Erland had Emile and a five-minute head start. Hopefully she was unhurt. All I wanted was to find her before he misused her. No one had to say it, but it was my fault. I stood up for Erland, so his crimes were on my head. No idea what he was thinking. I figured he was an idiot with a death wish. I was going to oblige him or die trying.
I wanted to run into the forest and scream her name, but it’d be useless. She wouldn’t call out with a knife to her throat. I waited with the others outside Fabrice’s house for one of the herders to show up with his dogs. They howled as they approached his door. It was cold. I’d heard dogs hunt better in the cold. They picked up the Northman’s scent easily, and we were on his trail.
The dogs stayed ahead of me, sniffing the air above the ground as they trotted. Each breath was a fog. They were big – maybe a hundred pounds each. Their shaggy brown fur darkened around their manes. They only stopped and circled once when the wind changed, but they found the trail again. Erland was going straight for the huts near the river.
I looked back through the stony field towards Raven’s Ridge. Sebastian was right behind me. He ran well for a big man. Five other men followed, armed with blades, cudgels and torches. I had nothing but my sabre, my sling and a few polished stones. The sling wouldn’t do me much good. I wasn’t consistent with it and didn’t want to risk hitting the girl.
The river was only a quarter of a mile ahead of us. Little mudbrick houses dotted the bank. The dogs seemed certain of the trail; hopefully, they hadn’t gotten far. We were jogging through a field of boulders when firelight ripped across the shore. The houses were silhouettes against the orange glow. I was scared for her.
“Shit,” Sebastian caught up to me with sweat running down his face. “He’s burning the boats.”
I nodded to him. We shared a look of determination and kept running. The dogs gave up the scent and ran with us towards the fire. They reached the shore just before we did. There were three rowboats here – three boats but four houses. Black smoke swelled from the liquid flame as it burned the boats and dripped into the water. Erland must have used an oil. When the fishermen saw us, they came out of their homes and tried to put out the fires.
“We need to take a boat. Fabrice’s daughter was kidnapped,” said Sebastian.
“Sure,” said a fisherman, bare-chested and meek.
“It won’t do any good; He took the oars.” I turned towards the posse. They paced near the water, unsure what to do. “Head south to the bridge and see if you can get across. I’ll meet you on the other side.”
“Let’s go, boys,” said one of the men. They took off with the dogs in tow. Only Sebastian stayed with me.
I walked until the river was above my waist. It was much colder than I had expected and I felt a chill cut through my body. With the fires behind me, my vision adjusted to the darkness. The river was only half a mile wide, and Erland’s boat was in the middle of it. He wasn’t rowing. I heard him cry out in frustration, dry and angry. Emile was slowing him down. Good for her. I’m going to hate this, I thought, and dove into the water after them.
“I’m sorry!” called Sebastian. “I can’t swim that, no way.” I waved once to tell him it was okay. He said he would find another way around. I believed him.
I’m not sure how long it took me to cross the river this time. I had done it once during the summer. Twenty minutes maybe? It felt like it was taking longer, and I was sucking air like a dying man. I started to go numb about halfway. Strangely, I felt like it helped. Erland was rowing again but stopping every few minutes to scream at her. Twice, Emile slapped him in the ear from behind. It was shocking he hadn’t injured her.
They hit the shore well ahead of me. Erland threw her to the ground. She stayed down, slumped over her elbow. There was a horse waiting for them. I swam faster but was losing hope. They’d be gone before I made it and there was still no sign of the posse.
Erland turned his back to untie the horse. I thought she might try to run, though she wouldn’t get far. Instead, she lunged at him. Emile’s scream startled the animal. It reared back and bolted. Erland turned and backhanded her hard enough to knock her down. She didn’t cry out and picked herself up. He slapped her down again.
I was incensed. He might as well have been striking me. I was numb from the swim, but I felt the rage burn through my whole body. My knees were deep in silt when I came ashore. It took some effort to stand. Erland turned my way as I drew my sword.
In knee deep water, the wind raked my skin. My whole body was trembling. I had to clench my teeth to keep them from chattering. He drew his sword as he walked towards me. I was glad for it. At least he wasn’t going to use Emile as a shield. I’m sure he thought he didn’t need to. I staggered out of the river to face him.
Erland was ready for a fight. He wore a chainmail shirt and an open-faced helmet that covered his nose. His dark cloak whipped in the wind. I looked down the shore to either side. Nothing. I didn’t even see their torches. Erland looked towards the south and laughed. “If you’re waiting for help, you’re going to be disappointed. The bridge is gone.”
