Something is awry is the land of Svanhald. Following the strangest of visitations, the lives of Princess Valeria and Prince Ulfric are changed beyond recognition and their once idyllic existences will soon become a fight for survival.
The steady hiss of falling water grew louder with each step along the woodland path. Through the branches and gaps in the leafy canopy overhead, strong beams of sunlight sprayed upon the greenery and onto Ulfric's fur tunic. It was hot, far hotter than usual, even for a summer's day, and that was for that reason his quarry had come so far, fleeing while watchful eyes had grown heavy in the soporific heat. Ulfric’s skin itched with sweat beneath his clothing, though his exertion thus far had been only mild. The path climbed upwards and for the first time he had to stretch out his considerable stride. Over rock and pebbles he ambled until he reached a stream cutting like a scar through the dense foliage.
Water trickled from a nearby ledge and sloshed into a pool that narrowed into the very stream he attempting to cross. Instinctively, he looked up to the top of the waterfall, knowing that was where he would find what he sought, and set upon the rocks for a further climb. As he passed by the pool, a towering figure with long blond hair and a closely cut beard mirrored his movements upon the water's surface until it passed over the top of the highest point.
Ulfric sighted what he sought at last and lowered his gaze with a disapproving sigh. There she was, reclined over the grey stone without a stitch of clothing on her perfect body. How many men would now pay a fortune in gold to trade places with him? She was, without doubt, the most beautiful woman he had ever known. Her hair was a glistening golden blonde, her eyes a shining blue, her skin flawless and evenly toned thanks, presumably, to displays such as this. She stretched out one foot then the other showing off a pair of legs so breathtaking long than when she stood she loomed above most men.
Not so with Ulfric, however, and unlike all the men who would trade for this spot he was not moved by the sight in the same way. Objectively, he knew her face was soft and feminine yet also striking and strong, he could see how her cheery, flirtatious glances could drive a man wild and could appreciate that her vast, full and magnificently shaped bosom would be an image of pure fantasy for the man who was lucky enough to see them and yet, for him, the chief of all feelings stirred was that of embarrassment.
He stepped on a rock loudly to give away his presence and the young woman sprang up holding a sword in her right hand. Seeing who it was, she relaxed and let the sword tip droop. "I see you found me."
"You are lucky 'twas I. Anyone might have found you thus. Now put some clothes on, Valeria, we need to return."
"Ohh, 'tis far too hot for clothes." Valeria complained pulling on a short, green tunic that covered her from her breast bone to her thighs and tightened around the waist where she strapped on a wide belt. She stepped into a pair of boots and fastened her scabbard and sword to her belt.
"Is that all you brought? You are still all but naked."
"I wear no less than you." Freya gestured to Ulfric’s knee-length brown tunic. "Why can a Prince dress so and not a Princess?"
"Women do not take leave of their senses when they see me so, the same may not be said for men looking upon you."
"You have obviously not paid close enough heed to how women react."
"Clothing is the least concern here. What possessed you to take leave of our guards and servants without a word and come here alone? The forest is full of peril."
"I brought my sword."
"A sword you have barely a notion how to use."
"You know that is not true."
"Showing some skill in practice is no preparation for killing a man or beast. Would you be prepared to drive that sword deep into the heart of the man who tries to rape you? Could you slash through the throat of a bear as it looks you in the eye? More than this, have you a thought for me in your recklessness? Did you consider how I would tell our father that I let my sister wander alone in the forest and thus she came to her death?" Valeria did not answer this challenge and Ulfric felt sick at himself for not feeling angrier with her.
"Forgive me. I felt the need for freedom so urgently I did not stop to think."
"What more freedom do you desire? Here we are, miles away from our father's hall and bereft of duties in a place we both love. Few ever have such freedom in their lives. When you are a Queen of a distant land ruling over a court and rearing your own heirs, you will look fondly on this."
"You make it sound as though my best days will soon be gone. I may yet find a husband who is agreeable."
"If father can find one able to pay the price. You are too valuable for your own good." Ulfric laughed. "And if we are to preserve that value, we must return afore word gets out of your fondness for freedom."
Descending back under the canopy of leaves the blazing radiance of the sun was replaced with the heaviness of unmoving air. Neither of them paid much mind to the way they were travelling for they knew this forest well. Every summer since they were children the royal heirs had come to the Sylvan Wald to learn how their forebears had lived long before they raised their mighty halls upon the plain. Ulfric had taken to hunting and tracking and Valeria had enjoyed running and climbing, playing in the water or in the mud and doing all the kinds of things a respectable princess could not in the closely watched arena of court.
This included helping her brother to keep up his training away from the practice grounds. Her suitors would not appreciate learning of such habits though they would appreciate the benefits it had given to her form.
Somershalla, the modest hall where they stayed during these times, nestled in the hills just above the tree- line and was visible long before they would reach it. The trees parted around the road from the hall leaving a dark cut where it wended its way down to the valley floor upon which they set foot.
Normally, this deep into the forest and this far from human settlements, there would be numerous birds nestled in the branches filling the air with song while from ground-level would come a constant shuffling, where foxes, rabbits and deer careered through fern and thicket and cracked the fallen twigs and shards of bark beneath their feet in pursuit and flight. Today, there was not so much silence as a distinct lull in the area surrounding them. Bit by bit, this eerie quiet chipped at the back of Ulfric’s mind until it burrowed its way into the forefront of his consciousness.
“What is it?” Valeria inquired. Ulfric looked at her then looked down at his hands realizing he had freed his hefty war axe from his baldric without even thinking about it.
“Something stalks us.” Valeria, to her credit, did not question or panic but calmly drew out her sword and nonchalantly glanced to and fro to check for signs of danger. Ulfric gripped the curved haft of his axe and felt the weight of the broad head pulling on his hands. It was a formidable weapon and well-maintained. A single, forceful, swing could split a bear’s torso wide open if need be and do much worse to a man unclad by mail and leather.
“Should we force it into the open?”
“No, we know not what we face. Keep going along the path. With luck, it will think better of approaching us.”
They reached a bend in the path and soon the way behind them was lost to sight. Ahead they could see Somershalla looming over the line of leaves. By all rights they would return ere dusk, by all rights it would be light for several hours yet. Nonetheless, even as they moved along the parallel track to their destination, gloom settled over them with astonishing alacrity. Ulfric furrowed his brow at the unexpected change in light, Valeria, on the other hand, turned on the spot and looked behind them with even greater incredulity.
“How can that be?” Ulfric followed her gaze. The sky beyond was still clear and bright, as it was to each side where they could see it between the branches. The shadow lingered only over their immediate surroundings.
Swiveling back towards the path ahead, Ulfric nearly dropped his axe in shock. Two figures stood before them where before they had been alone, observing them quite calmly as if they were waiting for them to turn their gazes thither.
Both were strangers to them and looked unlike any of the folk of Norsica who tended to be fair of hair and full of body. These two were slender as youths with long hair and garments of polished leather. The female of the two had hair so vibrantly red it did not appear natural and eyes so pale they could be silver. Her boots went up to her thigh and above she wore a black tunic so sparse it made Valeria’s garb seem modest. The male of the pair had jet black hair and wore trousers and sleeveless tunic of the same blood red as his companion’s hair. Over his chest and forearms were plates of armour.
In the darkness, Ulric could not say whether they were metal or some kind of hide. The armour did not concern him so much as the elegant, curved, one-sided sword hanging in his right hand free of its scabbard. “Who dares bear arms to the heir of Svanhald? Sheathe your blade at once or else a hundred men-at-arms will descend on you at my call.”
