The Barbarian Bard

Tales and Musings by Michael A. Espinoza

Archive for the category “Writing”

The Gem Stone’s Folly

Hail readers,
As many of you likely already know, this month is Pride Month. A while ago, I wrote this poem—a darkly-themed fairy tale-esque piece—but I wasn’t sure if or when I’d share it. I’m not entirely sure what the poem is specifically about, and it’s certainly far from uplifting. I guess I just want to share it and say please embrace the diverse array of wonderful people in the world. Don’t discourage a person from being who they are just because it clashes with your concept of who they ought to be. We all shine in our own unique ways, and whether it’s orientation, presentation, or identification, the world has enough love for each and every one of us, but we have to choose to share that love. Don’t just talk tolerance, take actions of acceptance.

In a family of rocks, a stone was born,
of like-body, and like-mind.
Of dark and solid flesh was he,
in each way alike in kind.
“Sturdy and strong,” their friends would say,
“a worthy rock you’ve sired.”
And the new stone beamed with every word
of praise that he inspired.
A life of stone was a good life;
stalwart, day and night.
He gave no ground, he felt no fear,
he let shine no light.

But a reckless sunbeam struck the stone,
angled perfectly,
and a dazzling light reflected from
his face for all to see.
The young stone smiled and spread his light,
amazed at his own glow.
Glittering, glinting in the sun,
an unprecedented show.
“Oh parents,” thought the joyous stone,
knowing they’d be proud of him,
“what great news I bring to you:
your stone son is a gem.”

A gem, of all things; glorious!
He could not contain his pride.
He’d never known of his own form,
that a glow was sealed inside.
Stones and gems were of equal worth,
for each could be of use.
But so rare was it, a young rock’s fate
to be free for them to choose.
And so he sought his family out,
gathering them all ’round
to see his light. “But what is this?
Why must you glow?” they frowned.

“A gem,” they wept, “Oh son, but why
have you delivered us this curse?
All gems are stones, but never should
this order be reversed.”
“We raised you,” his parents sobbed,
“to know your rightful place.
By your choice, you shun your folk,
and spit into our face.”
“But parents,” the young gemstone pled,
“I can be both bright and strong.”
“You can,” they said with somber eyes,
“but such a life is wrong.”

Bereft, the gemstone left from home,
uncertain now of life.
He’d thought his glow would bring delight,
not familial strife.
“A gem is no less hard,” he thought,
“no less able to be
a thing of strength and beauty.
This glow is part of me.”
He was not corrupted, nor defiled,
not deviant or “bad.”
But it seemed that all his light could do
was make his forebears sad.

There was no joy in a gemstone’s life,
if it shone on only pain.
He could not hurt his loved ones so,
he was not so vile and vain.
If being what he’d grown to be
was a curse unto his kind,
he resolved to be a stone,
and leave his glow behind.
But how could he eschew the light
that sparkled on his skin?
How could he take the gleam without,
and bury it within?

First he tried a layer of earth
and hoped one coat would do,
but no matter how he layered it
his radiance shone through.
Next he tried a staining dye,
that soaked in every pore,
but rain washed clean this new disguise,
and he shined brighter than before.
At last, the truth he realized,
the only answer there could be:
light cannot reflect upon
that which it cannot see.

So he delved down to the depths
of the dark and sheltering Earth,
and surrounded himself with the stones
so alike him at his birth.
There no light could ever chance
upon the facets of his face.
There no eyes could see his glow,
and know of his disgrace.
He stood still, and he stood strong;
he made his loved ones proud.
But less proud were they of his self,
and more so of his shroud,
for he’d found a way to lose their shame,
to hide his grievous sin.
And now the gemstone’s only light
was but a memory within.

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The Writer, The Death God

Recently, I was conversing with a friend about the motivation for writing. While I write fantasy and she prefers either realistic fiction or non-fiction, we are both avid writers of our own styles. She mentioned that personal experience motivates a lot of her work, and provides inspiration for some of her content. Jokingly, I replied that “I write fantasy because I can actually fix the problems in those worlds.”

Amusing though that was, it got me to thinking about my relationship to the worlds I create. I could simply write paradises for all, with no turmoil or dismay. But I am a writer, and so paradise is never good enough. We need conflict, we need death. We need characters to be written to life so that we can make their lives Hell, then save them from it. Much like a god, we are the architects of boundless suffering. Now, to be fair, I have a perhaps unwarranted attachment to my characters. They feel to me like living beings, like people for whom I am responsible, and it pains me to hurt or kill them in the name of storytelling. But stories need conflict, and conflict needs misery in some form.

I’ve stewed on these thoughts for a few days, and at last they have come together in the form of a poem, possibly a song. And as the words (or lyrics) say, I hope that the writers of our world—whatever form they take—can learn not just from the misery we craft into our own creations, but also from the efforts we make to mend that strife. Let them be less like Death Gods, and more like Writers.

I’ve penned countless towers, destined to fall.
I’ve breathed life into heroes, and murdered them all.
Firelit bard songs, I’ve written a score,
and silenced those voices in the clamor of war.

With a word, I shape a world,
where countless seek peace from endless strife.
On a whim my heart gives birth,
and with a thought, my mind takes life.

Dragons will die because men want their hide.
Demons will slay so you feel justified
in rending their hearts and taking their lives.
Hail to your Death God! Glory and pride!

I bring misery, to set the pace.
I lift high a hero, then nail him in place.
Of lives shaped and shattered, I care for them naught.
A life’s only worth is to further my plot.

In a night, I’ll plan a life,
from its conception until after its death.
Beyond compare is your despair,
for I rule every footstep, and I govern each breath.

Dragons will kneel, so that men may ride.
Evil is evil; your hate justified.
Think nothing of the souls inside.
Slay for your Death God! Glory and pride!

To my own end, countless fates I condemn,
a soulless god, a heart of stone.
A familiar Hell I raise where you dwell,
to escape the Hell in the world of my own.

Dragons you fear, for I have none here,
in my magicless world, I pray you can forgive.
I’ll make your world Hell, but I’ll mend it as well,
and hope the writer is watching… and hope the writer can learn…
in the world where I live.

Testing My Might Against the Gate of Disability

A lot of you may be wondering why, of all things, I love Mortal Kombat so much. An equally large number of you probably wish there was a Chrome extension that blocked every post by me containing the terms Mortal Kombat, Carly Rae Jepsen, or heavy metal. No luck for y’all, but I’m happy to address the former question.

Why, you might ask, would an aspiring writer and a fan of complex, compelling plotlines in books, films, and games, be drawn to the maelstrom of gore that is Mortal Kombat? That question has many answers. First is that I must admit, my eyesight is getting worse. Not abruptly so, but I realize it the more I game, and the less I’m able to do so. RPGs and other games with complex menus, maps, and the like, become less and less feasible for me as years go by. I return to games I adored in my childhood, and find myself failing at things that my younger self would have never missed. I can’t describe how unexpectedly painful it is for me to miss a basic jump sequence in Spyro the Dragon, when I used to move over every world in that game with total precision. I know it’s just a game, but the loss of ability it portends is something I struggle with.

Enter, Mortal Kombat. It is not a simple game, and it is far from an easy game, but it is a sonically rich game. The sounds of feet scuffing ground, of deflected punches, and of blades on flesh, all in stereo, all trackable by my keen sense of hearing. In MK, I have found a place where my lack of sight does not too horribly disadvantage me. I’d likely do better against my sighted friends if I could see, but the fact that I can still handle a fight and come away with dignity in tact is heartening in a way I can’t describe. It makes me feel like gaming isn’t closed off to me. This isn’t Skyrim, where my extensive knowledge of lore and gameplay mechanics all amounts to aimless wandering because I can’t see a quest marker. Nor is it Tomb Raider, where my love of the plot simply cannot keep Lara from plummeting to her bloody demise. This is a game where, if I concentrate with all my might, I can keep up with my sighted peers. I may not always come out on top, but I never come away disgraced.

People talk about GamerGate, the frustratingly named-stop adding “gate” to every controversy and then coming up with an explanation later-conspiracy whereby male gamers actively strive to lock women out of the world of gaming. I do not doubt this malevolent conspiracy, nor am I targeted by it, being a male gamer myself. But there is a gate that effects me all the same. Not one maliciously erected, nor one held in place by the entirety of a single gender, but one inadvertently constructed by an industry that is, by design, for the sighted. Because visuals are an undeniable component to video gaming, I cannot expect this gate to be broken or surmounted en masse. Audio games exist, but they are ill-funded, and even more hit or miss than indie video games. I may not suffer from a gatekeeping conspiracy, but there is a wall between me and a subculture I love; a wall that grows higher as years go by. So, when I find a game like Mortal Kombat, that lets me struggle against that gate, that allows me to jam my foot in the door and refuse to be shut out, I cannot help but be overwhelmed and enraptured by the chance it offers me to throw all my might against the barrier that would otherwise cut me off from a world that I’ve embraced since childhood.

As for the lore of the Mortal Kombat world, it is true that you won’t find novels of expanded content, or prolific in-game text crawls that lay out a Tolkien-esque story of mind altering magnitude. However, that is not the type of game Mortal Kombat is, and such a lore system would feel tacked on, at best. That said, the series is possessed of a surprisingly rich narrative, brought to life by a diverse cast of characters with unique traits far beyond their move sets. And the openness of the lore is in fact one of the game’s greatest strengths. How will the fates of the various realms be decided? Will balance ever be attainable so long as they remain autonomous? On a more individual level: will Kung Jin’s sexuality be accepted by his teammates and his native culture? And what of the relationship between Takeda and Jacqui? There are numerous branches of interpersonal relationships and grand cosmic struggles to unravel, and I cannot fully express how joyous an occasion it is to find such a game, and to know I can actively participate in its community, and in the gameplay itself.

If you enjoyed this post, you might consider subscribing to my YouTube channel, where you will find videos of my experiences with video games and other such exciting things. You can also purchase my eBook Blades of Cairndale, for your reading pleasure.

Review: Tinker Bell and the Legend of the NeverBeast

Let me start this review by saying that I am a grown man who typically enjoys action and horror films, alongside heavy metal music. That said, I was absolutely captivated by this offering from Disney. So, when I popped online to see others’ opinions on the film, I was dismayed to see how many folks panned this film as being a “downer,” or according to one reviewer, “dark and twisted.” So, from the objective standpoint of one who is usually not into this sort of thing, let me try and dispell some of the confusion and concern for potential viewers, be they children, parents watching with children, or just odd adults like myself.

