They bounded along the trail with swift, silent strides

They bounded along the trail with swift, silent strides.

The path was narrow and winding, twisting and turning throughout the redwood trees and ferns of the aptly-named Red Wood, leading them ever closer to the impending conflict. They did not know who they would face, they only knew they must. The shadows of the wood were cut by sharp, dusty beams of sunlight. The ferns rustled as they stirred and reached for the life-giving rays, red, green, and yellow fronds rustling eerily.

Yorgald felt an immense power around him, filling him, waiting to be tapped. The trees were old and angry, they whispered and conversed with dark sayings and ancient lays. The air was heavy with quiet anticipation, as the calm before the storm. Yorgald could feel the silky hair of his elemri standing on end as if static with electricity.

Asial led them, proud and powerful. Asial, who would succeed Yorgald as the next Archmage of Roen's kingdom. His staff was propped across his broad shoulder like a battle-axe, and his wheat-colored hair stirred in the wind. With them were five of Yorgald's most promising mages. There were the twin brothers Faor and Naor, quiet and dutiful. There was the child Mirand, who would one day become a man of legend and repute. There was Hroth, impulsive but dedicated. And finally Beza, beautiful and fierce, painted with sinuous designs of blue woad as was her tribe's custom. All of them were dressed alike in battle-ready buckskin and doeskin, robes of authority left behind in Emblavang.

Asial halted. He looked back at Yorgald. "We have a visitor," he said, taking a knee and granting Yorgald an unobstructed view. A huge wolf stood ahead of them in the trail, tall as Yorgald's waist though Yorgald stood just short of eight feet. The wolf was wide and muscled, and its eyes swirled like green storm clouds. Following Asial's example, Yorgald knelt and bid the others kneel as well.

"Yorgald the Wise, there is no need to bow before me my old friend," the wolf said. "Approach and we shall council."

Yorgald walked to the wolf and knelt down so that their faces were level. "Respect must be given where respect is due, Lord Dahrue. What news of forest and fen?"

"The Lords of the Aesnir lie in wait ahead, the Sword Lord and the Spear Lord. They come in search of war, as revenge for the disfigurement of their comrade," Dahrue said, licking his paw.

"Rugar and Teahr," Yorgald stated. Dahrue nodded.

"Beware the Spear Lord, Archmage. His power is black and potent. He has allied himself with the crafts of darkness, and hung himself upon his own ambitions," Dahrue warned, his eyes fixed upon Yorgald's own. "The elements are with you, but the Fates must have their due," Dahrue finished. The Elemental, sent from the Fates to protect the Roots of the World Tree and council the loyal, disappeared into the woods, gone as suddenly as he had come.

They continued on. It was in a place where the woods opened in a small clearing that they found the Aesnir waiting. Rugar was leaning against a tree with one had and his other was clenched in a fist as it rested on his hip. "Look, Teahr! They've come!" Rugar shouted, smiling wide and laughing triumphantly. "My sword will at last have some drink!" The King of the Aesnir was wide-shouldered and narrow-waisted, his teeth showing cotton-white against the copper of his skin. His hair was the white of clouds, his eyes the blue of the sky. He wore only a heavy red kilt, which was cinched high upon his scar-puckered abdomen by a wide leather belt.

"Yes, My Lord," Teahr said. "Come they have. And this clearing will make a worthy burial place, will it not?" The Spear Lord was sitting on the ground with crossed legs. Whereas Rugar was as tall and straight as a fir tree, Teahr was as bent and gnarled as an old willow. His face was hollow and sunken, one eye covered by a patch. A wild white beard grew from the sorcerer's chin. He wore the roughspun of a beggar, and clutched his spear with a claw-like hand.

Rugar's laughter boomed, startling some sparrows from a nearby tree. "Aye, and perhaps their death's won't be the end! If they fight bravely enough, I might just allow them to be my slaves during Surt's War!"

Yorgald hissed as he heard the Traitor's name. The Aesnir continued their banter, as if forgetting that Yorgald and his mages were there.

"Don't expect bravery from them, My Lord," Teahr said. "They are cravens and thieves." The sorcerer smiled.

"Silence your tongues!" Yorgald demanded. "You trespass within the bounds of the Giant's Keep of Roen the King. You are commanded to either depart or be killed."

