Flames of Solsgard
"Think he'll manage?"
"I've faith in him," said Talmere. "This ought to be the safest year since the war."
They were all gathered. Talmere, Caelgar, Erael, Sedocaen, and Vadlik knelt in a circle in the earthy courtyard of Vaelgard. Valdoran, while with them, was not among them; he was in a little cellar, surrounded by root cuttings, flowers, firewood, a young doe, and various odds and ends the others could scarcely remember if they tried.
It was an auspicious night. The winter solstice was upon them. The first winter solstice since Valdoran had decided to try binding himself as a druid. He'd asked if they would keep watch while he conducted the Solsgard ritual, and Caelgar had bid them all gather at the old fortress. If Valdoran succeeded, much of Skoliid would be protected for a year against nightmare creatures and their ilk, deep darkness, and several diseases.
Vaelgard was dark. The courtyard was the only place alive with shadows, and those only of the volsarks. Caelgar had lit braziers and torches around the courtyard. It was no druidic grove, but it would have to suffice.
Valdoran had laid two protective wards. The first had taken him the greater part of the year; he had to experiment to find the right ingredients for the barrier, and they needed time to brew. This ward was placed in a twelve-yard diameter around a trapdoor that the volsarks now knelt around. The second ward was somewhat makeshift, or what Valdoran referred to as "unreliable", and he had laid that around the whole castle.
The volsarks occasionally heard a word or two of Valdoran's chanting from the trapdoor. Old tongue. Druid tongue. He'd learned it from the druids himself; he was, in fact, the oldest of the volsarks.
Caelgar was the first volsark to stand. Caelgar, mighty as an ox. Caelgar, whose hair was still as black and thick as the day he was born. Caelgar was originally from a farm near Loridinum. Now he was the leader of the volsarks. He circled the others, who remained kneeling.
"Let us not dwell on what may or may not happen tonight. Rather, we ought to make bards of ourselves. Remember how the bards used to tell such stories at Solsgard?"
"Aye, with one ear straining to hear the bard from the hollow, and the other diligently awaiting the inevitable," said Vadlik. "And afterward ye'd have two ears that refused to listen to the same thing at the same time. Heh, nearly even lost the one while using the other."
"Stories?" said Sedocaen. "Then break out some black, eh? I planned ahead - I've got some shot glasses."
The whiskey was found, the glasses were distributed, and a round was knocked back.
Caelgar remained standing. "I will begin.
"Some time ago, late into the harvest, I encountered an old man. He wore nothing but a wolf skin and a loincloth. He was pulling a cart by himself. The cart was filled, perhaps, with his worldly possessions. It so happened that one of his wheels hit a large rock, and he had the misfortune to be heading down a slope at the time. He and the cart tumbled off the road.
"I went to him, and he looked up at me and said, 'young man, you wouldn'a mind helpin' an old druid up, would ye?'
"I admit, I was somewhat startled by this. I helped the old fellow up, righted his cart, and even lugged the thing to next village. Along the way he told me how he had conducted Beltane the year before, and what a fine harvest it was this year, and how he would bless the villages along his travels and whatnot. I remarked that this was of great curiosity to me. Who'd ever heard that the druids were roaming blessings? 'Oh yes, certainly. You, young man, 're too young to remember the finer details of druidry.' I laughed to myself, but I told him what a consolation it was to finally find a druid. I told him how I was one of the surviving volsarks, and we've been waiting for a real druid to conduct the traditional rituals. I asked him where his ritual circle was for Solsgard. He'd went a few shades whiter than looked healthy, though, and kept his mouth shut. After a long period of silence he took to babbling, and when I asked what he was doing he said he was blessing me and my offspring. I told him that I did appreciate it and all, but with me being a volsark, the whole offspring thing was out of the question. He shut up good and proper after that, and wouldn't look me in the eye. When we arrived at the village, I told him I would gladly stand guard at his next ritual. Haven't heard from him since!"
The volsarks all laughed at that. Similar stories of old druids popped up across Skoliid from time to time. Such druids all mysteriously disappeared. Usually after their rituals failed to protect cattle or childbirth. Sometimes they would pop up again, much later, on the opposite side of the land - or even in a bordering kingdom.
