1. : Prologue : .
The first thing that split us all apart was the horror of the Christians; they came spewing lies and treachery, shedding darkness on our gods and proclaiming us evil. It was, in simple terms, the beginning of the end. Christianity used us as scapegoats, using our beliefs against us, separating our powers and changing the very heart of what it was to be Scaldic. We were a nation of warriors, of strength; our hearts beat fire. Our lives were not our own, they belonged to the Gods, they belonged to the Aesir. To them we pledged our lives, our duty and our honor, and only through their benevolence did we achieve success. Our families grew thick around the girths, only because of the Gods. We grew rich in furs and thick with children only because we stood and we fought against the evil in the world.
We were the warriors of the wastelands. When the thick brutal winters gave way to brief light of spring, it was because of our faith; and when a mere fortnight later we were plunged into the darkness, that too was because of our faith. It was our birthright, the path that the Gods lead, and what else was the noblest deed than to follow the way of the Gods?
Rabid beasts only sought our ending, to snuff out the light of our faith; the winter cold came only to drink down the life of our children; the snows came to suffocate the food so we'd waste away until nothing remained; a rival clan came to steal our earned meal. We fought. Bathed in blood and brutality from the cradle for what else is the highest of nobility than to die young in the fight against evil? Our gods are not immortal; they too knew that things will end. We fight by their side, rising up on sturdy legs and hoisting our spears to the sky, helms low on our bridge, made ready for a bloody battle.
The first to go were the elderly men too cowardly to brave the fight against the cold. We must keep the light burning brightly, a hope, a bloody hard-earned hope that blazed painfully in our chests so that our children could one day live in peace. The war was a long one, one that would last until Ragnarok descended. When the blasted wolf that chased the Sun across the sky finally managed to take its rabid jaws and sink into the bright golden orb and swallow it whole, it would end. We'd all fall, deadened, our carcasses carried away by the valiant Valkyres of Valhalla. They'd kiss our wounds, bring us back to life and when the Gods were dead, we'd all rise, a new people, a new beginning.
It was all we sought; a new beginning.
But even that was not granted to us. The Christians with their ideals of one God who granted all mercy came to usurp the great giants of the wasteland. They came and they conquered slow painful pieces, one at a time, a slow painful death. One not worthy of a powerful Scaldic warlord. We were a race of warriors, how much pain we suffered, how much degradation must we have endured at the hands of the soft spoken Christians? Their God they claimed healed all wounds. What wounds were there to heal? Their God, they claimed, absolved all sins. What sins did we commit, fighting off the evil of the world? What did we need of their weak God who proclaimed all good and safe within his embrace while he watched the world rot about him?
But there were those who did not fight; there were those who gave up and surrendered their heart to these falsifications, sweetened lies that burned the ears. Those too cowardly to die; those who did not believe we'd rise again, a stronger, powerful nation of warriors. They think us simple, barbaric, unkempt. They who could not stand the cold of our homeland, nor the heat of our hearts. They craved the simpler life and in the end we all suffered. Our gods, in the end, forsook us their care, and all descended into blackness.
This is our story, the story of a people so strong, so hardened to the hardships of the land, of the ferocity of the sword, so faithful and loyal that we died because of it. We knew the truth, and were condemned for it. Holy Odin forgive us our plight, forgive us our wavering loyalty for if hate was too unwieldy, and love too subtle, there was nothing in between to save us.
We loved the land, cultivated it, survived it. We fought off the dark and the evil, our blood soaked the ground, our cries fed your hunger, we gave our lives for it, and still the little men came within our ranks and demolished us, one by one by one.
The land was a mass of confusion, all emotion converging together in a contagion of human waste, hatred just bubbling beneath the surface. The land trembled with the barely concealed rage of the gods, the clouds of Midgard knitting together in a swarm of grey that spiraled atop of the great temple. It rose high over the other mountaintops, its smoke billowing up through the mouth, twisting and rising like Angrboda's cursed son, spiraling out of the ashes of its sacrifice. The congregation would ensue as the earth heated in its wrath, the little vegetation that dealt with the heat, gnarled and twisted, shriveling where they coiled in the deep earth of the terra. Vines withered, trees deformed as the rotting of the short summer months ensued, the disease of the heat crawling up each spine and seeping into bones. It was the lethargy of the muscles that kills more often than naught.
