Chapter 16 Excerpt
These scenes are taken from Chapter 16 of Sundered Souls, told from the perspective of the Randall Vorstson. Randall is a Vorund warrior involved in the siege of Romsdahl, the last remaining fortress of Reavesburg Clan that still resists them …
Randall stared at the farmhouse and the large ruined barn off to the left, which had been converted into Sinarr the Cold One’s headquarters. Joarr had been furious at being demoted when Sinarr took command of Vorund’s forces in the autumn of last year. He wasn’t brave or foolish enough, though, to take issue with The Cold One. Instead, Adalrikr’s jarl moved out and found new quarters, leaving Sinarr to take possession of the building.
Whilst Joarr favoured life’s comforts, Sinarr had no interest in such things and the windows of the building remained permanently shuttered. They were closed and dark through winter, as the army hunkered down, shivering, outside Romsdahl’s walls. They stayed shut throughout spring, when the heavy snows melted and green grass shoots emerged. They remained shuttered now, in the warmth of summer. No noise came from the farmhouse these days – no songs or laughter, no sounds of feasting and drinking. Joarr’s warriors had commented darkly on all this, gathered round their cook fires as they nursed their wounded pride at their leader’s treatment. For Randall it was different – he was used to such things. He’d served under Sinarr since Asmarr’s death eight years ago and nothing could surprise him. Randall shifted his weight from one foot to the other as he continued to stand guard. At fifty-four, he was one of the oldest men in Sinarr’s army and this past year of sleeping under canvas had taken its toll. His knees were stiff and his feet never warm, even now in the summer months. He rubbed the small of his back and stretched, trying not to think about such things. This was army life; a lot of waiting around, all the while enduring various hardships and terrible food, with the occasional moment when you were forced to fight for your life thrown in.
“What do you think this means?” Kurt asked Randall, the younger warrior pointing down the road from the farmhouse. Randall screwed his eyes shut against the glare of the sun and saw Joarr the Hammer, accompanied by a score of warriors, advancing towards them.
At their head was the distinctive short figure of Joarr. Almost as broad as he was tall and tremendously strong, Joarr was a fearsome adversary when fighting with his two-handed warhammer, Foebreaker. Although over forty his hair was still blond, with no trace of grey, his thick beard his pride and joy. Many made the mistake when first meeting Joarr of not seeing past his jovial appearance. Randall knew better.
“Joarr,” he called out. “Don’t recall Sinarr sending word that he wanted to see you.”
“I don’t need any such invitation, Randall. We’re both Adalrikr’s jarls,” Joarr replied, as he marched towards the farmhouse.
Worry settled in the pit of Randall’s stomach as he tried once more. “Not sure now’s the time to go demanding an audience, if it’s all the same with you.”
“Really?” Joarr replied, stopping in front of Randall and Kurt. The rest of Randall’s guard gathered behind him, facing Joarr’s men.
“Not looking to argue with you, Joarr,” Randall persisted. “Sinarr told me he didn’t want to be disturbed when I took up my post this morning.”
Joarr took a deep breath and let it out slowly, hands on his hips. He turned to Hasteinn, his right-hand man, and in a stage whisper said “Did you hear that? Sinarr’s been holed up here so long people are wondering if he’s still in command of this army. Getting this sort of reception hardly helps quell those rumours.”
Hasteinn, a strong dark-haired warrior with a sour aspect, folded his arms across his chest and looked hard into Randall’s eyes. “Reckon you’ve every right to speak to the boss, jarl to jarl.”
Randall sighed, placing a hand on Kurt’s arm before he could remonstrate. “I can’t stop you from going in there. I just wanted to give you fair warning of the kind of mood he’s in, that’s all.”
Joarr nodded to his men, who were busy telling him to speak to Sinarr now. Randall could see something in the jarl’s eyes, though. There was a brief flicker of fear on his face as Joarr approached the door. Hasteinn made to move past until Kurt laid a hand gently on his chest and shook his head.
“No. Only Joarr and Randall go any further.”
“It’s alright, Hasteinn,” Joarr told him. “Wait here for me.”
Randall took a lantern off a hook and lit the wick before entering the dim building with Joarr. The faint light revealed a long-disused kitchen, the fireplace cold and dark, the farmhouse silent save for the noise of their booted feet on the stone floor. Randall led them to the doorway leading to the back of the house, breath fogging in the lantern light.
“Randall, I thought I made it clear I was not to be disturbed. Why have you disobeyed my order?” Sinarr’s voice came from the back room, husky and raw.
Standing at the doorway Randall’s light struggled to penetrate the gloom, the far wall remaining shrouded in shadow. He could just make out a dark shape, sitting cross-legged on the other side of the room, so he spoke in that direction. “You have a visitor, my lord. It’s Joarr the Hammer, here to see you.”
“Joarr?” The shape in the shadows moved again, uncoiling and loping into the meagre light with frightening speed. Randall took a step back in alarm, accidently jostling Joarr in his haste.
Sinarr was a large man, well over six feet tall, with thick arms and legs like tree trunks. He was naked except for a loincloth, the tattoo of a black bear standing out on his well-muscled chest. Eight years ago, when Adalrikr led the uprising to become chief, Sinarr was the first to join his cause. He’d been a handsome young man back then, always courted by the ladies and admired by the other Vorund warriors for his strength and skill. In the aftermath of the rebellion Adalrikr named Sinarr, Tyrfingr and Joarr as his first jarls, dividing his forces between the three of them.
