The Working Barbarian

A Tale of Blood, Fire and Steel

Archive for the tag “Sam Kurd”

Part 28 – The Hall of the Listeners

Jala eyed the hilt of the dagger warily.

“My body…” she muttered darkly. Wojji nodded gently.

“It’d be a dreadful shame to let it go to waste,” he said. “When the last of your breath has fled your lungs and your eyes have caught their final light, your soul would be able to depart knowing that your body would be going on to a purpose greater than feeding the worms and the grubs of the earth.”

A high price indeed – and yet, was it really? The necromancer did not propose to slay her on the spot, merely to use what would no longer be hers to use when the time came. A lump of flesh and bone, the image of Jala but not the warrior essence of Jala.

Jala reached towards the hilt of the dagger, and for a moment thought she saw a look of intense avarice and greed cross the face of the man offering it to her. At the last moment, her arm dropped to her side.

“You are a man of business,” she said flatly. “Let us negotiate.”

Wojji’s face fell dramatically, but he recovered smoothly.

“It was worth a try,” he said, tucking the dagger away. “The barbarian tribes of the North don’t often come by these parts, and I fancied that perhaps you were the one who would… no matter. Negotiate. Indeed, let’s.”

Kru leaned over, her lips brushing against Jala`s ear and her voice soft and low.

“We have nothing with which we can negotiate,” she said. “Yet.”

Jala nodded in understanding.

“Master Wojji,” she said, “I cannot give you what is not mine to offer. I do not know what fate I pursue, and to what ultimate destiny my body will go. Perhaps I am to perish in the belly of a dragon, as a vision I have had seemed to show, or perhaps I am to be obliterated into starstuff. I do not know, and so I cannot promise that I would uphold my end of the bargain were I to promise you my body.

 “I can, however, offer you something that I know I will have. I can offer you the body of the Whelpslayer himself.”

 The necromancer raised an eyebrow.

 “You really feel you can deliver on such a promise?” he asked.

 “I feel the truth of it in my bones and in the heft of my blade. I make you the traditional honour-bound oath of my tribe : Under the moon, under the stars, above the crisply fallen snow and amongst the deep dark pines, I so swear that I shall have the corpse of the Whelpslayer to deliver unto you, or that I shall die trying.”

 Wojji blinked.

 “That’ll do it,” he said, spitting into his palm and holding it out. Jala eyed his moist hand.

“That’s disgusting,” she said. Wojji shrugged.

“Fair enough,” he said, extending a pinky. Jala wrapped her own pinky around it and they solemnly shook, sealing their pact as Kru looked on with a knowing smile.

“Right,” said Wojji, wiping his hand on his clothes, “now that that’s taken care of, drink up – we’ve got a Listener to bother.”

*

 Jala and Kru were led through winding canyon tunnels until they came to a stop before a simple wooden door.

“Is this the fabled Hall of Listeners?” Kru asked, a note of disappointment creeping into her voice. Wojji shook his head.

“It takes two to access the Hall of Listeners,” he said. He pushed the door open and they stepped through into a small antechamber. It looked like a sort of clinic, which would make the elderly woman who occupied it a sort of doctor. She initially did not notice that she had visitors as her arms were elbow deep into the chest cavity of a zombie which lay on a table before her, watching her work interestedly.

Wojji cleared his throat. The woman glanced up, irritated.

“What?” she snapped. “I’m in the middle of an operation, Wojji. Would it kill you to knock?”

“Yes, but not for long,” he replied with a smile. To the others, he said, “This is Yarla, one of our more hands-on members.”

Yarla snorted and returned her attention to her patient.

“Funny man,” she said. “I’d love to see you patch a perforated spleen sometime.”

“I’m confused,” said Jala. “Are your workers not risen and driven by magical forces? Why would the state of their organs matter?”

Yarla sighed and pulled her blood and ichor stained arms out.

“That’s correct in principle,” she said, “but long story short a machine with missing parts is hardly an effective machine. Our workforce is no good to us if it’s dropping to bits all over the place.”

“Necromancy is a many-faceted art,” Wojji explained. “Some of us are better at the act of raising, overcoming the most stubborn of bodily inertia. Others take a more resorative path.”

Yarla held her hands over the gaping hole in the zombie and muttered a few words. A cold breeze seemed to pass through the room as dead flesh knotted together before Jala’s eyes. The zombie stumbled to its feet, good as new though still quite clearly dead.

“And that’s that. Now, then. As wonderfully lovely as it is to see new people, to what do I owe the dubious pleasure of interruption?”

“They are here to see Sonja,” Wojji replied.

Yarla whistled and wiped her hands on a nearby cloth.

“I see. Well then, let’s not waste time. Stay here,” Yarla instructed the zombie. It slumped into a corner looking almost dejected as it watched the others leave the room.

“Will it be alright in there?” Jala asked. Yarla rolled her eyes.

“It’s a zombie,” she said. “It’s not even one of the smarter ones. It won’t need food, warmth, rest or company. I think it’ll be ok standing in a corner for a while, don’t you?”

