The ship floundered like a wounded beast in the surf as the waves slammed into it. Tiny figures could be seen running to and fro on the decks, trying to right the vessel but it was a lost cause. The rain fell like thick sheets of lead and the spray from the sea swept more than one man away like so much debris. It was a northern ship as anyone could plainly see. Called by some long-ships and by others dragon-ships, and others gave them more fanciful names such as frost-reavers or iron-bearers, although the latter appellations were as often applied to the men who sailed such vessels as they were the ships themselves. Such names were used with fear and loathing to describe the barbarians from the north who preyed upon other ships and coastal settlements.
None of this made a bit of difference now, however. Neither their fierce reputation as warriors nor their peerless skills as sailors were going to help them now. It was obvious to any onlooker that the ship was doomed and there were, indeed, onlookers. Several men on horses watched the scene from a nearby cliff, saying nothing amongst themselves. They sat in their saddles back among the stunted pines that grew there, gaining some little respite from the stinging rains and the biting wind. Spring had recently come to the region, though it felt much more like winter still and spring had brought with it the vicious storms so common with the region. It seemed madness to sail in such weather and very strange truly that the north-men who were acknowledged even among their enemies as skilled mariners risk sailing now at this time and so far from home.
The observers still said nothing but simply watched, swathed in thick wool cloaks, their breath misting forth. After a time, one of them turned to face the others but another, a tall man in a faded blue cloak held up a hand and silence still reigned. The other man nodded and looked back out at the drama that was coming to an end upon the sea.
The ship was being tossed like a child’s toy and it was clear that the battle to right it had been lost. Shouts and screams could be heard as rocks reared before the craft like the teeth of some primordial beast. The sound of the jagged rocks tearing into the hull of the vessel was a terrible one. Now, men weren’t just tossed from the ship but most were leaping into the frigid ocean waters. The ship was rapidly taking on water and before long was sinking. The tiny figures in the water struggled there but most were soon lost among the whitecaps.
The blue-cloaked man made a clucking sound to his horse and the mount dutifully moved forward, its head held low in the rain. The other men followed, murmuring amongst themselves and he reined his horse in.
Looking back at the others, his voice rasped, “We will go down.” He said it simply and quietly but his was a voice used to command and they said no more.
Below, the ship finally sank from view with a groan, as the sea claimed it’s due. Within moments, it seemed as though the vessel had never even been there and there was only the storm tossed ocean.
The beach was littered with debris from the destroyed ship. Here and there were bits of flotsam in the water still as well. Much of it was broken wood from the ship and its cargo. There were still figures here and there, as well. Human detritus that the sea hadn’t swallowed or perhaps had spat back up, depending on one’s beliefs. The storm had passed but the sun had still not come out and it was likely that it wouldn’t show itself at all. The sky was a lighter gray now, though and in the distance it was a darker shade. There would be another storm later this day or perhaps the next.
“At least the rain’s stopped.” One of the cloaked men offered.
“For now.” Another replied in a terse voice.
It was obvious that they were on edge and the man in the blue cloak spoke in calm tones then. “It may rain later in the afternoon but we’ve time before another storm hits.”
The other men nodded and agreed and said little else. They were spread out around him like chicks around a hen. In another circumstance, their leader might have chuckled but their situation did not lend itself to humor. They were, none of them warriors, and they all knew it. True, they clutched weapons and looked ready to use them but they weren’t fighters and everything from their stance to their expression revealed this. They didn’t want to be down here among the dead and debris, and the man in the blue cloak knew that they didn’t understand what they were even doing here. Perhaps he should have explained it to them but he rarely explained himself to his subordinates. It was a bad habit to form and a hard one to break.
“Spread out.” The man in the blue cloak ordered. “See if any of them are alive.”
The others obeyed him but they still stayed bunched in smaller groups of two or three. There were half a dozen of them and none of them seemed in a hurry to be separated from their fellows. As they moved along the beach, they checked on the bodies lying there.
The man in the blue cloak pulled his hood back and surveyed the scene. His face was angular, tanned and weather-beaten. He wasn’t young but neither was he truly old. Dark, thoughtful eyes seemed to take in everything.
His close-cropped hair was salt and pepper and he was clean-shaven, though stubble showed that he’d been unable to shave recently. He was a trim man, though not overly thin, and he’d kept from developing a paunch because he was active. This was due mostly to his profession more than any vanity; although it was pleasing to him that he looked better than many men his age.
“This one’s still breathing!” One of the men cried suddenly. The others hastened over, their weapons forward. They looked ready to finish the work the sea had started.
“Stop!” It was a simple command that their leader shouted but the men lowered their weapons and backed a pace or two away. They looked afraid, as if they’d found the carcass of a monster washed up and not the prone form of a man.
“Venaro, he’s still breathing.” The man who’d found the survivor offered as their blue-cloaked leader strode up to the group.
The man called Venaro nodded as he looked at the cast-away. What he saw was a large man with blonde hair. He was clad in rough spun cloth and a leather harness. There was an empty sword sheath on his side but there was no sign of it or any other weapon on his person. It was obvious that the survivor was a fighting man even unconscious as he was. His powerful physique and scarred forearms betrayed his profession and heritage as one of the feared sea-reavers.
