97. Blighting the Song
Blighting the Song
“Why are your eyes that way?”
“Why are yours not?” Ælfwine snapped. They had left the Alfskog some days ago, and the barrage of questions had been relentless. “Hel take me, it was bad enough last time with just one of you.”
“I don’t think he is in a mood for questions,” Egil related with a loud whisper.
“He never is, so there’s no point in waiting,” Kate countered. “Why do Elves swear by Hel like we do?” she asked loudly. Ælfwine increased the pace.
They moved through the empty lands that constituted the north of Adalrik. On occasion, they encountered paltry flocks of meagre sheep, but they kept their distance. Even though Ælfwine had brought his blindfold, he preferred to avoid outside company that would force him to disguise his true nature by hiding his eyes and sword.
While he had success during the day with his strategy of marching too fast to allow the youths any questions, he fell prey when they made camp at night. If the area seemed desolate and firewood was available, he built a fire, suffering enquiries ranging from his method of making a campfire to whether he lived in a house or inside a tree.
His usual response was to roll up his cloak like a blanket and turn his back to them, falling asleep as quickly as possible. This led to a routine each night where they would continue to talk or bicker among themselves for a while before eventually following his example.
As none of them knew the lay of the land well, they simply steered by the sun, setting a course south and for the most part avoiding other people. Staying away from the main roads slowed their progress; a week after leaving the Alfskog at some point, they reached a hilly area that added further hardship to their journey.
“I need a break soon,” Kate declared, out of breath. Egil did not speak, but his appearance gave the impression that he was of the same mind.
Ælfwine did not look back, though he slowed his pace. “It is barely past noon. You can walk for a while longer.”
“Not much longer,” Kate insisted. She and Egil were slogging some steps behind Ælfwine with their heads bowed down from weariness, staring at the grass underneath their feet. Because of this, they almost stumbled into the suddenly motionless Elf as they reached the top of a hill.
“Hey,” Egil exclaimed as he nearly collided into Kate; his mouth remained open, but no further words came. Ahead of them stretched a meadow that in peaceful times would have been lush with grass. Now, it had been trampled by thousands of feet, and a brown, rusty colour had dyed the vegetation.
“What happened here?” asked Kate with a low voice.
“There must have been a battle,” Ælfwine surmised. “Over there,” he nodded, “you can see where they buried the bodies.” The children strained their eyes to see small mounds of loose dirt; there were scores of them if not hundreds.
“Who fought?” asked Egil.
“Who can tell?” Ælfwine shrugged and began walking down the hill.
“Should we be here?” whispered Kate.
“There is no reason to linger,” the Elf granted, “but simply passing through should not cause offence to living or dead.”
“If you say so,” Kate replied doubtfully.
Walking down the slope, many details were revealed before their eyes. Pieces of broken blades or armour, shields destroyed beyond repair or use, fabric torn and discoloured. “I wonder why they fought on the flat land,” Ælfwine mumbled.
“How so?” asked Kate.
“You would think at least one of the commanders would have positioned their army upon the hills to gain that advantage,” the Elf speculated. “No arrows or marks left by hooves. This was an engagement of foot soldiers.”
“You’re so good at noticing,” the kitchen girl spoke with admiration.
“He is,” Egil nodded eagerly. “It was the same in Heohlond. He could deduce so much.”
“They are just simple observations,” Ælfwine told them modestly. “Besides, it is of no concern to us. We should leave this place of death before night falls.” He picked up the pace, and the youths hurried to keep up with him.
Camp that evening was made in unusual silence; neither the girl nor the boy spoke while Ælfwine struck fire, warding off the darkness for the night. They had all made themselves a place to sleep when Kate finally spoke. “Master Ælfwine, did you ever fight in a battle like that?”
Unlike previous nights, this was not followed up immediately by another question; both the children simply stared at the Elf waiting. He cleared his throat. “I did. Many times. Gods grant I never have to again.”
“What did you fight for?” Egil asked.
“I fought… We fought…” Ælfwine’s voice trailed off, but his companions did not interrupt him. “We defended ourselves.”
Silence followed until it became clear he would not add to his answer. “Did you win?”
“We won and we lost. There is nothing left.” He exhaled deeply.
“How do you mean?” she questioned him.
