by C.M. Galdre
Beard licked his chapped and wind burned lips. It’d been two weeks since he’d arrived at the vast plains that lay before the city on the wall, Buildar’s Gate. Much had changed since he’d visited as a boy, much had changed in the weeks since his unjust banishment from his fathers for a crime he did not commit. His king, his father, lay dead not even a full cycle of the moon at the hands of the traitor Brōg, with Beard framed for it, and it seemed in so short a time that the peace of his line, maintained for so many generations, had been picked apart like a corpse in a field of crows.
The ancient blood tribes of Thorgithe fell to petty squabbles. Grudges forgotten since the time before the unification now raged anew across the powerful barbarian nation. The city of Buildar’s Gate, once the symbol of trade between the men of the North and the Southron nations, stood closed, its denizens festering.
Beard glared at the crude tangle of pikes and scrap wood, bolted iron and decaying corpses that barred his way into the city. This was not the great Gate of Buildar… this was new. By listening to travelers voices on the wind the young warrior had discovered that this “gate” was called the Traitor’s Wier. Beard spat into the dirt as he surveyed this new entrance to a once mighty city. The bodies were clearly not those of warriors. These were women, children, cattle, and horses… slain as they tried to escape this new war in the north. It was guarded by two men, black hooded and armed with blood wet halberds held lazily against a shoulder.
Beard had been watching this wier for several days. None had come from within the city and only a few travelers had been admitted access to the city. Most were cut down as they pleaded with the dark hooded guards for entry. What is the secret of the successful? Beard wondered and watched, waiting for his chance.
Much had changed in the North whilst Beard had traveled in his banishment and in so short a time.
Beard made camp upon the open plain before the city, his body covered in mud and grass, his fire smokeless, a life hidden in the open. It hadn’t taken the young Thorgithen long to realize it it would take finesse to enter the city. It was his hope to escape into the Southron nations where he could find his fortune and, perhaps one day, return to the north to right the wrongs that had been made unto him and, increasingly, his people.
In his time observing the wier Beard had noticed a trend that might gain him entry to the city. Whilst men had poor luck entering on their own, when accompanied by their families it seemed they could make it through; or, even when the men were cut down, the women, their children, and their carts at least were able to make it into the city unscathed. At least this was the trend of the few that made it through at all.
Normally Beard wouldn’t bother with such trivial things, he was a skilled warrior and could easily best the men at the wier in combat, but there were too many unknowns on the other side of the to go forward with such a plan. If there was a full regiment of Thorgithen warriors on the other side, even Beard, who had slain a daemon king and its daemonic litter, would have trouble passing through. No, it was better to wait until a cart made its way towards the gate and steal away within or beneath it.
But fewer and fewer travelers were making their way to the gate.
Beard pulled up a clump of dead grass and shook the dirt out of the roots before chewing on them, extracting what little moisture he could and finding some relief for his cracked tongue. He would have to take his chance soon or be too weak from thirst to do battle should his plans turn sour. The next group to pass through would have to do.
The warrior slept fitfully, dehydration beginning to take its toll. His dreams were black and filled with ill omen. Not an unusual occurrence for the warrior, Beard had long been a favorite target for the dream god and his ilk. This night, however, he dreamed of a future not yet realized and fires, sweeping fields of flame, burning before his mind’s eye. When the sound of creaking cart wheels awoke him, he was glad of it and rubbed the cinders of the future from his memory as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes.
The cart was heavy-laden and led by a lone old crone an easy target for the warrior to sneak past and into her cart if it was not for her Thorgithen sledge dogs. Such creatures were bred from war dog and dire-wolf, as big as oxen, loyal, keen of sent, and strong. Stealth was impossible with such beasts about. Thorgithen sledge dogs are the type of creatures only fought when driven to absolute necessity, and if a significant advantage presents itself, or a death wish. The warrior would have to negotiate somehow with the crone.
The dogs had already caught Beards scent even as he lay in the grass upwind from them, so the warrior stood and made himself known. Beard bowed his head and presented his outstretched palms in the ancient fashion as he approached to show that he came with no ill intent. It was an old custom, the kind that even the wickedest of men would dare not use in deceit, one of the true signs of the North.
The crone caught sight of the warrior waited, resting her hand upon the neck of the lead dog. It and each hound behind sat at her touch, but watched Beard with keen interest.
“I am a warrior of Thorgithe, though I’ve fallen into some disgrace. I ask to speak with you true woman of the North,” Beard called out.
The crone chuckled. “Such times we live in that royalty hide their names and bow to crones in the wilderness.”
Beard raised his head.
“I know thee warrior as I would know mine own son. I name thee Beard, son of Begrin, of the true line of Kortgel, and King-in-exile.” the old woman added.
“You honor me, wise woman, but my titles were stripped of me, and you seem to have added at least one,” Beard replied.
“I was there at your birth and then at your naming when you were found suckling at the God-wolf’s teat. I saw you with the fire in your eyes as you were falsely accused of your father’s murder and cast out into into the wilderness, broken and beaten. I know thee, child, and I know, as many in the North know, that you were framed of your father’s death and we who know call thee in secret ‘the Exiled King,’” the crone’s voice cracked as she spoke.
Beard stood and saw that the woman had tears in her eyes, and caught the woman as she embraced him like a grandmother embraces her grown grandchild.
“By the gods, we knew you were alive, but feared the worst when the cold winds failed to blow. Is it true? Was your birth-brother, the god-wolf, Ceolas the Cold, slain? Is it true that the Isenshrike stalks the North?” the old woman whispered, releasing her grip on Beard.
