Fandom: The 3rd Chronicles of Thomas Covenant
Notes: Written as a practice piece. The story is a longer, detailed retelling of Rime Coldspray's account of the toils and adventures of the Swordmainnir, as narrated in a chapter bearing the same title in Fatal Revenant. An attempt to bring these underdeveloped characters alive and give them some back-story. The tale begins some weeks after the first eruptions of Longwrath's madness.
* * *
The Long Journey of the Lost
Longwrath hit the granite bottom of Kindwind's scull, at the same time thrusting his blade towards her unbegorgeted neck. The to-be-victim's round figure however misrepresented the fluid agility and strength coiling underneath. As the boat rocked and wobbled from side to side, seeking for a desperate equilibrium beneath the Swordmainnir, she lunged to grasp his legs into a hefty, unbalancing embrace. The blade skittered off a shoulder guard, sending a flare of sparks into the gelid night. Kindwind's weight upset the madman, and they splashed into the water in a frantic, grabbling tangle of limbs. The boat swayed for a twinkling, then turtled.
The duo surfaced a few seconds later within a froth of bubbles and Longwrath's howls of rage. Kindwind had managed to wrench off the sword from his hand, yet even without his eldritch powers and the battle training of decades, the raw vigor of a male Giant near his prime might have soon overcome that of a woman a foot and a half shorter. Therewith, he punched her straight in the face, the hard blow knocking her backwards. A spurt of blood flew in an arch from her nose, and she lost her hold on his cataphract.
Other members of the company dove into the heat of the skirmish. It appeared that Longwrath hankered for either a novel vessel or Bluntfist's life; he began scrambling up the slick surface of a skerry, feral eyes boring holes into the woman who had drawn her sword. During that brief instance, callous moonlight gleaming off his wet, gored armor and wild, damp hair, the Giant was terrible to behold. Blood stained his almost wolfish teeth twisted into a hideous rictus and red, foamy saliva dribbled into his beard: a gruesome memory of his mother's wasted life. The scar inflicted upon him by the Ironhand's blow shone crimson across his countenance, accentuating the bestial intractability, the resemblance to a draug risen from its barrow to wreak havoc upon the Earth. A deep growl rose from his throat, his thick fingers twitching as if ecstatic before the prospect of wringing someone's neck.
The Ironhand was about to claim the distance to the maniac with a few brisk breast-strokes, when Grueburn's kick crashed into him across the rock he stood upon. He fell hard, yet rebounded upright in an instant, a flurry of fist blows ready for his former dearest. Teeth bared into a snarl, Grueburn parried hits and kicks, her attacks hampered by Longwrath's full-scale granite armor.
"Hie! Get him! Bloody damnit!" she bellowed through the effort of wresting him down, and let out a yelp, as his canines snapped at her face, as if eager to devour her flesh raw. She managed to shove his head aside with a well-placed punch, but not ere one cuspid tore a wound across her cheek.
The rest of the troop reached the raving Giant almost in unison. As he yanked at the Northlander's hair and endeavored to tear her throat open with another snap of his massive jaws, the Ironhand, Squareset, and the second of the brothers wrenched his arms behind his back and crunched him against the cold stone, now slimy with molten ice, crushed seaweed, and blood. Even so, the lunatic writhed against the hold of the captors akin to a rabid monster-eel, his incoherent roars and persistent snaps of "Slay her!" bouncing off the cliff side, taunting the assailants in a chorus of cryptic messages. The released Grueburn did not hesitate, but unsheathed her sword, and brought the pommel down hard on Longwrath's temple. The gibbering and squirming stalled. The echoes of his raving madness frolicked among the gloomy islets and lethargic waves for a fleeting while, then dwindled into oblivion.
Several Swordmainnir let out shuddering sighs; Grueburn leaned onto her sword and averted her lugubrious glower from the recumbent captive. A quick glance around told that all fared as well as might be expected: Stonemage had plunged after the down-struck Kindwind, and now supported her above the surf. Her nose had in all likelihood broken, yet the Ironhand would praise a steaming cowturd, should one by divine authority guarantee that the troop's casualties remained so few.
With a mental harrumph, Rime concluded that they had naught with which to restraint the killer. Well, now that his thew pulverized even granite shackles, whatever between the low skies and high earths might trammel that frenzy? Would they have to sedate him with soporroot and diamondraught? A hereafter spent wasting away in a forced stupor with the memory of the spilt blood of his kin perhaps harrying him in some nightmare realm betwixt the tangible Earth and Death's distant shores? His delirious spirit shipwrecked in the middle of the Silent Waters, whilst his hale, handsome heart-hall upon the cliffs of Gianthome withered, languished in the sickbed of years, decades...
