing here or what they want."

 

You're right, he thought. It doesn't.

 

The Thoths, one of the five great tribes of the Woaggish people, were the reclusive settlers of the icy Deepfjord, a gigantic hook-shaped landmass on the north-western edge of Grünlund's shores. Thousands of solstices ago they intermingled with a race of fair-haired, pale-skinned, blue-eyed natives and adopted their god -- an omnipresent being known as the White Spirit -- to whom (it was said) they made regular human sacrifices. Prone to piracy, whaling, and raiding, they were a customarily seafaring people with little interest in the other tribes. In recent generations they bickered with the Arbarii tribe over control of the Salt Isles, but overall the Thoths were a secluded people – who despite having the second largest tribe contributed the least amount of men to the Great Woaggish Army (a scant 8,000). Their current chieftain, a legendary pirate named Magnus Magnusson, would be the last chieftain that Johanni had to sway, and from what Ragnar's spies told him, he was by far the most dangerous.

 

"And why did he kill himself?" Said Frodi. "What information did he have that was so important that he wouldn't risk capture?"

 

Erik Halfspear sneered. "Piss on it, they're dead and we're alive. Freeing Sygardi from these damned Osserians is the only thing that matters."

 

Up ahead, Eardwulf's horse cantered through the dirt path, brooked by a long procession of towering, white-barked ironwood trees. He turned rightward as the path curled east into a shallow slope that bottomed out about five yards below ground level. It was a long trench dug out of the earth and wide enough for two horses to walk side by side. Eardwulf, Johanni, Erik, Frodi, Thregg and Growler walked that trench, two by two, for a half-turn of the hourglass until the thicket of ironwood trees grew denser, the forest canopy closing together and submerging their surrounds in darkness. Not a single streak of light pierced the tree crowns, they had to light their torches to proceed.

 

"THAT'S FAR ENOUGH!"

 

Eardwulf drew his reins back, stopping his horse. The others stopped as well. He drew his blade with his free hand, held the torch aloft with the other, and glared into the darkness as a woman emerged from it, one woollen boot after another. Clad from head to toe in the Osserian fatigues; steel-bit scale armour and a coal black long cloak shouldered by a deer-skin pelt, thick leather gauntlets and boots, and a thin silk under-tunic embroidered with the stag totem. Four arch-headed throwing axes dangled from straps upon her leather belt. One hand carried a wrought iron hafted axe and the other a stag-painted ironwood round shield. Her eyes were dark with rage, her nut-brown hair shaved down to the grain. Faded pink scars streaked across her brow, nose, and mouth.

 

Johanni watched Eardwulf's eyes widen.

 

"Norsa?" He whispered.

 

Little lights suddenly sprung up on both side of the trench wall. Johanni and Erik looked up and saw men in scale armour, around half a dozen, stand up with burning torches in one hand and steel swords in the other. Next to each of them knelt a scale-mailed archer, their arrows nocked, and bows drawn. Erik, Johanni, and Thregg went for their scabbards, Frodi went for his quiver, and Growler reared up onto his hind legs and roared aloud -- but their Osserian ambushers were unfazed, most markedly their surely leader, Norsa.

 

"Lay hands upon your weapons and die," she spat.

 

All five calmly, but grudgingly, obeyed.

 

"Norsa," repeated Eardwulf, "It's you. You're alive?"

 

She scowled venomously at him, confused eyes ticking to-and-fro, sizing up his scale mail and steel sword. "That's Norsa Hardfang, interloper. Sworn thegn and protector to the chieftain of the Osserian people. And who in all the cunting hells are you?"

 

Eardwulf sheathed his sword. "I was one of your father's thegns..."

 

"My father is food for the worms," she spat. "What is your name?"

 

Johanni watched Eardwulf hesitate to say it. "...Eardwulf."

 

Norsa's eyes flamed anew.

 

"Eardwulf," she seethed his name through gritted teeth, "THE Eardwulf? The thegn-turned-thrall! You honourless fucking weasel! I've heard of you! Bowing before the Impanni like a slave! I'd sooner cut off my own head than take orders from the shit-eating bastards who SLAUGHTERED our people! You're an affront to Ygga himself!"

 

Norsa cast her blazing glare at Johanni and the others, yelling; "WHO AMONGST YOU LEADS? I'll not exchange one more word with this miserable fucking slave!"

Johanni dismounted.

 

"Me," he said. "I am Johanni Carian Hrathwuld, son of the King of Grünlund and potential aetheling to the throne," he pointed to Erik, "This is Erik Halfspear, chieftain of the Karggar tribe. We come in peace, with only our close allies to protect us. Our only wish is to speak with your chieftain."

 

For the first time a thin grin passed Norsa's scarred lips – it was not a grin of amusement, rather one of a dark and vengeful bloodthirst. "Ah! The Bloodbane's brother, eh? Neither one of you will speak to my chieftain. In fact, I'm minded to gift him your severed fucking heads..."

 

"That would be a mistake," said Johanni.

 

"Oh?"

 

"There are over 4,000 Karggars in Karburgh right now," he explained, "and nearly a third of those are fighting men. If we don't return to Karburgh safely in the next two days, Hruthjon Greathammer has orders to march on the Ghoul's Wood. Kill us and you kill yourself."

 

Norsa, nonplussed, spat at the ground. "Your threats are but wasted breath."

 

"I didn't come here to threaten," he said. "My brother and I are in contention to be crowned king of Grünlund after my father dies. I have come seeking your chieftain's support for my claim, and in the interim, to broker the release of your captive, Sygardi Greyspear, and to perhaps negotiate a peace between yourselves and the Karggars."

 

Norsa paused for a moment, genuinely confused, then burst out loudly with a bombastic, almost manic laugh. "Ah, ha, ha, ha! Ha, ha! Peace? Peace?! There won't be any fucking peace. There won't be any fucking talks. Your very presence on my land offends the souls of the Osserian dead, Impanni."

 

"Peace will bring the dead rest," he retorted, "only a coward would fear it."

 

"What did you just call me, boy!?" Roared Norsa.

 

Johanni was unmoved. "I demand to speak to your chieftain. Tell your men to lower their weapons and stand aside."

 

Silence fell upon the trench. Erik and Eardwulf, hands mere inches from their weapons, watched anxiously as Norsa Hardfang advanced upon the Impanni prince step by step; but the second they drew steel was the second those Osserian archers shot and killed them all.

 

Norsa's shadow consumed Johanni whole. She was taller than him by nearly a foot (even taller than Eardwulf), muscled and battle-hardened, unlike any woman Johanni had ever seen. A chill went down the boy's spine as the Osserian woman's rageful eyes bore down upon him, but he did not move. He did not buckle.

 

"The only way you will speak to him, boy, is to go through ME."

 

He had few instincts for combat. And yet, in that moment, the trappings of civilization failed to suppress the boy's Woaggish blood, and he felt ever so keenly the presence of his short sword. He drew it, stunning everyone around him (even Norsa) and pushed a foot back to brace himself.

 

"Very well," he said, "as our great ancestors once fought and died within the hazel staves... I accept your challenge."

 

**********

 

Holmgang was one of the most ancient Woaggish traditions. It existed before the Woags left the Hyperborean Steppe and persisted until this day; the settling of disputes by combat. The rules varied from tribe to tribe. The Impanni favoured first blood, the Arbariis first blood or yield, the Karggars -- to the death. Although King Hrathwuld thought of the practice as crude and primitive, his Codex of Logh did not forbid holmgang, it was too embedded in the collective Woaggish culture.

 

Never in his dreams did Johanni think he might fight one.

 

The dozens of surrounding Osserians roared with anticipation as Norsa readied herself for battle, swinging her axe and thrusting her shield in sudden bursts. One of her men had taken her cloak. Across the way (where Frodi and Thregg and Growler had given him room), Johanni did the same. He swung his sword overhand and thrust it, mentally reciting all the steps and guards and strokes Eardwulf taught to him, as he and Erik both struggled to dissuade the boy from doing this.

 

"Have you lost your wits?" said Erik Halfspear, "For what reason do you either want or need to fight this woman?"

 

Eardwulf, unusually for him, concurred with the Karggar. "Let me fight in your stead, lord. You need not do this."

 

"I cannot ask you to kill your countrywoman," said Johanni, still testing the balance of the blade. On his other arm hung a stag-crested round shield that one of the Osserians fetched for him -- all weapons were equal in holmgang. "And perhaps it won't come to that. Yield or death is the custom in the Fens, is it not? All I have to do is make her submit... and not die in the process."

 

Erik frowned. "What are you trying to prove, Johanni?"

 

The young atheling paused mid-swing, and blushed. It still caught him sideways when Erik Halfspear called him by his name. "Erik, I'm not trying to `prove' anything, I'm trying to get us an audience with the chieftain."

 

"This is folly!" He yelled, "You're going to get yourself killed!"

 

"If I am to be king then both my words and my deeds must be respected. And aetheling or not, I am still a Woag. I cannot bow before a challenge. You better than anyone should know that, Erik. Do not worry over me, either of you. And do not interfere. I will be fine."

