Only Bjorulf Knows: Part I
By James Fadeley
Special thanks to Dan Riggins and Erik “Frown” Bergman
“Sigbjorn, secure the gate. Sigbjorn, kill the dredge. Sigbjorn, go get the faen mead.” The varl stopped grumbling when his traveling companions gave him strange looks. He sighed heavily enough for his mustache to flutter, rolling his strained shoulder under the burden of his great sword. “Never mind. You’re all terrible company anyway.”
The youth glanced nervously at the one Sigbjorn knew as Marteinn. “Is this trip wise? Or even necessary?”
“If you want to go against Bolverk’s orders, be my guest,” Marteinn replied, lightly punching the third man in the shoulder. “Not that you could taste Reynivik’s finest mead, eh?”
The older spearman shot Marteinn a dark glare in return, before casting his gaze to the dirt road.
Sigbjorn raised an eyebrow at the morbid comment. “Why not?”
“Show ‘em, Tomas,” Marteinn said, smirking.
Sigbjorn noticed the old man resist a sneer before opening his mouth. Between the assortment of remaining yellow teeth wagged the stump of a tongue, severed near the root. The varl chuckled dryly. “Just like Bolverk. Sending someone all the way to Reynivik for a drink they can’t enjoy.”
“And we’re the ones who get to die for it,” the youth said bitterly. He adjusted the bow over his back, one side having caught the drum at his hip.
“That’s the spirit,” Sigbjorn replied, scratching his backside.
The youth shook his head. “I’m Aron by the way.”
“I don’t care.”
Marteinn burst into laughter, and the varl rolled his eyes. The last place he desired to be was traveling Sten’s March, stuck with three yapping men and no yoxen cart. To their right was the unnamed river that ran alongside the road, flowing opposite to their direction of travel. On the left were sloping cliffs with snow, trees and shrubbery clinging to their base. Sigbjorn knew that Rake’s Crossing lay beyond the ascent, perhaps a day’s journey north.
And behind them, resting at the shore of Deepmot, was the dung heap called Boersgard.
Admittedly, it felt good to be away from the cramped city, the streets of which stunk of sweaty, fearful men. For several days, they held it from both the besieging dredge and the rioting citizens. Yet while the Ravens had brought enough food to last the Governor’s employ, their mead had long run dry. Had Bolverk Bloodaxe not discovered Sigbjorn finishing the last cask, he might have avoided this pointless death.
And he had to give me a mute, a worthless drummer and the company’s craziest lunatic, the varl thought.
“What?” Aron asked, alarmed. Marteinn perked a brow as well.
“Never mind.” Sigbjorn rolled his jaw contemptuously. Apparently, his thoughts hadn’t been as inaudible as he thought. A lack of drink had left him grumpier than usual.
“Um, so boss…” Aron said. “What do we do if we run into the stone men?”
“Good question.” The varl rubbed the base of one of his horns, feeling the engravings there. As one of the Raven’s oldest Warhawks, he knew he could stand toe-to-toe with a dredge scourge in strength and height. However, Sigbjorn glanced down at the other three and knew it was hopeless. Tomas was the tallest, yet he only came to the varl’s navel. None of them bore a shield, so forming a wall was out. Nor did the giant know how well any of them fought. “Forget it. If we see any slag, make for the river and hide. Let them find their way to Boersgard and into Bloodaxe’s care.”
“What about hiding in that forest?”
Tomas buried his face in a hand. Marteinn smacked the back of Aron’s head.
“What was that for?” The youth rubbed his struck scalp.
“Let me connect the trade routes for you,” Sigbjorn said evenly. “Have you ever heard of the Lang Loom Forest?”
Aron seemed to shrink. “I didn’t know.”
“That’s the problem with man. Us varl are always having to look out for you. Holding back slag in the north. Instructing you in swordplay without slicing off your foot. Keeping you from blundering into the world’s most dangerous forest. And how do you repay us? By dying. Yet always after you all have a few kids to annoy us with the same questions, again and again and again. My old mentor Karli was right. Life…” Sigbjorn opened his eyes wide, holding a hand out dramatically. “…is a series of humans.”
Aron blanched. Sigbjorn couldn’t tell if Marteinn was amused or angered. Tomas surprised him the most with a single cough, a wide smile on the old man’s countenance.
“I guess it isn’t all bad though. I mean, after a while you all look the same. Why, I once knew one named Gusi. Turned out he was a good drinking buddy. When he died, I dragged his corpse over to one of your pregnant women. Slapped the body down and said, ‘Raise me another one like him!’”
Marteinn slapped his thigh laughing. Even Aron cracked a nervous grin.