The sky thundered ominously, the thick roiling clouds spinning in a ghastly display of deep set grey with thick streaks of black embedded as poison in the film of the dust, swirled. In a tunnel the sky met earth, the thick sulfuric ash rising up from the maw of the giant mountain as it coughed up its blood from the furies of its nighttime rest. Hel reared her head, the heat of Hekla Pial churning in the muscle of her diaphragm as her scream of rage spewed forth the blood of the gods. The mountainous temple shuddered the rocks dislodging as the tremor followed the line underground. In a cacophony of roaring, Hel raised her howling voice, the wretched scream reverberating into the distant sky, piercing Men's hearts with fear.
The blood of the gods burned the ground and seeped into the dirt, swallowing up the barren earth like a ravenous beast. The world was churning with emotion, shuddering with the hatred in her eye.
The day had turned night, the golden sun blackened with the ash of death as with a choking sob, the red heat from within spilt over the sides of Hekla Pial. The red hot mucus slid down over the land as a glove, a thick glob of heat that burned away life, brought death into instant reality. It was a lesson that all Scaldic boys learn early in their youth: everything dies. There was no immortality, there was no future, there was only the present. The present of safety, of family, of lust, battle and blood. Most of all, blood. It was the thing that created life, the thing that the god's granted with their creation of Ask and Embla. Their coupling sprung life out of the dark, but their blood made them strong.
Hekla Pial was the pinnacle of death, the sign sent to the gods that life was worth fighting for. Those of Langedelar of the Svd province knew this well, cultivated the belief with a visible reminder of the Aesir's desires. Acolytes were chosen among their numbers, the smallest boys chosen from the large, weeding the growth of a strong nation and turning those of little strength to other tasks.
Many were fed to the hungry churning of Hekla Pial, others were trained Acolytes, taught to trim and kill with efficiency and silence. It was to them that the raids relied; to them who snuck out in the dead of night and stole away the youth of the Warlords. Such commodities were what hardened the boys into men, made them grow with a strength of mind, as well as a swiftness of violence. They were the secret scythe that kept the land tamed; many did not know of their existence, thought that their sons or daughters perished in the flaming pits of Hel to burn for their safety.
The seething sea of magma rolled onto the ground, spreading its liquid tendrils throughout the roots of the trees and the homes of those who lived nearest to it, reached it and burned it. But the Gods knew mercy. It was another lesson the young were taught: with death, comes life. The mal odors of the land were burned away and fed into the pits of Hel's home, there to suffer in her fury while a healing began. It was a new beginning, the heart of any Scaldic belief. With the burning magma came life, for out of the ashes of death the healing balm of the cooling anger would soothe the hurt. More life would spring from the field of death, abundant and strong, held up by its predecessors.
Such were the beliefs of the Temple at Hekla Pial.
It was the reason that the Bodil's gathered from their faraway homes.
Sixteen Warlords, all kings with a throne of their own, sixteen points from all across Scaldia gathered in one sacred place, alone and unaccompanied but for the beasts they rode. It was the same time every year, right when the rot of summer came upon the land and all the snow began to die by slow increments that the gathering of Kings took place. Through wretched wood, or stocky crags, beasts of all shapes and sizes lumbered alone and armed to the teeth with blades to prove their kingship.
It was a battle against the elements as all the dead were revealed with the melting blanket of snow and disease rose thick in the air. Swarms of flies would rise, their noisome biting betimes fatal to human flesh. Plagues would give birth to death, eating into strong muscle and rendering it weak and useless. Each step was a test, for the very air was poison, the very land they walked on traitorous, given to trembles as it shook its winter coat from its skin.
Some, like Ederyn, the Bodil of Mokrufeld of the Nord province, shed their humanity, sinking lower than even the beasts themselves in search of survival. His heavy blade would scythe through the masses, shedding blood and death in his wake as he bodily cleaved his path toward the temple. Each dead carcass worth eating he'd set his teeth to, burying deep into the thick raw carnage and swallowing the blood, feeling it fuel his strength. His mind he let go, felt no thoughts but the urging of the beast beneath every being's skin. He felt impulses, knew how to survive and cultivated it, all conscience leaving his brain as he moved swathed in furs, no better than the feral beasts of the Aesir.
Others like Frode, Bodil of Fliotzdalr of the Avst Province held tightly onto their humanity, relying on those of his household to guide him true. He relied on the gifts of his wife, of his advisors, of the maps that had been drawn out explicitly for his every step, skirting every shard of danger that dropped in his path. If he sickened, he poured medicine down his throat. If he grew tired he rode his horse and if he feared the dark, he'd light a fire. There were some who were powerful because of other cunning qualities, those whose prestige in battle did not come close to rivaling that of their mind.
