In which Karik seeks a way to slay a Dragon.
So the next day, Karik went with Ylmi into the mountains. She took her bow and gave to Karik a spear to carry. The mountains were strange to him, but Ylmi moved swiftly, so familiar was she with it. High they climbed, through a low pass and into one of the tiny valleys which are so frequent in that region.
“The hunting here is very good.” Karik observed as they climbed, and Ylmi acknowledge this was so.
“In all the villages I passed in my journey, I have not seen better.” He continued.
“Those villages are older.” Ylmi answered. “And since they have more people and have hunted their lands more, I do not know why you are surprised by this.”
Karik stopped and leaned on his spear. “How many of your people died of hunger this past winter?”
“Only Sava, but she was old, and in poor health anyway.” Ylmi answered. “Why do you ask.”
“We buried nearly two score Yrdnara.” Karik answered. “Yet here, you had plenty.”
“Plenty for us.” Ylmi answered. “If there had been forty more mouths to feed…” she shrugged. “We might not have had enough.”
Before Karik could ask another question, she had set back off and was hurrying up steep slope. It began to rain, and the wind moaned overhead as it passed through the mountains.
Karik reckoned himself strong, but Ylmi was well used to these mountains and as he began to grow weary she seemed to him utterly tireless.
They had hunted for some time when Karik heard a grunting in the trees, and the rough, ripping sound of a boar rooting through the earth.
Ylmi knocked an arrow and loosed it in one fluid motion, and there was sharp thok as the arrow found it’s mark.
With a grunt the boar shook his head and turned toward them even as another arrow buried itself in it’s chest. He grunted again and looked back and forth for the source of this assault.
A third arrow Ylmi loosed, but the boar had seen them. Lowering his head, he charged and the arrow rebounded off his skull.
With a roar, he barreled toward them crushing through the low brush that stood between them as Karik raised his spear, but out of the corner of his eye he saw Ylmi dart off into the trees.
“Where?” he shouted, but was cut off by the boar. He thrust at it, but he was too high, and the boar tossed it away on his tusks. Desperately Karik leaped aside and the boar passed by.
They turned to face each other, and Karik crouched low to better aim the spear at the boar’s chest. There was another thok, and a third arrow sprouted from the boar’s side.
His breathing grew labored, and he staggered. Karik smiled, but it was too early and with a sudden grunt, the great boar charged again. This time Karik caught him on the spear. But the boar’s force was spent, and with a wheezing breath, he fell to the earth.
“You’ll do.” Ylmi stated as she stepped out from behind several trees.
Together they cleaned the boar, leaving the entrails there in the valley, and began to carry it back. They moved slower now, and Karik made sure to mark the paths they took and the directions that they traveled. As he marked the mountains, he saw through the rain what looked like great rocks set up upon a ridge high above the valley.
“What is that?” He pointed up at it.
Ylmi looked up. “The Watching Stones.” She said. “It is said that Vranr and his sons built that one, and others like it throughout the Isle when first they came here. It is said that wisdom will come to those who seek them out, but I have found little enough there.”
Karik replied that little enough was more than nothing. The thought of the dragon pressed upon his mind, and the thought came to him that perhaps the Watching Stones would give him some sign to guide him.
So for a time Karik worked with Bodvar, though his thoughts turned often to the mountain and to the dragon within. But though his mind wandered there often, still he was seized with doubts and fear, for a dragon is no beast to trifle with.
It was not merely fear for himself, but Revik and Igil were dear to him, and he saw many ways in which this matter could turn out for the worse. The words of Dranri were heavy in his mind, and he tried to think of what might happen after he took action.
He was not sure Unhost would take kindly to the slaying of the dragon, though it might be that he would be pleased to no longer owe such tribute.
And it was not an easy matter to kill a dragon. If he failed…there would not be a few who would feel the dragon’s fury.
So he bent his mind to way of advancing himself and securing his position before he should attack the dragon. But no plan came to his mind, nor did his time with Bodvar make his mind any easier.