THE PLOT:

Spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned. In this film, the animal-talent fairy named Fawn encounters a strange and injured creature in the forest. Because of her reputation for bringing dangerous creatures into Pixie Hollow, due to her empathetic nature, Fawn resolves to keep this large, mysterious, and intimidating beast hidden from the Scout fairies, who are already unhappy with Fawn’s prior antics involving a hawk. The beast, whom Fawn names Gruff, has a tendency to gather and stack rocks, thus shaping large towers of stone. Fawn helps in this activity, partially for fun, and partially to satiate her curiosity about Gruff’s intentions once his towers are done.

Meanwhile, Nyx, the stern leader of the Scout fairies, begins combing through fairy lore for references to Gruff, whom she only knows as the menacing shape she’s seen glimpses of in the wilderness. At last, she finds that this creature is known as the NeverBeast, who awakens every thousand years to call down a massive storm with his great stone towers, and thus destroy Pixie Hollow. What ensues is a tumultuous, catastrophic sequence of events wherein even Fawn begins to doubt Gruff’s gentle nature, when indeed the storm does arrive as foretold, and Gruff takes on a horned and winged form. But, in the end, it is revealed that Gruff is not the cause of the storm. In fact, he awakens every thousand years to absorb the energy of the storm, and thus keep Pixie Hollow safe. In a daring flight, he and Fawn manage to halt the storm, but Fawn is left near death, and Gruff revives her with stored up electrical energy from his body, restarting her heart. It is only then, once the fairies have come to know and love Gruff, that they realize he is utterly exhausted and must now go back into hibernation until the next storm comes, which will be in another thousand years. They will never see him awake again; by the time he awakens, they will all be dead. Each fairy, including the Scouts, thanks Gruff for his service, and Fawn bids her friend a last, tearful goodnight.

THE POINT:

The meaning of this film is multifaceted, and surprisingly poignant for a movie whose suggested viewing age is 4 years-old. First and foremost is the classic, but always welcome, moral that one should never judge a person’s heart based on their appearance. The large and intimidating Gruff is a kind soul, who puts himself in harm’s way to protect even those fairies that fear him. Meanwhile, Nyx the Scout Captain seems like a hard-headed bully, but it is imperative to remember that she is doing her job in the way she truly believes is best. She is not a villain, nor is Gruff. There are no “evil” people here, just mixed priorities, miscommunication, and dangerous presumptions that set good people (or fairies, as the case may be) at odds, even though they all have good intentions.

A secondary, but no less powerful moral, is the notion of sacrifice and loss. This film will make young viewers, yet unfamiliar with loss, ask some serious questions. With Fawn’s near-death experience, and Gruff’s one thousand year-long hibernation, children will have a few curious inquiries about what it means that by the time Gruff awakens, all of the fairies he knew will be gone. There will be teary eyes and sniffles for many viewers, myself included. But the concepts that this film leads young viewers to consider are utterly worthwhile, and they’re packaged in a delightful, amusing story that will bring more smiles than tears, and that will definitely be on repeat in some households for quite a while yet.

BOTTOM LINE:

This film is not dark or scary. There is a definite tone-shift after the first fifteen minutes or so, wherein the plot goes from a lighthearted frolic to a meaningful conflict of wills, but that is nothing to fear. If you are willing to take the time to sit with your children, watch this film, and answer the serious questions it may spark, then Legend of the NeverBeast will become a family favorite in no time at all!

Skaði, Mistress of Winter

Hail to you who, in your might,
took up weapons of war to set wrongs right,
who alone marched on Asgard’s walls,
unafraid to fight or fall.
You, so bold, facing all odds.
You, unaided, against the gods.
No war-party at your back,
no allies in your brave attack.
Seeking recompense for your father’s doom,
you claimed a prize: a worthy groom.
From the halls of the gods, you claimed your mate,
that the Aesir might avert your hate.
But oh, Fair Lady, you found despair,
for you could not claim that god most fair.
Wed you Njord, God of the Sea;
a marriage that simply could not be.
And now you are alone once more,
up on your mountains, and him by the shore.

Oh Winter Lady, hail your might!
Hail your strength to set wrongs right.
True power it takes, to be as you are:
unafraid, unshaken, as you travel so far
across wintery waists and barren lands.
None may hold you under their command.
It might be easy for you to conquer us all.
We would fall at your feet, as you stand so tall.
But true might is not the strength to reign.
It rests in the power to spare others from pain.

And so, My Mistress, oh Lady Fair,
I rest well knowing that you are there.
You watch me closely, as I take my sleep,
you stand over me; my guard you keep.

I offer you a mighty hail,
for I know, Dear Mistress, you shall never fail.
Of your kindness I avail,
whilst I honor you, and tell your tale.

An Impression of My Father

We are not our parents. We live our own lives and think our own thoughts. But we have been sculpted by our parents, and while we are our own selves, we bear an impression of their handiwork, as an artist’s sculpture can have been created by none in the exact way as its original artisan. In that way, we are like living sculptures; we shape our own images, but our parents have a hand in the subtle details.
To those who know me, the traits my mother has imparted are fairly clear. My love of reading is evident enough, and the Celtic music which she played in her car came to inform my tastes. But these traits did not come out in carbon copies; rather, they are subtle influences, impressions which manifested uniquely within me. My mother loves classic literature, I love fantasy, horror, and science fiction. My mother played Celtic music for my sister and I, and now I listen to folk/pagan metal. The influence is clear, the manifestation unique.
What, you may ask then, did I get from my father? This is a good question. My father is an accomplished athlete, dedicated to fitness, endurance, and pushing his physical limitations in both competitive and self-motivated feats of prowess. I, conversely, am a portly gent who detests cardio, plays RPGs, and writes fantasy stories. I’m a bit shy of confrontation, I prefer my dark, air-conditioned room to a rough biking course, and I’m on record as having gotten all sniffly at the end of a Disney Fairies movie. What, then, could I have in common with my father? How great is his impression on me? More than you could possibly imagine.
As my mother’s classic literature and soothing music became my fantasy and heavy metal, my father’s traits became mine in their own way. Speed, strength, and dexterity are profound skills, and even more profoundly beyond me, but it is the mind driving those triumphs of will that has been imparted unto me. My father taught me to win. My father taught me to find a goal, evaluate what stands between me and my objective, and do everything within my power to get from point A to point B. He taught me to never let others dictate my limits. As he persevered in the face of racial discrimination, so I persevere in the face of ableism. No one tells me who I am and what I can do, because my father never let anyone do any such thing to him. My father taught me to shrug off the judgments of others as easily as he out-maneuvered opponents on the field, and out-performed those who doubted him off the field. As an immigrant to this country, he faced a nation determined to dictate his career path, and they did not intend it to get far. So my father blazed a new trail, a better trail. As a child, I was told my blindness would effect my intellectual capacity, that I would never form a coherent sentence. My dad now holds his Master’s degree and has a career of many great successes. I am now a published author. He taught me to be who I now am.
This is my father’s impression, the way in which he sculpted me. As he sets his mind on a new task and deftly overcomes each obstacle in his way, so has he taught me to do the same. His victories are on the field or in the gym, mine are in Skyrim or on the D&D table, and just as he expertly handles his career with an endearing consideration for his coworkers and students, so have I learned these same mannerisms in my own career path. He has given me the drive to seek my desires, the strength to shake off my critics, and above all, the will to win. This is my father, and his impression is upon me, shaping the man I have become.

Steel in Shadow, Part 1: Life Made Flesh

Teeth. Teeth each as sharp as a dagger’s edge, and of the same keen shape of such a weapon. They were feral, violent in design, and utterly inhuman. They were her own teeth. She traced them with her tongue, its tip flitting like a serpent’s. She explored her mouth as though it were the first time she’d felt it. And why not? It was, after all.

The teeth were hard, more solid than a human’s. ‘Why do I know that?’ she wondered. It did not matter the origin of the knowledge, she knew it to be true all the same. Her tongue was thinner, too, than that of the humans with whom she inexplicably held herself in contrast. Again, into her thoughts, came the word ‘serpent,’ implanted in her mind by some benefactor of partial information. How was it that she could liken any aspect of herself to a thing whose visage she had never seen? ‘Seen!’ Her mind came alive at the word. In addition to a mouth full of dagger-like teeth, she also had eyes.

They sprang open and, less than a second later, squeezed themselves closed, accompanied by a throbbing ache of blue light that thrummed about her eye sockets. Slower this time, she cracked her lids open and peered into the world beyond their shielding darkness. Before her, not but a few steps away, hovered a sphere of pulsating blue energy; the source of her eyes’ previous displeasure. In that strange, massive orb, a figure hung with a sleeping stillness, punctuated only by the rise and fall of her chest. The suspended figure was naked in its globe of hovering light. Its ankles were crossed and its arms folded over its chest. The waking woman-and how, she wondered, did she know that was the right word for herself-gazed down at her own body. The same ivory flesh, the same length of limbs, the same curvature of breasts. At the very least, if she was a ‘woman,’ then this sleeping form looked to be a woman as well.

The face of the sleeping woman was unmoving. Her almond-shaped eyes were closed; not squeezed shut, but a gentler posture that imparted the notion of a peaceful, dreamless slumber. Her pale skin contrasted with ebony hair that flowed like a rolling wave down past her shoulders. Her ears were not rounded like a human’s, but pointed, and the subtle parting of her lips revealed gleaming hints of the same sharp teeth that the waking woman felt in her own mouth. Conscious now of her ears, she reached a hand up and ran her long, slim fingers over the sensory organs on either side of her head. They too terminated in points, just as the sleeper’s did. Was this resting figure her kinswoman?

A flicker of light in her peripheral vision caused the woman to turn away from her sleeping twin. What she beheld made her eyes go wide with wonder, confusion, and a deeper, more primal chill in the pit of her belly; fear. The room around her was cavernous, its walls set wide apart and its ceilings built high and crossed with beams for support. Pathways shot across the open space between floor and ceiling, to allow access to the many levels of its contents. It was the contents of the chamber that sent fingers of ice down her spine. She stood on a plinth of sorts, a circular, flat-topped platform, whose edges sloped away to a wider, round base. Each level of this great chamber contained row after row of identical platforms, above each hovered an orb of throbbing energy, and in each orb, an identical figure rested. ‘Are they resting?’ she wondered. ‘Are they trapped?’ But more to the point, why had she been freed? Why did she now stand on her platform, while her sisters remained suspended in these prisons? ‘Sisters…’ The word felt funny in her mind. It was unfamiliar, suggestive of a kinship she could not at present comprehend; and yet, it was perfect.

