Once, there was a time when the great heroes slept, and in their passing, the land grew bleak and dire. Ice moved to devour the world and drink the oceans. The earth and the sky became as one, and the boundaries of the ancient kingdoms grew tired and were strained until at last they failed and passed into oblivion. The works of these dead kings vanished. Their walls, their cities, and their swords lay beneath the world, mouldering--- languishing for the warmth of blood that had once gripped them.
There are no writings that tell of the times that followed, and the lays of the minstrels are few and broken. There are no runes, no stones, no pages that will reveal the history of the forgotten times. But I, Yrminthingle, son of Thingle, know. Through some device of fate, I alone have been allowed to hear the whisperings of the bones of those mighty and forgotten men that yawned from the deeps of the world when the ice drew back and the new Age began. Though I have been constrained by some to remain silent, as death draws upon me I no longer fear the telling of my tale. Surely, even he, the un-namable, cannot prevent me, now. These deeds have sought me out and I shall be their voice. They will not be completely forgotten! Nay, they cannot!
So, hear me, and hear me well. Stoke the fire and pour the mead. Get you to a comfortable chair and gird your ears, for now I shall endeavor to tell you of the lost times, of the lost heroes, of the age that was no Age--- the Age of between...
Lord Sindrin’s Forge
Neyda stumbled forward, tired and hungry. How long had she journeyed through the snow and ice? She did not know. Days had turned into weeks in a world that defied measurements, in a world of frost and wind and blinding snowstorms where the division between the earth and sky was sometimes little more than a dab of white light marking the end of the snow and the beginning of the clouds. And Neyda had learned the lessons of the earth quickly. She had long since given up on time and miles and speed. She had given up on measuring. Death, life, heaven and earth were all the same to her. And the only sensations she knew was the gnawing of her empty stomach and the throbbing pain in her feet.
At least there was pain, she thought. On this she could rely. And as long as there was pain, there was life. If her feet went numb with frost, she would die. But her feet were not numb, and so she would live for a time, and for that time she would relish her pain, she would savor it, nurse it, pray to it so that it might sustain her in the cold of night with no fire to warm her.
The forest and hills were her home, now. The home she had left behind was many miles away, yet closer in her memory. The pain and the hunger in her body were not sufficient to drive the memories from her mind. They pursued her relentlessly, though the men who had followed her had long since given up the chase.
She had escaped. To what end she did not know. Still, whatever fate awaited her was surely better than what she had left behind. She had no fear of death in the wildlands. She did not fear the fangs of the woodland beasts. But she could not face the accusing, hateful stares of her own people. She could see them now in her mind’s eye, their bitter, superstitious, fearful faces, faces that would have followed her to the pyre, faces that would have gleamed with insane delight as the kindling was lit beneath her. There was no regret within her for leaving, even should death come as an icy hand in the night. It was better to face the wolves and die a thousand deaths than die once at the hands of the stupid and mistrustful. Better to face the unknown than to be sentenced by friends.
The sun was low in the sky as Neyda’s cracked and bleeding feet carried her over a hill and down into a narrow ravine. Here she paused and glanced upward, sensing--- before her eyes saw--- a line of smoke that rose from beyond the next rise. She studied it for a moment with hungry eyes, a thin line of grey vapor that floated into the sky and vanished. It was the first promise of warmth she had seen in more days than she could count, and without thinking, she scrambled up the slope and hastened toward it.
Below the hill she saw a man sitting on his haunches before a small campfire. The man was roasting meat and preparing to eat it. Neyda paused on the hilltop, uncertain how to proceed. She studied the man. He wore heavy furs. His hair was long and brown. His frame was sturdy and lithe. He was rugged yet possessed the spryness of a mountain cat. He carried a great sword across his back and in his lap he held a huge axe and a long bow. His quiver of arrows was just beside him. Certainly, Neyda thought, though her hunger drove her mad, she could not charge toward him. He looked to be the sort of man who attacked first and asked questions later. But his meat smelled good. She could practically taste it.
Just then, she became aware of another presence atop the adjacent hillside. She peered through the thick, snow-covered pines and spied a hulking, brute of a man moving slyly through the trees. After following his movements for another moment, she found that he was not alone. Two more of the massive men hid beneath the shadows of the trees. Neyda’s nose twitched with alarm and uncertainty. She glanced back to the man below her. He seemed oblivious to the men in the trees. Should she warn him? What did she care what happened to a perfect stranger? Still... he had food and a warm fire. If those men attacked him, they would eat his tasty morsel and take his fire and she would be left hungry and cold.
“Very well,” she whispered to herself. “I’m going down.”
Neyda rose up and proceeded down the hillside. Halfway down the slope, the man turned and watched her. She did not slow her pace. She held up her hand in greeting and approached him.
“Hello,” he said. “I am Sataan of Tarkania.”
Neyda stopped. “I am Neyda of Vardyr.”
“Sit,” he motioned. “Eat.”
Neyda dove for the meat, heedless of the flames. Her hands latched onto the slick, greasy flesh and yanked off a strip. The meat was so hot that she dropped it into the snow, but she snatched it back up again and shoved into her mouth, howling as steam issued from between her lips.
Sataan watched in bemused silence as the girl waved her hand in front of her face before she chewed twice and swallowed. He raised an eyebrow as Neyda grabbed another piece of the meat and, just as before, dropped it into the snow.
Sataan leaned over and handed her a knife. “This works,” he said.
She accepted the knife. “Thank you.”
Sataan continued to survey his new guest. He could tell that she had been alone for some time. She carried no weapon. She had no food. Her shoes were covered with snow and ice. It was a wonder she was still alive.
“How are your feet?” he asked.
Neyda swallowed. “Sore as hell.”
“Put them near the fire, but not too close. You don’t want them to heat up too quickly.”
Neyda stretched out her legs and placed her feet before the fire.
