And so it came to be known that the old Lord of Harfjold was to be buried. It would be done in the traditional way, as was fitting. His axes, shields and spears, his few favoured possessions and the tributes of those come to pay their respects would be buried with him in his long home. The casket of his wife, who had long since passed away, had been carried from the vault where it had rested to be placed beside his. The makings of a pyre were being laid across the floor of the house so that the timber walls, built thick against winter cold, and the deep layers of turf on the heavy roof timbers, would collapse after the wood burned through to become the old Lord’s barrow.
Many of his kith and kin had gathered from the surrounding valleys and awaited leave from the standing Lord, Adin, to visit the old Lord’s house, for it was considered seemly to bid a personal farewell after the preparations were completed. As the Lord of the day, Adin had the duty of ensuring the proper arrangements despite having seen such a burial only once in his life. He recalled the sight of smoke pouring from open windows, the smell of it, and the distant thump of falling earth and timberwork, a memory from two decades before he’d come to hold office.
On this day he watched in silence as leading men of the clans stacked one log atop another to build the pyre. These were strong men, level of gaze and straight-backed, with little regard for advancing age, men of character and rightful Lords of the land. While it was customary for the standing Lord to do so, these men needed none to oversee them in their work, which they carried out not from obligation but as a measure of respect. A number of them held higher rank than the friend they had gathered to bury and they paid him honour by tending his grave. The eldest of them was a decade younger than the deceased.
Now few of them remained who had lived long enough to remember the year their land had been invaded by lowland southerners. They had been boys at the time. They remembered companies of dark-eyed southern soldiers who fought in tight formations and relied heavily on the sword, who raped and stole and laid waste as they advanced, killing the Warden of the Southern Marches and overrunning his lands.
When the burial was over the clansmen would tell their grandchildren how the old Lord, then a clan chief of common birth called Skord, had stood hard in the Vale of Tears with his badly outnumbered men and held at heavy cost till the High King’s light cavalry had arrived to turn the attack. The weighty blades of the southerners had been more than a match for the shields of the few men Skord had been able to muster, but unlike the Warden, Skord had not been caught unawares by night. Where the southerners had tried to drive a wedge through the valley, Skord had divided his men and driven smaller wedges of his own into their flanks from the steep slopes, hitting the enemy vanguard to slow it down. He had used the terrain to his advantage, forcing the southerners to climb in their cumbersome armour to repel his attacks, making them fight uphill against his more mobile company.
Old men would tell of the lancers’ charge that had driven back the unmounted invaders, of how Skord had ridden with the High King when he struck into the lowlands to kill the southerners in their homes and claim good grazing land in payment for blood spilled.
Lord Adin recalled a more personal history, one he had heard told at the hearth over the years, when children would sit within reach of the winter fire’s warmth while their fathers and mothers told them the history of their people. One account told of the death of Skord’s father, who had been killed by a bull, a wild animal recently captured and not wary of man. It had turned its head and hooked the middle of his body, throwing him to the ground. As fast as he’d been able to cross the yard, the clan chief had come to the fallen man’s aid and driven his sword into the bull’s neck. His second blow had fallen to the back of its neck, as did his third and fatal stroke, but too late for Skord’s father.
From that day Skord’s mother had worked hard to see herself and her infant son cared for, and soon showed herself to have the heart and wit for it. Most of the beef cattle and dairy cows she had sold early on to reduce her workload, keeping the pigs and chickens and tending her stone-walled garden. In the garden she left her dog by day, a bright little mongrel terrier her husband had brought her as a pet, and there he chased tirelessly, barking and snapping at birds with fierce authority. She learned that raising even the small crops she could manage on her land would always be hard work for her, but in the same ways she helped her neighbours with their sowing and harvest, they helped her, and she did get by, even prospered.
Each season she had worked her hardest, but one wet summer brought her undone with flooding rains that drowned her garden and rotted her crops in the field. The grain drooped on softened stems to the stagnant water and decayed in the oppressive heat that followed the storms. Her swine contracted fever, some thought from biting flies, and took to their graves, their flesh unclean and useless. She was left with three sick milk cows and her chickens, but no garden vegetables or crops to see them through to the next year.
