Staff of Winter Convergence, Part One - Oathsworn

510.JPG

Sophia, Storm and Tector landed, abruptly, kneeling on springy turf. Looking around, they found themselves at the centre of the perfect circle of the Ard Tursa standing stones, in the heart of Uaine Dachaig. It was night, and a spectacular array of stars was visible in the sky overhead. Outside the ring of stones, the companions could make out the silhouette of several people in the starlight. Nearby stood three familiar figures – Myrddin, Heraclief and Manzio. The companions noted that Myrddin wore an unusual, close-fitting silver helm, and carried two staves – his Solstice Staff, the Summoning Stone floating at the top, and a second staff, crafted from pale yew wood and with a blue, egg-shaped crystal embedded in the wood near its highest point.

Overjoyed to see their mentor and old friends, the companions hurried over and embraced them. Cothu was introduced, and Myrddin in particular was fascinated, congratulating the three friends on the success of their quest. Heraclief and Manzio quickly outlined the recent events at the New Castle, while Sophia, Storm and Tector recounted their recent adventures in Annwyn.

Having greeted them all, Myrddin reluctantly interrupted their reunion. “I am afraid we have no time to waste. The Black Queen and the White are on the brink of open war, their ancient conflicts renewed, and Morgana’s eye is fixed on the south, preoccupied with the siege of Durham and the advance on York. Now that we have the Tree of Life, we have the best possible opportunity to end this unnatural winter.”

Glancing round at the group, he continued. “The Witches discovered an ancient artifact, formed from the femur of the great ice drake Blizzard. Known as the Staff of Winter, it grants power over cold, ice and snow. The Witches positioned this staff at the heart of the Ring of Brodgar, on Orkney, and combined their arts in a powerful ritual, using the Ring to enhance the magic of the Staff and blanket the north in the endless winter that now plagues us. We can end it now, by stealing or destroying the Staff of Winter.”

“I have assembled twin Hands for the greatest challenge you have yet faced. The five of you, the Fellowship of Fate, are one of those Hands. The other, the Hand of Unity, represents the races allied against the Witches.”

The druid gestured with his Solstice Staff, and the figures waiting outside the Ard Tursa stones walked into the circle. Illuminated by starlight, the Fellowship recognised familiar faces as they were introduced by Myrddin.

“Representing the elves, Tegan Tempestborn. For the dragonborn, Sioc. On behalf of the danagrim, Grungni Foehammer, chieftain of the Foehammer clan. Representing the sithe, Prince Connal of Connacht, and for humanity, Mary of Stamford.”

The two Hands greeted one another. A silent acknowledgement of their bond passed between Storm and Sioc. Mary of Stamford approached Tector, clearly delighted to see him, and inquired about his spiritual journey. “It is difficult,” admitted the big warrior. “I need to pray more.”

“As do we all, my friend,” replied Mary with a smile. “I have been in Durham these last few months, helping to lead the forces of the King and the Church alongside my Lord de Glanvill, the Bishop of Durham, Sir Gabriel of Canterbury and Sir Maldred FitzDolphin. We have succeeded in holding out against the undead siege, but an end to the unnatural winter is the only hope for Durham, and the other bastions of the Church in the North such as Berwick and Bamburgh. It must be particularly hard for you, constantly questing and fighting without the guidance of a mentor. I would be happy to pray with you at any time, remember that.”

Tector nodded in acknowledgement as Prince Connal greeted them in his Hibernian brogue. “Well met. It is good to see you, and I thank you again for your mercy on Iona. I have been travelling my ancestral lands in Connacht, rallying my people against Morrigan the Black. It is difficult, as many see her as a champion against the aggression of the human Church, but there are increasing numbers who see her for the monster she is. But I long to return my beloved Nivaughn to life. My task would be so much easier with her by my side.” Manzio’s hands lingered thoughtfully on the hilts of his twin elven blades, named for the sithe prince and his ghostly bride.

Grungni stomped forward, heavy mithril armour clanking as the Fellowship glanced at the legendary Foehammer strapped to his back, the runes on its head sparking with lightning. He nodded to Sophia, Storm and Tector.

“How have you fared since we fought together at Newcastle?” asked Tector.

Grungni shook his dead. “I have been fighting to keep my people alive,” he replied in his gruff northern accent. “Volodskya and her araken forces avoided all our attempts to bring them to battle, and we were soon hampered by the terrible snows. My people took refuge in their strongest holds, high in the Cheviots. The bitter cold and the depth of the snow protects them from the araken, but they must constantly fend off undead attacks. Come the spring, they will starve if the snows continue to imprison them in their holds. That is why I have agreed to join this quest. In return, Myrddin has promised his aid in my inevitable confrontation with Volodskya.”

