Straining not to display his discomfort in front of the others, Johanni wiggled in his leather saddle, coaxing the white mare along the beaten herepath tract with his men. Yet no matter how he tried he couldn't find a comfortable position. The ride north had been long, but his soreness had other origins too. The boy threw a secret glance over at Erik Halfspear, enswathed from shoulder to saddlebag in his wolf's pelt cloak to blunt out the chilly winds hissing throughout the Osserian forests. Johanni's cheeks flushed red as he watched Erik finger wind-swept threads of his wavy, russet-coloured hair from his brow. A sudden hard beating in his chest sent a none-too-subtle rush of blood his under-linens. He could not help it and he folded his own plum-coloured cloak over his crotch to conceal it. As a child he'd always considered engorgement such an indignity, such a guilty thing. Even so, even as the spectre of Haakon Godwulfsson's monstrous transformation loomed over them – Johanni's thoughts could not help but wander to the night they shared together in the elvish villa. It was a night he'd forget none too soon.
But such thoughts did not plague Erik's mind. The Halfspear's face was solemn and Johanni was not ignorant of the reasons. In the distant southeast a hundred Karggar warriors escorted his friend's corpse from Karburgh back to the Grey Wilds. Though burning the dead had been Woaggish custom for centuries; the Karggars, Impanni, Osserians and the Arbarii had slowly adopted the act of burial to commemorate the deeds and legacy of their fallen. It was only right that Thregg the Ghoat be interred with his ancestors in the Grey Wilds – and it was Erik's great regret that he could not take him there himself.
`He hunts with Wo'ar now', Johanni had said to Erik that very same morn in Karburgh, `in the Hallowed Plane'.
Such words were paltry comfort against the weight of a friend's death, but Erik thanked him all the same and redoubled himself by leading the ride north into the Salt Shore territory of the Arbarii tribe. The herepath ahead was treacherous, its old flagstones crackled into shingles and its accompanying burghs all abandoned. Long winters of disuse allowed the woodland to retake whole portions of the road until it was barely wide enough to fit their wagons; it was a trail in desperate need of repair. All the same, Norsa Hardfang assured them that this was the fastest route from the Fens to the Salt Shore and surely enough (hours hence) one of Erik's scouts returned to report that the Arbarii fishing village of Saetch was none too far ahead of them, perhaps only half a day's ride if the weather held its peace.
"Lord," Halfdan's mare strode up to Johanni's as the herepath took a bend through the forest. "When last did you visit upon the Salt Shore?"
Johanni thought on it. "Many a solstice ago. My brother and I arrived with my father's retinue for the marriage of the Arbarii chieftain, Lord Bors, to his... third wife, I believe?"
"Lady Salla," Halfdan smiled contemplatively. "I recall that day well. It was my own men who safeguarded the wedding and I had a hard time warding them off drunkenness. The Arbariis are a festive people."
"I do remember that. My father was none too sober either, even at his age. But I never understood why it fell within the Royal Legion's remit to protect the festivities."
Halfdan nodded. "Nor did I, until I was posted there. We've had a standing garrison of 500 legionaries on Scraefling Isle for the last twenty winters, its purpose onefold – to keep the peace between the Arbariis and the Thoths."
The old enmity between the two tribes was notorious throughout Grünlund. They both hewed to seafaring cultures, the Arbariis of the Salt Shore were legendary fishermen who traded wine, ironwood and orichalcum as far east as the Golden Empire. The Thoths of the Deepfjord were habitual whalers and adventurers, marauding the northern seas as far north as the Hyperborean Steppe, the prehistoric Woaggish motherland. Between their two territories dwelt the Salt Isles, a clustered archipelago riddled with hundreds of game-and-mineral rich islands and islets. For centuries, ownership of the Salt Isles and its waterways was bitterly contested between the two tribes, whom had skirmished upon land and sea for them.
"It was the king who finally brokered a sibb between the two," said Johanni.
"Yes," replied Halfdan, "some six winters ago. King Hrathwuld divided the Salt Isles into two clusters, granting the western half to the Thoths and the southern half to the Arbariis, and then he sealed the sibb by betrothing the two chieftains' heirs; Lady Kjarlla and Thorvald Tyrfingsson, who would marry when they came of age. This was at great cost to him, however. Rumour has it that the king sought Lady Kjarlla as your match."
The boy smiled softly at that. In times gone by (before he was even old enough to understand the significance of inter-tribal marriages) Johanni had heard talk of suitors, most commonly Lady Kjarlla of Pearlstone and Lady Norsa of Horn Hall. He imagined that King Hrathwuld favoured Kjarlla over Norsa – such a match would strengthen Drangheim's ties with the wealthy Arbarii traders, but his father was a shrewd man and no doubt saw that animosity between the Arbariis and the Thoths was a far more pressing danger to his interests. If not for his brother's `Osserian Pacification' a solstice or so later, Johanni would have been betrothed to Norsa. Johanni looked to her. Norsa Hardfang rode near Erik at the van, having taken Thregg's raucous black stallion for her own (as the only one amongst them capable tempering its foul mood). Atop her maroon-coloured scale armour she wore a heavy grey velvet cloak with a mantle of dotted doeskin stitched to its shoulders. He watched her run a gloved hand over her shaved head then adjust her leather belt – from which her recently sharpened hafting axe hung.
Halfdan caught Johanni's wandering eye. "Can we trust her?"
"She captured Sygardi Greyspear and spied for Harwald Snowhair at Haakon's Redoubt, did she not? And she has no love of the Impanni for obvious reasons. How can we be certain of her fealty to your cause, prospective or no?"
Johanni sneered Halfdan's habitually uncharitable (yet plausible) logic. None of his legionaries trusted her, nor did any of Erik's warband, some of whom fought at Ghost Hill. Worse still Thregg the Ghoat had died by a plan half-concocted on her intelligence. Of their number only Eardwulf seemed willing to consort with her – but she despised him almost as much as she despised Ragnar Bloodbane.
"Halfdan, I won't ask you to trust her," the boy gathered up his horse's reins. "I only ask that you trust me."
The steward frowned. "Of course, lord."
Johanni coaxed his horse forward to the van with Norsa, hoping that none of the Karggars or legionaries had overheard that conversation. The Osserian warrior's cold eyes flicked to his for but a moment, then returned to the path ahead.
"The fuck do you want?" She spat.
"To enquire upon you," said Johanni. "I can only imagine what it must be like, having protected your people for so long, to have to leave them behind like this, even if it's just for a short time. Have you ever been so far from home?"
The Hardfang frowned, angrily. "Spare me your feigned interest, boy."
"My interest is not feigned, Norsa. It was difficult for me the first time I left the Weald. My father used to say that the world is equal parts beautiful and frightening... when it is unfamiliar. I do not believe Grünlund is any exception."
Another chill passed through the trees as the herepath lead up a small slope within the woodland. Norsa pulled her cloak's grey folds closer together to blunt its bite. "Oh, truly? Said he so? Such kingly wisdom. A far cry from my fucking father. Mine was a fool whose timidity cost him his life, gods bless the poor bastard."
"I meant no offence," said Johanni.
Norsa said nothing in return. Instead, she watched warily as two legionaries rode up a few yards behind them, keeping a watchful eye on her interactions with the aetheling. She was as suspicious of them as they were of her, but she was too wise to lay a hand on her hafting axe – and it was then that Johanni saw Norsa's circumstance from her perspective – as if she had thrown herself into a snake pit.
"You needn't worry," said the boy, sensing the shift in tension. "These men are here to protect us on our journey. They will not harm you."
"Sweet boy," Norsa grinned, bitterly. "Have you ever been defiled?"
Johanni blanched. "...I..."
"Have you ever been ridden into the dirt, one after the other, surrounded on all sides by the stench of sweat and seed and blood? Pray to the gods that you never learn what men bearing those colours are capable of."
Gods, thought the boy. Norsa...
Just when he considered the vast barrel of Ragnar's atrocity drunk to the last drop, it suddenly sprung forth with another frothing cup. Norsa smirked at him, coldly, then turned her gaze forward.
"That..." Johanni swallowed his words before he spoke them, "...that should not have happened. In a different world, it would never have happened."
"In a different world I would have been your queen," retorted Norsa, "I do not wish to speak of `different worlds'."
"Look!" Yelled Erik, "Up ahead!"
Everyone cast their eyes forward. There ahead the narrow herepath widened into a dirt track as it left the forest floor and verged out into a flat of damp grassland bombarded by heavy winds. The squalls were so strong that the horses neighed warily, and Growler the Bear roared within his mule-drawn cage. But there, at the very edge of the Northern Forests, was where the boundary between the Fens and the Salt Shore finally crossed. There, the hoots and snaps of the woodlands were replaced with rime scent and gull song. The thick grey cloud above began to part and throw beams of light upon a panorama of rocky grassland, pebble beaches and steep cliffs shouldering the immense blue waves of the northern seas.
Johanni overheard those waves crashing against the distant shores.
"Keep moving," said Norsa to Erik. "Saetch is close by now."
It was but one of many fishing villages dotting the rivers and the coastline of the Salt Shore; rings of tightly bunched oak-and-thatch huts, stone watchtowers, wooden piers and moored fishing boats, each settlement hundreds of solstices old. The herepath road before them forked in three directions half a mile ahead, one road to the western villages, one road north to the coast, and one road east towards the Arbarii heartland. It was Frodi (whose eyes were the best amongst their retinue) who spotted the distant 200-strong procession ambling up the trail from the east.
"Eyes east," he said. "Something comes this way."
In response Johanni, Erik, Norsa, and Eardwulf galloped around the bend to meet them (as Halfdan ordered the legionaries to dismount, pull up the supply wagons and form up a shield wall around the caravan) but there was no antagonism in the coming procession.
Before Johanni even spotted the first twinkles of their sequin skirts or the ripples of their crab totem flags, he felt the rhythm of a pounding drum being played to by three cheerful flutes as a lutenist and a harpist strummed softly the chords of `A Dance of Swords' for three buxom singers to mewl against. The musicians played from a great ligneous contraption of Arbarii making; a six wheeled stage with cushioned stools and lacquered dais bolted to the scaffold, drawn by six powerful horses of Impanni import. Alongside them swayed nearly two dozen dancers -- thralls of Arbarii, Thoth, Karggar and even Osserian stock -- twirling, prancing and thrashing in the sequined skirts to the rhythms above. Behind them marched a row of thrall boys, no older than nine or ten, bearing banners of the Arbarii totem, the crab, as well as the bident sigil of the goddess of the sea, Shora. Behind them rode (by Johanni's count) over 150 spear-armed Arbarii outriders swathed in ornate gold-coloured mail armour to match the gilded barding and sequin saddlebags of their steeds. And behind them hoofed a contingent of sixty or so adult male thralls draped in lush violet tunics hemmed with gold lace and white half-cloaks fastened by metal crab brooches, carrying with them crates and casks of unknown (but no doubt lavish) goods.
Erik Halfspear smirked. "Wug's eye, even their slaves look richer than me."
"Ssh!" Said Johanni, "Here they come."
Two people ahorse led the Arbarii procession up the herepath's eastern trail. The first was a narrow-jawed man of fifty or so solstices dressed (by comparison) rather conservatively in thick brunet robes and a hooded white cloak; his woollen grey hair casting shadows over his thin nose. There was a wrinkled packet of flesh where his left eye should have been. Next to him was a noblewoman who sat side saddle upon a placid gelding being led at the reins by another perfumed male thrall. Shapely, olive-skinned and lithe; her lengthy chestnut hair splashed atop the brooch clipped shoulders of a sunflower yellow chiton. She was unmistakably beautiful.
The woman held up a dainty hand and her six musicians, three songstresses, twenty-four dancers, six flagbearers, one-hundred-and-fifty outriders and sixty labourers immediately came to a stop.
"Lord," she said sweetly. "We've been expecting you. On behalf of my father, Lord Bors of the Arbarii, may I welcome you and your retinue to the Salt Shore. It has been a long time since we last saw each, has it not? Perhaps ten solstices or more?"
Johanni smiled back. "Lady Kjarlla. It has indeed been a long time. Please, allow me to introduce you to my compatriots," he gestured first to Erik, "this is Lord Erik Halfspear, chieftain of the Karggars," and then to Norsa, "and this is Lady Norsa, thegn and heir to Harwald Snowhair, the elected chieftain of the Osserians. Erik, Norsa? I introduce to you Lady Kjarlla of Pearlstone, daughter of the Arbarii chieftain."
"My lord," she nodded first to Erik and then to Norsa, "My lady."
The Hardfang frowned. "I'm no lady."
A flash of remorse lit Kjarlla's eyes. She was not ignorant of the events five winters ago, no one in all Grünlund was. "As you say. What happened to your tribe was a great tragedy."
"And so, you have your pampered flock of minstrels bleat out a song that commemorates the slaughter of my people?"
Johanni frowned. "Norsa, I'm sure Lady Kjarlla meant no offence..."
"No," said Kjarlla, "You are right, a Dance of Swords was in poor taste. My apologies."
The daughter of Bors bowed repentantly to the daughter of Osser Greatfang, but the latter said nothing in reply, merely averted her eyes to pet the ebon black mane of her new stallion. Kjarlla took no offence to it.
"Lord Johanni," she said. "I must also introduce you to my father's court mystic, One-Eyed Wulfstan of Kolskegg's Crag. He was most adamant on escorting me to your reception."
As Jarls of a certain standing, Johanni and Kjarlla were taught from a young age to be as refined and respectful to fellow Jarls as possible. But good breeding and etiquette could not mask the little twinge of irritation Johanni heard in Kjarlla's voice as she addressed her father's aide (who himself did not seem to notice).
"Greetings," he said. "It is a great pleasure to meet you all."
Johanni demurred. "You say you're a mystic?"
One-Eyed Wulfstan smirked. "Former mystic. As you no doubt know, King Hrathwuld's codex forbade the use of magic, so my role now has more of an... advisory quality to it. But as Lady Kjarlla says I was most insistent on receiving you. I have heard great things about you, lord. Please. Accept these gifts from us as an additional welcome to the Salt Shore."
Wulfstan clapped his gnarled hands twice. That very instant ten of the male thralls left their positions in the procession and knelt before Johanni's horse. They placed their lacquered caskets down.
"Behold," One-Eyed Wulfstan addressed the contents of each box as each thrall opened his own for Johanni to see, "fifty pounds weight of hacksliver, forty pounds weight of gold, thirty pounds weight of jade stone, ten pounds weight of Xianese silk, three hundred freshly picked figs, twenty bottles of red grape wine, twenty more of white grape, five pearl-encrusted seax daggers dating back to the Age of Monsters, all nine books of the Epic of Ka-Uta bound in dragon's leather, and the title deeds to twenty thralls, ten male and ten female, ungelded and freshly purchased from the slave markets – curtesy of the great lord Bors."
Johanni blushed, suddenly adorned with such lavish gifts and fineries. And he was grateful for all of them except the last one. "...Many thanks to you and to Lord Bors for such... gracious offerings. I accept them in my father's name. And to you, Lady Kjarlla, thank you for receiving me. It was to my great shame that I was unable to attend your nuptials to Lord Thorvald, I hope to redress this in good measure."
Kjarlla's expression chilled vividly at the mention of Thorvald Tyrfingsson. Johanni noticed it, as did Norsa, whilst Erik was more interested the gift chests at his horse's hooves – but the grimace faded away almost as quickly as it came and Lady Kjarlla regained her sculpture perfect smile.
Odd, thought Johanni. Is something wrong here?
"Lords," said Kjarlla. "You must be tired from your journey. Allow us to accompany you to our city, Kjarlling, where my father invites you to recuperate, dine, and re-supply."
Johanni nodded courteously. "We would be most honoured if you would, Lady Kjarlla. Please lead the way."
Kjarlling was a gigantic city built upon the shores of the Salt Bay, and one of the two original landing points of the ancient Woags as they sailed down from the Hyperborean Steppe. What began as a small fishing village became a key port, over time that port became a port town, and as trade routes slowly expanded in all compass points, that port town became a port city, second only to Drangheim in size, yet vastly exceeding it in wealth. A nine-mile sprawl of tenements, piers, hovels, villages, fisheries, market plazas, temples, slaughterhouses, lumberyards, shipyards, inns, brothels, tea houses and merchant halls all interlocked by an extensive network of fully-paved streets; cosseted by a thick limestone wall towering twelve-feet high and curling around the city from east to west. According to the Overlord Manuscript, nearly 30,000 people called it home.
A few hours after their meeting at the fishing village of Saetch, their mutual retinues arrived at the city's western gate; a nine-foot high archway secured by sturdy ironwood doors operated by intricate internal mechanisms. At Kjarlla's ushering, she and Johanni led the way with Erik Halfspear, Norsa Hardfang, Eardwulf, and One-Eyed Wulfstan taking up their rear. Behind them rode in the fighters; Kjarlla's 150 mounted Arbarii spearmen, Halfdan and Johanni's 25 remaining royal legionaries, as well as Frodi at the head of Erik's 50-strong Karggar warband. Behind them walked the thralls and the mules and the carriage train full of supplies.
