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He growled with rage and restrained fear. It seemed that he had survived the dragon's jaws only to be taken by the sea daemons. Then iron-strong fingers clamped on his wrist. Enormous strength fought against the power of the sea. Then the water was gone. In a moment Ragnar floundered on the deck, saved by the stranger who had banished the dragon. Nor is it yours, I think. He stood there gazing forward like some elder god. Filled with fear and a strange superstitious reverence, Ragnar made his way to the place where his father stood.
Looking up he saw understanding there. Ragnar knew no further explanation was necessary. As if the killing of the dragon had broken an evil spell, the sea began to calm.
Mere hours later, it was as smooth as glass and the measured beat of the oarmaster's drum was the only sound save the quiet sloshing of the waves against the ship's hull. The stranger still stood at the prow, as if keeping guard against the daemons of the sea. He scanned the far horizon, shading his eyes with one gnarled hand, seeking something only he could see.
Overhead the sun beat down. It was not the pale small sphere of winter. Now it was a huge fiery orb that filled the sky with its golden light. The Eye of Russ was fully open, surveying his chosen people as they endured the terrors of Fenris's long hard summer.
The remaining water steamed from the decks under its gaze. The warriors were quiet. Awe had overcome them. There was none of the usual chat and boasting that one would normally hear from those who had survived such a terrible storm. There was none of the mirth or the singing either. Ragnar's father had not ordered the ale cask broached in celebration. A reverence that was close to terror seemed to have taken hold of the crew.
Ragnar could easily understand why. They had seen the stranger dispatch a dragon by the power of his spells. With a blast of his magic he had destroyed one of the terrors of the deep.
With his gaze he had pacified the storm. Was there nothing he could not do? Still there were questions here, Ragnar thought. If the stranger were so powerful why had he needed to hire their ship, paying in precious iron and promising more, to get to his destination? Why had he not used sorcery? Surely he could have used his mastery of the runes to summon a skyship or a winged wolf to carry him to his goal.
Was there some sinister ulterior motive to this journey?
Ragnar tried to dismiss this thought. Perhaps the sorcerer had earned the enmity of the storm daemons and could not fly. Perhaps his lore mastery did not run to control of such runes. How was Ragnar to know? He had no knowledge of spellcraft, nor had anyone he knew, except the Thunderfist's old skald, Imogrim, and he had looked on the stranger with superstitious awe and refused to say anything of him, except to tell his people that the stranger must be obeyed.
Ragnar doubted that even the superstitious awe that surrounded the stranger like a cloak would have made any of his people undertake this voyage if the skald had not recommended it. Their destination, the island of the Iron Masters, was shunned by all the sea folk except during the season of trade, during the spring.
The last spring had ended over five hundred days ago and the trade time was long gone. Who knew how the mysterious smiths of the islands would welcome strangers now? They kept themselves to themselves mostly and defended their mines of precious iron the way a troll guards its hoard. Still, Ragnar wondered, if the stranger had demanded to be taken, even without his handsome payment, could they have refused him?
Ragnar doubted that even the entire village of brave Thunderfist warriors could stand against the magic the stranger had shown. Ragnar doubted that their weapons could even pierce the second skin of metal that surrounded his body. There was something fascinating about the old man, and Ragnar longed to talk with him and question him. The stranger had saved him and spoken to him and surely that must mean something. Even so, Ragnar stood rooted to the deck. The idea of talking to the sorcerer was more intimidating than facing the jaws of the dragon.
He remained frozen for a moment then mustered all his resolve. Don't be foolish, he told himself. You have not even thanked him for saving your life.
Silently Ragnar walked forward. Cautious as a man stalking a wild goat, he advanced towards the prow of the ship.
Ragnar froze in shock. Here was yet more proof of the stranger's sorcerous powers. Ragnar knew that he had moved quietly. His feet had made no sound on the deck. He was considered a great hunter among his people. Yet the stranger had known he was there, and he was Ragnar, without even turning his head.
