This is the first short story I have yet posted, and am not sure as how to properly rate it; so, on side of caution, i am rating my story MATURE, not because of language or sexuality, but for the vaguely graphic and suggestive content regarding violent images.
I hope you all enjoy this story. It is an entire world I am attempting to create, with many paralelling story lines. It is inspired from Norse and Celtic mythologies and the classic fantasy genre.
The Forbidden Lands (Part 1)
By: Ryan Matthew
Nightfall has smothered the landscape like a heavy blanket. A darkness so dense, that one could forget the existence of light. Even the hard packed and unyielding ice finds nothing to reflect and gives in to the black . A momentary break in the clouds allows the moon solace to shine upon the land, and what was black becomes a sickly pallor of gray hues, as if the earth, itself, has fallen to some illness. The valley, save for the foliage, is barren. Its desolation is accentuated by an audible silence created by the absence of wildlife. The clouds close, and as soon as the light came, it is gone and the scenery surrenders to the dark once more.
Between two rock formations, shielding himself from violent flurries of wind and ice, the grim Bergthor sits as adamantly as the boulders around him. Bitter winds whistle round him as they race through the craggy stones that jut from the terrain like so many blisters. Bushes and trees rock back and forth; giving the appearance that even the world is shivering. There's something unnatural about this ice wrapped darkness, Bergthor thinks to himself.
To ward off the cold, he wrapped himself, up to the nose, in shaggy goat and wolf furs. His cloak, made from a Kodiak bear he had killed almost five Springs ago on a hunting excursion, is pulled tight and the hood hangs low over his brow line so only the ridge of his nose is exposed to the elements.
Under, he dawns thick and scratchy wool jerkins layered beneath a scarred boiled leather tunic, over that he wears a studded ring-mail shirt. Atop everything is a worn grey tabard reaching mid-thigh, at its center is a screaming crow, the sigil of the Black Crows, an all but extinct warrior clan of which he is believed to be one of the few whom survived The Great Rebellion. Heavy boots stuffed with cotton and dense leather gloves protect his extremities. In spite of his efforts, he is offered little warmth.
The only true comforts Bergthor finds are; in the weight of the two-handed great broadsword, Baneblade, a gift from his dying father, resting on his right shoulder with the blade, half-again as wide as a man's palm, pierced deep into the icy turf and the feel of the long double-bladed dirk at his belt. He usually found serenity in sitting alone, were it not for the eerie feeling in the night air.
Things are changing in the world, he thinks, evil is rising.
Bergthor is a tall, gaunt and muscular man. The sight of him can strike fear in, even, the most seasoned warriors. Long course locks of almond hair sweep over a deep brow line, sunken penetrating, almost, black eyes, sharp high cheekbones, a wide jaw and rests just below a set of massive shoulders. Minor wounds have pocked his face in scars acquired from previous battles and training exercises. A long and deep scar runs vertically across his face from above his left brow down over his mouth. The wound leaves him with a baleful look that droops his left eye, as if closed, and twists his lips in a perpetual snarl.
To Bergthor's rear, roughly forty paces up an ice caked hill, concealed behind a cluster of large rocks, trees and bushes, are the resting forms of his seven companions. Bundled closely together, under layers of thick wool and bear hides, they encircle a modest fire serving only to keep their belongings from frosting over. Even their horses are draped in multiple heavy blankets, still, they whinny their displeasure.
Bergthor winces as gusts of wind kick ice into his face, cutting like a knife. Right now, he wants nothing more than to be home, drinking hot malted ale at Eysteinn's Tavern and resting by a roaring fire. Even the distant cackle of the meager flames his companions share welcome him. Though, he dare not move from his post. The night's last watch had fallen to him, and he would not betray the trust of this comrades.
Down the steep iced valley floor, hundreds of yards away, looms a forest wall, deep and dark, like an onyx tidal wave threatening to overcome the land. the Forbidden Lands; Though indistinguishable and motionless from this distance, Bergthor never takes his gaze from its horizon. For out there, not far North beyond that wall, is what they seek.
