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Chapter Six

 “How many were there?”  Aoalbert had been the first to respond to Olafr’s call for nearby men, likely because his typical morning involved more eating and less working.

“It looks like there was only one.  Judging by his tracks, he arrived after the snow finished falling during the third watch and left before the sun rose this morning.”

“How can you tell he left before the sun rose by looking at his tracks?”

“I can’t, but this position was downwind until shortly before sunrise when the wind shifted.  The horses would have smelled him if he was still here when that happened.”

“It can’t have gotten far.  We should pursue it.  We don’t want it bringing back more of them.”

At this moment, Stigr, who had set off cautiously down the vergrinn’s trail, returned.  “Milord, I’m more worried about it leading us into another ambush.  We’ve already lost a third of the men your father sent with us and we are still twenty leagues from Gudmund.  The vergrinn that was here snuck away for a few yards and then broke into a run.  If we are to have any hope of seeing our people to safety and sending help, speed is our best friend.”

Aoalbert consented and they set out immediately.  The sun rose that morning and the snow melted away.  Their mid-day meal break was shortened and they pressed on at the end of the day until the light was almost completely gone.  There were no fires tonight after the vergrinn’s appearance the night before.  The lads drilled briefly and everyone was thoroughly exhausted.

***

The next two days passed unremarkably.  The weather was cold and there was light cloud covering, but everyone’s spirits were lifted by the fact that they were finally drawing closer to their destination.  On the morning of the second day they entered an area that was better described as meadows interrupted by the occasional stand of trees rather than forest interrupted by occasional clearing.  Late that afternoon they came out of a band of forest into an open meadow stretching to the horizon.  They made camp shortly before sunset and everyone was excited to hear that they should be in Gudmund the next day.

They passed out extra food and held a small feast around several large fires.  Stigr, Olafr, and Herfinnr stood off to one side having a quiet discussion.  “I’m thankful we have made it this far.  I think we have outdistanced the vergrinn and I will be happy to see Gudmund,” said Stigr.

Olafr shook his head.  “We’re almost there, but the vergrinn are persistent.  We’ve been pushing hard, but we’re dealing with women and children here.  They could be pulling forced marches long into the night.  I would hate to get this close and lose our charges.”  He looked to Herfinnr.  “How are the lads coming?  They’ve been training for a week.”

Herfinnr hesitated before speaking.  “The lads are doing better than you might expect.  They know the basics as well as any batch of green recruits, but they’re still just lads.  If the vergrinn fall on us in full force, who knows what they’ll do.”

Olafr sighed wearily.  “Let’s hope we don’t have to find out, then.”

***

The final day of their journey started out well.  They made good time and were soon passing the occasional small cottage off to either side of the road.  Every time they passed one of these, Herfinnr or Stigr would ride to the cottage and warn the occupants about the coming of the vergrinn.  At the mid-day meal, Stigr and Fastbjorn volunteered to ride ahead and give the villages between there and Gudmund advanced warning so they could withdraw to the city.

On the open plains, Herfinnr and Aoalbert rode at the head of the column while the rest of the men rode at the rear.  Saegrimr rode alongside Amundr at the very end of the column and he found it hard to contain his excitement.  “Do you think they’ll let us stay in the muster now or will we be left out until next summer?”

Amundr shrugged.  “It doesn’t really matter.  We know we belong here.  I’d wager that no man of the muster has faced the vergrinn like we have.”  As soon as he said that, he realized that the men left back at the village had probably been dealing with vergrinn every day while they were gone and he fell silent.

Saegrimr noticed his friend’s silence and changed topics.  “Have you ever been to Gudmund?  I hear that there are tens of thousands of people there.  I wonder what it’s like.”

Amundr turned to respond, but his attention was drawn away by something he saw out of the corner of his eye.  He reined in his horse and turned around for a better view of what was behind them.  Not half a league distant on the road he saw several wagons approaching much faster than his own train was traveling.  In the distance beyond them he could barely make out a swirling mass of darkness.  “Father!”

Olafr was at his side in an instant.  “I see them.  We’ll see what they have to say when they catch up with us.”

***

Within half an hour the first of the wagons had caught up with them.  “Your man warned us and we gathered our people as quickly as we could.  We put most of the children and the elderly in wagons, but many of our people are on foot.  They’re trying to hurry, but I fear the vergrinn might catch them before we reach the city.”