Another round was poured, raised, downed. Caelgar knelt with the others.
Sedocaen of Kynegard, stocky and corded, rose next. His hair was black with an iron stripe. He stood a head shorter than the others. "As you all know, my eyes and ears are far keener than yours. Cannae say it's always a blessing. Would you like to hear all the curses of mankind? All the wooing? All the hawking and spitting? All the nighttime romping? But the sight's nae so bad, if ye don't mind watching ants at work when you're just trying to sit down for a spell.
"The hearing were what brings you my story. I were meditating, resting, in a forest. I'd had my share of listenin' to town noises. I'd been building with a mason's crew, and for a fellow with sensitive ears, that's nae the most enjoyable thing to do, but we've all made our sacrifices. As it were, my mending didnae last as long as I'd have liked. I'd only just gotten comf'table when I heard something strange. There's a damned lot of forest noises, but this was different.
"I reached for my spear, called on ol' lady Earth to enhance my rune, and very nearly regretted it. The noise was unearthly. My ears screamed a slipping, slurping noise into my head. I got control, heard a final sluck, and then a nasty growl."
Sedocaen looked around at them all. "Aye, ye know what I mean now. T'were a warg!
"Well, I set off in the opposite direction. I'd not yet reached the forest's edge when I heard a whole pack of wolves howling and barking. 'Shite,' thought I, 'the bastard's prob'ly got some vendetta with the townsfolk.' I ran all the way to town and raised the cry for everyone to get inside their houses. Sure enough, no more than an hour later - and it's no easy task keepin' the whole town indoors that long - wolves began creeping into town. It weren't no pack, neither. I lost count at around two hundred. The town quickly filled to the brim with them.
"Made my job easier, really. The people stopped carin' about going outside all of a sudden, and started blocking up doors and windows and other gaps. I sat on the roof of the town's tallest inn and waited. The warg - a bruteishly big wolf, maybe ev'n bigger than a werewolf - plopped itself down in the town square and waited. And then rain started a'dribblin down on everything.
"The wolves stayed, under the warg's spell, no doubt. The damnedest thing was that in a matter of minutes, the whole town stunk like ripe dog. Everythin' did! There was no escapin' the stench, even in the innkeeper's cellar. Even the cellar!
"The warg kept its wolves there for hours. Some of the townsmen put together a little party of experienced huntsman, but the moment the door creaked, the entire pack swiveled and stared them back into the inn. Someone thought o' using a bow from the rooftop, but the moment he aimed, the warg stared him in the eye or summat. He tossed the bow over the edge. No one else tried after that.
"I considered doin' something myself, but the warg was bloody big enough to have broken into any and all of the houses by then. It weren't out for gallons of blood. And I didnae fancy wading through upward of two hundred wolves by myself to reach the warg!
"It was just before dawn when things changed. There was enough light to see what happened, because few if any townspeople slept. They all kept torches lit. All that fire'd normally scare off wolves, but not this lot. The smoke did help to mask the wet-dog smell a wee bit, though. But just before daylight, I were roused by the slurping, slucking sounds of the warg shifting back to its human form. I went to the edge o' the inn roof. There, amidst the wolf pack, as brazen as she were naked, stood a woman. A woman! Aye, there's the shock in yer faces. Or is it summat else, heh?
"Anyhow, she stood for a couple of minutes, hands on her hips, displayin' herself proudly in the firelight. An' she had plenty to be proud of, too. Then suddenly a fellow appears at a barricaded window and calls, 'Maerye?' Maerye, if that were her name, turns herself - a most pleasant sight, and the new angle afforded me a better view - to face the talker. The young man calls her name again. Then he leaves the window, and some girl sobs within the house. A moment later, the door is flung wide and the lass is tossed into the street. 'Maerye?' says the man a third time. 'Maerye, she's the girl, I swear I didn't mean it, t'won't happen again!'
