L O C A T I O N | Northern Eskand
I N T E R A C T I O N | None
Several Weeks Prior
The pale sunlight dappled over Vali’s eyelids between the swaying leaves, and he groaned awake. Rolling away from the harshness of daybreak, the ranger reached a hand out in search of his waterskin, palm pressing into cool grass as it slapped against the ground. He groaned again, stretching further out but refusing to open his eyes and search for it.
He felt a pouch of leather kicked into his hands and heard a laugh from somewhere above. ”Searching for this, O Great Hunter?”
a woman teased, finally plying the ranger into opening his eyes.
He rolled over, staring up at the dark-haired figure framed by the deep green of leaves from the forest floor. ”I see you’re up with the sun, Estrid,”
he remarked groggily, bringing the waterskin to his lips and drinking from it.
She crouched, smirking down at him. ”One of us has to be. Our camp won’t uproot itself.”
With that, the woman turned, stepping towards her own bed of furs across the burned-out campfire.
Pushing into a sitting position, Vali watched her begin to roll the pelts and tie them. The leathers of an Eskandr ranger suited her, though he knew she hailed from the Drudgunzean midlands. She’d gone North with some of the raiders, despite much preferring to hunt animals—and as the roving horde had turned back south, fracturing as their collective purpose came to an end, she had followed him in hopes of some worthwhile hunts.
They’d only been traveling as a pair for a few days, having finally departed from a small hunting party seeking elk and their ilk in the great green forests. Yet, she’d been much more comfortable with conversation since then. In many ways, she reminded Vali of his Bloodsister, Hildr the Red—Drudgunzean and good with a spear, but quiet in many situations.
Still, he knew there was nothing sisterly in the way Estrid felt about him.
He hoped, as they wandered farther south into the cold homelands he dearly missed, that she would turn tail and retreat to what she knew—or simply find a more appealing hunting partner.
He did not dislike her; in fact, Vali found her company to be quite agreeable. But he knew what she wanted of him, and he could not offer it to her—so he hoped someone else might, or that she might choose to search for it elsewhere.
As the sun rose, their horses ambled along the dirt path beneath it. Conversation was light as the hunters surveyed the land around them. They’d been perhaps six hours out from one of the northernmost cities of Eskand when they’d stopped the previous night, and Vali hoped to resupply and set out before sunset. He wasn’t fond of cities and preferred not to spend the night in them, instead seeking the comfort and quiet of untouched land.
Lunch was an affair eaten from horseback, tough-smoked meats and hard cheeses that kept well in a pouch. In truth, this was a common meal for the ranger; he could barely cook a meal for himself—not for lack of trying—and if someone wasn’t feeding their fellows, he’d often be eating trail rations.
He didn’t mind so much; he was used to the taste and texture, and found something in it comforting after subsisting on it for so long. It wasn’t as good as a fresh roast and full cups with his Bloodbrother and Bloodsister, as in the years past, but it held its own kind of home.
The day was at its hottest, though it held nothing against Parrench lands, when they rode into the city. It was alive in a way Vali had not expected; more than simple buyers and sellers or the denizens of the place. There was steel and leather, horses and weapons being gathered by Eskandr warriors. He wondered if another raiding party was set to go North and harry the Greenlands.
He questioned a merchant, having dismounted to lead his horse through the stalls. ”Are our armed brethren setting out for Parrence?”
he called softly over the drone of the street, palming some cheeses out of a basket and laying them out on the wood for the seller to see.
The man, fair as an Eskandr but growing old in years, barked a laughing response. ”Soon enough—But first they’re South to Meldheim. Hrothgar the Black has called his banners,”
he offered up, laughing at the blatant look of surprise on Vali’s face. ”Hrothgar’s called his banners? He’s marching on Parrence in earnest?”
the ranger replied, something nearing hesitancy in his voice as the merchant counted the cheese and muttered a sum.
He looked up, holding a hand out for the payment, and smiled something wicked. ”Truly. To burn out the damned Pentad and reclaim what Bróðir calls for.”
