The stone chamber was as cold as death. Skirting the perimeter of the room was the usual contingent of minion draugs, the undead servants of the hideous black mage, waiting almost completely inanimately to do the dark lords’ bidding. At the southerly end of the chamber, a broadly arched entrance and foyer was guarded by six heavily armed trulls. Diametrically opposed at points east and west, two recessed alcoves held craven statues of Hel, the goddess of the dead and proprietor of the underworld, and the terrible Fenris Ulf. The chamber itself, if viewed from above, was elliptical in shape with the radical curves perfectly longitudinally bisected, north to south. The ceiling peaked in an oblong dome from which hung an enormous wrought iron chandelier fitted with large dripping tapers. The chamber itself was architecturally designed to harness the energy from the ethereal lines of power, for the lord and master of this stronghold of evil was the most powerful black mage ever known to peoples of the Earthlands. Lord Doden, the Black.
At the north end of the hall rose a tall dais crowned by a throne constructed entirely of the bones of his enemies, where sat Doden in all his necrotic splendor, sorcerous trappings and talismans adorning an otherwise malignant and wizened countenance, brooding, somber. Brooding because, for all the fear he inspired in his minions, for all the power he wielded and for the sheer numbers and strength of the horrific army that existed solely to do his bidding; he had been, to date, unable to attain the one thing that (according to prophesy) had the power to offer any true resistance to his plans for subjugating the peoples of the Earthlands – the birthright of the Josdahl lords.
The prophesies, the scryings of his enigmatic Nibelung brethren, which, had he any human emotionalism left, would have stirred little more than a sense of righteous indignation, had instead become a seething, all-consuming obsession; the birthright being the key to that inexorable juggernaut of hatred that fueled his campaign against the rest of the world. He would succeed, he vowed repeatedly. Any and all who resisted his will would suffer the fool’s fate that they deserved, and that included those who failed in their service to him. Those like the oafs that were even now being announced by the door guard.
“The Captains, Snod Wormsworth and Igar Pusboil, Your Terrible Highness!” The two trull captains stood in the archway, each hoping that the other would be the first to venture forward and so be first to receive the dark lord’s scrutinizing glare.
Doden ominously raised a skeletal hand from the arm of his osteomorphic throne in a summoning gesture that signified that he would brook no hesitation… and hissed, “Well, my faithful captains; do I detect that you have come to me bearing nothing but your foolish, lack wit faces and lame excuses, and in light of knowing the consequences of failure?” With this he rose, much to the discomfiture of Snod and Igar, and instead of descending the dais steps in a normal fashion, he floated to where the terrified captains stood trembling and finally said, “Explain.”
The captains immediately flew into a tirade of excuses that each privately hoped would exonerate them and provide them with an escape from the inevitable wrath that everyone in the roam could feel brewing behind Doden’s implacable visage. Finally Doden hissed, “Silence fools!” and pointed to Igar saying, “You first.”
After stalling for only the briefest moment to clear his throat and lick his lips and say a silent, hasty supplication to whatever deity trulls see fit to venerate, he began, “Well, sir… that is… uh, Your Terrible Highness, we… uh, I mean Snod, here ‘n’ me, ya see, well we show’s up on a ridge to the north of Josdahl just over lookin’ the village after our scouts took out the sentries, Gutted ‘em up right sweet quiet too if I might say so. Anyway, like I say’s, we show’s up wit’ two companies of trull reg’lars ‘n’ we gits to talkin’, ol’ Snoddie ‘n’ me, about what’s the best way to handle the situation. ‘Well,’ says I, ‘I think we’d best be skirtin’ the valley and take the out-layin’ farms on account o’ that’d be the best way to tighten the noose. I told Snoddie, here, that it’d be a right smart thing to check all the known hunting grounds ‘n’ springs too before we went chargin’ down into the village. Well, Snod, he gets all blown up and says that we ain’t got time to be shakin’ every damned bush in the countryside and the brat was more’n likely asleep all cozy in his pallet anyhow.
“Well I didn’t agree an’ I said so in plain terms, that I did, but ol’ Snoddie here, why he says that he’s the senior officer, even though we both be cap’ns, on account o’ he’s got more ears on ‘is belt and we was gonna do things the way he said and that was all for it.
“Well, sir, I don’t mind tellin’ you that I sure did feel like pickin’ ‘is good eye right clean out o’ its socket, but what with him havin’ more ears an’ all… well…” He shrugged and turned his hands palm up in a typical WHAT IS ONE TO DO? fashion. Snod’s healthy greenish complexion, all the while, was turning to a sickly shade of ochre as he listened to what was probably his death warrant.
