An Epic

A King's Decision

By Gerry Torbert


Back with the Northmen, Buriz trained as hard as any other soldier. Through the pelting rain and whistling wind, he learned to stick and move, feint and slash. The soldiers seemed to know who he was at first, and word didn't take long to get around. As to whether that knowledge gave them reason to test him harder, or it gave them cause to lay back, was hard to tell. But they appreciated his natural abilities and willingness to learn.

He and the rest of the troops took leave at the end of the week for a day to take care of affairs at home. Thora was torn between fawning over him and treating his absence as just a job. She even thought of reaching a happy medium, so as not to frighten him. But in the end, she thought it best to just be there for him. She filled him with details of life in the home, related laws and decrees sent down during his training, tales of his friends and acquaintances, just mundane things. She did her best to hide her worry. It was a difficult, fine line she walked, but it had to be done.

The Father's Stick was about half over. Historically it blew hard for a few weeks, warm and uncomfortable, until it blew enough moisture up from the west coast to begin raining. Within a week the warmth disappeared as the north western winds joined it, causing the rain to turn to sleet. The sleet usually drove non-stop along the lowlands, freezing into sheets of ice. When the winds stopped the ice was soon covered by a thick layer of damp snow, the top of which froze into a crunchy crust of hardpack each night. Depending on where you were, you might be likely to punch through a layer of hard snow to find yourself neck-deep in dozens of bluish layers of snow and ice. It was during the period between the formation of ice and the heavy snows that one could expect conditions conducive to fighting.

It was the perfect time to train. Any soldier who could fight through the wind and sleet would be rewarded by colder but more consistent weather. Buriz's life during these types of conditions so far consisted of fighting his way to school or assisting in everyday royal life. He didn't expect his life to change as quickly as it had that night during the meeting with the generals but understood more now how a king's decision bears great weight and strength.

Benkt's concentration was interrupted by a knock on the door. "Enter," he said, still focusing on the globe of Fredrick's staff. "You shouldn't worry so, Sire. He's in good hands." The king looked up to see the smiling owner of the tree limb.

"I know, this helps neither him nor me. But you can imagine Thora's concern."

The king's deceit wasn't lost on the magician who could see his concern, but he thought it better to let the subject lie. "I've been watching the signs of the weather. It seems as though the Stick is still at full force. Usually one can tell its stages and predict when it'll stop. Some birds coming back to roost, the height of the whitecaps, piling up of the sleet, so on. We have less than a week now. My guess is that it'll suddenly stop one evening."

"Like it did last year, maybe," said the king, still watching the globe of crystal.

"Yes, and not as it was several years ago, when it tapered off over several days. My question is, when will it happen, that night, or the night after? Or will they decide to try to catch us off-guard?"

Benkt stopped his surveillance. "I never thought of that. I guess I thought that we'd know when it was about to happen." A frown of concern darkened his brow.

"I may have a way to find out, Sire," said Fredrick. "Knut gave me a bird to use, a familiar. I have him in a cage at my home. If he can fly to their camp, I may be able to see and hear through him. I haven't tried it, but will do so today. He said it's possible."

Benkt let out a deep breath. That's good. If all goes well, we will owe you greatly, Fredrick."

In Rennok, King Anders A'Sea sat alone on the throne in the longhouse. A few maids scurried back and forth cleaning the room, until he dismissed them. He stared at the flickering fire, watching as the embers waxed in their brilliance, feeding from fresh air wafting along the bottom of the pile, then they waned as the air shifted. He wished there was someone else around to throw another log among the ashes - he didn't want to disrupt his mood.

He hadn't noticed Knut Brighteyes approaching from behind. The sorcerer cleared his throat enough to announce himself, and Anders looked up. "I never could tell when you were behind me, magic man. Sometimes I think you float into the room."

Knut smiled. "Sometimes I do, old friend. Lost in thought?"

He stood up, walked to the flame and tossed the log. "Yes, and I know what you're thinking. You're here when we're alone, to admonish me, to prod me into helping Nozukal. But know this - I'm set in my beliefs. Unless Yyngvald the Lord of Cavebears himself approaches me, I won't waver."

