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READ THE FIRST SCENE
“It’s colder than a witch-tit,” Runa muttered, shaking the snow gathering on her head. She immediately looked over her shoulder to make sure no one heard her.
The last thing she wanted was a lecture by one of the women of the Kwaenhring about unfitting language, though—for the first time—she thought she finally understood the meaning. Still, she would end up listening to an elderly wife talk about how women spoke when she was young until the sun peeked over the Hamrsnaer Fells, but the bright light of the moon reflecting off the snow revealed no one, only Snaer’s breath stirring the softly falling snow. The night-torch nestled in the sky was a small comfort, though nearly lost to her, knowing the light was cold.
Feeling a sudden shiver travel over her flesh, as if someone had eyes upon her, Runa darted into her brother’s ger.
Sometimes fancy took her to consider how much larger her home was than, say, that of a human. Runa had never seen one of the Njorthar before, since her people had removed themselves from the small people before she was born. She had heard how humans were no taller than a Thursar woman’s shoulder, and most Thursar women were still broad enough to out-brawn a human if they had a mind to. The thought quickly passed when she entered the darkness of the tent.
The small, arched ger offered little light and even less warmth despite the age of the night. Ranvir and his wife, Caitriona, usually did not tuck in until Runa had made it home. After their parent’s death, her brother had become rather protective. Admittedly, tonight was a bit later than most because Runa had been eating with her milk-sister and her husband.
It took her a moment to recognize the smacking, scraping, slurping, swallowing sounds filling the ger. Her mind seemed to assume the sounds were remnants of her own dinner and she thought no more of it. Her eyes strained against the inadequate light of the small, clay hearth, which offered even less warmth than light.
Vaguely, Runa could make out the thick animal skins. While normally spread out, the pelts were bunched up against the walls of the ger, leaving the tundra beneath free to exhale its rime-breath. The smell of blood suddenly made her cough.
Something was wrong.
One of the skins against the wall of the ger suddenly moved. Runa nearly leaped backwards, out of the flaps still brushing against her back, when she realized it was her brother. The dim light had made him look like nothing more than a lump of bearskin. Indeed, the skin-cloak seemed to have been covering him, but his movement caused it to slide off his shoulders to the ground.
He crouched in the deepest shadows, the flicking light of the hearth coals reflecting off his now-bare skin. Knees bent to his ears, his flesh glinted with a reddish hue. His stomach grumbled low and deep like thunder. Grunting, he drove his hands into whatever meal lay before him, and then packed more of the stuff into his gullet.
“Ranvir?” Her voice felt thin, a gossamer spider web trying to catch the wind. Her brother slurped loudly, grunting again like a boar.
The wind outside gusted, filling the tent with ice and causing the coals in the clay hearth briefly to burst with life. The torrent gained enough of her brother’s attention for him to turn. The radiance of the hearth flame grew, casting its light over Ranvir’s supper.
Runa stiffened. She had not expected this.
Congealing blood clumped Ranvir’s beard, his fingers still working to push food past his lips, even as his eyes slid over Runa without recognition. For her part, she looked past Ranvir too, involuntarily trying to make out Catriona’s features.
She wished she had not.
Her kin-sister’s eyes had been dug out so that only hollow sockets remained, half-hidden by stiff strands of blood-bound hair. Gore, smeared across her wide nose, gave color to her wan skin. Worst, however, was her mouth, twisted and broken as if her jaw had been nearly ripped off, leaving torn lips and a bloody stump of a tongue.
Ranvir nodded to himself as though hearing something in the distance, and turned back to his meal. Roughly, he flipped his wife over, fingernails digging against his wife’s spine, stripping the meat with a forceful tug. The bloodied chunks of muscle and fat separated from the bones with surprising ease. He hummed to himself, letting her fall back to the ground, and lifted the bits to his lips.
He took another bite. And another. Ignoring her. Each bite intensified a snarling in his throat and a rumbling from his stomach. In the midst, she thought she heard him whisper—something
“Stop!” Runa screamed at last, stumbling across the ger and attempting to wrap her thin arm around her brother’s wide chest. She nearly let him go when she felt her hand stick to his skin, but could not allow him to continue. Ranvir resisted for a moment, leaning forward, but he suddenly gave way when he brought his hands back to his face for another bite.
