Novgorod, the Cracked King
From the journal of Sveinn:
It was the first day of the Celebration of Ashes when I received my invitation to the great tower of Xenophon the Everlasting, an apparently ancient wizard who has secreted himself away in the frigid mountains known as the Bitter Spine. At the time, I had been studying in the cold halls of the Collegium at the Crown – an endeavor which required no small expense – but I fervently wanted to peruse the timeless mage’s apparently vast library, and so I packed my bags and departed from that place of learning to pursue what I had hoped would be my academic future.
The journey to Xenophon’s tower was treacherous, and my guides refused to join my for the final leg of my journey, explaining to me that no one dared approach that gray spire as it was not a place engineered by the hands of human or demihuman. They even tried to talk me out of going, the fools. Could they not see my passion? My eagerness to browse the wizard’s great library? I was pleased to see them go. Their ugly, barking language had begun to irritate me.
It took three more days to find the tower, and I was nearly lost in a sudden and savage blizzard, but miraculously, as I strode out of the wall of bone-chilling wind and blinding stone, thinking myself hopelessly lost, I found myself at the very doorstep of the gray tower. At once, I could see why the natives here feared the place so.
The tower was a strange and ugly thing, crafted of great stone blocks seemingly too large for even an army of humans to transport, and it sagged in the center, suggesting poor architecture, but also giving the place an ancient appearance, like something primeval, from a time when the great primordials still rules this world. Vast stone stairs brought me to a single great door, carved with intricate, knotted patterns. I raised my hand to knock, but before my hand could meet the door, it drifted open with an ominous groan that made me cringe, as all I had heard since my guides had left me was the rushing arctic winds.
When the door opened, I was greeted by no host, only shadows and dust. Still, something had been aware of my arrival, and so I moved inside. All at once, the great hall was illuminated as a hundred sconces sprouted flames in unison, and the darkness retreated to the far corners. I immediately had the impression that no one had walked this hall in many years, as the dust on the floor was thick, and the welcoming carpet was anything but, thanks to the damp decay that had claimed it.
When the man at the top of the grand staircase spoke to me and beckoned me inside, I felt a moment of panic that I hastily buried back into my chest, then I gazed up at my host. He was a frail looking man, but venerable in the way that he carried himself, and the regal vestments he cloaked himself with. Even across the great hall, I could feel the man’s raw power.
Xenophon welcomed me to his home and together, we ascended floor after floor, many of which I’d guessed had not been visited in decades, perhaps longer. He brought me to the level which he inhabited, and we shared a meal while we discussed my studies, as well as what I had hoped to find there in his library. Strangely, he refused to answer many of my questions concerning himself, but I assumed that the wizard simply was not accustomed to speaking after so long a time secluded.
I told Xenophon about my devotion to academic pursuits, and my desire to one day teach at the great centers of learning across the globe. He told me that my dream was foolish and wasteful of my talents. He told me that simply regurgitating knowledge from books was meaningless if I had not experienced them and made my own history along the way.
I took the wizard’s words to heart and threw myself into my studies, and his libraries were as grand as the stories told, perhaps more so. Of course, the stories failed to make mention of the molds, rot, and smell of the place, but I would correct the stories once I had made a name for myself.
Most of my days in the tower were spent in the libraries, making sense of the haphazard collection of tomes and voraciously reading all that I could about the ancient histories of the world, of empires reduced to dust by the passage of time and the varied religions that came and went with them.
Before I knew it, a year had passed, and I had barely made any progress in my attempt to properly catalogue the wealth of knowledge the wizard had amassed over his inhuman lifespan. I saw Xenophon rarely during that time, but when we did meet over the occasional meal, he would simply listen and nod as I rambled at length about the various subjects I had read about since our last meeting.
During my studies on local history, I had repeatedly found mention of a high king who ruled in a bygone age known in the oldest texts as High King Novgorod; more recent texts referred to him as the Cracked King of the Iron Crown, the Lord of Nothing, and He Who is Forgotten. It seemed that High King Novgorod had once made an empire of the whole of the frigid lands by earning the loyalty of the jarls and subduing or eliminating the numerous clans of savage, nomadic orcs. Strangely, the stories became vague after his conquests, and then he disappeared from the history books entirely. No mention of his dying or being usurped, the books simply moved on to the Kingmaker Wars sometime afterwards.
I felt that I was on to something important here, something that would gain me the renown that I desired. I abandoned all of my other studies and dug deeper into the rotting heaps of books, searching for the very oldest I could find. My search brought me to one of the forgotten levels of the tower, where snow had gotten in through a cracked window and turned many of the books there into great piles of soggy decay. Despite the foulness of the place, I pressed onward, digging through the darkest corners and sifting through the decay. In the end, my diligence was rewarded when I found the crumbling remnants of a truly ancient book bound in red leather that I had to assume was dragon hide.
Rather than yet another history book, this tome appeared to have been the firsthand account of High King Novgorod’s reign, recorded by a captain by the name of Skold. The journal began some time after Novgorod had already claimed the throne, when the journal was gifted to Skold along with his promotion to captain.