Knut smiled. "I know that, Anders, and I wouldn't want to see you any other way. It's your stubbornness that has seen you through hard times, if you pardon my brashness."

"Brashness seems to be something you have in great amounts lately, Knut. I didn't appreciate your going behind my back and training Fredrick, and even less, forcing the issue in our meeting with Benkt. You forget sometimes. . . "

"That you are the king? No, sire, I never forget that. But I was quite surprised when you told him of some joint decision your leaders made not to help him. You know I was there when the families asked that you allow them to give aid."

"And as for training Fredrick," he continued, "that is a matter of a sorcerer's actions, not those of a king. The two can't be allowed to cross. You've known me for a long time. You know well that I would not do something that crossed your power. To not help Nozukal is a different matter than to not help Fredrick - we men of magic have a code."

Anders shook his head. "My comments were a King's comments. They were made to further the good of the people. Once said, they are law. That is the right of royalty, and at times, its evil curse. They have a purpose, a purpose of my own making. I bear their weight, no one else. As for Fredrick, I don't recall asking you not to train him - that is true. I hope that what you told him won't come back in cries of the ghosts of our own people."

Knut replied softly, "I understand your decisions, Anders, and respect them. I gave Fredrick and his people a chance, that is all. Do you remember your father saying to you, 'It is time'? And what it means to every Northman youth when he hears those words? It is Fredrick's time."

Anders looked at his old friend, unable to talk, at first. "You mean, Fredrick is your. . . ?"

"Yes. Another family, another clan, it matters nothing to a sorcerer. His mother is gone, taken by sickness. He grew apart from me, but I kept quiet, fearing the worst of bigotry. Even he knew nothing until then. Why do you think he has the power?"

"I didn't know, how could I? I'm sorry you had to keep it from all of us these years. It must have been painful."

"It could have been worse, Anders," he smiled, holding up his staff and peering into the crystal that lightly glowed. "This has been by my side for years. I have watched him grow. Maybe one day, I will be able to spend more time with him."

"Of course, old friend," Anders replied, wetness in his eyes.

"Anders, why don't you go out with your bow and take leave of this place for a few days. I know you like to hunt. You won't find too many animals out of cover in this weather, but it always seems to soothe your spirit. You have my promise that no decisions will be made while you're gone. You deserve a distraction."

"By the bear! You are right, Knut - thanks to you for suggesting it! I'll leave in the morning!"

"Good, good, you've deserved it." Knut smiled. As the king left the room, he added to himself, ". . . more than you know. . . "

The winds of the Father's Stick blew hard that day. Sleet and wet snow piled up on the windward side of everything that jutted above the ground more than an inch. Every undulation of the ground was covered on the west by several inches of the evil stuff, and the downstream side was plastered with standing waves of frozen water. Trees, rocks, stones all were pasted with garish faces of solid ice, each visage appearing as a spirit, peering into the powerful month-long storm, begging for respite. It looked as if the landscape contained the very souls of all buried beneath. At mid morning, it stopped with a suddenness as relentless as the violence before.

The quiet became as loud as the sound of the wind. People stopped and looked out their doors, as amazed as their ancestors. The sun began to peer through parting clouds as an eerie light flurry of snow gently fell on the ice.

Soldiers stopped in mid-feint and in unfinished parries, looking to the west. Chills ran down collective spines. This was the sign they awaited, they dreaded. They looked to the east, as if to see some signs. They saw nothing.

Johan's bass voice blasted out an order. "Alright, men, we know what this means. We've trained hard today. Three blasts of the horns will bring you out. Three watches, ten feet apart, all around, four hour shifts. The rest of you, go home and rest. Be back at dusk, or when you hear the horns. Hug your children and families, and eat well."

The terse orders drove into tough bodies the meaning of several weeks of hard training. Not a word was spoken as the troops walked off toward their houses, some for their last time.

Buriz collected his clothing and weapons, trudging the half mile to the royal residence. Soldiers who walked along with him the previous days now said nothing, looking up from the path only long enough to check for others. Thora stood at the doorway, a forced smile on her face.

