Strong Hands

The bonds of family in Winterskorn are tested when a new force arrives.

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1. Strong Hands

 

“I am dying,” the old man whispered. “But not like this.”

Thane Halfdan rose unsteadily from his seat at the long wooden table. He stumbled a bit as a wave of dizziness washed through his head and only by grasping at the table was he able to keep himself from falling. Pain shot through him as he caught himself and his hand fell on the blade of an ancient axe resting on the table. Blood dripped from the fresh slash on his palm and mixed with generations of bloodstains on the axe’s blade. He ignored the pain and steadied himself as the dizziness faded away. A new scar would form there to join thousands of others that covered his battle-worn body.

That scar would form only if he survived the day, and Thane Halfdan was unsure of those prospects.

Using the table to steady himself he carefully made his way to the solid wood and iron door that served as the only entrance to the longhouse. Quiet sobbing sounds came from a dark corner of the house but he could spare neither time nor energy to glance at the huddled figures there. The door was slightly open and Thane Halfdan steadied himself on the doorjamb as he pitted his strength again the oaken monstrosity. Eventually it swung open and he gazed out upon the longhouses and bonfires of Winterskorn. His people, what remained of them.

Looking to the north he saw forces massing on the hills above his town, preparing their assault. His head hung for a moment and then he looked up again. Blowing in the howling winds amidst those mustered forces were the banners of his own tribe.

Thane Halfdan tried to straighten his aged and weak back, but all he succeeded in doing was making a sad creaking sound. He knew he was no longer strong enough to defend his people.

He leaned his head against the doorway. He closed his eyes and felt sorrow.

“Once, I was strong. Once…”

Halfdan’s fingers wrapped around the twin axes in his hands. Massed behind him were the forces of Winterskorn and standing beside him was his father, Thane Guldram. The elderly Thane wielded the ancient axe of station, the Skornblaad, in his scarred hands and a murderous glint in his one remaining eye. He grinned at his son. “A few notches in those blades and you may yet prove yourself ready to lead the Winterskorn, lad,” he growled.

 “I will prove myself today, father. You will see my strength.”

“Strength is nothing, son, unless it is used in service to your tribe.”

Halfdan nodded and raised the axes high. So far they had tasted only the blood of worgs and shoveltusks. Now they would see real battle. Now he would have a chance to prove his strength. Across the field of battle he looked upon the forces of the Halgrind tribe. He barely remembered what had initiated this battle – some slight, perceived or real – and no part of him cared. He cared only that in this battle he would prove his worth to his father and his tribe.

The forces of Winterskorn advanced, led by their Thane and his strong but inexperienced son. The shield-maidens formed a protective wall against the Halgrind archers as the Winterskorn rune-casters pelted the enemy forces with bolts of magical ice. The Halgrind warriors also began their advance.  As the forces closed all semblance of orderly battle were replaced by berserker rage. Halfdan’s axes tasted blood, and they liked the flavor.

The Halgrind tribe was strong, but their numbers were soon decimated under the superior skill and rage of the Winterskorn forces. A group of Winterskorn berserkers, led by the Thane Guldram’s Master Armsman, had routed and slaughtered the Halgrind archers then flanked the main force. The Halgrind forces were in disarray and the few that stayed to fight were dying quickly.

A shriek from above signaled a new threat and Halfdan looked up, axes at the ready. A dozen enormous winged creatures with tusk-like fangs and flame trickling from their gargantuan mouths were diving towards the center of the Winterskorn force.  

“Drakes!” roared Thane Guldram. “Berserkers, to me! To me!” Chaos erupted as the beasts landed, burning and biting, rending and pummeling.

Halfdan stood, unmoving, as one of the beasts fixed its vile eyes on him and charged. The young Vrykul knew he had only seconds to live and vowed to make them count. He sprinted towards the beast, intending to slay the beast even as it ended his own life. From the corner of his eye he saw a flash of blonde hair and metal armor before he was slammed to the ground, covered by the protective wood, metal and flesh of a shield-maiden’s armaments and body.

The drake’s toxic maw crushed the maiden’s shield and arm, but her heroic act had given Halfdan the second he needed. He rolled to the side as the beast shook its head back and forth trying to dislodge the splintered pieces of iron and wood. Halfdan leapt towards its unprotected eyes and brought an axe blade down on each. The creature shrieked in agony and collapsed.

Halfdan rushed to the shield-maiden’s side. Her arm was shattered and bloodied but her eyes were clear.

“Who…” he stuttered. “My thanks…”

“My name is Baurdila, my lord. Kill more of them. I will wait here.”

A soft rain began to fall, pattering quietly on the thatched roof of the longhouse. Thane Halfdan looked out again at the massed forces upon the hills as he leaned wearily against the doorway. They were starting to move. Banners blew in the wind and the distant sound of drums floated across the village’s dirt streets. He heard the shouted warnings of the rune-casters who manned the many watch towers around the village. The battle would soon be joined, and kinsmen would slaughter kinsman upon the ground he had spent a lifetime defending.

“Do it,” he whispered.

“Of course, my lord,” came an ethereal voice from within the longhouse.

