Knox of the Bloom

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Chapter 2: Capard Hornbeard's Hall

The warriors nodded at Knox and patted Tapa as she scuttled past. They were huddled between the palisade, avoiding the light rain, leaning against the squat gate which had been pulled aside for the arriving clan-members. The warriors passed around a clay mug of what smelled like fire-water, anything to help keep a man warm, Knox supposed.

‘Good hunting?’ asked the one-eyed guard.

Knox showed his empty palms. ‘Yeah, I have a handful of hares up my arse, just wait until I pull them out for ye.’

The other two guards laughed as Knox strode past them smiling and entered the camp. With the cold wind hissing up from the valley from both sides, the camp looked deserted. Small huts were set up against a small jut of rock, their thick layers of hide keeping those inside warm. The folk mostly lived outside of the hall until the frost came.

Capard Hornbeard’s hall was a misshapen collection of debarked logs stacked one atop the other and secured with stones in places. It was roughly made in a circle with five stout chimneys made of rock and hardened clay peeping up from the roof, wafting black smoke into the morning air. Men said that the roof itself had been salvaged from one of the unusual ships the Bronze Men used to cross the sea. The strange beast that had been its figurehead now sat over the doorway, its amount of detail always fascinated Knox, with its double wolf head snarling in two separate directions, each mask had been painstakingly carved, showing fur, fangs and muscle tone.

The hall sat above a high ridge, having a clear view of the valley on each side, and the rolling hills beyond, with forest sloping away toward distant lands beyond. Old-Sister’s village was a few days march from the ridge; smoke from their camp was just visible on clear days, but hidden beyond clouds of mist and vapors today. The camp also gave the old chieftain a good viewpoint for any approaching danger before it could climb the steep ascent. There were piles of rocks and boulders not far from the hall for that very same reason. Deep, bounding laughter sounded from inside as Knox pushed his way through the heavy door.

He squinted, trying to see through the mixture of smoke--weed-smoke, smoke from the peat hearth and smoke from the orange moss that Capard Hornbeard and his Five liked to enjoy--though he couldn’t stomach the stuff himself. The Five sat nearest to Hornbeard, each man named after the gift received on becoming one of his best warriors, those most dedicated to their chieftain, and who no longer answered to their names given to them at birth.

There was Bronze-Shield, who had the said item lying across his knees, using it to eat and drink from. Flint-Blade, who was quiet and watchful as always, smoking his pipe while in deep thought. Yew-Bow was there, the weapon and quiver propped against the wall behind him. Rabbit’s Paw, laughing and spraying spit into his unfortunate companions’ faces, like always. Clay-Jug--who was just this moment refilling the item with fire-water--and almost falling over into his chief’s lap after stumbling.

These were his Five, but there was also White-Fang, the young and sour kinsman of Capard Hornbeard, and he was quiet and brooding, as always. Disliked by many in camp, White-Fang had only gained a place by Hornbeard’s throne by being kin to the old man, or kin to his kin. The old chief liked to fashion his clan after the Old Ways, men who were chosen by the Gods to rule. He loved nothing more than boring his guests to slumber with each new moon with these tales, except Knox that was. As a boy Knox had many times been the last awake, wide-eyed and listening to the old man. Of the giant gods who would eat an entire clan if they did not sacrifice enough blood during their rituals. Of mountains that would open up and swallow unwary trespassers.

Knox snapped himself out of the daydream, shutting the door behind him.

Yes, the Five were his best fighters, his right-hand always ready with dagger at his side and shield at his back. The other groups were content, though, where they sat, passing around skins of fire-water, gourds of ale, and as Knox took in the scene, Clay-Jug noticed the new-comer and nudged the old chief. Hornbeard’s one eye squinted through the dingy light and smoke, baring his few yellow teeth left in a warm smile. The ancient horn tied into his massive beard wobbled, caked with foam. The horn was one of many taken from a giant Stag from olden times, when they’d still roamed the lands, and was two hands long.

‘Ah, if it isn’t my favorite wood-dweller! How goes it, young Knox of the Bloom?’

‘Not great, chief.' Knox took a leg of meat from the table and sat on a bench. ‘The hills are barer and barer with each new moon. I hope you’re not hoping for tribute.’

‘Aye, barely a man had more to fill his belly that came back at the signal. Bad omens, that,’ nodded Hornbeard. ‘Don’t need to have a touch of the Old Magic to know the Cold Days are near, and the Gods know it’ll be a bad one.’

‘Old-Sister says she had to kill many of her sheep,’ said Brent Bolder, the camp’s tanner, who was sat near Knox. ‘And Old-Sister’s never killed her sheep for no good reason.’

A few of the others nodded their heads or grunted in agreement. The Five gave the impressionable young’uns a look that said you bunch of sackless maggots.

