Old Man’s Rock was said to be a sorcerer’s stone, placed thousands of years ago before the Vendens came to Runissia and began their conquest. It was tall, but now it lay down and was covered in ivy and tree roots. Insects and small animals made their homes in and around it, but no man built his house or ploughed his fields within several leagues of it; the ground was chalky, and tales of ghosts and living dead kept them away, so the ground was used by the nobles as a meeting point, a place where no one had the advantage and they all met as equals. Gritten ensured he was the first there, and made camp as he waited for the others to arrive. Yorc Elard arrived just after Gritten, having followed him most of the way but falling behind when a horse became lame a day ago. Next Reidr Ulfarn, still as sly and sinister as ever. Gritten remarked that all his four sworn men were with him, but the rider had told him that two men had accompanied Jatgeir when he marched on Falfanar. What game is he playing? What has he done behind our backs?
Armal Hrodal arrived next the day after Reidr, a worried look on his face.
“Raiders have burned a village on the Sunset Shore, north of The Spear.” He explained. His son was absent, apparently raising men to destroy the raiders. “I must leave tomorrow evening at latest.”
“We will speak and solve this problem as quickly as possible, and I will ensure Yorc has a boat and men ready to help you.” Now they all waited for Falfanar.
He arrived in the evening, surrounded by almost a dozen warriors and Jatgeir’s son in chains behind. He oozed in arrogance and pride and he grinned widely as he approached the other nobles.
“Nobles!” He proclaimed, leaping from his horse. “Equals, and friends!” He looked at every one of them in turn with blue, intelligent eyes. “Pray tell why you summon me here.”
“For peace.” Gritten responded. “We must end this now before anymore lives are lost.”
“I demand payment for Jatgeir’s actions.” Falfanar said instantly confidently. “And also his fort at Evensill as compensation.”
The other nobles looked at Gritten, their mouths sealed shut. “You shall be compensated, but Daras will keep Evensill.”
“After Jatgeir attacked me? According to our laws, when we defeat an enemy we have the right to take what we wish, and I wish to take Evensill. Unless he can pay my required amount.”
“This is not war, Falfanar.”
“I can make one if Daras wants.”
“There will be no war. No burning or looting, the violence ends now. Enemies are on our coast, we must not fight ourselves.” The men listening mumbled quietly but the nobles kept still as statues. “Daras will pay you the demaded amount, and Jatgeir will go into exile.”
“And this son?” Falfanar jerked his head to Jatgeir’s second son.
“Him too.” Falfaar snorted.
“We must choose a new lord of Drikilvarr then.” Gritten nodded slowly, and pretended to pause in thought.
“I have another suggestion.” He paused. “There will be no lord, no master over the others. Each noble rules his land and three times a year we meet here to discuss important matters of the island of a whole. We were born equal, let us live that way.”
“I have another idea.” Falfanar suddenly drew his sword. “I will be lord!”
Suddenly Falfanar’s men charged into the talking nobles, some running around the Old Man’s Rock to attack the Hrodals and others jumping from a clump of trees and attacked Reidr Ulfarn, while Falfanar led his own men into Gritten.
Gritten drew his ancient sword, the runes engraved along the blade glittering in readiness for the coming slaughter.
“Stop Falfanar!” He shouted but the noble rammed into him, confidence in his eyes and a mad grin on his face. Falfanar’s son fought at his side and one of Gritten’s bodyguards fell, a spear in his throat.
In an instant almost every warrior in a noble’s retinue was fighting each other, and the impetus of Falfanar’s charge felled many men. Swords and axes bit chain and leather, slicing through cloths and spilling much blood. Gritten hammered his sword at Falfanar, battering his shield into splinters. His retinue was now around him, thrusting spears past him and cutting down Falfanar’s sworn swords.
A cry came from Gritten’s left as Armal’s men beat off their enemies and pursued them, slashing them as they ran, while to his right Reidr’s four men fought skilfully, fighting off two men each with ease. Soon, only Gritten’s men and Falfanar’s centre still stood.
“Give it up!” Gritten spat.
“It’s you or me!” Falfanar retorted, bashing Gritten’s helmet and stunning him. He lunged his sword into Gritten’s left arm, drawing blood. “Surrender?”
“Bastard!” Gritten shoved him back. “I’ll kill you and hang you head on my fort!”
Within a few minutes the last of Falfanar’s men died or fled, and Falfanar began to slow but never gave in despite being surrounded by six men. Soon however, a warrior lodged his spear in his back thigh and he fell to his knees, panting and sweating.
