(This story has been published by Mythic Entertainment, creator of Warhammer Online, here
With a flutter of black wings and a raucous cry, the raven settled on the ancient skull. A hundred years or more in the past, the skull had belonged to a predecessor of Alvar's or one of their worthier foes-now, though, it was yellowed and crumbling. One of the raven's scaled black talons curled roughly around the rusted spike that stuck through it.
The raven watched Alvar with wary, intelligent eyes. The Blood Champion spat. Such an omen needed no doddering soothsayer to decipher. The raven atop a broken skull?
"If that is," he murmured, "then so be it. My skull is the Bloodfather's."
"What?" asked Durm beside him. His rough, unguarded voice broke the white silence and the raven's calm. It clamored away, beating its wings noisily.
Alvar cast his gaze to his fellow sentry, his second-in-command. In a time of war, it was traditional for the Blood Champion to keep the watch. Out of their bond of brotherhood, Durm, his Bloodseeker, had offered to stand beside him in this vigil. He was grateful for the support.
"Nothing, good friend," Alvar replied. "I merely ponder the battle to come."
His bond-brother smiled and nodded.
"And a glorious one it shall be," Durm replied fiercely. "Never has our clan faced such a foe as the Shatterlord. Soon many skulls shall be brought before our Father."
Alvar wished that he could bring himself to agree so heartily. Was this seed within him, this doubt, a weakness? Ought his compatriot, his equal in every set of arms and ever the more fervent devotee of Khorne, to be tribe leader in the bloodshed to come?
Some of his reservation must have shown in his face. His bond-brother laughed, wrapped an arm around his neck and shook Alvar heartily.
"Fear not, brother! We all go to the Skull Throne in our own time!"
As ever, Durm's boisterous nature brought a smile to Alvar's lips. In exasperation, he looked out again across the snow blanketed fields. A flicker of movement caught his eye.
"Wait," he said, his voice's intensity stilling Durm's mirth. "Is that one of our runners?"
Durm shielded his eyes against the snow-glare and cast his gaze to the tree line as well.
"I'd reckon so. From his gait, I'd say it's Tetrel. Wait—yes, there's his twin just behind him. Looks like we may yet sleep tonight, brother. And we might be able to hold the Festival tomorrow yet, depending on how far out they sighted the enemy host."
The figures in the distance resolved themselves into the young, lanky twins Tetrel and Terren. They put on a last burst of speed coming up the hill, pressing their endurance and stamina against each other. It looked as if Terren might close the distance, but Tetrel held the lead—if only barely. They came to a sweat-soaked halt, muscles shuddering in their lighter running furs.
Tetrel sunk to his knees in the churned-mud yard, gasping heavily and clutching his side. Terren sauntered up to make his report.
"My lords," Terren said, gulping breaths heavily, "we've run for three days. We encountered the Shatterlord's scouting parties at the Crookpass and lost Chellor and Asken. We laid low until we made sure it was their main force crossing the pass. Us two have run ahead to carry word—the rest of us should arrive by tomorrow."
"Numbers?" barked Durm.
"Bad," replied Tetrel, coming into the conversation. "In addition to the three tribes we knew that he had under his banner, he flies Lokartis' and Shennen's too, now. He's been busy this winter, my lords."
"A fitting gift to our lord," Durm growled, smiling. "The blood of five tribes shall run from this hilltop, and our own."
"That's not all, my lords," broke in Tetrel. "We saw werebeasts as well, and the beastkin. The spawn of the wastes and the unaffiliated flock to him. Worst, his tribe has marked themselves as Favored. They wear the paint of the Raven God, and are armed as Chosen."
Alvar bit his lip. So, the Shatterlord had multiplied his forces and the God of Change had granted him His blessing.
He looked up.
"How far away would you guess they are now?"
"Three days hard march, my lords. Two and a half at the very least."
Messengers were sent to the three Shieldholds, mere hours away from the village. The runners carried Alvar's word that every man, woman, child, dog and slave were to come for the Festival and protection against the encroaching horde.
Alvar himself spoke longer with the scouts, and then called a council of his chieftains while the womenfolk prepared for the annual Festival of Ascension. His heart burned with regret and anticipation. He knew what must be done, and before the council, he took Durm aside. What Alvar insisted upon shocked his bond-brother, but in the end, Durm relented.
