The Crystal Shard 3. The Mead Hall

The Crystal Shard 3. The Mead Hall

Many miles north of Ten-Towns, across the trackless tundra to the northernmost edge of land in all the Realms, the frosts of winter had already hardened the ground in a white-tipped glaze. There were no mountains or trees to block the cold bite of the relentless eastern wind, carrying the frosty air from Reghed Glacier. The great bergs of the Sea of Moving Ice drifted slowly past, the wind howling off of their high-riding tips in a grim reminder of the coming season. And yet, the nomadic tribes who summered there with the reindeer had not journeyed with the herd’s migration southwest along the coast to the more hospitable sea on the south side of the peninsula.

The unwavering flatness of the horizon was broken in one small corner by a solitary encampment, the largest gathering of barbarians this far north in more than a century. To accomodate the leaders of the respective tribes, several deerskin tents had been laid out in a circular pattern, each encompassed in its own ring of campfires. In the center of this circle, a huge deerskin hall had been constructed, designed to hold every warrior of the tribes. The tribesmen called it Hengorot, “The Mead Hall,” and to the northern barbarians this was a place of reverence, where food and drink were shared in toasts to Tempos, the God of Battle.

The fires outside the hall burned low this night, for King Heafstaag and the Tribe of the Elk, the last to arrive, were expected in the camp before moonset. All of the barbarians already in the encampment had assembled in Hengorot and begun the pre-council festivities. Great flagons of mead dotted every table, and good-natured contests of strength sprang up with growing frequency. Though the tribes often warred with each other, in Hengorot all differences were put aside.

King Beorg, a robust man with tousled blond locks, a beard fading to white, and lines of experience etched deeply into his tanned face, stood solemnly at the head table. Representing his people, he stood tall and straight, his wide shoulders proudly squared. The barbarians of Icewind Dale stood a full head and more above the average inhabitant of Ten-Towns, sprouting as though to take advantage of the wide and roomy expanses of empty tundra.

They were indeed much akin to their land. Like the ground they roamed over, their oftenbearded faces were browned from the sun and cracked by the constant wind, giving them a leathery, toughened appearance, a foreboding, expressionless mask that did not welcome outsiders. They despised the people of Ten-Towns, whom they considered weak wealth-chasers possessed of no spiritual value whatsoever.

Yet one of those wealth-chasers stood among them now in their most revered hall of meeting. At Beorg’s side was deBernezan, the dark-haired southerner, the only man in the room who was not born and bred of the barbarian tribes. The mousey deBernezan kept his shoulders defensively hunched as he glanced nervously about the hall. He was well aware that the barbarians were not overly fond of outsiders and that any one of them, even the youngest attendant, could break him in half with a casual flick of his huge hands.

“Hold steady!” Beorg instructed the southerner. “Tonight you hoist mead flagons with the Tribe of the Wolf. If they sense your fear …” He left the rest unspoken, but deBernezan knew well how the barbarians dealt with weakness. The small man took a steadying deep breath and straightened his shoulders.

Yet Beorg, too, was nervous. King Heafstaag was his primary rival on the tundra, commanding a force as dedicated, disciplined, and numerous as his own. Unlike the customary barbarian raids, Beorg’s plan called for the total conquest of Ten-Towns, enslaving the surviving fishermen and living well off of the wealth they harvested from the lakes. Beorg saw an opportunity for his people to abandon their precarious nomadic existence and find a measure of luxury they had never known. Everything now hinged on the assent of Heafstaag, a brutal king interested only in personal glory and triumphant plunder. Even if the victory over Ten-Towns was achieved, Beorg knew that he would eventually have to deal with his rival, who would not easily abandon the fervent bloodlust that had put him in power. That was a bridge the King of the Tribe of the Wolf would have to cross later, the primary issue now was the initial conquest, and if Heafstaag refused to go along, the lesser tribes would split in their alliances among the two. War might be joined as early as the next morning. This would prove devastating to all their people, for even the barbarians who survived the initial battles would be in for a brutal struggle against winter: The reindeer had long since departed for the southern pastures, and the caves along the route had not been stocked in preparation. Heafstaag was a cunning leader; he knew that at this late date the tribes were committed to following the initial plan, but Beorg wondered what terms his rival would impose.

Beorg took comfort in the fact that no major conflicts had broken out among the assembled tribes, and this night, when they all met in the common hall, the atmosphere was brotherly and jovial, with every beard in Hengorot lathered in foam. Beorg’s gamble had been that the tribes could be united by a common enemy and the promise of continued prosperity. All had gone well…so far.

But the brute, Heafstaag, remained the key to it all.

* * *

The heavy boots of Heafstaag’s column shook the ground beneath their determined march. The huge, one-eyed king himself led the procession, his great, swinging strides indicative of the nomads of the tundra. Intrigued by Beorg’s proposal and wary of winter’s early onset, the rugged king had chosen to march straight through the cold nights, stopping only for short periods of food and rest. Though primarily known for his ferocious proficiency in battle, Heafstaag was a leader who carefully weighed his every move. The impressive march would add to the initial respect given his people by the warriors of the other tribes, and Heafstaag was quick to pounce on any advantage he could get.

