Only Bjorulf Knows: Part II
By James Fadeley
Special thanks to Dan Riggins and Erik “Frown” Bergman
Sigbjorn heard Aron swallow, and couldn’t blame him. There was at least a score of them, though smaller ones seemed to hide behind their ranks. Far too many for four Ravens, caught out in the open, to take on. Worse, the hills were no longer too steep to charge down.
“Back,” Sigbjorn hissed. He began to crawl in reverse, dragging his weapon across the grass. “Get to the river.”
His men obeyed, slinking along. Until a warbling scream cut through the air, a thick blade pointed their way.
“Run!” The varl screamed, scrabbling to his feet. “Pass the river! Get to the forest and stick together!”
Aron snapped around. “But you sai—”
They charged towards the wood line, fiery rock raining down around them. Most of the smoking slag missed, though Marteinn yelped as a round blazed past his ear. Sigbjorn heard the din of thundering stone. The enemy warriors pursued them.
The sound was drowned out as Tomas hit the river first, almost slipping over on a slimy rock. He recovered, and without finesse wallowed through the current. Marteinn and Aron followed, but Sigbjorn noticed the wolves still gathered about their meal. They were readying themselves to pounce on the spearman.
With a sprinting start, the varl launched himself, sailing half over the river. Descending, he took a bounding hop, splashing a geyser of water skyward and finishing his flight.
Landing before Tomas, Sigbjorn roared. His voice echoing through the trees.
The wolves, once ready to spring, instead shrank before the deafening howl. The largest turned and bolted, his tail between his legs. The smaller ones chased after him, no braver than their leader.
As Marteinn and Aron ascended the banks, the varl reached down and grabbed a large rock.
“What do we do?” Marteinn asked, huffing. His seax was drawn, as was one of his throwing axes.
“You remember the Halsar weave?”
They nodded. Tomas grinned, reaching for the hunting javelins over his shoulder.
“Aron, with me. Marteinn, Tomas, go west. And shout when you throw, dammit!”
The two men rushed to obey just as they heard the splash of the dredge hitting the water. Sigbjorn snorted and stepped away from the tree line. At this distance, he could discern their open helm faceguards and angled horns, rancorous grimaces on their beige faces.
“Right back at you, cave faeners,” he uttered as he picked a target, reared back and hurled his rock.
The payload sped through the air and struck the brow of a stoneguard who failed to raise his tower shield. Sigbjorn laughed at the agonizing, shaking yelp of his victim, and snatched another rock before dashing into the forest’s shadows.
He heard them give pursuit with renewed vigor. Aron fell into step alongside, and Sigbjorn slowed to allow the youth to maintain pace. There was a snap of tree branches as the stone men enter the woods.
Someone shouted. Something clanked.
The varl counted his steps. One, two… and on the fifth, he turned. “Fire!”
Aron spun about, plucking an arrow from his quiver and nocking. He fired without reservation and Sigbjorn saw leaves zip and flutter, caught in the missile’s flight. There was another clank and Sigbjorn waved the youth on. “Go!”
It was six or seven steps before the next cry came from the west, the sound as horrible as death. Sigbjorn feared the worst, then remembered Tomas’ ailment. He barely suppressed the urge to laugh. Don’t. It’ll weaken you.
Another five steps, and Sigbjorn spun and hurled his stone. In the flash, he counted five on their tail as the shot caught a grunt in the chest. Seeing nothing more he could throw on the ground, the varl ran. Aron pulled alongside him and he waved the youth away. “Split! Go!”
As Marteinn’s scream echoed in the forest, Sigbjorn knew it was time. Cupping a hand over his mouth, he faced the west and shouted. “Flock!”
Flipping around, Sigbjorn took his sword with two hands, holding it defensively. A trio of grunts charged, their bizarre axes raised and yellow eyes alight with fury. Angling away, Sigbjorn clenched his teeth and aimed low, launching himself into a whirling tempest of steel.
Spinning, the world was a smeared blur, but he felt the resistance against his weapon. He heard the reverberating wails and relished in their suffering. Recovering, he saw two thrashing against the leaf-covered earth, the third still standing upon a deeply gashed leg. Black oozed from the wound, dripping upon detritus.
The grunt stood, raising his weapon. Hate them as he did, Sigbjorn respected his enemy’s bravado. Before his foe could strike, the varl sank steel into the dredge’s chest. As the life went out of the grunt’s eyes, Sigbjorn kicked outward, freeing his blade.
