Tomb of the Father: Chapter Two, Home & Hearth

Gunvald woke in the dark and buried the brigand upon the northern hill opposite the shepherd’s encampment and departed from the old vaquero wordlessly, before his waking, as the halcyon sphere drifted up across the high, jagged peaks of the far mountain. He made his way over the thin, reedy grass from the northern hill and from there to the stony outcropping where he’d slept as the sheep bawled and yapped like insane children and then passed down between the precarious tors into the lowlands which were spotted here and there with small tufts of shrubbery and strange boulders incised with markings from some people that had since passed from the world’s collective remembrance. The man stopped as if the stones had rooted him to his shadow by some eldritch witchery and slowly reached out to touch the curious monolith before him, gingerly running his dry and cloth wrapped hands across the smooth-hewn crevices of the mighty artifact. He closed his eyes and inhaled and exhaled deeply until his breathing became as rhythmic as a drumbeat and he felt as if his hands and those that had wrought the arcane inscriptions where one and the same. Past called to future. Dead to living. As if the stone were whispering to him, tales for forgotten times and well lived lives and those less well lived and what their folly entailed for the ignorant persisting. It was a peculiar feeling, one that the weary traveler struggled to rationalize but felt powerfully all the same. At length, he opened his eyes and slowly withdrew his hand from the stone and retreated a pace and looked over the monolith entire, from tip to base and judged the breadth and width; some eight feet high, some seven feet wide. The weight of the thing the gods only knew.

When he’d taken in the stone in all its facets he turned full from it and made his way out through the quitch and bracken and past other stones, both larger and smaller than the first, and all similarly marked by ancient hands, the symbols there incised beyond the travelers reckoning. Here and there a recognizable representation, half-masked in abstraction: a man, a woman, a wolf, a bear, a fish, a snail, a tree. The symbol most oft represented was the wolf, over and over again it was inscribed, with near mechanical precision and a primal beauty that he’d scarcely witnessed in even the most lavish of paintings. He could almost hear its call.

Beyond the rune-stones the ground flattened out with astounding brevity, the bracken and quitch giving way to queer lichen and strange vines with small purple shoots and thick, raw swatches of muddy-clay, filled all with fetid water that buzzed with insects of ever size and shape. The further out the man cast his gaze the larger the water-filled depressions grew until they merged unto a singularity, one vast marshen heap of rain-catch and sod and sand and silt. Bogland.

He recalled the old man’s words, “The first false step means death, to man or beast.”

Suddenly there came a raucous calling, a intonation, nearby and strangely human. The traveler whirled, spotting, some forty yards out into the mire, a huge male ram, only his forelegs, chest, neck and horn-crowned head clear above the bog-hold. The creature struggled a moment, flailing its powerful legs against the silt and sand-water and then, quite suddenly, it vanished, sucked down at last; even the tips of its horns sinking below the grim surface of that plane of death.

Gunvald watched the unhappy affair with a mixture equal parts despair and fascination. It seemed too sudden, the way the earth could so swiftly devour. Such a thing to the traveler’s mind was as fantastical as copper turning to gold or water to dust. The bog had not been there when last he’d traversed the moor, those seven years ago. It seemed a whole panoply of lifetimes compressed into the scattered crystalline fragments of his memories and dreams.

He recalled the long march beside his kinsmen, How high their banners flew, the colors of all the clan houses of Tor; after decades of internecine violence, united at last against a common foe, the gray-men of the Hinterlands, those they called, Rimners. How young and wild and full of lofty opinions they had been!

As Gunvald looked out across the moor his opinions flew at considerably lower altitude.

*

Finding no passage through the peat, Gunvald opted to travel round it by the southernmost way. The trek lasted two days and brought him past all manner of queer shrubs and bone piles and dying trees that looked more akin to the phantasmal skeletons of some macabre stage-play. Beyond the surmounted wetlands lay a quiet vale through which ran a babbling brook, girded on all sides by dry forest and vine, the ground verdant-lush and teeming with all manner of skittering things both foul and fair. He sat by the snaking divet and withdrew a wood cup from his travel satchel and dipped it in the water and drank deeply, the liquid sweet and cool to his parched and desirous throat. Then he watched the solar plumes play across the waves as a small school of fish nudged up to the surface, their huge, lidless eyes gazing upon the sun-scorned figure as if appetent of conversation. Gunvald withdrew the last of his stock, a dry half-loaf of bread and broke it into small pieces, eating some and then throwing the rest to the fishes who gobbled at the flotsam and then nervously retreated, wary of Man’s latent, yet ever present perfidy.

Moments later, the sound of creaking wood could be heard all throughout the vale, followed swiftly by a muted cascade of footfalls. The sound followed the wake of an old cart, rope-dragged by four men, filthy, disheveled and dressed all in furs. Their faces were covered by cloth halfmasks, securing the nose and mouth from nature’s multitudinous ravishments. Gunvald rose to observe the strange and solemn congression, eyes widening with horror as he beheld their vessel’s grisly cargo.