Vali fished the coin out of his pocket and dropped it into the cheesemonger’s hand. ”How long ago did he call?”
he asked, voice quieter but pale eyes far sharper. ”We heard it here only two days past. Most look to set out on the morn of tomorrow, but they’ll be leaving for weeks to come.”
There was something in the face of the man that told Vali he’d not yet been dissuaded from joining the march himself, and a kindling of fire sparked in pride for the Eskandr blood they shared. He grasped the man’s wrist, squeezing tightly as he felt fingers wrap around his own skin. ”May Systir watch over you, my friend,”
he said, voice soft but sure.”And Bróðir you,”
he replied in like, the connection flashing between them before Vali pushed on into the crowd.
He didn’t hear Estrid’s voice until the fifth call, as she pushed her shoulder into the haunch of his horse and shoved it toward the empty and narrow side road they walked past. Turning around, he found her much closer than expected, and raised a brow. Hesitant, she stepped backward, her own horse tossing its head. ”Did he say Hrothgar is going North?”
she asked, nearly breathless. Vali nodded, but before he could offer any explanation she exhaled sharply and hissed, ”Gods, I’ve… I need to return to Drudgunze.”
It was not surprising, but the words stung at something in Vali, though he nodded. ”You should be safe, so long as you stay out of the fight. But your family may have need of you at home,”
he said, smile sad.
Estrid studied him for a moment, something flickering through her eyes, before reaching out and grasping his forearm gently. ”Vali… Come with me. Help me protect them,”
she whispered, voice desperate.
He sighed, feeling the sting grow into a prickling pressure in his chest. ”Estrid… I can’t. You’re a friend, but Bróðir calls me to Meldheim. I will not ignore him.”
Faster than a conscious thought, as though she didn’t mean to, Estrid snapped back, ”Hrothgar calls you. Not ‘Brother’.”
Her face went pale as Vali recoiled like she’d slapped him, eyebrows furrowed. Hurriedly, the woman added, ”Vali, this is war. It’s not a raid. They’ll fight back. They could kill you!””If I’m called to Gestur’s table, I will not ignore that either,”
he replied slowly, something guarded in his voice now. ”Damn your heathen gods!”
Estrid hissed in frustration, her grip tightening on his arm. ”My Gods have kept me so far,”
Vali snarled, yanking his arm out of her hold. ”I could keep you, too,”
she whispered, guard dropping in desperation as she stepped closer to the ranger. He backed away, keeping a cold distance between them, and scoffed. ”Not near so well as my Gods. Go home, Estrid. I will not follow you there, no matter how you plead,”
Vali said, voice measured but low and dangerous. ”Leave this city and head straight for the border. Don’t talk about gods until you’re safe at home in your Greenlands, if you have any wish to make it there.”
Vali Twice-Born turned, face stony and cold, and marched into the streets, already plotting the path he would need to ride to Meldheim. He’d leave within the hour and arrive long before the packs marching at dawn—and travel much faster as a lone rider.
He did not bother looking back to see Estrid standing there, tear tracks on her blessed Quentic cheeks.
The grounds where Hrothgar’s army gathered were busy, though Vali knew many more would be arriving over the coming days. He found many faces he knew and even more he didn’t, but feasted and drank with those he could count on as brethren, strong warriors who had followed the same voice that called to him.
It didn’t take long for Kol’s message to find the ranger, as his renown made him that much easier to hunt down in the crowd—even if it was not so great as his brother’s, or his host’s. Vali had never doubted that the Death’s Hand would join the crusade, but felt a keen spark of excitement at the confirmation. It had been too long since he had seen his brother in the flesh, and longer still since they had fought side by side.