Some of the men were muttering among themselves. There was no love lost between them and the northerners, who they considered barbarians. Many of them had lost family and friends to the depredations of just such north men and it was obvious they’d just as soon run him through right now.
One of the men, a stout fellow with a full beard, stepped forward, a short handled axe clenched tightly in his fist. “We should kill him, Venaro!” He hissed fervently. “His kind killed my son two years ago when they pillaged Bernholt!” Rage and fear warred with each other in the man’s voice.
Nodding, Venaro answered in a calm voice. “Yes and many north-men have died on our spears as well, have they not, Callum?” He knew that the other man had lost kin to the barbarians as had some of the others. It wouldn’t do to ignore that fact. “Still, this man has done nothing that we know of, has he?”
Outraged, Callum gritted his teeth and in a strangled voice, said, “I have no doubt that he’s a murdering bastard like all the rest!”
Now, Venaro shook his head. “We’re not about to kill a man who survived the ocean because of his race.” Venaro’s voice was firm and yet somehow still reasonable.
He knew all too well that his voice was a large part of the reason for his success. He held up a hand to forestall any further argument. “We’re going to see if there are any other survivors and we’re going to take them back to camp.”
Now, the others all wore unhappy looks and gripped their weapons more tightly. They grumbled and shook their heads and a couple of them cursed freely.
Callum stepped forward now, his shadow falling over the prone barbarian. “You can’t be serious!” He grated.
Venaro rose and faced his subordinate. He was taller than the other man and used both that and his rich, booming voice to his advantage. “Have you forgotten who is in charge here?” Venaro’s voice carried easily and could be heard even over the crashing waves. “Have you forgotten our situation?” He asked the second question in a more subdued voice and now he could see them thinking. Every one of them was thinking on his words. Venaro didn’t let them think long but imperiously pulled his blue hood up over his head. “The storm will be rolling in soon enough.” He intoned, looking out over the waves at the dark clouds that were a bit closer now. Their heads turned and they saw he spoke truth. “I don’t intend to be on this beach when it gets here.”
He saw that he had convinced them as they quickly fanned out to look for any more survivors. Venaro was a master of persuasion and it had made him quite a bit of coin in his life. Causing their attention to focus on the incoming storm and not the Northman had given him the edge. They were used to following orders and were followers by nature.
Callum, however, lingered. “You don’t know…you don’t understand…” He was muttering beneath his breath.
Stepping close, Venaro looked the other man in the eye. “I understand you have lost…” He began consolingly.
“You don’t understand anything!” Callum snorted, an ugly gleam in his eyes. He looked down at the Northman with hatred. “You’re not from here, how could you know?”
Venaro only nodded for a moment and in a low voice said, “It’s true I’m not a native of this region but that doesn’t mean I don’t know about loss, Callum.” Something in his voice made the other man look up and lock eyes with him. “I was at the burning of Entraci.” His voice was sad.
Callum’s eyes grew troubled at the mention of the fallen southern city. “I…I didn’t know…”
Venaro nodded again and continued speaking, his voice sad. “I lost friends and family and barely made it out alive myself.” He stared into the other man’s eyes until Callum looked away. “Your countrymen left few enough of us alive after the sack of the city.”
Callum stammered for a moment and then feebly said, “I…I wasn’t there…I’m no soldier.”
Nodding briskly, Venaro clapped the other man on the shoulder. “Neither am I, my friend. I’m not fool enough to blame someone because of what their rulers or fellow citizens do.” Despite himself, Venaro was remembering Entraci now. “Now, this man may be a hardened killer, a rapist and a pillager but we don’t know that and I want to speak with him if he lives long enough to get back to camp.” He looked down at the unconscious Northman. “He may not survive long enough for me to do that and I promise you I’m not going to endanger our lives but I won’t allow him to be slain out of hand because he’s from somewhere else.”
The other man said nothing else and it was clear that he was troubled. Callum had been with Venaro for quite some time and knew that Venaro was from the south. That he’d been at Entraci and survived the atrocities committed there had never come up. It was well known what had happened there and even though their countries had been at war and national pride being what it was, strong men had blanched at what the victors had done to the citizens of the city.
As the other man walked away, Venaro let out a long breath. His mind was now reliving that bleak day and he forced himself to look out over the waves and calm himself. His father had once said that men do great evil to one another for many reasons. Some of them are reasons that are easily understood and others are not. Venaro had always reminded himself of this as he traveled the land and it had kept him alive and profiting when others were blinded by hatred or fear.
It turned out that there were no other survivors and the men loaded the massive Northman on one of the horses across the saddle yet he still never awoke. On closer inspection, two things were made clear. The first was that he had suffered a blow to the head at some point and the second was that he was younger than he first appeared.
As the storm approached land, the group was already wending their way up the cliffside path. Venaro felt certain that they’d be back at camp before the storm hit. He made sure that it was he that led the horse that carried the barbarian, just as he made sure the man was tied securely to the saddle.
He also kept a close eye on Callum as they rode. One can never be sure of what lies in another’s heart, his father had always said. It was good advice and one of the last things his father had ever said to him. He had died at Entraci.
When the storm slammed into the coast, it was even worse than the one that had sunk the Northman’s ship. However, this time, there was no one there to witness it.
