I paced around the oxcart with my wool cloak pulled tight against the wind. The sun had dipped under a mountain, casting a shadow across the green valley. We were only a third of the way to the peak, but high enough for the air to chill. I was thankful the trail ended here; the thick forest and steep cliffs made sure of it. The mountain men would have to come down.
Once a month, I traveled to the western mountains to trade. It was often enough. Dreaming gods continued to conjure strange creatures in the lands beyond. I’ve always admired people willing to hunt and trap out there. Not me. I needed a little more rationality in my life. Still, I was anxious to see what the mountain men were bringing. It could have been anything – unicorn horns, dragon scales, or even phoenix feathers. I blew out a long, hissing breath. My hopes were up, but I had been disappointed before. Sometimes, all they had were deer and rabbit pelts.
Sebastian released the oxen from their yoke, so they could eat and rest. He was a large, fair-skinned man with a barrel chest. Big as he was, he looked small holding the yoke. Seb dropped it on the side of the trail and poured out a large sack of oats for the oxen. I always liked him. He was gentle with animals – a good sign he could be trusted. They nuzzled him on their way to eat. Their tails wagged like dogs. Huge dogs.
I was tired of sitting after the long trip, even though I walked most of the way. I jumped to grab a low-hanging branch and knocked out twenty pull-ups. My muscled still ached to move. Too much food. Too little exercise. Honestly, there might have been nerves at play; we were meeting dangerous men. I did some push-ups in the grass and held the last one until my arms burned. Sebastian scoffed. I turned to face him.
“If you did a little honest work, you wouldn’t have so much energy,” he said. I laughed it off. He was right of course, but there was nothing I loved more than avoiding honest work.
I went back to pacing.
Seb waved me over to where he was sitting on a log and set a chessboard between us. He had carved the wooden figures himself. They were beautiful. I said it was his calling. If he’d make another set, I’m sure I could find a buyer. I took a sip from my flask and made the first move. We were men of simple comforts.
We never talked while we played. Seb doesn’t talk much anyway. The sky was growing dark by the time our game finished. He played well, but I still won. There were only a couple of openings I used, and he had seen them countless times. He knew how to drag out a game, but the only way he ever surprised me was with an error.
Seb leaned back against the cart and took a drink from his own flask. He offered it to me, but as I reached for it, I saw riders higher up the mountain. All three of them wore heavy furs over leather tunics. They rode well. Their horses stepped nimbly between the rocks. They gave rough greetings and dismounted as I stood up. I recognized two of them – trappers I had traded with before. One, I wasn’t familiar with. His ivory skin was even lighter than Sebs. In the last of the daylight, his narrow eyes were a deep blue. The blond braid of his beard hung below his shoulders in the style of the Northmen.
“Heilir.” I nodded to each of them in turn, hoping to impress the Northman. “I’m Winoc. Glad you made it safely.”
He grinned, gripped me about the wrist and shook my hand, laughing. I knew he was larger than me, but when I felt his knuckles lap around my wrist, I realized by how much. “Greetings.” His accent wasn’t thick, but it was there. No doubt he’d been in our country a long time. He looked over his shoulder at the man to his left and smiled, still gripping my wrist. “How do we know we can trust this man?”
“Excuse me,” I asked.
He turned back to me. “I heard you’re from Nantes.”
“I’m from here, not that it’s any of your business.” I felt my neck getting hot. Heat jumped through my shoulders and arms. I wanted to drop him right then, but I kept my composure. Didn’t let him see me tense. “I’m going to have to ask for an apology.”
He laughed in my face. Big teeth. Big tongue. Lots of spit. “If that’s the case, you’ll be giving us a good deal.” The other two shared worried glances and backed up. Good for them. When I studied in Nantes, I started to believe that a man was worth something no matter what – that all people were good and we should believe in the better angels of our nature. I liked to think I believed it.
It’s easy to be peaceful with the Archons watching over everyone, but out here, honor was everything. I wasn’t about to let this Northman shake me down.
I’m stronger than I look. That’s an understatement. Rage can come on quick if you let it slip often enough, and I let it slip. He kept his grip tight on my right wrist, but he couldn’t stop me from jerking my arm back and grabbing his left. For a moment, his hands were tied. I snapped my elbow into his nose.
He released his grip and staggered back, but recovered quickly. He swung a right hook at my temple. My arm was already high. It was easy to shield the hit and take the inside angle. I grabbed behind his head with my other hand and pulled him into my elbow, again and again.
Blood streaked his face and dripped from his nose. I’d cut him more than once. His lip. His eye. Each hit was a rush. He was tough; I’ll give him that. He surged forward and grabbed me around the waist. It was stupid of me to let him, and I felt my feet lift off the ground. I pushed him away, trying desperately to make some space. The Northman could fight. He dropped low, hooked his hands behind my knees and bowled me over. I turned him over when we landed and scrambled to my feet. He kept a hold of me, but this time I had one of my arms around his back, keeping him from throwing me again.
This might take a while.
Rough hands gripped me from behind. At the same time, one of the trappers grabbed the Northman around the arms and pulled him off. I struggled to take another swing but got thrown backward.
“Enough!” said Sebastian as I picked myself up.
