Whispers of Shadow

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 3 (v.1) - Warlord's Creed

Submitted: January 11, 2019

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Submitted: January 11, 2019

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The Hinterlands

Frontier of the Sumarian Empire, Northern Arat

 

Aslaug Lightsbane, Warlord of the North, Embodiment of the Outsider, soon to be Scourge of Sumaria – or, Asla, as her parents used to call her ? felt a very human chill slither up her spine as she watched the warrior pound the soldier's skull into red splinters. Each thump and crack drummed a hollow tune through her ears. With a final teeth-chattering crunch, the warrior looked up, flashed her a bloodied grin, winked and ran off in search of more skulls to crush.

Asla sighed. How subtle.

'A blessed victory, Jarlkona,' spoke a dry voice beside her, addressing her by way of her people's title for their warlord. The priest of shadow sat slumped in his saddle. His dirty, rough-spun robes dangled over the horse's flanks, the ends tattered and torn. The scent of jasmine accompanied him, a calming scent that warded off the deathly smell of the battlefield.

'Indeed,' replied Asla, surveying the aftermath. What had begun as an unyielding engagement had turned into a complete rout. Word had reached her the day before that Sumarian reinforcements were coming. A war party had been sent ahead of the main host. They had ambushed the Sumarian scouts, denying them any warning of their impending arrival. She had been surprised to learn that the Sumarians had marched out to meet them. It was a fool's gamble on their part. She had been confident that victory would be the only outcome. But the death of the warchanter had threatened defeat and part of her still held onto that dread. Please, do not let it be Worthgar.

Her fear had subsided the moment the Sumarian left flank broke. Her warriors had wheeled around and broke through their formation. Only the most hard-bitten and stunned had held and they had died where they stood.

'What of those who fled into the forest?' she asked as she watched her warriors chased the rest back towards their camp. Her warriors had refused to enter the ancient place, even those who had already turned from the All-Father and embraced the Outsider like her.

The priest turned to her. Thread-fine lines and spirals of black climbed up from the tip of his nose to disappear underneath his hood. His skin was sickly pale, his cheekbones gaunt his eyes sunken in shadow. 'Do not worry, Jarlkona. The Grimwood belongs to my master.'

'You mean our master.' she corrected. 'Do not forget, priest, you're here to advise me, to aid me in my struggle. You obey me.'

'Of course, Jarlkona.' The priest's mouth tilted into a slight smile as if he held onto some dark secret. 'The Grimwood is sacred ground. Those that wander beneath its shaded canopy fall victim to its trappings. They pose no threat.'

No threat? She had witnessed the small group of Sumarians carve a path through her forces, a giant at their head. She lived around big men her whole life, even had her fair share of them but never before saw one the size of a cliff, well, except for Curdle that was. Part of her believed that it would not be the last time she saw them.

'Shall we continue, Jarlkona?' the priest asked. The long loose sleeve of his robes hung from his raised arm as he invited her to lead the way.

Asla kicked her mare, Mitra, into motion. 'Let's be done with this.' The second wave of her forces followed, calm and silent.

They advanced across the open field, deliberately slow, cleansing the ground of the Sumarian wounded and sending those of their own too far gone to the All-Father's hall.

The fighting had been thickest at the centre where the Sumarian's had held to the very end. She knew that's where they would find the warchanter. A group of warriors were picking their way through the strewn corpses, searching for the man. Asla noticed that none of them bore the markings of the Outsider. She closed her eyes and offered a prayer of pleading to the All-Father. Even though she had changed gods, the warchanters were loyal only to the old god of the Northern tribes of Arat.

'Jarlkona,' shouted one warrior, standing amid the dead. Together with two others, they lifted a large corpse from the pile and laid it out on the ground before her. The armour had the markings of a warchanter, patterns carved into the bonded iron. Unfortunately, it was hard to tell who it was since his face was caved in. Asla felt like throwing up at the sight.

'Wrothgar?' she asked, unsure, half hopeful it wasn't, half dreading it was. A braided warrior knelt down. A moment passed as he studied the ruined face. She held her breath.

'No,' he said finally, no emotion in his voice. 'It's Breyolf.'

'Are you sure?'