“I had you…” he hissed. Using his last energy reserve, he swung low at Gritten’s ankles, but the big man batted it aside easily. Without another word Gritten hacked off the pretender’s head and his body fell limp.
The omens had spoken true.
The gods had looked away and how two families are ruined, nobles killed and the blood of their best men stained the soil. Falfanar had been killed, Jatgeir was missing and his son killed while trying to escape. Gritten too now lay in a fevered state, his wound festering as he lay sweating and shivering. Raiders threatened the Sunset Shore and the nobles fought between themselves instead of outsiders.
Daras sat in the hall at Evensill. It was much emptier now; there was the Aeborth’s steward, the new master at arms Herend, his sister Arga and a clutch of servants and scribes, while before him a villager pensioned for a tax decrease due to a poor harvest. Daras allowed the man a third decrease, but had to perform a day’s labour each week for one month in exchange. The farmer sworn an oath and left, followed by the servants and guards.
Daras waited for the hall to be empty before moving. He stood, his heart heavy, and paced up and down the long hallway, past the racks of spears, swords and polished helmets. Light poured through the high windows like liquid gold and dust danced like huge flocks of twitter birds. Outside the door the guards changed shifts.
What am I to do now? The Night Swords are all but gone, my family is broken and no more than a shadow, and the only man powerful enough to keep the peace is dying. Will his son be able to take his place? With his left hand tucked under his cloak, Daras pondered on the fate of his family and Drikilvarr. The feuding had left them weak and open to attack, and any man who could have been the lord was now dead or gone. He ran over the option; Reidr was too sly, he preferred to stay in Wolf Cave and rule his little corner of the island. Yorc was powerful, but a fool, everyone knew, and would not make a good lord. Armal too poor to enforce his power over anyone and Gritten’s son was young, even younger than Daras. He had heard that Gritten had suggested they rule as a counsel, maybe that was the best way?
There was a light knock at the door that broke Daras’ chain of thought. The steward Yargras showed his bearded face around the door.
“There is a man to see you.”
“Who is it?”
“He does not say, but he says it is important.”
“Show him in.” The steward disappeared and a few moments later a hooded man entered. His cloak was roughly spun and dirt splattered, and under the hood his face looked old and creased.
The door closed with a low thud.
“I guess you have heard.” The man said, walking into the middle of the hall. “I also bring you news. The raiders are north of Evensill. Armal’s son Boerg is marching south, he request you sent men to reinforce him.”
“I will do my best.” That would not be easy. “Who are you?”
The man pushed back his hood and brushed the hair from his eyes. “Recognise me?”
Reidr Ulfarn looked at Daras, son of Jatgeir, with his cold grey eyes.
“You?” Daras could not help keeping the shock from his voice. “Why did you disguise yourself?”
“I wanted to speak to you in private, without the others knowing.”
“The nobles.” He paused, pulling off his gloves. “Falfanar is dead, you father missing and Gritten will die within the week. Gaeten Grittenson is a young pup and must be controlled less he seek revenge and rip the land apart. We need a leader.”
“We could form a counsel, as Gritten suggested.”
Reidr sneered. “See where that got him, a mound in the earth and a weeping wife. No, we need a strong leader, not a bunch of bickering lords who each want their own way. Give each man his word and you give each man his right to protest, which leads to fractioning and feuding and death. Men are like wolves, Daras, they need a strong leader.”
“Who do you propose?”
“You are the son of the lord, and currently the strongest on the island.”
“Yorc is richer than me, and I barely have half a dozen swords, I am far from powerful.”
“Strength is not measured only in gold or warriors. It is measured with intelligence, will power and determination, with bravery and logic. A dumb soldier cannot lead, and a weak merchant cannot fight, a leader must be a perfect mix of all.”
“Why not you?”
Reidr offered Daras a smile. “Me? I wouldn’t want the responsibility. Anyway, no one trusts the wolf.”
“Why should I then?”
“Because you want peace.” Reidr sat himself down on a bench. “I will not lead but I will serve. I will help you become lord and I will keep you there. Take up the place and I will give you my sword, you are the best we have.”
“We should inform the others.”
“They will surely be against it.”
“But they must know.”
“Later, when we are sure they will not rebel against us.” Daras judged the Ulfarn, his brow creasing in thought.
“I shall take up the title, and bring peace to this island.” Reidr nodded seriously and pulled his hood over his head.
“You have my word, Daras, and my sword.”