A Time of Blood – John Gwynne

Drem looked up from his horse’s steady gait. Through the stark branches above he glimpsed the sun sinking into the mountains ahead, a pale glow behind snow cloud and leafless branches. In a matter of heartbeats twilight was settling upon them like a shroud. We must stop soon, else the horses risk snaring a leg. He glanced to his right, saw Cullen riding with his cloak pulled high, face hidden in shadow. Ahead of them, Keld looked as if he had no thought for stopping, the scarred huntsman loping through the trees much like his wolven-hound, Fen. Grief drives him, and hate. And fear, if he is human. Drem blinked, trying to dispel the image of Gulla the Kadoshim, twitching and jerking upon the blood-soaked table in the mine, then rising transformed, teeth long and gleaming, eyes red as coals. It felt like a dream, no, a nightmare, even though it had been less than a day and night since it happened. Too-vivid memories of the battle at the mine leaped out in Drem’s mind like rabid beasts: images of Gulla sinking his teeth deep into the throat of one of his acolytes, of feral things, part man, part beast, snarling, clawing, of winged half-breeds screaming their malice, of Fritha, beautiful and cold as the ice-laden forest, black sword in her fist. And Sig the giantess, friend to his father. Friend to me. And now she is dead. Because of me.

A restless anxiety was growing within him. So much had happened in so short a time, giving him little chance to feel anything; instead he had simply reacted, mostly just trying to stay alive. Now, though, they had been travelling all night and most of the day, and he had had time to think. So much change. I wish I was with Da, that we were trapping together, out in the Bonefells, just the two of us. And now he’s gone as well. As dangerous as that lifestyle had been, it was familiar to Drem, an old cloak, and it had fitted him well. All of this was so different, so new. He felt agitated, like when his legs ached and he just needed to get up and walk around, except that he couldn’t do anything here to help himself; there was no way he could return to the familiar that felt so comforting to him. His hand crept to his neck, looking for the steady reassurance of his pulse.

One, two, three, he began to count. “Camp,” Keld said as he emerged from the darkness, raising an arm and smashing a hole in a frozen stream with the butt of his spear. A good spot, Drem thought, noting the spread of trees about them, the stream, huge boulders to the right, sheltering them from the cold wind that hissed out of the Bonefells, as well as providing a measure of protection from predators. On two legs or four. In silence they set to making camp. Cullen took the horses, hobbling them, removing saddles and rubbing them down. Drem found a spot for a fire and, drawing his hand-axe from his belt, began chopping through the thick rind of ice, then scooping away the softer snow until he reached the frozen ground beneath. He gathered stones, chopped kindling from a dead lightning-blasted oak and prepared a small fire. Before he set to lighting it, he trimmed thin branches from a willow beside the stream, spent a while weaving them into a latticed fence, then staked it along one side of the fire-pit he’d dug. A screen against any eyes that might be following them from the east.

Some tinder from a pouch at his belt, flint and striking iron for sparks, some cold breath upon it and then fragile flames were clawing in the snow, hissing and hungry. A shaking of the ground made Drem look up, one hand reaching for the bone-hilted seax at his belt. A shadow the size of a boulder shifted within the trees, but Drem’s grip relaxed as Hammer, the giant bear, lumbered into their small clearing. Hammer was Sig’s battle-bear and had borne them from last night’s chaos, carrying Drem, Keld and Cullen away, crashing through tree and shrub, no thought or time for careful steps or hiding their passage, just a driving knowledge that they had to escape, to put as much distance as possible between them and Gulla. Hammer had run to exhaustion, bringing them back to Drem’s hold in less than half the time it would have taken them on horseback. There they had dismounted, removed the saddle, harness and battered mail shirt from Hammer’s body, packing it away in paniers and saddlebags. They’d tended to the wounded bear and fed her some foul concoction that Keld said was called brot, then led Hammer and fresh horses into the darkness, knowing they could not wait until dawn. They had agreed to head west, using the cover of the forest to screen them from eyes in the skies, avoiding the town of Kergard, and then to turn south when they reached the western rim of the Bonefells. Drem had voiced his worry for the townspeople of Kergard but knew there was little they could do to help them. No one in the town had believed him before, and besides, he did not know if there was anyone in Kergard left to save.

