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Set in the kingdom of Letrovius, a fallen king must save his kingdom while staving off terrible nightmares of what awaits him when he dies.
King Tyler Letrovius has lost control of his kingdom. Democracy is taking hold, and without a bloodline to continue his legacy, the council of lords has chosen to dethrone the once-powerful King of Blades. Unable to come to terms with the new conditions, Tyler's heart gives out and must be revived by a local physician. But not before Tyler spends a few minutes in Hell, tortured by a god called Aerial who needs Tyler but refuses to explain why.
When Tyler awakens, he learns that his knights have abandoned him and an army from one of the northern kingdoms is marching south, determined to strike the kingdom of Letrovium before its new leaders can act. Tyler must find a way to save his kingdom during the day even while he suffers in the darkness of Hell every time he falls asleep. In Hell, Tyler finds himself hounded by strange visions of a creature named Grendel and a mysterious long-dead hero named Beowulf.
Time is running out—Tyler is dying, and has only a few precious days to fulfill the demands of Aerial, the god of second chances.
Hell disappeared, replaced by a much colder, brighter landscape. Light snow covered the ground, light enough for hibernating bushes and pine saplings to still stretch and poke their way through. The region looked mountainous in one direction and empty in the other. Ahead of Tyler was a tall hill with a wide, flat summit. He was in a deep valley, empty save for pines that dotted the landscape. A quick look down confirmed that he was fully clothed in thick animal hides and boots made of some kind of dark skin. His exposed face was beginning to feel numb from the cold, a strange feeling given where he’d just come from.
“Why am I here?” Tyler asked.
“You’ll know soon enough,” said a voice behind him.
Tyler turned, taking a step back when the large man walked by, lifting his legs up high so he could traverse the shin-high snow. He smiled at Tyler with a mouthful of stained teeth and continued walking through the snow. Unlike Tyler, this man was wearing a heavy black cloak and chainmail over boiled black leather. He was young-looking, with long blond hair split in half by two braids that hung over his shoulders and a square jaw with only a handful of dark whiskers. At his belt was a sheathed bastard sword whose tip cut a line through the snow.
And then there were more, walking past Tyler, trudging slowly. Twenty or so, by Tyler’s count. Some were wearing chainmail and similar cloaks or brown fur coats, while others wore simple deerskin coats and thick breeches to stave off the cold. They were men, all of them, and the ones wearing deerskin were clutching the reigns of black mules who pulled on small wooden carts filled with traveling provisions. The mules exhaled thick clouds of steam that stunk like rotten vegetables.
“He has a right to know,” said another soldier as he walked passed Tyler. He was slightly older, with shorter brown hair and a thick beard. He struggled with each step through the thick snow, breathing hard like the mules, his long freckled forehead wet with sweat despite the cold.
“You’ve no right to know anything, Unferth,” said the man at the front, to which the other soldiers laughed.
Tyler trudged through the snow, walking closer to the man at the lead. “I don’t understand why I’m dreaming this,” he said to the man.
“You’re not the one dreaming,” called the man named named Unferth. “It’s our lord Beowulf who is dreaming.”
The man at the lead smiled to himself, watching his legs push through the soft snow. He was a strong man and kept his breathing labored, letting his breaths escape through his nose. “You’re not dreaming, lad. This place is real. This snow is real. And the glacier that moves south, that is all too real.”
“The glacier?” Tyler asked. “I’ve never seen a glacier.” He was speaking mostly to himself, unsure of how his mind would be able to create something it had never seen. These men with him looked like men from the north, but Tyler had seen crude drawings in old books before and so conjuring them up seemed simple enough. But a glacier ...
“The glacier chokes the land,” said Beowulf. “I’ve never seen it myself. I’d like to climb it, if we have time. Maybe spit from the top.”
“You say that now,” said Unferth, “as if you’ll live to climb it.”
Beowulf stopped. Behind him, the carts of mules stopped as well. The soldiers looked at each other nervously, their eyes darting between Beowulf and Unferth, who now stood just ten paces from each other. Most all of the men had thick beards, some red and some blond, always matching the long hair on top of their heads. Most looked older than the man named Beowulf, which meant Beowulf most likely had been born into a privileged family of some kind. He hardly looked to Tyler like someone who’d seen enough battles to warrant the kind of respect that would need to be earned by this lot.
Beowolf turned, studying the older man.
“I know why we’re here,” said Unferth. “I know what you seek to do.”
“A fine time to mention this, now, in this dreary spot,” Beowulf said. He held out an arm, displaying the cold empty landscape. “Perhaps earlier would have been better, when we landed at the port. We could have gotten drunk on ale, passed out, then returned home the next morning.”
