by Patrick Underhill
Tarac cringed at Gruesome’s animalistic bellow. The troll pounded his fists into the ground and leapt to his feet.
“NO!” The berserker shouted then kicked the fallen troll’s body. He roared again and charged at the dead celt, lifting the corpse with one massive hand. Gruesome brought the face to his own and stared briefly at it before he threw it against the wall. “NO, NO, NO, NO!”
The enraged troll grabbed the female elf’s form and smashed it into the stone floor. Bones crunched and blood spurted out of the woman’s death wound. Three of Tarac’s others shrank away from Gruesome, as if they feared he might turn his rage on them. But his champion pushed himself in front of its master protectively. Tarac only stared in horror as the troll stomped on the body of the Albion man. He’d never seen the dead treated with such contempt. This was not the quiet warrior he’d met the day before; and Tarac felt like a perverse voyeur, peeking at Gruesome’s grief through an open window. Wide tears flowed down the troll’s cheeks as he railed against the loss of his fellow vikings.
“WHY?! Why would they make us kill them?!” Gruesome asked the ceiling. He sank to his knees and moaned as he wept.
“They were not themselves.” All eyes turned to the young norsewoman as she spoke, her voice was clear and filled with authority. “There was nothing left in them that made them vikings, troll. No dream of Valhalla remained in their souls.”
“They were the odd ones, good lady.” Tarac felt embarrassed when she turned her attention to him, and cast his eyes to the floor.
Tarac moved to where he could see the woman’s face. She was beautiful, her skin pale and smooth. Her long, blonde hair shined like the gold of her armor and her eyes were the deep blue of the ocean that surrounded his home, Aegir. There was a slight gauntness to her cheeks born of exhaustion, but the determination that showed in the set of her full lips and bright eyes only made her more beautiful for it. He couldn’t help but feel a quiet reverence for this woman who seemed to be no older than himself.
Pellien approached Gruesome and placed a hand on the troll’s shoulder. “You did what you had to do, son.” He nodded to the young woman. “We all did.”
The mournful berserker shook his head. “Then why did Modi let them use his gift against me? Am I not his son as well? Why would he punish me so?”
“Bogdar teaches that the gods do not make us what we are, Gruesome.” Tarac stepped in front of the big troll. “The spirit of rage existed within them, just as you. Can you say that you have only used the power of the bear to honor Modi? Or was it for your own glory?”
Gruesome’s eyes flickered anger at the bonedancer, then softened as he considered his words.
“Aye, it is so.” He nodded his large head. “Modi does not care how I kill my enemies, only that I do so.”
“If it brings you any solace, I believe that Bogdar will shepherd their souls until such time as they are ready to redeem themselves. Only then will he let them be born anew. Perhaps this was the only way they could have escaped the minotaurs’ enslavement.”
“No, bonedancer,” Gruesome’s eyes were clear and grim. “That does not comfort the fact that I drew lifeblood from my brothers.” He rose to his feet slowly, then walked over to where his hammer lay on the floor and picked it up.
Pellien walked over to the young woman and eyed her carefully. His hands waved in her direction, and he cast several spells upon her. She took a deep breath as the enhancing magic flowed through her body. Tarac remembered how he felt when Blade and Pellien had first placed their charms on him. He felt stronger, his hands more nimble, his mind clearer. Magic flowed through his body with ease, and spells seemed to throw themselves from his hands. It was an amazing feeling, to be made more than what he was.
“Thank you,” the pretty woman said once the older kobold was finished. “I’ve heard of the power you shamans grant to others. But it’s another thing to experience it for one’s self.”
Pellien nodded. “My pleasure, young lady. You look like you haven’t slept in days.” He pulled a water-skin from his waist, and pulled out a small pouch and removed some dried meat from it. He handed both to the norsewoman. “You look as if you could use these as well. Don’t worry, we have plenty.”
She lightly licked her lips and quickly sheathed her sword. She gently took the waterskin from Pellien and bowed her head to him. “My thanks again, shaman.”
“Drink slowly at first, girl. Or you’ll hurt yourself.”
She nodded at Pellien and tentatively sipped the water, her eyes closed in sweet relief. Pellien walked towards the fallen mages, felled by the woman’s own sword in the fight. For one fighting thirst and exhaustion, Tarac had seen her move with deadly speed once the conjurers’ attentions were drawn from her. The bonedancer could scarcely take his eyes off the young woman. The hardness in her eyes did nothing to lessen her beauty. But it wasn’t just her physical allure that entranced him, there was an aura about her that he’d never encountered before. After a few sips, she took a longer draught, then began working on the bit of meat.
“My name is Pellien.” The shaman’s voice broke Tarac’s reverie. He turned to see the older kobold examining the pulpy remains of the elf. “The dwarf there is called Blade, a proven son of the goddess Eir.”
“I am Gruesome,” the troll said flatly from where he stood by the door they had entered.
“And I am Tarac!” The younger kobold wished he hadn’t sounded so eager when he answered, and felt his face flush when the pretty young woman looked at him. She gently swallowed the mouthful of meat.