The warrior remembered the body of his wolf-brother laying bloody upon the plain, how it was mangled and the dark mark carved into its head. How he had bellowed in rage and mourning to the sky as he held the wolf’s remains and made their burial.
“It is true, I am afraid,” Beard replied gravely.
The crone began to sob. “Such dark times we are living in.”
Beard helped the crone make camp. He was not used to the weeping of women and so tried his best to make the day pass easily for her. He could see that she was in need of rest for it seemed she’d traveled through the night and in great haste.
“Rest and tell me of the state of the kingdom when you can,” Beard grunted. “I have seen some of the cruelty of the tribes in my observations of the Traitor’s Wier, and would know more of it.”
The crone nodded her head and slept bundled among her belongings in the cart. Her dogs dug for water beneath the soil and Beard joined them as they slaked their thirst. The warrior felt no disgrace in drinking with dogs, for in some ways he too was a dog of the North. His thirst quenched, Beard waited for the old crone to wake.
The old woman woke a few hours later with red-rimmed eyes: she had wept in her sleep. Beard did not press her for information, but as soon as she awoke, she drank some from a small wineskin she produced from her robes and sat in thought with hands folded before speaking in tones most grave.
“It was a few days after your banishment that things began to turn dark. The tribes could not elect a leader, and many, the blood rage leaving them, secretly held sentiment with the smithe that you had been wrongly accused. But these thoughts were only spoken in secret and hushed tones. Soon after your banishment, a darkness settled upon the tribes, the Elders particularly affected. Men with agendas came forward and many who were weak of mind quickly followed them.
These men of ill agenda were given power and those that followed them -- men of lesser upbringing and lesser courage -- were given weapons and received power and standing as well. This plague of darkness spread among the scattered tribes and soon the “Council of Free Men”, as they fashioned themselves, gained a loose rule over all. They solidified their claim with a brute squad, cowards who barely passed the tests of courage, men who could easily be whipped into a frenzy and strengthened by their numbers.
They spoke of a kingless nation and of ancient times before Kortgel unified the tribes. They spoke of freedom of rage, freedom of power, freedom of pillage. Their message was strong and many followed them.
The true men of Thorgithe, warriors devoted to your father and to you, had their beasts stolen and their sons and daughters slain if they spoke but a word in your favor. Great men forced to feign loyalty to their lessers to protect their bloodlines. In secret however, they made plans of unthinkable desperation... to leave the North and regroup in the coddling nations of the south with the hope to one day return and reforge the seat of Thorgithe, to wrest power from the hands of the counsel and restore the line of kings.”
The old crone took another drink from her wineskin.
“This would be no easy task” she continued. “The Council of Freemen has gained sway over most of the North in so short a time it seems unnatural how swiftly their influence has spread. They shut down rebellion, brutally and efficiently. They closed down the fort cities. The bodies of loyalists and conspirators attempting to restore the rule of the line of Kgortel stand at every crossroad from here to the godspath in the far north.”
“But ” the old crone paused dramatically ”a glimmer of hope came in the most unlikely of forms... WAR came to the north.”
“As the tribes began to reassemble beneath the banner of the council, the Eastwood struck out from their ancient borders. Where the wildmen of the wood went I cannot say, but their grimlive trees tore into the easternmost tribelands. It was in this new threat that those loyal to your fathers saw a chance for their tribes to escape. The council also saw an opportunity, a chance to eliminate those loyal to your father.
The thirteen greatest warriors in all of Thorgithe, hardened veterans who served beneath King Begrin -- known dissidents -- were put at the front lines in a counter-assault upon the Eastwood. Their names you should know well, Beard, for I believe they were once as family to you: Thonir the Sturdy, Dorin the Strong, Norin the Bold, Orin the Swift, Banil the Berzerk, Dwanil the Harsh, Fiiltgar the Bloody, Kiiltgar the Wrathful, Oinar the Axe, Glonir the Wise, Bifurth the Bear, Bofurth the Eye, and Bumbor the Drunk. In secret each swore an oath upon the blood of your father that they would see the plan through, desperate thought it was.”
Beard nodded as the crone spoke. He knew these warriors well. He had grown up among them and some even joked that they were his surrogate uncles. When Beard had endured his banishment and was beaten, these thirteen had been away in the far north hunting dire wolves in the Godspire. Had they been at home things may have turned out differently. If they had been in the hall that day, Beard would have spent these past weeks in mourning for his father from his throne leading his people in grief.
“The plan” The old continued “ was to split the loyal into two groups. The first group, behind the thirteen warriors, would break through the lines of the Eastwood and on through the forest till they reached the Shaman’s Scar and gain entry to the south-- a most desperate gambit but the one least likely to be stopped by the council’s warriors. How could they?” the old cron scoffed. “The council’s men could always be found at the rear of battle.” she chuckled.
“The second group, with a handful of loyal warriors, would make for Buildar’s Gate. This group was largely formed of the sickly, weak, elderly, and women with young children who could not run across the field of battle and through the woods. This group knew that they would most likely die, since the council’s men were well trained at preying upon the week. But the old and the sick were resolved to escape or die in the attempt and in so doing help the young and the strong escape to fight again.” The old woman continued, after wetting her lips with a drought from her wineskin.
“My son was a warrior in the second group. I elected to stay behind and relay information through my daughter, who lives in Buildar, to the outside. So it was that I found myself upon the field to watch the battle, for fair or foul, and truly it was a sight to be seen.If we survive this age of darkness the account of the battle will be a song the bards sing for ages and a tale the skalds will tell in the halls of kings until worlds end.” she continued weakly.
The old crones voice slipped into the sing song rhythm of the storytellers of the north as she recounted the events of the battle to Beard.