“How’s your dog meat?”
“What?” she spluttered.
Sataan broke into laughter. “I’m kidding. It’s rabbit.”
Neyda glowered at the man. “Very funny,” she said flatly. “Do you think I’m a child or something?”
“How old are you?”
He shrugged. “I try not to assume things.”
She licked her fingers clean. “And how old are you?”
“Old enough to know not to wander through the snows without food or weapons, flint or tinder.”
She curled up her lip. “You’re so smart, are you?”
He shrugged again.
“Well, smart guy, did you know that there are three men in the trees up there just waiting to ambush you?”
“Them? Aye,” he nodded. “They’ve been there for a while.”
“Huh? You knew about them?”
“Then what are you doing just sitting here?”
“I’ve been waiting for you to get here so that you could help me kill them.”
Neyda turned her cool blue eyes upon the Tarkanian. “You’re crazy.”
There was a bloodthirsty intensity behind his eyes as he turned and grinned at her. “Aye, but they don’t know that, do they?”
The sun was covered by thick, grey clouds as it sank in the west. And as it passed below the hills, the world slumped into night as if it were tired of continuing its wretched existence, tired of replaying the farce of a sunless day. The hills and trees grew dark with shadow and with the darkness came an intense cold.
Sataan of Tarkania slowly drew out his axe, then threw snow onto the fire.
“What are you doing?” Neyda demanded. “We’ll freeze! My feet were just starting to feel well again. Why are you dousing the fire?”
“We won’t be able to see them with the light near us.”
“Here.” He pushed his bow toward her.
“I don’t know how to use a bow!”
Sataan made no reply. He gave a blanket to Neyda, then threw out his own furs, stretched out, and laid down. “They’re waiting to catch us unawares,” he said. “Lay down and pretend to be asleep. We’ll draw them out and pick them off as they come down the hill.
“With my bow,” she said.
“With your bow.”
“Right...” Neyda shook her head as she grabbed the bow and laid down. “This should be interesting.”
Neyda fell silent, wondering how it would feel to be killed by a sword. It surely must be gruesome. She had seen warriors carried home dead from the battlefields, blood frozen to their furs, their faces blue, their eyes grey with the film of death. Yet, as she considered these things, she realized that there was no fear within her. What was here for her now? What did she leave behind? A family that had betrayed her? A people that had exiled her?
She rolled over and stared at Sataan of Tarkania. He was well developed physically for a sixteen year old man and he had that typical look of Tarkanian rage about him. But she did not trust him. She liked him, but she did not trust him. Still, if they were going to die together... She leaned closer to him and whispered: “My own people were going to kill me.”
Sataan turned and stared at her with his ice grey eyes. “These men intend to do the same.”
Neyda blinked. Just like that, Sataan had given her her motivation. She would cut these men down with the vengeance owed her own race, then laugh as they died. She rolled back over and grasped her bow. She liked the feel of the wood in her hand. She reached out and pulled an arrow from the quiver, knocked it gently.
“They’re coming,” she whispered.
Sataan shifted on his furs. “I don’t hear them.”
“Trust me,” she said. “It’s one of my gifts.”
Sataan frowned. “Are you ready, then?”
“Then do it!”
Neyda sprang to her feet. She saw them instantly--- three huge, bulky men wielding spears and morning stars--- but she hesitated as their strange, glowing red eyes turned upon her. What manner of men were these? Suddenly, she realized that their frames were too massive for mere men. Their heads were misshapen, their ears, long and wolf-like. Her hand froze on the bowstring as her mind scrambled for some explanation, some category for the horrors before her.
“Neyda!” growled Sataan. “Fire!”
The Tarkanian’s voice was like a slap in her face. She raised up her bow and fired.
A howl of rage split the night as Neyda’s arrow, guided by desperation, found its mark. The huge creature roared and lifted up its spear. It charged forward and launched the missile into the air. Neyda dodged to the side, then, even before the spear had struck the ground, fired another arrow into the lumbering beast. This time the arrow found the thing’s eye. The shaft buried itself into the creature’s brain and it fell forward, dead, and rolled down the hillside.
Sataan did not wait for the others to reach him, but lifted up his axe and charged up the hill. The blood rage was upon him and he leapt up the slope like a mountain ram. He swung his terrible blade at the first, but the thing blocked with its spear. Sataan’s axe split the spear like a dry twig, then raked the thing across its chest. The great beast roared, threw its broken weapon into the snow then brought its morning star to bear. Sataan dodged sideways as the thing leapt for him and careened on down the hillside. The Tarkanian spun and brought his axe crashing down upon the monster’s back, but it was not enough. The beast’s momentum saved it, carrying it down the hillside toward Neyda.
Sataan had no time to worry about his companion. The other hulking brute was quickly upon him. The shaggy ape-thing bowled into him like a boulder thrown from the heights. Sataan fell backward and was not able to avoid being struck in the head by the thing’s horny fist. Sataan groaned as his head reeled and he fell. The creature grinned above him, posturing and revealing its black, fanged maw. It lifted up its morning star and aimed a terrific blow at Sataan’s head. But the Tarkanian had not totally lost his wits. He scrambled to the side and, just at the last moment, diverted the blow with his axe. Metal rang against metal and sparks flew off of Sataan’s blade as the creature’s morning star raked it then struck the snow.
Sataan took this opportunity to strike back. He found his feet once more, then rabbit-punched the monster in the stomach--- to no avail. The beast’s torso was covered in hard leather armor and was impervious to such an assault. Thwarted, Sataan moved aside to bring his axe back to bear, but in that moment of diversion, the brute found an opening and grazed Sataan’s leg with his morning star.