Not that he expected any trouble at Hengorot. He held Beorg in high respect. Twice before he had met the King of the Tribe of the Wolf on the field of honor with no victory to show for it. If Beorg’s plan was as promising as it initially seemed, Heafstaag would go along, insisting only on an equal share in the leadership with the blond king. He didn’t care for the notion that the tribesmen, once they had conquered the towns, could end their nomadic lifestyle and be contented with a new life trading knucklehead trout, but he was willing to allow Beorg his fantasies if they delivered to him the thrill of battle and easy victory. Let the plunder be taken and warmth secured for the long winter before he changed the original agreement and redistributed the booty.

When the lights of the campfires came into view, the column quickened its pace. “Sing, my proud warriors!” Heafstaag commanded. “Sing hearty and strong! Let those gathered tremble at the approach of the Tribe of the Elk!”

* * *

Beorg had an ear cocked for the sound of Heafstaag’s arrival. Knowing well the tactics of his rival, he was not surprised in the least when the first notes of the Song of Tempos rolled in from the night. The blond king reacted at once, leaping onto a table and calling silence to the gathering. “Harken, men of the north!” he cried. “Behold the challenge of the song!”

Hengorot immediately burst into commotion as the men dashed from their seats and scrambled to join the assembling groups of their respective tribes. Every voice was lifted in the common refrain to the God of Battle, singing of deeds of valor and of glorious deaths on the field of honor.

This verse was taught to every barbarian boy from the time he could speak his first words, for the Song of Tempos was actually considered a measure of a tribe’s strength. The only variance in the words from tribe to tribe was the refrain that identified the singers. Here the warriors sang at crescendo pitch, for the challenge of the song was to determine whose call to the God of Battle was most clearly heard by Tempos.

Heafstaag led his men right up to the entrance of Hengorot. Inside the hall the calls of the Tribe of the Wolf were obviously drowning out the others, but Heafstaag’s warriors matched the strength of Beorg’s men.

One by one, the lesser tribes fell silent under the dominance of the Wolf and the Elk. The challenge dragged on between the two remaining tribes for many more minutes, neither willing to relinquish superiority in the eyes of their deity. Inside the mead hall, men of the beaten tribes nervously put their hands to their weapons. More than one war had erupted on the plains because the challenge of the song could determine no clear winner.

Finally, the flap of the tent opened admitting Heafstaag’s standard bearer, a youth, tall and proud, with observing eyes that carefully weighed everything about him and belied his age. He put a whalebone horn to his lips and blew a clear note. Simultaneously, according to tradition, both tribes stopped their singing.

The standard bearer walked across the room toward the host king, his eyes never blinking or turning away from Beorg’s imposing visage, though Beorg could see that the youth marked the expressions that were upon him. Heafstaag had chosen his herald well, Beorg thought.

“Good King Beorg,” the standard bearer began when all commotion had ceased, “and other assembled kings. The Tribe of the Elk asks leave to enter Hengorot and share mead with you, that we might join together in toast to Tempos.”

Beorg studied the herald a bit longer, testing to see if he could shake the youth’s composure with an unexpected delay.

But the herald did not blink or turn aside his penetrating stare, and the set of his jaw remaining firm and confident. “Granted” answered Beorg, impressed. “And well met.” Then he mumbled under his breath, “A pity that Heafstaag is not possessed of your patience.”

“I announce Heafstaag, King of the Tribe of the Elk.” the herald cried out in a clear voice, “son of Hrothulf the Strong, son of Angaar the Brave; thrice killer of the great bear; twice conqueror of Termalaine to the south; who slew Raag Doning, King of the Tribe of the Bear in single combat in a single stroke…” (this drawing uneasy shuffles from the Tribe of the Bear, and especially their king, Haalfdane, son of Raag Doning.) The herald went on for many minutes, listing every deed, every honor, every title, accumulated by Heafstaag during his long and illustrious career.

As the challenge of the song was competition between the tribes, the listing of titles and feats was a personal competition between men, especially kings, whose valor and strength reflected directly upon their warriors. Beorg had dreaded this moment, for his rival’s list exceeded even his own. He knew that one of the reasons Heafstaag had arrived last was so that his list could be presented to all in attendance, men who had heard Beorg’s own herald in private audience upon their arrival days before. It was the advantage of a host king to have his list read to every tribe in attendance, while the heralds of visiting kings would only speak to the tribes present upon their immediate arrival. By coming in last, and at a time when all the other tribes would be assembled together, Heafstaag had erased that advantage.

At length, the standard bearer finished and returned across the hall to hold open the tent flap for his king. Heafstaag strode confidently across Hengorot to face Beorg.

If men were impressed with Heafstaag’s list of valor, they were certainly not disappointed by his appearance. The red-bearded king was nearly seven-feet tall, with a barrelshaped girth that dwarfed even Beorg’s. And Heafstaag wore his battle scars proudly. One of his eyes had been torn out by the antlers of a reindeer, and his left hand was hopelessly crumpled from a fight with a polar bear. The King of the Tribe of the Elk had seen more battles than any man on the tundra, and by all appearances he was ready and anxious to fight in many more.

