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Warlord Slayer

Warlord Slayer

Published by Nicholas Everritt at Shakespir

Copyright 2017 Nicholas Everritt

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Chapter One: Warlord Brogan

 

On a windswept hill somewhere in Darloth, a girl was crying. Her long raven hair was tossed about by the chill bluster. Her dress, pale and ragged, fluttered about her. The pail of water in her red-raw hand tugged at her arm, swaying under its weight, though she knew she couldn’t let go. Tears ran down her cheeks and were carried away by the fierce, howling wind.

She knew they were coming for her. She could see dark shapes approaching from the corner of her eye. She heard the rumbling of hooves and felt the ground shudder beneath her feel. But she knew should couldn’t look at them. They weren’t close enough yet. So her bloodshot eyes stayed fixed on the stone well in front of her.

Six barbarian horsemen galloped up the hillside, their feral eyes glaring at the fair maiden. Their snarling grins were as cruel as their intentions. Their panting steeds kicked up dust with their hooves as their wild manes were tossed about by the wind.

They were a portrait of Lotherian savagery. Bare chested, woad-painted and tattooed. Wolf skin cloaks were draped over their shoulders. Bronze toques wrapped around their arms and necks. They were armed to the teeth with longswords, axes and spears.

A grim warrior watched on from the farmhouse which sat atop the hill. His cold eyes followed the savage riders as they drew nearer to their prey.

First, the farmhouse: The Darlothians were wall-builders, and hated for it by their barbarian neighbours. It was a fortress as much as a homestead, two storeys tall and made from solid stone blocks. The windows and door were open, but a heavy oak door and thick wooden shutters were ready to be swung into place. Scattered around the farmhouse were stables, barns, stores and kennels.

As for the warrior, he was a tall and fearsome man who looked no less barbaric than the riders, though his grim glare was at odds with their feral snarls. He wore dark leather armour with metal plates sewn into it in places, and a wolf skin cloak hung from his shoulders. Two axes were held in his belt. His hair was black and short. A jagged scar ran down his face and over one eye socket, missing the eye itself. His eyes were pale blue, so pale in fact that they were off-putting rather than alluring.

In the warrior’s hands was a crossbow, which he aimed not at the terrible riders, but instead at the maiden’s back.

“She’s brave.” he grunted, just loud enough that his captives could hear him.

A boy and a man dressed in peasant rags cowered behind him. They watched the girl with fearful eyes. The boy was almost a man, with fair skin and curly black hair. The man was old, broad-nosed and haggard, with lank black hair that had patches missing. The old man had his arms around the boy as if to protect him, though the lad was almost as tall as his father.

“It’s easy to be brave when you’ve got a crossbow aimed at your back.” protested the old man, bitterly.

“She is safe for now.” said the grim warrior, his voice not deviating from a curt growl. “From this distance, with this wind, I couldn’t hit her if I tried.”

“She doesn’t know that!” the old man snapped. “My poor girl…” he said, choking up, covering his mouth with a trembling hand.

From the corner of her eye the girl saw the riders pass a boulder which sat alone on the hillside. She took a deep breath before turning to look at them, just as she had been told to. She let out a gasp as she witnessed their full savagery for the first time. She screamed and dropped the pail, and the water splashed about her feet.

She ran as fast as she could towards the safety of the farmhouse. She cried panting tears in between each desperate breath. The barbarians howled like wolves, relishing the chase.

“Hmm. Here she comes.” said the grim warrior. “Do you have another one of these, Gabor?” he said, lifting the crossbow.

“Yes. Upstairs.” uttered the old man, his terrified eyes locked onto his daughter as the riders gained ground.

“And you, boy, what is your name?”

The boy looked at his father, pensively. The old man nodded, and so the boy responded. “Boren.” he said in a thin voice.

The warrior approached them with long, slow strides until he was looming over his captives. “I will need you to fight.”

“He’s just a boy!” protested Gabor.

“He’s old enough. Almost a man now by the look of him. You’ll fight, won’t you Boren? You’ll fight for your sister. Can you use one of these?” he said, patting the crossbow.

The boy nodded hurriedly.

“Here.” growled the warrior, shoving the crossbow into the lad’s shivering hands. “Do as I say and your sister will live. Disobey me and her safety cannot be guaranteed. Go upstairs. Take your father with you. Pull up the ladder and lock the hatch. Keep all the windows barred until I say so.”

“What about Anya? How will she get upstairs?” pleaded Gabor.

“She won’t. Not yet. That comes later. Now go.”

The old man glanced despairingly towards his daughter. She was beginning to tire. She was close enough that he could hear her wheezing breaths. She started to scream something, but he couldn’t make out what. The riders were drawing closer, weapons ready in their hands. He didn’t know what posed the greater danger to his beloved daughter: those six riders on the hill, or the grim warrior in his home. He made his call.

“Come, Boren. Upstairs.”

They rushed up the ladder to the second storey. Gabor cast a final nervous glance down at the warrior, whose eyes were fixed upon Anya and the approaching riders, before pulling up the ladder and slamming the hatch shut.

Anya was growing weak, but fear spurred her onward. The cries of the wildmen were defending. The thunder of hooves and the panting of horses pursued her. She saw her father and brother disappear from view. She saw the grim warrior watching her from the doorway with cold eyes. He picked up her father’s spear, which was propped up by the door, and having inspected it he rested it on his shoulder and strolled out of sight.

The hooves stopped thundering as she neared the door, replaced by frantic whinnies as the riders dismounted.

“I’ll take the girl.” grinned the headsman, distinguished by his golden torcs and bronze, green-crested helmet.

“Be ready, Hogath.” said another of them, spear in hand, as they began to pursue on foot. “I counted three more inside.”

Anya could not understand their barbaric tongue, but their words terrified her nonetheless. She burst through the still-open doorway, panting furiously, red-faced and covered in sweat and tears.

To her dismay, she found herself alone.

“No! Father! Where are you?” she screamed.

The wildmen were upon her. Hogath and two others bundled her to the ground. She fell hard, her head hitting the floor as the wind was knocked out of her lungs. Their brutish hands grabbed her by the arms and ankles. They leered over her baring fierce grins.

“They’re gone!” said the spear-wielder as he and the other two searched the farmhouse.

“They’ll have run upstairs to hold out. They’ve sacrificed you, little girl. They’ve left you behind.” leered Hogath.

Her screaming had stopped now. Fear muted the girl as Hogath’s dagger pressed against her throat. Her eyes were wet with tears, wild with terror.

“My my, girl, you’re a pretty one. My father would approve.” grinned Hogath, taunting her as he ran a grubby hand through her hair.

“Hmph.” harrumphed one of the men. “She looked older from a distance.”

“She’s pretty enough, ain’t she?” snorted Hogath.

“Aye, pretty enough. Too young for my liking, mind.”

“What, you don’t want a turn?”

“I didn’t say that. I just prefer them more…You know…Womanly.”

One of the other men laughed. “Beggars can’t be choosers, Bors. And I know for a fact you’re not getting any from your wife.”

The men laughed at the curmudgeonly Bors, who grumbled as he adjusted his cloak. “Like I said, I’ll take my turn when it comes.”

Bors’ turn came sooner than he would have expected. Gabor’s spear shot up through the floorboards. It impaled him from anus to innards, and was ripped back out again just as fast. Bors let out a muted yelp, spasmed a bit, and fell to the floor in a heap as blood shot out of his backside.

The others jumped back in shock, reaching for their weapons as they looked upon their slain kinsman. Hogath staggered to his feet, grabbing Anya by the waist and holding her close to him as he pressed his dagger against his hostage’s throat. She panted heavy breaths as she watched Bors’ spasming corpse in horror.

“There!” bellowed a burly axeman. “There’s a hatch to the cellar!”

“You stay here, Hogath.” warned a blue-painted swordsman. “Stay out of harm’s way.”

Hogath wasn’t too proud to take his advice. He watched on as they rushed over to the cellar hatch.

The axeman hauled open the hatch and readied his bearded axe. Out of the gloom flew the spear, impaling the axeman and sending him tumbling back.

Pausing only for a moment to witness the death of their brother-in-arms, the other three cried battle cries as they charged down into the gloom.

Hogath’s heartrate quickened as he heard the bloody kerfuffle unfold beneath his feet. Barbarian war cries turned to the clash of steel, then the thud of axe on skull, then the anguished wail of mutilated men. No more than ten seconds could have passed until all were silent once more, save for one man’s whimpering.

The blue-painted man sobbed as he crawled back up the cellar stairs, his wolf cloak now spattered with blood. He turned to look at Hogath, pure terror in his eyes, then let out a terrible scream as the beast below grabbed him by the ankles and dragged him back down into the gloom.

There was a wet thud, and then the screaming stopped.

“No…This can’t be…” Hogath whimpered. “What is…Who is down there?” he asked Anya in dismay, though she looked upon that bloody pit with just as much terror as her captor.

Then the swordsman’s head was tossed out of the cellar, and landed with a thump next to the impaled axeman’s body, blue woad spattered with red blood.

Slow, deliberate footsteps followed, and Hogath began panting hurriedly.

The grim warrior emerged from the pit, face dashed with the blood of his enemies, axes dripping gore. He didn’t grin or gloat. He just stared at Hogan with his cold eyes.

“Don’t move!” roared Hogath, finding a slither of courage in his terror. “If you move, if you take one fucking step, I’ll kill her!” His blade drew a drop of blood from Anya’s neck. She gasped as the cold metal bit.

Hogath didn’t expect this Darlothian brute to understand his words, but his actions got the message across just fine. After a few moments the grim warrior dropped his axes. They hit the ground with a clang. He raised his bloodied hands in surrender.

Hogath grinned, letting out a sigh of relief as he pushed Anya aside and strode towards the warrior. He pulled his sword from its gold-trimmed scabbard.

“You’ll pay for what you’ve done, wall-builder.” he scowled. “And when I’ve killed you, she will pay even more dearly.” The warrior gave no response. He didn’t move a muscle.

Hogath let out a guttural war cry as he hefted back his sword. He swung it, but the blade bit air as the grim warrior swerved back and the sword sailed over him. The warrior’s foot flew out, smashing into Hogath’s knee, breaking it inwards. The barbarian let out a terrible wail as he fell onto his collapsed leg. The grim warrior put him out of his misery, for now, with a punch to the temple which sent the helmet flying from his head. Hogath lay unconscious in a heap.

Anya was cowering in the corner of the room by the time the grim warrior turned his attention to her. He acknowledged her with a cursory nod.

“So far so good.” was all he could think to say to the poor shivering girl.

Taking a spear from the floor he bashed the haft into the roof to alert the others. “All done. Open up.”

As the hatch opened and the ladder came down, Anya let out a cry of relief as she saw her father’s desperate face.

“Anya!” he cried.

“Daddy!” she sobbed, and she ran to him, clambering up the stairs and falling into his arms in uncontrollable tears.

“Boy.” called the warrior, and Boren poked his head out of the hatch. “Open the windows but keep out of sight for now. I want you and your father to shoot at the wildmen. But don’t shoot them until I’ve killed Warlord Brogan. Clear?”

“How will I know who Warlord Brogan is?” the boy replied.

“That’s easy.” said the warrior, with a fleeting grin. “He’s got huge fucking horns.”

“Okay.” panted Boren as his father took the sobbing girl away to find her a hiding place. Once his father was out of earshot he plucked up the courage to address the grim warrior as he hauled the unconscious Hogath onto his shoulder and picked up his helmet.

“You never said your name.” At first he thought the warrior would maintain his grim silence. But then he glanced back at him, fleetingly, and gave his answer.

“Mark.”

With that the warrior set off towards the doorway, and the boy pulled up the ladder and closed the hatch.

Mark hauled Hogath outside and flomped him down in front of the farmhouse’s sturdy wall. He looked up at the windows and saw Boren open the shutters. The boy gave him a thumbs up once he and his father were ready with their crossbows.

Satisfied, Mark looked down the hill at a larger party of barbarians camped at the bottom. They were sat around a campfire enjoying some breakfast. Even from this distance their bawling laughter could be heard. Their camp sat within the ruins of another farmhouse. Dead Darlothians lay in piles around it. Their horses and chariots were up tied nearby.

Mark held up Hogath’s helmet and waited. It didn’t take long for the barbarian lookouts to spot him and for the helmet to be recognised.

There was a commotion around the campfire. Water was tossed onto it and it hissed out. The barbarians hurriedly gathered their gear. They scuttled out of the camp towards their horses and chariots, which they mounted and set on a path up the hill.

As they began their frenzied ascent Mark dropped the helmet and set to counting them. There were twenty one. Fifteen of them manned five chariots. The remaining six were on horseback.

As they passed the boulder Mark could make out their curses and warcries. He could see their wicked spears, their glinting swords and their bronze helms.

As they passed the well he could make out a man riding in the lead chariot which raced ahead of others. It was Warlord Brogan.

He was tall and muscular, with a big bushy beard and a bronze helmet bearing big fucking horns. A bear skin cloak hung from his shoulders. In his hand was a spear, pointing at Mark with fury. At his side was a sword in a golden scabbard. A battle roar erupted from his mighty throat. His driver snapped at the chariot’s reins. A bondsman stood beside him holding a spear aloft, ready to be thrown.

“My son, he has my son!” Brogan roared to his men, though his sleek chariot was five chariot-lengths ahead of the others by now. The rest of the bawling cavalcade followed with curses in their mouths and weapons in their hands.

Mark took a dagger from his belt, pulled Hogath up by the hair and slit his throat, his cold eyes trained on Brogan the whole time. Brogan roared in anguished fury as he watched his son being executed before him. Mark let his body drop to the floor.

“Kill him! Kill him!” bellowed Brogan, spear aimed squarely at the grim warrior.

Mark took a deep breath, held his gore-red axes in hand, and braced for impact. Once the snorting juggernaut of wood and horseflesh was almost upon him, Warlord Brogan’s hateful battle cry ringing in his ears, he made his move.

 

“The next thing I know, she’s put the damn thing up my arse!” roared Brogan, holding aloft a horn of mead. The men fell about themselves laughing.

“What did you do, Brogan?” asked one of them from across the campfire.

Brogan put on a faux-sage expression and stroked his beard. “Well Gotherix, I find that in sex as much as in battle, the key to success is to keep a cool head under pressure. So I just kept on fucking, and I didn’t stop fucking until I was good and done. Only then did I pull the damn thing out.”

Brogan and his Visgoti tribesmen were sat around a roaring fire eating burnt meat and drinking mead from horns. They had built their fire inside the ruins of a farmhouse they had dismantled that very afternoon. Around them, lying in piles, were the bodies of the Darlothian peasants they had carried off and slaughtered that day. Visgoti warriors are burnt on pyres when they pass from one life to the next. There would be no such honour for the wall-builders, who would be left to rot.

Brogan grinned as his men laughed, taking a big swig of mead. He cast his eye over them, and then onto his son Hogath, who was quietly sharpening his sword with a pumice stone. He didn’t seem to be as regaled by tales of his father’s sexual exploits as the others.

“What’s wrong lad?” Brogan called to him.

“I’ve got something on my mind.” sighed Hogath.

“Speak, lad, speak! Oh, wait…Let me guess. My boy has got the marriage blues!” Brogan and his men laughed, one of them slapping Hogath on the shoulder. He just about managed to humour them with a smile.

“You know marriage is a wonderful thing, lad.” said Brogan, holding court. “Your mother and I have been in love for many years, and she has brought me a great deal of happiness, not to mention six young nippers.”

“Father, have you seen the Calvii wench I’m set to marry?” snorted Hogath.

One of the men laughed. “Aye, she’s twice as big as he is! Arse the size of a farmhouse door!” he said, with helpful gestures.

“Come now, my boy.” counselled Brogan. “Your mother’s no looker either, but with guts, mead and a little imagination, I got the job done just fine. You wouldn’t be sat here today otherwise. And if you’re worried about missing out on life’s carnal joys you needn’t worry. Being married hasn’t stopped me fucking my way through half of Lotheria. I must have fucked women from at least seventeen different tribes, and plenty of Darlothians to boot. All while I was married, mark you. In my bachelor days, before my betrothal, I was even more virile.”

“Yes, we’ve all heard the stories.” chuckled a grey-bearded wildman. “The one involving the cooked boar was particularly revealing…”

Brogan laughed with his men. “A story for another time, perhaps.”

“I just don’t see why we have to kowtow to the damn Calvii!” protested Hogath. “We have to marry who they tell us to, fight who they tell us to…We are the Visgoti, furious and proud, and here we are taking orders from Warlord Tiroginus, a man who doesn’t even have the guts to fight beside his own men. We should take our orders from you and you alone, father!”

There were murmurs of approval from the men, but Brogan was having none of it. “Now now, boy, you ought to think before you speak. I take orders from no-one. An alliance is an alliance – we work together. We agree who marries, to make our bonds stronger – together. We agree who to attack, to defeat our enemies – together. And think, men…It is this alliance which allows us to raid Darloth, to kill the wall-builders, to plunder their farms and carry off their women. If it were not for the alliance, we would all be huddled up in Ferrenmar, paranoid and fearful of attack. An alliance makes all parties stronger.”

Hogath nodded slowly and sighed in resignation. He wouldn’t dare contradict his father in front of the men. “Well said, father.”

“Come, boy, get your chin up!” Brogan roared in merriment once more. “Tell you what, first thing tomorrow we’ll find you a nice Darlothian girl to take your mind off your betrothal to the lovely – yet substantial – Gretir of the Calvii. Consider it an engagement present. Have you ever fucked a Darlothian girl before, boy?”

“No, father.”

“Well, my son, you’re in for a treat. Raven hair. Blue eyes. Skin as pale as the new moon. They’re soft enough while they’re young, though toil makes them rougher with age. They’re tame, too, not like our Visgoti girls. They don’t fight back. They don’t bite, they don’t spit, they don’t scratch…”

“Where’s the fun in that?” muttered a curmudgeonly warrior, to roaring laugher. Even Hogath perked up, grinning from ear to ear.

“Well, son, unless you’re a sick bastard who enjoys getting beaten up by women like Bors here, a Darlothian maiden is the best lay you’ll ever have. You mark my words, boy.”

Their raucous drinking would go on long into the night, but Mark had heard enough. There he lay amongst the piled dead, playing possum, listening intently to their lewd tales and bawdy jokes, for he was fluent in the barbarian tongue.

Mark dragged himself out of the stinking pile of corpses and crawled away from the flicker of the fire and the echoing laughter of the wildmen.

Then something caught his eye – a farmhouse upon the horizon, large and sturdy, sat atop a hill. It wasn’t too far away. Well in view of the barbarians’ camp. Mark began formulating a plan, a plan that might just work if he was wise about it. But he would need a girl.

 

Gabor had spotted the barbarians approaching the day before, and he had watched as they tore down his neighbour’s farmhouse. He hoped Hrangir had been wise enough to hide out in the mountains until the barbarians passed, but with peril so close at hand he spared little thought for Hrangir and his family. He had his own to worry about. Seeing the glow of the barbarians’ campfire that night he woke the children before sunrise and set them to their tasks.

They knew the drill. The peasants of Darloth had largely been left to fend for themselves the past three years. The King hadn’t helped them, nor the thegns, and the army hadn’t mustered. Those who couldn’t defend themselves would die. But Gabor was a wily old man, and he wasn’t prepared to let that happen to his beloved children.

They led their flock of sheep into the mountains. They locked up the hounds in their kennels with plenty of food and water. They fed the horses and locked them up in their stable. Then, finally, they would lock themselves away in the upper storey of their farmhouse and wait out the barbarian raiders.

Perhaps they would try to get into the farmhouse, or tear down the stable, or break into the kennels. Or perhaps they would get tired and bored, and head off to more inviting pastures. Maybe they had sated their thirst for rape and slaughter and would simply return to their tribal homeland. After a night of heavy drinking, Gabor was hopeful it would be the latter. He certainly wouldn’t want to pull down a stone farmhouse built like a castle the morning after an all-night drinking session.

Anya glanced nervously towards the still-smoking campfire at the bottom of the hill as she carried an armful of hay to the stable. The sun was up but few of the barbarians stirred. Those few who were up practiced their sword-fighting, and she heard the clang of their blades, and laughter as one of them slipped in the mud and fell on his arse.

She pushed open the stable door and set about feeding the horses. Whenever the barbarians came, she was always most worried about the horses.

“Just try to be brave.” she said to her favourite, stroking her nose. “It will all be over soon.”

She gasped as an arm wrapped around her waist, and a hand, as strong as iron, clasped over her mouth.

“Stay silent.” grunted Mark.

Anya could do little else, at once terrified of her attacker and also relieved to hear him speaking Darlothian.

“You’re in no danger. Not yet.” he growled. Sensing he could trust her to keep quiet he took his hand off her mouth and grabbed her by the wrist. He looked her up and down. A bit young perhaps, but from a distance that would be hard to tell. “You’ll do. Who else is in the farmhouse?”

“My father and my brother. Please don’t hurt them.” she said with hurried, breathless words.

“I won’t, as long as they don’t do anything stupid. Like pointing a crossbow at me, for example.”

Mark led his hostage out of the stable and towards the farmhouse. He paused at the door, which was slightly ajar, and listened to Gabor and his son chatting as they gathered the food they would need to hold out against the barbarians. Mark tried to judge from their voices how far away they were. Not more than an axe’s throw away, which was good news. Just in case things get ugly.

Mark barged through the door, dragging Anya with him. Gabor saw them at once and dropped the basket of apples he was carrying. They rolled all over the floor. Boren stayed dead still, but couldn’t help but glance at the loaded crossbow on the dining table.

“Nobody move.” grunted Mark.

“We don’t want any trouble, sir.” appealed Gabor after a few heartbeats.

“No. I don’t want trouble either. Girl, what is your name?”

“Anya.”

“Ok Anya. Bring me that crossbow. And don’t do anything stupid, like try and point it at me.”

Anya shuffled over to the table and picked up the crossbow. She shuffled back and handed it to Mark, who aimed it at her just so nobody decided to do anything rash.

Gabor tried to reason with him. “Look, we’ll give you what little money we have, but we can’t delay. There are barbarians just down the hill…”

“I’ve seen them.”

“Just take what you want and leave, but let go of my daughter!” implored Gabor.

“Don’t raise your voice, old man.” said Mark, training the crossbow on him. “You’ll make me nervous. And if I get nervous, I might just pull this trigger.”

“Fine.” said Gabor, as calmly as he could. “Just keep that thing pointed at me and not the girl.”

“What’s your name, old man?”

“Gabor.”

“Well, Gabor, I’m going to need to borrow your daughter for a while.”

“What? What for?”

“Bait.”

“Bait? What do you mean?” Gabor snapped. Terrible realisation hit him. “Those wildmen? Why would you do that?”

“Bait…” gasped Anya, cottoning on.

“Anya, I need you to do something for me.” said Mark in his low, growly tone. “If you do exactly as I instruct then you will live. If not…Then I can’t guarantee your safety. I want you to go down to the well. Fetch some water. The barbarians will see you, and they’ll come for you, but I don’t want you to run from them, or even look at them, until they’ve passed that big boulder halfway up the hill. Then you can start running. And if I were you, I’d run fast. Run back to the farmhouse. I’ll meet you here.”

The three hostages listened to Mark’s plan in horror. “This is insane!” said Gabor. “If they get her, they’ll…”

“I think we all know exactly what they’ll do.” snapped Mark. “But you must do what I tell you to, Anya. If I let you go and you run off elsewhere instead of walking down to the well like I’ve asked, I’ll shoot you in the back. If you start running back to the farmhouse before the wildmen reach the boulder, I’ll shoot you in the chest. Understood?”

Anya was shaking now, and tearful, but she daren’t disobey him. She nodded frantically.

“Good girl. Now go.”

As Anya started her slow walk towards the well Mark had the crossbow trained at her back, though he had a good sense that she wouldn’t disobey him. Gabor held his son and stared at Mark in silent fury.

 

Hogath was training with a couple of his henchmen, casually clashing swords, when he heard one of them call out.

“Look, over by the well – it’s a girl!”

Hogath looked up at the well on the hill, a fortress-like farmhouse beyond it. She was a slender little thing, long black hair fluttering in the wind.

He looked over at his father, who was scraping the mud from the wheels of his chariot. Warlord Brogan looked up at the fair maiden, who was now fetching water from the well, and nodded sagely. He approved.

“Go ahead, son. When you’re done, you just try and tell me Darlothian pussy isn’t the best pussy known to man.” he said with a wink and a smile.

A cruel grin spread across Hogath’s face as he gave his order to the man beside him. “Bring me my horse.”

 

The bondsman hurled his spear. Mark ducked and it flew over him, shattering as it hit the stone wall. Mark threw one of his axes, which whistled through the air, burying itself inside the charioteer’s face. He fell, but the reins were lashed around his wrists, and so the chariot swerved violently as he fell off. It tipped over and broke apart, a storm of horse-flesh and splintered wood. Brogan jumped clear of the wreckage. The bondsman was not so lucky, and was crushed by a sheared axle and a falling horse. A great plume of dust was kicked up as the thing overturned, the horses braying madly.

Warlord Brogan’s ears were ringing. He shook his head, trying to regain his senses. His vision was blurry. His helmet had fallen off and his spear had fallen from his hand. He groped around for his sword as he staggered to his feet. As he pulled the sword from its sheath his eyesight came into focus just in time to see Mark’s fist smash into his face. He fell onto one knee, and Mark’s axe did the rest, slicing through his throat. His head fell back and his neck gaped open, blood spurting out, and his body hit the ground soon after.

A horseman roared as he charged in, sword poised to sweep through Mark’s skull. A crossbow bolt fizzed through the air and landed in his neck. The rider fell from his horse, which reared up and whinnied before bolting back down the hill.

Seeing the carnage, and with Mark’s back to the farmhouse so that he couldn’t be surrounded, the other warriors dismounted their horses and leapt from their chariots, keeping a handful of men back to hold the reins. As they readied their weapons the realisation sunk in that their warlord was dead. They might have flown into a furious rage had they not also recognised the mysterious warrior who stood against them.

“It’s the King’s Champion!” marvelled one of them. “The traitor! Look at the eyes, the scar!”

“It’s him alright.” said another. “I saw him behead Warlord Drothgar with my own two eyes. Cleaved his head clean off with a single swipe. I though he had disappeared!”

Their momentary wonderment was interrupted as a crossbow bolt thudded into one of their shields. “Enough talk.” said the shieldsman. “If he disappeared before, he’s not disappeared now. We outnumber him well enough. Come, let us kill him in Brogan’s name.”

While they were debating, Mark was retrieving his axe from inside the charioteer’s face. He stood ready as the warriors surrounded him, their swords, spears and axes in hand. They gave each other a nervous nod, girded their loins, and charged in with furious battle cries.

The first to reach him swung his bearded axe. Mark leapt aside and the axe sailed past and smashed into the farmhouse wall. Mark’s axe lashed out, beheading the man so fiercely that his head was still spinning when it hit the ground.

Mark blocked a sword-swipe with one axe, bringing the other to hook around his assailant’s leg and haul him over. He finished him off with an axe-strike to the crown.

Another man fell nearby with a crossbow bolt piercing his helmet and the skull beneath it.

A warrior swung his sword at Mark, who ducked under it, and rose again to plant his axe in the man’s head. He let the axe rest there as a spearman charged at him. He stepped aside of the spear and the wildman barged into him, pushing him back with his shield until his back was pressed against the farmhouse wall. At close quarters, Mark yanked the warrior’s beard and head-butted him. His head jerked back, nose spurting blood. Mark swept his axe across the man’s throat and it burst open, spraying him with fresh blood.

He just about heard a thud and a squeal above the tumult, indicating that another crossbow bolt had found its mark.

Mark kept the slain warrior propped up against him, took the dead man’s spear and rammed it into the face of an oncoming axeman.

Mark pushed the corpses off of him and stepped onwards towards the remaining warriors, who were a little more sheepish now as they stepped over the bodies of their dead comrades and crossbow bolts whistled overhead.

Three of them nodded to each other, gearing up before all charging in at once. Mark knocked a spear aside and it sailed past, plunging into the swordsman who was charging at him from the other side. He blocked a spiked club which was swung by the last warrior, then grabbed him by the hauberk and dragged him close so that he stood between himself and an archer, whose arrow flew true but hit his own man in the back.

Mark threw the man’s body to the ground and swept his axe through the spearman’s leg, who writhed about on the floor screaming. A warrior charged at him with two axes in hand, but two crossbow bolts in the chest put paid to that.

A swordsman, visibly shaken and spattered with the blood of his brethren, made a token attempt to kill Mark was a sword-swipe. Mark swatted the weapon from his hand, contemptuously, and grasped him by the neck, staring directly into his terrified eyes.

The rest of the warriors were fleeing now, clambering over severed limbs and mutilated bodies, pursued by crossbow bolts. They leapt upon their steeds and chariots and bolted off down the hill from whence they had come.

Mark looked up to the farmhouse windows, where Gabor and Boren looked down at him, sweating and shaken. He gave them a thumbs up.

“What are you doing with that one?” asked Gabor as Mark threw the wildman to the ground.

“I want him to send a message for me.”

The poor wretch was pleading pitifully in his savage tongue as Mark set about searching the piled bodies for one in particular. When he found Warlord Brogan he dragged him clear of the other corpses.

“Boren, fetch me some rope would you?” said Mark, and the lad rushed off out of sight. Then he began his work.

He swung his axe into Brogan’s thorax, and set about opening up his chests, spreading out his ribs like eagle’s wings, exposing his innards.

“By the grace of the ancestors, what the hell are you doing?” implored Gabor, horrified by the bloody display.

“Sprits spare me…” muttered the terrified, pale-faced savage as he watched on.

Mark nodded sagely when he saw that his work was done. “Where’s that rope?”

“Don’t look, boy. Stay inside.” Gabor implored his son, and he lowered down the rope to Mark, who tied a noose around Brogan’s neck.

“Hoist him up, old man. Tie the rope to something sturdy.”

“I hope you know what you’re doing, warrior.” said Gabor as he set about Mark’s instructions.

Mark could almost have smiled as he watched the slain warlord being hoisted up, blood-eagled in the way barbarians so love to do to their captives. The Visgoti warrior looked on in horror, jabbering prayers to anyone who would listen.

“Good.” said Mark to the warrior. “Now you can go.” He whistled at him and nodded towards the horizon. He got the message, and ran off full-pelt down the hill, tripping over his own feet as he did so.

“We’re done here.” Mark called to the farmer and his children. “You can come out now.”

Gabor aimed his loaded crossbow at Mark. “We’re going nowhere, you madman.”

Mark locked his cold eyes on him. “That sounds like a bad idea. The Visgoti will come back to reclaim the body of their warlord. And when they do they’ll demolish this place and slaughter every man, woman and beast they find. Oh, and pointing a crossbow at me…That’s a bad idea old man. If you’re going to shoot me, you better pray you hit, and you better pray I stay hit.”

“You monster!” relented Gabor, lowering the crossbow. “You’ve damned us all! This place is our livelihood, where are we to go?”

“Tirigast.” said Mark, retrieving his axe from a man’s skull.

“That shit-hole? No chance! They haven’t taken people in for three years! The doors are barred!”

“Tell them Mark sent you.” he grunted. “By killing this warlord, I may have earned myself a little leverage.”

Gabor put his head in his hands. “You hold my daughter hostage. You leave her at the mercy of a gang of rapist wildmen. You leave Visgoti bodies littering my farm, and a warlord’s mutilated corpse hanging from my window. You turf me out of house and home, torment my children, ruin my livelihood. And now you tell me we have to make the perilous journey to Tirigast, a frozen shit-stained fortress that’s about as homely as a barrow, and beg to be allowed entry, with every possibility that we’ll be turned away and forced to live as vagrants. Is there any other injustice you’d like to subject us to, warrior, just while you’re here?”

Mark snorted back some snot and spat it out. “I’m going to need to take one of your horses.”

 

Chapter Two: Tirigast

 

Mark hung from the ceiling of one of Tirigast’s many dungeons. He was strung up by his wrists, bound in chains, his feet barely touching the cold stone floor. He was naked, half-starved, bruised and beaten. The dungeon was cold, dank and silent, save for the sound of the rain outside and the guards’ footsteps. A slither of moonlight pierced through the cell’s tiny window. The rest of the dungeon was darkness.

The lock clanged and the door swung open. Five guards stormed in. One of them threw a bucket of freezing water over Mark, snapping him out of his dazed stupor, and he gasped for breath as the cold bit.

 

Mark began gorging himself on the plate of mutton that had been plonked on the table in front of him. He spared little effort in wondering why he had been released before guzzling the meat and downing cupfuls of water.

After a few mouthfuls he had the wherewithal to scan his surroundings. He was in the feasting hall, sat at one of the vast banqueting tables. There was nobody else sat down to eat. There had been precious little cause for banquets in Tirigast in recent years.

The hall was dingy. Torches flickered on the walls, only just illuminating the dozen armed guards who milled about nervously. They were only too familiar with the man they were guarding and what he is capable of. They wore chain hauberks, iron helmets and padded tunics, with swords at their sides and spears in their hands.

Pacing around where Mark was eating was a man he knew well. It was Kilbane, one of Darloth’s toughest thegns and the King’s right-hand man. His hair was long and brown. His beard was full and bushy. His features were thick and brutish, his eyes dark and scowling, his lips full and scarred. He wore heavy gauntlets and brigandine armour. Middle age was well in motion, and he had a paunch, but he looked fearsome enough, and he knew well how to use the poleaxe at his side.

While Mark ate and drank feverishly, staving off a month’s worth of hunger, Kilbane gave his lecture as he pacing around him menacingly. His voice was gruff, but he was an eloquent man, and there was a rustic lyricism to his voice.

“Eat up, Mark. Build up your strength. You’ll need it where you’re going.”

“The other thegns wanted you dead. They wanted you hung, drawn and quartered, or fed to the dogs, or any number of things, executions usually reserved only for treasonous traitors. These punishments would be just. Because you did commit treason. And you are a traitor.”

“But I counselled against such a rash course of action. Let me tell you how I put it to them. If your dog bites your hand, the very hand which feeds it, you could kill that dog. You would be well within your rights to. But a smarter ploy is to whip that dog, to starve it, to beat it. Then when you know you’ve got a mad, crazy dog on your hands, you invite the other thegns over for a spot of dog fighting. Then your dog eats the other dogs. You see?”

He slammed his iron fist onto the table, and Mark met his fiery glare for the first time. His voice became a threatening growl. “That’s what you are now, Mark. You’re my mad dog. And I’m going to set you loose to eat all the other mad dogs alive.”

Kilbane put his arms behind his back and continued to pace around and deliver his sermon. “A lot’s changed in the three years you’ve been gone, and none of it for the better. Our army was defeated by the Calvii at Hyalmarch. They were led by Warlord Tiroginus himself. He’s a wily old bastard, let me tell you, and he beat us good and proper. Spurred on by his victory, Tiroginus set about building an alliance. Remarkably, three of the strongest tribes in Lotheria have warlords who are neither bloodthirsty warmongers nor complete buffoons. A rare occurrence indeed. These three warlords, Brogan of the Visgoti, Aelarix of the Albrantes, and Tiroginus of the Calvii, have enough brains between them to keep this fragile alliance intact.”

“With their forces united against us we cannot risk raising the army of Darloth. If they were to defeat us again, with the numbers our enemies have amassed against us, we could be wiped out. So we hide here, within the walls of Tirigast, mightiest of castles, seat of the King. We sit here holding our dicks while the Visgoti, Albrantes and Calvii lay waste to our farms and villages.”

“We have little enough food to last us through the winter. We’ve already closed our gates to outsiders. Peasants, refuges – they are turned away. We cannot take them. And now we in the castle face the prospect of starvation.”

“You’re probably wondering what all of this has to do with you. You’re a treacherous cunt, Mark, but I’ve got to hand it to you, you know how to kill warlords. Your work as King’s Champion was exemplary. I never knew there were so many way to cut apart an upstart savage.”

“So that’s what I want you to do, Mark. Kill warlords. Kill Brogan, Aelarix and Tiroginus. Perhaps then, with this done, the other thegns will see fit to bring you back into the fold. Perhaps then your transgressions, your errors in judgement, can be forgiven, if not forgotten.”

Kilbane grinned as Mark stopped eating and looked up at him. “Now I know what you’re thinking. As King’s Champion, you would march right up to the enemy warlord and challenge them to a duel. When they accept, you kill them. One on one, all out in the open, and it’s done. Easy. But what about these three? You can’t just walk up to them in their tribal homelands, safe within their hillforts, surrounded by their armies and their bodyguards, and challenge them to a fight to the death.”

“Well, Mark, you’re just going to have to use some cunning. You’re going to have to prove you’re more than just a brute with an axe. The other thegns, they laughed when I told them my plans for you. They think you’ll just march up to one of these warlords and try to fight your way through their entire entourage. They think you’re stupid. And I agree with them. You are stupid. But what I see, and they don’t, is cunning.”

“Ever since you were brought to Tirigast as a baby, left there at the gates, abandoned by your parents…From the first time I looked into those cold blue eyes I knew we had a killer on our hands. And you didn’t disappoint me. We raised you to be a killer, and what a killer you became. The finest in all of Darloth. But I always saw cunning too.”

“You’re like one of those rogue winter wolves who’s been shunned by the rest of the pack. You ask this feral wolf who the King of Darloth is, he won’t know. Ask him the rituals you can use to improve potency in the bedroom, he’ll give no reply except for a feral growl. But you ask him to survive on his own in the wilderness, away from the warmth and safety of the pack? This cunning son of a bitch will find a way. It’ll be ruthless. And it’ll be bloody. He’ll sneak into the pack’s cave while they’re sleeping. And then he eats their babies.”

“So what do you say, Mark? Are you going to use that cunning of yours to earn some redemption?”

Mark had had his fill. He gulped down his last mouthful, wiped his mouth, and nodded.

“Good.” grunted Kilbane. “If you want my advice, boy, you’ll use this as an opportunity. A chance, slim though it may be, to earn redemption, or an honourable death at least. You won’t run off and abandon your people again.”

“Your soul is already damned. If you can’t redeem yourself then you’ll spend the afterlife in eternal darkness, being gnawed at by rats and bitten by snakes. But if you betray your people once again, I dare not imagine what fate our wise ancestors will have in store for you.”

Kilbane couldn’t help but smirk as he made one final stipulation. “Oh, and before I forget, Warlord Maedoc is our ally. You are not to approach him.”

Mark’s eyes thinned as he heard the name. Kilbane grinned.

“Unpalatable I know, to ally ourselves with the most ruthless butcher in all of Lotheria, but given the circumstances our Kingdom finds itself in our options have become rather limited. He’s the only warlord in Lotheria with the manpower to stand up to the alliance. If it wasn’t for Maedoc and his Morrowfow keeping our enemies honest, then shit, Darloth would be in flames already.”

“Now I know you have a little…History with the man. But he is an ally of Darloth, and as much as it sickens me to say it, he benefits from royal protection. So you will not go anywhere near him. Do I make myself clear, boy?”

Mark recognised that his options were fairly limited. So he nodded.

“Good.” grinned Kilbane, slapping him on the back. “Let bygones be bygones, eh? Speaking of which, since you’ll be leaving, and your chances of returning alive are tremendously slim, how about an audience with the King, eh?”

Mark’s eyes shot over to him. Kilbane laughed.

“Don’t get your hopes up, lad. He’s next exactly as you might remember him.”

 

Mark’s heart pounded as he was led through the catacombs and stairways of Tirigast, up and up towards the highest level. He was burning with guilt, flushed with shame as he was led into the throne room. He was to be reunited with the king he had sworn to protect. The king he had abandoned.

The throne room was big, dark and cavernous, adorned with trophy shields collected from Darloth’s many barbarian enemies. The only souls in the place were the King’s Huscarls, picked from Darloth’s greatest warriors to defend Tirigast until their dying day. Since Tirigast had never been attacked, these crusty old warriors hadn’t lifted their axes in anger for decades, and it showed. Their beards were long, grey and wild. They were haggard and uninterested. Some slept leaning on their tall axes.

The throne itself, made from roughly-hewn stone, sat empty. There sat the crown of Darloth, an iron battle-helm adorned with a bronze crown, thought there was a big, visible dent in the forehead.

“The King is in his chamber. Come.” said Kilbane, gesturing for the squadron of guards accompanying them to wait there in the throne room. He led Mark to a doorway. The King’s bedroom was inside.

Mark’s ears flushed hot as he stood in front of the door. His shaking hand hesitated at the handle. He didn’t have the courage to open it. So Kilbane pushed in front of him and dragged him in.

It was tremendously cold in there. An icy, chill wind blew in through the open window, which looked out over the spectacular ice-capped Mount Staggheim. There was the King’s bed, his furniture, his clothes…And his chair, turned away from the door, looking out of the window towards the mountain.

“Come.” grunted Kilbane, brusquely, dragging Mark towards the chair. “Don’t be shy, boy, he won’t even know you’re here.”

Then Mark set eyes upon the King, the man he had pledged his life to as a younger man. In the three years since Mark had last seen him he had grown terribly old. He was thin and bony and wore only a white nightgown. His hair and beard, once full and black, were now thinning and grey. His features, though as stony-stern as ever, were wrinkled. His hooked nose and dark, glaring eyes were familiar. What was unfamiliar was the mighty dent on the front of his head. He stared out towards the mountain, never averting his gaze or even registering their presence. His white-knuckled hands clutched at the arms of his chair. His lips were cracked and dry, his mouth locked in a terrible scowl.

Mark knelt down beside him. Tears fell from his eyes as he looked upon the ghost of the fierce, vibrant man he had once known, the man he had loved not just as a ruler, but also as a surrogate father.

Kilbane spoke. “It happened at the battle of Hyalmarch. Tiroginus’ champion challenged him to a duel. You know what King Tiberix is like. He accepted of course, though we tried to stop him, tried to convince him to pick a champion to fight in his place. Well he didn’t. And he lost. Tiroginus’ champion did that to him.” he said of the wound. “He hasn’t spoken a word since. Barely eats. Rarely sleeps. He just keeps on staring at the mountain. I always say to the other thegns,” he said with a sombre chuckle, “that it looks like Mount Staggheim has challenged him to a staring contest, and he’s just too damn stubborn to back down.”

Kilbane sighed as he put a hand on Mark’s shoulder. “This is your doing, Mark. You should have been there to protect him. You should have been there to duel Tiroginus’ champion in his stead. But you weren’t. You abandoned him, and this is the result.”

“Now come, boy. There’s no time to lose. No more time for remorse and self-pity. Redemption beckons.”

Mark thought about holding the King’s hand for a moment, but he dare not. He was unworthy. So he just put a hand on the King’s chair briefly, and then was taken away by Kilbane.

 

Tirigast’s portcullis slammed down. Mark was shut out, and he knew he could not return, forgiven and redeemed, until he had taken the heads of three of Lotheria’s most dangerous warlords.

His body still ached from a month’s beating and captivity. He carried only his weapons and armour with him. It would be a long and gruelling quest.

He took one last look back at the mighty castle, a gigantic citadel of towers and buttresses which none had ever dared to attack. It had once stood as a symbol of Darloth’s supremacy over the barbarians. Now it threatened to be its mausoleum, with a braindead King and impotent nobility holed up inside.

Mark turned back, and he saw Darloth. It was a land of muddy fields, frozen mountains and icy forests. There, peasants fended off hunger and marauding barbarians, with Darloth’s army lying dormant and unable to protect them. Beyond that was Lotheria, where the many barbarian tribes vied for supremacy. It was here, most likely, that he would find his prey.

 

Chapter Three: Warlord Aelarix

 

The clash of steel rang out over Skarmjal, the impressive mountainside hold of the Albrantes and the most heavily fortified hillfort in all of Lotheria. The fort looked out over the frosty peaks of the Hindengaust Range, which cut through Lotheria like a spine, all the way to Mount Staggheim in Darloth. It was usually foggy, but on a clear day like today you could stand on the sturdy wooden walls and see the mountains stretching out for miles, and watch as falcons swooped among the snowy peaks and the trees lower down. All of this was backed by a huge, blue, cloudless sky.