Sataan roared as blood ran down his thigh. He had been hit badly, but the wound only maddened him. With a rageful howl, he brought up his axe and laid fiercely about him. The gap-toothed creature was suddenly hard pressed to defend itself. Sataan rained blows down upon him with his mighty axe until at last the thing’s strength failed and Sataan found his mark. There was a sickening pop! as the Tarkanian clove the beast’s head in twain, then a spattering of blood and brains as the beast fell sideways and crashed into the snow.
Sataan immediately swiveled back toward the camp. The fight, he knew, was not over. There, he beheld Neyda in dire straits. She had skewered her foe with two arrows, but it had not been enough to bring him down. Sataan was forced to watch as the beast crashed into her and knocked her to the ground. The Tarkanian charged down the hillside to aid Neyda, but it was too late. Before he could reach her the fiend struck her fiercely in the head with his star. Sataan watched as Neyda’s body slid sideways then came to rest at the feet of the hairy savage.
The monster gave a howl of triumph, then, satisfied that his quarry was dead, turned to face Sataan. The Tarkanian gave a great battle cry and lashed out with his axe, but the ape-thing knocked the blade aside at the last moment and the two adversaries went down into the snow, grappling one another. Sataan found himself overpowered. He searched desperately for some weakness, but the brute possessed an inhuman strength. The thing wrestled him expertly until it was able to get its claws around his neck. Sataan’s breath caught in his throat and he gasped for air as the thing sought to squeeze the life out of him. With the desperation of a man in the throes of death, he reached toward the fire and, after some fumbling, got his trembling hand around a stone. Even as the meaty hands of his foe choked and throttled him, he brought the rock up and dashed the thing’s brains out. The brawny beast let out a pathetic, lifeless groan, then fell to the side, a carcass.
Sataan gasped once, filling his lungs with fresh air, then fell into the snow, unconscious.
Sataan woke within a thatched-roof hut. His leg was bandaged and a poultice had been applied to his other wounds. To his amazement, Neyda lay beside him in a peaceful slumber. Her head was covered in ointments, leaves and bandages, but despite the grievous wounds she had received the night before, she appeared healthy. Sataan stared incredulously, as if he were the sole witness to the rising of a dead woman. Surely, she had been slain! He had seen the blow that had undone her, the grinning brute that had struck her and aped at his triumph. Yet, there she was, living, breathing beside him as if nothing serious had passed. The Tarkanian laid quite still as he watched his friend’s chest rise and fall. Then, steeling his nerves, he reached out his hand and touched her forehead, brushed her cheek. Her flesh was rosy and warm beneath his finger tips.
“What sorcery is this?” he whispered.
At the sound of a muffled snore, Sataan sat upright and turned toward the opposite wall of the hut. There, sitting in a rocking chair next to the dying embers of a fire, was a strange man dressed in heavy fur cloaks. Sataan rose and approached the man on soft feet, careful not to wake him. He stepped before him and tilted his head, intent to see what sort of man it was that had housed and aided them. He was not disappointed to see that his host was just as queer in his appearance as he might have expected from a man powerful enough to have aided Neyda.
The man slumbered, his chin upon his chest, his hands crossed in his lap, as any man might rest in a rocking chair, but the resemblance to ordinary men stopped there. The man’s face was rugged with bushy brows and a shaggy, full beard. Strange black runes were tattooed above the man’s thick eyebrows. Hair grew out of the tops of his ears giving them a pointed, almost wolfy aspect. And near the temples on either side of his head, a small nub grew, as if the man were sprouting antlers. Sataan saw this and stepped back in alarm. His foot struck the ash basin on the floor and spilled it onto the stone hearth.
Sataan froze, hoping not to disturb the man, but it was too late. The sound had roused him to wakefulness, and even as Sataan backed away, the furry fellow opened his eyes and yawned a toothy yawn.
The Tarkanian nearly tripped over the ash bucket, then righted himself, his jaw set and his hand upon the hilt of his knife. He stood next to the cold fire, rigid as a lion about to spring as the man turned his dark brown eyes upon him and smiled warmly.
“I see you’re awake.”
“Aye,” said Sataan, easing his stance.
The shaggy man stood and stretched his arms. “That is good. My name is Hramyr.” A spark of feral light lit in his eyes as he turned to face Sataan, but it did not seem malicious to the Tarkanian, only savage and unrefined.
“I am Sataan of Tarkania. I thank you for sheltering us this past night.”
“Let’s have a look at your friend, shall we? Her condition was grave, indeed, when the Hunters brought her to me.”
Hramyr did not answer Sataan, but passed by him and went to the bed. He knelt down at Neyda’s bedside and gave her a thorough and tender inspection. He changed her bandages and felt the pulse at her wrist. He felt her forehead and tested her left arm, which was also bandaged. When he had finished with these things, he turned back to Sataan. “She will be well.”
Sataan shook his head. “I feared that she was dead.”
Hramyr stood and went back to the fireplace where he placed a kettle of water onto a metal hook above the dying embers. He stoked the flames and put another log onto the coals. “No doubt she would have died,” he said, “were it not for the quick thinking of Finnuk and some others. Fortunately, my home was not far from where she fell. They hastened her here, along with you, and I tended to her most of the night.”
“I am obliged to you.”
Hramyr smiled faintly and went to his table. He picked up a loaf of bread and handed a piece to Sataan. “Think nothing of it,” he said. “I would have done it for anyone.”
Sataan nodded, but he was not satisfied. “I will pay my debt to you,” he said. “You have but to name it, and I will do it.”
“There is no debt owed to me by you.” He turned and glanced at Neyda. “Though,” he went on in a quieter tone, “there are debts...”
Sataan did not like the Hramyr’s insinuating tone, but he was not the sort of man to let a favor go unpaid. “Whatever the debt,” he insisted. “It shall be amended.”