The strange pair exchanged glances, smiled and shook their heads tauntingly.
“I warn you do not…”
“Ulfric!” Valeria threw herself at his shoulder and pushed him sideways with such force he nearly lost his footing. The female was grinning now and held her hand outstretched pointing to where he had been standing.
“Valeria…” His sister leapt to the side again this time moving away from him. The female stranger twirled her hands on her wrists and gusts of wind whisked up around them gathering up bark and deadwood into four piles.
“By the Gods!” The gathered debris coalesced and Ulfric stared unbelieving as they rose into upright forms, standing as men with long twisted fingers and glowing green eyes. The red-haired woman gestured forward and forward they came, half shambling, half-gliding across the mud and grass. The foremost of them swooped straight upon Valeria, digging its sharp fingertips into her tunic. “No!” Ulfric brought down his axe without hesitation shearing clean through the reaching arms then rammed the axe-head into its face sending it sprawling backwards. The second to approach lost its fingers to Valeria’s sword.
The last two backed off momentarily leaving space for the male stranger to speed through the gap towards Valeria. “I said no!” Ulfric roared and swung his axe upward in a sweeping charge. The stranger arched backwards and the blade skimmed past his face hitting nothing but clear air. Somehow he retained his balance and span into a crouching stance from where he lashed out at Ulric’s shin. He could not hope to move in time the only thing Ulfric could do was let his axe haft slide through his hands and barely managed to jam it between the blade edge and his flesh. The stranger moved in a blur, Ulric’s head swam and he realised he’d been slapped by the flat of the sword blade. Silver flashed in front of his eyes and he jerked his head backwards then quickly adjusted his feet to go into a spin.
Hands at the end of the axe-haft he continued his turn into a horizontal slash meant for the stranger’s midriff. The stranger jumped on the spot and his feet passed over the axe in flight. Ulric was not going to give him a chance to recover and at once charged forward to catch him as he landed. Instead of knocking him down, he felt no resistance as the stranger let himself fall onto his hands. Ulfric followed and his face was filled by the heel of the stranger’s boot and he was falling backwards. He felt his axe slip from his hands and through his swirling vision saw his opponent rear up above him.
There was a ring of steel on steel and the stranger turned to fend off a strike from Valeria then pushed her back with the counter. Ulfric grabbed for his axe, pulling grass and dirt into his grasp in the frenzy. He was on his feet, one of the bark men stood between him and the duel of swords for brief moment before being cloven from scalp to breast. Green light spilled outwards and the creature fell apart. Ulfric wrenched his axe free and beheaded another trying to attack him from behind.
Valeria still held on, bravely parrying as best as she might against the swifter swordsman. His heart pounded with fear let me get to her in time. The stranger put her off balance and she pulled her sword back for a desperate counterstroke when it gleamed impossibly brightly like it had caught the full glare of sunlight on its length. Her attacker fell into a blind back-roll trying to get away before she could take advantage of his loss of sight. Ulfric charged to her side and the stranger retreated back further so that he was alongside his partner as he was with his sister. The two of them shared a look and a nod, shadow cut between them and the royal heirs and when it passed they were gone and moments after the gloom gave way to the sunlight that should have been there all along.
“There was no sun.” Ulfric muttered.
“Who were they? Why did they attack us? What did they want?” Valeria panted.
“I…I…I have no answers.” Ulfric looked his sister over. “Are you hurt at all?”
“A few scratches. Those things tore my tunic.”
“A tunic is a small trade for our lives.”
“I understand nothing of what happened. Why did they leave? We were not beating them.”
“I do not understand either. Mayhap they sought something other than our deaths? Come, here is not the place to ponder.”
“Do you realise I am in your debt now, Ulfric?”
“Either they were sent after you, me or us both. If they were sent for you, then I put you in danger by drawing you out here alone. If they were sent for us both, then I gave them a chance to get to us away from our guards and if they were sent for me, then I would have had to face them alone had you not found me.”
“We do not know anything yet. For all we know, they would have attacked whosoever had been first upon this path at this time. Put thanks and guilt aside until we are safe at least. We do not know if the danger has yet passed.”
Valeria smiled dutifully and fell into step behind him as he led them back upon the path. For a while afterwards, he did not dare break the silence for fear that the questions would return. For all his reassurance, he could not escape the feeling that the encounter was not random. Moreover, each time he played back what had happened he could not help but notice how they had seemed to focus on Valeria more than on him. Moreover, they seemed to want him out of the way more than anything else and only paid him any attention when he stood between them and his sister.
In the world he knew that made little sense. Had they been rapist he could understand it but they were clearly not there for some base assault. Their garb and weapons seemed exquisitely crafted, which suggested something more intricate and herein lay the confusion. Any enemies of Svanhald would want the prince dead more than the princess. It was he who oft led his father’s armies; it was he who would inherit his throne. None of this seemed to apply in what had just happened. Those attackers seemed too otherworldly for such conventional politics and then there was the…he tried to think of another word but none fitted…magic.
He glanced back at Valeria and she seemed to be lost in the same reverie. There was no sense talking it through between themselves. If there was something arcane afoot then Wiglaf would be best able to make sense of it. It seemed a fateful boon now that his father had banished him to Somershalla. No sooner had Ulfric begun to reckon his good fortune than it turned better still. “Valeria, look.” Valeria turned her beautiful face up the hill. “Here!”
Three men in Svanhald colours turned towards his call and were swiftly overtaken by the long strides of a towering man in bearskins. Ulfric laughed to himself. Many when they first met him looked in awe and craned their necks to take him in yet Ulfric had never felt like a giant. He suspected the reason was that he had spent too much of his life in the company of the man coming their way.
“Back from the hunt early, Bjorn?”
“Aye, and to hear that our dear princess has gone astray and her brother after her. I see you found her. It looks like you had to wrestle a bear to get her back.”
“A bear?” Ulfric felt his face self-consciously and realised he must be caked with mud and blood. “Not a bear but something stranger. We were attacked. I will tell all when we are behind the gates of Somershalla.”
“Wise and true, my liege.”
2. A True Daughter of Freyja
Bjorn heard the short form of the story but they refrained from deep discussion until Wiglaf was among them. Now with the setting sun the skald had returned and Ulfric went to fetch his sister. Unlike Stormhold, Somershalla did not have separate wings for the men and womenfolk. He was able to go directly to his sister’s chamber without challenge.
Most Thane’s daughters, let alone princesses, would be flocked by a roving band of chambermaids and ladies-in-waiting. Valeria barely tolerated any attendants and had had no handmaiden’s since her childhood maid had been allowed to leave to start a family. Such few as there were around Valeria, even fewer travelled with her to Somershalla. In this regard, approaching the princess of Svanhald was easier done than the stable-master’s daughter.
Oft in the past this had mattered little, as Valeria had chosen to spend much of her time safe in his company. That would have to change now if the reports Bjorn had shared proved true.
Ulfric knocked on the door to the chamber. “Who is it?”
“Enter as you please.” Ulfric pushed the door inward and immediately had to avert his eyes. Valeria was striding about the room clad only in a belt that held two strips of hanging cloth over her sex and behind and the golden clasp she was fastening above her firm and bountiful bosom.
“Valeria! You should not allow men to enter your room whilst you are unclad.” Ulfric chastised. Valeria sighed and dropped her hands to her hips.