Nay. How could she ever condemn a fellow Giant into such a dire donjon devoid of daylight and the promise of convalescence?
Now, however, time allowed no fretting over such matters. Grueburn required stitches to her cheek, and by the wells of the calamitous night brooded the backwash. They hauled the insensate Longwrath into the second boat, where they might scrutinize his every stir and flinch. After a single glance at the Northlander's saturnine mien, Rime ushered the amatory brother who had essayed to bed Grueburn to seek and fetch the stolen vessel spotted from afar.
They had just succeeded in righting the overtumped scull and connected it to the other boat with a towing hawser, when Longwrath's eyes snapped open, and he bolted upright with a single, spry jump. Ere anyone could react, his huge hands had tightened around Rime's throat, and they were falling into the brumal gloom of the brine.
Time seemed to taper down into a listless, sludgy trickle. The young man's countenance hovered before her as a grotesque apparition through the distorting film of bubbles and swirls: A Raver clad in the skin and flesh of a Giant, risen from the haunted halls of the ancient Coercri, agog to butcher his kinsfolk to the last child, transform love and eager life into squelchy rot melting off around worm-gnawed bones, slack faces to be pecked into raw skulls by black ravens... His glazed stare recognized naught, the pupils yawned as sheer drops into some primal void of roiling chaos. His lips peeled back from his teeth into a skull-like grin as they sank into the green, muddy depths, the slimy tentacles of seaweed thickening around, groping, swaying, as if welcoming her into some archaic monster's clammy death-embrace...
Something clicked into place, and time sloshed back into her awareness. The muffle of water clogged her ears, and she hacked, gurgled beneath the painful pressure of his grip. The counter-strain of her thick neck muscles would protect her for a twinkling. Old battle instincts assumed control: every fraction of a trice jogging past was precious, and Rime did not waste them for vapid grabbling. Due to his armor, crotch-kneeing would not suffice, so she hazarded twisting just a tad and smashed her fist into the side of his head. The water's resistance mitigated the force behind the punch, yet it rammed its way home. A spurt of blood reddened the brine and the intensity of the chokehold lessened. At the same time, the waters around exploded into a pandemonium of froth, strangled yells, and flailing, kicking, wrestling figures. Ere Rime could impel herself into motion, strong hands whisked her above the surface to meet the nameless trader's anxious frown beneath drooping brows. The burning pain of her throat made the Ironhand gag and splutter for a while, yet naught vital seemed ruptured. From the corner of one watering eye she beheld the badlamite recumbent in the bottom of the scull anew.
"What ought we to do, Ironhand?" Stonemage inquired, her elegant brows drawn into a scowl. "However can we ensure that he remains supine? Mere minutes marched by, and yet he sprang awake unforewarned. We cannot biff him every few heartbeats, lest e'en the rest of his cranium should cave in."
Aye, after all the tragedies and hurts, none of his former comrades yet wished to gainsay the benefit of doubt and healing... Rime hawked, coughed, winced at the twinges nigh-on every heavier gulp induced. Eating would prove cumbrous for a while, should her life-cord yet thrum come morn.
They cooked up a haphazard compromise. Even though the sides of the diminutive scull now slurped occasional gulps of water and the shiprock emitted alarming groans beneath the united weight of the trader, Grueburn, and Longwrath, not to mention that towing screeched for more brawn, they reached the shore in due course. The two strongest Giants of the ensemble kept a constant vigil over any surplus storms of savagery, a steadfast grip around the prisoner's all four limbs. At one point he did agitate, and earned a harsh elbowing into the forehead. The Northlander seemed on the verge of weeping as she delivered blows, grief and self-disgust wrinkling her prominent nose.
Poor lass. In spite of everything, even she yet clung to love, perchance hoping against hope that somewhere beneath immeasurable strata of derangement, a sane section of soul skulked, lone and keening for release.
By the time the pier bobbed into view, an orange streak tinctured the eastern horizon just underneath a roof of slate-hued billows. Raggedy wraiths of mist hung above the hoarfrosted ground, the ghostly retinue saluting the homecoming of the miserable, waterlogged Swordmainnir. The second trader had stumbled upon the wreckage of a pilfered tyrscull past the southern promontory, which explained the bedlamite's ravenous rapacity for replacement. He had salvaged some of the rations and water, which the thirsty, exhausted warriors shared between one another beneath the heavens' matinal glow. Those bearing scratches or wounds washed and disinfected any deeper cuts with splashes of diamondraught, suffering the burning pain with voiceless grimaces. Scant words were exchanged; the last weak embers of Giantish glee had cooled down into gray, numb ashes in the heart-hearths. After witnessing the extent of Longwrath's blistering ire, the brethren had also sobered and quiesced, eyes agleam with perturbance beneath the overhang of their brows. Some troop members who had escaped into the woods for urgent necessities hauled back hefty coils of stone hawsers borrowed from a lone fishing hut; they would impede the killer for mere seconds, yet would at least ware the carriers of his reawakening.
