Watching the last White Ship sailing away was the most heart wrenching thing I have ever done. I forced myself not to look away, if I could not look my Elders in the eye as they departed I would not give them the satisfaction of turning away now. Bile boiled in my stomach with anger at their desertion of both my people and the younger races who’s needed us now more than ever. Part of me expecting them to return and face the chaos the Elders had let happen but as the river fog began to close over the swans head Silanthus stood and held up his arm, bent at the elbow that was tucked into his side as a final farewell gesture I knew this was the last time I would ever see any of them.
“Remember, there may be long-term effects of your vision, past present or future. Fair well.” His voice was as clear as if he was standing by my side.
I forced myself not to turn to the sound of his voice and watched as the last Great White Ship was enveloped by the mist.
“That was a bit dramatic, what kind of parent can they call themselves running away like that.” Strike said in an attempt to lift my mood and breaking the silence.
Korra said nothing, she was in total awe of witnessing, first-hand the one of the most important parts of Elven history.
Turning away, looking towards the Ziggurat I could see the fifty that had remained behind; watching them mill around like lost children the emotions on their faces clearly showing they shared my feelings of disbelief, regret, anger, and also wanting it all to be a bad dream. If Silanthus waving goodbye was not proof of the reality of the situation, then watching the ship disappear like the sun sink below the horizon certainly was. Korra managed to find her voice and leaned over to me.
“Is there some sort of celebration?” She whispered.
‘For saying goodbye to everything you have ever known and believed and knowing that there is no way of ever claiming it back?’ I thought bitterly, but I just said “Not really, no.”
“So what do we do now?” she asked, I had a feeling this was going to go in her song too.
“Carry on as normal,” I said with a shrug.
Turning to walk away from the river’s edge I heard Zephandius’ voice, “They have abandoned us brothers and sisters…”
I could not help but smile, the last of our race had not even been gone for a few heart beats and already this mini tyrant had to rub salt into the wound; my gut told me that if there was to be a war he would be one of those to start it then be safely at the back.
“…Those committed to staying behind, now is the time to be known to the younger races. Do not hide like our leaders. I call on you, all of you, brave of heart to be brave one last time and present ourselves to the Emperor as aid to his people. The fire of our race has not burned out! Let us fight one last time!” je shouted passionately.
Strike, a fly in anyone’s ointment if he chose to be raised his hand and Zephandius turned, “Yes my friend?” He may have thought he was being welcoming but where Strike came from that was the words spoken right before the first punch was thrown.
“I have a question, as a member of one of the younger races.”
Zephandius nodded for him to continue.
“What happens when they don’t listen?” He asked with the air of someone willing to bet money on what will happen.
“I will ask to speak with them. As some chose not to stay I would not fight them to listen.”
“But they may see you to be a threat, Dark Elves attacking Humans after all.”
“I do not know of these Dark Elves of which you speak but I would seek an audience with the Emperor…”
“Why not instead of going to the Emperor, speak with local village rulers to get followers?” Strike suggested with a smirk.
“I would speak with the Emperor about…” Zephandius tried to speak again but was interrupted this time by Korra.
“If you approach at the bottom, by the time you reach the City your argument may be more persuasive.”
“You have a very good point, but with the very little time that we do have we need to act. Humans may not feel the corruption of the Lands but Elven kind can,” he stopped and thought for a moment before continuing “I will meditate on what you have said and talk with the others in the morning.” Zephandius disappeared into the Ziggurat.
Realising the show was over for now Korra stopped scribbling down her notes and looked at me, “What do you want to do?” The Elves, also realising that the meeting had come to an end began to empty out of the courtyard.
“We need to know more about the Dark Elves,” I said, staring at nothing.
“Where is it, the tree I mean?” Strike asked the question I could not answer.
“All I know is that it is in the forests but I have told you all I saw.”
“The forests west of here, in Human legends anyway, are dark woods, full of bones and swampy jungle.” Korra volunteered.
“Ah, yeah but some legends of dark and haunted forests are only to the west because Northlanders killed a few people who entered the trees and never returned. Oooooo don’t go in there, such and such went in there and was never seen again,” he said waiving his hands in the air as he would telling a child a ghost story.”
“It’s still a good a place as any to start,” I said resisting the urge to stick my tongue out at him.
