The Working Barbarian

A Tale of Blood, Fire and Steel

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All Good Things

In the far distant south, past the fever swamps of Trolah and beyond even the Nightmare Mangroves of the Thrice Killed King, there lies is a range of hills at the very feet of the high-fells. A place still shrouded in a white mist that clings to the valleys like cobwebs. A place where the forests are as tall as they are dark and are far more ancient than man. It is an old place filled with old things; the grim spectres and shades of monsters which haunted and hunted man even before he had mastered fire or learned to speak. Only a fool ventures into these hills. For despite all of man’s might and pretensions at civilisation, the old things still hold sway and can still make you very, very dead. But amidst a night made of knives and teeth, a small clan have forged a life. They are a people of dusty brown skin and their tales say they were hewn from the foundation stones of the earth, back in the Old Time when the world was young. If you ever meet them, you would like as not agree with their tales. They spend their lives like coiled springs, filled with raw power, yet it is a power restrained and mastered, a power stored away until it needs to be used. They are lithe, and they are stout, they are quick and they are slow, they are murderous, yet they are also wise. They are people, perhaps here more so than any other race anywhere else. As if they were the first and we are all but shadows of their ancient grandeur. These people are the ones that the darkness first learned to fear, they are the fire makers and the wilderness-tamers. And it is these simple, yet mighty people who have a saying:

“To all things there is a season, A time to live by the sword, and a time to die by the sword; a time to give and a time to seize that which is before you; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to raise up heroes, and a time to tear them down and crush them unto dust; A time to love, and a time to hate; And after the time of war, there will be a time of peace. But for all things, there is a time to end.”

Chile_-_Cochamó_climbing_23_-_misty_mountains_(6873698866)

And so I am here to say that our saga is now at an end, at least for now. So The Working Barbarian is going on hiatus. But don’t worry, there are plans in the works and we will be back. After all we can hardly leave the end of the Lay of Jala unsung can we? Her inevitable confrontation with the Whelpslayer will find its way to your screens eventually. But for no we’re venturing off into the wilds and we may be some time…

Thanks for reading.

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Part 25 – Sandworms, Bloody Sandworms

Jala looked back and forth from the proffered hand to the impending battle.

“Well?” the voice prompted her from the gloom.

“Go out swinging,” the warrior replied, and – bone tired though she was – Jala drew her sword and joined the fray.

Image by Kekai Kotaki

Image by Kekai Kotaki

Sandworms, as most people know, are bad tempered, overweight, and fiercely territorial. If anything or anyone that is not another sandworm crosses their patch, they’re likely to find themselves on the wrong end of some pretty impressive tusks, to say nothing of their needle sharp teeth. However, they also have terrible eyesight and their size makes them clumsy and slow to react.

Jala found herself thanking the gods for sending her only a moderately challenging foe as she hacked and slashed her way through the line of beasts, easily ducking out of their line of sight to wreak havoc on their soft underbellies. As she ducked and weaved amongst them, doing her best not to ingest too much sand or blood as she went, medicinal waves of adrenaline rushed through her limbs and she found she felt almost herself again. Would it be inappropriate to whistle, she wondered briefly, as her blade sliced through the leathery hide of what she assumed to be the alpha male of the pack (it was the largest and tuskiest, and its near-blind eyes glared balefully at her in an unmistakable look of challenge). Stupid creature, she thought, as its blood splashed onto her cheek.

Out of the corner of her eye she could see that some of the guards from the party were making a pretty good effort but it was Jala, even in her slightly weakened state, who claimed the most heads. The battle was over in a matter of twenty minutes, with only one man dead and two minor maimings (a missing finger for one, a chunk of ear bitten off another). The worms had fared considerably worse.

“That was magnificent,” Hervel congratulated her as he crawled out from underneath the wagon where he had been hiding, “truly amazing. Have you faced sandworms before?”

“No,” she said vaguely, splashing water from the guildmeister’s lake on her face, “although there were some miner worms in chapter twelve.”

“What?”

“What? Nothing. Excuse me will you, I need to check something.”

She pushed past Hervel and strode towards the lakeside hut – or at least she would have, but it wasn’t there any longer. Evidently the mysterious voice had been serious about this being a once in a lifetime opportunity.

“Bloody meisters,” she grumbled, turning back towards the desert to look for Tim. He was standing slightly apart from the rest of the caravan, eyeing the pile of sandworm carcasses with an expression of distaste.

“What happened to the hut?” she asked him, slightly roughly.

“What hut?”

