By: F. Charles Murdock
Upon tumbling waves, under dark storm’s rage, his lover’s hand keeps his death at bay. And though he be lost on both crest and trough, her enchanted sp’rite shall guide his way, made blue through the sacrifice she had made. -from The Legend of the Blue Sp’rite, set to rhyme by Elrik the Teller
“Ma...” Beard said, his voice frayed and hoarse. “Mother...?”
“Finally you awaken, Beard,” Wuthweirgen the Motherwolf, said from her perch atop a nearby cliff. “Then my attendance was not in vain.”
“Wha...? Where am... are...?”
“Speak not,” the she-wolf said, “but fill your belly. You will need your strength. There is much to discuss and far more to do.”
The wolf collected something at her feet with her maw and leapt for the clifftop, landing beside the crouching warrior with grace and precision. As the plume of gray dust settled around her, Wuthweirgen dropped the worn satchel she carried in her jaws, her proud eyes inviting her chosen mankin to take from it. Beard did so without hesitation for he was grateful that his Motherwolf had come at last. He opened the loosely tied sack and reveled in the fresh fruit, berries, and animal meat he found therein.
“Build a fire, Beard,” Wuthweirgen said, sitting before the warrior with all the regality she commanded with both fang and gaze. “We will partake in palaver while you eat.”
“Of course.” Beard said, climbing to his feet in the manner of a newborn elk: the Isenshrike (the former, not the latter) had beaten the warrior’s masterful grace right out of his bruised and bloodied body. Every limb was struck with a shooting pain as he rose, his torso licked by unseen flames as he caught his balance. Not since the days of Brog’s hellish training had Beard felt such a pervasive sense of hurting.
Brog..., Beard thought as he scanned his desolate surroundings for kindling and flint. He was there in the Dream Realm, waiting for me... and I felled him, did I not? Yes, I felt the blade go in... I felt it skewer him as he... he pulled me close and then... fell away. What had he told me?
“All is a dream.” He could hear the traitor’s voice even now amongst his muddled thoughts, could see his sickly beige lips kink into a smile as he’d whispered his little revelation to the stunned Northman.
No... that wasn’t Brog, Beard’s thoughts continued as he built a small circle of fist-sized stones that he’d gathered while his mind had attempted to gather itself. The fire would be well-housed. That Brog was but a phantom... Beard realized, the work of that bastard, Släfgeit. Will my revenge never be realized? Will Bergrin the Knowing never be avenged?
Along with the small stones, Beard had scavenged for dry blades of grass to act as kindling. He piled the dead vegetation in the center of the rocks and struck two sparkstones together above it. Though the chunks of rock had surely formed in pools of magma like most stones on the isles south of Kyrtherion, there was little fire in them as the warrior bashed them together unceremoniously. His rage was betraying his wits and the absence of fire was only serving to frustrate him further.
“Beard...” Wuthweirgen said, her eyes locked upon her mancub. The warrior struck the rocks together several more times, a deep growl rising in his gullet. In one swift motion, the wolf leapt to her feet and bared her teeth as she would to Ierremod or poor Ceolas when they would misbehave during their weaning cycles.
“Beard!” the she-wolf barked. The stones fell from the trembling hands with a thud, his attention drawn immediately to the face of the god-wolf. “Calm yourself, child, and do it right!”
Beard looked past the wolf’s crinkled, snarling maw into her opal eyes and at once pulled himself together. The last time he’d seen these eyes, he’d been in Thorgithe before the Eastwood had brought war upon the Northlands. They had been thick with bloody tears then as Beard was being arrested on the suspicion of killing his father and that snake Brōg. These thoughts rekindled the anger in his heart, but Beard remained calm, the stern glare of Wuthweirgen forcing him to suppress that heavy rage.
“Of course,” Beard said, taking the jagged stones in his stilled hands, his mind clear, his eyes closed (though he could still see those of the she-wolf even within the rolling darkness between his eyes and their lids). Before striking the sparkstones together, the warrior offered a few words to Am’gog, the great firebeing of the south, asking for assistance with the stubborn flames.
(...Erio swooned in the heat and her vision blurred. She saw a man wreathed in darkness and another that seemed to be made of iron blades...)
Pfyer, Beard chanted in his mind. Pfyer, the old word for fire. Pfyer! Then, after a deep breath, Beard struck stone against stone above the kindling nested in the wide pit.
Beard opened his eyes, his pupils narrowing on the flame that suddenly leapt into being at the center of the stone circle.