* * *
It was fairly easy traveling across the river, south of Three Rivers there was very little traffic, it was understandable humans were being attacked in their own villages, they would not feel safe enough to travel far; we were undisturbed as we crossed the bridge and headed west into the jungle, by force of habit I felt the mood of the land. Somehow the anger in the land had grown stronger, had I not been expecting it, it would have been almost too strong for me to control, I swallowed hard, trying to somehow swallow down the hatred. I knew I had to tell the others but at the same time not lash out at them.
“You know. You know how the Elves have been…” I began through gritted teeth.
“Running away?” Strike cut in. Usually this would have made me laugh not now I felt the wrath of the lands rise up and before I could stop myself I retaliated.
“Look if you don’t want to fucking listen” I snapped
“Is it important?” He said in with a smile on his face. Something that generally would have defused the situation but it riled me even more.
“If you don’t want to fucking listen, then fine!” I shouted, trying to suppress the rage.
“Well, what is it?” Strike said with the same smirk. Oh how I wanted to wipe the smile off his face.
“Fuck off then! Fine, don’t listen then!” I screamed at the rage and at Strike
“I do” Korra said meekly
“This rage in the land is somehow stronger than ever before, I don’t know if I will be able to contain it.” I said calming down enough to speak in full sentences.
“How bad is it?” She asked quietly.
“Bad enough that I may need to be restrained at some point.” I admitted. I felt better for being able to tell them.
Without another word Korra picked up her flute and began to play the songs she had learned inside the Ziggurat, hearing the words of my childhood sung in Korra’s soft hypnotic tones seemed to quell the resentment I held and seeing the endless melodies irritate Strike chased away any lingering animosity.
Now that my mind was not clouded I found myself thinking if I could feel the effects of whatever it was and it was powerful enough for me to tear into close friends then how would the land lash out? Curious how the influence may be infecting the land I gazed around the jungle, although the trees were upright and growing they looked as if they were rotting. Dark, slime coloured leaves grew from the higher branches and the solid wooden trunks looked spongy and frail; as we continued our journey the trees became worse, until the trunks and leaves took on a grey colour I had only ever seen on a leprous corpse.
“Humour me here, are you seeing the same as me?” I asked my companions
“It is a wood,” Strike said pointing out the obvious.
“You are not helping,” I tried to warn him.
“I come from the Northlands, all we see is snow, that and giant white bears. It’s a wood. I don’t know what they’re supposed to look like.”
“Yes, I do,” said Korra, trying to stop the argument before it begun.
“Then are trees supposed to be the same colour of putrid corpses?” I snapped back. Realising that I was about to start fighting with the only people I trusted I walked a little way off to try to quieten the rage inside.
While I was pulling myself together Strike, noticed something half hidden in the rotting undergrowth; from where I stood I saw him bend down and after rummaging around produced a battle axe, the blade was pitted and rusty, presumably from where it had been lying on the wet grass and from the look of the decaying metal it had been there for some time. My eyes travelled down the weapon to the wooden haft, what I saw did not make sense, I took a step closer to get a better look and realised my eyes were not deceiving me, the hollows in the wood where the rot had eaten into the shaft were oozing a thick deep red sap like substance making the handle look as if it was bleeding.
Sensing that something was not right I began walking over to Strike my mouth open forming the words to warn him; before I could speak an almost comical look of revulsion spread across his face as he felt the slime between his fingers, he bent forward carefully and after a few heartbeats and the sound of rustling grass and a strange soft sigh Strike stood up again and began to wipe his hand on all and anything around him. When it could not be scraped off he tried flicking it off only to find the abnormal substance had adhered to his hand he took a leather water bag and began to wash his hands, he must have stood up too quickly as he suddenly became very pale and clammy, almost as if he had caught a chill.
“That is poison,” he said, making his actions a lot clearer.
Looking behind him I could now explain the soft sigh, lying behind Strike was the decaying body of a Northlander; animals, bugs and decay had eaten away too much of his flesh for the body to be identified any clearer than of his homeland and if to answer honestly it was more his clothing that gave away that secret. His chest had caved, possibly from the axe placed there and the reason for the detached sigh and why Strike was busy trying to scrape the blood red gloop from his hand.
While Korra busied herself with not seeing breakfast again I looked helplessly at Strike.