As they resumed the road, the sun roved forth from beyond the horizon. This morn the great Wheel blazed as a massive pyre, a glaring column of red fire soaring high up into the welkins, as if Fire-Father himself had sent forth an augury of a great caamora, a healing where all the mourners might find alleviation. Just as well, it might have represented an admonitory finger that divulged tidings of her incompetence to the Earth entire. Or, it might have heralded naught. She was not a lorewise seithsayer of the North, savvy of the moods and meanings of the wind-halls, with neither feathers nor beads braided into her hair, or an imposing skin drum strapped onto her back. Nay, her craft concerned battles against something far more corporeal. Gicelsceard had shared her life-paths akin to a second shadow, and that would suffice. Fie to such uncanny signs beyond her grasp; the responsibility for Gianthome's safety, the insidious errors within her acts and decisions, and the fatigue welling up in her chest had mingled and twisted themselves into a yoke already cumbrous enough.
The tremendous Wheel of the eternal sky chariot, or the Rudder of the Earth, as some denoted it, began its lumbering wayfare up the dome of the lower welkins, fleeing the bitter glowers of the Elohim. A wash of light the color of rich honey limned the hoarfrosted stalks and branches with supernal halos, every fragile barbulequavering in stark relief against the backdrop of darker pines, ready to crumple into a brief cloud of fulgid motes at the faintest breath of wind. Chewing mute curses, the Ironhand forced back an abrupt upsurge of bile and focused on the flagged pathway ahead. The delicacy of the evanescent ice-crust and the wraithlike trees reminded her of naught but the lost Filigree, pursued by the disturbing memory of clotting blood oozing down from the soiled ceiling. If something sought to foment the sackful of ash behind her ribs with these visions of ethereal entrancement, then they miscarried their quest. She would have to defy her disgust and venture into the gore-drenched hall anew, confront the very images branded into her mind.
Thus would the others...
Unwittingly, her gaze slued to the hunched posture of Grueburn, who trudged a few paces behind her. At the helm, the brethren bore the weight of the bound Longwrath, a Swordmain with a naked blade stomping on either side. The trailing lass was averting her scowl from the progression with deliberate stubbornness, letting it skim over the tangled underbrush instead. Kindwind might suffer from a broken nose, but the scourge of fates had lacerated the softest core of her emotions into a bloody lump. Akin to poor Soar Gladbirth, left to gibber and throw up over his wife's remains...
The Ironhand halted, resumed her plodding only when on-step with the woman. The sliver of face, visible past the wild, fiery curls tumbling onto her shoulders and down her back to the middle of her thighs in a thick, snarled braid, rumored of poor suppression of emotions. When Grueburn spotted the hird leader from the corner of one eye, the arch of her shoulders tensed even further, her head slumping so that the insane hair concealed the expression.
Oh Grueburn. Presume not to suffer alone. The ache reigns over all of us.
With silent determination, Rime linked arms with the mourner, clasped one rough, calloused hand with both of her own. What a duo they were, indeed; she clad in the battle-scars of two thousand years betwixt the colossal warrior who might, as Stonemage had placed her jest, have fared better with a tiny fringe of moustache beneath her nose.
Grueburn's voice was thick and stuffy from quiet weeping. "G-gives a fresh substance to 'eating one's face', eh? He... h-he..." She swallowed back tears, her chest giving an involuntary heave. "I...I cherished the feeling of those affectionate kisses he had a habit of planting on my cheeks; th-the gleam in his eyes for aye so tender..."
Rime squeezed her hand, compelled the woman so unregenerate not to display her ire to slacken her pace and meet Rime's own afflicted gaze. After a few silent seconds, Grueburn managed to slay the stubbornness and frown down at her through the veritable jungle of hair. Someone had bandaged and stitched her cheek; the skin would knit together in the ripeness of time, but disfigure her face further nonetheless. Mere hours agone she had gained a measure of equanimity beneath Sword-Mother's lingering presence, yet now her nose and cheeks glistened wet afresh.
