The Five men were big. Even by Rothkarni standards. Wide shoulders, narrow hips, long arms, warriors in mind, build, and habit. Fear, they might feel it, although some doubted they ever did: “Weeded out of them by decades of war” say the Wise Men of the world. None had ever seen a common Rothkarni warrior show fear, let alone a High Chief.
These five men were the Highest of High Chiefs. Each wearing a simple reach tattoo around their right bicep (a bicep, I might add, as thick as a normal man’s thigh). That tattoo alone had caused many a village Chief or Foreign Land to offer tribute. It meant the person wearing the Tattoo had killed five thousand men in battle. Five thousand.
Five was a sacred number among the Rothkarni.
To have Five High Chiefs with the garland on their arms is something one might see once in a Generation. Or never.
Across from them was a much smaller man, but only in size. He wasn’t afraid. That should have been a clue. It was ignored. As were any men who weren’t Rothkarni. They had agreed to meet with the man, only because of the Legend.
The Legend of Rognar and Ulna. Even in the Empire of the Rothkarni, the Legend was spoken about. Even taught. The exploits of Rognar and Ulna were many and varied, one or two of the stories told about them might even be true: thought the Five men at the table. The other man thought they all were.
“So speak outlander.”
It wasn’t a request. It was a command. The small man (only in size) knew he would only get the one chance to tell his story. So he spoke:
“You have heard what happened when two Risling raiding parties captured Ulna, after killing all of her family?”
The Five nodded as one. It was one of the more common tales.
“Yes. The tale of her revenge and Rognar’s tracking is part of the Legend.“
“Do you know the details?”
The Five looked confused.
“What’s there to know? Her relatives were not strong enough to hold off a small band of Rosilli Warriors (all Five High Chiefs snorted at the liberal use of Warrior). They took her for the pleasures she would provide on the long march home. Then they would cook her and eat her.
Rognar somehow tracked them thru the snow. Caught up with them. Killed them in their sleep. Freed his sister, Ulna. And they escaped back to their homeland. A brave deed (they all nodded) but hardly remarkable. Any of us (waving to include the Five, but excluding the small man (in size only) would have done the same, not for the girl, that wouldn’t matter. But for the chance at revenge. Blood. Death. That would be enough for one of us to get our own Legend Started.“
The smaller man (in size only) smiled.
“Ah. It is as I thought. The True Story isn’t included in your telling.”
“WHAT? Are you calling me a Liar?”
All Five men leaped as one into the air, in the blink of an eye, five swords without an inch of waver, lay pointed only inches from the neck of the smaller man (in size only).
The small man (in size only) never lost his composure, or his smile. He simply waved them back to their seats.
“I meant no insult. Just that the tale you were told left out many significant details.”
The deadly gloom of a minute ago, the wraith of rage wrapped around the men and their swords, flitted away like so much smoke in a roof hole.
“Ahh…a tale. Let’s have some drink and meat, and you tell us your tale.”
There was a few minutes respite as servants brought the lager, wine, and sweet meats. Pillows were brought for the Five, and in a rare show of generosity, one was brought for the smaller man too (smaller in size only). He thanked them all.
After a tankard or two, one of the Five spoke again:
“Begin your tale. Enlighten us all.”
Laughter boomed, but not from the smaller man (in size only), he merely began:
“It was a dark night. Just before the big snows of Winter. There was a small village out in the Cantons. It was home to a mere twenty people. Only five of those were men, and only one was a boy.
In the night, when the coals were all that was left of the cook fire. The Rosilli and their “small band” of 200 blooded warriors- (At this eyebrows were raised, for 200 men was much more than a small band) Attacked the Village.
You were correct that the Village was not strong enough to hold off 200 blooded warriors. Not with only five men and a boy, the rest women and girls. The battle was short and fierce. At the end of it...thirty seven Rosilli blooded warriors - all that remained of the two hundred that came like ghosts in the night, rode away from the burning village with one survivor.
