The leaves on the trees were all turning yellow and red as Jhern of Norne headed into the river valley. He took no pleasure in their gorgeous splendor, or the feeling of them beneath his feet, how they spun into the air as his boots struck them. The sound of the leaves meant anyone in the river would hear him coming—a dangerous enough proposition at home. Here in the Duke of Auzurn’s territories, he might pay for it with his life. And their changing colors signaled the arrival of colder nights and stiff, miserable mornings, to say nothing of the fact that soon enough winter would be here.
It would be nearing winter by the time he arrived at his intended destination, assuming he made it there. Perhaps it would already have arrived, for he had heard that winter came early in Allemar, that fearsome place of bearded warriors. Before he reached that land, long before winter came, he first had to cross the Duke’s territories and survive the Pass of Ghosts, which so few had managed to cross. And if he made it that far, there were the fiendish Skeletal Swamps, which it was said swallowed men whole and stole the souls of those who survived.
It was essential that Jhern do all this, risk life and limb for his Prince. The fate of his people, the fate of all Norne, depended upon it. The seas were rising and they would swallow their cities soon. Only the Allemar, with their magic, could spare them the terrible fate that awaited them.
And Jhern, emissary of his Prince, was the one entrusted to bring that word. Along with his companions, but they were gone. Had all died so early upon this journey, to ensure that he would survive, that the message he carried, would be delivered. He had so far to go that it seemed impossible, but he knew he would have to. There was no other choice.
As he came to river’s edge, he saw the narrow bridge ahead that the road he was on led to. He stood and looked it over cautiously, to see if there was any movement. This valley was home to woodcutters and the odd shepherd, but few others. The Auzurn authority barely extended here and Jhern did not expect to encounter any of the Duke’s men. But one could never be too careful. There was too much at stake.
When he was satisfied that there was no one waiting for him, he started forward again, moving at a quick pace, not wanting to linger on the bridge or in the open for long. As he did, he was certain he saw a flash of movement across the river. It might have been a trick of light, but he thought not. He paused for an instant before continuing on, his hand straying to his belt to confirm that his sword and dagger were handy. He felt sure they would be necessary.
The bridge was a narrow, flimsy thing, strung across with rope and layered with boards. It swung slightly in the wind, the rope creaking in a way that made Jhern wonder how ancient it was. How many shepherds and woodcutters had made their way across it?
That was not his immediate concern though. More important was what awaited him on the other side.
He did not have to wait long to find out. Before he was even halfway across, a figure emerged from amidst the trees to block the way on the bridge’s far end. It was a towering man, dressed in the Duke’s colors, with a long broadsword at his side. Even from this distance, Jhern could see the ugly scar that ran from his eye down his cheek, disappearing beneath the armor. He paused for a moment to gather himself, drawing a deep breath.
Across from him the giant crossed his arms, a thin smile spreading on his face. “I know who you are little one. You are the Emissary of Norne.”
Jhern almost stumbled, such was his surprise. How could this Auzurn know who he was? “What of it?” he cried out.
An evil smile formed on the giant’s face. “Your journey ends here. You shall not pass.”
Jhern stopped where he was, very conscious of the swaying of the bridge and the groaning of the ropes. He was, he judged, a little more than halfway across, making retreat all but impossible. A swing of the giant’s sword would sever the ropes and send him tumbling into the torrent below.
As if to confirm this, the giant said. “You must come here and face me. If you turn aside I will send you into the river below.”
“Why not do that now?” Jhern said, in frustration. One look at the giant and his massive arms told him he had little hope of defeating the man in hand to hand combat.
“I will give you a fair fight, as is honorable. It is more than the Norne ever gave my father and mother when they set upon my village.”
Jhern resisted a bitter laugh. Of course the fate of the Norne would be decided by some peasant villager who had been wronged years ago, probably by men who had long since passed to the other side of the Veil. And if Jhern failed here, the rest of his people would join them soon enough. He had to find a way.
“You call me emissary. Do you understand what is at stake? The fate of all Norne. We will fall under the sea in a span of years, unless the Allemar help us. And that is no sure thing.”
As Jhern spoke, he glanced down at the coursing river, trying to ascertain whether he could survive the fall and the current. It was unlikely. He was a poor swimmer and the water was fast and wide.
“I know what you journey for,” the giant said. “I have been following you these last weeks. I have been waiting for just such a moment as this.”
“You know what I journey for and yet you would condemn us all to the fate of your parents. The men who wronged you, wronged you. There are thousands of children who you would condemn to death. They are innocent.”
“They are born of Norne,” the giant said. “In my eyes they are as guilty as you. Vengeance shall be mine. Come across now. There is no escape for you. Face this like a man and perhaps you will see your people saved.”
The giant gestured and Jhern gave a small, helpless shrug and started forward. As he walked across, he tried to think of some strategy to defeat the giant. None came to mind, except to wound him in the leg somehow and run for his life. Even that might lie beyond his capabilities.
He was a step or two from the bridge’s end when the board he stepped on gave way, sending him plunging toward the river. Flailing desperately he managed to get one hand upon the next board and he clung to it by his fingertips. His free hand sought the board and found purchase, but he still had to pull himself up, back onto the bridge.
Seeing him fall, he giant cried out in fear and rage and rushed onto the bridge, a hand extended. But his weight upon the bridge jarred it and set it swinging, shaking Jhern’s grip. One hand and then the other fell away. The giant reached him too late, Jhern felt their fingertips brush together before he fell into the water.
The last thing he heard was the giant’s bitter roar at his revenge denied, before the river carried him away, pulling him under.
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