Inside the fort there were thatch huts, clean and well maintained, with coniferous trees dotted about the place. Women went about their chores, sewing, cooking, keeping an eye on their children and fetching water. When not out hunting, the men would practice their swordplay in the courtyard overlooked by Skarmshall, the Warlord’s great hall. It was a large and impressive structure which stood at the highest point of Skarmjal. Stone steps led down to the courtyard below.

The Albrantes were known for their ironwork, and in battle they wore heavy chain hauberks and iron helmets, a far cry from the animal pelts and war paint of other tribes. They were sometimes mocked as cowards for wearing so much armour, but the protection told in battle, and their swords were rightly feared.

A group of Albrante shield-bearers were training in the courtyard, their longswords clanging and whacking against their round wooden shields. They shuffled about engaging in mock duels as their drillmasters whipped them into shape. It was all fairly good humoured. No poor showing went without ribbing, and no embarrassing slip-up went without raucous laughter.

One of the shield-bearers stopped fighting momentarily as something caught his eye.

“What’s wrong Gregor? Had enough of getting your arse kicked for one day?” said his opposite number.

“No, look. It’s Fuckface! He’s back!” he grinned. He called over a couple of his mates as Fuckface approached.

He was a perilously thin old man wearing rags with a wrinkled, hugely expressive face. His big feet were bare and as rough as leather. He had little hair, and what little he had protruded from warts on his face. He waddled over to them with a silly walk and a ridiculous expression on his face, held out a big palm and bowed so low his bulbous nose almost touched the floor.

A small crowd had gathered, laughing at the weird old fool.

“Back again so soon, Fuckface? And you want my bronze? Well I can’t just give it to you.” said Gregor. He knew Fuckface couldn’t understand him, as he was known to be a Darlothian hermit who lived in the mountains and didn’t speak the language of the Lotherian tribes. “But if you were to do something for me then maybe I could pay you for the service.”

“Get him to do that dance he does!” said one of them.

“Alright, go on Fuckface!” said Gregor, doing a little dance of his own.

Fuckface got the message, and set about his dance. It was so weird and ungainly that it had the men in fits of laughter from the get-go. There were tumbles, thrusts, weird expressions, and at the crescendo he would (as always) conclude by lifting his ragged shirt to reveal his shrivelled genitals. By this point the men were falling over themselves laughing.

“I reckon you’ve earned your bronze.” snorted Gregor between laughs, reaching for his money pouch.

“Nah wait, not yet, get him to do something else.” said another man. “A dare or something. Something funny.”

“What like?” said Gregor, intrigued.

“I dunno. Something sexual.”

“What?” scoffed Gregor. “What sexual act do you want to see this old man perform exactly, Fimbor?”

Fimbor was getting a bit red in the face now. “No, not sexual like sexy, but you know, something funny, something gross. Like fuck a pig or something.”

The other men fell about laughing. “Look, Fimbor, if you want to see an old man fuck a pig that’s your business, but the dance was good enough for me.” said Gregor, taking one of the small bronze currency bars from his pouch and handing it to Fuckface.

“No way!” beamed one of the other men, patting Gregor on the shoulder and pointing at a newcomer. “It’s…It’s…Buttwort!”

There was a terrible ‘scree’ as Gregor handed over the bronze. All eyes turned to a second old fart, not dissimilar in appearance, but with a long straight nose, lank grey hair, and bulging eyes that almost popped out of his head. He charged straight for Fuckface, clattering into him and bowling him over. The bronze fell from his hand and clinked on the ground.

The men made a circle around them, laughing raucously as they watched Fuckface and Buttwort engage in a hilariously inept brawl for the bronze. Butterwort punched Fuckface five times in the face, and with each punch he pulled a different goofy expression. Then Fuckface retaliated, throttling Buttwort, making his face wiggle about madly with a ‘fobfobfob’ noise. The brawl went on for some time as the old loons exchanged blows, until at last Buttwort landed the killer blow, booting Fuckface in the gonads. Fuckface was a picture of silent rage for a couple of heartbeats, his face a caricature of contorted paint. The men held their breath – they knew what was coming next. Fuckface fell to the ground clutching his nads and made a ridiculous ‘dooooiiii’ noise, to much hilarity.

Looking suitably smug, Buttwort made off with Gregor’s bronze. No matter. They all knew the drill.

“Here you go Fuckface.” said one of the men, handing him a new bronze bar. “You’ll get that prick next time, I just know it.”

Fuckface pulled a ridiculous thanks-face and shuffled off with a stupidly low bow, hand still clasped over his todger.

“What’s all this then, boys?” bellowed Henrik, one of the overseers, who had watched the whole sorry scene unfold but had only now decided to make his presence felt.

He was a stocky middle-aged man with greying ginger hair. His features were brutish and his expression was stern, but the men knew he was just playing his role as taskmaster – he was a pussycat really. He wore a hauberk, like the others, and had a rarely but memorably used cat-o-nine-tails stuffed in his belt.

“Oh, it was those damn vagrants again, sir.” said Gregor. “Blasted wall-builders, always coming over here begging for our bronze.”

“Well if you didn’t keep giving them your bronze, they wouldn’t keep coming would they?” sighed Henrik. “Maybe instead of watching all this carry-on, you should be sharpening up on your swordplay. Unless you’re planning to dupe your foe the next time you’re cornered by a big fucking horny Morrowfow by acting like a damn fool!”

“Yes, sir. Back to training, sir. Right away, sir.” said Gregor, with a smirk.

“And how do those hermits keep getting into Skarmjal?” sighed Henrik. “This is supposed to be the strongest hold in all of Lotheria, and those mangy old men apparently come and go as they please!”

“I’ll keep an eye on them when they next come round, sir. Just in case they try to storm the place.” said Gregor, suppressing a chuckle.

Before the men could begin their drills again there came the shrill and distinctive wail of a war-horn.

“Is that one of ours?” asked one of them, hand poised at the hilt of his sword as all eyes turned to the gates.

“Aye.” said Henrik. “That’s ours alright.”

The gates were heaved open and a gaggle of warriors came through. They were indeed Albrantes, but they were depleted and exhausted. Some had discarded their helmets and hauberks. A couple of them led mules laden with gear. There couldn’t have been more than a dozen of them in total. The man leading them was particularly tall and muscular, with a blonde beard, a big axe and an ornate plumed helmet.

“That’s Birkir’s lot.” said Henrik. “But so few have returned, and with so little to show for it.”

A runner dashed from the gate, through the courtyard and up the steps towards Skarmshall to inform the Warlord of their return. Henrik shook his head. “I wouldn’t want to be in Birkir’s boots right now.”

As the men came through the gates everyone else made way for them. They stopped in the courtyard and glugged from flasks of water brought for them by friends and loved-ones. They were quickly ushered away by the sheepish-looking soldiers. They knew they were in for some kind of licking.

The training shield-bearers stuck around to see how things would unfold. Things might get a little bit tasty, and Birkir’s crew looked suitably apprehensive. Birkir himself stood at the foot of the stairs looking up towards Skarmshall. He stood as tall and impressive and he could, and he was a tall and impressive man, but Henrik saw him gulp as the gold-gilded doors of Skarmshall swung open.

Out came Warlord Aelarix, and immediately there was complete silence. All eyes – the shield-bearers, Birkir and his crew, the men, women and children who had gathered round – were on her. She was tall, for a woman, but not especially so. She was strong, but again, not remarkably. The glare of her dark blue eyes was famously stern. Her blonde hair fell to just above her shoulders. She didn’t wear a hauberk like the others, but instead wore trousers, boots and a jerkin, and iron-plated gauntlets. Her long-hafted sword, strapped to her back, was famous for the skill with which she wielded it.

Following her out was Haggorax, a handsome warrior of a similar age who wore a tunic and trousers. His hair was shoulder-length and brown and he had a short beard. He was Aelarix’s lover. He wasn’t just arm candy, though, and he too had a sword on his back. He had been a brave warrior from an obscure tribe before Aelarix had picked him as her lover and he opted, understandably perhaps, for life in her bedroom rather than on the battlefield.

A few moments of silence followed. Aelarix let the silence linger just long enough to make Birkir especially uncomfortable. She waited until he opened his mouth to address her before immediately interrupting him.

“Warl…”

“Where are the rest?” she demanded, firmly, yet betraying no emotion.

“Warlord Aelarix, the rest of the men died bravely in battle against the cursed Morrowfow.” declared Birkir, with just enough force to be somewhat convincing.

“I see. I sent you out with forty men, and these are all who return. It must have been a bloody battle indeed.”

“Aye, my liege. It was.”

“And where is the plunder?” she said, casting her eye over the mangy mules. She already knew there was none, but she toyed with her prey nonetheless. Birkir’s silence spoke volumes.

“Surely,” pressed Aelarix, “you have brought me plunder from the Morrowfow villages I sent you to raid?”

“No, my liege. There is no plunder.” he admitted. “We were ambushed by the Morrowfow dogs before we could reach those villages.”

“Why? What happened?” asked Aelarix. He hesitated, so Aelarix shouted at him. “Speak, man! Or I will demote you and question one of your men instead!”

“We spied a war-party, my liege, emerging from the Grimwold Forest. My men were eager for battle, and so…”

“So you ordered them to stand firm, and instead of running off to make battle with a war-party, you told them to attack the villages I had identified?”

“I…No, my liege. I thought that if we could drive off this war-party, it would give us an advantage…”

“Why must you always disregard my instructions?” seethed Aelarix. “The whole point of a raid is to avoid battle. To take gold, plunder and slaves. And then to leave without a trace, except for the burning villages you leave in your wake.”

“My…Apologies, my liege.”

“And the ambush?”

“There was a…Second war party still in the forest. We couldn’t have known.”

“No, you couldn’t have.” scowled Aelarix. “But you could have kept your distance and observed the enemy’s movements from afar. You could have waited for them to pass before pressing on and razing the villages I had identified after long and careful consideration. But clearly you are unable to follow even the simplest of instructions. If you cannot lead a simple raid, how can I trust you to be my lieutenant on the battlefield? I cannot, Birkir. You are stripped of your axes and your armour. For now you can work in the kennels. Perhaps my dogs will teach you a thing or two about obedience.”

Her work done, Aelarix turned back towards Skarmshall.

Then she heard Birkir throw down his axe, which clattered on the floor, and she stopped dead still.

“I will not, Aelarix, daughter of a fool and a whore.” he growled.

There were murmurs and gasps from the crowd. Only Haggorax could have seen it, but a wide smile spread across Aelarix’s face. He himself struggled to suppress a grin. Birkir’s failure had made her furious. But with this show of dissent, he had made her day.

By the time she turned back she was a picture of stern fury once more.

“No longer will I take orders from a woman.” roared Birkir. “My grandfather led this tribe into twenty three wars against our rivals clans. And you? You have led us into pacts with those who we once called our enemies. I will stand for it no more. I will seize control of the Albrantes!”

There was silence, until at last Aelarix gave her response.

“Then you know what you must do.” she said, in a terrifyingly calm voice.

“Yes.” said Birkir. “You don’t scare me, wench. I challenge you to a fight to the death.” His voice just about held – if he honestly had no fear, then he was a fool, but his bravado was convincing enough.

Aelarix began to walk down the steps, and at once everyone else was on the move. Mothers ushered their children into their huts, and those with weak stomachs and tender hearts made themselves scarce. Everyone else headed for the Bloody Circle.

Birkir was surrounded by his closest pals and toadies, those who would gain the most from him usurping Aelarix, as well as those who couldn’t stomach taking orders from a woman. They spoke encouraging words, and offered him their axes, but he chose to keep his own trusty battle axe.

Only Haggorax dared walk beside Aelarix.

The Bloody Circle was a simple thing – a circular stone platform, not more than a foot tall, surrounded by stone blocks used for seating. It overlooked the spectacular mountains beyond. As Birkir and his posse stepped onto the circle everyone else took their seats around it, chattering excitedly. Even Fuckface and Buttwort turned up, sitting in an overlooking tree with grins on their faces, hoping for an afternoon’s entertainment.

All observers were silent once Aelarix stepped onto the platform.

“What’s the plan?” whispered Haggorax.

“There’s no need for a plan. He’s a dumb dog and he’ll die like one.” she replied, and they shared a brief kiss before he stepped off the platform and watched on, arms folded.

“You’ve got to watch out for that sword of hers.” grumbled one of Birkir’s buddies.

“I know that!” he growled incredulously. “What else am I going to watch out for? Her lovely blonde locks?”

“Use your strength.” mumbled another. “One good hit and you’ll knock the sword right out of her hand. Another, and you’ll cut her in two.”

“Mmmh.” was Birkir’s reply. He starting growling to himself, geeing himself up, whacking his helmet with the blunt end of his axe. He took a big glug of water from a skin that was passed to him, spat another mouthful on the floor and offered a brief prayer to his ancestors. His gang made their way off the platform and formed a gaggle watching on.

Aelarix slid her sword from its sheath and held it out in front of her.

“Whenever you’re ready, Birkir.” she said, calmly.

Birkir took a few big breaths as he sized up his opponent, who was a head shorter than he was and stood five paces away. His big fists gripped the haft of his axe as he held it ready.

In that brief moment of quiet all you could hear was Birkir’s heavy breaths, the chirping of mountain birds, the rustling of trees and the whistling of the wind.

Birkir roared a furious battle cry. He charged at Aelarix, who didn’t move until the final movement. He swung his mighty axe, aiming to cut her in half from left shoulder to right waist. But Birkir was laden down by his heavy armour and his blow, thought mighty, was slow. Aelarix jumped aside of it. Unencumbered by heavy armour, she moved like a coiled serpent. There was a spark as Birkir’s axe clashed with the stone ground.

As Birkir lurched forward his neck was exposed. Aelarix spun on the spot, swiping her sword in an arcing flash. It bit deep, cutting the big man’s head clean off, severing his beard too.

His head dropped to the floor. The stump spurted blood, which sprayed over Aelarix’s face. She didn’t flinch.

Then his body flomped to the ground.

With a flick of her wrist the blood that was on her sword flew off and onto the ground. The stunned onlookers were silent.

“Since we’re all here,” she said, addressing the crowd, “and now that I’m properly warmed up, if there’s anyone else who would like to be Warlord of the Albrantes, now is the time to say so.”

You could have heard a pin drop.

“And what about you boys?” she said to Birkir’s sullen toadies. “Would any of his fuck buddies like to fight me? Come on now, don’t be shy. Who wants to die?”

Again, no response was forthcoming.

“Very well.” she said, turning to Henrik as she stepped off the platform. “Get them back to their training. I don’t want to waste any more time.”

“Aye, my liege.” he said with a grin.

Then she left, followed by Haggorax, who was smiling to himself.

The rest of the crowd began to disperse and go about their business, with Birkir’s chums left to pick up what was left of him.

 

Aelarix washed the blood from her face and sword in a bronze font she had in her bed chamber for just such a purpose. Haggorax sat on her vast bed, backed with elk antlers and covered in pelts and blankets.

“Will these bone-heads never learn?” she grinned as their eyes met.

Haggorax smiled back. “It must anger you.”

“No. I love it.”

“Killing your own men?”

“No. Killing my enemies. If they defy my authority then they are my enemies.”

“Well if you keep this up you won’t have any lieutenants left.” smirked Haggorax.

“I might as well do for all the good they do me. My biggest, toughest lieutenant couldn’t even handle a simple raid without stumbling into some kind of disaster.”

She began pacing about, whirling her sword in her hand, fending off imaginary foes. She started slowly at first, as if rehearsing a memorised routine, but gradually she built up speed.

“More training?” said Haggorax.

“Yes. I don’t want to get rusty. I’m disappointed Birkir didn’t put up more of a fight. I could have tried out a few moves I’ve been working on.”

She swerved aside of an imaginary axe, then sprung up into the air, and as she came back down she drove her sword down through her phantom foe’s shoulder and into his lung.

“You’re unique.” gushed Haggorax, lying down as he admired his lover’s handiwork.

“Yes I expect so.” she said, as she ducked aside of a spear and beheaded another phantasm.

“I’ve never known a woman who fights like you do. Albrante women do not fight at all.”

Aelarix paused her melee as she held her sword in front of her, admiring the purity of the shimmering steel blade. “Most women live in constant fear. Fear that they will be butchered and raped by raiders. Fear of being married off to a wife-beater. But when I hold this sword…” she said, pointing it straight at Haggorax, “I don’t have to do what I don’t want to do. I do what I want. I don’t have to fuck who I don’t want to fuck. I fuck who I want. I don’t have to marry some Drom head-taker to secure a meagre alliance. I make alliances of my own. I don’t have to fear death. I deal death instead.”

Aelarix inspected her blade’s razor edge, running her finger gently across it. “At first, once I was old enough to realise the peril a woman faces each and every day of her life, I would carry a dagger with me. Just in case someone tried to carry me away, I always had the option of taking my own life. Better to die on my own terms than to live on theirs. But eventually I realised…Why should the blade be for me? Why shouldn’t death and bloodshed be reserved for those men who would treat me as property? I suppose that’s why, deep down, I enjoy killing these traitorous bastards so much.”

“Well put, Aelarix.” said Haggorax, pulling back the blankets. “Speaking of fucking who you want to fuck…”

Aelarix gave it a moment’s thought, then sheathed her sword.

“Fine.” she said. “But keep it quick. I have to organise a new raiding party since Birkir fucked up the last one.”

 

“Tremendous performance as always, Buttwort.” said Fuckface in his native Darlothian, as he and his accomplice clambered up the rocky scree towards their cave homestead.

“You flatter me, Fuckface.” said Buttwort. “Your nads-kick reaction was sublime, as always.”

“Five bronzes all told.” said Fuckface. “Not bad for a day’s work. I think a trip to the farmsteads is in order tomorrow. What do you reckon? Chicken? Mutton?”

“You know, I’ve been craving a nice bit of greasy duck.” said Buttwort, slapping Fuckface amiably on the shoulder as they strolled into their humble abode.

The cave was small, but it was dry and cool and shielded from the mountain wind and rain. Their things – junk really – were scattered about the place along with animal bones and the bronzes they had collected over the last few days. Fuckface set about lighting a fire. Buttwort went to his store of dried meat and berries and started picking out something for supper.

Fuckface’s fire was soon burning nicely. He rubbed his hands together to warm them. Then he lay back on his wolf pelt rug and reclined with his toes by the fire.

It was only then that he realised they were not alone.

Mark jumped out of the gloom, grabbing Fuckface by the throat and looming over him. Fuckface made no noise apart from a pitiful ‘eep’.

Buttwort turned around at that movement and dropped what he was carrying, emitting a shrill scream.

“Tell you friend to shut the fuck up.” glowered Mark.

Fuckface made a shrugging gesture, pretending to be a dumb savage, and Buttwort started running around frantically, screaming and knocking things over.

“I know you can understand me. I heard you speaking Darlothian on your way up. So tell him to shut the fuck up or I’ll cut off your Johnson.”

“Righto.” said Fuckface, jitterishly, as Mark’s hand moved towards the dagger on his belt. “Buttwort old chum, could you do as the nice man instructs and shut the fuck up?”

Buttwort stopped dead still and slapped his hands over his mouth.

“Listen old man, I have questions, and I need answers. If you’re not able to answer my questions, then you and your friend are useless to me, and I’ll throw you off the cliff. Clear?”

“Crystal.” said Fuckface, with an exaggerated grin.

“I was told about two Darlothian hermits who clown about in Skarmjal begging for bronzes. That’s you two, isn’t it?”

“Yes sir.”

“Your names?”

“I’ll handle the introductions, good sir.” said Buttwort, gregariously. “I’m Dravin, my friend here is Burt. But round these parts we go by our stage-names: Buttwort and Fuckface respectively. That means…” Their stage-names had been given to them by the barbarians and so and were in the barbaric tongue.

“I know what it means. But you’re Darlothian evidently. What are you? Runaways? Criminals? Bums?”

“We’re veterans!” beamed Dravin, gesturing toward a pile of military gear – torn tunics, two rusted hauberks, a rusty sword and a rusty spear. “But, well, our farming careers didn’t provide the sort of retirement income we were expecting, what with our farms being burned down by rampaging Drom. So we came to live in the mountains, and we’ve found gainful employment as buttmonkeys for the wildfolk in Skarmjal.”

Mark growled. “Likely story.”

“Oh, err, I can corroborate it, sir, for what it’s worth.” said Burt.

Mark saw little point in arguing with the old fools. As he loosened his grip on Burt he and Dravin scuttled to the back of the cave. Mark loomed over them.

“Might I ask who told you about us?” said Dravin, nervously. “Don’t mean to pry, but we don’t make a habit of telling folk where our abode is.”

“Some Albrante. I didn’t catch his name. He’s not with us anymore.” glowered Mark “I found your cave by following you here last night.”

“And, err, might I ask what you’re doing here?” said Burt. “Not here to rob a couple of poor old beggars, I hope.”

Mark scowled. “Please. The Albrante’s hauberk was worth more than everything in this rotten cave combined. I’m here for information.”

“Righto.” said Dravin. “And how can we be of service?”

“I need to know about Skarmjal and Warlord Aelarix. The place is a fortress. How do you two get in?”

“Normally, the only way in is through the front gate.” Dravin beamed proudly. “But we’ve found a way to shimmy along the cliffs and come down round the back of Skarmshall. It’s a narrow little pathway, too small for a war-party to use, but for us two it does the trick nicely.”

“You’ve got to do it after dark though.” added Burt. “Otherwise you’ll spot you and send you packing!”

“And the Warlord? What can you tell me about her?”

“Ooh, she’s a pretty one alright. I’d like to pack that mule, if you know what I mean.” said Burt, going boggle-eyed and doing a gross humping motion.

“Enough of the jokes!” snapped Mark.

“Err, righto.” said Dravin. “She’s a fierce one alright. Some of the blokes in her tribe don’t like taking orders from a girly. But when they stand up to her, she fights them one-on-one, kills ‘em in the Bloody Circle. It’s like a fighting pit of sorts, except it’s not a pit, more of a circle as the name implies.”

“I see.” muttered Mark. “How often does this happen?”

“Every few weeks.” said Dravin.

“Interesting. She must have a lot of enemies.”

“Upstarts, really. Big-balls warriors, you know the sort. Not much going on up here.” said Dravin, knocking himself on the head.

“How does she do it exactly?”

“I tell yer, old chum, it’s a sight to behold.” said Burt. “Just today the guy was like ‘hyuuurugh’ and she was like ‘whooosh’ and cut his head right off!” he said, performing a ridiculous re-enactment.

“Yeah, but this other time she was like ‘washiiiing’, and come up right under his ribs, sword in the lung, and the guy was like ‘uuuuurk’.” said Dravin.

“This other time she was like ‘nyaaaaaw’ and came down on him with her sword, right through the shoulder, like ‘thunk’, and the guy went ‘bleeeeurgh’.” said Burt.

Mark rubbed his forehead. Their jabbering was getting unbearable. “I’ve had quite enough of your damn foolery…She’s quick, then? Nimble? Fights with a sword, goes for the neck and lungs?”

“That’s about the size of it, yes.” said Burt, with a shrug.

“And when she’s not fighting off these upstarts, is she well defended?”

Dravin made a raspberry. “There must be a hundred shield-bearers in Skarmjal! There are men standing guard round Skarshall all day, every day, not to mention her bit on the side Haggorax. I see him training sometimes. He’s no slouch with a sword neither.”

“Might this be a good time to tell us what this is all about?” suggested Burt. “I mean, maybe we can be of some further assistance? For honest pay, of course.”

Mark growled. “Fine. I’ll tell you, safe in the knowledge that if you rat me out I’ll dismember you both.”

The old loons gulped.

“I’m going to kill her.” Mark scowled.

“Yoinks!” exclaimed Dravin.

“Cripes!” said Burt. “I’m guessing’ from your accent you’re a Darlothian too?”

Mark grunted to the affirmative.

“Then you’ve come a long way to kill this bird, old chum. Might I ask why?”

“It’s nothing personal.” said Mark. “She’s an enemy of Darloth so she has to die. I just need to figure out a way to do it.”

“Right…Well…We’ve nought against the good Warlord ourselves, but we’re patriots too, and, err…Always in search of gainful employment.” shrugged Burt. “We could do a bit of spying for you. Sniffing around, you know. But we’d need to be compensated for our efforts, so…”

“Your terms?”

Burt and Dravin conferred briefly, whispering to each other in a none-too-subtle manner.

“My accomplice and I have discussed the matter, and we’d settle for two pigs and a sheep.” said Dravin.

“Done.” grunted Mark.

“Damn! Should have led with three pigs…” lamented Burt.

“Very well.” said Mark, heading off. He stopped at the mouth of the cave to deliver his final instructions. “I’ll be back every night until the deed is done. I expect you to bring me details, things I can use. Their defences, comings and goings, ravens arriving with word from afar…I want to know everything.”

“Err, alright old chum. What should we call you?” said Burt.

“Mark.” he said. “If you have to.”

“Well, Mark old boy, might we have one of our pigs a little early, as an advance payment if you will…Just in case, you know…In case you’re apprehended by one of those shield-bearers we mentioned earlier, or in case Aelarix kills you like she does to all the others. Just so that all our honest labour doesn’t go to waste, see?”

Mark gave a vague grunt before leaving. Burt and Dravin shrugged, none the wiser as to whether he had agreed or not.

 

“We have received word from the Visgoti.” said the old man. “Warlord Brogan is dead.”

There were gasps in Aelarix’s throne room. She sat upon her tall wooden throne sharpening her sword. She gave no reaction save for pausing momentarily and looking the old raven-keeper in the eye. Haggorax stood guard beside her, hands resting on the hilt of his sword. Shield-bearers and taskmasters flanked the hall, Henrik among them, assembled to hear the fateful news.

“Continue, Memnon.” said Aelarix in her forceful, controlled way as she returned to sharpening her blade.

The old man, grey-bearded and wearing brown robes, continued to impart his news. “He was killed, they say, by none other than Mark of Darloth, the King’s Champion who abandoned King Tiberix three years ago and has gone unmentioned since.”

There were gasps and murmurs from the men in the hall. Aelarix gave no reaction, save for a brief pause in her sword-sharpening which few could have noticed.

Memnon continued. “His ribs were cut open in the style of a blood-eagle sacrifice, and what is more the slayer kept one of the Visgoti alive to tell the tale. I suspect it is a warning, my liege. But a warning to whom, I do not know.”

“What of the Visgoti?” asked Aelarix.

“Here the news is graver still. Brogan’s eldest son, Hogath, was killed in the same brawl. His only remaining son, Gargon, is a young and foolhardy man. Upon being named warlord he has declared our alliance broken, and what is more he has declared war not only on the Albrantes, but on all the tribes of Lotheria.”

“The fool.” scowled Aelarix. “Have we heard from the Calvii?”

“Not yet, my liege.”

She sheathed her sword and addressed her men. “We need to muster our tribesmen for an incursion into Visgoti territory. Let’s see if we can’t ‘convince’ the clan elders to elect a different successor.”

“My liege, Brogan leaves no more male heirs.” said Memnon.

“Then they’ll just have to pick a female one. Someone who sees the wisdom of respecting your alliances, rather than declaring war on everyone who’ll listed just to prove how big your dick is. Send the order to muster, Memnon. One man in five shall stay and defend the villages. Another man in five shall defend Skarmjal. The rest will come with me.”

“Might it be wise to await the consent of the Calvii, my liege?” counselled Memnon.

“We don’t have time for that. We need to fix this before Gargon causes any more trouble. Warlord Tiroginus is a wily old man and I think he will approve of my plan, but we don’t have enough time to wait for his permission. We must act on our own initiative.”

“Should I inform him of your plan nonetheless?”

“You may send him a raven.” said Aelarix, thinking things over. “But send it on the day our warhost leaves for Visgoti-land.” There were smirks and chuckles from the men. This way there would be no time for the cautious Tiroginus to put a stop to her war-making.

“Is that all, Memnon?” she said.

“Yes, my liege.” he said, bowing low.

“Good. The rest of you: get the men whipped into shape. I wish to avoid an all-out war with the Visgoti, but I will make war if I have to. The men need to be ready for that.”

There were bows from the other attendees as Aelarix left the hall for her chamber, followed by Haggorax. The rest of the men shuffled out of the hall.

Henrik emerged to find a small band of his trainees waiting for the news. “What’s the damage, chief?” asked one of them.

“Brogan’s dead. Killed by Mark of Darloth of all people, apparently returned from wherever it is he buggered off to three years ago. We’re at war with the Visgoti and the warhost musters. I think that about covers it.”

Loitering nearby, sharing a few scraps of leftovers which had been thrown to them, were Burt and Dravin. Their expressions were so vacant and gormless, few would have guessed that they were listening intently to every word. Though they played their role as dumb Darlothian hermits they knew enough of the savage tongue to get the gist of things.

 

Aelarix paced about her chamber frantically, thinking through everything she had heard. Though she had kept her stern resolve in front of the men, now that she was alone with her lover her fists were clenched and her blood was pumping. Haggorax tried his best to speak to her, but she was in her own world.

“That execution…The blood eagle…Do you think that was a warning for you?” he asked.

“Maybe.” she said, curtly.

“Our alliance with the Visgoti and the Calvii is a tremendous threat to Darloth. Maybe he was sent to kill the warlords of the allied tribes. We’ve already seen the havoc that killing Brogan has caused. If he kills you or Tiroginus next, well…The alliance will be non-existent.”

“Hmm.” she concurred, distantly.

“He could be coming for you as we speak. We should add more guards to the doors, send out riders to find out…”

“Why, you don’t think I could defeat him?” she snapped, with a withering look.

“I…I don’t know. But I do know that’s he’s a famous killer. Before his disappearance, he must have seen off at least a dozen warlords. You’re a uniquely skilled warrior, that much is true, but could you defeat Mark of Darloth? I simply don’t know.”

“You don’t have to tell me about his skill. I have seen it.” she snapped.

Haggorax looked down at his feet, sheepishly, and shook his head. “I’m sorry. Of course. I wasn’t thinking.”

Aelarix sat down beside him and stared at the ground.

“You’ve never told me how it happened.” he said, putting his hand on hers.

Aelarix was silent for a while. Haggorax was patient, and waited until she was ready to tell her story.

“It was eight years ago. The Darlothian army caught our warhost coming out of Black Pass. We weren’t even on our way to Darloth. We were going to make war with the Calvulani. But the Darlothians thought we had grown too powerful, so they had come to decimate us. King Tiberix rode forth with his closest thegns. My father rode out to meet him. He took my brother and I with him, and a dozen huscarls.”

“My father challenged him to a fight to the death, as honour and tradition dictates. Tiberix chose his champion to fight in his stead. He summoned Mark from within the Darlothian ranks. I remember him well. Ice blue eyes. Black hair. He didn’t have his scar back them. He walked with such grim certainty, like a wolf stalking wounded prey, axes resting on his shoulders.”

“He had a reputation, sure, but it wasn’t what it is now. He had only taken the heads of a few warlords by that point. I remember being anxious for my father, but confident that he would prevail. My father was a famous warriors, strong and brave. But now that I look back on it, I think he knew he was doomed. He had the look of a man who was about to meet his fate. He kissed my brother and I on the cheek. I remember the last words he said to me: ‘Be fierce, little flower’.”

“That’s what he used to call me when I was a girl. He was so protective of me as a child. I was his little angel. I thought he would object to me becoming a warrior. But he was more proud of me than ever. Relieved, perhaps, that I had chosen a life of war, preferable as it is to life as a rival warlord’s bride.”

“I remember the look on his face as he took his sword and shield and went to meet his challenger. Grim resignation, as if he were walking into hell itself.”

“It was all over so fast. I remember the flash of the axe, the spurt of blood from my father’s neck. Most of all I remember the mocking laughter of King Tiberix and his thegns, watching the duel from atop their horses.”

“My brother was mad with grief. He took his sword and charged at Mark. The Darlothians did not intervene. They knew what was going to happen. He died just as fast as my father did.”

“I’m sorry.” said Haggorax, sensing her story was done.

Aelarix shook her head. “There’s no need. I didn’t see it at the time, for I was consumed with grief. But now that I look back on it, I see that Mark inspired me. With two swings of his axe he wiped out all the male heirs of my tribe. The battle which followed was short and chaotic. Leaderless, half of our shield-bearers were butchered there and then. So much power, all in the edge of his axe.”

She unsheathed her sword and inspected its shimmering blade. “I knew soon after that I wanted to fight like he fought. I wanted to have that much power – the power to build and break dynasties, to win and lose battles – in my own blade.”

She turned to Haggorax with an stern stare. “If he comes after me, he will find himself up against a better version of himself. For while he fought for a King, I fight for myself. I will kill him, and prove myself to be the equal of his legend.”

 

Mark returned to the old hermits every night, and they reported back to him in their own inimitable style – troop movements, goings on, Aelarix’s habits. Mark himself also scouted Skarmjal from afar, donning brown rags and a hooded cloak so that he would look like a shepherd or beggar from a distance. One night the hermits took Mark along their secret path. It was little more than a secluded gorge in the cliff-face which they could shimmy across all the way to the walls of Skarmjal. There, a gap in the palisade was plugged by a boulder which the old farts could heave aside, leaving a gap large enough to crawl through. It would be a squeeze, but Mark reckoned he could fit through it. But not yet. He would have to bide his time.

Otherwise Mark spent his time hunting for food, and on one occasion stealing a pig as payment for the hermits’ services. It wasn’t plain sailing by any means. Stealing a squealing pig from a mountainside farmhouse manned by a dozen Albrante barbarians is no easy feat.

By night he would hide out in a makeshift bivouac he built on the mountainside. It was a miserable way to spend an evening – he was chilled by the howling wind and snow, and sodden whenever the heavens opened.

Dravin and Burt had just finished their report of the day’s goings on, with news of Brogan’s death and the mustering of the Albrante warhost.

“You killed the fellow Brogan, then?” asked Dravin.

“Mhmm.” confirmed Mark, deep in thought as they sat round a fire in the hermits’ cave.

“They say you’re some kind of warlord-slayer. Are you famous?”

“You could say that.”

“Well we’ve never heard of you, but then we’re a bit behind the times up ‘ere.” said Burt, cleaning out his ear-hole with his finger.

Mark rubbed his chin in rumination. “If the warhost marches for Visgoti-land, Aelarix will go with them. That will make things more complicated. I need to kill her before she leaves.”

“But how?” wondered Burt, with a shrug.

“I remember something…” said Mark, trying to recall the scene. “I killed an Albrante warlord once before. I forget his name, but I remember the fight. He had his son and daughter with him. I killed the son, too, but the daughter lived. She must have been Aelarix…Yes, that would make sense. She would be about the right age by now.”

Mark looked hard into the fire as he though things through. “She’s a famous warrior, constantly asked to prove herself by a string of challengers. She fights them one-on-one, as honour would dictate, and always proves to be a match for them. Suppose I were to challenge her…I’m an enemy, a Darlothian, who dares to pit myself against her. And what is more I killed her father and brother. She would fight me one-on-one, I think, just like the others. I just need to send her an invitation.”

Dravin nodded with a mock-sage expression. “Now I’ve seen this bird fight off more pretenders than I can remember. Are you sure you can beat her?”

“Don’t worry.” glowered Mark. “I never underestimate a foe.”

“And how do you intend to send this invitation?” asked Burt. “You can’t exactly waltz up to Skarmshall and throw down a gauntlet!”

Once again Mark thought back to his duel against Aelarix’s father. “That warlord…Her father…He said something to her before he fought me. It must have affected me somehow because I remembered the phrase even thought I couldn’t speak the language at the time. The sight of this man kissing his children one last time, knowing that he was going to die by my hand, stirred something within me. Perhaps it was seeing his bravery and dignity – a noble savage is a rare thing. After the battle I asked a scholar what it meant.”

“Oh?” said Dravin.

“He said ‘Be fierce, little flower’. I must be the only man alive who heard him speak those words. So this can be my message.” Mark turned his gaze to the two bums. “And you’re going to deliver it for me.”

“Us?” protested Burt. “How are we supposed to get a message to the good Warlord?”

“I don’t know yet.” admitted Mark. “But if you want the rest of your payment you’re going to have to find a way. In fact, if you can figure out a way to get my message to her without anyone else hearing it, I’ll steal you a damn cow. On the house.”

Burt and Dravin looked at each other and grinned broad, gap-toothed grins.

 

For the next few days the old farts worked feverishly trying to come up with a plan to deliver Mark’s message without being roughhoused by her bodyguards or blood-eagled for assisting a would-be assassin. They came up with all manner of ideas, schemes involving deception, costumes, projectiles, role-play. Burt’s schemes usually revolved, suspiciously, around him dressing up as an exotic whore from some far-off land to seduce her bodyguards. Dravin’s plans usually focused on a catapult of some sort – his best idea was to write Mark’s message onto the side of a pig and launch it into the side of Skarmshall. Burt rightly pointed out that this would be a waste of a good pig, and that although the plan might bear fruit and reward them with a cow, a pig in the hand is worth more than a cow in the bush.

Eventually, opportunity knocked. Over the coming days men began to arrive from the surrounding villages and farmsteads. The tribe’s warriors were gathering for the warhost, and they set up camps among the mountains around Skarmjal. The chieftains of these villages and the heads of the Albrante clans were gathering in Skarmshall, awaiting a grand feast to commemorate their march to war.

Burt and Dravin did some of their best work as Fuckface and Buttwort. The chiefs and their assorted toadies hadn’t seen any of their material before, so they got some good value out of their tried and tested routines. The bronze flowed aplenty.

On one occasion a burly blonde-haired chief was red-faced with laughter, and his men were falling about themselves at the hermits’ childish japery.

“Henrik, my old friend,” he said between guffaws, “we’ve got to get these fuckheads to perform for the feast. It’ll give us a break from all those tedious bards with their bloody epics!”

“Why not? What could be the harm?” chuckled Henrik.

That night they reported back to Mark, and their plan was put in place.

 

The next evening the feast was in full swing. The noblest chiefs and headsmen of the Albrantes were crammed around a series of feasting tables with their closest family and hangers-on. There was heavy drinking, of course, and they wolfed down meat from vast platters. Aelarix didn’t take much part in the merriment. She simply sat upon her throne at the head of the biggest table and sipped her mead slowly. Haggorax was at her side, as always, his sheathed sword resting on his shoulder. Henrik watched on from the sidelines, and some of his trainees waited in the wings ready to break up any inevitable bust-ups. Harps and flutes played pleasant background music, though they were largely drowned out by the tumult of the bawdy feast-goers.

Now and then a bard would enter and give a reading of their epic poems, recounting tales of long-dead chieftains, monster-slayers and heroes. Some, the most pompous and boring, were ignored and drowned out by chatter, or heckled with groans and put-downs. Others, the more bawdy and lewd, got a good reception, and every punchline was met with fists banging on tables. Throughout all of this Aelarix remained impassive.

In an interval between readings the blonde chief, Morgrim his name, rose from his seat and clattered his brass goblet against his iron helmet to get everyone’s attention. Some of the crowd cheered as they saw him standing up, swaying under the influence of booze, and pouring himself another drink once he realised he’d spilt his mead all over his head. When at last he had a full goblet raised, he made a toast.

“Here’s to Aelarix, the toughest warlord in all of Lotheria, sharpest blade in the tribeslands!” he roared, taking a swig.

He got a good cheer from the punters, and even a cursory nod of approval from Aelarix, so he decided to double down and make another toast. “The toughest bitch I ever knew, and the prettiest pussy I wouldn’t dare to fuck!” There was more of an ‘oooo’ than a cheer this time, but Aelarix pretended to smile so that all could see that no offence had been taken.

Not content with two toasts, Morgrim went in for another. “And here’s to Haggorax, the blushing beauty on her arm, and he’s a fairly pretty pussy too!”

The room was deathly silent this time around as he took another swig. Aelarix’s eyes thinned into a terrible glare. Her hand reached for her sword, sheathed and lying on the table in front of her.

“Aelarix, it was just a joke, and no offence need be taken.” said Haggorax, hurriedly.

Henrik decided now would be a good time for a little distraction.

“Bring in the fools!” he bellowed, and at once the awkward silence was replaced with raucous cheers as Fuckface and Buttwort were dragged into the hall by two burly men. Morgrim was dragged back onto his seat by his less inebriated followers, who breathed a sigh of relief as Aelarix’s glare turned from Morgrim to the fools, no less disdainfully for it.

Fuckface swaggered from one end of the hall to the other, theatrically polishing an apple. Then, just as he was ready to take a bite, Buttwort let out his trademark ‘scree’ and charged at him. And so the stage was set for an epic showdown, a mighty battle which would determine the fate of that juicy Granny Smith.

They pulled out all the stops – slaps, punches, throws. They whacked each other with heavy objects and chucked foodstuffs in each other’s faces. There were gonad-kicks and even a finger up the arse, ridiculous faces aplenty, and a symphony of daft noises. It was their magnum opus. Every hit, every mug pulled, every squeal and raspberry got a great reception from the helpfully pissed crowd. Aelarix watched on with completely unconcealed disdain.

For the grand finale, Buttwort, incensed at having his arse played like a pair of tribal drums, pulled a sword from a nearby chieftain’s sheath and charged at Fuckface with a terrible, wailing battle cry. The sword bit, wedging between arm and ribcage. There were gasps.

Fuckface’s death was played for all it was worth, with a variety of hammy faces and many gestures of lamentation. He swayed this was and that in his death throes until, finally, he fell down at the side of Aelarix’s throne. There he whispered his final words to her and her alone, and then finally collapsed.

She winced at first as the pungent old man whispered in her ear, but as she listened to his words her expression changed to surprise, and then contemplation.

“Be fierce, little flower. Tonight.”

Once the old fool had finally met his maker Aelarix, who had clearly hated the entire wretched performance, shot up and clapped. Everyone else followed suit, bashing their fists on the tables. Bronze bars were thrown at them from every direction, and Buttwort gratefully collected them in a helmet that was lying around. Fuckface leapt to his feet and, together, they bowed low and scuttled off out of the hall.

Aelarix sat back down and rested her chin on her hands. She didn’t say another word for the entire feast.

 

Aelarix lay awake in her bed until Haggorax was fast asleep. She lifted his arm off her waist, shuffled aside on the bed and gave him a gentle kiss on the lips. As she began getting dressed she was deep in thought. She strapped her sword to her back, took one last look at her sleeping lover, took a deep breath and headed out of her chamber.

She walked through the feasting hall, where many of the chiefs and their attendants were sleeping on roll mats and, in some cases, the bare tables. Most of them were blind drunk, snoring terribly, some still clutching horns of mead. The leftovers, plates and goblets were littered all over the place.

The men standing guard bowed their heads as she passed, as did the two men manning the doors of Skarmshall.

“You are excused of your duties. Go back to your homes.” she said to them.

“Warlord, we cannot…”

“Don’t make me ask again.” she snapped. “Nobody would dare attack us tonight with our strength fully mustered. And you two will need a good night’s sleep for tomorrow’s march.”

They wouldn’t dare question her a second time, and so set off sheepishly to their homes.

With them gone, Aelarix looked out over Skarmjal, lit by the light of the bulbous moon. The wind was still. It was snowing gently, and already a thin layer of snow was beginning to build on the ground. She looked out towards the Bloody Circle, and there she saw the silhouette of a figure. She took another deep breath, which became white mist in the air, and began her approach.

As she paced towards the figure the only noise was her slow footsteps. Nobody else stirred in Skarmjal. The cliffs outside the hillfort were dotted with pin-pricks of light, campfires made by the mustered tribesmen.

As she drew nearer she could make out the figure more clearly. It was a man, tall, and with a sword in his hand. His shoulders were made broad by his wolf pelt cloak.

As she drew nearer still, step by purposeful step, she thought about her father and her brother, killed by Mark’s hand. She thought about all the men she had killed to get to where she was now. She thought about her tribe, which she had dragged from ruin to become a force to be reckoned with once more. But she had no heirs. If she were to die, the Albrantes would be plunged into chaos. She thought about Haggorax, the only man she had ever learnt to love since her father and brother were taken from her.

