Chapter One - Crimson Falling
Long ago before time was time, before the mountains, the rivers, and the oceans had names, before Heimdallr himself had birthed man unto the shores of Midgard, there was only light and darkness. Though separate in their essence, one could not exist without the other. Where light shone, darkness retreated and where light faded, darkness consumed all in its path. Within the ether the first gods, the elementals, were born into creation. Cast in the rudiments of fire, stone, wind, and water, the elementals reigned supreme in a vast and never-ending realm filled with chaos, destruction, and disorder. As the eons passed the elementals in their great and infallible wisdom gave their essence to creation and birthed the gods themselves. A great and powerful magic was awoken in the universe and as the gods grew and multiplied so too did their power. Over time the creation became the creators, and soon man was born and placed carefully upon an insignificant blue speck in the cosmos, Midgard. Though man be but mortal, the gods chose stewards amongst them and through these overseers the gods spoke the words of magic casting runes within their very essence. The stewards would become powerful allies to the gods but alas, not all were so willing to become the rightful and benevolent caretakers of man. For some, the magic meant absolute power and the ability to reign supreme over all others. And so, the war of the Runebinders began, one of five great wars of the age…
“Once again you have failed at the sacred duty I have bestowed upon you.” The dark and sinister specter floated effortlessly high above a bleak and cold stone floor. Beneath her a simple mortal man stood, feeble, weak, and cowering in fear of his life, he went down on his knees; his forehead pressed firmly against the rough floor. “Are you not capable of performing your burdens in a manner befitting my magnificent crown?” the specter added. “Must I remind you of the awesome power that I hold? Perhaps I should cease your worthless excuse for a life and find another more apt servant to attend my great cause.” The old man gazed upward through the strands of his long grey hair with outstretched arms, hands clasped tightly together in desperation.
“My Goddess, I but live to serve. Command me and I shall carry out your bidding. A thousand foes shall fall at my dagger should you command me. The rivers themselves will turn crimson in your honor!” The dark feminine specter lifted a thin bony hand and pointed her long razor-sharp fingernail at the old man as one would point a blade.
“Do you swear to serve the darkness? To cast out the light and give yourself eternally to the shadow? To love and pay reverence only to the void?” The old man nodded his head swiftly in agreement and stood guardedly.
“I do, I do,” he replied enthusiastically. “With all my heart I shall serve until the end of my days!” The dark specters wide eyes now narrowed to slits as she focused on the mortal figure before her.
“Whom do you serve?” she questioned with her hand extended toward her obedient servant.
“The one true ruler of Midgard and the nine realms of Yggdrasil. The one true goddess. I serve you, oh sovereign of darkness and shadow, ruler of the void. Now and forever.” A dark and sinister grin cast itself across the face of the goddess.
“Now and eternal,” she replied threateningly. The specter leaned downward and gently kissed the old man’s wrinkled forehead. His eyes began to glow a magnificent violet but quickly the light faded, and his eyes returned to their original hue. “Command my legions in secret. Find the rune child! Then we shall tear their halls down stone by precious stone. None shall stand in my path, not even the two great houses!”
“It shall be done, my Queen.”
In the sprawling lands of the north amidst great ceaseless forests, mighty roaring rivers and ferocious untamed wilds lay the small village of Galdbygde. Though a much smaller village than most of its day, Galdbygde was a lumber and fishing market. Merchants from all points would venture a great distance to supply their wagons with rich dried freshwater fish from its plentiful rivers and superb planks of wood from its abundant forests. The folk of this parish were the quiet sort, hardworking and industrious, priding themselves on their craftsmanship and trade rather than glory in battle or the spoken word. Amongst these laborers and craftsman were few warriors, and fewer still great warriors. No inordinate stones or monuments were erected within the unpretentious community, nor giant mead halls to celebrate the gods or heroes of old. Instead rather quaint hovels lined the dirt path down the river bend. A humble and unassuming place. One might even say that there was nothing of particular interest about Galdbygde whatsoever and they may very well be right; how could there be? Everything smelled of wood shavings and fish guts and nobody ever left town unless the Jarl summoned them, which almost never happened. However, not all is as it seems. For at the very heart of this quaint, unassertive, and boring township was an even less interesting and perhaps unimportant boy. Or so was thought...
“Hakon!” a woman’s stern voice called echoing from inside a dusty hovel. “Hakon High-Stone!”
“Yes, Mother?” the boy replied nervously.
“Get yourself outside! Your father is waiting! You know how your father does not like to wait on others. He will skin you alive, you know.” A small and frail seeming child. Hakon High-Stone was eleven years of age as the snows fell on the rooftops of Galdbygde that season. Snaer, the god of snow himself seemed to have covered the entire valley floor in blankets and blankets of heaping white powder. The young lad quickly donned a fur and wool cap before heading outside into the frost-bitten air.
“Hakon?” the voice called once more.
“Are you forgetting something important?” The boy looked frantically about the cottage and saw a small yew bow and bundle of arrows resting comfortably in an old fur quiver. He quickly snatched them from the corner of the hovel and ran outside the door. As he bolted down the wooden planks that led to the hovel, he slipped on a patch of ice, falling face first in the snow. Laughter erupted overhead and the boy lifted his face begrudgingly, wiping away the stinging sleet to see his smug brother standing impishly over him.
“Get up, you oaf!” Knut was only several seasons older than his brother but unlike Hakon, Knut was tall, stout, and an accomplished hunter of the woods. All the traits that any proud father of the Norse would want of a son and heir to his undying legacy but to Hakon, Knut was no more than a foolish and soft-headed dunga if he ever saw one. “You’re never going to catch anything laying down in the snow. Really, Hakon, I just don’t understand why you can’t just be…be…normal,” his brother lamented with a tired expression.