More tankards were shared. This was a much better telling than the Five had ever heard. The much smaller man was a good speaker, the story was growing much richer for the telling. For the much smaller man was telling it as if he knew, as if it were true. The Five had their doubts about two hundred being almost not enough, but not for another wreath on their arms would they interrupt the much smaller man (in size only).
A burning beam had fallen across the only male survivor. It had knocked him unconscious. The thickness of the beam protected him from burning to death. It took him most of the morning to dig himself free.
He checked the dead himself. He knew them all. One was missing. Ulna. With only a bow, a small knife, the clothes on his back, and arrows taken from the bodies of loved ones- he set out to track the band of Rosilli Warriors. He was on foot, they had hooves to carry them. Yet he marched. Day. Night. It mattered little to him. He would find Ulna.
“Ahh…a Love story worthy of one of our own.”
Tankards clanked in agreement.
For ten days, the wind, snow, winter.. and bears.. tried to slow the survivor from catching up to the small band and Ulna.
“Bears? The tale I heard made no mention of bears.”
The small man (but only in size) had a grim smile on his face. As if from memory.
“Aye. There were bears. Two of them. He had to fight both. One ran away after a few deep cuts. The other one…was a Spirit bear.”
Even the Five Highest of High Chiefs paled in the crackling fire light at that comment. Spirit Bears were never less than a thousand pounds. On their hind legs they stood well over ten feet tall. Their claw marks (declaring both their territories and their challenge) were sometimes over twenty feet up a tree.
There are no tales of anyone fighting a Spirit Bear and chasing it away.
“Are you telling me, that this fella, whoever he was, chased a Spirit Bear away?”
Incredulous was the look on all Five Big Men.
The small man’s eyes were even as the looked at each of them before speaking:
“No. He did not chase away a Spirit Bear.”
Sighs of “I knew it” whooshed out of all Five Higher than High Chiefs.
“He killed it.”
Now air whooshed in all Five of the Big Men. Making them choke and sputter as wind and ale tried to use the same pipe at the same time.
Even the servants (at great personal risk to life and limb) settled down in fascination. This wasn’t in the tales they heard either. It was a testimony to how well the smaller man (in size only) was telling the tale, that the Five Higher than High Chiefs didn’t even notice they weren’t being served any longer…they just wanted more of the tale.
The smaller man took the silence as permission:
“The Spirit bear had torn one arm almost off of the poor human. One talon had caught in the bone of his shoulder and broken off. The rest had torn deep galleys in his flesh all the way to the elbow. It set him back for two days of fever, loss of blood, and worst of all, fighting off the fear that he might not be able to catch the men who took Ulna.”
“How did he break the fever? How did he eat? Who sewed up his arm? Why didn’t he just die in the cold with no fire?”
The smaller man held an arm to wave off, fend off, or stop the flow of questions.
“He was helped. Not by any being of this earth.”
No one questioned the Gods. They did what they did for God reasons, not Man’s.
“Did they give him back his arm?”
A wry smile turned the small man’s face melancholy.
“Oh, yes. They healed it, except for the scar and the memory.”
"It was a week later that he came upon the small band of Warriors. They were holed up in a small cut out valley next to a fast moving stream for water. The had several tents, more horses than they needed, hundreds more. Smoke rose in grey tendrils from two of the bigger tents.
Outside the perimeter were six mounds.”
At this, feral grins broke out on all Five of the big men.
“The work of Nature…or of Ulna?”
The small man gifted a feral smile back.
The Five Higher than High Chiefs barked in admiration.
“A fine woman that Ulna. A fitting bride wife for a Warrior. Hey, Hey, Hey, Ulna!”
Flagons were lifted as a salute to Ulna. Each man lost in thoughts of lechery for a woman who can take down any Warrior with only her self as a weapon. Delightful thoughts of watching hope die in her useless thrashing against their strong bodies fueling blood lust to rise to the service.