The Ironhand exhaled deep through her gapped teeth. Suppurating tripes of a gutted kraken, this shoving of certain emotions behind a high ringwall must have been a salient weakness of the Swordmainnir, mayhap a response to the mental training of not to founder afore carnage. The flint cocoon around her own mentor's softer sentiments had begun cracking only after her first childbirth, and even then, her countenance shed not oft the steely grimness and assertive set of jaw. In all frankness, her chosen name had sometimes bewildered the Swordmannir of that era, yet the affable legend mill cranched tales about her husband's ability to reach behind all the self-erected barricades and caress the softest kernel of her spirit centuries ere Starfare's Gem had limped back from the far-flung Land.
Her throat hurt, but she rasped nonetheless, "Alas, my dear comrade...I condescend not to claim I would comprehend the dolor of your heart, yet I urge you not to lag behind and immure yourself within your grief, not e'en for a tittle of fleeting days. Persist within the caring ring of the hird and your friends. When I escorted Wit Straittackle to his Last Journey after thirteen hundred years of roving through shared gales and calms, the torment of leave-taking would surely have rent and guttled my quailing life-force mayhap within a few moonspans, had I not grasped the abetting hands of my kindred."
Grueburn raised one huge fist to rub at her eyes, then squinted through the suffusing of tears at the spike-knuckled gauntlet wrought of rectangular granite plates, and thought better of it. "And...a-and yet he lies not on...on a carven board, ready to be convoyed i-into..." The weak knees of her sentence gave in afore the notion of such a finality, and the woman spluttered a heavy sob. "Y-yet...yet I do wonder now whether such a conclusion would have proven kinder t-to...to..h-his forfeited spirit."
Poignant memories inundated Rime's vision: the exuberant, overweening grin of Exalt provoking her to test his limits across the garth, him beating a heckling rhythm upon his shield with the flat of his blade...the man sprawling in the sand, countenance bloody and crumpled...the mangled, butchered Filigree splattered among demolished furniture, a trail of gored boot prints trailing out...
Grueburn must have sensed the involuntary import of her expectorations, or beheld some new trace of despair in the Ironhand's mien. The deep rumble or her voice adopted an aggressive, defiant undertone echoing threats snarled across a battleground. "H-heed and hark, Rime Coldspray; mistake not my words! His demise was indeed a sad accident, naught else! Mayhap I ne'er ought to have let my heart-steel relent, ne'er allowed my focus to turn into treacle within the enclosure of his cajolery." She spat out a humorless chuckle. "Whether as a jest or not, half of the cadre seems to suspect I prefer women in any case."
"Nay," the Ironhand murmured. Sword-Mother forefend, they indeed all crouched listless in the bottom of the same sinking vessel. "Nay, verily. None should repudiate their right to love. For what are we without this blessing but empty husks, offering ourselves straight to the Despiser on the altar of self-hatred? Well..." She let her weary regard flick across the hibernating landscape basking in the amber light, across the numinous allure of the almost glowing hoarfrost. "Peradventure...he has now become akin to one of the departed. I wit not. Nevertheless, let us not forsake love and the fond memories of yore... Let him prosper in our hearts in the cheer and laughter of his heydays. As fatuitous and mawkish as it may sound, 'tis oftentimes the erst, salubrious step away from the pits of suffering. Ah...I do nurture the hope that my ramblings do contain a whit of wisdom and consolation. If not-"
The rest of the troop had awoken to the unannounced absence of two of their numbers, and begun retarding their pace. Even though the laggers had muffled their voices, the keen ears of several Swordmainnir had caught snatches of the conversation. Within a few seconds, Stonemage and Kindwind tottered to a standstill. The plump, blonde Swordmain had clamped one hand over her mouth, her eyes gleaming with abrupt dampness. Anxiety filled the atmosphere.
"Oh Grueburn...we...we wondered!" Stonemage exclaimed, treading one vacillating step towards her comrade, her hands balling themselves into nervous fits by her stone-clad chest. "The ogles he pampered you with, the constant bantery, your roaming hands... Some of us opined it could have been an elaborate jest...a kooky contest of might and rank, akin to the one you wage against Cabledarm, only more...well...you do ken, him having towered as the single male among a flock of twittering hen. Yet...now we must presume such conjenctures false. I am...oh gods, Grueburn...what else can we offer but our deepmost regrets and commiserations? Should you ken it, then name it!"
Awkwardness tugged at Grueburn's ravaged countenance. She represented not the type that bounced around the streets of Gianthome, effervescent with vacuous mirth, hugging everything that moved and chirping about all manner of matters pink and squishy. Well...in a manner of speaking, her name did conceal twofold implications. A hankering for the glittering ice plains of the far north caking a prominent gracelessness of sentiments. Hah, not to mention that of her own! Rime in all sooth must have tasted different upon each individual tongue, the meaning skimming her hoarfrosting hair and pale eyes less than the unflappable stamina required in her profession. Or perhaps traits of some other ilk she had never even considered...