Hramyr studied Sataan, then smiled faintly. “I ask for nothing in return for my services,” he said. “Besides, what would I have you do? Though, there is one---”
“The chief of my clan, Sozluk, may have some use for a man like you. His is a world of swords and the rebuilding of civilized industries. You seem capable in this regard. I have no use for such things, but he---”
“Then I shall go to Chief Sozluk as soon as Neyda is well enough to accompany men and offer him my services.”
“Let it be so, then.”
Sataan stayed with Hramyr through the day and that night. The next morning, Neyda woke, disoriented.
“Where am I?” she asked, finding Sataan in the chair next to her bed.
“You are in the house of Hramyr.”
“You were nearly slain. A hunting party found us and brought us here. I, too, was hurt badly, but have recovered thanks to Hramyr.”
Neyda rose up and touched the bandages around her head. “My head is throbbing like a war-drum.”
Hramyr came from across the room and handed her a plate of small eggs, berries and bread with butter. “I am Hramyr,” he said, taking a stool. “It is good to see you awake.”
Neyda stared in disbelief at the shaggy man and the young antlers that protruded from his skull. “I am seeing things,” she muttered. “I took a good wallop to the head.”
“You must eat,” he said.
Neyda did not delay, but wolfed down the food with her bare hands.
Sataan turned to Hramyr and shrugged. “She’s always had a good appetite, ever since I’ve known her.”
Neyda wiped her mouth on her sleeve. “How may we repay you, Hramyr? You saved my life!”
A dark expression passed over Hramyr’s brows, then vanished. He lowered his chin and said, “That has already been arranged.”
Neyda turned a questioning gaze upon Sataan.
“We’re to meet with Chief Sozluk. He will assign us a task, a quest so that our onus might be abated.”
“I see. Who is this chief?”
“He’s a good man,” said Hramyr. “But he has many enemies closing around him. His clan is weak and old, you see, and like all things they will eventually fail. As their chieftain, however, Sozluk will no doubt seek what means he can to aid his people and prevent such a foregone eventuality.”
“Is his situation that hopeless?” asked Neyda.
Hramyr shrugged. “It is the way of things. All things pass. This does not lessen your deed.”
Neyda and Sataan exchanged silent glances.
“Well,” Neyda said, reaching up to pull the bandages from her head. “I’m ready.”
“You are?” asked Sataan.
Hramyr smiled. “She’s a quick healer.”
“Just so long as I get another shot at those creatures that attacked us. What were those things?”
Sataan shrugged. “We killed them all.”
Hramyr shifted in his seat. “They are becoming more prevalent in these parts, and closer to the mountains. We call them ‘kniks’. We know little about them, save that they are always ravenous and seem to have a fondness for humans and their domiciles. They travel in groups and raid and kill with abandon. The villages send out Hunters to patrol our perimeters and keep them free of the savage beasts.”
Neyda finished unwrapping her head. “Do you have weapons here?”
“Nay, but Sozluk will outfit you well.”
“And you may have my bow,” said Sataan, handing her his bow and quiver. “You use it better than I do!”
Neyda accepted the gifts. “This is good.”
Sataan stood and helped her to her feet. “Are you ready, then?”
“Aye,” she said. “Let’s go see this Chief Sozluk.”
Hramyr led them out of his hut and onto a clear trail through the snow. The sun shone above them intermittently, enough that the snow was beginning to melt and fall from the trees. The trail upon which they tread was muddy and slick. Spring was nearing.
Hramyr led them for some time through hills and trees until he came to a small village. The village consisted of farmsteads, granaries, one longhouse and a makeshift temple, though to which god, they did not know. The trail led down a hill and into the middle of the village. Neyda and Sataan followed their strange guide without a word.
People went about their work as the three of them entered the village. There were cows to tend to, hay to distribute, goats to milk, and fences to mend. Several men were engaged by the business of chopping wood. Others hewed at logs with their hand axes, shaping beams for a home, but there were few new homes within the village and there were fewer children. Either the children had died or gone away. Sataan and Neyda never asked.
Hramyr entered into the door of the longhouse. Sataan and Neyda followed. The building was constructed of wattle and thatch, held up by large pine beams. There were no windows, so it was dark as they entered. After their eyes adjusted, they saw several warriors seated on either side of a fire pit in the middle of the house. At the far end, opposite them, sat a man on a raised platform. His visage was hard and lean, his beard grey. His eyes beheld the new arrivals with a mixture of curiosity and measuring, seeming to weigh each of them in his mind. Sataan got the feeling that old Sozluk was like a wolf, sizing them up with his nose.
Hramyr strode forward and raised his hand. “Hail, Sozluk, chief of the Olun people!”
The old man nodded. “Greetings, Hramyr. Are these the two warriors found by our Hunters?”
“Indeed. They have come to offer their services, if it please you.”
“Have they, now?” He turned his eyes upon Sataan, raising his eyebrow approvingly. “Tell me, what is your name?”
“I am Sataan, a Tarkanian.”
A muffled grumble passed through the room.
“So, what brings you here, Sataan of Tarkania?”
“I am hunting mammoth.”
Laughter broke out among Sozluk’s warriors.
The chief marked Sataan’s earnestness well, then turned to Neyda. “And who are you, girl?”
“I am Neyda, a Kirmute.”
More grumbling ensued.
“A Kirmute? You have travelled some distance also!”
“Are you hunting mammoth, also?”
Sozluk’s men chuckled.
“I am here to pay my debt, sir. That is all.”
“Very well,” said Sozluk. “I like the look of you both, and I accept you into my service. Yet, I shall ask no light favor of you, but shall ask you to perform a great and difficult feat, one that my men, due to our duties here and the superior numbers that stand against us, are unable to perform.”
Neyda raised her chin. “The odds do not concern me.”
“And, you, Tarkanian?”
Sataan shrugged. “I’ve already offered my services and you’ve accepted them. What more needs to be said, save the naming of the quest.”
