7. A Highland Tale
A Highland Tale
Roads of Heohlond
Beyond the northern gate of Middanhal lay a wide road, branching out in many directions; on the day that the jarl of Theodstan arrived in Middanhal to participate in the upcoming Adalthing, Ælfwine and Egil travelled in the other direction. They followed the easterly branch, going against the stream of people on solstice pilgrimage. Their journey passed mostly eventless at first. On occasion, they might ride on a cart with a farmer or trader going north, though they traversed the longest stretches on foot.
Eventually, they left the heartlands of Adalrik and reached Theodstan, the north-eastern jarldom that maintained the border with Heohlond. On occasion, they slept in the wild with only their cloaks for comfort, while at other times, they were fortunate to have a local farmer grant them leave to sleep in a barn on their path; often Ælfwine would pay some coppers for the hospitality and some provisions. On occasion, when they were in a town or city at day’s end, they might sleep in a tavern, but always cheaply.
Conversation was scarce; Ælfwine seemed to have no interest in it. Egil kept back for a while, and for some days, they only spoke on practical matters such as setting camp. But the curiosity, which had made Egil jump at the chance of becoming apprenticed to the King’s Quill and gain access to the largest library in the world, could not be silenced forever. “You have never been to Heohlond?” Egil asked his companion.
“If I have, I did not know at the time.”
“How could you not –” Egil began to say, but he fell quiet when he looked at Ælfwine’s blindfold. Silence followed for a long time. “Why do you have a sword?” asked Egil when his curiosity had once again become master of him.
“Do men carry swords for more than one reason?” asked Ælfwine with a disinterested voice.
“Well, no, but…” Egil’s voice trailed off as Ælfwine once again managed to disrupt his train of thought. This time, however, he did not let it silence him. “Is that why you hold the staff in your left hand? To keep your sword hand free?”
“How observant,” Ælfwine replied shortly.
“My master told me I had to be,” Egil said, more quietly. “Though I don’t know why the King’s Quill has to be. I don’t know why he teaches me half the things he does.” If Ælfwine was listening, he did not answer but merely kept up a brisk pace.
One day, Egil summoned the courage to ask a pertinent question. “Why are we travelling to Heohlond?”
“You know that as well as I do.”
“But I’m not sure I understand. The prince died years ago, what’s there to learn?”
“You do not have to understand,” Ælfwine said, his voice still sounding devoid of interest. “Just aid me in whatever way you are able and which I require.”
“But what for?”
“My purpose is to help Godfrey understand, not you.”
After some time had passed, “Who is Godfrey?”
For once Ælfwine gave a little smile, though it seemed mostly contemptuous. “If you are so observant, you should be able to answer that yourself.”
Egil frowned, considering this. “He is younger than my master by a fair deal. Yet he speaks, and my master obeys. He is accustomed to long travels, he has been in Alcázar.” Ælfwine did not speak but let Egil continue along his trail of thoughts. “He has a sword by his side, though like you he hides it under his cloak. But he does not seem a soldier nor nobleman.”
“Evidently, others than soldiers and noblemen carry swords,” Ælfwine remarked.
“Maybe he was a soldier once, and that is how he learned swordplay,” Egil speculated. “Maybe he still is a soldier, merely pretends not to be. Because he is in service to somebody.” Ælfwine did not give his opinion on this. “Are you his servant?” asked Egil. Ælfwine did not reply to this either. “Or are you both servants to somebody else,” Egil said contemplatively.
The border between Adalrik and Heohlond was not sharply delineated. It was more of a blur where the jarldom of Theodstan ended and where the lands of Clan Cameron began, known only to the locals. There were fewer travellers now going in the opposite direction, and they mostly encountered stone and marble from the quarries being carted south. On the other hand, it happened more often that they met others also travelling north, typically people going to the seat of their clan for one reason or the other. When this happened, Ælfwine was quiet and allowed Egil to speak, whose dormant dialect was growing stronger.
Eventually they reached the stronghold of Clan Cameron, Cairn Donn, and Ælfwine decided to end the day’s journey there and buy new supplies. Egil found a scribe and paid him for use of his ink and parchment, writing a brief message to Quill. Afterwards, he went to the Order’s garrison in the city. It was very small, only a knight and half a regiment, since their only purpose was to act as a link between the Order in Adalrik and its forces in the more troubled regions of Heohlond. They served Egil’s purposes as needed, however, since they routinely passed on letters and missives between Heohlond and Middanhal, and a message to the King’s Quill was considered the king’s business; thus, they were obliged to transport the letter for Egil to his master.
