Sorry about the massive wait! Again, I want to get this out much sooner, but what can you do? Still, founded a brand new Society at my uni, and you're messaging the new President, which is pretty awesome.
The thanks; to Kurmuga, thanks for the Follower! To darrian808, thanks for the Followers and Favourites! To PhantonX0990, thanks for the Follower! To Biscutman, thanks for the Favourite! To Shade4500, thanks for the great review. The King? Thanks; that's awesome. Glad you like this stuff. Okay, think that's everyone this time, so awesome.
Thanks for the support. Again, I really want to get the next chapter out much quicker but from after this some of the really fun things I've been waiting for for AGES take place, so that should speed me up a bit. Please, please, review! You know I love it.
Carl Ralof Wood
Ralof struggled against his binds. He pulled at the ropes, trying to loosen them, but instead they chafed against his wrists, making them red and raw. He let out a frustrated curse before leaning back against the post he had been tied against. He couldn't see much around him; it was all shrouded in darkness, but the closeness of the space, and the humidity suggested he was trapped in some kind of tent. He sagged down, exhausted, spent. Ulfgar had been taken away for maybe an hour now, though time melded together. The initial furious rage had sunk away to be replaced with fear. Fear and regret.
Ralof thrashed on the ground and then stopped. He had failed; that's all there was to it. But what more could they have done? The road had been clear, but then there were hooves, pain, and he woke here, trapped. Ulfgar had been next to him, but he was taken almost immediately, leaving Ralof alone to roar in anger, swear revenge and wallow in his failure.
He slumped against the pole, as light burst into the room. He squinted, not used to such glare after the darkness, to see a tall figure standing over him. For a second, he wanted to believe it was Jon, or Alsfur, or stupidly, even Ysold; any of the people he had failed, but as the man stepped closer, he realised it was none of them, and the hope died in his chest painfully. And yet, he did recognise the man, somehow.
'Come on,' he said. He untied the ropes binding Wood to the pole, but not the ones on his wrist and led him from the tent. Ralof blinked as he emerged, looking around him in wonder to see an entire military campsite; it hummed with activity, and people bustled past. It turned out he had been in a tent, situated right next to the command, a huge red one with gold chequered squares. The man, or boy more accurately, was tall and lanky, with brown curly hair. He walked upright, and quickly, practically dragging Ralof through the tent's entrance, into its main area.
A high backed chair dominated the middle, and to Ralof's utter astonishment, Ulfgar was seated in it, looking around keenly. He smiled when he saw Wood, but didn't rise. Next to him was another man, similar to the boy who had led him here, but older, grey shooting through his hair at regular intervals, with lines around his eyes. He looked dour, but his mouth twitched when he saw Wood.
'Carl Ralof. You're here. He gestured to a seat next to him. 'It's an honour.'
Ralof gave him a sharp look as his bonds were cut, before rushing to Ulfgar. 'Are you okay?'
He nodded. 'I think the gods may have finally answered, Ralof.'
'The gods have no part in this, Jarl Ulfgar. Only men.' It was the curly haired man who said that. The Nord on Stormcloak's other side moved forward slightly.
'But the gods are to be praised nonetheless. It is only thanks to Talos that we found you.' He was a thin man, with blond hair and a spare kind of face, like someone had sanded away at it, and looked to be in his mid-forties.
Ralof touched his own amulet of Talos. 'Who are you?'
'Thane Tor Blackmoore, of Jarl's Head,' said the first man. 'My son, Carl Erik.' He gestured to the man-boy.
'And I am Thane Torsten Cruel-Sea, of Hollyfrost,' said the second.
'Two Thanes,' Ralof murmured. 'With all your power?'
'That and more,' Tor announced. 'All loyal men have joined us; farmers, and soldiers, blacksmiths and pig boys. All for the last Stormcloak.' He inclined his head to Ulfgar. 'We will win your throne for you, my Jarl.' He turned sharp eyes on Ralof. 'That is, if we truly have Ulfgar Stormcloak, the second son of Jon Stormcloak, the Dragonborn.'