Now it happened one day that Ylmi happened upon Revik as they were both hunting, and at the end of the day she brought him with her to Bodvar’s house. They ate and drank, and Revik gave to them a brace of rabbits, which Siggi took gratefully.
Now after they had eaten, Revik asked Karik if he could speak with him outside. They stepped outside together, and Karik took him in among the sheep pens that they might have some privacy.
When they were alone, Revik asked Karik if he had given any more thought to the slaying of the dragon, and that the days did not grow longer. Karik replied that he had, but the matter presented new difficulties every way in which he turned.
“It is as I thought.” Revik told him, “You have little stomach for this matter. I will take on the dragon myself, and you are welcome to come along. But I will not wait forever.”
“Revik, if you fail, the dragon will wake and burn the coast for miles in vengeance.” Karik told him, “Nor will Igil or I see you again. Have but a little patience, and you will have renown above your imagining.”
Revik heard him, but said he grew tired of waiting.
“Two weeks.” Karik told him. “Give to me two weeks, and we will together, make a decision.” Revik thought on this for a moment and said that two weeks was not an overlong time and he was willing to wait until then.
Karik thanked him, and Revik said he would head home. He vanished off into the trees, and Ylmi came up as he disappeared.
“Did I miss a fight?” She asked. “It is dangerous to go down the mountain during the night.”
“The night does not frighten Revik Borsson.” Karik told her.
“It should.” Ylmi glanced out toward the sea, and Karik followed her gaze.
“Many things should.” Karik replied.
“Tell me,” she turned to face him, wrapping a deer skin around her shoulders against the wind. “What do you speak of that secrecy is so important?” Karik asked her what she meant, and she replied that there was little reason to stand in sheep shit unless he wished their bleating to cover their conversation.
Karik was silent at this, and took a moment to carefully choose and craft his words.
“Unhost has been gracious to us.” He said at last, “But we seek more than simply scraping and gnawing at life.”
“Unhost is gracious to himself and no one else.” Ylmi retorted. “What manner of plan are you considering that calls for so much secrecy.”
Karik pointed silently at the mountain. Far off, the moonlight fell upon it and the rippling waters that lapped upon it’s broken rocks.
Ylmi starred out at it for a moment, then nodded her head. “Such a deed would be good for our village, if success was achieved. But that is a large if.”
Karik acknowledge that it was indeed.
“Do you have a plan?” Ylmi asked. Karik replied that he did not. “The watching stones might give you wisdom.” She said. “Or they may cloud your judgment. Either way, they may give you the aid you seek.”
The next morning, Karik rose before the moon had begun to set. Bodvar’s dogs rose, wagging their tails as he slipped quietly toward the door, but at his command they laid back down, their large eyes following his every movement. He threw a deerskin over his shoulder and set out, making much progress by moonlight.
From there he could see the Watching Stones, dark shapes in the dim light high above him. Clouds were rolling in, low and heavy on the mountains, making it difficult to judge their distance. Up again he climbed, over the rocks and cleft terrain, till he came upon a path that was cut in the rock. Still higher it led, higher than any tree grew, till only small grasses and low bushes covered the ground.
Here on the heights, the wind moaned and howled as it blew over the Island, and more than once Karik had to drop to his hands and knees to withstand the it’s force.
But at last he reached the watching stones.
Four great stones were set upright, each the height of two men and wide enough that Karik could shelter from the wind behind one. One faced north, one south, one east, and one west, and there were strange symbols and designs carved into them. In the center was a great rock with a seat carved into it.
The edges were worn smooth by the mountain wind so that every edge was rounded and curved as if beaten down by the storms that so often passed over the mountains.
“You are late, oh Karik Haldsson.”
Karik jumped, so startled he was to hear another voice other than his, and he turned to see an old man climb up and lean against the western stone.
“Who are you?” Karik asked. “And how do you know my name.”
“I am Dvengrhal.” The old one replied in a cracked and weary voice. “And knowing is my purpose.”