(...a new glimmer arises. This light is not borne of flame or reflection, but desire. So rests a grand sword from ages long past...)
Satisfied with his work, the warrior set the sparkstones aside and took up the food Wuthweirgen had brought him. He ate the fruit and berries jealously, but offered the red meat to the she-wolf, though she denied the offer with a gentle shake of her head.
“I’ve no hunger,” she said and then placed herself beside the churning fire, her shadow rising behind her like some creature of the night being distorted and torn asunder.
(“...so, you're the one they call ‘the Silvered Cat...’”)
The thin shadow reminded Beard of the traitorous shades of Kōstof back on the mainland, those that’d caused so much death and destruction by the dark will of the daemon Släfgeit. The warrior turned his eyes away from the shade and his mind away from those terrible memories: they seemed too fresh in his thoughts for comfort.
“You should be dead, Beard,” Wuthweirgen said with no empathy in her dry voice.
Beard had been carefully placing the wide strip of meat upon a stone close to the fire to cook, but upon those words, he dropped it into the heart of the flame; he didn’t notice, however, as his attention was committed to the eyes of the she-wolf.
“What do you mean?” he asked, a measure of hurt tainting his usually gruff voice.
“The God-killer’s blade should have destroyed you,” the wolf continued, “and yet here you are -- breathing and whole. Something has happened to you, though for the better or worse I know not.”
“I was robbed of glorious death by the folly of a companion in the realm of undeath in the TottenMarsh...” Beard explained.
“There is that, yes, as Ierremod had explained to me upon returning to the Northlands,” Wuthweirgen interrupted. “But another event has changed your path.”
“Of what do you speak?”
“I know not,” the she-wolf replied, “but something was altered during your time in the netherealms.”
“You know of that?”
“I’d caught scent of Släfgeit on the northerly winds and knew that, although it desires more than anything to rejoin the physical plain, the Dream Realm is where it truly feels at home,” Wuthweirgen said. “That being the case, I knew well that your strength and skill in combat far exceeded those of the daemon despite its trickery and dark magick. It would draw you into its own realm where it was advantageous and you were weak, though this was clearly not the case.”
“I felled him...” Beard said, though his inflection bordered on that of an unsure question.
“In some form, yes,” the wolf replied. “But even if he is still slithering about somewhere, the whispers on the wind tell me that he shouldn’t be a threat anymore. Besides... we have much more to worry about.”
“What do you mean?”
The she-wolf shifted her gaze past the warrior to a large boulder a couple paces away. Beard kept his eyes on those of his Wolf Mother until she gave a stern nod. Then the warrior shot a look over his shoulder, his eyes immediately spying the pile of spoil behind him atop which a blanket of maggots and meatflies were feasting. He stared at that writhing pile of decay for a moment, its undulation mesmeric.
Though the spoil was close, the wind was strong enough to keep its stench at bay. Although Beard kept his eyes on the heap, his surroundings began to unfold around him as his mind worked toward reviving his warrior senses fully.
The Isenshrike had left him on the shore of the isle as his guts poured onto his chest and lap like a gory tunic. He was at the mouth of the Last Path, but still couldn’t place boot upon its sacred ground. Then the birds had come for their meal, the pain like a thousand daggers of poisonous fire. His breath had been a faraway whisper. Then darkness. Then stars and words from an unfamiliar mouth... or not quite familiar, rather. Then... what? What had happened next in that hellish state between life and death?
And what of this place? He was no longer on the beach, but a small windswept canyon that rose above him like a great bowl made of granite. The warrior quickly noted that the sides were not too steep to climb out of. Along those sides were several tall holes where the wind had eroded natural windows that rose above the warrior. Through them, Beard could hear gusts as well as the familiar sound of waves crashing on a shore: the same he’d heard when the Isenshrike had left him to his demise after their strange battle.
(...a new sight comes into focus perhaps a half-ile away. There a new structure comes to rest after plummeting into the middle of this ocean...)
Then he was still on the isle...
“What is this?” Beard asked, his eyes still searching to answer the question on his lips.
“I’ve brought you a satchel of food like that from which you just ate every day since I found you on the beach which, thankfully, seemed to be but a day or so after you battled the Isenshrike.” Wuthweirgen said. “Today’s satchel contained the 174th such meal, though this was the first you’ve been able to eat properly.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Because you couldn’t eat the food,” Wuthweirgen continued unabated, “I nursed you on venison, pre-chewed and mixed with my milk, as I would a sickling pup.”
