Norgeve had a king, for lack of a better term. He was a weakling potentate as kings go.
However, at one time in the foggy annals of Norgeve’s history there was a mighty chieftain named Haakon the wise. He was never called “The Wise” during his lifetime for he was in truth more ruthless than wise. In fact “The Ruthless” is what he was called while he lived, but as history has a way of doing, it blurred the facts about this particular fellow so that “The Ruthless” became “The Wise”.
Haakon was certainly good for Norgeve, however ruthless he may have been, because he united the scattered Norgevian tribes against the Svean hordes ultimately vanquishing them and thereby becoming the first king of Norgeve. He is also credited with naming Norgeve which, loosely translated, means “pathway to the north”.
Norgeve at the time of this telling, however, had no such strong consolidating force to call king. As so often happens, the royal line of Haakon had lost power through family feuds and the ignorance of inbreeding to keep the bloodline “strong”. Now, what Norgeve had as her king was Blothe, a soft, overstuffed simpleton who had largely lost the respect and fealty of the stronger clans and wielded very little sway even with the weaker tribes still under his meager sphere of influence.
Blothe did, however, hold control over Dundermann Pass. Controlling this strategic location gave him considerable power as anyone wanting to go from north to south or vice versa, had to use the pass, or go by sea. He guarded the pass jealously and tenaciously by means of a particularly well-situated and fortified castle-fortress called Krawnholde. Built during the reigns of Haakon and his son Haavard, Krawnholde spanned the width of Dundermann Pass with spike barbed battlements one hundred feet tall at their lowest. It had, at the base of both north and south walls a natural debris fall deposited over countless centuries by landslides and glaciers. Much of this debris field was made up of boulders the size of houses and scree that made footing precarious if not impossible. Added to this was a dangerous killing field that bristled with razor-sharp barbed spikes making assault upon the walls unheard of. It was from this natural material that the fortress had been constructed.
Now, while Blothe was a very ineffectual king, he certainly was a power to be reckoned with as a chieftain, for he was wealthy beyond compare. This vast wealth was generated by levying a toll for the average traveler and a tithe of ten per cent of merchants’ wares. While Blothe was unable to inspire loyalty in men’s hearts, he was certainly more than capable of funding a sizable mercenary army thereby extorting it…or buying it outright. Many of the world’s toughest and surliest characters flocked to do his bidding due to the enormous wages he paid and as a result, they were one dangerous bunch.
Krawnholde’s strengths were not overlooked by Doden, dark lord of the north. Nor did they intimidate him, for Doden was a necromancer of the highest order. The arcane; sorcery, the power over life and death; these were his tools and weapons and he used them like an artist. Doden would have this fortress for his own and the “king” would do his bidding. But how to accomplish such a thing? This would take some finesse. Oh, sure he could smite them with any number plagues or burn them out with cosmic fire and the like, but these things would not do. Why fire such a gem of a bastion? Why scourge such a potentially malevolent cache of manpower? No, this would have to be handled with patience and strategy.
That is why at that very moment there were battalions of trull regulars forming up at the north and south ends of Dundermann’s Pass. This would be a siege of attrition. Stop the flow of wealth and supplies and eventually the great fortress would falter. The terrible army that was fed upon wealth would waver and revolt. Then and only then, would Doden deliver his terms. He would be the diplomat. He would come unerringly to the aid of the poor besieged Krawnholde and its inhabitants offering succor from the invading trull horde, thereby gaining their trust and power over them. For he knew full well that Blothe could expect no help from his “subjects”.
If he played this gambit correctly, he could pull it off with barely a bolt fired, a sword drawn and certainly no magic wasted. After all, magic was not free to use like air to breathe. Magic took its own tolls on mind, body and soul, and though Doden was wealthy in the powers magic, he was covetous of it; no spendthrift was he.
