I had no idea how long we have been asleep, it was still dark outside and I hadn’t been here long enough to judge when sun rise would have been. What had woken us was not enough rest, only the Elders knew how we had been able to keep pushing ourselves along our journey but the number of raised voices outside the Long House.
Through the confusion of just waking up I though the village was in danger, under attack or attacking something else but as the vail of sleep lifted I realised it was the sound of excitement.
The door was flung open, rebounding on the wall that hard that it shut itself again. A huge Northlander, dressed in grey shaggy furs strode in and went straight for where Urut, beyond all belief was still drinking with Strike.
“Chieftain, the hunting party has returned.” The warrior said calmly.
“Well send them in.” The Orc Chief looked over to the three of us, Strike at table, me as close to the fire that I may as well had been on it and Korra still interrogating song smith.
“It seems as though we will be able to offer you more hospitality. One of our hunting parties from the coast has returned.” He said smiling. An Orc smiling was an unnerving sight, all the Orcs I had previously met had tried to kill us.
More voices had joined the group outside the sounds filtering in only creating more excitement inside. The doors are thrown open and in came a number of Northlanders. In the middle of the precession, between two of them was a pole, balanced on their shoulder. On the pole, lashed with rope was a very large sea turtle, about half the size of a man, as wide as two.
“The coast you say?” Korra said to Orrick.
With great reverence the two carrying the pole lowered it down onto the table, in front of Urut who looked at it hungrily. Turtles who never looked happy anyway, looked a sad sight upside down, flippers moving, its head gasping in vain attempt to right itself. With the commotion its arrival caused, Korra and I guessed that this must be something of a rarity. Strike, already knew this and looked as hungry as Urut.
“I didn’t know they came this far.” Korra said.
“Have you seen the big fish?” Strike asked her.
“No. Don’t think so.”
“Then no, you’d know. It’s gargantuan.” Strike grinned the smile of the drunk.
“Don’t think I’d want to.” Korra confessed.
“I will have my people prepare this beast for the feast and then you will know the true hospitality of our village and that the old ways are still important here.” Urut said slurring a little. It was said the Orcs were a hardy breed but seeing him next to Strike only confirmed it.
I watched the sad creature, from the size of it, it must have been ancient. The age and wisdom of this animal almost glowed from its eyes. As the hall congratulated the hunting party on its catch, their mouths watering in anticipation of the great feast I listened to it speak, to Humans it was just a prolonged squeak but to those gifted to hear their words I could hear its confusion.
As much as I did not like unnecessary suffering I understood that for everything to live they need to eat, for them to eat something else must die.
“Is there a certain way that this animal must be killed in your traditions?” I asked Strike.
“On the fire usually.” From the way he spoke it didn’t seem like there was any specific ritual.
“Can it be killed quickly?”
“Erm, yeah. Chop its head off.”
“Would I be allowed to...?”
“She wants to deliver the killing blow to prevent it from suffering in the flames.” Korra explained for me.
“We’ll just use a big axe. But if you wanna kill it, it’s fine. No one’s gona argue.” Strike shrugged and reached over for the never emptying drinking horn.
Urut’s brow furrowed in confusion at this conversation.
“They’re just a bit weird.” S explained my actions away in Northlander tongue.
I abandoned my hearth stone and reached out to the creature, trying to calm its mind. She didn’t seem to care that she had been captured and offered no resistance when I touched her mind, bringing her a little peace.
The mind of an animal is a lot simpler than that of an Orc, Elf or Human. As they don’t have language as most understand it there is no fear that they have offended another as the insult would be fought out then and there. They do not have the layer upon layer of regrets, worries, hopes and dreams and as they do not have words that other races use to communicate she showed me pictures and emotions instead.
Translating the feeling I was sensing her main concern was that she had recently laid a large clutch of eggs on a shore and that she had not manage to bury them before the hunters took her. Leaving the clutch exposed would mean they weren’t incubated properly and were vulnerable to predators wandering along finding a tasty snack.
I was not surprised by this, turtles by nature did not nurture their young but not being able to complete her task she could not ensure their survival.
“Where are they buried?” I squeaked to her.
“On the shore, where the sands ripple against the sea.” She squeaked in return. Well what more did I really expect?
“I will find your eggs and I will bury them for you.” This promise seemed to calm her.
“Not the weirdest thing I’ve seen.” Strike said watching me squeaking at an upturned turtle.
They had been drinking Mead, Ale and some sort of fire water all day. Quaffing had been an experience. It seemed that the aim was to fill the tankard as much as possible then throw it in your face, spilling nearly all of it and swallowing what you caught in your mouth.
As the night wore on their aim got poorer. Strike and Urut have both not stood up for some time, not trusting their legs to support them.
One of the Norsemen at the far end of the room, pushed himself up off his seat, unsteadily he put his arms out onto the table to stop him swaying too much. Seeing me communicating with their meal had upset him for some reason.
“What witchery is this?” waving his hand wildly, only just managing to include me in the gesture.
“Witchery.” Strike answered, shrugging his shoulders.
“Elven Witchery.” Korra chimed in.
She was listening intently to the noises I was making to the turtle, then trying to mimic them with her flute, in due course coming up with a piece of music she named the Song of the Turtle.
“It’s just Witchery. Haven’t you noticed it all kinda the same…witchery?” Strike began to rant but the alcohol fuddling his brain wouldn’t let him think of the right words.
The Norseman on hearing Strikes outburst laughed and shrugged it off. He reached for the drinking horn before sitting back down and spilling most of it refilled his tankard.
From an Outlanders point of view the Northlanders were very similar to that of any other race, alothugh I would dare anyone to say this. Their warriors and hunters were mainly male but there were females who had no doubt had to prove they were twice as good all the time. So while the men were out hunting, raiding, fighting and generally having more of an exciting time the women folk were expected to stay at home where they would cook, clean, sew, raise the children into the next strapping generation as well as tending to the fields, livestock, and make sure that world didn’t fall down around their ears.
Their magics were also alike to the rest of the known world. It was accepted that any edge you can hold over an enemy is an edge to hold onto. They had a Chief of the Gods, Oden his wives, a Lady of their dead Hel, and a number of questionable linage others that somehow frequently came back round to being related to Oden in some way.
The One Eyes, predominantly male sacrificed their eye to Oden in respect of being given his gift of sight into other realms while Freya gave magics of all kinds to the women. As far as Strike was concerned that all women were full of witchery and as he was explaining this he got very passionate that all women would put a spell over the men of one kind or another. Something told me it wasn’t to make cheese, to make the bread rise or casting a blessing when putting out the hearth for the night that he was talking about.
But as with all magics, some were more gifted than others. I waited patiently for Strike to continue but from the way he filled his tankard and sat back down I had to believe that was all the explanation I was getting for the time being.
With this sort of explained the turtle was despatched quickly and painlessly. The smell of the roasting meat made my mouth water long before it was ready to be served but when it was the meat was indeed delicious and it was easy to see why there had been such celebration when such a large one had been found and captured.
The door was thrown open again and standing in the doorway this time was burly Northlander, slightly more armoured than the hunting party, possibly on guard duty. Still wearing thick grey and white furs but underneath was the shine of chain mail armour holding a spear with a simple helmet, created for function not beauty with nose guard the only protection on the open-faced helm.
The guard walked in and as before headed over to Urut. At his side he leant over Strike, the only one near enough to hear listened with mock disinterest.
“My Lord, I have just had word from the outer guards that we placed to watch the pass, the Rugorim is making his way here with a strange host of men, the like of which I have not seen or heard of before.”
Urut looked at him, trying to work out if there are one or two guards talking to him. Although he is an Orc, he and Strike had been drinking none stop, it were as if they had just heard that the drink would disappear if not downed immediately.
“Well the Rugorim did tell me he would return for my final answer about his request for our village to lend aid and forces to this alliance of which he spoke before.” His words now slurred. He waved an unsteady clawed hand at the two figures, swimming into one and back again.
“I would argue against him.” Strike intervened.
“Hmm. As did I when he first came to the village. I said I am a Northlander” Urut was slurring quite badly now, shouting as the inebriated does when trying to be quiet, and not succeeding.