There was no point of lying, and besides, hope was too powerful a thing. Caution was nonexistent at this point. 'He is,' Ralof nodded, somewhat eagerly, thoughts rushing through his head at dazzling speed.
Torsten looked relieved, but Tor's grumpy expression remained. It was annoying Ralof.
'Who shoved the stick up your arse?' he asked suddenly.
Tor looked stunned, then fury covered his face, but Ulfgar jerked forward. 'He jokes, Thane Blackmoore. He's a joker.' He gave Ralof warning glance, and for a second, Wood was reminded painfully of Alsfur's own reign.
'It's a miracle the Dragonborn never separated that joking tongue from his mouth,' Tor muttered darkly as he settled back again.
'But less of a miracle than current events,' Ralof retorted calmly. 'How can we trust you?'
Tor shrugged. Torsten spoke instead. 'You'll have to. We need a Stormcloak. You need a Jarldom. Our interests align.'
'Then what about your loyalty?' Ralof demanded. 'It exists because our interests align?'
'Of course not,' Torsten protested, looking annoyed. 'We serve the Stormcloaks through all weathers.'
'That's enough, Ralof,' Ulfgar snapped, looking stern. It seemed ridiculous for a boy of his age.
'Well, you know what they say,' he muttered, standing behind Ulfgar's chair, placing a hand on the back. 'Keep your friend's close...' He trailed off into silence, and Tor shook his head like he was trying to remember why he was doing this in the first place.
'Carl Ralof,' Blackmoore twitched; 'is correct. You have little reason to trust us. We suspected as much, which was the reason for the rough handling. Again, my apologies Jarl Ulfgar.' He inclined his head. 'But I have something which may confirm our good intentions.' He waved at his son, Erik, who left the tent quickly, only to reappear a second later with something that set Ralof's blood on fire. It was Kodaav.
He balked for a second, and so did Ulfgar, who sank into his seat at the sight of the mighty weapon. The hilt, made of skyforge steel, shimmered with light where there was none. The patterns on the sheath glowed like silver fire, ready to be taken. Ralof pressed Ulfgar's back, and he rose to take the weapon. He stumbled a little under the weight, before drawing up and grasping the hilt. The Thanes moved forward, Tor's brow furrowing further, and in a flash, Ralof realised that this was the real test.
Ulfgar grasped the hilt, and pulled. For a second, it stayed, but then it rushed out in a flurry of light, until Stormcloak held it up, his hand trembling a little, his reflection playing off the blade. Ralof nodded in satisfaction and the Thanes let out an all too audible breath.
'Good enough for you?' he asked sardonically. Torsten looked a little guilty, but Tor just shrugged.
'We had to be sure. But now that we know it is truly you, Jarl Ulfgar, we have much work to do.' He stood, and gestured. A map was unrolled on the table in front of Ulfgar, filled with annotations, written in blotchy ink. It detailed several attack plans, and for a second Ralof was shocked.
'Where are we?'
Tor looked puzzled. 'Only twenty miles from Windhelm. With a fast march we could be there in two days, before Shatter-Shield even realises what's hit him.'
Only twenty miles. Ralof nearly cursed himself for his foolishness. The Greybeard said go east, but he had never planned to get anywhere near Windhelm. Stormcloak looked completely unconcerned though, and leaned forward, his eyes flitting around at them.
'Who's Shatter-Shield?' Ulfgar asked.
'Your father's sworn man, a Thane,' Torsten supplied. 'He rules over Mistwatch, and is a dangerous man. You would be wise not to underestimate him, my Jarl.'
'Is he a just man?' Ulfgar asked. Torsten gave him a strange look, like this was an unusual question. To be fair, it was.
'He stole your birthright, Jarl Ulfgar,' Tor interrupted. 'I would say so.'
'But you're still alive. And yet you are aware of his plans,' Ulfgar pointed out. 'Doesn't that seem suspicious?'
Tor frowned in surprise. 'My Jarl, you do not understand-'
'I think I understand well enough,' Ulfgar said, his voice low. 'If only he was an unjust man…' he muttered.
Ralof didn't like the sound of that, but he had to speak for them. Someone had to answer Ulfgar's thoughts, because his conscience seemed to have run off with the fireflies. 'Why?'
