Garr and his party had been in Haarm for three weeks and although he found himself infatuated, if not outright in love with the stunning Leorrelai, he was now becoming fidgety and restless. He had seen most of the sights of Haarm, at least all those that he was interested in, and a few that he would rather not have seen. Haarm, for all its wonder, was after all, an urban place and contained all the usual negative aspects that such a status inherently denotes. To reach the dock area, it was necessary to pass through a particularly noisome slum area known unofficially, according to Lai, as “The Dregs”. And it was easy for Garr to understand why; every form of human affliction and depravity could be seen in evidence there. The streets were choked with all manner of refuse, from human waste to wasted humans. There were hungry children, people with impossible deformities and incurable diseases. In the eyes of all who lived there was the vacuous, haunted look of the damned. The whole experience made him emotionally ill.
But the wharves and docking areas were a delight to Garr. Although geographically Josdahl and Haarm were quite different, Garr learned much about the staging and docking procedures that, he was surprised to find by relentlessly questioning the skippers, with universal maritime etiquette. And he was delighted to watch a ritual performed by the more adept and confident helmsmen, known as the “Clasp”, in which two ships passing through the narrows, heading toward each other, are navigated so close that the crewmen can exchange handshakes and horns of ale.
Another popular game was called “The Oarwalk”. In this sport, the oars are held out straight, parallel with the water’s surface, whereupon the crewmen must walk the oars from stern to bow. Any crewman who loses his balance and takes a dive, must buy a round that evening at the favored tavern, which invariably gets quaffed to a rousing rendition of the old sailor’s tune, “Man in the drink, buy me a drink”.
Garr noted that even as deep and navigable as these waters were, some of the larger knarrs were just too deep of keel to make a dock landing and, in order to be unloaded, needed the assistance of shallow draft barge-type vessels called lighters. Therein, Garr realized, was the solution to the problem at Josdahl. Now he needed only to think of a reason to get merchants to consider the effort worthwhile. Given enough time, he vowed, this too would come.
Leorrelai had been so very helpful in so many different ways through all of this. His time spent away from her, he realized wistfully, was becoming more and more an aching time. But even so, he was now plagued by an urgent, restless feeling, as if he was loitering and wasting precious time. So this day he approached Dolf and said, “Dolf, we’ve been kicking around this town so long doing virtually nothing, that I get the feeling that the buildings here are drawing lots to see which one will fall on me first. What say we saddle up Baldur and Freyja and take that trail to the mountains that Hog told us about?”
“Are you starting to read minds like Huldred now?” replied Dolf. “I’ve been on the verge of suggesting something like that, but I assumed that you wouldn’t want to spend that much time away from Lai. You two are becoming quite the item, you know.”
“I wasn’t aware it was so obvious. Though I won’t deny that I am apparently falling in love with Leorrelai, I still feel the need to get away for awhile; if just for a day or two. Let’s bring the bows and do some hunting. If our luck is good, mayhap we can bring back something to bolster Master Hog’s larder. It would make me feel a whole lot better about myself; like I was contributing instead of just sopping up the good fellow’s hospitality.”
“Well said, my good man,” said Dolf, clapping his friend on the shoulder, “So, when do we leave?”
“I see nothing wrong with the present,” Garr replied. “Give me just enough time to pack and tell Lai and Huldred… no, let me rephrase that; tell Lai and ASK Huldred. But this time I’ll not let her naysay me. Meet me at the stables in one hour.” So saying, he whirled with a flourish and a Cheshire cat grin and left Dolf staring at his rapidly receding posterior. Dolf grinned in turn and shook his head, thinking how remarkably resilient human beings were. One month ago Garr and, in fact, the whole remnant of the Josdahl clan, had undergone a profoundly traumatic event, and one short month later, he is witnessing his friend wax jubilant at a simple thing like an outing to the mountains. Amazed, he shook his head again and started from the empty tap room to pack his own rucksack.
