The Barbarian Bard

Tales and Musings by Michael A. Espinoza

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.

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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.

Dear Carly Rae Jepsen

Dear Carly Rae Jepsen,

     I am writing this letter with the full knowledge that you may, in all likelihood, never read it. Let me start by saying: Thank you. Thank you for the music, the charming interviews, and everything else you have shared with all of us. If you take anything away from this letter, may it be the knowledge that your work and personality are truly appreciated.

     I was born, and still am, blind in both eyes. Not 100% blind, more like 95% blind, but that’s still pretty blind. Music has always been a huge part of my life, an outlet for my creativity, whether I’m listening or creating my own. Chiefly, I listen to and write heavy metal music; something about the loud, bombastic punch of metal has always spoken to me. As I say to my friends: There are two types of music on my iPod, heavy metal and Carly Rae Jepsen. What lead me to appreciate your work is a phenomenon I find hard to express in words. To put it as succinctly as I can: I like the fact that, when you sing, it truly sounds like you are smiling. Not a forced smile or a false sense of exuberance, but a genuine, warm smile. There is something about your inflection on certain words that conjures the auditory image of a small smile, just the most subtle upturning of the corners of the mouth, which yields such an honest, cheerful timbre to your voice. In a world where so many people struggle with expressing their true emotions, that authentic gesture speaks volumes to my listening ears.

     My life has been a good one overall, but I have experienced some unfortunate events, things that sometimes keep me awake at night, or rouse me from my sleep in an alarmed state of mind. For years, I did not have a cure for such circumstances, until I stumbled upon your music. When I lie awake, my nerves on edge and my mind racing, I know I can turn on any of your songs and feel almost instantly calm. Suddenly, the world is not so intimidating, and I am not so alone or powerless. My pulse stops hammering, my thoughts coalesce into a less jumbled mass, and I realize that the world can’t be so bad as long as there is one genuine smile amidst the chaos of life’s innumerable obstacles.

     Now, I’ve written and rewritten this letter a dozen times. Still, I’m not satisfied that I’m adequately conveying to you how grateful I am for your music. It has uplifted me during my darkest times, and beamed down on me like sunshine during the brightest days of my life. I truly hope that, by the providence of good fortune, this letter will find its way to you. So, I leave you with these final words: Thank you, Carly Rae Jepsen. Thank you for the heartfelt songs, thank you for all the good you do, and thank you for sharing your smiling voice with the world.

The Witch-Queen Speaks

     I landed on the castle steps with an unceremonious thud. It took a considerable effort to keep my legs from buckling under the impact of body on stone. But I pushed through the pain and straightened up, turning a resolute face to the imposing gates before me. After all, I had an interview to conduct. I had, of course, made this perilous journey–leaping into the pages of the very book I’d penned–to interview none other than Azyriana the Witch-Queen, steward of Cairndale’s throne.
     Hulking orcs, their broad-shouldered builds made only more intimidating by black plate armor, flanked the gates of Castle Cairndale. With a wordless glance in my direction, the guards stepped aside and the gates swung open before me, as though drawn in by some silent, invisible hand. I did not pause long to admire the lavish vaulted ceiling, from which glimmering magical orbs hung in ornate chandeliers, nor did I allow myself to be sidetracked by the countless galleries decorated with priceless Almurian art. I kept a steady pace, ever aware of watchful eyes upon me, belonging to guards both plainly visible and concealed by stealth and fine magic. My footsteps did not falter until I reached the private audience chamber of the Witch-Queen. Just outside the door I stood as if awaiting an invitation to proceed. That invitation came with the silent opening of the door before me.
     I did not waste time observing my surroundings, though I made note of a pleasant fire crackling in a hearth to my left. At the opposite end of the room, seated in a throne of dark stone, whose arm rests were carved with the snarling visages of fierce demons, sat Azyriana the Witch-Queen. Even seated, her height and air of power took me aback. The fire of her eyes blazed with a keen intellect, and her pale face was set in an inscrutable expression. To her left stood her fair-haired servant, a young man named Van. His hand rested on the pommel of his blade, and I knew that, despite his deference to the Witch-Queen, he was a formidable adversary in battle.
     “Thank you for seeing me, Azyriana.” I bowed deeply.
     “Of course.” Her voice was as cool as a late-autumnal breeze. “One must always make time for the chronicler of their saga.”
     “Quite right.” I nodded and produced a pen and notepad from my rucksack. “Now, I have a few questions for you, if you don’t mind. Your answers will, with your permission, be shared with those who will be reading the tale of your triumph.”
     Van cast a wary look at my pen, and I could practically hear the wheels turning in his mind, assessing the device’s range, sharpness, and my own reach. Azyriana laid a slender hand on her servant’s arm and a smile flickered across his face. His stance relaxed, but he kept his eyes on me all the same. I’d have expected no less.
     “First,” I read from my list of questions, “how does it feel for you to be a female in power?”
     “What an odd question. I rule my land just as my sister Ylsa rules over her dominion. The nymphs of Thraedmar have no rulers who are not women. It is not uncommon.”
     “Ah,” I hesitated before pressing onward. “Well, you see, in my world, female rule is less common. The number of male and female leaders is unequal to say the beast. So, for those reading of your future trials and triumphs, your experience is quite unique.”
     “How sad,” she observed. “But all the same, I’ll endeavor to answer. I rule with an even hand, when that can be managed. I endeavor to heed the advice of my counselors, but often must make sudden decisions on my own. Mine is the final word until my father, Thurzir, returns to Cairndale. It is a trying experience, but I endeavor to do right by all the people who fly our banner.”
     I made my notes and looked to the next question.
     “What can an individual citizen do to help further the success of the land?”
     “Even wanting the land’s furthered success is already a tremendous help. But I ask of my citizens only this: Trust in me to do what I can to help you, but know that I am not omniscient. I will strive to fix any problem or make any improvement of which I am aware. If in some way Cairndale has failed you, then it is your duty as a citizen to help me ensure it does not do so again.”
     She caught my smile as I wrote her response, and my reaction seemed to amuse her.
     “Is this again at odds with the norms of your world?”
     “Sadly, yes.” I glanced at my papers again. “Now, I know there is some controversy in Almuria regarding the interbreeding of humans and the other races of the world. How do you feel about this fact?”
     “Me?” Azyriana laughed, and her great black wings stirred noticeably behind her. “My father is the god of demons, and my mother was a human. How do you imagine I feel?”
     “Right right.” I crossed out a line on the page. “Dumb question.”
     “Not at all,” she continued, “for it is a hotly contested matter. Cairndale was founded upon diversity, our capital city was built by creatures of every race: men, orcs, harpies, nymphs, and even demons of the Abyss. It pains me to see how so many other beings, of all races, treat those of us who spawned from what such hateful minds deem an unholy union. The nymphs of Thraedmar still fear for their lives from the dwellers of Axis, their neighbor to the east. I cannot do much, at present, beyond my own borders, save for trying to show all of Almuria that such diversity has brought no ruin, but instead prosperity, to our nation.”
     “Would you say that prosperity is a great motivator for you?”
     “Not prosperity in the sense of gathered wealth.” She idly drummed her taloned fingertips on the arm of her chair. “But the result of those gains: well-fed citizens, loyal warriors, and a strong nation as a whole. Those are my motivations. To make of Cairndale all that I know it can be.”
     “And,” I added, “one last question. How would you spend an ideal day?”
     Azyriana, almost on impulse, placed her hand on Van’s arm in a soft, tender gesture. He smiled at her and I felt the natural charge of a profound connection between the pair.
     “An ideal day,” Azyriana chose her words with care, “would be one free of government and bureaucracy. I might spend it walking in the gardens, or even traveling to some of my nation’s more rural reaches. And of course, I would travel with my servant.”
     “Of course.” I offered a knowing smile. “Well, that is all the questions I have for you. Thank you for your time, Azyriana.”
     “You are most certainly welcome.”

