Part II can be found here.
Broc woke the next morning to the smell of fresh bacon and biscuits, and the sound of women’s voices. As he walked through his parents’ home, ducking low through the doorways, he could see that his father was gone from his parents’ bed. Entering the main living area, he found himself confronted by a small child, no more than a year old, with a head full of golden curls. The boy, holding onto the edge of a rough-hewn wooden table, looked up at him, blue eyes widening, then grinned a smile with only one or two teeth and babbled at him, as if trying to impart some bit of important information. It was Hanne Magnusdottir’s babe, whether girl or boy he did not know.
Broc looked around the room for any of the women especially Hanne. Seeing no one, he looked down at the child. “What are you trying to tell me, lad?” Broc said to the diminutive human. Staring down, he listened to the child babble more incoherent statements. Broc started to chuckle quietly at the situation of the young child seemingly having an enjoyable conversation with the large man. “Well,” started Broc, “Let’s see if we can find your mother.” And with that, Broc hoisted up the child and strode around the house looking for the child’s mother or at least his own mother.
Hanne and Delling were at the clothes-lines, taking down the laundry and folding it as they talked. The younger woman had a serious, perhaps even unhappy, expression on her face. When the child saw Hanne, the babbling turned into loud squeals of excitement, accompanied by waving arms and kicking legs, enough to banish Hanne’s frown. She finished folding a man’s shirt and placed it neatly in Delling’s basket before striding over to take her child. “I hope there was no trouble.”
“Bahh,” Broc saaid while handing over the child. “The babe is quite the talker…HA. He’ll be strong one that I can see.” Seeing the child secured in his mother’s arms, Broc surveyed the morning view of his village. The sun was just hinting through the hazy morning, with a slight chill in the air, but with each hour warming slightly. He then walked over to his mother and rested his hand on her shoulder. “Good morning, Ma.”
“And a good morn to you, too,” Delling said with wide smile. The smile faded somewhat when Hanne caught her eye again. The younger woman shifted her son in her arms, gave Delling a look that said ‘Not now,’ but the older woman was having none of it. “Hanne, why don’t you tell Broc what you were saying to me.”
“I don’t think this is the time-”
“Then when will be the time?” Delling interrupted. She snapped an undershirt before folding it and gave Hanne a stern look. Broc knew that look – it was one that said she would brook no argument. Hanne held her stare for a few moments longer, but then she sighed and set her son down on the ground to toddle about while the adults conversed.
Hanne straightened, took a deep breath as if she were trying to steel herself, and then looked at Broc. “Don’t take Jarl on the raid. In fact, convince them not to raid at all.”
Confused, Broc looked once at his mother and then once at Hanne. After a few moments of silence, he broke it by saying, “Why would I do that? Jarl, myself and some others are looking forward to giving these Ogres their what for. Crush them with our boots after we slice them with our swords. It shall be glorious.”
“It won’t be glorious. It will be bloody gore on both sides, and Jarl won’t come back from it. He’ll fall, and others will as well,” Hanne snapped back at him. She held up one hand to forestall any interruption, and Delling placed one hand on Broc’s arm to stop him. “They were driven here,” Hanne continued. Her gaze seemed to focus on something past Broc, or perhaps through him, and for a moment Broc could see something in her that reminded him of Elva Airiksdottir, when she had divined for him how to first awaken Hegart’s blade. “But none of you warriors thinks to ask – why would the Third Hand Tribe leave their own hunting grounds for ours, knowing that their men and ours would just cut each other apart? What drove them to us? What follows behind them, that will fall upon us, once we have weakened ourselves against the Third Hand?”
“Hanna has been marked,” Delling murmured softly, so only Broc can hear. “She will be the next wisewoman of our village, when Old Margit dies. It will not be long.”
“And why should we let these inbred Stamm get away with what they did?” retorted Broc in a somewhat hybrid tone of annoyance and anger. “Explain how it’s ok for Jarl to see half the world. And my father…” Broc’s voice raised a bit. “My father cannot walk now. There is no way as a son of a North Redding warrior that I can sit idle and watch my father crawl. There is no justice if I don’t take vengeance. It is my duty and our way. And to whoever chases these motherless curs into our land, to hell with them. They will feel the bite of my sword and taste the vengeance that I have. I will not fail.”
