Having disposed of his cloak, Ælfwine did likewise with the blindfold; his other hand drew his sword. Another arrow came out of the fog and struck his leather armour, which Ælfwine ignored. With his heavy cloak gone, his thin frame could be seen in the pale light that managed to penetrate the mist, the same light that illuminated his gleaming blade. Two of the muggers came charging forward while Ælfwine stood calmly awaiting them; as they reached him, he evaded their short blades with the ease of the wind passing through the branches of a tree. Two quick strokes bloodied his sword and felled them both. Another arrow came flying through the air, striking him in his side, which caused a sharp inhalation in pain through gritted teeth.
As Ælfwine moved forward, the mist was thin enough that his remaining attackers were visible. There were three; Douglas was to his right, the hunter Ronan and a third man to his left. The third man, armed with a heavy axe, came swinging with a heavy roar. Ælfwine reacted by rushing forward, striking the pommel of his sword into his opponent’s stomach before the axe could complete its arch. Momentarily incapacitated, the third man dropped his axe and could not prevent Ælfwine from seizing him under the shoulder; turning, Ælfwine used his captive as a living shield, protecting him from Ronan’s arrows.
This proved unnecessary though; with his keen eyes, the hunter had a good glimpse of Ælfwine and had already lowered his bow with a look of disbelief and terror. Douglas ran forward with his long knife; the only weapon he had brought, ostensibly to avoid arousing his victims’ suspicions. Horror overtook him as he saw Ælfwine’s eyes clearly, burning into his own. Ælfwine, still holding the third man in an iron grip, turned Douglas’ knife aside and planted his sword in the peat digger’s chest.
Letting go of the sword, Ælfwine instead caught Douglas’ knife as it was slipping from his increasingly lifeless fingers. Ælfwine turned and threw the dagger into the hunter, who fell to the ground with a scream. The third man began to make pleas, but Ælfwine casually threw him to the ground and used a heel against the other’s kneecap; it broke with a crushing sound. Moving a few paces, Ælfwine placed a boot against the peat digger’s corpse and pulled his sword out of Douglas’ chest. The last remaining mugger began to crawl away while mumbling prayers or curses, impossible to tell which; in either case, the only answer he received was Ælfwine’s sword through his back.
Having dispatched all of the attackers, Ælfwine began to breathe heavily and relaxed his tense muscles. He pulled his sword out of the last bandit and placed it against the ground to lean against it. The first arrow that had struck him had been stopped by the leather armour and was not difficult to remove. But a red stain was beginning to seep through his linen tunic on the side where the second arrow had hit. Ælfwine turned and walked back to the dead oak tree, planting his sword in the soft earth around it; then he sank down beside the tree and used its trunk to lean against as he sat down.
First, he broke most of the shaft away so that he could pull his tunic over his head and let it drop onto his cloak. Then, with fingers trembling slightly, he unclasped the leather that protected him. The splintered arrow shaft protruding from his left side made the process more difficult, and it ended up taking him longer time than he had spent slaying his assailants. Finally, he could remove the leather with jerking motions; not without disturbing his wound, though, and he gasped in pain a couple of times.
With tunic and leather gone, only his inner garment remained. Even in the pale misty sun, the fabric glistened a dark shade of green and revealed itself to be made entirely from silk. Where the arrow had entered, Ælfwine carefully took hold of the cloth. Such were the tensile properties of the material that the arrowhead had not torn through it as it had done with the coarser linen tunic. It had simply stretched the silk and pushed it into the wound in front of the arrow. With careful, painful tugs, Ælfwine pulled the silk back, and the arrow followed suit, falling to the ground. Opening a pouch on his belt, Ælfwine took some rags and pressed them against his wound until the bleeding stopped.
Standing up, his strength slowly returning, Ælfwine pulled the linen tunic over his silken shirt and used the remainder of the rags to clean his sword. In the fight, the leather strips coiled around its hilt and handle had come slightly loose, revealing a glimmer of gold. The steel of the blade was unusual too with countless patterns upon the metal looking like waves thrashing upon the surface of the blade. Ælfwine tightened the leather strips before he turned north and followed the tracks of the men pursuing Egil.