 

Eardwulf blanched as Johanni stepped forward towards Norsa, who bounced her shoulders and rolled her neck in readiness. He moved to stop him but Erik (realizing there was nothing he could do to stop this) held the thrall back.

 

"Let him go," said the Halfspear. "He's made up his mind."

 

Eardwulf scowled. "You expect me to just watch as she kills Johanni!?"

 

"I expect you to do as you're told," replied Erik, "so be quiet and trust him."

 

They had no hazel staves to plant into the earth so Norsa carved out a circle with her axe' head. It was six yards long and two yards wide (from one trench wall to the other). I have hardly any room to encircle her, he thought tactically, but that also means she only has room for an overhead swing. I just need to keep my shield up. The terrain favours my thrust, I have the advantage.

 

"Last chance," he said. "Stand aside and I won't kill you."

 

Norsa Hardfang, axe and shield at the ready, spread her arms open and roared aloud with a screaming war cry, "RAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGHH!" that rocked Johanni to his very bones – and in a berserker's rage she barrelled forward. Shield up, shield up!

 

The hafting axe crashed into the ironwood round shield with a loud wooden clap, splinters thrown about the air. The blow was so powerful that Johanni's arm and shoulder locked up; so powerful that he felt his boots skid backwards in the mud. Roaring, Norsa rained down another mighty swing, pummelling Johanni's shield into his forearm. The boy gritted his teeth at the stinging pain, but it was nothing compared to what followed – Norsa shoving her shield's iron rim straight into his stomach, punching the air out of his lungs and hurling him off his feet. The Osserians above all cheered ecstatically as Johanni landed shoulder-first in the mud and coughed for breath.

 

Gods, she's so strong! He thought. She's even stronger than Eardwulf!

 

"Get up," barked Norsa. "GET UP!"

 

For the first time in his life Johanni tasted blood. It was salty and iron-like and he spat it out with a wad of phlegm as he caught his breath. Groaning, he rolled onto his belly, dirtying his tunic, then pushed himself up by his hands and knees until he was on his feet again.

 

She's far stronger than me, he thought. I cannot let her set the pace of the fight!

 

He turned heel and thrust forward with his short sword. Norsa, alert, parried the attack with her axe and shoved her shield forward. Johanni repelled it with his own, the loud wooden clash resounding like a thunderbolt, but the chasm between their two strengths was so vast he stumbled back from it – and nearly tripped over his own boots.

 

Norsa grinned broadly. "...Is this your all, Hrathwuldsson?"

 

Johanni frowned. "Underestimate me at your peril..."

 

Norsa's grin grew fierce. Yet another raging war cry rippled from her throat down the Johanni's spine as she swung her war axe at the boy's skull. He heard Erik scream at him to keep his guard up, raising his round shield in time to block it, but the impact was so hard Johanni's arm tensed up again and slammed backwards into his shoulder. Then, with one single backhanded axe swing, Norsa clapped it out of his hand with her own. Erik, Eardwulf and Frodi all looked on with alarm as the ironwood shield whirled away and left Johanni without any defence what so ever. It was all the boy could do to cross his arms and fall as Norsa charged into him, shield first, hurling him backwards by a yard.

 

Mud and pebbles and worms spluttered up as he landed on his back. He heard Norsa scream again, and by nothing other than sheer reflex rolled away as she swung her axe down, inch deep into the mud.

 

She means to kill me, he realized. She won't wait for a yield!

 

Johanni swung his sword at her as he struggled up, Norsa blocking it, then went for another thrust. Almost effortlessly she side-stepped it, bringing Johanni in with her into her `striking zone', and then swung her shield back around, flat and hard, smacking him clean in the face.

 

Eardwulf grimaced at the boy's scream.

 

Blood exploded like fire from his nostrils. He saw first the grain of ironwood and then a clap of white, bright as lightning, before his world went dark. Moments later that same world returned to him... in pieces. First came sound – or rather noise – most notably a loud and irritating screech ringing in his ears, then the cheers of the Osserian warriors echoing into the forest canopy. He heard something that sounded like Eardwulf, yelling loudly and frantically at someone else, but Johanni could only make sense of fragments of it, words like "Norsa" and "mercy" and "stop this" and the like. As the ringing died down he heard another voice – Erik's.

 

"Come on, Johanni, get up!" He cried out. "You can still do this! Get up onto your feet and fight!"

 

Erik, he thought woozily, if I die... I've never get to...

 

Johanni's eyes slowly opened. He saw only the trees and their green foliage as obscured by the darkness. And then he felt the pain. His left arm, his shield arm, was on fire. His stomach too, and one of his ankles, but worst of all was his face. He choked back blood when he tried to breathe. From jaw to temple the whole right half of his face seared, and thick black blood clotted his nostrils shut. His skull throbbed. But he held on to Erik's screams, his calls for him to rise, and slowly he leaned up onto his elbows. Norsa stood a few yards away, thrusting her shield arm into the air victoriously. It was only as the boy carefully found his feet that he saw her hunker over defensively again, shoulders pumping, axe and shield upraised.

 

Johanni didn't notice Erik and Eardwulf's smiles of relief. He didn't see the habitually sceptical Frodi break a little wry grin, nor saw he Thregg pounding his chest. He only let his shaky mind slip back into focus, focusing on Norsa and her nearly impeccable guard. Nearly.

 

"Yield or die, boy." She said.

 

Instead, Johanni charged at her.

 

He heard Eardwulf yell "No!" as he ran forward as fast as his muddy boots could, drawing back his sword arm for a charging thrust. Norsa scowled as if watching a fool throw himself into the flames, readying not her shield this time, but her axe. The Osserians above hooted for blood.

 

And blood there was as Johanni dropped skidding to his knees, sliding forwards in the mud, and swung his sword across Norsa's unprotected shins. She yelped aloud as the blade tip sliced open her bare white flesh from one leg to the other and spattered a gout of blood over her fur-trimmed boots. As she doubled over her left hand unclenched and the round shield fell from her grasp into Johanni's, who skidded to a stop behind her and stumbled upright.

 

"YES!" Roared Erik Halfspear.

 

Norsa glanced over her shoulder at him, stunned.

 

Johanni, panting and breathless and bloodied and filthy, held up Norsa's own round shield and rested the tip of his blade against its iron-rim, the traditional guard stance of Osserian shield-and-swordsmanship.

 

"...Y-yield or die, girl..." He said.

 

Norsa's war cry tore through the forest. It was an ear-splitting howl so strong that even Growler snarled in alarm. Johanni saw the anger flow into her blazing blue eyes and ripple outward through her torso as it flexed muscle, snapped joints, and devoured energy by the breath-full; she turned upon her boots that instant and ran screaming for Johanni with rageful bloodlust, her powerful stride unfazed by her slit shins. The boy met her axe with the round shield, but his arm was too weak, and her swing was too strong; he staggered back. Roaring, Norsa swung blow after blow against the shield, each one banging cracks and fractures into its planks until a final swing broke through just inches away from Johanni's nose. When she tried to pull the axe free it wouldn't budge, so deeply was it lodged inside the shield, so an enraged Norsa tore it from Johanni's weakened arm and cracked his face with her gloved knuckles.

 

Johanni's lip burst open. He fell backwards. His short sword slipped free from his hand and he landed in another mud puddle. Norsa mounted him from the waist, grabbed him by the throat, and drew back her fist.

 

"THAT'S ENOUGH!"

 

Norsa froze. The Osserians stopped cheering. Erik, Eardwulf and Frodi gazed into the darkness beyond the trench at a thin and pale-skinned man with long white threads of fraying hair falling from his skull as low as his tunic's belt. His eyes were dark and weary, his grey beard closely shaven. His long black cloak bore stag totem embroidery.

 

Two Osserian spearmen flanked him at his approach. Norsa climbed off Johanni, then knelt respectfully as the white-haired man took the battered boy by the forearm and lifted him up.

 

"The Hrathwuldsson, no?"

Johanni was too weak to reply.

 

"My name is Harwald," he said. "Come with me."

 

**********

 

The innermost sanctum of the crypts of the noble Osserian dead served as a meeting hall (and now audience chamber) for their current chieftain. Repurposed from an ancient burial chamber, its stone walls were almost twenty feet high, sculpted with stone faces and stags, and bore the names and the deeds of those solemnly interred within the catacombs. Around those walls the Osserian survivors hung testaments of their former greatness; tattered but proud banners of the stag totem, painted ironwood round shields from bygone eras, ceremonial long swords rusting peacefully in their scabbards, and boiled stag skulls mounted upon hooks, the skulls of a hundred felled golden stags.

 

At the head of the hall stood a varnished wooden throne painted in white and decorated with spotted deerskin throws, where the Osserian chieftain known as Harwald Snowhair now sat. His servants assembled rugs and pillows and spread them out before his seat, enough of them for Johanni, Erik, Frodi, and Thregg to sit. Eardwulf stood behind Johanni as another Osserian attendant saw to the aetheling's wounds. He cringed as she applied a special balm to his cuts and bruises, asking him to lift his shirt to wrap them in cloth. She was gentle but grudging in her ministrations, clearly only doing so because it was her lord's wish. Osserian grievances ran very deep. When done she gave Johanni a tonic to drink and warned him to avoid mead for three days, and to rest. He thanked her and received no reply. Norsa, standing protectively by Harwald's throne, wore long iron greaves to hide the wrappings around her shins where Johanni cut her. Her fury had stilled but her disgusted scowl spoke volumes about her feelings towards this informal `moot'.

