Vol.2, Ch.5, P.10
“…I… I surrender,” Ebbe groaned, grinding his teeth as though his words were wrung wrenchingly out of his very heart. The former pallour on his face was flaring red—a fire likely lit by shame, full and sore. But to forgive him was a mercy gone before its begetting.
“I spit on your surrender.”
My curt words seemed a sword-cut upon his soul, for Ebbe’s eyes then widened with bewilderment and woe. And from their corners: the coursing of tears.
“W-wh-what’s this now? C-Commandant! You’ve clench’d this battle, you have! The day be yours! What worth’s there in waging more war, ey!?”
There: a hard-reached truth trickling from his whimpering.
Volker’s was an advantaged position. He and his spears had been holding the line near the west gate before my return to this district, an effort soon availed by fresh reinforcements. The din of battle was now all but dimmed to our ears, Ebbe’s and mine, and the spread of the fires had ceased a long while ago.
It was certain: the Fiefguard were routed, if not already well on the way to ruin. Ebbe’s unit, too, the treasured chariot of their charge, laid as lifeless litter upon these streets.
Their foray failed. Hensen was saved.
Ebbe also seemed wise to this, if his grovelling served any sign.
“C-Come now, Commandant! Be a brother, ey? You’d not bag a surren’dring soldier, now would you? You’re a soul too upstanding for that!”
Words of waste. Ebbe was brokering his own capture to me: a man at once a withersake, and a flyer of no flag at another. Unbeholden as I was, mine was hardly a position to give quarter. But I let it be.
Only after tempering my will to much pain did I set first foot upon this new path. Such will was not wont to turn heel so flippantly.
“Ebbe. A soul takes up sword not to hew those with neither heart nor hunger for battle.”
Ebbe broke a solaced smile. “W-well, then! Let’s—”
“But a sword that hews those that’ve meted malice unto the meek—that is my sword.”
“…Hhuh…?” His smile lingered a little, though now thoroughly sapped of its former security. An expression gilt in guilt, for Ebbe was a man long and well-bent on burgling and butchering the Nafílim smallfolk.
It was that very bent of his that had brought him here to Hensen. A bent that has branded him, beyond all doubt, a slayer of innocents.
And so must he be slain by this slayer of slayers.
“Keep this course of carnage, and carnage shall be your own soon enough,” I assured him. “I’ll stand ready to wreak it upon you all.”
“N… n-no…!” Ebbe trembled. “M-ma-madness…! Madness!”
Death was coming. Without question, it was coming. And Ebbe was at last sore-enlightened to its looming.
“Know this, Ebbe,” I spoke with finality. “Run, and I’ll run this sword through your spine. Fall to your knees, and I’ll fell your head from its neck.”
Were it in him to shame me any further, then certainly either choice would’ve done the deed. I’ll admit, even, to having desired from Ebbe some belligerent resistance, even if dire, for I did not fain finishing off a man so dispossessed of all spirit for battle.
“H… haa… haaahh…”
So breathed his beleaguered bosom. Aimless, his eyes searched the skies as his face swam in its own sweat and tears.
“Hhif… hic… ufh…”
Snivels and snarls began stammering out of his lungs, which quivered along with his weeping. His eyeballs darted about, busied with despair. Such anxiety next spilt upon the rest of his face: curling upon his lips now was a ghost of a smirk.
Karl once said it himself.
That on the looking glass of Londosius, my deeds cast a revolting reflection.
Of evil, of strangeness.
So utterly contrary to the noble cause of the kingdom.
To the Men of the realm, the Nafílim are a people to be plundered, dregs to be death-driven, black lambs to be lampooned. The jeering, the genocide—all but a “justice” meted unto them.
Such thoughts find no home in my heart. And so did my feet find a different path. For my eyes see in a Nafíl a gaze that witnesses the world no less wondrously than mine, feet that tread the way no less wistfully and waveringly than mine, a heart that seeks solace and society no less longingly than mine.
To any other Man, such eyes must be shuttered, such feet must be shackled, such hearts must be shattered. For these features, though shared, are of a baser breed, beasts unto which extinction must be exacted.
But I am the son long spurned from that line of Men and mind.
Thus should our paths find no parallel, should neither their centuries-sallowed ideals nor my will of wearied winters yield to the other therefore, then betwixt myself and my former brethren lies naught but battle.
Naught, but a game of victims and vanquishers.
A game, a gamble, a battle I brace the whole of my girth for.
But by my measure, Ebbe was burdened by no such resolve. Small wonder as to why he was now so whelmed out of his wits by this swift situation. Battle, to him, was ever a birthday celebration: an occasion to consume, devour, and feast upon fruits hard-harvested by not one finger of his own.
