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Chapter II - Hermod

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When the first hint of sunlight streamed into his bedroom, Hermod awoke. As he’d done every day for the past decade, he dragged himself from bed and splashed his face with hot water from a washbasin set out by one of his housekeepers. Diverting his eyes from the mirror, he wiped off the water, but the gray hairs running along the side of his head caught his attention. Although the rest of his hair remained as black as ever, the gray streaks were a constant reminder of his many years. He allowed himself one last glare at the mirror before putting on a set of rugged leather pants, a heavy shirt, and a pair of mud-caked boots.
He headed down to the kitchen, looking forward to his usual meal, but the dining table was empty. The cook cowered in the corner of the room, her head turned away. On the back of her neck the remnants of a lashing, long since healed, peeked out from beneath her shirt.
“Where’s my breakfast?” asked Hermod.
“I’m sorry, my lord,” said the cook. “An animal raided the pantry last night and I don’t have meat this morning.”
Her gaze remained fixed on the floor as her body trembled.
“Then bring me porridge and a biscuit,” said Hermod, “and make haste. I have much work today.”
The cook grew red in the face as she flashed him a meek smile and scurried about the kitchen gathering oats, water, and spices.
“Isn’t the harvest complete?” she asked, stirring the ingredients over an open fire.
“I believe so,” said Hermod, watching her spoon the mixture into a bowl, “but there’s more to be done.”
“You have enough farmhands to tend the crops, let alone some empty fields. Why don’t you rest today?”
She set the bowl, along with a freshly buttered biscuit and a mug of strong cider, on a tray in front of Hermod.
“I refuse to become one of those sedentary landowners growing fat in their mansions. How better to keep up my strength than through hard labor?”
“I suppose.”
“The harvest feast is approaching,” he said, savoring a mouthful of oatmeal. “Please prepare a few special dishes that I haven’t tasted since I was a lad.”
“What about the traditional foods?”
“Tradition can wait for next year. I crave something different now.”
After finishing the simple yet satisfying breakfast, he hopped onto his horse, already waiting for him by the front door. His mansion rested atop a small hill overlooking an impressive set of farmlands, but Hermod didn’t take pleasure in the grand view. He galloped to his southern fields, barren except for a few lone stalks of wheat and an old farmer who’d served under several masters during his long life on the farm.
“My lord, what brings you to these fields?” the farmer called out in a slightly nervous tone. “The wheat’s been harvested already.”
“Don’t worry, old man.” Hermod left his horse to graze and strolled to middle of the field. “I wanted to inspect my lands and could think of no better guide than you.”
“Your predecessor hated visiting the fields,” said the old farmer, stretching his neck to look up at Hermod’s face. “The master would only venture from his luxurious home when one of us made a mistake and he intended to bring us under the whip. To receive a compliment was unheard of.”
“I’ve heard rumors of his strict schedule, and I also heard he was never short in a harvest. Last year, many of our farmhands came down with spotted disease. Perhaps if I weren’t so lenient, our harvest wouldn’t have suffered.”
The old farmer gave him a questioning look. “But our harvest from the year before was more than enough to make up for the shortage, and the illness didn’t claim a single life. I prefer your method of motivation.”
Hermod followed him across the empty wheat field. Occasionally the old farmer pulled up a stalk and inspected it.
“Look carefully for signs of disease or infestation. Early detection of a problem is the best way to ensure a successful growing season.”
“And what do you see in this field?”
Hermod wondered how he would have survived as a fledgling farmer if it weren’t for him. Over the past several years, he’d come to regard the old man as both a mentor and a surrogate father.
“This wheat is strong. With the favorable weather this past summer, we’ve taken a good crop.”
“You may share the excess harvest with the other villagers.”
“A generous gift, my lord,” said the farmer, lowering his head.
“You needn’t bow to me. These lands belong to you as much as any other man.”
“Excepting my lord, of course. The king granted them to you in honor of your…”
“Yes, yes, I know,” said Hermod. “My brave service to the kingdom.”
As a young warrior, Hermod had been fearless, strong, and intelligent. Believing himself to be invincible, he made it so through his actions. He survived every one of his numerous quests without injury, a feat unmatched in history. He also thought he’d never grow old, but even he could do nothing to stop the flow of time.
