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.”