The hour being early, there were few other people in the area of the gate as the troop of Irregulars arrived there, on their way to Ogden’s Wheel. Despite the sun’s just-emerging light, the clangour of hammer on anvil could be heard echoing from the West, as the smiths of the Iron Quarter began their daily labour. The square that lay in front of the gate, flanked by shut-up buildings, was deserted. The gate was shut.
“Column, hold!” Jans’ voice reverberated around the abandoned area. Llew covered the short distance across to the guard building, knocking harshly on the oaken door. A crashing could be heard from inside, and the roughly glazed window showed a flurry of distorted activity. After a time, the door was pulled inwards, and a rumpled soldier stood scowling at the Commander.
“Enh, whaddaya want?” he said, looking around the square, seeing the thirty-odd soldiers standing at attention some few paces away.
“It is an hour after dawn, and this gate should be open,” replied Llew, somewhat sternly. “Regardless, open it for us now, by order of Lord Stórskorinn, so that we may pass.”
The guardsmen yawned loudly and wiped a gloved hand across his face. “Hardly get anyone travelling this way save for Market Days. Be no sense in openin’ tha Gate crack o’ dawn.” Llew crossed his arms, beginning to glare. “Enh, alrigh’ maybe there’ll be some traffic this morn anyways. Lemme get the key.”
After rummaging about in the guard house, the man emerged, carrying a set of iron keys. He walked over to the gate, and unlocked a padlock attached to a chain. Lifting the spar from where it hung, he opened the first door of the gate. The second door open, the road could be seen extending northward, till it was lost in the still-present morning mists.
“Company, forward!” yelled Jans, and the men marched through the gate. The guardsmen tried to hide another yawn as Llew walked past, sighing.
“These standing stones along the rode, Odane wonders at them,” Odane said, walking beside Llew at the head of the column.
“Ah, those?” asked Llew. “Those are known as the menhir. They follow the North Rode up into the mountains, usually about five stones every league but, at some points, the stones have fallen and been covered over in vegetation, or are missing altogether. If you look closely at them, you can see that there are runes carved into them.”
“Does Llew know what the runes say? For what purpose do the standing stones stand?”
“No, I don’t know that anyone does. They’ve been here forever, or so it seems. I remember an old woman in my home town growing up – she would say that the stones were put there by the Old Folk, those that pre-dated the arrival of the Eastern men that unified this country, hundreds of years ago. I wouldn’t give it much credence though, she was always full of Fairie tales, trying to scare the children.”
“Will we be seeing Llew’s home town on our march today? Odane is…curious…to see the place where Llew came of age.”
“Nay, my town is north and west of the where we are headed,” responded Llew. “Ogden’s Mill must be a new town, I don’t remember it on the road from before. Asides, I left there long before I came of age. I’d be interested to see what it looks like, after all these years.”
The column came to the crest of a slanted rise that blocked off the horizon. They stood at the top of a valley, a river having cut through the rolling hills over the aeons. The road ran on down the hill, the bottom of which lay some 100 or so feet below, sunlight playing off the river as it ran its course. The menhir followed the road, some standing, some lurching at an angle, every few dozen feet. From their relative height, the soldiers could see for leagues, small homesteads hidden among the hills with flocks of sheep dotting the turf. Patches of white and purple broke up the monotony of green, clover and heather flowering amongst the grasses. Occasionally, atop some hills, were piles of bare rock, stacked neatly.
“Those there, are those too the work of Llew’s Fairie people?” asked Odane, pointing to one of the piles in the distance.
“Ha! They may be that, indeed. Those are called the Càirn. People say that they mark the graves of great heroes and warriors. I do not know. They, too, have stood for a long time,” Llew responded, looking out over the vista.
“Odane has seen lands where they have built monuments to their dead many hundreds of feet high, in great tombs that took the work of many hundreds of men, for many dozens of years. Llew’s Fairie people, they have a more…personal touch. Odane approves their humility.”
“Whatever you say, my friend, whatever you say,” said Llew, clapping the other man on the back. “Let’s carry on, we’ve aways to go yet before reaching this ‘Oden’s Mill.’”
“… and thus, we must throw off the heathen chains, and take up once more the Glorious Task given to us by the Mighty Flame. We will craft this land anew, with a new destiny for all men and women of Cothrom an Tír!” echoed the voice through the deserted village streets.