As the years passed, thoughts of injury crept into his mind. At first, he wondered if he’d sustain some kind of wound during his next battle. Then he considered the possibility of losing a limb to a more skilled swordsman. Finally, he questioned his own mortality. His reflexes slowed, his mind wandered, and eventually he couldn’t fight anymore.
Hermod had seen his last battle and informed King Cyllin of his decision. He retired with a body free of scars, a rarity among veterans, and received a large parcel of land from the king as a reward for his years of loyalty.
When he passed one of the last remaining stalks of wheat, he pulled it from the ground and held its golden stem in both hands. Mimicking the old farmer’s actions, he checked it closely for signs of disease, but before letting it go, he swung it from side to side.
“You should take up the sword again,” said the farmer. “Though your body wears the trappings of a farmer, your mind knows it belongs elsewhere.”
Hermod let go of the wheat and ran his fingers through his patch of gray hair.
“I think not,” he said. “The life of a warrior is for the young and adventurous.”
The old farmer laughed, drawing a stern look from Hermod.
“Forgive me, Master, but if you’re not adventurous, then I’m not a farmer.”
“You’re definitely a farmer, but I’m not young anymore.”
Hermod held his hand up at the faint sound of galloping hooves.
“Someone approaches,” he said.
In the distance, a horse and rider rushed toward the mansion. The king’s standard flapped in the wind above his head.
“A royal messenger,” said the old farmer. “I’ve never seen one before.”
“Fetch my horse,” said Hermod, dashing to intercept the visitor. Seeing the lone rider, he feared the worst.
The messenger came to a sudden halt.
“Good sir,” he called out. “King Cyllin requires your assistance at the castle.”
“From the look of your horse, you’ve made the long trip without a break,” said Hermod, relieved that the king still lived. “This must be an urgent matter.”
“We’ve been invaded. War is at hand. You mustn’t delay.”
Hermod jumped onto his own horse and raced to the south.
“Give this messenger a fresh mount,” he called out, “and see to the planting of the winter crop.”
“Don’t forget your sword!” the old farmer yelled back.
 
Hermod couldn’t believe how dramatically Castle Cyllin had changed. Knights and war advisors had replaced artisans and performers, soldiers had stripped the colorful banners from the walls, and food was rationed in expectation of a prolonged siege. Even the throne room was different from before, cold and efficient instead of cozy and inviting.
“The Ferfolk have been advancing at an even pace, despite considerable resistance from our men,” said Mathon. The wizard’s voice echoed off the chamber’s bare walls.
“Why do they attack us relentlessly?” Cyllin slumped into a large chair with his head in his hands. “Have I offended the gods?”
“The thaumaturgist says you haven’t, but he couldn’t divine anything more about the Ferfolk’s motives. We must capture some of them to learn the truth.”
“They defend their wounded as ferociously as they forge into our territory,” said the king. “It’ll be difficult to take any of them alive.”
“I should lead the remaining knights on such a quest,” said Hermod. “Yet…if I take them with me, the castle would be left unprotected.”
“You must stay here until we receive word from our messengers,” said the king. “Has there been any response from Tharain?”
“We’ve heard nothing as of this morning,” said Mathon. “I assume none of them made it through the blockade. I’ll summon another…”
The wizard stopped when a battered knight barged into the room. His armor was in shreds, he was bleeding from wounds on his arms and legs, and swelling on his upper cheek had forced his left eye shut. He knelt before the king.
“Sire, the battle’s lost. Our warriors can’t hold back the Ferfolk. They’ll surround the castle by nightfall.”
“Have the wizards had any success?” asked Mathon.
“The Ferfolk can withstand their direct attacks,” said the knight. “Illusions fool them for a while, but they find ways to overcome the deception.”
Mathon put his hand on the injured knight’s shoulder. “Call your men back to defend the castle. Gather everyone you can and bring them here. We’ll make our final stand within these walls.”
The knight looked to the king for confirmation, but Cyllin only groaned.
“This castle has withstood many sieges in the past,” said Hermod. “Yet…with such a large army at our gates, we might need help to prevail.”
“Mathon, bring my summoning staff,” said the king, “and send one final messenger to Tharain before our gates are sealed.”
The wizard motioned for a servant to carry out the orders.
 
In the seven days since the Ferfolk had set up their encampment around the castle, they hadn’t allowed a single person through their ranks. Hermod stood at a window in the upper tower, gazing at an enemy that covered the land. Imprisoned, the remaining inhabitants of the castle had no food or water other than their dwindling supplies.