It was for these reasons that the call went out across Midgard and those of the Scaldic nation tested their Kings during every rot. The Aesir's will, was supreme. If a Bodil never reached the temple by the allotted time, then he lost his claim on the throne. Death also called to those who never succeeded. It was a test; a barbaric, brutal test that kept the nation strong.
It was not for the weaker hearts.
As always, it was Ederyn of Mokrufeld that reached Hekla Pial first, his appearance that of a wolf that learned to walk on two legs. His hair was matted and ashy from the air, tangled pieces of gold clung to his war braids that had once twined about his temples. Now his brilliant golden hair was darkened with the terra, shaggy and torn about the edges. His body lumbered forward surprisingly light on his feet, the furred clippings around his ankles torn, the string twisted from the intestines of a pig cut and frayed, fur dragging behind his feet. His figure was hunched over slightly, shoulders rounded, hair falling forward over his broad, barreled chest. His breathing was almost silent, his entire body heaving with each indrawn breath, lips twisted in a grimace, eyes gleaming a brilliant blue between the long curling lengths of his hair. Ederyn wasn't thinking, his mind focusing in on the mountain.
It twisted up from the ground, its rounded tip opening like a gaping mouth, burning smoke curling up into the air. Of the temple itself, there was no sign, but Ederyn didn't need to see it to know it was there. Scraping his mouth with the back of his dirtied hand he snorted and moved forward, the pack he held over one shoulder barely holding together. The stitches strained as he moved carelessly, unaware of the damaged goods as he stepped up in between the double stone entrance that led haphazardly around the mountain and up into the temple doors. It was the only sign of its existence; two massive stones melded together naturally through the ages. It was as if they had rolled from the opposite direction, when the world was a very different place and collided. The collision, Ederyn imagined would be so jarring as to intertwine the very essence of the stones into one throbbing, hurting being.
The rocks breathed here in Hekla Pial. It was Hel who made it so.
His rough callused fingers grazed over the rigid texture of the stone, a look shifting behind his eyes. Humanity was beginning to return, memories and heritage overwhelming the natural instinct for survival. The memories were slowly weighing the other instinct down so that as Ederyn moved through the forested area (thick trunks of trees that lay barren and ashen over the ground) humanity began to reverberate through his very being. He began to think; he began to calculate.
Upon the forest floor were gnarled bones of animals that had not been able to escape the vomit of Hel's fury, and for one reason or another had never burned to ashes but remained a piece of the earth. Their bones were melded into the melted rocks, the smooth cold stone hard under Ederyn's feet as the scaldic warrior stepped up the erratic staircase. He hopped with the agility of a deer from one post to the next, the stones solid and unyielding beneath his feet as the churning ash gave way to melting sands eagerly awaiting a foolish plunge to swallow one up.
The vegetation began to thin, leaving behind the thick forest of ash and death and leading into spiraling stone chaffed and cracked. It shimmered, the dark heat beneath the surface bubbling and surging, a red taint of foreboding coloring the rock.
Following the trail, the warlord stood upon a slightly upraised rock, protruding up from the swirling sands, his neck arching back slightly to view the shelf he knew he'd have to climb. It was a jump, a very long jump.
With a fierce grin that spoke of pride, Ederyn shifted back a few steps, clenched and unclenched his fists to alleviate the sense of nerves. With an indrawn breath he raced to the edge of the rock, his feet pattering on the stone as he launched himself on the wall. He grunted painfully in his chest, his fingers digging into the wall, the impact jarring his ribs as he tensed. He fingers went numb instantly, his shoes scrabbling at the edge, trying to get some sort of purchase on the unyielding wall. He groaned, his voice hoarse from disuse, sounding bestial and inhuman as he lifted with his shoulders, his fingers beginning to cramp and to bleed, eyes intent on the lift above him. He shifted his weight suddenly, one arm going numb as he gasped at the arcs of pain that bunched about his arm.
It was because of his training that he did not wince at the next decision, nor did he bulk but instead used the numbed fingers to grab the knife at his chaffing belt. He grabbed it, fingers screaming agony as he pulled it free, shoulders protesting the movement. Ederyn buried the knife into the stone, using only his will and determination to push his strength to the ultimate, the edge of the knife sliding into the rock, hilt sticking out.