When it was evening, they rented a pauper’s room. “Boy, bring me a bowl of clean water,” Ælfwine told Egil, who complied. “I would tell you to extinguish the light,” Ælfwine said, “but this close to solstice I imagine the evening sky is still bright.”
“Indeed,” Egil said. Their room had no window as such, but the thatching was shoddy and allowed plenty of light through. “We should be glad it’s not raining.”
“If we cannot have darkness, I recommend you avert your eyes,” Ælfwine said, sitting down on the ground. There was no table of any kind, only two meagre beds, so Egil had placed the bowl of water on the ground. With his back towards Egil, Ælfwine unbound the blindfold around his head. One hand fumbled along the floor until it found the edge of the bowl, and he soaked the blindfold in the water before wringing it as dry as he could. With one hand, he kept his hat in front of his face, shielding it. With the other hand, he extended the wet cloth in Egil’s direction.
“Hang this somewhere it will dry,” Ælfwine commanded as he gave it to Egil; then he moved to his bed and lay down to rest, still keeping his broad-brimmed hat over his face. Egil hung the damp blindfold over one of the rafters and turned to look at his companion. In the couple of weeks they had travelled, this was the first time the blindfold had been removed. Egil moved closer to Ælfwine and stood hovering. “I suggest you keep your curiosity reined in on this one occasion,” Ælfwine muttered from beneath his cap. Egil moved back startled and went to his own bed.
When Egil woke the next day, Ælfwine was already awake and his eyes covered as customary. They left the city and continued further north. “How far until we reach our destination?” Ælfwine asked.
“We are in Clan Cameron’s lands now,” Egil began to elaborate. “They are the southern-most clan, and all the trade with the rest of Adalmearc go through them. So they are also wealthy and generally loyal towards Adalrik.”
“That is not remotely what I asked about.”
“Oh. Right, sorry. I forgot, I get distracted when remembering something I have read or been told.”
“That did not even pretend to be an answer to any question I asked of you.”
“Right, right,” Egil said, almost stumbling over his own words. “We have to pass through the lands of another clan, and then we will reach Clan Boyd, where the prince was killed. About a week or two at most, I think.”
A short while passed until Ælfwine took the initiative in the conversation again. “This clan, do their lands border to the northern forest? The Alfskog?”
“It must,” Egil said. “Clan Boyd lies in the most northern part of the highlands. There’s only the Alfskog further north. It must be immense,” Egil continued to speak, more eagerly. “They say the forest extends all along the northern border of Adalmearc across Vidrevi, Adalrik, and Heohlond. And nobody knows how far it goes north or what lies beyond it.”
“I am aware of its extent,” Ælfwine muttered.
“Oh, sorry. I just thought,” Egil spoke haltingly, “since you don’t seem familiar with the northern lands of Adalmearc.”
“I know the land,” Ælfwine replied. “Just not the cities or where men dwell.” He paused momentarily. “Do you know what it means to be sent wood-walking?”
“Of course,” Egil replied. “It’s the worst punishment. Well, apart from execution. You’re declared an outlaw. Anybody who comes across you can kill you without being punished for it. So you have to leave the cities, and people take to the woods to survive.”
“Skoggangr,” Ælfwine said. “That is what they called it in the old days. It had a different meaning then.”
“How so? I have never heard of that.”
“There was once a time when your people did not simply exile those who caused grave offence. They were sent into the Alfskog with whips against their backs. Hence the term to be sent walking into the wood. It was considered a death sentence,” Ælfwine explained.
“I never knew,” Egil admitted.
“You do now. There are places on this earth where men should fear to tread,” Ælfwine spoke; he did not speak further that day.
“Tell me of the clans. It is a way of life unknown to me,” Ælfwine said on the following day’s journey.
“Well, all the land in Heohlond is divided between the clans. Everybody living in a region is considered part of the clan, at least if you were born there. They don’t like outsiders, not from the rest of the Adalmearc or from the other clans. In fact, they probably dislike the other clans even more.”
“And the clan which controls the area of our destination?”
“Clan Boyd,” Egil told him. “They are the ones that killed the prince and started the revolt. Well one branch of them. A clan is like a small country. The head is like a king, but the different branches have their own lords and might act on their own.”
“So one of Clan Boyd’s lords instigated an insurrection,” Ælfwine said in repetition, “and began by killing the prince and heir of Adalmearc.”