The bodies of her sisters were identical to her, each being of lithe build and average height. It was only in their faces, framed by the same ebony hair, that they differed. Their eyes were all closed in that strange state of suspended animation, and their ears shared the same pointed shape. No, it was in the specifics of their mouths that she and her sisters were not utterly as one. Each bore a mouth full of deadly sharp teeth, but while some, like herself, concealed those teeth behind full lips and the pale skin of their faces, others were not so aesthetically fortuitous. Some were possessed of lips, but no cheeks, and so offered windows by which onlookers could see the fangs beyond. Others had neither cheeks nor lips. Their faces were set in permanent grins of ferocity, even while their bodies hovered in the tranquility of slumber. ‘Horrific,’ ‘grotesque,’ and ‘malformed,’ were words that flitted through her mind, but not in her own voice, whatever that may be. These thoughts felt like the imagined words of strangers, offered in the hushed tones of the repulsed. Only one thought in her own voice came to the forefront of her mind, ‘Beautiful. They are my sisters, and we are all beautiful.’ And then, one by one, her sisters began to die.

It started at the highest row of orbs, their tops mere inches from the crossbeams of the ceiling. One sphere, in a far corner, surged with light, flaring with an intensity that eclipsed its neighbors. The glow increased to a blinding glare, and then was gone, the orb dissipated, and the naked form once held within now crumpled onto its platform. Somehow, without drawing closer to inspect the unmoving body, the woman knew her sister was dead, her glow extinguished just as the orb that had cocooned her. She felt a pang behind her ribs, an emptiness as if something had been plucked from her chest cavity with cold hands.

A second flare of light caught her attention, and another of her sisters tumbled in an unceremonious heap onto her platform. The aching in the woman’s chest grew greater, but she did not tear her eyes away from the morbid spectacle. This time, she caught a movement, a tell-tale whisper of shadow into shadow. Someone else was awake, moving amongst her siblings, and killing them. A third flash, this time on a lower level. She focused not on the light, nor the body, but the space beyond it; a narrow catwalk that granted the intruder access to the chamber’s upper levels.

‘There!’ A second shape moved on this level, even as orbs continued to flare and her sisters continued to die on the floors above. There were many intruders, and she was no longer safe here, if indeed she ever had been. By the hand of some unknown providence, she had been awakened, and she was free while her sisters slept, trapped and defenseless in their own minds. She could not guess whether this freedom was granted so she might escape, or whether she was expected to fight for her siblings, on behalf of her liberator. Either way, she had to move.

Her legs managed to be both stiff and wobbly, unresponsive and unused to movement as they were. She clenched her teeth and forced the muscles into motion with a tremendous outpouring of willpower. The first step sent her stumbling to her platform’s edge, where she teetered for what seemed like a maddening eternity. Her stomach felt as if it had fallen away, and her arms flailed for purchase on objects that simply weren’t there. She fell forward, rushing to meet cold stone with her unprotected flesh. It was in the microsecond before the pain of impact that her mind erupted like a gentle flame given an abrupt dousing of oil. The heels of her hands met the solid ground, and the impact’s dull, numbing shock throbbed its way up her arms, but her momentum did not slow. She rolled into the fall, transitioning from heel to palm, and then springing forward as her fingers bent back with the pressure of her weight. She tucked her legs in tight and rolled over the platform across from her own, under the sphere of her first sister, the one she’d seen upon waking.

She rose out of the tight summersault onto the balls of her feet, and was forced to throw up her hands to shield herself from the solid barrier before her. It was the chamber’s nearest wall, and she now stood in its shadow, her bare flesh pressed against the cold, smooth surface. She fought to keep her heavy breathing muffled, and to martial her thoughts into some semblance of order. It did not matter how she’d gone from a bumbling first step to a feat of acrobatics that, even without knowing anything of the outside world, she knew to be impressive.

Footsteps on the catwalks above stilled any further self-congratulation. Had they heard her, were they yet aware of her awakening? Waiting around to find the answers to those questions did not seem like much of an appealing prospect, and so, with footsteps as light as she could manage, the woman prowled along the wall, sheltered in the embrace of its darkness. It was only luck that found her in the deeper gloom of a corner when a figure stalked into view. The intruder was tall, his broad frame swathed in a dark robe. The light of the remaining orbs glinted off his shaven head, whose surface was marred by ornate lines inked into the flesh. Cold, dark eyes regarded the still-pulsing spheres, and he stroked his long goatee with a slim, spidery finger. Without warning, he turned in her direction, as though he sensed her unseen presence.

His eyes were as dark and soulless as they’d seemed in profile. There was a spark behind them, but they burned as a demonic inferno, not with the gentle blaze of natural life. He bore several scars, claw-like slashes that scored the tight-stretched skin of his cheeks and forehead. Silver insignia were pinned to his robe’s collar. They appeared to be skulls, whose eye sockets were each transfixed by blades. About his neck, on a silver rope chain, hung a medallion in the likeness of a great eye, bordered by a serpent, who gripped its tail in its teeth to form a complete circle.

‘Liana, move!’

She did not know the name that sprang to her mind, but the command was clear nonetheless. Driven by that same unprecedented athleticism, she sprang straight upward and locked her hands around a support beam for the catwalk above. She swung her long, muscular legs up to snake around the same beam and pulled herself tight against the support structure. Her every thought willed the strange man to not look up, to keep his eyes on… ‘My sisters.’ Her heart pounded at the realization of what she was doing; hiding to stay alive, while they died, defenseless at the hands of unjust executioners. Each of them was a life yet to be lived, now rendered naught but a senseless pile of wasted flesh.

Poised to spring down on the bald-headed intruder, she was stopped only by his voice. The words were not directed at her, but their tone made great torrents of ice pour through her veins. She shook on her perch, senses numb with fright.

“By my authority as Executioner General, appointed thus by the First Echelon of the Order of the Consummate Verity, and for your crimes unto the sanctity of the existence of mortal flesh, I sentence you to death.”

His words, though spoken at a muted volume, reverberated in her mind like the age-worn bell in some forgotten temple. The Executioner General raised his pallid, spindly fingers toward the nearest orb. His scarred brow creased with concentration, the orb’s light grew, and then died away. The figure within collapsed like a child’s doll cast aside. He scowled at the body and stepped past it to the next orb, while his comrades carried out similar duties on the floors above. There could be no doubt left in her mind, if they found her, they would kill her.

‘You have to leave, Liana. Now! If you don’t, their deaths will be in vane. You cannot save them. Let them live through you.’

Again that name, again that voice that spurred her on. Was the voice her own? It seemed at once to be hers and that of another, a distant other, guiding her through her first clumsy steps in this rude and confounding reality into which she’d awakened. Either way, Liana-for she now accepted that to be her name-heeded the command, and hastened to obey. Her legs unwound from the beam, and she swung down to the floor, landing in a low crouch. The Executioner General had his back turned to her, a fact which surprised her by how much it steadied her heartbeat and set her breathing at ease. Just looking at that face, and those ruthless eyes of cold fire, was enough to set her on edge.

He’d come from a door a short distance ahead. To Liana, those several steps felt like a trek of miles, each movement threatening to alert the Executioner General to her presence. The door hung ajar, taunting her with its promise of safety. She made the last, agonizingly slow steps and slid between the door and its frame, still pressed close to the wall. This was it, she had left her chamber, the place where, for all intents and purposes, she had been born into consciousness. As with a baby from its mother’s womb, there was no going back now.

Beyond the chamber’s door, a corridor stretched to the foot of a short stairway. Wary of her would-be killers working their vile deeds in the room behind her, Liana padded along the floor, whose stone tiles felt chilly under her bare soles. She moved as fast as she dared, while trying to keep silent the sound of skin meeting stone with each stride. One step after another, she crept along, each footfall possibly the last she’d make before the Executioner General rounded on her and put an end to her fledgling existence. So great was her concentration on the silence of movement that Liana reached the base of the short flight of steps before she’d expected to. A door stood closed at their summit, and beyond it, her keen ears detected the sounds of whispering wind and gently chirping creatures. ‘Freedom.’ And, along with it, another sound. A steady, rhythmic crunch. ‘Footsteps.’ The door swung open on quiet hinges and a figure regarded Liana from where it stood, framed by silvery moonlight. His robes rustled in the gentle breeze, and the light glinted off his death’s head lapel pin. His head was shaven, his eyes alight with a familiar contempt directed at the thing he saw before him, the thing he saw as naught more than an abomination. His thin lips parted to form a word, perhaps a curse or a shouted alarm.

‘Liana, kill.’

She moved without thought, a blur of motion beyond the capacity of an average human. She extended one leg and planted a foot several steps up the stairway. Using that as leverage, Liana tensed her leg muscles and flung her full weight up the stairs and at the man before her. His hands rose into a defensive posture, but it was nowhere near enough to ward her off. Liana slammed him back through the door and landed astride his torso on the dirt track under the star-flecked sky. More primitive impulse than premeditated act, Liana wrenched her victim’s head back at a furious angle, stretching the flesh of his throat. ‘The soft, warm flesh; so easy to rend.’ A red haze glided over her mind, it tinted her vision, and obscured her every thought, save for the voice that chanted, ‘Kill.’ ‘Yes,’ at last she realized, it was her own voice, the compulsion was her own.

Razor teeth met malleable skin, and the resistance was minor, easily overcome. The muscles of Liana’s jaw forced her mouth of fangs shut like a vice around the man’s neck. Flesh was punctured, muscles stretched and popped, and veins spurted their crimson cargo into her waiting mouth. Liana did not just bite, she ate. Mouthfuls of flesh and muscle slid down her throat, lubricated by torrents of blood that stained her face like coppery war-paint. Liana could not stop, nor could she compel her body to recognize the horror dawning upon her mind. Could it be that this was not horrible, that this was what she was meant for? Liana had time for no such questions until her belly was filled, and the would-be aggressor lay lifeless, his neck and much of his face stripped clean of their meat. Liana could not stop to think on what she’d done, could not possibly hope to understand what force drove her to such a gruesome feast, yet kept her from feeling it to be as grotesque as her cursory thoughts perceived. She wasted no time on such musings, and instead sprang to her feet and fled, naked and blood-drenched, into the dark of night, while below, the Executioner General concluded his own gruesome deeds.