But as she stepped onto the platform all that was left in her mind was the glory of killing the most feared warrior in the world. Not for vengeance, but for the glory that comes with being unmatched. At that moment the promise of glory was all that mattered to her.

They stood five faces apart. The snow fell around them. Aelarix glared at Mark, a dark spectre lit up by the moonlight. His cold eyes peered back from the gloom. His sword, Albrante-made, matched hers in size and length. She slid her sword from its scabbard.

They stood still for a while. Looking each other up and down. Taking in the moment. Feeling the cold air and the melting snowdrops on their skin. Sensing the rush of blood in their veins and the beating of their hearts within their chests. Beyond them, the moon lit up the mighty Hindengaust Range. A fitting backdrop for one’s last moment. And for one of them it would be just that.

Aelarix took a step, and Mark followed. They began slowly circling each other, and gradually, very gradually, inched closer. They could see the glint of moonlight off each other’s eyes, and the shimmer of their swords. They began to plan their moves as they gripped the hilts of their blades more tightly, each imagining the duel that was about to unfold, running through scenarios, picturing their killing blows.

Then they stopped a sword’s length apart. They stared into each other’s eyes, seeing who would blink first and strike the first blow. They stood there for what seemed like an eternity, eyes locked, breathing slowly.

Mark would be the first to strike.

He thrust his blade, fast as a viper. But his intake of breath had forewarned Aelarix, and she ducked back and knocked the sword aside. She swung her blade, and Mark parried. Their swords span in glittering circles, clashing again and again. Both were a flurry of iron, fast as lightning, unrelenting.

Using his height, Mark rose above Aelarix and began raining down powerful blows. Aelarix kept her focus and turned them aside, one after another, and her sword clanged and shuddered with each hit. She weaved aside of his heaviest blows and counterattacked with darting jabs and thrusts. Mark was equal to it, knocking each strike aside as it came.

Mark bared his teeth as he swung his blade double-handed. Aelarix darted aside and it whooshed past her. It was a heavy blow, and would have torn her in two had it hit its mark, but Mark lurched forward as he swung. This was her opening. She span, her sword flashing out. The blade struck Mark’s neck.

She gasped and staggered back as her blade hit iron. Where she had expected flesh to shear and blood to erupt, instead sparks flew from Mark’s neck. She took a couple of steps back and held out her sword, defensively, as Mark rubbed his neck. He was wearing a thick iron collar beneath his wolf pelt.

Aelarix scowled. “Coward.”

Mark disagreed. Part of defeating one’s enemy is assessing their strengths and weaknesses, noting their modes of attack, picking the weapons and armour for the job. His task had been made more difficult by not having seen her fight before. But this disadvantage was rapidly diminishing. He had now seen her fighting style up close and personal. But besting it would be a sterner test.

The two circled each other once more as more snow settled on the platform. Each footstep now crunched. They regained their breath, readied their swords, and the fighting began anew.

Mark struck first, but Aelarix’s sword was a blur and she turned the blow aside. Her own rapid counter-attack was blocked by Mark’s sword. They traded blows, ducking and weaving, sparks flying as the swords bit at one another. Then Mark went for an overarm swipe. His blow was a heavy one, and as his sword cleaved through air Aelarix jumped aside of it, and as she came down her sword fell like an arrow, stabbing into Mark’s shoulder.

Again, iron hit iron. Aelarix dashed out of reach and cursed in frustration. Mark rubbed his shoulder, protected by a thick metal plate beneath his jerkin and pelt.

“I’ve killed you twice now.” she protested. “I have a mind to call in my shield-bearers to deal with you. That’ll teach you for not fighting fair.”

“Very well.” said Mark, in her own tongue. “Fair is fair.” He began to remove his jerkin, his cloak and the metal plates he had strapped to his body beneath them, protecting his neck and lungs.

Aelarix was taken aback. “You speak the tongue of the Lotherians?”

“Yes.” was Mark’s gruff reply as he threw off the last of his armour plates. He was topless now, the moonlight illuminating his muscular, scarred torso, black bruises forming on his neck and shoulder where Aelarix’s blade had hit his armour.

“That’s more like it.” she said, and the two of them circled each other once more with eyes locked.

Their third bout went much like the first two. They traded blows, swords flashing in the moonlight, their blades emitting shrill clangs as they struck one another again and again. But then Mark went for a killer blow, sweeping his sword to take off her head. The blow was a little heavy, and Aelarix anticipated it. He lurched forward a little as his blade swept through cold air. Aelarix capitalised.

She leapt forward, thrusting upwards with her sword gripped in both hands. It should have gone up under Mark’s ribcage and punctured his lung. Instead he swerved at just the right moment as if he had predicted the strike. The blade went between his ribs and his arm, slicing through a chunk of armpit. Blood ran down the blade, but Aelarix knew at once that it was a superficial blow.

Still wincing from the blow, Mark brought down his sword, cutting through Aelarix’s arm at the elbow. She cried out as her arm fell to the ground, sword with it, and she fell to her knees.

Blood spurted from her stump momentarily, but it stopped after a few moments, and she stopped screaming after the initial shock of dismemberment.

She was done for. She knew that already. And only now, as Mark paced behind her and grabbed her by the hair, was it dawning on her how it had happened.

“I should have killed you twice.” she said between painful pants. “But your armour saved you. It let you learn how I fight. Learn how to beat me.”

“Yes.”

She spat out a mouthful of phlegm. “Damn dirty tricks. I would have beaten you!”

“We’ll never know for sure.”

Aelarix managed a grim laugh. “Not knowing is the worst part.”

“Take it as a compliment.” said Mark, pressing the edge of his sword gently against her neck. “I’ve never needed to use tricks before. I only did it because I didn’t know if I could beat you. Ready?”

Aelarix took one last look at the snow falling down onto the mountains. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

“Ready.”

Mark slid the blade across, opening her throat. Blood spurted out, turning the white snow red. She shuddered at the blade bit, but it was a quick kill. She fell to the floor face-down a heartbeat later.

Mark threw his bloodied sword to the floor and briefly inspected his wound. It was a sore one, and would need to be cauterised, but he would live to fight another day. Then he turned Aelarix’s body over, blood still seeping from her neck. He ripped open her jerkin, revealing her sternum, and took a hunting knife from his belt.

“No!” screamed Haggorax.

He had awoken to find himself alone in Aelarix’s bed. He had seen how pensive she was at the feast and was worried about her. He had meant to ask her about it that night, but somehow the timing didn’t seem right. Of course she was pensive, he thought. She’ll be riding out with a warhost of burly soldiers in the morning.

He’d gone to find her and comfort her if he could. He’d looked around the feasting hall and asked the guards stationed there. He’d gone outside to see if she had gone for a walk, or to sit and watch the sunrise because she couldn’t sleep, as had happened so often before.

But here is where he found her. Splayed out on the Bloody Circle, her blood smeared across the snow, a dark warrior looming over her dead body with a carving knife.

He roared in fury and anguish as he charged. His sword swung wildly. Mark leapt aside of the blow, grabbed him by the hair and pulled him back. His boots slipped on the snow and blood beneath his feet. He smashed his head on the stone as he fell. The sword fell from his hands.

Mark kicked the sword away as Haggorax lay dazed on the ground.

“I’m sorry. This will be over soon.” was all Mark could think to say. He knew the man’s pain and he was keen to put him out of his misery. Before the warrior had regained his senses he rammed the knife into his throat.

Taking a moment to regain his breath, Mark turned back to Aelarix and the task at hand. He did not relish the prospect of what was ahead. He had no personal quarrel with this woman, and she had impressed him as a warrior. But it needed to be done nonetheless.

As Mark readied the knife at her sternum, he stopped suddenly. There was something about her face. Her dark blue eyes, still open but glazed over. The blood smeared on her pale skin. It took him back to another time, another place.

He shook his head and regained his senses. He would do what he had to. He had a message to send to a man he had once met. He wanted him to know that he was coming for him, that he was destined to become like Brogan and Aelarix – ripped corpses, splayed out for all their men to see. He wanted him to feel fear.

 

“Spectacular! Marvellous! Magnificent!” enthused Dravin as he and Burt scrambled up the cliff towards their cave.

“A great haul!” concurred Burt, holding aloft the helmet full of bronzes – although in truth, the helmet was probably worth more than its contents. “Now I wonder how young Mark got on with his assassination business…”

Their wondering was soon over as they hauled themselves up into their cave. When they saw what was inside they skipped about with joy, cheering.

A pig. A goat. And a cow. All still living. The cow had its legs bound with rope and was braying madly.

“The boy’s mad!” marvelled Dravin. “How on earth has he managed to pilfer half a farm on a single night, and for that matter how did he manage to drag a live cow up a mountainside? Mad, I say, mad!”

 

Chapter Four: Hesetti

 

King Tiberix, flanked by his toughest thegns, stood opposite Vrakkar, Warlord of the Drom, and a handful of his henchmen.

The meeting place was a clearing in the Grimwold Forest. Though you could scarcely have picked a name that better reflected the dense, dank forestry of Grimwold, thick with briars and scattered swamps, this particular clearing was spectacularly beautiful. It was a marsh of sorts, but the water was crystal clear and rose to half way up a man’s calf. Mossy mounds formed islands and pathways running through it. Surrounding the clearing were the tall, dark trees of the forest proper. The sun shone brightly overhead, making the water glisten.

King Tiberix was strong and vibrant for a man of his age. His hair and beard were long, full and black. His nose was hooked, and his eyes were dark, glaring and fierce. He wore his famous crown, an iron helmet adorned with a bronze crown, and wore a hauberk and jerkin. At his side was his longsword, his iron-shod hand resting on the pommel.

He was joined by his toughest thegns in all their battle gear, Kilbane among them, a few young lads to hold the reins of their horses just behind, and an interpreter wearing brown robes which he lifted above his knees to keep from getting wet.

A hundred paces behind them, just beyond the treeline, the Darlothian army was amassed. Their tall shields bore the emblem of Darloth, a black fortress, and their banners flapped in the wind. The troops, drafted in from Darloth’s many farms and villages, were mainly country bumpkins, but they were a stern and sturdy lot, each wearing chainmail and iron helms, and carrying an assortment of spears, swords, bows and crossbows. They stood silent and ready.

Vrakkar was a huge and mighty man, clad head to toe in dark metal plates and carrying a massive spiked mace and a massive spiked tower shield. His face, what of it was visible through the grill of his helmet, was brutish yet ageing, with a short white beard and a pale, scarred eye. He had a number of henchmen of his own, topless apart from wolf pelts and red war paint, and he had his own interpreter, a wizened old druid.

Behind him, again just beyond the treeline, was the Drom horde. They were dressed like Vrakkar’s henchmen, and carried an assortment of cruel weapons – axes, maces, flails – and tall wooden shields. In contrast to the Darlothians they bayed for the blood of the wall-builders, pointing their weapons at them threateningly.

“Are you sure you want to go through this whole rigmarole, Vrakkar? I assume, from the amount of armour you’re wearing, that you know who you’re up against.” said Tiberix, with a cruel and confident smirk. As he spoke, his interpreter spoke his words in the savage tongue. “Aren’t you getting a bit old for this nowadays? Those legs starting to creak yet? I know the feeling. I struggle to get out of bed some days. And all of a sudden I can’t seem to stop pissing. Wouldn’t you rather call it quits, and skulk back to whatever shithole you savages call home?”

Vrakkar’s interpreter was made redundant by his warlord’s response. He spat out a glob of phlegm and smashed his mace against his shield, making a loud clang.

“So be it.” said Tiberix, just about suppressing a grim. “I choose my champion, Mark, to fight in my stead.”

“Mark!” roared Kilbane.

There was a sense of anticipation from all parties, barbarian and wall-builder both, as Mark emerged from the Darlothian battle-line, axes resting on his shoulders. His stride was deliberately slow as he made his way towards the men waiting for him in the middle of the clearing.

Ancient battle-law dictates that the leaders of warhosts must offer champions to fight to the death before a battle begins. In ancient times this was a way of avoiding mass bloodshed – if a quarrel could be resolved by the duelling of two men alone, it could prevent a battle that might lead to hundreds of deaths. In latter days the battle would more often go ahead regardless. Though largely redundant these days the tradition of the pre-battle duel remained.

It is the nature of barbarian societies that the warlord, the head of the tribe, has earned his position by being bigger, meaner and braver than anyone else. For this reason, most warlords would not countenance putting up a champion, but instead will fight personally to preserve their status as top dog. When it comes to Lotheria warfare, warlords typically live and die by the strength of their arms rather than their wisdom in governance or battle nous – although there are some notable exceptions.

Darlothians, who consider themselves a breed apart from the unwashed savages of Lotheria, obey these ancient rites, but the Darlothian King has no compunction in offering up a champion to do battle. They are the King’s Champion, the finest fighter in all of Darloth, who would train daily for the sole purpose of slaying enemy warlords in single combat.

If their warlord died then a tribe would be leaderless and demoralised in battle, or perhaps provoked into a spontaneous civil-war if pretenders to the throne started staking their claims there and then. If the King’s Champion dies, and it is a great honour to die in such a manner, then the King lives on to lead his men in the coming battle. For generations, this had given the Darlothians an advantage against their barbarian foes.

As Mark waded through the glittering water to Tiberix’s side, Vrakkar locked hateful eye upon his enemy and snarled, revealing rotting teeth. His henchmen began to back away, as did Tiberix’s thegns.

“You ready, lad?” Tiberix asked in a hushed tone.

“May I borrow your sword?” said Mark.

“Our course. What’s your thinking?” said Tiberix, unsheathing his sword and handing it to him.

“Having a look at his armour, I think a sword will be quicker. Can you hold these?” he said, handing over his two axes.

“By all means.” said Tiberix, taking them. “Wouldn’t you like to keep one just in case?”

“That won’t be necessary.”

Tiberix grinned. “I like your confidence, boy. Do me proud.” he said, slapping him on the shoulder and set off to join his thegns.

Mark and Vrakkar stood opposite each other for a while, sizing each other up, looking each other up and down. Mark listened to Tiberix’s splashing footsteps as he rejoined the thegns and waited until they stopped. Only then did he begin to advance towards Vrakkar, one slow pace at a time.

Vrakkar didn’t move until Mark was a few of paces away from him. A war cry erupted from his mouth, and the behemoth lumbered towards him, heavy footfalls splashing into the water. He swung his mace down at Mark, who jumped aside. The mace hit the water, sending a plume of glittering droplets flying upwards.

Even before Mark’s feet hit the water again he swung out with his sword. It skimmed just above the brute’s shield and ripped through the gap between his breastplate and his helmet.

Mark landed, his feet splashing into the pool.

Vrakkar’s head landed shortly after, blood staining the water red.

The body fell a heartbeat later.

Cue cheers from the watching Darlothians, and jeers from the Drom, who watched their legendary warlord being cut to pieces in a matter of moments. Tiberix and his thegns laughed long and hard.

Mark strode back towards them casually, Tiberix’s now bloody sword resting on his shoulder. His part in the battle was over. He had done his duty.

The battle which followed was a formality. Lacking leadership and furious at Vrakkar’s unceremonious death, the Drom charged headlong across the sodden clearing through a storm of arrows and bolts, and once they reached the Darlothian lines, now an impenetrable wall of locked shields and a thicket of spears, they were exhausted. Demoralised, they put up little resistance, and were soon scattered. The clearing was left littered with their bleeding corpses.

 

It was on the march back to Darloth that Mark first saw her. They passed through Calvulani territory, and having suppressed the Drom, the strongest tribe in the region at the time, the Calvulani sued for peace. To ensure their good faith, King Tiberix demanded a prisoner of great importance to their tribe.

The handover happened early one morning at the Darlothian encampment. King Tiberix had staged the event expertly to assert the dominance of Darloth over the grovelling Calvulani. In the camp, surrounded by onlooking soldiers and their tents, King Tiberix sat upon a wooden throne surrounded by the weapons and shields of the defeated Drom as well as a posse of his best men. As King’s Champion, Mark acted as Tiberix’s bodyguard when on campaign, and he stood beside his throne, his axes resting on his shoulders.

The Calvulani delegation was intentionally pitiful, barely filling out a single chariot. There was their Warlord, Magraxi, a venerable yet sturdy old man with long white hair who wore bronze armour. Beneath his arm was his helmet, which bore a crown of bronze briars. He, like the others, was unarmed. There was his charioteer, covered in swirling blue tattoos. There was a druid, a wise elder who cannot engage in battle, and whom it is a terrible dishonour to kill. He had been taken along as a translator, and also to guard against any ploy to slaughter the delegation.

Finally there was the prisoner: Hesetti, Magraxi’s daughter and his only child. She was a beauty, and had been beautified to make her seem a more valuable prize for the King of Darloth. Her hair, long and flowing, blazed red. Her skin was fair, almost as pale as her flowing white dress. Her features could scarcely have been arranged more perfectly. She was no waif – she was tall and strong, like most barbarian women. She wore golden torcs around her neck and arms and had flowers in her hair. Her eyes were deep blue, and locked in a steely and hateful glare trained on the Darlothian King.

Mark, for his part, glowered at the Calvulani. They were barbarians. Scum. Warmongers, raiders and rapists. No amount of beautification could hide that. He hated them all, and had trained his whole life to kill their warlords.

All in attendance were silent as the chariot came to a halt and Magraxi stepped off, dragging his daughter with him and followed by the druid. Her fists were clenched and her arms were stiff, her glare still fixed on Tiberix. Tiberix himself had a stern, stately look about him, raising his head slightly so he could look down his considerable nose at them.

Magraxi and Hesetti came to a halt just in front of Tiberix’s throne. The Calvulani warlord was sweating and looked nervous, understandably so. Magraxi stepped forward and fell to one knee, bowing low, presenting his helmet to Tiberix. Tiberix nodded magnanimously, and Magraxi left his helmet where it was and stepped back next to his daughter.

Magraxi spoke and his druid translated into Darlothian. “King Tiberix, mightiest of Kings, I present to you, as a sign of good faith in our truce, my daughter and sole heir: Hesetti.”

Tiberix did not reply, but simply bowed his head.

Magraxi couldn’t help but notice the lustful gaze of the men who had come to watch. Their eyes were fixed on his daughter, who was a picture of silent fury.

“As you are aware, King Tiberix, Hesetti is betrothed to Algrim, nephew of Habernach, Warlord of the Pictoi, and it is a term of our arrangement that she will be delivered to the Pictoi in one year’s time. When she is taken to them she will be unharmed, and she will be a virgin.”

Tiberix laughed aloud. “I am indeed aware of that, Magraxi. I’ll take this opportunity to reiterate this point to my men.”

Tiberix stood and address the gathered troops. “Now I realise, men, that half of you have hard-ons as we speak, but let me make this crystal clear. Nobody fucks this woman. She may be pleasing to the eye, but think of her not as a woman, but instead as a mountain cat. You may admire the cat’s beauty from afar, but you wouldn’t stick your dick in one.” he said, to much laughter. Hesetti scoffed and Magraxi blushed as his druid sheepishly translated.

“Because if you do, I’ll tear your nads of.” he said, before turning back to Magraxi. “And to ensure her safety, and as a sign of good fair, I will assign my very own bodyguard to protect her, the most potent killer in all of Lotheria and Darloth combined. If there’s a man alive who can get past him to your lovely daughter, I don’t want to meet him.”

He turned to Mark with a grin. “Mark, meet your new friend, Hesetti. I think you’re going to get along tremendously.”

The two glared at each other with furious, hateful eyes.

 

The march back to Tirigast was a long one, and Mark was set the unenviable task of guarding their new captive. Guarding his King was boring enough but at least there was honour in it. But guarding some barbarian wench? That was both tedious and humiliating.

For the first few days she was in an almighty strop. She said nothing, just glaring at whoever happened to be nearby with those furious blue eyes. On the road or in the camp, the men would gawp at her and make lewd remarks and gestures. She would snarl back at them, and they would laugh in her face. None dared get too close, mind you, for Mark rode at her side, and stood watch outside her tent when they made camp. Nobody would dare to cross him.

The two of them barely registered each other’s existence, except for the occasional moment when their eyes would meet and they would glare at each other, hatefully.

On one occasion Hesetti was storming about the camp for no apparent reason. Mark followed her two steps behind. She turned round and shouted at him.

“Will you fuck off and stop following me?”

Some of the men nearby laughed and went ‘ooooo’. Mark stayed right where he was, glaring at her.

“Look,” she said, exasperated, “I just need a little time on my own. I’m going for a walk.”

She stormed off towards the treeline of a nearby forest. Mark followed her as closely as ever. He was there not just to protect her from lusty Darlothian soldiers, but also to make sure she didn’t run off.

Hesetti looked back and rolled her eyes as she saw him following. As she pressed on towards the forest Mark tried to catch up with her.

“That’s enough. We need to get back.” he growled.

Hesetti turned in a flash and kneed him in the bollocks. Mark bent double and gasped for breath. Instinctively he whipped an axe from his belt and aimed it at her back as she made a break for the forest. It was only then that he remembered this was a political captive and not some barbarian bushwhacker. He gave chase, but she was fast and unencumbered by armour, and was soon lost in the trees.

As Mark dashed into the thicket and undergrowth of the forest he realised he had lost sight of her. He started to panic as he looked around the forest, hurriedly stepping over fallen logs and dashing between great oaks. The evening sun shone pillars of light through the canopy, but it was still dingy and difficult to see in there.

“Shit.” he cursed. He’d lost her. The consequences didn’t bear thinking about. Tiberix would be furious. Even worse, he’d be disappointed.

He pressed on into the forest, looking around desperately. It was then that he heard a splash. He dashed up to the nearest tree and pressed his back against. He slowly peeked around the tree to see a flowing stream, clear water meandering around rock formations and tree roots. He turned back out of view. He listened to what sounded like someone wading through the water. Perhaps it was her. Or maybe it was a barbarian scout shadowing the Darlothian army. Either way, his approach would be similar.

He readied his axe, and charged.

Mark burst out from his hiding place, axe in hand ready to intimidate the girl or split the scout in two.

Hesetti was swimming in the stream. Her dress was lying in a pile near to where Mark was standing, flabbergasted. She turned to see him, and Mark’s heart skipped a beat.

Mark turned round in a flash, averting his eyes from her nakedness. He heard a splash and dripping water as she stood up and walked out of the stream.

“I was just having a wash.” she said.

“We need to go.” Mark grunted.

Hesetti said nothing for a moment, enjoying his embarrassment. “Can you pass me my dress?” she asked, teasing him.

Mark couldn’t understand her. He turned around just enough to see her pointing at the dress. He walked over to it and picked it up, keeping his eyes off her at all times, shoving it in her general direction.

“Thanks.” she said as she took it. Once she was dressed she walked up beside him. “Alright. Let’s go.”

Mark, red-faced and flustered, grabbed her by the arm.

“Ouch, fuck! Calm down!” she snarled. Mark grunted, and dragged her off through the forest.

He dragged her all the way back to the camp as roughly as he dared with such a valuable prisoner. By the time he finally dragger her back into her tent her dress was ripped and covered in mud, and her feet were cut by brambles. When he threw her into her tent she turned round and spat at him. He snarled and turned away, storming out of the tent and standing guard outside, seething.

Thegn Kilbane and some of his men had been watching all this unfold with some amusement.

“The girl giving you trouble, lad?” smirked the thegn.

Mark mumbled something indistinct.

“You know, if she’s getting too big for her boots, a good smash to the chops might do her some good.”

“The matter is in hand.” insisted Mark, and Kilbane and his men laughed.

“Look at him. Typical bloke.” chuckled Kilbane. “He’s cool-headed when he’s going to duel some fearsome warlord. But force him to spend time with a moody woman, and his temper’s as short as a horny wolverine’s!”

 

On her first night in Tirigast, King Tiberix and his thegns feasted on roasted boar and drank ale in the great feasting hall. They wolfed down meat with their bare hands and glugged from their tankards. They ate in silence aside from the sound of their own guzzling. Torches and a blazing fireplace lit the room.

The silence was broken as the great doors of the feasting hall swung open. “Move.” said Mark, curtly, as he ushered Hesetti into the hall.

The thegns perked up as they looked upon the sullen beauty. They chuckled and muttered lewd remarks to one another as she was led to her seat by her grim bodyguard. She wore plainer clothes now, a simple blue dress. Exhausting by having to stare hatefully for two weeks’ ride, her glare was now one of resignation and casual disdain. She ignored the mocking laughter of the thegns, and refused to meet their lusty glares. She sat down at the table where a plate of over-boiled vegetables had been prepared for her. It was a dish far more fitting for a woman than spear-won boar. She glanced over at Tiberix, who gestured towards her plate, and with a weary sign she began excavating it with her cutlery.

Mark stood just behind her, hand resting on the haft of the axe at his side. He looked pent-up and paranoid, as if he half expected an assassin to leap out of the shadows and attack at any moment. The stress of watching over the snide madam was clearly getting to him.

“You can take a break, Mark.” said the King. “Nothing’s going to happen to her here. Come, sit and eat.”

“I ate already.” growled Mark, and he stayed exactly where he was. Tiberix and Kilbane shared a chuckle. They had trained the boy well.

A fat, middle-aged thegn with an eyepatch had been watching Hesetti since she’d walked in. As she gingerly pushed the boiled turnip around her plate he began to chuckle to himself. He nudged the thegn next to him in the ribs and gave his two cents.

“Not very talkative is she, eh? I though barbarian women were supposed to be a bolshie lot”

The other thegn chuckled. “Aye. Not bad to look at, mind.”

“Oh aye,” the one-eyed thegn concurred, “not bad at all for a savage. I like ‘em tall. Means there’s more of ‘em to fondle.”

There were grins and chuckles from the other thegns. Tiberix’s fierce gaze turned, briefly, from the bone he was gnawing on to the fat old thegn, but his attention turned back to his food soon enough. Hesetti realised the joke was at her expense, and she shot the one-eyed man a hateful look.

He laughed as he met her glare. “What’s wrong, wench, you don’t like root vegetables? It’s the lifeblood of Darloth, love. Our farmers and milkmaids were raised on the stuff. Better than the crow’s wings and pig’s blood you savages eat I’ll wager!” he chuntered, to much laughter from the others.

Tiberix slammed his fist onto the table and set his glare upon the one-eyed man. At once there was silence, though the thegn nonetheless kept grinning to himself.

“Are we going to have to endure a whole year of your barbarian jokes, Thegn Carlbrite?” Tiberix scolded. “She may be a savage, aye, but she’s a guest in our keep. I want her to be treated with a modicum of dignity and respect. It’s what separates us from them.”

“A modicum, eh? What’s that when it’s at home?” chuckled Carlbrite.

Tiberix shot to his feet, and immediately Carlbrite’s head bowed like an obedient dog. Tiberix knew he didn’t have to say another word, so he sat back down and returned to his meal. The feasting went on in uncomfortable silence.

Hesetti only managed a few mouthfuls of her soggy veg, wincing with each spoonful. When she was done she pushed away the plate, and her eyes began to wander round the room. She looked over the thegns, all of them gruff, bearded old men with terrible table manners. Then her eyes turned to the trophy-shields and weapons adorning the walls. She was about to stand up, but Mark put a firm hand on her shoulder.

“Don’t move.” he glowered.

“Easy Mark.” said Tiberix. “She is our guest. Go on, girl. You can leave when you want.”

Hesetti stood up and shot Mark a nasty look. Then she began to stroll around the hall, looking over all the weapons and shields, running her fingers over them, inspecting them. Mark followed her every step of the way. She ran her fingers along the hilt of a glittering longsword.

Then she ripped it off the wall and pointed it at Mark, a fierce snarl upon her face.

There were gasps from the thegns, who stayed dead still. Mark didn’t move a muscle, simply matching Hesetti’s fierce glare.

Then she laughed, breaking the tension. King Tiberix began to chuckle, and this gave the other thegns permission to do so. Mark stayed stern, his grim glare fixed upon her.

“She must be one of those barbarian warrior women you hear about in stories!” laughed one of the thegns.

“You judged her wrong, Carlbrite! The girl has a sense of humour after all!” said another.

“Aye, I like her spirit, but if she thinks she can fight her way past Mark, then she’s a brave fool!” chuckled Kilbane.

Hesetti turned away from Mark and started strolling around the hall, whirling the sword in her hand. The laughter of the thegns slowly died down as she whirled the blade this way and that with great skill.

Then she vaulted over a table and landed with her feet planted, sword pointed at Mark. There were gasps from the thegns.

“She wants to fight him.” grinned Kilbane.

“That sounds like a good bit of fun.” said Tiberix, mopping up his meat juices with a chunk of bread. “What do you say, Mark? Go easy on her, will you?”

“I don’t think that’s possible.” scowled Mark.

Tiberix grinned. “It’s easy really. Just fight her like normal, but remember to miss.”

Mark grunted something indistinct. He didn’t relish the prospect, but he had his orders.

He turned to the wall and took off a sword of his own. Then he paced around the tables and chairs until he was facing Hesetti, who stood in a low stance with her sword pointed at his chest.

She cried out as she charged at him, and her blade swept in wide arcs. Mark lifted his sword to block each blow. With each strike there was a flash, and a clang, and an ‘oooo’ or an ‘aaaah’ from the watching thegns, who enjoyed the swordplay as well as the novelty of it. A warrior woman was unheard of in Darloth, so Hesetti was quite an oddity. And the thegns always liked making Mark a little uncomfortable when they got the chance – it was usually good value.

Mark paced about the hall, blocking Hesetti’s firm blows as they rained in from every direction. She was good, but no match for Mark’s skill. He fended her off, but was reluctant to strike back for fear of hurting her.

Then her sword lashed out in a thrust. Mark ducked back, but the blow was faster than he had anticipated. The blade made a small cut in his cheek. There were gasps all around. Hesetti grinned from ear to ear.

Mark placed his finger where the blade had bit and looked at it. There was blood. He was bleeding.

Mark scowled. With one swipe he sent the sword flying from her hand. It planted itself in a nearby table. She had just enough time to look shocked before he punched her in the face, sending her sprawling to the floor clutching her eye socket.

Tiberix and the thegns roared with laughter and clapped their hands. She lay there for a few moments, then when she had regained herself she sat up and shot Mark a hateful glare. Mark felt a strange mixture of shame and embarrassment.

“You, young lady, have come closer than anyone to killing Mark in the last two years.” bawled Tiberix. “The only other person who has scarred the boy was Warlord Durthu. And he was the biggest, baddest motherfucker I ever knew, right up until Mark ripped his spine out. As a matter of fact, girl, you are the only person to have scarred Mark and lived to tell the tale!”

“Don’t feel bad Mark, I smack my wife all the time.” guffawed one of the thegns. “Give her a peck on the cheek and she’ll be right as rain!”

Kilbane grinned. “If I know this lad like I think I do, the only woman who could stir his loins is the one who can make him bleed. You ought to keep an eye on these two, Tiberix.”

Tiberix laughed long and hard. “I’ve never known Mark to go anywhere near a woman’s love sheath. He’d sooner fuck a battle-axe than a broad.”

Mark, not really knowing what else to do at this point, dragged Hesetti off to her room followed by the bawdy laughter of the thegns.

 

The next day Hesetti woke at sunrise, and when she left her room Mark was standing guard outside. She shot him her usual hateful glare, a bright purple shiner now covering her eye. Mark was sporting a tiny scar where Hesetti had cut him the day before.

“I’m sorry.” said Mark as she stormed past him. He had said it even before realising that he might be about to say it.

Hesetti turned around in a flash. “What?” she snapped.

Mark shrugged and blushed, then gestured to her eye. “I’m sorry.” he said again.

“Right. Okay.” she said, getting the gist. “Well, I’m sorry for cutting you.” Then she shot round and stormed off through one of the many corridors of the labyrinthine castle, and Mark followed behind.

She spent the morning exploring the castle, its dank dingy corridors and its tall towers. She already hated the place. It was a symbol of everything the Lotherians hated about Darloth – it was big and powerful, made out of stone like so much of Darlothian architecture, built to keep the tribesmen out and to prove their superiority. But every once in a while she would reach a window and look out over the frosty fields of Darloth, and the mountains beyond, and stop to admire the view and the cold wind on her face.

Eventually she found her way onto the ramparts. She stood there looking out over the battlements which overlooked the many walls and towers of Tirigast. She stared out towards Mount Staggheim which blotted out much of the horizon. The wind blew strong, wailing loudly, making her hair and dress flap about wildly. She looked down from the ramparts to the dizzying, perilous drop below.

“It’s a long way down.” she said, though she knew Mark couldn’t understand her, and besides he could barely hear her over the wailing wind.

“I’m going to hate it here, aren’t I? Held prisoner by a people who hate me and my people. Back home I could ride out over the grasslands or hunt in the forest. But now I’m stuck here, in this burial cairn.”

“But the worst part is, this is the good part. In a year’s time I’ll be handed over to the Pictoi, to marry a man who’s name I can’t remember, a man I’ve never met, who might be a terrible wife beater for all I know. I will have to live amongst a tribe my people have warred against for decades. I will have to bear his children, endure his fist and take his penis whenever he wants me to.”

“I had hoped to be a warrior one day, and lead my tribe into battle. Perhaps, if things had turned out differently, we would have met on the battlefield, and you would have killed me in glorious combat. But my fate is a different one now. It’s not a fate I want.”

Mark took her arm. He didn’t grab it roughly, but held it as tenderly as he could, for she was half-way climbed onto the parapet.

She looked into Mark’s eyes, not with hatred this time but with fear. He shook his head. She sighed and nodded, stepping down from the parapet. She looked out toward the horizon again as a tear fell down her cheek.

“Who knows. A lot can change in a year. Maybe my fate will be a different one.”

Then she walked off back into the castle. Mark took a couple of moments to compose himself before following her.

 

As the months passed Mark and Hesetti managed to coexist well enough. There were no more hateful glares, but you wouldn’t have called their relationship warm either. She ignored him for the most part, and he carried out his orders to the letter, following her wherever she went and standing guard outside her room.

Soon enough she began to feel safe in his company, for unlike the rest of the castle’s inhabitants he wasn’t interested in taunting or degrading her. He was simply there to obey his king. The others, from the noble thegns (if noble is the word to use), to the lowly cooks, maids and servants, would make jokes at her expense, hurl insults which she could not understand, and make lewd gestures. They might have done worse were it not for Mark’s violent glare, which shot like a warning to those who ventured too close. Despite King Tiberx’s good intentions, she did not feel much like a guest at all.

Hesetti would spend her days wandering the castle in a vain attempt to alleviate her boredom. She would stand on the parapet sometimes and talk about whatever was on her mind. She knew Mark couldn’t understand her, but it helped her to get things off her chest.

After a few weeks they began sparring, duelling with swords and axes. Hesetti was keen to train as much as possible. She didn’t want to go soft while under Darlothian protection, and she was a potent warrior. Mark humoured her, going through the motions and putting her through her paces. He told himself that a bit of duelling practice was a better way to spend his time than endless hours spent standing guard outside her room

Eventually she was even allowed to ride out of the castle, under Mark’s watchful gaze of course, and practice her horsemanship. As she rode she breathed in the cold air, and felt the rush of the wind against her face, and despite everything she began to enjoy herself. They were brief moments of freedom in an otherwise uneventful captivity.

Their routine was broken when the Darlothian army was mustered and Mark joined his king on the long march into Lotheria. Darloth was content when the tribes were warring amongst themselves but when an alliance was struck between major tribes, as was the case here, Darloth had to act fast to crush whatever combined forces had been mustered.

Mark was eager to get back on the march, and ultimately back onto the battlefield, and he would not miss the tedium of castle life. Deep down he would miss his daily training sessions with Hesetti, but at the time he would not have admitted anything more than ambivalence for the barbarian wench. While he was gone she was to be guarded by a grizzled old foot soldier named Garret.

The campaign worked like clockwork. The warhost was pinned down before it could muster its full strength. Mark killed the warchief of this tribal confederation in single combat. The Darlothian army did the rest.

When he returned he found Garret playing cards and drinking with a couple of his buddies outside Hesetti’s room, all huddled around a wooden table and chairs.

“Ah, Mark. You’re back. I’m finally relieved from babysitting the savage bitch.” said Garret.

“Where is she?” asked Mark.

“In her room. Honestly, boy, I don’t know how you put up with the bolshie little cunt.”

Mark would later admit to himself that he had missed her, but at the time all he was aware of was a strange nervousness as he opened her door.

She was sat on the floor, propped up against the bed. She gasped quietly and turned as she heard the door open, but then managed a weak smile when she saw that it was him.

“Mark. You’re back.” she said, wearily. Her face was bruised and scarred.

Mark said nothing. He just looked over her, breathing deep, furious breaths.

Hesetti was embarrassed as she saw him looking at her bruises. She shrugged. “It’s nothing. Really. Garret’s just…”

Mark stormed off into the corridor. He picked up one of the chairs and smashed it over Garret’s back. As he collapsed on the floor the other men staggered back to give the fuming warrior a wide berth. Mark grabbed Garret by the throat and pressed his dagger against the man’s balls.

“Easy, boy, easy…” he pleaded as he looked into Mark’s furious eyes.

“What did you do to her?” he scowled.

“Just hit her, that’s all. Shut her up when she was being gobby. What’s wrong?” insisted Garret. “She’s a barbarian wench. What’s she to you?”

Mark breathed deep, fuming breaths. “Nothing.” he snarled, before smashing Garret in the jaw, knocking him out.

“Get rid of him.” Mark snapped to the others, who scrambled away carrying Garret’s limp body between them.

Mark realised Hesetti had watched the whole thing. He didn’t meet her eyes, but he flushed red. He took his place beside her door, saying nothing.

She looked at him for a little while. He was still breathing deeply and fuming. He didn’t turn to look at her, but just kept his gaze fixed ahead.

“Thank you.” she said, putting a hand on his arm, briefly. Then she closed the door.

 

Something had changed while they were apart. Over the weeks and months that followed they began to realise this for themselves. They went through the same routine as before, but something was different.

On their meandering walks around the castle, Hesetti would play a game where she would look at Mark and try and get him to look her in the eye. He played along, trying to avoid her gaze, looking for excuses to look away, perhaps observing an eagle fly past a window or a good tapestry on the wall. And when they finally did look at each other, Hesetti would tease him playfully.

They would still have their training sessions, but Hesetti would laugh and smile as they duelled. She even managed to coax a few grins out of her grim bodyguard.

On the parapet, Hesetti would open up to him, talking about her fears for the future and what would become of her. She talked of her time growing up as a noble girl in a minor Lotherian tribe. Of her mother, house-bound and submissive, who she loved dearly but found she could not respect, and who she would do anything to avoid becoming. Her father, who she saw as a weak leader, forced into embarrassing truces and alliances to avoid being wiped out by stronger tribes. She talked about her little brother, who had died of sickness so young, leaving her the only heir of the Calvulani, and how the Pictoi rough-housed them into agreeing to unite their tribes with the Pictoi as the senior partner.

Mark didn’t say anything, but he enjoyed hearing her talk, and he enjoyed watching her standing there at the parapet, her red hair flowing in the wind.

It was a disorienting experience for him. As a rule he hated barbarians. He had always seen them as savages, beasts, who pillage the weak and slaughter the innocent. But she seemed so unlike everything he expected a barbarian to be. She seemed dignified. Noble. Thoughtful.

Eventually he would admit to himself that he was in love with her. But for so many reasons his love was futile. She would be gone soon, wed to another man. And he would not betray his King.

For Hesetti the experience was no less bizarre. She hated the Darlothians, who looked down on her people as rapists and murderers when their own soldiers commit the very same atrocities. They were arrogant, rude and base. But Mark seemed different. He was brooding and sullen, but beneath all of this he could not hide his kindness. At first she thought it was only fear which made her feel for him – fear of the future which awaited her, and of the crueller men who inhabited the castle. But then she decided that it did not matter. Her freedom – what little of it she enjoyed as Tiberix’s hostage – was soon going to be taken away from her. She was determined to follow her heart while she still had the chance.

One day, she turned to Mark when standing at the parapet, and gave him a mischievous smile. Then she bolted off. Mark was stunned at first, but gave chase. He chased her all over the castle, and she laughed as he stalked her through the many halls and corridors and the crumbling, abandoned towers of Tirigast.

Then Mark bolted round a corner, and Hesetti was there waiting for him. She jumped out, throwing her arms around his neck and pushing him back against a wall.

“I’ve got you! If I was a Morrowfow bushwhacker, you’d be dead by now, a poisoned barb in your throat!” she beamed, scoring her finger across his neck.

As their eyes met, Mark found that he couldn’t move a muscle. He was frozen in place by her stare. His heart pounded, and his limbs went numb.

She closed her eyes and leaned closer. Her lips touched his.

Mark pushed her off and turned away, his breaths heavy, his heart pounding.

They stood there for a while in awkward silence, avoiding each other’s eyes. Then she walked over to him and kissed him gently on the cheek and set off back to her room. Once he had regained himself Mark followed after.

 

Her final day in Tirigast had come. Ravens had been sent to the castle, and she was to be taken to the Pictoi delegation to meet her new husband. Their rendezvous point would be somewhere on the Lotheria-Darloth border, near to the Grimwold Forest.

As Mark stood outside her door that night his heart twisted and turned in his chest. Suddenly everything that he though was important – killing your enemies, doing your duty and your king’s bidding, making him proud – seemed irrelevant. All he could think about was her.

Hesetti opened her door. Mark didn’t turn to look at her. He couldn’t bear to.

She took him by the hand and his heart thundered. She led him into her room and over to her bed. She took off his belt and dropped it to the floor, his axes clattering on the ground. They lay down next to each other, and she wrapped her arms around him and rested her head on his chest.

They lay there for what seemed like an age, not saying a word, just being together. The only noise was the whooshing of the chill wind which came in through the window. It took all of that time for Mark to muster his courage. When he was ready, he spoke.

“I love you.” he said, in the barbarian tongue.

Hesetti gasped, and looked deep into his eyes.

“You speak the language of the Lotherians?”

“A little.” said Mark. “I’m still potato.”

Hesetti laughed. “Learning. You’re still learning. I’ve been learning too.”

She kissed him gently on the lips and whispered in his ear, in Darlothian. “I love you.”

It would be the first time, and not the last, that Mark would disobey his king. They made love that night, but it was bittersweet. They both knew that tomorrow they would ride out to deliver her to her new husband. The story of Mark and Hesetti would end there.

 

The lovers sat apart from the rest of the men. While the others sat around a big campfire, laughing and drinking, Mark and his ‘prisoner’ sat opposite each other around their own little fire.

These were the men who had been picked to deliver Hesetti to the Pictoi. Their camp was small, made up of a few shabby tents. They had made camp just outside the Grimwold Forest, which was silhouetted by the shining moon above. Towards the horizon, nestling among a cluster of hills, there were distant campfires. It was the camp of the Pictoi delegation, come to take their prize. It was a grim reminder that these would be their last moments together.

“I wanted to thank you for our time together.” she said, though she didn’t know quite how much of it he would understand. “Thank you for letting me feel what it’s like to be in love. For letting me feel what it’s like to make love to someone who you’re in love with. I’ll never feel that again.”

Mark stared into the fire, saying nothing.

Hesetti shuffled up next to him, and went as if to hug him. He shook his head, grunting – they couldn’t show affection in front of the men. But she hadn’t gone to hug him at all. She had her hand on the dagger at his belt.

“I can’t.” she said, tears in her eyes. “I don’t want to live this life. It wasn’t meant for me.”

Mark shook his head, also crying now.

“I’m sorry, I don’t want to put you in this position, but there’s nobody else I can go to, and I’m scared to do it myself. Please. You can say I took your knife and killed myself with it.”

Mark looked her in the eyes, wet with tears. He couldn’t do it. Of course he couldn’t. But could he leave her to her fate, one which she considered worse than death? And his fate would be to live a lifetime of regret, always wondering what had become of her.

“Let’s go.” he said, in her language.