The first half of the journal was inconsequential, just records of Skold’s daily life in the military, though it did reflect the peace that prevailed with Novgorod on the throne. After a few years however, Skold mentions a strange visitor to the throne room: a strange figure in yellow robes, face hidden behind a veil that bulged oddly with features that could not be human. This figure approached the keep on foot, wearing nothing to protect him from the brutal elements, with a thousand wild beasts in his wake. No guards attempted to accost him, they simply watched as he strode inside as though they were entranced by him.
The High King greeted the visitor warmly, extending his hospitality to what he feared could be a powerful enemy were he so unwise as to arouse the creature’s ire. Skold claimed that the High King and the thing in yellow appeared to be exchanging words, but only the High King spoke; no one heard the yellow figure speak, or noticed any gestures that would indicate communication. I found myself frustrated that he did not recount what Novgorod had said to this strange visitor, but I imagine he found his mind ensorcelled by the man in yellow as well, though he would not admit to it.
Novgorod spoke with the visitor well into the night, and as dawn began to break, the figure offered the High King two gifts: one, a black bird that whispered like a man; the other, a pointed iron crown. After this, the yellow figure left the keep, never to be seen there again.
For a time, things returned to normal, save for the fact that the high king now wore the iron crown instead of his own, and the crow was with him at all times, either on his shoulder or perched somewhere nearby. Skold wrote that High King Novgorod would speak to the bird as a pet and feed it from his own plate at meals, but after a time, he began to speak with the bird of matters concerning the empire and its governance.
This strange behavior carried on for another year or so, but then it escalated further when Novgorod began to spend hours alone with the bird in a darkened room, where he would sometimes bellow in strange languages that no one in the keep could understand. His advisors had to take the running of the empire into their own hands, while Novgorod sent his personal guard across the empire on secret tasks.
As the High King fell deeper into madness, he began to speak only in the alien language that the bird seemed to have taught him, and he would grow irate when his followers were unable to understand him. At times, he would remember the common tongue and make unusual demands: first, he ordered that all criminals be executed, no matter how trivial their crime, he even went so far as to perform many of the executions himself; he had the bodies heaped in the ancestral tomb beneath the keep, unceremoniously, until the ancient halls were practically overflowing. That done, he sealed the tomb with blood-saturated mud from the killing fields, and when it hardened, he painted sigils on the walls.
Understandably, fear began to take hold of the empire. Everyone had prayed for the return of their goodly High King, but he only slipped further and further into darkness. The halls of the keep were filled with murmurs and footsteps after dark, and the residents began to complain of scratching sounds coming from inside the walls; nights in that part of the empire began to grow longer, and the shamans said that unfamiliar constellations began to appear in the sky over the keep.
When the maddened king’s young son disappeared, and Novgorod was found soaked in blood, the guardsmen of the keep finally decided to take action. While Novgorod bellowed in his darkened chamber, the guard worked to get everyone out of the keep and off to safety. Skold, and three other captains remained behind to await the High King’s return to the throne.
At daybreak, when Novgorod sat in his throne with the bird at his shoulder, the four guard captains entered the throne room to greet him. The king blustered at them in his weird, ugly language, and the guard replied by drawing their spears. Before Novgorod could rise from his throne, the captains rushed himself, each of the spears plunging through his body with enough force that the blade was embedded in the throne, effectively pinning the High King to it.
Though unable to rise from his seat, the High King continued to bellow, while blood ran from his mouth and he reached out to the guards with clawed hands. The four captains were shocked and terrified to see the king still alive and fighting, despite the attack that should have slain him. In the end, they left the keep and spent the day boarding up the doors and windows, entombing the mad king in his keep, before finally leaving the place.
Throughout the rest of the journal, Skold seems to avoid talking about Novgorod anymore. He joined with one of the jarls during the Kingmaker Wars, but the journal ends before any victor was named, and so I must conclude that he was felled in the conflict. More importantly, he mentions several times that he can still hear things scratching at the walls after dark, and he can sometimes smell the scent of blood rising up from the floorboards. The forest in which housed the keep of the High King was considered cursed and no one would enter it for any reason after his fall.
The story of a cursed forest reminded me of a story I had heard in my youth. While traveling the frozen country with my father, we had stopped in a town called North’s End, where they only ate fish and farmed goods, due to the fact that the dense forest near them was considered cursed, so no one would eat any of the animals that dwelled within it. It was perhaps a flimsy lead, but with the Cracked King of the Iron Crown erased from history, I had no other leads to go on.
I discussed my findings with Xenophon and he seemed quite pleased with my discovery. He encouraged me to follow on my hunch, and even promised to fund my expedition – an offer which I simply could not pass up. Within a month, I had packed my things, formed an expedition party, and had a room in North’s End.
The locals in the sleepy little village told me I was only inviting trouble on myself and my expedition if I was to enter the forest, but I would not be warned away by superstitions a thousand years old. Three days later, we had procured all the necessary rations and excavation tools, and then we set off into the cursed wood.
