Hunted

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“Any word?”

Hengist ducked through the entrance, then threw back his hood before shaking his head. The motion sprayed fine, cold drops of rainwater from his hair and beard over the confines of the cave, mirroring in its own small way the howling gale outside. The rest of the scouts didn't look up, still huddled around the fire that might save or damn them, depending how cold the weather became and how sharp the eyes of their enemy might turn out to be.

“None. It could be they've only been delayed by this spring-herald, or perhaps they never got through at all. Or our messenger was waylaid.”

Brunhild shivered, and glanced outside. “By the blessing of Brenna, the same breath of spring outside might delay the ogres as well as the reinforcements.”

“They might not have set off yet,” another of the scouts piped up in a soft voice. “'Tis still early in the season for raiding.”

“Maybe. Hengist, did you see any on your way here?”

Hengist was about to reply when a shout at the entrance made every scout stand. Not a few also swore quietly at the noise maker, revealed as he stepped in from the swirling rains to be Ulfric, the youngest of the group. Unusually none of the insults drew a retort as he elbowed his way through to Brunhild.

“Ogres – ten of them! They're heading down the Icelance Valley towards Dernsted. And Vali saw a packmaster!”

Brunhild's gut clenched to an icy knot. “How many wolves?”

“Vali saw five.”

“And Vali?”

“The wolves saw Vali,” came the simple reply.

There was a brief silence as the remaining scouts absorbed this, before Hengist spoke the traditional words. “He died brave.”

Ulfric's face for a moment became sour, and Brunhild went to head off an unfortunate comment. She had no doubt that Vali had met his fate bravely, but everyone present had seen the work of dire wolves on their prey. It may have been a heroic end, but it would also have been an agonizing one. “Aye, he died to give us this warning. Ulfric, gather your things and leave. We can't trust that our messages have got through, and Dernsted needs to be warned. Keep to high places until you reach the fields, and tell them what you saw.”

Ulfric wasted no time, perhaps knowing what every other scout present did as well – which Brunhild spoke aloud for them anyway. “The rest of us will need to delay the ogres. Ten with five wolves in tow could wipe Dernsted from memory within a day.”

The four remaining scouts looked at each other. Hengist shrugged and drew his axe, setting it over his shoulder. Raven Nath spat and drew a waxed cord from a waterproof pouch, stringing his bow. The twins Aella and Aelfric exchanged a glance then picked up their spears and nodded.

Brunhild nodded back to them, and drew her sword. The weapons clashed together – Ulfric's handaxe included, despite the pack on his back, because in the end his job would be no less dangerous than theirs.

“Brynn sja Brenna will watch us,” Brunhild said calmly. “And she will speak our names as we enter the dark. Follow the fire, Valmari, and we shall be led home to the Halls.”

“Follow the fire,” they echoed, before as one the scouts drew up their hoods and marched into the rain.