The Queen is unfit as ruler. I will bring back traditional rule just the way it has always been and no one will blame me when it is over. Sigurd Hjort rubbed his hands together in anticipation of what was to come. For years, he had patiently waited for the right moment - the moment of confusion when his army would attack. What good fortune that the strangers arrived when they did for they are the perfect diversion for overthrowing the Queen. The attack on the gate by his forces compelled the Berserkers and particular Berdlukare from the town. She was a formidable warrior and even the cream of his own army would struggle to suppress the woman without numbers. I have one such warrior who is relishing the chance for revenge and he will have it soon enough.
His thoughts turned to Haklang, the leader of the Assembly of Warriors. I saw her leaving the town. Is she going to help the Berserkers? He laughed at the thought. She is a different matter altogether. He drew in a deep breath. Her position is one of power, but she hasn’t honed her skills to be much of a factor in the midst of battle. He strolled casually along the hallway to the Queen’s private quarters and let out a small evil laugh. She will rue the day that she allowed herself to become a political machine rather than a warrior. He chuckled softly as he recalled former warrior leaders. Didn’t she learn anything from her predecessors? If Haklang has any sense at all, she will blame it on the Queen’s failings. If she doesn’t…well, just like the Queen, she is expendable.
When a guard stopped his progress he frowned. “What do you mean by this action?” he demanded.
“We must check everyone who comes into this part of the royal household.”
“I am here on the Queen’s request.”
“You may pass Elder Hjort.”
Hjort’s face took on a kindly expression. “It is good that you are doing your duty. We must do all we can to protect our Queen from harm.”
The guard nodded in appreciation. “That is my mission.”
“Carry on.” The council elder had to stop from laughing. The threat is from within and no one suspects. He glanced around and noticed the increased number of guards standing at the ready. Hmm, Haklang must think there will be trouble. Too bad she went to that trouble…my warriors will cut the down Royal Guard without pause.
At last, he arrived at the Queen’s door. Little does she know how she is playing into my hands, he thought. The next stage of my plan is in motion. Every part of him filled with exhilaration as he envisioned the rest of his army marching on the town. There won’t be an alert. He laughed. Berdlukare and her Berserkers are too busy at the gate. He raised a clenched fist and knocked.
“Ah, Siguard you are here,” Thorleif said when he answered the Queen’s door. “Please enter and I will inform the Queen of your arrival.”
Hjort squared his shoulders and walked triumphantly into his future. A few minutes later, the Queen arrived looking regal. A small part of him felt a sense of sorrow for what had already begun. It is for the greater good of the people and their future he rationalized. “My Queen you requested my presence,” he said bowing with false respect.
The Queen smiled warmly at the leader of her council of elders. He is a shrewd man…I know he is cruel and with little compassion for his fellow man. As she gave the man a slight nod as she pondered her next move. He is the reason I have found it difficult to make a decision regarding my successor. He is tyrannical and Haklang paradoxically, is meek…how their personalities can be so opposite of what they should has been is a mystery to me. However, at this moment perhaps it isn’t such a bad thing if we are indeed under attack. I will need Hjort’s support and the bloodlust in his eyes will overcome any pacifist among the elders. “I will allow Thorleif to explain the situation and then I need your council my old friend.”
The Queen’s trusted advisor cleared his throat. “It is simple really. A horn sounded alerting Haklang that the gate is under siege. There appears to be no imminent threat to the town, yet Haklang thinks it is wise for the Queen to go to a safe place. The Royal Guard is on high alert and protecting all aspects of the royal household.” The man looked to the Queen and when she nodded, he spoke again. “We cannot rule out that the latest visitors are in some way involved in the attack. Perhaps they have comrades who have followed behind them in some sort of sneak attack.”
Hjort quietly digested the news. Just as I planned, they suspect the strangers and have no idea I am behind this. Inwardly he congratulated himself for his plan working to perfection.
“What is your council Hjort?”
What indeed! He seized the opportunity to divide and conquer. “My Queen would it be too much to ask for something to drink…this has been a shock?”
“Of course, of course I understand. Thorleif please call for a vessel for our elder.” The Queen paused for a moment then added, “In fact, will you tell the kitchen to prepare an early lunch? We may need that nourishment if things are as nasty as Haklang suggests.”
Again Thorleif nervously cleared his throat. He did not like Hjort and felt apprehensive about leaving the Queen alone with him. I have no doubt the elder will protect the Queen but the council he may provide when I’m out of the room is another matter altogether. “Yes my Queen, I will be back shortly.”
With Spake gone, Hjort did what any opportunist would under the circumstances. He smiled widely, removed his knife from a sheaf then with a deft move slit the Queen’s throat in one fluid motion. The old woman gurgled briefly as a rush of red spurted from the wound before she crumpled to the floor. With the knife dripping the Queen’s blood still in his hand, Hjort sneered as he looked down at the body lying in a crimson pool. Tired old eyes with a look of surprise stared up at him. “Foolish old woman…if only you had relinquished your reign I would not have been forced to do this to you.”
