The sun was setting as the small group, just three men on horseback, arrived at the Oytriver bridge. The evening was cold and a misty fog had settled down over the river and the surrounding land.
The bridge, it was old, very old. Large and ancient stone blocks formed the arches which spanned the wide river. Mace, pick and monstrous talons had clawed these stones, scarred them, but only the surface. The heart of the stone, the strength of the bridge, survived.
Ragnar gave a chuckle when he saw the bridge. This was Geoff, he thought, this worn and defaced stone bridge. Its conquerors had used it, tried to destroy it, but the heart remained, the strength, and what had been destroyed would be rebuilt. He saw it in Hochoch.
Human-kind was returning to the Duchy, rebuilding, and repairing. These giants and the monsters which followed beside them, they destroyed and ravaged the land. That was their great weakness, this mindless destruction. At least in their homelands the giants built; halls of wood, caverns of ice and stone. When they couldn't get slaves to work for them they would work for themselves. But here in these conquered lands they had slaves aplenty. Here they did not work, hunted only for sport, became lazy and cruel even by the standards of their own kind. The giants belonged in the hills and the mountains, not these lowlands.
"What?" Emiel asked, riding near on Ragnar's righthand side.
"Nothing," Ragnar replied, "Just thinking. That is quite some bridge."
"That old pile of stone?" asked Ted riding on his left. "I'm always surprised to see it's survived the spring floods."
"Halt!" a voice commanded from out of the growing mist.
The fog had truly descended and they could see no more than a score of feet around them. Ragnar brushed his hand against the grip of a hand-axe balanced for throwing which he kept along his saddle, but, before he could even choose to act or stay his hand, Emiel called out.
"No one is here," he spoke in a strong voice.
"It's too dark to see," the voice replied.
There was the sense of a presence, and watchful eyes, staring from within the surrounding fog, that followed them as they crossed from the roadway to the bridge.
The iron-shod hooves of their horses echoed strangely from within the tunnel of mist and fog which they rode through. Ted coughed, his throat tickled by the mist, and the sound was like that of some accursed hound barking from the depths of a distant hell.
Ragnar remained silent. Fog was a bane of his people. It ate the stars which guided their longships, shrouded the mountains, stranding those who dared such peaks and pathways till it chose to depart, and, according to the skalds, could steal a man's soul and hide it among the echoes of his voice. He had no fear of an honorable death but he had plans for his soul earning a place among the silver-roofed halls of the afterlife, not caught for eternity among the cloudy depths of the fog.
It was with a great relief that the three riders passed from the bridge and back onto solid ground.
* * *
It was full dark and the misty fog obscured what little light the moons and stars provided. With the onset of the dark, the three riders had to dismount and lead their horses, crawling across the monster-infested land when they most desired to be galloping to their destination.
Emiel led the way, though all three kept fairly close together. He unerringly picked a path through the overgrown and disused track of a road. Only the wandering patrols of orcs and goblins came this way.
Geoff, under its giant masters, had become only a series of isolated villages, manors or farms. The larger towns lay in ruins, the capital a burned-out husk, unable to support a population not directly tied to the land. The few slave farms which produced food sent all they produced into the bottomless stomachs of the giants. Smaller towns became the dwellings of one giant clan or another; Their indolent masters letting the survivors of the invasion live as slaves to support them.
There was little interaction between town and town. The old roadways became disused. The more destructive of the giant's servants burned and looted what their masters had not claimed or had left unprotected. The small freeholder, the backbone of the duchy, those who had not fled, they faced not the overlordship of the giants but the mindless brutality of the ogres, orcs and goblins who infested the conquered land.
It was to one of these small, abandoned freeholds that Emiel led them. The family, which had for generations farmed this land, had fled before the oncoming terror. The sturdy house and some of the out-buildings had survived with only a casual amount of vandalism and malicious damage, done almost without thought by the orcs and goblins who routinely swept through this area. These patrols, in fact, often used this very manor to lair in when passing, especially on bright sunny days when the light of the sun brought a queasiness to the stomach, a weakness to the limbs and pain to the eyes.
The road leading to the freehold had vanished long ago. The three walked slowly across a field overgrown with wild grain now lying unharvested, broken-stalked and rotting on the cold ground. It crunched underfoot and pulped at its base leaking a stinking ooze.