Ragnar felt assured that he must possess something akin to the second sight. There was no anger in his voice, just authority. He sounded like a man who was used to having his own way. There was something odd about his speech too. He spoke very slowly, and his accent was antiquated. It reminded Ragnar of the way the skald would speak when quoting the epics of Russ and the All Father.
It seemed to Ragnar that this old man might have stepped straight from one of those sagas. There was a quality about him that one of the old heroes might possess. There was something strange about the old man's face, he realised. It was long and feral, the nose was huge with massive flared nostrils. The leathery skin sunken over his cheeks gave him an even more wolf-like appearance.
And what was the significance of those three studs set into his forehead, Ragnar wondered? And how had they got there? Among his own people, he could think of no way of doing such a thing that would not result in gangrene and the spirits of infection setting in. How could the stranger possibly know that, Ragnar wondered.
The stranger was silent for a while, and Ragnar feared that he was not going to answer. Just then the sorcerer pointed. Ragnar could see that his finger was shod in metal, and reflected the sunlight. He looked at what the stranger was pointing to and caught his breath. Ahead of them mighty peaks rose over the horizon, a great battlement of spears that pierced the clouds. The walls of the peaks were white and something like ice glittered along their slopes even where they flowed down into the sea.
The stranger had all but admitted that he was a supernatural entity. No man of Fenris, not even the oldest greybeard, lived more than thirty-five years. The stranger shook his head and grinned down at Ragnar with those alarming fangs.
Ragnar said nothing, merely looked at him and then at those distant mountains. Bear to starboard and follow the coast. We will get to our destination the sooner. For the next two days they sailed along the coast of Asaheim. Two days of quiet seas and cold winds, and a stillness broken only by the crash of huge chunks of ice falling from the mountains and drifting out to sea.
This was indeed Asaheim to the north of them, the place where the great icebergs were birthed, the frozen land from which the icy floating mountains came. Overhead, mighty sea eagles soared and occasionally the men spotted the spouts of the great orca herds as they rose from the cold, pure waters.
They passed the mouths of great fjords, places of astonishing beauty, and sometimes saw the stone villages of the people of the glacier perched high on their slopes. They rowed swiftly then, for the folk of the fjords were fierce, some said troll-blooded, and were rumoured to devour their prisoners rather than taking them thrall.
Such a fate made even the sea daemons' clutches seem tempting. During the whole time they passed the coast, the stranger never left his post at the ship's prow.
At sunset he stood there limned by the Eye of Russ's dying rays. At dawn he would still be there, as the daywatch arose. Ragnar talked with the night watch and was not surprised at all when they told him the stranger had not slept. If he felt any weariness, the stranger showed no sign. His eyes remained as clear and bright as they had the day of the battle with the dragon.
Ragnar had no idea why he watched, he merely felt glad that the old man did so. While he stood guard, Ragnar felt that no evil could touch them. Then once more the land fell away behind them, and they were on the open sea.
The weather remained favourable. The stranger sniffed the wind and pronounced that the sea would remain quiet until they reached their destination. As if afraid to disobey him the sea complied.
After two days at sea, they saw smoke ahead of them, and fires lit the night sky. The men prayed to Russ in superstitious awe, but were afraid he would not hear them. They knew they were entering an area sacred to the fire giants, and here Russ and the All Father held little sway. The next day, as they approached the islands, Ragnar could see that they were afire. Their tops blazed. The molten orange spittle of the fire giants ran down their black sides and sizzled and steamed as it entered the water.
The roaring of the imprisoned giants made them shake. Filled with trepidation, Ragnar approached the sorcerer once more. He was reassured to see that the ancient showed no signs of fear, merely a quiet pleasure and a certain sadness, like that of a man who has been enjoying a journey and is not looking forward to its end. Despite his fear, he was excited. Never before had he sailed this far with his father. His curiosity overcoming his reverence. The stranger looked down at him and smiled.
He did not seem displeased by the question. Russ did not bind them. No one could. Not even the Emperor - the All Father himself - in the days of his glory. After all, Russ had fought them in the dawn ages before he had banished his people from Asaheim. He was surprised to be told that they had been born millions of leagues away. It was a distance he could not conceive. For you have no idea of its true significance.