“Oh Master,” he sobbed, groveling as expertly as he knew how, lapping pitifully at the hem of Doden’s ebon robes. “Please, Master… ‘Twas an honest enough mistake. How was one to know the little brat’d be off traipsin’ about the countryside? Oh please, please don’t kill me, Master. I’ll do anything to make up fer it. Please, just don’t kill me!”
Doden lifted Snod to a standing position with an almost loving hand beneath the chin and when he was fully erect said, while wiping away the tears, “Kill you? Why I wouldn’t dream of it. In fact, I intend to see to it that you never die. After all, are you not Snod Wormsworth; my most valuable captain; the captain with the most ears?” and here he gave Igar a sly grin that threatened to freeze even the trull’s shriveled little heart.
Doden put his arm around Snod’s shoulder and walked him to the center of the chamber where there was a large pit covered over by a hue slab of black marble. With a negligible gesture of his hand he signaled a draug stationed at the chain that raised the stone and by the time they reached the pit, the lid was lifted. Snod stared down into the pit trying desperately to discern the source of the slick, slithering, gurgling noises he heard, but the depths of the pit were simply too dark to tell the story, though the stench spoke of something terribly unpleasant.
“Do you know what I keep in here, Snod?” Doden asked.
Snod, wide eyed and slack-jawed, simply shook his head.
“Igar, bring a torch”
Igar wasted no time obeying his lord’s command and upon reaching the rim of the pit, held the torch out to illuminate the depths of the noisome hole. The scene that confronted them was a rape of the senses, even to a trull. There beneath them, gorging themselves on offal was a huge mass of slithering, foot-long worms undulating peristaltic to and fro.
Igar gagged and stepped back from the pit’s edge while Snod resumed his begging, “Oh no, not that! Please! Please don’t feed me to those worms!”
Doden laughed long and loud though mirthlessly and finally said, “Did I not promise you eternal life, oh Snod, of the many ears?”
Snod could do little more than nod his dumbfounded agreement.
“Then by the eternal demons, you shall have it!”_
At this he grabbed Snod by the forelock and recited the ancient words: “JEG ORDEN DU TIL BYTTE TIL EN SLOSING ORM.” Then there was a blinding flash that caused Igar to shield his eyes. When the light died and the subsequent smoke cleared, Igar could not believe his eyes.
There before him stood Doden cuddling a foot-long worm. “What do you think of my handiwork, Captain Igar?” said Doden, as held the hideout thing aloft.
Suddenly, as he got a closer look at the miserable creature, Igar realized that he was staring into the tortured parody of a visage that had once belonged to Snod. The eyes of the creature searched his own beseeching, imploring. But when the pitiful little mouth opened, all that came out was a pleading gurgle as the little tongue lashed back and forth.
“Tell, Captain,” said Doden. “I asked you a question, did I not?”
“Very nice… ‘handiwork’, my liege,” he lied. Igar and Snod had never had the best relationship but a fate such as this was something he wasn’t even sure he would wish on an enemy. But, being a trull, he could only hope that kissing up to the evil lord would, even at a comrade’s expense, save his own miserable neck.
“Very wise, Pusboil,” said Doden, turning his malignant gaze on Igar, and to the worm; “And now, my dear Wormsworth, it is time to join your venerable namesakes… for the eternity that I so generously promised.” With a flick of his wrist he sent the hapless creature careening into the pit to land with a splat amongst his fellows. With the same uncaring hand gesture, he signaled the lid into place, turned and hovered back to his grotesque throne and let loose a rattling sigh.
“Examples, my good Captain Pusboil, especially those of my own poignant design, prove to be most effective,” hissed Doden. “Now, you are hereby the high ranking captain of my trull horde. I don’t expect that we shall have a repeat of Snod’s regrettable careless mistake, shall we?”
Igar, savoring his unbelievable good fortune and deeming Snod’s eternal damnation a small price to pay for such a promotion, grinned and said, “No, m’lord, that we won’t. I be yer humble slave.”
“Very well then, go and bring me that Josdahl bastard and his accursed birthright.”
“Yes m’lord.” He turned and strode with purpose toward the entryway.
“Oh, and Captain,” said the dark lord, causing Igar to turn in his tracks.
“Think worms, Captain… Think worms.”
Igar nodded and left.
Huldred… Huldred Blodkvinne!
The voice seemed to be on the periphery of her consciousness at first, but gradually became so clear as to seem an integral part of her very being, growing and deepening in crescendos of urgency. Finally, coming fully awake, Huldred sat bolt upright on her pallet, eyes alert, searching the darkness of the hall. She held her breath in an attempt to minimize any sound but that which she sought. For some time, all she was able to discern were the sleep noises of the others in the hall, especially Tykk’s basso rumble. For a while she had started to believe the voice to be the product of a dream when suddenly, with crystal clarity, it came again.