Ragnar had lost all sense of time. The fog made him uneasy. The mist was no doubt leaving a layer of rust among the steel rings of his mail shirt where the oil had rubbed off, and he was catching a cold.
"How much longer?" he asked Emiel quietly.
"Shhh..."Emiel hissed back. Then inching his way back to where Ragnar and Ted had stopped he said very quietly, "Soon. We are near. This field is near the main house."
"Are we going right up to the house?" asked Ragnar.
"Of course not," Emiel answered, "but I need to see the house to get my bearings."
Ragnar shrugged. He had raided and ambushed in his past, but tonight all he wanted was a warm fire or a good fight, and it looked unlikely that he'd get either.
Emiel was an amazing guide.
When Talberth introduced them in Hochoch, he would never have believed that the small, neatly dressed dandy would be so at home finding his way in wild country in the middle of a cold foggy night.
They'd walked only another ten or so minutes when Emiel froze in his tracks ahead. Ragnar saw Emiel stop before he smelled the smoke for himself. Not just wood, but meat. Meat roasting over an open fire.
Ted came up beside him. "Something ahead," he stated.
"Looks like we have company," Ragnar said and slid his axe from the carry strap over his shoulder.
* * *
"I think that 'we' will be the surprise guests," Emiel said, having led his horse back with the others. "Ted and I will scout out the manor. Ragnar, stay here and guard the horses."
Ragnar gave a snort. "Like Hell!" he laughed. "I'll need to see for myself what we are up against, and I'm no horse-holder."
"This is our land," Ted spoke up.
"And I'm not one of your people," Ragnar tapped the steel topspike of his axe on Emiel's chest. "And I'm supposed to be keeping you safe."
"Well I'm not watching the damn horses," said Ted petulantly.
* * *
The three dropped to hands and knees as they neared the once abandoned freehold. They lowered themselves to their stomachs as they passed the timbers of the flattened rail fence which had surrounded the yard, encircling the house and barn.
From where they lay, the front and side of the house were visible. A stone chimney ran up the side of the house, firelight winked from between mortarless stones as well as from splits in the shutter of a nearby window. The fog had begun to lift and the light appeared as through a dim haze and made the details of the house indistinct.
They would have to move closer.
Halfway to the house the collapsed and rotting boards of a wagon, overturned during the hasty flight of the freeholders, provided questionable cover from any watching eyes, but the three of them settled themselves behind it as best they could and kept a watch of their own. The smoke of the fire appeared as a thicker haze among the thinning fog, rising from the darker blot of the chimney. The smell of the roasting meat was overpowering. It rose and spread not only from the chimney, but from between the loose boards of the house itself. Ragnar involuntarily licked his lips and his stomach growled in answer.
"Shhh!" Emiel hissed from beside him.
The sudden scream from the house made all three of them flinch.
The sound was a long, drawn-out wail of pain and despair which went on and on, then ended abruptly. Then came a barking laugh from several voices. Then silence.
"They do not sound friendly," Ted spoke in a whisper.
"Well," asked Ragnar, "are we going to lie out here all night?"
"Shh!" Emiel hissed again and gestured for them to remain quiet then looking at the pair he turned his head away from the house and snapped, "We wait."
Ragnar would have liked to protest. He could not stand inaction though he recognized the need for patience before battle, waiting for the right time to attack.
He did not have to wait long.
The house remained quiet only a short while, then a literal roar of anger exploded from inside. There was a loudly barked reply then another roar and a chorus of highly pitched screeching.
The wall of the house gave a shudder, something large and heavy had slammed against it from the inside. Then a cacophony of screams, roars of anger and pain, the crunch of wood being splintered, the sharp clank of metal on metal and the ring of weapons clashing.
The howl of some enraged beast escaped the house and the front door was flung open. The light of the fire outlined the doorway, an orangish square along the black oblong of the house. Then a sack-like bundle flew through the door and landed on the stairs leading up to the porch. It rolled, and as it did so outflung limbs flailed about but could not stop its course. When the body came to rest it lay in a motionless heap, once again a dark featureless sack but of bones and flesh.
The screams, clashes and shouts had not abated, but two tall and lanky figures blocked the light from the door as they rushed outside. There was a brief tangle as both attempted to push through the doorway first, but one used a long arm to shove the other back then stumbled out onto the porch. The unobstructed light from the doorway illuminated the stumbling figure. Tall, painfully thin, covered in spikey matted fur, standing on its feet like a man but with the muzzle and fanged mouth of some feral canine.