“The Eastwood had raised an army of the dead, festering with vinerash and rotspores, the corpses at the front line bloated and filled with poisonous bile. The Thirteen stood tall at the front of Thorgithe’s line with a few trusted warriors by their sides, old campaigners all, their iron armor gleaming in the light of Sol. Behind the forces of the north, the brute squad of the Council of Freemen goaded the warriors with their cruel spears and whips ready for any who would try to leave the field or use the battle to turn against the council. This the greatest sign of their falling, no warrior of Thorgithe gives ground in battle. Had the brute squad remembered their pride they would have known that they would not be needed. There is but one way for a true warrior, forward, to victory or death.
The surrounding hills were filled with battle camps. Beneath the cover of the pavilion tents where normally healers and soothsayers held court, hid the families of the warriors on the field, prepared for flight at the sound of Thonir the Stout’s call, a long single blast from his legendary horn, The Bellows.
The horns of war were called and the banners of the tribes flew, perhaps for the last time, unified in a sickly winter wind.
The field exploded with the fury of battle, the air filled with the splatter of blood and bile. Diseased rot flew through the sky as the Eastwood’s corpse soldiers detonated amongst wholesome men who were turned almost at once into shambling forces of the Eastwood.
The Thirteen pressed on, undeterred and untainted, their armor and weapons imbued with ancient runes of warding. They cut a line through the restless dead nearly reaching the forestline before the fel trees themselves joined the fray.
The Eastwood recognized the strength of the force they faced and summoned from their ranks an ancient creature from a forgotten age, his name a legend, his deeds shrouded in myth, Ironroot the Fellfire.” The old crone paused after whispering the creatures name and shuddred beneath her furs. When she continued her voice was strained, like a bonecaster speaking of futures unseen and pasts better forgotten.
“It is said that during the construction of Turin’s Wall, when it came time for its black stones to rise above and cut through the Eastwood, seven legion of men and seven more of workers disappeared into the shadows beneath those ancient trees. When an eight legion was sent to see what happend to the seven and seven they found that the wall was built but only a few men were left to tell the tale… and they were mad, clawing at the stones, crying out the names of friends. They gibbered in the dark of a colossal tree that walked with a step that caused the earth to shudder, and that breathed a fell fire, green and filled with diseased smoke, its bark of iron and its eyes full of hate. They would shiver and froth at its name, and on nights when the moon’s light cleared the darkness, these broken men could be found at the nearest tree, clawing at its bark with bloody nails and chanting a name with fevered eyes. ‘Ironroot... Ironroot...’
So appeared the creature of myth, Ironroot, a horror conjured out of memory upon the field of battle.
Orin the Swift, leading the charge, met the creature in battle. Ironroot scoffed at the warrior and unleashed its unholy flame laughing as it billowed from its cursed maw. The fire burned all that stood before the creature, friend and foe alike, but Orin stood, aflame and unwavering, still striking out at the creature, his body burning as he went. May his name go down in the annals of time.
Orin ran up the side of the massive fiend, and launched his spear down the creature’s gullet, puncturing the accursed organ from whence the fire came before his charred corpse fell back to earth. Even so, Ironroot was undeterred. Swinging its massive limbs, the nightmare broke the line of the Thirteen and scattered the forces of the North.
It was then that I saw a sight I thought I would never see: the Council of Freemen and their brutes left the field. Never in all my cycles have I seen any man of the North leave the field of battle. Possessed by darkness or cowardice, they are still men of Thorgithe and battle is a sacred calling. It was unbelievable.
Bumbor and Bifurth fell back to secure the rear while the warriors rallied to keep a lane clean into the Eastwood and hopefully to the Shaman’s Scar. They had no choice, it was then or never. With the field quickly falling to the Eastwood, Thonir blew the Bellows and called their families to leave the tents and run through the small channel they had cut into the Eastwood’s forces. The dead grew frenzied. The smell of the young flesh running through the field of battle awakened a primal hunger in them that the whipvines of their Eastwood masters failed to inspire.
Bumbor was overwhelmed and torn to shreds. Bifurth closed in and fought as if her were two while his brethren at the front continued to press battle against Ironroot and cut a hole in the Eastwood’s defenses. Bifurth and his handful of warriors held as best they could, stacking the spore rotten dead high, but they were hard-pressed and the column fell into a small circle of warriors trying to defend the flanks of their kith and kin.
The women and children began to arm themselves with the weapons of the fallen and took to battle, Thorgithen warriors all.
Bifurth’s wife fell and was turned. She turned upon her husband. He could not turn his sword against her and died embracing her as she chewed a hole through his neck, his spirit broken.
The remaining ten of the original thirteen circled back amongst the other warriors. They could not press on against the wood with their families in such immediate danger from the restless dead. The twitching corpses swarmed on all sides. It seemed defeat and death were inevitable. I stayed upon that lonely hill and watched, if the last true men of Thorgithe were to fall, then someone had witness it, someone had to live to tell their tale.
But then a strange man appeared, panting and as scrawny as a starved ghost, with a shambling horde of the dead behind him. It seemed unnecessary to obliterate the norths forces in this way, but there was something different about these dead, they were not covered in vine and wood rot: they were wholesome undead, if such a thing could be, men raised by necrotic magic and not the curses of the Eastwood. The scrawny stranger joined battle on the side of the Northmen screaming “Life is life!” or something, none knew of what he spoke, but his hordes were able to push back the trees and the Eastwood’s dead combined. Perhaps these dead bared some memory of their former lives, for they fought like cornered rats, biting and chewing, tearing and clawing. These wholesome dead dragged their vine-infested cousins to the ground and covered them with their own bodies when the corpse-bombs tried to explode near living men.