“If you are in the wastelands with nothing but a water skin and meet someone who tries to take it away,” Ælfwine explained hesitantly. “If you fend him off, but spill all the water in the process, did you win or did you lose?”
“That sounds like you lost,” Kate contemplated.
“I think so as well.”
“Is that why you live in the Alfskog?” Egil wondered.
Ælfwine closed his eyes. “We should sleep. We have a long way ahead of us yet.” The children looked at him, but when he did not stir or speak again, they did as he had done.
To reduce the time spent on gathering food, Ælfwine decided to enter a village on their way, bartering for food with the few coins Egil and Kate had available. Putting on his blindfold, the Elf played the beggar escorting his young kinsfolk to other relatives. Anxiety had touched the villagers after the battles and armies in the vicinity, but they saw no threat from an old, blind man and two children. In fact, they eagerly questioned the travellers for news; when curiosity had been satisfied and food traded for silver, the three companions were given leave to sleep in a barn with a roof and hay for a bed.
“What’s that noise?” asked Kate. They had each found a place to rest for the night, but the sound of small creatures scurrying about could be heard.
“Probably rats,” Egil considered. “There are plenty of them in an army camp. You get used to it.”
“I don’t want to get used to rats,” she declared offended. “If someone let rats live in the Citadel kitchens, they’d get a smacking, and rightfully so!”
“This is a barn. There’s bound to be rats,” Egil countered.
“I think it’s just one, but it sounds really big.” Kate pulled her cloak tight around her. “There!”
“Over there. I think.” She bit her lip. “It’s hard to see in the dark, but there was definitely movement.”
“Will you two be quiet,” Ælfwine demanded.
“I just keep imagining that big rat crawling onto me while I sleep,” Kate complained.
“Now I am imagining it,” Egil whined.
The sound of tiny feet tripping through the hay could be heard, making both the children squirm and squeal. “For gods’ sake!” In the blink of an eye, Ælfwine sat up and flicked his wrist; his dagger flew through the air in the dark, impaling something against the wooden framework of the barn. “Fetch my blade, clean it, and go to sleep!” he commanded of Egil, throwing the knife scabbard at the boy. With eyes darting between Kate and Ælfwine, Egil got up and moved over to where the Elf’s dagger had struck. He found a large rat, impaled against the wall.
The younger travellers woke early in the morning as the oldest of their company held a hand to cover each of their mouths. “Wake up,” he whispered emphatically. Both children reacted by twitching and making mumbling sounds until they became aware of their surroundings and Ælfwine. “Be quiet,” he commanded in a low voice. Only when both of them were still did he remove his hands.
“What’s going on?” Kate whispered.
“There are armed men in the square,” Ælfwine explained, keeping his voice low. “Twenty or so. They wear no emblems, so I suspect they are bandits rather than soldiers. Best we put some distance between them and us.”
“They can’t be looking for any of us, can they?” asked Egil.
“And we don’t have anything worth stealing,” Kate added.
“Regardless,” the Elf spoke impatiently, “let us not wait to find out their motives. Get up, hurry!”
“What about the townspeople?” asked Egil as he stood up.
“Since they live here, I imagine they prefer to stay,” Ælfwine replied.
“But if they’re bandits, they’ll take what these people have. Probably all their food, and they might starve come winter,” Kate objected, brushing some hay away from her dress.
“How can we leave with the food they sold us if their own food will get stolen?” asked Egil with wide eyes.
“Merchants do it all the time,” Ælfwine said dismissively. “It is called the principle of bartering. No more talk, get going!”
“But you’re an Elf,” Kate argued. Neither of the children had moved one inch. “You can bewitch people, can’t you?”
“If I could, would I bother carrying around a sword?” Ælfwine hissed. “This is not something to debate!”
“You can fight,” Egil pointed out. “You’re a better warrior than any of them. You killed all those brigands that were after us in Heohlond.”
“I knew it! Kate declared eagerly. “You got witching powers!”
“I fought maybe six or so, not twenty,” Ælfwine retorted. “I have no armour but this leather tunic, and you want me to fight twenty men on my own? One arrow in the right place and I am done for. Did you bring me all this way just to get me killed?”
“I think you can do it,” Egil proclaimed.
“For what purpose? There must be scores of these bands roaming the land. This is what happens when wars drag on and armies lose battles,” Ælfwine informed them. “Men get desperate, and with no tool or trade but blades and battle, they turn to banditry. It will not make a difference if I fight them.”