“I do not allow men to enter. I allowed my brother.”
“Ulfric, we used to bathe together it is a little late to be shy.” Valeria fastened a side-less fur drape to her collar. Still the considerable swell of her chest pushed it open at the middle.
“We have both changed much since then.”
“Ah, do a woman’s curves frighten you then? I was sure some others must have shared them with you by now.”
“This is not a matter of jest. Curves and shyness are of no matter. You are a princess and a princess must keep some of her gifts concealed lest they lose their worth to the one who at last receives them.”
“Nonsense. If the Gods had meant for me to be modest, they would have granted me a more modest form. Unless you would have me wear thick layers of shapeless rags my curves will show through.”
“That is besides the matter.”
“Is it? For whom am I meant to keep my gifts hidden? This is my eighteenth year, Ulfric, my hand has been asked for since I was twelve.”
“Would you have wished marriage so young?”
“Far from it.”
“Why then would you disapprove of father’s care?”
“I do not disapprove, I simply note that it is unusual and begin to wonder for what reason this is so.”
“You are only unwed because father values you so highly.”
“I am not a fool, Ulfric. Word wanders through the halls of Stormhold. I know there have been offers more than equal to the worth of a princess.”
“Forget not that your beauty has worth too.”
“So my caring father is simply waiting for enough gold and land?”
“No…I mean that he has no need to settle for something less than you deserve. Surely that is what you want too?”
“I would like to believe that but it does not hold true. If father was concerned only for my happiness, he would let me meet my suitors. Is there not some small chance I might like one of them?”
“I did not realise you were so eager to be joined. I will speak to father on this matter anon. It may be that there is a suitor worthy of you.”
“It is not marriage that concerns me. I am a woman and I want the affections that a woman deserves. If that is to be from an esteemed suitor then so be it. And if father has no wish for me to wed ever then let me find joy in the arms of whom I please.” Valeria laughed sadly. “Forgive me, Ulfric, a brother is the last person who would wish to hear of his sister’s wants. We have a more pressing matter at hand. Is Wiglaf returned?”
“He is. I came to tell you as such.”
“Good. Could you pass me my belt?” Ulfric handed over the golden, weave-patterned, belt and Valeria closed it around her furs. There remained a revealing gap down the centre but Ulfric said nothing of it. She was right in one thing. A form like hers was hard to hide.
The royal heirs met Bjorn and Wiglaf in the trophy hall, a rectangular room with a single, long table set alongside a large, central fireplace with various beast heads of bears, boars, wolves and stags lining every wall. Both of the men had placed themselves across the table to the fire, which at this time was more for light than heat. Bjorn had his bear head hood down uncovering the thick black curls that matched with his bushy beard. At his temples and around his chin there were stray streaks of grey. Otherwise he looked the same as the burly hunter Ulfric had met on his first visit to Somershalla some thirteen years ago. That was not the first time they had met, for he and his sister had been born in Somershalla, but he had no recollection of that encounter.
Wiglaf had remained standing, dusting down his fur-collared, sleeveless, brown coat that hung to shin-level over the top of a simple blue-grey tunic and russet-coloured trousers. There was nothing remarkable-looking about Wiglaf. He was of average-height and girth and was neither handsome nor foul. His beard and straight, collar-length hair were a muted brown, neither dark nor approaching on blond.
Only in his iron grey eyes was there a hint of the inner-power he possessed. Wiglaf was a skaldr, a teller of sagas and songs. Years ago they had been the most hunted of all the Senatian Empire’s enemies for it was said that their strong voices and the tales of glory were what inspired the hardy northern folk to fight with such unnatural prowess against the more advanced, disciplined and numerous imperial armies.
Ulfric had never witnessed this power first-hand and Wiglaf was the only skald he had ever known. What was clear to him was that Wiglaf was a man of almost infinite lore. Through his memories and sagas he was Ulfric’s foremost source of history and knowledge of the lands and peoples of the Northern Kingdoms. He was not entirely sure how old the storyteller was, perhaps in his fourth decade, like Bjorn he had not seemed to change at all in all the years he had known him.
Both men greeted him and his sister without letting their gazes being drawn into her cleavage. After a decade of familiarity, these two were like uncles to them. All of them filled a horn of mead and with that Ulfric began a detailed retelling of their encounter in the forest. Wiglaf interrupted only to ask which of them the attackers went for first. Though he did not wish to do so in front of Valeria, he conceded that it was her.
“Not so.” Valeria interjected. “The woman shot some form of dark…I know not how to describe it…a trail of black mist at you first.”
“So that is why you pushed me aside. I did not see the thing you describe.”
“Please, go on.” Wiglaf encouraged. Ulfric continued the tale up to the point where Valeria’s sword flashed bright and the strange pair retreated.
“That was strange.” Ulfric noted looking at his sister. “There was no sunlight above us.” Bjorn and Wiglaf exchanged a look and it did not go unnoticed.
“You know something? Who were those people?” Valeria demanded.
“I do not know yet. If I were forced to guess, from your description I would say they were of the dockalfr.”
“Dockalfr.” Ulfric repeated. Had he not witnessed their strangeness himself he would have laughed at the description. “The legends tell only of elves that are good folk and many say those tales are naught but fancy.”
“That is not so. There are tales of elves that are not creatures of the light. Yet it is rare indeed for them to be seen in our world and most particularly in Svanhald, which has ever been under the watch of the Ljosalfr.”
“You mean to say there are elves in our kingdom?”
“You are in their heartland, Ulfric. Of that I can assure you.” Bjorn added.
“You have met them?” Valeria asked.
“Once, some years ago. I fear, though, this is a talk you should have with your father.”
“Does he know something about this?”
“That is for him to tell you or nay. He is my king; I cannot speak out of turn.”
“If we are in danger we must know!”
“Bjorn is right. You do need to speak to your father. Still, I can tell you a little. Your father did not know you might be attacked here, that is sure. As for your question, I think it is only you, Valeria, who is at peril. That is not to say I believe the dockalfr will come for you again.”
“Why are they interested in me at all? I have had no dealing with elves dark or light.”
“The alfr do not live in our world and for the most part have no dealings with men. In their world they have enemies. The dockalfr are elves who have been exiled for ill deeds. They are not dark in the sense that other elves are light. Some of them are fair and wise, others may be evil indeed. More importantly, they serve neither the alfr nor their enemies and this makes them useful agents for both sides. These dockalfr that attacked you may have been seeking knowledge for another party.”
“What am I to the enemies of the elves?” Bjorn and Wiglaf answered with uneasy silence. “Very well, then why now?” Bjorn nodded his head and answered.
“It may be that the conflicts of Alfheimr are spreading to the world of men.”
“Are you speaking of the burnings?” Ulfric questioned.
“What burnings?” Valeria looked from her brother to the others.
“Valeria may know of this.” Ulfric assented.
“We have reports from the Jorngards. Caravans have been attacked and isolated homesteads torched. Likely it is the work of bandits…we will know more soon.”
“Are you leaving us?”
“No, I am.” Ulfric replied. “We await riders from Stormhold and then I shall make for the lands of the Jorngards. When I leave you must return home. We cannot be sure the dockalfr will not come for you again here.”
“There were only two of them. I doubt they will try to pluck me from within these walls.”
“Doubt is not enough.”
“So be it. Will I get any more answers tonight?” No responses were forthcoming. “Then I will take my leave and find some answers for myself.”