Anders rode the few miles to his favorite hunting location. When the wind stopped he had arrived. He got off his horse and tied her to a tree near a grassy spot. He took his bow from the saddle and began walking up the steep, rocky glen toward a series of caves several hundred feet above the sea.

He climbed the rocky stream bed upward toward the mountains. He had hunted this spot many times, and he knew every step along the way. What he hoped to find, he didn't know. He wasn't really prepared to kill anything, perhaps a rabbit or fox, but nothing more. He needed to relax, and this was the best way he knew how.

He was careful to place each boot in a stable location, since the light snow falling on the ice covering the rocks made for a treacherous climb. As he neared the hunting spot he surveyed the area. A bear or mountain lion at this point would mean a possible confrontation. He didn't have the attitude nor hunger to take any large game down, and certainly he didn't come here to fight, just to relax.

As he cleared the last of the rocks he was rewarded with quite a sight. The ice had left prisms wherever it collected, brightly beaming the sun's rays back to him, refracting them into arcs of beautiful color. He sighed, thankful he listened to his old friend.

He moved to the left, walking over the crags toward the first cave. He stepped inside, careful to adjust his eyesight to the darkness. One thing he didn't need was to disturb a sleeping bear.

As he leaned against the side of the entrance, he noticed a stone in his boot. Cursing his luck, he sat against the wall to remove the boot.

He noticed some movement to the east, about a hundred feet away. At first he thought it may be an animal, but then remembered the threat of the Dark Ones. He fingered his bow and arrows, relieved that he brought them along. But he heard a noise from that direction, one of an animal. Relieved that it wasn't of the human type, he peered more closely.

He saw a lone wolf. The canine hadn't seen him even though it was making its way across the rocks toward him. He had seen mountain wolves here before, so it didn't surprise him. The wolf was making its way to the next cave on the right, just fifty or so feet away, and was looking over its shoulder as it walked.

He looked over the wolf to see what could be chasing it. His heart raced a little, since anything strong enough to strike fear in its own territory must be formidable.

Around the curve of the valley strode four grey shapes. To his surprise, they were wolves as well. It was evident that they were chasing the first. But why would they do such a thing? They were known to hunt down stragglers of their own pack when hungry, taking the weak, thinning the herd. But the one in front was easily as large as any of the others.

It was then that a startling shape lumbered out of the cave. A huge bear, apparently awakened by the noise, crawled from the entrance. It seemed to be over seven feet high and was making its way toward the loner. They exchanged glances. The wolf stopped a dozen feet from the cave, looking at the bear. But the bear didn't flinch, nor did it retreat. The wolf advanced slowly, making a slight whining sound, its tail tucked between its legs.

The bear reared up on its hind legs, holding its paws in front of it. It appeared to be ready to defend itself against the lone one. But the pack was now within thirty feet, focusing on the lone wolf.

As Anders watched, the bear reached out slowly with its paw and touched the wolf's nose. The canine walked to a point beside the bruin, seemingly under its protection. The bear gently pushed the wolf past him and into the mouth of the cave with his paw, then turned to the other wolves. They stopped amid stride, baring their teeth and growling.

But the bear roared back, twisting its massive head to one side. It appeared to be protecting the lone wolf from the others. He swiped at the air above the nearest one's head, causing the others to retreat a few steps. With a lunge and a roar, he succeeded at establishing dominance, as the others turned and trotted away about twenty feet. Turning to regroup and attack again, they were greeted with hundreds of pounds of brown fur, roaring like the recent winds. The pack exercised the better part of valor, turning to leave.

Anders stared in disbelief. He could understand the bear forcing the wolves back; he'd seen it happen before. But the bear seemed to save the loner from the rest. He had been hunting all his adult life, but never had he heard of such a thing.

The first wolf walked carefully to the entrance of the cave, peering out along the valley. The bear sat with his back against the rocks, looking for himself. The wolf reached up and sniffed the bear, then turned to go. The bear turned and headed back into the cave.