Hjort grinned as he took the murdered Queen’s legs and drug the carcass followed by a trail of blood into a small vestibule. After he covered the bloody trail with a rug he positioned himself behind the door and waited for Spake. He will go the way of the Queen leaving only the Royal Guard for me to deal with. Soon, very soon I will be king, just as my father promised me as a child.
+ + +
The clash of steel against steel along with the sounds of warriors moaning before death claimed them filled the air. The strategic position of the intruders at the gate had the Berserkers at a distinct disadvantage though that had not deterred them. The surprise of their attack allowed them to cut down many of the enemy before they could raise their swords. Their mounts crashed into the horseless intruders as their riders slashed off body parts with practiced skill. Although outnumbered, each Berserker fought fiercely to save the gate and extract revenge for the fallen keepers. The bitter smell of sweat and blood from warriors as they pursued each other to the death was poignant.
Berdlukare dismounted and bore into the ranks of the enemy slashing all that challenged her with her mighty sword. She hacked her way to the tree where the body of young Edmond Fulla hung. “None of my warriors deserve this,” she screamed as her blade met the rope. With one fluid motion she spun her sword around and thrust it backwards into the midsection of an enemy soldier. Carefully she placed Edmond’s body on the ground. “You will not have died in vain.” She clenched a fist before striking her chest in salute. Fighting back another soldier she made her way to the other keeper and cut him down too. Again she clenched her fist and saluted the fallen man.
The ground soaked in the blood of both the enemy and the defender squished under Berdlukare’s feet as she flashed her sword and gained another victim. Malevolence and anger coloured her features as she surveyed the carnage of the ongoing battle. Who are these warriors that fight with such a level of expertise? Her agile mind asked as she parried another thrust of an opponent’s sword. I am sure I’ve recognized some as men who trained under me. Her weapon found its mark and she drove it upward, gave it one last twist then watched as a hulk of a man crash to the ground. But how can that be for their fall from grace banished them from the Assembly of Warriors and this land. Another combatant came at her and she plunged her sword into his chest and heard the sound of bones cracking as she pushed in further.
Her acute hearing heard the sound of the town’s horn signaling that it too was under siege. This is impossible! How can this be happening? The town’s horn, considered by most to be merely ceremonial, sounded once a year to herald the Queen’s birthday. She assessed the battleground and the slaughter of her thinning forces. For Berdlukare the message of the town’s horn meant one thing only. There is no time to lose! We must leave and leave now. She pulled her sword from the gut of her latest victim and looked around at the butchery. We must protect the Queen and the town’s people and deal with the gate another time.
Her eyes surveyed the carnage looking for her horse and saw the golden mare waiting in the shadows of the trees for her signal. A soft whistle had the steed galloping through the debris of human carcasses and come to a stop by her side. She placed a hand in a bag on the horse, withdrew a small horn and blew into it four times. All the remaining Berserkers stopped and went to Berdlukare’s position. As much as they did not want to retreat they too had heard the signal from the town and knew that this particular battle might be lost but the war had yet to begin.
The Berserker warriors not on their mounts quickly found their steeds and within minutes, their hooves were creating a giant dust storm as they retreated to higher ground. As a parting gesture to those fallen in battle Berdlukare blew twice on the horn again. With a wave of her hand towards the town, she and the balance of her Berserkers sped off to help the Royal Guard defend their Queen.
+ + +
Urania Haklang was within yards of the hut that held the strangers and Lady Fulla when the horn blowing from the town caught her attention. Damn, I knew things were not right! I should have never left the Queen alone. She sighed deeply glad that she had left a safety net for Queen Ragnhild. Keeper Henrickson will keep a close eye on the situation and if danger arises he will ignore her protests and remove her to a secure place. She had every confidence in Henrickson who spent five years training with Berdlukare before accepting the role of second in command of the Royal Guard. He is a far more accomplished warrior than I am so it is good he is there instead of me. Our Queen will be safer.
She go down off her horse before quickly joining by Larsen. “First the gate and now the town,” Larsen said gruffly. “What is happening? Are we under attack?”
Haklang shrugged. “I don’t have all the facts, but I think it is fair to assume that someone is attacking us.” She paused before continuing. “The Queen has instructed me to secure Lady Fulla and bring her back. Is she inside with the strangers?”
“Yes.” The large warrior’s hand reached for his sword. “If they are part of the attack then the Lady is at risk.”
With a firm grip, Haklang stopped Larsen. “No, I will take care of them.” She grasped the latch and pushed the door to the hut open and, with an air that brooked no argument, she strode inside.