The man stared down at the corpse again. 'He wears a bear tooth necklace,' he confirmed. 'One of the teeth is chipped.' He looked up at her. 'It's definitely Breyolf.'

A feeling of relief swept over her and she relaxed in the saddle. Her attention was drawn to an approaching warrior. He was dragging a half-armoured Sumarian behind him by the hair. He stopped a few feet away, kicked the man to his knees and placed a sword against his throat.

'This one says he is noble, Jarlkona.' snarled the warrior with wild eyes and a mane matted with sweat. The blood lust still possessed him.

She dismounted and walked over to stand before the two. The noble's white cloak spread around his knees, torn and ripped. His hair, once golden, was a mix of blood and dirt. His green eyes shone with terror as he looked up at her, taking in her whole face. He whimpered under her fixed stare, trying to look anywhere but her face, yet drawn to it.

'Tell me of Jukerran,' she commanded in a low voice.

The noble stuttered under her penetrating gaze. 'W...what do you w...want to k-know?'

'What of the garrison? How many protect the city?'

The noble's head dropped, the blade at his throat scraping against his shaven neck. He let slip a whimper and a small wet patch started to stain his trousers. 'I d-don't know! We took most of the soldiers with us.'

When she averted her eyes, he almost collapsed in relief but wisely remained motionless against the blade. 'W-will you let me go?' he pleaded. He took a deep breath. 'I am of noble birth. Lord Nepharious Avarii is my patron.'

Asla said nothing as she remounted her horse. When she adjusted herself in the saddle, she glanced down at the noble and smiled. 'You're Sumarian.'

The noble had barely a moment to breath when warrior slid his blade across his throat and kicked him to the ground.

Aryanne resumed her advance.

The priest hopped around in his saddle like an excited child. 'The Outsider was right to place trust in you,' he beamed.

'Do you place trust in me too, priest?' she asked.

The priest nodded. 'You are the instrument of His will, Jarlkona. Through you, He will bring order to this chaotic world.'

'I just want to protect my people.'

'As does He. He wants to protect all people. It is His nature.'

She considered the priest's words. If it was in the Outsider's nature to protect all, then why the shadows? Why cling to darkness when trying to bring light to this world? She chose to withhold questioning, instead focusing on another aspect. 'And what is the nature of the other gods?'

'Evil false gods,' spat the priest. 'They believe in only suffering and pain.'

'Be careful, priest,' she warned. 'Many of my people still reject the Outsider. They do not share the same beliefs as the Sumarians. They still worship the All-Father.'

The priest gave her a knowing smile. 'It is only a matter of time, Jarlkona, before all find Him.'

They left the battlefield behind and came upon a glade. Dozens of dead were scattered around in the long grass, more Northern than Sumarian. The corpses almost looked peaceful, content to have died in such a beautiful place. They passed through the glade and came to a hill. Sounds of battle rose from the other side. Asla kicked Mitra into motion and climbed the soft slope with ease. She crested the hilltop and found herself looking out across the open fields below.

A Sumarian rearguard fought desperately to keep her forces at bay, giving their wounded a chance to reach the safety of their fortified camp. She could see figures running along the wooden palisades, archers with their bows, forming lines to cover their comrades. Two great weapons of war mounted the towers at both ends of camp's northern face. Soldiers rushed to load the giant crossbows.

Her forces charged across the open grass, throwing themselves at the rearguard's shieldwall. Their sheer numbers seemed almost overwhelming. But the Sumarian wall took the brunt and held, if just barely.

'A blessed victory indeed.' Repeated the priest. He watched the engagement below with excited eyes.

A group of warriors traversed up the hill towards her. They were led by a man wearing layered mail and bonded iron armour. A mane of grey-black hair hung around massive broad shoulders and a massive steel claymore hung across his back. As he drew nearer, she could see a face crossed with scars. Warchief Grendel, also known as Laughter.

She greeted him with a nod.

Laughter gave the priest a bitter look of contempt before he bowed his head in respect to her. 'Jarlkona.' He joined her in watching the battle below.

'How's it down there?' she asked.

'Bloody,', he said in a solemn voice. 'They put up heavy resistance.'

'Wrothgar?'

'He leads below.'

Asla nodded. Good. Warchanter Wrothgar was the most honour-bound man in the North. If anyone could keep control, it was him.