At the wheel of the peculiar procession, the salacious brother glanced from the gaolbird to Grueburn, grimaced, and shrugged as if in defeat. Grueburn's apparent maladroitness made the condolences of the more emotional Kindwind perish beneath a loud sob, and she hurtled to embrace the Northlander with an audible collision of cataphracts. The latter accepted the fierce affection at first with evident gingerness, but squeezed her streaming eyes shut and relented, as both Stonemage and Squareset joined the compassionate jumble of armor, weeping, and clasped hands. Nobody spouted nitwitted nonsense about how everything would frolic roly-poly and riant among simpering meadow-flowers and moist-eyed fuzzy forest critters in the end. For the moment, Rime might have half-mastered her own grief, yet had she not beheld the extent of mortal despair and pining too many a time during the passing centuries? Her own mentor had succumbed beneath the crushing millstone of loss; righteous wrath and anguish had driven the Honninscrave of legend to rash, well-nigh heedless actions near the very end. Then again, whosoever kenned if he could have circumvented the calamity of Raver-possession at all; those sneaky, slithering servants of the Despiser...
After a while, as the hug-cluster appeared not to unravel at all, the Ironhand disentangled Kindwind and the others from around Grueburn. "Alas for these tides that relent no proper hours for keening and laments... Yet we must hasten back. Exalt...Longwrath must needs be detained anew, guard duties assigned, mayhap a seithsayer fetched to sedate or mesmerize him, and...well..."
The moment necessitated no further orders. Or perhaps she could not utter the rest aloud. The knotted brows and pinched, downturned mouths of the troop nonetheless divulged the truth: they fathomed that which clave to the roof of her mouth, unable to unfasten itself. Mayhap they flinched afore the same memory of the gore-soaked hallway. Hence, an oppressive, portentous gloom straddling their hearts, the hird and the two traders plodded away, abandoning the diamond-encrusted winterscape, the filigrany weed-stems adorning the roadside, and the soaring sun-pyre fraught with its own mysteries.
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Rime appeared to spend the pursuing hours or days within a cloud of hoary miasma, a stupor that rendered all details blurry and the straits even scant moments ahead unpredictable. Haste, haste, haste; haste and clamor everywhere. Running. Wails. Figures scampering to and fro, her barking the same orders over and over anew, as if they had become the manifestation of her life in the sargasso of the aftermath. Fuzzy, frayed visions of a violent blizzard belching forth first hail and then sizable dishrags of wet snow, the frigid wind disheveling her hair and spitting gouts of sleet into her eyes as she skied down a snow-clogged road, the bottoms of her waxed kalhu and lyly scraping at bare ice wherever the ferocity of the gusts had broomed away the skygods' dandruff infestation. A dull ache persisted behind her eyes, and oftentimes it felt as if her brain managed naught else but to drift around within her skull, insensate and confounded, bouncing off the insides of the thick bone. Yet some integral, steel-reinforced part within her must have grabbed the oars of the careening, yawing seaport adrift upon an unsung tract of stormy ocean: Commands were obeyed, tasks accomplished, warding duties accepted without grousing. Missing Swordmainnir returned from odd kloofs and crannies of Gianthome; bruises were treated, wounds bound.
Then, as if the obnubilation pestering her skull had been cloven in two, the Ironhand found herself in the middle of an arval parade, a hefty slab of engraved granite balanced upon one shoulder, the hum of deep threnodies heaving in her ears. Occasional sharp wails and ululations pierced this tapestry, as if pale, jagged rocks had exploded forth from the perduring rise and fall of the swell, only to submerge anew into the uniform grayness. The even pounding of a hefty drum somewhere behind her emphasized the raw hurt, the implacable treads of the Deathbringer that would, in the umbrage of the hereafter, seize everything. Stone, Sea, the pillars of the Arch of Time itself...
The white fluff of yester-morn—or whatever tide that had been—had transformed into drab slush that coated everything akin to putrefying slime. A drizzly mist hung in the air, the death-shroud of a landscape awaiting for resurrection in the crypt of winter. It seemed that all color save for the sallow, haloed yellows of the sputtering torches and a few lamps the grim procession bore along had desolated the world, leaving behind naught but a sufferance of sludgy grays, with hints of blue and grimy brown cowering in the shadows of the early afternoon nightfall.
