Here is the second chapter to the last book in the Red World trilogy. It is a rough draft so remember that. Happy Reading!
He hoped he'd manage to be faster than their flocks of stone-tipped poisoned arrows. He was the fleetest runner in nearly all of Dyrland and this was why he was chosen to scout. He did not think they were close but one never knew. They had become more stealthy over the years. The ice and snow began coming down in earnest now, pelting through the dense foliage of everblacks, lady reds and evergreens like tiny, sharp teeth. In the far distance he finally heard it, the soul-chilling scream of the Ohdrufrid. He'd put a great distance between himself and his pursuers but it still sent fright running through him like an icy river current. He rounded a tree, one with a small hollow hidden behind thick snow-covered kingberry bushes. It was one of the many hiding places he had noted and examined long ago while scouting through the woods. The forest was densest near the town, before the strong wood and iron walls and the gate making it easy for anyone to ambush men going into the town in the evening. And there were creatures that did the bidding of the Ohdrufrid, watching the towns and villages of the vast forests for hapless victims when their masters hunted for human flesh. He dove deftly into the hollow and listened silently now, like a doe, hiding under the protective underbrush of the kingberry bush. He heard nothing now but the persistent pattering of snow and his own heart flailing away. He held his breath, difficult because of the distance he'd run. It called again. This time it was more a short wail. But not the wail of sorrow. It was more a call of note, as if something was found. What, he could not guess. Perhaps they saw him approaching the desecrated village? Perhaps they caught his scent as he fled from the rituals he had spied in their caves? They were calling up the most ancient of dark gods now. He started on his way again, though the pain in his legs made them shriek in protest. He quickened his pace toward the town gate. The Great Thane would not like the news he had to bring. The Thane already had many worries upon his brow. Yet, any news might help in the coming war.
Idwil, heavy with child already, sat to rest her sore feet upon the velvet pillow. The baby, little Millidred, played quietly on a soft pallet of furs near the fire.
"Tella, hand me the quilt please." She said to the serving woman.
"Yes, madam." The hall that the Thane Uwain had built would have to be prepared and decked with the best tribal hangings, candles and winter greenery and wreaths. The other thanes and elder men of counsel, her husband being the Chief Thane of the king, would be meeting again. Uwain, the chieftain and Great Thane of Eostur was preoccupied these last months. The town was on high alert even though they had won an important victory against the Ohdrufrid over a year ago. She was concerned as to why this did not satisfy Uwain. He worried constantly, his face was set into a permanent scowl. The boar was turning and roasting on the spit at the kitchen fire. A large horn of good honey mead sat on the long table by his chair. Even these things did not seem to make him happy anymore. She remembered when the hall of her lord was filled with his deep laughter and the laughter of the other thanes and valiant men of the land; singing, talk, the barking hounds and laughing wives and children and the giving of good gifts. She sighed heavily and went back to weaving her quilt. She was weaving into the quilt the sigil of their house, the kingsberry flower. It was nearly sacred to the people of southern Dyrland and she had many uses for it. And for the kingberries as well. She heard his heavy footsteps coming up the outside stair. A blast of cold air blew in along with a bit of fresh snow. Lord Uwain shook his furs and set his sword and its sheath aside in his favorite chair made of boar tusks, leather and polished everblack wood. He nodded to her.
"My loving lord."
"Da!" Said little Millidred and reached her plump, rosy hands up toward her father. At last, the Great Thane smiled broadly, if briefly. He took her up with one hand and hugged her and she squealed with delight. He rubbed Millicent's golden red hair, taken after her own long, golden red tresses.
"Arnulf, play some soft music for us." Said Idwil. Arnulf, a young musician from northern Dyrland who was orphaned some years ago, played upon his old wooden harp a soft and lilting lullaby. She had lit special candles of myrrh in their wax as her husband liked the scent and they were difficult to come by in the Great Valley Lands. Candles were alight throughout the main hall which gave a gently festive air to the normally gloomy great house.