The camp was well situated among a clearing. Anyone with familiarity with the outdoors could tell it was a very old campsite; the stones around the fire-pit had been there so long that there was moss at the lower edges and stumps from where the clearing had been enlarged. The same individual would have also noted that it wasn’t the best time to be camped this high in the hills.
Venaro, of course, was all too aware of all these facts. Necessity had forced him into this location and situation and his men knew it as well. By the time they arrived back at the camp, the spring storm hit, just as he knew it would. It was a driving rain mixed with sleet that was miserable and they were all glad they’d made it back to camp.
It was a good enough spot; for all that it was cold up here. Here and there, snow still clung to the ground beneath the trees. There were cut trees serving as barricades and wagons were circled around the perimeter interspersed with them. Nearly a dozen tents made up the innermost ring within the clearing, some old and patched and a few newer. More of Venaro’s men stood guard about the clearing, though as the storm hit, they ducked inside tent flaps or wagons. There was a low fence of cut green saplings to keep the horses inside and they were huddled together.
As the other riders dismounted and saw to the disposition of their mounts, Venaro continued riding through the camp with the pack horse and its burden trailing behind. He saw the looks of consternation on those who hadn’t been with them at the cliffs, just as he heard the whispered explanations from those who had. He could see Callum talking with Bandur already. The two wore grim expressions as they watched Venaro ride into camp and Venaro knew that would be trouble. Bandur was a tall, stocky ex-soldier and the only real warrior that Venaro had hired for security. The two watched the horse carrying the Northman intently as it passed them.
For a moment, Venaro thought they wouldn’t say anything but then Bandur stepped forward. He wasn’t quite blocking the way but Venaro reined his horse in anyway. The two locked eyes for a moment and then the former soldier glanced back at the burden slung across the horse behind.
Arching an eyebrow rather eloquently, Bandur asked, “What’s all this then, sir?” His clipped manner of speaking as well as adding sir when addressing Venaro betrayed his past as a soldier.
Pulling his blue hood back, Venaro grimaced as the sleet and rain pattered off his head. He was too tired and too cold to be his usual charming self. “There was a shipwreck off the coast.” He glanced back at Callum briefly. “As I’m sure you’ve heard there was a survivor.” He let the statement stand for itself. He’d be damned to the lowest abyss if he was going to explain himself.
Bandur hesitated then, looking around at those nearby. “Well sir, I understand but he’s a bloody barbarian!” There was heat in his voice as he said it but it was obvious Bandur was being cautious. After all, they both knew who paid who.
“Yes, he isn’t from around here, I am well aware.” Venaro answered drily. “Then again, neither am I.”
Bandur hesitated again, choosing his words with care. “Aye, sir but that’s different…”
The former soldier didn’t get to say more as Venaro cut him off. “I’m not going to debate this, Bandur.” He looked around at the other men and raised his voice, not enough so that he was yelling at Bandur but so the others could easily hear him. “He’s a cast-away and I wasn’t about to leave him to freeze to death. That’s the end of the matter.”
“But sir!” Bandur protested. “Surely you know these north-men are savages not to be trusted! He’ll cut your throat for your trouble!”
“I said that’s an end to it!” Venaro snapped. He was angry now. “You will follow me to my tent. NOW!” He snapped the reins to his horse and Bandur was forced to step aside or be knocked aside by the girth of the horse.
Bandur dutifully followed but he glared around him as if daring anyone to say a word. The others, all more than a little intimidated by the ex-soldier said nothing, busying themselves about their chores.
A short time later, Venaro was seated in his tent with a mug of mulled wine. He hadn’t drunk much of it but just breathed in the warm scent. He had changed into dry clothes after he had made Bandur and a few others carry the Northman into his tent. The man had been none too happy about the task but had said nothing. From time to time, Venaro caught him glaring at the prone figure of the barbarian but that was all. Now, with a fire going and the chill leaving his bones, he was a little more at ease.
Motioning Bandur over, Venaro nodded toward a nearby stool. “Have some.” He said, offering some of the mulled wine to the man.
Showing that he, like any soldier anywhere in the world, was not above taking a free drink, Bandur took a mug and drank. “It’s good.” He offered simply.
Venaro nodded at the other man. “That it is.” They sat and drank for a few minutes before he spoke again. “Do you think I’m a fool, Bandur?”
The other man hesitated and then shook his head. There was a troubled look in his eyes, which strayed back to the prone giant lying nearby.
Venaro laughed out loud, despite himself. “But you think I’m being foolish now, don’t you?”
With a shrug, Bandur gruffly replied. “I think you’re a wise man and a good merchant, Venaro.” Then after a moment, he added, “But that doesn’t mean you’re never wrong.”
Taking a sip of his wine, Venaro nodded. “Go on.” When the other man hesitated, he snapped, “Oh come now! I want you to speak your mind!” A wry grin creased his face. “You were quick enough with your words out in front of the men.”
“It’s true, sir. I think you’re making a big mistake here.” Bandur looked into his mug as if for the proper words. “I know you’ve traveled all over but I don’t think you know how dangerous the northern barbarians are.”
“All men are dangerous, Bandur.” Venaro said in a terse voice. “Where I come from there are men who will smile and call you their friend and slip a dagger into your ribs all in one smooth move.”