Bodies.

Some fifteen in number, human and decaying under the harsh auspice of the sun. They were male and female alike, from babe to crone, covered in all manner of hideous rashes and boils, their skin ashen-red and peeling like the hide of some overripe fruit. Whatever disease it was that had snatched from them the breath of life seemed for the moment to have no hold upon the cart-pullers who paused momentarily, all turning to the man by the river.

One of their number addressed Gunvald sharply, as if in reprimand for some past transgression.

“What easy fool is this?”

“No fool, sir. But a traveler.”

“Those that here make passage are foolish enough to warrant the epithet. Canst thou not see our sorry wares?”

“Tis a pitiable sight. Wherefore didst they meet Dactyl’s scythe?”

Upon the utterance of that most singular name the men collectively gasped, the former speaker, a short man, bow-backed, balding and scarfaced, muttered a muted prayer and then gestured towards Gunvald as if casting some devious vermin from his presence.

“Sound not that unutterable traducement!”

“I meant no offense. Superstition has surely deranged thy temperament.”

“Enough, heretic, we darest not tarry, lest thy, with your calumnious tongue, conjure some new evil to surpass the one that now burdens our aching backs!”

The other workers nodded as if there was great wisdom in the bald man’s words and then they adjusted their masks and ropes and muttered another prayer and bent once more to their toil and moved out across the rutted and grassy way, vanishing at last beneath the cavernous canopy of the wood, swallowed whole by the shadows therein.

Gunvald watched them go and decided to follow the cartmen at a distance, for their path and his were, for the time being, one and the same.

Gunvald rose and gave chase, passing through the thick and tangled forest of oak and ash and fir and gave silent thanks for the thick moss-bed beneath that masked the clattering of his bulky armored frame. Over moss and stone and leaves, dead and alive, he walked, keeping himself well hidden and well apart from the odd foursome and their rickety old cart. After a couple hundred feet the forest opened up, the trees and shrubbery now growing more sparsely, the grass turning from green to yellow-green to a dull orange-yellow. Dying. The cart-pullers took a sharp right and passed fully beyond the forest unto a thin, dirt road that stretched out to the gray northwestern hill-lands like the great and ossified tendril of some mighty leviathan. The road ran down a slight decline in the hummock ridden surface of the world and then diverged, one track splitting off to a small city to the south and the other branching to a butte which rose as the pass to the low, south-eastern mountains. Gunvald waited until the men had disappeared beyond the curvature of the earth and then took the lonely path towards the town stopping by a small wooden sign, hastily constructed, which read:

Ħaberale

The sign was adorned with a large off-white arrow, comprised of some woodland dye, which pointed towards the clearly present outline of the town in the short-off distance, half obscured by small tussles of old trees which poked above a field of withering wheat and the ruins of some primeval fort that lay there beyond. Before the man had fully risen from his observation of the sign the sound of thundering hooves rose up from somewhere nearby, plumes of dust whirling up towards the immediate northern road. Shortly, a fearsome cavalcade stood before the weary and cautious wayfarer, five in number and all armed and armored in strict uniformity. Knights or sell-swords or something worse. Gunvald knew instantly they were not of this land, by both their expensive attire and peculiar breed of destrier, he fancied them denizens of Tor, a kingdom someways off and rarely concerned with its outlying provinces. The leader of the group and the eldest, a man of middling height and some fifty years, at length addressed the armored wayfarer.

“Hail, traveler. A moment to query?”

Gunvald nodded in wordless acquiescence, though he knew that it was not a question proper.

“I am Cyneweard, second-commander of Tor. Word of brigand raids have reached our gracious Lord, Cenhelm, and by his leave we make way to Haberale to rope the misbegotten scoundrels.”

“If that is your venture then you’re headed the way all awrong. Your foe lies beyond the northern forest, past the bogland in the high moors.”

“You’ve seen them?”

“The night last I was assailed upon the moor by three fiends, peasants it seemed.”

“Three you say?”

“Now two.”

“We thank thee kindly. Might I inquire as to your business, traveler?”

“My business is my own to keep.”

“Suit thyself. One word of parting, take heed in Haberale, the town is much changed. For the worse I am afeared. With thanks, we leave you, sir.”

Without another word the knights straightened in their leather saddles and flicked the reigns of their war-beasts and clattered off down the road toward the moor. When they had gone all was silent save for the heavy breath of the western wind that sent the traveler’s long, wavy locks all aflutter. He brushed his locks from out his eyes and adjusted his scabbard-belt and wondered at the knight’s words. Haberale had always been a sleepy little idyll, the only heed one had need to take was of how uneventful it was likely to be so as to better remedy the doldrums. Then he thought of the bandits and the dead men in the cart and the living ones pulling it and the strange masks on their faces, all deep, emerald green. Times had changed indeed.