     I departed then, but now it is your turn, oh reader, to leap into the realm of Cairndale. Click here to read of Azyriana and her land in the full-length novel “Blades of Cairndale.”

The Mountain Stone

     Seth imagined the sound of undergrowth being trampled under the charge of mail-plated boots. In his mind’s eye, a soldier clad in black plate armor, adorned with the crest of Cairndale, smashed through the wooded landscape, sword unsheathed and ready to slay. Seth envisioned himself breaking from his patrol to follow this servant of the Witch-Queen, moving soundlessly behind the wild charge of the enemy warrior. He knew the man was bound for Eastcliff’s wall, that he meant to assail the small town’s patriarch, Lord Archibald, amidst the ruler’s speech to his people, and Seth would not stand for it.

     As he doubled back on his patrol route, he continued to play out this fantasy in his mind. The forest-dwelling birds would scatter before the on-rushing warrior of the Bladed Scourge, the Witch-Queen’s mighty armed force. The soldier would break from the tree-line–still unaware that he was being followed–and Seth would pounce, driving a dagger into a gap between his target’s helmet and cuirass. The man would crumple to the ground in an armored heap, leaving Lord Archibald to deliver his speech in safety.

     So enthralling was his imagining that Seth never heard the swift footsteps behind him. If he did, he had no time to react before a dagger’s point was jammed sharply into the base of his skull. A firm hand pulled Seth’s head back, easing the passage of the dagger into his brain. Seth was momentarily aware of a burning sensation at the nape of his neck as his vision swiftly receded into darkness. But that awareness faded rapidly, leaving his body limp and lifeless.

     “That’s the last of them,” Garyn said in a low voice, slipping his dagger free of the dead scout and letting the body fall to the ground.

     “That is, assuming the others hit their marks,” Zuna replied, emerging from behind a tall tree.

     Both warriors had foregone their primary weapons–Garyn his broadsword and Zuna her twin shortswords–in favor of daggers, which far more suited the subtle task at hand. The two warriors wore light armor, a patchwork of mottled green designed to blend into the woodland that bordered the southwestern edge of Eastcliff. Garyn much preferred his chainmail, but such armor was hardly suitable for moving quietly amongst the trees. Likewise, Zuna would have much preferred to wear her padded leather armor and to wield her shortswords, but that would have to wait for now; their assignment was not yet concluded.

     “Their lord should be taking to the wall shortly,” Zuna said, taking the lead as they moved carefully up through the trees.

     Garyn closely tailed his more experienced comrade, hoping all the while that the other members of their detachment had successfully eliminated Eastcliff’s remaining patrols beyond the wall. An ambush was the last thing they needed.

     “We’ll be fine,” Zuna said, somehow sensing Garyn’s trepidation, “Sergeant Tahlin wouldn’t have sent you if he wasn’t confident in your skill.”

Garyn nodded, but looked doubtful nonetheless.

     They moved onward, northeast through the wooded terrain, stopping just short of where the tree-line had been cut back, well away from Eastcliff’s border wall. From their concealment, they watched the city’s wall: a tall construct of stone, broad enough for soldiers to walk upon, with watchtowers placed at even intervals along its length. Even from where they lurked, prone in the foliage, they could hear the dull roar of the ocean lapping against the cliffs east of the walled city. The air smelled faintly of the salty ocean spray, and gulls cried their shrill song in greeting to the slowly rising sun.

     “Is that him?” Garyn made a subtle gesture in the direction of a section of wall just north of their position.

     “Looks that way,” Zuna replied after a moment of observing the figure who’d ascended the wall. “Ready your weapon.”

     Garyn unslung his bolt-rifle from over his shoulder and brought it into position with a fluid motion, staying prone all the while. Even a slight excess of movement could alert those watching from the wall towers. The weapon relied on two heavy springs to fire its projectile: a quarrel which tapered to a wicked metal barb. Garyn slotted a quarrel into place and drew back the priming handle, compressing the weapon’s powerful springs. His index finger rested just outside the trigger-guard while he sighted along the length of the rifle. Zuna mirrored Garyn’s actions, though she targeted the nearest watchtower rather than the robed man standing atop the wall. If Garyn missed, she could easily shift her aim to the left and strike Lord Archibald, but Sergeant Tahlin had ordered Garyn to make the initial attempt. A test of sorts.

     “Children of Eastcliff,” Archibald called in a smooth baritone voice that carried in every direction, “we have withstood the Witch-Queen’s forces for five long days. Twice they have struck our wall, twice we repelled them. By the glory and benevolence of the Gods Above, and by the providence of my great wisdom, our wall shall hold.”

     A cheer rose up from the far side of the wall. Zuna and Garyn both smirked at the foolhardy words of this charismatic revolutionary.

     “See now how I stand,” Archibald continued once the uproar of his audience had settled, “guarded by the might of our fighting men, and how I am unscathed by the Witch-Queen’s dark legion! They dare not strike me, they cannot strike me, for I am the beloved of the Gods Above, the chosen to guard you against the Bladed Scourge! We have cast off the shackles of servitude, we will not worship the loathsome witch or her feeble father!”

     “Enough of this,” Zuna ordered. “Fire.”

