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Act II

 

Chapter 1

 

Putri dashes into the Keep and trips over the body of the last assassin. There is a dull thud as the awkward servant collides with the stone floor, the wind clearly knocked out of him. With a pained moaning he struggles to his knees, his eyes blinking rapidly to adjust to the darkened hall.  Having regained his wits he wails “Armed riders approaching my lord! They will be upon us within moments”.

There is a unified gasp from the bewildered women and then the metallic clanging of Almuric’s goblet falling to the stone floor. The hand formerly holding that goblet is now thrusted into lord’s hair and his eyes widen with astoundment.

Justrudd comes to his feet where he was kneeling to place a handkerchief over the mask of blood and brains that used to be his guardsman. The aristocrat’s thumb massages the pommel of the sword belted at his waist, his eyes fixed on Russ as he now asks in a detached monotone “How many would you say there are?”

Having regained his feet and some of his breath, Putri answers “There are many, lord, possibly fifty or more”.

Almuric raises himself upon unsteady legs and exclaims, “So the devils have finally found us. Then it is to battle!  Saddle my horse. I’ll ride with the lancers”.

The eyes turning to Almuric in the hopes of an indomitable and brilliant leader are instead met with his expression of puzzled bewilderment: more a madman than competent commander.

Kassandra scurries over to him and with shaking hands tries to stroke his disheveled hair into a semblance of respectability in the vain hope that if he looks the part the rest might follow suit. “We need you now husband, no more talk of red-masked devils you hear? Come back to us. Be the Almuric of old one final time. I know you have it in you. I beg you”, she whispers.

Almuric rubs his hand down the length of his face in an attempt to dislodge the cobwebs of dementia smothering his mind. Then in his best imitation of his younger-self he instructs Putri with an authoritative air “Inform my Captain of the Lancers to send two dispatch riders to request reinforcements from our nearest ally. That would be lord Strabonus. The rest of the lancers shall assist the levies in the defense of the stockade. If the defenses are breached they are to join us here in the defense of the Keep. Now go, and, someone fetch me my armor.”

Putri stays put—all color draining from his anguished face as he replies “I don’t understand my lord. Does my lord not remember sending the captain and all the lancers away to patrol the northern border earlier this morning? They shan’t return till tomorrow morning.”

Almuric is utterly dumfounded—staring at the servant with his mouth agape. “But, but… I don’t recall” he stammers.

Kassandra throws her arms into the air in a sort of supplication to the gods and cries “Your lunacy has doomed us all!”—and with that she storms to the back of the hall where her handmaidens, knowing their mistress far too well, hand her a goblet of wine and the only comfort for her distress.

“The rabble defending the stockade will be overrun shortly, that is if they don’t flee or surrender outright. We have precious little time to organize our defense but this Keep is as secure as any and if we can stave off their initial assaults we might be able to negotiate a deal. Us nobles are worth far more alive than dead”, explains Justrudd, addressing the occupants of the hall with remarkable calm.

Almost as if on cue, the din of battle arises outside: the clanging of swords, the barking of orders and the subsequent screams of the dying. Then, like the breaking of a fever: a sudden and ominous silence blankets the scene.

The Varangian grunts affirmatively, loosening the muscles of his arms and back. Then he takes Almuric by the shoulder and sits him down in his bronze throne.

“They are coming” comments Russ in his devil-may-care sort of way walking to the Keep’s entrance.

The bard knows, no matter how much talk of planning and strategy. Their survival will predominantly depend on this Varangian and his axe. The bard’s keen eyes now appraise that very axe on which so much depends.

For the longest time the civilized world regarded these battle axes of the Northmen as crude and cumbersome weapons to be scoffed at and as unrefined as the barbarians that fashioned them. That was until they met them in battle and witnessed a scene that has become branded into the nation’s psyche: a single determined Northman surrounded by the mangled corpses of the Empire’s military elite. And, if that was not shameful enough, that proud nation then had to resort to such underhandedness as to summon the archers to kill the barbarian at a distance—unwilling to step into the path of that terrible axe swung with such unfathomable speed and dexterity.

Even mounted lancers fared no better, halting their charge as it was recounted how that axe would decapitate the horse and then go on to nearly cut the rider’s torso in half. The blade also held their armor in frightening disregard. The secret of the axe’s devastating bite is found in its construction. This is no unwieldy woodsman’s axe with its heavy wedge-shape blade. No. It is designed and forged for one purpose only—to kill and dismember the human body with sinister ease. The foot-long blade is exceedingly thin, masterfully forged, heat-hardened and quenched. The edge of the blade is also reinforced and so resulting in a remarkably light yet durable blade that is unmatched in its cutting ability. When this is coupled with the iron thews of the Varangian the ensuing devastation is monstrous.

