Valkia the Bloody, page 1part #7 of Warhammer 40,000 Series
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An Extract from 'Orion: The Vaults of Winter'
This is a dark age, a bloody age, an age of daemons and of sorcery. It is an age of battle and death, and of the world’s ending. Amidst all of the fire, flame and fury it is a time, too, of mighty heroes, of bold deeds and great courage.
At the heart of the Old World sprawls the Empire, the largest and most powerful of the human realms. Known for its engineers, sorcerers, traders and soldiers, it is a land of great mountains, mighty rivers, dark forests and vast cities. And from his throne in Altdorf reigns the Emperor Karl Franz, sacred descendant of the founder of these lands, Sigmar, and wielder of his magical warhammer.
But these are far from civilised times. Across the length and breadth of the Old World, from the knightly palaces of Bretonnia to ice-bound Kislev in the far north, come rumblings of war. In the towering Worlds Edge Mountains, the orc tribes are gathering for another assault. Bandits and renegades harry the wild southern lands of the Border Princes. There are rumours of rat-things, the skaven, emerging from the sewers and swamps across the land. And from the northern wildernesses there is the ever-present threat of Chaos, of daemons and beastmen corrupted by the foul powers of the Dark Gods. As the time of battle draws ever nearer, the Empire needs heroes like never before.
Swooping whorls of colour lit the night sky with their vibrant shades. Vivid reds, deep blues and virulent greens twisted and blended into one another, producing an entirely unnatural display unlike anything anywhere else. Only the Northern Wastes could boast such stark, murderous beauty as presented by the snowy tundra. They culminated in this spectacle, the magnificent aurora that crowned the top of the world. Nowhere else was there such magical fallout.
Her eyes wide, the child stared up at the fury of the skies, stricken mute by their very majesty. By her side, the warrior clad in blood-stained furs reached down to scoop her up in his arms. With ease he lifted her onto his shoulders that she might better see. She was getting rather large for such treatment now that she was older, but she was still slender and lightly built. The warrior had no difficulty in bearing her weight. She shifted slightly to make herself comfortable.
‘They say that when the Axefather is pleased with our efforts, the tides of the sky will flow and ebb with darkest red, leached from the blood of our enemies. On the day that happens, Lille Venn, our people will rise far above all others.’
Her father smiled. He did not have to see her to imagine the look of wide-eyed wonder on his ten-year-old daughter’s face. She was a beautiful child and although he loved her dearly, her ever-growing resemblance to her dead mother brought a fresh wave of bitter loathing towards the enemies that the Schwarzvolf faced. The war between the two tribes had raged for nigh on twelve cycles of the moon and the elders of the Schwarzvolf had foreseen that the morrow would see victory or death for Merroc and his people.
The child wound a lock of dark hair around her finger and continued to stare into the skies. Words were few and far between from his daughter. She had always been an introspective and thoughtful child, intelligent and sharp beyond her years. The death of her mother at the hands of their enemy a year ago had hurt her, but with the easy pragmatism of all her people, she had borne it with stoicism. Occasionally she would speak, invariably to make an observation or to ask a question. She was inquisitive and curious and this pleased Merroc. He may have produced no sons of the union with Valkia’s mother but this girl, his first child, was his pride.
‘How does it happen?’ Her question, when it came, was demanding, as though she accused her father of arranging this spectacular show of magic purely for her benefit.
‘None of us truly know, Lille Venn.’ Lille Venn, he called her. Little Friend. ‘There can be little doubt that such a miracle is the work of the gods themselves.’
‘Where are the gods?’ She absently tugged on his scraggly beard, winding it around her little fingers.
‘Far to the north. Further than any of us have ever travelled. None who have ventured there have ever returned to tell of what lies beyond the mountains.’
‘When I grow up,’ she said with the fierce determination of children everywhere, ‘I will go there.’ When Merroc laughed, she narrowed her eyes at him. ‘Why is that funny?’
‘I believe you, Lille Venn,’ said Merroc, his laugh becoming nothing more than a smile. ‘If anybody could make that journey, it would be you.’ His words mollified the little girl and the flash of anger left her eyes. She was like her mother to look at, that much was true. But her bearing, manner and attitude were Merroc’s through and through.
He loved her for that alone.
Together, the two of them watched the winds of magic and the virulent display of colour in a companionable silence for several long minutes. Eventually, the girl spoke and this time it was not the petulant voice of a child, but the self-assured tone of a young woman who knew what she wanted.
‘I want to fight with my people tomorrow,’ she said, tapping Merroc on the shoulder as an indication that she wanted to be lifted down. Within the tribe, it was not unusual for a child of her age to fight. But Valkia, despite her ferocity, was female. It was customary to refrain from allowing any female child of the tribe to enter battle without having produced at least one live offspring.
‘Lille Venn, you know that I cannot allow this thing you ask.’
‘I am not asking you, Papa. I am telling you what I want.’ He indulged her outrageously, but then he always had. He could not help himself. She was utterly charming when she wanted to be and a hard-hearted little bitch the rest of the time. But in this matter, he could not forsake hundreds of years of tradition.
