by F. Charles Murdock and C.M. Galdre
Long before the day death shunned him, Beard was a modest child like any other, save that his station afforded him the crest of Thorgithe knowledge. From his father, King Bergrin the Knowing, and his father’s advisor, Brōg the Unknown, Beard learned the ways of the sword. To be king one day meant carrying a heavy blade and Bergrin was quick to teach his young son this lesson.
Training was difficult under the King, but far more so under Brōg who, over time, was elected by the king to be the boy’s mentor. Bergrin’s inner-circle consisted of men whom he trusted with his life, but above all was Brōg who’d saved the king’s life not once but thrice on the battlefields of Dethalān to the east during the Low Wars. Not much was known about the man, but taking three dozen bolts from a concentrated attack on Thorgithe’s King had earned the warrior Bergrin’s respect. For two days Brōg endured the removal of the bolts by the bloodsayers, on the third day he slept, and on the fourth Bergrin made him advisor in all things war. But the wars of old were over, and now Beard was where Brōg’s attention was focused.
For a Thorgithe child of four cycles, life was pleasant enough before he took to the course determined by the Seers after Malthorith. There were few lessons to be learned before the fifth cycle beyond mastering the common tongue and what was to be expected of a person once he was properly initiated into the tribe. This was not true for Beard, who was awoken every morning by a blow to his naked chest by Brōg with a length of dried hardroot. How quickly the boy gained his composure determined the course of his day -- that and how much he’d bled the night before. A normal day for the Beardling consisted of honing skills -- swimming, animal trapping, tracking, and survival among others -- while intermittently filling his mind with the great truths of life.
Between these, Brōg would surprise the boy with the ways of the warrior, which above all was how the boy earned his numerous injuries. No two days were ever the same and at the end of each, the young Beard had to will his exhausted body to sleep, to ignore the pain and give himself to the Dream Realm.
On those bad days, though (and there were countless many), Brōg wouldn’t hold back in the slightest. He would beat the boy mercilessly, his cold expression unchanged as Beard lay bloody and disheveled. How many times had the Beardling been dragged screaming to the edge of the Last Path? How many times had the Great Beyond beckoned him during those first grueling cycles? None could know.
So the Beardling trained, becoming proficient in all manner of weaponry, not only of Thorgithe origin, but much of the Southland’s as well. He excelled at a variety of survival skills and, thanks to Bergrin’s diligence, diplomacy among the Thorgithens. For their enemies -- as numerous as they were -- there would be no such tidings.
And thus Beard mastered the Learning Blade, a sword passed down through the generations to teach the most prodigious of Thorgithe warriors. Surely he would need it for what lie ahead because his thirteenth cycle was fast approaching and, with it, the Rite of Daemon Slaughter.
Twenty or so iles from the northern boundary shore of Thorgithe, on the far end of its fishing grounds, was a great cavern called Blēstdemnare in the old tongue, “the Blessed Damned” in the common. Within the thick quartz of its main shaft lived a colony of daemons that multiplied every dozen moons. Normally, a party of veteran warriors from the tribe would squelch the surge of daemons, but when it came time for a young Thorgithen’s Rite of Daemon Slaughter, the chore was given to them and them alone.
If they succeeded in crushing the flow of new daemons, they were made full warrior by Bergrin and given a seat at his Ovate Table in the Long Hall of Kgortel. If the tested perished or fled, they were tossed into the chasm at the heart of the great caldera Cōm-Labi and their name became pejorative among the Thorgithen, such as:
“Stop being such a sniveling Dreg and fetch me a draught of Ironbrew!”
This day marked the thirteenth anniversary of Wuthweirgen the Old Mother choosing Beard as her mankin in the most spectacular Malthorith since the days of Kgortel. He’d awoken early, already dressed in battle gear, that ancient Learning Blade in his steady, young hands. Now he stood at the lip of Blēstdemnare, his father and Brōg behind him, waiting to accept him into warriorhood... or to drag his mangled, disgraced body to the jaws of Com-Labi.
