The hunt had not gone well. The four young men had left their village six days ago, hoping to bring down game for their people. They had caught only a few thin and undernourished rabbits, which went to feed the hungry hunters. Discouraged, the young men had headed back home.
The Torgun were not generally hunters, except for sport. The clan raised cattle and sheep, ducks and geese, housing them in byres during the winter, feeding them grain grown during the summer months. But due to excessive rain, the grain harvest had been poor last fall. The winter, the dark months of Svanses, had been unusually long and bitterly cold, killing animals and people. Spring had brought hope to the Torgun, but the time of spring, Desiria, proved a mockery. The goddess Akaria’s rains came early and then ceased. Now, in late spring, the young crops withered in the dry ground.
Even under ideal conditions, raising crops was always difficult in this land of cold and snow. The growing season was short, the ground rocky and difficult to farm. Despite the hardships, or perhaps because of them, the Vindrasi people had lived here and thrived for centuries. Not even the eldest among them could remember a time as bad as this.
On their return, the group of four friends split up, hoping to cover more ground in their efforts to find game. The brothers, Bjorn and Erdmun, took a different road to the village, using the northern route. Skylan and Garn took the south. These two young men walked in silence. Skylan did not react well to failure, and he was sullen and brooding. Garn was silent because he never spoke unless he had something to say that was worth saying.
The time was morning, near dawn. The young men had risen early, intending to find deer stirring in the gloaming and eating tender green grass or coming to the stream to drink. There were no deer, however, because there was no tender grass. As for the stream, lack of rain had caused it to dwindle to almost nothing. A small child could toddle through the water without wetting her knees.
Skylan watched the sun rise up over the hills, and he grew even glummer. Aylis, the Sun Goddess, was an angry goddess, burning away the clouds that might have brought much-needed rain.
The day would be clear and hot. Again.
“I am beginning to think Aylis hates us,” Skylan said bitterly. “We prayed for the goddess’s light during the harsh season of Svansol, and she was nowhere to be seen, leaving us to the mercy of Svanses and her snow and ice and bitter cold. Now, in the time of Desiria, we cannot rid ourselves of Aylis. We pray to the Goddess of the Waters for rain, but Aylis drives Akaria away, burns our crops, and dries up our water.”
“One would think,” Garn commented with a half smile, “that Torval could exert better control over his women.”
“Perhaps Torval’s women are like ours and do whatever they damn well please,” Skylan muttered, thinking of one woman in particular.
He spoke lightly, but he touched the amulet—a small silver axe—he wore around his neck on a leather thong to appease the God of War in case he should take offense.
“But we should not jest about such matters,” Skylan added hastily. “Torval might be insulted and take out his rage on us.”
“I do not see how the god can cause us to suffer more than we already have,” Garn returned dryly. “We endure the worst winter in memory and wait hopefully for spring. A time of new life, it brings drought and death.”
Frowning, Skylan said nothing. He revered the gods, and he wished Garn would stop talking about them in such a disrespectful, almost mocking tone. Skylan might have said something, but he and Garn had been friends—more like brothers, for they had been raised together—since they were infants, and Skylan knew from experience that arguing with Garn would only encourage him in his irreverence. And so Skylan kept quiet.
Skylan’s faith in the gods of the Vindrasi was simple and unquestioning, perhaps because—as Garn might have said—his faith had not been tried. At the time of his birth, Skylan Ivorson had been blessed by Torval, Chief of the Gods of the Vindras. A spark struck from Torval’s war axe as he fought his enemies in heaven had flashed across the heavens at the very moment Skylan let out his first cry. When Norgaard, Skylan’s father and Chief of the Torgun Clan, told Aldrif, the former Kai Priestess, about the spark and how all in the clan had witnessed it, she affirmed that the God Torval had indeed blessed the child, who would grow up to be a valiant warrior, a savior of his people. The sad fact that his mother had died giving him life made the sign more significant.
Everyone in the Torgun Clan believed in that blessing, especially Skylan. He was the strongest young man in the clan, the boldest warrior, the most skillful with sword and spear and axe. He was handsome, with eyes the color of the waves upon which the Vindrasi sailed their dragonships and hair the color of the golden rays of Aylis. His skin was bronze, his body well formed and well muscled. He carried himself with pride and confidence.
