18th May 2016, 6:15 PM
(Going to err on the side of caution and call this one PG-13)
A/N: This is all Jax's fault.
The tolling of the cloister bell made Wulfric look up from the manuscript he was illuminating. Surely it was not vespers already? The light from the candle on his desk flickered as he rose and crossed to the tiny window of the cell, but the clouded gray sky outside gave no indication of the time. On his perch, Dismas shifted, fluttering his blue and white wings. Wulfric was about to open the door when the sounds of commotion and voices shouting words he did not recognize in the hall outside made him draw back. Definitely not vespers.
Wulfric thought he heard someone say “Stop!” Then there was the sound of metal striking metal, metal striking stone, and then a dull thud. This was followed by a sharp pounding at the door, and Wulfric backed up against the wall. He picked up the stool he had been sitting on and lifted it. When the door to his cell flew open, Wulfric threw the stool at the man who walked through. The man caught it and tossed it down. Dismas squawked and flew at the man, but he swatted him away with a casual motion of his hand. “Stay down, Dismas,” Wulfric commanded.
The man turned to face him, and Wulfric was paralyzed before the warrior’s intense blue gaze. His long blonde hair was braided down his back, and the sword in his hand and the leather armor he wore were spotted with fresh blood. The warrior held a finger to his lips before stalking around the cell. He went first to the racks of scrolls and unrolled several of them. He puzzled over the markings before tossing them to the ground. Then he turned his attention to the illuminated manuscript on the desk. As he flipped through the pages, Wulfric thought he saw a flicker of admiration in the warrior’s eyes as he peered down at the delicate inking details. The man closed the book and smiled when he saw the gold embossed in the leather on the cover. He opened the book again and seized the pages to tear them out.
“No!” Wulfric cried. He had spent two months on that manuscript.
The warrior turned to him with a flash of irritation. He considered the book for a moment and the collection of inks and brushes now scattered across Wulfric’s desk. Then very slowly and with great care, he slid his knife into the manuscript’s spine to separate the glue from the pages. He set the pages that Wulfric had slaved over on the desk and stuck the cover in his belt. Then, he pointed at Wulfric and motioned towards the door. Wulfric took his meaning and stood up to leave, gathering up Dismas as he did.
When the warrior glared at him again, Wulfric tried to seem adamant. “Please, you must let me take him. He’s all I have.”
Even if the warrior could not understand Wulfric’s words, he understood the tone. The man nodded and shoved Wulfric out the door. They left the scriptorium, and Wulfric saw that the other cells had likewise been sacked. The corpses of two of the town guardsmen were slumped by the door outside. Wulfric almost vomited and cradled Dismas closer to his breast. He felt the Chatot stir and hoped the bird would remain silent. When they emerged into the monastery courtyard, another man was waiting for Wulfric’s captor. This one was smaller, with a more wiry build, but covered in far more blood. He quipped something in the hard, staccato words Wulfric had heard in the corridor earlier and laughed. The slim man took a bite of an apple and sauntered over to Wulfric, looking him up and down. He scoffed and look up at Wulfric’s captor. The larger warrior just narrowed his eyes and shoved Wulfric forward before turning to a Gogoat placidly grazing nearby. “Steinarr!” he barked. It seemed to be a name. The Gogoat looked up, took another bite of grass and walked to its master’s side.
The warrior led Wulfric towards the chapel. As they passed by the open gates of the monastery, Wulfric looked down and saw the village at the bottom of the hill. Coumarina was burning. He was shoved through the doors of the chapel where more of the invaders were lounging on the benches. Several other monks and many of the townsfolk were huddled on their knees before the altar, cowering before the raiders. When Wulfric was pushed into their mass, he felt a hand seize his arm and pull him down. “Brother Wulfric!”
“Shepherd Aelffred!” Wulfric whispered. “Thank Arceus you still live.”
“Would that I could say the same of Brother Godric and Brother Wilbur,” the priest replied. “You and Dismas are both well?”
“Well enough. What happened?”
“The northmen came quickly. We couldn’t stop them. They swept into Coumarina’s harbor and stormed through before the town guards knew what was happening. Then they broke our gates down and… oh, it’s terrible. Arceus have mercy on us all.”
“What about Saewin? Or the Absol?” The priest’s Alakazam and the local Absol had always defended the monastery in the past, and their combined might had always been enough to drive away any who might disturb the tranquility of the consecrated ground.
Shepherd Aelffred nodded to one of the northmen currently counting out the monastery’s coffers from its small wooden box that was kept under the altar. He looked enough like Wulfric’s original captor to be related. A brother or cousin, perhaps? A Doublade hovered by his head and a Talonflame perched near him, eyeing Dismas. “That one killed Saewin,” Aelffred growled, “and two of the others got some of the Absol. The rest of them fled after that.”
The prisoners lapsed into silence, but the northmen continued to chatter among themselves. The more he listened, the more Wulfric started to remember hearing the language before. When he had been a child living in the northern reaches, his father had traded with men from still farther north, and his father had known their tongue. Wulfric furrowed his brow and tried to remember what his father had taught him.
The slim warrior from before walked into the chapel accompanied by a Breloom and strode up to the altar. The man with the Doublade glanced up at him and went back to counting out the coins. The slim northman smirked and went to the shrine behind the altar where the golden four-pronged disc was displayed. The raider removed it from the wall and set it atop his like a crown. He called out to his comrades, and several of them laughed. Shepherd Aelffred gritted his teeth, but could do nothing. When the slim warrior began to prance around, Wulfric could take it no longer. He jumped to his feet.
“Stop that now!” he said in the language of the northmen. “Put it back.”
“You can talk?” the slim man said, the smile dying on his lips. “A shame you sound so stupid.” He drew the axe from his belt and prepared to strike Wulfric down. Dismas jumped into the air with a cry that knocked the warrior back. The Talonflame on the altar spread its wings as the slim warrior prepared to strike again.
“Skaldi!” Wulfric’s captor stood at the door of the chapel, his arms crossed. “Put it down.” Wulfric was thankful they were using such simple words. His captor walked forward, and the group of prisoners moved aside so he could walk to Wulfric unhindered. “You speak our tongue?”
Wulfric nodded. “A little. From when I was small.”
The warrior raised an eyebrow. “And you could teach me to speak your tongue? And make the marks?”
“I… yes, I… what? Marks?”
“From before. The marks.” He held up the cover of the book. “In here. I would like to learn your marks and your words.”
“I know the… marks.”
“Then you will come with me.”
The man with the coffer box looked up. “I thought we weren’t taking thralls today, Halvard.”
“This is a special thrall, Torvald. He is a gift from the gods. I would be a fool if I did not take him.”
Torvald rolled his eyes and put the coins back into the coffer box. “As you say, brother. We’re done here. Skerast, Branna.” The Doublade shifted and seemed to wake up, though with some of the spirit aligned, it was difficult to tell. The Talonflame fluttered onto his shoulder.
Halvard pursed his lips. “Bring what you can carry. I’ll tell Ragnhildr to be ready to sail. Ivarr and Ulfi will bring up the back.” He turned on his heel and walked outside, jumped up on his Gogoat’s back and cantered out through the gates. Torvald wrapped his hand around Wulfric’s arm dragged him out of the chapel.
“Welcome to the clan, priest,” Torvald barked with a laugh. He, Skaldi and the other northmen filed out of the chapel. Once they reached the monastery gates, Torvald snapped his fingers. His Talonflame flew off his shoulder. One of the other northmen nodded to his companion pokemon, a Flareon. The two fire aligned both unleashed a column of flame at the chapel, and in an instant, the entire building was in flames.
“You’ll kill them!” Wulfric cried.
Torvald held out his arm to give his Talonflame a perch. “Perhaps. If they’re quick, they’ll live. If they aren’t, they’ll die.” He smiled. “We didn’t even lock the doors this time.”
“You’re monsters.” Wulfric hissed.
Torvald only shrugged, and Skaldi laughed.
Wulfric was marched down the hill to Coumarina’s harbor. Many houses in the village were burning too. When he saw Wulfric staring, Torvald rolled his eyes. “We only burn the ones who try and fight. We may be monsters, but we’re not savages.”
At the harbor, a knot of northern warriors waited before four sleek longships pushed halfway up the beach. Wulfric was surprised to see several women standing there, armed and bloodied like the men. “Your women fight too?”