‘I forbid it.’
‘I defy you.’ It was an old game of theirs, one which she could maintain far longer than he could. He would deny her something and she would taunt him until a smile would cross his face and he would give in to her piping demands. But this… was unthinkable.
‘You will not.’ There was a hard tone in her father’s voice that Valkia had never heard before and it shocked her to silence. She had rarely seen her father the chieftain. She was used to Merroc as being just her father. The thought that he would deny her what she wanted brought a pout to her lips. Merroc hunkered down until his eyes were level with hers.
‘You are my only child,’ he said. ‘If I were to take you into battle tomorrow, it would be inviting your death. You have to grow and bear a grandchild before you can take the field of battle.’ He felt briefly awkward discussing this with her; her eyes were like little emeralds, hard and green, and bored into him. ‘Your mother bore you when she had known fourteen summers. You have yet to reach eleven. Do not be so quick to wish for your death, Valkia, for it will come. It comes to us all in time.’
He stood and tucked his long, dark hair which was shot through with threads of silvery-grey, behind one ear. He looked up at the aurora. ‘I can’t give you what you want, my daughter, not this time. You cannot fight. I will not lose you to t
She looked up at Merroc and considered him. He was tall and broad of shoulder, his well-muscled body made larger by the addition of the furs that he wore as proof against the northern cold. He seemed very old to her, although he was perhaps only twenty-five years of age. If you lived to see thirty summers, the people of the Schwarzvolf considered you ancient.
His face, whilst too battle-scarred to ever be called handsome, was nonetheless proud and arrogant. There was an undeniable purity in his appearance that told of his good stock. The reigning family had held the chieftain’s cape for seven generations, the mantle passed from father to son. Merroc’s marriage to her mother had produced only two living children: Valkia and her sister Anya, who had died before the first year of her life was out. Three sons had been born to Merroc and his wife and none had been born with breath in their lungs. Merroc tried to deny the whispers, but he had come to believe them over time.
He was cursed.
‘I see.’ Valkia’s two words were spoken through pursed lips and he looked down at her fierce, determined little face. He forced the smile from his lips and reached down to take her chin in his hand.
‘I cannot allow you to take up arms and fight in the battle tomorrow, my daughter,’ he said. ‘But I will speak to the Circle this night. They may permit you to take up a shield and join the ranks of the shield maidens.’ She jerked her face free and looked as though she would argue, but Merroc caught her again. ‘Listen to me, Valkia. I don’t care how much fuss you make. You will understand that this is the way it must be or I will beat it into you. I cannot buck the traditions of our people for your childish whims.’
‘I am not a child.’
‘Then stop acting like one.’ She looked crushed and he softened slightly in his attack. ‘I will do what I can, but I make no promises. Come now. The Circle meets soon and I have tarried too long here.’
‘You promise you will speak to them?’ Reluctantly, the little girl relented and slid her hand into her father’s bigger one.
‘When have I ever disappointed you, Lille Venn?’
She had no reply she could give to that, only a cold, penetrating stare which was far too old for her and which left him feeling very uncomfortable.
The Circle was a group of seven tribal elders and leaders. As the tribe’s chieftain, Merroc sat at its head but frequently felt that his words went unheeded. He had come to the mantle at a young age, barely sixteen, and they had never stopped treating him like a youth.
They met in Merroc’s semi-permanent dwelling; a yurt made from animal hides that had spent long hours tanning in the sun. They were stretched across rigid poles and treated with animal fat that acted as proof against the cold and the moisture. A small opening at the top funnelled the smoke from the fire in its centre. The remains of a deer trapped a day or two before turned on a spit over it and the Circle frequently reached up to hack a slice from the animal and gorge noisily upon it.
The conversation had largely been strangely optimistic, given the fact they knew the dawn would bring either success or eradication. None of the Schwarzvolf were given over to pessimism before battle. If they did not believe they would win through, then they would not. It was quite simple.
‘They will strike at first light.’
The words came from Ammon and all eyes swivelled towards him. The tribe’s Warspeaker, he was only a year or so younger than Merroc and the closest that the chieftain had to a true friend. He had guided them through seemingly endless battles against their most rapacious enemies. The tribe who had so hampered them for months had never been granted the honour of being recognised by a name. The warriors of the Schwarzvolf called their enemies ‘they’ or ‘them’. To give them a name was to ascribe something humane to them. And they were anything but.
The Schwarzvolf were widely considered one of the most ferocious tribes in the north lands and with good reason. Tenacious and fearless, their young warriors had been known to fight with limbs severed or their intestines held in by their shield hand. But they... they were of a different ilk. They liked to take prisoners, something which the Schwarzvolf found strange. They harboured a belief that if something was too weak to be free then it was too weak to live. Torture, sometimes followed by slavery, would follow and to Merroc and his people, the concession of freedom was not something they subscribed to.
Ammon got to his feet and moved to the flap of the animal skin tent. He gave a piercing whistle into the darkness and a lithe, slender figure slid from the shadows and entered Merroc’s tent.