If it is your destiny to know such things, you will find them out soon enough. To his surprise the stranger merely laughed. Ahead of them dark clouds rose, and the sea was stained an oily black. To the west, the mountain shook, and a huge jet of fire emerged from its tip.
Ragnar looked at his Wolfbrother and shook his head. He was forced to admit that he had not. The harbour was vast and strange, a huge deft in the black cliffs which led to a massive lake enclosed by a black beach.
There was room enough there for a thousand dragonships to dock at once without it ever being crowded, and Ragnar knew that during the trade time it was so. People came from all across the great ocean to barter for axe heads, spear points and all manner of metal goods. It was not the sheer scale of the harbour that held Ragnar's attention so raptly. It was the buildings that surrounded it. The smallest of them was twice the size of the great long hall back home, which was the largest structure Ragnar had seen in his whole life.
Much more strange was the fact that they were built from stone. Stone, thought Ragnar and shuddered. It was near inconceivable. What if one of the great earthquakes came and sent them tumbling to the ground? Would not everyone inside be crushed to bloody pulp by the avalanche of falling rock? Those huge sootblackened structures were death traps. Everyone knew it was only sensible to build a house as you would build a dragonship from dragonhide leather around a frame of dragonbone.
Or for sacred structures you might consider using precious wood, though it might burn if an oil lantern got tumbled in the quake. Ragnar had seen such things happen. Everyone had. The islands of Fenris were unstable and had been since before Russ had led his chosen people here. It was madness to build out of stone but these people had.
And not just from stone piled upon stone, the way you might make a drystone dyke. No, these buildings were made from huge blocks of dressed rock, carved into perfect cubes and placed in interlocking patterns.
And judging by the great layers of soot encrusted on the buildings and the blackened moss on their sides, these structures were ancient. They looked old, weather-worn, like the most ancient runestones in the great ring atop Thunder Mountain. And the skald claimed those had been there since the dawn of time. It was not just one huge building but there were hundreds of them, some large as hills.
Through the roofs of others protruded mighty chimneys from which black smoke belched and giant flares of flame gouted. These people assuredly did not fear fire either. They must be mighty magicians indeed, not to fear the trembling of the earth or the threat of fire. And how had they built these enormous halls? Did they use magic to sing the stones into place?
Or did they make their captive daemon thralls do all the work? The power and skill at work here was awe-inspiring. Still, Ragnar was not sure he would have liked to live here.
The air tasted foul and acrid with the same chemical stink that came from the tanneries back home, only magnified and a thousand times worse.
Billows of soot like black snowflakes drifted through the air and settled in their hair and clothing. The water was an odd colour, black and viscous-looking in some places, in others coloured red or green by effluents belched out of the black pipes that ran all the way to the harbour. It was a tower built all of iron, one of the most precious of metals.
It rose from the water's edge. Looking at it closely, Ragnar could see the construction was odd. It was not solid. It was like a latticework of metal beams, like the skeleton around which a hall would be built. Except that here there was no dragonhide stretched around it. The frame was open to the air and to the elements, and you could see the intricate machinery it enclosed. There were huge cogwheels and great metal arms that rose up and down in a regular rhythmic movement like the pulsing of a great heart.
Black stuff, liquid and slimy, bubbled from pipes on the tip of the tower and rolled down long tubes to be gathered in wooden vats around the base.
Small figures moved around constantly shifting the vats and emptying them with buckets. It was at once the oddest, most impressive and most baffling structure Ragnar had ever seen.
They will be for many more. The concept was awesome. A land which did not constantly shake and quiver like a leashed beast. A place where there was no threat of the earth opening and swallowing you. A haven from the greatest and most commonplace of all the disasters that afflicted Russ's people.
Could the inhabitants of these islands really be so blessed? Another thought struck Ragnar, the natural thought that would occur to any of his war-like people. The clans would kill to own such a safe haven.
