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Chapter Three

 It was still a few hours before sunset when the caravan set out.  Each wagon carried more than a dozen women and children with light provisions for a week and the total number on the wagons exceeded seven score.  The knights and the men of the muster rode sturdy horses, including Saegrimr and Aoalbert, who rode their own steeds.  Amundr rode a spirited chestnut stallion.  His father had traded his team and wagon for a sturdy riding horse for himself and his son.  The rest of the newest young members of the muster rode in the wagons with their mothers and brothers and sisters and everyone silently prayed that they could ride there in peace.  Following the advice of Olafr they set out due south along the road at the best speed they could make.  Their plan was to make for a small hill 4 leagues south of town to camp for the night. 

As the sun was dropping behind the trees, the caravan of wagons turned west off the road up a little used path and the wagons trundled up a low hill.  The underbrush was relatively thick and the branches grabbed at horse and rider as they ascended.  It was clear that no wagons had passed this way in quite some time.  As they neared the top of the hill Olafr called a halt and silently dropped from his saddle to examine the ground.  He called several of the other men over and they held a whispered conversation.

Into the middle of this conversation rode Aoalbert.  “What’s the holdup?” he demanded.  “We’re almost to the top of the hill and all of you just stopped.  Our horses are tired and the people are tired.  Move along and let us continue!”

The men gathered around Olafr hesitated and looked to Olafr.  “Sir, I beg your pardon but we were examining tracks on the ground.” He began.   “The tracks were rather unusual and looked quite like they might have been made by vergrinn several days ago.”

“Vergrinn tracks?  Here?  Preposterous.  All of you heard just as I did that they are coming from the north, not the south.  Besides, if they were coming from the south we would have passed them as we traveled.”

“Well, sir…” Olafr hesitated “It seems as though the vergrinn may be ahead of us as well.  We know they have sent out small groups to scout ahead, and it may be that they have sent additional scouts past Eyjolf and possibly as far as the isthmus of Gudmund.  We may want to reconsider our path and take a longer route to avoid the road.”

“If we take a longer path then we might run out of food.  If we take a longer path then we might not reach Gudmund in time to send back help to Eyjolf.  If we take a longer path then I will have to put up with the incessant whining and the stench of these peasants for longer than necessary!” Aoalbert was practically screaming by the time he finished his rant.  Amundr personally thought that the first two points were valid, but thought that Aoalbert had whined as much as any newborn on the first part of their journey.

Olafr came close to Aoalbert so no others would hear and said “If we take the shorter path and run into vergrinn, we won’t need to worry about food.  We also won’t need to worry about sending folks back to help and we will long for the cries of babies instead of the howls of vergrinn, milord.”

That brought Aoalbert up short and he quickly dismounted.  “Show me the tracks.”

“Unfortunately, milord, in your haste you rode through them and they are mostly trampled.  You can still make out this one over here and that one over there,” Olafr pointed with the butt of his spear, “But there are not enough left for us to determine how many vergrinn there were or how long ago they were here.”

“How can you tell those are vergrinn tracks?  They look similar to wolf tracks.”  Amundr was shocked to learn that the baron’s son actually knew what a wolf’s tracks looked like.

“Well, the feet are longer and the spacing between the pads on the paws is different on a vergrinn.  Also, when there were more tracks we could look at the spacing between the tracks from when they stood still and when they walked.  These creatures were only walking on one pair of feet.”

“Well, let’s continue with caution to the top of the hill and we’ll decide in the morning which path to take from here.”

“Yes, milord.”

***

The horses and wagons reached the top of the hill without further incident, but as they were not building fires or setting up tents, there was little to do to set up their camp.  Olafr sent men out in pairs to scout around the hill – a veteran paired with a newly minted “warrior” – and they all reported back that they had not seen anything unusual.  A small group was sent down to a nearby stream to fetch water and haul it back to the camp and then everyone settled in for the night.