Not that the prior washy daylight almost failing to seep its way through the barricade of billows had blest the dreary vistas with much more vigor. Bright as the day...hah. Whoever in the far-flung southlands had cobbled up the proverb had never swanned beneath the green and red heaven-eagres of the wintry Gianthome, when the journey-worn Wheel could not climb across the dome until it had been forged anew in the abstruse smithies of its birthplace. Or, so narrated one of the many legends told of the long winterdark.
The tenebrous succession wound onwards past high buildings looming as sullen clumps devoid of detail within the veils of fog. None of the nine other figures marching on step with the Ironhand uttered a quarter of a word: Had she turned her head to scrutinize her companions, she would have met naught but downcast gazes, wet sarks, and beards slumping limp against the chests of the male slab-bearers. The humidity had plastered Rime's hair across her scalp and cheeks, the soft, wavy texture now wilted, dead-looking. Ha, the very least it tallied the flavor and hues of the hour. It would not emerge as a surprise if she espied a few more streaks of gray come the following summer; oh, how these tides had taxed them all...
Boom...boom...boom, the laborious monotone of the drum thundered. The low, sepulchral hum of the lament waxed and ebbed, both gaining a curious, broken echo from the nearby walls, reminding the listener of archaic, forgotten temples with crumbling arches and wind-gnawed pillars, the faces of the old nameless gods within mere impressions now after the merciless ravaging of the elements. These two sounds entwined into a somewhat dissonant melody that set the teeth on edge and crammed a queasy feeling into the pit of every stomach, not unlike the ware-horns that had roared in distress throughout the strip of coast during that fateful night. Then, a new sound penetrated the fabric of tight-spun grimness: the quirky, quavering, almost blood-curdling wail of a dauthahorn. It began to reel around the base melody, staggered through the mourn-words, on occasion crescendoed into an ear-splitting shriek of raw, primal anguish, only to diminish anew into a frail whimpering, a broken animal consuming its last dreg of strength ere falling limp onto its death-berth. Then, a different cycle would begin, following primordial melodies the origins of which even the oldest Giantish legends had almost buried.
Gods...gods below and above, that sound...she...she had to clamp the weakness in...could not break now... Not now... The Ironhand squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, gnashed her teeth together against the meandering treble. Yet, old memories erupted forth from the confines of her heart, splattering her awareness with hot dollops of ancient grief: She carrying the burial-slab of her departed husband, the restfulness of his mien framed by long curls of thick, steely hair, the stillness of the harbor and the hanging, smudged clouds above the sea as the dauthahorn began yipping and wailing its way around the bowed heads of the escorters.
How she had prized his gentle smile, those soft blue eyes crinkled at the edges into permanent lines of laughter, the fond caress of his deep voice...all of a sudden prehended by forces beyond her ken and exiled from the lands of the living. After centuries beyond centuries of infrangible love, reinforced by the tempests and hull-scraping skerries of this existence's many a Soulbiter... Ah, how aburst with daring schemes and salt-yearning he had been during one of the utmost moments of their companionship; a nightfall in the harbor, distant sails billowing in the horizon, the last sunrays gilding the rippling waves and the granite of the mighty, swaggering dromonds aperch by the long, curving pier...
An empty shell had lain next to her come the following morn, his skin cold beneath her anxious touch, ears unhearing and heart silent within his deep chest, the oaken vitality of his brawny frame now channeled into the rigor of death...
The dauthahorn wept. Wept for all those souls who had sailed beyond the Silent Waters, now and hundreds or thousands of sun-voyages agone. Wept anew for lost Straittackle, her mentor of yore, the tardy yet dictated departure of her kith, the slow crumbling and rankling of the world's resplendency...and for the woeful fate of Filigree, now accumbent upon the slab instead of her husband. Deviating from the usance, the wakers had wrapped her desecrated remains into shrouds and covered the bundle with a colorful sail from Soar Gladbirth's longboat. None had dared profane the depths of his dole by exposing the...parts to the welkins.
And the dauthahorn wept. Invisible claws tore at Rime Coldspray's heartstrings, whirlwind-wraiths filled her veins with ice. Her mighty arms trembled beneath the shared weight of the burden, her breast shuddered with the unreleased ache and fatigue of too many a day. Ere she even understood the workings of her body, hot tears rushed down her face, and dripped from the end of her nose onto her ceremonial surcoat. The misty vista became evermore indistinct, blurred by the stinging salt of her suffering. It seemed that all the hurts she had forced herself to sustain or ignore fountained red-hot from the cracks in her stamina at the same time. The marks of Longwrath's fingers burned around her neck, the lost or meager sleep of incalculable days pushed her shoulders down, her stiff legs cramped, the deuced haste having masticated on their thew with stealth...