Nearly four seasons ago, rumors began to spread, among the people in the modest village Martstein, of evil men who openly defied the gods through acts of slaughter. These men, it was said, pillaged, raped, took slaves and murdered wherever they went. Some heard it that they bathe in the blood of those they kill, that they dawn human skin over their armor, or spit their victim's heads on long pikes to use as banners.
"Dere's hundreds a' dem evil one's", people said.
"I saw'em. Clear as day I did. Can't be more'n a day's ride from'ere," others added.
The townsfolk were almost in open panic when the rumors suggested that these 'evil ones' were nearing the village.
Shocking though the news was, Bergthor never put much thought into the gibberings of townsfolk. With nothing to occupy their time but working or drinking, a fabricated story of evil men defying Odin and the Aesir didn't seem unlikely. Still, the people were genuinely scared, and though he was not charged with their safety; he would still see to it.
The magistrate of Marstein, Arnkell, a wizened old warrior with a long thickly-braided white beard that reaches below his knees, who commands the greatest respect, thought it necessary to call a council of sorts to discuss the matter. The Captain of the Town Watch, Havarrd; a high born socialite whom was groomed into his current occupation, never fought in honest battle and had been accused of extortion, was in attendance. Among the other council were a young soldier, Einarr, and the commoners entrusted by the people to speak on their behalf. Bergthor was one of these commoners.
Still recovering from the defense of the recent raids to the farmlands, the town watch could not afford to send any more men away on what the Captain called, "a pointless blunder". After much deliberation and argument, the Captain had not changed his stance. Arnkell, frustrated and left with no other option, put the quest to volunteers from among the people.
Bergthor, a retired hero-veteran from The Great Rebellion and survivor of The Battle for the Valley of Blood, quickly stepped forward to accept the task.
"Bergthor," the old warrior said softly in his deep raspy voice with a look of gratitude on his face, "on the morrow, you and the brave companions of your choosing will seek out these disturbances no matter where the path may lead," the Earl's gaze became penetrating. "Are you up to the task?"
Down on one knee with his head bowed low, "Aye, my Lord," said the grim Bergthor, in a baritone that echoed throughout the hall, "It will be done."
The hall was long, dark and glum. Small pyres were lit along the walls that reflected dimly off of Bergthor's steel shoulder guard. The deep gray of the stone walls gave the hall a dismal aura.
Arnkell struggled from to stand up from his great stone chair. Once surely on foot, in a firm grip, he clutched his large double-bearded axe, Ripper, that was legend from the stories of his battle prowess, and raised it to the skies. "Good! Then I, Arnkell son of Logmar, Magistrate of Marstein, by the honor of Odin, the All Father, charge you, Bergthor, son of Anthor, with the task of bringing these heretics and murderers to the judgment of the gods, by no other means than a quick and sure death."
"I will not fail you, my Lord," said Bergthor raising his head to meet the Earl's gaze. The old warrior knew he meant it.
"Rise. Go now and do not return until your purpose has been fulfilled"
"Aye", said Bergthor before he turned to leave.
Within a season's time, Bergthor and his companions caught the track of a large group on horseback, four maybe five score, and three times that number on foot; and, judging by the tracks, the men or women on foot were directly in front and behind of one another, like a slave train would be. This, agreed upon by the companions, had to be the source of the rumors.
Morning comes and the sun begins to penetrate the unnaturally dense clouds. Rays of light shine through like an inexorable force burning through a stone wall. Soon the sky clears and the valley is no longer veiled in near obsidian darkness.
Returning to the camp to wake the others, Bergthor finds Koli, his best and most trusted friend, is already awake and packing up supplies for the day's trek.
"Was wondering when you'd show up", says Koli with a warm smile.
Koli is a short and stocky man with coal black hair cropped into a short, broad mohawk and a thick mustache attached to bushy sideburns. He spent his youth as a tracker, a skill of which he has become notoriously famous. It is rumored that he can track an eagle purely by smell and sneak up on a pack of wolves without a sound. Also a veteran of The Great Rebellion, his ability as a fighter is unquestioned and in most instances, unparalleled.