Raising his aching legs he used the hilt as a purchase and heaved upward, his fingers digging into the stone again despite the obvious pain. Clawing himself up onto the shelf, Ederyn slowly got to his knees and then painfully to his feet. He tried not to sway but instead stared down at the churning sands and with obvious disdain he spat into its depths and turned his back on it without another thought. He had to get to the temple. Leaving his knife as it was, Ederyn examined his fingers and with careless ease that would make many shudder in disgust, he righted a few twisted fingers without wincing.
Mouth moving, the warrior shook out the numbness, gathered his energy and moved on along the trail. How the others managed to get to the temple would be a mystery to him but it was his own trial that he concentrated. The trail narrowed suddenly, forcing him to cling to the wall as he shuffled sideways, making slow progress but one that did not cause much harm to him bodily. When the trail widened he walked at a faster pace, loping forward up along the mountain, glimpsing dark shadows flitting in slow circles around the thick ashen vines. What these were, he never knew, only that they bit with a ferocity that would down even a warrior. Even the vines held danger for they spouted thick curved fangs of their own, thorns that nicked and bled him, burying its sprout deep in the flesh to fester and kill.
When it happened, Ederyn was forced to stop and to dig his teeth into his flesh, searching for the damnable thorn and ripping it from his skin. He'd let the blood flow freely, cleansing itself. The altitudes grew higher the more he walked and on a particular curve that spiraled up into nothing, he was able to look down at the high distance to the bottom of the temple. Distantly he saw another being emerging from the shredded forest and gaze up. Raising his hand marginally in acknowledgment of the sighting, Ederyn then withdrew and disappeared from sight and burying himself in the motion of the trail.
The climb was not so stressful but for the annoying little quirks that delayed one for nothing more than a thought or two.
It was almost a shame of sorts that Faith required much, blind loyalty being one of the more prominent requirements among her demands. Ederyn rested at the top, his gaze roving over the network of stone cracks and thick fanged vines that had twined about the mountain with a possessiveness that did not surprise him. His breathing had grown more apparent, his cheeks flushing beneath the golden beard that hid his mouth and chin. But he was there, and he was human, his intelligence glinting calculatively in the dark recesses of his mind. Untwining the pouch that he had laced about his waist, Ederyn raised it to his mouth and swallowed the sweet soothing essence that filled his weariness with strength.
Water in abundance could be considered lethal with its tendency to weaken, but just a touch brightened the spirit and brought back strength to a body with an empty stomach.
He sighed, a deep sound that expanded from his diaphragm and forced its way up through his throat and mouth. A soulful sound, that. It came from deep inside, spoke of a travel-weariness that was not often captured in a simple word or a look. He stepped up to the edge of the path, his dismissive gaze going over the wall that appeared to be the end of his way and sat down on the edge. Bracing himself he swung himself down, hands and wrists straining as the weight of his body caught at him and almost made him lose his hold. He swung precariously from the ledge, gritting his teeth as he swung his legs forward and let go. Ederyn's knees gave out, catching the breath in his lungs as he shuddered and fell forward on the hidden concave below the ledge. He sighed again, that same deep soulful sound and rubbed the back of his neck.
Gaze catching at the sight of his pack caught on the edge Ederyn wheezed, chortle half caught in his throat. "Seems fitting, no?" he spoke to no one in particular and shrugged his massive shoulders in the memory of humor as he turned his back and moved into the shadows. It was cool, even though the might of Hekla Pial still burned. Such oddities were common among the moods of the Aesir; Ederyn never questioned it.
As he traversed the dark tunnels, his footsteps echoing strangely, Ederyn could not help but think of his bride, his quick grin fierce with pride. She was a strong one, one to give him strong children. They were to be wed on his return, and even in the midst of his travels he'd thought of the coupling that would ensue upon finishing this journey.
Such thoughts began to fade as with sudden clarity, Ederyn realized the error in his ways. There was a flicker of annoyance as he gazed upon the thick twining vines that had woven together even in the dark. He crouched, edging closer on the tips of his toes, his fingertips protesting as he put weight upon them and peered closer. It would have looked humorous had one not seen the severity of his expression. His nose twitched, shifting his weight to one hand as he reached out and touched the vines. They parted with his hand. To most it would've seemed fitting, but there was a thought that was running through his mind.
