Main Frostworld 3: Embers & Glory: A LitRPG/GameLit Viking Adventure

Frostworld 3: Embers & Glory: A LitRPG/GameLit Viking Adventure

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EMBERS & GLORY

©2021 BLAKE ARTHUR PEEL





This book is protected under the copyright laws of the United States of America. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser. Any reproduction or unauthorized use of the material or artwork contained herein is prohibited without the express written permission of the authors.

Aethon Books supports the right to free expression and the value of copyright. The purpose of copyright is to encourage writers and artists to produce the creative works that enrich our culture.

The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book without permission is a theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), please contact editor@aethonbooks.com. Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.

Aethon Books

www.aethonbooks.com





Print and eBook formatting by Steve Beaulieu. Artwork provided by Luciano Fleitas.

Published by Aethon Books LLC.

Aethon Books is not responsible for websites (or their content) that are not owned by the publisher.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead is coincidental.

All rights reserved.





CONTENTS





Prologue



Chapter 1



Chapter 2



Chapter 3



Chapter 4



Chapter 5



Chapter 6



Chapter 7



Chapter 8



Chapter 9



Chapter 10



Chapter 11



Chapter 12



Chapter 13



Chapter 14



Chapter 15



Chapter 16



Chapter 17



Chapter 18



Chapter 19



Chapter 20



Chapter 21



Chapter 22



Chapter 23



Chapter 24



Chapter 25



Chapte; r 26



Chapter 27



Chapter 28



Chapter 29



Chapter 30



Chapter 31



Chapter 32



Chapter 33



Epilogue I



Epilogue II



Thank you for reading Embers & Glory





Groups



LitRPG





“Like the other worlds, Njordrassil was modeled after a civilization from the Old World.

We felt that it was important to capture elements of our culture that had long ago been destroyed.

Honor, courage, strength... we hoped that these virtues would transfer over into the universe that we created.

Of course, the many vices of our species transferred as well.”



—Xavier Markham, the Last Originator





PROLOGUE





Halvard Bloodhammer set down his rune plates after yet another unproductive day. Sure, he’d accomplished several pressing tasks, checking items off his never-ending list of things to do, but he still felt like he wasn’t getting anything done. The clanhold was like a sled stuck in a snowbank. No matter how hard he pushed, he couldn’t manage to get it un-stuck.

He stood from his seat with a prolonged sigh. If this was lordship, he didn’t want any part of it. When’s that young Clan Lord getting back here, anyway? he thought grumpily. Beckström better not have gotten himself killed.

It was well past dusk, and once again Halvard had forgotten his supper. He glanced out at the open balcony. Norvaask was shrouded in darkness, with twinkling lights glittering along the walls of the great ravine.

His stomach rumbled, but he forced himself to check the clanhold’s stats one final time before retiring. It was a nightly ritual—something to occupy his mind before he lay down for a night of restless sleep. Numbers flashed in his mind’s eye, denoting key information regarding how the clanhold was faring. Food stores were on the rise, thank the gods, but not quickly enough, and morale was still plummeting, probably because he’d cut rations across the board. The warbands were still at “Low Strength,” and no matter how hard he pressed the war leaders to find new recruits, they simply didn’t have enough battleborn to go around. The catastrophic defeat at the hands of the draugr had made sure of that.

Halvard blinked away the stats and heaved another sigh. He wasn’t cut out for this sort of thing.

“Thrall!” he shouted, getting the attention of one of the nearby house slaves. “Have my meal prepared and sent to my room. I’ll be there shortly.”

The soft patter of feet on stone told him that his orders had been heard.

Since he didn’t have a huskarl to deal with the many administrative tasks of running a clanhold, he had to do almost everything himself. Damn that traitor Vig, he thought, and not for the first time. If I ever get my hands on him, I’ll wring his neck myself.

He donned his overcoat and turned from the cluttered desk, making for the exit. These were the Clan Lord’s personal chambers, but he wasn’t himself the Clan Lord. He slept in one of the guest rooms on the other side of the Great Hall. He didn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea about him. He was only a steward, and didn’t have any ambitions other than eating a quick meal and drinking himself to sleep.

The Great Hall was quiet at this time of night. A few guards made their rounds, but most of Halvard’s battleborn were out with the rest of the warband training their handful of new recruits. Nearly all the thrall had gone to bed, and those few who were working the night shift were busy with myriad tasks—including preparing his evening meal.

He strode through the darkened corridors, grateful for the peace and quiet. After a day full of useless meetings and hard decisions, it was soothing to be alone. His single eye, strained from reading countless runes, was grateful for the darkness.

The truth of the matter was that Norvaask was in trouble. The Freeze would be here any day now, and they weren’t ready to weather the most difficult time of the year. What made matters worse was the constant threat of the draugr. Hunters could hardly leave the clanhold without running into undead monsters on the tundra, and rumors were coming in every day that a huge army was amassing somewhere in the east. Halvard had done his best to hold everything together, but there was only so much a single man could do. The fall of Ivar and Sten Haig had left them in a difficult position.

He shook his head, making for the staircase that would take him to his room. There wasn’t any point dwelling on the challenges they faced. All he could do was take it a day at a time and keep pushing forward.

That was how Halvard had lived his entire life, and it had served him pretty well so far.

He reached his room at the end of the hall and wondered briefly why his honor guards weren’t present. Must be out drinking or cavorting with the serving women, he thought with a frown. Halvard had worked all night the last three nights in a row, but that wasn’t an excuse for his door guards to abandon their duties. He made a mental note to reprimand them harshly in the morning.

He pushed open the door and stepped inside, lighting several candles so that he could see. The chamber was sparsely furnished, which was the way Halvard liked it. Too many possessions only served to distract a man, and he couldn't afford to have many distractions these days.

After pushing open the window to let in some fresh air, he sat down heavily in front of the empty hearth and allowed his mind to wander. He closed his eye and took a deep, calming breath.

So much had happened in such a short amount of time. Halvard had fought his entire life to make Norvaask one of the most powerful clanholds on Njordrassil, and now he was doing everything he could just to hold it all together. He’d wanted to kill Sten Haig to avenge the death of Ivar, only to have Jarl Beckström—a former lowborn—swoop in and claim the title of Clan Lord for himself. Not that any of it was done purposely. It was almost as if the gods were playing a cruel joke on all of them. Still, honor demanded that he serve the young lordling as capably as he could, and so... he served.

“At least he’ll have the energy to take care of all this nonsense,” he muttered to himself. “Let him keep the glory of being Clan Lord. I’ll just make sure he doesn’t screw anything up too badly.”

His back ached, which was a Hel of a thing considering he hadn’t done anything physically demanding in weeks. Growing old was the cruelest joke of all to a proud warrior. It came as an affliction that no poultice or health potion could cure.

Over the Hill

You’re past your prime, and so your health is declining.

-1 to all Stamina rolls and disadvantage to Constitution saving throws.





Damn stats, he thought. Don’t need a freezing affliction to tell me what I already know.

A knock at the door shook Halvard from his reverie. He stood, his old bones creaking like ancient trees bending in the wind. “Enter,” he commanded loud enough to be heard through stone.

Timidly, a servant entered carrying a steaming tray of food. Halvard gestured for the middle-aged woman to set the tray aside and begone, which she did, leaving as quickly and quietly as a mouse.

He grunted, then went to retrieve his supper. Braised pork and gravy, black bread, and a horn of mjöl—fine food under normal circumstances. But at that moment, all he could think about was scarfing it down quickly and then going to bed. It’d been a long day, and though he wasn’t eager to start another one, he knew that his exhaustion was taking a toll on him. He needed sleep if he was going to continue carrying out his duties.

Halvard sat back down and began to eat, chewing mechanically and staring at the cold, empty hearth. He tore into the meat and washed it down with a hearty gulp of mjöl. The food was salty and delicious, but he hardly took the time to savor it. After only a few minutes, he’d almost completely cleared the plate.

As he drained the last few drops from the horn, a trickle of liquid went down the wrong way and he descended into a fit of coughing.

“Frosts,” he cursed between coughs, pounding at his chest to help clear his irritated throat. He’d been too eager. This often happened whenever he ate too fast. But the itch didn’t go away, and his coughing only grew more intense with time. The minutes stretched on, and he started to get the sense that something was seriously wrong.

His plate and cutlery fell to the floor. He smacked his lips and found that his tongue was growing numb. A bitter aftertaste clung to his mouth like tar, and only then did he realize what was happening.

Poison. Gods almighty... somebody’s poisoned me!

Halvard clawed at his neck as he tried to suppress his coughing. His chest began to grow uncomfortably tight. “Help!” he tried to shout, but his voice was nothing but a choking rasp. “Somebody! Help!”

Fortunately, the door opened, and Halvard turned in his seat, gesturing wildly at his gaping mouth.

A woman stood in the doorway, willowy and beautiful, with wavy brown hair and large, round eyes. Her full lips were twisted in a small, self-satisfied smile as she regarded him, and though she looked like she hadn’t been properly groomed in weeks, her beauty was unmistakable.

Aslaug, the wife of Sten Haig, slipped confidently into his room. “Why, Shieldbreaker... you seem to be all out of sorts this evening. Was your dinner not to your liking?”

Halvard gasped something unintelligible, and the harpy chuckled low in her throat. “I think I know what the problem is.” She held up a small vial and turned it upside down to show that it was empty. “Blackroot extract. Even small doses can be quite lethal. I may have accidentally spilled some into your mjöl.”

He grimaced as knives of pain stabbed his guts.

Constitution Saving Throw: 8 + Ability Modifier (2) - Affliction (1).

Unsuccessful.





Incapacitated.

1d12 Poison Damage every 6 seconds.





Drittsekk. Halvard wished that he could throttle the spiteful wench, but as the poison worked through his body, he couldn’t even work up the strength to curse her out loud.

Aslaug casually tossed the vial aside. “I can’t take all the credit, you know. I would have never known about all the secret passages built under our feet if it wasn’t for our huskarl. His loyalty knows no bounds. I owe him my life.”

She stepped aside, revealing a rotund man in rumpled robes standing in the doorway. He had gray hair and a forked beard that looked like it hadn’t seen a brush in weeks. Vig. Halvard’s face contorted in a vicious snarl. If only he had his hammer... he would bash the fat skrill’s brains in.

“He’s still alive,” Vig noted with obvious displeasure. “I thought that he’d be dead by now.”

“Patience, dear huskarl,” Aslaug chided. “I’m well versed in poisons. He’ll die in good time... after he’s exceeded his usefulness to us, of course.”

Vig frowned. “But that wasn’t the plan—”

“Plans change,” she said sharply. “Besides, the Shieldbreaker wasn’t the one who killed my husband, remember? It was his mudborn pet, Jarl Beckström. He’s the one we need to kill in order for us to take back control.”

Another wave of pain. Halvard doubled over, gasping for air as his insides burned.

The old huskarl stroked his scraggly beard. “That’s true, I suppose.”