“The one beside your magical guildmeister lake,” she gestured towards the space where it had stood, “I assume your special friends must have magicked it up at the same time as the water as a place to take shelter from the desert sun or whatever.”

“There isn’t a hut,” Tim told her, “never has been. Generally speaking everyone travels across the desert by night because the heat by day is near unbearable, then sleeps in the wagons by day. A hut might not be such a bad idea though Jala, now you say it. Maybe I’ll mention it to my colleagues.”

Jala rubbed a hand across her eyes. “You do that,” she muttered. All of a sudden she felt very tired, and she’d just about had her fill of disembodied voices, mysterious magicks and people looking at her as though she’d suffered one too many blows to the head. Still, there was evidently nothing to be gained in pressing the point with Tim – and she still didn’t completely trust him. Maybe she could mention it to Kru later on. She headed towards the wagon that held their packs, crawled inside and stretched out on the floor to sleep.

*

She awoke in twilight, the wagon jolting awkwardly from side to side. Marek’s eyes gleamed in the shadows beside her head.

“We thought it best not to wake you,” he explained, “Kru and I. We’re on the move again, been riding for a few hours.”

“Uch,” Jala said, “I was hoping you might say days. This journey feels like it will never end.”

She pulled herself into a sitting position, then slid towards the back of the wagon to peer out behind them. A row of camels stared back at her, the expressions of their riders inscrutable behind the scarves that covered their noses and mouths.

Jala got to her feet and hurdled over the wagon door, then wheeled round to jog lightly alongside the caravan. Time to stretch out the stiffness, she thought, too much lying around convalescing was going to make her muscles lazy.

They made their way in silence for some time, thankful for the cool night air and the lack of breeze to whip sand against their faces. Jala lifted her face to the stars and felt almost peaceful under their watchful gaze. Just for one moment, she closed her eyes and felt the blue light dance on her lids. Then something cool and dry landed on her nose.

Jala opened her eyes again to see dozens of white flakes whirling through the air above her, looking just like snow. She raised her hands towards the flakes but they danced above her just out of reach and she almost laughed, some childish delight inside her awakened.

“Jala watch your step,” called Kru suddenly from somewhere to her right, just as the springy gold sand beneath her feet gave way to something finer and more shifting.

They crested a dune and came out suddenly over a valley starkly lit by the two full moons. Beneath them they could see the blackened skeleton of a city stretching out across the valley floor. Embers still smouldered in some of the wreckage. The snow wasn’t snow, Jala realised with a start – it was ash.

cairnobas

“What is this place?” she asked, looking down at where she stood and wondering what – or who – she might be walking on.

“Cairnobàs,” Hervel said grimly, appearing at her shoulder. “Or at least, that’s what it is known as now. They say the Whelpslayer killed all the children here and the families, wracked with vengeance and grief, laid waste to it and went after him that they might have their vengeance. They left it this way as a memorial, a promise of what was to come.”

“What happened to them?”

“Some were killed by the sandworms,” he said, “others perished in the crossing of the Darksiren Sea. The men of Cairnobàs were bad swimmers, doubtless because of their growing up in a city surrounded by dust and sand.

“The rumour is that the rest are prisoners of the Whelpslayer at Radgerock. He has no real taste for killing parents, as you can tell from his name he takes more satisfaction from disposing of chidren, so…”

“Spit it out,” Jala told him gruffly, though she thought she could guess what was coming.

“Well, most of the survivors were women,” Hervel continued awkwardly. “So the Whelpslayer has them regularly… interfered with by the guards. When they are with child they are removed from the confines of the dungeons and looked after properly, by servants and doctors and the like, so they can give birth in safety and survive the process too.”

“Right,” Jala said, “and it is only then, when they have survived another birth and started to feel kinship with the child, that the Whelpslayer kills the babes in front of them?”

From Hervel’s silence, she guessed she was right.

“That Magebane certainly had some strange loyalties,” Jala sighed.

“Still,” Hervel said brightly, “we have made good progress. See the cliffs beyond the city there? They mark the Ghormish territory, and the Gash is just beyond them. It shouldn’t take us more than two or three days to get there.”

“Three days?” Jala’s heart sank at the thought of more riding and walking, “is that all?”

As they came closer to the burnt shell of Cairnobàs they could almost feel the loss the city had faced – the air was thick with it. Some of the men in the caravan said they wanted to go around the edge, but that would add an extra day’s journey and Jala was determined not to prolong it any more than they had to. She found herself striding ahead, leading the way through this city of death as if unconcerned, even though every fibre of her being told her she was sullying ground that really should be left in peace. She didn’t have to turn back to look at the party to know all eyes were darting about in search of ghosts.