“Our walls have held against the Ferfolk so far,” said Hermod. “Yet…without aid from Tharain, the end of the siege draws near.”
King Cyllin stepped beside him at the window. “Although I regret being unable to protect my people from these monsters, I’m afraid the Ferfolk won’t end their rampage after their victory here. It’s our duty to aid our brothers to the east. We can’t allow the Ferfolk to take them by surprise, as they did us. You must warn the other kingdoms of the danger. Convince them to join and put an end to this invasion.”
“Wouldn’t it be wise to send another?” asked Hermod. “It’s my duty to protect you.”
“Messengers have already been sent, but they haven’t reached our allies. King Tharain lives far to the northeast, but enough time has passed for him to have received word and sent aid. You must escape this castle and avenge the death of our kingdom!”
“Mathon can fly,” said Hermod. “Wouldn’t that be the quickest way to reach Tharain?”
The wizard agreed with a nod. “It will take me little time to prepare.”
“No,” said Cyllin. “Mathon, skilled as he is, can’t stay aloft the entire distance. Besides, you’re known throughout the lands. Anyone else, including Mathon, could be mistaken for a spy. The other kings are cautious of strangers, but they’ll listen to what you say no matter how unbelievable.”
“I was a hero in a past life,” said Hermod. “Yet…that was many years ago. People have short memories.”
“It’s more likely the legends about you have grown rather than diminished.”
“I’m neither legend nor warrior,” said Hermod. “I’m nothing more than a farmer, an old man who hasn’t touched a sword in years.”
Cyllin grabbed his shoulders and stared into his eyes. “You’re still the same hero you once were. You must persuade the other kingdoms to fight together. Alone, they’ll be crushed.”
“I should stay and assist the knights who risk their lives to defend this castle.” Hermod’s gaze moved between the king and the window. “Yet…our allies should be warned of this threat. They’ve protected our border in the past.”
Hermod fingered the streak of gray in his hair. Endless lines of Ferfolk surrounded the tower. The enemy seemed invincible. Several of their legions hadn’t seen battle, whereas every man in the kingdom, from peasant to knight, had already been involved in some aspect of the war.
He knew Cyllin spoke the truth. If he didn’t persuade the other four kingdoms to fight as one, they’d fall under the might of the Ferfolk.
“I’ll do as you ask,” he said, “but how can I escape the castle? We’re surrounded by thousands of Ferfolk.”
“Leave that to me,” said a disheveled wizard dressed in a yellow robe.
The illusionist stepped forward and pulled a small piece of leather from his pocket. “Four of our bravest men died to retrieve this patch of Ferfolk skin. We’re placing much faith in you, Hermod. You must find the hero of old within and put an end to this invasion.”
The wizard held the skin over Hermod’s head and sang, “Bodig awendan, hiw hwierfan.”
As the illusionist chanted his spell, the piece of skin shrank to nothing while Hermod’s appearance transformed into that of a Ferfolk. His skin hardened until it was the consistency of leather, his muscles grew more pronounced, and he gained a few inches on his tall frame.
“This disguise is temporary,” said the illusionist. “Don’t tarry here.”
“It’s too late to save the kingdom,” said Cyllin. “But we must do whatever we can to help our brethren. Mathon, how many wizards still live?”
“We three are all that remain, unless the Wizard Council responds to my summons.”
The king pushed Hermod away from the window. “Go now, and make haste. It’ll take time for you to convince the others of the danger. We’ll delay the Ferfolk for as long as possible. Let’s hope these walls can stand a bit longer.”
Hermod bounded down the tower stairs, carrying a carefully wrapped bundle nearly six feet in length. He darted from room to room along the outer wall of the castle. To the south, swarms of warriors guarded the gates, and to the north, even more Ferfolk awaited their orders. Hermod had to escape without drawing their attention, and although he trusted his disguise, he doubted his ability to explain a lone Ferfolk exiting peacefully from the besieged castle.
Eventually, he came to a window on the northeastern side overlooking a small pond where two guards were distracted by a game of rocks. This was his only chance. Hermod threw his package into the pond, took a huge breath, and leapt down, hoping the water would be deep enough to break his fall. He landed with a great splash and followed the cloth bundle to the bottom of the pond.