They fell backward in a heap, Runa’s right arm still around her brother and her left awkwardly pinned beneath his girth. Ranvir did not seem to notice her, despite her having interrupted his supper. Fixated on Caitriona’s corpse, he wriggled forward, escaping Runa’s feeble grip with ease. Grasping fingers reached and clawed across the ground, scuttling from his sister, hastily stuffing them back into the cavernous hole where his wife’s liver used to be.
Half-dragged across the icy tundra, Runa let loose what little hold she had on her brother and rose to her knees. Touching his jaw, trying to draw his attention, she cooed, “Ranvir. Ranvir, look at—”
Anything she might have said after was cut short. Ranvir backhanded her with a wild swing, knocking her into the taut skins forming the wall of the ger. The force of the blow was stunning, even if awkward in its delivery. She could only think of the power behind the swing if he had been focused on her rather than his meal. Touching her cheek, already swollen, she took pause. She could not stop him.
Her own gurgled cry startled her. “Ranvir, stop! She’s dead.”
His voice, throaty and deep, eked past his gnashing teeth. “Stjarfi!”
The name cut through the air like a funeral pyre on a winter’s night, consuming the cold, devouring darkness, and leaving only a faded stain of what once was.
It sounded nothing like her brother.
Runa licked her lips, her hands trembling at the sound of the name. Something had gone wrong. Terribly, terribly wrong. Reaching for the pelt-flaps of the ger, she exposed herself again to the bitter cold, to Snaer’s bite. She stumbled back into the snow, falling heavier now and already thickly drifted on the edges of the tent. Her blood pulsed in her ears and moving her jaw was like chewing honeycomb.
“Help me!” She screamed into the shadows, searching for any movement on the narrow paths winding among the sea of gers. Her words rode on the wind, wending wide and wild through the tent village of Breithdal—the winter-home of the Konungr.
A gloom fell over her. “Runa, is that you?”
“My brother is—ill.” Runa drooled through her swollen face, recognizing the dark gaze of the hunter, Leofsige, under his frayed, leather hood. His slightly curling mustache set under a wide nose marked him, even in the night. She could not tell him what ailed her brother. She did not know. At least, not for certain.
Having no hands for healing, the young hide-hoarder could only grimace at the ger. “I will go find one of the wives of the Kwaenhring to see to him.”
“What has happened?” A low gravel-filled voice spoke from her other side.
“Haki Thegn,” Runa turned, addressing him by title, recognized the voice before the face. “My brother—”
“She says he is sick,” Leofsige slowly offered, taking a step toward the ger.
Tearing, slurping, grunting. Their eyes swayed to the tent.
Haki Hagnason, the youngest of the clan’s Thegnar, towered over Runa, peering down his thick nose at her. His unshorn mammoth cloak shelled his giant frame. “How so?”
“Caitriona Gasasdottir is dead,” Runa said, pausing before she realized they could not know what it meant. “And—Ranvir, my brother—” she said uselessly. She was not sure how to describe what he had done or what he was doing even now.
Haki’s brow knitted together. Glancing at his fellow male, he spoke low. “Leofsige, fetch Hunfrith Thegn and be quick about it.”
Bobbing his head beneath his hood, Leofsige turned and sprinted away. He slipped dangerously, more than once, on the freshly fallen snow, nearly taking out more than one ger before disappearing among them. The heavy falls of his feet, however, were hidden in the white powder.
“How did Caity die?” Haki asked, turning back to face Runa, his breath creating white puffs. The heavy snow had already begun filling his black beard. “Was she sick as well?”
“No,” Runa managed to say, struggling to find the words, or even the breath to speak them in the bitter cold. It was her fault. It had to be. She cast her eyes back and forth between Haki and the tent before he finally severed the silence from the night.