We Are Heathen

Hello readers,

Today I’d like to make a personal statement. It has been said by some that authors should avoid getting into politics, as it can shrink their fan-base down to those who share their exact views. But in this case, choosing to remain silent is an act of complicity that I cannot abide.

I am a heathen. No, not a lawless, godless fiend, as the pejorative connotation suggests. No, the word in its truest form, refers to a worshipper of the Norse gods. I have been a heathen since I was 15 years-old, and heathenry is a very important part of my life. I will not get into the details of my faith or my individual practices, because my point here is something far more vast than any one person. There exist, in our world, those who abuse heathen symbology, those who corrupt our runes, emblems, and lore to suit a twisted political ideology of xenophobia and genocide. These people claim they have studied the history of heathenry, and the lore of our faith, yet they abuse it in the most vile of ways: by using it to preach hatred and bigotry in the names of our gods. These “heathens” believe in a world wherein only people of their “folk”–that is to say, only white-skinned people–can worship “their” gods, as though they, as humans, hold ownership of the mighty Aesir.

I am Mexican. While my mother’s ancestors are European, my father’s are Mexican, and I take after his forebears in appearance, as well as feeling very at one with their culture. This fact allows me to prove the inherent flaw in the mindset of the “folkish” heathens; those who would restrict access to our gods based on the tint of a worshipper’s flesh. They claim it is a matter of ancestry, that anyone with European ancestors may be called to the worship of the heathen gods. Yet I, who have European ancestors, but (proudly) have the appearance of my father’s folk, am barred from the halls of these sorts of folk. And gladly so, as I’d rather not keep their company anyway. But the truth becomes clear in how I am responded to by these types: ancestry has nothing to do with it; to them, it’s all about skin color. And ancestry shouldn’t matter at all anyway; it is not our business who is or is not motivated to honor the gods. But when these men make the claim that “it’s all about ancestry,” it should be noted that lived experience proves that they do not speak truthfully, and that their discrimination runs far deeper. They ignore the fact that many of our gods are mixed race, that the Norsemen and Vikings traveled far and interacted peaceably with people from all over the world. To those who coopt our faith, it is all about whiteness.

Why, you may ask, am I telling you all this? Because the voices of these racist “heathens” are loud, and they are magnets to the media. The quiet, peaceful heathen who welcomes all into their hall is not a good news story, but the swastika-emblazoned neo-Nazi with a Mjolnir tattoo will really make headlines. So, it is time for the quiet heathen to get a little less quiet. It is our duty to show these wicked folk that there is no place for bigotry in our hall, that hatred and prejudice are poison in our well, and that we will not have our faith dragged through the mud. Going about our business as good, peaceful people seemed at one point to be a good way of showing the world who we are. But that point has passed. With supposed leaders in heathenry getting media attention and “representing” our faith in the news by using it as a shield to hide behind as they openly espouse ideologies that would set the people of the world at each other’s throats, the quiet heathen can no longer afford to be quiet. I am not speaking here of becoming militant or evangelical in my faith. I am speaking here of lighting a beacon that illuminates the compassion, love, and tolerance that the lore of heathenry truly advocates. I am speaking of thousands of these beacons coming alight, showing the lingering ghouls of bigotry and hate that they are unwelcome in our hall, and that our way of life has nothing to offer their agenda.

Heathenry is open to anyone; we do not evangelize, we do not convert. If you feel compelled to join us in our worship, we are glad to have you. Unless you subscribe to an ideology that would restrict others from enjoying the same freedom you possess. It is time we assured the world, who knows so little of our ways, that we are peaceful people, we are loving people, we are multicultural, multi-racial, economically and socially diverse people. We are people of all genders and walks of life. We will not stand for hatred, oppression, or intolerance. We are human beings who value the worth in each other. We are heathen.

The Fall of Jehros

Hail readers,
Below you will find an older story of mine; my earliest attempt at sword and sorcery fiction. While rereading it has reminded me just how far I’ve come as a writer in recent years, I still hope you find it an enjoyable adventure.

PART I: Battle at Midvang
Wrath. Wrath was the only palpable emotion Brynjar felt as he crawled on his belly like a dog across the snow, which itself lay strewn with corpses. Some were clad in gleaming mail, now stained red with their blood and that of their adversaries, while others lay naked save for loin-cloths about their waists and sword-sheaths strapped to their sides. Never had a host from the south ventured so far into the mountainous keep of the realm of Asaheim. Yet never had the southern-folk encountered the wrath of the men of this land either, which proved advantageous for the bewildered Asa-men, who knew not why they were besieged so readily by the scarlet banner-waving ranks of the southern peoples.
Of the nature of this attack, Brynjar knew nothing. Why had it happened, why had the Gods let such a vengeful host sweep death across their mountains, where strife amongst indigenous clans was frequent but short-lived. Brynjar knew only that Thorgrim, his brother, lay beheaded upon this blood-shot waste which once had been a beauteous plain of glimmering snow. Every muscle in Brynjar’s body strained against him, beseeching him to surrender himself to blackness and sleep, to forget the pain of life and nestle against the warm bosom of death. But this was not the way of his people, who would rather bleed themselves dry crawling home than lay waiting for death upon the fields for war. Such were Brynjar’s own actions now…
When the Southern Raiders attacked a small village just south of the plain on which this bloodshed had begun, Brynjar’s home village, Ulfdalir, received swift word. Fighting men were dispatched, and the powerful women of Ulfdalir readied themselves to stand in defense of their home should the tide of battle turn against them. Brynjar and his brother Thorgrim rode side-by-side upon their horses, swords sheathed at their sides, their blue eyes alive with the fiery temper so legendary of the northern people. As Brynjar’s dark hair flew out behind him like a banner, Thorgrim turned to him, his shaven head glistening in the sunlight.
“You should cut your long hair, brother,” he laughed, “would you give your enemy such an easy handle for your beheading?”
“I do not plan to die a captive,” Brynjar shot back with brotherly spite, “so I take no cowardly precautions thusly.”
Thorgrim spurred his horse onward, digging his bare feet into its sides. The horse let out a loud cry, and charged ahead across the uneven terrain, seeming as anxious as its rider to leap into the thick of battle. Brynjar did as his brother, not one to be outdone, especially by his younger sibling. And soon they beheld the host of Raiders that had come unbidden into their lands to bring doom to the people and spread those accursed scarlet banners. The clangor of swords was deafening, but the two brothers, the twin sons of Bjorn, did not cower from the flashing of swords and the cries of death that sent so many others running for the safety of their hearths. Instead they looked to each other and shared their ancestral battle-cry: “For our Father, for our family, and for freedom!” as they leapt into the midst of the swirling madness.
Blades ablaze with sunlight whirled and clashed, sparks danced across the already-dazzling snow, and screams of the mortally wounded filled the air. Asa-men, almost as a rule, wore no armor but their loin-cloths, compensating for this lack of protection with unparalleled strength, tireless thews, and legendary brutality in combat. The sons of Bjorn were no different. Back to back they stood, horses having been cut down swiftly, encircled by their somewhat-armored foes, who darted in to strike at Brynjar or Thorgrim, before pulling back swiftly when their blows were parried easily away. After a short while of this defensive game, Brynjar grew tired of testing the Raiders, and leapt toward those amassed around he and his brother.
The Southern Raiders fell back, save for an unlucky warrior who thought himself brave and found his skull split by Brynjar’s weapon as a result of that fatal courage. Like a wedge, Brynjar cut through the Raiders, as other Asa-men waged struggles with small groups of these invaders. Crying out, frothing at the mouth, and nearly delirious with bloodlust, the dark haired Asa-man clove his foes left and right, heedless of minor wounds inflicted on his bare flesh by glancing blows. In fact, it seemed those very wounds, those stinging, nagging little shallow lacerations were in fact invigorating the warrior to an even more frenzied state. He was a death bringer, a flesh cleaver, a warrior beyond any of his enemies.
Thorgrim did not share in his brother’s blessing of bloodlust, for while he loved battle, he was younger and more fearful than his older sibling, whom had seen many clan skirmishes and much death. But Thorgrim was no coward. He fought with a more defensive style, blocking his assailants’ onslaughts and then singling them out, one by one, for destruction, rather than wading into their midst as did his brother. But it was Thorgrim, not Brynjar, who somehow found himself facing a mail-clad man, a Raider who held high the scarlet banner. Clearly this brute of a man was their General, for his armor and sword were far more ornate than those of his compatriots.
The invading forces formed a wide circle around their General and Thorgrim, clearly anxious to see the barbarian cut down beneath the blade of their noble leader. A battle thus began that was swift in and of itself, but whose repercussions, in the months to follow, would shake the very world upon which all beings did live. Thorgrim blocked a disemboweling stroke from the General’s weapon and moved in, eager to earn glory this day. His foolishness was rewarded. Even as Brynjar plowed through the circle to aid his brother, the General marshaled the recoiling force of his parried blade into momentum for an arcing slice that sent Thorgrim’s shaven head rolling from his shoulders, falling like some ghastly stone, and then thudding dully upon the earth.
No words came to the mind of Brynjar to describe his reaction at the sight of his brother’s lifeless corpse on the ground, and the disgust that filled him when Thorgrim’s head was crushed beneath the metal boot of a Raider bearing a double-edged axe. He remembered only charging forward to face the General, as the Raiders cried “Hail our General, hail Olaf, hail the Skull-Cleaver.” He remembered moving on foot, his horse left for dead early on in the first throws of the confrontation, when Thorgrim had been by his side. The memory of the stroke of Olaf’s blade that struck him was a hazy recollection for Brynjar. An icy, burning pain in his belly was the only thought that came to mind as Olaf laughed with great mirth at the dying savage, leaving Brynjar to bleed out upon the snow and rallying the Raiders into formation to move northward, toward Ulfdalir…
Slowly crawling, clawing his way across the craggy land, leaving behind him a wake of his own blood, Brynjar pulled himself onward, toward his home. The women, left behind to stand guard, would prove just as apt a match for the southern folk as had been the fighting Asa-men. Thus, given Brynjar’s current condition, he held out little hope that his town could be saved. But west of Ulfdalir was another settlement, where a small tribe of the Asa-folk lived. Surely if a horse could be found, Brynjar could ride for this village and receive the medical aid he so desperately needed. With this in mind, this mission locked into his focus, the dying man crawled with tireless vigor until at long last he beheld the ruin that only this very morning had been the town he knew as home.
Even from the very edge of minuscule Ulfdalir, for the Asa-folk believed not in over-crowding their land, Brynjar could tell his village was laid to waste. Fires raged in fields, fences had been cut down entirely, and the corpses of those ridden down by the Southern Raiders lay lifeless. Death seemed to surround Brynjar, it lingered from whence he’d crawled and now it met him in his own home, for here lay his village, here were his folk: decimated. But even to the dying man, a curious observation rang out. Though bodies could be beheld, lying dead before him, women with their shields split and their swords knocked away, their ivory bosoms now still with lack of breath for the rest of eternity, there seemed to be a strange lacking of bodies with regard to the population of the town. Should not more women lay dead in the primitive street if the Raiders had come, as it would seem they had? Should children not be lain out, butchered as well? Should not the men who stayed behind to guard alongside the women lay bloody and ruined? This could mean only one thing, and even the slowly fading consciousness of Brynjar could piece this puzzle together: the Raiders were rounding up slaves to take back to the southern lands. Surely these slaves were meant to serve in the Order of Jehros, for whom the Raiders themselves served as a military arm.
But these thoughts were quelled quickly when the trotting of hooves caught Brynjar’s attention. The son of Bjorn turned his head and beheld a wandering horse, loosed from its stall but left alive, spared the fate of much of the rest of Ulfdalir’s livestock. Unafraid, it walked to the fallen man, and waited expectantly. Summoning every last vestige of strength, Brynjar clambered aboard the horse’s back and dug in his heels when he had the horse facing a westward trail. The beast galloped swiftly, but not so much so as to unseat its rider, who slipped at last into a mercifully unconscious state of mind. And so Brynjar would have found himself borne into the midst of his western neighbors, had the horse not been met along its way by overgrowth on that disused path, and thus wandered astray…