     Garyn’s index finger slid into the guard and he slowly applied pressure. Carefully, gradually he squeezed the trigger, keeping his sight fixed on the unsuspecting lord. With a sharp snap, the springs released their tension and the barbed quarrel hissed through the air. Lord Archibald, facing away from his assailants while he addressed his audience, never saw the bolt that plunged into his body, punching cleanly between his shoulderblades. The moment Zuna saw Garyn strike his target, she unleashed her own bolt at the guard in the nearest tower. He had no time to duck below the rim of his tower and caught the quarrel squarely in his chest. The projectile punched into his armor, knocking him to his back. He’d likely survived the blow, but he’d be no immediate threat.

     Simultaneously, the snap of other bolt-rifles sounded from elsewhere along the tree-line. The other scouts were firing upon the wall’s watchtowers, not a constant barrage of bolts, just a single shot from each scout to occupy or incapacitate the watchmen.

     Lord Archibald’s body toppled forward over the edge of the wall, driven by the force of the bolt. Garyn and Zuna heard cries of anguish from beyond the wall, but they did not linger to observe the disarray. Zuna led the way on a hasty retreat through the trees, Garyn close behind her, weaving sporadically in case any of the Eastcliff Militia hoped to follow and return fire. They did not slow their pace until they reached their encampment: a well-guarded forest of tents set up to obstruct the only viable road to Eastcliff.

     “Good shooting, Garyn,” Zuna proclaimed, clapping him on the shoulder. “Tahlin will be pleased.”

Garyn beamed at the thought of his platoon sergeant’s pride.

* * *

     Azyriana stared into her own glowing red eyes, reflected from the water’s surface. She stood on one side of the small, elevated pool, gazing fixedly at her own reflection, her pale face framed by jet-black hair. Her features were striking in their symmetry, and her skin was unblemished yet possessed of a certain inhumanity. Perhaps it was the shimmer of her eyes or the sharpness of her features which leant her this elegant yet predatory appearance. To look upon her was like beholding an alluring spider’s web at whose center waited a grim demise for those who became ensnared. Most inhuman of her features–more so than her sharpened nails or pointed teeth–was the pair of great, leathery black wings which extended from her back.

     The small pool of water into which the queen gazed stood at the center of a private room in Azyriana’s castle. This was a holy place, a place of reflection, but one for the Witch-Queen’s eyes only. Four candles blazed in sconces fixed along the pool’s edge, bathing the area in a warm yet ethereal glow. Though it faintly illuminated Azyriana where she stood, it stopped abruptly before the figure across from her, as if the light itself feared the being’s presence.

     The figure was an immobile suit of ebon plate armor, holding a greatsword in its right hand and sporting a buckler on its left arm. The buckler bore the face of a snarling demon, and was made of the same gleaming black metal as the armor and sword. The demonic face looked ready to erupt from the shield’s surface and rend the flesh of those it beheld. The armor’s most defining feature was the pair of curved horns jutting from its helm.

     “My forces continue to siege the shoreline city of Eastcliff. Those rebels will pay dearly for aligning against me, particularly when they border no settlement foolish enough to join them.”

     Azyriana’s voice was like a fall breeze–crisp but not jagged–a smooth wind tinged by the ominous portent of winter. She raised her eyes when she spoke, as though she addressed the empty suit of armor.

     It gave no audible reply in the silence thereafter.

     Azyriana looked down again to the pool and met her own infernal red gaze.

     “Your suggestion to abstain from the use of conjured siege weapons proved fruitless,” she said carefully. “I see the merit of stomping out the rebels with only our army’s brute force, but the effort has made us look foolish and ill-prepared, rather than powerful and unconcerned for the strength of their pitiful revolt.”

     She was silent for a moment before lowering her gaze, albeit grudgingly.

     “Yes. My apologies, Father. The fault was with my army, not your wisdom.” The words of apology struggled past her lips.

     A tentative knock at the door–quiet though the sound was–startled the Witch-Queen. With a simple gesture of her right hand she extinguished the four candles, plunging the room into a darkness broken only by the glow of her eyes. She walked with a measured pace across the room and drew open the door.

     Azyriana’s eyes traveled over the slender form of the young man who stood before her. Though he was of age, he remained fairly short and fragile in stature: he stood half a head shorter than the tall Witch-Queen. For nine years he’d trained diligently in numerous arts–diplomacy, magic, history, musicianship, artistry, and so forth–all to be her Anointed Subject, the personal servant of the Witch-Queen. And now on his twenty-first year of life, he’d come into her service.

     “Van,” Azyriana glowered at her Anointed Subject, her stare burning into his eyes, “you are not to disrupt me in this chamber, you know this. I ought to have you beaten for such a transgression, or do the deed myself. Though perhaps a bit of mutilation would be more sufficient; which of your fingers would you prefer to lose?”

     Van’s eyes widened for a few moments, his expression stricken with terror until he caught the flicker of a sly grin on his queen’s face. He returned the smile with a nervous laugh that segued into an amused chuckle.

     “Really Van, I’d imagined you would be used to my humor by now. While I don’t favor interruptions, I assume you come with news, yes?”

     “Yes, my lady,” Van replied. “I’d not have disturbed you, but I have word from Eastcliff.”

     “Let us talk of such matters somewhere more comfortable,” Azyriana said, leading the way down the corridor.

     They strode into a room which was in every way the opposite of the austere reflection chamber. Tapestries adorned the walls, a soft rug occupied much of the floor, and comfortable chairs were set before a hearth. Azyriana extended her right index finger in the direction of the hearth, channeling the magic of the Weave, the web of magic veins which invisibly blanketed the known world. A spark of flame emerged from her fingertip and floated lazily toward the wood set within the fireplace. When spark struck wood, a burst of magic sent the fire immediately into a full blaze, crackling merrily and warming the room.

     “Sit,” Azyriana encouraged Van, selecting for herself one of the inviting, high-backed chairs near the fire.

     She sat down and folded her wings comfortably about herself. Rather than sitting in the opposite chair, Van waited for Azyriana to get comfortable before sitting on the ground by her feet. The Witch-Queen chuckled and patted Van’s head.

     “You can sit in a chair, you know.”

     “I prefer it here,” admitted the Anointed Subject.

     Azyriana settled back into her chair, letting out a soft sigh and willing her turbulent thoughts to grow calm. Conversing with her father in the private chamber was always such a tense activity. It took a tremendous force of will and left her body and mind tightly wound. Her right hand casually stroked Van’s hair and he beamed with delight. She’d chosen her personal servant quite well.

     “Now, what news have you?” Azyriana asked after a short while had passed in relative silence.

