A King's Decision
By Gerry Torbert
Benkt A'Sky walked most of the length of the communal longhouse with his hands clasped behind him. He was given to just this posture when he was in deep thought. As a child, he had seen his father do so countless times. Being the leader of such a large clan as the Children of the Wolf demands large thoughts, he was often told.
His distant ancestor Sigvald Longtooth adopted the family name soon after the founding of Rennok, being among the first of the familes from Vetemus to venture into the north to follow their ancestral ways of life on the tundra. Over a thousand years later, the Rift of the North sent two families to the east to build another city, Nozukal. Buriz led the family this time, along with the A'Mount family. Now, six hundred sixty years later, Benkt wore a path in the log floor of the main meeting house of the city, the weight of responsibility heavy on his shoulders.
The east was not the best of directions to lead people to begin a new life, but little did Buriz realize it at the time. Few thought that the Dark Folk farther to the east would have gathered together and amassed such a formidable fighting force. Their raids on encampments outside the protection of Nozukal had taken its toll in lives and farms. The small fishing village of Ernstag just thirty miles to the east was a prime example. It was over a month ago that the upstart Hoth Azock led a disciplined force of orcs, goblins, hobgoblins and kobolds to and through the town of fifty helpless fishermen and their loved ones, slicing men and raping women. The fish they had caught were left to rot on the wharves and on their tables as a disturbing, silent threat to the rest of the Northmen; the Dark Folk ate the children in place of the fish.
Nozukal now appeared to be the next in the Dark Ones' path of mindless destruction. It seemed that their next battle would have been Norvarg, the trapping village only ten miles from town. Benkt sent a group of armed men to the tiny gathering and lead them by force back to Nozukal for their own safety. He had saved the town but brought them to a fate that he now held in his hands.
With Nozukal the next step on Azock's way to the west, the Northman had to review his town's defenses and armed force. This was not a difficult task, as he had little to use to resist the powerful attacks of orcs, hobgoblins, goblins, and kobolds. He had several hundred capable soldiers at his command, certainly enough to defend a well-planned and strong castle. But first, the soldiers were weary of battle and were just settling in from their last skirmish with the much-larger forces of Rennok. It seemed that there was usually precious little time between fights with the old town. Secondly, the city was fortified with simple walls of mud brick just fifteen feet high.
Benkt had little inclination to seek assistance from the other Northmen. Since the Rift, neither side spoke to the other except at sword point. Since coming from the southern cities, the four families had fought constantly. The Cavebear clans of the A'Sea and A'Woods families were larger and more powerful, having managed to bring more of their holdings with them from the continent of Farland. When Rennok was founded in 19 P.E., they haughtily assumed the leadership of the new city. It took a thousand years for the differences in religion and culture to break out into open warfare within its walls. The arrival of the Settun Rengavae in 1000 aggravated an already volatile situation, as the A'Sky and A'Mount families felt perfectly capable of governing and policing themselves. But the Cavebear clans used the inexperienced Rengavae as a weapon, declaring martial law at the drop of a hat. The newly-founded "continental police" were convinced time and again of a Wolfclan member's supposed indiscretions and punished them harshly, with little possibility of reprieve. Sigvald had enough, leaving the safety of the city for unknown land to the east.
Benkt's concentration allowed another figure to approach unnoticed. Thora A'Sky exhibited the position of an important leader of the town by her fine wool clothing, the never-ending job as the leader's wife by the keys to her belongings chest on her belt, and the position she most cherished: mother of four strapping boys and three girls and lover of a great man for over thirty years, by the look of concern on her face. She couldn't resist breaking his concentration with a loud noise, however, if for nothing else than to put him in a better mood.
"Hey!", she crisply barked. He turned, startled, then smiled. It worked.
"Thora, you should know not to surprise a man deep in thought of war! You're lucky I didn't have a sword in my hand!" She laughed. "I'd disarm you, dear."
He grabbed her in his arms. "You are disarming, I'll give you that."
"When are you coming to bed? I've been warming your side for a while now."
He scratched his beard, then ran both his hands alongside his head, pushing his mane to the rear. "I guess I've worried enough for both of us tonight. I should save some worry for the 'morrow."