Skylan had taken his place in the shield-wall and killed his first man in battle at the age of fourteen. He had taken his first woman at about that same age, going on to lie with girls who were careless of their virtue or with lowborn girls whose parents hoped that by coupling with the chief’s son, their daughters would be provided for. As a result, there were several children about the camp who had sea-blue eyes and sun-gold hair.
Skylan cheerfully acknowledged his bastard children and gifted their mothers with presents from time to time, as was expected of him. He had no intention of wedding any of the women, however, and he had ceased his “tomcatting,” as Garn had put it. Two years ago, when he was sixteen, Skylan decided he was in love. Her name was Aylaen Adalbrand, stepdaughter of his father’s friend, Sigurd Adalbrand. She had been fifteen then. She was now seventeen years old.
The three of them—Aylaen, Garn, and Skylan—had been friends from the time their caretakers had laid them on blankets together. The three played together, which was unusual, for girls were generally kept at home to assist with household duties. Aylaen’s father was dead, her mother could not control her, and Aylaen “ran wild,” escaping from her chores to join Skylan and Garn in their play and in their fights. Skylan did not remember what he had done to anger Aylaen—perhaps he had roughly pulled her long red braids. Aylaen had rounded on him like a catamount, punching him in the face, splitting open his lip, bloodying his nose—and knocking him on his rump.
No boy in camp had ever bested Skylan in battle. He’d been so lost in admiration at Aylaen’s spirited attack that he forgot to fight back, and she walked triumphantly off the field, sucking her small bruised knuckles, mantled with the honors of the day.
Two years ago Skylan had told Aylaen that he meant to marry her. True, she had stuck out her tongue and jeered at him, but he was not discouraged. Since that time, he had not slept with another woman. He had made an offer of marriage to her stepfather and Sigurd, after some bargaining, had accepted. Skylan was waiting now only to obtain enough silver to pay Sigurd the bride-price in order to marry her. Marriages were always arranged among the Vindrasi. A woman had the right to refuse a suitor, however, and Aylaen was forever swearing she would never wed him, but she said it in a teasing manner. Skylan was confident she didn’t really mean it. He was the Chief’s son, after all, a valuable catch for any family, as her stepfather well knew.
He should have earned the silver with wealth captured in raids, but things had not gone as planned.
Skylan still considered himself blessed—he was, after all, handsome, strong, healthy, and the most skilled and honored warrior in the clan. But it seemed nothing was going right for him or for the Torgun Clan these days, and Skylan couldn’t understand it. The Torgun had been among the most feared clans of the Vindrasi. In years past, the Torgun’s dragonship, the Venjekar, meaning the Forging, had come back laden with cattle, silver, grain, and the precious jewels demanded by the Dragon Kahg in payment for his services.
Now it seemed the Torgun were cursed.
First there had been the poor harvest, then the unusually cold winter, and now this terrible drought. Raids on their neighbors had not remedied the situation. The Torgun’s neighbors had inexplicably been warned of the coming of the dreaded dragonship, and they’d fled into the hills, taking their treasure and their flocks with them, leaving behind nothing but stray cats and empty iron cooking pots.
Skylan and his warriors were forced to venture into unknown territory, and it seemed their luck had finally turned when they discovered a fat village of fat people and fat cattle. But when Treia, their Bone Priestess, prayed to the Dragon Kahg to join them in battle, the dragon did not answer. Skylan and his fierce band of warriors had not been concerned. They could take this village of blubbery cowards by themselves.
Unfortunately, another group of warriors had also spotted the village. The Venjekar’s lookout had spotted sails numerous as gulls squabbling over a dead fish on the horizon, driving toward them. Skylan had been amazed to recognize the triangular-sailed ships of an ancient foe, the ogres. Considerably outnumbered, Skylan had reluctantly ordered his single dragonship to take to the seas.
He had hated running from a fight, but without their dragon ally, the Torgun could not hope to battle both villagers and the brutish ogres. The faster, lighter Venjekar had skimmed the waves, and they were able to escape before the ogres caught them. Still, no one had celebrated. They had returned home, their ship empty, their warrior souls filled with shame.
“If only the Dragon Kahg had fought for us,” Skylan complained. “We would now be rolling in silver and swimming in cattle. I wonder why the dragon refused to answer Treia’s summons.”