“I am a shape shifter not a healer, I know nothing of poisons or cures,” I apologised.
“I’ll be fine,” He shrugged.
“Let me know if I can be of any help,” I offered. I really didn’t want my emotional ties with the land to come between us.
Feeling a little braver Korra stood up, “Could it be ingested or skin contact?” All three of us looked at the surrounding jungle.
“Try not to touch the forest,” Strike ordered then realised how hard that would actually be. Looking for the path of least resistance forced us to study the vegetation, not something that most spend their time on unless gathering ingredients for rites or rituals which is why none of noticed that the trees were also bleeding from knots and holes in the trunks.
“I’m going to stab a tree,” Strike announced. I looked at him, questioning whether the poison was working faster than first thought.
“What?” he asked, seeing my confusion.
“And if a branch comes crashing down through the canopy and catapults you to the Gods knows where, what then?”
“Then we have found Oak Heart.”
Lunging forward he successfully stabbed a trunk, the blade of his rapier sinking further than expected. Pulling the sword out the same blood like sap began to trickle down the sickly coloured bark.
“Ta da! We have found poison,” he said with a flourish. Strike crouched down and watched the thick liquid crawl down the timber, “The poison appears to be the sap of the tree but not of the tree.” His voice sounded strange, the poison was defiantly affecting him.
“Is that some form of Human Higher Seer sort of a thing?”
“No,” he snapped before trying to explain again, “It is in the tree but it is not part of the tree.”
“Something’s poisoning the land then?” Korra suggested.
“Yes I imagine so as it feeds off the land,” Strike replied.
“No, there is no evidence of the earth being poisoned, only the plants and trees are effected,” Korra pointed out.
Strike suddenly had a look of grim realisation, “This reminds me of a story from home. A man trapped in an unhappy marriage attempts to poison his wife. Not an honourable act, the word for poison in the Northlands means woman’s revenge. And the reason I was banished. Anyway, this wife was a very intelligent woman and tricks him to drink from the poisoned cup. This is a very cowardly act, we believe that if you die from poison and not battle when you get to the Gates of Valhalla those gates would be closed. Forcing your spirit to wander the worlds for all eternally. So, he wandered the land of the dead and eventually found himself back in the lands of the living. Because his spirit is corrupted when he returns from the grave he corrupts the land he walks on. After a time of searching he finds and kills his wife. In the story the land returned to healed itself when he had avenged his cowardly death and could return to rest.”
Hearing this legend made us all speechless, “So we know what is wrong but was mulchy guy a bystander or involved?” Korra spoke slowly, trying to form the words that for the moment escaped all of us.
“I’d say no, he was just infected.”
Silence enveloped us for a second time.
“Would you be welcome home?” An uncomfortable silence followed Korra’s question to Strike and he laughed nervously.
“Well, you might be alright…” he pointed at Korra “They have never seen an Elf before so you’re ok…” he directed at me. “But me? Well maybe all will be forgiven,” he finished sarcastically, “But if we must,” He said with a deep sigh.
I turned to face him to try to give him some comfort but coming over Strike’s shoulder was the puss filled, putrefying disintegrating body lumbering towards us with his hand, dripping in flesh and slime stretched out, revealing the sharp tips of finger bones that looked very much like claws; I felt the rake of dead man’s fingers slash down my side and with a squeal that changed to a squawk I shape shifted into a macaw and flew upwards to the safety of the tree above. Out the corner of my eye I could see blue and red feathers fluttered down as I fought for height, where the claws had slashed at my side as I shifted, instead of the burning warning feeling of an unclean injury I felt coldness that almost burned before turning numb.
Korra, not used to holding a weapon, waved an unsteady blade towards the walking corpse trying to attract its attention, seeing the bard the shambling figure staggered towards her, arms outstretched trying to grab her; using this distraction to his advantage Strike stalked the creature and managing to get right up behind him, drawing the blade of his rapier across the back of it’s neck, severing the head from the body. This did not seem to affect the animated corpse the way we had hoped, instead of the body dropping to the floor it stumbled before righting itself and continued to claw at Korra. Expecting it to turn on Strike he quickly backed off before finding another vantage point and waiting for his pray to edge closer. The head had tumbled to the ground and rolled to a stop at the trunk of a tree, on hitting the bark the jaw snapped open and an ear piercing shriek tore through the forest. The screech was answered by the sound of splintering rotten wood, the sound flung me back to my vision of the Dark Elf tree roots and feeling sick from what could be making the sound I found myself staring at the roots of the surrounding trees; they slid over each other like snakes in a sack before the remains of a hand burst through and began pulling whatever it was attached to out of an unmarked grave.
