6. Birth of The Raven's Brood

                "Sons and Daughters of the God Below," came a man's voice behind a slight silken veil. The robed figure of a hobbled man crossing from across the clearing at the center of the monoliths towards the crowd. Approaching the opposite end of the oval inner sanctum. "We bring good tidings from the Master Who Shakes the Earth," he continued, brown eyes peering through the fine fabric as he took in the awe struck natives of the North. "If you submit to the divine nature of our own, and your own Father. You will see the light behind the shadows. The darkness of this land in the depths of winter will no longer consume your young," the priest pleaded, his head turning from side to side as he scanned along the faces in the crowd looking for weakness of resolve in the Northern heathens. "The ice which locks your fields and strips it of moisture will no longer banish crops from your land and food from your bellies!" His voice now escalating so that all of the dozens who had assembled might hear him. Even the elderly who hobbled back and forth through the magnificent sight of these great stone monoliths which had been so recently erected.
                "Cast off the heresy of your ancestors!" came the voice of a much younger man, his face revealed and clear to see by the people he and his cohort had called together. His skin fine and untouched yet by the ravages of puberty. Yet like an old man his scalp was absent of any hair growth. Carved clean by straight razor and maintained with the same diligence as their daily rituals. "If you deny the blasphemes of your fathers. If you place your faith in the God Below-" his words suddenly cut abruptly short.
                From the crowd of the Northmen, a man adorned in a red woolen tunic had stepped forward and broken the perimeter of the congregation. Passing beyond where his kin had not dared, he approached the young priest and met his gaze but a hands breadth away. With ferocious eyes of jade the man searched the startled young face for some sign of true divinity. The middle-aged Northman's golden hair withdrawn from his face in great braids across his scalp and along his temples before assembling the four channels into one tail. Knotted and tied it hung down his neck and around over his chest. By his clothes alone it was obvious that he was a man of status. As the Southerners had learned; the Jorgrithians appreciated a sign of wealth and decorated themselves accordingly. This man was no different, his neck bearing the weight of a great golden chain and a large talisman at its base.

                The youth of the South and the aged-man of the North fixed their eyes upon one another for several long moments. Shock and disbelief sucking the colour from the young priests face as his brown eyes searched the hard stare which bore down on him. Unable to move, he realized he was within the man's grasp and he began to panic. The appearance of fear quickly engulfing his young features. And then finally the revelation that the sensation which bore into his throat and had halted his tongue was not the man's hand nor his imposing presence upon the priest. It was a short blade.
                Palmed and concealed as he had approached, the Northman drove his blade deep and with relentless force. Finding resistance on the wind-pipe only to force the rough iron blade further into the young man's flesh. Unremorseful, he drew back from his victim, and with him he unsheathed the blade from the young flesh.  "Kill them all," he said in a voice that was hardly above a whisper. A command which was effectively carried out by a band of men of similar age and stature. All of which having apparently assembled with their leader and bearing this ill-intention towards the interlopers of their lands. No later had the words formed upon his lips had his men commenced their attack with axe and short sword. Stepping into the grove and carving a quick and bloody path through the foreign priests who dared question the faith of the Northmen in their most ancient of gods and ancestors.


Forty years later...

                "What are we to do? Bands of these Southerners come North and spread their filth into our lands!" Breganaz exclaimed to the more than one hundred other men and women who encircled a long oval table, some seated and some standing. "They come with their ideas from the South and when we do not submit they force us. We are not such people to submit to a foreign enemy of such a treacherous and vile nature. But how do you expect us to stand and fight when they out number us so greatly?" His voice distraught and angered, though speaking so bluntly a foreigner would be shocked to realize that the one to receive such harsh words was in fact the monarch who sat silently at the far end of the long table.
                "If we were to fight," Ralvar began. "Then we would be wise to fight them in the way of our ancestors. Draw them deep into our lands and let the ice take them when they are too foolish to winter here. But that is cowardly! We are Jorgrithians!" he roared, his voice carrying over the hall and ripping through the smoke filled air as the fat man struggled to stand. Pounding his fists upon the redwood table he continued to speak with the artificial ferocity of a man who never served in the Vanguard. "We are the greatest warriors the world has ever known and will ever know! We will seek them out in their land and crush them at every encounter. To consider an alternate action is to curse our land."