Then, the yoke of the burial slab was lifted away. Someone pressed a handkerchief into her opened fist, and, as if from afar and through the muffle of many layers of curtains, Grueburn's murmur reached her, unknotting the hawsers around her withdrawn, curled-up focus. On her left, where the stone had sat against her shoulder guard mere heartbeats agone, the light voice of Cabledarm responded, thick with grief. Both seemed somehow incongruous, well-nigh farcical: the Northlander with her rumble deeper than that of some men, and the fleshy, round-faced blusterer sporting limbs akin to hefty tree branches knotted together, yet for aye so abubble with girlish, high-toned excitement...barring the present tide, of course.
Funny, how she ought to perceive and dwell in such trivial details amid the tragedy...
Through the stupor and the glutinous mess of tears, snot, and lank hair adhered across her face, Rime rediscovered her sight and wellspring of words. Her tongue felt sluggish, swollen, her voice appeared to rasp and crackle beneath the most feathery of utterances. A puffy-eyed Cabledarm had claimed the slab, sliding in with ease to fill Rime's position, never permitting the procession to break a step or elsewise falter. Her cousin and Grueburn were each clutching at one of the Ironhand's arms, conducting her with gentle firmness towards the small knot of Swordmainnir trailing the corpse and its ten bearers. All wore their vestures and articles of war: the stripes and symbols of rank and seniority, knee-length woolen surcoats adorned with three crossed glaives and the gauntleted fist of the Ironhand, with longswords strapped to their backs, cataphracts oiled or even lacquered for the occasion, and the rare bronze items burnished to a dull shine.
"H-halt, you t-two," the Ironhand coughed, planting her boot in a drift of frozen snow against the tug of the two women. "'Tis m-my solemn d...duty to-"
"Hush, dear old friend," Grueburn persisted. Her countenance remained a complete turmoil: a bandage was taped across the left cheek, the eye above still swollen shut. Mayhap as an effect of all the sniffling and sneezing, her half-healed lower lip had cracked open, now dried blood crusting it. The blue shadows of too little rest underlined her single proper window into the bleak world, yet the gaze reflected tender concern for the welfare of her comrade-in-arms. "Cabledarm shall assume the duty hence. When beneath all the blazing tridents of thunder have you journeyed into the vales of slumber? Had I not admired my own beauteous battle-bruises scant moments agone from a mirror, I would have perchance screamed and shuddered afore such a misbegotten mask of dreariness and droopy-eyed debility. Come, let those less leaden of tread bear the burdens you have forcibly imposed upon yourself." A spoonful of harsh humor peppered her rebuke, yet elsewise the words were filled with earnest apprehension.
"Aye, Grueburn speaks sooth. You do savvy that we all love you akin to a sister or a mother, aye?" Kindwind twanged through her nose wrappings; a teary mussiness matching the taller woman. Whereas Grueburn's hair bristled as if struck by an errant bolt from the celestial thunder-anvils, the drizzle had dampened and deadened the soft waves of Kindwind's tresses, lumped them into long, dripping clots that clung to the gorget and shoulder guards. "Peradventure 'tis a duty of ours to hold aloft a flag of responsibility, yet whosoever mandates that you alone must assume the entire weight of the matter? Are we not a troop, a unit that fights and defends as one? Circulating duties and rest-hours e'en in the mists of a siege, so that none would overtire themselves and thus risk exposure to further exigencies? Thus, heed your own wit and wisdom, Ironhand, with the prospect of new adventures in the zenith. We are mere mortals, blighted by mundane necessities, not Elohim or other such peculiar fashionings of the Creator. Appoint a Second from among those who yet prosper, lest overweening fatigue should gormandize you."
Coldspray prepared to dissent, but a spark of reason within the fuddlement of fatigue thumped her tongue off course, and the weak retorts frayed, then disintegrated into insubstantial, ashen specks. Aye, they spake sooth. The profound compassion and affection in those few statements moved her almost as much as the grimwail, yet collecting the ragged strips of her lacerated heart and stitching them back together into the semblance of a soul. Ah, she was so proud of her comrades, so proud...
"Verily," Grueburn continued. "I would venture to deem that you have not closed so much as one eighth of an eyelid since the capture of..." Here, she however quavered, swallowed back grief and mayhap an upsurge of unbidden memories, and let a pointed hush fill the gap of the ill-starred name. "Well. Howsoever stone and sea stand in the measureless maelstrom of life, as you might verse it with much pomp and pathos, mayhap you ought to withdraw unto your shanks tremble no more and the dauthahorn does not blind you." One of her heavy, dark eyebrows arched, the expression freighted with mute meaning.