 

With a nod, Norsa gestured to the eastern doorway. A servant girl emerged with a wooden platter topped by six clay cups of water. She gave her chieftain and his thegn a cup each, then did the same for their guests. Johanni tippled some of the tonic into the water and drank it. It was bitter but (eventually) it would help.

 

"Apologies," began Harwald. "But we have no ale or wine."

 

Johanni, weak but wakeful, nodded. "Regardless, many thanks, Oldfather."

 

"Spare me your pleasantries. I only indulge you because I see no fruit in killing the Bloodbane's brother, no matter how well deserved it might be. Norsa's rage is ill-thought but not misplaced."

 

Johanni glanced at the shave-haired axewoman, sour-faced and ferocious. Many a solstice before the pacification there was talk of Osser Greatfang's daughter being a great beauty, even talk of her as a possible match for one of the king's sons. How far had Ragnar's actions diverted their histories from their proper course?

 

"I believe it is misplaced," said Johanni. His voice was muffled and high pitched from the clotted blood in his nose. "I am not my brother."

 

Harwald frowned. "And thank the gods for that. Do you have any idea how much destruction the Bloodbane wrought across these lands? Can you even begin to fathom the death dealt in service to his ambition? We Osserians once numbered in the tens of thousands but now...? Now there are only 217 of us left, hiding away like rats this moulding tomb. I play a dangerous game with my own people just by allowing you to live – much less granting you an audience. Speak. Say what it is you wish."

 

"Where is my brother?" Barked Erik.

 

Harwald sipped his water cup. "...The boy is fed and watered and unharmed, which is far greater respect than you Karggars have ever offered us."

 

"Oldfather," although Harwald rejected his use of the endearment, Johanni couldn't help but say it, "I do not believe that kidnapping is the way to resolve this issue. Understand that the Grey Wilds are a dying wasteland, and that the Karggars come not as invaders but as emigrants escaping starvation. Sygardi Greyspear's only goal is the salvation of his people."

 

"As is mine," said Harwald. "But so far as I see it the two greatest threats to my people's salvation are sitting before me in this chamber."

 

Silence fell upon the hall.

 

Johanni always knew that the Osserian chieftain would be one of the hardest (if not THE hardest) to win over, but he had not prepared for Harwald Snowhair. Cold and shrewd, he was the perfect counterpoint to Norsa Hardfang's tempestuous rage. But although Johanni understood why they chose him to lead instead of Osser Greatfang's heir, he also understood that Norsa's anger was the beating heart of the Osserian existence at present. They were a once great people reduced to ruin by one man's commands, a man who had never truly answered for those commands, a man who Johanni wasn't even sure he wanted to answer for those commands... for how could he condemn his own brother?

 

These were his thoughts, thoughts disturbed when Eardwulf uncrossed his arms and stepped forth, his boot steps echoing up to the arched ceiling.

 

"Lord," he said soberly, "if I may?"

 

Norsa reached for one of her throwing axes. Harwald, weary but calm, rested a hand upon hers and ordered her not to attack. Scowling, she complied. Eardwulf walked into the few yards of empty space between Johanni, Erik, Frodi and Thregg and Harwald's throne. He knelt upon one knee, head bowed toward the flagstones, and said,

 

"Lord. Lady. I am Eardwulf. I am Osserian, no less as much as you or any of the noble dead here interred. No matter what you may have heard of me, I served loyally as Osser Greatfang's thegn and defended Karburgh during Ragnar Bloodbane's attack. I slew his own thegn on the battlefield. I speak now not as an ally to the Impanni tribe nor as a subject of the crown, but as a son of the Fens who wishes to see his people grow and prosper," Eardwulf paused to gather his thoughts, "Johanni Carian Hrathwuld is not the Bloodbane. The young lord is kind-hearted, brave, and wise beyond his age. He comes here seeking your support for his claim as king and I urge you to acknowledge it, for he will do all within his remit to atone for the sins of his brother. It is in our own interests that Ragnar does not sit the throne... but it would also be to our great benefit if Johanni becomes king. My lord and lady, please hear him out."

 

Silence.

 

Johanni stared at the bowed Eardwulf as if he'd grown a tail. Never had he heard Eardwulf speak so fluidly, so passionately, and it was all to help him. Though it hurt to smile the Impanni boy curled a lip – or so he did until he looked to Harwald's throne and found him utterly unmoved.

 

"Stand up," said Harwald.

 

Eardwulf did so, sword and mail chattering.

 

"I know who you are. I know what you are. You serve those who slew your own people like a whipped dog. Whatever truths gild your words, thrall, you are not the one I would hear them from. Get out. I entertain you no further."

 

Johanni watched the hurl strike his friend worse than any arrowhead. His chieftain Harwald had no ear for him, and his thegn would sooner put an axe through his throat than hear it speak another word. And yet, when he turned to the aetheling, the young lord could not meet his gaze.

 

"Eardwulf," he whispered guiltily, "...Perhaps you should go."

 

The Osserian gaped, stunned. "Now? You dismiss me now of all-"

 

"You're offending them. Please go. We will talk later."

 

His shoulders dropped at his sides. Johanni almost buckled at the look of hopeless defeat in Eardwulf's eyes. I can't stop hurting him, thought the boy, the one person who knows and loves me more than any other. Oh Eardwulf, I'm so sorry. Please understand...

 

And he did. Or he seemed to. The Osserian's hurt expression returned its habitual steeled glower and he excused himself from the hall, marching over to the other side of the room and exiting post-haste. Johanni swallowed his guilt.

 

"Is what your slave said true?" Asked Norsa.

 

"Eardwulf is my friend and protector, he is not-"

 

"Is what he said true?" She spat.

 

Johanni nodded. "Yes. I am the legitimate heir to King Hrathwuld, but the Royal Diet elects the king, and the Diet now favours Ragnar. If I do not rally the support of the other chieftains to demonstrate the strength of my claim, then my brother will become king when my father dies."

 

And then, there and then, Johanni saw a blade of doubt pierce Harwald's icy objection. The prospect of a `King Bloodbane' was as unfavourable to him as it was to Norsa and all the other Osserians – but he was the only one amongst them who could help forestall that risk. Harwald reclined into his throne, thinking on what he'd heard a spell, before settling his gaze upon Johanni again.

 

"Before I give you my answer," began the Snowhair, "Let me explain our situation. We Osserians and you Karggars are not alone in the Fens at present. All lands north of the forests are in the hands of a Thoth raiding party, with perhaps as many as 500 fighting men amongst their score. They landed on our shores half a year ago and burned down three of our scouting posts on the forest's edge."

 

"We've met them," said Frodi, "We were attacked by some of their scouts on the way here. But who leads them?"

 

"A man by the name of Haakon Godwulfsson."

 

Erik's eyes burst wide. "...WHAT?!"

 

"You know him, Karggar?" Asked Norsa.

 

"He..." the Halfspear shook with rage, "...he killed my father..."

 

"Is there anyone in this room who hasn't killed someone's father?"

 

"Norsa, enough..." Harwald frowned. "Haakon has more than twice our number, he knows we cannot defeat him. That's why he made us an offer."

 

"What offer?" Asked Johanni.

 

"In recent weeks they have captured new Salt Isles from the Arbarii. He will grant us one of those isles to resettle upon along with safe passage to it, in exchange for Sygardi Greyspear."

 

Erik stamped his fist on the flagstones. "You can't trust a WORD he says!"

 

"I don't trust him anymore than I trust you," said Harwald. "But as I said we don't have the numbers to fight him. I bear your brother no ill will but if I must deliver him to Haakon to provide a new life for my people then so be it."

 

"Oldfather, I-"

 

"Do not call me that," said Harwald.

 

Johanni baulked. "...Very well, Harwald Snowhair. You do not need to trade Sygardi's life for your own. You may not have the men to defeat him, but we do. Let us deal with Haakon for you. In exchange, all we ask is that you free Sygardi and consider my claim. Let us help you. Let this be the first step in atoning for the crimes committed against your people."

 

The Osserian chieftain leaned back in his throne to ruminate on the proposal. Johanni watched him think about it, then look to Norsa Hardfang, who nodded grudgingly in agreement. There was consensus there.

 

Praise be, thought Johanni.

 

Harwald's throne creaked audibly as he leant forward. "...I cannot guarantee that my people will ever be able to co-exist with the Karggars. They are abettors to our demise and always will be. However, if you can defeat Haakon and expel these Thoth attackers from the Fens... I will have no further grounds to imprison Sygardi. Then, and only then, will I consider your entreaty."

 

**********

 

His head hurt. But gazing at his reflection in the river water Johanni realized that he looked a lot worse. A knot the size of a dormouse bulged through his blonde forelock and a shiny purple bruise swallowed up half his face. His lip had stopped swelling but his shield arm still felt sore. His injuries hurt like hellfire, but they were so minor that complaining about it made him feel guilty.