“Very well,” Sozluk nodded gravely. “I shall come to it. There is a powerful chieftain to the west. His name is Sindrin. He maintains much land and is ambitious to stretch out his rule. It has been learned that he has recently discovered an abandoned iron mine and is currently mining and preparing the construction of a forge. If he is allowed to complete the forge and begin massive weapons production we will surely fall. We are too few to confront him in open battle, yet a quick strike by a few expert warriors against the forge might buy us time to strengthen ourselves.”
“Where is this forge?” asked Neyda.
“Two days west of here.”
“You have only to provide us with a few supplies,” said Sataan. “We will accomplish this feat.”
Sozluk nodded approvingly. “He possesses many men and a shaman reputed to have formidable knowledge of the powers of the earth.”
Neyda and Sataan glanced to each other. Neyda turned to the chief and said: “He is flesh, yes?”
“Aye, I should say.”
“Well, we’ll see if his knowledge can protect his skin against my arrows.”
“Daego. Take these two and outfit them,” said Sozluk. A broad shouldered old veteran nodded to Sozluk, then rose to his feet. “Hramyr, I thank you.”
Hramyr nodded then prepared to leave. He bowed to Sataan and Neyda. “Good fortune to you both,” he said, then exited the longhouse.
“We thank you,” said Chief Sozluk. “Go, now.”
The man named Daego bowed to his lord, then beckoned Sataan and Neyda to follow him. The three of them left the longhouse and crossed an open square between wood and wattle buildings. Daego took them to a house constructed of round stones. He opened the door with a key and led them into a room filled with arms.
“You may take what you like,” he said.
Neyda grabbed a sword with a polished blade and a leather-worked scabbard. She then tossed Sataan’s bow back to him and pulled down a shorter version from the wall. “This is better,” she said, testing the string.
“Do you desire anything?” said Daego.
Sataan surveyed the weapons, but there were none he considered to be a worthy replacement for his broad-headed axe. “Nay,” he said. “Nothing.”
Daego nodded, then led them out of the armory. As they passed out of the door, Sataan nearly ran into the bare chest of a bald-headed man nearly a head taller than he.
The man’s skin glistened with sweat that steamed away from his body. He rested on a long club with stones spiked into the wood. He looked down at Sataan and grinned with a jovial air. “You’re the little man I pulled out of the snow!”
Sataan looked up. “Aye.”
The man grinned even wider and slapped Sataan on the back. “I’m Finnuk,” he said. “Sozluk sent me to join you.”
“Sataan of Tarkania.”
“Glad am I to see you well, woman! That knik nearly took your head clean off!”
Neyda gave a half smile. “Yes...”
“Well,” said Finnuk. “When do we start?”
“Are you travelling like that?” asked Sataan. “Without clothes?”
“Ha! Only when I chop wood. I will fetch my furs and join you forthwith!” Finnuk dashed off.
Sataan glanced at Neyda.
“He seems a cheerful fellow,” she said.
Daego wrinkled his nose. “He’s a queer one. Nearly as queer as old Hramyr. But, he’ll serve you in good stead. Has a nose like a badger and a keen eye.” He raised his hand and waved to them. “Good luck to you.”
He left them standing in front of the armory together. A sharp wind blew snow into their faces, but it was a powdery snow, a snow of spring and warming. They stood, waiting patiently, and watched as chunks of ice slid from rooftops and pine boughs.
Finnuk appeared moments later dressed in modest fur. He carried a pack and a stone-encrusted club which he carried over his shoulder. He came toward them whistling gaily. “The wood thrushes have returned to the forests!” he smiled. “’Tis a good omen.”
Sataan nodded. “Let’s move.”
The unlikely trio set forth from Sozluk’s village near mid-day and travelled west through hills and thick forests. They followed a narrow river, the banks of which had recently thawed and were free of snow and ice, until they were forced to pick another route northward so that they might follow an easier path through the steepening hills. Sataan and Neyda were silent throughout. Finnuk, however, was not overcome by their silence, but prattled on, making comments like: “What a curious pine cone.” Or, “Did you see the size of that woodpecker?” And by the fifth hour of their journey, Sataan began to consciously ignore the loquacious bald man.
Finnuk never noticed this. He was too interested in everything but his companions to sense their discomfort at his long-winded speeches on the nature of insect larvae and the gestation periods of sheep. He was a jovial sort, and he enjoyed informing his friends about his local environment. He was proud of his hills and his trees, and he loved the birds that came to nest in his woods in the spring. He was very anxious to see the Orange-Throated Chitnee return to the elm boughs. After several failed attempts to mimic the Chitnee’s call, he gave it up and took to sniffing tree bark.
“Smell this one,” he said, handing Neyda a piece.
Neyda sniffed it. “Very nice.”
“You can make tea out of it. I will make some tonight at our fire.”
“That would be lovely.”
He smiled then pocketed the bark.
They hiked through the hills for another two hours before the sun began to fade behind a steel-grey sky. Sataan found a suitable camp on the top of a hill and beckoned the others to join him.
Finnuk gathered a few rocks and put them into a circle while Neyda gathered tinder. Before long, Sataan had lit a tidy fire. The others took their seats around it. Finnuk pulled out a bit of meat that he had taken from Sozluk’s stores and shared it with the others.
Sataan chewed on the jerked venison as Finnuk brought out a small earthen pot and put it over the flames. He melted snow into the pot, then placed his bark into the water.
“The bark really was lovely,” Neyda said to Sataan. “I am curious to taste his tea.”
The Tarkanian shrugged. He was not terribly interested in tea or tree bark. He glanced at Finnuk and asked: “So, who are the Hunters?”
“Ah! The Hunters, yes. We hunt for the kniks. That is how we found you. We hunt them and kill them before they raid our own people. As you can see, they are horrible brutes and strong.”