Anders shook, and not from the cold. He had seen something he never thought possible - human grace in the actions of lower animals. He felt his hunt was over, so he gathered his bow and arrows and headed back toward the horse. He turned away just in time to miss the shadow play across the rocks. It was a shadow from the top of a nearby precipice, a shadow of a rather tall man, dressed in a longcoat, with a globed staff in his hand.

As he made his way to his horse, a sudden thought struck him, and he broke into a cold sweat. Could it be that he was being directed by Yyngvald the Lord of Cavebears himself? Was there a meaning to all of this? Was he being asked to protect Nozukal?

He tied his horse to the rail outside the city longhouse himself. As he hurriedly walked into the house, he was greeted by a maid with a mug of hot tea. He walked to the rear room of the building and was greeted by Knut, who was poring over some manuscripts. As he took off his coat and placed it over a chair, Knut looked up. "Your trip - it seems to have been cut short - any problems?"

"You're not going to believe this, Knut." He related the story to him, in true bard fashion, while the mage listened intensely. "What do you think this means, old friend?"

Knut sipped some tea of his own. "I've heard of Yyngvald the Lord of Cavebears directing great people on his own. What you do is a King's decision, it can be no one else's, but make no mistake, you have a decision to make."

Anders nodded. "Yes, I do. Whatever I do may not make a difference between us in our long-standing feud. Those things will have to be addressed later. But we can't leave our fellow Northmen alone. I'm calling in my generals to prepare. I assume you will sit in on the meeting?" Knut smiled. "Of course, Anders. I am at your service, always. It is a King's decision." Anders left hurriedly. Knut just smiled, wiping the surface of the globe on his staff with a corner of his robe. Yes, he thought to himself, a king's decision.

The darkness began to fall over the northern tier. Everyone in Nozukal knew what this meant. Wary eyes peered into the changing hues of brown, white and blue to the east, watching for any movement. Soldiers kissed their wives and hugged their children as they left their homes for the center of town.

The three blasts of the horn pierced the air like the sharpened swords that hung at the side of most of the troops. For many of them, the next few minutes would feel as if they were drifting on a cloud. At Johan's signal, dozens of archers climbed the ladders to the east wall and at the northeast and southeast corner towers.

The sight beyond the wall was impressive, to say the least. Thousands of the dark folk creatures marched in some semblance of a formation. Goblins and kobolds trailed a handful of orcs, whose job it seemed to be to slow their advance and contain them into files. Hobgoblins were likewise spread out along the flanks, but their duties were to keep the goblinoids from running from the fight. The little creatures tended to dart away from the mass on occasion, only to be swiftly booted or smacked back.

The bulk of the force consisted of orcish warriors, complete with leather and iron armor and scimitars. They brought up the rear, toting ladders and pikes. It was evident that they intended to allow the goblins and kobolds to do the bulk of their initial fighting for them, since they tended to view the smaller races as expendable.

The early evening darkness cast a far more ominous tone over the road than would full darkness. The torches and flames held by some of the soldiers flickered in an evil way, casting frightening shadows along the path. The torches were to be used far more for weaponry than light, if the stories of Dark Folk attack were true.

Johan looked down from the ramparts to Ragnor and nodded what seemed to be a secret signal. Ragnor turned to look over his troops, and finding Buriz, motioned him to approach. "Climb that third ladder from the right, young man. Take a good look at what we will be fighting." Buriz ran to the wall and made his way to the top. Fear froze his feet to the hard-packed clay as he surveyed the oncoming horde. He knew why Ragnor had singled him out and was secretly thankful, returning to the battalion. Ragnor pulled him aside. "Now that you've seen Hell, get near the back of the ranks. You're the son of a king, so watch and learn."

Buriz's brashness got the best of him, however. "I'll not hide behind my men, General. Not now, not ever. I will watch, but my sword will taste its fill tonight."

Ragnor smiled. "Just like your father. Alright, but watch first. There will be more going on, and faster than you think. Just feel the tempo, the cadence of the fight first. Take care, young man." With that he cuffed him on the shoulder and returned to his men.

Johan lifted his horn and let loose three quick blasts. Archers climbed the ladders to the top of the walls, spreading out along it and readying their bows. The din of the calls and shouts outside the walls made it difficult to hear anything else. Then all was silent.

