Arnaald prepared to dismount and the stranger held up a staying hand declaring, “Hold. You’ll be told when and if to dismount. For now, I’ll be asking the questions. To answer the question you’ve put to me; let’s just say that what I want from you is anything of worth that you carry, which may well include your very lives if I see fit.” Arnaald had understood the instructions explicitly and so did not venture any further questions, but rather awaited patiently, any further information his adversary was willing to render. Sensing the awkward pause the man continued.
“My name is Allunn. You are surrounded by the Badlanders. I am their leader but we are a force of free men. You are currently trespassing on our sovereign ground. Hitherto, these were known only as the badlands. We are the displaced and banished by that pompous little tub of guts this country recognizes as its king. We do not recognize that kingship. All we had, our land, our livestock our crops or wares, and in some cases, our children were stolen for imagined and contrived crimes by that blight known as Blothe. That is all you need to know for now. So, now you know who accosts you. That is all the courtesy you will receive until I’ve had from you your purpose or your wealth or perhaps both.”
Allunn had made this bold declaration of outlawry in an added attempt to seem more dangerous and threatening. Little could he have known that this bluster was music to the ears of the ‘old-timer’ before him.
Arnaald turned to the group and said, “Relinquish your arms and surrender all our goods.” The comrades balked but eventually did as instructed. He removed his sword from its scabbard and personally presented it, hilt first, to Allunn, who hesitated for an imperceptible moment to wonder at the workmanship and intricate etchings and inlaid runes adorning the blade. The wizard looked the huge man straight in the eye with a purpose and intent that made Allunn a little hesitant and uncomfortable saying, “Its name is Lykthammer, the sword of my fathers and my lineage. Accept him in a show of my good faith, which I give willingly.”
Astonished, Allunn sheathed his own mighty weapon in the scabbard at his back and accepted the trophy. As he held it before him, Arnaald held forth a hand indicating the ground and asked, “May I?” Allun stepped back and nodded. Keenly wary, he was unsure what to make of this stranger.
The mage dismounted. Now on the ground, Arnaald, a good six feet tall himself, realized that this monster of a man towered over him by a good foot or more. Stepping forward, hand raised in greeting, the mage announced, “I am Arnaald Hardrada.” As he made to step forward further, Allunn held up a staying hand, realizing that Arnaald had retained his staff and knowing that, at the very least, such things could make formidable weapons in capable hands. Arnaald got the drift and tried to play it off. “Oh this? Only the walking aid that my age demands…”
Again Allun held up his hand saying, “Taking me for an overgrown dolt may well be your first mistake and mayhap your last as well.”
Arnaald stopped, stood his ground and said, “Point taken, sir.”
“In the first place, “said Allunn, “Any man who carry’s such a weapon as this and more importantly, has kept it safe from theft, needs no staff to support crotchety bones. In the second place if you are going to pose, do not use your real name, if Hardrada you truly are, for that name is known to me. As well, I daresay, as it is to many others. I’d thought you long dead. In the third place, mistaking me for simpleminded is insulting and may yet buy you that overdue fate.”
Arnaald was thankful for his long beard that concealed the grin in all but his eyes. “Again your point is well taken. A transgression I shan’t make again, be assured.” He held out his staff in both upraised palms.
Allunn waved off the offer. “Keep your crutch, old man.” The mage was sure he detected a note of humor almost imperceptible. Was it the eyes…the voice? “Come, mage,” he said indicating a side trail leading to a shear rock wall covered by creeping thorny vines where he stopped and turned. It suddenly occurred to Allunn that what they had here was no ordinary clutch of weary travelers, but a group of some purpose. Just what that purpose was needed more than just a trailside chat to figure out. Just how honest and forthright this mage would be was anyone’s guess. No, this needed to be handled carefully and it was obvious that he was outmatched if the mage employed magic. He thought he might have made a mistake in not accepting the staff but he was wary of even touching such things. “I would speak with you. Have you’re your friends follow.” Here he indicated the vine-covered wall before them.
Arnaald looked incredulous. “Follow where? We can’t climb this.”
The giant grinned, pulled at a trailside, hanging vine and the thick covering of formidable vines parted to reveal a long dark tunnel leading slightly uphill. Arnaald felt a tug of natural trepidation but realized that the alternative was a bloody battle that, given the odds, they would probably lose anyway. They walked the short distance back to the waiting group and he directed them to follow. A host of their captors emerged from the foliage to surround them. Once inside the tunnel, they’d be led along a twisting passage, almost a thousand yards long, by torch-bearing men. When everyone was inside, decoy bushes were replaced and the vine curtain was drawn once again concealing any sign of their passage.
