Author’s Note: This is a work of fiction, complete and unabridged. Don’t expect any deep insights, philosophising, or political priciples. It’s here for entertainment. So be entertained.
It is set in the same world as the as yet unpublished “Prince of the North Tower”, but the characters and places that appear here are not mentioned there, beyond being within the “Five Kingdoms”.
Yes, I get the irony of turning in such a run of the mill yarn shortly after opining on the mistakes writers make.
Alvar was sore. Every muscle burned. His arms ached from swinging a hammer. His ears rang from the strike of steel on steel. His legs throbbed from working the treadle on the grindstone. His eyes hurt from looking into fires and at minute details. His back complained from the nights spent sleeping on the bare stone of the forge floor. He’d lost track of how long he’d been in the forge. How many meals taken in the back corner. How many restless nights. How many discarded billets and flawed blades. Hinrik Jarn had watched over Alvar’s shoulder and uttered quiet words of advice the whole time. But, the master smith had not touched a single tool. The blade had to be Alvar’s work, and the boy refused to accept anything less than perfect.
A churl’s son undergoing the rite of manhood could make do with anything that would cut or stab, but that would not do for Alvar. He was still annoyed at himself that he’d never managed to draw out the steel to a length suitable for a sword. Settling for a blade three times the length of his hand felt like giving up. But it was straight, and the edges parallel until the point. Half the length was double-edged, but Alvar’s legs had simply not been able to work the treadle on the grindstone any more. So he’d filed saw teeth into the lower half of the back edge. To remind himself which side had the full cutting edge, Alvar had added a D-guard to the grip. The simple piece of brass had been more difficult to work than he’d expected.
Had he simply set out to make anything, the blade would have been something to be proud of. But, all Alvar could see was where he’d fallen short of every goal he’d set. The blade was too short, too narrow, and not fully edged on both sides. The guard was too plain, too unornamented. The grip was nothing but a piece of wood with a leather wrap. The pommel was a simple lug, and he’d bent the tang while peening it. But he was too tired and sore to start over. He could barely rise and carry the blade from the forge to the great hall. Kneeling beside the throne, the youth set the implement atop a wooden pedestal. Alvar’s auburn locks were matted with sweat and streaked with soot. His handsome, boyish features were no better off, as his fatigue showed plainly. The woolen shift he wore would never be white again.
The great hall of Skogahaugr was a long, vaulted chamber in dark granite. Each arch had a false buttress in the form of a wooden post that appeared to prop up a decorative element near the ceiling. These posts were carved with a spiral of runes containing the saga of Alvar’s family. The verses spoke of how his ancestors had wrested the lands of Snaerveldi from the Kings of Neph and withstood the sieges to drive them back. The crown thus won had found its way to Alvar’s brow when he was but six. He prayed nightly to prove worthy of his lineage and knew he could not let himself accept ‘good enough’ from his endeavors.
Though Alvar was King, Olaf ruled. The Regent was a big man, with arms like tree trunks, and a chest like a bear’s. His beard had been black when Alvar was crowned, but was now streaked with gray. It was starting to resemble the wolf’s pelt that lined Olaf’s cloak. By custom, a man of Snaerveldi could not wear the fur of a beast he had not slain himself. The shortage of fur in Olaf’s attire merely reminded Alvar of how little time his step-father spent in the woods. The rite of manhood was no place for women or children, so Alvar’s mother and half-siblings were nowhere near the hall. Even so, the sheer number of men who hung around the court seeking the favor of Olaf Gull meant the room was far from empty. Each one of them in turn would inspect the blade and opine on its fitness. All the while, Alvar was expected to kneel in silence upon the stone, aching from the ordeal of its forging.
By virtue of his position, Olaf was first. Alvar had the urge to snatch the blade off the pedestal. before his step-father could pick it up. But, decorum and tradition stayed his hand. He merely clenched his jaw and gripped his knees to avoid improper acts or outbursts. Olaf gently lifted the implement from its perch and ran his gray eyes over the steel. Alvar knew the older man saw every flaw and blemish in the blade. However much the youth despised Olaf, he knew the regent was no fool. The former merchant had adroitly insinuated himself into the role of ruler so smoothly, little fuss had been raised. His silvered tongue had wooed the court and the widowed queen to the point that only Alvar protested the wedding. The king had been but a child, and the protests were ignored.
“Fine work, my son,” Olaf said.
