The Deadlord

graveyard

The Deadlord walked through the graveyard, frost and the frail bones of rodents crunching under his black boots. Headstones stood on all sides like rows of broken grey teeth. Moss and lichen spots clung to their faces like rot. As he walked, the hard turf parted and hands draped in pale, peeling flesh fumbled in the cold air. The dead dragged themselves up, standing on corpse-white legs to greet their king.

There was no joy in it. The Deadlord looked over his motionless flock with hollow eyes shining green in the soft moonlight. His heart was empty, blacker than his charred soul. He met the watering eyes of each of his subjects, daring them to resist the threads he had woven through the shadow realm, binding them to his will. His bright, vacant eyes met no resistance. What was command worth without someone to resist and test his strength.

His eyes flashed, catching sight of the great man. He was tall with a barrel gut and broad shoulders. The titan marched through the ranks of the risen. Every step seemed to peel back the shrouds of shadow and death from his form. The Deadlord could feel the thread begin to fray.

The titan held his gaze. There was hunger in his frozen white eyes. He had been a slave to greed in life. The Deadlord could hear echoes of his hunger reverberating in the shadow realm. Hunger for food, drink and flesh.

The titan’s great ham of a hand closed around the Deadlord’s neck, drawn to the scent of his blood. Living blood. He hungered for it.

‘Thank you,’ the Deadlord said, his voice like fallen leaves turning to mulch underfoot. He raised one hand between them, palm out. The grip around his neck tightened and his lungs burned for breath. He touched his palm to the titan’s chest and felt the thread snap. The great man’s flesh drifted away in grey-green strips. He dissolved in a thick pool of brown muck around the Deadlord’s feet, pale yellow bones sticking up through the slime.

‘Anyone else?’ the Deadlord asked, looking around at his motionless, blank-faced subjects. ‘No? Let’s be off then.’

The Wand King #6

Helmet

Arta stood on the outer rampart of Tor Avalon. It was nothing more than a long grassy hummock with a deep ditch in front, both of which stretched out around the hill. High above and behind her, the warning bell tolled from the church tower.

It was the first time she was glad they had built a house for Constantine’s God there. She smiled a wolfish grin to think of monks raising an altar over the bones of Utter “Broadblade”. Was he a saint to them? The way they worshipped every priest to be hacked down or burned, it would not surprise her if Utter’s portrait went up in painted glass.

A Saxon war-chief, immortalised by the same men who preached peace with every breath.

“Are you smiling, Arta?” Colla asked, twisting the handle of his great hammer in his meaty hands. It looked like he wanted to wring its neck. If what the pagans said was true, and each weapon had a soul, the hammer’s spirit must have felt like a strangled hen. “There, you’re laughing now. Does this amuse you?”

“What do you expect from a pagan?” Constantine asked.

His deft fingers plucked at the beads of his rosary, counting them off as his lips whispered a prayer. Arta wanted to slap his face, wrap his brown wool robe around his head and throw him into the ditch.

It was not his words which angered her. She knew well enough his thoughts about the old religion. The way he stood, the clacking of his rosary beads, it drove her mad. How could he pretend to be so calm? Finding certainty in the Lord’s protection, as he was fond of putting it. Arta saw through the mask of sober faith.

Constantine was drunk with fear. His knees trembled beneath his habit and, if her nose was not mistaken, the monk had wet his undergarments. She laughed again and was instantly silence by a chorused shout from down the slope.

Twenty-or-so men were coming towards the ramparts, where over a hundred men and women waited to defend their homes. The invading warriors did not charge at the hilltop. They swaggered and set a slow, confident pace. There was good reason for it.

The attackers were Saxon, while the people of Tor Avalon were Briton. They were armed with bright swords, broad shields and gilded helms. Coats of thick iron mail trailed about their knees.

Constantine had the finest armour out of all the defenders, but his thick woollen habit would not stop a sword’s edge.

Arta drew the weapon which Colla had forged and held it overhead. The people of Tor Avalon fell silent. Its blade shone radiant as silver in the bright midday sun. There was a pause in the approaching ranks and the Saxons craned their necks to see which warrior stood with their enemies.

Then the sword dropped out of sight, plunging through the earth at Arta’s feet. The challenge had been made. Single combat. Two swords and one death to determine who would hold Tor Avalon by day’s end.

