The Swordsman Kavlar in...

Kavlar's Boast

A 6-Chapter Sword and Sorcerous Saga!

by "Long" John Outram
About the author

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Episode 1: The Runesword


  LEODHI WAS DYING. Fever consumed him, and even his incoherent murmurs died away into loud, laboured breathing as the slaves cooled his brow with snow. His left leg was black and swollen to twice its natural girth. The shaman knew that if they had cut it off a week ago they might have saved his life, but they had not done so. Amongst the Waren no chieftain would wish to live maimed, to be kept like a slave or a woman. Lodhi had been given water and care to ease his passing, but nothing would be done to save his life.

The other chieftains of the clan gathered in the hut with Hakku, the Chief Shaman, and watched Lodhi's passage with the quiet reverence that that Waren afforded death. Lodhi had been a great warrior, had brought death to many enemies, and now a warrior's death was his. His hut was piled with the spoils of his victories and his hunting forays: gold, jewels, rich furs, the antlers of giant elk, the skull and pelt of a sabre-toothed cat, a bow of lacquered horn and a byrnie of triple-linked Keldish chainmail. But the eyes of every chieftain fell across the treasure that lay unsheathed at Lodhi's feet: his sword, a finely crafted blade of blued steel three and a half feet long, polished and oiled so that it gleamed in the lamplight, deeply etched with runes of power. No other chieftain among the Havmar Waren owned such a blade, and not one did not desire it.

Hakku began a low, weird humming, and the chieftains shivered. They knew dread Surma, god of death, crept stealthily among them, waiting his moment to strike at their comrade Lodhi with his spear of ice. At last they averted their eyes, not wishing to look on his face.

All save Ischak. He could not take his eyes from the runesword.

Hakku's chanting ceased, and with that came a terrible silence. It was a few moments before Ischak understood the meaning of that silence. A slave woman, her raven locks marking her apart from the blond Waren men, wept quietly in a corner. Lodhi lay silent, at peace.

"So, he is gone," said Hulnan needlessly.

The chieftains looked to one another, a mixture of emotions showing. Grief and horror were there; relief that Lodhi's long suffering was over; awe at the grim power of death; serene acceptance of its inevitability. Only Ischak's mind was focused, one emotion, one thought.

"Which of us will have his sword?"

He cursed himself quietly even as he spoke. Perhaps he had revealed himself too soon, invited the jealousy of the others. But there was no other chieftain worthy of the blade. Ronik was strong, and Ballan cunning, but who had Ischak's courage and ferocity? And who had such a strong son to inherit the blade? Lodhi had been a hero to the Havmar clan, but he had left them no sons. Ischak had three sons, and the oldest was already on his way to manhood.

"We should decide, and soon," said Avvar. Lamed with a wound not unlike Lodhi's these five years, Avvar was a chieftain on sufferance only. The sword would not be his, for however brave he might once have been a lame man could not lead a war-party.

The chieftains looked one another over, puffing up their chests as if to enhance their claims. Ronik's hand fell to the hilt of his dirk, though it was taboo to shed blood in the house of death. Ischak looked at him murderously.

"Hakku should decide," said Avvar quickly. "He is the wisest and the oldest. He is the father of the Havmar clan. Let him decide to whom the runesword should pass."

"I will abide by the word of Hakku," agreed Ballan, looking aslant at Ronik and then Ischak, knowing that in a contest of arms he would have no advantage.

Hakku grinned, showing them a smile of worn stumps and bare gums. He was indeed the oldest of the clan, and he ate only boiled roots and soup because he could no longer chew flesh. But his mind was as sharp as a skinning knife, and his arms could still bend a bow and hurl a javelin. Hakku had power too. He could call a deer to him, so that it walked almost into his lap before his knife fell. He knew the weather of the mountains, the paths of all the wild beasts, the names of all the gods and spirits, and the minds of men. He knew Ronik's pride and Ballan's scheming as well as he knew Ischak's desire.  

"Let the choice be a worthy successor to Lodhi," said Ischak. "Let him be a strong warleader, a mighty foe to the foes of the Waren. Let him be the father of strong sons, the breaker of horses, the great hunter."

"Let Hakku choose," growled Ronik.

The chieftains rose to their feet. Avvar offered his hand to the old shaman, but Hakku waved him aside. He curled his legs beneath him, and slowly stood erect, gazing all the time at the corpse. For a moment a tear glistened in his eye, and his aspect was angry.

"The gods have dealt hard with the Havmar clan," he hissed.

He turned and gazed haughtily at the chieftains who towered over him, baring his gums in a bestial snarl at Ballan, who drew back. Only Avvar stood unabashed.

"Which of them is worthy, old one?" he asked gently.

Hakku looked at Lodhi, then the sword, then each of the chieftains in turn, then back to Lodhi. He clutched Avvar's arm so hard that the lame chieftain winced at the pain, and he cackled like a madman.

"Which?" echoed Ischak quietly.

"None of them!" laughed Hakku bitterly. "Aie! Let the Waren grieve for Lodhi, for they have lost the best of their chieftains. Who shall take his place? None of these!"

"Then who shall have the sword?" asked Ischak angrily. He had already made up his mind that it would be his, even if he had to kill Ronik and Ballan to win it.

"If our clan is to be strong," said Hakku, "a leader such as Lodhi must rise again. With the turn of the moon it will be time for the test of our young boys, seeking manhood. Let the best of them take Lodhi's place among us, and bear his sword. Let the bravest youth, the one who is judged to have met the test of manhood with most courage, be rewarded with the runesword!"

***

Old Louhi was the name the Havmar Waren gave to the ungainly rock formation that towered over their village and the larch forests that enfolded it, and looked westward over Lake Nikku. While the fathers of the clan discussed what would be done with Lodhi's runesword, the youths of the village talked of the forthcoming rite of manhood, and the exploits that they boasted they would perform.