The warriors took up their places. They slashed the backs of their left hands to honor the Blood God and seal the meeting to secrecy. Alvar looked about himself and drank in their faces. They were the best, the leaders of the tribe—the six Holdchiefs, himself, and Durm.
Eight. An auspicious number. Dernov, Chalek, and Cortor were missing—his Shieldbearers. They would arrive tomorrow with their families.
He watched as a single, worn out rag was passed around the circle. Each man tore off a thin strip and bound his bleeding hand. The table glistened underneath Alvar's hand by the time Durm handed him the remainder of the cloth. Another omen of import—it was perfectly sized to bind his wound, though there had been no coordination around the room. Each man simply had taken a piece of the cloth for himself and tied the cloth to their left hand using their right.
He breathed in deep, smelling the tang of blood, the ancient sweat and straw of the lodge, and the smoke of the fire. A wind whistled outside, and voices of warriors and women trickled faintly in as well. Alvar breathed deep and drew strength from Durm beside him.
"Brethren," he began. His was the first voice to break the sanctity of the lodge, as was traditionally his right.
"We stand upon a new time," he spoke, "a new era. The world changes, yet we remain the same. Ours is the path of strength, of triumph. We hold the Way of Blood. We hold the ways of our forefathers. From this springs our might.
"Now we are disturbed. One who shucks tradition and replaces it with ambition approaches. A scrawny, youthful, weak-blooded schemer is he, a follower of the cowardly Changer. He has been blessed with both magics and cunning, and thinks this enough to sway the world.
"Our doom is that others listen to his lies. He has taken the banner of Cremmin to himself, absorbing them into his own. Then Dactal, crushed in dishonor through promises unheld. Now, too, the clans of Lokartis and Shennen. This Shatterlord has violated our own peoples, and those of our traditional foes.
"But he is no fool; nor is he blinded by his lust. He does not strengthen his people—he spreads them. He does not best his foes—he consumes them. He fights no battle for tribute, no conflict for honor. Have you not seen? He wishes to bring us together under one religion—under the foul thrall of the Raven God! But we will not stand for this!"
The Holdchiefs roared their defiance as one. The men were of Alvar's shared blood, of his shared strength. His voice was buoyed by their support.
"This is his worst, most foolish blunder. We are proud. We are strong. And when he comes, we shall reap a bloody tally!"
Alvar held up his hand to still his mens' repeated cheers. He reached inside himself, pushed against his honor to admit that their foe was too numerous, and prepared to make the hardest concession of his life. It was not that he feared his forthcoming death, no. It was what the necessary deaths beforehand would entail.
"But that is not enough. We are not enough. We stand alone to stem this tide-our neighbors pray for themselves, not for the downfall of our foe. Not against this enemy. None of them stand with us to stem his tide.
"This is our greatest strength-and this is our greatest weakness. We divide ourselves, fight amongst ourselves—all to keep us in our Bloodfather's graces. From this conflict comes our might and power. We strive to be great. To be the greatest.
"Now, however, our disunity now strikes against us. The Shatterlord's host has risen far above any one of our tribes. He accepts the weakest into his army, swelling and bolstering it with them to drag us down in a sea of flesh. He wields magics to weaken us and strike us down from afar.
"But seek to destroy us, he does not. He wishes to unite us—a fate worse than death. Without our struggle, without our faith in Lord Khorne, we are nothing. We would be as weak, petty and fragile as the men of the southern Empire."
Alvar buried his gaze in the eyes of each of the men, even Durm. Every one bore his gaze and returned it, unafraid of their fate. He was proud, oh so proud of them. He could almost not bring himself to speak his next words.
His tongue was leaden; his voice, hoarse and too quiet. He cleared his throat and stiffened his mind.
"He shall defeat us. Us, unbroken from our father's father's father's time—yes, bloodied or beaten occasionally, but never destroyed. He is the raven, descending to tear out our eyes. He seeks to lead us, blind, through his lies like so many others. He shall slay the strong—us, the protectors of the tribe. Us, the men who follow the Blood God.
"We will be replaced by snivelers and sycophants. By fools and blind men. He seeks not to destroy our bodies, but our souls. Our hearts! He will kill a few, yes. Us and the warriors who stand against him. But not the women, nor the children—especially not our children. Those he shall raise as his own, to whisper, to sacrifice and to offer obeisance to a cowardly god.
"That is the fate that awaits us as a people; a fate worse than death. A fate that we must prevent."
