by C.M. Galdre & F. Charles Murdock
Turin’s Wall is long and wide, built by giants full of pride. No sword can sunder, no siege engine bite, none can fell cold Turin’s might. From east to west it rises tall, with buttress high, the ancient wall, but in eastern wood in darkest glade, a hole was bore where shaman bayed and whispered darkly, words unmade. Rhyme of the Eastwood (123-127)
Beard woke with a gasp, coughed violently, and then spit black blood upon the earth. It’d been two weeks since he’d been framed for his father’s murder, beaten and scorned by his people, and left bloodied at the edge of the northern wilderness.
He’d continued south for many iles -- how many exactly he could not tell. His pace was slow, but even when he’d been beaten mercilessly by Brōg, he’d managed fifteen to twenty iles a day. Brōg, his swordmaster, his mentor, his betrayer... king-slayer... coward suicide.
Beard spat again as he thought of the bastard, and grinned a mirthless grin at the thought of the coward pinned against the walls of the twelve hells and having his ever-regenerating entrails eternally gorged upon by all manner of hideous unthing; such was the fate of cowards, deserters, and suicides in the bloodless religion of the Northman.
The young warrior took in his surroundings as he felt about his ribs -- only one seemed to still be on the mend, down from four that were broken when he was thrashed by his kinsmen. The forest was growing warmer, ancient pines starting to give way to mighty oaks, grown from acorns before men had slain their first deer. He was getting closer to the Wall. Turin’s Wall had stood since before memory, raised by some ancient race of men with lost technology and the aid of the giants of the time. Beard had only seen it a few times in his youth with his father when he traded with those who lived along the gate. Pure Thorgithens would never deal with a Southron man save with his blade, but there lived a degenerate race of half-breeds along the wall, and as unpleasant as it was, there were items from the south that were of great use to the savage Northmen. So it was with these half-men that Beard’s father and the men of the North traded.
Beard was now making for the Wall, but not to the great white gate through which any heading north or south must pass, no. Beard was making for the rumored hole that lies deep within the Eastwood, carved by some black magick of the past. The Eastwood itself was almost as vast as Turin’s Wall, but its lay was from north to south while the great Wall cut across the northern reaches of the vast continent of Krytherion from east to west. Even in the time of Conquering Turin, who came out of the southern continents to lay waste to Krytherion and whose fallen empire the Southron lords now built their shambling castles upon, the Eastwood was feared. The race of Northmen that gave birth to the Thorgithens were not the only race of men to evade Turin’s gilded heel: the Eastwood was never within his domain and legends were still handed down of the million-man legion that disappeared within its shadowed branches in completing the building of the great Wall to shelter the south from the Northmen’s raids. Bone-chilling tales of even how, as they laid the last stone and infused them with words of making, they were cut down by wood-devils and ancient horrors from the dawning of the world. Turin never set to tame the wood: if it was let be, no horrors would leave its protective shadows. The cold-eyed Northmen, however, the fathers of the fathers of the ancients of Thorgithe, the ancestors of Beard... they would raid frequently without provocation and with such ferocity that Turin feared they might one day topple his empire if united, and so the Wall was built, or so the stories told. There are many versions of many tales from that dark and ancient time... who is truly to say what is truth and what is fiction? For history is always written by the living on the backs of the dead.
Beard flexed his iron limbs and tested his legs. He was recovering well from his wounds, but was becoming weak without proper nourishment. In the halls of his father, he’d feasted on crowned elk and all manner of arctic fowl, but here in this cursed wood, few creatures dwelt. There was vegetation enough to support a vast diversity of fauna, but if it existed, it made itself scarce. After a few more stretches, Beard began to jog along at a staggering gait -- to lesser men this may have been a run, or to the soft lordlings of the south a furious sprint, but to a Thorgithen raised upon the barren snows where the few horses were used as only pack beasts, the men learned to run as swift as any wolf, as long as any elk, and as confident as a charging bear. The pace did not even alter his breathing.
After many hours and a few dozen iles, the ground grew spongy with moss and dead leaves. It was then Beard first began to see the stone men of the wood. Not living men were these, but ancient stone carvings that suggested the shapes of men, with hints of blue and white war paint and strange carved symbols upon them. It is said that the race of men in the Eastwood were the first to turn away from the ambivalent gods of nature and began to worship the strange things that gibbered in the dark, offering power and making small gods of men. It was these man-gods that had their images carved in stone and placed throughout the Eastwood, marking tribal territories, sacrificial altars, and warnings to those that would enter their wicked glades. As a Northman who had nursed as a brother with the sons -- cruel and cold -- of the Motherwolf, goddess of the wind, he scoffed at such lesser gods, but still the sight of them raised the hackles at the back of his neck.