In a coarse, rough voice and in broken Human tongue, a loud voice boomed out the warnings. "Human pigs - goat filth - we of Vozule here to take land back now. Leave and only kill men. Stay and eat babies, rape sows. Have five minutes think." Azock was terse and to the point, even if he did lack linguistic skills.

From the middle ot the Nozukal warriors strode a tall man, completely clad in battle garb that included a steel helm with antlers sprouting from the front. Buriz's heart filled with pride as Benkt walked among the men, parting the masses as he climbed to the top. He had only seen him wear the battle clothes once.

His horned helmet drew a few deep breaths, even causing some of the goblins at the foot of the wall to draw back. "Azock - is that you? I could tell from your use of the language." The entire gathering of soldiers burst into laughter. "I'd welcome you in for a drink, but our latrines are empty now!" More laughter, and grumblings from outside the walls. "Now I'll give you five minutes! Go back to your rat-infested homes, to your mothers lap - oh, I forgot - none of you know who your mothers are!" The roar of laughter was almost deafening. Benkt turned and climbed down to cheers.

Azock's answer was not in keeping with his proposed schedule. "Fire!" was the cry, as arrows were lit and shot over the walls into the town. "Arrows!" came the retort from the top of the walls, warning the soldiers of incoming projectiles. It was hard to miss detecting a flaming arrow, so most fluttered harmlessly to the ground. A few stuck in roofs, and they were quickly extinguished.

But the true danger became evident a scant few seconds later. The second volley followed, and the warning again came from the walls. But the soldiers' eyes were unaccustomed to the dark due to watching the flames, and several arrows hit their targets. Most of the Northmen were wearing helmets of some sort, but unprotected shoulders, arms and legs took some strikes. It was evident that the Dark Folk were not without tactics.

The call for fire came across the wall as the human archers took aim. Screams of pierced goblins filled the air, but still they forced their way toward the wall. A few used the tactics of climbing on one another's backs to form a living ladder. But some pots of blazing animal fat broke their resolve, as a few caught fire and ran toward the rear ranks.

Arrows continued to rain down on the Dark ones. Then from the mid-ranks came a strange sight. About a dozen ladders were being passed along above the heads of the orcs, while a few orcs ran alongside the ladders, picking up speed toward the wall. When they got about ten feet from the wall, a kobold leaped up to catch the trailing end of the ladder. The front end was planted into the ground near the wall's base, and orcs and hobgoblins pushed the ladder up to a standing position, flinging the kobolds to the top. Several of them took arrows, but only one suffered a well-placed shot. The others were hard to hit while moving, and landed on the archers. Fighting like demons, the lizard-like creatures took the attention of the defenders away from the ladders for just enough time for goblins to climb to aid their fellow fighters.

A signal from Johan launched some defenders up the ladders to the top to aid their companions. The battle at the top of the walls ensued, whirling goblinoids fighting for their lives and taking precious time needed to allow entry of the more formidable force of orcs.

Another series of arrows were let loose, flaming darts of burning oil and rags, but this time their target was the main wooden gates of the city. The flames spread quickly, and in short time the gates were ablaze. Several Northmen ran to the top of the gates with water bags, but the amount of water needed was more than they could carry.

In the darkness, a shadowy figure could be seen, but only by the very attentive. A staff of wood was raised above his head, several arcane words were bellowed, and a funnel of wind shot forth from the glowing globe at its end. It swirled high in the air to pick up speed, then flew across the face of the gates, blowing the flames with cold, damp air.

The fighting at the top of the walls was becoming fierce. The defenders had unlimited access via ladders, and the attackers had to fight for every inch of ground. But the demonic, drug-induced craze of the orcs and goblins was beginning to gain hold. Little by little Nozukal's finest were being driven back.

The main bulk of the Dark army began to split into three groups. A flank formed toward the north and south walls, while the rest still fought at the east gates. The flanking movements weren't very strong, and archers slowed them with shots from above. The main mass of soldiers soon parted slightly, as a large tree trunk appeared, carried toward the gate by orcs. They lifted the trunk high and began to run toward the gates. But another few chants from Fredrick forced a bolt of fire from his staff, shooting downward and engulfing the tree. The screaming orcs quickly dropped it as it burst into flames.

