The Witch of Hendel
The sword came down hard, splitting his skull and sending a fountain of blood across the room.
The fight was finished, though only a few remained standing after the vicious battle. As the men looked over the blood soaked field, they soon realized one among them was not of kin. His fiery, red beard hung down to his chest, and his green eyes looked like sparkling emeralds. His tattered, once grey cloth tunic was stained a dark red with blood, while his rusty chainmail, though worn of battle, still clung strongly on his broad shoulders. The others, of tan skin, black hair, and brown eyes, the remains of a clan of Nemhorians, grinned at one another in an assured victorious manner. The red maned man lifted his shield to his side and raised his sword to them.
“Flee the field, and the gods will forgive you. Fearing me would not dishonor you in the least.” He said, his voice loud and deep.
“The gods have given us favor on this day, yet you expect us to turn tail and run? Do not think us the fools as you!” With that, the men charged forward, weapons raised to deal killing blow. The defender swung his blade as he swiftly danced to his left, dodging an axe head and opening the belly of the attacker, spilling his guts as he fell lifelessly to the ground. A second Nemhorian rushed forward quickly, thrusting a spear at the man’s body. The spear was met with a broad shield and a loud thud, while his neck stung with pain as the defender’s sword slashed it. The red haired man kicked the dying Nemhorian away, as he still clutched at his throat and gurgled useless cries of agony and fear.
The sight of his friends terrible fate, gave the final Nemhorian warrior pause to think about his next action. “What is your name, Fire Beard, so that I, Jorka, may sing songs of your death.” He asked, picking up a shield from a fallen warrior and raising his sword for attack.
“My name is Throgir of Icehelm!” He roared, echoing through out the field like thunder. “And it is I who will tell stories of my victory here. Not you.” Jorka leapt forward, screaming his battle cry as loud as he could, but his efforts were cut short. Throgir raised his shield and slammed his heavy shoulder into it, toppling his enemy and sending him to the dirt. Stunned, the warrior scrambled to his feet, dazed and dizzy, stumbling around trying to find his footing. Throgir swung his sword and cleaved his head from his neck.
Exhausted, he sat down on the hillside of the field that ran into a river. His body tired and his vision blurry, he laid back and stared at the sky, attempting to catch his breath. Not five minutes had passed before he suddenly heard a clanging from the corpses at the bottom of the hill. He quickly sat up, expecting to see more Nemhorians, but he was relieved to have found looters instead. He rose from the mud, putting his blade back into his hardened leather scabbard and marched down toward them. Once closer, he noted their brown hair and blue eyes, from one of the Imperial Bryttonian colonies no doubt. He held no bad blood toward the Bryttonian Empire, but he had heard they were very greedy when it came to coin. He knew that most looters didn't was to desecrate the dead, only looking for items of value, so a request for the dead may be heeded. The looters suddenly realized he was approaching and were stunned by Throgir’s massive size. The elder of the two, noted by the grey starting in his beard, spoke first.
“We want no trouble, warrior, just taking what isn’t needed anymore.” He said, his voice shaking with nervousness.
“No worries, so long as none of my kin here are looted. These items belong to the fallen’s families.” Throgir narrowed his emerald eyes. “As for the Nemhorians’ families, to the nine hells with them. Take what you will from them.” He laughed, patting the old man’s shoulder as he nodded his head in agreement, smiling greedily. The looters then continued their plundering, skipping the bodies with red beards, while Throgir set foot on a lonely, dirt path that lead back down river. He had no destination in mind but home to Icehelm, though that was still a two days walk from where he stood. Only one city stood between the battlefield and Icehelm… Hendel, a militaristic city that held no welcome for the people from the clans of Endlheim, nor did they even bother aiding either side of the battle happening on the outer edges of their land.
The lands of Hendel were not strange to Throgir, only the people and their ever changing customs. Even still, he needed to rest and that was the only place he could, so that is where he would go.
The sun was just beginning to rise as Throgir approached the gates Hendel. He was tired from the combination of the battle and the walk from the field, but he pressed forward. As he drew closer, the gates were surrounded by tents and armored soldiers guarded all sides of the exits. There was heavy slamming and thumping coming the other side, and braces pressed tightly against the heavy iron doors. One of the soldiers saw Throgir and approached him aggressively, hand on his sword hilt and raising his right hand, signaling for him to halt.