By nightfall, Beard had covered as many iles in one day as he had in the three or four previous. The air had lost its bite and felt cool and soft against his sweat-dampened skin. With no game in sight, Beard foraged for anything that might sustain him: roots, grubs, edible mushrooms and berries, at least these things had not fled the accursed wood. His grim meal sitting in the pit of his stomach, he set out to form a crude club for he liked not the gleaming eyes of the stone men in the darkness. It was more than the squirming of grubs in his belly that unnerved him that night. A crude club fashioned from a gnarled branch, the young warrior set his back against a large oak, his club across his lap, his eyes narrowed in the half-awake sleep all Northman know from the time they are babes: in the cruel north, true sleep often meant a cold and gruesome death. The young warrior had not slept long before he woke, arms tensed, his legs coiled like iron springs, to the sounds of drums in the night.
Beard’s body had leapt to its feet, its club held high, poised for a skull-crushing blow from whatever had stirred it. The warrior’s mind, however, was still ensnared by the Dream Realm and the dark happenings that’d transpired therein.
Beard’s sleep was oft dreamless, but on those rare occasions when he did crossover the threshold into the land of dreams, Släfgeit, overlord of slumber, would bind his memories. This night was different: Beard’s sleep, however short it might’ve been, yielded a nightmare so fierce and real to him that his warrior’s mind was shackled in its wake. His awareness had been led from his body -- a dangerous mistake for a lone warrior to make.
Before Beard had completely regained his senses, the dream stood prevalent still. In it, the young warrior was back in the Long Hall of Kgortel, the sun shining unheeded through the Balcho of the Mother Wolf behind him. The demonry of the Great Winter had been suspended, allowing a comfortable heat to blow through the ruins of the castle on one of Wuthweirgen’s calm breaths. The wind also carried cheers to Beard: it seemed the whole of the Northland had come together at the seat of Thorgithe to raise acclaim. Beard couldn’t help but smile as he turned to meet his people. Before they could catch his eye, however, it was drawn elsewhere by a strange glammer before him.
The ring on his mighty hand was not only visible now, but shone forth with an impossibly bright light, as though Sol itself had been clasp upon his finger (oh how envious the ancient peoples would’ve been to see that, those who worshipped the day-star, Sol, from their piteous caverns so many thousands of cycles ago). The light eclipsed both of his hands, so intense was its gleam that he could see it even through tightly clamped eyelids.
The ring... was it calling out to him?
“Beard, my son,” the faraway voice said, “open your eyes so they may see your father.”
“Father?” Beard asked, opening his eyes as wide as his gaping mouth.
Indeed there stood the last great king of Thorgithe, Bergrin, his body unblemished and whole as though it had known only the wounds of war and never the viper-strike of a wretched coward. The king’s blue eyes pierced his son’s, but the expression on his face was of a jovial sort. After a moment, he brought his mighty hands to Beard’s shoulders and kissed his forehead, a gesture never extended by the king while he was still drawing breath.
In all those long, hard cycles, had Bergrin desired to show this affection to his son?
“Take up the crown from my head, Beard,” the king said. “Bestow it upon your own and rule the North. This is your destiny and your father’s last wish.”
Bergrin stepped away from his son and bowed his head, offering the ancient crown, that which Kgortel had won in bloodwar against all others who’d opposed him. The thousand tribes of the North had fallen under his ambitious blade, their remnants birthing the Great Seat of Thorgithe. Kgortel’s crown had adorned the heads of his bloodline -- all the Great Rulers of the Northlands -- and now Bergrin was offering it to his only son, mankin of the Motherwolf.
But Beard’s hand was stilled by doubt.
“You deny your father?” Bergrin asked, a deep frown coalescing beneath his high cheekbones.
“Not you, father,” Beard said.
“Then the crown?”
“No,” the young warrior said, his own head bowed, but in shame. “I deny myself, father.”
“For what reason?” Bergrin asked, his eyes narrowed in inquisition.
“You are, Beard,” the old king interrupted. “You’ve proven yourself worthy not only of a warrior’s blade, but a warrior-king’s crown as well.”
Beard raised his head to argue, but any words that’d been forming in his throat were arrested by what he now saw before him.
Bergrin stood, naked and pale, his posture like a leper’s, his eyes rolled back into his skull. There he danced in a drunken sway to the silence that’d come to the hall, his mouth moving but equally mute. The spectacle was a faithful impression of those mystical oracles of old, those who dazed themselves with mescaline or locoweed and foretold the futures of kings. It was unfortunate, then, that Bergrin no longer carried himself with the regality of his bloodline. And then a prophecy stirred along his lips -- passed from mystic to king just as in the days of the Forgotten Elders.
