On the blood slicked deck of The Scarlet Lady sits Hrolff the Houseless, warrior priest of Thor, and third son of Halvard the Unbearded of the Garth of Ǽskill. He is quiet now, calm, concentrating on his work as he carefully stitches a gash in his forearm dealt by a lucky strike from one of the now dead pirates.
A simple prayer of healing would seal the wound with little effort, but Hrolff prefers to do it this way, eschewing such magic unless absolutely necessary. After all, healing prayers leave no scars and if one goes to Thor’s mead hall without battle scars well then . . . what is there to boast and sing of?
His spirits are high and he begins to whistle a tune remembered from youth.
He looks up briefly and catches the eye of his friend Alayna who stands on the ship's forecastle. Her hair, wind tossed, shines copper-red in the sun. The haughty girl, confident and at ease in her beauty, surveys the main deck, her flesh burning with spectral whiteness, her eyes sparkling green and cold as polished malachite. Hrolff enjoys looking at her and gives his eyes free rein. Her body is taught and muscled, yet deliciously rounded, agonizingly so, without being too broad in the beam. He shakes his head. Yes, that witch-girl is truly an art-work made flesh, but she is no mere plaything to be trifled with. The Northman has seen Alayna unleash her witching fires and incinerate men where they stand, melting their flesh like tallow from their bones. Her sorcery also gives her some control over others’ minds, molding thoughts like soft clay freshly dug from the river's bottom. Hrolff grins at her, admiring her lines as she turns back to the prow. Ah yes . . . sorcery indeed.
The Northman, not used the warmer climate, has removed his shaggy homespun cloak and woolen kyrtill. This is just as well as they were substantially fouled with the insides of Orcs. Clad only in his linen under-tunic and felt trousers, he chuckles at the relative ease with which he and his ship mates repelled the pirates. The fight had been a good one and he had relished it. It had felt good to unlimber his muscles, stiff after the weeks at sea, to swing his hammer again, to feel the helms and skulls of his enemies crumple and shatter beneath the brutal weight of the iron sledge.
Happy, he gazes at the sky. Over the last months, the signs have been portending toward something. But what? First, he had recovered an ancient weapon of his race, Sturmhämmer, engraved, etched with sacred runes and consecrated to Thor, it almost hums with power. What great smith forged this hammer many years ago and how had it arrived on that bleak islet on the edge of the world? Could it be pure accident that he, a war priest of Thor, had found it? Then, there was the sudden appearance of Erth, the strange nature priest who speaks with the beasts and the elements and can call lightning from the sky. This ability bespeaks great power and commands deep respect from the Northman.
And what of the sudden and ferocious storm that arose on the voyage from Tigalda Island that fortuitously drove them south faster and more readily than if they had been under sail? Hrolff had heartily enjoyed that gale. During its fury, he strode the deck naked, mounting the forecastle to shout prayers of joy to the Master of Storms. Lashed by the briny spray like a penitent, he had laughed while the sea towered above him and crazed lightning played upon the face of the world. Yes, he suspects the hand of Thor lies in much of this, but to what end? His signs are typically obscure.
The Northman continues to delicately bind his wound. He had been careless, allowing an Orc cutlass to sneak beneath his guard and graze him. Hrolff had countered quickly, squarely catching the rascal in the groin with his boot and then driving him to his knees with a hammer blow to the shoulder. The Northman priest smiles inwardly as he relives the satisfying crunch of the Orc’s body giving way beneath the blow, the scream of agony as flesh and bone were pulverized like grist in the hot and glorious mill of battle. He could not see the pirate’s eyes at that moment, as his foe had turned his howling face deckward, but Hrolff did not need to see that face to know the look that shone in its narrow, hate-rimmed eyes.
He has seen that look many times before on the faces of many other foes, the sudden gut wrenching realization that death has come at last and Hell's maw gapes open. Hrolff had finished him with the hammer’s return stroke, an uppercut that plowed through the wretch’s skull, bursting it like a melon and tossing a crimson arc of gore against the perfect brilliance of the afternoon sky.
Despite the din and clamor of the fighting surrounding him, Hrolff had been arrested by the serendipitous beauty of that image, that striking moment in time, that glorious red arc, gracefully hanging for one long second against the sky like a strange - yet elegantly simple - glyph. It was a rune scribed upon an empty page of blue.
Ah, what joy to be its author.
It is through such writing that we define ourselves, thinks Hrolff. The fates of men and nations are written in signs like this, an alphabet of power, lust, and glory. Perhaps, amidst the scrawl, the scribble, and the tangle of the world’s writings, they comprise our purest language, the only language really worth learning.
He gazes at the smoky haze hanging over approaching Karschum and wonders who else will need schooling in its grammar.