“So, what’s a Tarkanian doing in these parts?”
“I am hunting mammoths.”
“Really? Oh, well there are none in these parts. You should go farther north.”
“What about you, Neyda? What brings a Kirmute to these parts? I thought the Kirmutes were too fond of their sheep to leave them.” He snickered. Sataan cracked a smile also.
“What’s so funny?” she asked.
“Nothing,” said Finnuk, attempting to hide his laughter. “Just that I had heard the Kirmutes and their sheep are seldom parted!”
Sataan roared at this. “We have a name for them in Tarkania.”
“We call them the Ba-bas!”
“The Ba-bas!” Finnuk howled. “Oh, that’s good!”
“Very funny,” Neyda curled up her lip, turning red. “Very funny coming from a bark-sniffer and a man that thinks mammoths are to be hunted alone with an axe!”
Sataan and Finnuk both laughed at this. Finnuk brought out a wine skin and handed it to Neyda. “We’re just teasing you,” he said. “Here. Have a drink.”
“No harm was intended,” said Sataan. “We were just trying to get your goat!”
Finnuk laughed so hard that he sprayed wine into the fire. The flames shot up angrily, making Sataan laugh.
“You two are really something, you know that?” said Neyda. “Where did you acquire your sense of humor? Two grown men making sheep jokes.” She gave each of them a chastising stare, but their humor could not be contained and became infectious. She spluttered, trying to keep from smiling, then laughed. “Oh, hell!” she roared.
“To the Ba-bas?” asked Sataan, raising his wine.
“To the Ba-bas!” Finnuk laughed.
Neyda tipped the wine skin back and drank deeply. When she had finished, she turned and gave them both a sly wink. “Don’t mock it until you’ve tried it boys,” she grinned. “Don’t mock it ‘til you’ve tried it...”
At dawn, they ate and quickly set out again. The party was quiet. Even Finnuk seemed taken by an unusual silence. The sky was ash grey, broken only by the occasional silver glow of the sun. It was a cold morning and all that had melted had refrozen during the night. Pine trees sagged beneath the weight of icicles that had formed upon their branches.
Near mid-day they skirted a series of hills, moving south-west, then, when the way was easier, turned due west again. The chill left the air, and though it was not warm enough to melt the snow, the temperature was tolerable.
Sataan led them. His temperament always seemed to place him at the front of the group, and as often happens in such situations the others were content and took no notice of it.
The Tarkanian led them along a ridge that spanned its way northward, then curled back to the west above a deep depression in the earth. He glanced to the valley below and was so alarmed by what he saw there that he froze in his tracks as stiffly as a deer that scents wolf upon the wind.
Neyda and Finnuk did not know what had given him pause and came up beside him.
“What is it?” asked Neyda.
“Hush!” growled the Tarkanian.
Neyda raised her eyebrows in surprise. “Wha---?”
Sataan pointed to the valley. “There!” he hissed. “Don’t you see it?”
Neyda and Finnuk leaned forward.
“Great thunder!” Finnuk whispered.
Neyda’s mouth fell open in shock as she beheld it. Her hand went to her bow.
Finnuk put his hand over hers. “Are you crazy? That’s a giant! One arrow in his backside would just upset him!”
The giant sat upon his haunches as though he were a great knobby boulder. His body was covered by hair, except for his hands and face, and where there was no hair, his flesh shone like mud at the bottom of a pond. He chewed and munched on the remains of an elk carcass that lay before his feet. The giant was so huge that the great bull elk seemed no bigger than a rabbit.
“What are we going to do?” whispered Neyda.
“Down the northern slope,” answered Sataan. “We’ll stay below the hill where he will take no notice of us.”
“The way he’s crunching on those bones, he won’t hear us anyway,” said Finnuk.
“Yeah,” said Neyda, “but he’s got eyes and a nose, too. You could camp under that nose! Did you see it?”
“We all saw his nose,” said Sataan. “Now, come on. Follow me.”
They followed Sataan down the northern side of the hill and westward. It was not as easy as it had been following the ridge, but they were soon far away, and the giant, large as he was, did not hear them or take notice.
As the sun began to set on the second day, they came to the top of a hill that overlooked a large town only half a mile to the west. There were many farmsteads at the outskirts; sheep, cattle, and pigs were kept there in plenty. Within the center of the town there were four guard towers, a sizable longhouse, many barracks, a mine at the base of the western mountains, and the beginnings of a stone forge. Sataan summed up the lay out of the entire valley within moments and counted four men to every tower and at least eight armed men on the ground that guarded the forge and longhouse. The western edge of the town butted up against the steep crags of rock that formed the base of the mountains to the west. Only one guard tower was positioned there. No doubt the people had little anxiety about attack from that direction for the cliffs formed a formidable deterrent.
“This is Lord Sindrin’s realm, all right,” said Finnuk.
Neyda studied the lay of the land. “I didn’t expect there to be so many.”
“Nor did I.”
Neyda smiled. “I think I’ll enjoy this.”
Sataan the Tarkanian turned to them both. “Come with me,” he said. “I have a plan.”
Sataan took them back into the forest and there he beckoned them to sit and wait until sunset. When the sun had disappeared behind the western mountains, Sataan leaned forward and revealed his plan.
“There are many cattle near to the town,” he began. “If we could cause a distraction, such as a barrage of maddened, loose cows, Sindrin would likely send aid to the farmers, pulling men away from the guarding of the forge and mines.”
Finnuk nodded as he chewed on a strip of meat. “That sounds good, but how do you propose to cause such a distraction?”
“I was thinking that if we wounded an elk and left it in the woods, bleeding and alone, that it might attract wolves. Then, after capturing a wolf, we could set it loose on the cattle.”
“It sounds awfully involved,” said Neyda. “I mean, first we have to find an elk at night, then we have to trap a wolf?”