So screamed that same man, scrambling towards me with sword raised dubiously high—the shamble of a crying corpse.
So drummed the dry air.
I had pelted past him, sending the svǫrtaskan slanting through his silvered bosom along the way. Blood next danced deliriously from the dire seam, dousing his brotherly dead.
“Ah, I, I… I-I… I…!”
Broken words, cackling from Ebbe’s coldening core, as he tottered and tumbled to the ground. There he laid, till all life left him.
What was it he meant to say, I wonder?
I could’ve lent ear to him, for just this once. A final pittance he perhaps half-deserved, at least.
“Rolf…” said Lise, “…much thanks. For fighting for my folk.”
It was after Ebbe’s end that the jarl’s daughter had descended to the plaza. And what words did she first have for me, a Manslayer of a Man, but words of gratitude.
Indeed, she asked not if I had decided upon this deed with undimmed mind, nor craved account for my mounting the chariot of treason.
Brotherly blood was on my hands, and yet she thanked me for it.
How glad it made me.
“Pay it no mind,” I said. “Have you taken wound?”
“Nay—close, but I’ve to care for little more than scratches, thanks to you,” she answered. “But mind not me; what mightiness you’ve shown, Rolf! Rending through the realmers like you did—all by yourself!”
High praise, supported by the pall of honesty in her eyes. While grateful, I found such lauding hard to swallow.
“A might too meagre, I’m afraid,” I shook my head. “Look—the sword’s steeped me in soot.”
“Mm?” Lise blinked, leaning in inquisitively. “Steeped, indeed. The old tales told true, then. But why ‘meagre’?”
Swing the svǫrtaskan, and soot follows—one of few remembrances from myths of eld. And accurate they were, for in the course of slaying the silvered Men was much soot sent to swarten the air… and my person besides.
“Were my skill any keener, I might’ve swung this sword with nary a blot to blacken my body,” I explained. “My soot-steeped self proves I’m yet greener than a grove.”
“A… a curious thing you say, Rolf. But your word I’ll take. Though if it worries you much, might raiments of black suit you better from here on?”
I gave a blink of my own. “‘From here on’? You’ll allow me this sword? Frankly I feel a fated affinity with it, and so am loath to leave it, but…” I then paused to gaze upon the gloam-blade, “…it is a true relic. By rights, such treasure must remain in this land, with its people, no?”
It should, indeed, revered relic that it was.
Forged in the far days of the Tívafornár, tempered tenebrous by the flames of an eldened dragon: the sword of soot. No doubt it bore much meaning to the Nafílim folk—too much for some silly Man to brandish.
“‘A sword wastes unswung’. That, I’m sure everyone will say. My father, as well,” Lise assured me. “Besides, it has scorched and scorned all hands save yours, Rolf. Who better to wield it than the one it welcomes?”
“You’re very kind, Lise. My thanks. I’ll speak on this matter with the jarl, next we meet.”
From the way of her words, Lise seemed undoubtful that henceforth would I wage war under the Nafílim flag. Her own father, the Jarl Alban, and his húskarlar besides… though their hearts were yet harbours for abhorrence against the grim deeds of my kin, never did I descry in them the same senseless hate that hollowed the bosoms of Men. Indeed, in their hardened hearts may yet be found more softness for this wayward soul than formerly thought.
Why, Berta herself looked the living symbol for such accord. Her warmth of recognition was cause for much security and kinship.
A warmth, now cooled to all coldness.
I turned up to the paths above, where sat the stilled figure of Berta. What myriad mirth once brimmed from that woman. A mirth to be dearly missed.
“…Berta’s braves…” Lise spoke, having followed my eyes, “…from their war-chief they broke away, that they might hunt down the Men who straggled in the shadows. ‘Twas there where they joined with my own detachment. I left the duty to all of them… and broke away myself. Berta’s plight was a worry to me, you see. But… though I be swift on steed, ‘swift’ was overslow…”
‘Slow’, in saving Berta.
How harrowing it must’ve been.
Lise had till but a moment before a sprightliness to her spirit. Yet it was the truth that sorrow ached under her actions, and seeing Berta’s breathless body once more, the girl could no longer contain it.
“Best we leave our lament for later,” I said softly to her. “We must meet with Volker.”
“…That we should.”
Grief, grievance—these are to be saved after silence settles on the battlefield, for fighters tarry on peril of aught and all they strive to protect. Wishing to see the score of our wagers, Lise and I then left for the fray at the west gates.
Nearing the war-torn west end, we sensed in the air a change. Not long after, we found the frontlines hard-fought and—matching my earlier measure—hard-won. Volker’s regiment had wrested the reins of the battle from the Fiefguard, whose Men now retreated in their rout.