She ran her hands along his face, then to his graying beard, grasping it and shaking his head side-to-side in a scolding manner. "And what would the fine people of Nozukal say if they came to you with their problems tomorrow, and you were dozing off on the throne of responsibility?"
He smiled and looked her over. She still radiated life, after all these years, after all those tears. "I know your advances by now, little girl. I'll follow you home, where you can attack me in private."
She feinted a gasp and a slap of his face, smiling as her hand stopped on his cheek. "Now, you know that's not what I mean!" Her mood turned somber. "Really, Benkt, you can't solve all our problems at once. For our lives, for our children's, we may have to seek refuge in. . . "
She didn't even get the word "Rennok" out. He drew back, a scowl darting across the lines and creases that defined his age, his concern, his position. "Never, Thora - don't think of it! Leave this home, our homes, to the ravages of beasts? That which we worked so hard to build? Could you do that?"
Surprised, she tried to make sense of it all. "No, not leave, just. . . ." Realizing there were few alternatives, she stammered, her voice trailing off with her eyes. "Well, the only other thing is to convince them that. . . ." She still searched for an idea.
He reached out and held her hand. "I know, I'll have to go to them, on bended knee, begging them to help. I have to have an argument, a way to convince them. That is what I have been searching for."
She returned to thoughts of comfort, as she always did while raising the children. "Then come to bed and think about it more later. I'm sure Fredrick, or even Hulda the Elder, may guide you. You need rest."
His smile returned, although weaker and forced. He followed her to their home.
Anders A'Sea of the Cavebear Clan sat motionless on his throne. It really wasn't a throne of the classical nature or structure, just a large, comfortable chair in the middle of the main longhouse in Rennok. But it felt like a throne, nonetheless.
His second stood before him, relating stories told of the ill-fated Ernstag and the evacuation of Norvarg. Neither of the two villages worshipped the Yyngvald Lord of Cavebears, but the tales were compelling and chilling. Anders knew of the Dark Ones, but he, along with mostly all of the Northmen, thought of them as chaotic, restless bands of beastlike creatures far from having the intelligence and organization necessary to pull off a full military advance. Now, they weren't too sure. Christer A'Woods told the stories as only a Northman could - embellishing the pains and sorrows, painting mental pictures that were often more colorful and more grandiose than reality. The records of the Clans were mostly oral, something which the Teregnavens had striven to change, but were unsuccessful to this point.
"Enough, Christer. I almost forgot the teachings of the Yyngvald the Lord of Cavebears, you had me filled so with concern!" A mild form of the sarcasm he was so well known for worked his way into his response. The bard took a step back, nodding his head slightly. "These people cast aside our worship of the Bruin of the Hole, of He Who Walks with Thunder. They worship a damnable dog, they do."
Christer nodded again. "But Sire, remember that they are still. . ."
"Northmen? Were you about to say that? What kind of Northman would leave his own for the wild, then turn and fight for little reason? We were forced into the Rift by them. Let them sleep on the benches of their own making!"
Christer was ever the more liberal of the two, and they had crossed paths arguing this point many times before. "Would a Cavebear let his own be. . ." He stopped in mid-sentence, realizing the futility of such an argument. Anders smiled slightly.
"We've bandied this around times before, friend. Even Cavebears fight amongst themselves. They fight for dominance, they fight to eliminate the weak. That is why we let them go. Were we not acting even better than a cavebear when we let them?"
"We drove them out. We made it unbearable for them. They had no choice but to go." Christer still felt he had a point.
"No, Christer, we made life the way we needed to keep us strong. It was too tough for them. We needed to be tough to live here, on the north slopes, and they wanted the easy life. If we changed, we would now be weaker." "Oh, how we twist our sacred histories! You think we would know by now!" The booming voice coming from behind the throne and its scolding tones could belong only to one man, a Northman brash and respected enough to say such things. Knut Brighteyes strolled forth, catching, even capturing, the attention of both men, as he often was wont to do. The mage swept his leather longcoat around himself to squeeze between the throne and end table to a position halfway between the two. His brashness sometimes belied his wisdom, and at times, both filled even such a long, open room. "Maybe the saved Trolls are correct, we should write things down!"