Alvar rankled at every word. It wasn’t fine work, it was merely ‘good enough.’ And he was very much not Olaf’s son. The sycophantic murmurs of the men at court were easier to bear. The blade would serve its purpose in the latter half of the rite, so they took the opportunity to attempt to ingratiate themselves with their king. Alvar didn’t want flattery, he wanted honesty. However acerbic Henrik Jarn had been with his words, he’d been fair in his critiques. These hangers-on didn’t even point out the obviously bent pommel. The young king was grateful when the presentation of the blade was done, and he could finally rest in a real bed.
* * *
The wind blowing through the forest brought fresh flurries of snow falling from the laden boughs. Often Alvar would spot what he took for a track only to discover it was merely the mark of a clump off the branches above. So he pulled his cloak tighter about his shivering frame and kept going. The snow swallowed sound, meaning all that reached Alvar’s ears was the susurration of the breeze and the subtle creak of three limbs. Dark enough to look stark black against the snow, the trunks surrounded the youth, cutting short vision in every direction. There was plenty of space to move between them, and the snow was not deep. Alvar’s boots only sank to the ankles with each step. A trail appeared before him, but it was only that of a hare.
For a churl, a hare was a fine catch, but if Alvar wanted to wrest his throne from Olaf’s clutches, he could not have a churlish omen. So he ignored the hare’s tracks. Puffing out mist, he continued on. Where his muscles had been sore from exertion, now they were all but numb. The first pangs of hunger twinged his gut. Alvar refused to let that distract him. The whole rite was supposed to be a test of cunning, endurance and determination. To hunt down and slay a beast of the forest with just your wits and a blade you forged yourself tested a great many qualities of a man. The type of beast taken was seen as a portent of the type of man you would be. So Alvar stepped over the fox tracks and kept going. Foxes were cunning, but duplicitous. That would not do. It was perfectly acceptable to craft additional implements once you were in the woods, like snares or spears, but Alvar was uncertain what he might need.
Movement in the corner of his eye caught Alvar’s attention. He froze and looked. It was only a horse and rider. Olaf and several of his picked men were pacing him to ensure he didn’t cheat. Alvar found the implication galling. It was unthinkable to not do this the proper way. Another part of him wondered if the riders were scaring off the beasts. He scowled and motioned for the rider he saw to back away. The rider did not, but did sit still while Alvar gained a lead again. Grumbling and shivering, the youth nearly walked past the hoofprint. It was cloven, and it was big. The size of his palm, more or less. From the spacing relative to the other prints, he could immediately rule out swine and bovine. This was a deer, and a big one.
To the men of Snaerveldi, a stag meant wisdom and strength, good qualities for a king. Alvar turned to follow the trail, wondering what he would do if it turned out to be a doe. That could wait until he laid eyes upon the creature. There was no way to tell how old the tracks were with any certainty, but they were still clear. It had been snowing earlier that morning, so it could not have been more than a few hours. How far could a deer walk in a few hours? Pretty far, Alvar realized as he tried to work the chill from his fingers. All he could imagine was finding the beast and being too cold and tired to strike. All the while, Olaf and his flunkies would laugh when the stag turned and gored Alvar with its antlers.
The boy froze.
Accidents were not unknown. With only Olaf and his chosen cadre as witnesses, who’s to say such a mishap would be at the hands of an animal? As a boy, Alvar was no threat to Olaf, indeed, he was the excuse for the older man’s post. Were Alvar to die during his rite of manhood, it would be a very small step for his step-father to take up the crown. The young king glanced suspiciously behind him, but did not see the riders. Regardless of his fears, Alvar still had a beast to take. Resuming the trail, his bright blue eyes flicked from track to woods to where he suspected the riders to be. Nothing. For all the world, it looked as though Alvar were alone with the trees.
The sight of cleared snow heartened the youth. The deer had rooted through the accumulation to the plants underneath. Along the edges were marks that could have only been made by antlers. A smile came to Alvar’s face as he picked up the pace. He blinked against the wind and its frigid fingers scratching at his eyes. All that meant was he was downwind from the stag, and it would not pick up his scent on the approach. In an instant, all thoughts of cold, tiredness, and Olaf left his head. There, laying in a patch of cleared ground, was the stag. Patches of snow still dusted its dark brown coat, insulated from his heat by the dense fur. His antlers bore a myriad of points, and reached out wider than Alvar’s shoulders. Indeed, they were almost wide enough to span between the young man’s elbows with his arms outstretched.