“Stay within the walls.” Ulfric cautioned. Valeria gave him a look of pure venom.
“Wiglaf, do you have the keys to the library.”
“I will have someone bring them to your chamber directly.”
“Thank you. Goodnight to you all.” The men watched Valeria leave then turned to each other once more.
“What more can you tell me? You are sure the dockalfr are set on Valeria?”
“You should speak to your father.”
“I will in time but many miles will separate us for the coming days. If my sister is in peril, I must know now.”
“Neither of us has any knowledge of that. The best we can do is convince Valeria to take our warnings to heart.”
“She will. She is no fool. Likely she will find out more by her own means than you estimate. At least do me the kindness of keeping pace with her. I do not doubt you know not the intentions of these dockalfr yet the two of you do know something of magic. Is Valeria like you? She could see things I could not and that light from her sword was no reflection. It is clear she has gifts that I do not share.”
“Valeria is not like any of us. She is something apart. None of us can know with any certainty what powers she might possess.”
“You always knew this. You knew she is different.”
“We all knew. Bjorn was there when you were born. I came to your father’s hall for her sake.”
“Why did you never say something?”
“Your father made me vow to keep my tongue until the time came to reveal the truth. I must keep my tongue still until your father bids me to unbind it.”
“Why did he do this?”
“He wanted Valeria to have her youth unburdened by her destiny. It was from kindness he did so.”
“So that is why you quarrelled? You wanted to speak freely?”
“I felt the time was nigh. Your father felt otherwise and he is the king. I have bent my duty to tell you as much as have.”
“Be not troubled. I will test your loyalty no further. More questions I will ask afore I leave but none more tonight. Bjorn, will you have some of your salves taken to the sauna?”
“Of course, my liege.”
The air outside the hall remained warm even as the midnight hour approached. Ulfric could not remember a summer as hot as this one. Usually the air would cool the moment the light faded. The space in between the various buildings of Somershalla was littered with trees. Aside from the high fence and gates, there was little to delineate between the settlement and the surrounding woodland. He was surprised to see someone cross into his path from behind the large oak that took up much of the central courtyard. The moonlight shone down on the square face and even features of Dalla, the stable master’s daughter. Her pale blonde hair shone silver in the gleam and, not for the first time, Ulfric was reminded of how very pretty she was. On seeing the prince she smiled, sending up eyebrows darting up her brow and bent her knee in acknowledgement.
“Stay on your feet. Courtesy can be forgotten at this hour.”
“What keeps you abroad at this time?”
“The horses were unsettled and now I must fetch them more water. This heat brings on a strong thirst in them.”
“Allow me to assist your labour. The horses are my concern too.”
“I thank you, my prince, for your offer but I have but one more to fetch. I am strong you need not worry.” Ulfric looked her over. She was not boasting, though she was by no means bulky her figure was trim and toned from vigorous exercise. He had little doubt she was probably fitter than half his fighting men. “It would shame me to distract you for such a small labour.”
“Very well, I have no wish to shame you. Have a pleasant night.”
“Thank you, my prince, and a fair night to you also.”
They parted ways though the prince did look back more than once. Many a lord would take such a woman whether they willed it or no with little thought to the harm it would do her. The law would be on their side and the most the woman could hope for was that he might acknowledge any issue that resulted. Ulfric had no desire to be such a lord.
The training yard was deserted as he might have expected. Ulfric went straight to the thatched canopy that kept the weapons from getting wet. At other times warriors might want to test battle-ready swords and axes. Tonight, all that was present were the blunted versions used for practice. Ulfric selected an iron-headed axe that was deliberately made to be overweight. Using this weapon built up strength and taught the wielder not to over-exert and over-extend. After endless hours of practice Ulfric could swing it as fast as most men could move a standard-weight version.
His earlier fight kept replaying itself in his mind. It had been years since anyone had got the better of him in a dual. Now he knew his opponent was a dockalfr, did it make the shame lessen? Certainly it explained the unnatural agility. It did not explain how he would fare better if he should confront one again. In armour he would be better protected yet even without armour he was too slow to land a blow on the creature. The straw men took hit after hit. Every swing failed to purge his frustration and despite the night hour he soon started to sweat. Maybe the axe was the problem? Like his forebears he had trained to cleave mail and break through imperial shield walls. For both these purposes the war axe excelled. Against a lightly clad, mobile foe he would do better to use a sword or scramasax.
The training yard kept both of these weapons and Ulfric set about the straw men with one in each hand. The one-sided scramasax, tapered in on its blunt side, seemed to bite slightly harder: the double-edged sword had better range, was more versatile and considerably better on the thrust. Over and again he tried variations, switched hands, used one at a time, changed to a hand axe. The straw men never taught him what a moving enemy would and eventually fatigue overcame what gains he could hope to make.
The sauna was cut into the hillside like a small cavern. There was a small room at the entrance where Ulfric disrobed then he passed through a door into a circular room lined with benches. In the middle of the floor there was a pile of rocks that glowed with heat providing most of the light. The rest was given by candles in four corner alcoves carved into the stone walls. A leafy branch and several jars of oils and pastes had been set out on the far bench in preparation. Ulfric poured some water from the dish onto the coals releasing a cloud of steam that made his skin itch with warmth and then planted himself on the bench next to the jars. Sweat was already running in rivers down his back and more started to accumulate on his shoulders and forearms. He let his head droop and the steam waft over him.
Minutes later the sound of the door made Ulfric snap his eyes open and stare open mouthed as Dalla stepped into the sauna bereft of all clothing. “Forgive me, my prince, I had not reckoned on anyone being here. I shall depart if it is your wish.” In spite of himself Ulric could not stop his eyes wandering over her body taking in her firm breasts and rigid abdomen and skirting down over her well-trimmed mound. Neither could he stop his blood from swelling in his manhood. His only hope was that the light might be too dim for Dalla to notice.
“Do not leave on my account. The sauna is for all. You have as much right to be here as a prince.”
“I should be glad to stay.” Dalla poured more water on the stones and slowly walked over to the bench next to Ulfric where she stopped still, her nakedness mere inches from him and unable to avoid. She placed one hand upon the prince’s shoulder. “By the Gods. You are a strong one.” Her fingers traced from his shoulder to his jaw. “And almost as pretty as your sister too.” Dalla’s grin shifted to concern when Ulfric turned to face her. “You are hurt, I did not notice afore.”
“The pain is little I had thought to use a remedy.” Ulfric answered looking to the jars of ointments.
“I would be honoured, my prince, if you would allow me to help.”
Ulfric did not object and Dalla started to apply the paste across the thin cut on his right cheek then to the sore streak on his left where the flat of the dockalfr’s blade had struck him. Throughout he tried not to stare at the tits near his face or the sex near where his hand rested on his knee. “There are some who think saunas are holy places where spirits may dwell.”
“I have heard said that women sometimes give birth in saunas too.”
“Mayhap it is the only place where people may share nakedness free from lust.”
“Indeed. It is no different than between brothers and sisters.”
“Maybe next time you can bring your sister, my prince.” Dalla’s brown eyes flashed mischievously. “I would like to see that.”
“Why not? It means nothing…” Ulfric stopped speaking when Dalla started to apply the paste below his mouth where he had been kicked. When she finished she planted a gentle kiss on his lips and this was enough to make his cock lurch upward in delight.
“My prince!” Dalla cooed putting both her hands around the solid shaft. “You would be in place in the stables. Let me take you inside me.”