Doden had sent Igar Pusboil and his squad of trull infantry to gather up all the remaining trull tribes that were not already under his control. Unlike Blothe’s well-paid mercenaries, Doden’s army was comprised of hapless trull conscripts that would bend to his will or suffer the considerably unpleasant consequences.
There were also the horrific manion draugs; the undead reanimated corpses of only the strongest and bravest of the black lord’s fallen enemies. These were his highly valued Veldstryke. Translated from the ancient Nibelung (one of the languages of power) it meant simply, Powerforce. The draugs were Doden’s pride and joy, his elite. They had cost him dearly in spent power and it had taken ages to recover afterward. Numbering in the hundreds, they could only be vanquished by burning their hearts. With the aid of Verminard, a necromancer confederate, he had raised one hundred and eight at one time from a blood and rain-soaked battlefield. Verminard is a tale for later in this saga.
Such was the power of Lord Doden, but it damn near killed both wizards and cost them months in healing time. Yes, there was much indeed invested in the unholy Veldstryke.
Igar Pusboil hated the draugs with an all-consuming passion. “Damnable dead-eyed favorites,” he would often complain. “They can’t feel a damned thing! They feel no heat, no cold get no sicknesses, no injury. Why, they couldn’t even feel the blisters that us poor reg’lars have to deal with all the time, but who gets sent on these cursed long marches through all kinds of hellish terrain and weather? Why, it be the lowly trulls, that’s who. Draugs, phooey! I spit on ‘em!” But complain as he might, Igar was bound to obey and comply, and that was what he was doing at present.
The army that Igar and his lieutenants had conscripted was sizable. They had come south over a track all but impossible to traverse. The Eastern Headland was a narrow strip between the Voldsom Mountain foothills and the Svea Sea filled with noxious marshes. They could not use the Dundermann Pass because they didn’t yet have the numbers to stage a siege and even if they had, it was Igar’s job to draw up from the south and secure the pass there.
Now they had the numbers they needed. Unfortunately they had lost a good portion of the squad they had started out with to the marshes. Poisonous snakes and spiders, swamp fever and marsh mire had taken their toll on well trained, battle seasoned veterans. Everyone was worth twenty of the newly drafted, untried and untrained softies that were now swelling the ranks. But there would be plenty of time for training when they reached their destination, for this was to be a siege of attrition and they still had a good number of trained soldiers.
Actually, even though Igar regretted having lost all those men, he had to admit that they had fared better than he had thought they would at the outset. After having cleared the marshes, the army that was left was in no mood for resistance from the indigenous trull tribes. They were there for draftees and these they would have, and they would brook no guff.
The swelling ranks had wended their way south beneath the shadow of the volcanic Mount Gunderbad and into the hills of Skerne. Here they camped and hunted for ten days to replenish depleted stores. From there they swung southwest through the Voldsom Mountains to Shadewail Pass and on into Ormwood.
At present, Igar was sitting in his tent mentally running through the events and ramifications of the incident in Shadewail Pass, where they had lost the reconnaissance party. Someone had taken them out with surgical precision and an alarming ferocity. So who, and how many knew of their presence here? If the more powerful human tribes of the highlands got wind of them it could go very badly for them.
Some months ago Igar and Snod had taken a relatively small and swift raiding party through the mountainous crags above Krawnholde and all the way south to the village of Josdahl, which they had sacked mercilessly. They were only to find the heir of Guntar Bloodaxe and bring him back to Lord Doden at Fryktholde, but Snod had insisted on exterminating whole the clan in the bargain. Well, Snod had paid dearly for his rashness and Igar couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that his problem in the pass was somehow tied in with that act of indiscretion and would ultimately cause him trouble as well. Were the human tribes even now forming up to wage war against them?
He had seen no concrete evidence to support such a supposition, but he couldn’t wait to be out of the area and into the more remote and defensible location of their destination.
Igar had lately taken to sending out more recon parties in more directions than was his wont because of his trepidations, and was now awaiting the return of the latest. He poked his head out of his tent and said to the guard there, “Go get Sergeant Foulfish, now.”
