Dying flames crackled within Valkara’s hall. The once fledgling cluster of timber homes and cobbled stone was quickly transforming into something more. Each time he returned had brought surprise to the fact that a once future vision of Valkara may soon be within reach. All of those dreams could be in jeopardy now, however. Valk, second son of Odain, paced before a small circle of Valkara’s leadership. Thornar, once chieftain of the eastern clans and first to pledge allegiance to Odain stared impatiently at the hulking form of Valk pacing. The thin frame of Fen Wolfsbane, vaunted warrior of clan Bloodhorn, leaned against a nearby column feigning disinterest. Others in the room might overlook the man’s cunning but Odain wouldn’t be fooled by the man’s calculated demeanor.
“It’s ruined, Father! All our work gone in a blink because of a serpent in this room!” Valk said raising an accusing axe to each member within the
Bodie raised a hand to his forehead in embarrassment at his younger brother’s outrage. Valk had always been the more eager to prove himself of the two. Odain liked that about his youngest son. That drive would push him beyond his brother if Bodie wasn’t careful. Perhaps the throne he was working to build one day would pass to the younger of the two after all. Odain was stirred from his musings as Vargo stepped forward to address the group.
“While Valk makes some valid points I do believe we shouldn’t make any decision in haste.”
“You would speak such council, coward. Father, when was the last time Vargo wielded a bloodied axe? I think he runs from men on the battlefield in hopes of not spilling a little blood,” Valk snarled, extenuating his comment with a wade of spit.
“Vargo has proven himself useful in other ways, brother,” Bodie said.
“Ahh, yes. Temperance. Something the younger sorely lacks,” Odain thought to himself. Bodie was not lacking in size himself in fact he had nearly a full measure over his brother. In that way and many others, he was opposite in almost every way to Valk. Where Valk had hair the color of fire like his late mother, Bodie carried the dark tint of his father. Where Valk was rash and bold, Bodie was mild and hesitant. Even the woman they chose and the foods
they ate differed in preference. It all left Odain wondering how blood kin could be so different.
It was Fen who surprisingly broke the silence among them, “It seems we have a traitor amongst us. There’s no use in picking a fight with Frode when we can’t trust the men within our ranks.”
“I typically don’t trust a Bloodhorn, Lacka, any more than the enemy but he’s right, Father,” Valk said meeting his Odain’s gaze.
“Could Thundrin’s words have been a ploy to turn us against one another? Has anyone sent scouts to the west to confirm what he said?” Bodie asked.
Making his voice known for the first time, Arne, former chieftain of clan Deepwood spoke, “My scouts have reported back to me strange sightings of men painted blue roaming up the northern pass toward Thoras.”
“This was ominous news indeed,” thought Odain.
“We will march to stop Frode before whatever he has planned can come to fruition. If we act swiftly he won’t see us coming.” Odain finally said after a moment of silence.
“And the spy?” Vargo asked.
“He will reveal himself eventually and when he does,” Odain nodded to the others encircled. They knew what happened to traitors in Valkara. A fate so brutal even men of violence feigned from speaking of it.
“When should we tell the war band to march?” Bodie asked.
“Tomorrow,” Odain thundered with an unquestioning tone. Unquestioning that was to all but Vargo.
“Mighty Chieftain, the men have just returned from battle with clan Thundrin. Should they not be given some rest in the dead of winter? Attrition alone...”
“See, Father! The man finds any way he can to escape what needs to be done,” raged Valk. “Perhaps you’ll suggest we should just hang up our axes and hold hands with Frode as we skip through the forest? Pathetic.”
Vargo blushed, keeping any further protest to himself.
“Bodie, have the men prepared to march. I will lead this expedition myself.” Odain said ignoring both Vargo and Valk’s outbursts.
He knew what they all would be thinking. He was too old for a such journey. But ancestors be forsaken if he’d let his sons and some conquered chieftains take this final glory from him. Slowly the others nodded and melted away to prepare for the flurry of activity that it would take to fulfill his wishes. Only Fen remained, his signature grin painted on his face.