“Are you two done playing?” a hoarse voice bellowed. Just ahead at the tree line their father, Eirik High-Stone, waited impatiently in the shadows. Eirik was a large tree trunk of a man with long auburn hair and steely blue eyes that could cut through the thickest of fog. A favorite figure in the village being one of the only seasoned warriors amongst the tradesman. His experiences in raids to the east had made Eirik harsh at times to his boys but with good reason. They lived in an unforgiving land in even harsher times as the snows had barely melted from the previous winter. He did not want them to just survive as others did, he wanted them to thrive. Even in the numbing cold of mid-winter Eirik rolled up the sleeves of his crimson tunic revealing bulging forearms covered in long-faded bluish tattoos; symbols of his past conquests in strange lands and various runes asking for protection from the gods of both houses.
“Yes, Father,” Knut dutifully replied. He looked down at Hakon with a sneer and then extended his gloved hand to lift him up. “You’re embarrassing yourself. Now get up. What would the gods think?” Knut was known to be cruel to his brother but still a brother he was and not always without kindness. Hakon stood and angrily wiped the wet slush from his clothes. A rush of fur violently ran past him as Eirik’s hunting dogs, Tunn and Hund, made a mad dash for the woods. Superior and well-bred large Sighthounds, their grey and blackish fur moved wildly as a bounding blur between the thicket.
“Tunn, Hund! Get back here, you stupid beasts! Mangy little bastards! Come! Let’s get after them before they get themselves into trouble!” Eirik sharply ordered. The dogs ran ahead and Eirik gave mad chase. “Come and stay close!” he ordered his sons waving an arm forward. Knut ran ahead into the forest with his weaker blood Hakon lagging just behind. Midday fast approached and the faint twilight of Sol peaked between the cracks of the tree canopy. It was midwinter and the snows sat heavy upon the forest floor frozen nearly solid after ceaseless blizzards. As the trio ran onward, Hakon began to fall back further and falter. His small legs ached, his chest burned like a fire from the icy air. Knut, gazed over his shoulder and looked at his kin with utter disappointment.
“Keep up or you’ll be left behind! Wouldn’t want the wolves to corner you alone! Be a shame to have to give mother what’s left of you!” he urged with a dark sense of humor. Hakon was jealous of his brother’s physical prowess but did not let it sour the relationship. The boy continued his determined march forward trudging through the hard-packed snow staring at his feet and soon ran out of breath. He looked upward from a small incline and gazed about the floor of the wood through steamy breath; his brother and father were nowhere to be seen.
“Knut!” he shouted desperately. “Father!” The woods were eerily silent and no reply was given to the boy’s anxious call. Hakon’s heart began to sink deeply into his chest and a twinge of fear slowly washed over him. He was alone. Unable to locate the tracks of his father and brother he had but one way to venture and that was back home following his own clumsy steps in the snow. A cold wind began to blow, tickling Hakon’s nose and with the breeze came a soft but deep howl. Unexpectedly a terrible cry rang out in the air and the boy lifted his head to find what was amiss but the frightening wail was abruptly halted. It was a shout of pain and agony concealed from the boy’s sight.
Hakon became suspicious and nervously reached back for an arrow. His frigid finger tips found the nock and shook apprehensively to secure the arrow in place. Slowly he tip-toed forward keeping the barb pointed ahead at the ready should trouble arise. As he took several paces onward and rounded the trees, a crimson stain painted the snowy white ground at his feet but just as soon as the blood met his sight his eyes began to burn. He blinked relentlessly and wiped his eyes with his forearm. “Not now…” he mumbled in frustration. Something was wrong with Hakon, something different. He knew in his heart he was not like the others and it was often that strange pains visited upon his body. He wiped his face once more and the burning sensation receded from whence it came. The boy kneeled vigilantly and stuck his fingers in the red glob, rubbing them together slowly. “Blood?” he said quietly to himself. Hakon’s heart began to race as nightmares of what may have recently transpired dashed about in his head. Could it be a wolf? A bear? Were his brother and father wounded or worse yet, murdered by wandering marauders? He watchfully followed the red trail in the snow until at long last he spotted something familiar to him: a pair of furry paws sticking out motionless from behind a tree. “Hund?” he said aloud; but the furry paws did not move at his soft call. With arrow at the ready, Hakon slowly made his way around the tree until he saw the familiar face of his father’s loyal hunting dog. “Hund!” the boy cried out in shock. Lowering his bow, he placed his hand gently on the dog’s wet muzzle and still the beast did not move. Gazing downward Hakon spotted something about Hund that was very unfamiliar indeed, a sight that sent chills up his bony spine: terrible claw marks. Not that of mighty bear or fearsome wolf, but something larger, much, much larger…
“Hakon!” The boy jumped back in a panic at the sound and fell into the snow dropping his bow and arrow. Without looking up he scrambled for his meager weapon when a friendly shadow emerged. His father stood over him with Knut standing just behind. “What did you do?” His father questioned sternly. Hakon shook his head frantically from side to side.
“Nothing, Father. I swear it,” he squealed. “I heard a scream after I lost you in the wood. I found Hund just laying here.” Tunn came running out from the bushes and rushed to his furry companion. He licked Hund’s face several times perhaps to rouse him from his eternal rest but his once playful brother did not rise. Pulling back from his fallen comrade’s face, he stepped towards the wounds and sniffed them deeply. Suddenly the hound became frightened and Tunn backed up quickly, whimpering like a coward with his tail tucked firmly between his legs. He began to cough and wheeze until a sickness came over him and he vomited against the snow. Eirik was perplexed as he had never seen his dog act in such a manner. Tunn most of all was an accomplished tracker and hunter; what would cause him such sickness?