Vol.2, Ch.4, P.6
I gunned the horse to a gallop, cutting through the moon-cold plains. The night howled all around as I huddled low against the saddle: no Man would survive for long were he caught out in the open so. That very reason found my face and form shrouded fast from outside sight, in not a hooded cloak, but a blanket.
Caution duly paid, though to little profit: it seemed this stretch of land northwest of the woods was wholly unmanned at this dark hour. All the better; with my way free of waylayers, I kept my eastward course. Night later blushed with dawn. Up and up, the sun soared to its high-noon perch, whereupon I stopped atop a row of hills overlooking the lively sprawl of Hensen.
West afront the fólkheimr proper was a gate, guarded by two standing soldiers.
Right. The hourglass waits not.
I cantered down the slope and to the vicinity of the entrance. There, I dismounted before undraping myself of the blanket and unbuckling my sword. Holding it up, I began my approach.
“…Mm!?” grunted a squinting soldier as he roused to action. “A Man! A Man at the gates!”
“You there!” the other echoed. “Not a step closer!”
Spears were speedily trained upon me, in spite of the surprise. A honed reaction: these two were well-drilled.
“I am Rolf Buckmann! Acting Commandant to the battlements of Balasthea!” I returned, tossing my sword to the ground. “I am come craving admittance to your jarl!”
“Humph. Balasthea’s commandant be broad of shoulders, my scouts say. You match square their descriptions,” so spoke an enthroned Nafíl: the Jarl Alban. No less than fifty winters have buffeted this lion of a leader—winters of war-waging, stitched together to a shroud shading his dread and giant frame. “But your coming be a run that cuts against the flow. Here you are—a commander naked of army, a Man alone from kinsmen. What queerness has come before me?”
“Queerness, indeed,” I answered. “That a jarl would grant so quick an audience to his foe—it affrights reason.”
Till now, much of my thoughts were racked by how I might meet this jarl, or at the very least, some like authority with an ear for the heavy matter to come. That all it took was to present myself at Hensen’s doorstep baffled me well into this moment.
Where was I but the palatial jarlshǫll itself. An edifice of oak, of but one level yet large upon the land where it laid. And though its scope impressed, more so did its air: the timbers, the adornments, the design, all were thoroughly aged as a home to Hensen’s many former lions.
Into such a hallowed abode had I, a Man and foe both, been let through. Not a single binding was set upon my body; an earnest check about my person well-sufficed to have me presentable before the jarl’s presence.
Easy enough, yet the air was stifled here in the wide atrium-yard. Noonlight cascaded down from the open skylight and shone whitely upon my shoulders. Watching on from the cincturing shade were the many furrowed eyes, figures solemnly filed and flanking my left and right: the seeming húskarlar, men and women, leaders in their own right, each of sworn service to their jarl.
It bears mentioning that, as my past readings suggest, the Nafílim are not a united people. Indeed, rather than nest together in a single nation, they are dispersed in disparate clans in disparate lands, each headed by a jarl. And it is a fact that though the folk of a clan be of a clan, they are not all bloodkin; what binds them instead is a free yet collective spirit, a community congregating under a common banner. Beholden to them is the jarl, who earns his place upon the high-seat not by heirship, but by his deeds and deeds alone.
For Hensen’s part, as well as other settlements proximal to it, its denizens are of the Víly clan—the Vílungen—presided over by the Jarl Alban: the very same soul before me, whose eyes stabbed with their stare.
“Audience? Yes, there is audience,” he retorted, then turning his gaze to the forgathered húskarlar. “Them, I let see your face before your head I hew: the fate of a commandant corner’d in the home of his foe.” Back at me, the jarl looked. “You are come on a sotted whim? Or have you in your heart some death-wish? That, I shall grant you, bastard of Man.”
His voice, deep like an earthquake and well-matched to his mountainous mien and muscle. But in that same voice ran veins of vehemence for Men and the jarl’s readiness to erupt from his seat and smite them with any blade at hand.
“He the one, Sire?” asked a húskarl amongst the file. “Not some mummer sent to our midst? Nor some scheme of Mennish minds?”
