PrinceCon 40: Theme Fiction

PrinceCon 40: Twilight of the Gods
March 13-15, 2015

Valor Hall, part 1

“But Dad, I can fight!”

He scoffed.  “You can fight in the tavern.”

“I’ve taken Self-Defense and Arms And Armor just like everyone else!”

“I’m not contesting your skill on the training ground.  But listen to me Thorlev,” he continued, emphasizing every word, “You are not a Warrior.  You are a Fisherman.  There’s no shame in it.  I’m a Fisherman too.”

“So what then, we’ll just fish the giants to death?” I couldn’t keep the bitterness out of my voice.

“Do you even listen the histories?  Why are there giants alive today?”

“What?”

“Gnut the Mighty led an army of five hundred thousand men, elves, and dwarves to crush the giants in their hills.”

Everybody knew that.  Gnut’s army marched well over a league per hour, carrying their packs on their backs.  It was almost half again as fast as an army was supposed to be able to travel.  For the Dwarves, it was virtually inconceivable.  It seemed brilliant, and he had the giants completely back on their heels.

“So why aren’t the giants all dead?”

I couldn’t think my way out in time.  “Because they burned the villages and fields as they retreated.”

“So what?”

“So there was no food left.  So our whole army starved.  So when Gnut returned in the Spring he had seven thousand men.  So that was like three Ages ago.”

He took me by the shoulders and waited until I looked him in the eye.  “We have Warriors to fight the giants.  And we are the Fishermen who feed the Warriors.  Without us, they will die just as surely as if a giant crushed their skull to pulp.  Which, by the way, is what will happen to any Fisherman stupid enough to challenge a giant.  Do you understand me?”

I looked away, furious.  But there was only one way to get out of this so-called conversation.  “I understand.”

* * *

I had to bite a fishing rod while I did it, but I managed to cut right through the catch I was gutting, straight into the flesh of my hand.  I barely had to fake the cry as I spit out the rod and grabbed my palm, bleeding profusely.  My left, of course.  Mom came running, and took my directly under her wing.

Dad, of course, was furious.  “The Valkyrie leaves at dawn!  What am I supposed to do with a short crew?”

She would have none of it.  “The same as you did when Armand got tangled in the net.  Work harder and fish longer.”

“But now we’ve got the entire defense force to support!”

“And there’s an entire fleet of fisherman to do it.  They’re not relying on you alone.”

“I will not.  Shirk.  My duty.”

“You will not give a hireling time to recover and then force your own son into slavery with a gored hand.  You will leave at dawn and Thorlev will not.  Or you will find a new wife when you return.”

He was an idiot to even argue.  He had married the woman, he ought to know he wasn’t going to talk her out of this.  I couldn’t help but smile while I eavesdropped.  The entire thing had worked beautifully.

* * *

“And you have your parents’ blessing?”

This was the moment of truth.  It must have been obvious to the Sergeant that I did not.  But if they didn’t want every warm body in the field, why was he attending the recruiting post in the dead of night?

“Of course, I have the full support of my family.”  I held up the wooden sword and padded practice armor I had stolen from the training ground.  Just as if my father had sent me fully equipped.

“Can you fight with that hand?”

A bit of an ironic question, since he was missing an entire arm, and apparently it hadn’t disqualified him from service.  I waved the bandages at him.  “Just a scrape.  I’ve trained to strap on my shield, in any case.”

“Excellent.”  He handed me a sharpened stick of charcoal, and laid down a half-filled sheet of blank lines.  “Certify here.”

As I scrawled my signar, I couldn’t help but think it had been too easy.  Even if they needed every warm body in the field, there should have been some resistance to an injured, underage, illicit recruit.  Could the situation be more desperate than we knew?

“Uh, it’s sort of the middle of the night.  When do I report to the Academy?”  I wasn’t terribly looking forward to the three-week Indoctrination, but at least the Academy was inviolate when it came to reluctant parents.

He guffawed.  “You’ll report directly to the Second Tinglith, Fifty-Seventh Hafna.  Pick any of the nags out back, head for the East Gate, the guards will direct you further.”

I gulped, suddenly wishing I was holding the signed canvas instead of him.

He smiled cruelly.  “You’re in the army now.  Desertion is punishable by death.”

Valor Hall, part 2

“Name?” the Sergeant in charge of arrivals asked.

“Hroar,” the man next to me, well, roared. He was twice as thick as me in every dimension, and all of it looked like muscle. If I had his size or even half his enthusiasm, maybe I wouldn’t have spent the whole ride brooding on the note I had left my mother.

“Name?” he asked me next.

“Thorlev.”