Someone called out to him

 

"Johanni!" They cried.

 

When the boy looked back he saw Frodi (with a full quiver and a taut bow) standing at the bottom of the cliff-face, his cloak beating against the wind. Behind him was Norsa Hardfang, and behind her an increasingly morose Eardwulf. He hadn't spoken a word since Johanni dismissed him from Harwald's hall. Dark circles enveloped his eyes, and he looked haggard, like he hadn't slept all night. Johanni couldn't imagine the thoughts running through the mighty swordsman's mind and every time he thought to reach out to Eardwulf he realized he had nothing to say. What could he possibly say to sooth that man's heart after everything he'd been through?

 

"Little lord," said a pensive Erik Halfspear, striding up to Johanni's side. His russet-coloured long cloak completely concealed his muscular body against the icy night winds, only the hilt of his shoulder-strapped greatsword was visible. "Are you certain you want to do this? You still need time to recover from your injuries."

 

Johanni glared up the eight-foot high cliff face overlooking the river, to the heavily fortified stone walls looming above that. Haakon's Redoubt awaited them. Just a half-mile away behind the grassy hillocks occupying the bottom of the cliff's slope, 600 Karggar swordsmen and 100 Impanni legionaries waited for the call to charge the fortress.

"Neither my father nor my brother would let these little blemishes steer them away from a battle," The young lord's cloak billowed in the wind. "I know I'm a poor warrior, but I will see this plan through. I will not lead from behind."

 

They spent the better part of the prior eve devising their plan. Down in the crypts of the noble Osserian dead, Norsa led Johanni and Erik to a smaller chamber filled with ash urns and lit candles. In its centre was a small round table with a map of the Fens rolled out over it, and across that map long needles tipped with oaken carvings dotted the landscape – wolves' heads for the Karggars, a horse's head for the Impanni, a bear's head for the Thoths and stags' heads for the Osserians. The map markings were very accurate, at least with regards to the Karggars. One pin represented 100 men. Asher's Barrow had 1 horse's head and 20 wolves' heads pinned to it, Karburgh another 20. The Ghoul's Wood had 2 stags' heads pinned to it, and a fortress at the edge of the northern bend of the Great River had 3 bear's heads pinned to it. The map was accurate to the last two days of their journey – a testament to the skill of the Osserian scouts.

 

Johanni, Erik and Norsa had drawn chairs around that table.

 

"Our scouts say that bastard Haakon has around 350 fighting men holed up in his redoubt, along with 100 horses and at least 50 thralls," explained Norsa. As loath as she was to mix words with Impannis and Karggars the situation demanded a more temperate attitude than was customary to her. "The Thoths built it over the ruins of a Beast Tower, about two days ride south of the northern shore, where his other 150 men guard his fleet of ships, around eighteen or more."

 

Erik peered over the map. "Even better for us then. 600 of my men will be more than enough to wipe out Haakon's forces. Marching them north won't take long either. Our only worry is the redoubt's defences. What do you know?"

 

Norsa frowned. "The bastards have spikes, pitch barrels, scorpios, and slings. They've also a high ground advantage since they built the fortress on a slope. Not to mention high stone parapets manned by three dozen highly skilled archers and two fully stocked larders to last them half a fucking year. Take this lightly and the Karggar dead will litter those slopes. Not that it matters much to me... lord."

 

Norsa and Erik glared menacingly at each other.

 

"Does the redoubt have any weaknesses?" asked Johanni, interrupting.

 

"One," she replied. "There's an underground tunnel at the riverbank beneath the cliff that leads to a chamber beneath the Beast Tower's ruins. Haakon doesn't seem to know about it. That will be our way in."

 

"Then that's the plan," said Erik. "My men and Johanni's century march north from Karburgh to attack the gates as a smaller team sneaks in from the river to kill Godwulfsson."

 

Johanni nodded. "It's decided then. We'll send a rider back to Karburgh for Septio and Halfdan to rally the men. Me, you, Frodi, Thregg and Eardwulf will take the riverbank tunnel. First thing tomorrow we make for the Great River." With their plan set they retired for the night and made their way north to the cliffside riverbank beneath Haakon's Redoubt the next morning.

 

The air around the riverbank was cold and biting, its waters skirted by blue mists rolling across from the eastern marshes. Hours had come and gone but the main force hadn't yet sent the signal. Johanni shivered beneath his cloak.

 

"I need to know you can keep a cool head up there," he said to Erik, "that you will not let vengeance cloud your judgement."

 

The Karggar chieftain scoffed at the idea. "Sygardi's freedom is in the balance. Don't belittle me."

 

"That wasn't my intent, I merely-"

 

"Enough. Let it lie," said the Halfspear.

 

Johanni became quiet. He looked to the river (like Erik) noting the current's present strength. If the Thoths had any boats tethered to the bank somewhere, they could make a fast escape. But almost as if it opposed his wont, Erik Halfspear broke the silence, muttering, "Don't you find it odd that the Snowhair sent us only one fighter?"

 

They both glanced over their cloaked shoulders at Norsa Hardfang, resting listlessly against the chalky cliff as she sharpened her hafting axe with a stone. "More a spy than a soldier I suspect," said Johanni, "Harwald is no one's fool, if we fail then he'll deny any Osserian involvement in the attack and deliver Sygardi as promised. The real question is – what does Haakon want with your brother?"

 

"We'll find out soon enough," said Erik Halfspear.

 

"Lords!" Yelled Frodi from the cliff, "Look!"

 

Everyone looked up into the starry night sky.

 

A tiny orange light bent through the darkness above the redoubt in a smooth arc before it disappeared in the distance: a fire arrow. That's the signal, thought Johanni. "The men are on the attack, we must move!"

 

Johanni and Erik returned to Eardwulf, Norsa, Frodi and Thregg as they ran up the sodden, grassy riverbank to the hidden tunnel the Osserian scouts discovered beneath the fortress. Covered by a thick woven awning of reeds, thatch and thistle and held in place by a cairn-like rockpile fashioned as a monument to the gods, the six of them dismantled its concealments and slipped inside the dark tunnel. It sloped into a partially flooded trench that they slogged through by the fur of their boots. Thregg, leading the group, lit a torch to light the way. About fifty yards along they found an old but sturdy rope ladder reaching all the way up into an overhanging cave shaft. One by one the six of them scaled the ladder and one by one they climbed out of the shaft into a large limestone chamber beneath Haakon's Redoubt. The chamber was cold and wet and riddled with moss. Its walls were tall, its ceiling domed, its stonework decorated in ancient runic script that not even Johanni could decipher. Tall ironwood beams supported the weaker corners of the structure and they had rebuilt its ceremonial altar (identical to the one that the Elf Worshippers had worked their blood magics upon in the Grey Wilds) in marble and hacksilver. This was the inner chamber of the ancient Osserian Beast Tower.

 

And it was guarded.

 

On the other end of the massive 100-yard-long underground chamber sat five Thoth warriors, spears aside and swords scabbarded, huddling for warmth around a log fire. So, they do know about the tunnel, thought Johanni, but it's so poorly guarded, perhaps Haakon doesn't know that we know about it...? Portions of the dome had fallen loose from the ceiling and crashed into the flagstones below, the fragments as large as aurochs. Frodi took one for cover as the others slowly crept around them and advanced on the Thoth guards from the shadows.

 

The archer loosed two shafts, one through a Thoth neck and the other a Thoth eye. Both men slumped dead. The remaining four, shrieking with angry fright in the Old Northern Tongue, reached for their spears – or rather tried to. One of Norsa's throwing axes separated the third Thoth's hand from his wrist before it laid hands upon his spear. He screamed in agony, until a growling Erik reared up and took off his head with a wide, clean sweep of his steel greatsword, splattering his northern compatriots in blood. Snarling, the remaining three Thoths now found themselves surrounded by the weapon-drawn Eardwulf, Norsa, Thregg and Johanni.

 

"(Put your weapons down)," said Johanni in their tongue.

 

Warily, they obeyed his commands, unbuckling their sword belts and daggers. The boy then ordered them to take off their armour piece by piece. The three scowling Thoth men took off their conical iron helms and greaves, unfastened their bear-hide cloaks, slipped off their leather gauntlets, unbuckled their carved iron breastplates, and peeled off their padded gambesons until there was nothing left of them but long blonde hair and a trio of swinging cocks. Thregg and Norsa led the three men behind a large fragment. By the corner of his eye Johanni saw their shadows hack the Thoths to bits.

 

The Hardfang emerged from the rock with a blood-soaked axe head. "Now?"

 

"Now we play Thoth," said Erik Halfspear, throwing her one of the dead Thoths' iron helms.

 

"And how do we justify carrying our own weapons?" Asked Johanni as he peeled off the protective steel plate pauldrons. Frodi said to pretend they were captured from enemy Karggars whilst out hunting, if anyone asks.

