The Halls of Vulgad
By Jeff Beck
About the author
It was cold, the first bite of winter setting in, and harsher here than in the lands below. Rathe didn't feel the cold though, his upbringing and lineage saw to that. His whole life had been spent at the base of these mountains, in the company of a hard people he called his own. They had to be strong, representing the first line of defence for the kingdoms of men against those who lived on the other side of the Earth's Scar. Those called the Tyris, a race of giants and warriors, who more than once had tried to invade through the pass. It was only its merciful narrowness that kept their repeated attempts from succeeding. That and the ever vigilance of Rathe's clan.
Thick braids of pale hair fell down the man's broad back, and his granite jaw sported several days growth. Rathe rode through the pass on the largest horse that his people had ever produced, and even it was not quite big enough for the man who himself had been referred to as a "giant" by many of his own often enough. There were still a few hours of light left to him, and so Rathe continued on.
So far he'd only come across one other man on the mountain, a hermit of sorts who was known to his clan. Watching Rathe pass by, a strange look had come over the old hermit's dried face, and he'd spoken what he believed to be simple fact.
"You're travelling the wrong way lowlander."
Rathe just looked down at him, and in the same tone said, "No I'm not."
Since then, he'd not seen another soul. People had long since stopped their venturing into these particular mountains, and if some still did, it wouldn't be during this time of year.
Later, when he saw the darkness approaching, Rathe decided to only travel as far as the place he remembered before stopping for the night. He'd come this way once before, a few years ago during the summer of his nineteenth season. It was after an attack by the Tyris, who surprised them all by attacking in a season other than winter; the giants almost always preferred to use the harsh climes of winter as their best weapon. Nonetheless, after days of battle the Tyris were driven back and pursued. During the chase, Rathe's first journey over the pass, they came upon a widening of the way; a clearing made and used by the Tyris as an encampment for their frequent raids. It was to this place that Rathe again came.
At the edge of this open area he found a place where the rock jutted out from the mountainside creating a natural shelter of sorts. After tethering his beast to a tree in a nearby stand, and first taking care of its needs, he started a fire and settled in. From here Rathe had a clear view of the pass running in both directions to the points where its bends curved off. After a time the big man propped himself against the back of his rocky shelter and let sleep come.
It was late, and the moon hovered directly overhead, filling the clearing with its silvery brightness. Little remained of Rathe's fire, having burned itself down to white ash and red embers. The young warrior only half slept, the way he'd become accustomed to since joining the watch. When Rathe was on duty, his eyes never closed, and when he slept only one of them did. Those of his clan who kept a lookout on the pass both day and night had taught him many things, all of them aidful to staying alive. So it was, when the first faint padding sounds were carried in on the breeze, that Rathe's hand fell to the pommel of his sword.
A few moments later he saw the shadows begin to move along the path from the direction toward which he travelled. Rathe realized someone was running through the night and that they would reach his place in a matter of moments. The distinct sounds told him there was only one, and that whoever it was had either not yet seen him or didn't care how much noise they made. Rathe let the embers continue to glow.
Suddenly the sounds stopped, and for a time all was quiet again, then the padding resumed, only this time they came slower. A moment later Rathe, whose eyes had been trained over time to see well in the dark, spied the form of a rather small man attempting to walk past unnoticed, or unmolested. The big man became curious.
"Who are you running from?"
Again the little man froze in his shoes, seemingly unsure of what course to take. Though when he finally spoke, it was with a surprisingly steady voice.
"Excuse me, sir, I didn't notice you there."
The hint of a smile played across the edges of Rathe's face. "Then your eyesight isn't very good."
The man looked uneasy. "If you'll excuse me, I'll be on my way."
Rathe twisted his sword so that the moonlight glinted clearly off its blade.
"Why don't you rest awhile," he said. "The fire's gone, but there's still some warmth left."
For a moment the man just stood there, considering, then slowly he approached the little camp. Rathe gestured for him to sit.
"You seem to have forgotten my question," he said.
At first it looked as though Rathe's guest might not stay, but then he sat down across from the big man, putting his hands near the still warm embers to take away some of the chill.
"Oh no, I'm not running from anything. I simply wanted to get through the pass before the first snow."
Neither man spoke for the next few moments, each one weighing the other.
Finally, "Oh, by the way, my name is Svalentyfer and I thank you for your kindness."
"I'm called Rathe, and if I were you I wouldn't depend too much on people's kindness."
Svalentyfer seemed unsure of what to make out of this remark, so he turned his head to look back the way he'd just come.