“Listen well, Beard Weirheowdth,” Bergrin spoke, though his voice was not his own. “A great darkness shrouds the land, bringing war and savagery to its people. You have been charged with upholding the bloodright of your lineage. Your sword is law.”
“Law...” Beard mused, “has failed us, father.”
“If the land is allowed to fall into ruin, the whole of the Inner World will fall as well,” his father said. “All will perish and the Great Evil will rule these tainted lands.”
“And what is the face of this Great Evil?” Beard asked.
“It calls itself the Dark One.”
Though Beard was still young and had yet to see a warrior’s share of battle, he knew immediately the sound of flesh being split by a sharp blade. In the span of a thunderbolt’s flash, Bergrin was gored from behind, his assailant’s blade erupting forth from his belly. For a moment, the old king seemed not to notice the doom that’d struck him, his trance-drunken swaying continuing until blood and severed innards began to pour forth from around the twisting blade.
Then clarity returned to Bergrin’s eyes.
“Avenge your father, Beard,” the king said, his voice his own.
“How?” was all Beard could say before Bergrin fell away.
Another flash of the blade split Bergrin’s body in twain, spilling his vitals on the floor of his forefather’s Great Hall. Where the late king had been standing now stood a familiar form, but as much as Beard desired to avenge his father’s untimely death, his body had become paralyzed. Or perhaps some fowl magicks were afoot.
“One day... it will be... clear... to you,” said the oath-breaking murderer, Brōg.
“You...!” Beard said before his mouth, too, was arrested.
“One day...” Brōg said and then cackled, though his lips were still. The smug expression on the fiend’s face enraged Beard more than anything in his life save the real assassination of his father. He looked down upon the bisected king, now just a tanglement of spoiling organs, rended flesh, and bloodied bones. Brōg buried the Unnamed blade-first into the ruined floor of the Long Hall of Kgortel and, with no weapon to protect himself, invited the warriorling to avenge his dead father. With gritted teeth, Beard accepted the challenge, overcoming the unseen shackles that bound him to lunge at Brōg, blade in hand, hatred pouring over him.
Just as Sol caught his swinging blade, everything fell into a shifting darkness. Before the blackness overcame him, Beard had felt the impact of his haughty blow. (Have I felled Brōg?) Then the drumming started and by the time he realized what was happening, Beard was on his feet, the wooden club he’d so meticulously crafted before nightfall held high above his head. Then consciousness returned to his eyes, the thin line between the Dream Realm and reality severed by those damned drums. Somewhere, Släfgeit was laughing at him, Beard was quite sure.
Black eyes in the darkness. A normal man would’ve cowered from them, especially being only a nose-length away, but Beard stood his ground. As his other senses came to him in that dark place, he quickly noticed that nothing was stirring -- fowl, bug, or beast. He stared into the eyes, his nose filling with the acrid scent of death. There was no doubt in the warrior’s mind that his club had connected with the creature before him, but his senses told him that it had been dead long before the blow had been dealt. Beard relaxed his clubbing arm and brought his free hand to the gullet of the dead thing before him. There he could feel tousles of wiry fur splayed around a tight cord. The pathetic thing had been choked to death, its windpipe crushed by whatever had ensnared it.
Finally, Beard took a step away from the lifeless creature to get a better look at whatever owned those haunting eyes. Even in the darkness below the Eastwood’s high canopy, the warrior could make out the animal before him: the striations of powerful muscles below thick fur, its hooves swaying above the forest floor, that pink tongue hanging out of its bloated snout. The creature had once been a proud crowned elk, but now just a carcass suspended on a vine from the mighty tree Beard had taken as a bed for the night.
Beard grunted and turned his eyes from the carcass, his hand clamped tightly around his makeshift mace. Though steadfast in his reservation, the scene around Beard chilled him. The slivers of moonlight that managed to penetrate the high treetops gave hint to what else had been awaiting Beard to awaken. The boughs of the surrounding trees were filled with animal bodies -- more elk, several blood hawks, a devilboar, and even what looked like some form of basilisk among many, many others -- suspended from those thick, taut vines.
“Eat of the flesh we offer you, man-ape,” a torrent of strange whispers called out in varying directions. The tempo of the drumming increased, its timbre deep and menacing. “May the meat of the Eastwood nourish your broken body.”
The warrior scanned his surroundings for the speaker of those cryptic words, his attention drawn particularly to those damned carved stone men, but his search was cut short when he noticed his perspective of the forest had suddenly shifted. Now everything -- the trees and their branches, the multitude of dead animals, yes, even those hewn figures abound -- seemed to be bending toward Beard so that the whole world loomed overhead. Though the area was windless, the crowned elk he’d stepped away from began to move.
