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Saturday, January 5, 2013

VIII - Attack on Skaal Village

Night had fallen, thick and cold, upon Skaal village as Fen returned, tired and hoping for nothing more than a tisane and a bedroll with a heated pan beneath it. The village was quiet, no one outside save the ever-vigilant Honour Guards that greeted her with solemn nods as she passed. Candlelight leaked out from beneath the shutters of the wooden cabins, and smoke curled up serenely from their long stone chimneys. Fen stared up at the starless sky, dominated by the twin moons that threw diamonds of moonlight onto the untouched snow beyond the houses. Fen made her way past the well that marked the middle of the village toward the Great Hall, the only sound being the crunch of snow beneath her boots and the distant wind in the trees.

Korst and Heart-Fang sat together before the low-burning embers of the fire, neither man speaking, just silently watching the red coals. A single Honour Guard stood back against one wall. Fen let the door swing closed behind her, and Heart-Fang raised his head, though the shaman did not.
“You’ve returned from the lake,” he said, a hint of surprise in his voice. “Tell us, was Aesliip to blame for the fire?” Fen sat down on the bench across from Heart-Fang, lowering the hood of her cloak slowly.
“He…was not,” she said eventually. “The flames on Lake Fjalding still burn.” Korst closed his eyes and shook his head grimly.
“It is as we feared, Chieftain,” he said, and Heart-Fang sighed heavily. “It seems to Bloodmoon Prophecy draws near.”
“What is – ?” Fen started, but her question was interrupted by a sudden scream from outside, sharply penetrating the walls of the Great Hall and soon followed by a sound of splintering wood. Heart-Fang rose at once, drawing his broadsword from his back. Fen and Korst stood as well.
“Gods have mercy on us,” Korst whispered, and the door of the Great Hall slammed open. An Honour Guard stumbled inside in a burst of snow, his face red and an ugly, red gash across one arm.
“Ch – Chieftain,” he sputtered, his eyes wide. “The v – village is under attack! Werewolves!” Heart-Fang’s face drained of colour. Another high scream pierced the air. Wordlessly, he sprinted to the door, closely followed by the two Honour Guards.
“Go,” Korst said quickly, grabbing Fen’s arm. “They need you.” Fen gave the shaman a brief nod and followed the chieftain to the door, drawing Trueflame from its sheath.
The scene that met her eyes could not have differed more from what she had walked through mere moments ago. The doors of many of the Skaal houses lay ripped from their hinges, and the Skaal themselves stood all around the centre of the village, battling creatures like Fen had never seen before. They resembled the wolves she had met in the Hiirstang Forest, but just barely. The creatures stood on two feet, with long, lethal-clawed hands and pointed snouts. Their eyes glowed pupiless and yellow, and they snarled with an inhuman fury as they slashed at the Skaal. Blood was smeared all across the snow, and Fen saw human bodies everywhere she turned.
She barely had time to take in the horror before she heard a snarl to her left and one of the creatures was upon her. Fen turned quickly in the snow, raising Trueflame to fend off the beast. Its hot breath bore down on her, its slavering jaws straining for her throat. Fen managed to shove the creature back and shoot God’s Fire down into the snow, catching its fur alight. She ended it with a swipe from Trueflame.
But only a second had passed before there was a second, then a third, and soon she was fighting off six of the wolf-men at once, the flames on her blade burning her eyes as they flashed past her, magic constantly spinning from her palms as she struggled to keep the creatures away.
“Fen!” she heard someone shout, and as she turned to see, she felt a sudden horrible, unbearable pain sinking into the side of her waist. She cried out as the wolf that had latched onto her brought her down into the snow. There was a confusion of terrible pain and claws and teeth and blood, then a wooden cane came swinging in from the side, bludgeoning the wolf’s head with a sickening crack.
“Lady Fen,” Korst said frantically, extending a hand. “I’d lean down, but –”
“I’m fine,” Fen assured him hastily, struggling to her feet. Pain shot up from her waist, making her almost double over in agony. She could feel blood soaking into her robes. “Thank you,” she added quickly, and Korst reached out to steady her. But there were more wolves still, and Fen, forcing herself to ignore the wound, retrieved Trueflame from the snow and rejoined the fray.
She fought as hard as she could with the pain gnawing at her side. There seemed to be no end to the wolves – the moment she cut down one, there were three more to take its place. The wind began to blow, bitter and frigid, and the fire on Trueflame flickered as the blade grew red with wolf blood.
At last, Fen cut down a wolf that had left her with a long gash on one shoulder, and there was not one there to replace it. She lowered Trueflame, her breath short in her throat, and without the distraction of the fighting the pain from her waist hit her full on. Fen groaned, letting her blade fall, and doubled, her hands going instinctively to her side. That made the pain worse, and before she realized what was happening, she was in the snow, cradling her knees with her eyes squeezed shut. The agony was quite unlike any she had ever felt before.