Myrddin nodded, interrupting the danagrim chieftain with a raised hand. “We must make haste. The Hand of Unity will be led by Grungni and Prince Connal. They will assault Morgause’s stronghold, seeking to delay her, and her infamous constructs, the huge chess pieces. They will buy the Fellowship time to get into the Ring of Brodgar and seize, or destroy, the Staff of Winter.”

The Druid paused, making eye contact with each member of the Fellowship. “You must protect Cothu at all costs, as she will be the key to bypassing the wards around the Staff. Her strong connection with the natural world gives her the ability to override some of the most extreme localised effects of the Staff, particularly the deathly aura of cold that it projects within the Ring of Brodgar.”

“How will we get there,” asked Storm.

“The Ring of Brodgar is on Orkney, on a peninsula of land known as the Ness of Brodgar, which sticks out like a finger into the narrow waters between the lochs of Harray and Steness. On the opposite bank lie the Steness standing stones. The Ring is impassable, due to the wards placed upon it by the Witches, but I can transport us from here to the Steness stones.”

“It is likely that Morgause will become aware of our presence as soon as we arrive. Tegan will use her sorcery to fly both Hands across the water to the Ness of Brodgar. From there, the Hand of Unity will assault the White Queen’s stronghold. The Fellowship will head directly to the Ring of Brodgar, penetrate to the centre and seize the Staff of Winter. You must focus on this at all costs, and if you cannot take the Staff, you must destroy it,” the druid instructed, glancing at Storm before looking at Heraclief and emphasising his final words.

“One last thing before we leave,” the druid continued. “I have learned that there are three rings of defences around the Staff. First, an outer warded area, which covers much of the Ness of Brodgar, patrolled by a danagrim clan enslaved to the will of Morgause. Second, a domed snowstorm surrounding the stones, which obscures vision and makes flight all but impossible. And third, the Staff of Winter itself, which projects a deathly cold within the Ring of Brodgar. You must stay close to Cothu when you enter the Ring or you will freeze to death in seconds.”

The members of the twin Hands nodded in acknowledgement, and Myrddin bid them link hands. Prince Connal and Grungi stood either side of the druid, each grasping one of his staves, with members of the Fellowship, each with a Solstice Stone, alternating with those from the Hand of Unity around the circle. Myrddin began the familiar ritual, and in a few moments the group were tumbling through the ether once more.

They arrived with a jolt, ankle deep in snow, a biting wind cutting into exposed flesh, blowing snow into their eyes. Tegan raised her arms, the winds whipping around both Hands and raising them airborne, and Myrddin shouted to them. “Farewell and good fortune. May the luck of the Tuatha walk with you.”

He turned, walking back to the centre of the Steness Stones, taking a withered, blackened apple from his robes and biting into it. He immediately began to shudder violently, and as he disappeared into the snowy night, the Fellowship were convinced that they saw his hair darkening to black.

They had no time to dwell on this however, as they were flung airborne by Tegan’s magic, only to be blasted by the howling winter gale. The elven sorceress struggled to control their flight, and gusts of wind threatened to tear some of the group away. She almost lost control on several occasions, and the companions tumbled from the sky toward the Ness of Brodgar. Storm saved Manzio from a hard landing, flexing his wings and breaking the assassin’s fall as he plummeted head-first toward the snow-covered peninsula, while Tector landed well and managed to catch Sophia as she was about to slam into the icy ground.

Looking up through the falling snow, they could just make out a dome-shaped snowstorm, almost opaque with the intensity of the storm and the volume of the snow within, positioned over the centre of the peninsula, perhaps three hundred feet across and at least a hundred feet high.

Prince Connal addressed the group as they caught their breath. “Hand of Unity, with me!” he commanded. The five immediately set off, saluting the Fellowship and following the shoreline to pass around the Ring of Brodgar while keeping as far as possible from it. As they disappeared into the night, the Fellowship set off toward the Ring, Cothu positioned at the centre of the group for protection, slogging through the deep snow.

Heraclief, Sophia and Storm were all wary of wards and illusions set by the White Queen, and extended their sorcerous senses, seeking to detect any hint of these defences. They felt the overwhelming power of cold and winter sorcery emanating from the Ring of Brodgar and could discern nothing more.