“You think you can conquer Frode with your forces in their current shape?” he asked, genuinely curious.
“I don’t know,” Odain replied.
Fen’s grin widened at the honest answer, “I always like a battle with a bit of uncertainty. Makes me wonder if I will finally find a glorious death.”
“Seeking death? You Bloodhorn’s are a strange lot.”
“We all die, Odain, but not everyone will be remembered. Glory in battle, that fear when men see you coming for them. There is nothing like it.”
“Is that what your tribe thought when we marched into your lands and made them our own?” Odain asked, hoping to crack Fen’s facade. Despite Odain’s attempt to fluster the man all Fen did was give an amused smile.
“Ancestors, this man’s insane,” Odain thought to himself.
Fen grew thoughtful for a moment before answering, “You win some and you lose some. Just be happy I wasn’t there when it happened. Perhaps things would have been different. Besides Odain our story isn’t written yet. Who knows what fate has in store for us.” Turning his gaze to the dying embers within the hearth Fen moved to leave.
Odain watched the mysterious creature of a man disappear out into the frigid night. A sense of foreboding swirled within his chest. So much to consider. Traitors, Frode, and Hillmen spotted in the north? Odain found himself releasing a tired sigh. It had been easier once. A life without care or concern for anything but the moment in which he inhabited. But like Fen said great men weren’t formed from times of ease or lack of foresight. If he was to make a name that would last the ages he had to do something worth remembering.
Odain’s cheeks burned from the blistering wind that swept across his face. Before him was a vision of wicked snowfall with trees like a phantom’s shadow behind it. The western road had never been an easy trek but in winter it threatened to swallow any who dared tread its path.
“So it must be,” he told himself as he burrowed beneath his wolfskin cloak. The order had been given and his men had obeyed however reluctant they might have been. Sparing a glance to his right he felt a fresh wave of the bitter cold against his weathered cheek. Bodie and Valk remained at his side, their faces carrying a miserable expression. He didn’t try to call to them in these winds. His voice would only be a drowned noise in the roar of the blizzard.
Despite the weather, he was determined to continue their march into the night. With a tempest this strong shelter could do little to comfort them. Besides Odain knew these men. They worked best when the stakes were high. So he’d decided to leave them with no choice. Either take Thoras and its shelter tonight or die trying. If the north was to finally unite under one banner it would happen this day. Another gale of fierce wind washed across his face causing Odain to retreat further beneath his cloak.
“I only pray I have men left to fight with,” he muttered to himself.
The last of a grey sky faded behind the western horizon leaving Odain and his war band in the dark of night. Still, they marched on to the faint sound of feet crunching snow and the cries of winter’s worst. As if from a sixth sense Odain could feel the dying embers of his men’s resolve. Even he, motivated as he was, could feel a faint waiving in his spirit. Just as he felt the last of his resolve melt away the snowfall relented, revealing a wooden palisade and the faintest sound of crashing waves. Thoras, home of Frode and all his ilk was here at last.
Upon sight of the city a shot of adrenaline surged through his now eager war band. Valk let out a snarl of anticipation and Bodie already thinking several steps ahead turned to position their men. Odain watched as the silhouettes of his fighters fanned out into the surrounding forest. Taking his axe in hand he could feel the battle lust rise in him like a familiar friend. After all and received their orders Fen, Thornar, and Valk took their place at Odain’s side.
“We should peek ahead, Father. Just in case Frode knows we’ve come,” Valk said, barely able to keep the excitement for battle out of his voice.
“Perhaps we should wait until all our forces are in place? It would be a shame to give away our surprise before we’re ready to strike.” cautioned Thornar.
Valk’s face flushed with embarrassment and rage at the challenge but he kept silent.
“The boy can keep his mouth shut,” Odain mused.
