The road to the Wold was supposed to be safe, it was said. At least as safe as a road could be in these dire times of looming war, of roaming orcs and wargs, wicked and corrupted men from the east, and other horrors. And there was a mission to uphold, one that could not have come at a worse time for us.
Yllfa had seen better days indeed, and our planned search for whatever foul thing that plagued her, be it sickness or curse, was to be put on hold. Yet we were sent nearly in the right direction by Cwendur, who came with the news. A shipment of weapons was to be transported from Aldburg to Floodwend, and the rumours spoke that it was to be sent further north to be traded onward.
In Aldburg we met Duncadda, who sought to follow us, and so we set out towards the Wold, knowing well that our own destinations were close by, and that our journey would soon take us there. From Aldburg to Snowbourn we travelled by boat across the freezing water, man and horse alike ferried over by the competent people of Fenmarch. Our travel pace was slow, as Ealdhors, the big, strong but weary workhorse pulled the cart. The stallion trotted on faithfully, for he knew nothing else, after travelling long distances all of his life, with even heavier loads. We had taken him in from Edoras, and with us, he’d have a simpler life in his golden years. Yet he seemed happy to be working again, pulling the cart behind him like it was nothing more than a light nuisance. Of course, he was not as fast as he once used to be.
We eventually reached Faldham, my childhood home. As we approached, I saw the banners fly and roll in the wind, the green bridle armour ever a symbol of hope for those who called Faldham home. Here I had played as a child, trained swordplay as a teenager, and laughed and fought as a man. Here I had gotten drunk, stumbled with my head first into a fence, and the morning after waking up in a ditch around the training grounds, reeking of ale. Here I had fallen in love, had my heart broken, and woken up to find my elderly mother cold and breathing no more. Indeed, Faldham brought many memories with every visit, for good and ill.
We stayed the night under the courtesy of Thane Elfmar, whom I am glad to call friend, and even brother. He brought ale, bread and roasted meat, and I heard him and Ethel speak of having her spend a summer there, to train archery and other skills, and spend time with the children. I knew that the day would come when she’d want to see the world on her own. Yet I could not believe it’d be so soon, even though I’d be proud to have her stay there and walk in my footsteps. Children grow up way too fast. I know now what my father meant when he jokingly said to me, on the day I saw my seventeenth birthday as we shared a small keg of ale between us; “When did you grow taller than me, boy? You were only three feet tall yesterday!”
As the sun rose from behind the mountains, our journey continued. Duncadda saddled his horse, and his ever dire mood seemed even more serious than usual. There was something clearly troubling him, and I would cast a long look towards the East Wall, to which his eyes would also wander, and I wondered what dark thoughts thundered and crawled through his mind.
We stopped briefly at the welcoming traders outpost at the crossroads between Faldham, Elthengels, and Cliving. It was always a good place to rest, for it is always guarded by able men from all three towns, and I knew the eored from Cliving would often roam the fields to seek out and slay any foes. Here we’d be safe for a short while as we watered and fed the horses, and speaking to the locals of news, gossip and wares. They spoke much of burning homesteads and fields, yet the roads were considered mostly safe.
I overheard two guards whispering of a great shadow, tall as a house, moving in the fields at dusk and night, slaying livestock and leaving nothing but picked bones, yet I paid it little mind, for no-one here had seen it directly, and rumours tend to grow larger as time goes by. It was most likely to be nothing but a large bear.
After an hour we moved on, hoping to reach Floodwend before nightfall. Yet no sun had we seen since morning, as the dark clouds lay thick and veiling the sunlight from us, and the blood-red dusk crept in over our heads. Ethel asked why it was so dark at the height of day, and I had no knowing answer to give, save blaming the lingering shadow from the east.
The East Wall looked particularly ominous today. We were still far from Cliving and any other town, and Ealfin had appeared nervous ever as we left the outpost, neighing and snorting, and trotting about like an unruly colt around a writhing snake.
He appeared to smell something in the distance, and that was an ill omen indeed. Soon he stopped abruptly, shaking his head and stomping on the ground like a wild stallion at the sight of danger, and all the other horses were acting much the same. Where many a man will sense little or nothing until it’s too late, an animal always knows danger well in advance. Ealfin had never failed me, and so I knew that trouble was upon us, and I held my hand tightly around the sword, ready to draw Heruwargr at a moment’s notice.
Duncadda, my trusted friend and brother, seemed ready and able as well, ever being watchful and keen to defend us with his own life. I bade him ride to the nearest hill to look for danger, but already it was too late...