From behind him a scream of agony echoed against the longhouse’s walls then was cut short. A moment later a surge of energy burst through Halfdan’s body and he stood straight. He closed the door and barred it then strode back to his chair. He ignored the incessant sobbing from the cowering figures in the corner and the utter silence of the corpses around them.

He settled into his chair and placed a single hand on the haft of the Skornblaad. It felt good to be strong again. He knew it would be short-lived, but it felt so good. Weakness had no place with his people, even the aged weakness of a great warrior.

Thane Halfdan felt the blessed strength flee his body again and he slumped forward. Weakness had no place with his people, and it was dealt with severely.

“The child is weak, like the last one, and the one before.”

Thane Halfdan scowled at the midwife’s pronouncement. His wife sobbed. Baurdila cradled the freshly birthed child in her arms. Though her left arm was still deformed and weak from the unhealed wound so long ago, she clung to the child with the strength of a young shield-maiden. She would not give up another child - she had given up too many already.

“It is a son,” Thane Halfdan said. “I’ve a trail of daughters from one end of the fjord to the depth of Grizzly Hills. I need a son.” He slammed his fists down on the birthing table and the midwife’s medicinal supplies scattered to the floor. “I need an heir!” he roared.

A firm hand grasped his arm. “Thane, you cannot…”

Thane Halfdan grabbed the hand and spun, hurling it and the robed man to which it belonged to the ground. “How dare you…” he glared at the figure on the ground and trembled with barely controlled rage. The man returned the glare and pulled himself back to his feet.

“You tread on dangerous ground, Thane. If King Ymiron…”

“King!” Halfdan spit. “You are lucky I don’t gut you right now, seer. Is it not enough that Thane Ymiron requires the presence of one his pathetic seers at every birth? Does he now style himself a King?”

The robed man began to speak but Halfdan interrupted him. “Silence!” He turned his back on the seer and looked to his wife and the pathetically weak child. “The child will be killed, seer.” Baurdila suppressed a sob and closed her eyes. “He will be killed like the rest and you may take his corpse to Ymiron.” He turned a scowling eye upon the seer. “…to Thane Ymiron.”

Hours later, as the seer left Winterskorn with the lifeless bundle in his arms, Halfdan held his wife. Baurdila returned the embrace. “You will have an heir, my Thane,” she said. “This curse on our people cannot last forever.”

“You are the strongest woman in Skorn,” Halfdan said and strengthened his embrace. “If anyone can overcome the curse it is you.”

Rain pounded on the thatched roof, but above the rain’s din Halfdan could hear the sound of battle. His were a boisterous people; violent, cheerful, loud, prone to violence quickly turned to festivity. But the sound outside was not sparring or wrestling – it was killing. Battle cries and death screams coming from his kinsmen. He knew that the battle would come to his door soon. They were here not to kill his tribe, but to kill him.

He sat almost alone in the house, preparing for the killing that was to come. The sole remaining figure in the corner sobbed, but quietly. Silent bodies lay around her.

Some rain leaked through the roof and landed on the red-stained blade of the ancient axe. A drop dribbled into the blood groove and mingled with other drops that were not from rain. Thane Halfdan had not let tears fall for many years, but they came now.

The rain pounded on the roof as the screams came from inside. Crouched under the thatch overhang he heard the midwife shouting for his wife to “push push push.”  He heard Baurdila’s cries, as he had heard them many times before during the births of his daughters, and the others.

He heard the cries of the boy as it was released to the world. He heard the silence of his wife and knew the truth before the midwife told him of her death.

But she had borne him a son, a strong Vrykul heir to lead his clan.

The woman in the corner was silent, quietly sobbing. She stared at Halfdan, sometimes over his shoulder at the shadows behind him, then back at him. His wife had been dead many years and he had not taken another. This consort, the latest in a line too long to count and the only one still breathing, let loose a vocal sob as she looked behind him again.

“Silence!” he roared. His hands were weak, but his voice was still strong. The consort dropped her gaze and slid further into the corner still sobbing amidst the death around her. The sounds of battle outside were dying down. The old man had no illusions of the outcome. Those loyal to him were dead or soon would be.

“Please.” The consort sobbed again and looked into the old man’s eyes, pleading. “Do not give up your people to this… this beast…” her voice trailed off into sobs.

“You cannot understand,” he whispered. “That monster will have us no matter what actions I take. Or do not take...” His grip on the axe loosened. “But I will not die like this, weak and beaten by a child.”

The woman met his gaze. Thane Halfdan recognized that look, the look of a woman standing for her man. How long since he had seen that look in his own Baurdila’s eyes? How long since those eyes had closed forever?

“Do not kill him, Thane.”

Halfdan chuckled. “You were nothing to my son, just as you were nothing to me.” He half looked over his shoulder and said “I tire of her talk. Give me what little strength she has.”

A snakelike voice behind him whispered, “Of course, my lord.”

A voice whispered in Halfdan’s ear even as the dark spots began to leap across his vision.

“I got you, father.”