“Of course it’s true. Halvard can’t die, not yet. It would arouse too much suspicion.” She walked over and gave the poisoned man a shove. To his eternal shame, he didn’t even fight back.

Strength Check: 1 + Ability Modifier (3).

Unsuccessful.





Halvard crashed to floor. He rolled onto his side and started coughing up foamy bile.

“Enough poison to damage him, but not so much as to kill him,” Aslaug explained. “He’ll be in a coma for some time—long enough for the new Clan Lord to hear about what happened and come home. From there, it’ll just be a matter of laying the proper trap.”

Vig fidgeted nervously. He looked over his shoulder at the empty hallway, then gestured at Halvard. “Should we be speaking so plainly in front of him?”

Aslaug laughed. “Oh, he won’t be able to stop us. He won’t be able to do much of anything at all once he loses consciousness—except maybe soil his pants. In the meantime, I’ll seduce one of his war leaders. It shouldn’t be too difficult. Even loyal dogs turn on their masters when given the right incentive. After that, we’ll take back what’s rightfully ours: the throne, the power... everything.”

Feebly, Halvard reached forward in a vain attempt to grab at Aslaug’s foot. She made a disgusted sound and kicked his hand away. “Let’s get out of here before somebody shows up. We can afford to live in exile just a little while longer.”

Vig bowed his head submissively. “As you say, my lady.”

With a swish of fabric, the two departed, but not before Huskarl Vig spared one final look for the dying war leader. His eyes almost looked regretful, but then he turned and disappeared into the shadows of the hall.

Halvard wanted to spit at him. He tried to push himself up, but to no avail. The pain in his stomach was just too much to bear. Rolling onto his belly, he turned his head sideways so that he wouldn’t drown in his own fluids. The world began to spin and his eyelids grew increasingly heavy. Beckström, he thought, fighting against the encroaching blackness. You’re going to walk into a trap...

If only he could leave some sort of message.

His eyes closed and oblivion enveloped him. The last thing the Shieldbreaker remembered was pain and a sense of regret that he should have done more.

Norvaask surely was doomed.





CHAPTER ONE





THE COMING STORM





“Keep your axe sharp, and your wits sharper.”

—Axioms of the Battleborn





Dreams of despair and death plagued Jarl’s dreams—as they had for the last three nights in a row. Frost giants roared in fury. Men were torn limb from limb. Purple eyes shone in the darkness.

Jarl started, jolting upright in bed, his naked body covered in a sheen of sweat. He blinked at the oppressive gloom and lifted a trembling hand to cover his face. Nightmares, he thought, closing his eyes and taking a few calming breaths. Just nightmares, you fool. Get a hold of yourself.

Ingrid stirred in the bed next to him. She mumbled something but didn’t get up. She was still asleep.

Carefully, Jarl untangled himself from the blankets and got up, touching his bare feet to the cold stone floor. The shock did more to calm him down than anything else. He stood, crossing the wide chamber to where his clothes were strewn about haphazardly. Moving stealthily, he got himself dressed and tried to forget about the terrifying images plaguing his mind.

Ingrid had been adamant about them keeping their relationship cordial while in public. He wasn’t even permitted to visit this wing of the Great Hall during the day. But inevitably, when the sun went down and everybody was well into their cups, the Spear Maiden would send for him and they would spend the night together. That had been the case almost every night for the week he’d been in Jotungard.

He pulled on his shirt and spared her another glance over his shoulder. She looked so peaceful, laying there. Slender. Delicate. Not the hardened warrior who’d slain a war leader in front of the entire clanhold just a few days ago. Her blonde hair was like a golden halo surrounding her head, her pale skin aglow in the faint dawn’s light filtering in through the window. Even if she insisted that there was nothing between the two of them, her actions so far had proven otherwise.

That only made Jarl feel more confused about the nature of their relationship.

After tugging on his boots, he began to tiptoe toward the exit, determined to leave before the rest of the Great Hall awakened. But a surprisingly lucid feminine voice stopped him in his tracks.

“Going somewhere?”

Jarl turned to see Ingrid propped up on one elbow, staring at him from her bed.

He smiled sheepishly at her. “Just heading out for some fresh air,” he said. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“You walk like a mammoth,” she said dryly. “Haven’t had much training in the art of stealth, have you?”

“You know, between becoming battleborn and then Clan Lord, I haven’t had many opportunities to learn. Not much use for stealth on the mud farm.” He said the words sarcastically, but with a smile that he hoped was disarming.

Ingrid smirked. “If you say so, farm boy.” She sat up and stretched, her jaw cracking in a yawn. The blankets fell away from her body, but she wasn’t the least bit timid about her nudity. “I should probably get up now, anyway. I’m speaking to the war leaders today about our defenses, and I still need to gather my thoughts. It’s like wrangling cats with these men. Actually, I’d say it’s more like wrangling wolves.”

“Would you like me to join you?” Jarl asked. “They might be more agreeable with the full weight of Norvaask behind you.”

She arched an eyebrow at him. The war leaders of Jotungard were uneasy at best regarding their alliance, and Jarl’s presence would probably only make Ingrid’s task more difficult. Jarl’s identity hadn’t remained a secret for long. That same day Ingrid won her throne, inquiries about who he was had come from almost every direction. Ingrid didn’t shy away from her intentions with Norvaask, and the war leaders weren’t in any position to push back, but it still made things... problematic. The two clanholds had been rivals for generations. That wasn’t the sort of thing you just swept under the rug.

At length, Ingrid said, “I think we both know that wouldn’t be the best idea.”

Jarl shrugged. “Just thought I’d offer.”

She looked at him then, her icy blue eyes searching as they seemed to peer straight through him. He did his best not to shift uncomfortably beneath that gaze. “I appreciate you coming here,” she said. “Your companionship during these last few days has been... pleasant. Enjoyable, even. You’ve helped me in more ways than one. But I think that it’s time you went home, Jarl Beckström. Back to Norvaask.”

Jarl felt a pang of remorse at her words, but he knew that she was probably right. Still, he found himself resisting the idea of him leaving. “But your wounds. You might still need my help.”

“I’m recovered enough,” she said, pointing to several fresh pink scars on her skin. “The healers have done well. And you forget that I’ve been a war leader longer than you’ve been a battleborn. I feel secure enough to take care of things on my own.”

He nodded, but for some reason he still felt protective of her. He didn’t want to let her go. Was he simply infatuated with this woman, or was he trying to avoid the responsibility of his calling? Why did he want to put off going back home?

Ingrid could obviously sense the conflict inside of him. Her face softened. She spoke gently. “We both have things that we must do. We’re Clan Lords, remember? And besides... a storm is coming. We need to prepare before it’s too late.”

That much was true. His dreams weren’t just fevered nightmares, they were a shadow of things to come. The draugr were out there, and the creature that was controlling them—Siryyx—was gaining in strength. Hjalmar had told him that whatever this monster was wouldn’t rest until the whole of Njordrassil was consumed. They weren’t just fighting for wealth or power... they were fighting for the fate of the entire world.

“You’re right,” he said, deflating somewhat. “As usual. I do need to go back. Today.”

She regarded him for a moment, then got out of bed, putting a robe on to cover herself before walking over to him. “The plan hasn’t changed. I get things under control with my clanhold, you get things under control with yours. We unite our warbands and try to bring the other Clan Lords to our side. Then, we take the fight to the draugr.”

Jarl nodded again. “Then... I suppose this is goodbye.”

“I suppose that it is. For now, anyway.”

He met her gaze, and found that he was truly sad to be leaving her side. “All right. Until we meet again, Spear Maiden.”

He extended a hand for her to shake, which she promptly slapped away. Rolling her eyes, she grabbed him by the collar and pulled him into a kiss. “I’ll send messengers,” she said after a moment when they broke away. Her eyes were intense as she stared at him, inches from his face. “Don’t make me regret this alliance, farm boy.”

Jarl flashed her a grin. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”





Only the servants were awake by the time Jarl left the Great Hall. They bustled about with their clipped ears and collars, preparing the laundry, the meals, everything needed to keep the Spear Maiden’s retinue comfortable. The thrall paid him little heed as he made for the exit, although Jarl was certain that rumors were already circulating about what he and the Spear Maiden had been up to last night.

Nothing can be done about that now, he thought, hurrying his pace. If Ingrid was concerned about that, she shouldn’t have asked me to come here in the first place.

He pushed through the double doors and stepped out onto the landing, the full force of the morning cold striking him in the face. The air, as always, stunk of brimstone, but thankfully that no longer had an effect on Jarl’s stats. Even so, it wasn’t very pleasant, and so he focused on breathing out of his mouth.

The sun hadn’t yet crested the mountainous horizon, but the sky was painted with a brightening purple hue. The volcano that Jotungard was built upon offered some shelter and warmth, but the Freeze was imminent, and so temperatures were still frigid.

Jarl shivered into his coat and started down the steps, nodding to the guards who gave him curious glances. One of them muttered something to his compatriots and they all had a chuckle. Jarl simply ignored them and continued on his way.

He passed an enormous skull that was on display on a wooden platform. According to rumor, it was the skull of an ice wyrm that the Spear Maiden had killed herself. When Jarl brought it up with her in private, she played it off like it wasn’t that big of an accomplishment. “My blade may have ended that creature,” she’d explained, “but my warband deserves the credit for lowering its Health Points.”

The path from the Great Hall led through a more affluent section of the clanhold, with enormous longhouse complexes and expensive merchant shops. Apparently, this area was known as Highborn Hill. It was built upon a wood-and-stone platform that was set into the slope of the caldera itself. Clean, running water ran in channels through the district, with public fountains carved with beautiful statues and intricate patterned friezes.

Even though Jarl was a Clan Lord now, this sort of place still seemed alien to him. Truth be told, he was still more comfortable around lowborn and thrall than he was around highborn nobles.

Still, his clothes and armor were of fine quality, and he strutted ahead like he actually belonged. He wasn’t the highest-level battleborn in the world, but he certainly had experience when it came to shedding blood. His adventures ensured that he leveled up at a pace that was faster than normal.

Jarl Beckström:

Class: Battleborn—Level 4

Title: Clan Lord of Norvaask





Strength: 16

Agility: 12 + 1

Fortitude: 14

Intellect: 8

Perception: 10

Charisma: 13





Health Points: 65 out of 65

Stamina Points: 46 out of 46

Defense: 14

Rage Points: 4 out of 4





Feats: None

Special Abilities: Determined, Adrenaline Surge, Danger Sense

Resistances: Cold (racial bonus), Fire (medallion bonus), Necrotic (medallion bonus), Poison (medallion bonus)

Afflictions: None





Experience Points: 15,955 out of 23,000





He shook his head, not just to clear away the stats but also because he was still astounded by how far he’d come. It wasn’t too long ago that he’d been a simple mud farmer with dreams of grandeur. Not even in his wildest fantasies had he thought that one day he would be leading an entire clanhold and forging an alliance with Jotungard and the infamous Spear Maiden.