Llew, accompanied by Odane and two more Irregulars, strode ahead of the main body, halting short of entering the main square. From their vantage, they could see a crowd of villagers surrounding a black cloaked figure, who stood above them on a crate.
“We will drive back the oppressor and usurper, and push him out of this rich land! We will…”
“If Odane were a villager, he would be roused by these words.” Odane said appreciatively, as the orator continued his speech.
“Yeah, well, rousing or not, doesn’t sound like what his Grace’d like to hear. He look like some sort of monk to you?” asked Llew.
“Aye, that ‘e does,” said one of the other soldiers.
“Well, that’s good enough for me. Odane, you take a third of the men over to the far side of the square, beyond that mill. Don’t make a move till I give the signal. You, Jans, take a second third and block the main exits from the square itself. Do your best not to use violence. Idwal and I will take the rest of the men and confront these miscreants,” said Llew.
“…His mighty hand will reforge this land in His image, casting back – ”
“Alright, that’s quite enough,” said Llew, striding into the square at the head of a troop of ten Irregulars. The villagers were surprised by the sudden appearance the armed men. The monk on his crate folded his arms across his chest.
“By order of his Regal Highness, King Osred, all public religious demonstrations not of the Fimm are forbidden. Disperse, good people, and go about your business,” he said, addressing the crowd.
“Ah! Ah! Here the heretic, hear how he brings his foreign king’s empty words here, here to the Elect! Will we listen to these mewlings, these powerless edicts? No!” said the cowled figure, looking about the group gathered around him. The people made signs of restiveness, some muttering angrily amongst themselves.
“No! What right have they against us? They are but few and far from their king with his foreign idols and his unjust taxes! Now is our moment, now is the time to stand, my friends! Rend them! Kill the heretics!”
The men of the crowd, strong from their labours in field and craft, turned a menacing eye towards the soldiers, outnumbering them some five to one.
“Pretty good odds, Commander, even if they are unarmed,” said Idwal quietly to Llew, hefting his sword.
“Aye, but look, Idwal, they remain unsure of themselves,” Llew said shrewdly. “They aren’t soldiers, and have no experience with such things. Watch – People of Ogden’s Wheel, we mean you no harm. However, we have the streets covered -” the men lead by Jans stepped out of hiding, swords bare and bows drawn, though aimed towards the ground “and no person who breaks the King’s law will go unpunished!” Llew said in a commanding tone.
The stance of the crowd immediately took on a different tone – after a show of force, none of the villagers were eager for a fight. Sensing the turn in the tide, the strange priest redoubled his ministrations:
“All who contest the might of Hegebellius shall feel His wrath! Death to the Unbeliever!”
As if by signal, more cowled bodies flowed from the surrounding buildings. One of them raised an arm, holding a metallic cylinder, and pointed it at Idwal. A CRACK cut the atmosphere, followed by billowing cloud that enveloped the man. Llew turned to Idwal, seeing the vacancy where the man’s chest was but a moment ago. He locked eyes with Llew, holding them for a moment before sinking to his knees, pink foam bubbling at his lips.
“Forward!” yelled Llew, “Odane, attack!”
The air was filled with the whistling of arrows as the soldiers loosed, and the cry of men as they found their targets. Odane and his men came rushing from the mill street, barrelling through the townsfolk who parted like so much chaff. Another of the robed fanatics raised one of the metallic weapons, aiming towards Llew as he pushed through the crowd.
A second CRACK resounded through the square, cutting through the hubbub of the mass. The acolyte who had been holding the weapon disappeared in a cloud of smoke. The crowd stilled, turning towards the sound, those nearest the source backing quickly away. As the smoke cleared, there was little left of the acolyte, at least above the waist. A moment later, the pulped body slumped to the ground, little left above the middriff. The other priests seemed to react with as much surprise as everyone else did. Those few remaining villagers closest to the sprawled mess quickly retreated towards the buildings skirting the perimeter of the square, tripping over their fellows in the rush. The priests reacted more effectively, turning to meet the oncoming soldiers. The priest who had been pontificating, flanked by two others and Idwal’s killer, advanced towards Llew and the remaining few Irregulars. Brandishing a gold hammer, pulled from some-where in the folds of his cassock, the priest and his fellows crossed the distance quickly, showing little fear at the prospect of meeting the soldiers. Within a few steps the groups closed, swords clashing against metallic hammers.