“Go?”

“Yes. Into the forest.”

“So the others won’t see you do it?”

“No. So we can escape.”

Hesetti gasped as hope suddenly flooded her heart. She nodded, hurriedly, as she wiped away her tears.

They stood up and started heading out towards the forest. Hesetti’s heart pounded as she contemplated what they were doing, and the ruin she would be inflicting upon her family and her tribe. It hurt her greatly, but she knew that dying there and then in the camp would have the same effect, and she was simply not prepared to live as a chattel of her husband.

As they neared the forest, Mark thought about the king he was abandoning and the thegns he was betraying. At that precise moment in time, filled with excitement and holding Hesetti’s cold hand, he really didn’t care.

 

They lived in the forest for three years. Three years of hard work – building shelters, hunting, gathering. They were on edge and paranoid, always on the lookout for Darlothians and barbarians alike. They built traps around their hut to catch beasts and men who wandered too close. The Grimwold, though beautiful in places, was harsh and dangerous.

But hard though it was, it was also blissful. They were together every day. They hunted together. They trained together. They laughed and joked with each other. And every night they would make love, starting with a little ritual. Mark would tell her “I love you” in Lotherian. Hesetti would tell him “I love you” in Darlothian.

They had abandoned the outside world entirely, forgetting their people, their duty, their kings, warlords and families, war and politics. It was just the two of them.

If Mark had to pick the moment when he was most happy of all, it would be when they made a little pilgrimage to one of those beautiful spots in the Grimwold I mentioned earlier. It was spring and their stores were plentiful, so they could spare a day to just go somewhere and relax for its own sake.

They lay together by a stream which winded down a rocky slope, shards of golden light descending from a lush green canopy. Mark was combing Hesetti’s hair as he sat behind her. She was fletching some arrows. Their weapons lay in a pile nearby.

“It’s just like that river by the camp, soon after we met. Do you remember?” she said, softly. She laughed as she recalled. “You were too shy to look at me naked.”

“I wasn’t being shy. It was a matter of urgency.” said Mark. “I was getting a semi.”

Hesetti laughed, slapping his leg playfully. “That’s not very romantic.”

“No, but it’s the truth.”

As they sat there, Mark listened as Hesetti hummed a song which her mother used to sing to her as a child. He listened to the trickling of the water, and the birdsong in the trees. He felt Hesetti’s hair on his fingertips and the warmth of her skin. Yes, if he had to pick a moment where he was the happiest he’d ever been, that would be the one. And what followed wasn’t too bad either.

Hesetti stopped humming and turned around. “I love you.” she said in Darlothian.

“Here? How?” laughed Mark.

“Why not? There’s nobody here to see us.”

“The birds are watching.”

“Let them.” she said, leaning in to kiss him.

 

Mark shuddered as he woke up, and winced. He had pulled at the wound under his armpit and pain shot through it.

He sighed as he sat upright. The forest was a forest no more, but a pigsty where he was hiding out. He wasn’t sat on a moss-strewn boulder by a river, but the cold hard ground. He wasn’t running his fingers through Hesetti’s hair, but straw and pig shite. He wasn’t listening to birdsong and his lover’s humming, but the snorting of a pig which slept beside him.

“Morning.” he grumbled to her. He winced again as he changed the bandages around his armpit. Once done he sat there for few moments and rubbed his face. He sighed, taking in the whiff of the sty.

“Right.” he mumbled in his gruff, world-weary way. “Tiroginus, you wily old bastard. You’re next.”

 

Chapter Five: Warlord Tiroginus’ Plan

 

Beaumont looked a little bit out of place in the Heroes’ Hall, feasting hall of the Calvii. It was a mighty, high-roofed hall with many long tables. Weapons, shields and animal skulls adorned the walls. A bonfire blazed right in the middle of it, bathing the hall in warmth and light, black plumes of smoke sweeping up through a hole in the roof. Calvii warriors lined the hall, with their swirling blue tattoos and blonde hair, green-painted shields and spears in hand.

Beaumont was a scrawny, rat-faced fellow with dark, lank hair wearing peasant’s clothing. By the look of him you could tell he was Darlothian. But he wasn’t ill at ease in this mightiest of halls, a show of strength from his Lotherian host, as he sat before the throne of Tiroginus.

The Warlord of the Calvii was a thin and ageing man. His once-blonde hair and short beard were now grey. He wore a mail shirt but he was no warrior. He was too smart to put himself in harm’s way, and wily enough to outlast those who mocked him for cowardice. One of his arms was bare aside from bracelets and torcs. The other was bound in a padded gauntlet to hide the fact that it was withered from an injury he sustained as a young lad. His crown, golden and set with amber stones, was genuinely regal. His eyes matched the stones in colour.

He, like the Kings of Darloth, had a champion to do his fighting for him. His name was Bronmere. He was everything you’d imagine a mighty barbarian hero to be. He was muscle-bound, his bare chest and mighty biceps oiled up to make him look even more impressive. His features were brutish yet handsome, with a thick, close-shaven jaw and thin lips. His eyes were blue and his long hair was blonde. He wore hide trousers and boots, heavy iron bracelets, and a helmet which had a bear’s skull nailed onto it. His weapon of choice was near at hand – a ball and chain that looked like it could rip the head off a boar.

“I’m looking for a man. A Darlothian. His name is Mark.” said Tiroginus. His voice was deeper than you would expect from a man of his stature, and it carried great authority. “He’s quite famous. Cold blue eyes, long scar on his face. He used to be the King’s Champion, but then he disappeared for three years. Do you know of whom I speak?”

Beaumont smirked. “I know of him. So does everyone in Darloth.” he replied in passable Lotherian, though his Darlothian accent was thick.

“I want him dead. He’s already killed two of my allies.” said Tiroginus. “He killed Warlord Brogan of the Visgoti, and now his idiot son is their warlord and I have to waste time and men fending off Visgoti raiders and laying waste to their villages.”

“Then he killed Warlord Aelarix of the Albrantes. They have convened a ten-day tournament to decide who will be their next warlord. So not only are my allies out of action for ten days, but they’re going to spend those days killing off all of their strongest and bravest warriors, and electing the biggest, dumbest lunk of the lot of them as warlord, who in all likelihood will be, though good at killing, an imbecile.”

“What is more, he has mutilated the bodies of said warlords in a sacrificial ritual popular with less enlightened tribes – the blood eagle. I’m sure this is a warning, to me and to others who would oppose Darloth. I don’t intent to be carved open like a boar at a feast. I want him dead.”

Beaumont looked around the massed troops in the hall, and Tiroginus’ giant bodyguard. “You seem safe enough.”

Tiroginus laughed. “I’m sure Aelarix and Brogan felt safe before they were butchered by this man. But you’re right. I have plenty of men. My hold is surrounded by tall walls. And I have the strongest man in all of Lotheria at my side. But the question is, are you the strongest man in Lotheria and Darloth? If it came to it, could you defeat him?” he asked of Bronmere.

Bronmere grinned. “Maybe. I’ve never seen the man fight, but his reputation precedes him. I’d call it fifty fifty.”

Tiroginus turned back to his guest with a smile. “Fifty fifty. I don’t like those odds. Not one bit. Do you play chess, Beaumont?”

“Chess? No.”

“I don’t get to play often. Few tribesmen have the patience for it. I hear it’s far more popular in Darloth, but it was actually invented here in Lotheria as a way of teaching noble youths the arts of calculation and patience, back when those qualities meant something. These days, most tribes will elect whichever dumb brute has the biggest arms. No offence, Bronmere, there’s a time and a place where strength is a useful asset, but more often, for a warlord, it is strategy which matters most.”

“I’ve been called a coward and a weakling all of my life, by any number of rivals and usurpers. But where are they now? They are dead, rotting and forgotten, because I outsmarted them. Their insults seem pretty hollow now. And now that the Calvii are the most formidable tribe in all of Lotheria, thanks to my wise rulership, the only people who dare insult me are my enemies, who I will outsmart in turn just like the rest of them.”

“My point is, Beaumont, I rule my people much like I play chess. Slowly and cautiously. I won’t sacrifice a piece unless I know I’ll be able to take one of my opponent’s in return. I’ll calculate the risks, consider the benefits. And I won’t make a move until I’ve considered all of the consequences. That’s why I won’t gamble on a move where my chances are fifty fifty. I’ll wait until the odds are stacked in my favour.”

“I’m not ready to die, Beaumont. I want to die in my bed with all of Lotheria united under my banner. To erase even the smallest possibility that this murderer mighty actually succeed, I need him dead. I have my own men in Lotheria. Hunters, trackers and head-hunters, scouring the land from here to the ocean, in every hold, every territory. But I don’t have men in Darloth. That’s why I need you and your crew.”

“Very good.” said Beaumont. “If he’s in Darloth we’ll find him, and we’ll kill him. You know my price.”

“That I do.” said Tiroginus. “You’ll get half now, half when you bring me Mark’s rotting corpse. If he should befall some other tragedy and die anyway, or if I should apprehend him in Lotheria, then you may keep the half that I have already given you as a token of good faith.”

“Fair terms, Warlord Tiroginus.” grinned Beaumont, and the deal was done.

 

Mark, sat upon his horse, looked up at the ruins of the Great Wall. It had once been a mighty wall which sat between Darloth and Lotheria, closing off the land of the wall-builders from their savage cousins. Over the years the defences had waned. Fewer and fewer men had manned the wall and the many border forts which punctuated its length. Parts of the wall had been scavenged by nearby farmers, its stone stolen to build their huts and stables. For the past three years it had been deserted entirely, save for the bandits and vagrants who had set up camp in its ruins.

Rain poured down unrelentingly from the oppressive grey sky. Darloth was a famously sodden land. Mark had to shield his eyes from the downpour as he looked up at the ruined fort before him, and what little remained of the wall either side of it. A rusted portcullis stood open to him. Mark kicked his steed, and the horse trotted in, head bowed and depressed like its rider.

Mark took little pleasure in returning to his homeland. It was safer than the wildlands of Lotheria, but only just. Since the thegns had shut the doors of Tirigast it had been left abandoned, and was raided by marauding Lotherian tribes from without and roving bands of Darlothian bandits from within. But what really perturbed Mark as his horse lumbered through the portcullis and into the ruined fort was the sense of guilt and shame which built within him.

In truth Mark had little love for the Darlothian people. Raised by the thegns in Tirigast, and the King himself, he had spent more time amongst the wealthy elite of Darloth than its common people. He had little time for the meek orderlies, cooks and washer-women who staffed Tirigast. He cared not for the common foot soldiers who were mustered to do battle in times of need. He felt little kinship for the fearful farmers and shepherds who populated Darloth beyond Tirigast’s mighty walls. You would not have called Mark a patriot.

But he had always felt loyalty to those men who had raised him – the thegns, and the King in particular. The men who had taken him in as an orphan child and tempered him into a potent weapon to be unleashed upon their barbarian enemies. And though he was ambivalent towards his countrymen, he had always shared their burning hatred of the barbarians beyond the Great Wall.

Mark saw the flickering of a campfire from inside the ruins of one of the towers, providing just enough shelter for a gang of vagrants inside. They glared at him suspiciously as he passed, making his way through the wreckage of the once-proud fort, and onwards into Darloth.

Pressing on, his horse trudged across a once finely-cobbled road, now broken, flooded, and dotted with ditches and puddles. It led between muddy fields and sodden hills, dotted with stone huts and farmhouses, with forests in the distance and mountains on the horizon.

In places he passed the ruins of farms, razed by savages perhaps, or merely abandoned by their owners. Now and then he saw plumes of smoke rising from distant homesteads and villages as they were burned down and pillaged. Darloth was a lawless place.

At one point Mark came across a mugging in the road. Three Darlothian bandits were roughhousing a hunch-backed old shepherd. One of them held the reins of the shepherd’s mule, laden with what little he had in the world, while the other two kicked the poor man as he lay in a puddle trying, meekly, to defend himself. Ravens perches on a dead, leafless tree overlooking the scene.

If it had been out of his way Mark might not have lifted a finger. But since they were in his path he took one of the axes from his belt. As soon as the bandits saw the dark rider, and spied the glint of his axe, they hurriedly grabbed what they could from the mule’s packs and ran off across one of the boggy fields.

By the time Mark reached him the shepherd was on his feet again, stroking the nose of his mule. He looked up at Mark as he passed, at first suspiciously, and then staring at him with hateful eyes. As he went past, Mark heard the man spit at him.

His reputation preceded him. His cold eyes, the scar, the axes, the dark garb…They gave him away as the famous traitor who had abandoned King Tiberix in his time of need.

The rain came down unrelentingly. Wet to the bone, Mark began to shiver. His stomach growled, unfed for a day. After weeks spent shadowing Brogan’s raiders and staking out Aelarix’s hillfort, he ached from sleeping in makeshift bivouacs and barns. As he saw a farmhouse come into view atop a nearby hill, he relented. A night in a real bed was in order. He turned his steed off-road and set off towards the farmhouse.

As he neared he saw that the door was open. In the doorway an old man was sat smoking a pipe and looking out. He saw Mark coming and said something to someone inside.

As Mark drew closer he got off his horse and led it by the reins towards the farmhouse, his feet squelching through mud with every footstep. Then he stopped where he was. Someone had passed the old man a crossbow, and he was sat aiming it squarely at his chest.

It would take more than that to put Mark off the prospect of a warm meal and a comfortable bed. He pressed on.

“Come no closer.” called the old farmer once Mark was close enough to hear him over the din of the downpour.

Mark stopped where he was. “I’m looking for food, shelter and a bed. I will pay you well.”

The farmer looked him up and down, suspiciously. “We don’t want no bandits ‘ere.”

“I’m no bandit.”

“A soldier then, are ye?” he said, seeing Mark’s axes. “We don’t like soldiers much round these parts either. They rock up where they like, eat us farmers out of house and home and then leave without fair payment…Last time I let a soldier into my home, he carried off my daughter and married ‘er.”

“Who is it, Hlem?” bawled an old woman, who waddled up behind the old man’s chair.

“Some soldier. Wants our food.”

The old woman gave Mark a look that could kill. “That’s no soldier, Hlem. That’s the traitor! See the scar?”

“Aye, Miriam. I see it now.”

“Be off with you, scum!” shrieked Miriam. “Or my husband will put a bolt in you!”

“You know who I am.” said Mark, addressing her. “Then you also know that threatening me is a bad idea. In fact, I am now going to threaten you. You will let me in. You will give me food, mead and a bed. And you will take fair payment for it. Otherwise, you can answer to my axes.”

Hlem huffed and lowered his crossbow. “You young boys are all the same. Put an axe in your hand and you think you tell everyone else what to do. No respect, none at all!”

“We have a deal, then.” called Mark. “I’m going to use your stable.”

Mark stabled his horse and went to join the old couple. Hlem was sat at the kitchen table waiting for him, smoking his pipe. His squinting, distrustful eyes followed him into the room and watched him as he sat down. Mark pulled the axes from his belt and put them on the table, just to remind them who was in charge.

Miriam was at the stove stirring something. She shot some almighty glares at Mark whenever she lifted her head out of the brass pot, and muttered curses beneath her breath.

“Erik, pour the man some mead!” she screamed, and their son poured some mead into a wooden cup. He was a shy looking lad, about eighteen years old, with long lank hair. His hand shivered as he carried the cup over to the table, and he put it down far enough away from Mark that he couldn’t reach out and grab him. When his big, brown eyes met Mark’s icy stare he looked away, sheepishly, and shuffled away from the table.

Mark picked up the cup and downed the mead with a single swig.

Hlem tutted and shook his head. “Good mead’s wasted on you.”

Mark then took a handful of bronze toques from his money pouch and plonked them down on the table. Hlem looked over them as he chewed on his pipe.

“Fair payment, aye. For one night’s food and shelter. But you’ll be on your way come sunrise. It wouldn’t do for me and my family to be seen harbouring traitors, now.”

Mark grunted in response.

“I wouldn’t even have given you the courtesy of the one night if you weren’t threatening to cut me head off!” the old farmer insisted.

“A traitor…In my house! Unbelievable…” moaned Miriam as she ladled some strew into a bowl. She stormed over to the table and spat in the bowl, right in front of Mark, before plonking it down on the table in front of him.

Mark met her hateful stare. Famished after weeks in the wilderness, it would take more than an old moo’s phlegm to put him of his stew. He lifted the bowl to his lips and began drinking the meaty juice, and then fed the fatty pieces of meat into his mouth with his bare hands, deliberately ignoring his cutlery. Miriam gagged in effrontery.

Then he took off his muddy boots and put them on the nice clean table just to really piss her off. She stormed off upstairs spitting curses.

Hlem sighed as he put away his pipe. “I’d better go join her before she gets in an even bigger strop. Boy, send this man to bed when he’s done eating. Don’t let him steal anything.” he said to Erik as he heaved himself up and hobbled towards the stairway.

“You’ve got nothing worth stealing, old man.” said Mark, between mouthfuls. “And besides, you really think this boy could stop me?”

“I know you’re a traitor, Mark of Darloth, but I never heard you was a murderer too.” scoffed Hlem as he patted his son on the shoulder and headed upstairs to join his wife.

“No, you’re right there old man.” Mark called after him. “I only kill savages.”

Mark took his time in finishing off his meal, ignoring the boy, who stood there looking down at his feet. Then he licked his fingers and held up his cup. Erik got the idea, and went to take it from him to get him a refill.

Erik gasped as Mark grabbed him by the wrist.

“I want to talk to you, boy.” he said in a low growl, fixing his eyes on Erik’s. “Are you a good rider?”

“Y…Yes. I can ride.” he stammered.

“Good. I want you to deliver a message for me. You’ll be well paid for it. There’s a man called Hagar who hunts where the forest meet the mountains just north of here. It’s about a day’s ride. I’d do it myself, but I don’t know this man, and from what I hear of him he won’t take kindly to being tracked down by an armed stranger. I don’t know exactly where his hut is, so you’ll need to ask around the locals. When you find him, tell him I’ll meet him in Mogg’s Pit three days from now. I want to speak with him, and I’ll pay him for the inconvenience. Is that clear?”

“I can’t, sir. My father will be angry…I have stablework to do.”

“Here.” said Mark, producing a golden necklace from his money pouch. It was of Lotherian make, finely decorated with miniature figurines and set with blue stones. “Your payment. You could buy a whole stable full of plough-horses with this. Your father won’t be so angry them, will he?”

“No, I suppose not…” said the boy, timidly.

“Or you could give it to a girl. Give a necklace like this to a farm girl and she’ll have to repay you somehow, you catch my drift, boy?” said Mark, slapping him on the rump. He blushed. It seemed to do the trick of convincing him though.

“Alright, I’ll…” he said, reaching out for it, but Mark pulled it away.

“I’ll be leaving Darloth the way I came in. I will return here after I’ve met with Hagar, and I’ll give you your payment then. That way, I’ll know the job’s been done.”

“I wouldn’t cheat you, sir.” insisted Erik.

“No, I expect not. Because if you did, I’d cut you in half.”

Erik looked down at his feet again. “Alright. I’ll go first thing…”

“You’ll go now.” Mark instructed. “Take my horse. It’s the black one. Lotherian breed. It’s bigger and faster than the starving nags I found in your stable.”

Erik thought about it for a moment, then nodded, and went to put on his hood and cloak.

“The bedroom’s through there.” he said to Mark, then he opened the door, looked out upon the sodden fields and the crashing downpour, took a deep breath, and headed out.

 

Mark trudged his way through the snow as a snowstorm roiled around him. The wind wailed and his skin stung from the cold. The sky was black, dense cloud obscuring the light of the moon. He covered his eyes with a gloved paw as he approached the tavern, and held the bear skin he wore close to his body.

Mark was relieved to get inside and shut the heavy door behind him. The eyes of the staff and punters turned to him briefly as he pulled down his bear’s head hood before their attentions turned back to their drinks.

Mogg’s Pit wasn’t the nicest of taverns, but it was welcomely warm given the conditions outside, and it was the only tavern within miles of these sparsely-populated Darlothian hills. It was big enough, with a warming fire near the bar, and tables and chairs scattered about. Stairs led up to the second storey where people could board.

One man tended the bar. A wench was sat at the bar looking bored. Three men, peasants by the look of them, were playing cards by the fire. Their crossbows lay on nearby tables. Even peasants armed themselves in these turbulent times. In the far corner a man sat alone eating a leg of lamb, a hood pulled up over his head.

Sat on a table alone and apart from everyone else was another man. He wore animal pelts and had long black hair and a bushy beard. His skin was weather-beaten and scarred. He sat there smoking his pipe, his tankard of ale sat on the table in front of him alongside his loaded crossbow. He looked every bit the hunter-tracker that Mark was expecting to find.

Mark approached him. “Hagar?”

“Mmmh.” he growled. “Go and hang up your bear skin.” he said, pointing his pipe towards a clothes rack near the entrance. Mark did as he was told, hanging up his pelt and taking a seat opposite the hunter.

Hagar had, meanwhile, beckoned for the bar-wench. She was a blonde woman who might have been pretty once but was clearly well beyond her best years.

“An ale for my friend here.” said Hagar.

The wench raised her eyebrows in bored acknowledged and went to the bar and started chatting to the guv’nor, who began pulling Mark’s ale. The barman was a scrawny, rat-faced fellow with dark, lank hair.

As the pint was being poured the two grim men didn’t say a word to each other. They took a moment to size each other up, and note where the other man was carrying his weapons.

The drink came and the wench plonked it down on the table, ale spilling out over the rim, before heading back to her seat at the bar.

Mark took a glug. “You know why I’m here?”

“I can guess.” Hagar said in a growly tone. “News travels. You’ve killed two warlords already, now you want a third. To get to him, you want to do what I did.”

“Exactly.”

“How did you hear of me?”

“I heard your reports being read to the King while I was his Champion.”

Hagar had been a spy who lived undercover in the court of the Varuspikts for four years. Using his intel, King Tiroginus kept abreast of development and alliances within Lotheria and, ultimately, ambushed the Varuspikts as they led an incursion into Darloth. They were wiped out completely, and the Darlothian army demolished their tribal homelands. The tribe no longer existed. Hagar then retired from his life as a spy to became a hunter. Nobody knew for sure why he had retired so young, but a retirement of his choosing was just reward for such fruitful service to the crown.

“Okay. I can help you. For a price.” said Hagar.

Mark handed him a pouch under the table. Hagar inspected its contents. A generous selection of gold, silver and bronze jewellery – torcs, broaches, rings, necklaces and so on.

“This looks well made. Is it Albrante?”

“Could be.” shrugged Mark. “I lose track of whose territory I’m in.”

“Who’s the owner?”

“Owners. Nobody who’ll be missed.”

Hagar nodded with a sage ‘not bad’ expression. “Alright then. You speak Lotherian?”

“Yes.”

“That’s good. Whisper some to me.”

Mark leaned in and whispered. “My Lotherian is just fine. I have travelled many miles and seen many places. She sells sea shells by the sea shore.”

“That’s pretty fluent. Where’d you learn?”

“On my travels.”

“Fair enough. It’s good. You don’t need to mimic a specific accent. Each tribe has its own accent, but there are so many tribes out there that if you just avoid a Darlothian accent then you’ll be fine. Your accent isn’t too thick, but watch out for that. You’d be better off having an accent that’s strange or difficult to place rather than one that’s identifiably Darlothian.”

“Mmm. I see.”

“In terms of appearance, I can see two problems.” said Hagar, taking a big sip.

“The scar and the eyes.”

“Yes. That scar. How’d you get it?”

“Warlord Durthu hit me with his sword.”

“Looks a bit jagged for a sword-strike.”

“It was a jagged sword.”

“Almost looks like the kind of scar a bear’s claw would make. Of course, if you’d been mauled by a bear, you’d have at least a couple more scars to go with it.”

Mark took a couple of moment to work out where Hagar was going with this. He shook his head. “No.”

“It’s just an idea.” he shrugged.

“You want me to cut my face open so it looks like I’ve been mauled by a bear?”

Hagar shrugged again. “Seems insane, doesn’t it? It’s the kind of thing that it wouldn’t even occur to you that a person might do. Nobody would think you’re the famous Mark of Darloth once the rest of the getup is in place. Speaking of which, your eyes. Everyone knows about your ice cold eyes. There’s not much we can do about that, except to get rid of one.”

“You already asked me to cut my face.” Mark scoffed, “Now you want me to rip out one of my eyes?”

Hagar laughed. “Not exactly. An eyepatch should do fine. Just don’t forget to wear it. If folk see you’ve got a perfectly good eye beneath it, that’s a sure-fire way to get yourself cut open like you did to those warlords.”

“Fine.”

“As for the rest of you, I suggest you don’t wash for a couple of months.”

“Way ahead of you.” grunted Mark.

“Otherwise, grow your hair long and your beard thick.”

“Mhmm.”

“Good. Now as for what to wear, each tribe has its own look, be it tattoos, woad, animal pelts or whatever. If I were you, I’d disguise myself as a member of an obscure tribe. Some shit inbred clan that lives high up in the mountains. That way you’re unlikely to bump into one of your own, which would be troublesome. But the druids will have heard the clan’s name before, and that will lend credence to your story.”

“If I get tattoos, that should make it more convincing.” said Mark between sips of his drink. “Who’d get a tattoo just to dress up as a barbarian, right?”

Hagar grinned. “Now you’re thinking like a true spy. As for what to do once you get there, you’re going to need to blend in. If they’re revelling, you need to revel. If they’re drinking, you need to drink. If they’re sacrificing goats and reading their entrails, you’ve got to be prepared to get your hands dirty. But the trick to getting to the folks who matter,” he said, leaning in, “is earning their trust.”

“And how do I do that?” asked Mark as Hagar knocked back the last of his drink.

He slammed his tankard down, and his eyes shot open. “Behind you!” he roared.

Mark’s heart jumped. He ducked down. A crossbow bolt whizzed over his head and thunked into Hagar’s sternum.

Mark leapt, grabbing the table as he did so and overturning it as he fell.

Two bolts flew past him and shattered on the wall behind. Two more bolts thudded into the table, shearing the wood, even before it hit the ground.

Mark, the table, Hagar, their tankards and Hagar’s crossbow all clattered to the ground at once.

Taking a few hurried breaths, Mark’s eyes shot over to Hagar. He was dead. His eyes shot back to see the three card-players overturning tables and sheltering behind them to reload. The barman and the wench both scuttled behind the bar, crossbows in their hands too.

Pain shot through his leg. Mark cried out in agony, grabbing at where he felt the pain, a bolt right through his calf.

His eyes shot over to the last of the punters who had been sat on his own behind him. He was also armed with a crossbow, and was scrambling to his feet looking to find cover. Mark whipped a knife from his belt and launched it at him. It thudded into his chest, the impact and shock sending him slamming against the wall behind. He dropped his crossbow and it clattered to the floor. Blood dribbled from his mouth as he slowly slipped down to the floor to die.

Mark grabbed Hagar’s crossbow and shuffled close to the overturned table. His heart raced. He had no idea what was going on. He could hear the other five cranking their crossbows as they reloaded.

“I have a crossbow!” Mark called out to them. “If I’m going to die, I’m taking one of you with me, just like your friend there.”

“We don’t want that.” called Beaumont. “We’re bandits. We just want your money. Come out with your hands up and we’ll take your coin and leave you be.”

“Bullshit!” shouted Mark. “If you were here for my coin, you wouldn’t have shot at me six times already. You’re here for blood.”

“Alright, you got me.” called Beaumont. “We’re assassins, here to kill you.”

“Who by?” called Mark, trying to stall the assassins and give himself time to think. Beaumont was doing exactly the same thing, keeping Mark talking as he gestured instructions to the others.

“I can’t break client confidentiality, Mark.” he said. “But look, assassins or no, we don’t want to die. And we know who you are and what you’re capable of. Hell, we’ve seen it first hand with what you did to Aron over there.”

“I can hear someone moving.” shouted Mark. “Is it the blonde wench? Tell her to stay where she is, unless she wants to be the one to die.”

“You can tell her yourself.” she called from behind a wooden pillar not too far from the bar. If she jumped out from behind it she would have a clear shot at him, so Mark aimed his crossbow in that direction. But he knew his time was running out. If he was aiming his crossbow towards the pillar, then he wasn’t aiming it at any of the other four assailants.

“Let’s make a deal.” called Mark as blood dripped from his wound, forming a puddle where he crouched. “We all come out at once. I die, and so does one of you. How about that?”

No reply was forthcoming. None were eager to die.

“What’s that they say about honour amongst thieves?” laughed Mark, morbidly.

“We’re not thieves, as you’ve established already.” said Beaumont, as cordially as he could.

“What’s that I hear? Is it you other three? Does one of you want to die?” Mark called out as he heard their tables scraping across the floor as they pushed them closer to Mark’s position. His eyes stayed on the pillar, but he could see the bar from the corner of his eye.

“Come now, Mark, you can’t expect us to sit here all day in some kind of standoff. What if someone were to walk in and disturb us?” said Beaumont.

Something occurred to Mark. “Wait…What happened to the staff? The regulars? The punters?”

“They’re dead. Freezing in a pit out back.” said Beaumont, as he gestured to the blonde and began a five finger countdown. “That’s right, Mark. We killed a lot of innocent people to get to you. Including the boy who delivered your message to poor Hagar.”

“You didn’t need to do that.” said Mark, with a fleeting pang of remorse.

“No. But we did it anyway.”

As his last finger went down, Beaumont popped up from behind the bar just long enough to get Mark’s attention. No sooner had Mark’s eyes and crossbow turned his way than he crouched back down, and the blonde jumped out from behind the pillar and fired.

The bolt thudded into the table leg which stood between her crossbow and Mark’s face. Mark desperately squeezed his crossbow and the bolt flew. It was a snap shot, but it was a good one, hitting her in the shoulder, sending her falling back. She and her crossbow hit the floor.

Mark knew he only had moments to act. He’d shot his load, and the rest were fully loaded.

He lifted up the table to use as a shield, his leg screaming in pain as he hauled himself and the table off the ground, and he charged towards the door. Not quite knowing what else to do, the three card-players fired their bolts, which all thudded into the table. Then Mark smashed through the door, using the table as a shield-cum-battering ram, and he and the table tumbled outside.

“Don’t follow him!” called Beaumont as he popped up from behind the bar. “He could be waiting outside the doorway with those axes of his.”

“What do you suggest then?” said one of the muggers, Alfred, who wore a floppy wide-brimmed hat, as he and his mates reloaded their crossbows.

“We follow him and bleed him out, like a wounded stag.” said Beaumont, stepping cautiously towards the doorway. “He was hit in the leg. He’ll be slow and bleeding. And out there, in that snowstorm, without his bear skin, he’ll freeze to death soon enough. That should keep him nice and fresh to take back to our good friend Tiroginus.”

“Did he get Greta?” asked another of the men, Farlen, who had an eyepatch and a scarred lip.

“’Fraid so.” said Beaumont, as he peeked through the doorway to check Mark wasn’t waiting to pounce on them. “One less share though, right?”

The last of the men, Vlad, bald-headed, grinned cruelly. “Right you are, boss.”

So the four men donned their winter pelts and trudged outside. In the light of the doorway they could see Mark’s heavy footprints in the snow, a dripping trail of blood following him. They could only just make him out in the snowy gloom but that was fine. Beaumont wasn’t intending to get too close until the time was right. Mark footprints gave them his direction, and what’s more Beaumont spied a barn sat atop a hill in the direction he was heading.

“Now if I were wounded and caught in a snowstorm, that’s where I’d got.” he said, pointing it out to his chums.

The chill wind blasted the assassins as they followed Mark’s trail, slow and measured, through the barren wasteland. They held their winter pelts close and kept their crossbows loaded and ready in hand. Their boots crunched in the snow with each thoughtful step.

The trail led them through fields and hedgerows, and eventually it began snaking its way up the hill towards the barn Beaumont had spotted earlier. The assassins began their gradual ascent, but when they neared the barn Beaumont gestured for them to stop.

“The trail leads to the barn. He’ll be inside. Let’s give him some time to settle in for the night. We should be able to take him by surprise.”

So the four men found some cover behind a fallen tree within view of the barn. They waited. They were chilled to the bone by now, exhausted by the cold and the long trudge. But they were patient, ruthless men, and their patience was soon rewarded as they saw the orange glow of fire coming from within the barn.

“He’s lit a fire.” Vlad grinned. “Maybe he’s not as smart as we thought.”

“I’d want some warmth after walking for two hours through a snowstorm on a wounded leg. Wouldn’t you?” said Farlen.

“Come on, lads. We’re on.” said Vlad, readying his crossbow.

“No, not yet.” said Beaumont. “Let’s stake him out. Wait ‘til morning.”

“You want us to sit in this ditch all night freezing our arses off?” scoffed Alfred.

“Yes that’s exactly right.” said Beaumont. “But if it’s unpleasant for us, what will it be like for him? He’ll be half-frozen already. A night in that draughty barn won’t do him much good. He’ll be exhausted. In pain. Bleeding out. But for now he’ll still be on edge and dangerous. If we wait until morning he’ll think we’ve lost his trail. He’ll either be asleep, dead or as good as dead.”

So Beaumont set about giving them instructions. The four men were to surround the barn and watch all exits – there was a door at the front and at the back. Then, the next morning, they’d go in and catch him unawares, or even better, they’d find only an exsanguinated corpse.

So the men surrounded the barn and waited. They sat in a ditch, or amongst a thicket of hedges, or lay in the snow. Beaumont stayed behind the fallen tree. They all kept their eyes on the barn, looking for any sign that he might make a break for it. As the hours went by, and the morning sun rose a rich orange beyond the horizon, the glow of the fire died down.

With the sun up Beaumont signalled to his men. It was time.

Beaumont and Alfred crept towards the barn’s front door, step by cautious step. Their crossbows were trained on the doorway, ready to fire off should their prey emerge. The other two approached from the rear.

Once they reached the barn Beaumont and Alfred pressed themselves up against the wall either side of the door. They took a deep breath, nodded to each other, and as Alfred slowly pushed the door open Beaumont peered inside.

He could see the charred remains of a fire. The embers were still glowing and smoke was still rising from it. There was something lying by the fire. He squinted to make out what it was. It looked, at a best guess, like a few sacks of potatoes. A ruse, perhaps, but only a complete idiot could mistake it for a person.

On the other side the guys burst in, and one of them duly opened fire, sending a bolt thudding into the potato sacks.

“Shit.” Vlad hissed as Beaumont rolled his eyes. Their cover blown, Beaumont and Alfred went in and looked around as their accomplice reloaded his crossbow.

The barn had two levels, with stacks of hay either side of a clearing in the middle where the fire had been lit. There was a pool of dried blood by the fire, and a gory bolt snapped in two.

“He’s in here somewhere.” said Beaumont. “Start looking around.”

They’d lost the element of surprise, but Mark was trapped in there with them. In the condition he’s in, Beaumont reasoned, it was only a matter of time before they got their man.

The men began to pace their way around the barn, searching for signs of Mark, but they were reluctant to stray too far from the fire and into the shadowy labyrinth of hay bales.

“I see more blood.” said Farlen, seeing a trail of blood-drips leading towards one of the bales. He peered into the gloom, and made out an orange glowing.

Farlen gasped as he saw something move in the dark. The glowing thing was tossed amongst the bales – a smoking log burning with embers. Farlen fired, but the bolt missed its mark and thudded into the wall behind as the dark figure slunk out of view. As he set about frantically reloading his crossbow he saw the embers turn to fire in the dry hay, and soon a plume of smoke was rising from the bale.

“I saw him! He’s in here! He’s setting fire to the place!” he called.

“We’ll have to move quickly, then. Where did he go?” asked Beaumont.

Farlen pointed towards where he had seen the shape moving, and Beaumont nodded to Alfred. Alfred paced his way over there and peered round a bale of hay.

There was a thud as an axe flew through the air and hit his face. He fell back with the weapon lodged in his fizzog.

“Shit!” cried Vlad as he rushed over to him and saw a dark shape clambering up a ladder to the second level. “He got Alfred!”

“I can see that!” snapped Beaumont, looking around frantically.

“He’s up there!” called Vlad, pointing up.

The fire was spreading fast, moving from bale to bale. The flames began to climb up the walls of the barn, and thick black smoke filled the upper level. They could barely see a thing up there.

“Go up and take a look.” Beaumont instructed.

“Fuck you, I’m not going up there with him!” snapped Vlad.

The fire spread further as the men aimed their crossbows at the second level, peering through the black gloom. He couldn’t stay up there forever. The fire and smoke would root him out. But equally, the assassins didn’t dare stake him out for too long or they’d be trapped inside.

Beaumont turned to the rear doorway, which was already being licked by flames. It would not be long before the front door was also consumed by the fire. The heat and smog was making the barn unbearable. With fire closing in, one man down, and with Mark significantly less dead than he had anticipated, Beaumont decided to take a different tack.

“Things have gone to shit.” he whispered to his men. “Let’s get out of here. We can stake out the barn, and when he comes out we’ll shoot the bastard.”

His men were only too happy to oblige, and the three of them gratefully slunk off towards the doorway.

As he was leaving Vlad looked up towards the upper level just in time to see Mark leap out of the fiery smoke like a demon born of fire. Vlad let out a meek cry as Mark’s axe slammed into his face.

Mark screamed as he landed in a heap. Though he’d mostly landed on Vlad, softening the fall, the shudder of the landing made pain surge through his leg.

Beaumont and Farlen shot round as they heard them. Farlen’s eyes were wide with terror as he loosed his bolt, but Mark had pulled Vlad’s corpse over him, and so the man’s bolt planted itself in his fallen comrade. Beaumont held his nerve and didn’t fire.

Mark grabbed Vlad’s crossbow. He squeezed the trigger and the bolt flew into Farlen’s leg. He shrieked as he fell clutching at the bolt in his shin.

“Don’t leave me!” he pleaded to Beaumont, but he was having none of it.

“Sorry mate, you’re dead meat.” he said as he made a run for the door. The barn was fully ablaze now. Smoke filled his lungs. The heat was unbearable. The doorway was shimmering with flames.

Mark staggered to his feet, wincing as he put weight onto his wounded leg. His skin was pallid and wet with sweat. Upon his face was a hateful, weary scowl.

He dropped Vlad’s crossbow and wrenched the axe from the man’s face. Then he began staggering towards the floored Farlen, who was frantically reloading his crossbow. As the maniacal axeman hobbled towards him Farlen was consumed by terror. Wreathed in flames, clad in black and iron, axe drenched in gore, Mark loomed over him as his quivering hands pointed his crossbow towards him. He would not get the chance to fire.

Beaumont heard Farlen scream as he pelted through the flaming door. He landed on the other side in the snow, and immediately rolled around to extinguish the flames. He gasped as he patted down the flames which had spread to his clothes.

He looked back at the burning barn but could not see the daemon within through the black smoke. He staggered to his feet, picked up his crossbow and began to make a break for it. Never mind staking him out, he wanted to get away from his quarry as far and as fast as possible.

He tumbled head over heels as a bolt hit him in the back. He lay there motionless for a while. He was dazed, in terrible pain, burned by the fire and now stung by the cold snow. He strained every muscle to turn himself onto his back and face the burning barn. He saw Mark standing there in front of it holding Farlen’s crossbow and a bloody axe.

Mark dropped the crossbow. He began to hobble over to him, dragging his wounded leg. “I have some questions for you.” he scowled.

Beaumont tried to focus, but his vision was blurry. His hands shook as he raised his crossbow. Mark was almost upon him, cold eyes ablaze, gore dripping from his axe. He had to kill him. With this shot. If not, the things Mark would do to him…He’d make him talk…He’d punish him…Cut him open like he did to those warlords…He’d…

Mark was slightly perplexed as Beaumont turned the crossbow on himself, launching a bolt up through the underside of his jaw and into his brain. He went limp a heartbeat later.

A shame. He was looking forward to making him talk. But perhaps his corpse would be equally revealing.

Mark limped up to him, spat on him, and the proceeded to search him. On his belt was a pouch, filled with barbarian jewellery.

Mark smirked as he sat down in the snow, taking a breather. He could make an educated guess as to where it had come from. “Tiroginus. You sneaky old cunt.”

 

Chapter Six: Warlord Tiroginus

 

Tiroginus was sat atop a blustering hill with three prominent warlords, surveying his domain. The Lotherian landscape spread out all around them, with mountains to the north, their peaks obscured by thick cloud, and forests to the east lit by shafts of light as the sun pierced through. All around them were the hills, cairns and burial mounds which dotted Calvii-land, with moors and swamps beyond. If you looked closely you could pick out sacred groves and standing stones in the distance, as well as villages and farms. Patrolling Calvii-land were proud columns of Calvii warriors riding chariots, surrounded by the clouds of dust they kicked up with their hooves and wheels.

The concern of these distinguished men (distinguished for barbarians in any case) was not the beauteous landscape, but a nearby camp which nestled itself in a valley between five tall hills. It was vast and seethed with activity. It contained delegations from dozens of tribes and hundreds of clans.

Beyond that, sat atop the tallest hill in Calvii-land, was the motte and bailey stronghold of Gothenmar. A tall wooden wall protected the settlement inside, with the Heroes’ Hall standing proudly at its very centre, glittering in the sunlight.

On to the warlords, then. Warlord Habernach of the Pictoi had a shaved head and a full, ginger beard, his pale skin decorated with blue tattoos. His muscular arms were folded as he sat listening to Tiroginus with an expression of stern doubtfulness. Behind him were his warriors bearing axes and blue-painted shields. One of them carried a banner bearing a bear’s head emblem, which flapped in the strong wind.

Warlord Faelfar of the Galbandii was an older, fatter gent who wore a checked tunic and trousers, a green cloak and a bronze pot helmet adorned with crow feathers. He had a big blonde walrus moustache and pigtails. He looked a bit ridiculous, but there was wisdom in his blue eyes, and he stroked his moustache thoughtfully. His men wore tunics, trousers and cloaks, and they carried spears, shields and bows. His tribe’s emblem was a white bird in flight, and it flapped proudly on its banner.

Warlord Grug of the Aelsing was the youngest of the three and also the strongest. He wore armoured boots and a fur-rimmed helmet with chainmail falling from the sides, but his upper body was bare and muscular. He had an expression somewhere between confusion and boredom. His men, nomad horsemen, carried spears and bows and wore cow-hide and furs. Their emblem flew on his banner – a storm of black arrows.

As the rest sat around on stools, Tiroginus sat upon a modestly sized throne to assert his authority. His contingent of bodyguards was three times the size of everyone else’s. Bronmere stood at his side.

Further down the hill, the assembled warlords’ chariots waited for them.

“Impressive isn’t it?” said Tiroginus of the ramshackle camp. “All full of men wishing to bargain with me. Some seek trade. Others protection. Others seek lasting alliances. And it is all on my terms. They come from all corners of Lotheria. Some Darlothian towns have even started trying to bargain with me, declaring themselves independent of their rulers holed up in Tirigast, and paying me tribute to spare them from my raiding parties.”

Faelfar nodded sagely. “I’ve never seen so many tribes in one camp. How do you stop them from tearing each other apart?”

“Their weapons are confiscated. That doesn’t stop them from brawling, but a few relatively bloodless brawls are good for morale, I find.”

Habernach laughed, grimly, and shook his head. “It is impressive, Tiroginus. Very impressive. You could even say it is a show of strength. What am I to do, the warlord of a tribe with fewer than two hundred warriors, when presented with the might of the Calvii?”

“Say what you have to say, Habernach.” said Tiroginus, though he was not blind to the subtext.

“Though you may be powerful, Warlord Tiroginus, I will never bow to you, and neither will my people.”

Tiroginus nodded. “I won’t deny I’m an ambitious man, Habernach, but I would never seek to rule over the Pictoi, or the Galbandii, or the Aelsing for that matter. I am merely a pragmatist. Cooperation can benefit all parties. When the tribes are divided they are weak. When they unite, they are strong.”

“And you strongest of all.” Habernach pointed out.

Tiroginus grinned. “Every confederation needs a warchief.”