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The Wand King #5

Helmet

Colla held up the finished sword in his outstretched hands. It was a thing of true beauty, forgelight shining red along its polished edge.

At the point where guard met hilt, a small cylinder of pure white had been half-encased in the metal. King Utter’s finger bone, a reminder of how Arta had come to possess it. She reached out, but the blacksmith pulled the blade out of her reach.

“There are two more things which must be done before the weapon is ready.” he said.

“What?” Arta asked.

“It must be named, firstly. Do you have a name for it?”

“The sword was forged in your burg, your home. I will name it Colabur.”

“A good name!” he cried, matching her smile with his own bright grin. “I’m glad it pleases you, because what I say now will not. I’ve sent for Constantine.”

Arta cursed and tried to snatch the sword from him, but he lifted it over his head. She aimed a kick at his groin and Colla clamped his legs tight around her foot.

Before she could act further, a faint cough sounded behind her.

They looked towards the doorway and saw a young man with a shaven head standing on the threshold. He had a broad frame, but hardly any meat on his bones. Loose brown cloth hung in limp folds over his body and he wore a small wooden cross at his neck.

“Hello Arta.” he said, coming to stand beside her and then, appearing to think better of it, taking a step away. “I see you have not relinquished your pagan manners.”

“I see you haven’t relinquished your woman’s dress.” she spat back at him. Then she turned back to Colla. “Why is he here?”

“The sword must be blessed, or it will break.” the blacksmith said, avoiding her burning glare.

“I won’t let him touch it.”

will not bless a pagan’s sword.” Constantine said, sneering at her as he edged to safety behind the table.

“I’ll bless it in your blood, weakling.”

Whatever response the missionary had never left his lips. An insistent clanging sound broke through the hot air of Colla’s workshop, coming from the hilltop outside.

“What is that?” Constantine asked.

“It’s a bell, halfwit.”

“It’s an alarm!” Colla shouted, tossing Arta the new-forged sword and snatching up his hammer. “Some mongrels must be attacking Tor Avalon!”

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The Wand King #4

Helmet

All the while as the young woman climbed the steep slope of Tor Avalon to the town proper, from the slum-like hamlets below, she thought of the men who were coming to take her head. Her imagination conjured figures in dark chainmail skulking through the countryside around, sharp-edged swords held low and at the ready.

Why were they coming? Who had a reason to want her dead?

No, plenty enough people would have smiled to see her spread lifeless on the hillside. The real question was why someone she had no recollection of meeting might send brave assassins to take her life.

There was a round hall of stone and thatch ahead, a trail of grey smoke winding up from the roof’s centre. She ducked in through the doorway and saw Colla, known as the Charcoal Man, feeding metal to his roaring forge.

Like the moss-covered ruins of the bathhouse, he was a relic of Roman times. When men gathered to gossip in taverns, they said that Colla’s father had been an Aethiopian gladiator brought to entertain the crowds of Londinium.

He was a great brute of a man, with towering muscles and a jutting black beard, his skin darker than any she had seen. The effect of his massive build was that he appeared like a slab of butcher’s meat, a thick wedge of man holding a small oval on top, no neck in evidence.

“Have you polished your head today, oaf?” she asked, hopping up to perch on his work table.

The looming giant turned and flashed her a brilliant white smile, lowering his bald skull for her to inspect. “I polish it near every day, and don’t it shine? What brings you here, Arta?”

“I’ve come to ask a favour from you.” she said, letting him see her dimples.

Colla’s blinding grin stretched further across his face as his powerful fingers struggled to unlace his trousers, hopping from foot to foot in eagerness.

“I’ve been wondering when you’d take me for your own. You’ve been flirting with me long enough.”

She gave him the death stare and his fingers froze. In her mind’s eye, she saw his blood begin to boil and his whole body erupt in flames. His gaze met hers, stern and forbidding. Then he threw back his head and let out a booming laugh.

“You should see your face, little miss!” he howled. “Perhaps these tales you put out about being the fiercest kitten in the litter are true, but you’re none too hard to make a fool of.”

Arta slid down off the table, took a step towards him and sent her foot flying up between his legs. It slammed into his groin and he reeled back, still spluttering with mirth as he crashed to the ground.

“It’s true!” he gasped, smiling even as his face turned crimson. “It’s all true! Have mercy!”

