A Time of Courage – John Gwynne

Drem threw his grapple-hook high. He felt it reach the apex of its climb and then drop. There was a thunk as it connected with wood. He pulled, felt it catch in timber, gave a tug to check it had caught properly and would hold his weight. Drem was huddled tight to the wooden wall of a stockade. The only sound he could hear was his heart pounding, echoing in his skull and the rasp of his breath. Just being back here, where it had all started – it set him on edge. The mine at the edge of the Starstone Lake. Upon Byrne’s orders, he and a few score huntsmen of the Order of the Bright Star had crept out of the northern woods in the full dark and made their way to the walls. Drem had noted that the hole Hammer had made in the stockade wall had been repaired. Emotion had swept through him as he’d looked at the spot where he had last seen Sig alive, where the giantess had made her last stand. The mixture of grief and anger set his blood thrumming in his veins, even as he’d crept through the heather and rocks; it had not left him yet. And now he was here, pressed tight against the wall, waiting to go over, just as he had, twice before. This time, though, I am going over with sixty of the toughest, hardest men and women I’ve ever encountered. Hunters of the Order of the Bright Star.

There was a reassurance in that. His hand went to the hilt of his seax and brushed it lightly. There was a reassurance in that, too. He rolled his shoulders, shifting the weight of his mail coat, wincing as it rubbed on raw skin, even with two layers of linen and wool between the mail and his flesh. He’d lived and breathed in it for more than a tennight, slept in it as well, as they’d made a forced march from the battleground in the heart of the Desolation to here. He’d learned the value of his mail at that battle and, no matter how uncomfortable it got, he was not taking it off any time soon. The grey dawn was seeping into the land around him. With the dim light he could just make out the deeper shadows of another man and woman either side of him, twenty or thirty paces away. They had cast their grapple-hooks, too, and they were all waiting for the signal. An owl hooted.

Keld. Drem sucked in a deep breath and climbed, hauling himself up the rope, feet scraping on timber. He was a big man, heavy, but he was strong, stronger than most, and the climb was little effort to him. In a few heartbeats he was at the top; he rolled over, lowering himself to the walkway, crouching low. A nod either side to his companions and then he twisted off the walkway, hung suspended, then dropped to the ground. A moment’s pause, holding his breath to listen, and he was slipping his seax and short axe into his hands and moving into the complex. The mine was a place of shadows and grey light, of muffled sounds: a door creaking on old hinges, the skittering of rats, in the distance the lapping of the lake. Drem made his way slowly from building to building, pushing doors open, checking for any inhabitants, searching the shadows. He saw tracks and crouched to inspect them. They were not a man’s, being too long and distended, the ground scarred by claws, but they were not an animal’s, either.

Drem had seen too many tracks like this for his liking, lately. A Feral’s. But they were old, the soil hard and dry. A moon at least, maybe longer. And the fact that they had not been scuffed away by new tracks was a confirmation of what he’d suspected. The mine had long been abandoned. Drem moved on, continuing his methodical search, opening every door, scrutinizing every track. His path led him ever inwards until, abruptly, a space opened up: a square bordered on three sides by an assortment of buildings. To the north a slab of rock rose to the sky, like a cliff face. Deeper patches of shadow scattered across its darkness hinted at caves.

Drem knew what they were, had seen them before. Cages for Fritha’s experiments. In the centre of the clearing was a table. Drem shivered as memories crawled out of the dark corners of his mind. Memories of blood and fire. Of Fritha, Gulla the Kadoshim and of words of power. He had seen Fritha cut Gulla’s throat and cast him upon that table, along with the body of one of the Desolation’s giant bats and the hand cut from Asroth’s body. He remembered the sensation of bile rising in his throat as he had watched that dark magic at work, the bloodied, frothing steam, the writhing and melding of the forms on the table, and finally of Gulla rising, born anew, born as something different. The first Revenant, he called himself. Drem shook his head and took a step into the open courtyard.