Once inside the tunnel amid the flickering torchlight, Garr wondered at the ingenuity of these forest brigands. Tykk leaned in and whispered, “I wonder if this is the ‘good news’ or the ‘bad news’.”
With a forced grin Garr replied, “We’re not killed yet. I’d say so far, so good.”
Some hours later, in their haste and over-confidence that they were hot on the trail of a fair sized group of travelers that Inzveer reasoned could only be their prey in this wilderness, the draugs hurried down the forest trail. What they didn’t know, was that the trail was also occasionally used by Allunn’s highwaymen. While usually sticking to the denser and less well marked trails, when speed or convenience was warranted, they would use the main trail. This fact threw the draugs off and the trail went cold. Once that fact became apparent, they were miles past the hidden tunnel and picking up the trail from where they were was all but impossible. This so infuriated Inzveer that he mercilessly lashed his ormhest and severely injured it. This too would slow them up for days until it was sufficiently healed. In abject anger they set up a keening, screeching wail that cut the air for miles.
The tunnel opened onto a spacious valley of roughly oval shape. The outer regions where lined with farmsteads and in the center was a small town of thatch-roofed homes and what could only have been shops and the kiosks of an open-air market. All and all, it seemed to be a thriving and comfortable existence. Children played and adults went hither and yon about various errands known only to them.
Allunn called over several men whom Arnaald assumed where trusted captains and gave hushed instructions as to what was to be done with the captives for the meantime. He also instructed that all the captive’s belongings be delivered to him to be catalogued post haste.
“You and I must talk, mage, this way,” said the big man indicating the direction he wished the mage to proceed.
Wanting to assure his companions that he would be alright, he said, “If you don’t mind, I‘d like to…” He received a brusque nudge from Allunn with the explanation that the man knew that he wanted to reassure his friends. “Frankly,” the big man said, “I don’t even know yet whether things will be alright so your assurance would be hollow words at best. You and I have an awful lot to get straight before we’ll know how much will be alright and how much won’t, now go.” The mage held up his hands and nodded acquiescence, walking in the direction indicated.
At the third dwelling they came to, Allunn put a strong hand on Arnaald’s shoulder halting his progress. He opened the door and said, “In.” The hus was dimly lit compared to the sunny outdoors and it took the mage a few moments for his vision to adjust. When it did, what was revealed was a comfortable fair sized central room with doors leading to other rooms that were presently closed. He indicated a table surrounded by chairs and said, “Have a seat.” Arnaald followed instructions and Allunn walked to a door and opened it announcing, “It’s me darlin’. We have a guest. I’ll be usin’ the great room to conduct business.” Arnaald heard a lilting female voice in response but could not hear what was being said. Allunn closed the door and walked to a cask on a counter, withdrew two tankards from the cupboard and poured some of the contents in each. He returned to the table and handed one to Arnaald, who thanked him, said, “Skoal”, and took a sip. It was a dark red wine, dry with a distinct tannic richness. The mages eyebrows rose with obvious approval. Wiping his moustache, he uttered one word, “Splendid.”
Allunn pulled his chair in close with a conspiratorial air. “The little woman stays as much in the dark as I can keep her about my doings outside this valley. She needn’t share my sins. I want to make as normal a life for her as possible. We had a daughter. She was the love of our lives. Blothe’s henchmen took her in lieu of taxes that he said I owed. Long story short, she died while in his care working the fields that I begged to do in her stead. I could have done ten times her work but he did what he did to hurt us and to exercise his authority, pure and simple, to hold something over us. I tried to kill him but failed in my haste. I am now a hunted man. As you can see by the population of this place, mine is a common story. I will be honest with you, I have waylaid many a traveling stranger. In the twenty odd years I have been here most of the travelers were folks with stories similar to mine so I more often than not wound up stealing myself a community of neighbors. Considering Blothe’s unjustness and cruelty, I’m surprised we are not more numerous. I truly can’t see why anyone tolerates it. I am not a cruel man but I have had my share of revenge on Blothe’s soldiers and bounty hunters and increased my wealth in the bargain. This is our haven. It was thought of as haunted by the old races and so shunned. You’ve seen the shear walls. The only entrance or egress are two natural tunnels that only we refugees know of…and now you. If I let you live and more…if I let you leave…well, you see my dilemma.”