"The king, I expect, will call for council again soon." Her eyes studied his face carefully, hearing the scorn in his voice.
"Another Great Council? So we are officially at war with the Ohdrufrid, then?"
"With the Ohdrufrid, the Wodrufrid and every evil work and dark creature they have conjured up against the tribes of Men."
"By the gods! We issued them a resounding defeat by the Black River. I thought it would be years before we heard from them again, if ever." She said.
"Normally you would be right. But there is something else at work here. They continue to worship the gods of the underworld, ones our people escaped from long ago and I suspect they are getting unnatural help from them. The very air of these times is evil, Idwil. It reminds me of the last days of the rule of King Khalit and his first queen. He had these evil counselors all around him, one in particular who urged the case for him to acquire another queen. Finally, needing money for a nearly bankrupt treasury and needing an important military alliance against his enemies, he was finally persuaded. The fact that he had no issue from the first queen only helped that fatal decision further along. He brought within his court and to his bosom snakes who worshiped at the altars of demons. Signs and portents, dark and frightening were everywhere when this one, this new queen was got with child. The atmosphere of the entire court changed. It was like always having to have eyes at the back of your head, lest a serpent strike you from behind." Idwil was listening with all earnestness now. Rarely these days did Uwain divulge what was on his mind unless he was greatly disturbed.
"I was under the impression that most royal courts were like that."
"They are, but this one even more so. I tell you Idwil, the dark gods everywhere are powerful in the world. They are rising and becoming more active. I had to flee and I barely escaped with my life after we learned of Khalit's death. I owe Ruz and his brother Omun a life debt and now that Omun has helped our sword-smiths forge these new swords that can cut through anything our entire town owes him. Yet even so, fighting against gods is a different matter. The giants are up to something. I can feel it."
"Perhaps I can weave some trick-"
"No! Not that I do not trust in your skills but leave this be. It could get you killed." He came to her and tenderly touched her swollen belly. She put her own hand over his.
"You and our children are too precious. Do not attract the attention of the gods of the giants lest you invoke their everlasting wrath. The sun is waning in power as winter comes but the gods of the giants are rising in strength." Idwil felt pained.
"As you say, my lord." Still, she had the blood of her foremothers, the wise women of the woods in her and they never sat by idly when their families were in danger. She would come up with some defense to help her husband and her people.
"Where did he ever learn this secret?" She asked. These new men he had brought with him from the deep South Lands had always intrigued her.
"He said that when he was a youth he spoke with a very old man. This man was from the land called Hidush."
"Where is that? You speak of so many places I have never heard of, Uwain."
"I have been to many places and heard of more. The Hidushian told of a way that their blacksmiths had discovered a new metal called stel, or steel. He explained the process to him and Omun, having a great ability to remember things, kept it in his mind always and through trial and error he applied these principles to his own sword-making. Yet he told no one of his new knowledge and discoveries. In fact, Omun found a way to make the steel of the Hidushians even stronger." There was an urgent knocking at the doors. One of the servants answered it.
"My lord! It is I, Moraven!" The young man was flushed and breathing very hard.
"Come in and sit! Get him something to drink!" Uwain commanded. A cup of mead was set before him as he came and stood by the fire.
"Sit, lad. Tell me, what have you seen and found?" Moraven took a few moments to catch his breath. His face was flushed deep red. The music stopped. he finally sat down on the rugs by the fire. The baby looked up at him curiously. Idwil caught her up into her arms.
"My lord and lady! My lord, you were right to suspect some evil craft among the giants. I spied them in one of their sacred places, Mount Blacry. They are calling up the dark gods! The villages of Stafa and Wyllahen were destroyed! The people I saw in the cave! I think they came from those villages, my lord!"
"What happened to the people in those caves?" Asked Idwil. A look of dread fell upon her face. Moraven shuttered.
"Do you even need to ask, my lady?"
"Mercy!" Cried the serving woman.