Egil was running with all the strength that his pasty legs contained. Unfortunately, being apprenticed to the King’s Quill meant mostly working with one’s hands while sitting down, so his speed and endurance was not particularly impressive. Before long he was panting for air, but as soon as he stopped, he could hear the sounds of people running behind him somewhere in the fog. This proved a remarkable source of motivation, and Egil ran forward again, losing track of time as well as his surroundings. It was only as the landscape changed and the trees grew thicker that he could discern he had entered the Alfskog.
The mist grew thinner as he went deeper into the woods, but eerie sounds of movement still surrounded Egil. It also meant that once his pursuers caught up, the mist would not help conceal him, only the trees could. It was impossible to tell if the sounds were coming from behind or ahead; if maybe it were only birds and small creatures, if it were nothing at all or perhaps something to fear.
Eventually Egil had to stop again and catch his breath. His eyes darted in every direction, but he saw no other living creature. Moments passed, and it seemed he was safe. There was no sign of the bandits pursuing him despite his lengthy pause. It was possible they had lost track of him or that they had not dared pursue him; the more chilling thought was that something had prevented them. Unsure what to do, Egil stood wavering until a scream pierced the air and helped spur his decision process. With newfound strength, he ran deeper into the forest while calling out the names of all the gods, even begging the Hidden One to save him. Any deity who would deign to listen seemed acceptable to the former Temple novice.
The screams stopped, though it was impossible to say whether it was because Egil had moved out of range or because the source was longer able to scream. Egil stopped, looking around as if he could gain his bearings or know from his surroundings what to do. He leaned against a large bough tree with his left hand, having completely exerted himself. As he did this, his sleeve slid away a bit and revealed the dried blood on his arm. Taking a few deep breaths, he pulled the sleeve all the way up and scratched some of the dry blood away. The cuts were shallow and had not bled much, and Egil turned his head trying to view the mark from different angles. It appeared to be a rune of some kind, but it was unlike anything found in the royal library.
Rubbing his damaged skin, Egil turned around. Then he opened his mouth to scream in panic, but no sound came out. Standing less than ten feet away was a man of some sort. He was clad in brown leather that blended well with his surroundings, though his skin was exceedingly pale, uncomfortably so. Two things drew attention above all. Firstly that the other person’s eyes were not human by any measure. What should have been white was completely green, and the inner part of the eyes was not divided into circles with a black centre. No, the entire inner part, iris and pupil, was one colour as if blind. However, this creature had the power of sight, for those bewitching eyes were focused on Egil; furthermore, in his hands the eerie stranger held a bow with an arrow pointed at the boy, which was the second thing worthy of note.
He opened his mouth and spoke sounds that Egil had no understanding of at all. It did not sound like any tongue of Men. It flowed like a river, came swiftly and furiously, and tears formed in Egil’s eyes. “Please, don’t hurt me! I beg of you, by the Seven and Eighth, do not hurt me!”
The archer repeated syllables like those spoken before, and this time he used the readied arrow to gesture towards Egil’s lower arm. Looking down, Egil’s eyes widened as he saw the crude mark etched into his own skin. “Yes! Don’t hurt me, please! Whatever this is, don’t hurt me! I’m not a threat, I’m not a bandit,” he pleaded to no avail; the archer’s sounds grew increasingly angry. “Please! Ælfwine made this mark, he promised it would protect me!”
“Ælfwine?” The stream of eerie words stopped, replaced by one recognisable in Mearcspeech.
“Yes! Ælfwine, he made this. You know him?”
“Ælfwine?” the archer repeated. He spoke again in his own language, but it was not directed at Egil. Behind the boy, another warrior stepped out from between the trees, and a shock went through Egil as he became aware of the second archer’s presence.
The new warrior walked in a circle around Egil to stand next to his companion; at all times he kept a readied arrow pointing at Egil. They conferred briefly, speaking rapidly. Finally, they seemed to reach some kind of conclusion. Both eased their arrows and returned them to their quivers. They lowered their bows and inclined their heads in greeting. “Ælfwine,” they both said.
Egil gave an audible sigh of relief until an expression crossed his face. “Ælfwine! He needs our help! Please, come!” he said, pointing to the direction he had come from. The archers stood frowning and exchanged glances. Hoping to spur them into action, Egil began running back south. Within moments, the warriors were by his side, keeping pace without passing by him.
