Sand lifted in a great gust forcing Shield Scyldmund to close his eyes. The fine particles blasted against his skin, sharp, at the edge of pain. It hissed as it slithered beneath the rings of his dented armor, twisted into his beard, and lodged itself into the wrinkles that masked his eyes. These fierce sands wore down city walls, witnessed the fall of kingdoms, tore the skin from corpses. Yet when he opened his eyes again nothing had changed.
The Brothers Bull still lay beneath the earth, the mounds that echoed their bodies fading. With each swirl, the tiny grains of sand erased the grave mounds as if the two giant brothers had never even existed. How soon before even the memory of them would be wiped from the lands?
Shield knew it would have been better to burn his sword brothers after battle, so they could ride to the heavens on the black smoke, but what was there to burn here in Gypt: sharp grass and brittle bush, stone and sand?
At least their bodies would not be torn to bits by the jackals and vultures. At least the unrelenting sand offered that.
Shield Scyldmund, clansman of the North, stood, worn out and bloody, for a moment over the two graves, aware of the eyes of Harad on him, feeling the other’s desire that Shield speak of the Hounds of the North, reassure him of their place in the world, of their destiny, but Shield had no words anymore. Twenty long years. Nothing to do but stare at his shadow stretched over men he led into death.
“I am ready to go,” said Harad Hammerhand. The sand stuck to his heavily sweating face, peppering his fiery red beard. Despite the heat and sun, the big Northman wore a thinning wool cloak over his shoulders, superstitious about revealing his armor.
“A few more moments, we’ll gather the others and then back to camp,” said Scyldmund.
“No, Shield, I am ready to go.” Harad’s hammer, blood splattered, rested head down in the sand between his feet.
“Not going to abandon me now after all the years, are you?” Scyldmund had seen so many of the Hounds of the North leave over the years, but always on their backs, faithful to him and their clan, even on fields of blood worlds away. And Harad was the most faithful of the group, always had been.
“We’ve gone for a long time and are so far away,” said Harad.
Scyldmund nodded. Through a gap in the granite outcroppings, the Gyptian city on the desert plain below unfurled in black smoke.
Even from this distance, he could follow the straight line of refugees – the tottering wagons, the overloaded camels, the women in blue robes dragging and carrying their children, the old men leaning on their staffs for one last look at their fallen city. Already, a cohort had raised the red eagle banners of Ruma on the city walls laying claim to the last city of rebellious Gypt.
The war was over, the god-king dead, but blood lust still needed to be released. The Ruman legions would run wild. The night before when the whispers of the death of the god-king rattled through the legion, and even the Northmen readied themselves, Cassius had pulled Shield and the Hounds from those surging on the poorly defended city walls: there was a special job he needed them for. And he had led them to this rise outside the city to help a Chronicler hunt down the rumor of a witch.
Shield gave one last look at the graves and followed the game trail back up to the spot where the others sheltered against the sand and sun.
“I want to go back home, Shield. I am ready,” said Harad again, his boots kicking stones as he followed his leader.
Shield Scyldmund shrugged. “You going right now?”
“Of course not. But I want to return home, a farm, a wife.”
One of the other Hounds, Night, a shadow in the granite stones, snickered.
In the shade of the rocks, what remained of the witch hunting party huddled about a small fire, the meat of a scrawny hare sizzling and popping over the flames. Shield looked over the last of the Hounds – Night, Cook, Patch, Hawk – the two Ruman legionnaires that had survived the fighting, and the Gyptian scout who sat apart, face buried in hands covered in the blood of his own people.
Harad shook his head. “What’s left of the Hounds? I don’t want to be buried beneath this damned sand. I want to cross the Black River one more time, feel my feet sink into the earth from which we were spawned and return my soul to our land.”
Patch, seated by the fire with Cook over his shoulder, laughed. “Not so easy to bury a big lug like you. All those fecking stones in the earth. Forgot about that.”
The others laughed, too – the last of the Hounds of the North – the last of the original two dozen reckless marauding youth that began their adventures some twenty years ago beyond the Black River, following the swords of their leaders Shield and Spear, back in the time when Empire was only a rumor and the clan raiders ruled the bogs and hills of heather.
“He just wants a wife to rub his feetsies,” said Cook.
“That’s not what we he wants his wife to rub,” Night muttered from the dark folds of his cloak.
Cook stooped over Patch, his fat fingers cleaning out a gash on the side of his head where one of the witch’s Gyptian guards had breeched the Northman’s defense. Patch grimaced and whined.
“Stop moving around or I’ll end up sewing your ear to the side of your head.”
“Should have named you Butcher instead of Cook.”
“What about you, Shield?” asked Harad. “No desire to return home?”
Shield shook his head. “I can’t imagine myself returning to work to the land or fish the rivers or walk with goats.” But even as he said those words his stomach twisted with embodied memories of the vast valleys of grass, the mists rising from the bogs, and the endless untamed forests north of the snow capped highlands. “There is still some destiny of the sword that awaits me.”
“And we’ll follow you there,” said Hawk. The others nodded and grunted approval, all but Harad who bit his lower lip.
“You stick with us, Harad,” said Shield. “The Hounds of the North would be nothing without Harad.”
“The Hounds of North are six now. How much longer will our luck hold out? What next after this? Gypt has fallen.”
“We return to Ruma for a spell. Wine, women, a bit of brawling perhaps. We soak in the baths, we sleep in late, we get our feet rubbed, and then we wait for the next charge. We are the Hounds of the North.”