Nonplussed, Bandur nodded. “Aye and there are such men here as well but these barbarians are different, sir.” His glance made its way over to the prone Northman again. “They fear nothing and they live for slaughter. We can’t trust him!” His voice was raised slightly but there was honest urgency there more than anger. “We should at least bind him securely!”
Shaking his head, Venaro set his wine down. “No, that wouldn’t do at all.” He too looked at prone figure. “I know more about the north-men that you realize, Bandur. If he wakes up bound, he’ll never trust us.”
“Then let’s kill him now!” Bandur hissed.
“NO.” Venaro said it simply but firmly, as if he were talking to a child. This wasn’t lost on the other man but the merchant didn’t care.
“I want his goodwill and we’ll not get it by tying him up.” Venaro spoke as patiently as he could. “If I wanted him dead I could have let them kill him at the beach or more easily let him die of exposure.”
“Why?” Bandur asked, almost plaintively.
“How can you ask that, knowing our situation?” Venaro queried.
With a snort, Bandur replied haughtily. “And how can this man, a barbarian that we can’t trust, help us?”
“We don’t know that we can’t trust him and perhaps we can’t. Perhaps he’s a mad dog killer and we’ll have to put him down.” Venaro raised a hand to forestall another outburst. “However, we don’t know that and I think we’ll find quite the opposite. Whether you realize it or not, the north-men are not men without honor, though I’ll admit their sensibilities are quite different from ours. At the very least, I am going to talk with him.”
Bandur leaned forward. His expression showed that he knew he wasn’t going to win the argument but he stubbornly refused to quit. “It’s a mistake, Venaro.”
“Enough.” The merchant was done with the whole conversation now. “I’ve heard you out but it’s time for you to remember who is in charge here.” Bandur leaned back then and Venaro continued. “I hired you and your comrades to protect my wagons and you’ve done an admirable job. I’m sorry that your friends didn’t survive but as you remember, we lost a lot of men when the orcs attacked. Now it’s just us and a handful of drovers’ left with a tribe of the green-skins between us and civilization.”
Bandur nodded slowly. He well knew their situation and seemed at a loss for words.
Venaro, however, was not. “You said yourself that we could never get through with just you and the others.” He stood then. “Now maybe, this barbarian is a crazed murderer as you say but then again, maybe he’s not. Maybe, he’ll see that we pulled him from the sea and be grateful enough to help us!”
Bandur didn’t try to interrupt, though it was clear he still wasn’t convinced, judging by his expression.
Venaro didn’t care because he’d realized something in the last few moments. “Maybe, now that he’s woken up, we can talk with him.”
“Derku’s beard!” Bandur spluttered, naming the deity and clambering to his feet. Whirling around, the former soldier saw what Venaro had. The Northman was awake and had sat up while the two were finishing their conversation.
Bandur’s hand crept toward his sword hilt but Venaro hissed, “Keep that blade sheathed, sergeant.” Now Bandur hadn’t been a sergeant in years, since his days in the army but something about hearing his former title used made him listen.
Venaro smiled then. Knowing people and how they worked was his specialty. He took a step toward the Northman cautiously, his hands before him, palms raised to show he bore no weapons. “Greetings.” He said simply to the barbarian.
The other man stood to his feet then, towering over Venaro and even the taller Bandur. They looked briefly at each other then and Bandur’s look had a mixture of panic and anger. Then, the barbarian spoke, his voice a deep baritone. “Food.” He said it as both question and command.
Bandur fumed and would have spoken but Venaro intervened. “Of course we have food.” He turned a stern gaze on Bandur then. “Go have the lads prepare some food for our guest.”
It was a mark of his training as a soldier that Bandur went out without a word but his expression showed that he clearly thought he’d come back to find his employer dead. Venaro fervently hoped that he was wrong.
Watching the Northman devour his food like a hungry bear, Venaro sipped his cooling wine and thought carefully on his words. Bandur and two others had appeared with a bowl of stew, some jerky and several hard biscuits. As the barbarian assaulted the food, which was the only word Venaro could think to describe the way the other man ate, he bade the others to leave. Bandur hadn’t been happy about this and had stormed out, his hand on his sword hilt. Now, the merchant watched his guest eat and pondered the situation.
The blonde Northman was huge, well over six feet and the merchant would guess approaching seven. Bandur, who was considered tall in these lands, was perhaps six feet in height, while Venaro himself was near that height himself. The barbarian was heavily muscled and bore battle scars, most notably on his arms and shoulders. He wore a leather jerkin studded with bronze discs that left his arms bare, and leather bracers upon his forearms completed his armor. His clothing was rough spun cloth and his boots were of worn elk leather, unless Venaro missed his guess, which did not happen often.
What troubled Venaro the most was the other man’s age. While his great size and obvious prowess showed the man was a warrior, he was much younger than the merchant would have originally guessed. He wore no beard or facial hair but had a crop of stubble growing there. The merchant decided it was the barbarian’s face that betrayed his youth. The man’s pale skin, common from the northern climes, still looked unlined and save for the scars that he bore certainly had seen no more than twenty years in Venaro’s estimation.
“Why do you stare at me so?” The barbarian asked, his voice a dangerous growl. He looked at Venaro with storm-gray eyes and set his bowl down. Everything about the barbarian was primal and savage. His hair was all of a length, hacked short at the shoulders but not in the manner of a court dandy that spent time on it. It seemed that the youth simply chopped it off, perhaps with a knife when it annoyed him.