Ulfgar gave him a piercing stare. 'I told you they would all die. I never specified how.' He left the sentence hanging, much to the stunned silence of his Thanes, and stood. 'I want to march as quickly as we can. We reach Windhelm by midday two days from now.' He left the tent, and a servant quickly accompanied him, and for a second, just a second, Ralof had to remind himself that Ulfgar was twelve year old boy.
'Shit.' He looked at the Thanes. 'Guess the boy wasn't the puppet you imagined.'
Tor shot him a black look, but said nothing.
It must have been by the second day that the Thanes realised that Ulfgar really wasn't the boy they had expected. He woke before anyone else and pushed harder. He commanded rapid marches, and gave long tirades on how they needed to hurry. Ralof watched with a mixture of amusement and concern. The men were tiring due to the early mornings and late nights. Around him, Ralof could already see Ulfgar alienating his Thanes and Theyns. Jon had been harsh, but like Ulfric, he had an easy charisma surrounding him. It endeared men to him, regardless of his Dragonborn reputation (which was also pretty handy.) Ulfgar had little of that; he was determined, obviously strong, decisive and fair. Yet, he had none of the charisma, power or authority that a truly great leader required. Jon had possessed these qualities, though his was aloof and hard. Ulfric had been made of this traits; he was probably the greatest leader Ralof had ever seen. Even Alsfur was likable, yet Ulfgar was more like General Tullius. Ralof hadn't thought about the Imperial General in years, nor had he had any reason to. Tullius was long dead and buried. But Ulfgar reminded Wood quite strongly of the Imperial, which was not necessarily a good thing…
'We attack tomorrow.'
Ralof was jolted from his thoughts and he snapped up in surprise. 'Tomorrow!'
Ulfgar regarded him with those shimmering blue eyes, sat in Tor's high seat, surrounded by his nobles. Night had fallen several hours ago. It was the second day. 'That's what I said.'
'But that's madness!' Ralof protested. Tor gave him a warning look as Stormcloak's eyes blazed.
'Madness? I'd call it decisive planning,' Ulfgar said.
'Where did this planning come into it then?' Ralof countered.
Ulfgar glanced around at him at his Thanes and Theyns, nervously. 'Choose your next words carefully, Ralof.'
Wood stared at him, the change so sudden, he was completely unprepared. Suddenly, Ralof was a little disgusted. 'You're just like your brother. As soon as you become Jarl, the little man's not worth a damn.'
'Ralof,' he hissed.
'At least Jon understood what it was like to be treated like shit. It made him a better man than these puppets around you. If only one of Jon's sons was the same.' He stormed off through the door, ignoring Ulfgar's thunderous look, and the muttering of the men around him.
Ulfgar ignored Ralof. The men lined up at daybreak. Stormcloak had marched them through the night, convinced that Shatter-Shield would be manning Windhelm with a skeleton guard. Wind and snow surrounded the city; summer had finally ended, and the autumn was already proving harsh. The men shivered as they pulled on their armour, and Ralof watched them sullenly as he wandered through the camp. Their host was impressive though; it filled the land and totally surrounded Windhelm. Already he could see banners for Shatter-Shield being pulled up to whip in the wind. The bear of Eastmarch was quickly returning their call, but the banners were quick and cheaply made; the fine banner of Windhelm, the bear stitched of fine silver thread, was probably lost. Burnt by Shatter-Shield. In his mind, the Stormcloak's will never take back Windhelm. They were a spent force, a once rich family laid low, and defeated. Ulfgar was the last. And yet more people joined them everyday.
Ralof stayed in his new tent as the men trooped past, the rustle of weapons, the shouting of the lords. It all sunk into his mind as he wrapped himself in his black mood, letting it cover his sense. He heard horns being blown. They cut through the air and he jerked from his thoughts for a second.
Ralof made his way outside, blinking in the weak sunlight. The cold stung his bare skin, and he blinked, pushing his hair out of his face. Moving to a mound, Wood climbed it to observe what was happening; Ulfgar's entire war force was lined up, and moving already. He could make out the beginnings of battle, and his heart clenched as the screams of the wounded began to rise. Fire leaped down from the walls of Windhelm, and burst through the ranks. It was going to be a hard assault.