Pressing on through the snow, they suddenly heard a single chime from a high-pitched bell, and their limbs immediately began to stiffen. They battled the sudden paralysis, but the enchantment was too strong, and in seconds the entire group found themselves frozen stiff, unable even to speak.

Fighting down the rising panic, Sophia attempted to dispel the enchantment upon them, but its magic was too powerful. She sensed the hand of Morgause herself in the ward, and realised that she had much to learn before she could challenge the enchantments of the White Queen.

A few moments later, a group of eight heavily-armed danagrim emerged from the snow. Surrounding the Fellowship, they exchanged words in Norse danagrim. Sophia somehow found that she could understand, and heard one say: “Take them to the stronghold.”

Each member of the group was lifted by one of the danagrim, and carried a hundred feet or so, to a dark circular opening in the snowy ground. They were taken down a broad stairway, clear of snow and lined with granite. It was clear that the steps and surrounding stones were perfectly crafted, a fine example of danagrim stonework.

Their danagrim captors carried them along a low tunnel, Tector’s armour scraping on the ceiling due to his size, and placed them on the floor in a large chamber which appeared to be a guardroom or cell; the only furniture was a heavy wooden table and half a dozen chairs. Some of the danagrim searched the companions, taking their weapons and the wands from Heraclief and Storm. The heavy stone door closed with a low thud as they left.

A few minutes passed. Storm felt some sensation returning to his limbs, but remained motionless. The stone door rumbled open, and a very old danagrim entered, limping slightly on arthritic legs. He wore a fine coat of thick yellow and red fabric, with numerous pockets containing all manner of items – bottles of coloured liquid, quills, strange metal flasks, ceramic pots and other mysterious objects. His long white beard reached down past his chest, and he puffed on a long-stemmed pipe, breathing scented smoke into the chill air.

Ingemar__2_.jpg

Walking slowing over to the group, he turned a chair to face them and sat down. He eyed the companions for a few moments, muttering something in Norse danagrim. Sophia was surprised to find that she could understand him. “What have we here?” the old danagrim mused to himself.

Suddenly, Sophia felt a spark of recognition, and emotion flooded through her. Love, loyalty, anger and betrayal surged through her mind as she fought to keep control. She felt Hakan’s consciousness behind these emotions, and another flash of insight hit her: Hakan was very close to this old danagrim, but Hakan’s memories of him were tainted with darker emotions.

Calming herself, Sophia slowly explored these feelings, and instinctively knew that the old danagrim had inked several of Hakan’s tattoos, including the stoneskin tattoo that recently saved her life. Time passed as she worked through these insights, the old danagrim studying the group all the while, and gradually sensation returned to their limbs.

Storm and Sophia decided to stay still, not letting on that they could move, and it was Heraclief that broke the silence, pushing himself into a sitting position. The old danagrim eyed him curiously. “Who are you, and why have you come here?” he asked in accented English.

Considering their dire position, Heraclief decided that a direct and honest approach was most appropriate. “We oppose the Witches, and are here to bring an end to the terrible winter that has killed thousands,” replied the fire sorcerer. “Every moment that we spend in your captivity makes it less likely that we will succeed. We have fought the Witches alongside many heroes of your people: Achilleus the Golden, Decius, Paulinus and Hakan among others.”

Something passed across the old danagrim’s face, and he stared intently at the sorcerer. “Who is this Hakan you speak of?”

Heraclief described Hakan and explained his relationship with the Fellowship and Ice, including the events at Ben Nevis. The old danagrim leaned forward, puffing on his pipe. “Does he live?” he asked quietly.

The fire sorcerer shook his head. “No,” he answered, sadly. “Hakan is dead. He was enslaved by the Black Queen, and took his own life rather than continue to serve her. He died bravely.”

The old danagrim bowed his head, overcome with emotion. “My nephew was my last hope,” he muttered, his voice cracking, despondent.

Seeing the old man’s distress, Sophia was overcome by an urge to embrace him. She did so, comforting him, and murmured that the hug was from Hakan.

The old danagrim looked up, controlling his emotions, glancing from Sophia to Heraclief. “The White Queen has many tests for her followers,” he said cautiously. “How do I know that this is not one of them?”

Sophia felt her forearm tingling where Hakan’s stoneskin tattoo had previously appeared. Looking down, she saw that it had begun to glow again with a faint blue light. The old danagrim took her arm, studying it intently, before looking at her, open mouthed. “I inked this tattoo on Hakan’s arm,” he said, emotion cracking his voice once more. “I know every detail of every line. How can this be?”