‘The last time I walked through an empty settlement like this I found Freya,’ she thought. ‘I hope there are no other children here in need of saving.’

But of course there wasn’t, that was the point. The Whelpslayer had murdered them all.

Looking up from her thoughts, Jala realised they were in what must once have been the city square. There was a ring of stones that would once have marked a well, although it was now filled with rubble and covered in a thick layer of ash. There were two half pillars, with flowers and vines carved into them – these must have been rather beautiful before they were destroyed. And behind them there was a wall almost intact, built from white stone and covered in strange writing.

The Star Witch leapt off her camel – rather nimbly, Jala noted, feeling slightly envious – and walked towards this wall, her robes leaving a trail in the ash.

“What is it, Kru?”

“These words were not written by any resident of Cairnobàs,” the witch told her, tracing the marks with a finger. “Perhaps our journey is not to go on as long as you feared. This is the work of the Heldrakai.”

“Very astute of you,” said Hervel, “there are not many left outside our sect that would recognise such words.”

He too had dismounted his camel, and as he advanced towards them he somehow seemed taller than he had at the start of their journey.

“You’re one of the Heldrakai?” Jala asked, quite unable to keep the disbelief out of her voice.

“Not yet,” he told her. “I am a necromancer in training only. I unquestioningly serve the Heldrakai and in return they teach me, but I am some way off achieving their greatness.”

“You serve them unquestioningly,” Kru echoed, “I wonder if that isn’t part of the reason they leave you behind.”

If Hervel was put out by this he didn’t show it. “I don’t think they’ll help you,” he said, not unkindly. “The people of this city asked for their aid and paid them dearly for it, too – but in the end the Whelpslayer got to them all.”

“We’ll see about that,” Jala told him, her hand instinctively caressing the hilt of her sword once again. “I can be very persuasive.”

“So can they,” Hervel said. He stepped back and Jala looked behind him in surprise as the rest of their traveling companions from the caravan stepped into the city square, looking less like the allies who had fought the sandworms and more like a foe. Moments later they had formed a horseshoe around Jala and Kru, with the scrawled-upon wall at their backs. Marek and Tim were nowhere to be seen.

One by one the guards removed the scarves around their faces to reveal skeletal features, sagging grey skin and in the case of the man who had lost a finger to a sandworm, no lower jaw. These were the Heldrakai, necromancers of the Ghormish Barrens, and they did not look to be in a helpful mood.

“Lay down The Bastard Sword, Jala daughter of Quyren.” The Heldrakai spoke as one, a sound like wind and horror and death that made her teeth ache.

“Lay down your weapon and come with us, and we will hear your story.”

“And if I refuse?”

The Heldrakai laughed, again as one entity, a scraping whisper that clawed at the back of her neck.

“If you refuse,” they whispered, “you will never hear Magebane’s final words. If you refuse, you will never discover the Whelpslayer, much less defeat him. And more than this, young barbarian steeped in blood and guilt, if you refuse, you will never learn why you hear the voice of your little friend Freya echoing in your dreams as if she were alive and by your side.”

“I see,” Jala said. She looked to Kru for guidance, but the witch’s face was an expressionless mask.

It looked like this decision was up to her.

25 - Sandworms, bloody sandworms

 The poll closed on Sunday 29th June at 12 noon. If you didn’t vote you must forever hold your peace.

It Awakens…

In the far and distant realms of the High North, the icy grasp of winter has finally relinquished its hold on the land. The snows have melted, shoots and buds of green life appear where once there had been only whiteness and death. Now that the passes are clear, we can at last depart from Working Barbarian Towers and retake our place in the world. That is our official excuse for being gone from your browsers for nigh on 4 months and we’re sticking to it. Our absence is most certainly not the result of a slide into indolence, or a growing affinity for the hedonistic joys of lying on the sofa like a loppy dog while pouring gallon upon gallon of tea into our collective faces. A warrior cares not for these things! So even if they might be entirely true and accurate, could you please just pretend we’ve been off fighting dragons or rival tribes of belligerent northerners? As a small gesture of our contrition, the next instalment will be a bumper two parter!

Since it’s been such a long while since the last instalment of Jala’s saga it’s more than likely that some, if not all of you, will have forgotten the deeds and events that have thus far transpired. But worry not my hale and hearty friends! The great Skaald James of Clayton has prepared something to jog your memories a little.