But the magician drew too much attention and was not quick enough to escape the bite of an arrow. The dart buried itself in his right shoulder, rendering him helpless but not mortally wounded. He fell, dropping his staff, the globe shattering on the rocky walk at the top of the wall.

The fire was put out by throwing snow on the battering ram, and it was lifted for a second attempt. This time it was successful, snapping the logstop on the town side of the doors. Soldiers forcing the door closed from the inside were thrown back from the force. They regrouped, but sheer force pried the doors open enough for some goblins to force through, once again distracting the defenders.

Knut Brighteyes watched as Fredrick took an arrow in the shoulder. He could almost feel the pain of the young apprentice. He looked about in his room off the main longhouse for his staff and longcoat. He put on the coat and reached into his pocket, pulling out a small handful of dirt he had collected from the ground near Nozukal, just for an occasion like this. With a few words, he sprinkled the dirt on the wooden floor and stepped on the pile, vanishing in a puff of smoke.

The doors of the town slowly opened, as the force of Dark folk was too great and the leverage favored them. Fighters on the top of the walls were at a standstill, but some of the orcs began to climb down on the outside to join the others.

Fighting reached a feverish pitch at the gates. The initial push of human and Dark forces pinned those in the front against each other, some in such close proximity that they couldn't even fight. Hand to hand combat began there, with their size favoring the orcs and hobgoblins.

But the Dark forces were unaware of the insanity yet to come. From behind the lines came the screams and yells of dozens of soldiers. A piercing wedge of maniacal defenders quickly divided their own ranks, driving deep into the orcs. They were bloodied by what appeared to be self-inflicted cuts across their chests and arms. Fire shone in their eyes. The berserkers charged, wildly swinging their swords at the beasts. Screaming oaths with a violence the attackers had never imagined possible, they sliced and jabbed, unarmored, their heads uncovered.

The main thrust of the attack now evident, defenders left their posts along the north and south walls to join the fray. This left the rest of the city virtually undefended, and the dark force encircled it with the two flanks. They were few in number and still met some resistance along the west wall and were stopped.

The tall horned figure of Benkt pushed forward along with his subjects, waiting his turn to deal a telling blow or two. As he approached the mass of the fight, he noticed a young man a dozen feet to the left. With a lump in his throat, he worked his way to him.

"Buriz, keep down, son. Stay back. . . " He couldn't finish the words. He wanted his son to be careful but was torn. He knew Buriz would benefit from this, but only if he lived. His son looked up to him. "No, father, I can't. I have to fight!"

An older man in front of him turned to face the two. "Buriz - I told you to watch! You've done enough, young man. It's more important for you to hold back now."

As the words were spoken, Ragnor realized what he was saying. It wasn't meant to be a prophesy. The swish and sickening thud of an arrow turned both men toward Benkt, as the weapon buried itself in his neck. Benkt gurgled once and began to fall.

"NO!" shouted Buriz. Ragnor grabbed the boy and looked to two other soldiers, who grabbed Buriz's arms and dragged him away from his dying father. Ragnor ran and bent over the king. Benkt pulled his ring from his finger and handed it to his old friend, closing his hand around it.

Knut arrived, floating over Fredrick. The younger magician smiled up at him as he pulled the arrow from his clavicle. "Knut, how nice of you to join us!" The older one laughed.

"Are you alright, Fredrick?"

He smiled. "Yes, friend, I can heal this in a few minutes, it's nor seri. . . " His attention was drawn to the fray. "Did you feel that?"

"Yes, I did, it's Benkt. . . " The Rennokian turned to look. "There's no fighting right here. Take care, I'll be back. It seems I'm needed down there. . . " The old man leaped down from the wall with amazing agility and lit out on a dead run to the king.

The berserkers knifed their way into the mass of orcs, who were taken by their intensity and near-insane approach. This held the attackers at bay, even moving them back a little. But the humans could only cover so many approaches. The dark folk began to sweep out to the sides inside the walls, shunning the berserkers' attacks and fighting the more conventional troops head-on. They continued their flanking, attempting to encircle the forces.