Doubt was thick in his words. Justified, I admit. After all, even a dream of mighty imagination could scarce paint a commander traipsing alone into the maw of his foe. Not least in a war like this, with both sides so viciously at each other’s throats.
“Those Mennish minds know much vict’ry of late. Such schemes are now a savour long-surfeited on their tongues; they ill-indulge a ruse on us, I think. Our jarl spoke true. Onyx eyes and soot-black hair: this Man looks as reported. And his body besides—lo! strong it is, a stoutness rare even amongst Men. He is who he says, I say.”
“Oh? Then I say, quite courageous, this commandant! He is but one, yet quivers not!”
Remarks from two húskarlar standing right beside the jarl. They evidently numbered amongst the top echelons—”war-chiefs”, as it were, direct commanders to the martial cohorts of Hensen.
The first was Volker, calm and composed in his calculation of this unprecedented occasion. Little more than thirty in his years, there was a dour glint of intellect in his gaze, whilst his figure was slender of frame, though not from frailty, no: I espied in this Volker not just the the sharpness of a strategist, but the strength of a seasoned swordsman.
The other was Berta, a woman of frankness and forty years of age, thereabouts. Her figure seemed the complete contrary to Volker’s, replete as it was with rotundness as it swayed with her every gesture. And crowning it was a countenance of both gentleness and bravado, beaming with the smile of a long-lived mother.
“Courageous—and keen, and cunning besides,” Volker went on. “Sire. Never were Balasthea’s blades more whetted and walls more unwavering till this commandant took to the war-table. My measure of him: anathema, he is. To our plight, to our people.”
A most cutting commentary, if not complimentary. The keenness in Volker’s stare, too, was no less unwavering in the course of his words.
“I’m but an acting commandant, you should know,” I corrected.
“So you say, yet our eyes see you no friendlier a foe for it. A foe to be fell’d.”
“The war-chief well-convinces, Sire. Uproot the sprout, and we spare ourselves the willow of wandreth.”
The other húskarlar steamed with assent. In the prongs of their hearts were set the red jewels of ire for Men and their ilk; the grim glimmer shone unsullied through their eyes.
“Come, rest your brows, all. Our ‘foe’ here has something for our ears, from the look of him. Let us lend, yes?” soothed Berta. The scene all but affirmed the roles of these two war-chiefs for their jarl.
Hearing their words, a nodding Alban broke his silence. “So be it. Speak, foe-guest.”
To him, I looked. “First things first: some of your far-off folk need aid,” I broached. “Two women, sixteen children; survivors of an attack on their village five months past, northwest beyond the bourne of the woods. They hide in cellars beneath an orphanage. Hide—and wait for succour. Will you not go and give it to them?”
A silent instant, and the húskarlar were then aroar, their rancour resounding all throughout the atrium.
“These things he speaks—how can he know!?”
“A folly! A foul trap!”
“Our lands you breach’d, our people you pillaged! Now you mean to parley!?”
“A massacre wrought by the mammon of you Men! There is no doubt!”
That last line—likely the clarion most clearly revealing their sore sentiments. Some amongst the húskarlar clenched their teeth, others their fists to raw and quaking tautness. Though it was their eyes that shared a stinging stare upon my person.
Amidst their mad thundering, the jarl rose from his high-seat. Quiet returned. The air stilled. His steps stamped their way to me before large fingers lunged forth and seized my collars.
“…Your ears have heard our woe,” Alban began. “Your hands have stolen our treasures. Your swords have hewn our folk. Now, what says that mouth of yours?”
Arms, boulder-like in all their burliness, set every sinew to wringing and raising my collars. Strength of much awe, and wrath no less awful. But I could not afford to falter before such power; unflinching, I fastened my sight to his.
“This, it says: I’ll not apologise for aught we Men have sown in battle.”
Lids flared. “There is fire on your tongue. A Man-foe for true…!”
Pouring into his grip was grim power greater still. Veins swelled along his massive arms, boughs bulging with the anger of the earth. Upon them I laid my own hands, and next exerted a defiant grip of my own. The jarl’s voice seethed.
“…And a fool besides!”