"Maerye, in all her glory, stayed right put. Didnae move a dainty muscle. The wolves all turn and sniff at the lass who's been chucked into the street. They sniff and then, at some silent command, some of them nudge the lass toward Maeyre. The girl's got tears streamin' down her cheeks. Gleamin' torrents of sorrow in the firelight. Ye did say to be like the bards, eh? Well, she reaches Maerye and falls at her feet. Maerye still doesn't move. She looks like some rich man's private statue, 'xept with more command in her bearing. Then she steps forward. She skirts around the sobbing lass. She walks to the house, opens the door, disappears inside.
"I heard her shift again. I heard the screams; three distinct voices. I heard one voice swap to shrieks. Bones cracked. Skin ripped like ugly curtains. The other two people started crying.
"Maerye emerged from the house in wolf form. In her jaws she held the head o' the fellow who'd called her name and chucked the lass out. She padded up to the girl and dropped the trophy beside her. Then she turned and stalked out of the town. Every last wolf went with her.
"The wet-dog stench lingered a while, but it eventually left. The talk of Maerye prob'ly wont die for a quite a few years to come, eh."
All agreed with nods and murmurs.
"Why, Sedocaen, they ought to have made a bard of you," said Talmere.
Chuckles all around. Drinks poured.
"This round's for the warg. Fellow deserved what came to him," said Caelgar.
"Aye," agreed the others.
Bottoms went up. Empty glasses were put back down.
Erael, tall and willowy as the trees of the forests he loved so much, stood up next. His hair was matted and as brown as woodland ground. He remained silent for several minutes. Just as the others began to wonder if he'd forgotten Vaelandic speech - he hadn't said a word since he'd arrived the night before - he cleared his throat and spoke.
"Brothers, after what Sedocaen has told us, my story will seem quite lackluster. I'm afraid I'm on the run. Usually I cling to the woodlands, yes, and perhaps more than any sane man would - lucky for me, then, that I'm a volsark. But I'm regret that I cannot linger for your post-ritual feast. King Svanil of Urskania is hunting me, and like as not, I'm endangering you by even staying here for Solsgard. I had to come, though, for Valdoran's sake if for no other reason.
"A moon ago, I was roaming with a herd of deer in eastern Urskania. Following them and living among them. My blissful time was shattered by a royal hunting party. The king, allowing no quarter, nearly had me clubbed to get me onto a horse and taken back to the castle. He summoned me to the throne room that afternoon.
"'You are Erael of Faegard, are you not?' he asked me.
"'I am, your majesty.'
"'And you are also, if I am not misinformed, a complete volsark.'
"'That, your majesty, would depend on what 'complete' means.'
"'I refer to your training. I desire skilled bodyguards; nay, I require the elite.'
"'My training, your majesty, was indeed completed,' I told him.
"'In what sense would you then deem yourself incomplete, volsark?'
"'The war you waged saw all of the druids destroyed. Without them-'
"'A most unfortunate loss,' said the king. 'I am giving you an privileged opportunity. You will no longer have to live among animals. And you will accept.'
"I stood in the middle of the Urskanian throne-room. Halberdiers flanked the walls. Archers dotted the windows high above. Even the chamberlain was armed. King Svanil, second of his name, waited. His red beard and hair seemed to smolder and burn in the sudden stillness.
"I bowed low. 'Your majesty. It is hard for one as old as I to accept such responsibility without due consideration.' I nearly choked on the words. Yes, as strong as I remain, I am growing old, but the other words were ones that I had once heard a governor use when confronted with a change to treaty conditions.
"The king mused. 'You have two days to prepare yourself to accept. I expect you at your station by the sixth hour of the third day.'
"'Thank you, your majesty,' I said. I remained composed as I bowed again, walked calmly from the throne-room, collected my weapons at the door, rode to the city gates, and passed the last set of guards.
"Then I fled."
Erael's recollection was met with derisive comments about Urskanian kings. The most colorful was Sedocaen's response: "Ah, lad, ye can stay here. If King Bloody Svanil comes a-skulkin', we'll pull his bollocks off one at a time and dangle them in front of 'im. Anyone know if Valdoran's got some fancy ritual needin' bollocks of a king?"
They all drank to that.
