The Dreadful Winter
The lone scout from an Island of Terror, sent forth through the mists to find out what's going on.
AC 15, touch 12, flat-footed 12, rage -2; CMD 16
HP 13/13, rage 15/15
Fort 3, Ref 2, Will 0
Knowledge (Nature) 5, Perception 4, Sense Motive 1
Languages Old English, tralaks; [illiterate]
Hrothgar Odinson had always kept to himself, on the outskirts of the town, tending his small shrine. The villagers mostly left him alone. The priest, in his little chapel, occasionally railed against worshippers of demons, but the people remembered that while they worshipped the dead god Christ now, their ancestors had venerated the older, darker gods – Tiw, the war god; Thunor the thunderer; and the All-Father Woden. Who were they to say that the old Dane didn’t have the right of it? So when the Shire-Reeve came to the village, demanding men to fill the ranks of the local Fyrd to send to fight the Norwegians, they prayed in church but quietly slipped Hrothgar a few geese and pigs which found themselves hanging from his old oak tree.
The news came quickly – a victory in the north, but at a cost, and now the Normans were on their way to land at Hastings. And the English army was wearied, battered, and depleted. So the village elders approached Frothgar, asking for him to send the blessings of the Old Gods to the Fyrd. His counter-offer was shocking, but absolute – nothing less would suffice. So the elders brought out eight young boys, too young to join the Fyrd, and eight young girls. The priest exploded in anger, barring their way – he was dutifully hacked down by the desperate villagers. By the end of the day, sixteen small bodies swung in the winds from the oak tree, an offering to Odin to send victory to the men at Hastings.
The news came soon after – victory! The Bastard Duke had died in battle! The messenger had last seen their men charging down the hill at the foe, as the Norman cavalry fled. The villagers celebrated, and slaughtered two cows for a celebratory feast. Hrothgar found himself warmly embraced, for the first time in his life.
And then the second messenger arrived, eyes wild and desperate. Rout! The english were routed! The Duke lived! Harold was dead, and the Normans were marching on to London!
The eyes all turned to Hrothgar. By the end of the day, his body had joined those sixteen children swaying in the breeze from the old oak tree.
When William’s army marched through, they found no village. Just an empty field, a patch of forest where their scouts reported some deer, and a gnarled old oak tree that made even some of his bravest knights shiver as they passed it. The way the branches looked bent as if under some great weight, and that patch of bark that almost looked like a screaming face…
The village was terrified. The priest was dead, the Norseman was dead, the sky had changed and the land was different. As the days wore on, no army marched through. No messengers came, no Shire-Reeves came to tell the people of events. It seemed, for all intents and purposes, the village had dropped out of middangeard. Some began to mutter than Awyrgda – the devil – had claimed them all for sacrificing to the false gods of the Norsemen.
They needed to know. The young men had all gone off to war, the young boys had been given th Hrothgar the Deceiver, and the old men were too old to make the journey. So the decision was made to arm one of the older girls, gird her in the clothes and armour of a man, and send her out to find out what had happened. The village armourer had worked for the local lord, working decent chain mail and weapons. One of the wealthier old men produced his old suit of mail, which was cut down in short order. A sweard was produce, and a hand-axe that had taken the heads of Viking raiders. There were no tributes to Odin on the night Cyneburg set out, astride one of the village’s ponies. There were some quiet prayers to god, remebered from the words the old priest had muttered as loud as he could manage, but the peoples hearts weren’t in it. As far as they knew, they were sending another youngster out to be sacrificed to dark forces, to forestall their own end.
But Cyneburg thought differently. As she felt the weight of the axe hanging at her belt, as she rested her left hand on the pommel of her ath-sweard, upon which she had sworn to bring news, she felt like she was the only one who thought the village was the less enviable place to be. Because that oak tree had followed them, bowed under the weight of corpses the villagers were still too scared to cut down, no ravens about to do nature’s work, and especially Hrothgar’s face, grinning down at the village from dry, shrivelled lips, as if the final joke was on them all.
No, Cyneburg didn’t want to stay under the gaze of the Mad Dane and his young victims. And as she rode her way past the oak tree, she tried not to look, but couldn’t avoid noticing that every body hanging from the tree turned in the breeze as she passed, as if watching her passage.
She halted, holding a wadded cloth to her face, and made her decision. Using her axe and sword as makeshift spades, a grave was dug. The villagers gathered to watch, some anxiously wanting to join her but not moving, others shouting at her to leave the dead and save the living. She ignored them. Sixteen small bodies were cut down, Cyneburg trying not to retch but leaving the contents of her breakfast lying in the grass, and they were laid in the grave. The earth was shoved back, and a couple of oak branches were cut and fashioned into a crude crucifix. No names were written – she had not the way of the runes like the priest had. But she would remember their names her whole life.
She left Hrothgar where he hung, even as he swung balefully from the branch as if to stare at her as she travelled further and further from the village, on into the writhing and roiling mists…