“But –” Egil began to say.
“Silence! Now follow me,” Ælfwine commanded, and he left the barn.
Outside stood two armed men. They had been checking the outlying buildings, making sure every villager was accounted for. At the sight of the travellers, they grinned at each other. “Got ourselves a few more chickens hiding in the coop!”
Their laughter died as Ælfwine turned his eyes on them. One of them raised his axe while the other fumbled to pull a sword from its scabbard. The Elf was faster. His knife was in his hand one moment, embedded into the axeman’s chest the next; by the time the other brigand had pulled his sword out, the dagger sat in his eye.
Kate and Egil crept forward as Ælfwine cleaned his weapon, staring at the bodies. “They’ll notice they are dead, and then they’ll come after us,” Egil pointed out. “If we leave now, we’ll be hunted.”
“Unless someone stops them now,” Kate added.
Ælfwine stared at them. “Seven and Eighth, you will be the death of me,” he swore, pulling off his cloak with angry movements. “You will both stay here and stay hidden. Do you understand?” he asked sharply. They both nodded vigorously. Clenching his jaw, Ælfwine adjusted his sword belt and walked away with forceful steps. They waited a few moments before sneaking after him.
In the village centre, a band of armed men were gathered. The villagers were forming a circle around them, but not of their own volition; threats and rough treatment had called them to assemble. “It’s a simple matter,” one of the ruffians explained. “My men need food for a week. Give us that, and we’ll be off with no further harm.” Some of his men eyed the women of the village, gainsaying his promise that the harassment could be at an end so easily. “Though we require more than simply food to subsist. Bring out your silver in a pile before me. I’ll let you know when your payment for our protection is sufficient.”
The villagers exchanged glances. “If you want food, we’ll give you what we can spare. But with the taxes we have to pay, there’s nary a silver coin in all the village,” an elderly man claimed, ostensibly the town alderman.
The bandits gave a coarse laughter, and their leader stepped towards the old man, who stood next to a young woman and a small boy no more than five. “Your daughter and grandchild, I’m guessing,” he told the alderman. “Or your son’s wife, perhaps. It makes little difference to me.” He picked up the boy in his arms. His mother reached out in vain with a desperate expression upon seeing her child in the outlaw’s arms; the old man placed his hand on her shoulder to keep her back. “Just as this boy means little to me,” the bandit added. He walked a few steps back towards his own men, making him more visible to the other villagers as well. “But I imagine he means a lot to you,” he continued with a louder voice, glancing at the other peasants. “Is the silver you have hidden away worth more to you than this boy’s life?”
“Enough.” The word was spoken calmly; thanks to the silence that had already fallen onto the crowd, it was easily heard. Bandits and villagers turned as one to see the speaker. A tall wanderer, clad only in leather with a sword and knife in his belt, stood calmly awaiting their gaze. Upon seeing his eyes that had but one colour in them, the outlaws retreated several steps, opening a path between him and their leader.
“It’s a ghoul,” someone whispered.
“A fiend!” another declared.
Ælfwine strode forward without fear through the pack of bandits until he stood a few paces away from their leader. “I have killed two of your men already. Leave now, or I will kill you all.”
“Chief, what should we do?”
“He’s a fell creature, chief, let’s bolt!”
“Silence, you dogs! And you, whatever demon you may be.” While he spoke, the bandit put the small boy down on the ground, but kept one hand on his head; the other hand pulled out a knife. Not understanding what was happening, the boy began to cry, looking at his mother. “Drop your weapons or he gets it.” Encouraged by their chief’s example, some of the other brigands moved to circle around Ælfwine.
With his left hand, the Elf pulled his dagger from its sheath, turned it between his fingers to hold it by the tip, and launched it at the leader of the outlaws. It happened within the blink of an eye. Although not balanced for throwing, Ælfwine’s aim was close enough that the dagger embedded itself into the unprotected throat of its target. The chief dropped his own knife and his hold on the boy, clutching the wound with both hands while sinking to the ground.
There was the briefest of moments while the outlaws realised this turn of events and what it meant; outraged, they charged wielding blade, axe, or club.