Huldred Blodkvinne, hear me!
“Who are you?” Huldred asked, suddenly aware of the grating harshness of her own voice in the midnight stillness as opposed to the flowing liquidity of the stranger’s voice, which seemed devoid of the confounding subtleties of vocalized speech. With this awareness came realization that this was, in fact, a mental rather than vocal communication. This realization prompted her next question without waiting for an answer to the first. “Are you a god?”
No, Huldred, I am not a god, came the voice with a flavor of amusement. Let it suffice, for now, to say that I am a very old and true friend of the Josdahl clan. As you are no doubt well aware, there is a bitter stew set to boil in the great cook-pot of the Norns; one that is portentously seasoned and, I fear, bodes naught but ill for the clans and, indeed, all the peoples of the Earthlands.
Huldred considered and then said aloud, “Yes, I had thought so.”
You needn’t respond aloud, my dear. I’m sure you have deduced by now that we communicate through an astral link. Any response you may wish to give can be accomplished by mere thought.
There are some things I must ask of you, Huldred, that concern the well-being of all that you have grown to know and love. Consequently, the first and most important thing I must ask of you is your trust. Can you give me this?
Huldred gleaned every feeling she could from this astral link, carefully digesting the temper, emotion and psychic essence of the being with whom she now shared her mind, and finally thought, I can find nothing to distrust in your essence, so yes, you have my trust for the time being, but please forgive me if I ware your strength.
I am honored, came the voice, and would expect no less. Thank you. Now…to business.
The matter of Garr’s blooding is something not to be taken lightly, and must be performed in accordance with the ancient Provelse Av Makt scroll. This is of paramount importance, as this will not be just another bastardized mockery of an archaic ritual such as the high lords of the land have been perpetrating for generations for the sole purpose of having an excuse for another drunken revelry. Garr’s blooding must be performed with all the subtle reverence intact. As a shaman, I assume you have the scroll and blooding dirk?
Huldred nodded affirmation. All through this narrative, Huldred took an astral stance not dissimilar from that of a hound with his sensitive nose in the air, certain that she detected something hauntingly familiar in this stranger’s essence.
Yes, I have everything required, she returned, but such a ritual is physically taxing, even for one as fit as Garr. He will lose much blood and we have a long journey before us. Don’t you think…
Precisely, interrupted the voice, which is why it must be done now. At no time in the days to come, will he more be able to afford the time to recuperate. You have a cart and a strong pony.
This last was said more as a statement of fact than a question, but Huldred answered, Yes.
Then he can make the journey by cart. It is essential that equal and proper amounts of his blood mix with earth, water and air, for Garr is indeed the hero of which the prophesies foretell.
“My Garr, the Nornshand,” she whispered, and to the stranger… I have felt it for years. I hope my training has been sufficient to see him through.
Well, we shall see, for the time is at hand, said the voice. Now, when you reach Haarm you will be contacted by a messenger who will make himself known to you in his own fashion. This person will lead Garr on the next phase of his quest and you must stay in Haarm…
“In the name of Hel, I will!” she blurted aloud and, covering her mouth, she thought, I will not desert Garr in this, the most important undertaking of his life, and I cert…
Huldred! The command with which the voice snapped her name brought her up short. Your concern and love for Garr are well noted and I commend your loyalty, but consider this; if you were to go off with Garr, what will become of Ilsa and the orphans? You are all they have now and they look to you for their guidance. Would you leave them in less qualified hands than your own? No, Huldred, your lot is cast with them now. Garr is a responsible lad; well trained and in good company. I’m afraid the cord must be cut, mother Huldred. Allow the fledgling to soar. He will make you proud, I’m sure.
The truth of these words, Huldred realized, made them no less galling, especially since she was not quite sure whether she had just been complimented or rebuked. Rather than answering, she just sighed, knowing the stranger would feel her submission.
Good! said the voice, and now I must go.
Wait, thought Huldred urgently, with a sudden realization. Tell me, please! I know who you are, do I not? and here she formed a mental picture of an ancient yet strong and weathered visage.
For a moment there was no response, then finally, Huldred, you always were more sentient than most, myself included, gave you credit for. Then after an exasperated mental sigh; yes, I am Arnaald Hardrada. Then there was no more and, with a satisfied smile, Huldred slept.
We are introduced to Doden the Dark Lord and Huldred gets an astral visitor.