Chapter 2: Deeper into the Scurthyrshlaew
“Where is Master ValR?” said Eirik.
“Not here. I'm going to lead you this morning. So let's get this campsite cleaned up and clear out as soon as possible. The three of you will take turns at scouting while the others lead the two remaining pack horses. I want to make it to the hemlock forest as quickly as possible without hurting the horses. Let's go,” said Sverrir clapping his hands.
The recruits cleaned the campsite and saddled the horses in good time. Sverrir accepted the bridle to his horse from Ketill as he mounted his steed, “If anyone in the scout position sees anything suspicious, come to me immediately.”
They set off down the trail at a trot. Sverrir hung back and followed the last pack horse at a distance. Morning turned to afternoon and they turned off into the hemlock forest at the rock marker. He kept seeing movement out of the corner of his eye, but never identified the cause. They made their way through the hemlock forest, generally uphill. At an hour before dusk, Sverrir called a halt at a small clearing near a stream.
“File-Leader, if I may ask, what have you been looking for all day?” said Eirik.
“I don't know, son, just call it foolishness of age. We are going to drill tonight. Sleep with your weapons close,” said Sverrir.
It was late at night when ValR came into the camp leading the pack horse with two deer carcasses tied to it. Sverrir was stirring the coals of the fire, his sword close at hand. The recruits were all asleep in their bedrolls. Sverrir looked up and breathed a sigh of relief, “Took you long enough.”
“Game was scarcer than I suspected.” ValR arranged a deer carcass across the back of the pack horse as it stamped and threw its head at the smell of the blood. Sverrir caught the hind legs in a noose and hoisted it up a tree.
“Two deer? We'll be hard pressed to eat one before the meat spoils.”
“The second isn't for us.”
“Who are we giving it to? I didn't think we were that close to any holdings here.”
“We're not giving it to anyone.”
“So who is it for?” said Sverrir, untying up the second carcass.
“Leaving it there. It's an offering for friends,” said ValR.
“I've been seeing, forms, out there, since we left the campsite this morning,” said Sverrir, retying the rope.
“I'll take a look before bed.”
“You want second watch?” said Sverrir stripping to the waist and starting to butchering the deer.
“What about the recruits?” said ValR, turning the packhorse around.
“They can start tomorrow night,” said Sverrir, “I'd rather the two of us take care of whatever is following us before worrying them.”
ValR led the packhorse back into the night as Sverrir cut the meat from the deer carcass. Ketill rolled out of his blankets and woke up Eirik and Grimm.
Grimm and Eirik joined Sverrir with knives, making short work of the meat. Ketill went to the stream and peeled bark off a couple of birch trees. Sverrir washed the blood off in the nearby stream, after poking holes in the thin sheet of ice that formed near the banks. Shivering, he made his way back to the campfire that someone had thoughtfully poked up. Eirik was baking some of the meat in the coals and Ketill was wrapping the rest in the birch bark.
Sverrir roughly dried off with his wool cloak and let the heat from the coals do the rest. ValR sat beside him, pulling a pine cone apart and throwing the pieces into the fire. Grimm helped Ketill hoist the butchered meat into a tree in a sack.
“Where are your weapons, boys?” Sverrir scratched the thick mat of blond hair on his chest. Grimm and Eirik scrambled back to their bedrolls while Ketill placed his spear across his lap.
“Ketill, you have an excellent seat. Where'd you learn to ride?” Sverrir pulled his light wool undertunic on before settling his axe across his legs as he sat against a tree.
“My da' taught me, we're from a small stedding over in Kornland.” Ketill shifted nervously under ValR's steady gaze.
“Good horse country. What brought you to the Marches?”
“Jarl Arnórr sent us as Crown-tribute.”
“Nothing wrong with that. ValR and I came to the Marches the same way.”
Grim and Eirik returned with their weapons and quietly sat around the fire across from the brothers. Eirik pulled the cooked meat out of the coals and passed it out on birch bark.
“Are you two Crown-tributes?” Sverrir bit into the hot, steaming hunk of venison.
Grim nodded and Eirik shook his head.
“Where do you hail from Grimm?”
“Efstrevollr. Impressive. And you Eirik?”
“Fellvorthr? What brings you here?”
“My Sister's brother thought I might do well on the Marches.”
“Fair enough, fair enough.” The horses started to whicker and stamp their feet and they turned to look at the horse line in the darkness.
“I'm going to check on the horses,” said ValR.
“I'll come with you, sir.” Ketill started to rise.
“No, that's all right. I've got it.” ValR brushed the pine needles and twigs off his trousers before striding into the night toward the hobbled horses.