I sing a song of blood and bone, of ages long gone by When hunters hunted daemon things, and devils ruled the sky When men did carry three things needed, each a precious tool Silvered water, holly switch, and iron cold and cruel -Eowthen the Skald
At the mouth of Blēstdemnare, Beard’s long, cold blade gleamed in the frost winds of the northland morn. He closed his ice-rimmed eyes and listened over the wind. He could hear his brother by nurse-mother, Ierremod the Wild, wolf-god of the wind, howling through the sky. Beard steadied his breath, the Learning Blade held lightly in his sword arm: he could hear them beneath the din of his brother, the daemons crawling in the deep of the ancient cave. The sound of their hides both scaled and furred writhing in the powdered snow, their slavering mouths, their dripping talons, the dull growl of their bellies, and the sound of gristle chewed and snapping bone.
How many of his kinsmen had stood at this spot on the day of their thirteenth cycle, given a blade and told to go forth and slay to prove they were men of worth? How many had been dragged from the pit maimed and half-eaten, their entrails dragging behind them, staining the pure snow red? How many more had been found among the corpses of the daemons, alive but mad, chewing at their hands and feet, pulling at their hair, only to be cut down by their fathers’ blade and given a burial of half-honor? The men of the North were strong and it was by this rite that they weeded out those who would shame them, those who would become a burden in the hard winters, those who would quell at the sound of sword against sword and run from the field of battle that was the way of life beyond Turin’s Great Wall.
Beard grinned as he lifted the heavy Learning Blade, a sword older than the oldest kings, chipped where it had struck some daemon’s horn or tooth but had never broken. He turned it over in his hand, considering its balance, its length, and its thirst. This was not a subtle blade for stabbing between armored plates or gentle parries or piercing thrusts: more than anything the deeply grooved blood-channel that ran down the center of the blade spoke to that. This was a sword of slaughter.
Beard listened calmly as the daemons began to catch his scent upon the wind. They howled and growled within the deep, their horrid harmonic vocals rising to the the surface a fell mix of avian and reptilian with the slavering growl of a lean wolf mingling with all. The young warrior did not tremble as he pulled an oil cloth from his fat pouch and began to clean and grease the blade with rendered wolf fat. He dabbed lightly, using only as much as was needed to clean and oil the blade -- he knew more than most that this was sacred fat, smoked from a single dire wolf each cycle on holly boughs and divided amongst the greatest of warriors in the village. The daemons caught this scent as well and were driven by hunger into a fevered rage: this was no fatted child upon whom to dine, this was warriorling come to rip and rend.
His sword freshly oiled, Beard held the blade before him by the blunted edge that provides a second grip before the guard, blade down, hilt toward the sky. “I am a son of Thorgithe, I am a war-bringer, I am a bloodletter, and today I shall become a daemon-slayer and a man!” the boy bellowed into the cave. He drew his waterskin to his lips, taking a deep swig of the burning liquid within.
Firebrand is the strongest of the Northmen’s liquors. Poisonous in large amounts, it can bring a warrior back from the brink of death or fuel a berserker’s rage. Prized above all, however, is that the burning drink never freezes. As Beard felt its false warmth burn through his body, he brought the hilt of the ancient blade close to his lips and spit the sacred liquid in a mighty spray across the hilt, wetting the leather and the wood of the grip. The burning sensation filled his veins as he held the great sword by the grip once more, cutting deadly circles in the air. It whistled in the wind almost jovially as he headed into the darkness before him.
