Aage took leave of the group, saying he had to find servants to bring refreshments. When asked how long the audience of the dwarves would take, the mage mentioned around thirty minutes.
“Hah! I seriously doubt that,” remarked Tyndur with a grin. “Formal occasions like that require a recitation of the lineage of the representatives. And you’ve got two! No doubt each one will try to outdo each other in the greatness of their family lines.”
“How long do you think would the audience take, Tyndur?” asked Habrok, preempting Tyler who had the same question.
“It would depend on how hurt their ranks are. They do have to attend to the injured. In this instance, I guess Aage would be right in his estimate, give or take a few minutes. It would be distracting reciting the names and deeds of your forebears while your men are bleeding to death. My worst experience was three hours,” replied the einherjar.
“Three hours?” exclaimed Aage.
“They got carried away. So, the damned presentation included a reenactment, artistically, mind you, of some of the highlights. It was a blasted nightmare. And don’t let them start with their music! It’s designed to accompany such litanies and has a sonorous, monotonous tone. By Odin’s beard, I’d pay good money just to avoid another experience like that!”
Aage shook his head and left the room, muttering something about three hours of boring music accompanying a terribly tedious recital of names.
“I believe you put the fright of dwarves in the mage, Tyndur,” said Kobu.
“I was kind. I didn’t mention the dancing,” replied the einherjar. “Though I really don’t understand the recital part. They also do that in set-piece battles between them, you know. It just provides more ammunition for the inevitable insults.”
“Men, some serious matter which you should know,” declared Tyler, breaking the flow of the ongoing conversation. “I’ll take advantage of Aage’s absence."
The mage then told them of the strange cessation of fighting between the forces of Sutr and Ymir right after Loki was sent to mediate a truce, the fact that the two jotunn were now amassing additional strong forces, Loki’s absence in the north, and the scenario of the two elementals dividing continent between themselves.
Tyler still didn’t mention Asem’s condition, figuring he’ll break the bad news one at a time. Asem’s malaise now took secondary importance in the light of the threat of Adar being covered by fire and ice. If the two jotunn lords win, the party would be beyond caring about everything. The fighting he witnessed in the south, and the progress of the army of Kemet he kept to himself. Revealing what he had learned would raise more questions, diverting the men’s attention from the task at hand.
“So, in short, we have to deal with a veritable tide of undead with their mortal abilities and skills intact, and then fight Ymir. For the second time, for you and Habrok. After that, we’ve got Sutr to worry about. And above everything is Loki’s grinning face,” said Tyndur.
“Succinctly put,” remarked Tyler with a laugh.
“Nothing to it then,” replied Tyndur. “But we’re all going to die.”
“I don’t intend to die, Tyndur. Nor should any in our company,” replied Tyler. “I just need to figure out how to break the spell which gave rise to this undead blight. We can’t win in a conventional battle. There’s too many of them. All we can do is delay them until I can unravel the spell. We’ll worry about Ymir and Sutr after Hedmark. And if we fail here, Skaney is gone together with Hellas and Kemet. No pressure.”
“Well, the practice would be welcome. How about you, Kobu? Any ideas yet?” asked Tyndur.
The exile’s reply went unsaid as the door opened and the jarl came in, with Aage in tow. Following them were servants bringing food and drink.
The jarl sank heavily to his seat.
“I never thought dwarven protocol could be so punishing,” said the ruler of Hedmark.
“If they didn’t include dancing, then you’re a lucky man, jarl,” commented Tyndur.
“They include that?” exclaimed the jarl. “It must be my lucky day then.”
“Excuse me, Jarl Geir. But you sound like Hedmark had never been visited by the dwarves,” asked Tyler.
“Not in recent memory. I was informed that the last visit was by a svartalfar delegation during my grandfather’s time. He requested their aid in finalizing the defenses of the trelleborg. But the dvergar had never been seen in Hedmark before.”
“And now, Hedmark finds a delegation from each race seeking an audience. Times must be desperate,” said Kobu.
“Indeed they are. They gave me some bad news about the strength of the undead forces. Their watchers have seen undead streaming towards the undead armies in front of us. They themselves had been bothered by a few, but since they ceremoniously burn their dead, the plague had not affected them that much yet. But they fear what will happen if Hedmark fell,” explained the jarl.
The young jarl looked at Tyler.
“There is another meeting set for tomorrow morning, but they have requested that the High Mage and his party be requested to attend. You must have impressed them,” said the man.
“We’ll be there,” answered the mage. Aage then did the introductions. Tyler thought the jarl had the right idea about weighty matters being discussed in such an informal atmosphere. It frees up one’s balls from the rigid and castrating rules of protocol.
“I have already given instructions to my chief lieutenant that the defense will be handled by you,” said the jarl. “His name is Skarde. He’s doing the rounds now, telling the various drottin about the new development.”
The jarl paused, obviously waiting for the servants to leave the room. As soon as the room was closed, he sat back and looked at Tyler.
“Scarburg. One of my drott as Hedmark’s contribution. But what my drottin reported to me when they returned was puzzling. What attacked Scarburg was a lot less than what their scouts initially reported. There were reports of large boulders from the mountainsides smashing enemy ranks, killing and injuring many. Dokkalfr reaching the walls in disorganized groups. Few enemy mages were in attendance. Their siege machines were devastated the night before the final assault. It was said that a great wave of destruction swept through the enemy’s camp. Explosions and discharge of massive magical energies, according to the war-mage of Scarburg. So great was the magic involved that he refused to go out and investigate. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”
Tyler just smiled.
