~ "My your ribs writhe with worms, may your barrow be an anthill where you rot, unless you speak with me, sons of Arngrim, all girt with battle-gear, keen blades at your sides and bright spears stained with blood. Death has made you cowards, but I have kin-right here. I come for the sword made by Dvalin. Why should dead hands hold the blade?" Hervor
His name was Vathan, a target more notorious in the province of Myrfrost than any other. It was rare to wander into a village without hearing of the raids he had lead the nights before. His was a campaign of terror, the band of rogues and thieves he headed unmatched by anything the small, rural villages that perpetuated the continent could provide. And Vathan lived for that fear, the sounds of the screams of hundreds filling the air like a sonata. Compared to that, how could those of this tiny, insignificant Hunter compare? But isn't it true that it's sometimes the simplest of melodies that can conjure up the strongest emotions? He brushes a single strand of dark, oily hair from his steel grey eyes, pushing it stubbornly back into the knot at the back of his head. Yellow teeth bared, sickening grin in pride of place, he stares down at the Hunter in front of him. This was always his favourite part, the standoff just before the battle, when the steady beat of his pulse was all he could hear.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
Night was already fast approaching, the last rays of sun only just tickling the ground. The woods behind him called with the sounds of safety, of retreat. It would be so much easier to run now, to be done with this nuisance with no effort at all, but the mind of a gambler had overtaken him. He lived for the risk of 'just one more battle', craved the adrenaline that fuelled him with each stroke of a knife. While the Hunter before him wasn’t one who would pose too much difficulty, there was no question that even a brief spat would sate his thirst for more than a day.
He runs his eyes over her again. She was young, even for a Hunter; her large, dark eyes still brimming with curiosity. But all the same, there was a sharp, deadly gleam to the way she stared at him that Vathan would have had to have been a fool to ignore. Her hair was short, choppy and kept tucked behind her ears. Her skin was raw, a patchwork of angry red blotches and startlingly pale skin. Really she was no more than a child, barely strong enough to hold herself upright with the oversized axe strapped across her back. It was a bright shade of scarlet, unfitting with the dull colours of the girls clothes, but even so, like her eyes there was a deadly, sharp edge that glinted at Vathan from across the plain. The very fact that this girl had managed to track him this far deserved merit, but this would be the only thing Vathan gave her. She was like all those who had come before, arrogant, too quick to underestimate skill and, above all else, driven by only one thing- gold.
In ways, they were similar, Vathan snorts, looking down at his own weapon. While the blade itself was short, he knew more than anyone the damage it could cause. In reality, it was his speed that was his true weapon. He had always been light on his feet, but even now, when his bones have just about begun to stiffen, he could still wreak havoc with the knife. What could this girl do that could kill him? While that axe would be deadly should it make contact, he doubts she would be able to hold it long enough for that to happen. He readies his stance, ready to charge at a moment’s notice. The girl doesn't as much as blink, her own weapon still still across her back. She stands, her arms hanging loosely at her sides, with no look of fear or even confidence on her face. Vathan grunts, scowling at the hunter, willing her to do something, to pose some threat as a challenger.
He waits a moment longer, watching each tiny unimportant change in her expression, before charging. Like a wild animal, he pays no attention to direction, only focusing on the pace of his speed and the angle of his swing.
'YOU'RE MINE NOW!' He cackles, slicing like a madman in the Hunter's direction. He feels the blade slice through something and howls in delight as scarlet stains the earth. He allows himself one glimpse up at his opponent, grinning all the while as he sees the scarlet hands cupping a new injury. The next few seconds happen in a blur. The hunter mouths an unintelligible sentence, her hand reaching for the weapon at her back, and unsheathing it without a sound. She darts backwards from Vathan, her bloody hands gripping the handle of the axe with such force they seem ready to shatter. The Hunter holds it ahead of her, like one would a pole arm, but with such control over its oversized head she doesn't so much as waver in her stance. Vathan doesn't hesitate, doesn't give the girl an opportunity to attack as he charges again, aiming for the girls neck.