I split my expedition team into thirds so as to cover more ground, in hopes of finding some clue that could lead us to what was once the seat of power for an entire empire. We agreed that after four days exploration, we would return to North’s End and report what we found. I don’t think any of us was prepared for just how dark and dense the primeval forest really was however.
After just two days in the woods, my team had gotten hopelessly lost. The markings we’d left in the trees to aid us in finding our way back had seemingly vanished, and every time we crested a rise in the land, we would find new rivers and cliffs to halt our progress and force us to change direction. On the third day, we awoke to find two of the four men I had brought with me were simply missing from their bedrolls. More startling for me was the fact that, when we followed their tracks in the snow, we found that both of the men had stood by my side in the night for a time before they turned and wandered off into the woods.
Quiet panic had set in on my final two companions, and I had to work hard to calm them. Several more days passed – I’m not sure how many, as it was always dark in the forest – and we found ourselves atop yet another rise in the land. I sent one of my companions up a tree in hopes of us finding our bearings, but the poor man lost his footing and came tumbling out of the great old evergreen. I’m not sure if it was the landing that killed him, or if he had struck a branch during the fall, but either way, he was still and lifeless by the time we’d gotten to him.
My final companion was insensate with rage, and he stomped around in the snow like a mad animal while bellowing that it was my fault that this was happening. After a time, I had managed to talk some sense into the raving man, reminding him that we had to work together if we were to make it out of that forest alive. We took up our fallen companion’s gear and moved on.
Madness gripped my final companion now. There is no other explanation for it. Some time after we had made camp and I had gone to sleep, I was jolted awake by a jerking sensation, and I looked up to see my final companion had gripped my sleeping bag around my shoulders and was dragging me through the forest, once again screaming and cursing me for bringing them there.
I tried to talk some sense into the man, but he was so far gone he seemed not to hear me. Fear took hold in my breast when he dragged me over a hillock and to the edge of a steep decline into a frozen river crusted with ice. I tried again to speak some reason to the man, but without a thought, he heaved me, still in my bedroll, over the edge of the drop.
Unable to protect myself because of being bound up in the bedroll, I struck stones and crashed through brush as I hurtled down the slope. The worst was yet to come however, as when I struck the river, I broke through the thin shell of ice and plunged into the frigid water below. My whole body seized up, and the air was stolen from my lungs. I began to thrash, and I think I freed myself from my bedroll, but it was too late. Darkness overcame me.
When I awoke, I no longer felt the cold water, or the frosty air, and I found it difficult to pull air into my lungs. After taking a moment to assess my situation, I realized that I had washed up onto an embankment with my lower half still in the river. I dragged myself out of the stream with weak arms and laid on the soggy ground for a time, trying to regain my breath, but it remained difficult and I sounded raspy. When I looked at my hands, I found that my flesh had blued from the cold, leaving my pallid and ghoulish.
My thoughts shifted away from my wellbeing when I looked beyond my hand and into the clearing before me. There stood an ancient keep with intricate woodwork, most of it blackened with moisture and age. The cobblestones were overgrown, and most of the wall the surrounded the place had crumbled, but more importantly, I could see that the doors and windows of the place were indeed boarded up.
Excited by my discovery, I forced my body upright once more, and I stumbled forward until I fell against the door at the front of the keep. The wooden planks barring it were old and rotten and pulled away from the frame with a simple tug. The door offered somewhat greater resistance, swollen in the frame as it was, but I threw my weight against it until it slipped free and swung open.
At last, I stood in the great hall of the keep, surrounded by shadows and the sweet smell of decay. The floor was sticky with some coagulated black slime that had seeped up from between the stones, kept moist by the water dripping from the bloated ceiling overhead.
I walked across the floor slowly while my eyes adjusted to the darkness. Glancing downward, I saw that my hands were shaking with the excitement. When I looked up again, I found myself standing before a carved wooden throne standing atop a stone plinth. Seated in the throne was a human skeleton in crumbling leather armor, with four ancient, sagging spears driven through the ribcage and stuck into the back of the throne. Atop the head of the skeleton rested the pointed iron crown.
As if I was a passenger in my own body, I watched as my trembling hands reached past the cluster of spears and came to rest on the moist, brittle skull of the skeletal king. My fingers slid upwards and gently lifted the crown from the top of the skull.
The screech of a crow sounded in the darkness, so loud in the silence that it was deafening. I panicked and spun away from the throne, but was immediately blinded by the beating wings of a large crow as it fluttered against my face, cawing and scratching at my blued flesh. Skeletal arms wrapped around me from behind and the strength of the grip was monstrous.
I felt the skull of the dead king at my ear and it growled something in a language I could not comprehend as I was dragged into the throne. The words danced in my head and fogged my vision, and the last thing I remember was a flash of yellow cloth before I fell unconscious.
When I awakened again, I found myself outside the forest, laying face-down in the snow. I lifted my head to look towards North’s End, and at the small party of men who were trudging through the snow towards me, and I realized that there was a weight on my head. I reached up to inspect the weight, and felt the cold, barbed iron the Cracked King’s crown.