Other forms separated from the shadows: more hunters of the Order who had made their search of the mine, all of them moving like a tightening noose towards this place, the heart of the complex. They stood in silence. Dawn was claiming the land, banishing the murk, and Drem saw more evidence that the place had long been deserted. The buildings were cold and empty, fire-pits stripped of ash by rain and wind, the only signs of life the occasional scuttle of rats or scratching of birds in eaves. The hard-packed earth was rutted with tracks. Drem imagined a gathering of many here, a mixture of animal and human, but the tracks were all hard and dry. A final gathering before Fritha’s warband left, marching out to meet the Order? The sun was rising higher now; the morning light washed over the huge table in the centre of the courtyard, where it squatted like some sleeping, malignant beast. Chains and manacles of iron were set deep into the timber, darker stains scattered in pools on the grain. Blood always leaves a stain. In the pale-streaked skies above, Drem made out the circling of crows.

Others were scattered elsewhere above the mine, landing on rooftops, winging through unshuttered windows. One of the crows above Drem spiralled down to the courtyard, a pale bird, white-feathered where the others were all dark. It cawed and beat its wings, alighting on Drem’s shoulder. He felt Rab’s claws flex and dig into him, and was glad again for his coat of mail. ‘Gulla gone,’ Rab squawked. ‘Aye, looks that way,’ Drem said. ‘And no Twisted Men?’ Rab croaked. ‘None that I can find,’ Drem told him, knowing that Rab was referring to Fritha’s Ferals. ‘Good,’ Rab muttered, shaking and puffing his feathers out. A figure strode from a street to the west.

An older man, dark hair turning to grey, an elegance and intensity to his movement. An assortment of knives and short axes bristled from his belts. Keld, huntsman of the Order and Drem’s friend. Two huge wolven-hounds were loping at his flanks, one slate grey, the other red. In one hand Keld had something long wrapped in a cloak. A spear? Keld strode to the centre of the clearing and paused beside the table, looking at it with a glower. Then he lifted his gaze and stared around the circle, meeting the eyes of each and every hunter. Drem shook his head when Keld’s eyes locked with his. No sign of the living. With a nod, Keld put a horn to his lips and blew upon it.

An answering horn echoed in the distance. Soon Drem felt a tremor in the ground. It is hard for the warband of the Order to move stealthily, especially when there are over a hundred giant bears amongst their ranks. Shapes filled a wide street to the west, which cut through the mine from its main gate and led here. Mounted figures spilt into the clearing. At their head was Byrne, the High Captain of the Order of the Bright Star, and Drem’s aunt. She was a stern-faced woman, dark hair drawn back tightly to her nape, her mail coat and leather surcoat thick with dust from their ride here. A curved sword arched across her back. Drem considered how unassuming she looked, no ostentatious embellishments, no gold or silver, just plain, though expertly made equipment. To see her, no one would guess just how deadly Byrne truly was.

Drem thought back to the recent battle: Byrne trading blows with Fritha, using both blade and the earth magic. Fritha had clearly been outclassed. Drem felt a rush of pride and affection for Byrne. She had saved his life in that battle. She was his kin and, with both mother and father dead, the only kin he had – that meant a lot to Drem. More than that, she had shown him love and kindness, and that counted for far more in these bleak and desolate times. At Byrne’s shoulder a huge bear lumbered, upon it a dark-haired and pale-skinned giantess, Queen Ethlinn, a spear in her fist with its butt resting in a saddle-cup. Ethlinn’s eyes scanned the clearing, focusing on the table. To the other side of Byrne, another giant strode, his white hair braided, a creased lattice of scar tissue where one eye had once been. His coat of mail and leather jerkin did little to hide the slabs of muscle that padded his frame.