“There – right there!” she heard someone shouting, and there were hurried footsteps right beside her head. She felt someone’s fingers – cold and thick – push up her jaw and press against her neck, checking for a pulse. “She’s alive!” Then the fingers were gone and a harried breathing filled the air as the man pulled her torn cloak away from her side. “Ysmir,” he breathed. “Korst! Korst, dammit!” Fen opened her eyes, feeling delirious. The sky overhead spun. She saw Korst Wind-Eye appear, gingerly kneeling down on his crippled leg, and felt his strong, callused hands on her waist. Korst spoke a single word, and the pain began to ebb away.
“Fen?” he asked softly, and her breathing slowed. “Lie still a moment,” Korst told her firmly. “Let the blood begin to flow again.” Fen rolled onto her back and stared up at the sky, watching the moons towering over her and her breath that rose in a cloud above her face.
“Is – Is everyone alive?” she managed to ask after a moment, and Korst avoided her gaze. Fen sat up slowly, staring around in horror.
Utter carnage dominated the centre of the village. The snow was saturated with blood everywhere she looked, and bodies of wolf and Skaal alike littered the ground. Fen saw Thorstein Ice-Mane, Engar’s son who couldn’t have been more than nine, lying near the well with his belly split open, his entrails spilled across the snow and his eyes staring vacantly out of his bloody face. Engar and Risi hunched over the body, sobbing. Fen stared around in dread. The wolves had showed no mercy – men, women, and children littered the snow, brutally butchered with their bodies horribly misshapen by the werewolves’ claws.
“How many?” she whispered, and Korst shook his head.
“We…we do not know yet. Many of the Honour Guard has fallen, and those that remain have lost those that they love.”
“Shaman! Shaman!” Korst turned, and a member of the Honour Guard stumbled to a halt, his helmet gone and a bleeding wound slashed across his forehead. “The Chieftain is gone! We can’t find him anywhere!”
“I’ll go,” Fen said quickly, getting to her feet, the pain completely gone now. Korst would be needed to heal those that still barely clung to life. She sprinted around the fallen toward the Great Hall, slipping on the blood and entrails of those that lay slain as she went. The doors to the Great Hall had been ripped away, and she slowed as she entered.
The great stuffed cliffracer had been pulled down from the ceiling, its glass eyes reflecting the moonlight outside. The furniture was smashed and in pieces, and blood coated the mats that covered the stone floor. Frid, the quiet girl that had lit the fires and brought Fen tea every evening, lay slumped over a splintered bench, her head partly severed from her neck and one arm missing. Her skirts were torn and smeared with blood. Fen looked away, feeling ill. She had not seen this much slaughter in some time.
The Chieftain was nowhere to be found, it was true. It was as if he had simply vanished away. Fen stepped back outside into the darkness, which was now punctuated by the agonized cries of the remaining Skaal as the dead were turned over. Korst approached her, holding a thin-necked bottle in one hand.
“Here,” he told her, holding the bottle out to her. “It is likely that you were infected when you were bitten. This will counteract the effects of the Sanies Lupinus.” Fen took it gratefully, knowing that returning to Mournhold as a werewolf would not have been quite what she’d had in mind. “I name you now Blodskaal, a blood-friend to our people for your heroism this night.”
“Thank you,” Fen said softly, handing Korst the empty bottle. “But I wasn’t good enough. The Chieftain is gone. Not even a body. He’s vanished.”
“These are frightening times, my friend,” Korst replied, staring sadly around them at the dead that covered the land. “There have been ominous portents, and they concern me. Heart-Fang is missing, and I fear that the All-Maker does not breathe freely on the Skaal this day. The ceremony must be completed, but first I will need you to retrieve the Totem of Claw and Fang. It is a powerful artifact, very sacred to the Skaal people. It is used to call to us powerful beasts that are used in the Ristaag. It was stolen many years ago, and we of the Skaal were foolish enough to believe it would not again be needed. I have learned that it may be found in the Tombs of Skaalara, to the east and a bit south of here.”
“I’ll go now,” Fen said at once, but Korst placed a firm hand upon her shoulder, his icy blue eyes staring into hers.
“You have done enough for the Skaal this night,” he told her softly. “And now you must rest. The Chieftain had Rigmor Halfhand’s old residence prepared for you while you were at the lake. It is yours to call home now.” Fen looked once more at Engar and Risi, holding one another as they stared at their son’s butchered body, then back at Korst.
“I have to go tonight.”
“The moons are high, and you are weary. You will be of more use to us if you are well-rested. Go now, and may the All-Maker preserve you.” Fen nodded, knowing Korst was right, and crossed the blood-strewn yard to Halfhand’s home.
The cabin had been scrubbed clean since it belonged to Rigmor Halfhand, and now clean furs covered the bed and a large fire warmed the grate. Fen closed the door on the cold, suddenly grateful that Korst had told her to sleep. She pulled her blood soaked boots off her tired feet and left them by the door, then undid her tattered cloak and let it slide listlessly from her shoulders. Her robe where the wolf had bitten her on the waist was shredded, and blood coated her skin. When she had finally scrubbed the last bit of carnage from her body and donned a clean set of furs found in the wardrobe, Fen curled up on the bed beneath the bedrolls, a relieved sigh escaping her lips as she did so.
As she closed her eyes, all she could see were Julan’s wide-open eyes, glassy and lifeless.

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