"The damn cold nearly froze me to my post," Bergthor replies with a lighthearted laugh.
"Doesn’t seem so cold anymore," Koli says with a nervous mock.
Seeing the tension in Koli's face, Bergthor realizes it's true, the temperature has drastically risen, and he soon finds that his breath is no longer steaming and the ice is beginning to thaw at an alarming rate. Though warmed, he does not find this comforting.
"Things are changing, Koli," says Bergthor, his mirth fading back to his grim façade, "I fear it's for the worse. There is sorcery here. Evil."
"Aye, when beasts have the sense to stay away, I question our judgment in tracking these evil ones into the Forbidden Lands," retorts Koli with genuine concern written on his leathery features.
The Forbidden Lands were made forbidden by the great Callers of The Storm Conclave, a sect of powerful wizards set to keep evil and dark magic at bay by controlling the forces of nature. After their defeat and annihilation of the Death Seers Cult, nearly five generations ago; and their leader Illbane the Diabolist, bound with magic, imprisoned and buried deep in the underground temple of Zeddicus; the mightiest Stormcaller and Queen of the conclave, Velondra, ordered that the lands never again be disturbed so as to not to wake the dark magic that rests there.
"We must follow. Our journey is nearly at its end, and we will engage our enemies soon," assures Bergthor.
"There has been no sign that we are any closer than we were when we found the tracks, over two seasons ago. It seems they don’t even make camp, " Koli snaps.
"That is beside the point, and what choice do we have anyway? We made an oath to see this through. To go back, would lose us our honour," Bergthor states in a guttural tone.
"True, but to stay on course, may lose us our lives," Koli quickly responds.
"You are a warrior, and when has a warrior wanted to die, not by the grace of battle, but old, without sword and without dignity? And, when has Koli, the great tracker of Marstein, survivor of the last great war, feared a pack of wired and undisciplined raiders?" asks Bergthor in a stern tone.
"Save the flattery for my brothers. If it's my loyalty you question," says Koli, walking up to Bergthor and looking him dead in the eye, "you know where I stand."
Koli, frustrated, walks over to the horses with his saddle in hand.
"Well," says Koli after a few moments of menacing silence, " the last of the elk is on the spit, get some food before he does," he warns, while jerking a thumb in the direction of the prostrate form of Horrd; a brute in most respects, he stands taller and broader than Bergthor. He has bright blue eyes, short scraggly fire-red hair and a great bushy-beard which seems to always catch more food than goes in his mouth.
Younger than the two veterans, he grew up in the slums of the greater fortress of Miklholm, until he and his longtime companions Oddr and Glum, sleeping to his immediate right and left, had been run out by the authorities for conning guardsmen in a card game. Clutched tightly to his chest, is the bearded axe that Horrd covets above all else. Though a quiet and simple man, he and the axe become a cyclone of destruction when the battle lust rages within him.
Oddr , sleeping soundly to the left of Horrd, is a smooth man; with very fine features, he is always lucky in love, and has broken many hearts. Neatly brushed and wavy brown hair hangs just above his slender, but muscular shoulders. Though smaller than the rest of the group, he is the most cunning addition. His face carries the look of a young man, but his eyes tell of someone whom has seen hard times.
Oddr, like Horrd, is a child of the slums in Miklholm. His hard life gave him a certain skill set that comes in handy all too often. Substantially smaller than most children, he had to use his wit to survive. At an early age, Oddr became a conman and pickpocket. It was not until he was cornered by a few highborn who caught him stealing from their carriage, threatening him with death, that he met the brute Horrd. He saved Oddr that day, and those highborn were never seen again. From that day forward, the two became an inseparable duo of brain and brawn.