 

There was a ten-foot-high archway supported by ironwood beams beyond the campfire, and on the other side of it, a 500-step stone stairwell spiralled up into an arched-walled, dirt-floored corridor lined with blazing torches in bolted iron rings. A party of six `Thoths', led by the smallest of their number, emerged from the underbelly of the fortress and marched out through the glowing corridor into the courtyard, where hundreds of other Thoths now scrambled to deal with the enemy at their gates. Fire arrows sailed over the ramparts and set alight the thatch-roof pigsties, huts, kilns and stables as Haakon's men ran with pales of water to douse the flames. Clusters of Thoth archers (two or three sharing a drum-full of arrows every six yards of the wall walk) returned the favour in sporadic bursts. Down below, young male thralls boiled pitch and ferried rocks for the battlements, whilst support teams scrambled to the reinforce the front gates with logwood. Though they were built of sturdy ironwood the attackers had rams and battered them hard every few moments. BOOM, it crashed, BOOM! BOOM!

 

Johanni, clad in Thoth armours, led the others across the now chaotic yard as warriors and thralls ran hither and yon in each direction to help defend against the siege. It was so busy no one noticed these brown-haired `Thoths'. A man screamed as he fell from the wall above with a flaming arrow lodged in his eye, landing a yard or so from them with a bloody, clanking pulp. Johanni grimaced but he held their course to the central tower, where a half-dozen Thoth spearmen stood guard.

 

Johanni addressed their captain in the Old Northern Tongue. "(We're here to relieve your men. Join the others at the merlons and repel the Karggars, we will protect the thegn.")

 

The captain looked sceptical. "(I have received no such commands from the Godwulfsson. Who gave you the order to relieve us? Ognar? Baldnute?)"

 

That very second a flaming arrow blazed past Norsa's ear and caught one of the captain's men in the throat. He dropped his spear and fell to his knees, choking to death.

 

"(There's no time for this!)" Johanni pointed to the beleaguered ramparts. "(Now go! Help our brothers!)"

 

The captain and his four remaining men gathered their resolve and ran off to help support the defence of Haakon's Redoubt, the captain yelling for a nearby thrall to fetch them longbows.

 

"Let's go," said Johanni to the others.

 

Haakon's Tower was a nearly thirty-foot-high rounded column of stonework, ironwood lumber, thatch and dried mud and it stood tallest of all structures within his redoubt. Lodged into the western battlements, it overlooked the Great River and from its wooden brattices one could see as far afield as the northern forests or the misty wetlands of the Lesser Marsh. Moonlight and the amber glow of fire bled in though its abandoned arrow slits, but lit sconces provided most of the illumination. All the guards were gone, down in the courtyard to help bolster the redoubt's defences, plunging the tower into a foreboding quiet, broken only by the distant war cries and shouts of the dying. The party of six scaled its smooth stone steps until they reached its summit and approached the arched oak doors of a private dwelling. Without prompt Thregg smashed those doors in with one stroke of his battle-axe. They caved in from the hinges and landed with a loud splintering crash into a sizable chamber decorated with mounted whale bones, bear pelt rugs and wall-hung round shields. There was a round table in the centre of the room that held a map of the entire country, alongside an ewer (half-full) of wine, a platter of rabbit bones and sauce smudges, and a scabbarded dagger. Beside its roaring hearth was the commander of the fort and leader of the Thoth raiding party occupying the northern Fens.

 

Haakon Godwulfsson.

 

He was just as loathsome and frightening as Johanni recalled him being at court all those solstices ago; blood-eyed and lean-bodied with a dirty-bright mane of wild blonde hair. Dressed only thin leather breeches and woollen boots; he was shirtless from the sword belt up. The hearth's glow lit up the muscular contours of his battle-scarred chest, shoulders and abdomen.

 

Silver cup of wine in hand, Haakon's disarrayed and fang-like teeth curled into a grin. He turned to his newfound guests, eyes falling upon on the shortest and foremost amongst their number -- Johanni.

 

Haakon pointed him out. "The Younger Hrathwuldsson, no? Look at you, boy, almost fully grown now! Apple-cheeked and doe-eyed, ever your brother's opposite. Have you yet wetted your sword...?"

 

"MURDERER!" Erik Halfspear roared the accusation like an animal, growling through his throat, raw and bestial; drawing his greatsword and hurling himself across the divide at Haakon. Johanni yelled for him to stop but the Karggar chieftain heard nothing of his words through the blind rage – and the Godwulfsson stood unperturbed until Erik's swing came within inches (and seconds) of cracking his cranium – and instead met his sword. Haakon drew it in one swift motion, a curving cold-steel sabre engraved with glowing, ice-coloured ancient runes and a thin, sleek blade. Their swords locked, yet with one hand Haakon's sabre held back the two-handed grip of Erik's greatsword – all the Karggar's strength bearing down on the Thoth's one arm – and somehow, they were evenly matched.

 

Johanni went for his short sword.

 

"Don't interfere," said Frodi, "You've the right to holmgang, and so does he. Let him fight."

 

"This was not the plan," said Johanni.

 

Norsa, arms folded, watched with ambivalence. "...If that mutton-headed Karggar falls in battle to Haakon and we miss this chance of killing him, then your whole `plan' is moot."

 

You bastard thought Johanni. You promised me...

 

Erik was suffused with rage; with his gritted teeth and furrowed brow, flexed muscles and snarling growl, yet Haakon merely grinned amusedly at his challenger and shoved him back, breaking the sword lock. He sipped from his wine cup, still in hand, smirking.

 

"Do you know who I am?! Huh?!" Yelled Erik. "I'm Erik Halfspear, son of Gad Greyspear! Son of the man you cut down like an animal!"

 

Haakon's bloody eyes rolled leftward and up, as if in thought, and then a mocking smile crossed his face. "Ah! I remember. The Karggar chieftain. The mule poacher who raided a farm on my lands? The one who lost to me in single combat? The `warrior' twice as old as his oldest man? I put your father to rest, boy, and it cost me dearly. You ought to be kissing my boots in thanks."

 

"WHORESON!" Raged Erik.

 

Hands double gripped, the Halfspear swung his greatsword overhand aiming for the exposed flesh of Haakon's shoulder, but the Thoth merely stepped aside and let it strike the flagstones of his chamber. The stone cracked open and Erik hauled it up again, swinging upright. Smirking, Haakon Godwulfsson almost danced around the cumbersome weapon and repelled the blade on its upward stroke, then stepped forward and slashed across Erik's face.

 

The Karggar seethed as a bright scarlet smile cleaved across his cheek, the blood splatter matting his stolen iron breastplate. It knocked him out of his stride for a moment – but then the chieftain's roared his ferocious battle cry, an act of sheer defiance, and swung his sword so fast overhand that Johanni only saw a flash of metal clap against Haakon's glowing cold-steel sabre. The two weapons clashed tonally and repelled each other, but just as swiftly Erik Halfspear swung another overhand swing that Haakon Godwulfsson (who became more watchful as Erik's rage re-powered him anew) parried back with his sabre. Then came another and another and another, one mighty swing after the other, on and on, not giving the thegn a single chance to counterattack. Thregg and Frodi both cheered him on as the Halfspear pushed the Godwulfsson back, one boot at a time. Perhaps sensing the change in momentum, Haakon blocked (rather than parried) the last swing, catching the younger warrior's greatsword with his sabre's cross guard and locking their swords. Despite the Karggar's superior height, weight and muscle, the lean and shirtless Haakon somehow held him off, at least until Erik's boot caught him in the ribs. Haakon staggered back with a hard grunt, breaking the sword lock and clutching his exposed ribcage.

 

He grinned.

 

"You're going to die, Godwulfsson," spat Erik.

 

The golden-haired Thoth spat out a wad of blood.

 

"You broke a rib," he said. "I'll grant you this, boy, I did underestimate you. When you've spent as many winters as I have culling weaker stock, you forget what a real fight is like," Haakon smiled at his sabre. "My sword skills have rusted, I think."

 

The Thoth warrior threw it at Erik's boots.

 

The five spectators, Johanni, Eardwulf, Frodi, Thregg, and Norsa, watched his sabre clatter to the flagstones with an array of confusion, curiosity, and concern.

 

Why would he disarm himself? Thought Johanni. Has he given up?

 

"Surrender?" Erik frowned. "Are you so afraid to die, Haakon?"

 

Smiling, he curled his fingers into his palms and made fists. "Nothing would please me more than to fall in battle with honour and join my ancestors on the Hallowed Plane. Unfortunately, I have work to do before I die. You're not the only one seeking to revenge himself, boy. I'll not rest nor die until I've slayed the ones who betrayed me..." Haakon threw a glance at Johanni. "And now I have the opportunity to send them a message..."

 

Haakon Godwulfsson peeled off his doeskin gloves, kicked off his boots, and oddly, dropped his breeches. Norsa scoffed at his pale cock, thick and flaccid, and watched with amusement as he hunkered down to his haunches and growled beneath his breath.

 

"What are you doing?!" Barked Erik.