Ælfwine was one step ahead of them. He leapt forward, crouched low, picked up the small boy into his left arm, and held him close to his own body while his right hand drew his sword. Strange waves lay in patterns along the blade, and the leather strip that was wound around the pommel came loose to reveal a red gemstone; few if any took note of this as the bandits closed in from all sides.
Clutching the boy closely, Ælfwine stayed in constant movement. Most attacks he evaded, occasionally letting his leather protect against a weak blow. Each time his own sword struck, it removed an enemy. An axe swung out; he crouched and slashed its wielder across both ankles. A club came against his head, far too small a target to hit reliably; sidestepping, Ælfwine cut the club-wielding hands off at the wrists. Arrows flew from a few archers in the back, but with their own people crowding around the target, it was impossible to aim at the Elf and hope to hit him. A dagger was plunged at him, too close to evade; Ælfwine turned his body so the blade did not stab into him, but glanced against his leather. Turning his sword around, he used the pommel to strike his attacker’s chin, sending him flat on his back.
When the first five men lay dead or dying and Ælfwine still stood with battle fury ignited in his strange eyes, the bandits changed strategy. Some held onto their weapons, some threw them on the ground, but they all chose to flee, scattering in every direction. They left the Elf standing bruised and battered with a ring of corpses surrounding him; a bloody god of war in the midst of the carnage he had caused.
Breathing heavily and bleeding lightly from small cuts and gashes, Ælfwine finally stood still. He gazed around the village square with a perplexed look, as if it took him a moment to understand the enemy had fled. The boy no longer cried in his arm, appearing to be in shock; specks of blood were sprayed across his face. Lowering his sword and relaxing his stance, Ælfwine put the child down on the ground and took two steps away. The mother hurried over to grab her son tightly, looking up at the Elf with fearful eyes.
Looking at the villagers, they all mirrored her countenance and stared at the Elf, whose odd eyes stared back. “You should keep those and learn to use them,” he declared, pointing with his sword at the weapons left behind by the brigands. Grabbing cloth from a pouch on his belt, he stalked away while cleaning his blade before sheathing it, leaving the shocked villagers to gather their wits.
From their vantage point behind one of the houses, Kate and Egil hurried to cross the village and catch up with Ælfwine. “You did it!” Egil declared triumphantly.
“I did. Do you have our possessions? We leave immediately,” he informed them, not slowing his pace for one moment.
“They’re in the barn,” Kate told him, struggling to walk as fast as him. “Why are we hurrying away? You just saved those people!”
“Tomorrow, they may decide they fear the fiend more than those bandits,” Ælfwine explained. “Best we have some distance between us and them, should that happen.”
They did not argue further, but quickly collected their few belongings from the barn and set a course south. They had not walked more than a few hundred paces from the village when a voice behind them called out. “Wait!” Turning around, they saw the mother of the small boy hastily approach them, clutching something in her hands. As she reached them, she extended the item towards Egil, who stood closest. “Thank you,” she mumbled. As soon as Egil accepted it, she hastened away.
Opening the cloth bundle, they saw that it was half a cheese wheel, bits of sausage, and some apples. “See?” Kate smiled. “They are grateful.”
“Yes, had I known my reward would be a morsel of cheese, I never would have hesitated throwing myself into the fray against twenty men,” Ælfwine muttered sourly.
“I want one of the apples,” Egil declared.
“Less talk, more walk.” The trio continued south.
When it became time to make camp for the night, Ælfwine forbade fire; they could not risk attracting any of the unsavoury folk that were marauding the area. So they sat in darkness, the children staring at the Elf as he examined his minor injuries and ensured they were clean.
“I have never seen a sword like yours,” Kate spoke with curious eyes at Ælfwine.
“How could you have seen it today when I bade you both stay away from the fighting,” he retorted without looking up.
They children exchanged guilty looks. “It’s sea-steel, isn’t it? I saw the high king’s crown once before he died. It had the same patterns,” Egil explained.
“What is it to you,” Ælfwine muttered.
“That sword must be worth a king’s ransom,” Egil continued. “How did you end up with it?”
“The smith gave it to me.”
Kate and Egil sat with eyes nearly bulging out. “The smith?”
The Elf breathed slowly. “Six items he made after unlocking the secret of the sea. A knife to test his prowess and four swords to follow, given to our champions,” Ælfwine spoke almost like a chant, still keeping his attention on himself. “Yet when he realised that his greatest work had no purpose but to kill, he took to the forge one last time and made a helmet for protection, giving it to our king that he might never die. It did not work.”