Then was Karik greatly afraid, for he knew himself to be in the presence of one of the seers, old and wise persons who from time to time were seen in Vrania. Men said they were beloved of the gods, blessed with sight and life beyond the understanding of mortal men.
Karik dropped to one knee and bowed his head. “Greetings sir.”
But the old one simply sat down beside the stone as one beyond weariness. “Oh stand up and cease this blathering. You are supposed to be a great man, stand up and act like it. I did not come all this way to banding silly words with an underling.” He looked eastward toward the mountain. “It is heavy in your thoughts, is it not.”
“It is in my mind to make an assault on the dragon.” Karik slowly rose to his feet. The wind bit at his shoulders and he pulled the deer skin close about him. The clouds were thick, and they obscured much about them, but to the east they parted here and there, and through one of these parts Karik could see the mountain, rising out of the dark waters of the bay.
“Your words are like the hind cut of an old boar.” The one one told him. “A ‘but’ hangs heavy upon them.”
“But…” Karik struggled to hide a smile. “The slaying of a dragon is no small matter.”
The old one muttered to himself. “The first one with half a brain.” He pointed at Karik “Are you thinking of attempting this alone?”
Karik said he was not.
“Are you thinking of making a great charge at the beast after you announce your name and titles?”
Karik said that would be a plan doomed from the start.
“If you have with you good warriors,” the old one said. “And a plan worthy of them, then there is little you have to fear.”
“There is the danger of if I fail.”
The old one snorted. “And what danger is that? Do you fear death, oh Karik Haldsson?”
“I do not.” Karik answered. “But for others…If I fail in my attack on the dragon and am bested, the dragon will take a terrible revenge.”
“Either death is to be feared by all, or by none.” The seer interrupted him. He eased himself to the ground and sat, his back against the eastern most stone. “So, which is it? Should death be feared or welcomed?”
Karik thought for a moment. “A man should welcome death for himself, but fear it for those he is charged to protect.”
“That is a double answer.” The seer shook his head. “But tell me, you fear to cause death to these people?”
“You fear that the dragon will burn their land, kill their goats, and destroy their crops?” The seer gave a dark grin as Karik assented. His gray hair was lank and wet as a fine mist was pulled in by the wind. “Tell me, how many of their crops and goats go to the dragon every year? Enough for ten people? For twenty? Forty?”
Karik was silent, and for a moment all that could be heard was the approaching storm. Far to to the north there was a rumble of thunder as the wind grew yet stronger about the Watching Stones. Karik staggered as a gust caught him, and he hurriedly slid down to sit on the southern side of the stone chair.
“How many have died because of the food the dragon has consumed last year alone?” The seer asked. “Or do they not count because the dragon killed them with starvation instead of fire?”
“Very well then,” Karik said after a moment. “If I slay the dragon, if I succeed, then what actions will Unhost take? He has served the dragon some years, and the arrangement has not been a bad one for him. What of King Unhost?”
“So you will be answerable for the actions of the dragon if you fail?” The seer asked. “And if you succeed, you will be answerable for the actions of your Jarl and your king? I was told you were a wise man Karik Haldsson. But I see I was wrong. Go back to your village and scratch more grain out of the sand. The other villages will bury many children this winter, but it will be the dragon’s fault, not yours. And when your little village grows beyond it’s means and the graves are dug in the mountainside, it will be Unhost’s fault, not yours.”
“And if the dragon burns the coast line?” Karik asked.
The seer’s eyes narrowed. The heavy mist was beginning to turn into a light rain, and water was beading on his eyebrows. “If the dragon burns the coast because you had a poor plan of attack…” The seer rose to his feet. “That will be your fault. I weary of discussing whose fault this or that will be. Go do, Karik Haldsson, and let lesser men worry whether it will be their fault or someone else’s.”
Two days later, a heavy storm blew in from the north. The rain was heavy and cold, and ice formed at the entrance of Bodvar’s home and on the brambles that hid the sheep caves. But inside, Bodvar and his family stayed warm by the fire, while Karik sat in silence, his mind turning over everything that had passed since they had come to the village.