Fighting was lighter at the west gate, as not many troops were sent around the town, and not many were kept to defend it there. But the dark forces were making strides, forcing the gates slightly open. They were oblivious to the lights of torches approaching from the west. Arriving on horseback, led by one Anders A'Sea, rode over two thousand of Rennok's finest. They collided like thunder with the Dark soldiers at the gates, forcing them into the wooden doors and impaling them against it with pikes. Two flanks split and rode north and south, beating back the surprised goblins and orcs.

The ruckus at the other end of town led to cheers from the defenders trying to beat back the attackers' flanks. More of Ragnor's well-trained troops threw their armor to the ground and cut themselves in a macabre scene of self mutilation. Their screams sent shivers down the very spines of the orcs, now trapped between the east wall, the original berserkers at the gate, the new soldiers with now-heightened resolve, and the forces of Anders. Some of the lucky ones were able to flee over what remained of the ladders. Some weren't so lucky.

A recovering Fredrick sent fiery comets of flames after the retreating troops as an added insult. He was feeling a lot better now.

Knut was still bent over when Buriz managed to wrestle free from the restraining soldiers. Ragnor stepped in front of the young man and stopped him about ten yards from his father.

"King Buriz, it's all a part of war. A part of life. This is the way your father wanted to go."

"Ragnor, get your hands off of me! I'll see my father's body, one way or another. It's a king's decision!"

"You're not a king yet, young man!" The gravelly, strained voice came from behind Ragnor, who turned, his face growing pale. "So don't order my generals around!"

Benkt stood, walking slowly toward his son. He rubbed his neck, wincing at the pain and rubbing where nasty entrance and exit wounds once were. Behind him Knut walked, a smile of satisfaction on his face.

Buriz ran to his father and went to embrace him but stepped back, remembering that he was a soldier now. "It's good to see your wounds weren't that bad, after all, Sire."

His father smiled, as did Ragnor. You handle yourself well, Buriz. General, do you think he's learned enough of war to be a good leader?"

Ragnor laughed. "Hell no, Sire. He showed a lack of restraint back there. He needs some more work!"

Benkt went to laugh, but found it painful. Anders approached on horseback and dismounted, walking to the king. Benkt reached out his arm in a royal embrace.

"I guess I am due a tongue-lashing, King Benkt. I will accept the error of my ways."

"Not at all, friend. It's you who missed all the fun."

The pires burned high for days. Quickly-made rafts were pushed out to sea, a body lashed to each one. Each soldier was dressed as his family would want him to be presented to the gods, with hunting implements and his weapon of choice by his side. In some cases, his dog or pet was slain to give him peace on the journey. Each one was lit and pushed out to sea as the gods of the ocean reclaimed that which they rendered forth so many years ago. Quite a few good men were lost in the attack.

Life in Nozukal began the long and painful climb to normal life. Rennok's soldiers returned to their homes, but their king stayed a while as a royal guest.

Anders sniffed at the succulent mussels, shrimp and onions, piled in a heap on the plate in the longhouse in Nozukal. He drew a swig of mead, grabbed a handful of the delicacies and placed them between two slices of roll, adding half an apple and slathering the sandwich with a ladle of pickled hog fat. Before he ate, he looked around to see Thora, Buriz and the rest of the family doing the same. He smiled at Benkt, who tried to smile back but still found movement above the neck uncomfortable.

"I have a shaman who could look at that for you, Sire."

Benkt nodded. "He already did. If not for him, you'd be calling someone else 'Sire', Sire."

Knut joined the table, grabbing for an apple. He looked in disgust at his king's sandwich as he sat. "Keep eating garbage like that, and we'll have to look for another king in Rennok."

Anders bit into his food, then spoke. "I think we need to open a lot of discussions between our cities, Benkt. Our feuds are so small in importance compared to the threats we all face now. They will be back one day. It is time."

Benkt looked at his counterpart with a smile. "Yes, Sire. It would be a King's decision."