Gunvald left off down the way and crossed through the fading wheat and the hard clay ground and made camp in the ruins of some old fort as darkness closed about him in minacious plume.

*

Gunvald woke in twilight and passed through the northern archway of the quaint little conglomeration of hamlets as the sun rose full and fierce above the distant mountains heralding the end of Night’s devious reign. Through and beyond the northern stone archway ran a well worn path of rough cobbled stone which merged with the town’s main thoroughfare. It was at this junction that a statue of the goddess Marta lay, a man standing beneath it. The man was young and slim and dreadfully pale and wore a thin leather patch about his left eye. He was dressed all in tatters and sat cross-legged upon the ground beside a little wooden bowl which he glanced at from time to time as if he were afraid it might grow legs of its own and run off to be with its own kith and kin.

Gunvald’s footfalls sounded in short order upon the little, tatterdemalion man’s ears at which point he languidly raised his shaggy, windswept head and affixed the traveler with a most marvelous gold-green eye.

“Greetings and salutations, m’lord.”

“I’m not yer lord, beggar.”

“Not yet, good sir, not yet. Give it goodly time.”

Gunvald wondered momentarily if the man were mad, decided that it mattered not; he was pitiable all the same.

“Wherefore do thy wear that mangy patch?”

“Tis not for fashion, sure enough. But for those necessities of form that civilized men do aspire to. When War upon the Men of the Rimn was declared I, to my everlasting shame, made to abscond from those duties that bind blood to blood. Alas, I failed even in my wretched treachery and was apprehended and press-ganged to the front lines in service to Tor. It was there mine eye met the fearsome edge of a grayman’s axe, hence the patch.”

“Then thou must except my apologies, I myself am a veteran of that heinous enterprise and would never have spoken so tersely to thee had I known…”

The yellow eyed man held up his hands in entreaty and shook his head sadly, knowingly.

“Tis nothing. One as wretched as I am deserving of no apologies.”

Shamed to silence, Gunvald stood a moment in awkward contemplation, his thoughts coming to him with unusual langoriousness. It was in that meditative reverie that he spotted a small cloth mat, rolled and neatly bound with an old vine. A sleeping cover more suited for a cot than the rocky, pitted ground.

“Have you lodgings?”

“No, m’lord. All that I have I carry on my person. Everything else I lost in the war. Now I lodge with the goddess, who, in her grace, has embraced me warmly.”

With a look of horror and self-vexation, Gunvald dug into his left pocket and withdrew a small handful of coins, silver and stamped with the Royal Seal of Tor, a stylized chimera perching atop a proud, jagged spire of stone on one side and on the other the stylized face of King Chester III, Sovereign of Tor.

He proffered the mintage to the faineant without hesitation.

“I can’t accept that, m’lord. Tis far too great a sum.”

“If you shan’t accept my gift I shall force it upon thee.”

“Your magnanimity exceeds all expectations, sire. May Marta bless thee!”

The man-at-arms cracked a wry smile.

“Of that, she’ll have a most arduous time. Tell me, vagrant, what do I call thee?”

“Frey, m’lord. Jameson Frey.”

“Well met, Jasmeson. I am Gunvald. May Marta bless thee likewise.”

“One word, before your leave-taking, m’lord.”

“What is it?”

“The town overfloweth scoundrels.”

Without another word he turned and left off from the shrine as the pale vagrant bowed respectfully as if to some imperial magistrate. Some forty feet down the road Gunvald entered the town proper, passing through the old, low, stone archway which let out into the thin and winding main thoroughfare, passing between two old cobblestone huts, their smokestacks painting the sky gray with their exhaustive alcahest. He followed the road aways, passing between row after row of small cobbled huts with low hanging roofs of laiden brown thatch, small circular windows exposing the heads of a silent and solemn population who gazed out upon the lone wanderer with a mixture of wonder and fear. Their eyes spoke volumes, the unmuttered words those of caution, a collective flashing of looks that seemed to say, “Beware!”

His pace quickened in tandem to his pace, soon he settled into a light jog and closed his hand about the door of the fourth house to the left of the entryway. He braced himself for the coming encounter and feared his heart might wake the inhabitants with its knocking. Then he entered.

Inside there was only a old woman who looked up without surprise, as if she had been expecting him. After a moment, her eyes adjusted and a look of somber knowing came unto her face.

“I remember that face. Gunvald Wegferend, it pleases me to see you alive and well, dour faced as ever.”

He remembered the old crone, Paega well, she the former nurse-maid to his beloved and a fishwife at that.

“I trust you’ve been well, old fox.”

“Ack, don’t try your charms on me, I’m too old for flattery.”

“Very well.”

“To answer true… I’ve been better, all here have-”

He interrupted suddenly, unable to contained his excitement and curiosity.

