Rise of the Ravenborn
PART TWO: THE FOX AND THE RAVEN
In the depths of the forest of Marunath, a crack on the valley had appeared a thousand years ago.
It was said that it was here that Lord Marunath of Ivernia arrived at the heart of the lowland peninsula. Ivernians reveled in dwelling up high in the mountains that filled most of their realm, but Marunath saw the potential of a castle not erected like those embracing the summits to the South, but dug deep in the very chasm that had formed out of natural disasters. Marunath Castle was built underground, enjoying bridges that allowed crossing between the two sides of the crack, with tunnels that served as its halls and a natural river that had found its way at the bottom. It was, in all its glory, a manifest of Ivernian ingenuity. Ramps lifted and fell as caravans went to the different villages, returning with tithes owed to the Lord of Marunath in turn. The tall deciduous trees in the area covered it from prying eyes from above, making it the perfect hideout.
It was a fortress, unlike anything the Highlanders had beckoned before.
Now, it laid in Noad hands.
Nanna pondered on the castle's architecture as she sat on a table far away from the keep's central fire. She was surrounded by five of her best clan warriors, all wearing fox masks, like her, only hers bore the red markings of a chieftain - the Red Fox.
She rested her hurting back and weak arms on her totem rod, bearing markings of flames and single embers ending in the bright crimson gem at its top. Her arms absorbed light fiery linings of energy coming from such an artifact. Nanna felt her strength returning but still waning, and every time she looked at the rod she remembered her defeat at the hands of the Ivernian Seidr.
They had a Seidr, all this time. She constantly thought, All these moons I thought that silver-haired boy was the only one to wield a totem weapon. To think they had a man like that within their ranks.
The sudden burst of dishes on the ground unsettled her, but she, collected as ever, simply turned towards the origin of the disturbance. The occasional laughter and toasts were abruptly interrupted by two towering men glaring at each other viciously.
To the center, a dozen lords with their respective retinue had been discussing pretty much anything concerning their next hunt, kill or battle, all of this right next to the fire, skull masks hung from their necks or their waists, depending on comfort, as well as thick animal furs hulking on their shoulders, giving them size and presence. Nanna could easily distinguish between Ogiimas and Ogichis - chieftains and warriors. To be Noad meant to be a warrior, and to be a chieftain meant that you had to kill your way through.
In a horde amassed like the one Nanna plead allegiance to, the Skull Horde they called it, Noad Ogiimas ascended in favor of the Great Skull by battling one another, growing strong, nearing the position of close advisor or better: the Great Skull's killer partner.
"Ogiima Tuktuk," said the challenger, "Your mistakes are your own, old man. It was you who suggested we storm the mountain pass at dawn. You assured us that the Ivernian weaklings would be fainting and famished from having their first meal denied."
"They were weak and famished, Ogiima Nutkar" responded the eldest chieftain, "Certainly, even their greatest champion, the one they call the White Lion, bore the effects of such early attacks. Their lines were breaking and we would have taken the pass if not for that enigmatic Skybreaker appearing and shooting beams of light to the sky like arrows from a bow."
"Skybreaker?" laughed Nuktar, "Now you dub names into our enemies? This plan was your doing, old man. I should not be listening to anything you have to say anymore. You are a failure of an Ogiima, unfit to rule your renowned Iceskull Clan."
"At least I kept it, held the line, unlike you Shorekulls, who know nothing but to shout and flee in cowardice and total abandon at the slightest of anomalies in the battlefield."
Nuktar had enough, he drew clubs and axes alongside his bodyguard, clad in blue skulls, whilst Tuktuk's, bearing marks of yellow, responded in kind with their spears and long bone blades. Both parties faced each other furiously, nervously, as if a huge scuffle were to break out and only one of them would come alive. Nanna could sense their bloodlust swirling like a nauseous, deadly air surrounding them.
Then a hand reached out from the distance, from a shadowy figure beyond the light of the pyre, sitting on a throne of skulls, Ivernian skulls. He gestured a command that was seen by the entire hall. Both Ogiimas and their cadres stopped.