With unhurried movements, she came to stand over him and drew the lumpen ball of iron from inside her tunic. His eyes grew wide when he saw it and his writhing ceased.

“I’d wondered when you’d be bringing that old stone to me. What do you want me to pull out of it? Necklaces, brooches, torcs. I can fashion them all.”

“How about a sword?”

He squinted up at the deformed metal, closing one eye and pinching his lips.

“Drawing a sword from a stone? That’s a hard task and no mistake.”

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Wand King #3

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Missed Part 1?

Three ruddy bronze coins clattered on the straw mattress, threatening to sink into its mite-ridden depths. Arta gave her client the demon eye. It was a look which made any man cower and, no matter how great a warrior, he would move his hands to protect the jewels a man prized most.

Stories were told of Arta’s wrath in taverns and brothels near Tor Avlon. They were worth re-telling, as it often earned the bard a free horn of mead or two, but few took the risk. After all, they were dark tales to hear, let alone to speak.

Her client hurried out through the doorflap, feeling at once as if his coin had been wasted. What use was it paying for a chance to see such a wondrous lady, if he left in fear for his life?

“Just be glad you got out alive.” his mates would say when he told them as much, and they were not wrong.

Arta reached beneath the mattress, after collecting her wage, and brought out the treasured object. It was a rough lump of iron formed in an indistinct shape. A bubble could be seen where the molten metal had cooled, trapping the air beneath.

That was Arta’s second favourite thing about her treasure. She turned it over and smiled a warm look of affection. Sticking out from the iron ball was a long, thick hunk of bone. It might have come from a man’s finger, if that man had been the size of a bear.

“Hello, father.” she whispered. “How’s the afterlife treating you?”

She chuckled at her joke, but dropped the object and scrambled back as a coughing voice choked out from it.

“A black deed, to jest with the dead. Who holds Utter’s sword?”

Arta blinked. The voice was that of an old man, distorted as it fought its way through minute fissures in the sealed orb. Crawling nearer, she whispered in a gruff voice, heavy with threat.

“I’m a mighty Saxon warrior. Who dares speak to me?”

“That’s not important, my voice is coming from a distant place. You must find someone on my behalf. Go to Tor Avlon and seek out the girl Arta.”

“Why would I do that?”

“You must kill this girl, or see all of Angland burn. But be warned, others have been dispatched on this same errand. They may betray you for the reward.”

Arta’s throat was dry and sweat pricked her spine. “What reward?”

“Life.” he replied. “Life, eternal.”

The Wand King #2

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Missed Part 1?

That girl. Gandrik thought, stroking his greying, once nutmeg brown beard. She is familiar. I have seen her before, I know I have. No, not before. I have seen her afore, but not yet.

The Keeper of Wands stood on the slope leading down from the great hall. He was surrounded by a swarming mass of bedraggled peasants caked in soot. They ran in all directions with buckets spilling water over their rims. To his surprise, none of the water seemed to make it onto the crackling fire which had been King Utter’s hall.

Was it so surprising? The king had been an unpopular man, especially amongst his Briton serfs. With that in mind, the real mystery was why the people had not already begun to rejoice. Likely, they were waiting for permission from King Utter’s charred corpse. Once under a Saxon heel, forever downtrodden. He thought.

“Is my pa dead?” the girl asked.

Gandrik had forgotten her, but that was understandable. She was very small, easy to miss. No tears speckled her grubby cheeks, that was as well. The Keeper of Wands knew nothing of comforting small girls.

Was her father dead? That was without a doubt. Why had Gandrik killed him? There was the real mystery.

The trouble with having spent so many lifetimes wandering was that certain grains of information slipped his grasp. He knew every track and hedge between Hadrian’s Wall and the southerly sea. Which god’s day it was, he did not know. Who this girl was, he had almost forgotten.

A higher power had demanded the killing, or else recommended it. That might have happened even before King Utter was born. How could Gadrik say for sure? The king was an inconvenience to… Who?

“I remember you, Arta!” Gandrik cried, picking the girl up in his arms and grunting as her small fist clipped his wrinkled cheek.

“We’ve never met. Put me down.”

Not yet, but I remember you from memories yet to be forged. Time is a meandering, tricky thing after all. You’ll remember me yet and I’ll not forget you.