“What need have we for allies? Are we not Northlanders? Do we not survive in the harsher places of the world, where others fear to tread? What need of we for allies and what of these strange men you say he has with him? Pah, I do not care for the Rugorim strange men! Let him come and I will give him the same answer!” The Chieftain emphasized each argument by slapping his hand on the table.
Whereupon the guard, knowing how to talk to a drunken Chief just nodded and said. “Yes Chief, do you have any further orders?”
“When he arrives in the boundaries of the village escort him to the Longhouse. We will at least offer him what hospitality we can, as the old ways demand of us.” It sounded like he hated the idea but could not argue with his ancestors.
“Now that is very handy, he is just the Orc I want to see.” Strike said with drunken brightness.
Even from my spot near the fire I could hear him quite clearly.
While Urut was slapping the table and his hand to emphasize his point while talking to the guard, it did occur to me that he was possibly trying to be a little more larger than life with the Red Hand Strike drinking next to him, who was showing his agreement by shouting hear-hear! From time to time.
I turned to Orrick who was also sat near to the fire to ask him the purpose of getting so drunk that it was near to incapacitation, He had enjoyed the turtle meat, some mead and the glowing warmth that has enveloped the room from the hearth finally had its effect on him. Leaning back on a pile of furs he had fallen asleep, I though he was on some sort of vision quest until I heard him snoring soundly his walking stave leaning up against the wall if he had need of it. His richness of years showing in the lines of his face.
While contemplating the similarities between Humans and Orcs and still baffled at the reason for alcohol an uneasy feeling begins to creep over me. It was not a tangible thing, I couldn’t really put my finger on it but the feeling did take me back to where I first came across it, the corrupted area of the jungle on the Mainland. Nature was out of balance, but I couldn’t localise it, just a faint feeling but it was getting stronger. Rubbing my forehead I glance around, seeing Orrick lying with his eyes open now, he looked up then about him, searching.
“Do you feel it too?” I asked quietly, not sure if I would prefer him to say yes or no.
He shifted his weight to a more sitting position.
“The branches of the world tree are disturbed.”
I think I will take that as a yes.
From the way the room went quiet I think that Strike, Korra, Urut and the rest of them heard it too.
“It’s just witchery, its fine.” Strike slurred.
“It’s not fine, the corruption I felt in the Jungle is creeping back.” I said, loud enough for him to hear.
“What, in the Jungle? Well that’s fine. I like that, it can stay there” Strike starts laughing, only those influenced by drink found it funny.
“No here!” I snap at him, my temper growing short as before.
“I, er. Oh.” He stopped.
“Spreading out then?” Korra asked.
“I don’t know, it’s too faint at the moment but it is strong enough for both of us to feel it.”
“The evils coming here?” It took Strike a while to catch on.
“No, I don’t know.” I had to admit.
“Something is approaching.” Orrick informed us.
“Isn’t that bloke approaching, that Rugorim?” Strike asked.
Korra spotted that the Guard who brought the news was about to walk out the door trying to grab his attention before he left, he turned to her.
“The strange men that he had with them, were they perchance tall, lean, something like her but at the same time not?” She said pointing to me, I had grudgingly pulled back my hood to speak with Orrick, I felt very conspicuous and it felt like suddenly all in the Long House were staring at me. As warm as the layers were and effective for disguising my vine like dreaded hair, sharp features and pointed ears I could not hear anyone through the thick furs.
“No, obviously I have not seen for myself. I am just repeating the report from the outer guard. I simply came here to deliver the message as I am the fastest.”
“Were they stone men?” Korra questioned further.
“No, from what I have heard, what the outer guard told me was that they looked like Orcs but they were taller, they stood more upright.”
“Like me?” I asked the guard.
“No, nothing like you, like Orcs.”
“These dark Elves that you have been worried about, theirs your evil, right there.” Strike whisper could be heard across the hall.
“Or it’s the same corruption seeking into the Orc population.” Korra mused.
“No.” Strike said it like there was no possible way it could happen.
“Was there anything else? I really must get back to my watch.” The guard asked our group.
“Not for now.” Korra said, hinting in her voice she may want to speak to him again.
The guard nodded to our group. As he turned to leave suddenly remembered something important and circled back to Urut.
“I believe that if they carry on at the same speed they should arrive at first light tomorrow.”
“Oh good.” Strike said but with no sincerity. “I think we’re headed for a fight.”
Were their ways of shaking off the influences of their drink? I asked myself. If they fought the same way they carried on in the Hall, all mouth and not much else I wasn’t confident.
“Certainly sounds that way.” Korra answered the rhetorical question.
“But, that is the way of home.” He sounded proud.
“It would appear that these people are prepared to fight.” Korra must have been nervous, she always seemed to state the obvious when uneasy.
“Then I would have to challenge their One Eye, since we both seek leadership.” Strike was beginning to give the impression he was looking forward to it.
“Their One Eye or the one that’s coming?” Korra sounded horrified.
“Not Orrick, why would I want to do that. No, the one that’s coming.”
She laughed with relief, we had both been chatting with the tribes One Eye almost all night, Korra had been exchanging stories with him and I had found someone who also felt the moods of nature and it was a pleasant change to having explain myself constantly to those who could not. Neither of us wanted to see him killed by Strike.
“I fear the Rugorim has indeed lost his way.” Strike muttered darkly.
“How far is the turtle nest?” Korra asked, trying to change the subject.
“I have no idea. She said it was on the shores where the sand met the ocean.” What I didn’t say was that the images I had shared with the turtle I would probably be able to find it. It was not that I didn’t trust Korra but I at least wanted the next generation to have some sort of chance. I didn’t trust others not to raid the nest once I had completed my promise. It would mean that I would not get a great amount of sleep but I had rested already and I did not want to break my word.
“I don’t want you to go on your own.” She admitted.
“I’ll be fine, I can always turn into small and squeaky.” I smiled.
“That’s true. You would also be able to travel a lot quicker on your own than if I were with you. Therefor I shall remain here.” Korra seemed to relax.
“It’s not a wise idea to go alone.” Strike called after me as I walked out into the night.
The walk form the village to the coast gave me plenty of time for my eyes to get used to the night light.
From the images in my mind I was able to find the beach quickly. I guessed that it would not take as long as I thought and I would be able to get back to the Long House in time to rest.
The sand beneath my fur wrapped feet glittered brightly in the moonlight. The chunks of ice that had broken free bobbed not too far off shore, almost glowing white against the inky black water. This wintertime beach was lonely and almost frightening but long ago I had found happiness in solitude. I watched the sea. It was flat and smooth, like the obsidian rock that pushed its way to the surface in the Jungle from time to time.
The sky above reflected the ocean but the bright pinpricks of light glittered like white jewels.
I walk to the edge of the shore and stand mesmerized by the dark ocean.
Not too far from where I stood was a heaped up mound. What I thought was sand was in fact crumbling earth coated in shimmering frost that tapered down into the black, icy water.
In the hole was a clutch of gleaming white eggs, partly covered. It seemed as if she was in the middle of burying them before she was found and taken away.
I crouched down and started to pull the soil over the clutch when I hear something. The ocean suddenly seemed angry, water crashing onto the shore. Then I realised that something was emerging from the water.
I stopped, still crouching I looked up at a huge white furred bear. It was at least five times the size of a jungle bear, its black dagger like claws scrabbling to gain footing on the frosty ground, water pouring off around it.
It looked around with black gleaming eyes and sniffed the air, from the way it was acting it hadn’t spotted me yet.
Not having any experience with these creatures I tried to look as none threatening as possible and continued with my task.
With the animals keen hearing it picked up on the sound and reared up instinctively and let out a raucous raw, pawing at the air to prove its dominance.
Strikes warning suddenly flashed across my mind.
Panic gripped me and I found myself trying to speak to the creature.
“I am not a threat nor am I food.”
I then remembered that I had not yet had a chance to study the animal and so was not hopeful that it worked.
On watching the bear I realised that it was not interested in me but had instinctively reared up as it had not expected me to be there.
Lowering its front paws it began searching the air again with its large black nose. I become conscious that it had been lured here by the scent of the turtle eggs.