Forming a deep column looked to have bore fruit: with the war-chief at its fore, the Nafílim phalanx fought and felled the Men’s forces one by one, reaping steadily away at their ranks, till the coming of reinforcements much yearned-for. Then did the tides roar in Hensen’s favour as its braves rallied and rained down upon the Fiefguard with a swift offensive.
So screamed the failure and fall of Men. Laying torches had yielded them little avail; indeed, the flaming ruins of their own wreaking barred every avenue of escape. The folly left them flanked, and summarily vanquished by Volker’s spears, the Men’s numbers were soon broken beyond all powers of organised reprisal.
Some succeeded in fleeing the fólkheimr, but the brothers they left behind were legion. Soon enough, Hensen was hollowed of its harriers, and sensing their utter silence, Volker reared his steed and raised his voice.
“Unmade is the enemy! Vict’ry for Hensen! Vict’ry!!”
Following the thunder of his words was a storm of cheer. The day was won. Hensen would know another dawn.
Yet Volker’s visage wore a sombre dusk. Just moments ago were tidings of Berta’s undoing delivered to his ears by Lise herself. It looked to weigh darkly on his heart, as did the many deaths of smallfolk too-slow in their flight from the Fiefguard.
But through eyes of a different calculation, “many” was a small sacrifice for what was easily a miracle, one that saw Hensen smite a sudden foe flooding into its sleeping streets, of numbers never before fought within its walls.
To sweep away the matter with so coldly comforting a term as “small sacrifice” beckoned a weighty darkness upon my own heart…
“We won… We won…” Lise muttered amidst the victory cries, “…and we’re safe, just like you said, Auntie…”
Up to the high night was she turned, whispering the good news to Berta. Good, indeed, for each and all in the late war-chief’s charge were safe and sound.
“Rolf,” called Volker, descending from his steed. “Much debt to you.”
Gratitude, as concise as was his countenance empty of expression. Not that I had cause for complaint. His was a reticence I shared, and enlightened to it, I then saw in him something of a kindred spirit.
And as for the “why” of his words, I ventured a guess: my counsel for the abandonment of material goods as bait, as well as turning the Fiefguard’s flames to their disadvantage.
“Truth be told, I half-trusted your trick,” the war-chief confessed. “Though I was the one trick’d, for I trusted too little that Men be ill-wean’d from the milk of mammon—even amidst a battle.”
The Fiefguard’s movements well-seemed a puzzle to him.
“They’re a lusty lot, see,” I explained. “The village raid of five months ago—the ill-gotten gains there engorged their coffers… and their cravings more so. Beasts yearning for yet another bite of their bait: that’s what they’ve made of themselves. One needs little more than shallow wit to leash them in.”
“Words of much weight…” Volker quietly remarked.
“But of small avail,” I continued with graveness, “were it the Order’s vassals that endeavoured this invasion. If you reckon contest with the knights, you’ll need plenty more than petty tactics.”
An unwelcome conjecture upon the ears of both Volker and Lise, for they now turned to me with faces of solemnity. And for what reason than my hint of hostilities with the Order.
“Rolf,” said Volker firmly. “A different weight those words bear…”
“I’ve a plan—one for the jarl’s ears. Admit me to him at the earliest, if you will.”
“A plan?” Volker echoed with brows bent. Why talk of plans when the battle was freshly ended, and with but a breath of air as sole succour for the braves? This seemed the question cut into his stone-like stare.
“You heard right. Reach for Balasthea now, and you’ll reap much,” I confirmed, earning silence from Lise, Volker, and all the Nafílim nearby. “My predecessor has taken ill. The fort’s acting commandant, then, stands not within its walls, but before your very eyes. And on his hands is blood, hewn from the second-in-charge himself.”
That same silence soared into surprise. But their collective interest was well-piqued as they kept both quiet and their ears pricked.
“The fort looms fallow, cut from all command,” I went on. “The iron glows hot; strike now and bend it to your will, before any rigour be given to its restoration. And I—” so began my resolve as I rested a hand upon the soot-steel, “—I will march with you.”
Solace and security were ever fleeting to the Nafílim, so long as Balasthea stood yet unbroken and Arbel’s remnant Fiefguardsmen yet unfelled. But take the fort, and these braves shall gain a vital beachhead for an offensive upon Ström’s beating heart. Only then shall Hensen’s own know a measure of peace.
And from there…
“Rolf…” said Volker, drawing near, “…you are resolute?”
I looked to him. “I am.”
Was I truly willing to march with the Nafílim? Had I the heart to stand against my own kin? The war-chief’s was a question asking much with very little, to descry my true determination in this unprecedented plight.
And so I laid his doubts to rest.
“Londosius shall fall.”
Chapter 5 ─ End