Then the drumming intensified as the carcass swayed before Beard’s eyes like a deadweight pendulum. Its movements recalled the oracle-dance Bergrin had performed in the dream and when the moonlight hit the dead elk’s eyes, Beard could see flashes of his father’s, white and ghostly. Then the carcass and the drumming converged into a mystifying display from which Beard had great difficulty drawing his eyes.
“I will not eat of the forest!” Beard yelled, his voice breaking the trance that’d ensnared his mind. He took his club in both hands and delivered a blow so intense that, upon impact, the whole forest seemed to shy away, restoring the warrior’s perspective. Now all that hung before him was a disembodied head, its eyes hanging from their sockets, their charm dispelled. The rest of the carcass had been knocked across the clearing, leaving a line of viscera to where it’d landed in a heap of blood and broken bones.
Then all was silent, the drums having ceased at the display of Beard’s might. The silence was unsettling, but afforded the warrior a chance to set his ear to the night. Again nothing stirred.
Beard knelt to the forest floor, the club set across his knees for easy retrieval lest something should engage him. Pain shot through his tender ribs as he stooped, but he ignored it, his mind preoccupied with the task at hand.
He surveyed the ground around him, his eyes narrowing as they searched. After a moment, he dug his hands into a mound of loose soil and withdrew a small, stiff pod from the ground. Beard placed it between his thumb and forefinger and pinched it until a silver seedling began to climb from its shell between the warrior’s thick calluses. He knew he was inviting death by playing with one of the Eastwood’s saplings, but survival necessitated risk -- the warrior’s creed as it were. Beard brought the embryo to his ear, placing it at the entrance of the canal, and sealed it there with the cup of his hand. He placed his free hand flat against his other ear, closed his eyes, and held an already stale breath at the back of his throat. Ignoring even the swirling darkness of his mind (and the lingering shards of his dreams that haunted it still), he willed himself to listen with heart as well as head.
Among the multitude of knowledge lost over the many ages since the Forgotten Elders ruled Krytherion was the ability to communicate with the unseen and speak with the unknown. There were many sorts of unseen and unknown, of course, but words shared between man and nature had once been fundamental, especially to his survival. As the advent of savage weaponry and sorcery swept the land, they quickly ushered in the demise of these proficiencies. They still managed to live on in some bloodlines, though even the line of Kgortel had become ignorant to these skills.
Brōg had been the one to pass along this knowledge during his hellish training, though Beard would as soon brain him than thank him.
Now Beard listened to the sapling as Brōg had taught him all those cycles ago. He cleared his mind and steadied his body, the breath he held aching to be released from the barrel of his chest. Soon even his blood slowed to the point of imperceptibility and he was free to hear the call of nature unabated by his own biological flaws.
Like sand blowing through a dusty town a thousand iles away.
Like the breath of a wyrm on the far horizon.
Then he heard it.
Beard opened his eyes, turning them south toward Turin’s Wall. He’d heard the babbling from that direction, two... maybe three iles from where he’d stooped. The warrior broke his contact with nature, pulling the sapling from his buzzing ear. His eyes still south, he reburied the seedling and rose to his feet.
Despite the pain burning along his sternum, Beard made haste through the forest, passing both stone men and animal carcasses without pause. His club led the way, knocking aside branches if they happened to cross its course. Turin’s Wall was close, but the thing Beard had heard through that ancient channel was closer. The warrior quickened his stride, the light of the half-moon opening the way.
Then he was in a clearing much wider than where the Eastwood had made its accursed offering. This land was bare save a layer of strangle-grass, a wild growth of weed that’d long ago sent frustrated croppers farther south. Just beyond the gathering was a pool of water as pristine as a looking glass. The water there shimmered not with moonlight, but some kind of enchanted bluish glow that cast a soft light on the trees surrounding it. Though the land seemed unblemished by tracks of man or beast, Beard approached the pool with caution, his club poised for a hurried strike.
The babbling Beard had heard through the sapling filled his ears as his reflection greeted him at the water’s edge. He met his own haggard grimace with disdain, taking note of the bruising and dried blood still prevalent on his face. He didn’t blame his brethren for their wrath because he would’ve done the same to any man who’d brought ruin upon his father... even worse, he supposed... the sentence of the Great Council be damned. But revenge was never an option against that coward, Brōg: by now, his pathetic corpse had surely been tossed into Cōm-Labi with the other trash so that even desecrating his leftovers was an impossibility. Or had the traitor’s body been placed upon a pyre of honor, next to the king he had saved all those years ago in the Low Wars? The thought of the king and the king’s killer burning side by side in equal honor gave the warrior a knot in his throat.
He saw this strife in his own eyes and hated it, turning away from the broken man reflected in the water.
“Drink of the pool before you, ape child,” the whispers came again. “May the water of the Eastwood revitalize your waning spirit.”