Read more…

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

To Dungeons Deep and Caverns Old

A flash of lightning splits the sky and tears cloud and air asunder. For when the Fates speak of judgement they do so in a many that could be considered by some as being overly grandiose. Perhaps even unnecessarily showy. But maybe that’s just how they get their kicks. That or they just know a guy who can get them meteorological pyrotechnics on the cheap. It’s probably six of one and half a dozen of t’other. But what is important is that the message has been delivered and the path of our heroes laid out before them. This is the narrative equivalent of sticking the post code into the satnav. Sure, you probably could change it, but you’ll have to start all over again, and navigate all those confusing menus. And nobody’s got time for that. It’s just too much faff, it’s easier to just stick with it now.

9 - Destinies in Sight

So our merry band of rag-tag misfits are setting off towards the Gruhzkär Mountains and the dead cities of the Dholvian Dwarves. Cities that are in no way anything like Moria. Maybe. Probably. Okay so it could conceivably end up being a bit Moria-esque. But that decision and power is out of my hands. That power lies in the hand of Nel Taylor. She is a figure shrouded in mystery. An unknown quantity. She is the first (of perhaps many) guest authors to be unleashed on our unsuspecting world and our equally unsuspecting heroes. If you seek to pierce this cloak of secrecy and shroud of textual darkness then check back on Monday 12th of August for the next exciting instalment of The Life and Times of The Working Barbarian. An instalment which will take us to cold and rocky spires, peaks and ravines of the Gruhzkär Mountains…

Gruhzkär Mountains

I just feel sorry for the poor sods who’re going to bump into the Krakens (Kraki?) and angry pirates or nest of giant spiders and the surly elves that were inevitably going to crop up on the other two paths.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

When you boil it all down to its bare and simplest components, so that you’re just left with the pure raw essence of what it is, life is nothing more than a series of choices. Some are good, some are bad, and for most you don’t have anywhere near all the facts to hand. So you’re forced to take a wild stab in the dark, or a leap of faith. Throughout life you go into innumerable decisions, more or less, completely blind. Rather unsurprisingly this gives rise to a plethora of unforeseen consequences; the mystery; the unknown; the veritable spice of life. And once a decisions or a choice is made, there’s no undoing it. Like it or lump in, you’re just going to have to live with it. That’s just the way things are.

Part 8 - The Star Witch Awakens

Jala made a choice. She decided that she was going to trust a woman who is perhaps best known for turning children into soup. Perhaps not the most prudent of decisions, but the Star Witch claims it’s all just a case of misunderstanding and institutionalised sexism. Which, if we’re honest, is a pretty reasonable excuse. Whether this turns out to have been a good choice? Only time will tell.

Part 9 of our ongoing saga will arrive upon your screens of scrying on Monday July 29th.  It will come from the acurséd quill of Warlock James Clayton. Recently returned from a dark and nefarious sojourn to the twisted, nightmare vista of the nether realm. What foul majicks have his journeyings yielded? What dread spell shall  he weave over our minds using nought but word and song?

Better come back next Monday and find out.

Part 8 – The Star Witch Awakens

Freya let the Star Witch’s words wash over her. The Star Witch. The actual Star Witch. She remembered the tales her mother used to tell her before bed. Tales of a foul and hideous hag who used to boil bad children into soup and make the crops go bad. Could she, Freya, the blacksmith’s daughter really loose the Star Witch on the world? But the Star Witch knew things. She knew about the runes, she knew about Jala, she said she could help them. Freya wasn’t a medicine woman or a shaman or anything. She still had niggling worries about Jala. Was the moss really going to help? Would she be okay? They’d only known each other for about a week but Jala had already done so much for her. For Jala, it was worth the risk.

“Fine, I’ll let you out.” Said Freya. The Star Witch smiled. “But only if you promise you’re not going to do anything evil.”

“I do not do evil little girl.” The Star Witch replied coldly.

“Promise!” Freya said in the most commanding voice she muster. The Star Witch sighed.

“I promise not to do anything evil. Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.” The Star Witch said wearily. “Satisfied?”

“It’ll do.” Said Freya crossing her arms and trying to look all stern and grown up.

“Now if you’d be so kind…” The Star Witch muttered impatiently, her head slowly turned, keeping her single solitary eye of fiery blue locked on Freya as she circled the box, looking for the best place to open it. There was anticipation in that cold stare.