“Then reports of a battle near the city of Akrotiri in Hellas. A great mage fought Ares to a standstill and drove off his minotaur lieutenant. A broken siege, the Dorians defeated, and now I hear of a new Greek deity of war. Ares’s son, apparently. You don’t think you could also tell me about that?” continued the jarl.
Still smiling, the mage shook his head.
“I thought so. I make it my business to know what I could, High Mage. Especially in this matter of defending Hedmark. The All-Father might have his reasons, but I would also like to hedge my bets. Now I find myself betting my entire realm - on a single throw of the dice in this deadly game of Mia we play against the undead. You have my blessing, High Mage. I am at your command. What do you wish us to do now?” concluded the man.
“I thank you for your trust, jarl. Matters of warfare are better left to experienced hands. The defense preparations I leave to Kobu, with the assistance of Habrok and Tyndur. How many mages do you have?” asked Tyler.
“Around ten as of today. I don’t know if more would be coming. But a moment, High Mage. Something about Tyndur makes me curious. I sense something different about him,” said the jarl as he stared at the einherjar.
This jarl is sensitive to magical matters. He must have some innate though undiscovered ability. But I can’t have him following Tyndur around trying to determine what the man is, thought Tyler. Better to get it out in the open so he can focus on what he should be doing.
“He’s an einherjar, Jarl Geir. A peculiar one. Gave Odin constipation during his stay in Valhaĺla. So, he got sent down to assist me,” answered the mage.
“An einherjar! I never thought I see one in the flesh. Tell me, Tyndur, is it all what the tales say?” eagerly asked the jarl.
“Quite overrated, but more or less close to what the skalds sing. Which reminds me, are there any skalds about by any chance?” Tyndur asked the jarl.
“I believe there are a few who insisted on remaining in town, demanding the right to stay and get stories from the coming struggle. New material, that’s how they described it. They’re billeted in the Ogre’s Head Inn,” said the Jarl.
“Good! My thanks, Jarl Geir. I intend to visit them when I have time,” beamed the einherjar.
Now what is this guy up to again? But the mage thought it better not to ask. Inquiring about a man’s private business would be intrusive and disrespectful. Knowing the einherjar, the warrior would tell them himself when he’s ready. And it’s not as if it’s only the einherjar who is currently keeping secrets.
“Then it’s settled. The three companions will prepare the men and oversee the outer defenses. I get to discuss matters with your mages,” remarked Tyler.
“And how about me?” asked the jarl, his voice rising.
Damn it. I should have started with him, thought Tyler. Pride and all that shit.
“There is a second line of defense. I was going to suggest you oversee its construction. And prepare for attacks from within. Is the town’s cemetery inside or outside the fort?”
“About two miles from the east entrance,” said the jarl.
“Then there will be an assault from that direction and a high possibility of some revenants within the town itself. The second defense ring, the internal defense of the town, and the East Gate I leave to you.”
“That’s a relief. The way people had been acting around me lately, one would think they’re taking care of a child,” commented the jarl.
Oh, the extra precautions made by his men to protect him, remembered the mage.
They heard somebody knock on the door. A large man walked in, a bow strapped to his back. Mostly clad in leather armor, it appeared that the warrior was a scout. A ranger like Habrok.
“My jarl. Reports have come in and I believe they’re significant enough to warrant your attention.”
“Take a seat, Hendrik,” the jarl ordered. Then he looked at the party. “My head forester, Hendrik. Hendrik met our guests, Habrok, Tyndur, Kobu, and his Excellency, the High Mage, Havard of Fossegrim. How exactly does one address a High Mage?”
“High Mage would be enough, Jarl Geir. I am not cantankerous enough,” answered Tyler.
The man nodded respectfully to the members of the party and turned to the jarl.
“Scouts report two large formations. One near the Barrens and the other about thirty miles from us. They’re not doing anything at the moment, but it looked like they’re gathering their strength, waiting for more undead to join them.”
“Numbers?” asked the jarl.
“Too vast to count. The entire valley is full of them. Not only caricatures of men, but also other creatures and races. Scouts trying to observe the force near the Barrens had to leave in a hurry. Too little cover in that part of the region. But they say it’s a bigger force.”
“It might be Valhalla for all of us after all,” remarked the jarl.
“There’s something else, jarl. My men witnessed tattered banners being carried by the dead. They appear to be the flags of your ancestors, though desecrated with large runes mark in red.”
“What do the marks show?”
“They appeared to be insults to the gods, sire. And there’s more. The group in the Barrens seemed to led by the founder of your line, Jarl Sigurd, and the second army nearer to us is led by the body of your eldest brother. The use of their personal battle flags leaves no doubt about their presence.”
Tyler saw the pale face of the jarl who was in shock, unable to say anything. The First Mage quickly spoke up.
“Your brother and ancestors are dead, jarl. Foul spirits now animate their bodies. The best way to honor them is to return them to the peace of the grave.”
The jarl released the breath caught in his throat.
“Good thing my father and other brother were sent off the traditional way – a funeral pyre. The body of our eldest brother was never recovered. As to the founder of our ruling line, lore mentioned he went missing with an army in a foolhardy attempt to clear the edges of the Barrens,” explained the jarl.
“We better warn the men, jarl,” spoke up Tyndur. “No telling if some will have to face the rotting bodies of their mothers in battle.”