Crouching low and close to a tree, Alvar contemplated his approach. At the moment he had every advantage. The stag was upwind, at rest, and facing the other way. But, they were wary creatures, and the slightest stray noise would send him bounding off into the woods. Moving as silently as his numbed limbs could muster, Alvar stepped around his tree and advanced to the next one. Keeping his eye on the stag, his heart nearly froze when the wind stopped. The stag hadn’t noticed him, as the wind had simply died down rather than reversing. As Alvar contemplated starting forward again, he heard the breathing. It was a low, raspy growl practically over his right shoulder. At first, he thought one of the riders must have approached too close. As he turned, the young king realized the sound was nothing like a horse.
A white blur leapt on Alvar in an angry snarl. The boy barely had time to interpose his arm between his throat and its teeth before being knocked from his feet. A massive feline with snow-white fur and a shaggy mane bowled him to the ground. As they hit, Alvar’s blade sank to the hilt in the lion’s torso. Claws raked at him as it tried to rip his arm off. Fear lanced through him as he expected his elbow to give way any second. Turning his face away from the enraged muzzle, Alvar twisted his blade in the wound. A torrent of hot blood poured over his hand as the cat’s clawing became spasmodic and flailing. His head reeled from a solid swat to the side of his face. Shoving the dying predator off himself, the youth tried to gain his feet. Falling to his knees, blood dripped from his blade and body.
Forcing himself to his feet, Alvar snarled at the empty patch of ground where the stag had reposed just moments before. He kicked the dead lion out of frustration. Staggering forward, dripping and reeking of blood, the king made to follow the deer. He spat out a mouthful of red and blinked blood from his left eye as he appraised the tracks again. A horse interposed itself between him and the trail. “Out of my way,” Alvar snarled, motioning Olaf aside. Scarlet drops cast off his arm as he did so, and his mouth filled with iron.
“Your hunt is over,” Olaf said.
“I haven’t caught it yet.”
“It doesn’t matter what you stalk, it matters what you first kill.” Olaf motioned behind Alvar at the dead lion. “Besides, you need to be stitched up before you bleed to death.”
Spitting another mouthful of blood, Alvar looked at the tooth marks bit deep into his left forearm, and down at the rents elsewhere on his body. If not for the numbing cold, he’d have been paralyzed by agony. He wobbled unsteadily, his torn face dripping down his shirt even as it leaked into his mouth.
Alvar crumpled backwards into the snow.
* * *
It was said that Alvar took the pain well. It helped that they’d sutured his face first and consequently immobilized his jaw to prevent him pulling out stitches. The worst injuries had been to the left side of his face, his left forearm and the front of his thighs. The claw marks across his torso had been long, but shallow. Unable to kneel, he sat on a stool beside the throne. Swaddled in bandages, the king set his bloodied blade on the pedestal. The Snow Lion lay upon the floor before the throne, looking for all the world as though it had lain down to take a nap. During their fight in the wild, Alvar hadn’t realized how big the cat actually was. He could have lain on its back easily. No wonder it had knocked him down so effortlessly. The great hall was cold, but Alvar welcomed the chill. The cold had saved his life in the forest, and it kept the pain down now.
Though only the men of the court had attended the presentation of the blade, the king’s rite of manhood was of interest to any man of the kingdom. That Alvar had made his blade produced little interest in the common man. That he had slain a Snow Lion with it brought them in droves out of sheer curiosity. Few had ever seen the dangerous beasts, and many of those did not return to speak of it. So to even be able to see the remains of one brought them to the great hall of Skogahaugr. Olaf had to post guards at the door to control the crowds and to keep the women and children outside. It was not their place to attend the presentation of the kill and attest to the suitability of the beast. Women had their own rites, from which men were excluded. From both, children could only wait in futile frustration until their time came.
It was not appropriate for Alvar to speak, so it was of little consequence that he could not. With that last bat to the head, the lion had dug its claws in deep. There was no way the king’s face would not bear scars from the wound. It was the last thing on Alvar’s mind. He was annoyed at the lion for having interrupted his hunt, and confused at Olaf’s behavior. To be rid of Alvar, and the last obstacle to fully claiming the crown, he had merely needed to act slow. The lion had done most of the work. Instead, he’d done everything to make sure the king lived. Now all the churls and thanes gawked at the dead lion and the wounds their king had sustained fighting it. Such a move would surely weaken Olaf’s hold on Snaerveldi. Alvar the boy was a useful tool. Alvar the man could dispose with his regent.
It didn’t make sense the the young man.
The king’s eyes went to where his step-father was observing the line of curiosity seekers pretending to be interested in the rite. He actually looked proud. Proud of what?
Alvar didn’t understand.