“Not so sure Ruma has much need for us anymore. They kept us back, just like they did during this whole campaign.”
“Saving the best for last,” said Hawk. His sword, as tall as he was, rested between his legs and on his shoulder. “Why you getting this way, Harad?”
“We’re running out time, you little fool. We’re no longer the bulls of our youth running wild on the fields of heather. Gray hair, wrinkles, injuries that never fully heal. We don’t lead the charge for Ruma anymore. We were not the ones sent in to assassinate the god-king. We’re clean up. We murder old women. We’re expendable.”
“She was a witch,” said Patch.
“Sit still, you idiot,” said Cook, “or I’ll just tear your ear off and be done with this.”
“Enough,” said Shield.”
“We were faithful, but to what? Our conquerors?”
Night’s fist shot up by his head and the Hounds silenced themselves, hands to spears and shields. Footsteps crunched in granite and sand. From a narrow passage in the stones, Cassius emerged, the fading afternoon sun blinding against his segmented Ruman armor. He pulled his red plumed helmet from his head and squatted beside Shield. A dirty trail along his smooth cheek told a story of sweat and grime, the life of a solider in the field, even in that soldier that was a heralded Captain of the Ninth Legion.
“Everything good here?”
Cassius tugged at the red tunic beneath his armor, then buffed his helm with a corner of loose fabric. “If it were up to me, Northmen, we would bring you into the ranks of the legions. Gods know you men deserve it. But I’m just another soldier in the army of Ruma. Faithful, sworn by blood to country and emperor. You are more than just barbarian mercenaries to me, and, on my word, I will do all I can in my power to do right by you. You deserve it.”
The Hounds mumbled and nodded, eyes returning to weapons or staring at the dark cave of death in the boulder strewn ravine below, all except Harad who shook his head and said, “Just want to be done with this, out of the infernal heat and sand, back to the heather and green hills. There I belong.”
Cassius begged Shield away from the others, back into the maze of stones to where the Chronicler sat on a stone. Shield had seen this one before, with his long white beard, hawkish nose and piercing pale eyes. He still clutched his leather bound box in his bony hands. His thick yellowed nails, reminiscent of a dog, scratched along the surface, tracing a spiral from center to edge and back again, endlessly repeating. A Keeper of Tongues they called it. That and that sharp curved dagger at his side were the tools of the Chronicler.
Cassius, speaking to Shield, bent his head towards the old man wrapped in his white robe trimmed in silver. “You did right. We got the witch’s tongue.”
Shield fought back the memories of the dank cave, the skulls on the wall, the dark skinned Gyptian guards coming at them hard, the curtain liquid with the night sky. When he had emerged from that chamber after all that bloodshed, the head of the witch in his hand, the head of smiling old hag in his hands, he had nearly pitched to his knees in front of the others.
“After this, what?” asked Shield. His hands felt sticky with unseen blood.
Cassius shrugged. “Out of the desert for sure. Gypt is subdued, ate itself up more than anything else. All it took was a little prompting.”
“So what then?”
“Back to Ruma. Rest awhile, baths, decent meals, wine, get the sand out from underneath our skins.”
“I hear rumors of another legion or two heading east to Scythia.”
Cassius ran his hand through his dark curled hair. He was a Ruman soldier through and through – olive skinned, hawk nosed, clean shaven, meticulous with his plated armor and cotton tunic. But Cassius was also different than the other Ruman captains and soldiers that Shield had encountered over the past twenty years because he cared about his mercenary Hounds, counting on them over the years to do the dirtiest of work and filling them with praise and coin. The other Rumans had spat at the feet of the Northmen, cursed them in front of their face, brawled with them at the slightest provocation. They showed no respect for the bearded men of the north, the savages who painted their faces with blue woad, wore trousers and fought like devils.
“We’ve been through a lot together,” said Cassius. “But, at this point, our days of glory are destined for the wine houses, stories to tell our grandchildren as they bounce on our laps. Not much lies ahead. East, they don’t want the Hounds. They want men of the East to do what you did. The North has been quelled, things settled well enough.”
“But across the Black River…”
“Nothing the Emperor wants. No gold, no jewels, easier to get timber from the East, the seas are calmer, more cities to trade with. There is nothing in the North anymore. Let it be unconquered.”
“So what do we do?” asked Shield.
“Ruma will need strong men. The civil war is over. The Emperor blames it on a general godlessness, a wandering from our traditional ways. The temples have fell into ruin. He needs strong arms and shoulders to move the stones to rebuild the temples.”
“The temples of your gods…”
“I can put in a word for you and the Hounds for the campaign to the East but legions have already left Ruma. Maybe Harad is right. Maybe it is time to return north.”
Shield left Cassius and the Chronicler and followed the trail back to the Hounds. But before he reached them, he turned following a path of shattered stones to a small sandy plateau that overlooked the burning city below. The sun was near sunk in the west, and with it came the winds stronger than before.
What was left for the Hounds? How many more would he have to bury? And for what?
When he finally shook himself from his reverie, the sun had been swallowed beneath low hills of the west. The sand tore about him in a renewed fury, as if the winds had been pent up by the heat of the day.
He had stood there so long that his feet where buried beneath the sand now. He kicked his feet free and cursed the gods of the north. He had to keep moving. This was not the end of the Hounds. There was something still greater for them, some greatness that lay ahead. He knew this as sure as he breathed.