“What is it you’re telling me?”
“A little more than six moons have passed since you battled the Shrike,” the she-wolf said. “The world has darkened, and many places and people with it.”
“Six moons?!” Beard shouted, leaping to his feet. A strange mixture of emotion swept through him in that moment -- anger and confusion, yes, but even a little fear. Six moons -- almost half a cycle -- was a long time to be removed from the world. His bewilderment just then matched what he’d felt after returning from his Rite of Daemon Slaughter. How long had he been in that strange place? Moons? Cycles? Such was unknowable, but still the question begged to be asked.
“Krytherion is a hellish landscape now,” Wuthweirgen said, rising to stand. “Everything has changed with the Dark One’s appearance.”
“Then I vow here and now to destroy he who calls himself ‘the Dark One,’” Beard said, letting rage thicken his blood.
“I have no doubt you will get the chance,” Wuthweirgen said somberly. “But there are other matters to consider before doing so.”
“As?” the warrior asked.
“The Eastwood’s war?” Beard asked.
“Then it carries on...” Beard said.
“It has spread like a plague of ruin, Beard,” the wolf said, beginning to pace before the fire. “To raze the seat of Thorgithe is still goal of the enemy, of course, but surrounding tribes were quickly swept into the fray. Now the battlefield has grown all the way to Godspire in the far west.”
“That’s the whole of the Northlands!”
“Yes,” the wolf said with a sigh. “Not since the Low Wars has the North been thrown into such calamity. And though the people fight valiantly for their land and nation, there is none to organize and lead them against their advancing doom.”
“You would have me return to lay claim to the crown?” Beard asked.
“The people need a king, this is true,” the she-wolf said, “but you aren’t yet ready to assume such a role.”
“I’m not yet ready to defend my homeland?”
“When I first came upon you those six moons ago,” Wuthweirgen said, visibly displeased at the warrior’s tone, “the first action I took was ridding you of carrion birds and pulling you here, away from the sea and those strange footprints on the beach. Then I reset your innards into the twisted heap that was once an intact body. Then I waited, every moment spent appealing to Yol that Ierremod hadn’t been mistaken in what he’d learned in the TottenMarsh.”
“I’m cursed.” Beard said.
“You are chosen, Beard,” Wuthweirgen said. “Did you think such would be easy?”
“Cursed... chosen...” Beard mused, “is there a difference?”
“All are cursed in such dark times, child,” the wolf said, “but only a chosen few can do something about it. That is the difference.”
Beard sat in silence for a moment, his eyes locked on the slab of meat that had fallen into the fiery pit. In his confusion, the warrior had begun to lash out at his Wolfmother, though he knew well that, without her vigilance both now and at his Malthorith, he would have long since passed from the world without honor. He felt regret in his heart, but what came to his mind just then were a thousand questions begging to be answered... where to begin?
“There’s much I wish to know...” Beard began.
“As do I, Beard,” Wuthweirgen said, “but I’ll answer what I can.”
Beard thought for a moment and then asked the question that had crystallized first among his thoughts.
“In my time in the Dream Realm, I encountered other places... strange realms with strange people,” Beard explained. “Where is it I went?”
“If there was ever a requirement for proof that you’re truly chosen among men...” the she-wolf said, taking a seat calmly at the fire’s side.
“What do you mean?”
“Those strange places and people you visited during your trek to smite Släfgeit were not to be experienced by the hearts and minds of men,” she continued. “Long ago, the gods forbid men from traversing their realms for they were proud and the race of men were lowly and despicable in their covetous nature. So in their disgust, the Great Gods of Old sealed the many doors they used to pass from one realm to another -- your people know them by many names, “Betweens” and “Lessers” among them. Since then, the very essence that dwells within man has forbid him to intrude upon the netherealms.”
“Then how is it that I...?”
“I know not, Beard,” Wuthweirgen interrupted. “You should’ve been ripped apart upon entering those fell places.”
“The ability to mend given to me in the TottenMarsh, perhaps?”
“No, such enables you to regenerate, but the death you would have -- should have -- suffered upon crossing realms is absolute,” the wolf said.
“I suspect a great power aided you during your time therein.”
“Have you not noticed how your blade has come to hold sway over you?” Wuthweirgen asked, her eyes drawing those of her mancub.
“The Tattered Edge?”
“Yes,” the she-wolf continued. “It is an ancient blade to be sure, so much so that all knowledge concerning it has been lost even to the historians and traditionists.”
“Even to you, Mother-Wolf?”
