Kavlar,

The Sword-Swinging  Scion of the Savage Waren,

returns in...

The Jaws of Fenris

A 5-Episode Saga of Sword and Savagery



That's right, Faithful Fiends, it's the long anticipated return of "Long" John Outram's sword-wielding scion, Kavlar! If you've already read Kavlar's previous ambulatory adventures, you know you're in for a fierocious foray with no punches pulled!  This time, Kavlar finds himself the prisoner of a darksome cult of Wolf worshippers!  Now I know what you're asking yourselves.  Howl he get out of this one?  Heh, heh, heh.  Anyhoo... Read on and find out if Kavlar can escape the claws of fate, or wind up yet one more victim of...

 
 
 

The Jaws of Fenris
Episode One: Darrowby Wine
 

By John Outram
About the author


"AH, DARROWBY AT LAST," chuckled Donal the wool merchant. "My boys have been looking forward to some good corn-wine."

"I can't say Pilton and I have quite got used to the taste of your corn-wine, Donal," replied Gidian. "We Rangemen prefer barley-beer, although a true drop of the grape does us no harm. What of you, Kavlar? Have you accustomed yourself to your neighbours' ways?"

The Waren youth urged the last pack pony to the top of the hill and sent it trotting downslope with a sharp smack on the rump. Then he looked down at the village, screwed up his eyes and sniffed the air.

"It's quiet here," he said.

"Then we'll have to liven it up a bit!" said Donal cheerfully. "They're a queer folk, this far inland, but they know the laws of hospitality. Corn-wine, fresh bread – and I smell bacon – sweet, smoked bacon."

"You could smell bacon from across the Narwhal Strait," laughed Conar, the youngest of his men.

"If I was this hungry I'd swim there for it, too!" replied the merchant.

"What about you, Kavlar?" asked Gidian.

Kavlar said nothing. Donal and his four servants – all Kelds – watched the lad dismount with practised ease, gathering the reins of his master's packhorses and leading them to the stableyard of the Darrowby Inn.

"He is one of the Havmar Waren, yes," said Gidian quietly, "and one of the finest horsemen I have ever seen. We took him on at Bjornby, and I don't regret it. He is strong, honest, hard-working, and – let us be honest – cheap."

Donal shook his head knowingly: "Ah, the Waren are not canny in money matters. But honest? I tell you, there are few Keldish folk would trust their goods and their horses to a Waren."

"I trust him," said Gidian.

From the road they watched Gidian's young pack-handler lifting the heavy saddlebags with effortless grace, soothing the horses with soft whistles and gentle words as he tightened the girth straps. Like all Waren, he had pale skin and blond hair. His smooth, boyish face suggested a tender youth barely out of childhood, but he was tall and broad-shouldered with muscles like whipcord. He was dressed in simple buckskins and rabbit fur, but a fine sword hung on his belt at his right side, a better blade than any pack-handler's wage could buy.

"Yes, a good looking sword," said Gidian, following Donal's gaze. "He told me he had it from his father. Somehow I doubt that, but it matters not. As long as he keeps it I have a swordsman hired for the price of a porter. I never saw him draw it, mind, but I don't doubt he can use it."

"He's a big lad. Not as big as you, though."

Gidian smiled. He was a hand's breadth short of seven feet, and had never met a man as big as himself.

"Back at Hjalfar three young lads, not much older than him, got it into their hot heads to start a knife fight with him," he told Donal. "They'll carry those scars as long as they live. He's a tough young buck and quick with his hands."

"Oh, the Waren know one end of a weapon from another, it's true," replied Donal. "All last year the roads from Dunfast to Barntammin were plagued by a band of Monadar Waren renegades, raiders of the worst sort. They would sweep down on a travelling party and kill everyone – merchants, guards, women and children too – and leave the bodies for the ravens. What they couldn't carry away they scattered over the highway. They burned villages and hayricks for no other reason than wicked delight. One of them we called the White Leopard, for he wore the pelt of a mountain panther on his back and tore men apart with no more than his bare hands like a beast. Mercy and manners mean no more to a hill-bred barbarian than a tinderbox does to a fish, and these Monadar clansmen were the worst, worse than wolf-hides even. But then Lord Torquall and fifty of his best men found them in their camp sleeping, and made a reckoning with them in the Keldish fashion. If a dozen of those Waren wolves ever saw their mountain homes again I should be surprised. Now, your lad may seem like a good lad and a good worker, but that's no more than a wolf-whelp that looks almost like a pup that would grow into a fair enough hound. He's near grown now, and it shan't be long before you see that he's all wolf."

Gidian chuckled but rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

"I've heard talk of these wolf-hides before," he said. "Is that another name for renegade Waren? Because they wear furs?"

"Wolf-hides?" replied Donal. "They're a legend. One that people around here would rather forget. Not Waren, but not Keldish either. Some say they came across the ocean from the East, like our folk, and some that they were always here, but whatever they were they were evil folk. There are always rumours that a few of them lingered on, in the hills and the forests. Stories to scare children, I say."

