Four men and three women sat around the fire. It blazed and spat out sparks. The woods around them danced with the giant shadows that were casted by them. One of them, a bald man, dressed in a monk’s plain brown robes, spoke:

“Friends”, he said, “while we rest by the fire, care to lend me an ear for a tale?”

. The others regarded him silently. The monk felt a chill run down his spine – he was sitting amongst warriors, thieves, maybe even wizards. No one else would be foolish enough to camp in the Dead Woods at night.

“Are you a monk?” One of the men spat out. He was broad shouldered and had a scar running down the left side of his face. He was sitting on a fallen tree along with two other men, a battle axe resting by his feet. The monk nodded and looked away, unable to hold the man’s gaze much longer.

The man chuckled, “I have not the constitution for a sermon monk!” A few other people in the group sniggered. Silence befell them again. This time the monk welcomed it. After a while, a woman clad in a blue travelling gown, spoke:

“Well, I’m a bard”, she said “and I grow weary of the silence. May I entertain you all with one of my songs? Master Axeman, what say you?” She looked at the scarred man. He nodded, and the rest of the group drew just a little closer to the fire. The monk moved in closer too,, glad that he wasn’t the center of attention anymore.

The bard reached for her pack behind her and brought out a lute. It was beautifully intricate, with strange symbols from far off lands. She began –

Gather my friends, gather ye all-

Lend me your ears, lend me your all.

The tale begins at the heart of the lands,

When times were grim and frozen the sands,

When kings and sons and queens did go

To far away wars to battle the foe.

Her voice was not too sweet, nor was it bitter ; it was just the right tenor, like country mead, homely and smooth. The others relaxed and one of the women even pulled her hood on,, closing her eyes. The bard continued –

A thousand winters passed but the wars did not,

Many young sons and daughters – taken by rot,

But in the fires of battle that raged

Rafnigr rose and cursed at the –

“Who the hell is Rafnigr?” A man in a dark cloak interrupted the woman. His beard almost brushed the dirt below as he spoke and the creases on his face seemed to move with a life of their own.

“Settle down man”, a third woman said .”I’ll give away all that I’ve ever stolen if I have to hear that voice of yours again.”

Some of the others chuckled at that. The woman who had spoken wore a cloak and had a voice that immediately put you at ease. The big man in the dark cloak however, did not take kindly to her words. He rose, his beard whipping up with him and drew out a large sword from the ground.

“I will not be told off by a thief!” He said and hefted the sword.

“Calm down and sit, the bonfire is neutral ground” said the fourth man. He had dark hair that reached down to his shoulders and blue eyes that seemed to glow in the dark. His voice was commanding and strong. The bearded man hesitated and then sat down. The ‘thief’ pulled out a pipe and lit it, her hands shaking slightly.

“Please continue” The fourth man said, turning to the bard, “I apologize here for Settr’s interruption”.

The woman cleared her throat and continued –

His words set the skies afire, ablaze,

Shifting Earthward the God’s slumbering gaze,

They struck Rafnigr down with thunder

and sent felbeasts to tear Earth asunder.

The armies of men fought each other no more,

For they faced the darkness that the Gods had sent forth,

United in battle, they fought hard and fought well,

Yet their sons and their daughters still marched unto hell.

“Rafnigr was a warlord” said the woman who was sitting with her eyes closed.. Her face was barely visible from underneath her hood and her robes were ash grey and dirty, having seen many days on the road. The others in the party looked at her; it was the first time she had spoken all night.

“The Gods did not strike him down”, she said, “He fell in battle, against the armies of Oranos”

“And you know this how?” The axeman asked. “Surely you are too young to have been there.”

“I read about it, in the grand library” The hooded woman replied, “Reading – you should try it sometime.”

The group sniggered. “You cannot trust everything you read youngling”, The black haired swordsman said.

“Neither can you believe everything you hear in the bards’ songs”, the ‘thief’ added.

The group fell silent once more and the bard picked up her lute again. The moon-less night was getting darker still. . The fire cackled on, throwing sparks and hissing occasionally. The monk pulled his robes tighter around himself against the cold breeze, which was whispering amongst the trees.. The bard continued –

Till one day the skies thundered and cried,

of a Hero to come when the next autumn died,

The next winter came and long did it last,

Then the leaves turned brown and the winter was past.

The song grew in pitch and intensity and the group was mesmerized. The bard’s fingers moved across the lute as she strummed to the rhythm.. The cold night air did not feel all that cold anymore. Wolves howled in the distance and the monk absentmindedly added more firewood to the flames.

As the skies had decreed, the hero did come,

To save the land from what it had become.

His hair was ashen, his eyes were cold,

The scars that he bore, grim tales they told.

He swung no sword, nor axe nor pole,

He wielded magics, ancient and old.

He wore no armour nor needed shield,

For him the winds – guarded and healed.

The armies of men fought with vigour renewed,

The armies of hell were driven, subdued.

The hero of ages, he came and he’s gone,

and he lives on forever in the bards’ songs.

The bard finished with a melancholy that filled the hearts of those gathered around her.. The monk wiped away a solitary tear and sighed. The lute lingered on for just a little longer and stopped at the zenith of a crescendo. The peopleroused themselves and looked around at each other. The bard sat staring into the fire.

“Some legends say the Hero still lives and fights the beasts on the fringes of the land”, the axeman broke the silence.

“Aye, Master –” the bard paused and looked at the Axeman.

“Settr, of Ragnforge” The Axeman replied.

“Aye, master Settr is right” The bard continued, “I have read of it too”.

“Bah! Legends, myths… Who knows!” The bearded man roared, “Come, I am weary and would drink to the Bard”.

The rest of the group cheered and the bearded man poured mead into outstretched cups. The monk respectfully declined the offer and began writing something down in his journal. The night drew on and the conversation flowed, as did the mead. The very first rays of the sun were upon the horizon. The entire forest was thrown into a bluish hue. In the distance, the monk heard a hollow roar. He froze.

“Stop!” He cried, silencing the entire party at once, “stop and listen”. He cupped his hand around his ear, in the direction of the sound. The group waited, and shortly after, the roar was heard again.

“Felbeasts!” The swordsman said and stood up, drawing his sword.

“This close to the empire?!” the Axeman asked.

“The beasts travel not by land Master Settr” The hooded woman said and stood up.

The entire party was on its feet now, swords, axes, bows and daggers drawn. The monk stood at the very back, trembling at the knees. The hooded woman held no sword, nor axe, nor pole. She threw her hood back. Her hair was ashen grey and swayed lightly in the winter wind. Her eyes were cold and her face bore many scars. The party paid no heed to her but the monk saw, and knew at once.. As the felbeasts drew closer, the woman smiled, placing herself between the bewildered party and the beasts.

About The Author

Sharath Kumar

Sharath drinks and he writes things. Sometimes they don't suck.

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