"Seems strange," continued Rathe "you coming from that direction. I thought Tyris land was closed to the races of men."
Rathe thought he probably knew more about that than this man did, but still, he was curious. Now Svalentyfer looked as though he wished he'd kept going.
"Well, to the average person, yes. But if you happen to be a trader of goods that are of interest to the giants, well -- they do make exceptions."
Rathe's smile deepened. "Really, then what did you trade for? It must be worth a great deal."
Again Svalentyfer looked back, a bit too on edge, Rathe thought.
"I -- alas it was stolen by still other Tyris brigands. Just can't trust any of that lot can you?" He lowered his voice and leaned closer now. "To tell you the truth, that is why I was moving rather quickly. I wasn't completely sure that they wouldn't follow me to finish the job you see. And I hope you do not take offence, but when I first came upon you, for just a moment I thought you might be one of them yourself. You're just about big enough." He ended this last with a nervous laugh.
Rathe watched the man rise to his feet.
"I really should keep moving. Wouldn't do to get caught sleeping, so to speak. Plus, I don't want to make trouble for you. If they found me, and you just happened to be around, well--"
"I don't mind. Sit down."
For just the briefest of moments Rathe saw a look of annoyance pass over the man's face, and then it was gone, replaced by his nervous smile once more. Svalentyfer remained standing.
"So, why are you here, to repeat your own question?" The man had obviously decided to try turning the tables. "You don't look like a trader to me."
"I have other business with the Tyris; maybe you can help me with that."
Now Svalentyfer began to edge away, the look in Rathe's eyes signalling some primal warning within him. Before he'd taken two steps the big man struck like a cat, his large frame moving with a level of speed that always surprised those around him. Svalentyfer, who was a very quick man himself, was so taken off guard that he barely even saw the fist before it took him in the jaw and darkness fell.
"Don't worry," Rathe said matter of factly, "I'm not planning on killing you any time soon."
Svalentyfer spat the bad taste of dried blood from his mouth. "I suppose I should be thankful for that at least."
Rathe could tell his captive was testing the bonds that held him, and that he found them tight. Finally he gave up trying.
"So, exactly what are you going to do with me?"
Rathe looked him in the eyes now, and the other man knew that what he said was the complete and plain truth. "I don't know yet."
Just then Rathe lifted his head, nostrils going wide and eyes narrowing. Quickly, he moved to the overhang, kicking dirt over any remaining light from the glowing cinders. Then, without a word to the other man, he disappeared into the shadows lying all around them.
"Where are you going?!" Svalentyfer shouted in a tone close to panic.
When he knew the little man could no longer see him, Rathe worked his way silently through the trees until he stood directly behind the same trunk that Svalentyfer sat tied to.
The first huge shape that Rathe saw moving from around the bend, lying in the direction of Tyris land, did not move like a great lumbering beast, but more like himself. Two others, as large and nimble as the first, followed close behind. They spread out, the two that followed each taking a side of the clearing, while the one in front stalked straight down the center. Together the three began a search, scouring every square inch of the widened pass.
As the lead seeker drew closer to their tree, Rathe could clearly see its features by the light of the moon. He knew the long braids of bone white hair and gray skin stretched tight over iron-hard muscles; he knew the Tyris. He himself stood eight spans high by the measurement of his own hands which were larger than most, and each of these overtopped him by at least another two.
Rathe kept himself behind Svalentyfer, knowing that they would come to him first. It happened quicker than he thought though, as the bound man, seeing what approached him, let out a fearful whimper. Instantly, the three hulking figures converged on the tree.
Rathe held his sword at the ready.
"There you are 'Flash Fingers'." The voice was deep and strong. "The Lord Chieftain Shirock wants his hair back, along with your head."
"I -- I, it was stolen!"
"By you! So that your cursed magic wielders can use it to slay our Lord," growled the giant.
Now Rathe began to understand why the little man was so skittish. Thieving from the Tyris, and their head chieftain no less, was a sure death sentence, after years of torture of course. Rathe wondered how he'd managed to get hold of the giant's hair though; human mages could use that or anything like it to cast a spell against the owner.
"We are going to have sport with you on our return home thief. But don't worry, you'll still have some life left in you for others to play with. Maybe Shirock will decide to have the shaman keep you alive for a time -- perhaps a hundred winters."
With that the three gave out a menacing laugh. The one who spoke for the three, Rathe guessed him to be the leader, bent over and grabbed Svalentyfer by the front of the shirt.
"No, you can't do this!" the little man screamed in terror.