Anders hung his head slightly and shook it in disagreement. "And we've been through that, as well, magician. We all tend to remember things better when we speak them, when we are taught the stories by our parents, by theirs. Books can be read once, then closed forever. A good song, a good poem, it can't be forgotten."
"A nice thought, good King. But what happens when the bards, the teachers, the parents are stricken down in their prime. What becomes of their stories? Doubtless there were many stories on the lips of those in Ernstag that will never be told." Anders replied curtly, "Good riddance to bad poems, wand-waver. They had nothing to tell that I wanted to hear."
Christer edged backward, a bard who makes few tales but repeats them all. He had realized in school that he had a talent too important to hide or ignore, and now he had made a life of the telling. Embellish he did, more so to grasp and keep the listener, but did he fall from the truth as well, sometimes? He'd remember to search himself, at a later date.
Knut shook his head, letting his hand slide down on his polished staff further away from the wooden claw that was carved to grasp his crystal globe. Some say it glowed when he worked his magic. Just the thought that it might was mystique enough. "Anders. . . ahh, Anders..." He could feel the hate, the mistrust that generations let fester, and knew that it would take more than a few choice words from him to cut through the shroud. But he knew Anders was a good king, that he had a great deal of weight on his massive shoulders. He hoped he could help guide him.
Christer felt the time was right to propel himself into the discourse anew, as only a bard could. "Sires, your arguments are strong and are borne of years of events and feelings. They would only be discounted by fools, and I see no fools here tonight!" He believed he would put himself on even ground, that none of them were to be discounted. "But leaving old talk behind us, consider this: Benkt A'Sky will doubtless arrive soon to see what will become of him and his. How will he be received?"
Knut looked toward the king, perhaps placing more light on Anders' response than what Christer wanted. Anders bristled, even snorting at the mention. "Well, I'm sure he will! He has nowhere else to go. He doesn't have the power to stop the beasts, even with those of Norvarg in tow. I'll not stop him from coming - he and his escorts will be allowed here. I want him to see what his people are missing, if nothing else!"
Knut slyly added, "Yes, Anders, he should come to see what he and his are missing. It's only been six hundred years, think they'll remember?" The old friend could get away with such cynicism.
Anders flushed, embarrassed for the dressing-down, but cooled, after an almost audible growl. He turned to Christer. "Keep account of this, bard, only Knut is allowed to speak so to the King!" Christer nodded, Knut smiled, as did, eventually, Anders. "I know what you mean. It wasn't he nor his father nor his father's father who left our city. But it was done, and that is a tale told many times over. He can come; he can talk; I will listen. That is all I can say for now."
"Knut reached forward and placed a large, lanky hand on the shoulder of the King. "That is all I ask, friend. Yyngvald the Lord of Cavebears would allow it."
The cold wind whipped across the well-work path as if it had a mission. West-to-east, it certainly made Benkt's plight more difficult. Walking became difficult, as the gusts held up the body enough to make one lunge when they stopped to recharge. The winds were affectionately known as Father's Stick, presumably for the beating one's body took when caught in their grasp. Usually occurring in late fall, they followed a large shifting current of warm air coursing clockwise around the west shores of the continent, carrying heavy moisture that transformed to a continuous blanket of sleet. The winds would die down in a few weeks, no doubt, but leave a landscape transfixed by layers of ice then later hard-packed snow, normally not broken until spring. The word "harsh" was not harsh enough to describe it.
Benkt thought of hand-picking his entourage, but after a while he arrived at the only configuration that made any sense. Thora would be with him, that was a given. Any great man of such importance would be naked without his wife. Such a social structure was not looked upon as with the Kassa or Hilken folk - their wives were given the job of handling the home and children, nothing more. Most other humans were of the same thought, and hauling around a woman would be a sign of weakness. Dwarves were highly regarded and admired by the Northmen, and their society demanded more of their women, as several arose to prominent positions. The Teregnaven were the most enlightened of all, having been borne anew and immediately shorn of culture's most damning of chains. The Northmen admired their ways and agreed in these respects.
The Dark Folk, however, were at the opposite end of the spectrum. A raid was an open invitation to murder, then rape, often not in that order. Women were allowed to be seen in public, but not much more, as most were kept locked in spawning pits. It seemed the way of the beasts, and that which suited their nature the most.