The remaining pair still struggled. One had lost his leg, the stump spurting dark ichor. The other was wounded but intact, almost to his feet. Sigbjorn met this one with a raised blade. Yet he swerved as he chopped, cleaving his foe’s axe-arm.
The maimed grunts’ howls chased the varl as he ran east.
Shuffling from the right drew his attention, and Sigbjorn realized it was Aron falling into step. They charged on until coming to a few shrubs large enough to hide them.
“You,” the boy huffed as he ducked down. “You fought them?”
“But didn’t… didn’t slay them?”
The varl met the boy’s gaze with a stern glare. “Because it grinds them down, makes them waste food and care on the helpless. Burdens them with those who cannot fight and survive on their own, and weakens their will. You’re not the only one who should sing tales of the Ravens, got it?”
Aron’s mouth opened and closed a few times like a fish out of water. He managed a weak nod.
“Good. Now shut the faen up.”
Trembling, Aron obeyed.
They waited and listened. The forest echoed with the clamor of dredge armor, but the din came from many directions. After a moment they heard rapid footsteps, far softer than the stone men could make. Sigbjorn whistled, and Marteinn and Tomas appeared around the bush.
“Anyone pursuing?” the varl asked.
Tomas shook his head. Marteinn smirked.
“Alright, follow me.”
Sigbjorn led them north. Occasionally, they spotted the shapes of dredge wandering about the forest gloom. Each time, the varl altered their course, avoiding engagement until they at last reached the river again. Despite their urgency, they forded the slow stream as quietly as possible, keeping splashing to a minimum.
Their drenched clothes dripped over the northern bank as they rose. Marteinn whipped droplets from his sleeves, and spoke. “Next stop Reynivik.”
Slag struck the sand, sizzling and scorching the dirt.
Sigbjorn fixed his sight to the base of the hill from which the dredge had appeared. Several figures huddled there. Dredge of some kind but far smaller, more proportional to men than varl. A few whirled raised slings, preparing another volley.
The varl felt his brow twitch and he stepped toward his foes. Then took another step. He heard the men behind him follow. He began to jog. Then run, even as another salvo of hot rock sailed over their heads. He could see the slingers grow unnerved by their charge. They edged away, threatening to rout.
Sigbjorn bowed, ramming the first with his horns.
The slinger flew back, bowling into another. As the pair tumbled to the earth, Sigbjorn raised his sword and swung down, cleaving through a third. He thought he heard a high-pitched shriek as black splattered against the dancing grass. The limbless dredge dropped, grasping their fresh stump.
Taking a moment to survey the battle, Sigbjorn witnessed Tomas spear one of them, before kicking his foe away. The impaled slinger managed to remain standing, cradling a dripping abdomen and scrambling back. Marteinn guffawed during battle, twirling as he slashed a foe’s arm, then using his momentum to hurl an axe behind him. The spinning blade found its mark in a fleeing slinger, forcing them to a knee. Before that dredge could recover, an arrow found their flank, finishing the task.
Sigbjorn looked to Aron as the youth reached for another round. One of the downed dredge stood behind him, drawing a stone dirk from their belt and preparing to stab down.
The varl sprinted, and stabbed just above Aron’s shoulder. The tip sank into the slinger’s neck. The dredge’s poised arm dropped listlessly to the side before they toppled to the ground. Jerking his blade free, Sigbjorn realized that Aron stared at him with eyes more white than blue. With a grunt, he patted the youth’s shoulder.
Marteinn ducked a knife swing, and sliced the last foe behind the knee. A pained shout reverberated from the dredge’s stone helm, black spreading over the hem of their dark orange sash. Marteinn grabbed the slinger’s head from behind and held them down, a kick to the elbow sent their stone blade flying into the grass. “Hey, Aron! Get over here!”
The youth warily approached, scanning the remaining dredge. No more had the will to fight— the remaining handful huddled together, shivering with bowed heads. Marteinn smirked and flipped his seax over, offering the handle to the boy. “Do it.”
Aron stared at the blade for a moment, before looking to Sigbjorn for approval. A faint murmur came from the cowering dredge who watched, but none moved.
You should stop this, a voice whispered to the varl. Yet he waved a hand regardless. “Go on.”