Olafr had a hurried conference with Herfinnr.  “Well,” began Herfinnr, “I think our best bet is to try to hold them at the bridge over the Svanr River.  It is half a mile ahead of us and three leagues from the city gates.  You lead the wagons to Gudmund and send back help, while I stay with the men and we hold the bridge against the vergrinn.”

Olafr shook his head.  “You are known in Gudmund and will be more likely to get help quickly.  I will stand with the men.  You take Aoalbert and the wagons and fly to safety.”

Aoalbert had been sitting on his horse nearby.  “I will stay and defend the bridge with the rest of the men.  Herfinnr, I order you to get the people to safety.  The rest of us will deal with these beasts.”  Olafr sighed.

***

They reached the bridge over the Svanr River in a few minutes.  Herfinnr urged the wagons to hurry and they sped down the road towards Gudmund.  Olafr, Amundr, Saegrimr, Aoalbert, and four other men remained at the bridge.  Each man had a bow and a quiver of arrows in addition to their spear.  They knew that every minute they could hold off the vergrinn was another minute when Stigr and Fastbjorn could be warning villagers between here and the city.

The stragglers from the outlying villages soon arrived.  They were men and women, old and young.  They were clearly weary already, and the vergrinn weren’t more than a mile behind.  If they had all been healthy adults, they could have outpaced the vergrinn to Gudmund, but these stood no chance.

Once they had crossed the bridge, Olafr organized the hasty construction of a barricade on the northern end of the bridge to slow the vergrinn.  They used logs, branches and stones they had dragged up from the surrounding creek bed while waiting for the stragglers.  They hurried back across the bridge and arranged a similar barricade there.

By now the vergrinn were no more than two furlongs away.  Olafr encouraged his men.  “Remember, we can start shooting them as soon as they get within range.  Once they cross the far barricade, lay aside your bow and ready your spear.  The bridge is narrow enough that if we stand together we can hold it for a long time.”

The vergrinn kept coming.  The men could hear their howls and growls as they hurried towards the bridge.  It seemed to Amundr as if the presence of the defenders enraged the vergrinn and motivated them to move even faster.  Soon they were within bowshot.  Every one of the defenders started firing arrows as fast as they could into a crowd of vergrinn so large it seemed impossible to miss.  Arrow after arrow found its mark and the number of the vergrinn who were falling rose.

There were at least three score vergrinn down when the first vergrinn got to the barricade at the north end of the bridge, yet there were still hundreds coming.  As they began to clamber over the barricades Amundr and the others kept shooting.  It was working!  The bridge was narrow enough and the barricade stout enough that the vergrinn would not be able to pass. 

Suddenly a howl and a growling voice rose above the rest.  The defenders kept shooting while the front ranks of vergrinn pulled back and several vergrinn with axes came forward and started hacking away at the barricade.  The vergrinn would be through the northern barricade any minute, but that didn’t matter as the defenders were almost out of arrows.  Seven score vergrinn had been felled by the defenders’ arrows when their last was fired.  Amundr had used all of his new steel ones as well as his older flint arrows.

The barrier was finally down and the vergrinn pressed their way across the bridge.  The men held their spears ready, a hint of nervousness present in all of them.  “Stand firm,” Olafr admonished, “Every minute we hold them here saves innocent lives.”

The defenders held the end of the bridge for what seemed like hours.  Thrust.  Slash.  Stab.  Parry.  Amundr’s arms wearied with the effort.  The vergrinn dead piled higher and still they kept coming.  A spear slipped through and got one of the defenders in the leg.  He went down with a cry.  Another man was stabbed through the chest.  Aoalbert had his spear wrenched from his grasp and he was suddenly fleeing to the horses which were tethered 20 yards to the west of the bridge.  “They’re scaling the banks!” he shouted.  Several dozen vergrinn had snuck down the far bank of the river and laid logs from the barricade across a narrow portion of the river and were now climbing the bank near the horses.

“Fly!” cried Olafr.  “We can hold them no longer.  To the city!”  He stood with Amundr, Saegrimr, and two other men.  Amundr and Saegrimr stood by Olafr, but the two other men headed for the horses.  After Aoalbert had mounted his horse and fled, the other horses had pulled their stakes and followed.  The two men heading towards where the horses had been tethered were soon swallowed amongst dozens of vergrinn.

“Head down the river to the coast, then follow it south to the city!” Olafr shouted at the boys.  The barrier was now all but unguarded and the vergrinn were almost over.  Olafr dove in front of a spear intended for Amundr and said “GO!  You are… the last… wolf spear…”

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