The Northman was still laughing. “I like this guy. My apologies. I misjudged you.”
My blood was hot, but his apology was good enough. Maybe I could still make a deal. I nodded to him and walked back to the cart, rubbing my elbow.
Seb brushed past me with a smile on his face. “An honest day’s work.”
“Better than the plow.”
It worked out in the end. I got my winter wolf pelts and bear hides. They got their spices, nails, liquor, knives and silver. Erland the Northman was alright for someone with a thimble full of honor. Hopefully the other trappers won’t be stuck with him forever. A friend like that could get a man killed. My plan was to head to the southern coast and find a home for these pelts. The winter wolf was bigger than a horse. Its white fur was thick and soft. Someone would pay in gold for it.
We reached Ravens Ridge in the late afternoon. Hewn log houses and timber buildings were bathed in golden sunlight. Young children played in the street while older ones hauled grain to the windmill east of town. The land was rocky, but a few scattered farms dotted the valley. I knew I wouldn’t be here long, but it was good to be back. All I wanted was to hit great hall and drink by the fire.
“Trouble,” said Sebastian. I was walking next to the oxcart. He was driving. The usual arrangement. The high bench gave him a better view.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Erland’s here.” Seb was shaking his head. “He’s pacing around in front of the blacksmith. He looks angry.”
“How did he get ahead of us? I didn’t see him,” I said. Seb scratched his chin with the right side of his lips turning down. “Never mind. Let’s just see what that asshole’s on about.”
I walked next to the cart. Seb stopped the animals about twenty feet back. I walked straight up to him. A few people were standing around, watching. We didn’t get many visitors. “What’s the problem?” I asked.
“You gave me worthless knives.” He threw a knife in the dirt and watched it bounce. “That’s not your fault though. I know this asshole made them, so he’s going to give me some new ones.” Erland pointed at the blacksmith.
Fabrice was standing next to his forge with a hammer in his hands. It shined from the red glow of the coals. He was a big man, bigger than Erland, bigger than Seb. Fabrice’s family was home. Erland needed to watch himself. Fabrice was a man of honor – he took no shit, gave no shit. “Those aren’t my knives. That’s not my work,” he said.
“It is. You will make it right,” spit Erland.
“Are you calling me a lair?” asked Fabrice.
It was then I realized the other men were getting closer. Seb had a splitting axe in his hand. Things were going to get ugly for Erland. I don’t know what came over me. Normally, I liked to see a well-deserved ass kicking, but I felt a little compassion for him. We had shared something up there.
I stood next to Erland and put my hand on his shoulder. “This guy traveled a long way. He’s not acting like himself.” I looked Fabrice in the eye. “Please don’t take it personally.” Everyone was stone quiet. I turned to Erland. “Say you’re sorry.”
“Sorry,” he muttered.
“I didn’t hear you,” said Fabrice.
I’ll admit, he didn’t sound sorry. Still, everyone turned their backs and went about their own business. Fabrice walked into his house. Erland slapped my hand off his shoulder and walked out of town.
“Wow.” I walked back to Sebastian. “Can we get a fucking drink?”
I love our drinking hall. A pair of long wooden tables stretched from the bar to the wall. Opposite the doors on the long side, a huge fireplace made of blue and grey stone dominated the room. The warm glow of the flame embraced the light wood of the floors and walls. People sat together, but they don’t stay sitting long. I was greeted by fifteen people before I finished my first beer.
When I first came to this town, I was afraid they might resent me. I have some money and have been pretty successful – some would say at their expense. Maybe they would have hated me, but silver can help make friends too. I had this hall built and donated it to the town. Having my name over the door helped my reputation. I bought a round of drinks and toasted to our health. It was expensive, but that’s fine. You only live once.
The serving girl set another ale in front of me without asking. I’ve always liked that about her.
A scream cut through the night. The mournful note hung in the air long enough for my startle to turn to worry, and then dread. There was no way I could hear her sobbing, but I thought I did anyway. Fabrice’s wife had an unmistakable voice – low and sweet. I’d know it anywhere.
I was first out of my seat, but everyone followed. Blades appeared in the hands of every man and woman as we spilt through the doors. I ran over to his house. The door was hanging open. “Help us,” I heard her cry.
Their hearth fire was burning low, but I could see her plainly. She was kneeling in a pool of blood, holding Fabrice in her arms. Her long dark hair was a mess of curls. His right pant leg was soaked red. I knelt in front of him and cut the material away so I could see the wound. It looked like someone had taken a knife to his inner thigh. How they missed the artery, I don’t know. The bleeding was slow for such a bad wound. “Who did this?” I asked.
“The Northman. I didn’t see him coming.” Fabrice opened his eyes. They shimmered with guilt – a look I’d recognize anywhere. “Winoc, he took her.”
It didn’t register. “Who?” I asked, dumbly.
“Emile… he took Emile.” His daughter. She was turning sixteen.
It was my fault. I knew Erland was a piece of shit. I should have let them throw him out of town while they had the chance. Fabrice looked bad. Pale skin. Shallow breath. At least the bleeding was slowing down. I leaned in so he could hear me. “I’ll find her,” I said. “I’ll get her back, I promise.”