Silence fell over the room. Alvar was dizzy—he looked down and saw blood dripping from his unstaunched wound. It pooled across the table, the floor. It rippled as his last words faded, carrying the sodden strip of linen that had fallen from his hand.
The Blood God was pleased with his words.
He raised his eyes to his Holdchiefs. They were his in actuality as well as word now; gathered closely in his palm. Their eyes cried out against the injustices and blasphemies of Tchar'zanek; their bodies stiffened with Alvar's resolve.
"This is the most precious thing we can deny him—our people. Our blood. And we must prevent him them."
Alvar let his Holdchiefs speak. Several blustered emptily—but several sat quietly, considering the problem. Uncharacteristically, Durm was a voice of reason. After the others had spoken their pieces, or chosen not to, Alvar stood and spoke with them for a while again.
They were not pleased with his solution—the only solution. They fought it and did not see it as the truth at first. They argued, threatened, became violent-but Alvar was their chief. They struck blows against him, and he replied with his own fists. Eventually, they bowed to his will.
Long past the afternoon and deep into the night they talked. Durm stood beside Alvar. The chieftain's blood burned with a vigorous song and a sorrowful drumbeat, and underneath those both grew a simmering revulsion for the Shatterlord.
And the gathering came to an agreement—at Alvar's terms. He gave them the chance to leave, to abandon their lands their ancestors. None took it, and he knew that his will would be obeyed.
He was content. The meeting was dispersed and the slow, mournful sound of a hammer upon an anvil soon rang over the village. Alvar returned to his longhouse and to his wife, to sleep beside her for the very last time.
He hoped she did not see or feel his tears.
Morning. Dawn. Alvar roused himself in the chilled room, and found the fire burnt down. He fed the embers until they flared back to life. His beautiful, flawless wife was yet abed.
He slipped into his furs quietly, taking care not to disturb her. The room slowly warmed and light grew as the coals rekindled. Morosely, he left.
Snow had fallen again last night. It paved the roofs and dirt pathways white, as of yet undisturbed. Soon, the paths would be treaded into swirled, sloshing mud—but for now, as the sun rose and cast it in brilliance, Alvar could appreciate it.
A black shape caught his eye. A raven hopped across the glimmering snow, leaving feathered tail and talon imprints in it. It let out a caw, profaning the silence.
Alvar bent slowly to the ground, not taking his eyes off the bird. It pecked idly at a hanging basket. He scooped up a handful of snow and straightened slowly. It shuffled around to eye him cautiously.
Then it squawked in indignation as he plastered it across its front with a freezing snowball. It beat its wings and hopped away, shedding melting snow. Alvar straightened contentedly.
Two of the Shieldbearers arrived from the Shieldholds. With them came flocks of children, and animals to be corralled. The village awoke.
Alvar instructed Durm to speak with the newcoming chiefs. He then left to talk with the village's blacksmith—Choltek, one of his Holdchiefs from the previous night. The man had not slept. Piles of metal stakes and heaps of twisted scrap were a testament to the labors that the man had accomplished over the night. Choltek confided his fear at what was to come, and Alvar returned unto him words from which he took succor. In Alvar's own ears, they rang hollowly.
He surveyed the village's defenses. Barricades around the village's edge were shorn up and strengthened. Alvar was told lists of men, axes, provisions and omens.
Cortor, Alvar's grown son, was the final Shieldbearer to arrive. Alvar personally greeted him and took him to the lodge, to tell him of their plans. Cortor did not like them. But he swore to obey.
The afternoon rolled into the Festival of Ascension. Children laughed and played as they spoke again for the first time in half a year. Steaming dishes and cauldrons of food were carried into the lodge, the only building in the village large enough to hold everybody.
Alvar could not bear it; the laughter and joy that would so soon cease.
He wrenched himself away and took an early-born goat kid from one of the pens. It bleated as he carried it down and out of the village under one arm into the frozen woods.
His breath formed glittering clouds of pale moisture. The kid tried to nibble at his fingers. Cold, black tree trunks stood out from the cold, white ground. He pulled his furs closer to his body with his free hand.
The sound of the revelry behind him died away. He was alone now, and only his ancestors watched him. He set down the kid and scraped a patch of snow clear with his gloves. The goat cocked its head at him and bleated questioningly as he dragged it onto the section of raw, frozen mast.