“I take the moon brew and besides, you are a man of honour. I trust that you would treat any issue with honour.”
“Then…” Ulfric took hold of Dalla by the waist supporting her whole weight in his hands and felt her warmth slide over the head of his turgid member. “Slowly…my prince, this is not my first but…ohh…it’s bigger…ahh.” Bit by joyous bit his cock sank inside Dalla until she felt fused to his groin. Their lips locked together and Ulfric rose to his feet holding her in one arm. Her legs locked around him they bucked against each other. “Fuck me, my prince, fuck me till I…ahhh.” Ulfric thrust his full manhood into her over and again until her juices ran down his thigh. Against the wall, over the benches, suspended in mid-air her womanhood welcomed him with every stroke. Never had he felt more powerful or more complete than holding Dalla as he was deep inside her, meeting her kisses, drinking in her scent and relishing her throes of excitement. The pain of his injuries, the ache in his muscles, his frustration and even the slowing heat of the sauna faded in lustful abandon.
3. Some Sons of Tyr
Redmore’s fair was in full swing and there was a happy sway of movement between the stalls. Sigrun was surprised to have sold all her furs after all the clement weather they had enjoyed over the last few weeks. Presumably, the folk of Redmore were wise enough to know it would not last. With nothing more to sell she packed the stall onto the handcart and wheeled it in the direction of her house.
Applause broke out among the crowd ahead of her. Armod was the winner of the prize hog award for the third year running. A few heads turned and smiled at Sigrun. A few of the men let their eyes linger, which was no surprise. Her attire was matched to the warmth and so she was down to a calfskin jerkin buttoned only over her breasts, a short linen skirt and leather boots. None of them offered to help her with her handcart and that too was no surprise.
Sigrun had studied her reflection enough times to know her features were pleasant. Her wild, flaming hair and pale blue eyes, set against a modest cluster of freckles on her cheeks and a shapely mouth would be called pretty, fair or winsome on most women. Instead, Sigrun heard words such as ‘striking’ or ‘handsome’ and she knew the reason behind it. Pretty girls did not loom over a normal-sized man and verily tower over other womenfolk. Though she had all the right curves of which she was rightly proud, most men fixated on her height either being put off by it or seeing it as some kind of challenge. Sigrun had learned to rise to that challenge. If the Gods were set on granting her this frame she would inhabit it accordingly.
More laughter came from another crowd further along, this time of a less charitable kind. Laughter tinged with the sound of jeers in place of genuine mirth. One of the lads of the village, Rune, was lying on a patch of soggy grass near the well with toppled buckets and wooden pole lying on top of him. Beside the well and at the top of a small mount two dozen paces away were a handful of older men cackling over his misfortune. A larger lad named Kalf stood at the top of the mound with another collection of buckets next to one of two basins. Through his mocking laughter he ran down to Rune and slapped him on the back as he struggled to his feet. “Come back when you’ve grown some muscles, kid.” Rune smiled and tried to look as though he was in on the joke. “Looks like I win again.”
“Quite a feat against a boy eight years your junior.” Sigrun commented. “Are you hurt, Rune?”
“I’m fine, thanks.” His words were belied by the involuntary wincing that went with them.
“You must have thought it funny to egg him on.” Sigrun said to the crowd in general.
“He should have known better than to take this on.” Kalf slapped his biceps demonstratively.
“I see. Do you take on challengers over twelve?” Some of the men started to chuckle guessing where the conversation was going.
“Of course. Do you have someone in mind? I don’t think you hunter friends are here today.” There were a few more sniggers from the men who were sharper than Kalf.
“I need them not. I will take your challenge.” Kalf looked at her nervously for a moment. Sigrun thought he was probably making the same calculations she was. Bare-chested as he was she could get a better measure of him than he could of her. He had thicker arms than her and was broader all round. She was half a foot taller than him but he’d probably reckon height was no advantage in the bucket trial.
“I won’t give you any head start or help for being a woman. You have to play by the same rules.”
“I would want it no other way.”
“You’re on then.” Helpful spectators moved the buckets back to the well and emptied the basins from the previous challenge. Kalf picked up the pole he had been using before; Sigrun took Rune’s. They both took position by the well as buckets were filled in preparation. Kalf cleaned off his sweat with a rag and, along with everyone else, went boggle-eyed when Sigrun started unbuttoning her jerkin. “Why…?”
“Same rules, you said.” Sigrun winked and smiling to herself took the top clean off to many a grateful sigh. The whole village would know about this soon but as a widow with no aim to wed again, her reputation was unimportant. Kalf looked uneasy and that was exactly what she wanted. Aside from the obvious distraction of her shapely breasts, he could now see that she had the most defined midriff of anyone, man or woman, in Redmore and for many miles beyond. He might also start to realise that those long legs of hers were solid power.
Sigrun lifted the pole to her sternum and two full buckets, one either side, were placed either side of her curled arms. The order to start was given and in a few long strides Sigrun was already pulling a gap on Kalf. He may have had the greater bulk but as much of that girth came from soft flesh as hard muscle and that made him slow by comparison. Likewise he had reckoned that his bigger arms and shoulders would win while Sigrun knew that this challenge was as much about having a strong core, a lesson she had learned from her arms training. When Sigrun thrust her boar spear she would use the strength of her arms to a degree but no more than the strength in her thighs, waist and back.
She emptied the buckets in the basin at the top of the mound and rushed back to the well for the next round before Kalf had even reached the top. Four buckets went on this time and she had to move far slower than the first time round. Kalf seemed encouraged by the change in pace and rushed back to the well exhorting the bucket holders to work faster. Sigrun reached the top and emptied the buckets once more. Facing Kalf coming up the mound, she casually brushed away a trickle of water, making her full breasts quiver in the motion. Immediately Kalf stumbled and emptied half of one of his buckets on the ground ahead of him. Almost laughing, Sigrun ran to refill knowing that if she didn’t spill too much she would reach the winning mark without further trips.
Six buckets went on this time and the mound felt like the steep hill going up. Sigrun forced the weight down into her legs and used her long limbs to push herself steadily up the slope. Kalf was hurrying now, desperately trying to keep pace with her. It was making him careless too. If he did overtake her, it would not matter as he would be forced to do another trip for sure. Realising this, Sigrun felt a new wave of confidence pass through her that seemed to offset the effort of the climb. Sloshing water left and right Kalf could make no inroad into her lead and was forced to watch powerless as she calmly set herself down by the basin and filled it passed the winning mark with two buckets to spare.
The crowd, including those who had been sceptical, applauded and Kalf sank to his knees. Sigrun went over to him and slapped him on the back. “Seems like a woman got the best of you. Not to worry, there’s always more children to humble. You should stick to that, clearly.”
By evening Sigrun was at home helping her stepmother Helga with the dinner. Sunlight seeped into the small hut from the open door and windows as well as the odd gap in the thatch and woodwork. Redmore was a reasonably large village, mostly of farmers. Though they were not that far from the Norsholt border, there was little danger of raids. King Halvard had kept a good peace between the two lands for many a year and in worse times the Jorngard’s stood between them.
The nearest fort was Rockfall that guarded the pass between the two kingdoms and most Norsholters knew better than to try to attack that way. Consequently, Redmore was a peaceful place and not a home to warriors and grand thanes. The only long houses were the mead hall and the storehouse. The door to the former of these opened and for a moment the sound of song floated over to them.