'And the enemy general?' she asked.

'I don't know. He fled the moment the left flank broke.'

Asla frowned in disappointment. She hoped to capture the general. He would prove useful on the way south. 'They still look organised,' she said. 'Who leads them?'

Laughter took a moment to speak and when he did, it was a single word.

'Balder.'

Asla felt a sudden sorrow descend upon her. She studied the warchief. He refused to meet her gaze, instead keeping his eyes focus on the fighting below. His face gave no hint of emotion yet she knew him well enough to know that he was struggling to deal with the discovery that his brother led the Sumarian defence.

Asla was drawn back to the battlefield as the front suddenly shifted. The Sumarian line pushed forward in unison. Her warriors reeled back from the shock, not expecting the sudden advance. It gave the Sumarians a chance to break. They turned as one and ran as fast as they could towards their camp. Recovering, the front ranks of her warriors pushed forward in pursuit, enraged, howling their fury. They were met by a volley of arrows. It ravaged the front rank, fouling the second and third. The ballistae let loose their load. The great spears cut diagonal gaps through the northern advance. On the walls, the Sumarians were already reloading.

She heard the low rumbling of a northern horn below and knew it was Wrothgar calling for the retreat. The northern ranks withdrew beyond the range of the wall. Those few reluctant answered with their lives.

'Why do they not press?' cried the priest, venting his anger and frustration.

'That's enough killing for one day,' said Asla.

The priest wheeled on her, hostility evident in his sunken eyes. 'The Outsider will be most displeased.'

Her hand shot out, grabbing hold of the priest's robes. She jerked her arm, dragging him of his horse. He fell to the ground with a thud. Scrambling around, he climbed to his feet and glared at her. 'You touch me!?' he shrieked.

The priest's words were cut short by sudden motion behind Asla. A huge figure strode passed her, its shoulders and head level with her own in the saddle. At first glance, it looked more bear than man. Curdle. Her guardian. He towered over the priest who took an involuntary step back towards his horse's flank.

Asla guided Mitra a couple of feet forward and placed a gentle hand on one of Curdle's massive shoulders. The warrior relaxed at her touch but continued to stare at the priest, showing his yellow fangs.

Asla looked down at the cowering priest. 'I am the Outsider's vessel. You dare dispute this?'

The hesitation in the priest's eyes fell away to a barely controlled fury. 'No,' he said, quietly.

You lie. She dismissed him with a wave of her hand. Her anger faded and she felt the sudden urge to be alone. She turned to Laughter, obvious discomfort behind his scarred face. 'Bring up the rest. Make camp below in clear view of the Sumarians. Let them see the full size of our forces and tremble.'

Laughter nodded and jogged off to carry out her orders. Asla turned her horse and begun to descend the hill toward the glade,where only the dead provided company. Her warriors parted before her, silence. As she guided Mitra down the slope, she could feel the dagger eyes of the priest stabbing her back.

***
 
 

Flames. They rose high, reaching for the black canopy above. They licked and darted, flickered and waved as they danced to the tune of the wind in honour of the passing of a soul.

Below, thousands of small flames clung to the hill's foundations as the Northern warhost honoured the fallen, licked their wounds and rested in anticipation for the coming assault. To the south, the Sumarian camp laid silent, the only movement upon the walls the glimmer of braziers and the shadows that passed before them.

Asla sat among her warchiefs. Twenty clans gathered around her, eager for the opportunity to take back ancient lands and invade the invader - Sumaria. Only six months ago these same clans were carving each other up over boundaries, insults, grudges and livestock. It was strange how men and women dusted of their hatred and ceased trying to kill each other for the chance to kill someone else. Warchief Anrak, deep-eyed and anvil-browed, with the Outsider's markings covering his face, sat side by side with Warchief Garuk, a slab of a man with an ugly scar cutting his face in half. Divided by fate, but united in war, and with enough hate between them to sink a boat, they watched the burning pyre upon the hill.

The priest sat away from the warmth of the camp fire, leering from the shadows like a sulking spider. Asla caught some of the cryptic ramblings under his breath. Every now and then, she felt his gaze linger on her. She ignored him, choosing to let him simmer in silence.