Skaldi made an expansive gesture with his hands. “If they want to. I’m not standing between a woman and a fight she wants to be in.”
Halvard smiled when he saw Wulfric being led to one of the ships, but there was no mirth in it. The monk was forced down between two barrels taken from Coumarina and watched mutely while Halvard exchanged words with a striking woman with two small scars running parallel on her face. She too resembled Halvard, so perhaps a sister? Their conference finished, and she swung up into the furthest boat, one that had a Noivern clinging to the stern. Several other warriors and their pokemon mounted the ramp and took their places at the oars while the warriors did the same on the other three ships. Halvard stood at the end of the ramp and turned to take one last look at Coumarina before he put two fingers in his mouth and whistled.
The water in the middle of the harbor began to seethe as something massive stirred beneath the surface. With a roar that nearly deafened Wulfric, a massive blue creature rose from the waves of the bay and roared as the water sluiced off its back. Even in the flat light, its sapphire and gold scales glittered. It undulated its serpentine body as the northmen began to row. Wulfric turned to Halvard and struggled to keep his voice level. “Y-You have a Gyarados?”
Halvard was running his hand through his Gogoat’s leafy ruff and whispering into the grass aligned’s ear. He turned and smiled at Wulfric, and this time Wulfric saw the pride etched into every part of his face. “That’s Uthald. My pride and joy.” When Steinarr snorted, Halvard cringed. “My other pride and joy.”
“No one has ever tamed a Gyarados,” he said.
Halvard laughed. “No one but me!” He leaned against the rail of the ship. “Rest while you can, priest. As soon as one of my men gets tired, you’re taking your turn at the oar.”
Wulfric paled as he watched the northmen pulling at the oars of the longship, their muscles straining. He curled up tighter and held Dismas close as he looked out for the last time on Coumarina, the smoke from the chapel rising up towards the clouds and Arceus’s hallowed halls. He fumbled for the four-pronged ring he wore on a leather cord around his neck and clutched it in his fist, muttering a litany of prayers to Arceus.
After all, it was time for vespers.
Last edited by Firebrand; 9th August 2016 at 2:13 AM.
19th May 2016, 10:19 PM
Catchy title you got there! Don't judge a book by its cover and all, but those letters sure sound good together.
Now, this... has a lot of potential. It's only the first chapter, so I naturally have a lot of questions; the only thing I can safely assume at this point is a viking AU, which is honestly enough to grab my attention. As for everything else, I can't comment too much, since it could really go anywhere. Poor Wulfric, though - I felt genuinely bad for him, and the bond with his Chatot is set up immediately and effectively. Also, the vikings, ruthless as they are, are given some redeeming qualities; them playing around with the crown was a fun moment and a nice way to show they're more than just bloodthirsty monsters. It's just the way they roll. Also, hey, women warriors! Sure, the gender equality comes more from a place of apathy than anything else, but I'll take it. Definitely want to see Two Scars more.
So again, I can only poke at possibilities I think are legitimate, like Wulfric traveling and eventually bonding with these people that essentially destroyed his home? That does offer up interesting possibilities and moral dilemmas. But, these are just assumptions and not really constructive in any way, so I'll shut my yap.
Now, if there's one thing I can point out - and this is personal preference, and someone else might totally not see it that way, the one thing that bothered me is that the writing sometimes teetered on the edge of purple prose. Sure, words like "sauntered", "quipped", "staccato" and such are fun, but too many of them can get tiring. Said is not dead! There's beauty in simple words. I just found myself a bit distracted from the otherwise great flow of the story and the writing. Oh, and this sentence:
This feels a bit superfluous, especially because that's easily deduced from everything else you've set up nicely. But yeah, this is just one sentence that stuck out particularly to me.
Originally Posted by Firebrand
On the whole, I realize this review has been half and half, but that's not because I think the chapter is average! It's the first chapter, after all, and the ball hasn't started rolling yet. I liked all of it, except the two things I brought up, which can be attributed to personal taste. So do keep this going, you have me interested.
Last edited by Stryfe; 19th May 2016 at 10:21 PM.
25th May 2016, 1:10 AM
Everything ached. It seemed like just when Wulfric had managed to massage the soreness out of his muscles, he was forced back to the bench to row again. The northmen had sailed up the Kalosian coast for three days, even rowing by moonlight. When clouds obscured the heavens, the ships turned out to deeper waters far out of sight of the shore and Skaldi called on his Ampharos to light their way. Harvald kept the ships on course through a strange shard of fogged glass he would hold up to the sky, judging the sun and moon’s position through the reflection of the glass. Uthald swam alongside the ship, breaching occasionally with bloodstained fangs. While Wulfric rowed, Halvard sat with Dismas held gently in his hands, stroking the Chatot’s feathers and staring at the horizon in contemplative silence. The first time Harvald had taken Dismas from him, Wulfric had panicked, but once his turn at the oar was up, Harvald handed the pokemon back without a word.
Finally, the ships turned into a long inlet nestled between the northern mountains, and Wulfric could make out a collection of huts and longhouses lining the shore. Harvald walked with an easy rolling gait to where Wulfric crouched by the rail of the ship. “Rovngalad,” Halvard said, gesturing with a tilt of his head that he meant the town. “It is my home. And now it is yours, too.”
The longships docked at the harbor and the northmen began unloading. When Wulfric was pushed out of the boat, he reeled on the dock as he tried to find his balance. Skaldi barked out a laugh as he walked by with his Breloom. “Look, the priest’s knees have gone weak!”
Wulfric blushed and hid his face as Halvard took his arm and led him up to the shore. The woman with two scars from the other ship stood at the end of the dock. She surveyed Wulfric and raised an eyebrow. “This is the priest? He doesn’t look like much.”
“It is not the strength of his arms or back that I care about,” Halvard replied. “It is his tongue I want.”
The woman rolled her eyes. “We have just enough to go around to feed ourselves. If you insist on keeping the thrall, he’ll be fed from your plate.”
Harvald laughed. “An empty stomach is a small price to pay to read the southerner’s marks, Ragnhildr!”
“If you say so, brother.” She turned to Wulfric. “Come with me, priest. It’s late in the day, so I suppose we’ll let you rest. Tomorrow you get to work.” She smiled the way all the northmen did, like a predator showing its teeth to terrify its prey. She whistled, and the Noivern perched on the stern of her longboat lifted off into the air and flew out over the village. A Houndoom with wickedly sharp horns trotted to her side and sniffed at the hem of Wulfric’s robe. Dismas puffed himself up, but the canine seemed content to ignore the Chatot. “Geirr,” Ragnhildr snapped. “Down.” The Houndoom obediently went to her side.
She and Wulfric walked through the winding streets of the town to one of the larger halls. Ragnhildr drew aside the fur that served as a door and walked into the space. Two children sat by a hearth with a Kirlia. The younger one, a girl, jumped to her feet. “Mother! You’re home!”
Ragnhildr scooped up her daughter and spun her around. “I am. Did you and Svein behave for Valdis?”
The girl nodded. “And we brought the Mareep in from pasture, and we didn’t even have Geirr to help us. We did it all by ourselves.” Ragnhildr set her down and patted the Kirlia’s head. “Thank you for keeping my children safe.” The psychic aligned tilted its head and gave a brief nod. Wulfric grasped his four-pronged ring. Saewin had done the same thing when Shepherd Aelffred had thanked him, and that was an uncomfortable reminder of home. Geirr walked past the family and lay down in front of the hearth, showing his fangs in a wide yawn.
Ragnhildr’s son stared at Wulfric with eyes that were the same piercing blue as Halvard’s. “Who is that?”
Ragnhildr sighed. “Your uncle decided to bring a thrall home. This man is a southern priest. Your uncle wants to learn the southern tongue, and I need more help on the farm.” She turned to Wulfric. “You are not completely stupid? You do know how to farm?” Wulfric nodded. It was one of the many tasks the monks had undertaken in Coumarina. Ragnhildr pursed her lips and pointed at a corner by the hearth. “You will sleep there.”
Something thudded to the ground outside. “Sigrund's back!” the girl cried and rushed out of the hall.