Freya knelt at the edge of the strange and arcane box, braced her hands against the lid and began to push. At first nothing happened. The lid didn’t budge an inch, so she pushed harder. That was when the runes started to glow with the same blue light that seemed to permeate everything in the cave. The harder Freya pushed the brighter they became. She pushed with all the strength she possessed and the rune-light swelled to an eye-searing intensity. Then, suddenly, the runes winked out, their light gone and along with it, any trace of the runes themselves. Freya sat back, a look of abject confusion writ large over her young face. Her hands felt cold and gritty, like they were coated in a powdering of fresh snow. Before her eyes the box containing the Star Witch started to dissolve. The thick plates of icy glass turning to a fine snowy mist that was scattered away by a breeze which almost wasn’t even there. And then the box was no more. All that remained was the prone form of the Star Witch, though she did not remain prone for long. Almost as soon as the box had vanished her body began to rise as if on strings before pivoting upward until she stood, proud and tall on the table’s top. Her pale, greyish skin steamed in the cold air as it slowly warming into a blush of life. The flesh on her limbs grew thicker, her cheeks filled out and the gauntness of her deathless sleep left her face. She was no longer a desiccated husk. She looked like a living breathing thing. The phantom breeze that had blown away the box began to surge and storm, whipping and tearing at the fabric of her dress.

The Star Witch gazed down at Freya and smiled. But this was not the same smile she had given while she had been in the box, all full of predatory hunger. This smile was different. It was serene and genteel. The Star Witch raised her hand.

“I think it’s time we went outside, don’t you?” she asked.

Her palm flared with light and then room filled with the sound of thunder and shattering glass.

The Star Witch Awakens

Freya felt dizzy. Really dizzy. And her vision seemed all fuzzy and unclear. Slowly it came back, as if the world were coalescing around her. She found herself sprawled on the ground near where she had hidden Jala. She sat up and coughed, rubbing at her eyes and trying to work out what had just happened. The Star Witch stood hunched over Jala’s still sleeping form. She was muttering. Freya couldn’t hear all of what she was saying, but she caught snippets of chuckling “Moss. Ha! Never underestimate the power of moss”

“Is she going to be alright?” Asked Freya

“She will been fine.” The Star Witch replied “Eventually. But events have begun to move quickly. I can ill afford such a wait.”

The Star Witch passed her hand over Jala’s wounds, a gentle blue light emanating from her gnarled finger tips. The wounds closed and the flesh knitted together leaving only thin silver traces of the letters F and U. Jala began to stir and opened her eyes.

“I suspect you both have many questions.” Said the Star Witch, smoothing down her dress and sitting herself down, cross-legged on the ground.

“Who are you?” asked Jala sleepily.

“In the old tongue they called me Krung Nak To” she said looking at Jala’s uncomprehending face “The Star Witch. But you can call me Kru if you like.”

Jala stiffened slightly and her hand crept towards her sword. This jolted Marek from his stoaty sleep and he dashed over to Freya, hiding behind her legs.

“Oh simmer down. I mean you no harm. My reputation has been somewhat tarnished by the passage of the years. Heavens knows that the common folk simply cannot abide a woman of power, so the small-minded fools paint me as a banshee, a harbinger of doom and a general all-purpose bogeyman.”

“Freya…” Jala said, turning towards the young girl. “What’s going on?”

“I found her in a cave beneath the fountain.” She began “She said she’d help us if I let her out of her weird ice-coffin and ended her slumber.”

Jala’s brow furrowed with suspicion.

“Why were you asleep?” she asked.

“I am not as young as I once was” Kru sighed “Nor will I live forever. Things were quiet and my enemies vanquished. There were no more battles left to fight. I could have settled down to a quiet life and waited for death. Stars knows I was tempted. But instead I chose to sleep. Until the day came when I was needed again. When once more there were monsters to fight and dark forces to purge.”

“Why didn’t you get the Whore to wake you?” Jala asked.

“The inheritors of Ingunna have fallen from his lofty ideals of honour.” Began Kru “I would have been weak upon my awakening, and the Whores of this day and age are wicked and dark creatures. He could not have been trusted. So I did not permit him entry into my lair.”

“Tell me about the runes!” Interpreted Freya “You promised!”

“Yes. Yes I did” replied the Star Witch. “As you are aware the runes on the gates of your humble town were carved by your great-great-grandfather. What you do not truly know, is why. Your distant grandsire was a dear friend of mine, perhaps the dearest friend I have ever known. We travelled far and wide in our day, fighting many a great evil. It pained me to part from him, but he understood my reasonings. He knew that when I finally awoke he would be long dead and that there was the risk that the knowledge of my lair could be lost over time. That there would be no one left to wake me when evil’s cloak finally came and shrouded the land once more.” She paused, a sad and wistful look in her only eye.

