Tomb of the Father: Chapter Three (Excerpt)

Author’s note: The following text is a short chapter excerpt from my forthcoming novel, Tomb Of The Father. This installment will be one of the last chapter excerpts released until the book is completed.


Lord Eadwulf’s castle lay an hours ride from the city of Hableale, ensconced in rolling woodlands that trammeled out and merged with the flat vastness of the moor circumferent. The outer keep was a massive thing, ringed first by moat and second by huge curtain walls, ancient and wrought of stones from a foreign land, their providence as unknown to the inhabitants of Haberale as their age. Trumpets sounded from somewhere within the hulking monolith as two figures entered on horseback, driving hard across the drawbridge, through the mighty barbican and deep into the well trammeled haven of the outer bailey. To the right, a storehouse before which was chained a massive hound of some breed beyond the rider’s collective reckoning and to the left, a length of stable-barns from which the shunted braying of great steeds emanated like mighty gusts of wind. Folk of every lower class there labored; stable-lads hefting thick clumps of hay and the refuse of the equines as maidens dressed in the elegant red robes of the Order of Marta watched from afar, reveling in the excitement of their voyeurism, giggling with mischievous delight, fantasizing about that which their fathers would prefer they not. Older men moved large sacks of grain and salted meats from the castle proper and placed them within the store house in well-ordered piles and then dusted their calloused hands and stood chatting idly as their eyes followed the crows who turned half-circles up in the thermals.
The sky roiled with the dark harbingers of sunder, a heavy, howling wind tearing off from the far mountains and soaring in and under the battlements to scatter the hay and seed and chill the bones of every present soul. The guards looked to the darkening horizon nervously and then latched the great gate behind the two riders and then lead their horses to the stables and there bound and calmed them.
Gunvald dismounted first and looked around in wonderment. The grand keep’s ambit was so verdant and so ancient that it seemed more of some other world, some higher plane than the dull and barren sprawl of the short-flung town. He moved from the outer stable-barns and started on his way towards the wide stone-slated path which wound up to the mouth of the donjon like a gigantic serpent comprised of cloud. Baldric quickly followed and together, with a retinue of two guardsmen, they entered the castle proper. Through double doors of oak and across wide floors, well-laid with lavish carpeting, and up and down steps they went until at last they entered the well-packed banquet hall to the sound of muted strumming.
A great feast was underway and much merriment could be heard rising every now and then over the raucous clatter of instrumentation. Eadwulf Charmian sat, as was his right, at the head of the polished long table upon a throne garland with cushioned silks, hands overflowing with the splendor of his kitchens; spiced wine and phasianid. He was surrounded on all sides other by the host of the house, the chamberlain, his marshal, knights and footmen aplenty; pantler and butler moving to and fro with dutiful reserve, carrying plates of cheese and meats and trays of fish and hearty loaves and great and shimmering samovars of wine.
As Gunvald and Baldric made their way to the table they paused and, respectfully, bowed to their noble host who rose with great animation, smiling broadly.
“Duteous gentlemen, we welcome thee unto our hearth. One face familiar, the other, less so.”
Baldric gestured with melodramatic flair to his compatriot and then spoke in booming undulations.
“May I present, Ye Lordship, Gunvald Wegferend of Haberale, loyal solider to The Crown and honorable hero of our thede. Twas he alone who survived the massacre at Rivenlore and paid back the damnable cur, that architect of our goodly men’s demise, two-fold!”
A light of recognition there entered into the lord’s puffy, dull and inebriated eyes.
“Not with silver and gold, I trust!”
“No, m’lord,” Gunvald replied with a faint smile, “With blood and steel.”
“Aye, a most handsome reply! Come, let me embrace thee, worthy comrade!”
With a sudden burst of energy, the lord bounded across the floor and threw his chubby, ineffectual arms about Gunvald and then kissed his bewildered guest full upon the cheek and released him, smiling widely, patting the warrior’s arms as might a beneficent uncle.
“Now come, let us wine and dine and make merry!”
With some hesitation, Gunvald nodded and joined his Lord at the resplendent banquet table. Eadwulf made no direction and so Gunvald took a seat beside a old and grizzled pikeman whose helmet sat upon his lap, o’erturned as if he might at any moment don it once more and spring fiercely to violent action.
He scoured all present heads and gave a muted sigh. His lady was not present.
Where hast my love flown?