“The gods must be playing a grand joke,” he muttered, turning down an empty street toward an enormous, lavishly expensive inn. “Either that, or they’re just freezing insane.”

He continued moving forward.

The inn didn’t have a name—it was simply known as the mjöl house on Highborn Hill. But it wasn’t like any mjöl house Jarl had ever seen. Its construction was nearly as grand as the Great Hall itself, complete with intricate masonry, artful carvings, and colorful glass panes covering the windows. Only the very elite were permitted to stay there, and by Ingrid’s orders, that somehow included Jarl and his men. They’d been given rooms on the second floor with stunning balcony views and full access to the inn’s considerable larder. Jarl doubted that any battleborn on the face of Njordrassil had ever lived in such luxury before.

The door guards recognized him and let him pass without a word, stepping aside to allow him access to the common room. The inside was warm and beautifully decorated, with actual wooden floors and woven tapestries lining the walls. A hearty fire roared in the hearth, and a single man sat one of the tables—hunched over a few empty cups and snoring loudly.

The proprietor, the room’s only other occupant, nodded at Jarl as he entered. He returned the gesture before moving straight for the snoring man.

“Get up, Bjorn,” Jarl said, shaking the big man’s shoulder. “We’re going back home today.”

Bjorn mumbled something about a troll stealing his favorite goat cheese and continued snoring.

Jarl sighed, found a cup that still had a little mjöl in it, and proceeded to dump it over the warrior’s head. “I said wake up, you drunken fool.”

The amber liquid splashed over Bjorn’s face and he snorted awake, cursing and reaching for a greataxe that was nowhere to be found. “Frostbitten pig-kisser! I’ll gut you like... like... oh. Jarl, it’s you. I thought you were... Never mind. Sorry about that.” His cheeks flushed the same shade of red as his beard.

Jarl raised his brows at him. “Must have been some cheese that troll took from you.”

Bjorn scrubbed his face. “Aye. It was. Gods... what time is it?”

“Dawn,” Jarl replied, looking around the empty room. “I take it the other men had the good sense to go to bed last night?”

“They did,” Bjorn admitted. “Only after I put them to shame. I won every drinking game they could come up with!” He flashed a grin, but it was blatantly obvious he was suffering from the effects of a severe hangover.

“Well... congratulations,” Jarl said. “Hopefully you can still walk. We’re going back to Norvaask today.”

“Of course I can still walk,” Bjorn replied, getting unsteadily to his feet. He blinked dazedly, but his smile never faltered. “Just need to get some bacon in me. Nothing undoes a night of drinking like meat, and lots of it. That’s what my old man taught me when I was just five years old.”

The inn’s proprietor, a grizzled old codger, spoke up from the other side of the common room. “Kitchen’s already working on breakfast. It should be ready shortly.”

“All right, then!” Bjorn took a shaky step, then had to steady himself on the edge of the table. “Damn headache... I’m still seeing double. Never mind that. Want me to go rouse the others?”

“No, I’ll do it,” Jarl said. “You stay here and drink lots of water. I’ll be back down soon.”

Bjorn nodded gratefully and sat back down, his enormous weight causing the chair to groan as if in pain.

Shaking his head, Jarl went to the stairs and made for his rooms. He found that since his conversation with Ingrid, his general mood had soured like old milk. He thought about it and realized just how much he was dreading stepping back into the role of Clan Lord. Out here, he’d been doing what he always wanted to do—fighting alongside battleborn and having adventures. As soon as he got home and officially took the throne, he would be forced into a role that he never aspired to, a role that would have been more suited to a man like Halvard Bloodhammer, or even Asger Ironfists.

Fate is putting me back into a place I never belonged, he mused, stepping into the darkened hallway of the second floor.

Jarl passed one of the open balconies and paused, recognizing the lone figure standing with her back to him by the balustrade. She was dainty and unassuming, except for the crimson robes that she wore, and had shoulder-length blonde hair that was so pale it was almost white. He hadn’t spoken to Runa much since they’d returned from fighting the frost giants. He missed her friendship, but sensed that his relationship with the Spear Maiden had killed whatever had been growing between them.

“Runa?” he asked gently from the doorway. “What are you doing up so early?”

She turned, her violet-colored eyes meeting his before turning back out to survey the view. “The sunrise,” she replied. “It’s so much grander in the mountains. In Norvaask, we never really get to see it rise or set. I wanted to come out here and see it one last time.”

“One last time?” he asked, stepping onto the balcony next to her.

“We’re leaving, right? Going back to our clanhold?”

“Well... yes,” Jarl stammered. “But how did you—?”

“It just sort of makes sense,” she interrupted. “The Spear Maiden is healed and is secure in her new position, so there’s no reason for us to stay any longer.” She glanced at him and added, “It’s time for us to go home.”

Jarl blew out a breath and looked out at the vista. It really was quite breathtaking. The steaming caldera spread out before them like an enormous bowl, and all around were mountains limned in a reddening light. “You’re always thinking one step ahead of me,” he remarked. “I didn’t come to the decision until just a little bit ago.”

She shrugged. “I’m fireborn. We tend to think with our minds, not our muscles.”

Jarl chuckled. “That’s true enough.”

They stood in silence for several long minutes, taking in the scene of the brightening sky. It was an amiable enough silence, but despite being enveloped by beauty, Jarl could still sense that there was some awkwardness between them. He cleared his throat and tried to clear the air between them. “None of this was my choice, you know.”

Runa looked over and gave him a questioning look.

He gestured vaguely and the world around them. “This life, this path that I’m on, I didn’t want it. Not really. I only wanted to be a battleborn, to fight for honor and for my family. Everything that’s happened... me becoming the Clan Lord, the Spear Maiden... I just—I want you to know that I didn’t think this was how my life was going to go. But now that I’m on this path, I’m only trying to make the right choices for Norvaask.”

Involuntarily, he winced. That didn’t come out quite right. But Runa merely nodded and offered a perfunctory, “I understand.”

“I’m not sure that you do.” Jarl turned to fully face her, his expression earnest. “I need you, Runa. Just as much as I need Bjorn or Asger or any other the others. Maybe more. I need a friend, somebody I can trust to tell me if I’m doing something wrong. Without you, I worry that I won’t be able to lead our clanhold through the coming storm.”

She was silent for a long time, and Jarl started to wonder if she was going to respond at all. Finally, with wet, blinking eyes, she spoke up. “I’ll be there for you, Jarl. I promise.”

“Good.” He gave her a warm smile, then looked back out at the view. The sun was just peeking up over the eastern mountains. “We’re going to have a long day ahead of us, I think. I need to go rouse the others.” He turned to leave, then glanced back at Runa. “Are you coming?”

“Not just yet,” she answered. “I want to stay out here just a little bit longer. Is that all right?”

“Of course.” Jarl nodded at her in farewell and went back into the darkened inn, leaving the fireborn alone with her thoughts. Just speaking with her was enough to lift his spirits. He thought that maybe—just maybe—everything was going to be all right.

With his friends by his side, how could things go wrong?





CHAPTER TWO





A STRANGE NEW LIFE





“A shield is more valuable than a flaming +1 battleaxe. If you have to choose between a weapon and a shield, do yourself a favor and take the damn shield.”

—Axioms of the Battleborn





Clear your mind. Embrace the void. Find the Flame Within.

Freya inhaled the cold mountain air through her nose and exhaled slowly, the peace of her meditation settling into her bones and muscles. Her eyes were closed, but she could feel the warmth of the sun on her face. Dawn had come, which meant she’d been sitting here for at least an hour. She tried not to think about how long it had taken her to get to this point—that would only serve to discourage her. Instead, she sought out the hidden well of power deep within the void, her innate magical energy source, her soulfire.

It had been hers once before. The soulfire had given her the ability to draft without drinking any flame spirits, giving her the opportunity to escape captivity. Ever since that day, it had remained out of reach, and there were times when she doubted she’d ever be able to touch it again.

Patience, a voice whispered in the back of her mind. Freya had heard it many times before, but she didn’t know who it belonged to. Nevertheless, she trusted it.

Taking another breath, she reached for the soulfire, the fingers of her soul barely managing to graze its surface. That was enough to fill her reserve with only a small amount of power.

+1 Magic Point





That energy reinvigorated her spirit and made her hungry for more. It was the first time she’d tasted the power since the day she killed Torvaal, her cruel taskmaster in Jotungard. Still reaching, she quested for it again.

+2 Magic Points





Enough for a spell, Freya thought, excitement bubbling through her calm meditation.

Slowly, she extended her open hand and shifted her focus to the center of her palm. Energy began stirring there, and she channeled her Magic Points into it, drafting a spell taught to all first-level fireborn: Flames.

It took a second, but heat began to radiate in the air above her skin. It grew from a tiny speck of warmth into something resembling a real fire. She opened one eye and was pleased to see that flames had indeed materialized according to her desire: a small, dancing flare that looked like a candle without a wick.

I’m doing it! Freya thought, a genuine smile splitting her face. I’m actually doing it!

But then... something changed. It was like her soul lost its balance and tumbled, ruining her concentration and severing her connection with that internal well of power. The soulfire sputtered out and vanished, and likewise, the flame in the center of her palm fizzled and died, leaving only a faint afterimage to show that it had been there at all.

“No!” The word escaped her lips without her even realizing it. It shattered the meditative state she’d worked so hard to achieve, and the handful of Magic Points she’d managed to accumulate evaporated like steam on the tundra wind.

Freya slouched where she sat, defeated, the elation she’d felt seconds ago all but gone.

Nearby, one of the sled dogs—the alpha named Frostfang—whined and laid down in the snow, covering his nose with both paws.

“I know,” Freya said, addressing the hound. “I’m disappointed too.”

She sat there for a long while, staring down at her hand. I was so close, she lamented. It was literally within my grasp, and then I lose it. Gods... this is so infuriating.

“Go easy on yourself,” a voice said behind her. “A few days ago, you couldn’t even do that much. You made progress today.”

She turned, surprised to see Hjalmar, the Old Man of the Tundra, standing a few yards away. She hadn’t even heard him approach.

“Easy for you to say,” she grumbled as she got to her feet. “It’s so easy for you.”

“I’ve had a lot of practice,” Hjalmar replied with a wave of his hand. “Come, now. Let’s get something to eat before we start the day.”

Still disappointed, she followed him back to camp, absently brushing away the snow clinging to her trousers. The clothes she wore were simple enough—brown and gray hides stitched together with rough cords, breeches, and an overcoat lined with fur. The garb was a far cry from the crimson robes she used to wear, but it was leaps and bounds better than the rags she’d been wearing when she escaped Jotungard. At least it kept her warm.

“I’ll get the cauldron if you get the grain,” Hjalmar suggested when they approached their shared tent.

“Deal,” Freya answered without a second thought.

