Crouching beside the corpse, Karsten laid his hand upon the dead man’s fur-cloaked shoulder. He glanced at the blood pooling beneath the body, watching it eat into the snow, still warm. There was no need to turn the body over to know who it was. Grinhold was a giant even amongst his own people. ‘Fear not, brother,’ Karsten told him. ‘I’ll see your ashes cast to the Seven.’
Karsten pushed himself to his feet and tugged his own cloak tighter to him, letting the warmth of the heavy fur envelop him. Peering ahead, he tried to see beyond the snow flurry and past the mist… but it was only when the wind shifted slightly that he caught sight of the second body, lying just a few yards ahead. ‘My thanks,’ he whispered to the Seven, before stumbling on.
After a short distance he found a sword lying in his path, half buried in the snow. The weapon was roughly hewn, the blade wide and curved in the Basillian style, with blood spattered along its length. Cursing, Karsten quickened his pace. That does not bode well for our friend, he thought. I should have been here sooner…
…as he would have been, of course, had everything gone to plan. He would have reached the southerner before his countrymen, stealing her from under their noses, if not for the blizzard that had swept across his path, stranding him in the midst of a white storm not even the Will of the Seven could shift in time. Now he knew why. Blood and death was the gift of the Black Wind. Only Chadra could deny the Seven. And this is just the beginning. The true storms are yet to come.
He recognised the second body at once. It was Thurmon, Grinhold’s brother. An ivory-handled dagger jutted from the man’s bearded face, marking him as dead as dead could be. Karsten could only marvel at the skill involved. Though smaller than his kinsman, Thurmon was no less deadly with a blade. For the southerner to have bested both of them was something special indeed. Leave her with us, Chadra, Karsten pleaded with the darkest of his gods. We’ll need her talents for the task ahead.
But he should have known better than to plead with the Black Wind. When Chadra desired a soul, he took it, no matter how strong the Will of the Seven. When it came to death, the Eighth was king of all.
Karsten was reminded of that truth a moment later, as he followed the scuffed, blood-soaked trail away from Thurmon’s corpse to where the last of the bodies had fallen. There he paused in his stride, breath catching in his throat.
The thick grey hide of the Old Bear stood unmistakable against the whiteness of the snow, as did the tattooed arms of Siginhard, the man who wore the famous bear’s pelt. He lay face down in the snow, his blood scattering the scene around him like fallen leaves.
Chief of the Blue Hands, thought Karsten, awestricken. Chief of the Blue Hands and the twins who followed him; all dead at the hands of a lonely woman. Most impressive.
He felt a flicker of hope as his gaze swept the scene. He could see no sign of the southerner, living or dead. Perhaps she escaped unharmed, he thought briefly, desperately… only for a muffled whimper to draw him back to reality. Fearing the worst, Karsten surged forward and heaved Siginhard’s corpse aside, rolling the man onto his back to reveal the smaller body hidden beneath him.
The woman’s eyes – the brilliant blue of a clear summer’s day – stared back at Karsten wide and fearful, her breath falling out in ragged, misted clouds, her face almost as pale as the snow in which she lay. Karsten’s gaze drifted down from those terrified eyes to the woman’s belly, where blood stained her clothes and pumped freely from a vicious wound, the sight of which made Karsten wince.
The woman stretched for her sword, but Karsten kicked it from her grasp before she could reach it. ‘No need for that, One God,’ he told her in the broken tongue of her people. ‘I come to help.’
‘You’re one of them,’ she said hoarsely. ‘Why would you help?’
‘I am not one of them,’ he told her. ‘Basillian, yes. But these ones do not hear the Wind as I do. As you could.’
‘There is only one way to hear the wind,’ she said stupidly, squeezing shut her eyes as a fresh wave of pain washed over her. It took a moment before she could force the rest of her words out through clenched teeth. ‘It is the howling of winter.’
