A Chill Wind Blows, the fourth book of the Threads of Fate series is set to be published on May 15th. It is my pleasure to present an extract for your perusal! 🙂
Ancient beyond belief, Hjotra, the Nordir witch-woman is immortal, but not in a manner she would have wished.
Moon, the one-eyed axeman and famed killer of demons, never imagined the fates would grant him the boon of a wife and children. He is content, getting lazy and fat, but the lure of the clash of steel and the thrill of his blood surging in his veins as he cuts down his enemies remain a siren song.
Now, men from another world and foul beasts born of dark sorcery, have been seen in the Northir Mountains. But they are merely the vanguard of an invading force.
Moon has faced and defeated the most fearsome of demons and Hjotra can call upon the power and knowledge accrued over her extraordinarily long lifespan. But they face no mere demon this time. For their dreadful foe is a vengeful blood god – the very embodiment of slaughter and subjugation, who has vowed to destroy the Nordir to the last mewling babe.
The horseman reined in his mount and twisted in the saddle, maintaining his position for a long moment as he took in the bedraggled line of people stretching as far back as the eye could see. Men and women old and young, children and babes in arms. Many in horse-and oxen-drawn carts and wagons, and some on horseback. The less fortunate trudged alongside, legs sinking almost calf-deep in the snow covering the steep trail leading higher into the mountains. Arlrik Gudraffin, king of the Nordir, rubbed at his red-rimmed eyes and sighed deep in his thick black beard. It was a sight to drive the sharpest of daggers into his heart. These few thousands fleeing into the upper reaches of the mountains were all that was left of his people. How had it all come to this, he asked himself for the hundredth time.
Fiercely independent and disdainful of outsiders, the Nordir had always lived in the mountains. Secure in their vast icy redoubt, they had over the centuries resisted various southern kings who sought dominion over them. Greedy avaricious men who lusted after the gemstones found in abundance in the mountains. Ignorant of the dangers of the frozen expanse, their armies fell prey to avalanches, icefalls, unseen deep crevasses and treacherous thin ice. Those not taken by the icy embrace of the frozen peaks fell to the blood-drenched swords, axes, and spears of the vengeful Nordir.
Then, stories of a great upheaval in the lowlands started reaching the Nordir. They told of a great army led by a dread warrior who could not be slain, sweeping through the southern kingdoms. Known as the Nissir, some said they had crossed the great desert to the east, while others claimed they had come from the mysterious lands far across the ocean.
Arlrik had been dismissive of the notion of a warrior who could not be slain. “Puke-bellied lowlanders take affright of their own shadows, and make up tall tales to cover their cowardice,” he said to Hjotra, the old witch-woman. “Any man of flesh who breathes air can be cut by cold steel.”
“Caution, Arlrik Gudraffin, king of the Nordir,” the old woman had replied. “This is no ordinary man of whom you speak.”
“What do you mean no ordinary man?” He tried to force his gaze away from the large purple-hued mole on the hag’s wrinkled face.
“He was an ordinary man of flesh and blood such as you, oh king,” Hjotra told him, “but he is now simply a vessel for Kalados, and his body cannot be pierced by your weapons.”
“Who is this Kalados of whom you speak?”
“He is a dark entity…a demon maybe, one of the dark gods who crave a physical existence and the joys of the flesh it brings. He lusts after power…unlimited power, and he now resides in the body of the Nissir king…the warrior of whom we speak”
Arlrik was still unconvinced. “Horse dung. If this Kalados – be he, man or dark god – has physical form and comes within range of my sword, I’ll see him bleed. But mayhap he and his army will be content with conquering the southlands and not venture into the frozen peaks.”
Sighing, Hjotra shook her head. “You bear the arrogance of all warriors, Arlrik son of Gudra. The belief that your sword arm can conquer all. Kalados will not be content with the lowlands. He wants it all, and his army needs feeding and paying, and that takes coin. The gemstones that abound in the mountains will help fill his coffers. But I suspect he may be after something else.”
“What else could he want? There is nothing else here but ice and snow. Or mayhap he lusts after our long-horned sheep?”
Hjotra laughed, a dry rattle in her bony chest. “’Tis a fine jest, Arlrik, but the time for jests draws to an end, for the blood god is coming, and the Nissir will descend upon us like carrion birds on rotting meat.”
“So how do we defeat these Nissir and this demon or blood god as you call him…the one you say cannot be slain?”
“You cannot defeat the Nissir or Kalados, but don’t despair. There is hope, for the salvation of the Nordir lies in what I believe Kalados really seeks.”
Arlrik had been exasperated by the witch-woman’s cryptic answer, and as usual, she refused to elaborate further, except to say things would be clearer in time.