The doors were opened upon their approach. As Johanni and Kjarlla emerged from beneath its heavy black shadow to enter the city, a riotous cheer of townsfolk numbering in the hundreds roared up around his ears. The boy gasped. The streets were full to breeching with screaming, ecstatic Arbariis, waving their makeshift stag totem flags and cheering for the handsome young aetheling. Throngs of men, women and children gathered around street corners, alleyways and rooftops to get a glimpse of the passing future king as he and Lady Kjarlla made their way across the city to Pearlstone, the ancestral palace of the Arbarii chieftains.
Erik leaned into Johanni's ear. "Who knew you were so popular...?"
"Would that you'd afforded me such a reception when I came to the Grey Wilds, Lord Halfspear..."
The Karggar grinned.
They did not notice Eardwulf glaring at their exchange.
Their informal parade continued for another boisterous hour before it found its way to Pearlstone. It was an enormous pentagonal palace rising from the ground upon a hillock one-hundred steps high. By height alone it overlooked the sea from the city centre, and its estate encompassed dozens of individual water gardens, hedge mazes, libraries, and mausoleums. Shrouded spires soared up from its ringed walls which were decorated with ornate frescos and friezes bearing tales of great voyages of long dead Arbariis. A massive statue in the likeness of the goddess of the sea and patron of the Arbarii, Shura herself, cast a large and imperious shadow from her equally massive marble plinth sculpted with bas-reliefs of the long line of chieftains who built Pearlstone and the city of Kjarlling into the grandiose trading centre it had become.
Johanni dismounted (his ears still throbbing with applause) and observing his manners, helped Lady Kjarlla down from her own horse. Erik, Eardwulf, Norsa, Halfdan, and Wulfstan did the same. At once a group of tunic-wearing young thrall boys scampered out from the portico's shadows to take the reins of each horse and lead them out of the palace's central plaza and away to the stables where they could be fed, watered and rested. But these palace thralls were not like the others seen so far. These thralls had an unusual eye-shape, almond-like, their ears thin but clubbed and their skins freckled like rust.
Erik frowned at them. "Those thralls..."
"Half-elves," explained One-Eyed Wulfstan, "shipwrecked escapees from some sort of slave uprising in the Elvish Empire. They had the temerity to come here seeking refuge, so we gave them chains instead... and now they serve Lord Bors."
The aetheling, Kjarlla and the others scaled the hundred steps to Pearlstone's main forecourt where the chieftain of the Arbarii tribe awaited them.
Lord Bors, grinning from ear to ear with wine-stained teeth, was much as Johanni remembered him; huge, boisterous and jolly. His thick red beard ran the circumference of his face like a mane and consumed the lower half whole until all that remained beneath the nose was the pink of his lips. He had gold rings set with onyx stones for each of his fat fingers and his silver-buckled belt barely withheld the tremendous gut bulging against his custom designed doublet. A plum half-cloak (affixed by an amber brooch) swung from his left shoulder and dangled just shy of the ornate ivory pommel of a long unused longsword strapped to his belt. Behind him stood his three wives; the wise and aging Lady Gorla, the fair-haired and spiteful Lady Dunhild, and the timid Lady Salla, youngest by far of the three.
Kjarlla, somewhat reservedly, kissed either of her father's rotund cheeks. "I am returned," she said.
"I see!" said Bors, opening his arms wide. "And with the aetheling no less, eh?! Ah, Lord Johanni Carian Hrathwuld, welcome! Welcome to Pearlstone! Oh, look at you! Just look at you! How tall and strong you've grown! You know I always said you'd season into a strapping young warrior and I'm pleased to see I wasn't wrong! How have you been, tell me?"
Johanni flushed. "...Uh, t-thank you, Oldfather, I am well."
"Indeed! Indeed!" Bors turned to Erik, with whom he exchanged dark grins. "But I do hope this ill-bred Karggar barbarian hasn't poisoned your mind with his loutish ways, young aetheling..."
The Halfspear chuckled. "Truly? Every `loutish way' I have I learned from you, you randy old boar..."
They embraced then, heartily.
Johanni blinked. "You two have... met?"
"Lord Bors used to oversee Karggar trade out of the Grey Wilds in my father's time. If not for him, we would've starved to death winters ago."
The Arbarii chieftain frowned. "Erik. You've no idea how sorry I was to hear of your father's murder. Gad Greyspear was family to me. One day, Haakon Godwulfsson will pay for that crime."
The Halfspear nodded, not mentioning the developments on that score. Those were things to be discussed within the privacy of the palace. "I know."
"How are Olaf and Sygardi? I had heard a rumour that the Karggars had settled over in Karburgh, hence the slowing of trade to the Grey Wilds."
"Lord," said Erik, "We have much to discuss."
Bors grinned, stroking his fiery beard. "Indeed. Come on then! Your men and your horses shall be seen to, quarters shall be provided, and tonight we shall dine and drink wine and opine of fates to come..."
The sleeveless tunics of the Arbarii tribe were as colourful as the people themselves. Weft from three types of dyed wool and sown with sequined gilding; they wore lighter fabrics during the summer solstice until the leaf-fall season when they adopted pelts of all varieties; wolfskin, doeskin, bear hide, mink, ermine, etc.
When Johanni was shown to his quarters he found a perfectly pressed orange and black tunic, a mink-shouldered half-cloak and brooch, along with fresh under linens and an ewer of rose wine at the bedside. Ten of the palace's halfling thralls (none of whom were so well-dressed or well-fed as those Woaggish thralls of Lady Kjarlla's early retinue) arrived in his chambers bearing gourds of steaming hot water which they poured into the black marble baths adjacent to his sleeping chamber. They also provided scented oils and kernels of lime soap (at Lord Bors' insistence) and offered refills of the aetheling's wine ewer. He had not touched a drop. But Erik Halfspear, who stood pensively by a glassless window overlooking the city of Kjarlling, had already availed himself of three cups. As Johanni dressed into the clothes provided by his hosts Erik ordered them to send another ewer.
"We're to attend Lord Bors' banquet soon," said Johanni, admiring his new clothes in a full-body mirror. "I hardly think it's necessary..."
"For later then," Erik waved the halfling thralls away. They all bowed in well practiced concert then excused themselves and shut the ironwood door behind them. The second they were gone Johanni felt a pair of strong, tattooed arms snake around his waist and draw him into a warm and muscular chest. His embrace was tender and protective. The boy felt himself melt into it. And yet he couldn't help but notice the club-like engorgement poking at his back, so stiff and unattended.
"Erik!" He protested.
The Karggar grinned.
"As I said we have a banquet to attend," said Johanni, "I hardly think we have the time for... for that."
"There's always time for a hump, my young lord aetheling. Gods alive, Bors knows as much judging by that army of wives."
Johanni turned within Erik's arms and leaned up upon the tips of his toes to kiss the brutish swordsman. But a kiss was all he would get for now. "Why didn't you tell me you knew Lord Bors?"
"I never thought it mattered. And it won't move him to back your claim to the throne. Overly fattened drunkard though he is, he's no fool. This reception and all those gifts will come with a hidden price."
That wasn't something Johanni hadn't considered. Bors sending his daughter to receive him rather than a thegn was no accident. And those chests full of luxuries? His annual allowance of 1000 golds wouldn't fetch him the contents of one much less ten. Bors was the first chieftain to openly accept Johanni into his territory, there had to be a game at play here. As the boy took a moment to ponder that there was a knock at the door.
Johanni quickly pulled away from Erik. "Come in."
The ironwood door creaked open. It was Eardwulf. "Lord, you have been summoned to the banquet hall."
"Thank you, Eardwulf. I will be out soon."
The Osserian grunted yes. His sunken grey eyes shot a queer glare at Erik Halfspear (or rather his proximity to the boy) until he withdrew and shut the door to await them outside. Johanni sighed. Eardwulf was not a man of much emotion but what little he possessed he wore around his neck like a noose, plain for all to see. His return to the Fens had drained him – witnessing the charred wreckage of his family homestead, Johanni refusing his advances in Horn Hall, the disgust Norsa Hardfang and Harwald Snowhair held for him, as well as the battle at Haakon's Redoubt. It was as though pieces of his loyal protector were being slowly chipped away. Johanni felt so much pity for him but could do nothing to help.
"You need to send that thrall away," said Erik.
Johanni frowned. "His name is Eardwulf."
"Eardwulf. Whatever you wish to call him, Johanni, he's a broken man. You can see it in his eyes. And a broken man is like a broken sword, useless."
Johanni's frown deepened... but he did not retort.
"I don't say it to be cruel," explained Erik, "but can't you see what I see? His spirit is ebbing. His presence alone offends Norsa to her roots, and you need her more than you need him. Send him back to Drangheim, or better yet set him free. Give him a horse and a purse full of gold and let him ride back to Karburgh to reconcile with his people."
Johanni folded his arms together, sighing. "Would that I could. His title deed belongs to my father and he protects me on my brother's orders. I don't have the authority to dismiss him and even if I did I don't believe that would comfort him."
Me, Johanni thought, but just don't feel that way about him... especially not since I met you, you rogue. "We have other concerns at present. Let me worry about Eardwulf. Our focus now should be securing Lord Bors' support, so let's begin with this banquet."
The truth of that forestalled any witty quip the Halfspear held in reserve – so instead he shrugged and bid Johanni `lead the way'. Together they left Johanni's chambers on sandaled feet where Halfdan (dressed in his own extravagant Arbarii tunic), the grim-faced Eardwulf, and a demure halfling girl awaited them.
"Where is Norsa?" asked Erik.
The halfling thrall bowed. "I went to fetch her but Lady Norsa has refused to attend the banquet, lord."
Damn, thought Johanni. "All of you go. I shall speak to Norsa myself."
"But lord, she specifically requested-"
Yet it was too late, by the very breath of her protestation the boy was already trundling down the marble corridor to Norsa's chamber doors. Eardwulf and Erik both moved to accompany him but Johanni warned them that it would leave a bad impression if all of them were late to the feast. As they made their way towards the banquet hall (the halfling girl directing them through Pearlstone's maze-like innards), Johanni knocked Norsa's door and found it unlocked. He pushed it open. Her quarters were largely undisturbed – the hearth was not lit, the bed pristine, the ewer full and the grape platter untouched – all there was of Norsa was her scale armour, leather belts, and fur-trim boots all cobbled together in a muddy pile on the bearskin rug. Johanni did not find her inside her chambers but rather outside of them. He found her on the balcony wearing nothing but her cotton under linens. She had woollen wrappings taping down her heavy breasts as she practiced her axe swing with a series of swift movements and hearty battle cries. Johanni watched the sweat drip down her pale skin, disfigured by countless scars – scratches, dog bites, arrow piercings, blade cuts – huge welts of bulbous pink scar tissue ran down her back from nape to hip, as thought she'd been sliced open by bear claws. He'd never seen a woman's body so marred.
The sweat beads fell from her brow like raindrops as she stopped, mid-swing, to see her uninvited guest upon the balcony. She sneered, then dropped the axe and snatched up a cloth upon the ledge. She mopped up her face with it.
"The halfling girl says you've refused to attend the banquet?" Asked the boy.
"The halfling girl has the right of it," she replied.
Her reticence irritated him. And yet he looked upon her scars and thought upon her words earlier that day (`have you ever been defiled...?') and wondered what right he had to be offended at her behaviour. "Lord Bors might take umbrage at you refusing to dine with him... and like it or not we need his support if we're to prevent Ragnar from sitting the throne."
Norsa hadn't bathed since before the battle at Haakon's Redoubt. The cloth was filthy with mud, sweat and blood smears when she was finished with it. "When Bors uncovers the bargain Harwald made with Haakon and the Thoths he mightn't be so welcoming with me. Besides. I've long since lost my taste for luxury and feasting."
Such things were customary to Jarls, even ones from the poorer tribes like the Karggars. Johanni had to imagine Norsa's last feast would've been in Horn Hall, five solstices ago, before the weight of destiny smashed into the Fens. She'd spent the last quarter of her life on the run from his brother's minions, hiding in crypts and foraging for food in the northern forests, the noble trappings of her past gone and forgotten – all because of his brother's atrocities.
"...Is it your intention to kill Ragnar?" Asked Johanni.
Norsa did not look back. "Is it your intention to spare him?"
"...There are better roads to peace than vengeance, Norsa."
The Hardfang chuckled, then scoffed, then threw away her rag and took up her hafting axe once again. "Ya!" she cried, whirling the weapon in powerful overarm strokes, "Ya! Ha! Ya!"
Realizing that there was no reasoning with her, Johanni withdrew.
As befitting a city with trade ties in every direction of the seas, Bors' feast was more bountiful than even Johanni could have predicted. The oaken long table of Pearlstone's banquet hall was large enough to seat thirty guests and stretched from guarded entrance to roaring hearth. Lord Bors sat at the head of the table, with Johanni to his left and Kjarlla to his right. Beside Johanni was his retinue, first Erik Halfspear then an empty seat where Norsa Hardfang ought to have sat, then the steward Halfdan. Across from them sat the Arbarii nobles; Kjarlla, then Gorla, then Dunhild, then Salla, then finally One-Eyed Wulfstan, whom Bors regarded as his right hand.
One by one the halfling thralls served six courses of the meal. First came half-shell oysters with horseradish and black pepper sauce, then a round of hot barley soup with a thick slice of day-old flatbread. The third was garlic-buttered king prawns atop bowls of a delicious steamed grain from the tropics that Kjarlla called `rice', followed by a sea salad of mussels, onions, celery, salt and crabmeat drenched in white wine sauce. The main course served them whole cuts of a huge, freshly caught trout served with bacon, almonds, beetroot and roasted potatoes; then finally came rolled whorls of sugar-coated sweet dough served with dates, raisins and figs. It was all delicious. Erik ate like a man half-staved and Halfdan was forced to unbuckle his belt he was so full. Johanni was moved to ask Eardwulf to join them (as he stood guard so patiently by the bolted entrance doors), but he could not risk offending Bors by seating a thrall at his long table. Instead he whispered into one of the halflings' ear and whispered for her to save some of the meal for his `friend at the door'.
"Lord Bors!" began Halfdan, "May I compliment you on procuring such wonderful cooks. I dare say they put our own back home in the south to shame."
The rotund chieftain grinned. "Many thanks. Indeed, my greatest regret is that I might not have another chance to sit King Hrathwuld to my table. On his last visit he stressed such fondness for the food of the seas."
"I fear my father is too frail to travel," said Johanni. "But he did speak highly of Arbarii cuisine. I concur with Halfdan, this meal was a delight."
Lord Bors extended his empty goblet towards a halfling girl with a wine ewer in hand. She poured him his eighth cup of the night. "My father was one of his outriders in the Great Woaggish Army, you know. They may not have been much call for ships on an inland march, but we provided food, ale and steel as well as men. He often said that serving alongside Hrathwuld in the expulsion of the elves was his life's greatest honour."
Johanni nodded. "Mine own father would be honoured to hear that."
"King Hrathwuld is very respected here," said One-Eyed Wulfstan, sipping from his own goblet. "However, there are some on the Salt Shore who are unhappy with his rule. His inaction on the Thoth threat for example..."
The aetheling frowned – but when he looked to Lord Bors for rebuttal he found a look of concurrence to match his half-drunk smirk. "I am afraid my advisor speaks truly, young lord. Though your father did great work in expelling the elves and brokering the sibb between us and those barbarous northern savages, I fear more recent events have escaped Drangheim's notice..."
Halfdan, like Johanni, recognized the shift in the mood around the table. Erik did nothing but pick his teeth and observe, much like the chieftain's three wives who sat like patient dormice waiting for their husband's dismissal of them. Kjarlla sat pensively at her father's right side and scarcely restrained what Johanni would soon realize was anger.
"What events would those be, Oldfather?"
Kjarlla tensed. "Father..."
"What, my child? Would you have me withhold vital information from a forthcoming king of Grünlund? Hang me if I do," Bors glugged his cup whole then extended his meaty wrist for another re-fill before he continued, "as you know, King Hrathwuld authored a sibb between our two tribes by dividing the Salt Isles into east and south... and then he sealed it by betrothing my daughter to Thorvald Tyrfingsson, son of the previous Thoth chieftain, Tyrfing Magnusson. But Tyrfing died some two solstices ago and since then new Thoth chieftain has slowly crept to the fore, someone far less amenable to peace than dear old Tyrfing..."
"Magnus Magnusson," said Johanni.
"Correct!" Bors gulped more wine. "I see you've heard of him?"
I have, thought Johanni. And I've heard nothing good.
Magnus Magnusson was the only chieftain that Ragnar specifically warned him to be weary of and worst still (based on his own words at the Redoubt) Haakon Godwulfsson seemed to be in league with him.
Erik spat out a fishbone. "Where is Thorvald?"
Bors glared darkly. "He is rotting away in the dungeons beneath our feet."
Angrily, Kjarlla slammed her hands upon the table so hard that it knocked her wine cup over and smattered red over his step-mother Gorla's pearl-coloured dress. Everyone paused where they were as the fuming Arbarii heiress launched out of her seat to leave.
"Sit down," snarled Bors. "You will not disrespect our guests."