It stepped into the fiery light, a hulking figure, scarred from arms to chest, clad in the skulls of savage beasts from the icy North, beyond the Imperial frontier. Its face hidden, concealed by the black-tainted crowned skull that demonstrated his authority above all Noads in the Skull Horde, and its eyes glowed red by the power of the gods he worshipped. His hand gripped a massive axe with sharp frozen edges, its blades covered in runes glowing white. Every breath he took, a growl followed, like a hungry beast. What he hungered, however, all Noads knew; it was no animal nor dish, not even the warmth of a woman, but the blood of his enemies, to see the red pool tainting the ground, that was his desire.
Compared to the Blackskull Ogiima, and Great Skull to them all, Nanna knew she posed no threat, not even with her abilities as a Seidr.
"Plots... plans..." growled the figure, "Such banalities. The machinations of Man crumble to dust before a demonstration of true power." He said, "Today, you both saw the inevitable truth. There is always a greater beast. To slay the strongest and ascend is the Noad way."
The guards of every exit in the hall, all Blackskull warriors, clad in a similar fashion to their anointed leader, began hitting the ground with their spears, following the rhythm of drums. Nanna, as well as everyone else, knew what was coming.
"Trial by Combat," said one of her guards. "Do these people never tire of this?"
"Hush, kid," said an elderly voice on the other side of Nanna's table. "Watch your words, the Great Skull is wary of everyone in the room."
Nanna pulled aside any disgust from Noad custom and pointed at the scene before them.
"Watch, my brothers." said she, "That is all we must do."
However, the assembly expected wrongly, for Blackskull raised his fist at the Iceskulls' leader, sending the smaller chieftain a few meters away.
Everyone was shocked, the Great Skull had denied Tuktuk's redemption, to kill in order to avoid being killed.
The Iceskull barely had any strength to stand up again, prideful as a chieftain could possibly be. The Great skull did not attack again.
"I will not have your head in a pike for losing one battle, but neither will you get to kill another of my lieutenants. No, you don't deserve that honor, first, you must earn your place again in my court."
Tuktuk stood shocked, yet unable to do anything.
"And... what will my lord have me do?" he asked.
The Great Skull immediately turned towards Nanna, and the girl trembled. The blood-injected eyes that glowed even in the shadow of the pyre, she could sense them.
"There is still one village near the mountain pass, is there not?" he said.
"That is correct, O' Great Skull." said Nuktar stepping next to him.
"Why has it not fallen yet into our hands, I was under the impression that we controlled everything North of the Ivernian Mountains."
The Great Skull already knows, Nanna thought.
Yet nobody dared question his query.
"The defenders of the mountain pass keep close tabs on the villagers there," Nuktar continued, "This... White Lion has been able to deny us that village thanks to its proximity to the mountains."
"Very well... Tuktuk, this will be your chance at redemption: Grab your men and your servants," said the Great Skull, looking again at Nanna and her tribesmen, "Raid this village, flush the White Lion out, and if this new... personality you call Skybreaker dares to show up, kill him."
Tuktuk cursed in silence but kept his feelings to himself.
"It will be done, my lord."
"It better be."
Tuktuk and his retinue marched out of the keep. Nanna signaled her men and soon followed suit, seeking to be out of the Blackskull's gaze as soon as possible, but her knees, weakened by the intense use of Seidr magic, still felt weak.
She let out a huge sigh once she was out those cruel eyes' range. The doors of the Great Skull's new hall shut behind the last of the Fox tribesmen.
One of the Iceskull warriors soon revealed himself as the Fox clan left the premises and into the camp.
"The Iceskull Ogiima wants to see you."
"Of course he does." Nanna said.
Just as the messenger disappeared, the youngest of her wards could not remain silent anymore.
"He will send you to battle again, even in this state."
"Noda!" yelled the eldest, "Still your tongue!"
"I cannot watch as they send my lady to slaughter!"
"It cannot be avoided," said Nanna, her face concealed by the mask, "The Fox Clan owes allegiance to the Iceskulls, we are their Bannermen."
"But... my lady..." cried Noda.
"Junton," said she, directing her command to the eldest, her second in command, "Have our forces ready to depart, something tells me the entire Iceskull army will be deployed soon."
"What, all of it?"
"Tuktuk won't risk failing again, he will make sure to make every Ivernian suffer there."
"These Noads sicken me." said Noda.
"Quiet!" Junton ordered. "Go relay our lady's orders to the camp, make yourself useful!"
The boy ran without looking back, disappearing at a turn in the labyrinthine halls of Marunath Castle.
Nanna let out another sigh, and walked elsewhere, right to the Iceskull's quarters.