They continued in silence until they came to an impressively large door of silver and steel, covered in runes and ornate symbols. This, it seemed, was the entrance to the Hall of Listeners. Wojji and Yarla waved their hands over the door in an elaborate pattern, causing the runes to flare brightly then fade away into nothing. Slowly, slowly, the door swung open.

The Hall was a massive chamber that seemed to stretch away to the distance in all directions. The room was filled with nothing but beds, rows upon rows of beds in which lay the prone forms of the Listeners.

Wojji led the into the room, walking silently and reverentially down the aisles between the slumbering folk. Eventually they came to a bed in which lay a young girl, fair of hair and fast asleep like all the rest.

“This is Sonja?” Kru said. “She’s but a child!”

“She may be a child but she’s the best damned Listener we’ve ever had,” Yarla snapped.

Jala gazed down at the girl, fascinated at the thought of the power she had despite her tiny young frame. Wojji pulled a jewelled pendant from one of his many pockets and polished the inset stone thoughtfully.

“You will have but 10 minutes,” he said, “for even as strong a Listener as Sonja cannot maintain a direct relation with the dead for longer. Think carefully of your question, Jala; be sure of what you want to know. Are you ready?”

Jala nodded and Wojji pressed the pendant to Sonja’s forehead. It glowed a deep rich golden colour, and Sonja’s eyes flew open, eyes of the same glowing lustre. The girl lay unmoving, stared fixedly up at the ceiling.

“The conduit is open,” she said in a sing-song voice. “The dead speak and but few listen. Would you hear what we hear?”

“We would,” said Wojji gravely. He looked at Jala. “Whisper into her ear. Tell her what you want.

Jala leant down, her lips resting by the child’s ear.

28 - Hall of the Listeners

The poll will closed at noon BST on Sunday 10th of August. If you cannot vote, or if you cannot see a poll above, please enable cookies or try a different browser. Alternatively travel into the depths of the most ancient and loneliest forests of the Old World. At their heart, where no light penetrates their canopy and all is shrouded in darkness older than man. There you must light a fire and speak your choice. Then run. Flames anger the trees…

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How About No?

There’s something about Necromancers that makes people uneasy. Hanging out with dead people all the time marks you in some way. It makes you a little bit unearthly, different, other. From a certain perspective this has its advantages. It gives the necromancer an aura of aloofness and mystery that is a very desirable, some might even call it a business asset. It does however make it very hard to get people to trust you. Especially if you’re trying to get something big out of them. Say for example, the rights to their still warm corpse. Which is going to be a bit of a stretch at the best of times.

27 - Secrets of the Heldrakai

Jala has decided that she doesn’t particularly like the proposal put forward by Master Wojji, which I suppose is entirely understandable. Bodily autonomy is kind of a big deal. Even when you’re dead. This does mean that she’s going to have to find some other method of payment or leave empty-handed.

Exactly how this all pans out will be the decision of Sam Kurd: adventure, dreamweaver, visionary (plus writer.) We’ll be entering the world of his imagination as he takes us on a majestic odyssey of fiction and wonder. Which is more impressive than the brief he was originally given. (Which read “Oi, you! Write something.)

The next chapter in our ongoing tale will arrive on Monday the 4th of August.

Part 23 – Cooler Heads Prevail

The choice loomed large in Jala’s mind, shouting down all other thoughts. A deeply passionate voice, screaming white-hot with rage, was demanding a swift and bloody resolution. ‘Strike at the heart of the beast!’ it howled. ‘Quick, decisive action! Kill! Kill!

She was tempted to listen to this voice, oh so tempted. With Magebane’s blood still cooling on her blade, her warrior soul thirsted for more. More blood, more carnage, more bodies piling up around her calves. The feeling was fading fast, but the bloodlust was strong, just as it had been when she slew the illusionary beige dwarfs in the depths of Kharäzdhuin.

And yet…

Another, calmer voice prevailed. It spoke in a quiet hushed tone, a gentle caress. It wound its way through Jala’s turbulent thoughts, soothing and sedating. The voice urged caution. The voice recommended strategy, patience and smarts. The voice was the touch of ice on a fevered brow.

“We head South,” Jala declared, “to the Necromancers beyond The Gash. Let them pry the truth from this bitch’s cold bones.”

Then she pitched forward onto her face and gave unconsciousness a try for a while.

*

She awoke in a soft bed. This confused her greatly, as she’d never really experienced a soft bed before. A soft bedroll on the hard frozen ground, certainly. But a soft bed? Goosedown quilt? Duck feather pillows? She felt uncomfortably comfortable.

She looked around herself. The room was sparse but welcoming, not gaudily decorated or stuffed with lavish unneccesities. There was a dresser and a mirror, a wardrobe, a bowl of water, a stoat sitting on a chair beside the bed, some nice curtains.

“You’re awake!” Marek cried happily. Jala nodded. Halfway through the action she remembered her wounds and expected the sharp stab of pain – but none came. She lifted the bedcovers and took an appraising look at herself. As expected, bandages everywhere – but the dressings were clean, no sign of blood.