“My name is Erliga.” Her back straightened as she said her name, and her eyes brightened from within as if by fire. “Mistress of Odin, Shieldmaiden of the Aesir, Chooser of the Slain.” Power flowed from her words, as if they were spoken by more than one voice.
Pellien and Gruesome turned toward the valkyrie, their faces wide with awe. Each slowly bent to one knee and bowed their heads low. Tarac knew such women were important to vikings that worshipped the gods of Asgard, but wasn’t sure why. He looked from the shaman to the berserker, then to Blade. He felt awkward at being the only one besides the dwarf not bowing to the young lady, so he dropped to his knee. His others gathered around him, but remained standing. He was sure they would give away his ruse to the woman. Shame caused him to drop his face, and he hoped she would not see his false reverence.
“Rise, children,” she waved her hand to include them all. “I have been sent here to serve you, not be served by you.” Tarac rose to his feet first, but kept silent.
“Dear lady, why are you here? And why alone in this place not of our gods?” Worry filled Pellien’s words.
“The All-Father has sent me here on a quest, but he does not tell me why. I have only come to Midgard in the past few weeks.” She walked to the wall and settled herself down with a sigh. “As soon as I entered the mortal world, I was plagued with strange, terrible dreams. I would see the souls of vikings disappear into a dark void. They ran to it as if to war, willingly. I asked other valkyrie about it, but none knew of what I spoke. They told me it was merely my spirit adjusting to the flesh.”
She looked up and Tarac saw fear cloud her beautiful eyes. “But there was more. A voice spoke to me, told me that the souls fled here. It was a man’s voice, but I could not say that it belonged to Odin. It was so far away. But it told me that something stole my warriors from me, drew them from Valhalla’s call.”
Pellien and Gruesome listened raptly to Erliga’s words. Tarac found himself more cowed by her tale. He was raised in Bogdar’s faith, an ancient god that only dealt with souls. He never manifested himself in the physical world. Even the magic that bonedancers used came from themselves. His others were the bones of fallen warriors, the souls long since gone. That was the bargain with Bogdar, only spiritless bodies could be used by his followers. They would never manipulate a person’s soul for their own gain.
“So, I joined a large expedition to the Isle of Agramon,” Erliga’s clear voice began again after another sip of water. “Once inside, the dreams were stronger. I was with the group for two days, but they refused to go where I needed. I set out on my own.
“That’s when I first began to encounter the goblins. They attacked me when I tried to sleep the first time. Five of them. They thought me easy prey. Then three, then almost always two at a time. I ran out of food and water and stopped sleeping. Without the sun and sleep, time ran from me. I have no idea how long I have been down in this place.” She nodded to the entrance. “Outside there, an army of the beasts fell upon me. I slew four of them and ran this way. As soon as I entered the dark hallway, they stopped following me. They simply stared at me as I backed away from them.”
“Aye, we saw your kills, lady.” Pellien regarded her solemnly. “Were you wounded?”
“I was, but I was able to heal myself once they refused to follow.”
“It was your blood that drew us this way then.” The shaman approached the valkyrie and held his palm out toward her. “Your skills at healing must be great indeed. I have no sense of any harm to you.”
Her headed lifted sharply. “I am no stranger to battle, shaman!”
Pellien chuckled softly. “Forgive an old man his worry, my dear. It’s what I do best.”
Her eyes softened. “My apologies, kobold. I’m sure you meant no disrespect.” Her shoulders slumped a bit as if a weight had been removed. “Once I found my way to this room, I became a bit more cautious. With good cause, it was only a few yards from here that these five found me. As soon as I saw those two,” she gestured to the dead dwarf and troll. “I knew that they were not right. They did not have viking souls.
“I ran, but they were faster. They trapped me in here.”
“Then we came at the right time, good lady,” Tarac smiled toward her.
Erliga shook her head. “I do not think they meant to kill me, Tarac. And there was no lust in their eyes. I think they meant to take me prisoner. They had ample time to do what violence upon me that they wished.”
“But the celt was able to spellbind me,” Gruesome’s deep voice rumbled for the first time since he’d introduced himself. “Why did he not just put you to sleep?”
Erliga’s head shook again. “I cannot say, troll.”
“He placed his spell on all of us, Gruesome,” Tarac remembered the bright lights that had mesmerized him. “Luckily, the wizard’s fire interrupted it.”
“Yes,” Pellien laughed. “They were not so good at combining their efforts. Even those berserkers rushed to Modi’s gift a little soon, it seemed to me.”
“Aye,” Gruesome agreed and rubbed his right shoulder. Tarac winced as he thought of how the two had mauled the troll. The kobold knew that his small body could not have survived such an assault.
“Now,” Erliga fixed each of them with her deep eyes. “What brings you four here?”
“Them,” Pellien waved his hand at the dead bodies.