He moved forward, not satisfied that there was no wall behind the heavy curtain and when his face was within inches of the green network, his hand hit air. Nothing. Emptiness. With a sudden shake of his head, Ederyn edged back and turned back the way he had come, eyeing the walls suspiciously. Not more than twelve paces back was a small little circle no bigger than the palm of his hand. It was melded into the stone, the dull brass blackened and smeared around the edges. But he knew what it meant.
It was the twisting vines of Yggdrasil.
Smiling wickedly, Ederyn went into the dark branching tunnel and pressed his hand against the sudden double doors carved of oak that barred his path. He slid his palm over the well worn oak, strong despite its obvious age. He smiled and rasped his knuckles along the surface, stilling as it silently opened to him.
One might expect a Bodil (whose power was paramount to a king) to worry overmuch upon his arrival the state of his clothes and his appearance in general. But no, to Ederyn it was not in the appearance but in the actions that spoke of a Bodil's right to rule. His back was straight, his muscles strong and his intelligence a dark sparkle in the dark depths of his phosphorescent blue eyes.
He'd survived the journey with nothing but a satchel, a beast, and three daggers, for to carry any weapon larger than one's forearm while paying homage to the temple was blasphemous. He'd survived with strength and cunning, and it was all he needed to rule. Such was the message he sent as he stared back, fierce with pride and an underlying loyalty to his people. There was something to be said about a Bodil's tie to his people, sometimes it offered strength when there was none to find, and other times it was a weakness. For those like Ederyn, his people were his source of pride, for they'd survived countless winters and survived to smile up at the shining sun, and it buoyed his determination, the steely taste slick in his mouth.
Silently from the shadows emerged an acolyte, one of the many sexless followers who faithfully followed the law of Hekla Pial, out of habit, if not always out of outright faith. Loyalty was all that was required, how such loyalty was garnered was smeared in ambiguity.
It was dressed in robes, thick robes woven from the dead plant life quite in abundance in the area. Although not seen, the little stitches that held each leaf together was handcrafted carefully from the string of the stem that held each leaf. The hood fell well over the nose of the figure, obscuring the sight of expression, and of the mouth and the lips there was naught to be seen but an iron wrought mask that gave sharp pouty lips and narrow chin. Those lips smirked, twisted in dark amusement. The acolyte stared, body still beneath the cloak, all rustling gone. Raising one gloved hand, it gestured with a flick of its wrist and then withdrew into the shadowed niche.
Grunting in response, Ederyn surged into motion, his body moving with the liquid grace of a wolf as he moved down the corridor. In the background he heard the rustling of robes as the acolytes scattered behind him and shut the door with a quiet whoosh that sounded of finality.
He was in no position to protest the gesture, for Ederyn knew that it was part of the test to find the doorway and not fall into one's demise down the pits into the temple's hungry maw. Hands, soft and gloved slid over his back and he tensed, knowing quite well that no harm would come to him once inside of the temple. They caressed his skin with their soft hands, these sexless acolytes of Hel. And with diminutive touches that eased the tension in his body they slipped off his cloak and drew it up along the wall. Their hands slipped into hidden sheathes and removed all weaponry, as well as the dragging fur that had clapped around his ankles.
Warm water was fetched and in a swathe of soothing strokes he remained standing as they cleaned the grime from his face with the swift almost tender strokes of a lover. Using a comb carved of bone, they teased it through his mass of hair and tidied him up, leaving Ederyn barechested and cleaned. The warm water soothed his hurts and he gave in to their tender touches, gave himself over to the Aesir. The tension in his shoulders and his eyes eased with each soft petting of gloved hands as they eased his aching muscles into a chair. The warmth of the temple further soothed his ache.
Ederyn's eyes fluttered open, the bright blue of his gaze turning to the figure who had spoken. They all knelt on the floor with a soft rustle of leaves. He noticed they were barefoot, their feet softly whispering against the floor as they moved. Easing the plates of food onto the tables they withdrew without another word and let him feast. It was here that he'd wait. Once again, he closed his eyes and enjoyed the sudden relaxation, felt himself drift into a peaceful doze, his figure slumped languorously in the chair.
It was a cavernous room, the steam from the flames of Hekla Pial kept it warm, the roaring of the magma as it churned in the gut was a low drone that helped pull Ederyn into a blissful sleep after weeks of travel. His mind was drifting to the younger times, pulled deep with the current of sleep, the surging of warm air upon his skin soothing the aches in his joints. He was young but still quite open to such mortal pains of age.