As Lord Eadwulf bade his Marshal, a stocky man named Haiden, raise the samovars and fill the newcomers goblets. Gunvald gritted his teeth, exerting every ounce of his considerable willpower to restrain himself from inquiry. At last, it became too much to bare; he turned full about in his chair and addressed his gracious host curtly.
“I hear tell, thee’ve taken on new hands. A young woman, if thy yeomen tell it true.”
Eadwulf gave a libidinous smile and in that moment, were he any other man, Gunvald would have leapt from his seat and cleaved him in twain. But he wasn’t any other man; he was a duke and more importantly, he was of Torian blood; of a certainty, there was no greater crime than the murder of one’s own kind – Gunvald recalled that not even that most abominable deity, Dactyl, whose very name were as a curse upon both the living and the dead, ever drew the blood of another Origin.
“Aye,” responded the lord, a twinkle in the eye, “A darling girl. A commoner, but none more beautiful, I tell thee true. Leofflaed is her name. I must introduce thee once she quits her bath.”
“She’ll be joining us?”
“Indeed, this is a special night, dear countryman! Hath thy dull brain been so wrought with valorous contemplation that ye’ve forgotten the day?”
Baldric, who sat dutifully beside his cousin, leaned in, whispering, “Tis Winter’s Dance.”
Gunvald perked up instantly, raising his goblet and forcing a wan smile.
“Of course, of course, I’d nearly forgot, tis Winter’s Dance.”
“Aye, Fall holds ever diminishing sway, master of the seasons no longer – the whispering winds of The Rimn rattle the cottages of our dainty hamlet already like the breath of some great beast,” Haiden exclaimed, shuddering slightly.
This pronouncement of fell dismay seemed to rouse much discontent in the host, the lord most of all.
“What now, sir? Is my Grand Marshal – sovereign of both horse and man – afeared of a light Winter’s gale?”
A portly old man nearest the Marshal, crimson frocked and hairless, replied darkly, “Haiden speaks it true, m’lord. These winds which blow so ceaselessly, the odd fog that seems to hang omnipresent o’er the moors, what seems to follow one in the passing, and those accursed crows – everywhere, simply everywhere – tis a bad sign. An omen. Marta is warning us.”
“Hush now, Summoner Thane,” Exclaimed Eadwulf, squirming upon his garland throne with nervous agitation, “Afore thy doomsaying proves ruinous to the good mirth of the house.”
The old man leaned back in his chair and folded his hands about his chest, over the heart. Gunvald recalled that the superstitious, masked peasants he’d met upon the road had made the same gesture when he’d uttered the name of the Eyeless-all-seeing. Gunvald remembered being taught as a child that the earthly manifestations of Marta affix themselves to the heart. It was said that the heart was the source of all emotion and that, if sufficient appropriations of piety were made to the goddess, she would cleanse the ailing organ of all that troubled it. Due this attribution, some had taken to calling her, Our Lady Pure-Heart, others still, The Reaper of Woe, though Summoner’s of a more parochial variety looked down upon such name-giving – some to the point of declaring such monikers heresies – for in the purist’s eyes, it was the very summit of arrogance to denominate pet-names to an Origin of beautitude. What place, after all, did the finite have naming the infinite?
Thane opened his wrinkled maw to speak but a harsh glare from his lord caught it there in his throat and, quickly, he fell silent once more, nodding to himself rather sadly as might the father of some harumscarum lad who’d the mind to go frolicking about the moors at night. Haiden too said no more and seeing this a fresh smile broke out over Eadwulf’s rotund and rosy face. He reached forth with his beefy, bejeweled fingers and raised his glass for a slender serving wench who poured a fresh pint of wine.
“What do thee make of all their pronouncements, landsman Gunvald?”
Gunvald looked from Haiden to the holy man and then shook his head.
“I am a footsoldier, before that, farmer. Premonitions and omens are, I am afraid, well beyond my ken.”
Suddenly, a new voice intruded upon the feast, low and sonorous, mannered like some orator of yore.
“This once venerable council has fallen to superstition most deplorably. Here you sit, High Summoner and Grand Marhsal, in the keep of the most powerful lord in the north, quaking like unsuckled babes at the prospect of supernatural despotism. Our dreams can, in times of direst contest, follow us full from that queer parlor, sleep, and pass into the waking world, latched to the insides of our selfsame skulls like a gaggle of phantasmal parasites. There they spring loose upon our fertile imaginations all manner of signs and signals, every style of omen and fell proscription. But by what method do we discern whether it is some connective coil that lends itself to providence or merely our dream’s own alcahest? Answer that question and thee shall surely have seized upon the truth of it.”