Things did become clearer in time, but not in a manner Arlrik Gudraffin would have wished. The Nissir came, sweeping over the fortifications guarding the pass into the mountains, and laying siege to Icefell, the great citadel from which Nordir kings had ruled for hundreds of years.
Guarded by four sheer ice walls higher than the tallest tree, Icefell had only fallen to an enemy once before, during a civil war over a hundred years ago, when it was guarded by only two walls. And that had been only through treachery.
Assisted by mighty siege towers and engines, the Nissir hurled themselves at the walls, and died in their hundreds…their thousands. The citadel’s ballistae wrecked a bloody harvest, leaving their smashed and broken bodies crimson-stained on the vast icy plain before Icefell. Dark clouds of carrion birds hovered and swooped, cruel beaks ripping into unseeing eyeballs, and four-legged scavengers gathered, dipping gory snouts into entrails.
Arlrik, though accustomed to the sight of death, had been shocked at the carnage. The Nissir showed no fear of death. Indeed, they seemed to relish it…to welcome it.
The citadel fell after a thousand days of siege. On that last day, Arlrik got his first glimpse of Kalados. A huge man with long bone-white hair and coal-black eyes that seemed to suck away all light. Despite the cold, he was bare-chested, his painted torso rippling with corded muscle.
Arlrik’s eldest son Torsin Arlrikfinn, had hurled himself at the invader, dealing him a fearsome blow. Arlik witnessed the truth of the witch-woman’s words as Torsin’s sword shattered into so many pieces as it struck Kalados. He watched horrified as Kalados’s return stroke sent his son’s head toppling from his shoulders.
Now, the Nordir were reduced to castaways in their own land, fleeing higher into the mountains. A girl of perhaps ten winters, stumbled and fell in front of Arlrik’s horse. In utter despair, exhausted, cold, and hungry, the bodies of many more like her littered their back-trail. He had been unable to help those, but wasn’t about to let the frost claim her.
Reaching down, he hauled the stricken girl onto his saddle. Clad in only a simple tunic, her bare limbs pale with a bluish tinge in the unforgiving cold, Arlrik marvelled how she had lasted this long. Holding her close to him, he unfastened his thick bearskin robe and wrapped it around her. “Brave girl,” he whispered, as he felt her tremble and shiver. “You are safe now. I will keep you warm.”
As he spoke the words, he couldn’t help but think he was lying to her, giving her false hope. How safe was she, how safe were any of them as they climbed higher into the mountains making their way to what was surely an illusion of safety?
Arlrik looked up as three riders galloped up alongside him. His surviving sons, Agnor, Sigurd and Hrogar.
Agnor, slender, fair-haired and blue-eyed like their mother spoke first. “The Nissir are close, father. I fear we won’t make the Place of the Gods unless we delay them.”
His brothers, Hrogar and Sigurd, burly, black-bearded and dark-eyed like their sire, nodded in agreement, their eyes grim. All bore the same look – hollow eyes, red-rimmed with fatigue. Hrogar’s left arm ended in a stump where an axe had sheared away his hand. A blood-stained bandage covered the stump.
Arlrik twisted in his saddle again, looking back along the line. Sounds of men shouting and the clash of arms floated across to them.
More warriors rode up. Big men wrapped in thick furs to ward off the cold, and most bearing wounds. They were all that was left of his personal guard.
“Sutr take these puking Nissir and their evil whoreson of a devil-god. Not content with taking our land, they want to wipe us out to a man,” Arlrik snarled, as the sound of combat and the screams of the dying grew nearer. He scanned the faces of the men around him. Though pinched with exhaustion, each face was grim, eyes set, with no give in them and fingers curled tightly around axe haft and sword hilt.
Arlrik took a deep breath and let the air out slowly, his condensed breath framing his head. He shrugged off his bearskin robe, revealing a silver breastplate inlaid with a snarling wolf’s head, its eyes, shining emerald gemstones. Beneath was a hauberk. Shoulder guards dented and marked with the signs of recent combat flared over the curves of his mighty boulder-like shoulders.
He looked down at the girl curled on his saddle. She was fast asleep with her thin arms wrapped around his thick waist. Gently loosening her grip, he wrapped her in his robe, stretched across and handed her to Agnor. “She is strong and brave and embodies the spirit of our people. She’s now your daughter, Agnor. Treat her as such.”
Meeting his father’s gaze, Agnor nodded and took the child, holding her close to him.
Arlrik nodded in acknowledgement, then turned his gaze to the others. “The rear-guard sound sorely pressed, and if not reinforced, those mother-humping whoresons will sweep over us soon, and the Nordir will be no more. I will not allow that. I ride back with those who will follow me. But you my sons, will ride on and guide our people to the Place of the Gods where Hjotra awaits. She says our salvation lies there.”