Curdle sat beside her. He was a grizzled mess with more hair than skin. It was hard to tell where the fur of his cloak began and his hairy mane ended in the dim light. It was rumoured among the clans that his mother had been defiled by a bear. A man of few words if any, he let his axe do the talking and a big axe it was. Double-sided with the edges sharpened into teeth, the blade itself was the size of a shield, the shaft as long as Asla was tall. Curdle's wild eyes gleamed in the fire's light. They scanned the gathering in constant search of any threat to his charge.

Unable to endure the petty resentment of the priest any longer, Asla rose. Curdle looked up at her, a puzzled expression itched across his woolly face. He went to rise but she placed a hand on his shoulder and pointed up the hill. He nodded understanding and settled back down. The warchiefs nodded as she passed them. No doubt, Curdle would take it upon himself to ensure no bad blood was shared between them while she was away.

A sombre silence had shrouded the camp. She passed by a group of warriors clustered around the old blind warchanter, Greymane. Grey-maned, grey-bearded and grey-armoured, he looked like an old worn statue of a hero from ages past. He sat cross-legged facing the hill with arms outstretched to welcome those that came to sit and listen. She could hear the slightest of sounds rumbling from his throat as he sang a song of mourning for the fallen. The warriors listened with intent, like old veterans clinging to old war stories. Looking around at each of them, Asla was certain that was what many of them were. A staled lot, rusted from a life of battle ? most likely from fighting each other ? there were enough years between them to reach back to the times of Scillard Bloodstream, the first and last King of the North. Wearied eyes fluttered towards her. The old warriors acknowledged her presence before returning to their thoughts.

On she walked, surrounded by the hazed silence smothering the camp. It was obvious that a distinct divide was beginning to present itself among her people. Many veterans clung to their old gods while the young craved for the Outsider. Throughout the camp, young warriors clustered about in groups as dark robed figures passed between them carrying wooden bowls and needles. They inked the young warriors' faces, sketching the markings of the Outsider into their skin. They had bled for their new god and this was their prize. It was not that long ago that she had stood as such. She could still feel the needles pricking at her skin. But the difference between them and her was that her markings spread on their own accord.

She climbed the hill towards the pyre. It whipped and lashed like a firestorm, its glow lighting the night sky with a faint yellow. The closer she got, the stronger the bitter smell of smoke became. The wind pushed it high, steering it clear from her face and lungs. She stopped near the top of the hill and took in the view behind her. Hundreds of fires coated the fields below. The Sumarian camp was a cluster of light. Further south, and beyond, the land was completely black. Strange shapes sprouted up from its edge. She could barely make out the rolling hills and bushy forests. Jukerran, the frontier city of the Sumarian Empire in the North, would be the first to fall. She would bring the conquering nation to its knees.

She turned and faced the pyre. Wrothgar was silhouetted against the light. The cloak of a great black wolf hung over his scaled-armoured shoulders. It was said among the clans that the pelt was a trophy from a progeny of Scillard's Bane – the great wolf, Fendiris.

'A night for the flames,' said Asla as she joined him, her head barely reaching his shoulders.

Wrothgar remained silent, his gaze fixed upon the fire. After the battle, he had returned to the battlefield in search of his fallen brethren. He had carried Breyolf to the hill and built the funeral pyre for his body alone. Asla had watched him work throughout the evening as he toiled up and down the hill to gather wood from the glade beyond. He had not spoken a word since ordering the retreat.

Asla reached out to the surface of the flames, allowing them to envelop the tips of her fingers. They spiralled around her nails, desperate to cook her flesh, yet could not touch her skin. She clenched her fist and the fire recoiled, fleeing back into the great conflagration.

'It is not the first time you have done that to get my attention,' said Wrothgar, without turning his head. His voice was low and soft, far from the depth of his war voice.

Asla folded her arms, hugging her chest. 'It works, doesn't it?'

'Forgive me if I do not smile,' said Wrothgar.

Asla focused her attention back on the fire. 'How long did you and Breyolf know each other?'

'Long enough.'

Always so vague. It was a habit she found annoying. 'Why did you stop the battle?'

'Because there is only so much death someone can witness in a day.'

'Even for a warchanter?'