It was not long before one of them shot his arm out in front of Egil’s chest and forced him to an abrupt halt. He pulled the boy away from the track they had been following through the forest, and both archers placed an arrow at the ready. A rustle in the leaves announced to Egil what had alarmed them; there was somebody moving through the trees. A tall shape appeared, and the frail evening sun managed to land a few rays to illuminate its bloodied tunic and the sword in its hand; looking up, Egil saw the same eerie eyes that the two archers had. It was his travelling companion of several weeks.
The warriors from the woods likewise seemed surprised, but recovered quickly. They lowered their bows; falling to the ground in submission, their left knee touched the dirt before they rested their right elbow upon the other. Their hand remained open, outstretched in a gesture that strangely resembled the hands carved into the altar of the Temple in Middanhal. While Egil observed all of this, the other three quickly conversed in the speech that meant nothing to him. It went back and forth for a short while, seemingly with Ælfwine asking questions and receiving answers. Finally the two archers rose, inclined their heads to Egil again and left, leaving barely a trace of their presence.
“Come on,” Ælfwine said. “We have to collect my gear.”
Egil stood bewildered and then finally exclaimed, “You can see!”
“Your powers of observation continue to serve well,” Ælfwine said with a hint of a scornful smile as they moved out of the woods. “Yes, I too have those very powers at my full disposal.”
“But why? Why pretend to be a blind man? We’ve been on the road for weeks,” Egil complained. Ælfwine did not respond but merely turned and set his eyes on Egil. It was unnerving enough that where they should be white, they were green; but the centre burned blue with such intensity, Egil was forced to look away. “I suppose the blindfold makes sense,” Egil acknowledged reluctantly.
“It allows me to move unhindered, unnoticed, yet it is thin enough that I can perceive what is near me.”
“Why are your eyes like that? And theirs, those men I met,” the boy by his side asked.
“Impress me with your skills in reasoning,” Ælfwine said with his unnerving smile.
“They weren’t Men,” Egil said, speculating. “Not human, I mean. Nor Dwarves.” He suddenly shied away from Ælfwine. “Are you demons?” he asked with a quaking voice.
“Nothing quite as terrible,” Ælfwine replied, his smile turning sardonic. Now that his eyes could be seen along with the rest of his face, it made his expressions seem all the stronger and far more intimidating.
“What lives in the Alfskog?” Egil asked himself, still keeping some small measure of distance between them. “Alfskog. Ælfwine. In the elder tongue, Alfskog means… Elves. Those archers were Elves. You are Elvenfolk,” he said in realisation, stopping dead in his tracks while looking at Ælfwine in fear.
“Well done, young master Egil,” Ælfwine said, turning his terrible eyes onto the boy.
“That’s why people fear the Alfskog. They kill them, everybody who enters. Your people kill them.”
“Most,” Ælfwine admitted. “Those who take to the woods are rarely good people. But not all,” the Elf finished and began walking again.
“Oh, right. Me,” Egil said awkwardly. “Why did you help me this way?”
“I could not know how many they were,” Ælfwine answered. “While they were clearly not warriors and little match for me, some of them could easily have killed you while I was fighting. I sent you into the fog and the woods, hoping that would keep you safe.”
“But why save me? Why have your warriors protect me?”
Ælfwine stopped again, this time looking at Egil with a frown. “I gave my word. My honour is entwined with your survival. How could I have acted differently?”
“But, you’re a beggar,” Egil objected. “You’re not a knight or a lord. Who knows you or would know that you broke your promise? None would ever know that you broke your word.”
“That is not the meaning of honour,” Ælfwine muttered as he continued walking once more as they left the forest and entered the mire again.
“I don’t understand,” Egil said as he caught up.
“I am not the least surprised to hear such an admission,” Ælfwine remarked.
“I thought your people were legend.”
“We are,” Ælfwine shrugged. “Nothing remains of us in your lands. I am the only one south of the forest.”
“But why?” Egil asked eagerly. “You disguise yourself as a beggar, you suffer people’s scorn, why?”
“Because the one you call Godfrey asked for my assistance.”
“Are you indebted to him? How can a man like him receive aid from an Elf? I have always been told Elves kill Men, or enchant them to stand paralysed until they die, or imprison them and use them for cruel sport.”