As his mind drifted from one pleasant memory to the next, he was suddenly wrenched from his peaceful reverie. His eyes opened instantly, hands going for the dagger that had long ago been taken. Instead he struck out, blindly, his lips quirked in a smirk as he hit flesh. There was an oath and then a jarring retaliation as he was flung back into the chair. When the bright spots in his vision faded and he could see clearly, Ederyn tried to surge into motion. A sudden pain in his chest stopped him short. There was a spear held at his chest, the tip sliding into the skin at his movement.
One of the sexless Acolytes held their hand steady, the very posture grim. "Do not move, Bodil." the words hissed through the thick mask, the hood drawn low over their brow. What hair they had was hidden in the many folds of the cloak. Ederyn went limp against the chair, knowing the futility of challenge.
"Odin's balls, Ederyn!" a lumbering oaf of a man cursed as he stared out at all of the acolytes surrounding them. They were all balanced on the tips of their toes, weapons hidden in the many sleeves, but all willing and ready to kill for the sake of their temple. There hadn't been any hesitancy in their movement.
Clarity filled Ederyn's gaze and he sagged further against the chair, his posture of submission turning into utter relaxation. "Gamble you pox-ridden oaf, what did you think you were doing scaring me half to death?"
The responding chortle heartened the burly warlord as the other responded, "better off stealing from Thor's wife, eh?"
They laughed, the easy laugh of long camaraderie. The sound seemed to trigger a withdrawal from the acolytes as they all withdrew into the shadows again, as silent and as deadly as the wind itself. All but one disappeared. Ederyn grunted as the tip of the spear went a little farther into his chest as he moved, realizing the acolyte wasn't to move.
"Think before you act, lad." Gamble said in sudden severity, which made the acolyte startle, withdrawing the spear. They bowed and disappeared without another word. The heavy silence at their exit only spoke of communal thought.
"How goes Mokrufeld, friend?" Gamble asked falling into the seat accompanying Ederyn.
The Bodil of Mokrufeld looked over at his long time friend and company and smiled. They'd been fostered together, Gamble and Ederyn, and their friendship was long and standing. As children they had gotten into every mess, always leading the chases and taking their punishments with prideful silence. They were two of a kind, each the other half of their soul. When it had come time to part ways to their own section of home they had cut open their arms and shared blood, a bond and oath so strong as to last even after death.
The years had not been unkind to Gamble. The boyish cut to his jaw had hardened into a roughened square, his high cheekbones and small eyes given more dimension and personality with the hardened age. The very green of his eyes remained the same, and the very quick wit that lay behind seemed as sharp as ever. His hair had grown, Ederyn noted wryly, no longer the long wispy strands of white but the thick, full chestnut of an oak.
Ederny's lips quirked up beneath the beard, his laughter quite at ease. "More importantly, how does the world think Mokrufeld goes?"
With a quick smile that showed the humor in his eyes, Gamble laid back against the chair. "The world expects great and frightening things of you, Ederyn, I just hope that you do not try to follow every step that they pave for you for it will lead you to blasphemy. We who follow the old ways cannot afford blasphemy among our ranks."
The words were harsh, but Ederyn understood, and took criticism and warnings from Gamble as he would from no other. "The Christians have not infiltrated our borders, is this wrong then that I have acted before they touched upon my land? My home? My family?"
The darker haired man did not reply, for it was not to him that wisdom in such magnitude lay to be shared for all to see. "It is why I am here. To try to see with eyes unclouded by such strong possession. I can grow to hate these men who seek to condemn us. Marianne is beside herself. She's with our second boy, did you know? Round and weak with the way of women at that time. I can't afford to be weak."
Ederyn had met Marianne long ago, even before the nuptials had been taken and had approved of his blood-brother's decision. She was the right woman for him. Strong in the way of women. She'd proved herself in the battle field, unafraid of the carnage littered at her feet. She had left a strong impression. Yet even in the midst of a pregnancy women lose their fearlessness for their care and thoughts are no longer on themselves, but on those growing inside of them. While in the past, he had been envious of Gamble with his bride, now Ederyn could only thank the Aesir that he was not encumbered as he.
"Such worries may lead you astray, friend." Ederyn murmured softly and raised his hand and clapped Gamble on the shoulder, a growing empathy lighting his phosphorescent blues; especially in the shadows of the temple, they glowed with emotion and cunning.
Gamble was nodding, his fingers thrumming along the arm of the chair. "Indeed they will." he agreed.