'Especially for a warchanter.' He paused for a moment before speaking again. 'Tell me, do remember the purpose of my order on the field of battle?'

Asla shrugged and hazard a guess. 'To lead. To enforce our warriors' will and courage when facing our enemies.'

'No,' he said and did not bother to hide the disappointment in his voice. 'It is to regulate the field and to deter ceaseless killing.'

'A hard thing to do.' The northern clans were not known for their civility.

'Made harder by your false god.'

'False?' blurted Asla. 'The Outsider is as real as the All-Father. I have seen it. Felt it. You have witnessed it.'

'His very nature corrupts your soul.'

Asla found herself getting annoyed. 'And that is what makes him false? He gives me strength and purpose.' She pointed a thin finger back down the hill. 'He gave me the power to do this. With his help, I have united so many of our people. Not since Scillard's days has there been such a union.'

Wrothgar shook his head in disbelief. 'A union hanging by a thin thread.'

'I thought you'd approve. We're fighting against a greater enemy rather than ourselves.'

Wrothgar sighed. 'Men are still men, women are still women and children are still children. Who they are, who their ancestors were, where they live? It is all the same. By submitting to this Shadow God, you turn from the All-Father.'

Asla formed fists by her side. 'Do you wish to return to warring amongst ourselves? Do you wish for us to return to the bitterness of the north so our people can continue to suffer the harsh winters? Where our children cry from starvation and the icy cold? Where our elders freeze and their bones crack in the thaw?'

'No,' said Wrothgar with a slight shake of his head. He finally turned and looked at her with wolf eyes filled with sorrow and a face weathered by grief and loss. 'I wish for our people to find peace.'

'I will find it for us. With the Outsider's help.'

'Asla.' He was one of the few people left of her childhood that still called her by that. His voice was soft as he spoke to her. 'I have known you from the day you were born. I have watched you grow into a fearsome woman but I worry for your soul. You seem to have forgotten everything your father?'

'Don't speak to me of him!' she snapped through clenched teeth. Wrothgar didn't move. He just looked at her, those wearied sharp eyes questioning, pitying. She could not bear it and stormed off, around the pyre, the flames retreating as she skirted the boundaries. Wrothgar did not call for her to come back which made her even more angry. She hurried down the gentle slope, away from the fire, away from the clans, away from everything.

She found herself walking into the glade from earlier in the day. A strange silence inhabited the place. Here, the trees stood as mute sentinels. Wild grass surfaced the soft brown earth. Above, sat one of All-Father's shields, Skjaldborg, with its crescent scar cutting down its face, shining through the gaps in the passing clouds. The dead Sumarians scattered about the glade slept in silence. Comfort was no longer a necessity as some lay in awkward fashions like stringed puppets.

She plodded into the middle of the glade and knelt in the thick grass. Resting her hands on her thighs, she closed her eyes and let her senses wash away until only her thoughts attended her. Wrothgar was wrong. Why was he continuing to choose to remain blind? Why did he refuse to accept what she had done, what she did for her people – his people? Worried for her soul? She chose to accept the Outsider's aid. And mentioning her father? How dare he?

A long deep breath escaped her lips. She let the sounds of the glade calm her: rustling of leaves in the gentle breeze, the hooting of watchful owls, the snap of twigs close-by. Asla's eyes shot open at the last sound. They darted in the direction it came. She searched the trees a moment, her heart thumping fast. Something slipped between the trees. She climbed to her feet quickly and drew her blade. Terror clung to her like a crying child. She could feel it crawling over her flesh.

A dark figure edged into view. It was hunched over as if unable to bear the weight of some heavy burden. Asla felt her throat dry as it limped towards her. It stopped a few feet away. It was small and thin like a starving child with skin as black as the abyss. It tilted its head and studied her with two almond-shaped eyes, large and dark. Slowly, Asla lowered her blade. Then the creature raised a bent and twisted arm and pointed towards her feet.

She looked down. A corpse rested beside her boot. A Sumarian woman. She took a step back.

The creature shuffled forwards and reached outtowards the corpse. It grabbed a head of hair with a small bony hand and withunexpected strength, heaved the corpse away from Asla. It gave her one lastlook, then turned away, and began to drag the corpse back the way it came, northeast, towards the Grimwood. 


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