What emerged had once been an Orc but time and the corruption that had poisoned everything it came in contact with had only left a few grisly hints of who it had once been; “WATCH YOUR FEET!” I squawked. An icy grip was trying to crawl through my body leaving me feeling weakened and unwell. From my vantage point in the tree I could see several places where the roots seemed to be alive before four more corrupted souls heaved out of the earth; there was the Orc, a Human Northlander (with his enormous build and two short axes, the weapons of choice for a Northlander barbarian he could not be mistaken for anything else), a Human settler (from the threadbare remains of his clothing) and an elf.
Ignoring the newcomers or too busy to notice them advancing Korra slashed wildly at the first walking corpse and with luck on her side one of the blows caught the creature down its shoulder and through the collapsed chest cutting it in two, as it fell there was a tearing sound as its bone claws scraped down her leather armour, leaving little protection against the four abominations still standing. Realising that my current form was not ideal for fighting I changed back and still crouching on the branch that I had flown onto I loaded the Orc short bow Strike had given me back on the shoreline after the first Orc attack. I knew it was only down to shear dumb luck if I managed to hit my target, I was not used to weapons of any sort that were not already attached to me, but I took a deep breath to steady myself and, on the point where inhale turned back to exhale, I loosed my arrow at the poor creature that was once an Elf. Either the creature moved too quickly or I was unlucky, either way my bolt missed the target, pink slurry sprayed up and outwards as the arrow skimmed the side of the Elf’s skull, well I got its attention at least.
It took very little time for the dead Elf to cross the ground, a strange sort of bestial scuttle that used both arms and legs to run, and before I could blink it was at the base of the tree digging its exposed finger and toe bones into the soggy trunk, I hurriedly loaded again and with no time to aim shot at the Elf again; I watched the arrow fly past the creature, this seemed to spur the walking dead Elf on and with great strength it leapt onto the end of the branch I was standing on. The Elf dropped on all fours, like an animal ready to strike and lunged at me, claws extended; ice cold pain that took my breath away surged through my shoulder as the walking dead creature burrowed its sharp finger bones deep into my flesh, it is strange how, when you feel you are about to die, how sharply things come into focus. Although I was not watching Strike or Korra fight, when the corruption of the abomination began to flow through me I looked down and saw Korra, driven by terror hack and slash at the advancing Human Settler sending pieces of flesh, skin and clothing flying into the air, her attack having no effect on the creature and her look of horror as its clawed hand raked across her face.
Strike, not far from Korra had successfully hacked the Orc to pieces, the scraps twitched, still animated by the poison coursing through the bodies but unable to do anything, an arm spasmed, grabbing at thin air and I am sure that an eye, still encased in a shard of skull rolled in its socket trying to look around; the shock of seeing this brought me back to my attacker and drawing strength from my terror I shape shifted into a mountain gorilla. I forced my hand into its mouth and grabbed the Elf’s face but the poison from my wounds had drained my strength and instead of ripping his jawbone from his head the Elf’s jaw clamped down on my hand; my only hope now lay in destroying the creature as fast as possible. I looked down to see where Strike and Korra were, Korra was still in a blind panic and weakening fast, slashing madly at her attacker while Strike slipped behind the human settler and buried the blade of his rapier deep in the small of the creatures back pulling up and splitting the abomination in half.
Seeing they were both out of danger I pulled at the last of my strength, using the fear and rage of the land to spurn me on I pushed off out into the air, the Elf continued to chew on my arm as I twisted round, forcing him underneath me and using the bulk of my form slammed the creature into the ground liquefying the corrupted Elf. Hearing the sound of me hitting the ground the dead Northlander turned and lumbered towards me, wearily I pulled myself up, ready for his attack when out of nowhere Strike appeared behind him and cut him down in a frenzied attack, hacking and slashing until there was nothing left to get back up.