A mistake, she spots his intention before he can land the hit, swinging the axe with strength that shouldn't be contained in a Hunter so small. Vathan only just manages to avoid the main body of the blade, thanking again his speed. A long, thin cut opens on his arm, slicing apart the cloth once tightly bound there. She smirks, her thin lips parting to reveal straight, white teeth.
'NOW! RAGNAROK!' She roars, her voice echoing in the silence of the valley. The axe glows with an ethereal light for a second, travelling up her arms and towards her heart. There it stays, pulsing in time to the beat of her heart. Her eyes gleam ferociously, even in the vanishing light. She swings again, wielding the axe as though it was a sword, not giving Vathan a second chance to understand what she has unleashed. He stares, wide eyed as the girl matches his every moment, barely dodging each deadly swing.
'What the hell...' He breathes out, rolling out of the way of another of the Hunter's attacks. She doesn't break a sweat, matching every step with increasing speed. The light at her chest grows and pulses with increasing speed lighting the air with a glow brighter than starlight. Vathan blinks away the dark spots from his vision, not daring to dive in for an attack with this madwoman still attempting to kill him with every swing. He backs away again, his back brushing the trunk of a pine tree, its needles scattered like fallen warriors around its base. The call of escape rings in his ears once more, this time not falling to deaf ears. The Hunter would be unable to swing with such precision in there, constrained by the tightly packed trees. Without a second thought Vathan dives for its safety, his feet swift across the soft earth. The girl roars in fury behind him, taking chase, her axe cutting a path in the earth behind her. 'MINE!' She screams, speeding up with each step. The two figures pass like a blur through the trees, lit only by the bright light the girl gives off.
Vathan glances over his shoulder. Mistake. The girl sees her opening, leaping like a wild beast into the air, crashing down with a force that would have killed anyone else, but leaves her only momentarily stunned. Mistake. Vathan increases his lead, pulling ahead far enough for the shrine that had always been his objective to come into view. To anyone else it would seem like a rundown circle of stone, the collapsed figures of hunched golems looking more derylict than worshipped, but Vathan knows these woods, knows each nook and cranny of this continent as if it were the back of his hand. And he knows, more than anyone else, that these shattered, moss covered old statues will reject this stranger. He watches with baited breath as the light that signals her arrival draws closer and closer, gaining ground at an inhuman pace. She comes into view, her face a pale mask of rage, markings Vathan had never noticed on her before covering her face, curving around the edges of her eyes like a mask glowing with the same eerie glow as her heart.
'MENACE!' She cries, leaping again into the air, her axe raised above her head. She soars down with the speed of a bird, axe falling in a swift arc. For a moment, Vathan backs away from her path, to the centre of the shrine, worried for a moment that his faith was misplaced. But it is as the air around him ripples and lights up with a holy blue light that Vathan understands. The girl hits the barrier, repelled by the power of its guardians, and is flung backwards, her crumpled body hitting the trunk of a tree with a noise like thunder. She falls, limply to the ground, the light that had given her her power, fading from her skin.
'BEGONE DEMON, YOUR LIES ARE NOT WANTED HERE.' A hollow voice rings out, startling Vathan. He had almost forgotten the true power of this place.
Vathan steps out from the circle, walking over to the curled body of the hunter. He heaves her weapon away from her arms, planting it cautiously in the centre of the circle, leant against the grimacing face of an idol. Seeing her like this, it was easy to forget that no more than a few moments ago she had almost killed him. Vathan was right to call her no more than a child. Looking at her face, she could be no older than seventeen, her body still adjusting to the changes the last few years had given her, and for someone who had just been tossed into a tree like she was no more than a rag doll, she seems awfully peaceful, her expression similar to that of someone who was deeply wrapped in the soft silk of sleep. Without a thought to the consequences, Vathan rips the torn fabric from his arm, wrapping it tightly around the knife wound he himself had inflicted. He hoists her up and over his shoulder, surprised at how light a girl who could wield that axe really was. Looking over at the solemn sight of the scarlet axe in the centre of the shrine, Vathan trudges past the sanctuary, onwards to the only place he had ever called home.