     “Ah yes,” Van replied, breaking from the almost delirious calm that the queen’s attention had induced. “I’ve heard that one of the squadrons of the Scourge has succeeded in assassinating the city’s ruler. Tomorrow they will attack the wall with renewed vigor. They hope to have broken the morale of the rebels, and their assault plan seems sound. Though it does rely on conjured siege weapons.”

     “Good, good.” The news was a pleasant change of pace after the prior two attempts on Eastcliff’s wall had met with striking resilience on the part of the rebel city. “Let them use whatever they need to take the wall.”

     Another moment passed in silence. Van leaned against Azyriana’s legs, resting his head against her right knee. She continued to pat his head, all the while contemplating her army’s victory. Another loss was out of the question. A mere militia could not withstand the lash of the Bladed Scourge for long, even cowered as the Eastcliff rebels were behind their wall.

     “Tomorrow,” proposed the queen, “we shall go for a hunt, whilst we await news of my warriors’ victory.”

     Van visibly rejoiced at the prospect. He’d not yet hunted beside Azyriana, having only served her directly for a short while now. But surely a hunt with the Witch-Queen would prove spectacular.

     “And what shall we do tonight, my lady?” he innocently inquired.

     “I’m sure I’ll think of something,” she whispered in a light, playful tone.

* * *

     Garyn was oblivious to the noise of the camp around him, caring not for the sights or sounds of soldiers going about their business as night drew on. Sergeant Tahlin was proud of him, and that was all that mattered. Zuna had made their report, praising Garyn’s stealth and marksmanship. Garyn had stood quietly at attention, trying not to look too happy about how well things had gone. When she’d concluded, Tahlin thanked her for a job well done, then turned his eyes on Garyn.

     “You’ve come a long way,” he said. “I remember knocking the sword out of your hands when you first squared off with me in training. Well done, Garyn. You’ll make a fine sergeant yourself one day.”

     Tahlin turned and strode away, leaving Zuna and Garyn to their own devices. The squad leader turned to her subordinate, and saw that he was grinning like a fool at Tahlin’s words of praise.

     “Feeling validated, are you?” quipped Zuna.

     “Well yes,” Garyn responded, “but it’s more than just that.”

     Garyn spent the next half hour trying to explain to Zuna just how important Tahlin’s words were to him. He told her of the day he’d signed on to military service, leaving his southern farming village behind, riding atop a horse in the midst of a mounted platoon led by Tahlin. At first Garyn had been woefully bad at swordplay, and Tahlin gruffly dismissed him as mere fodder for the enemy. Garyn always felt motivated by this in a strange way, determined to raise his worth under the sergeant’s scrutiny.

     Garyn hung on Tahlin’s every word, callous though some of them may have been. He watched Tahlin spar with all manner of weapons. He learned, and in time he became skilled. He became worthy of Sergeant Tahlin’s approval.

     “Praise from your hero must be quite rewarding,” Zuna said when Garyn finished his rambling tale.

     They’d moved to sit by a cook fire, and now helped themselves to portions of meat. They’d brought provisions along on their march from Vrokas-Thune–the sprawling capital city whose Sword District housed much of the queen’s military–but supplemented those rations by claiming cattle from farmers along their path, declaring the livestock a tribute for the queen’s armed forces. They ate for a while in silence, enjoying the simple meal. It was a small meal, but sufficient; enough to fuel them for the next day’s efforts. At sunrise, they’d storm the wall, and this time they were determined not to be driven back. The militia had been lucky thus far, hiding behind their precious bulwark, but they were only a militia. Ultimately the Bladed Scourge would surge over that wall like a great wave of clattering steel, bringing bloody retribution to every rebel.

     “I hope I’ll earn more praise tomorrow,” Garyn said around the last of his meal of bread and salted meat.

     “I’m sure you will,” Zuna replied. “But if either of us hopes to accomplish anything tomorrow, we’d best get some sleep.”

* * *

     A long while later, after the sun retreated beneath the rim of the sky, the Scourge camp activity died down. Night guards walked their perimeter patrols, but the remaining soldiers slept in tents or by the now-extinguished campfires. Only one fire still burned, a lonely pool of light attended to by Garyn. The young warrior sat by the flickering flames, occasionally prodding the coals with a metal rod to keep the blaze alive.

     “Couldn’t sleep?” came a voice out of the darkness.

     Zuna stepped into the ring of firelight, holding two leather drinking-jacks. She handed one to Garyn. He graciously accepted the drink and sipped from it, unsurprised to find that it was the spiced mead favored by much of the Scourge. He downed a good portion of the pungent honey-wine in a large gulp.

     “You’re nervous, aren’t you?” Zuna inquired, sitting beside Garyn on a log near the fire.

     He nodded and continued to sip his mead for a while before speaking.

     “I feel uncertain of my strength, afraid that my sword arm will fail me in a time of need. I wish that I could find a source of power on which I could rely, something that would never fail me.”

     Zuna thought about that for a while.

     “The only reliable power is that of your blade,” she said at last. “The blade will never willfully turn against its master, and it is always strong so long as it is well-kept.”

     “But what good is a blade if its master’s arm is weakened by fear?” countered Garyn, not in a harsh tone but with genuine curiosity. “A blade is a tool on which one can always rely, not a source of power. Perhaps there is some merit to that old saying: The power of one is in the power of his nation.”

     “That may well be,” came a new voice, “but the rebels have no nation and they’ve repelled us twice.”

     From out of the shadows stepped Sergeant Tahlin, holding a massive drinking horn from which he sipped the savory honey wine. The sergeant seated himself across from Zuna and Garyn and took a long drink from his horn before he spoke again.

     “When I was young, I heard a tale about a boy who wanted to be a warrior like those of the old legends, those who slew legions of dragons and whose blades never failed. But to be such a warrior, he needed a source of power which would lend him great strength and courage. Blessed armor or a magic sword, perhaps. An old woman told the boy that such a source existed at the top of a high mountain far to the north of his home.” Tahlin took a pause to drink from his horn before continuing. “He knew nothing of the terrain, but this ambitious–and quite likely foolhardy–boy took to the mountain with as many supplies as he could carry. For days he climbed, whipped by wind and stung by snow, before he reached the summit. There, bolted to a large rock was a metal box, and inside it he found a pile of river-smoothed stones, stones polished to a beautiful shine.”

     Tahlin was silent. Zuna and Garyn exchanged puzzled looks.

     “Magic stones?” Zuna offered.

     “No, and he was enraged. He seized a stone and–thinking himself deceived–prepared to throw it from the mountain in a fit of futile fury. Then, the stone caught the light of the sun, and do you know what the boy saw in it?”