"Spirits of the wind; spirits of the blood," he breathed as he drew his knife, "accept this offering, and guide me in these troubled times."
He needed no further prayer—the shedding of blood would do that enough. He slashed the back of his right hand, gouging it deeply, and held it out to the kid. It sniffed at the pumping, salty blood and began licking it up willingly.
He wrapped his left arm tightly around its neck to keep it from struggling and switched his knife to his left hand. He breathed in deeply and tore the knife deeply across the goat's throat. It bucked and thrashed, but its muscles were too young for it to escape. Arterial blood sprayed, painting the snow red. A visceral hunger grew in Alvar's breast, associating a lifetime of ritual and strength with the blood. The goat's rectangular irises stared frantically into his as the spark of life faded.
The kid's struggles weakened and it fell still. Alvar laid its body reverently to one side—as it belonged to the Bloodfather, now, in truth—and knelt in the patch of snow-free ground. He felt the wet of the soil against his fur-wrapped knees and relished in the slickness of his forearms.
He meditated, pondering his doubts and searching his soul for another answer than the one he had already committed to. None appeared. With a sense of desperation, he shut his eyes and tilted his head back, entreating the Bloodfather for a sign. The afternoon sun glared across his closed lids, filtering through as a burning shade of red.
His eyes snapped open, and the sun was burned momentarily into them as he jerked his head forward. In that afterimage of blinding brightness, he could have sworn that everything was silhouetted in red; running in blood. The trees wept black-red ichors, the snow glared multi-faceted sprays of red, and the blood of the kid spread to cover the earth.
Then the moment was gone. His eyes cleared, and he saw the white-and-black panorama of the forest as it was. Beneath him, the lamb's steaming blood chilled. Purpose filled Alvar once again. His was the way to bleed the Shatterlord the most, and he would relish their confrontation. But now... his tribe must make their sacrament to the Blood God.
The afternoon passed and was replaced by the evening, taking with it the outdoor revelry. Children flocked inside to enjoy heated, spiced wine and to hide under tables. The goats and sheep clustered together in their pens, gathering for the warmth to survive the frigid night. Women prepared clay bowls of soup and carried loaves of bread. Alvar called the menfolk out of the lodge.
The Holdchiefs went to and fro amongst their own men, murmuring to them, strengthening them for that which was to come. All knew their purpose—Alvar had made sure that his lieutenants told their men. Two of the tribe had refused to act. They were unconscious and hidden away elsewhere. A mercy to them? No.
Each man looked to his weapons or fetched them. A few wept openly already. Their weakness was not scorned here and now. That, the Bloodfather would judge when they came before his throne.
Alvar turned to the lodge and prepared to lead his men once more inside. It was a tribute to their Lord that they gave, and one that sickened even Durm to the core.
"Blood for the Blood God," he murmured, and stepped forward.
Alvar, framed by the dawn's light, wept. By his hand, generations of his tribe were undone. By Khorne's will.
He cradled his beautiful wife's corpse to his chest and told himself that he did not regret this act. The shocked, glazed eyes of his youngest sons and his daughter reflected to him a different truth. Lost, betrayed, and caught on unawares. Durm sat nearby, his eyes puffed with his own frozen tears.
The village was an empty shell. Men wandered about, consoling each other. No few wept, like Alvar. They too had done what they had needed to do. Others sat in stony silence. From this sprang the seeds of hatred that would grow over until the Shatterlord's host arrived.
Had they made the right choice? Alvar looked to his hands; his bloodstained hands. There had never been one, he realized. He had done no more than the Bloodfather demanded. To allow his people to be broken into serfdom and slavery would have been a sin far greater than the painful sacrament that he had enacted this day.
He cursed Tchar'zanek bitterly. Before the foe arrived, he swore that his men would spoil the village's stores and slaughter its herds. They would break their tools and keep no weapons but those they bore with which to kill. When the village had all but fallen, they would set it alight themselves. Choltek the blacksmith, after forging a collection of iron spikes, had now begun fusing the village's stockpiles of metals and ore into unusable scrap.
Each man to his own family. That was the tacit agreement that spread throughout the village when the blacksmith's spikes were passed around. Choltek had made more than enough.
Each man severed the heads of his children and his wife and mounted them around the village's edge to honor the tribute of blood that they had paid. As they labored, every man swore in his shattered heart that on the morrow, they would make Tchar'zanek's minions pay.