At first all Vathan could see was the amber glow of the village. But gradually as he drew closer and closer, the orange light came into clearer view. Over the crest of the hill, he had a good enough view of the entire camp, good enough so he can pick out features such as the enormous fire pit outside the central ring of yurts. Dark, heavily furred figures dart around it like ants, dancing and singing as they drink and eat from the central pot.
'Bounty hunter.' Vathan grunts as he passes by curious eyes. Even though no one challenges him as to why he has brought this tiny hunter back to camp, the question is still there in their faces, plain as day. Even at this hour, the camp is as lively as ever, with ten or more fires burning in full flame in front of every group of yurts. While others may argue that it would be wiser to keep hidden, never before has anyone come to challenge the camp, the stories of what they did to intruders enough to ward anyone from ever coming near. Ribbons and bright strips of fabric hang from the branches above the encampment, interwoven with wooden charms still damp from the rain. Droplets of water drip down from above, landing on Vathan's skin, cooling it and setting in a chill he is all too eager to rid himself of. His yurt comes into view, the centre of the camp where the largest crowds gather around a roaring bonfire. The sound of song and laughter is matched only by the roar and crack of the fire, endlessly being fed by a few children with a pile of wood that, between them would be enough to keep the fire lit for several days. Vathan smiles as he sees his own son, cowering behind his mother as he listens to one of the countless stories being tossed between one another. He cannot yet guess whether it is the same one about the bear that wandered into camp a few days ago or a new, more fantastical story someone had no doubt heard from a friend of a friend's sister. No more than a second after he pushes past the small group of people blocking the entrance to his yurt, the voice he had been dreading to hear since his arrival broke through the chatter of countless people.
'VATHAN OF MYR, WHERE THE HELL HAVE YOU BEEN?!' Dressed from head to toe in full scale armour, towering above most of the men who surrounded her, the woman who had taken his heart twenty years ago stood, a small circle of excited people surrounding her.
'Oh no, don't you Uma me! Who the hell sneaks off in the middle of the night to go Gods know where and bring... nothing... back...' Her eyes drift to the unconscious body of the hunter slung over his shoulder. She scowls, her already harsh features twisted into a scarlet mask of fury. She marches up to him, bearing down on him with a face like thunder. Her hair was incredibly pale, more white than blonde, and her startlingly blue eyes matched it perfectly. Compared with those around her, she stood like a warrior goddess, with a temper to match.
'Who the hell is this?' She hissed her voice barely audible. If it wasn't for the sudden hush around the camp, Vathan doubts he would be able to hear her at all. She wrenches the girl from his shoulders, holding her up as if inspecting her.
'I didn't know you were interested in this kind of...'
'She almost killed me.' Vathan interrupts, glaring up at his wife.
'Sadist.' She spits, dropping the hunter like a broken toy as she turns to walk away. She drops without a sound or a stir, as though she was dead. But the heavy rise and fall of her chest tells him otherwise.
'Uma. Wait.' Vathan reaches for her hand. Despite the freezing steel that encases it, the skin underneath is surprisingly warm. The fierce look on her face is identical to the day they had met, when their fathers had ridden out together to scout out the woodland for any threats, back in the days when invaders and enraged villagers were still a problem. Vathan had already been told, more ordered really, that the girl who stood ahead of him would one day be his wife, but even then the idea of this giantess ever belonging to anyone, nonetheless the boy they called 'The Weed' was an impossible thought, and it was clear that Uma had thought so too. But here they were, thirty five years after that day, arguing over a girl he had chosen to save from death for a reason he did not yet know.