His voice calm and measured, Venaro replied. “Where I hail from, it is impolite to ask questions of a guest while they eat.”
The answer seemed pleasing to the Northman and he nodded. “It is the same in my country.” His accent was thick and he spoke with a strange cadence. Yet for all that he seemed to speak the trade tongue that was so common in these lands easy enough. Venaro paused to thank his ancestors that it was so, for he was quite sure that none of his men knew the Northman’s language any more than he, himself did.
The merchant could not help but notice the look that flashed across the barbarians face as he spoke of his homeland. Sorrow and grief were mingled with rage in the youth’s eyes. Venaro considered his next words very carefully then.
“Is the food to your liking?” The merchant said, still desiring to speak of simple things.
A shrug of great shoulders. “It was filling.” Was his simple reply.
Venaro nodded. “That is good.” He smiled then. “Shall I get you more?”
The Northman shook his head. “It was not poisoned, I think but no.”
With a start, Venaro replied, “I would not poison a guest!” The barbarian’s direct manner of speaking was something the cultured merchant would have to get used to, he could see.
“No.” The other man said, still evaluating his host with those strange eyes. “I do not think that you would.”
Ever curious, the merchant couldn’t help asking, “If you thought the food was poisoned, then why would you eat it?”
“I did not think it was poisoned.” The barbarian answered pointedly, as if talking to a simpleton or a child. “Besides I was hungry and I heard you tell the other man you could have left me to die or killed me easily enough.”
Venaro was struck again by the directness of the Northman, as well as his casual reference to how easily he could have just died. The other man didn’t seem discomfited or uneasy about it but rather more alert speaking of violence of any kind.
Deciding that simple and direct was how the man preferred speech, Venaro answered. “It’s true, we could have left you to die or killed you but that was not my desire.” Despite his calm manner, Venaro was a bit unsettled by the predatory way the man smiled at the statement. “You disagree? You think you would have survived the elements?”
Another eloquent shrug and then the barbarian yawned, stretching his massive arms wide. “If it were my time to die, I’d have died on that beach.”
Venaro felt a change of topic would be for the best. “I am sorry; I must ask you to forgive my manners.” He said, smiling. “I have not introduced myself. My name is Venaro, merchant and traveler.” He waited then, not wanting to press for the others name.
“I am Tanoc.” The barbarian said simply, without offer of any more information.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Tanoc.” The merchant replied smoothly. “I saw your ship go down in the storm. It’s how we found you.” Venaro asked his next words cautiously. “Might I ask where you were coming from?”
Scowling, though whether at the memory of the ship sinking or the question itself, the merchant couldn’t say, Tanoc was silent for several moments. “We were…leaving our home.” He said, his voice thick with emotion.
Feeling that it was unwise to ask where the youth’s home might be or why he left it, Venaro instead asked, “Where were you going?”
A long pause followed before Tanoc finally responded. “South.” He answered simply. The merchant said nothing and simply waited. The barbarian muttered then, “We knew of settlements down this way.”
“HA!” Came a cry from Bandur, who had obviously been listening outside the tent flap and now bulled his way inside. “I told you he was a savage, Venaro! He all but admits to raiding villages and towns here!”
The barbarian hadn’t moved or stood when Bandur came in but Venaro rose slowly and just as slowly interposed himself between the other two. “That is not what he said.” The merchant spoke calmly and quietly. “You need to step back outside, Bandur.”
The ex-soldier ground his teeth. “He’s a murdering brute that needs to be put down!” His voice rose and his hand was on the pommel of his sword. “I’ve heard enough!”
“So have I.” Tanoc said rising smoothly and standing. “Do not threaten me, fish-belly and think you are safe because your master stands between us!” The barbarian hadn’t raised his voice but the challenge and threat were as obvious as bared steel.
Venaro, sensing how rapidly the situation could all spiral out of control, put a hand on his guard’s chest. “Step away, Bandur!” He put all the authority he could muster into his voice then. “Right…Now!”
It might have gone differently if the barbarian was an older and wiser man but then again, perhaps it was in his violent nature to be confrontational in all he did but he smiled a wolfish smile at Bandur and then laughed. “Your master has spoken, cur!”
Bandur took a step back and with a curse ripped his sword out. “I’ll kill you, you murdering filth!”
The merchant raised his hand and pointed at his subordinate. “Get out, Bandur!” He held up a hand back toward the barbarian. “He is unarmed and he is my guest! I’ll not have you spill his blood in my tent!” Venaro half turned then and saw the barbarian had stalked forward.
“I need no steel to deal with this one!” Tanoc thundered then. “I will take his sword and feed him his own guts!” Not just anger but a savage exultation colored the youth’s words and he was still smiling, his teeth bared like a snarling animal’s.
It occurred to Venaro then that he might be in real danger. “Will the two of you fight in my own tent, where you’ve taken food as a guest?”
The question gave the Northman pause then. It was clear that his customs were, in this regard, similar to those of many lands. He had broken bread and accepted the gift of the merchant’s hospitality. Venaro could see in the other man’s eyes that he had gotten through to him and for a moment he thought he could still calm this situation down.