“Hroar, Thorlev, you are shieldbrothers. Whatever you do, you will not leave each other’s side.” He pointed at Hroar. “If he eats, you eat.” He pointed at me. “If he pisses, you piss.” Then he grabbed us both by our padded jerkins. “If I see one of you without the other, you’ll be cleaning latrines for the rest of your sharply abbreviated lives. Now get out of my sight.”

Some introduction to military life. On the way out, I heard him snap at someone to get the horses back to town.

But this was the middle of an improvised camp that served as the mustering point for half a dozen small towns. We didn’t know where to go. I pulled up short, and Hroar stopped as soon as he noticed.

“You two! Frogs! Over here!” someone else commanded. I looked, and he was pointing to us. Frogs?

“Because we’re green,” Hroar muttered.

The next Sergeant issued us a large canvas square, a couple of sticks, and a pair of boots each. They were too big for me, too small for Hroar. Then he pointed out the fifty-seventh hafna, and ordered us to pitch our tent.

“Uh,” I waved my wooden practice sword inquiringly. He grimaced at me and looked at Hroar expectantly. Hroar produced an axe. It must have been for chopping wood; it was much too small to fight with.

The Sergeant pointed at me. “You — take one of those.” There was a pile of weapons behind him. I couldn’t help but notice they were all battered, chipped, and blood-stained. Secondhand, to say the least.

Then he looked Hroar up and down. “Yours will have to do. You can take his sword when he dies.” I stiffened, though the Sergeant ignored me. “Whatever you do, don’t take one from a giant. You’ll think you can handle it, but you can’t. In the time it takes you to swing, they’ll crush your skull to pulp.”

“And armor, sir?” I asked. I thought the emphasis nicely conveyed my opinion.

“None for you; not worth wasting the time to fit. You though,” he looked back at Hroar, “you can ask the armorer when you reach the lines. Probably they can find a set that fits.” Off a dead man, unless I missed my guess.

“Don’t worry,” Hroar said quietly as we made for the fifty-seventh. “There’s no way they talk to each other. We’ll tell the armorer to get sets for us both.” I thanked him, though I was starting to expect the armorer might take one look and make the same assessment as the last guy.

* * *

I’d like to say we pitched our tent for a sound night of sleep before a full meal and a thorough introduction to our unit, weapons, and tactics. But that was just what I wished for, while I force-marched in a sleep-deprived fog. We were struggling to fit the canvas to the sticks when the order came to march. I even smiled at the joke, before I noticed that Hroar had reversed course and wrapped his boots into the tent.

“Wait, they’re not serious?”

Hroar shook his head. Then I noticed that everyone else was already packed, and forming up into a line. My boots and sword were still on the ground. I grabbed for them. “But what about–”

“Shut it, frog!” somebody yelled. “Get your ass in line before you catch a fly!”

I thought it was a bit much, but if I had to line up, I could line up. At least in a line, we could go to the chow tent together.

Fifteen leagues later, I still hadn’t eaten. I could barely walk another step; the only thing forcing my feet to continue one after the other was the fear of what might happen if I stopped. My hand blistered and the tip of my sword dragged on the ground — apparently none of the dead men had owned a scabbard. I would have given my right arm to be out on the Valkyrie. Still at sea. Dad didn’t even know. I hoped Mom was taking this better than I was.

* * *

I dragged my head up when I heard the shouting ahead. Six days of marching, and I would have cheerfully jumped into a giant’s pot. I guess I knew the front lines weren’t right there, but I had envisioned a carriage. Or at least a horse. Or something. My legs were long since numb, and when my good hand periodically cramped, I switched the sword to the injured one. At the moment, the hand was bleeding down the hilt to my blade. Mixing my life with the blood of men and giants already there. I couldn’t imagine what anybody was yelling about. I would have liked to yell for a rest, but if I got one, I would simply fall to the ground and it would take all the heroes in Valor Hall to move me another inch.

Suddenly Hroar knocked me aside. I summoned the power to squawk, but the sound was drowned by the crunch as a massive club shattered his chest. I simply gaped at the one-eyed giant that stepped into the space. It grunted, shook the wreckage of my shield brother off its weapon, and drew it back to swing at me. In that moment, I knew my end was nigh.

A burst of flame sizzled through the air from behind, leaving bright streaks in my vision. I hadn’t even known there was a mage in our escort. The fire smashed into the giant’s eye, and over the creature’s roar, I could hear the pops and hisses as its large white orb boiled away. Blinded, with the juicy remains of its eye dribbling down its chin, it still managed to smash its club wildly into the ground. Thankfully, and miraculously, not into me.