A shadow passed over Rugar's face. 'That famous temper,' Yorgald thought. It was just as soon curbed, and Rugar's face broke once more into mirth. "Roen, eh? Where is that coward, anyway? I have longed to test my blade against him ever since I saw how he shamed Nohr," Rugar laughed. He glanced once more at Teahr, who had stood. "The Trickster is looking more like you these days, friend!"

Teahr did not respond to that. "Can we kill them yet?" The old Aesnir asked, cold as moonlight.

Another laugh from Rugar. "Come now, we will give them a chance at--what was that word?--oh yes, a 'peaceful' solution," the King turned his attention once more to Yorgald. "Giant! I demand the Red Wood in its entirety for my Kingdom and my people. If you do not comply..." Rugar patted his sword hilt from where it hung at his waist.

The sword, said to be the first crafted (a claim Yorgald doubted), was all silver and gold, its edges gleaming with a diamond sharpness. Yorgald immediately began drawing upon the elements around him, using his staff as a focus point. The staff, carved from rare Cappum wood, felt warm to his touch. Yorgald was filled with the sweet essence of the elements, and he could hear them speaking to him. Some were wild, others calm, but all recognized his authority and pledged him obeisance.

Teahr's face was suddenly shadowed with suspicion. He leveled his spear. Asial, ever eager, thrust out his staff and released a powerful windspell. Teahr's spear tumbled from his hand. Faor and Naor both released similar spells at the confused Rugar, who was lifted up on invisible wings and driven into a wide-trunked spruce tree. The trunk splintered in two and the crown groaned as it crashed to the ground, taking poor Hroth with it. As Hroth died a portion of Yorgald went with him. Mirand, unable to accept what his spirit knew, lifted the treetop with a quick whirl of his staff. Yorgald caught only a fleeting glimpse of the mangled body before the lightning came, loud and black, tearing the sky before crashing down.

Naor lifted his staff in an attempt to counter the bolts. Yorgald saw Naor's staff become enwrapped, and then it was lifted in the air with its struggling bearer still attached. Beza shouted, pointing skyward. Mirand was crying. There was a great flash and then Naor's body fell to the ground in several charred pieces. Yorgald saw Teahr in the chaos, his arms lifted in the air. He was muttering dark incantations, and his eyes were clouded white. Beza lifted a large tree out by its roots, aiming it at the sorcerer. Teahr lowered one hand without looking away from the heavens, and the tree was sent rebounding back to Beza at twice the speed. She was crushed under its weight and buried in the earth like a broken doll. The Archmage cried out with infuriated pain. He closed his eyes and explored the forest with his mind. He could sense a bear nearby, a large sow with three cubs. Yorgald could sense that it was frightened by the sounds of the battle, it wanted to see its cubs safely away. He called to it, speaking in a language that no other Giant knew, commanding it. It began to bound to the clearing, the elements of its body and spirit drawn by a force that they did not question. It emerged from the trees, brown and terrible. 'He wants to harm your cubs!' Yorgald told the bear, placing a image of Teahr in its mind. The beast roared, ignoring the chaos of the lightning, charging the sorcerer. Teahr collapsed under the bear's claws and teeth. The lightning ceased. Yorgald's ears rang.

The bear was clawing away at Teahr's body, looking for a soft spot to surround with its jaws. Teahr, struggling but not screaming, lifted a hand up to the bear's chest and pushed it into the fur. Suddenly the fur caught fire, and the bear backed away and escaped into the trees, squealing with pain. Yorgald fixed his staff on the now-mangled Aesnir, preparing a spell that would finish him. Suddenly a streak of silver filled his vision.

Rugar's sword skewed Yorgald's left eye from its socket. The Archmage collapsed to the ground clutching the weeping hole, inflamed with pain. Rugar's laughter floated upon the air. "Another to add to your club, Teahr!"

Yorgald saw the sword raised over him through a scarlet veil of blood. He prepared himself for death, a journey to the top of the World Tree to see what lay beyond. He could hear the song of the fates, welcoming him back home. There was a thunderous crack. Rugar shouted. The Archmage felt himself being lifted up. Yorgald, dazed as he was, thought that Rugar was taking him somewhere. "Fear not, my friend!" came Asial's voice through the haze. "The trees will protect us!"

"The others..." Yorgald mumbled. He could feel his waking thought slipping away.

"Dead," Asial mourned. "They are all dead."