Those hopes were dashed when Bandur growled, “Outside then, you savage!” The former soldier stalked out through the flap but over his shoulder added, “Unless you’re a coward like every other Northman I’ve ever met!”
Tanoc’s face flushed an ugly red and he clenched his fists. The merchant knew it was a lost cause then but still tried. “Please, my friend, let me go and talk to him!”
The barbarian said nothing else and walked past the merchant.
Outside, it was still raining but it had died down to a drizzle now. Bandur was waiting there in a circle of the others. The other men, for the most part, looked troubled at the situation but a few, Callum included, were jeering the barbarian and slapping the guard on the back.
With a flourish of his sword, Bandur held his arms wide, the sword glinting in the light of the torches. “The savage has no weapon.” His voice was mocking and Venaro, who’d come to the tent flap could see that there was nothing he could do. Blood would be spilled this night. He instantly thought of the sabre he kept in his chest but as he did, someone else intervened and one of Bandur’s men threw a short sword down in the slush and mud near the barbarian.
“Pick it up!” Bandur said grandly. It was clear he was going to attack as soon as Tanoc reached for the blade. Only a few paces separated them. He looked at the men around him and arrogantly began, “I’m going to…”
The man never finished the sentence. Before he could finish it, Tanoc rushed him, moving with incredible speed. Venaro had known many warriors but he’d never seen a man close to that size move nearly so fast.
It was to his credit that Bandur realized what was happening and tried to bring his sword around but he was too slow. The barbarian caught the former soldiers forearm in an iron grasp and with his other hand snatched him up by the throat. It was almost horrifying to watch the huge Northman shake Bandur savagely as a dog would a rat. Then, Tanoc twisted his opponent’s wrist and there was an audible pop.
Bandur screamed hoarsely as his wrist broke, though it came out as a choked gargle, since the vice-like fingers of the barbarian still held his throat. The guard’s sword fell from his incapacitated hand onto the cold ground.
There was a stunned silence as Tanoc threw the injured man to the ground as if he were a bundle of sticks. Then he clouted Bandur on the side of the head with his immense fist. The former soldier was knocked back to the feet of his friends without a sound and lay there completely unconscious.
Tanoc roared like a beast and pointed at the others. “The next man to threaten me dies!” The barbarian seethed with rage but was hardly breathing from the short-lived bout with Bandur. His teeth were bared in a snarl and several of the men took a step back. It was clear he was ready to pick up Bandur’s fallen blade and commence the slaughter.
“No one is threatening you.” Venaro said flatly.
Tanoc half-turned; lowering his hand and unclenching his fist. He didn’t say more but let out a breath like the snort of a horse.
Venaro walked out to stand next to the Northman. “I know that Bandur is your friend and I know you don’t trust Tanoc here.” He spoke his words as if he were discussing the weather or the price of a horse. “However, you all know the situation we’re in here and I want to point out that Bandur started this altercation and refused to listen to me.”
The men standing around said nothing but it was clear from their expressions that they agreed. They all knew Bandur for a hot-head and more than one of them had been forced to back down or face a beating from the big guard. Venaro guessed that more than a few of them were happy to see the proud ex-soldier taught a lesson, though he was just as sure that they still didn’t trust the barbarian. The truth was that the merchant wasn’t sure he could trust Tanoc either but it was a moot point. They were in desperate straits.
“I want you to all remember what happened when the orcs attacked.” Venaro spoke in that same calm voice and watched the fear descend on his men. “Maybe you’ve forgotten why we’re still up here, running out of food and fearing every day that they’ll attack again but I have not forgotten.”
The merchant could see them thinking about it now. They’d been fooling themselves for the most part. They’d run from the orc attack and most of the real fighting men, Bandur’s comrades for the most part, had died on that day. They’d been hiding up here, praying to the gods that the savage monsters wouldn’t find them.
Venaro’s calm voice was warm and reassuring. “Now I believe that Tanoc can help us.” He knew quite well that before the demonstration of the barbarian’s prowess they might have argued or questioned him but it was hard to do so with the toughest of them unconscious and drooling into the mud. Although Venaro had been angry with the ex-soldier for instigating this, he couldn’t find it his heart to still feel that way, as now the men looked at the Tanoc with fear and awe. “Get Bandur to one of the wagons and see to his wounds.” He said then.
As they moved to obey him, he saw Callum shoot both he and the Northman a dark look. Shaking his head, he looked at Tanoc. “That one could still prove a problem.” He said ruefully.
The barbarian spat in the mud to show what he thought of such a worry. He then looked hard at the merchant. “Orcs?” He queried, his voice flat.
Venaro knew then that his hunch had been right. The green-skinned monsters were as hated by the men of the north as they were men anywhere. He had hoped against hope that he’d find survivors willing to trade their fighting prowess for food and shelter. At first, he’d been dismayed to only find one survivor but like his earlier hunch, the merchant guessed that he’d found a warrior who stood out even among his own kind.
The shrewd merchant said none of this to the barbarian but simply clapped him on the shoulder and gesturing back toward his tent, said, “We need to talk.”
For a long moment, the Northman looked at Venaro, then, startling the merchant, laughed out loud. As his laughter rang through the trees, Venaro couldn’t help but cringe inwardly. He hoped none of Bandur’s friends thought they were laughing at the man’s plight. With a half-smile, the merchant nodded and headed toward the tent, wondering if he’d made a mistake.
