Chapter 4: Into the Goblin Marches and the Lands of LeikR Krumirsen, Jarl of Steinhof.
They left the ruined homestead and ValR led through a series of switchback valleys, heading deeper into the mountains. The trail meandered around, but consistently led up into the mountains. They camped in the hidden places the Warders set up along the way.
In a large pan valley with a glacier at one side, ValR
reigned in his horse and looked up at the valley walls, covering his
eyes from the glare of the late
afternoon sun. A tumble
of rocks sat precariously on the edge of the cliff overhanging the
switchback they were riding up. ValR sat in his saddle and stared
intently at the largest of the rocks which was perched on the edge of
the cliff above the trail before making his way to the trail which
marked the foot of the pass.
Sverrir was looking down into the valley below at the herd of elk making their way from one end to the other, tiny as children's toys from where he sat in his saddle. The largest of the rocks was shaped like a barrel and half again as long as a man.
Sverrir almost ran his horse into ValR, causing ValR's mount to snort and aim a bite at Sverrir's mount. Several moments passed before they regained control of their horses. Sverrir followed ValR's gaze to the mountainside where the gray granite rock rested.
“What's the matter?” Sverrir squinted in the same direction.
“Rock fall. Could potentially block the trail.”
ValR shook his head. “It just looks odd. Probably a trick of the light.”
rode up the trail, wary for ambushes from the desolate mountainside,
blighted by the occasional stunted, wind-gnarled pine. Snow lay in
patches against the lee of the trunks, swirled by the wind. Sverrir
pulled his cloak tighter and rode up the switchback.
ValR hung back and dismounted his horse. Sverrir held the reins as ValR made his way down to the defile to the pile of rocks. He poked through them and inspected the largest, running his hands over the hoar-frosted surface. He eventually wiped his hands on his trousers and climbed back up the slope. Sverrir handed him his reins and ValR mounted his horse, pulling it forward. Sverrir caught up to ValR. “And?”
“It's natural, although it is very regular in shape and made of odd stone. It also looked like it was placed there.” said ValR.
“How do you know that?” said Sverrir.
“There were the remains of a sled underneath the rockfall,” said ValR as the trail flattened out into a short flat berm. Sverrir glanced around and pointed at an odd formation on the shoulder of the mountain above them in the weak light of the afternoon.
“What is that?”
“It's a saddle pass. It goes directly into the valley we are headed for,” said ValR.
“Why not take it if it'll save us time?” said Sverrir.
“Too dangerous. The pass is treacherous in the best weather and light and this is neither,” said ValR.
“Still,” grumbled Sverrir as they continued up the trail.
“Worry not brother, we will make a stedding before nightfall,” said ValR.
The trail opened up into a small narrow valley that cut across the mountain before starting down the other side. Ketill and Eirik, wide-eyed, stared at the landscape below them. Sverrir and ValR reined their horses as they looked down into the valley. Smoke drifted up from the forest and the fields were tiny patchwork of brown among the green of the trees.
“We will reach the first baer just before sunset.” said ValR.
Sverrir poked through the burnt timber and ashes of the first baer with his spear, “This is old. Possibly a month or more.”
“Come brother, there is nothing to find here. We need to save what can be saved,” said ValR.
“There are five baeren between here and the stedding on the path,” said ValR. A howl, many miles away, rent the air of the valley. The call was similar to that of a wolf, but something in it sent great chills down Sverrir's spine, a feeling of old darkness. It caused the horses to rear and bolt.
“What in Tormalan's name was that?” said Grim, trying to gain control of his horse. Sverrir and ValR exchanged a look as an answering howl echoed from the pass.
“So do you think we can make the stedding?” said Sverrir, grinding the butt of his spear into his stirrup.
“If we ride hard without delay, yes,” said ValR, heeling his horse over to the path.
“Boys, ride like your life depends on it,” said Sverrir taking the lead for the pack horses from Ketill, “because it does.”
“Stay on the path, don't wander into the dark,” said ValR.
“Why?” said Eirik.
“Because the things that go bump in the dark will go bump and we will never find you, alive.” said Sverrir.
They rode down the path quickly in the failing light of the day. The howls rang from behind and was answered by howls on either side of the trail.
“Do you get the feeling we're being herded?” Sverrir shouted at his brother.