It was some time before the others showed up, how many hours the two friends languished in repose not even they could tell. Time itself seemed to stretch and warp within the deep folds of the temple as they spoke of little things, of their triumphs and they're homes. Of the incoming invaders they did not speak much, for it seemed a foolish thing to conduct in the temple of the holy.
In the amiable silence that had settled between the two, Gamble reached over and nudged Ederyn, his eyes glazed over with mead as he chuckled, "By Odin's shaft! I think I'd never would've found that damnable shelf if it hadn't been for that dagger of yours sticking up so prettily."
Ederyn was quick to smile and laugh and wondered how many others he'd paved the road for. "So glad to oblige."
Gamble was laughing softly when he tipped his chin in the opposite direction, toward the entrance. "They wouldn't let me keep it, so you'll have to come to me before flinging yourself into the forest like some crazed devil." he laughed again, a pleased sort of sound, "I bet your loins will be burning by the time you'll get there!"
"Better to point the way, friend."
Gamble's laughter was open and carefree, his youth seeming to flow into him as he reached out and clapped Ederyn on the shoulder. "Just make sure you're useful to her, friend. Poor Eldrid, waiting all these years to have a eunuch come back to her."
Ederyn merely grunted, mood souring.
The emotion only heightened when the next warlord entered the room. Ederyn's gaze slid over the other man, eyeing him dismissively before turning his attention back to Gamble. Frode was very young in the way of Bodil's, one of the youngest of sixteen and his temper was often called infantile toward his turned back. The young man glowered and sat down on the chairs opposite of the blood brothers and brooded in silence. For their part, Ederyn and Gamble paid him no heed, which only further chaffed at his anger.
The two were sluggish with mead, their minds fogging pleasantly as they spoke, words turning a little slurred at the ends, when the last of the sixteen points entered, trim and cleaned.
Ederyn roused himself, and sat up his gaze sliding all of them, these people, considered the fifteen most important men in the world, and he himself labeled among them. All of them had succeeded.
The scraping of metal against stone reverberated with the eerie pitch of the godly as the world changed. There was no other sound but for the soft scarring of metal's touch upon the sacred walls but with each moment that squeezed passed the sounds of conversation stuttered to a stop, each heart turning toward it. What started off as a simple sound took on a whole new meaning as metal soon scraped against metal in a clear shocking sound of sword hitting sword. The shadows flickered, feet shuffling in a secret dance as the acolytes began to move and shift, still hidden. They allowed a bare glimpse of a feathered cloak, or a flash of pale skin soon hidden in the depths of the darkness.
It would've seemed humorous had one not felt the utter severity of the circumstance; it had begun. The Choosing. No matter the personality, or the strength or the cunning, each Bodil that stood in the throbbing cavern had made his way through the uncaring wilderness, fell deep into death and came back alive. It was to them that the call, the slow dance of death was aimed. With writhing bodies the acolytes moved, feet sliding along the floor, muscles languid, hair tossing with their faces held in shadows. They supplicated the gods, fed them glory and offered their reverence with each clash of swords. It was an art form, a dance; one that began to stir the men's blood.
Sixteen points stared, enthralled by the sight as the acolytes circled the chamber, round and round blood beginning to surge through veins. The soft whispers began in the corners, a cynical sound, one that spoke of soft caresses and battled glory. The Priestess unfolded from the darkness, serpentine grace uncoiling with the soft swaying of a predator. Sexless, she still pertained the curves of her womanhood, and she moved with an unnatural grace. Her feet were bare, pearly white beneath the rustling of her cloak, baring a glimpse of pale thigh as she walked. The intensity of the dance heightened as the shadows fell away from her body, revealing supple waist, cloak cinched at her girdle. It was her whispers that held the others in thrall and as she moved her voice grew stronger, louder, seductive as her tone rose and fell, each pitch garnering a new sense of the vivid contrast. She was Hel's avatar.
As the darkness parted for her entrance, the cloak which hid most of her skin flared, dropping past her shoulders to reveal the scars upon her chest where supple round breasts had once hung. The scars were grey and old, as pearly white as her skin, gleaming in the sudden wicked light which bared its secret. It was a dance, a soft caress of breath upon one's neck as the God's turned their gaze upon Midgard. Hel rose from the shadows and filled her Priestess, let the scars brighten with vivid red. Her hair was unbound, wild and unkept, thick coils sliding over her shoulders and down to brush upon the floor. Her face was scarred, thick slashes of the whip growing deeper as the flush of power encased in the mortal body.