To Drem’s horror, scores of the townsfolk had been at the mine, secret acolytes of the Kadoshim, including Ulf the tanner, a man Drem had once thought of as a friend. So, they had committed themselves to speed. Pursuit from the mine was likely, and they had to use every moment given them to reach Dun Seren and the Order of the Bright Star. Drem had led to begin with, his knowledge of the terrain making him the obvious choice to steer them through the darkness. With the rising of a pale sun they had mounted their horses and Keld had taken point, his wolven-hound Fen scouting ahead. Hammer had followed them, grumbling doleful growls, taking herself deeper into the woods, though never quite out of sound or sight. She feels grief for Sig, just like Cullen and Keld. More, maybe. They were rider and mount for more years than Cullen has drawn breath. Probably longer than Keld has lived, too.

Keld strode to the bear, unbuckled the saddlebags she was carrying, then checked over her wounds and patted her neck. She rubbed her huge head against the huntsman, almost knocking him from his feet. “Ah, lass, we miss her, too,” Keld muttered, tugging on one of the bear’s ears. She seemed to like it, a mournful rumble escaping her throat. Fen loped into the clearing, eyes glowing in the firelight. The slate-grey hound dropped a hare at Keld’s feet. “A hot meal for supper, then. Thank the stars, I’ve had enough of brot,” Cullen said, his obvious pleasure at the thought infectious. Keld skinned and gutted the hare and set it on a spit over the fire, fat dripping and hissing. A flapping of wings came from above as a white crow descended from the branches, landing on Cullen’s shoulder.

“I was wondering where you were, Rab,” Cullen said to the crow. “Rab watching, protecting friends,” Rab squawked, then hopped from Cullen’s shoulder to the pile of guts and offal that had been stripped from the hare. He pecked noisily. “But the love of slime and foul things drew you back to us,” Cullen observed. “All must eat,” the bird croaked as it swallowed an eyeball. “Fair point,” Cullen said. The dead can’t eat, Drem thought, his mind filling with his father, Olin, and Sig, grief a wave rising within him, whipped high by the winds of exhaustion. His body ached, everywhere, a thousand cuts and bruises from the fight at the mine, and from before that. He raised a hand to his throat, rubbed at the scar where he’d been hung from a tree in his courtyard, twice. A memory of Fritha’s face.

Sweet, kind Fritha, with her blue eyes and freckles, a face he had trusted. Thought he’d begun to love. He didn’t feel like that now. I hate her, will see her dead for what she’s done. A deep anger uncoiled in his chest, buried deep beneath the pain of loss and exhaustion of the last few ten-nights, distant but never gone. Much of the anger was aimed at himself, at his stupidity for staying, for the choices he’d made, choices that had led to his father’s death, the loss of the Starstone Sword, the death of Sig. The enormity of it all threatened to engulf him. “Drem, catch,” a voice called out, snapping him from his reverie. Cullen had thrown something to him. Instinctively, Drem caught it, a long bundle.

It was his sword, still in its scabbard and belt. My father’s sword, mine now. He looked at the worn leather hilt and scabbard, drew it a little, stared at the four-pointed star carved into the blade, just below where it met the cross-guard. My da, a warrior of the Order of the Bright Star. So much of his world had changed in such a short time; he was still reeling upon the shifting ground of his life. “Come on,” Cullen said, drawing his own sword from the scabbard at his hip. “What, are they near?” Drem asked, panic whispering in his belly as his eyes searched the shadows. “No, lad,” Cullen said with a grin, though he was younger than Drem. “The sword dance, while our supper’s cooking.” He paused, looked more serious for a moment.