When the sergeant arrived he was holding a hunk of venison in one hand and wiping his face with his sleeve, he was out of breath. “I know what yer gonna ask Cap’n and the last of ‘em is comin’ in right now. Just debriefed the other two. Nothin’ t’ report, sir.”
“Why is it that don’t comfort me, Gord?” Igar asked.
Gord Foulfish shrugged, “Dunno, sir. You got the heebie jeebies or somethin’?”
“Somethin’ like that, I guess,” replied Igar. “Guess I just prefer a good mix t’ all this quietness. Makes me edgy. And that Ormwood just off t’ the south of us. Guess I’m figurin’ anything could be hidin’ in there.” He lifted the door flap and cast his gaze west.
“But we just come through a short stretch of it,” said the sergeant taking a bite of his rapidly cooling venison. “Unless you seen somethin’ I didn’t, I’d say as it was pretty quiet.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” said Igar, but he was thinking, “Too quiet!”
“Beggin’ yer pardon, sir, but you alright?” asked Gord.
Igar whipped around. “What?” Caught off guard, Gord backpedaled. “Well sir, urn… I mean… um… meanin’ no disrespect you understand. It’s just that… well, frankly speakin’, Cap’n, you ain’t seemed yerself of late. All due respect n’ all.”
Igar hadn’t realized that it showed. He would have to be more careful in the future. Any show of weakness could be disastrous. “Well, don’t you worry ‘bout me, sergeant. I’m just a little distracted. You know, battle plans ‘n’ all. Go finish yer supper and stop actin’ like some little nursey. Dismissed, sergeant.”
“Yessir. G’night, sir,” and he was gone.
At that moment there was a commotion outside. Igar stepped through the tent door and surveyed the situation. The disturbance had started on the outskirts of the encampment but was working its way inward until at last, Igar could see trulls around him looking to the sky pointing. At first when he looked, he could see nothing because of light from the sheer numbers and proximity of the campfires, but as he shielded his eyes and walked to the outer perimeter he could see them. Thin streaks of light were descending from the sky, hundreds, maybe thousands of them. These were not fireflies or sparks from the fires. They were something from the heavens, and whatever they were they were starting to unsettle the troops, and if he was completely honest, they were unsettling him as well.
“Find the crone and bring her to my tent immediately!” he barked at the nearest sentry. Back in his tent he paced until the sentry returned with the wizened old woman. She was human but looked for all the world like any trull, maybe uglier. She and her kind were trained by Doden in the arts of natural lore and could work a few minor spells. They were employed in the capacity of medics and soothsayers. Right now Igar was counting on her knowledge to either satisfactorily explain this latest phenomenon or make it go away.
“What are these lights in the sky, crone?” asked Igar as she seated herself at his table. She cackled, a decidedly unpleasant sound. “Wassamatter? Mighty Igar fraid of the phantom lights?”
Igar strode up to her slamming both his huge fists on the table. “What are they?” he bellowed. The crone sighed, “Very well, no need to worry. They are something very natural. We’re not sure exactly what causes them. We call them nissalykt and while I never seen s’many at once, I do know they cain’t hurtcha.”
Igar wasn’t so sure. He couldn’t help the feeling it was some sort of omen and not a good one.
As if to bear out his trepidation there came a tremendous thunder accompanied by a seismic shock that staggered everyone in the camp. Igar could see through the fabric of the tent that it was light as daytime outside. He shot the old woman a look that called her an ignoramus and a liar without uttering a word, then strode to the door and threw open the tent flap.
Outside, the camp was in chaos. Flob Islow, the sergeant at arms, was issuing orders to the other sergeants to get their charges under control and punctuating every demand with a crack of his cat-o-nine tails. The new recruits were the worst. Many of them were prostrate on the ground or on their knees wailing everything from “doom” to “dragon”. Igar was half-convinced himself that it was the latter.