“Finnuk is a Hunter. Surely, he can find an elk spoor.”
“Aye,” Finnuk agreed. “I can do that. But trapping a wolf is no easy thing.”
“Nay, ‘tis not. Yet, it is possible.” The Tarkanian paused, studying his companions. “I’m sure it is not the only way. I’m open to suggestions, if you have any.”
They sat in silence, thinking.
“Do we have a rope?” asked Neyda.
“Aye,” said Sataan.
Finnuk rose up and began to pace. There seemed to be something on his mind.
“What’s the matter, Finnuk?” Neyda asked.
The bald Hunter turned to them. “A rope won’t work,” he said. “The wolf would rip off your arm rope or not.”
“Then what do you propose?”
Finnuk stopped and faced them. “I have always had a way with animals.”
“Yes?” Sataan urged. “And?”
Finnuk shifted uncomfortably. “I hesitate to mention it. I don’t wish for you to think me strange.”
“We already think that,” Neyda winked. “Come on, Finn. We’re your friends here.”
“Well,” he started. “As a boy I always got along well with our livestock, as if I knew them and they knew me. I don’t know how to explain it.”
“So, what are you trying to say?” Sataan asked impatiently.
“I’m saying,” he grimaced, “that if we catch a wolf, I might be able to--- to put it at ease.” He looked to the others, wondering at their reaction.
Neyda smiled. “That’s great!”
“Then, it’s settled,” said Sataan.
“It is?” asked Finnuk.
“Aye. Let’s find an elk.”
It took several hours to locate the trail of a small herd, but once they found it, Finnuk was quick to lead them right to the animals. Between them, Sataan and Neyda wounded one of the cows and sent her fleeing into the forest with arrows gracing her muscular flanks. They followed for some time until they found her standing alone in a clearing. She had no strength left.
The three hunters bled into the trees and waited. It grew increasingly cold as they sat with their backs against the trunks of the pine trees and a snow began to fall. They remained, crouched in gloomy silence, and waited. The elk began to wander, but it did not go far. Two hours later, the wolves appeared. The elk became nervous and pawed at the ground. At sight of the grey-hackled brutes, she summoned up her last reserves of strength and fled. The wolves leapt after her and the three hunters leapt after the wolves. Within moments they found the wolves ripping open the neck and bowels of the dead cow.
Sataan tapped Finnuk on the shoulder. “Do your work,” he said. “We’ll cover you.”
Finnuk rose and stepped into the clearing. The wolves lifted up their heads and watched him as he approached, but they did not flee. He held his hands out to them and walked directly up to the first one he saw. The others shied away from him, their eyes following him with fearful interest, but the first sniffed at his hands, then rounded to sniff his tail. Finnuk moved slowly, easing the wolf away from his fellows and toward Sataan and Neyda.
“Amazing...” Neyda whispered.
“I’ve heard of men like him,” said Sataan. “It would explain why he is different than his kinsmen. Did you notice that he was nothing like them? I suspect he is not of their tribe originally. He has the old blood of the Odannan in him.”
Neyda shook her head. “Well, whatever he is, he’s bloody amazing!”
Finnuk came before them with a smile, the wolf pacing at his heels. “He will aid us,” he said.
Sataan and Neyda exchanged glances.
“Very well,” said Sataan. “The night is waning. We must return quickly.”
Finnuk nodded. “Lead the way!”
Sataan led the others back to the town under a dark sky. They came to the same ridge and stopped, looking out over the valley. They drew up next to each other, hunkered down and stared out. Snow fell in heavy flakes.
“Looks peaceful enough,” said Neyda.
“Aye,” said Sataan.
Finnuk took off his cloak and shirt until he stood bare-chested atop the ridge. Sataan and Neyda turned and stared at him with questioning looks. He paid them no heed, but reached into a leather bag at his waist, pulled out a great glob of rancid butter and began smearing it all over his head and chest.
Neyda wrinkled her nose. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Preparing for battle,” he said.
“You stink like a latrine!”
“Good,” he said. “I’ll be terrible before my enemies. They shall tremble at my approach.”
“I’m trembling now just at the smell of you!”
The Tarkanian turned away and looked back out to the valley. “Is your wolf ready?”
“Aye,” said Finnuk, rubbing the fearsome beast’s shaggy head. He motioned to the thing with his nose. The wolf seemed to understand the gesture, for it leapt down the hillside and into the valley leaving the others to stare in disbelief.
“Now, we circle over to the mountains,” said Sataan. “Their defenses are weakest there.”
They followed the Tarkanian over the ridge and around the village below. Before they had made it to the mountains to the west, however, a great commotion ensued within the town. Cows began to panic and kick down fences as Finnuk’s wolf laid about him with gleeful abandon. Before the three companions reached their hiding place in the hills, the village was in chaos.
Sataan looked behind him as the wolf leapt and yipped, snapped and dashed among the cattle. Farmers and warriors alike were soon drawn to the uproar. “Come on!” he said, breaking into a run. “We attack now!”
They ran to the western slopes, drew their weapons, then descended in fury upon the village. Suddenly, Finnuk and Sataan pitched head over heels into the snow. The shock of it was so bad that they laid there shaking their heads for several seconds. Below them, near the first guard tower, a great clamor of bells arose to wake the guards.
Neyda stopped in alarm and turned back to them.
“Trip wire...” Sataan groaned, picking himself back up.
“Ugh,” said Finnuk, shaking his head. Snow covered his bare chest. He tapped his club in his hand. “They’re going to pay for that!”
“Come on!” cried Sataan. “There’s no time to waste now. The alarm is up!”
They renewed their charge.
Neyda felt her heart hammering in her ears, but she thrilled to the blood that fired her veins. Finnuk stormed ahead, waving his club and roaring a great battle cry. But it was Sataan that charged ahead of them all with his mighty axe. The Tarkanian would not be denied first blood. He charged with a fury possessed only by demons and as he broke through the trees and the enemy rose up before him, he hoisted his axe and felled the first man in a spray of blood and ichor.