“Leofflaed… is she here?”

The fishwife paused and gave a long, sad sigh before answering.

“Leofflaed is gone.”

“G-gone?”

“Due your feelings for her I shan’t keep anything aback. Her father sold her to Lord Eadwulf, the cattle baron, I trust you remember him. She lives with the lord even still, in that old stone manse upon the southern plain.”

“Hamon sold her?”

“Yes.”

“For what purpose.”

“To pay off a gambling debt.”

“What purpose for Eadwulf?”

“It were better I not say.”

Gunvald face was red with wrath, his fists trembling. He wanted to loose his rage without hesitation and would have had Eadwulf been there before him.

“My Leofflaed, sold like a common whore!”

“Hush, now, young master Gunvald. She was never promised to you. All vows made were between thee and she alone and none other. Now come, sit, you must be weary with your travels.”

“Nay, but I thank thee for thy troubles, Paega.”

He turned to leave but the old woman rose and grasped his forearm.

“Do nothing rash, young master, Eadwulf will not permit it and-”

“I’ll not be lectured to, especially not by a woman. Now take your hand from me this instant.”

She did as he commanded, fear and worry mixing in equal measure from the dull pallor of her withered cheeks and the slight glint in her weathered, squinting eyes.

Without another word he left off out of the house without closing the door and stalked through the streets with a lion’s fury. For a moment the man was directionless and then he remembered the old inn. A drink would well enough calm the nerves as it dulled the senses. For the present the soldier wished to feel nothing at all.

As he made way to the old inn Gunvald was perplexed by the empty streets which, in his youth, had been so full of mirth and gaiety and merchants haggling their glitzy baubles and minstrels singing songs of heroic struggles of some olden, mythic age, all of lion-slaying and monsters and magical princes and damsels and goddesses so fair they would blind all mortals who dared gaze upon their supple, naked forms. Now there was nothing but silence, broken at sullen intervals by the cracking of the old flags, green and emblazoned with the chimeric crest of Tor, that flew above the ramshackle houses from the watchtowers where they stood before the low, stone walls, overgrown with moss and unkempt as if in abandonment.

It looked liken to the domain of the dead.

He continued along the thoroughfare and passed beyond the low-born housing and moved on to the town square and passed the shuttered armory and the barren fish-market where only a few shadow-faced gypsies sulked, and moved to stand before the inn as an icy wind blew in from the north and crows gathered in the sky and landed upon the eaves, cackling as if with malicious mirth at his present plight. The looked to be Loessians, those curious folk what had crossed the great desert that moored itself to the World Spine and bulwarked the whole of the Kingdom of Tor from the other noted lands. Gunvald wondered at their presence: What were they doing so far from home?

Abruptly, one of them looked to Gunvald with keen interested and muttered something in a foreign tongue to a younger compatriot. The younger man drew himself up and instantly ran off, headed for inn to which Gunvald was headed. The armored traveler paid the boy no minded and moved to stand upon the low, flat veranda of the venerable establishment. He barley recognized the place, so hewn with odd etchings and strange graffiti was it, all in some foreign hand. Loessian, he fancied.

A old man sat upon a overturned bucket upon the leftmost side of the wide porch of the itinerant’s lodge. He was a sunken-eyed creature, dour and vacant, garbed in a thick fur coat and hat, a long wooden pipe gently set between his small, yellowed teeth upon which he puffed from time to time with methodical regularity. At length he spoke without turning.

“You know what they say? Those wall-scrawlings?”

Gunvald shook his head.

“I’ve little penchant for symbolism.”

“Tisn’t symbolism, tis Loessian. I don’t like the way they leer. Like cats.”

Gunvald waited a moment, expecting the old man to say something else and at length, after a long, meditating puff of his wickwood pipe, he did.

“You know how to swing that sword you carry?”

“Well as any.”

“You’ll need it shortly. The sword and the knowledge of its swinging.”

“Is that a threat, old man?”

The withered smoker screwed up his face, as if insulted and then spoke with forced restraint.

“Nay, a warning. I remember you. Gunvald, wasn’t it? Allotar and Aedelstein’s boy, but a boy no longer.”

“I don’t recall ye, old man.”

“Didn’t expect ye to. I knew your parents, knew them well. Thyself I met but on two occasions, ye but a babe, dew-eyed and grasping.”

“I do not wish to be rude, but I’m in no mood for chit-chat.”

“Fine then. To the heart of my warning. This lodge is owned by Lord Eadwulf’s right-hand man, Baldric, a very dangerous and intemperate man. His cohorts are seldom better. It is also, formerly, the favored haunt of the Loessian gypsies you see leering at us so ill-mannerly. Baldric can’t abide the Loessians and they, likewise. There are often fights. Killings. There are other places to drink than here and for a triumphant Son of Tor, I would gladly spare the whole depth and breadth of my samovar twice over, or more.”