“Yes, but what choice have we?,” said ValR turning in his saddle to survey the trail behind him.
On and on they rode, the barks and howls closer, then farther, driving them forward. The dying light of the sun cast the forest to either side of them into deep shadow. They passed the charred ruins of the second baer just as the sun slipped behind the flank of the mountain. Blackened timbers thrust out of the swirling drifts of snow that covered the wrack of the homestead.
ValR waved them forward. Pressing down the trail, as the evening shadows grew longer and wider before finally engulfing everything in darkness. Only a slight gloaming glimmered in the sky from behind the mountain let them know the sun hadn't quite set. Their pace increased almost imperceptibly as the sun went down, and they cantered along the trail.
“It's been quiet for a while; do you think we lost them?” Eirik looked into the darkness of the forest.
“They wait, boy.” Sverrir eased himself in his saddle.
It started when the last light from the sun was doused by the incoming night. The howling filled the valley, seemingly from every direction. The boys have been trained well, Sverrir noted with grim satisfaction. None of them were close to panicking, yet. Nor were they riding blindly up the trail. ValR signaled and they slowed down to a trot. Sverrir passed the packhorse reins to Ketill and pulled his bow from its case and made sure of his arrows. ValR took Sverrir's spear and rode out in the front.
“Watch your flanks, boys. These things act just like wolves.” Sverrir nocked an arrow.
“What things?” Ketill looked around nervously.
Sverrir caught motion out of the corner of his eye. He instinctively turned and loosed an arrow. A yelp and rattling of the underbrush answered the deep thrumming of the bowstring.
Sverrir nocked another arrow. “ValR! They are here! Ride, boy!”
ValR dipped the spear in acknowledgement and they galloped down the trail by the light of the newly risen moon. Black forms darted from shadow to shadow, easily pacing them. The horses squealed as the wind shifted, trying to shy away. Sverrir rode up and slapped the rear of Grim's horse, causing it to surge forward rather than bolt off into the darkness.
Another ruined farmstead went past and another. Sverrir heard the snarls and growls from the gloom surrounding them. Onward they rode. Here, a dark form panted in the primeval depths of the forest. There, black shapes padded silently through the darkness before fading away. Acting on a hunch, Sverrir turned and gave a parting shot over his left side. The heavy arrow caught the dark form of a leaping shadow in mid-flight, knocking it to the ground. Sverrir bent over the neck of his horse, urging it forward.
their little party, horses near exhaustion and flecked with sweat,
stumbled into a freshly cleared area around a palisade, the ditches
filled with stakes, sap still dripping and freezing down their sides.
Two large torches flanked the iron bound and hinged gate set into the wall of squared off tree trunks. More torches were placed atop the wall at regular intervals, casting a dubious light around the perimeter.
Sverrir followed ValR up to the gate and dismounted, readying his shield and spear and standing astride the short causeway between the ditches. The recruits hobbled their horses and formed up, shields overlapping his, spears at the ready. ValR pounded on the gate with his axe butt with a hollow booming.
“Fuck this.” Sverrir left the shieldwall and pulled a hunting horn from his saddle bags and blew three clear notes that rent the night. Silence answered him back. Stowing the horn, he watched ValR whisper to the horses and calm them.
“Grim, Ketill, Eirik, stand fast. Get your spears points out. That's it. Now keep them up. Not too high, Grim! Good. ValR will be on your left, I'll be on the right.” Sverrir stood on their right, peering into the gloom beyond the torchlight. Sverrir's hand sweated on the haft of his spear and on the grip of his shield.
Pairs of yellow eyes winked in existence and slinked out of the shadows of the forest and milled in front of the causeway. He heard Ketill catch his breath as he saw what came forward at them.
resembled large wolves, but somehow twisted in both body and spirit
by a palpable aura of malice and hate. Their forelegs were slightly
longer than their back legs and their muzzles somehow seemed
Jaundiced yellow eyes glinting in the uncertain light of the torches and brindled fur gave Sverrir the impression that these creatures were diseased in both body and spirit. Saliva bubbled and dripped off oversized fangs as they snapped and snarled at each other and they advanced.
steady boys. Remember your training! They're just Worgs. We stay
together, we survive!” Sverrir looked across at ValR on the left
and slowly shook his head. ValR pressed his lips together, nose
Sverrir twisted his hand on the the handle of his shield to smear the sweat off. “Steady, boys, steady...Remember, they'll attack like wolves, so Grim, watch your flank. You too, Ketill! Don't fall for their feints. Stay together. ValR and I will take care of any flankers.”