“That is a question you must ask him,” Ælfwine said with his mirthless smile.
“Why did the Elves in the forest not kill me? I am fairly certain they were less merciful towards those two men chasing me.”
“Another reason I hide under a shroud of deception,” Ælfwine said, stroking his forehead with his fingertips. “It spares me the onslaught of questions from curious children.”
“Sorry,” Egil said in apology. “It just seems rather coincidental that I am still breathing air, while they ended up riddled with arrows.”
“If you want to know, figure it out on your own,” Ælfwine told him.
“They spared me because of you,” Egil said, beginning his speculations once more. “They knew the name Ælfwine. Except they didn’t speak Mearcspeech, so they probably know you by another name.” A few moments passed while Egil continued to utter his musings. “But they did recognise Ælfwine. They knew it, it made them lower their arrows.” He scratched his left arm, which was attracting insects. Looking down, he glanced at the mark. “The sign you carved in my skin,” he said in slow realisation. “Ælfwine. It means Elf-friend in the old speech. They weren’t repeating your name. They acknowledged me as an Elf-friend,” he said with a triumphant voice.
“Indeed,” Ælfwine replied, his smile seeming genuine for once. “In the old days, if we were indebted to one of your kind, we would mark their skin in this manner permanently with dye. To be an Elf-friend meant we looked upon that person as one of our own, someone to be given every aid.”
“Is Godfrey an Elf-friend?”
“A good guess,” Ælfwine acknowledged, “but no. I suppose I consider him such. But I do not think there has been an Elf-friend in a thousand years.”
“What about me?” Egil said hopefully. Ælfwine burst into laughter for the first time since they had begun their travels together.
“Not quite, young master Egil. Those cuts will fade and barely leave scars. I would not enter the Alfskog again if I were you. It will not save you a second time.”
“Why was I sent with you? If you can see. You can obviously handle yourself,” Egil said contemplatively.
“The land has changed,” Ælfwine said quietly. “Cities, towns and villages, roads. I have not been here in a long time.” They had reached the dead oak tree and where Ælfwine’s things were still lying scattered, surrounded by the corpses of their attackers.
“I still can’t believe they were going to kill us,” Egil said and shivered as he looked at the dead villagers. “For what? The few silvers in our purse?”
“Apparently,” Ælfwine speculated as Egil helped him put on his cloak; then he gave the boy the leather jerkin to hold. “In any case, we still have a task to fulfil. I just need to rest a bit,” he said, sitting down in the same position with his back against the dead tree. “Egil,” the Elf continued, “I must elicit a promise from you.”
“When you recount this story to your master or anybody else, make no mention of my nature. My people have been forgotten as we truly are, and I should wish it remain that way.”
“Of course,” Egil promised him. “But isn’t that sad? Imagine what my master could learn, what he could add to the books if he could speak with you freely.”
Ælfwine allowed a smile of the genuine kind to flicker over his face. “Not until the sun rise at night would I consent to such. No, this is the way the world has become. Once I see you safely returned to Middanhal, I shall disappear. I do not think that you, or any other of your kind, will see an Elf again in this lifetime.”
“But,” Egil began to object, but a raised hand from Ælfwine silenced him.
“No more,” Ælfwine commanded. “I will abide no further questions.” He took the blindfold and bound it around his head. “I am a beggar once again, nothing more.”
They ended up spending an unpleasant night in the bog. It had been too late in the evening to seek elsewhere except perhaps the village where their welcome would be doubtful. Egil spent most of the night waking up to scratch his itching wound or fend off insects attracted to it. When a new day dawned, however, Ælfwine shared some information he had been too tired to mention the day before. The Elven scouts had told him they knew of a hunter living in a lonesome cabin due west; they observed him from time to time in case he ever ventured inside the woods. While they knew nothing more, naturally having no contact with him, Ælfwine and Egil decided to test their luck.
“Well met,” Ælfwine called out as they approached his cabin. “We are travellers seeking aid and glad to pay for it.”
They heard the sound of the door being unbolted; an old man appeared in the doorway. “Pay, you say?”
“In good silver,” Egil added.
“Well, you don’t look like highwaymen,” the old man mumbled and gestured for them to enter. “Mind you, you can’t be too careful. There’s a village not far from here, they always give me the bad eye when I go there to sell my furs.”