“And if that were you, Tiroginus,” said Faelfar, “what would you do? You say you are an ambitious man. What are your ambitions? I must ask, since they will impact us greatly, whether we decide to fight with you, or against you.”

Tiroginus smiled, and as he outlined his ambitions his eyes twinkled. “It’s simple really. I wish to unite all of my allies and destroy all of my enemies. I wish to defeat the allies of Darloth, the Morrowfow chief amongst them, to crush the raider tribes who don’t see sense and reject my reasonable terms, and finally, to annihilate the wall-builders themselves. I want to lead an army of all tribes to the gates of Tirigast itself. I want their thegns to starve to death in that place, and rot away, leaving nothing of their people but villages and farms to plunder.”

Grug had been pensive throughout. He slammed his fist onto his thigh and lamented. “Ah! This talk is tiresome to me. I love to slaughter the wall-builders well enough, but all this politics is unseemly for a warlord. We Aelsing have no time for such dishonourable practices. We slay our enemies, plunder their farms, and ride off with their women, and there is no politics or clever-talk about it!”

“There will be plenty of time for all of those things, Warlord Grug.” said Tiroginus. “I will put your skills as a slaughtered and warmonger to good use. And while you content yourself with the mutton and women of Darloth, I will deal with the politics.”

“This is all very well in theory, Tiroginus, and you have clearly planned your moves well.” said Habernach, still looking sceptical. “But things haven’t all been plain sailing. The deaths of Brogan and Aelarix prove that your alliances are fragile things which can be ended with the swing of a man’s axe.”

Grug laughed heartily. “Aye, but what an axe it is. Oh, for the chance to loose one of my arrows into Mark of Darloth’s pale hide…”

Tiroginus nodded. “Mark’s interferences have delayed me, true, but they have not dissuaded me. I have sent a warhost to crush Brogan’s hot-blooded son Gargon, and bring the Visgoti back into the fold. I’m sure the Albrantes can be persuaded to re-join the alliance with the promise of gold and plunder whoever their new warlord may be. But as you can see,” he said, gesturing towards the camp, “I do not lack for allies. The Darlothians, in their desperation, sought the help of the Morrowfow, and this is the inevitable consequence. Having allied themselves with such a brutal tribe, with such a brutal warlord, the Darlothians have sent these other tribes running to my door. Plagued by Warlord Maedoc’s raids, they come to me seeking protection, offering tribute, men and fealty. Though our confederation will be one of many tribes, they will all have at least one thing in common: we all hate those black-painted bastards.”

“Aye.” concurred Habernach and Faelfar.

“I will slaughter those Morrowfow dogs, and drag Maedoc’s body behind my galloping horse!” roared Grug, with a clenched first.

“We must be patient, good Grug.” cautioned Tiroginus. “Maedoc is holed up in Fangmar with five hundred bondsmen. We shall have to wait for the right moment to strike. We’ll either have to muster our full strength and attack him directly in his hold, or wait until he strays from his hillfort and attack him out in the open.”

“That’s easy for you to say with his raiders so far from your door.” lamented Faelfar. “It’s my villages he’s raiding. My men he slaughters, my women and children he drags off to his grotesque War Pit.”

“Geography dictates that some tribes will have to bear more of the brunt of Maedoc’s raids than others…” said Tiroginus, with a shrug.

Faelfar scoffed. “That shows what your alliance is worth. Am I to tell my people that the mighty Tiroginus will not shed the blood of his men to protect his allies? That he sits on the shitter holding his dick while Maedoc’s men rape and pillage?”

Tiroginus smiled broadly. “As a show of good faith, Faelfar, allow me to offer a payment of compensation for your pains at the hands of our mutual enemy.”

Bronmere came forth and placed a small chest at Faelfar’s feet. With a flutter of excitement he looked inside to see that it was full of finely crafted jewellery, glittering with gold, red and blue.

“Well I’ve thought it over.” the warlord laughed. “This alliance of yours sounds like a fair proposition!”

“You know, seeing the twinkle of all that gold reminds me…A couple of years ago a gang of Maedoc’s bushwhackers killed five of my men in an ambush. That’s got to be worth a few coin.” joked Habernach, to laughter from the others.

Grug grinned broadly. “This will be a mighty horde indeed. And I will be its vanguard! You have my bow, Tiroginus, providing slaughter and pillage is forthcoming!”

“Aye. I’ll join too.” concluded Habernach, after some thought. “I’ll not let pride deny my people of safety and glory.”

Tiroginus smiled and bowed his head. A good evening’s work, by all accounts.

 

A giant wicker man burned in the middle of Gothen-Pit, as the delegates’ camp was less than affectionately known by its temporary residents, illuminating the dark night. The mighty blaze lit up a massive scrum of revellers which thronged around it, and the camp beyond, a filthy mess of tents and makeshift huts. The din of their whooping and bawling and the banging of tribal drums was tremendous. The ground had been trampled into a sodden field of mud and raw sewage.

Tribesmen from all corners of Lotheria had come to bargain their terms with Tiroginus. While the largest and most important tribes sent their warlords, with a squadron of bodyguards, wise old men and druids to do their negotiating, the lesser clans would have sent whoever was to hand, or perhaps some dispensable young bucks just to get rid of them for a while.

There was a tremendous variety amongst them. Some wore pelts, others tunics, others armour. Some wore the bones of animals, or were adorned with torcs and jewellery, or wore cloaks, or wolf and bear pelts. Some had piercings, others war paint, others tattoos.

The barbarians danced and revelled around the wicker man, drinking foul spirits and smoking strange herbs. A strange-smelling mist hung in the air. Drums were banged, making a grim, daemonic rhythm, as wildmen whooped and chanted. Some were possessed by foul spirits, or more likely potent substances, and they writhed around on the floor speaking in tongues, their eyes rolled back in their heads and foaming at the mouth. Those who stuck to the booze staggered around drunk, some keeling over and throwing up, others pissing wherever they happened to be standing.

Fighting broke out here and there. The delegates’ weapons had been confiscated by the Calvii to keep bloodshed to a minimum, but when you get thousands of drunken barbarians revelling together there’s always going to be violence.

In other places the barbarians kissed, gyrated and fucked out there in the mud. Some tribesmen had brought wives and concubines with them, and a fair number of the warriors were women, no less fierce and feral-looking than their male counterparts.

Just outside of the revelry gangs of barbarians loitered, drinking and glaring at everyone else, trying to size up the other tribesmen, glowering at their rivals and starting fights at the first opportunity. Elsewhere the tribesmen gathered around smaller campfires, drinking, making merry and telling lewd tales.

Amongst the chaos and debauchery one man stood alone. A grim, feral-looking warrior with three jagged scars running down his face and over one eye, which was covered by a patch. Draped over his shoulders was a bear skin. His chest was bare, revealing a large black bear’s paw tattoo on his left breast, and he wore trousers, fur-rimmed boots and gloves. His hair was long and his black beard was thick. His cold, pale eye scanned those around him as he skulked through the throng with a noticeable limp.

Mark was ill at ease as he loped deeper into this barbarian hell. He might have looked the part, but his hatred of the savages burned as brightly as ever. This hatred gripped him as he glared disdainfully at those around him. Here he was, right under their noses, deep in the briar heart of Lotheria. If they knew who he was they’d tear him apart. But he didn’t feel fear, only hatred. The savages disgusted him, made his skin crawl. But as he loped deeper into that horrible place Hagar’s words rang in his ears. He would have to put aside his disgust. He was going to have to become one of them, earn their trust.

It was a terrible place. The noise was unbearable – the thunder of the drums, the whooping of the natives, shouting, cursing, laughing. The smell wasn’t much better, like a cesspool with overtones of sweat, and the whiff of that odd, funky mist lingered in his nostrils. There were people all around him, bumping into him, shoving him, revelling madly. It was everything he knew the barbarians to be – filthy, disgusting, unrestrained.

Trapped in that savage pit, what else could Mark do but skulk off to find an uninhabited patch of mud to lie down in for the night. It would be no good pitching his tent in this darkness. As he lay there awake in the mud and filth, the thrumming of the revels still ringing in his ears, he knew that he was utterly alone.

 

The morning brought a little respite. The revelry had at last died down. Smoke rose from the charred remains of the wicker man. The barbarians had slunk off to their tents and most were now slumbering or nursing hangovers. The air was crisp, and dew clung to the few patches of grass in that sodden cesspool. Mark pitched his tent at first light, then turned to other matters. He would have to get the lay of the land, find out what’s what.

Those few who stirred chatted with their mates, laughed and cooked on fires. Some were trading bits and pieces using bars of metal as currency. Mark knew he would have to interact with his new neighbours sooner or later, so he girded himself to approach a grim-faced loner who was cooking some porridge in a brass pan. He had some hares hanging from a wooden rack.

“Exc…” began Mark, but he thought better of it. ‘Excuse me’ was a most un-barbarian greeting. So instead he grunted curtly to get the man’s attention. The man looked him up and down with suspicious, squinting eyes.

“I know you?”

“Not yet.” grunted Mark.

“What do you want then?” Mark’s gruff drawl was clearly vague enough that the man didn’t pick up Darlothian accent.

Mark nodded to one of the hares on the rack. The man grunted in acknowledgement. Mark rifled through his money pouch and produced a couple of bronze toques.

“Fair payment.” said the man, taking them. “Take one.”

“I could do with some breakfast too.” said Mark, snorting and spitting in a patch of grass nearby.

“Fine.” said the man, nodding to a log by the fire. Mark perched himself there and the two grim men sat in silence for a while.

“What’s your name?” asked Mark eventually.

“Brekir. Yours?”

“Alarik.”

“I haven’t seen you around before.” said Brekir as he served up some porridge into bowls and they began tucking in.

“I arrived last night. Have you been here long?”

“Three weeks almost.”

“Three weeks? That’s a long time to spend in this shit-hole.”

“Aye, and I’ve got a while to go yet I reckon. I’m from a shite little tribe nobody’s heard of. Not worth Tiroginus’ time it seems. It’ll be a few more weeks before he gets to me, if at all.”

Mark’s brow furrowed. “It can take that long?”

“Aye. What’s your tribe?”

“The Brogos.”

Brekir snorted. “Never heard of ‘em. You’d best settle in, then, because you’re in for a long wait.”

Mark scowled. “I can’t afford to wait long.”

“No use complaining to me.” mumbled Brekir.

“How does it work then? How do you get an audience with Tiroginus?”

“The Calvii come to the camp each day. They take the names and tribes of the new arrivals, and take delegates up to Gothenmar for an audience of Tiroginus, but he’s only been dealing with the larger tribes for now. The rest of us will have to wait our turn. I announced myself when I arrived three weeks ago, but I haven’t heard from those pompous Calvii pricks since.”

Mark’s heart sank. He didn’t relish the prospect of spending weeks waiting around in this hellhole. Even if he did there was no guarantee Tiroginus would summon him – his tribe might be too obscure to be worth the great warlord’s time. “Is there any way a man can get the attention of Warlord Tiroginus? Skip the queue?”

Brekir laughed. “Not unless you can rustle up a few hundred clansmen for his warhost, or a chest full of gold perhaps.”

“Has anyone tried to head up to Gothenmar uninvited?”

“Only fools. Word is, the only people allowed in are the Calvii and guests brought in aboard their chariots. Otherwise you’ll get sent back with a clip round the ear if you’re lucky. You’ll get stuck with arrows if not. Tiroginus is a cautious man, and I can’t blame him. After what happened to Brogan and Aelarix, I’d be cautious too.”

“Mhmm…” mumbled Mark.

“You hear what happened?”

“Err…No.” Mark grunted.

Brekir leaned in close and spoke in a half-whisper. “You hear a lot of rumours in the camp. Most of it bollocks, I’m sure. But I’ve heard this tale from enough people to make me think it might just be true. They say Mark of Darloth is hunting warchiefs. He already got Brogan and Aelarix, and turned them into blood-eagles. Nobody knows why, or why he returned from wherever it is he ran off to, or what became of that Calvulani whore of his. Word is that Tiroginus might be next…But if you ask me, to get past that cunning prick’s defences you’d have to be more god than man.” he scoffed.

Mark had heard enough. “Hmm. Thanks for the porridge.” he grumbled. He got up and collected his hare, and he and Brekir grunted at each other by way of a goodbye.

 

As the days passed Mark tried to keep out of trouble. By day the savages would mill about in their tribes until they were summoned by Calvii warriors, who would arrive fully armed and riding chariots. The delegates would board the chariots and be taken off to Gothenmar to parley with the in-demand Tiroginus. Mark announced his arrival to one of the Calvii orderlies. He grunted in acknowledgement, but didn’t seem to be much interested in what this lone wandered had to say. No doubt Tiroginus had bigger fish to fry.

By night the barbarians would revel, celebrating one of their innumerate festivals which seemed to happen every night of the year for some long-forgotten purpose, usually a good crop or fertility, or something.

Mark kept to his own devices, taking refuge in his tent whenever the revelry began. The terrible clamour meant he barely slept at night, and during the daytime he only managed fleeting, anxious naps. He tried to think of ways to get to Tiroginus. His cunning had got him this far but he had little knowledge of the ways and customs of the barbarians. Perhaps he was just going to have to wait – but how long would that take, weeks? More likely the bored Calvii henchman won’t have bothered to announce Mark’s arrival to Tiroginus, or will have forgotten about him altogether.

It was about a week into his stay at Gothen-Pit that the Helveti posse arrived. Their coming was heralded by a commotion amongst the other tribesmen, for they arrived bearing gifts. A mob of wildmen had gathered around them, whooping, hollering, baying for blood. Mark pushed his way through the scrum to see what was going on.

A gang of barbarians, with their heads half shaved and with tattoos on the bald half, grinned as they tormented a trio of captives. Two of them, men dressed in rags, one middle-aged and the other old and frail, winced and begged for mercy as the savages’ hounds barked at them, held back on leashes by cackling tribesmen. A third captive, a young woman, was in tears as she was held hostage by two more of the brutes.

“What’s this?” Mark grunted to the tall, bearded man beside him.

“The Helveti have brought captives from Darloth.” he growled.

“What are they going to do to them?”

The bearded man looked perplexed, insulted almost. He turned and scowled at Mark with his thick arms folded. “What the fuck do you think they’re going to do?”

Mark had to play along. “Hmm. I mean how are they going to do it? If it’s an impaling, I’ve seen enough of them to last me a lifetime. If it’s going to be more interesting then I might just stick around to watch.”

“Mhrr. Dogs I reckon.” growled the man, turning his attention back to the torture.

The bearded man was right. The Helveti toyed with their captives for a little while longer, but when they had had their fun they set the dogs on them. The hounds ripped them apart right in front of the screaming woman. Few in that crowd would have understood the begging of the men as they were ripped limb from limb by those hounds, or the woman’s despairing cries as she watched on through tear-red eyes. But Mark understood them just fine. She was forced to watch as her father and grandfather were torn limb from limb by those savage dogs. That was to be only the beginning of her torment, for when the men were nought but blood and bones the savages turned their attention to her.

Mark had no desire to watch further. He left, pushing his way through the scrum. The sound of the girl’s screams, the barbarians’ mockery and laughter, and the tearing of her dress followed him as he went.

The girl’s screams played on his mind throughout the day. He tried to shut them out, focus solely on the task in hand and learn all he could about his target Tiroginus. But those screams remained at the back of his mind, and came to the fore as he tossed about in restless sleep that night.

Then he heard the scream again, crystal clear this time, not half-remembered like in a dream. His eyes shot open.

Mark emerged from his tent to see a small gang of barbarians sat around a fire nearby. They cheered and hollered as one of their buddies, a tall, heavy-set man, trooped through the camp dragged the girl behind him. She was naked, dragged through the filth and muck by her hair. From his sickening grin Mark knew exactly what the man’s intentions were. Following behind, also looking pleased with himself, was one of the Helveti lads who swigged generously from a tankard.

Mark knew he shouldn’t get involved. He was here for one purpose and one purpose alone. To kill Warlord Tiroginus. But something compelled him to intervene. Perhaps virtue, a desire to spare this innocent girl from any more suffering. Perhaps disgust for the barbarian perpetrators, and a desire to see them punished. More likely a mixture of both.

In any case, as he approached their campfire he watched them pushing the naked girl from man to man, laughing, leering, taunting. Her screams and pleas were quieter than they had been before, and her voice was hoarse. Nobody can scream forever. She looked set to collapse at any moment.

“Come ‘ere darlin’, let me feel those soft Darlothian tits…” leered one man, groping at her cold wet body.

“Back off Dreng, you’ll wait your turn.” snapped another, grabbing her by the waist and pulling her close.

“Patience, lads. There’s plenty to go around.” cackled the Helveti boy.

The tall heavy man then grabbed her by the face and stared into her terrified eyes as he growled at her in a demonic tone. “Welcome to hell, wall-builder. I’m going to rip you apart.”

“Leave some for the rest of us.” cackled another man.

“Hmm. Me too.” growled Mark.

The laughter died down as all eyes turned to the newcomer.

“Who the fuck are you?” spat the heavy man, throwing the girl down into the mud.

“Alarik.”

The man squared up to him. He was tall. Even taller than Mark. “She’s ours ‘Alarik’. Thrax and his boys got tired of her.” he said, and the Helveti raised his tankard. “So the Helveti lads gave us what was left. There’ll be nothing left for you once we’re done with her. You can watch if you want, but any more than that….”

Mark’s fist put paid to his taunting. With a punch to the jaw the big man fell limp in the mud.

“Shit!” shouted one of the others as he and a buddy rushed at Mark. Mark swerved aside of a clumsy, drunken haymaker, and a kick to the gonads floored the first attacker. He caught the second man’s punch, then slammed his boot into his knee, breaking it inwards with a sickening crack.

The two men writhed around in the mud screaming, one clutching his nethers, the other groping at his smashed leg.

The rest of the gang had seen enough. They backed away from the girl, leaving her lying in the mud. Thrax whistled and raised his eyebrows before taking another swig. He was impressed.

The girl lifted her head out of the mud and looked up at Mark with just as much horror as she had her attackers. Mark stormed over to her and grabbed her by the hair. She screamed as he dragged her off followed by the bemused glare of the savages, and Thrax’s intrigued smirk.

As he dragged her through the mud and filth she tried, feebly, to break free, but Mark’s grip was like iron and there was no escape from her terrifying captor. The girl screamed again as Mark dragged her into his tent. She looked up at him in horror as he lumbered in after her, petrified of this brutal savage who had dragged her off to have his way with her. Tears streamed down her face. Her body, frozen and covered in mud, shivered.

“Please…” Mark could just about make out from her exhausted whimper. Mark tried to be gentle, reaching out for her. She recoiled at first, but then Mark’s hand slowly took hers. It was freezing cold. Then he lifted his finger to his lips, and she became silent save for her panting breaths.

Then Mark pulled a blanket over her and lay down, facing away from her, arms folded. He heard her hurried, wheezing breaths as she slowly realised that, for now, she was safe. She lay down, too, and all was silent save for her breathing.

“Thank you.” she whispered, finally.

Mark lay there awake that night wrestling with his conscience. The girl was defenceless and would surely die if he cast her out. But he had his orders. He’d come to kill a warlord, not save a peasant girl. She would be a burden…She’d tie him down. She’d already made him some enemies in the camp which might come back to haunt him.

No…He would have to be rid of her. Nothing would steer him from his path to redemption. He would cast her out at first light. She would have to fend for herself. It was decided.

But the next morning, as light crept in through the tent, he listened for her shallow breaths and heard nothing. She lay there motionless and cold. She was gone.

Though it was not his doing, guilt nonetheless welled within him. He had after all decided to cast this girl our, to consign her to death. Perhaps, in the end, it was better this way. Better that her torment was not prolonged.

But what now? He had seen how the dead were treated in the camp. Those killed in brawls, or by sickness, or who had overdosed on strange substances, were hauled onto carts and taken out of the camp to be burned on giant pyres. Could he consign her to that same fate?

Mark decided he would bury her, as is tradition in Darloth. He admitted to himself that it was a strange impulse, to offer more care to a girl’s lifeless body than he was prepared to give her when she was living. Strange that he felt compelled to put his quest and his duty on hold for a girl he had only met once, whose name he did not know. But there was some part of her that reminded him of his distant home. He would have to bury her, and his memories of Darloth with her.

Wrapping her up in a blanket, Mark trooped through the camp sullen-faced. He provoked little suspicion from those around him. Death is commonplace in the wildlands. But nonetheless, as he arrived at the gates of Gothen-Pit, he was stopped by one of the armed Calvii guards who manned it.

“What’s this?”

“A girl.” grunted Mark in response.

“How did she die?”

“Sickness.” he said, and the Calvii guard instinctively covered his mouth with his cloak. “I do not know what it was. She spat black blood before she passed.”

“Leave her with us. We’ll burn her with the others.”

“No, she was…She was dear to me. She was my concubine. I won her from a tribe north of the Hindengaust. Her people are buried, otherwise their spirits wander restless for all eternity.”

The Calvii sighed. He had his orders, but he didn’t see any reason to begrudge the girl a burial. “Very well. On you go.”

Mark trudged out of the camp, and mud and filth became dew-cool grass beneath his feet. The air, once infested with rot and decay, became cool and crisp. He walked up one of the hills that surrounded Gothen-Pit until he reached a patch of loose boulders and rocks. He lay her down there and covered her in rocks until she was buried. Then he sat down beside her and looked out over Calvii-land, at the hills and the fields, so beautiful and serene a landscape, save for the hellish Pit at its heart.

He knew he would have to return, though he longed with all his heart to be rid of that foul place. And it was dawning on him that his only hope of killing Tiroginus was by becoming one of them. He would have to earn the trust of some tribesmen from a larger tribe more worthy of Tiroginus’ attention. Perhaps he could persuade them to bring him along to Gothenmar when they were summoned. Otherwise he faced a long and gruelling wait to come face to face with his prey, with every prospect that he would never be summoned at all.

So it was decided them. I order to win his redemption he would have to become the very thing he hated most. A barbarian.

A few tears fell from Mark’s eyes and landed on the rocks covering the girl’s body. Darloth, he told himself, had been buried there with the girl. He was one of them now.

 

That night he didn’t hide in his tent as usual, but instead as darkness fell and the bonfires were lit once more, heralding yet more revelry, he headed for the belly of the beast. The fires lit up the darkness, making the night’s sky glow, vast plumes of smoke and sparks rising from them. The barbarians danced around the fires or drank in their camps, and Mark, to earn their trust, to reach Tiroginus, would have to join them.

“You there, scarface!” called a man. Mark’s eye shot round to see the Helveti gang sat around a campfire drinking. They had the company of some women, easily impressed harlots from other tribes no doubt. Mark recognised the man who had called to him – it was Thrax.

“Come drink with us!” he called, lifting a tankard of ale with an offputtingly congenial smile.

“I know you?” growled Mark, pretending not to recognise him.

Thrax was up in a flash, slapping a hand on his shoulder as if they were old buddies and shoving a tankard of ale into his hand. “Not yet, friend, but you will. Come, we are to be shield-brothers in Tiroginus’ warhost. Let us drink together! We have mead and women aplenty.” He was tipsy and swayed a little on his feet. His breath smelled of booze.

“Alright.” mumbled Mark. What red-blooded barbarian could turn down such an offer? Perhaps, disgusting as the prospect was, these slavers and rapists would be his ticket to redemption. If he could earn their trust, perhaps he could join them when they were summoned to Gothenmar? The Helveti were a famous tribe. Tiroginus would see them soon enough.

“That’s the spirit!” beamed Thrax, slapping him on the chest as he led him over to the fire. Mark sat there amongst the murderous curs and took a sip of their mead. Some of the Helveti lads chatted to the women, who draped themselves over them and sat on their laps, but most had their suspicious glares set on Mark. One of the Helveti warriors had her dark eyes fixed upon him. She had long black hair on one side of her head. The other side was shaved, with a swirling raven tattoo. She smiled as she caught Mark’s gaze, revealing bronze fangs which replaced several of her teeth.

“You wouldn’t believe what I saw this man do last night.” beamed Thrax to his chums. “He took down three men with his bare hands – passed through them as easy as a man passes water. I’ve never seen anything like it. What’s your name, friend?”

“Alarik.”

“Which tribe has the honour of counting you amongst their number, Alarik?”

“The Brogos.”

“Who the fuck are they?” piped up one of the others, to laughter from the men and titters from the women.

“Come now, Farrow, let’s be kind to our new friend.” said Thrax, with an outwardly friendly smile. “This isn’t a man to trifle with. He’s a bad motherfucker. Some boys were having a go with the bird we brought back, and he just rocked up and said ‘I’m having her’. Then he takes out these three men in a flash, and drags her off to his tent! Nobody had the balls to stop him.” he said, taking a swig of mead.

“That’s impressive.” The fanged woman grinned, revealing her terrifying maw, and she looked Mark up and down with predatory eyes. His skin crawled as their eyes met.

“How did you find her, Alarik? Soft, wasn’t she? Must have been nice to have her all to yourself.” ribbed Thrax.

Mark played his role. He took a swig of ale and muttered “Good enough. Once she stopped crying. Dumb wench.”

“I prefer it when they’re crying.” snickered one of the men.

“Sick fuck.” opined another.

“I hope you left some for the rest of the boys.” grinned Thrax.

“’Fraid not. She died overnight. Just gave up and faded away, passed on to the next life. She’s ashes now.” said Mark, trying to sound like he didn’t care.

Thrax nodded and shrugged. “That happens a lot with Darlthian women. The young ones anyway. They’re not as hardy as Lotherian broads. Can’t take as much punishment.”

The fanged woman sat down beside Mark and put a hand on his leg. “Are you alone now Alarik? No other women to warm your bed?”

Thrax laughed heartily. “Don’t mind Karash here, but nothing gets her pussy wet like a cold-eyed killer. She only goes for the best head-takers. I reckon you tick all those boxes.”

Mark downed the rest of his mead and threw down his tankard. “No use in wasting time. Let’s go.” he grunted to the woman, who grinned.

“Not so fast there, Alarik…I’d like to talk some more.” said Thrax, his tone changing slightly. Gone was the overly-congenial patter. His boys must have noticed, too, because a couple of them were on their feet, slowly pacing around the fire until they were looming behind Mark, arms folded.

Mark turned to look at each man in turn, keen to show he wasn’t intimidated. “Are you sure about this, boy?” he growled to Thrax.

Thrax chuckled and shook his head, and as he spoke his tone became threatening. “Alarik, Alarik, Alarik…I haven’t been entirely honest with you. I didn’t invite you over here for your company. No. I’ve got a bone to pick with you.”

Karash rolled her eyes. “Fuck sake, Thrax, can’t this wait until I’ve fucked him?”

“Don’t worry, Karash, nothing’s going to happen to Alarik…As long as he’s wise about it.” Thrax grinned, meeting Mark’s fearsome glare. “You see Alarik, the girl was ours. We caught her. We get to decide what to do with her. I gave her to some mates as a gift, something to lift their spirits. And then what do I see, but some stranger comes up and beats three of them to a pulp, and then drags her off. Now, part of me says fair play. We’re raiders, aren’t we Alarik? We take what we want when we want it. But part of me also says…Fuck you. She was ours. She wasn’t yours to take. And I’m not too pleased about you burning the body either. Now our hounds will have to go hungry.”

Mark’s knew what he had to do. Barbarians are pack animals. They respect only the strongest. He would not back down. “Get to the point, boy.”

“Call me boy again…” hissed Thrax, before stopping himself and plastering the faux-congenial smile across his face once more. He got up and strolled over to where Mark was sitting. “The point is, Alarik, warm yourself by our fire. Have another tankard of our delicious mead. Enjoy Thrax’s unique hospitality. But when all that’s done, I want you gone. Get the fuck out of Gothen-Pit, and never come back. I don’t ever want to see your face again.”

“And if I refuse?” growled Mark, standing up and squaring up to him. The Helveti boys behind him took a step closer. The other Helveti put down their tankards and ushered the women off their laps. Karash grinned from ear to ear. They all sensed that things were about to get tasty.

“If you refuse…I’ll cut your balls off!” hissed Thrax.

Mark smiled a violent, bloody grin.

He grabbed Thrax by the back of the head and smashed his forehead into his nose. Karash gasped in sexual excitement as Thrax’s head shot back with blood pouring from his face.

The others were on him in a shot as Thrax staggered back holding his nose. The men behind him grabbed Mark by the arms, and the rest ran at him. They all piled into him with punches to the gut and kicks to the shins.

Mark roared as he struggled against the scrum of unwashed savages, throwing one of them down into the dirt. His fist swung out, breaking a man’s jaw and sending him sprawling. He kicked a third in the stomach, sending him staggering back. He slipped in the mud and landed in the fire. He shrieked as fire enveloped him, setting his fur cloak ablaze, and he threw himself onto the ground and started rolling around in the damp mud.

The women screamed as they saw the man thrashing about ablaze, and the blokes backed off looking shell-hocked. Thrax snarled, baring blood-stained teeth, and pulled a bone shiv from his belt. The others likewise reached for weapons – flints, iron barbs, wooden clubs.

Karash strode right into the middle of them all, standing between Mark and the furious Helveti. “I think we’ve all seen enough, haven’t we? I’m sure nobody else wants to be burned alive like Garros.” she said of the burning man who now lay unconscious, smoke rising from his charred clothes and flesh, “And I’m sure even Alarik wouldn’t want to take on a dozen armed men.”

“Hmm. My thoughts exactly.” growled Mark, glaring at the seething tribesmen.

“Come on. Let’s go.” she said, taking him by the hand and leading him away from the campfire. They were followed by the scowls of the Helveti. Thrax, humiliated, cursed as he threw his shiv down into the mud. But all the same, none had the stones to pursue him.

Karash led Mark towards the revelry around the bonfires, where massive crowds of savages danced, drank and fucked. As she led him deeper into the belly of the beast chaos and confusion enveloped him. He was jostled by revellers. They convulsed madly under the influence of strange herbs. Tribal drums rang out and tribesmen screamed and wailed. Many wore strange outfits made from animal skins, with masks made from skulls. They writher around, groped each other, fucked on the muddy ground. Mist and smoke covered the whole debauched scene.

Eventually Karash stopped right in the middle of the revelry. She turned to Mark and kissed him on the lips surprisingly softly. Then she pressed herself up against him and put his hands on her thighs.

“You have some guts taking on all those men.” she said, putting her arms around his neck and whispering in his ear.

“They’re just boys. I’ve faced wore odds.”

“Have you fought in many battles, Alarik?”

“Hmm. Many.”

She grinned as she whispered her next question. “How many men have you killed?”

“I don’t keep count.”

She laughed. “So you’ve lost count? Wow. It must be a lot then. I’ve killed five men. Warriors, I mean. I don’t count the peasants. I remember each and every one of them. The first was the best by far. I split his neck open like this.” she said, running a finger along his neck. “Blood spurted out, like venom from an asp’s mouth. It was beautiful.”

She kissed him again, but he seemed distracted, his cold eye flitting about the maddening scene.

“What’s wrong?” she asked him, stroking his face.

“Nothing.” he grunted.

“You seem uncomfortable. They don’t have revels in your tribe?”

“Not like this. This is…Different. It’s chaos.”

She grinned broadly. “The world is chaos. It’s full of fire and terror. All you can do is give in to it. Allow yourself to be free.”

“I cannot be free. Not yet.”

“We are all free, if we allow ourselves to be. Come. Let me show you.”

Mark had proven he could fight like a barbarian. Now he would have to revel like one. He gave in to Karash, submitted to her. He drank strange spirits and smoked foul herbs. They kissed ferociously amongst the throng. As they held each other, as they embraced, the world began to slip away. Mark lost track of the passing of time as he was enveloped by the chaos and savagery.

Amidst the blur, there was fire, rising high, crackling. He was thrown this way and that by the revellers. He fell over in the mud, only to be dragged to his feet by the giggling Karash. He felt her body on him, feeling her warmth. He looked into her dark eyes and saw a terrible abyss. The thunder of the drums shook him to the bones. And as he looked to the heavens, the stars shone bright and bulbous.

For the briefest of moments, he forgot. He forgot his duty. His guilt, his burdens, his shame. He even forgot Hesetti.

 

Mark regained some of his senses as he threw Karash down into the mud and mounted her. She cackled and bared her teeth, then kissed him again and again. Perhaps it was the coldness of the air that brought him to his senses, or the pain of her claw-like fingernails tearing against the skin on his back. Maybe it was the relative quiet, for they were some distance from the thrashing of the drums and the whooping of revellers. Or maybe it was the stench of death.

Mark had the wherewithal to lift his head and check his surroundings, though his vision was blurry from the booze and his head was fuzzy from the toxic fumes. They had managed to stagger away from the thronging crowds. They were all alone save for one sloshed bystander who was taking a piss and singing deranged limericks nearby. They were hidden from view by a cart loaded with corpses. The reek of decay was unmistakable.

“Take me, Alarik!” Karash demanded as her legs gripped his waist.

Mark said nothing, he just stared into her dark eyes. As he looked into those black pits a familiar sensation flushed through him. Hatred. She was one of them – a murderer. A foul animal. The touch of her skin, where once it had pleased him, now made his skin crawl. His fists clenched on mud as his teeth grinded.

She sensed something was wrong and stopped kissing him. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

Mark threw out his hands and grabbed her by the neck. She gasped, eyes wide, as he began to strangle her. She tried to push him off, kicking out with her legs and clawing at his arms. She made a sickening gaging noise as she struggled, her eyes full of mortal terror as she thrashed about with all she had. She reached for something in her belt. As she got hold of an iron peg Mark grasped her hand with his vice-like grip, not letting her draw it. He loomed over her, throttling her with his remaining hand and slamming her head into the ground again and again. Gradually her flailing grew weaker. Her eyes slowly rolled back in her head and at last she went limp.

Mark breathed heavily as he looked upon her limp body. “That’s for the girl.” he hissed.

Mark felt a vague panic within him. His hands were shaking. He didn’t know if it was the substances in his bloodstream, or if it was the shock of what he had done. He had killed many barbarians before of course…But not quite like this.

He staggered to his feet, but he did so too quickly, and immediately lurched back down throwing up bile and pale vomit. He staggered up again, swaying on his feet, trying to regain his senses. Mustering himself at last he hauled Karash’s body onto the corpse-laden cart. Then he staggered off, past the pissed reveller, not quite knowing where he was going.

 

Mark awoke like a man risen from the dead. He gasped for breath and his limbs spasmed with sudden life. His winced as the sunlight bit his eye, and he curled into a ball as the aching in his limbs returned to him.

He found himself lying in a pool of mud right in the middle of the camp. Nobody gave him much mind, except to laugh at him and make quips as they passed. He clutched his head, which throbbed terribly. His brain felt fuzzy, half-awake. His body was numb, save for the aching.

When at last he mustered the energy to get to his feet he found himself lost and disoriented, and could think of little else to do but to wander around the camp in a stupor.

Eventually he managed to find his way back to his tent, which was now just a pile of charred beams. It must have been the Helveti. Whether as revenge for giving them a beating at their campfire, or whether they had found Karash’s body, he did not knew. He simply grunted in resignation and walked off, wandering on aimlessly through the camp.

When at last he was too exhausted to wander further he sat himself down in the mud where he was. As the rain lashed down he was cold and exhausted, and could see no way out. He felt like a prisoner in that wretched camp

He had tried to become one of them. To submit himself to savagery. But it was all in vain. In the end, he could not let go of his hatred of them. And now, far from winning friends, he had earned nothing but enemies, and he was further than ever from Tiroginus.

Perhaps it was futile trying to gain an audience with him. Perhaps he’d have to sneak into Gothenmar instead, slip into Tiroginus’ quarters at night and cut his throat. But it was a hopeless task. He had heard tell of Gothenmar’s defences. It was a fortress, full to the brim with Calvii warriors, and Tiroginus was wise and paranoid and never far from his mighty bodyguard Bronmere.

No, that wouldn’t do. The chances of success were be too slim. He would have to stick it out in that gods-forsaken pit.

His thoughts turned to Hagar. He had managed to live for years as one of them, but Mark lacked his nous and patience. He could scarcely bear the thought of another day in that terrible place let alone weeks on end.

He wondered why Hagar had given up spying to become a hunter. Perhaps the stress had got to him. The sense of always being in peril, of constantly being around your hated foes. Or perhaps he had gotten in too deep, and had begun to become one of them, to see himself as a barbarian first and a spy second. Perhaps when the Varuspikts were wiped out, he felt that he had lost his own tribe.

So that is it, then? Mark lamented. Stay true to myself and to Darloth, and end up on a corpse-cart with a Helveti shiv in my spine? Or submit to the way of the savages, and become that most hateful of things, a barbarian?

In that moment it all seemed hopeless. In his despair, he considered surrender. Abandoning his duty. Abandoning his redemption. Abandoning the one he loved. These were the thoughts that swirled through his mind as he gave in to his exhaustion and fell into a feverish sleep.

 

Mark awoke to the warmth of sun against his skin. His eye shot open, seeing clear blue sky above him. It seemed that the heavens beckoned a new and brighter day. And so it would prove, for opportunity followed the dawn. And this opportunity was heralded by the blast of war horns.

Word spread throughout the camp that Tiroginus himself had come to receive a delegation personally, right here in Gothen-Pit. The horns heralded the arrival of him and his Calvii. Sure enough, the gates swung open and in came an impressive procession of Calvii chariots. In the front most-chariot, larger and more elaborate than the others, was Tiroginus sat upon a throne. It was pulled by four chestnut ponies. Bronmere was at his side and a charioteer lashed at the reins.

Mark pushed his way through the crowd that gathered to watch him arrive, and so set his eye upon his target for the first time. As he looked upon the frail warlord, for a moment it felt as if his redemption was near at hand.

A circle was forming around three men held hostage by Calvii warriors with spears and shields. Tiroginus and his men were riding up to meet these three. The first was an ageing warlord with a black beard and wearing a dark cloak and mail shirt. The next was an elder statesman with long white hair and wearing robes. The last was a dark-eyed druid, by the look of him, with a long beard, a hood over his head, and draped in a raven’s feather cloak. They looked grim yet nervous, like men awaiting their execution.

“What’s going on?” asked Mark of the man beside him as the Calvii chariots came to a halt, and the soldiers inside jumped off and surrounded the three men.

“The Vargons have come to surrender to Tiroginus.”

“Why has Tiroginus himself come?”

“They are ancient enemies of the Calvii. My guess is he wants to humiliate them in front of the gathered tribes.”

Two warriors lifted Tiroginus’ throne onto their shoulders and carried him over to the Vargons. They put him down a few paces away. Bronmere followed and stood by his side, as usual, and two flag-bearers flanked him.

This done, the Calvii lowered their spears towards the Vargons. They took the hint and knelt down on their knees. All were quiet, eager to hear the words of the most powerful warlord in the land.

“Warlord Zamothrax.” said Tiroginus, with a fake smile and a sinister, genial tone. “How long has it been?”

“Thirty years, give or take.” he grunted.

“Thirty two years exactly.” smiled Tiroginus. “Thirty two years ago, you cut off my father’s head, burned Gothenmar to the ground and raped and murdered my mother. And now you come to me asking for help.”

Zamothrax and his wise men glowered. “I come to seek an alliance.” he said. “Together we are stronger than apart.”

“That is true.” nodded Tiroginus, sagely. “You cannot fend off the Morrowfow alone, and that is why you need my help. Oh how the tables have turned. While my tribe has risen from the ashes, the ashes which you made, yours has withered and atrophied under your rule.”

Zamothrax grumbled. “It is so.”

“Perhaps I can be persuaded to help you…” said Tiroginus, stroking his beard.

“You want us to beg?” snapped the old man who accompanied Zamothrax. “You want us to swear loyalty to you, in front of all these people? Is this your revenge? To humiliate us?”

As the incredulous old man spoke, Mark found his eye drawn to the druid. His eyes seemed to be wild, flitting about, scanning the faces of the warriors around him. He was sweating and twitchy. He seemed to be fiddling with something beneath his cloak.

Tiroginus rose from his throne, and rather than answer the man directly he addressed the crowd. “I have not come here to humiliate you, old man. Merely to send a message. That message is that we must put aside our grudges, our feuds and our blood-oaths if we are to become strong enough to defeat the Morrowfow, slaughter the wall-builders and sack Tirigast. I will ask you to fight side by side with men who have dealt great harm to your people. But I do not ask anything of you that I would not expect of myself.”

Mark’s eye stayed on the druid, who was looking even more feverish, and looked down at his cloak now and then nervously.

“I shall fight side by side with this man.” said Tiroginus, gesturing to the glowering Zamothrax. “The very man who slaughtered my family and burned my home to the ground. I shall break bread with this man. I shall share my wine with him. I shall call him my ally, for only with unity shall we have the strength to defeat our true enemy: the wall-builders, who shiver behind their stone walls.”

Mark saw a glint of something within the druid’s robe.

Of course. Druids are forbidden to do battle and spill blood. It would have been an insult to search him for weapons.

Mark jumped out of the crowd and shouted “Crossbow!” at the top of his voice, pointing at the druid.

Many things happened in a short space of time. Three Calvii warrior crowded around Mark and pointed their spears at him. The druid’s eyes snapped over to Mark, then back to Tiroginus. Tiroginus turned to Mark, bemused. Bronmere was already on the move, barrelling towards the druid.

The druid’s cloak opened, revealing a crossbow in his hands.

“Die Calvii scum!” he screeched, breaking his ancient vows as he raised the crossbow and pointed it towards Tiroginus.

He wouldn’t have time to pull the trigger. Bronmere’s morning star swung, the ball crashing into the druid’s skull, which practically exploded in a shower of blood and brains. Tiroginus gasped as he looked back to see the druid fall dead.

The Calvii soldiers guarding Zamothrax and his wise man lost their nerve and stuck them both with spears.

All were quiet once more, save for excited whispers amongst the gathered crowd and the impaled Vargons’ last, anguished breaths. Tiroginus stared at the druid’s dead body, shell-shocked. Bronmere stood over the corpse and turned to his warlord. The Calvii soldiers grabbed Mark, and turned to Tiroginus for instructions.

Having regained himself, Tiroginus paced his way over to Bronmere.

“He would have killed me.”

“Doubt it.” said Bronmere. “He was slow to aim his weapon. I’d have got in the way of the bolt.”

“We can’t be sure of that.” said Tiroginus, turning to Mark. “Who is that man?”

Bronmere shrugged.

Tiroginus walked over to where Mark was being held, Bronmere following close behind. The bodyguard’s eyes scanned the onlookers, suspiciously. His blood-smeared ball and chain would put off any other would-be assassins.

“Your name?” asked Tiroginus.

“Alarik.” Mark replied.

“And why are you here, Alarik?”

“I come to seek an arrangement for my tribe, the Brogos.”

Tiroginus nodded. He had probably never heard of the Brogos before – Mark had picked an obscure tribe to imitate, a small clan living in poverty amongst the mountains of the Hindengaust Range – but if he didn’t know them, he pretended to know of them nonetheless.

“I see. I’m having a feast tonight with the heads of some major tribes. Perhaps I can find a few minutes then to iron out an arrangement which is aggregable to your people.”

“Thank you, Warlord Tiroginus.”

“Thank you, Alarik of the Brogos.” he smiled, with a wink.

With that, Tiroginus’ throne was loaded back onto his chariot, and he and Bronmere boarded it. Led by Tiroginus, the Calvii troops jumped aboard their chariots and followed after him. Mark was ushered onto one of the chariots which followed on behind.

The column of Calvii chariots rode on through the mud and shite of Gothen-Pit and out through its gates. Mark was glad to be free of that place, and he hoped never to return. But as he was escorted out of the frying pan, he would soon find himself right in the middle of the fire.

They rode on through the valley and up towards Gothenmar, which stood tall and proud upon its hill. The gold-gilded Heroes’ Hall could be seen glittering from a great distance.

The chariots rode through the lush green fields of Calvii-land, kicking up plumes of dust with their wheels. They rode up to Gothenmar, with its tall wooden walls manned by ranks of Calvii troops. Tiroginus was taking no chances with security, and for good reason.