Father and daughter glared at one another as the mood around the banquet hall curdled into something ugly. From the moment of their reunion Johanni sensed tension between Kjarlla and the others – finally he was beginning to understand the source of it.
"Kjarlla," it was Bors' third wife, Salla (younger than the heiress by nearly four winters) who called out her. "Please be seated. We've spent so much time and effort in preparation for this evening, yourself included. Please do not spoil it."
The brown-haired woman looked to Salla, perhaps in irritation, then to the curious Johanni and the slightly amused Erik, before returning to her father's cold iron glare. She sat down.
One-Eyed Wulfstan broke the silence. "Twenty moons ago a Jarl named Bersi came to Pearlstone to report sightings of a small fleet of Thoth raiding vessels moored near the border waters of the Southern Salt Isles – our territory. Bersi was murdered a day later and we have reason to suspect Thorvald's involvement."
"Fish shit!" Spat Kjarlla.
The Halfspear tittered. Johanni kicked his foot beneath the table.
"Lady Kjarlla, please articulate your concerns," said the boy.
"There is no proof whatsoever that Thorvald murdered Bersi," said Kjarlla. "I understand why my father and the Jarls of Kjarlling are suspicious of him, he is a Thoth and our history with the Thoths is well known. But Thorvald is also my husband. I know him better than I know myself – he is a peaceful man! He's never so much as raised a sword in anger his entire life! He is not a murderer!"
"That will be for the other Jarls to decide," said Bors. "They will arrive in the next three days to deliberate on Thorvald's guilt. If he is found innocent, then he will be released. If not? Then blood will follow blood."
Kjarlla, for all her grace, looked fit to rage that moment – and bury a carving knife somewhere in her father's direction – but her eldest step-mother, Gorla, took her by the hand and tried to sooth her angers. Bors just swilled more wine.
It appeared that King Hrathwuld's brokered peace between the Arbariis and the Thoths was more precarious than Johanni once thought. If the Arbarii Jarls found Thorvald guilty and gave their chieftain consent to execute him then the Thoths would have a pretext for retaliation. The danger of this wasn't lost on Erik either. He nudged the younger boy in the shoulder ("we've got no choice" as if to say) and leaned across the table for the wine ewer.
"I know nothing about this Thorvald," said the Karggar, pouring his own cup full. "But I do know this – the Thoths are plotting something. Haakon Godwulfsson led 500 men and nearly twenty ships into the Fens, built a fortress near the northern woodland, and strong-armed the Osserians into kidnapping my brother."
"To what end?" Asked Bors.
I know where this is going, thought Johanni. "...Erik."
"There's no purpose in keeping it secret," said the Karggar chieftain. "They were poaching ironwood, no doubt. But we think they were searching for a secret hidden within the ruins of a Beast Tower... something called Wulf's Blut."
One-Eyed Wulfstan's one good eye sharpened. "Wulf's Blut?"
"You've heard of it?" Asked Johanni.
He frowned. "...No. There are hundreds of legends about the Beast Towers and Wo'ar and his war against the ancient sorceries. None of them speak of this... Wulf's Blut. But if the Thoths have any interest in the Beast Towers then what they seek will be an ancient sorcery... perhaps this `Wulf's Blut' is one of them."
Johanni mused. "Is there anything you could tell us that might help us, considering your... background?"
Wulfstan smirked smugly.
The boy misliked it.
"The king may think it evil," said the old magus, "but the truth is undeniable. Magic is the language of the gods... and those precious few words within man's ken, sorcery itself, were translated at their sufferance. Whatever the Thoths may have unearthed in the bowels of that Beast Tower... it was not meant to be sealed away."
Bors belched. "Enough Wulfstan. These are matters of politics, not philosophy."
"Of course, lord. Apologies."
"Pearlstone has an extensive library with tomes dating back to the Age of Monsters... or so I'm told," quipped Bors. "If it helps you in anyway then feel free to use it to conduct your research on this Wulf's Blut. Kjarlla will accompany you."
Kjarlla shot him daggers.
Nevertheless, it was a kind offer. They needed a better idea of what Wulf's Blut truly was before they contended with Haakon Godwulfsson once again.
Johanni nodded his gratitude, "Thank you, Oldfather. But as you can imagine I did not come here for word of ancient legends. I have another motive."
Bors' grin grew. "...Go on."
"My father is in poor health and by his insistence the matter of succession to the throne must be resolved before his passing. Although King Hrathwuld favours me as his successor, the Royal Diet of Drangheim favours my brother Ragnar, and ultimately, the Royal Diet elects the king. If I am to sway them in my favour, then I must do as my father once did and win the favour of the other four chieftains. That is why I am here. Thus far I have acquired the support of Erik Halfspear, chieftain of the Karggars, who you know well. Harwald Snowhair offers provisional support, to be confirmed by his thegn, Norsa Hardfang, the daughter of Osser Greatfang. And so, I come to the Salt Shore seeking your support as well. I ask you, Lord Bors of the Arbarii tribe, to back me in my claim to the crown."
"Young lord, y-you do honour me. Truly, you do. As my father once rode with yours into battle against the elves, nothing would please me more than to join you and the other chieftains in solitude... however, based merely upon what I've told you and all you've seen... do you truly believe we can find concord with a man like Magnus Magnusson? I assume you would need his support also?"
"Magnusson is a canker," said Bors, "We may not know what he's planning but rest assured it will begin with the Salt Shore. Your brother is indeed a bastard, young lord, but he is also a seasoned soldier with proven battle experience. Would the Bloodbane not prove a better shield to my people's safety? Ragnar has 10,000 legionaries at his back and you have... what at last count? 3000 half-starved Karggar infantrymen? 200 aging Osserians? Fewer?"
Johanni grimaced. "Oldfather, I might not be my brother's measure on the battlefield, and I may not command the numbers he does, but I am devoted to my country. I have my father's blood and backing, and as king I would be as staunch a protector of Arbarii interests as him. Supporting me would be an investment in your future, I promise you."
"Promises are wind, Johanni, no matter how earnest they are," Bors leaned into his ear. "Consider it from my perspective – say I were to throw my weight behind your claim and it failed – what would happen to my standing with the Bloodbane? And all my trading partners within the Royal Diet, should I risk offending them and losing their custom for a kingship that might never take root? No, no! Supporting you would be a gamble, young lord, not an investment. If I were to take such a risk I'd need an assurance... yes, I'd need a binding assurance cementing your loyalties to the Arbarii... as a mutual deterrent against the Thoths."
For all his gluttony and drunkenness, Bors was not a man to underestimate. If this conversation was a battle, then Johanni was losing it. "...And what would that be, Lord Bors?"
"...You could accept my daughter's hand in marriage..."
Erik Halfspear seethed. "That fat old bastard...!"
Johanni grinned privately as the Karggar chieftain fumed upon the other side of the bed, pouring himself another cup of wine from the ewer. He was wont to join him, but the bedding was so comfortable – plum-coloured coverings of Xianese silk stuffed with lambswool and two large goose-feathered pillows – he didn't want to move. He luxuriated in their soft warmth as Erik lumbered back into bed and folded himself around the boy's thin body. Johanni never felt safer as he did with Erik's arms wrapped around him.
"Spit on a marriage," said Erik. "You see what game Bors is playing."
"Of course. Self-interest motivates him above all else. It's no secret that he was unhappy with Kjarlla's betrothal to Thorvald either... but marriage is a way of the world, Erik. You will be expected to take a wife one day."
The Halfspear nuzzled his russet-bearded chin into Johanni's neck. "But I don't have to like it."
"Carefree buck as you are," Johanni kissed him. "I have no intention of betrothal. We shall find another way to win Bors around."
A thin blade of blue moonlight cut across Erik's chambers from a small gap between the fine silk curtains decorating the balcony's threshold. They were only a few hours from sun-up. Sighing, Johanni reluctantly climbed out of bed, nuzzling his feet into the soft rug laid out beneath the bed.
"Stay a while longer," said Erik. "The buck is still in heat."
No doubt of that, thought Johanni. His arse flushed red from the repeated slap and thrust of his muscular thighs, and his rosebud arsehole oozed thick gouts of Erik's seed. They'd had each other every night since the villa but maintaining secrecy grew more and more difficult. Johanni stood up and went for the washing bowl at Erik's bedside. It was still warm. The boy dipped a nearby cloth in it and wiped himself down from his sweat-soaked brow to the curly patch of blonde hair growing around his flaccid cock, caked with crispy white flakes of his own seed.
"If we keep at it like this we will be caught," Johanni said.
Erik smirked. "I'm a Karggar, I don't fear the eyes of others."
"Then it's a pity I'm not a Karggar," said the boy, dressing into his new tunic and sandals. "I'll come to you again tomorrow night but for the morn I want to investigate Pearlstone's librariums. Perhaps I will uncover something useful about Wulf's Blut."
Johanni leaned over his bed and kissed him again. He was wont to kiss him elsewhere as well – upon his neck, his chest, his contoured abdomen, his bulbous cockhead – but if he did then they would fall into bed together again and repeat the labours of the night... and he wasn't sure if his arse could take it a thrice.
"I want you to speak with Lord Bors," said Johanni. "Reason with him, find out all you can, gain some leverage. Halfdan will sail to the legionary garrison at Scraefling Isle to replenish my guard, Norsa and the warband can rest. We will make this work. Now good night to you."
"Fine," Erik stole another kiss from him before he left. "Away with you."
It did pain him to leave Erik Halfspear (and his exquisitely comfortable bed) behind but there was much work to do in the morn. Johanni smoothed out his robes, tightened his belt, then quietly crept out of Erik's chambers into the corridor. He shut the door with a careful click (for Pearlstone's grey marble floors such an echo of everything) and turned to leave.
Kjarlla stood waiting for him.
Great gods, he thought. If she has even the slightest idea of what was going on behind that door she could ruin me! "...Lady Kjarlla, I-"
"I will not marry you," she said.
Johanni exhaled. "I hadn't come seeking a bride."
"Lord, however long it's been since we last met I still consider you a friend. You've heard my father's side of these affairs; won't you hear mine? Would you grant me an ear?"
He had to wonder if they were being watched. By Ragnar's own admission the Palace of Drang was riddled with secret spyholes and hidden tunnels – slim chance Pearlstone was any different. But when he looked in Kjarlla's eyes he saw no hidden motives there, no hint of malice or deception, just resolve. Resolve... and love. "Of course, my lady," said Johanni.
The corridor was lit by ensconced torchlight. The Arbarii woman unbolted one of those torches and handed it to him. "Follow me," she said as she led the way down the dark marble floors and charted a path through Pearlstone's eastern wing, always out of sight of the guards patrolling the hallways with spear and short sword at the ready. Eventually, Kjarlla took Johanni to an archway beneath the porticos of an old mosaic shrine to the sea goddess Shura. Placing one of her soft hands against its neighbouring wall stones, she felt across them for a loose one, and when she found it, she pushed it. Whirling internal gears creaked together as the slow grind of stone against stone growled into the night and the shrine wall slowly drew back by a yard – revealing a hidden aperture bolted shut by ironwood doors. Johanni opened them with his free hand. Beneath those doors ran a narrow flight of wooden steps. Kjarlla went first, then Johanni, as his hostess pulled a lever that moved the shrine back into place along the corridor wall. The wooden steps led them down into the very underbelly of Pearlstone, until they emerged within its dank, crypt-like catacombs nearly forty yards beneath the streets of Kjarlling.
The tunnel was rancid. The ceiling dripped with condensation. Sheets of moss dotted its rounded walls, along with the webs and eggs of long dead spiders. Its unpaved floor was a muddy mulch of cracked earth and weeds. Kjarlla and Johanni kept close to each other as she led him on down the curve of that tunnel until it took them to another ironwood door. This one was locked. But Kjarlla hiked up her sunflower skirts and withdrew a key taped to her shin to unlock it. They then stepped forward into the dungeons of Pearlstone.
Iron bars and instruments of torture were everywhere he could see. But most of the cells in this wing were empty, save for a one confining a pale-skinned young man. Dirt encrusted his ragged clothes and coiled blonde hair. Tight iron manacles turned his wrists and ankles pink. He sat slumped against the damp wall of his cell with hazy eyes until the orange glow of torchlight cut through the musky darkness.
He smiled at the boy, weakly. "It's you... King Hrathwuld's son... Kjarlla said you'd come."
The Arbarii woman cried out his name and ran to his iron bars but he was too frail to reach out to her. His feeding bowl was bone dry. "It's as I said, my love. He can help us. Take your time and tell him everything you can," she said.
"What is going on here?" Asked Johanni.
"...I won't... tarry," Thorvald's voice was wiry and frail from lack of water. "I did not... kill Jarl Bersi. But I suspect... that the real killer... intended for me... to take the blame."
"Perhaps it is was my father's work," said Kjarlla. "Perhaps he orchestrated this whole debacle to justify divorcing me from you and marrying me to Johanni."
Thorvald exhaled. "W-we don't... know that, Kjarlla. But what we do know... is this. Whoever killed Jarl Bersi... and implicated me... wants to break the sibb... by Arbarii hands..."
But that means... "You're saying this might be a Thoth plot?"
Thorvald nodded, scratching a flea bite on his neck.
There was a dangerous sort of sense to it. An Arbarii Jarl with important reconnaissance about Thoth ships in Arbarii waters is murdered in Pearlstone. Bors quite predictably retaliates by imprisoning his unwanted Thoth stepson who by appearance alone is the only person in the whole palace with a clear motive. Thorvald stands for a (sham) trial that undoubtedly ends in execution, which then gives Magnus Magnusson all the pretext he needs to break the sibb and retake the Southern Salt Isles.
And with Haakon Godwulfsson on his side, thought Johanni.
"My uncle... is a madman," croaked Thorvald, "Magnus, he... he doesn't care... about the sibb... but he knows that... Bors does. And he's planted... an assassin... in the heart of Pearlstone... to pull the strings..."
"If you suspect all this why haven't you told Lord Bors?" Asked Johanni.
Kjarlla sneered. "We did, he doesn't believe it. He only sees an opportunity to marry our bloodline into the Royal Family, nothing else matters to him. And if Magnusson's spy discovers that we know more than we should then who's to say they won't come for us next?"
Johanni turned to Kjarlla. "No assassin would dare murder the daughter of a chieftain in his own household, it's unthinkable."
"If they killed a Jarl there's no telling who they wouldn't. Help us, Johanni. Help us find the real assassin. You are the only soul in this whole palace who is too important to kill – which means you have a free hand. Help us, please. If you don't then Bersi's true killer goes free, Thorvald dies, and Magnus Magnusson has free reign to retake the Salt Isles..."
The librariums of Pearlstone were extensive. They were built nearly fifty winters ago within the eastern wing of the palace and it indexed over 14,000 tomes, scrolls and documents from sources all over the known world. There were testaments of the Elvish Messiah () and catalogues of the ancient Woaggish runic script, dialogues on the principles of archmathematics, histories of the lineage of the Golden Emperors, epics of foreign gods, spell books, poetry, and however many hundreds more interesting topics that Johanni could have sojourned with for hours upon hours in a different time and circumstance. His innumerable visits to Drangheim's Grand Librariums taught him to worship knowledge and respect its curation. But time was preciously short, too short for personal indulgence.
With the bookkeeper's permission Johanni unfurled the index and looked to Woaggish history (which they kept in the fifth section of the sixteenth aisle) under which he found only two books even vaguely related to Wulf's Blut – On Ancient Woag Constructs by , and A Study of the Age of Monsters by Sage Aethelhard – and the bookkeeper sent a halfling to fetch the two books.
Johanni spent most of the morning reading them (or rather reading their most pertinent passages). On Ancient Woag Constructs was not particularly useful. It only covered hypothetical building methods and only briefly mentioned the Beast Towers, there was no reference to its history or rituals. It was A Study of the Age of Monsters that provided more insight on the Beast Towers;
"`It is said in our many oral histories'," recited Johanni, "`That the half-god Wo'ar took up the adamantine warhammer granted to him by his father Wug (the war god) and smote those constructs to end an era of false conduct and abuse of magical rituals, inculcating for posterity those sparks of a burgeoning Woaggish pride that our King Hrathwuld so readily embodies. But can it all be so simple? I believe the answer lies in a passage written by Sage Ogbher...'"
What followed was a revisionist interpretation of Woaggish history that would've gotten Sage Aethelhard hung in a pre-Hrathwuldic era. He alleged that the Beast Towers were built by an ancient race of natives who pre-dated Woaggish arrival on Grünlund's shores by hundreds of winters. He argued that these towers were probably sites of religious significance to this race and that the ancient Woags systematically destroyed them to `break the spirit' of the native population. It was a provocative mode of thought.
But nothing on Wulf's Blut.
What it did have however was a map of Grünlund on its rearmost page. What was special about this map was that it charted sites of all the known Beast Towers across Grünlund as well as their condition (`survived' or `destroyed'). There was one in the southern Weald (destroyed), one in the northern Fens (destroyed), one in the southern Grey Wilds (survived), one in the eastern Deepfjord (destroyed), one the Black Mountains (survived) and one upon an unnamed Salt Isle (destroyed). Johanni called over the halfling boy, , who the bookkeeper had sent to attend to him. "Can you tell me the name of this island?" He asked, pointing to it on the map.
nodded. "Yes, lord. It's called Kolskegg's Crag, lord."