Watching the scene intently I reasoned that I would probably be able to save about half of the eggs and bury them somewhere else if I sacrificed the other half to keep the bear uninterested in me. It was a little regrettable but at least some of the eggs had a chance.
Hurriedly I scooped up a portion of the eggs into my jerkin but not before the bear reached the nest. It snuffled at me experimentally before diving into the rest of the clutch up to the bridge of its muzzle.
While it was busy I quietly crept to another secluded spot and buried the last of the eggs, fulfilling my promise.
On returning to the Long House I found far more empty barrels than full. I was not human but after my little encounter I felt the very Human need for a large drink.
Both Strike and Urut were asleep, or so I thought where they sat as were most of the village. The dull glow of the fire swaddling the slumbering warriors in warmth.
“Urmm..The Northlanders never…” Urut mumbled.
Surprisingly in the sea of warriors in different stages of stupor Urut and Strike were very nearly, still conscious. What I thought was dream mumblings was Urut was trying to tell Strike of another war story but the drink was winning.
It took a little searching of the table, now sticky with overenthusiastic refills and bouts of quaffing, stained with the food and drink of the feast before I managed to find a half filled tankard wedged into a hole made into the wood of the table to stop them spilling over.
I found Orrick sitting with furs wrapped around him by the fire, still awake. Staring deeply into the flames, occasionally rubbing his hands together before holding them in front of the fire to keep the cold at bay while Korra slept soundlessly beside him.
Sparks danced upwards as he stirred the fire with a gnarled stick, the majestic fire now embers and ash from the lack of fuel. The One Eye watched the patterns intently before agitating the cinders again.
Beneath his features and his impressive beard his face was twisted into something between worry and concern, I was not skilled in the art of scrying and thought it best to say so.
“I am new to the art of scrying in fire, is there something that troubles you?”
Looking up I could see instead of a gaping hole I assumed that all One Eyes had after seeing Rugorim with the demon child was a white pearly sightless orb that stared at nothing.
“Yes, although the future is not certain, the next path around the Circle of Life is never clear I feel a great change stirring in the branches of the World Tree. The Leaves of Knowledge are disturbed and fall in waves at this strange and unusual time.”
“I too have felt this change, I am from the Jungles. We have seen a lot of strange, unusual and disturbing things.” I began our tale of when we were in the woods and first encountered the walking tree with the bloody hand nailed onto it.
Orrick’s brow furrowed when he heard this.
“A bloody hand? Strange.”
“Yes and that was just the start.” I hinted that I had only just begun our tale.
“For I had a dream whilst I slumbered earlier, but it was not a bloody hand I saw. It was a black hand, a hand of darkness. A hand almost as black as pitch or as the night itself. ”
“I have also seen Elves, who are not Elves. They seem to be born of fire, they are blackened.”
While we talked, even though it was fairly hushed Korra began to stir.
Korra smiled, at our exchange. Both the One Eye and myself a little excited that we found someone else to speak with about magicks.
“Let me tell you about the dream I had. As I said, the hand was as black as pitch, the hand had three fingers. Each of the fingers were men and they stretched out like a shadow over the land. Where one shadow touched the land I saw people as you are but not as you are. Where the second touched the land I saw creatures Orcs, like my Chief. But they were not Orcs, they were Orcs that walked and carried themselves like men.” Orrick continued, forgetting our travels.
“Well if they can do what they have done to the Elves I am sure it is not beyond their power to do it to other creatures as well.” I interjected.
He nodded but seemed annoyed I interrupted.
“Most worrying was where the third and final finger touched the land. I saw strange shapes, men that were not men. Their eyes were hard like stone…”
“Stone” I echoed, thinking I knew what he would say next.
“…but not stone. Their skin was hard…like metal.” He was really struggling to describe what he had seen. Was it because he didn’t know the words in common tongue or was it that hard to believe his own eyes.
“…But not metal. It was shining blue in colour. Blue as the oceans of the Mainland. Their eyes were as hard as diamonds.”
“There are such gems that are hard like diamonds but as blue as the oceans.” I said, trying to put him at ease.
“I. You have far greater knowledge of that than me. The Northlands are not rich in gemstones, what little I know about them I know from my time in Axehome and the Mainlands in the travels of my youth. But these three fingers on this hand, these men were all part of the same whole, clenched into a fist that engulfed the land in darkness and then I awoke. And that was when I felt the disturbance that we spoke of earlier.”
“The only darkness of the lands I have ever felt was from Strike’s old Chieftain, Ragnar. I came upon him in a vision by accident. I was trying to find why the balance had shifted and when I was confronted by him he tried to kill me.” I said after a pause, making sure he had finished speaking this time.
“When you first arrived in our village, I heard your friend telling our Chief about it. Although I have never seen them myself I have heard stories of those who due to great crime or greed had been denied a place in the afterlife and were forced to walk the world in pain, lasting until they were put out of their misery. If what your friend says is true then by killing Ragnar he has released him to go on to whatever waits after this life and has done this world a great favour.”
“It is your turn to be more informed then. I know nothing of your culture, save what Strike has told me. I believe what you say, just as I believe what he says.”
“It is our belief that if we live our lives according to warrior principals of our people and we are not petty, we are not greedy. We take what we want but only what we need. We are not cruel, we are survivors, we are not murderers. We believe that if we follow these ways then we will be granted a place in the Halls of Battle that we call Valhalla. The hereafter where we feast and battle until the world ends and the World Tree falls. We believe that those who do not live by our principals will be denied a place and they will be force to stay outside the spirit world, in the cold of this world. Knowing that they are dead and they have been denied everlasting glory of the afterlife, there is no greater punishment or sentence that we could put upon someone’s head than to be forced to walk this world in the rot of your own dead body knowing that your own sins have lead you there.”
“I can’t say my people but I live by similar convictions. My people turned tail and ran leaving us to deal with what is left of this world. I believed I was the only Elf until I saw a vision of another Elf, who I recognised personally trapped in darkness.”
“I do not know much of your people, they do not live in our lands.”
Korra listened with a preoccupied look while we were having this discussion but not wanting to interrupt us she waited until there was a lull in convocation.
“The Stone men, have you heard of them before?” Korra asked.
“We have heard legends that there were creatures in the ancient times. Creatures of fire and stone who taught the first men to make metal and how to forge weapons. But our legends tell us that they are long gone from this world, they all disappeared into their holdfasts below ground.” The One Eye answered.
“They have re-emerged. They are at current defending the Great Wall on the Mainland.” I left out that I may have lead the Stone Defenders to the conclusion the wall was under attack.
“Or perhaps their holdfast has been disturbed from the quarrying.” Korra propositioned.
“That is very true.” I replied.
“How much stone did the colonies take?”
“Enough to finish the wall and surrounding buildings.” M
“It is quite a large town, surrounded by villages’ as well. But that’s just the recent working.”
“I suggest we all get some sleep, we will be in need of our strength tomorrow.” Orrick said stifling a yawn.
My large hearth stone was still unoccupied, until I resumed my place, I curled up, bringing my furs tighter around me while Orrick hunkers down in his pile of furs and Korra settled back in her own. Our souls joining those already asleep in the void.
The village was a noisy place in the daylight with various people going about their daily tasks of the morning. The hunger inducing smell of bread being baked drifted through the still, cold air.
Rubbing the sleep from my eyes and stretching the stiffness from my limbs I walked out of the Long House. The air was crisp giving the light a power that made things look more real, as only a winter morning could do.
Animals needed to be fed watered and milked in their holdings. Catches from previous hunts were being skinned, gutted, and prepped for cooking in the open air while their skins were tanned in a hidden part of the village, near to the midden with an odour powerful enough to shun anyone with a sense of smell. Outside one of the huts the shell of the giant turtle was being fashioned into a shield.
While the sound of a hammer hitting an anvil indicated the Blacksmith hard at work.
Gaggles of children were running around, acting out hunts and battles with sticks for weapons, dressed in leather tunics and leggings with light furs to protect them from the chill. I felt cold just watching them and huddled further into my furs.
Strike eventually emerged from the Long House blinking hard in the weak sunlight.