The air was thick in Blēstdemnare. Daemoniac miasma filled the entrance with the cloying smell of decay. Down into the darkness Beard traveled, the still-lit mouth of the cave at his back slowly growing darker, seeming to close with each step like a heavy-lidded eye slipping into sleep. The sounds that Beard had once strained to hear over the wind grew louder -- the scraping of scales, the pop and snap of unnatural sinews, the sound of talons sharpening against stone. He was so deep now that he could feel the heat of the daemons’ bodies, the light from the cave-mouth dwindled to a single pinpoint, and then darkness, heavy and malicious, surrounded him. Beard pulled a single evertorch from the bundle upon his back and struck the head of it against his blade. As the heavy iron crossed the flint-tip, the torch erupted into brilliant, amber light.
The evertorches of Thorgithe were legendary, sought out by the bravest of adventurers. They were made by the bone casters and soothsayers of the North, their oily heads infused with strange herbs and even stranger incantations so that they always lit on first strike, whether against metal or stone, and burned for hours in water, wind, and in places where no mortal fire could be lit. They seemed to flicker and burn to their own wind even in the stillest of air, and deadest of tombs, and so it was rumored that the fire lived on a different plane and only shared its light with the mortal realm.
Two more torches struck and Beard finished his triangle of protective light, while around him the darkness licked at its edges hungrily. Beard closed his eyes and controlled his breathing as he had been taught, how it had been struck into him. He was no ingot of iron full of potential, Beard was iron -- shaped, formed and tempered. He was a keen edge waiting for its first true cut.
He did not have to wait long.
The devil beasts threw themselves upon him all at once, all teeth and talons and hate. Their dark claws ripped at him, their scaled tails swung at him and their long horns tried to gore him, but each time Beard danced gracefully out of the way. No movement wasted, his balance never lost, he swung the Learning Blade in circles, daring the creatures to make a bolder move. The young warrior soon found his stride and decided to whet his blade on daemon flesh.
His body wound like the taut cord of a bow, he unleashed his blade in a swinging upward arc. It found home in the jaw of a daemon with the face of some forgotten lizard and did not stop till it had cleaved the thing’s head in two. It was a move both terrible and graceful and, from it, he swung the blade in a downward arc behind him, catching a boar-looking thing in its midriff and severing it at the spine. Each swing was graceful and controlled, each leading into the next strike, releasing the force behind it and winding Beard’s body back into the state of a southern viper poised to strike. For hours the Beardling danced his dance of death, the blade humming through the air, wet with the blood of daemons, finding home again and again, cutting through bone, and horn, and scale. The floor of the great cavern grew thick with coagulating blood and demoniac offal, some still twitching long after their ghosts had left them.
Beard stood alone in a circle of piled corpses, his body glistening with sweat beneath his furs, his breath spilling from his lungs in clouds of crystal. He could feel the blood on his hands freezing and slowing their movement. The young warrior took out his waterskin and poured the remaining Firebrand over his hands and blade, saving just a gulp to stave off the creeping cold in his veins. His grim work done, he turned from the darkness and began to head back to the cave mouth. He had not gone but two steps when, behind him, he heard the sound of stone scraping against stone, the cave filling with warm, orange light.
Beard turned slowly to see that the cave wall was gone from behind him. In its stead was a great stone door disguised as a natural rock wall lying open and behind it stood a long, paved road lit with strange purple torches that lead into a great city of strange scale and symmetry. Before the entrance of the grand and bizarre city, stood the thing that had opened the secret door. It was a giant, grotesque creature, a mockery of man and beast. Its lower body looked to be the hind quarters of an ox, bent oddly so that it stood on two feet. It had a tail too, long and scaled as the alligators of the southern lands beyond the black wall of Turin. Its torso was that of a well-muscled man but pockmarked and much scarred. Its arms were like a blacksmith’s, heavy and rippling but each turned from skin to scale and ending in a taloned, reptilian hand. The creature’s head was most disconcerting with great antlers like a stag, its face owl-like with great round eyes, its mouth that of some primeval bird of prey.