After a long pause, Vadlik stood. Vadlik the one-eyed. That was new. His face and shoulders and torso and arms were collections of scars and scratches, some self-afflicted, others gained from fights. His raven-black hair hung loose behind him. His chin bore thick stubble. He looked around at the others and chuckled his husky chuckle.
"Do I have a story? Perhaps." He poured himself another shot of black whiskey, downed it, then poured another and threw that back as well. He grimaced. "Near a moon ago, I caught wind of an insurgency group. Urskania pushing into Taratine lands. Fact that I heard about it was the kicker for me; if I'd heard about it, news'd probably gone over the border as well. I smelled blood. So I wait at a likely river crossing. I spend three days watching, fishing, waiting.
"Then they come, just before the fourth dawn. Two score. Urskanian knights, mostly, clad in blacksmith's nightmares, but they were accompanied by a couple of sorcerers and witches, probably from down south.
"I just watch them. It's a cold dawn on the moors. Mist everywhere. They make it to the river, but then they pause for a bit and a sorcerer conjures up a flame to light the crossing. They're emptying their boots on the other side when Taratines rise up out of the mist and butcher them. One of the witches lights half the ambush on fire before she's cut down, but they're practically on top of the river. Lot of good that did. The Urskanian screams die down quickly enough. The sobs take a little longer.
"I walk up to the Urskanian side of the bank. 'Go home, peasant,' says the ambush leader. Hulking fellow, with a fancy helmet, but most of his size was metal. No surprise there. Then of a sudden he seems to sprout a brain, because his eyes flick between the axe I'm holding in one hand and the spear in my other, and he takes a step backward. 'You're too late to save your friends,' he says. Poor bastard didn't get it, see.
"'Friends?' I ask. 'Not at all. I've been waiting for you.'
"He puts a hand out to hold back one of his men, a tall darky with blood still trickling down his blade. 'What business do you have with me?' he asks.
"'I've come,' I say, 'to give my brother's regards.'
"Bloody tasty bunch, they were. Like fine wine. Spilled some in my eye, though. Shame."
Vadlik knocked back an extra shot and knelt again.
Caelgar, Talmere, Sedocaen, and Erael watched their shadows flicker across Valdoran's trapdoor. If they'd not known Vadlik, they might have edged away slightly.
"Did them all in, did ye?" asked Sedocaen.
Vadlik didn't answer. He didn't need to.
They had another drink.
Caelgar, Sedocaen, Erael, and Vadlik looked at Talmere.
Talmere of Nerida, ash and blonde of hair and beard, ran a smooth mdtii-runed stone up and down his blade. "Ah, you wish a tale from me? Very well. But not yet. Sedocaen, do you hear something?"
Sedocaen cocked his head to one side. "Aye, lad. Sounds like we've company. Nothing that'll breach the inner ward, but company nonetheless."
"Valdoran's outer ward failed," Vadlik noted.
The warriors turned and knelt in an outward-facing circle. With cold pitter-patterings, two dozen huge, black spiders scaled the walls. Their bodies alone were as big as large dogs. They immediately charged the kneeling volsarks, and as the arachnids covered twenty feet per second, each volsark silently begged Valdoran's inner ward to hold. It did. The spiders were thrown bodily outward from the ring. They retreated into the corners and edges of the courtyard and watched the volsarks with cheerless, unfaltering stares. Three of them began spinning webs.
"Bloody fuckin'..." snarled Sedocaen. "Had to be spiders, didn' it? Oi, you buggers! I just finished cleanin' out them corners!"
"Imagine the fun we'll have if the ward collapses," said Talmere. It was not the most promising opening to Valdoran's first Solsgard. But it did mean the ritual was working.
"Well, so long as they're content with decorating the walls, I may as well begin my tale. First let me say, though, that Sedocaen's story fits somewhere in the middle of mine. I actually spoke with Maerye. Right mad she was. Poor jealous girl. Too much power in her hands to be tossed aside by a town boy.
"But to my own tale. I was wandering a woodland somewhere between Nerida and Faegard, on the Cileran side of the river. I thought the woods strange, because in the fifth ballad of the Tireola the land had little more than large copses thereabouts. I decided that either the old bard's exploration was at fault or I was misremembering those stanzas. The third and actual reason became obvious to me later.