“I wouldn't read too much into it, boys. ValR was never really comfortable around a lot of people.” Sverrir took a long stick and poked at the fire. Flame shot up and illuminated the circle. Sverrir shifted against the trunk of the larch he leaned against, repositioning the axe on his lap.
“Are you really his brother?” said Ketill.
“Full-blooded. We shared the same mother and father,” said Sverrir.
“You are the heirs of Jomer?” said Eirik.
“By the Emperor's damned soul, no. Our mother was a leman to Jomar,” said Sverrir, “So what made the three of you join the Wardens?”
Eirik blushed and Grim and Ketill looked into the fire and an awkward silence descended.
“Come now, lads. Don't be shy. My brother and I came to terms with our bastardy a long time ago. Before you three were out of swaddling clothes or a gleam in your daddy's eye more like. So, my question still stands,” said Sverrir comfortably.
“We wished to serve on the March to protect Gholdam from the enemies without and serve the King,” said Grim.
“And it seemed a better way to go than get bogged down in the petty feuds of the Federates or a lords comitus?” said Sverrir.
Grim shrugged uncomfortably and stirred the fire.
“Did you know that ValR and I joined the Wardens?” said Sverrir.
“You are a March Warden?” said Ketill, brows furrowing.
“No. I started out as a March Warden, for much the same reasons the three of you joined. But it turns out I wasn't quite cut out to be one. Apparently, while such talent runs in families, it doesn't run through siblings.” said Sverrir.
“So what happened?” said Ketill.
“Old Master Siggurd and I had a talk and I became a March Warder under Aeirn Olaffsen,” said Sverrir.
“How did you know that you weren't a Warden?” said Eirik.
“Well, I consistently refused to pay attention to what the Master Siggurd wasn't saying about surviving in the wilderness and I had a fondness for fighting,” said Sverrir, “When I was younger, I'd start a fight at the drop of the hat if I was bored.”
“Some things haven't changed.” ValR voice floated out of the darkness.
“But what about being a Warden?” said Ketill.
“It's a calling more than a profession. ValR has always had it; I could have learned it, but I would never have been as good as him and even at my best I probably would have gotten good men killed and failed my charge. So I went where my talents would help the March, not hurt them,” said Sverrir.
“So what do you do as a Warder?” said Grim.
“Let's see. I go out on patrols along the borders with other Warders and sometimes Federates and comitus. Once, I even went with the kings personal guard. We generally are sent in after a Warden identifies a problem. And, of course, as a shield companion if the Wardens expect trouble on a patrol.”
“What trouble does he expect on our patrol?” said Ketill.
“With ValR, you never know. It was just probably a feeling he got. Or maybe he just missed his older brother. That's why he's a Warden and I'm a Warder.”
“What was it like, riding with the kings own comitus?” said Grim.
“A bigger collection of cold-hearted, steel-eyed sons of bitches you'll never find.”
“So you didn't like them,” said Eirik.
“No, but I didn't not like them either. They were magnificent bastards; but they are there to protect the king and they take the old oaths and Imperial adage of 'come home with your shield or on it' very seriously. Plus, if you are not in their fraternity, you don't count for much of anything except grist for the mill. That's why most of the older warriors have a love-hate relationship with the Kings comitus on the field.”
Sverrir caught his breathe and saw a pair of golden eyes across the fire from him. His hand tightened reflexively on his axe haft as a wolf loped into the firelight and sat down, panting, staring at Sverrir. The three recruits followed his gaze to the animal and started for their weapons. The wolf growled, a low menacing sound, and tensed.
Sverrir raised his empty hand and said quietly, “Boys, ease off your weapons and lean back. I think the wolf is here to talk. ValR! You've got guests!”
The three young Men froze and sat back in imitation of Sverrir. The wolf relaxed and started panting again as ValR eased into the firelight. The wolf looked at him and turned in a circle once and took a couple steps outside the firelight and looked back. ValR nodded once and, without turning toward Sverrir said, “Brother, I have some business to attend. I'll be back later.”
ValR then loped after the wolf and was swallowed up by the dark.
Sverrir let out a breath and looked at the three boys around the campfire, “And that is the reason ValR is the Warden and I am merely a lowly Warder.”
“Will he be all right?” fretted Eirik.
“Wardens are friends to all in the forest. These wolves are allies of a sorts. He'll be back eventually.”
“If he's not?” said Grim.
“Then I'll call my brothers and we'll have the market cornered in wolf pelts for years to come.”
“How many brothers do you have?” said Ketill.
