[Book] The Restless North

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Tristior
SHotN Jarl of Lore
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[Book] The Restless North

Post by Tristior » Sat May 09, 2020 4:35 am

Book One
by Alarne Gold-Quill

“The snake-man brought his southern gods with him, and was clearly loved of them for he did as he pleased in those days and saw no misfortune.”

Hoari staggered back to the camp, a bucket of ice-cold stream water in each hand and his breath frosting in the twilight air. He made his way through the cookfires and groups of singing soldiers until he found his own tent in the deepening gloom. Demka had got a fire going and greeted him with a smile as he set the buckets down and began to mix the dough for their camp-bread. Hoari regarded her with a grin of his own as he stretched and kneaded their dinner, reflecting on the pleasant strangeness of his situation. Demka was a Redguard warrior in the service of Laintar and its thane Rog the Biter, having risen from itinerant sellsword to trusted retainer in her lord’s household. It was unusual to see a Redguard serving in a Nordic army -- conventional wisdom, particularly of western Nords, was that her people were too free-spirited to fight effectively in formation -- but she had decisively proven her valor and discipline in Rog’s shield wall. That was where she had found Hoari, and it did not take the two of them long to start sharing a tent on cold nights as the Laintar leidang marched north.

They were travelling to join the gathering of chieftains and jarls outside Danstrar, where the palace of the Potentate still smouldered. The Tjaski-men had seized the southern throne through despicable guile and ordered the dissolution of all forces and clans independent of the Legions, a provocation to which the kingdoms and lesser holds of Skyrim had responded with outright rebellion. Hoari was only a woodsmith who had answered the summons of his thane, no great warrior like his war-wife or the other members of Rog’s hird, but he was determined that in some small way the head of his axe would help to liberate the land from its shameful foreign occupation. Demka had laughed when he announced this, but not unkindly, and reassured him that her oath ensured they fought for the same goal. That same laugh brought him back to the present, and he blinked away the reverie.

“Do you think you’ve worked the dough enough, my love? We’ll have no wood left to cook it soon.”

Hoari looked down and realised he had been worrying the bread with his hands as he thought. Sheepishly, he passed the bowl across to her and turned to inspect the camp behind them. There seemed to be some excitement down by the thane’s tent, though he could not make it out, and so he tugged at the cloak of a lanky youth who was moving with purpose in that direction.

“What’s the commotion, lad? Where’s everyone going?”

The youth pulled his cloak out of Hoari’s fingers reproachfully, but answered his question.

“You didn’t hear? Pak Stoat-Face and another clever-man have come to the camp -- they’re going to speak any minute now.”

As the young man hurried away, Hoari turned expectantly back to Demka. She had placed the camp oven above the flames and seemed eminently comfortable where she was, but she nodded lazily at her war-husband.

“You Nords and your senescent bone-throwers.” Hoari didn’t know what ‘senescent’ meant but he presumed she was talking about the clever-men. “Full of half-truths and worthless mysticism. Go on, then, go and hear what obtuse wisdom they have for us. I’ll watch our dinner.”

Gratefully, Hoari rose and made his way back through the maze of guy-ropes hidden in the darkness until he reached the edge of the crowd around the thane’s tent. Standing on the tips of his toes, he could see a man who could only be the notorious Pak Stoat-Face. The clever-man conferred with his companion and then rose to address the crowd, which pressed closer so as not to miss the words of so esteemed a lawspeaker and rememberer.

END OF THE FIRST PART

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Tristior
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Post by Tristior » Sat May 09, 2020 4:37 am

Book Two
by Alarne Gold-Quill

“There are many magicks in this world, and they clash and dominate their fellows as ruthlessly as the men and gods who wield them.”

“Many of you are feeling the cold tonight,” began Pak Stoat-Face, respected clever-man of the central valleys, “Yet you stoke your fires in ignorance and huddle under your cloaks with foolishness, because you do not question why you should be so cold when autumn has not yet passed. You are fortunate Nords, because I will tell you and so keep you from waking frozen on the morrow with a draugr’s claws crushing your throat.”

That remark certainly got the crowd’s attention.

“Five hundred years ago, on this very night, the Tjaski-men burned their way through these parts on their journey south. A confederation of kings gathered here to stop them, and were obliterated. And as your mothers told you in your cribs, undeath always follows great dying. When the gates to the Underworld are choked with fleeing spirits, and their souls fill every crack and fissure that might lead away from this world; that is when those left behind are forced to linger in their corpse-homes.”

There was a murmur of agreement from the assembly, because this was sensible and known. Hoari shivered and huddled a little closer to the men around him.

“We are the men who keep Old Knocker at bay,” Pak Stoat-Face continued, “and it is we who tell you that tonight, on the eve of so great a slaughter five hundred years past, you must placate these lasting shadows. Otherwise you may wake to find that your body is not your own, and that your own spirit has been cast out to wander the hills and forests. Or you will simply be dead. Either way, you will not be disposed to free our land from the scaled boot of our oppressor and that is why we have deigned to advise you this night. Listen closely.”