PART II: The Wrath of Donnar
Swift were the shoeless feet of the hunters who stumbled upon the unconscious Brynjar and his aimlessly grazing steed. Fiery-eyed glances and silent discussion carried on between them before they plucked the wounded warrior from his mount, allowing the horse to wander free and graze to its heart’s content. Fate would find that noble beast a mate in the forest, and together they would sire unto the Earth a herd of wild stallions unparalleled in speed and grace. But such was not the concern of the hunting party, who now bore in their midst the war-weary man, so he may meet the destiny of all who came unbidden into their most beloved land.
These folk were not conquerors or settlers, they did not own their land. Like other Asa-folk they paid homage to Donnar, their mighty God and his many brethren and elders, yet these folk were not common beings. Legend shrouded their lineage and had reduced the idea of their very existence to little more than tales told around camping fires. They lived in a state of peace with the land in which they dwelled, their village was small, unobtrusive by all accounts. Simple homes radiated in all directions from an altar, a shrine to Donnar bedecked with runic inscriptions and sacred replicas of their God’s mighty hammer. It was here, upon this altar, that Brynjar was laid, prostrate and naked but for a scrap of cloth covering his most grievous of battle wounds.
From their modest homes came the villagers, all of them tall and sinewy, with eyes only for the intruder who lay now upon their altar. As custom dictated, the mightiest hunter of their folk would slay this man with the sacred spear Gungnir, as an offering to Donnar in trade for the continued harmony they enjoyed with their untainted land and the animals therein, beasts who lay hidden to even the other Asa-folk. And so strode forth their greatest of hunters, Gungnir firmly clenched in her unyielding grip, her gaze fixed upon the altar and the figure thereon.
“A pity he shall dine in Donnar’s hall this night,” spoke she to a near-at-hand priest, “for a suitable mate he would make if his wounds were nursed and his strength recovered.”
“Such is the will of Donnar,” the priest replied in a somber tone, “and we would be fools to disobey. This man shall know no harm, but shall awaken in Bilskirnir with all fallen folk of Asaheim. He shall not be lonely amongst his ancestors.”
“So it is,” the huntress noted, “this much I know. I mourn only for what could be, not what shall.”
“Good enough,” relented the priest, “but be careful, Zusa, lust is rarely a guide safe to follow.”
Zusa nodded and stepped forward, the stone of the altar cold beneath her padding feet. Gungnir, the spear believed to have passed from the very hands of the Gods unto this humble tribe, felt heavy in her fair hands. A smile crossed Zusa’s red lips, for the spear was not heavy with melancholy or sorrow, but instead carried the weight of duty, of responsibility, of great troth with the Gods from whom it had come. Up high its gleaming tip was raised, poised to plunge like the darting beak of an eagle, squarely into Brynjar’s beating heart.
“May Earth consume thy flesh and bone,” quoth Zusa from ancient lore, “may rain drink deep thy lifeblood, may thunder resound with thy cry of battle, and may thy soul fly free to Donnar’s hall.”
A crack of sudden thunder shook the altar where it lay, even as lightning split the dusky sky. Snarling bolts of wrath struck the land, scattering villagers like mice before a farmer’s broom. Zusa’s grip on Gungnir was unwavering, but now she cast her eyes about anxiously, seeking guidance from a priest or elder. No such guidance was forthcoming, until the heavens did speak for themselves. A gust of wind, like a tendril from some unseen plane, wrapped swiftly round Gungnir and wrenched it from Zusa’s hands with such force that the huntress nearly lost her footing. The spear spun high into the midst of the massing storm, vanishing from sight before returning Earthward, its tip up-turned. Gungnir landed well away from the altar… Donnar’s message was clear.
“The wanderer lives,” spoke the priest, no longer besieged by Donnar’s angry lightning.
“How can he live,” spoke another villager, as a light mist of rain began to fall, “look how he lies, wounded and near-death.”
“Near-death is still living,” the priest answered, “and Donnar has spared him the fate of our sanctified ritual. Only the Gods know of the fate toward which he shall walk.”
“Shall we let him be then, leave him to gain strength and depart from our midst?”
As if in reply to the question posed, the storm picked up again. A column of lightning, wavering and maddeningly bright, struck the ground behind Zusa, who stepped forward instinctively, closer to the body of the dying Asa-man. Again, the intention of their quick-tempered God was clear.
“Zusa,” the priest proclaimed, “shall care for this man, bring him back to health, and then send him on his way. Until such a day as he is strong again, he shall live in our midst, a member of our clan.”
“Me!” Zusa spat with distaste, though the idea of keeping this man in her abode was not altogether an unpleasant notion to entertain. “Why should I be charged with playing nurse to a dead man?”
“He would be dead if you had sent Gungnir to its mark,” retorted the outspoken priest. “It is thus your task to see that the life he was granted this day be lived to its fullest.”
“Very well,” Zusa acquiesced, a devious smile playing across her lips, “then I shall keep him and heal him… and his life shall be well-lived.”
So it was that Zusa lifted the body of the would-be sacrifice, carrying his considerable weight with relative ease back to her abode. She set about to making up a bed for him, which consisted largely of a cloth blanket beneath him and another to cover his unmoving frame. Yet before covering him, she carefully went to work upon his wound, cleaning it of dirt and pebbles, which had accumulated in the laceration during his homeward crawl. If he lived, he would make quite the mate indeed, she thought to herself, for such strength it must have taken to mount a steed and ride in his state. Soon enough, the wound was clean and wrapped in cloths, bandages to stem the flow of fresh blood, and this was all that Zusa could do. Until he rose she could only sit and watch him for signs of waking, which she did with great vigilance until he at last stirred on the second morning he spent in her care.

