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In the Giant's Shadow (Part 1)
The white raven perched on a grave marker. Its pale feathers, the color of bleached bone, ruffled as it stretched its wings and preened. Gaiur eyed the little beast with wary suspicion, glowering at it as she brushed stray strands of her blue-black hair away from her eyes. She’d been traveling Stenise’s southern trade roads for a few weeks now, ranging from its northernmost reaches down into its southernmost hills and valleys. A journey of hundreds of miles made difficult by the heavy snows at the end of winter and the heavy rains she encountered through the spring. But intermittent bad weather and the length of the journey were comparatively small hurdles against the culprit which chiefly delayed her - uncertainty.
Since she left Valdun a couple years ago, Gaiur hadn’t ever really been sure where she was going. There was no real destination in mind when she turned her back on that place which had spurned her, just a driving sense that the isolated far northern village wasn’t where she belonged. The wilds were more of a home to her than her tiny house, and they were more welcoming of a pariah like herself. So with her gray furred greatwolf Varro at her side, she eked out a living by hunting, trading, and on occasion offering her axe and Varro’s teeth to the rare caravan she did encounter along the way.
What changes occurred that suddenly drew her back to civilization, she couldn’t rightly say. Perhaps months upon months of living alone with naught but an animal to keep her company finally wore on her, and it was a desire for simple human interaction that finally made her stick to the roads. Or maybe it was driven by simple necessity and the rigors of living off the land had become just a bit too much. She didn’t have much confidence in either of these answers, though, especially considering where she’d finally ended up. Jötungatt was a considerably larger settlement than her ancestral home, Valdun, being a proper town of a couple hundred. There was little in the way of bustle, though, and while the people weren’t of the same standoffish and superstitious stock as she was, they weren’t warm and welcoming, either.
In truth, Jötungatt only had two things of significance to its name. The first was the graveyard, a sprawling field of the dead that stretched out along the road and surrounding hilly fields for nearly two miles from the town’s northeastern border. For reasons Gaiur couldn’t understand, this place of interment had been erected on either side of the main road leading into town. Why the people had built it this way was a mystery, but it was apparently so large that it alone nearly doubled Jötungatt’s border. At least, that’s what the traders she encountered a few days back at the last crossroads had said. From what she’d seen as she walked that main road, it seemed to be true. But how had this town produced a graveyard of such size?
The white raven cawed and Gaiur’s heart skipped a beat. She hadn’t realized she’d become lost in her thoughts, not until that damnable bird startled her out of them. It watched her with its head held low and tail raised, as if it planned to launch off the grave marker to try and pluck out her russet red eyes. She scowled at the thing as it regarded her with its own red eyes, bright like gemstones where hers were the earthy colors of rust. It hopped along the top of the wooden marker, an old plank of wood that had a name carved into it with runic letters decades ago. The wood was old, gray, and split in so many places that it made the name impossible to read.
Again the raven cawed, its beady eyes fixated on her as she passed. Gaiur shouted and flung her arms out at it in hopes of shooing it away. Even Varro joined in, giving a loud bark and growl as he bared his fangs at the bone white bird. But the raven simply tilted its head back and forth in that odd jittery manner birds are known for and cawed at them again before taking to the sky and gliding along in front of their path.
For three days now the raven had been following them, a thought which unsettled Gaiur’s mind. Ravens were often seen as omens or portents. They were believed to be animals which bore the words and wisdom of the Gods, or which bore their ill will. Gaiur admittedly hadn’t heard any tales regarding white ravens before, but that did little to ease her mind. To be followed by a raven like this was already considered a sign of ill fortune, but hers was the color of bones and bore eyes red like thinned blood. What’s more, the damnable thing had followed her through a graveyard and had stopped twice now to seemingly mock her for it. She had a hard time viewing that as anything but a bad sign.
After a couple minutes the raven descended again, this time perching on a fence post a ways down the road. Behind the bird stood a small and sturdy log house, followed by others behind that and a large arching stone structure behind them. That must’ve been the giant’s gate, the second thing of significance for which the town was known. The stone structure loomed nearly twice as tall as the houses which surrounded it and was the source of the town’s name. Triangular in shape, it seemed to be built from two massive pillars of rough hewn stone that were then leant against each other. Varro, her well traveled late husband and the man after whom she’d named her wolf companion, had told her stories of similar megalithic structures that he’d seen when adventuring with Esbern in the southlands. Most of them were found in the desertified lands that were scoured by the Bayelan Calamity some hundreds of years ago, or so he said anyway. Being a Valdunite who’d been far removed from much of Stenisian civilization at the time, a civilization which itself was sparse and spread across hundreds of miles of land spanning from the Great Northern Range that marked their southernmost border all the way to the arctic glaciers of the Glimmerfrost near to Valdun, Gaiur had no real concept of that empire or the sorcerous calamity which felled it.