That's where Kjarlla said One-Eyed Wulfstan is based, thought Johanni. Perhaps he knows more than he alleges. He would speak with the sorcerer again at some point – but in the meantime there was work to do – it was already noontide. The aetheling asked to return the two books to their shelves. Johanni snuffed his desk candle then went to the bookkeeper's chambers, where his own candle had melted down to the wick as he carefully scratched quill to parchment for some unidentified purpose.
"Sir," Johanni smiled. "Thank you for your time today."
The aged man did not take his eyes off his page (nor did he stop writing) but he offered the boy a nod of acceptance. "Oh? Oh, think nothing of it. I hope what you unearthed was of use to you."
"Indeed, it was. But if I may, those two tomes I searched for in the index, would you happen to know if anyone else has expressed interest in them recently?"
The bookkeeper squelched a sudden cough. "Well, off the top of my mind, no, not recently. The common Woag is of superstitious stock and does not regularly inquire upon ancient artefacts or mysticisms. However, I do recall Lord Bors granting permission for a local scholar to conduct research into these topics... but this was about... oh... five or six days ago, I'd say?"
"And what was his name?"
"Hmm..." the old bookkeeper paused. "Turki, I believe it was."
The city of Kjarlling, after which the chieftain Bors had named his daughter, was alive in every road, corner and alleyway. Its cobbled streets flowed with Woags of every tribe and foreigners of every hue – Xianese silk merchants and Golden Imperials, umber-skinned Desert Dwellers, saturnine High Northerners, etc. And there was commerce every turn in the form of seafood stalls and bear tamers, tonic peddlers and career beggars, alehouses and brothels, blacksmiths and tanners, masons and fisheries, butchers and bakers, wandering sell-swords and street-side apothecaries. Fish scent was everywhere (both fresh and rotting), along with the scents of spices and wine and smoke and rime as the gulls wheeled around in a bright and cloudless sky whilst the ructions of hagglers, laughter, chatter, cheering and shouting filled up Johanni's ears. The boy did not mind. Despite the differences between the two cities, Kjarlling very much reminded him of Drangheim. And much like Drangheim, when he wanted to explore its dark underbelly he had to go disguised.
Much to Eardwulf's displeasure, he and Johanni walked the streets in hooded cloaks. Few townsfolk would have guessed who the boy was by sight alone but there was always a risk (and with that risk came danger).
"I do not like this," whispered Eardwulf. He had to lean in close to be heard over the noise. "Lord, we should have conducted this search with an armed guard."
Between the two of them their only weapon was a carefully concealed seax Eardwulf hid beneath his tunic and belt strap; his sword and scale armour remained in Pearlstone. Johanni's reasoning was simple – going in lightly equipped attracted less attention. A retinue full of troops trundling down the streets protecting a royal litter achieved the opposite. There was a danger in this, based on everything he'd learned from Kjarlla and Thorvald, for if their alleged assassin was following him then it was here in the streets of Kjarlling where he was most vulnerable. But he also knew that he had to take the risk.
The deeper he probed into these matters the more he suspected that Bersi's assassin and the Wulf's Blut were interrelated somehow – but he wouldn't raise it with the others until he was sure. He wanted them to rest after everything they'd been through thus far, particularly Norsa. There was no point in bringing mere suspicions to his followers unless he had something ironclad to support them.
Besides, he had... reasons to be alone with Eardwulf for a time.
According to the bookkeeper, the scholar Turki was one of sixteen tutors that Lord Bors summoned to oversee Kjarlla's girlhood tutelage. Ancient history was his speciality and he had a small school on Crab-Catcher's Street. Johanni and Eardwulf followed the directions given to them by (who was more familiar with Kjarlling's streets than the old bookkeeper) around a roadside spice market off the main thoroughfare, and into a quiet alleyway huddled between Crab-Catcher's Street and the tenement buildings of Roe Square.
"Lord," said Eardwulf, "This city reminds you of Drangheim, doesn't it?"
Sheets of tarp were tied to the rooftops above to blot out the hot beams of the sun. There was a similar custom in Drangheim. Johanni smiled in the shade as they made their way on. "It does. City life agrees with me, I think."
The door to Turki's school stood at the end of the alley. Eardwulf knocked its grain when he came upon it. "They say that at the edge of the Golden Empire there's a chain of merchant cities much like this one."
"They say anyone can start a new life there," there was a bittersweet glint in the Osserian's stone grey eyes. "Imagine that. A fresh page. No ties. No duty. All you have is what you can make for yourself... and the freedom do it. Johanni, have you ever wondered what it would be like to cast it all away and just... disappear?"
He smiled softly. "Imagine if we went there... together. What sort of life would we build, do you think?"
"Eardwulf, when this is over we need to-"
The door swung open.
It was a boy at the threshold. A boy with the naturally swarthy, nut-haired look of an Arbarii but his ears' club-like shape gave him away for what he was – a halfling. "Are you here for lessons?"
Johanni smiled. "Not quite. We're seeking a man named Turki, I'm hoping he can help us."
Smiling back, the boy stepped aside and allowed Johanni and Eardwulf in. It was a circular room with a domed ceiling and a stone floor obscured by dozens of fox-fur cloaks woven together into a rug. Twelve children (some of them halflings, the rest Arbarii Woags) sat upon that rug, and before a gravel-haired man in rough spun robes paced back and forth upon bare feet. It was Turki. And his students listened patiently to him;
"History tells us that understanding other peoples is the secret to a successful people," he said. "What I know my neighbour may not and what I don't know my neighbour might. The challenge is overcoming our natural fear of one and other... finding concord... and exchanging our ideas. What shapes others?"
A halfling boy raised his hand. "What they believe?"
"Correct. The best way to understand others is to discover what drives them. Take the Thoths for example. The Thoths are Woags but they no longer worship any Woaggish gods. They worship a concept they call Weißer Geist, `The White Spirit'. It is an accumulation of the spiritual essence of all things lived and yet to live. `Es ist der Wind und das Wasse', they say, `der Sand, die Sonne und der Boden. In allen Dingen lebt es und alle Dinge müssen sich ihm beugen'. Do any of you know what that means?"
"It is the wind and the water," translated Johanni, "the sand, the sun and the soil, it lives within all things, and to it, all things must bow."
Turki smiled at his new guest.
"...Indeed. If I understand that, then I can understand, for example, why the Thoths do not fear death. Who would fear death if it meant becoming one with a god? And if I understand, for another example, that the Thoths believe that once every hundred solstices the White Spirit choses a champion to shepherd its will, then I can also understand why the Thoths pick their leaders differently from us... I can understand what those leaders might mean to them... and more importantly, I can understand what it might take for those leaders to understand us."
Turki patted his robes. "But I think that's enough for today. Run along now, we'll pick up where we left off at noontide tomorrow. Go on! Away with you."
Curious and confused and excited, the young ones gathered together and scampered off, one after the other, to return to their lives (just a bit wiser than they were before). Eardwulf held the door for them. When they were all gone, scholar Turki sat upon his prayer mat and poured himself a cup of water from a clay gourd.
He held it aloft. "Water?"
"No thank you," said Johanni. "Perhaps a word instead."
Turki patted the rug. "Come join me then."
Humbly, Johanni and Eardwulf sat down.
"You can remove your hoods," said the scholar. "I know who you are, Hrathwuldsson. And I know what you've come for... Wulf's Blut."
When Johanni and Eardwulf pulled their hoods down they saw a small smile play upon the old man's lips – but there was a sense of wariness in him too. Turki paused a moment and looked to Johanni as Johanni and Eardwulf looked to him, his face curious and speculative. He held a thoughtful gaze for a moment then lowered his head, his smile relieved.
"My lord asked you a question," prompted Eardwulf.
"Indeed, he did," said Turki. "But I am a man of both instinct and intellect. I only needed a moment to allow my gut determine what my mind suspects."
"And what does your mind suspect?" Asked Johanni.
"...That you are a man of honour."
"It was five days ago," began Turki. "A warrior came to me seeking knowledge of an ancient power called Wulf's Blut. He said it endangered everything around me; my school, my students, the city, and the entire Salt Shore besides... and that he needed my help to unearth some sort of weakness. It was a strange request, but his earnestness frightened me, so I did what I could. I even requested permission to visit the librariums of Pearlstone... but after three days of research I found nothing. The warrior returned and paid me for my troubles, thanking me, and swearing to find a weakness "before it was too late". He then warned me... that someone from Drangheim may come looking for me... and then, two days later, half my students come to lessons, wide-eyed and breathless, with talk of a great parade... led by our Lady Kjarlla and King Hrathwuld's younger son, aetheling Johanni. I knew it was only a matter of time before you knocked on my door."
And yet another impasse thought Johanni. Not even the scholars have any insight into this power. "This warrior who came to you – what was his name?"
Turki frowned. "...Do you mean him harm?"
"Not if he means to destroy the Wulf's Blut, no."
"Very well. His name is Gnut," he said. "Gnut the Troll."
Johanni blinked. "W-what?!"
He had so much to think about. Bersi's assassin. Winning over Norsa. Winning over Bors (without marriage). His feelings toward Erik. His lack of feelings toward Eardwulf. His becoming king, his relationship with Ragnar, and his father's ill-heath... so many concerns fighting for dominance in his mind. But the moment he heard that name – Gnut the Troll – he was thrown back into the analogues of his comfortable childhood, his days at Ragnar's side (when the `Bloodbane' was still `the Fatherless') hearing tales of the Iron Circle and their exploits. `He was a stout fighter', his brother had said of Gnut, `short of arm of course, and perhaps a bit squat, but he was hardy soul and a fierce fighter'.
But he'd died.
The Iron Circle fought their last campaign in the Black Mountains in search of the legendary warhammer of Wo'ar, a relic fabled across all Grünlund. It was the one campaign Ragnar never spoke much of – because it led to the death of one of its members; the mace-wielding Gnut the Troll.
How is it possible that Gnut is alive? Thought Johanni. And that thought reoccurred repeatedly as he and Eardwulf followed Turki's directions across Kjarlling's dark reaches, through its piss-soaked alleys and shadowy backstreets all the way to Kingfisher's Crawl; hundreds of squalid claystone dwellings stacked into tenement rows within the poorest parts of the city. Whores and drunkards and miscreants seemed to ooze out of every crack and corner. Poor fishermen built fires in the streets to stave off the cold as their boy children hunted mice and stacked manure (dog, horse and human) into terracotta jars at the back of rickety wooden wagons.
Eardwulf kept a close hand to his hidden dagger. He led Johanni up a flight of sandy stone steps to a simple wooden door with the number `109' smeared upon it in red ochre. The Osserian did the tenant the curtesy of knocking first. When he did not get a reply? He put his boot to the grain. Its rusted iron lock broke off and the door swung inward by the hinge, banging off the wall. The noise drew the tenant out of his pallet; a gaunt, unshorn and short man of Arbarii birth. Johanni hadn't seen his face in nearly eight winters.
"It really is you..." whispered the boy, "...Gnut the Troll."
He held a hand over his eyes to block out the sudden glut of sunlight pouring into his lodgings, reaching out instinctively for the iron mace near his thigh, until Johanni pulled down his hood and revealed himself.
Gnut pulled a slow, drunken smile. "...I knew it. I knew ya'd come..."
Gnut had an old woven reed mat in his storage chest. He rolled it out for Johanni and Eardwulf to sit upon then fetched some water from the drinking gourd in the courtyard. He had no food to hand, only empty ale bottles and bowls full of fish bones (picked clean of every scrap). The aetheling gave the troll time to work off the vapours of a hard night's drinking and it took some time before he could piece together his sentences. But eventually (after brewing some herb tea off his small clay hearth) the fog of alcohol left him.
"Ya was only a child when I saw ya last," said Gnut. "Now look at ya. A man fully grown, almost. Ain't that a pie?"
Johanni smiled. His memories of Gnut were faint but he remembered well the mace-wielder's penchant for odd sayings. "I have so much to ask you," said the boy. "So much has happened. Ragnar told us all that you'd... you'd died."
Gnut frowned, nodding. "Aye, I bet he did."
"He lied to us."
"He had to," said Gnut. "But lord, that ain't why you're here."
Johanni nodded. The pieces of this puzzle were slowly coming together. Haakon Godwulfsson spoke of an `ancient power unearthed within the bowls of the Black Mountains' – Wulf's Blut – which Johanni now realized was the same mission that supposedly cost Gnut's life. But what was secret behind the secrecy? What was he missing?
It was then that Johanni decided to tell Gnut everything. Everything. Everything from his supposed "death" up to the current day. He explained how Ragnar returned home from the Black Mountains a changed man, how became High Legate of the Royal Legion and led the Pacification of the Osserians, how Haakon Godwulfsson was stripped of his title as thegn after killing the late Karggar chieftain, Gad Greyspear, before retreating to the Deepfjord. He detailed King Hrathwuld's failing health and explained how his father had sent him on this pilgrimage to all five corners of Grünlund for the support of the chieftains. He told Gnut about the raid on his caravan by Erik Halfspear's warband, about Ragnar marching the Legion into the Grey Wilds only for Erik to surrender; about the march into the Fens and bargaining with the Osserians, and then finally of the events at Haakon's Redoubt – and the monster that the Thoth warrior transformed into. It was an exhaustive tale.
Gnut sighed soberly.
"I've told you my side," said Johanni. "Now tell me yours. What happened in the Black Mountains all those winters ago? Why did Ragnar lie about your death? And by the gods, what is Wulf's Blut?"
Gnut's brow furrowed. "I got the answers ya seek but I promise ya won't like everything I've got to tell ya. Are ya still prepared to hear it? There ain't no turning back after this."
I am prepared, thought Johanni. "Tell me."
Gnut grunted fine but there was wariness in his cloudy eyes. "If you wanna understand what happened back then, ya gotta understand what made us what we was. The Iron Circle were a band o' outcasts. Ragnar were a bastard. He had everything in him to be a king but for his father's nightly deeds... and cruel loghs. Haakon was the son o' King Hrathwuld's thegn, Godwulf the Good, but he was a fishy cunt right from the outset, foul-tempered and bloodthirsty, and misliked for it at court. Trygga the Spear-Dancer was what her namesake suggested. The way she twirled, the way she cleaved... the shieldmaidens was groomin' her to be their next captain... but she wanted to do what no woman'd done before her... be a legate. And she was shunned for it. The Golden Brothers, Knossos and Kreim, now those two were destined to be thegns. right couple o' pretty boys, they was. But they was also the children of elvish slaves, long since perverted in the mind, and rumour had it that they favoured each other's company to that o' women... if ya get me meaning. And me? I were a poor fisherman's son raised right here in Kjarlling. Me father brought me up on tales o' the great Woaggish army, him serving as a boy of ten with nothing but a reaping hook and a butcher's knife to his name. All I ever wanted to do in me whole bloody life was go to Drangheim and follow in his footsteps; to kill elves and serve me king. But I'd no land or titles or wealth... and I were far too `squat' for the Legion, or so they told me. So, I was an outcast. We was outcasts. Ragnar the Fatherless, Haakon Godwulfsson, Trygga the Spear Dancer, Twinstroke Kreim and Swanstroke Knossos, and Gnut the stumpy little Troll. That's how we found each other... and that's what bound us to each other. No one may've wanted us. No one may've respected us. But we had each other. `All we do, we do as one', we used to say... that's how the Iron Circle was first forged... in that spirit."
Gnut sipped some more herb tea before he continued.
"Across three winters we rode to every corner of Grünlund in search of adventure. We fought in tourneys and tracked bandits, we whaled the northern seas and hunted hinds in ironwood forests. We outdid each great deed with an even greater one until we settled on one final feat before we returned to Drangheim. Ya see, Trygga won 100 golds and a map during a card game in Yveryth. It was a map of a secret trail into the eastern side o' the Black Mountains, where one o' the last surviving Beast Towers yet withstood. Legends tells it that Wo'ar were buried there by his followers, along with his warhammer – and what a prize that would've been. If I knew then what I know now I'd have burnt that bloody map in a fire... but all we saw were the promise o' glory, and so we went, six young fools on horseback. We rode for nine whole days and followed the trail into a valley in the eastern mounts where we happened upon a camp o' elf worshippers. Ragnar and Haakon wanted to fight. Kreim and Trygga cautioned against it, but Knossos and I sided against `em and we attacked. We made short work of `em, the filthy scum, but Ragnar made us keep one o' `em alive to give to Haakon to torture, and sure enough by moonrise he had the skinny little cock-gobbler singing. He said that him and his men went into the mountains in search of a secret power. He called it `Wulf's Blut' and he said they planned to use it to destroy Drangheim."
Just like in the Grey Wilds, thought Johanni. Those elf worshippers we defeated... I had almost forgotten...
"Ragnar is a bastard," continued Gnut. "Sometimes in both senses o' the word... but he'd fight to his last breath for his home. `We have to stop them', he'd said, `no matter what it takes'. He led us to the Beast Tower itself, looming large over the whole bloody mountain range, I'll never forget that sight. The fucking elf worshippers had it camped, around thirty o' `em, but we waited until nightfall then swept in and cut `em all down. I killed four o' `em on my own that day, and gods' tits, was I proud. We stole inside to the central chamber and that's when we saw it."