“Feeling delicate are we?” I asked trying not to smirk. Watching the state the two of them got into last night made me never want to touch Human or Orc fire water, ever.”
“I’m going to the blacksmith.” He said ignoring my question shielding his eyes with his hand.
“The iron smith? NO!” I said, possibly a little too loud. Strike winced from the pain in his head. I had become very weary after the key at the inn bit me.
“It wasn’t an invitation, I’m going to the blacksmith.”
“Fine, off you go.”
I walked with Strike and it wasn’t hard to find the forge, the sound of the Smiths rhythm beating something against the anvil lead strike almost straight to him.
Walking into the shop was like walking into a wall of heat, the forge glowed almost white hot form here a young, well defined lad, who from his muscle development had started work as soon as he could reach the anvil. The apprentice was pumping the bellows and feeding the fire for a tall man who, from his trade had the body shape of a parsnip. His chestnut hair and beard hung in two plats tied with leather to reduce singing. The Smith was holding a spear head with pinchers on the anvil, battering it into shape before plunging it back into the flames. Once the metal was the colour of straw he plunged it into a bucket of water by his feet.
I felt the blast of heat even from my spot outside but the itchy feeling I was getting like ants under my skin warned me to go no further.
The blacksmiths house was built next to the forge rather than living in one of the communal huts so with what I had learned about Northlander life he must have fair amount of prestige.
Feeling a little ridiculous, a lone Elf almost cocooned in furs, standing outside a place that literally made my skin crawl I went to look for Korra or Orrick.
Strike ducked under the doorway. Sensing the new presence the Smith looked up from his work.
“Something I can do for you stranger?” He asked twisting the hammer in his hand.
“My sword is in need of sharpening.”
Putting the hammer down and resting the spear head on the anvil he held out his hand.
Drawing the sword from its scabbard Strike handed it to him by the hilt.
The Smith smiled as he took the blade with exaggerated care Strike could tell that the man thought he would snap the thin sword if he squeezed it too hard, although Strike was a Northlander by blood this was not the usual double handed broad sword that the Blacksmith was used to creating and maintaining.
“I mean no offence stranger but I fear that if I strike this with my hammer I would break it. There seems precious little metal in this.”
“I don’t want you to strike it with a hammer, I want you to grind it on the stone.” Strike replied.
The Smith shrugged “There seems hardly enough to grind but if that is what you wish.”
“It is strong.” Strike assured him.
“As you wish.” The Smith shrugged again.
The Smith turned his back on Strike to face the grinding stone and pressing the peddle with his foot, the stone turned. Sparks began to fly as the Smith dragged the blade slowly and with care across the revolving stone with a scraping sound that could put your teeth edge.
With a nod the apprentice left the bellows and taking the rapier from the Blacksmith finished the job.
The novice handed the sword back to the blacksmith who checked the sharpness by shaving a patch of skin clean on his forearm. Satisfied with the freshly ground blade he handed it back to Strike.
“There you go, that should do.”
“I Thank you.”
With the task completed the Smith and his apprentice return to the spear head back still resting on the anvil.
Leaving the Blacksmith Strike intended to visit the tannery to find some hide to repair his armour. Stepping out of the forge Strike felt compelled to look out over the horizon. The white, hostile, open ground he could see a unit of men, roughly a dozen, being escorted towards the village by men dressed similarly to the guard who delivered the message last night. Strike looked down at his dyed left hand before watching the troop again. At the front of the group was a gnarled, hunched snaggletooth Orc, all Orcs that Strike had come across before were slightly hunched but this one was weighed down by the weight of years. Wearing a winter wolf pelt to shield him from the cold, the skull of the wolf on his head, its upper jaw covering the Orcs face. Walking behind him were roughly a dozen or so that looked to Strike like Orcs but walk more upright like a Human.
“Like the runner said last night.” He muttered.
They were all clad in shining plate metal armed trimmed with fur, in one hand were swords that were bigger than the double handed board swords of the Northlanders, in the other large metal rimmed spiked shields that would easily cover Strike. These creatures were very disciplined Strike could see that from even as far away as he was. Every step was as one with the others of the group, they marched as a single unit unlike the typical warriors of the Northlanders, who, in battle were all seeking out their own glory. The clank of armour as they walk as one echoed across the village loud enough to penetrate the thick stone walls of the main hall.
The sound of the unit was unnerving bordering on foreboding for Korra and on hearing this noise in the Long House she voiced her opinion.
“I do not feel particularly brave about the death marching towards us but I will go out there to support Strike.”
Urut and his men slid on their battle worn chainmail followed by their helmets, shields and weapons and stepped outside.
With all abled fighters gathered outside the hall behind Strike we could now all see the black armoured column, the deformed old Orc holding an equally twisted staff at the head.
Making sure he had the on comers’ attention Strike held up his dyed left hand.
Using this calm moment to my advantage I reached out the land and tried to communicate with the spirits who dwelled within.
Calling out to the spirits of the village I asked to see what may happen at this uncertain interval. I was answered with a vision although I did not realise it.
As I watched the armoured Orc men marching towards us my eyes were drawn to the gnarled staff used by the Orc to help him walk.
Fixed upon of the staff was a severed hand, nailed to the top.
Almost instantly I heard an indistinguishable voice, laden with the weight of years, almost sounds half way between a scream and the creaking of the most ancient trees of the Jungle, nothing like I had ever listen to before. For a moment I had the sensation of falling forward into a large pot or cauldron or pit beneath me, seething with something unnatural.
I felt myself tumbling headfirst when suddenly I sensed the Village One Eye place a hand on my shoulder and I realise I am not falling but seeing something, not sure if it is past, present or future. A cry of pain and fear escapes from my lips as Strike held up his hand and understood that the time passing in the vision had no effect on the rest of the village. Strike kept his hand raised but turned his head to see me about to fall forward then being steadied by Orrick.
“Must you scream so loud?” He asked clutching his aching head.
I felt Korra take my other shoulder and begin singing an old Elven lullaby, the hypnotic tones washed over me, but instead of the calm her voice usually brings makes me feel a lot worse, her chosen song reminds me of my people who use to be here, that I was the only survivor of the massacre of our jungle home and I begin to get the feeling that I was unworthy of the journey I was undertaking. However, her melody was seen to have the opposite effect on those around us, Urut, a couple of his men and Strike, who have been suffering this morning from the revelry of the night before suddenly visibly shook off its affects and stood tall, refreshed.
The snaggletooth Orc at the front of the marching column, assumed to be Rugorim, stopped in front of Strike, still holding up his hand. Leaning on his staff he held his own hand up and the Orc Men still in tight, lockstep formation came to a halt in unison.
“My business is not with you poisoner, I have come to speak to the Chief of this village.” The Rugorims’ voice was deep and as twisted as the rest of him.
“I have come to lay claim to the Kingdom.” Strike informed him.
The Rugorim shrugged.
“Lay claim to it then, I have come to speak with the Chief of this Village.”
“You do not care?” Strike asked, a little surprised.
“If you wish to claim the small title of the Red Hand it is not my concern.”
“It is everybody’s concern in the North.”
“I will not long be in the North.”
“And why is this?”
“Because I have seen a greater vision of the future, the Black Hand. Why would I settle to be the advisor of the Red Hand as I was, I should be thanking you. You did me a favour by removing my previous alliances. It was his death that freed me to see a greater vision of the future, why would I settle for a Red Hand drenched in blood when the Black Hand can give us so much more?”
“Certainly looks like it from where I’m standing.” Strike said regarding the Orc-Man unit.
“Indeed. Tell me, can you create marvels such as these?” He gestures to the 7 foot tall Black army behind him.
“Creating people is for the Gods. Only Odin may give life.”
“Well then, these mighty warriors that I have created must be no more than simple illusions. In that case they would certainly not be capable of harming anyone and there for are of no concern.” The Orc said with a lopsided sneer, his left lower tusk tooth protruding over his lip.
“I trust you as much as I trusted Ragnar.” Strike stated.
“On the contrary, I am entirely trustworthy. I can always be trusted to do what I believe is the best for myself and my kind.” He gestures not only to the Orc men behind him but the long sweep of his hand, encompassed everyone in the village.
