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Chapter Five

 They pressed on until midday.  They came to an open meadow and stopped to take a meal.  The horses were tended and the people all stretched their weary arms and legs.  Everyone who had been in the wagon that was attacked was still shaken.  The young mother who had been driving that wagon was moved with her children to another wagon so that someone from that wagon could drive the other.

The equipment retrieved from the dead spearmen was given to three boys who had only seen 13 winters and they were now asked to stand as men. All of the young men of the muster were distributed more evenly throughout the wagons, occasionally being separated from their families in the process.  Every wagon now had two lads and a couple had three, and they were given explicit instructions to watch the sides of the road and keep their spear in their hands.

Once all the people were back in the wagons, Olafr and Fastbjorn led the wagons back onto the road and set a brisk pace.  This would tire the horses sooner, but they felt it was urgent to put some distance between them and the battle.

They continued on all afternoon until the sun started going down.  None of the men knew of a good defensible place to spend the night near there, so they settled for a small clearing just off the road.  They tethered the horses and distributed food.  Hundolfr was no longer with them, so Herfinnr, the other knight sent with them, drilled the youngsters in some basic tactics until darkness fell.  As the youngsters headed towards their blankets, Amundr thought he saw his father tuck something into the pocket of his jacket.  There were fewer men left for the watches that night, so each man was on watch slightly longer.

***

On the second morning, Amundr awoke early and roused Saegrimr.  They set off into the woods surrounding their encampment to forage for food.  They gathered up as many nuts as they could find along with edible roots and mushrooms and hurried back to the camp as most of the children were waking up.  They gave the food they found to the women doling out provisions and accepted their meager breakfast gracefully.

Soon everyone was loaded aboard the wagons and the caravan was back out on the road.  The memory of the previous morning hung heavily over the heads of all and the procession was somber and silent.  The air was still chilly and the winds began to whip up throughout the day.  The previously clear sky was populated with a few clouds.  As the day passed, the number of clouds grew.  Amundr rode on in silence, thinking about the events of the past few days.  He had so many questions and so few answers.  At the midday meal break he sought out his father.  “Father,” he began, keeping his voice low.  “What are the vergrinn?  Why do they hunt people, and where did they all come from?”

Olafr’s eyes shifted from side to side as he looked around at the children, a few of whom appeared to have overheard these questions and were awaiting his response.  “They are nothing.  We will soon be to Gudmund and free from this danger.”  He glanced at his son.

As they mounted their horses to get back on the road, Olafr sought Amundr.  “Tonight, we will stand the second watch together.  Some things are best kept from tender ears in the wild woods.”

As Amundr rode along, he realized that for the first time in his life a conversation with his father had left him feeling more frightened and less certain than he had been before.  He was anxious to speak with his father again, though, because it was readily apparent that his father knew something significant about the vergrinn.

***

“My father,” Olafr began, “fought the vergrinn during the last invasion 50 years ago – back before I was born.  I thought that we would have a respite during our lifetimes because never before had the vergrinn attacked in numbers less than a century after being driven back.”  The two of them were standing on a small outcropping of rock overlooking the camp that night.

“Why did they attack sooner this time?” Amundr asked.

“Good question.  Most of the things they’ve done haven’t made any sense.  They send out scouts.  They strategize.  They retreat.  They use tools.  None of these match the mindless killers that we had seen so many times before.  They’re attacking in autumn instead of in the deepest, coldest winter.  It’s almost like these aren’t actually vergrinn.”

“Well, what’s the best way to fight them?”

“If these are the same vergrinn as always, they will be far stronger than men.  Their hides are tough.  Their hearing, vision, and sense of smell are as keen as those of a wolf.  They use spears and their teeth and claws are sharp, deadly weapons.”

“Don’t they have any weaknesses?”

“They are slower than a man.  They are less intelligent than a man.  They are more given to fits of battle rage than a man, and they are afraid of fire.  They don’t like water and they can’t swim.”

“But where do they come from?  What are they?”

Olafr looked long and hard at Amundr as if weighing what to say next.  “Some say they are wild animals that have gained a little intelligence.  Some say they are a separate type of men.  The truth…” a long pause, and when he spoke his voice was no more than a whisper, “The truth is that they are cursed creatures – servants of evil condemned to their fate and constantly hungering after the flesh of men.”  He spoke with a tone in his voice that indicated that he was not speculating.  “The truth is that the vergrinn have existed for thousands of years.  They wiped out all men in their ancestral land and eventually found their way here.”

“I’ve never heard that before.  How can you know this?”

Another pause.  Olafr looked around to ensure no one was near enough to hear.  “My father, and his father, and his forefathers before him have passed on the lore of the vergrinn since time immemorial.  Whenever they appeared, we have fought to defend the innocent from them and defeat the vergrinn.  After the vergrinn were defeated at the battle of the glade, my father settled near there because he was certain that the vergrinn would return.  He was right.”

“Why have you never told me this?”

“I was going to tell you when you were older.  We should have had more time before they returned.  You aren’t prepared at all, and there is no time to properly prepare you right now.  Hopefully we can talk about this more when we get to Gudmund.  Our watch is almost over.  Get some sleep.”

***

The next day the temperature continued to drop.  By mid-morning the flurries were falling from the grey sky.  As the day wore on, the snow fell faster and faster.  By the time they made camp at the side of the road that night there were a few inches of snow on the ground.  Many of the children were shivering, and after a hurried consultation it was decided that they would go ahead and light several small fires since the vergrinn hadn’t been seen in days.

Since they were going to be using fires for warmth, several of the men went hunting and returned with small game and a deer.  These were cooked and shared out among the people.  Spirits were higher than they had been since the journey began until the next morning.

Olafr arose early and went out to scout ahead down their path as usual.  Upon taking several steps away from the fire he found several tracks in the snow just beyond the reach of the light from their fires.  The vergrinn had been here, watching.

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