The doors swung open to let the chariots in. Mark had found his way into Gothenmar, perversely by saving the life of the man he’d come to kill. He didn’t know if the druid would have hit his mark, but he wasn’t prepared to let someone steal his redemption away from him.

Every hut in Gothenmar was finely built, with large wooden rooves built like the prows of longships overhanging stone walls. Peasants went about their business, washing their clothes, cooking on fires. Children played. Blacksmiths hammered at their anvils. And up at the top of the hill, in the very centre, was the great Heroes’ Hall, built to look like a giant longship and decorated with gold. It was an impressive structure indeed, shining and shimmering, a symbol of the Calvii’s hard-won power and wealth. When at last Tiroginus got off his chariot he and his bodyguards headed off to the hall.

Mark knew he would only have one night. He had to kill Tiroginus tonight or his chance would be lost. He wasn’t going to be lucky enough to get into Gothenmar a second time.

 

The feast took place in the feasting hall of the mighty Heroes’ Hall. Tiroginus’ most distinguished guests – Habernach, Faelfar and Grug– and their posses feasted at the same table as Tiroginus, who sat at his tall, exquisitely carved wooden throne flanked by some wise old Calvii men, grey-haired sages and long-bearded druids. Bronmere stood beside him as usual. There were two smaller tables for the other guests, which included dignitaries from a gaggle of lesser tribes and clans. Mark was among them. A bonfire roared right in the middle of the hall.

Harps and flutes were played by well-dressed young lads and pretty maidens as the men ate and drank in a relatively civilised manner. Their chatter was animated at times, and there were bursts of laughter, but they were guests in Tiroginus’ hall, and Mark could tell they were on their best behaviour. Mark, for his part, kept his head down, ate his food, and sipped sparingly from his mead. He made some small-talk with the tribesmen around him, but neither he nor they were especially interested in being talkative. In truth all eyes were on Tiroginus. Everyone listened in to his wise words as he held court, waiting for their chance to converse with him and make the case for their tribe.

Already Mark was weighting up his options. His eye flitted about the place, counting the guards who lined the hall and stood erect with their spears. There were twenty in the hall and many more outside. Then there was Bronmere of course. The other barbarians had been disarmed, but they might well move to protect Tiroginus if Mark attacked him. He would have to bide his time.

The walls were decorated with the shields and weapons Tiroginus had collected from the many enemies he had defeated. Useful, perhaps, but not yet.

As the warlords chatted at the main table the others all listened in intently. Conversation progressed from small talk, to war stories, and then on to current affairs. One story in particular had caused a stir amongst the barbarians, appalled by the act but at the same time impressed by the cunning and heroism of it.

“Remarkable that this man should seemingly come back from the dead to haunt us, like a wight or a wraith.” said Faelfar.

“What happened to him, anyway? Why did he disappear for so long?” asked one of his toadies.

“He deserted his people.” explained Habernach. “Ran off with the Calvulani girl. That’s what the wall-builders told me anyway.”

“Ah yes, she was betrothed to your nephew, wasn’t she?” said Faelfar.

“Yes. Hesetti was her name. A good-looking, clean-limbed girl by all accounts.” said Habernach, between swigs. Mark stopped eating as he heard her name. He breathed slow, painful breaths as his throat constricted and his fists clenched.

“What did you do?” asked Faelfar.

“Broke off our alliance with the Calvulani. They hadn’t kept their side of the bargain. So I left them to the mercy of the Morrowfow.”

“Slaughtered, so I hear.” said Grug, wolfing down a chicken leg. “Wiped off the map. Their hold burned to the ground. Their horses stolen. Their men slaughtered. Their women and children carried off as slaves.”

“That is Maedoc’s way.” said Tiroginus as he sipped his wine.

Mark couldn’t help but feel a brief swelling of guilt. In their time in blissful exile he and Hestii had come to terms with their decision. They knew there would be terrible consequences for their actions, but they did it anyway. The Calvulani must have suffered greatly. But those feelings of remorse subsided soon enough. There is no use dwelling over the suffering of barbarians.

“Why did Mark return?” asked a man at the top table.

“Nobody knows for sure.” said Faelfar. “But he slaughtered Brogan along with a dozen of his men. Then he killed Aelarix in her own fortress.”

“And why did he turn them into blood eagles?” asked another.

“It is a mystery, and that makes it all the more intriguing!” laughed Grug, raising his horn in a toast to Mark’s butchery.

“Are you worried you’re next in line, Tiroginus?” asked Habernach, with a cheeky twinkle in his eye. “Or is that bodyguard of yours as good as they say he is?”

Tiroginus and Bronmere grinned, and Grug laughed. “Now that is a fight I’d like to see! Bronmere’s flail versus Mark of Darloth’s axe.”

“He has already put down the King of Darloth, why not his Champion also?” guffawed Faelfar.

Grug leaned towards Bronmere and smiled cruelly. “Did the old man beg for his life before you broke him?”

Bronmere looked thoughtful for a while, sorrowful almost. “No. He was brave. The bravest man I ever fought.”

The others all fell quiet as Bronmere spoke.

“Come, Bronmere. Tell us your tale.” said Habernach. Bronmere looked over at Tiroginus, who nodded his consent, and so he told his story.

“It was at Hyalmarch. A swampy moor. Water up to your ankles.” began Bronmere. He wasn’t a great orator, but he seemed to be deeply affected by this memory, as if he were reliving it. “Our armies faced off across the moor. King Tiberix came with his thegns. I challenged him to single combat in Warlord Tiroginus’ place. They looked surprised.”

Tiroginus shrugged. “It’s rare that a Lotherian warlord will pick a champion to fight for him. I’m not much of a warrior, but I’m not a fool either. Tiberix would have cut me to shreds.”

“It is dishonourable for a warlord to be unwilling to face death, and yet he asks the same of his men.” said Grug as he slurped mead, clearly without thinking. There was an awkward silence for a few moments.

“Dishonourable, perhaps.” said Tiroginus, as calmly as he could manage, thought he couldn’t completely hide his impatience with the dim-witted warlord. “But my men need my strategy, not my sword-arm, withered as it is. King Tiberix was an honourable man, Grug. And his people have paid a heavy price for his pride.”

Grug said no more, simply nodding his head obliviously and taking a bite out of his bread.

“Tiberix himself accepted my challenge.” continued Bronmere. “I don’t know why he didn’t pick a champion. Perhaps he was too proud or stubborn. Maybe he didn’t want another man to die in his place. The thegns begged him to reconsider. They offer their swords to him, to fight in his place. But he refused. Perhaps he was ready to die.”

“He took his longsword and his shield and came to face me. He must have known he was going to die. I feel sure he did. But all the while he had this hateful stare that would scare the ghost out of you. I’ll never forget it.”

Mark’s throat tightened up and his innards twisted as he heard how his king was bludgeoned upon that moor.

“I swung my flail and buckled his shield.” said Bronmere, pacing out his movements, recreating the fight. “But he came again. Once more my flail hit. He dropped his shield and he fell. But he got back up and came again. I hit him again, this time smashing his hand, and he dropped his sword. I brought the flail round again, and it smashed his crown. Though he had fallen, with his shield gone, his skull caved in and his hand smashed, he would have gotten up again if it were not for his thegns restraining him. Even as they dragged him away he was reaching for his dagger. And that glare…I will never forget it.”

Bronmere’s story was over. He looked over at Tiroginus, who nodded to him before addressing the others.

“My Darlothian spies tell me that King Tiberix has not spoken a word since. No laws decreed, no attacks ordered. Nothing. He may be brave, but now he is lame. It’s just as well Bronmere didn’t kill him. Then a new king would have been crowned who might take steps to oppose me. But as it is his thegns dither, unwilling to take decisive action for fear of being seen to be jumping in Tiberx’s grave.”

“Once Tiberix was beaten down by Bronmere, I used my strategy to defeat the Darlothians in battle. We were able to force them into the mire, where they were at the mercy of my archers who were deployed on higher ground. It was a massacre, and the Darlothian army has not been raised since.”

Tiroginus’ glare shot over to Grug. “That is the value of strategy. Curse your pathetic honour.”

After a few seconds of awkward silence Grug bowed his head reverently, and Habernach lightened the mood shortly after by describing the shit he had taken earlier that day.

The chatter continued amiably enough. Tiroginus kept fairly quiet, simply listening to the other warlords and laughing, politely, at their jokes.

When he had eaten his meal he began calling over the delegates from the smaller tribes. They would stand beside his throne and converse with him as he sipped his wine. As he sat there, swilling his wine in its goblet and stroking his beard in rumination, he looked more a king than a warlord. The wise Calvii men would give their counsel and chip in from time to time.

Eventually Mark’s turn came.

“Alarik, come speak with me.” called Tiroginus, beckoning him over.

Already within the belly of the beast, Mark would admit to feeling a little trepidation as he waked over to stand beside the man he was honour-bound to kill, surrounded by men who were hunting for him.

“Alarik has come from…” he said to his wise men, before stopping himself. “Remind me of you tribe again, Alarik?”

“The Brogos.”

“The Brogos, of course. He has a sharp eye. He identified the treachery of Zamothrax’s assassin before Bronmere or I did.”

“A despicable business.” muttered one of the old druids. “To abandon one’s sacred vows in the pursuit of vengeance…Honestly, a druid trying to kill people, whatever next?”

“Indeed.” said Tiroginus. “I owe you a debt, Alarik of the Brogos. I will send your people a dozen fine ponies. Where exactly are your tribal homelands?”

“We are but a small clan, sire,” said Mark, “from the mountains, not far from the Horns. We have no chariots, sire, for we are a poor clan with few warriors. Perhaps mules would be a more useful gift?”

Tiroginus laughed. “This man turns down ponies and asks for mules! I like that. I will see that it is done.”

“Most gracious, sire.” said Mark, bowing his head.

One of the sages had been muttering to himself, stroking his beard. “The Brogos, you say? That name sounds familiar. Is that the clan of the wise old herbalist Methustra?”

Mark’s heart thumped. “Methustra…” he muttered. He couldn’t think of what to say, and he could feel a dozen pairs of eyes on him.

“No, you old fool, that’s the Brogotis!” chastised another of the old men.

Mark let out a little sigh of relief as the wise men debated amongst themselves. Was it the Brogotis or the Brogores? Or was it none of the Brog-tribes at all? One druid, however, kept his beady eyes on him.

“What do the Brogos ask of me, Alarik?” asked Tiroginus, turning to business.

“Association with your mighty confederation, Warlord Tirognus. We are but a small clan and can spare only a dozen fighting men, but they are brave and hardy boys.”

Tiroginus slapped his hands on the table. “Done. You send your boys to fight for me during the warmer seasons, and in return your clan may keep whatever plunder they can carry home.”

“Hmmmm….” mused the wise old druid who had his hawk-like gaze fixed on Mark.

“You have something on your mind, Meryn?” said Tiroginus.

“I’ve been trying to remember. The Brogos, you say…Yes, I have visited their stronghold. More of a big hut than a hill-fort.” he said thoughtfully, his cunning eyes locked on Mark.

Mark’s heart started thumping again. He scanned around him momentarily. Perhaps the best bet would be to seize Tiroginus’ dinner knife and us him as a hostage…That way he could maybe make an unceremonious escape before stabbing him on the way out…But it was risky.

“When was that, old friend?” asked Tiroginus.

“During my pilgrimage through the mountains, visiting the wise men there, absorbing their rustic knowledge. Tell me, lad, how is Aeldorman Kane keeping?”

Mark gulped. With every moment that passed, with each thumping heartbeat, his thoughts became more fudged as he started running through his options. Take Tiroginus hostage? Stab him with his dinner knife, then run off? Or fight to the death against Bronmere and a dozen Calvii spearmen? He could feel their eyes burning into him…

“I have not returned to my homeland for many years.” he said, eventually, making things up on the spot. “I am a hunter and tracker by trade. I travel from mountain, to forest, to plain, plying my trade.”

Tiroginus furrowed his brow. “And yet you have come to seek terms with me. Have you not discussed this with your warlord?”

Mark kept on talking, hoping some of it would make sense. “My people know my hunting grounds. They know where I can be found as the seasons and migrations pass. They send boys now and then to collect furs from me, and also to bring me messages. The wise Aeldorman thought an alliance would be expedient, and as the farthest-travelled of my tribe he asked me to beseech you.”

There were a few nervous seconds. Tiroginus had his brow furrowed and seemed to be deep in thought. The druid looked a little confused.

Eventually, though, the druid sighed and returned to his mead and boar. But Tiroginus’ interest had been piqued.

“You travel far for your trade?”

“Indeed, sire.”

“And you track migrating beasts?”

“Yes.”

“Could you track a man?”

“Yes. I’ve done so before. I’ve hunted down men who have trespassed on my hunting grounds.”

Tiroginus nodded, deep in thought. “Do you hunt in Darloth?”

“Yes, when the hunting is poor on our side of the border.”

“That’s impressive.”

“It’s not so a hard thing since the Great Wall has gone unmanned. Now that their farms and villages have been abandoned by the crown it is no more perilous than hunting in Lotheria.”

“I see.” he said, putting a hand on his chin. “We shall speak more, Alarik of the Brogos, but for now I have many more delegates to attend to.”

“Very well, sire.” bowed Mark.

He breathed a sigh of relief as he went back to his seat, and took a big swig of mead to take the edge off.

The evening continued without much incident. Tiroginus spoke to the other delegates, conversing patiently with each in turn, but he looked a little distracted, occasionally looking in Mark’s direction. Mark turned away whenever he did so, trying not to catch his eye.

The barbarians gorged themselves on food and got steadily more drunk. They gradually began to excuse themselves and leave. As their guests began to file out the Calvii watchmen began be dismissed by Bronmere to escort the Pictoi, Galbandii and Aelsing delegates to their huts in Gothenmar, and the lesser delegates were escorted to Calvii chariots which waited to take them back to Gothen-Pit.

With the room half empty Tiroginus rose from his seat, and on his cue everyone else did so too.

“My friends, it has been a fine evening, but I tire and must now bid you good night.” he said, with a bow. The others bowed too, and began to make their way out.

For a moment Mark thought he had lost his chance. He had a half-formed plan to wrench a ceremonial longsword from the wall and charge at Tiroginus there and then, and go down fighting against the rest. But Tiroginus turned to him before leaving. “Alarik, may I speak with you in my chamber?”

It was a fine turn of events indeed. The sheep had invited the lion into his meadow. Bronmere would be a complication…But like a horny bull on the rampage, he would perhaps be best avoided rather than tackled head-on. As the other savages left, leaving the feasting hall empty save for a few guards, Mark and Bronmere followed Tiroginus to his room.

Tiroginus’ room was finely ornamented, with a huge and finely crafted bed, exquisite furniture, and a table and chairs. The room was lit by candles. Bronmere closed the door behind them and stood against it, arms folded.

Mark knew this was it. Bronmere or not, it was now or never. He would never get a better chance to redeem himself. He started looking around the room for something sharp to do the deed with. He didn’t have to look far. There was a sword at Tiroginus’ side in a glistening scabbard, hung from a bronze ornamental belt.

“Wine?” Tiroginus asked, with a smile.

“Thank you, sire.” grunted Mark, and Tiroginus began to pour wine into two golden cups. He handed one to Mark, which he downed with one gulp.

Tiroginus sighed. “You’re supposed to sip it, Alarik. I would pour you another, but I fear good wine is wasted on you.”

Mark tried to sense how near he was to Tiroginus. How many paces would it take to reach him? How long would it take to pull the sword from its scabbard and shove it into his gut? How quickly would Bronmere react? He took a small pace closer as they talked, small enough that Bronmere wouldn’t notice.

“Alarik, I want you to do something for me.” said Tiroginus. “It relates to Mark of Darloth. I fear he may be coming for me, but my trackers have been unable to find him in Lotheria, and I have heard nothing from the mercenaries I paid to track him down in Darloth. I suspect that they are either dead or have made off with my coin and are making no attempt to find him at all. I want you to find him for me. He could be in Lotheria, or he could be in Darloth, but you are somewhat familiar with both. If and when you find him, send me a raven to let me know where he is, and track him until my men can reach him. Then let them do their work. Do this for me, and I will repay you handsomely, more than you could earn in a decade of animal trapping.”

It was a surreal situation. Mark was being asked to track himself down by the very man he was here to kill.

“I did not raise the issue with you at the feast as I did not want people to think that this business with Mark is out of hand…It is not out of hand by any means, but the fact remains that we don’t know where he is. Does this sound agreeable to you?”

“Yes sire.” grunted Mark.

“That’s good. He is an elusive man, apparently, but he has a distinctive appearance. They say he has cold blue eyes, much like your own. And he has a scar over…” Tiroginus paused, his brow furrowing as he looked at Mark’s scars. “…over his right eye.”

“Like mine?” grunted Mark.

“Yes.” said Tiroginus, now seemingly deep in thought.

Mark bolted over to him. Tiroginus gasped as he pulled the sword from its sheath. Mark rammed it through his stomach, and the venerable warlord cried out in sudden pain.

“No!” cried Bronmere, reaching for his weapon.

“No…It can’t be…Mark…” were to be Tiroginus’ last, gasped words as he realised the grim truth.

Bronmere’s flail swung out, an anguished battle cry ringing through the air, but it flew a moment too late, sailing past Mark as he dived aside, smashing through the wooden wall behind him like a cannonball.

“No!” roared Bronmere again as Tiroginus slipped down to the floor, clutching at the sword in his gut. The flail flew down towards Mark, who jumped aside, and the mighty weapon sheared the table behind him into two broken parts.

“No!” Bronmere cried again as Tiroginus gasped his last, blood-choked breaths, reaching out feebly for his protector. The flail flew out again, and Mark threw himself at the doorway, which gave way and swung open as it was simultaneously smashed apart by the force of Bronmere’s weapon. Mark, the sheared door and a storm of splinters all fell to the floor at once.

Mark made a run for it, pursued by Bronmere, who was crying out in anguish, tears spilling from his eyes.

Mark slowed to a halt as the Calvii warriors in the hall began to surround him with their spears lowered. He would have to make it to one of the walls and take a weapon to fight them off. This was it. A last stand. Even if he got past the men in the hall, there were too many manning Gothenmar to hope of escape. He would have his redemption but he was gripped by regret nonetheless, for his task was not yet complete.

“Stop!” cried Bronmere, and everyone stopped at once. Then he gave his order. “Leave us. All of you.”

“Bronmere, what’s…” tried one of them.

“I said leave!” he bellowed, making the Calvii men’s balls try to scramble back into their bodies. “Do not interfere! You are to leave us at once!” he bellowed after them as they scuttled out of the hall.

As the doors slammed shut Mark turned to Bronmere, who was panting and crying.

“You’re him, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Good disguise. Very convincing.”

“It got the job done.”

“You bastard…” he seethed. “You killed the most just and kind warlord in all of Lotheria!”

“Then why did you call off his men?”

“I’m glad you asked.” he seethed, letting the ball of his flail fall and land on the floor with a metallic clang. “I demand a fight to the death. Just the two of us. Uninterrupted. I will fight for the honour of my fallen master. And you…You have nobody to fight for but yourself. You cannot avenge Tiberix, for you abandoned him, and left him to face me alone.”

“I do have someone to fight for.” said Mark.

“Who?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“You’re a taciturn one, aren’t you, Mark of Darloth? So be it, then.”

“May I?” said Mark, gesturing towards the nearest wall, which was festooned with weapons, shields and armour.

“Be my guest.”

Mark strolled up to the wall, watched every step of the way by Bronmere, and he began weighing up his options.

“You fight with axes, don’t you?” said Bronmere.

“Usually. Depends who I’m fighting.”

“So what will it be this time?”

“This.” said Mark, pulling a spear from the wall.

“Interesting choice.”

“Hmm. We’ll see.” he said as he walked towards the middle of the hall. As he came to a halt they stood ten paces apart with the embers of the bonfire in the middle, sparks and heat still rising from it, making the air between them shimmer.

It wouldn’t be easy. Mark was a tall and powerful man, but Bronmere was slightly taller than he was and about twice as broad. His barrel chest, mighty shoulders and huge arms were oiled up and suitably intimidating.

“I will crush every bone in your body, and then I will feed you to the dogs. Tiroginus will be buried with dignity in the burial mound of his ancestors.”

“I will kill you, then I’ll cut apart your warlord’s bleeding corpse.”

That was enough to get Bronmere riled up. He roared a battle cry and charged at Mark, swinging his flail in a terrible, deadly arc.

Mark leapt aside of one swing, which went past and threw several smashed chairs into the air. He swerved aside of another which bounced off the feasting table, making a massive dent in it. Then he ducked below another swing, which tore a chunk out of Tiroginus’ throne. Bronmere might not have landed a blow yet, but he was doing a fine job of wrecking Tiroginus’ furniture.

Mark spent the opening exchanges jumping away from Bronmere’s mighty blows. Because of its reach Mark wouldn’t be able to get close enough to land a blow himself. The mighty weapon would swat away his spear if he tried. So he had to fight defensively for now.

Mark skipped back three times, and each time the cannonball head of Bronmere’s flail swept inches from his face. He could feel the rush of air as it flew past, and he heard the whooshing noise it made, as well as Bronmere’s heaving grunts and battle-cries.

Mark tumbled backwards onto the ground to avoid another blow, and spread his legs to avoid another, the ball smashing down and making a dent in the floor between his thighs.

He rolled back and got back on his feet. This time as Bronmere swung Mark held out his spear and, as he’d hoped, the chain wrapped around the haft and the ball came to a stop. Mark allowed himself a grin of satisfaction, thinking he had lamed his mighty foe’s attacks.

His smugness was short lived, as with a whip of Bronmere’s mighty arm the chain snapped Mark’s spear in two. With a momentarily stunned look on his face Mark dropped the half he was holding and ran off, avoiding another mighty swing, bolting towards one of the walls and the weapons there.

Mark grabbed a long-hafted battle axe. He turned just in time. He saw the cannonball heading straight for him, so he jumped aside, and it planted itself in the wall. Bronmere grunted as he pulled the weapon back, but the ball was lodged in the wall for a moment, and as the chain went taut Mark saw his chance. He brought his axe down on the chain, and with a silvery spark the chain was sheared.

For a brief moment Mark thought he had the upper hand. Bronmere turned away from him and began to run, and Mark gave chase, but when he saw Bronmere run over to the opposite wall and grab a spear Mark frantically returned to the wall behind him and reached for a shield.

Not a moment too soon. Bronmere roared as he launched the spear. It smashed into Mark’s shield like a ballista bolt, completely ruining it and sending Mark flying from his feet.

Mark dropped the shield and staggered up, but a moment too late. Bronmere was upon him, unarmed but still deadly, a hammer punch to the face knocking him down, and with his boot he kicked the axe from Mark’s hand.

Mark’s face ached from the impact. It was a test of his chin that he hadn’t been knocked out by the thunderous blow. He was just about able to shake off the fuzziness and pain quick enough to roll aside as Bronmere punched down at him. He yelped, as much as a big man like him can yelp, as he punched the floor.

The two men squared up and traded blows. Mark threw powerful punches, smashing into Bronmere’s body and head. Bronmere responded with mighty swings of his fist, which Mark mostly managed to dodge, but the one that hit him hit hard. A punch to the gut sent Mark sprawling, and he landed on a table behind him.

Bronmere threw himself at him. Mark rolled aside, falling on the floor, and Bronmere smashed straight through the table, which collapsed under his bulk.

Mark backed off, and Bronmere took the moment to regroup too, taking a few heaving breaths, fists clenched in furious rage. They stood there, both exhausted, glaring at each other.

“Rearm?” ventured Mark.

“Hmm. Very well.” concurred Bronmere.

So they both wandered around the hall, which was now littered with broken furniture, scanning the weapons on the walls. Mark picked two battle axes. Bronmere grinned as he saw a massive, two-handed sword. He pulled it free of its giant scabbard and hefted it overhead. Then they paced their way towards the middle of the hall, and soon the two of them were standing opposite each other once again.

Bronmere glared at Mark and grinned as he contemplated his vengeance, and the satisfaction of placing Mark’s skull on the grave of his fallen master. He seethed with heavy breaths, and growled as his mighty hands gripped the haft of his sword.

Mark was calm. He breathed slowly. He ignored the paid in his limbs and face. He held the axes loosely in his hands.

Roaring, Bronmere charged it. He swung his sword in a mighty arc, trying to cut Mark clean in two. Mark ducked back and the blade swung over him. He felt the rush of air on his face as the blade flew by. Then he leapt at Bronmere and his axes swung. Bronmere’s neck was caught between the two of them. His head was sheared clean off, and the body fell with it, quivering and spitting blood from the stump.

Mark allowed himself a satisfied smirk. The opening exchanged had given Bronmere cause for confidence. With his unorthodox weapon and the extended reach it gave him, Mark was unable to get close enough to land a killer blow. But as soon as they faced off against each other the second time, he was doomed. By that point he was just a big brute with a big sword, like countless other warlords who had tried and failed to kill Mark.

There was silence for a moment as Mark regained his breath, but he soon returned to his grim calling. He went into Tiroginus’ room to complete the ritual.

He returned a few moments later with Tiroginus’ blood all over his hands. He dropped his gore-drenched axes on the floor. He poured a flagon of mead over his hands to wash off the blood. Then he took a moment to regain himself, and walked out of the hall as casually as he could.

It was dark outside, save for the light of torches and campfires. Half a dozen Calvii warriors were loitering there. They looked shocked. Awe-struck even.

“What happened in there? It sounded like a herd of fighting aurochs!”

“I insulted Bronmere’s mother and he challenged me to a fight.” Mark panted, holding his aching head where there was swelling around his eye socket.

“You stupid son of a bitch.” said one of them. “Did he whip your ass?”

“Yes he did. But I got a good hit in and broke his nose.”

The men gasped. “He won’t like that.” said one of them.

“He’s still in there sulking, so I wouldn’t go in there for a couple of hours if I were you.”

The men nodded and let him pass as they chatted amongst themselves. One of the men pointed Mark to a chariot which was waiting for him.

“Hurry up and get in!” wailed the charioteer. “I’ve got to take you all the way back to Gothen-Pit, and I want to get home to my wife if you don’t mind!”

“Sorry to keep you waiting.” grunted Mark, stepping aboard.

The charioteer lashed the reins and the ponies started to trot.

As he was leaving Gothenmar, Mark looked back to see the Calvii warriors stood there at the hall, deliberating whether or not to go in. It wasn’t until Mark was half way to Gothen-Pit that the war horns blared. They’d found Tiroginus’ body, and the alarm was raised.

“What the hell is all that about?” complained the charioteer.

“The thing is, friend, I’m Mark of Darloth, and I just killed your warlord.”

The man gasped, but had time to do nothing else before Mark snapped his neck. He threw his limp body out of the chariot, which rolled head over heels as it hit the ground, and then he grabbed the reins, lashing at them for speed.

“You’ll just have to wait for your wife in the afterlife, friend.” Mark said to himself as he rode off, followed by the wailing of the war horns as torches lit up Gothenmar. Mark smirked to himself. “She will be heart-broken I’m sure. It looks to me like you were ‘head over heels’.”

Mark chuckled at his own joke, but then was struck with a certain sense of melancholy as he realised that the one time he’d managed to string together a quip there was nobody there to hear it.

 

Chapter Seven: The Moot

 

Habernach, Faelfar and Grug shook their heads in sombre disbelief as they looked upon the body of Tiroginus, wrapped in his cloak and dressed in his finest armour, crown upon his head. He lay in a stone coffin, with his eyes and tongue removed and druidic herbs stuffed into his mouth and eye sockets to preserve him. The druids had managed to stick him back together convincingly enough after Mark’s axes had done their work.

“A terrible shame.” said Faelfar. “All his plans, all his machinations, all snuffed out. Funny what a sword can do.”

“Aye.” said Habernach as they bowed their heads in reverence. They moved on, letting the next in line come and pay their respects.

They were at the family barrow of the Calvii nobles, a giant burial mount with a tomb inside. The tomb’s entrance revealed a dark tunnel leading to a labyrinth of graves. Tiroginus’ body was on display just outside the tomb for the time being as a long procession of mourners and well-wishers queued up to pay their respects.

A moot had been called, summoning the headsmen, chieftains and wise old men of the Calvii to come and bury Tiroginus, but also to debate who should be the new warlord since Tiroginus had left no heirs.

Other warlords had come to pay their respects, too. They would take the opportunity to come together and discuss how to proceed with Tiroginus’ grand confederacy, but that could wait until the man was in his grave. All had come with large contingents of bodyguards and hangers-on, but the burial mound was sacred ground, and so were the tranquil sacred groves which surrounded it, and so it was forbidden to shed blood or even carry weapons there.

“So what’s the verdict, boys?” asked Habernach. “Do we press ahead with the alliance?”

“The alliance is dead.” said Faelfar. “Tiroginus was the only one with the brains, patience and manpower to keep things on an even keel. Even if we were all willing to work together, sooner or later fighting will break out, or feuds will erupt, or one tribe will stab another in the back. It will be a fleeting arrangement even if we manage to strike up a deal. And that is a far-fetched prospect in itself – most of them are stubborn pricks, who wouldn’t know a good deal if it bit them on the balls!”

“I agree, Faelfar.” said Grug, slapping him on the shoulder. “The others are all dumb fools, cowardly wretches who shiver and hide in their hill-forts. A gaggle of oath-breakers and goat-fuckers, and I’ll have no business with any of them.”

“Indeed, Grug, indeed.” Faelfar and Habernach chuckled to each other as the dumb brute unwittingly proved their point.

Their deliberations were interrupted by the wailing of horns. Everyone looked up as the sound echoed around the burial mound and tranquil groves. The horns were followed soon after by shouts of “Morrowfow!”

The three warlords looked around at each other, confused. “Surely Maedoc has not come?” said Faelfar.

“Well I’ll be damned.” said Habernach as they, and the other mourners, watched with trepidation and disdain as the Morrowfow contingent arrived. They were given a wide berth by the other tribesmen, and regarded with suspicious and hateful glares, but none dared to bar their path.

The Morrowfow warriors, thought unarmed, were fearsome to behold. They were deadly night raiders who painted their skin tar-black. They wore little armour and often fought naked, though some wore spiked helmets and scraps of armour. No wise old men or village elders had come to join them. There were few enough of them amongst their brutal tribe. For the Morrowfow, if you are not a warrior then you are a slave.

The Morrowfow were led by Warlord Maedoc himself. He didn’t dress like his warriors, preferring to set himself apart from those beastly throat-slitters. He wore a fine suit of silver scale-mail, with tall black boots and gloves. His skin was very pale and his brow protruded alarmingly, made to look even larger by the fact that he had no eyebrows. He had a long chin and thin lips. His hair started pretty far back on his head, and fell down straight and long, so blonde it was practically white. He had one green eye and one blue, equally cruel. He walked with a certain gregariousness and grace which belied his otherwise thuggish appearance. Currently, he was pulling a faux-glum expression.

As the Morrowfow came, the bodyguards and followers of Habernach, Faelfar and Grug crowded around their warlords. This was sacred ground, but little is sacred to the brutal Morrowfow.

“Well, Grug, you’ve boasted about how you’ve always wanted to kill him. Now’s your chance to tell him.” said Habernach, beneath his breath.

Grug glowered. “A wise tactician never reveals his plans.”

Maedoc stood over Tiroginus’ body and patted him on the chest. He let out an exaggerated sigh, just loud enough that those nearby could hear him. “Oh, poor Tiroginus…This is not a fitting end for a man of your ambition.” he said, his voice crisp and sharp and somewhat theatrical.

“Why are you here, Maedoc?” demanded Habernach, not wanting to beat around the bush. “This is sacred ground. You cannot make war here.”

“I am not here to make war, dear Habernach.” he said sorrowfully. “Merely to pay my respects to a worthy adversary. Do you think he’s up there now, playing chess with the ancestors? The druids have done a fine job with his body. Who would have thought just a few days ago he was blood-eagled by Mark of Darloth?”

“You don’t give a damn about Tiroginus.” scoffed Faelfar.

“You judge me too harshly, fair Faelfar. Even a wolf must feel some kinship for the elk which it hunts. It is good to see you both.” he said, bowing. “And you…Your name I forget.” he said to Grug.

The Aelsing growled. “Grug.”

Maedoc burst out with a fake, mocking laugh. “Grug? Grug? That’s the sound my shit makes when it plops into the latrine!”

Grug pulled a snarling face, but he didn’t have the balls to bite back.

“Get to the point, Maedoc. We all know you haven’t come here to pay your respects.” snapped Habernach.

Maedoc grinned. “You know me too well, Habernach. And you’re right of course. I’ve come to tell you that your time as warlords of your tribes has come to an end.”

“What? What is the meaning of this?” snapped Faelfar, as there was consternation amongst the warlords’ followers. The Morrowfow raiders hissed at them and bared their teeth.

“With Tiroginus gone and his alliance in tatters I am now by far the most powerful warlord in all of Lotheria. I have already sent riders to your households giving them my terms. Your sons, if they have any brains, will swear loyalty to me.”

“Never! My sons would never betray me!” bellowed Grug.

“Your breath is revolting, Grog, or whatever your name is. Try chewing some nappersleaf. It has a minty fresh odour.”

Habernach’s horror was interrupted briefly as he heard something approaching from beyond the sacred groves. The rumbling of wheels. The tramping of hooves. And rising above the sacred elms were the tell-tale clouds of dust.

“I hear chariots! What is this treachery?”

“Chariots? I hear no chariots?” said Maedoc, putting a hand to his ear. “Only the singing of the birds in the trees, and the rustling of the leaves, and the words of my ancestors whispering wise counsel.”

Everyone else heard the neighing of horses, and the tramping of feet, and then war cries. There was panic amongst the moot-comers.

“Oh yes, now that you mention it, I did order my men to come and slaughter everyone. Silly me. So forgetful!” beamed Maedoc.

“This is sacred ground!” protested one of Faelfar’s druids. “You cannot spill blood here!”

“We are Morrowfow, you horse-faced old fool.” said Maedoc, to laughter from his men. “Nothing is sacred to us. Not the ancestors. Not the spirits. We worship no gods. We do not recognise your ridiculous superstitions. There is only war, rape and slaughter, and we excel at all of it.”

The warriors had come now, spilling through the sacred groves and surrounding the unarmed mourners. They were fully armed with axes and spears but they didn’t attack just yet. They herded everyone together, waved their weapons at them and hissed, dragging off a few stragglers and butchering them just to get the message across.

Maedoc soaked up the moment for a while, a shark-like grin plastered across his face. Then he gave the order. “Drag them off to the War Pit!” he bellowed. The Morrowfow cheered and began dragging off the moot-comers to their chariots, slaughtering those who resisted.

There was chaos as the terrified crowd was herded back by the weapons of the Morrowfow, pressed against the stone barrow. Some tried to make a run for it, but they were rounded up and dragged off or cut down there and then. Some of the menfolk tried to fight back, but they were unarmed and were slaughtered where they stood. There was shouting, whooping from the Morrowfow, screams from the women who had come to mourn as they too were dragged off to the chariots. Maedoc watched all of this with that terrible grin still upon his face.

Faelfar and Habernach had looks of stoic fury upon their faces. They knew their number was up.

“A curse upon you, Maedoc, and all your Morrowfow dogs.” spat Habernach as he and Faelfar were dragged off with their posses. “But no matter your threats, or the horrors which await me, I shall not disgrace my ancestors by despoiling this sacred ground.”

Grug had other ideas. He snarled at the men who accosted him. “A fair stance, Habernach, but I shall apologise to the ancestors in hell!”

He head-butted the nearest man, sending him sprawling with his nose gushing blood. Another man was grabbing him by the arm, so Grug pulled the Morrowfow’s sword from its scabbard and rammed it into his stomach with a phlegmy grunt.

As Grug fought off half a dozen men, swiping his sword this way and that with battle-cries erupting from his lungs, Maedoc rubbed his forehead in exasperation. “Someone get me a bow.” he sighed.

Grug fought on, kicking back one of his attackers and ramming his sword into his chest before moving on to the next one. A bow was at last brought to Maedoc, who notched an arrow and raised it to his eye. It flew straight and true, landing in Grug’s neck. The big man dropped his sword and fell, choking blood. The Morrowfow piled in, sticking him with a dozen spears.

Maedoc tried to steer clear of the uncouth business of combat, and as a rule he left it to his lowly footsoldiers. He handed the bow back to his man with the look of someone who had just smelled faeces.

“What shall we do with the warlord’s body?” asked one of the Morrowfow as he peered into Tiroginus’ coffin.

Maedoc put a finger on his chin and looked up at the heavens as if he were thinking. He made up his mind quickly enough. “Leave Tiroginus to feed the wolves. Then drag the bones of his ancestors out of the barrow and scatter them about. And when that’s done, burn down the groves.”

“This is a blasphemy!” blustered the old druid. “This is sacred land!”

“You just don’t get it do you, old man?” cackled Maedoc. “Nothing is sacred. Nothing. Keep this one alive for now, men. I want to take him back to Fangmar. The boys there will be bored, I’d like to give them something to play with. Goodbye, gentlemen.” said Maedoc, with a cruel smile, and with that he went to return to his chariot.

The frantic, terrified scrum of mourners was pressed up against the barrow as they were dragged away to the chariots one by one. Amongst them, one person was keeping their cool. A hooded druid with a black beard and draped shoulder to toe in a raven’s feather cloak was pushing his way through the ruck, his cold eyes locked on Maedoc.

One of the Morrowfow saw him and went to grab him.

No sooner had he done so, the druid’s cloak flew open, and in his hands was a loaded crossbow.

He moved like a flash, lifting it and pointing it at Maedoc. But just as fast, the Morrowfow cried out, and there was an intake of breath from those around him as they saw the weapon.

This was just enough warning for one of Maedoc’s bodyguards to turn and see the poised projectile.

“Warlord, loo…” he shouted, jumping in the way.

The trigger was squeezed and the bolt flew. It thudded into the man’s eye and pierced his brain, cutting short his ‘k’. As his man fell to the floor Maedoc took a couple of moments to realise what had just happened.

“Don’t kill him! Don’t kill him!” he cried out, frantically, stopping his warriors in their tracks as they went to grab the druid. “Bring the assassin to me alive!”

Sure enough his men grabbed hold of the druid and tore the crossbow from his hands. They dragged him before their warlord and forced him down onto his knees, tearing off his hood and cloak.

Maedoc laughed, genuinely this time, as he looked upon Mark of Darloth.

“No, it can’t be! Mark, is that you?”

Mark looked up at him with savage, hateful eyes. His teeth grinded. His muscles tensed. His fists clenched. Pure hatred swirled within his blood, making his throat squeeze tight and his guts contract.

“Oh, I’ve missed those eyes. So cold, so bloody. But this is new.” he said, running a finger along Mark’s bear scars. “This too.” he said, putting a hand on his tattooed chest. “My my, Mark, what have you done to yourself?”

As the Morrowfow realised who he was they started shouting at him, baying for his blood, howling like hyenas. Their eyes were wild. Their teeth were bared. Maedoc raised a hand to quieten them down.

“What should we do with him, warlord? Should we throw him in the War Pit with the other?” asked one of his men, foaming at the lips

“No no no…He is a Darlothian. Our wall-builder ‘allies’ will want him.” said Maedoc, to visible disappointment from his men. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t show him a bit of Morrowfow hospitality first, does it?” he grinned. That cheered them up. They whooped and spat curses at him, delighting in telling him what they were going to do to him. Mark didn’t listen. He just stared, furiously, at Maedoc.

“The wall-builders will pay good money for him.” continued Maedoc, stroking his chin. “Whether to take him in and thank him for his services to the crown, or merely to execute him themselves, I do not care. You are a uniquely valuable man, Mark. It’s rare that you get to collect two bounties for the same hostage.”

“It’s just a shame you went and tried to kill me! That was a very foolish thing to do, and though I will take no pleasure in it, I shall have to make an example of you. By rights, I should be welcoming you into Fangmar with open arms and showering you with gifts. By slaying my rivals, you have made me the strongest warlord in all of Lotheria! Soon, I shall be strong enough to oppose Darloth itself. That is precisely what I shall do, once they’ve paid your ransom of course.”

“For that is my ambition, men. Just think of it. All those farms to plunder. All those weak old men to slaughter. All those meek young boys to enslave. All those raven-haired beauties to rape. For that is the Morrowfow way.” he declared, to howls and cheers from his bestial warriors.

“You have done remarkable things, Mark, but still I wonder why you executed your victims as did? Why did you rip them apart, and turn them into blood-eagles? Was it a message? A warning perhaps? For little old me? A reminder of why you bear this grudge against me, hmm? Did you want me to quake in my boots, to fear your arrival?” he said, slapping him playfully about the face. He squeezed Mark’s cheeks like an adult would to do a child.

“And then this? A crossbow hidden in the cloak?” Maedoc snorted. “I must say I’m a little disappointed in your, Mark. I had expected better. It’s a cheap trick, and it doesn’t fit in with your modus operandi at all. Has your hatred of me worn your patience thin…Has your lust for vengeance turned this calculated killed into an opportunist?”

Mark stayed silent, though his furious eyes and scowling lips told Maedoc he was right.

“Hmmm. Cat’s got his tongue. Let’s see if I can’t convince him to open up a little. Come, men. We ride for Fangmar!” cried Maedoc as torches were thrown into the sacred groves and the stone coffins of the Calvii ancestors were broken open and their bones tossed out.

“Cheer up, Mark.” Maedoc grinned, slapping him on the shoulder as they made their way towards the chariots escorted by a gang of foul-smelling Morrowfow. “There’s nothing like a nice relaxing ride through the countryside to make oneself feel a little more chipper. You’ll be right as rain in no time.”

 

Chapter Eight: The War Pit

 

Tears ran from Mark’s eyes as he stumbled about, looking around frantically. He staggered this way and that through the Grimwold Forest’s dark underbelly, a thicket of briars, tree roots and undergrowth, dank and muddy, made dark by the mesh-like canopy above.

He’d been looking around for what felt like hours. He was a mediocre tracker at the best of times, let alone in this frantic state. He’d lost the trail. He wished that it had been the other way around. If it was Hesetti who was trying to find him, she would have done it by now.

She was gone. Missing, without a trace. It was hopeless. He fell to his knees in despair, hands on his face, his brain numb with worry.

Then he heard something above the croaking of frogs, the cawing of crows and the rustling of leaves. He heard a gasping, as if someone were choking.

Mark shot up and dashed towards it. In the distance he could make out a body propped up against a tree. At first he feared it was Hesetti, and his heart thundered, but as he got closer it was clear it was a man. A savage. A black-painted Morrowfow.

An arrow was stuck through one of his eyes. The other flitted about madly. He choked on phlegm and blood, dying a slow, painful death.

“No…” pleaded Mark as he searched the man’s body. The Morrowfow were the most brutal of all the savage peoples. If Hesetti had been taken away by them…

His worst fears gained credence as he inspected the arrow’s fletching. It was one of hers.

“Where is she!” he roared, tears streaming from his eyes as he grabbed the man by the throat. What little life was left in him was soon choked out.

Mark desperately looked around, pleading “No…” over and over again, scanning the ground around where the barbarian lay.

He saw footprints in the mud, some stamped, some scraped, indicating a scuffle at close quarters. It looked like there had been a group of men, seven at least. One pair of footprints was smaller than the others. It was Hesetti.

Mark followed the footprints, praying “No…” over and over. The gaps between her footprints grew longer. She must have broken into a run. Perhaps she had broken free of them and made her escape…

But his worst fears were soon realised. There were three more bodies. They lay in various states of dismemberment. All Morrowfow, all killed with a longsword which lay there in the mud. It was Hesetti’s.

The footprints turned away from the carnage and pressed on through the forest. There were footprints of four men, but Hesetti’s were nowhere to be seen except for a trail which showed where she had been dragged along by her captors. She had been taken by them. Was she killed in the scuffle, and dragged off dead by the Morrowfow? Or did she live still?