“We are acquainted with its inhabitants,” Ælfwine muttered. “We require your services, however, in regards to your knowledge of the area. Are you familiar with Glen Hollow?”
“Aye,” the old man replied. “It’s not far from here, some hours’ march. What remains of it.”
“And the site of the battle? Where the prince Sigmar was slain.”
“That too,” the old man confirmed. “About the same direction, but not much more than an hour or two.”
“Can you take us there? Today, if possible.”
“Sure,” the old man said, hesitating only slightly. “You mentioned…”
“Your compensation, of course,” Ælfwine said, digging into his cloak and letting several silver pieces fall onto the table in front of him. If the old man wondered how a blind beggar knew that there was a table right there, he was polite enough not to bring it up.
“Let’s go,” the old man said, putting on his cloak.
In the time it took to reach the site of the ambush, they learned the old hunter’s name was Sheridan, but other than that, they exchanged no other words. He led them south and back to the road that was the northern connection between Adalrik and Heohlond, and they followed it for an hour. When the land began to slope downwards, Sheridan stopped. “Right there ahead,” he said, pointing at where the road made a few twists and turns. “Well not quite, a bit further. I don’t like to go much closer though if you don’t mind. Bad place to linger,” he added in a quiet voice.
“Very well,” Ælfwine accepted, although Egil’s expression showed that he remembered yesterday’s events and was less serene about letting their guide out of sight. “If you would do us the kindness of remaining here, we shall return before long.”
The two continued on their own. “I would have asked him to stay at some distance regardless,” Ælfwine said, having perhaps noticed Egil’s expression even through the layer of the blindfold. “Now that you know my secret, I might as well have unrestricted eyesight if I am to glean anything useful.”
When they reached the area pointed out by the hunter, Ælfwine removed his blindfold and they both looked around. There was little as such to show this had been the sight of a battle, even a minor one. The prince had travelled with about a score of his thanes, but all their bodies had been recovered and buried elsewhere. There were a few fragments from what might be weapons and the decayed pieces of dead horses lying here and there, but little else.
“I knew it,” Egil complained. “We’ve come all this way, risked our lives, and there’s nothing to see! I don’t even understand why we had to come here, but clearly it was pointless.”
“Because,” Ælfwine said slowly, “this is not where the prince was ambushed.”
“You think the old man lied to us? What, again?” Egil’s voice came shrill as a whistle.
“No,” Ælfwine said patiently, “the few pieces here do suggest this is where the prince and his men were found. But I do not believe they were slain at this location.” He turned and pointed back from where they had come. “This last hour, the land has slowly grown more flat, a small valley up here in the highlands. If we went back an hour or two, the hilly terrain would be far better suited for finding an ambush spot.”
Then he ran a few steps towards the west, standing on the road. “The prince and his retinue came from the west, moving east, if I remember what little your master told me. They would have had a decent vision of their surroundings. You might have been able to hide a handful of men, but enough to ambush and kill a score of the best warriors?” Ælfwine shook his head.
“What does this mean?” asked Egil.
“I think the prince was killed elsewhere. The bodies of the slain were brought here to make it appear it was an ambush out in the open,” Ælfwine explained his theory.
“Where did it happen then?” Egil asked eagerly, his curiosity reaching its peak.
“Had it taken place further east, they would have found a more believable location,” Ælfwine considered. “If this place seemed most suitable to them, it must have been further west. Near the border to Adalrik.”
“What do we do then?” asked Egil.
Ælfwine tied the blindfold around his head. “Let us return to our local wayfarer.” The pair walked the short distance back towards the hunter. “Good master,” Ælfwine called out as they approached the old man, “are there any other sites of battle near here?”
Sheridan scratched his head in contemplation. “Not that I know of. Well except Glen Hollow, of course, the village where the prince’s attackers came from. It was burned down in retribution, they say.”
“You are sure? Steps might have been taken to conceal that such a skirmish took place.”
“Well, I can’t be sure then, can I? But I know how to track animals and read the land,” the hunter retorted. “If there were any signs to see, I’d have seen them.”
“In that case, if you would kindly take us to Glen Hollow, it will be worth your while,” Ælfwine promised.