He gripped a war-hammer in his huge hands. Balur One-Eye, father of Ethlinn, most famed warrior of the Banished Lands. Behind these three rode the warband of the Order: an assortment of giants upon bears with mounted warriors, more riders coming out into the clearing from smaller streets. Drem saw red-haired Cullen riding close behind Byrne. The young warrior’s eyes sought out Drem and he gave him a wry grin. Keld had spoken for Drem and his skills as a huntsman and tracker, and had easily accepted him into the hunter’s order. Cullen had wanted to accompany Drem into the mine with the other scouts, but Byrne had forbidden it. Cullen was not a hunter, with neither the patience nor aptitude for stealth. He was skilled with a blade, more than most – far more than Drem – but he was hot-headed and acted before thinking, so Byrne had ordered the young warrior to stay with her. Cullen had been none too pleased about that.

Byrne rode up to the table and reined in, the others rippling to a halt behind her. With practised ease, Byrne slipped from her saddle. She approached the table, stopped before it and stared at it with a scowl. Ethlinn followed, holding a hand out over the table, her lips moving, and then she winced, as if seeing the terrible acts that had occurred upon it. Balur lifted one of the chains and curled a lip, let it drop. ‘Keld?’ Byrne looked to her huntsman. ‘Place is empty.’ Keld grunted. ‘Been that way a while, by the looks of it.’ Byrne nodded, her eyes returning to the table.

‘But I did find this.’ Keld held out the object he had bundled in his cloak. Byrne reached out and unwrapped the object; a series of emotions flittered across her face as she recognized it. Sorrow, anger. There was a slight tremor in Byrne’s hands as she revealed it. A sword. Drem knew it immediately, even if it was still in its scabbard with a long belt wrapped around it. Its size and length made it obvious that this was no ordinary sword, that it had belonged to a giant or giantess. Sig’s sword. Drem felt a fist clench in his gut at the sight of it.

He had known Sig for such a short time, but she had left an irremovable mark upon his heart. An example of true friendship, of loyalty. Of love. Of truth and courage. A tear ran down his cheek. Byrne nodded, holding the sword up high for all to see. ‘You should take this,’ Byrne said, turning and offering it to Balur One-Eye. The old giant blinked. He slung his war-hammer over his shoulder, reached out a tentative hand, then drew it back. ‘No,’ the giant said.

‘It should go to someone in your Order. Sig was a warrior of the Bright Star, through and through.’ Byrne lowered the blade, resting its scabbarded tip upon the ground. ‘So are you, in here,’ Byrne said, touching a hand to her heart with one hand. ‘Huh,’ grunted Balur, not a denial, Drem noted. ‘But I have not taken your oath.’ ‘You knew Corban, knew what he fought for. You were his friend,’ Byrne said. ‘I was,’ Balur breathed, ‘but I never took his oath. Only one oath guides me.

To guard my daughter’s life with my own.’ He reached out a calloused hand and touched Ethlinn’s cheek. Ethlinn wrapped his hand in her own and smiled. ‘That oath would never conflict with the oath of the Order,’ she said. ‘Sig was dear to you. You should take the sword.’ Balur stared at it and nodded. ‘Aye, all right then.’ He reached out a hand and took the blade from Byrne, drew it from its scabbard and held it high. It glinted in the summer sun, though dark patches stained it.

‘I’ll avenge you with this sword, brave Sig,’ Balur shouted, his voice echoing from the buildings and down empty streets. A cheer rang out from the warriors around him. Drem’s voice was one of the loudest. You have already fulfilled part of that promise, Drem thought, remembering Balur fighting the giant, Gunil, Sig’s killer and a traitor to the giants. Balur had crushed his skull with a blow from his war-hammer. Drem had felt a huge sense of satisfaction at seeing Gunil slain, not only as revenge for Sig’s death, but Gunil had also been one of those responsible for the murder of Drem’s father, Olin. Just Fritha left to face justice for that, now, Drem thought, his hands involuntarily clenching into fists at the thought of the woman who had slain his father. ‘And it is rune-marked,’ Byrne said quietly to Balur, with a small smile as the cheering died down, and Balur slipped the sword back into its scabbard. ‘That may come in very handy in the coming days.’ ‘Aye.