“I’ve known grief,” he said, “know what it can do to you, here.” He tapped a finger to his temple. “I can see it in you now. The sword dance always helped me, mayhap it’ll help you, too.” The sword dance. Traditional training for the Order. Drem had rarely touched a sword in his twenty-one summers of life. While a trapper’s life required being intimately accustomed to the use of spear, knife and axe in order to survive in the wild, a sword was a warrior’s weapon, used to fight other warriors. There weren’t many warriors to be found in the great wild of the Desolation and Bonefells. Only four or five moons had passed since Olin had first introduced Drem to a sword and begun to teach him the rudiments of its use.

Since then Drem had killed with it. A terrible knowledge, one that he felt deep in his bones, an aching sadness that weighed upon him. Drem hated to fight, he disliked the use of violence. But these were violent times, and as his da had said, better to be the one that lives than the one that dies. With a sigh, Drem followed Cullen to a clear space. Keld looked up from the fire-pit to watch them. “Stooping falcon,” Cullen said, raising his sword two-handed above his head. Drem drew his own blade, dropping the scabbard in the snow, sending long, distended shadows stretching across the glade. Stooping falcon, he heard his father’s voice whisper in his head. Drem licked grease from his fingers; the weight of a hot meal in his belly spread some warmth through him.

He blew a long breath out, savouring the feeling. Beside him Cullen smacked his lips and Keld threw a bone to Fen, who plucked it from the air and crunched it into splinters. “I can’t believe Sig’s gone,” Cullen whispered, staring at the flames. Drem saw a tear cutting a line through the dirt and grime on Cullen’s face. “All my life she’s seemed immortal, solid as the stone and timber of Dun Seren. She was a legend even before joining with my great-grandfather to found the Order.” He bowed his head. Keld grunted something as he sat with a whetstone, five or six knives laid out before him, as well as three hand-axes and his sword. “Poor Sig,” Rab cawed mournfully from a branch above them. “I’ll take Gulla’s head and drink mead from his boiled skull while I stand upon a mound of his dead half-breeds and acolytes,” Cullen snarled.

Drem was learning that Cullen was not one to hide his feelings, whatever they were. “Rab will peck Gulla’s other eye out,” Rab cawed. Cullen smiled up at the white crow. “Aye, lad, Sig was the best of us,” Keld said quietly. “More than that, she was my friend, saved my life more times than I can remember.” He paused and spat on the fire. “She’ll be sorely missed.” A silence fell amongst them, filled with the grate of whetstone on steel, the crackling of flames, the creak and scrape of branches. “You’ll have your vengeance, my friend,” Keld said, eyes fixed on the flames of the fire. Drem didn’t think that the huntsman was talking to him or Cullen.

“I’m sorry,” Drem whispered. Keld and Cullen just stared at Drem. “For sending my message to Dun Seren, bringing both of you and Sig here.” He put his head in his hands. “I wish it had been me that died, not Sig. Wish I’d left when my da said we should run, wish I’d never laid eyes on Fritha. If not for me, my father would still be alive, Sig, too.” “You didn’t kill Olin or Sig,” Keld grunted. “It was that winged bastard Gulla and his brood.” “But if—” “No,” Keld snapped.

“Everything’s easy looking back at the path you’ve trod, and it’s a fool’s game to try.” He looked up from the blade in his lap, eyes fixing Drem. There was something wild in his gaze, untamed. “You’ve no guilt or shame in this, Drem. Think on this: what would be happening now if we hadn’t witnessed that foul ceremony last night?” Drem frowned, thinking about that. “Gulla would be transformed, still. A Revenant, Fritha called him.” “They wouldn’t be needing to spend half a day burying their dead, or torching them, and that’s a fact,” Cullen said. “Cullen and Keld are mighty warriors,” Rab muttered. “And Drem,” the crow added, bobbing his head at Drem.