“What business have you in Hendel?” The soldier demanded in a commanding tone.
“Still your sword, now, young soldier!” Throgir said, raising his hand and removing his helmet, letting his long red hair fall to his shoulders. “I am no enemy, merely a traveller seeking rest, food and ale.”
“You’ll find none within these walls. I suggest continuing on, or turn back.”
“What has happened? I would aid you if you need it. I still have another two days before I reach Icehelm.”
The soldier took a breath and sighed as he removed his helmet. His face showed the signs days of sleeplessness. His eyes were pale with fright and concern, and his voice sounded cold as he replied, “There is no help anyone could give us now. Even the gods have abandoned Hendel.” Throgir looked at him for a moment. He knew the rank structure of the Hendel guard, and this lad was but a Private. If he was commanding the show, he was more than likely overwhelmed with whatever was happening, and likely needed help. Throgir shook his head.
“Lad, I have seen many things in my day, but the look on your face is something I have never seen. Tell me, what is happening?”
“A witch.” The young soldier shuddered. “She came around about a six days ago. She asked to go to the Arl and she never left the keep. Two days after that, a bloody plague began running through the city, killing the infected within hours of contact. And just last night, the dead have begun to rise again, murdering and devouring the living, even close relatives and friend alike. We managed to round up what survivors we could before evacuating the city and setting up this guard post.
“We’ve had no contact from the keep, though it is likely none but the witch are left. Others have gone away from here, but Hendel has been my home since I was a babe, and I cannot simply abandon it. I must find a way to get to the keep and destroy this witch.” The soldiers face began to grow red with either anger, or overwhelming sadness, or both. Throgir examined him, and could tell he was serious.
“I’ll help you,” Throgir began, “but I must rest first. This is not my home, nor are you kin, but I can honor any man who would stand and fight for his homeland even when greater men have fled. Where may I sleep for a bit?”
“If you are sure, my tent is nearest the gate. You may rest there, and I will get you when I am ready. Are you sure you want to go? The horrors within the city are not like anything I have witnessed before.”
“I’ll be there when you come to wake me. I am a man of my word. You may call me Throgir, of Icehlem.” He extended his hand to the young soldier, who quickly and firmly grasped it.
“I am Tunet! I will send for you in a few hours, rest well.”
A few hours later, just before sunset, Throgir was awoken by an older man, not a soldier, but a farmer by the look of it. He brought him to the gate, where stood Tunet and a few other soldiers who remained behind in Hendel’s defense. They were all gathered around a small, makeshift table with maps of the city and the surrounding lands laid out. As Throgir drew near, he heard them discussing plans of attack. Someone would announce a plan, and another would say something like “That’s a death trap!”, or “We’ll never make it like that!”. Finally, Throgir was at the table and Tunet looked up at him. He pointed his finger at the map and grinned.
“The Arl’s escape route. The witch could not know of it, and it’s the only way into the keep without setting foot into the city. No doubt part of it runs through the sewer, but we can take that route and get into the keep undetected, at least by the living.” Throgir nodded in silent agreement. Tunet was pleased with himself to have his new warrior agree with his plan almost immediately, and felt that if this outlander would follow him into this hell, surely his own men would. Throgir scratched his beard in thought, and then asked, “Where is this secret entrance, and how do we know the witch would not have found it?”
“It is on the back end of the city walls, on the farthest end from the keep. It was built there too detour suspicion of it, and disguise it as the sewer, which are usually have a small guard inside, as it isn’t wide enough for an entire attacking army to get through.”
Throgir nodded and began to think of what may lay inside those tunnels. Though they probably weren’t as flooded as the streets, they were definitely more confined, which meant less space to flee if they were overrun. Though this was the best way to sneak into the keep, it was no less dangerous than opening the gates and heading straight into the city, blades at arms. A few minutes later, he nodded his head again. “Very well,” he announced, “through the sewer tunnels it is. Shall we get going?”