 

Haakon, heedless of his would-be assassins' amusement and confusion, kept up his low, atonal growl until it rose and rose and rose into a bestial howl rippling from his throat and echoing up to the high ironwood rafters. It was then that Erik, Johanni, Eardwulf, Frodi, Thregg and Norsa saw something unseen by the common eye since the landing of the first Woags upon Grünlund's shores. They watched as the pupils disappeared from his eyes like pearls plunging into a pool of crimson blood, as the sinew beneath his skin bulked atop a bout of inhumanly rapid bone growth, his legbones and arm bones thickened and grew beyond human dimensions as his ten toes moulded together into two cloven hooves. Haakon's howl became agonizing screams as the digits as his index figures merged with his middles, and his ring fingers merged with his littles, his thumbs sharpening out as the skin across his body coarsened into thick porridge-coloured scales; suppurating pus at the joints and climbing up his elongating face like mail, a face that broadened out from its skull into a snout, a snout girded by a set of snapping jaws and skirted by rows of gnashing, serrated teeth; his nostrils flaring with noxious fumes as his blood eyes sharpened in their sockets with a reptilian blink. As his belly and abdomen stretched to accommodate the growth of his spine, the screaming Haakon's sides split open, bursting blood and pus and severed muscle threads, as two claw-like protrusions carved their way out of his body and lengthened into a second set of arms, doubling over with the first. The flesh at his shoulder blades did the same and out of their wounds grew a third, thinner set of arms kited over by a scaly grey membrane and extending out into bat-like wings.

 

Erik and the others stepped back, stunned, as the creature before them lumbered up onto its barrelled legs and dwarfed them all in its twelve-foot shadow. "MY FATHER WAS GODWULF THE GOOD," it bellowed, "HE DIED FIGHTING AT HRATHWULD'S SIDE FOR NO REWARD! I DFEEATED THE GHOST HILL GARRISON AND HELD THE CHARNEL TOWER! THE BLOODBANE OWES HIS NAME TO ME! YET IN DEFENDING MY OWN LANDS FROM YOUR BASTARD OF A FATHER, I WAS CAST OFF LIKE DROSS! I WILL NOT REST NOR DIE UNTIL THOSE WHO BETRAYED ME SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES! I WILL NOT REST NOR DIE UNTIL I BRING THE FURY OF MY RAGE TO DRANGHEIM'S DOOR! BEHOLD THE SECRET THAT THE IRON CIRCLE UNEARTHED FROM THE BOWELS OF THE BLACK MOUNTAINS! BEHOLD THE LEGACY OF THE BEAST TOWERS OF THE ANCIENTS! BEHOLD THE POWER OF THE WULF'S BLUT!!!"

 

Beast Haakon lunged at Erik Halfspear with its gigantic claws, slashing open the iron breastplate with one stroke. He staggered back, too stunned by what he was seeing to think clearly as his body did his thinking for him, drawing back his greatsword and swinging down upon its wrist, but the steel merely rebounded off its scales, not even carving a dent. The edges of Beast Haakon's snout curled into a grin.

 

"THAT SWORD CAN'T HURT ME NOW," it growled. "FOOL!"

 

The shorn breastplate fell from Erik's body as Beast Haakon snatched him by the throat and whirled him screaming overhead, landing brutally into his round table, smashing the oaken structure in half. He coughed blood.

 

"Erik!" Cried Johanni.

 

The holmgang was over. Frodi was the first to act, reaching behind his back into his quiver, withdrawing and nocking an arrow, then drawing into a hold, but his loosed shot, like Erik's greatsword, bounced off Beast Haakon's scaly hide. Johanni tried to run to Erik's side but Eardwulf dragged him back by the arm, pulling the aetheling behind him and unsheathing his sword as Norsa Hardfang and Thregg the Ghoat drew their axes and rushed the creature lumbering before them. Thregg hit first, striking Beast Haakon's scaly right thigh as Norsa hit his left flank, but neither blow broke his armoured flesh.

 

"OSSERIAN WHORE," spat the Beast, "YOUR PEOPLE COULD HAVE LIVED TO SEE ANOTHER DAY. BUT NOW...!"

 

Beast Haakon swung the back of his ivory claws across Norsa's face and threw her backwards onto her back, spluttering blood and phlegm. And as Thregg drew back his great axe the creature caught its head mid-motion. Thregg blinked. His swing was strong enough to cut an aurochs in half – yet to Haakon it did nothing! Snarling amusedly, Beast Haakon lifted the hulking Karggar axeman off the ground by his throat and tossed the axe away. He glanced over his folded wing at Erik Halfspear, lying dazed in the wooden wreckage of the round table.

 

"VENGEANCE IS A HEARTH," said the beast, "ONE CAN ONLY STOKE THE FLAMES... OBSERVE, HALFSPEAR, OBSERVE..."

 

As Beast Haakon's upper left arm held Thregg aloft, his bottom right arm snatched off the Karggar's pilfered iron breastplate whilst his bottom left arm tore open his underlying chainmail as his upper right arm drew back – and he punched its claws clean through Thregg's stomach. From the front, Erik Halfspear saw his head jerk forward as his throat spewed up a sudden gout of blood and bile that spluttered over his exposed chest and oozed off Beast Haakon's arm, now buried wrist-deep in Thregg's torso. From the rear, Johanni, Eardwulf and Frodi saw Haakon's long, ivory claws jutting out of Thregg's back by inches – until he pulled them free. The Ghoat dropped dead to the flagstones with his stinking intestinal tract dangling from his killer's bloody claws. Beast Haakon gobbled them up.

 

"No...!" Erik cried, "NOOOOOO!"

 

An outraged Frodi, tears streaming down his eyes, strafed left and nocked an arrow, but not quickly enough to draw before Beast Haakon picked up Thregg's great axe and hurled it at the archer. He ducked down and skidded below as it whirled into the far wall like a thunderclap. As Erik struggled to get back onto his feet, Beast Haakon opened his full ten-foot wingspan and flew across the flagstones towards Eardwulf and Johanni, throwing the Osserian swordsman back before he even lifted his blade and snatching up the trembling aetheling with both his upper arms, driving him down to the ground.

 

"Johanni!" Erik yelled out, "Johanni!"

 

The boy froze with fright as the long jawed, snarling, scale-skinned monster gaped down at him with amusement; saliva laced with Thregg's blood dripping from his teeth onto Johanni's face as he shivered from head to toe. His short sword rattled at his side, but he was too scared to reach for it. He had heard stories of the Age of Monsters and the Beast Towers in his childhood, he knew of magic and blood magic, but he'd never seen anything like this... this being. As he lay paralyzed with fear, Eardwulf scrambled back onto his feet and sliced at the arm holding Johanni down but his broadsword skidded off the armoured skin like a pebble off a rock. Nothing could penetrate that hide.

 

Beast Haakon grinned. "AH, THE THRALL. I RECALL YOU NOW. STILL LICKING IMPANNI BOOTS, I SEE..."

 

He slapped Eardwulf away with the back of his lower right claw, and leered over Johanni with that devilish, bestial grin. The boy winced and shut his eyes. His breath's stench after consuming Thregg's guts was foul.

 

"I'M TAKING YOU TO THE DEEPFJORD," said Beast Haakon, "MY MISSION MAY HAVE FAILED BUT THE BLOODBANE'S BABY BROTHER SHALL MAKE A SUITABLE GIFT TO KHAN MAGNUS... COME!"

 

Norsa was just about coming to consciousness when she, Erik, Frodi and Eardwulf witnessed Beast Haakon opening his wings again and ambling for the far wall, one pounding hoofbeat after another. Johanni, finding himself, struggled to get loose as the creature carried him away but it was no use. He couldn't get free.

 

"No," Erik, tears in his eyes, clawed his way out of the broken table and staggered up to his feet. His breastplate fell from his shoulders and waist, broken at the straps. "Let the boy go!"

 

Heedless, Beast Haakon drew back his free left arms and punched them both through the northern wall. It cracked open like an egg, the black coloured stone fragments smashing out into the dark night sky. Johanni, shaking, saw Erik reach for his greatsword.

 

He won't give up, thought the boy. Even though he can't win... even though he can't hurt his enemy... even though he's lost his friend... he'd never give up.

 

Johanni's squeezed his eyes shut.

 

Please, he thought, please don't take me away from him...

 

Beast Haakon opened his wings to full span and leapt out into the night.

 

Stop, thought Johanni, Stop! Let me go! Let me go! "LET ME GO!"

 

Without thinking, Johanni drew his short sword and jutted it into the one and only vulnerable point across Beast Haakon's entire twelve-foot high body – his eye.

 

"GRAAAAAGH!" he roared, "YOU LITTLE SHIT!"

 

It all happened in an instant.

 

In one moment, Johanni was being carried away, and in the next he embedded his sword in that monster's eye. His claws reflexively opened as he went to pluck it from his bloodied socket and Johanni fell from his arms. Beast Haakon flapped away to the north as Johanni found himself tumbling through the air and thought, for a moment, that he was truly about to die – until he heard someone scream his name above. The boy opened his eyes and saw Erik Halfspear leap through the hole that his father's monstrous killer punched through the walls of his own redoubt, and dive towards him. They met in the air with the beating winds whipping in their ears as Erik enswathed Johanni in his arms and they plunged headfirst into the surging black waters of the Great River.

 

**********

 

Wide eyed, nostrils flaring, Johanni gasped for air as he came to consciousness, hacking up gobs of slime, blood and river water he didn't remember swallowing. His chest thrust up and down as he caught his breath. His drenched clothes felt wet on his body, his wet hair twisted together into damp brown tendrils, and his empty scabbard rattled against his thigh. And then he realized it.