The beast had an aura of intelligence and in its left hand bore a great club that looked to once have been a tree, its roots worn smooth in a knot at the end, bloodstained and splintered from use. In its right hand, the great daemon swung an enormous brazier full of hot coals. Held like a flail at the end of a long bronze chain, it filled the cave with its hideous flickering orange light. “I am Bafal, son of Bahafut, King beneath the cave!” it boomed. “Long have your people slain my dark children. Cower and piss yourself, puny mortal! Today you face a daemon full-grown and not some stunted monstrosity left in the dark!”
With that, the daemon charged, smashing its mighty brazier into the ground where Beard had stood not moments before. The warrior had dodged, but by just enough to outpace the screaming hot cinders that burst forth from the mighty strike. Then the daemon reared and made a sweeping strike with his mighty club tree and would have killed Beard where he stood had he not swiftly dodged between the thing’s legs.
Beard did not hesitate and, with all his force, struck up with his bright blade at the vitals between the giant daemon’s legs. Bafal turned and Beard’s sword found home only in the inner thigh of the creature, but still the keen blade managed to strike a major vein.
The daemon screamed as pitch-black blood ran from the wound into the deep blood channel of the blade. Beard dodged as the daemon stomped lamely at the ground, trying to flush the Beardling out from under him, but Beard would not be so easily moved. The young warrior swiftly stepped aside from a crashing hoof and judged where the hamstring of such a creature would be. He made quick work with his blade and was rewarded as the creature’s calf rolled up beneath its skin, cut loose from the tether that had held it to the bone. The hobbled beast, wounded gravely in each leg, fell to the ground, its burning brazier beneath it. Soon the daemon was in flames, writhing in the agony of burning alive. Beard remembered the lesson beaten into him by his swordmaster, Brōg: an injured hart should not be left to suffer. And so Beard raised his heavy blade and brought it down on the daemon’s neck, severing it clean from its perch. Cold and battle-weary, Beard turned to leave the cave, but the strange city beckoned him, its soft purple lights seeming to warm him and he suddenly wished more than anything to see what sights laid within.
He entered the vast city, his hands still covered in the black blood of his foe. As he walked, windows shuttered shut and music that he seemed to be getting near faded away. The buildings were all of irregular shape and size, some with wide, low doors and others that towered above the buildings around them. All of the structures were made of some strange ivory-white material, hard and cool, but warm as well. It appeared to be workable into any shape one desired; even the streets were paved with it.
The road Beard walked was straight and level; it did not appear to be stained with use and did not have the ruts and the curves that he had seen in the ancient paved roads that stretch out from Turin’s Wall. After a time, he reached the heart of the city and a great citadel stood before him with great indigo-stained doors, bright against the white of the walls. Upon the doors were two bronze rings with great white ropes dangling down from them to the ground where they each ended with a decorative knot and golden tassel. Beard grabbed both ropes and wound them round his sturdy frame.
Though a boy of a mere thirteen cycles, Beard’s hard days of constant training had turned his body into an iron engine of strength. His sinews strained and rippled beneath his skin as he planted his feet and pulled with all his strength. There the cords grew taut and the massive rings rose away from the doors as Beard swore and gritted his teeth under the strain, his legs shaking with the effort of opening the mighty doors. A lesser being may have tried to open a single door, concentrating his effort on a single rope and hinge, but the Beardling was no lesser thing: he had suckled at the teat of a god. If these doors were to open, they were meant to be opened both at once. And thus the doors creaked and slowly gave way to the stubbornness of the young northman.
The young warrior sighed and released his grip on the ropes, his hands now rough and bleeding, his wet red blood mingling with the dried black blood of Bafal. A sudden warm breeze billowed from between the opened doors. It told tales that tugged at the boy’s heart, smelling of lavender and honey, scents from foreign lands and warmer climates that Beard only knew from the strongwood boxes the women of Thorgithe keep locked away, hidden in cupboards and beneath bed furs.