“I tell you it’s impossible.”
“Impossible?” Beowulf raised an eyebrow. “Impossible is just another mountain to climb. Impossible has a summit, like all mountains.”
“I’ve been here,” Unferth continued, pressing a fist to his chainmail. “I know the one you seek and I’ve raised a sword against him. I tell you this is a fool’s errand. Every man sitting here will never see home again.”
“Good,” said one of the soldiers, an older ugly man with a scar running along his forehead and a thick red beard. He spit into the snow and the warm saliva tore a hole in it. “I hate home. I hate my wife and I hate my kids.”
Everyone laughed but Unferth.
“If you danced with the one we’re after,” said Beowulf, “then it’s no wonder he’s still alive.”
Unferth’s face reddened. “These men look up to you because they think you can defeat this one we hunt.” He laughed. “You, the one who once challenged a foe to a swimming contest and lost! Too afraid to fight him, you chose instead to freeze your balls off so that they may be more easily handed to your enemy.”
Beowulf smiled. “That’s right, I did challenge Breca the son of Boramofsky to a swimming contest. We swam across the great sea only unlike Breca, I chose to wear my armor and keep my sword and I was still winning.” The men laughed and Beowulf continued, “To make matters worse, I found myself dragged to the ocean floor not once or twice but nine separate times, and every single time I had to fight my way back through a sea of angry krakens larger than the largest boat.” The men laughed harder, all but Unferth. “When I finally reached the shore, I was carrying that dumb fool Breca in one hand. Poor Breca, too exhausted to finish the race on his own. And I suppose you could say he did win, because before reaching the shore, I tossed the damned fool onto the sand so that I could push back against the crushing waves who demanded I return.”
The soldiers clapped in admiration, and Tyler couldn’t help but smile. Whoever this man was, he could spin a good yarn. Unferth had no reply but Beowulf waited anyway, challenging the man with his dark blue eyes. When no challenge came Beowulf turned and saw that there were men on black horses coming over the summit of the hill in the distance, riding hard. His smiled faded.
“Friend or foe?” asked one of the soldiers behind Tyler.
Beowulf drew his bastard sword, holding it with one hand. It looked old and sharp, the guard and pommel rusted. “Foe,” he said through clenched teeth.
Tyler stepped back, almost tripping on a rock under the snow. The men on horseback were twenty strong, forcing their horses through the snow without a care for what might be lurking underneath. As they got closer Tyler could see that they wore old armor plates over their chests and kept thick bear hides wrapped tightly around their necks. Some of them were balding, others with black hair that bounced off their shoulders with each horse’s stride.
“Stay close to the mules,” Beowulf said to Tyler. “You’ll be safe enough.”
“Arrows!” called out Unferth, and Tyler instinctively crouched, wading his way backward through the snow for the safety of the carts. There were five horsemen near the front with bows, and they let loose five arrows that sailed across the sky toward the soldiers. Everyone had ducked down but Beowulf, who watched the arrows sail over his head.
“Watch your necks, boys!” someone shouted over Tyler’s shoulder, stinging his eardrum. He inched closer to the cart, searching between the casks of wine and slabs of fresh-carved meat for some kind of weapon, even if it was a simple butcher’s knife.
Another volley of arrows landed around them, and again Beowulf stood his ground, holding his sword out in front of him. There was no space left for a third volley, and the horsemen at the front threw away their bows into the snow. As they passed they jumped from their horses, howling like wild animals, and then it was chaos as powdery snow seemed to leap up in every direction, hanging in the air so that only dark shapes could be seen. Metal clanged on metal and men screamed; the five in deerskins who’d been leading the mules had all congregated near Tyler, away from the fighting near the front.
When the snow settled already six of the horsemen had been downed, the snow around their bodies melted by hot blood. Seven were holding off Beowulf’s soldiers with wild swings of their two-handed swords and the remaining seven were encircling Beowulf, trying to gain an edge on him as he shifted in the snow to meet whoever may charge first.
“My lord!” one of his soldiers called out, but it was hopeless; Beowulf’s soldiers were all cut off, save for the one named Unferth, who held his single-handed sword with two shaky hands, his eyes darting left and right. He had an opening to flank the horseman on the edge but he refused to take it. Tyler wanted to shout at him, to run forward and attack with just his bare hands, but the two-handed swords look sharp. He tried to will his mind to give him a sword, but his hands remained empty.