At first Randall had been pleased to find himself assigned to Sinarr’s army but, in the years that followed, Sinarr began to change. His sleek long dark hair started to fall out in clumps, until what little was left hung limply from his head like a dozen rat’s tails. His teeth turned brown and his hazel eyes misted over, becoming red and bloodshot. Slowly Sinarr’s tanned skin took on a duller aspect and began to mottle, until eventually there were streaks of dark blue and purple running across his whole body in long veins of colour, stark against his now pale flesh.
“Well, Joarr, what brings you here … uninvited?” Sinarr said, looking both men up and down with an appraising glance. His lips moved slowly, forming the words awkwardly. Sinarr’s breath was foul and Randall gagged as the putrid stench rolled over him. The temperature dropped as Sinarr drew near, radiating waves of coldness over both men, leaching the warmth from their bodies.
Joarr coughed into his hand, taking another step back. “Sinarr … There’s things you need to know. The men in the camp are growing restless, with supplies running short and no end to this siege in sight.”
“That’s why I have you, Joarr. To attend to the little things and keep my campaign running smoothly. I don’t expect you to bring such petty problems to me.”
Joarr folded his arms and met Sinarr’s stare, swallowing hard. Randall had to admire the man’s courage. “With respect, these aren’t petty matters I’d leave in the hands of my seconds. We’ve had desertions – another ship slipped away from the blockade during the night.”
“What’s one ship to me, when I have a fleet in the Redfars Sea?”
“That makes five now,” Joarr persisted, wincing as Sinarr’s foul breath washed over him. “The fleet’s down to thirty-five ships, with four of those still being repaired after the damage they suffered last winter. There’s also been two outbreaks of disease; the bloody flux has struck in both the northern and southern sides of the camp. At least fifty men have died and maybe two hundred more are ill, with the numbers increasing every day.”
Sinarr blinked once, deliberately, almost as if he had to remember how to perform such an action. His eyelids closed and opened again with a leathery, audible snap, his eyes lost in a web of red veins. “Then take those who are ill or show any signs of disease and move them into the hospital, away from the barracks.”
“Hasteinn’s already seen to that. The point is the men are growing more anxious about how long this siege is going to last, especially with conditions worsening like this. Myshall’s bane, I’m getting anxious. It’s mid-summer and still we’ve made no move against Gautarr. The men don’t want to spend another winter dying from the cold outside Romsdahl. Last winter Gautarr’s warriors watched from the walls and taunted us. Taunted us, as we buried our own in the frozen ground.”
“I remember,” Sinarr told him. There was a long pause as the three men stared at each other before Sinarr turned and walked back into the room. “Come with me, both of you. You should see this.”
They followed Sinarr, Randall holding up his lantern to pierce the gloom. The room was cold and dank, with an unwholesome odour that caught in the back of his throat, making him cough. Sinarr sat down, cross-legged, in front of a silver basin full of water.
“Gather round,” Sinarr ordered. As Randall drew closer he could feel the chill radiating from Sinarr as he took a seat with Joarr. The three of them looked into the water in the basin, which was smooth and dark, swallowing the light from its surroundings, reflecting nothing back.
“I’ve spent many days in the darkness, studying these waters,” Sinarr told them. “They’ve shown me the Landless Jarl draws near. With his defeat, victory over the Reavesburg Clan will be assured.”
“Johan Jokellsward finally shows his hand?” said Randall.
“We’ve heard the reports of his uprising in the west. Now he marches for Romsdahl, where we have been lying in wait for this very moment.”
“I thought we were here to fight Gautarr Falrufson,” interjected Joarr, looking confused.
Sinarr looked at the jarl, shaking his head. “We’ve merely been preventing his participation in the war. It’s the Landless Jarl that King Adalrikr wishes to see destroyed, along with his allies. Afterwards, Falrufson will surrender and hand us the keys to Romsdahl, allowing us to take the city intact.”
“This battle you’ve seen coming,” Joarr asked carefully. “You’ve seen that we win, right?”
“I’ve seen its importance and how the outcome will shape the future of Laskar,” Sinarr replied. “Which is why we must be ready, and not waste our strength in a futile effort to try and break Romsdahl’s walls. Jokellsward will be here soon and then you will know the answer to your question, Joarr the Hammer.”
Once they were back outside, Randall squinted in the welcome light of the sun, deeply breathing in the fresh air as he tried to get rid of the revolting odour from the farmhouse. “What did you make of that?” he asked Joarr. “I did try and warn you.”
Joarr coughed, his face grey. “Since when does Johan Landless pose such a threat? Some weakly held towns in the west heed his call and now this is all Adalrikr’s interested in?”
“Couple of scouting parties haven’t made it back these past two weeks,” Randall said thoughtfully. “Figured they’d deserted, but if Sinarr’s right it could be Johan’s accounted for them. Perhaps he’s closer than we know.”
“Perhaps,” Joarr mused. “If you’re right then we should increase the number of patrols. Only assign men you can really trust – I don’t want to give them any excuse to desert, especially if the Landless Jarl is as close as Sinarr believes.”
Randall nodded and went to carry out Joarr’s orders himself, glad to have the excuse to leave the farmhouse.