The Journey North
’God has indeed forsaken us,’ said the young narrow-faced skipper, while taking a drag and exhaling a bluish-colored cloud of ‘Gottlung’s blend’ - the strongest tobacco of western seamen. His ship only cast anchor at the bay of the small seaside town in the North that lay on the isthmus, connecting the Dragon Peninsula with the mainland. The ship came from Westfield, which was why it spent the whole day without being able to unload, undergoing rigorous inspection.
‘Which god would that be now, lad?’ asked a stocky old man in a fisherman's garb sitting opposite the sailor.
‘Our common god, of course—the Sleeping God,’ replied the skipper out of the smoky vail, quite unperturbed.
The tavern erupted in a chorus of outraged shouts. The patrons who had sat at the tables jumped up from their benches, turning toward the narrow-faced skipper and shouting curses and threats—most of them were of Slavard extraction. The old man raged the most.
‘You Gottlung swine are all the same—filthy and covetous. You brought your impotent god to our land—is he good for anything but sleeping? You burned our northern gods and desecrated our holy places. Moreover, you have dragged our half-witted nobles into your intrigues, and, on top of everything else, brought a disease that wipes out entire villages.’
The skipper rose slowly and emptied his pipe; the other Gottlungs followed suit, gripping the hilts of their swords.
The narrow-faced man gave the old man the evil eye, his voice was hoarse with rage, finding the necessary Slavard words with some difficulty.
‘Out of respect for your gray hair, old man, I shall hold my tongue and not answer you curse for curse. But won't you tell me one thing—did you have a bad life, you and everyone else, up until the day when brother raised hand against brother, and the imperial house ceased to exist? Didn't your wares get shipped to every corner of a united nation? Didn't the Sleeping God help you amass your wealth? We did give you a new faith. But you rejected the old gods of your own volition, and your noblemen spared no effort rooting out and destroying the old idols and their altars, and digging new underground temples in their stead, eager to please the emperor.’
‘You're lying through your teeth, you rat!’ shouted the old fisherman. ‘I was a kid when the Gottlungs came to our village. Our jarl was with them, but he was alone, without his men, and could no longer order anyone to do anything. Your men grabbed the priest and tried to make him renounce the old gods. But he spat in the face of the Gottlung dog who had led the soldiers and cursed the jarl for his betrayal. Then the Gottlungs poured molten lead down the priest's throat so that he could no longer hurl his accusations. And that's how it was everywhere on the coast.’
‘Gottlung nannies used to frighten their children with Slavards. But the beards of today's northerners are only good for shining Gottlung boots,’ a mighty fair-haired warrior appeared from behind the old man, wielding a battle axe on a long handle.
The tavern stood completely silent for a moment. Then several voices burst out at once.
‘That shall never be!’
‘Let's stick them Gottlung pigs!’
Long fishermen's knives flashed in the air alongside warrior swords and axes. Then the brawlers started using heavy tables and benches.
A small group of Gottlungs was slowly retreating toward the entrance, fighting off the attacks of the northerners who were pressing them hard. The Slavards attacked ferociously, but the tavern was so crowded they just kept getting in each other's way. The scuffle soon spilled outside and progressed in the direction of the harbor, growing like a snowball as new fighters joined in. Nothing could be done to stop the bloodshed anymore.
There was but one patron who took no part in the conflict whatsoever. He sat in the farthest corner and smoked peacefully, hiding his face in the hood of his cloak—or, at least, that was how it seemed.
Once the brawlers had vacated the tavern, the man stood up, emptied his pipe and put the smoked fish and loaf of bread received from the innkeeper in his pack, then placed it on his back. Accompanied by a sword in a worn old scabbard, took his staff, paid the innkeeper, and exited through the back door.
The man's name was Huckie the Wolf. He was of noble birth, judging by the crest on the brooch of his cloak and the gold bracelet on his right wrist, received for his loyal service from the Great Northern King.
The scuffle that had started in the tavern had grown into a huge fight that continued on the streets of the town, which allowed Huckie to make for the mountains without being noticed by anyone. He was headed north—to the castle of King Torismund. Wolf received a message from the king a short while back—it was brought by a specially trained falcon. The message said that the king was gathering loyal people for a long and dangerous expedition. Huckie didn't understand why anyone would want to send the best of the fighters on a perilous expedition in chase of a phantom island from ancient legends when the Empire was falling apart, with so few people left capable of protecting it. But Huckie was loyal to his suzerain, so he answered the summons at once, and commenced his preparations for the journey—not that he needed much time to prepare. All his wealth consisted of nothing but his sword and the two precious objects mentioned earlier.
Wolf took his last glance back at the town and the ships in the harbor as he climbed the mountain, and then adjusted the pack on his back and started along the path, leading him higher and higher into the mountains.