“The odd ones,” Tarac spoke without thinking. When the valkyrie and shaman looked at him, he felt his color rise. “Well, they seem odd to me.” He smiled and lowered his face, silently cursing himself for not holding his tongue. He was sure they all thought him a fool.
“That they are, boy.” Pellien walked to the celt’s corpse and kicked at it.
“And what of the dwarf?” Erliga drew the shaman’s attention again. “What ails him?” She pulled herself to her feet and approached Blade. “His spirit feels so thin to me.” She studied the old dwarf’s face. He stared back at her impassively.
“I fear that might be an effect of the binding stones, my lady.” Pellien turned to face her.
Erliga swore in an un-ladylike manner under her breath. “Cursed creations,” she said a bit louder. “Have you all been corrupted so by these things?”
“I have been Returned three times.” Tarac was shocked by Gruesome’s words. The bonedancer had always heard of warriors being revived from death at the stones, but never experienced it for himself. The assassins he fought had never proven themselves his betters.
“And I two.” Gruesome started at Pellien’s admission. “It was before your time, boy. When I was young and foolish.”
“And what about this one?” Erliga motioned to Blade.
“Five times,” Gruesome bowed his head as he said the number.
“Nine times.” Pellien raised an eyebrow at the troll’s wide eyes. “Also before your time.”
Tarac felt light-headed. Nine times. The old dwarf had known death nine times. His soul had crossed the threshold of the mortal world nine times. He had never heard of such a thing. He heard the valkyrie drawn in a sharp breath. She removed the chain gauntlet from her right hand and stepped closer to Blade.
“You poor soul,” she whispered as she caressed his cheek with her fingers.
Blade drew in a deep breath, like a drowning man pulled to the surface. His right eye focused on Erliga and he stumbled backwards and fell soundly on his rump. The pretty woman knelt beside him, her hand pressed against his face, like a mother comforting her child.
“The drums, lady. I hear the drums always.” The old dwarf’s voice was raspy and broken. Tears streamed down his right cheek. He drew in another ragged breath.
“Valhalla calls you, son of Eir. It draws you ever closer.” Silent tears shone on the valkyrie’s face. Tarac watched in awe. Pellien and Gruesome stood silently, eyes cast to the floor. Erliga bent down and kissed Blade gently on the forehead. “I would release you if I could, child.” Blade closed his eye and held her hand close to his face. Tarac felt his stomach tighten, and he somehow knew that no person had ever seen this grizzled dwarf so vulnerable. The young kobold choked back tears of his own.
Finally, Erliga pulled her hand from the dwarf’s grasp and rose to her feet. Almost instantly, Blade’s eye clouded and his face became a mask of dispassion. Except for the drying tears on his cheek, there was no sign that the old man had ever been cognizant of their presence. The valkyrie shook her head, her beauty only enhanced by the sadness in her eyes.
“How could you have let this happen to him? Why would you bring him back so many times?”
Gruesome shrank within himself. Pellien merely shook his head.
“The king has given his orders. Any viking that can be Returned, must be.” He met Erliga’s eyes, almost defiantly. “And it’s what Blade would have wanted. Can’t you see his soul? Can’t you see the man he is? The warrior he is?”
Erliga closed her eyes and seemed to concentrate. “He stretches so far between here and Valhalla. He is in so many places.” She caught the shaman’s gaze finally. “I do not envy my sister that must ferry his soul. It spreads out like a spiderweb. It may take him years to make the journey.”
“Battle is all he knows, lady. All he’s ever known. Perhaps that’s why he still fights. It’s all he can do. I tell him when to eat, when to drink, when to sleep. He would not do any of those on his own. He would stand in one place, waiting for a battle to come to him. He would waste away.”
Erliga walked to Pellien and looked down at the little kobold. “Then it is your duty to see that he dies in battle, shaman. Do not let his many sacrifices be wasted!”
Pellien met her eyes with just as much authority as she. “Don’t presume to tell me how to take care of my friend, girl. Odin’s maiden or no, you can’t begin to understand how much that man’s sacrifices have meant to me! Ymir take my bones now, if you think I’d see him cast to Helheim!” He took a long breath and released it. “My care is for his soul, not just his body.”
Tarac swallowed hard. The tension made him incredibly uncomfortable, and the past few moments made him realize why he did not keep much company. His others never argued, or showed their grief. For the first time, he wondered if joining the three warriors was a good idea.
After a small pause, Erliga bowed her head to Pellien. “My apologies again, shaman. I can see that you do not treat your friend lightly. I promise to never question your motives toward him again.”
“Hmmph,” Pellien nodded his acceptance. “Again, eh? Are you asking us to join you on your quest?”
“Well, it seems our quests are somewhat the same. Odin surely brought you here to save me, or perhaps me to guide you.”
Pellien bowed slightly to the pretty valkyrie. “So it seems.”
She fixed the older kobold with a stern smile. “Then let us see what answers we might find.”
“Your answers do not interest me, my lady.” Tarac turned toward the grim-faced Gruesome as the troll spoke. “Every minotaur I see, dies.”
The berserker’s words rang of promise, not threat.