Ralof was about to turn away when something caught his attention. Ulfgar's massive banner was waving right in the middle of the men, leading them forward. Wood dismissed it for a second; there was no way in Oblivion that Ulfgar could actually be leading in person. He was only a boy. But then how many times has he proved us wrong in that regard? Shit. Panic ripped through Ralof like a black storm, shattering his anger and sullen mood. The gods love to fuck me up the arse. He started running back to his tent, his thoughts whirling with pfear. What the hell was it? Pick on Ralof year? Cursing out loud, he burst into his tent and pulled on his leather jerkin, then his mail. Grabbed his helm and belt, war axe swinging from the straps, and started making his way towards the battle. He could hear more sounds now, and the smell of blood crept into his nose, sharp and tangy. The screams grew louder as he emerged from the tents and sprinted across the land left behind by the attackers. As he drew nearer, he noticed a number of the Thanes and Theyns waiting at the edge of battle, watching the men push down the great bridge that spanned the river protecting the main entrance to Windhelm. All along the bridge, archers let loose arrows on the attackers, but they were subduing the watchtowers with relative ease, much to Ralof's surprise. Maybe we can win this after all.
He rushed to the group of lordlings, who sat on their horses, watching with concentration. But they didn't move, even though their armour was far superior to the masses, and their weapons gleaned wickedly. Thane Tor Blackmoore was at their head, watching the whole scene coldly, his eyes straying between details.
'Where is he?' Ralof bellowed, as he approached, grasping Tor's bridle.
Blackmoore looked down at him coolly. 'Your Thane,' he snapped. 'Courtesy to your superior's Carl Ralof. Remember that. The Stormcloaks will not always be around to watch your back.'
'Is that a threat?' Ralof hissed, laying a hand on his axe. Tor's guard moved in and the other Thanes and Theyns regarded the scene with fearful looks. Ralof cast an eye over them; some were missing, presumably out there fighting like real men. 'Thane,' he spat. 'I see no nobility here. Only a bunch of mother hens hoping to the gods they'll be saved, by a boy.'
'Its not like we wanted Ulfgar to go,' Tor protested sharply. 'I tried to hold him back. Gave him my best men to protect him when he insisted. Unlike some, I obey and respect my liege lord when he issues a command.'
Ralof fixed him with a burning stare, but turned away towards the battle. Ulfgar's banner was still there, leading the men forward, right to the gates. Without another thought, Ralof dove into the carnage.
Blood surrounded him, and dead bodies. They paved a path of utter destruction, sprawled along the cracked stones. Wood ran over them, as the crowd of fighting men grew thicker. Suddenly, arrows were whizzing down. Fire burnt among the masses. The cries and sounds of battle pounded against his ears. Ralof knew the sound well by now, but it never ceased to shock him. He pushed men aside, forcing his way through until suddenly they broke apart, and there was Ulfgar.
Kodaav's empty sheath was slung across his back, and he was dressed in mail and leather. A full helm obscured his face, and metal covered his upper body. True to Blackmoore's word, a ring of tough looking men surrounded Ulfgar, easily beating back the men. Stormcloak rode a horse in the centre, holding Kodaav aloft with visible effort, rallying his men around him. Little more than a figurehead really, but an effective one. Ralof slowed down and let out a breath of relief. He was fine. It was all fine.
Suddenly, Ulfgar jerked back, letting out a cry. He fell from his horse, blood spraying out behind him. Ralof watched in shock as Ulfgar fell through the air, and crashed onto the ground below. The men around him stopped, aghast, and suddenly the arrows began to fall harder. Boiling oil splashed onto the bridge and men started running as Ralof burst through them to Ulfgar's side.
An arrow had gone deep into his shoulder. Blood soaked the wound, and Ralof pulled him up, ripping off the boy's helmet. His glazed eyes took in Wood, pain etched across them.
'Get up, and run, Ulfgar.' Ralof pulled him up, and called over some men. They took him, and started leading him away, even as Shatter-Shield's soldiers poured from the gate, cutting their way through the ranks of men.