He met their eyes in turn, nodded, then swung his horse around and galloped back down the line. The members of his guard didn’t hesitate. Divesting themselves of their furs, which they flung into the wagons bearing their fleeing people, or handed down to those trudging alongside, they gripped weapons and galloped after their king.
Grimacing as her ancient knees cracked in protest, Hjotra knelt before the large stone slab, and brushed away the powdery snow covering its surface. Thankfully, it was free of ice, so the symbols and markings carved into it were clearly visible.
She studied the markings – a large circle joined by lines to several smaller circles – intently, before tracing a finger along a line running to one of the smaller circles marked by a single symbol. She then rose to her feet and studied the row of half a dozen stone pillars, each the height of three tall men, that stood some ten paces before the slab.
Hjotra walked across to the furthermost pillar to the left .It too was curiously free of ice, and craning her neck, she could make out the symbols carved down its length. The symbols were in an archaic Nordir dialect, and she knew the other pillars bore similar.
Taking a deep breath, Hjotra chanted out loud the words of the markings, then moved on to next pillar and did the same. She walked along the line of pillars, her thin reedy voice steadily rising in pitch as she moved up and down the line nine times, as prescribed in the rite of opening.
Unaccustomed to physical exertion, Hjotra crumpled to her knees after completing the rite.
She was at the Gateway to Worlds. Fleeing from her home world and past foul deeds, Hjotra had arrived here fifteen years earlier. On the nights when the twin moons turned blood red, spectral forms and curious landscapes could be glimpsed beyond the pillars and voices uttering unknown tongues heard. The Nordir people thought it was the gods, but Hjotra knew that on those nights, the consistency of the barrier became such that parts of other worlds became visible.
Hjotra dug a finger into a small pouch hanging at her side and touched a coarse, black powder under her tongue. The powdered root of the of the Ashraf plant tasted like dry sheep dung, but her head stopped swimming and her strength returned as the narcotic worked its magic.
Returning to the stone slab, she dropped to her knees, drew a small dagger, and slashed the edge across her left palm. She then carefully moved her hand along the line she had noted earlier, dripping her blood along the groove up to, and onto the circle it led to.
Once she finished, she reached under her furs, cut a length off her tunic, and carefully used an edge to wipe away any blood that had splashed out of the groove and circle. She then wrapped the impromptu bandage around her gashed hand.
Hearing hoofbeats, she glanced over her shoulder to see Hrogar Arlrikfinn approaching.
The king’s son reined in his horse in a flurry of snow and ice. “You best hurry with your mummery woman, for we are sorely beset by the pigging Nissir,” he barked at her.
Hjotra looked up at the black-bearded man, noting his tired, pain-wracked face and bloody bandage on the stump of his wrist. She hawked and spat in the snow, the spittle splattering on one of the horse’s front hooves. “My mummery as you call it, is all that stands between the Nordir and utter destruction, Hrogar king’s son. Now, turn your beast around and go hurry the people along, for I’m about to open the gates, and am unsure how long I can keep them agape.”
Hrogar glanced at the pillars and stone slab. He didn’t see anything that resembled a doorway or gates. He had never understood why their father placed so much faith in the hag. Favouring Hjotra with one last dark look, he swung his horse around and galloped back down the trail.
The one-handed irritant departed, Hjotra turned back to the pillars. The symbols marking them were glowing red, and she could feel a tremor begin in the ground. A crack like thunder rent the air, making her jump, and a fissure opened in the ground before the pillars.
The tremor intensified and the ground shook, pitching Hjotra to her hands and knees. Gasping in pain, she lifted her head and watched open-mouthed as a bright light rose along the length of the fissure.
The light, a shade of blue so dazzling, it made Hjotra avert her eyes, rose the height of the stone monoliths. Shading her eyes with a hand, she stood, took a deep breath, and whispered a single word.
A rip appeared down the middle of the light, and parted, akin to a curtain being drawn.
Hjotra lowered her hand. The pillars had disappeared, and she looked past the curtain into a landscape of white-flanked mountains bathed in the soft blue light of a full moon.
Hoofbeats and wheels rumbling across ice told Hjotra the fleeing people were approaching. She spun around as Hrogar and his brothers rode up to her, eyes wide and mouths agape at the vista before them.
“Frigga’s tits,” Hrogar whispered in awe. “Wha…what’s that, is it…”
“That’s the Gateway between Worlds, king’s son,” Hjotra told him. “the salvation of the Nordir.”
Agnor – his newly acquired daughter, eyes large and staring in her pale face at the spectacular sight – heeled his horse forward and rode up to the opening. He glanced over his shoulder at Hjotra, a wide grin on his face. “The Portal to other Worlds! Hjotra, you old hag, you knew it was here all along. Why didn’t you tell me?”
