“To Sleep, Perchance to Die”
More than a hundred years have passed since Jarl Skalgrim Odinsson bent the knee to Duke Lionel Hawkmoor during the Second Northern Invasion. One hundred years. In that time, the lands of Skalgrim have flourished. Some of these Northerners took to farming, some to mining, but most were restless.
House Ljunborg were the restless type, and when their children came of age, they did not plant seed or burrow into the womb of the earth for treasures — they sought adventure and fame, sometimes becoming mercenaries in foreign wars, but more often by ranging into the wilds of the Borderlands, aiding in the expansion of Darach-Tor, to be sure, but more importantly, the Borderlands meant freedom.
The Borderlands was home to monsters and brigands and traitorous scum in need of killing. And there were riddles there in those lands, mysteries that begged to be solved, and the only thing that came close to warming a Ljunborg’s heart in the way the thrill of combat did, was a good mystery.
And so four brothers set out across the mountains and through the wilderness, toward the Keep of Hrothgar Llothbrok, their distant uncle, in search of fame, fortune, and the freedom of untamed lands… but the closer they got to their uncle’s fortress, the more troubled they became, for the land was dark and foreboding, with ill omens at every turn: abandoned farmsteads, mutilated livestock, blighted crops, and paired ravens ever watchful of the brothers’ advance toward the Keep on the Borderlands.
Calling to the ravens, Magnar Ljunborg, a Northern Priest, asked of them what has beset the land. It replied, “Loki Grimtide. Götterdämmerung.” It returned to the skies and the brothers pressed on, the weight of these ill omens upon them.
Beneath the shadow of Hrothgar’s Keep, the brothers ride up on a crude campsite made from the wreckage of a frontier caravan. The wagon lay on its side, a mauled and dead horse still harnessed to the ruined transport. On a small rise, a campfire was being tended by an old man, while a woman stood guard, spear in hand, a hastily erected tent their backdrop.
Nearby, a battle was underway between a pack of wolves and a ferocious bear. This is what had the woman’s attention. She explained that the caravan had been attacked by the crazed bear, crippling her husband, as they attempted to flee the deathly pall that hung over the keep. She prayed to Óðinn for aid and the wolfpack came, but they killed her husband before harrying the bear.
The brothers offered to take her and her grandfather back to the keep with them, but she refused. She plunged her spear into her grandfather’s throat and tossed his corpse on the fire, grabbed her gear from the tent, and marched off toward the east. “There is nothing but death in that damnable keep. Better the old man die here than on the grim road ahead. The gods have abandoned us.”
Brukhart sought to aid the wolves in their battle with the bear, burying a shaft in its thick hide, but the beast only became more enraged. It killed eight of the wolves and the remaining two fled to the west. Then the bear turned its attention toward the brothers, racing around the northside of the wrecked caravan, using it as cover from the warrior’s bow.
The warrior, and his brother Paavo, stood up to the bear with sword and spear, but both took heavy damage from the savage beast. The cries of the woman revealed their threat was greater than they’d realized as the bear’s mate roared into camp. It slew the woman, then ripped its way into the tent.
Rune, the youngest of the brothers, set the tent to light and stabbed at the creature with his spear as Magnar went to Paavo and Burkhart’s aid. They had felled the first beast and now needed their wounds tended to. Both were near death. Meanwhile, the other bear, wickedly burned and wounded, fled to the east.
The brothers gathered up what could be salvaged from the caravan wreck and the dead, loading the items onto Paavo’s merchant wagon, along with the bear and wolf carcasses. Magnar took the reins and urged Slabb onward toward Hrothgar’s Keep.
The scant sentries allowed them entry, lowering the drawbridge for them to advance in to the near barren keep. Atop the west wall, a wisewoman cried out to the gods in mournful dirge as she gave offerings to the dead that filled the pit outside the keep walls, their bodies alight, a black, ominous plume of smoke rising into the darkening sky.
The brothers were hastened into the Great Hall where they were greeted by their Uncle, Hrothgar Lolthbrok. The hall was mainly filled with children and old people. The Lord sent them away as he recounted how for a score of nights they had been plagued by a horrible creature that was able to sneak into the hall unseen as a magical sleep fell upon his warriors, now all but dead.
He told of how he slew a great dragon at the mouth of the Caves of Chaos and plundered its treasure hoard, winning the fabled Golden Horn of Heimdall the Allseeing. And that now the keep and all who reside there are cursed, slain nightly by the dragon’s offspring, a horrible creature all but immune to steel, only fire seeming to have any real effect.
As the brothers searched the room for clues, one by one, they all began to fall asleep, all save Brukhart who bore witness to Hrothgar’s change as he morphed into the grim creature he had described.
The Lord crept forward across the tables, while the warrior feigned sleep, stopping over the slumbering form of one of his few remain sons and he tore the young man’s head from his shoulders as a magical darkness descended on the room making visibility near impossible.
The changeling raged, rousing all from their enchanted sleep…
to be continued