Sophia recounted Hakan’s last words, and explained that, somehow, his spirit had established a connection with hers, sometimes communicating with her and even on occasion intervening to protect her. The old danagrim looked stunned, shaking his head slightly, and seemed to see the group in a new light. Studying each of them in turn, he muttered under his breath. “The Voluspa… Could it be…?”

Heraclief was quick to grasp the situation. “Is there a prophesy?” he asked.

“Yes,” replied the old danagrim. “The prophecy of the Valva, known as the Voluspa.

He paused, starting at each of them in turn. “I am Ingemar, Runecaster of the Redeye clan, and I sense a convergence such as I have never felt before.”

“The Voluspa speaks of five heroes who will deliver the Clan from enslavement,” he said, blowing out a ring of fragrant pipesmoke.

“The first is the Lightning Dragon,” he mused, studying Storm. Looking into Heraclief’s eyes, he murmured, “the Emerald Flame.” Glancing at the shimmering blade of Tector’s greataxe, Frostbite, he smiled, “the Radiant Frost.” His gaze swept over Manzio’s black cloak and the twin blades at his belt, and he nodded, “the Deathly Shadow.” Finally, his gaze rested on Sophia. “The enchanting archer?” he inquired.

Sophia smiled and nodded, and the Fellowship all seemed delighted to be the subject of a prophecy. “I see from your reaction that this bears the ring of truth!” exclaimed Ingemar.

He continued with his tale. “My clan was enslaved many years ago, when Morgana slew our old chieftain, Hakan’s father Loric. Morgause then enchanted the new chieftain, Torvald, together with our warriors and the rest of our people, and we have been under her spell ever since.”

“I have a bit more about me, but I have played along, through the years, while trying various ways to free my clan from the White Queen’s embrace. All of them have failed, but I have always harboured the hope the Hakan would return to us and fulfil the prophecy of the Valva. It seems that, from beyond the grave, he has sent you.”

“The Voluspa tells that the Redeye clan will only be freed when Gjallar, the Ringing Horn, is sounded within earshot of the members of the clan. Gjallar is a great artefact of the danagrim people. It is the Horn of Heimdall, Aesir god of guardians and protector of Asgard. It is the great horn that Heimdall will sound at Ragnarok, the final battle at the end of the world.”

“If I help you now, if I set you free, it will cost me my life,” Ingemar said gravely. “Will you swear to me that you will find Gjallar, bring it here to Brodgar, and set my clan free?”

“What if we have something the White Queen wants?” asked Tector. “Sophia is powerful, and Morgause is interested in her.”

“I do not think your friend could save me from the vengeance of the White Queen, and would not wish her to take that risk,” replied Ingemar. “Will you quest for the Horn of Heimdall and sound it, here on Orkney, to set my clan free?” he asked again.

The companions nodded. “Then swear!” said the old Runecaster, fiercely. “In memory of Hakan, and in the name of Vali and Vidar, the twins of vengeance! Swear!”

“I swear,” intoned each of the Fellowship, solemnly, in turn.

His eyes moist with emotion, but clear and free of fear, Ingemar nodded. “Good. I will tell my clan that you are guests of the White Queen and are to be permitted entry to the Ring of Brodgar. When the lie is discovered, my life will be forfeit. Do not fail me.”

The Runecaster stood, slowly, grimacing at the arthritis in his knees. “Before you leave, I should warn you what waits within that blizzard around the Ring of Brodgar. Three giants guard the Ring, each of them bound by one of the Witches and made in the image of its mistress. When you enter the blizzard, they will set upon you. May Thor strengthen your arm and Odin power your spells.”

Turning abruptly, Ingemar called through the door. “Lads, get in here!”

The stone door rumbled open, and two danagrim entered. “These are guests of the White Queen, and are permitted to enter the Ring of Brodgar. They are to be taken to the blizzard wall now,” Ingemar commanded.

One of the danagrim looked sceptical, but said nothing. “The White Queen will hear of this!” Heraclief snapped at Ingemar. “We are on urgent business and do not expect to be delayed by this sort of nonsense. Return our things immediately!”

“Yes, my lord,” grumbled Ingemar. “We have our orders and must exercise caution, but I do apologise for delaying you.”

Heraclief snatched his wand from the danagrim warrior and strode from the room. The others recovered their possessions and followed. In a few moments, they were back above ground, the two danagrim warriors leading them through the snow to the very edge of the dome-shaped blizzard that engulfed the Ring of Brodgar.

Staff of Winter Convergence, Part One - Oathsworn

Albion Andrew_Brereton Andrew_Brereton