 

I'm alive, he thought. I survived...?

 

He heard someone else coughing too. Johanni rolled onto his side and saw Erik Halfspear next to him, dripping from every inch of himself and resting on his elbows as he caught his breath.

 

"You saved me..." whispered Johanni.

 

Erik, still bleeding from the cut to his face by Haakon's sabre, nodded. "Are you alright? Are you hurt?"

 

"I don't think so..."

 

The Halfspear said "good", got up onto his feet, then helped Johanni do the same as he looked around and studied their surroundings. Past the muddy slopes of the river bank where they washed up was a dense thicket of trees stretching both north and south for as far as they could see. The current dragged them downriver by miles (at least) and there was no telling how far afield Haakon's Redoubt was.

 

Johanni's breath clouded over in the cold. "Where do you think we are?"

 

"There's no telling," he replied. "But we need to find shelter."

 

They overheard a wolf's howl from within the forest's heart. "Give me your hand," said Erik Halfspear, drawing his dagger. Johanni gave it to him. "Let's go."

 

Going north in search of the fortress in soaked armour and linens was not an option so they made for the forest instead. Erik Halfspear lead the way by hacking at the liana and underbrush to cleave a path for Johanni to follow. The boy kept his hand in Erik's and stayed close. He alerted himself to the sounds of the forest; snapping twigs, hooting owls, wild howls, grass snakes slithering over crispy fallen leaves. It was not silent, but it was peaceful.

 

"...Erik," Johanni bit his lip, "I'm so sorry about Thregg."

 

The Halfspear kept walking.

 

"If I'd have known what Haakon truly was, I would have never-"

 

"Don't you do that," said the Karggar. "You aren't to blame. Thregg the Ghoat was a warrior, he was a true Woag. He didn't care about politics or tribes or monsters. Give him a man to fight, a deer to hunt, or some ale to drink, and he was happy. He's been at my side for as long as I could swing a sword. I was the one who failed him. There was a moment in the fight when Haakon threw down his sword... if I'd killed him then, he'd never have had the chance to become that... that thing. If I'd just followed the plan, Thregg would still be alive, Sygardi would be free, and my father's spirit would have been avenged. Instead I let vengeance consume me... and now my friend is dead."

 

There was no telling what had transpired at Haakon's Redoubt since they fell into the river, but if the battle went their way then Johanni would see to it that his men recovered Thregg and made him whole again for burial.

 

Johanni squeezed Erik's hand.

 

Erik squeezed Johanni's hand in return.

 

They walked on sore feet until they stumbled upon a wide, grassy clearing, and at the centre of it was an old abandoned elvish villa. Though it stood strong, its once lavish trappings were stripped away slowly by time – its white-painted walls peeling away, its tiled slate roofing broken and disarrayed, its rear shack (no doubt a former slave quarters) growing green with wood rot. Something, at some point, had broken open its eastern wall and corridor leading into the atrium, where weeds and moss and fungi sprouted up over its crumbling statues, withered thrones and cracked frescoes.

 

"That will do," said Erik. "Come, quickly."

 

Erik led Johanni into the villa via its broken wall into the corridor, which they followed to the triclinium; its mouldy flooring trod soft as soil beneath their boots. The living space provided shelter from the cold. Erik broke the legs off one of its aged klinai stretching couches for the two of them to sit upon, then went to fetch lumber from other parts of the villa. When he returned he used a dagger (and a stone) to make a fire from the kindling. Once the room was warm enough Johanni took off his Thoth armour and sat freely in his gold-trimmed white tunic, which became more comfortable as it dried. Erik did the same with his Thoth boots and gauntlets. Then, he reached into his cloak and pulled out a thin cask of wine.

 

Johanni smiled. "Where did you get that?"

 

"I found it in the cellar," he said. "It's aged well, not like that blood-coloured Arbarii piss we traded for. Seems the elves were good for something other than slavery and murder after all."

 

Erik passed Johanni the cask. He unfastened the stop and took a swig. It was indeed good. The boy took a few more and let the alcohol do its workings upon his senses. His bruise across his face (from his fight with Norsa) and the newer one upon his back (from being grappled by Haakon) became a bit less painful.

 

"The others," Johanni handed Erik back the bottle and stretched his hands towards the fire. Their numbness slowly ebbed away, "Do they fare well, you think?"

 

Erik Halfspear glared at the flames as he quaffed another mouthful of wine. "Depends on the outcome of the battle. If our men took the redoubt, then the others should be safe. If that's the case, then they've probably sent out a search party out to find us."

 

"And Haakon?"

 

The Halfspear bristled. The cut across his face had stopped bleeding but it would reopen unless stitched. "No doubt that bastard is flying back to his ships on the northern shore, rallying what's left of his men to return to the Deepfjord. We didn't kill him but Harwald has his wish."

 

"What was he?" Johanni shivered just remembering his scaly great snout bearing down upon him with dripping hot serrated teeth. Haakon Godwulfsson was like a creature from the epics, one of the Beasts that Wo'ar the Half God once battled in the Age of Monsters.

 

"Who knows? He mentioned something about the Iron Circle. Wasn't that your brother's old warband?"

 

The Iron Circle... thought Johanni. "My brother forged it in his youth. Ragnar the Fatherless, Haakon Godwulfsson, Trygga the Spear Dancer, the brothers Twinstroke Kreim and Swanstroke Knossos, and Gnut the Troll; my brother's greatest followers. Their last adventure was in the Black Mountains eight years ago. He doesn't speak much of it. But I always sensed that he returned... different."

 

"How so?"

 

"Sharper, more focused... less kind," said Johanni. "Gnut the Troll was killed in battle, and the Iron Circle never recovered from the guilt. They disbanded and joined the Royal Legion; my brother becoming High Legate; Haakon, Trygga and the Golden Brothers rising as thegns. But there was never any talk of ancient powers or monsters or... `Wulf's Blut'..."

 

It was the term Haakon had used. Wulf's Blut, or rather, Wolf's Blood. But what did that mean? And how did it connect to Ragnar and his old warband? Johanni took the bottle back from Erik and gulped another mouthful.

 

"I've always known that my brother went too far here," he said. "But these past five days it's truly dawned on me how heinous his actions were. It seems the farther I go on this journey the more it seeks to pull me away from Ragnar... and yet... he's still my brother. Other princes in his position would've hated me... but Ragnar? He's cared for me, he's protected me. He was my closest friend. How can I reconcile my kindly big brother with the villain of Norsa's nightmares?"

 

Erik smiled softly. "People aren't one thing, Johanni. They're just people – many-sided, unpredictable, ever-changing. They can be cruel, but they can also be kind. They can be stupid, and they can also be clever. `All people can be all things', that's what my father used to say. I don't think he's wrong."

 

"So... what do I do about him...?" Said Johanni. "If I become king?"

 

That was a question even Erik Halfspear struggled to answer. "You can't kill your brother... but you can't ignore what he's done, not if you want the Osserians to back you. If we have Harwald's support, then there's only two chieftains left – you need to decide what you're going to do with Ragnar before we find them."

 

Johanni sighed. Before he even realized it, he lowered his head upon Erik's shoulder and gulped down more wine. The bottle was nearly half done. "Why can't my brother be more like your brother?"

 

"Tch!" Erik grinned churlishly, "That little turd? Sygardi's a pious bore fluffed up on his own arse. He hates fighting and warfare, doesn't eat meat or imbibe... he'll probably be an old man before he even gets his cock wet. But... that doesn't mean I don't love him. There's no one I know who cares more about the people around him than Sygardi... except maybe you."

 

Johanni smiled.

 

"What's funny?" Asked Erik.

 

"It's just I'd never picture you speaking so freely of love."

 

The Karggar smirked. "You underestimate me, aetheling. I'm more than the mead-swilling, hard-fucking, battle-hungry ox my uncle Olaf thinks I am. There are heights to my person. Dizzying ones."

 

"I do not doubt it."

 

"I should hope so!"

 

"Erik," Johanni steadied himself for something he hadn't realized he was ready to say. "I mean it. I've always known there was more to you than... what lies upon the surface."

 

He smiled. "Thank you."

 

Erik Halfspear was much. A great warrior and a relentlessly stupid tactician, a revelry-prone drunk hopelessly devoted to the welfare of his people; and an honourable devotee of his people's traditions no matter how outmoded they were. He was kind and brutal, careless yet relentless. And although in his person he was every bit the contradiction his father Gad Greyspear once spoke of, there was no such inconsistency in his beauty. Johanni found himself (and not for the first time) utterly taken with that beauty – the Halfspear's molten copper eyes and scorching russet beard, his strong arms and muscled chest, his broad white grin; all exuded ardour.

Was it the wine that made Erik's intoxicating beauty so akin to wine in Johanni's humble eyes?

 

He could not say.

 

All the boy could say was that as he stared at those pursed cerise lips, all was in his mind to kiss them – and kiss them he did.

 

**********

 

When the morning sun pierced the clouds above its light fell upon the abandoned villa in thin blades through crack and crook. Johanni, nestled contently in Erik's arms, watched the dust motes dance in them; such a beautiful sight. He could have stayed there like that for the rest of his life.

