Grim faced Ulfsarks stared out from the white walls of Sanderfjord, freezing sleet soaking through their armour. Banners whipped and cracked violently in the wind as men watched out across the plains, their eyes fixed on the edge of the Nordanver tent city sprawled across the plains, their campfires bending and hissing in the downpour. It stretched as far as they could see, like stars of the night sky had been tethered to the ground. Yet, their attack had not come. Three days the Ulfsarks had watched and waited, and for three days the Nordanver had stayed in their camp.
King Theodore made his way up the flagstone steps, dressed in his armour. The Ulfsarks nodded respectfully as he passed, and he returned them in kind. He made his way along the wall, a gauntlet of salutes and respectful greetings. He pulled his hood down, revealing a dirty face thick with matted, unwashed hair. He’d had no time to bathe, preparing a multitude of barricades, stakes and traps for the siege and organising supplies and messengers to travel up and down from the docks. Getulan smiled at him, an infinite well of respect for the King’s hard work.
“Highness,” he nodded.
“Getulan,” the king placed his hands on the wall, craning his vision across the Nordanver camp. “Why do they wait?”
“I don’t know lord,” Getulan shrugged. “Perhaps it’s the weather.” The king cracked a wry smile.
“If only,” he turned. “There must be at least eighty thousand of them.”
“At least, my KIng,” Getulan scoffed. “But we have the city. Their numbers offer them no advantage, and they know this.”
“Hmm,” the King nodded. “They could swarm us. They don’t strike me as soldiers, my old friend. I think they are a culture bred for war. Only warriors amongst their ranks. I don’t know much of the Nordanver, but even this seems out of character for them.”
“We can only wait, lord.”
“No Getulan, we cannot. This isn’t all of them. There’s more of their cursed armies streaming into the Empire, burning and murdering their way across the North. We can’t break the seige by striking them in their camp, because then their numbers will offer them advantage.”
One of the younger Ulfsarks was listening, and she revealed her fanged teeth in a devilish smile.
“They’re scared of us, my King.” Theodore smiled, a broken chuckle spilling from the men on the wall.
“Perhaps,” he said, “or perhaps they know more than we give them credit for. Maybe we share a common enemy.”
Getulan raised a thick eyebrow. “With respect, my king, perhaps you merely hope they do.”
Theo frowned. “Ever the cynic, my old friend.”
“It serves me well, Lord.”
The drummed his fingers against the wall as the cold rain battered against the stone. His eyes raced from side to side. Getulan wished he could tell what the King was thinking, how he turned over his thoughts and plans. The Nordanver had not tried to take the river port, which sat almost undefended. They had not tried to intercept the citizens of Sanderfjord as they fled. Their intentions were hidden to him, and there was nothing he hated more than not knowing. He tapped the wall for a while, his Ulfsarks watching him anticipatingly. After all, it had only been three days. They could be building great siege engines to attack the wall, planning a masterful strategy that would gin them the city. Finally, he turned to Getulan. A streak of lightning forked across the night sky, illuminating his determined expression. He allowed the thunder to roll across the plains for a moment.
“I will go to them,” he said. Getulan’s jaw dropped.
“With respect, my King, I don’t believe that’s a good idea.” Theodore’s jaw tightened.
“You doubt me, with respect, Getulan?” The old Ulfsark lowered his gaze.
“I’m sworn to protect you, Lord. That is all. What will we do if you are killed?” Theo smiled, whipping his cloak over his shoulder as he walked away.
“I have every confidence my Ulfsarks can hold this city until the Nordanver are no more,” he stopped, placing a hand on the shoulder of the woman who spoke before. “I don’t doubt you, my sons and daughters of Kyrin,” he raised his voice, casting his gaze across them before resting it on Getulan. “Do you doubt me?” He called.
“No Lord,” Getulan mumbled.
“Excellent. Then open the gates.” He turned with a flair and marched down the steps, another flash of light illuminating him, a snap of thunder moments after. The storm was getting closer.
The churned dirt of the road before him squelched and spat. He placed a hand on the hilt of his sword and stared at the gate as it creaked open. He could feel hundreds of fearful, yellow eyes upon him, unsure of his decision. It was too late now. Getulan jogged alongside him.
“I’ll come with you, King,” Theodore smiled, pushing him lightly towaards the city.
“No Getulan. You are in charge whilst I am gone. I need someone I can trust. They’re your Ulfsarks, for now. I’ve sent messengers to the King of the Dargamir, it should only be a month before he can arrive. I’ll return long before that.” His warm smile faded as he turned, marching into the ark plain. He turned once more, shouting above the icy rain. “My father taught me that great men do not wait, Getulan, nor react. Often they must act first, and force others to react.” He smiled confidently, his cape snapping and billowing behind him. Getulan watched the lone figure cross the plains, lit again by the crash of lightning.
“Good luck, wolf-king.” The gates boomed shut, and he hurried back to the wall.
The buffets of wind brought with them unimaginable cold. The sleet stung Theo’s face, like it was driving him back towards the city, urging him to go no further. Perhaps this was, in fact, a bad decision. He knew none of the Nordanver’s language, none of their rules of engagement. He grimly awaited the arrow to sail through the air and cut him down where he stood. It did not come. As he stepped closer to the Nordanver camp, he grew in confidence. Their sentries were watching him, narrow eyes, wrapped in soaking cloaks of their own. They did not call out, nor surge to meet him. The first sentry pointed. A path between the tents, past the sour faced men who huddled around struggling fires and stared at him murderously. He gripped the hilt of his sword.