"You were right! You were right to warn the king of their activity. I saw things too great and terrible in those caves but we will need more than the men we have to defeat them. The king himself must join in the war."
"We must all join together or face annihilation!" Said Idwil.
"And why does he wait and tarry as we in the south are picked off and killed?" Said Uwain. "His own people!" Said Uwain.
"I have something. I found it in the ruins of Wyllahen." The boy took out a bronze medallion, dirtied and battered and put it on the table before them. Uwain took it up and looked it over. Then he looked at Moraven in consternation.
"This is the sigil piece of chieftain Ogwain. I knew him to be a great ally of this town and of the people here. They have killed a great warrior."
"May his soul find rest." Said Idwil. Her delicate features looked drawn now.
"He will find no rest after their cruel and disgusting rites!" Uwain said in rising anger. He closed his eyes briefly and the color faded from his face.
"You have done well, Moraven. Stay here for the night and the servants will see to your room and bed. Meanwhile, I have information the king needs. If he wants it." He said in disgust and walked out of the hall and toward the main bedchamber. Idwil kept her fingers busy weaving and threading the silken threads for the quilt. not only did the kingsberry bring good fortune to her house nad her family line all thrugh the generations but weaving helped her to think, to pick through confusing thoughts until she came down to the bottom of a matter. She could feel the evil growing all around her out there in the wild woods just as her husband did. And it disturbed her that the king would not come to the aid of the people in the south. Perhaps he was weaker than everyone thought. Perhaps he had not the men to spare. Perhaps the Brytlanders were stirring against him again. Perhaps.
Perhaps she would need to seek out that ancient font of wisdom and Sight, the one many in the towns and villages quietly respected. Old Hildwylla. Her great-grandmother.
Moraven took a generous drink of mead and sighed in relief. Then he looked around the near empty hall, the feverishness of the flight now subsiding, sadness began to overtake him.
After writing a letter to the king Uwain went to his granary and had the letter sent by one of the blue-black night falcons. The king would have to act now. They were moving farther north, attacking the towns and villages in a winding route ever nearer to the royal seat. There was no other choice. They could not afford to sit and do nothing or the giants would retake these territories and subjugate everyone under the old, cruel gods of long ago. A terrible fate no man wanted to see except the most wicked. His long time guests who were now nearly part of the family slept in a one room hut built for them attached to the granary. A small fire was burning in the brazier in this room and a small lantern burned, lit from bear fat. They needed a weapon that could not be beaten. More than one, if possible.
"Omun, hurry and produce those much talked about singing swords of yours. We will need them in the coming days if we are to defeat the enemy. There are times I wish we had the secret fire you used to speak about, the elements of it and how to make it. Perhaps we could burn them out." The man stirred from his covers in the dark.
"Not so, my lord. It is made of bitumen, among other things, but that is all I know. That secret fire has such strange elements that even I do not understand the making of it. You do not want to see it, unless it is to see the forests of your homeland burn forever."
. . .
The smithy was packed full of blacksmiths and sword-smiths as Omun, his Alharan accent growing softer over time, again was at work instructing them in creating superior swords. He had been working closely with a particularly ambitious and sharp sword-smith named Hlothar Ulfberht. Hlothar was from the north of Dyrland, from the people called the Brytlanders.
Brytlanders were originally from the land of Dach, just northwest of Dyrland and it was said certain families among them had ambitions toward kingship and empire. But for now these ancient enemies of Dyrland had receded as everyone greatly feared the tribes of giants who were rising up in the land.
Hlothar was one of the best sword-smiths in the region and he and Omun often spent much time together talking and learning from one another; from different perspectives and different sides of the world, they had a shared love of metallurgy, and all things Golden Alchemical. Northern Dyrlanders had long found a way to make steel swords. However Omun, through his knowledge of metallurgy as he'd practiced Golden Alchemy secretly for many years, found a way to greatly improve upon this primitive way.
"You see this here? By adding a blast of air to the process at this point. . where it takes your men days through this process, this shortens it and makes better, stronger steel."