"Saw what?" Asked Eardwulf.
"A ritual," said Gnut. "Some sort o' priest working magic on top of an altar. An eye o' green light opened above his head and blood poured out o' it... Wulf's Blut. We didn't understand, we didn't know. I'd have stopped it all if I knew what was coming..."
"What happened?" Said Johanni.
"The sorcerer drank the Wulf's Blut... and turned into a monster. It grew twice a man's size with fangs and claws like razors, its skin glowing up like a torch at dusk. It swore it'd tear down the Palace of Drang and murder ya and ya father in ya sleep... and Ragnar went mad. He attacked the fucker but not even a steel sword forged by the greatest smiths in Grünlund could kill it, the blade bounced off his hide like an arrow off a crag. We ran to help him but none o' our weapons could hurt it – it was like its skin was made of solid rock. And then... it pinned Trygga."
Gnut paused for a moment.
"We all knew they was humping, her and Ragnar. It's hard to miss sharing a camp every night for three fucking winters... but when that monster dragged Trygga to the ground by its claws and gnashed its fucking teeth over her neck... I saw what we'd all failed to see. Ragnar loved her. A monster had her defenceless and no weapon we `ad could kill it. So, he did the only thing he could do to save the woman he loved..."
Oh no. A shiver went down Johanni's spine. "...You mean...?"
"Yea. Ragnar drank the Wulf's Blut."
Oh no! The boy shivered. Oh no! It couldn't be! He wouldn't have!
"He must've thought it was the only way. Mayhap he was right. And when he drank o' the Wulf's Blut, he became a monster far more powerful than the sorcerer. I watched Beast Ragnar break open its ribcage with his bare claws and tear its living guts out. And then he snarled at the night until he slowly returned to his human form. We was stunned. For the first time in me life I had no words... it was Haakon, only Haakon, who looked upon this with a smile. The damned northern fool told Ragnar he could use this power to protect Drangheim from elves and their worshippers and whoever else with balls enough to challenge its power, and that we'd finally be given the respect we deserved. I told Ragnar that that was nonsense and that we'd all be shunned as monsters if we used it. But Ragnar was so shocked by his own transformation that he just... stood there, muttering the same thing to himself over and over. `I am a monster,' he kept saying, `I am a monster?' and Trygga held him in her arms and said words that have haunted me ere since... she said `It is not for you to shoulder this burden alone... I too will drink'. And then it was just... pieces, tumbling down one after the other. Haakon, that bastard, I'll never forget that sneering grin of his, he turned to the Golden Brothers and asked them what they would choose. Try to understand, Knossos and Kreim were the children of Woag slaves, their parents' mind snapped by the perversity of their captors. Those two would've took any power that'd keep `em from ever falling into elvish hands. Kreim agreed first, then Knossos, and then I was alone. `All we do we do as one', Haakon said, twisting those noble words to his own horse-shitting ends. And one by one the other members drank of the Wulf's Blut... Trygga, Haakon, Knossos, Kreim... all except me. I watched them transform into these monstrous, hulking, hideous creatures... until Haakon turned to me... `Drink', he said, `Drink! We swore a vow! All we do, we do as one!'. But I... I couldn't. He was right... I did swear a vow... but I couldn't join `em in that folly, I just couldn't. So, I ran. I fled the Beast Tower. Haakon, that monster, he flew out and chased me into the snow drifts, sliced open me arm with his claws..."
Gnut folded up his tunic sleeve to show Johanni and Eardwulf the scar; a thin streak of brown tissue running up his arm from wrist to shoulder. "Luckily for me he weren't used to his new powers yet, and I got away. It weren't righteousness what kept me running `till me feet were bloody though. It were fear. It were cowardice. My cowardice broke the Iron Circle."
The Troll composed himself and rolled his sleeve back down.
"I couldn't go back to Drangheim knowing what I knew," he said. "I rode back to Kjarlling and made a hireling of myself, swearing to forget everything I'd seen... and I had done, at least until a few moons ago when Jarl Bersi returned from the Salt Isles. I had a friend on his ship, and this friend told me that not only had Thoth ships been sighted near Arbarii waters, but there was whispers off the deck that a silver-scaled monster, half-man and half-dragon, was seen flying over those ships."
Johanni clenched a fist. "...Haakon."
"Yea," said Gnut. "There ain't no doubt. Specially not after Bersi's death. I'd heard about Haakon's exile... and that Magnus Magnusson took him in as his own thegn. I knew it was him. And I knew, better than anyone, how much danger it put us in. So, I paid every bloody scholar and scrollkeeper I could find in this city to dredge up something that could give me an edge..."
"What did you discover?" Asked Johanni.
Gnut demurred. "...Lots was lost to time. The Old Woags wasn't so fond o' the written word. But what I do know? The ancients built the Beast Towers as a kind o' beacon to call on the spirits o' gods and animals. They used magical rituals to bind those spirits to a blood-coloured wine. And if a man drinks it, he becomes all three... animal, man, and god... a monster. It heightens ya strength, ya speed, it turns ya skin into an unbreakable armour and lures out the frankest part o' ya personality. It's what makes Haakon is so damned bloodthirsty, the Wulf's Blut feeds into that urge. The ancients created it to protect themselves from elves and Woags, but Wo'ar smashed most o' those Beast Towers before they had a chance to use them. It should've been left a dead legend... but now, thanks to me own folly, that dead legend's come back to life."
Johanni didn't realize he was shaking until Eardwulf held his hand. That was when he caught himself. The boy quickly drew his hand out of the thrall's grasp and placed his palms in his lap to stop the trembling, but his shoulders were shaking too. How is this possible? He thought. My brother... my protector... my blood. How is it possible that he shares the same evil power as Haakon Godwulfsson? Oh Ragnar... how could you keep this from me? Why couldn't I see?
"A w-weakness," muttered Johanni. "...Did you find one?"
Gnut frowned. "...What if there was? What would you do with it?"
Johanni's body stiffened, even as the tremors refused to abate. Eardwulf asked him if he was well. The boy lowered his head. How right Gnut was. He wasn't ready to hear this.
"Would you use it to kill your brother?"
Johanni blinked. "W-what?!"
"Ya'in open dispute for the crown," said Gnut. "Say ya can't sway Lord Bors or Magnus Magnusson. What then? Do ya use what I tell ya to kill ya kin?"
Eardwulf sneered. "You retain loyalty to the Bloodbane even now?"
"I knew `the Bloodbane' before he was `the Bloodbane', thrall. Ragnar was a victim of circumstance, he didn't seek out that power. I scarpered `cause I saw Wulf's Blut for what it was – a curse. Me goal's to free Ragnar and the Golden Brothers from that curse `fore it consumes `em all, no matter how much they may end up hatin' me for it. I don't wish to kill `em."
"What of Haakon?" Asked the aetheling.
Gnut sighed. "...Haakon Godwulfsson ain't like the rest. He's completely drunk on Wulf's Blut, there's no saving him now. But that's another matter. So, I'll ask ya again. If there was a weakness... would ya use it to kill ya brother?"
Johanni re-pictured the ruins he saw in the Fens. He thought of what was left of the Osserian people, forced to hide themselves in crypts for solstices. He thought of Norsa Hardfang and all the damage done to her by that war. But most of all he thought of the man next to him, Eardwulf, the thegn-turned-thrall, and how much he had suffered these past six winters.
Still trembling, Johanni balled his fists in his lap.
"It is not my intention to kill Ragnar," he said. "For all he has done... despite all the misery he left in his wake... I love my brother. I would never wish to kill him. But I cannot ignore that misery. I won't. When I become king, I shall hold an inquest into the events five winters ago. Ragnar Hrathwuldsson will be tried before gods and men... and execution is not a penalty I will exclude."
Gnut's demeanour shifted. Growling low, the man they once called `the Troll' climbed onto his feet. "Out o' loyalty to ya brother I'll end this conversation here. Whatever new information ya've gleaned ya may do with as ya please. But beyond that, I won't help ya."
"What?!" Johanni stood up. "What about Haakon?! I watched that butcher EAT my companion alive! He must be defeated!"
Gnut grunted yes. "He will be. I'll deal with Haakon me-self when the time is right. Now leave, I won't tell ya twice."
For perhaps the first time in his life Johanni felt true fury. He wept tears for this man. When Ragnar came home from the Black Mountains, visibly drained, cold and distant; he said that Gnut died nobly in battle with `elf worshipping scum'. The court may not have favoured him, but common people sung songs for him in the taverns, they drank toasts to his memory, and wished him well on his journey to the Hallowed Plane. But here he was alive... and he was a coward. Suddenly Johanni shook with rage, not fear, and moved to launch his fist into Gnut's face, but Eardwulf grabbed his shoulder before he started something the thrall would have to finish.
"Stop," he said. "Let us withdraw for now, he won't change his mind."
They sat to a yard-long silver platter of smoked herring, black bread slices, cheese wheels, grapes and pears in Erik Halfspear's chambers; Johanni, Erik, Frodi and Norsa Hardfang. She and Johanni hadn't much of an appetite but they left the others to eat as hungrily as they could whilst they poured themselves goblets of red wine from their shared ewer. As ever Eardwulf stood guard by the door, arms folded, watchful and attentive to the conversation even as it ignored his existence. It was a pity. Although Johanni valued Eardwulf's counsel he couldn't offend Norsa by giving him a voice. Having him stand by the inside of the door (rather the other) was the only other trade off.
Johanni drank in silence as the others shared their exploits of the day; Erik sitting to drink after meal after drink with Bors, Frodi testing his bow arm in one of the city galleries. Gnut's revelations left him with much to say and even more to think about – and he couldn't stop thinking of Ragnar. Was he merely a `victim of circumstance' as Gnut put it? The aetheling could not say. All he could do was question. Why didn't he tell me? Is this why he went so far in the Fens? Has he ever used this power? What did he intend for it? What does this mean for my rule?
"Everyone," the boy frowned. "I must speak."
He told them everything.
About Kjarlla and Thorvald and Bersi's assassin, about going to Pearlstone's librariums and meeting with Turki in Kjarlling, and then finally about Gnut the Troll and the Iron Circle's dark compact with the Wulf's Blut; the secret ritual of the ancients that made monsters of men.
"You shouldn't've gone into the city alone," said Erik Halfspear, the first amongst them to scold him. He glared angrily at Eardwulf. "And you should've taken an armed guard."
Eardwulf glared back mutely, but if glares were words he was screaming.
"Do not blame him," said Johanni. "It was my doing."
Norsa, fist in hand, sneered. For the first time since coming to the Salt Shore she had surrendered her Osserian scale armour for an Arbarii tunic – but somehow her scarred, muscular frame fitted it well. "The same fucking power as Haakon flowing through the Bloodbane's soul... monstrous bastards. They deserve each other."
Despite everything Johanni bristled at her words.
Norsa threw a cold eye his way. "If this is true then we need Gnut's secret. We can't bring the Bloodbane to justice without it."
"I know that," said the boy, "but right this minute there are other concerns."
"Not for me," she spat back.
Johanni and Norsa frowned at one and other.
"He's right," Frodi said this as he picked the herring bones out of his teeth with his fingernail. "Haakon fled to the Deepfjord when the Impannis exiled him for killing Gad Greyspear. He's Magnus Magnusson's thegn now. Do you think he kept his powers to himself?"
Erik mused. "You think he told Magnusson about it?"
"Wouldn't you? If you were a Thoth and you'd spent your whole life in service to an Impanni chieftain and then you suddenly showed up at the Hoarfrost Throne looking for refuge – would you expect to be trusted? Or would you give Magnusson a reason to trust you, a reason he couldn't refuse? Maybe Haakon bargained with Magnus Magnusson for the Wulf's Blut."
Johanni thought back to the altar that the Thoths constructed in the ruins beneath Haakon's Redoubt. It was identical to the one the Elf Worshippers used in their own Wulf's Blut ritual back in the Grey Wilds. Frodi was right. There was little doubt that Magnus Magnusson now knew of the Wulf's Blut.
He sighed. "I'll raise all of this with Magnusson when we finally meet."
Erik, Norsa, Frodi and even Eardwulf turned to the boy, stunned, as that statement left his lips.
"You cannot be serious," said the Halfspear. "Think on all we know so far – Haakon building a fortress over the Beast Tower in the Fens, having Sygardi kidnapped, Jarl Bersi's death – everything points to Magnus Magnusson and the Thoths. They're plotting something. Going to the Deepfjord now is just delivering them a hostage."
Johanni frowned. It bit him a bit that Erik did not support him but when he looked around the room he saw nothing but opposition on their faces. He asked Frodi what he thought.
"Erik is right," he said.
So, Johanni asked Norsa for her opinion.
She scoffed. "I didn't join this host just to surrender your pampered arse to a Thoth gaol. The Halfspear has the right of it, for once."
There was no point in asking Eardwulf what he thought, the answer was obvious. When he looked over his shoulder at the Osserian swordsman he saw only a reluctant nod. All of them were against him on this point. But how was he to win his crown if he couldn't collect the final chieftain's approval?
"If you all feel like this, then..." the boy sighed, "...then we'll re-think how we proceed with the Thoth chieftain after we win Lord Bors' support. For the time being let's focus on Bersi's assassin. Frodi, take a few men into the city tomorrow and seek out his ship's crew – maybe there's something more they can tell us. I'll send a pigeon to Scraefling Isle and ask Halfdan to rally the legionary garrison. And then Erik, Norsa and I will pay Gnut the Troll another visit."
Frodi chuckled. "He's already said no, lord."
"I won't be asking nicely this time," said Johanni. "All of us should get some rest now. I suspect tomorrow will be a long day."
That much was certain. Agreeing, Norsa and Frodi hauled themselves onto their feet and lumbered out of Erik's chambers one after the other. The Halfspear poured himself another cup of wine from the ewer then made his way over to his feathered bed and climbed on top. Johanni half expected him to throw a lusty look his way, `come to my room tonight' being the implication. Instead Erik pulled out a sheaf of parchment, a wet ink jar, and a quill. Though his lettering was poorly formed he began writing a letter – undoubtedly to Sygardi and Olaf Greyspear – informing them of events thus far.
More and more the chieftain each day, thought Johanni. He did not inquire further. Instead he called Eardwulf to his side and left Erik's chambers quietly. He would return later when the moon was high. For now, he walked with his protector down the hallways of Pearlstone until they came upon a quiet arched alcove, out of the way of prying eyes and ears. He asked Eardwulf to hold.
Johanni drew Eardwulf into the alcove with him. No guards stood on either end of the corridor and no thralls passed them by. The hallway was hushed enough to speak privately. "Eardwulf, I've been meaning to talk with you properly for days but there has been so little time. I don't think it can wait any longer."
Johanni realized he'd chosen his words poorly when the Osserian's eyes lit up with hope. A strong, calloused hand slipped up the bare flesh of the boy's arm, already tanning into a pale bronze beneath the coastal sun. Trembling at the tenderness, Johanni pushed his hand away.
"You mistake my meaning," said Johanni. "I wanted to apologize for dismissing you during the talks with Harwald. That was wrong of me. I see that. I will atone for that. Eardwulf, I care for you. No one, not even my brother, understands me the way you do. I could not have come this far without you. You are not merely my shield or my counsel, you are my friend, and a dear one at that, but... that is all we ever can be. My heart is... no longer my own to give."
Johanni watched the hope evaporate from the Osserian's eyes. It hurt his own heart like the jut of a blade. I'm so tired of hurting him, thought the boy. But then that palpable heartbreak billowed away, and a darker emotion took its place. Anger. Eardwulf clutched his gloved hands into shaking fists; his eyes sharpening, his brow furrowing, it was almost terrifying.
"The Halfspear?!" Roaring, Eardwulf drove his gauntlet into the wall and cracked open the fragile marble fresco beneath it. "The FUCKING Halfspear!"
Johanni shivered. He'd never known the thrall to swear. He'd never known him to even raise his voice. "Eardwulf, hear me. You will always have a place at my side. When I become king and I tear up your deeds, I shall need a thegn... and I can think of no one better than you. You would have a great hall and wealth, land and livestock, titles..."
"But not your heart..."
Johanni looked away, "...No. I'm sorry."
Eardwulf dragged his fist out of the wall. His gauntlet was split open, its leather and iron plates hanging by the stitches, his knuckles bloody. A crimson smear befouled the fist-shaped crack in the mural.
"Eardwulf, I..." the boy sighed. "...Take the night for yourself. Go into the city, enjoy the taverns, the music. Do not trouble yourself to-"
"You're dismissing me again?" Said Eardwulf, his smile wry.
"No, of course not, I just..."
The thrall pulled his broken gauntlet off and shook the blood from his hand. Thick black droplets splattered over the marble floor as he turned heel and slowly stalked away. It was in Johanni's mind to go after him – but what could he say? What could he possibly do to make up for this? It wasn't in his hands anymore. He saw Eardwulf disappear beyond the bend of the corridor before quietly returning to his own chambers down the hall.