Out on Leileghet Plain above which they were camped, a huge fireball just over the horizon had reached its apogee and was beginning to subside. Igar standing transfixed, mouth agape staring at the phenomenon was suddenly aware of his chief lieutenant, Biter Grizzlemoosh, bellowing something. “Huh, what’s that, Lieutenant?” he yelled over the din.
“Orders, sir. What are your orders?”
“Well, cripes Biter! For right now, get this rabble under control and then round up the other lewies and convene in my tent.” He watched as Biter rushed off to follow orders. When he turned back to the horizon, the blast had subsided to an ominous red glow, but at that moment he was buffeted by a blast of hot wind carrying traces of grit and ash. “By the Norns dimpled arses! What next?” he exclaimed, ducking back into the shelter of his tent.
He strode purposefully to his chest momentarily ignoring the crone, who was now cowering under the table, and extracted a crude sextant. With the tool in hand he exited the tent once again and took a reading. Very few trulls could read but Igar could. It was one of the things that his master considered so valuable about him. Back in the tent he jotted down the coordinates on a slate and turned his attention back to the crone. He grabbed her arm and dragged her whimpering from her hiding place.
“Not so high ’n’ mighty smart-arsed now, are ya, you ol’ bag-o-farts?” He guided her roughly to the door and with a final shove he growled, “Get ye gone and don’t let me see yer nasty face ‘round here again, unless you can give me some real answers.” He turned back to the glow on the edge of the night staring transfixed for over an hour. “Cain’t hurtcha!” he mimicked, grumbling under his breath. He thought to himself. “What if we had been camped out there tonight?”
The commotion in the ranks of the encampment was subsiding. Igar could hear authority being delegated to sergeants as his lieutenants began filing into the tent. There were seven of them. Biter Grizzlemoosh, Cuthbert the Lank, Goshe Potbelly, Iggum Hockflem, Bob Knocknob, Grimmly Poboy and a particularly swarthy and scarred chap called simply, Ooga.
“Lads, hush up and sit down,” he began. As they all took a seat, Igar remained standing at the head of the table. He continued, “I’m sure ya all got questions about the big boom. Well, fact o’ the matter is I got just as many as you. All I can tell ya fer sure is that whatever that was, it happened due north of our present position. Right smack-damnit-dab in the path we gotta take on the morrow. So I reckon we’re gonna find out sooner or later what happened out there.”
“Consult the crone,” offered Ooga.
“Phaw! Had her in here a while ago,” Igar retorted. “Useless as tits on a bull.”
“Had somethin’ t’ do wit dem lights in da sky, I’ll wager,” ventured Iggum Hockflem. “Like as not,” Igar agreed.
“Dragon!” spouted Bob Knocknob. At this Ooga landed a crushing blow to the side of Bob’s head, sending him sprawling onto the tent floor.
“I toldja to shaddup ‘bout dat, ya stoopid puke!” Ooga fumed. Bob heard none of it. He was out before he hit the floor.
“Well, I got no more to say ‘cept, be ready to pull out at first light. Try and get some rest.” As the lieutenants filed toward the door, Igar added, “Take that with ya,” indicating Bob, who, it would seem, had gotten a head start on the prescribed “rest”.
The gray pre-dawn hours saw a groggy, apprehensive trull army wending its way across Leileghet Plain. The further northwest they went, the thicker the layer of fine powder they waded through became, until ultimately it was well over ankle-height. As the fore of the vanguard proceeded, all those behind them were forced to wrap their faces against the choking dust, and there went up a murmuring grumble of discontent from their numbers.
Igar called a halt when the sun was directly overhead and stared into wavering haze of the horizon to the northwest. He was hot and cranky. It was times like these that he envied the humans their ability to tame and ride horses and ponies. Try as they might, trulls down through the ages had been singularly unsuccessful at breaking horses to ride. Horses, being animals of noble bearing, simply would rather die than bear a trull. Trulls had had a little more luck getting horses to act as dray animals but seldom used them in that capacity because oxen were more controllable and cheaper to maintain. Igar pulled a rag from his pocket, wiped the sweat from his eyes and peered again into the heat-distorted distance marveling at what he was seeing.