“I seem to remember descriptions of certain properties the sword possesses,” Wuthweirgen said, “or that possess the sword.”
“Then the sword... it’s been encroaching upon my being?”
“In a sense, yes,” the wolf said. “Do you not remember how you came upon this isle, Beard?”
There were memories of a strange trek through Deep Southron, over winding highways and through humble towns, but they seemed bound by the warrior’s own mind much like Släfgeit would often do to his dreams. A blur of a blade here, a dusty trail there -- all was disjointed and blurry. To tell true, the stubborn recollections hurt to think about, though Beard couldn’t ascertain why. There was but one time Beard could remember with clarity after the phantom Brog had given up his false ghost: the warrior had awoken on a splintered ship amidst the corpses of her crew. And then the Isenshrike had come.
“My thoughts betray me,” Beard said in a dry tone. “I do not remember.”
Wuthweirgen looked deeply into her strange pups eyes, so much like her own true wolf-sons and yet still so human, and saw well the truth in his words. Then she spoke, her own voice dry, her tone somber and gruff.
“Listen closely, Beard, and heed my warning lest true death come upon you before your destiny can be fulfilled,” the she-wolf said. “Though Thorgithe even now is threatened with ruin, you must not yet return to Krytherion.”
“But why? Surely I must...”
“No!” Wuthweirgen barked, the coarse crown of fur on her head standing on end. Beard shot a look of surprise at the wolf, but relented, choosing to listen instead of debate. The she-wolf sensed his surrender and calmed herself before continuing in a softer (though more somber) tone.
“A great evil has worked through you on the mainland, Beard,” the wolf said. “Terrible destruction was wrought by your unknowing hands. Death was dealt without reason, your blade dropped wantonly. You are now a wanted man.”
“I’ve grown accustomed to the life of an exile,” Beard said, his eyes narrowing in subtle fury.
“Be that as it may, returning to Krytherion would be impossible at the moment anyway,” Wuthweirgen said.
“For what reason?”
“The ship that carried you here wasn’t the only to find ruin upon the sea,” she replied. “None between these southern isles and the mainland were left intact -- I only made it here from Krytherion because I ride the winds and even then it was hell. To tell true, no ships survived the Stormcoming.”
“Hm... do you recall the Legend of the Blue Sp’rite?” the wolf asked, watching pensively as her mancub searched his memories for such a tale of long ago.
“Yea,” he said at last. “The legend tells of two children -- a lad and a lady -- from different isles. As both their fathers were maritime traders, they met upon a merchant ship in the sea between the two islands. They would oft meet like this and over a span of cycles their secret love blossomed.”
“A sea creature -- a great hulking thing -- attacked them on one of these meetings. The two merchant crews managed to repel the monster, but several were injured because of the folly of the youth’s love: the boy had saved the girl from the creature’s jaws, but needed to be saved in turn. The monster repeled, the crews were forced to return to their respective isles because their ships were badly damaged.”
“Yes?” the wolf prodded, cocking her head to the side.
“Shortly thereafter, the fathers of both the lad and the lady learned of their children’s love and, being stern men, forbid them from meeting thereafter. But, one night, the boy stole his father’s ship and sailed to the other isle to claim his love. They slipped away in the night on the ship and headed east to start a new life together, but met a darker fate when they were attacked by the same creature of the sea in a terrible storm.”
“Well, if I remember correctly, the girl perished beneath the waves, but because she loved the boy so, she was able to keep him afloat.”
“Yes, but the lad wasn’t only saved corporally by the girl,” Wuthweirgen said. “In fact, if you recall further, the boy died there in the ocean before his beloved was able to lift him to the surface as she herself took a last breath. The boy’s body was able to regain itself there, but the girl’s essence did the real saving. Because she loved the boy so and she sacrificed herself to save his very soul, the girl was able to guide him back even from the confines of the Great Beyond. From there, her essence led him to shore where he buried her and bid her spirit farewell.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Beard asked.
The wolf turned away from her mancub.
“Because... the Stormcoming of legend is true and is happening again and the great beast that dwells beneath it has returned along with it,” Wuthweirgen. “I’ve only witnessed its fury once in my life -- so, so long ago -- and that was far more than enough death and destruction to see in a god’s lifetime.”
“And because the time will come when someone will have to make a sacrifice not unlike the girl in the legend. One will have to die to save a beloved.”
“Who?” Beard asked reproachfully. “Who must die?”
“This isn’t clairvoyance, Beard,” the she-wolf muttered. “This is destiny and fate and I possess a clear knowledge of neither.”