Furrows flashed across his face.
I came here neither to gloat of my own strength of arms, nor to submit to the might and misery of these proud people. No, the jarl must know that I be a soul with words worthy of his ears. Thus did I sink my fingers further into the flesh of his forearms.
“The fire upon my tongue is but a wick-light to the world-flames of war,” I said back. “Without aim nor ailment have they burned both sides. But not by steeping ourselves in hate shall they be quenched.”
The jarl narrowed his eyes. “Think you the wiseman? That the spittle of your speech might drown what flooding centuries of war could not quench? Speak! O, wiseman!”
“I am no wiseman. Nor has there ever been, who so plies his wisdom to the withering of this war. For it rages more than ever, and his absence aches us all.”
“Ache indeed, mine ears! From the hollow wiles of the wiseacre before me!” came Alban’s volcanic voice. “The ‘wisdom’ of your fellows and forebears sees rightness in the sightless slayings of our innocents! Yet hastily from their blood-halls are you come to our pillaged place! Our pain’d presence! To what!? Wallow in our wounds with your salted words!?”
Pained, indeed, the jarl’s own words, if not palpably wroth. A pain wrought by the reasonless slaughter set upon the more peaceable amongst his people. Friends and family all, meek and now vainly lost.
A war-wheel turning with the momentum of centuries—more losses alike, then, were sure to follow. The resentment born from such a realisation was, in fact, a wound upon the leader of these lost people. How deeply it ran forever escaped my ken.
My hands relaxed and released, moved by the thought.
“Again, I’ve no apologies for what’s transpired in battle,” I reiterated, looking away not once. “But putting innocents to the sword—that is not battle. Not at all. For such tragedies do I apologise to you, one and all. Truly.”
My words earned a silence from Alban as he elected to, with all slowness, free me from his own grip. Yet his anger gained no softness in the while, and that stare of his was as solid and searching as ever.
“Overlate—vain—be your apology, Man-foe,” the jarl spoke again. “Think you our slain babes and elders make return to us? With just that apology of yours?”
“…Would that my words were empowered so. How freed would we be, to reunite with all we’ve lost. But I’ve no such power. None amongst us do. Those who’ve left us behind—they can never turn back. The pain echoes through you all, just as it does through me.”
I knew. All too well. To them, my apology was but a meaningless remedy. But against all reason do the forlorn yet yearn only for the return of their dearly departed. This, too, I knew.
Though the enmity in their eyes was unwaning, there was then a concrete quietude in all the húskarlar around me. The Jarl Alban unfurled his fist before yielding a long breath from his lips.
“…You do not sound the mouthpiece of Man’s mind.”
“Indeed. These are my thoughts, and mine alone.”
Once more did the veins vault upon the faces of Alban and his vassals. Anger again, but now bedight with bewilderment at my unveiled will. Man only ever saw his Nafílim neighbour as a nemesis to be massacred unto nothingness. And so for these same Nafílim to hear an apology from the lips of one such Man was surely a shock to their wits.
Alban gave greater weight to his glare, as if to seek out the truth in my soul. Then, with an unmuddied timbre, he asked anew.
“The ravaging of our kind kindles revelry and release in the heart of Man. Why does yours steer from this course?”
“Because it’s wise to what perhaps lies beneath the world: a machination unseen.”
(Language: Old Norse; singular: húskarl) The house-carls, or retainers, to a jarl. In Soot-Steeped Knight, they are thus members of the Nafílim upper echelon.
(Language: Old Norse) The “jarl’s hall”. The j consonant is pronounced with a y sound, as in the words “yes” and “yawn”. The ǫ vowel is a rounded o sound, pronounced with a cross between the o sounds in the words “on” and “old”. In Soot-Steeped Knight, refers to the palatial residence of a jarl.
(Schemed language: Old Norse/German; singular: Vílung) The Víly clan. Adhering to the naming scheme of Norse clans, “Víly” is converted to the more formal “Vílung”, while it then follows German declension (as Old Norse declension is reserved for more ancient terms). Thus, “Vílung” refers to a single member of this clan, while “Vílungen” refers to multiple or the entire clan itself.