All present heads turned left, to the grand stair that let out to the upper landing, to behold a young man, garland in the finest of silks, blue and white. Upon his shoulder nested a falcon, whose piercing black eyes scanned the crowd the same as its master’s own and his lapis blue and more striking still.
Eadwulf gestured to the well-spoken dandy, “Landsman Gunvald, may I introduce to you the honorable Baron, Czemis Avarr, Ironmonger and Falconer of Caer Avarr. Our barton’s Master of Game.
Gunvald nodded respectfully towards the beauteous man who bowed respectably, but with a slight smile playing up one side of his face, as if he were possessed of some knowledge about the members of that venerable gathering which, if divulged, would bring about considerable embarrassment. The falconer then advanced to the table, his footfalls so soft and feline he made almost no sound at all. When he stood before the only empty chair opposite the lord, Haiden sighed and gestured to the falcon.
“Master Avarr, surely you do not mean to bring that carrion-beast to our table?”
The falcon sqwaked as if in rebuke as Avarr smiled ever so faintly once more.
“Not at all, for see thee not, he’s no carrion-beast. My friend prefers his prey were lively. The struggle of the hunt well whets his appetite.”
The Grand Marshal furrowed his brows with deep puzzlement and some apprehension, unsure as to the significance of the young falconer’s words.
“Meaning that he will leave thy food unmolested, lest thou there hath eft or shrew a scuttling.”
Avarr smiled his ghosting, barely discernable smile and straightened, extending the arm upon which his falcon nested as he whistled a command, whereupon the majestic beast flew full up to the rafters and then back down to perch upon the lower railing of the staircase like a dutiful guardian. The avian surveyed them intently as its master took his seat opposite Eadwulf, removing a small, silver cigarette tin from some inner fold of his jacket. All the while he moved, Gunvald’s eyes followed him, transfixed to the supple elegance of the singular man as he slid a machine-packed cigarette between his blood-red lips and lit it with a golden lighter. Languid and masterful were his movements, so much so that even the mundane action of his tobacco consumption seemed to eat up the energy of the room, to refocus and refine it. After a few long, languid drags upon his opium laced cigarette he leaned back upon the unadorned and old wooden chair at table’s end as if it were a throne more resplendent than Eadwulf’s own. The gesture seemed to say that it were now permissible for the party to continue, that his entrance had garnered sufficient appraisal. It seemed, to the veteran, that any man or woman who had no foreknowledge of the rightful placing of the household would have assumed this guady, white-haired falconer the rightful master of the keep.
“Thou must be Sir Gunvald, tis an honor to make thy acquaintance, loyal kinsman.”
Avarr extended a supple, white-gloved hand to the soldier who took it with some hesitation and shook it firmly. The falconer was far stronger than he looked.
“The honor is not thine alone, Baron Avarr, thy reputation precedes thee. Six years of fighting the grey folk and yet I never once encountered thee or thy men. Yet there were stories aplenty. Not a month went by where there was not talk amongst the war camp of thy valor. I wish we could have, if but once, shared the field.”
“We never had the chance to fight, side by side, as I never fought at the front. Fering – before his passing – stationed my regiment in the north-eastern forests near the base of the World Spine; despite my protestations, he believed, correctly, as it turned out, that my prowess as a huntsman would prove useful against the remnants of the Grey Folk who had deserted their war combine and who operated from that festering wood as brigands of a most savage disposition. Their operation had severely hampered our supply-lines and without supplies thy lot in the front would have crumbled, not from the foes to the north, but from the pangs of hunger and thirst. As thee well knows, the Grey Folk were not seasoned in open warfare, they’d have been crushed like insects under the hooves for a boar had they confronted the Torian Legions, army to army, on some open plain, as is our custom, for those weapons from my forge are scarce rivaled, even in Sage. Rather, they preferred the confounding architecture of their grand forests – subterfuge and skullduggery from behind bark and vine – arrows in the dark, knives in the back in twisting avenues where grapeshot is ill advised. Thou mayest recall the furor their tactics caused, we Torians had grown complacent in our ways and were outraged, foolishly, senselessly, when a tribe decided that rules and warfare mixed as water and oil. So our gracious Lord sent me to confront them at their selfsame game and thanks to the valor of my own men and, if it is not too bold to say, my own slow-flowering plans, I was able to best them most decisively.”