As Gunvald opened his mouth to answer the doors to the inn swung open at the behest of a powerful hand, a powerful form swiftly following. A man, some six feet tall emerged, looked left then right then left again towards the duo and moved to stand before Gunvald. Gunvald turned full about and beheld the newcomer. He was some forty years of age with a thick and well trimmed beard all of red set below small black eyes and innumerable scars that ran from temple to cheek and from chin to neck. Gifts of the battlefield.

For a moment all was silent as the scar-faced man gazed upon Gunvald with great intensity. The next moment he surged forwards and latched Gunvald with a powerful embrace.

“Valiant Son of Tor! Welcome back, welcome back! A venerable procession I would have prepared had I known of thy arrival!”

Gunvald returned the old battle-hound’s embrace with a merry smile.

“You’re looking well, Uncle.”

*

The men sat around the rickety wooden round table in the center of the raucous inn. The lodging was all of thick-cut timber, with a small chandelier made of antlers and bone and which illuminated the laughing faces and the amber brew, overflowing, below. Gunvald smiled faintly as he looked about the old establishment. Exactly as he had left it. It was good to know at least some things had remained the same since the passing of the war. The room was still long and rectangular. The pitted, polished bar still stood in the back left corner, arranged all with brilliant crystalline glasses that proudly shone down upon the stuffed animal heads that lined the walls like curious spirits and the chortling merry-makers who swilled their hearty brew and smoked their oversized pipes, dancing light like dutiful sentries. Prune-faced was the owner who barked orders at the service wenches, their youthful limbs, limber and fast dancing about the shuttered ambit, wheeling great mugs of ale and mead and some strange smelling concoction that escaped Gunvald’s ken to the baying host therein who clacked their heels and struck up a tune here, or there quipped back and forth, arguing over a game of cards. The whole of the place a whizgig of energy and motion. A pen of mirthful chaos.

Gunvald starred down into his mug, watching the light play across the contents halcyon surface as Baldric conversed with his men, they all armed to the teeth and red-nosed with alcohol. At length he turned and raised his glass to the meditative veteran.

“Here’s to Gunvald of Tor, Hero of South, Scourge of the Gray!”

“To Gunvald!” The men exclaimed with ecstatic unison as they tipped weighty flasks to lips and downed half the contents therein. They were young to middle aged, armed and armored, but poorly, and each bearing the sigil of Lord Eadwulf, a furious, brass bull, upon the pommels of their well-sheathed swords.

Gunvald at length raised his own glass and looked to each and every local visage and then intoned imperiously.

“To Tor, and all her bloodied men!”

“Here, here!”

After the cheers the Baldric ordered them back to their posts around the perimeter of the town, leaving the gruff vassal alone with his nephew. He turned to Gunvald and glanced to his cup; empty.

“Well that surely won’t do. Not at’tall.”

“I’ve had well enough.”

“Of mead, perhaps, what say you to the other delectable treats afforded us?”

Baldric smiled mischievously as a sultry waitress sided up to him, bearing a bowel of nuts and two fresh pints of mead, which she set gingerly down before the two seated warriors. She looked first to Baldric then to Gunvald and smiled pleasantly. When Gunvald made to pay her she shook her head and held up her heands in entreaty.

“For a hero such as thee, tis on the house. As many as you like. Tis our pleasure, m’lord.”

“I thank thee, and you’re old master,” Gunvald responded stoically, his eyes leaving the dark pool of his cup only briefly, then returning to distanced reverie. The bar maiden stood uncertainly for a moment, as if she wished to speak but could not formulate the words until at last she bowed, saying only, “Well, I do not wish to disturb thee any longer.”

Baldric gave a laugh and, as she left off, slapped her straight upon the bum.

“Get ye off to the other guests, Ebba, my pretty, little minx.”

“Incorrigible scoundrel!”

The bar maid made a show of huffing and puffing but crack a delighted smile despite herself and whirled away tsk-tsking.

“Have ye lost ye manhood entire to the cup?”

“Nay.”

“Ya didn’t even spare Ebba a glance, an she a right ole looker – oh how she makes my heart leap with every new visage! Should go after her, I saw the way she was a’looking at ya-”

“That isn’t what I want.”

“Well, what do ya want? Hell, you and the rest of the town haven’t yet realized it, but you’re a bloody hero, you can have anything you want. Anything. Hear me, lad? I should know, I read you’re letters and the missives tracking your legions movements through the Rimn. When I read the last one my soul nearly leapt from my body, my heart, ceased it’s knocking and… I don’t mind saying it, tears sprang into me eyes. It had come by wing from one of Eadwulf’s falconers; it read:

Fenrald’s 3rd Legion surprised by Grey ambush at Rivenlore.

No survivors.

