Snow fell upon the field with contemptuous laze, skittering about the cold north breeze that blew across the hills of the Land of Light. Boots crunched in the blanket of white already ankle thick, coming and going. Torchlight glittered off the frozen crystals, spreading miniature waves of incandescence across the blooded killing field.
Baldur lay among those unfortunates to have no grace of the gods, waiting for death that came far too slowly. As hard a warrior as his clansmen had ever beheld, a hundred followed his call when the Metalbound south men and their armies marched on the land of the Aesir. It hadn’t been enough.
His people would sing songs of this day. There were already a dozen or so by the bards that could be heard on cold nights made warmer by hearth and scar. The tale of his triumph over the Golden Knight and his minions, the story of his week-long battle against the Wolf of Windemir, the epic saga of the campaign against the Fallen Kingdom. Baldur the Brave, they called him. Baldur the Indomitable, Baldur of a Thousand Enemies, Baldur the Savior of the Aesir recounted him in the stories.
As Baldur lay dying, he tried to draw comfort from those stories. The marks upon his arms and face denoting his bravery. The scars left by beast and man upon his flesh. The thoughts of mortal enemies come and gone. Tried to draw warmth from the memories of his own time sitting around the fire, wench in his lap and horn of mead in his hand. He failed, completely. Memories and stories of who one used to be did little to stave off the biting frost of the snow swept hills, and less against the encroaching dark.
Baldur had never known defeat. He would have been humbled, if not for the despair that had overtaken him, nor the apathetic lethargy that was in turn overtaking even that. He had fought knights, armies, monsters, kingdoms, and in the end all it had done was delay the inevitable. His people would be slaughtered and enslaved. The Metalbound of the Hearthlands were said to be many things, merciful was not one of them.
His breath came in ragged draws and exhalations, small droplets of warm crimson splattering his lips, awaiting their frozen demise. His vision of the night sky grew cloudy with muddled darkness. The Aethir would take him soon. Had he really been so arrogant, so enthralled by the legend of himself, that he had come with a company of only a hundred souls?
They had followed him, believed in him. One hundred of the bravest men and women of legend, each historied and proven. Together they had added thousands of souls to the Aethir that binds the world, but in a single glorious folly they had followed Baldur the Great, their stories cut.
Baldur’s broken body lent itself to mind, and his mind drifted back to Aesir. A small house, with a warm woman and a burning fire. His dual sided battleaxe rested above the mantle. The scent of a memory lent itself to his dying senses, warm stew. A babe cried from her wrap upon the woman’s breast. Furs of beasts long since trophied draped them both, proof against the winter snows. They padded the earthen floor, covered the bed, kept the freeze from biting.
Baldur’s mouth twitched, a botched attempt to smile at the memory, before the next scene came to mind. The one that would now pass due to his own ineptitude. Screams echoing through the village. The ancient hall aflame as Metalbound put it to the torch. Cries of agony as their butcher soldiers worked their way from home to home, putting steel to any who would raise hand against them.
The horror of man is, unfortunately, most common. Screams of pain as men were put to the sword and women were taken to man’s spear. Smoke filled the square as the village burned, and the Metalbound stood amidst the inferno as motionless as statues.
Breath returned, and with the slight rise of his chest the blade that spelled his death wrought agony anew to him, breaking him free of the vision. He coughed weakly, breath pluming and steam rising from the flecks of spittle and blood.
Torchlight neared, and Baldur could hear voices in the murk. Be they of men left to scavenge or set to the task of gifting the warriors with a final death was unknown to him. The voices were distant, far lesser than the call of the Raven.
Dressa… Dressa was gone now. Or would be gone, as the southern forces made their way further into the Land of Light. Baldur didn’t even know why they had come. He had doubted that even they knew, bound by the word of the priest kings of the Hearthlands. He knew only that they were coming.
He had led the charge down the hill towards the enemy. Always he had faced the long odds. Always he had naught but skill and foolhardiness to protect him. Always he had been the first, and last, to strike with steel.
The hundred of his choosing swept down the hillside, a shadow brandishing death for the foreign army and dressed in the black leathers and furs of the northern tribes of the Aesir. Moonlight guided their steps upon the white of the snow. Mismatched blackened plate, adorned with silver runes, protected the warriors. Or rather, should have.
Grendt, screaming like a banshee from the Fallen Kingdom had charged beside him, her long locks braided in tight rows to her head and ending in blacked ashe beads. She had been the first to stand and join his fight. Together, many summers ago, they had fought against the Golden Knight, and had been the last two standing. She died before ever joining the battle fully, impaled on the spear of a waiting soldier.
Yoel to the other side, howling like a true berserker as he spun his twin axes, Lure and Hure, with an abandon that would leave any normal man with a wetness in his trousers. His rage in the heat of war led him to nearly as many kills as Baldur in the shadowed crevices that hid the Fallen Kingdom. Dead to the sword of a Metalbound Knight.