As ever they were readily freshened and tidy, his bed made, his sword polished, his ewer full, his chamber pot empty. Everything was in place – but there was an addition.
The Arbarii noblewoman sat upon the edge of his bed in another shimmering sunflower yellow dress and sequinned slippers. She carried the free woman's seax from a leather garter wrapped around her right thigh.
"Lady Kjarlla," he said.
Her glare was blank. "Have you found Jarl Bersi's real killer yet?"
He was beginning to think this day would never end. Tiredly, he shut his chamber door and sat upon the other side of the bed. He thought of her husband Thorvald withering away below their feet in Pearlstone's dungeons. This wasn't about him.
"I am sorry," he said. "I will not lie, I have spent most of the day seeing to my own affairs in the Salt Shore, but I promise you, the hunt for Bersi's assassin begins in earnest tomorrow. My closest followers are at work."
"I hope so," said Kjarlla. "Do not misunderstand my haste, lord, but I... I fear for my husband. Every moment he spends locked away in that wretched gaol is another piece of my marriage I shall never get back. I miss him so much..."
Johanni eased somewhat. "I understand."
"I did not want to marry him at first," she said. "But when your father arranged it, I objected to none but myself. I knew my duty. I knew that peace between the Arbariis and the Thoths depended on it. I never expected to fall in love with him."
Johanni watched Kjarlla's sweet hazel eyes wander off into a private, blissful memory. "He gets this little twinkle in his eye when he talks of trade of all things. I've never known a kinder man. There's a kind of magic in love, Johanni. You'll start to feel it too soon enough."
Johanni paused. "W-what do you mean?"
"In this world love is the only game men allow women to play, so we learn it well. I can read the signs. You and Erik Halfspear," she smiled. "It couldn't be clearer between the two of you. I saw the way you looked at each other at the banquet. He looks at you the way Thorvald looks at me. Perhaps he doesn't understand the depths of his feelings yet, but... they're there."
Could I... could we be so easy to read? Like before in Gnut's hovel, Johanni's limbs started shaking. His heart thumped in his chest. Sensing his unease, Kjarlla palmed the boy's shoulder.
"Settle yourself," she said.
He eyed her. "...You don't disapprove? You aren't disgusted by it?"
"I can't pretend to understand it, but love makes for an undeniable sight when seen. We do not choose love, love chooses us."
"...My father would not gather that, I think."
Kjarlla nodded. "Indeed. The elves were rapacious lovers, partaking in every form of sexual pleasure imaginable. Their enslavement of our people left an ugly scent around their customs and this, unfortunately, is one of them. I don't share that disgust, Johanni, but I will say this – as king you will be expected to marry and sire heirs. You are free to love who you wish but consider that your future queen might deserve more than life as an unloved broodmare."
Bersi's assassin, he thought. Ragnar's secret. Gnut's reluctance. Eardwulf's anger. And now this... yet another burden to shoulder. He needed some air. Johanni walked out of his room onto the balcony overlooking the vast city of Kjarlling. The streets were dark but lit in flickers by lanterns and torchlight. Off in the northern distance he watched the dark waves of the Salt Sea crashing against the beaches and piers and ports. A few moments later Kjarlla joined him by the balustrade. She draped a shawl around her shoulders to fend off the cold night air.
"Have I offended you?" She asked.
"No," replied the boy. "You've said nothing untrue or unkind. It's just... I never considered how many concerns and responsibilities come with kingship."
"You seem like you would be a thoughtful ruler, lord. If you cannot reconcile with King Hrathwuld's loghs then you must change them. Following in his footsteps does not mean being who he wants you to be."
What did his father want him to be? A kind ruler? Perhaps. A strong one? In certain ways. A wise one? Unquestionably. But was it wise to bed the Karggar chieftain like a doting fishwife? Would it be wise to put Ragnar on trial and risk alienating the Royal Legion, the backbone of Drangheim's power? Was it wise not to try him and break his oaths to Norsa and Harwald – and then who would believe in his word if he himself betrayed it?
Johanni exhaled a deep breath.
"It won't be a queen I shall need when I become king, it will be wine... by the barrel. Wait here, Kjarlla, I'll fetch the ewer."
He walked back into his chambers.
But the second he stepped over the threshold, he felt that something was wrong. It was like a feeling in the air, an `off-ness'. The boy stopped where he was and looked around. The room was the same, nothing disturbed. Besides the embers snapping in the hearth or the howl of the chill winds, all was silent. Too silent. The silence continued until the very second Johanni began to think he was being paranoid, and then, just as he went for the wine ewer, the woven reed doors behind him suddenly snapped shut. Johanni turned back to open them but they would not budge. Try as he might he couldn't open them!
"What is this?!" He said. "Magic?"
The room grew cold.
Beyond the reed doors Johanni heard Kjarlla yelling but from the other side it sounded like muffled babble. The sudden chill down his back made him turn around and as he did he saw a small black dot atop the cold marble floor. That dot grew larger and larger until it was the size of a puddle, and from it arose a thick black ooze in the shape of a hooded man, climbing out of his own shadow which dripped off his cloak like droplets of tar, burning the marble beneath their feet. The hooded man pulled a curved dagger from his sleeve.
"Wretched Hrathwuldsson," his voice smouldered like coal. "Let it fall to me to end your meddling once and for all, boy..."
Johanni went for his sword. The second he moved the hooded man crushed his free hand into a fist and a gaseous grey powder plumed up from it like a cloud. The fumes enveloped the boy, going from foot to shin to knee to waist to chest to chin to nose and the second he breathed it in was the second his body betrayed him. Johanni fell to his knees when his fingers were just inches from his sword's hilt.
I can't move! His whole body was paralysed. I can't move!
It was like his limbs were bound to his body by rope – as though the link between his thoughts and his body were severed. He could not move an inch in any direction no matter how he squirmed. The assassin walked through the clouds, immune to his own magics, and drew his dagger into the air.
A single slippered foot crashed open the threshold doors from without. The hooded man froze. The grey clouds began to dissipate as the cold night winds sucked them out into the open balcony and Kjarlla ran inside, seax unsheathed.
"No," seethed the assassin, "No!"
As the paralysing powder clouds ebbed, Johanni felt a tingle of sensation return to his arms. He couldn't move – but he could grab a bundle of the assassin's cloak as he bolted for Kjarlla. The sudden jerk pulled his hood down. And Kjarlla's eyes shot open as realized who he was beneath it.
"You?!" she whispered. "But why?"
Growling, the assassin shoved her out of the way and ran frantically towards the balustrade. He set a foot to it and hurled himself into the air as his cloak's russet shroud enveloped his plummeting body and burst forth into a squawking flock of ebon-black ravens flapping off into the night. A now empty cloak floated down into the city. And as the last of the paralysis clouds abated Johanni fell from its clutches and his numb body collapsed onto the marble. Kjarlla sheathed her seax to help him up. It was bloody at the tip, she'd cut him just as he'd pushed past her. But...
"Who is he?" Asked Johanni, tiredly. "Who's the assassin?"
Kjarlla looked stunned. "...One-Eyed Wulfstan..."
The morning sun bore down upon Kjarlling as twenty horsed Karggar spearmen rode through its streets. Their horses whickering, their looted oddments (Impanni spears and half-helms, Osserian longswords and ironwood round shields painted over with the Karggar wolf totem) rattling noisily as hundreds of townsfolk watched them pass by. Johanni Carian Hrathwuld (now clad in the white-gold tabard and hoary laminar plate cuirass of the Royal Legion) rode at the head of this guard, alongside the Karggar chieftain Erik Halfspear (steel broadsword strapped to his back) and his loyal friend and advisor Frodi the Archer (with his yew tree longbow and a full quiver), the Osserian thegn Norsa Hardfang (hafting and throwing axes clattering around her leather belt) atop her black-backed stallion. The horses trundled through Kingfisher's Crawl.
Erik, reins bunched in his hands beneath his fur-trimmed russet cloak, leaned towards Johanni and his white mare. "There's been no sign of Eardwulf since last moon, little lord. Do you want to send some men to search for him?"
Johanni frowned privately. Just hearing his name reminded the boy of how badly he'd hurt the Osserian. His mind could not un-see Eardwulf's crestfallen eyes and bloodied knuckles. Though it haunted him remembering it, he couldn't lose sight of the task at hand.
"There is no time to wait for him we must do this now," said the boy. When he spotted the tenement building, he pointed it out to the others. "There!"
Erik nodded. "Let's go."
Frodi held up a hand. The twenty Karggar horsemen behind him came to a stop as Johanni, Erik Halfspear and Norsa Hardfang all dismounted. The three of them crossed the cobbles to the scuffed sandy steps and scaled them all the way to Gnut's rickety door. Norsa's `knock' was unpleasant – and this time the gnarled Troll emerged from his hovel sober, frowning at the reception at his door.
"What's this?" He said. "Here to arrest me?"
Johanni stepped forward. "Last night an attempt on my life was made by the Arbarii court sorcerer One-Eyed Wulfstan. He is one who assassinated Jarl Bersi, we suspect to provoke Lord Bors into killing Thorvald Tyrfingsson. In a few hours we will sail to his Salt Isle, Kolskegg's Crag, to arrest him."
Gnut stone-faced them. "Well I wish ya good fortune in that."
Johanni gripped his sword's hilt. "Do not jape. You know as well as I do that there are Beast Tower ruins on Kolskegg's Crag. Magnus Magnusson clearly has designs on the Wulf's Blut and One-Eyed Wulfstan is clearly in his employ, along with Haakon Godwulfsson. There is a plot at the heart of this. Now, last time I was here you spoke of a weakness in the Wulf's Blut. If you don't share that secret, then you imperil all Grünlund – and as my father's heir I will not abide by that. Now SPEAK. Tell us what you know."
Gnut smiled. "Ragnar was right. There is strength inside you."
The Troll withdrew from the threshold. "I got it off a scroll trader who winters in the Golden Empire. It were written in the old Woaggish runes but after a few hundreds of golds I got it translated. It told o' a special resin that stops `em from turning when it gets into the blood."
Gnut shook his head. "No. It only lasts about half-an-hourglass. After that the Wulf's Blut burns out the resin so you gotta kill `em beforehand. It's the only way I know."
Gnut went to his goods chest. There was a set of worn armour inside; plated leather gauntlets, a beaten steal breastplate embossed with the Arbarii crab totem, a pair of greaves, and a half-helm plumed with horse hair. Beneath all of this was a bow-shaped wood and iron contraption, a kind of miniature handheld ballista.
"What is that?" Asked Norsa.
"It's called a crossbow," said Gnut. "Its quarrels can kill an armoured man within thirty metres o' me and each one is coated in the resin. I were saving this for Haakon."
Gnut put the crossbow down then withdrew his old armour from the goods chest and piece by piece he began strapping it on.
"What are you doing?" Spat Norsa.
"Coming with ya," said Gnut. "The secret o' the resin stays with me – but I will help ya. I have debts that I owe and it's time I paid `em."
Johanni watched frothing white waves crush through the sparkling sapphire waters of the Salt Sea from the prow of Lady Kjarlla's dragon-headed longship, the Krake. Since Johanni had no ship of his own and it would be days before Halfdan returned from Scraefling Isle with refreshed legionary troops, the noblewoman loaned it to him for the excursion to Kolskegg's Crag. It was a 55-foot clinker build, designed by its shipwrights for the swift transportation of soldiers from the Salt Shore to the Salt Isles. The Krake came with an experienced crew of forty oarsman and one cox, sturdy rigging, and a massive 40-foot sail bearing the Arbarii crab totem in glorious crimson and gold. With the aid of a strong northern wind the Krake was almost skating over the seas. Over his shoulder, the city of Kjarlling and all its ports, spires and bell towers became an anomalous black shape in a distant panorama of land. Ahead of him? Nothing but open sea.
As an Impanni, Johanni was more partial to riding than sailing, but it was an exhilarating thrill to sail through those waters at speed. If not for recent events he might have allowed himself to enjoy it. As he gazed out into the distant northern sea Erik Halfspear made his way up the ship to stand with him. The Krake sailed so swiftly that he grabbed the forestay to steady himself.
"First time I've been on a ship," said the Halfspear.
"It's a passing thrill," said Johanni.
Erik drew closer. "Are you alright?"
He wasn't sure. So much had happened in such a short amount of time. It was like his mind barely had time to cope with one crisis before another one struck. And truth be told he felt nervous without Eardwulf at his side. It felt like walking toward battle with an empty scabbard. "I'm only tired, Erik. Nothing more."
"Johanni, someone tried to kill you last night," the Karggar scowled thinking about it. "When I get my fucking hands on that one-eyed bastard..."
There was a long line on that score. As soon as Wulfstan escaped that night, Kjarlla had the halflings sound the bells across the entire palace and ordered her guards to surround the sorcerer's quarters but he'd already abandoned them. All his scrolls, documents, tomes, tonics and herbs were gone. Regardless he accompanied Kjarlla to Lord Bors as she professed everything to him and demanded Thorvald's release from the dungeons. But the Arbarii chieftain remained shrewd and said that he could not release Thorvald until One-Eyed Wulfstan was `captured and brought back to Pearlstone for questioning'. Sensing an opportunity to ingratiate himself, Johanni offered his services to that end and requested a mere ship to ferry him to Kolskegg's Crag. Kjarlla immediately offered him a snekkja from her own personal fleet, the newly re-rigged Krake.
With the Crag only ten miles northeast of Kjarlling, it wasn't long before its rocky hillocks bore up on the horizon. The cox roared for the men to ease as they gradually pulled close enough to beach upon the shoreline. Johanni, Erik, Norsa, Frodi and Gnut leapt off at the prow as the ship's crew began securing its moorings.
Kolskegg's Crag was a grim island, no wider than a mile in either direction. Sixty paces ahead there was a dirt road joining the beach to its `inland', a foggy patchwork of rocky outcroppings, dense bushes and fly-infested marshes. At the highest point of the isle where the land rose into a steep mound visible from all its compass points, stood a small logwood hall ringfenced by piles of slag and roofed with thatch. According to Kjarlla, that was One-Eyed Wulfstan's dwelling.
Johanni led the way and the others followed.
The pathway to Wulfstan's manse was ragged, and further inland, muddy. It made a trudge of what should have been a quiet trek. Johanni waded through mud and peat carefully, lest he lose his step. Gnut ambled up and joined him. It went as deep as his knees and yet he moved comfortably (almost smugly) ahead.
"Where's your Osserian?" He asked.
Johanni looked down at him. "...He needs rest. I'm happy to allow it."
"Ya a shit liar," said Gnut. His crossbow and mace rattled behind his back. His belt was stitched full of pouches and each one carried ten quarrels. "Ya thinking about ya brother I expect. That's why ya face looks so fucking grim. It don't suit ya."
Sighing, Johanni spoke low so as not to be heard by Norsa, who walked ten paces behind them with Frodi. "He is my brother. I thought we shared everything. I do not understand how he could keep something like this from me."
"They might've killed him if he didn't," said Gnut. "See it thus-ways, boy. From the day your mother first whelped ya, the court saw Ragnar as nowt more than the by-blow o' an illicit affair. Me, Trygga, Haakon, the Golden Brothers? We was his only real friends. He supped the Wulf's Blut to guard us from a nightmare o' our own making. I suppose, once ya grew, he didn't wish for ya to see the monster he'd become."
Johanni frowned, silently.
"Will ya help me free him from this curse?" asked the Troll.
The boy glanced over his shoulder at Norsa again as she ambled up the muddy slope of the hillock, axes slapping against her thighs. She was as unfussed with the terrain as Gnut – having spent a quarter of her life hiding in forests from legionary soldiers. He made a pledge to help her in her quest for justice, did he not? Was there a way to help both Norsa and Ragnar? He asked himself that as the party moved through an inner thicket of woodland. It was sparse and thorny, and at its edge was an acre of cleared grassland with half a dozen wattle-and-daub houses spread out around it, along with empty livestock paddocks, a stable, a kiln, and a dry well. The village was abandoned.
The Halfspear grimaced. "This is where Wulfstan's tenants lived?"
"And they've cleared out," said Norsa. "The bastard knew we were coming."
On the other side of the village was the knoll atop of which was Wulfstan's manse. Around the rim of that hillock in the squat shadow of the slag piles ringed around the summit, there was a second dirt trail winding around to a cave mouth. Outside of it, there were dozens of empty iron cages and almost hundreds of open shackles and chains piled together into a gigantic iron cairn. Like the village, the iron cages were empty, marred by blood smears and thousands upon thousand of fowl bones and feathers rotting away into mulch.
"Gods a'mercy, what the hell was happening here?" Said Frodi.
Johanni picked up a dead torch from a nearby brazier.
"Let's find out," he said.
They followed the second trail to the cave mouth. An iron bar gate guarded the dark tunnel within. It was locked tight so Erik and Norsa took turns putting their boots to it, kick after kick, until its broke loose from the hinges and collapsed into the sandy ground. Gnut collected some flint and struck a light to Johanni's torch as Erik unsheathed his greatsword and warned them all to draw their own weapons. Steel and leather sucked free as Norsa pulled her hafting axe, Gnut drew his mace, Frodi nocked an arrow and Johanni unsheathed his sword short.
Erik advanced at Johanni's side.
