The Thing
by Dana DeVries

   One of the timbers in the bonfire split with a loud crack. Reflexively Jared Homason turned his head away and stared at the Vestenemanjavenar around him. Seven leaders, including himself, stood in a circle around the fire beneath the open rooftop where the stars twinkled dimly amidst the smoke. None others sat in the shadows around the room, this meeting was for the leaders alone. Jared wasn't interested. When he'd come, he'd known exactly what each of these men would say. Dragar pleading for peace with the Vendel while Scar shouted for their blood. The others stood uneasily between the two, hoping for peace but ready for battle. The entire thing was almost anticlimactic.

   The only woman amidst the leaders, a huge muscle-bound figure named Gerta, was still speaking. "I have plundered the coast of Ussura. I have drunk the beer of Eisen from the skulls of my enemies. And I call for peace. We've lost too many men. More are unwilling to leave their children fatherless." As several men around her began to finger weapons and scowl at her, she raised her voice and shouted. "It is time to end this violence! Any man who thinks he is better than me can contradict me, but his blood will soon stain this floor." One of the men lowered his hand from his weapon. Another man tightened his grip and opened his mouth to challenge Gerta when the door to the hall creaked open and one of the guards poked his head inside.

   Scar immediately screamed at him. "This is not a Vendel-scorned althing! This is a Vestenmanjavenar thing and we've started. None may join." The guard nodded stiffly and quickly withdrew. The tension in the room felt heavy to Jared and he kept his eye on the door. Even so, he was astonished when the guard smashed through the door and collapsed to the ground at Scar's feet. A short, burly man with a full grey beard stomped through the remains of the door and up to the circle. The guard stumbled back to his feet and picked up his axe as he charged towards the newcomer. Greybeard pulled off his helmet and slammed it into the forehead of the guard who crumpled to the ground.

   Greybeard straightened. "I am Orm. You all know me. I've sailed with most of you." Scar drew a breath, but could not bring himself to interrupt the man who was a legend to his generation. "Avalon, Montaigne, Eisen, Ussura, Vendel and Castille. I have pillaged them all. But I have travelled even further now. Under my new captain. My new leader. Yngveld Olafsdottir." A small blonde woman had strode up behind Orm, but such had been his charisma, that Jared had not noticed until he pointed her out. Another man stood by the door so calmly that he seemed to blend into the wall. But Jared did note that his skin had the colour and texture of leather.

   "I am Yngveld Olafsdottir. You know me. Blessed with the power of laerdom, I have led my men against the Vendel for five years." As she spoke, her eyes passed across each man in turn. Something immense and heavy hung behind her eyes, only revealed when the bonfire's light seemed to gleam green within her blue orbs. "I have pillaged and plundered more Vendel ships than any of you. I have smashed their shipping and slashed through their thrice-damned profits. When they struck back with traitors and hireswords, I fought harder. I travelled to far distant waters and ripped a hole in the sky with my own power and felt our ancestors pour out of the distant past into my mind. I hold them within me. Their skill, their knowledge, their power. They lead me to you today, to bring you their wisdom. I have spoken to the High King and I have spoken to the Runes themselves. Our people stand at the brink of a cliff. To either side lies destruction on the rocks below. But there is a path to safety, to survival. And I can take us there." She stood before them and stared deeply into their faces. Jared quickly turned away to avoid that intense gaze. Scar finally broke free of the spell her words and stepped forward towards the fire. He stood tall and fierce before her. The firelight turned his blonde hair and fair skin a ruddy shade of scarlet.

   "Safety, you say. I hear you say survival. But I don't hear you speak of the death of the Vendel! I don't hear you speak of vengeance or honour. Only hollow survival."

   Yngveld's voice was clear and loud. "I speak of survival because that is all I can offer. My path holds no vengeance. No victory. Only the lives of all our people."

   "No victory? Your path holds nothing for us." Scar tried to shout the words, to throw them back into her face, but he couldn't muster the vehemence. "You say you've seen the High King? Where? Where is he? When will he emerge to lead us?"

   Yngveld shook her head. "He will reveal himself when he is ready. Do not presume to dictate to our liege before you've even set eyes upon him. His path is even more difficult than ours."