‘I’ve not called my clan from the hills to talk about bloody omens, men.’ Hornbeard lifted his drink. ‘So fill your belly with meat and drink, and warm yourselves by my fires. But keep yer hands off my daughters!’

The men laughed and jeered, then dispersed to the separate hearths set around the large hall. Some of Hornbeard’s said daughters were bringing in platters of food and drink. Knox smiled awkwardly at one dark-haired girl, making her flinch and hurry past.

He still had the old charm, it seemed.

Knox sat down by the fire Tapa was resting in front of and nodded at Salmon and Tarrant, two brothers, goat-farmers. Beside them, a few warriors were engrossed in a discussion and paid no mind to Knox.

‘Alright Knox, how goes it up in the mountains?’ Salmon asked from behind a gourd.

‘It’s bleak and dreary Sal, same as always, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.’ He smiled and took the offered gourd, sniffing the liquid inside. Fire-water. It burned going down, and as he gave it back, Tarrant nodded toward Hornbeard.

‘So what do ye think this is all about?’

‘Who knows? But at least he’s not squeezing us for tribute this early. I was shitting it the whole way down here.’

‘To be sure, I heard one of his warrior-folk sayin’ that a journey might be in the makin’.′ Tarrant took the gourd from Sal.

Knox frowned at him. ‘Journey? Capard Hornbeard’s never set bloody foot outside the Slieve Bloom Mountains since he was a young man!’

’Aye, I know that. I mean to say that there might be someone else doin’ the journeyin’.′

‘Bloody fools I say,’ said Salmon, taking back the gourd and having another sip. ‘Nothin’ good beyond these mountains.′

‘I’ll drink to that.’ Tarrant took the gourd and they sat in content silence, watching the girls come in and go out of the hall.

Hornbeard stood up and the entire room fell silent. ‘Good folk of Bloom!’ The room gave a heartfelt cheer, rattling jugs, gourds and pots or stamping their feet. 'I know what you all must be wondering. “Why in the bloody night did this old bandit call me down?” But before I begin telling you about my reasons, there is something first I must say.′ He cleared his throat, and then gave the room a quick sweep with his eye.

For having just the one eye, he sure knew how to use it.

‘Back in the old times, you all know that our land was stronger than we could possibly imagine. Only by the tales told by our firesides have we kept hold of those memories. We had men to lead us the right way; clans so big that they needed a way to keep order. The druids were created by the Gods to keep the peace. Well after the Dark Ones began their killing and burning, scattering the Druids, people were frightened. Men, women and children were slain by those bloodthirsty spirits without mercy. The stories tell of how it had been peaceful before that time, not always, but mostly. And when the Flames appeared far out on the sea, a dark storm came on the land.’

Knox found that he’d been biting his lip and forced himself to stop. Hornbeard was obviously struggling with something. The old man’s jaw kept clenching, and his hands were... shaking. Even after the old man had lost two of his sons in the skirmish with the Tuccock’s, he had never let his mask slip in front of his men. To see him worked up was quite startling, and the whole gathering was holding their breath.

‘You all know my brother was disgraced and fled our lands long ago, back when my father still ruled these mountains. Yes, I’ve not spoken of him inside of these walls for many years, but the night before I had lit the Black Signal, a man came to my hall. He spoke of my brother, said that he’d made quite the life for himself on the seacoast. Took to the Bronze Men’s ways, and made a stone circle fort on a cliff somewhere.’ Hornbeard spat onto his floor in disgust. ‘Can you imagine, a son of a mountain chief living by the sea? Aye, I near threw the man out on his arse for coming to me and showing that kind of disrespect. But he was a Sassenach, so I let him go on in his ignorant ways.’ Hornbeard held out a hand, curled it into a fist, and the shaking stopped.

‘The man had been sent by my brother, who’s grown quite the following in his life, it seems. He’s near-like a chief himself, the man told me. Hah. But before the man had set out on his journey, strange lights had appeared on the horizon. Very faint, he’d said, the next night, they grew larger. The lights spread out along the horizon. Small flames, the man had said. Not many along the coast knew what was happening, but my brother at least remembered my peoples tales, our history, if not our discipline. The Flames reminded him of the times before the fall of the Gods.’ Hornbeard picked up his jug, and seemed to be looking straight at Knox. ‘The Dark Ones are coming.’

Silence ensued, until chaos broke free, as each man--be it laughing, shock, or anger, each fought to have his thoughts heard. Hornbeard held up a hand to silence them.

‘Men, I don’t know if what my brother tells me is true. For all I know, it could be a ruse to throw me off of my guard. He swore revenge that day he was banished. And forgiveness was never one of his finer qualities. But he knows how sacred these tales were to our people. He knows how heavy to heart this would be taken.’

‘Then we should find him and kill him!’ shouted one of the warriors. Some of the others nodded. For disgracing the Old Tales the punishment was death. Everyone knew that. Even changing a few words in a tale--on purpose or not--was enough to get a serious beating.

'First I must see if what he says is truth. But alas, I could not make the journey. My brother would love to see how bandy-legged I’ve grown in my old age, I’m sure. No, I must send my most trust-worthy men to go in my stead. Be my ear, my eye... and my fist!′ Hornbeard beat his chest with a fist. ‘But which of my Five shall go?’ The room fell into silence once again, and each of the Five, still gathered around the old man, knelt and bowed their heads. ‘In these dangerous times,’ Hornbeard stepped down from his stone chair. ‘An old man needs strong men beside him in case danger should knock on his door. I must keep some of my men here, to defend our people. And who else the better to answer that call on my door, but my First, Bronze-Shield!’

Knox shouted along with the others as the tall, stocky Bronze-Shield stood up and shook Hornbeard’s hand. ‘You have my spear and shield, chief, as always.’

‘I also need my messengers to be secure along the way. So I regret that my Second, Flint-Blade, must leave me, for a time. I know you will defend our people along the way as if it were my own life at stake.’

Flint’s dark face appeared over the crowd of men as he stood up, tallest even among the tall. ‘Aye, chief. Nobody’ll fuck with our men when I’m there, I swear it.’

Hornbeard laughed and thumped the man on the back before moving on. ‘And also, the best shot in the mountains, near and far, my prized game-hunter, Yew-Bow!’

Yew-Bow stood up and gave the old man his hand. Then turning around, he gave the crowd a gap-toothed grin. He was the only Nordner in the clan, those who inhabit the villages like rats to the north. Having been found as a boy alone in the woods, starved and scared, Hornbeard took him in and raised him as if he were a son. Everyone knew he was a Nordner by the look of him, as they all had the blonde hair and blue eyes with stocky shoulders. Not like the dark or red hair of the mountain-folk.

Hornbeard was red faced from laughing as he came to his Fourth, Rabbit’s-Paw. ‘Ah, now, here’s a man I cannot go without. My lucky charm, isn’t that right, Paw?’

‘Tis at that, chief, you’d not last the bloody Cold Days without me by to keep the fires stoked and the dark spirits at bay.’

Hornbeard nodded and moved on. Clay-Jug was next, and he was the only one of the Five who had been stumbling to keep his balance. Hornbeard kicked out Clay-Jug’s arm and the fat man went crashing face-first into the packed dirt. The room erupted into laughter.

‘Get up, Jug. I’ll definitely be sending you, ye useless old fart.’

‘Old? Callin me old, chief?’ Clay-Jug stood up and thumbed his chest. ‘That’s a laugh now, that's a bit rich. You’re old enough t’be me grandfather’s grandfather.’

‘The walk will do you good, Jug.’ Hornbeard gave Jug’s considerably sized belly a pat with his hand. ‘Best get you moving, lest I’m tempted to roast you over a fire, ye fat pig.’ The old man gave Jug a good-natured slap on the arm and moved on, passing White-Fang by without looking down at him. As Hornbeard retook his seat, Knox saw White-Fang stand and storm out of the room, banging the door shut behind him.

‘That Fang’s a right arse,’ Salmon muttered into his drink.

‘A right lucky arse, more like. He’ll be the chief one day.’ Tarrant nodded as if it were written in stone.

‘That’s not true,’ Salmon frowned at his friend. ‘Could be any of the Five. Or the old man’s own kin, in the valley, or the mountain over yonder. But there’s not many favorites left in the running since his two boys got killed.’

‘What do you think, Knox?’

The two men were staring at him. ‘I think that the old man is best not to trust that bastard.’

White-Fang’s mother, Hornbeard’s daughter, had died giving birth, but his father was Old-Sister’s son, giving him entitlement to her clan after she passed on, as well as a good claim to Hornbeard’s. Knox shivered to think of White-Fang as a chief of both clans.

The two men agreed, seemingly follwing his thoughts. Knox took one final swig from the gourd and bid the men a quick night. Tapa followed him through the throng of men, all getting drunker and crowding in around the Five and Hornbeard, trying to get or give a slap or joke. Knox gave Tapa the eye, ‘Ith iad.’ Tapa let her tongue hang out for a moment, in happiness or deviousness he wasn't sure, and then began nipping at arses, making people jump or jostle, clearing room for Knox to move closer to the Five.

‘That damn mutt will get it someday, Knox!’ one man shouted at him, but made no move to attack.

‘Let me know when, I’ll make sure not to miss watching her picking her teeth with your tiny cock,’ he tossed back over his shoulder, before the gap closed and he was near the Five.