How have these people survived for so long without being overwhelmed? You'll see soon enough. It was amplified by the metal bullhorn he held in his hand that made it sound even flatter.
Ragnar gazed in wonder at the ships that had moved out from the island to meet them. Suddenly he felt very afraid. Truly here were vessels of great sorcery. The ships had no sails and were made of metal. How was it that they did not sink like stone? And what propelled them? Bound fire elementals? Perhaps that was why smoke billowed from the chimney at the rear of the ship. Such a thing seemed like an affront to the sea daemons but quite obviously it worked.
Perhaps some odd pact had been made… Before Ragnar's father could reply, the sorcerer bounded up onto the prow and extended an army in greeting. They have brought me here at my request. I would have speech with the Ironmaster. Several figures huddled together in consultation before the speaker raised his bullhorn again.
Are you some sea-ghost risen from the waters? Ragnar could hear men move uneasily on their oarbenches. The sorcerer's great booming laugh roared out over the water. Do I sound like a ghost? Will my boot feel like that of a ghost when I kick your arse for your impudence? Bring your companions and we will feast. Without turning it reversed direction and began to move backwards to the shore, all the while keeping the dragonship in sight.
The beat of the oarmaster's drum made the Spear of Russ spring to life as it made its way to dock. Ragnar followed the Wolf Priest, if that was his title, through the streets, uncertain of quite why he was doing so, but determined to accompany him and ask questions for he never knew if he would get another such opportunity in this lifetime.
The rest of the crew had gone to wait in a dockside tavern or scattered to wander the streets. Ragnar was on his own with the sorcerer. Ragnar walked through streets covered in cobbled stones, through a maze of sooty buildings and cramped alleyways.
The air tasted foul with the smell of smoke and acrid alchemical odours. The people were strange and new to him and talked in a dialect he did not understand.
Many seemed small and hunched and undernourished. They were clad in tunics and britches of drab grey and brown and they carried no weapons. They collected scraps in the streets and hurried along bearing burdens and performing errands.
Even here, on these islands rich with metal, there was poverty. The rulers of the island were fewer and richer. All of them were garbed in metal armour and all of them carried blades of steel in scabbards of dragonhide leather. They were tall men, well-made, with dark skins and brown eyes. They nodded to him with distant politeness as he passed, and he responded in kind. Ask away. Or really, why did you pay us to bring you here?
Could you not have used your magic instead? Not in the sense you mean. The ''talisman'' as you call it was a weapon, like an axe or a spear, only more… complicated. I know some you would call magicians, boy, and I would not change places with them for all the iron on these islands.
It seemed evident that the old man would say no more. Ragnar was absolutely certain that Ranek's iron talisman represented a powerful magic, whatever the Wolf Priest might say. They trudged on through the streets, past open shopfronts. Looking inside Ragnar could see that they were workshops filled with forges.
The shadows of their interiors were brightened by the glow of red-hot metal. He could hear the clang of hammer on anvil and knew that it was in these places that the goods of the Iron Masters were made. Ragnar saw everyone turn to look at them, then make the sign of the hammer and look away. I was on a mission. There was an accident.
My vessel was destroyed. I needed to get back here and make contact with my… brethren. To cross such an enormous distance quickly I needed your father's ship, and for his aid he will be rewarded. Everyone on the islands worships Russ and the All Father. Not today.
It was rimmed around with massive buildings. Each was so broad as to seem squat even though it towered ten times the height of a man. The walls were carved in an odd fashion. Each of the massive stone blocks was carved with interlocking cogwheels. Metal pipes flowed in and out through the stonework, like clusters of huge worms emerging from the earth and plunging back in again.
Soot blackened the walls, and from the pipes effluent had leaked in the past, staining the walls beneath with great blotches the colour of rust. The smell of smoke and hot metal smote Ragnar's nostrils.
He wondered whether he was the only person in the whole teeming throng that minded the noise and the stink. They strode across the square to the largest of the huge structures. It was a squat, massive fortress but it dwarfed all the surrounding buildings. Arrow slits glared out from its walls like the eyes of a hungry beast. High atop the building was a great metal flower, as large as a dragonship.