Sverrir heard the creak of ValR bowstring as the churning throng before them suddenly split into four separate groups, three of which advanced on them. Their eyes flashed yellow in the flickering torchlight as they crept forward. Growls, barely on the edge of hearing and filled with hatred and scorn, made the hairs on the back of Sverrir's neck stand up. He stood fast, watching the group in front of him narrow their eyes and tense into a slight crouch.
“Steady boys. Here they come! Keep your spears proud!” Sverrir twisted his hand on the shaft of his spear, smearing the sweat evenly and getting a better grip.
“What are they?” said Grim, spear tip vibrating.
“Devil wolves, black consorts,” said Sverrir, “bred in vile darkness for slaughter and used by the Goblins as mounts. They are cowardly and will turn on their own wounded, so if we cause enough carnage, we can drive them off.”
The Worgs tensed into a deeper crouch and Sverrir could feel the rumbling of their growls through the soles of his feet. His mouth dry, he could feel the tingling in his chest, the excitement of battle sing down his arm. He dug in his toes and tensed his shoulders, waiting for their leap, his spear at the ready. So intent on battle was he, the thrum and whistle as ValR released his arrows startled him.
A Worg yelped and skittered into the middle group. The middle group jumped in place and caused the pack in front of Sverrir to yelp and scatter. The wounded Worg snapped at the arrow shaft protruding out of its right shoulder. The Worgs dissolved into a chaotic mass, snapping and growling at each other.
It took some time to sort themselves out and reposition.
“A bit high strung, aren't they?” Sverrir observed, eliciting a snort from Eirik.
A pair of the Worgs darted over to Sverrir, trying to scoot past him. His spear flashed out and they scattered back to the main pack, snapping at the shaft.
“Ketill, keep your shield up! Grim, spear out, boy!” Sverrir admonished the recruits as the Worgs darted in and out, slavering and snapping at their ankles. The darting spears kept them back. Sverrir heard ValR fire infrequently, probably to conserve arrows as the pack of Worgs seethed, snapping and snarling at each other as much as the Gholdami on the causeway.
Pairs and triplets of the Worgs darted out from the mass, attacking here, running there.
Sverrir heard his horse scream over the whinnying of terror from the others. A couple of Worgs must have made it past ValR, but he dare not turn away from the flank. The barking of the Worgs broke off and he heard a couple of meaty thwacks and the distinct sound of breaking bones. The first Worg darted past him, yelping. The second snuck past, limping on three legs and favoring its right side. Sverrir grimly smiled as he heard his mount trumpet and stomp his hooves on the packed dirt and stone in front of the gate.
This doesn't make any sense. Why do they keep sending out probes? Unless… Sverrir's eyes widened in realization. He shouted loudly in the back of his shield and made a stomping motion, scattering the pair of Worgs threatening him.
Turning his attention to the main pack, he almost didn't see the largest Worg readying itself to spring from the center of the mass, partially hidden by the milling animals.
“ValR!'” shouted Sverrir.
“Busy!” ValR replied, bow thrumming, trying to break up a serious flanking attack on the left.
“La'attra's Eyes!” Cursed Sverrir stepping behind Eirik and Ketill, spear at the ready. If that Worg smashed into their shieldwall, the pack would pull them all down.
“Ketill, 'ware your right!”
The Worg leapt.
The recruits followed its trajectory and took an involuntary half-step back while raising their shields. Sverrir could hear their intake of breath as they knew it wasn't going to be enough to deflect the massive beast. The rest of the pack came in behind, anticipating the carnage.
Sverrir braced his spear and raised the point to meet the Worg's jump, letting the animals own momentum and weight impale it. Sverrir felt the spear shiver and break under the force of the impact. The Worg fell heavily to the ground, and the pack's advance was stopped by the recruits spears and ValR arrows, flashing in the torchlight. Reeling from the onslaught, the pack retreated.
The impaled Worg somehow struggled to its feet and stumbled back to the others, panting and whining. It tried biting the broken spear shaft out of its chest.