“I haven’t seen a single man posted on the watchtowers,” Fen said peering at the defenses.
“That’s odd,” came the voice of Bodie behind them. They each turned to greet Odain’s eldest son. Here on the eve of battle, Odain could see a future leader in the man. Bodie’s dark hair was pulled back and braided for battle. His strong chin and sharp brown eyes carried an air of confidence that demanded respect. Bodie dusted off his leather gloves as he spoke, “The first wave of men are positioning themselves now, Father. Give the order and we can have this battle started.”
Odain stroked his peppered beard, “Let us take a closer look first.”
All but Bodie nodded their agreement, “I believe it’s best I remain back to give the order, Father.”
“You’re just like that sniveling coward Vargo, Bodie. Would you have liked to stay behind in Valkara like him?” Valk mocked.
“I prefer the victory over the glory, Valk. Something you could learn a thing about,” Bodie retorted.
It might have been partially true, but the boy had always been a little soft. It was the one thing that made Odain question whether his eldest son was up for the task that awaited him.
“Bodie will remain as the rest of go ahead,” Odain said nodding to the others. Valk let out a hiss but quieted any further protest. The small party set off darting between the cover of the sturdy pines before them until the shadow of Thoras’ defenses loomed overhead. Scanning his surroundings Odain observed a small watchtower only a dozen feet away to his left. It sat empty, no...something was there. Squinting his eyes he could make out something that glimmered in the faint light of the moon. Armor?
“It’s a corpse,” Fen said breaking the silence.
“Why would a corpse be there?” Valk said louder than he should. Thornar displayed annoyance at Valk before speaking in a whisper,
“Perhaps there was a fight within Frode’s ranks?”
“We need a better look into the city. Give the order for a ladder,” Odain
In no time a group of soldiers broke from the cover of the wood
manning a siege ladder. Valk quickly volunteered himself to see what awaited in the city. With the ladder set, Odain watched in eager anticipation as his youngest son ascended the ladder. It felt as though an hour had passed before Valk finally reached the top. Several heartbeats came and went before Valk called down with a shout.
“Father, you need to see this.”
“You lackan fool! The whole city will have heard you!” Thornar yelled in return.
“I don’t think that’s going to be a problem,” Valk replied.
Without waiting for his son to descend, Odain gave the order for the ram to be brought forth. Each crack against the gate tightened the knot within his gut. As Valk took his place at his father’s side his face was pale and uncharacteristically unsure. Finally, the wooden doors flung open in a heap of splintered wood and iron. Stepping past the debris Odain couldn’t believe his eyes. The layer of snow within the city was stained crimson. Bodies lay strewn in the town’s street with little care. Cautiously Odain and the others entered anticipating a trap. None came. Only the silence of a city devoid of life greeted them.
Homes laid in heaps of burnt logs and cracked stone. No one had been spared. As they neared Thoras’ hall they were met by an ever increasing amount of the dead. No, snow remained untarnished as the color crimson consumed all others. In awe and horror, Odain looked upon the seat of Thoras’ power. Swaying gently from the hall’s protruding portico was a single corpse. Frode, the man whose family had slain Odain’s father all those years ago was dead. That thought would have caused Odain pleasure had he not seen what was written underneath the man.
Crudely drawn in blood on the stone beneath were the words THE NORTH WILL FALL.
“Odain, you should see this,” Thornar said, stretching a hand toward the chieftain. In it was a leather wrap.
“Some men found it on the gate’s frame. It’s a note written for you.” Odain unrolled the crude note revealing a written message.
It’s time the north knew what pain we have endured. For centuries your people have slaughtered us, enslaved us, or worse. We failed because like you, we could not see past our petty squabbles. Now, that age is over. We are coming for you and you will not survive. -Drust
“Who is this?” Odain said, barely restraining his rage.
“I believe your worst fears have been realized, Chieftain. The Hillmen have been united and it seems they are out for blood.”