“Do you think your father crawls, or is less a warrior for the loss of his leg?” Hanne challenged him, eyes flashing. “My son is left fatherless. I would give my own legs for him to have even half a father that you have left to you, so that he would have someone to stand – even on one leg – with sword in hand to face what will follow.” There was real anguish and grief in her voice. “You will defeat the Stamm, but you will come back with only a handful of broken warriors. And those few will not be enough to stand against the shadows, those who sit back now, watching us drain our own strength.”
She stopped, to wipe one hand across her eyes, and when she spoke again, her voice was softer, almost apologetic. “I have no fondness for the Stamm, Broc Sigurdson, but I fear what the visions have brought to me, that we overlook a greater threat. If you had not come back, Jarl and the others would not be emboldened to go against the Stamm again. They might have thought more carefully about where and what to strike against first. But they will listen to you, not to me.”
Broc stared intently and listened to the words that Hanne had said, then responded, “And if we don’t do anything, the Stamm will strike again. And maybe this time wiping out the village completely. If I must, leaving the others here, I will strike them myself. In the cover of night. Strike them hard and fast when they are asleep. They deserve no less than that.” Broc walked over to his mother and put his arm around her shoulders. The weight of it would have bowed a lesser woman, but Delling was stronger than most southlander men. “Ma, what recourse do we have….these curs must be stopped.”
“I just wanted you to listen to her,” Delling said quietly, lifting one hand up to pat his hand. “Both you and Hanne want the same thing – for our village, and its children, to be safe. As your mother, I must say,” she added with a grin, “I do not want you to go alone. But perhaps something between that and the all-out marshaling of our men that Hanne fears will do.” She looked at the other woman. “Will that suffice, Hanne?”
The blonde woman rubbed her eyes again, and Broc could see that her pride made her hide her tears. “If the village is not left unguarded-” She stopped, steadying her voice. “Then yes, I believe so.” She looked at Broc. “I am not a warrior, Broc Sigurdson. I do not pretend to know the strategy required for war. I know only what the voices of our ancestors whisper to me, that guile and careful planning is needed, lest the men leave our throats exposed.”
“It’s my village too…”, started Broc, but then he hesitated. He paused for a few seconds that for him felt like hours. In a sudden rush like the southland surf during high tide, thoughts of what had happened filled his head. Knowing that he was not here when his father needed him most tugged at his heart. And those thoughts stopped his sentence as quickly as a Northman could gut a three-eyed goblin. The thought of what could have happened if he’d been here… Would his father still have his leg? Would Broc have lost his own? Would all the slain be alive right now and swapping stories around a fire while roasting a pig?
The questions whirled in his head like a tornado raging inside of him. After a few moments he felt himself calming down on the inside. As quickly as the panic arrived it receded, and Broc continued after the short pause, “I know I haven’t been here like I should have been. But I can do this. I will protect the village and all of you my way now. Since I failed you all already, I will not fail again.” Broc lowered his eyes lower at the last statement, in shame and disgust at himself.
A long silence stretched out among the adults, interrupted only by the child grabbing a shirt from the folded laundry and running off with a squeal that might have been “chase me! chase me!” With a sign, Hanne bolted after him to sweep him up before he could find a muddy patch of ground to throw the shirt into. Delling watched the two for a moment, and then turned back to Broc. “You pulled the entire laundry line down one morning,” she said with a smile, as if – at the time – she had viewed that particular escapade only with loving amusement. When Hanne brought back the shirt, she took it and refolded it. “Leave the babe with me, Hanne, and take Broc to where the other warriors are meeting.”
Broc looked at his mother at what she had just said as if sparking the memory if only but a moment. “The little one has some spunk to him,” Broc grunted when Hanne brought back the child. Nodding with a smile, Hanne left her child with Delling and led Broc to the meeting place.