The Waren rite of manhood required that a boy wishing to become a warrior must receive the mark of his manhood, a name rune carved onto his chest with a skinning knife and sealed with charcoal to leave a black tattoo. Then he must set forth, alone or with one companion, and fulfil some act of bravery to prove his right to walk among the men of the tribe. He might kill a wolf or a bear, perhaps with just a knife if he had much to prove. Brave youths would set out to kill an enemy, or steal from one of the lowland tribes hated by the Waren. This test of courage was important to the Waren youths, but never more so than now with the runesword offered as prize to the bravest.

"I was thinking about the horses of the Haladar," mused Grechan, the oldest of the group. "Two fine black horses with stars on their brows would be a fine prize in themselves, and the elders might award me the sword for daring the bows of the Haladar warriors."

"Fool," sneered Kavlar. "The Haladar are Waren. Bring back their horses and the elders will hang you like a hare."

The different Waren clans often raided one another, but for the test of manhood they never stole from one another or sent their young men to kill each other. To do so would be to bring a month of anarchy to the clans, and to set the youths of the tribe against each other in a mutually destructive contest.  

"There is a troll in the Blackroot Crags," said Rannak, son of Ronik, looking to his hulking brother Rannva for support. Rannak was the older by a year, but Rannva was both taller and broader, and the largest of the Havmar youths.

"There is no troll," said Kavlar.

"If there is a troll, Rannak and I will slay it and win the prize," replied Rannva.

Kavlar smiled and looked away.

"Skallar has a bold plan," purred Shannara. Long and lithe, with the long, ash blonde hair typical of the Waren but rare, golden eyes that teased and entranced, Shannara was popular among the youths. Recently she had attached herself to Grechan, but she was known to rove in her affections. She had begun to cast her eyes on Skallar, Ischak's son, to the chagrin of her friend Melle who had set her heart on marrying the son of the great chief. Rannak and Rannva lusted for her, Grechan worshipped her, and Kavlar pretended to ignore her.

"Skallar has boasted to bring two prizes from the house of Thorvald the Helming," she continued. "A merchant from Arkjingal told him that Thorvald had twelve cups made, each of solid gold crusted with garnets. Thorvald's house is guarded by ten fierce warriors, but Skallar has no fear."

"And Skallar will steal two of these cups?" asked Rannva.

Shannara shook her head: "He has sworn that his father shall drink from one of Thorvald's cups, but for himself Skallar swears he will take Thorvald's daughter. Not as a slave, but as a wife!"

"Surely the women will not permit that?" gasped Melle.

"Who knows?" smiled Kavlar. "Thorvald stole a woman from the Paldemar Waren, and this daughter was born of her. Perhaps Skallar can convince the Waren mothers that she is Waren, even if she is half-Helming. For that attempt alone his courage must be admired, and never mind Thorvald's warriors."

Rannak and Rannva laughed, but Grechan looked thoughtfully at Kavlar. Only fifteen years old, Kavlar was the youngest, but he was as tall as Rannva though not as broad in build. His father was Avvar the lame, and he already bore himself with the pride of a warrior. When a band of Keld warriors had attacked the village the year before, Kavlar had slain two with arrows and one with his axe. Kavlar was wise in the lore of the Waren too, and knew the counsels of the chieftains and shaman. He knew of Hakku's pledge to offer the runesword as a prize before the other youths. He knew, too, that the elders would urge the women to accept Thorvald's daughter into the tribe against the objections of the priestesses.

"Do you think Skallar will win the prize?" asked Grechan.

"His plan is bold," replied Kavlar with a sly look. "Perhaps they will give him the prize … if Rannak cannot find his troll. And if I fail in my quest."

"You have a plan then?" asked Melle.

The others gathered at Kavlar's feet as if he prepared to tell a story. He sat cross-legged on a hummock, and gazed out at the sky above the lake and mountains as if his inspiration came from above.

"The Waren breed fast horses and fierce dogs," said Kavlar. "And some say the Havmar dogs are the fiercest dogs of all, just as our warriors are fierce. But a warrior told me a tale last year of Pennarg of Penvale, and the dogs he breeds. One in particular is said to be the strongest, fiercest hound that ever lived. This warrior told me that Pennarg's hound could take a wolf in his mouth and shake it as a wolf shakes a rabbit. When the Waren raided Penvale, Pennarg's dog slew five Waren dogs and tore a man's arm off at the elbow. Some say its forefathers were the dire wolves of Jotuns Gorge. Pennarg sleeps peacefully in his hall because he knows this hound slumbers without.

"You may hunt wolves or bears or even trolls. You may dare the wrath of the Kelds or the Helmings or any of the peoples. But my boast is that I will hunt this hound of hell, and dare his wrath, and so win Lodhi's sword."

Grechan laughed scornfully.

"You think the elders will award you the prize for killing a dog, Kavlar?"

"I did not say that," replied Kavlar calmly. "It is the fiercest dog alive, and I mean to have him. I will steal him away from Pennarg, and I will tame to my hand. Let Skallar equal that boast."

"Skallar's plan is bold," said Melle, "but yours is madness, Kavlar. If the dog does not kill you, surely Pennarg will? And how will you bring the dog back alive all the way from Penvale?"

Kavlar looked out over the lake again, at the sun on the water and the snow on the mountain tops. He watched the larches and the birch trees swaying in the wind.

"I will do this because I am Kavlar, Avvar's son, and because I have said I will do this. Or I will die in the attempt."


On to Episode 2 :Kavlar's Quest


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Kavlar's Boast is copyright by John Outram. It may not be copied without permission of the author except for purposes of reviews. (Though you can print it out to read it, natch.)