THE CLOAKED FIGURES drifted through the heavy mist, their movements slow and methodical. For over five hundred years they had listened to tales of the prophecy. There were thirteen in total, twelve priests, and priestesses, dressed in heavy hooded robes, all from different orders, representing the twelve true gods. They escorted a young, heavily pregnant woman, her groans and whimpers cutting through the night. The priests had travelled long and far, over lands both treacherous and unknown, then finally across the icy waters of the lost sea, to the Isle of Sorrow. It was here that the priests would see the end of generations. The end of watching and waiting.
The Isle of Sorrow was just that: a jagged rocky coastline that had caused the tragic end of many a foolish captain and his unfortunate ship. Once past the coast, there were the sheer cliff faces that towered over a thousand feet above the raging ocean below. The priests had been well informed, though. The route across the sea was made easier as they sailed selected currents, arriving at the only safe entry along the coast, a gap just wide enough to allow a small vessel through. From there the priests followed a narrow path that traversed the towering cliffs. At times it seemed that a higher power was guiding them along the skinny trail.
At the top of the cliffs, they were confronted by a forest of petrified trees, their bare naked branches seeming to reach out for any creature foolish enough to venture in.The dank, thick fog that covered the grey swirling waters below had also penetrated the dizzying heights of the cliffs, and despite their faith, and vows, many of the priests faltered in the depths of the forest, the sounds of moaning, and screams, echoing all around them. It was within the forest that the pregnant woman’s labour began. They rested little; they knew that they could ill afford for the baby to be born outside the designated prophesied site. They emerged from the forest, and saw their destination. Standing on the crest of a small hill they stared in awe at giant stone pillars, arranged in a large circular configuration that was clearly designed for the purpose of pagan rituals—although if that were the case, it had been many years since its last use, as the entire area was now overrun with waist-high ferns and shrubbery. The priests were by now carrying the pregnant girl, whose cries had become louder and more intense. The women within the group did their best to soothe her pain, with little success.
When they reached the stone circle they stopped, and one of the priests unfolded the embroidered cloth he had been carrying and laid if carefully on the stone slab in the centre. Then the priests who had been carrying the woman laid her on the sacred cloth. All the while, they chanted, their deep voices resonant and strong. As the priestesses went about the delivery of the baby, the priests systematically began lighting several decent fires around the thrashing girl. Within minutes, there was both a glow against the gloom, and a warmth against the supernatural cold. The oldest among them was a priestess named Bre. Her skills in
midwifery were without equal, so when the girl’s contractions were at their peak, she knew it was time, and nodded to the others. Bre motioned for the youngest priestess to assist her, and the remaining ten holy men and women linked hands and created a circle around the labouring woman, whose screams were louder and more pain filled. The priests swayed from side to side, their holy chanting echoing through the clearing. They sustained the chant for nearly an hour; despite the fatigue they all felt, the physical contact with one another made them strong.
A baby’s cry cut through the night, and the priests faltered for a split second, then continued with their ceremony, each one fully aware of the importance of their duties. Bre wrapped the tiny baby in a lamb’s wool blanket, then held it aloft. The young woman attempted to see what was happening, before she collapsed back onto the hard stone.
Bre, I fear for Freydis,’ the younger priestess hissed.
‘The Whiteraven woman is strong. You have nothing to fea . . . ’ Bre stopped in mid-sentence, as she glanced down, and saw the large pool of blood gathering under the newborn’s mother, and before she could respond an arrow appeared, protruding from the centre of her chest, mere inches from where she was holding the baby. She froze and stared at the fletchings; they were unusual: grey feathers, covered in small black flecks, with the tips a dark red, like blood. The younger priestess, who was too busy dealing with the bleeding girl, hadn’t noticed the reaction of Bre, until the older woman slumped to her knees next to her. It was
only then that the younger priestess realised the full gravity of the situation, and terrified, screamed loudly. All this happened
in seconds. The other holy men and women stirred from their ceremony. Figures cloaked in darkness sprang up from the surrounding ferns and rushed the stone altar. Over a dozen large bearded men dressed in heavy coarse pelts, the pelts of predatory animals, raced towards the centre of the ceremony. In their hands they carried large, crude swords, and battle axes, chipped and worn from years of battle. They were as silent as a morning breeze, and despite their obvious intentions, none of their number spoke.
Still reeling at the sight of Bre, the priests and priestesses were completely unprepared for what happened next. The barbarians descended on them; they were lambs to the slaughter. The carnage was swift and brutal. As the last priest from the circle fell, the barbarians held their positions and stared in towards the remaining three on the stone altar. The woman known as Freydis was ashen, her breathing quiet and faint, her cooling blood covering the rock on which she now lay. The young priestess was now clutching the newborn baby; her grip deathly tight, she watched in horror as one of the barbarians stepped forward. He was
larger than the others, both in height and muscle. He wore a bear’s skull that had been fashioned into a helmet, and as he approached he slowly removed it from his head. The priestess shuddered at what she saw beneath. The barbarian was much like the others: long dark ragged hair and beard, scars that criss-crossed the surface of his face. But what sent a chill of dread through the priestess’s face were the dead soulless eyes that stared hungrily at what she held tight to her chest.