They fetched their respective items and met back up at the campfire a short time later, the coals having already been stoked back to life. Together, they set about shucking hvet pods and collecting the grains while the snow melted in the pot. It was a daily ritual, one that Freya had come to enjoy. It reminded her of the days when she’d grown up in the Dregs, before she became a fireborn and had all her meals prepared for her. It was the simple kind of work that allowed for the mind to go blank while the hands were kept busy. She’d never realized how much she missed this sort of thing.

After the grains were prepared and set aside, Freya and Hjalmar moved on to grinding spices and collecting dried berries from their supply sled. Once the pot was simmering, everything was thrown in together to create a hearty porridge—enough to keep them both full until midday.

Freya sat back with her bowl in hand, her expression thoughtful as she stared down at her meal. Part of her wondered if she would ever get used to eating so much food.

“Is she just going to stare at it, or is she going to eat it?” The nasally voice came from Hjalmar’s lips, but she knew that the question was really from Beast, the white mink perched upon the Old Man’s shoulder. Freya had grown accustomed to listening to the creature’s high-pitched gibes, but so far, she hadn’t yet puzzled out if the words were simply from the hermit’s addled imagination.

She promptly picked up her spoon and shoveled in a mouthful, scrunching up her face at the little mink.

“We’re almost out of the foothills,” Hjalmar remarked between bites, switching back to his normal voice. “My safehouse is at the edge of the Ice Barrens. We’ll be able to rest and resupply there.”

“And what happens after that?” Freya asked.

He didn’t respond immediately. Instead, he took a large bite of porridge and chewed methodically. “Then... we’ll depart on a long journey,” he said after swallowing.

Freya waited for him to elaborate. After a prolonged silence, she asked, “And where will we be going on this journey?”

Hjalmar met her eyes and said seriously, “I’ll let you know when you’re ready.”

Freya was impatient by nature. Not even her forced servitude had changed that particular trait. Still, her humility won out—as it often did—and she lowered her gaze. “As you say, master.”

“We’ve been over this,” Hjalmar said, his voice softening. “I’m not your master. If you’re going to call me anything, call me trainer, for that’s the true nature of our relationship.”

“Then when are you going to start training me?” It was a question she’d asked before, and she always got the same answer.

“Once you gain control of your soulfire, I’ll begin training you.”

Of course. It always came back to her blasted soulfire. There was nothing else Hjalmar could even offer until she mastered the ability to fill her magic reserves at will. It was infuriating. She tried not to let her disappointment show.

“You must have patience with yourself, Freya,” the Old Man added gently. “You’ve already come a long way—faster than most. Just keep practicing, and one day, it’ll come to you as naturally as breathing.”

Freya forced a smile. “As you say... trainer.”

They finished their breakfast and began breaking down camp, rolling up the leather tarps and securing their meager possessions to the sled. The sled itself was a wonder—Freya had never seen anything quite like it before. For starters, it was exceedingly well made, with a polished wood frame and mammoth bone rails etched with runes—some ancient, and some modern. The runners themselves were whale tusks, and the bed was in the back behind the seat instead of in the front like regular sleds. It was large enough for two to ride comfortably and was capable of carrying an exceptionally large load.

Freya had loved the Old Man’s sled ever since she first laid eyes on it. Hjalmar had hidden it in a small cave near Jotungard, and it had been their primary means of transportation ever since coming down from Broken Hill.

Once the supplies were loaded, all twelve dogs were chained to the front in two distinct lines with Frostfang in the front. The boreal hounds were bigger and stronger than ordinary dogs, and at first glance, they even resembled a pack of dire wolves.

They certainly act like wolves... at least around those they’re unfamiliar with. Fortunately for Freya, the dogs had taken a liking to her ever since she joined the Old Man of the Tundra. Perhaps it was because they could sense that she wasn’t a threat.

That thought only made her feel like more of a failure.

With everything in place, they climbed onto the front and prepared for departure.

“Would you like to take the reins?”

The offer from Hjalmar shocked her. “Me? Guide the sled?”

The Old Man smiled and nodded. “Why not? The dogs trust you, and it isn’t too difficult. Unless you’d rather leave it to me...”

Suddenly, she could barely contain her excitement. “No! I mean... I’d be delighted to.”

He held up the red-braided leather cords leading down to the dogs’ chains. “Just take care not to pull too hard. They’ll know where you want them to go with only the slightest tug.”

They settled in their seats, Freya suddenly feeling like an excited young fireborn again, drafting for the first time. She wrapped a scarf around her face to keep the wind off and pulled up her hood before taking the reins firmly in both hands.

Hjalmar situated himself on the rail next to her, his gaze watchful like an attentive grandfather. “We’re heading due east, then south once we reach the tundra. I’ll let you know if we start heading the wrong way.”

She nodded, then looked ahead at Frostfang. Freya had seen the Old Man do this part a dozen times already, but for some reason she was still nervous. She’d never driven a sled before.

Just take it easy, she thought, breathing in and out slowly. Nice and slow. She flicked her wrists, signaling for the hounds to move.

And move they did.

The sled lurched as the dogs sprang into action, their ready muscles propelling them forward as if their load was lighter than air. Freya squealed with glee as the runners glided along the snow, the whale tusks offering minimal resistance and allowing the sled to quickly gain speed. The old Freya would have kept her emotions more in check, but in that moment, she couldn’t have cared less about appearances. She felt as free as a snowbird taking flight after a lifetime in captivity. The wind nipped at her cheeks and tugged at her clothing, but the cold had never felt more bracing.

She laughed as they sped away from their campsite in the hills, taking a path heading eastward into the sun.

Hjalmar reached over and patted her on the back. Even beneath his scarf, she could see that he was grinning. It was obvious that he personally knew what she was feeling. He also knew that no melancholy in the world could match the joy of driving sled dogs for the first time.

They rode for hours, and to Freya, there was never a dull moment. Even when they stopped to rest the dogs, her smile couldn’t be suppressed. All that was wrong with the world melted away as soon as they started skimming through the snow; the wind that filled her ears drowned out everything except the feeling of pure freedom.

I could do this forever, she thought, guiding the dogs with only the slightest tug of the reins. I never want this feeling to go away.

Time sped by quickly, and eventually, the day began to grow late. They reached the tundra and turned south, heading toward a region that Freya had never been to before—the no man’s land between the eastern and western clanholds. Hjalmar tapped her on the shoulder and motioned for her to slow down.

Apparently, they’d reached their destination.

Pulling on the reins, she brought the hounds to a slower pace and turned, listening to Hjalmar’s instructions and heading for a hidden delve between two flat-topped bluffs. The path led to a sheltered cove in the lee of a huge boulder, where a cave could be seen gaping at them like an open mouth.

“We’re here,” the Old Man said as they finally came to stop. He climbed from the sled and proceeded to scratch every panting dog and tell them how well they had done on their journey.

Slightly dazed, Freya watched as Beast uncoiled himself from a bundle of blankets at her feet. As always, he looked at her in annoyance before slinking off after Hjalmar.

She was tired, she was cold, but she was happy—at least for the time being—and she was determined to hold on to that feeling for as long as she could.

Hjalmar unhitched the dogs. They were in a relatively enclosed space, and so he seemed content to simply let them roam. The hounds wandered off in all directions, and Hjalmar came over to help Freya out of the sled. “You did well,” he remarked with a proud smile. “You’re a natural.”

As if to emphasize his words, Frostfang bounded over and sat down in front of her, his bushy tail thumping against the ground.

She reached down and scratched him between the ears. “They’re good dogs,” she said. “It wasn’t very difficult, to tell you the truth.”

“It is for some people. This just proves how much they trust you.” He took a deep breath and looked around, gesturing at the cleft within the bluff. “So... what do you think?”

Freya shrugged and continued to pet Frostfang. “It’s nice, I suppose.”

“It’s home,” Hjalmar said. “Well, it’s one of my homes, at least. This is my primary residence in the north. It isn’t much to look at, but it’s by far the best provisioned of all of them. Plenty of food, water... there’s even a warm wellspring in the cave that you can use to take a bath.”

Her eyebrows shot up. “That sounds... amazing.” Freya hadn’t taken a proper bath in months. Despite her best efforts over the last few days, she still felt like she carried the filth of her slavery everywhere she went.

Hjalmar nodded. “Let’s get the dogs fed, the supplies unloaded, then you can take the rest of the day to rest. You can continue your practice tomorrow.”

“That sounds wonderful.”

“You’ve certainly earned it.”

Freya worked alongside the Old Man to make sure the dogs were well rewarded for their work. They were given generous helpings of salted pork from their supply bags before the bags themselves were taken into the cave. The cave was quite spacious, with a high ceiling and a makeshift chimney to take the smoke from the firepit outside. There were even partition-like walls on each side so that each would be able to have their own privacy.

It didn’t quite feel like home, but after everything she’d been through, it was the best that Freya could hope for. It was warm, it was clean, but most importantly, it was safe. It didn’t matter if her ears were clipped or not. With Hjalmar, she was free to be her own person.

Freya didn’t know what the future would hold for her. But she knew that now, she actually had hope. That was the thought she clung to as she slipped beneath the warm water of her bath.

When she reemerged, she felt like a new person altogether.





CHAPTER THREE





DARK TIDINGS





“A rusted blade is a sign of a careless warrior. Take care of your iron like you take care of your women, and it in turn will take care of you.”

—Axioms of the Battleborn





It was midmorning by the time they left Jotungard.

Jarl marched at the head of his column, his footsteps crunching on the frost-hardened ground, his back to the great caldera as it fell into the distance behind him. He didn’t want to leave, and yet he knew that he must. Ingrid was right. Runa was right. He was just wasting time by staying there. His clanhold needed him.

His few remaining honor guards marched with him, their weapons close at hand and their eyes ever vigilant—even the hungover ones. The thrall brought up the rear, pulling their supplies like pack animals, and Runa walked in the middle, her hand clutching a satchel full of flame spirits—a gift from the Spear Maiden.

Folk stopped working and watched as they left, and of course Ingrid’s battleborn stood aside to let them pass. As far as anyone knew, this was the first time a rival Clan Lord had entered Jotungard and left with his head still attached to his shoulders. It was a momentous occasion, and all of Jarl’s energies were focused on not mucking it up.

He still felt uncomfortable when he was forced to act like a Clan Lord. It went against everything in him to pretend to be something that he was not. Custom had its own demands, however. He may not have believed that he was better than other people, but his title certainly carried that message.

Can’t wait until we’re on the open road, he thought, resisting the urge to adjust the iron circlet on his head. I just want toss this thing in the bottom of my pack where it belongs.

His chance eventually came when the farmsteads and the guardsmen disappeared around a bend in the hills. He removed his crown and put it away, his entire demeanor relaxing. The men noticed, of course, and they visibly relaxed as well.

“Never had a war leader that takes off his pride like another man takes off a coat,” Bjorn remarked. “It’s quite refreshing. Puts me at ease.”

“Quiet,” Asger snapped, giving the big man a disapproving glare.

