Kavlar,

The Sword-Swinging  Scion of the Savage Waren,

returns in...

The Jaws of Fenris

A 5-Episode Saga of Sword and Savagery



 
 

The Jaws of Fenris
Episode Four: The Time of Sacrifice
 

By John Outram
About the author


"T HERE SHALL BE AN AXE-AGE, A SWORD-AGE -- shields shall be broken. There shall be a storm-age and a wolf-age before the world is ended.

"The world shall be wrenched and racked by wars for three winters," Skalgrim's litany went on. "Fathers will slaughter sons and brothers be drenched in one another's blood. Mothers shall desert their menfolk and lie with their own sons; brother shall bed sister.

"Three winters shall follow crueller than before. There will be bitter frosts, biting winds; the sun will be helpless, and three winters shall pass with no summers in between.

"So the end begins! The children of the giants shall have their say: the wolf Skoll shall catch the sun in his jaws and swallow her -- he will spatter the heavens with her bloood. And Hati his brother will savage the moon. The stars will flee from the sky. The earth will shudder; trees will sway and topple, great mountains come crashing down, and every bond and fetter shall be broken. Then -- then shall Fenris run free!"

The Sons of Fenris responded with a wild ululation, the howl of the wolf indeed. Far off in the forest, voices responded. The four-legged brethren of the wolf-hides had heard their call.

Conar, the young groom, was directly in front of him, tied cross-wise to a wooden frame. Conar's belly was open now and the wolf-skins were drawing out his innards, slowly, carefully, to make sure he did not die at once. Conar screamed himself hoarse, then fell silent. His head hung loosely, but his eyes still rolled madly in the torchlight. Two silent, grey wolves, carved from the rock of the cliff-face, stared stonily at the sacrifice. Gidian fought the urge to vomit, so sick he was with horror. Next to him, Donal thrashed and raged against his bonds.

"Damn you sick bastards to hell!" he choked. "May Odin pluck out your eyes for his ravens to devour! May you rot eternally in Hel's grim realm!"

"Be quiet," replied one of the wolf-skins. "Your turn will come soon enough."

"Give me a sword, you cowards!" shrieked Donal hysterically. "Any one of you! All of you! By Thor, by Magni, by Heimdall, I'd fight you all! Come on, you no-men, you cock-less pullets, are you afraid of an old man? Don't even give me a sword -- just cut my bonds and I'll fight you all with my bare hands, damn you! Ah, murdering scum! Call yourselves wolves? Wolves have more decency! You are less than worms!"

Donal's voice became incoherent as he raged and tugged at his bonds. The other prisoners wept or cried or pleaded.

"Skalgrim, I beg you to listen to me!" said Gidian, hoping to make one last appeal to the wolf-priest's sanity.

Skalgrim turned to him with a smile of wry amusement. His look told Gidian he had heard every kind of pleading in his cruel career. Gidian strained impotently against his bonds, knowing strength would avail him nothing.

"Save your breath for your own death cries," replied the wolf-priest. "You will need it, believe me, when the time comes. You are lucky, for will you see what we do now, and know what is to be done to you."

***

Three wolf-hides who had remained in Darrowby found themselves in the main room of the inn, enjoying a flagon or two of corn-wine and sporting with the serving girl. She seemed less keen to play than they, unwilling almost. Bergin, who counted himself the leader of this little group of friends, decided the girl needed a lesson if she was to play with them further. First he pushed her roughly against the tap-room wall a few times, then he slapped her, not too hard but enough to make her take notice. Then, loosening her clothing a little, he thrust her against the wall and forced his mouth upon hers. Laughing as they watched, the others egged him on.

"Come on, girl, you've played this game with others before," Bergin cajoled as he gripped her jaw in his sinewy grasp and lifted her tear-stained face to his own. "Less tears and more love-making, that's the way -- or else I shall have to raise my fist to you again."

"Try this fist for weight!" said Kavlar. He had entered without a sound, and even as he spoke one of the wolf-skins fell forward with a corn-scythe thrust through him. With a startled gasp Bergin reached for his sword, but the young Waren crossed the room with a single bound and let fly a left-handed punch that lifted the big Northman off his feet and dumped him on the hearthrug.