“How long did I sleep?” She asked. Marek looked uncomfortable.

“Er-“

“You slept fitfully, Jala,” said Kru, “for the Bastard Sword cuts deeper than flesh.”

Jala jumped. The Star Witch had appeared from nowhere, in her damnably sorcerous way.

“Don’t do that,” she said sternly. Kru smiled.

“I’m glad you’re recovering your strength. You’re going to need it. The journey south will-“

“How long did I sleep?”

“You have been out of action for almost a week, madam warrior,” said Calathor, stepping out of a shadowy corner that Jala was certain he hadn’t been standing in just moments before.

“Gods, I wish you mages would walk about and open doors like normal people,” Jala grumbled.

“That wouldn’t be much fun, would it?” asked her erstwhile companion the Guildmeister from her bedside. She glowered at him. “In fairness, I came in the window while you were looking at Calathor just now.”

“Lovely,” she replied, voice dripping with sarcasm. “Anyone else planning on materialising in front of me? Is the turnip man going to pop out of the wardrobe at me next?”

There was an uncomfortable silence. Mark cleared his stoaty throat.

“Erm, are you sure you’re up for a long trip, Jala?” he asked. Jala sighed.

“He wasn’t a real turnip man, he was only dressed as- look, never mind. I feel fine.” To demonstrate this, she climbed from her bed and fell onto her face. “Mfee? Mfine,” she said into the carpet.

The Guildmeister helped her to her feet.

“You’ll be right as the proverbial rain in a few hours once you’ve had a good stretch,” he said. He rested his hand lightly on her shoulder. She shrugged it off.

“What is our plan?” she asked. “I trust things have been set in motion as I lay in recovery?”

Kru nodded.

“We join a southward-bound merchant caravan in three days. It will take us as far as Alkathum, the Ghormish capital. From there, we strike out to the Gash and beyond. My suggestion is that we hire a guide and a mercenary or two on our arrival in the city.”

Wonderful. Another city. A desert one this time – in addition to bustling crowds and noise and stink, Jala would have to put up with oppressive heat and choking dust. Still, it would be worth it. Worth it to squeeze information from Magebane. Worth it to get closer to this Whelpslayer and avenge Freya’s village. Worth it for other reasons, the calm cool voice from days ago suggested…

She shook herself. “A good plan,” she said. “When you say ‘we’ join the caravan…?”. Kru smiled.

“Well I would hardly let you journey alone, would I? Certainly my city needs me, but the stakes are higher than we ever thought they could be. This Whelpslayer … well. Let us suffice to say he has delusions of grandeur, but also the ruthlessness and drive to achieve his ambitions if left unchecked. As for the rest of us, well, I can’t speak for Marek-“

“You can if you say ‘Marek will be coming with us,'” said Marek.

“Apparently I can speak for Marek. Marek will be coming with us, of course. We would do well to have a representative of this guild…” at this she glared at Calathor and the Guildmeister, who both had the good grace to look uncomfortable. Jala got the impression this had been an argument that had lasted over the days she’d been out.

“Er, well, lots of things to do-“

“Grave goings-on afoot-“

“-rebuild the city-“

“-arcane mysteries and such-“

“-got to weed out Magebane’s supporters, very political stuff-“

Jala sighed and grabbed the Guildmeister’s collar.

“You,” she said. “You’re with us.”

The Guildmeister looked unhappy for a moment, then his face went blank. Jala wondered idly where his mind went to when he did this, then found she didn’t care. She poked him in the belly.

“Oi,” she said. “I said you’re with us … er … I don’t think I caught your name,” she finished lamely. The Guildmeister returned to the physical plane with a bump.

“I don’t think I dropped it,” he said. “My name… is unimportant.”

“No it’s not,” said Marek, “we can’t call you ‘Oi’ or ‘that fellow with the noisy cloak’ can we?”. The meister sighed.

“Very well,” he said. “There are some who call me … Tim.”

“Tim.” Jala said flatly. Tim looked embarrassed.

“It’s short for Timammon, and it doesn’t do a lot to help cultivate the air of mystery that a competent Sablemagus needs to project so I’d rather we just dropped it or changed the subject, ok?” he answered hotly. Jala shrugged.

“Very well, Tim, as you wish.”

“ANYWAY” Kru interrupted loudly, “I think we should let Jala get her rest. We have many preparations to make for the journey.”

Jala, suddenly tired, nodded. It would be a long journey, no doubt fraught with peril. They all seemed to be. The world was growing ever bigger, and the threats it held grew bigger to match. She only hoped she was up to the challenge.

*

They made their way to the caravan offices on the night of the third day. The caravan was due to set off long after the sun had set. Apparently this was the best way to travel through a desert, and the caravan master liked to set the sleeping pattern from the outset of the journey. It made no difference to Jala whether she slept when the sun did or with moon. Her blade would be ready.