Mark followed their footprints as far as he could, all the while sick with fear, terrible visions flashing through his head, possibilities and scenarios too terrible to contemplate.

He lost the trail as they passed a river. The ground on the other side was thick with undergrowth and leaves, dried firm by the morning sun. He could follow no further. The trail had gone cold.

“No, no, no…” Mark pleaded to whatever gods, spirits and ancestors might have been listening as he crouched down and cried. He was helpless. Utterly helpless.

 

Such was his grief and madness, his utter desperation, that he sought help from the most brutal warlord in all of Lotheria. Not knowing where else to turn, he handed himself in to the Morrowfow at the gates of Fangmar. He had hoped against hope that she might be being held captive, unharmed perhaps, for she would be a valuable hostage. He hoped, maybe, that he could exchange himself for her. He would have a large bounty on his head for betraying the King of Darloth, larger still than Hesetti’s.

But as he kneeled before Warlord Maedoc, all he found was ridicule.

“The great Mark of Darloth, the Slayer of Warlords, the Scourge of the Barbarians…” laughed Maedoc, sat upon his throne. “Absconds and betrays his king to live a peaceful bucolic life…And with a barbarian woman, no less?”

The Morrowfow raiders formed a circle around Mark. They mocked and laughed, howled and hissed. Maedoc’s hall was cavernous, lit a fiery orange by the light of a bonfire behind Maedoc’s throne. It illuminated him with a fiery aura. He looked like a daemon, sat there upon his black throne, a cruel glint in his eyes and a mocking grin on his face. Mark, physically and emotionally exhausted, terribly beaten by his captors, supplicated himself before him in utter surrender.

“How can it be that a wall-builder like you, a man who hates the barbarian scum, could fall for a piece of savage Lotherian pussy?” he mocked further.

Mark mustered the guts to speak and address this pitiless daemon. “Please tell me…Do you have her?”

“Let me put you at ease, Mark of Darloth.” said Maedoc. “She is here.” There was cruel laughter from the men.

A little spark of hope fluttered through Mark’s heart. “Show me.”

“What do you recon boys? Shall we show him?”

They all roared out in unison, and a gang of them grabbed Mark by the arms and dragged him off.

 

A terrible march followed, one which Mark could never forget, one where every last ounce of hope and joy within him left him for good. He was made to lead the procession, his wrists bound in chains, as Maedoc followed behind him, his warriors coming after. They trudged out of Fangmar, Maedoc’s foetid hill-fort, across the sodden, muddy hills of Morrowfow territory. Deep down, Mark knew where they were going. But he couldn’t admit it to himself. It was too horrible to comprehend.

Maedoc’s infamous War Pit had been dug into one of the tallest hills around Fangmar. As you climbed the hill, you began to smell the pit long before you saw it. The distinctive smell of rotting flesh. You could see vast swarms of carrion birds flying around it. Then, as you got closer, you could hear the buzzing of flies, and see seething swarms going this way and that. Then, closer still, you could see impaled bodied rising out of the pit.

Mark turned back. He couldn’t do it. He cried. He whimpered. He couldn’t go on.

“Come, Mark, my boy, I know it’s hard.” said Maedoc, patting him on the shoulder. “But your beau is just over that hill. Aren’t you eager to join her? Come, let me take you to her.”

Maedoc dragged Mark up the hill, sobbing and crying, until at last he threw him down on his hands and knees. They were overlooking the War Pit, but Mark covered his eyes with his hands, shaking his head. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t look.

“Look, Mark. There she is. The love of your life, the apple of your eye. Come, boy, look at her.” said Maedoc, as the Morrowfow gathered round, laughing cruelly. “Look at her!” roared Maedoc, and Mark’s hands at last fell from his eyes, dripping tears. As he looked upon the horrid scene, he gasped short, tearful breaths.

It was a charnel house of gore. Thousands upon thousands of bodies all piled up on top of one other. Some were freshly dead, others rotting, and beneath them was a cluster of bones. The bodies of horses and livestock mingled with the corpses of slain captives and warriors. Carrion flew in massive flocks, feasting on the dead. The weapons and armour of the dead were scattered about the place, rusted and broken. In the middle of the pit, a cluster of warriors had been impaled on long pikes. The gory tips of the pikes protruded from their mouths. Their chests had been ripped open and their innards exposed. They were blood eagles.

Then he set his eyes upon her. She stood alone, impaled on a spear. Her body had been opened up like the others.

“Come, let’s take a closer look.” beamed Maedoc, gleefully, and as Mark’s world crumbled around him he was dragged through the pit sobbing like a baby. The pitiless monster dragged him through the rotting gore, bones cracking and wet, rotting bodies squelching beneath each of his heavy footfalls.

Mark was thrown down in front of her, and Maedoc grabbed him by the hair and pulled back his head. He looked up at her, torn open like an animal carcass. Her eyes, as deep and blue as they had been in life, looked down at him.

Mark could look no more. He put his head in his hands and cried. His entire body quivered with grief.

Maedoc knelt down beside him and put a hand on his shoulder as if to comfort him, and whispered cruel, mocking words into his ear.

“Now, now, Mark. It’s hard. I know it’s hard. It’s hard to lose the ones we love. But you should see this as a blessing. They say that every cloud has a silver lining, and this cloud is no exception, though dark and tempestuous it may be.” He leant in really close to deliver his final taunt. “After what my men did to her, killing her was an act of mercy.”

 

Chapter Nine: One Last Chance

 

Mark woke up and gasped. His whole body was numb and cold, yet his brow was fiery hot. His limbs ached terribly. And all the while his leg throbbed. He winced as he remembered how much he hurt, pain he had half-forgotten during his restless sleep.

He sat up in his makeshift bivouac, which in practice was a few leafy branches propped over a muddy ditch. He inspected his bandages. They were caked in gore and puss from the infected bolt-wound in his calf. Getting the damn thing out had been painful enough, but it was nothing compared to the lingering pain that came after.

Mark was no medicine man, but he knew that an infection was a dangerous thing. It is said that more men died after a battle from infected wounds than are slain on the battlefield itself. But what option did he have but to press on, and hope it healed of its own accord? He could try and find a medicine man or herbalist, but such men were rare and the wilds of Darloth were largely deserted. What’s more, Tiroginus’ hired thugs had made him wary of populated places. What if more of his countrymen had been sent to kill him? No, he would just have to soldier on.

His trek that day was a painful one. He hobbled along, limping, at one point making a makeshift crutch from a tree branch, although he gave up on that when the rotten wood snapped under his weight. So he limped on through the muddy pathways of Darloth, heading for barbarian country.

The landscape was hilly with scattered trees. Snow and mud covered the ground. He followed the treeline of the imposing Grimwold Forest which blotted out the horizon to his left, and the icy stream which trickled along to his right.

As the forced trudge went on, Mark found himself becoming unbearably cold. His limbs ached terribly, and his head throbbed. He had to stop regularly to catch his breath. And where he had planned to sit down for five minutes, at times he ended up drifting off for god knows how long in a restless, feverish sleep.

What little progress he was making slowed to a crawl as the land became rocky and mountainous. He dragged himself up scree slopes and constellations of boulders until he could scarcely move.

But he knew he had to go on, even if he’d have to drag himself the whole way. He was dead set on avenging Hesetti and the suffering she went through at the hands of Warlord Maedoc. But first he would have to complete his redemption in the eyes of King Tiberix and the thegns. He would have to complete his mission and slay Warlord Tiroginus. It would have been a tremendous task even if he were in rude health. But like this?

A little jolt of hope fluttered within him as he spied a huntsman’s lodge nestled away between the rocky slopes and the snow-strewn evergreen trees above. He would have to be patient in his pursuit of revenge. He couldn’t well take down Tiroginus like this. He would seek food and shelter. He had a pouch full of barbarian gold which he could use to pay for it.

So he climbed. At first the prospect of food and rest gave him strength, but that was quickly sapped away by the gruelling climb. Were he fully fit he might have scaled it in a couple of hours. But in this state, woozy, weak and in great pain, it felt like it took an eternity.

Eventually Mark managed to crawl up to the hut, which was large and looked well-built. The hut had a stone patio with a wooden bench on it, and wind chimes hanging from the roof. There were a number of other shacks and storehouses nearby. It seemed almost homely.

It took all of Mark’s strength to stand up, and even then he swayed unsteadily. He knocked on the door and waited. There came no reply.

The huntsman was out, it seems. No matter. Mark would take a well-earned rest. Then if the huntsman were to turn up, he would ask for shelter and food in exchange for barbarian gold. If not, he’d break in and take what he wanted. Either way was fine.

Mark slumped down in front of the door and let his pain drift away from him, just for a moment, as he slipped into a deep sleep.

 

Mark was in a forest. It was unfamiliar, but that didn’t make him feel uneasy. It was a pleasant place, with flowers growing from the bark of the trees, and blossom petals floating in the air. But there was no birdsong. In fact there were no birds at all. He didn’t know if it was night or day. What he could see of the sky through the trees was dark blue with shards of green.

He heard a woman humming. She was humming a song that her mother used to sing to her. Mark recognised it and tried to find her. He wasn’t worried or anxious. In his heart he knew that she was near.

Then he saw her, wearing her flowing white dress, the one she’d worn when they first met. She was turned away from him, her glittering red hair falling past her shoulders. She started walking on through the forest.

Mark didn’t call out to her or run to her. He simply followed. He felt at ease simply for knowing that she was there.

They walked for hours, it seemed, through a labyrinth of trees. She never stopped, never turned around, never stopped humming that tune of hers. Not until she stepped into the water.

At that point Mark became aware that they were outside the forest, standing by a huge lake. The water was shimmering and still. Large hills surrounded the lake, which had a beach of pebbles. The pebbles tickled Mark’s bare feet as he walked on them.

When Hesetti stopped, Mark stopped too. She turned to him. Mark smiled when he saw her face, but there was something a bit vague about it. He remembered her deep blue eyes, and her beauty, and her dimples when she smiled. But he couldn’t remember every detail.

“Let’s go out over the lake.” she said to him in her soft voice. Again, he couldn’t remember it exactly, but it was comforting to hear it once again.

She sat down in a small dingy with a paddle in it that might have appeared then and there or might have been there the whole time. Mark sat down on the beach.

“Why don’t you get in?”

“I can’t go with you. Not yet.”

“Why not?”

“Because you’re still there.”

“Where?”

For a brief moment, thoughts of the terrible War Pit flashed through Mark’s mind. Hesetti became covered in blood, ripped open, rotting…

But it was only fleeting. Mark pushed those thoughts deep down and locked them away for the time being, and he was looking upon the woman he loved once again. He took a deep breath and spoke once more.

“There’s part of you that’s still here with me.”

“What part?”

“Your vengeance. It’s still here.”

Hesetti said nothing more. She turned away to look out onto the lake. She took the paddle in her hands and started rowing. She hummed her mother’s song as the dingy drifted out over the crystal-clear water.

Mark watched her go, the sound of her song growing quieter and quieter. Eventually, at some point he couldn’t pinpoint exactly, she wasn’t there anymore. The sound of her singing stopped, and she and the boat were gone.

This didn’t scare Mark or distress him. He had stayed for a reason.

 

Mark shot up, gasping for breath. His eyes flashed left and right as his survival instincts kicked in.

He was lying on a comfortable bed on top of a thick mattress and fur sheets. Bright sunlight poured in through the window opposite. The room had little ornamentation, just some furniture and a cup of water next to the bed.

Mark felt stronger than he had done before, but he was still tired and aching. He was sweating a little, but the fever had gone. His left trouser leg was rolled up and his wound was dressed and bandaged. Rather than Mark’s half-arsed job, it was bandaged up neatly with clean rags. Mark slowly undressed and inspected the wound. Some strange herbs had been stuffed into it. It didn’t hurt nearly as badly now. It seemed to be well on the mend.

Mark tested his wounded leg by standing on it. It was still sore, and he winced when he put weight on it, but the throbbing pain was largely gone.

He began to put two and two together. He must have been taken in by the huntsman and patched up. Where were his weapons? Nowhere to be found. His belt, with his gold? Gone too. He wondered how long he’d been unconscious for. A while, he guessed, based on the improved state of his leg.

There was no reason to think he was in danger, but Mark was a paranoid man. He limped his way over to the window and peered out. He could see some movement out there, but his vision was blurry through the cloudy glass. He slowly prised open the door and peeked out.

The room next door was a kitchen, with a pot cooking over a fire, tables and chairs, stores of food, bread and cheese on the table.

He spotted the front door. He hobbled towards it, but before venturing outdoors he grabbed a meat hook off a rack nearby, just in case.

Slowly, and with the hook poised, Mark opened the door and peered out. He girded himself and stepped out of the hut.

There was a woman outside hanging up some linen on a washing line. She turned to pick another sheet out of the basket, and then she spotted Mark, stopped what she was doing and stood bolt upright.

At first Mark struggled to see her as the sun shone from directly behind her. Then he held up a hand to block the sunlight and he was able to get a good look at her. Pretty, with long, curly black hair and dark eyes, starting to wrinkle around the edges. She wore a simple grey peasant’s dress. Mark saw her eyes glance over at the bench by the door. There was a loaded crossbow on it.

“Oh…” grunted Mark, realising how it looked that he had skulked out holding a giant meat hook. He put the hook down and nodded at the crossbow. “No need for that.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” she said, rubbing her hands together nervously.

“Your husband’s the huntsman?”

“No, I am. My husband’s dead.”

“Oh.”

“I’m Alena.”

“Oh.”

“And you are?”

“Mark.”

“Nice to meet you, Mark.”

“Hmm. You helped me, yes?”

“Yes.”

“How long was I out for?”

“A week, almost.”

“Hmm.” A short silence followed.

“You had a bad fever so I dressed your wound with aldersleaf.” she said.

“Hmm.”

“How does your leg feel?”

“Better.”

“Are you going to thank me?” she said with a bit of a smile.

“That depends if it’s a favour. If it’s a favour I shall thank you. If you did it for payment then I’ll pay you instead.”

“Fair enough.” she said, with raised eyebrows. “I’ll take the payment. But that can wait. Are you hungry? Would you like some stew?”

“Yes, I’ll have stew. Stew is good.”

She laughed. “Yes, stew is good, isn’t it?”

After that awkward opening exchange Mark joined her sheepishly in the kitchen. She beckoned to the table and he sat down. It was only when she took the lid off the pot and the pleasant aromas wafted over to him that Mark realised just how hungry he was. He was practically quivering with anticipation as she poured the stew into wooden bowls.

Mark tucked in without waiting, wolfing it down.

“You’re hungry.” she said as she ate hers at a measured pace.

“Hungry. Yes. Hungry.” said Mark, between gulps. “Can I have bread?”

“Go ahead.”

Mark ripped off half a loaf and started taking big bites out of it.

“What happened to you?” Alena asked.

“Crossbow.”

“Yes I could have guessed that. Who shot you?”

“A man who was trying to kill me.”

“…Right…Why was he trying to kill you?”

“Does it matter?”

“No, I suppose not.”

“Then why ask?”

“Just making conversation.”

“Hmm. No need for that.”

Alena got the message. They ate in awkward silence for a while longer. Mark only piped up once he’d devoured his half-loaf and three bowls of stew.

“I’ll pay you well for what you’ve done, but I shall dally no longer. A week has already gone to waste, and I am keen to lose no more time. I’ll be heading out now so if you could bring me my things…My weapons, money and such…I’ll pay you.”

“You really ought to rest some more. If you go out now your wound won’t heal properly. It’ll get infected again. You’ll get another fever.”

“Hmm.” Mark furrowed his brow and rubbed his chin. “You know about this kind of thing?”

“Yes.”

“How long?”

“A couple more weeks should do it.”

Mark grimaced and huffed. “I can’t wait that long.”

“What’s the hurry?”

“I have matters to attend to.” he glowered, distantly.

Alena laughed. “Okay. I don’t need to about know that either, I suppose. Can you at least tell me who you are? What you do? Are you a soldier?”

She clear didn’t recognise him as the traitor who had betrayed Tiberix. That was good. It should simplify things. “A soldier. Yes.”

“Alright.” she said, clearing the things away. “I’m not going to force you to stay here and heal up properly, but if you don’t you might just find yourself crawling back here in a week or two. And I’ll make you pay again, you know.”

Mark nodded slowly. He would have to be patient. “Fine.” he huffed.

“Now go get some rest.” she insisted.

 

Early the next morning Mark was sitting on his bed with a knife in his hand. Something had occurred to him during the night. If he was going to be holed up here for two weeks, now would be the ideal time to begin preparing his disguise. He was already growing a fairly impressive beard and his hair was getting longer. The next step would be to cut his face open so it looked like he had been mauled by a bear.

Mark held up the tin pan in front of his face. He could just about see his reflection in its shiny metal bottom. He held the knife poised to do the deed. He just needed a few moments to gee himself up.

“Right. Okay. Uuuuurgh.” he sighed, before setting to work.

He was almost done by the time Alena came in with his breakfast. She screamed as she saw him with a knife pressed against his face, blood dripping down his chin and onto his bare chest. She dropped his breakfast and the wooden bowl clattered to the ground, spilling porridge all over the floor. Mark shot up and held the knife out in front of him, thinking at first she might have been an intruder.

“What the fuck are you doing?” she screamed.

“You don’t understand. This is very important.” Mark insisted.

“Are you mad? Are you fucking mad?”

“No, it makes perfect sense. I’m going to have to wait for my leg to heal anyway, so I thought…”

“So you thought why not cut apart your own face while you’re at it? Right, you’re a psychopath and I’m not having you in my home. Where’s that fucking crossbow…”

“Wait wait wait, just give me a minute to explain.”

Alena gagged, a hand over her mouth. “Fine. This had better be good.”

“It’s a disguise.” grinned Mark, quite pleased with the cunningness of it all.

Alena put her head in her hands. “They’re going to get infected. You’ll get another fever. I’ve got to stitch them up.”

“Ah no. You can’t do that. Then it won’t look like I was mauled by a bear.”

“Why do you want to look like you were mauled by a bear?” she said, exasperated.

“Because the man I’m trying to kill knows I have a scar, but he doesn’t think I was mauled by a bear.”

“The man you’re trying to kill? So you’re a brigand? A bandit?”

“No. An assassin…Of sorts.”

Alena shook her head in disbelief.

Mark shrugged and tried to compromise. “Alena…I won’t allow you to sew up the wounds. But if you can prevent them from getting infected, then I’ll allow it.”

Alena let out an exasperated sigh. “Well that’s awfully generous of you.”

“No need to get testy.”

“Testy! You haven’t seen testy yet…When I get testy you’ll know about it!” she snapped. “Alright. Fine. I’ll…Put some aldersleaf on it.”

“Hmm. Good.” said Mark, as something occurred to him. “Alena, you seem to be a knowledgeable woman…”

She sighed. “That’s the nicest thing anyone’s said to me since my husband died.”

“If I wanted to get a tattoo, how might I go about that?”

She scoffed, shaking her head. “I’m playing no part in this…”

“Oh, Alena…” said Mark, before she could leave. “I am sorry that my appearance shocked you. I apologise.”

She signed. “Ok.”

“And can you get me some fresh porridge? You dropped mine on the floor.”

“You’re fucking unbelievable.” she snapped as she left.

 

Eventually, once she got used to his gruff demeanour and psychotic undercurrent, Alena and Mark got along relatively well. They ate three meals a day together in the kitchen, where they would chat, and Alena would gradually squeeze more blood from the stone, mainly just to satisfy her own curiosity. Mark was taciturn, sticking to titbits about his life and circumstances, never sharing more than he had to. For his part he enjoyed chatting with her. It had been a long time since he had friendly company.

At first Mark spent the days and nights resting, but he was pent up and impatient. As soon as he felt able he tested out his leg to see how it would hold up. He would practice his axe-play on the porch outside the hut. The first time he tried it he hobbled about in an ungainly fashion as his leg protested every effort. His first attempts ended in frustration and a great deal of swearing, but Alena preached patience, and sure enough given time he was able to put his full weight onto his leg without wincing, though there was still some lingering pain.

Eventually he was almost back to his full potency. Whenever he strode around outside, bare-chested and whirling his axes, Alena would find some chore or other excuse to go out there with him and watch from a respectable distance. Mark, about as sharp as a pebble in these matters, didn’t think anything of it.

He helped Alena out with various tasks around the shack. Washing up, hanging up the washing, that kind of thing. He offered to go out with her when she went out trapping, but she declined. He was the one who was paying her, after all. She did let him chop wood for her now and then, and suggested that he might do it topless to keep himself cool. It’s important not to overhead when you’re recovering after all.

Alena lived an isolated life for the most part. She lived within her means and managed to get by on her graft and wits alone. She grew some crops, collected some berries, trapped some rabbits and so on. She even had a few pigs and goats. It was a fairly peaceful and uneventful existence. She always had enough food to get by, and she sold whatever was left over to passers-by and the men who farmed the nearby fields.

She hadn’t had trouble from barbarians, who seldom ventured so far into Darloth, and when they did there were more juicy pickings than an isolated shack half way up a mountain.

She was more worried about brigands. The people had been abandoned by the thegns, left to their own devices. Hunger and greed drove some to crime. She had her crossbow, but that wouldn’t be much use against a band of rogues. She’d built herself a bunker she could hide in if they came. More than anything, she was ready to abandon her home and her livelihood if it came to it. It was a peaceful life, she said, but not one worth dying for.

She told Mark about her husband, who had been a hunter, who had died when he was trapped on the cliff during a storm and fell to his death four years ago. Since then she had got along on her own. He was a gruff man, she said, but with a good heart. Mark reminded her of him.

By the time their last night together came they had grown friendly enough for it to be a bittersweet occasion. They were sat on her bench looking out over the wilds of Darloth, stars twinkling in the sky, the moon shining bright, and their fire roaring. They drank Alena’s homemade mead as they chatted.

Thinking he would never see her again, Mark felt he could open up to her. So he told her his story. His past as the King’s Champion, Hesetti, her death, and his quest for redemption, but also his ultimate desire for revenge.

Alena listened patiently. She could see the pain in his eyes as he told his story, staring distantly into the fire. She put her hand on his.

“It won’t bring her back. It won’t bring you peace.”

“No.” agreed Mark.

“I can understand you wanting to serve your king. They’ve sent you to kill enemies of the crown. You’re a soldier. So you must do it. But to then seek out vengeance for vengeance’s sake?”

“I must. After what he did to her. I have to make it right.”

“Who are you avenging? Her, for having her life taken away? Or yourself, for the pain he has caused you?”

Mark shook his head. “I don’t know for sure. Both, maybe.”

Alena sighed. “You’re a good man, Mark. I think so, anyway. You’ve seemed good in the short time I’ve known you. You abandoned everything for love. I can understand that. It is a powerful, wonderful thing. And I understand better than anyone the pain that comes when you lose that wonderful thing, the person who made your life feel worth living. If you’re hunting these men through guilt…”

“Guilt.” scoffed Mark. “No. I don’t have the decency to feel guilt. I was right to abandon my king. I spent three years with Hesetti, and I was so happy that I never regretted that decision, and I never will. And as for what happened to her…I don’t know. Maybe I could have prevented it. Maybe not.”

Alena sighed. “I just wish I could comfort you somehow.”

Mark turned to her. Their eyes met. She leaned in closer. Her eyes were about to close.

Mark grunted and turned away.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…”

“It’s ok.” he said. “No offence. You’re very beautiful.”

“Oh. Thank you.”

“But…Well, look at this place. And look at you! It’s ridiculous.” laughed Mark.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you couldn’t have picked a more perfect setup. A beautiful widow in her idyllic mountainside lodge. It’s as if fate has conspired to tempt me into giving up my cause.”

“What do you mean?” she laughed.

“I mean, if I were to forget my duty to my king, and above all my desire for vengeance, then we could settle down together and live in peaceful isolation, just like I used to with Hesetti. Things would feel strange at first, but I would fall in love with you, and you would fall in love with me. We would be happy together. Just image that. Happiness! Despite everything we’ve lost. We’d always remember the ones we loved, and we’d look forward to the day we meet them again in the afterlife. But in the end, we’d be happy.”

She took his hand and looked deep into his eyes. “So why not stay? Why not give up your quest for vengeance, which will bring you no peace. Why not choose happiness?”

“I’m sorry.” said Mark, solemnly. “I cannot choose happiness. I choose revenge. Revenge is the only thing that’s left of Hesetti. It’s the only thing that remains of her on this earth, the woman I love. Just her bones, and her vengeance. That is what drives me on.”

“Are you sure, Mark? Is it not the grief talking? Perhaps what really drives you is a desire for it all to be over – all the pain, all the memories. Are you just pressing on in search of an honourable way to die?”

Mark gave a weak smile. “I will push on with my quest to the bitter end. And if I meet my end, then so be it.”

Alena sighed, and then kissed him softly on the cheek. “I won’t pretend to understand your need for revenge. But it’s your life. You live it how you please. But if…I don’t know. If you find yourself in some sodden field somewhere, surrounded by barbarians, cold and alone…Just know that vengeance isn’t your only option. You can have me instead. You can choose happiness.”

She rested her head on his shoulder and they sat there in silence for a while, holding hands and looking at the stars. Eventually, Alena spoke.

“Will you at least be with me tonight? Will you take me to bed?” she said, softly.

Mark chuckled. “No, I can’t do that. I’m sorry.”

“Why not?”

“Because then I will never leave.”

 

Chapter Ten: Warlord Maedoc

 

Mark’s head slammed into the mud once again. He couldn’t remember how many times he’d been beaten down by the baying Morrowfow mob, but he had staggered back up again each time. Twelve maybe. This one was going to be a struggle.

His naked body ached all over. He was bruised. His nose was smashed. Blood and mud covered his face and body. He gasped a few wheezing breaths as he lay there in the mud, rain thundering down on him. He tried to crawl onto his hands and knees, but a kick to the ribs put paid to that, and he slipped back down into the mud again.

The din of the mob rang in his ears. He was surrounded by black-painted Morrowfow warriors, who were taking it in turns to lay into him with fists and feet. They whooped and hollered, spat at him, shouted in his ear. Surrounding them was a massive crowd of onlookers. Warriors, foul-mouthed women dressed in rags who pointed at him and cursed, rabid children, elders laughing madly.

“Let the poor boy stand.” called Maedoc over the tumult. He was grinning from ear to ear, sat upon a throne that had been brought outside so he could sit and watch. His two boys sat beside him, one ten and the other a little younger, laughing cruelly and shouting taunts, bare-chested and drenched by the rain, their long hair as pale as their father’s.

Two of the warriors grabbed Mark by the arms and forced him to his feet. Once he was upright they stood back, and they and their comrades laughed as Mark swayed on his feet, barely able to stand.

They were in Fangmar, Maedoc’s infamous hill-fort. It was a cesspool of filth and mud. All around them were shabby huts. The populace was wild and malnourished. And all the while the rain poured down from the dark grey clouds, the din of the rain making even the baying of the savages difficult to hear. Mark was in barbarian hell.

At the very top of the hill was Maedoc’s hall, Fanghall, which unlike the other huts was finely crafted, tall and impressive. Mark had enough time to glance over the horizon, at the distant hills, and he could just about make out the swarms of carrion and impaled bodies that marked out the War Pit dug into the tallest of them.

He wasn’t given any more time to admire the scenery as the mob laid into him once again. A fist smashed across his jaw. Another punched him in the gut. Someone punched him in the base of the spine. One of them kicked him in the groin, making his grasp and bend double. An uppercut sent him sprawling to the ground for, at a best guess, the thirteenth time. As he lay there, writhing, the men started kicking him while he was down.

“Boys, boys, boys, come now.” said Maedoc, standing up and strolling over. The warriors backed off with bloodthirsty grins on their faces and evil intent in their eyes. “Let’s give the man a rest. Time to see if the famous Mark of Darloth is feeling a little more talkative.”

As Mark lay half-comatose in the mud and rainwater, Maedoc knelt beside him and spoke in his cruel, sinister, mocking tone.

“My my. You’ve taken quite a beating, Mark. My men hate your guts. Try not to resent them too much. If you saw things from their point of view, perhaps you would agree with them.”

“You wall-builders like to think of yourselves as a breed apart from us ‘savages’. You think yourselves civilised. You think we’re animals. It is this arrogance which makes us hate you as we do.”

“For what is the basis of this arrogance, Mark? Have you ever stopped to think about it? Do you think a few stone walls makes one people civilised, and the others, who live in huts behind wooden walls, savages?”

“Are our people really so different? When you defeat your foes in battle, do you not slaughter their menfolk, rape and enslave their women, butcher their children, burn their homes and plunder their farms? Of course you do.”

Maedoc put a hand on Mark’s shoulder. It took all of Mark’s strength to crane his neck and look into the eyes of the man he hated most in all the world.

“We are animals, Mark. But so are you. So are your people. The difference is, we know what we are and we embrace it. That is why you hate us so much. We remind you of your true selves, your inner nature. We show you what you really are.”

“I will show your people the error of their ways. Lay their folly bare. How long will your thegns remain civilised when they are besieged in their castle and starved out? How long will Darlothian resolve last when farmers have their daughters stolen away to warm our beds? When their crops are burned and the land sewn with soil? How long until your people descend into madness and butchery? How long will it be until you are the barbarous ones, and we, in our wooden huts and hill-forts, are the more civilised?”

“Come on Mark, what have you got to say for yourself?” he asked, grabbing Mark’s face. “Don’t be boring. Come on Mark, parley with me. Still angry about your pretty little bird, your beautiful blood-eagle?”

Mark spat in his face. Maedoc looked taken aback at first, but as the phlegm and blood was washed off by the downpour he grinned more cruelly than ever.

“I admire your grit, Mark, but this is only the beginning. I will break you, and send you back to your masters a lame, whipped dog. But I’m not going to kill you. No. That would be far too merciful.”

Maedoc strolled back towards his sons, who were shouting at Mark like the onlookers, jabbing their fingers at him, baying for his blood.

“Time for a whipping, boys!” declared Maedoc, to cheers.

One of the men brought him a bull whip, grinning with glee. Two others lifted Mark onto his knees. They grabbed hold of his arms and presented his back to Maedoc.

Mark gulped down deep, wheezing breaths, clenching his fists as he braced himself.

The lash bit, shearing flesh, a bloody gash erupting in his skin. He couldn’t stay strong. He screamed uncontrollably, then began panting pitiful breaths as the pain lingered. Rain mingled with the blood pouring from his back.

“What do you say, lads? Another?” grinned Maedoc, to his boys.

“Yes! Yes, daddy, do it again!” his boys squealed.

The whip bit once more. Another wound opened up. Mark screamed, nearly feinting from the pain.

“Let me have a go, daddy!” pleaded his eldest.

“Patience, son, you are too small for a whip of this size.” said Maedoc. “But take note of my technique, for a good leader is quick to the lash, and miserly slow to the soup ladle. Raise the whip slowly, and bring it down fast, like so.”

Another crack, another weeping gash. Mark had run out of energy to scream. He went limp.

“That will do for today.” said Maedoc, handing the whip over to one of his toadies. There was an ‘awwww’ from the crowd. “Come, be patient. I don’t want to kill the boy. Where would be the fun in that? Chain him up, boys!”

Two men bound Mark’s hands behind his back in shackles, which were attached to a chain, then hammered the chain into the ground with an iron peg. Mark lay there in a puddle of rain, mud and his own blood, too exhausted to move. He could just about open his eyes enough to see the key to his shackles being handed to Maedoc, who slipped them into his belt.

Maedoc strolled over to him and leaned down close to his ear. “We’ll speak soon, Mark. Try not to die.”

Mark didn’t watch him leave, his swollen eyes closed to the world, but he could hear him laughing along with his sons as he left.

The crowd were dispersed with angry grunts from Maedoc’s brutes. Mark was left alone, for now, to lie in terrible pain as the rain pummelled down on him.

 

Mark was left there, chained up out in the open like a dog right in the middle of Fangmar. There he was at the mercy of the elements, battered by the rain, chilled to the bone by the freezing, blustering wind. The locals would come to spit on his, piss on him, throw sewage at him, and when nobody was looking, they’d kick him. Nobody tried to kill him. Maedoc’s order must have been to keep him alive as his own personal plaything.

Mark drifted in and out of consciousness as the pain of his wounds and the suffering in his body occasionally overwhelmed him. He rarely slept, but when he did he was soon awoken by a kick to the ribs, or a barbarian shouting in his ear before running off laughing.

When Mark was conscious, all he could do was sit there in the mud and watch passers-by with cold, murderous eyes. Fangmar was a horrible, foetid place, covered in mist half the time, and the sky above was rarely anything other than storm clouds, as if the gods were trying to wash the whole horrid place away. The people were mangy, half-starved and rabid. They hissed at him like cats, barked at him like dogs. They were animals, and Mark was their pet. He wasn’t fed, and so over time he became weak and starved.

A few days passed. Maedoc paid him no mind during that time. The only event of consequence, in between the suffering and humiliation, was the arrival of rival warlords. Three of them came throughout the day, announced by their own war-horns and recognised by the Morrowfow drums. The gates swung open, and in came a warlord and his chariots, laden down with bodyguards, all armed to the teeth. Even the most lunk-headed warlord wouldn’t be stupid enough to rock up to Fangmar unarmed. They were raiders all, by the look of them, though Mark didn’t recognise their tribes, bearing various tattoos, scraps of armour and cruel serrated weapons.

Each posse, when it arrived, waded through the mud towards Fanghall. As they went they were cursed at and spat at by the miserable populace of Fangmar, and the newcomers responded with curses of their own. There was no love lost between these raider tribes and their fellow pillagers, the Morrowfow. But equally, they took the opportunity to shout at, spit at and goad Maedoc’s pet Darlothian before heading on up to Fanghall.

 

Maedoc’s feast began, fittingly enough, in Fanghall’s feasting hall. In contrast to Fangmar, the hall itself was a well-built thing, and inside it was comparatively lavish. Maedoc enjoyed the fineries of life as a warlord. A welcoming fire roared. The tables were laden with meat and drink. Tapestries and trophies hung from the walls. The only evidence of the squalor outside was the invasive smell of filth which overpowered the smell of the food.

Maedoc sat, contentedly, upon his imposing black wooden throne as he ate his meal with his bare hands, one careful mouthful at a time. He was sat around a large circular table with his three guests, who were tucking in to a roast boar which sat steaming on the table. One sported an eyepatch, a long black beard and a horned helmet, and wore chainmail. Another was young and bare-chested, with a shaved head and a bushy blonde beard. The last was older, with a white beard and hair, wearing a fur-rimmed hat and animal pelts.

It was an uncomfortable scene played out in silence, save for the gulping and slurping of the four warlords as they ate. When they looked up from their food, very occasionally, it was to cast cutting, paranoid glares at Maedoc, who ate with a satisfied grin on his face. The three visiting warlords were backed up by their posses, all glaring hatefully at the Morrowfow who crowded around Maedoc’s throne. All were armed to the teeth. Everyone was on edge, apart, it seemed, from Maedoc himself. Everyone was ready for a brawl, and it felt as if one could break out at any moment.

Maedoc suddenly clicked his fingers. A couple of people jumped, such was the tension in the room.

“Music!” he grinned. “That’s what we need. Barax, go fetch that musician boy we brought in last week.” His man looked a bit flummoxed. “The one who’s been getting to know our lads.” That rang a bell, and so he ran off to fetch him.

“Didn’t take you for a music lover.” snuffed the eyepatch-wearing warlord. “Apart from those infernal war-drums. Are you going soft, Maedoc?”

“Certainly not, Babakar, but I do appreciate expertise where I can find it. The ancestors know there’s little enough of that in Fangmar, unless you consider rapine and pillaging an expert practise! I have collected several musicians to amuse me while I eat. A horse-breeder to sire by horses. A kennel-keeper to train my hounds. Medicine men and herbalists for when my children are sick. I have…Aha!”

Maedoc beamed as the musician boy was dragged in, beaten, half-starved and dead-eyed, his head shaven and dressed in rags. He had a flute shoved in his face by one of Maedoc’s men.

Maedoc looked the boy dead in the eye. “Play.”

The boy took a few slow breaths to ready himself, as if he were alone in that room, completely dead to the world. Then he began to play. It was a sweet, melancholy melody, completely as odds with the roomful of tense barbarians.

Maedoc smiled broadly as he breathed in, as if sniffing mountain air. “Beautiful.”

He returned to his meal, and things returned to how they had been before – tense, with no sound apart from the eating, and now the flute playing over it.

“You have a chef, too?” asked the younger warlord eventually as he wolfed down some more of the boar-meat.

“Hmm?” said Maedoc, pretending not to hear him.

“You must have a chef. This stuff is far too tasty to have been cooked by a Morrowfow. This boar is fucking delicious!”

“Oh?” said Maedoc, unable to keep the grin from his face. “I wouldn’t know. I’m having mutton. A very underrated meat, in my view. I haven’t tried the boar.”

“You should. It’s good.” grunted the younger man.

Maedoc chuckled. “That would be unwise.”

The two older men stopped eating immediately, and turned to Maedoc with startled looks. The younger man kept eating. “Why?” he said obliviously, between mouthfuls.

“Because there’s deathwort berries in it.”

The young man spat out what he had in his mouth and shot to his feet. At once all of the men in the room were reaching for their weapons.

“Stop, men, stop!” roared Maedoc, shooting up and addressing the warlords’ posses. All were still for a moment. All were silent, though the flute kept playing sweetly over the macabre scene. All the men, Morrowfow and otherwise, were itching for a fight. Some of them were sweating. Their hands were on their hilts. Their thinning eyes picked out their chosen targets. The three warlords had looks of horror on their faces as they began to feel the effects of Maedoc’s poison.

“Before you rush to arms, men, listen well.” Maedoc began. “If you attack my men, there will be a bloodbath. Many of you will die. Many of my men, too, but I fancy our chances, not to mention that there are hundreds of men waiting outside Fanghall. If you attack, you will all die. That is a certainty. But there is another way.”

As he spoke the warlords began gasping madly, glugging down mead to wash away the fiery taste in their mouths, their desperate hands clawing at the tabletop.

“These men are dead.” he said of the three. “They might not be in their graves yet, but they are dead, as dead as dead can be, and nothing, no witch-doctor or herbalist can save them. But all of you can get out of this situation alive, and greatly enriched.”

The warlords began convulsing, and then started spewing blood. The flutist played on over the sound of their heaving.

“Agree to rule your tribes as my enforcers and I will let you go free. You will have no real power, but if you rule over your people in accordance with my instructions then you will be greatly rewarded. Be under no illusions, your warriors will be press-ganged into my warhost, your farmers squeezed for all they are worth, and your women will become the playthings of my Morrowfow. But you, men, you in this room will be showered with gold and concubines. What do you say to that?”

The warlords began suffocating as their necks swelled up, blocking their windpipes, and at last they flopped down onto the table, dead, their heads thudding down one after another.

Silence followed, save for that sorrowful flute.

The warlords’ men saw the wisdom in Maedoc’s proposal. It’s no good being loyal to dead men. They consented, by way of a series of nervous nods and grunts.

“Splendid.” smiled Maedoc as he excused himself from the table. “See yourselves out and return to your homes. I will send you my instructions in due course. If you will excuse me, I’d like to spend some quality time with my family.”

Maedoc left with a grin on his face, leaving the flutist playing and the disparate gangs of barbarians flummoxed.

 

Maedoc made his way through the corridors of Fanghall and out into his garden. It was a peaceful place, with many bright flowers, a swinging bench and blossom trees. It was idyllic, save for the stench of rot and filth.

Maedoc’s boys were fighting with wooden swords. They were going at it with some gusto, shouting battle cries and thrashing away at each other. His wife was sat on the bench, swinging gently. She was a frail-looking woman, with a dignified kind of beauty, who wore a fine emerald dress and silver bracelets. She was combing her greying blonde hair with a silver comb. His daughter was crouched down nearby playing with a stick. She was young, maybe only five, a sweet-faced little girl in a blue dress, with Maedoc’s tell-tale white hair and eyebrows so fair it looked like she had none. Unlike his sons she shared her father’s heterochromia. She was using her stick to squish a ladybird, and inspecting its mushed remains with interest. A shaggy wolfhound slept nearby.

One last figure stood apart from them all. Their bodyguard, a silent, scarred, bald man wearing a hauberk and with a double-handed sword strapped to his back. He stood as still as a statue with his arms folded.

“Keep at it, boys.” Maedoc said to his sons, ruffling the hair of his eldest as he passed. “Hello, angel.” he said, kneeling down and kissing his daughter on the forehead. “What have you got there?”

“A dead bug.”

“How did it die?”

“I squished it.”

“Well look, the ants are coming to take away the body.”

“Oooooh….” she said, suddenly distracted by the columns of black ants that went to and fro.

“Good evening, darling.” said Maedoc as he sat on the swing next to his wife, kissing her on the cheek. She barely responded to him. She just kept on combing her hair. She had a face like a slapped arse.

“Come on darling, what’s wrong this time?”

“You said you’d find me a seamstress.” she snapped.

Maedoc sighed. “Fine, sweetest wife, I’ll ask my raiders to interview the women we enslave to see if they’re skilled at needlework before they drag them off and…”

“Maedoc, not in front of Sionna!” she chastised. “Besides, I don’t care what your men do to them as long as they’re not left with unsightly scars.”

“I’ll see what I can do.” sighed Maedoc, rubbing his forehead.

“Daddy, daddy, the ants took the ladybird so I squished one of the ants and they took that away as well!” declared Sionna, excitedly.

“Well, pumpkin, they must be cannibal ants then!” beamed Maedoc, putting her on his lap and swinging the bench.

“Ewww!”

“What, you wouldn’t want to eat another little girl?”

“No, gross!”

Maedoc’s eldest son screamed as he was whacked over the head. He ran to his father in tears.

“Angis hit me really hard!” he complained.

Anger flashed through Maedoc’s eyes. He put Sionna down and loomed over Jansen, his eldest, giving him a clip round the ear. “Silly boy…What are you going to say when your enemies hit you really hard? Are you going to squeal like a pig and come running to daddy then?”

Jansen looked down at his feet in a sulk. “We’re only supposed to be practising…” he muttered.

“You let your younger brother beat you?” snapped Maedoc. “You should be ashamed of yourself, boy. You need to buck up your ideas, or I’ll make Angis my heir, and not you!”

Angis beamed, swinging his sword around contentedly.

“Now go and practice some more! No pudding for you.” chastised Maedoc.

“But dad!” squealed Jansen.

“To the victor go the spoils, Jansen! Your brother’s eating your pudding tonight. In fact, no pudding for you until you beat your brother in a fight, fair and square!”

Jansen stormed off in a huff. Angis raspberried him as he went past.

“You shouldn’t be so harsh on him.” said his wife, who until then had barely registered the tantrum.

“He’s going to be warlord one day, darling.” sighed Maedoc, sitting down and hugging his daughter. “He’s going to have to be ready.”

“You could make me warlord!” giggled Sionna. She giggled some more as Maedoc tickled her.

“Oh really? That’s not a bad idea, pumpkin. You’d whip those smelly old raiders into shape, I’m sure of it!”

“I’d be queen of everyone!”

“I’m sure you would, sweetest. Why don’t you go and take Hellhound for a walk, and if you see anyone slacking, you give them what for! A walk would do that lazy mutt some good.”

“Okay daddy!” she squealed, and ran over to the dog and started hitting it over the head, madly. “Get up, lazy dog!”

The dog got up wearily, tongue protruding from its gribbly jaws. Sionna took its lead and smacked it over the head a few more times, pointing onwards.

“Go, lazy dog! Go where it tell you!”

As the dog loped off and she tottered along behind, the silent swordsman followed after, keeping his beady eyes on her.

She walked the dog around Fangmar, going this way and that, followed every step of the way by the silent swordsman. The savages scuttled out of her way as she went by and whimpered as she shouted vague, nonsensical orders at them. But then she saw, from a distance, something new. Something interesting. It was a man, chained up like a dog.

“Let’s go and tell that man to stop lying around and do some work!” she declared.

The swordsman put his hand firmly on her shoulder. She gasped and looked up at him. He shook his head, sternly.