Snoring loudly, Glum, significantly older than both Horrd and Oddr, is also from Miklholm. But, he was not raised in the slums, as his father was a famous warrior whom died fighting the Black Iron Maruaders from the Highland forests, during The Great Rebellion. Glum was a steady middleclass citizen, and became a soldier, like his father. Also like his father, he is a very athletic and deft warrior. Unlike his father, he was disgraced, flogged, imprisoned, released and stripped of all merit as a soldier to live out his life as a dishonorable outcast for knocking his Captain unconscious whom was whipping a boy that stole a loaf of bread to feed his little sister.
During his social exile is when he met the young Horrd and Oddr, whom were just shy of their fourteenth Spring. Oddr had attempted to nick his coin pouch in an alleyway. When Glum caught the young thief by the arm, Horrd came out of the shadows to protect Oddr. Glum threw them both to the ground with brute force, despite the size and strength of Horrd. But, seeing these malnourished and desperate orphans, he did not punish them. He took them both into his care, and after learning of their talent for pick pocketing and cons, the three became a team of mischief and loyalty.
After cutting off a chunk of meat from the spit, Bergthor walks over to Einarr, a young soldier and the only professional warrior to join the companions, under the agreement that Bergthor is in charge, and nudges him with his foot. The warrior quickly wakes with sword in hand swiveling his head left and right. Bergthor scoffs, seeing a youthful, beardless face, long blonde hair tied back in a crude knot with a look of nervous determination, brings him back to his days as a rank-and-file soldier. The soldier sees his aggressor and blushes at his overreaction. Bergthor gives him a hard stare and the soldier unarmes himself to begin packing his bedroll. He's a good lad, thinks Bergthor, a good soldier.
"Koli, wake the twins and send them ahead to scout before we set out," says Bergthor.
The twins, Agni and Tofi, are the younger brothers of Koli. Both slightly taller but less broad than Koli, they are the region's two greatest marksmen and bravest hunters. Their experiences have brought them all over the Known World, from the plains of Kaldrvik, the forests of Vanmar, to the great Plateau Kingdom known as Steinvale. The King of Steinvale, Knord, awarded the twins each a bow made from the best bowyers money could afford for their talent. Agni and Tofi go wherever there is a great and dangerous creature to be had. They both have closely shaven heads except for one thick tendril of braided black hair sprouting from the back of their heads reaching just below shoulder length. Their features are completely identical. The only difference between the two, is Tofi's braid is off center to the right and Agni's is more to the left.
Their fame and notoriety as heroes, much like their brother's, sproutes from their victory over a pack of great wolves that were slaughtering the cattle of Marstein, and even killed a farmer, his wife and their three children. Agni and Tofi were gone for half a season tracking the pack, and when they returned, they brought with them eleven great wolf-hides. So large were these skins, each one could nearly cover the entire flooring of a twelve by twelve stride cottage. They still hang from the banisters in Arnkel's Hall.
Agni and Tofi grumble their displeasure at missing breakfast, "Just don’t be surprised if we don’t make it back," says Agni.
"Aye, Agni is weak and likely to starve," continues Tofi.
A stern look and a few choice words from Koli gives them the motivation needed to get on with their duty.
Not twenty minutes pass when Agni and Tofi come back with a report of smoke on the horizon. The smoke is not coming from the forest wall, but from the west, just over the next hill. Tofi guesses it to be roughly a league away. By this time, all companions are awake and finishing off the last of the elk.
"Well, at least they slowed," says Oddr with the same confident smile he always carries with him.
"No," states Agni, "ours go directly into the forest."
"This may be another raiding party, but we did not venture far enough to find their tracks," continues Tofi.
"Maybe they caught our tail, and doubled back from the forest to throw us off," adds Einarr as he mounts his warhorse.
"Not likely," chimes Oddr.
"And, what would a thief know of such things?" asks Einarr in anger.
"Of tracking raiders, nothing. But, I know what it means to be a slave, or near to one. And, I know that our raiders have a heavy burden of prisoners to escort. I also know that as soon as there is a chance to free themselves, the men and women of the slave train will fight to their deaths to get it. No, they will no risk their plunder," Oddr replies calmly.