Is that crow trying not to hurt my feelings? “Aye, true enough,” Keld agreed. “Gulla turned some of his acolytes into the same corruption as him,” he said thoughtfully. “This is part of the Kadoshim’s plan, part of the Long War. So, I’ll ask you again, Drem, what would be happening now?” “He’d be raising his army,” Drem told them. “Sig said the Kadoshim are too few to win the war against the Ben-Elim, that they need numbers, warriors.” “That’s right,” Keld said, “and their acolytes are not enough. They’ve been experimenting at that mine, using dark magic to make those Feral beast-men, and now these new creatures, Revenants. Once Gulla has what he needs, he’ll fall upon the Banished Lands like a plague.” Drem shook his head. Part of him had known this, but in the madness of battle, the grief at losing Sig and the following exhaustion of flight, the weight of it had not settled in his mind.

It was starting to make sense now. “Without you, we would not have known anything about it,” Cullen said, squeezing Drem’s shoulder. “Aye. Long have we searched for Gulla, High Captain of the Kadoshim. He is second only to Asroth, and you led us to him. You’ve given mankind a chance,” Keld said. “Course, they may still catch us and leave us bleeding out in the snow, or those Feral things might end up gnawing on our bones and sucking out our marrows, though I’ll take a few of them with us before I’ll let that happen.” Keld patted his axe lovingly, face twisted in a maniacal grin. “But at least we have a chance now, and that’s because of you. Olin would be proud.

” Drem felt a flare of warmth in his chest at that, though edged with the grief that every memory of his da brought with it. “Though he wouldn’t be so proud of that,” Keld said, nodding at Drem’s seax. “What?” Drem said, putting a hand on the bone-hilted knife at his belt. “Oh, dear Elyon above,” Cullen said. “Can you even take it from its scabbard?” Keld asked. Drem tried, but it was stuck. He looked closer, saw blood had crusted black on the scabbard, thick where the bone hilt met leather. He tugged and twisted the seax free. It was a big knife, more like a short-sword, as long as his forearm, the blade thick and single-edged, curving on the sharp side to a tapered point. “Ach,” Keld said with a disgusted twist of his lips.

“You should have a ten-night on latrine duty at Dun Seren for that.” Shamefaced, Drem set to scouring the blade clean, taking a pumice stone and oil from a pouch on his belt. There were new notches in the blade, testament to the battle at the mine. Blood had congealed in the pits of the steel. Drem scraped it away, scrubbing hard with the pumice. “Can I see that?” Cullen asked beside him. Drem passed him the seax. The hilt was worn and smooth from Drem’s grip, a perfect fit for his fist. Cullen hefted the weapon, noting the weight, gave it a twirl in his fist, firelight gleaming red. Then he looked closer at the blade, with Keld leaning in as well.

Cullen passed the seax to the huntsman. “Did Olin forge this?” Keld asked. “Aye, he did,” Drem said. He remembered his da in the smithy at Kergard during their first winter in the Desolation. That had been five years ago. Keld drew his thumb along the blade’s edge, blood welled. He let a few drops land on the flat and smeared them in. “Nochtann,” he said, and the steel of the blade seemed to shimmer and ripple. Drem blinked; carved runes were winking into life along the blade. He leaned forwards, staring.

“Where did they come from?” Drem muttered. “They’ve always been there.” Cullen smiled. “Aye, lad,” Keld said. “Olin put them there, when he forged it.” “How? Why have I never seen them?” “We learn more than swordcraft at Dun Seren,” Keld said with a wink. “I haven’t, yet,” Cullen said sullenly. Drem shook his head. He’d had a lot to come to terms with over the last couple of moons, foremost of which was the fact that there was much more to his da than he had ever known. It still hurt that Olin had kept so much hidden from Drem, but he knew it had been to protect him.

Only when he had helped his father forge the Starstone Sword had he seen the depth of Olin’s mystery; he’d carved runes and cast spells of power over the new-forged blade. It had been quite a shock. “I’ve learned my letters, but I can’t read that,” Drem said. “I don’t understand. What language is it? What does it say?” “It’s the first tongue,” Keld said, “spoken once by giants and men alike, but now you’d call it Giantish. It says dilis cosantoir. Faithful protector.” My da tried to protect me his whole life. And even now, from the grave, his protective hand lingers. Drem felt his eyes mist and, for a moment, almost sensed that his father was sitting beside him at the campfire.