“Many of the clans dislike being under the rule of Adalrik,” Egil explained. “They don’t even like being ruled by their own king. He doesn’t have much power, my master says. Only the Order keeps him on his throne and the clans at heel.”
“I have heard that they suppressed the revolt rather brutally,” Ælfwine ventured to say.
“Half of Clan Boyd rebelled, the other half didn’t, I’m told,” Egil replied. “Same story in other clan territories. The Order suffered many ambushes and couldn’t tell who was loyal and who wasn’t. Eventually they treated most clansmen and their families as enemies.”
“And made you an orphan, I surmise.”
“I think so. Happened when I was so young, I can barely remember.”
“You have my sympathy nonetheless for your loss,” Ælfwine said. The uncharacteristic proclamation made Egil stop for a moment before he began walking again to keep pace with his companion.
“Don’t think anybody’s ever told me that before.”
“Then I have accomplished something new,” Ælfwine said with a mirthless smile.
Reaching a village in Clan Boyd’s lands, they bought more provisions and were given a haystack to sleep in. “How come you can afford it? All the food we’ve bought on this journey,” asked Egil, who had more than once cast a sidelong glance at Ælfwine’s small purse of coins.
“Would you prefer to starve?”
“No, I’m not ungrateful,” Egil hastened to say. “Just curious. You look like a beggar, but I haven’t seen you ever beg for anything.”
“I appreciate people’s kindness on occasion,” Ælfwine answered, “but it is not my livelihood.” With those words, he fell asleep.
As they journeyed onwards, they began to see the signs of a war-torn land that had not recovered. Empty houses and burned barns, fields growing wild, and livestock was a rare sight. “Where exactly are we going?” asked Egil. “I mean, what’s the name of our destination?”
“Your master told me that the prince was ambushed near a village called Glen Hollow.”
“Right. ‘The Sorrow of Glen Hollow’, they call the ballad. It’s a good tune, though funny name for a village,” Egil considered.
“Is that so,” Ælfwine said absentmindedly.
“Yes, because glen means valley, like hollow does. So the name repeats itself,” Egil explained.
“I did not ask,” Ælfwine muttered, but Egil did not seem to hear.
“I suppose it was called both once by people of different dialect. And the names merged,” Egil pondered.
“Fascinating,” Ælfwine remarked in a tone of voice that gave the opposite impression.
Making their way north, their surroundings became increasingly inhospitable. Although summer solstice was just around the corner, the nights were cold this far north. Moreover, strangers were viewed with distrust or outright hostility by the locals as well as the regiments of Order troops, which they at times encountered on the road. At one point, a knight stopped them and questioned them about their reasons for wandering the roads.
“Going north to leave my nephew with relatives,” Ælfwine said in a voice that quivered slightly while he bent forward and grasped his staff for support with both hands. “Lost my eyes fighting for good King Sighelm, did I,” he added. “Same as where the boy lost his father, my brother. Cannot feed him what he needs, so I am hoping my sister and her husband will take the boy in.”
“Doubtful,” the knight said from atop his horse. “These people have hardened hearts. The rocks will sooner shed tears than they will at hearing your story. On your way,” he dismissed them, and the patrol passed on.
“Seven and Eighth’s blessing to you,” Ælfwine said mumbling. When the soldiers had passed some distance, he straightened up and took a strong hold of his staff with only one hand again.
“Isn’t it dangerous to lie to the Order?” asked Egil.
“Unless we tell them otherwise, how would they ever discover we told an untruth,” Ælfwine pointed out.
“But why lie to them? We are not breaking any law.”
“No, but saying we have an interest in where the prince was ambushed and killed might raise suspicion. Especially since we appear to be two beggars on the road. It is best our story matches our appearance that we may avoid delays from inquisitive knights.”
“What if they take a closer look?” Egil asked.
“In a land ravaged by war, you think they will think twice about seeing a pair of beggars?”
“No,” Egil said patiently, “but you do carry a sword. And while you walk and talk like an old man, it’s only dirt. Your hat covers your hair, maybe, but it’s not filthy or tangled underneath. The skin on your face and hands is smooth, you’re not that much older than me.”
This elicited a snort from Ælfwine. “You have deduced this, have you,” he said in a mocking tone.
“If I can see it, others can too,” Egil said sullenly, and they continued in silence.