So the battle turned, however Ironroot still stood, its great limbs shivering with rage, blocking the only path to escape. What could they do? The men fought on, distracting the great tree, while their families escaped.
It was a thing of glory to see, such a battle comes round maybe once or twice in a generation. While most families made the crossing safely into the woods and on to Southron, only seven of the original Thirteen are said to have made it to that ancient pass. Ask me not who was among the living for the battle was far too fierce and I was forced to flee when the Council returned to take out its anger on those of us left behind.
I was told later that the second group that had made their way to Buildar’s Gate was caught during the brute squad’s retreat, only half making it into the city before the Council’s decree to kill those who’d fled reached the guards of the gate. It was then the Traitor’s Wier was constructed. I stayed near the seat of Thorgithe and waited for word from my daughter, but no word came.
My son was slain protecting those who left for Buildar and so I have had little hope left to keep me going. Without word from my daughter, I decided to flee and seek her out. At the very least find her corpse for burial. So I set out with some of the groups of travelers heading to Buildar in the guise of trade. I fell behind as they went on and know not their fate. But I do know that the Eastwood is still on the move and that the thing called Ironroot ravages the lands in the north, wearing a grim totem, a necklace with four pendants, three skeletons white as snow and one charred black as night.” The old woman finished her tale, eyes wet, and red rimmed.
Beard gazed beyond the old woman, his eyes blazing with the fires of rage. The Eastwood had earned a bloody debt with Beard, one of many in his growing collection. The warrior turned to the old crone, his voice grim.
“Tomorrow we make for the Traitor’s Wier”
The wind rustled the grass on the open plain outside the city. Buildar’s Gate was quiet save the occasional sound of a drunkard stumbling home through one of the many dark alleys that weaved through the trade city. No sober person would be out on such a night, not if they’d heard the whispers racing through the streets, the rumors that were on everyone’s lips, or felt the fear that gripped the citizens’ minds. No, drink was the only thing that could numb away the words, the fear, and the knowledge that something in the city wasn’t quite right and perhaps never would be again. Only drink could make one forget the legends of the Slaverer and the fears that it had been summoned once more.
Beard woke with a jolt, his keen Thorgithen senses narrowing upon that which had disturbed his sleep. In the distance, he saw the unmistakable glow of a steppe-cat’s eyes peering at him hungrily in the dark. The warrior tasted the wind and felt its direction as it blew through his long beard. Warriors of the North took pride in their beards, but there was something unnatural about Beard’s: its luster was too deep, its hairs too thick, its length far greater than it should’ve been for a man not even in his twentieth cycle. But Beard could never guess his true age. Already his life had been changed irrevocably by strange magicks, his age tainted by untold cycles in the feyrealms. To those on the outside, it had seemed a miracle: a boy of thirteen had entered the cave of trials to slay a handful of daemons only to walk out full-grown and well-muscled with a lustrous beard, a magic ring, and the head of a Daemon King. But so it was for the young warrior exile known as Beard.
He took aim with a long, thin tapered hunting spear and made an impossible cast. The death shriek of the jackalope it struck echoed into the night. The steppe-cat turned from the warrior and went to find the free meal he had provided.
The moon was high, but the sky overcast with the waning winter. Ceolas the Cold, god-wolf of the cruel northern wind was dead and the barbarian lands of Thorgithe were poorer for it. Beard was poorer for it. Ceolas had been, in many ways, his brother. Both had suckled at the teat of the ancient wolf goddess, Wuthweirgen. Ceolas had been her son, but Beard was her charge. She seemed to have some purpose for him, but had yet to make it known. It is time to leave the north, Beard thought as he began to pack up the camp he’d shared with an old crone he’d met the day before. She had traveled from the seat of Thorgithe and bore grave news for the young exiled king, but Beard had taken it in stride.
And yet so much had changed in so short a time.
The two of them had business in the city of Buildar’s Gate and both had need of the other. Beard, branded as a traitor for a crime he did not commit, needed aid in entering the city without being discovered. The crone needed help locating her daughter who lived whithin the city proper. The old crone had lost contact with the woman many weeks ago, and began to lose hope that she would find the girl still alive, and quietly resolved herself for the seeming inevitability of finding her corpse. Thus, the unlikely pair set out towards the gated city, Beard hidden within the old woman’s cart, his hands deftly gripping the dagger the crone had lent him. If their feint failed, there was always force.
After a few hours, the cart came to a creaking halt before the killing fields that lie in front of the so-called Traitor’s Wier, a new addition to the trade city in these troubled times. It had been hastily constructed, but its reputation had grown just as swiftly. It was a gate of iron, wood, and spikes and littered with the blood and corpses of those who’d been cut down before it. Two men stood before the wier, hooded and dressed in executioner black, the black and red flag of the Council of Free Men billowing out from their massive halberds. The old crone steadied herself and approached the gate, stepping over the severed limbs and digits the crows had not yet picked clean along the path. The Thorgithen dogs, half-war-dog half-dire-wolf, that pulled her cart drooled at the smell of blood. The cart stalled before the gate and the hooded men approached the crone.
“What is your name?” the first guard asked, his voice nasally and rough.
“Bruith,” the crone replied. “Bruith Craigborn.”
“What is your quest?” the second guard asked, his voice quite similar to the first.
“Excuse me?” said Bruith. “I am here to see my daughter. If you would be kind enough to let me pass...”
The two guards stepped back and held a whispered conference.
“What is the shape of the high councilor’s scar, the one just above his left eye? The one he received during his trial as a youth?” the two asked together.