Llew was thrown to the ground by the riposte of the priest, overpowered by his surprising strength. He deflected a second blow which crashed into the ground beside him, splitting the paving stone. Llew could see, off to his side, as the priest wielding the strange weapon dodged the slash of the attacking soldier and smashed the butt of the weapon into his face. With a grunt, the soldier off to his side pushed his sword through his chest, the priest collapsing onto the ground.
Llew saw the priest raising his arm for another strike. He threw up his sword to parry the blow, but it was knocked from his hand as his attacker struck his arm and a searing pain arced up through it. A grim smile split the priest’s face, as he knew Llew was now in his power.
The robed priest pulled back his hand, hammer catching a ray of sun as it was lifted through the air. Despite the pain in his arm, Llew was startled by the beauty of the light playing off the weapon. Peace took him, in an exhalation of breath. Confusion. The priest’s erstwhile smile frozen into a rictus of pain, light dying in his eyes. A sabre emerging from his shoulder, cleaving a jagged line through collar bone, through ribs, and pulling back. Blood frothing from the lips of the man.
The world came rushing back to Llew. Sounds that he didn’t remember disappearing crashed down on him, men screaming, men dying. Odane pushed the body of the dying priest to the side, gripping Llew’s good hand and heaving him to his feet. Surveying the charnel house the square had become, he could see that the battle was just over.
“How many?” grunted Llew, cradling his damaged arm.
“There was another four at the other end of square, close to where Odane and his men were stationed. Fell easily enough, outnumbered as they were. The fellow who met his end over there,” Odane said, pointing to the stray pair of legs with a gorey sabre, “and Llew’s four here, that makes nine.”
“A lucky blow took Heulfryn, head pulped like a melon. The other priests fell quickly. Idwal is dead. Despite the Pedr’s smashed face, he will be alright. Might actually come out a bit prettier.”
“Doubt it,” Llew said through a wry grin. Sobering: “Odane, have you ever heard of anything like this, in all your travels?”
“Odane has heard tell of sorcerers and magicians in many of the lands he has been, but, as for seeing anything? Nay. This, despite all the places he’s seen, is something new.” The man shook his bald head, looking pensive.
“Damn,” said Llew. Turning to the nearest group of soldiers, “Trystan, get Teilo up here to take a look at Pedr’s face, and anyone else that was injured. Jans, collect three other men and search the rest of the houses in the square. You there,” he said loudly, addressing another knot of men, “Hereward, take those with you and search the houses further out. I want the townspeople back in this square in 20 minutes. And I want to know if anymore of those Priests are about.”
The men addressed quickly went about their tasks, some heading across the square and others leaving it by the nearest street. Llew moved over to the square’s well, sitting back against the wood and brick frame on an overturned bucket. Teilo, who had made a cursory glance at Pedr and applied some bandaging, came up.
“ – probably want to leave a token force here, at least for a few days,” Llew was saying to Odane.
“Alrigh’ Commander, lessee that arm,” said Teilo.
“Surely there are others who need the attention more than me, Teilo,” Llew said. “What about Pedr over there?
“Aye, he’ll be fine. Few less teeth, new crick to the nose, but it’s not like it was a clean slate ta begin with!” laughed Teilo, scratching the vacant socket where his left eye should have been.
“As to you, though, let me see that. I saw you take the blow, and those hammers look like they can do some damage,” he said, squatting down and cutting back Llew’s sleeve, revealing the mashed flesh of his fore-arm. He twisted the arm one way and another, drawing a tourniquette around the upper arm to slow the loss of blood.
“I’ll need to take a better look at it at some point, but you seem ta have come off lucky, Commander. You’ll keep the arm. The break is a clean one, and should set pretty easily. The flesh’ll leave a nasty scar, but there’s no helping -”
“Hey! Get him!”
“For the Flame!”