The pressure on his neck relaxed and he gasped for air. His son’s muscular arms still held tightly around his neck but were loose enough to allow blood to flow again. His son had grown strong, strong as the man with whom he shared a name and bloodline. Thane Halfdan laughed with joy as he threw his weight forward and with a twist and jerk he threw Haaldrad to the ground.

“Ha!” Haaldrad laughed as he relaxed on the ground. “I should have known not to show you mercy!”

“The armsman is training you well, son.” Halfdan settled into the grass beside the boy.

No, his son was not a boy now. He was not yet a man, but he was strong and fierce. And he had bested his father in battle.

“But he has certainly not trained you well enough if you think you can give a superior opponent an opening like that.”

His son looked down, ashamed. Halfdan slapped him on the shoulder, then pulled him into an embrace.

“You did well, boy. Soon you will be a man.”

His son grinned like a freshly fed worg and returned the embrace. “I will make you proud of me, father.”

Halfdan smiled. “You have.” He pushed the boy away. “But for now, let us see if you can do that again!”

Father and son leapt to their feet and squared off.

“You will fall, old man!” Haaldrad shouted.

Halfdan laughed. “If you best me again, boy, I will give my best consort to you.”

The consort’s desiccated body lay crumpled in the corner, finally silent alongside the other corpses. The pounding rain was stronger and almost drowned out the hushed voices at the barred longhouse door. He recognized those voices, especially the strongest. The bravest.

“Soon they will come, my lord.” The whispered voice sent chills through the old man’s body. The consort, though dead, still gazed at him through bulging eyes. Only when the first thundering knocks shook the longhouse door did he pull his gaze away.

“They come now,” he said. His voice sounded strong, but the brief burst of strength was already fading. With shaking legs he stood.

Halfdan’s hand, with all the strength left in it, grasped the haft of the Skornblaad.

He sat at the head of the table, his kinsman gathered all around, his ancient hand resting on the haft of the axe that generations of the Thanes of Skorn has wielded.

“We cannot ally with the Lich King!” his Chief Armsman yelled. “He will make us his slaves!”

Many heads in the crowd nodded, but many more did not.

“If we do not ally with him then he will destroy us,” a strong voice stated from the back of the crowd. It was spoken, not yelled, but it reverberated through the room stronger than the Armsman’s bellows. Haaldrad pushed through the crowd.

Halfdan looked at his son as he spoke. “We are a proud people, a strong people.” He grasped the Skornblaad and, using all the strength in his body, lifted it above his head. “We will never bow our heads to that monster!”

“Father, you are old and weak.” The young Vrykul turned his back on Halfdan. “If you will not fulfill your duties as Thane to protect your people then I will.” He strode from the longhouse, and the room emptied as many of the clan followed him. Too many.

“Armsman,” Halfdan said in a voice too old to carry. “Prepare yourself for battle. This night will not end without blood.”

“We cannot win against so many, My Lord,” the Armsman said. “Haaldrad is strong, and those loyal to him outnumber ours.”

“I will find a way,” Thane Halfdan said. Then, in a whisper, “I will be strong for this tribe.”

“I will find a way,” the old man whispered.

A soft chuckling filled his ear, then a hissing voice. “You have found a way, my lord.”

Thane Halfdan lowered his head. “By allying with the very monster I swore to defend my tribe against.” He turned his gaze to the vampiric elf standing in the shadows. “Am I so weak of body and soul?”

“In the deaths of your kinsman you will repair the first, my lord. And my King cares nothing for the latter.”

The fists knocking on the door were replaced by blades. The heavy wooden door shivered under Vrykul axes and splinters flew into the room. The old man’s body shivered as he used the last of his strength to hold up the Skornblaad.

“Come in, my son.”

The door shattered inward and a towering Vrykul stepped through. His face and arms were coated with blood and a chipped and battered axe rested in each relaxed hand. Behind him came his followers, strong and well armed.

“Father, it should not have come to this.”

The old man shook his head. “No son, it should not have.” He tried to lift his axe, but the strength was gone.

“Father, lay down the blade. I will take it and I will lead us to great honor.”

Halfdan felt the form in the shadows behind him as it moved to his side. He saw the blood drain from his son’s face.

“You!”

Haaldrad raised his axe. “We had a deal, Keleseth! We are allied!”

The dark form laughed. “The deal has changed, fool.” The vampiric creature raised his arms and the room filled with screams as Haaldrad’s followers had their life essences torn from their bodies. The screams seemed to solidify and float through the air to be absorbed by the Darkfallen.

The young man strode towards his father and the vampire, axes raised. “What is your game, creature?!”

“My King desires the taste of violence and death, but it so much more palatable with a dash of familial betrayal,” Prince Keleseth laughed.

The Darkfallen placed a hand on Thane Halfdan’s hunched back and the old men felt the life force of dozens of his kinsmen flow into his body. Strength rushed into his old bones and muscles and filled him with energy he’d not felt for ages. He lifted the Skornblaad with a single strong hand and held it high.

The Darkfallen whispered, “Destroy him, Thane. Our Lord demands this sacrifice.”

Thane Halfdan looked down at the shattered body of his only son lying in a pool of blood as the boy’s strength coursed through his body. He felt nothing.

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