“So he caved the runes upon the gates of your little town. They were to point the way. So that I could be awoken to fight whatever foe had reared its head.”

“But what about the Waterfall of Fire?” asked Freya “Why did the little wood lady mention that place if you were here?”

The Star Witch smiled knowingly.

“My lair is everywhere and nowhere, its true location a secret I have told no one. But…” she raised a finger, punctuating both her words and the air. “There are many entrances to it. If you know where to look that is.”

“Why the table with bones in it?” Freya asked, her curiosity bubbling straight out of her mouth.

“My, my. You’re just full of questions aren’t you?” Kru smiled again “It was a prize from the horde of some frost giants I slew long ago. I thought it pretty and amusing, in a macabre sort of way.”

Marek slowly edged out from behind Freya’s legs and towards the Star Witch and sniffed at the hem of her dress. Kru reached a gnarled and withered hand and gently scratched him behind the ear.

“But enough questions for now. It is only fitting a hero should receive some kind of reward for their labours: a mighty foe vanquished; a sleeping damsel rescued from her slumber.” She smiled again, her teeth sitting like tombstones in the ruined graveyard of her mouth.

“But what to give you?” She tapped at her chin in thought.

The Star Witch stood and ambled over to where Freya’s big wooden stick lay on the ground, the one she had used to save Jala. Kru picked it up and cast her baleful blue eye over it.

“Yes” she drawled as she picked up the stout wooden branch “This will do nicely.”

The air grew at first chill and then cold. A thin hoarfrost began to form on the surface of the branch. Soon it blossomed into a whole forest of jagged ice crystal. Through the field of frost Freya could see the wood began to darken from its natural brownish white. As the ice grew and thickened so did the wood darken until it was the colour of the blackest, darkest night, leaving the ice looking like shards of obsidian. The Star Witch pursed her lips and blew onto the staff. The ice flaked away, vanishing in flares of white fire. When the last shard of ice was gone what remained was a length of wood which looked like a living window into the night sky, complete with pinprick twinkles of cold starlight.

“This, young Freya, will serve you much better.” Said Kru, handing the stick to Freya.

“What does it do?” asked an awestruck Freya.

The Star Witch merely smiled

“You’ll see” she said and turned towards Jala.

“But what can I offer a brave and mighty barbarian of the distant north?” Kru let the question hang in the air. “What do you want Jala?”

Jala bit her lip and thought. What did she want? What did she really, really want? There was really only one answer to that sort of question.

“I want to find my destiny” Jala replied sternly

The Star Witch folded her arms in front of her and looked Jala up and down. Her eye weighed Jala, judged her, appraised her.

“Are you willing to trust me?” she asked.

Part 8 - The Star Witch Awakens

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Part 7 – What Freya Did Next

Freya considered Jala’s prone form – there really was an astonishing amount of blood trickling out of the fu-shaped cut made by The Whore of Knives.  Freya was under no illusion as to the identity of Jala’s assailant – The Whore was in all the most frightening legends and bedtime stories and he was described in detail – the matted bearskin, the knives at his waist, the mad, staring eyes.  And she, Freya, had bested him in a fight!  Well, she’d helped Jala to do it, at any rate.  What a great story that would make – if only any of her people had been left alive to hear it.

She had been avoiding thinking about all that, but seeing Jala lying there brought it all back – the screams of anguish, their cold faces, her mother’s tears as she bundled her into the safest space she could think of.

‘Not you as well,’ Freya whispered fiercely.

Jala did not respond, for she was preoccupied with slipping in and out of consciousness, hands pushing vainly at the gashes on her stomach and arm.

Freya remembered the words of the Wise Woman – and Jala’s scorn on hearing those words.  You might not be able to cure shingles or tooth rot with moss, Freya reasoned, but you could surely use it to staunch an open wound.

She set down her pack and scampered off into the trees, taking care to always stay within sight of Jala.  She pulled up moss from trees and rocks and ground, holding out her smock before her to gather it all together.  It was less than a minute before she had enough, for as we have heard, it was a very mossy wood.

Kneeling beside the barbarian, Freya set to packing her wounds full of the soft green fauna.  As she worked, Jala’s breathing became more regular and a little colour returned to her cheeks.  Freya removed her mother’s cape and placed it over her friend to keep her warm.

‘Now all we can do is wait,’ Freya told Marek, ‘she needs to rest.’