Neyda halted at the tree line, then loosed a torrent of arrows. Men screamed out in agony as the stone tips gouged into their flesh. They fell to the ground writhing in pain. Their death cries filled the night and turned their allies bowels to water.
Finnuk charged into the stronghold behind Sataan and laid about him with his club. Two men went to the snow, one with his head smashed, the other with shattered knees. Together, Sataan and Finnuk fought their way, like starved wolves, beyond the outer ring of thatched barracks and into the center of the defenses. Torches on long poles were lit here and provided just enough light for the guard towers to begin firing at them. Sataan and Finnuk ran for the safety of a nearby barracks, but two men with swords stepped out of the shadows and assailed them.
Finnuk ducked just in time to avoid a massive blow. He rabbit punched the man in his gut, then struck him firmly across the jaw with his club. The stones of the club rent the man’s flesh unmercifully and he fell limply to the ground. Before Finnuk could aid Sataan, however, two arrows, shot from the tower, struck him. One pierced his thigh. The other his side, just above his kidneys. Finnuk groaned and stumbled against the side of the hut.
A heavy, bearded warrior, encased in protective leather, brought his sword down, aiming for Sataan’s head, but the Tarkanian parried ably and split the man’s innards open with one swipe of his axe. He turned. “Finnuk!”
Finnuk’s knees buckled. “There’s too many! We’re surrounded. This was a fool’s quest!”
It was true. More warriors poured from out of the barracks far away, and the soldiers formerly occupied with rounding up cattle were being called back to defend the main camp. The soldiers narrowed their search as several of the guards in the tower called out: “They’re here! Behind the barracks!”
Sataan glanced about the area and counted sixteen men, eight of which were in the guard towers. “Can you walk?” he asked, grabbing Finnuk’s arm.
Finnuk grimaced as he pulled himself to his feet again.
Just then, Neyda came up from behind them. “They’re everywhere!” she panted. “I think our plan has gone awry. Finnuk! You’re wounded!”
“Aye, and behold!” He pointed to where several heavily armed men emerged from the longhouse. Two warriors strode forward, armed in black scale mail. Behind them, wearing a great helm, a massive bear cloak, and carrying an enormous two-headed axe was none other than Lord Sindrin himself.
Arrows pelted the hut that they hid behind. “What are we going to do?” asked Neyda. “We’re pinned down! This was a suicide mission! We can’t fight that many!” But despite her words, she swivelled back around and loosed two arrows. A man in the guard tower fell to the ground with a sickening thud. Two arrows stuck from out of his belly.
“Keep it up!” growled Sataan. “Cover me!”
The fearless Tarkanian leapt from out of the shadows and charged through a horrible barrage of arrow fire. He bore down upon Lord Sindrin’s personal guard like a bull charging a cape.
“Stop him!” Sindrin roared. But before his men had time to ready themselves, Sataan smashed into them and knocked them apart as though they were made of straw. Sindrin raised up his axe, but too late. The Tarkanian’s blade found his neck and removed his head with one clean swipe. The two guards turned and stared in horror as Sataan the Tarkanian rounded on them. Blood coated his face, sweat steamed from his brow. He brought his axe to bear and smote them as if there bones were filled with lard. The two men fell to the snow at the Tarkanian’s feet. The mighty Lord of the forge had been felled in an eyeblink.
Neyda watched as the Lord of the forge was felled as easily as a yearling calf, and his men with him She beheld the Tarkanian’s swiftness and was amazed. Truly, he was no ordinary man. He was a force of death, like some predator come from the deeps to assail the peace of the living. But the battle was not over. A strange man, with the look of deviltry about him, stepped from the doorway of a nearby hut, even as more men plunged through the snow to get at the mighty Tarkanian. Neyda renewed her attack of arrows, but she knew that it would not be enough. “Finnuk?” she called over her shoulder.
“Can you move?”
“Then go to him!”
Finnuk pushed away from the hut and raised up his club. He stepped into the light and charged.
Again, Sataan surprised the young Kirmute girl. She looked on as the Tarkanian charged Sindrin’s shaman. The man raised up his hands, as if he were about to unleash the very fires of hell, but too late. Sataan sent him to a snowy grave with one stroke of his axe.
Finnuk came up beside Sataan just in time to drive back several soldiers still engaged in the pursuit. Upon seeing Sindrin, his elites, and his shaman dead, they looked into the eyes of the maddened Tarkanian, they looked at the man with two arrows stuck into his hide that still stood, ready for battle, and they fled in fear.
Sataan and Finnuk leaned against one another and laughed as their enemies scurried from them. Neyda joined them with a torch in her hand. “That was some bit of work, Tarkanian,” she said, handing him the torch.
She and Sataan then carried Finnuk between them until they were standing directly before the huge forge. There were no men left within the camp to stop them. All had panicked and fled. Sataan stepped forward, slowly, and touched the flames to the beams of the building and set it to blaze. As the fire engulfed the structure, the three companions stepped backward and approved of their work.
“Our onus is abated,” said the Tarkanian.
Sataan of Tarkania Level 1 | Short Stories of Inzeladun | Current Adventures in Inzeladun
Author of this document is identified as Mark Van Dyk, and copyrights to this story are his. Sataan is copyrighted to Vincent Darlage. Trademarks and copyrights are cited on this page without permission. This usage is not meant in any way to challenge the rightful ownership of said trademarks/copyrights. D&D is a trademark of Wizards of the Coast, Inc.©. All copyrights are acknowledged and remain the property of the owners. "Inzeladun" and related characters © 1984, 2000 Vincent N. Darlage. All rights reserved by their respective owners. This page is for entertainment only.