Helga looked over at Sigrun sadly. “You can join them if you like.”
“And who would help you with the dinner?”
“Sigrun, you do too much for us. Egil was everything to us but he has been gone for a while now. You don’t owe us anything.”
“I know…I…I have no family of my own anymore. This is my family.”
“Mistake me not, Sigrun. You are every bit a daughter to Galti and me. We love having you here but we don’t want to be selfish. You are still young and beautiful. You could live in comfort if you married again.”
“Who would want a barren widow?”
“Not every man needs heirs.”
“You mean old men who’ve outlived their wives.”
“They are not always old. Some men lose their wives in birthing. They need good wives, particularly if the child survives.”
“I have not met such a man.”
“Besides, an older man is not to be dismissed. With your looks you could get a wealthy Thane.”
“What need have I of wealth?”
“You would not have to hunt anymore.”
“I like the hunts, they keep Redmore safe.”
“Those hunts took Egil from us both. I don’t want to lose you that way as well.” Sigrun put her arms around her mother-in-law.
“I miss him too. How could I replace him?”
Helga recomposed herself and continued chopping the vegetables. “Well it’s clear you are not trying. I heard about what you did at the fair.”
“Kalf was being a bully. He needed to be taught some humility.”
“Did you need to go bare-breasted?”
“Yes. They needed to see it was a woman winning and not something halfway a man.”
“Nobody could think you are halfway a man. But showing off like that might stop you getting one.”
“Really? The men there didn’t seem put off.”
“Not from bedding you, perhaps.”
“That is one benefit of widowhood. Why would I want to give that up?”
“I’d agree with you if you used that benefit. When was the last time you bedded with a man?”
Sigrun wandered over to the window and spoke quietly. “Egil.”
“I thought so.”
“Maybe I will go to the mead hall.”
“Send Galti home when you get there.” Helga said warmly.
Dalla stretched her naked form over the sheets and perched her hands behind her head, addressing him with her lively brown eyes. “How long will you be gone?”
“I know not.”
“Will Princess Valeria stay here?”
“No. She will return to Stormhold.”
“Maybe I should go with her. Does she need a handmaiden?”
“She does, in truth. Do you know the duties of a maid?”
“No. I know horses.” Dalla sat upright. “It always makes me sad when you and the princess leave. Somershalla goes quiet. It’s like the summer goes with you.”
“I’m always sad to leave and I shall be sadder this time than ever before.” Through the window he watched the train of horses and carts working their way up to the east gate. There were more than he had expected. The burnings must have concerned his father more than he realised. Here they had only heard reports relayed from Stormhold. It was possible they had more news in the capital than had yet reached them.
As hard as it was to leave Dalla, he made sure he was ready to meet the warriors when they arrived. The riders stopped in the courtyard and dismounted to greet their prince. At the forefront were two thanes he knew well, Sigmund and Jorund and a third man he did not recognise. Sigmund was tall and lean with long fair hair and ice blue eyes. As always, he was without beard. His friends, Ulfric among them, would often suggest he could not grow one, knowing in truth he was fastidious about his shaving regime. His father was Jarl of Esterhold and Sigmund oft represented him at the royal court forging a close bond with his peer the prince over the years.
Jorund, by contrast, made a feature of his red beard, letting it grow long enough over his chin to twist it into twin braids. He was five years older than Sigmund and Ulfric and had been a valuable guide whenever the prince had spent time with a garrison. There was not a book on military tactics within the whole of the northern kingdoms that he had not read and about which he could give a lengthy opinion. The third man appeared to be in his mid-twenties yet was completely bald. The only hair anywhere on his head was on his chin which hung down in a single short blond braid. This did not stand out nearly so much as his ice blue eyes that he held with such stillness he almost appeared unblinking.
Sigmund and Jorund bowed and clasped arms Ulfric in sequence intoning “my prince.” in turn. As Jorund said his part Sigmund turned to Valeria.
“My princess. Your loveliness never ceases to astonish me. Please accept my humble gratitude that I stand before you.”
“I do not deserve such thanks. It is the earth that keeps you upright.” Ulfric frowned at his sister and it did not go unnoticed. “Nonetheless, we are glad of your presence here. It calms my heart to know my brother will be with true companions.”
“You are too kind. Forgive me, my prince, the princesses’ beauty stunned me from my purpose. May I introduce Henrik Frostbane who has travelled from Hammerfist with twenty men to serve your father at this time.”
“You have travelled far, friend.”
“It is foretold that the children of Halvard have a great destiny and that I must serve them in their hour of need.”
“I pray that this is not a desperate time for us.”
“Have no fear, my prince, we will die for you if need be.”
“Let us not speak of death today.”
“My apologies, my prince. This Somershalla is a fine hold. It is at one with the forest much like the lands where I grew up. I am grateful for your welcome here.”
“Ahh, Ulfric.” Jorund interrupted. “Our forgotten friend is here. You remember Lars of Borrn.” Two men entered into the courtyard; one young and blond and on horseback the other brown haired and struggling to get up from a cart. The blond man dismounted and helped the other to find his feet. Ulfric knew that Lars could not be the younger man but the heavy, full bearded man in the cart did not fit with his memory.
“What happened to him?”
“A great many feasts and a lake of ale, if I am any judge.” Sigmund answered. Ulfric could not believe it. Only two years previously he had trained alongside Lars of Borrn. He had admired him then for he was one of the few who could match him for strength and endurance. He was burly no doubt but muscular to go with it. All that toning was now lost under pounds of excess covering. Out of the cart he came lumbering across the courtyard towards them.
“My prince, an honour to see you again.”
“We are honoured to have you amongst us once more.” Ulfric clasped arms with him and turned to the blond boy.
“My prince, I am Einar of the Royal Guard. It will be my honour to lead the royal princess’ escort back to Stormhold.” He tried to look at both of them in his address. Ulfric could not help but notice that he coloured slightly every time his eyes were upon Valeria. For a moment he was worried his sister might tease the poor boy but instead she smiled warmly and raised her brow in encouragement.
“I have no doubt you will keep me safe.”
“My princess.” His whole face had turned pink. Ulfric hoped he wasn’t so bashful in battle.
“Come, none shall leave today. Horses and men need to rest and rebuild their spirits for their next journey.” Dalla and her father would be busy with all this. He wondered whether he should move her to a position in the long hall where she would be safe from the reach of sweaty riders with eager hands.
Once they were settled, the senior warriors assembled in the great hall of Somershalla while the humbler men-at-arms piled into the cider hall and mead hall of which the settlement had both. Ulfric sat at the high table with Valeria at his right hand. She was dressed more richly than usual in a long green dress and fine cape of white. Tonight a circlet rested on her brow and a choker went round her neck in decorate gold.
Either side Ulfric and Valeria were Sigmund and Wiglaf respectively. Bjorn and Henrik sat the other side of the skald in deep discussion. Somerhalla had no ruling family because it was a second home to the royals. The local hierarchy was represented by the steward, Runolf and Asvald, the chief of the guard sitting at either end of the table where they had the most freedom to depart if they were needed. Beside Sigmund sat Jorund, Einar and Lars.
The young captain looked ill at ease trying to settle his gaze anywhere but on the princess then suddenly looking away guiltily whenever her bosom bounced at an animated moment. Lars seemed far happier, throwing back horns of mead and ravishing his food down to the crumbs and bones. He was not the only one to do so. Ulfric knew from experience that riding with a sore head was a recipe for misery. It was a lesson that many a man learned but never remembered once merriment laid siege upon their better judgement.