“Goodbye!”

Gandrik dropped the girl to the ground so that Arta landed on her backside and rolled a short way down the slope. By the time she had struggled to her feet, the old man was shuffling away down the broken track leading out of her village. A black column of smoke swirled up behind her from the hall of King Utter, who her Briton mother had called Uther.

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The Wand King #1

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Gandrik shambled into the hall of Great King Utter “Broadblade”. It was a dark, smoke-filled place hammered together from stout timbers and heavy thatch. No windows had been built into its walls to allow light within.

It was a high place with a steep sloping roof. Men on the road said that King Utter refused to allow even one saw to be used in its construction. His serfs and architects had used only whole trees, the branches and roots lopped off.

None of this impressed Gandrik. His long robes were stained with mud from the ill-repaired road and street sewage from the beggarly village below. But he always wore faded brown wool, precisely because the grime could never be seen on it.

His was a withering burden. On his stiff back he carried a bundle of willow branches tied with red-dyed leather and enough years of wisdom to fill two men’s lifetimes. It was the wisdom which made him stoop and shuffle. Gandrik could bear the weight of willow well enough.

“Who are you, traveller?” a voice cried from the other end of the hall, unmistakably the voice of King Utter.

“I am Gandrik.” the old man shouted back.

His clouded eyes picked out a glint of iron amid the hollow black shadows. It was a short, fat sword. As he drew closer with aching, blistered feet, he discerned the outline of the giant who held it. He sat almost six feet tall, so that Gandrik at first thought the lord must be standing.

King Utter’s body was a rolling mass of grey furs and black skins. Men on the road had said that he took the pelt of every wolf pack which stalked across the border of his kingdom. Even beneath that mass of dark swaddling, Gandrik could tell by how the king sat that his figure was not wasted in paunch or sloth. He was a tower of muscle, ready to pounce with the speed of a cat and force of a bear.

“Welcome to my hall, Gandrik. What brings you here?”

Hunger. He thought. I am cold and I am hungry. For longer than any man alive I have wandered these isles in search of a place to rest. Gandrik sighed and bowed his head. Yours, Great King, is by far the most miserable hovel I have thus far encountered. It shames me to remember, when I was still a youth, how the Romans kept a paved road through this putrid mire you call a kingdom and built a brick bathhouse where you now squat in the brackish ruins to empty your bowels.

“I have come to offer my services to the mightiest and greatest king in Angland.” Gandrik said, and thought Saxon pig. 

“What service can you offer me?” he asked, tapping a huge foot against the rotting rushes that littered his hall’s floor.

“I am Gandrik, Keeper of Wands.”

“Show me.”

Gandrik almost wept as he reached over his shoulder and drew out a slender strip of willow. It was not just the pain of his creaking joint which pricked his eyes. It was the knowledge that his precious bundle would come one step closer to being stripped bare. He had cared for it longer than living memory. Where would he be once it was gone?

The wand grew hot in his hand, but he held it steady. Its trembling length pointed at the king, conqueror of that reach of the isles and scourge of the Britons. Gandrik muttered a few choice words in the old tongue, Druid words. They did nothing, merely a comfort for him to hear.

A bolt of fire spat from the end of the willow branch and tore through the dark air. The wand splintered in his hand and Gandrik hobbled back to the doorway. He stopped over the threshold and looked back, watched Great King Utter “Broadblade” being swallowed by a churning inferno that blazed through his mountain of furs and melted the sword in his hands.

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Daily Mythology: Saturn’s Day (Part 2)

Saturn

The darkness was thick and close in the grotto’s confined interior. Ellyn felt her way forwards, groping along the cavern’s sides. Sunlight entered in a sluggish haze, falling on something which stood at the far end.

She reached the chipped statue and began to brush the dust and cobwebs from its ancient surface. Letters appeared through the grime at its base.

SATVRNVS REX – Saturn is King

Ellyn blew a heavy breath on the bearded stone face. Its eyes cracked open and the god shifted in his seat. He opened his mouth to speak and coughed a billowing cloud of dust, spitting chips of granite.

“It’s a long while since any mortal sought me out in this place.” he wheezed, flexing the powerful muscles of his stone arms.

“I ask for your aid, Saturn. All the gods we have worshiped since have abandoned us. Famine spreads through my uncle’s kingdom.”