Sheridan did not object to leading them to the ill-fated village, though he took a path that avoided the road and the presumed place of where the prince was ambushed. While Egil several times seemed inclined to ask questions of Ælfwine, the presence of the uninitiated old man kept his words back. At length they reached what remained of Glen Hollow. It would have been a pleasant little village, well situated near a brook and surrounded by what seemed like sufficiently fertile lands. Most buildings were burned almost to the ground, however, and those remaining were little more than derelict ruins. It seemed large enough that it might have held up to a hundred people, but it was clear that none had lived here for many years. As before, Sheridan preferred to keep his distance while Ælfwine and Egil followed the road into the village.
They walked around, examining every house. “What are we searching for?” asked Egil.
“Anything that might support our speculations,” Ælfwine said, turning his eerie eyes in every direction.
They walked through burned down walls and half-collapsed roofs, pushing destroyed furniture aside. The bodies of the slain villagers were not in sight, but occasionally they found evidence of death as well; it was little more than bones, however, since the elements and animals had devoured the rest.
“Found something,” Egil called out, bending down to pull it free. “Oh, it’s just a pair of tongs,” he said disappointed. “This must have been the smithy.” The rest of the smithy yielded nothing, and they continued their search. “Found something! No, wait, it’s just a log. With the soot I thought it looked like… never mind.” An hour passed. “Found something! Oh, the head of a hammer. Probably belonged to a cobbler or something.”
“Are your idle speculations aiding you in searching these ruins?” Ælfwine asked sharply.
“No,” Egil admitted with a blush. “It’s just odd, knowing that people lived here once. A blacksmith, a cobbler, a weaver, ordinary people,” he said, his voice trailing off as he bent down and picked something up. “What’s this?”
Ælfwine moved over. While the shaft was broken, it was without doubt an arrowhead. “Now this is interesting,” he said.
“You think this means something?” Egil asked excitedly.
“Perhaps. Does your song mention what happened exactly? How the village came to be in this state?”
“It doesn’t,” Egil said. “But the stories say that the prince’s slayers came from the village and they were killed as punishment. Some claim that a few of the thanes escaped the ambush and returned here, killing all they found. Others say that the Order burned down the village later in retribution. Why?”
“I had ample chance to examine the local arrowheads yesterday,” Ælfwine explained. “Long and slender, arrows for hunting that are easy to pull out from the prey. I hardly needed my shirt, in fact.”
“Regardless,” Ælfwine continued smoothly, “this is different. Notice these two tips sitting opposite on the arrowhead. This arrow is barbed with the two opposite tips making it impossible to pull out of a wound.”
“It’s not for hunting, it’s for war,” Egil realised.
“Yes,” Ælfwine confirmed. “Someone came here from the south with a party of archers. But if it were those who burned this village in retribution for the prince’s death, I suppose it does not tell us anything new.”
“Oh,” Egil said, his disappointment almost palpable. “I’ll keep looking.”
“Where are all the villagers,” Ælfwine wondered aloud after a moment.
“They’re dead,” Egil replied.
“But where are their bones, their bodies? I have only seen evidence of a very few, and this place must have been home to scores of people.”
“Maybe somebody buried them? Like they did with the prince and thanes,” Egil suggested.
“Possibly,” Ælfwine said a little doubtfully, “but I have not noticed anything resembling graves nearby. I understand taking the prince and his men to Middanhal for burial, but I doubt they would have brought these simple villagers far away.”
“Maybe the bodies are just hiding in the rubble,” Egil continued. “I could smell something over by what used to be the village hall.”
“That is odd,” Ælfwine said, frowning. “Show me.”
“Why is that odd? Corpses stink, don’t they,” said Egil as he led the way.
“Exposed like this to the weather and wild beasts, there should be little left after so many years. Just the bones,” Ælfwine explained as they reached the burned remains of what had once been a large building. “What is or was this place?”
“Local village hall,” Egil explained. “For feasts or when the elders assembled in the local Thing.”
They ventured inside what was still standing of the structure, and now they could follow their noses. Reaching the place where the smell was strongest, Ælfwine let his unearthly eyes glance around until he found a hatch in the floor. It took some difficulty since the hinges had become rusty, but he managed to pull it open, and the smell grew stronger.