PART III: Amongst the Wolfriders
From the fragments of tattered dreams, slivers of unconscious rambling, Brynjar rose. Recollections of his fallen brother were chased from his mind by the sudden sensation of warmth, of cloth upon flesh, of a roaring hearth fire. The vision of Midvang, the field whereupon Thorgrim lay slain and rotting, flickered like a candle-lit image, before winking out, its presence usurped by utter darkness. But this black was not the icy grip of death, for he heard not the sounds of horses coming to lift him on high to Bilskirnir. No, this stygian veil was permeable! The warrior found he could push through it with his mind, like a blind man groping for a familiar surface to act as his guide.
And there it was, a substantial object, something of flesh and blood, not of vague dreams and whispers of thoughts intangible. It felt soft and warm in his hand. In fact, upon exploration of it, the item felt as if it were itself a hand. Curiosity overwhelmed his state of pain and confusion. Brynjar opened his eyes and beheld a face.
Her hair was long and fair as gold, lustrous and flowing. Her eyes were a blue that matched his own, and they were set against a face with skin like ivory. Her lips were full and red, curved into an ever-playful smile, like that of a cat who desires to toy with a newly found rodent. She knelt beside him, so the dazed warrior could not guess at her height, but he imagined it to be equal to his own. Her frame was tough and muscular, but lean and agile, like a panther, ready to spring at a moment’s notice into battle. For garb she wore a few feathers in her hair, and a loin-cloth bound about her waist, much like that which Brynjar had himself worn into battle.
“Be you a valkyrie?” rasped the dry-throated Brynjar.
“A valkyrie,” came the semi-musical, semi-snide laugh of his benefactor, “no not I, only a huntress of the Wolfrider clan.”
“The Wolfriders?” Brynjar cried, attempting and failing to rise.
“Indeed,” Zusa confirmed, pushing him back to his prone position, “we are real, son of Ulfdalir.”
“How know you of my town?” enquired Brynjar.
“Only Ulfdalir has met such a fate as your appearance would suggest,” Zusa explained, eyeing his wound.
Brynjar looked down at his bandaged belly and reached to undo the injury’s bindings. Zusa slapped his hands away like a mother angry with her child, and chastised him for wanting to undo all her work at saving him. At length she recounted the story of his discovery, near sacrifice, and placement in her care. Brynjar did not much like the idea of being kept in anyone’s care, much less that of this somewhat domineering hunter from a clan that existed only in myth.
In the days that passed, the son of Bjorn told Zusa-largely against his wishes-tales of his village. She learned of his coming of age, of his hunting trips with his father and brother, of his learning to slay a beast and make use of its every part, and of his yearning to start a family of his own. For this had been his dream, to fight in glorious wars alongside Thorgrim and then sire many mighty sons by a fair woman of Ulfdalir. Now, he told her, this dream would never be. When Zusa demanded elaboration, the still healing man told her of the Southern Raiders’ attack, of the battle on the field Midvang, of Thorgrim’s death. He spoke to her of his lust for vengeance, of his longing to spill the blood of the Raiders’ general and of the man known as Jehros, whose order of worshippers controlled the mighty Southern Raiders themselves.
“So this is why you were borne into the woods on horseback?” Zusa asked as she unbound Brynjar’s wound.
“Aye,” he replied, “my horse wandered from its path and your hunters found me.”
“It is good they did,” Zusa stated flatly, “for you would be as dead as your brother had you not been found.”
Brynjar fell silent at this somewhat cold remark. As a warrior, he was quite accustomed to unflattering speech, but talking of Thorgrim’s death somehow made it too vivid for him to tolerate. His eyes fixed Zusa with a hard stare, which she ignored, eyeing his wound. The Asa-man’s thews were strong indeed, and perhaps a gift of the Gods had lent him aid, for a scar stood out boldly on his flesh, somewhat caked with dried-blood, but he was otherwise unscathed. Surely some internal damage still remained, for the blade had sliced him deep, but he had been sitting up and moving slowly about Zusa’s home in recent days, so she felt content that his healing was reaching its gradual end.
“You are strong, Brynjar,” she at last spoke, the admiration in her voice masking something else entirely, “you will sire fine sons.”
“I have no longing for sons now,” the sullen warrior murmured, “only the scent of my enemies’ blood brings excitement to my heart.”
“Perhaps you look in the wrong places for excitement,” Zusa offered, moving to sit beside him on his blanket, “perhaps you dwell too much in past memories of wrong-doing and future yearnings for vengeance and death-dealing. Look to the present, son of Bjorn, what brings you excitement there?”
“There is no joy in healing,” Brynjar growled, unmoving as Zusa’s arms entwined his hulking form, “only in growing strong enough to cleave Olaf’s skull and slay that damned Jehros, whose cult came unbidden to Asaheim in search of slaves.”
“But there is joy in waking,” Zusa purred, her breath upon his neck like a summer night’s breeze, “and in feeling. Is there no joy in being alive for you, Brynjar of Ulfdalir?”
“Spare me your advances,” snapped the wrathful man, “for I have no lust for you.”
“I see,” Zusa replied sharply. “Then it comes not to a matter of seduction, but to one of debt. By the Gods’ charge I cared for you, but you are still obliged to honor my hospitality with a gift, are you not?”
With this fact, Brynjar could not argue.
“Then give me this gift,” Zusa continued. “Give me your flesh and your passion, your beating heart and pounding veins; set free your lust, son of Bjorn.”
Grudgingly, much against his desires, Brynjar relented to her demands. He fell into her rapturous embrace, enthralled like a lesser beast in the unrelenting clutches of a serpent. Weak he was, still recovering strength, or he would have cast her aside and later repaid her in gold for her hospitality. But from the force with which she pushed him to his back and moved astride him, Brynjar knew that even at his fullest strength, Zusa would have been a formidable foe. Seeing no alternative, he let his will be thwarted, and entwined himself with the huntress now upon him, and thus they wiled away the time of day, both helpless in the savage clasp of lust.
Many long days Brynjar spent, slowly regaining strength. First walking around Zusa’s hut, then around the village, and soon he was running at his old pace again, though for shorter distances than before that battle at Midvang. Time would return to him his endurance, but his skills in combat would only lessen with disuse. So he regained the use of his warrior’s prowess, sparring with the Wolfriders in friendly competition and joining them to hunt the strange beasts that lurked in the woods where they dwelt. Quickly he earned fame for his strength and brutality in battle, and his efficiency on the hunt. The Wolfriders welcomed him as their own native son.
By night, Brynjar grew increasingly fond of Zusa. They spent their days together, hunting and fighting, each honing the other’s strength like a blade in a forge. By dusk they ate together in the privacy of Zusa’s hut, sharing tales of childhood and discussing Brynjar’s plans to avenge Thorgrim. And by night, they both quite willingly entwined their forms and shared in an intimate union of flesh the likes of which neither had ever dreamt. This was the way of life for Brynjar amongst the Wolfriders, and for a half year he lived in their midst. Finally, as he knew it would, the day came when he found his full strength returned, his skills refined, and his passion for vengeance burning stronger than ever. Now was the time to strike, this he knew, and this he told Zusa one night as they lay, breathing heavily in each other’s embrace.
“You will ride out tomorrow,” Zusa whispered as Brynjar’s lips caressed her ivory throat, “this I know, Son of Bjorn. I’d not try and stop you any more than I would stand in the face of a whirling wind and demand it to falter, but I will ask of you to do for me two favors.”
“What are these favors?” asked the feverish barbarian.
“Lay with me again this night,” Zusa said, “so I may remember you in your absence.”
“And the other favor?”
“Let me ride by your side into battle.”
There was silence in the hut, only the sound of heavy breathing and insects chirping outside in the wilderness. Zusa clung tighter to Brynjar, as if trying to crush the life from him, or absorb him into her very flesh. She needed no light to see the shaking of his head, his answer was plain and clear.
“My battle shall be great,” spoke Brynjar, “my victory momentous and grand. Look for a sign in the South and then ride to find me, fair daughter of the Wolfriders.”
“This I will do,” she whispered. “But I shall long for you each day we sleep not entwined.”
“Then I shall give you a vivid memory with which to recall me,” Brynjar growled like a beast stalking its prey.
“Your actions will outweigh your words,” Zusa taunted. “Prove yourself to me. And tomorrow, we shall select for you a steed and send you on your way.”
The moment the sun rose, Zusa and Brynjar stepped from their hut and padded across the hoar-frost toward a small stable. Eagerly, Brynjar thrust open the door and bounded inside, only to recoil and leap clear of the building in anticipation of an attack that was not forthcoming.
“Why do you cower, mighty one?” Zusa asked playfully.
“Wolves,” Brynjar said in a manner of near disbelief, “as vast as steeds, massive and rippling with strength. They lurk in your stable!”
“We earned the title of Wolfrider for a reason,” Zusa smirked. “Did you think it was but myth?”
“I’d somewhat hoped so,” Brynjar muttered.
“Come,” Zusa beckoned, “come with me, for a steed must love its master if they are to ride together, and I think I know the wolf for you. At birth, we Wolfriders choose our steeds when they are but pups,” she explained, “and they age alongside us, for they are divinely blessed with long life. Yet you had no opportunity to choose a pup, for you were not born into our ways.”
Into the stable Brynjar cautiously stepped, mindful of the door behind him and wary of the gleaming, baleful eyes that stared from closed doors. The doors themselves only enclosed the stable, the great wolves were free to roam in an enclosure behind the small building at their leisure. This was for the best, as these creatures were surely spawned in some far off realm which humans could never reach. But then how had they come to ride in partnership with Zusa’s folk?
Brynjar’s thoughts were knocked from his mind by a sudden gnashing of teeth and a deafening roar. One of the wolves lunged hard at its door, slamming again and again against the wooden planks, its gaze fixed precisely on the giant of a man who had accompanied Zusa into the stable. Its thunderous roar shook the rafters, and it frothed like a man possessed.
“What feral wretch is this?” Brynjar scoffed. “Surely you would not have me ride such an evil monstrosity.”
“This is my steed,” Zusa replied with a smile, reaching her hand into the stall and scratching the wolf beneath its chin.
Instantly the creature was silent and content, licking Zusa’s hand and nuzzling at her through the door. Brynjar marveled at the kinship Zusa had with her mount, for it looked into her eyes and seemed to understand her as she told it not to fear Brynjar. Such intelligence! Were these wolves truly so clever? Zusa spoke now to Brynjar, drawing him to a stall set apart from the others. Here was his mount.
“This one shall be yours,” Zusa said, “this much I can tell.”
“How come you to this conclusion?” enquired the curious and cautious Brynjar.
“It is violent, temperamental, and does not treat the other wolves kindly,” Zusa explained, “nor will it let any Wolfrider approach. It only wandered into our midst and now will not leave, as though it were lingering in wait for something.”
The wolf in question stood a head taller than any other steed in the stable. From its nose to its tale it was the finest of white, gleaming even in the dawn, its coat like fresh-fallen snow. Its mood was quite the opposite. Its growl was as loud as the roar of Zusa’s wolf, and it was clearly holding back its full potential as it knocked the wooden door to its stall from its frame. Zusa sprung away, ready to defend herself against the on-rushing wolf, but the lumbering monster instead padded to Brynjar and lowered his head, whining like a puppy.
“Then I was right,” Zusa spoke with great relief, “and you can indeed tame such a creature. This alone is worthy of earning you a name amongst my people.”
“And what name shall that be?” Brynjar wondered.
“Well,” Zusa thought aloud, “your village lies burned, and none but Asa-folk know of your father, Bjorn. Your name must ring across the lands, a swath of blood carved in its wake. Let your enemies lament in the presence of… Brynjar Whitewolf.”
And so did he ride from the village, a sword by his side, gleaming in the sunlight. Like a banner behind him flowed his long, dark hair, as his eyes came ablaze with the fires of war. And also behind him stood the Wolfriders, his newfound folk and family, raising many horns to toast Brynjar’s victory and ask the Gods to protect him. With Zusa leading them, they cheered his name as his great steed bore him into the distance, “Hail Brynjar! Hail Brynjar Whitewolf!”