I finally jerked my sword up, slashing the creature’s ruined face. It stood tall and roared, then leaned back down to swing again. I sidestepped the blow, and tried stabbing instead. My sword dug deep into its face. The great monster roared one last time, and then its legs collapsed out from under it. It shook the earth when it fell, and flung the sword right out of my hand.

“Fifty-Seventh! To me!” a voice called fiercely through the mayhem. There seemed to be giants all around, and the wizard’s work was the only thing keeping any of us alive. I ran for the battle standard.

Three steps from safety, or three steps from armed defenders at least, another massive club smashed my left arm and spun me around. Pain exploded into my head, and for a moment, all I could see was red. Then I saw dirt, streaked with the blood of men. I lay face-down on the ground, while the battle raged above. When I tried to push up, the pain in my arm almost broke me. And then I felt an amazing thing — my other hand was pushing against the hilt of a sword.

“Fifty-Seventh! Fifty-Seventh!” I heard. The Merkismathr holding the standard pounded the staff into the ground. A surge of energy propelled me to my feet, and I felt the wounded arm no more. Flame whooshed overhead, another giant roared, and I smelled its burning flesh. My blade followed the trail. Even Hroar could never take them one on one, but with a little aid from this wizard, I would hunt each giant to the grave.

The next time the enemy swung at me, I couldn’t help but notice how slowly its weapon moved. I ducked out of the path with ease, and sliced open its side under the arm that had passed.

The fools were barely wearing armor at all, only mismatched animal skins. My sword cut through them, as easy as gutting a fish.

In the mists of my peripheral vision, our band of defenders seemed smaller.

Something crashed into my leg, but it was only a little bother.

The next “Fifty-seventh” sounded almost half-hearted.

No more fireballs passed over my head.

The battle standard wavered.

I fought my way back, grabbing it from the dead hand of the Merkismathr as he fell.

The world narrowed around me. I could see the broken and bloodied tip of my sword, I could feel the torn standard fluttering in the wind, and I found my enemy before me.

If these creatures thought they could destroy the Fifty-Seventh, they had another thought coming.

My sword ripped another giant open from knee to groin.

Darkness closed in.

Valor Hall, part 3

When I opened my eyes, I saw nothing but granite. The smells of blood, sweat, and flesh were gone. Arches soared over my head, hundreds of feet in the air. In bas-relief, I saw each of my greatest heroes in their finest moments of glory. I heard an entire Tinglith of warriors, crashing the butts of their spears to the ground together, honoring the victories of our past. The sound echoed and re-echoed through the heights of the chamber. I turned, already knowing what I would see.

High on the far wall, opposite the Heroes, rested the Gods. Heroes and Gods as one, only in Valor Hall.

I suppose I knew I’d never survive an ambush by giants, but what cosmic mix-up of fate had delivered a Fisherman here?

I tore my gaze down from the heavens.

I stood in the Circle of Honor. Hroar knelt before me. As soon as I noticed, he bowed his head and raised his hands.

“Hroar, what are you doing? You sacrificed yourself for me! Let me offer you to the Hall!”

Hroar looked up, plainly in awe. “Thorlev, you killed seven giants today. The battle standard of the Fifty-Seventh did not fall until after the last of the enemy.” Tears streamed down his face. “You have made Heroes of us all. I am merely your witness.”

Suddenly a thousand spear hafts crashed to the marble floor, and a thousand voices rang out in unison. “The Fifty-Seventh!” I felt the tears run down my own face as I saw each and every one of my greatest heroes, fists aloft in my honor.

I raised my broken sword. “The Fifty-Seventh!” I called back, with every fibre of my being.

* * *

“So, uh, what now?” I asked Hroar. We stood off to the side, the short ceremony complete.

He cleared his throat in a way I took to be significant, and looked to the side.

I immediately straightened and fumbled my way through a bow as I recognized Ivar Erikson himself. He still had the vaguely bowlegged walk of a king who’d spent nearly his entire reign astride his warhorse. Behind him on each side walked one of his legendary Riddari — the legs and flanks of a stallion, smoothly transitioning into the powerful chests, massive shoulders, and muscled arms of elite warriors. Somehow the stories didn’t do them justice — it looked like either one could snap me in half and eat me for breakfast; just a small warm-up before moving on to the actual battle. One of them smiled at the other as they noticed me staring.

“Congratulations,” the king said, holding out a hand. Shocked, I gripped his arm in the traditional manner, before thinking it through. Probably his Riddari Guard would break me now. But he stopped me when I tried to pull back.

“No, Thorlev. No man here has claim to a title. We are simply the Valiant. And you’ve earned your place at least as much as I have. After all, I had…” and he nodded to his horse-men.