Donal's men sauntered back from the stable, whistling gaily. The Waren boy followed. Gidian suspected he had taken more care with his work than the Keldish grooms.

"Are we ready, Kavlar?" he asked.

The boy nodded his head. He whistled, and a huge, shaggy hound bounded up and fell into place beside him. It was a strange, ugly beast with a long, shaggy black coat like a wolf's but a deep, powerful chest like a mastiff's and massive jaws to match. Gidian shivered each time he looked at the creature. He had never seen a dog so large or so menacing.

"Wolves like that," he said to Donal with a smile, "would make me truly afraid."

 ***

The doorway of Darrowby Inn beckoned. The air carried a promise of drink and provender, of warm hearths and soft beds as they made their way to the tap-room. Once within, the welcome was less warm. A sour faced innkeeper greeted them with a curt nod, and a shy young woman in a white smock showed them to a table without a word. Three local men in woollen cloaks looked up with dark frowns and turned back to their hushed conversation. Two travelling men barely glanced up from their cups. Otherwise, the inn was empty.

"What is your fee, good man, for a hot meal, a stoup of wine and a friendly smile?" asked Donal cheerily.

"Tuppence for supper, with bacon," replied the innkeeper listlessly. "Tuppence the quart for ordinary wine, a groat for best."

"Don't ask again about the friendly smile," warned Gidian under his breath. " We can't afford it. We'll need two rooms, innkeeper, and food and best wine for eight."

"You have room for us, then?" asked Pilton, surveying the empty tables and benches as the moody landlord went back among his pots and barrels. The local men eyed him warily as he selected a large table neither too close to nor too far from the fireplace. The two travellers seemed to sink further into their cups.

As they filed into the room the innkeeper's eyes narrowed, and he pointed a skinny finger at the last of them, the tall blond youth.

"That's a Waren," he said. "I don't hold with Waren."

Kavlar said nothing, but the look he gave the innkeeper would have been provocation enough for any warrior. The three local men turned in their seats and appraised the newcomers.

"A gang of Waren have been raiding the towns south of here," said the tallest of them, a burly fellow who could have been the blacksmith for the size of his chest and arms. "You wouldn't know aught of that, Waren."

"He's the White Leopard himself," scoffed Donal impatiently. "So see that you feed him right, and don't try to cheat him."

The innkeeper scowled more than ever.

"I'll serve him," he grudged, " but I'll not have that in my inn."

"Kavlar," sighed Gidian, "take the dog outside."

"If Gulo goes, I go," said Kavlar.

The dog began to growl and bared his great fangs. The long black fur on his shoulders rose up, making him seem even bigger than before. He stood more than a yard at the shoulder and weighed two hundred and fifty pounds if he weighed an ounce. The innkeeper's eyes went wide with terror and the three local men rose to their feet.

"I'll not leave him outside," said Kavlar.

"Then you'll sleep in the hayloft, boy, and do without supper," warned Gidian. "Come on, lad, the dog will be safe enough in the stable. Tie him securely, and see that he is settled, then come back in. When we have finished our supper he shall have the ham-bone."

Kavlar stared at the innkeeper: "Make it a good meaty one, or his howling shall haunt your night."

"Just keep him out of my inn," warned the host.

Kavlar stalked out with a choice curse muttered in his own tongue. Gulo followed enthusiastically.

The serving girl brought bread and a large jug of corn-wine. Pilton tested a cupful and made a face, reminding himself that he could have been subjected to a brew that was two pence worse. Gidian drank with a little more relish, not wishing to offend his host, and Donal seemed favourably impressed. As the bacon broiled, the grooms laughed and joked among themselves and then started on their supper with enthusiasm.

"You were talking about the wolf-hides," Gidian said quietly.

Donal shrugged his shoulders: "Some say maybe they were worse than the Waren, the fiercest raiders that ever plagued our people."

"And why wolf-hides? Because they wore fur?"

"Oh, come! In a northern winter - which is most of the year in some parts -everyone who can wears furs, and the wolf has a good warm pelt!" chortled Donal, stroking his own collar of rich, grey fur. "Under the fur and skins, though, we remain men. No, the wolf-hides were devils in human form. Not unlike the Waren today."

"Believe me, in my own land your Keldish berserks are as feared and hated as the Waren are here, as they come raiding across the Narwhal Strait. Yet in the months that I have been here, I have found that Kelds and Rangemen are little different, in their own country. They farm the land, they tend cattle, they buy and sell goods, they eat and drink, and raise children. "

Donal thought about this for a moment. 

"You have a point there," he conceded. "In our country, a man goes about his business as in yours, looks after his own and leaves another man be. But it helps him to have a little of the bear in him, for strength and courage. Bears are gentle beasts for the most part, keeping to the forest and minding their own business. Unless a bear is hungry or sick he rarely troubles men. But bears love their young – woe betide anything that comes between a she-bear and her little ones! We of the north are a little like that: easy of heart, but fierce enough when roused or angered.