The caravan was taking them on as both passengers and guards. A reasonable rate was agreed, and once the caravan master met Jala he agreed that she was certainly at least as capable as his own guards. They outfitted her with a new sword, a clumsy weapon but one that would do the job. The Bastard Sword made them nervous, and she could hardly disagree with them. She kept it wrapped in furs with her personal possessions. She knew she would use it again, when the time was right.

The caravan was a series of small wagons and several laden down beasts of burden. These were the strangest creatures Jala had ever set eyes on, and she’d once seen a Frost Hare with three ears. They were coarse, lumpy and misshapen, with saddles crammed between their back bulges and an offensive odour that followed them like a cloud. They eyed her viciously and spat in her direction.

“What in all the hells are those things?” she asked a passing young merchant. He pushed his spectacles up his nose and squinted through them at her.

“What, the camels? They’re … um … well, they’re camels.”

“Camels? Will we not be travelling by horse?”

The young man laughed. “Well, we could do,” he said, “but they’d all be dead by the time we got there. Horses from these parts don’t fare well in the desert.” He shoved his hand out at her. “I’m Hervel.”

Jala stared at his hand.

“Jala,” she said, turning back to the camels. Hervel dropped his hand awkwardly.

“So,” he said.

“So.”

“First time with a caravan?” he said? Jala nodded. “It’s my second run, to Ghorm at least. I must say, I’m glad you and your companions seem like the sort who can handle themselves. On the last journey, we were set upon by giant scorpions, lost two wagons to quicksand and were attacked by a marauding raider party. It’s a tough run.”

Jala sighed.

“Of course it is,” she said, feeling an uncharacteristic tiredness and heaviness in her limbs. “We wouldn’t be doing it otherwise. Sometimes it seems my whole life is a series of choices, each resulting in more violence and bloodshed than the last. I set out to seek my destiny, now I wonder if it is simply to be a lightning rod for danger.”

Hervel said nothing, but he took out a book and started scribbling in it.

“What are you doing?” she asked warily.

“Just getting that down, it’s gold!” he said happily. “The readers will love it. Don’t worry, I’ll credit you properly. Is it ‘Jala’ with one ‘l’ or two? Any apostrophes?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Well, I suppose I didn’t introduce myself properly. Hervel Macaloon, roving journalist and cataloguer of adventure and derring-doo. The readers of the Stellastelathororn Chronicle just lap it up. Live vicariously through the peril of others and all that. Where are you from?” he asked abruptly.

“From? I am from the tribes in the mountains to the far North, beyond-“

“Oooh, a barbarian warrior!” he cooed. “As strong as she is beautiful, as cold as her homeland. She is the wielder of the Bastard Sword, she is the slayer of Magebane. She is vengeance, she is death! Ah, it’s too superb!”

“How did you-“

“Please! Oh, please, Jala, would you let me … interview you?”

“What?”

“Over the course of the journey? It’d be a character piece, a human interest piece. What spurs the noble warrior to leave her homeland, righting wrongs, avenging deaths? It’d be beautiful, I’d write it beautifully for you, it’d be my best work. Oh say you will!”

His face shone with youthful excitement and fervour, his grin almost wider than his head. He seemed so earnest, so young, so like another companion she’d once had.

How could she say no?

23 - Cooler Heads Prevail

The poll closed on Sunday 25th of May. If you cannot see a poll above, please try a different browser or enable cookies. If problems still persist seek out any local priests, shamans, hermits or holy (wo)men and enquire as to whether you have recently offended any gods, deities or major spirit world entities.

Forewarned is Forearmed

“Know your enemy.” It is a saying as old as the hills, assuming we’re talking about some hills in an area of high geological instability. (Seriously, hills are surprisingly old.) After all, how can you defeat that which you do not understand? You need to know how your enemy thinks, you need to be able to know how they’ll act, how they’ll respond, what they’ll do. Then, and only then, can you attack their weak point for massive damage. It is a fact known to all followers of the art of war.

22 - Death DrivesAnd Jala is no feckless dilettante or weekend warrior. She’s made of tough stuff and know that a wise warrior arms herself with knowledge as well as steel. Whoever said “words will never hurt me” clearly wasn’t using them right. So Jala will seek out the dark knowledge of the Heldrakai Necromancers.

The next instalment of our adventure arrives on the 19th of May and comes from the pen of Sam Kurd. He knows things. Terrible things. We should probably kill him before it’s too late. That’s if it’s not too late already…

Part 11 – Ensorcelled

Marek’s stoaty mind raced. Jala was the obvious choice, being stronger and more able to protect the other. By the same token, though, she could stand to take care of herself for longer than Freya. Should they both be in peril, Jala’s warrior instincts and experience would stand her in good stead. But Freya, his Freya…

He nodded determinedly, his mind made up. He dug his teeth gently into Avatkch’s robes and tugged him rightwards.

“Very well, master stoat,” the dwarf said, “we shall save your little friend first. I hope you chose well. We had better make haste.”

*

Freya had found her voice, and then some. Her screaming echoed around the forest as she ran, trying to escape the monstrous horror that pursued her.  She had only caught a glimpse of it, but a glimpse was all she needed to know she didn’t want it getting any closer. There had been chitinous legs, hideous mandibles dripping with venom. And the eyes, so many eyes!