                "Is it not true that you seek to make peace with them?" Came the voice of another man from the table, a few seats down from the king. His peers immediately looking at him with anger or fear for the fool's well-being.
                "It is true!" The King answered, his voice turning from one of anger to one of an arrogant man who believed he had just out-manoeuvred his foes. "I will make peace with them and at their side we will fight many great battles. Our mutual enemy to the East is a far greater threat, do you not think? If we submit ourselves to their authority then we might prevent a real war with people who have always been our friends."
                "Friends?" Breganaz asked, rising from the table and casting his gaze down the length of the great assembly of the North. "If I recall correctly, when your predecessor died you were not but the regent of the hold, Ralvar." The tone in his voice cold and deadly, bringing a hush to the murmur which had persisted in the hall. "And when he died in the war, all the nobles of the land, his friends, were with him at his side. But not you, a cowardly creature born of a whore mother and a serpent father." A shuffle shook the hall as the King and his numerous supporters rose from their seats and cast angry eyes down towards the far end where Breganaz stood, his own few supporters now levied about his person as a household guard might. "You called the Folk Assembly while we fought, bled and died! Knowing that we could not return through the mountain passes in winter. And who came? Your kin and your free men. And now what is the state of our realm, brothers?" Breganaz questioned as his gaze searched the faces of the handful of neutral lords. Most scarred beyond repair, faces cleft and cleaved of features and left horribly scarred and ugly from the wars they had fought under the previous king.
                "The meek Southerners dare challenge our sovereignty with this so-called King!" Slamming his bare knuckles into the table, Breganaz turned his gaze down the table and fell finally upon the King, whose face was now crimson and bloated with anger as he held back his retort until Breganaz relinquished the floor. "I call him usurper!" Breganaz spat, casting a blaming finger down the length of the table to his opposite, the king. "Destroyer of our people! He alone has ended the faith in the Gods of our Fathers! Our sons are raised in this bastard church from the South, and now he secretly wishes to make us the lapdogs of their king! Ralvar wants to send our noble sons to fight in the armies of the South, but not as equals. As their vanguard. As their forlorn hope! To be the first to fight and the first to die at every opportunity so that his opposition at home will be eradicated. And in time he hopes to replace our most ancient houses with pig farmers and the bastards of village idiots!"
                "Enough!" Finally came the voice of the king. Saliva spraying from his fat lips as he finally could no longer hold back his own anger at the dissident words of his vassal. "I call upon the assembly to banish Breganaz and his supporters! We vote now!" Striking his fat fist upon the table he caused the goblets and mugs to shake even at the far end of the assembly table where Breganaz stood without fear as the condemning vote was quickly tallied.

                Those who supported Breganaz quickly diminished in number and once more seated themselves as the king had threatened to banish them all. Some shoved and grabbed at their neighbours at the table who sat down and relinquished their support for the man who spoke the words on their minds. Others reached for their weapons and revealed the cold steel to their neighbours to threaten their peers and force votes, either for or against. The lowborn filth who filled the hall now outnumbered the elder houses nearly three-to-one and Breganaz knew long before the vote was tallied that he would lose. But he knew just the same that there were cousins and friends alike who would stand with him regardless of the outcome and would even in time overturn their vote against his survival.
                "How's that you arrogant bastard?" Ralvar cursed down the table to Breganaz who could not help scan over the faces of shocked nobles at the table. "Eighty-four to nine. With twenty-two abstaining." A great smile forming across his glistening fat lips as the tension in the hall began to settle. The legal vote had passed and Breganaz was banished along with his eight supporting noble men and women. There was nothing left to do except to depart the hall and flee from the land. But Ralvar wouldn't make that easy.
                "You fool's lead this land to destruction," Breganaz said in a calm tone. His supporters gathering their things and stepping back from the table with great caution. Preparing to make their way to the door. "And Ralvar, the count was Eight-seven to nine with twenty-four abstaining." Pausing for a brief moment he was able to catch the stifled smirks of a few of his supporters and even the pleased eyes of those who had chosen not to suffer his fate as well. "You sons of whores might wish to learn how to count if you are planning on ruling this land for a long time."


Six days later...

                When the Usurper King had banished the nine noblemen from the land, they had been subject to murder without reprisal. Made outlaw in their homes and only saved when they were able to get themselves clear of Ralvar's wrath. On the road each of the nobles and their loyal guards had eventually been caught by the peasantry and assaulted in quick succession. But as was natural in the ways of war, the peasantry who came with pitched fork and farmers scythe were set back by the presence of mail and brigandine. Their prey being fewer in number but greater in strength and skill. Training for war all of their lives and having served a decade in the shortest duration for the nine banished.
                Divided into the nine families, the groups were small and never more than a handful of their family and remaining loyal retinue. Met in ambush by dozens of peasants. Huddled behind shrubs and trunks of trees they quickly leapt from the cover and advanced towards the soldiers who were at first taken by surprise. Crying out for blood and battle the peasants sought to slaughter these strangers for any slight, whether real or imagined, they had suffered in their life. Unleashing a ferocity that caused their ranks to shatter and split into a chaotic assault of men and women with such little organization that many stumbled upon the uneven banks of the roads and even crippling a few with broken ankles before blades had been met in battle.