The sloping tunnel, carved out of rock and soil, was only a few yards long and ended with a wooden door (which Erik kicked in) leading to a stone chamber. It was dark, but the walls were lined with whalebone sconces that Johanni lit one by one. The added flames revealed rows of worktables and cauldrons, ink jars and quills, scattered parchment and scrolls, glass jars of tonic, bottled herbs and resins, pouches of fine powder, whole racks full of embalming tools, and many dozens of structural sketches of plinths, daises and stacked constructs analogous to the ritual altars of the Beast Towers. One of them was identical to the one they found beneath Haakon's Redoubt. Further along the paved floor there was a pit. Erik called the others over to look at it; two yards wide and six yards deep, its walls completely smooth. If you fell inside, you wouldn't come back without help.
Frodi gazed over the edge and saw something white at the bottom – like snow or salt. He asked Johanni to bring the torch a bit closer. When he did, and they both got a better look, they realized it was neither snow nor salt. The bottom of the pit was filled with bones. Thousands of pale white bones picked clean and sucked free of their marrow – thighbones, hipbones, anklebones, shoulder blades, kneecaps, rib cages, skulls...
"By the gods," whispered Gnut. "It's a feeding pit."
"A feeding pit for what?" Questioned Norsa.
And then they heard the screams.
Johanni, Erik, Gnut, Norsa, and Frodi turned to a second door on the other side of the stone chamber. The tormented wails scratched out from behind it. Erik snatched the torch out of Johanni's hands and ordered the boy to stand behind him as he advanced.
"Frodi, get the door," he said.
Arrow still nocked, the archer booted it open and the others followed him in. But no sight heretofore seen could have prepared them for what was on the other side.
There were monsters in the dark.
Hundreds of them.
Twisting, snarling, shrieking.
Teeth gnashing, claws snapping and scraping, their pitch-black muscled hides slick with sweat and soot. Like smouldering coals their eyes glowed red in the dark, eyes so hot their tears turned to steam in their sockets. A hundred snorting snouts smoked with sulphur as cloven feet scraped at the sweat-soaked flagstones and ethereal screams belted out of their throats in naked rage, ferocious with hate. All of them were chained by their hands and feet to the walls of an enormous underground dome stinking to its ceiling with shit and blood and piss.
Erik was speechless. Frodi's jaw slackened. Johanni almost brought up his breakfast – if for nothing else but the smell. Even Norsa was wide eyed with fright. Only Gnut, swapping his mace for his crossbow, it was only he who did not flinch. He advanced to within a yard of one of them – and it snarled at him like a starved dog. Gnut inspected its ears. They were clubbed.
"These creatures weren't human," said the Troll. "They were halflings."
"Correct!" Said One-Eyed Wulfstan.
Everyone turned to him. He stood smirking by an open door across the room, slowly clapping his hands. There were cotton wrappings around his wrist where Kjarlla had cut him with her seax.
"You bastard!" Spat Erik. "Did you do this?!"
There were sixty whalebone sconces around them. With a single snap of his fingers, One-Eyed Wulfstan lit them all up in pale green fire. His hundred creatures all snarled in ravenous disconcert at the sudden emerald glow that overtook the dome. Their `guests' now saw their creator smirking darkly in the torchlight.
"Brilliant, I think. A townswoman or two might be missed no matter where she comes from. But a hundred worthless halflings bought on the cheap in the slave markets? Who would care? Who did?"
Johanni could barely breathe with the shock. "What... have you... done?!"
"I've unearthed the hidden wisdom of the ancients too long suppressed by pious cowards. What you see before you, unfortunately, is only an... approximation of the true Wulf's Blut. I call them beastlings. Unlike Haakon, these black beauties' skins are un-armoured, they do not retain their human mentality, and they cannot return to their human forms. But they still possess the strength, speed and savagery of their progenitive font."
"To what end?!" Yelled Johanni. "Why would you subject these poor souls to such torture!"
Wulfstan's smile fell. "No one has the authority to deny mankind access to such power, not even your father. Your soul might be too shallow to see it but make no mistake – a new world is coming, one that shall be shaped by Magnus Magnusson – and my creations will be the foot soldiers in the war that shall birth it."
"I've heard enough," spat Erik. "You're coming back to Pearlstone to answer for your crimes, Wulfstan!"
The sorcerer smirked at the chieftain.
"No," he said, raising his fingers, "I won't."
Wulfstan snapped them.
And then, in unison, every single shackle and ankle cuff in that stinking stone dome unlocked themselves and all hundred of the beastlings leapt free. One-Eyed Wulfstan ran laughing through the rear door. As the beastlings swarmed around them Gnut screamed "RUN!" and everyone bolted for their lives towards the opposite door. Erik and Norsa charged ahead. The first beastling to attack met the latter's throwing axe with its brow, splitting its skull open mid-air. Erik repelled a second's swinging claws with the flat of his sword before wheeling left and cutting its belly, splitting open its abdomen as its slopping guts spilled out over the flagstones. Johanni, Frodi and Gnut followed the path Erik and Norsa cut through the throng as half of the beastling horde pounced ravenously upon their dead sibling's corpses and began to feast. The others followed them to the opposing door. Erik ran through, as did Johanni, then Gnut, then Frodi. All that was left was...
"Norsa!" Yelled Erik. "What the fuck are you doing!?"
She stood her ground, swinging her axe at monster after monster, taking an arm or a leg or a snout or a claw until another beastling pounced at her blind spot and slashed open her scale mail. Three bloody welts spat blood streaks across her boots and abdomen as she doubled over, gritting her teeth. A second beastling, bounding towards her on all fours, leapt out only to be blown back by one of Frodi's arrows plunging into its blood red eye. He loosened more shafts to stave off the throng as Gnut and Erik dragged the Osserian back to the hallway and Johanni slammed the iron door shut.
"Are you alright?" Asked Johanni.
"Are you insane?!" Asked Erik. "You thought you could kill them all on your own, you fucking idiot!?"
Norsa pulled a bloody grin but said nothing.
The beastlings banged into the door from the other side. They would break their own skulls open just to get through. Fortunately, there was a wooden beam resting by the left wall. Gnut helped Frodi lower it onto two iron rungs to bar the door. "Go," said the archer. "I'll stay here with Norsa. Go, before Wulfstan gets away."
Wulfstan! Thought Johanni. Past the hall was a flight of stone steps. Johanni clutched his sword and ran after him, followed by Gnut and then Erik, who ordered Frodi to watch after Norsa. The three of them ran up the sandy stone steps to a second cave mouth. It led to the other side of the mound where the dirt trail resumed and declined down the slope of the hillock, through the forest and towards the beaches surrounding the isle. Johanni eyed his environs. And then, past the brushwood, Johanni spotted a shadow running down that slope.
"There!" He yelled.
Gnut loosed a quarrel into the bush.
A scream sounded out. Johanni, Erik and Gnut went after him and as they got to the edge of the slope they saw the sorcerer rolling down it, falling through clouds of dust and grass and pebbles until he skidded out through a thicket of bush and slammed against a rock behind it. Johanni jogged down the slope following the trail that the sorcerer's body cut through the dirt but by the time he reached the rock he was already gone, with nothing left of him except a bloodstain and the loose quarrel he'd pulled from his thigh wound.
"Wulfstan!" Roared Erik.
Johanni watched the Halfspear and Gnut the Troll run past him along the dirt trail, then quickly joined them. Yards ahead One-Eyed Wulfstan limped gripping his leg and bleeding out into the dirt. There was a skiff by the distant shoreline. The Arbarii hobbled over to when his sandals skidded onto the beach. The second that Erik, Gnut and Johanni caught up to him a shrieking howl sounded out across the sand as another beastling leapt out from the shrubs. Erik shoved Johanni out of the way as both claws clashed against his greatsword and the two figures crashed into the sand. Gritting his teeth, the Karggar growled hard and held off the monstrosity with all the strength he could muster, but every second he spent beneath its weight brought his steel an inch closer and closer to his throat – until Gnut the Troll shot a bolt into its back. The beastling froze, jerking suddenly, shaking and quivering and trembling. It fell off Erik's sword and landed onto the sand next to him, screaming, as the resin began to flow through his veins.
Johanni pulled his face out of the sand. He looked left and saw Erik climbing onto his feet. Gnut, crossbow outstretched, advanced on the fallen beastling. When he looked to his right he saw One-Eyed Wulfstan bundling himself into the skiff. And then the fury came back. Growling, snarling, the boy shot back onto his boots and scrambled off across the beach towards the skiff and threw himself into it, grabbling the old sorcerer, mounting him, punching him, again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again until he stopped moving.
He caught his breath. Blood matted his hair, his face, his knuckles, his tabard. Johanni collapsed onto the oaken bench plank, gasping for breath, then grabbed a spool of rope from inside the ship and tied the sorcerer's wrists and ankles together. He spat in the bastard's bloody face.
"Johanni!" Yelled Erik, "Are you alright?"
The boy controlled his breathing and then lumbered out of the small boat. One-Eyed Wulfstan was unconscious and bound up by rope now, he wasn't going anywhere. He tiredly made his way over to Erik and Gnut who watched as the immobilized beastling's body began to regress. The pitch-black skin pigment grew paler and paler until it faded into cream, but its bulbous veins still bulged through, its claws half-fused into twisted finger-like digits, the packed muscle receding from its thighs but not its arms, its face half-paralyzed as half its bone moulded back into a human-like shape as the other half retained its beast-form. One blue eye, one red. Half-man, half-monster. Half-transformed, half-not.
"W-what's happening to it?" Asked Johanni.
Gnut shut his eyes. "Whatever Wulfstan did... it's only half done... so the resin's only working halfway..."
"...k-kill..." he/it whispered. "...kill... me... k-kill me... kill me... kill me, kill me, kill me, kill me, kill me! Kill me! Kill me! Kill me! KILL ME...!"
Johanni covered his mouth. "...It's in pain."
"KILL ME! KILL ME! KILL ME! KILL ME!"
Erik cut its head off.
His knuckles were terribly sore. He had never seen them turn such an ugly shade of purple and blue before – and they stung! Johanni grit his teeth as a smirking Erik Halfspear dabbed his bruised hand with tonic and carefully wrapped a line of cotton cloth around it. They were back in their rooms in Pearlstone.
"You're taking after me now," chuckled the Karggar. "How did it feel, finally losing your temper?"
Gods, it felt good. "Enough, Erik. That was a mistake."
"Beating the lights out of an arseling like Wulfstan isn't a mistake."
His hand said otherwise. It would be difficult to swing his sword for a while, even by Erik's admission. "If you don't rest it, it won't heal," he'd said. "Leave the fighting to me from now on." Johanni didn't object to the order. Instead, he leaned over the bed and kissed the towering swordsman, dragging his slim fingers through the rough russet kink of his beard.
"Thank you," whispered the boy.
Johanni climbed into Erik's arms and nestled himself upon his lap. He never felt warmer or safer than he did in the Halfspear's arms. And he longed to feel safe at this point. His wandered thoughts constantly to the horrors on Kolskegg's Crag, and the more he thought of it the more frightened he became. With that whoreson One-Eyed Wulfstan in their custody they sailed back to Kjarlling before nightfall, but they had to leave those poor souls locked inside the underground vault. They were starving – how long would it be before they started feasting on each other to survive in that rancid black pit? And now that scourge slumbers beneath Ragnar's skin, he thought. Gnut was right. Damn the Wulf's Blut! It's nothing but a curse...
"Johanni," Erik Halfspear sighed. "Come now, we have to see Bors."
"...You should know I hate it when you're right."
Erik smiled softly.
No longer wearing their armour (but rather the coloured Arbarii-style tunics provided to them by Pearlstone's halfling thralls) Johanni and Erik left the former's rooms. The aetheling half expected to see Eardwulf outside his door awaiting him dutifully as always, but he was unseen since the eve prior when the guards allowed him to venture into the city by Johanni's leave.
Once this is all done we shall have to search for him, thought Johanni. Stay safe, Eardwulf...
Erik called on one of the halflings to show them to the dungeons. He took them two flights down from the palace's lavish marble ground floor to its uglier stonework foundations. There they followed the halfling down a narrow corridor into Pearlstone's dungeons. Chills flickered the flames of the ensconced torchlight and Johanni sniffled at the rime scent of the damp air. It was an unkind place with a punishing atmosphere, but the cells were mostly empty, save for a few gaoled Thoth pirates and one new addition.
The halfling thrall took Johanni and Erik to his cell door and excused himself as the Arbarii guardsmen moved to unlock it for the atheling and chieftain. Inside it a furious Lord Bors clutched the stock of a bloodied whip. And gyved to the wall before him was his former court sorcerer and advisor, One-Eyed Wulfstan. The guards had stripped him naked for Lord Bors to put the whip to him, his back ran red with deep puckered welts suppurating with pus. They washed his face clean of the blood which only highlighted his facial injuries – his nose broken and his good eye swollen shut. He was essentially blind. And he stank of piss. No doubt Bors whipped it out of him.
"Lord Bors," said Johanni. "Is he able to speak?"
Bors' fat hand slapped him. "Open your mouth, wretch."
Wulfstan's jaw slackened. He spat out a wad of phlegm and blood (inside of which was a broken tooth). "Y-yes..."
"Good," Johanni strode up to him. "No more games. No more chases. Tell us everything you know or your last days on this plane shall be your worst."
Wulfstan pulled a slow grin. "...H-how n-noble of you..."
Bors slapped him again. Recoiling, the aging sorcerer spat up another knot of blood. "...Magnus Magnusson, he... he calls it Die Weißjagd..."
"Die Weißjagd?" Johanni blinked. "...The White Hunt...?"
One-Eyed Wulfstan nodded. "Magnus Magnusson... has amassed an army... of 12,000 Thoth warriors... and 2000 beastlings... and built a fleet... of over 300 ironwood warships. He plans... to sail my creations... to the Weald's eastern shores... and march them on the capital... forcing the Bloodbane... to send the Legion east... leave Drangheim defenceless... and allow the Thoths... to march south... and capture it. That's why Haakon... made the Osserians... kidnap Sygardi Greyspear... leverage... to force the Karggars... not to interfere."
Oh, good gods, thought Johanni.
This was worse than he feared. Magnus Magnusson wasn't content to expand his power in the Salt Isles. He planned to overthrow King Hrathwuld! Now suddenly everything made sense; Sygardi's kidnapping, Haakon's campaign in the Fens, the stolen ironwood, Bersi's assassination. All of these were merely pieces in a larger plot to seize the crown.
Johanni glanced over his shoulder at Erik. "We have to warn my father."
"...You're too late," said Wulfstan. "It's already... begun."
But by now, Bors had had enough.
"Erik," he said. "Lend me your dagger."
The Karggar chieftain was more than happy to oblige. Seconds later Bors thrust that dagger through One-Eyed Wulfstan's neck. The old sorcerer spluttered up huge gouts of blood, gagged upon them, and then slowly ebbed away.
"Lord Bors, he might have been more useful alive," said Johanni.
"I have no use for traitors," said Bors. "I WARNED you about Magnusson! I KNEW it would come to this! Well no more. He hasn't merely violated the sibb, he's bent over and SHAT on it! Well, DAMN HIM! Damn twice and thrice, that worthless Thoth dog! I swear! I SWEAR I shall sail my entire fleet north and gut him alive in his own FUCKING castle!"
"I caution against it, lord."
Johanni stood upright. "Arbarii trade is the lifeblood of Grünlund, especially for those Karggars still trapped within the Grey Wilds. Sailing your warships north will only disrupt that trade."
Bors snatched the dagger out of Wulfstan's blood-soaked neck and returned it to Erik. "Then what do you propose I do? Nothing?"
"No. Bolster your defences, fortify your ports and checkpoints, call in every sword and spear you have to protect the key points of trade across the Salt Shore. I will deal with Magnus Magnusson myself."
"...By doing what?"
"By meeting with him," said Johanni, "face to face."
Erik frowned. "Johanni, we discussed that before when-"
"I know that. But events have taken a turn, Erik, and not for the better. Confrontation with Magnusson cannot be avoided but war must always be the last resort. That's why my father chose me as his heir and not Ragnar. I will talk before I fight. Now," he turned to Bors. "Lord. I believe your daughter is waiting for us."
The halflings kindled all six hearths of the audience chamber in preparation for Lord Bors and his three wives (all seated to the throne behind his) for Lady Kjarlla and her retinue – eight handmaidens, her steward, and her minstrel – as well as for Johanni and his companions; Erik Halfspear, Frodi the Archer, Norsa Hardfang, and now, Gnut the Troll. Of his household troops twenty men (each of them armed with spear and buckler and short sword) stood guard whilst another two opened the chambers and a final three allowed in a newly released prisoner from the dungeons. It was Thorvald Tyrfingsson. The halflings had bathed, fed and dressed him anew in a lavish red, gold and green striped Arbarii tunic sashed by ivory-buttoned belt, but his step remained weak and his eyes sunken. Pearlstone's gaol took a heavy toll. Nevertheless, his smile was bright – and all the brighter for finding his beautiful wife Kjarlla eagerly awaiting him in the chambers.
