by Patrick Underhill
Gruesome roared as he swung his axe and hammer in a sideways arc at the long, bony frame before him. The frore lich screeched in agony as its arm and chest splintered from the force of the troll’s blow. The gangly arms and legs of the pale-skinned nightmare flailed as it hissed out its final breath. Gruesome kicked the lifeless husk away with one massive foot even as he turned and leapt past another lich tangled in brambles, its long-clawed fingers raking harmlessly against the studded leather of his armor. His heavily-muscled arms windmilled to bring his weapons to bear on a third ghoul as it clawed at the little shield Blade held high against his body. The old dwarf smashed at the creature with lightning speed, his teeth bared in a ferocious grin. His right eye gleamed with bloodlust, and a worn patch covered the scarred hole of his left. From behind Blade, a small figure chanted in a clear voice and energy poured forth from his hands. Pellien’s shaman magic swirled around Blade, healing some wound Gruesome couldn’t see. The axe in his left hand cleaved into the lich’s shoulder, as his hammer crushed its neck awkwardly to the side. The crack and pop of ancient bones brought a triumphant guffaw from Blade.
The entangled lich hissed and clawed while Gruesome spun around to face it. The dead eyes showed no fear as he arched his powerful shoulders to send the beast back to Hel. The fickle goddess spat these creatures upon Midgard to test its warriors, even as the war with Hibernia and Albion waged in full. Fewer Midgardians were available to cull the numbers of dangerous beasts that roamed the frontier – most able-bodied warriors were in the frontlines. Only the aged or “disobedient” were put to this task. Those deemed unworthy of defending the realm in combat. Gruesome’s stony visage sank into a grimace when the air filled with the dust of the lich’s long-dried blood.
Gruesome sank to his knees and buried his weapons in the snow to cleanse them as he offered his latest kills to Modi in prayer. These meager offerings were all he could offer the berserk god, and it riled him. He was a mighty troll, strong of arm and quick of foot…the blood of dozens of Midgard’s enemies should coat his hammer and axe before he supplicated himself before Modi. He thought back to just a few short years before, when Blade, Pellien and Zalathorn took him under their wings. Zalathorn was a fierce son of Modi, and taught Gruesome that the god’s mighty gifts were not to be wasted. But wasted they were, fighting simple beasts such as the lich. He couldn’t remember the last time he needed to ask Modi to transform him into a bear. The sweet release of reason, the embrace of savage power…those were the gifts of Modi. But all gifts brought a price. Lack of awareness in battle from a berserker’s rage was Modi’s. Even old bears got lost in the rage. Even old bears died under a swarm of Albion’s armsmen.
And some wounds not even an old son of Eir could heal. Gruesome looked to Blade, as the aged dwarf leaned against a tree, knocking bits of lich flesh from his hammer. Blade used to be the first to announce his conquests to Eir. He would shout them for all the world to hear, and any that questioned offering the dead to the goddess of healing got a shield upside their head. “Their deaths be bringing more life to Midgard, fool!” Blade would shout in his raspy voice, heavy with the tongue of the mountian folk. Gruesome grimaced at the thought of what his old friend once was, and cursed King Eirik for keeping him from his true reward.
Gruesome rose to his feet and shook the snow from his hammer and axe. These were his weapons of choice, forged from strong, light arcanium; only the most proven warriors were given items of this precious metal. His gaze shifted to Pellien, the wrinkled kobold pulled his hood from his face and held his hand over his eyes as he peered west through the trees of Greip Forest. This was the chosen hunting grounds for the liches, the shadows of the trees and snowdrifts offered good hiding places for the pale ghouls. Clearing the beasts was more tedious than hazardous for the trio, especially as they grew more brazen with fewer Midgardians to thin their numbers. It was King Eirik’s decree that the denizens of the frontiers be kept at bay to allow his soldiers to pass as swiftly as possible. Yet, only warriors past their prime were allotted for such menial work. Gruesome was there when General Aminad told Pellien that Blade was unfit for duty in the war. Even the kobold’s blue face paled at the words. He argued, but to no avail. Of course, Pellien was ever loyal to his old comrade, he would not leave him to his fate alone. It is doubtful the old dwarf would have survived long without the little shaman taking care of him in the harsh lands. It was not the fighting that Blade couldn’t handle, those were the only times he seemed to come alive; it was the times between the fights that Blade moved as if lost. His mind drifted elsewhere as a condition of too many times ripped from Valhalla at the cursed bind stones, a necessity brought on by the bloody war with Albion and Hibernia after King Arthur’s death. The peace and unity of the three realms were ripped to pieces with his final breath.