“Upon its reading I froze and there starred at the words and read them again, but they did not change. The horror was immovable. So many of my friends. Dead. Buried or burnt all. The worst of it was the casting of my mind to thyself, my dearest nephew – to have lost you to that stony, ice-wrapt waste… I know not what I would have done! And yet, here ye sit, glum and stolid as ever, but here and well and alive none the less! I was o’erjoyed when the next letter came – the war was ended; the Grey Chief slain. Split from knave to chops and shoulder to shoulder, his head unseamed from his villainous corpse! And by none other than by thee, my dearest nephew.”

“I’m surprised ye have yet to send for Eadwulf. He’ll be desirous to know of my presence.”

“Oh, no ye don’t, I know you’re ways, ye want me ta call him so that ye can return to the dutiful fold of His Grace. So that you can get aback te fighting! Well, ya’ave slain well enough and now, to rest.”

“Twas four months in the crossing from the Rimn to Tor alone. I’m rested well enough. Now send for Lord Eadwulf.”

“Ack, that kin wait – looky ere, tis Freyda. Isn’t she just the bonniest thing-”

Without warning, Gunvald slammed his fist hard into the table and turned frightfully upon his uncle, his eyes wide, intense and burning with some effulgent property that filled Baldric’s mind with a sudden terror.

“Spare me the bar-room whores. Take me to Eadwulf. Now.”

Tomb of the Father: Chapter One, Traveler On The Moor

The sky was dark as the carapace of the beetles which scurried hither and thither beneath the flinty, scattered boughs of the gnarled and dying trees as the man moved over the khaki hillocks of the endless moor, the traveling lamp unshuttered the world in its eastward descent unto oblivion as if following the lonely soul in his argent passage. Wind-chaffed and weary, that solitary figure trudged over a low slope and descended liken to the effulgent sphere above him as a scattering of sheep ran zig-zag about him, fleeing off down the incline to congregate about the fires of some aged vaquero. The cowherd bivouacked in a stony vale, buttressed all about by a high semi-circle of tors that girded he and his odd-baying wards from the buffets of the world. To the left of a fire-pit which had been hastily constructed and ringed about with the scarce, ashen sediment of the moor stood a diminutive palfrey, outfitted with naught but a loosely strapped saddle-cloth and whisp’d reigns of hair.

The stranger looked on a while and then adjusted his leather belt and heavy pack, his shoulder o’er thrown and looked to the storm-wall building up in the far-flung distance and then back again and made haste to the camp seeking harbourage from the ravishment encroaching.

Small flickering tongues of flame hacked away the shade from the rocky outcropping and illuminated the face of the beasts and men alike and for a brief spheres-turning all was silent save for crackling stutter of burning wood and the muted shuffling of the graze-beasts upon the heath.

The vaquero looked the stranger up and down and then bade him to the warmth of his shelter, the invitation, readily accepted.

“What queer business brings such as thee to this long-forsaken vale?”

The stranger set himself down beside the fire and warmed his aching bones and then turned to his benefactor with a countenance both dire and faraway, as if he were intensely enveloped in the contemplation of something from a time long past or yet still to come.

“No business but chance. I make pilgrimage to Caer Tor, but upon my way my horse didst fall; eaten by ague. So, with a heavy heart, I put sword to spine and ended the sorry beast’s suffering and continued on my way afoot; this barren waste the last obstacle o’er which I must leap to reach my kinsmen’s warm embrace, they unprimed of my arrival.”

The cowherd nodded as if sense had been made of the thing and some semblance of trust both established and reciprocated.

“Thou mayst call me, Ealdwine.”

As the stranger took the old man’s hand and shook it firmly he spoke with something liken to shame frittering about his dulcet tones.

“Gunvald Wegferend.”

“Curious name that, such that it sounds not of this thede, nor any other.”

“That alone is a story in the retelling.”

“The isolation of the moor doth unfix the tongue from its rightful wagging – but worry not, I shan’t pry. Thy business is thy own and thine own to keep.”

“I mind not, old man, but would thank thee for the comfort of thy wild-twinkling foyer, the effulgence of the firmament, for all its dazzling brightness did little to gird me from frost’s fell grasp. Hark! Hear ye that sound?”

The old man half turned upon the old log on which he sat, cocking an ear in the direction of the wide, outer dark. Then he shook his hoary head and returned his attention to the wayfarer.

“Nay, I hear nothing.”

Ealdwine leaned closer to the stranger, his grizzled visage demon-like in the interplay of dark and flame.

“There are always noises upon the heath. Sounding with great regularity, not all tricks of a frightened mind at that. There are skinks, efts, wild dogs and shrews and grouse and geese, adders and crickets aplenty. Oftimes the big-horned rams from the far mountains loose themselves from that stony prison and, wayward, wander in quizzical vexation about this lonely place. Wild hearts beating with the echoing confusion the land sings aplenty. Upon such happenings, I see them stray into the marsh which stretches like a great and black-blooded gash across the earth at the far southern end of the moor, like a wound from some titian’s own brand. If so they stray, they will invariably fall prey to the silent monster with maw eternal-arced and hunger endless and strain against the bog-hold, crying out, strangely human, into the fire-pitted welkin where nary an ear but mine can hear tell of their sorry plight. At last their rangy heads and heaving flanks will vanish beneath the sinkhole and with that disappearance so to do their cries subside and all is at once, silent and severe.”