‘Yet it is so much more than that.’ Karsten crouched beside her. ‘It is the Will of the Seven. You have heard their voices in the darkest of storms, have you not? Calling to you? You could hear them now, if you would only listen.’
The agony etched on the woman’s face faded slightly as the pain subsided. She studied Karsten more closely. ‘What would they say to me, these gods of yours?’
Karsten sighed. He could see the doubt in her eyes, the disbelief. ‘No one can tell you that,’ he answered. ‘You have to hear it for yourself.’
‘And what do they tell you?’
‘They told me to find the five who walk in the shadow of the Wall,’ said Karsten. ‘They told me to find you, Brinya of the One God. They told me to open your mind to the power of the Will.’
The woman’s laugh turned into a bloody cough. ‘It’s too late for conversions, I think,’ she wheezed.
Karsten smiles sadly. ‘It’s never too late for that.’
He leaned forward to probe at the woman’s wound with his fingers, brushing aside her feeble attempt to stop him. The cut was only small, but it penetrated deep into her gut. Though the blood was still flowing, it was slowing now, weakening.
‘You don’t have long left,’ he warned, ‘but I can help you. I can take you somewhere safe. I can heal you. All I ask in return is for you to follow me to the Blackstone. There your mind will be opened to the Will.’
The woman shook her head. ‘All you ask is that I forsake my god for the chance to live a little longer. And to pay for that chance with the worship of false gods. These things I cannot do.’
‘Yet your god brought you here,’ said Karsten, pointing to her wound, ‘to this. My gods will save you. All you have to do is listen.’
‘And what would they ask of me, I wonder? To bring down the Wall, perhaps? The only thing that stops your people from slaughtering mine.’
‘If that is the Will,’ Karsten said reverently.
‘The Will?’ the woman scoffed, her voice starting to rasp. ‘That’s just the voices you hear in your head, Basillian. You’re insane! A madman!’
Karsten could only smile. ‘Why? Because I choose to dedicate my life to gods that speak to me? Well, you follow a god who speaks to no one, girl, and in return he has led you here, to death. That is madness. Come with me and I will show you the truth of this.’
The woman lifted her head to inspect the wound herself, gingerly probing with her own bloody fingers. With a grunt, her head fell back and she sighed, resigned. Yet not entirely, thought Karsten, hope flaring anew. It was there, in her eyes. She wants to live.
Karsten stretched his hand out towards her. ‘Come with me. Let me save you.’
Brinya turned away from the offer, tears in her eyes. ‘The price is too high,’ she said after a moment. ‘You’re right: the One God had led me here, to this. But I have to believe there is a reason for that, and I’ll not forsake him now for fear of what lies at the end of the path. Not when I can feel the warmth of his light calling me home.’
Karsten nodded respectfully. ‘Faith is a beautiful thing,’ he said softly, ‘even when it’s wrong. I can see why they want you. Few enough have the strength to sacrifice it all for the calling. But it matters not, Brinya. I will find the others who walk in the shadow of the Wall. They will help do the impossible. They will bring the Wall to ruin.’
‘We shall see,’ the woman said, her eyes fluttering slowly as she struggled to keep them open. ‘The Light burns through shadows and wind and all. No one can hide from it. Not even you…’ Her voice trailed off as her eyes slid closed.
Rising from his haunches, Karsten glanced down at the corpse of Siginhard, remembering too the bodies of Grinhold and Thurmon lying somewhere in the mist. Great warriors, all of them, killed by a brave and foolish woman who chose death over life. Faith, he mused bitterly. It turns even the strongest of us into fools.
At that moment the wind shifted suddenly, carrying the snow east. ‘I’ll be back,’ Karsten told his fallen brothers. ‘I will cast your ashes to the Seven. But first I must find Torbin of the One God. He has work to do.’
And with that he set off east, towards the Wall, in search of the next.
© Anthony Mitchell 2018
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25th September 2018