The air was colder than the breath of the dead and the sky was black. What sliver of moon raised itself was hidden deep behind clouds that promised an early winter. Ragnorvald stood near to Big Sven who wasn't so much taller than him, just broad and round as a barrel about the chest. He could look Big Sven in the eye and even stare the man down for all that both were berserkers at heart. It was just that Sven recognized not only a kindred curse or blessing of the Raven King, as one might look at it, but a little something more, some sense of cunning and direction and even a greater wildness that Ragnorvald possessed but Sven did not.
"Cold as a hag's teat," muttered Skarpi who had come up beside the pair.
"Like you'd know the feel of a teat," Gisli, who had approached as well, said, and wacked the smaller, younger man on the head.
Skarpi was small, but mean and a vicious, wily fighter. Gisli was a tall, thin man with broad shoulders and wiry muscles that belied his size. Though not as strong as Big Sven or Ragnorvald nor a berserker as either, he was powerful with axe or spear and could cut through shield and arm with a blow well-landed.
The nine other men of Ragnorvald's small company joined them in a cluster of half-frozen breath and a patter of hands beating warmth and feeling back into their icy fingers.
"Keep it quiet," Ragnorvald hissed at the rising murmur as his men talked among themselves or simply cursed the chill of the night.
The hills where Ragnorvald's band of outlaws laired had come to an end and the forest as well. Cleared and cropped land spread before them and in the near distance a small hold with a palisade of tree boles, bark still on, ringed the main hall and outbuildings. They could smell the fire in the hall even if the night was too dark to see the plume of rising smoke that hovered above it like a crow-maiden of the Raven King floating above a battlefield. A dog barked, no friend to outlaws, and made several men clutch their weapons more firmly.
"Gisli," Ragnorvald said quietly, "you, Aelfdan and Ring will have to silence those dogs. Take three with you. You can stand on their backs to get over that wall."
The tall man was the best with thrown axe while Aelfdan and Ring were the only two who could use a bow with any skill. The bow was more of a Southron weapon and despised by the warriors of the north. Ragnorvald and other outlaws like himself were less fastidious in their codes of honor and the bandit leader would be the first to admit that the ranged weapon had its uses, though it was no weapon with which he'd found any skill in himself.
With a nod Gisli acknowledged his chief's order, tapped his two bowmen and each chose a nearby man to accompany them. Adding another outlaw to follow as his own ladder the six men soon began a crouched loping run across the fields to the hold. As they neared the palisade they split apart, each approaching from a different direction.
They would need to find the dogs and any watchers set on guard for the night. Some holds simply let out a pack of hounds on cold nights while those who should guard slept near the nightfire or wrapped themselves in furs or blankets or the arms and legs of some wench to keep warm.
Ragnorvald and his remaining men began to trot forward leaving the trees behind and moving across the rough fields filled with the stubble of the recent harvest. Eirik, always a clumsy bastard, slipped as his foot came down on a hard ridge of dirt and fell against Agnar. Both cursed, but Eystein slapped the two of them, one then another, on the back of the head to shut them up. The slaps sounded louder than the men's words but Ragnorvald would reward Eystein later for keeping the unruly pair disciplined even if it caused a stir among the hold's defenders human or canine.
Copyright March 2014 By Jason Zavoda
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Copyright March 2014 By Jason Zavoda