Ragnar could not begin to guess at its purpose. Great metal-bound doors barred the way forward at the head of the ramp. Ragnar could tell by the smoothness and the indentations that many feet had passed this way over hundreds of years. Strange runes, most unlike any Ragnar had ever seen, were inscribed over its archway. Two sentries armed with metal tipped harpoons guarded the way.
They seemed as if they were made of metal. Iron armour covered them like a second skin. Metal helmets guarded their heads. Shields of steel marked with the same runes as those above the door hung from their left arms.
The old man's head swung swiftly to look down at him. The keen eyes bored in Ragnar's own. This close Ragnar realised how big the Wolf Priest was. He was considered tall and well-made among his folk but compared to this old man he was but the size of a child.
Ranek was head and shoulders taller than he and would have been far more massive even without the odd armour that encased his body. There are no others like them on all the islands of the Great Ocean. They are a people apart. Surely they could achieve it? Conquest is not their way. They fight only to defend themselves.
It is part of the Ancient Pact. I must go. The old man turned and looked down at him. There was an odd look in his eye. Pray that we never meet again.
For if we do, it will be on a day of doom for you. The words were uttered with all the force of a prophesy. Will you kill me? Ragnar watched the old man stride up the ramp. As he did so, the great doors swung open soundlessly.
He was greeted by a hunched figure garbed all in black robes, its face obscured by a metal mask. Ragnar watched him vanish into the gloom and then stood bemused for long minutes. After a while he heard a humming grinding noise. The great flower on top of the building had started to move, to face away towards distant Asaheim. As he watched in wonder, its metal petals unfurled.
In the centre lights pulsed eerily. Ragnar was not sure what this magic meant but he was sure it had something to do with the old sorcerer. Left by himself in the huge square, something like panic seized Ragnar. He turned and hurried back to the docks. The drumbeat sounded loud in Ragnar's ears as the Spear of Russ pulled out of the dark waters of the Iron Masters' harbour into the open sea.
He breathed deeply of the clean fresh air and smiled, glad to have left the foul and polluted town behind. The islanders may have been rich, he thought, but they lived in a way that seemed less healthy than the lowliest of thralls. At the rear of the dragonship lay a cargo of iron axe and spearheads, wrapped all in dragongut to protect them from the corrosive effects of the sea. They represented huge wealth to the Thunderfist clan, and Ragnar was proud to have been part of the voyage that had won it.
Still, there was something worrying about it too. He suspected good fortune, and he believed the old adage that the gods made men pay for their gifts. None of the others aboard seemed to share his concern. They sang cheerful drinking songs, relieved to be out of the harbour and no longer to have the Wolf Priest aboard. Much as they had respected and been in awe of him, his presence had damped all of their spirits. Now, they joked and told tales of the events of the voyage. They ate their salted beef jerky happily and drank stoops of ale with glee.
Laughter echoed across the deck and it woke an answering joy in Ragnar's heart. Suddenly there was a boom like thunder. Ragnar looked up in fear. There was not a dark cloud in the sky and no sign of a storm. There was absolutely no reason for the noise.
His keen eyes scanned the horizon looking for the source. All around him the laughter stopped and he heard prayers being offered up to Russ for his protection. In the distance, coming from the direction of Asaheim he saw it. It was little more than a black dot in the distance. It left behind it a white contrail like that of a meteor in the night sky, only this was broad daylight, and the trail was a white line written on the pale blue of the sky.
Even as he watched, the dot turned and swerved towards them, and began to grow with appalling speed. The curses and prayers grew louder, and men reached for their weapons. Ragnar kept his eyes fixed on the dot, wondering what it was. He could see now that it had two wings, like those of a bird, only they did not move. What sort of monster was it? A dragon? A wyvern? Some daemon conjured up by fell magic?