All the eyes in the room turned to the intruder. Mercie was the first to stand and ask, “Why are you here Haklang? Is there a problem?”
The leader of the warriors spoke quickly in their own tongue. “My Lady, the Queen insists that you return now.” She eyed the strangers. “Have these people threatened you?”
“No, not at all they assured me they know nothing of the attack on the gate.” Mercie’s brow furrowed. “What is going on?” she asked solemnly.
“We need to leave right away.” The warrior’s voice lowered. “Did you hear the sound of the town horn being blown?”
“Yes,” she said hesitantly. “What does it mean?”
“We are under attack.”
Mercie and Mark Finch looked aghast while the three others looked vaguely at each other and shrugged.
“Hey, is anyone going to tell us what’s happening here?” Carolyn asked belligerently.
Mark turned to them. “There is no easy way to say this…the town is under attack.” He watched as various expressions crossed each face. “The Queen has ordered Lady Fulla to return immediately.” He knew what the right course of action for the three visitors should be. “I will stay with you and hopefully we can make our way back to the gate and you may all return the way you came.” It pained him to say the words for it would mean leaving his granddaughter all over again.
“But who is attacking the town? Do you have enemies within the borders?” Jennifer asked startled by the comment.
Mark placed a gentle hand on his granddaughter’s cheek and felt her sink into his touch like a cat stroked by its owner. “Poppet, it is too dangerous for you here. For sometime now, there have been rumours that there may be an attempt to overthrow the Queen. There was nothing substantial until now.” He shook his head. “It is very disquieting since we don’t know who will be safe. Those loyal to the Queen will be in danger should such a disaster befall us.” He smiled fondly at his granddaughter. “For your own safety Jennifer you must leave.”
Carolyn watched the interaction between Jennifer and her grandfather and saw how it hurt both of them. How hard it will be to wrench them apart after such a short new beginning. She looked at Richard who was already reaching for their belongings. That begs the question what do I want to do? Then her logical brain kicked in and made the decision. There isn’t a choice any more, just one - the right one…leave.
“Lady Fulla,” Carolyn said with a slight nod. “Richard and I will leave and return through the gate. Would you allow Jennifer to stay with her grandfather and return to the town with you?”
All eyes turned to Mercie as she digested the question. It is not for me to agree or not, it will be up to the woman to show she has merit for that to happen. Her grandfather has been a model member of the community and has shown where his loyalty lies. She looked at Jennifer. Yes, his granddaughter I believe will be welcomed. “She may return with us. However, it will be my Queen’s decision as to whether she can stay.” She took in a deep breath and took charge. “There is no more time to spend here. We must leave now for no one is safe.” She turned to Carolyn. “I bid you safe journey home Hrafn…you may need it.”
Carolyn picked up the backpack that Richard, with a relived and happy face, handed her. As far as I’m concerned the quicker we leave the better. This place is forgotten forever! “Let’s go Caro,” he said without a backward glance.
Mark smiled as he watched Mercie and Haklang walk quickly out the door behind Richard. His eyes tracked to a small window where he saw the dust from the rapidly departing horses fill the air. “We will have to walk,” he said to Jennifer. “Larsen will escort us while Mercie and Haklang go ahead on their horses.” Absently he added, “It is important that they get back as soon as possible.”
For her part, Jennifer hadn’t listened to her grandfather’s word, but instead gazed at Carolyn not knowing what to say. “Carolyn why did you do that? Surely it’s safer to go with us then return through the gate, we don’t know what’s happening there.”
Carolyn shrugged looking anywhere but at the eyes that tired to pierce the armour she had just placed around herself. “We’ll be ok. We’ll wait until the danger, if there is any, passes,” she said in a reassuring manner. “Does that sound good to you?”
“I don’t want you or Richard to get hurt.” I’d rather die myself.
With a gentle smile, Carolyn quietly replied, “I promise to come back if it’s too dangerous. Besides, it's logical you know. You want to stay with your grandfather and Richard wants to leave.” She cocked her head and pursed her lips. “I guess I always knew deep down that you would never come back with us.”
“But what about what you want?” Jennifer placed a hand on Carolyn ’s arm and the warmth of the touch traveled through both their bodies. “Do you want to stay?”
“I can’t,” Carolyn choked out. She felt warmth reach her heart along with the realisation that once she left, there would be no hope of return.
Jennifer felt tears building as she clung to her friend. Perhaps we would be more than a friend if there was time to explore the friendship that is developing. She realised that they would have no time to discover that particular aspect of their relationship and that, more than anything else, left a desolate space in her heart. “If I asked you to stay would you?”
Carolyn blinked back tears desperately wanting to say yes, yes, yes, but no words passed her lips. The door opened and Richard stuck his head in. “Come on, we need to go Caro,” he said impatiently. “And Jenn, I think the fierce one is getting edgy waiting for you.”