Beard heard this well, but the now regnant drumming drew his attention to the trees around the clearing. He brought the club high above his head, sniffing the air as the once-still forest began to sway around him. The smell of root and sap filled the air, eclipsing the scent of the water, though the pool was but a few paces away.
“Come, now,” the whispering continued. “Cool and crisp. Drink and be merry. Rest and be whole.”
Temptation was infesting Beard, his innards clenching with want of relief. When had he last taken drink? The question raised saliva in his throat, the bubbling from the water pricking his ears. Even with his back to the pool, the warrior could see its strange sheen on the strangle-weed before him, its sway aqueous and mesmeric.
“I will not drink of the pool!” Beard yelled, his voice rising into the still of the night. No more drumming, no more babbling. As suddenly as all the activity of the forest had come upon Beard, it left him. He was alone again.
“I will not,” the warrior said again. Though he’d meant this for his own aching stomach, he received an answer from elsewhere.
“Give yourself to us, little one,” came another series of whispers. “May your spirit join the Eastwood and be with us forevermore.”
After a moment’s pause, Beard scoffed, the club lowered, his free hand held before him in a tight fist. The warrior spoke, his voice inflated and jovial, the corners of his mouth kinked into a thin smile. “If it’s my soul you want,” he said, “you must rend it from my dying body.”
“Thrice you have denied the Eastwood!” the voices proclaimed, now with shrieks instead of whispers.
“Thrice you have goaded me,” Beard interrupted. “Three times now my patience has been tested. But I commend you, Eastwood -- anything else would have been dragging their dismembered body through the Great Beyond by now. Count yourself lucky.”
“YOUR MEAT FOR NOURISHMENT, THORGITHEN WHELP!” the shrieking continued unabated, the vast drums of the forest splitting the air above the treetops. “YOUR BLOOD FOR OUR REJUVENATION! YOUR SOUL IS OURS FOREVERMORE!”
Now Beard raised the cudgel to join his fist, the smile on his face growing in anticipation. The drumming around him intensified, but the warrior stood diligent even as the ground began to quake beneath him. Again his patience was being tried, but rather than enrage him, the drums conjured a chuckle deep within Beard’s throat. He tipped his head back and let it out, the sound of it joining the rumbling that had overtaken perhaps all of Krytherion. “Of that,” Beard spat, “we shall see.”
As benign as the strangle-weed had appeared when Beard first laid foot in the clearing, it was the first to initiate combat. The ground beneath the warrior seemed to liquefy as the vegetation slithered underfoot, coiling around Beard’s heavy boots to bring him down. The warrior would not be toppled so easily, however.
With his free hand, Beard swiped at the weed and pulled it first from his boots and then from the dirt, the grass writhing in his fist like a coil of dying serpents. Amidst the drumming, Beard could hear a sudden piercing whine that drew his eyes downward to the roots of the strangle-weed. The roots were shrieking as they fell lifeless in the heat blowing through the clearing. After a moment, the warrior’s patience had been spent and he brought the grass-vine to his jaws, tearing into them with unforgiving teeth. The whining stopped instantly in a gush of red sap. The taste on Beard’s lips was bitter, but still brought a smile to his face.
The warrior threw aside his kill, bringing his attention back to the clearing before him. There to meet his eye was the whole of the Eastwood -- every tree and bush writhing in the night. At once, the world seemed to shrink as the forest slid closer to Beard. The warrior shot a look over his shoulder and realized the same was happening behind him. The trees were closing in: the Eastwood had accepted his challenge.
As seamless as his enemy’s approach had seemed, Beard quickly discovered that each tree had uprooted itself, crawling along the ground like some profane creation of a mad god. Their scent was as the strangle-weed had tasted, but Beard was far too focused to let it irk him. He raised the club and nodded at the approaching army, his smile wicked and prevalent still. As suddenly as the forest had taken pursuit of the warrior, he launched himself into a run, the strangle-grass below him far too slow to ensnare his swift feet. Beard met the leading tree head-on, throwing the sum of his weight into a splintering blow. The trunk of the great tree collapsed in on itself under the force of the strike, its branches stiffening as it toppled.
The giant tree hit the ground with a terrible thump, flattening the swaths of strangle-weed beneath it -- two kills from the effort of one: the warrior’s law of conservation of energy.
Beard readied for another strike, setting his lead foot on the trunk of the felled tree to gain leverage for another leap. Beneath his foot, though, he noticed a peculiar sight. Though his survey of the dying tree was quick, he came to understand where that hellish drumming was originating. Just inside the hole he’d blasted into the trunk, he could see a dark green organ -- a large heart, it seemed, that glistened in the light of the half-moon -- struggling to maintain its rhythm. Its tempo had become sporadic and wild, however, thrown off by Beard’s hand. Then the drumming of that particular tree died out.