"Gnolls!" Ragnar said as he would say a curse. Clutching his axe he began to rise from his crouch but Emiel put a surprisingly strong hand on his shoulder. The wave of red anger which had clouded his eyes had passed and he kept himself still, holding the berserk rage back while watching what transpired.
The first gnoll had steadied itself and was jumping from the porch to the ground disdaining the stairs. The second gnoll had regained its feet and was out the door when a thick line of darkness came across the opening from inside and connected with the back of its head. There was a sound like a melon being dropped from a wagon and the gnoll's body somersaulted forward. It landed on its back, its padded and hairy feet pointing toward the three watchers, its body convulsing.
The light from the doorway was suddenly obscured completely as if the fire had been extinguished like a candleflame between finger and thumb. Something moved through the door, contorting to force its bulk through the human-sized gap. As it edged its way forward, the gnoll jumped to the ground and landed, but badly.
The ground had frozen with the setting of the sun, but it was a wet and misty night. Padded feet met the slick, hard ground and found no purchase. The gnoll fell painfully on its side. It tried to push itself from the ground, but one arm seemed not to work.
As the brutish shape separated itself from the doorway and walked out onto the porch, its head reaching the roof, but no neck and a huge barrel of a body, the gnoll whined in fear but managed to rise.
The steps of the porch collapsed beneath the ponderous weight of the ogre, but the creature seemed unphased. The gnoll simply stood there watching, its one arm dangling uselessly. It whined like an injured hound struck by a passing wagon, awaiting the coming of death.
The ogre laughed, an ugly bark of a laugh. It stood within arm's reach of the whining gnoll and pointed with a huge club, the end wrapped in thick bands of iron forming a crude mace. Touching the head of the mace to the gnoll's chest the ogre gave a slight push and the gnoll swayed on its feet. The whine had ceased but the gnoll's body shook with uncontrolled fear.
Once again there came that ugly laugh then the ogre brought the mace up above his shoulder and prepared to strike the gnoll like a farmer driving a rail into the ground with a hammer.
It was then that the rage took control of Ragnar.
"Yaarrrggghhh!" he roared and in a single smooth movement sprang to his feet and launched himself toward the ogre.
"Ragnar!" Emiel cried out.
"You idiot!" Ted joined in.
* * *
Ragnar had no love for gnolls, but he hated wanton cruelty, and he hated ogres most of all. Crawling and cowering on his belly did not sit well with him either. The sight of the ogre and the wails of pain from the gnolls brought back bad memories from his youth.
The Northlands were beautiful, but they were also home to more than their fair share of dangers. Ragnar's clan, the Hellsons, were spread from the mountains to the frozen shoreline. From his earliest memories the images of the funeral fires for kin lost to the monsters and beasts of the land came to him clear and crisp like morning light on ice covered snow.
As Ragnar grew to be a warrior he saw more and more of both the beauty and horror that the north possessed. The savagery of gnolls, the cruelty of ogres and the horror of giants. He remembered the day he carried his first spear into a battle. It had been a blood hunt, Votan's own vengeance brought down upon the enemies of their clan.
It was years and years ago. A sudden winter storm had come down from the mountains and swept across the hills. Small steadings and the northernmost halls had been cut off. It was a month before word trickled out. A few ragged survivors half-frozen and numbed with cold and horror. A tribe of ogres had descended upon the area. They came with the storm, they fought with desperation. The specter of starvation was among them. The battle cost them dear, many ogres set upon the defenders with tooth and nail, disdaining weapons. Their hunger was so great that when a warrior fell to them they stopped to feed before pressing the attack. The screams of the wounded were terrible but nothing compared to the horror of the weeks of captivity many endured. The survivors were merely cattle to the ogres and they had developed a taste for human flesh.
They'd found no survivors among the ruined halls, Ragnar and his kin, only the ogres. The clan avenged itself upon the tribe. Their massive heads were set in ice that the skalds had spelled never to melt. They placed the blocks upon dolmen stones spread out along the northern hills. Ragnar would never forget or forgive what he saw upon that first blood hunt. Now his own blood began to boil at the mere thought that it was being enacted again upon this southern realm.