The last wolf-skin snatched up his sword. Kavlar reached down and pulled the corn-scythe from the body of the man he had already killed and brandished it with menace. The wolf-skin took one look at the avenging Waren, thought better of it and ran for his life. Kavlar heaved an oaken stool after him. The wolf-skin almost reached the door before it crushed his skull.

Kavlar threw down the corn-scythe and sprang upon Bergin. He kicked him in the face, breaking his nose for the second time that night, grabbed the hand in which Bergin had already drawn a knife and then thrust him headfirst into the fireplace. Blinded by smoke and sparks, Bergin struggled free, in spite of the basket of firewood the Waren youth loaded on his back. Fending off a barrage of kicks and punches, he crawled under a table for safety. Kavlar flung the table aside and dragged him out. Bergin wept and begged for mercy. Kavlar spat in his face and ran him through with his own knife, letting him sink to the floor gurgling and whimpering pathetically.

Suddenly the room was quiet. Kavlar waited, looking and listening for signs of any more wolf-skins coming to the aid of the three he had killed, but there was no sound other than the serving girl's quiet weeping. He seized her by the wrist. She looked at him with blank terror.

"Are there others here?" he asked. "Where are the rest? Where are our companions? And damn it, where's my dog?"

"Don't hurt me," she begged.

"Hurt you? I've no taste for the games these scum had in mind, but if you don't answer me then be sure, I'll kill you."

She sobbed something incoherent. He pressed her against the wall as Bergin had done.

"Speak -- or I'll do worse to you than your boyfriends there could dream of," snarled Kavlar. "I haven't forgotten that you tried to get me spitted on Bergin's dagger tonight!"

"You killed Daran," she wept. "He was like a father to me..."

"The innkeeper?" asked Kavlar incredulously. "He looked no more than an old lecher to me, and he tried to stick me with a poisoned knife. Now hurry, girl, before I get really angry. What others are here? How many and where? No lies, or else..."

"Four, asleep in the malt-house. The ostler is in the stable, but he's no part of it. The rest are gone."

"Gone where?"

"To the forest," she whispered, eyes wide with terror. "To... to the cave... They took the others, your friends."

Kavlar's curse whistled through his teeth. "My sword? My pack? My dog?"

"Skalgrim took your sword. The other things are in the cellar. I can take you to where they are. Skalgrim sent Bergin and the others out to kill the dog, but it got loose and ran off. Skalgrim was angry so he made them stay here on watch. The rest have gone to celebrate the rite of Fenris."

"Which way is the cave? Quickly!"

"North!" she gasped as Kavlar's grip tightened. "You're hurting me!"

"How do I find it? Quickly!"

"You won't miss it. They light a fire. You can see it from the path."

"If we're too late --"

The sound of the door opening made Kavlar spin around, but it was only Pilton and the two traders, Karl and Bjarn. Without a word he turned back to the girl and shoved her against the tavern wall again.

"We only did what they made us do," she sobbed. "We were afraid. They killed everyone who opposed them, sacrificed them at the temple. I don't know why they came. We were a peaceful village."

"So why did you try to get me killed, when I had the bastards at my mercy?" asked Kavlar, unappeased. He let her go, and she collapsed weeping into Karl's arms. The trader cousins glared at Kavlar accusingly.

"There's four more skulking here," he told them. "You may have to deal with them yourselves. I've some business to see to, and I'll move faster alone. Go and get my pack, girl."

"Maybe we can raise the villagers," suggested Bjarn as he retrieved Bergin's sword. "Turn the odds in our favour."

Kavlar grunted.

"Maybe so," he said. He smiled suddenly. "My dog, Gulo, got away! That was good news, eh? That's a cunning old dog. But Skalgrim's got my sword. By Black Tuoni and Surma's boots, I'll kill him for that...."

He shrugged his shoulders.

"So what? I was going to kill him anyway."