"With unfamiliarity in mind, I ventured deep into the forest. The further I walked, the thicker it became. The trees were taller than normal, thicker, more tangled. I'd never seen such plants before. It was sticky, but thankfully not too warm. Water seemed to linger in the air in misty droplets.
"About five hours' walk in, I came to a road. Naturally, I followed it to my left, toward I presumed to be the north. It was, for after three hours - this time on horseback, as the road was wide enough - I came to the border river. I watered my mount, filled my skins, and was sealing the last one when I heard a terrible shriek. I turned in time to see my steed crumple to the ground with a creature latched to its throat."
Talmere paused. Sedocaen had raised his hand. All the volsarks refreshed their grips on their spears and stretched their arms a bit.
There was an audible breeze in greenery beyond the keep walls, but within Vaelgard the air was still.
"Completely still," confirmed Sedocaen.
Talmere pressed two fingers firmly into the Tlmr rune on his spear. The world darkened around him, and his mind slipped into another state. His brothers glowed yellow in his sight, including Valdoran, below ground. The spiders were so completely black that he nearly missed them. Everything else was dark shades of blue. Everything except... a sinister, wispy cloud with a red shadow was wisping silently toward the circle. Except it isn't a shadow, thought Talmere. The red part was capable of thought. And it was forming a voluminous dome over the warded area.
"An aghle," he murmured. He hoped again that the ward would hold. The air wouldn't last long, though. It grew warmer. Talmere released his Tlmr rune and saw that the warded area was growing darker by the second. "Quick, burn some kilkal leaf. Erael, you have some? Perfect. Here, I'll do it." He pressed the wad of leaves to his spear-tip and touched one finger to his Fr rune. The leaves steamed, hissed, spat, smoked a little, then burst into flames and smoked more heavily. The thick black kilkal smoke reached the aghle, which recoiled and withdrew. It blanketed the top of the walls around the courtyard.
Moments later, a pair of large, gleaming black eyes appeared in the cloud. And then another, further along. And another. And another. They were not aghle eyes.
"Here they come at last," said Talmere. "They've scaled the wall. One of those is what killed my horse."
The eyes waited within the cover of the aghle.
Talmere continued his tale while they all knelt and kept vigil.
"I'd no chance to save my steed. He kicked and bucked, but those in death throes, not in battle. Poor beast. By the time I had my spear in hand he had stopped moving - aye, very quickly - and I advanced on the intruding creature. It turned and glared at me with those very eyes we see watching us now. Its body was lithe and very nearly feline, but it was hairless and appeared covered in bruises and scabs. It was also tailless. It was quite evidently starving. Its ribs were its second-most prominent feature; its rows of enormous teeth were its first.
"I pricked it, which gave it the idea to run about in circles howling madly, but eventually I chased the thing a short distance away. It watched with baleful black eyes while I rummaged through my saddlebags for everything I could carry and then left my dead steed there. The creature went straight back and started feeding before I was even twenty paces down the road. That made it the hungriest creature I've ever seen in a forest.
"This set me to considering the woods with even deeper curiosity. I followed the road for a while, until I caught a flicker of movement ahead. A deer ventured half a pace onto the road, then saw me and fled. I gave chase. I followed the deer the better half of a mile, through the thick of the woods, and would have gone on following if I hadn't been tackled by a massive wolf. I threw it off and lowered my spear and waited.
"The wolf, though, turned out to be none other than your Maerye, Sedocaen. She transformed right there. I was afforded a better view than you, too, I'll wager. Anyhow, she stood there a moment and then asked: 'What're you doing in my forest?'
"'Dear woman,' said I, and lowered my spear, 'what is your forest doing in my way?'
"She chuckled. It sounded something like the laugh of a nymph or dryad before it cuts an offending man's throat. I drew my sword at that. I wasn't keen on cutting down a naked woman, but if she shifted into wolf form and went for my throat... But she didn't.
"'I came here looking for a pack. I'd not actually seen this forest before. The trees smell... young. Too young.'
"'Did you find a pack?'
"'Look around you,' she said.