Johanni watched the Arbarii heiress gather up her skirts and run to him, defying all rules of custom and decorum, nearly knocking him over as she flung herself into his arms. "Thank the gods!" she wept, "Thank the gods you've come back to me!"
Johanni could not help but take some small pleasure in watching the rotund chieftain do this. His plans to wed his daughter to the royal family were quashed and now he was obligated to do what men of his ilk were often loath to – humble himself.
"Lord Thorvald," said the old boar of Pearlstone. "Please accept my apology. Charges of murder were brought against you – falsely – but now that the true killer has been dealt with, I ask you to move forward with me in addressing the mutual concerns of our two chiefdoms."
There was a wry hint to Thorvald Tyrfingsson's `thankful' smile that did not go unnoticed. The stepson bore the father even less love than the father did him. But their mutuality was in Kjarlla, and it was for her sake that Thorvald held his peace. "Lord," he said weakly. "I accept your apology. But as you say... let us look to the future. We share... a common enemy in Magnus Magnusson... and rest assured...I will do all in my power... to assist you against... this threat."
Bors nodded in acknowledgement then turned to Johanni. "And you, young lord, to you I must also offer thanks. You have done myself, the Salt Shore, and the entire Arbarii tribe a great service in unmasking the dark treachery roosting within my palace. I am indebted to you and I shall see to it that your extraordinary work here is fully repaid. However,"
"I am sure you will agree with Thorvald and I that our more pressing concern is the threat of the Thoth chieftain, Magnus Magnusson. His plan, the Die Weißjagd as One-Eyed Wulfstan called it, presents mortal danger not only Drangheim but to all Grünlund itself. Considering these events, I must unfortunately withhold any declarations of support with regards to King Hrathwuld's successor."
Johanni clutched a fist.
"You cunning bastard," he heard Erik whisper.
There was a scintilla of a smile upon Bors' thin lips. No doubt he'd had that planned from the moment they dragged One-Eyed Wulfstan into his dungeons. No one in all Grünlund bore the Thoths more hatred than Lord Bors of Pearlstone. In a way, the Die Weißjagd presented him with an opportunity as well as a threat. If the scale of this crisis necessitated a martial response from Drangheim then there was no better opportunity than now to rid himself of Magnus Magnusson and quell the Thoth threat. But such a campaign might take many solstices to complete, and when the dust settled, who was to say what the playing field between Johanni and Ragnar would look like? If Bors offered his support now and Johanni died (for whatever reason) how favourably would a newly crowned `King Bloodbane' look upon him? No, Bors was far too shrewd for that. If nothing else Die Weißjagd would buy him the time he needed to make more `informed' decision about who and who not to back as the next King of Grünlund.
To men like him, politics was a card game; he might have had a weaker hand than his opponents, but he knew how to play it. There was nothing Johanni could do. The boy bowed. "I understand, Lord Bors. I expect we shall discuss our mutual path forward tomorrow but for now my allies and I must retire. It has been a trying day."
Lord Bors grunted his acceptance and Johanni quickly withdrew with Erik, Frodi, Norsa and Gnut closely behind him. The guards opened the heavy iron doors and they strode out together, footsteps echoing angrily down the marble corridors. What they did not notice was Lady Kjarlla following them, not until she called out Johanni's name. He stopped and turned where he was with his companions around him. Kjarlla embraced him with her arms and two kisses to either cheek.
"Thank you," she said softly. "I say that from the bottom of my heart. I care not a whit what my father says, you first and foremost shall have the backing of the Arbariis, Johanni Carian Hrathwuld. I swear it."
He smiled. "You're welcome, my lady."
Kjarlla kissed his brow one more time before returning to the audience chamber. The palace guards then shut its heavy iron doors behind her. As they resumed their march towards their quarters, Norsa Hardfang edged up to Johanni's side. Upon their return from Kolskegg's Crag the palace thralls quickly stitched and bandaged her wounds – but her movements were frail. She needed time to recover before she was ready to fight again (not that she would ever admit it). "And now what, boy? We've come all the way to the Salt Shore for nothing?"
"Magnusson should be our focus now," he replied. "I'll send a rider down to Drangheim with our fastest horse to warn my father of what's coming. We shall discuss our next move tomorrow, agreed?"
"...Agreed," spat Norsa.
Norsa left him then, along with Frodi. Gnut (who had been offered rooms by Lord Bors as thanks for helping to capture One-Eyed Wulfstan) was taken to his quarters by one of the household's halflings leaving Erik to walk Johanni to his chamber door alone. The boy longed for a kiss but there were spearmen posted at every alcove along the corridor – Lord Bors had doubled the palace guard to 400 men.
"I'll call on you later," said the Halfspear. "Rest for now."
Johanni smiled back. "...Don't take too long."
Erik bowed (un-sarcastically) and turned heel towards his chambers on the other side of the hallway. Johanni watched him depart as he opened his own door. He strode in feeling more tired than he'd been in solstices. He could've collapsed upon his bed and not awoken for another three days. And perhaps he would have... if he didn't find Eardwulf, drunken and unshaven, lulling in wait by his bedside with a near-empty ale bottle in his right hand (sloppily bandaged after punching the marble fresco the night prior).
"Eardwulf!" Johanni said. "Where have you been?"
He didn't reply. Instead, he set the ale bottle to his lips and swilled what was left of it in a few quick gulps. And then he hurled that empty bottle across the room into the roaring hearth where it smashed to pieces. Johanni's shoulders jumped at the impact. He's drunk... thought the boy. There was even a blood smear upon the Osserian's tunic collar.
"Are you hurt?" He asked.
Eardwulf remained still as stone as Johanni approached him to check on it. He unbuttoned the top fold and peeled it back, but there was no wound. "It's not mine..." he heard Eardwulf whisper this as the older man clutched his arms around the boy and shoved him against his chest. He stank of ale and blood.
"Eardwulf," Johanni tried to pull himself free but the Osserian was too strong, far too strong. "Eardwulf, you need some rest. Let me help you to your rooms."
"To... to the slave quarters? Where I belong?" He sneered, wryly. "No. No, I am exactly where I should be."
Eardwulf pressed his lips against Johanni's.
The boy went still, eyes shooting open. The kiss was so sudden that for the briefest second, he could not think, not until the sour taste of ale and chicken fouled his mouth. Johanni wretched reflexively and pulled away, murmuring "no" beneath his breath. Eardwulf growled hungrily, snatching a fistful of Johanni's golden curls in his bandaged hand. The sudden jerk paralysed him – and Eardwulf responded by crushing their lips together again. It was nothing like their kiss in the Royal Baths. With that there was at least some sense of tenderness or love. But this? This was crude and drudging and gormless, nothing but longing and frustration. Johanni tried to yell "stop" but all either of them was a formless muffled moan as Eardwulf's tongue prised open his lips and twisted with his own. He thumped his tiny fists against the older man's shoulders in protestation but Eardwulf snatched both of his wrists and wrestled him onto the bed.
The muscular Osserian's weight landed atop of him heavily, knocking the air out of his lungs. And as Johanni caught his breath Eardwulf thrust his wrists into the feathered pillow, holding them both in place with only one of his hands whilst the other slipped down the boy's body, caressing his soft cheeks and slender neck until curled his fingers beneath that gold-trimmed tunic collar and tore it open, exposing Johanni's bare beating chest. His muffled cries of alarm droned between their joined mouths, "Nmmn!" and "Stmp-id! Pyees!"
Eardwulf broke the rough, laboured kiss just long enough to admire the young lord's soft chest, and the faint contours of muscle that the journey was beginning to sculpt from it. He was ensorcelled by Johanni's baby soft, cream-coloured breast as it heaved up and down beneath him, his stiff pink nipples garnished by rich amber hearth-light.
Johanni screamed through gritted teeth, plunging his head into the pillow as Eardwulf bit down upon his nipple. The pain of it was like a jolt of energy, searing and frank, and he writhed helplessly at the grinding gnaw of his teeth. The scream was so loud his throat went hoarse. The Osserian clamped his free hand around Johanni's mouth to silence it.
"Stop fighting it," he said. "You mustn't be scared, `Hanni, I won't hurt you."
Johanni bit his finger.
Scowling, Eardwulf withdrew his hand as the boy seized his moment and desperately screamed for help from the top of his lungs. The unlocked chamber door swung open and Erik Halfspear barrelled in.
He blinked. "What in hells?"
When Eardwulf glanced over his shoulder at Erik, there was a growl that escaped his lips more carnal and ferocious than any beast could summon. "You!" He spat. If either of them had had swords in that moment, they would have been drawn. Instead Eardwulf climbed off Johanni and charged at the Karggar, smashing his fist against Erik's jaw. The Halfspear slammed into the ironwood door (the impact sealing it shut) before another punch thrust into his gut, doubling him over.
"It's all YOUR fault!" Screamed Eardwulf, "DAMN YOU!"
He kneaded his fingers together and brought them knuckle down into Erik's back with one powerful swing. The Karggar's legs collapsed beneath him. He landed with a thud upon the cold stone floor. Five whole solstices of pent-up rage and utter frustration suddenly released itself like a torrent as Eardwulf climbed on top of the chieftain and barrelled down punch after punch after punch, splattering his own bruised fists in bloody spittle and tooth fragments; growling and screaming like an uncaged animal, determined not to stop until Erik's skull was nothing more than a cracked husk.
Johanni drew his short sword.
Eardwulf froze mid-punch, his bandaged fist aloft, when he heard the distinctive slurp of unsheathed steel and his lord brought the blade's cold tip to his neck, warningly.
"Move away from him," said the boy.
Erik coughed up a gout of black blood as the Osserian climbed off him and slowly moved aside. Johanni, clothes in disarray, his exposed right nipple swollen red and glistening with spittle, guardedly trod between the two fighters, protecting the Halfspear whilst keeping his sword trained on Eardwulf's throat.
"Don't!" He spat. "Do not dare to call me that!"
Eardwulf's shoulders and chest heaved as he caught his breath and his once cold grey eyes now burned molten silver, sparkling with un-spilt tears. Johanni felt no pity for him. For the first time in his life, Eardwulf genuinely frightened him.
"If I called the guards now," he began, "they would behead you tomorrow. Take this one chance, Eardwulf. Leave. Saddle your horse, ride away, and never return to me again."
"Johanni, I love you, all I want-"
"I am NOT a possession to be seized!" He cried. "GET OUT! Get out now or I swear I shall summon the guards and be damned what follows!"
The blade tip was deep enough to draw blood, and it did. Just an ounce of force would slide it through Eardwulf's throat. He was the man who taught Johanni how to use a blade – but his pupil would skewer him with it if he took another step forward. The thrall scrubbed the damp from his eyes and slowly left the room. As soon as the door clicked shut the aetheling threw his sword away and knelt by Erik's side.
"Erik! Erik! Are you alright?"
He came around groggily and spat out a wad of blood as his eyes fluttered open again. His jaw was badly bruised – so he cradled it with his thumb and fingers. "Gods alive," he groaned and more coughed blood. "I'm... fine. Did he hurt you? Did he-"
Johanni threw himself into Erik's arms and wept.
It was the 48th Session of the Royal Diet. Ragnar, fully dressed in royal legionary armour with two spearmen at his side, observed from the upper gallery as all sixty jarls of the Impanni tribe gathered together in one place to discuss matters of state with King Hrathwuld. In times gone by the old chieftains took advice from their jarls by way of witans, and before those folkmoots; those ancient convocations of freemen and karls. What the Diet represented was the next natural step – a witan as formalized by logh. It was Ragnar's suspicion that his father conceded to such a thing to allay (or stifle) any trepidations the Jarls might have had over his election as king; one of his many acts of overindulgent diplomacy. Hrathwuld was no fool, however, and he'd had his masons build this meeting hall in a manner that reflected well his position of dominance. The jarls' stone seats were arrayed in semi-circular fashion around the wall's curved rim – centred on the king's lacquered oak throne, beyond which stood a massive pane of stained glass overlooking the city. When the sun's light passed through that glass and showered the king in all its multi-coloured glory, the effect (and meaning) was implicit – that the king was chosen by the gods, as well as men, to rule.
Ragnar looked on.
His Royal Guardsmen were posted two to each door. As the nattering jarls arrived they greeted each other with saccharine pleasantries and japed, fast to run their mouths yet slow to take their seats – at least until King Hrathwuld arrived. He required two shieldmaidens to help him to his seat where two others stood astride to guard him; one was Gunhilda, the ice-eyed captain of the Shieldmaidens, and the other was Hereweald Ironside, the man who replaced Haakon Godwulfsson as his most favoured thegn.
As everyone took their seats some thrall boys served them with refreshment – water, grapes and cheese. Ragnar watched as one of them presented his father with a cup of water. He did not drink this water. Instead he clapped his hand twice, plunging the chamber into silence – and thus began the talks.
As Ragnar predicted, Jarl Sygmune was the first to speak. "Lord King, I speak for everyone when I begin by wishing you good health, by wishing the young lord Johanni good fortune in his continued endeavours abroad the country, and by congratulating High Legate Ragnar for his successful destruction of the Oakmire. In burning it down we can begin incorporating the old forest forts into the burghs and extend the Grey Wilds' herepath roads all the way to the Salt Shore as has always been your ambition."
King Hrathwuld pulled a weary frown as more than half the jarls recognised Sygmune's declaration with cries of "here, here!"
"Indeed," said the old monarch.
Jarl Sygmune held aloft a rolled document. "Lords, I have in my hands a missive sent to us by our spies in the Elvish Empire. Their emperor has amassed a contingent of over 20,000 slave soldiers. According to this missive that army is now garrisoned on the southern side of the Black Mountains."
Ragnar observed quietly as anxious murmurs abounded throughout the chambers. Naturally, the jarls with land or property in the southernmost reaches of the Weald appeared most alarmed. One of them was the young Jarl Eygfried, one of the richest men amongst the Diet (upon inheriting his late father's mountainside gold mines).
"Lord King," said the boy-child, "This is troubling news. 20,000 soldiers? That's more than double the Royal Legion's numbers, is it not? Perhaps we might consider calling in the fyrds?"
King Hrathwuld sighed visibly. Ragnar wondered if those few rounds of agreement rattled him. The aging man held up his hand – a call for silence. When the jarls quietened down he permitted himself a sip of water to clear his throat before he spoke, as was his wont.
Ragnar looked on.
"Lords," began the king, "the fyrdmen belong as they are... tending to their land, crops and livestock. I will not call for a single spear or reaping hook until... unless... our spies send word of `invasion'."
Half the jarls shared unsatisfied murmurs amongst themselves.
"However. As I am mindful of your concerns... I shall have High Legate Ragnar dispatch 300 legionaries into Black Mountains, one century for each pass. There, they will re-fortify the checkpoints or seal them if needs be."
He was an old man. He was closer to a hundred than he was to fifty. Yet King Hrathwuld remained as shrewd and tactical as ever. And he was right. Besides his son he was the only military commander in that hall and he knew that mobilizing too many men without warrant was dangerous. The elves no doubt had spies on the northern side of the Black Mountains – if they called the fyrds and sent them south, such an act might provoke the elves and return their attentions to the Woags. The day of final confrontation with the elves would come... but Grünlund was not yet ready.
Jarl Eygfried addressed the throne again. "Lord King, I am relieved to hear that more men are to be sent into the mountains. But I suggested calling the fyrds because many of us worry that the Legion is already stretched too thin. The 50 original legionaries of Lord Johanni's caravan were slaughtered and another 100 were sent to him in the Fens. There are 500 legionaries garrisoned on Scraefling Isle and another 1000 now stationed at the northern border with the Grey Wilds. If we send another 300 men to the Black Mountains, that makes nearly a fifth of the entire Legion scattered across the nation. Surely the other tribes must honour their obligations to both crown and country by providing men as well as taxes?"
Ragnar watched the jarls, almost all of them, agree. He then watched to see how his father would respond.
"(Harrumph)," The King held his throat, as if something was tickling it from within. "Jarl Eygfried, these are..." he coughed, "...matters to be discussed..." he coughed again, sharp and throaty, "...in light of our..."
Gunhilda lowered her spear and knelt by his side. "My king, are you well? Quickly now, you must drink some more water..."
The Shieldmaiden handed Hrathwuld the half-drunk cup but as his coughing became a fit the spasms were so strong the cup fell out of his hands. The jarls began murmuring amongst themselves again as their sire clamped his gnarled hand around his mouth. When he coughed again, black blood spluttered between the digits of his fingers. Ragnar cried out ("Father!") loud enough to heard by every man in that room as he ran out of the gallery and down the stone stairwell into the meeting hall and towards his father's throne.
But it was too late.
By the time he joined Gunhilda and Hereweald Ironside at his throne the king had already slumped over the armrest, froth speckled with blood oozed from his lips as his eyes glassed over in the direction of the galleries. Absolutely stunned, Gunhilda brought her hand over his eyes and shut them. The entire hall lurched into silence save for the snap of the flames burning in their sconces.
"H-he's gone..." Gunhilda said solemnly, "...the king is dead..."
* Hi, thanks for reading! Comments and constructive criticisms always welcome, please e-mail me at email@example.com. If you enjoyed this then please read my other story on Nifty, The Dying Cinders.