No, it did not appear to be anything like a living thing. As it came closer he could see that it was much more like one of those iron vessels in the harbour behind them. His mind reeled. Just as it seemed impossible that those things could float, it was surely impossible for this thing to fly. And yet it quite obviously was doing so.
There was no way he could disbelieve his own eyes.
And the loud thundercrack boom had stopped, to be replaced by a wailing roar like the call of a thousand lost souls in torment.
The thing was flying low and he could see the wind of its passage was whipping up the sea below it, churning the waves to foam. It appeared to be coming right at them now, and Ragnar wondered whether they had done something to anger the gods. Perhaps this terrible apparition had been sent to destroy them. It passed almost directly overhead. Looking at it from below Ragnar could see that it was some sort of metal vehicle, a winged cruciform with the shape of an eagle painted on its sides and wings.
For a moment he thought he caught sight of windows in its front, and human faces looking out, but he dismissed that thought as a momentary aberration. Looking back as it passed he saw flames licked from its rear like the breath of a dragon. It screamed off into the distance towards the island of the Iron Masters and there it halted, great jets of flame belching forward.
It hovered in the air above the Iron Temple for a moment and Ragnar watched breathlessly, not knowing quite what to expect. Half wondering whether it would destroy the town with its flames, half believing that he was about to witness some strange and appalling magic.
No such thing happened. The vehicle slowly settled on the roof of the Iron Temple. Everyone watched silently wondering what would happen next.
No one spoke. Ragnar could hear his heart beating loudly in his chest. Five minutes later the metal bird rose into the sky once more and hurtled back in the direction it had come. As it passed over them, it waggled its wings as if in salute. Suddenly, somehow, Ragnar knew that Ranek the Wolf Priest had found new transportation to take him wherever it was he wanted to go.
Everyone on the Spear of Russ was silent for hours afterwards. This was stupid, he told himself. He was a man now. He had taken his oath of loyalty to the ancestor spirits on the rune altar. He had his own axe and his own shield made of dragonhide leather stretched over a frame of bone.
He had even started to grow his black hair long as befitted a Wolfbrother. He should not be afraid of asking a girl to dance. And yet he was forced to admit that he was. Worse yet, he had no real idea of the reason why. The girl, Ana, seemed to like him.
She smiled encouragingly every time he saw her. And of course he had known her for all the years of their childhood. He could not quite put a finger on what had changed between them, but he knew that something had.
Ever since he had returned from the island of the Iron Masters all those moons ago something had been different. He looked at his companions, the Wolfbrothers with whom he had sworn blood oaths, and it was hard not to laugh.
They looked like boys pretending to be men. They still had the down of youth on their lips. They tried hard to emulate the swagger of adult warriors and yet somehow it still seemed wrong. They looked like boys playing at warriors, not warriors themselves. And yet that was not the case. All of them had been to sea. All of them had pulled oars through storm wind's lash.
All of them had aided in the hunting of the dragon and the orca. All of them had received their shares from the kill. Small shares admittedly but shares nonetheless.
By the custom of their tribe, they were men. Ragnar looked around. It was a late autumn afternoon and the weather was fine. It was the Day of Remembering, the first day of the last hundred-day of the year, the beginning of the short autumnal period when for all too brief a time the weather would be fine and the world would be peaceful.
The Eye of Russ was growing smaller in the sky. The period of quakes and eruptions was all but done. All too soon, the snows would come and the long winter would descend on the world, as the Eye grew yet smaller. The breath of Russ would chill the world and life would become very hard indeed. He pushed the thought aside.
Now was not the time for thinking of such things. Now was the time for feasting, and making merry and betrothal while the weather was good and the days were still long.
He looked around. The festive spirit possessed everybody. The huts were newly covered in fresh dragonhide. The wooden walls of the great hall were painted bright white and red.
A huge bonfire stood unlit in the centre of the village. Ragnar could smell the minty scent of the herbs that would perfume the air when it was lit. The brewmasters were already dragging great barrels into the open air. Most people were still working but Ragnar and his friends were from the ships. This whole day was a holiday for them and they had nothing to do but loaf around dressed in their best.
