Four figures faced each other, weapons at the ready, poised and alert.
Two, side by side, were young men, not long past their teens, though the comfort and ease with which they moved suggested long familiarity with their weapons. The taller and fairer bore a curved bronze short sword in his right hand, and he held his left hand, covered by a heavy bronze-plated leather glove, away from his body to the side. The other, slighter of build and darker, carried a pair of katari, wide blades mounted on H-shaped hilts to position them over his knuckles; the one in his right was twice the length of the one in his left.
The pair across from them were a few years older, edging towards their prime. One was a massively built man, an axe in one hand looking hardly larger than a hatchet would in anyone else’s grasp, a thick-bladed dagger in the other. His companion, a lean-bodied woman, held a somewhat smaller axe in her right hand, a small leather-covered round wooden shield strapped to her left forearm sporting a spike in the centre.
All four were similarly dressed, in leather jerkin and trousers and boots over a quilted suede doublet, though the colouring and state of repair varied.
They circled each other warily on the hard-packed dirt, ignoring the audience watching from the rail fence surrounding them. The majority of the onlookers were, again, similarly clad, many with weapons of their own, sheathed or in hands or resting against the fence. Many shouted encouragement or taunts to the four in the ring.
With no visible signal, the younger pair attacked, switching sides neatly in the process—the swordsman closed with the woman, and his companion went after the axeman who clearly out-massed him by at least half again.
“You Ansgar buggers are in trouble now,” one onlooker muttered.
The man beside him glanced at him. “Aella’s too good to let your Madoc around her shield. And Gair’s gonna take your little boy there apart in small pieces. Hardly anyone can make katari work except for off-hand weapons.”
“Hardly anyone’s as quick as Tyrel. You think we’d be letting Taber name him heir otherwise?”
“I guess we’ll see, won’t we?”
The curved sword, with its nearly 45 degree arc, came precariously near to reaching flesh around the edge of the woman’s shield; though her axe swept within a fingersbreadth of him, he was never quite where it landed. Agile as he was, his partner was quicker, never still for an instant, dancing always just out of range of the axe and the broad dagger.
One of the axeman’s swings went wide, only by a fraction, but Tyrel was through the gap and all but face-to-face with him. The broad dagger split into three blades and trapped Tyrel’s longer katar, and would have twisted most weapons entirely out of his grasp, but even with that, Tyrel was in too close to reach with the axe. The point of the smaller katar drove towards Gair’s throat, and halted just short of touching it.
“Dead,” Tyrel said.
Gair nodded. “Dead,” he conceded, releasing Tyrel’s right-hand katar and spreading his hands before backing away, to a resurgence of cheering and mockery mixed.
“He’s not bad,” the visitor allowed grudgingly. “But in battle?”
“Same kind of thing,” the native said smugly. “It’d be stupid for him to go with anything that needs brute force. Can put his full weight behind a strike with those, but doesn’t have to. Taber had no way to know his firstborn’d grow up a bit undersized. Tyrel makes it work for him ‘stead of against him. Can think of worse in a commander, yeah?”
“Truth there,” said another onlooker.
“Dunnval will all follow Tyrel.”
“He’s not confirmed heir yet,” persisted the visitor, watching Aella retreating before her opponents. He knew her well enough to read her body language, and she was worried.
“He’s got three sevens of years,” the native said. “He’s seen his seven battles, and did himself proud in them. Just the Rite to…” He paused mid-word, watching.
Tyrel and Madoc separated, bracketing Aella between them; no matter which direction she took a step, they were there. She blocked a blow from Tyrel with her axe, slammed the spiked shield towards Madoc, who stepped to the side away from it. Tyrel moved at the same time, almost behind Aella, and she spun to keep him in sight.
Then she froze, with Madoc’s gloved hand barely an inch from her throat, the sharp bronze claws at his fingertips a hairsbreadth from her skin.
“Dead,” she said, letting both hands fall to her sides.
In the midst of cheering and whistling, Tyrel saluted her and sheathed the two katari in their gold-worked leather sheaths strapped to either thigh. Madoc slid his curved sword into the scabbard suspended at his hip, and began to unstrap the clawed glove from his left hand.
“That’s enough of a workout for today,” Tyrel said. “We need to be rested up for tomorrow.” He glanced at the lowering sun. “I’d say we all have time for a drink or two before supper. Aella, Gair, will you join us?” He gestured invitingly to the largest building in the complex, a long rectangular single-storied building.
The audience broke up, returning to their own business or joining the combatants in their quest for a drink. Around them, within the high wooden palisade, the normal routines continued: thralls, mostly captives from raids, in brief clothing and welded bronze, hurrying about their work with downcast eyes; free men and women in trousers and shirt with a linen doublet pausing to chat with each other or the warriors who made up the rest of the population.
The Hall housed an enormous fireplace at each end and was packed with trestle tables and benches. Tyrel claimed the table nearest a fireplace, and Madoc instantly took the spot on his left. Thralls scurried to bring fired-clay mugs, jugs of beer, and platters of bread.