’ Balur nodded. During the battle against Fritha they had been attacked by a swarming host of Revenants, twisted offspring created by the bite of Gulla and his chosen. They were human in shape, but fought with an utter disregard for their own safety and were near-impossible to kill. Drem had seen decapitation put one down, but other than that they just kept coming at you. Unless they were stabbed with a runemarked blade. When struck with a blade that had been inscribed with runes of earth power the Revenant would fall, every time. Drem had stabbed the host’s captain, Ulf, with his own seax, runemarked by Drem’s father, Olin. Ulf had died and, with his death, the whole of his Revenant host had collapsed and died as well. Every single one of us should have a rune-marked blade. But they were rare, only belonging to those whom Byrne had deemed trustworthy enough to teach the earth power to.

She said it was a great responsibility, learning the earth power, and so only a small portion of the Order of the Bright Star wielded such weapons. Sig had been one of them. Now, though, after the battle with Fritha, there was a need for all to carry a rune-marked weapon, whether they knew the earth power or not. Otherwise there would be no standing against these Revenants. Balur shrugged his war-hammer off his back and slid the sword over his shoulder, fumbling at the belt straps. Byrne helped him cinch them tight. The giant rolled his shoulders. ‘I’ll have to learn how to use this thing,’ he muttered. ‘I’ll teach you, One-Eye,’ Cullen called out. A few chuckles echoed around the clearing.

‘I’ll hold you to that, you young pup,’ Balur growled. He bent and picked up his war-hammer. ‘But for now, I’ll stick to this.’ He hefted his war-hammer and smiled at its familiar weight. Byrne looked back to Keld. ‘Will Balur get to wield his new blade here?’ ‘Not likely,’ Keld said. ‘We’ve scouted the place – not a living soul ’cept rats and the like. Only place we haven’t looked is in there.’ The huntsman nodded towards the cliff face. ‘I wasn’t going to send a handful of my crew in there until there were more swords at my back.

’ The rock was pocked with scores of small caves, all of them set with iron-barred gates. Now open. Drem remembered all too well the inhabitants of those cells: Ferals, mutations of men, women and children, somehow warped into a malformed half-life, created by Fritha’s twisted mind and her dark blood magic. Set amongst the cells was a deeper blackness: a massive cave entrance which looked as if it ran deep into the rock face. Drem had a recollection of howls echoing out from that dark hole during the battle here on that nightmare-filled night. Byrne lifted her eyes and stared at the black hole in the granite wall. ‘Spread out, search every last handspan of this place,’ she called out. ‘I need to know where Gulla is.’ The warband spread out into the surrounding buildings. Ethlinn and Balur remained, alongside a score of warriors, Byrne’s honour guard with Cullen and Utul, Byrne’s captain from the south.

He was dark-skinned with a hooked nose, streaks of grey in his otherwise jet hair, and deep lines about his eyes – evidence of his near-constant smile. A curved sword hilt arched over his shoulder, similar to Byrne’s, but with a longer grip. He was one of the deadliest swordsmen Drem had ever seen, and he’d had the privilege of seeing a few, lately. ‘Drem, you’re with us,’ Byrne said to him. Rab gave a croak, spread his wings and flapped into the air. ‘You know this place better than any of us,’ Byrne said. ‘I want to take a look in there.’ She nodded towards the cave entrance and started walking, Ethlinn, Balur and the others following. Keld was already at the opening, striking sparks from flint and stone into a torch he’d taken from a sconce set just inside the cave entrance. Flames sparked and flared, sending shadows dancing.

In the new light Drem saw the cave ran deep into the rock, sloping downwards. Keld strode into the cave, holding the torch high. His two wolven-hounds, Fen and Ralla, followed him, though Drem could see their hackles were up, their noses twitching. Byrne ordered half her honour guard to remain at the cave entrance, the other ten following her as she marched after Keld. Ethlinn, Balur, Cullen and Utul accompanied her. Drem drew in a deep breath and hurried after them.

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