“I do indeed, my friend. Let me share with you my tale. You have been shut off safely here in your ‘haven’ for long indeed. Much has transpired in your absence. Hear now the history of the past year’s goings on and I think it will go a long way to aid you in your conundrum. It may indeed change your world and I will do this all for the mere price of one more cup”
For hours Arnaald regaled the incredulous highwayman with the history of Norgeve in his absence. He told of his decade-long captivity and his rescue and of Blothe’s waning power and fall from favor. He told of the trull invasion and Doden’s part in it. Allunn learned of the raid on Josdahl and the consequences of that happenstance. Arnaald revealed Garr’s true lineage and confided his intention to raise Garr to the first unifying king of the land and told with pride how the races that could never get along were now working in concert including an army of nissas. At this, Allunn’s jaw dropped. And when he learned of the war council and the scale of the population’s determination to seat a new king, he held his head, repeating one word over and over. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, noooo…!”
Perplexed, Arnaald’s eyes widened. “Gads man, I thought you’d be delighted.” He sat back blinking in confusion.
“Don’t you see the problem?” asked Allunn. “Not only have I committed a capital crime against the present king who’d have me hanged in a nonce, but now I’ve kidnapped the new king before he’s even seated.”
There was a long pause and then the two burst out laughing.
By evening there was great festivity among the population and the newcomers. Pigs, sheep and cattle had been slaughtered and casks opened in honor of the remarkable news and the air of merriment was contagious. Allunn’s wife, Lyndia danced for the first time since the loss of their daughter over twenty years ago. For good or ill there was to be change in the Earthlands. There would be risk certainly but all knew that all change required some risk. Most of the able-bodied men of the valley committed to soldiering in the coming war. These numbered just over eighteen hundred individuals trained in the ways of woodsmen and guerilla warfare. While the gaffers and the women folk despaired to see them go, they knew that, if successful, they would be able to exist in the world again and see friends, neighbors and relatives again that they’d not seen in years. They would have luxuries of the civilized world again through trade and not thievery. In short, they would be able to hold their heads high again and that was worth the risk. If they wanted to reap the benefits of the new world, they would need to share the risk and sacrifice. They would want to. Of course there were some able-bodied men who wanted nothing to do with the outside world ever again. These few would be necessary, for the women, children and elderly could not be left completely to fend for themselves, so it worked out well.
On this night they rejoiced and reveled and pushed aside the thought that risk meant death and that some would not survive this gamble.
Smuntley was an immediate person of interest with his well of geological knowledge, explaining that the whole valley was a dormant caldera and the two tunnels were natural lava tubes. He told of having one such (“Mine was a meteoric crater”, he explained to blank stares) all to himself in the far north until being run off buy horrific monsters that hounded them still. Here he made ugly faces and grunting noises, chasing laughing, screaming children to the safety of their mother’s skirts. He thrilled adults and children alike. He explained that the verdant lushness of the valley and their huge success with all their crops was due in large part to the rich volcanic soil and his helpful hints attracted a host of farmers.
Arnaald and Briar slipped off for some quietude and a pipe and some private conversation and they happened upon Allunn and the missus arm in arm quietly gazing down the length of the valley in the clear, shimmering crispness of the moonlit evening air.
“Not disturbing I hope,” Arnaald asked lighting his pipe.
“Not at all,” Lyndia said. “We oft enjoy the quiet of the night air. It’s so peaceful here.”
“It is lovely.” Agreed Briar. “I’ve been meaning to ask, what do you call this valley?”
“The ancients called it Geisthagen for the belief that it was haunted and avoided it like the plague.” Said Lyndia. “We thought of many different names that would reflect the peace and joy that we feel here. In the end there was only one fitting name. We decided on Lynndahl in honor of our daughter.”
“Well gentlemen, we’ll bid you good evening,” said Allun. “The sun rises late here in the valley but alas, I must rise before it.” Briar and Arnaald returned the sentiments and the couple was soon swallowed up by the night.
“These are certainly fine people,” said Briar, “and they all seem so genuinely happy.” Arnaald nodded agreement.
At that very moment, carried on the night wind was the barely perceptible wailing of the frustrated draugar so many miles off. The people near the festivities could not hear the sound, but out here in the peaceful night, their torment registered with Arnaald for exactly what it was. As he lit a fresh pipe, he leaned in to Briar and whispered, “Ooh, someone’s not at all happy.”