“These are not your men.”
“No. No you are entirely right. But, they could be.” The Rugorim looked beyond Strike who followed his gaze to where Urut was standing.
“I gave you a choice before, to join us and you doubted…” The Orc began addressing Urut, Strike temporarily forgotten.
“As King I refute it.” Strike interject.
“That is your right. The Chief of this village doubted what I had said I had accomplished, what I had promised. I said I would return with proof and give him a second chance to align himself with the Black Hand with the coming rulers of this world and for him and his men to embrace their heritage, to unite the two sides of our souls.”
“Then come, let us speak to the Chief.” Strike said almost cheerfully.
The Rugorim gestured to his unit of men, who as one march behind the limping hunched Orc.
Seeing this intimidating sight Urut called out to Strike and the Orc.
“We will conduct these investigations and negotiations in my hut.”
He stepped aside, gesturing to the Long House.
“As my honoured guests, both yourself and your companions are free to attend.” Urut addressed Strike as they approached the Long Hose.
“I welcome your hospitality.” Strike replied.
“As I say, we respect the old ways in this village.” Urut said directing his distain to The Rugorim.
I step aside to let the Rugorim and his dark army past.
He raises his staff, I expect him to knock but the doors open without touch.
With this show of power I sense the vaguest ripple of imbalance, a feeling I don’t think I will ever get used to.
I steady myself against the cold stone wall my head suddenly swimming. I looked over to Orrick who is holding his head. Whatever is affecting me is also influencing him.
Waiting for the dizziness to subside we watch Urut leads his men, the Rugorim and his troop, Korra and Strike trail into the hut.
Hanging back and trying to hold the panic from my voice I begin telling Orrick what I saw.
“Master One Eye, he is nothing but a bringer of Death. I saw a cauldron boiling, seething full of hatred, fear, anger.” I pause, trying to find enough words to explain my distress. “It began to take hold of me to the point of when I felt you grab my shoulder and stopped me falling in. I only saw this vision after focusing on the top of TG staff where a blackened hand nailed to it.” I gibbering at the One Eye.
“I also felt a disturbance. The power that The Rugorim wields is strange. It is not familiar to me, it is odd. It is like the natural powers that my brethren wields has been turned back in on itself.” Orrick struggled to explain.
“I am not as experienced as you, I can only feel the corruption in what was once balanced. Whichever side the valance has shifted and needs to be restored.”
He nodded in aggrement.
Inside the Long House the Rugorim stood at one end of the table with his army with Urut, Strike, Korra and six of the Orc Chieftains warriors standing at the other.
“Long have the men and the Urruks of the Northlands lived together.” The Rugorim began. Taking out what Korra recognised as a coin from the Mainlands. The Face of King John V on one side with the royal crest on the other. Holding it up The Rugorim continued.
“The men and the Orcs of the Northlands are like this coin from the Kingdom. They are both different sides of the same soul.” He flips the coin into the middle of the table.
“The Black Hand has shown me that to achieve true strength, true power we must unite these two halves of our soul to created something greater.” He said indicating to the seven tall, armoured Orc men behind him. “These, my Dark Orcs, my Black Orcs are only the first. All of us could embrace this side of our heritage, there would be no one on the Mainlands who would be strong enough to stand against us. We would form a force like the legends of old, the raiding parties of old. We would sweep all before us. There would be none powerful enough to stand in our way!”
“Yet the raiding parties of legends had a mix of Humans and Orcs, the way Odin intended them to be.” Strike argued.
“And always those raiding parties were forced to turn back…”
“Why always?” Strike interrupted.
“You have only to look at the fact that we have expanded little beyond the Northlands. Unless you count the piffling towns clinging to the outskirts of the Mainlands.” The Rugorim answered.
“I have ventured far into the Mainlands.” Said Strike.
“And yet the majority of our people remain here.” The Rugorim gave Strike a look a weary mother would give a demanding child.
“Then it is a good job I have returned to lead them.” Strike said pleasantly.
“I am yet to see any evidence that you have passed any trials of leadership.”
“I have killed Ragnar.”
The Rugorim shrugged indicating the action meant nothing.
“A dead man cannot be the Chief of the Northlands whether he walks…”
“If that is what you wish then I will undertake the trials. Do you wish to join me?” Strike shouted over the Orc.
“I have no wish to become the…” The Rugorim tried to answer.
“Then you have no wish to rule.” Strike cut in on the Orc again.
“Not the Northlands no. I have set my eyes set on a more worthy prize.”
“Your prize is laughable. You defy the Gods.”
“Then surly it is the Gods business to strike me down?” The Rugorim paused, waiting to be struck down “And yet they remain silent. As they have done for many years.”
“Then I would make it my purpose as King to deliver their judgment.” Promised Strike.
“If you are capable, then deliver your judgment. And when your bleached bones are scattered to the sides of this Long House, then I would continue my discussion with the Chief of this village. I am sure they would see the wisdom of joining our cause. Making them stronger, taking what they want. For is that no the way of the Northlanders? We become stronger, we do survive. Making ourselves part of our lands. We make ourselves colder, stronger, more fierce than the soft men of the Mainlands and we TAKE what we desire!”
“But your way leads to abomination, whereas uniting two people is fairly easy. You don’t have to…blend them. They can be as one and yet still be different. It is just no one has yet taught them to fight as one.”
“Surely if you believe that it the Gods” the Orc spat the word. “Will that this be the case surely it would have happened before now?”
“No. All who came before were short minded.”
The Rugorim laughed. “I can see that pride is your weakness.”
“There is no pride in me.”
Not wanting the Rugorim’s attention to be drawn to her Korra listened quietly taking notes in the shadows not wanting to miss out an important stage of her saga.
The argument went back and forth for about 10 minutes or so before The Rugorim made a unexpected claim.
“After all was it not myself who wrestled control of the Great Ancient Oak? Was it not these hands” He said holding up gnarled, callused, scared talons hands “that fashioned it into a great working? A working which the Gods themselves would be envious? You say that only the Gods can create life? Then by your words I must indeed be a God for I have created life!”
“We already have one God of Death, she is plenty.” Strike observed.
The Rugorim laughed at Strikes answer.
“With my cauldron I do not kill, I bring life out of death.”
“You released an abomination on this world, driven by your hatred, your greed. You denounce our ways.” Said Strike, his voice not raised once in the debate.
“I am the very embodiment of our ways. The Northlanders see what they want, they take it. That is what we have always done!” He hissed the last sentence, Strike must have been getting to The Rugorim, “All I am doing is thinking on a larger scale. I am not satisfied with simply sailing out, raiding a few coastal villages and then slinking off back to our own lands like some beaten cur!” The Orc comprehending his frustration and clearing his throat changed the tone of his voice. “With the support of people like this,” He continued gesturing to Urut’s village and the men around him. “We could take this world and make it a new kingdom. Based on the ideals of the Northlands we could sweep aside the decadent men and the weakling of the Mainlands.”
“You mean those who take more than they need?” Korra realised too late she had said this out loud.
The Rugorim narrowed his eyes and gave Korra a sideways glance but did not dignify her with a response.
“Is that not what brings them decadence?” Korra, accepting her mistake asked again.
The Orc regarded her worth a look that seemed to say ‘You’re not a Northlander and so your opinion is not relevant.’
“She does speak an interesting point.” Strike observed, making sure Korra was not ignore her.
“We have only ever taken what we need. You wish to take it all and more. This is not our way. I come here seeking an army against your and indeed Ragnar’s dark plot.”
“Hmmph. Who are you to speak of our ways? There is no place in Valhalla set aside for one who poisons his way into leadership.”
“Ha! I did not poison my way into leadership I used my own bare hands.” Corrected Strike.
“When he was already dead.” Replied the Rugorim in a mocking tone.
“Indeed. A far greater feet, killing the dead.” Strike said flashing a smile only seen before on a shark.
“You killed him first by poison, poison is a woman’s weapon.” The Rugorim jeered.
“Well, now, you see we discussed this last night. Since you refute the Gods you have no say. And I will deal with my own exclusion from Valhalla. When the time comes. Sometimes the world needs an utter bastard.”