Fredrick was another selection for which he didn't think twice. The younger magician had learned much of his trade at the University of Beladanal, where the Teregnaven taught him well. Benkt appreciated his candor and wisdom, as he helped to guide the leader's actions, or in some cases, helped to assuage the feelings of second-guessing and guilt that came with leadership. Fredrick knew of the elder Knut and bore what he felt was a reasonable admiration for him.
The fourth member was a surprise to Thora and Fredrick. Benkt thought it important to bring along his eldest son, Buriz. A strong youth of sixteen years, he had exhibited the wanderlust Benkt often felt and was blessed with an inquisitive mind. The king felt that it was time for him to see the other side of their existence, the city that banished them so many years ago. He wrestled with his decision, even arguing with his wife over it, but maintained that he should see all arguments if he was ever to become King. If he survived the East.
Onward they pushed, sometimes skating along on ice, sometimes pushing through the darkness only illuminated by meager torches lighting the pellets of ice that beat the lights to a flickering glow.
The lights in the distance grew larger and further apart now. Two torches were usually set on each side of the main gate, burning constantly. The threat of attacks from the East made it clear - the night itself was more likely to spawn a swarm of the beasts than the day, as their adversaries had a strange distaste for light.
The Wolfclan's torches were seen well in advance of their arrival. Several torches gathered at the top of the dirt-brick walls. A few trumpet blast in the early evening drew more men at the top, and almost immediately, the gates creaked opened. Four horsemen rode out at a trot, quickly flanking the ice-covered travelers. Looking out to either side to check for any trickery, they were satisfied of the size of the party. Benkt walked to one of the riders and held one hand in the air.
"Greetings, I am. . ."
"King Benkt. Yes, sire, I know. We have been expecting you. Pardon our actions, but we have to take care. I am Sergeant Erling A'Woods, of the Erling family." Turning toward the gates, he pointed to a robed figure. "I present King Anders A'Sea, Sire."
Benkt scarcely expected such a warm welcome. So far. It was expected of Northmen to treat leaders with respect when not in battle, but it still was a surprise. Benkt looked down to Buriz who was shaking even in his heavy leather coat. He could see that his son understood as well.
Anders approached the King. They both reached out an arm and clasped elbows. "Welcome to my home, Benkt. I have heard much of your plight. I present to you Rennok. While you are here, you are my guests. Please come inside and warm yourself by my fire." The reddish beard of Anders flowed across his lapel, and he allowed himself the slight smile of a host. Benkt smiled in return, throwing his hood back to show a grayish beard studded with sparkling ice crystals and the look of a traveler in need of warmth. He produced a flask from his belt and extended it to the King. "From my hive to your table," he intoned in the time-honored acceptance of hospitality. Anders unplugged it, swilled some fine mead, and passed it back for Benkt to reciprocate.
"If my assumptions are correct, this is Thora, and your son, Buriz? And Fredrick, I assume?" Benkt was surprised but understood now the breadth of Anders' security and research. "Yes, great King, on all accounts. Buriz?" He nudged his son, who seemed to forget his position, as he began to kneel. "No need for that, young one, you may be King some day. Come inside, all."
The city longhouse was grand, but not much larger than that with which Benkt was familiar. The appointments were utilitarian as opposed to those of Nozulak, with several tables arranged in rows and a throne at one end. Furs hung on pegs along the wooden walls, more for the use of those city administrators and soldiers who used the hall for business. Handmaidens took their coats and hung them over chairs facing the side fireplace, roaring with warmth. They took down the furs and passed them out in yet another symbol of hospitality.
Anders led them to the second table, replete with fine foods. Spiced strands of rotted cabbage buoyed large pickled mokga fish, their four spindly legs spread out as if they had just been caught on their fall spawning crawl. Their backs were cut open and the delicious slabs were stuffed with rolls and yak butter, squid, mussels and spicy smoked hatmØk sausage of boiled sheep innards in goat stomach. Fine Hilken glassware carried mead to wash it all down. "Let us eat, friends. Please partake of the finest of Rennok."
They all ate with the relish that only such a journey could produce. Thora enjoyed the repast, not used to such a display of food. She actually felt a little embarrassed and wanted to ask if all the royal meals were so lavish but decided against it. She also noticed the lack of a wife, or even a familiar, of Anders. Apparently the stories of his divorce were true - perhaps she had had enough. Buriz leaned over to his father and whispered, "We should eat like this, Father," but was admonished with a stern glare. Benkt knew it was for show.