“No, it’s all right,” Jarl said, glancing back at them. “He’s right. I don’t like it when I have to be the Clan Lord all the time. I’d rather just be another battleborn when I’m on the road.”

“A battleborn who spent the night in a Great Hall next to a beautiful woman,” Bjorn chortled. It was apparent that last evening’s mjöl was still in his blood, making him bolder and stupider than usual. “I don’t know, Jarl. I think I’d trade places with you in a heartbeat. Must be nice taking that crown on and off whenever it pleases you.”

The others stiffened, their eyes darting around uncertainly. Asger turned bright red and looked to be on the verge of exploding. Bjorn seemed oblivious to his own insubordination. He looked up at the sky and whistled a merry tune.

Jarl held up a hand and motioned for Asger to remain calm. He’d handle this himself. “It is nice,” he agreed, “but it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, Bjorn. Trust me.”

The red-bearded man turned his gaze back to Jarl and frowned. “How so?”

“The responsibility of running a clanhold is no simple thing. There’s a lot of pressure. My decisions affect the lives of thousands of people. That isn’t something I ever wanted.”

“But at least you have the Spear Maiden to keep you warm.” Bjorn waggled his eyebrows meaningfully. “That’s got to help with the stress, I imagine.”

Jarl shrugged nonchalantly. “It isn’t easy pleasing a woman like that. Count yourself lucky, Bjorn. You only have to worry about pleasing your right hand.”

The others burst into laughter, and Bjorn reddened with deserved embarrassment. “Aye, Clan Lord,” he said. “Apologies.”

Brynjar slapped the big man on the back and said something derogatory, but Jarl didn’t hear him. His eyes had shifted to Runa, and when he saw that she’d flushed a bright scarlet, his smile vanished. Stupid idiot, he thought, silently berating himself. I should’ve just kept my mouth shut.

He regretted his decision speak so brazenly about his relationship with Ingrid, but there was nothing he could do about it now. He merely turned his attention to the road ahead and pressed on.

They continued their long trek through the foothills, marching up and down switchbacks and across shadowed valley roads. The sun disappeared beneath a thick screen of clouds, and snow flurries seemed to follow them on every step of their journey, making visibility especially difficult. By this time, however, all of them were accustomed to going over rugged terrain. They’d spent many weeks traversing Jotungard territory, and the fact that they were now heading home seemed to infuse them with new energy.

No enemies accosted them as they went. Undoubtedly, the Spear Maiden’s proclamation had already been taken to every corner of her clanhold. Jarl did worry that some enterprising battleborn would try to take them on the road, but his fears proved unfounded as the day grew late. It was a peaceful, if not tiring jaunt through the snowy back country of Jotungard.

The hills grew less craggy the further south they traveled. By the time dusk was upon them, they’d nearly reached the tundra.

Jarl ordered the group to set up camp on a low-topped hill. The wind would undoubtedly be a nuisance throughout the night, but at least nobody would be able to sneak up on them. Just because they hadn’t run into any fights during the day, however, didn’t mean that bandits or draugr wouldn’t attack them as soon as the sun fell.

The tents went up in short order, and Runa helped them to light a fire in a low pit they’d dug. By the time night set in full, there camp was established and a couple of sentry posts were put in place.

Jarl helped with the preparation of dinner. He liked feeling like he was doing something productive instead of just standing and ordering people around. Ingrid had sent them along with plenty of meat and grains to see them home, and so they made use by cooking a hearty caribou and vegetable stew.

They settled in with their food around the fire, though not before Jarl gave bowls to the thrall and the two men on sentry duty. Conversation remained light as the fire crackled, sending up embers into the night. Fortunately, it had stopped snowing, and so the atmosphere remained pleasant—except for the odd gust of wind.

Jarl finished his meal in short order and was laughing along with the others when Runa approached and tapped him on the shoulder. “There’s something that I need to tell you about,” she said, speaking in a low voice. “Can we talk in private?”

Jarl nodded, slightly taken aback. “Sure.”

Together, they left the others and walked to the edge of camp, careful to keep a good distance from the sentries. Runa seemed nervous about something—more so than usual—and suddenly seemed apprehensive about speaking.

After a moment of silence, Jarl cleared his throat. “If this is about what I said before, I’m sorry. I was being an idiot, and Bjorn—”

“It isn’t about that,” she interrupted. Then she added hastily, “But thank you.”

Jarl frowned. “So, what did you want to talk to me about?”

She chewed her lip as if trying to figure out how to begin. “I’ve been meaning to speak to you about this for some time, but I haven’t found the right opportunity,” she said after a prolonged hesitation. “Now that we’re heading home....” She paused, took a breath, then continued. “It’s about the Aesir. Our Aesir, back in Norvaask. They didn’t send me on this expedition out of kindness. They wanted me to spy on you.”

“Spy on me?” He furrowed his brows. “What for? Is that a common practice in the Temple?”

Runa shook her head. “Not as far as I know. The Aesir... they consider themselves the true power in the clanholds. Clan Lords come and go through various coups, but the Temple always endures. That’s why they sent me, I think. Because they don’t trust you.”

Jarl scoffed. “What reason have I given them not to trust me? They don’t even know me.”

“Precisely. The other battleborn, the war leaders, they’re all predictable. The Aesir know how to manipulate them to get what they want—but not you. You represent a threat to them. Either you’re a puppet of Halvard Bloodhammer—whom the High Aesir despises—or you’re a rogue agent who will lead the clanhold in a way they disapprove.” Runa heaved a sigh. “I’m so sorry, Jarl.”

He looked at her. “You don’t need to apologize. This isn’t your fault.”

“No,” she said, her violet eyes meeting his, “I’m sorry that I didn’t tell you about this sooner. I’ve been in your company this entire time and haven’t had the courage to say anything.”

“It’s all right,” Jarl insisted, stepping closer to her. He took both of her hands in his and squeezed while holding her gaze. “There’s nothing to forgive. I still trust you, Runa, more than anyone. I’m just... not sure what to do with this information. What does it mean?”

Runa shrugged. “Maybe nothing. But I'd tread carefully if I were you. Clan Lords who get on the wrong side of the fireborn typically don’t last long.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

They stared at each other for a minute, and then Runa suddenly realized that they were still holding hands. She pulled away, averting her gaze and clearing her throat awkwardly. Even in near darkness, Jarl could see that she was blushing. “Anyway, I won’t betray you. I believe in what we’re doing here, and I know how big of a threat the draugr are. If anyone can get us out of this mess, it’s you.”

Jarl was quiet for a long moment. “Thank you, Runa. That means a lot.”

“Don’t mention it.” She forced a smile, then motioned back to camp. “So, now that that’s over, let’s get back. We’re going to freeze in this wind.”

Jarl nodded mutely and followed her back to the light of the fire.





The night passed without incident, and in the morning, they packed up their things and continued on their way.

Heavy clouds filled the sky, and unfortunately, so did falling snow. Bad weather followed them onto the tundra, draining their Stamina Points and giving them all the Chilled affliction, which had an effect on their stats. Even so, spirits remained high. Each step they took brought them one step closer to home, and even though many of their comrades had died in the mountains, they’d completed their quest. Their spirits would be admitted to the Immortal Halls in glory.

Another day passed by, and no enemies, undead or otherwise, attacked them. As far as Jarl could see, they were the only living things around. The vast tundra contained nothing but miles of white fields broken only by the occasional shrub or stone.

On the third day, they entered a shallow basin that was known as elk grazing territory. Jarl was leading the way, his entire face wrapped so that only his eyes were exposed. He noticed some movement up ahead and signaled for the others to halt. It was difficult to tell in the snowy haze, but it appeared like there had been some sort of fight.

“What is that?” Brynjar asked as the others came to stand around their Clan Lord.

“Not sure,” Jarl replied. “Looks like a battlefield.”

A handful of figures stood over the bodies of other figures, their shapes nothing but dark silhouettes in the distance. Jarl couldn’t make out the telltale purple eyes of the draugr, but that didn’t mean that they were friendly.

“Weapons out,” he said, retrieving his own axe from its sling. “Be on your guard.”

The others complied silently, drawing their swords and axes before carefully moving forward on the snow-covered road.

As they drew closer to the sight of the battle, it became apparent that the survivors weren’t undead. They stood tall and alive over the corpses of the slain, their banners flying proud and bearing familiar colors and runes. They were warriors from Norvaask, and they stood over dozens of bodies infested with black tentacles—draugr.

“Hail!” Jarl called to them as they approached. He pulled down his scarf so that they could clearly see his face. “We’re warriors from Norvaask. It’s good to see you.”

One of the battleborn, a captain by the look of him, broke away from the main group and met them on the road. “Hail, clansmen,” he said. “You came too late to assist in the battle. The draugr are all dead.”

“That I can see,” Jarl replied, nodding at the corpses. “Good work.”

The captain grunted. “I wasn’t aware there were any other patrols this far north. What are you lot doing here?” He looked them over with a scrutinizing eye, his hand resting on the hilt of his blade.

“We just came from an expedition to Jotungard,” Jarl explained. “We’ve been gone for more than a month, and we’re eager to get back home.”

“Jotungard?” The captain gripped his sword as if threatening to draw it. Nearby, his fellows did the same. “Why the Hel would you be up there? Is this some kind of trick?”

“It’s no trick,” Asger growled, stepping forward. “This is Jarl Beckström, your Clan Lord. So, mind your tongue or risk losing it.”

“Beckström?” The man’s eyes narrowed in confusion, then suddenly widened in understanding. “You’re our Clan Lord, Jarl Beckström?”

Jarl nodded. “The very same.”

The captain looked at his fellow warriors, then dropped to one knee. “My lord. Forgive me, I didn’t know it was you.”

“That’s all right,” Jarl replied, motioning for the man to get to his feet. “I haven’t exactly been around since taking the throne. But I’m back now. And I’m eager to be home. Tell me, is there any news from our clanhold?”

The battleborn got to his feet and looked at the other warriors, who were now all gathered around them. He suddenly appeared uneasy about something. “Things are... unwell in Norvaask, my lord. Something bad happened before we left.”

Jarl took a step forward. “What do you mean? What happened?”

“It’s Halvard Bloodhammer,” he explained. “The Shieldbreaker... he’s fallen ill. Rumor has it that his servants found him collapsed in his room, and that he hasn’t woken up since.”

“When did this happen?” Jarl demanded.

“Some weeks ago, at least,” the captain said uncertainly. The other battleborn nodded, seemingly corroborating his story. “Nobody has seen him in some time. That makes me think that these rumors are true.”

Jarl cursed. Halvard was his steward. He was supposed to be running the affairs of the clanhold in Jarl’s absence. The fact that he was sick—perhaps gravely so—did not bode well for the future of Norvaask. He turned to regard his men. “We need to get there now.” They were still about a day’s march from the rift, but they could potentially get there by nightfall if they hurried.

The honor guards, Runa included, readily agreed.