A test of loyalty. Bruith, as a member of the resistance, had been worried about this, but she was not entirely unprepared. The members of the High Council were secretive to those who did not attend their meetings. Bruith was wise, however, and could guess that the council was most likely made up of the old Council of Elders from before the fall of the King and Jaric Treescar as High Elder had always been an ambitious one.
“The scar forms a tree, a yew specifically,” Bruith replied, hoping to sound more confident than she was.
More whispering from the hooded men.
“You are... correct!” the men replied. “Welcome to Buildar’s Gate.”
The old crone breathed a sigh of relief as the two men opened the gate and allowed her and her cart to enter the city.
Buildar’s Gate was cold and quiet. Not a soul was to be seen upon the silent, empty streets and the only sign of life was from a murmur of sound coming from the guard’s barracks back at the Traitor’s Wier. The crone and her warrior cargo hidden among the various goods in her cart passed quietly along.
After turning a few covert corners and finding a shadowy nook beneath an archway between two inns, Beard exited the cart. As his feet hit the ground, a nauseating squelch came from the ground beneath him.
“Crone, get me a light,” Beard barked, tired of their sneaking.
The old woman did as Beard commanded and, after handing him the light, retched into the street as silently as she could. Beard had landed on what appeared to be the top half of a man’s severed torso, forcing the bodies remaining innards to spill out upon the cobbles. The warrior stepped gingerly off the corpse and examined the unusual scene. After some examination of the location and the state of the body, he jerked the crone swiftly away from the open sewer grate she’d been retching down.
“See here,” Beard said as he pointed to the identical grate that lay a few feet from the man. “It appears he’d been crawling out of the sewer and had been caught in the act of escaping. See how his nails are drawn and red from clutching at the street stones whilst his lower half appears to have been torn from him. Some foul creature stalks the tunnels beneath the city. What the damn fool was doing in those tunnels could be nothing good, but no one deserves to die in such a manner. Be wary of the grates.”
The two unlikely travelers set off once more. Beard had planned on leaving the old woman once they were inside the city, but after such a scene, he thought it better to see the crone to her daughter’s house before departing. As the old woman and the warrior traveled through the streets, they took note of the complete lack of the usual bustling of a city at night. There were no drunks staggering down the streets, singing folk songs and holding onto buildings and barrels as if the were sailors fighting the pull of a maelstrom. There were no whores plying their trade, calling from high windows or loitering outside the taverns. There were no thieves or cutpurses or nobles making shady deals in darkness with assassins. Not even the beggars were out looking for loose change among the filth of the street. None stirred in the city of Buildar’s Gate. That is not to say the two did not run into people... they did. They were just no longer living -- a body hidden behind a barrel in an alley, a cold hand gripping the air from a sewer grate, a foot here, a finger there, and one white-robed body swinging from an archway above the road.
At long last they arrived at the inn where the crone’s daughter kept a room. It was not the best inn in town, but it wasn’t the worst either. It could afford a doorman, but it appeared that he could not afford the armor that would have stopped the knife that protruded from his chest, pinning him to the wall within the doorway. The floor was slick with cold blood: the doorman had been dead for some time.
The silence in the inn felt forced, like every occupant was holding their breath, pretending to be asleep whilst hiding beneath their sheets. Beard pulled the dagger from the doorman’s chest and let him fall unceremoniously to the floor. He handed the bloody weapon to the crone and took the doorman’s sword lying unused at his side, then motioned the old woman to stay by her dogs. The warrior entered the inn with steely resolve and a calmness of breath that takes most men a lifetime to achieve. He entered that perfect state of readiness, where every muscle fiber is ready for action and yet the body remains effortlessly relaxed. It came naturally to him. He approached the stairs with caution, knowing that the culprit of whatever crime had taken place had long-since fled. The warrior was more prepared for those that may have gained some courage over the past few hours and may spring on him thinking he was the villain come to return to the scene. Up the stairs Beard crept. Though more at ease with the open sky above and solid ground beneath his feet, he was not unfamiliar with the nuances of enclosed combat and interior stealth -- his foot falls were as silent as a steppe-cat stalking prey.
At last he reached the first rooming floor where the crone’s daughter took her quarters. There was an open room at the end of a long hall, the door rent from the frame with signs of struggle all along the way -- a torn painting, a ripped tapestry, some broken pottery. Whoever entered the inn appeared to be unworried about the noise they made or, perhaps, had no need to fear it, knowing that all who stayed there were cowards. Beard edged closer to the room and, with sword in hand, entered the open chamber.
The room was empty, but in a state of utter destruction. Some significant struggle had taken place. Beard judged by the strewn feminine clothing about the floor and the Thorgithen dagger that lay unsheathed and tossed in a corner that this was the room of the crone’s daughter. Beard picked up the dagger and entered the hall, sighing as he came to face a hallway filled with the weapon-baring tenants of the inn.
“Caught returning to the scene of the crime!” a rather portly man bellowed. Beard judged him to be the innkeeper.
“If you fools had reacted this way when the crime had actually taken place, it may have never occurred,” Beard spat at them. “Now out of my way, I have a mother to inform of her daughter’s kidnapping.”
The crowd did not move. Quite the contrary, they came surging forward, looking for a man to burn, guilty or no, so that they could feel as if they’d done something. Beard dodged the robust innkeeper’s jab with what looked to be blunted display spear and then punched him so hard in the face that he fell into the mob behind him, pinning some to the floor beneath him. The nimble warrior then leapt over the bannister and landed upon the floor below as graceful as a cat before sauntering over to the old crone and handing over her daughter’s dagger.