“Very well then, there is nothing further to discuss.”
“On the contrary, only you and I have been talking so far, you have yet to speak to the Chief.”
“I have only one thing to ask the Chief. The Orc said turning to Urut. “Will you join us or will you die?”
Urut pulled himself to his full height, seeming to take heart from Strike’s word “As I have told you before, we need no alliances with outsiders or you’re Black Magics. We are the people we are meant to be. I agree with what the Red Hand has said. We have always been one people just because we are different does not make us different people. We do not need your Dark Magics nor do we wish to be part of your plans to control this world. We have the lands we were born to have.”
“Then this discussion is over. Kill everyone in the village!” the Rugorim commanded whirling round to the nearest Dark Orc-man, as he spoke the ancient orc banged his staff on the ground and in the blink of an eye vanished in a puff of black mist.
At his order the seven dark warriors shifted into a battle formation, their metal rimmed spiked shields low to the ground, their swords aimed at the enemy.
Looking though the thin unglazed windows built like arrow slits on a castle, letting in the maximum amount of light and vision with minimum exposer neither Orrick nor I could see what had happened within the walls of the Hall. A heavy weight dropped from my stomach into my feet when out from under the door a mist of black soot drifted out. I watched it hug low to the ground and slowly drift off away from the village.
“Oh shit.” I muttered but thought nothing more as sound of violence beginning resounded out of the Long House.
The Black Orc-Man in front of Strike stepped forward and with comparatively little effort kicked the table that stretched most of the length of the room to one side, with the toe end of his armoured foot, blocking the door way.
This show of immense strength cleared the Long House floor in one sweep.
“Sweet Odin...” Strikes curse was cut short as in one fluid movement the same Orc-Man stepped forward and slashed the double handed sword, with one hand towards him. The floor being cleared before the attack Strike easily stepped back out of range of the blade.
Strike quickly scanned the room, he counted six warriors, Urut, himself and Korra against twelve of them.
“Seems fair.” He said under his breath.
As one, the group step forward the crash of metal slamming together in one loud bang.
Strike risked taking a look as the closest soldier’s helmet. Slit for eyes, covering nose, slit for mouth, riveted onto body so not exposed at neck. Searching quickly Strike saw his point of entry.
Stepping forward Strike trusted his freshly sharpened rapier through the mouth slit, up into the fleshy part of his jaw, the blade glinting inside his open mouth. He had no intention of stopping until he hits the back of his skull.
The Dark Orc-man ignoring the assault and taking advantage of Strike stepping in to attack, the Dark Orc grabbed his head in shovel sized hands and squeezed.
Strike instinctively let out a muffled cry as he felt the bones of his skull creaking and moving under pressure. Now he knew how an apple felt when it was being pulped for cider.
Dark red splotches danced in front of his eyes before darkness began to close in.
Korra dived behind the upturned table no one would have argued, her art lay in song smithing not fighting. Using the cover to her advantage she stabbed the Dark Orc-man crushing Strikes skull in the leg in the hope of distracting him enough to let Strike go. Well it definitely annoyed him.
With a small grunt of pain he lets go of Strike and backhanded Korra with the same casual attitude of swatting a fly, sending her flying backwards hitting the far wall with enough force to crack a couple of ribs her neck snapping back, slamming her head at the same time.
Urut and his warriors leapt on the six Dark Orcs nearest to them in the true Northlander way of taking as many out as possible before they died; as the first Dark Orc-man turned his attention on Korra another stepped forward swinging a strange sword down towards Strike, who was still on the floor. The unusual weapon that could only be described as flat bar of metal, straight the whole length of the blade. At the top of the weapon was a spike protruding from it, used to snare an oncoming horseman and pull him to the ground but if held backwards it would increase the pain inflicted and increase the chance of killing. Since the pressure was released from Strikes skull the darkness began to ebb and, seeing the oncoming attack, he managed to roll out the way avoiding being cleaved in two.
With the small lull in activity Strike realised that his rapier was still embedded in the first Dark Orc-man. Scanning the scene quickly Strike found his quarry and watched as he pulled the blade from his face and threw it to the floor, Urut was wounded and five out of his six warriors still stood, he had managed to kill one of the enemy by stepping into his attacker and thrusting his blade deep into his ribcage. In the tangle of his fray he had watched one of his best men fall under the blade of one of the Dark Orc-men. Instantly he knew who his next target would be
Hearing the commotion from outside dragged my gaze from the retreating mist that was now far beyond the village wall, heading inland.
My head arched back. My body twisted and grew, stretching, swelling. New muscles formed, bunched and knotted. I could feel my face shrink and become flatter, black velvet fur bursting through my skin, covering my new but familiar form of a mountain gorilla.
Letting out a primeval roar I shoulder barge the door.
Throwing my full weight behind the shove I splintered the door and broke the table lodged behind it, clearing the way.
The sudden appearance of a mountain gorilla was nothing new to Korra or Strike but to Urut, his warriors and the remaining Dark Orc-men it came as quite a surprise.
Looking around I could see six Dark Orc-men occupied by Urut and his men, spears raised. There were four Dark Orc-men closing in on Strike who was on his knees. Korra was slumped over by the far wall, leaning against it, from the battle I could see that the Dark Orc-men were absurdly stronger than any one we had come across before. I leapt at the nearest one, a Dark Orc-man sliding a rapier from his lower jaw. As he tossed the weapon aside I landed on his back and tried to unscrew his head by his ears; it took more effort than I had expected, even in full plate armour, but I finally succeeded in turn his head round the other way with a loud crack of gristle.
Always willing to learn I reasoned that the muscle structure on these things must be extremely powerful, I tried to think of an animal whose form may be more useful here, the Dark Orc-man dropped onto its knees then with the weight of my gorilla form still bearing down on it, fell face forward. However, unbeknown to me a second dark warrior had moved behind me and I was only aware of this when I felt the crushing pressure of his armour clad foot thud onto my back, a searing flash of burning pain stabbed through my back and out of my side. I looked down to see the glistening red point of a sword protruding through my flesh.
Strike, still with his back to me nimbly dived around Urut and his men, still battling their own opponents, ducked several blows, dived on his rapier, scooped it up and rolled to his feet in one fluid movement.
Korra watched in horror as the blade slid into my back ribs, gritting her teeth and with great effort she dragged herself up and unable to find her instrument started drumming a beat with the hilt of her dagger and started singing of the ancient warlike prowess that was the basis of all the Northlander songs she had heard at the great feast, hoping that they would inspire us to fight longer and harder while healing us at the same time. The saga was of a great warriors who fought a great ancient dragon, overcoming the odds with great courage and faith in their fellows. She was never wrong with her song of choice.
Feeling the power of her voice surging through me, healing me enough to find the strength to continue, and enabling Strike, Urut and his fighters to hear the call of the warrior; I felt my attacker pulling his blade out my flesh and the great force that told me his foot was still on my back, preparing to decapitate me. With the strength of the warriors song still surging through me I pushed forward onto my palms, arms locked straight and pushing off with my legs I let my weight fall slightly into my arms before raising my feet to where I thought the Dark Orc-man’s stomach would be mule kicked him. The harmonious melody of Korra’s war song had healed me but kicking upwards had torn the freshly knitted tissue and I felt the pull of my natural form.
My target staggered back slightly whilst I felt I had kicked a stone wall, if I had done that to Strike it would have put him through the wall. I decided it was time to take a chance. Strike, re-energised, ran at one of the Dark Orc-men, sword raised, the warrior saw the oncoming attack and brought his shield up as a counter attack, smashing the riveted metal rimed edge into Strike’s jaw, picking him up off the floor, I could only watch as he sail backwards, stretcheded full length before hitting the far wall. His limp, unconscious body slid down the far wall, blood gushing from his mouth.
Korra, trying desperately to heal Strike forgot the danger of drawing unwanted attention sang louder; her healing, compelling tones took effect just as Strike took his last breath, his back arched as his heart beat once again, fighting for air that a moment ago would not come. A Dark Orc-man, hearing the rousing folk song grabbed Korra’s leg and dragged her to him. With a loud nauseating crack her ribcage crumpled under the weight of his boot.