It was easy to walk at first. The sun was shining. The eye could always rest on the sight of the woods carpeting the mountain slopes. He often came across large herds of sheep, and wild deer crossed his path a few times as well. But the spruces and the pines soon gave way to bushes, and then to tiny stunted trees, moss and lichen. The only animals he could see this far up were lemmings, dashing this way and that from underneath his feet, and the musk oxen grazing on the rocky slopes.
Then the weather took a change for the worse. It started to drizzle. Huckie instantly got soaked to the skin. His only salvation was that his woolen clothing, and his cloak preserved heat well, even wet. However, the last couple of days he found it impossible to get properly dry. Even when the rain would stop, the clouds that lay over the mountain passes and gaps shrouded the traveler in a damp chill.
The soles of his boots became as slippery as the path he was following. He had to take the greatest care to cross rapid mountain rivers, swollen from the rain, over slippery wet rocks, or cross treacherous shifting moraines, ready to cave in underneath one's feet any minute, dragging unwary travelers deep to their death.
Huckie the Wolf was weary. He’d spent the last five days walking, with no sign of human habitation anywhere. After all, only a madman would build a house this far north, in mountainous tundra. However, Huckie was surprised to see buildings as he crossed another pass.
He was clearly looking at a farm. But how did one end up here? Huckie took this road many times before, and never saw anything of the kind. Nor had anyone mentioned wanting to build a dwelling in this remote place when he was down by the coast. Wolf cautiously entered the valley from a slope and approached the farm.
There was nothing unusual about it. It was built in the fashion of Slavards from up north, out of stone and thatch. Only the beams and the planking on the inside walls were made of wood in such buildings. Nearby lay a large house where the farmer's family would dwell, joined to the barn and various farm buildings. The cattle shed, stable and smithy stood in the distance.
Nothing seems to be amiss, thought Huckie the Wolf to himself. And yet he was anything but calm. Suddenly he realized what was wrong—he could not hear any usual farm sounds. No one was working in the smithy, even though there was smoke coming from the hole underneath the roof, no children were crying, no sheep were bleating, and no chickens were clucking…
The door to the house stood ajar. Huckie approached it and called:
‘Hello, my good people!’
There was no answer—only a door creaked in the wind.
‘Anybody home?’ he shouted, in an even louder voice.
No reply yet again.
Wolf felt ill at ease. He stood motionless for a while, trying to catch any sound that would break this deathly silence. Then he pulled his sword from the scabbard and stepped inside.
There was a fire blazing in the hearth, the earthen floor was swept clean, the fur blankets lay folded exactly where they should be, and the large table of oakwood had been scraped with diligence. There was a wooden dish with steaming pieces of meat inside, and foamy beer in mugs, also made of wood. It looked as though someone had just sat down to dinner, but something interrupted them at that moment and they stepped outside.
Huckie went out and looked in every farm building, but there was nary a soul anywhere. He returned to the house, came to the table, and suddenly realized just how hungry he was. He had eaten the bread and smoked fish from the tavern a long time ago, and the last day he’d fed on nothing but berries and mushrooms. His hand reached for a slice of meat as if of its own accord; he instantly jerked it back. The words of a Khoors he knew rang clearly in his mind—the man was telling him about dead nomad camps in his lands. He said that any traveler who took anything from one of those yurts would disappear without a trace.
Huckie was once again overcome by a strong desire to grab a slice of well-roasted meat from the table—the aroma that came from the food nearly made him dizzy, the temptation was too strong. Wolf tried hard to stop his hand from reaching for the juicy slice, but it seemed to have a mind of its own. Huckie raised the sword that he had transferred to his left hand in despair, and ran the blade across the unruly right palm. Blood swelled up in the deep cut instantly and started dripping; he felt his hunger weaken a little. He started for the door as if possessed, and ran away from the farm as fast as his feet would take him. He only stopped a few hours later, having crossed another pass.
The cut on his hand smarted. Huckie produced a clean piece of cloth from his pack, gathered some lichen, chewed them into a wad, then pressed it against the cut and bandaged the palm. His thoughts kept going back to the strange farm. Only now he recollected that the grass near the buildings was black rather than green. Huckie couldn't help comparing it to a fragment of dead skin on a person with blood poisoning. And yet, he thought to himself, dead dwellings of this sort appeared throughout the empire—Gottlungs, Khoors, and Slavards all talked about them. You could not save a man if the ‘evil shakes’ have gripped his entire body. Nor could you save an empire that wallowed in evil. So could King Torismund be right? Could now be the very time when it was important to find the Promised Land, where they could start building a new and healthy kingdom? He didn't have the right answers to those questions yet, but the idea of an expedition to the Blissful Isle no longer seemed quite as outlandish.
After a short rest, Huckie the Wolf promised a rich and bloody sacrifice to the Sleeping God for luck. It wasn't far to King Torismund's castle now. This strengthened the warrior's resolve, and he picked up his pace.