“Runa, be careful!” Ragnhildr shouted after her. The woman turned to Wulfric. “Come, Svein and I will show you the fields.” They took him out of the longhouse by a second entryway in the back that opened on a large fertile plain. It was divided up at intervals by low wooden fences and stone walls. In the closest field, Runa was prancing around the same Noivern that had perched on Ragnhildr’s ship, and the dragon twitched its head to follow the girl’s movements. A flock of Mareep huddled around a large boulder further out in the pasture.
“This is all your land?” Wulfric asked.
“The whole village is our land,” Ragnhildr replied and then scowled. “You will speak only when spoken to, priest.”
Later that night, Harvald and Torvald had returned to the hall after carousing with several other northmen. Ragnhildr and Runa were asleep in a curtained room while Torvald and Harvald conversed softly over drinks. Wulfric sat in his assigned corner, trying to appear as inconspicuous as possible. He clutched his four-pronged ring in his right hand, fervently muttering a litany of prayers. Svein sat on the other side of the hearth, running his hands through Geirr’s fur. When Wulfric looked up after reciting the seventh psalm, he saw the boy staring intently at him. “What is that? In your hand?”
Wulfric held up the ring. “It is the symbol of God. If I hold it when I pray, I feel closer to Him.”
“What do you mean? There is only one God.”
Svein laughed. “Then your god must be very busy. Ours know to split up the work.”
“The only god is Arceus.”
The boy shrugged. “If you say so. Maybe you southerners only have time for one god. Sometimes it gets tedious praying to all of them.”
“How many do you have?” Many stories were told of the more primitive religions of the eastern regions. When he had the time, Wulfric had found the illuminated Tojoh and Hoennian manuscripts where missionaries had chronicled the ancient beliefs in many other gods those lands had honored before they had accepted the Arcean faith. He knew there were some holdouts who clung to old folk religions in Hoenn, but Tojoh had been entirely converted for many years, though they did pay respects to the Tower Guardians as well. He knew that there had been pagan beliefs in Kalosia centuries before, but they were barbaric and he was never terribly interested in those stories.
Svein began ticking off on his hands. “Well, there is the Blue Spirit, and the One Who Watches. We’ve got the Protector of the Wild Places, and the Storm Bringer, and the Herald of Spring. Mother saw the Herald once, when she was a girl. And of course, there’s,” and here Svein made a gesture with his left hand, pressing his fingers into a Y shape, “the Bringer of Death. I’ve seen it myself, over the mountains, red and black and big as a tree.”
Wulfric inclined his head. “We use those same names in the south, more or less. Those aren’t gods. They are very powerful, but they aren’t gods. The Blue Spirit is Articuno, and the Protector is Xerneas. The Storm Bringer is Zapdos, and yes, I’ve seen him from Coumarina once or twice. The Herald, I think, is Moltres, it fits with some folk beliefs. These are just very powerful pokemon, all created by Arceus.”
“And what about the Watcher?” Svein scoffed. “And the Bringer of Death? How can your god create death itself?”
“The Watcher, I think, is what we call Zygarde, but we Arceans are fairly sure Zygarde is just a myth. It doesn’t exist. Zygarde was made up to scare hunters into not leaving their carcasses out to rot, or woodsmen from cutting too many trees. Has anyone ever seen it?”
“Well, no, at least not for hundreds of years. But what about the Bringer of Death? I’ve seen it. How is your god strong enough to create death itself?”
“Arceus can do anything,” Wulfric said, a little defensively. “And Yvetal is not death itself. It’s just a very strong pokemon that we don’t fully understand.”
“How do we know Arceus isn’t just a strong pokemon we don’t understand?”
“Because Arceus emerged from Chaos and created the world. No pokemon is strong enough to do that.”
“How do you know?”
Wulfric opened his mouth and then closed it again. Of course Arceus was the one true god. How could the child not see it? He formed the world with His thousand hands and set creation off on its expanding coil, creating everything as He saw fit in His grand design. To be the perfect being, Arceus had to first exist, and so because a perfect being like Arceus could be conceived of, He therefore had to exist. But Wulfric lacked the language to explain this to the precocious northerner. Fortunately, the child spared him the need to elaborate.
“I’ve never seen a pokemon like that bird before. What is his name?”
Wulfric looked down at where Dismas slept in his lap. “This is my Chatot. I call him Dismas, after Saint Dismas, one of the first easterners to embrace the grace of Arceus and renounce the godhood of the Tower Birds.”
“To be a saint, all you have to do is say a god isn’t real?” Svein laughed. “Does that mean we’re both saints now?”
“There’s more to it than just—”
“Is he strong?”
“Dismas, you mean?” Wulfric shook his head. “I wouldn’t say so. Neither Dismas or I are fighters. But he is very clever.”
At that moment, Torvald came over and ruffled his nephew’s hair. “Is the priest filling your head with ideas, Svein? There’s time enough to talk to him tomorrow. Time to get to bed.”
Halvard stood as well. “You should sleep too, priest. You’ll be out in the fields early in the morning.” The two warriors led Svein away to a room opposite Ragnhildr and Runa’s while Wulfric curled up on the hard packed earth and began his litany of prayers again.
The repetitive motions of plowing a field left Wulfric sore and tired, but after rowing up from Coumarina to Rovngalad, he was already numb to exertion. He fell into the rhythmic rise and fall of the plow the same way he had fallen into the rowing, though he knew he would be waking up sore and stiff for days. Because Svein had taken an interest in Dismas, Wulfric had let the Chatot join the boy while he herded the Mareep in the pasture. The Chatot’s mimicry had amused Svein, and he had been using it to trick Runa all morning. And besides, Wulfric didn’t like Dismas to see him like this.
Harvald had hitched Steinarr to a larger plow and was turning a different part of the field. Other villagers, some of them thralls, worked in the other sections of the fields and always hailed Wulfric’s captor as “Jarl Halvard”. They had begun work at sunrise, and when Halvard told Wulfric to stop it was nearly noon. “If I work you any harder, you’ll probably die on me. Can’t let that happen, for all the trouble it would put me through.” The northman walked to a well and pulled up a pail, drinking deeply from it. He let it fall again and motioned for Wulfric to do the same. “There’s a big rock under the new field, can’t do anything more until we do something about it. I’ll need to send for Torvald. Jarn only listens to him.” He waved Svein over. Dismas followed and alighted on Wulfric’s shoulder. “Boy, go fetch your uncle in town.”
Svein glanced over his shoulder at where Runa and Geirr were trying to marshal the Mareep flock. “I would, but a few of the Mareep wandered off into the woods. I don’t trust Runa going there alone.” He looked over at Dismas. “Perhaps the bird could go? He can mimic voices.”
Halvard turned to Wulfric. “And he could find Torvald?”
Wulfric shrugged. “Dismas is clever. I should think so.”
The northman tilted his head. “Show me the trick.” After a few minutes of practice, Dismas had managed to get the message right and Wulfric was fairly confident that Dismas had been given enough of a description to recognize Torvald. “What’s stopping the bird from flying away?” Halvard asked as they watched Dismas fly over the field and into the village.
“Would Steinarr abandon you?” Wulfric replied.
“Fair enough.” Halvard sat down on the ground and patted the earth next to him. “Nothing can be done until my brother gets back. Teach me some words. Field. Rock. Plow.” Wulfric did as he asked, and though Halvard butchered the pronunciation, he could see the northman turning the words over. Finally, Halvard smirked. “There’s a question that has been eating you. I can see it. Ask, then.”
Wulfric lowered his eyes. “The people here call you jarl. That makes you their lord, yes? But if you’re the lord, then why are you working the fields with me?”
Halvard dug his hand into the soil and pulled up a handful. “Because this, priest, is my land. It belongs to me, but I belong to it. It is only right that I work it alongside my subjects and my thralls. Did not your lord in the south do the same?”
“No. The king would never work his own fields.”
Halvard let the dirt trickle through his fingers. “Then he does not deserve to be king.”
“The king sits on the Illuminated Throne by the grace of Arceus Himself!”
Halvard threw back his head and roared with laughter. “I ought to strike you for that insolence, priest, but you’re too damn funny!” He got his laughter under control. “Do you mean to tell me that your god came down and personally put the crown on your king’s head?”
