The Crystal Shard 26. Rights of Victory
Wulfgar leaned back in his chair at the head of the main table in the hastily constructed Mead Hall, his foot tapping nervously at the long delays necessitated by the demands of proper tradition. He felt that his people should already be on the move, but it was the restoration of the traditional ceremonies and celebrations that had immediately separated, and placed him above, the tyrant Heafstaag in the eyes of the skeptical and ever-suspicious barbarians.
Wulfgar, after all, had walked into their midst after a five year absence and challenged their long-standing king. One day later, he had won the crown, and the day after that, he had been coronated King Wulfgar of the Tribe of the Elk.
And he was determined that his reign, short though he intended it to be, would not be marked by the threats and bullying tactics of his predecessor’s. He would ask the warriors of the assembled tribes to follow him into battle, not command them, for he knew that a barbarian warrior was a man driven almost exclusively by fierce pride. Stripped of their dignity, as Heafstaag had done by refusing to honor the sovereignty of each individual king, the tribesmen were no better in battle than ordinary men. Wulfgar knew that they would need to regain their proud edge if they were to have any chance at all against the wizard’s overwhelming numbers.
Thus Hengorot, the Mead Hall, had been raised and the Challenge of the Song initiated for the first time in nearly five years. It was a short, happy time of good-natured competition between tribes who had been suffocated under Heafstaag’s unrelenting domination.
The decision to raise the deerskin hall had been difficult for Wulfgar. Assuming that he still had time before Kessell’s army struck, he had weighed the benefits of regaining tradition against the pressing need of haste. He only hoped that in the frenzy of pre-battle preparations, Kessell would overlook the absence of the barbarian king, Heafstaag. If the wizard was at all sharp, it wasn’t likely.
Now he waited quietly and patiently, watching the fires return to the eyes of the tribesmen.
“Like old times?” Revjak asked, sitting next to him.
“Good times,” Wulfgar responded.
Satisfied, Revjak leaned back against the tent’s deerskin wall, granting the new chief the solitude he obviously desired. And Wulfgar resumed his wait, seeking the best moment to unveil his proposition.
At the far end of the hall, an axe-throwing competition was beginning. Similar to the tactics Heafstaag and Beorg had used to seal a pact between the tribes at the last Hengorot, the challenge was to hurl an axe from as great a distance as possible and sink it deeply enough into a keg of mead to open a hole. The number of mugs that could be filled from the effort within a specified count determined the success of the throw.
Wulfgar saw his chance. He leaped from his stool and demanded, by rights of being the host, the first throw. The man who had been selected to judge the challenge acknowledged Wulfgar’s right and invited him to come down to the first selected distance.
“From here,” Wulfgar said, hoisting Aegis-fang to his shoulder.
Murmurs of disbelief and excitement arose from all corners of the hall. The use of a warhammer in such a challenge was unprecedented, but none complained or cited rules. Every man who had heard the tales, but not witnessed firsthand the splitting of Heafstaag’s great axe, was anxious to see the weapon in action. A keg of mead was placed upon a stool at the back end of the hall.
“Another behind it!” Wulfgar demanded. “And another behind that.” His concentration narrowed on the task at hand, and he didn’t take the time to sort out the whispers he heard all around him.
The kegs were readied, and the crowd backed out of the young king’s line of sight. Wulfgar grasped Aegis-fang tightly in his hands and sucked in a great breath, holding it in to keep himself steady. The unbelieving onlookers watched in amazement as the new king exploded into movement, hurling the mighty hammer with a fluid motion and strength unmatched among their ranks.
Aegis-fang tumbled, head over handle, the length of the long hall, blasting through the first keg, and then the second and beyond, taking out not only the three targets and their stools, but continuing on to tear a hole in the back of the Mead Hall. The closest warriors hurried to the opening to watch the remainder of its flight, but the hammer had disappeared into the night. They started out to retrieve it.
But Wulfgar stopped them. He sprang onto the table, lifting his arms before him. “Hear me, warriors of the northern plains!” he cried. Their mouths already agape at the unprecedented feat, some fell to their knees when Aegis-fang suddenly reappeared in the young king’s hands.
“I am Wulfgar, son of Beornegar and King of the Tribe of the Elk! Yet I speak to you now not as your king but as a kindred warrior, horrified at the dishonor Heafstaag tried to place upon us all!” Spurred on by the knowledge that he had gained their attention and respect, and by the confirmation that his assumptions of their true desires had not been in error, Wulfgar seized the moment. These people had cried out for deliverance from the tyrannical reign of the one-eyed king and, beaten almost to extinction in their last campaign and now about to fight beside goblins and giants, they longed for a hero to gain them back their lost pride.
“I am the dragonslayer!” he continued. “And by right of victory I possess the treasures of Icingdeath.”
Again the private conversations interrupted him, for the now unguarded treasure had become a subject for debate. Wulfgar let them continue their gossip for a long moment to heighten their interest in the dragon’s gold.
When they finally quieted, he went on. “The tribes of the tundra do not fight in a common cause with goblins and giants!” he decreed to rousing shouts of approval. “We fight against them!”
The crowd suddenly hushed. A guard rushed into the tent, but did not dare interrupt the new king.
“I leave with the dawn for Ten-Towns,” Wulfgar stated. “I shall battle against the wizard Kessell and the foul horde he has pulled from the holes of The Spine of the World!”
The crowd did not respond. They accepted the notion of battle against Kessell eagerly, but the thought of returning to Ten-Towns to help the people who had nearly destroyed them five years before had never occurred to them.
But the guard now intervened. “I fear that your quest shall be in vain, young king,” he said. Wulfgar turned a distressed eye upon the man, guessing the news he bore. “The smoke clouds from great fires are even now rising above the southern plain.”
Wulfgar considered the distressing news. He had thought that he would have more time. “Then I shall leave tonight!” he roared at the stunned assembly. “Come with me, my friends, my fellow warriors of the north! I shall show you the path to the lost glories of our past!”
The crowd seemed torn and uncertain. Wulfgar played his final card.
“To any man who will go with me, or to his surviving kin if he should fall, I offer an equal share of the dragon’s treasure!”
He had swept in like a mighty squall off the Sea of Moving Ice. He had captured the imagination and heart of every barbarian warrior and had promised them a return to the wealth and glory of their brightest days.
That very night, Wulfgar’s mercenary army charged out of their encampment and thundered across the open plain.
Not a single man remained behind.