King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 14, 15

Shef was happier with the close-combat bodyguards picked by Brand: all Scandinavians, two Danes, a Swede and a Norwegian, all men with long records of success against men as big and strong as themselves. The Norwegian was a cousin of Brand himself. Looking at him, Shef could see the marbendill strain in him, the mark of the sea-troll, in his eyebrow-ridges and the flat-set teeth. He did not remark at it. Styrr, as he was called, had killed two men already in England for laughing at the way he ate, and been exonerated. One of the Danes acted as the leader of the little group, his experience showing in his expensive jewelry and the scars on his forearms. Shef had asked him his name.

“Bersi,” he replied. “They call me Holmgang-Bersi. I’ve been out five times.”

“I only one,” said Shef.

“I know. I saw it.”

“What did you think?”

Bersi rolled his eyes. Shef had won his holmgang outside the gates of York, and against two men, but hardly in classic style. “I have seen better contests.”

“And I have killed greater champions,” replied Shef, not ready to concede advantage. But Bersi and Styrr and their mates were a reassurance to him. There was no doubt of the courage of the warriors here in the southern lands, but Shef could not see the slightly-built, cotton- and linen-garbed Spaniards, whether Jew or Moor or Christian, holding their own for more than seconds against the barbed axes and iron-shod javelins tramping along behind him. He was safe at least from casual murder. And he bore with him at least a threat of revenge for Svandis.

By the end of the second hour the heat of the day was rising and Shef’s troop looked less formidable than it had. The men were puffing, as they had been hurried along at a steady five miles an hour since dawn, taking turns to ride or trot alongside the overburdened mules that Solomon had provided. Sweat trickled from their hair and into the thick beards. Soon the sun would be shining directly on the mail of the Vikings. They would have to decide whether to shed it or roast. But at least the milestone was in sight, and not too far from the time set. Shef looked round. If there were to be an ambush, this was the most certain place for it. Cwicca and his men had dismounted and were walking more easily now, heads up, crossbows cocked, alert for the first flash of lance or arrow.

From the scrub came a trill of sound. Like a bird-call, but less artless. The sound of a flute. Hair rising on the back of his neck, Shef swiveled his one good eye to see where it came from. A boy standing there. He had not been there a moment before. Was this some creature of the mountains, some half-god, like the marbendills of the northern waste or the Finnish sorcerers from the snow? Five crossbows were covering the lad now. Three too many for security. Shef turned and looked deliberately in a circle. If the boy was a distraction, there would be an attack coming from some other point. Holmgang-Bersi had got the idea at least, had moved off the track, javelin poised.

But there was no-one else. The boy stood motionless till he was sure no-one would shoot from fear, then trilled his flute again, called out to Solomon. Shef understood not a word.

“He says, follow him.”

“Where to?”

Grimly, Solomon pointed up the side of the mountain.

Hours later, Shef began to wonder whether the boy with the oatstraw flute were not some particularly devilish trap sent to kill them slowly. They had abandoned the mules and set off up the hillside grumbling. Now, the sun directly overhead, not a word was spoken. It had been an unremitting climb up a slope as steep as the thatched roof of a house, but covered in thorn scrub and sliding stone. The thorns held you back, caught in every scrap of clothing, where the boy seemed to glide beneath them like an eel.

But they were not as bad as the stone. After a while Shef realized he and all his men were making detours, going out of their way to avoid the scorching heat of the stone in full sunlight, burning bare hands and starting to sting through leather shoe-soles.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry