By Aladrin Greywood
Chapter 1 – The Glade
The sun kissed the dewey glistening of water that ran across his face. His brow wet with the morning moisture, took on a bright sheen as the rays delicately warmed the skin underneath. He felt both warm and cold… and wet, at the same time. Where was he? What day was it? Struggling against the pressing heaviness against his chest and shoulders, he pushed himself to a seated position, propping himself up with one arm. He shielded his eyes against the harsh, but warm glare of the morning sun and squinted into the distance. Across from him, as he sat in his long, grassy bed, were fields of barley as far as he could see.
His body ached. His limbs were heavy, and even after several seconds of adjusting his vision to the early light, he still felt as if he was unable to see clearly. Something obstructed his few. It was then that he noticed the hand he held to his eyes was made of metal. The shining sun gleamed off his steel forearm and fingers. He jolted with this realization and winced as he turned his hands over and about attempting to rationalize why he would be made of iron and steel. With great effort, he balanced himself and lifted his other hand hoping that his other arm was spared this fate. But alas, his other hand, too, was of the same metal construction.
Lamenting inwardly the fate of his limbs, he brought them closer to his face to see them better. However, when he did, he felt a jarring “clunk”, as the sound of metal on metal echoed in and around his head. Shaking his senses, he felt a heaviness around his shoulders and strained to clear the ringing out of his ears. Lifting one of his metal hands to settle his headache, he could feel his skull with his fingers, but couldn’t feel his fingers with his skull. This made him even more confused, and he struggled to understand why he was experiencing such a bizarre assortment of sensations. LIfting his other hand, he encountered the same strange barrier. Running his hands along his head, he could feel each and every bump and groove, almost as if it were a landscape of metallic mountains and valleys. With each dip and gulley on his head, he could hear the finger scraping and making “dinging” sounds, continuing echoing in and around his ears. In an attempt to dull these noises, he squeezed with all his might. Nothing. Suddenly, as if by muscle memory alone, he blindly ran his fingers along the side of his head, feeling for a clasp that he wasn’t sure, but MUST be there. As his fingers reached it, he clenched a little pin and lifted it out of its home. At the same moment, a tiny crack of light illuminated the tip of his nose. With the same hand, as if by action done thousands of times before, he felt for his face and lifted the metal near his mouth.
The brilliance of a hundred suns met his eyes and face, as the wet beads of morning dew absorbed the golden rays. Shutting his eyes against the glaring sun, he once again lifted his metal arm to shield himself and block out the onslaught of light. Several seconds later, after letting his watering eyes calm themselves, he slowly opened them to fearfully examine his hand better.
It’s armor. He’s wearing armor on his hands. Chuckling to himself, he groans as he lowers his arms to his sides. Doing so produces yet another “clanking” sound. Forcing him to look downwards toward his aching body, he notices the shiny glint of steel absorbing the warm light of the sun. It was only now that he realized he was entirely clad in heavy plate armor, head to foot. Noting to himself, this explains the heavy feeling amidst his shoulders and head, as if by memory, he unclips the leather buckle holding his helmet to his head. Fumbling at first, he steadies himself against the weight of the armor, and uses both hands to lift the heavy helmet off his head. A cool breeze greets his warm ears and ruffles his hair with a salty edge. The sea, stretching out for hundreds of miles behind him, brought in a crisp, refreshing wind that echoed within his aching bones. Setting his helmet beside him, he breathed deeply and stretched his neck to both sides, issuing forth a resounding cracking of bone. Grimacing with each snap, he gave his head a shake and looked at his lower section.
The sun continued to shine brightly on steel-clad legs and torso. While warm, he could understand, the metal would slowly begin to heat up in the rays of the sun, for he had no idea how long had lain here, he didn’t understand why he felt wet. Almost as if he were drenched from head to toe in sticky sweat. Shifting himself within his armor against his discomfort, he reminded himself to bathe too soon.
Several minutes had passed as he stretched his toes, ankles, and other more mobile joints. Each time, he felt as if he had been lifting heavy boulders for hours prior, as the ligaments in his body groaned with pain. With a heavy breath, and a great heave, he lurched himself forward, catching a knee and bracing himself against the morning ground. While unable to feel anything beneath the armor on his fingertips, the waves of barley and grass danced between his digits. Leaving behind pieces of chaff or bits of fibers, as he ran his hand among the slowly moving strands. The moment felt vaguely peaceful. As if it had been a long time since the air barely stirred, and the moments around him quiet. With another great push, he lifted his knelt leg and awkwardly positioned both legs under himself, holding both arms outward in an effort to give him balance. A few seconds later, he straightened his torso and leaned backward.
“OOOOOHHHHHHHHAAAAGGGG OOOWWWWWWWWCCCCHHHHHH!” He exclaimed, long and drawn out. He could feel several of his ribs stretch and bend questionably as he filled his lungs with another large breath. His spine echoed multiple cracks into the recesses of his armor, and placing his hands upon his hips, he jerked his body side to side, producing yet even more audible popping. Every bit of his being was in pain, from his ankles all the way to the top of his shoulders. Unsure of why he was in such discomfort, he continued adjusting himself and moving his joints in an attempt to ease the tension. As he did this, he looked around and took in the surrounding countryside. He could tell the ocean lay behind him, with the wind repeatedly whipping forwardly, salty bursts of cool air. Beyond his gaze to the front, he could see the crests of mountains in the distance, valleys issues beneath, with field upon field of unharvested grains dancing in the cool breeze.
“Well”, he thought to himself. “It appears I’m in….wait. Where am I?” He knew this place. The hills looked familiar. But why? He had no memory of why or when he came here, just that the shape of the landscape was as familiar to him as his name.
“Wait…. What is my name”?
He smacked himself in the head several times attempting to jar his memory to recall even the most basic information, forgetting, in the process, that he had taken off his helmet. Looking down at his side, he stared at the steel helmet glinting in the bright sunlight. Nestled amongst grass, it lay there, silently reminding him of the years passed. Almost as if without words, he told him that he should know not only his name and where he was, but also the skill he had as a warrior. The armor he wore was dented and scarred from years of use, the helmet alone bore many marks indicating deflected arrows and spears. Yet, he could remember none of it. Nor of why he would have such intense armor in the first place.
Sighing, he stooped down to pick his helmet up from the dense grass. Grasping the top of the visor, his eyes caught something gleaming in morning dew upon the ground. The red skin, while wrinkled and worn, immediately perked the pit in his stomach and filled him with yearning. There, scattered along the ground and amidst the thick roots of the nearby trees, dozens lay upon the dirty ground, gathering moisture and sunlight.
He hastily overturned his helmet, as if he had been a farmhand, he rapidly picked up every apple within his reach. Shuffling along with “clanks” from his armor, he filled to the brim his helmet with the overripe fruit at his feet. Leaning back up and facing the distant sea, he reached into the pile within his helmet, grasping what he thought was the least of the aging apples. Wiping off a clump of dirt, he quickly raised it toward his mouth and took an immense bite. The juices from the apple trickled down into his thick, black beard, soaking into the deep hairs and coating his chin underneath. The feeling of sweet, tender sugars greeted his tongue in a dance of flavors, as the apple crushed between his teeth.
As soon as he had finished one, he grasped another and continued eating. Apple after apple left his helmet and filled his belly, as he ate for what felt to be eons. He hadn’t remembered the last meal he had or even when he had it. But for now, the apples filled his spirit and his appetite. Each fruit he finished left him wanting more, as if he hadn’t eaten anything before in his life. The question of why he knew what an apple was, but not how it tasted left him as quickly as each bite of apple. It didn’t matter at the moment. All he cared about was getting his fill of the sweet, yet increasingly bitter, apples. Perhaps he bit into a worm or forgot to knock off a clump of soil, but each apple, he noticed more and more the less sweet they became and the more tart and sour. He chocked it up to his lack of memory, as if it were his body telling him he were full. But, he pushed the thought aside and finished his helmet full of apples, until all that rest at the bottom was a dark, fruity blend of juices and saliva.
Bringing it to his lips and drinking from the metallic vessel, he noticed it didn’t taste much of a sweet flavor, and thought, perhaps, he had drooled more than he initially imagined. Wiping his face and beard of the leaking juices, he made a mental note, hoping he’d remember, to give his helmet a solid cleaning before putting it back on. Clipping the leather band on his helmet to his belt, he stretched his back once more, happy to have filled his belly with the tangy juices of the overripe apples.
Looking around, he noticed that it was more than apples and himself that lay upon the slowly drying grass. There, lying upon the ground near where he had awoken was an immense shield. At least 4 feet in height and 2 in width, it matched in size the patch of grass on which he had lain. Shuffling over, in slightly less discomfort than before, he stooped down slowly and grasped the edge of the hardened shield.
Suddenly, he was swinging his hammer, at an opposing shield. Colliding with it, he could hear yelling as the wood splintered, and the bearer behind it screamed in agony. The shrill sound of a man bellowing in pain echoed in his ears as he wound up yet again to bring his hammer upon the unprotected head of the man lying on the ground.
He blinked hard. He was still standing over the shield on the ground, holding the corner and lifting it toward him.
“What was that…” Something that flashed back to him. A memory? How distant? Yet, as quickly as it had arrived, it fleeted away into the recesses of his mind, and he was unable to recall even having the thought. Bringing the shield up off the damp grass, little drops of morning dew clung to deep gouges and crevices within the metal and wood, as others rolled off to join their brethren upon the moist earth and grass. The shield was immense, weighing several stone, and clad in bands of iron and steel. While beaten and battered from what appeared to be blades and hammers, it still felt sturdy in his hands. He grasped the inner handle and hoisted it to his waist, almost as if he had done so for years. As he settled the shield against him, he noticed behind it, still within the grass, almost hidden from the long blades of barley and grass, was a wooden handle. Leaning down once again, he grasped the handle and brought it to him, standing as he looked at it within the morning light. A long, handled warhammer, deeply cracked in places and scarred in others from years of use. The head, marred with dark stains and chips, clearly had seen its life basked within the glow of some battle.
Then, as before, almost as if he had done so many times before, he twisted it around in his hand, swinging it to and fro at his side, he felt the familiar weight and momentum. The hammer head swung through the air sending droplets of water in every direction in consistent and intentional patterns. Bringing the steel head toward his face, he examined it more closely. Nothing stood out about the weapon beyond its years of use, but as it danced of morning moisture in the early day sun, he felt connected to it somehow. He didn’t know why or how, but it felt almost like a friend he had known since birth. Gently letting it slide downward in his hand, he grasped the wood handle near the top and slid it effortlessly into the metal ring on his belt, staring as he did so. He had done this before. Countless times.
Having rung his hammer, he once again looked out into the vast field of grain, taking in the moment. Something led him here. A deep yearning filled his soul, as he ached in not only body but also within his heart. His name and his purpose felt distant and foreign. He closed his eyes and let his mind wander. The steel upon his body, the iron and wood in his grip, and the hammer nestled safely and accessible at his side. While feeling complete and whole, he knew something was missing. But what.
Opening his eyes, he took in the sun once more, before muttering to himself, “all good things are sought, and for which, all good things are fought.” He took his first step forward in a resounding strive in his stride, and began his adventure onward.
It was at this moment, he understood the tangy, sour notes of the apples he had eaten. For, overripe apples are often used for one distinct purpose above all others. To make alcohol. And he had consumed a LOT of overripe apples.
His step forward was a staggered mess, lurching all his weight to one direction, barely managing to stabilize his body, before it hit the ground in a crumple of steel and aches. Blinking hard, he attempted to gather his thoughts. However, said thoughts were swimming aimlessly in his brain, as the fermenting fruit within his previously empty stomach battled to digest the alcohol quickly entering his blood stream. Summoning all his focus, he took another step, this time, he managed to keep his balance more carefully. Each subsequent step would carry the same attention and deliberate motion, as he stumbled forward further into the field. Bit by bit, he was moving forward, laughing to himself uncontrollably, as he ambled through the thick, sunkissed rows of barley.
As the hours passed, and his body slowly rid itself of the fermented sugars in the apples, he felt his feet hit some gravel. Pulling his dizzy eyes away from his toes, he looked about and saw he had stumbled across a long, dirt road that for many miles in either direction. The mountains still in the distance, he could tell the sun had reached a high point in the sky, pushing down ray after ray of bright light and warmth. The effects of the alcohol still within his system, and the heat of the sun, he was beginning to feel delirious and quite silly. Gathering his resolve, he lamented the weight of the immense shield, and trudged forward, choosing to follow the path to the northeast, feeling that following the pseudo-coastline to be a wise, albeit inebriated decision, laughing about all the fish of the sea coming up on land and cheering him on.
Chapter 2 – The Path Forward
He continued onward, the shield bore heavily on his arms and the pit of his stomach also began to weigh on his mind. Chuckling to himself, he slung the shield over his back, joking about his heavy new backpack. No sooner had he done so, than he heard and felt the shield give off a slight “thunk”. Lifting his head, he looked over his shoulder toward the shield, attempting to view the front of it. Spinning in place, as a dog would chase its tail, he continued his effort to catch a glimpse of why his shield might be “thunking” at him. A few spins later, he felt a “clank” in his midsection, as a flash of steel glinted sunlight in his eyes. Looking down, he saw a dagger lying at his feet, with a fresh scrape across the belly of his armor. Quizzically, he looked up to see a dozen men in tattered clothes and leather standing roughly 30 ft away from him.
“Oh hey…. Whawhawhassshup”? He asked, stammered through a few hiccups. “Was thishh yers”? Stooping down, he picked up the dagger, feeling the hours of walking weighing on his hips and legs. The dagger looked as any he had ever seen, wooden handle holding an 8 inch blade, sharpened on both ends as they came to an even point. Looking up, he held the dagger out. “Diiiiiiiid ya drop this”?
The small group looked at each other.
“Uhh… yeah. That’s ours… HEY! Give us all of yer….” they drifted off into mumbles, as he hardly heard their remaining demands.
He blinked hard, trying to focus what he was looking at within his vision. Reexamining the group, he saw it wasn’t a dozen men, but three, standing with small swords, while another held an identical dagger to one within his hands.
“Oh. Hey….” Leaning forward, he saw two of them slowly moving forward, while the third lifted his arm and launched his dagger forward. The rotating blade flew through the air in almost slow motion, each turn flashing the sun in a myriad of angles. Smiling, he stared intently at the dagger as it floated slowly toward him, and with seemingly no effort whatsoever, he lifted his other hand and caught it a mere second before it would connect with his torso.
The two advancing men stopped, eyes open in a horrified expression of disbelief. This man had been drunkenly staggering through the fields in their direction. Surely an easy mark. While only three of them, they saw the armor reflecting brightly in the sun, and thought it a quick score. But now, this man hand caught their best tosser’s blade in mid air with little to no effort. They could see the armor-clad individual smirk, then smiling widely, then with an expected volume burst out laughing, standing there holding now, two daggers in the high noon sun.
With an almost inherent skill, the dagger felt familiar. Not his own, but almost as if he had taken many people’s blades away from them. In an instant, he flipped the dagger blade to his finger tips, leaned his arm back high over his shoulder, and launched the gleaning, razor sharp blade forward.
Barely a second later, the steel dagger embedded itself up to the hilt in the third man’s chest, through his leather armor, deep into the quickly, blood-filling cavity, nestled snugly within the man’s chest. He could see the bandit give a struggled cough, as he lost his balance and spat blood out upon his chin. Then, before the man could hit the ground, the other two bandits rushed forward with a loud yell. Swinging their swords, they saw in a flurry, the mighty shield come out from behind the mark’s back. The first bandit saw his sword trapped within the boss of the shield, quickly getting turned away. Then, in horror, he caught the everquick gleam of the second dagger plunge through the side of his head. His vision quickly faded to black, as his eyes rolled into his head, slumping to the ground.
The second bandit halted his swing mid air, as he saw his compatriot fall to the ground in a pool of bright crimson. He told his legs to move. Hurry, quick! Move, damn you!
The man in the armor let go of the dagger, tightly gripped within the skull of the falling bandit. His hand, one motion moved toward the hammer at his waist, and grasping the head, he slid it upwards, lifting the wooden handle high in the air, and driving the bottom deep into the eye of the remaining man. His fingers could feel the man’s skull cave in, as the wood shaft broke through facial tissue and bone, sending wave after wave of vibrations and cracking through his hand. All the while, the bandit fell backward, the man slid his hand down his hammer’s handle, gripping it near the bottom where it had planted itself deep into the eye socket of the bandit, and with an almost memory induced motion, shoved the bandit forward with his fist, while recoiling the hammer to wind up the fatal blow. Before the attacker even collided with the now blood-pooled dirt, in a wide arc, he swung the head of his hammer forward and deep into the skull of the bandit.
He stood there for several seconds. The dust had settled, bodies lay at his feet and one many away in a crumpled heap, grasping its chest. How did he do this? How did he KNOW how to do this? As if he had done this for years prior, his training had kicked in, and all his aching muscles took over, with his brain barely even registering what was happening. Still in a fog, he took in a deep breath, beginning to smell the arid taste of coppery blood tinging the air. The men at his feet looked mangled and hackneyed, as if their days were spent attacking others for what little they had. In his eyes he felt disdain for them. Not only did he not know who he was, but they didn’t either, and they didn’t care. They wanted but for the shine of his possessions and his life.
After wiping his hammer off on their robes, he returned the shield to his back, grimacing under the weight he only just noticed, once more, and slid his hammer into the ring on his belt. Stooping down, he began rummaging through the bags and pouches the deceased bandits had haphazardly strapped their bodies. Some contained silver, others had scribbled notes that looked like roads with Xs and circles marking various spots. All in all, he searched for food and water on them. Finding a small animal skin, he could feel the sloshing of liquid within and after uncorking and taking a brief smell, he brought it to his lips. The water rushed down his throat and into his stomach, settling some of the still digesting fruit and plagued his senses. Wiping his beard of dribbles, he stood again and looked at some surrounding trees, hoping for something to ease his stomach. Nothing jumped out at him initially, and staggering, still drunkenly to the base of a few, he spotted a few mushrooms, dotted with various colors and patterns. Unsure of what they were, he surmised that anything would likely help the growing discomfort he felt in his belly, he hastily grabbed handfuls and munched away.
Minutes later, he was curled up on the ground clutching his stomach lying in a growing pool of his own filth. Fluids had exited his body from both ends, as he noticed several bits of apple and mushrooms quickly gathering on the dirt mere inches away from his face. And, though he hated to say it, he did feel better. The alcohol in his system had either digested fully or were scattered about the pieces of mushroom and vomit. Though, considering he knew his body had expelled the toxic fungus through both exits, he felt disgusting and in dire need of cleaning.
Taking more than several minutes, he brought himself to his knees after once again vomiting and pushing out the remaining contents of his stomach. His armor and beard soiled with fluids and food, he carefully removed pieces of his armor, grimacing at the poor condition the interior now housed. Giving the pieces a shake each time, he tied them all together within his now-soiled robes, fully naked, and standing in the hot day time sun
“Alright… where can I get this filth off my body?” He asked himself, looking around, and feeling slightly sober once more. “The coast is likely to have a few spots where I could get a quick rinse.”
Looking toward the sea, he saw the sun dappling the landscape before him, rolling and making valleys of hills. From where he stood, he could see a small bay ahead that looked to be presentable, so gripping his leather belt, and hoisting the shield and armor to his shoulder, he sauntered, naked in the road, caked in bodily fluids.
After a little less than an hour, he came to a bend in the road. To his left, it continued further into the countryside, with some distant trees and mountains looming into view. He hadn’t seen such immense trees before, and could only fathom at their sheer size from this distance. To the right, he noticed a steady, downward slope toward the shoreline. However, down this road, he spotted a distinct river bed that ran perpendicular and mostly up the hill a ways. Thinking to himself, he figured, if there is a river running downhill toward the ocean, then there must assuredly be a pool waiting within the woods up the road to the right. At the thought of a glistening, cool, pool soaking his aching bones, he hastily, and with renewed vigor, clutched his armor close and trotted down the eastward road, not paying any attention to the sway of his exposed nether regions.
As he wandered down the road further, examining the foliage with attempts to ascertain their properties, he indeed noticed what he had anticipated. There, down the bramble bordered dirt road lay a small bridge with a narrow river crossing, and leading down toward the sea. Seeing this, he felt a bump in his step, despite his aching bones, and reshouldered the mass of metal and filthy clothes, turning northward into the dense woods. The path ahead through the thickets seemed doable, and keeping the river to his right, he felt confident that he would inevitably reach what he thought would be a spring fed pool.
The walk proved to be much more difficult than he had initially thought. There wasn’t so much as a trail within the woods to reach the pool, as miniscule deer markings from traveling groups of buck and does making their way to the babbling water to his right. With little to cling to, and even less to lean on, he quickly found that pushing aside each and every brand was forming a bit of a path behind him. Treacherous though, this trail, he soldered forward up and toward the slowly widening riverbed. From here, he could see pieces of the opposite side of the water, and noticed several unlit torches, and what looked to be pieces of stone stacked upon each other. This was clearly a traveled area, but he had poorly chosen the wrong side of the river for his journey. Bits of pieces of his clothing were snagging on every branch, as little flecks of human waste splattered nearby rocks and trees.
Chapter 3 – Sacred Waters
Nearly an hour of thick, rugged terrain later, he emerged from the woods to a clearing. There, bathing in the warm light from a still, mid day sun, he could see the rippling reflections of a pool of beautifully clear water. Feeding the forest pool was a cascading waterfall nearly 30 feet tall, completely surrounded by dense tree tops and rocky outcrops. Standing on the edge of the clearing, he smiled at the incoming beams of light and felt his body once again warm itself within its rays. Every bit of his body had been covered in scrapes, scratches, and bruises, as he pushed his way through the branches and thorns that hindered his travels. The idea of a cool bath made his entire body shiver with anticipation.
His face was suddenly covered in a shower of cold, crisp water, as a mighty fish lept nearby, colliding with the rippling water in a formidable avalanche of clear water. His shock quickly subsided, as he wiped his face with both hands and laughed uproariously. Shaking his face, he tiptoed carefully around the rocks surrounding the pool, careful not to upset any nearby fish or accidentally send himself careening into the water below. After he had identified a moderate sized rock that would hold both him and his clothing and armor, splayed out in the midday sun, he carefully made his way to the stone. Barely 15ft in from the water’s edge, he laid down his armor gently, took a deep breath, and jumped, fully naked into the cool depths.
The aching feeling of dull pain and heat of the summer’s sun had washed away in an instant, as he plunged deeper and deeper. The frustrations of an empty, upset stomach quickly left him, as well, following his submersion. Opening his eyes, he could see the day’s filth float off his skin, and slowly dissipate into the surrounding water, almost giving it a hazy, disgusting look, until it all faded away. Looking about, he could see the forest pool was considerably deep at points, almost at the limitations of his vision. Treading water, he kicked his legs backward and propelled himself even further into the water. From here, he could see the rocky structure upon which he placed his belongings. It jutted up from the bottom of the pool, almost like a mountain holding aloft an altar. Perched upon thousands of tons of stone, it formed a massive column that was larger than any other rocky protrusion with dozens of fish, both large and small, swimming around its base. This pool was clearly an ancient source of freshwater, and while he didn’t know it, a truly remarkable landmark within these woods.
His previous exhaustion and lack of energy finally caught up with him, however, as he found himself running out of air. Swinging his arms upward and pushing down with great effort, his aches still reminding him to take it easy, he kicked his legs and swam upward. Seconds later, his face broke the surface, and taking in a deep breath of fresh air, he surveiled his surroundings once again. He was now in the middle of the body of water with twenty to thirty feet of gleaming forest pool in all directions. Smiling, he let himself sit in the warm summer glow for a few minutes more before paddling his way back toward his armor and clothes. Despite his now cleaner body, he was in dire need of a proper bath, and upon reaching and pulling himself up onto the rock, he directed his gaze toward the waterfall. He could vaguely make out a small recess behind the cascading water, and thought, should he decide to spend the evening here, it would provide a dry, private escape for the night.
Gathering his belongings in his arm, rechecking them with filth and debris, his mind still plagued him. He had no idea where he was, or how he knew everything he did, fighting included, and even now, carefully walking amongst the sharp rocks and bramble toward the dancing waterfall, he still scarcely had been able to piece together anything about himself. Reaching the first few falling droplets of water, he once again placed his armor down and began rinsing his towsers out under the clean water. Seeing the waste, vomit, and dirt fall away from the tattered clothes, he still wondered why they were in such disrepair in the first place. As he held them out, he examined his own legs, searching for any type of non-tree related injury, but was unable to find anything noteworthy. Giving his pants several shakes and rubbing them on the abrasive rocks to scrape off any dried or caked filth, he gently laid them out on a nearby rock in the sun to dry. The warmth of the afternoon rays still bounced off his skin, and even standing there, completely stark nude, he felt just a sense of troubled comfort.
Turning his attention to his pile of armor, he slowly took apart each individual piece by the leather straps, and held them under the falling water. The day’s worth of filth and grime that had accumulated through sweat, vomiting, and voiding his stomach slowly washed away under the cool flow. First, his spaulders, using his hands and some nearby leaves to scrub away at the dirt, he noticed that they, much like other pieces of his armor, bore years of dents and scrapes. Clearly, he had been involved in countless battles with many blows landing on his shoulders. Perhaps, that explained his sore he was? Was he just in a large fight? If so, why did he wake in a peaceful glade with no fallen bodies, and where were his comrades? Piece by piece his armor was cleaned and shined to the best of his ability and limited provisions. Lastly, he came to his immense cuirass.
Hoisting it up in front of him, it felt the already considerable weight collide with the flowing water, putting more strain on his already aching shoulders. Water met steel with a repeated “ting”, as it absorbed within and slowly dissolved the thick, acrid mass of filth and dirt. Grabbing more leaves and brush, he wiped away bit after bit of the messy armor. Working both inside and out of the finely crafted armor, he spent every moment shaking, scrubbing, and sloshing the water in and out. As he rounded the top of the backplate, he caught something in the corner of the shoulder piece. Writing. Hastily wiping away further hidden bits of dirt, he uncovered an inscription, deeply, yet carefully etched within the folds of steel.
“Barnaby Bucksley y. 256”
“Barnaby Bucksley? What is that? Is that… me?” He thought to himself. He had never heard this name. Nor was it familiar in any way. It wasn’t as if a deep seated memory suddenly sprouted within his mind, and he felt a flashback, reliving all his history. The name was as foreign to him as the moment he awoke within the glade. With no other indication of meaning, he quickly re-examined the steel, hoping to find more indications of ownership, however, neither the cuirass nor the other pieces of armor bore any names. Replacing the armor back upon the sun dappled rock, and carefully setting his chestplate amongst it, he stared intently at the pile of clothing and armory.
“I’ve got nothing else. I guess that’s what I’ll call myself.” He sighed, giving his beard a long, almost dedicated stroke. And thus, he settled upon the name Barnaby Bucksley from thenforth. When asked, he would at least be able to give someone a name, rather than simply stare in silence. Basking under the glow of the sun, he felt warmer in both body and resolve.
Resuming his cleaning, he made sure all the pieces of armor and undergarments were properly situated within the ambient sun’s rays for maximum drying. The rock upon which they sat had more than enough room for both them and him, once he had finished bathing under the waterfall, himself. Moving back into the woods, he found several seeded brushes and trees nearby and grabbed a few handfuls of the dried seeds. Returning to the armor, he placed the seeds on the large stone, and using a smaller, smooth rock he had grabbed nearby, he mashed the seeds into a fine paste. How did he know how to do this? Almost as if through years of steady maintenance on his armor, he knew to turn the seeds into an oil and rub into the steel he wore. He didn’t know how he knew, but within the deep memories of his mind, he inherently saw it appropriate to oil his armor for longevity.
Turning once again toward the falling water, he took another deep breath and plunged under the icy, cascading stream. It was much colder than the sun soaked pool in the middle of the clearing and feeling every pore on his skin pucker with a chill, he hastily scrubbed away with some abrasive leaves the blood, filth, and waste from his body. Every inch of his being felt at least with the continued time in the water. Slowly acclimating the ripples of chilly air and flow, he calmed his nerves and allowed the stream to simply flow over his naked body, as the wind picked up the brisk, sunny breeze. His shoulder relaxed with each droplet and his nude form absorbed the clear forest water within his skin, feeling every ounce of moisture trickling down his mighty chest to his groin, and through his toes.
“HEY! STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING!”
He snapped his head and eyes up, unsure of what he had heard. In an instant, his mind went from clear serenity to battle ready. Instinctively reaching toward his waist, he found his hammer and shield many feet away near his armor and clothes.
Looking up, he could see, across the waterfall and on the other side of the pool, several Ulven men armed with axes and shields, mouths agape and staring at his exposed genitals. A second later, he heard rustling behind him, and looking over his shoulder to face the noise, he saw, again, multiple Ulven men and women with weapons and shields alike, burst from the woods into the clearing. They too were taken by surprise, seeing this large, bearded man bathing in the forest waterfall, with nothing but his naked rear end to greet them upon their arrival, they too, were struck in silence. Barnaby snapped to his senses, and lept hastily over to the rock holding his drying clothes and armor, and quickly scooped up his helmet. Holding it to his groin to cover his dangling member, he stooped and grabbed his hammer, as well.
Turning toward the oncoming Ulven, he raised his hammer in one hand and stood covering his groin with the helmet in the other.
“Can’t you see I’m just trying to take a bath?” Barnaby yelled out, turning red and flustered.
Several of the Ulven still stood in place. Strangely enough to Barnaby, the women seemed less perturbed by his nakedness than the men, and acted as if it were nothing short of notable. The men, on the other hand, took several seconds to fully understand what they were seeing, with several averting their gaze.
“You are trespassing upon sacred ground and blaspheming this pool with your nakedness!” One the Ulven women exclaimed, approaching Barnaby and holding her axe horizontally, pointing at his face. Her other hand was jutted toward his helmet-covered groin in an accusatory finger. “How dare you besmirch this place with your lewdness!”
“I… er… what?” Barnaby stammered, staring at both her, and looking down at his barely covered crotch. “What do you mean sacred? I’m just taking a bath!”
“This is a holy place, as all around here know. You will face judgment at the council and before Chief Hoskuld!”
“I’m sorry”, Barnaby stammered, looking at the approaching Ulven woman who bore more face markings than her surrounding neighbors. The woman was tall, strong and statuesque, with nearly 4 inches on every other woman, and on equal or greater height than the other men. “It appears that I’ve insulted you somehow. What can I do to make up for it?”
“You can start by dropping the hammer. I wouldn’t want to stain this holy ground with your filthy blood”.
Barnaby stood, hammer aloft, for several seconds before realizing how crazy he must look to these Ulven people. A large, hairy, bearded man, completely naked atop a stone, in the middle of a forest pool, holding nothing but a long hammer and a dented, old helmet barely covered his groin. He nodded his head after a few moments, and slowly brought the hammer to rest on the rock at his feet.
“And the helmet’.
“Oh come on.”
Barnaby thought he could detect the slightest tinge of a blush in the face of the immense Ulven woman nearing arms length away from him.
“Fine, leave it be. But if you so much as lift it, I’ll drop you where you stand”.
“I don’t think you’ll have to worry about that.”
The woman approached Barnaby with her axe raised above her armored shoulders. While he himself was more familiar with the nature of heavy steel plate, this woman was clothed, head to toe, in a mixture of brown drab, green clothes, and leather armor. While not armed for war to any extent, Barnaby had the feeling that she didn’t need much armor to be a formidable opponent. Without a second to process much more, the woman reached a lightning fast hand forward and grabbed Barnaby by his thick beard.
“YEEOUUUCH!” He exclaimed, eyes instantly watering.
“Hold your tongue. Until I have you out of this sacred ground, you will come with me as I see fit”.
Biting his lips, he subdued any further whimpering and promptly followed the Ulven woman, not wanting her to put any more pressure on his delicate beard hairs. She dragged him off the stone, and along the edge of the water toward the path from which he had emerged. Behind him, several other Ulven clamored onto the rock on which he had previously stood, and began gathering up his still, slightly damp clothes and freshly oiled armor in their arms.
“Hey! Be careful wi…..” Barnaby trailed off, getting his attention pulled back forward with another forceful yank on his beard.
“I said quiet!” The Ulven woman ordered over his shoulder. Then taking the blunt side of her axe, she gave a stern, but delicate tap to the helmet that covered Barnaby’s crotch. “Unless you want to lose more than your beard.” She could hear an audible gulp come from behind her, and smirking, she turned her head once more to the path into the forest ahead of her.
Barnaby could hear the sound of the waterfall further and further distancing itself in the background, as he was dragged and led slowly through the thick brambles of the forest. The Ulven woman had, thankfully, let go of his beard, and while he rubbed his aching chin, he caught her taking quick glances over her shoulder at him as she led him forward. He wasn’t sure if these were anything more than tabs to keep on her prisoner, but at the bare minimum, he was appreciative of his captor going easier the deeper they went.
“So…” Barnaby started, pushing another thick branch out of his face, that the Ulven woman had neglected to move aside for him. “What do I call my tall, imposing female guard who… seems… to be leading me ever deeper in an unknown direction”.
The woman said nothing for several moments, as the two stumbled across a fallen log covered in thick moss. Looking over her shoulder, she didn’t make eye contact but spoke out of the side of her mouth.
“You can call me Brenna. Warleader Brenna.” She said, then turning her attention back forward, she stooped under several branches that proceeded to smack Barnaby in the face.
“Well… ouch… I supposed you can call me…dammit…. Ouch…. Barnaby”. He uttered, as he repeatedly found himself getting stung by small thorns that seemed to reach out to him from the sides of the narrow path Brenna was making.
“I won’t be calling you anything other than trespasser. Or prisoner. Or… maybe tomorrow…corpse”.
Barnaby once again gulped hard. Her voice sounded cold and calculated. The sun didn’t reach this deep into the woods, and apart from the dark silhouette of her back, he couldn’t make out any expressions that might indicate her demeanor.
“I’m sorry, I clearly…ouch… missed that last part”.
“No you didn’t.”
The two stumbled on for another hour or two before breaking through what felt like a wall of darkness and vines, before the sun hit them harshly in the face. Brenna seemed to hardly break step, however, as she continued forward while simultaneously yanking on the rope that hung limply from Barnaby’s wrists. While hardly a proper rope, it more closely resembled a knotted old vine that was torn from a nearby tree, for what’s exactly what it was. After the two had made their way soundly into the dense woods, Brenna yanked it from a tree, and tied it painfully around Barnaby’s already aching hands. His helmet had also received a binding of sorts, around his waist, that now sported a small blanket that Brenna had brought with her. So, with his new loin cloth, barely covering his exposed nethers, and his hands bound, the two stood in the sun on the edge of the woods.
“The sun will be setting soon. And with any luck, so will you”.
“Gods, you’re so ominous, is that intentional?”
Brenna didn’t answer, instead, she pulled on the ropes that bound his wrists, and the two walked into the clearing, as their eyes adjusted to the late afternoon sun. By now, it had approached early evening, and the wind was beginning to slowly lose the ambient warmth that came from the midday rays. The wind was also significantly more brisk, as they walked, though Barnaby guessed he felt it much more now that he was out of the dense woods.
“Where are we, anyway? We’ve been walking for hours, and to be honest, I’m quite hungry.”
“We’re in Goldenfield territory. In a couple of hours, we’ll reach the village proper, and from there, your fate will be decided.”
“Ok, listen. My fate? Really? I was taking a BATH. What’s the big deal?”
Brenna stopped and turned harshly, giving Barnaby a look that betrayed any non serious elements he might have estimated about her.
“You were BATHING in a sacred pond that belongs to the ancestors of Clan Goldenfield! You weren’t just in ‘some pool’, you were trespassing upon holy ground. It’s not a joke that you humans make fun of. Our cultures have serious implications for violating, and because of that, you will be punished in accordance with those laws! And….. you were naked…” Brenna quickly turned and pulled on the ropes, bringing a startled Barnaby with her.
“Well… when you put it like that, I can see how it might look bad”.
Brenna said nothing, but kept moving. The next hour moved by slowly, with the sun changing positions in the sky, lending shadows that creeped their way from the woods across the fields. The barley and wheat swayed gently in the summer breeze, tickling the exposed hairs on Barnaby’s legs. The imagery must have been quite a sight, he thought. A huge, hulking Ulven woman dragged a naked, bearded man across the fields in complete silence, while the sun slowly moved across the clouds. He didn’t know what was in store for him, but he clearly upset Brenna with his comments, and any inkling he felt that she might go easy on him had evaporated, along with his confidence that he might make it out of this unscathed.
Staring at his feet, and trying not to let the poorly wrapped cloth around his naked midsection fall off, he nearly bumped into his captor’s back, as she came to an abrupt stop in front of him.
“We’re here.” He heard her say, and looking up, he could see they had just crested the top of a golden hill that stretched for many miles in every direction. There, at the bottom of the hill was a sprawling town with many buildings, graineries, windmills, and multiple other trade buildings. It looked less like a city and more of a large farm. It was clear to Barnaby that these people were much less warriors than they were farmers, but that didn’t make him feel like his current situation was any less dangerous.
“Oh good, we’re home”.
Brenna glared over her shoulder at him and made a harsh right turn through the field toward a long dirt road. The path was obviously one used by caravans and wagons as they carried the day’s labor to and from trading posts and the farms nearby. His feet blistered and sore on the small pebbles and rocks that covered the roadway, he was dragged continually up the path toward the small town. Several other Ulven they passed made a wide berth around the two and uttered to themselves things like “is he a prisoner?”, “what do you think he did”, and “Eww, I can see his thing”. Blushing to himself, he felt the pace quickly down the hill as the dirt continued to kick up at his feet, and the number of farm hands he passed acknowledged his predicament. Whatever was in store for him, certainly had to be better than the last several hours of torment.
Chapter 4 – “Skolgarb”
The slow, careful walk down the dirt path felt like ages, as they passed more and more Ulven both coming and going from the town. It didn’t appear to Barnaby that many paid much attention to Brenna, but more than a few took quick, quizzical glances at his current predicament. The large gates they passed seemed to stretch for miles, as they circled around the immense farming village, providing both shelter and protection for the inhabitants. Brenna continued walking, every so often giving a harsh yank on the ropes around his hands. Several buildings passed during their march, and while initially he had thought people would avoid him in his state, more than a few Ulven had begun to congregate around and behind him, following the procession that ushered him further into town.
Several minutes passed by, as the crowd around them grew larger, nearing several dozen, at this point. Taking glances over his shoulder, he could make out the darkening shapes of children and adults alike, following him and his captor down the main village road. As suddenly as he felt them approach closer and closer, almost within arms reach, Barnaby slowed to a stop, as Brenna came to a halt just passed the entrance to a large clearing. Looking around, the sun still settling in the sky, he noticed the taller buildings as the ones he had seen from atop the hill. They were definitely within some type of village square, with an immense long house in front of them. The long planks jutted out in distinct patterns that looked like the underside of a large ship. A brightly colored door lay closed, resting halfway across the immense building. Continuing to gauge his situation, he could tell that the crowd had now gathered well over a hundred Ulven, warriors and families alike. Though, even those with axes and shields on their sides and backs still held farming implements within their white knuckled grips.
A loud drum began thumping away from within the building, grabbing everyone’s attention and silence. Turning his gaze, he saw the door open and a tall Ulven man, with similarly brown and green clothing emerged from the doorway. He held a long walking stick with many shapes and designs carved deeply into the gnarled wood, the top of which was carefully shaped in a rough wolf-like bust. The man bore face markings not unlike Brenna’s, but still less than his face could allow. It appeared initially to Barnaby that these Ulven were much less clanlike in their behavior toward war and violence than they were merely about existing. The warriors he met within the sacred forest also had limited facial paintings, but carried on their clothing years of hard toiled farm labor. With a loud “Thump” the attention was once again focused on the Ulven man standing barely ten feet away from Brenna.
“Well, Warleader. It appears you’ve brought me a human.” The Ulven man’s voice was unlike anything Barnaby could remember hearing. Deep and guttural with almost an animalistic clarity. Unlike the voices of the Ulven warriors he had encountered, this commanded respect and governance. With barely a moment to fully understand his presence, Barnaby quickly deduced that this must, indeed, be Clanleader Hoskuld.
“Chief” Brenna stated, holding her head low and a hand to her chest. Even someone like her showed great admiration for this man. “We found this man bathing naked in the Ancient Pool. What should we do with him? I’d like to see him flogged” She added this last bit with a slight glare over her shoulder toward Barnaby. He had once again gulped, knowing it was becoming a habit of his.
“Flogged, you say”. Hoskuld peered over the bowed head of his right hand woman and gazed into the eyes of the captive. He hadn’t met this particular human before, but why he would think it appropriate to be naked within the sacred waters seemed strange. Was he from the far off lands? Did he come across on the boats and simply live under a rock, these last 20 years? Hoskuld continued to stare at Barnaby for several more moments before bringing his gaze back toward Brenna, while also addressing the crowd as a whole.
“What do you all think? This man was seen bathing and lavished himself naked within the forbidden waters of our ancestors. Allowing the pure waters to carry his filth into the holy pool that gathers in the Great Wolf’s circle. Letting his little…human bits… be washed in our sacred streams…” He trailed off, and for an instant, Barnaby could have sworn he saw a slight stumble in the chief’s gait. Was he…. Drunk?
“Clanleader..” Brenna started. She had noticed it too.
“Tut tut, Brenna, lemma talk”. She hung her low lower, but Barnaby could see from where he stood that she furrowed her brow.
“I think… he should be PUNISHED!” Hoskuld announced loudly, throwing a hand into the evening air. The sun had begun to fully set past the hills that surround the town. The air was filled with the shouts of many Ulven around him, chants of “flog him” and “servitude” rippled through the cooling air. Barnaby, stung by the harshness of the Ulven’s words, could also feel the wind bringing with it a chilly air to his bones. While he had cleansed his body, he could still feel the dull aches of whatever he had been doing before he woke up within the morning glade.
“What’s that you say? Servitude? Should he be a slave or our Ulven neighbors?”
“YES!” replied the crowds, stamping their feet on the dry ground, kicking little puffs of dust and debris into the air.
“Should he be flogged within an inch of his life??!!”
“YES!” Shouted more Ulven. Barnaby could swear he heard a similar response quietly from Brenna as she stood silently. He had clearly offended her. He didn’t know how, but he gave himself a mental note that his words from henceforth had better be carefully selected.
“Or…” The Chief trailed on, lowering his hand and turning back toward Barnaby. “Should we have a contest?”
The crowd simmered to dull murmur as they exchanged glances between themselves. A contest? Combat? Physical prowess? Barnaby could make out the silent, hushed tones shared between the Ulvens nearby.
“Umm… excuse me”
The entire gathering had grown deathly quiet as Barnaby raised his hand and spoke up. Brenna whipped her head around with an expression of contempt. Chief Hoskuld himself looked unaffected, as almost expecting a response from his captive.
“Yes? What do you have to say, human?” Barnaby could feel the words from Hoskuld echoed within his very being. The thick, low voice rattled his chest and the vibrations of his sheer presence sent shivers to his legs.
“What kind of contest?” Barnaby stammered, still staring intently in the eyes of the Chief. “A Fight?”
“Do not trust him, Clanleader.” Brenna shouted, turning back toward the Chief, yanking on the rope. “The human is a warrior and had piles of armor nearby. We saw the blood he rinsed out of his armor”
“That wasn’t blood” Barnaby chimed in, growing embarrassed.
“SILENCE!” She replied, giving the ropes a harsh pull that not only brought him forward, but also to his knees. “He clearly has slain for his cause. Combat is no stranger to him, and that’s not who we are. He should be beaten then exiled” She quickly regathered her composure and lowered her head, with a silent “Clanleader” as if reminding herself to whom she was speaking.
The chief stood silently over the two of them. While he and Brenna shared a similar stature, the two towered over Barnaby, who knelt with quickly bruising knees in the dirty path beneath him. With the sun setting in the distance, and several villagers lighting torches and lanterns nearby, the immediate reality of where he was began to settle with him. He had desecrated a holy ground with not only his filth, but his nakedness. In doing so, he had greatly offended their way of life and added flippant remarks on top of it. No wonder Brenna was upset with him, and had he known any more than he did about himself or where he was, he might have been able to offer some kind of explanation. But he had none.
“You are correct, Warleader”. The chief spoke, returning to a notably more serious tone, as if his voice could get any lower. “A life lost in contest is still one lost. Whether by honor or duel, losing a Goldenfield clan member to such a silly show of punishment doesn’t bring respect back to the ancients”.
Brenna nodded her head in agreement, but kept her gaze downward. Barnaby could catch her scent as close as he was. The lingering notes of barley and grain wafted from her as it did from everyone around him. It was a farm, after all. But beyond that, he detected almost the scent of something sweet.
“So then” stated Hoskuld, stooping down and grabbing Barnaby’s chin in his massive grip. He could feel his neck craning upward, sending more jolts of painful aches down his spine. He could handle being beaten in his state, nor would he likely win in a fight. “It appears that our captive is in need of food”.
Brenne jerked her head up, looking at her chief. Sensing her displeasure in his words, the clanleader let go of Barnaby’s face and stood once again to his full height.
“Because…I think… we put him through the Skolgarb”.
An explosion of cheers and shouts erupted from all directions. Stamping of feet and rattling of tools, weapons, and shields echoed across the clearing, as dozens of Ulven men and women scattered in every direction, only to emerge either carrying tables, chairs, or dinnerware. Baskets and linens flew out of houses, carried by multiple Ulven, and in a flurry of minutes, it seemed that a great feast was being prepared. Barnaby still knelt, unable to fully comprehend what was going on, as at knee level, his visibility was obscured by hundreds of Ulven clamoring about.
“Uhh…. what’s a skull grab”? He asked, not entirely sure he wanted to know the answer.
“Ugh..”Brenne responded, yanking him to his feet. “‘Skolgarb’ is a Goldenfield custom where you’re run through a series of tests against someone else, and the victor is celebrated. While the loser is… punished.”
Barnaby could sense that this wasn’t the outcome that Brenna had anticipated, and perhaps it was due to his crass comments, but he seemed inwardly grateful that his punishment was simply to do some tests. While not the most quick-footed, he felt, with a little bit of food, he stood a chance. Looking around, he could get a better picture of the unfolding hustle of Ulven around him. Tables had been lined up, with many more being laden with baskets of bread, fruit, and pieces of meat. The smell alone that drifted to his nostrils from the delicate trays of pastries to the seared hunks of animal flesh assaulted his senses. It had been many, many hours since he had first intoxicated himself with the apples, and while they satiated him at the time, the concept of food filled him with anticipation.
Several moments later as the Ulven continued to lay out table after table of assortments of dishes, the Chief walked over with a handful of bread and nuts.
“Here. Eat. You’re going to need it”. With that, taking a knife from his waist, he cut the ties holding Barnaby’s hands together, freeing him to stretch his wrists and fingers from their foliage prison. He could feel the blood rush back into his digits once more, and the tingling sensation quickly took over, as his body adjusted. After sheathing his blade, the Clanleader grabbed Barnaby’s hand and thrust the loaf and bowl of nuts into his grip, once again instructing him to eat. Without hesitation or even a look at Brenna, he quickly took a bite of bread. The sensation of the flaky crust biting at his lips and the soft, velvety bread inside rushed across his tongue in a dance of flavors. Little flecks of grain and milled barley were interspersed within the loaf and added a slight crunch to the already perfectly textured bread. After swallowing the first bite, he scooped a handful of nuts in his bruised hands, and brought them to his mouth. In one motion, he poured the assortment of tree seeds into his gaping maw and crunched away at their fatty, salty flesh. Closing his eyes, he relished in the mixed flavors that cascaded down his throat with each bite and subsequent swallow. For a brief moment, he forgot where he was and all that surrounded him, and surrendered to the myriad of sensations.
As Barnaby stood there, Brenna turned toward the Chief.
“Why are we letting this outsider take part in Skolgarb? He soiled the sacred pool!”
“Brenna…” The Clanleader started, reaching out a hand and placing it on her shoulder. She could feel the immense weight of just his fingers close around the tip of her pauldron. “What better way to show this human the error of his ways than to expose him to yet another cultural element?”
“But, I don’t understand.”
“In time, Warleader, you will. As you grow and eventually take my place, you’ll see that punishment doesn’t always come at the tip of a cane, but through understanding.” The chief pulled her forward, away from the ravenous hungry Barnaby, who barely noticed they had moved further forward. “This man violated a holy, cultural law. Whether by intention or not, he didn’t acknowledge the sacred impact of his error. Do we merely beat him and send him on his way, having learned nothing?”
“He SHOULD be beaten and exiled!” Brenna was bristling with contempt at this moment for her captive. Even as a child, she had been told countless times that the pool was forbidden. Why should this outside be allowed to eat, when he had experienced the holy grounds without showing proper reverence?
“And he might yet be. But, better to send him on his way, beaten or not, having learned something about the culture he exploited, don’t you think? Is it not better for him to understand WHY what he did was bad, rather than just pain being a reminder of his crime?”
Brenna stood silent. She knew he was right. It had been the same lesson she had learned her whole life through the Daughters of Gaia. This was their land, and it must be respected.
“Besides…” The Clanleader added, looking over his shoulder at Barnaby, who had just finished the provisions handed to him, and was now directing his attention toward picking flakes of crust out of his beard. “I don’t think he understands exactly what’s in store for him”.
Barnaby forced himself to down yet another large mug of the heavy ale. He had lost count of how many he had before this. Minutes ago, he had attempted to hurl an axe at a target, while balancing his mug in the other hand. Before that, he found himself throwing up out of sheer exhaustion from throwing a log mere feet, after drinking an entire horn of beer. What was going on? Holding onto his mug in his left hand and an increasingly heavy axe in the other, he focused intently on the target in front of him. While he knew in his head that it wasn’t moving, the immense amount of alcohol assaulting his body told him otherwise. Warping to and fro in his vision, the large, circular target bounced from side to side, as he steadied his balance, careful not to spill a drop of the enormous beer mug, and hurled the axe toward the target. Luckily, his previous two throws had at least collided with the sawn tree stump that was his aim. With a resounding, “thunk” the axe embedded itself in the wood and stayed true, as another large Ulven walked over and removed it from the target.
“SKOLGARB!” the crowd rang out! He could see several of them downing pints of their own liquids, sloshing it as they raised their mugs high in the air to cheer for the outsider’s throw. To his left and across the open clearing, he could see the Chief sitting on a large, ornate wooden chair elevated on a platform with Brenna sitting next to him, clearly not amused with the occasion. They had been mostly stationary the majority of the event, watching and occasionally cheering as he or his opponent would throw a log or sink an axe.
“Ayyyyyyeeeeeeee….. NISHE ONE!” The large, and corpulent Ulven man standing next to him said, slapping him painfully on the back. “You *burp* rrreeally shunk that one!” He was drinking his own mug of ale, but paying no attention to whether or not he was spilling it during the competition, as were the rules stated. Instead, he was drinking freely while nailing the target with each and every throw. This man was clearly something else, and sometimes would drain his mug just to have his fill.
“The score is tied five to five! The Human, while having missed all but the last target, hasn’t spilled a drop of his ale!” The crowd cheered in appreciation of this fact, apparently deeming it a notable success. “His opponent Thorgud, however, as he stuck all 3 of his throws, but repeatedly spilled his mug in the process! He needs to only hit his target to win the round” The crowe once again erupted in applause. Barnaby didn’t know the rules as well as he thought, thinking surely one carried more weight than the other. But, he was grateful for at least the tied score. He had been bested soundly by Thorgud in the log throwing, as spilling your ale wasn’t considered a rules violation in that competition. The sheer strength by which his opponent had been able to joist the log and throw it significantly further than Barnaby was nothing short of astounding.
Several Ulven women came forward with newly filled jugs of frothy ale and topped off both Thorgud’s and Barnaby’s tankards. However, per the rules, they had to drain their current mug in between each throw. Pushing down the mug, he felt a little bit of vomit make its way forward, but he struggled through keeping it back. Apparently, throwing up during the log toss was acceptable and even rewarded with outrageously loud applause, but he wasn’t taking chances on this event. After receiving the fresh batch of beer, the two combatants turned toward the newly hoisted targets. Sporting a coat of bright blue and white paint, these circular rounds of wood looked more like shields than the previous targets at which they had thrown prior.
“I just have to not spill, and perhaps if I’m able to even HIT the target, I should win” Barnaby thought to himself, as he steadied his feet behind the rope laid at his feet. Readjusting his grip on the tankard of ale, he ensured that he had as confident a handhold as possible so as not to drop any beer. The target, once again, swayed back and forth, as his vision waned in the evening torchlit clearly. The wind was barely on his conscience as he rubbed his eye with the back of his axe-throwing hand. He could swear the target was moving on its own, and it wasn’t just the alcohol taking hold of his brain. He had already consumed far more than he felt possible, but he was almost done with the second challenge. Readying himself, he exhaled a breath of putrid scent, blinked hard, and lifted his arm. Closing his eyes, he sent his arm careening forward with all the might his inebriated self could muster.
The crowd exploded in applause the second Barnaby had loosed his fingers on the axe. They weren’t cheering for him, however, as he looked over scarcely a second after the axe left his grip. Whilst spilling nearly the entirety of his ale, Thorgud had indeed struck the target, although it had bounced high into the air, rather than stick true, it was all he needed to win. Feeling defeated, Barnaby let out a huge sigh and lifted his ale to consume the rest of the contents, as were the rules. Thorgud had spun around after throwing, knowing that whether his blade had stuck or not, he had won. Thrusting his mug high above his head he cheered loudly, meeting the enthralled cries of the onlookers. Barnaby, however did not join the cheering, as mid gulp, he caught the glint of something metallic in the air above the clearing. He didn’t need to blink hard or refocus his gaze, as he knew exactly what he was looking at.
With the such force such a throw, Barnaby realized that his opponent’s axe had bounced off the top of the wooden target and flown back through the air and toward the unassuming victor. With nothing more than a thought, Barnaby dropped his tankard and rushed forward toward Thorgud, seeing his opponent with his back turned, he knew that he wouldn’t see it coming. In less than a second, he had run the several foot gap between the two of them, and in a rush of hushed silence and stunned onlookers, he snatched the axe out of midair, scarcely a moment before it would have embedded itself in Thorgud’s head. The entire crowd was quiet, the music had stopped, and Thorgud’s slowly turned around with his ale mug to his lips. Even the strongly drunk Ulven noticed that Barnaby had indeed saved his life. Staring at the axe that Barnaby still held aloft, only inches from his head, Thorgud with eyes wide and bouncing glazed flickers of torchlit fire across, looked at his opponent, back to the axe, back to Barnaby, and with one motion raised his mug as high as he could, and cheered loudly.
The rest of the crowd joined in exultation, clashing tankards and sending foamy sloshes of ale in every direction. Barnaby slowly lowered the axe, and let out a breath of relief as Thorgud slapped him soundly on the shoulder.
“THAT WASHH MIGHTY FINE O YOU, Human!” He exclaimed, drinking the last of his ale.
“Don’t mention it”. Barnaby was able to stammer out, as he let the axe fall to the ground at his feet, kicking up little flecks of mud onto his feet. Shaking, he lifted the rest of his ale to his lips and drank in almost an apparent ease. As he consumed the last of his mug, he could hear the Ulven man announcing the event in the background, dully faded from the hours of drinking he had done. Hearing Thorgud proclaimed the winner, yet again, as the final targets were brought forward and given to the victor. Lowering his empty mug, he could see his own target handed off to another Ulven man to be brought away, and there sticking resolutely to the dead center of his own wooden adversary, was his axe.
The cool water rushed around his ears, as he darted in and out of consciousness. The noises of the crowd subdued by the foot of cold, murky water above his head. Taking fleeting opportunities to open his eyes before being plunged once again, he could see his opponent’s legs flailing wildly within his own pool of water. Moments before his body hit the two foot deep liquid, Barnaby could hear the Ulven man announcing “round two” and the joyous crowd rambunctiously clashing mugs of ale sending it in all directions. He felt almost at ease under the cold water, as the fingers of two immensely strong Ulven men held him beneath the surface. This was yet another challenge, only this one seemed to be considerably more dangerous. Moments passed by through a series of darkness and bright light, torches that could be seen from under the water held aloft and lanterns hanging in one of the trees within the open courtyard danced above him. Closing his eyes to the stinging of the murky water tha mixed with both mud and ale, he kept quietly still and reserved his breath. Seconds later, he was pulled upward for a second time.
The cool wind met his soaked skin, as he was lifted out of the shallow, muddy pit that contained the watery challenge. Taking in a deep, prolonged breath, he could feel his burning lungs fill with the night time air. He heard a similar, labored breath to his immediate left, and after wiping his eyes of the lingering water, he could make out the hazy shapes of Thorgud being hoisted out of his own pool. He looked to be much worse for wear, however, with a coating of fresh vomit covering his bulbous torso. Wiping his face, his opponent coughed several times, and both challengers had a fresh mug of ale shoved ceremoniously into their arms. With hardly a second to breath, the crowd once again shouted “Skolgarb” in unison, which indicated to Barnaby the rules-dictated need to drink his mug of ale. He had lost track countless drinks ago and brought the fresh cup to his lips. At this point the once tasty, honey tinged flavor of fermented barley now tasted sour and rancid. He wasn’t sure if it was because the ale had sat now, for several hours, in the warm evening or if the sheer quantity had caused the taste to wane. But, he drank it nonetheless, and surprising to even him, in one swallow.
The crowd cheered one again in a clamor, as the Ulven man proclaimed that both challenges were still conscious and kicking. Barnaby was soon to move to the final round. Same as the previous two, he would be once again held tightly by the two large Ulven men at his side, and forced under the cold water for an extended period of time. Apparently, as it was told to him and Thorgud, this was a time honored tradition with the Skolgarb where the cold water reflected the harsh winters and icy baths that the Ulven would have to endure, paying tribute to the Great Wolf’s provisions during times of struggle. The submersion would be prolonged to induce the subject in a state of immense fear of death with the rising out of the depths to symbolize being pulled out of the brink of darkness by the Great Wolf. The drinking was to celebrate the new beginnings of Spring and raising of glasses to bring gratitude to their god.
Barnaby didn’t understand it beyond face level. This was a challenge, and one, surprising even himself, he was able to handle. Surely, he had blacked out several times while under water, he attributed that mostly to the intense amount of alcohol he had consumed since setting foot in the quiet, little farming town. There was a certain, humble attractiveness to it however. Here were a people who had survived harsh weather, forged their way, fought battles, grown crops, and created generations of Ulven who all held tightly to the cultural beliefs they started years ago. These challenges were homages to that way of life and with respect, honoring the struggles their ancestors went through. A small part of him felt lucky, in a way, to be a part of it. The moment however was ruined, after he wiped his eyes again of the muddy waters, and heard the drone of the Ulven man proclaiming that the third and final round was about to begin.
Barnaby looked to his left and saw both the Chief and Brenna sitting in their respective seats, barely hugging the edges with their backsides. This apparently was as much a rush for them, as it was for the onlookers drinking feverishly and cheering on the challengers. Focusing closer, he could see Thorgud nodding his head as one of the two Ulven men gave him a few slaps and words of encouragement. Barnaby couldn’t hear the words being given to his opponent, but he could tell that the combatant didn’t appear to be listening. Taking a deep breath, he nodded his readiness to the announcing Ulven and saw barely a second before colliding with the water, the feet of Thorgud kicking up in the air, as his opponent was pushed, likewise, into his own icy pool.
The air within his lungs burned with an intensity he never felt. Every ounce of his being hurt. His chest, his head, his eyes from the stinging, ale-soaked muddy water that surrounded his upper body. Tinges of the cold, damp environment penetrated his entire body, and he felt nothing but cold chills run down his limbs. Darkness once again took him as he fought with his mind to stay awake. He had to win this one. It wasn’t an option. If there are only four challenges, he needed to at least win the last two, as Thorgud had bested him in the first half of the event. He could feel fingers going numb and his legs begin to sting and tingle. This is it. He’s dying. He thrashed his limbs for the first time in his watery grave. The men holding him down gave him no quarter, as he could feel the last of his remaining energy sapping away in the dark, murky depths. He could vaguely hear a commotion coming from above the surface, as he opened his eyes again to somehow lend strength against the two Ulven holding him under. Flickers of light from the torches and lanterns were interrupted by long, rushed shadows that danced across his face. There was distinct, and rapid movement happening above him, but right now, his only focus was getting out of this water. But yet, deep within himself, he felt control slowly slipping away. His erratic movements of his joints and limbs subdued. His thrashing went from hasty and eccentric to little jolts of movement. The darkness was closing in around his vision, and the lights above him swirling with the shadows of forms and bodies faded away. Haziness plagued his mind, as the black crept into the corners of his peripheral. This was it. He had to let go. With the last little dim flicker of torchlight escaping his vision, he closed his eyes and allowed the icy water to claim his soul. Breathing out his last remaining bit of air, he could feel his throat fill with the tangy, sweetness of water and ale, as his legs finally ceased kicking and everything faded to final darkness.
Just then, the hands of the Ulven man pulled him upward. As his face crested the sharp, icy surface, all registered was complete silence. Nothing stirred. No sounds came from the surrounding crowds, and the wind didn’t register across his chilled skin. But as suddenly as he emerged, like a panicked child birthed anew, his body heaved hard, and he inhaled with all he had. A painful and violent burst of air filled his lungs, as he let loose a raspy, but loud gasp.
“SKOLGARB!!!!” The crowd blew up with an intensity that shook the clearing. His ears stung painfully with the shouting and revelry that vibrated his head. Instinctively, he ran his fingers across his face, smearing the hours worth of mud and sweat that had accumulated. Ridding his eyes of the excess, putrid water, he focused his vision to his left, at the sound of violent vomiting. Several men were standing over Thorgud who knelt with cascades of ale and water escaping his mouth. They were slapping his back and assisting him in ridding his lungs of the water that had rendered him entirely unconscious while submerged. It had been several seconds of hazy, flowing lights and sounds, as the crowd cheered loudly and ale was consumed, once again in a flurry of clanging steins and horns.
“The Human wins the event!” He could hear the Ulven man proclaiming. Looking up and beyond his recuperating opponent, he could see the chief standing with his mug high in the air and spinning to join the crowd in cheering. Also standing, but staring intently with what Barnaby would consider “concern” was Brenna, who looked to have nearly fallen out of her chair, when she saw that Barnaby had taken a long breath of air. Seeing he was alive, she noticed their eyes connect and quickly averted her gaze, once again taking her seat. The two Ulven men who held him under and subsequently brought him back up, lifted Barnaby to his feet and thrust another mug of ale into his hands. Not fully aware of the situation, he quickly lifted it to his lips to drink, anticipating either yet another immediate bath in the muddy water or the need to complete another task. But, before he could, he felt a firm, but gentle hand on his arm, keeping him from consuming his ale. Turning, he could see a smiling Ulven man resting a large hand on both his arm and shoulder.
“Easy, you won. Take a minute, human. Save your stomach for the final challenge”.
Mug after mug lay about on the slimy, torch lit table before him. Some turned over on their sides with dribbles falling off the table, others standing tall and statuesque, as reminders of the contents he had consumed. The night had pressed deep into the evening, if the hour would normally beacon people home, it didn’t for this Ulven village. More than ever before, people gathered around the clearing and platform upon which the two competitors sat. Before, the two had been on the ground or amidst the rest of the villagers, but now, as the grand finale to the Skolgarb, Barnaby and Thorgud say opposite eachother at a thick, oak table, relentlessly covered in sticky ale and sweat. Glaring at his opponent through narrowing and hazy eyes, Barnaby, grabbed the latest mug of beer set before him and brought it to his lips.
He coughed aggressively several times, and the audience rose in anticipation of him vomiting it all up. However, stifling that very feeling, he suppressed the urge to hurl, and emptied the tall mug down his gullet. With a cascade of both cheers and groans, the gathering echoed into the last, crisp evening, bouncing the trees with their voices. The chieftain could be seen, seated barely 10ft away from the two, on the same elevated platform. The combatants were competing practically at his feet, downing mug after mug of the frothy ale. Beside him, Brenna was on the edge of her own seat, staring intently at the human, waiting for him to give in, give up, or, possibly, become the victor. Seeing her out of the corner of his eye, Barnaby managed a slight smirk in her direction, and slammed the empty cup on the table, sending the others rattling and clattering in every direction. The audience again broke out in exuberant cheering, stamping their feet and shouting “Skolgarb” at random intervals. The night was ripe with smells and excitement.
Thorgud squinted through his red hair and blurry vision at the human seated opposite him. The man had downed yet another mug of the thick ale, and he could barely make out the faintest smile across his face. Who was this man? Clearly, he had met his match against the drink. This “Barnaby” proved to be a worthy adversary in the Skolgarb, and thought it pleased him greatly to experience yet another valued cultural tradition, to lose to a human at such a task seemed implausible. He winced hard, as he brought his most recent ale to his mouth. The taste of fermented barley and honey had long since passed and replacing it was an arid, putrid burning sensation of too much alcohol. The off-putting smell lingered in his thick mustache, as the dribbles of ale trickled down his mouth into his beard, and down his immense belly. It was sickening to drink and smell, but barely 9 ales in, he was falling behind in the last competition.
The crowd erupted once more as Thorgud slammed his mug on the table, again sending random flicks of booze and spit in all directions. No sooner than he had, a few Ulven females were ushered forward to refill his and Barnaby’s mug. His constitution was wearing thin. He could feel the welcoming grip of sleep closing in around his senses, as he fought with all his might to keep his head up. He could tell that Barnaby was too struggling to remain conscious. The cheers had dimmed within his ears to a dull roar, and he could no longer make out discernable noise around him. The waves of hands thrust into the air in applause and laughter became a hazy, distant gleam of color. The torches no longer illuminated faces, but swirling mists of noses, mouths, and eyes. His shoulders felt heavy, almost to the point of collapse, as if he had been carrying a burden for so long. Looking across the table, he could see Barnaby’s head take several uncontrolled tilts forward. If he could only time it longer than his opponent. As long as he passed out after Barnaby, he would win. The end was inevitable to him. He was going to fall unconscious, he had no doubt. Then, as he lifted the mug to his face, in a blurry haze at arm’s length, he saw the face of Barnaby disappear in a shadow as it collided with the table.
“At last…” he thought to himself, and he let himself fall into slumber backwards in his chair.
The pain rushed to Barnaby’s face, as his nose collided with the heavy, oaken table. He immediately lifted his head and tasted blood. The coppery flavor touched his lips and ran down into the depths of his dark beard. At some point, he must have passed out, as he didn’t remember hitting the table, but clearly, it had happened. Looking up, with watery eyes, he saw in a glimmer of hazy, alcohol induced stupor, a smiling Thorgud leaning heavily backward in his chair, only to topple further, off the platform, into the sticky mud below. Unable to fully register what had happened, Barnaby found himself clutching his still bleeding nose and now, ringing ears, as the crowd exploded in a fit of cheering and shouting.
With almost an unearthly rumbling, the ground shook with the many feet of Ulven men and women, running forward and lifting the unconscious body of Thorgud from the ale-infused dirt at the foot of the platform. Hoisting him to a pseudo-standing position, many men carried him off, while the rest of the crowd stormed the platform and laid hands all about Barnaby. He barely had a moment to fully comprehend the situation, before being violently pulled from his seat, and lifted above the chanting Ulven crowd, being jostled to and fro in a jerking manner. Begging urgently for the Ulvens to stop, he pleaded while holding his stomach. But to no avail, as if an unleashed fountain, a day’s worth of ale spilled out of his mouth and nose, covering the cheering crowd beneath him. Unphased, however, they continued to lift and toss him upward, shouting “Skolgarb” at the top of their voices. Moments later, he could feel the dark hand of sleep surround his eyes, as they began to feel unbearably heavy.
“At least I’m not drowning…” he muttered to himself through his acid filled lips, as he let the night take his senses.
Chapter 5 – New Friends and Foes
The sound of birds chirping woke him in a confused haze. The bright, glaring sun burned down at him angrily, as an immense weight rested upon his neck. He felt almost as if being choked by that same weight, at the same time. Lifting his head, he found he was unable to move even his shoulders, and slowly opening his eyes to the intense morning rays, he squirted, confused, to his left. There, sitting in a wooden hole, lay his unmoving hand.
Panic filled his senses, in a fight or flight, and jerked his head backward, again finding himself unable to move more than an inch. He had noticed, however, that the pressure on his throat had subsided, and trying to bring his right hand toward his aching neck, he found it too was unable to move. Turning his frustrated gaze to the other side, he noticed the clenched fingers and wrist of his right hand also resting within a wooden hole. Several moments passed in what felt and eternity, as his hungover sense attempted to rationalize his surroundings. Wooden hole, both hands, neck…
“I’m in a stockade…” he whispered, turning his head in both directions. Flexing the fingers on his left hand, he reassured himself that his limb was, indeed, intact. His legs were free behind him, as was his back end, and shooting pain could be felt as he put more pressure on his knees to steady his balance. Angrily, he twisted his head side to side, looking for some type of response to his predicament. A few moments later, he heard a soft chuckle coming from behind him, and craning his neck in that direction, Barnaby could hear Brenna approaching.
“Well, it appears that you lost, human”.
“What do you mean *ugh* I lost”, Barnaby responded with a frustrated groan.
“You passed out before Thorgud. He managed to hang on the mere second that your face collided, rather comically, I might add, with the table. Because you hit the table first, you lost.” Brenna responded, now circling around the front of the grisled and tired Barnaby. He could see her freshly washed face of all the muck she had accumulated from their trek through the woods. In the morning light, she looked rather beautiful, with large, solo braids pushed back over her ears. For the first time, he could tell she smiled and almost felt welcoming.
“Yeah, but I woke up again, and he STAYED out”, Barnaby argued, squinting in the harsh glare of the sun at his again captor. “The rules…” he trailed off.
“The rules,” Interrupted Brenna who was losing her warm smile as her brow furrowed. “The rules state whoever passed out first. Plain and simple. Be grateful the Clanleader found you so entertaining, otherwise, you’d either have fresh welts across your back and already marched out of the village”.
“The Clanle…” Barnaby started looking up at Brenna with a confused look. Sensins his inability to grasp what happened, she filled him in.
“Because of how you handled yourself in the axe throw and the water dunk, the crowd, at the request of the Clanleader, saw how popular you were, and decided that a night in the stockade was a suitable punishment. It seems you grew on him, outsider”.
Barnaby couldn’t quite understand fully what Brenna was saying, but nodding to her explanation, he relaxed his shoulders and craned his neck to relieve a pain that had grown over the night. After adjusting his aching throat against the wooden hole, he could feel the clicking of a metal lock. Looking toward the sound, he noticed a large Ulven man unclasping the chain that held the stockade in place, then with a grunt, he lifted the immense hunk of oak from around Barnaby’s shoulders.
“It appears, you’ve served your sentence, human!” The man exclaimed with a strangely, joyous enthusiasm. Adjusting his vision, Barnaby could now see Thorgud standing over him, holding out a hand to lift him to his feet. Taking it, he could feel the night’s worth of aches and pains rush down his back and to his hips, as the large Ulven hoisted him partly onto his own shoulder, bearing much of his weight.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve met my match against the drink.” Thorgud laughed, giggling his own immense girth, while jostling the aching body of Barnaby. Somehow this man had consumed enough ale to kill several score mules, but seemed unphased in the morning light. Had he really slept it off already? Barnaby still felt violently ill from the several hours of heavy drinking. “Though, them pitting you against me in the Skolgarb was punishment enough, and almost guaranteed your loss”.
“Yeah, that was a blast..” Barnaby stammered, holding yet again another volley of rancid ale and stomach acid.
“I’m glad you thought so, cause now, you gotta meet the Chief.”
Barnaby’s eyes jerked toward Thorgud, as the three, including a quietly walking Brenna, ambled slowly toward the long house that stood in the clearing.
“Yup, sounds like your performance last night seemed to redeem some of your transgressions”.
The three stopped at the door of the large building that housed the Clanleader’s presence. Before knocking, however, Thorgud turned toward Barnaby, lifting him off his weight, and squared the human’s shoulders facing himself.
“I want to thank you for saving my life. Don’t think I’ve forgotten about it”.
Before Barnaby could answer, the door flung open, and a wave of scents came flowing outward from the long house. The smell of cooking meat and coffee assaulted his senses, as Thorgud turned him toward the building, and shoved him inside. Closing the door loudly behind him.
Standing in the dimly lit interior of the Longhouse, Barnaby could barely make out the silhouette of the Chieftain, leaning his back against the far right wall, shoving a mound of bacon and eggs into his face. The small that wafted toward him similarly filled his stomach with both yearning and loathing, as his continued drunken state tried to keep up with his surroundings. The hazy inside hardly had light, but in the brisk morning, felt warm, as the building absorbed the early sun’s rays and comforted those inside. The table next to him had a plate covered in food along with a steaming mug of what he believed to be coffee.
“Sit, outsider. Eat and get some coffee. After last night, you’ll need it.” The Clanleader Hoskuld said in between bites, not even stopping to make eye contact. Barnaby, hastily, albeit still wobbly, grabbed the back of the chair and lowered his aching self into the seat. The scents coming from the plate lured him closer, as he steadied his hands and grabbed at a fork to begin spearing the bacon. It had been many, many days since his last full meal. Apart from the helmet full of apples, he couldn’t remember the last actual plate of food he had consumed, and the still sizzling bacon and eggs before him led him to not care. Grasping the very crude-looking fork, he stabbed it into the pile of bacon and without a second thought, brought the pile of meat to his mouth.
“So… you wish to bed Brenna, do you?”
Barnaby coughed and hacked up little pieces of the hot bacon. Splattering the table with flecks of meat, he wiped his face and beard and shot a panicked look toward the Clanleader, who was now leaning backward in his chair, bellowing with laughter.
“I…er… well umm…” Barnaby stammered, attempting to regather any composure he had.
“I only jest, outsider. Not all Ulven are so uptight”, Hoskuld replied, wiping his eyes and standing to his feet. To the seated Barnaby, the man felt like a giant, towering over him and casting a long, dark shadow across the one room, Longhouse. “Besides, she would eat you alive”.
“I don’t doubt it”.
“You made quite an impression last night, Human.” The Clanleader grabbed the chair opposite Barnaby’s table and dragging it close, with the sound of wood on wood scraping across the floor, he set down and stared intently at Barnaby.
“It appears so.” Barnaby replied, taking a long, careful sip of the coffee. The slightly burnt, but pleasing aroma lifted into his nose and carried him away briefly. Almost as if reawakening a deep memory, he knew of coffee. And bacon. And of eggs. But their flavor still was foreign to him. Reliving each moment, as he took bite after bite and sip after sip, he let the sensations bring him to places each time. The Clanleader sat in silence as Barnaby relished each and every mouthful to an inhuman extent. Had this many truly never eaten before in his life? The moments had passed Barnaby in a flash, as he found himself coughing and sputtering coffee once more in his fervor to consume as much as possible. Chuckling, Hoskuld slid a thick napkin across the table to the human.
“You are an interesting one, outsider.” The Cleanleader stated, leaning back in his chair once more with a smirk. Barnaby, stopped his coughing and looked up, wiping his face and beard with the napkin. The smell of cotton fields and linen welcomed him, as he brushed little flecks of meat and liquid away from his tired face. The man across from him sat, smiling and silent. Barnaby didn’t know Ulven from Human, but he welcomed the hospitality, all the same. “You come in here, desecrating our holy ground, compete the Skolgarb (the sound of a phantom muffled “Skolgarb” echoed from the outside of the building), and now you sit here in the Clanleader’s private Longhouse, eating his breakfast. Most Ulven clans would have had you flayed and quartered on sight.”
Barnaby didn’t move, but stared carefully at the Chief. Was this a threat? Should he stand and run? His shackles had been removed after leaving the stockade, he could grab the nearest pole or weapon and fight his way out. However, just then, he noticed the corners of Hoskuld’s mouth twitch upward in a revealing smile.
“AHAHAHA, the look on your face, outsider!” The man burst out into more laughter, holding his chest and leaning backward, face to the roof. Several moments passed in confusion for Barnaby, as the man stifled his remaining chuckles. “You make this too easy. You are obviously safe from punishment, as your strength in the Skolgarb was apparent. After your performance, not to mention you saving the life of Thorgud, you may walk Goldenfield lands freely and with honor.”
“So, the stockade?”
“Well, you DID break one of our most sacred laws and lose the Skolgarb.”
“So!” The Clanleader slammed his hands upon the table, sending the silverware clattering to the floor, all but the one being used by Barnaby to shovel the remaining pieces of bacon and egg into his face. “Where are you going, and how can we help?”
“I…don’t know” Barnaby replied, placing the fork back upon the table, and draining the rest of his coffee. “I’m honestly not even sure where I am. I know you mentioned Goldenfield, which, as I’ve surmised, is an Ulven clan.”
“Correct so far”.
“But, beyond that, I woke up with no memory of anything. Even the food before me… I know WHAT it was… but couldn’t remember how it tasted.”
“Many would consider that a blessing to be able to experience life anew”
Barnaby sat in silence for a moment. He hadn’t thought of that. While he looked at his burden as cumbersome and annoying, and while he would like nothing more than to remember who he was, beyond a name scrawled within his armor, the concept of old things becoming new was a fascinating perspective.
“I think…” Barnaby began, looking the Clanleader in the eyes. “I would like to know from where I came, why I woke up in that field, and why I am wearing armor”.
“Oh that reminds me!” Hoskuld quickly shouted, pounding a hand upon the table once more, now sending Barnaby’s remaining fork to the floor. Standing, he walked to the other end of the room to a large bed near the edge of his bed. Lifting it, he carried it over and dropped it at Barnaby’s feet with a loud clatter.
“Your armor, outsider.” The Chieftain stated, placing a hand on his hip and picking at some breakfast within his teeth. “My armorers fixed it up for you and uhh… cleaned it.” Barnaby blushed slightly, as he leaned over to undo the tie at the top of the bag.
“I won’t ask questions. Ok I will. What in the Great Wolf’s name happened?”
“How many did you eat?!?”
“All of them.”
Hoskuld once again burst out into laughter, as Barnaby caught himself smiling, leaning upward back into his chair.
The next several days passed quickly in the Ulven clan, as Barnaby made friends with many locals and was escorted around by Brenna. Their moments together, he appreciated greatly. This strong, statuesque woman who would smite him in a single blow made him feel comfortable and safe, something that felt very foreign to him. Yet, in a childlike way, oddly familiar.
Standing on the outside of the North gate of Goldenfield proper, the two stood staring into the morning sun. Before them lay field upon field of lush, yellow barley and grain, dancing softly in the early breeze.
“Where will you go, outsi…er… Barnaby” Brenna asked, not making eye contact.
It had been many years since she connected with anyone on such a friendly level, let alone a human.
“Honestly, I don’t know.”
Brenna turned and stared into Barnaby’s deep blue eyes. This man whom she had accosted in the holy pool only days before now stood before her, an equal. Someone she could rely upon. In her own mind, her imagination danced upon thoughts of many years in the future, with them side by side. The mere thought caused a jump in her chest, but brought a furrow to her brow. Turning away from Barnaby, she looked back Northward.
“Well, you best be on.”
Barnaby could sense the frustration his departure was causing. In just a few days, they had become some semblance of friends.
“Brenna…” he stated, holding an arm outstretched in comfort. She turned toward him pretending to look through a bag for something that didn’t exist, still not lifting her gaze.
“The day gets hottest at noon, so you’ll want to stay close to the trees to the West. We are near the border of Spiritclaw and north of them is Steinjotunn. They are mostly friendly but not like Goldenfield. You’ll want to…” She trailed off, as she could feel the arms of Barnaby wrap themselves around her. Despite the presence of steel, she sensed the warmth that came with the hug from the Human.
“I’ll come back, you know” Barnaby stated, burying his face into her deep brown hair. He could once again pick up the scent of honey and wheat emanating from her. He stood there for several seconds simply holding her, before he could feel her own arms wrap around his midsection.
“You better…” She started quietly.
As Barnaby walked away, his pack upon his shoulder, leading a mule, he looked up toward the brightly shining sun. His days in Goldenfield had started harshly, but ended in peaceful bliss. He had met the Clanleader, shared his table, and been welcomed by the hard working people that both jeered and cheered him on within the Skolgarb. His stomach lurched slightly at the thought. And beyond all that, turning slightly to look back toward the immense gate through which he had just walked. He saw the figure of Brenna standing there smiling and waving her hand, he met his first real friend.
Before Barnaby lay numerous open fields and a long line of outposts as far as he could see. Almost as if an invisible wall lay before him, the Shield of Mardrun, as locals and travelers had told him, marked a barrier that protected the civilized portions of Mardrun from the Dirge Swamp. Ominous in more than name, he could scarcely make out the dark atmosphere and lingered far beyond the horizon. A stark contrast to the beautiful lands of Goldenfield, this place, with the Great Forest to his back and the nighttime screams and screeching within it, harkened many battles and much strife.
The long road he had been traveling met with him many encounters during his journey Northward. Brenna has hardly said goodbye, before he found himself moving through four separate Ulven clans’ territories, some more hostile than others. Spiritclaw had been the friendliest, and his encounters there were nothing more than learned Ulvens meeting him on the road and talking about their own journeys to self enlightenment and culture. Beyond them was Steinjotunn. An interesting group of people who did not take kindly to his story of the sacred pond he had desecrated. In fact, many nearby that heard the story, were quite offended despite being told that Goldenfield had forgiven him. He quickly learned that he didn’t need to repeat his story to further travelers.
North of Steinjotunn was Axehound, full of proud, strong Ulven who spoke highly of their history of warriors and battles. On multiple occasions, he found himself interrogated on from which direction he had come, either North or South. Unsure of why, at the time, he spoke truthfully and told them that he had spent time in Goldenfield and wished to continue his travels further North. Hearing this, he received several words of caution about disguising any relations with Ulven, specifically Axehounds. Still foreign to their words, Barnaby nodded and simply continued his journey. Reaching Whiteoak, he soon learned why. The rivalry and animosity held by Whiteoak against Axehound was far spread and widely held. He was asked multiple times of his origins and why he went through the Southern border. It took more than several attempts to convince the Whiteoak clan that he held no allegiances to anyone, and after several scuffles in local “taverns”, he decided it was time to learn this clan at day break.
Chapter 6 – Onsallas
The long road he traveled led to a rather disheveled looking town just past the shield. With towering walls dotted with many soldiers holding bows and spears, he could tell that this land was significantly more hostile than the ones to the south. With that realization came feelings of longing to be back within the comfort of Goldenfield. Several groups of travelers and armed men walked past him as he trudged northward toward the town, which as he neared, looked less of a city and more of multiple outposts jammed together with nails and boards. Several signs nearby warned of dangerous terrain and encounters up ahead, Mordok and “The Dirge” being among the most mentioned items. He had heard these terms several times in his travels, with many Ulven and Human alike telling tales of the Great Forest, the Dirge Swamp, and the swarms of Mordok that lived within both.
It only took an hour for him to reach the gate, as it was approaching mid afternoon. The warmest parts of the day had passed, and evening was slowly creeping in, though the sky held a dark, murky gray that seemed to rest at all hours. Reaching the gate, he was addressed by a handful of soldiers with hands on their weapons.
“State your business in Onsallas”.
“Oh, so THIS is Onsallas.” He replied, looking around the rather makeshift walls and ramparts that encircled the village.
“Yes. What do you want, traveler”, one of the guards stepped forward. He seemed to carry with him a bit more weight to his demeanor. While not outwardly hostile, he had a defiant air about him that put Barnaby on edge.
“Really, I just want a meal. I haven’t eaten since yesterday” He replied, holding his hand to his grumbling stomach.
“Do you have business here or beyond the Shield?”
“Not particularly. This is just the next stop on my journey.”
“Then stay the night, then be on your way. We don’t have time for interlopers”.
With that, the man turned and waved a hand at the other guards. The group dispersed, resuming their roles of protecting the gate, while another shouted an indistinguishable order to someone at the top of the rampart. Several moments later, the large gate opened, and Barnaby continued into Onsallas.
The atmosphere within the tavern was filled with tense glares and hushed tones. As he sat, eating some muddled porridge and stale bread, he could feel the strain of multiple eyes upon his back. Something about this town just felt off to Barnaby, but he couldn’t place it. Almost as if there was a looming hatred toward either race within just the confines of this room, and every Ulven eye was forcibly trying to intimidate Barnaby. Looking about, he caught the glare of an immense Ulven man seated in the corner. The man’s eyes furrowed as he met his stare, and Barnaby quickly shifted his gaze back toward his lukewarm meal. Seconds later, he could hear a table being scooted across the floor, and a chair clattering backward, followed by loud stomps coming his way.
“You there. Human.” He heard coming from behind him to his right. He tensed his shoulders and continued eating. Whatever the Ulven wanted, he wasn’t interested, and he certainly didn’t feel that it was a welcome party.
“Hey! I’m talking to you!” The table suddenly lurched away from Barnaby’s reach, as he could see a brief moment of an armored foot kick the rickety table.
“Can’t I just eat my food and go to bed?” Barnaby asked, sighing and looking up at the Ulven. He hadn’t anticipated an entire group of Ulven standing above him, however, and he found himself gulping in surprise.
“Tell us… “The man started looking both at Barnaby and at his surrounding Ulven. “Who won the honor duel?”
“The what now?”
Clearly this wasn’t the answer that was expected, and Barnaby found himself lifted out of his chair in one quick motion and pinned against the wall behind him. Several others in the tavern had now stood to their feet. Some smiling, others scowling, with several guards rushing in to see what the commotion was all about.
“The HONOR duel. Say it was a human who won. Say it.” The man held Barnaby harshly by his chest plate against the wall.
“Umm… a human…won?” No sooner had he answered, than an uproar of angry Ulven echoed throughout the room. Barnaby could see several human guards looking dejected, as if they anticipated what was coming next.
“Outside. Now”. The Ulven man let go of Barnaby and shoved him toward the door. Still unsure of what was happening, he turned and began walking, stooping to pick his hammer and shield up off the floor before continuing. Several of the Ulven exchanged glances, not having realized that the human they had accosted carried such large equipment. Many nearby human guards attempted to dissuade the nearby Ulven men, but no heed was paid their way. Barnaby could barely make out anything intelligible that was happening behind him, and walked out the front door.
The rain had begun to fall that evening, with the pittering of raindrops falling on his armor. Behind him, the swarm of Ulven men ushered him forward with several yelling something loudly at other Ulven nearby. The words “duel” and “honor” came up several times. Barnaby walked into a developing clearing of many people and after clearing the circle, he turned and faced his opponent. Standing there was the same man who had pinned him against the wall, but he carried no weapons.
“Umm.. I assume you’re wanting to fight, but I think you’re missing a few things” Barnaby stated, confused and giving his hammer and shield a slight lift to insinuate his intent. The man smiled briefly then yelled out over his shoulder.
Behind him and through several other men standing in the perimeter of the circle, an even larger Ulven man with yellow eyes emerged from the group, into the clearing. He carried a large, circular shield, and had an axe at his side. A few hushed words were exchanged between the two, before the new Ulven man moved toward the center of the circle.
“So,” Barnaby stated. “You must be Ragnar”.
The man said nothing but lifted his shield with little to no effort, and drew his axe from the ring on his belt. Lifting it above his head, he glared at his opponent, the lanterns and torches flickering off his yellow eyes. Barnaby shrugged and lifted his own shield and hammer. Barely a second later, the Ulven ran across the clearing in an unworldly feat of speed and smashed his axe into Barnaby’s shield, sending a piercing ringing across the circle of people.
The two circled each other, shields raised for several moments, before both lunged into the fray. Axe and hammer collided with steel and wood, sending sparks, pieces of wood, and sweat in every direction. The rain began pounding the two as the minutes wore on, turning the dirt beneath them into a thick paste of mud and footprints. Slamming their weapons into the shields of their opponents, the battle rages for what felt like ages, as the din of battle and steel clanged loudly, hushing the otherwise screaming voices of Ulven and Human alike around them.
Barnaby could feel, with each ringing of metal, bits and pieces of memories flooding his brain.
Standing amidst a raging battle with hundreds on either side, he swung his hammer with fear-inducing vigor, crushing into foes and shields alike. The smell of sulfur and burning flesh assaulted his nose beneath his helmet, as he continued bashing his way across the battlefield. Ulven and Human stood in front of him, fighting faceless dark creatures that uttered unintelligible sounds of panic and anger. Blood soaking into his very undergarments, he caved the skull in of one of these monsters, before slamming his shield into the face of another, sending him careering backward and into the sword of another warrior. Seconds later, he was once again facing this Ulven man in a circle of chanting, rain-soaked onlookers in Onsallas.
The two battled fiercely, each landing several blows that had it not been for armor, would have been devastating. On several occasions, the Ulven slammed his axe into the shoulders and chest of Barnaby. Luckily, the Goldenfield armorers had done a notable job repairing the damaged pieces, leaving Barnaby safe from the blow. Similarly, he slammed his hammer into the Ulven’s back and stomach, leaving the man either hunched forward or backward in attempts to alleviate the pain. Each time, Barnaby backed off and allowed the man to regain his composure. As he did, the chants of the Ulven men nearby subsided slightly.
However, this couldn’t continue much further, as Barnaby found himself running out of breath alongside the Ulven man. The difference was in the size and weight of the weapons. The axe was substantially lighter, and the Ulven wore much less armor, save for chainmail and leather. While the hammer might have fractured a few ribs, the advantage was on his opponent in a battle of endurance. Swinging his hammer forward, he caught the edge of the man’s shield, sending it careening harshly into the muddy ground. In one motion, Barnaby planted his foot on it, holding it in place and as the Ulven attempted to pull it up, Barnaby lifted his hammer for the final blow to the neck of his opponent. Hesitating for a brief moment, he assured himself that rather than strike the head, guaranteeing death, a blow to the lower neck would incapacitate him for several days, but otherwise be nonlethal. The man scowled at Barnaby, and awaited the blow. Before he could deliver it however, a loud horn blew across the village.
Seconds later, with his hammer still raised, Barnaby could see dark silhouettes rushing between buildings, carrying torches and throwing them in doorways, setting structures on fire, while simultaneously slashing at nearby people.
“MORDOK!” Someone yelled loudly, as guards and onlookers alike, drew weapons and began running toward the dark figures in the evening shadows. Barnaby and the Ulven man still stood in place, looking out at the swiftly moving shadows.
However, no sooner had they both stood, ignoring each other and their duel, than a large body collided with them, sending them skidding into the muddy ground. In a haze of confusion and rain-covered eyes, Barnaby felt the large body on top of him reposition, straddling the torso of the fallen man. With a lantern behind him, a bit of light and fire lit up the frame of the body on top of him.
The twisted, gnarled features of the Mordok on his chest gleamed in the fire’s illumination. Blackened skin with warts, pocks, and what even looked like mold growing within the creases and features of the creature hung over him. The Mordok flailed on top of Barnaby for several seconds, swinging wildly at his face. In a flurry of blows, the creature grabbed the helm of Barnaby and yanked it off, tearing the leather strap that held it secured, issuing a jolt of pain. Hurling the helmet aside, the creature straightened up, and reaching a hand behind its back, withdrew a jagged dagger. With guttural screeches, the Mordok lifted the blade and attempted to drive it into the neck of his prey. Barnaby fortunately had his hands free and was able to catch the oncoming grip of the creature moments before the dagger plunged into this exposed throat. With one hand, he held the Mordok’s hand, and with the other, reached up and jammed his gloved thumb into the exposed eye socket and deep into the soft tissue, sending a spurt of blood and ooze down his hand. In a fit of pain and anger, the creature reeled backward, giving Barnaby a moment to shove the Mordok back, kicking him off his chest and torso.
Hastily getting to his feet, he saw the Mordok lying on the ground, convulsing and holding its face. Rushing forward, he brought his boot down as hard as he could muster upon its unprotected neck, feeling the crunch of his weight, cracking the Mordok’s spine. The writhing creature stopped moving seconds later for all but an occasional twitch. Reaching down, he lifted his shield from the muddy flows of rainwater and retrieved his hammer from the depths of an increasingly deep puddle. Giving it a shake, he averted his gaze out toward the myriad of noises and commotion, seeing several more Mordok quickly closing distance upon him.
He was once again standing within the fiery battlefield. This time, the dark figures were no longer faceless shadows, but Mordok. Their gnashing teeth snarling at him, as they swing their own swords, attempting to carve through the lines of advancing humans and Ulven. Lifting his shield to meet the blows of the attackers, he would catch one blade, and swiftly followed up with his hammer, sending lifeless corpses in every direction. Swords and spears lay littered across the battlefield, as fire raged across the open fields. Mordok moved forward, colliding with the shield wall of warriors that defended the plain. With shrieks and screams, the creatures battered against the wood and steel held against them, hacking limbs and throats before being pushed backward into their own ranks. The battle had raged for days and weeks, as the onslaught of Mordoks never ended.
Shaking his head, Barnaby stood again in the cascading rain, the circle of people had broken and spatterings of soldiers and guards could be seen battling the dark figures in the night. At his feet lay three broken and lifeless Mordok, all with skulls caved deep. The flimsy shields these ones had held lay splintered and shattered on the muddy ground being pelted by rain, slowly carrying away the blood upon the boards. Wiping his eyes with the back of his gauntlet, scraping his eyebrow in the process, he adjusted his vision before him, seeing the Ulven from the tavern, along with the man he had fought, laying in the mud, with a Mordok on each. Close together, the two creatures were also attempting to stab the men while they lay in the slop of sweat, blood, and rainy dirt.
Barnaby took no thought and barreled forward, launching himself through the air and collided with the two Mordok, sending all three into a pile of nearby hay and mud. Quickly standing, he stood on the chest of one of the creatures while slamming his hammer down upon the head of the other. He then turned his attention to the one upon which he stood, and dispatched it as well, driving its head deep into the mud with each subsequent swing. When both had ceased moving, he straightened up and turned toward the two Ulven, once again pulling his hammer and shield out of the increasingly thick mud. The man from the tavern had gotten to his feet, wiping clumps of dirt and sweat out of his eyes, while the other had barely made his way to his knees. Moving over, Barnaby outstretched his arm, looking into the bright yellow eyes of the Ulven who had now met his gaze. After a brief moment, the man took his arm and pulled himself to his feet, giving a heavy grunt as he did.
“Maybe next time, you..” Barnaby started, after lifting the Ulven to his feet. The man had barely gotten steady, before lifting his axe above his head and bringing it down quickly toward the shoulder of Barnaby. With a quick motion, he attempted to lift his shield, but before he could, the axe came down and he noticed the Ulven no longer held the weapon. Turning, Barnaby, saw the figure of a Mordok stagger side to side barely 10ft behind him, before slumping backward into the mud, an axe deeply embedded in its forehead.
“Well… I guess that makes us even?” Barnaby said, turning after seeing the other Ulven man pull the blood and mud covered axe out of the Mordok’s face, giving a squelching noise.
“Name Ragnar”. The Ulven man stated in a matter of fact sort of manner.
“No no, the name’s Barnaby”
“NO.” The Ulven said loudly, furrowing his brow and outstretching his arm once more. “Me. Ragnar.”
Barnaby stood staring at the Ulven man before him. Moments before, he had been battling for his life in a pseudo duel to the death, for unknown reasons. The ferocity and determination this man had in him was astounding, having shield skills that rivaled, if not exceeded, his own. On the battlefield, Barnaby would have gladly had his man at his side and fought willingly beside him. Reaching his hand outward, he clasped the inner arm of the Ulven man, smiling and nodding his head. Barely a moment later, Barnaby felt a hand on his shoulder, and turning, he could see the other Ulven man from the tavern standing there. Nodding at him as well, the three gathered their weapons and stormed into the night to attack the remaining waves of Mordok.
The night had shifted in demeanor quickly after the last of the Mordok had been dispatched. Guards were checking on the wounded with healers rushing about, tending to those that had fallen. The pile of slain Mordok had increased dramatically at the gate leaving the village, with the number reaching dozens. Barnaby and Ragnar now sat with the other Ulven men within the same tavern drinking and sharing meat. While not Goldenfield, Barnaby felt a similar feeling of comradery with these new people, after having nearly lost their lives barely hours before. The news was that a band of Mordok had snuck up close to the Northern wall of the village, during the falling rain and night. With everyone’s attention given to the duel in the clearing, no one was paying attention when the Mordok began removing boards along the outerwall, giving them access into the outpost. It had only been moments after that the guards noticed the Mordok piling in and sounded the horn. Sadly, the man who saved them all and alerted the town had been slain merely seconds later.
As the night slowly died down, the evening settled with just a few remaining people in the tavern. Ragnar and Barnaby were among, with them the Ulven men that had initiated the duel seated nearby and drinking.
“So… what does this mean? Are we still enemies?” Barnaby asked Ragnar, while also directing the question toward the other Ulven. The man who had accosted him hours earlier wiped his face and stood. In the new light of the evening, and with substantially less atmosphere of tension, he didn’t look quite as large as Barnaby had initially thought. The Ulven slowly walked over to where the two sat and dropped himself on the bench next to Ragnar.
“You fought with honor and saved not only my life but Ragnar’s as well.” The man stated, grasping the jug of ale and pouring them all a fresh drink. “In doing so, you have satisfied your part in the duel.”
“But Ragnar saved my life, as well” Barnaby stated, taking the outstretched mug from the man.
“Yes, and because he did, he has asserted his honor, as well. You are both deemed worthy in the eyes of the Great Wolf.”
“Well… great!” Barnaby said, lifting his mug into the air, the other Ulven in the tavern matched his actions, and all drank.
“Ragnar, honored to drink with Barnaby.” Ragnar stated, placing his hand upon the arm of Barnaby. “Ragnar, honored to fight with Barnaby.”
The two locked gazes for several seconds, feeling the intensity of their connection. The two had battled ferociously to the death, barely managed to avoid dying at the hands of Mordok, and now shared a meal in the name of honor and respect.
“Barna…er.. I am honored to have fought both against and beside you, Ragnar.”
Ragnar smiled and returned to his meal, taking regular drinks from his mug. As the evening wore on, the two conversed, long after the rest of the tavern’s patrons had gone to bed. They spoke of their stories, their history, and what brought them to Onsallas. Ragnar told Barnaby about this life, his friend Lief and his partner. While Barnaby didn’t have much to contribute regarding his own history, he told Ragnar about how he had woken in the glade with no memory, explaining the lack of knowledge regarding the honor duel, and had gotten drunk off fermented apples and killed a few bandits that attacked him on the road. And how he had swam in the sacred pool of Goldenfield. Ragnar gave several good laughs, but immediately quieted himself, looking about, almost as if embarrassed to have expressed himself.
“What does Barnaby plan to do now?” He asked, giving a big yawn.
“Well, I don’t know. Whatever is north of here looks pretty awful.” Barnaby replied, responding to the contagion, yawning himself, feeling the pressure of his sore bones from battle and late hour. “I might head south along the West side of the Great Forest.”
“Ragner’s family has great history with Clan Shattered Spear.”
“Interesting… what is that”.
“Clan West of Great Forest. Came to aid during Riverhead attack.”
“Well, then that’s where I’ll head next, I suppose.” Barnaby stretched soundly, relieving some pressure in his neck. The evening had worn deep into the early morning at this point. How he was still functioning, he hadn’t a clue but it was clearly time for bed. With a “goodnight” to Ragnar, he scooped up his hammer and shield, tucking his helmet under his arm, and made his way upstairs to his available room. Closing the door behind him, he dropped his equipment with a loud “clunk” and collapsed into the bed, feeling every clump of straw and hay that made up the mattress dig into his back. Adjusting himself, he lay there thinking about the events of the evening, what they meant, and how he planned to proceed from here. Then, as he thought about Ragnar and his friend’s suggestion to head to Shattered Spear, he felt the shadowy grip of sleep pull his eyes down and take control.
The morning went quickly. He was up barely 5 hours later, yet feeling refreshed and invigorated for the day. After polishing his armor and eating breakfast, he loaded his equipment onto a merchant wagon making its way toward Ironmound, with the intent to hop off once he had reached Shattered Spear. With a handshake and a promise, he said farewell to Ragnar, telling him they would meet up once more, Barnaby hopped on the back of the wagon, and waved goodbye to his Ulven companions as the mules jerked the caravan down the dirt road.
Chapter 7 – A New Year’s Family
In a flurry of crisp green, auburn, and harsh white, the year went by as soon as it arrived. He had lived in Shattered Spear for nearly 11 months by this point, and all the odd jobs of laboring, horrid attempts at blacksmithing, and the ventures into the Great Forest had begun to feel mundane and repetitive. Having nothing but gratefulness to the Ironmound family that took him in and allowed him to stay as a “farm hand” for the last year, he expressed his desire to resume his travels and discover more about himself. The oldest son of the Ulven family, Kinnith, had taken a great liking to Barnaby and had shown him the ways of their life, living on a farm, and how to do something as simple as braising a lamb over a pit. In many ways he became like a brother to Barnaby and looked up to him.
“So, where do you think you’ll go,” Kinnith asked, using his razor sharp knife to shear a thick swath of wool off a sheep.
“South again, I imagine. Maybe I’ll make a circle around the Great Forest and work my way towards Goldenfield”.
“Ohhhhh to see Breeennnnaaa?” Kinnith responded chasingly, throwing a clump of wool at Barnaby’s head. Ducking, Barnaby laughed, and resumed sheering his own sheep, who did NOT appreciate the task.
“Among other things. I want to go back to the glade where I awoke. Something there is probably a clue as to where I came from”.
“You still having nightmares?” Kinnith asked, looking worried. For nearly half a year, Barnaby seemed to be experiencing vivid dreams of Mordok attacking a city with a wall of soldiers opposing them. The flashbacks of memory were one thing, but he sought solace in his dreams, and those too, had begun to be flooded with memories. Shaking his head, he smiled, putting Kinnith at ease.
“Nah, not for a while.”
“Well, you know, you could always go stay with our family in Ironmound.” Kinnith suggested, tossed the blanket of wool aside and gave the sheep he shorn a soft pet and treat before ushering it back into the pen with the others.
“Oh yeah! That’s a great idea. Besides, I think my hammer has seen better days”, Barnaby agreed, reaching over and holding up his very tattered hammer. It had not only seen the last year of adventures in Shattered Spear, but the battle at Onsallas, traveling through Ulven territory on the East of the Great Forest, but also whatever led to him waking in the glade without his memory. “It’s about time I get it fixed”.
“I think that thing is beyond fixing,” Kinnith replied laughing. During the last year, he and Barnaby had sparred many times. While he was able to teach Barnaby about the sciences behind cultivating his family’s farm and land, he had learned from his new friend all about combat, defending oneself, and on a few occasions, against Mordok within the Great Forest. “Remember, our family is among the best blacksmiths in Ironmound. I’m sure my grandfather Milik would be willing to help”.
“Well, then, young Kinnith, that is where I shall go”.
Waving goodbye and getting many, many hugs from his Ulven family and neighbors, he began his trek into the heart of Clan Ironmound. He had lived longer in Shattered Spear than he knew anywhere else. Obviously, he had spent the majority of his life somewhere, but Shattered Spear was home. His family there was kind, welcomed him with open arms and treated him with respect. Hearing his stories about his travels and his hardships, the fights with other Ulven at Onsallas, and how he had befriended a kind, but strong headed Warleader in Goldenfield. It was hard to imagine a life anywhere else, but before all this, he had history. History that was not only entirely foreign to him, but out of grasp. If he would learn anything new about where he came from or from what battle he had emerged, it was time to say goodbye and begin his journey anew. Loading his belongings onto the very same mule that had welcomed him a year ago at the Ulven family’s farm, he waved one last time, giving his final hug to his mother who fed him every night and every morning, and started Southward toward the family’s armory in Ironmound.
The long dirt road met with him with little to no encounters. In one incident a few bandits had popped out of the woods, threatening to steal his mule and leave him for dead on the roadside, if he didn’t give them his armor. Minutes later, they themselves were silverless and lying dead in that exact place. In another, at night, a few Mordok from the woods had wandered along the edge of the trees and began attacking a few random camps of people who foolishly slept too close to the canopy of brush. Barnaby would find himself grouping together with more than a few travelers on his way south, for fear that they too would carelessly wander too close to the Great Forest never to be seen again.
But, by and large, Barnaby found the traveling to be quiet and remote. Leaving him alone with his thoughts, he wandered down the road, imagining animals talking to him and filling the day with conversations in his head. Introducing himself as a warrior from…somewhere. He would make speeches about how he would defend the lives of the woodland critters. On several occasions, Barnaby noticed he had daydreamed so much he walked right past important signs leading to his destination. But, it didn’t bother him. Over the last year, he learned that the journey to one’s end is more important than what awaits him on the other end. Once one reaches the end of their journey, all the adventures, trails, tribulations, companions, and stories are finished. But as long as one keeps moving, the adventures never end.
“That was a profound thought, Barnaby”. He told himself, wobbling his head side to side and smiling. He had just walked past yet another sign that noted the direction to the particular part of Ironmound he was attempting to find. Doubling back, he reached the fork and maneuvered down the road that led to his destination. He had been within
Clan Ironmound territory for a few nights, at this point, and several people had stopped him repeatedly asking him about his armor and his travels. They seemed to be more interested in the quality of his steel than the content of his story, as many times, he found his armor being pulled down from the mule with many hands grabbing at his metal in an effort to sell their services for repair.
“Hey, hands off that! Hey! Stop, hey you…leave that alone! Hey!” Barnaby was irately jumping back and forth to the Ulvens grabbing his armor off his mule. Several times, he had to yank it out of their hands for fear they would run off with it. It wasn’t until someone literally pulled the hammer out of his belt ring that he snapped and yelled at the lot. “Get your hands off my stuff!”
The group stopped and stared at him silently, almost surprised by his reaction.
“Look. I’m sorry.” Barnaby stated, holding his brow. “I shouldn’t have yelled”.
“To hell with that, sonny” A voice rang out from the back of the group. Pushing through them, the frame of a short but muscular Ulven man came face to face with Barnaby, while eyeballing the rest of the Ulvens with a narrow gaze. “These folk are vermin. I’m surprised they didn’t jess steal yer armor”.
“Uhh yeah. Who are you?” Barnaby asked, taking a step back. While significantly taller than the Ulven man, he had the feeling this man could throw him around like a bale of hay.
“The name’s Milik, and you must be Barnbaby”, the man stated, holding his arm out in greeting. The other Ulven seemed to recognize the man, as they all, in unison and grumbling, sauntered away out of sight. The road had led Barnaby past several buildings from which all these people seemed to have emerged. Random billows of smoke could be seen coming from several with the sound of clanging metal resuming.
“Barn…what? The name is Barnaby. How do you know me”? Barnaby asked, redirecting his attention back to the Ulven man standing in front of him.
“Right right. A few nights ago, we got a letter by raven about you. Kinnith seemed to think that I’d take you in like a wandering puppy. HA!” Milik stated, holding his belly and forcing a laugh. “He thinks I’ve got a softer heart than I do”.
“Kinnith… you received a letter? How?”
“I jess told you. He sent a letter telling us that one “Barnbaby” was coming by and asked if we’d let’chu stay with us while you “found yer way”. Or whatever the hell that means.”
“Yeah ok, but, also it’s Barnaby, how did you get a letter so soon?”
“Well, you must have taken yer sweet time getting here.” The man stood uncomfortably close to Barnaby. “Well, let’s get a look at’cha”.
Barnaby wasn’t sure what to make of Milik. A forceful, yet determined man who he only just now remembered Kinnith, a young man not too far from his own age, called “grandfather”. Milik couldn’t have been more than 10 years Barnaby’s senior, given his muscular frame. But, despite that, Barnaby could see the years of weathering upon the man’s face. Wrinkles that spoke of years of hard times, gray hairs that hovered above his ears, and a noticeable chip in one of his protruding teeth.
“So! Let’s get’chu settled. I’ve been staying with a friend the last couple of days up here, while you meandered about. My place is about a day’s walk down south. If we leave now, we can get there by nightfall.”
“Oh…ok. Thanks”, Barnaby replied, readjusting the armor on his mule, he led the reins and followed Milik down the road. Buildings became more dense as they traveled, replaced only by the occasional farm building and patch of grain here or there. A far cry from Shattered Spear which had significantly more farms, Ironmound seemed to live up to its name. Rocky outcrops jutted out in every direction at times with the mountains looming in the distance. A much more focused clan territory they prided themselves as craftsmen and armorers, making the strongest steel known to Ulven kind. As they walked, Milk rambled on about Kinnith’s father and mother and how they had left Ironmound territory for Shattered Spear, to get away from the clanging metal. Mentioning that he loved the sound and it helped him sleep at night. In fact, if someone wasn’t making armor into the wee hours of the evening, he found it difficult to fall to slumber.
By the time the sun had set, they approached a two story building near the heart of a larger town. Great billows of smoke poured out into the dark evening sky, lit up by the dozens of torches and lanterns that lay spattered across the multitude of buildings. The sound of hammer on anvils could be heard from every direction, as the Ulven people crafted their way into the forefront of notoriety with their steel. Approaching the building, several children came running into the street and flung themselves and their little arms around the legs of Milik.
“Grandfather is back!” They explained hugging him tightly and dancing about his feet.
“Yeh yeh, I’m back, tell yer mother to get the stew on, we have a guest” He replied, giving them a return hug and a pat on the head.
Moments later, Barnaby is eating the best stew he’d ever had. At least, that he can remember. Full of chunks of beef and lamb, potatoes and carrots straight from the ground, bowl after bowl disappeared in front of him, as he sheepishly asked for more each time. Milik and his daughter sat at the table staring at the stranger with a smile, as he ravenously ate the food. The little girls, Milik’s granddaughters, lay playing with dolls in the living room in front of the fire. Barnaby could tell that they were a loving family and even in between mouthfuls of stew and extra portions of bread, was able to express his appreciation for them letting him stay.
“Easy, sweetie, you’ll choke if you eat any faster” The woman laughed, as Barnaby struggled to eat a piece of bread with a mouthful of stew.
“Sorry…” Barnaby apologized, embarrassed, as he finished his 5th and final bowl of dinner. Leaning back in his chair and wiping his beard for flakes of bread and beef, he stifled a burp and gave his neck a crack. “That was the best stew I’ve ever had, ma’am. Thank you”.
“Well, don’t let my sister hear you say that. She’ll come right down here and force you to eat her own”. She replied, chuckling and taking the bowls and platters away from the table.
“Oh that’s right, you’re Kinniths…Mom’s… sister. Aunt. You’re Kinnith’s aunt”. Barnaby stammered, apparently in a pseudo food stupor, looking for the right words.
“Yes” She laughed, back turned, as she washed the dishes from their late supper. “Kinnith’s mom is my sister. We all grew up here in Ironmound before she married a Shattered Spear farmer and moved up North. We sometimes get up there to visit, and them down here.”
“That Kinnith is a fine boy,” Milik stated, lighting a pipe. “If he and his mother say you’re good people, then you’re welcome in my home”.
“Thank you. Both of you.” Barnaby stated, bowing his head slightly. “The last year has been the only year I remember, but it has been nothing but amazing.”
The two Ulven exchanged glances unsure of what this meant. Barnaby apologized and filled them in his story, beginning with waking in the glade, which seemed of particular interest to Milik, to the moments where he left Shattered Spear.
“And that’s my story. I don’t remember anything before last year, but living in Shattered Spear has been incredible. I’ve learned so much, but..” Barnaby trailed off, looking for the right words, after having spoken for a long time. “I need to know what happened before then. Where I came from. WHO I am…”
Milik and his daughter remained quiet. The girls had been ushered to bed long prior, as Barnaby warned that the story of Onsallas might be more than they could handle. Resuming his story and finishing, after she returned, the three sat in silence for a long time. Milik was finally the one to break the tension, as he tapped the ashen contents of his pipe out in a nearby mug.
“That hammer has seen better days.” He said, gesturing with his eyes toward the hammer that Barnaby had left leaning against the door frame. Looking over his shoulder, he eyed the hammer he had carried with him for the last year. It and his armor had been with him for as long as his memory would allow, and it had gotten him out of some serious fights.
“It has. Sadly, I do not remember those days.” Barnaby lamented, returning his gaze back toward his fidgeting hands upon the table. “It represents a part of my history I don’t remember. One filled with battles and bloodshed. As many times as that hammer has saved my life, it has ended more than I can count.”
“Is that something that bothers yeh?” Milik asked, raising an eyebrow as he refilled his pipe, his daughter snatched the mug he had dumped the sooty ashes into, giving him a slap on the shoulder.
“Yes. I mean, no.. Well..” Barnaby stated, looking up almost expecting the question to have been a trap.
“It’s not a bad thing to have blood on your hands, human. Both mine and my wife’s, may she rest with the Great Wolf, had more than their share of blood on them. Both of my daughters have taken lives.” Barnaby could see out of the corner of his eye the woman tense her shoulders and close her eyes.
“I don’t doubt for long that blood will stain the hands of my sweet, young grand daughters”. Milik said, not making eye contact. The woman stifled a quiet sob and quickly left the room. “It was the blood of the man that killed my son-in-law that stains my daughter’s hands.”
Barnaby sat up straight, eyes focused heavily on both the door the woman had walked through and upon Milik as he puffed his pipe, and stared intently at Barnaby.
“It was barely three years ago. A Syndar man came to our house in the middle of the day. Dead eyes and mumbling to himself, almost…unaware of where he was. Muttering things about magic and the arcane and how “he” had ‘taken it all from me’. I didn’t know at the time who he was referring to, but now we refer to’em as the Red Eye. The man stumbled into the house, murmuring to himself that he lost his connection to the ‘mana stream’ or whatever. It din’t matter. The Syndar grabbed a knife off the table, slicing into his own arms, spilling blood across the floor. My son-in-law, the girls’ father, came out of their room. He and my daughter had just laid them down in a midday slumber. The man took one look at my son-in-law, and dug deeper in to his flesh, covering the nearby table with a crimson flow. My son-in-law bolted across the room and tried to wrestle the knife away from the man, nothing but pure intentions in his heart. Without warning, the man jest plunged that knife all the way up to the hilt into my son-in-law’s chest. My daughter came running out of the room and saw her husband collapse. But, she’s an Ironmound. She knew what to do. She grabbed the fire poker and hit that man ‘cross the head. He fell over, clutching his skull and sobbing. Her husband also fell to the floor, holding his hands around the blade buried deep in his heart. There was no saving him. My daughter took the knife out of her own husband’s chest and stabbed that Syndar man to death. Then, she put the knife in her husband’s hands and made a prayer to the Great Wolf. I thank Him every day that my granddaughters didn’t have to see that.”
Barnaby sat and listened to Milik’s story with bated breath. He didn’t know what to say. Several minutes of silence passed by as the two sat at the lantern-lit table.
“I’m… I’m sorry. “Barnaby stated, unsure of what to say.
“Don’t be. It weren’t yer fault. You weren’t there, you couldn’t have stopped it.” Milik stated, leaning back in his chair to grab the same mug he had tapped his ashes into before. “Things in life happen and they sometimes are the pits. The man who came in here were Syndar, but you won’t find me hating on all of ‘em for that. Just like the Red Eye is a Syndar, you won’t find me bashin’ them pointy ears none.”
“I know, but your daughter..”
“She did what she had to. If she hadn’t, all four of them would be dead, and a mad man would be out and about running around killin’ other people or who knows what else.” Milik said, stopping his pipe tamping activities to make the point. “Jest because you got blood on your hands don’t mean you’re him. You did what you had to do, and you shouldn’t feel bad for it. My daughter saved the lives of her girls.”
Barnaby sat in silence again, listening to the old man. Milik had resumed lighting his pipe, almost seeming completely nonchalant about the whole thing. His matter of fact approach to life was unusual, but refreshing all at once.
“You wanna know how you can make it up to this world?” Milik asked, leaning back in his chair and staring intently at Barnaby.
“Of..of course. I want my life to matter. I want to have purpose.” He stated sitting up straight.
“Then defend the people around you and get your hands dirty. Hands that ain’t covered in blood haven’t protected anyone.”
Barnaby absorbed these words. As if struck by lightning, he felt them echo in his being and extend to the very tips of his fingers.
“Hand me yer hammer”
Barnaby jumped to his feet and grabbed the hammer leaning against the door frame. Hurrying back he put it on the table in front of Milik. Sitting down, he watched as the old man lifted the hammer with ease, twisting it around within his grip and giving the shaft and head several tugs.
“This thing won’t last’cha much longer. You wanna make your life matter? I’ll make you a new one. But’cha gotta promise me somethin’.
Barnaby nearly stood up.
“Of course, anything!”
“Use it to protect my kind. Obviously use it to save the lives of human an Syndar alike, but promise me if you ever meet an Ulven worth a damn, you’ll give your life for ‘em… and die tryin’”.
Several weeks passed by. Barnaby learned much about the blacksmith’s trade. Seeing as he was receiving a new hammer for free, even getting his armor repaired, the least he felt he could do was the grunt work associated with running a forge. Whether that meant priming the fire or making runs for more coal, he gave his all to ensure he not only earned his worth, but brought honor to the Ironmound family that brought him in. As the days quickly passed, he learned much about their culture and heritage. What made them who they are, the mountains where they got their ore, and how the Ulven people saw the colonizers that came into their lands. And almost as soon as Milik had begun, he presented Barnaby with his new hammer.
“There ya go.” he said, holding it out at the kitchen table, after having just finished yet another exceptionally delicious stew dinner. The hammer was absolutely massive. Weighing in significantly heavier than the previous one and sporting beautiful adornment consisting of large brass inlay, heavy iron structural pieces and a heavy, iron wood handle. “You said you wanted a purpose, well there you go.”
“I don’t… I don’t know what to say” Barnaby stated, taking the immense hammer in his hands and holding it in his arms. It was HEAVY. So heavy, in fact, that he had issues controlling its weight in one hand.
“Huh… and here I was thinking that all these weeks at the forge would have made you stronger” Milik stated, lighting his pipe once more. “I guess you’ll have to stick around until you can control that thing.”
Which is exactly what Barnaby did. For a few more weeks after Milik had finished the hammer, Barnaby stayed there in Ironmound at the family’s smithy, wielding the hammer everywhere he went. Using it to break rocks, crush wood, fell trees, anything that he could possibly use it for, he did. As his last hammer was an extension of his arm and being, he wished too, that this hammer would represent who he was as a person and a warrior alike. Becoming known amongst the townsfolk as “that hammer guy” he earned a name for himself, fulfilling any request given to him by the Ulven, taking chores, jobs, and whatever else he might be able to accomplish to fulfill the debt he owed to Milik and the clan that adopted him. Though he lived in Shattered Spear for almost a year, it was Ironmound people that took him in, the same clan that housed him now. Within the fortifications and walls of the stronghold clan, he learned to wield his hammer with respect and honor, bringing pride to the Ironmound clan name.
The day had long since passed morning, as Barnaby, with a belly full of breakfast, stood at the edge of the town in which he had stayed for well over a month.
“You jest stay out of trouble now ya hear?” Milik said as he hoisted Barnaby’s immense shield onto his mule. “And if ya DO get into trouble, make sure you shed some blood along the way”.
“Well, hopefully it won’t come to that” Barnaby stated, smiling at the old Ulven man who had taken him in. “But if I do, I’ll make sure this hammer gets nice and wet.”
“A gross way to put it, but sure.”
“Thanks again, Milik. You’ve taught me a lot these last few weeks, and I’m grateful. Your family in Shattered Spear reflects with honor upon you. You should be proud.”
“I am, boy. I am. They’re good folk, who just chose a terrible place to live. I mean, who chooses sheep over steel?”
Barnaby laughed and slid his hammer into the heavy ring on his belt. After the last month of using it frequently, he almost didn’t feel its weight any more.
“When you gonna go see that Goldenfield girl of yer’s, boy?” Milik asked, giving Barnaby a slight smirk.
“First, she’s not ‘my girl’. I don’t think she’ll ever belong to anyone.” Barnaby laughed, remembering a similar conversation about how Brenna could likely kill any suitor that tried to woo her. “I don’t have any intention of trying to court her. She’s just a wonderful friend. Maybe I’ll see her toward the end of the month. Who knows.”
“Well, women like that don’t come very often. And if she’s anything like my departed wife, may the Great Wolf bless her, you best not miss out.”
“I keep that in mind, my friend.”
With that, Barnaby shook the hand of the Ulven man and made his way East. The sun was still high in the air in front of him as he felt the cool breeze coming down off the mountains. It hadn’t been even a year and a half since he awoke in the glade near Goldenfield, and yet his life already felt one lived with countless adventures. The people he “met” as he illegally bathed in the sacred pool had become his close friends, and even the people with whom he sheared sheep had become his family. Between those two encounters, he had traveled through both hostile and friendly lands, meeting many fellow travelers who sought nothing more than the journey’s experience. Looking onward down the great dirt road ahead, he thanked the Great Wolf for keeping him safe this past year, and after several days travel, and for the first time in over a year, leaving claimed Ulven territory, he asked him for protection once again.
Chapter 8 – The Guardians
It had been several days since he had left the final tips to the Great Wolf Hackles. Leaving the mountains in the distance and veering closer to the Great Forest, he relished the memories he had in Ironmound and the safety and comfort that the mountains provided. But now, as he ventured further into unclaimed territory, he felt an edge of discomfort and solitude. The last year had been surrounded by family and friends, people whom he could see as his own. But, amidst the vast, empty valleys and fields ahead, with the Great Forest looming in the far, far distance, he couldn’t help but feel unabashedly alone. So much so, that he held largely to the center of the road, hoping that a caravan might pass by and provide some type of ease to his isolation.
As he neared the Great Forest, it had become midday. The mountains lay in the far distance, as the miles between took many nights to traverse. Oddly enough, he felt more comfortable within the shadows of the enormous trees, than he did in the empty roads between. As he cleared another immense hill, he could see from the top a large clearing reflecting a brilliant sky above. Seconds later, he realized it wasn’t a sky, but an immense lake that lay nested within the southern confines of the Great Forest. There, on the edge of the body of water, he could make out the shape of some large walls surrounding what appeared to be a small town. At least, from here, it looked like a small town. The first he had seen in many days. Finally, a chance for an actual meal. His last had been in Ironmound, but he could possibly count the jar of salted meat he shared with another traveling Syndar he met closer to the Hackles.
Descending the hill was quick, and with the aid of his mule, he was able to approach the Eastern side of the settlement. Surrounding the walls were a vast swath of fields. Some holding animals, others with grain and barley. He could make out a few farm hands tending to the crops and livestock, while others seemed to almost stand guard. As he approached, he could see movement toward the back of the settlement on the side of the Great Forest, almost as if it were troops training for something. Thinking this was clearly a rather fortified and well armed settlement, he should take caution and be careful.
Edging his way along the outer wall, attempting to be both sneaky, but look inconspicuous, he did notice several farm hands watching his movements and gesturing to the guards that were standing nearby. Several of the men guarding the farmers and their fields made several hand motions toward Barnaby, but he couldn’t quite understand their intent, so he simply waved back. Continuing around the wall, he came upon a gate on the Western side of the settlement. From here, he could see the troops training better. They were more farmers. With pitchforks. Pretending to stab invisible foes, and rather poorly, at that. Whoever was training these men might have been a good leader, but they had their work cut out for them, as this militia was nothing more than simple farmers with pointed sticks. One of them, he could have sworn, was swinging around a loaf of bread as a sword.
“Hello there!” Barnaby heard a voice cry out from his left, near the gate. Jumping at the voice, he turned quickly, placing his hand on his hammer.
“Oh, I don’t think that will do you any good. We’ve had archers trained on you from the moment you came down that hill”. The voice said, now showing itself to be a tall, Syndar man with knobbly ears and a navy blue vest. Coming out of the gate with him were two individuals both with bows drawn, pointed at Barnaby. “Did you really think sneaking around our gate was the best way to get in?”
“I wasn’t sure what this place was..”Barnaby stated, slowly lowering his hand away from his hammer. Whomever these people were, they got the drop on him and knew what they were doing. Even the Syndar man with the vest was carrying an instrument of some kind, and didn’t seem all that concerned about Barnaby being a threat.
“Well, why didn’t you ask? We would gladly have invited you in and given you food.” The man said, plucking his instrument a few times and glancing upward at Barnaby. He carried on his side a vicious-looking sword that almost resembled ones he had seen up at Onsallas.
“I’m… I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have tried sneaking”.
“That’s all I wanna hear!” The man shouted, ushering the two people beside him to lower their bows. In an instant the atmosphere entirely changed. The two holding the drawn bows, a woman and a man, immediately smiled and walked back inside, putting their arrow back in their quiver.
“Now, let’s start again shall we?” The man said, smiling toward Barnaby. “My name is Aladrin Greywood, a Bard.” Taking a slight bow while uttering a Syndar greeting that Barnaby had heard a few times in the past.
“I’m Barnaby. Barnaby Bucksley.” He replied, straightening to his usual height and issuing a non-threatening posture. “What is this place?”
“Why, it’s Shieldhaven!” Aladrin replied, smiling widely and swinging his arm around as if showing off a grand display. The gates behind him were rather disheveled. In fact, the entirety of the wall structure seemed haphazardly thrown together. “I apologize for the mess, we’re in the process of upgrading our walls, and it’s a lengthy task”.
“Shieldhaven? I’ve never heard of it.” Barnaby stated looking up and down the stretch of walls. “What territory is this?”
“Well, it used to be Riverhead. Or still is. I’m not sure. But, we’re here to protect it and keep it safe.”
“Hey, don’t let them fool you. Those guys will beat you silly. Except for that guy with the bread. I’m… not sure what he’s doing”.
“So it WAS bread..” Barnaby said quietly to himself.
“Anyway, welcome to Shieldhaven, we have food, drink, and as of recently, rodent free beds. You’re welcome to stay as long as you wish.” Aladrin said, once again turning and gesturing to the settlement.
“How much to stay?” Barnaby asked, noting to himself that despite his many travels and escapades of the last year, he had little to no silver to his name.
“How much? Nothing, obviously. You don’t pay to stay in Shieldhaven. You simply come, eat, drink, and if you feel the need to pay us, provide us with a fun story….which I might embellish for a song.” Aladrin laughed at himself, plucking a few more strings. Barnaby wasn’t sure what to make of this man. He seemed carefree, yet at the same time, oddly sure of himself in an almost intimidating sort of way. Before he could reply, he heard another voice come from behind the gate.
“Is that who Ragnar think it is?”
Seconds later, a large Ulven man with an immense shield and familiar yellow eyes emerged from the open gate.
“By the Great Wolf. Ragnar!” Barnaby exclaimed, rushing past Aladrin who was still talking to himself about stealing Barnaby’s story to make into a song.
Ragnar and Barnaby shook hands feverishly and clasping eachother upon the shoulder.
“Barnaby has been getting stronger”, Ragnar stated, giving Barnaby’s forearm a squeeze.
“I had to be in order to carry this hammer,” he replied, gesturing to the weapon at this side.
“That different hammer at Onsallas”.
“Yes, this was a gift from a dear friend in Ironmound.”
“Ironmound? Ragnar thought Barnaby went to Shattered Spear.”
“Oh, my friend, I have much to tell you”.. Barnaby replied, smiling deeply at his friend. He felt warmth and rejuvenated seeing his Ulven friend. The days of traveling with nothing more than the mule to his side had left him dejected and depressed, but seeing the familiar axe of his friend made his spirits jump considerably. It wasn’t until a few seconds later that he noticed Aladrin standing uncomfortably close.
“So…how do you two know eachother?” Aladrin asked, sheepishly. Barnaby laughed and gave his friend another hard slap on his arm.
“We met in Onsallas. We almost killed eachother”
“Oh…ok. What now?” Aladrin asked, eyeballing the two of them.
“Ragnar will tell Aladrin full story. Barnaby must meet Garduk”. Ragar stated giving a slight smile toward Aladrin.
Leaving Aladrin behind, Ragnar took Barnaby by the shoulder and ushered him inside through the open gate.
“Oh well, I guess I’ll…just…go with..” Aladrin says to himself, quickly shuffling back inside the gates.
Ragnar quickly introduces Barnaby to the other members of the settlement, addressed as the “Guardians of the Wall”. Unsure of what to make of all of it, Barnaby stays quiet through most of the introductions, only responding when asked direct questions. Minutes later, Barnaby is taken before an elderly man who is hunched over a tall pitcher of water, with a hoe and shovel next to him. The years of abuse have not been kind to this man, through either toil and farming or some other horrendous trauma from his past, the man clearly stood the test of time and endured trying times. Ragnar introduced him as “Garduk” and says he’s one of the original Riverhead who had lived here before the Guardians came and secured the lands, establishing Shieldhaven as a safe stop for travelers, merchants, and anyone in need of aid. He also talked about how the settlement was created to help Riverhead take back the land stolen from them by bandits and Mordok within the Great Forest.
Garduk looks up and gives an eye roll at “another human” in Riverhead lands, saying as long as Barnaby doesn’t pester him too much, he can stay “or whatever”. Barnaby asked about the history of Clan Riverhead, as he hadn’t heard much other than rumors and what Ragnar had told him back in Onsallas.
Ragnar and Garduk share a quiet glance, as Garduk tells Barnaby to sit down and shut up. Over the hour, both Garduk and Ragner would tell Barnaby the story of Riverhead and the dark, horribly history that had befallen their people. How they had been pushed from their lands, only few remaining, the stories of their Priestess, corruption, the death of Ragnar’s father, and how the Guardians came in to help retake the land, asking only for permanent residents for their settlement in return. Barnaby sat in silence, as did the rest of the Guardians who had come to sit and listen to the history lesson taught by the two Riverhead clansmen. Though many had heard it before, being reminded of their past was a better way to connect to their future.
After talking for nearly an hour Garduk took a long swig, eyeballing the immense hammer that Barnaby had at his side. Recognizing the construction and emblems that adorned the weapon.
“Where did you get that?” He asked, almost in an accusatory manner. All attention shifted toward Barnaby while remaining in silence.
“It was a gift from a friend in Ironmound.” he replied, unsure of how to address the tension that was rising. Garduk seemed to sense the uncertainty in Barnaby, and relaxed his composure. “It was made for me by Milik, the grandfather of Kinnith in Shattered Spear territory. I lived with their family for almost a year before traveling to Ironmound.”
Barnaby shared his story once more, almost feeling like a bard himself, reliving the experiences of the last year over and over again. But each time he told his story, he could feel himself connecting more and more to the people within it. His friends, his family.
“Milik and I go way back. Back to when we were kids” Garduk said finally after Barnaby had finished. “He was always so uppity about ‘protect our traditions’ and how the Ulven people have to ‘stick together”. Barnaby chuckled.
“Yeah he mentioned something about that.” Barnaby replied, giving Garduk a smile.
“Did he now…”
“He said in exchange for his hammer, I must swear my life to defending people, and helping Ulven kind.” Barnaby replied, glancing down at his hammer and resting his hand upon it. “I’m not sure exactly what that means, but I’ll try my best”.
“Barnaby should help retake Riverhead land”. Ragnar stated, matter of factly, after having sat silent for several minutes.
“Retake what?” Barnaby said, jerking his attention to his friend.
“Well, now ain’t that just a twist of fate…” Garduk chuckled to himself, standing.
“Barnaby should stay with Guardians and help retake Ulven land”. Ragnar repeated, also standing.
All around him, Barnaby noticed all of the Ulven beginning to stand. One by one, they got to their feet.
“It seems like destiny has brought you here, outsider.”
Barnaby hadn’t heard that term in a long time. He didn’t want to be called that anymore. It felt foreign after this last year. He fought for the Ulven and bled with them. He farmed their fields and sheared their sheep. He mined their ore and he chopped their trees. The last year of his life had all been in the pursuit of bringing honor to his name, and it always happened to be at the behest of Ulven. If anything felt foreign to him, it was how he could call himself human at all.
“You made a promise, young man. It sounds like it’s time to fulfill your purpose.” Garduk stated.
Something inside Barnaby lept. His heart, his stomach, he didn’t know what. But the word “purpose” resonated within him like an echoing drum. He did make a promise and he made it willingly and with all intentions of fulfilling it. And it seemed like just now, the opportunity to fulfill that promise had finally arrived. An actual, tangible, material way to bring honor to his name and the oath that he swore. The deep welling of emotion he felt in this moment was pride, earnest, and responsibility. But more than that, it was honor. Standing, he wiped a lingering tear away from his eyes.
“What do I need to do?” He asked, staring resolutely at Garduk and Ragnar.
“I think you gotta talk to that guy”, he heard a voice from behind. Aladrin was standing, again, uncomfortably close with a weirdly large grin on his face, like a child who was anticipating a present. Following his gesture, Barnaby directed his gaze toward the direction Aladrin was pointing, and there, as if carved in stone and marbled after the great men before him, stood a tall man with a massive sword and shield.
“The Guardians are weird about this, I’ll leave them to it. “ Garduk said as he and the other Ulven grabbed their tools and went back to work. Barnaby stood in the presence of this great man, basking in his splendor and shadow.
“Who are you?” He asked, barely able to hold his composure after the emotional moment only seconds earlier.
“I am Stanley Lorden. Leader of the Guardians of the Wall and protector of these Riverhead lands and Shieldhaven.” The voice bellowed with an unearthly echo, shaking the very core of Barnaby’s being.
“What must I do to fulfill my purpose?” He asked again, this time feeling all the same emotions welling up once more.
“Swear your loyalty to the Guardians of the Wall, defend these lands and the people within, with your life. Do you swear?”
“I … I do…I swear it!” He almost shouted, unable to control his voice.
“Then kneel…” Barnaby collapsed to the ground, one hand on his hammer and the other on the ground, barely able to hold his pose, his knees shook with anticipation.
“Ohhhhh it’s happening….” Barnaby could hear Aladrins voice quietly from behind him.
Drawing his massive sword and pointing it at Barnaby, Stanley addressed the man once more.
“Do you swear upon your life and honor to defend those unable to defend themselves and those you call family?”
“Do you swear to uphold the sacred oath of the Guardians and always act with honor in their name?”
“I do.” Barnaby could feel his very soul begin to quake.
“And do you promise, above all else, to treat those around you, those you love, as family, swearing to them and your gods, your life.”
“I… I do!” Barnaby shouted at the ground, clenching a handful of dirt. He could feel the tip of the sword press into his shoulder gently, one then the other.
“Then rise, Barnaby. And fulfill your purpose with honor.”
A chorus of shouting erupted around him. Aladrin played joyously on his lute a merry tune as Barnaby looked up to even more people standing above him. At some point, during his oath, the remaining members of the Guardians had all arrived, awaiting the outcome of the swearing. Jumping and dancing amongst themselves, they celebrated yet another member being added to their family, as the Ulvens around them gave weird looks. Barnaby could feel himself getting yanked to his feet, as a mug of ale was thrust into his hands by someone wearing a piece of heraldry with a shield on it. In fact, Barnaby noticed that all of the members of the wall shared a similar piece of cloth. Out of the corner of his eye, he could make out a woman seated on a log bobbing her head to the music while sewing what appeared to be yet another piece of heraldry.
Barnaby found himself that evening, as the Guardians continued to drink and celebrate their newest member of their family, surrounded by a familiar feeling. One of belonging. A sense of purpose and honor. These people had defended these lands, constructed an, albeit makeshift, settlement and risked their lives just so the Riverhead people might retake their land. Knowing nothing of their backstory, how they came to the same position he was in, he absorbed their enthusiasm and noticed the diverse nature of their members. Human, Ulven, and Syndar alike had all gathered under one purpose. One unified goal of family. These were the people he had searched for this last year, and he didn’t even realize it. That sense of purpose he had driven himself hundreds of miles over a dozen months just to find, and it lay here in Riverhead territory, under a settlement of mismatched friends and allies, all to bring peace to the land and love each other’s company. Whatever happened over a year ago, what brought him to that glade to wake in a stupor, it all seemed so quiet now. Within this group of strangely allied and yet welcoming family, he found his purpose. The one he had searched for for so long. Tomorrow, he would begin his life anew as a Guardian of the Wall.
A Guardian, with purpose.