Aye, she would wit... Nevertheless, forsaking the rites now? Nay, nay, she would not deign to— She... But... Gods below and sideways! This smother of thoughts, floundering as if lost in an expanse of noxious bogs, unable to discover firm foothold... As her steps stabilized anew, thanks to the support of the two women, an introspective light began to cast a few revealing rays into the depths of her jadedness. Perchance neither the hollowness within her gut nor the parchedness of her palate resulted from the sentiments of failure, forfeiture and privation. Aegir's fish-scaled pisspot, when had she last eaten? Drank? Sat down? Hazy, fragmented recollections floated at the perimeters of her awareness. Of jamming something...something into her mouth and grabbing a nearby jug of... A jug of what? Diamondraught or plain water? She—
The response arrived on the wake of Kindwind's sneeze. "Ironhand, five short days and six long nights have expired since the tragedy flared up. A hale Giant can surpass many a frailer creature in might and stamina, run and run and yet run on while others might have buckled with enfeeblement or mayhap e'en sunk into their own beyondworldly abodes midway through. Grueburn and I have slept, albeit in restive fits, and nourished ourselves, even if our stomachs appear to loathe the feel of food. Aye, e'en mine, ill-famed of its appetite." She tapped the curve of her cataphract. "Yet you have but plowed on, on and on, for aye one of us glimpsing you whipping yourself onwards, whether it be high noon or low midnight. Prithee, Rime Coldspray, rest and be restored. We shall bear this burden for now."
It required a moment for the message to batter its way into the very kernel of Rime's comprehension. Yet when it did so, she jerked to an involuntary halt. Great gneiss gonads of the Father of Stone, almost a week? Almost a week had passed? Muddied had her mind indeed become, if she had associated mere hours with a quarter of a moonturn! As Kindwind had enunciated, mortal maxima yet dictated the earthbound journeys of Giants. Gods, she ought to rest, she had to... Another whitecap of abrupt infirmness washed over her, making her muscles convulse. Perhaps sheer gut-grit had spanked her onwards, and now, thunderstruck afore the full extent of the arduous race against time and wyrds, the last ember of the inner fire would wink out.
Yet...the caamora. However would she ever reach a release if—
The hird-members appeared to guess the few thoughts that still clung to life within her. "Come, Ironhand, come and rest. We shall ascertain that you will not become bereft of the mercy of the grief-fire. Notwithstanding, we fear you are not fit to toil onwards unto the very end," Squareset offered, extracting the hoary warrior from the mists of the flow with Grueburn's aid.
"Aye, e'en a few turns of the hourglass ought to suffice." A cork popped, and Grueburn thrust a stone flask into her hands. "Drink. Anon. We shall not consent to the election of a new Ironhand within a few more centuries to come, no matter how oft puerile japes and jests stabbing at the very matter have escaped our foolish throats."
While the Ironhand quaffed on the palate-burning liquor—sturdier than the habitual beverage she kept in her own hip-flask—Kindwind unbuckled her longsword and Grueburn hoisted her off her feet, bulky granite cataphract and all, without even half a grunt of effort. Mayhap some warlord of the far-flung human tribes might have deemed such treatment undignified and worth a few public decapitations. And, maybe some obstinate gobbet of haughtiness haunting the deepest recesses of Rime Coldspray's mind did indeed flinch at this display of debility. The matriarch of Gianthome's military forces borne away akin to a wee little child in the arms of a younger, mightier competitor?
Nay...the Giantish mentality should transcend such pettifoggery and vain strives. Children—were not the offspring of the scant-seeded seafarers the brightest of treasures within this existence, to be nurtured and cherished and loved beyond aught? Hence, if the Swordmainnir imparted such glowing affection upon her, should she not feel revered instead of scorned or humiliated? Aye. By the gods, aye! Humans were a peculiar lot in all sooth, and while Giants prized all forms of friendship, Rime oftentimes could not fathom the quirks and conventions of these short-lived wights, nor their capability for disdain and rivalry. Not to mention the arrant abomination of abandoning children or e'en butchering them right after arriving into this world.
Hence, how would it befit her to emulate their odd sentiments? Perchance the wyrds would whisk such a time and a place afore her nose, when brevity would prevail stories and simple commands precede lengthy moots. Yet now was not that moment.
As the cortege drew farther from the jouncing perspective of Grueburn's arms, and eventually dissolved into the gray mist, the novel warmth simmering in her chest could not altogether be attributed to the healing powers of diamondraught.
So very proud of them...