6.24 – Tracks

The tunnel stretched on long past the point when fatigue made itself known in Einarr’s thighs. They had walked all day to reach the town in the first place, and now whatever had chased away the residents had also done for them. After a time with no sign that the source of the wailing had followed them, Einarr stopped and shook his head.

“We camp here for the night. These tracks are at least a week old: there’s nothing to be gained by forcing ourselves onward tonight.”

Judging by the groans of relief from Erik and Jorir as their packs dropped to the ground, it was the right call. Runa sat on her bag and began unlacing her boots.

Jorir looked about without moving from where he’d stopped. “Not a lot of room for a proper camp here.”

“Plenty of room to stretch out and sleep, though, and less area we have to guard. We’re all exhausted: let’s take advantage of what looks like a safe area while we have it.”

Runa sighed now. “As much as I hate to say it… what about light? Once that torch goes out, what are we going to burn? Once we wake up, if there’s no light, how will we know we’re headed in the right direction?”

Einarr rubbed his forehead. She made a solid argument. He was saved, though, by his man-at-arms.

Jorir cleared his throat. “Beggin’ yer pardon, milady, but everyone does remember that I’m a svartdvergr, right? I don’t rightly need light to get where I’m going.”

“You don’t?” That was news to Einarr, as well.

“Not as such, no. We use some of the old roots in the walls for a fire that will do for on watch, and then we can rekindle that fire-stick o’ yours when its time to move again.”

Einarr paused a moment, studying Jorir’s face under the wavering torch-light, but saw nothing but the dwarf’s calm, sincere regard. “Well. There you have it, I guess,” he finally said. “Wake one of us when you need relief. In the meantime, it sounds as though we need to strip some roots from the walls.”

***

Einarr lay awake in the dim glow of Jorir’s tiny fire for a good while, watching the dwarf from the corner of his eye. Feeling guilty, truth be told, for agreeing to Jorir’s plan so readily. Even with his dwarven fortitude he had to be feeling the last week in his bones. Einarr certainly was.

After a time of watching the dwarf sharpening their blades without so much as a yawn, taking once or twice a pinch of something from his medicine pouch, Jorir turned his head to stare straight at Einarr. Quit worrying and sleep already, the stare seemed to say. With a mental shrug, Einarr acquiesced.

It was Erik who woke him with a solid kick to the thigh.

“What happened? What’s going on?” Einarr blinked in confusion at his barely seen compatriots.

“Jorir went off to investigate something, about half an hour ago as near as I can tell. Not back yet. I think it’s time we went after him.”

“Yes, of course. Why didn’t you wake me sooner?”

“Because I’ve only just decided he’d been gone too long. Only one who looked worse’n you last night was the Lady, an’ you’ll note I’ve not woken her yet.”

“Perhaps not intentionally,” Runa grumbled. “Nevertheless, I am now awake. Whatever could he have felt the need to chase off after in a place like this?”

Erik shrugged, the gesture barely visible in the fading light of their tiny, nearly-dead campfire.

“Whatever it was, we’d best be off. Erik, if you would?”

It took some coaxing, but their improvised torch from the night before finally kindled on some of the embers. Then they were off. Jorir’s heavier, fresher tracks led in the same direction as the earlier sets they had been following, and before Erik’s brand had begun to singe his fingers they could see a lightening ahead of them. Still, however, the only sign of Jorir were the dwarf’s footprints headed inexorably onward.

The tunnel eventually led shallowly upward, to open into a deep green clearing surrounded by pines. Just in front of that tunnel exit, someone had erected a stock. And hanging in that stock, his elbows pinioned behind him, was a very familiar black-haired dwarf.

Einarr rushed forward. “Jorir? What happened?”

“Stop! No, don’t come. An ambush is what happened. And what’s -”

Jorir didn’t get to finish that statement, although its meaning was soon made abundantly clear as a volley of arrows rained down on the little clearing. Sinmora was out of its sheath and in Einarr’s hand as he leapt across the few paces separating him from his man at arms. In one fluid motion he sliced the ropes binding Jorir and spun to face their attackers.

Erik, for his part, shoved Runa behind him and moved to block the mouth of the tunnel as he hefted his axe.

Thank you, Erik. The man may have no intention of settling down, but there were a multitude of reasons why he never lacked for company.

Their assailants were showing themselves now: fishermen, it looked like, and farmers mostly. All but one of them were armed with axes or harpoons in addition to their bows. That one must have been their leader, and in addition to the rough-looking scramasax he clutched in his hand he had a hide coat thrown over his shoulders. These must be the townspeople, then – or some of them.

“We mean you no harm,” Einarr ventured. “Although we will not hesitate to defend ourselves. Are you the people of the town?”

The man with the scramasax grinned ferally at the two in the center of the ambush. “We’ve a right to defend our property, ‘aven’t we?”

Einarr frowned. “What, pray tell, are we accused of, then?”

“Theft. Trespass. And the destruction of the town, as it is now uninhabitable.”

Einarr offered a smile that was meant to be reassuring, although somehow he thought it missed its mark. “Gentlemen, please. We will of course pay the tavern keeper for the food we ate under his roof, but-”

“Oh, aye, and you’ll pay dearly at that. Now, men!”

As one, almost as though they were practiced at this, the men from the town charged the four companions.


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