Tunet at once commanded his mean to gather their gear and move out. Tunet and Throgir moved to the front of the group, while the seven others, four with axe and shields and three with long spears with broad heads, followed closely behind. They moved swiftly and silently approaching the entrance. The sound of dripping water and the noxious smell of decomposing waste filtered through the air and encapsulated their senses. Tunet called for another soldier to pry open the locked square door, which only enhanced the foul oder. It his Throgir’s nose like a hammer, and he jolted back by the sudden shock of it. He regained his composure and glared at Tunet, his green eyes angry, while Tunet himself held his nose and laughed silently at the hulking warrior.
They regrouped and quickly poured into the entrance and began filing one by one down the long, waterlogged walkway. The farther they moved inward, the closer they got the echoing moans and groans of the dead that shuffled their feet along the cobblestone streets above them. Soon, they began to hear the sound they dreaded the most… The sloshing and splashing, echoed with the soulless moans as the lifeless, walking corpses traipsed about the sewer tunnels paying no mind to the wooden walk ways laid before them. Tunet jogged ahead of the group to peer around the corner. He used his hands to signal back that he counted fifteen of the devils. Throgir unsheathed his sword and lead the men up to Tunet’s position at the corner. The men steeled themselves for what was about to come, as they had faced down these wretched creatures, with far greater numbers, only to have them narrowed to the few that now remained. Throgir gripped his sword with his right hand brought his shield around from his back, raising it to his shoulder and preparing to charge around the corner. Tunet drew up his sword as well, it was a curved blade, almost like those of Nemhorian make, and with he other hand, pulled a torch from the wall to light the dark passages that were about to be invaded.
“Charge!” Tunet commanded, his voice growling and echoing throughout the tunnels ahead and behind. The gruesome, rotten creatures stopped in their tracks and turned their attention, if you could call it that, to the incoming men that charged around the corner. Throgir thought they probably saw a free meal rushing in to be devoured.
The men were quickly upon the dead, smashing into them with shields, knocking them into the knee deep waste water, and piercing their bodies with long spears, skewering them like pigs though it seemed to have no effect on them. Tunet’s blade flashed through the air and sent rotten flesh and blood splashing into the water, followed by a headless corpse. Throgir stabbed his sword at the head of an approaching creature, it’s arms outstretched to grab him, and hollowed out the skull of decaying brains. He quickly retracted his blade and swung it hard to his left, cutting another down by removing the top of its head. There was a sudden scream of agony as one of the spear men was overwhelmed, four of the creatures gnawing at his limbs and face, tearing flesh and muscle from the bone and dragging him down into the murky water. Two men with axes quickly rushed to aid him, hacking through the advancing horde only to find they were too late to save him. They buried and axe into his forehead and kept fighting. The Draugr of the northern tombs were killed the same way, Throgir thought to himself as he plunged his sword into another creatures throat and the rending it upward, he wondered if these creatures were anything like them. Held to life only by strange, ancient magic. The final body splashed lifelessly into the murky water, and everyone regained their composure. Tunet looked around at the men and shook his head, not in disappointment in them, but in himself. These men were not ready for a fight like this, and nor was he. What chance did they have? His doubt shown through his eyes and face, and was noticed by Throgir.
“Loss is a heavy thing on the battlefield, but these men knew the risks, lad. Don’t beat yourself up.” He placed his hand on the young soldiers shoulder.
Tunet raised his head and nodded, his face still grim, but encouraged to carry on. They had to, for Hendel. He looked over his men, they were frightened, but they all stood ready and nodded to him after hearing the large warriors words.
A splash coming from behind them caught his attention. Tunet spun around, in time to quickly duck under fiercely grasping claws. The others backed away in horror as hundreds of the undead creatures, drawn from other parts of the tunnels and streets by the sounds of the battle, began filing into this one small area to eat the men as they stood. Throgir, his red beard usually hiding his emotions and facial expressions, was visibly shaken by the sight. Tunet had only one option.
“Run!” He shouted, turning down a tunnel and sprinting as fast as they could through knee deep sludge. “This way! I see the ladder!” A sudden explosion of adrenaline washed over him and he burst forward, ahead of the group and began ascending, Throgir hot on his tail. As they ascended the other men caught up to them, with the creatures right behind them. A young man with an axe hopped onto the ladder, quickly climbing up, but the others were quickly overrun by the sheer numbers of the walking corpses. As Tunet closed the metal hatch to the secret escape route, screams of dying agony and blood curdling terror faded to gurgling death.