“As humble as ever, Baron.” Marshal Haiden sneered. Gunvald sensed bad-blood between the two and wondered at its origins. It seemed to Gunvald that there was some mote of jealousy in Haiden’s tone, buried firmly beneath his facade of civility. A venom particular to a man once scorned and unrecognized. A strange thing indeed, for the Grand Marshal was, in the hierarchy of the court, second in importance only to Eadwulf and the Arch-Summoner himself. What, Gunvald wondered, could he possibly be jealous of? What could a countryside ironmonger of minor nobility possess that the chief of The Lord’s army could not?
At length, Avarr turned to the Marshal and poured himself a glass of wine and lit himself another cigarette before speaking.
“I’ve been called many things in my life, Grand Marshal: ‘whore-monger,’ ‘addict,’ ‘pretentious,’ ‘tree killer,’ but never, ‘humble.’ At this point, such an allegation would sting worse than all the others. What is ‘humility’ but the perpetual pretense of inferiority? Nothing else. The humble man is he who says, ‘Ignore my prowess! It is meaningless! Praise only my boundless insignificance!’ When indeed, in reality, the feigning of his impotence and insignificance is the very thing which he hopes is praised; a substitute for true virtue. To be called humble is to be called a liar.”
The members of the house gave several terse, nervous laughs, unsure if Avarr’s comments were meant as jest or lecture or some queer combination of the two and when he laughed with them their mirth turned in earnest. Haiden merely grimaced and returned to his goblet, clearly displeased but not so sufficiently as to ruin his Lord’s graceful gathering.
Eadwulf leaned over his mutton, goblet in hand, remnants of fowl clinging to his girthful and graying beard, “Is Leofflaed coming shortly? Or is she still mucking about with her perfume and spice?”
The baron leaned back in his chair, smoking idly and looking off to where his feathery comrade fluttered about the rafters as if in silent rapport. At length, he spoke without turning.
“She dresses as we speak. I expect her any-”
Suddenly a shrill, impetuous voice boomed out from the upper landing.
“So I see that all have begun without me!”
Gunvald followed the voice from whence it came and turned his gaze to the grand stair whereupon a young woman stood, pout-lipped and grim-eyed, hands at her waist. Gunvald was shocked and elated. Elated at the sight of his beloved, shocked at how much she had changed in the space of seven years. Gone was the radiant smile of youthful innocence, in it’s stead, a cold, disdainful frown. Gone were the sun-faded and form-fitting lineaments of the village, replaced now by garish vestments of the keep, silk and sapphires, silver and gold. Gone was her agile frame and the supple movements which the soldier remembered so fondly from his youth, replaced now by an ungainly girth. None would have called her fat but the burgeoning plumpness of castle-excess was unmistakable.
“Thou hath no right to look so put-out, Leofflaed, one cannot expect all the world to run along the lines of thy clock,” Avarr replied flatly from below.
She surveyed the falconer with slowly softening vexation, then the party. Gunvald was surprised the Lord did not reprimand the baron for his chastisement. At length, she sighed and descended the stair, taking a seat beside Lord Eadwulf. As one of the serving girls pulled out a seat for Leofflaed, Eadwulf smiled and gestured towards her, his mouth half-filled with meats.
“Radiant, my dear, most radiant!”
Her only reply was a half-hearted smile, as transitory as the light glinting off her eyes.
The Lord motioned for the serving girls to fill her cup and move the food down to Leofflaed’s end of the table, as the silk-robed woman looked over the faces of every present soul. She seemed wholly disinterested in the affair, hands folded about her waist, lips stuck in what seemed to be a perpetual pout. Though she had gained weight and her countenance wore grim, she was still quite beautiful, the luster of fertile youth not yet wholly faded by time. What stirred Gunvald’s passions more than all her fading beauty was the memories of those fairer days wherein she and he had twined about the steps of the old temple, bounding here and there over moss and lichen, bracken and fern; how they had played hide and seek in the forests beyond Castle Avarr just before the moorland; how they embraced in times of woe and how they had kissed underneath the white bone of the moon by the statue at the edge of town whereupon he’d stumbled across the curious, one-eyed beggar. He remembered how they’d made love the day before he’d left for war, how she’d moaned and later cried and how they had pledged themselves to one another as the sun had risen red as the blood of all the men he had ever slain, as if portending all the masterful savagery he had done and all that he was still to do. Crushing sadness and unignorable agitation swam within the body of the swordsman, moving within his bosom and up from bosom to throat and from throat to mouth, bursting free of that fleshy cage like a lantern shattered in a barn of hay.
“Ne’er did I dare to believe that I would behold that face again; not in wildest dream-wanderings.”