“Well, of course not. But the High Shepherd conferred his blessing and…”
Halvard laughed again. “Men who claim to speak for the gods only ever say what they wish. It is just that they hide behind their gods to give their words weight. Skaldi says he speaks for the Bringer of Death, but do I believe him? Of course not. Yvetal is a force of nature, what time does it have to speak through the runes? Perhaps Skaldi can feel its power and be in awe of its majesty. His sacrifices may even reach the Bringer of Death somehow. But whenever he claims to speak with Yvetal’s voice, I know that is my signal to watch Runa play one of her little games or to finally get the bramble out to Steinarr’s leaves.”
“You do not honor the gods? Any gods?”
“You ask too many questions, priest.” Halvard shrugged. “But put that way, no. I don’t.”
“So when you told Torvald and Skaldi that I was a gift from your gods…?”
“I was just trying to shut them up. If I told them I just wanted someone to teach me your southern language, they would have tried to dissuade me.”
“I see. So you would turn the name of god to your own ends, for selfish gain?”
“The gods don’t care about us. Why should I care about them?”
“Arceus cares about all living things.”
Halvard laughed again. “Then your god has too much time on his hands.” The jarl jumped to his feet and waved at an approaching figure. “Torvald! The bird found you?”
Torvald walked up to the well and drew up some water. Dismas fluttered around his head until Wulfric waved him off to go back to Svein and Runa. After taking a drink, Torvald grunted. “That damned bird wouldn’t leave me alone. What’s so important you needed to drag me all the way back here?”
Harvald took his brother and Wulfric out into the new field he and Steinarr had been plowing. “There’s a large rock right about here,” Halvard said, pointing at the ground. “We need Jarn to move it.”
Torvald muttered something under his breath before sticking two fingers in his mouth and whistling. The large rock foundation at the edge of the forest began to move and shift. The squeal of metal grinding against metal filled the air as the rock pile stood upright, revealing a glittering metal carapace. An Aggron half again as large as any that Wulfric had seen any of the Kalosian knights use rose up and growled. Torvald snapped his fingers and beckoned the monstrous beast over. With plodding steps, the Aggron ambled through the herd of Mareep. The electric aligned seemed undisturbed by this and just parted around its feet.
“Jarn, there’s a rock just here,” Torvald said. “We need you to dig it up.”
The steel aligned made a long, deep rumbling sound, and it felt to Wulfric like all of his bones were shaking. Jarn began to dig, its heavy tail lashing back and forth. “Will that be all?” Torvald said, and before waiting for an answer he turned on his heel and strode off back towards Rovngalad.
Harvald shook his head and hitched his plow behind Steinarr again. “Back to work, priest.”
1st June 2016, 5:20 PM
After the evening meal that night, Wulfric huddled in his corner, trying to massage the aches from his shoulder. Dismas squawked and fluttered up to the edge of the hearth as Halvard dropped a short stool in front of him. The northman held out a small cup to the monk and indicated he take it. Wulfric took a small sip and nearly gagged. It was vaguely related to the ale he had drank at the monastery, but far, far stronger. Halvard laughed and took a long draught from his own larger tankard. He waited until Wulfric gathered his wits before setting his cup on the ground and folding his arms. “You will now teach me how to read your marks.”
Wulfric’s mind raced. “I can try. But I think it might be best to teach you a few more words first.” When Halvard scowled, Wulfric hurried to explain himself. “You see, that way, you can recognize the shapes of more letters and know the sounds. If you already know the words, they’ll be easier to write and spell.”
Halvard thought about this for a moment. “Teach me the words you see fit, and then at the end of the lesson, show me their marks.”
Wulfric started by reviewing the words he had taught Halvard in the field earlier that day, writing them out in the dirt with a stick as he did. He then moved on to simple greetings and phrases, though Halvard started to seem overwhelmed and grow frustrated when he wrote out longer things. By the end of the session, Wulfric was mentally exhausted, but Halvard could introduce himself in Kalosian and could name a few household items and farming tools. Harvald looked between Wulfric’s writing and his own more shaky script and nodded slowly, trying to commit the words to memory.
“One last thing, priest. Show me how to write my name. I know southerners conduct their business by signing contracts. I do not wish to seem a savage by not knowing my own name.”
Wulfric muttered a silent prayer hoping that Harvald spelled phonetically, and scrawled it in the dirt. Harvald practiced this several times before looking up at Wulfric again. “Now do yours.” When the monk complied, Halvard took his stick and gestured between the names. “These two marks, they are the same.”
“Yes, we both have an ‘L’ and an ‘R’ in our names.” He quickly wrote Dismas’s name as well. “See, Dismas and I both have the ‘I’ sound, and you both have the ‘D’ sound.”
Halvard scowled down at Wulfric’s name. “But how do I read your name?”
Wulfric realized that over the past four days, Halvard had not only never referred to him by name, but he had also never asked for it. “It says Wulfric.”
“Wulfric the priest, then?”
“Well, technically,” Wulfric replied, “I’m not a priest. I’m a monk.” He had to say it in Kalosian.
“What is this word, monk?”
“Arcean priests are called Shepherds. They lead the congregation,” Wulfric cringed as he used the Kalosian term again. “Sorry, the people, in the mass. Er, the service. They administer the sacraments, I mean the rites, and lead the prayers to Arceus. I’m just a monk, which means I can’t administer rites but I study Arcean scripture and copy manuscripts, like you saw in Coumarina. I offer my life in service and devotion to Arceus in the hope that I can better understand His great majesty.”
Halvard nodded slowly and then shook his head. “I don’t get it. If you could be a monk, why not a priest? That sounds like a better deal.”
“That was not what I was called to do.”
“You’re a monk… because your god told you?”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“So Arceus came down and said ‘Wulfric, I want you to—’”
“Oh, not this again. No, I just felt it.” Wulfric put a hand on his chest. “I heard his words in my heart.”
“Now what is Arceus doing in there?” He could tell Halvard was just teasing him now. The northman took a long drink from his tankard, and some of the foam clung to his beard and moustache. Ragnhildr’s Kirlia came up behind him with another cup and he took it with a smile, patting her between the rounded pink antennae on her head. “Thank you, Valdis.” Halvard stared into the fire. “You know, Ragnhildr was telling me earlier that I am much too easy on you. If I’m kind to you, I will make you soft. I think she saw our little chat in the field today. Skaldi says I should beat you. I think he would enjoy that.”
“Maybe don’t listen to Skaldi?”
Halvard chuckled. “No, for now I won’t listen to Skaldi.” He took a drink. “But you know, I never really had the knack for talking to thralls. I never needed to. I’m Harvald Sigurdsson! The jarl’s son, the prince! Everyone just did what I asked them to anyway!” The northman’s shoulders slumped. “There are days when I wish I was not the jarl. I wish I had been born a farmer.”
“Because the burden of leadership is heavy?”
“No, I like to be the leader. I like to command my men and for my name to echo like the Storm Bringer’s wrath. I just wish I felt like I’d earned it myself.” Halvard took another long drink, and Wulfric could tell that the ale was beginning to affect him. “Everything I’ve ever done was always just brushed off because of who I was born to. If I win glory, it’s because I’m the jarl, because I’m Sigurd’s son, because I am Harald’s nephew. When I was a boy, it was because I was the prince. Of course I did great things. That’s what princes do.”
“You were a prince?” Wulfric asked. “Am I understanding that rightly? In Kalosian, prince means the son of the king, the heir to the throne of the realm. Is it different in the north?”
“No, no,” Halvard drank again and waved Valdis over for another tankard. “You have it. I was not the king’s son, but my father was his brother. King Harald ruled the northlands, but when his wife and son were killed, he vowed never to marry again. He was my uncle, and because I was my father’s firstborn son, he named me as his heir. I was to be the king.” He broke off and twisted his lip, brooding in silence for a time before slamming his fist down on his knee. “And then the usurper Ingmar killed my uncle and my father and made himself king. He told me that I could keep Rovngalad if I only swore fealty to him, and now everyone knows I’m the prince who lost his kingdom just to save a tiny village.” Halvard gritted his teeth. “No one understands that if I hadn’t made a bargain to save Rovngalad, he would have killed me and burned the whole village to the ground. My village! I wish I had been a farmer. Farmers don’t have to choose between pride and their subjects.”
“Some men are born to be more.”
