4. The Hunting Party
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!”