For most of their journey through this region, they had slept in the wild and avoided settlements, given how strangers were treated. Eventually, though, they had come as far as they could on their own. They needed guidance and began to seek towards villages as they came near them. People were rarely willing to help, but a handful of copper marks usually helped the travellers get a new direction. Thus, they moved from village to village, approaching Glen Hollow.
After leaving one village, they had walked for about half an hour when somebody approached them from behind. “Wait,” a hoarse voice called out, and both Ælfwine and Egil turned around. Behind them, a young man came running and caught up with them. His motives quickly became clear as he drew a rusty knife.
“I saw you had silver back there,” he said, throwing his head in the direction of the village. “Hand it over.”
Ælfwine leaned forward with both hands on his staff, aging his voice. “You would rob a blind man and an orphan?”
“I’d rob the Seven and Eighth if they showed up in this Hel-forsaken place,” the mugger sneered. “Now give me!”
Ælfwine sighed audibly while his hands slid down along his staff. This had the effect of extending its reach when he straightened up and swung the staff at the robber’s temple. With a loud clash, he was struck unconscious. “What a fool,” Ælfwine said contemptuously. “Let us hope for his sake the Seven and Eighth did not hear him. Egil, take his knife from him and throw it away as far as you can,” he told the boy, who quickly complied.
“How did you know where to hit him like that?” Egil asked impressed as they continued on their way.
“He was breathing loudly through his mouth.”
Slightly more wary, they approached a new village. It was situated near the only real road this far north, connecting northern Theodstan in Adalrik with the seat of Clan Boyd in Heohlond. A few naked hills lay between the road and the village, shielding it from sight, though the slow rise of smoke from a few chimneys gave its presence away. Leaving the road and passing over the hills, they had a good view of the different huts. Entering, they asked around about buying provisions until they had luck.
“We are looking to go towards Glen Hollow,” Egil explained to a woman from whom they bought cheese and bread. “Can you point us in the direction of the next village between here and there?”
“There aren’t any,” said the woman, the local blacksmith’s wife. “What do you want with that place?”
“My brother died as a thane,” Ælfwine explained. “I want my nephew to see where his father died, which would be near there.”
“You want to go where the prince was killed,” the woman shuddered, making a sign with her fingers to avert evil. “It’s not a place for the living anymore. They say the spirits of the dead linger, and it attracts unsavoury creatures like Elvenfolk.”
“We do not plan to linger,” Ælfwine said. “Merely see the place and be on our way again.”
“Well, there’s the tavern down the street, you might find somebody to take you,” the blacksmith’s wife considered. “But mark my words, you’ll regret going there.”
As they stepped inside the tavern, conversation halted at once and all eyes turned. The distrust, if not outright hostility, was almost palpable. “If you have meals for us, it would be appreciated,” Ælfwine told the innkeeper.
“I need more than gratitude in return,” the owner said brusquely. “An eagle per meal.”
Ælfwine did not argue the hefty price but dug out two silver pieces and let them fall onto the desk. “When we have eaten,” he continued, “we are in need of a local guide who can take us to our next destination.”
The barkeep made a grumbling sound as he went into the back; when he returned, he carried with him lukewarm stew in two bowls. “We aren’t fond of showing strangers around here.”
“There’s silver in it as compensation for time spent, of course,” Ælfwine promised.
This changed the innkeeper’s tune. “Alan’s a woodcutter, he knows the area pretty well. Douglas, he goes into the mire for peat, knows where to step and where not. And Ronan hunts,” he said, gesturing to each man as he mentioned their names, apparently oblivious to the cloth covering Ælfwine’s eyes.
“Lead me to them,” Ælfwine muttered, extending his arm towards Egil, who took hold of it and led the blindfolded man over to where the locals sat. “I am seeking a man with strong knowledge of the surroundings,” Ælfwine began, which did not elicit any responses. “I require that he navigates me and my companion to the location where the prince Sigmar and his thanes were slain.” Again he received no answer, only intense stares. Ælfwine reached into his broad cloak and took out a small purse. “I pay in silver, naturally,” the beggar-clad man said, which finally made half a dozen men or so exchange glances.
“I’ll take you,” one man said, standing up. Those who had been able to watch the innkeeper’s gestures would recognise him as the peat digger Douglas. “We can go there in about an hour and be back before sundown. I want ten marks. Five now, five after.”
“Excellent,” Ælfwine remarked. “Allow us to finish our meal and we shall be on our way.”