Glancing at Egil, Ælfwine descended the stairs, soon followed by the boy. They found themselves in a large cellar of sorts, a storage room that was surprisingly dry. Small barrels stood nearby, full of various kinds of food, fruit, and vegetable that had become rotten, releasing a bad odour. At the other end of the room and opposite the stairs were four large barrels, nearly the height of a man.
“It’s storage for their food,” Egil explained. “Most village halls will have cellars like this. The big barrels are for grain, kept dry down here,” he added with a throw of his head towards the grain containers.
“Is that so,” Ælfwine muttered, and he walked over to the large barrels. He had to raise his hands up to be able to grab the heavy lid and push it away. He peered over the edge of the barrel and into its depth.
Egil grabbed a small stepladder, once used for adding or removing grain to the large barrels. “You should keep your distance,” Ælfwine told Egil, but he did not stop the boy. Stepping up so that he was tall enough to see, Egil had the same view as Ælfwine did. The first sight that met him was a pair of hollow eye sockets, belonging to a small child. The eyes themselves had rotted away, and the face itself had lost some of its features, but the clothes had not particularly decayed and revealed they had belonged to a girl. She lay near the top of the barrel, indicating many layers of bodies beneath her.
Egil more or less fell down from the stepladder and ended down on all fours, where he emptied his stomach of its contents. Then came another urge and another until his insides had been wrung out. “Judging by their clothing, we have found the villagers,” Ælfwine said, and Egil turned to look at him with a pained expression. “Let us leave,” the Elf added, grabbing Egil by one arm and pulling him up, practically shoving him up the stairs. Once away from the scene and the smell, Egil only had to vomit one last time; then his body became stable again, and he eagerly took in the fresh air.
“If they had been killed in an act of vengeance, their bodies would have been left where they fell,” Ælfwine speculated loudly. “Or maybe somebody would have laid them to rest properly. What made this necessary? With the village burning, why hide the slain?” Egil opened his mouth, but another wave of nausea was seen on his face, and he quickly closed it again, leaving Ælfwine to continue his speculations. “Because it did not happen at the same time. Of course. The arrowhead, trained archers. A different site for the ambush, dragging the prince and thanes away. Egil,” Ælfwine said suddenly, turning to look at his companion. “I believe I can weave together a story that complies with all we have learned.”
“It was not a spontaneous uprising that led to the prince’s death,” Ælfwine began to explain. “It was meticulously planned. Our would-be murderers knew the prince would be travelling this way through Theodstan to Heohlond, and they knew that he and his retinue would pass through the village. A village of suitable size to hide enough men for the deed, archers from the south. Offering the prince water or food would also give an excuse to make him dismount, possibly, herd his men together in the village centre, have him lower his guard.”
“It frightens me how skilfully you enter the mind of such a person,” Egil shuddered, but Ælfwine did not seem to notice.
“A deadly rain of arrows strike down upon the prince and his men. The fighting may be fierce, but it is over shortly. Beforehand they have already killed the villagers, and they plan to set the place to the torch and thus hide any signs of their involvement. But they must pretend the village burns as vengeance for the slain prince. So first they drag the bodies as far as they can east, further into Clan Boyd’s territory. Afterwards, they burn Glen Hollow to the ground and disappear west into Adalrik.”
“But why? Why this elaborate scheme to kill the prince?”
“To incite war in Heohlond,” Ælfwine contemplated, “or to change the succession in Adalrik. Perhaps something else entirely. It could be we are mistaken in our deductions, though I do not think so.”
“What do we do?”
“We return to Middanhal, where you report our findings to your master.”
As they left the ruins, the old hunter was still waiting for them. It was approaching evening, but the long summer day allowed them to reach his home before it grew dark. Ælfwine paid him another handful of silver coins for his services and for letting them spend the night in shelter. When they woke the next morning, the old man gave them some bread and dried rabbit meat for breakfast and the return journey. He also accompanied them some of the distance south, showing them the road that they would take to Adalrik.
In the remaining period of time they shared the old hunter’s company, Ælfwine took the opportunity to ask further questions. “Do you have many travellers in these parts?”
“Can’t say we do,” Sheridan answered, scratching his beard. “You two are the first I’ve seen this year. There were more, before the war, mostly traders and peddlers bidding their wares to the villages.”