The rest of the Worgs grew silent and looked at each other as they ringed their wounded compatriot. The wounded Worg stopped biting at the shaft and gave a bubbling cough, whining and snapping at its fellows.
They advanced on the wounded beast, one slow, deliberate step at a time, intent and silent. The wounded Worg rolled on his back, whining. A Worg from the encircling mass darted in, teeth snapping. The impaled Worg caught the attacker by its neck. Sverrir heard the audible snap from the shieldwall and the dead Worgs body was flung into the darkness. Bounding to its feet, it snarled at its packmates, blood foaming the spittle dripping from its muzzle.
“Watch this boys and learn.” Sverrir took his place back on the right flank.
In singles and pairs, the other Worgs darted in, biting and dodging before their ranks closed, swamping the impaled Worg under a mass of black bodies.
Yelps, snarling and the horrible sound of tearing flesh rent the night. Several Worgs ran yelping into the darkness.
As suddenly as the pack descended on the wounded animal, they turned and faced the Gholdami, muzzles darkened by blood. Sverrir thought he could see the torn and shredded remains of at least three of their number littering the mouth of the causeway. The three young Men swallowed and took another half-step back.
Sverrir looked over at ValR, quirking and eyebrow. ValR grimaced and shook his head. His free hand flashed five and then two.
Seven arrows left. Sverrir threw back his head and laughed. Spinning the shattered haft of his spear, he threw it into the midst of the Worgs. The splintered end hit the muzzle of one, sending it yelping and skittering to the side.
Ripping the axe from the ring in his girdle, Sverrir tapped the poll against the center boss of his shield. Three pure notes rang into the night. Sverrir shook his axe and shield at them. “Begone, Hounds of Goruk, Get of Dwarthe! Flee before the might of the Sons of Gholdam, lest you fed the crows this night!”
The Worgs milled around before the next largest Worg from the back shouldered its way to the front. Giving an odd tearing cough, the Worg bared its fangs and its mouth moved unnaturally under the strain of speaking. “We will break your bones, Man-Thing. Suck the sweet marrow from them and eat your brains!”
Sverrir froze for a second, mouth agape. A Worg? Speaking?
Before he could respond, ValR stepped up, a look of exultant satisfaction on his face. In rapid succession he fired his remaining arrows at the new pack leader. Yelping, the Worg savaged several of the others trying to get away. The pack dissolved into a roiling mass of confusion. The faint blat of Goblin war-horns sounded in the night.
“Loose!” A voice, muffled by the tar smeared gates, shouted. Flaming arrows and brands arced over the wall and fell among the Worgs.
The Worgs broke and scattered into the night. At the edge of the light, the pack leader turned. Sverrir swore that it stared at him and his brother before loping into the gloom beyond the causeway. Sverrir stood there for a few moments more, peering into the darkness, making sure they weren't returning. ValR poked him with an arrow and shook his head.
“Stand down, boys. Excellent job! Anyone hurt?” Sverrir put his axe back on his girdle and clapped the recruits on the shoulders. Eirik and Grimm sank to the ground, arms shaking. Ketill made it to the edge of the causeway and went down on all fours, dry-heaving. Sverrir wiped the sweat from his face and looked at his trembling hand with some surprise.
An acorn bounced off his head.
He spun to ValR who nodded back to the gate.
Sverrir turned and shaded his eyes against the light of the torch. A slightly built Man stood on the palisade wall and gravely saluted him. “Waes thu hael and well-met, strangers. I am NaemR. Well-come to Steinhof and your doom. LeikR Krumirsen, Jarl of these lands, bids you to join him in the hall.”
NaemR jumped from the wall and shouted orders to open the gates. Ketill, Grim and Eirik led the horses back a bit so the gate could be opened.
“LeikR Jarl? I wonder if the King knows he has a Jarldom up here.”
ValR placed a hand back on Sverrir's arm. “Two things. One, don't mention Father.”
“The Jarl had a falling out with him during the Crown Strife after HrimvandR's Flight on the Plains of Iron. Oh, don't mention Uvaegi, either.”
“And the other?”
ValR looked directly at Sverrir. “The Jarl follows the old forms.”
Sverrir pinched the bridge of his nose. “Joy. Ketill, Eirik, Grim. Come here please and do exactly what I tell you.”
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