Dusk, his wiry frame masking the strength of the man who stood tall against a greatbear, fallen to an arrow.
Filla, Drakeslayer, run through from behind in the heat of battle.
Johan, felled by a spear.
Fieyer, the foreign, a sword halfway through his neck.
All of the hundred, dead before Baldur’s eyes as he lay about himself with his axe, casting about with abandon, reveling in the battle. Never truly seeing what had happened.
The Metalbound Knight wore no plate. His sword was functional and strong, but plain and unadorned. His skin glistened from neither sweat nor blood, but from the light of the moon shining off the metal embedded in his flesh. His skin entwined with the stuff, forming a diamond grid of a metal harder than steel. It was the eyes, though, that would be remembered. If the last of his days was not upon him, even one such as Baldur would harbor nightmares about that passionless gaze.
The bloodlust had taken him. The recklessness of a berserker at war. Soldiery in the white and green of the Hearthlands added deep crimson to their livery. Baldur charged the Knight, axe raised high above his head, heart lustful for the kill, and found his axe meeting nothing but air as the Knight simply flowed around the strike. Baldur spun, barely registering the stinging sensation across his back as he allowed momentum to bring him around for another strike.
This time, the Metalbound raised his off hand, grabbing the blade of Baldur’s axe in his palm, stopping the swing dead. His eyes met Baldur’s. Passionless motion met disbelieving stare, and the Knight drove three feet of plain steel into Baldur’s chest.
Time had fallen since that moment. Baldur waited, and waited, for the cursed Raven to come to him; to herald his soul to rejoin the Aethir. While he waited his remaining life turned cyclical. Feebly trying to remove his mind moved to thoughts of his failure moved to thoughts of his home aflame moved to thoughts of the battle.
He couldn’t escape it. His home. His life. His sweet, sweet Dressa, running around the great hall, brandishing a charred wooden sword and fighting off monsters in the shapes of other children. Little Dressa, calmly wrapping her leg, cut on the stones, with a healing poultice while her father panicked internally. Little Dressa, sneaking out of the house to train amongst the trees of the pine forest. Little Dressa, screaming as the fire licked her skin. All because Baldur thought to bring only a hundred to fight an army.
A tear leaked from his eye, freezing before the halfway mark of his cheek.
“Long thoughts, for one so short in this world,” came a deep, rumbling voice. No, not one voice. Many voices, each worse than the last. Baldur opened his eyes to behold the Raven.
“What, no rage left, child of blood?” it taunted. “No demands or attacks?” The Raven’s yellow beak opened as a caw, but that hideous amalgam of voices was no simple carrion call. Baldur hadn’t the strength to reply, caught between visions of the flame or the Raven’s rotted midnight plumage.
“It is well then, that your body is done, for your soul is tattered. Come, then, and rejoin the Aethir, soul of the once great, for the night is young, and I have many a stop to make upon my journ through the Land of Light.”
Baldur drew in a last, gasping breath. He closed his eyes for the last time and beheld a visage of Dressa, standing barely to his hip, wooden sword in one hand and thumb of the other in her mouth, outlined in red fire.
His fingers twitched. His soul was tattered? He, the man who had stood upon the Fallen Kingdom? The man who bested the Wolf of Windemir? The man who had slain the Golden Knight? The man who had made a thousand enemies and had seen armies fall before him? He should fall to this craven bird?
He released the breath with a single word.
His hand shot out, and his grasping fingers caught the Raven by its neck in a grip of the same iron resolve that had held Baldur since his childhood. The Raven screamed, a horrible thing that rattled Baldur from bones to soul. Its wings spread, rotten feathers and bone enlarging in the space of a moment to something more fit to be the harbinger of death.
Death screamed at Baldur, and Baldur screamed back. “NO!”
The Raven struggled in his grasp, thrashing with feathered wing and taloned foot. The creature was easily thrice as tall as the man himself, its great wings spread and encompassing the sky.
Baldur reached back with his other hand, and plunged it into the writhing mass of midnight, grasping hold of something on the inside and ripping it from its ribbed cage. The Raven’s heart gave off a pale glow hued with green, dripping with black sludge.
Even with heart removed, the nightmare of the Raven continued to thrash against its captor, trying desperately to beat its wings and take flight from this land of death and snow.
Baldur stared up at the Raven’s face, and crushed the heart in his hand, black oozing from it and covering his hand. He felt a rush as breath filled his lungs once more, and something more. Something dark.
The black continued to gush from the Raven’s heart, enveloping Baldur’s hand and writhing its way up his arm. Baldur opened his mouth to scream, but the black took the opportunity and forced its way into the opening and the scream died to a gurgle. As the black consumed him, pale green light filled his eyes until it was all he could see.
As the last vestiges of consciousness fell from him, Baldur could hear the Raven.
And it was laughing.