The two kings eyed each other sternly, neither blinking or diverting his glance for even a moment.

“The Wolf or the Elk?” Heafstaag asked at length, the proper question after an undecided challenge of the song.

Beorg was careful to give the appropriate response. “Well met and well fought,” he said. “Let the keen ears of Tempos alone decide, though the god himself will be hard-pressed to make such a choice.”

With the formalities properly carried out, the tension eased from Heafstaag’s face. He smiled broadly at his rival. “Well met, Beorg, King of the Tribe of the Wolf. It does me well to face you and not see my own blood staining the tip of your deadly spear!”

Heafstaag’s friendly words caught Beorg by surprise. He couldn’t have hoped for a better start to the war council. He returned the compliment with equal fervor. “Nor to duck the sure cut of your cruel axe!”

The smile abruptly left Heafstaag’s face when he took notice of the dark-haired man at Beorg’s side. “What right, by valor or by blood, does this weakling southerner have in the mead hall of Tempos?” the red-bearded king demanded. “His place is with his own, or with the women at best!”

“Hold to faith, Heafstaag,” Beorg explained. “‘This is deBernezan, a man of great import to our victory. Valuable is the information he has brought to me; for he has dwelt in Ten-Towns for two winters and more.”

“Then what role does he play?” Heafstaag pressed.

“He has informed,” Beorg reiterated.

“That is past,” said Heafstaag. “What value is he to us now? Certainly he can not fight beside warriors such as ours.”

Beorg cast a glance at deBernezan, biting back his own contempt for the dog who had betrayed his people in a pitiful attempt to fill his own pockets. “Plead your case, southerner. And may Tempos find a place in his field for your bones!”

deBernezan tried futilely to match the iron gaze of Heafstaag. He cleared his throat and spoke as loudly and confidently as he could. “When the towns are conquered and their wealth secured, you shall need one who knows the southern marketplace. I am that man.”

“At what price?” growled Heafstaag.

“A comfortable living,” answered deBernezan. “A respected position, nothing more.”

“Bah!” snorted Heafstaag. “He would betray his own, he would betray us!” The giant king tore the axe from his belt and lurched at deBernezan. Beorg grimmaced, knowing that this critical moment could defeat the entire plan.

With his mangled hand, Heafstaag grabbed deBernezan’s oily black hair and pulled the smaller man’s head to the side, exposing the flesh of his neck. He swung his axe mightily at the target, his gaze locked onto the southerner’s face. But, even against the unbending rules of tradition, Beorg had rehearsed deBernezan well for this moment. The little man had been warned in no uncertain terms that if he struggled at all he would die in any case. But if he accepted the stroke and Heafstaag was merely testing him, his life would probably be spared. Mustering all of his willpower, deBernezan steeled his gaze on Heafstaag and did not flinch at the approach of death.

At the very last moment, Heafstaag diverted the axe, its blade whistling within a hair’s breadth of the southerner’s throat. Heafstaag released the man from his grasp, but he continued to hold him in the intense lock of his single eye.

“An honest man accepts all judgments of his chosen kings,” deBernezan declared, trying to keep his voice as steady as possible.

A cheer erupted from every mouth in Hengorot, and when it died away, Heafstaag turned to face Beorg. “Who shall lead?” the giant asked bluntly.

“Who won the challenge of the song?” Beorg answered.

“Well settled, good king.” Heafstaag saluted his rival. “Together then, you and I, and let no man dispute our rule!”

Beorg nodded. “Death to any who dare!”

deBernezan sighed in deep relief and shifted his legs defensively. If Heafstaag, or even Beorg, ever noticed the puddle between his feet, his life would certainly be forfeit. He shifted his legs again nervously and glanced around, horrified when he met the gaze of the young standard bearer. deBernezan’s face blanched white in anticipation of his coming humiliation and death. The standard bearer unexpectedly turned away and smiled in amusement but, in an unprecedented merciful act for his rough people, he said nothing.

Heafstaag threw his arms above his head and raised his gaze and axe to the ceiling. Beorg grabbed his axe from his belt and quickly mimicked the movement. “Tempos!” they shouted in unison. Then, eyeing each other once more, they gashed their shield arms with their axes, wetting the blades with their own blood. In a synchronous movement, they spun and heaved the weapons across the hall, each axe finding its mark in the same keg of mead. Immediately, the closest men grabbed flagons and scrambled to catch the first drops of spilling mead that had been blessed with the blood of their kings.

“I have drawn a plan for your approval,” Beorg told Heafstaag.

“Later, noble friend,” the one-eyed king replied. “Let tonight be a time of song and drink to celebrate our coming victory.” He clapped Beorg on the shoulder and winked with his one eye. “Be glad of my arrival, for you were sorely unprepared for such a gathering,” he said with a hearty laugh. Beorg eyed him curiously, but Heafstaag gave him a second grotesque wink to quench his suspicions.

Abruptly, the lusty giant snapped his fingers at one of his field lieutenants, nudging his rival with his elbow as if to let him in on the joke.

“Fetch the wenches!” he commanded.