“But...” Beard started before the somber look on his Motherwolf’s face arrested him. Just then he was taken back to the day when his father was felled by Brog and he, Beard, was charged with the murder. The memory of the she-wolf’s bloody tears stood prevalent in his mind, the image of which seemed transposed upon the sullen face of the wolf that now stood before him. Beard had figured them an omen of dark times to come and those telling tears had been correct despite what Wuthweirgen had proclaimed about her knowledge of fate and destiny.
Beard shot his hand into the fire before him and withdrew the cooked meat from its embers. Though it pained him, the warrior ate the charred slab quickly, his battered body yearning to be nourished. The she-wolf watched her cub devour the meat, licked her chops, and then turned away from him.
“I’ve nothing more to say,” Wuthweirgen said, her head as bowed as her tail. “Nothing but this: as I’m sure you know, at the core of the island is the lair of the Isenshrike and on its walls is a host of blades both great and terrible, hundreds and hundreds by count. The Shrike has since left this place. Arm yourself with what you will and prepare yourself for a new journey. You will not be able to return to Krytherion as I’ve said, so you must head south into the uncharted lands beyond this isle. Take whatever blade suits you, child... any but that one.”
The wolf shot a look over her shoulder, peering past Beard as she had done before. And, just as before, the warrior followed her gaze, his eyes coming to rest on the skyward hilt of the Tattered Edge gleaming in the light of the setting Sol. His eyes narrowed on it, but he turned back to the she-wolf and nodded.
“Good,” Wuthweirgen said, turning her gaze to the faint moon above. “Now howl with me, Beard the Wolf-Warmed, before I take my leave. Let our voices fill us with the light of courage even in the darkness that surrounds us.”
Then they howled together, both their eyes locked on the moon above, both their voices melding into the same crude nightsong. And then Wuthweirgen turned away from her cub, leapt into the wind, and was gone.
Several hours had passed since Wuthweirgen had left Beard to the coming night. He had watched her leave, had felt an ache in his heart when she was gone, and then had sat. The fire he’d built had been fed three times since then, but was now dying again... and he would let it for, though it was warm and offered a friendly sheen of light, the warrior would heed his Motherwolf’s advice and prepare to journey further.
But to where? the warrior asked himself as he stared into the dying embers of a once magnificent fire. Krytherion is closed to me until I can find a way through the Stormcoming and the behemoth that dwells beneath. His mind was as silent as the island at that moment, a silence he would’ve surely relished if his body weren’t screaming with pain and his mind pounding with dread.
First, I’ll need a blade...
The warrior stood then and turned from the fire. As he scaled the rocky slope and trudged to the dark entrance of the Isenshrike’s abandoned lair, the sea crashed blithely against the base of the isle, its swells there barely hinting at the tempest raging upon its hide farther north and the great creature that had come to dwell in the depths of its murky belly.
Beard awoke with a startle, though he knew not why. His sleep had been deep and merciful, but the Dream Realm had been closed to his mind. In the place of dreams, the warrior’s memories had been unraveling themselves, his mind thoughtlessly searching for the answers it so fervently asked itself. Upon waking, though, the warrior remembered naught but the startle that had woke him.
He had been fidgeting with the ethereal ring given to him by Vel’Naren, the twilight maiden he so loved, as he slept, but that warm tingle on his fingertips hadn’t awoken him. The blade he had chosen from the Isenshrike’s monumental cache -- a long, serrated sword with the inscribed name of Zweihänder -- had been tossed aside, but even the sound of it coming to rest (its terrible CLANG! recalling the Isenshrike’s nightmarish laughter) hadn’t called him back to consciousness. No, a pulse had, heavy and unsettling.
Then Beard was on his feet, his body moving on a mere whim into the darkness of night before him. With his chosen weapon left behind him, the warrior trekked forth, his trembling hands leading the way. He felt empty then, devoid of his usually keen senses. Then his body stopped, his mind no longer wondering what his body was doing.
The Tattered Edge was unsheathed from its earthen resting place with ease, the warrior’s hand stilled by the power the blade was promising him. As it slid free, he examined the sword jealously, a feeling of cruel flee overtaking him then as he raised it before his smiling face. Had his eyes not been drawn to the edge of the terrible blade, the warrior would’ve surely seen what was approaching from the immediate south of the isle and more surely still would’ve prepared himself for its arrival.
For a black ship had reached the island, its mast flying the even blacker flag of war.