Gruesome volunteered to join his fellows, to keep them safe; but Aminad denied him. A fit, young warrior such as he was needed in the war. Such were the orders of the King. Gruesome had railed, begged to stay with Blade and Pellien. Aminad had told him he was too loyal to the realm to be put to such lesser work. “What could you possibly do to deserve such punishment?” Aminad had asked in that way he had, that said you already know the answer. Hitting Aminad was the hardest thing Gruesome had ever done. It was a solid blow, but the great thane was a stout troll. Still, he had no choice but to charge Gruesome and sentence him to time in the frontier. That was several months ago, and Gruesome had learned to regret hasty decisions.
“There,” Pellien’s voice brought Gruesome out of his reverie. “Someone is fighting.” His tiny hand pointed to somewhere just this side of Hverdrungr Hill. Gruesome could see nothing, but he trusted the kobold’s senses, age had not affected his eyes or ears. It oftened seemed as if he could hear the enemies’ arrows even before they left the bow. “Blade, we move.”
Blade simply followed Pellien’s command and chanted the song that would quicken their feet. The same magic that allowed his allies to attack with uncanny speed was used to make them outpace even a mighty warsteed. Coupled with Pellien’s ability to stave off fatigue, the three could travel almost as quickly as one of the children of Bragi. Gruesome fell in line between Blade and the shaman without thinking, allowing the kobold to lead them while he maintained a good position to attack anyone that might attack from any side. Blade would follow and do whatever he deemed necessary in a fight.
Gruesome considered himself a means of pure destruction, yet the subtleties of Blade’s and Pellien’s abilities fascinated him. He swung his hammer, something died. Blade waved his hand in the air, and raging beasts quelled and slept on their feet. Pellien said a word, and blistering sores broke out on a dozen men. But the two also made Gruesome a devastating warrior. His natural strength and agility was augmented by their gifts and turned him into a maelstrom of carnage. Their healing abilities gave him the spirit to throw himself into any fray. With Blade and Pellien at his back, he knew that no force of man or elf would stand before him.
Pellien brought them to a quick stop a few yards from several bodies lying in the snow. Two Midgardians lay prone, blood still seeping from their wounds. The three others looked to be two Hibernians and one Albion. One of the Hibernians, a female elf, was torn to shreds…most likely by the two shadowblades of Midgard; the other celt and highlander had no marks upon them save for the ice that melted from their still-warm bodies. Gruesome watched as Pellien moved quickly to the shadow blades, his hands waving over their bodies as he chanted hurriedly under his breath.
“I can’t,” he said, almost inaudibly. Gruesome regarded him quizzically. The shaman looked at him, his face wide in amazement. “They’re gone, just gone…”
The crunch of snow up the hill ahead of them stole the question from Gruesome’s mouth. He looked up to see a thin figure dash from a covering of brush towards the ruins surrounding the outpost of Blendrake Faste.
“Enemy!” he shouted as he ran up the hill. Blade’s chant carried him swiftly, but the avalonian he saw was close to one of the broken walls of the old settlement. It disappeared into the ruins, as Gruesome drew his weapons. He rounded a crumbled wall, his great arms swinging in anticipation of an ambush. He hit only empty air, as his frantic quarry stumbled towards another building. The dirty robe the man wore caught on a bush, shredding even more of the tattered cloth. Gruesome leapt after him, his excitement building at the thought of killing a true enemy of the realm. Only the midday’s sun kept him from running his guts right onto the infiltrator’s daggers. The stealthed man placed himself perfectly to cut off Gruesome from his prey violently, but the sun’s glare off the tip of the blades alerted the troll at the last moment. He shifted his body sideways as he brought his axe down to slap the blades away. He swung his hammer wildly at the assassin, missing but giving himself the room he wanted between them.