“Maybe I was born to be king. Maybe I was born to be a farmer. But I wasn’t born to be jarl. That was always Torvald’s calling. He’s the warrior, the one who knows how best to lead a raid, what to demand in trade. I’d just strike out into the mountains or across the sea and leave the title to him, but he doesn’t care for the people like I do. He doesn’t love Rovngalad, he lusts after it. If I was king, the title would fall to him, and all this would be resolved.” Halvard threw back another drink. Wulfric had lost count of how many the northman had, but he was certain it was more than he had ever seen anyone drink in one sitting. “So there’s only one thing that can be done, Wulfric. Do you know what that is?” The monk shook his head. Halvard smiled the northmen’s predatory smile. “We have to take my title back. We have to make me king again.”
“You could do that?” Wulfric cried.
“Maybe. I have the six fastest ships in the north and the best boat builder in generations. Every person of fighting age living in Rovngalad is a warrior worth at least two of Ingmar’s dogs. And I have a few secret weapons. The first I have is Torvald, the mightiest warrior in the north. He wants me to be king as badly as I do, and I can use his selfishness. Then, because I have Torvald, I have Jarn. And finally, I have Uthald. There isn’t a man in the north that isn’t afraid of my sea monster. He’s the only reason Rovngalad hasn’t been razed. I’ve sworn oaths before gods I don’t believe in. I’ve sworn oaths to my people, to my family, and now to you, Wulfric. I’ll be king again someday, and I will cast Ingmar down! I swear it on my blade, on my life, hell, I’d even swear it on that ring around your neck if you thought it would do any good!”
Halvard threw his tankard down and leaned in. “Listen to me, Wulfric. This is my land, but I only hold it in trust for my people. This hall we sit in is mine in name, but I don’t fool myself. It’s really Ragnhildr’s. I own only three things in this world.” He counted off on his fingers. “The first is Steinarr, the second is Uthald and third,” he pointed at Wulfric, “is you. Uthald and Steinarr have faith in me. I know it the same way that you know Arceus speaks to you. So tell me Brother Wulfric, do you believe in me? Do you have the same faith in me that you put in your god?”
Wulfric knew it was blasphemy. He knew that the oaths he had taken years ago explicitly said that his loyalty belonged to Arceus alone, and that Arceus was to take precedence over any king, lord or cause. And yet, Arceus slumbered in his hall high above far away Sinnoh, and here in front of him was a man that Wulfric could feel was destined to change the world the same way the great saints of the Arcean faith changed the world. Wulfric knew that it was the greatest sin a monk of Arceus could commit. And Wulfric found that he did not care. “I do. I believe in you, Halvard. I will follow where you lead.”
2nd July 2016, 6:38 PM
The wheel of the year turned. Wulfric plowed the fields all through the spring and tended to them through the summer. His muscles grew stronger, and Halvard’s grasp of the Kalosian language grew with each passing day. To practice, the two men would converse late into the evening, switching between languages as Halvard dictated. Ragnhildr and Torvald begrudgingly accepted Wulfric into the daily routine of their home, though many of the other northmen, Skaldi the most vocal among them, still treated Wulfric with wary distrust. The northern priest’s disgust with Wulfric’s southern religion was writ plain on his face, and he never passed up an opportunity to spit on Wulfric as he walked by.
At least once with every turn of the moon, Torvald would take Jarn and vanish for over a week. Sometimes he took other men with him, but more often than not, he left alone. No one in the village spoke of this. The one time Wulfric judged Halvard inebriated enough to address the question, Halvard had simply waved him off, saying Torvald was doing his part for Rovngalad before quizzing Wulfric on Kalosian military strategy, something Halvard had a keen interest in but that Wulfric only had a passing knowledge of.
When the time came to bring the harvest in, the village hummed with a frantic energy. Wulfric labored alongside Halvard’s family in their fields from first light until sunset to reap all that they had sown and store it in the large stone granaries and barns on a raised mound in the village center. Once their own field was clear, they immediately set to work helping other families who did not have as many hands.
After one of their nightly language lessons, Wulfric asked Halvard what the rush was. “I know you’ve said the winter comes earlier here in the north, but surely it will be weeks yet before we lose the harvest to frost.”
The northman shook his head. “It’s not the winter or the Blue Spirit we’re afraid of. It’s the Storm Bringer.”
Halvard nodded. “Aye, that’s your name for him. For years now, the Storm Bringer roosted in the Sea Spirit’s Den, not far from where we took you. You know this?” When Wulfric said that he did, Halvard pressed his lips together. “We aren’t sure why, but he seems content to leave the south alone. It’s just us that he terrorizes. We’ve made offerings and sacrifices, said all the prayers we know, performed every rite that’s been handed down, but nothing seems to work. In late fall, the Storm Bringer rampages up and down the coast. If we don’t harvest the crops in time, the storm ruins them.”
Several days later, the sky darkened and thunder rumbled in the distance. The people of Rovngalad hastened to bring their Mareep herds into the stone barns, where they would be hidden and could not start any fires in the village in their panic. Halvard and his family huddled around their hearth. Torvald calmly slid his knife across a long spar of wood, carving intricate designs into the handle. Skerast drifted around his head, and Branna preened on a carved perch nearby. Sigrund, Ragnhildr’s Noivern, took up much of the rear of the longhouse, fidgeting and wincing with each clap of thunder. Halvard picked burrs out of Steinarr’s mane, but Wulfric could see him cringing each time lightning split the sky. For his part, the monk curled up in his assigned corner and held Dismas close to his chest, listening to the howling wind and lashing rain rage just outside the longhouse.
A heavy pounding came at the solid oak doors of the longhouse. Torvald rose and opened them, and Skaldi staggered into the hall, his Ampharos in tow. The northern priest pushed his wet hair out of his eyes. “Halvard, I am going to make an offering to the god.” Halvard looked up and titled his head to the side, saying nothing. Skaldi narrowed his eyes. “I have Tyri to protect me from the lightning, and it can’t do anything but help! Perhaps the Storm Bringer will leave us in peace this year.”
“What will you be offering?” Ragnhildr asked.
“Two Mareep,” Skaldi replied. “Ivarr and Ulfi have offered one each. But perhaps the god requires a greater sacrifice.” He glanced over at Wulfric and smiled.
Halvard rose. “We are not killing my thrall, especially in an empty gesture like this. Kill the sheep if you think it will do us any good, but leave Wulfric out of it.”
Skaldi muttered something under his breath before turning on his heel and stalking out of the longhouse. The priest took the two Mareep out to a hill some distance from the village, squinting against the rain. The Mareep began to panic as they got further from the village, and no amount of bleating from Tyri could calm them. Once Skaldi judged they had moved far enough away, he drew out his knife and quickly butchered the two sheep. He sang out a prayer to the Storm Bringer, praising his great might and beseeching the god to show mercy on the village. The blood of the two Mareep seeped into the muddy earth as Skaldi and his Ampharos returned to their hut in Rovngalad.
Later that night, as the heart of the storm drew closer, the cacophony of the thunder grew deafening. In between flashes of lightning, a sound like metal grating against stone split the air, drowning out even the thunderclaps. The villagers huddled closer to their fires, and none dared to look outside. When the storm moved away the next morning, the Mareep carcasses were gone, and a large swathe of the nearby forest was levelled, many of the trees scorched by lightning, and deep gouges carved into the earth.
Skaldi proclaimed that the sacrifice had spared the village a similar fate.
Several days after the storm, just as the villagers were beginning to clear the last of the debris left in Zapdos’s wake, Halvard woke Wulfric with a grin. “We’ll be doing something a little different today. Come with me to the docks.” Outside, Torvald was checking over a collection of spears, murmuring something to Svein. Ragnhildr stood off to the side with her arms folded. When she saw Halvard emerge, she strode over to him.
“I still say he is too young for this.”
“Torvald and I went on our first hunts when we were younger than Svein is! It’s past time!” Halvard clapped a hand down on Wulfric’s back. “Besides, we need every hand we can get. I’m even bringing Wulfric along!”
Ragnhildr’s nostrils flared. “If anything happens to my son, Halvard, I will send you to the Bringer of Death with your entrails in your hands.” She turned on her heel and stalked off to the longships riding at anchor.
Wulfric tugged on Halvard’s sleeve. “Hunt? What are we hunting?”
The northman took a spear from the rack and hefted it in one hand, checking the balance. “Wailmer! They migrate past Rovngalad every year. We hunt a few to use their meat and oil to help us get through the winter, and we need everyone who can pull an oar to help. Come.”