“Tis strange do you not think?” Sigmund remarked.
“What is that?”
“His tale of coming here. Did he tell you his prophecy came from a volur who had foreseen her own death?”
“The volur was found slain the next morn by an attacker nobody had seen, as if the culprit had faded away into the darkness. Can you believe that?”
“If you had asked me a year or six months ago I would have said no. Today it feels true.”
“Do you not think it odd that a Norseholter was sent to serve the children of King Halvard?”
“Tis odd without a doubt. That does not mean ‘tis suspicious. You say my father was convinced by his tale?”
“We must trust in his judgement.”
“Have you more tales of burnings in Stormhold?”
“Alas, this is so. There is no seeming sense behind it. Caravans are attacked but not the wealthiest ones and many of the goods are spoiled or burnt. The farms that are raided have no special purpose. Jorund has been going mad trying to see the strategy in it. The truth is we have no clue whom is behind these attacks or what they seek to gain from them.”
“We shall find out soon enough.” Ulfric turned to his right and tried to discretely listen in on Valeria and Wiglaf’s conversation.
“I read that elves have a history in this forest and have been seen here more often than any other place in the kingdom. Is that true?”
“There is every reason to believe that.”
“It is said that they do not age.”
“So it may seem.”
“Why do they not remain children?”
“A slow progression of age may seem like not aging at all. Think of the great oak in the courtyard. Does it seem any different to when you were a child?”
“Yet it has aged. If you could watch a hundred years pass in a day it would age before your very eyes. Mayhap the same is true of elves.”
“It is an interesting thought.” The princess seemed satisfied momentarily before launching into another question. “I found a letter in the library in Senatian script. I could see it was written in some kind of code. From what little I could read it said it seemed like it was from Sommerwold.”
“How long have you been able to read Senatian script?”
“I had to do something when my tutor was banished from Stormhold.” Valeria said with a cheeky smile. “The strange thing was that it referred to dates only a few weeks past.”
“Why is that strange?”
“Mayhap the maps are wrong but is Sommerwold not many hundreds of miles away? How could a letter get here so swiftly?”
“Some loremasters are able to train birds to take messages over long distances.” Wiglaf answered. Normally, Ulfric would have intervened to stop Valeria’s interrogations but in this case he could not help but share her curiosity.
“Will you write back?”
“What will you write?”
“That depends on what your brother finds.”
“What did the letter say? Is something important afoot in Sommerwold? Can something so far away affect us here?”
“Dear princess, why must you ask me questions I am not free to answer?”
“So something is afoot. Does my father need to know about this?”
“Imagine you are playing a game where you can see but a single playing piece on a single square and all else is hidden from your eyes. What move do you make?” Wiglaf put to Valeria. The princess thought for a moment.
“What are the rules to this game?”
“You will not know until you make your move.”
“If you know not which game you are playing how could anyone make the right move?”
“How indeed? I truly wish I could tell you more, Valeria. I am curtailed for now.”
“I will talk to my parents. I need you in Stormhold.”
“That is for your father to decide.”
Knowing what she was like it was only a matter of time before Valeria found a new line of attack. Ulfric decided at last to take pity on the skald.
“Wiglaf, would you do us the honour of a song?”
“Of course, your highness.” Wiglaf stood from his chair and his voice took on a volume and clarity that was little betrayed by his quiet words prior. “Brave warriors of Svahald. A journey you have before you and for a journey it is only right that you hear the song of Eadric Wingfoot…” A hush came over the hall and Wiglaf stridently took up the melody. Ulfric closed his eyes, tasted the sweetness of the mead on his tongue then let the song take him far away from all concerns.
4. The Hunting Party
Sigrun was up long before her companions, this was of little surprise. When she had met with her fellow hunters in the mead hall, Anders had insisted they would have an early start then collectively they had convinced themselves that increasingly large quantities of the drink would not affect their morning plans. Only Sigrun had heeded the warning properly. She shifted around Anders’ hut avoiding the strewn bodies of the others. They had at least been kind enough to give her the sole bed. Momentarily she considered going home for a few hours until the others were ready. Instead, she went about organising their equipment for the coming sojourn.
They worked as a team and did not set out to find any quarry in particular. The farms provided enough food for Redmore; the hunting party existed to keep wild animals from straying into the village. Sometimes this meant skewering a boar and returning with meat, other times it meant tackling a stray bear and bringing back its coat. Accordingly, their gear was not specified to one task and each of the group had a different skill.
Dark-haired and beardless Thorstein, the youngest of the party, carried a bow and arrow for strikes at range and a hand axe if pressed up close. For his long moustached older brother Snorri, she also laid out a hand axe along with three javelins effective for slowing and snagging charging beasts. Fair haired and bearded Anders had the most dangerous task. He bore a net to trap whatever they tracked and a great shield for when this was not enough. Sometimes his role was to encourage attack while he sheltered behind the broad circle of wood and brass allowing others, most particularly Sigrun, to attack from the side. In cases where he had to deal with the beast alone, Anders bore a short scramasax which he would use to slit its throat as it flailed against his defence. This left Sigrun bearing the boar spear, the role her husband Egil had played until a thrashing bear claw hooked into his throat.
Many never understood why she was willing to replace her husband when he was struck down. The peril in doing so had already been amply demonstrated and she was a woman, after all. The latter part had never seemed like a problem for Sigrun. Woman though she was, she was tall and strong and once she decided to take the part of the spear-bearer she made sure she would never be a weak link. She trained with total dedication to ensure she was both capable with her weapon and fit to wield it. If her lean limbs and muscular centre was not enough testament to her capability for the role the respect and trust of her fellow hunters put it beyond all doubt. No amount of lingering affection for fallen Egil would have permitted them to chance their lives in the hands of someone unequal to the task.
The lingering affection did matter to Sigrun, however. These men loved her husband as a brother and time in their company kept him alive for her. Many the night they passed in merriment recalling their lost friend and in those moments and in the way they accepted her to their fold, it felt that some part of Egil was still with them. Likewise, these men, her friends, were the only people in all of Redmore who did not tell her she should move on and forget her lost love.
It was mid-morning by the time they had passed beyond the outlying farms of the settlement and moved into the hillside grazing pastures. Beyond these lay the forest that was their usual hunting ground, marking the transition between hill and mountainside. Anders had been quiet so far and that was never a good sign.
“We’ve left the village behind. Can you now tell us what we are hunting?” Thorstein pleaded.
“Rustlers most likely.” Anders answered. Thorstein and Snorri visibly sagged. Sigrun shared their feelings entirely. Though chasing people could be easier than tracking an animal, if they were careless or indiscrete, none of them delighted in the confrontation. Usually the culprits were hungry opportunists and would surrender without a fight. Sometimes in desperation one would brandish a knife and that was often a prelude to bloodshed. The worst were the committed bands that were armed and had no intention of submitting. Once, in a field like the one they were walking through, they had confronted such a band in the process of their theft. All five of them attacked with knives and clubs. That night they had to bury five bodies in the forest. It was not something they liked to talk about among themselves. Nobody in Redmore was told the full story.
“Do we know that for sure?”
“The shepherds found boot prints where the sheep should have been.”
“We will know when we get there. It’s not far now.”
They had little difficulty in finding the spot where the sheep had been taken. The culprits had taken no care to lead the animal away. Blood stained the grass around the muddy grooves where it had struggled. Anders circled the scene titling his head and crouching down at the soil. “Two pairs of feet I would say. They should be easy to track.”