Korra, barely able to stand in her weakened state, still found the strength to completely heal me, once satisfied I was healthy she urged us to keep moving, “I know of the urgency you feel but if you let me treat your wounds it will only take a few hours rather than days,” I explained, pulling poultices, bandages and herbal pastes out of my bag not waiting for her to answer. She nodded, too weak to answer, I began to treat the worst of her injuries when I noticed that the jungle was quiet, not like after a fight where all senses are heightened, this was the sound of the grave. There was us, the unnatural twitching limbs of the dissected walking dead, all making noise but there were no forest sounds, no birds, insects, animals, the normal music of the jungle.
I glanced around, still busy applying herbal pastes to bandages and dressing Korra’s wounds the trees still looked like they were rotting where they stood but did not seem to be getting any worse.
“This mystery tree in the nameless place, how are we supposed to destroy it?” Strike asked, picking at his boot.
“I say we burn it, everything can be cleansed with enough fire,” I mused bandaging the wound on Korra’s leg.
“Hmm,” Strike tilted his head to one side, it was easy to tell he liked the idea, “Too wet though,” he concluded.
“Can we not slaughter a few animals?” Korra murmered, still clearly weak from the attack. Strike and I looked at her, confused. “To get the tallow?” She explained hurriedly.
“There is nothing here, can you not hear it?” I began packing up what was left of my healing bag. ‘When I find some heathy vegetation I must gather all I can carry’ I thought to myself.
“Not really… human,” she said, referred to my contact with the lands, I shook my head.
“Can you hear the silence?” I gasped, amazed that they didn’t notice it before.
They strained to hear anything then from out of nowhere a boom like thunder, rasping, voice with a tone of that a high born lady would pick up something the cat brought in with a pair of tongs rumbled around us, “COWARD!”
We all looked around, expecting another form of attack at any moment, satisfied of no immediate danger we looked at each other, both Korra and I shared a look of bewilderment while Strikes shoulders sagged at some sort of recollection.
“THE GATES OF VALHALLA ARE CLOSED TO SUCH AS YOU!” The disembodied voiced hissed.
“As they are to you,” Strike replied mockingly.
“So you recognise it then?” Korra enquired.
“No, but I have an idea,” Strike said sighing.
Sitting down I emptied my head and took a deep breath, exhaling slowly, I placed my hands out to my sides and down on the ground, I let my eyes rolled back as I freed myself from my worldly chains and melded with the land. I retched, I felt my body trying to rid itself of the poison in the land, every fibre of my being screamed at me that this was wrong, but behind it was some form of intelligence, willing it along.
Natural disasters were bad, this cannot be disputed but they are random acts that crash together to form chaos, this was controlled, it had poisoned the land so strongly that I found myself being smothered, I began fighting for breath, it felt as if I was drowning in the corruption. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end, someone or something was standing directly behind me, I clenched my fists to gain some self-control and forced myself to turn around slowly.
A shadow three times as tall as Strike loomed over me, loathing pouring off the shadow so thickly that it was terrifying; there were no features to this being, much like there are no features to your own shadow but two large horns sat on its head, possibly part of the creature or maybe just some form of trophy or armour, the outline of its clothing looked to be thick furs of some kind and where its eyes should have been were two red glowing points of light. Looking down I could see its arms were huge and muscular. In its right hand was an axe almost as big as me and its left hand was dripping in blood, before I could speak the entity twisted the axe in its hand and swung at me; fear gripped me but I managed to move just in time, the blade sliced across my chest, it had meant to be a killer blow; my body decided to take control and dodged as my brain was hiding in a corner somewhere.
I slammed back into my body in time to see a thin red line open up where the sharp edge had caught my chest, the shock of the confrontation hit me and I fell back onto the dank grass; seeing me wounded Korra staggered over and tried to heal me with one of her ballads, unfortunately her own injuries distracted her too much and for once, she was unsuccessful. Her melody was drowned out by the voice from Strike’s past, “THE BLOODY HAND AWAITS!”
Sure that there was nothing more to add I explained to Strike and Korra what I witnessed while I tried to dress my wound with what I had left over in my bag, Strike began pacing up and down, he looked livid.
“The bloody left hand is a how we elect a new chief. All those who wish to rule enter the fight and last one standing wins. The corruption may be the result of me poisoning him.”
“So we have to kill you?” I said brightly.
“No, I have to face him.”