Bergthor, grim faced and sitting horseback, listenes to the deliberations of his companions for a few minutes before he says, "Enough, we ride to investigate the smoke."
"And risk losing the trail to the raiders?" asks Einarr, shocked by Bergthor's decision.
A trio of laughs, deep and raspy, emanates from Koli, Agni and Tofi reminding Einarr that following their tracks has been easier than following a herd of wild horses, and that they had Koli with them if it comes to that.
The companions ride to the source of the smoke. Before breaking the crest of the hill to the valley where the smoke was seen, Bergthor orders them to halt and sends Koli, Agni and Tofi ahead, on foot, to assess the number of raiders.
Upon reaching the crest of the hill, the trio discover that the smoke is rising from a small farming and sheep community in the middle of the valley that had been razed to the ground.
"I can't see much," says Tofi softly.
"It looks empty, but the smoke is too thick to tell," says Agni, as there was no sign of movement coming from the village.
Koli silently stares at the village, "the raiders left. If there are any survivors, they'll be at the town's center."
The twins do not question their brother's judgment, his experiences have given him an instinct more reliable than any other man in the Known World. The trio retreats back to the group and informs them of what they had seen. Expecting ambush, Bergthor and the companions ride towards the ruined modest livings in a loose formation.
When they reach the border of the town, the group dismounts and draw their weapons. From this distance the smoke is still too dense to see through, and the group is taking every precaution.
"Agni, Tofi; stalk the perimeter and keep a look out for the raiding party. Glum, Einarr; take the right. Oddr, Horrd; the left. Koli, you're with me. Keep your guard up, check for survivors, and we will meet at the town's center," Bergthor gives his orders and the group splits up in search of the town.
Koli brandishes his hand axe and short sword he favors in battle. Bergthor wields his two-handed great-broadsword, Baneblade, in a firm one-handed grip. Silently, the experienced duo move through the smoke. Koli staying a step ahead, as his senses are more keen than that of Bergthor's. The smoke seems to envelope the entire village from their vantage point, and there is not much Koli is able to see in front of him.
Bergthor feels his footing slip, and when he looks down, the entrails of what appear to be a human are clinging to his boot. He grimaces and kicks the bloody mess free. Focusing more on the ground, he finds puddles of blood and more evidence of murder. Something terrible beyond imagining happened here, determines the grim Bergthor, and he tightens his grip on Baneblade.
Oddr and Horrd, on the south side of the village, have the same difficulties, but to a lesser degree. What they see, are the remains of a village ransacked. Pots, pans, clothes, broken doors, cottages, market booths, everything lie in rubble, and blood. They see more blood than anything else.
"Keep close my large friend, we may, indeed, be in for it this time," cautions Oddr, wielding an expertly crafted rapier he stole from the son of a wealthy merchant.
"Aint no bodies?" Asks Horrd with his axe held tight.
Surprised that Horrd caught this before he did, Oddr adds, "it appears not." Then looking ahead, he sees dozens of blood trails leading towards the center of the town. Battle ready, the two glance at eachother, share a nervous look, then follow the blood.
Einarr, with a fine-crafted broadsword and round-shield, and Glum, with his large hand-axe and broadsword, sweep over the North side of the town. They find themselves wading through piles and piles of charred, and indeterminable, debris. The smoke burns their eyes, but is not very thick. Every few strides they recognize something in the burnt ruins; a shoe, part of a bed or table, a saddle, farming tools. After trekking through a mountain of rubble, they get to the center of town, where the debris begins to clear and is replaced by wanton slaughter. The soldier and the exile stand frozen in place.
Scouting the perimeter of the village, Agni and Tofi find the tracks that belonged to the raiding party. Those, too, have the same pattern of men on horseback and on foot.
"…yep, definitely not our raiding party, but they're heading in the same directions. What are the odds of that?" Queries Tofi with a grin.
"Don’t ask stupid questions," replies Agni, stringing an arrow in his bow and looking for any possible threats.
Tofi counts the different number of tracks, "looks to be little more than a score of men of horseback."