Lost for words, I just looked from him to his Guard, desperately hoping they agreed. Finally I found my tongue. “I… You do me too much honor!”

“No more than you deserve.” Finally he released my arm. “But listen, now, tell me of your journey.”

“My journey?”

“Think back. It’ll take a moment, but then it will come to you. How did you come to be here?”

“There was a battle, the giants…” I couldn’t hide my confusion at the request.

“Most of us remember little. Just bits and pieces. Myself, I recall a soft voice, close to my sister’s, but more… innocent. A horse I knew was not my own. He moved like my armor was spun of feathers. No horse has ever carried me like that. And clouds. They tasted… cold. And… then I was here.” There was something else, something he wasn’t saying, but I wasn’t about to object. He shook himself back to the present. “The Fate Stones, though, speak of another. A man who took a longer journey. Thorlev, is that you?”

I thought back. I had taken up the standard. Killed the last giant… And finally fallen. What next?

* * *

“Thorlev,” a voice whispered. A woman’s voice, strikingly unfamiliar. The way she said my name was like no woman I had ever known. She put feeling into each syllable, as if they were gifts to be unwrapped. “Thorlev, your purpose has only begun.”

I opened my eyes, and her appearance was as striking as her voice. Lithe and beautiful, she looked almost Alfari. As she spoke again, I smelled the flowers woven into her long, brown hair. “Thorlev, Hione calls. Will you answer?”

I had to force my voice to work. “I will.”

She stood, and helped me up beside her. The remains of the battle were there, only… faded. I saw the standard at my feet, but couldn’t make out the symbols. My sword lay next to it, and I could no longer tell whose blood it held. A monstrous leg led away, to a torso with four enormous arms. How I avoided succumbing to that great beast, I’ll never know. I shuddered as I gazed over the field, but I couldn’t see much more than my immediate surroundings. I clutched the woman’s arm.

“You may call me Analia. And this is Runar.” I jerked my head around, having no idea who else she was talking about. There, snorting impatiently, was a small brown horse. He was saddled for two, and while Analia would be light, I had no idea how he’d manage to carry us both. He looked me in the eye and jerked his head as if to say, ‘let’s get on with this!’

Analia slipped onto Runar without hesitation. They both looked back at me. What else could I do? Fearing for the blood, sweat, and iron I was about to subject them to, I mounted behind her.

“Thorlev, there’s something you need to see. It’ll take some time, but it’s a story that must be told.”

Then her legs moved, and Runar leaped into the sky.

* * *

The clouds blew past frenetically as Runar strode through the air. We flew toward the coast, and a great storm loomed, washed over us with all the fury of the Storm Lion, and passed in the wink of an eye. Ships flew madly in and out of their ports. But few, too few. I looked for the Valkyrie, and thought maybe I saw it, though it was too far to be sure. A heavy winter storm blasted through, leaving the nothing but slowly spinning wreckage in its place. The sea frothed and churned, tossing the remaining ships like toys.

“Analia, what… what is this?”

She looked back at me sadly. “This, Thorlev, is what you must tell the Valiant.” It made no sense.

Runar turned inland, as summers and winters passed in rapid succession. I looked back, and counted only three ships. The entire fishing fleet?

“This will not be easy,” she warned, as Runar swooped down from the clouds.

I wasn’t sure what she meant. It was just the burned-out remains of some village. As sun and moon passed over, I saw some pathetic survivor dash out of the nearby hills, pick through the ruins, and flee again into the cover of darkness. As we watched, the sun dawned again and she came back, scouring another part of the remains. Another day, another visit. Each time, she seemed to lurk for a longer time at the ruins of one particular structure. This time she was going to pay for it — the attackers were back. Not even giants; a raiding party from the next village. They sped in and spread out to loot whatever they could, and as Runar turned to depart, the lone survivor was heading back toward her favorite place, unaware. Surrounded, and she didn’t even know it. She arrived just as I lost sight, her destination on the edge of a large clearing. If this was home, that would be the space for the market. Our house had also been on the edge, just about…

“I’m sorry, Thorlev.”

As we disappeared back into the clouds, I heard someone screaming.

Then I realized it was me.

* * *

“At least we fought the giants to a standstill,” I concluded. It wasn’t worth much. I couldn’t even see the ground toward the end, with the land sweeping Jaanmark with a winter the likes of which she had never seen. Three summers missed and it was only getting started. “I think I’m glad I didn’t live to see the rest.”

Ivar Erikson considered my story and nodded. “You’re the one, then. The Last of the Valiant.” He blew out a sigh. “We must warn the others. The end is near.”

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