"Be quiet!" roared the giant. Then his expression changed, his eyes focusing on something behind the little man. "Why are you tied to this tree?"
Rathe struck then. Spinning from behind the thick trunk he brought his sword down in a wide arc. The blade clove through meat and bone, severing the giant's arm at the elbow. It happened so fast that the Tyris snatched his spurting stump back, at first not even realizing that he tried to protect something that was no longer there. This gave Rathe the time he needed to move in close on the wounded giant, using him as a shield against the other two. Then lunging forward, he rammed the point of his sword into the Tyris standing directly behind the leader.
Rathe felt his blade sliding in between the warrior's ribs, and with a great heave of his corded muscles, he shoved it in and up until his hilt jammed against its chest. Rathe pulled his blade free of the dying giant with one mighty wrench. The third warrior wasted no time, kicking his now dead companion's body forward toward Rathe as a shield of his own. Rathe jumped back, and felt himself smash into the leader who was now looking down at his arm in complete shock. Rathe managed to duck just as the third Tyris's huge axe blade swished over his head, biting deep into the neck of the crouched leader.
"No! I'll crush your bones for this halfbreed!" The giant placed a foot to his leader's back and yanked the axe free. It came loose with a wet sucking sound that let Rathe know he only had this last one to deal with now.
Back on his feet, Rathe waited for the giant to come again. He'd taken the other two by surprise, but this one was ready for him. Living on the human side of the pass and fighting the Tyris since he was a boy had taught him a few things about the giant's battle techniques. So he knew that his best chance was to get in close on this one; staying this far out was too dangerous when your opponent had the advantages of greater strength and reach.
Rathe waited until the Tyris tried to stick him with a quick jab of the pike atop his axe blade, turning himself sideways to avoid the blow, then followed the blade on its return as the giant pulled back. Rathe's own blade met its mark in the belly of his enemy. The giant groaned and dropped his axe to the earth, then, placing his own hands over Rathe's on the hilt of the man's sword, he pulled several feet of steel out of his own stomach. The Tyris stood there for a moment looking down at his glistening hands and mid-section, then stumbled back against a nearby tree, rattling it to the roots and sending up a great rustling of leaves.
Rathe walked forward to stand before the massive warrior. His look was one of hatred.
"I promise you," he said, "Shirock will join you in Vulgad soon."
The giant spat blood at his killer, then sank down and died.
It wasn't long before Rathe heard Svalentyfer's cries, so he made his way around the bodies to where the little man still sat tied to the tree. The only difference now was that he sat covered from head to toe in Tyris blood. He went around and untied the man.
"This is insane! What were you thinking, taking on three of those -- those monsters by yourself?!"
"They're dead aren't they? And stop yelling, you're making my head ache."
"Wait, I heard one of them call you a halfbreed. It's true isn't it?"
"I knew there was something strange about you." Now Svalentyfer's tone changed, a curiously hopeful note creeping in. "Then was your mother one of the unfortunate women to be -- used -- by these beasts during a raid perhaps?"
"Yes." Rathe's voice grew low and dark.
Svalentyfer continued. "Then I gather from that, and this," he gestured about at the steaming corpses with his newly freed hands, "that you hate the Tyris as much as anyone."
"Well then, don't you see?" he said, growing excited in his relief, "We're both on the same side. You can help me get this," he reached into his jacket and pulled out a full braid of pure white hair, "back to our mages."
"No, I can't."
"But I don't understand. Don't you know that we can end Shirock, stop him from leading more raids against us?"
Rathe took the length of hair from Svalentyfer's hands. He stood up, running it between his fingers. "Shirock will be ended still, but not with spells."
An incredulous look came over Svalentyfer. "Surely you don't mean to do it yourself? In a thousand years you'd never get close enough to him to even try."
"I will if I bring him the thief who stole this," he said, swinging the braid back and forth."
"You're a madman! Why go through all this when we can do it safely away from here, in our own lands?"
Rathe turned his back on the man and walked back to his camp.
Because, he thought, I won't have him die by the workings of a mage, hiding in some keep, a hundred days ride from here. When Shirock dies, he's going to know who sends him to the Halls of Vulgad.
"I'm coming for you, Father."
Rathe lay himself back down under the overhang of rock.
"Don't try to run, thief, there's nowhere for you to go."
The little man must have realized he spoke the truth, because shortly after that he crawled over to an empty bit of ground beside the big man's camp, and fell asleep.
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The Halls of Vulgad is copyright Jeff Beck. It may not be copied or used
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