by Alarne Gold-Quill
Hoari staggered back to the camp, a bucket of ice-cold stream water in each hand and his breath frosting in the twilight air. He made his way through the cookfires and groups of singing soldiers until he found his own tent in the deepening gloom. Demka had got a fire going and greeted him with a smile as he set the buckets down and began to mix the dough for their camp-bread. Hoari regarded her with a grin of his own as he stretched and kneaded their dinner, reflecting on the pleasant strangeness of his situation. Demka was a Redguard warrior in the service of Laintar and its thane Rog the Biter, having risen from itinerant sellsword to trusted retainer in her lord’s household. It was unusual to see a Redguard serving in a Nordic army -- conventional wisdom, particularly of western Nords, was that her people were too free-spirited to fight effectively in formation -- but she had decisively proven her valor and discipline in Rog’s shield wall. That was where she had found Hoari, and it did not take the two of them long to start sharing a tent on cold nights as the Laintar leidang marched north.
They were travelling to join the gathering of chieftains and jarls outside Danstrar, where the palace of the Potentate still smouldered. The Tjaski-men had seized the southern throne through despicable guile and ordered the dissolution of all forces and clans independent of the Legions, a provocation to which the kingdoms and lesser holds of Skyrim had responded with outright rebellion. Hoari was only a woodsmith who had answered the summons of his thane, no great warrior like his war-wife or the other members of Rog’s hird, but he was determined that in some small way the head of his axe would help to liberate the land from its shameful foreign occupation. Demka had laughed when he announced this, but not unkindly, and reassured him that her oath ensured they fought for the same goal. That same laugh brought him back to the present, and he blinked away the reverie.
“Do you think you’ve worked the dough enough, my love? We’ll have no wood left to cook it soon.”
Hoari looked down and realised he had been worrying the bread with his hands as he thought. Sheepishly, he passed the bowl across to her and turned to inspect the camp behind them. There seemed to be some excitement down by the thane’s tent, though he could not make it out, and so he tugged at the cloak of a lanky youth who was moving with purpose in that direction.
“What’s the commotion, lad? Where’s everyone going?”
The youth pulled his cloak out of Hoari’s fingers reproachfully, but answered his question.
“You didn’t hear? Pak Stoat-Face and another clever-man have come to the camp -- they’re going to speak any minute now.”
As the young man hurried away, Hoari turned expectantly back to Demka. She had placed the camp oven above the flames and seemed eminently comfortable where she was, but she nodded lazily at her war-husband.
“You Nords and your senescent bone-throwers.” Hoari didn’t know what ‘senescent’ meant but he presumed she was talking about the clever-men. “Full of half-truths and worthless mysticism. Go on, then, go and hear what obtuse wisdom they have for us. I’ll watch our dinner.”
Gratefully, Hoari rose and made his way back through the maze of guy-ropes hidden in the darkness until he reached the edge of the crowd around the thane’s tent. Standing on the tips of his toes, he could see a man who could only be the notorious Pak Stoat-Face. The clever-man conferred with his companion and then rose to address the crowd, which pressed closer so as not to miss the words of so esteemed a lawspeaker and rememberer.
END OF THE FIRST PART