As he passed the first tent, his courage began to melt away. Nordanver warriors hefting axes over their shoulders merely stared, their conversations stopping abruptly and their heads craning menacingly. He tried to return as many of the looks as he could, his eyes darting from warrior to warrior with a look as fearsome as he could muster. Some simply pointed, further down the main thoroughfare of the tents. A chill began to creep up his spine. They had been waiting for him. FOr three days the attack had not come, and for three days the Nordanver had sat patiently awaiting the rebel King.
A twisted, gnarled figure of a Nordanver, covered in head to foot with tattoos, wearing nothing but a simple loincloth, stood before him of the road. He grinned widely, bowing as deeply as his bent frame would allow and spreading his arms wide. The warriors began to leave their campfires, crowding around the figure, watching silently. The sky drummed again, flashing white deep in the clouds. Theo gulped, the patterns upon the gnarled man’s skin seemed to dancing in the weak firelight.
“I am King Theodore, Lord of Ulfsarks and rightful Emperor of Andurin,” he called around him. Some heads cocked curiously, cupped hands whispering into ears in another tongue. The twisted figure nodded, approaching Theo humbly and gently pulling his arm, pointing towards a large tent pitched on a small rocky outcrop. It reeked of menace, skulls adorning its canvas, bone chimes rattling in the wind. Theo stood frozen at the sight, and the man pulled him again, grunting and frowning. He let himself be led, drinking in as many details as he could, searching for anything valuable he could use against the invaders.
His hands shivered as he was led past the guards of the tent. They weren’t like the other Nordanver. They had scars marked across their bodies, and their staring eyes were milky, and white, like those of a blind man. They held spears with points of twisted pale bone, their hair was braided and crusty with old blood. The stench from them was disorientating, growing stronger as he neared the tent. The twisted man lifted the flap with a dark grin, gesturing for Theo to enter. He mustered his courage, and stepped inside.
The tent was warm. The sleet no longer pounded his body, and an overpowering odour of herbs and fresh blood filled his nose. The inner walls were adorned with bushels of plants, and bone charms, and a steady amber glow radiated from a coal lit brazier in the centre. Theo watched looked across to the figure stood opposite him, stifling a yelp as his blood ran cold.
Before him stood one of the creatures. Its dead animal eyes boring into the king, its antlers flecked with carvings and stapled with rings. Its face was longer, mottled with red fur where its beard should be, growing into a pointed tuft on its chin. It flared its nostrils, stepping around the brazier on cloven hooves, standing to its full height. It was enormous, taller than a Nordanver man, its antlers splayed outwards like tree branches. Theo fumbled for his sword, stepping back in terror as the creature outstretched its leathery, pale hand, its long, thick fingers adorned with silver rings and topped with cracked, yellow nails. The King tried to recoil in disgust, but it grabbed his head, its rough palm engulfing his cheek, the fingers splayed across Theo’s wet hair. He froze, his breathing becoming rapid, his vision collapsing inwards, submerged in dark clouds.
His emotions surged forwards, his memories. Things he could not recall. Watching his father from his crib, being held by the great Emperor, his mother, his brothers laughing with him as a child. They rushed past him like a wind, every feeling he had ever felt. Shame, pride, hope, fear, all the memories that came with them pulsing through his mind. He could feel the creature too. Hatred, hope, curiosity. It ploughed Theo’s mind, laughing at the boy Emperor, sat on his throne, revelling in his shame and fear as he was overthrown be scheming politicians. He felt the Ulsark’s death again, the creature stamped its hooves with excitement. Theo could feel a shared pain with them radiating from him, but the moment he tried to explore these feelings the creature’s mind tore him away, plumbing deeper and deeper into the depths of Theo’s heart.
It stopped for a moment. Theo watched a memory replay, familiar, yet alien, his mind drugged and heavy with drink. The white Nordanver carrying the captain. His vision. The creature was angry, fearful even. Then he saw the wolf. He felt his own terror like it was happening again, he felt the creature's terror too. He could feel it watching the Ulfsarks tear the Nordanver vangaurd apart on the plains outside of Sanderfjord, the plains in which they stood.
It recoiled from him, shaking its head and scraping its hoof along the ground. He could see its face twisted with anger, the image of the wolf burned into Theo’s mind. He stared, shocked at the thing before him, stamping and fretting in panic like a horse in a storm. It opened its mouth, a creaking, hollow screech emanating from within. Theo turned and ran, pushing the tent flap open, the freezing sleet and shattering wind of the night slapping into him.
The scarred Nordanver with the pale eyes surged to meet him, and he drew his sword desperately.
“Monsters!” Charging at one, and turning his spear away, “Beasts!” he buried his sword into the Nordanver’s shoulder, almost to the hip. He stared with his cloudy eyes as he pushed his arm upwards, twisting Theo’s arm. His sword clattered to the ground and he struggled in panic. The blow would have killed any man, but this Nordanver seemed unfased. “What are you!” He yelled, crashing a frantic headbutt into him. The Nordanver watched in silence as the guards wrestled him to the ground, kicking his sword away, holding his arms, and pulling a rough canvas over the King’s head.