The cell was damp and cold. There was light but it was of the feeble variety, given off by lit torches and one old lantern set on a rickety table. There were other cells in the line but these were mostly empty. There were only three prisoners held presently. The first was an old drunk, snoring gently in the sixth and last cell in the line. The second was a young man with a runny nose, scabbed hands and the coarse, patched garb of a peasant. He had been brought in for stealing but as the guards knew it was only bread he’d taken to feed his family, they’d been relatively gentle.
The third inhabitant of the jail was the object of the guards’ scrutiny and conversation. They knew little of this prisoner. The fact that there was a woman in the cells and a stranger at that would be cause for comment on any day. There were two guards on duty and they stood close together near the table, which was a half dozen paces from any of the cells, talking in low tones. Though they looked similar enough in their leather armor and gray tunics roughly embroidered with the symbol of the town of Wend, a badger surrounded by sheaves of wheat on a background of green. However, upon closer inspection, the similarities ended.
The larger of the two was also the younger. He had the look of a farmhand with broad shoulders and rough hands. There was stubble on his cheeks, showing that he was trying to grunt forth a beard with doubtful results. His skin was ruddy and his coarse hair the color of old straw. He kept looking at the cell that held the woman, the newest addition to the jail, from time to time.
The shorter man was a solid, blocky man with a well-developed paunch, a balding head and graying hair. For all that, there was something in his eyes that spoke of experience and his movements and actions were sure and certain. No doubt a veteran of some war or border skirmish that had moved to an out of the way place to forget and try to move on. It was obvious from his bloodshot eyes that he was using alcohol to hasten the process.
“Who do you think she is?” The younger guard queried, his gaze straying to the woman’s cell again. His voice was higher pitched than his size would suggest and he seemed nervous and excited, like a young calf.
The older man shook his head and snapped, “It don’t matter.” He studiously had avoided looking at the cell for any length of time and he continued to do so now. “She’s a law-breaker and that’s all we need to know.” Though he seemed sure of himself, it was obvious to his comrade that he was uneasy.
“What’s wrong with you, Hedolf?” He asked wonderingly. The young man had seen the other guard remain cool under pressure, whether from an angry superior or when breaking up a fight in the tavern. “Do you know her?” He added, his gaze moving again toward the cell.
“No, I don’t know her!” The guard named Hedolf hissed. “She can hear us y’know!” His irritation was plain as the rather bulbous nose on his face but there was something else that even his admittedly dim colleague couldn’t help but notice.
“Well, what’s wrong with you?” The youth said, now turning to look directly at the cell. “She’s just a woman, right?” He scratched at a pimple at the edge of his mouth. “I mean, she’s dressed strange and doesn’t seem scared at all…” The young man’s mused, his voice betraying wonderment. “And she looks different than any of the girls around here…”
The older guard grabbed the younger by the elbow and whirled him around then. His lined face showed fury warring with concern. “Listen, you idiot, she’s no tavern wench or farm maid you can brag and tell lies too!” The young man wore an expression of surprise but his gaze still strayed toward the cell despite himself. Hedolf’s voice was deadly serious and he poked the other man in the chest hard. “Are you listening to me, Gren?!”
“Hey!” The young man looked irritated and surprised. He pulled back a step and his face flushed. “Get your hands off me!” It was obvious that he was angry as well as embarrassed. The latter truth seemed to infuriate Hedolf.
“Stop making eyes at her, you great fool!” The older guard barked.
“You can’t just shout at me, Hedolf!” Gren replied in a loud voice.
“Oh yes I can or have you forgotten my rank?!” Hedolf snapped back, pointing to his shoulder which bore a single crimson stripe on the green field behind the snarling badger.
Now Gren bore a wounded look. “I was just looking.” He said, his voice defensive like that of a surly child. It was clear that he didn’t understand why his friend and drinking companion would suddenly pull rank like this.
“Well, stop looking!” Hedolf growled, clearly unwilling to let it go. “That woman isn’t some floozy whose bottom you can pinch and whisper sweet nothings to!” Gren’s face flushed an even deeper red now, betraying the fact that he’d been thinking of just such things. “She’s dangerous!” The older guard nearly shouted.
“C’mon, Hedolf.” Gren scoffed then. “She’s only a woman!” It was clear that the young man had a low opinion of the feminine gender and obvious that he believed they had limited uses. “Look at her!” He said, gesturing toward the cell. “She’s dressed strange, I’ll grant you and she is a real beauty but she’s just…different…” His voice became softer. “She looks like a courtesan maybe or a dancer…yeah I bet she’s a dancer like they have in the great cities…”
Hedolf looked ready to strangle the younger guard then. “Listen to me, you fool! She’s no dancer or high class doxy, she’s dangerous!”
“Who’s dangerous?” The woman spoke then, her voice breathy and low.
With a start, the two guards looked at the cell’s occupant, Gren with open admiration and Hedolf grudgingly. The woman standing on the other side of the bars was taller than Hedolf and striking. Her face was angular yet somehow beauteous. Her eyes were a light brown and to the older guard seemed mocking and cold. Gren didn’t seem to notice as he was drinking the sight of the woman’s form in. He was right in that she had the figure of a dancer, graceful and slim. It was hard to determine her age, as she looked neither old nor young and her dark hair framed a face that was as inscrutable as the moon.