“Course, she got the guards t—”
Tomas waved vigorously, cutting the varl off. The mute pointed two fingers at his own eyes, then indicated the north. Sigbjorn followed his gesture, his gaze narrowing.
Dark figures meandered over the cliffs, at least a dozen total. With the sun above, their shapes were shadow-clad. Yet when Sigbjorn discerned their flattened, angular horns and strange blades, he knew who he witnessed.
The varl swallowed, and studied the elevation. The cliffs were steep, and ice lingered in the terrain’s shade. Yet the footing was not treacherous enough to deny descent. “Go to the river. Stick to the banks and give them a few moments to pass.”
The men obeyed silently. As they abandoned the path and trod softer soils, Sigbjorn dearly wished he wore something else that day. His crimson and white parti-colored tunic stood out, even from a distance. Fortune favored them however, and the varl took cover behind a gully along the river bank, completely obscuring himself. Tomas and Aron shared a boulder, while Marteinn settled behind a large bush which glowed a soft lavender in the sunlight.
Swallowing, Sigbjorn set his blade down and reached into his pouch. As he scrounged about, his fingers brushed the soft bristles of a long scarlet feather. When was the last time I mentioned Karli’s name aloud? He thought with a frown, but found his gloves. Slipping them on, he reached for the handle of his great sword.
They waited, each gripping his weapon in anticipation. Yet no telltale sounds came of stone grinding, no rustling of rock-crafted tower shields over long grass. Inhaling sharply through his nostrils, Sigbjorn risked a peek over the ditch wall, his horns accidentally shaking a tree branch.
The dredge never noticed them. Or if they had, then they didn’t care enough to charge. Instead the stone men ventured higher, towards the cliffs over Boersgard.
Sigbjorn waved the other Ravens over. The men stayed low as they rushed into cover beside the varl, prudently keeping out of sight. He spoke softly. “Give them a moment more, then we’ll be on our way.”
“Maybe we should travel along the river?” Aron offered.
Sigbjorn shook his head. “The sand and soil will slow us and leave a trail. And if any dredge are hiding in the forest, we won’t see them coming.”
The youth’s brow creased in frustration. “It’s still a day to Reynivik, and we’re going to have to fight the townsfolk or trick them into giving us the goods. That’s assuming there’s a way we can carry it to Boersgard by ship or yoxen. Why don’t we just go back? Surely Bolverk must realize this is a waste of four Ravens.”
Sigbjorn rolled his eyes. “Let me guess. You’re one of Sparr’s ‘naifs,’ or whatever that term is? Does he ever let you talk to Bolverk?”
The youth’s jaw dropped. Sigbjorn wondered how much naivety was left to expel.
“Look,” Marteinn said, scratching his nose. “If we return empty handed, Bolverk will likely murder us. If we stay here, the dredge will kill us.”
“But,” Sigbjorn interjected. “If we get to Reynivik, then at least we can drink ourselves to death.”
They slogged on.
Sigbjorn sighed, wishing he could tell the time. The sun still stood in the sky, exactly where it had been for the last several weeks. His armpits sticky from sweat, the varl undid the top button of his tunic and scratched his chest hair.
The other Ravens fared little better. Aron rhythmically bobbed his head, while Marteinn gazed intensely at the woods across the river. Tomas tried to remain keen, but the boredom clearly wore him down as well. Everywhere they looked was the same doldrums of green hills, forest or the dirt road expanse.
Sigbjorn considered calling a halt for a meal, but decided against the idea. Bolverk had furnished them only a day’s worth of rations, telling them to find food on the way. Mad as Bloodaxe could be, his reasoning was sound— Reynivik was the region’s breadbasket, the fields amazingly fertile. Rumor had it that every family there was a beekeeper.
Sigbjorn glanced to the sky again and noticed gray clouds in the distance. Rain would have been a blessing and a curse, hiding them from the enemy but slowing them with the mire. Still, the varl could tell that the clouds moved at no haste, and any precipitation would not arrive for some time.
That was when he heard an irritating sound. He tried to ignore the droning noise, thinking it a bee or some other insect. Then he realized it bore a distinct tune. Snorting, he glanced at Aron. “The faen are you doing?”
The youth tripped over a rock, but managed to regain his footing. “I… I was humming.”
“No. You were annoying me.”
Aron glanced down. Marteinn looked from the boy to the varl, before pushing the former. “Thought that was a damn buzzing in my ear. Idiot.”
Sigbjorn’s brow knitted. The lunatic’s behavior implied he was something of an ass shiner. There had been rumors about Marteinn’s bloody antics, how he had impressed Bolverk enough to join the Ravens. But the varl also remembered Folka’s murmuring, that the man did something recently to cross their leader. Annoyed with Marteinn’s assumed authority, Sigbjorn decided to offer the kid a chance to redeem himself. “So, either shut up or sing your little lullaby already.”