“Murdered?” Haki growled darkly, eyes searching and seeking. “I did not think Ranvir could ever hurt Caity.” Eyeing her brother’s home for a moment, Haki’s muscles seemed to swell under his heavy mantle, as if in preparation. “I know you, Runa. Though you little knew Tasgwin, you have a mother’s heart, keeping your loved ones apron-locked, but you cannot protect him. He has done this to himself and we must follow the Law of Thursi.” Haki Hagnason shook his heavy head. “He will die.”
Something in Runa broke, as if her skin had ceased to hold her spirit together. She could not be responsible for this! Her stomach fell, her heart beat from her chest, her tongue clove her pallet in twain, and her eyes bulged from her skull. A low cry filled her lungs until no breath remained and then she balled up her fist and struck Haki in his thick nose. “No!” She roared, swinging wildly again.
The blow took Haki by surprise—ready as he was for a bounding buck or snapping wolf—but he was quick to spin her around and wrap her up in a grip she could never hope to flee, no matter how she writhed.
“Buri Konungr may yet take mercy, Runa.” He grunted, breathing like a boar. “Calm yourself and center your mind to make a plea.”
“No!” She whined, throwing her head back, feeling her skull crack against his nose. He groaned, stumbling back from the shock, but careful of keeping his clasp firm. With a savage growl, he hurled her away from him so that she landed in a snowdrift.
She scrambled to right herself, mindless of her movements. She had only managed to crawl from the deep white powder when a foot caught her on the shoulder and kicked her back into it.
“Stop this madness!” A drawling, clipped voice snarled.
Runa shook the snow from her eyes to see Hunfrith Thegn, son of Unferth, above her. Looking down his long, hooked nose, the white in his beard a symbol of power as much as his title, his voice was low, filled with inflection. “I have been called from my bed before the night-ship has even broken its mooring. Leofsige spake of your brother’s illness, but nothing of your own. What bleak madness calls the minds of wolves into the bodies of women?”
Slowly, other Thursar began to step from the gers in varying states of undress, finding their way toward the source of the sound.
Despite the roiling feeling in her gut, Runa neither moved nor spoke, only matching the elder Thegn’s gaze as best she could. She did not respect or admire Hunfrith Thegn. He was a tyrant who thought himself the only source of authority among all the Thursar. She could expect no mercy for her brother from him.
Shaking his head as if disgusted, he turned to address Haki. “Why did you stir me?”
“Ranvir Ragvisson has likely put his wife to death,” Haki gasped, his breath still boorish, blood leaking from his wide nostrils into the thickness of his mustache. “Your counsel will be needed, but first we must retrieve him from the ger.”
“Likely? Well, come then. Let us retrieve him.” Hunfrith droned, already turning to the task.
“Please,” Runa said, finding her voice, “you do not understand.”
“We will soon enough,” Hunfrith replied.
J.C. lives in the Midwest with his wife and two dogs. He recently earned his MA in English Literature and is working on his debut novel for his own fantasy world. Despite growing up with Dungeons & Dragons, Lord of the Rings, and a collection of both Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms novels, J.C. has an abiding love of classics and spends his free time reading anything he can get his hands on.
Joshua Robertson is a bestselling author in dark fantasy, and a writer for Fantasy-Faction. He is also a Licensed Master Social Worker, who received his degree from Wichita State University. He has worked with children and families for the past fifteen years in a variety of unique venues: a residential behavior school, a psychiatric treatment facility, and the child welfare system. He has functioned as a supervisor, an educator, a behavior specialist, and a therapist during his career. Mr. Robertson has presented trainings for hundreds of professionals and military personnel on topics that include child abuse and neglect, human trafficking, strengthening the parent and child relationships, and the neurobiological impact of trauma.
You may recognize him as the dude whose dragons were said to destroy George R.R. Martin’s and Christopher Paolini’s dragons in a very biased Twitter poll. His first novel, Melkorka, was released in 2015, and he has been writing fantasy fiction like clockwork ever since. Known most for his Thrice Nine Legends Saga, Robertson enjoys an ever-expanding and extremely loyal following of readers.
He currently lives in North Carolina with his better half and his horde of goblins.