Hanne did not speak much as they walked around the outer perimeter of the village, and simply held her skirts up to keep them from dragging through any of the muddier parts of the ground. Broc could hear the other warriors before he saw them, Jarl’s and his father’s among them. Hanne stopped before they rounded the corner of the house and became visible to them. “If they see you with me -” She stopped, chewing on her bottom lip. “If you are less than fully enthusiastic about an immediate attack on the Third Hand, then some will accuse me of bewitching you.” From the look on her face, it was obvious that it pained her to know her own tribe considered her and her warnings foolish. “But I’ve spoken my piece to you. You will take whatever position you want.”
Before Hanne left, Broc bid her well with, “Do not worry Hanne. The village will still be guarded. I will not fail.”
Hanne just nodded, and held her skirts up again as she traced her way back towards her son, leaving Broc to take the final steps around the thatched house and find the warriors of the village gathered about a fire pit. Jarl was there, and Sigurd, and among the men even two women who had taken to the sword – in some tribes, there might be more, but among Broc’s folk the two would be considered unusual, even if their prowess was respected.
“Ho there,” Broc called out as he approached the small cadre of men and women. The other North Redding warriors looked up and greetings were exchanged by all. As Broc reached the group, warrior handshakes were made with each of them. Sven Gunnarsson, one of Broc’s better friends, gave Broc a quick hug and handshake.
“It’s good to see you, Broc,” Sven said cheerfully. ”’Tis a shame I was out hunting and on watch when you arrived. I would have liked to hear your stories. Especially the ones when you skewered Stamm.”
“HA”, Broc laughed out loud while throwing back his dark mane. “No worries Sven. There’s plenty of time to tell you when the chance is made.”
The two smiled and chuckled to themselves, but then a cloud of seriousness befell them, both knowing that now was not the time for pleasantries and storytelling. They both turned to see the gaze of Broc’s father. They both knew this gaze well. It was a sign for work to be had.
Sigurd waved for everyone to take their seats again. “The Third Hand holds the Maiden’s Rill,” he began the discussion, referring to the lands where a mountainside stream widened into a river. “And beyond that, the Pass of Oskar’s Sorrow.” He said it straight-forwardly, as if the loss of the fishing and hunting grounds represented by control of the Rill and Pass were nothing of any great concern. “Before you arrived, we were discussing how a war party could fall upon them and slaughter them before they could treat through the Pass – as you know, from the eastern side they could hold the pass for quite some time.”
Broc listened intently to his father’s words. Learning of what the Third Hand Tribe holds, he ran through his head possible scenarios to beat back the Stamm. Most of what he thought did not turn out well. Broc kept this from the others.
“What about trying to come from behind?” croaked out an older, hardened warrior. “Then we stab their backs faster then they cheat at bone throwing.” The second statement was followed by a gruff chuckle, and soon by a couple of others as well.
“Nay Ossi,” retorted Sigurd. “We do not have the manpower nor the time to trek through the mountains to circle behind them. Our village would be left unguarded far too long.” Sigurd shifted in his seat, slightly uneasy. Tempers could easily flare, and most were already on edge. But to his relief, Ossi bowed his head in agreement and in defeat. Ossi knew it was a bad plan, but had wanted to speak his mind.
“What about a small hunting party, one that sneaks in at night. And slaughter them as they sleep?” Broc called out.
There was silence as the other warriors looked at each other, and Broc could see that each one was considering whether they would make the cut for the hunting party, and be one who would share in the glory. There was a natural inclination to want to simply gather up everyone who wielded a blade, and attempt to overwhelm the Stamm by sheer numbers, and Broc could see that knee-jerk reaction in the faces of a number of those around the fire. That feeling was there, despite the fact that such a direct assault had cost Sigurd half a leg, and Jarl an entire eye – and the lives of many others, when the Stamm had refused to retreat east through the pass. Instead, they had dug in, and fought with the fury of a cornered animal.
“And who would you choose?” Jarl asked. It was not a challenge – in fact, his tone was respectful. “And who would you leave behind?” The look he gave Broc said that he should be prepared to deal with the egos of any who thought they were slighted if not asked to join such a raid.
With a stern face, Broc scanned the entire grouping of warriors. His eyes gave away nothing. His expression was emotionless. A couple of the North Redding warriors started to shuffle about, if nothing more than to ease the tension. All eyes were on Broc, with an occasional glance at their comrades. After a few more moments of uncomfortable, tension-filled silence Broc finally spoke, “It’s not up for me to chose but for you to chose for yourselves. Leave pride aside and your egos. And volunteer with your righteousness”.