‘What are you smiling at?’ Jug appeared in the crowd, holding his jug, and was watching him with a searching gaze. Well, Jug's gaze was always searching, really.

‘Nothing much big man, just happy is all.’

‘To be sure, lad, seems to be plenty of that going on t'night. Give a man a bit of work in peaceful times and you’ll never hear the end of his moaning. Give him war and certain death and he’ll drink all his troubles away.’ Jug gave the crowd a scornful look. ‘Give a man a bit of danger and watch his eyes glow and his balls swell. Damn fools.’ Jug pointed a finger at Knox. ‘I tell ye lad, truer words,’ shouted Jug, as the crowd erupted into laughter, spraying bits of foam into Knox’s face, as he leaned in closer, ‘have never been spo-hic-spoken.’

‘Leave the boy alone, would you?’ Flint appeared beside Jug, pushing the fat man aside. ‘It’s good to see you, Knox. How’s the mountains faring?’

Tapa nudged her snout up at Flint and gave his chin a deep sniff, and for a tall man she didn’t have far to reach.

‘She’s grown since I last saw her. What you feeding her, children?’

‘Bronze Men and Dark Ones, isn’t that right, Tapa?’ Knox gave her a pat.

'Hmm, it seems that we all might be having that same kind of feed soon.′ Flint gave him a final nod and disappeared back into the crowd. Knox saw Hornbeard wave Knox to come closer, so he gave Jug a slap on the arm and made his way to the old man, stepping up to the stone throne.

‘If it’s not my little spirit of the woods, good man Knox. Are you enjoying yourself?’

‘Aye, food and drink never have done a man any harm. You have my thanks for it.’

‘And perhaps one of my daughters caught your fancy?’ Hornbeard’s face grew a shade darker, mischief dancing in the old man's shining eye.

Knox felt his face flush, but he managed in keeping his voice under control. ‘No chief, not at all.’

‘Hah! I saw you and those two simpletons staring at young Nossie. Nothing wrong with it, she’s a sweet girl.’

Knox smiled. Since he’ heard of a journey in the making a strange feeling had been growing inside of him. Like a bubble, it fought to get its way out.

‘You look like you want to say something, lad. What is it?’

‘I was wondering if you might be in the need of a guide. No man in here knows the mountains as well as I do.’

‘Yew-Bow!’ shouted Hornbeard. ‘Yew, ye great big ugly lump of a sack'o shite, get over here!’

Bow appeared, his face flushed and some of his blonde braids loosened. ‘Chief, what’s the matter?’ He glanced back over to where a girl was dancing, who smiled back at him and blew a kiss.

‘Young Knox here thinks that you’ll be needing a guide. What do you think?’

‘Why would I need a guide?’ Bow eyed Knox up and down. ‘You sure you could find your own arse?’

Knox chest swelled. ‘I know these woods well, better than you or the Five. Any land I don’t know I’ll learn faster than any of you can.’

Bow raised an eyebrow. ‘Hmm, you’re a brave little fecker, Knox, I’ll give you that. I don’t know chief. Can ye fight lad?’

‘I can, been training with my dagger. Hornbeard never told you?’ Knox slid the blade out and twirled it between his fingers.

‘A bronze dagger? Where’d ye get that?’

Knox looked from Bow to Hornbeard, who was looking at the blade also. ‘Chief gave it to me, when I went on my first hunt. Was my father’s, or so he tells me.’

‘Father? Who was his father then, chief?’ Bow took the knife and lifted it close to his eye. ‘Good blade.’

‘It’s none of your damn business who his father is, Bow. It’s a long story,’ said the old man, his eye was drooping from the fire-water, ‘one for another time.’

Bow gave the knife back to Knox and nodded. ‘So be it. You can come, but don’t think you’ll get any special treatment 'cos you’re Hornbeard's special pup. You can’t keep up, you get left behind.’

‘I’ll keep up. You just make sure you old fuckers don’t slow me down.’

Bow’s face darkened and Knox felt a few men around him grow quiet. Then Bow broke out in a smile and he clapped Knox on the shoulder. ‘Old fuckers, I like that! Hah! I like you, Knox, always were a cheeky little shite.’ Bow nodded to the old man, who was by now in danger of falling over, and then turned and re-joined the woman in the dance. One of Hornbeard’s daughter’s had appeared and whispered something into the old man’s ear. The old man’s eye flickered open, and he glanced around if unsure of where he was. Knox bid him a quick night and left the Hall.

He left the camp and followed a steep path rarely used, and then headed along a trail, to the small waterfall where he liked to sleep when the hall grew too crowded. The voices grew faint into the distance, leaving only his heartbeat and the fall of Tapa’s paws for company.

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