She launched herself at the lowlying branches of a tree, pulling herself up and hoping against hope that whatever it was couldn’t climb. No such luck; her gamble didn’t pay off, judging by the feel of the slimy leg scraping against her foot. She shuddered and dropped back to the ground. At least getting out of the tree would slow the creature down.

“Jala!” she called as she ran. “Star Witch! Marek! Anybody!”

Nobody came. She was all alone, just her and the creature with murder in its eyes. Had the Star Witch deliberately led them into danger, had she betrayed them? Or had Freya just somehow taken a wrong turn?

It hardly mattered either way. She was tiring and running out of breath. She was going to die.

As this rather morbid thought crossed her mind, her foot became snagged on a near-invisible thread stretched between two trees. She pitched forward onto her face with a startled yelp, ending up with a mouth full of dirt and leaves. Spitting and spluttering, she flipped onto her back and started scuttling backwards. Clicking and chittering away, it crept forward on legs seemingly too spindly to support its bulbous body. If it had lips it would have been licking them. Of course, it would need a tongue too.

Freya waved her stick in front of her in a manner she hoped was threatening. The creature lashed out with a foreleg and knocked it easily from her grasp. So much for mystical, magical powers. Damn that Star Witch!

Her undignified backwards escape came to a sudden stop as she propelled herself into a clump of cobwebs. They clung to her as she shrieked, kicking at the creature as it pounced and struck.

Freya&Spider

For all its fearsome appearance, the spider’s bite on her calf was strangely gentle, almost tender. The poison must have been spreading quickly, she felt very strange indeed; the webs around her became almost an embrace, and she could feel a cool hand on her brow. The spider leaned in close, and murmured softly in her ear as she sobbed quietly.

“Waken, child. You are safe, none shall harm you.”

Freya opened her eyes. Gone were the forest, the grass, the webs, the spider. She was in a stone hall, held in the arms of a small kindly looking man with a big bushy beard. In place of the spider, watching her intently with fierce devotion, was Marek. Marek! With a grateful cry she scooped him up and held him close. He grumbled and mumbled and fussed, nuzzling her face and licking her tears. The little man looked on with a smile.

“Oh Marek,” she said, “I couldn’t find you, or Jala, and there was this forest and a spider and I don’t know what’s going on!”

“Ah,” said the man, “I believe that that is where I come in. I am Avatkch, and this is my home. I am most sincerely sorry for the distress and alarm you have suffered at the hands of the guardian spell. It is designed to waylay tresspassers, you see.”

“We’re not tresspassers!” Freya objected. “We’re only passing through the tunnels-“

“-Unbidden and uninvited,” Avatkch finished, not unkindly. “Now come, Freya, we must see to your barbarian friend. She is strong, but she cannot hold out forever.”

“How do you know my name? Who are you?”

“All in good time, child. Follow.”

*

Jala struck again and again. Pallid beige limbs flew around her, beige heads rolled across the floor. Hers was a dance of death and the music was oh so glorious. Strike! Lunge! Another strike! Lop! Slice!

She wasn’t quite sure when she’d picked up a sword or where it had come from, but she was glad of it. Without it, she could not have lasted minutes. Now, sword in hand, she was deep in her work.  More enemies rose against her, an army of drably coloured undead dwarves. All fell before her might, none could hope to stand against her.

And why should they? Was she not Jala, daugther of Quyren? Was she not the fiercest and most able warrior of her tribe, the most skilled? These shambling corpses were nothing to her, less than nothing. Fie on them! Even their sheer numbers could pose no threat, so swiftly was she cutting them down. The mounds of bodies, limbs and offal lay scattered at her feet, growing ever higher with every swing of her blade.

She felt a curious elation, a giddiness that crept upon her with each foe she slew, building and building within her breast. A giggle slipped past her lips, followed by a chuckle. Soon she was roaring with laughter and joy as carnage reigned around her.

The undead horde shifted subtly around her. The creatures were no longer attacking; now they were flinching, retreating, fleeing. No chance. They had dared provoke the mighty barbarian warrior woman, and they would pay the price! She pursued them in all directions, not even noticing that some of the bodies seemed to be women and children. No, gods preserve her, that was a lie. She noticed. She simply … didn’t care. The bloodfever was upon her.

JalaBarbarian

“ENOUGH!”

She growled at the booming authoritarian voice that rang out through the Dwarvern hall. Who dared? She was one with her blade, she was death incarnate, there could be no stopping now! She pressed on, hacking away. A hand touched her back gently and she whirled around, digging her sword deep into her would-be assailant.

In an instant, the undead army around her had disappeared. Jala stared down in horror at the sword, plunged deep into Freya’s belly. The young child looked up at her with solemn eyes that grew ever bigger, and as she spoke her mouth was a waterfall of blood.

“Your destiny,” she said. Then she collapsed.

Jala dropped to the floor, cradling the girl’s body. The joy of battle had drained away. Only horror and despair remained. Freya had been so full of life, facing the loss of her family and their perilous journey with bravery and determination. And Jala had murdered her.