'FIND STORMCLOAK! I WANT HIM DEAD!' The horses emerged from the gate and Ralof glanced back at the retreated Ulfgar, then the horses. He drew his axe, taking a deep breath as several men took up the position around him. His leg began to throb, and icy mist came from mouth as he breathed. His axe felt heavy in his hand, and snow settled on it. Then they were upon them.
Ralof slashed out, bringing down one of the horses. He spun, and knelt, whipping out his axe into another's legs. They fell in a tangled heap, and the other began to trip and stumble. Suddenly, a dismounted rider leapt at Ralof. He parried the man's axe and grabbed him, throwing him down onto the stone ground. Wood lashed out, catching another in the face, blood splattering his face. A sword cut his forehead with a jolt of fiery pain and Ralof jerked back, dodging another swing. The man led him back, but stumbled on the icy stone. Wood didn't waste the opportunity; he punched the axe into his face, leaving it embedded, drawing up Kodaav instead from the ground where it lay by his feet. The blade hummed a little, before fading. It's glow washed away.
Ralof swung it up to block a blow, but it was growing heavy. The force of impact nearly knocked it from his grip.
'I'm trying to protect the bloody Stormcloaks!' he screamed. It responded almost instantly. The blade took on a new light, and as Ralof swung it up to deflect another blow, it sped up, slicing straight through the man's sword. He stared at it dumbfounded, and Wood cut off his head in one fluid swing. The battle was beginning to close in as they few defenders were surrounded, and Ralof leapt forward, determined to give Ulfgar more time. Kodaav cut through the men with ease, and Wood created a bloody swarth of death as he marched forward, shattering shields and weapons. But it wasn't enough. The first blow caught his back, then he leg. He stumbled, but they kept hitting him, ripping his mail and skin. Finally, his vision blurring, Kodaav fell from his grip, clattering as it hit the bridge and Ralof fell to his knees. His sudden battle lust deserted him utterly. A figure on a horse appeared in his vision, through the darkness, and leant down.
'Here we have the last protector of the Stormcloaks. A dying breed, old, outclassed.' His voice was slightly high, and very clipped. The accent was almost sickening. 'They've had their time, as has everything else. But you've served your purpose. You brought all my enemies to me, so I may wipe them out in a stroke. Many I was not aware of.'
'Shatter-Shield,' Ralof rasped, blood covering his eyes.
'Carl Ralof of Riverwood, the Housecarl to the Dragonborn. Tell me, Ralof, why would the Dragonborn have needed any guards? He controlled the power of gods!' His voice took on a new hungry edge. 'It was an abomination in truth; who should control such strength? It wasn't natural,' he spat, his voice taking on a sudden, decidedly sour tone.
'He saved us all,' Ralof said, raising himself a bit. Shatter-Shield stared down at him, his face shadowed in the coming blizzard.
'But he couldn't save us from the elves. The King has a plan, but I'm no more privy to it than anyone else.' He sounded bitter. 'We, his servants, bicker and squabble, yet when he raises the hand, we follow the bone,' Shatter-Shield mused bitterly.
'Why do I give a fuck?' Ralof sneered, spitting out blood.
'Bah! You're nothing more than a mere peasant, jumped up by the greatest peasant of them all, Jon of Clan Stormcloak, last Dragonborn, last Jarl, last of true member of his line. No one could be expected to follow such a "legend", could they? And what a legend he was…' His voice dripped with scorn, and anger filled Ralof. 'The line is near broken,' he continued, 'but I have a sharp sword, Carl Ralof. It will be done, soon. Do you know why I'm telling you this?'
'I'm sure you're going to tell me,' Ralof muttered.
Suddenly, Shatter-Shield was right next to his face, smiling darkly. 'Because you're already dead.'
Don't worry about Ralof! Anyway planned to have a Thorek chapter next, but I'm moving it so I can fry bigger fish with the next one. And the next chapter is certainly one of the more audacious of my chapters (and that's saying a lot I think.) It would translate well to a movie or TV Series in terms of special effects and stuff. Hopefully it'll be out much quicker, but then I'm looking forward to writing it! Please review and thanks for the continued support!