“Hawr!” cawed the white raven as Gaiur finally passed through the cemetery gate into Jötungatt. Once more she shooed it off, and once more it took to a new perch to continue its spying.
There were three things which stood out to Gaiur as she made her way into the town proper. Firstly, the gate wasn’t standing on the other end of the town it had appeared. Instead it stood directly at its center, reaching up a good five or six times her own height. Secondly, she saw the surrounding structures formed a ring around the gate, and that the closest eight had tall, narrow runestones standing in the ground before them. Each of these was as thick as her thigh and stood about waist height. Runes were carved into them as she would expect of most standing stones, but they were alien to her, made up of a mix of dots and long, sweeping curved lines where the Stenisian runic alphabet was more angular and rigid. But it was the third detail which stood out to her most of all, because it was impossible not to notice. Despite it being early afternoon with the sun still high in the cloud spotted sky, Gaiur couldn’t see or hear any people.
Someone must be living here, clearly. A sizable herd of long haired Stenisian aurochs still grazed the fields outside the town’s borders. Their bulky and shaggy forms were visible from the graveyard as she came in and she could still see them now between the widely spaced houses and workshops. And it wasn’t just cattle, either. Goats and fowl wandered the town and broke the silence with their occasional bleats and clucks and honks. No Stenisian would abandon healthy livestock like this, even if they were being raided. The milk, meat, eggs, and furs they provided were simply too valuable to give up. They’d either stand and fight or bring as many of their animals as they could when they fled. Besides that, there were no recent signs of battle to be seen. No blood or bodies, be they animal or human. No arrows sticking out of the dirt or buildings where they’d missed their mark. No dropped or broken weapons and shields, no abandoned tools, no damage to be seen whatsoever. Just an empty town that had no reason to be empty.
The white raven again. It cawed from above her, its hoarse cry equal parts annoying and unsettling. Why had it followed her to an empty town? She would’ve thought after three days of trying to chase it off the bird would realize she wanted it gone. Was it desperate for some scraps of food? Did it just want to harangue her purely for its own entertainment?
Gaiur realized her irritation with that damned bird was quickly turning to anger, and with that she also realized she’d been asking herself the wrong questions and making the wrong assumptions. She’d pondered the purpose of the white raven’s coming for a long time, wondered why the bird would follow her so insistently despite gaining nothing from it. She knew full well what a persistent solitary raven meant among her people, her culture. Messengers from the Gods bearing omens ill and fair, they carried fate in their little black talons. Up until now she’d assumed it’d been following her. It didn’t cross her mind to consider that perhaps she was being led by it. But if that was the case, why? For what purpose did the white raven lead her to Jötungatt? What fate did it carry for her, what purpose?
Maybe she was overthinking this. Gaiur’s entire reason for traveling the trade roads was for the sake of finding a place to stay and work, at least for a time. Jötungatt just so happened to be the first she learned of, back when she encountered those traders at the crossroads. But Jötungatt wasn’t an especially large community. Larger than Valdun, yes, but that wasn’t difficult to achieve considering Gaiur’s birthplace lay two days walk away from the glaciers and ice floes of the Glimmerfrost. The region was simply too harsh to support a village larger than the thirty or so people who lived there. Continuing south would’ve been the better option where work was concerned, no matter the form it took. Larger settlements like Høyfjord which was well known for its fishing and dairy trades or Stenbeck with its steel and ironworks would’ve been smarter choices, though she’d have to find something to do about Varro. Even the ancient mountain fortress Isenhalle, the closest thing the loosely unified people of Stenise had to a capitol in their pseudo nation, would’ve offered better opportunities for coin or hacksilver than this small farming community with its unusually large graveyard.
A few days since she met those northbound traders. A few days since she’d taken that westward turn at the crossroads. She lingered on those thoughts for a little while, mulled over them. How many days? The raven had been with her for the last three. She didn’t recall exactly when she’d noticed it, only that at some point on that first day she’d realized its shadow had been keeping pace with her and Varro. But was that before or after the crossroads and if it was after, by how much? Moving over by one of the runestones Gaiur took her broad bladed axe from the sling across her back and sat down in the grass near to it, moving her plain cloak of tawny wool out of the way. Then, with the axe resting across her lap, she tried to recall just how many nights had passed since she saw that family of traders.
It’d been morning when she found them, and she remembered how many there were. Four in total: the father who drove the solitary aurochs which drew his wagon; his two sons, one coming into manhood and the other still in his youth; and their grandfather who minded them and the wares. They’d been startled to see her on the road, though that was much more Varro’s doing than her own, and then had been equally amazed to see that she’d tamed such a magnificent and sizable animal as he. Varro still wasn’t fully grown yet. She’d only had him under her care for a couple years, and when she found him he was a pup of little more than a few months, but already he stood at the height of her shoulder and she wasn’t more than half a head shorter than the men. By the end of this year Varro would overtake her in height.