“Flob,” Igar called, summoning the sergeant at arms.
Pointing into the distance, Igar pulled Flob close, sighting down the length of his outstretched arm, “There, sergeant, to the north. Tell me what you see.”
Flob squinted at the horizon shielding his eyes from the relentless sun. “Blimey, Cap’n! It would be appear t’ be a line of hills,”
“Wellsir,” Flob fumbled, “I reckon as I ain’t ever seen’em there before.”
“Exactly,” said Igar. “Ordinarily I’d send scouts to check into this, but its right in our path anyway, and even if it wasn’t, I just gotta see this for myself. Double-time sergeant. Spread the order rearward.”
“Aye, sir,” responded Flob as he turned and headed rearward down the line.
By late that afternoon they had reached the foot of the enigmatic hills. Not a plant or animal was in evidence. It was obvious to all but the most inane, (which in any group of trulls is a significant percentage) that this blasted area was the sight of the previous night’s disturbance. What was also obvious was that this ridge of hills was arranged in a symmetrical ring.
Igar summoned his lieutenants and upon their arrival said, ‘Lads, its plain that this ring of hills continues round to the north so, Ooga, I’m puffin’ you temporarily in charge. Take the troops around to the east and set up camp at the north side of these hills. I gotta see if I can find out what caused this. His Unholy Darkness’ll likely be expectin’ answers and I’d better have some. I’m takin’ Biter, Flob and two good scouts over the top. We’ll join up with ya later.”
When the army had moved off, Igar and his party began ascending the slope. The hills were steep. Not tall enough to be classified as mountains, they were still quite high and seemed to be comprised of loose dirt and rock which made for a strenuous climb. When they reached the summit, they were buffeted by a wave of hot air rising from a bowl-shaped valley.
“Just what I thought,” said Igar. “It’s a crater.”
The others just gaped stupidly from the crater to each other scratching various parts of their anatomy in typical trull fashion. Igar looked for some indication that his statement had piqued some seed of understanding, much to his disappointment. Finally, Biter asked, “So, uh, what caused it?”
Igar shrugged, “Don’t rightly know. Seems obvious that something exploded though. When I was a pup, me gaffer took me huntin’ away up north. They got craters up there too. They call them the Djevel Pots. Look just like this, like big bowls. The old man told me some of tale about huge rocks comin’ out of the sky. Said that’s what made ‘em.”
They all got a huge laugh out of this. “Wow! What kind o’ horses arse would believe that? Any bunghole knows rocks can’t fly,” opined Flob, feeling so very scholarly.
“Well, me Pap qualified as one o’ them horses arses, I suppose, ‘cause he believed,” said Igar as he shot Flob a withering stare.
“Yeah, really, what a rube!” Flob guffawed, still caught up in the mirth of the moment bent almost double and slapping his knee. Then he realized he laughed alone and glanced up to meet Igar’s eyes. “Oh… uh… well, umm. Maybe they can fly. I mean, I ain’t no expert on rocks. I mean after all, birds can fly and well, sometimes they sit on… rocks… and… oh, I don’t know.”
Igar would have liked to let him stew in his discomfiture all day, but day was becoming night and he wanted to be moving. “Forget it, numbnuts, c’mon,” said Igar, turning and starting off down the steep incline. The grin on his face was barely discernible.
About a quarter of the way down the slope they realized that the heat was becoming too much to continue. “Hold up,” said Igar. “We’re not gonna be able to continue like this. Too hot, look at this.” He bent down and picked a piece of vitreous slag, handing it to Biter. “Yesterday that was sand. I’d stake Flob’s life on it.” The jibe was not wasted on Flob. “We’ll skirt the depression off to the east and cross over to where the troops’ll be at the north end.”
In this way they made their way out of the crater and joined the rest of the army well into the night. None of them would forget the experience.