The one soldier who was lucky enough to make it up the ladder, soon became wholly aware of what he just escaped and terror ran over him. He began sobbing uncontrollably and sat down on the marble floor that lined the keeps hallway, reflecting the light from the torches that light its white and golden trimmed walls. His cries echoed throughout the halls, if none had heard them enter through the wooden trapdoor, they were surely to hear his weeping. Tunet immediately seized him by his shoulders, slamming him against the stone wall.
“Calm yourself, boy!” He rasped, spitting through his angrily gritted teeth. “This is no time to break! Do you want the witch to hear us!”
“I already have.” A sensual voice echoed through out the halls of the keep, emanating from almost everywhere at once. “To the throne room, swine.” They were all at once lifted from the ground and whisked away, swiftly down the hall toward a set of large reinforced wooden doors. They approached at great speed, Throgir thought they were surely going to hit it, but the door swung wide and slammed hard against the walls. They were suddenly released from the force that held them, slamming into the marble flooring, shattering the weeping soldiers knee from the impact. He let out a high pitched yelp of pain, then began to groan holding his knee and rolling on his backside. Throgir was dazed from hitting his head, but an anger poured over him that let him regain his strength quickly and he barreled to his feet, picking his sword from the floor as he did. Tunet had landed on his feet and was standing before Throgir, his eyes wide with shock. Throgir spun around and looked at the throne of the Arl, and there she sat. A wickedly beautiful woman, no more than twenty years of age. Her hair as black as the night, and eyes bluer than the skies of Asgard. Never had Throgir been stunned by a woman's beauty, but never had he also feared the very woman he was admiring. Her power was great indeed, to lift them from the floor like rats, but she must be defeated. Nay, destroyed.
Tunet’s eyes were not fixed on the woman sitting on the throne, but of the kneeling figure before her. The Arl himself, folded in front of her, his hands placed on his knees grasping a large battleaxe. The Arl stared at him, and it was now that Throgir caught sight of the horrible . He had been enthralled by the witch! His eyes pulsed with a reddish glow, and his skin was a pale grey. Defeating this witch would mean the death of him, no matter the outcome. They could take him out first, or the witch, either way he still would die. Tunet had already drawn this conclusion, and out of sheer rage launched himself toward the throne, ready to run his blade through the witches torso.
Tunet was just swift enough to halt his assault and toss himself off to the left, an axe head narrowly missing his arm and smashing heavily into the floor, send marble shrapnel through the air. Throgir roared and charged into the fight, slicing his blade through the air as it came down, thudding into the broad wooden handle of the battleaxe. The Arl, strengthen by the witches power, tossed Throgir back six feet with a single shove of his weapon. Then he cried an echoing shriek as Tunet blade caressed his back, black blood oozing from the wound and dripping from the sword. The Arl spun and swung the heavy axe hard, hitting Tunet’s weapon, shattering it and sending him to the floor. Throgir had recovered to his feet and sprang into the air toward the Arl. The Arl quickly turned to defend, but was too late. His vision was quickly blurred by blood, and then split, as Throgir’s blade sank itself deep into his skull and rending it to the teeth. The Arl’s body went limp and Throgir kicked him from the sword. He glanced at a motionless Tunet, and anger sat in.
“Now, witch!” He announced, pointing his blackened, bloody blade at the witch, who still sat comfortably smirking in the Arl’s throne. “Now, it is your turn to fall!”
The witch laughed, echoing throughout the hold. There was an terrible scream behind Throgir as the undead creatures that had followed them from the sewers, crashed through metal trapdoor, wrenching it free of it’s hinges, and clawing at the feet of frantic soldier who, in vain, was trying to crawl away.