Hjotra glared at him. “Enough of the old hag bit, Prince.” Then her gaze softened. “As to why I didn’t tell you…that’ll have to wait. Quick now, you and the other kinglings best start moving the people through, for the portal will only stay open so long.”
The sky had turned a shade of purple streaked with yellow, and the sun near-disappeared behind the peaks to the west, as the last of the long straggling line of fleeing Nordir finally moved through the portal. Hjotra, the king’s sons and fifty warriors stood by, hoping to catch sight of the king and the rear-guard.
“The King!” the cry went up as horsemen appeared at end of the wide snow-covered path.
Arlrik Gudraffin galloped up, blood seeping from a gash in his breastplate, and his blood-drenched left arm hanging limply.
“Hjotra, you ancient hag!” he echoed his youngest son’s greeting to the witch-woman. “Place of the Gods, my backside! You’ve opened the pigging Portal between Worlds!”
“Aye Arlrik, I have, and you best get your kingly backside through it with haste, for I hear the Nissir behind you.”
“I think not, Hjotra, I’m of this world, and here I stay.” Arlrik winced in pain as he slid off his horse and hefted his shield and sword. “That hell spawn Kalados and his imps must not be allowed to follow you.”
The surviving members of the king’s guard, many bearing fresh wounds, jumped off their mounts and formed a shield-wall – with their liege in the centre – some paces in front of the portal.
“Here come the whoresons!” a warrior yelled, as the Nissir appeared at the bottom of the trail.
Screaming battle cries – Kalados! Kalados! The Nissir surged forward.
They hammered into the shield-wall, and died, as the swords and spears of the Nordir ripped into them.
Wave after wave slammed into the thin resolute line. They fell, their bodies broken and pierced, piling up before the shield-wall, their life-blood pooling and freezing on the ice.
Gutting a wild-eyed Nissir warrior, Arlrik Gudraffin glanced over his shoulder and saw his three sons and Hjotra hadn’t passed through the gateway. “Go, Sutr take your eyes!” he bellowed. “Go!”
With a last look at their sire, Agnor, Sigurd and Hrogar, wheeled their horses around, and followed Hjotra through the portal.
They emerged into their new world. Thousands of their people stood, gazing around at a world, which looked very much like the old one they had just fled.
The three kinglings turned around to witness their father’s final stand against an implacable enemy. Several warriors joined them, hands on weapons, eager to cross over to aid their king and fellow warriors, but Agnor motioned them back. “Hold. It is as my father and our king wishes. Don’t make his and their sacrifice in vain. Our people must endure, and brave warriors such as you will be needed here…in this new world, for we don’t know what perils lie ahead.”
The gateway shimmered, the figures of those holding the Nissir at bay became indistinct, and those watching could no longer make out their king. But there was no doubting the figure that strode up to the portal.
Black soulless eyes gleaming, and bare torso splattered with the blood of slain Nordir, Kalados stepped forward. “I have you now. Your king lies dead and you…”
Then he was gone, as if he’d never been there. The Portal to other Worlds had slammed shut.
Agnor let out his breath. He hadn’t realized he’d been holding it as he watched Kalados stride up to the divide between worlds. He half jumped as a scream of rage echoed through the air. Then the voice came – disembodied, eerie and chilling, as it echoed through the icy peaks of their new world.
“I’ll find you. I’ll take your new world and destroy the Nordir to the last babe, if it takes a thousand years…”
Hjotra walked up to the brothers. Her eyes were sorrowful. “I mourn the loss of your father. He was a great king, a brave man, and more than that, a good man.”
Hrogar nodded in acknowledgement. “Aye he was, but he is gone and now we have to look to ourselves. What is to stop that evil whoreson from following us?”
“I set a spell to destroy the gateway. There is nothing left but rubble for Kalados to sift through back there. The Portal to other Worlds was what drew him to the mountains. His lust for power is beyond the comprehension of mortal man.”
“What do you mean?”
Agnor, holding the daughter bequeathed him by his father by the hand, and Sigurd. had moved closer.
“There are hundreds of other worlds out there Hrogar kingson,” Hjotra said, “and Kalados wanted to use the portal to invade and bring them under his domain. His evil is colossal, and if allowed to spread unchallenged…to dominate myriad other worlds, I fear for the future of… everything.”
“You did well to destroy the gateway, Hjotra,” Agnor said. “Let’s hope Kalados doesn’t manage to rebuild it or find another.”
“Let’s hope he doesn’t Agnor, let’s hope not.” Hjotra whispered.
“So, what is this world Hjotra, and why did you choose it?” Sigurd, the king’s middle son known as the silent one, spoke up at last.
“This is the world of my birth Sigurd Arlrikfinn, and these are the Northir mountains.”
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