After retrieving his gear, he swam without surfacing. His lungs ached from the lack of oxygen by the time he reached the far end. When his head emerged from the water, he gasped for air and turned to the guards. They ignored him as they argued over a bet, their words turning into blows.
He shook himself off and peeled back the cloth from the bundle, uncovering a shining sword. The blade was straight and narrow, tapering to a point in its last few inches. The handle, still wrapped in the same leather he’d used on his final quest, welcomed his grip. He ran a finger along the edge of the weapon, recalling the numerous battles they’d fought together. Even after so many years, he remembered every detail as if it were yesterday. The ten years since he’d traded his sword for a plow might have been a dream except for the gray hairs reflected in the metal. With no time to linger on memories, he sheathed the weapon on his back and focused on the present.
Needing a strong horse, he jogged toward the center of the encampment, wondering how long his disguise would last and whether he’d be able to converse with the Ferfolk. To his relief, the enemy warriors paid little attention to him.
He traveled undetected through their ranks until he found a few horses tied together behind a makeshift fence. Some he recognized as belonging to his king, but the others had fuller manes, longer tails, and thinner legs. He loosened the rope, mounted the largest of the unfamiliar horses, and was just about to trot away when a burly Ferfolk approached.
“Why are you on that horse?” the guard yelled.
Fortunately, Hermod understood the words, although the guard spoke with a peculiar accent. “My orders are…to scout the surrounding area.”
The guard marched closer and studied Hermod. “Get down from there.”
As Hermod slid off the horse, his hand rose to his sword. His eyes shifted left and right as he formed an alternate plan of escape, hoping this wouldn’t be an untimely end to his quest. There were only a handful of warriors in the area; fighting his way out would be difficult but not impossible.
“Nobody rides that horse but Quendrax,” said the guard.
“Forgive me.” Hermod bowed as he lowered his hand. “I’ve only seen…Quendrax…riding it from afar.”
“I should deliver you straight to him, but you seem to be new in this legion. The next time you touch his horse, you’ll lose your hand.”
The guard slapped one of the horses captured from the humans. “Use this filthy beast for your scouting mission.”
Hermod jumped onto the smaller horse and rode into the forest, his heart pounding.
 
Ishum, senior lieutenant in the Ferfolk army, approached his commander cautiously. He knew Quendrax was in a bad mood, but he had news that might lift the commander’s spirits.
“We have the castle surrounded,” he said, “and their food supply has been cut off.”
The leader of the Ferfolk army stared at Castle Cyllin with his eyes wide open, as if he were trying to bring the structure down with his thoughts alone. He stroked his chin with a callused hand that had seen more battles than most of the older veterans combined.
Quendrax was big even by Ferfolk standards, a requirement for becoming a commander but insufficient to guarantee his success. Unlike his predecessors, who thought only of assembling great wealth for themselves, Quendrax had a grander vision for the future: to bring his people out of the wilderness and into the land of paradise. Ishum was proud to serve under a leader with such foresight.
This quest would prove Quendrax the greatest hero the Ferfolk had ever known. With promises of abundant food and an easier life, he overcame his people’s reluctance to leave their homes and guided them through the unforgiving desert without a single death.
“The walls of this castle mock me,” said Quendrax. “They deny me my well-deserved prize.”
“If we hold our position,” said Ishum, “it won’t be long before they starve to death within those walls or open the gates to attack.”
“I refuse to wait even a short time. I’ll see this castle destroyed by the end of the day. Release a behemoth.”
“Shouldn’t we keep the beasts hidden until their power is necessary? The less the humans know about us the better.”
“We’ve been through enough battles together for you to know when to question my judgment. This castle taunts me and must be removed immediately.”
Ishum put his fists together and called out to Namtar, the youngest and most ambitious of the Ferfolk lieutenants. “Bring forth a behemoth, and take down the southern wall of the castle. Quendrax demands a swift end to this siege.”
Namtar, only a few steps away, grinned until his bone helmet slipped over his eyes. The young lieutenant pushed the helmet back, revealing a shaved head dominated by a tattoo of crossed swords. The bloodied tips of the two blades pointed at his eyes.
He disappeared into the forest and returned a few minutes later with an extra spring in his step. Behind him, six Ferfolk handlers wheeled an enormous cage, leaving deep ruts as it rolled along the road, a sign of the tremendous weight it bore. Within the cage, the behemoth slept peacefully, unperturbed by the bumpy ride.