Beard entered the citadel like a man possessed. Perhaps he was, enchanted by the beguiling breeze. The building was vast and empty, a spiral stair circled to the highest tower and all around where lanterns of blown glass containing alluring oils and strange purple flame. Up and up Beard climbed until he heard a voice like the twinkling of starlight and the roar of thunder all in one. It was musical and dangerously feminine and it drew him to a room high above all the rest, one filled with pillows and cushions and furs, all as white as the purest driven snow. Here, too, the strange purple lanterns shed their exotic light, but in this room they were not chained and hanging, instead they floated of their own volition, lazily as if they danced in a breeze unfelt and unseen.
There was but one thing that caught the Beardling’s eye: stretched out upon the whitest fur, hidden only partially by gossamer curtains, lay the most stunning creature Beard had ever seen. His gaze was first drawn to her dazzling eyes, almond-shaped with long black lashes, each thick and wet with unearthly dew. Such eyes Beard had never seen before in his life, each of the deepest blue and speckled with starlight. No white pupils or irises had they, but formed of solid color, but one could tell where she looked by which way the dazzling lights within moved. She wore an amused grin like she was born making it, her thin and angled brows cocked and curious. Her hair was black as a night without stars or moon... no, it was deeper than any black fathomed by mere mortal men. It seemed that light itself could not escape its unnatural hue. It was then Beard saw the telltale signs: two horns growing from her perfect skull, each shaped as those of the Greymount Rams, curling back over her head and around till point was facing front once more, just beneath her slightly pointed ears. Her skin was of a dusky hue, neither purple nor gray but a bit of both and it contrasted perfectly with the white robe clasped in silver she wore of draped satin that poured over her perfect form. Her limbs were slender, her fingers nimble like those of a seamstress but soft and without blemish. Beard was surprised and much relieved to see that she had feet to match, not hooves, but slender with dainty toes. So the Beardling stood agog before the perfect creature, his senses dulled by the heavy perfumes that filled his lungs and the vision that filled his sight.
“A Manling? How is it that a Manling who smells of sweat and blood has stumbled his way into my chambers?” the demoness breathed, her voice twinkling and dangerous. Beard could not seem to form words, his violent acts seeming far behind. Now infinite possibilities seemed before him. He could only manage to lift his blood-stained hands.
“Ah,” the creature giggled, “so you have slain my husband-king?” Her words seemed to leave an unpleasant flavor within her mouth for she spat the last word full of venom.
“If the thing known as Bafal was your husband then, yes, I have slain him. His head lies at the hidden door waiting for me to carry it home to my father’s. It shall anoint his hall,” Beard replied and his chest swelled with pride, though he knew better than to brag about killing this woman’s man. But something stirred inside him and compelled him more than his mind.
“You are injured?” the demoness inquired, her voice seeming full of honest concern. Beard stepped forward and, in the light, saw that his bleeding hands were now swelling and cracked with black infection from the unholy blood that tainted them. “I can heal them, if you would come forward.” The woman writhed within the cushions, not an unpleasant vision, but Beard took a step back just the same.
“Afraid I might bite?” the demoness grinned. Her teeth were white as snow, some looking to be as sharp as daggers. Despite his better judgment, Beard walked closer to the woman and stood at her feet, his hands stretched out before him. The demoness smiled and said “you will have to come closer than that. I am not entirely at my own liberty.”
It was then that Beard saw the translucent chains wrapped round her delicate ankles and wrists, some bind of sorcery, invisible at a distance, but now, closer, he could see the pearlescent shackles in the soft purple light. Beard knelt beside the bound demoness. The demon-woman raised her shackled hands to his and cupped his dying hands gently. She closed her eyes and breathed a single word upon his hands and the sweet scent of her breath sent Beard into the dreamlands.