The wooden frame exploded into tinder, knocking Teilo and Odane to the ground, as another explosion was heard across the square. A second came from that direction, accompanied by a scream. Jans and the remaining two soldiers fought against four more of the priests, whom they had flushed from a house in the corner, the third soldier laying on the ground with his chest open. Two priests were armed with strange metal tubes from before, and the other two had the metal hammers, one gold and the second brazen. One of the priests lashed out and struck the soldier next to Jans in the thigh, shattering the leg. This was followed by a blow to the head, knocking him down. As the dust settled from the earlier explosions, more soldiers ran to the aid of Jans and his beleaguered comrades. A thrown spear pinned the priest wielding the gold hammer to the wall, who shouted to his comrades:
“Run! Run and return!”
With a rushed “In Hegebellius’ name,” the three other cowled figures ran, re-entering the house they had moments before spilled out of.
“After them!” shouted Llew, ears still ringing from the near-miss. Jans and the supporting soldiers dashed into the house and around the its side, leaving the square once more in a leaden silence. A CRACK rang out from where the soldiers had disappeared to, as well as the cry of wounded horses. Regaining their feet, Llew, Odane and Teilo made their way over to the scene of the recent battle, senses alert for any more hidden dangers.
“Sorry Sah, two of ’em got away,” said Jans. “They had horses posted at the far end of the town. They also had another of those weapons stashed there. They got Hereward with it. Took ‘is leg near off. Bled out quickly. He was lucky.”
“By the Mother!” said Llew. Looking over to Odane, “so, make that 13 of the priests, and five dead…?”
“Aye, five it is,” said Teilo, cleaning blood off this hands with an already soiled rag. “Even if I had him back at the Imperial infirmary in the City, there’s nought I could do with this chest wound,” he muttered, looking down with pity at the soldier layed out before him, one lung a collapsed mess of flesh, the other visibly straining to draw air, despite it’s exposed presence.
“Damn it!” shouted Llew, rage building inside of him.
“Heh, heh,” coughed the priest, still pinned to the wall of the house. “That one’s pain shall be all of yours – it is ordained.” A drip of blood spilled from the corner of his mouth, losing itself in his hood.
“And what of your own pain, Priest?!” said Llew, who leapt towards the man, twisting the spear embedded in the man’s body with his good hand.
The Priest cried out, face twisting in agony.
“Who sent you? What is this hellish magic? Answer me!” cried Llew, twisting the spear at a show of defiance.
“We are your doom, heretic! We are the Hammer of Hegebellius! We will burn you!” A mad look came into the priest’s eyes, as he laughed in Llew’s face, blood spilling from his mouth.
Face a frozen mask, Llew picked up the priest’s own weapon and brought it down on the man’s head, repeatedly striking him in a quiet frenzy. Odane rushed over when he saw what had overcome Llew, restraining him.
“Llew will stop! Llew must stop before he hurts himself!” the man cried. Llew finally collapsed into his arms, bloody hammer falling from his slack grasp. Odane looked over to Teilo, his face grim.
“It’s alright, I’m alright,” said Llew, reaching up to clean a spray of gore that had caught him in the face. Regaining his feet, he turned to Jans, “Collect all those metal rods, and put them under heavy guard. We’ll be staying here the night. Where’re those gods-cursed villagers?” he demanded with a shout.
Odane opened the door, revealing Llew sitting on the bed, head propped in his good hand, staring at the floor.
“I’ve killed many men in the service of the King, Odane. I have killed them in battle-rage, in fear. I’ve killed them when I knew that they didn’t deserve to die. This was the first time I’ve ever killed anyone with lust. I enjoyed killing that Priest, and I would do it again and again and again.”
“Let Odane help Llew with his armour,” Odane said. Llew looked up at him with hollow eyes, returning to the present scene. He stood, and Odane helped him take his left arm out of the sling. The leathern hauberk was gingerly negotiated off, and Llew sat back down on the bed.
“What happened today, Odane? This was meant to be straight-ahead. This wasn’t supposed to happen,” he said, shifting his injured arm. “We weren’t meant to lose anyone today. Maybe if we’d been at full strength -”
“Llew mustn’t blame himself,” Odane cut in, sitting down beside Llew. “The men that were left in the city, they could not help against the…unexpected.”
“That’s just it, though. I lead these men, I’m the one that is supposed to deal with all situations, to tell them what to do, to keep them safe. How can I keep them safe against this, this sorcery?” Llew said, tears growing in his eyes. Odane put an arm around the other man’s shoulders, pulling him close.