     “His reflection,” Garyn almost exclaimed at realizing the moral of the story.

     “Exactly. Now get some rest, you two. I won’t be letting you sleep in while the rest of us slay the rebels.” Tahlin finished his horn with several great swigs before rising and trudging off to his tent.

     Zuna placed a hand on Garyn’s shoulder and held his gaze with her fierce green eyes as she spoke to him.

     “Tahlin is right, your best bet is to rely on yourself, have faith in your own strength. And stay close to me. We’ll get through this.”

     “Thank you, Zuna.” Garyn offered her a warm smile before they went their separate ways for the night.

     When dawn came, the camp was already alive with activity. Soldiers bustled about, putting on coats of armor, helmets, and readying weapons of all manner. Bolt-rifles were standard for the troops of the Bladed Scourge, but other equipment tended to vary in form. The Scourge valued function over form. So long as a soldier could pass various requisites with their chosen equipment–and could afford that equipment, of course–they were permitted to wear and wield their preferred implements of battle. The most consistent feature of the Scourge’s equipment was its coloration, an impressive interplay of black, red, and silver which rendered any Scourge soldier identifiable on the field despite their variance in armor.

     Those warriors already in their battle gear formed up into platoons and were soon joined by their slower-to-rise comrades. Garyn stood to Zuna’s left in the first squad of a platoon overseen by Sergeant Tahlin. Tahlin wore a coat of chainmail and a helm emblazoned with the ram’s head emblem of the Queendom of Cairndale. His weapon–a thin, razor-edged blade with a small circular crossguard–was sheathed at his side. He eyed his platoon with a stern gaze, but Garyn detected the hint of an approving smile. First Platoon was always prompt and orderly in forming up, Tahlin saw to that.

     Zuna had always favored an evasive style of fighting, which was why she’d opted to have her leather armor reinforced by wizardry, rather than paying for a set of heavy, clunky metal armor. Her fiery red hair was done up in a topknot and adorned with an emblem of the Queendom.

     Next to Zuna, Garyn shifted in his shirt of chainmail, fidgeting with the lobed pommel of his broadsword. His bolt-rifle hung on a strap over his back and a round buckler clung to his left arm.

     “At ease there,” Tahlin barked, and Garyn did his best to relax.

     “This whole ordeal has been your first full engagement, hasn’t it?” asked Zuna.

     “It has,” Garyn admitted quietly. “Yesterday’s job was easy enough, killing from a distance. But they’ve held the wall well, we’ve barely skirmished with their forces at close range.”

     He let his thought go unfinished, swallowing around a lump of nervousness in his throat.

     “You fear that if we breach the wall, you won’t hold up well in close quarters,” Zuna concluded.

     “Exactly.”

     “Just remember what I told you,” Tahlin cut in, striding closer to the first squad, “your strength comes from within, Garyn. Doubt yourself and you’ll lean toward failure. You have a fine sword and you know how to use it. Trust in that.”

     “Yes sir,” Garyn replied, his voice resonating with a greater confidence.

     Ahead of them, the company commander took up her place before and between the two platoons. Tahlin marched briskly back to his station, his back to his platoon. The company commander was of orcish descent, built naturally with powerful musculature and an imposing stature. The tusks that jutted from her mouth were not so large as those of a male orc, though they still lent her an air of feral menace. She was an imposing figure in black plate armor, with silver insignia to denote her status. She raised a battle horn and blew three sharp blasts. The troops quieted down and the last few stragglers hurried into place. For a moment all was silent, save for the gentle purr of the chill morning breeze and the light clinking of armor.

     “Your orders have been given to your platoon sergeants and squad leaders,” the company commander called out, her voice rolling over the assembled soldiers. “Second Company has their own marching orders and objective for the day. So stay together, pay close attention to your superiors, and we will take the wall.”

     “For Cairndale!” roared the troops.

     At that, the platoon sergeants turned to face their respective units. Tahlin gave the orders and his soldiers began to march, separating from Second Platoon and plunging into the trees south of Eastcliff. Garyn found confidence in their motion. There was a certain peace to be had in the quick rhythm of their double-timed footsteps. They wove between trees, crushing undergrowth beneath their boots, keeping a constant pace even through the thickest of foliage.

     Tahlin went over the plan again in his mind, meticulously accounting for every detail, trying to factor in every possible variable. Soon they would come to the tree-line south of the city and then open fire on the wall guards while Second Platoon circled around and did the same from the north. The full force of Second Company would thus be free to attack the gate as the wall guards struggled under a hail of bolt-rifle fire. The damnable rebels would have no choice but to open their gate and engage Second Company beyond the wall, lest the sixty-four soldiers of the company reach the gate unimpeded and destroy it. Tahlin couldn’t help but smile at the image of his platoon and the second platoon of their company erupting from the tree-line to flank the militia and cut them off from their own gate. They would die a grim death, caught in the press of the Bladed Scourge like a helpless fowl ensnared in the jaws of a striking serpent. And if the militia decided to let the gate be attacked, then a number of contingencies could come into play. Eastcliff would pay for its treachery.

* * *

     Raek stood on the west wall, just to the left of the massive wooden gate. In the recent attacks on the city, the east gate had been all but ignored by the aggressors thanks to its formidable defenses and positioning near the sea. The west gate, however, was in peril of being brought down in a future attack. But the Eastcliff Militia would not let that happen. Their bowmen–Raek among them–were well-practiced archers.

     “Raek, we have movement on the west front,” called Arik from the nearby watchtower. “Looks like a large portion of the Scourge is coming up the road!”

     “Sound the alarm,” Raek called back.

     From atop the tower, Arik blew hard on a battle horn, its deep resounding note joined shortly thereafter by those of the other watchmen. The militiamen hastened to reinforce the guards, notching arrows to bowstrings as they took up positions on the wall. In the distance, like a glistening herd of animals, a company of the Bladed Scourge moved at a steady pace toward the wall. As they drew near, the attackers raised their shields high, and the first volley of Eastcliff’s arrows clattered uselessly to the dirt amongst the invaders.

     “Pick your damned shots with more care,” called a watch captain.

     Raek dropped to one knee and sighted in down the length of his arrow. He scanned the approaching group for any small hole in their defense: a shield angled poorly or held too high or a soldier not covered down behind his comrades. There! Raek released the bowstring and sent his arrow plunging into the leg of a soldier on the company’s left flank.

     “What are they doing?” Arik shouted from his perch.