The following winter – always a severe time in Harfjold – was the worst of seasons for Skord’s widowed mother. In those days the clan chief was Adin’s grandfather, who was called Ulred, a good fighter when called on and a man well thought of. When he saw that Skord and his mother had fallen on hard times, he took them into his house where they lived with his family till better fortune allowed them to move back into their own home, and when that time came it was Ulred who gave Skord’s mother and her new husband a start on re-stocking the land.
Through the close association of sharing the same house as toddlers, Skord and Ulred’s son, Behan, came to look on each other as brothers, a fraternity that grew after Skord moved out and held fast as long as they knew each other. They hunted together as boys and worked and bore arms together as men, and when Behan died as a young man it was Skord who cared for his wife and child. They married two years after Behan’s death and Skord raised Behan’s son as his own, with four other children. That boy he’d taken in was Adin.
The old Lord’s steward stood at Adin’s elbow. His duties to that point had largely concerned the management of the old Lord’s lands, and though he hailed from an unfamiliar region and was recently appointed, he was a man of steadfast character, one to heed. Adin acknowledged him with a look. In his hands was a sheathed sword held with sober regard, an old sword. The steward spoke quietly.
‘It’s the scabbard sir, it’s very old. Should I replace it with one of my Lord’s newer ones before I lay it out?’
Adin shook his head absently and took the weapon to look at it one last time, a wintry smile touching his face. He ran his fingers over the smooth leather and thought of an afternoon he’d spent with his grandfather as a boy, listening to the old man tell of the scabbard’s origin.
In Skord’s twenty-ninth year and Behan’s thirtieth, they began working a new reach of hillside where good timber grew, on the verge of an unsettled forest farther into wild lands than others cared to follow. The distance from settlement made the wood inconvenient to harvest, and the likes of wolves and bears added to that inconvenience. The timber they found was scarce, valuable enough to be worth fetching, but the hill country where it grew was viewed with distrust. No tracks led there and no one knew much of it, save that it had a name for bad affairs, the name of a place where some had journeyed and not returned. Having courage and strength to spare however, the two men had no fear of those hills, nor of any land unknown to them. Their people had always searched out and settled new lands, for which their men were trained from boyhood to the sword and spear, for which Behan had mastered the hammer and Skord the axe. They rightly feared little.
On the last day they culled that stretch of forest, they had slept three nights in the open by a fire at the foot of the slope they were working, for the distance from their homes forced them to stay close to the wood till they had all they could carry. The trip took more than a day on horseback, and by wagon was much slower.
They rose at dawn on their final day there, breakfasted well, and set out to work when it pleased them, which was soon enough, the morning breeze still crisp around their noses and ears. Their normal practice was to fell their trees for the day separately and strip the branches from them, then work together on the two-man saw to cut logs short enough for the horses to drag. When they had as many as they needed, the logs would be cleaned of bark with square-faced hammers and taken downhill to the wagon, the number of trees felled equivalent to the number of logs they could handle in a day. They paced their work to have the whole process from felling to loading finished by dusk.
They worked apart that morning as usual, felling and stripping the timber they would season for the following year, Skord cutting a copse that grew in a flat depression between two slopes, Behan working on the far side of a spine of stone to the east. Skord had his trees down and mostly stripped before the sun filled the valley, the time when they normally stopped to rest and eat, when he heard an angry shout from Behan. He waited no more than a heartbeat before he shifted his grip on his axe and started running, knowing from experience that Behan didn’t shout that way without cause.
The shout became a curse of rage and pain, and cries followed curses. Skord vaulted up the chine with no effort to spare, surging over the crest and getting carelessly through the rocks. He raced to the slope where Behan was working but could see nothing of him through the woods as he ran. The curses gave way to pleas, calls to Skord for help, and Skord pushed himself as hard as he could, heedless of obstacles, shouting as he ran. When he reached his friend’s stand of timber there was silence. Lying about were logs and loppings a-plenty to show for his work but no sign of Behan, only blood, his or another’s rained and spattered across the leaves, that and a few swatches of grey fur.