In his room, Dolf reflected on the events of the past month. He had to admit his admiration for Garr, who had lost much that was near and dear to him in that raid and was bearing up so well under the weight of his loss and responsibility.
For his own part, Dolf had never known his own father, who was lost at sea before Dolf was born. His mother, who loved him very much, was so stricken with melancholia at the loss of her husband, that she wasted away and died when Dolf was only five years old, leaving Dolf to be raised by old Gort Ildsted; his maternal grandfather.
Gort had despised Dolf’s Father and Gird, Dolf’s mother, married without consent. This fact was the seed of discontent in Gort’s life until the day he died, and though he tried to love Dolf as his own, he never could. Gort was a farmer all his life simply because he never had the warrior’s mettle, and when Dolf announced his intention to start warrior training, their relationship deteriorated even further. On the final day of his life, Gort, being one of the Council of Elders, was given to the bloodeagle. On that day Dolf removed from the gibbet and burned his last remaining relative in the fertile ground, instead of a warrior’s pyre, as Gort would have wished. Although Dolf felt guilt at his inability to cry; the tears would not come for the querulous old man who could inspire them in life, but not in death.
There were times before the raid, when he envied Garr; his status as Chieftain’s heir, a loving family, the freedom to hunt or go riding when Dolf had to tend livestock or work the fields. But Dolf was always shamed by that envy, even though he was the only one who knew of its existence. For Garr was never the type to put on airs or flaunt his station in life and would often help Dolf with his chores, or include him in his own activities.
As for love; there was Ilsa. Dolf had loved Ilsa for some time and made no secret of it. Now, one month after the raid, he was courting her openly, albeit, under the watchful eye of Huldred. Dolf was, however, quite surprised to learn Elsa’s deathbed wish that their love come to fruition. He had always respected and admired Elsa, and she in turn had always shown Dolf the utmost kindness. But Dolf had refrained from seeking the right to escort Ilsa because she was, after all, the Chieftain’s daughter, and he, a soil tiller’s heir.
Now, because of a catastrophe, that had all changed. The very same catastrophe that had devastated Garr, had actually given Dolf’s life substance. And for this too he felt guilt. He vowed then and there to be his chieftain’s man, and support Garr in all his endeavors. He would give his life, if necessary, in service to his chosen chieftain, as befitted a proper Viking.
“C’mon, Dolf!” came the call through the window. “What are you doing, playing with it?”
Odin’s bloody eye! Thought Dolf as he grabbed up his pack and flew down the stairs. Two minutes into a sacred oath and already I’m failing. Where had the time gone? Why, he hadn’t even had time to bid Ilsa farewell.
Fortunately, Ilsa was at the stables along with Garr, Leorrelai and Master Hog as Dolf came bursting through the courtyard door, stammering his heartfelt apologies and mopping his sandy hair from his face.
“Whoa, Dolf! Take it easy,” prompted Garr, as he caught the skidding Dolf by the shoulders. He cast a questioning glance at Ilsa, who simply shrugged her own befuddlement. “Now, what’s all the excitement, old boy?”
Dolf, who now realized that his heightened state of exuberance had caught everyone in the yard off guard, flushed stammering, “Well… I… uh… just a little anxious to get going, I guess.” He was truly embarrassed.
“Ah, yes,” said Garr, unconvinced. “Well I guess we’d best be off then.” So they made their farewells and were off. An hour later they entered Shadewell Pass in the Daggernasty Mountain’s foothills.
Shadewail Pass was a jagged cut in the foothills with several trails which branched off the main one and lead their winding way through the pass at graduating levels up the steep slopes to either side of the defile. The uppermost trail traversed ground so steep, that switchbacks were necessary in parts. The striata was clearly definable in shifting shades of rust, umber and the charcoal and black that denotes volcanic activity at some time in the area’s history.