He led Wulfric down to the dock where three of the longships were prepared to sail. Svein and Torvald followed behind them, and Halvard directed Wulfric to his place. Ulfi, one of the warriors in Halvard’s band, took his place beside him. The warrior grinned through his thick red beard. “Try and keep up, priest.”
Svein and Torvald took their place on the bench directly across from them, Svein sitting ramrod straight and trembling with nervous energy. Wulfric clicked his tongue at Dismas and glanced over at Svein. The Chatot turned his head in confusion for a second. “Sit over there,” Wulfric hissed. Finally, Dismas seemed to catch his meaning and fluttered over to sit on Svein’s shoulder. The boy reached up and stroked the bird’s feathers and smiled over at Wulfric. The priest turned his eyes down, but couldn’t resist quirking his lips up in a smile as well.
In her boat, Ragnhildr watched the exchange with expressionless eyes as she checked the straps on Sigrund’s saddle.
Halvard strode down the middle of the longboat. “All right!” he called. “Let’s go!”
At the stern of each boat, a man began to beat out a steady rhythm on a hide drum. The rowers matched their strokes to the tempo and they slid through the water toward the mouth of the fjord. Ivarr’s Beartic and Aesgir’s Sharpedo swam alongside the boats. Halvard clambered up a rope to the top of the longship’s mast and whistled. The water at the mouth of the fjord frothed as Uthald burst from the depths of the trench that ran its length, his sinuous body undulating beneath the surface. When the boats drew closer, Halvard walked along the narrow spar that held the sail and dove headfirst over the side of the ship, kicking through the water to the Gyarados’s flank. Uthald lowered himself so that Halvard could climb atop his head and grasp one of the three spines there.
When the three ships reached the open water, Ragnhildr shot off into the sky on Sigrund’s back, circling the surrounding sea in a wide arc. After several minutes, she circled back. “I’ve found them,” she called down. “Follow me!”
Wulfric saw the splashes the Wailmer made as they breached before he saw the pokemon themselves. The drums began to beat faster as the ships drew close. Sigrund swooped down and shrieked at the pod, the sound sending the Wailmer into a panicked frenzy. The Noivern made continued passes, splitting the pod with each successive scream. Halvard and Uthald dove before coming up on the other side, hemming the Wailmer in. Ulfi smiled at Wulfric. “Get ready, priest. This is where the fun starts.” The other two boats cut off three Wailmer from the rest of the pod. When they tried to dive down to escape their pursuers, the Beartic and Sharpedo quickly dove deeper and forced the Wailmer back to the surface.
The Wailmer began to panic, and Torvald leapt to his feet, grabbing a spear from the rack. He hurled it into the flank of one of the Wailmer, bloodying the water. Ulfi and several other northmen picked up their own spears and began to attack the Wailmer. Ragnhildr and Sigrund swooped over the longships, using sonic blasts to keep the rest of the pod at a distance. Torvald barked orders to warriors on the other two ships, directing them where to cast their spears. The Wailmer struggled and tried to break through the triangle the boats had formed, but they were already weakening. Svein cheered as one of the Wailmer let out a long, low moan and turned up on its side. It still breathed, but it had stopped fighting. Sharpedo and Beartic turned their focus on the remaining two.
Halvard and Uthald swam around the pod, the jarl scanning the sea for something. The sea began to seethe as a massive creature beneath the waves rose to the surface. “Arceus above,” Wulfric gasped. In Coumarina, he had sometimes seen Wailord breaching far out at sea. He had heard from sailors and fishermen that they were massive creatures, but nothing had prepared him for this. The Wailord rose from the depths, its massive bulk cresting the waves. Halvard signaled to Ragnhildr, and an instant later Sigrund released a sustained pulse of sound. The Wailord began to fall away from the longships, and Wulfric let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding.
Halvard shouted something, and Uthald put on a burst of speed, circling back towards the longships in a long arc. As the Gyarados passed by, Torvald lobbed a spear towards his brother. Halvard caught it out of the air as Uthald changed direction again, this time swimming straight at the Wailord. Uthald drew close and lunged forward, sinking his fangs in the Wailord’s flank. The leviathan groaned and drew away, but Uthald struck again and again, the water around the beast turning red. With a long, low groan, the Wailord descended beneath the waves, its fins working furiously to get it away from the Gyarados.
Halvard barked a command to Uthald and shifted the spear to the crook of his arm while he tied his waist to the longest of the three spars that crowned the serpent’s skull. Uthald roared before plunging into the depths after the Wailord, Halvard clutching the spine in his right hand and holding the spear close with his left. Wulfric and the northmen waited in breathless anticipation, staring at the water where Halvard had disappeared.
The northmen had begun to secure the wounded and dying Wailmer to the ships to be towed back to Rovngalad, but Torvald barked an order to bring them all to attention. “Leave them!” he shouted. “Back to your oars! Halvard’s coming!”
A massive shape was rising from the depths, and the northmen frantically worked their oars to get out of the way. The Wailord burst to the surface again, bleeding from several new wounds. Uthald had wrapped himself around the back of the Wailord, where it was less broad. Halvard still clung to the spike on the Gyarados’s head, but his hair was plastered to his face with a mix of salt water and blood. The spear he had dove with was now buried halfway up its length in the Wailord’s flank, and every time he twisted it a fresh gout of blood poured forth. The northmen cheered as the Wailord groaned in obvious pain.
Uthald contorted, sliding back into the water, but instead of delivering the final blow, the Gyarados surged up and bit down at the highest part of the Wailord’s back that he could reach. Halvard leapt from Uthald’s crest and drew his sword, driving it into the whale’s back. He proceeded to walk towards the Wailord’s blowhole, drawing a long, gaping wound as he did so. When he was nearly halfway across the creature's back, the Wailord gave a final moan before closing its eyes and ceasing its struggle. Wulfric clutched his iron ring and said a prayer for the repose of its soul.
Halvard wrenched his bloody sword from the Wailord’s back and held it triumphantly above his head, and all the northmen cheered. Torvald grinned up at his brother before turning on his heel and barking more orders to the rowers. They pulled up alongside the Wailord and began driving hooks into the dead pokemon’s flanks, securing it with lines to tow back to Rovngalad. Uthald circled around them to keep scavengers away from their prize.
The northmen laughed and joked as they returned to their benches and began rowing back to the fjords of Rovngalad. Svein looked over at Wulfric. “We’ve never taken down a Wailord before! My uncle said that he and Uthald could do it, but Mother always thought he was just being stupid.”
Ulfi laughed. “Next time we go to the clan meet, we’ll have to tell everyone all about it!”
“No one will believe us!” Torvald replied. “We’ll have to bring some of the bones!”
When the boats finally cut their way up the inlet that led to Rovngalad, Wulfric nearly collapsed off his bench in sheer exhaustion. The adrenaline that had propelled him through the Wailmer hunt had long since faded, and even months of working the fields had not prepared his muscles for nearly nine straight hours of rowing. The boats docked and Ulfi laughed while Wulfric struggled to his feet and tried to disembark. After letting the monk try to force his legs to work for a moment, he picked Wulfric up and deposited him none to gently on the shore.
Those who had not joined the hunt, mostly the old, the young, the infirm, and many of the thralls, immediately set out on small fishing boats to carve the meat and blubber from the warriors’ catches, along with siphoning off the oil. The smell made Wulfric retch, and he bent double as his stomach threatened to expel its contents, only for him to realize there was nothing to send back up.
Halvard jumped down from Uthald’s crown and waded through the shallows, brandishing his sword aloft for the children of Rovngalad to marvel at. He beamed and laughed, but a shadow eclipsed the setting sun, and Sigrund crashed to the earth, landing in a flurry of wings and wind. The Noivern collapsed the moment her feet touched the ground, exhausted from the extended flight. Ragnhildr leapt from her back and laid a hand on the dragon’s flank, pressing her forehead to Sigrund’s snout and breathing slowly, deeply. Sigrund’s frantic breaths slowed to match Ragnhildr’s, and she slipped into unconsciousness. Once the Noivern was seen to, the woman whirled on Halvard.
She stalked towards him, and Halvard’s grin vanished immediately. Ragnhildr punched her brother across the mouth, sending him sprawling to the ground. The villagers around them gasped in shock and horror, but no one moved to interfere. While Halvard climbed to his feet, Ragnhildr spat in his face. “You idiot,” she snarled, punching him again as soon as he stood up, sending him sprawling once more. “How could you be so reckless? Would you deprive your people of their jarl? You could have killed everyone on those boats!”