“YOU DARE TURN OUR OWN BODIES AGAINST US?!” the Eastwood screamed. Beard brought the poised club down onto the stilled heart of the fallen tree. The organ exploded on impact, staining the splintered hole around it with thick, black blood.
“You mad?” Beard asked with a boyish grin, displaying the blood on his club for all approaching trees to see. There were no more words from the woods, only the quickened thumping of its angered hearts.
Beard halted the drumbeats of three more trees before the swarm of the forest overtook him. With foot and fist, the warrior beat back the bramble, reserving the club for exposing the black blood of this fell ilk of vegetation. The bludgeon had been designed with the height of Thorgithen engineering in mind (after all, had Beard not spent countless afternoons at Bledbuan’s anvil, learning the intricacies of his craft?). Though the club was savage in its appearance, its make was masterful, especially in the hands of such a capable warrior. Despite this, the wood from which it was hewn wasn’t known for its durability. Beard would have to be conservative with his strikes if he was to…
Beard barely noticed the sound of his club splintering against the thick bark of a younger tree, the sound of his weapon’s demise blending so monotonously with the surrounding drumming. He planted its jagged remains into the exposed heart of that young tree, treating it to a vampyre’s death. Now it was the forest who was cackling like mad.
Though weaponless, the warrior kept his wits about him, delivering a barrage of punches and kicks to the looming forest. With rended bark beneath his nails, Beard weaved between the tree trunks and bushes, his natural agility made far more potent by the surge of bloodlust in his quickened heart.
Then Beard’s arms were no longer under his control. A particularly spry tree had latched onto his wrists with a throng of thick vines, restraining Beard as he was juking a jagged, swinging branch. The warrior’s body was wrenched backwards, his feet taken from under him by the force of the sudden yank. Then the looming forest -- the trees like maniacal vultures -- leapt in for the kill.
At once, Beard was bombarded by the many hanged carcasses he’d denied on his trek through the Eastwood. The strange artillery exploded around him, blood and bloated bodies scattered over warrior and tree alike. A rancid scent pervaded the clearing now, eclipsing the once pleasant reek of sap and fresh water. A lesser man would’ve wretched at such a display, but Beard had long ago learned the ways of blunting his senses, so that the scent’s only effect was enraging the warrior even further.
Beard shirked another wave of carrion, his strength overcoming the living marionette wires around his wrists. He hopped to his feet, barely evading the grasp of the hungry strangle-weed beneath him and turned to the tree that’d captured him. The drumming around him quickened, but all Beard could hear was his own heartbeat, so rapid it sounded like a wolf’s growl. Then that growl was realized in the warrior’s gullet as he coiled his arms around the vines, took them in hand, and began to pull. With his feet planted firmly in the splintered bark and dead strangle-weed beneath him, Beard put all his energy into a fierce yank. The tree did the same. In the Northlands there exists a standing tradition called Merrythought. After the ceremonial cucco has been roasted and eaten, the host of the dinner would take in hand the bird’s thigh-bone and offer it to the warrior who’d garnered the most honor that cycle, either in battle or during the hunt. The two men would then grasp each end of the V-shaped bone and, after their audience counted down to null, would yank it apart. The man with the larger half was said to be favored by the vast gods of the land.
This tug-of-war between man and tree was much like Merrythought, though the winner of this battle would earn life rather than the nod of a formless deity.
So when the vines fell slack and Beard fell backwards, a feeling a relief shot through him as he realized simultaneously that the branches that’d thrown the vines had been ripped from the offending tree and that his arms were still attached. Beard pitched to the right, landing in a crouch as the young tree came crashing down behind him. The sundered boughs passed overhead, their momentum giving rise to the vines still tethered to the warrior’s arms. In a swift pivot, he pulled the vines taut and guided the branches along a wide arc, turning them into massive projectiles against the horde of trees around him.
Three dozen trees fell in the wake of the airborne battering rams before the vines tethering them snapped. The drumming of the Eastwood was overtaken for a moment by the sound of collapsing trees, the vines of their kin now loose and dead at the warrior’s feet. Before Beard could regain his bearings, though, a new branch of the living forest was approaching him, their roots thirsty for the blood of the heathen.
As prepared as Beard had come to be in those crucial moments between attacks, the sheer numbers the Eastwood threw at the warrior quickly overpowered him. Although an accomplished Thorgithen warrior, Beard had been caught off guard by a strategy the forest came to employ: the living trees took up their dead as arms, thrashing the lifeless timber about to crush the warrior. Though a trunk never managed to bludgeon Beard, one well-aimed strike caught his sternum and brought him off his feet.
The sudden burst of pain from his still-mending ribs was crippling, but Beard still managed to evade an array of attacks before being cornered by three towering trees near the iridescent pool. As they loomed over him, their hearts beating with want of murder, they filled the boughs of their kin with cacophonous laughter. Then they swarmed in for the kill.