Anders was not boasting; the red streaks across the grass where they sheep had been dragged perfectly highlighted the boot prints leading away. The initial assessment of a pair of thieves seemed accurate as the tracks ran either side of the drag marks suggesting two people carrying the prize between them up the slope and into the trees. Before they entered the forest, Anders stopped and retraced the tacks several times in mimicry of someone pulling along a burden. “Our rustlers are short.”
“Not children!” Sigrun sighed.
“I think not. They are short not small. The prints are deep and broad. They must have some weight about them or else be heavily clad.”
“Heavily clad in summer? That is not a good sign.” Snorri commented. Silently they all looked over their equipment again and wondered if it would be up to the task.
“Come, we know nothing for sure yet. We will laugh when we see our rustlers are a fat pair of half-men.”
“Why would fat men need to steal food?” Thorstein questioned.
“We shall ask them.”
The trail was little harder to follow in the forest. The undergrowth parted in a deep furrow and half broken twigs hung either side, clinging to threads of wool. Eventually, they broke through to a beaten path where the woodland shade had kept the ground from drying up as it had in open ground. The boot prints were easier to see here and they led straight to an outcrop of rocks with a fireplace at the centre with bundles of furs and sacks strewn around the outside. Anders stopped the hunting party some way off the camp and they crouched in cover where they could not be seen.
Someone was moving around the perimeter half-in and half-out of view. Sigrun saw a glimpse of pale skin and a bald head. The man, she assumed it had to be a man, was short as Anders had predicted and armoured as they had feared. He seemed to be wearing a brigandine of dirty, grey, leather scales and with further glances it was clear he had a crude hand-axe at his belt.
“By Odin’s beard. Can you see his face?” Thorstein whispered agitatedly. Sigrun shifted her position and soon shared in Thorstein’s shock. The man had large pointed ears, a long, hooked- nose and, most disturbingly, appeared to have eyes that were completely yellow but for the pupils. With further observation it was clear that his whole visage was unusual. The skin was of a strange pallor looked more like hide than soft flesh. He was not hunched from bending over: the stoop remained when he stood up.
“What should we do?” Sigrun asked Anders as quietly as she could.
“That camp is obviously for more than two people, if we can...” Anders dropped his head down and motioned for the others to do likewise. The sound of voices and boots tramping came from their left-hand side. The misshapen man at the camp responded by starting to walk back to the path. In a matter of moments he would wander into their hiding place. Anders pointed backwards urgently and they tried to back away. One of them must have moved too much for a heartbeat later the man started shouting alarm in a language they did not recognise. “Thorstein!”
The young hunter reacted and loosed an arrow into the bellowing man’s chest. He went silent too late; the forest began to erupt with men breaking into sight attired and misshapen in the same way as their comrade. The hunting party hit the forest track and yellow-eyed warriors were all around them. Snorri turned on the spot and launched a javelin into the throat of one then jabbed down a second javelin into an onrushing thigh. A cleaving sword whipped round and hacked through the shaft. Snorri grunted in pain while his enemy hit the earth.
Anders twirled his net over the next foe to come rushing. Sigrun knew she could not afford to hesitate and drove her spear into its chest. Her arms shuddered with the impact of leather and bone and when she yanked back the spear-head it was seared black. A snarl to her right made her turn and slash, shuddering again where she smote a cheekbone.
“Fly!” Anders shouted. Thorstein was first to move and Sigrun followed after him with Snorri and Anders close behind. There was shouting all around as more of the savage men joined the fray. The way ahead remained clear though and thence they hurried at full stride, leaping over fallen logs and ducking under low branches they knew to be there from years of familiarity. From the sounds she could hear from behind, their pursuers were not so sure-footed and aware of their surroundings. The light grew the further they went until the horizon of the hillside became visible beyond the last thickets.
Thorstein broke into the clear daylight and stopped on a spot well clear of the trees where he turned and drew an arrow. Sigrun joined him where he stood and gasped for breath. Snorri emerged from the trees several moments later clutching his bleeding left forearm. Ignoring the pain, he took up position by his brother and held his last javelin poised. “Where’s Anders?” Sigrun demanded.
“He was right behind me.” All three of them looked back he way they had come and waited. Anders did not appear nor any pursuers.
“I’m going back for him.” Sigrun declared.
“No. If anyone is behind us I want the first thing he sees to be your spear point flying at his chest. Here…” Sigrun tore a section off her skirt and passed it to Snorri. “Bind your arm.” He hunter took the makeshift bandage and Sigrun turned on her heels to dash back into the forest. She looked around, expecting to see Anders running towards her. He was nowhere to be seen. The yellow-eyed men were out of sight too. Moving further in, she caught sight of two of them bending up and down over something obscured by a bush. A little way to the side there was a third writhing on the ground holding the stump of a leg bereft of a foot.
Sigrun charged closing the gap between herself and them. A fourth body came into view lying face down and then the sight of Anders on the ground holding his shield between himself and the two attacking him. Sigrun took her spear in an overhand grip and leapt upon the back of the nearest punching through the leather and crunching into its spine. He arched in pain and Sigrun dragged him back on the end of her spear then flung him aside in an immobile heap. The second attacker flinched away from her but then crumpled with Anders scramasax buried in the side of its knee.
“Give me your arm!” Sigrun put her left arm under Anders’ shoulder and started to lift him.
“Careful…aaaghhh.” Anders’ right leg hung loose and did not bend when he tried to use it. “No good…leave me…”
“No chance. Drop your shield.” Anders let go of the broad wooden targ. “Hold my spear.” With two arms free she clasped him by the waist and heaved him forward; half-lifting, half-stumbling all the way to the open air. When it was clear there was no-one behind them, Snorri dropped his javelin and ran to assist and together they lowered Anders to the soft turf.
Sigrun looked down at his legs properly for the first time and felt her heart go cold. The savages had been unable to attack his torso behind the shield so they had hacked where they could. The flesh of Anders calf was barely hanging to his shin bone and his thigh had half a rusty axe head buried deep within the front and a long gash along the back. All three wounds were bleeding copiously so that his whole leg was awash with red.
Snorri and Thorstein’s faces turned to stone yet neither was as ashen as Anders’. “Nooo.” Sigrun bent her face to his feeling the coldness of his cheek even as her tears dripped over it.
“Stay your sadness, Sigrun.” Anders spoke with a low voice barely above a whisper. “Do I not hear my father call to me?”
“He calls from the halls of Vahalla.” Snorri returned.
“No…” Sigrun pleaded. “Not yet…”
“He calls you to his side to be seated among the honoured brave.” Thorstein continued.
“Do I not see hear the Valkyrie singing?”
“From yonder they come a riding.” Snorri and Thorstein said together.
“It is not time.” Anders rolled his eyes towards Sigrun and found the strength for a smile.
“Fair Sigrun, be glad at this parting. Tonight I shall drink with Egil again.”
“He will like that. Tell…” Sigrun stopped herself. Anders could no longer hear her. She looked at Snorri and at Thorstein. None of them could hold the others gaze for long. They were dumbfounded, almost embarrassed by their grief. Thorstein wandered away while Snorri wrapped another length of cloth around his arm.
“What do we do? Are there more of them? I don’t want to leave him like this.”
“By Hel’s gate, no!” Thorstein shouted out. “Redmore, Redmore is alight!”