They had been kicked out of their huts so that their mothers could sweep and clean. Their fathers were already in the long hall swapping tales of the great battle against the Grimskulls. Somewhere in the distance he could hear the skald tuning up his instrument, and his apprentices beating out basic rhythms on the drums with which they would accompany him. A long lean dog crossed his path and looked up at him in a friendly manner. He reached out and stroked it behind the ears, feeling the warmth of the fur already lengthening in preparation for winter.
It licked his hand with a tongue as rough as sandpaper and then bounded off down the street, racing for the sheer joy of it. Suddenly Ragnar knew how it felt. He took a deep breath of the salt-fresh air and felt the urge to howl with the sheer pleasure of being alive. Instead he turned to Ulli, reached out, cuffed his ear and shouted, 'Tig! You're it. Seeing that the game had started the other Wolfbrothers scattered, dashing among the huts and the busy people, sending chickens squawking skyward.
Ulli raced after him, shouting challenges. His friend bounded towards him arm outstretched. Ragnar let him get almost within reach before turning once more and racing on. He ducked right and raced down a narrow street.
He bounded left to avoid slamming into one of the brewers' barrels and as he did so, his foot slid on a slick piece of turf and he fell. Before he could recover Ulli was on him and they wrestled on the ground pitting muscle against muscle like playful puppies. They rolled over and over down the slope until they heard girlish shrieks and bumped into something. Ragnar opened his eyes and found himself looking up into Ana's long pretty face. She tugged her braid as she looked down at him and then she smiled.
Ragnar smiled back and then felt his face flush. He hawked a huge gob of phlegm into his mouth and then spat it contemptuously into the sea.
Inside him he could feel the battle lust starting to build. He hoped that combat would come soon. Ahead of the fleet lay the home island of the Grimskulls, site of their sacred runestone, the place from which they had been driven twenty long years ago by the accursed Thunderfists. Of course, that had been before Strybjorn had been born but that did not matter. He had grown up hearing all about the island's beauty and he felt that he already knew it.
Its image was clear in his mind from his father's tales. This was the sacred land from which they had been driven by Thunderfist treachery all those years ago and which today, on the anniversary of their ancient loss, they would at last reclaim.
Anger at the interlopers filled him. He felt it as keenly as any of the survivors of the attack and the massacre when the Thunderfists had arrived from the sea to claim the land in force. Ten dragonships had overwhelmed the outnumbered Grimskull force while the vast majority of the warriors had been at sea following the orca herds. Those brave warriors had returned home to find their own land fortified against them, and their women and children enthralled by the Thunderfists.
After a brief struggle on the beaches they had been driven back to their ships and out to sea, there to endure the misery of the Long Search. Strybjorn shared their bitterness on that terrible voyage. The hopeless attacks on other settlements, the fruitless efforts to find a new home.
He recalled the names of all those who had died of hunger and thirst and warfare as if they had been his own dead forefathers. He swore once more that he would avenge their spirits and appease their ghosts with Thunderfist blood.
He knew it would be so, for had it not been ordained by the gods? Had not Russ himself at last seen fit to reward the Grimskull warriors' perseverance with the prize. They had found the village of Ormskrik with the inhabitants half dead of the wasting plague and they had overwhelmed it, killing the men and enslaving the women and children according to the ancient traditions.
And then they had settled down to brood and breed and recover their numbers. And all those long years they had never forgotten the site of the ancestral runestone. For twenty long years they had planned and prepared. Sons had been born. The gods had smiled. A new generation had grown to manhood.
But always the Grimskulls had remembered the treachery of the Thunderfists, and the mighty oaths of vengeance that they had sworn. Tonight Strybjorn knew those oaths would be fulfilled. And truly the gods did smile, for was not tonight the anniversary of the very day upon which the Thunderfists had attacked. It was only fitting that twenty years to the day they had lost their ancestral lands, the Grimskulls would reclaim them. Strybjorn was proud of his folk.