While Ælfwine and Egil returned to their bowls of stew, their new guide remained with his comrades, exchanging words and finishing his drink. Finally, Douglas stood up again and walked over to them as they emptied their dishes. “Let’s go,” he said gruffly, “before it gets any later. Don’t want to get caught out there after nightfall.”
Ælfwine and Egil left the village behind, following the peat digger north after giving him his initial five silver marks. They were approaching the northern-most boundaries of the Adalmearc with the endless forest of Alfskog not far away. So far, Ælfwine and Egil had travelled on the road that connected the towns of Clan Boyd’s territory with the northern parts of Theodstan on the other side of the border. However, the road ran east-west, and Douglas turned from it on their course northwards.
The landscape slowly changed, becoming less dotted with hills. The group walked in complete silence, but after an hour, the terrain under their feet became less firm, and water splashed under their boots. Trees in distorted shapes stood haphazardly surrounding them with long growths of plants not found further south. Around them, a fog seemed to rise from the bog, dimming their vision.
Finally their guide stopped. “I don’t want to go further,” he said. “It’s an evil place where all those men died. But you see the big, dead tree up ahead in the distance?” he asked Egil.
“I see it,” the boy responded.
“Go some hundred or hundred and fifty steps beyond. The swamp might hide most of the signs, but look around and you’ll see what’s left of the prince and his men. I’ll be waiting here for your return and the rest of my silver,” the peat digger told them.
“We are much obliged,” Ælfwine said. He extended his hand until it found Egil’s shoulder to guide him, and they continued on their own.
When they were closer to the dead oak tree that marked their direction, Ælfwine quietly spoke his companion’s name. “Do not turn to look or otherwise show signs of distress. Keep walking at this pace,” he said to Egil.
“What’s wrong?” the boy asked as his voice grew unsteady. Ælfwine’s grip upon his shoulder grew firmer.
“Something troubles me. Why would the prince leave the roads and travel into this mire?”
“You think he was misled?”
“No, young master Egil, I think we are. That and the fact that while they have kept themselves out of sight, the wind carries the footsteps of a handful of men towards me. We are being followed.”
Egil seized up, but Ælfwine moved his hand to grab Egil’s arm in a strong hold and forced the boy to continue walking. “I believe this is why our guide excused himself. He has turned around to lead the others to us and conclude their ambush. I estimate their numbers are up towards half a score of men, no doubt some of them with bows and arrows.”
“What do we do?” Egil asked panicked as the information sunk in while they slowly walked forward.
“Look ahead,” Ælfwine commanded him. “Do you see the Alfskog?”
“No,” Egil said. “The mist won’t let me see that far. We’re probably miles south of it.”
“Then you must run. I will keep them at bay while you run to safety. Should any of them pursue you, they will not dare enter the Alfskog. Or if they do, the forest will deal with their intrusion.”
“What about my intrusion?” whispered Egil. Their constant pace was leading them close to the dead tree.
“You must now listen very closely and do not doubt me or raise questions,” Ælfwine said, quietly and quickly. He was still holding Egil’s arm in a firm grip. With his other hand, he took the small dagger from his belt, which he normally used to cut his meat with. “I will carve protection upon your arm. Keep it visible at all times while you are in the forest. Do not stop running until you reach the tree line, and run as far into the forest as you can. I will find you afterwards,” Ælfwine explained.
“Wait, carve?” Egil said, almost squealing. Ælfwine did not reply but stopped; he pushed Egil’s sleeve up and held it with a grip as firm as stone. Before Egil could protest further, Ælfwine carved something resembling a rune directly into Egil’s skin while the boy gave a surprised yelp turning into a howl of pain.
“Make sure this is visible, and they will not hurt you,” Ælfwine said and turned his head as sounds reached him. “Our pursuers are here. Run!” he yelled and pushed Egil forward.
“They’re running, boys!” shouted Douglas. “Neil, Lorne, get the boy! Ronan, shoot somebody already!”
An arrow whistled into the air and Egil saw it strike into the tree by which Ælfwine stood. “Run!” the blindfolded man repeated as footsteps in the mire announced that their attackers were fast approaching. Egil finally complied and he ran north. He cast one last glance back. It revealed Ælfwine throwing down his hood and unclasping his cloak before he flung it aside; this in turn revealed his linen tunic, the leather jerkin underneath it, and the sword by his side. Out of the mist like a nightmare came two of the men from the village with hatchets in their hands; they ran straight for Egil, who bolted as fast as he could towards the Alfskog.