Halvard got to his feet again, holding up a hand to forestall any further blows. “I did what I had to so I could feed my people through the winter and have enough to trade at the clan meet. Besides,” he lowered his voice, “Even were I to die, Torvald could take my place.”
Ragnhildr leaned in close. It was only because Wulfric and Dismas had crept closer that they could hear what was said at all. “You know damn well he couldn’t do what you can,” she hissed. “If you die before you can lead us against the Usurper, I will pray to the Bringer of Death to cast you out of the Glowing Halls and into the Abyss.”
Halvard narrowed his eyes. “You wouldn’t.”
Ragnhildr tensed to strike him a third time, but held herself back. “You put us all in enough danger just by being alive, Halvard. But it would be worse for all of us if you were dead.” She walked off and the villagers went back to carving up the hunt’s spoils, but Halvard seemed stricken. After a few moments, he shook his head and made his way up the village’s central path, back towards his longhouse. Wulfric forced himself to his feet and trudged after the jarl, but when Halvard reached his fields, he whistled for Steinarr and swung up onto the Gogoat’s back. The two of them cantered off into the forest on the far side of the field, and Wulfric knew he had no chance of following now.
He fell to his knees and fumbled for the iron ring around his neck. “Pray with me, Dismas.” His Chatot fluttered to the ground next to him and looked up at him expectantly. Wulfric took a shaky breath. “Oh great Arceus, Your humble servants come to you in need of Your grace.”
“Praise be to the Lord Most High,” Dismas said, giving the proper response. He had often accompanied Wulfric to the daily prayers.
“Oh Lord Arceus, come and heal my troubled heart, deliver me from the darkness and grant me clarity. In Your name we pray.”
“Hail to you, oh Lord of Light.”
“Craft me into Your instrument so that I may be a light in this darkness, and with your benevolent power deliver me from the torment I find my spirit in. Fill me with Your light and direct my mind and heart into the grace of Your love.”
“We bow to Your great name, All Seeing Light.”
“Have mercy on my soul, trapped in this purgatory, and look with mercy on this forsaken and troubled man. Admit me into Your thousand-armed embrace and show me the way to guide Jarl Halvard so that we may become the tools with which Your mission on this earth is fulfilled.”
“For this, we pray.”
Wulfric and Dismas remained there, nearly motionless, until Wulfric’s muscles began to stiffen and then pain him. He remained with his forehead pressed to the cold, hard earth, waiting to feel the light and warmth of his faith fill him, but it did not come, and he found no solace.
9th August 2016, 2:12 AM
The drums beat out a steady pulse, almost like a heartbeat, while a piper droned on with a strangely-shaped wooden flute. The northerners, wrapped in furs against the late autumn chill, walked in silent procession down the hills of Rovngalad towards the harbor. Wulfric and the other thralls followed some distance behind, outside the circle of light cast by the torches. Even though Halvard’s family was on the far edge of the crowd, leading the procession, Wulfric could still make them out. Halvard and his siblings seemed to tower above the ordinary villagers, dwarf them by the sheer virtue of their presence. Steinarr, Jarn and Geirr walked beside them, the Houndoom’s horns and Aggron’s plates gleaming in the torchlight.
When they reached the pier, the northmen stopped and formed a rough semi-circle around Harvald. The jarl raised his face to the sky and stood silently for a moment before spreading his arms wide. “Today, people of Rovngalad, we gather to celebrate our harvest, and to honor our sons who have grown so strong!” Several people cheered, and a handful of boys were pushed to the front of the crowd, Svein among them. Dismas squawked and alighted from Wulfric shoulder to fly above the gathering for a better view.
Halvard locked eyes with each of the boys in turn. “I’ve watched all of you grow up into men your fathers can be proud of. It is through the strength of your backs that we brought in the harvest to spare it from the Storm Bringer’s wrath. It was the strength of your arms that propelled our longships through the sea. You hunt for us, you fish for us, you honor the village. And as you have honored Rovngalad, now Rovngalad honors you!”
The boys lined up before Halvard, and he gave each one of them an iron bangle that fit over their wrist. He spoke to them quietly, in words Wulfric could not hear, and the boys responded. When Halvard had told Wulfric about this ceremony after their language lesson several days prior, he had explained that the boys would swear loyalty to him as jarl, pledging the strength of their arms to fight for him and to protect his lands. Then the boys would each receive a kiss from the jarl’s wife, but as Halvard was unmarried and uninterested in marrying, this role would be fulfilled by the Ragnhildr, as the highest ranking woman in Halvard’s family. Then, each boy would be handed a small bowl full of mead, a spiced and honeyed drink, that they were to drink in one long pull.
Wulfric smiled when he saw Ragnhildr give Svein a quick hug as well, and Torvald tousled the boy’s hair before handing him the bowl. A few of the other boys had coughed after drinking their mead, but Svein fought down the urge even though it was plain he wanted to. This made Torvald smile wider, and the warmth in his eyes when he looked at Svein was almost enough to banish the predatory, aquiline cast from his features.
Once each boy had taken an arm ring and sworn their oath, their parents came forward to present them with the first pokemon that could be truly their own. For Svein, it was one of Geirr’s pups, a Houndour sired on another Houndoom in the village a few months before. Wulfric also saw Ulfi the boat builder give his son Odmund a Timburr. A good choice, now that Odmund would be helping his father at the docks, and would need a partner able to support him. Other boys received pokemon like Lillipup, Skiddo, and Espurr, pokemon to help them work the fields and bring in the Mareep herds.
Halvard smiled in a way that Wulfric could only describe as beatific, spreading his arms in a magnanimous gesture. “And now,” the jarl boomed. “We feast!”
Thralls appeared at the fringes of the northmen gathering, bearing long wooden tables and platters laden with food. The northmen parted around them as the revelry commenced. Wulfric was not needed to serve, and so he retreated to a dark byway of Rovngalad and knelt down to pray.
“Oh Great Arceus, Lord Most High, your humble servant beseeches You to give Your blessing to Svein this day. Though he is not of Your flock, he is a strong lad, and true of heart. Perhaps one day he may yet honor You in his heart. For this I pray.”
Halvard stormed up the main thoroughfare several days later, Wulfric and Svein, laden with firewood, had to hurry to keep up. Talvar, Svein’s Houndour pup, panted along at the boy’s heels. “Every cursed year!” the jarl snapped. “Every year I have to go and bow to that damned usurper!”
Torvald had no difficulty matching his brother’s stride. “And every year, you throw a tantrum. You know it is our duty.”
“I know full well what my duty is!” Halvard shot back. “And I plan to do it! I just don’t have to like it!”
“Then stop acting like a petulant child,” Torvald said with a sigh. “At least this year we have the Wailord hunt to brag about.”
“Oh, of course, the Wailord hunt.” Halvard turned and spat. “That’s what I think about bragging about the damn Wailord. The Wailord doesn’t matter, because I still have to kiss Ingmar’s boots!”
Torvald seized Halvard’s arm and lowered his voice to a hiss. “You know he would slaughter everyone here if you didn’t.”
“I’m so sick of being the Fool of Rovngalad. How much longer do you—”
“Soon.” Torvald allowed a ghost of a smile to play across his lips. “By this time next year, you’ll be drinking your mead out of Ingmar’s skull or we’ll all be feasting in the cold halls of the Bringer of Death.” He turned and glowered at Wulfric. “This doesn’t concern you, priest. Keep moving.”
After their language lesson that night, Halvard and Wulfric lounged by the hearth, the northman drinking his customary horn of strong ale. Dismas was perched on Halvard’s knee, and the jarl was absentmindedly stroking the Chatot’s feathers with one finger. “I wonder if Dismas could shout as loudly as Sigrund,” Halvard mused. “It would take some practice.”
“Dismas isn’t much for fighting,” Wulfric replied.
“Have you ever tried?”
“Then how would you know, eh?”
Wulfric shrugged and conceded the point. “May I ask you a question?” When Halvard shrugged, Wulfric sat up straighter. “What were you and Torvald talking about earlier? You have to go see the man who killed your father? I don’t understand.”