Leofflaed turned to the upstart instantly, one brow going up with mild shock, the other down in confusion. Eyes met there for some indeterminable sphere’s turning, brown to green, green to brown forest to earth, plateau to vine. The shock swiftly dissipated into perplexed consternation.
“And thou art?”
Gunvald’s heart stilled a moment, then a pain, eerie and ethereal, slithered throughout the totality of the soma, palling the mind with direst imaginings. The soldier parted his lips to speak but no sound there escaped; he merely looked on, stunned to speechlessness. Fists balled like stones at his side, trembling with agitation. How, he thought, could she not remember?
Avarr turned to the woman and gestured to the soldier with his half-burned cigarette.
“Lady Leofflaed, may I introduce thee to Gunvald Wegerferend. It were he that slew Grim-Claw, Chief of the Gray Hordes of the North. Impressive, no?”
Leofflaed’s eyes grew wide, her body tense and still, her breath catching in her throat until a muted gasp escaped therefrom.
“Please… excuse me. I’m not… feeling well.”
Eadwulf lowered his goblet, furrowing his disorderly brows.
“What’s this now, have ye taken too much port afore the meal?”
“No, my dearest,” she turned full away from the still-standing soldier as she addressed her liege, as if she might wither away beneath his gaze, “I… do not not know what has come over me, some allergy perhaps, a fever of the seasons.”
Her facade fooled none but a few of the serving maids who cloistered round their ward, one of them fanning the lady with an empty soup dish, all the better to dispel whatever had befallen her. None spoke and, at length, the Lord intoned softly and somberly, “Well, get ye gone then. Off to bed. Off.”
The Lady left without another word as an uneasy pall settled over the feast. After the last footfalls of the Lady and her entourage had vanished up the well-varnished steps of the keep, The Baron rose and took Gunvald by the arm.
“Join me for a smoke upon the terrace.”
“But… the feast…”
Gunvald glanced over his shoulder and found Eadwulf’s beady eyes affixed to his own, sullenly regarding them with growing suspicion from beneath craggy brows and matted locks.
“I and our kindly guest wish to ply our senses to the crisp night air, by your leave.”
The Lord looked on a moment, his suspicion melting away almost instantly into a look of sadness then bewilderment, then comprehension. He nodded, “Ah, yes, yes, of course. Give him the goodly tour of it!”
“So I shall, my lord. So I shall.”
The two men, the baron and the landsman, left off out of the great hall to the whispering of the inner court, the distance rendering the sounds unintelligable.

Tomb of the Father: Chapter Two (Excerpt)

Author’s note: The following text is a short chapter excerpt from my forthcoming novel, Tomb Of The Father. More chapter excerpts will be released in the coming weeks.


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 shade 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 were one and the same. Past called to future. Dead to living. As if the stone were whispering to him, tales of 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 bracken and quitch 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 technically proficient 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 every shape and size. 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, an 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 to be real, the way the earth could so swiftly devour such a beast. Such a thing to the traveler’s mind was as fantastical as copper turning to gold or water to diamond. The bog had not been there when last he’d traversed the moor 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 rummy shrubs and bone piles and dying trees that looked more akin to the macabre props of a phantasmal 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 covered by cloth half-masks, securing the nose and mouth from nature’s multitudinous ravishments. Gunvald rose to observe the strange and solemn congregation, 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, 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 soldier.”
“Those that here make passage well warrant the epithet. Canst thou not see our sorry wares?”
“Tis a pitiable sight. Whereby didst the sorry lot 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 scar-faced, 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 thee, with thy 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 cart-men 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 fading 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 over which rose 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 beyond, its towers brimming with black wings and hissing beaks. 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 from 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 the town, by both their expensive attire and peculiar breed of destrier, he fancied them denizens of Caer 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 thy venture then ye’ev headed the way awrong. Thy foe lies beyond the northern forest, past the bogland in the high moors.”
“Thou hast seen them?”
“Three nights past I was assailed upon the moor by three fiends, peasants, it seemed.”
“Three thou sayst?”
“Now two.”
The knight took the measure of the soldier before him, discerning flecks of crusted blood about his boots and nodded solemnly.
“I thank thee kindly. Might I inquire as to thy business, traveler?”
“My business is my own.”
“Suit thyself. One word of parting, kinsman, take heed in Haberale, the town is much changed. For the worse I am afeared. With thanks, we take our leave.”
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 aflutter. He brushed his mane 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. 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.

*

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.”