"What boot?" a soldier near Hoari muttered, "Snake-men haven't any legs." The soldiers nearby hushed him and strained forward so as not to miss a word.

“Each tent must take some of their provisions -- their own provisions, for this must be a sacrifice -- and lay them outside in the following way. On the ground by the tent’s entrance, a line of cooking flour. This is to be done first, and stepped over carefully thereafter so it is not disturbed. Then, you should build a small cairn of local rocks and place atop it a cut of the meat you enjoy most. If you are a stupid and impulsive vallagh and have eaten all your meat already, sprinkle some snowberries atop the cairn instead but know that this will confer a lesser protection.

“Finally, each tentmate should spill a drop of blood from their sword-hand into a mug of ale from which all will drink, so that you are bound by blood and the draugr will fear to challenge you. Only by observance of all these rites will you be safe tonight. Now begone! Get back to your fires, before you dolts forget my words and the great army of Rog the Biter…” Here he looked dubiously at the mangy throng. “...are destroyed before they ever see battle.”

As he finished, the second clever-man beside him uttered some unheard words into his ear. Pak nodded and both men wordlessly turned away and strode into the darkness beyond the campfire’s reach. The crowd watched them go until they had vanished from sight, and then were still for a moment before, as one, they dispersed back to their tents to carry out the ritual Pak had devised to keep them safe. Hoari himself hurried back to relay the clever-man’s words to his tent-mate Demka.

END OF THE SECOND PART

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Tristior
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Post by Tristior » Sat May 09, 2020 4:38 am

Book Three
by Alarne Gold-Quill

“The blood of Laintar will yet be spilled in the service of the Hirser.”

The smell of hot camp-bread met the nostrils of Hoari, carpenter and would-be liberator, as he found his way back to the tent. His lover Demka had cooked it flat and dark, the way they both liked it, and as Hoari shakily took his place by the fire she crumbled goats’ cheese over a plate of the stuff and passed it across to him. He stared at it as he struggled to explain the words of Pak Stoat-Face in words the Redguard woman would understand.

“We need to make a sacrifice. Tonight, before we sleep. The clever-men told us that the dead are stirring, and that we need to show them a sacrifice of both kindness and strength if we are to be safe. Flour and meat outside the tent door to demonstrate our hospitality, and a mix of ale and blood from our sword-hands to share, so that our camaraderie is sealed. That’s what they told us.”

Hoari felt better having shared the Stoat-Face’s words, and started on his dinner with relish as Demka stared at him over the fire. She was silent as he ate, but when the last morsel of bread disappeared into his whiskered mouth she spoke her mind.

“I have been around you Nords long enough to tolerate your traditions. I know that these little rituals and observances the clever-men give you help you to sleep through the night, and I would not take that away from you. Certainly, let us leave the flour and some meat if you think that will make us some friends of the dead. But my sword-hand is everything to me -- it’s my livelihood and my purpose, my love.”

Hoari, seeing where her thinking was going, began to protest but Demka cut him off.

“I will not maim myself and spill my own blood before the real battle has actually begun. Do you remember why we are even out here, marching to ice-cursed Danstrar? Besides, where I am from we prove our strength to corpses with a sword through the skull, not drinking each other’s blood. And if you really want to prove our unity…” Here she arched an eyebrow. “...I can think of a much more enjoyable way.”

Her voice was playful, but her eyes told Hoari that she would brook no argument concerning the cutting of hands. The mesmerising speech of the clever-man Pak was beginning to wear off and in the cold night, with just the two of them, he could not find fault with Demka’s words. But he was still uneasy as he set out the flour and meat by the entrance to their tent, and his ministrations in their bedroll were evidently distracted. Eventually he drifted into a disquieted sleep as his lover snored fitfully beside him.

Searing pain yanked Hoari back to consciousness. As he struggled to get his bearings, the vice-like grip on his throat tightened and his vision in the wan dawn light swam and blurred. Finally realising what was happening, Hoari seized his attacker with his own hands and wrenched apart their hold on his windpipe, just enough to breathe. He immediately wished he hadn’t, for the smell that filled his lungs was almost impossibly fetid and he thrashed and gagged under the weight of the mad draugr atop him. It seemed tireless and even his strong grasp started to weaken as its claws closed once more around his throat. It was as his strength at last failed that the blade of a sword burst through the creature’s rotten face, its shining tip stopping just an inch above Hoari’s nose.

“What did I tell you, love?” Demka’s voice sang above him, “A sword-blade is the only way to deal with the unruly dead. Now quickly, get yourself out of bed and help me put them down!”

And as the shrieks and shouts finally met his ears, Hoari looked from the ruins of their tent to see a host of corpses swarming through the camp of Thane Rog’s leidang. The horde seemed endless and had nearly encircled their tiny host, though the Laintar Nords were holding their own, hacking and cutting at those draugr that rushed them. Naked and freezing in the dawn air, Hoari snatched up his axe without a second thought and rushed after Demka to join the fray.

END OF THE THIRD AND FINAL PART

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