As they circled each other, pain lanced Gruesome’s back. Of course, he thought, no infiltrator attacks an enemy solo. The wound was light, but he moved to his left to keep the two from surrounding him. The bitter enemies slowly circled each other in the room of a building shattered long ago by Albion siege. Gruesome’s eyes shifted from one to the other, gauging which would attack first. The two sneaks held their ground for a moment, eyes peering at Gruesome through tight slits. Then looked at each other and smiled, ever so slightly.
With a roar, Gruesome spun to his right. Keeping the blade of his axe between himself and the assassins, he brought his hammer down in a slashing motion behind him. The dark-skinned saracen poised to end the troll’s life barely registered surprise before the massive blow caught him on the shoulder and drove his body into the rocky ground. Heavily wounded, but not dead, he rolled to a corner and raised his tiny blades in a defensive manner. The other two wasted no time in pouncing on Gruesome. He knew that he was much stronger and almost as quick as them, but no match alone for the seasoned infiltrators. But he wasn’t alone. Red light danced in the eyes of the one to his right, and the lean Briton stood as if in a daze. Blade had found them! Gruesome heard the dwarf chant behind him and felt the speed of the gods infuse his muscles. He threw himself at his first assailant, large arms whirling in deadly blows. Pellien leapt into the room to his left, saw the saracen on the ground and motioned a single hand at him. The man convulsed in agony and writhed in pain. Gruesome felt energy swarm around him and knew that Blade was cleansing his wounds of any poison before casting the spell that would heal him. Meanwhile, he made short work of the briton before him, crushing the man before the onslaught of his blows. Pellien waved his arms in a circle, and barbs of shamanic energy flew toward the dazed assassin. Gruesome swung hammer and axe just as clarity returned to the man’s eyes. Unlike the lich’s, they definitely showed fear before the light of life left them in a collision of arcanium rage.
Gruesome turned, surveying the carnage around him. All was silent in the ruins as the three warriors listened to their surroundings. Even Blade’s one, redshot eye was alight with the fever of anticipated combat. Where three sneaks were, usually many more followed. Albion was not known for doing anything without the benefit of larger numbers. Pellien’s eyes widened suddenly.
“Scouts!” he yelled and raised his shield above his head. Blade followed suit and Gruesome threw himself down to a half-broken wall. Arrows thudded against rock, save for the two that barely penetrated the back of Gruesome’s armor. Chuckles from the archers echoed off the stone walls. A disembodied voice like pure venom spoke in Albion’s native tongue, the unintelligible words sounded soft but menacing. The sneaks were using stealth magic very close, getting position to finish off their trapped prey. Gruesome wasn’t sure how many infiltrators might be closing on them, but experience told him at least two for each of them. The arrogance of these cowards seethed him. By Modi, he would not go easily to such as these. He looked to Blade, the old dwarf nodded at him and smiled grimly. Pellien looked calm, as always. Gruesome clutched his weapons to his chest. This was why he was born. This was his moment. Life and death would be decided by his strength in battle, by the power of his comrades. The number of enemies they faced would not matter. They had some cover from the scouts, and the infiltrators would have to get close to do their damage. Gruesome preferred having more room to swing his long arms, but trusted his strength even in close quarters. He didn’t doubt the qualities of Pellien and Blade, the seasoned veterans had seen more battles than even the Valkyries could count.
They sat and waited in the silence of the ruined hall. The sun held its place high above them. A breeze rustled the rough brush that grew in the rocky ground around them. In the distance, Gruesome thought he heard the stretching of a sinewy string as a scout pulled his bow taut, perhaps the slide of an infiltrator’s boot across a dusty surface. He pulled in his breath, focused his eyes ahead and drew his rage into himself.
The silence broke in the rush of leather boots, and a cry of pain…