   "Bah! Our path without victory? Our path without honour? I spit upon that path. Let us drive forth against the Vendel. Smash their cities into tinder. Slaughter them where they cower. Wipe them off the lands of our fathers! Even if we fail at least we will remain true to ourselves and our ancestors!" The words seemed to re-ignite the fire within his heart and Scar stared around the circle. The others looked uncertain. Even those who agreed with him, seemed unwilling to turn aside from this woman's words. Turning back to Yngveld, he narrowed his eyes. "You use the power of laerdom against your fellow warriors? I will not accept that or you. I challenge you."

   "You challenge me? You fool. I can destroy you with but a thought." Yngveld stretched out her hand towards the door and twisted her hand. Green fire seemed to hang in midair for a second and then vanished in a flash of brilliant light. A thunderous sound crashed through them all and outside a tree exploded as the lightning bolt struck it. The Vestenmanjavenar shuddered at the effortless exhibition of her power. Turning back to him, she declared, "State your challenge. You will fail."

   Scar's face twisted as his mind scrambled for a means to defeat her. Then he assumed an arrogant pose and declared. "I challenge you to place your hand within the fire with mine. Whomever withdraws their hand first shall lose and shall withdraw from this thing." Yngveld agreed and stepped forward to directly across the fire from Scar. The two nodded and both placed their hands within the leaping bonfire. Sweat instantly sprang up on their foreheads and the fire seemed to crackle louder. The sickening odor crept throughout the room and the clothes on Yngveld's arms caught fire. A minute passed slowly as the two stared at each other and the others could see the hands char and foul smoke rose towards the night.

   Finally Jared stepped forward. "Enough!" All eyes turned towards him. "This is stupid. Our enemies are poised to destroy us and we fight amongst ourselves? Our two strongest warriors cripple themselves to find out who is the mightier? This cannot happen. Withdraw your hands, we will devise a new challenge." Amazingly, the other leaders nodded at the reasonable suggestion.

   But Scar refused. "Never. This is a sacred challenge, I will not withdraw." Reaching down to his weapon, he clasped his weapon but did not draw it.

   Jared shook his head. "The thing has spoken. Withdraw. This is our decision." Yngveld and Scar stared at each other another moment and finally they nodded. The two stepped back. Their hands were blackened and deeply burned, but they ignored that as they awaited the decision of the thing. The other Vestenmanjavenar noted they were impassive, but badly injured. Huddling together they discussed the matter for several minutes.

   Straightening up, Jared loudly declared, "The thing has decided. Yngveld, you mentioned speaking to the Runes. But we know this is impossible. While we can draw upon their power and speak to them, the Runes take no notice of us." Yngveld looked at the man by the doorway and smiled, but did not speak. "However, several of us have spoken with our ancestors recently. They tell us that one of the Runes can be found in the city of Kirk. In this time when we so desperately need the wisdom and guidance of the runes, we declare this challenge. Whichever of you finds the Living Rune and convinces it to return with you to this place in two months time will be judged the victor. We will follow the plan of that one." Yngveld and Scar considered that for a moment and then both nodded. As one they declared, "I agree."

   Jared responded, "Then so be it. We will all return here in two months time." Without another word, the meeting ended and all but one of the leaders returned to their ships. Alone in the ancient meeting hall, Jared Homason stood in thought. Yngveld had certainly shaken up this meeting. But it had turned out far better than he had expected. Having the two most charismatic Vestenmanjavenar leaders in Kirk would certainly make things easier for Jorund and the Vendel Merchant League. As an added bonus, he would go to Kirk himself to "observe" the proceedings. The thought of staying in his luxurious quarters in Kirk for more than a day or two at a time brought a smile to his face. Perhaps the Vesten problem could be eliminated once and for all. As he left the meeting hall, Jared thought about the meeting again. Normally a thing such as this would have been far more violent. It was actually ridiculous that the challenge had not been a battle to the death. It was almost as if something had been working to keep the meeting peaceful, something that reduced the simmering emotions and violence. He wondered what could have the power to accomplish that as he returned to his own ship.