Anders leaned over to a handmaiden and whispered in her ear. She left hurriedly by the back door, only to re-enter several minutes later with a rather tall, grayish figure in a leather longcoat. Anders arose. "My friends, I'd like for you to meet Knut Brighteyes, the finest sorcerer in Rennok, and a great personal friend." Fredrick stumbled as he choked down a piece of fish, reaching to shake his hand.
"Knut, sir, we. . ."
"Finally meet, yes, I know, Fredrick. I have heard good of you."
Fredrick flushed and sat down. "And I of you, Sir."
"And this must be Thora, the guiding light." His use of the official title of Wife of a King embarrassed her a little, not having heard it used too often. "My pleasure, sir."
"And Buriz, a fine, strapping yourg man, fit to be King!" After a nudge from his mother, the star-struck boy uttered "Yes, sir."
"Knut, how nice to meet the soul of such a great city," said Benkt. Anders seemed to bristle a little but realized all that Benkt had done was to repeat the old adage that a good mage is worth many soldiers. "King Anders, it's a great dinner you have set before us. I propose a toast."
Fredrick looked at Thora, then at Benkt. He realized, as did everyone there, that there wasn't as of yet, nor would there likely be, something of worth to which to toast. To assume there would later be would be the height of presumptuousness. But he raised his glass and held his breath, as did everyone. "To nothing more than good, friendly food and home, extended to those of long-forgotten troubles, of recent strife, and of future good will!"
Anders smiled. "Well put, Benkt. Buriz, remember that toast. Your father has good taste and good character. They often go together to make a good King."
They ate for quite a while. The fish was almost gone, and the sausage long since eaten, as the talk moved from one subject to another. Anders described his city, how he felt it was the Spire of the North. It was quite a leap to compare Rennok to the sparkling city of wonder that the huge Teregnaven had hewn of stone and sweat, but Benkt never flinched, politely agreeing with him. Benkt's faint praise of his own town was trumped at every occasion with one-ups-man-ship, deftly woven into the conversation at first but clearer as the mead took its effect.
After a while, Buriz tapped his glass of mead and arose. "Great Kings, one and all, I would like to propose a toast." Thora placed her hand on Buriz's arm and forced him to partially sit. "No, Thora, I would like to hear what the young man has to say. One of such posture, the look of greatness, I would like to hear what he thinks of our great cities."
Benkt loked as if he wanted to crawl into a hole. Fredrick looked as if he hoped the hole would be big enough for two. Thora's face turned ashen.
"Very well, King Anders. Here is to your hospitality and your grandeur. Here is to taking us in and treating us as equals. And here is to why we came here - to talk about helping our people."
Benkt's head sunk, as did Thora's and Fredrick's. Anders raised his glass further. "No, no, don't be ashamed, Benkt. Your son is a true Northman. He gets to the point." He drank, as did everyone. "Buriz, a great King will always look through the shell of society and address the truth beneath. I appreciate that." He finished his glass. "And no, you have not spoken out of turn. Maybe it is time to talk of the troubles you have."
Benkt looked up, surprised that Anders would suggest it, but it had to come to the forefront sooner or later. "Anders, we are in trouble. As you know, Ernstag, then Norvarg were beset by the beasts from the far East. The cruelties they performed at Ernstag were unspeakable. Norvarg's people we removed - who can tell what they would have done to them as well. Now, the only bump in the road to your fine city is our town of Nozukal."
Anders put his hand up to stop Benkt. "Good king, I understand these things, although in a different manner. We were told you allowed the destruction of Ernstag, as you failed to send troops or sentries to prevent this from happening. We were told that Norvarg was evacuated at sword point, against their will. From our point of view, you handled these problems in a fashion much to your own benefit. How are we to respond, if we are unsure of your own intentions?"
Knut looked up from his mead toward Anders. Being a sorcerer and "soul of the city," he felt a little betrayed in Anders' retelling of the stories, and inwardly smiled at the way information can be twisted to suit the teller's gains. He realized the king wanted to establish a point of talk that was far enough from the truth that he could use it later. Still, he intended to hear it out, to see what course this conversation would take. The fine line on which he stood could be moved, however, if tempers failed to remain calm. He pushed the glass of mead away from himself on the table. Fredrick noticed this and did the same.