“Thanks for your help,” he said to the captain. “Safe travels to you and your war party.”

He turned to leave, but was stopped by the captain’s outstretched hand. “The roads are dangerous, and you don’t have many men. Let us go with you, my lord. We can protect you should we come across any more draugr.”

Jarl was about to tell him there was no need, but then thought better of it. It would be a sad thing indeed if they were defeated by a band of undead before they could reach their destination. “All right,” he said, nodding. “You can come with us, but we’ll be moving quickly. Make sure that you can keep up.”

“Of course,” the man said, nodding resolutely. “Come on, battleborn. Let’s follow the Clan Lord back to Norvaask!”

They continued on the road south, their ranks swelling by more than a dozen warriors.





CHAPTER FOUR





ADVENT OF THE CLAN LORD





“Strength is the foundation on which we build our lives. Without it, everything else crumbles. Do what you can to remain strong... even if it costs your very life.”

—Axioms of the Battleborn





They made it to their clanhold before the sun had fully set.

Jarl could see the Pillars of Norvaask rising from the tundra, thick fingers of pure ice jutting up from the flat expanse like the hand of a frozen god. The sight filled him with a mixture of relief and dread. He didn’t know what to expect in returning home, but he knew that immense challenges awaited him, regardless of his resolve.

He put his head down against the snowy wind and continued forward, marching quickly alongside the others. Runa and the thrall had expended their Stamina Points hours ago, and so the warriors took turns pulling them in the sled.

Now, it seemed that at long last, their journey was over.

The guards hailed them as they approached the icy blue towers, a skeleton crew compared to what usually manned the garrison. They jumped when they realized who Jarl was and sent runners up ahead of them, preparing Norvaask for the return of its Clan Lord.

Jarl’s party crossed the Frozen Terrace and turned onto the paved road leading downward, the steam from the Fjondar encircling them in warmth. Everything was moist—the ground, the walls of the ravine, even the air—but Jarl’s lungs breathed a sigh of relief. He was finally home. No matter what happened, at least he could breathe easy again in the thick, humid air.

More guards joined their group, and Jarl had to remember to put his crown back on. As they traversed the terraces and the zigzagging walkways, everyone they passed looked at them.

Not that it was much of a procession.

It was apparent that morale in the clanhold was low. Shops were shuttered and the streets were surprisingly empty. Those few who were out and about appeared haunted, downcast. They watched, not with curious excitement, but with a dull malaise that reminded Jarl of the waifs he’d seen growing up in the Dregs.

“Not a cheery homecoming, is it?” Bjorn observed.

“No,” Brynjar agreed. “It’s like graveyard down here, and these folk have all been turned into ghosts.”

The image sent a shiver down Jarl’s spine.

He wondered what could have caused such a decline. Things certainly hadn’t been this bad when he’d left Norvaask. Perhaps it was the constant threat of the undead on their doorstep, or perhaps the defeat of their armies still weighed heavily on everybody’s minds. One thing was certain: Jarl needed to go to the Great Hall and get to the bottom of it. And then he needed to address his people. They still don’t have any idea who I am, Jarl thought, chagrined. As soon as I took the title from Sten, I left, and Halvard was left behind to pick up the pieces.

It was a poor leader who ran away as soon as he got a little responsibility. Jarl would have to work extra hard in order to make up for that.

They made their way to the far southern tip of the ravine, past the lavish homes of the highborn in their private terraces. The Great Hall loomed above them all, with its high walls and iron spikes. The windows were uncharacteristically dim, like a beast half-asleep, and only a handful of guards could be seen watching over the place. They all snapped to attention as soon as Jarl arrived.

Here we are, he thought grimly as they entered the main courtyard. Home sweet home.

“Bjorn, Brynjar, you take the others and join up with the House Guard,” Asger said, taking charge as Jarl’s right-hand man. “Make sure this place is secure. I’ll expect a full report in an hour.”

The two nodded and jogged away as the thrall began to unload their supplies and make for the servant quarters.

“Asger, come with me and find Halvard,” Jarl said. “He was your war leader. You should be there to help me figure out what’s going on. Runa, I want you there as well. I trust you two the most.”

Together, they made their way up the steps to the grand double doors, the warriors they passed saluting and offering respectful greetings. Jarl ignored them all. His eyes, and his thoughts, were on what lay ahead.

The doors opened to reveal the cavernous Great Hall. It seemed so different from the last few times Jarl had been inside. The first time, they’d stormed the place, fighting with Sten and his honor guards among the columns. In subsequent visits, it had been clean and bustling with servants. Now, it was empty, and everything was covered in a fine layer of dust, the fires in the braziers burning low. It looked more akin to a tomb than a Great Hall.

“This way,” Asger said, leading the way to one of the rear corridors. Jarl wasn’t very familiar with the layout of the place, but he knew that there were several wings and bedchambers in the back. Their footsteps echoed on the stones, the dense wooden pillars with their carvings watching them like trees in a somber forest. A feeling of foreboding seemed to permeate the Great Hall. It was like Jarl himself wasn’t even welcome there.

Finally, they reached the Shieldbreaker’s room. A single battleborn stood guard outside. Jarl didn’t recognize him, but Asger addressed him by name.

“Kol, is it true? Is he sick?”

The door guard nodded gravely. “Hasn’t woken up in many days. The healers don’t think he’ll ever wake up.”

Asger cursed. “What happened?”

“No one knows,” Kol replied, shrugging. “He was fine, and then one day he just collapsed. They think he was too tired, and that his heart gave out. But that doesn’t sound like Bloodhammer.”

Jarl and Runa just looked at each other. It was obvious they were both thinking the same thing. Foul play. But by who?

“Stand aside,” Asger said at length. “The Clan Lord wants to see him.”

“Clan Lord?” Kol looked at Jarl for the first time. His eyes flicked up to the crown on his head, then widened. “This is the guy?”

“The Clan Lord,” Asger corrected. “Yes, this is Jarl Beckström.”

Kol didn’t look impressed. “If you say so,” he muttered, stepping aside. “You picked a Hel of a time to come back, my lord.”

Asger glowered at the insolent man, but Jarl merely strode past without saying a word.

The inside of the bedchamber was stale and dark. The windows had all been covered and fragrant candles flickered in a sconce by the wall. Even so, it smelled of old urine and sweat. And death. The combination made Jarl’s stomach churn.

Slowly, he went to the side of the bed and saw that Halvard was indeed incapacitated. He lay on his back with his chest exposed, and looked by all appearances to be sleeping. But even in the low light, Jarl could see that his skin was pallid and that he was skinnier than usual. A bowl of water rested on a table beside a handful of small vials and bottles, and a dirty chamber pot rested on the floor.

“I should have been here,” Jarl said aloud. His voice sounded pained in his own ears, anguished at having failed a man he looked up to. “If I hadn’t left, maybe this wouldn’t have happened.”

“You secured an important alliance with Jotungard,” Runa reminded him gently. “Don’t be too hard on yourself.”

“Something happened to my best war leader while I was away, and the entire clanhold has been suffering as a result,” Jarl said bitterly. “I’m the Clan Lord. The fault lies with me.”

Silence. The other two merely looked upon the disheartening scene, lost in their own thoughts.

I was a coward, Jarl thought. I didn’t want to lead, and so I passed my responsibility on to another and fled. That’s not something a leader does. I should have stayed here and done everything I could to live up to my new calling. A part of Jarl recalled his own inexperience after he’d slain Sten Haig. Halvard was better positioned to administer the needs of the clanhold. But the fact remained that now the man was bedridden, his body slowly withering away.

“Halvard Bloodhammer was strong,” Asger noted after a few minutes. “He was always hale. He doesn’t strike me as the sort of man that would simply succumb to illness.”

“What else could be to blame?” Jarl asked.

Asger said the next word with absolute contempt. “Poison.”

Another silence.

“Why would someone poison him?” Runa asked.

“Power? Ambition?” Asger paused before adding, “Revenge?”

“Maybe it was one of Sten’s supporters,” Jarl suggested. “Several of them escaped before we could have them rounded up.”

“Perhaps,” Asger said. “One thing is certain, though: we need to be extra vigilant. Whoever did this wanted to weaken you, Jarl. The minute your back is turned, they’ll come back to put a knife in it.”

Jarl set his jaw. Clenching his fists, he looked back down at the infirm war leader. “This won’t go unpunished,” he vowed. “Whoever did this will pay.”

“There’s still a chance he’ll wake up,” Runa said. “We can’t give up hope just yet. The Temple has some of the best healers in the clanhold. I can send for them to come take a look at him.”

“Thank you,” Jarl said. He took a deep breath and exhaled. “It looks like I’m going to have to go about this on my own. Damn it. I was hoping that Halvard could help me transition into being a Clan Lord.”

“You’re not alone,” Asger said. “Your battleborn stand beside you.”

Jarl nodded in thanks.

“I’ll do what I can to help on my side of the ravine,” Runa put in. “Although, that might prove difficult at first. I’ll have to meet with the High Aesir and see what her plans are. I’ll let you know what I find out.”

“All right, then,” Jarl said. It felt like a physical weight—the weight of responsibility—was settling upon his shoulders. He didn’t much like how it felt. “I need to send out a formal proclamation, let the people know who I am. I need to reassure them that everything is under control.” Even though, he thought inwardly, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

“I’ll get the word out,” Asger said. “Typically, the highborn and the middleborn would gather to hear the new Clan Lord speak anyway.”

“Of course,” Jarl replied, a knot forming in the pit of his stomach. “See that it gets done.”

Asger saluted, then left the room.

“I should go too,” Runa said regretfully. “The High Aesir will be eager to hear my report.” She twisted the word like it was a curse.

“That’s okay,” Jarl said, his expression softening. “Don’t hold anything back. I trust you.”

She nodded. “Farewell, then.” She went to the doorway and then paused, looking back at him demurely. “And good luck, Jarl.”

After she left, he glanced back down at the frail old man lying in the bed—the shell of the warrior he’d known. “Hold on to life, Shieldbreaker. Please. I’m going to need your help before this is all over.” He reached out and touched the war leader’s clammy hand, then backed away, leaving the gloom to go prepare his speech.

At that point, he would have rather fought another frost giant.





Nightfall came soon after, and Jarl prepared himself to bed down in the Clan Lord’s chambers. It was strange settling in the Great Hall. He was unaccustomed to living in such luxury. The rooms themselves were huge and lavishly decorated, with a large, comfortable bed and all the amenities that a person could ask for. Even his washbasin was encrusted with gold.

Despite the comfortable circumstances, sleep eluded him. He found himself pacing the polished stone floor for most of the night and standing out on the balcony, looking over his clanhold and pondering the future.

When dawn came, he picked at the feast that was prepared for him and readied himself for the day.

True to his nature, Asger moved quickly and efficiently to set up Jarl’s address. People began to gather outside the Great Hall by midmorning, curious if not enthusiastic about hearing their new Clan Lord speak.