But waiting was not Freya’s forte, and soon she felt an itching in her toes as if they wanted her to be off again.  Her attention kept returning to the fountain, to the opening that led underneath.

‘Jala?’

There was a snore.  This satisfied Freya that her friend was on the mend – once she had slept this off she’d probably be as right as rain.  Barbarians are made of tougher stuff than Southern folk, this much Freya knew.

Freya got to her feet, and approached the slain Whore of Knives.  The helm had been knocked from his head at Jala’s final sword stroke and his dead eyes stared blankly up at her, black blood congealed around his nose and mouth.

She tugged at the clasp holding the bearskin around his shoulders. It was spotted with a thick reddish residue which she hoped was rust as she successfully pulled it free and placed it in her pocket.  Then she pulled the skin itself, hard.  It took a good deal of effort to maneuvre it from underneath the man, for he was heavy and death made him more so – but she persevered.  When at last she held the prize in her arms she turned quickly away, for the Whore’s head now faced in one direction whilst his body faced the opposite way.  Jala’s last stroke had severed every tendon and bone.

Freya climbed up onto the fallen tree that lay over the entrance to the fountain, and hung the bearskin over the outstretched roots so it fell like the curtain that separated her family home into two rooms.  Content that it was secure, she pulled the sleeping Jala slowly into the hollow, so she would be warm and concealed.

Then she turned her attention to the tunnel.

‘That which you seek is under the Fountain of the Meek,’ she said into the darkness.  ‘But how far under do I have to go?’

She peered around the bearskin curtain one last time.  Jala stirred in her sleep, muttering something that might have been ‘beware of Gütte Ragworm’ – which is sound advice, which you would do well to remember.  ‘Dreaming of the old times,’ Freya murmured, wondering whether that was a good sign or one of fever and delirium.

‘I’ll just have a quick look, Jala,’ Freya whispered, ‘scout out the situation.  I’ll be back before you wake, most likely.’

‘Got you, Ragworm,’ Jala murmured in response.

‘Keep an eye on her, Marek,’ Freya instructed.  The young stoat looked relieved to be staying above ground – he had always been a little afraid of the dark – and curled himself obediently at Jala’s feet.

InjuredJala

The entrance to the tunnel was narrow and low, so even Freya had to stoop to get through it.  A fully-grown adult like Jala would have to crawl.

Inside the temperature abruptly dropped very low, and the further Freya went the colder it got.  The tunnel sloped deep down under the ground, gently at first and then with increasing steepness.  There was a light source coming from somewhere, but it was very faint and Freya could only make out the vaguest of shapes.  She stretched her arms out in front of her for balance, and soon developed a system of trailing her right hand along the wall to keep herself oriented.

She had been walking about ten minutes when the crumbly earth at her fingertips gave way to a thin covering of icy coldness.  Another five, and the sloping floor beneath her feet began to level off, at the same time becoming smooth and frozen.  She carefully picked her way across the floor, gritting her teeth at the cold that soaked up through her heels and settled itself in her bones.

The ceiling was now much higher, so she could walk upright and look around her more.  As Freya squinted at her surroundings she could identify tiny points of bluish light trapped in the ice around her.  These were beautiful, but ominous somehow.  She felt like they were watching her.

At length, the ice tunnel led her into an underground cave so exquisitely beautiful it stole the breath from her lungs.

The walls were curved and smooth, and glittered as though the ice itself was filled with starlight.  Someone had carved furniture out of the icy floor and polished to look like crystal, although when she touched the back of a chair she knew it was definitely ice.

In the centre of the cave stood a grand table covered in intricate carvings of planets and stars.  On top of it there was a long rectangular box formed from frosty silver ice.  As she approached she saw the table was almost taller than her.  She wondered, with no small amount of trepidation, if it might be a banquet table for ice giants.  To wake an ice giant would be to wreak havoc on the surface above, for they have ways of controlling the weather.

Still, something urged her forward and she found herself examining the carvings on the table leg – they were so intricately done, would ice giants be able to create something so delicate? – then she leapt back in horror.

Trapped inside the table, silver and ivory and very human looking, were femurs and tibias and the tiniest finger bones.

‘Don’t be afraid,’ said a voice that seemed to come from all around her – which naturally made her feel entirely afraid.  ‘Come closer, let me see you.’

Freya remained motionless, her gaze pointed upwards at the icy box on the great table.  As she stared, she thought she could make out a figure lying inside.

Knowing how stupid this must surely be and yet unable to prevent herself, she stepped towards the table again, standing on tiptoe to peer into the box on the surface.  The ice remained cloudy and she could barely discern the shape within – when suddenly a head swiveled round and Freya found herself fixed in the gaze of one blue eye.