For a moment, the light of the Great Beyond seemed to open before Beard’s eyes. Then he was floating. Was that the Last Path before him now? Hazy figures. His father perhaps? Or the many great warriors of Thorgithe who’d earned glorious deaths on fields of battle? Had he earned his place among them, even if so young?
The pain in his torso brought him back, tethering him to reality as the thick vines had bound him to that damned tree in their little game of Merrythought. The world faded back into view, but when Beard didn’t see a swarm of trees hovering over him, he was quick to his feet.
The land around him was open and arid, though a thin layer of grass managed to grow over what would’ve surely been dunes of sand in their absence. Sol was rising to his left, conjuring a dry heat the warrior welcomed in light of his new wounds. His limbs were stiff, but whatever sleep he’d fallen into had rejuvenated him (though Släfgeit had once again arrested any dreams that might’ve transpired during the sudden slumber).
Then Beard saw it.
On the horizon stood a hooded figure, its form but a shadow in the intense gleam of the day-star behind it. Instinct forced Beard’s hand to a hilt that was no longer there, having been ripped from his waist by his fellow warriors after his father’s death. This was fine by Beard: his bare hands were more than capable of bringing ruin to any fool who stood before him.
The hooded figure turned, though Beard’s keen eye was unable to ascertain in which direction. It didn’t matter: that the mysterious bastard had anything in common with that villainous coward, Brōg, meant that death would come quick to whoever dare hide beneath that hood before the son of Bergrin. His muscles poised to attack, Beard approached the figure.
As the dark form grew in the distance, Beard could feel anger and hatred welling up inside him. Brōg the coward. Brōg the usurper. Brōg the ruiner and ruined. He had slipped away somehow, played death for a fool, and now stood before Beard, his defiance as infuriating as ever. If his end wasn’t met before, it certainly would be this day.
Then one figure became two and two seven and seven many, many more until they all converged into a single amorphous shadow on the hilltop before Beard. What manner of magicks was this? Had Beard really regained consciousness or was Släfgeit performing his usual misdeeds? The answers were afforded only when the Solight ceased to blind him. “Hail, warrior,” a voice came from beneath the hood.
“You herald your death, Brōg!” Beard yelled as the shadows descended upon him. “If you haven’t met the Great Beyond yet, you surely will this day and by my hand!”
“Calm yourself, friend,” the hooded figure said, raising a hand as a sign of welcome. “There is none called Brōg here.”
“Then who be you?” Beard asked.
“The man who saved your life back there,” the figure said.
“Your name!” Beard yelled, “your name or your life!”
“Such a short temper for someone who’d be tree shit now if it weren’t for my heroics... and theirs too, of course,” the man said, pointing to the figures surrounding him.
“Your arrogance has forfeited your life,” Beard said, his fists tight spheres of iron.
“Cruce, they call me, then,” the figure said, stopping his approach, “Cruce fon Brambell.”
“I’ll be sure to etch your tombstone appropriately,” Beard said, still advancing on the pack of shadows.
“Funny you should say that, warrior,” the hooded man, Cruce, said, “this place we stand used to be a township, you know... a township with a rather large boneyard.”
“Then burying your remains shan’t be difficult.”
“How quaint,” Cruce said as Beard came to stand before him. “But you’d really kill a man who saved your life?”
“Death is death.”
“You sound like Elrik or one of those other brooding Southron bards who write tactless eulogies and call them poetry,” Cruce said.
Beard stood in silence, his eyes narrowed, his chest heaving with quickened breaths.
“Come now, warrior,” Cruce said. “I mean you neither harm nor death, surely you must see that by now.”
“I trust neither men nor words,” Beard said.
“I could’ve easily ended you,” Cruce said, his eyes piercing Beard’s even within the shadows beneath the hood. “You were passed out and pain-drunk for nearly a week.”
“It would’ve been a coward’s slaughter,” Beard said, “and I hate cowards.”
“As do I,” Cruce said, removing his hood.
The man beneath the hood could never, in all the world’s cycles, be considered anything close to Brōg. This man called Cruce fon Brambell was scrawny, his face slender, androgynous. He was not Brōg... he wasn’t even a warrior.
After surveying the man’s face, Beard spoke to him, his anger subsiding, but confusion still slithering among his thoughts.
“Your men are silent,” he said.
“They cannot speak,” Cruce said, “a blessing, I assure you.”
“You said you saved me,” Beard said. “Why?”
“I had yet to earn my saving-a-helpless-warrior achievement,” Cruce mused.
“I don’t gather your meaning, stranger,” Beard said with disdain.
“I see you lack a sense of humor,” Cruce said.