"Now a rich honeypot like one of your coastal towns brings out the worst in a bear. Put temptation in a Northman's way and he'll find it hard to resist! And our young men are like rowdy young bears coming after honey. I think there is a little of the berserker in us all."

"That word berserker comes from the old Helming word for a bearskin shirt?" asked Gidian, who was something of a scholar.

"That's right, and like a shirt we can put on our bear nature and take it off again. Wolf-hides are another matter. The wolf nature sticks to them like another skin. And wolves are not gentle beasts. They hunt and kill for pleasure. They tear at their own kin when hungry. They are thieves and murderers, without remorse or mercy. Your Waren is like that – a wolf-hide."

"You think so?" asked Gidian. "But you said they were not Waren."

"No, they were not," replied Donal. "They were a secret cult who came here from across the sea, just as we Kelds did once. What I meant was that all Waren are wolves at heart. But there are men among all peoples who become the same. Some demon takes possession of their soul, and they become wolves. We drive them off, like wolves, into wilderness, but they remain a danger. The wolf-hides were said to have burned the town of Bjaerhaven and put every man, woman and child to the sword. Villagers along this coast still pray to Odin for protection from the wolf-hides, but Odin pays little heed. The stories say he has a softness for wolves. So we must have our bear-shirts handy and be strong, for that is what these wolves understand and fear."

"I have rarely heard of wolves being such a danger to men," said Gidian.

"Wolves are bigger and fiercer in these parts," warned Donal.

***

Kavlar's dog was blissfully unaware of any argument over where he should sleep. It was of no importance to him. Indeed the stable, with its soft straw and familiar animal smells, probably suited him better than an inn-room. Kavlar also felt more at ease among horses than closed up in a room of stone or timber, though he hated to admit as much. If the others were afforded the luxury of a room and a bed then it was right he should have the same, but he was still unused to houses and towns. He preferred to sleep with Gulo at hand, too, both for companionship and for safety. He was a light sleeper himself, but he knew the dog missed nothing, and friendly as he was among friends he would rend any man or beast that threatened his sleeping master.

It pained Kavlar to tie him, since Gulo was unused to such treatment. He spent a long time petting and fussing the dog to put him at ease, and even after that Gulo whimpered and whined when his master made to leave. It was all Kavlar could do to tear himself away, but soon enough Gulo was sniffing his way around the straw and horses, his troubles forgotten.

On his way back to the tap-room he passed the ostler and a band of curious villagers looking through the windows of the inn. He snorted disdainfully as he passed them. It irked him that these Keldish folk would not look him in the eye. Among the Waren even strangers met each other's gaze boldly, testing one another's strength of will.

"Ah, Kavlar!" Donal greeted him, his words already slurring with the corn-wine in them. "You are nearly too late! Conar has eaten everything!"

"Not everything," said Gidian. "I had the innkeeper set a plate aside for you."

"Aye, and wine too," said Donal. "It has proved too much for your man Pilton. Still, all the more for us."

Kavlar sat down by the valet, Pilton, who had fallen asleep. He grunted as a plate and cup were set before him by the serving maid. The taste of wine still made him think of rotten fruit, but the bacon was hot and the bread was fresh. He set to with a good appetite, and supped enough wine to wash down his mouthfuls. The innkeeper watched him like a hawk.

"I wouldn't bring my dog in his filthy inn," muttered Kavlar. "Maybe telling him that would set his mind at rest."

"Yes, and remember the ham-bone!" added Conar. "We don't want him keeping us awake all night with his howling!"

With that he slumped forward onto his folded arms.

"I think you boys would sleep through all the hounds of hell howling at your windows," frowned Gidian. "Can't you northern boys handle strong drink?"

"They've had a hard day," slurred Donal, looking up through bleary eyes. "All the same..."

Kavlar darted a glance at the pair of travellers sitting at the far table. They had long since slumped over their cups like drunkards. Gidian, too, was resting his head in his hands. The local men, wide awake, were watching them with undisguised interest now. Kavlar thrust the cup away from him and stared back. Donal suppressed a yawn and began to sink down in his chair.

"I don't like this," said Kavlar. "Not a bit."

He filled his cup to the brim and walked with it to where the innkeeper and the maid stood. As Kavlar approached, the innkeeper looked up from the pewter tankard he was polishing, glanced over to the local men. Over his shoulder, Kavlar saw them rise to their feet. They cast off their woollen cloaks to reveal wolf-skin tunics and long, sharp daggers beneath.

"By Louhi's icy hallows," he snarled, "I should have smelt this for a den of wolves from the start."

Without a word, they began to close on him...
 
 



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The Jaws of Fenris and the character of Kavlar are copyright by John Outram. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)