As she wailed, she felt a hand brush her hair.

“Waken, brave warrior. Your battle is done, for now.”

She opened her eyes. Freya’s body had disappeared, and in her place stood a dwarf with sad eyes. Marek was perched on his shoulder, and around him peered…

 Jala knocked the small man to the floor in her rush to clasp Freya to her chest. She was alive, it had been some foul trick, Freya was alive. She held her close.

“Jala,” Freya squeaked after a few long moments, “I’m so glad you’re safe, but I’d really like to breathe now, please.”

Embarrassed, Jala released her and ruffled her hair.

“I thought…” she trailed off. Freya stared at her, none the wiser. She had seen nothing of Jala’s battle. Jala couldn’t find the words to tell her. Instead, she turned to the dwarf and bowed low.

“It seems I am indebted to you, sir,” she said gratefully. “Without your help, I’m afraid to think what might have happened.”

The man took her hand and planted a kiss on it.

“My dear Jala, warrior of the North, there is no debt to be repaid. The trap you fell into was my own; I am old and weary and do not like to receive guests unannounced, so I set up a spell to waylay trespassers. The two of you are the first of such guests I’ve had in many a year, and I suspect the magicks were eager to flex their muscles, so to speak. I can only apologise for the trouble you’ve been put through.”

Jala frowned. “You know my name? You have me at a disadvantage.” Freya elbowed her in the ribs.

“Don’t be rude,” she chided. “He just saved us!”

“From a spell he himself had cast,” Jala reminded her. The sorcerer nodded sagely.

“I understand your caution, Jala, and it is wise that you are thus. Not all who help are benevolent. For myself, I can but try. My name is Avatkch. I don’t expect you’ve heard of me?”

The blank looks on Freya and Jala’s faces were answer enough.

“No, I didn’t think so,” he said with a sigh. “My people are long gone, no one remembers the magicks and inventions of Avatkch the Bold.”

A peal of laughter rang out around the hall.

“Avatkch the Absent-Minded, you mean,” came the Star Witch’s voice from nowhere. “Or perhaps Avatkch the Tinkerer?”

“Hark!” cried Avatkch. “Do I hear the dulcet tones of Krung Nak To, Maiden of the Stars? Or just the croaking of some old toad? Show yourself, crone, let’s be having you!”

The Star Witch stepped out of the shadows – or did the shadows become the Star Witch? She was full size now and staing at Avatkch with wry amusement.

“No crone, as you can see, little man.”

He looked up at her.

“You’ve grown,” he said bluntly. “Though you haven’t aged a day. Essence of Amber Moss?”

“Enchanted sleep in an ice coffin.”

“Ah. That’ll do it.”

There stared at each other some more, sizing each other up. Jala and Freya looked from one to the other, worried.

Avatkch broke first. With a huge grin, he skipped up to the Witch and hugged her shins. When he released her, she knelt and clasped his forearms.

“It’s truly good to see you again, Kru,” he said, beaming.

Jala cleared her throat.

“I do not wish to impede this touching reunion, but what in the name of Aagb’s beard is going on here?”

11 - Ensorcelled

Voting closed at noon BST on September 1st. If you cannot see a poll above please try a different browser. Failing that carve your vote into the femur of your greatest enemy, adorn it with the appropriate runes and wards, then throw it into the sea. We will find it…

Guest art for Part 11 was provided by the talented Will Gisby. He does good work.

Think of the Children

Often the biggest decision you’ll ever have to make will at first seem utterly mundane. It’s only days, maybe even years later that the ripples you set in motion finally meet and swell into a towering wave the carries you aloft or drowns everything you hold dear. it can be able simple matter of which path you take when you come upon a fork in the road. Do you go left? Or do you do right? Do you take the safe road? Or the one less travelled?10 - Passing the MountainUsually such decisions are made by people, not by stoats. Because they’re… well, they’re stoats. But I suppose it was bound the happen eventually. Just by the law of averages one day a humble stoat would have to make a “big decision.” And that’s what Marek did. He made a choice. Choosing to fly in the face of convention and ignore the age-old saying “always go left in a dungeon.” He went right. Right!? That stoat sure has got some moxie.

But how will this all pan out I hear you cry? Honestly I have no idea. Such knowledge is beyond even my power; that gift is not mine to give. For that you’d have to ask Sam. Freshly returned from the dark and nasty regions where nobody [sane] goes and still reelling from his battles against nether horrors the likes of which the mortal mind can scarcely comprehend. Sam will regale us with a tale of high adventure and daring-do, of sacrifice and wonder, of heroic deeds and stoats. There’ll definitely be some stoats.

Sam’s skilfully wrought onslaught of words will assail your senses on Monday 26th of August. Until then, be on your guard.

stoat1_ashley_cohen

Part 5 – The Riddle of the Runes

Jala was accustomed to her own company, but it seemed to her as if perhaps she had been led to choose this path for a reason. Had she not come to the settlement then this underprepared and inexperienced girl would undoubtedly have set off on her own. Jala would indeed have done the same at her age, but a Northwoman is made of sterner stuff.