“Do you recall any who caught your attention the same year that the prince was slain? One who like us was mostly interested in the lay of the land.”
“There was one around that time, who caught folks’ curiosity back in Glen Hollow. Not because of any interest in the land, though, but because he had a gold coin. Don’t think any of the people in that village had ever seen one before,” the old man laughed. “Nor me, come to think of it.”
“That sounds strange,” Egil said. “It must be dangerous travelling with such wealth.”
“Or perhaps it was a precaution against danger,” Ælfwine told him. “A heavy bag of silver is easy to notice and have stolen from you. A few gold coins, sewn into your clothes, would carry more wealth and escape notice as well. As long as you can find somewhere to spend such coins, of course, which I imagine is difficult up here.”
“Aye,” said Sheridan, “that was his trouble. See, the coin was foreign with strange markings. Didn’t have the dragon on it, as all good coins should. In the end, he had to sell it for only half a crown’s worth just to get some silver in his hands.”
“How interesting,” Ælfwine said, rubbing the dirt on his chin which concealed his youthful appearance. “Do you recall what manner of coin it was?”
“Well, I did not see it myself,” Sheridan admitted.
“Do you know who bought it? Who might have it?” Ælfwine continued.
The old man hesitated a bit. “Sorry, good master, I am not sure. I think it was another trader, heading south. Don’t think it was any living in these parts, I’d probably remember.”
“Thank you nonetheless,” Ælfwine said, his mind already elsewhere.
They bid the aged hunter farewell once they reached the paved roads leading south, and Ælfwine gave him the blessings of Austre to follow him on his future hunts. When they were alone once more and had resumed their travels, Egil could not restrain himself further. “What did it mean? All that about the gold coins.”
“Perhaps it is merely rampant speculation,” Ælfwine said hesitantly. “But I am confident that the ambush upon the prince was preordained and not some sudden insurrection by the highlanders. It would make sense that the mind that conceived this would first travel through these parts and choose the location of the ambush. Find a suitably large village on the road and such. And gold coins that are not chiselled with the dragon of Adalrik must come from beyond Adalmearc. The southern lands where Men also dwell.”
“Alcázar,” Egil said, “or the South Cities.”
“Probably,” Ælfwine conceded. “Or somebody who has regular dealings with them. I know little of this.”
“It sounds so dangerous. Attacking and killing the crown prince of Adalrik,” Egil said contemplatively. “Or even just travelling up here with gold coins in your lining. Those villagers were ready to kill us just for our silver.”
“Maybe,” Ælfwine said with a measure of doubt. “Or maybe they had been paid to take care of any who asked such questions as we did.”
“Really? Who would go to such trouble? It’s been ten years.”
Ælfwine shrugged. “All this suggests very careful planning, so I would not deem it beyond the realm of possibilities. I admit, however, my thoughts might have strayed into the realm of unfounded speculations. Place it far from your mind, young Egil, let it be a concern for your master. We have done what we could.”
The remainder of their journey through Heohlond passed with little incident. The further south they came, the more often they encountered other travellers and civilised areas. Less touched by the war, the lands of Clan Cameron were still prosperous, and none cared about or bothered a beggar and a boy. It was only when they crossed the border into Adalrik and entered the jarldom of Theodstan that things changed.
It was not apparent at once, much in the same way that the border between the realms was not obvious. There were few people in the first villages they passed, but it had been much the same when Ælfwine and Egil had come this way travelling north; back then, many had been gone for the solstice festival. So the two travellers did not realise anything was different until they finally encountered a large company of armed men, taking rest by the roadside.
“Where are you headed,” one of the soldiers shouted as he removed his helmet to wipe his brow clear of sweat. His voice was not unfriendly, merely curious.
“Taking my nephew to the Temple in Middanhal,” Ælfwine replied. “He is to become an acolyte there.”
“You’ve picked a poor time for going to Middanhal,” the soldier spoke in turn. “Where have you come from, Heohlond?”
“Yes,” answered Egil and quickly continued, “what’s happening in Middanhal?”
“News hasn’t reached the highlands yet?” asked the warrior. “War’s broken out. We’re being mustered, all of Theodstan is. Middanhal is sealed, from what I hear,” he told the travellers. He put his helmet back on, picked up his weapons, and followed his company on the march south.