     The company was dividing down the middle, making a path for a team of men at the rear of the group to ready a massive ram. The ram was a tremendous, steel-capped log set on four wheels. Soldiers stood at protruding posts along the ram’s frame and drove it forth with brute strength. The Scourge had not used such a weapon in their prior attacks; Raek assumed one of their wizards must have conjured the gate-breaching construct. Clearly the Scourge officers knew that their swordsmen alone wouldn’t be enough to bring down Eastcliff’s militia.

     “Fire on the ram,” bellowed the same watch captain.

     Bowstrings twanged and arrows hissed through the air toward the ram’s drivers. The men ducked much of the fire, though two of them caught arrows through the visors of their helmets. They were slowed by the attack but not stopped.

     “Mages, use fire,” the captain snapped, his rage-filled voice tinged with panic as the ram crawled nearer.

     As a fresh volley of shafts flew, the militia’s handful of spell-casters drew on their reserve of energy culled from the Weave and set the projectiles ablaze. The ram trundled to a halt, its crew struggling to extinguish the fires started by those arrows that struck their mark. The militiamen sent up a cheer of victory, which ended abruptly when a green bolt of energy lanced upward from the attackers and knocked the watch captain from the wall. The superheated beam of raw magic cooked the man alive in his armor before he even struck the ground.

     “Spell-casters!” Arik shouted.

     “Oh really?” Raek snarled sardonically as he sent an arrow in the general direction from which the spell had come.

     More spells tore through the space between the attackers and defenders: energy bolts, clouds of shadow, defensive shields, and balls of fire flowed from both forces. The militia was lacking in mages, but those they had held their own admirably. They strove at once to beat back the magic assault yet to hold in reserve at least a portion of their Weave energy, lest they run dry their stored power. There was hardly time for meditation on the battlefield.

     Raek marveled at the ferocity of this attack. The other attacks–the ones they’d repelled–must have been mere tests of the strength of the Eastcliff Militia. The Scourge had underestimated their foe twice and were now accounting for it with a full on assault.

     The ram started up its approach once again, picking up speed as it neared the gate. Surely they expected Eastcliff to send its army out to meet the ram and stop its advance, to protect the gate so it could be sealed again rather than letting it be ruined. Raek, assuming leadership of the watchmen, called to his fellow rebels, “Do not open the gate. Keep firing on them.”

     His last words were drowned out by the sound of horns calling from the watchtowers to the north and south. The other company was making its presence known.

     Raek sprinted to the south wall to reinforce the militiamen while the battle-mages continued to fire on the advancing ram at the west gate. Arik–his supply of arrows spent–descended from his watchtower and joined Raek. Swords ready, they arrived at the wall just as a siege ladder slammed into place. A man Raek recognized as having been the shopkeeper of a small trade store by the east gate–now drafted into the Eastcliff Militia–strove to knock the ladder off the wall with the head of his pike. He was rewarded for his efforts with a quarrel that split his head, punching cleanly into his skull in a spray of blood and fragmented bone. The Scourge’s marksmen continued to cover the ladder teams, firing bolts with striking precision. Raek and Arik kept low while they moved closer. Raek winced as a bolt whizzed past, so close that he felt the air it disturbed.

     “Stop her,” exclaimed one of their comrades atop the wall.

     Raek spared a glance over the wall and saw a group of Scourge warriors, led by a female clad in spike-studded leather armor, ascending the nearest ladder. Raek took a deep breath–he knew full well that he might die here–and hurried to the point where siege ladder met wall.

     “Raek!” cried Arik in alarm as his brother-in-arms drew back his right foot to savagely kick the ladder loose.

     The woman leading this ladder team demonstrated startling agility; it all happened so fast that Arik could hardly believe it. She leapt up the final portion of the ladder and seized Raek’s left leg. With a single jerking motion, she sent the off-balanced warrior tumbling over the edge of the wall. A Scourge soldier at the base of the ladder drove his battle-axe through Raek’s skull with a double-handed blow that showered the axe-wielder’s hands and armor with gore.

     “I’ll kill you!” roared Arik, charging the woman who’d thrown his friend over the wall.

* * *

     Zuna easily had time to unsheathe one of her beloved shortswords before the charging rebel was upon her. The poor fool wasn’t even properly armored, and likely had little in the way of training. He swept his blade in a horizontal slash so overreaching that it had to be a feint. Sure enough, he drew his sword back mid-swing and stabbed at Zuna. She dropped low and twisted sideways, simultaneously driving her blade’s tip toward his torso, just below his ribs. The blade went in and up smoothly, burying itself in her attacker’s ribs. Zuna stepped in, struck him hard with the palm of her free hand, and pulled on her blade. Her victim’s body slid easily off the length of her sword and fell heavily upon the wall.

     The sound of a bow being drawn caught Zuna’s attention, and the quick-moving warrior went prone moments before a nearby archer fired, avoiding the arrow and then springing upon the man before he could notch a new shaft. In a fit of desperation, the rebel hurled his bow at Zuna and fumbled for his knife. A swift slash of her razor-sharp blade parted him from his right arm. He fell to the ground, clutching at the bleeding stump and screaming to the gods.

     When the rest of her squad joined her on the wall, Zuna directed them in keeping the rebels away from the siege ladders. Garyn stuck close to her, wild-eyed with nervous excitement. His broadsword had not yet been bloodied this day.

     Militiamen began to amass in the street below, some loosing arrows at the Scourge upon the south wall. Once a sufficient number of her allies were atop the wall, Zuna barked an order and her squad followed her as she descended into the city.

     “Lock down this street,” she commanded, her voice carrying over the clatter of steel on steel. “Kill any who resist!”

     “For Cairndale!” her squad replied, surging forth in a maelstrom of blades and death.

     Four of Garyn’s squad mates fell into a close formation, cutting through the gathered rebels. This militia–few if any having ever served the Scourge or any proper army–was a rabble. Decent weapons and a fine wall did not make for worthy foes. Had the Witch-Queen not reined in their wizards–for what reason Garyn could not begin to guess–the Bladed Scourge would have mopped up this rag-tag revolt in mere hours.

     “On your right!” Zuna warned.

     Garyn whirled to face a rebel wearing a shirt of chainmail and hefting a war-hammer. Time seemed to slow for Garyn as he watched the hammer’s shaft rise through the air and descend toward him. The hammer’s head was a heavy chunk of iron, flat on one side and tapered to an armor piercing spike on its opposite side. Its wielder drew back the weapon, swinging it toward Garyn’s right shoulder. The shaft was made of a length of pine, sanded perfectly smooth. Garyn smiled at that: a perfectly smooth hammer-shaft, not a langet in sight.