Aron swallowed, slipping his bow over his shoulder. He took the seax with both hands and focused on the restrained slinger. The dredge’s breath rattled, while the dark pool on their robes widened under a heraldic mark of a triangular sun.
“It’ll be merciful,” Marteinn promised.
Tomas glanced away.
The youth tightened his grip on the weapon. With a shrill cry, he stabbed. The tip followed the curve of the slinger’s outfit, burying itself in the grooves of the sternum. The blade stuck halfway, and Aron leaned forth to thrust further within.
The dredge gasped as the light of their eyes dimmed, before going slack in Marteinn’s grasp.
A powerful wail came from the crowd. A pair of the dredge clansfolk held a smaller, robed figure in check. The little one struggled to escape their grip, desperate to reach the dead slinger. The howl sank into a haunting and low groan, until the dredge lowered to their knees, defeated. Aron stared at the pitiful figure, his eyes sorrowful as he realized what he had done, and released the embedded seax.
Marteinn chuckled as he dropped the body, which fell against the soil with a dull thud. Something tumbled from the slain dredge’s pouch with a chime. The lunatic grinned as he plucked two blue crystals.
“I’ve always wanted to play with these,” Marteinn said, bouncing one of the gems in his palm. He stepped toward one of the shuddering clansfolk, who stared at his mad grin. Marteinn cracked the twin crystals together, causing them to glow. With a cackle, he slipped them into the dredge’s robes.
The other dredge edged away, while the one Marteinn chose stood there, strangely calm. Then they turned and ran, tearing past their peers. The dredge got a considerable distance before hurling themselves forward, the Shatterstones igniting. The flash was swiftly lost in the black cloud of smoke, the bang echoing over the plains.
As the dark mist cleared, Sigbjorn saw the ashy remains of the dredge. They were nothing more than a limp pile, split into at least two parts. The only noise was Marteinn’s sinister giggling, a haunting rhythm that the varl found himself echoing. Until he looked at the others.
Tomas grimaced, his jaw drawn tight while his knuckles whitened over his spear’s haft. Aron winced painfully, his whimpering voice cracked as he repeated to himself. “It’s what we got to do. It’s what we got to do.”
He was wrong, Sigbjorn. Fearing death is natural, but a life of terror drives us to seek our own tomb. The thoughts weren’t the varl’s own, but they came to him like a carrion bird coveting a meal. They were slag, Hadrborg damn them. They deserved it. A faint taste of the horror they’ve inflicted.
Marteinn sauntered back and stomped a boot against the corpse bearing his seax, withdrawing it with a squelch. “Well boss, what do you think? Fingers?”
Sigbjorn looked at the lunatic and saw something in him. A fetish for violence that was everything the Ravens were, are and ever would be. And for the first time in more than a century, it sickened him. Yet that was what he, and they, were. The varl shook his head. “No, no time. But we have to slow their warriors down.”
Marteinn nodded and took a step forward, before a huge hand barred his way.
“No. I’ll do it.”
The dredge clansfolk raised their gazes as Sigbjorn strode forth, gripping his massive blade to render them the mercy of steel.
No one spoke as they left the carnage. Blood dripped from Sigbjorn’s sword with every heavy footstep. With each droplet upon the grass, the wonder grew heavier in his mind. Even before the onslaught, the dredge did not run. They simply sat there, bowing their heads and accepting execution. Not one had attempted to escape. He realized that Marteinn’s Shatterstone victim had fled only to save the other clansfolk from harm.
Someone nudged him. Sigbjorn realized it was Tomas.
The mute pointed at the varl’s blade.
“Ah, right,” Sigbjorn said, taking a cloth from his satchel. Best not to leave a trail.
“That was some fun, eh kid?” Marteinn asked, elbowing Aron. “How does it feel? To be a real Raven?”
Aron said nothing, staring at the ground as he walked.
“What? Too good to—”
“No more talk,” Sigbjorn bade as he finished cleaning his weapon. Truthfully, he was in no better a mood than the youth, but thought to offer a reason. “Keep your ears keen for any more trouble. I don’t want to be caught blindsided again.”
Marteinn sneered, but obeyed.
They traveled for some time when they heard a sound on the wind. A howl of anguish, wavering at the precipice where grief becomes rage.
They all stopped to listen, glancing at one another at a loss for words to explain.
“Go, swiftly,” Sigbjorn ordered, taking off. The others were right behind him.
To be continued…
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