Vergrinn! Amundr thought they were simply a tale told by the fires to scare the children. Vergrinn were wolves who walked upright and spoke in a strange tongue and ate people. Surely he must not have heard that correctly.
Horns were sounding and people were running to the gate as fast as they could. The word was spreading like wildfire through the Market and the rest of the town. Holmr and the men with him rode up the street to the keep, where they dismounted and were led inside. The people around burst into motion as parents sought out children and children sought out parents. As Amundr turned from the gate to find his father he heard his name being called from an approaching wagon.
“Amundr! Little Mundi! Over here!”
Saegrimr was here and he was alive. Amundr ran out towards the wagon that was just now coming to a stop. Surely his friend would be able to tell him what was happening. “Did you really see the vergrinn?!?!?”
His friend shook his head, “I didn’t actually see any, but we could all hear them in the distance. My father and several of the other men saw them and brought back a few heads and paws to show people that they really are vergrinn, but as soon as we knew what was happening they gathered all of us onto wagons and sent us towards Eyjolf so that we could get into the city and find protection. Father and the others rode out to warn people living outside of our village which is why they only got here just ahead of us even though the wagons were so much slower.”
“Where did they come from? How many are there? What do they want?” Amundr was frantic, but his friend merely shook his head.
Inside the keep Holmr and the baron were having a similar conversation. “Do you have any idea how many there are?” the baron asked.
“We went back to look around and it was obvious that there were hundreds, maybe thousands.” Holmr was an elder in his small village as well as an experienced fighter, having led his village’s defense against various raiding parties and brigands over the years and understood the importance of finding out such information. “We sent half a dozen men on the fastest steeds we had to try to find out. Hopefully they will let us know soon.”
“How did we find them, or should I ask how they found us?” the baron asked.
“As far as we can tell, they had a small advanced scouting party out ahead of their main force. Five of them apparently came across a hunter near our village and attacked him. He fled towards the village and they pursued. We killed four of the five but it cost us a dozen men plus the hunter who died of his wounds. The fifth devil fled to the north and we tracked him for a couple of hours before we heard the sounds of more in the distance and decided that we needed to seek the shelter of the city. We’ve gathered in all of the people between our village and here.”
At that moment they were interrupted by one of the door wardens, “Milord, we have riders here that wish to speak to both of you.”
“Show them in.”
Three riders came in, clearly winded and looking alarmed. The first spoke immediately “Milord, the news is grim. We went east to the river and then turned north to observe from Eagle Point. There are at least two thousands of the devils camped two leagues northeast of our village. We could also see that apparently the other three men who went out with us but turned west got too close to the devils and they and their horses were partaking of a midday feast with the vergrinn,” he shuddered as he spoke. “What’s more, some of the vergrinn carried axes and some of the trees around them were felled as we watched. I don’t know what they are up to, but it can’t be good.”
The baron was uncertain. “How can we be certain these are vergrinn? The vergrinn were wiped out 50 years ago and no one has seen them since. I’ve never heard of one retreating as you described, and they’ve never before shown the subtlety to scout or move cautiously. They’ve never used a tool before, either.”
Holmr shook his head. “I’ve never heard of anything like this in the old stories either, but as for the question of whether they are vergrinn…” He nodded to one of the men who had come in with him and that man dumped the contents of the bag he was carrying onto the cold stone floor. The overly large wolf head with its relatively small snout rolled to a stop near the baron’s feet with the eyes staring blankly up at him. “It walked on two feet and used a spear. They’re currently eating the remains of some of my men and their horses. If that’s not a vergrinn, it might as well be.”
The baron was stunned into silent thought. This town had been built and this barony had been established under his father as an outpost against the vergrinn after their defeat at the Battle of the Glade 50 years ago. The Glade was only a league and a half from here and they still used the tales to frighten children. He came to a decision. “Warn all the guards on the walls to redouble their watch, and summon everyone else to the church.”
There was anxious murmuring making its way through the crowd in the church building as they waited for the baron to arrive and start speaking. Everyone there had heard the rumor about the vergrinn and they all wanted to know what they were going to do. In theory, the church building was big enough for everyone to meet together to worship but the truth was that with everyone in there it was a tight fit and there were people gathered outside near the windows and door.
Finally the baron made his way to the front of the building with the city elders and the crowd quieted down. One of the city elders stepped forward to word a prayer, “Oh great and wonderful God, provider of all that is good. We thank you for the bountiful harvest you have provided us this year and for the many daily blessings we receive from you. We humbly beseech you now for your guidance and protection in this time of trial and we pray that our faith in you remains strong.”