“I have business in the South and the North holds nothing but bitter memories for me now. However, before my fortune takes me along that path, I shall find your daughter... or return her remains to you. This I swear upon my father’s crown.” Beard swore to the old woman before running off into the night, the doorman’s naked sword in hand.
Beard flew into the empty streets, his eyes darting left and right for that which he sought: a sewer grate large enough to grant him access to the tunnels beneath the city. It did not take long to find one. The warrior felt around the edges, his fingers picking up the subtle signs of recent use and the faint scratches made by a human hand as it tried to find purchase on the smooth stones to avoid being dragged into the depths beneath the streets. Beard removed the grate and jumped feet-first into the darkness below, sword at the ready.
The Thorgithen landed nimbly upon the tunnel floor and was immediately surprised at its size and construction. He had imagined the sewer tunnels would be just large enough for a man to creep down and do occasional maintenance, but these were large enough that five men abreast could walk with room to spare. The walls were of unusual construction: dark, damp and smoother than most natural stones. Beard examined the floor, though the light from above was barely sufficient. He could just make out the tracks of a group carrying a burden and which direction they were heading. The warrior cursed his speedy pursuit as he realized he would have to continue on in darkness because he’d forgotten to grab a light. No matter, Beard thought, I have hunted on nights darker than this.
Beard followed the tunnel for several minutes, keeping his eyes shut and his ears open, his muscles ever at the ready. He began to feel that something was watching him and more than once thought that he heard a faint rustling coming from within the tunnel wall. Rats and vermin, he tried to tell himself as he ran onward down the black tunnel. Beard began to feel as if he had wandered for hours, but knew it was just the darkness getting to him, the confinement of the tunnel, the feeling of being watched. He grew paranoid and, every so often, would halfheartedly swing into the shadows that seemed blacker than the rest just in case something was there.
The air began to feel heavy in his chest, but he was not winded... Beard of Thorgithe was built for running like a horse on an open plain. No, this was a different weight. It felt as if the air itself was heavy within his lungs. The warrior began to slow and take great heaving breaths. Heavier and heavier the air felt within his lungs and soon Beard found himself falling to his knees and gasping for breath, clutching at his throat. A terrible prickling feeling danced across his skin and his body became slick with a cold sweat as he drowned in the open air of the tunnel. “Yes, lie down,” a voice whispered from everywhere and nowhere at once.
“It is painful, yes? It is laborious, yes? Is it not troublesome to keep breathing? Why not stop? Why not rest? Why not sleep?” The voice went on and on, whispering in its moist tones.
Beard felt a clawed, cold, clammy hand rest upon his shoulder. In an instant, the warrior was back on his feet, his eyes ablaze as he struck out in the darkness. His blade sunk home and a death wail echoed down the tunnel. Beard could feel the warm blood rush over his hands while a body slumped off the blade and landed heavily upon the tunnel floor. The warrior felt out for the corpse and ran his hands over it until he found its mouth. His hand paused there and waited to feel a breath for he felt compelled to confirm the kill. No breath, no pulse. The warrior felt through the darkness and stabbed the body through the neck, severing its spine, anyway. He felt down to its hands... normal, human. He felt around the body and found a small satchel attached to its belt. Beard rifled around inside for a bit and finally found what he was looking for: a few sticks of quicklights in a small rough box. He struck one against the box and its warm orange light filled the tunnel.
Beneath him was the body of a man, normal as any other, but robed all in white save the red blood now staining the robes and the grime around the hems from being worn in the sewers. He had a youthful face and a strange pennant around his neck. Beard reached out to pick it up and examine it further, but as his hand hovered over it his Thorgithen instincts kicked in and bayed him not to touch it. He searched the man over for anything else of value as swiftly as he could as the light of the quicklight was rapidly fading.
With nothing of value found, Beard swiftly ripped some dry strips of cloth from the man’s robes and, having no stick to wrap it round, broke the man’s arm at the joints and extracted the larger of the two bones that make up his forearm to use as a torch. The warrior was reluctant to use it, but the cloth would burn too quickly on its own, Beard took some of the precious smoked direwolf fat that Thorgithen warriors use to maintain their weapons from the pouch kept on his person at all times and greased the torch. He lit another quicklight, lit the torch, and continued on down the tunnel. He had not gone but fifteen steps when he heard a rustling noise behind him. Swiftly the warrior turned around, torch in one hand, sword in the other. There was nothing there, not even the body of the man Beard had slain, just some blood splatters from where the man was struck dead and fell and from where Beard had mutilated the body to make the torch. Fear does not enter a Thorgithen’s vocabulary, they only have a word for cowardice, and Beard was no coward; even so, he judged it in his best interest to swiftly travel onward.
With a light in hand, Beard was able to track more efficiently and, thankfully, there had yet to be side-tunnels. He knew this because the warrior would’ve been able to tell even in the darkness if there had been another direction to take because the air would’ve changed a bit at the intersection. In addition and after a quick thought, Beard felt there must’ve been some other way in and out of the main tunnel and that, whatever had taken the body was watching him and was most likely using this elusive entrance. The tracks of the burdened party were still there to read on the floor and Beard continued to follow them.
After several more minutes that felt like an eternity, Beard saw a light ahead of him, green and pulsating. The warrior quickly snuffed his torch, but kept it in his hand to use as a club if need be. He crept on down the tunnel and, as he got closer to the light, began to hear the voices of those ahead. They sounded human, but their voices had a strange wetness about them. Beard had seen a warrior bite through his tongue whilst training once and the voices ahead sounded much like the voice of that unfortunate warrior whose mouth filled with blood and whose severed tongue lolled around in his mouth. Drums began to join the voices, which began a frenzied chant. Then screams joined the chorus, clear and shrill -- the voices of women in panic. Beard forgot stealth and bolted down the tunnel.