***

Gidian looked around him in a daze. He was aware, first of all, of the torches dancing before him like fireflies, the beast-headed men marching around them, and other men who were still. He was hanging by his wrists. Struggling to get his weight on his feet, he discovered he could not move them properly. It took at least a minute to order his mind sufficiently to remember he was still bound. He realised he had been beaten unconscious, though he did not recall it.

Twisting his head to look around he could see his four companions each bound hand and foot to a rude, wooden cross before the temple of the wolf-hides. Next to him was the obscenity that had once been the Keldish groom, Conar, so Gidian could see at close quarters the fate that awaited him.

Conar had been transformed into the unholy symbol of these barbarians, the blood-eagle. The skin had been flayed from his body. His innards had been drawn out and tied to his outstretched arms. His sternum had been split and his ribs splayed out beneath his arms like the wings of a huge, bloody eagle, decorated further with the tattered remains of his heart and lungs. Mercifully Conar had died long before the end, but not quickly enough.

"Prepare the Rangeman," ordered Skalgrim, the high-priest, and two wolf-hides stepped forward with their flaying knives.

"Skalgrim," said Gidian in as firm a voice as he could muster. "You have made a mistake. You think me just a travelling merchant caught in your trap. What you don't know is that I sought you out on purpose. I came to this land to find you, by Mitra."

"Then that was a foolish thing to do," replied Skalgrim.

"I came here to witness the strength of the wolf," Gidian went on. "You have shown me that and more. You have shown me strength and cunning and a ferocity I can hardly believe dwells in the hearts of men."

"Our hearts are the hearts of wolves," replied Skalgrim, "and all men are our enemies."

"All Keldish men, perhaps," said Gidian. "Let me say this. The Keld Lords of the coast have raided my people for many years, crossing the sea in their longships. I am Gidian of Parc, Priest of Mitra and Lord among the Rangemen. I came here seeking help. I came to find men -- brave northern men -- who would help me against this plague, men who would themselves raid the Keldish coast and burn the fleets in the fjords before they ever set sail."

"Damn you, Gidian!" shouted Donal.

"I sought you, and I have found you," Gidian continued. "You wolf-hides have no love for the coastal lords. You are brave and fearless. Why should you not ally with my people against them? There is good gold to be earned for those that join me, and sacrifices to your god too."

"So that was your plan all along!" roared Donal, straining against his bonds. "You knew you would find these scum at Darrowby, but you let us walk into the trap! I swear, if I meet you on the other side I'll make you answer for this!"

"I'm sorry, Donal," said Gidian. "I never meant it to be like this."

The Keldish merchant made one last feeble attempt against the ropes that bound him firmly. The wolf-skins waited patiently for the word of command, their knives glinting in the firelight. Their priest watched patiently from the shadows of his wolf-cloak.

"Damn it, listen to me, Skalgrim!" Gidian urged. "Spare these men, and my other friends, and let us talk like reasonable men."

Skalgrim fixed the Rangeman with a steely gaze. He lowered the staff in his hand until the end was pointed at Gidian's throat.

"We have no peace with Rangemen, Kelds or any other people. Sacrifices we shall have, but here, here by the sacred cavern in which Fenris lies bound. Ragnarok comes soon, and then your gold will be worth nothing -- but your blood, soaked into the earth, will strengthen our master for the final battle... and your screams as the flesh is drawn from you will please him as he waits in bondage for the appointed time." He laughed. "You came a long way to find your death, Rangeman. But these fates are cast for us and we must accept them without bitterness."

Gidian fell silent. These were not folk with whom he could reason, he realised. He could only prepare himself for a hideous death and pray for the strength to face it resolutely and forgiveness for the lives of the men he had brought here.

***
The wolf-hides waited on the fringes of the firelight, their attention focused on the sacred ritual unfolding before them. Behind them, in the shadows of the forest, death crept upon them silently. The hunters themselves became prey.

The first they knew of his coming was a flash of white fur caught in the firelight. Then they heard a gasp, the sound of flesh and bone sheared apart, and the first of their number fell in a bloody heap. Down went another, his throat torn out. The flaying knives dropped from the hands of the torturers. The guards stood paralysed. Even Skalgrim gaped open mouthed at the figure that crouched among them...

  



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The Jaws of Fenris is 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!)