“They are more than words,” Keld said. “That blade will never break, and I’m guessing it’s never needed much sharpening.” He gave the seax back to Drem. “Now that you mention it, no, it doesn’t,” Drem said. He looked at the seax with a sense of wonder, and as he watched, the runes faded and disappeared. He cast his whetstone along its edge a few times, but that was all it needed, then set to cleaning the scabbard of dried blood. After that he worked on the hand-axe at his belt, the misery that had settled upon him during the day’s journey a little eased by Keld and Cullen’s words, and by the thought of his da. The three men settled into a companionable silence. Hammer the giant bear sat and then lay down. Within heartbeats she was snoring like an avalanche in the Bonefells.

“How long until we reach Dun Seren?” Drem asked. Keld rubbed a hand over his newly shaved head, a ruse both the huntsman and Cullen had used to infiltrate the acolytes at the starstone mine. “Took us two ten-nights to get here,” he muttered, “but it’ll take us longer going back, using the forests and Bonefells to hide us from anyone tracking.” The thought of Kadoshim and Feral beast-men sent a shiver through Drem. Last night’s fight had a dreamlike quality to it, parts of it blurred and ethereal, other parts too vivid and blood-bright. He shook the thoughts away, fingers reaching to his neck, searching for the drumbeat of his heart, which always gave him a sense of calm. “Whatever it takes, we must get back to Dun Seren,” Keld said. “Our High Captain Byrne must hear of all that’s happened. Gulla, Revenants, Feral beasts, a Starstone Sword.” “Aye,” Cullen agreed.

“And she must be told about Gunil.” “Gunil?” Drem said. “Aye,” Keld grunted. “The giant that fought for Gulla. He belonged to the Order once, was brother to Varan, the giant lord of the Jotun Clan. Varan was killed over sixteen years ago and Gunil was thought to have been slain, too.” Keld was silent a moment, lost in thought. “Gunil and Sig were… close.” And Sig fought him at the mine. That must have hurt her.

Drem felt the spark of a cold anger in his gut, another wrong that needed to be put right. He put Gunil on the list of those he would make answer for their deeds. “Why does he fight for Gulla?” Drem asked. Keld shrugged. “He was always… guarded, secretive. But I never suspected him of being a traitor.” He grated his teeth and patted his axe. “It’s something he’ll have to answer to my axe for.” “We have to reach Dun Seren,” Drem said. “We cannot fail.

” “Aye,” Keld agreed. “I’ve been thinking the same thing. Rab, I want you to set wing for Dun Seren. Tell Byrne what has happened, about Sig, and what we’ve seen. And tell her to send a few swords out to meet us. We’ll probably need all the help we can get.” “Rab can’t go,” the crow squawked, sounding horrified. “Rab watching you, Rab protecting you.” “And a fine job you’ve been doing,” Cullen said. “But it’s more important that Byrne knows what’s happening.

” “Rab know.” The bird’s head bobbed. “But Rab not want to leave friends.” “Come back to us when you’ve spoken to Byrne,” Cullen said. “Lead those she sends to help us.” “Yes, Rab will bring help,” the crow cawed, sounding somewhat appeased. “Good,” Keld said. “Leave in the morning, as soon as the sun rises.” Drem woke to the gentle sensation of snow falling upon his face. He sat up, pushing off one of the thick cloaks he’d packed when they had stopped briefly at his hold.

Dawn was settling about them, darkness shifting to grey. Hammer was gone, and Keld’s bed mat was empty, the huntsman nowhere to be seen, but Cullen was curled and snoring beneath a bearskin cloak. Rab was roosting beside the red-haired warrior, his head tucked under a wing. As Drem stood and stretched, a myriad of aches clamouring for his attention, the crow poked his head out from under his wing and studied Drem with a bright, intelligent eye. “Rab remember Olin,” the bird said. “Olin kind to Rab.” Drem blinked at that; the thought of his father talking to crows was a strange one. Though it shouldn’t be, not after all I’ve learned of him.

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