Halvard threw back the rest of his ale, and instantly Valdis was at his side with a fresh cup. The northman tried to smile at his sister’s Kirlia, but it didn’t reach his eyes. For a long moment, Halvard just stared into the fires of the hearth. Finally, he sighed. “Ingmar, whether I like it or not, is king of these lands. All the jarls in the north must go to his hall once a year and pay him tribute. If I don’t, my life and my lands are forfeit. For most of the jarls, it’s simply an inconvenient duty to tend to after the harvest’s brought in, a chance to drink with men from other clans and trade gossip. But for me…” He took a drink and wiped the froth from his mustache. “Ingmar knows the shame he cast on me when he killed my father and uncle, and he loves to rub my face in it. Every time the jarls gather, he shames me again. I’d love to just stick a knife in him and be done with it.”
“So why haven’t you?”
“If there was just me to think about, I would have. But Rovngalad needs me. If I were to kill Ingmar under his own roof, as his guest, the other jarls would be honor-bound to make war against me.” Halvard shook his head. “The only consolation is that Ingmar is bound by the same rules I am. So long as I’m at the Meet, he can’t kill me either, and once I’m home, he wouldn’t dare go up against me when I know the land better than he does. He’s a bastard, but he’s not stupid.” Halvard fell silent again for a spell. “You ought to come with me.”
Wulfric was stunned. “What? Why?”
“Because I said so. I’m the jarl, right?” Halvard smiled ruefully. “Mostly, I think I ought to bring you because it would annoy Torvald and Skaldi. That’s reason enough. But I want to bring you because you’re the only one who sees me as Jarl Halvard, not the Fool of Rovngalad.” The northman threw back his ale, set his cup aside, and threw one last log on the fire. “It’s late. You should go to sleep.”
And so three days later, Wulfric found himself once again curled up in the belly of a longship, clutching a damp cloak around his shoulders as the northmen cut through the northern sea. On this voyage, Halvard had told him, the ships would not likely leave sight of the coastline as they travelled up the northern straits to Yeavenguut, Ingmar’s seat of power. Svein and the other boys who had gotten their arm rings were all on Halvard’s boat, and so Wulfric’s usual seat next to Ulfi was taken by Odmund. When Wulfric was to take his first turn at the oars, Torvald patted the bench beside him. “You’re with me today, priest.”
The warrior rowed in silence for a long while, the muscles in his neck and arms flexing and straining. Though Wulfric was panting and his arms had begun to ache, Torvald’s breath came at a measured pace, and Wulfric was reasonably sure that the water dampening Torvald’s brow was merely spray from the ocean, and not the sweat that drenched was even now freezing on the faces of the other men aboard.
“I want you to be very careful,” Torvald said, taking Wulfric by surprise. The warrior kept his gaze fixed straight ahead, where Branna roosted on the prow. “I’ve seen the way you look at things, Wulfric. Where most men see only the river, you see the currents moving underneath.” The oar rose and fell several more times before Torvald spoke again. “Though my brother hates the title that Ingmar fashioned for him, it’s not without a grain of truth. Halvard thinks he’s invincible, but we both know that’s not true. I try to keep an eye on him, but I can’t be everywhere at once.” Another stroke of the oar. “Will you help me in this?”
“Of course,” Wulfric said. “That’s why Halvard brought me along.”
“Then perhaps my brother isn’t as foolish as he appears.”
Wulfric hid a smile and feared he was about to overstep himself. “He also did it because he thought it would irritate you.”
Torvald rolled his eyes. “Never mind then.”
That evening, as the sun set on the western horizon, turning the waves gold and orange, the northmen sailed into Yeavenguut. Like Rovngalad, Yeavenguut was deep within a fjord, but unlike Halvard’s humble collection of fisherman’s huts and fields, Yeavenguut was an imposing stone fortress with a modestly sized town bustling within an outer palisade. The mouth of the fjord was guarded by two stone towers, and even from a distance, Wulfric could see the archers standing atop them. As the longships sailed into the gap between them, Halvard wordlessly stood up and jumped onto the ship’s railing before diving into the ocean. Wulfric watched the small splashes the jarl made as he stroked beneath the water’s surface until he reached Uthald, taking up his place atop the Gyarados’s spiked crown. Uthald surged forward to lead the ships up to the docks.
A small man with a balding pate and another man in a hooded red robe hustled forward to meet Halvard as the jarl strode up the wooden planks. The balding man inclined his head in something that barely passed as a bow and clasped his hands in front of him. “Jarl Halvard, King Ingmar is waiting for you in the hall. I am to accompany you.” A Klefki bobbed behind the man’s head, its iron and bronze keys clanging.
Halvard gave the man a look that spoke of supreme distaste, and for a moment Wulfric thought he would shove him off the docks. But the moment passed, and Halvard simply nodded. “I know the way,” was all he said. Halvard snapped his fingers and Steinarr, who had been resting placidly in the stern of Halvard’s longship, got slowly to his feet, careful not to upset the boat. Ulfi and his son affixed a ramp that allowed the Gogoat to descend into the shallow waters, and once Steinarr drew level with Halvard, the jarl swung up into his customary place on his back. Halvard glanced over his shoulder at Uthald. “You behave yourself until I get back.” Then, he tapped his heels lightly against Steinarr’s flanks and cantered off through the thronging main street of Yeavenguut, scattering the crowd before him.
Torvald jumped over the ship’s railing and landed nimbly on the dock. He shouldered his pack as Branna alighted on his shoulders. “Trygi,” he said, nodding to the steward.
The balding man nodded back. “Torvald. A pleasure to see you again.” His words lacked any kind of inflection, his eyes remained as dull as chips of stone.
As Torvald brushed by, he shoved Trygi off the dock and into the water. “Would that I could say the same.” Trygi spluttered and tried to get himself right side up while Halvard’s men all roared with laughter. Trygi’s Klefki made to rush at Torvald, but Branna spread her wings and shrieked and the Klefki demurred. “We’ll set up camp in the usual spot, lads,” Torvald called over his shoulder. “Get those ships unloaded!”
The northmen quickly and efficiently unloaded their own gear and the things they had brought to trade at Yeavenguut from the ships and moored them. As they all went to follow Torvald, Wulfric felt a hand clamp down on his arm. The figure in the scarlet robe, silent throughout all the proceedings, looked him up and down from heavily lidded eyes. “You aren’t one of ours,” they rasped, in a voice that Wulfric could not determine was masculine or feminine. The figure’s lips were completely black, though whether it was some kind of cosmetic or their natural state, Wulfric was not sure. Something rustled underneath the robe, and a Sabeleye poked out its head, fixing Wulfric with its unblinking stare.
“Get your filthy hands off him!” Wulfric felt himself be yanked back and the scarlet figure released their grip. Skaldi leaned in close to the figure’s face and hissed. “Wulfric is Jarl Halvard’s!” the northern priest spat. “You don’t get to touch him!”
Skaldi led Wulfric away, muttering to himself under his breath. “Thank you,” Wulfric finally said.
Skaldi glanced at him. “I didn’t do it for you, priest. Agmundr corrupts everything he touches, and you’re Halvard’s property.” Skaldi shrugged. “I don’t much like him.”
Svein and Odmund caught up with them then, chattering excitedly as they took in the sights and smells of Yeavenguut. Wulfric tried to pick out strands of the conversations, but the multitude of dialects and accents was too much for his tentative grasp of the northmen’s language. The exited the fortress town by means of another gate, and went some distance into a stand of trees outside the walls. Torvald had already started a fire and was cooking some of the salted meat they had brought with them. Ulfi took Odmund while Svein and Talvar hurried over to Torvald. The warrior mussed his nephew’s hair and inclined his head to Skaldi. The priest nodded back and began setting up his own bedroll. “There will be a feast tonight,” Torvald said to Wulfric. “Normally, any thralls not belonging to the household would be barred, but you’ll be coming along with us. I’m sure plenty in Ingmar’s court will be amused by a southerner who speaks our language as well as you do. But I need you to stay alert, like we spoke about before.”
“And bring your Chatot too. I’m sure they’ll like to see him. If you need me, if Halvard is in danger, send the bird with a message. I’ll come to you as quickly as I can.” Torvald reached up to where Skerast was hovering behind his head and ran a finger along the flat of one of the blades. “If you don’t stay alert, this place will kill you.”