A horrible chuckle rang through the narrow cavern, a sound like two stones being ground together. Ellyn knelt and felt fear running hot through her tightening gut.

“I will help you.” Saturn said. “But I will take your wings in return, my little cherub.”

Beyond the cave’s entrance, at the foot of the craggy cliff, the shieldmen waited in silence. Dark noises rattled down from the ledge above. They were sounds from another world, a Hellish place.

They leaped back and cried out in horror as a pair of long, pale arms dropped into their midst in a shower of blood. Looking up, they saw the writhing figure of Ellyn held in the arm of an old stone man. He waved his short, rusted sword at them and bellowed out across the valley.

“Famine, begone! Saturnus Rex has returned to the realm of men!”

Daily Mythology: Wodan’s Day

Daily Mythology: Wodan’s Day

Wodan

“Hail to you, hearty men and stout women, for today is Wodan’s day. Raise a cup now and drink your fill!”

Wodan remained like a statue of chipped granite as the titan bellowed his speech. He didn’t move as the giant raised a long arm formed from the twisted trunks of mighty firs. Not a sound escaped his tight lips as the giant’s fingers, each taller than a high spruce tree, overturned the hollow carcass of an ancient oak which he used as a drinking horn.

A flood of earthy, amber liquid cascaded down from its rim and swept in a foaming flood around the giant’s feet. His ankles were dry as bone, but the sour ale spun and surged around Wodan’s shoulders, threatening to tear his legs out from under him.

He braced his spear against the ground and stood fast, waiting for the deluge to subside. Voices could be heard crying out in fear beneath the forest’s shadowed boughs. Wodan heard his people’s terror and felt a sharp flint of anger strike against his hard stone heart. Wringing ale from his long, silver beard, he pointed the long shaft of his spear up at the giant. He had to squint, peering up towards the bright sky from beneath the wide, tattered brim of his black cloth hat. Did the titan feel fear, looking down into the creased lines of his face? He doubted it.

“Do you mock me, titan?” he asked, his voice a deep rumble that shook among the spindling branches of the giant’s head.

“Mockery?” the giant bellowed back, shaking the earth with his booming laughter. “I propose a toast to the mighty Wodan, but his people will not drink.”

“Is it a toast, or are you just too weak to drink with Wodan Allfather?”

“Weak? A puny god like you could not drain one cup of my ale.”

Chuckles came from the depths of the giant’s throat as he swirled the last drops around inside his vast drinking horn. A sound like a hundred cascading waterfalls met Wodan’s ears as the cup refilled. Green saplings and shoots crept out of the damp earth, twisting about the huge toes. Gnarled roots spread from the giant’s toenails and pressed into the soil.

Wodan took the cup that was offered, too huge almost for him to hold without toppling over. He drank his fill and smacked his lips, feeling the pressure of a lake of ale bulging in his gut. The giant filled it once more, draining his portion in a few gulps. While his back was turned, Wodan tapped the butt of his spear once to the ground and slid the point into his own navel.

Golden, foaming liquid burst out and streamed into the gaping chasm that had opened where his spear touched the earth. When the giant looked down at him once more, Wodan had the look of a starved man, thin and hunched. He pressed the cup back into his hands.

Their game continued for several days, while the forest-dwellers hid behind the trees and looked on in horror. Wodan’s cup was filled over and again. Each time he drank, waited for the giant to look away and emptied his belly into the dark depths of the earth. Finally, the titan began to sway. A thick copse of trees and ivy creepers had grown over his feet and up his shins, fed by the bitter ale.

“Do you admit you lack the strength to carry on?” Wodan asked.

The giant gave no reply, only teetered slightly and peered down at the old, bedraggled god. Broad hands made of gorse and holly thorns tried to swat at Wodan as he climbed up the giant’s back. But his mind was too addled to strike home, his legs caught fast in the trap. Wodan reached his neck and paused, catching his breath in haggard pants and wheezes.

“Will you admit your weakness now?” he asked.

“Wodan the Cunning.” the giant giggled. “Wodan Tree-Scrambler.”

Wodan wedged the point of his spear into the giant’s neck and he crashed to the earth, ripping apart trees and undergrowth as he fell. The people of the forest watched as their god shuffled away, clutching wrinkled hands to his gaping stomach.