Garn was startled at this sudden change in subject, but he knew how his friend’s mind worked, and thus he managed to make the bounding leap from talking of the gods to discussing the Torgun’s last disastrous raid. He was about to comment, but Skylan didn’t give him a chance.
“I want to go raiding again, but my father will not permit it. Norgaard says that until we know why the gods have turned against us, we will not take to the seas. I hate this!” Skylan exclaimed suddenly, slamming his fist into the trunk of a tree. “I hate sitting about like an old granny, wailing and doing nothing!”
“Norgaard speaks sense, though,” Garn replied. “And no one can call your father an old granny. His warrior days may be behind him, but he has a warrior’s heart still. And his valor lives in his son.”
Garn clapped Skylan on the shoulder. Garn was Skylan’s age, eighteen, his best friend, his cousin, his blood brother. The two had grown up in the same house together, for Garn had been orphaned at birth, his father having died in a raid, his mother dying of a fever. Because his mother had been Norgaard’s half sister, Norgaard and his pregnant wife Edda took Garn to raise as their own.
He and Skylan had been inseparable. Many considered their friendship odd, for the young men were vastly different. Garn was the quiet one, people said. He was taller than Skylan, slender, not so muscular. Garn was an adequate warrior, not a great one like his cousin. He was fair-complected with brownish-blond hair and somber, thoughtful brown eyes.
As to their unusual friendship, Garn had given it thought, coming to the conclusion that it was their differences that drew them together, as iron to the lodestone. Skylan, by contrast, never questioned their bond. He knew that Garn was his friend as he knew the sun would rise in the morning.
Skylan was thinking about what Garn had said about his father not being an old granny. Skylan was not certain he agreed, though it made him sad and ashamed to have to admit it. The warrior exploits of Norgaard Ivorson, Chief of the Torgun, were legendary. Then, five years ago, during the heat of battle, Norgaard had leaped off a high stone fortification in pursuit of his enemy. He had landed wrong and broke his leg. The break did not heal properly, forcing him to walk with the assistance of a forked stick under one shoulder. Since then, he had lived in constant pain, though one could never tell by looking at his stoic face. The only indication of what he suffered came from the terrible moans that escaped him in his restless sleep at night.
Norgaard remained a strong Chief, however, with his son acting as War Chief. Skylan did not consider his father weak or cowardly, but he did secretly think that his father, an old man who had seen almost forty- five winters, had grown overly cautious. Skylan would never criticize his father aloud, but Garn knew what his friend was thinking.
“Norgaard is responsible for the welfare of the entire clan,” Garn said, “and he dares not risk creating widows and orphans without knowing he will be able to feed them if their men do not come back.”
“So rather than dying like warriors, we starve to death and will go to Torval with beggars’ bowls in our hands instead of swords,” Skylan returned.
“Perhaps if Norgaard asked for a meeting with the Kai Priestess of the Vektia, Draya could tell us if the gods—”
“He did so a month ago,” Skylan interrupted tersely. “The priestess has not answered.”
Garn looked startled. “I did not know that.”
“No one does,” said Skylan. “My father says Draya’s silence is a bad sign, and he does not want to further discourage our people.”
Garn did not know what to say after that. Matters were worse than he had supposed, and even he had no words of comfort now. The two young men continued along the trail that led back to their village. They walked across vast plains of burnt, brown grass that should have been green and lush this time of year. A few surviving cattle—thin and bony creatures—stood in the hot sun, looking miserable. The thin and bony boys who tended them languished in the heat, swatting at flies. They perked up at the sight of Garn and Skylan and ran to ask eagerly if their hunt had been successful. Their faces fell at the sight of the young men carrying nothing but their spears. Scuffing their feet in the dust, the boys went back to keeping watch on the cattle.
The young men left the plains and entered the thickly forested hill country. Though they could not see it from this vantage point, their village lay far below them, rows of houses scattered along the coastline. The location was ideal. The Torgun’s swift-sailing dragonship could ply the waters in search of food and wealth, and when danger threatened, the women and children could seek the safety of the hills.
Garn breathed a sigh of relief as they entered the cool shade of the forest. Skylan scowled and increased his pace. He disliked forests. He felt smothered, surrounded by trees, unable to breathe the clean sea air. Then, too, fae creatures dwelt in the woods—faeries and dryads, wood fauns, fetches, and suchlike. The gods had no control over the fae folk, for the fae had been living in this world long before the gods found it.