Emiel gripped his shoulder with a painful strength. Ragnar was surprised, the little fellow did not look to be that strong. It calmed him for a moment, but as he watched the cruel mirth of the brutish ogre, his calm was washed away in a tide of red. A fire burned inside him. It called to a spark set deep in his soul. He was upon his feet before he could tell himself to move, and the rage took hold.
Ragnar screamed, a throat rending curse of anger and glee.
Ahead, the ogre appeared to freeze in place, bet then began his swing as if to spike the gnoll into the ground with the heavy mace.
The calm returned to Ragnar, but splashed with crimson at the edges. Behind, there was a cry, he heard his name, but heeded it not.
The ogre's arm came down slow as a leaf falling from a tree or so it appeared through Ragnar's red-rimmed eyes. Before it had descended upon the helpless gnoll Ragnar had closed the distance between the ogre and himself by half. He could not save the gnoll, though he flew across the ground, surefooted and as fast as a hare.
As the mace came down with horrendous force the sound of the impact seemed hollow and far-away to Ragnar. The gnoll was driven to its knees, its head, an explosion of flesh and bone, was simply gone.
* * *
The axe was weightless in his hand. Ragnar almost forgot he was holding it in his rush across the open yard. Ahead of him the body of the gnoll was just hitting the ground, the spray of blood from its neck painting a macabre picture across the ogre's legs.
With a disdainful glance the ogre eyed his onrushing foe. No mere man, armed, armored or mounted, could cause it to fear. It had spent many years now lording it over these weak and puny humans. Some in their desperation had fought back. The ogre had brushed them aside and broken them like a child might break fresh green stalks with a wooden stick.
The warm splash of blood on the cold night was a distraction. Pulling back its huge and grotesque foot it kicked the body of the gnoll, striking it squarely and launching the corpse several feet through the air.
Ragnar passed through a shower of blood. The gnoll's body barely missed him as he charged toward the ogre. He was upon it before its outstretched leg was firmly settled back upon the solid ground. Hurtling forward Ragnar collided with it like a catapult stone against the wall of a castle. The wall gave way.
The ogre, still off-balance from its kick, fell backward. It landed on its broad and padded ass with a thud and a look of shock.
The force of the collision made Ragnar stumble back a few feet. Something inside him had given way with a dull crack at the contact. Broken ribs he had no doubt, but he felt no pain, not yet. He remembered the axe unused in his right hand.
Sitting, the ogre was still a head taller than Ragnar. In its own right hand it held the iron headed club that had slain the gnoll. The momentary shock of falling was replaced by a sense of wrongness, no man could do this! The world was upside down.
Both attacked, the ogre sitting, Ragnar leaping forward. Both swung. Axe met club, the sharp edge of the blade caught a corner of the iron bands, clipping them with a clang and spark. The blade bit deep into the club and stuck firm. Ragnar's blow directed the club's course down. The strength of the ogre tore the axe from Ragnar's fingers and spun him halfway round.
Club and axe gouged the oerth. The half-severed shaft of the ogre's weapon split with a crack, shearing away the metal wrapped head. The axe, freed from the wooden grasp, bounced once, twice, then slid several feet, well out of reach.
Ragnar howled then, with arms outstretched, threw himself upon the ogre. His hands gripped its throat. His fingers dug into the thick hide. With manic strength he still could not strangle the beast. Blood ran down his fingers from the gouges he'd cut in the monster's flesh, but the ogre only growled in pain and surprise. Then using only a single arm it flung Ragnar aside.
The rage was upon the northman then in full. When he landed, he rolled, and regained his feet in one smooth motion. The ogre pushed itself to its feet angrily and prepared to crush its foe. The hilt of a dagger appeared in its chest. It glanced down with a start. The blade had sprung up as if by magic.
Emiel was running towards them, a short double edged sword in his left hand and another, almost hiltless throwing knife, in his right.
* * *
Halftooth shoved away his smaller kin as he pushed toward the door. "Those dogmen," he shook his head in disgust, "they need to be taught their place, even if it means breaken' their furry heads."
It had been good fun watching them dice and slice that putrid human bag of flesh they'd caught, but the dogmen'd let the fun get out of hand. Now the dough-fleshed human was dead and the Squire was teaching them a lesson. Their boss, His Most Worshipful Knees as the goblins called the giant, might not want them taught so permanently, thought Halftooth, but that would be the Squire's business.