     Garyn met the hammer on its downward course with an upward slice from his double-edged broadsword. The blade sliced cleanly through the hammer’s wooden shaft, sending the iron head spinning harmlessly away. The rebel gawked at his cloven weapon for a moment before unsheathing a dagger. But that moment’s hesitation cost him dearly. Garyn’s sword returned from its upward swing in a fluid downward motion. The rebel stepped back, but not quickly enough. The blade’s edge violently gashed his face, blinding his left eye and eliciting a cry of pain. Garyn drove him to the ground with another hard sweep of the blade that crunched through his opponent’s chainmail and shattered his collarbone.

     “Not so hard now, is it?” Zuna said as she parried away an attacking blade with one shortsword and eviscerated her adversary with a horizontal slash of her other sword.

     “Killing for the Witch-Queen? It comes as easy as breathing!” boasted Garyn, forgetting his fears in the euphoria of bloodlust.

     “Cairndale!” roared a familiar voice.

     Sergeant Tahlin descended from the wall and charged into the thick of battle. Garyn was more captivated than ever by his platoon sergeant’s prowess. He watched, momentarily awed, as Tahlin’s thin blade whipped about with such swiftness that it was hard to track, parting armor and shields before its keen edge. In no time Tahlin carved out a bloody swathe amongst the Eastcliff Militia. His platoon, drawn by their sergeant’s battle fervor, fell into several tight V-shaped formations behind him and hacked their way through the last of the armed forces near the south wall.

* * *

     The fox crept toward the unsuspecting rabbit. The oblivious creature was sitting out in the open, munching on some clover and twitching its nose in the fragrant forest air. The fox barely suppressed a growl of delight as it moved within striking distance of its oblivious prey. The creature would die and the fox would feast well this night. He tensed his hind limbs, lowering down amidst the tall grass and flattening back his ears. Though he was ready to spring upon the rabbit, he never managed to complete the action. A green flash was the last thing he saw before a moment of agony and then darkness overtook his mind.

     “An excellent shot, my lady.” Van exclaimed, hurrying to collect the felled fox. A raven, startled by the burst of magic, let out an angry caw and took flight from the branches of a tall oak tree.

     Azyriana stepped from behind the very same tree and dispelled the conjured rabbit with a quick motion of her left hand. The realistic magical construct exploded into motes of light which dissipated as they drifted apart, their energy fading back into the invisible veins of the Weave.

     “Your idea to bait him with the bunny was brilliant.” Van hurried back to his mistress’ side with the fox safely tucked into a sack.

     “Van, your praise is kind and heartfelt, but you needn’t heap such compliments upon me at every turn.” Azyriana laughed and patted her servant’s head.

     “Yes, Azyriana. My apologies.” Van cast his eyes downward.

     “Don’t sulk, my pet,” Azyriana unfurled her wings and wrapped one affectionately around him, “I just don’t want you constantly praising me. Kind words lose their meaning if spoken too often.”

     Van nodded his understanding, but was entirely absorbed in the queen’s loving gesture. Azyriana had to smile at that. She welcomed the distraction of hunting with her beloved servant after her troubling dream last night. She’d dreamt, yet again, of a great duel atop the highest tower of Cairndale castle. Her father–once again a being a of flesh and blood–battled in his plate armor against a wizard wielding a staff and incredible arcane power. Though her father’s own magic was potent, he struggled against this wizard. Azyriana felt confusion as she beheld the scene, for she could not sense wherein her loyalties lay, and that distressed her. Her father fought for his life yet she cared not for either of the two men who battled before her eyes. How could that be?

     She’d had woken from the dream with a start, jostling poor Van awake with the suddenness of her movement. She told him of her dream, but not the troubling apathy for her father’s well-being. Some things were best left silent. She cared for her father now, as his still-sentient soul resided indefinitely within that suit of mail, yet in this dream she felt nothing. No, that wasn’t it, not a total lack of emotion. There was fear for her own well-being, and something else, something hard to name. Hope?

     “My Queen, a messenger approaches.” Van’s voice roused her from her troubled musing.

     Sure enough, a circular vortex of swirling blackness shot through with silver wisps coalesced between two trees in front of the Witch-Queen and her Anointed Subject.

     “My Queen,” came a man’s voice from within the portal, “our magically conjured ram and siege ladders have bested Eastcliff. Our forces engage the rebels in the city as we speak.”

     “Excellent. Keep me apprised of the battle’s progress,” ordered the queen in a crisp tone.

     The portal winked out of existence, leaving Azyriana and Van alone in the forest once again.

     “We’d best be returning to the castle,” Azyriana said, “my father will want to be told of this fortuitous turn of events.”

     “Will you tell him of that odd dream of yours as well?”

     “No!”

     The snarl in Azyriana’s reply and the fiery blaze in her eyes startled Van. He stepped back, raising his hands as if to ward off an imminent blow to the face. It took Azyriana a moment to calm herself from the unexpected flare of emotion.

     “I’m sorry,” she said, “the dream was just upsetting to me. I can’t explain why, but I feel as though my father need not know of it.”

     Van nodded an affirmative, but kept his distance, his head bowed and eyes averted sheepishly. Azyriana stepped closer and cupped his face in her hands, tilting his head up to hold his gaze with her glowing red eyes.

     “You did nothing wrong,” she did her best to adopt a soothing tone, “you are in no danger from me, my dear, you know that. Now come, let us return home.”

* * *

     Tahlin turned to address his soldiers once the area was cleared of rebels. The Scourge platoon had suffered a few casualties, and everyone sported at least one new laceration, but they were overall intact. The street was choked with the bodies of dead and dying Eastcliff Militiamen.

     “Zuna, I want you to keep two squads here to hold down this area. The rest of you are with me, we’re going to reinforce Second Company at the west gate.”

     Garyn watched Tahlin fixedly, hanging on the sergeant’s every word. He was ready to help keep this zone secure. He’d make Tahlin proud. When Tahlin gave a sharp jerk forward and fell to his knees, it took Garyn a moment to realize what had happened.

     One of the militiamen further down the road–mortally wounded and left for dead–had heaved himself up to his knees and clumsily leveled his short bow at Tahlin. The arrow pierced Tahlin’s side through a gash sliced in his armor, and the sergeant clutched the profusely bleeding wound, grimacing in anguish. One of Garyn’s squad mates, a nymphling named Esme, darted to the rebel and deftly carved out his throat with a dagger. The militiaman let out a gurgle and toppled forward.

     The platoon gathered around Tahlin, though Zuna forced them back when they pressed too close. She and Garyn knelt by the fallen sergeant. His breath came rapidly, his eyes shut tight against the pain. Zuna lightly touched the protruding shaft and Tahlin hissed through clenched teeth.