The worst time of Skylan’s life had been during his passage to manhood, when, at the age of twelve, he was sent out with other boys to survive a week in the forest, armed with only a knife. He’d had to avoid the Torgun hunters, who searched for him and the others, gleefully dragging back those they caught. These unfortunates would have to spend another year as “children” before being allowed to take the test again. In addition to those trials, Skylan had to avoid being seduced by a dryad or lured off to unhallowed revels by a faun, never to be seen again.
Skylan had prayed constantly to Torval to protect him, and Torval had done so. Skylan had not encountered any of the fae folk, though he had been convinced he could hear their revels in the night. Skylan had given Torval a fine gift for having protected him from the wicked fae.
Trudging along the dusty forest trail now, dry twigs and leaves snapping underfoot, Skylan remembered vividly how he had lain awake at night, gripping his knife in his hand as he listened to the squawks and squeaks, the screams and groans and snarls, picturing the fae folk gathering around him, eager to drag him down below the earth to their dark kingdom forever.
Hearing something—not a faery—Skylan came to a sudden halt. He raised his free hand, a gesture that brought Garn to a stop, as well. The sound was an odd one—a rumbling grunting and snorting. They listened intently. Something incredibly large was crashing about in the dry brush.
The two glanced at each other. The noises came from up ahead and to their left. Skylan was still thinking of fae folk, and he gripped his spear more tightly. He was afraid of nothing born of mortal man, but the thought of encountering a hairy troll made his blood run cold.
Neither young man had been particularly quiet or stealthy in his movements. So near to home, there was no need. But they grew quiet now, moving silently toward the thing making the noise. Skylan motioned for Garn to go off to his right as both left the trail, plunging into the forest, planning to converge on what ever it was from different sides.
Skylan was the first to spot the creature, and he stood in amazement laced
A wild boar.
Skylan had heard tales of these enormous beasts. Wild pigs with huge tusks, they could weigh as much as five stout men. He had never seen one, for boars did not live around here. The boar had likely been driven from its accustomed hunting grounds in the mountains by the drought, but Skylan believed Torval had sent it in answer to his prayers. The gods might be angered at the Torgun, but Torval loved Skylan still.
The boar had either heard or sniffed trouble, for it lifted its massive head, glaring about as though aware it was being outflanked. The boar’s fur stood up in alarm, and it snarled a warning to keep away. The boar was a fearsome-looking beast. Its jutting, heavy head hung down from massive humped shoulders. It had two sets of tusks. One, the upper set, called honors, sharpened the lower, larger set, known as rippers for good reason. The lower tusks were designed to slash apart the flesh of a victim. Short, sturdy legs supported the heavy body.
Watching the boar, Skylan recalled the tales he had heard of hunters trying to bring one down. By all accounts, boars were fierce, vicious animals who would fight savagely to the death. His father had hunted boar in his youth. During one such hunt, a boar had slain a Torgun warrior, goring him in the stomach with its tusks. No one ever hunted boar alone. The warriors went out in parties, bringing nets to entangle the boar and dogs to attack and distract the beast, while the hunters closed in for the kill.
All this flashed through Skylan’s mind, even as he determined that he would bring down Torval’s boar by himself and haul it back to camp in triumph. The Torgun people would feast on boar meat this night and for many nights to come, and they would sing Skylan’s praises. Aylaen would at last look at him with love light in her green eyes—not with the fond, tolerant, sisterly glint of amusement he had come to loathe.
Skylan eyed the boar and considered his strategy. Garn appeared in the shadows of the trees opposite. Guessing Skylan’s intent, Garn waved his hands, urging Skylan to run away.
Skylan paid no heed. Spear raised, he advanced on the boar, motioning in turn for Garn to stay where he was. Skylan recalled his father saying that the boar carried a shield of cartilage atop its shoulders hard enough to stop a spear. He also remembered his father saying that one needed to make the first blow the killing blow.
Aim for the chest, the heart.
The boar smelled Skylan and fixed its eyes on him and lowered its head. He had been afraid it would flee, for boars had no honor to trouble them, and were content to run off and live to fight another day. This boar was hungry, however, and meat was meat, be it walking on two feet or four. With a savage snarl, the boar charged at Skylan.