Korra opened her mouth but before she could speak there was a crashing through the undergrowth from something that sounded very big, unable to see any decent cover I shape-shifted into a grass snake and slid into the underbrush. Korra and Strike were about to hide when an elf, badly wounded fell through the vegetation, the top half of his body was a network of wounds and he held onto one arm, as he came closer we could see that it was almost completely hacked off. Relief swept over him when he saw my companions, seeing no danger I transformed back to my Elven form, he looked even more thankful on seeing myself.
“Thank goodness! I sensed an Elf here and hoped I would find someone,” he nodded his thanks to Korra as she tied a tourniquet around his arm, while she worked she sang an Elven healing song and, in time managed to heal him almost entirely.
“I did not know if anyone had survived. It was a massacre. They took us by surprise, we had no chance!”
“What happened?” Strike said slowly, trying to coax some sense out of the petrified Elf.
“Zephandius was rousing some followers to visit a few of the settlements to rally the Humans when the Ziggurat was attacked by dark shadows,” Zephandius told some of us to flee and carry a warning to nearby settlements.
“We need to find the Human settlements, we need to warn people, that is if any still live,” Korra added bitterly.
“No, there is no point wasting time telling people about it when we can stop it at the source.”
“Send him to warn the settlements,” Korra nodded towards the messenger.
“Yeah,” I agreed
“By the Elders! What happened here?” the elf asked, looking around for the first time.
“The dead are restless and rising. Watch for zombies.” It was important enough for all of us to speak at once, the elf swallowed hard and nodded.
“I must get to the surviving settlements and warn them,” he whispered
“I suggest a white flag, human settlements have been under attack. They may be hostile,” Korra said handing him a square of cloth I had stored for bandages.
“Yes, I agree,” he replied taking the cloth.
“Remember, there may be no survivors,” Strike said grimly.
The messenger nodded solemnly, saying “Good journey,” before walking away.
“Good journey,” we replied.
Somehow I think we were going to need all the blessings we could get.
* * *
We headed to the very edge of the jungle where the decaying trees began to thin out and give way to the icy snow covered mountains and barren rocky wilderness of the Northlands, compared to the hot, humid, warm, damp climate of the jungle with a unique, organic smell of vegetation both decaying and living side by side the air was cold, arid and crisp which tried to freeze your throat if inhaled deeply enough with a strange hint of tin which I was informed was the scent of snow. Our journey continued through this new terrain and I found myself excited at all the new discoveries, I had travelled over this type of land before but quickly and not with someone born and raised, knowing the lands as I knew the jungle. Breathing in the new aromas of this foreign land I found a trace of scent that once smelt was never forgotten, the heavy, pungent, spicy smell of smoke.
Leaving the tree line behind us we climbed over the ridge of a hill and were met with a scene devastation, the village of Axehome, a once proud and strong home to Northlanders was now nothing but smouldering ruins; no-one had been spared, men, women and children cut down like animals, the stench of rotting corpses and roasting flesh mixed with the acrid smoke created a smell that seemed to fill my whole world, I would never forget that stench for as long as I lived. Rats and beetles scuttled and scampered over the human and animal remains littered the pathways and the vacant stares of the dead watched us as we picked our way through the ransacked village. Strike led us to the stone longhouse with a charred, smouldering thatch roof at the centre of the settlement which seemed at first glance to be relatively unscathed.
“Is there a white flag?” Korra asked hesitantly
“We have no word for surrender,” Strike answered.
Whatever happened they had been worthy fighters, the charred scraps that remained were thicker here, they had defended this place with their last breath and were butchered for it; the towering, thick wooden doors that once protected the longhouse hung awkwardly, flapping weakly in a breeze that made the dying embers glow in the darkness of the building. Strike edged to the door and pushed it gently, with a thud that shook the foundations the door fell inwards, sending up a cloud of dust of cinders and ash.
Strike yelled out a greeting in his native tongue into the darkness, he was answered with a groan; drawing his sword Strike stepped into the gloom, with us following him. Inside was dark and the air caught in my throat making it hard to breathe, the torches that were usually held onto the wall with heavy metal brackets littered the floor. Shafts of light cut through the shadows from holes in the thatch, once used to let the smoke from the stone circled fire pit, now made much larger from the arrows, huge chunks of stone that had been used as bludgeoning projectiles and finally the fire that had raged as a final insult to the tribe. Picking our way through the wreckage Strike lead us to the back of the longhouse, in the centre of the back wall was a stone carving, a large bird of prey with its wings outstretched and claws extended, frozen in an eternal moment of striking its unseen prey.