“This is the part I could do without,” Tyrel murmured to his brother with a sigh, sometime later, while listening courteously to Gair’s enthusiastic account of how he’d proven himself worthy of Aella’s attention with a gift of the right hands of fourteen foes.
“I know,” Madoc said quietly. Less than half a year older than Tyrel, child of a Forester war captive rather than their father’s wife, he’d been at Tyrel’s side for as long as either could recall, brother and best friend and shieldmate. He didn’t mind so much, himself, but he was well aware that Tyrel found boasting boring at best. However, as heir apparent to the role of Chief, Tyrel had little choice but to show an interest. “We can leave early tonight.”
Tyrel nodded slightly, keeping his gaze on Aella, who was laughing while describing how she’d tanned the hands and had them hanging on her wall at home in Ansgar.
Supper was something of a distraction, at least. Nothing out of the ordinary, just a grain-and-bean pottage boiled thick, strong rye bread, and spit-roasted venison. The elaborate meals of the townspeople were scorned here as leading to softness and weakness.
Tyrel, listening to Aella’s contemptuous description of what she’d found in the kitchen of a large house during a recent raid, wondered what the townspeople thought of them in return. Had their mutual ancestors, who had built the hill forts to guard against their aggressive neighbours, ever imagined the fracture into two separate cultures? Could they have foreseen that the warrior brotherhood of the forts would turn to raids on the towns when the towns began to resist supporting them, or that the towns would make use of that in their own rivalry by bribing forts to raid fellow towns? He doubted they had. Equally, he doubted that any change was likely to occur in his lifetime, despite the minority group of fighters who saw no honour or skill in attacks on civilians.
He and Madoc drank sparingly, and excused themselves early.
In the twilight of summer evening, they walked together to the warriors’ living quarters, four long narrow single-story buildings that raked through the middle of the camp like claw-scars. In each, on either side of a corridor were individual rooms.
Their own rooms were near one end of an outer building, though no larger than the others. Typically for shieldmates, the doors faced each other across the corridor.
“It’ll be a while before we sleep properly again,” Madoc said. “Get some rest. I don’t want to get killed because you got sloppy.”
“You don’t get to blame it on me. If anyone gets sloppy, it’ll be you.” With a grin at his brother, Tyrel went into his own room.
The rooms were large enough for a bed, a chest, and a wooden rack for weapons, without feeling crowded, but not much more.
The lamp on the wall of Tyrel’s room had already been lit, and a familiar figure waited, sitting cross-legged in the middle of the bed. Not much younger than Tyrel, lean-bodied and smooth-skinned, a great deal of it revealed by the brief loincloth and crossed halter-top she wore. Her long hair had the soft-edged vertical stripes, pale tawny and dark walnut, of the Foresters—which was what made her far more valuable than the average thrall. The slave-rings piercing her ears and nasal septum and the chains linking them were finely-worked gold adorned with dangling blue lapis lazuli drops, unlike the plain bronze of the common thralls, though she wore the same bronze cuffs riveted shut around wrists and ankles, each with a sturdy ring incorporated into it.
“I hear you won against the visitors from Ansgar,” she said, standing up to help him undress. The two katari first, to hang on the rack, followed by the thick jerkin of tawny leather. The doublet, its outer layer suede dyed a now-faded blue, he shed with a sigh of relief and a stretch.
“We did. The usual thing, underestimating me, and underestimating Madoc because of that. Different faces, different weapons, but it’s still always the same fight, every time. Always goes the same. What a waste of time.” He unlaced his boots and pulled them off, followed by his trousers, and sprawled on the bed in just his shirt. “We have no edge. I’ve only ever seen one outside invasion in my whole life, and it was before I was old enough to be involved. We fight each other with no-intentional-kill rules—you have to be good, and you can get badly hurt or killed, but it isn’t the same. Or one town hires a fort to protect them from another fort that’s being encouraged by another town to attack them. Or we raid civilians, which I mostly can’t even call a fight. It’s all pointless.”
She finished hanging jerkin and doublet neatly, and curled up next to him like a cat, listening.
“And in a couple of days, assuming Madoc and I survive, I’ll be officially heir to Dunnval. Which is a joke, because most of Dunnval will only follow orders as long as I keep ordering raids.”
“Please don’t die,” she said quietly.
“Both of us? Hardly likely. You aren’t going to find yourself up for grabs anytime soon. Actually, once I’m confirmed as heir, Vester will probably start being a lot more cautious about ‘accidentally’ managing to touch you when Madoc or I aren’t around. There’ll be others wanting to suck up to the future Chief who’ll take him on.”
“That isn’t what I meant.”
“Of course it was. At least be honest. If you had a way past the palisades, you’d be gone into the Forest in a heartbeat.”
“Not with hounds to track me and drag me back for punishment,” she retorted.
“All right, past the palisades and with no hounds.”
“Of course I would. I’m free out there. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t miss you both. You’re far more kind and caring than your father wants you to be.”
Tyrel sighed, and reached behind him to tug the blankets loose and pull them over them both. “We are what the world makes us be, I suppose. Go to sleep. The next couple of days are going to be long.”