Gunvald, sensing the old herder sought his fear, crossed his thick and iron banded arms about his cuirassed chest and raised a brow.

“Canst thou not aid the poorly beasts?”

“Fools errand that twould be, none but a scion of God could navigate that blasted place with sureness of foot. The first false step means death, to man or beast. For there is naught living that can escape that fetid pit when once it has thee in its soggy grip.”

“Tis a fine thing then that I am no horny ram.”

“You should not make light of such turnings, for there is a ordering to things beyond our comprehension and a truth it seems to me that those who scoff at the plight of that whom The Creator hath deigned to snatch away laugh also at Him, for is not such cessation but part and parcel of his plan? What greater sacrilege could there but to scoff at the very pathing of the world. So take heed, traveler, thy laugh at thy own peril for thy laugh unto the very face of God.”

Gunvald furrowed his brows and then adjusted his belted scabbard such to bend better towards the heat and there a moment refreshed himself and then straightened and addressed the old man.

“Thy words well become a man of your occupation. Tis rightful that men of the earth should, with their deeds as with their tongue, extol it.”

“Yes. But ye yet say naught pertaining to the truth of it.”

“It is not for men of my station to interpret such eldritch things. I’ve not the brain for it and, lacking the intelligence, lack also the words. My voice is in my sword for redder conversations than this.”

“A soldier then?”

“Aye. Hark. Again I hear it.”

Before the old man could speak three vast shadows subsumed the rocky outcropping and footed there, three men, feral eyed and brigandined. There was between them several swords and daggers, all of which reflected like ghostly fires neath the cool sheen of the shrouded, waning moon.

The cowherd and his compatriot rose with suddenness, Gunvald’s hand flying instinctively to the leather-bound pommel of his gilded blade, gifted him by his father, late. He drew the blade in the same instant and stepped forth with a fencer’s feline grace, eyes steady as poise, emotion cold as the brand which glinted orange with the low-crackling fire.

“Who goes?”

“Put that away afore ye hurt yeself,” a pudgy member of that ratty trio mouthed with a wide, sinister grin.

Another, the shortest and ugliest member of that threesome, a hunchback, swiped the air with his weapon, a cudgel as loathsome as the visage of its wielder, which caused the sheep to bah-bah and retreat civilly to the very edges of the high, stone cliffs.

“Looks as if we’ve a froggy one! I’ll take him myself and to our master bring his head!”

“Silent and still be the both of you,” Thundered the tallest member of that sordid corp, a man some thirty years of age, angular of face and form, he wielding a grain scythe in his leather-strapped hands.

Gunvald knew not the providence of such beings but their intention was plainly writ; the Narrow War had made many such fell creations, the ungainly trio being but lesser manifestations of the insurrections twisted deviance. Their movements furtive. Eyes more beast than man.

“You must excuse my friends, tisn’t oft we chance upon such ill-girded company.”

Gunvald smiled fractionally.

“So you think.”

“So I know.”

“Try me then, brigand, and may Marta bless the better man.”

Malefactorous, the night-stalker advanced hesitantly across the muddy ground, well-slicked with welkin-mourn, farm scythe held awkwardly before him, as if it were some mighty polearm. All the while the thief drew forth Gunvald moved nary an inch, his eyes and bones and blade fractions of a singular whole, still as the stone surrounding. At the last, as the dread-scythe arced through the air with a furious humming, the soldier tore himself from his rooted shade and feinted the blow with the mid-side of his great-brand and delivered a sunderous riposte that severed the brigand’s arm from its socket.

A faint mist of red fluttered through the air like tiny moths from some otherworld of dreams and portents and landed upon the ground as the gory limb flopped down beside them like a huge and malformed fish. A startling howl tore from the rouges’ throat, as if it were his soul that had been rent from the body rather than a mere arm, the sound resounding throughout the high towering outcroppings and fading up into the night as if suffering were drawn unto the dark.

The flock bah-bah-ed nervously and stomped their hooves as their Shepard starred on, wide-eyed but resolved.

Gunvald turned to the remaining cretins who paused a moment, looking to the triumphal warrior, clad in moon-glint mail, then to the leaking appendage that still clutched the scythe and then to the man to which the arm used to belong, some seven feet away, flat on his back, writhing like a punctured horseshoe crab, his agony so great that nothing now but muted moans escaped his wide spaced maw, lips flexing like roiling bait-worms fresh off some fisherman’s hook.