     “It’s stuck in there good,” Zuna murmured, her voice heavy with dismay.

     “Sergeant Tahlin, what do we do?” Garyn asked, trying to keep his voice from quavering.

     Tahlin tried to speak, but the pain was too intense. They needed a healer. Tahlin let out a strained cry, his muscles tensing against a wave of fresh agony. Zuna looked more closely at the wound and swore under her breath. The skin around the puncture was beginning to darken unnaturally.

     “A poisoned arrow,” Tahlin gasped. “Just my luck. Zuna, send two squads to the gate…”

     The effort of giving the order seemed to tire Tahlin considerably. He laid back on the ground and drew in a ragged breath that turned into a fresh spasm of pain. The poison was spreading. Zuna reluctantly rose and addressed the platoon, “Squads three and four, to the west gate, now! We need a healer over here.”

     Esme the nymphling–a being of slender frame, with pointed ears and noticeably sharp teeth–came forward and knelt by Zuna and Garyn. She eyed the shaft unhappily.

     “I can’t stop the bleeding until the arrow comes out, and it seems to be deep in there,” she observed.

     “Pull it out,” Tahlin said weakly. “Hurry.”

     Esme sighed and wrapped one of her small hands around the arrow. She tugged, Tahlin screamed, and the shaft shifted but didn’t come loose. Zuna gently brushed Esme’s hand aside and tried to tug the projectile free. Though she was stronger than the half-nymph, Zuna had no more luck.

     “It’s stuck on something,” Garyn gravely pronounced.

     “Can you drive the poison out?” Zuna demanded of Esme.

     The nymphling’s hands fluttered anxiously. She opened her mouth to speak, but uncertainty overwhelmed her. It was Tahlin who next broke the silence.

     “I’m done,” he said at a near whisper, his eyes shifting to hold Garyn’s gaze. “Garyn, will you do me the honor?”

     Garyn sat frozen for a long moment until Zuna pressed a dagger into his hand. He stared at the blade as if he didn’t understand what it was. Finally he returned his gaze to Tahlin.

     “Sir, I can’t,” he stammered.

     “Be strong, Garyn,” Tahlin urged. “You’re a soldier, now prove it. Don’t fail me.”

     Garyn understood why Tahlin was doing this, why he was asking this favor of Garyn specifically. It was another brutal bit of training devised by the stern sergeant, the last he would ever conceive, but one which would enforce upon Garyn the resolve he so lacked. He’d slain several men on the battlefield today, but none of them were the man he’d come to idolize.

     “Here,” Tahlin rasped, his voice growing weaker and harder to hear, “use this. I don’t need it anymore.”

     His left hand fumbled at a pouch at his waist. His strength was deserting him, as was his control. He fiddled with the pouch’s drawstring for a short while before Garyn intervened and pulled open the pouch. He reached in and withdrew a single item: a round stone, washed smooth by the current of a river. The sun glistened on its surface, and on that glimmering stone Garyn beheld his own reflection. Tahlin’s tale from the night before came rushing back to him and the stone felt warm in his outstretched hand. He shifted the stone to his left hand and readied the dagger in his right.

     “Thank you, sir,” he said firmly.

     “I will see you all in the Warrior’s Paradise,” Tahlin responded, holding Garyn’s gaze while Esme extended her natural claws and tore away a section of Tahlin’s chainmail, exposing his chest.

     Zuna clasped Garyn’s left hand, both of them holding tight to the stone from the mountain. Garyn drew back the dagger and thrust it forward, angling it between Tahlin’s ribs and puncturing his heart. The sergeant let out a final grunt of pain and then lay silent on the bloody street. Garyn’s eyes stayed locked on Tahlin’s until Zuna gently closed the sergeant’s eyelids.

     “A horn sounds and a warrior journeys home,” she recited the old war blessing.

     “And brothers greet him with open arms,” those gathered around responded in unison. “Hail the fallen.”

     They rose, leaving Tahlin’s body where it lay for now. He’d be buried later, but there was still work to be done. Zuna ordered guards stationed at the connecting roads and set patrols along the street and the south wall. Garyn stood still by Tahlin’s corpse, heedless of the activity around him and not disturbed by Zuna. His bleary-eyed gaze alternated between his fallen sergeant and his own reflection on the surface of the mountain stone. As he stared more fixedly at the stone, his vision cleared, his resolve hardened. Strength came from within; if his heart was clouded by mourning, sorrow, uncertainty, and other such emotions, could he still be strong? He wasn’t sure, but shutting out those confusing, painful emotions felt far easier than dealing with them. Garyn pocketed the stone and hefted his broadsword. There were rebels still to slay…

This adventure continues in the full-length novel “Blades of Cairndale”, out September 1st. Buy your copy today!

Arrival of the Blades

At long last, my novel is complete. With cover art hand-drawn by my friend Jewel Jones, and an endless list of friends to thank for editing and beta reading, I am genuinely excited to bring “Blades of Cairndale” to the reading world.</p

“Three warriors, one perilous quest, and a realm teetering on the brink of chaos. Expert swordsman Urunzai Zuna, half-nymph Esmera Atlia, and fresh recruit Garyn Valenthir must journey into the wild lands to the west of Cairndale at the behest of their ruler, Azyriana the Witch-Queen. As unprecedented rebellion and insidious political deception gnaw at the foundations of their homeland, the trio must race to unearth the source of haunting dreams that assail their queen before her father, Thurzir the Demon-King, returns from the Abyss to reclaim his throne.

“Blades of Cairndale” reads like a broadsword’s swing: fast, hard, and straight to the point. The swift-moving narrative recounts a timeless tale of politics, persecution, and persevering friendship in the face of what may seem insurmountable odds. This first novel by Texan author Michael A. Espinoza is available as an eBook as of September 1, 2015. Get your copy today!

Click here to see other material Michael has posted relating to “Blades of Cairndale”.

The Blades of Cairndale Are On the March

Hail readers,

You may recall some time ago that I posted a synopsis of my forthcoming novel, Blades of Cairndale. There is also an interview with me regarding the contents of this eBook. Well, my friends, I can now proudly say that “Blades of Cairndale”‘s cover art is complete. I will be posting it, along with pre-order information as soon as possible. In the meantime, if you have been enjoying what I’ve offered here on this blog, I beseech thee, loyal readers, to share this post with your friends. (If you hate what I’ve offered, share this with your enemies.) Like this post, comment on it, or do something else to let me know you’re excited for this fantastical adventure. (I let myself know I was excited by getting a “Blades of Cairndale”-themed tattoo, but you don’t have to do that.) Who knows, someone may end up with a free copy of “Blades”.

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