'The shrine repelled her.' Vathan explains. ‘It called her a demon. Something she did with the axe she was carrying, cursed blade, I left it there, no one should be able to take it from there, but she- she somehow survived being flung from the circle to the old oak without a scratch. Uma, she may be one of them.'
'You said she was 'Just a Hunter.' Uma sneers, pulling her hand away from him. 'Anyway, those are just children’s stories, nothing more than fables so that they don't fear the dark. And how could she be, if you say the circle rejected her?'
'They're based on the truth, Uma, and even though the circle forced her away, how can we be sure? How can we be sure she's not an omen?' Vathan pleads, looking up to Uma with apologetic eyes. 'Listen to me, Uma. Wasn't it your father who always said that those who throw omens away are forced to deal with the tragedy they may foretell? Now, look at her face and tell me that you haven't seen those patterns before.' The curling pattern that frames her face seems to stand out even further now that Vathan searches for them. Uma takes a sharp breath.
'Wherever she came from, you don't know. She could be a spy, an assassin trained to kill us all. You know how they detest us, Vathan. How do we know that they didn't send for them from Ak'Tar?'
'Trust me, Uma. Trust me...' His voice is pleading now, drawing her in. 'Please, Uma, she is a sign.' Uma's eyes flit from Vathan to the girl and back again. While uncertainty still fills her eyes, there is still the flicker of belief in his words, which gives way to more and more before her head relents, nodding solemnly. Vathan smiles, taking his wife’s other hand. A few of the people who had been watching and listening intently to their conversation rolled their eyes, visibly disappointed that the argument didn't end in one of their notoriously entertaining fights. Though they fought often, over fickle, unimportant things, no one could deny that under their tough exteriors, a love that burned brightly whenever they were with each other never went out. Even Uma, with her constant suspicions and harsh words, found that she could never stay angry at Vathan for longer than a day, missing his company more than she would have liked to admit.
At their feet, the Hunter stirs a little, reaching out to an invisible spectre and murmuring something, the sound muffled by the ground. Uma takes on last, lingering stare at the girl before scooping her up into her arms and placing her gently into Vathan’s. ‘Take her.’ She whispers, pushing him towards the door of the yurt. ‘She’s bleeding.’ She holds one scarlet hand in the air as she turns and walks away into the embrace of the crowd.
Despite the raucous chatter outside of the yurt, through the thick hide of its walls barely a word broke through, the only sound that could be heard being a dull buzz, barely a murmur. Vathan lays the hunter down across a pile of fabric and furs, supporting her head with his hand. The blood from her chest has, by now, seeped through the tattered fabric he had tied around her chest as a make-shift bandage stained a dark, deadly shade of red.
Rooting around in a small chest, Vathan searches with his fingertips for the soft linen rolls he knows has to be buried within it. Seizing one in his hand, he crawls over to the girl, unsheathing his knife as he does so. He cuts away the fabric that binds her chest, revealing the wound to the open air. On the surface, it doesn’t appear to be too grave, but beneath the surface Vathan realises how deep the slice in her abdomen could be. Taking the flask from his belt, Vathan drenches the bandage in the dark plum coloured liquid. He stretches it, and wraps it tightly around her chest,covering the injury. Dark yet tiny droplets of it fall away from the bandage, trailing down the girl’s skin and staining it a faint shade of purple. Reaching for another bandage, he binds the dry, white strip over the top of its alcohol sodden brother. Despite their reputations as thieves and murderers, no one could deny the knowledge Vathan and his people had gathered over years of living away from the rest of the world. They knew all too well the dangers of a dirty knife wound, but also how quickly it could heal if treated correctly. The girl’s chest rises and falls gently, slower than before but still there, still alive. There was nothing left to do now, nothing else Vathan could do other than wait.