Jarl had a queasy feeling in his gut as a pair of thrall dressed him in the raiment of his station. The clothing, soft furs and velvety robes, did little to help his Defense score, but added +2 to his Charisma Modifier. Good thing, he thought, holding his arms out so the servant could tie the sash around his waist. I’m going to need all the help that I can get today.

A mirror was brought to him. He stared into it, barely recognizing the man standing in front of him. Has it really been so long since I’ve seen my own reflection? He had the build of a battleborn now, with broad shoulders and thick arms, but he lacked any distinguishing characteristics that typically marked an established war leader. He didn’t have any notable scars or tattoos. He still had both his eyeballs and all of his teeth. He was still young, but already tired lines were forming on his forehead and in the corners of his eyes. His red hair had been brushed and oiled beneath his crown, and his beard had been plaited with a single golden ring in the middle. Hardly a mud farmer from the Dregs.

With his new clothes, he prepared himself to go out and meet his people for the first time. His honor guards, Bjorn and Brynjar, took up positions behind him as he walked through the Great Hall. Both of them had their weapons out and their armor had been buffed to a shine.

Asger met them at the double doors. “Are you ready?”

Jarl shrugged. “As ready as I’ll ever be, I suppose.”

“Try not to worry,” he said. “I’ve been to a hundred of these things before. All you need to do is declare yourself to the people and offer a few words about your commitment to lead the clanhold. That’s it. Their trust in you will build in time.”

“Let’s hope so.” Jarl looked around. He only had a handful of battleborn with him. No wives, no war leaders. Just his own personal bodyguards from Halvard’s warband. “Not much of an entourage.”

Asger grunted. “That will build in time, too.”

Jarl nodded. “All right. Let’s get this over with.”

With a wave of his hand, the guards opened the doors and Jarl stepped outside, walking onto the landing of the Great Hall like he’d seen Ivar Haig do all those weeks ago. The crowd that had gathered wasn’t very large, a smattering of middleborn onlookers and a handful of dubious-looking highborn. Even so, Jarl instantly felt intimidated. He’d never done this sort of thing before.

The sky was dark and cloudy—a bad omen?—and flakes of snow drifted down upon their heads. It was a light snowfall, but it was enough to chase away the warmth of the hot springs.

Jarl stopped at the edge of the stairs and looked out over the crowd. Since he didn’t have a huskarl to present him, Asger did the honor himself.

“People of Norvaask,” he declared, his gruff voice carrying through the courtyard, “I present to you Jarl Beckström, destroyer of draugr, slayer of frost giants, and Clan Lord. He is a man of great courage, so I urge you to heed the words that he’s about to speak.” Blunt and to the point. He stepped aside, leaving Jarl to stand alone in the front.

“I am Jarl Beckström,” he said, hesitating for only a moment. “I am the man who killed Sten Haig and took his crown. And I’m grateful for this opportunity to stand before you this day.” He scanned the crowd and beheld the many faces staring back at him. Their expressions ranged from impassive to skeptical and even troubled. Not a single person appeared happy for him to be there.

An awkward silence settled over everyone as Jarl considered his next words. He’d thought a lot about what he wanted to say this morning, but suddenly, it all felt wrong to him. He couldn’t pretend to be another Halvard Bloodhammer—that wasn’t who he was. These people would see right through him, and his Reputation would suffer.

Finally, he let out a breath. His carefully crafted speech about strength and honor evaporated like fog in his mind. “I want to start by asking your forgiveness. It’s been weeks since I became the Clan Lord, and this is the first time I’ve actually stood before you. I do apologize for that.”

He could almost hear Asger and the others cringing at his words. This wasn’t what he was supposed to say. Battleborn didn’t apologize. But Jarl hadn’t always been a battleborn. His roots were a part of who he was, and he was what his conscience told him to be.

“I’m going to be honest with you,” he continued. “I never wanted to be the Clan Lord. This position came to me quite by accident. But I have every intention of living up to what’s expected of me. I wish to serve the people, not myself.”

He started pacing on the platform, the words coming not from his mind, but from his heart. “There’s probably a lot of rumors going around about who I really am and where I come from. Let me dispel those rumors right now. I wasn’t born into a warrior’s family. I was born in the Dregs, and until recently, I was a lowborn.” This elicited more than a few gasps and mutterings from the crowd. Nevertheless, he pressed on. “I killed a raider and managed to level up, and now I am a battleborn in truth. I’ve fought draugr and monsters from legend, and a generous war leader took me into his warband, where I learned how to fight and protect.”

He paused and looked directly at the seething highborn.

“I’m not just a battleborn, but I’m not just a lowborn either. I’m a man who has mingled with every stratum of our clanhold and risen to the top. I’ve seen the undead hordes with my very eyes, and have fought and bled on behalf of our people. I may have come to this position by accident, but I’m sure as Hel going to fight to make sure Norvaask is brought back to its former glory.”

The richly dressed men and women appeared to grow angrier by the second, but those in the lower classes—the craftsmen and the merchants of the middleborn—seemed intrigued by his words.

Jarl went on to a part of his speech that he’d actually prepared. “We’re in for some dark days. The Freeze is coming, and there’s an enemy out there who will not rest until all humanity on Njordrassil is destroyed. But we’re stronger together than we are apart. If we stand as one, we can combat this evil and come out victorious on the other side. We can save the world and establish a new age of growth and prosperity—surely that is worth any price that we must pay.”

He closed by pressing his fist against his chest as a sign of respect. “I swear to you all this day that I will not rest until the enemy has been defeated. I will do everything in my power to strengthen our clanhold. Let the undead armies come. Let the storms rage. Together, we will all of us be conquerors. Honor and iron.”

There was an awkward pause followed by a smattering of applause. He stepped back from the edge of the platform and rejoined his men.

Together, they made their way back to the Great Hall as the crowd dispersed, a murmuring buzz filling the air in the wake of his speech. Jarl wasn’t sure if he’d done well. He briefly checked his stats, and was surprised to see that his Reputation had risen slightly with the middleborn faction of Norvaask. As of that moment, he was at a 5, Acknowledged rather than simply Tolerated. An improvement, he mused, blinking the stats away. Let’s see if it’ll last.

As soon as they were out of earshot, Bjorn muttered, “You, uh... certainly have a way with words, Jarl. Not the speech I would have given, but... well, I’m not the Clan Lord, am I?”

“The proof will be in the pudding,” Asger said sharply. “Words don’t matter, at the end of the day. Actions do.”

“True enough,” Jarl breathed as the doors closed shut behind them.

Now came the truly difficult part: making good on his promise to make his clanhold a better place. Frosts... what have I gotten myself into?





CHAPTER FIVE





TOO CLOSE TO THE FLAME





“Fight with courage. Kill with dispassion. Die with honor.”

—Axioms of the Battleborn





Runa felt like she was going to be sick.

The Temple of Norvaask came into view before her, a complex of elegantly carved buildings perched upon a ledge above the Fire Well. Steam wreathed the glittering terrace like a cloud, giving it an almost mystical cast in the dimness of the ravine.

It would have been an impressive sight if Runa hadn’t felt like emptying the contents of her stomach over the guard rail. She gripped the rust-pocked iron rod to steady herself as she took a series of deep breaths. You can do this, she thought, and not for the first time. You did what was required of you. The Aesir won’t know anything except what you tell them. It’s going to be all right.

The lie felt hollow, even in her own mind.

She forced her feet to keep moving, taking her ever closer to the dreaded destination. A bridge spanned the divide between the Temple and the rest of the clanhold, and as was custom, it was guarded by low-level fireborn in bright red robes. They let her pass without a single word, though they regarded her curiously as she crossed.

Once inside, Runa recalled just how deserted the Temple was now. A lot of magic users had died in the battle against the draugr, and their ranks were not so easily replenished. The entire place felt empty, and like the rest of Norvaask, it had an aura of disquiet, a general feeling of unease permeating the air. She hurried along, not pausing long enough to look anybody in the eye. The Aesir had probably already heard about her arrival. They would be expecting her in their meeting chambers at the top of the Temple itself.

Climbing the stairs, she couldn’t help but think about how everything had changed. The entire world seemed to have been turned upside down, and by some strange twist of fate, Runa seemed to be in the center of it all. Just a few months ago, she’d been an unassuming student, a fireborn with aspirations of greatness, but with no real direction in her life. That had all changed when the High Aesir took her in. Now, she was embroiled in internal politics, in love with a man who didn’t love her back, and at odds with the very people to whom she owed allegiance. How did it come to this? she wondered, shaking her head. Gods... I should have refused Sigrun’s wardship when it was offered to me. It’s brought me nothing but pain.

She reached the doors to the meeting chambers and hesitated. She’d been in this position before, and the last time, the High Aesir had slapped her and threatened her with exile. Would things be better now?

Only one way to find out, she thought, reaching a shaky hand for the latch.

Inside, the gathered Aesir sat in a wide semicircle. They broke off whatever they’d been talking about and turned to regard Runa as she entered.

“Ah, Runa. I was wondering when you’d arrive.” High Aesir Sigrun seemed as cold as a glacier when she spoke, gesturing to an empty seat next to her. “Come, sit down. We have much to discuss.”

Warily, Runa made her way over to the circle, doing her best to appear unfazed. The eyes of all the Aesir were on her, wizened old men and women who were all wearing identical, emotionless masks. “Forgive me for not sending any messages sooner,” she said, taking the proffered seat. “We were in the Howling Peaks without any access to—”

“Never mind that,” Sigrun interrupted. “That’s of little consequence now. What we care about is this new Clan Lord, Jarl Beckström—the man you were able to spend weeks with in the wilderness. Tell us... what were you able to learn?”

Runa hesitated only briefly before delving into the story of what had transpired on their journey north. As Jarl suggested, she left nothing out. She detailed their trek to Jotungard, fighting the draugr, and convincing the Spear Maiden to allow them to serve her clanhold. She told them about how they’d gone to Frostfire Forge and destroyed a rogue tribe of frost giants, and how, after they returned to Jotungard, they’d supported the Spear Maiden in her duel to become Clan Lord. She spoke at length about their travels, and by the time she finished, she felt like her ears were burning. She wasn’t accustomed to speaking for so long uninterrupted.

“And... that’s it,” she finished, smoothing out the front of her robes with clammy hands. “After that, we came home. And now we’re here.”

“And now you’re here,” Sigrun repeated, her expression cool and impassive. She stared at Runa for a prolonged minute before sweeping her gaze to the other Aesir around the room. “It appears that the problem is worse than we thought. The whelp actually managed to secure peace with Jotungard.”

Several of the others nodded their agreement, muttering gravely among themselves.

Problem? Runa gave the High Aesir a questioning look.

“Oh, don’t be naïve, child,” Sigrun said contemptuously. “War is how the fireborn stay in power. An alliance among the clans of battleborn—between the clanholds, no less—is a threat to everything that our ancestors have built.”