 

But there was work to be done.

 

The old elvish villa being about half a mile east of the eastern bank of the Great River, Erik and Johanni returned to its banks and made their way north. A gentle nightly rain had softened the soil (turning their trek into a trudge) and more of that wonted blue mist, thick as smoke, rolled across the river waters from the marshes. They were about a mile north of the villa, cutting their way through the tall grasses of a particularly profuse reed bed when they heard voices carrying on the wind. Erik and Johanni kept low and silent, black shapes hidden in the long, wet grass, until a familiar voice rang out,

 

"Lord Johanni!" Yelled Eardwulf, "Are you there!?"

 

The Osserian rode with Frodi at the head of a sixty man search party, torches aloft. Johanni leapt out of the rushes. "Eardwulf! Thank the gods you're alive! How fares the battle?"

 

The Osserian suppressed his sigh of relief, especially as Erik Halfspear rose up alongside the boy. "Lord! Praise to Ygga you are well," he said. "The battle is long won; the fortress is yours. There are over a hundred Thoth captives, the rest are either dead or escaped. The Karggars sustained around fifty dead, along with the Ghoat. Norsa is with the main army at the redoubt."

 

"And Haakon?"

 

Eardwulf frowned. "He escaped to the north with his ships."

 

Erik sheathed his dagger. "Just like I thought."

 

"Eardwulf," Johanni addressed him. "Do any of the men... know about what we saw of Haakon?"

 

The Osserian shook his head no.

 

"Good. Let us agree to keep it that way until we truly know what we saw in those chambers. The best thing to do now is reunite with our forces at the redoubt and return to Harwald."

 

**********

 

"If Haakon Godwulfsson still lives," said Harwald Snowhair, "Then you have not fulfilled your bargain. You disappoint me, boy."

 

The winter-haired chieftain, scowling, reclined into his throne beneath the crypts of the noble Osserian dead. Beside it stood the brooding Norsa Hardfang. Before it sat Johanni and Erik Halfspear. It had been three days since the battle at Haakon's Redoubt. Under Erik's instruction, half his assembled host would remain at the fort while the remaining Karggars pushed north to secure the shores.

 

"I concede that was poor planning on our part," said Johanni. "In hindsight we should have sent a separate detachment north to burn his ships at the bay and cut off his escape route. I apologize. But I must stress that we have at least honoured a portion of our bargain by ridding your lands of the Thoth threat."

 

Norsa frowned. "You don't have more to say?"

 

"Lady Norsa..."

 

Harwald turned to her. "Speak."

 

"Haakon is no ordinary foe," she said. "Sneaking into his fortress was easy enough, but when we confronted him in his tower my word to Ygga's ears that bastard became some sort of... creature, a creature from the pits of the underworld. His skin was impenetrable, lord. Our weapons couldn't even scratch it. He spoke of something called Wulf's Blut... right before he escaped. We were lucky only one of us was killed in the fight."

 

Johanni felt Erik Halfspear bristle at her allusion to Thregg. His loss was still a raw wound. Frodi had had his body stitched and wrapped for transport to the Grey Wilds where they intended to bury him with his axe and ancestors.

 

Harwald mused upon his thegn's words. "Wulf's Blut. I have not heard of this. But I do not doubt your words, Norsa. And alive or dead, we are at least rid of Haakon Godwulfsson. In light of this..."

 

The Snowhair held up a hand.

 

Two scale-armoured Osserian spearmen stood at the tall crypt doors across the chamber. One of them opened those doors. A few moments later and in walked two more spearmen in the company of a freckled and diminutive boy. His face was kind, framed by braided locks of chestnut-coloured hair.

 

The Halfspear rose. "Sygardi!"

 

"Brother!" He cried.

 

Johanni, smiling, watched as the young Sygardi Greyspear ran into his older brother's arms. It put him in mind of himself and Ragnar in their youth. How could it not? The Impanni boy turned to the more cynical Harwald Snowhair. "Thank you for this, lord."

 

The Snowhair frowned. "As to your proposal... I will agree to co-existence with the Karggars but only on Osserian terms. I would like to see my people safely re-settled in an enclave of Karburgh that will be guaranteed royal protection."

 

"You have my word," said Johanni. "I will leave Centurion Septio and half of my century to ensure this. No further harm will come to your people."

 

Harwald's glower remained inflexible. "Good. However, aetheling, I cannot pledge support to you on a whim, even if it means staving off a King Bloodbane. Norsa and I have agreed that she is to accompany on your journey. She is to be my proxy. She will observe you. And if she is happy to do so, she will offer you our support in my stead."

 

This is not the result that I was hoping for, thought Johanni. "I understand... and I accept these terms."

 

Norsa Hardfang, grim-faced and stalwart, stepped forward. She and Johanni stared at one another as the Karggar brothers parted. "You're unlike any Impanni I've ever met. I'll even admit that you're brave. But challenging me was stupid, and as you say, your lack of foresight on Haakon's ships allowed him to escape with 150 men, men your Karggars could have easily caught and killed."

 

But could those men have killed Haakon? Thought Johanni.

 

"Even if it's between you and the Bloodbane for king, I want the measure of you first. I need to be certain you are who you say you are," said Norsa.

 

Johanni nodded. This was not the result he wanted, but at least there was still hope. "Very well, Norsa Hardfang. You are welcome to travel with me until you find out."

 

**********

 

The peristyle of Ragnar's domus was rich with the scent of jasmine, watered and pruned by his own personal thralls. As the moon bathed his fragrant white flowers in its light, the High Legate leisurely walked the portico in his plum-coloured, gold-trimmed tunic, corded at the waste by a tasselled rope hanging from which was a small leather pouch and side dagger. His sandaled feet trod the soft marble floor towards an oaken bench overlooking the central gardens. This was where Jarl Sygmune, one of the most prominent of all sixty lords of the Royal Diet, sat to receive him.

 

Ragnar watched as the aging Jarl availed himself of his garden's scents. "As rich as a fine wine, High Legate. My compliments."

 

The elder Hrathwuldsson took a seat next to Sygmune.

 

"Cultivation is the key," said Ragnar. "And like flowers and wine, a fine plan must receive the same if it is to succeed."

 

Sygmune frowned. "So, you agree then that there must be a plan?"

 

"Indeed. And to that end..."

 

There was a small chit wrapped by thread in Ragnar's pouch. He handed it to Sygmune; who untied, unfurled, and read it. His snowy eyebrows shot upright. "Is this accurate?"

 

"My spies confirmed it this morning," he said. "The Elvish Emperor has amassed an army of over 20,000 slave soldiers on the southern side of the Black Mountains."

 

"And you believe he will attack?" Asked Sygmune.

 

"No," said Ragnar, "The army was raised to suppress a rebellion in their western territories, some sort of slave uprising. But perhaps this is a detail you might omit when you present the information to the Royal Diet."

 

After pausing a moment to digest Ragnar's suggestion, Sygmune sighed audibly, his shoulders visibly sunken. Clearly, the task weighed more heavily upon him than the Bloodbane would have expected.

 

"A lie," he uttered.

 

"An omission," corrected Ragnar, "Who is to say when the Elvish Emperor will turn his eye towards Grünlund? And when he does, what will he find? Impanni, Karggar, Osserian, Arbarii, Thoth? These disparate tribes? These separate fingers of a hand? But if a king, a truly strong king, could close those fingers into a single Woaggish fist, then no matter how many slaves the elves may muster, we will repel them."

 

Sygmune folded his hands into his lap. He ruminated upon what he heard. As heavy as the weight of his words were, their truth won through. "I've secured 29 votes. But some in the Diet look to Lord Johanni's work with the Karggars as proof of his ability to unify the Woags."

 

Ragnar smiled to himself, thinking of his little brother. "My brother is a kind-hearted soul. But kindness cannot unify the Woags nor defeat the elves. The next king must be strong enough to weather the coming storms – and he will be. Take this missive to the Royal Diet, Jarl Sygmune. Summon the king as well. Hold his feet to the fire and I assure you... the Diet will see the truth of my words for themselves."

 

Nodding knowingly, Sygmune took the missive and excused himself. Two Royal Guardsmen held the door; they followed him out. And as the Jarl left the cloister, a golden figure emerged from its shadowed pillars. It was Twinstroke Kreim, and he had listened to every word.

 

"Lord," the Golden Brother took a knee before the High Legate, his short-bladed sabres rattling against his armour. "I have news from the north. Knossos reports that he has destroyed most of the Karggar forest forts, he'll start burning the Oakmire in a few days."

 

Ragnar Bloodbane rose from his bench. "Good. But send a rider north and tell him to leave it to his men. I want him here, in the capital, ready for what's to come."

 

Kreim smiled. "It is time then?"

 

"Indeed," There was a small jar of ice-coloured liquid inside the Bloodbane's pouch. He placed it in his thegn's armoured hands. "It takes time to act, but it will do the deed. Give that to your most trusted thrall and have him serve the water at the assembly."

 

"Time and patience," said Kreim.

 

Ragnar nodded, smirking. "Time and patience."