The warrior erupted into a horrendous scene. White-robed cultists stood round a black throne surrounded in green flame. Partially consumed bodies of the townsfolk were everywhere and upon seven black altars surrounding the central throne were strapped seven new victims, two of which were already dead. The cultists, to Beard’s horror, were consuming the victims and, from the state of the bodies from which they fed, Beard imagined that the screaming he heard was from these two being eaten alive.
The warrior had heard of cannibal cults before, but could never imagine such a gruesome scene as human men dressed in white robes stained red from feasting on their still-living victims. As Beard entered the room he took no time in braining the nearest cultist with his bone torch before plunging his sword into the next. The room was in an uproar and the cultists swarmed at the enraged warrior, he cut them down, one after another, as they came into range. Beard noticed that some of them had filed their teeth and still others seemed to be in the middle of some kind of transformation, their mouths elongated with horselike teeth, filed as well. The change made them drool incessantly and their tongues loll long, red, and raw within their mouths. Beard could not imagine what was twisting these men’s forms, but it was better to put such monstrosities down for they were men no longer.
As the bodies began to pile around Beard’s feet and the floor began to become slick with blood, a great wind rushed through the open room. The fire burned white-hot and all the cultists stopped their assault and stared like dogs watching for their master. They stared, mouths agape, at the black throne. Eyes turned upwards towards the ceiling and Beard saw that which they had been waiting for -- a grotesque creature that looked like a cross between a lizard and a man. Its body was covered in pale, white flesh, human, and yet it had an inhuman sheen. It was well-muscled and taller than a man when it stood. Currently, it was gripping the ceiling like a lizard with long yellow claws that were blackened at the tips. It had a reptilian tail and its head was similar, a mix between man and reptile, long and with rows of sharp lizard like teeth, but with eyes that looked human. It also seemed to have a human-like expression stretched across its grotesque face: it looked elated. The creature dropped from the ceiling like a court acrobat, headfirst toward the throne where it caught itself, grabbing the ornately carved throne before turning over and, with disgusting grace, took seat upon it.
“Gentleman, we have some entertainment before tonight’s feast. I have watched this man for some time as he traveled so willingly into our lair. I had asked young Barius to bring him to us so we could talk as civilized men, but this man has killed him,” it spoke with a wet hiss as drool dropped along its lips.
“I think I should most like to kill him, wouldn’t you?” the creature asked, looking at the frenzied men around him. “Yes, I think that would be very fun indeed.” Then it leapt from its throne and scuttled towards Beard with unsettling speed.
Beard, recognizing a situation where honorable combat would lead to a swift death, kicked the body of a dead cultist at the creature and hit it dead on, knocking it backwards before the warrior starting to pick through the creature’s minions one by one. The cultists had their fair taste of the warrior’s blade, but had failed to realize just how unmatched they were. They, augmented and frenzied as they were, were still just men -- some from the Southron, a few from the fringe tribes of Thorgithe. None had ever faced a true Thorgithen in battle, much less one who was the warrior-son of the king. Beard worked through them like a wolf among sheep, all the while keeping his eye on the strange lizard-thing that had gotten back to its feet and was now circling behind its minions.
Dodging and striking as he went, the warrior worked his way to the back of the chamber. The men attacked mostly with claws and sharpened teeth, some had daggers, but most were trying to use their inhuman weapons with little effectiveness. It did not take long for the warrior-son of Thorgithe to make short work of them. Those that were not dead were severely wounded and were of no further danger to anyone. Beard shook the blood from his blade and the sweat from his beard and began to move to put himself between the creature and the still-bound victims on the altars. The creature did not seem to notice, so fixed it was on the young warrior who had slain all the men whom it had spent these many months gathering to serve it. Its return had been less glorious than it thought... if only it had had more time.
“You smell of a demoness,” the creature goaded.
Beard wore the hidden ring of a demoness suitor who loved him once, a woman fair and beautiful beyond all imagining. It was his time with her that tainted his age. He had been thirteen when he entered her enchanted realm and then walked out a man and all was as a dream. Only his ring and the ache in his chest as he remembered her name bore testament to his time in the other world.
“It seems you have known the touch of such a pitiful creature,” the thing continued. “It would probably pain you to know that I have slain many. My own mother was the first, of course, but I found it so enjoyable that I began to search for others. Perhaps you hadn’t gathered this already, but I am a daemon and quite outside your class. It really would be better for you to lie down and die and then, perhaps, I could search out the one that gave you that ring and make some more of my kind.”
Beard felt fire rising in his chest for he knew all too well of what the creature spoke. The demons are a fair race, fey but cursed. If a pure demon and demoness bear children they are twisted and evil creatures such as this one, called “daemons,” scourges of the world. So most demon men cloister themselves in the study of the arcane and leave their women to human men who give them children, fair and beautiful. Beard had seen the cruel lives that the accursed raced lived and had nothing but hate for the creature before him.
The creature sniffed the air delicately and tasted it with his tongue. “My, my,” the daemon hissed, “weren’t you the lucky one? If my senses do not deceive me, you spent some time with the starlit princess herself! Now she is a legend, the one they call Vel...”
The daemon did not have a chance to finish the name that was upon its lips for Beard’s sword had silenced it forever. With unnatural speed, Beard had sprung upon the creature, propelling his sword into its chest with such a blow that the blade sprang from its back and the hilt collapsed the creature’s ribcage as it struck. The daemon staggered back in shock and didn’t even see the bone-torch Beard brought down upon its skull, the force of which brained the creature, causing its jaw to split as its head hit the sewer floor. Beard stood above the slain daemon, panting for breath, calming his rage. His composure regained, he approached the bloody altars. Four of the remaining victims had fainted but one was still conscious, her eyes watching Beard’s every move.