“You are brave and full of spirit, young Freya,” Jala said with a smile. “But you are small and young and not likely to be prepared to face your journey alone. Is there a town nearby that I might take you to for safety?”

Jala could see Freya’s face darken as she spoke, so she hastened to her point.

“If you were to wait and heed the advice of these runes of yours, you would be rushing into danger. Is it not wiser for you to bide your time, gather your allies and employ a strategy of some kind? Is that not the custom among your people?”

Freya snarled and turned her back on the warrior.

“Who asked you anyway?” she said angrily, perhaps forgetting that she had. “I’ll go with or without you, so if you’re going to leave then just leave, ok?”

Jala sighed. The girl was wilful and headstrong, just as she had been at her age. She felt a kind of kinship, one that she could not simply ignore. She placed a gentle yet uncertain hand on the Freya’s shoulder. The young girl turned to look into her face.

“Very well, little one. I will wait for the runes with you and accompany you on your quest. Mark that I’ll not be doing so to protect you, but rather to teach you the things you will need to know.”

“I know everything I need to know!” Freya cried. “I know that a well kept axe strikes truest. I know that little black berries like the ones on the bushes behind the blacksmith’s are poisonous. I know you should never eat yellow snow. I know-“

“Valuable knowledge indeed,” said Jala. “But tell me – have you ever hunted elk? Deer? Anything larger than a rabbit?”

“Well … no, but-“

“Do you know how to skin? How to track your prey by the track and droppings left in their wake?”

“No, I’ve never really had to-“

“And perhaps most importantly … have you ever killed someone who meant to kill you?”

Freya maintained a thoughtful silence.

“All these and much more I can teach you. Three days until the runes glow silver? We might as well begin. If, of course, you’ll welcome my instruction?”

Freya nodded eagerly and Jala gave Marek an absentminded stroke. Marek bit her on the thumb, but not unkindly. His trust would come grudgingly or not at all, it seemed.

The days passed uneventfully. Freya proved an adequate student, well-suited to practicing stealth and nimble-fingered enough to skin rabbits efficiently. She was no prodigy and she made mistakes left right and centre, but Jala kept patient.

The evenings were spent telling stories long into the night by the dying embers of a fire. Jala spoke of many heroes of yore: Hrong Frost-tongue, the hulking mute Saviour of the Snowfox tribe; Byonar the Fierce, with his mane of red hair and flashing white teeth; sly old Daggerfingers the Swift.

In return, Freya related the tales of local legends: how a cobbler’s son came to marry a washerwoman who was secretly a wolf; how an intervention by the fairy folk once left a drunken lout with one foot three times the size of the other; how the great dragon Fairfax had slithered up from the South only to be slain by a beautiful princess with a chip on her shoulder.

Soon the awaited night had arrived. As the sun slipped below the horizon Freya led Jala by the hand, pulling her towards the gate with eager tugs. As they stood before the runes, Jala gripped her axe’s shaft tightly. She trusted not this magic. She grew more nervous as the moon crept ever higher.

Carved Viking Runes

“Look!”

Jala looked.

The runes had indeed begun to glow faintly. If Jala had been technically-minded, she might have supposed that some sort of luminescent paint had been employed. As it was, she was forced to concede that the runes were indeed glowing.

Any thoughts of fraud would have been driven from her mind within minutes, though, as the light of the runes grew ever more intense. Within a matter of minutes the runes were shining as brightly as any lantern ever did – and, stranger still, they had begun to move.

Freya watched with eyes wide in wonder as the runes re-arranged  themselves on the post. Letters twined their way through letters, words broke apart and scattered like leaves in the wind. Soon an entirely different set of runes were on display.

“I have to admit,” Jala whispered, “that’s quite impressive.”

“They’re beautiful,” said Freya. “What do they say?”

A moment passed.

“What do you mean, ‘What do they say’?” Jala asked slowly. ‘Can you not read them?’

“Well, no. I thought they’d change into a language I can read. I guess magic just isn’t convenient like that. Can you read them?”

 “Magic and the knowledge thereof is not my strong point. I can put an arrow in a stag’s eye from 600 paces and I can split a man’s shield with the best of them but alas, I cannot read these runes.”

“I can,” said a cheerful voice behind them.

The pair whipped around and beheld a strange sight. The speaker was a young man with curly hair and deep dimples. This is not what was strange about him. He was polishing an apple on his tunic and grinning merrily. This also was not what was strange about him. What was strange about him was his short stature – he was only as high as Freya’s knee. The apple he was attempting to eat was almost the size of his head.

“You can read the runes?” Freya asked. Jala dropped a hand to her shoulder, silencing her.

“Who are you?” she asked warily. “And where did you come from?”

What she wanted to ask was how he had snuck up behind her without her hearing him, but she felt it best not to reveal her disturbing lapse in awareness.

“Ooh, questions,” he said with a smile. “I like questions. Answers aren’t as interesting, but I do like questions. Questions like ‘I thought everyone in this settlement was killed or carried off?’. And also ‘why in the world would you want to read some silly old runes?'”