He ended up with six, and as Broc set out through the cold spring morning, he might have thought to himself that Jarl was the only one he was glad to have in the group. Strange, that, given their rivalry when they had been young. And the big, slow-witted Gunter, who would follow Jarl’s direction without question, would be a welcome strong arm. The young shaman, Ingvar Jakobsen with the black beard, could prove useful – he had an ease with the local terrain that could be useful, even if he didn’t much like how the fellow spent some time talking with Hanne Magnusdottir and nodding in agreement with whatever she said.
Of the other three, he would have to reserve judgment. The rimer, Vidar Torvsen, was an easy-going fellow, amiable, and began to spin great tales before they were barely out of the village, including about the skirmish that had cost Broc’s father half his leg, and Jarl one eye. “I fought off half a dozen myself,” Vidar swore, with a wink and a nod, and Broc wasn’t quite sure how much of it was an exaggeration. Vidar’s friendliness was in stark contrast to the attitude of his sister, Sanna; the dark-eyed scout looked at him with an assessing stare that said she reserved judgment on whether she thought Broc was worthy of being followed. Early on, even the most basic instructions brought a glance to Jarl, a search for his assent.
Finally, the lithe, silent-moving Thora Bernsdottir was a cipher – she had come to their village two years before, cast out by her own people. Jarl had vouched for her, and but for that Broc might have insisted that she stay behind. But the one-eyed warrior had spoken, and so Broc had nodded that she could move ahead with Ingvar and Sanna, to find the easiest path for them to take in search of the Third Hand Tribe, to find the foul beasts who had moved into the clan’s hunting grounds.
When the gibbering man came stumbling out of the trees on the far side of the ice-cold stream, chattering to himself in a dozen tongues, clawing flesh from his arms and face, the six of them stopped. Ingvar shifted without awaiting a command, form shimmering with white fur and reshaping itself into a smaller version of the great bear Broc had slain in the far north. The shaman was across the stream before Broc and Jarl, and in moments the group had wrestled the man to the ground. “What foul infestation is this?” Jarl asked, and they looked at one another, wondering if the Third Hand had brought some disease upon them.
Something moved beneath the man’s skin, and Thora leapt back with a curse. Remembering the tumerous cyst that had infected him in Palderton, Broc knelt to slice into the man’s flesh, expecting to find something similar. Instead, in an instant the group was surrounded by a plague of chittering, biting insects. Swarmed by them, Broc and Jarl flung themselves into the water and thrashed about to shake the things from their skin. Afterwards, the enraged warrior would not quite remember what followed next, how the swarm was called away and they pursued into the Third Hand encampment. But he would stop and focus, ignoring the blood streaming from numerous bites, only to find the camp abandoned.
“They left quickly,” Sanna said, coming out of one hut. “As if they took only what they could carry and fled before something.” She spoke to Jarl, ignoring Broc as if he weren’t there, and lifted one arm to point. “They went southeast, towards the grottoes.” Before Broc could question her, though, the swarm was back, and with it came an odd quartet – a woman and man dressed in North Redding clansmen’s attire, and two orcs.
The woman lifted one hand and directed the insects to attack again; in the frenzy of the fight, Broc again lost track of what his companions were doing as he drove towards the woman. As their blades cut into her, she crumpled to the ground and something shadowed and pale rose into the air above her. It flickered into sight and out, visible only when it pulled back one tenebrous limb to strike before fading out again. It tested them one by one, and then focused upon Vidar, perhaps sensing that of them all the bard was the weakest. Broc could feel Hegart’s blade humming in his hands as he swung at it, and a shiver in the hilt when the Fang of the Winter Wolf managed to bite into the ethereal attacker that hovered over the pale-faced Vidar. It howled, and pulled back its shadowed limbs to strike at him again and again.
In moments, it was gone. The woman, the only survivor, huddled on the ground sobbing and looking about with wide eyes. “Where -” she gasped. “Is it gone?”