Superfluous details, she silently chided. How many days since she met them? They talked for a short while, offered some food in exchange for a little hacksilver, and when she asked them of nearby settlements they told her of Jötungatt. At first she’d assumed they were from there, but in actuality they’d come from Stenbeck with a shipment of picks, shovels, and hammers for a mine in one of the canyons further to the north.
“We’ve traded with them before, though, mostly tar for waterproofing their homes. They make excellent yoghurt and grow sweet gooseberries, but it’s the graveyard and that strange stone gate they’re most known for,” the father had said. He’d then gone on to explain that the townsfolk were friendly enough with traders like themselves even though having to pass through the graveyard to get into the town was more than a little eerie. Like Gaiur, he and his kin also couldn’t figure out just why that graveyard was so big, either. But what else? She began to tap the head of her axe with a finger. Closing her eyes, her nose scrunched up and her lips pursed into a thin, crooked line as she tried to remember.
“I don’t know how much work you’ll find there. They always seem to have plenty of hands.”
By Luthmor, how could she forget? The man told her expressly that there wasn’t much work to find! Then for what reason did she bother to come?
“Hawr!” called the raven, and Gaiur nearly jumped out of her skin!
“Little bastard!” she spat. It perched on the runestone and she swiped at it with a backhand she knew wouldn’t connect. Sure enough, in a flurry of fluttering feathers the raven took to the air again, only to circle around and land on the stone once more, eyeing her with those jewel-like red eyes.
“Why did you lead me here?” she asked, finally deciding to accept the notion. It cawed again, then hopped around to face west. Peeking back at her, it cawed for a final time then took to the air, circling overhead until she stood, slung her axe back over her shoulder, and started to follow it.
The white raven guided her to the far end of the town, flying from roof to roof and fence post to fence post until it stopped at the rear fence of Jötungatt’s furthest removed home. At least, furthest removed among those that surrounded the stone gate. When she came near the bird took off again, flying out over the fields of grass, over the bushes of gooseberries and currants, and over the grazing cattle towards a single structure that lay atop a hill some short ways off in the distance.
“Come, Varro!” she said, and together they hurried after the raven. After a couple minutes she could see that the structure was made from rough hewn stone, similar to the gate. After five she could see the ring of runestones that surrounded it, and after seven she could hear the murmurs of ritual chanting.
Gaiur ducked low as she approached, obscuring herself behind a nearby gooseberry bush. Peering between its leaves and the still ripening fruits she saw the townsfolk gathered around what appeared to be some kind of stone altar. Most of them were down on their knees, their heads bowed in supplication, but a few in the middle were standing. The town’s leaders, most likely. Whatever they were doing seemed similar to the ritual sacrifices she and the other Valdunites would offer Gods like Luthmor, Craich, and Sheyla, or to the spirits of the wind and wood which past experience taught her were very much real things. Usually these sacrifices were of a small animal in its prime. They’d select a healthy young hen or goat or sheep to slaughter, paint the necessary runes upon its body, then spill its blood and prepare the meat for feasting while the bones would be arranged by the Ealdorman and the other village leaders into an effigy that would stand until the next sacrifice needed to be made. Sometimes the sacrifices were greater, though, and would involve burning the carcass so that all that the animal was would be offered instead of just its blood and bones.
Try as she might, though, Gaiur couldn’t see an animal on that altar. She’d counted out the people standing there, six in total. Most were older folk, their skin leathery and wrinkled from age and decades of laborious work, but there was one girl among them who couldn’t possibly be more than Gaiur’s own age of nineteen summers. Fair skinned and beautiful, she had lustrous blonde hair and was dressed in finery that appeared regal next to the sturdy woolen and leather clothing of her fellow townsfolk. A robe of flowing green silks was draped over her slender but shapely body, her figure betrayed by the gentle breeze that tugged at the lightweight fabric. She was naked beneath it and the breeze might’ve accidentally exposed her breasts had it not been for the necklace of gold pendants that weighed down the loose garment at her chest.
Gaiur found her attention and curiosity drawn by that necklace. Nearly a dozen heavy pendants of gold hung from its chain. At its center, the largest pendant was inlaid with red and green gemstones. It was incredible, a single item which contained within it more wealth than Gaiur had ever seen before. But where or how did these people get hold of such a thing? They were farmers, stable in their livelihoods, yes, but that was a king’s treasure! It wasn’t the sort of thing that simply fell into the hands of simple townsfolk.
