The Long Retreat No. 3

Hrothgar grunted his agreement and turned toward the road to the north gate.

“Wait,” Alfhilde said, and Hrothgar turned, an eyebrow raised. “Not the main road, if they’re in the city. Sif, do you know the back ways? Can you take us to the northern gate quickly, and out of sight?”

“Probably,” Sif replied. She looked to Falthejn for confirmation.

“Lead on,” he said.

 

They made their way through side streets and alleyways, wooden buildings towering over the cramped passages. Piles of rubble and burnt-out buildings showed the targets of ontlig catapults and siege magic. Every now and again, war cries sounded above the dying groans of the city, as groups of ontr happened upon something which goaded them to attack, though Falthejn doubted there were that many living men left in the city.

They came to the gate along a narrow alleyway parallel to the main road. Falthejn waved for caution before they came to the alley’s mouth, and as he’d guessed they might, the ontr had posted a few guards by the gate, big examples of their kind. That made them smarter than the average rabble, and unlikely to be easily tricked.

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The Long Retreat No. 2

“Are you sure?” Hrothgar began. “I was—”

“—among the last working south of the city, yes.” Falthejn made a dismissive gesture. “We have some few minutes yet.” Petty predictions such as that were little more than lodge hall tricks, as far as divining went, but in this case, a lodge hall trick had made his point well. Hrothgar shifted nervously from foot to foot, but remained quiet.

Minutes passed, and evening passed into twilight. A sudden grinding of stone caught Falthejn’s attention. On the south wall, a tower, abandoned by now, yielded to the ontlig catapults. Half of it sloughed away, tumbling down the inner face of the wall to add to the pile of debris at its foot. Falthejn watched a moment longer, then said, “We must go.”

At the same time, Alfhilde pointed down a narrow alley to their left. “Look!”

A dirty-faced girl in boy’s clothes sprinted toward them, putting on a further turn of speed as she registered their presence. She came nearer, and skidded to a stop a few yards off, breathing hard.

“What is your name?” Falthejn said. “Are you alone?”

The girl eyed the sword sheathed at Falthejn’s side. Her eyes went wide as she saw the blood drying on Alfhilde’s hatchet.

“We aren’t going to hurt you,” Alfhilde said. “We’re leaving the city. You have to come with us. It isn’t safe to say. What’s your name?”

“Sif,” she said, still keeping her distance. “The others—” A deep breath turned into a sob, and she grew quiet for a long moment. “we were hiding, but the monsters found us, and we ran, and…” She trailed off, and looked between Falthejn and Alfhilde with tears rimming her eyes. “I don’t think anyone else is coming.”

Falthejn held her gaze. For a moment, no words came. “I’m sorry,” he said, with all the gentleness he could muster. “We have to leave now, if we intend to leave at all.”

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The Long Retreat No. 1

The sun sank low over the western horizon. As the shadows deepened, the fires raging across the city blazed brighter. Falthejn Arnarsson watched a moment, convinced it was no trick of the light. A moment later, the fires swirled, swelling thirty yards high, doubtlessly under the direction of an ontlig shaman. The firestorm spat dozens of tongues of flame, kindling new blazes no more than a hundred yards from Falthejn, then blew itself out.

He resisted the urge to tap his foot. His visions had been maddeningly unclear, but he was sure enough that there were survivors, two groups which would find him here shortly after the firestorm he’d just seen. Sooner, he thought, would be better. The last of the refugee columns had set out an hour ago, and the last delaying force south of the city was likely already overwhelmed. Unchecked, the ontlig tide rolled down the foothills outside the wall in that direction.

Movement down a broad avenue—Skogholm had been a beautiful town before all this—caught his eye. Two people ran toward him. One, a tall, broad-shouldered man with a shock of dark hair and a full beard, hefted a long, heavy axe. The other, a hard-faced, brown-haired woman of average size, bore an infant strapped to her chest. Tied to her arm with strips of cloth was an iron pan, and in her other hand, she carried a hatchet. As she drew closer, Falthejn saw it was already dripping with ontlig blood.

“Have they gained the town?” he called.

“At least one did,” the woman said feelingly. “Why are you still here?”

“I am Falthejn Arnarsson, diviner with the army. I’m taking the last few stragglers out of the city.”

They regarded him cautiously—rightly, too. Falthejn knew how poorly regarded his fellow föraningsmagiker tended to be, and the self-centered lot of them ordinarily deserved it. Finally, the man spoke. “I am Hrothgar Hrafnssen. This is my wife, Alfhilde Asgeirsdottir, and our son Jakob. We should not delay.”

“There are others.” Falthejn kept watch down the streets opening onto the marktplatz in which they stood.

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Commentary, The Long Retreat No. 1

Today (as I’m writing this notation; yesterday as it’ll run) is (was) my birthday, and in celebration, I got you new story content.

The Long Retreat is, of course, a return to the setting for the very first content I ever posted at Many Words, and to date, for the about 90% of the content I’ve had published. (At around this time last year, actually. I’ll run it around Halloween.) For this story, I’ve pushed the Norse influence angle, and I think it makes for a more cohesive-feeling world. Before, you had Viking names for things in a traditional high-fantasy sort of world. Now, it feels a little more grounded to me. We’ll see what you think in the coming months.

At the Fish Bowl, more procurement posts are in the pipeline, and I hope to keep those updating once or twice a week, so if you’ve enjoyed our foray into defense affairs blogging, good news for you.

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Friday content update

I have another defense-affairs-oriented blog post up at the Fish Bowl.

I’m thirteen notebook pages into the next story, and so far, so good. It’s flowing nicely. I have a feel for the characters, and the nature of the action lends itself to your getting to know them. I’m excited to start posting for, uh, next Tuesday? Man. That break really flew by.

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