As the incorporeal creature dissolved into nothingness, Vidar wiped sweat from his face and looked around at all the others. The woman they had captured – Aletha, who had been possessed (or so she claimed) still cowered on the ground between Broc and Jarl, wide eyes darting here and there. “We’ve defeated it,” Vidar finally said with a note of triumph.
“Not so quick with victory, Vidar”, Broc says without putting away his sword. His eyes darted about just as much as Aletha. “Everyone, stay on your toes….we may be still attacked.” Broc’s face was stern and serious.
“What next then?” Sanna asked. There was something about her tone, perhaps a note of challenge, and she looked from Jarl to Broc and back again, as if waiting to see which of the two would assume command.
Looking at Jarl, Broc wondered if Jarl would step up to the challenge. After a brief pause, Broc turned to Sanna. “We search the area. We’ll look for signs of that…thing.” Looking over to Jarl, Broc added, “What say you, Jarl?”
“Aye.” Jarl considered Aletha with his one good eye. Around them, Thora and Ingvar had taken positions that would allow them to watch for any others who might approach the clearing. “Ingvar said there were tracks leading away – orc?” The druid nodded without speaking. “Would the thing be there?” he asked the whimpering woman, Aletha. When she did not answer, he looked back at Broc, a question on his face – should they try to force information from the woman?
“The woman knows not of this…thing,” Broc said while he waved his hand in gesture to leave the woman be. “How fresh are those tracks, Ingvar?”
“Less than half a day. They scurried out quick-like, it looks. Grabbed as much as they could and ran.”
Broc looked around at his group of fellow North Redding men and women. “Then we follow them … all the way to the gates of beast if we must,” Broc said as he turned his head toward the direction of the tracks. His hair billowed in the cold wind. A frosty howl was conjured by the beginning of nightfall.
The others followed swiftly after Broc as Ingvar led them through the chill spring night onto the rising slopes of the mountain. Near midnight, the druid stopped, holding up one hand to halt everyone behind him, and laying a finger on his lips to silence them. After Broc drew close, Ingvar brought his mouth close to the warrior’s ear and breathed, barely giving voice to the words, “They have taken refuge in a bolt hole in the slope. It looks to be a sliver of a cave ahead.”
Broc squinted his eyes to observe the cave. “We rest here.” Broc looked around from his crouched position, “And we scout it in the morning.” With that, Broc turned and walked over to a nearby tree to sit and rest his eyes.
Even before he sat, Broc caught from the corner of one eye the way Sanna first looked to Jarl, to get his approval before she nodded and began to help set up a cold camp for them. While the two women, Jarl and Ingvar made arrangements for their watch, Vidar settled down humming softly to himself. As Broc let himself drift off to sleep, he could sense the bard watching, perhaps already composing a song in his head of this grand adventure.
Morning came bright and cold, with a frost settled over them that would melt once the sun had moved westward and began to fall upon the western slope of the mountain. Of them all, only Vidar seemed fully awake and alert, and walked over to hand Broc a mug of brandy warmed over a low fire. Behind him, Sanna stooped to shake Aletha awake.
“Thank you, Vidar,” Broc said as he sipped the brandy. He reached into his backpack and pulled out some dried beef. Broc ripped it in two and put one piece between his teeth. He offered the other one to Vidar. “Vidar, what do you think?” Broc said while chewing on his half of the ration.
“About? You should kill them all.” He shrugged and took the dried beef with murmured thanks. “The creature started it for us – let’s finish it. They deserve no less for what they have done.”
By the low fire, Sanna froze, one hand on the sleeping Aletha’s shoulder. Then she stood slowly, face pale.
Broc took a sip from his brandy while listening to Vidar’s words, his eyes intent on revenge – revenge for his father and his people. Nothing could shake Broc of this feeling. As he took another sip, he scoured the area and saw Sanna in her frozen state. “Quick,” commanded Broc, “something is wrong! Over to Sanna.” With that, Broc quickly jumped to his feet and rushed over to Sanna.
Broc was at Sanna’s side in mere seconds, and Vidar followed more slowly. Sanna gripped the hilt of her sword with one white-knuckled hand. “The woman is dead,” she told Broc in short, clipped tones. With one booted foot, she rolled the body over, revealing a pool of blood beneath the blankets and a gaping wound slit from ear to ear across her throat.
To be continued.