The wind increased at the mouth of the pass, being funneled down from the hostile mountain climate through five miles of gorge. At irregular intervals, the wind would set up a haunting, moaning wail as it blew past the mouths of caves on its way out over small plain above Haarm. Now that wind buffeted two spellbound travelers as they sat their horses trying to decide which trail to take.
“Damn,” said Garr, “Have you ever heard anything like that before in your life? I’d swear the hounds of hel were baying for us to enter and be eaten.”
“Or the shades of the dead,” replied Dolf. “Hence the name, I suppose. So, which trail looks good to you?”
“Oh, one’s as good as the next, I suppose. We don’t really have a destination in mind and they all lead somewhere. You pick.” Garr was busy digging in one of his pouches for some dried apples to munch on, when he pulled out something that looked to Dolf like a small replica of an arrow with thin leather thong attached to it.
“Well then, I’d kind of like to stick to the high ground. That way we can get an idea how the land lays and if there is any game we can… What’s that?”
“What’s what?” Garr responded, finally pulling his nose out of his pouch.
“This thing here. May I?” asked Dolf, holding out his hand and indicating the arrow-thing.
“Oh, didn’t I show you this?” asked Garr, handing the contrivance over. Dolf just shook his head. “Huldred gave it to me,” he continued. “Here, hold the very end of the thong, that’s it, now let the pointer dangle ‘til it’s still.”
Dolf tried to do as he was instructed but the wind kept the thing swaying to and fro. Garr saw the hitch immediately. “Here,” he said, “over behind those rocks.” They dismounted and walked over to where Garr had indicated and this time the attempt was successful. Dolf stood, holding the very end of the thong between thumb and forefinger, as the little arrow dangled from the other end. “There,” said Garr, “now twist the thong.” When Dolf did this, he noticed that, while the thong twisted, the arrow did not. Openmouthed, he gave Garr a questioning look, but Garr only stood there with a knowing smile and his arms crossed.
“What is this, Garr?” he finally vocalized.
“It’s a wayfinder; the hulder plainsmen designed it.”
“Do you mean to tell me that this thing will point out your direction wherever you want to go? How? Is it magic?” Dolf asked, holding out his hand, mildly unsure.
“No.” Garr couldn’t help grinning. “It’s much less arcane than that I expect. Not all things Huldred are magic, Dolf. No it’s something Huldred called loadstone; says it comes from the ground though I’ve never seen it’s like. I assume it comes from some far-off land or such.”
“Well,” said Dolf, standing and stretching. “I’m sufficiently impressed, however, we are serving little at the moment save to burn daylight. What’s for it, brother?” he said, swinging lightly into the saddle.
“Aye, no argument there”, responded Garr following Doll’s example. “Stay to the high side of this defile till we reach the top and watch for scree. We don’t need any accidents.” With a hearty agreement from Dolf they headed off at a comfortable pace, easing the horses along, sometimes dismounting to make an easier climb for the stalwart horses.
Upon cresting the plateau they were buffeted by a strong but welcomed breeze. The climb, while interesting was taxing on man and beast alike and all were more than just a little ready for grog and grub. But, upon dismounting and turning to face the magnificent vista that was afforded at this height, the two men were forced to, at least temporarily, forget nagging appetites and stood in silent appreciation of the panorama that sprawled before them.
“I swear we must be looking a hundred leagues,” Garr intoned after some moments of appreciative gawking.
“At least”, agreed Dolf. Both stood silent for many long moments just drinking it all in.
Suddenly, movement off to the left caught Garr’s eye and he nudged Dolf and pointed. “Down there, to the left, Dolf, What is that?”
Dolf shaded his eyes and squinted into the distance trying to get a better look and in doing so edged precariously close to the precipice only a few feet away.
“Whoa, Sonny Jim!” exclaimed Garr, grabbing Dolf’s belt. “You go over the edge, you’ll no doubt be closer to whatever that is down there, but I’ll wager you won’t see much after that!”