“I…” Aron’s brow rose. He reached for his belt, but stopped. “May I use my drum?”
“Fine. Just keep it down.”
The youth took the instrument from his belt. Holding the flat frame in one hand, he started a low beat with solid rhythm. After a moment, the words poured out in a smooth baritone.
Just whose blades are for rent?
Whose short lives have a price?
Who peddles their few days spent
In the sanguine paradise?
For who see peace as a waste
And compassion as a foe
Or those seeking death with haste
Fly the black and let them know
Fly the black and let them know
Let the dead tell of our worth
As their silence shall imply
Let red quench the thirsting earth
While our banner flies on high
And so, leave me where I lie
Thus all who pass shall know
And pin the sun in the sky
So they’ll see our colors flow
Aron finished with a rapid tapping of his fingers. A stunned silence ruled until Tomas broke into throaty, bird-like sounds of amusement. Marteinn chortled, a palm to his forehead. Even Sigbjorn felt the rumble grow within him before he burst into roaring laughter. “Not bad at all! Where did you learn this one, boy? Not vulgar enough to be one of Sparr’s pieces.”
“Actually,” Aron grinned sheepishly as he tucked a hair strand behind an ear. “I wrote it myself. I was… I was thinking it might be an anthem for the Ravens.”
“Bolverk is no lover of poetry,” Sigbjorn said as he shrugged his sword-carrying shoulder, still chuckling. “However, he may make an exception for that melody. It’s us, make no mistake.”
Aron fixed the drum to his belt again. “Maybe if we catch him on a good da—”
Marteinn came to a halt, Tomas too after another step. Sigbjorn looked toward his men, and followed their gaze into the grass off the road. Something was there, beside the bushes. After scanning the horizon and seeing nothing, the varl stepped off Sten’s March and drew closer.
It was a body.
Scratching his beard, Sigbjorn laid his sword down as he knelt to examine the corpse. It was a man, dressed in the worn smock and cap of a farmer. He had been killed recently, the blood mostly dry with no signs of putrefaction yet. His neck was almost entirely severed; Sigbjorn saw the faint pink of the chopped spine amongst the gore. Over the reek of urine, the varl smelled something burned.
Besides Sigbjorn, Tomas kept watch while Marteinn crossed his arms, studying the kill. Aron winced before turning away, his features fading to a pallor.
“The cut’s pretty clean,” Marteinn observed. “What do you think? Bandits?”
“No.” Sigbjorn pointed to the man’s leg. A burned knee was exposed through the seared trousers. “This looks like a Shatterstone wound. I think our man took a blast and dropped. Unable to rise and run, they probably sauntered over and casually executed him.”
“You think? Maybe it was a torch.”
Sigbjorn shook his head, pointing to the dirt beside the lacerated neck. There were two symmetrical holes in the soil, both puddled with blood. “That’s the shape a double-pronged blade would make going straight down. Only dredge make a weapon like that.”
Aron breathed deeply a few times, staring at the ground. “What about this trail of blood though?”
Sigbjorn studied the spot Aron pointed at, and realized the youth was right. Grass had been bent and crushed in a trail leading past Sten’s March. Standing tall, the varl focused that direction. The spoor naturally ended at the river, but there was something just beyond the tree line.
Yellow eyes flashed their way. It took Sigbjorn a moment to discern the gray lupine shapes, their snouts crimson as they dug into their prey. A faint wind began, and as the leaves shifted a ray of light fell on the carcass. It was a man, his mouth slack as blood trickled over his wispy black beard.
“Do you see something?” Aron asked.
Sigbjorn rolled his shoulders in a shrug. “Dinner for wolves.”
“Think they were from Reynivik?” Marteinn asked, gripping his seax.
“Maybe. If so, they were probably trying to petition the Governor for aid—” Sigbjorn stopped. He crouched and listened.
The other Ravens instinctively did the same. Only the wind was heard over the hilly plains, washing over tall blades of grass and whipping through the trees. Marteinn turned toward the varl, raising a questioning palm. His question was answered with a steady thump, and the clatter of rock plates. Tomas turned and wagged a finger to the northwest, where figures came over the rise.
Most were about a head taller than a man, though some equaled a varl in height. Their torsos were a touch elongated, their limbs marked with square protrusions from gray armor. Their weapons too were more geometrical, like finely wrought stone art. Strangest of all were the round pauldrons each bore over just one shoulder, always larger than their heads. The asymmetrical weight gave them a stagger.
To be continued…
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