“You had no chance of getting here without your friends, and that was the last one, being devoured by my pets!” She cackled, and Throgir felt himself, once again lifted from the floor. “What chance do you have of defeating me on your own?” The witch waved her hand to the side and Throgir was thrown through the air like a child’s doll, smashing into the far wall and thudding into the ground, the wind knocked from his body. Dazed he raised his eyes from the floor, and watched in horror as the witch calmly walked over to the terrified soldier, and dragged him back to the rotting creatures, his screams more loud and shrieking, then gurgling as they ripped into his torso. She walked back into the room and slammed the doors behind her, her grin now more evil than before. Throgir rose to his feet, sword in hand, a rage building inside him that he hadn't felt in ages. She waved her hands again and slammed him against the wall, hard, and sent him to the floor. When he rose again, blood dripping from his lips, her smile was gone. “Are you prepared to die, fool?” She asked, raising her hand toward him. There was an abrupt silence, then came his voice.
“You are the one who shall die this day, bitch!” Tunet dove from behind the throne, he had come to and crawled behind it some time during Throgir’s fight with her. He clasped her arms at her side and kicked her knees, causing her to buckle and collapse, screaming and shrieking in a violent rage. “Now!” Tunet bellowed to Throgir just as the witches hand came lose, waving and sending him shooting back toward the opposite wall. Throgir took his opportunity, and like a lightning bolt, rose up and hurled his sword at the witch, impaling through her sternum. She let out a small shriek of pain and fell back to her knees. Her eyes fading, she watched as Throgir walked toward her.
“I curse you…” she hissed, blood pouring from her mouth.
“Save your magic for the demons of the abyss, witch!” Throgir growled, pulling his blade from her chest, then in a flash of the blade, sent her head from her shoulders. Tunet, holding his side and limping, approached from the shadows of the corner he had been tossed to.
“Look…” he whispered, pointing to the door. Throgir glanced up from the bloody puddle where the witches head lay, to the door way they had been pulled through. The bodies of hundreds of dead citizens, who moments ago had been walking and feasting on flesh, now lie in a heap, collapsing through the door. They nodded to each other, knowing they had done the near impossible task of quailing magic with the sheer might of the sword. The men walked out of the room, leaving the dead where they lay.
Throgir’s eyes burned as he emerged from the sewer tunnel’s, blinding him to the sight of what was before him. Suddenly, applause rang out for them, a thunderous roar that must have shaken the halls of Valhalla itself. When they adjusted, his eyes gazed upon thousands of citizens that had escaped the fate of the curse laid by the witch, and those who had recovered after her timely death. They cheered and rooted as they climbed from the festering pit that was the sewer and rushed to aid them, pat them, and shake their hands. This as all over soon enough, as a man in shining, bronze plated armor approached. His commanding gaze immediately drawn to the fire bearded warrior.
“You there!” His voice deep and commanding. “What do you call yourself?”
“Throgir, of Icehelm.” Throgir answered, grinning beneath his beard.
“And you Private?”
“Private Tunet Pulgeris.” Tunet rasped, his teeth gritted in pain from his side.
“I am the Emperors Left hand, General Gorus Hold, sent here to defeat the witch and restore order to Hendel. Though when I arrive, I find that a small band of recruits, a private, and hill-man are already inside hunting her.” Gorus scowled at them. A silence broke over the crowd, and all eyes laid on the three. Gorus stood for a moment, his eyes bouncing back and forth between Throgir and Tunet, then he burst into laughter. “You two have done what the Imperial Army sent a legion to do! Very impressive indeed!” He patted there shoulders and led them back to the camp, where he instructed them to rest and eat and drink as much as they wanted. They did as so told, and went directly to sleep, exhausted from the battle and injury.
The sun beat down on them as they stood on the cobblestone road that lead away from Hendel’s broad gates and into the snowy mountains that bordered the wild lands of Endlheim. Throgir faced the mountains for a while, and turned as he heard friendly footsteps approaching.
“Where you off to, then?” Tunet asked, his arm and side bandaged, and his arm in a sling.
“Home.” Throgir replied, “Time I saved mine from danger as well.” He smiled as tunet bowed his head, laughing.
“Well thank you, my friend, for all that you’ve done here today.” Tunet extended his hand, and it was quickly and firmly grades by Throgir, a smile on both mens faces. Throgir nodded his farewell, and Tunet knew that no more words were needed. He stood watching the enormous figure become small and disappear into the mist of the mountain fog. They would meet again one day, and it would be a glorious day indeed.