Where Gren saw an exotic beauty though, Hedolf saw danger. He could see the strength in her limbs and figure. She was no willowy, weak damsel and he was certain that she was stronger than a lot of men. He was doubly certain that she was quicker than anyone he knew. It was her eyes, though that unnerved Hedolf. He was no coward but he’d seen eyes like that before and they were always, invariably eyes that belonged to killers.
Seeing that Hedolf wasn’t going to answer, Gren took the initiative. “I don’t think you’re dangerous at all.” He said, a warm smile on his face.
The older guard cuffed the younger on the shoulder as he cut in. “Pardon’s ma’am but we’re not to talk to the prisoners.” Hedolf gave Gren a glance that clearly told him to keep his mouth shut.
“I’m not dangerous.” The woman answered playfully. “This is all a misunderstanding.”
“I’m sure that…” Gren began but whatever he’d been about to say was lost as Hedolf cut in.
“That’s for the magistrate to decide ma’am.” Hedolf answered neutrally.
“You’re very polite.” The prisoner said then and smiled, her teeth white and lips full. She looked at Gren, her smile growing wider. “And you’re very handsome.” She said boldly.
Though Hedolf wouldn’t have believed it, Gren flushed even more and before he could say anything, he grabbed the young guard by the elbow and shoved him toward a set of stone stairs on the far side of the room. “Upstairs now.” The older guard grated. Protesting and spluttering, Gren led himself be pushed halfway up the stairs.
Finally, Gren stopped and turned to Hedolf angrily. “You can’t push me around like this!”
“One more word and you’re on report!” The older guard snapped. “There’s enough to worry about without you losing your head over a woman!”
“What’s to worry about?” Gren asked furiously. He was embarrassed to be treated so in front of the prisoner and it showed.
Hedolf’s expression was incredulous. “What’s to worry about?” He looked ready to tear what little hair he had left out. “Bandits, orcs and other monsters prowl outside our very walls and you want to know what’s to worry about?!” It was obvious that Hedolf was worried and not just angry. “There’s been talk of strange figures about town at night and the disappearances and don’t forget the strange symbols and markings we’ve been finding!”
If either man had been paying attention at that moment, they’d have seen the woman’s expression grow thoughtful. However, they were both focused on each other at the moment. “He’s right, Gren.” She said from her cell, her smile now gone. “You should be careful, there are dangerous things out there.”
Before Gren could say a word, Hedolf spun on the stairs and growled, “Shut your mouth, prisoner!”
“Or what?” The woman asked, almost purring playfully. Her smile was back but those cold eyes never wavered.
“Or I’ll shut you up!” Hedolf said in an ugly voice.
“Oh, dear.” She replied mockingly. “I wonder what Oled would think of your brutish treatment of helpless prisoners.”
Hedolf grew pale and he murmured, “How do you know my wife’s name?”
“I know a lot about this town, Hedolf.” The mocking voice floated up to him. “Just as I know you owe more on that little hovel than sweet Oled realizes.”
With a start, Hedolf shook himself and stalked back down the stairs. “Are you a sorceress then, to read my thoughts?” His hand strayed toward the cudgel at his belt.
Mocking laughter met him at the bottom of the stairs. “I am someone who knows that it pays to find out all she can.”
Gren had followed Hedolf down the stairs and put a hand on his shoulder but the older man shook it off. “Then I’m sure you know they’re going to hang you.” Hedolf growled.
The laughter became a breathy chuckle and the woman’s eyes flashed. “Oh, I’ve no intention of hanging.” She said and leaned forward against the bars. “You’re a good man, Hedolf. I know you’ve been passed over for promotion and I know the captain of the guard is a fool and a coward that just happens to be related to the right people on the town council.”
Hedolf recoiled then. “Derku save us!” He said, his hand making a warding sign as he called on the deity.
Her husky laughter sounded again. “I already told you, I’m no sorcerer or wizard. I’m simply well informed.” Her smile was wry now. “Though I suppose in this backwater town intelligence might seem like wizardry.”
“SILENCE!” Hedolf roared, waking the drunk and causing the bread thief to recoil to the back of his cell.
The woman merely laughed again. “Just let me out of here, why don’t you. It’s clear you know that things aren’t right in this town.” Her smile waned and a serious look took its place then. “I don’t intend to be here much longer.”
Angrily, Hedolf drew his cudgel and rapped the bars sharply then, causing her to draw back slightly. “That’s enough out of you!” He said shakily. “Don’t make me come in there!”
“I am unarmed.” The woman said simply. “Why don’t you come in here and beat me, then.” She spread her arms wide. “Perhaps you like to beat women?” She asked sweetly. “I wonder if dear Oled knows.”
Speechless, Hedolf looked at Gren, who wore a bemused expression. It was clear that neither guard knew what to make of the woman.
“Very well, I’ll keep silent.” She finally shrugged and turned away from them.
Mollified, Hedolf put his club away and stomped away from the cell. In doing so, he didn’t see the woman slightly turn her head and smile at Gren nor did he see the faltering smile that Gren returned her after a moment.