Her first instinct was to scream, but the cold of the cave plucked the sound from her throat.

‘Hello,’ said the owner of the eye, ‘have you come to free me?’

Freya had a strong feeling that the owners of the bones had probably had a go at freeing the owner of this strangely hypnotic voice.

‘Who are you?’ she asked, hoping she sounded braver than she felt.  ‘Are you an ice giant?’

The creature in the box laughed, a thin sound like wind through branches on a long dead tree.

‘Who am I, she asks!  You come into my home uninvited, and you do not even know my name.’

The eye stared at Freya, unblinking and intensely blue.

‘Let me out, and I will tell you who I am.’

‘No,’ Freya replied, but even as she said it she found herself clambering up onto the icy table, as easy as scaling the tree by the fountain to make a hiding place for Jala.

Standing on the table, she gazed through the lid of the casket.  The figure within was a woman, dressed in a blue robe trimmed with silver lace.  She had long white hair reaching to her feet, and gnarled hands clasped around a sceptre of ice.  The blue eye staring out at Freya was the only one in her head, the space where the other eye ought to be a scarred socket.

Around the edge of the casket lid were carved runes, similar to the ones in the gate back home. As Freya watched, they began to glow silver.

‘That which you seek is under the Fountain of the Meek,’ the woman crooned.  ‘Let me out of here, young one.  I can tell you what happened back there, and I can help your barbarian friend to find what it is she is looking for.’

‘You’re lying,’ Freya said flatly, although she made no move to go.  ‘I know who you are now, and you cannot be trusted.’

The woman cackled, ‘is that so?  Who is it you think I am, then?’

‘You are the Star Witch,’ Freya said, ‘you eat children and stars and all that is good in the world.  Our parents tell us stories about you to get us to behave.’

‘I’ll bet they do,’ the witch replied, pleased.  ‘Go to bed or the Star Witch will eat your soul, that sort of thing?’

‘That’s about right,’ Freya agreed.  ‘And those stories must come from somewhere.’

‘People make up stories to frighten children all the time,’ the Star Witch replied, ‘and to explain the things they can’t understand.  People, as I suspect you saw when your village died, are frightened and stupid and need stories to hide behind.  I am a victim of storytellers, that is all.’

Freya thought of the bones encased in the table.

‘The table was made by the giants, not me,’ the witch said, as thought she had read Freya’s thoughts.  ‘They use bone magic to trap people.  Primitive magic, if you ask me.’

‘I didn’t ask you.’

‘No,’ the witch smiled, ‘I suppose you didn’t.’

starwitch

‘How long have you been in this box?’  Freya asked, eyeing the softly glowing runes.

‘Two hundred years, give or take.  I haven’t been counting.’

‘How did the same runes end up on the gate of my village?’

‘Ah,’ the witch said, ‘that would be telling.’

‘That’s why I asked.’

‘Well, I shan’t tell you unless you agree to let me out,’ the witch told her. ‘If you do this, you will not find me ungrateful.  I can help you and your friend, you know.’

She smiled, revealing a row of cracked black teeth.

‘So.  What do you say?’

Part 7 - What Freya Did NextVoting closed at noon BST 7th July 2013

If You Go Down to the Woods Today…

Once more the Gods of Old have rolled their dice and the fate of Jala has been made to dance to their whims. The riddle of the runes is behind her. Whether her choice was the correct one remains to be seen. The decrees of fate were less than unanimous. Only a single vote decided tipped the scales in a decisive direction and shifted us away from dead-lock. Clearly it was not an easy decision to make, and even with it made the future remains in flux; a roiling sea of possibilities; a frothy squall of potentia.

5 - The Riddle of the Runes

The 17th of June shall herald Jala’s departure into the woods in search of the fountain of which the diminutive creature spoke. What awaits Jala there? Who can really be sure? Only time will tell.

Our next instalment comes from the pen of Andrew Blair dread Warlord of the far and distant north. His horde of ravaging berserkers will sack the greatest and mightiest of cities, carrying off their most prized literary work and most prolific and skilled wordsmiths. They will be dragged by his band of terrible warriors beyond the mountains to the lost and forbidden word mines of the Old Empire. Here the wordsmiths will be clapped in irons, chained to writing desks and under the brutal ministrations of heartless overseers, be forced to create fiction to bring glory and power to the Clan of Blair. At least until Amnesty International here about it and start and aggressive leafleting campaign to bring him to justice.

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

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