The elder stepped back and the baron stepped forward. “By now I am certain that all of you have heard. The vergrinn have returned. Their numbers are great and they are behaving strangely. Right now I am telling you that we will bring all food goods into the keep and we will ration provisions as if we were under siege.” There was some grumbling at this, but most of the older citizens nodded in approval.
“Furthermore, we do not know if we will be able to hold the town. We may have to retreat into the keep if we are overwhelmed, and the keep is not large enough for everyone to stay in there.” This caused the grumbling to increase in volume. “I have discussed it with the city elders and we have decided on a course of action. All children who have less than 16 winters and their mothers will be loaded onto wagons and sent south to the Duke’s citadel in Gudmund.”
A man in the front row exclaimed “They’ll be eaten for sure! You’re sending our women and children to their deaths to save yourself!”
The baron shook his head. “My own son Aoalbert will be with the wagons, and I will send a dozen men with the wagons for their protection. They will likely be safer than we who remain here. Furthermore, there are several lads of 14 or 15 winters who would have been joining the muster soon. These lads will be added to the muster early and will provide additional protection.” Amundr turned and saw that Saegrimr’s surprise was clearly as great as his own. They were both supposed to join the muster this summer and they both knew how to use a spear and a bow, but the sudden weight of helping guard a caravan of women and children as they fled to the safety of the regional capital nearly overwhelmed Amundr.
The baron named the men who were to guide and guard the caravan, and they included two of his household knights known for their horsemanship and prowess in battle, two merchants who were most familiar with the road to the capital, the two best woodsmen in the barony – his own hunting guide Stigr and Amundr’s father, and half a dozen other men of the muster. He informed them that the wagons were already being prepared and provisioned and that they thought it would take them a week to get to the city and that hopefully in another week the Duke’s men would be riding to relieve the city. They would depart in two hours so that they could be as far away as possible by tomorrow when the vergrinn came to town.
As the crowd went their ways to gather supplies into the keep and make other preparations, Amundr’s father pulled him aside and steered him towards their wagon. “Little Mundi, today you are being given a man’s responsibility. I know you are more ready for this than any of the boys your age, and my heart swells with pride when I think of this. I have something for you.” He reached for the new spear he had bought for him and handed it over. “Amundr, remember that the spear is not as important as the hand that wields it, and the hand is not as important as the heart that moves it – but a sharp spear is always better than a dull one in either case.”
Amundr and his father headed for the barracks near the gate where the men who were escorting the wagons were assembling. None of the other young men’s fathers were going along on the journey and all of them were outside in the courtyard getting some hurried instruction in the proper use of their spears and shields, but Amundr walked alongside his father into the barracks – he had killed bears and wolves with his spear and wanted to be treated like one of the men. He received some odd looks from some of the men assembled, and the Baron looked at him long and hard for what felt like an hour but couldn’t have been more than a few seconds. Finally the Baron withdrew his gaze and spoke.
“This will not be easy. Every one of you will be sorely missed from our ramparts, but all of you also realize that the desperate straits we are in will likely be the death of those that remain behind. For those of us remaining behind our hope is that we can hold out for a time and inflict significant losses on our foe and keep their attention from following you. Your duty is twofold – you must protect the women and children who depart with you and you must warn the Duke of the dangers of the vergrinn. My son goes with you, and while I know that every man in this room possesses more skill on the field of battle and in the woodlands…” and with that he looked at Amundr, “My son must grow into his role as the next Baron of Eyjolf. He is by birthright a knight of Eyjolf and by law the highest ranking man among you. He has, unfortunately, been ill prepared for this moment by a father who spoiled him while growing complacent and who convinced himself that the threat we were appointed to watch for was gone forever. I ask for three things – your oath to serve him as you would me and to fulfill the mission given to you, your assistance in guiding him towards the right choices, and your forgiveness for being saddled with this.” He lowered his eyes as he said the last. Every man in the room stepped forward and kneeled before the baron, including Amundr, and swore their lives to his house and to the mission before them.
As they all rose to leave, the baron called Olafr and Amundr aside. “Olafr, you are the most skilled man on this mission and by rights you should be the leader. All of the men know this and they will all follow your lead in whatever you do. Please watch out for my son.” Olafr nodded and walked away.