The murmuring in the crowd grew louder, the muttered words fading into humming that didn’t quite have the tenor of song. The people raised up their heads and hands, humming in unison as they stared up at the sky. Gaiur shifted a little so she could see between their raised hands. A seventh emerged from the crowd, an old woman who’s hunched body was draped in a heavy black robe. She doddered along a path up to the altar, leaning heavily on a gnarled staff of birchwood. As she approached the oldest man, whom Gaiur assumed was the town Ealdorman, and the young woman both moved to help her up to the platform. A bench was brought out and placed in the middle of the altar. Then the old woman removed her robe, revealing a woolen tunic and slacks of pale blue and tan and a necklace, armlets, and bracelets made from woven finger bones.
She was a Völva, one of the old seers, a reader of bones who interpreted fate and the will of the Gods. She handed off her staff to the young woman and with the Ealdorman’s help, she sat on the bench. Then she started unlacing a pouch at her waist. Likely the bones the woman would use to read the Gods’ will. What did they hope to interpret, though? Maybe the sacrifice they’d need to make? Gaiur watched intently as the woman reached two of her thin, bony fingers into the pouch, but as she did so Varro began to whine with impatience.
Gaiur cursed under her breath. As soon as the greatwolf made that sound, the people nearest to them looked back over their shoulders in surprise. Naturally, the moment they realized a wolf bigger than a man was hiding in the bushes just outside their ritual circle, they panicked.
“Wolf!” they screamed, and the cry was soon echoed by the rest of the crowd! Varro’s hackles raised. He started to growl, then bark, then snarl as the panicked crowd realized the apparent danger that slipped in under their noses. Gaiur tried to calm him, placing one hand on his shoulder and the other under his jaw. She scratched and whispered and shushed him, but the panicked crowd had panicked him, too. His haunches were tightening. He was ready to strike!
“Hawr!” The call of the raven cut through the air and suddenly all eyes, even Varro’s, were upon it. It circled over the altar, slowly descending in a mesmeric spiral until it perched on the bench alongside the Völva.
“We have nothing to fear from those two,” she said. Her voice was reedy and paper thin, but she spoke the words with utmost confidence. The people seemed to believe her, though they kept their distance from Gaiur and Varro both. Then the Völva finally drew her thin fingers out from the pouch she’d been keeping them in until now. They were stained with red, almost as bright as the raven’s eyes. She lifted her hand, first motioning for Gaiur to approach, then the young blonde in the silks.
Reluctantly, Gaiur did as she was bade, keeping Varro close at her side while she approached and watched the other young woman kneel before the Völva. Realization finally struck her as the old seer raised her red fingered hand and started painting the young woman’s face in the dots and sweeping lines of the runestones. Young, nubile, and in the prime of her life, this young woman was the oblation these people had prepared.
“Very good,” the Völva said. Wordlessly, the young blonde rose and took her original spot near the edge of the altar. As she did, the Völva’s eyes, made milky by cataracts, fell on Gaiur. “Now you.”
Gaiur stopped in her tracks, her russet eyes narrowed. In a single swift motion her axe was out of the sling in her back and firmly gripped in both hands. “My wolf and axe will carve through the whole of you before I let myself become another’s sacrifice,” she growled, as did Varro with bared fangs beside her.
“Sacrifice?” said the Völva. “You misunderstand, girl. You are to be the witness.”
Gaiur didn’t lower her axe, but a click of her tongue saw Varro’s demeanor calm. “Witness?”
The Völva rose, and though the Ealdorman protested and rushed to her side with her gnarled staff in hand, the old woman ignored him and stood as straight and proud as Gaiur herself. Then she held her hands out wide, and Gaiur swore she saw the old seer’s wrinkles fade and saw rich, dark brown returned to her age-whitened eyes and hair.
“I saw you in the bones,” she said, approaching the still armed Gaiur without the slightest hint of fear. “The woman who rears a wolf as her son shall be guided into the shade of the boughs, where she shall bear witness to new birth.”
Then she paused. Dipping her first two fingers in the pouch of red again, she held them out just above Gaiur’s forehead. “You are that woman. That is why Hunin brought you here.”
The raven cawed behind her, but Gaiur resisted the urge to glare at it again. “Why me?”
“I don’t know,” the Völva said as she started to draw the rune. Gaiur realized suddenly that she looked just as old and feeble as she had when she first climbed up onto the altar. She was even holding the birchwood staff again, though the young, dark-haired woman had no memory of the old seer fetching it. “It’s not for me to know. I only see what the Gods show me through the bones, and they showed me you.”
A second later, and the Völva was finished. Stepping back, she turned and rejoined the other elders on the altar. Gaiur lowered her axe, watching them all with a mix of confusion, trepidation, and powerful curiosity. What had she just agreed to by staying her hand? What, exactly, was she going to witness? As the Völva turned to address the people of Jötungatt, she supposed she’d soon find out.
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