Vali didn’t spend much time in the planning—though he had a connection to Hrothgar through Kol and Hildr, it was not nearly as strong. There was a respect for the man who had killed Mørkt Fjell, and he hoped the king harbored a respect in kind for him, but Vali was not partial to the tactics of all-out war. Still, he heard that Ulfhild Ulven had made herself part of the discussions, and was pleased to hear she too had answered the call. He hoped they might find time for a hunt before the longships left, but knew she may be too preoccupied.
It was news of the King of Strumreef that interested him most. When he heard that Kol’s ship was docking, Vali wasted no time in heading to the shore, seeking out his Bloodbrother for a joyous reunion. Their time was short, though, as the Death’s Hand needed to make for Hrothgar—and they would have time enough to speak.
Over the following days, as the plans became concrete and made their rounds among the growing Heathen Army, Vali chose to attach himself to Kol’s position. He was unaligned enough, having left his home over a decade prior and having no lands of his own, and archers would be useful from any angle.
Vali cherished the feasts, drinking, and merriment to be found with the gathering army, an apprehension brewing for the upcoming voyage.
And as the longships set sail from Meldheim, he tried to reflect on those memories of happier times.
Sailing had never quite agreed with Vali—though he bore it often enough to see Kol, who was often kept by his duties to Strumreef. For one who had spent so long training his Gift to sense the magical energies of movement, the constant output of the ocean was overwhelming enough to be nauseating. He was adept at tuning out the signals he didn’t need to read, but it was much different when not even the ground beneath your feet stayed still.
It took several days for the ranger to find his sea legs, all the while trying not to show his displeasure at the journey. He knew Kol would likely notice regardless, and harass him in the good-natured way his Bloodbrother did, but sought no such treatment from any other warrior around him.
It was just as he was beginning to feel almost normal
that the storm hit—pelting them with rain and waves alike. Despite his aggressive sickness, Vali took a station by the railing to draw the force energy of the water and lessen the impact of any waves that struck them broadside. He was sure there were others doing similar work, but couldn’t remember anything but the cycle of water sweeping across the deck and him aiming to vomit away from his boots, the mess always being swept away by the next set of waves.
By the end, the ranger wasn’t sure if he had spent days or mere hours drenched and throwing up on the deck; if he’d taken shifts or spent the whole storm out there; if he ate, or drank, or relieved himself at all during the ordeal. He simply knew, when he woke up in a gently-swaying hammock and didn’t feel sick immediately, that it had passed.
Or he’d drowned and was arriving to Grønhalle by longship—a prospect that was not terribly disagreeable, if the Gestur’s waves were this gentle.
But as he emerged into the moonlight to see his Bloodbrother standing strong, Vali imagined he was not on his way to Grønhalle just yet.
L O C A T I O N
| Attack of RelouseI N T E R A C T I O N
| Kol, Death's Hand @Th3King0fChaos
Vali had never prepared for a war of this kind.
He imagined it would be closer to hunting than to raiding, if one considered the kind of beast who fought back.
The ranger would be following his Bloodbrother, to victory or Grønhalle, and understood their purpose well. Still, an apprehension stirred in him greater than any he’d felt before. He was accustomed to a single large target, or a pack of less than a dozen—not to a mass of men with faculties similar to his own, numbering more than he could ever hope to count. It was a daunting prospect, but Vali reassured himself that he was not alone. A hunting party greater than any he’d ever traveled with would break the shores of Relouse.
While Kol tended to his armor and readied himself, Vali sought the quiet darkness of the hold and a moment with his Gods. He had no offerings for them now, having given those on the night before their voyage started, but had prayers.
He prayed to Bróðir, the God of War, of soldiers and raiders, who had called for this crusade. He prayed to Faðir and Systir, who also kept watch over warfare—and over rangers like Vali and Ulfhild, in the case of Systir. He prayed to Móðir, who watched over harbors and the seas, for her blessing as they ventured ever nearer to shore.
At last, he lit a fresh candle and prayed to Gestur, the soft light dancing in the darkness of the hold. The moons would rise soon, and Vali prayed that he would protect them in the night.
And for those who could not be protected, Vali prayed for honor and open arms in Grønhalle.