"Stronger than iron. I never thought anything could ever be stronger than iron." Murmured a young apprentice. All of the apprentices were forced to climbed the eaves or stand outside the forge to watch through the wide doorway while the masters and journeymen had choice places in the forge.
"Steel, in an indirect way, is a kind of iron. You do not get steel without iron. So iron is still the strong, red foundation. There is also another thing I will show you later." Then he had others try the process. Ruz toiled quietly, helping to keep tings organized int he shops and presently he was cleaning the outside step. Omun had taught a few of the most skilled Dyrlander sword-smiths and they now took over to walk the others through this "sacred way" of sword-making. It was a wonderful experience, a freedom he never had before, to practice his discipline of alchemy in the open. Alchemy was not only welcomed here but admired and respected. In Hybron only iron swords could be made, as to try to create anything different and stronger required the use of metallurgy, a form of alchemy which was banned. A stupid and ignorant law he never understood. It was all alchemy! And giving and sharing knowledge was a joy to him that he could never practice openly back home. His expertise was knowledge of tinkering devices. Infernal devices, according to the Ainash hikras. He was free in one sense but there were other dangerous things in this new land of the Great Ridge, or the Great Valley Lands. When he saw that he was able to take a short rest he went outside to join his brother.
"I hear of things, brother. Dark things in the forests. I do not like these forests. There are trees here as black as bitumen and even some with foliage red as blood." He said.
"I know it. I have heard that some of these trees feed on blood of animals or men. That the giants feed them." Said Ruz. "Besides. I think of returning back home these days. I have no use here. I am an eunuch. And I cannot take a wife here. How would I have issue? And many see us as strange."
"I would imagine that is how Uwain felt among our people. Your idea is a good one. I too have been thinking long and hard on returning but we have no news of what is happening back home. I fear to return after the death of the king. Who knows what Hybron looks like now? Or Egi? It could be complete chaos." Said Omun.
"But I fear that chaos will erupt here. These people are getting ready for another war with those monstrous beings out in the wild."
"And I am helping them prepare for it, Ruz. These new swords I am making are the most powerful yet! They sing through the air!" He swung his sword arm as if carrying one. "And I am making them longer and lighter, yet stronger than any of the strongest iron swords. It is a miracle, Ruz. When I am finished instructing the sword-smiths and blacksmiths here, I will tell Uwain that we are ready to return to our homeland."
"Good, good. Hopefully it will not be too much longer. If only we had some news. I am looking forward to a new king rising to the throne. The Red King. Queen Diti always talked of this future king."
"Eh. I have heard much about it but seen little. A nice fable, I suppose. I just want to go home." Said Omun and he went across the doorstep and up the wide road to the Great House of the Thane to the little hut at the side of the granary, their home, and shut the door.
Ruz finished sweeping and put the broom aside. He peered up at the sullen, thick gray sky. Back home clouds only showed up to foretell omens, usually good. Sometimes not. Rarely were they seen in the open desert. However, here they were always there, obscuring the sky, the sun and the stars, as if suffocating it. And it was colder than anything he had ever experienced in his life. This land was always wet and rainy or snowing. He wondered why Uwain still worshiped the sun god in this land as the rain gods seemed to hold more power. One of Uwain's servants was coming, walking with a quick, rushed gait, looking at him with a worried and purposeful look.
"Is he here? My lord needs to speak with him. It is urgent." Ruz pointed to the hut beside the granary.
"He is there and he is not busy as of right now."
The attendant went to the granary and knocked. Omun came to the door.
"The chieftain would speak with you at once, Omun."
"What is it about?" He asked, searching for his cloak.
"The king has finally sent for him. It is about the Ohdrufrid and Wodrufrid. Evil is afoot and Lord Uwain feels your knowledge of devices is key. War is brewing." Omun cast an alarmed glance down toward Ruz as he pulled his cloak close about him and left behind the attendant, tramping in the snow to the small chieftain lodge near the town gate.