Before Beard’s eyes, a vision unfolded, the type that makes men move to the wilds and become ascetics, drinking draughts of poisoned tea, and flagellating themselves into a painful stupor. Beard saw the birth of the world and the dawning of its creatures and its peoples. He saw then the old races of which the demoness was a remnant. He saw those who were fair-faced and strong-limbed, beautiful and haughty, he saw how they scorned the old gods and how the gods struck them down and cursed them through the male line. Children born of a demon-sire would be twisted, hateful things, all limbs and talons, fangs and scales, born in wretched litters like hellish pups that turned upon their mothers after being born.
The proud race faded with only the wickedest willing to sacrifice their women to continue their horrid line, and ever more the demonesses running to human arms, the youthful men of the younger race bearing no curse and giving birth to children of unearthly beauty. Many of the old heroes of men were secret sons and daughters of the union of demoness and mortal men. The last pure demon-lords became wizards and warlocks and the occasional adventurer, but all lived reclusive, celibate lives and those demonesses that did not escape to human arms were used to make daemon armies and subjected to twisted experiments to make half daemon-demon hybrids to be lords of the underrealms.
He saw the birth of wicked Bafal, a son of such a hybrid beast. Beard saw how each cycle Bafal went on a great hunt to find a new bride to spawn his daemon children, how each cycle his slave wife would bear a wicked litter to fill the cave in the hopes of raising an army to expand his sphere of influence, and how each cycle he needed a wife anew to replace the one that’d died in beast-birth. He saw the face of the demoness before him as she was captured and dragged into the high, pillowed room and forced to watch as they removed her predecessor’s remains not days before.
The northman woke, his eyes full of tears, and his heart cried out at the injustice that had befallen all the fair demon-women that had come before (and would have befallen the woman that now cradled his head to her scented breast). Beard looked down to his hands and saw they were healed anew and that all the fatigue and weariness from the slaughter before was gone. He stood then and drew the Learning Blade from its sheath and the demoness cowered as he drew it high above his head. With all the fury within his veins and all the control Brōg had instilled in him, he struck at the phantom chains that bound his healer to the wretched room. The old blade shook violently with each strike like a massive tuning fork used to detect imperfections in iron shipments... even the sound was similar. The breaking of enchantment was like the resounding of the massive bells kept in the warning-towers along the Black Wall. The very air shook with the resonance of the unmaking of the spell.
When the deed was done, Beard glistened with sweat anew for breaking enchantment with iron and will alone is a feat not easily done. He staggered as all his strength left him and, in an instant, he fell forward into the demoness’ open arms. She held him then within her arms and whispered in his ear: “My name is Vel’Naren, I give it to you freely as I do my very soul.”
Vel'Naren by Alexandra Douglass
What transpired then between those two within that forgotten tower? What little is known is this; That when he left her, she and he spoke few words and, as he left the shining citadel, he saw that the glamorous city had, in fact, been a vision fueled by Vel’Naren’s glamour, drawn forcibly from her through the wicked pearlescent chains. With those chains long broken, he saw that only the citadel was real or, perhaps, Vel’Naren kept it up of her own accord for a while before she planned to leave that place.
All the same, Beard walked back to the hidden door through the rubble of a normal cave and came out to see his father and Brōg stunned at his appearance. He was no boy of thirteen cycles that stood before them, but a man now fit and in his prime, heavily muscled and with a full and luxurious beard.
Beard by Alexandra Douglass
When Beard recounted his tale to his father and mentor, the two concluded that he had spent at least five cycles in demon-time, and were very interested in the histories and origins of the creatures known as daemons and the noble demons from which they were spawned. The two men noted too that Beard now wore a silver ring of curious work upon his left hand, and all that knew his tale were curious about it, but he would say nothing on the matter. As time went on, the ring seemed to fade in substance or, rather, it became difficult for all but Beard to see. But all still knew of Beard’s famous demon ring, and on evenings when the sun shone through the storming sky and turned the horizon all shades of purple and grey, they saw Beard then, fidgeting with his ring, smiling, the scent of lavender and honey all around him.