The barbarian stood over the priestess with the large frightened eyes. He looked at the woman who had just given birth, and the copious amounts of blood that now covered her. If she wasn’t dead, she soon would be, the man thought. He returned his gaze towards the real reason for his being there. The newborn.
‘Give me the infant . . . and your death will be swift and painless,’ the barbarian growled. The barbarian held out a rough calloused hand. It was obvious that the priestess was scared, but she bit her lower lip and shook her head.
‘I’ll not ask again,’ he said.
‘Who are you? . . . What is your name?’ the priestess asked.
‘We are of the Skollreaver Clan. I am their King . . . Om, Bear Slayer,’ the barbarian said, and faster than the priestess could blink he removed his sword from its scabbard and sliced the air with its blade, his hand dropping back to his side when he was done. The priestess swallowed, the sound slow and wet, her eyes already growing dull as her head slid from its slender neck and hit the grassy ground with a dull thud. Om quickly stepped forward and retrieved the baby before the priestess’s arms released their
hold. Ignoring his kill, he peeled back the layers of cloth and stared down at the young baby within. Two young, innocent eyes stared back, one blue, the other red. Om smiled, and held the baby high in the air. The other barbarians banged their weapons noisily on shields and armoured chest plates in response.
After the barbarians had vacated the sacred ceremony site, the woman known as Freydis Whiteraven sat up and screamed. Despite her blood loss, fate was far from done with her, and for the second time that night, labour contractions racked her body. As she prepared to push, a weak hand grasped hers and whispered.
‘You are not alone.’
Freydis looked to her side and was surprised to see Bre, the older priestess. She still bore an arrow protruding from her chest, only an inch or two from her heart, but not enough to kill her . . . yet. Freydis’s labour was quicker than the last. She gave her all, even her life in the end. The baby was born silent. Bre feared the worst, but after inspecting the infant, she found no cause for alarm. The baby was a girl, quiet and thoughtful, and when she stared at Bre, the older woman gasped at the two different coloured eyes. One blue, the other green.
Ulrik Mace stared hard into the fire. Turid, his wife of ten years, was curled up next to him, wrapped tight in a blanket. Despite the decent fire he had set before them, the wind that blew tonight chilled them both to the bone. In fact, it was more than that, it felt ominous. He rubbed the pendant that hung around his neck, a tree shaped from bronze that was covered in runes, a symbol of Tyr, the god of the forest, hoping that the large bearded deity would protect them against any evil that dwelt within the darkness.
Ulrik placed a large calloused hand on his wife as the fire crackled, between the two he felt somewhat calmed. He began to drift off to slumber when the sound of a stick snapping in the distance roused him from sleep. Careful not to wake Turid, he slowly climbed to his feet, grasping his large iron warhammer in both hands. His eyes burned into the surrounding trees. Minutes ticked by. Ulrik cursed himself as a fool, and was just about to return to his place by the fire when another snap sounded somewhere before him. Whatever was out there was getting closer. He could now hear the rustle of bushes.
‘What is it?’ Turid hissed behind him. She had sensed
his absence and now knew that something terrible was upon them.
‘Keep quiet,’ he growled back. His attention now diverted, he was caught off guard as a shadowy figure staggered out of the tree line.
‘Stay thy ground,’ Ulrik commanded, his formidable hammer poised to strike.
‘Wait!’ Turid yelled. Ulrik froze as his wife pushed past him and caught the figure as it collapsed to the ground. It was an elderly woman. ‘Get her to the fire.’
Ulrik picked her up with ease, his massive frame half lifting, half dragging the woman to the nearby fire. It was at this moment that they saw her wounds, and what she had gripped tight within her arms.
‘It’s a baby,’ Ulrik whispered.
‘You . . . have to . . . help her,’ Bre said, her breath coming in ragged shudders, blood covering her mouth. Turid didn’t hesitate as she grabbed the small bundle and nursed it close to the flickering flames. ‘She’s in grave danger . . . ’
‘Ssshhh. You must save your energy,’ Ulrik instructed, but the old priestess shook her head and opened the front of her robe. Within, the jagged end of an arrow stuck out roughly from her sternum; dried blackish blood covered her skin and robe.
‘There is . . . no time for . . . me . . . you have to heed my warning . . . dark forces rally . . . against you . . . this girl . . . needs protecting . . . ’ Bre held a silver chain, and dangling from it a silver feather. Ulrik gently took it from her.
‘What does it mean?’ he asked, turning his gaze back to the woman, only to find her lifeless eyes staring back.
‘How is she?’ Turid asked.
‘She’s dead,’ Ulrik replied, indicating the woman.
‘What did she mean about dark forces?’ Turid asked.
‘I don’t know. She gave me this,’ Ulrik replied, and held the pendant up to the light of the fire, his expression one of confusion.
‘It looks like a bird’s feather,’ Turid said.
‘I think there’s writing on the back . . . but the letters are like nothing that I’ve ever seen before,’ Ulrik muttered.
‘What is this all about little one?’ Turid whispered softly, and ever so gently, she peeled back the blanket to
take a closer look. She gasped. ‘By Tyr . . . her eyes.’