At the sound of quiet movement away behind him a chill cut through his body like iced water. He called his friend’s name and faintly caught a whisper of tormented moaning a short distance back the way he’d come. He quickly cast about for spoor, but where it led was not immediately clear and he had no time to search more closely. Another murmur of distress came to his ears, farther away than the last, and he lashed through the wood like a shot arrow to the position he’d fixed in his mind. There he started calling a second time. He stood still and listened. He heard a grunt from Behan, but again it came from somewhere behind him. He turned and searched the forest with his eyes. The sound had come from the other side of a ridge uphill from where he was.
Skord had done enough soldiering in his time to realise there was something wrong with what was happening, something alarmingly wrong that left him feeling hunted, as though he were being deliberately misled. The direction of the moaning was wrong and it confused him. He had passed by that way and should have been close now.
Once again he ran towards Behan’s voice. He topped the ridge and loped downhill, soon finding himself in a narrow gully that was heavily wooded and choked with vines. Beginning to lose hope, he called out to Behan a third time. Again he was answered, but at the voicing of that answer his skin prickled with gooseflesh, for the whimpering noise came again form behind him, from immediately behind him, but he knew it wasn’t Behan.
Skord turned in place, axe in hand, his eyes wild. Not fifteen feet away, a beast more than the size of a man and shaped in the manner of a great hound was lowering itself from the branches. He had never seen anything of its kind. It was deep through the chest and bore a coarse, muzzled head like that of a wulf, having muscular, prehensile limbs and short, powerful fingers pointed with strong claws. Intensely savage eyes glared at him from an intelligent and hostile face, every line of its bearing offering malice. The grey fur at its rending mouth and its forelimbs and all across its solid breast was tacky with wet blood, and the same sound hissed from its mouth over and over as it advanced. It was weakly whispering his name with Behan’s voice, the last fading breath of its victim. The atrocity of that mocking stunned Skord as though he’d been struck.
Its intent was brazen. He knew it had killed Behan and he was next, and to his shame his legs felt weak and his arms seemed far too light to harm it, as though any assault he might make on it would be ineffectual. But that was a fear with which Skord was familiar, one that Ulred had taught him and Behan to handle by taking action, any action being better than none, and deliberate action better still.
His first attack with the axe was too light, too fast, and was never going to hit anything. But it was enough. That simple act bridged the gap from fear to courage and catapulted him from his inertia. He gripped his axe with a surge of confidence and dealt it with cool, distant fury – he was trained for this. His second stroke was hard and fast and coldly controlled, a vicious cut at the creature’s neck that missed, but not for want of trying. The mocking wulf saw that it could no longer hope to turn him to flight, and worse, its no longer had the choice of getting away from him. It fell on him without hesitation.
It tore at him with its claws and he fought it back brutally, giving no quarter and trading blood for blood with it, allowing it no more room than he needed. He broke through the undergrowth with the beast and harried it up the side of the gully, putting a deep wound in its flank when it made to flee. It roared at him and struck out, but he rocked it with a miss-timed strike to the side of its head with the flat of his axe. As it reeled he cut savagely into its ribs, then killed it with a shearing overhand blow between the shoulder blades. It turned its head in time to see the blade fall and died fearing him.
Marked by infected wounds and in pain, Skord searched the forest anxiously for the rest of the day to find Behan, and tried again the next morning. There were tracks from more than one beast in that wood, but they faded quickly, as though made by creatures that moved with cunning. He knew without doubt that Behan was dead and felt a bitter loss that was not diminished by the mocking wulf’s blood. By midday he found his friend’s body, rent and bitten and bloodied. He cleaned it with the same care he’d taken in tending his own wounds, then took Behan home to his kin.
Adin had seen that creature’s broad, weighty skull in his youth. Impaled on a rusted spear that served as a standard, it looked down from the centre of a tiny clearing littered with dead branches and an old, weathered log – a blunt warning to all its kind from the old Lord.
Adin handed the sword back to the steward, still in its worn scabbard.
‘He’d want it with him.’
The sword was Behan’s, the scabbard made from the hide of a long-dead mock wulf.
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