“Yes,” Beard said, “just as I lack a sense of patience. Now... why did you save me from the Eastwood?”
“Truth be told, stranger,” Cruce spat, “they were the ones who did most of the saving.” By this point, Sol had risen enough to dispel the shadows shrouding the men surrounding Cruce. As Beard scanned the faces of Cruce’s party, he quickly learned much more about the man than he wanted. Each face before him sagged with both decay and senselessness. The lot of them were hunched over, their clothes as tattered as their repulsive gray flesh.
“You’re a death-dealer...” Beard said.
“I prefer ‘necromancer,’” Cruce retorted.
“Death is death.”
“Yes, yes,” Cruce said, turning to the dozens of undead behind him. “It was either raise an army of the dead or become a Sh’yvyn Wyrm feeder. I think I made a rather wise choice.”
“You devote your life to devilry,” Beard said, turning away from the man and his army. “Perhaps one day you’ll learn of honor and take to a better path.”
“I’m warrior enough to have saved one at his most dire moment,” Cruce replied in jest.
“You know nothing of dire moments!” Beard yelled, lunging at the man. The warrior landed atop the death-dealer, bringing him to his knees. From behind, Beard placed his arms around Cruce’s neck, locking him in what the ancient grapplers called the Catal-hai-jimā Death Grip. The undead were quick to respond, but before they could reach him, Beard released the hold, his point thoroughly made.
“Leave me be, Death-Dealer,” Beard said as he limped away.
“You...” Cruce said between gasps, “you’re welcome, warrior.”
Beard stopped suddenly, turning back to the Death-Dealer, the sunken eyes of the resurrected army dumbly following his every move.
“Come back... to finish?” Cruce asked from a frail crouching position.
“Where am I?” Beard asked. “You said it was once a township... by which name did it go?”
“I think I’ve helped you enough,” Cruce said as he rose to his feet. Beard took three heavy steps toward the weakened man before Cruce relented in his bravado.
“Fine, fine,” Cruce said. “I know not the name of the township, but the remains of its cemetery are over there.”
The death-dealer pointed a thin finger past Beard, forcing the warrior’s eyes to follow. There were but three headstones there, all bearing the marks of several hundred cycles of wear. Whatever town had once existed here had not only been brought to ruin, but wiped completely from this part of Krytherion -- all but those three markers.
“Where is the Eastwood from here?” Beard asked, his eyes scanning the distant tombstones. “A dozen or so iles past those graves,” Cruce said. “It’s rather difficult to see at this hour, though. The Eastwood is rather good at camouflage, you see, until nightfall. It’s a wonder you found your way into it in the first place.”
“My wits weren’t about me at that time,” Beard whispered.
“Pardon?” Cruce asked, his breathing finally back to a regular pace.
“You mean to return to the woods then?” Cruce asked. “The trees have marked you as an enemy. They have your scent, they know your blood. You’d fast meet death there.”
“Turin’s Wall,” Beard said, ignoring the death-dealer’s concern.
“Where is it from here?” Beard asked.
“The Black Wall of Turin... hmmm...” Cruce said, scanning the horizon on all sides. “About two-triple the amount of iles, but in that direction.”
Beard shot a look over his right shoulder and scoffed at the rough hills blocking his view of the wall.
“What business have you at Turin’s Wall?” Cruce asked.
Beard marched away from the death-dealer and his undead army, nothing but a deep groan escaping his lips.
“Warrior, wait!” Cruce cried suddenly.
“Can I... I mean we...” Cruce asked. “Can we come with you?”
“Why?” Beard asked.
“We have business in Deep Southron and the gate passage will be difficult,” the death-dealer explained.
“And they aren’t enough assistance?” Beard asked, a wicked smile kinking the corners of his lips.
“They are of great strength, this is true,” Cruce said, “but they lack the intellect to be good companions.”
“You ask out of loneliness?” Beard asked with a hearty laugh.
Cruce sulked, the undead milling about behind him.
“Fine,” Beard said, “but if you slow me down, I’ll make my own graveyard for you and your friends upon the road. Understood?”
“Yeah,” the death-dealer said.
“Then come,” Beard said, “and with haste.”
Cruce fon Brambell walked with quick steps to catch up to the warrior. His undead army stumbled in his wake, following the two men as they disappeared behind a large hill that was once a great plaza now lost to the ages. There was no drumming now, though Beard could still hear it deep within the catacombs of his mind. Now the only sound was an occasional gust of hot wind and the ever-present howling of the undead behind him.
“By the way, warrior,” Cruce asked after a few moments. “What be your name?”
“If you survive this trek,” Beard told him, “perhaps I’ll spare it.”
From there, the men walked on in silence, their footfalls replacing their words, the Solight behind them ushering in a new day.