Sverrir scratched his chin, “Hmmm...ValR is my only full blooded brother. Haki Jomersen is my oldest brother. Gunnhild is my oldest sisters. Nanna and Nari are twins and are both older than either ValR or myself. Both of us are older than GarmR and Asgell and Soti is the youngest.”
“How many are heirs?” said Ketill.
“Haki is the heir designate. But Nari could become heir if he resigned from the holy order of Tormalan. Soti is too young, but of noble blood,” said Sverrir counting off on his fingers.
“And you and your brother?” said Grim.
“Well out of it.”
“You forgot Asgell,” said ValR from the edge of the firelight.
“What?” said Sverrir.
“Asgell. He could inherit. He is a legitimate heir.”
Sverrir burst out laughing, “Asgell? Are you kidding?”
ValR smiled, “Perhaps, but the fact remains.”
Sverrir wiped the tears from his eyes, “Wouldn't that be something to see? I'm not sure who that would be more unfair to.”
“What's the joke?” said Grim.
“Asgell is... he is... something else,” said Sverrir, “Do you remember the time Nanna got coal all over her new Yule dress she had been lording over the servants about?”
“No-one ever proved it was him.” ValR sat down next to the fire again.
“How about the time Nari came down with a whole body rash after he took his orders?” said Sverrir.
“That was kind of funny.” ValR smiled.
“Why?” said Ketill.
“There Nari was, all resplendent in his tabard and new armor at attention during graduation ceremony for the Order of Tormalan in early winter. He couldn't move or make a sound without spreading shame upon the family and the Order. For three hours, he stood at alert, sweating, making the stinging nettles worse. Asgell would have gotten away with that one too, if he would have worn gloves,” said Sverrir.
“He was only eight winters,” said ValR, looking at the moon, “Time for bed. Ketill, I want you to take first watch followed by Eirik and Grimm. Sverrir and I will take the last two watches.”
“What's going on?” said Sverrir.
“I'll explain later,” said ValR, rolling into his blanket.
Sverrir woke ValR up for his watch. ValR came awake immediately and yawned. He stood quickly and quietly and motioned for his brother to follow him. They left the three sleeping youths and talked quietly beyond earshot.
“So what in the name of Tormalan was that business with the wolves about?”
“The kind where we need more spears?”
“I don't know. But something is roaming the area, driving away game and attacking wolves. The wolves want help defending their lands.”
ValR shook his head. “Not from what I saw. The wolves had a couple wounded. I tended what I could, but the wounds looked like it was from a beast of some sort, perhaps a bear.”
“Rabid?” said Sverrir.
“Perhaps, but either way, we need more information and we need to end the threat as quickly as possible.”
“So, a hunt then?”
“And what we hunt might be hunting us.”
“What do we tell the boys?”
“We're looking for a rabid animal.”
“Do we go back to the trail?.” Sverrir walked back to his bedroll.
“No, we must do our duty and hunt this animal down,” said ValR
The next morning, ValR woke everyone up.
“We are hunting a rabid animal. I want everyone in full kit. No unnecessary talking until the beast is hunted down and exterminated. Follow Sverrir's orders as if they were mine. Any questions?”
“What sort of rabid animal are we hunting?” said Ketill.
“Use your bows and if it comes at you, run. You have nothing to prove to anyone here, least of all a deranged animal,” said Sverrir.
“Would you like my spare bow, File-Leader?” Eirik started loosening a stave from its strap.
“You keep that, I have one,” said Sverrir, unwrapping an oddly bent stick from a bundle of oilcloth.
“What sort of bow is that?” said Eirik.
“Pecheteg horse bow. My sister Gunnhild gifted it to me when she returned from her travels abroad,” said Sverrir, stringing the short recurve and putting a worn bronze ring on his thumb.
“Where did she get it?” said Eirik.
“Off a dead Pecheteg,” said Sverrir, making sure his quiver was secure on his saddle and filling it with arrows.
“I'm going to track the beast. If we're lucky, we'll find it back at its den sleeping. Sverrir is in charge.” ValR said before he slipped off into the early morning mist.
“So what do we do?” said Ketill.
“We walk the horses slowly forward and keep a keen eye out,” said Sverrir, tying ValR horse to the pack horse lead, “When ValR finds it, he'll come get us and then we kill it. Grimm, I want you on point. Ketill, take left, I'll take the right. Eirik, lead the pack horses. And for the love of Skuldri, if it comes for you, run.”
They slowly rode their horses and watched the forest change from hemlock back to pine. The day passed slowly and they ate a lunch of raw venison and hardtack in the saddle. ValR stepped out of the brush and conferred with Sverrir before disappearing back into the forest a couple times a day.