Turning away, he ducks out of the yurt, standing in the cool night air. Rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, Vathan walks slowly over to the fire, sitting down between Uma and his son. He stares vacantly into the fire, watching as it dances to and fro, the white hot flames reaching for the night sky. Arvid looks towards his father, his brown eyes wide. Vathan smiles down at him, ruffling his hair. Arvid grins, giggling as he shuffles closer to him.
‘Hey,’ Vathan whispers to him. ‘Do you want to see what I found today?’ He reaches for one of the pouches at his waist. Drawing a small, dark shape into his hand, he quietly asks Arvid for his hands. He places the small charm into his sons trembling hands.
‘Ravens are the messengers of the Gods, Arvid.’ Vathan says, taking his hand away to reveal the small charm embossed with the symbol of a raven. Arvid’s eyes widen, his mouth curving into an ‘O’. He looks up into his father’s grey eyes, smiling as they meet his own brown ones.
‘Thank you.’ He whispers in a tiny, whisper like voice. He bolts up from the log on which he was sat, scampering with the same speed as his father into his yurt.
He is gone long before Vathan can call to him, following in pursuit of his son into the canopy of their home. Arvid stands, not far from the entrance, his eyes wide with confusion. As he hears his father enter behind him, he turns to look at him, the same look of confusion casting shadows across his face. In his bed, sat on the pile of furs and old cloaks he thought he could hide forever in, a girl with an identical look of confusion to Arvid sits, holding herself upright with shaking arms. Her skin is pale, paler even than when she was still unconscious, the red patches across her skin completely blotted out by the white. The mask like patterns across her face are even more obvious now, even as she scowls in their direction. With one swift, effortless movement, the girl stands, wrapping her arms around her middle, concealing the bandage tied there. She only says one word:
‘Why?’ Her voice is quiet, and breaks halfway through the vowel, but it is easy enough to hear, and easier still to understand. Vathan scoffs, pushing his son behind him as if this injured, unarmed girl could somehow still harm him.
‘Usually when you save someone’s life they thank you, not demand to know why you did it.’
The girl scowls at him, taking another, unbalanced step forwards. ‘Why?’ She says, more determined now, no emotion in her voice other than anger. ‘You should have left me to die.’ She spits. Arvid clings to Vathan’s leg, staring out at the stranger.
‘You don’t let someone using a demon to fight their battles for them die in front of you.’ Vathan scratches the back of his head, sheepishly grinning. The hunter’s eyes widen. ‘Where is it?’ She hisses, taking another step forwards, staring up at Vathan with a look of fury. ‘I don’t know who the hell you think you are, Vathan of Myr, but you have no idea what power that axe holds. If it was to…’
‘Cut the crap.’ Vathan’s eyes narrow. ‘Stop acting like you have some kind of unholy prophecy to fulfil. I may have saved you because you appeared as a sign to me of something soon to come, but don’t think for one moment that I don’t realise what destruction that cursed axe could reap. It’s somewhere nowhere but I could claim it, don’t worry for that.’
‘Show me.’ The girl draws increasingly closer to Vathan. Though she is short, the way she approaches the pair makes her seem taller, stronger than she did just stood there.
‘No.’ Vathan stands his ground, standing up to his full height. Even though he was short compared to many of those he led, there was no question that out of the two figures he is the one in control. ‘Anyone who works with demons isn’t to be trusted, let alone someone rejected by a shrine.’
The girl’s brow furrows further. ‘Who the hell cares?! You’d be surprised how many people...’
‘You’d be surprised how many people wind up dead after messing around with things they don’t understand! Demons don’t lend themselves out for free; they always take more than they give!’ Vathan yells, holding Arvid firmly behind him. His tiny hands tremble in their hold around the tiny charm, his eyes still wide and unsure of everything happening around him. Arvid switches from one tense figure to the other, unsure and afraid when either will snap.
‘I am not returning that weapon to you. Do not argue with my decision.’ He turns, pulling Arvid behind him as he breaks through into the open air of the night. The girl dashes towards him slowly but still swift as she catches his arm. Her eyes are pleading as she looks up at him. The defiance and pride that had once filled them has vanished, replaced with the narrow pupils of someone completely overtaken by desperation.