“Conflict is the way of this world,” one of the eldest of the Aesir noted. The old man tugged at his knotted white beard as he addressed Runa. “The gods we worship have indicated as much. Through peace, men grow fat and weak. Only through constant war are warriors and magic wielders able to enter the Immortal Halls.”

“With Norvaask and Jotungard united, the Spear Maiden and this Jarl will hold all the power,” Sigrun explained like Runa was an idiot. “Every warband from the Ice Barrens to the Howling Peaks will be at their disposal, and the fireborn—split between the two disparate Temples—will have little leverage against them. The eternal war was a boon to our kind. If there is peace, then our way of life will cease to exist.”

Runa couldn’t help but point out the obvious. “But there won’t be peace. The draugr—”

“The draugr are a common enemy,” the High Aesir said caustically. “Nothing galvanizes a truce like a common enemy.”

“Eventually the war will end,” another Aesir chimed in. “This undead rabble will be rousted, and we’ll be left to pick up the pieces. Surely, peace won’t be able to last long after that.”

“That’s assuming the Aesir will even last until then,” Sigrun said. She rubbed at her temples like she had a headache. “With the Clan Lords united together, they’ll eventually come knocking on our door. They’ll have the urgency to seize our fireborn—and with them, our power—and they’ll have the strength to back them up. If we resist, then we’ll be crushed, simple as that.” She heaved a sigh. “That leaves us with only one option: Jarl Beckström needs to be eliminated.”

Runa stiffened. She could hardly believe what she was hearing. The Aesir conspiring to overthrow a sitting Clan Lord? She’d never heard of such a thing before.

“We’ll need to act fast,” the same old man from before put in. “Once this Jarl figures out how to rule, we won’t be able to get close to him. He’s most vulnerable right now.”

“We’ve already dealt with Halvard Bloodhammer,” an elderly woman said. “Aslaug and that sniveling huskarl have already proven themselves to be worthy pawns.”

“Aslaug is too ambitious,” Sigrun replied scornfully. “But she still may prove useful. If she can sink her talons into one of the war leaders, we may have a new Clan Lord to replace him with—someone more amenable to our desires.”

They continued talking, casually discussing the assassination of the one person on Njordrassil Runa truly cared about. As the minutes crept by, the blood drained from her face. Her nausea returned, and for a second, she felt like she was going to be sick all over again. What should I do? she wondered. Should I say something? Get up and leave? I already know too much; they’d never let me escape. She clasped her hands tightly together in her lap and waited, trying desperately to appear serene and detached.

The High Aesir seemed to take notice of her discomfort and turned to regard her. “You look like you’re about to pass out, my child.” There wasn’t a trace of compassion in her voice. Her eyes seemed to bore into Runa’s like augurs. “You must be confused. Allow me to explain something to you. This isn’t the first time the Temple has intervened in the politics of battleborn, and surely it won’t be the last. It’s a truth for nearly every clanhold on Njordrassil. We’re not bound to the strict rules of conduct that bind the other classes. We are elevated, more elite. The gods have chosen us to lead the rabble, and so we do everything we can to ensure the structures of power don’t change. Do you understand?”

Runa nodded dumbly. She felt like she was watching the proceedings from somewhere very far away.

Sigrun watched her, searching for something, then lit up in sudden understanding. She chuckled and shook her head. “Ah, yes. Of course. You love him. Jarl Beckström... you’ve bungled far more than you’ll ever know.” She nodded to one of the servants, who swiftly left the room.

“I’d hoped that it didn’t have to come to this.” She looked back at Runa and appeared genuinely regretful for half a second. “You’re a promising young fireborn, Runa Haig. You have great talent and I see much of myself in you. But to become an Aesir, one trait takes importance above them all: conviction. If one lacks conviction, they’re just kindling, destined to be cast into the fire so that another’s flame can burn brightly.”

Runa frowned. Confused, she opened her mouth to ask what the High Aesir meant, but stopped when the door opened back up. Two Vanir walked into the room, seasoned fireborn with slashes of white on their otherwise red robes.

Sigrun pointed to Runa. “Take this one to the dungeons,” she commanded, speaking like she was asking a thrall to clear away her dinner plate. “See that she isn’t mistreated, but bind her in shackles. We wouldn’t want her escaping.”

Runa gaped as the men approached, her eyes widening in shock. “What’s happening? Why are you doing this?”

“Don’t resist,” Sigrun admonished coolly. “We don’t want to have to kill you.”

“But... but I’ve done everything you asked!”

The High Aesir shook her head like a disappointed parent. “Conviction,” she said again. “Perhaps when all this unpleasantness has been dealt with, you can be redeemed. I’d hate to have to select another ward. Take this time to think about what you truly want out of this life. Until then... we have work to do.”

Runa didn’t attempt to fight her way out. Even if she had time to drink her flame spirits, she didn’t have the experience to fight off an entire room of high-level fireborn.

As she was led away, she couldn’t help but despair. This was all so wrong... but if standing up for what was right had landed her in this position, was it even worth it? That, and other troubling thoughts, plagued her as she was taken into the bowels of the Temple, perhaps never to see the light of day again.





CHAPTER SIX





MYTHS AND LEGENDS





“Training is more important than talent. Sweat more in training and you’ll bleed less in war. That is what we try to instill in our youngbloods.”

—Axioms of the Battleborn





Freya cleared her mind for the thousandth time that day, breathing in and letting out slowly, the wind ruffling her short red hair. Her back ached from sitting up straight for hours on end, and her rump had gone numb hours ago, yet she was determined. She would master her soulfire, and she would resume her fireborn training with Hjalmar.

Quitting simply wasn’t an option.

She embraced the void and ignored all sensory feeling, instead turning her attention inward, to the very depths of her soul. There, she found a hidden reserve of power, a well that was always there and yet maddeningly out of reach. Still breathing slowly, she quested for the soulfire, moving forward steadily, carefully, determinedly. It wouldn’t do to hesitate, nor could she move too quickly. In either scenario, the power would slip through her fingers and she would be forced to begin the entire process from the beginning. Again.

The fingers of her soul brushed the edge of that energy source. Instantly, she could feel her Magic Points increasing.

+1... +2... +3 Magic Points





Freya remained utterly emotionless. She held her position like a dancer holding a difficult pose. Only when she was absolutely sure that her soul was steady did she press onward, dipping her fingers even deeper into the well.

+5 Magic Points.





+10 Magic Points.





It was working. She could feel the power surging within her.

Stifling her excitement, she retreated, pulling away from the soulfire while holding on to the Magic Points that she’d been able to accumulate. It felt like she was holding her breath for a prolonged period of time. Extending both hands, she began to draft, spending 10 Points to conjure a spell: Flaming Grasp.

Her palms radiated heat, the skin itself glowing white hot. Freya reached down and pressed her hands to the ground, inflicting 2d6 fire damage on the snow. It sizzled and melted away in a matter of seconds, leaving only bare stone.

Grinning, she released the spell along with her concentration. Her Magic Points evaporated like steam, but she didn’t care.

She’d finally done it. After days of constant practice, she’d managed to call upon her soulfire once again.

Exhausted, she got to her feet and stretched, her muscles protesting after being cramped for so long. Her trousers were wet and her toes were numb, but her fingers were still hot from the magic she’d channeled. Finally, some progress. It was a good day.

She made her way down from the rise, taking the familiar path that would lead her back to the Old Man’s cave. By now, it was well-worn with her footprints, as this was where she came several times a day to practice. It wound from the hilltop down into the divide between two hills, the small valley cozy and protected from the violence of the wind. The air smelled of woodsmoke, and she breathed deeply of the scent, a contented smile gracing her lips.

Frostfang glanced up at her as she walked past. His muzzle was stained red from a fresh kill—an elk calf whose remains were spread about like a grizzly feast on the ground. The big hound sniffed, then returned to his meal, gnawing on a leg bone and ignoring the other two dogs that were sitting a few paces away, their eyes staring longingly at all the exposed meat.

Freya picked her way through the defile until she reached the cave. Hjalmar was there, sitting on a stool near the entrance. He was binding what looked to be a bundle of supplies, salted pork, hardtack, and pickled vegetables in a leather wrap.

His bushy white eyebrows climbed as she approached. “You look chipper this afternoon,” he noted, tying off the bundle in his lap.

Freya couldn’t help but grin at him. “I got closer today,” she said. “18 Magic Points, and I was able to hold them all while I drafted.”

Hjalmar smiled as well. “That’s wonderful. I knew that you had it in you.”

She beamed, then noticed that the Old Man had a pile of similarly wrapped bundles. They were meals, packaged as if for travel. “Are you going somewhere?”

“We are,” he corrected with a nod. “Sooner rather than later. I just want to be prepared.”

“Ah, yes,” she replied. “This long journey you’ve been talking about. I’d almost forgotten.”

“Well, I haven’t.” Hjalmar grunted as he stood, tossing the bundle with the others before going deeper into the cave.

Freya followed.

“I’ve been planning this trip for a while now,” he explained. “Before I even met you, in fact. It’s long been a quest of mine, and with everything going on in the world, I think that the time is finally right. But this isn’t a journey that can be taken lightly. We have to take every available precaution.”

“Every precaution?” Beast chimed in. The mink emerged from some blankets and scurried up Hjalmar’s leg. “You’ve packed enough supplies to last for a decade!”

“Quiet, now,” Hjalmar scolded. “There’s no harm in being prepared.”

Beast perched upon the Old Man’s shoulder. His red eyes regarded his master doubtfully. “Prepared... If you say so. I just think that you’re scared about where you’re going.”

Hjalmar grunted and began rummaging through a basket full of leather scraps.

“So,” Freya began, trying not to sound overly curious, “where exactly are we going?”

“I’ll tell you when you’re ready.” It was the same response he’d given her half a dozen times.

She crossed her arms. “You know, I’ve come a long way already.” It was true. They’d been here almost a week, and her mastery of her soulfire was improving. “What’s the harm in telling me? It’s just knowledge. Knowledge never hurt anybody.”

Hjalmar paused and let out a sigh. “Knowledge can be a distraction. I need a full fireborn by my side if we’re going to survive this trip. Right now, you should be focusing.”

If her interest wasn’t piqued before, it surely was now. Why was this place so dangerous? What could the Old Man possibly be after? She decided to press her luck one more time. “You know... knowledge can also motivate. If I had a better idea of where we were going on this trip, it might give me more of a reason to practice. It could save you time, in the end.”

Hjalmar regarded her over his shoulder, considering.

Freya put on the most innocent look that she could muster.

Speech Check: 11 + Charisma Modifier (1).

Successful.





After a minute, Hjalmar sighed again. “Sometimes, I forget that you trained in the Temple. Those fireborn always have a way of getting what they want.” He shook his head and walked over to the fire, gesturing for Freya to have a seat. “All right, then, apprentice. I suppose it couldn’t hurt to let you in on a little lore.”

Pleased with herself and excited, Freya sat down opposite him, close enough to the coal