“Wassat? Oh wow! Thanks,” Dolf muttered offhandedly, still absorbed by the sight below. “Can’t quite make it out, but it’s a heard of something for sure; elk, reindeer, mountain sheep maybe. Whatever they are there’s a lot of em and, at any rate, it would seem we’ll have our shot at swelling old Hogni’s larder a pretty piece.”
“Right,” offered Garr. “But let’s get something into our stomachs first. It’ll be a while before they reach that gorge and once they do they’ll have no other place to go but right into our waiting arms. What good luck! What could be easier than that?”
Dolf agreed and they watered the horses and settled down with their wineskins, pignuts and jerked beef as they kept watchful eyes on the heard of whatevers moving inexorably up the defile into the funnel trap, where they would eventually be lying in wait.
Having finished their hurried repast, Dolf hobbled the horses while Gaff unpacked their bows, quivers full of arrows and swords. Both already wore long dirks at their sides.
The descent to the area where the ravine bottlenecked took only about twenty minutes and was fairly easy going. They were careful of rockslides as the entire region was scree and loose shale. Finally they reached an area that provided a reasonably good vantage point for attack; a ledge not so high above the floor of the ravine as to make a bowshot ineffectual and yet afforded a clear view. They settled in and waited, and waited, and waited.
“Garr,” said Dolf finally. “You see that outcropping yonder across the ravine?” Garr nodded affirmation. “Well I’m for trying to get over there and see if I can’t get a better vantage point; maybe see around that bend in the ravine. Anyways, with me over there and you here, we’ll stand a better chance when whatever they are comes up the draw.”
It seemed reasonable. “Okay, go”, said Garr with a clap on Dolf’s shoulder. Dolf scrambled off with a whispered “Luck”, from Garr.
Garr winced as he watched his friend slide turtle-like across and down the scree-strewn slope. “That’s got to be tough on the hands,” he thought.
Just as Dolf was nearing the far side of the ravine Garr spotted the shadows of something moving on the near side of the defile. “This is it”, he thought. “Go, go, go,” he thought with waves of mental energy, trying to will Dolf ever faster to reach his targeted spot at the far outcropping. Dolf was now halfway up the shifting slope. Garr could see clearly the trouble Dolf was having to gain a foothold. Three steps up brought him two steps back down in a clamor of dust and debris. All the while, the shadows on the ravine wall were growing larger. Garr was almost certain that Dolf was unaware of the movement approaching him on the ravine floor, and as he watched, he became aware the something was terribly wrong.
The shadows were aware of something, too. They stood stock still for a moment, and in that moment, Garr realized what was wrong. The shadows were two-legged, not four-legged. These were men, not animals. Men in the numbers they had observed from the heights could only mean two things; an army or nomads. Neither prospect appealed to him.
By the time he refocused his attention on Dolf, Garr was aghast to see him hanging from a rock ledge, feet swinging in a ridiculous pedaling motion, trying vainly to gain some purchase on the rock wall. The shadows were coming closer. Gaff was about to call out a warning when he realized (by no more than Dolf’s body language) that he was aware of the situation. Dolf had seen them, too.
What could he do? Garr was too far away for a bowshot and even if he wasn’t, he was not sure that the shadows posed a threat (though presently, optimism was in short supply).
Now, several things happened.
Dolf lost his grip and went tumbling down the slope in a whirlwind of dust and dirt to land face down on the ravine floor, choking and cursing his sour luck. He was tangled in his bow, swordbelt and various garments; his hooded cloak pulled ignobly over his head.
At that unfortunate moment, the shadow-folk made a full appearance. There were five of them. They were not nomads; they were soldiers. And, of all the foul luck, they were trulls!
Garr’s mind raced and his stomach knotted. What to do? He had to do something. He surely couldn’t leave his best friend to the fiendish machinations of this band of scum. The gods only knew what heinous delights they would conjure to pass the time with poor Dolf! No, something had to be done, but what?