"How do so few overtake an entire village?" Agni asks.
"Now who's got the stupid questions? These people were farmers, not fighters. C'mon, lets inform the others." Tofi says, and the twins quickly move into the village.
Bergthor sees that Koli had cleared the smoke and is standing with his arms slacked almost as if mesmerized. When Bergthor emerges from the dense haze, to his horror, he sees what has Koli dropping his guard. The others, except the twins, have already made it to the town's center, and all are breathless at the sight.
Nearly a hundred villagers are nailed, naked and skinless, to the town's great hall. Men, women and children of all ages were subject to this treatment. All other buildings have been set ablaze, save for this one. It was left as a message of terror to any new on comers. In front of the great hall is the large headless corpse of a man. His arms and legs are tied to separate, but parallel, wooden poles, he had been flayed. On the ground beneath him, his entrails litter a great battle axe. Bigger than Horrd, this one must have stood half again as tall as the average man. Whoever he was, they made an example of him, thinks Bergthor, these people must have been the ones that still resisted.
What was once a place for celebration and drinking, has become a shrine to the most reprehensible torture these companions have ever witnessed.
"Have the gods no mercy?" Asks Einarr. "How can they allow this?" His anger is palpable.
"The gods have forsaken us over two-hundred years ago," snarls Glum, "They no longer care for the troubles of mortals. They allow this through their absence."
"This has nothing to do with gods. It is men we seek," Bergthor says, looking at the headless man who'd been strung up. I will find who did this, he silently promises the dead warrior, you and yours will be avenged!
Anger and frustration had been plaguing the companions, lately, for the length of time it has taken to track these evil ones. But, after witnessing the atrocity nailed in front of them, a vengeful fury and resilience explodes in their hearts.
"What about the bodies?" Oddr asks, after a few moments of stunned silence, "we can't leave them like this. It's not right."
Bergthor picks up a burning log from the nearest fire and walks towards the slaughtered townsfolk, then lights the main door. Soon, the fire envelopes the entire structure and it collapses inwards on itself, taking the bodies into the heart of the flames. With the help of Horrd and Einarr, Bergthor cuts the tortured man down, the three carry him towards the blaze and gently place him with his kin.
The twins join the rest of the companions at the town's center and find them standing around an enormous fire that has the cackle and odor of burning flesh. Agni and Tofi do not have to be told to understand what they were seeing. Cringing, the twins give their news to Bergthor and the others. The group argues as to what action will be taken on the way back to their horses. Bergthor comes to a decision, and group mounts up to leave.
"…so we are going to let the raiders, we have been tracking for nearly three seasons, go?" asks Einarr.
"The tracks leading away from the village will be more fresh. We can't be more than a day or two behind them." Koli says.
"What has that got to do with the ones we track?" Einarr snaps back.
Bergthor, in a low and menacing voice, says, "because this raid, and the party we were tracking, are both part of something terrible to come, and if we can get one of these bastards alive, we will make him tell us where to find the prisoners, and kill all who stand in out way."
"If we find them, we'll surely be outnumbered," Oddr says.
"We knew that before we set out," Glum responds, "let's get on with it."
The companions follow the twins to the tracks and then towards the dark and ancient forest wall that barriers the rest of the Known World from the Forbidden Lands. They reach the very edge, where the valley becomes the forest, and halt for a moment.
"Stay sharp, we have no idea what lurks in these woods," warns Bergthor.
"This is great, I can only imagine the beasts we will find," Agni says to Tofi.
"I am looking for a new skin to hang in Arnkel's Hall," agrees Tofi.
"Shut up, the both of you," Koli growls, and the twins share an amused look.
With that, Bergthor gives the order and the eight brave companions, hundreds of leagues away from home, eager, hungry for vengeance and closing in on their enemy, make their way into a land that, until recently, has not been disturbed for nearly three-hundred years.
To Be Continued....
Come back Sunday (01/13/13), as Bergthor and his Murder venture into the Forbidden Lands, and come face to face with their enemy, as well creatures far more terrible.