“That reminds me of something,” Kate considered. “Swords made from the sea. The swords of sea with count of four,” she continued. “That’s from the Song of Sigvard!”
“That may be. I have never heard it,” Ælfwine replied, finishing his examination of his wounds.
“It tells the story of the last battle in the Great War,” Egil explained. “The swords of sea were wielded by the Brothers Swordsmen, Alfbrand and Alfmod. Did you know them?”
A wry smile played around Ælfwine’s lips before it faded away. “They were cousins, not brothers.”
“Are the legends true?” it burst from Kate.
“That depends, what are the legends?”
“Alfbrand was the Bladesinger, and Alfmod was called the Dragonslayer. Wasn’t he?”
Ælfwine’s fingertips ran over the ruby in the pommel of his sword. There was enough moonlight to illuminate his shape, but they could not discern his face. “Yes.”
“Did he do it? Did he really kill a dragon?”
The children stared at him with open mouths. “How?”
The Elf sat with closed eyes. He ran his hand over his forehead as if wiping away sweat, though the night was cold. “Fire and jaw, scales and claw,” he muttered to himself, suddenly opening his eyes to stare at the children. “Be thankful, you little fools, that you live in a time where all the dragons are gone.” He grabbed the water skin and drank greedily from it.
“What does Bladesinger mean?” Kate dared to ask after brief silence.
Ælfwine exhaled. “Alfbrand was the greatest champion of our people. When he moved his blade, it was a song made flesh to behold. There was never a swordsman like him under the sun, and there never shall be.” Noticing the children staring at him in wonder, he cleared his throat. “In any case, they were warriors, and we should not regard the skill of killing with such awe. I do know that neither Alfmod nor Alfbrand took delight in battle.”
“What about you? Aren’t you glad that you’re a good warrior? You saved that village,” Egil argued.
Ælfwine stared away from the children. “It is an ill deed to kill a child of the Alfather, whatever the cause.”
“Your people wanted to kill us just because we entered the Alfskog,” Egil pointed out.
“We have grown hardened,” Ælfwine admitted. “We consider it bleeding the patient to ensure his survival.”
“I don’t see how killing those bandits was a bad thing. Now they won’t ever hurt anyone again,” Kate added.
“You do not understand,” the Elf told them. “Death such as the battlefield we passed through is a blight upon the Song. One man’s violence may not cause much disruption, but that of thousands?” He held his fingertips against his brow as if suffering from headache. “I can barely hear it. Its absence is like a pressure against my mind that will not relent.”
The children looked at each other confused. “Master Ælfwine,” Kate asked cautiously, “are you hurt?”
He looked up at them. “I am a man in the wasteland who killed five others to defend my water skin, spilling it all.” He sat upright with a start, blinking a few times. “I am fine. Merely thoughts of old battles resurfacing. Time to sleep.” He lay down, rolling his cloak around himself. The children gesticulated and mouthed words to each other, silently discussing, until they both admitted ignorance with a shrug and lay down as well.
At dawn, illuminated by the sunlight, Ælfwine seemed his normal self. “We avoid villages in the future,” he declared to his companions. “We will have to gather food for the remainder of the journey.” The children, who in contrast were less talkative than usual, accepted his decision by nodding. In silence, they broke camp.
They were about three weeks from the capital if they had travelled in a straight line, but because of Ælfwine’s caution, their journey was greatly extended. They had to spend an hour or longer on most days foraging for food; without a bow, hunting was impossible. Furthermore, they could not follow the brooks and rivers they encountered, as villages and towns inevitably were settled by these streams; because of this, they had to spend further time finding water. Lastly, progressing south meant entering more populated lands. As their surroundings grew lush, so did villages, fields, and herds grazing on green pastures.
On occasion, the children attempted to ask Ælfwine further questions about his blade, his past, or the Brothers Swordsmen; he ignored them entirely, refusing to yield even the briefest answer. Day after day, they trotted southwards with Kate and Egil talking among themselves and Ælfwine a few steps ahead.
Their strategy turned out to be effective if slow; travelling for five weeks away from roads, they had no further encounters since the village. Eventually, the twin summits of Valmark and Wyrmpeak grew in size to loom ahead of them; between those mountains lay Middanhal and their destination.