The voice grew in strength, no longer merely mortal but it touched underneath the skin of men, coiled in their gut and squeezed. It brought to life the very fears that they kept in hiding. For to show such emotion was weakness. The last of the darkness fell away as light shimmered across the Priestess' face, to reveal the morbid sight of sightless eyes. She had been beautiful, now she shone with a beauty of the ghastly. Her eyes had been gouged, the large beautiful orbs extracted in sacrifice for the power of the gods by her very own hands. The scars dripped down like acid, rendering her cheekbones and mouth twisted, nose perked at the tip, lips curled in a vicious cut that had split through the nerves.
Blind as she was, her attention sharpened, sounds falling silent instantly. Hel was within her body, the Goddess peering through the woman's corpse and onto the men who called themselves God's Chosen. They had fallen silent, the acolytes silently sheathing their blades and withdrawing into the shadows, an unseen witness.
"Sacrifice is demanded; which one of you dares offer it?" the voice hissed, the evil whispering of one whose carried a violent betrayal too close to one's heart. She was Hel, the mistress of the Underworld, banished there by her uncle, the mighty Odin to rot and wait in silence, feeding upon the dead. It had made her bitter.
Ederyn rose to his feet, clasped fist to his heart and knelt on the ground, feeling his joints creak as he bowed his head to her. His heart was pounding, blood racing in his ears. Barely able to hear past the throbbing sound he spoke, his voice a deep steady rhythm that spoke of long hard faith.
Hel stared, face eerily pivoted toward his kneeling form though the priestess had no eyes with which to see. It was an unnerving sight, head cocked, looking as a hawk would upon a squirrel down below. Ready, waiting to pounce and devour him.
In the charged silence, Ederyn gathered his thoughts, thinking carefully on how to word his sacrifice for if it was denied then all was failed. Still speaking with the calm tones of ease he said, "I have nothing to offer the Aesir that would suffice for the troubles I foresee in the year to come. I come as a man, a warrior, a warlord. I do not come as Bodil of Mokrufeld, nor husband nor king. I come merely as myself and as such I have only one thing to offer." he paused in the silence, thoughts colliding with personal desires in the other fifteen points of Scaldia. "My blood to soothe the Aesir and my hopes, faith and servility if they but over see our safety. It is all I have, and as such it is all I can offer."
The silence after this powerful declaration pulsed in the very bones of each Bodil, for to prove to be as honest and fair as they were brutal was difficult in the current times. With the Christians edging toward their borders they could no longer act of fairness but instead sink into blood and battle, wiping the Christians off the face of Midgard.
Still the Gods saw far into the future and her mouth twisted, voice harsh as she spat. "Spewing such high morals for one who goes home to claim that which he rejects before the Aesir."
Ederyn tensed, his muscles tightening across his shoulders as he stiffened beneath those baleful words. Finally, "I cannot offer that which I do not have in possession."
The sudden laughter sent a chill down his spine as the priestess tilted her head back the light spilling fully into those scarred sockets. "You are king. Offer your land. You are soon to be husband, ease the immortals with her body. You are a warrior, offer your strength so that when you return you have nothing but your mind. Do not speak to me of things which you do not have, for as a king you have all within your reach."
The warlord swallowed thickly. "Does my blood not please you, mighty Hel who roams the regions beneath the grounds?"
"Your blood is like all blood, full of lies and desires."
"What is it you wish of me? But ask and I will offer." he murmured, head still bowed, not daring to look up.
"That which you hold most precious, young warrior." She hissed and Ederyn closed his eyes, stilling the rising tide of indignation that nearly overwhelmed him. The Gods often saw too much and her raking laughter only further provoked the warrior's anger. "Yes, that is what I want from you, Ederyn of Mokrufeld. Give me your love and I will grant you sight."
He could feel the press of the other's bodies, feeling their empathy rising off of them in a tide. His offer had been rejected and replaced with a true sacrifice. He cursed himself for a fool and inclined his head. "I offer my bride-to-be as the sacrifice."
He had found love, and was now to have her burn in the fiery depths of Hel's wrath.
"Done. The eve of your wedding, I will send one to bed your wife and take from you that which you most desire. May you look at your child and have doubts, young warrior. In exchange I will grant you sight."
The temperature dropped leaving Ederyn with a heavy feeling of stone churning in the pit of his stomach. Protection to his people for his own happiness; what other deed could ever be so noble? Still, it was with sickness festering deep in his soul that he rose from his position and followed the priestess.