With a startled cry the felonious duo turned tail and fled off into the night, their lanky shadows odd-angling under the skies auspicious glow, shortly thereafter wholly swallowed up into the hazy outer null. Gunvald made to swiftly follow but was held aback by the vaqueros cry, “No! They fly to the marshlands. Heed my words: Let them fly, no man can traverse such cursed terrain under the pall of night!”

Gunvald nodded and watched them fade off into the wide sea of black and then exhaled heavily, as the old man looked mournfully towards the dying thief.

Then all was sheep-call and bird-caw and fire-hiss and the hideous bleating of a lost and dying soul.

At length, Gunvald turned to his fallen foe who instantly began, once more, to shriek unto the vaulted sphere of night. His eyes bugging into enormous disks, strange-lit by the dancing flames of the softly crackling fire. Just as swiftly the man’s howling was silenced by the point of Gunvald’s blade piecing his armor and heart, there pinning him to the ground as he wriggled like some great and misshapen insect. Then his eyes rolled up in his head and a final gasp of breath escaped his mouth, issuing high up into the moist and roiling air. Then nothing but the clacking of hooves and the whistling of clay-scented wind, raving out over the great and scoured ambit of the rain-washed plane.

At length Gunvald, put his boot to the silent brigand’s chest and pulled free his bloody brand and then bent to the dead man and from his head cut a thick and charcoal lock of hair. He moved from the site of execution to the firepit and knelt before the red, closing his eyes and uttering a strange mantra unto the dancing embers, as if they’d ears to hear it.

What has gone, is what is come.

And from my hands, I give to yours.

That which is rightfully owed.

His life to your light, now and forever unending.

Give us both your pardon.

Let him keep his rest.

May your light engulf the world and every other.

When the soldier had finished his prayer and tossed the lock of hair into the fire and watched it burn with keen intensity, as if revelations would speak in shocking tongues from beneath those puffs of thin, gray smoke. When they did not he rose from the ground and set himself down upon one of the flat stones which the vaquero had hauled to the pit to keep himself well clear of the ground as he warmed his old bones. The vaquero looked to the knight a moment, then the fire, then the knight and spoke, his voice uneven, afeared.

“The hunchback mentioned they’re master.”

Gunvald nodded vaguely and gestured towards the old man for something to drink for which he was rewarded with a flask of sour, salty rice-wine. The soldier grimaced but downed it all the same, feeling a hot sensation in the pit of his stomach. He leaned over the flames, cradling the flask between his heaved gloved hands and addressed the cattle-herder with deadpan seriousness.

“Likely to me it seems that such those that fled were but part of some larger band. Raiders. From the hillands. Long have they warred with Tor. The nature of the conflict lost to the annals of history and the sands of time. T’would be unwise of thee to tarry.”

“Aye, they were at that. Though lonesome it may appear to thee, across the bogland there is green grass than this. It is there I’d graze my woolly friends were there space to do it. Alas, the land is owned and off I’d be run in not half a minute. Greedy land owners to the south and bloody thirsty raiders to the north, such is my plight, traveler, so much as it might behoove me to pack up and flee, I’ve no where to go.”

The vaquero fell silent a good long while, his eyes cast to the flames, as Gunvald took the information in solemnly and stroked his burgeoning beard as if in meditation. When at last the old man raised his face from the fire there was great sadness in his eyes.

“Ye didn’t have to kill him.”

Gunvald paused a moment and then met his elder’s gaze with dark amusement shinning in his steely eyes.

“So even thee questions the order of the world. Thee, thyself said it twas paramount to a question of the very nature of God. Is this your project, vaquero?”

The old man, shocked by his own hypocrisy, fell silent and did not respond. The soldier continued on, heedless.

“Of course it is, what else could it be. It is the project of any and all sane and questioning men. It was this very project that led me to reject The Eternal Being, for such a presence, he who is eternal, all powerful and everywhere at all times and places is said to lack in nothing – a fatal error, he lacks in one thing and one thing alone, limitation. As such there is none to bear witness to He, none to say that He is this and they are that. A being beyond witnessing is thus a being beyond our ken.”

“A warrior-poet. How singular. Yet you keep to Lady Marta?”

“The Prayer of the Dead you mean? Something my mother taught me – an old habit. Nothing more. Nothing more.”

With that silence fell once more over the stony outcropping as a chill wind swept in from the norther mountains, bringing in its wake a dreadful downpour that washed the blood from the body of the arm-less brigand and carried it out and down the trough of the encampment to puddle in the sodden moor. In that fetid broths reflection were the wings of a dozen crows who cawed madly and scrapped the sky with their metallic talons and torn off in wide wheeling circulations through the closing storm-wall as thunder and lightening fell upon the plain and redressed the world in the garments of the mad.

Their cries were like lamentations.

For the dead. The dying.

And all those still to die.


Sample from my forthcoming novel, Tomb of the Father, provided for the purposes of critique and commentary.