On the evening of the second night, Siggi made a stew of goat, onions, and potatoes and while it boiled over the fire, they all sat together to keep warm.
“So.” Bodvar said, “Tell me Karik, why it is that you came north?”
Karik said he had already told them it was because of the hunger in Yrdnara.
“That I know.” Bodvar answered. “But why did you come north. Surely there are other places where you might have found refuge.”
“That is less likely than you think.” Karik replied. “Though it seems this place fared well enough, most of the other villages through this place suffered a great famine this past year.”
Siggi said that they had heard this.
“Bjarnmont has no place for outcasts.” Karik continued. “And in the south the western Jarls are still able to raid, out of reach of King Jarhost in his hall.”
“Surely they could use such well built men as yourself.” Ylmi suggested. “And if your companions are as strong as you say they are…”
“They have no use for warriors.” Karik replied. “Especially those who come in the autumn, when the work of harvest is nearly done and the lean months are close at hand.”
“So you came north.” Siggi nodded. “Because there is nowhere else to go?”
Karik shrugged, and then made to speak, but the words escaped him and he fell silent.
The fire crackled, and the stew began to hiss as the water boiled. After a few moments, Bodvar’s keen eyes glinted in the firelight, and Karik saw that he was staring.
“There was another reason that drove you?” Siggi’s voice was soft, and Karik found himself pouring out his thoughts.
“Our people came here, from the west.” He spoke hurriedly, his voice running to keep up with his thoughts. “So there must be lands to the west, lands that have food, riches…lands where the people do not need to scratch a living out of the rocks, and cower in fear when the bitter cold comes. It must be out there.
“And if it is there, there must be a way to get back. The Black Isles are impassible, so far as we have found, but they must have an end. They cannot encircle the whole island? To the south, no one has ever found their end, but to the north…” He raised his hands. “I have never heard that this is the case. There must be an edge somewhere.”
“Why?” Bodvar’s soft voice was barely audible over the crackling of the fire.
“Why must there be an edge?” Bodvar continued. “Why must there be a way to reach the lands to the west?”
“If we came from there, then….”
“That was many years ago.” Bodvar pointed out. “Many storms, many tides, and many waves have passed since then. The way may be shut. The isles may go as far north as the ice sea. Tell me, have you ever spoken with one who has sailed in the waters north of Undmir?”
Karik admitted he had not.
“There are a few tiny fishing outposts there.” Bodvar told him. “And they have sailed along the coast as far as their boats will take them. Do you know what they have found?”
Karik shook his head.
“Ice. Storms. And little else.” Bodvar studied the fire. “The storms there are sudden and terrible. They come howling out of the north and churn the sea into waves greater than Bjarnmont itself. The fishermen do not stray out of site of land or their homes, for if they are caught in those storms, they have not yet built a boat that can withstand them. They are crushed on the rocks or swallowed by the waves.”
Siggi stood and stirred the stew, which was bubbling happily, and the smell filled their dwelling so that Karik felt his stomach turn with hunger.
Bodvar leaned to look around Siggi, who stood between them as she stirred the stew. “I do not say that there is not a way. Only that there may not be one, and even looking to find it is more dangerous than you know.”
“You speak as though you know the north sea well.” Karik said.
“My brother sailed it for several years.” Bodvar replied. “Until he strayed too far from the shore. The mast from his ship was washed ashore several days after the storm.”
“That is enough talk from the two of you.” Siggi brandished her ladle. “A passage there may or may not be. But there is a bit of land just north of the sheep pens that would do nicely for a potato patch if you would dig out a few trees. So plan your way through that.” She smiled as she filled their wooden bowls with the steaming stew and the conversation turned to the prospective potato patch.
But Karik took Bodvar’s words to heart and that night as he wrapped himself in a bear fur and lay in the darkness, he turned them over in his mind. Outside the storm raged and the winds whipped through the trees as the fire burned to embers inside their cave.