‘Please. You don’t know what you’re dealing with... You have to return my axe!’ Vathan shakes her off, but she follows in quick pursuit after him.
The fire has died down considerably, despite its previous height and glow it now lays as a solemn pit of amber embers. A few people still mill around it, standing and talking as they absent-mindedly stare into the pit. Uma stands alone, a solitary steel sentinel highlighted by the dying light. She looks to her husband as the rustle of canvas reaches her ears, staring with the same confused expression her son wears at Vathan’s scowling red face. The girl he dragged into the camp follows closely behind, shouting unintelligible requests at him.
‘Vathan?’ She calls to him, opening her arms for Arvid.
‘YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND!’ The hunter yells, clutching her middle as her expression changes from one extreme to the other. ‘Where I came from, there’s someone...’ She stops to catch her breath. ‘There’s someone there who wants me dead. If you think the demon in that axe is dangerous, you have no idea the devastation that its twin could cause. Please, if I don’t leave now with that axe, she’ll kill everyone here without mercy.’
Uma’s eyes widen. ‘Vathan.’ She hisses.
‘Please!’ The girl begs, crouching from the pain. Tiny patches of blood stain the linen around her core.
‘VATHAN!’ Uma roars. Vathan stands bolt upright, all too aware of the panic in her voice. ‘She’s telling the truth.’
‘But how do you...’
‘I JUST KNOW, OKAY! You need to trust her! You were the one demanding that she was a sign, now listen to that sign and act upon it! She’s telling the truth and you need to do something about that! I will not stand idly by waiting for a death someone warned me-‘
Uma chokes, her words caught in her throat. Vathan watches in terror as she gags and wretches, blood staining her hands as she coughs into it. The girl screams, a shrill yet pure noise.
‘It’s begun!’ She wails, the sound of coughing rising up from all around. A sudden, blood-red tinge hits the fire, illuminating the encampment with its deadly light. The world is seen in a blur of black and white, the pale, quickly falling figures of countless people casting dark, warped shadows across the ground. Uma falls to her knees, Vathan rushing to her side, trying to hold her upright. The shadows at her feet dance in glee.
‘Run you fool!’ She stammers, her hands a bright scarlet colour. Vathan looks to her, desperate and suddenly alone. ‘Uma... Uma!’ He yells, watching as she slips from his arms, eyes white and rolled back into their sockets, a ragdoll cast to the ground like an unwanted toy. ‘UMA!’ Vathan gives a blood curdling scream, interrupted only by the first beginnings of his own, involuntary wretches. Arvid watches, unable to move, unable to act, still clutching his mother as if she could still protect him.
And out of the fire, a dark, overbearing shape made of shadows and nightmares rises up, plunging the dying camp into darkness except for two, amber eyes of pure evil. A voice laughs in a thousand different accents, watching as people fall limp and lifeless where they stand.
‘I warned you, Dee. I warned you I would find you!’ A childish voice rings out. ‘BUT STILL YOU HIDE!’ The voice laughs, the scene around sounding more like a game of hide and seek than a slaughter. Vathan screams from the darkness.
‘YOU BASTARD!’ He unsheathes a knife, wildly slashing at the air, hoping to hit something, anything. The shadow shrinks, taking the form of a slight, female figure. ‘It seems I have found myself yet another fool.’ The spectre smirks, as if such a thing was possible for the assembly of darkness. With an effortless snatch, it reaches for Vathan, its arms unnaturally long and tapered, too much like tree branches to be called human. It lifts him into the air, laughing as he struggles and swipes against it. Each time he cuts through its form, it disperses like smoke, reforming as easily as it was torn apart. ‘Should I leave you, fool, like I left lovely Dee? Leave you to wander as you mourn your lost home?’