Their wide eyes, flared nostrils, and contempt for a woman, were not lost on the much smaller man. He smiled back with as much evil delight as they…but for a different reason. They took it the way their minds were trained, and missed completely the warning contained in that look.
Another wave of an empty mug, was the signal to continue the tale.
“There isn’t much left to tell. Thirteen of the Rosilli were dispatched while sleeping. Four more in stand up battle... sword, to sword. Three tried to run away, but died with a shaft placed thru their body. One of them from two hundred yards away.”
“All straight thru the heart I wager?”
Guffaws and puffed laughs from the others listening
The much smaller man (in size only) did not laugh. His calm refusal brought a glimmer of intelligence to one of the Five Big men.
“Won’t you take my wager?”
“No. For only two were thru the heart. The other went through the back of his skull, and came out the bridge of his nose.”
Whistles erupted. All of the Five knew how hard it was to hit a moving target, one running down hill, and from even fifty yards the tale would be worth a good tankard or two.
One other of the Five big men, had been keeping a running tally.
“You said 37 rode away from the village. By my count, there are only 26 bodies in your tale. What, by chance, happened to those last eleven warriors?”
“Oh, not chance, my Lords (the Respect was acknowledged by raised tankards of ale). No indeed. By design. While the warriors were busy fighting off the lone surviving male of the Village, Ulna was busy hamstringing the legs of the ones too drunk or tired to rise up and fight. The one that had been mounting her when the attack began, she also gelded.”
Subconsciously all five men closed their legs a little tighter. The tale was a marvelous tale, well told. And it was seeping into their minds as details wove their way to the surface from past experiences of their own making.
“So what did they do with the surviving eleven. Leave them hamstrings cut for the wolves and Winer bears to devour?”
“Oh. Oh no. Nothing that simple. For these were the men who had killed: Mother, Father, Brother, Sister, Aunt, Uncle, Cousin and the Elders too. Ulna gutted them from navel to neck, and the lone male survivor of her village heated coals to place inside the writhing innards. It took them hours to die.”
Servants who hadn’t stirred in a long time hurried to refill tankards, take away sweet meats, and hurry back to hear the end of the tale.
“I have never heard the tale told like this.”
“Or so well!” Said another.
“Hey. Hey. Hey.“
And the Five much bigger men (in size only) raised their tankards in gratefulness for a tale well told.
“But how came you about all these details?”
For the first time, the much smaller man stood up. He didn’t so much stand, as flow from the pillow to full upright. The motion was so fluid, so fast, so quick…it went almost unremarked upon.
The much smaller man, who now appeared to be much bigger than first thought, dropped the cloak from his shoulder. His left arm had a series of rope like scars from the neck to the elbow. Around his neck was dangling a seven inch talon from the claw of a Spirit Bear.
“I was there.“
Five big men sat with mouths agape. One of them said:
“That’s impossible. That tale is more than twenty years old. You can’t be much more than that yourself.”
The now much bigger looking small man smiled. It wasn’t pleasant to see. It held hard won truths in its steel grin.
“I was five. Ulna was thirteen.”
Five Big Men (but not so big as before) tried to digest a five year old boy, and thirteen year old girl dispatching almost forty warriors. Somehow, the fact that twenty people damn near killed two hundred warriors - was starting to make sense.
The tent flap opened. A woman just into her thirties stepped inside. One hand held a short knife dripping with blood, the other awash with sticky fresh blood, held a sword that most men would have had to use two hands to hold, let alone use.
Her smile was that of Death.
The much smaller man unsheathed two short swords from their halters over his back.
“I am Rognar. You should have never paid those Rosilli warriors to take our village.”
Brother and Sister slashed with deadly accuracy. A moment later and the Five Higher than High Chiefs were no longer big men, or even whole men. Servants backed away in terrified awe.
Ulna held open the flap. Rognar went out first. Ulna took one last glance around. Then she too, walked out into the night.