Looking like a cross between a tortoise and a ferret, the creature had a hard, bony shell protecting an elongated body. Each of its legs ended in a set of claws strong enough for digging through the tough soil of the badlands. Two tiny eyes were set back in its flattened head beneath a pair of pointed ears.
The steel bars of the cage seemed no more than twigs compared with the beast’s powerful body. The Ferfolk smiths had obviously built the cages for transportation rather than restraint.
Namtar directed the handlers forward, keeping in step with the gigantic cage. When Quendrax nodded at him, the young lieutenant gave the order to release the behemoth. Showing no fear, he stood in front of the cage while two of his men opened the door. The remaining four Ferfolk prodded the beast with long spears. The metal tips of the weapons clanged against the creature’s armor plating, eventually waking it from its slumber.
The behemoth lifted its head and looked around, ignoring the jabs by the sharp weapons. It stepped out of the cage and ambled toward the southern wall of the castle, guided by the Ferfolk spearmen. Namtar stood in front of the procession, proudly leading the beast to the castle.
 
“Look at that creature,” said Cyllin. “It’s more than a match for a full-grown dragon.”
“It’s like nothing I’ve read about,” said Mathon. “Even the legends of the Ferfolk don’t speak of such beasts, but I doubt it could overcome an adult dragon.”
“A juvenile one, then,” said the king.
A volley of arrows flew from the castle wall. The slender weapons bounced off the behemoth’s armor plating, but the Ferfolk handlers backed out of the arrows’ range.
“Allow me,” said Mathon, replacing Cyllin in front of the window. Pulling out his small tinderbox, he chanted, “Brond maest, lig ent.”
A thin line of fire shot from his fingertips at the behemoth and exploded into an inferno. The creature roared, more in anger than in pain, shook it off, and continued its march with only a tiny discoloration where the fire had touched its back.
Mathon fell to his knees. That spell was powerful enough to fell a giant, and it had barely slowed the creature.
“The beast might very well be able to hold its own against a dragon,” he said.
“I have no choice but to summon the Earth Spirit,” said Cyllin.
“Sire, you don’t have the strength,” said the illusionist. “The spell’s too demanding.”
“It’s our only hope to stop the beast. We have to give Hermod enough time to reach Tharain.”
Cyllin grabbed his summoning staff and chanted the words to call forth an earth spirit. As he sang in a weak voice, the earth trembled around the behemoth. The ground bulged, and a column of dirt and stones rose into the air, forming the spirit’s massive arms and body.
A shout of hope rang though the upper reaches of the tower. Several archers launched their arrows at the Ferfolk with renewed energy, forcing them to retreat farther from the castle wall.
The behemoth rose onto its hind limbs, raised its front legs high into the air, and swung down on the still-forming Earth Spirit with tremendous force. The resulting explosion shook the castle walls. Dirt and rocks flew everywhere. The behemoth claimed its victory with another booming roar that drowned out the cheers from the castle.
Inside the tower, Cyllin screamed and fell to the floor. Mathon jumped to his side, but it was too late. The king’s old body was unable to survive the trauma.
The elementalist pulled himself up to the window and chanted another spell, causing the debris near the behemoth to rise into the air and circle the beast. As the small rocks flew around, they merged with one another and grew larger. Finally, a whirlwind of boulders pounded against the creature, which pulled in its head and legs for protection.
Some of the stones broke against its armor shell and others hit it with a thud and fell to the ground, but none of them caused any discernible damage. When the spell had abated, the behemoth took two more lumbering steps forward and destroyed the southern wall with a single thrust of its gargantuan body. Mathon felt as though the last few of his brown hairs had turned white with the effort before he fell unconscious.
 
Hermod stopped his horse on a hill overlooking the battlefield. He peeked over his shoulder just when the behemoth tore open the wall.
“No!” he shouted, prodding his horse into a gallop toward the castle. He had to save the king, but in his mind, he clearly heard Cyllin’s pleading words: You must persuade the other kingdoms to fight together. Alone, they’ll be crushed.
Hermod stared in sorrow at the breached wall. With a sigh, he turned his horse toward the kingdom of Tharain, vowing that he’d prevail against the invaders at any cost.
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