“Be happy Jennifer,” Carolyn whispered as she engulfed the petite woman in a hug before kissing her cheek slightly. She pulled away and with a false bright smile, left the hut for the last time. When she saw that Richard, who was already heading away she quickened her pace.
By the time, Jennifer composed herself enough to leave the hut her two traveling companions were about to disappear over the ridge. When she saw Carolyn turn and wave in her direction, Jennifer whispered into the wind, “I’m asking you Carolyn, will you stay.”
+ + +
Keeper Henrickson hurried ahead of Thorleif Spake for the Queen’s private chambers. Once the town’s horn sounded, Spake diverted from his original mission to return to his Queen. “Keeper Henrickson, I will go to the Queen. You must protect her door at all costs,” he said to the second in command of the Royal Guard.
“I have strict orders Spake. If trouble arises I am to take the Queen to safety.” His eyes fixed on the old man. “There will be no discussion.”
“I agree whole heartedly. Let me be the one to tell her.”
“I cannot allow that…this is no time for formalities.” Without a knock, Henrickson opened the door and entered the chamber. Once fully inside he felt something pierce his upper shoulder. He growled and with lightening speed quickly withdrew his own blade, spun around and struck the offender down with one crushing blow. When the offender attempted to crawl towards his dropped weapon, Henrickson placed his large booted foot on the man’s back.
Spake, who watched the saga play out trembled in fear for the Queen. When he saw the warrior restrain the attacker’s movements his eyes quickly scanned the room for the Queen. “The Queen is not here!” he blurted out. His eyes turned to the man on the floor who was trying in vain to wriggle out of the hold that the foot had on him. Sigurd Hjort’s eyes flashed with venom and anger as he spit out demented words of blasphemy. “I bring down the wrath of Odin to curse your lineage forever! My wrath is greater than Odin’s and I will see that you all reside in Hel. I say death to everyone who followed that weak livered excuse for a Queen.”
“Where is the Queen Hjort?” Spake screamed in desperatation.
For a moment Hjort seemed almost rational as he turned sober eyes onto the Queen’s chief councillor. An evil sneer crossed his lips as he allowed his gaze to travel to the vestibule.
Spake, thinking Hjort had merely incarcerated the Queen, rushed over and opened the door to the small room and gasped in horror. The bloody, still and mangled body of his Queen lay unceremoniously in a heap and the bare wood floor. He knelt down beside the woman that he not only worshipped as a subject, but also loved as a man does a woman and began to weep. With trembling hands her chest for a heartbeat felt that would give not only the Queen’s life, but his as well - there was none. “No, no, no, this cannot be!” he wailed. Tears flowed freely as he bent over and took his Queen in his arms. As he held her close he gently rocked her whispering all the words of love he had kept inside for so many years. His eyes sunk deep into the sockets as he cried out, “He’s murdered my Queen.”
When Keeper Henrickson heard the strangled words he filled with rage and spat on the man struggling beneath his boot. “You will die for what you have done!”
Hjort merely laughed. “When my army arrives it will be you who die warrior!” Without orders or any thought of his injuries, Henrickson wielded his sword and with both hands, held it high above his head. With all his power he slashed downward severing the head of the leader of the Council of Elders from its body. The sting of the wound made him reach around to his shoulder where he felt blood flowing from the wound. He knew it would need attention but disregarded it as he walked over to the vestibule where the old councillor sat on the floor cradling their beloved Queen. He felt the loss keenly. I cannot mourn her passing for I'm certain Hjort wasn’t working alone. Who the others were that wanted to control the power within the city he didn't know. I can trust no one. Until Haklang returns, I must ensure the safety of our people.
He bent over Spake, carefully prised their dead Queen from his hold and hauled him up off the ground. Then with a gentleness that belied his size he picked up the lifeless body of the Queen and carried her into the bedchamber. He pulled back the coverlet, tenderly laid her body down, wiped the blood from her face and placed the coverlet over her. He allowed himself a brief moment of sadness as he looked upon her face. "Later we will return, but now we must defend the kingdom," he said softly. That would have been her wish. With a fist to his chest he saluted his Queen before bowing.
He returned to the broken man who could barely speak and helped him to his feet. “We must get you to safety. The Queen is at rest now and it is our duty to see that this attack is stopped.”
In a tremulous voice the advisor spoke. “How will we ever survive without her to lead us?”
“There is no time to talk of that now. If the insurrection wins then our way of life will never be the same. We must wait for Haklang’s return...she will know the answers.”
Once they left the royal chambers, Spake’s trembling hand locked the door. “She is safe now,” he said quietly.
Inside the Queen’s chamber, a faint breeze from an open window blew against the ancestral tapestry that adorned the main wall of the bedchamber. A battle shimmered in full glory and arising above the chaos of war the face of an unknown woman held a light in her hands showing the way back to peace.