Korra gasped, like a fish out of water, suffering the same fate that moments ago she had pulled Strike from. She was suffocating. Her vison darkened, tinged red at the edges, feeling herself slipping from this world.
The roar of the combat, the pain, everything faded away into nothing. Looking around Korra was in the Long House but empty of people. The table and benches were where they were placed before the encounter. Everything monochrome and muted. She listened, on the cusp of hearing was the sounds of the battle but there is nothing to see, the hall was empty.
Strange, there was no pain. Korra remembered how she came to be in this place and look down. Her chest was concaved and on the front of her tunic a red stain was growing; looking up Korra saw a woman clad all in black with a shroud covering her face, standing silhouetted in the door of the Long House. The knot of terror in her stomach rooted her to the spot, the woman raised her hands to lift her veil. One of her hands was pale white, smooth and slender, the other belonged to something from Korra’s nightmares, rotted, blistering, putrid shredded flesh that was the colour of curdled milk mottled and mouldering, falling from her fingers and forearm showing glossy white bone beneath.
As she lifted her vail Korra saw that her face mirrored her hands, one side of her face was a beauty to behold, dark hair fell in soft curls framing her face. The deathly pallor somehow making her more beautiful. One kind eye glittered with mischief, her skin smooth and porcelain like with full red lips that curled up in a smile, the other the stuff of nightmares, half her hair was gone the lines in her skull crackled along the surface, beneath her ravaged scalp her face was smooth white bone. Her teeth grinning as only a skull could. Korra stood still, immobilised with fear.
She looked into Korra’s eyes, “Although you are in my domain. You are not of my realm. ” When she spoke there was another voice echoing hers, as if it was repeating the words that the woman had just spoken. It was much deeper, almost snarling, a bestial voice. “By right, I can claim you. But since you are not of this land I will give you a choice. You have until the rising of the moon to send an innocent soul in your place or when that moon rises your soul will enter my Kingdom and no power of man, woman, beast or dark magic will stay my hand.”
The knot of terror had grown up into Korra’s throat, making her mouth dry, unable to speak.
“The innocent must be delivered by your hand and your hand alone.”
Swallowing hard Korra finally found her voice.
“What is innocent?” She managed but the woman had already vanished.
Standing in the empty Long House Korra understood that her offer was final, there was no ways to bargain with the stranger, no tricking her into letting Korra go it was a deal or no.
With the internal struggle strong inside Korra managed to reach an uneasy conclusion.
She didn’t specify what was innocent, a kitten may be innocent as well as a child. She thought
“I accept.” Korra said out loud.
On uttering those words the stranger, half eaten corpse half divine beauty reappeared. She held her withered arm out towards Korra and as she took the desiccated hand Korra closed her eyes, relieved that the moment would be short lived before she stepped through the vail that hid the living realm from the realm of the dead.
Korra felt the weight of two metallic objects placed over her closed eyes and impulsively opened them.
Opening her eyes Korra found herself back in the midst of battle, still injured but stable.
She breathed a painful sigh of relief but the knot grew again, aware that moment would be forever waiting in her nightmares.
It felt like it was taking forever to get to my fallen friend, using my ape agility, I ran on my knuckles around the enemy, ducking wild sword swings and avoiding others fighting get to her. I watched her go down, saw the dark red bloom from under her tunic, watched what I thought was her last breath and finally I reached her, praying to the Elders that I wasn’t too late. As I reached her Korra’s eyes snapped open again. All the pain and injury I had inflicted on the Dark Orc-men I channelled all the hurt back in on itself and using the last of my shape shifting enchantment to boost the power of the healing charm. I felt the cloak of the gorilla fall and my Elven form returned. The spreading red pool receded slightly and I looked over her to see if the magic had worked. Everything appeared normal until I reached her arms. The flesh of her left hand has withered, the flesh shrunken back, skin taught. The mummified limb looked more like a bird’s claw than a Human hand.
I had no idea what that was or the cause but at that moment I had more pressing issues to attend to. Korra was still lying down but her breathing was no longer laboured. Urut and his men were still going strong, but from my position near the back of the Long House I could not see how many were left on either side.
The Dark Orc-man that had almost killed Korra pulled his foot up to deliver the killing blow. My attention was drawn behind him and I saw Strike rise up behind the warrior and holding his sword above his head stabbed down through his shoulder and into his spine.
“ODIN GUIDE ME!” He called out.
Korra, with the strength she had pulled herself up and backwards, taking cover under part of the shattered table sung with all her spirit.
Calling back to when I spoke to the Great White Bear I dived into its mind and praying to the Elders for the short time I had studied the creature to be enough.
My head bent back. My body warped and expanded, unfolded and engorged. New muscles formed, clustered and tensed. I could feel my face stretch and teeth growing in my new muzzle. White course fur burst through my skin. I stretched out my new form and stood as a Great White Bear. I echoed the roar that I had been greeted with by the bear on the shore line
Strike looked impressed.
The dark warrior nearest to me let out a shriek of surprise, the effect I had intended. However, now being the largest threat in the room all able Dark Orc-men closed in on me.
The two nearest Dark warriors hack at me with the strange shaped, swords twisting the blades as they hit, trying to latch in with the hooked tip but fat, muscle and fur were a natural armour and soften the blows.
I snarled defiance and reached out to one of my attackers, using the bears paw to wipe his face off. My claws cut deep through his flesh, shredding one to pieces he toppled over, hitting the ground hard.
Strike came into view on the falling body of a second Orc-man, his rapier slid between the join in his helmet and shoulder plate. He must have taken advantage of the Dark warrior’s lack of attention and leaped onto its back when it was attacking me. First I knew anything about it was when the Dark warrior toppled over gurgling and blowing blood bubbles.
Then there were two.
“Keep singing bard!” Strike ordered, climbing off his kill.
He turned to retrieve his weapon when one of the remaining guards pulled up his spiked, metal rimmed shield so the metal frame was edge on and threw it by the grip towards Strike. It flew through the air as gracefully as a stone skipping over water.
On seeing the deadly projectile Strike somehow bent his upper half backwards so he was still standing but his torso was lying down. The underside of the shield brushed the tip of his nose as it flew over him, smacking the Dark Orc-man behind him slicing his neck, green black blood sprayed the wall.
It had wounded him but not fatally. Reaching forward over Strike I swiped at the injured warrior. My outstretched claw caught the wound tearing it open, killing him instantly.
The last Dark Orc-man followed the path of his shield, intending to shoulder charge Strike, who, after seeing the pad side of my paw flipped back up. Seeing the oncoming attack Strike started to leap over the charging Dark warrior but as he did so he was grabbed by his outstretched leg, the Dark Orc-man catching him mid-air and smashed him to the floor.
Rolling as he fell Strike used his momentum and summersaulted up onto his feet and plunged his blade deep into his back severing his spine, killing him instantly.
No one had been keeping a tally on our progress and scanning the room quickly and finding no other Dark Orc-men standing we finally had time to breath, unsurprisingly the room was totally trashed.
Urut and his men had killed off their six but only two of Uruts men remained. Urut was lying in the corner of the room, slumped against the thick stone wall of the Long House with his hand clutching his stomach, a river of green black blood pumping through the open wound still holding his sword, wanting to fight, but quickly succumbing to his wounds.
Korra, still weak from her wounds tried singing to heals the Chieftain but the melody could not heal the extent of his injures. Stepping forward I gathered all the damage I had inflicted and turned it back in on itself to heal Urut. He rose slowly to his feet, leaning heavily on his sword for support. The effects of shock now more dangerous than his healed injuries.
Surveying the carnage Urut began the grim task of paying his respects to his fallen warriors. Walking around, he crossed their arms over their chests and closed the open, vacant eyes of all his men.
This seemed like the perfect moment to study our enemy. While Korra examined the Dark Orc-men I remembered something.
“Wait a moment. Wait a moment. We’re missing one,” said Strike
“He turned into a mist and floated off that way,” I pointed inland, I didn’t know which village would be closest.
“He will have retreated to his village.” Strike answered uninterested. With Strikes lack of interest, I saw no threat and moved to join Korra.
“I think I need to speak with Orrick.” Korra tells me as I crouch down. I nod.