Saegrimr asked Hundolfr, one of the knights sent with the women and children, if he would continue providing some of the basic instruction that had begun that afternoon in the courtyard with one of the sergeants of the muster.  Hundolfr agreed, and he spent the next hour instructing the boys about the proper techniques for holding and thrusting their spears.  He had them practice bracing the butt of their spears between the ground and the instep of their boots to stop a charging animal and he had them practice forming into ranks to create a layered defense of multiple spears as well as forming a circle to defend from all directions.  By the time they finished practicing formations, the last of the daylight had dwindled away and an eerie silence had descended on the hillside.  Hundolfr and Olafr organized the men into two hour watches and everyone bedded down for the night.  The moon was bright and Amundr was restless, so he passed the time replacing several of his flint arrowheads with the steel ones his father had given him before finally nodding off.  He would try to find decent materials to fashion more arrows somewhere along the road.

***

When morning broke, food was doled out quickly and quietly.  Nobody got much to eat.  Their provisions weren’t generous when they started and the women handing out food had heard the speculation from some of the men regarding a longer than expected journey.  Aoalbert complained about the quantity and quality of what he did eat, but everyone observed that he ate all that was given to him.  Amundr and Saegrimr each shared part of their rations with children around them. 

“There are plenty of acorns and other nuts at this time of year.” Amundr told Saegrimr “If we were allowed to have a fire I would probably be able to get us a few rabbits and squirrels while we travel, but even I’m not hungry enough to eat them raw.”  Saegrimr nodded in agreement and they mounted their horses in silence.

Olafr and one of the merchants had returned to the road and scouted a brief distance ahead while the others ate.  Now they returned and summoned all the men on horseback together.

“The road seems clear, but the animals are quiet.  It’s like something has them spooked.  Keep your eyes open.”  He rode down the line and made similar admonitions to the young men riding in the wagons before returning to the front of the line and leading the caravan back down the hill.

***

Olafr rode at the head of the column with a merchant named Fastbjorn, who mostly traded in textiles.  Neither one spoke as they set a steady pace towards the south.  Hundolfr and Aoalbert rode a few paces behind while the rest of the men rode at the rear of the train in anticipation of pursuit from the vergrinn.

Amundr and Saegrimr weren’t sure where to ride.  Amundr didn’t want to be seen as hanging on his father like a babe and neither he nor Saegrimr had any desire to ride near Aolbert.  At the same time, they didn’t quite feel that they truly belonged with the rest of the men at the rear of the column.  This was why they were riding near the middle of the column when the vergrinn struck.

The wind had been from the east all morning and the previous day’s warmth had been replaced by an autumn chill.  After riding along for a couple of leagues, the wind had shifted and the horses had gotten skittish.  Suddenly the underbrush to Amundr’s right exploded outward and several vergrinn were stabbing and clawing at everything they could reach.  Amundr’s horse reared and he fell from the saddle.  Saegrimr had raised his own horse from a colt and was better able to control him, but even he was having difficulty.

Landing roughly on the ground, Amundr grabbed the spear he had dropped and turned towards the vergrinn.  There were five of them – two near Saegrimr and the other three going after one of the wagons.  Amundr thrust his spear at a vergrinn between him and his friend, but he missed.  He didn’t miss by much, and the vergrinn, whose back had been turned, turned to Amundr snarling.

It leapt at Amundr and without thinking Amundr braced his spear as he had done when hunting large animals so many times before.  The vergrinn impaled itself on Amundr’s spear and the shock from the impact caused it to drop its own, but it still tried to fight its way closer to him.  Amundr drew the small axe he carried from his belt and finished the creature off with a flurry of blows.

Amundr wrenched his spear free of the dying brute and turned around to see what was happening.  The first thing he saw was his best friend standing alone against a huge vergrinn.  Amundr started towards the vergrinn menacing Saegrimr, but cries from the wagons pulled him away.  One of the horses pulling the wagon nearest him was on the ground thrashing as blood streamed from the stump of a leg and its stomach.  The remaining horses were straining at their harnesses as they tried to flee.  The worst image, though, was the remaining vergrinn disappearing back into the underbrush, each clutching a small child in their arms.

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