“Then we don’t have anything to talk about.” I took two heavy steps forward and slashed with my sabre. His sword was a foot longer than mine. He deflected the blow with a flick of his wrist and took a step back. He was quick, and the cold had made me slow.
“You’re a fool.” Erland raised the sword high and swung at me with a running step. I raised my blade in defense, but his blow was too heavy to stop. Runes stamped into his sword shined with green light as he made the hit. There was a crashing noise. Thunder. My saber shattered.
I fell to the ground to escape the blow. Now I was in trouble. I was frozen, half his size and disarmed. He had sorcery on his side. This was bullshit. That hit drove home how hopelessly outmatched I was. All my rage shriveled up and turned to fear. I scrambled away from him on my hands and knees. He walked after me.
At least I could feel my limbs again. I twisted to face him as I stood, moving a little better. He ran at me and growled, but I fled for the boat and leaped over to buy some time. An oar hung off the side. They made decent weapons in a pinch. It was taller than I was and heavy. I held it high with the paddle in the air.
Erland jumped over the boat with inches to spare. Impressive for a guy in armor. He was smiling. I hated how he showed his teeth, but I couldn’t reach him. I’d have to close the distance if I wanted to strike. Erland was waiting for me to try, so he could step into his own range; He didn’t fear me. We stared at one another for a long time – the only motion between us were his tests. He raised his sword or stepped his lead foot up to gauge a reaction. I gave him small reactions.
Erland was looking me in the eye. I looked him in the chest. I had to stay focused on myself. Mind games would be too risky given my disadvantages. Again, he stepped a foot in but this time more boldly. He was trying to train me not to fear his step. I bit down on my impulse to pull back and acted as if I had frozen. It was the reaction he wanted, but I gave it to him on purpose.
He laughed as he took a rushing step in and tried to cleave my head. Ready for it, I leapt away and swung the oar in a flat arc. Its blade landed flush with his ribs. Nothing’s more satisfying than making a clean hit with a blunt instrument. I could hammer nails all day.
He took a step back, but I followed, swinging the oar in a wide circle. He turned his back and ran out of reach. I missed and returned to my defensive stance – weapon high, right foot forward.
I should have tried to finish him then, but my arms were dead and I had to conserve my strength. He turned to face me. For a moment, I saw him curling towards the side I had hit. It was a good sign – I knew I hurt him, though his face didn’t show it.
He closed the distance slowly but stayed out of reach. If I stepped forward, he backed away. The oar was getting heavy. My arms were burning; I felt my pulse all through them. Worse, I was shivering. It took everything to keep good posture. I needed the high guard for a credible counter strike, but I didn’t know how much longer I could keep it up. If I faltered, he would come in.
We circled one another and made threats, but neither of us attacked. Erland randomly winced in pain and his breathing was shallow. My hit must have done some damage, but he was winning the battle of attrition. We went on like this for a long time while my strength continued to bleed.
Footsteps splashed through the water behind me. Sebastian shouted as he jumped out of a canoe. I hadn’t seen him coming. Evidently, neither had Erland. “You’re dead, Northman!” He ran towards us with a splitting axe held high. I kept a straight face, unwilling to show relief.
Erland’s eyes grew wide. I thought he might move to finish me and then turn on Seb, but he didn’t. He ran. Sebastian threw a small hatchet at him but missed wide. Erland vanished into the trees. I dropped the oar and crumpled to the ground, shivering. “About time,” I laughed. “Thanks for covering me.”
“Sorry I’m late,” said Seb. “Is Emile safe?”
I pointed to where she was standing. She was dressed in a simple linen gown with her palms pressed into a tree. Dark curls like her mother’s flowed around her shoulders. A bruise was forming on her left cheek. Emile came to us. Tears streamed down her face.
“Are you hurt?” I asked.
“No, thanks to you,” she said.
I looked at Seb while working blood back into my hands. “It was a team effort.” She stared into the woods after Erland. “Why did he take you? Was he just mad at your father?”
She shook her head. “He talks to his sword.”
“So, he’s crazy?” asked Seb.
“No. His sword is enchanted. It was impressive.” An understatement.
“So, what then?” asked Seb, worried.
“I think he wants me to trade places with whoever’s in it,” said Emile. Her face was a mask but I read the flatness in her voice. She was terrified. Someone was in the sword, trying to get out.
I looked at Seb and shrugged. “I’ve heard of crazier things.”
We boarded the rowboat. I sat next to Emile while Seb rowed. I would have pulled my own weight but I’d held an oar for long enough. Emile was fifteen. She was too young to be put through this and I wondered what kind of scars she would carry. There would be worse to come. Erland would be back for another round, and more dangerous. She wouldn’t be safe here. I had to do something about it.