‘My chieftain.’ The young man inclined his head with respect in Merroc’s direction. Radek, his name was. He was one of the most shrewd, canny warriors in the tribe and his ability to hunt and scout was so astute that there were occasionally whispers that he must have made particularly dark pacts with the gods to acquire such skill. Fleet of foot and deadly with his bow, he had risen to the position of Pathfinder with alacrity. He was, Merroc recalled, Ammon’s nephew.
‘Radek. What news from beyond the camp? What do we have on our side for tomorrow’s battle?’
‘We have the land with us, but little else. Their numbers equal ours, if not exceed them.’ The scout accepted a cup of wine, mulled and heated in a cauldron that hung over the fire. Not really strong enough to intoxicate, the wine was nonetheless welcome and he took a long sip from it, savouring the flavour. It was sweetened and given its pungent aroma by a mixture of spices, and the berries which made its base were in plentiful supply at this time of the year.
Radek set down the wooden cup and looked at Merroc. A slight smile played on his lips. There was a faint shadow of downy fluff on his chin. He was remarkably young to have come so far. The thought flickered through Merroc’s mind but he almost immediately chided himself. Just because Radek was young was no reason to judge his competencies. ‘There are two things we have that they do not, however. I got as close as I could to their camp earlier tonight.’
‘And those are...?’ Merroc left it hanging and reached forward to flense another slice of venison from the deer. He chewed on the meat, its juices dribbling down his chin and slicking his beard.
‘We have more shields than they do. We can hold our lines far longer.’
Merroc nodded. ‘The line will hold. This is a good start. The other?’
Radek’s faint smile became an impish grin. ‘Sobriety, my chieftain. They are drinking heavily, perhaps as a way to numb the cold in their bones. They are not used to being this far north. Come the dawn, they will be suffering for it.’ This generated a ripple of laughter through the yurt and Merroc nodded, wiping grease from his face.
‘This is excellent,’ he rumbled. ‘None of our warriors will be drinking this night. Tomorrow, when we have watered the earth with their blood... then we will drink.’ The ripple of laughter became a combined grunt of approval. Merroc turned his head to the right. ‘Godspeaker?’
The man sitting at the chieftain’s right hand had been called Fydor at birth, but in this council, he wore the name Godspeaker. The tribe’s shaman and doctor, his knowledge and gift of foresight were deeply revered and respected. Just as Ammon the Warspeaker sat at the chieftain’s left hand, so the Godspeaker took the trusted position on the right.
‘I am yet to read the omens,’ he replied. The Godspeaker was the oldest man currently living within the tribe. He had seen no fewer than forty summers and some whispered he had seen sixty. The hand that reached out to accept a cup of mulled wine was darkly tanned and liver spotted. ‘I will do so shortly.’ His eyes, dark and depthless in his ancient face, bored through Merroc in much the same way that Valkia’s had a few short hours before.
‘You have a question for the Circle,’ observed the Godspeaker. Merroc wound a lock of his beard around one finger and let out an exasperated sigh. There was never any doubt that Fydor was exceptionally gifted. Whether with premonition or the simple art of understanding body language and distraction
‘Aye,’ replied the chieftain. ‘It is a small thing. I was waiting for a suitable time.’
‘Now is as good a time as any.’ The Godspeaker opened out his hands, palms spread. ‘Speak, chieftain.’
Merroc shifted slightly uncomfortably, uncrossing his legs and re-crossing them. The Circle sat comfortably amidst a number of cushions scattered on the floor. He took up his cup and sipped the wine. As he did so he gathered his thoughts carefully, knowing that how he phrased the next sentence could be instrumental in its success or otherwise.
‘It is not a question,’ he said in due course. ‘My daughter wishes to take her place in the battle tomorrow,’ he said and there was such challenge in his voice that, for a moment, he wondered if he had been too aggressive with it. ‘And I have agreed that she can take her mother’s place as a shield maiden.’
‘You are asking us for our approval?’
‘No, Warspeaker.’ Merroc shifted his gaze to Ammon. ‘I am telling you.’
‘It is unseemly. She is too young. Far too young. She has yet to produce an heir. If she were to fall...’
‘If she falls, then I will take another woman of the Schwarzvolf to wife.’ When Valkia’s mother had died, Merroc had been grief-stricken enough to say that he would not re-marry. The promise he made here was spontaneous and he almost immediately knew regret because it sparked the conversation he had avoided for nearly a year.
‘You know the Circle’s views on this matter, chieftain. We have told you that we feel the time is right for you to take another woman to wife anyway. You need to produce an heir. If you do not and you should die, then there will be great upheaval amid our people.’ It was no exaggeration on his part. Should the line of the chieftain fail, there would be a fight for the mantle that would potentially halve their number. ‘You do not surely wish to impart such a legacy to your people?’ The Godspeaker was calm and his voice measured. Merroc recognised the spark in the older man’s eyes and felt the defiance that had so marked his leadership of the Schwarzvolf bubble to the surface.
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