He eyed the one dogman lying in a heap in the corner. The Squire'd snapped its spine, breaking it over his knee, before throwing it against the wall. The others had fled. Only Halftooth's companions, a pair of orc's from his own tribe, and a half-dozen goblins remained inside the house. He kicked one of the small, green-skinned vermin in its back as he made his way to the door.
"Outta the way, worm," he laughed then reached out and grabbed another of the little mites by a notched ear, lifted it up in a torrent of squeals and flung it out of his way as well.
Splittoe and Threefinger were ahead of him, already standing in the door. There was a crash from outside, the Squire getting a little rough with the dogmen no doubt.
"Make room," Halftooth said good-naturedly giving Splittoe a hard punch in the shoulder.
"Squire's in form," Splittoe said and moved aside to let Halftooth step forward.
"Look'at the dog twitch," Threefinger pointed at the body of the gnoll convulsing on the porch.
Halftooth gave a laugh then glanced over to the Squire. The ogre had smashed the porch stairs and stepped over to where the other dogman was standing. It was whining away, true to its nature, frozen in place.
"Dog ain't got no sense," Splittoe said. "I'd run."
"You always run," Threefinger laughed.
All three of the orc halfbreeds stepped out onto the porch of the abandoned manorhouse to watch the Squire finish off the last mangy gnoll.
* * *
The Squire's chest heaved sending a stream of blood from around the razor-edges of the knife blade buried in its chest. The club, its ironbound head sheared away by Ragnar's axe, was in its hand. For a moment the ogre stared at the useless weapon then with a growl of disgust threw it aside. It would tear apart this strange man with its bare hands.
* * *
The night air was cold and the misty fog was turning to frost. Halftooth's breath steamed out in front him like a dragon's exhalation. He was enjoying the spectacle and by the sound of the Squire's laugh he was not alone.
There was a shout. The sound pulled Halftooth's eye away from the Squire as he taunted the helpless dogman. As he turned to see what had made the noise, his jaw fell open in surprise. From out of the fog-shrouded yard a man was running toward them, covering the intervening space in great leaping strides.
The Squire had crushed the dogman's skull, smashing it like overripe fruit under a smith's hammer. The man was still coming on, closing the distance with alarming speed. Halftooth reached for his sword and cursing he realized it was not at his belt. Like an untried pup he had walked away from his weapon. He was unarmed, even his knife was not at hand but planted in a haunch of meat by the fire. He turned, even as the Squire launched the gnoll's body toward the onrushing man, and squeezed back into the house.
* * *
A roar escaped from the ogre. It sprang at Ragnar, arms outstretched, ready to rend him with its jagged nails. Ragnar sprang as well. He passed between the spread arms of the ogre and grabbed for the dagger hilt sticking from its chest.
The leather wrappings felt tacky in his hand, coated with the blood from the ogre's wound. With all his strength he drew the blade aside, cutting into the thick hairy flesh like a butcher carving a side of beef. Sunk deep between the broad, sturdy ribs in the ogre's chest, the knife had pierced its thick hide and pricked the lung beneath. A bloody froth foamed from the slash and a red stream poured out. This was a wound the ogre felt, not like the desperate scratches from the human's fingers.
The ogre roared again, but now it was a cry filled with anger, outrage and pain. With trunk-like arms it sought to squeeze the life from this man, but Ragnar was having none of it.
As the ogre's grasp tightened about him, Ragnar stabbed the knife into the fleshy belly of the beast. The ogre's own strength forced the blade deep. Ragnar pulled up until the blade reached the breastbone, pushed it in till his hand was in the ogre's chest up to his wrist.
The beast could take no more. Its voice was filled with blood and it gave a wet, strangled cry. Instead of pulling the man toward him to crush out his life, now it sought to tear the cursed human from its wounded body. The burning pain inside the monster's chest sapped its strength away like ice on a warm, spring day. The weight of its limbs seemed to drag it down, muscles turning to lead as its life began to fade. In desperation it clawed and clutched, bunching the steel rings of Ragnar's mail shirt into tight clumps. Drawing on its anger, which flared stronger than any pain, the ogre peeled Ragnar aside and flung him away, as far as it could manage. Ragnar slashed at its chest and arms and then, as he was tossed aside, the air.