Buriz began to say something, but a grasp of his cuff by his mother stayed the words. "King Anders," she begun, "I understand how information can be changed from person to person, embellished with each transfer. We often use bards for record-keeping, and sometimes this can lead us astray. I'm sure your reporter is truthful, but from a different perspective. How could he know if we denied Ernstag aid, for instance? But I promise you, we never knew the attack would come; its ferocity and suddenness was so stunning. You have yourself praised Benkt's good character and intelligence. Do you really believe he would not have acted differently if he knew the attack was to come?"
Buriz's head was swimming, but he caught on. His mother was using Anders' praises of his father in her speech, placing the onus on the Rennokian for his assessment of his father's character. She also gave the king a way out, allowing him to blame much of his disinformation on a bard.
Anders smiled and gave a curt chuckle, gaining some time. "Buriz, I hope you are listening to this. This is why we sometimes leave the important discussions to later, when heads are much clearer." He pushed his own glass of mead away in an attempt to leave himself an out. "But I find it interesting that a great leader would let his wife speak for him. What do you have to say, Benkt?"
It was Buriz's turn to hold his mother's cuff, as she drew a breath that he thought might come out again in the form of acidic riposte.
Benkt forced a smile, as anything he really wanted to say would end what he had accomplished so far. "I assure you, Anders, that Thora is well aware of everything that happens in our city, and she knows of the weight I bear on my shoulders. But she is too much of a lady to tell of the horrors we all face if we don't react to the threats that face us. I'm sure that your information included the barbarism of the Dark Folk. It's something we can't ignore. Once they overtake Nozukal, they will have a perfect starting point for their next conquest: Rennok."
Anders stared directly at Benkt. He appreciated the civility in his tone, his refusal to dig deep into his own marital failings and incompleteness, despite his own goading. "Still, sire, you use the word 'we'. I have no doubt in Rennok's ability to defend itself. We have quite a strong fortification here, and a large trained army. They are quite well versed in the art of war, thanks to Nozukal's raids. Why should we leave this town and fight in a situation that is of your own making?"
Benkt realized that Anders was piling accusations to which he had no definitive responses into the conversation to pull away from the crux of the matter. He shook his head in disbelief. This would take all of his concentration. "The fighting has gone on for centuries. Who can really say when and where it started? Our peoples are both at fault for maintaining it. The past is not important now. It will all be gone in a short time if we do nothing. All of our storytelling will be for naught - there will be no one to listen. Northmen will be a legend a hundred years from now. All we are asking for is help."
Anders slapped his palm on the table. "Aah! The main point of your visit. I was hoping you'd arrive at it! Of course, I suspected it all along. But what you ask of us is large and would require great sacrifices on our part, so I will have to discuss it with Knut and some of the elders here."
"If you are looking for refuge, know this, Benkt - we can allow your people to return to Rennok, but on a provisional basis. All power will be kept within the state. In other words, what we say, you do. We can set up provisional encampments around the perimeter of town. Know up front - there will be a curfew, and there are few jobs available for your people. Your people will be subject to our laws, taxes and conscription into the military. These are the provisions."
Benkt's face turned pale with indignation. "And social status, community involvement, our everyday lives?"
"If you mean Northman lifestyle, you'll find very little difference in our lives. If you mean religion, there is a state religion here that you will follow."
Benkt looked emotionlessly at Anders. "When will we know of your decision concerning military aid, Anders?" Without hesitation the Rennokian replied, "Early tomorrow morning. You are welcome to use the guest house across the way tonight. I know you must be tired and I have to discuss this with my people, here, tonight." He motioned to a nearby handmaiden. "Summon my three generals; have them be here in an hour." Turning back to Benkt, he said, "Then I suspect we can call this an evening?"
"Yes, sire, we will be back in the morning. Thank you for your hospitality."
The four Wolf-clanners arose and exchanged their furs for their own warm clothing. Anders and Knut left to a smaller room to the rear. Benkt looked at each of the others and said, "Don't say a word until we get to the house."