Interesting, she through, as she continued her stroll, curious eyes cast over at the shackled newcomer. If it’s forbidden, then it must be very interesting indeed.

Mark caught a glimpse of the little girl staring at him before she was ushered away by her imposing guardian.

 

Mark thought that he would never see anything as horrifying as the War Pit, his beloved Hesetti among the dead. He was to learn that he was terribly wrong.

Mark was awoken by a commotion. Fresh slaves were arriving to Fangmar. The barbarians were gathering by the gates, licking their lips, eager. He could hear the screams of the slaves long before the gates swung open. In came the chariots, laden down with prisoners. There were women and girls screaming and terrified. There were men, beaten up, whipped.

They were all dragged off the chariots and herded into a terrified huddle right in the middle of Fangmar, made to stand there in the sodden mud as leering Morrowfow gnashed their teeth and spat at them. All of Fangmar had gathered to see the fresh meat.

Maedoc arrived to hold court, his sons following close behind. Thrones were brought for them and they sat further up the hill, overlooking proceedings. They looked down on the terrified prisoners like demented judges at a hellish trial. Maedoc caught Mark’s eye and grinned at him, lifting a goblet of wine in a toast before taking a sip. Then he stood up to address his men.

“Those on this side take the men.” he said, waving his hand over roughly half of them. “Those on this side take the women.”

The ‘men’ crew voiced their displeasure. “Patience, patience, you will all get your turn with the women. Now move!” insisted Maedoc, placating them.

The women screamed as they were dragged away from their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons.

The horror began. The women were set upon by the Morrowfow, forced down into the mud and raped. Their screams were terrifying. The howls of the barbarians no less so.

The men were forced onto their knees and made to watch as their wives, daughters and mothers were brutalised by the Morrowfow dogs. Blades were put against their throats. They cried, cursed their captors, screamed in uncontrollable anguish.

Maedoc watched all this like a man watching a cock fight, laughing, grinning, taking slow sips of his wine. His sons leered at the grotesque proceedings.

Sensing the time was right, Maedoc ran a finger across his throat. The men had their throats slit, all at once, and they were thrown down in the mud. The women screamed as they watched their loved ones murdered before them.

Then the Morrowfow who has been manning the men went to take their turn with the women.

Mark could watch no more. He curled up into a ball facing away from the horrible scene and covered his ears with his hands, eyes shut fast, trying to shut it all out. The pain. The anguish. The screams. It would be some time before it all ended, with the corpses of the men being dragged off to the War Pit, and the women being dragged off to the beds of their captors, crying and screaming still. They would do so long into the night.

 

Mark was awoken as something kicked him in the back. It was just a little kick, and not very painful, but it was enough to rouse him. It was pitch dark, save for a few flickering torches. The camp was mercifully quiet. The screaming was done for now.

Mark ached terribly as he sat up. He found himself confronted by a half-pint, white-haired little girl with one hand on her hip and the other holding the leash of a dozy-looking wolfhound.

“What are you?” she asked.

“Mark.” he said. It was the first word he had spoken in a long time. His throat was dry and his lips were cracked and covered in dried blood.

“Why do you live outside, Mark? You’re not a dog.”

“I don’t have a choice.” he said, showing her his shackles.

“Why did daddy chain you up?”

Mark could guess from her hair and eyes who ‘daddy’ was.

“Because I’m a very dangerous man.”

“You don’t look very dangerous.” she scoffed.

“That’s because it’s not a full moon.” he said, eyebrows raised.

“What do you mean?”

“Do you know what a wolfman is?”

“No…”

“It’s someone who turns into a beast, half-man and half-wolf, when the moon is full. That’s why your father chained me up.”

“I don’t believe you!”

“I’ll show you.”

“Go on, then.”

“I can’t today. The moon isn’t full. But come to me when there’s a full moon and I’ll show you.” Sionna looked sceptical, yet intrigued. “What’s your name?” Mark asked her.

“Sionna.”

“That’s a nice name.”

“Thanks. Do you kill lots of people when you’re a wolfman?”

“Oh yes, lots.” grinned Mark.

“What do they look like?”

“Who?”

“The people you kill. Once you’ve killed them I mean.”

“Depends how you kill ‘em. Why?”

“I just wondered. I’ve never seen one before. I’ve heard there’s lots of bodies in the War Pit but daddy doesn’t let me go up there. He says I’m too young.”

“No fair!”

“I know! He doesn’t let me do anything! He just says he loves me too much and doesn’t want me to get hurt. He makes Harmesh follow me around all day to keep me safe and make sure I don’t do anything silly. That’s why I can only explore in the night time. But even then Harmesh stands outside my door at night so I have to sneak out through the window.”

“Your daddy must love you very much to be so protective of you.”

“Yes, but he doesn’t let me do anything fun! I get bored being stuck in Fangmar all day.”

“Well, you know, if you set me free then I can take you there, to the War Pit. I can show you all the gross bodies.”

“That’s not allowed!” she gasped.

“Why not? We’d go at night. You could lock me back up when we got back. Nobody would know.”

“But you’re a dangerous wolfman, you could kill me!”

Mark shrugged. “As long as it’s not a full moon you’ll be safe. Your dog would kill me if I tried to hurt you. Dogs are much stronger than people, because they have four legs instead of two, so they’re twice as strong.”

Sionna looked sceptical. “Hmmm…” she said, turning away. “What if I wanted to get you free? What should I do?”

“Borrow your daddy’s key. It’s on his belt. Don’t tell him I asked you, will you?”

She laughed. “I’d get in so much trouble! I’m not allowed out on my own, and I’m especially not allowed to talk to you.”

“So will you do it?”

“Hmmm….Dunno.” she said. She turned away and walked off back towards Fanghall, her dog following along behind. She stopped, briefly, turning back and glancing at the intriguing wolfman, before tottering off back to bed.

 

The next day, as the midday sun managed to pierce through the unrelenting gloom, Mark was lying there shivering when he spotted Maedoc coming his way. He carried with him, of all things, a picnic basket. Mark sat upright and glared at him with hateful eyes.

“Don’t give me that look, Mark. I come bearing gifts.” he said, slapping him on the shoulder and sitting down beside him, shoving the basket in his face. At first Mark refused to look. But as the smell of freshly baked bread wafted into his nostrils, he relented and looked in the hamper, which had a leg of ham in it to boot.

“Mmmm, don’t you just love the smell of freshly baked bread? Baked this very morning by my wife’s fair hands. And ham, cured with honey by a dozen virgin Calvii wenches. Or so my chef tells me!” he chuckled. “Don’t look so sullen, Mark. It’s yours. Have your fill. It’s no trick, my boy. Eat. You’ll need your strength for what’s in store today. Eat, eat!”

Mark made no move, though his stomach growled in protest.

“You’re at death’s door, lad. And you can’t kill me if you’re dead, can you? So eat up!”

The vicious bastard had made a fair point. Maedoc held the ham in front of Mark’s face, and Mark, chained up and unable to grab it, leaned in and took a big bite out of it. As he ate from Maedoc’s hands like a dog, the warlord spoke.

“With the weather so sunny, I thought it would be nice to give the men a little entertainment. Something to take their minds off the monotony of day to day life. You know the old routine – slaughter, pillage, rape, day in, day out. They’re eager to see what you can do.”

Maedoc dropped the ham back into the basket and shoved the bread in Mark’s face. He ate feverishly.

“Your skills are legendary, Mark. How many warlords did you kill in the service of that crusty old of king of yours? And now, having murdered and mutilated three of the toughest warlords in Lotheria, your infamy has multiplied!”

“I’ll save the rest for the children, if you don’t mind.” said Maedoc, congenially, and put what was left of the bread back in the basket. He opened up a flask of water and let Mark take a few cool, glorious sips.

“Cheers, old plumb.” said Maedoc as he raised the flask and took a sip of his own. Then he got up and stepped back, beckoning to some Morrowfow who were loitering nearby.

They grinned, and approached Mark with dark looks in their eyes. As they reached him one of them punched him in the temple, sending him sprawling to the floor.

“Easy, boys, easy! We want him fighting fit for the Murder Pit!” beamed Maedoc as his men restrained him. The warlord unlocked Mark’s shackles. Mark, for his part, kept his murderous glare locked on Maedoc throughout.

Two chariots were bought for them. Mark was dragged onto one. Maedoc boarded the other, and his boys joined him. A mob was gathering, come to watch the blood-sports, and they followed on foot as the chariots trundled out of Fangmar and towards the Murder Pit.

The Murder Pit was a small ramshackle coliseum. It was a flimsy-looking structure, with several wooden stands built over a muddy pit not far outside Fangmar. A series of tunnels led into it, where slaves from conquered tribes would be goaded in to kill each other for the entertainment of the warlord and his men. The heads of the dead slaves were mounted on spikes adorning the stadium.

Mark was dragged off his chariot as they reached the pit and taken into one of the tunnels. The Morrowfow grinned, madly, as they dragged him through a series of caves in which slave warriors were imprisoned, lashed and goaded by Morrowfow brutes. Mark was ushered into a cell, the door slammed shut and locked behind him.

Mark sat down on the floor of his cell and met the glares of the Morrowfow taskmasters and unfed savage slaves who had been watching him since he arrived. The Morrowfow taunted him and hurled insults. The slaves in the other cells glared at him with hateful eyes, pointing, gawping, chatting amongst themselves. They had recognised him. The smarter ones put their heads in their hands, and prayed to the spirits that they weren’t going to be sent into the pit with him.

As more and more Morrowfow arrived the place grew louder. The spectators stamped their feet, hollered and bawled. Mark could feel the ground reverberate beneath him. There were a few warm-up fights before the main event. Mark watched as slaves were rounded up in batches. They were completely naked, lash-scarred and malnourished, and had weapons shoved into their hands before they were thrown into the arena. Some were terrified, shaking, whimpering, praying to the spirits. Others were fired up, baring their teeth and howling war-cries.

When the fights were in session there was a terrible din, punctuated by loud cheers and sometimes boos. The loudest cheers were presumably reserved for when a man met his gruesome end. This seemed to be the case, for loud cheers were shortly followed by a couple of Morrowfow heavies dragging a dismembered body out of the pit. The slaves’ bodies were tossed, unceremoniously, down a pit.

When Mark’s time came half a dozen Morrowfow dragged him out of the cell and threw him into the arena, slamming a wooden gate behind him.

The crowd roared in hatred as they saw him. The stands were full of angry barbarians, who spat at him, stomped their feet, cursed him. Maedoc was sat with his sons opposite where Mark had entered with a big grin on his face.

The pit itself was thick with mud, littered with discarded weapons and body parts that the Morrowfow hadn’t bothered to dispose of. Inside the pit, waiting for him, were a dozen barbarian slaves. They were half-starved, wild-eyed and desperate, carrying an assortment of rusty weapons but otherwise completely naked. There was desperate bloodlust, but also fear, in their bloodshot eyes.

“Give him his weapons!” called Maedoc, and a spear and an axe were thrown down to him, landing in the mud. Mark looked at the weapons with disdainful eyes, then back up at Maedoc. He didn’t move.

“Oh come now, Mark.” called Maedoc. “Surely you’re not going to disappoint all of these punters? You’ve spent your whole life killing barbarians. Don’t back out now. This might be your last chance for some good old fashion slaughter, man to man, sword to sword, eye to eye!”

Mark sniffed. Once again, the cunt was right. He grabbed the weapons, one in each hand, and began glaring at his apprehensive foes.

“Yes!” cried Maedoc, slapping his hands together. “That’s the spirit! There’s some fight in the boy yet! Okay, listen up you whipped dogs,” said Maedoc, addressing the slaves, “you will fight this man, and anyone who doesn’t will be flayed alive in the War Pit!”

Taking his cue, the nearest barbarian began edging towards Mark, hefting an axe double-handed and snarling. Mark stayed where he was. The crowd were hushed in anticipation. Just as the barbarian growled deeply and got set to charge in, Maedoc spoke again.

“Oh, and if you kill him then I’ll flay you alive also. That boy is worth a pretty penny to me!”

The barbarian stopped mid-charge and looked up at Maedoc in confusion. He was an axe’s swing away from Mark, but now he didn’t know whether to strike or not.

Mark decided the matter for him by ramming his spear through his face.

There were cheers – sure, the barbarians hated Mark, but they loved bloodshed, too.

Maedoc hit himself on the head in a ‘doi’ manner. “What was I thinking? Even if you try to kill him, none will succeed. Have at it, boys, if you kill him, nay, if you even graze his fair Darlothian skin, I’ll set you free!”

The barbarians looked at each other for a moment, pensively. Mark pulled his spear free of his victim’s face and stood ready for them. They looked upon Mark with grim, bloody eyes. All would have feared this brutal monster, bane of the Lotherians, but at the same time he was all that stood between them and an even more grizzly fate.

They roared their battle cries and charged in. The carnage began.

One rushed at Mark with a sword. Mark turned it aside with his axe, the weapons clashing with a metallic clang, and he swung the axe around, beheading him.

“Hahaha! Don’t lose your heads, boys!” commentated Maedoc, gleefully.

With each blow, each clash of steel, each spurt of blood, the crowd cheered and bayed for more.

Another man was stopped in his tracks as Mark rammed his spear into his chest. Mark grimaced as he lifted the spear, lifting the impaled man off his feet, and with it he tossed aside the man’s body. He stood ready for the next man, who came with two axes. Mark ducked and weaved past his blows, then swung out with his own axe, hewing his leg, sending him tumbling into a screaming heap.

Another came with a spiked mace and shield. Mark ducked back to avoid the mace. His axe came down, splintering the shield. The mace came again, and Mark rolled aside, ramming his spear into the man’s groin. He fell to the ground writhing in agony.

“Yowee! That one’ll hurt in the morning! I hope his wife’s not watching!”

Mark pulled the spear free and launched it, impaling an onrushing berserker who was spinning a flail overhead, sending him tumbling back. The impact got an ‘oooo’ from the audience.

“Oooof! I think he gets the point!”

Two men came at him at once. One swung wildly with a spiked club. Mark ducked. The other came up behind him with a spear, but the first’s weapon slammed into his head, to much hilarity from the audience. Mark ripped open the club wielder’s neck with his axe. Blood sprayed over him and the two bodies fell at once.

The last four were, understandably, more pensive.

Three of them held spears and shields and were circling around Mark, slowly surrounding him. Mark, for his part, stood still and waited as they closed in. They stood there for a little while once they had surrounded him, building up their courage.

The three men nodded at each other, and with that they roared guttural battle cries and charged in. Their spears thrusted all at once, but Mark moved like lightning to turn them aside. He kicked the shield of one of the spearmen, pushing him back and making him slip in the mud.

The other two thrusted again, but Mark dodged one spear and swung his axe at the other, shearing off the spear’s head.

The third man charged in, but Mark jumped aside and he overran, allowing Mark to whack him in the back of the head with his axe. He flomped to the floor, quite dead.

“Ouch! Can I axe you a question? Did that hurt like hell or what?”

The man with the broken spear dashed off in search of another weapon, leaving the other spearman exposed. Mark knocked aside his weapon and rushed as him, jumping and kicking off of his raised shield. He vaulted over the man and landed behind him, then ducked and cut open up his knees from behind with a sweep of his axe. More ‘oooo’s in appreciation of his athleticism, and a terrible scream from the fallen barbarian, quickly ended by an axe to the face.

Mark looked up and charged full-pelt at the other spearman, who had only just picked up a sword when Mark was upon him. He cut the man’s arm off at the elbow, and as he was mid-yelp, swung his axe across his neck.

Mark stood there for a while, regaining his breath, covered in mud and blood. Then his cold eyes flitted around until they landed on the last slave standing.

The savage was no fool. He knew how helpless his situation was. With tears in his eyes and shaking terribly he threw down his weapons and fell to his knees. Cue boos from around the stadium. Maedoc shot to his feet.

“Do it, Mark! Kill this unarmed man! See how he begs for his life, appeals to your mercy! Show him none!”

“Hmm. Fine.” grunted Mark, beneath his breath. He decided to give the savages something to cheer about. He gave the pitiful dog a good look to judge his distance, and then he launched his axe at him. It whistled through the air before finding its mark. The poor whelp slumped to the floor with the axe lodged in his skull.

This provoked cheers from the onlookers and a standing ovation for Maedoc.

“Good, Mark! Good!” he called, appealing for quiet. “You did not disappoint. You slaughtered those barbarian dogs, and you did it well. But now, allow me to indulge in a little experiment.”

He clapped his hands again, and the wooden gate swung open once more, and out came two brutes dragging a girl between them. They threw her down in the mud. She was shivering, naked and bruised. She sobbed pitifully. She couldn’t have been older than ten.

The Morrowfow watching saw her weakness, and they hated it. They bawled and spat at her.

Maedoc appealed to Mark, giving his foul instruction.

“There she is, Mark. Kill her.”

Mark didn’t move. He watched as the weeping girl struggled to her knees, and looked up at him with utter terror.

Slowly, Mark began to pace his way over to her. He picked up an axe and looked at the crying girl once more.

“No, please…Please don’t…” she pleaded between meek sobs, as Mark approached with slow, purposeful steps, the axe resting on his shoulder, until he was standing over her. He stopped there, his hateful eyes looking up at Maedoc.

“What’s keeping you, Mark?” the warlord taunted. “You dealt with the others briskly enough. But it’s more difficult when they’re little girls, isn’t it Mark? I wonder if you’ve ever killed a little girl before, even a barbarian one. I wonder why you waver, Mark. We are savages! Animals, worse than animals! Surely this girl is no different.”

“Perhaps she reminds you of our humanity. She reminds you that we are not born savage, but are made savage by the world which we inhabit. It is a world of war, pestilence, famine and cold winters. Perhaps she reminds you of the barbarian girl you fell in love with after years of putting us down like dogs…Like vermin…But look into her big, blue eyes, Mark. Does she look like vermin to you?”

Mark looked back down at the poor girl as she wiped away her tears with shivering hands.

Maedoc grinned cruelly. “Perhaps at last, Mark, you have been persuaded by my…”

As he was mid-monologue, Mark swung his axe across her neck, splitting it. Blood sprayed. Her eyes rolled back. Her body fell to the floor a heartbeat later.

There was stunned silence from all, Maedoc included.

What little pity and remorse was left within him clutched at Mark’s heart. He told himself a quick death was merciful. That he was sparing the girl from a far more terrible fate. But he would not give Maedoc the satisfaction of knowing it.

“She’s only a barbarian.” Mark scowled, hateful eyes locked on Maedoc.

Maedoc burst out laughing and began to applaud him. “He speaks! And what poetic words! There’s life in the whipped dog yet!”

 

Once Mark had been taken back to Fangmar the Morrowfow boys were given leave to beat him up again. He was ruthlessly pummelled by a dozen thugs. Maedoc watched on, not grinning now, but looking thoughtful. The beating began as the sun was setting. It ended when the night was at its darkest.

Maedoc stood over Mark’s battered husk holding a candle. He inspected his body. Lash-wounds on his back. Nose bleeding. Eyes swollen. His skin was black and blue. He gestured to his men, and they grabbed Mark by the arms and dragged him through the mud, following Maedoc to one of the ramshackle huts nearby.

Mark was thrown in. He landed hard, sprawling on the floor, his body aching all over. It took a few moment for him to muster the energy to open his eyes.

The tent was lit only by the light of Maedoc’s candle as he stood in the doorway. Inside were eight Morrowfow men, naked except for their war paint, heaving and panting.

“Thank you for your display today, Mark. It was very heartening for the me.” spoke Maedoc, putting on a more sombre tone. “I’d like to give you a gift, something that’s going to make you feel closer to the woman you loved, the barbarian woman you loved.”

“I’m going to let you experience what she experienced on the last night of her life. Perhaps by sharing in her pain, you will feel you have regained something of her.”

“Of course, when I asked for volunteers to rape your lovely Hesetti, I was inundated. I had to ask my men to be patient, to take turns. But when I asked for volunteers to fuck you, Mark, fewer were forthcoming.”

“There are a few of my boys who have that particular fetish. They prefer the firm flesh of a man to the softness of a woman. Good on them, I say. But I was still short a few volunteers.”

“So I put it to my men like this: think of it as an experience that few people can say that they have shared. Something to tell your grandchildren about, that kind of thing. They can put little Birkir on their knee and say, my boy, when I was a young man, I fucked Mark of Darloth in the ass. Yes, that’s right, the Mark of Darloth. Slayer of warlords. Scourge of the barbarian tribes. Yes, Birkir my lad, I fucked him in the ass, and I did it good and proper.”

Mark could just about make out the cruel smile on Maedoc’s face as he hissed his next words. “Try not to die.”

With that, he blew out the candle and everything went pitch black. Mark listened to Maedoc’s footsteps as he set off back to Fanghall. Only when his footsteps could no longer be heard did the Morrowfow brutes move in.

 

“Hmmm…” pondered the medicine man as he inspected Mark’s body. He was chained up outside in his usual place, broken and battered. More a pile of meat and bones than a man. His whole body ached. His eyes would not open. His wheezing breaths were slow and weak. He twitched and shuddered.

“What’s the verdict?” asked Maedoc before biting into an apple.

“It’s not good.” said the wizened old slave, dressed in rags. “If he doesn’t get his wounds treated, he’ll die. If he doesn’t eat, he’ll die. Whatever you’re doing to him…He can’t take much more of it.”

“You won’t die, will you Mark?” chuckled Maedoc. “No, wise Aelguf. He won’t die. He hates me too much. He wouldn’t give me the satisfaction.”

“The body can only take so much, my liege…”

“Hmm. Very well.” he said, kneeling down to address Mark. “I bring news from your homeland, Mark. Darloth has agreed to my terms, and will pay a hefty fee in exchange for you. I daren’t imagine what they have in store for you, my boy, having disobeyed the crown twice now. I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes let me tell you!”

“But hey-ho, look on the bright side. You’re going home! You can say hello to your king again! Reminisce, tell stories. You can say, I tried to kill Warlord Maedoc, but that was a foolish thing to do. I was whipped like a dog, beaten like a mule, and fucked like a whore. And he can say: I’ve been sat in my chair the whole bloody time like always!”

Maedoc ruffled his hair. “I’ll have my men cart you off tomorrow, Mark. I’m off hunting but I’ll be back before you go. I’ll save my goodbyes for then.”

Maedoc chuckled as he wandered off, throwing away his half-eaten apple. The medicine man thought about it for a moment, checked Maedoc wasn’t looking, then shuffled over to the half-eaten apple and put it in Mark’s limp hand before shuffling off to his hovel.

Mark was so weak he was barely able to hold it. He pulled it closer to him and bit into it, tasting the sweet apple and the phlegm of his nemesis.

As Maedoc and his hunting party rode out on chariots they laughed and taunted Mark as they passed, his body still and seemingly lifeless. Mark, for his part, didn’t even have the energy to open his eyes and watch them leave.

 

She turned round to him.

“Let’s go out over the lake.” she said in her soft voice.

She sat down in a small dingy with a paddle in it. The lake stretched out in all directions surrounded by large hills, and a pebble beach around it.

Mark got in and sat down with her. But she didn’t start rowing.

“But we can’t go.” she said.

“Why not?”

“Because I’m still there. There’s part of me that’s still there with you.”

“I’m sorry.” said Mark. “I couldn’t find it. I tried really hard.”

Hesetti put her hand on his. “I know.”

“Do you mind?”

“No. It’s ok. We can go.”

She kissed him on the lips and picked up the paddle. The paddle hit the water.

 

Mark gasped as he woke up. All at once, his pain returned. The aching of his bones. The anguish. The anger. The loss. Skull-splitting pain.

But soon all of that disappeared, just for a moment. He had been awoken by the kick of a little boot. Sionna was standing over him grinning naughtily. She was holding a key. She had her dog with her. In that sweet, dopey grin there was hope, a glimmer of hope that everything might be ok in the end.

“Daddy’s gone hunting. He left his key.” he giggled.

It took all of Mark’s energy to fight back the pain and sit upright. “Okay. It’s time for an adventure.” he said, his voice hoarse and weak, barely more than a whisper. “Unlock the shackles.”

“You promise you’ll take me to the War Pit and show me all the gross bodies?”

“I promise.” said Mark, mustering a weak grin, revealing bleeding gums and missing teeth.

“You promise you won’t do anything stupid, like try to take on Hellhound? It’s like they always say, dogs have four legs and men have two so they’re twice as strong.”

“I promise.”

“Cross your heart.” she said, making the gesture.

“Cross my heart.”

She put in the key and unlocked the shackles. Mark grimaced as the shackles fell off and he was able to stretch his arms once more. He looked down at his hands, weak and shaking, and clenched them into fists.

“Okay, there’s nobody around so we should be able to sneak out…But we’ve got no time to lose!” said Sionna, trying to pull Mark up onto his feet.

“Good boy…” said Mark, putting a quivering hand out to pat Hellhound. The mutt growled as his hand neared.

Mark was on the beast like a shot. He grabbed it by the head and broke its neck.

Before Sionna could scream Mark had her, his hand clasped over her mouth.

 

Maedoc’s hunting party arrived back at Fanghall an hour before dawn. A storm roiled in the black sky. The rain came down in a torrent, and lightning arced across the sky at irregular intervals. The gates swung open and Maedoc led in the column of chariots laden with Morrowfow warriors and slain deer and boar. It was immediately clear that something was wrong.

A crowd was congregated in the middle of Fangmar. There was a huddle of Morrowfow warriors accosting several dozen slave women, who wept and pleaded, but the warriors were fuming and agitated. They slapped the women and shouted at them to get them to shut up. They paced around nervously and watched Maedoc approach with great trepidation. Most had their weapons in hand. Many carried torches which illuminated the foetid hillfort.

The inhabitants of Fangmar stirred from their beds and watched on from their mangy huts, keen to see what was going on. There was a second gang of Morrowfow loitering outside Fanghall.

It didn’t take Maedoc long to figure out why. The crowds. The armed warriors. The screaming women – they were his own personal slaves, maids and orderlies who tended to his needs in Fanghall. They were distraught, many of them covered in blood, but far too much of it for it to be their own. And Mark – he was gone, his shackles lying there in the mud and rainwater. And his family – his wife, his sons, his beloved Sionna…They were nowhere to be seen.

As soon as his charioteer pulled at the reins and his chariot came to a halt Maedoc leapt off with a face of furious thunder. He stormed over to one of the Morrowfow warriors who was slapping around one of the crying slave girls, seemingly interrogating her.

“What the hell is this?” howled Maedoc, his eyes wild.

The warrior, who looked big enough when he was slapping an unarmed woman, shrunk under Maedoc’s terrifying glare.

“There’s been a situation, sire, me an’ the boys, we’re tryin’…” he stammered.

“I asked you a question, you miserable cunt, and you haven’t answered it! What has happened? Speak plainly or I’ll cut of your hands and feet and feed them to the dogs!” scowled Maedoc, baring his teeth, eyes ablaze.

“It’s the Darlothian, sire, he’s…Escaped.” said the warrior, frantically. Maedoc’s glare grew ever more furious as he spoke. “He snuck into Fanghall. I’ve been tryin’ to make sense o’ the wenches, but they’ve gone hysterical. Say he killed the guards, took the girl hostage then sent all the slaves out. He says…”

“The girl…” seethed Maedoc as his worst fears were realised. “Sionna…What did he say? Spit it out, man! Speak!”

“Says none should enter Fanghall, elsewise he’ll kill the girl.” said the terrified warrior, sweating profusely. His comrades shuffled their feet and look on awkwardly. “Except for you, sire, he says you should go see him, else he’ll kill her also.”

Maedoc paced around with a face like thunder, seemingly thinking things through, then he snapped “My wife? The boys?”

“Still inside far as we know.”

Maedoc was a picture of rage. He scowled, eyes furious yet distant as he nodded his head slowly.

Then he roared a terrible cry, his face contorted with rage, and drew his sword. He started laying into the warrior there and then, who pleaded pitifully even as the blade slammed into him again and again until he was nought but a pile of bleeding flesh. The other warriors looked on in horror.

“Make way! None are to follow me, none are to enter Fanghall!” bellowed Maedoc, now covered in the man’s blood, as he stormed his way up towards the hall. The Morrowfow parted to let him through and gave him a wide berth. None dared follow as he trooped up to Fanghall and hurled open the doors.

Maedoc stepped through the threshold and found himself in a house of slaughter. His feasting hall was littered with the bodies of his guards. Their throats were ripped open. They were dismembered. An assortment of weapons protruded from their bodies. Their blood made the floor wet as he paced along the hall, his bloody sword held out in front of him.

The hall was lit be a few candles, arranged as if to lead him through the charnel house. His eyes peered into the half-gloom, searching the shadows for his attacker. He was anxious. As he pressed on through the hall, stepping over bodies, there was fear in his heart. For his life, yes. He wasn’t too proud to admit it. But also for his family. His wife, his boys…And dear Sionna most of all. He found himself praying for the mercy of a man he had done his best to destroy.

Once through the hall Maedoc paced his way through Fanghall’s corridors, littered with yet more bodies, following the candles as before. His eyes darted this way and that, peering through the shadows, searching desperately for the grim butcher. He scanned the dead men’s faces, thinking maybe Mark was playing possum, luring him into a trap.

He stopped as he reached his bedroom door. He paused, breathing deeply, bracing himself, fearing the worst for what might be inside. Then he pushed open the door and stepped in.

He could just about see their bodies lying there on the bed, but the light was dim. Then lightning flashed, illuminating them briefly, horrifically. His wife and boys lay there with their throats slit, their blood staining the white sheets red.

Maedoc gagged as he saw them. Grief struck him, and terrible anger. “No!” he roared as he staggered to their side. “My boys…My poor sweet boys…” he sobbed, tears running down his face.

He dropped his sword, stroking Jansen’s face with a trembling hand. He kissed his son on the forehead, which was cold and pallid, tears falling from his eyes and onto his son’s cheeks. Then he kissed Angis, as still and lifeless as his brother. Then he squeezed his wife’s cold hand.

His thoughts returned to his daughter. “Sionne…” he glowered beneath his breath, wiping the tears from his face. He grabbed his sword, gripping the hilt with furious anger. He burst out into the corridor and cried out, desperation overcoming his mortal fear.

“Where is she, Mark? Where is my daughter? Answer me, damn you! You shall have me, just spare her life!”

Then he saw that her bedroom door was ajar. Fear and anger roiled within him. He snarled and bared his teeth as he paced up to it. He listened at the door, but there was silence. He saw a pool of blood seeping through the doorway, and prayed it was not his daughter’s. His sword ready, he burst through the door.

“Sit down.” grunted Mark. He was sat on a chair opposite the doorway with Sionne on his lap. There were tears in her eyes, but she was alive and unharmed. For now. One hand was clasped over her mouth. Another held a dagger to her throat. Mark was wearing a hauberk, trousers and boots. They had been stolen from Harmesh’s corpse, which lay impaled on a spear nearby in a pool of his own blood.

Maedoc said nothing. He sat down on Sionna’s bed. He set aside his fury for now, for there was a glimmer of hope that his daughter might be spared.

“Lose the sword.” grunted Mark.

Maedoc did as he was told, throwing it aside.

“I can kill her any time I want. You took someone from me. I’ll take someone from you.”

“No.” said Maedoc, his voice deadly serious. “We can do better than that. Leave her. Take your revenge on me instead.”

“You’d die for your daughter?”

“Yes. Your quarrel is not with her.”

“My quarrel wasn’t with your wife and sons either. Nor your guards. But I killed all of them, didn’t I? You’ve only yourself to blame. You made me do it. Perhaps I should kill her too…Slit her throat open right in front of you…It would be fair vengeance.” he said as tears fell from the girl’s eyes.

“Leave the girl.” Maedoc hissed, his anger betraying him. This was no bluff.

Mark shook his head and laughed, grimly. “I have to admit I didn’t think this was going to work. I didn’t think you had any love in you, any compassion. Not even for your own kin. But I see now that I was wrong. There is a glimmer of something good in you…Even in the black soul of a barbarian cunt like you.”

“I tire of this.” snapped Maedoc as they sat there, seething, staring into each other’s hateful eyes. “Whatever you’re going to do, get on and do it. No use delaying things.”

Mark nodded slowly. No use indeed. He gave his instructions. “I’ll tell you what I want you to do and you’ll do it, otherwise she dies.”

“Yes.”

“We’re going to leave Fanghall. You’ll get one of your Morrowfow dogs to bring us two horses. We’re going to go for a ride together. And you’ll tell your boys that nobody is to follow us. Tell them that if they do you’ll rape them to death, or whatever it is you do to keep them in line.”

“Yes.”

“And if any of them try taking a pot-shot, trying to pick me off from a distance, they’d better hope they hit me in the head, because if they hit me in the body there’s a good chance I’ll live long enough to kill the little one. Do all of this and she’ll live. You have my word on that, for what it’s worth. Understood?”

“Yes.”

“Let’s go then.”

The warlord followed his instructions to the letter. He walked through Fanghall, through its corridors and corpse-strewn hall, and then outside, closely followed by Mark who held the sobbing girl close to him.

Outside the thunder had relented but the rain came down still. A huge mob of Morrofow waited there anxiously, armed to the teeth, drenched by the rain. As their warlord emerged followed by Mark and Sionna their savage eyes and bloody snarls turned to the Darlothian.

“No! Do nothing! Do not attack him!” Maedoc bellowed. “You there, bring two horses!”

The warriors stood there, gazumped. None moved.

“You dare disobey me, boy?” screamed Maedoc. “Disobey me again and I’ll cut off your balls and feed them to your children! Horses, now!”

The raider relented and set off to fetch the horses. As he went the rest of the Morrowfow looked at each other awkwardly, unsure what to do, and cast hateful glares at Mark. The horses came soon enough.

“Nobody follows! Nobody!” bellowed Maedoc as he mounted up. “If you do, I’ll cut your limbs off one by one and feed them to the hounds!”

Mark mounted the other steed and sat Sionne in front of him. With one hand he took the reins. With the other he clutched his dagger, his forearm wrapped around Sionne’s chest.

On they rode through Fangmar. The gathered crowds watched in stunned silence as Maedoc led out his prisoner. The Morrowfow didn’t know what to do except to follow them as far as they could. They stopped at the gates of Fangmar as the horses trotted out into the night gloom.

“Where are we going?” asked Maedoc once they were clear of the gates.

“War Pit.” Mark growled.

Mark’s feud would end the same place it had started, one way or another. On the horses trotted through the sodden, muddy fields and up towards the War Pit. The impaled bodies could be seen silhouetted against the dark blue sky. The rain relented at last.

“Don’t let her see.” said Maedoc.

“You don’t want your daughter to see her father’s handiwork?”

“It’ll give her nightmares.”

“She’s seen a lot tonight. She’ll have nightmare either way.”

“Don’t torment her further. I beg you.”

“Hmm. Alright. Fine.” said Mark, putting his hand over Sionne’s tearful eyes.

Once they reached the cusp of the War Pit, Mark dismounted. Taking his lead, Maedoc did so too. Mark slapped his horse’s rump and it bolted away, trying to get away from the horrid stench as fast as possible. Maedoc did the same.

Then Mark knelt down beside Sionna. She was sobbing meekly, but kept her eyes shut fast.

“You’ve done well. You’ve been brave. Now you’ll need to be brave again. Go back to Fangmar. You’ll have to run. Run as fast as you can. Tell the men that they can come and find us at the War Pit.”

She nodded her head rapidly, then when Mark let her go she ran off full pelt down the hill, back towards Fangmar, where a posse was already gathering outside the gates with burning torches.

“Why did you do that?” Maedoc asked.

“I don’t intend to survive this.”

“I see. How do you rate my chances?”

“Slim at best.” said Mark, twirling the dagger in his hand before pointing it towards the pit. “Move.”

Maedoc did as he was told, trudging towards the hellish grave. He wouldn’t dare attack Mark, not until his men got there. Maedoc had seen his death-dealing first hand, and would not presume to be able to match it. He would have to play the compliant prisoner for now.

As they staggered down into the foetid corpse-pit the sun began to rise. Deep blue gave way to fiery red, suitably bloody for the occasion. Flies buzzed about in dark formations. The newcomers’ presence disturbed a flock of carrion birds, which flew off in a great black mass. There was the crunch of bone and the squelch of rotting flesh with every footfall. The stench was foul and overwhelming.

Once they had reach the middle of the pit Mark looked up at the mass of impaled bodies stuck up on tall pikes. Then he looked down at the ground, at the massed corpses, bones and discarded weapons, and picked out an axe that seemed to be in relatively good nick.

“Here will do.” said Mark after inspecting the axe’s blade. “Kneel down.”

So Maedoc knelt down, his face now a picture steely resolve. His daughter was safe, and that brought him some comfort. He had always lived by the axe, and now he was to die by one.

He bowed his head and presented his neck expecting to be beheaded. No such luck.

Mark paced opposite him and sat on top of an iron helmet.

Maedoc looked at him, confused at first, then spitefully. Mark said nothing. He simply watched the sun rising from beyond Maedoc’s left shoulder. Maedoc’s eyes flitted about. He spied a sword a couple of paces away. It was nearer to him than it was to Mark. Mark saw him look at it. Then Maedoc’s gaze turned back to him.

“So here it is. The end.” said Maedoc, his tone moving closer to his usual spiteful mockery. “Your vengeance is complete, and the lovely Hesetti is redeemed.”

“Not yet.”

“You can never undo what was done to her.”

“I know.”

Maedoc snorted. “It’s funny in a way. You went to so much effort to get to me. You killed and mutilated three warlords just to temp me out of Fangmar, to Tiroginus’ moot. That was all for me, wasn’t it?”

“Partly.” said Mark. “The way I see it is…Those three warlords you mention…Brogan, Aelarix, Tiroginus…I killed them for Darloth, for my king, to redeem myself for my betrayal. So that’s three for the kingdom…” he said, holding up three fingers. “And one for me.” he said, pointing at Maedoc. “That seems fair.”

“The thegns did not see it that way. You disobeyed your orders and attacked an ally of the crown. They were going to have you hanged for treason and desertion.”

“You were going to betray them.”

“But you’d have tried to kill me either way, wouldn’t you?”

“Yes.”

Maedoc snorted, shaking his head. “What about your mutilation of the bodies, turning your victims into blood eagles. Was that for the kingdom too?”

“No. That was for you. I wanted you to know I was coming for you.”

Maedoc scoffed. “Your quest was misguided. I did not kill Hesetti. I rarely soil my own hands with butchery. It’s my men who impaled her and cut her apart. I didn’t rape her. My men did that. I have always been faithful to my wife. You should be hunting down those men, not me.”

“You gave the order. That seems like fair revenge to me.”

Maedoc laughed, grimly. “It’s like I told you. We are all the same. Darlothian. Barbarian. We are all savages, driven by primal emotion. Look at all the blood you have spilt to avenge your lover…Your barbarian lover. You are no less savage than I am.”

“You’ve convinced me.” said Mark.

“Really?” said Maedoc, with a cruel grin.

“Darlothians are no different to barbarians. We are just a different tribe. One that has many enemies.”

“I’m glad to have finally brought you round to my way of thinking.”

“And you know what barbarians do to their enemies?” grinned Mark, looking up at the impaled men.

Maedoc tried one more gambit in search of a quick death. “You would not rather fight like warriors, man to man?”

“Usually I would. But in this particular instance…No.”

He saw Maedoc look at the sword again. Mark didn’t move. He just started humming. He hummed the song that Hesetti used to hum to herself, the one that her mother used to sing to her.

And so the two men waited there, not moving. Mark watched for any flicker of movement from his nemesis. He hoped he was going to do it. He was willing him to do it. But all the while he just sat there humming his tune.

Maedoc did not disappoint.

The warlord scrambled for the sword. Mark was on him in a flash, his axe coming down, cutting off the man’s hand just as it reached the hilt.

Maedoc screamed in agony, falling to the gory ground and writhing around waving his blood-spitting limb. His eyes were wide with shock and pain as he looked upon his stump, and there was terror in them as he looked upon the grim avenger.

Mark would have to move fast, otherwise exsanguination would rob him of his prize.

He picked out a good spear, inspecting it for sturdiness and length. Satisfied, he rammed it through Maedoc’s arse and up into his body. The brutalizer cried out in agony, screaming, flailing.

Heaving, Mark lifted Maedoc up and shoved the bottom of the spear into the ground, which was mostly rotten flesh, and so Maedoc was propped up by it, impaled.

And so Mark’s work began. He started chopping into Maedoc’s chest with his axe. With each whack there was a terrible wail. Blood spattered all over him as he went about his gruesome craft. Eventually, the cries stopped, but Mark didn’t. He cut open his thorax and ripped his ribs open.

Only then did he stand back and look upon his good work. As the sun rose behind him, the sky turning blue, there stood Maedoc, impaled and cut open like Hesetti had been, his tortured eyes wide open and his mouth gaping as if to scream even in death.

Mark sat down in front of the gory totem and breathed in the foetid stench of the War Pit. He had done it. His vengeance was complete.

Fate gave him but a few moments to sit and reflect, to feel the relief of achieving his vengeance, to feel a shiver of giddy excitement, for he knew he would rejoin Hesetti soon enough.

But before his emotions could truly sink in there came the thunder of hooves, the racket of wheels and a hundred barbarian curses. He saw the tell-tale clouds of dust rising from beyond the pit. The chariots had come.

Mark took a few moments to find himself some decent weapons. A couple of good axes, shiny and sharp. He found himself a little clearing and readied himself. He took a few deep breaths, in spite of the stench, and shook his head to clear it. Then he started humming Hesetti’s tune to himself.

At last, over the cusp came the warriors. They charged over confidently enough, screaming war-oaths and battle-cries, but stopped there before entering the pit. They looked upon their warlord, impaled and ripped open. And standing in front of him was Mark, Warlord Slayer, bane of the barbarian tribes, covered in blood and gore, stood poised with two shining axes in his hands.

The barbarians had gone quiet. Each man looked to the men beside him, none wanting to be the first to meet Mark’s axes. Mark stayed right where he was, humming his tune.

Eventually they girded themselves, and they came, pacing sheepishly down into the crater, stepping through swollen corpses. Closer and closer they came.

When they were a few paces away Mark spun the axes in his hands and stood ready to meet them. The barbarians gasped and backed off. All were still once again.

There was a momentary silence, save for Mark’s humming.

Then someone took a deep breath and steeled themselves. The first warcry came. Then the second. Then the third. Then, soon, the whole war party was bellowing, trying to drown out their fear as well as Mark’s tune.

They charged.

Mark was weary. He was in pain. His body ached and his head swelled with relief.

He had done right by his king. He had avenged Hesetti. He had done what he needed to do.

This was it, then. He was ready. Ready to rejoin Hesetti in the afterlife. Ready to die in a most fitting manner. Death by barbarian.

But he wasn’t going to die alone.


Warlord Slayer

Darloth stands alone against the barbarian tribes of Lotheria. Three of Lotheria’s toughest Warlords have formed an alliance which threatens Darloth’s very existence. In her desperation, Darloth turns to a deserter to save her from extinction at the hands of the wildmen. Mark had once been the King’s Champion. In battle against barbarian hordes he would challenge the horde’s Warlord to a fight to the death in single combat. Through his victories he earned himself a fearsome reputation as a Slayer of Warlords. However, he abandoned his King and deserted Darloth, seemingly never to return. But tragedy brought him back to his homeland. Mark is given one last chance to earn redemption. He is set the task of killing the three Warlords who have united against Darloth. It will be a perilous task indeed. How to hunt them down in wild Lotheria, teeming with savages? How to infiltrate their hill-forts, and fight past their bondsmen and bodyguards? How to best their swordsmanship and cunning? But even if he survives this terrible labour, Mark’s ordeal will not be over. For there is a fourth Warlord, the most brutal of them all. Mark desires his head most of all – not for redemption, but for vengeance.

  • ISBN: 9781370512485
  • Author: Nicholas Everritt
  • Published: 2017-02-03 19:20:15
  • Words: 73064
Warlord Slayer Warlord Slayer