It would have been easy to forget. It would have been easy to sink into the comforts of their new land. Such was not the Grimskull way. They knew the value of an oath. They were bound to seek vengeance. They had bound their children to seek vengeance as soon as they were old enough to take their vows of manhood.
When Strybjorn had become a Wolfbrother, he had sworn that he would never rest until the runestone was reclaimed, and he had watered the sacred soil of his ancestral homeland with foul Thunderfist blood. He stroked his craggy brow with one broad strong hand, and shielding his eyes stared towards the far horizon. Soon he knew they would make landfall, and then let the Thunderfists beware.
The burning brand arced onto the oil-soaked wood and the flames leapt high like daemons dancing. The smell of ambergris and herbs billowed through the streets. The heat of the flames brought a flush to his face.
He looked around and saw all the folk of the village had gathered around the bonfire and watched the chief perform his ceremonial duties. Torvald brandished his axe. First to the north, towards Asaheim, and the great Mountain of the Gods, then to the south to the sea in defiance of the daemons that dwelled there. He raised the weapon high above his head, holding it with both hands and turned to face the setting sun. He let out a mighty roar and the whole crowd joined in, cheering and chanting the name of Russ, hoping to invoke the god's favour for another year, as they had done every year since Russ had smiled upon them and granted them victory.
Once the chieftain had finished and returned to the ranks of his warriors, the old skald Imogrim limped into the firelight and gestured for silence. His apprentices followed him carrying their instruments and softly began to beat time to his words. Imogrim raised his harp and plucked a few chords. His fingers moved gently over the strings as he stood for a moment idly, seeming to compose his thoughts.
The firelight illumined every seam of his craggy face, and turned his eyes into deep caverns. The white of his long beard glistened in the flickering light. The crowd waited breathless for him to begin. All around the night was still. Ragnar looked around and caught sight of Ana. It appeared that she had been looking at him, for their eyes met, and she looked away, almost shyly, eyes cast down towards the ground. Imogrim began to chant.
His voice was soft and yet surprisingly resonant, and his words seemed to flow out in time with the beat of the drums. It was as if he tapped some huge spring of memory within himself, and it had begun to flow softly yet inexorably outwards.
It was Imogrim's life's work to memorise the song, and add to it and to pass it on to his apprentices as they would, in time, pass it on to theirs. There was an ancient saying that if the jarl was the heart of his people, the skald was the memory.
It was at times like this that Ragnar understood the truth of it. Of course there would not be time for the whole tale this, or any other night, so Imogrim contented himself with extracts.
He alluded in passing to the most ancient times, when the people had sailed between the stars on ships built by the gods. He sang of Russ who had come and taught the people how to survive in the dark times when the world had shook, and old evils had entered the world.
He told of the time of choosing when Russ had picked the best ten thousand warriors from all the clans, and led them off, never to be seen again, to fight in the wars of the gods. He sang of the ancient wars, and all the mighty deeds of the Thunderfists.
Of how Berak had slain the great dragon Thrungling and claimed a casket of iron and the hand of the thunder spirit Maya. Of how the great seafarer Nial had sailed around the world in his mighty ship, the Wind Wolf. Of the night when the trolls had come and driven the Thunderfists from their ancestral land. He brought the tale up to date with the story of how Ragnar's father and his kin had found this island, ruled by the cruel and brutish Grimskulls, and had seized it in a day of bloody conflict.
At this part of the song, some of those present had cheered. Others stared off into the fire as if remembering lost comrades and the brutal fighting of the past.
And at last after long hours, the tale reached the present. Ragnar felt his heart lurch with pride as Imogrim told of their voyage to take the Wolf Priest Ranek to the island of the Iron Masters, and of how Ragnar had speared the dragon through the eye before it was dispatched by the old sorcerer's magic.
He knew now that his name would live forever. For as long as his clan existed, his name would be recalled by the skald and his apprentices, and maybe even sung on high holy days and other feasts. Even after he had passed into the halls of the slain his name would live on. The first thing you can do to improve your note taking is to make sure that you have read the assigned materials and come well prepared to class.
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