                Lacking archers in great numbers, the ambushed were struck but not slaughtered. Their numbers survived the initial surprise and upon meeting at their caravans they fought back with equal ferocity. Surpassing their assailants in coordination and organization. Men ducked and weaved through their ranks, bobbing back and forth as the unarmoured peasants made great overtures to end their lives with clubs and makeshift weapons. Only to realize when it was far too late that the stone spear broke when caught and struck by the axe of the nobles' guards. Curved scythe blades making little progress as the inexperienced users tried to cut chainmail only to dull the edges of their weapons. Feeling the retort of steel upon their brow that spilled grey matter from precious vessel.
                As planned, the ambushes were a slaughter. However, it was instead the fleeing noble families which were able to come out as the victors in each of the bouts. Casualties were inflicted on both sides, but the unarmoured peasants were often culled and few if any managed to flee the field as their prey offered as much pity and compassion as had been offered them. And in the end, the nine banished, their families and their loyal retinue were able to assemble on the Northern Shores to proceed by ship out onto the sea and beyond the grasp of Ralvar.


One year later...

                It wasn't much of a feat to evade Ralvar once the exiles had reached the shores of his lands. Passing through territory which was not entirely loyal to him aided them and in the grand scheme of things the lords of these lands knew that aiding the exiles would save them in time. Ships were provided from their stores and the exiled were able to assemble their number of less than three hundred and vanish from the annals of history. Disappearing into the horizon aboard small single decked ships adorned with the heads of beasts of the wild and of the imagination at their prows.
                After skirting the coastline to the West for a week the ships had divided and spread themselves through the archipelago of inhospitable islands they had come across. Not far from the coast of their former home, but far enough away that their pursuers would not think to search for the exiles in what had been uninhabited lands. Islands of rock with jagged shores of angry cliffs and thunderous tides. Speckled with the weak attempts of nature to occupy the lands with trees. Most not growing beyond forty or fifty feet and leaving the land sparsely covered from harsh winds and the cold snow that swept in from the east.
                A hardy land for the most hardy people, cursed and exiled from their peers and of most stalwart stock. They did manage to survive the first year, though not with ease. Many of the children died in the first winter and so too did many of the elderly. Sickness swept through the camps on the islands and the desolate populations were made even more scarce by the cruelty of Nature. Faith in any of the gods quickly disintegrated.

                A frozen tear stuck to Breganaz's face as he placed the stiffened body of his daughter onto the pyre of gnarled sticks. Her body ashen white with lips like topaz. Eyes closed for the last time, never to be opened again. The slight figure of the ten-year-old girl did not shutter and shake with the bite of the cold anymore. Her breath not misting from her thin lips because her chest did not rise and fall. No longer could she be counted among his kin. But now she would be delivered to the gods in the most pure manner.
                Stepping back from the fire, the father approached the assembly of his family and all who remained from the exodus of their home. They were ragged and dishevelled. Their hair out of place and clothes torn nearly to rags. He began to cry more freely now, the tears trickling out from behind his eyelashes and freezing upon red cheeks as the salted water met the thick growth of a large reddish-blonde beard. His face remained stiff and sombre as he placed a kiss to the lips of his wife and then wandered the line of his three young sons, granting each one a kiss upon their foreheads.
                "Ehngellaz, my eldest son, do you remember why we burn the dead?" Breganaz asked the child of no more than seven years old.
                With cold emotionless green eyes the son turned and looked from his father to the funeral pyre where the decorated body of his sister lay. "We burn them so that we may expel the water from our corrupted bodies. So that we may be nothing but stone as we were in the past." Pausing the young child offered a glance to his mother's dry blue eyes and then quickly he turned to his opposite side and examined the freedom which the tears held to transgress his father's face. "Death by fire is the purest," the young boy said as he reached up with dirty and delicately gaunt fingers to take hold of the callused and scarred hand of his father. Shocking the aging man at first, but then quickly comforting him as he realized the strength which a child could hold in his heart in such a dire moment.
                Green eyes igniting with malicious hatred as the first torch was placed upon the fire and the body of his sister began to receive the great orange licks of the fires dancing tendrils. "I will kill them all, father." Ehngellaz said in his young and squeaky voice. His small hand tightening as much as he could manage upon the grasp of his fathers. His gaze fixing on the heart of the flames as the fury and hatred swelled beneath his bosom.


By Bryan "Engellus" Critchison

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