Across the wingspan was a blood-spattered body lashed face down with its arms left hanging free over the statue, what I thought was a shadow falling over one hand was actually the hand dyed dark red; aggravated at the low light I shape-shifted to a spectacled owl and perched on one of the remaining joists, watching the shadows for any danger. Strike approached the sacrificial figure and carefully cut him down, falling awkwardly Strike knelt down and caught him before he hit the floor and gently rolled him onto his back. A heavy set man, handsome but well weathered once honed muscle now plump with good food and not as much exercise dressed in the traditional Northlander furs and leather, his fiery red hair, flecked here and there with snow white patches matched his beard, both platted and tied with leather cord.
Even in the low light I could see the pallor fall from his face as he recognised what I can only presume to be a loved one, the northlander language although lost on me the anguish in his words was not; the intended sacrifice reached out towards strike and stroked his cheek tenderly, almost as if he was scared that he would vanish like a dream.
“Is that really you?”
“The old King returned, bringing with him an army. I came here to negotiate, the Northlands were being blamed for the raids on the Kingdom. The old king returned with an army of slaughtered warriors. For ever one that fell. Two took his place.”
“An army of dead?”
“Yes, an army of the damned; I was to be left as a message, my men who fell joined his army and lashed me here.”
Strike looked confused, was he not understanding what was being said or was it that the Chief was in so much pain that he just was not making sense? They stopped speaking when Korra moved closer, as far as I knew she did not know the language either but she could see that he was in a great amount of pain. Her hypnotic, soothing song for all the magic it could do could not heal the once great Chieftain but his grimace of pain slackened into a more peaceful expression.
“And my family?” Strike looked anxious with this question.
“I hope I saved your sister. I sent her away with my best men on one of my ships. I made them swear they would not tell me where they were taking her. I did not want to compromise her position should I be caught. I believe in my heart she is still alive.”
Although to me the conversation was nothing more than a succession of grunts, I did not want to pry into such a compassionate reunion and so the discussion was left a mystery. Speaking now in a language we all understood the Chief continued.
“This poison is unknown to us, we fight steal and bone not with trickery and poison. Ragnor is a host on the mainland, no doubt causing unimaginable chaos.” The chief stopped to catch his breath which was becoming more laboured. Although he would never admit it there was deep sadness in Strikes eyes.
“Do you wish a warrior’s death uncle?” Strike spoke in the universal language of traders.
“Let me die as it is intended, with a sword in my hand, not as a feeble old man,” a spark of defiance burned in his sea blue eyes before the weight of his injuries pulled him back.
Korra handed Strikes uncle a sword who nodded to her, shaking off any help he dug the tip of his blade into the earth as he pushed himself up onto his feet, once ready he nodded to strike and held the double handed broadsword in a defensive position. Strike nodded back and the blade of his rapier slid from its scabbard, Strike ran at him with his weapon upheld going in with a foreswing and followed it with a backswing, his uncle dogged the first and met the second with his blade but only just, his beliefs said he must die in battle to reach Valhalla but no one said how quickly the fight had to last. With his arms up in defence his belly was exposed and Strike sliced deeply, making for a quick death; his uncle fell to his knees and grabbed Strikes leg, with a grateful look fell forward, finally at peace.
Wanting his uncle to receive a true warrior’s burial we whiled away the hours building a pyre aboard one of the surviving longboats securing torches into the soft wet earth to see by when the sun finally set; the sorrowful melodies of Korra’s flute drifted out over the water as Strike pushed his uncles boat off the shore line, waited until the current took it and with great reverence placed a single arrow into the flickering torch, waited for the strip of cloth wrapped around it to catch and fired it high into the air. A gust of wind caught the arrow and for a moment it looked as if it would be blown off course, someone watching the farewell had other ideas and the still flaming arrow landed directly in the middle of the pyre.
Slowly, timidly the flames crept over the boat until it exploded with confidence and engulfed the long ship.
When his spirit had been accepted to the afterlife and the fires were no longer visible we readied the one remaining sea worthy ship and set off to the Royal City, still, as far as we were aware untouched by the avenging spirit of Ragnor.