“How about, ‘How do I remove an axe from the side of my head without needing stitches?'” Jala growled, hefting her weapon. The little man gave a jolly laugh and bit into the apple.

“Now that is a good question,” he said through a mouthful of fruit. “Let’s not find out the answer to it, eh? They call me Tam, ‘they’ being my friends and ‘Tam’ being a nickname of sorts. As to where I came from, well that’s quite a story that I’m sure you’d love to hear another time. Time being a commodity of which you are running short if you’d like me to translate those runes for you.”

He pointed to the runes and Jala was alarmed to see them beginning to fade slightly already. No doubt the next step would be their return to their original wording, such as it was.

“I would of course be overjoyed, delirious even, to do so for you. Alas, as my dear departed father used to say to me nauseatingly often, ‘Son,’ for he was talking to me and I am his son, you see, ‘Son, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.’ He didn’t mean it literally, of course; I for one didn’t pay for this apple.”

“That apple can’t be your lunch, it’s night time,” said Freya.

“It’s lunch time for me,” said the little man. Then he unhinged his jaw and swallowed the rest of the apple whole.

Jala sank into a fighting stance and readied her weapon. Freya clutched at her wooden sword and stood firm by her. The little man chuckled, and Jala was alarmed to see his teeth were noticeably sharper than they had seemed earlier.

“What are you?” she growled.

“Hungry,” the little man replied, “and also, quite frankly, getting rather bored. I’ve no desire to tangle with you two lovelies; I’ve found in the past that I’m terribly allergic to axe wounds. They bring me up in terrible hives, you know. Quite distressing.”

“Leave,” Jala said flatly.

“Oh, but then you won’t know what the runes say! And their message is so terribly interesting as well. Are you sure-“

“Tam! Where the bloody hell have you been?”

Tam’s face sank as another tiny figure dropped from out of the trees. This one was a woman, dressed all in mousefurs and with a necklace of rodent skulls around her neck. She carried in one hand a spear which she used to knock Tam on the head with now.

“Are you bothering the large folk again? What have I told you about bothering the large folk?!”

“Sorry, ma,” whispered Tam sheepishly.

“You will be sorry, you great lump! Now get back to the forest and don’t you even think to-“

“Excuse me,” Freya said.

The little woman turned around and favoured her with a haughty glare.

“The little folk do not meddle in the affairs of the large folk,” she said decisively. “Whatever you want, be about it, and we’ll be about our own business.”

“We just need to know – what do the runes say? Can you read them as well?”

The woman looked up at the runes and squinted at them suspiciously.

“Mmm. My Dhelvish is rusty,” she admitted. “I think it says ‘You’ll find your heart’s desire at the town by the waterfall of fire.’ That’ll be two weeks South of here.”

As she turned to go, Tam piped up.

“No it doesn’t.”

“Shut up,” his mother suggested.

“It doesn’t,” he insisted, dodging a backhand. “It says ‘That which you seek is under the Fountain of the Meek.’ That’s in the woods off yonder,” he said with a wolfish grin. He yelped as his mother grabbed him by the ear.

“Pay him no mind,” she said, “he’s young and full of piss and vinegar, amongst other things.”

With that, she walked into the woods and promptly disappeared.

5 - The Riddle of the Runes

Voting will close at noon, Sunday June 9th. Can’t see a poll? Try a different browser or used high-powered telepathy to beam your choice directly into our brains.

The Waiting Game

Another session of voting has come to a close. Part 4 has seen the introduction of two new characters. One of which is a stoat, which is basically a ferret but more badass. Eerily the vote split is identical to the results for part 3. This is an omen of some sorts, of that I am sure. I have already set our best soothsayers to plumbing the mysterious depths of this turn of events. Now the Working Barbarian offices are covered in chicken entrails and I’m beginning to think I’ve made a terrible mistakes. It’s almost impossible to find a domestically responsible soothsayer in this day and age. But I digress.

4 - Within the Walls

By your auspices, Jala has decided to play the waiting game and see what arcane insights can be gleaned from the runes of Freya’s great-great-grandfather.What dread portents will they reveal? What advice will they offer? Where will they send  our hero next? You’ll have to visit again on June 3rd to find out.

Our next instalment will come from Sam Kurd adventurer extraordinaire. He will use his unique set of skills to plunder the words of great power from the tombs of long dead kings. He will steal words of the finest craftsmanship from the treasure rooms of foul tyrants. He will wade deep into the darkest jungles to pluck the ripe fruits of the mythical Story-Tree. And from these he will weave a tapestry of magic that will cloak your mind with wonderment and awe. It will be glorious. It will make you laugh. It will make you cry. It will make everything else in your life seem grey and empty by comparison. And if it doesn’t? Then you’ve probably been cursed and should seek the advice of your local witch-doctor, chirurgeon or alchymist at your early convenience. They’ve probably got a cream or unguent that’ll fix you right up. Or kill you stone dead. It’s a numbers game really.

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