PART IV: The Tower of Ascension
Far off in the eastern lands, there once dwelled a man called Jehros. From humble roots he’d risen, for his father worked in wood-craft and his mother held no work, as was the custom of the eastern people. But Jehros had one day, perhaps even from birth, felt a divine inspiration placed upon him, a strength of will and a yearning for fame and glory. At a young age he did set forth from his parents’ home and begin to amass followers, people who believed that Jehros’ strength of character was not a mere gift from the God of their land, but instead that it was a result of direct lineage. Jehros was the son of their God.
With blinding speed, Jehros’ cult grew powerful, gaining the support of kings. Jehros now dined in ornate halls, feasting upon succulent meats and thick slabs of bread. He surrounded himself with a harem of enslaved women, who followed him night and day, ever worshipful and exuberant to stand in his presence. Jehros likewise assembled an army, first comprised of mercenaries, but which soon gained the following of the great armies of kings. Jehros’ warriors, known as the Southern Raiders, for they hailed from the southern provinces of the eastern lands, swept across the deserts like a rolling tide of steel and death, spreading the word of the son of God, and purging the land of those who would not abandon their old ways.
But in time, the East was conquered. All those eastern-folk, of significance, now knelt before Jehros as he strode across the sands and spoke his words of love, salvation, and vengeful fire that would rain down upon his enemies at his command. For he could speak directly to their God, he could command the wrath of their God, and only he could claim lineage from their God. But still he felt the limitations of mortality weighing heavy upon his back, for he could not yet rise to join his father in the sky, he could only shout of love and death. And thus began his quest of ascension.
A great tower of stone to take him straight to the sky; this was the will of Jehros. His followers, his willing slaves, would accompany him as he crossed the sea, moving northwest toward the shores of a new, unconquered world. There they found a great desert in the south, wherein they made their home. And then they did set about the task of rounding up more slaves, from the northern mountains of ice and snow, known as Asaheim. There Jehros’ army did go, for there they would find strong slaves, people who could be coerced to worship the mighty Jehros, and who could be set to work crafting the great Tower of Ascension for Jehros, the Almighty Son.
But never before, in all their death-dealing, had the Southern Raiders encountered a brutish tribe quite like the Asa-folk. Jehros preached with all his heart, urging them to forsake their devilish, red-bearded thunder God Donnar, imploring them to abandon their primitive ways and step into the realm of enlightenment, to worship the son of the True God. But, unlike many others, the Asa-folk were not so ready to believe all their ancestors were wrong. Whatever slaves the Raiders gained were taken after considerable loss, until at last the day did come that the Southern Raiders retreated from Asaheim, back to the desert they now knew as home, to set their slaves to work. But one day, as the foundations of the Tower of Ascension were being laid upon the earth, a man, bronzed by the son, and naked but for a loin-cloth, did walk into their midst and insert himself, willingly, into the ranks of the slaves.
“Who is this man,” asked Jehros of his most trusted General, Olaf, “who is this man that comes forth and so willingly yields beneath the whip of the slave-master?”
“He will give us no name,” Olaf replied, “and we can only guess at his origins.”
“And what has your guesswork revealed?”
“His skin is bronzed by sun,” Olaf began, “but his voice carries the rough bite of the Asa-folk.”
“Then he worships that degenerate hammer-throwing God, Donnar?” Jehros enquired.
“At first I would assume so,” Olaf ventured, “but from his willingness to work in your servitude, I’d say he is quite willing to worship you, Master.”
“Well keep watch upon him,” commanded the Almighty Son, “for I would be a fool to let a wolf camp amongst my sheep.”
Neither man knew this willing slave by name, though Olaf should have recognized the scar upon this slave’s belly. For he, Olaf, had dealt a death-blow which would have yielded such a scar, had his victim lived. But never once did this cross the General’s mind, for what is one victim in battle, how could one possibly hold in mind all the lives he’d taken. It was this ruthless forgetfulness on the part of Olaf that allowed this slave to go undetected as he worked diligently and bided his time to seek his revenge.
Brynjar was not recognized by his fellow slaves, even those of Asaheim. His accent made clear his homeland, but never before had they seen such a tan-skinned Asa-man. Amongst the slave ranks, Brynjar saw many men and women he had known from Ulfdalir and its surrounding towns, but never did he speak up and make his name known. It would do him naught but harm to alert the Asa-folk that Brynjar still lived, and was indeed amongst them at this very moment. With the son of Bjorn in their midst, the slaves would surely rally, defy the Raiders, and be cut down in mere moments. No, this was not the way things would be. Brynjar’s plan would take great time to unfurl.
And so the slaves did toil upon the burning sands, beneath the blazing sun and the stinging whip, laying stones upon stones to craft Jehros’ great tower. With time, the ebon pillar rose to pierce the sky, its surfaces smooth but for hand-holds on all its sides, with which Jehros would one day climb when came his time to join his father. This was the Tower of Ascension, the edifice spoken of in the great tome Jehros held always by his side, the tome from which he preached his words and passed his judgments. Now, from its pages at last had risen his crowning achievement, the great monument that would channel his very body up from this mortal plain and into the hall of the eastern God, Uriel.
The day following the completion of his tower, Jehros gathered all of his worshippers and slaves to behold his grand work. Standing before the gently swaying column of stone, he raised up his arms, the sleeves of his white-collared robe fluttering in the stinging desert wind, and he spoke to his people.
“Children of Jehros,” rang his clear voice over the dunes of sand, “my sons and daughters, blessed are ye who follow me as I now ascend to dwell in the halls of my father, Uriel.”
“Blessed be,” replied the congregation, save for a few slaves who still held as best they could to their old ways.
“From my father’s halls,” Jehros continued, “I did descend to bring a mighty sword, to purge the evils and the non-believers of the mortal world. Now in thy midst I shall climb up to the height of this tower, to the very pinnacle of ascension, and fly into Uriel’s keep. But think not that I leave you, for I shall return with the armies of war, who shall descend, screaming from the heavens, to lay waste to the sinners of the land!”
A roar of applause went up from the congregation, many of them screaming praises of Uriel and his son with the vigor of frothing wolves, slavering and flailing about like men possessed. With the attention of the crowd upon him, Jehros turned to face his monument and placed his hands upon the first rung of the hand-holds that encircled it. Then with maddening speed he began to rise, climbing hand over hand with such swiftness that it seemed as though the tower itself were propelling him up to its heights. Tirelessly he rose, and so fixed upon Jehros was the attention of the crowd that none seemed to notice when a slave slipped from his ranks and charged at the tower.
“Hail Asaheim!” came a mighty roar as Brynjar tore across the sands toward the base of the great pillar.
No warrior, however skilled, could have stood in the path of this rampaging wild man. A great bounding leap carried Brynjar a good distance up the side of the Tower of Ascension, where he secured his grip before climbing at a careful, measured pace toward its height. Having a great head start, Jehros reached the summit before the angry warrior was but half way up the side. The eastern man stood then in his meditative pose: head tilted skyward, arms outstretched perfectly at either side like majestic wings, and his eyes closed in contemplation. Though the tower swayed, he did not move.
But the Southern Raiders, though caught off-guard, were swift in their response. Many charged to the tower’s base, standing ready to cut down the rebellious slave, should he fall into their midst. Several paces back, archers notched their arrows and waited for an order from Olaf to fire. But Olaf dismissed them, bidding them hold ready their bows but loose no arrow until he himself could fire upon this unruly dog. With the ease that comes from many years on the battlefield, Olaf notched an arrow and pulled back the string, drawing his target into his sight. Yet, as he prepared to fire, bracing himself for the recoiling “twang” of the bowstring, a strange noise stopped him in his tracks.
Were the sky not cloudless, many would have called it thunder. Perhaps it was a roaring wind, but the sand sat too still for a storm to be so near. The sound echoed over the hills and mounds, a low rumbling entwined with a high-pitched howl. Only after many moments did Olaf recognize that awful din. It could be no thunder from the halls of the heathen God Donnar, nor the swirling sands that signaled Uriel’s mighty wrath. For there was but one thing, in all of the natural world that could yield this evil sound… the coming of wolves.