“Don’t think they’ll be too much of a threat, if I find anything I’ll come and find you.”
While looking over the corpses my mind takes me back to when originally talking in the village to Orrick. He knew that The Rugorim had been going around recruiting all the Northlander tribes he came across. How many? Well it would be a lot more than one tribe. He has probably got far more than 12 Dark Orc-men or Elf-men or some form of strange crossbreed. So where are all the rest of his men? And it could be a bit problematic if they are all the same build and strength.
Lost in my train of thought, the villages began stripping the bodies of weapons, armour, furs, anything of value around me. They wouldn’t be using the armour as armour but would probably melt it down to make something more useful to them. Staring at nothing I was gently but firmly moved out of the way of a Northlander woman, desperate to get hold of the weapons of the dead Dark Orc-man in front of me. I moved out of her way and was about to return to my thoughts when something caught my eye.
Kicked into the corner of the room in the heat of battle was The Rugorims’ staff. He must have left it when he turned into mist, expecting to retrieve it after his creatures slaughtered the village. Being very weary of the creepy looking thing I gingerly pick it up with the intention of taking it to Orrick, the One Eye who I believed Korra would have found by now.
Orrick was sat outside, his years hindering his fighting skills he knew he would not much use in a fight so, like Korra he had helped out in his own way.
As Korra drew closer the old One Eye did seem to have a faraway look on his face. Korra suddenly understood that he had been helping out Urut and his men, they were only Orc and Human warriors of natural birth and wouldn’t have stood much chance otherwise.
“Is this place haunted?” Korra asked when he returned to his body.
“Haunted?” He looked perplexed, it was clearly not a question he expected.
“I was hurt, badly hurt. Without the Druids magics I would have not been brought back.” Korra tried to explain. She took a deep breath and started again, not thinking that Orrick appreciated how demanding it was to explain what had happened when she didn’t understand it herself.
“I saw a woman? She had a…” Holding her hands up to mimic lifting a vail Korra sees her skeletal hand for the first time. The colour drained from her face but swallowing down her fear she tried to describe what happened but there was no hiding how traumatised she was.
Orrick on seeing Korra’s hand was so shocked he revered back to cursing in Northlander, he involuntarily moved his hand over his chest in the shape of a hammer as the Northlander profanity escaped his lips and takes an unconsciously stepped backwards.
“Then you’ve seen her?” Orrick asked Korra concerned.
“I, I saw someone. But she, she said because, I couldn’t.” Korra stopped, took a breath and started again. “Because I wasn’t from this place? I may not have to go to her domain?” The One Eye could understand her explanation all being questions, whatever had happened to her sounded unworldly.
“It is rare that Hel Half Eaten, who is Death allows someone to remain in this world when their time has come. And then she only does so if it suits her own interest for she is a jealous and selfish God.”
“She told me someone had to go in my place but, who could I send? I couldn’t send anyone there!” On hearing her plight Orrick had more sympathy for Korra.
“In the legends of old people struck such bargains of sending someone with a soul with equivalent worth. I am not qualified to speak as to how much Hel value’s your soul. The Gods are not meant for our understanding but you must find someone who she would value equally. Then they must take your place on that dark journey to her deathly domain. She has laid her mark on you” He pointed to her claw like hand. “Like all of our Gods she is bound by ancient laws and her word. If you do not meet whatever deal she made with you then she will use that link to take her soul into her dark domain.”
“I…think she said an innocent but…what would be innocent to her? Korra asked, fully aware she would not want to hear the answer.
“I honestly do not know.” An unsaid sorry hung in the air before he tried to comfort her. “All I know is our ancient sagas say that those who have managed to bargain in such a way to escape Hel’s domain has sent err… If you were a farmer, a simple farmer and she had made you this deal your soul would not be worth a great deal to her, there for you could send an animal or something similar in your place. Remember she is a God of the Northlanders, your friend will be able to tell you what we value here in the Northlands. All of our Gods value the same things. So the worth of your soul would be based on how much or little you live our values. I heard your singing inside, you are a teller of sagas and stories that is a great part of our culture. The One Eyes like myself as well as being the spiritual guides of our people we also preserve the ancient legends of our people. Therefor I can only assume that she offered you this bargain is because she values you highly as a Scald, a teller of tales.”
“Well I can only think of three…She said by the next moon. When’s the next moon?”
“In three days’ time.”
“Three days.” She looked very thoughtful.
I blinked in the light of the winter sun as I walked out of the Long house. I looked around and found Orrick where I left him, sat on a tree stump with Korra sat beside him.
Three days for what I thought as I approached them, I had only caught the tail end of their conversation but from Korra’s expression it was not one of good news.
Holding the staff the distant echo of corruption suddenly upon me. On feeling this I threw it to the ground, near to the One Eye’s feet. I had been hurt by that before.
On seeing the staff with the black, hand nailed to the top Orrick almost fell from his seat, making the sign of a hammer and muttering a ward under his breath.
“That is an evil thing. I would not keep that in the village.” Orrick advised.
“Then how do I destroy it?” I questioned.
“The best way I know to destroy such things is with fire.”
I nodded my thanks to him before gingerly picking up the staff again to find the nearest biggest fire source, the blacksmiths.
Ducking through the doorway to the Smithy I begin to feel a little uneasy being in the life and death of iron, from the itching sensation in my feet, this Smithy had been here a very long time, the essence of his trade engrained into the earth. However uncomfortable I felt standing there was nothing compared to how uneasy the staff was making me. I could bear that to get rid of this evil creation.
Standing in the forge the Smithy had left the young spotty lad working the bellows. Expecting his master the apprentice did a double take at me, it was a reasonable response. An Elf with vine dreads, pointed ears and could change form at will was not really normal for a village of the Northlands. I ignored the questing look and held up the macabre staff. He recoiled in horror.
“Make the fire as hot as possible.”
Eyes goggled and mouth gaping like a fish out of water the boy nods and starts pumping furiously until a raging inferno was at the heart of the furnace. Watching the fire carefully I waited for the coals to turn white hot before throwing the thing into the centre of the blaze followed by a handful of cleansing herbs from my bag just to be safe. I didn’t know if it would make a difference but it made me feel better.
The flames turned an emerald green, reminding me of the Jungle foliage. Flames lick over the staff, the hand curled in on itself as the skin contracted in the heat. As it burned away and was consumed by the fire the sap escaping the grain of the wood made a high pitched keening sound. For a moment amongst the flames as the staff was finally rendered down to ash I thought I saw a horned, demonic face silently screaming before it evaporated, with the remnants of the staff.
“That was a fine battle.” Strike said to Urut after the dead in the Long House had been taken to await the proper Northlander farewell.
Urut, now fully healed both mentally and physically slapped Strike hard on the back, pushing him forwards.
“It was good, wasn’t it?” he agreed slapping a horn of mead into his hand. “And now we drink to celebrate!”
I gladly left the Blacksmiths and found Orrick still where I left him.
“I believe you were right. The fire indeed consumed the entire thing and it also released a form of tiny demon which seemed to wither and die in the flames.”
“Perhaps The Rugorim used his evil magics to bind such a creature to his staff to increase his own power. That would certainly account for some of the corruption we felt if he was channelling his energies through such a creature, it would increase his power but it would also make it darker and reflect the creature itself. Either way it is good that we have destroyed it, it will deprive him of much of his power.”
“I’ll drink to that!” I heard Strike shout inside the Long House.
There was only a handful of fighting age left. That one fight has weakened or killed many of the warriors in the village. All the surviving Northlander warriors and the rest of the village, the none fighters, the children, the elderly had all gathered round inside the Long House waiting. Urut stood and called for silence. When hushed he turned to face Strike.
“Although most of our warriors are now dead those that remain strong of limb and firm in their courage and we will fight by your side. My King.” He dropped down onto one knee, holding a spear in both hands above his bowed head.
Watching their Chieftain the remaining warriors and rest of village crammed inside the Long House followed his lead.
Strike took the spear with his Red Left Hand while Korra, Orrick and I watch though the open door.
The old One Eye smiled and nodded his approval.
“This is the way it should be.” The old One Eye declared.