Skylan had planned on charging the boar, and he was startled that the boar had taken the initiative and was charging him. The boar was the size of a boulder, and it seemed to grow as it thundered toward him. Skylan began to think he’d made an error in judgment. Garn was yelling for him to climb into the trees. Skylan briefly considered taking his friend’s advice; then he thought of Torval watching from where the god sat at his feast table in the Hall of Heroes, roaring with laughter to see the young man scramble for his life up a tree, clinging to the branches while the boar rooted and snorted beneath.
Skylan ran to the tree, but he did not climb it. He set his back against it, along with the butt end of his spear. He had to withstand the force of the charge, or else the boar would slam into him and knock him to the ground, then gore him with its tusks.
Seeing that Skylan was determined to fight, Garn dashed out of the woods and hurled his spear at the boar, hoping to at least wound and weaken it. Garn was not so strong as Skylan, but he had a good eye and a steady hand, and he often beat Skylan in contests where accuracy counted more than strength. Garn’s spear struck the boar in the neck. Blood spurted, and the beast roared in pain, but it kept on going straight for Skylan.
“Torval, strengthen my arm and let my aim be true!” Skylan prayed.
A feeling of calm descended on Skylan. He had known such calm during battle, knew it to be a gift of Torval. Time slowed. Skylan focused on what he had to do, paying no heed to the crashing hooves and the horrible roarings and snortings or to Garn’s shouts. Skylan heard the beating of his own heart, the rush of his own blood, like the crashing waves of the sea that filled
his sleep at night. He dug his feet into the ground, braced himself against the tree trunk, and leveled his spear.
The boar’s small red eyes burned with fury. Spittle flew from its mouth. Yellow tusks jutted upward from the outthrust lower jaw. Intent upon its prey, the boar rushed at Skylan. He drove the spear into the boar’s neck.
Blood flowed. The boar gave a grunt—more of surprise than of pain. The shock of the blow slammed Skylan back against the tree, jarring his spear arm and almost hurling him off his feet. He fought to remain standing, fought to drive the spear deeper into the boar, for he had not killed the beast. To his shock and astonishment, the boar kept on coming. Roaring, thrusting at him with its tusks, the boar pushed its body along the spear’s haft in a furious effort to destroy Skylan.
The boar was doing Skylan’s job for him, driving the spear deeper into its body, but it was also closing in on Skylan. Its head thrashed, its yellow tusks slashed at him, and they were wet with his blood.
Skylan could do nothing except press against the tree and hold fast to the spear and pray to Torval it did not break. Sweat rolled down his face and into his eyes, half- blinding him. He shook his head to see. His muscles were weakening, starting to shake from the tremendous exertion. He had the dim impression that Garn had joined the fight, striking at the boar with his knife.
Blood flew; tusks slashed. Skylan held fast.
The boar, spitted on the spear, twisted and turned, more than once nearly yanking the weapon out of Skylan’s hands. Gasping for breath, he threw the waning strength of his body into a last desperate spear thrust, driving as deep as he could.
With a slash of its tusks, the boar gave a gurgling grunt and crashed sideways onto the ground. It lay in a pool of blood, its flanks heaving and its feet twitching. Skylan held on to the spear until he saw the life gradually fade from the boar’s eyes. The boar gave a shudder and lay still. Its hatred remained in the staring eyes even after death.
Skylan let go of the spear and collapsed beside the warm, bloody corpse. He lay in its blood and his own beneath the tree and dragged air into his burning lungs. He was dizzy, and now he felt the pain. He looked at his body to try to determine the extent of his injuries, but his clothes, ripped to ribbons, were sticking to the wounds, preventing him from judging their severity. His hands and arms were slashed, and blood and pain were everywhere.
Garn knelt beside him, his own arms bloodied to the elbow. He did a swift battlefield assessment, cutting away the cloth of Skylan’s tight-fitting linen breeches and the long belted linen shirt.
“You have a deep gash in your thigh,” Garn reported after examining Skylan from top to bottom. “But the blood is oozing, not pulsing.”
That was good. Blood pulsing from a wound have meant Skylan would bleed to death.
“You have lots of other wounds, but the thigh wound is the worst,” Garn announced. He rocked back on his heels. “You are damn lucky,” he added with a smile and a shake of his head.
Skylan smiled, too, through the haze of pain. He was not lucky. He was blessed. His wyrd, his fate, was bound with glory.