One of the horsemen charged Beowulf, and then another from the opposite direction, and then it seemed all of them were on him but he swung his sword around quickly, striking one of the nearest attackers across the throat and sending a spray of blood across the faces of two others, and with them at his flank he turned, parrying one sword and taking another across his arm; it sliced open his cape but bounced off his chainmail. Beowulf swung and hit the chest plate of the baldest of the men, who fell back with a cry. He pushed through the snow quickly, grabbing the horseman by what remained of his greasy blond hair and pulling him into the way of the next slash. The horseman screamed, falling into the snow and the scream stopped the moment Beowulf brought his boot down.
Now there were only five left, two of them covered in the blood of their brother, hesitant to try and circle around him. They came at him altogether again and this time Beowulf strode back, his strong legs forcing their way through the snow quicker than the men could advance until three of them fell back a few paces, breathing heavily, the other two unfortunate ones cursed by their own endurance. Beowulf slashed at them, hacking at their armor with broad, sweeping strokes that knocked them into the snow, bleeding.
Beowulf stepped back again, now even with Tyler and the rest huddled next to the cart. He was smiling again, staring at the three remaining horsemen whose chests rose and fell quickly, steam escaping from between their lips and betraying their fatigue. When they attacked again, they moved slower, and Beowulf screamed when he drew his blade upward, cutting the middle man across his face, grabbing the arm of the one next to him and pulling him close so a quick pommel blow could connect with his temple.
The last remaining horseman turned and tried to flee but tripped over the dead body of one of his brothers. When he turned and looked up Beowulf was over him, sword hanging delicately from his hand, the tip of the blade aimed over his neck. Beowulf’s soldiers were with him now, the other horsemen dispatched. They were staring at Beowulf with a mixture of awe and admiration.
“I yield,” the horseman said. He was young, had black teeth and a black beard and thick red cheeks. He wore no gloves and one of his fingers was missing on his right hand, which he held up under the point of the sword as if to stop its descent. His eyes were bloodshot and his body shook. Flecks of snow melted on his hot neck, glistening it.
Tyler trudged through the snow, closer now. He wanted to see Beowulf’s face.
“I’ve never seen those markings,” said the soldier next to him. He had his bearskin pulled back and was clutching his bloody arm, but already the shallow wound had begun to clot. His skin was red from the cold and two of his fingers were at odd angles.
“Nor I,” said Ulferth. He glanced over his shoulder, as if expecting the other dead men to rise from the snow. He doesn’t trust his companions to finish them off, Tyler thought.
Beowulf ignored them, staring down at the horseman, his sword still dangling over the horseman’s face. Beowulf had a measured calm about him, all the good humor gone now. “Would your master grant mercy?” he asked.
The horseman looked down at the small red sigil that had been painted onto his old chest plate. It was a tree, dead, its limbs hanging low. He lowered his hand, understanding, and Beowulf brought down his sword, through the man’s neck. Hot blood gushed out, melting the snow.
The others stepped back. The one clutching his arm nodded. Beowulf turned to them, handing his sword off to the young one who’d been leading the first cart. He bowed, walking back to the cart and grabbing a cold, dry rag from underneath the pile of cloth tents. He wiped carefully, licking feverishly at his chapped lips. His mouth didn’t fully close, his lower jaw jutting out a little too far.
“The one we seek still has some followers, then,” Beowulf announced. He took a deep breath, staring at the dead horseman. “They’re promised power and wealth and in exchange they’ll kill anyone. Anything. Grant them mercy if you wish but I will not. For the one we hunt will grant none to us, I can assure you that.”
“Will you tell us now, my lord?” asked the soldier clutching his arm.
Beowulf used his teeth to scratch his lower lip. The air was still and Tyler could smell the death all around them. “We hunt a monster,” he said finally. “And we will hunt him until he is dead, even if it means riding the great glacier itself and eating our own dead to stay alive.”
If the soldiers were afraid, they didn’t show it. Only Unferth seemed nervous, shifting his weight from foot to foot. He still held his sword and it was still clean.
“We cannot kill it,” Unferth said at last. He spit into the snow and sheathed his sword.
“Then you will see Hell sooner than you expected,” Beowulf said. He stood, waiting for other challenges, but Tyler could see clearly that the men were more than willing to die for their lord. They believed in him, and after seeing him fight, Tyler understood why.
“Where do we go?” asked the soldier clutching his arm.
Beowulf pointed northeast, over Tyler’s shoulder. Tyler turned to look, surprised to see the sun had moved west quickly. When he turned back, Beowulf was gone, as were the others and the carts and the mules and the dead horsemen. The snow was undisturbed.
“What do I do?” Tyler asked aloud.
There was no answer.