“Is your mother named Bruith?” Beard asked, his voice gruff but not unkind.
The woman nodded.
Beard smiled. “Then I have been able to serve at least one of my people.” The woman’s eyes went wide as she realized who Beard was and, after he released her, she quickly aided him, unbinding the other women and bringing them to consciousness.
“You were very brave, daughter of Bruith,” Beard spoke to the woman softly. “I know you may still be in shock, but can you tell me what that creature’s name was?”
“The Slaverer... it... it was called the Slaverer,” the woman replied. “But why does it matter?” A fury built in Beard’s eyes and his voice was as deep and as cold as a winter storm. “So that when I meet my next daemon, I may tell him the fate of its kin. The fate that it and any other daemon I find will share.”
“Is it true what it said?” the girl inquired. “That you have laid with a demoness?
“Do you know what it’s like in the twilight realms?” Beard returned her question with his own.
“No,” she replied. The other woman, despite their shock, seemed to be interested in the conversation as well.
“It is a land with perpetual evening light, the sky always a brilliant purple. There is no Sol or Moonrise to show the passing of days and the air is ever sweet and warm,” Beard said with a sigh. “You ask me if I have laid with a demoness. I shall tell you since I’ve saved you, though what I say should not leave this gory room.
“I have lived the lifetime of a dozen men with the lady of starlight in the evening realms. I was her rescuer, her lover, and...” Beard unconsciously twisted the invisible ring on his left hand. “I was her husband for a time as well. I could have spent my entire life in her delicate arms, but it was not meant to be. She told me some of the future that was bore me, but not all of it, and bayed me to return to this accursed realm. You ask me if I have laid with her and I tell you that she and I shared our souls and were both changed because of it. Her realm has crumbled and she is lost to me. And here I am, bloody and spat upon, called a traitor in my own lands. I hope that satiates your curiosity.” Beard finished sardonically.
The women stood silent, their hearts filled with a sorrow they could not understand. Beard lead them back down the tunnel where they came upon the remains of the man the Slaverer had called Barius. It appeared that the creature had made a snack of him before coming to the chamber. The group left his remains where they lay. Soon, they reached the entrance Beard had leapt down and found the old crone, Bruith, trying to climb down a rope with her daughter’s dagger gripped in her gums.
The crone and her daughter cried as they were reunited and Beard climbed the rope and then pulled the women up in twos. Sol was rising, his rays of light peeking above the buildings and filling the city with warmth. Sensing it was time to escape, the warrior took off at a run: he had to be out of the city by daybreak or risk the guards searching for him. Truthfully, he did not trust all the women he’d saved, especially those who might spread the rumor that Beard, the exiled traitor, was in town and had rescued them.
The warrior heard a whistle behind him then and saw the old crone calling to her dogs. She unleashed one and sent it bounding after Beard. The great beast caught up to the warrior with ease, bowing its head by him as he ran. Beard recognized the gesture and grabbed hold of the beast’s scruff before swinging up onto its back. The mighty dog doubled its speed and shot through the streets until it was barreling south towards the Gate of Buildar. Before the two creatures of the north the great gate rose, illuminated in the brilliant light of Sol. The white stone gleamed within the morning rays and, despite Beards distaste for the remnants of ancient wars, he was in awe of the mighty gate.
The stone doors began to open, soon it would be flooded with traders moving between the two wards of the bisected city, each traveler being extensively checked by the border guards. Beard could see them now, the small regiment forming at the gate as it continued to open. The guards were tired, but not so tired to miss the massive sledge dog baring a blood slicked and heavily muscled warrior upon its back. The guards began to form lines, but to late, the great sledge dog easily bounded over the line before it could truly form. It shot through the great opening but was stopped by a resounding boom. A liquid like ripple through the air within the gate, it was if all time had stopped around the warrior and beast, and only Beard was aware of all that was around him. He could see the guards frozen in their attempt to scramble after him, the air dead still, the city birds frozen in flight, and even the sledge beast beneath his mighty thighs did not heave with the drawing breath. The white stone of the gate began to glow brilliant white, and then Beard felt it, an oppressive searing heat radiated out from the strange stones. Beard could hear a sinister howl like some mad fiend shouting a thousand curses in its wicked tongue, and the smell of burning wind filled his nose. The world moved again. The dog kept running with Beard still latched upon its back, faster and faster, froth foaming upon its lips.
The pair reached the gate upon the southern wall, the last obstacle before the relative freedom of the Ghuahadine Steppe. The gate into the south proved to be even more heavily guarded then the Gate of Buildar. The mighty sledge dog dodged to the side with surprising agility, avoiding the garrison, and leapt onto a low rooftop and then up to the tops of the buildings, running along rooftops until the creature could see just above the wall. The beast could not leave the crone, but it would see Beard safely to the Southron lands.
The dog leapt from the last rooftop in a high arch and, at the height of the jump, Beard leapt from the creature’s back and over the wall, landing lightly on his feet and tumbling in the grass on the other side. Beard heard the dog run off into the streets and made note to repay it and its master’s kindness one day. The warrior could hear the guards rallying on the other side of the wall, they were preparing their horses to give chase. Though they did not know who this warrior was or why he had jumped the wall, he seemed important to catch if he’d gone to such lengths to escape.
Beard chuckled to himself and took off running at his barbarian pace into the Southron lands, knowing that the guards would tell tales till the end of their days of the time they gave chase to the exiled traitor King of Thorgithe.