"I did. I was completely surrounded by wolves. These were the regular size, but that did little to comfort me. There were more than eighty of them. Certainly less than your two hundred, Sedocaen, at the time. She didn't set the pack on me. She stood, a picture of ivory beauty, and watched me with green eyes. 'You're old,' she said.
"'Aye,' I replied.
"'Much older than mortal men,' she puzzled, 'I can smell that much.'
"'Perhaps not much older. Not yet.'
"'If you're here to stop my revenge, you'll not live to become so.'
"'Your revenge?' asked I. 'No, I am merely wandering. What happened to you?'
"Maerye explained that her lover was, as Sedocaen discovered, quite a busy man. What Sedocaen did not realize is that this man knew Maerye's secret. She had given him her deepest trust. The fool of a man found other delights in another woman's bed, but what's more, he was foolish enough to - as Maerye put it - seed the town with her secret. His fellow woodcutters saw Maerye coming toward town once, and, among other things, called her a 'whoreborn bitch'. 'Bitch' cut the deepest. Those woodcutters never went back to town. Maerye ran away after that. She plotted revenge, and wanted to wreak havoc on the whole town. She started gathering wolves. She went from forest to forest, collecting packs of them with warg enchantments.
"And that was her story up until then. I encouraged her to destroy the man but leave the town. He may have wronged her, but she wasn't evil. She looked at me with tilted head and narrowed eyes. She said some village man had ridden after her and tried to convince her that killing anyone would be wrong, that she had no authority over life and death, that only the gods should choose that. She showed him what she thought about that. His body probably still hasn't been found. I reassured her that I had no intention of getting in her way. If the man had truly wronged her, she ought to face him and judge him with a level head.
"'What about the woman?' she asked.
"I waited a long while before responding. Four score and more wolves at the command of a jealous warg, well... I admit, I was slightly concerned. 'Maerye, two things are certain. If the woman is at fault, leaving her alive will be harsher punishment than killing her. If your man alone was at fault, killing him will free her. Either way, you will gain more satisfaction from her survival.'
"She nodded, slipped back into wolf form, and left. The pack flowed away behind her. The rest of her tale is Sedocaen's."
"You're no bard, Tal," said Vadlik. "Not if you call that a story. Most of it was Sedocaen's."
"I'm not finished yet. Maerye's words lingered with me. 'The trees smell... young. Too young.' I smelled the trees as well. They lacked a certain musty element I'm familiar with in old woods. And I looked at them. They had smooth bark. Some of them had very faint beginnings of mold or moss, but those were few and far between. The whole forest was less than a year old. A forest! And some of the trees there were higher than normal trees would grow after fifty years. Or even a hundred! Brothers, I think we have an enchanted forest on our doorstep."
Caelgar scowled. "Hasn't been an enchanted forest since..."
"A very long time," agreed Talmere. "The druids cured Vaeland of them. Thankfully this one was new, else I mightn't have escaped it. My guess is Cileran sorcery."
"An enchanted forest," mused Sedocaen. He chuckled. "Ah, very clever, heh. With no druids tae bless the land, it's likely the only way to keep the land clear of wee monsters and critters."
"The wrong way," said Caelgar. "They absorb creatures, yes, but creatures multiply. Even an enchanted forest won't keep them there forever. And if Valdoran performs Solsgard in, say, thirty years, will we be able to hold back such numbers?"
"I agree," said Talmere. "I'll talk to the Cilerans. Such a ripe breeding ground must be removed before... something darker moves in."
The volsarks all stared at him.
"What d'ye mean, lad?"
"There're rumors of a spectral creature. 'Old man Gallo, born of shadow'."
"Then all the more reason to have the forest disenchanted, and quickly," said Caelgar.
They looked up. The courtyard and walls were empty. Valdoran's deep, hearty laugh was audible through the trapdoor. His Solsgard ritual was a success. Ripples of warmth flowed through the soil
"Damn," said Caelgar. "We probably should have left the ward and finished the creatures. We know where they'll go. We know they'll be back."
"Not until next year," said Talmere. "And much can happen in a year."
They knocked back another drink to that, and to Valdoran's success.
Then Sedocaen scowled. "Might ev'n have cleaned out the bloody spiderwebs by then."