Then there is the fact that this particular axe in Russ’s hands is a historically infamous weapon, enough so that an entire saga-poem could be dedicated to it alone. It once belonged to ‘Skuld-Skull-Splitter’: one of the most terrifying warlords ever to have emerged out of the North—having killed more men than the plague with this instrument of death and his name leaves little to the imagination as to how those hordes of men met their end. There are always stories and superstitions surrounding weapons such as these, such as the soul of the original owner somehow residing within the blade, compelling the bearer into battle so that the axe might feed.

Despite himself, the bard smiles cynically—not counting himself amongst the superstitious, but how he now hopes that it is so—that the shade of Skuld-Skull-Splitter would awaken now and steer the blade to cut deeply and feast wholesale upon the attackers now amassing outside.

Russ halts at the entrance and the bard observes him closely. This aspect of the warrior always fascinated him, the ritual every seasoned warrior enacts to prepare his mind for the horrors of battle. Russ removes his pagan amulet from the linen pouch and ties the cord around his neck. He then closes his eyes and it seems to the poet that the barbarian’s mind is emptied from all worry and concern. All tension is visibly fled from his muscles and he now possesses that pantherish suppleness and focus his kind is famed for.

Then it is as though the axe comes alive—permitted to make small swirling motions like the stirring of some giant reptile’s tail. The motions quicken and contract into a shimmering blur of steel. Blinding arcs of silver doom sing their death song and the bard feels the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. This is no story. This is real. With a sinking feeling the bard realizes he is robbed of the omnipotence of the storyteller and now just another character in someone else’s story.

 The minstrel hears the footfalls of the men rushing down the corridor towards them. He looks to Russ in the hopes of having his waning courage fired and he is not disappointed. The barbarian is grinning with a near demonic exultation even as his eyes glitter with the battle-madness of his people.

The first attacker barely cleared the entrance when his face is cut away in a bloody swath. His body topples to the wayside, hiding the downward stroke aimed at the second warrior following closely behind. The second man, a gaunt giant, has just enough time to jerk his head away from the cut that would have cleft his skull but instead cleaves unobstructed through his collarbone—down to his navel—the severed ribs flaring like a reverse blood eagle. The dead man falls back into the doorway tripping the third warrior failing to check his speed and stumbles headfirst into the upward sweep of the Varangian’s axe—shearing off the top-half off the warrior’s head. The skull-cap spins like some ghastly toy upon the floor.

The next attacker halts his charge, his grey eyes nervous, his valor dampened by the gory harvest the Northman made of his comrades. Then he is pushed forward by the men at his back eager to slay and pillage. The mercenary has no choice but to leap over the corpses but that too is folly. As soon as his foot lands the axe blade sings and his knee separates from his shin. The Varangian turns the blade and the man’s throat is opened with a reverse cut. This allows a gap for another attacker to dash around them and straight into the thrusting blade of Justrudd. The stiletto-like tip lances through the burly warrior’s eye and into the brain.

More warriors file down the corridor and the Varangian butchers each in turn: splintering ribs, severing limbs and torsos, ripping out entrails and cleaving skulls like overly ripe melons. The very few that manage to evade his axe are promptly dispatched by Justrudd’s nimble blade.

With the attacker’s onslaught now hindered by the heap of broken carcasses barring the Keep’s entrance they cease this initial assault and give the defenders a momentary respite.

Russ calls Kassandra’s troop of serving girls over. He gives them his knife and orders them to collect any other knives they might find and draw the blades across the throats of every single enemy combatant now lying on the floor. Then they must drag the bodies to the back of the hall and thereafter come wash the blood and gore away so that Russ would not slip on the viscous excretions.

Even through his shock the bard can’t help but marvel at the Varangian’s presence of mind so shortly after this grisly ordeal, not simply for his pragmatic approach to keeping the defenses unimpeded but also his grasp of the female mind. How shrewd he is to give them a knife and have them go through the ritual of killing the enemy a second time. Suddenly, in their minds they are no longer victims but actively partaking in the defense of the Keep. They now too have teeth, and, more importantly, an objective—re-casting them from hapless damsels to seething harpies keen to revenge themselves upon menfolk.

Lady Kassandra, wine goblet in hand and her cheeks as flushed as ever takes control of this operation ordering the girls about and personally severs a number of throats with a disconcerting relish. The bard shudders and is made aware of a certain loss. Perhaps a certain loss of innocence—the realization that womankind are not entirely the benign creatures men so desperately need them to be.