PART V: A Test of Will
When Brynjar reached the desert lands of the south, after many days of strenuous travel, he dismounted from his wolf and stood before the great creature. Such a great bond a man can form between himself and a beast when they spend such time together, each relying upon the other for survival. Gazing into the eyes of the vicious wolf, Brynjar gave it a few simple commands, hoping that it understood, and then sent it off along its way. Such was his faith in his mount, that he would intrust his life to its comprehension of his carefully timed plan.
Fate dealt favorably for Brynjar in this venture, for the mighty white wolf returned to the keep of the Wolfriders, who received it readily. But they knew from whom this wolf had come, and Zusa was instantly struck with fear, fear that Brynjar had fallen and his mighty steed had returned home for lack of a rider. This, it was revealed, was not the case, for the wolf did not weep as did those whose riders had perished. It did not lay dormant and dying, like a hawk without its mate. Instead it urged the Wolfriders to follow it, howling through the night until they would listen and give heed to its message.
In the time between Brynjar’s departure and the return of the white wolf, Zusa had been set upon by many a troubling dream. Slaves abused by their masters, great stone towers, and a wicked man from foreign shores, played through her sleeping mind. On occasion she saw Brynjar, his skin darkened by the sun, but just as strong and fiery as ever. When at last the wolf returned and, through its actions, bid the Wolfriders to follow, Zusa was quick to comply. She pleaded for others to join her, beseeching them to come and aid her in what was surely a fight for Brynjar’s life.
“We cannot go,” spoke their high priest, “we cannot leave our village unguarded for so long.”
“You would turn your back on one of your own?” howled Zusa with anguish.
“Brynjar was like a son of the Wolfriders,” the priest proclaimed, “but he chose to leave us, this was not our doing.”
“Will none of you come to fight with me?” Zusa pleaded, holding tight to the hilt of a gleaming sword.
Fortunately, Brynjar’s hunting and combative prowess had afforded him renown amongst the Wolfriders. Many men moved to stand behind Zusa, signifying their will. A party of ninety men swore their allegiance to Zusa and Brynjar, to serve under Zusa’s command in an effort to aid Brynjar in what surely was a deathly trial of steel. Oaths taken, shields readied, and blades sharpened, these chosen Wolfriders mounted their steeds and bounded forth, Zusa at the head of the pack, following the swift-moving white wolf that would lead them to their goal. This, Zusa thought, was surely the sign for which she had been told to wait, this was the sign of which Brynjar had spoken. Now, she would ride with all the vigor in her soul, to find him again and bring him home.
It took many long nights of near-ceaseless travel for the Wolfriders to reach the outskirts of the southern desert. When finally they made camp, riders and wolves both collapsed by the campfires, eager to rest until the next day. Sleep overtook them all, save for Zusa, whose heart beat too swiftly for rest, but whose body yearned for slumber. She gazed into the desert, the blackness of swirling sand that stretched out before them beneath the night sky. Vaguely, she could discern a strange shape, standing tall and stationary, far in the distance. This would be where her beloved one lingered, of that, Zusa was sure. For what a strange obelisk it was, clearly not a thing of nature. Surely Brynjar lingered there. Any clever warrior, seeking to be found, would wait near a noticeable landmark, would they not?
Zusa pushed doubts from her mind. If Brynjar was not there, then perhaps someone there may know of him, perhaps he might be nearby, heading for this very camp, unknowing that Zusa herself lay yearning for him. Oh how she did long to feel his muscular frame writhing beneath her again in the throws of ecstasy, how she lusted after his fiery kisses and the caress of his war-toughened hands. Shivering with excitement at the vividness of her imagination, Zusa pulled a fur blanket over herself, and drifted into sleep until the sun again was chased above the horizon.
By the light of day, the ebon tower was revealed, starkly contrasting the light desert sand. Some aura of horrible fear, of oppressive wickedness exuded from that awful construct, as it stood and swayed in the hard winds, yet never tumbled down. Many men were anxious about approaching it, fearful to tread near such a strange and evil device as this. But Zusa spurred them on, assuring them of great battle and glory to be won on this day. Mighty shouts of praise to Donnar flew up from this small army, whose wolves howled in unison as they charged toward this dark tower.
Olaf had no time to fire the arrow from his bow, to bring Brynjar down from the tower, into the swirling swords of the Southern Raiders. Even as he turned to give an order of attack to his men, the Wolfriders came down from the hills, their steeds fleet-footed and their swords deadly. Olaf beheld a fair-skinned female, beautiful and cruel as an angel of death as she swept toward him, cleaving his bow in two.
“Raiders,” called the mighty General, “let not these heathens spoil the ascension of the Almighty Son. Let the sand run red with pagan blood in the name of our lord!”
“Go,” Zusa snarled, “and join your lord, see how he welcomes you, murderous swine!”
No reflexes of any man were quick enough to counter the blow Zusa dealt. Olaf, still fumbling for his blade in its sheath, was cut down, his head rolling from his shoulders and trampled beneath the feet of charging wolves and the horses of the defending Raiders. With their General so abruptly slain, the Raiders fell into chaos, breaking ranks and madly slaying any who stood between them and the outskirts of the fray. If only they could break free of this assault, then they could charge southward to the safety of a mighty fortress that was still held by many high-ranked Raiders. From this vantage point, battle with the Asa-folk would be much more in their favor.
The true mistake of the Raiders was made instantaneously, not in their formation or their breaking of ranks, not in their servitude of Jehros, but in their natural tendency to forget those whom they felt were beneath them in the grand hierarchy of the world’s order. Such was their undoing, for the slaves of Jehros, no longer bound by fear of the whip and brand, took up the blades of fallen Raiders and Asa-folk alike, and loosed their vengeful wrath upon those who had so cruelly enslaved them. Surrounded by foes, the Southern Raiders could not hold. Too small was this battalion, too vast were its foes. The tides of war had turned against them, and thus they were swept away like so much sand at the mercy of the ocean.
High above the slaughter, another battle began to rage. Brynjar at last reached the summit of the tower and now stood before Jehros, who still lingered, meditating, making himself ready to leap up to the sky.
“Open your eyes, dog,” Brynjar snapped, “I’ll not kill a man who cannot fight me.”
“You cannot kill what is beyond your comprehension, heathen,” calmly spoke Jehros.
“My Gods give me strength.”
“Your Gods are devils! They are idols and deceptions!”
Long months of pining for revenge welled up within the thews of the Asa-man as he seized Jehros by the shoulders. Yet as he pushed forward, hoping to throw the self-righteous pig from his evil throne, Jehros swung forth his arms and locked them with Brynjar’s, entering a grappling stance. Now began a fatal game of strength. Brynjar noted how much it was like the wrestling matches from his youth, each man trying to topple the other. But soft grass and cold drinks of mead did not await either combatant in this more lethal game. Only death for the defeated and glory for the victor. Such was war itself, the very idea of battle made tangible in the struggle of these two mighty men.
Gazing into each other’s blazing eyes, both men strained their every sinew, hoping to gain but an inch in their favor, hoping to slowly tear down their adversary’s resolve. Brynjar was astounded by the strength of this thinner man, who would have easily thrown anyone from the tower whose strength was not of that honed in the mountains of Asaheim. As swords clashed below, like some dissonant tribal song, Brynjar snarled through his teeth at his foe.
“Your war-dogs killed my brother,” the Asa-man spat coldly, “and now they are slaughtered by my wolves.”
“Those who you call dogs are of a superior breed to you,” Jehros said, ever calm and tranquil, “for they worship my father, Uriel, and I, his son. Such strength you have, barbarian. Would you not join my flock?”
“I would rather live a moment as a wolf, than serve a lifetime as a sheep,” retorted Brynjar, barely able to speak for all the effort he put forth in maintaining this battle.
“Your Gods will fail you,” Jehros laughed, “for only I know the path to true divinity, only through me shall you be saved. See how they failed your brother and brought you here to the brink of death?”
“You knew not my brother,” Brynjar hissed, “and your words are meaningless. Thorgrim died in service to our Gods. Better to die as such than to be your slave.”
“So readily you heathens serve your perversions of faith,” Jehros snarled, “so willing to leap into the fires of the abyss. I condemn you, Asa-man.”
A sudden surge of strength passed through Jehros, and Brynjar could only hold his ground, no longer was he able to push forward. All his might was failing, his muscles tensing and aching with the strain of the struggle. As his body began to edge backward, Brynjar lifted his head and cried to the skies above him.
“Donnar,” boomed the voice of the nearly-fallen man, “send me your strength, send me your hammer! Thorgrim, my brother, come down from Bilskirnir, that the twin sons of Bjorn may together spit into the face of death!”
It seemed then that the land was darkened, perhaps by a cloud, were not the sky so clear. Chilling winds whipped about the tower, rocking its very foundations, as rain began to fall. Lightning like tongues of fire descended from the sky, striking the sand with great sizzling hisses like angry snakes. All at once, Brynjar beheld-if only for a moment-the shaven-headed image of his fallen brother, floating in midair upon a mighty steed. Surrounding him, upon horses that galloped effortlessly through the sky, were the maidens of battle, the fierce warrior women who came to take the fallen dead to the land of the Gods. The valkyrjar.
A scream like no mortal man could make bellowed from Brynjar’s throat as he lifted Jehros high and heaved him forward from the tower. The Almighty Son tumbled, his arms outstretched as he fell, as though he were meditating in mid-flight. Looking up from the slaughter, Zusa saw the falling body cloaked in black robes, and seized the spear at her side, the mighty Gungnir, and threw it forth, letting the wind carry it to its final home, in the heart of Jehros. A resounding crunch echoed across the now silent field of war as Jehros hit the sand, his body posed perfectly in his meditative stance, save for the broken spear that now pierced his throbbing heart. Zusa strode forth and smiled maliciously down at the fast-dying man, before seizing Gungnir by its tip, and firmly twisting it in the wound. Though Jehros was an evil foe, Zusa admired him for going to his gruesome death without a cowardly scream.
No time was there for celebrations though, for the Tower of Ascension still stood, if only for the moment. It seemed to sense the death of its creator, or perhaps it was struck by the hammer of Donnar. Whatever the case may have been, the great pillar of stone began to tremble. Brynjar, kneeling on the tower’s surface, leapt skyward the moment he sensed the impending collapse. As the tower tilted, Brynjar landed on its now steeply angled side and began a half-run, half-tumble to the sand below, jumping clear of the collapsing structure.
And there, ever loyal, its muzzle stained red with the blood of the Southern Raiders, stood Brynjar’s wolf. As the Tower of Ascension fell, Brynjar rose onto the back of his steed. Zusa charged to him, leaping upon Brynjar with such force that she nearly unseated him from his mount. Again and again she kissed him, clawing at him and clinging to him with the passion only a lover could muster. Brynjar responded with equal intensity, returning her kisses and holding her against him in his tired arms.
“Where shall we now go, Brynjar Whitewolf?” Zusa panted with excitement.
“A castle still stands to the south,” Brynjar replied when his mouth was free to talk, “where still they hail Jehros as the Almighty Son. Let us go and wipe clean our land of the Southern Raiders.”
“You are tired,” Zusa admonished as she clambered onto her own wolf, “and your back is ablaze with still-fresh wounds from the slave-master’s whip. Let us go back to our camp for the night, Brynjar, let me care for you this evening.”
“Very well,” Brynjar relented at long last, “let us go to your camp, Zusa.”
With the Wolfriders and newly freed Asa-folk trailing behind them, Brynjar and Zusa made for camp. As much as he yearned for the sensations of war, for the clash of steel on steel, Brynjar now desired, more than anything, the firm caress of Zusa’s gentle hands. She had gone through this battle unscathed, such was her prowess. Yes, Brynjar thought to himself as he surveyed those who followed him, tonight they shall camp and rest, tonight he and Zusa shall entwine themselves again. But tomorrow, the southern castle shall learn, by the wrath of unforgiving steel, of the fall of Jehros.

—–

If you enjoyed this tale, I encourage you to check out my novel, Bla
des of Cairndale
.

Yggdrasil

Whence come my roots, no man may know. Where reach my branches, know man may tell. But into all of the nine worlds do I reach, and over all do I spread my shade. At my feet there lies a feral beast, a roaring monstrosity who gnaws, endlessly at my living flesh. Far above, there sits a mighty eagle who sees all the worlds spread out before him.

Oh but I have seen lives come and go, whole nations rise by blood and then fall by flame, collapsing into history’s forgetful chronicle. I have seen mighty folk take up arms to fight and defend alike. I saw the brave warrior leap through the ring of fire to claim his Valkyrie bride. I have seen the shining God fall, slain by treachery, into the depths of Niflheim. And upon my branches has hung the One-Eyed God, the Allfather, the Lord of the Gallows, a sacrifice of himself unto himself. Pierced in the side by his own spear. I watched as silently he brooded, for nine days and nights alike, his body hanging still in the whispering air. Then, as revelation struck him, I watched him writhe in the sudden agony of realization and fall from my branches, renewed and gifted with unending knowledge of his sacred runes.

I have been called Yggdrasil, Irminsul, the World Tree. From my roots, nine rivers spring. From my branches, creatures feed. By my trunk, the Gods keep their counsel. And over Midgard, I watch in silence, and shall stand unyielding until fire scorches every leaf from my frame.

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