Garr was wringing with sweat as he stared at the unfolding tableau. Then something strange happened. The trulls, instead of attacking Dolf, were tripping over each other to get clear of this hurtling unknown, making panicky noises all the while. Garr knew at that moment that there was no time to formulate a plan and he must act out of desperation.
With no more thought than that, he doffed his bow and cloak and drew his sword, (silently thanking the Norns that they had opted bring their swords, because on a hunt they are not requisite), and went barreling full muster down the hill screaming, “Die, you stinking trull scum!”
If the trulls were startled by Dolf’s tumbling dust dance, they were completely nonplussed by this latest apparition, hurtling toward them in a cacophony of epithets.
On the floor of the defile the scene was beginning to gel. The trulls were, in fact, nothing more than a scouting party for the company of five hundred regular spear and swordsmen that were at that moment setting up camp three miles down the pass where it emptied onto the Fatigmon Flats. Pimpweasel Pockpuss was the ranking officer of the five scouts sent out to survey the situation at the southwestern end of the defile. It was Pimpweasel’s responsibility to rally the other four scouts who were, at the moment, falling all over each other in surprise and indecision at the sudden unexpected turn of events.
“Here now, straighten up an’ look lively ye lowborn gutterslugs”, he bellowed, grabbing the two nearest him and shaking them to attention. Dolf was just beginning to extricate himself from his entangled cloak and sundry belts when old Pimpweasel delivered a furious kick to his ribs, sending him again sprawling into the dust choking and gagging for air.
It was at that moment that the trull’s attention was drawn to this screaming, wind-milling, juggernaught barreling down the hill toward them in a hurricane of fury.
Garr at that point couldn’t have stopped if he had wanted to. The momentum he had built up in his plunge down the hill having will of its own. It carried him down the hill, across the floor of the ravine and right into the prostrate, gagging form of poor Dolf who was at that moment trying to rise from his agony in the dust.
As happenstance would have it Garr’s sword flew from his grip, traversed a distance of some five yards and impaled one of the hapless trulls (one Peter Breath by name) sending him gurgling into whatever hereafter trulls enjoy. Of course, seeing this Pimpweasel was livid. If any of his crew was going to get offed, he was going to do the offing, not some crazy hooman. He reached down, grabbed Dolf and Garr by their scruffs and unceremoniously lifted them off the ground, feet dangling.
“Well well, lads, what has we here? A couple of rabid little conies beggin’ fer the spit I wager!” With this he handed them over to the four remaining trulls who were only now regaining their composure, saying, “Truss ‘em up tight, m’lads. And make it hurt!” Wheeling on Garr, his foul breath nauseating, he sneered, “I’m gonna be High Poopoo in camp tonight after bringin’ in a catch like you two little pimples. Oh yes, that I am. And when the whole company’s eatin’ the flesh off yer livin’ bones, I wantcha t’ be thinkin’ of Pimpweasel as the minister of yer pain `n’ agony!” At that he puffed up like a toad and started doing an obscene little jig, croaking and laughing at the top of his lungs.
And then his head fell off.
Just like that; one minute it was where it should be. The next minute it was rolling in the dust with his big body finishing the last few steps of his little dance, until that too stopped cold and fell over. There in his place stood a tall apparition clothed head to foot in black leather and grinning ear to ear, brandishing a lethal looking sword. The sword flashed once, twice left, once, twice right and came to rest, point on the ground, pommel between the strangers still, clasped hands. Then there were no live trulls. Just like that.
Garr and Dolf stood dumb stuck trying to drink in the reality of what had just happened, and wondering if they were in fact in more danger than they had been at the hands of the trulls.
The tall stranger, sensing their discomfiture, smiled, executed a long sweeping bow and announced, “Gentlemen, Briar Flynn at your service.”
Garr and Dolf meet an unexpected benefactor.