Authors: Jerry Autieri
|Return of the Ravens (Ulfrik Ormsson's Saga Book 6)|
The long journey from Iceland cost Ulfrik Ormsson everything. His one solace is the promise of revenge and a chance to reclaim what had once been his.Yet Frankia has changed in his absence. The Northmen are in retreat and their leadership is fractured. Former allies have sold themselves to the Franks, and Ulfrik finds no safe place to rest his sword.
A jarl no more and long believed dead, Ulfrik confronts a hostile land with no friends. The Franks conquered his former territories and scattered his people. His wife has remarried and his sons are grown. He cannot return to them in shame and poverty, but after a violent clash with bandits he desperately needs aid.
He returns to Hrolf the Strider and discovers his former jarl has need of a man returned from the dead. With a promise of fabulous rewards, he dispatches Ulfrik to infiltrate an army of Northmen sell-swords. His life depends upon secrecy but soon old enemies are dogging his trail.
Ulfrik is locked in a life-or-death struggle against foes old and new, and the future of Normandy depends on his success.
RETURN OF THE RAVENS
by Jerry Autieri
Copyright © 2015 Jerry Autieri
Three shadowed men blocked the path before Ulfrik. Their bodies coiled with explosive power as they treaded the narrow dirt strip, sunlight flickering across dull iron helmets and tattered gray furs. The darkness of the surrounding woods joined behind them, weaving the threatening shapes into a black mass. The lead man's eyes were lost in shadow, but a crooked nose split with a white scar dominated a tangle of brown beard and bent mouth. As he drew closer, his gnarled sword hand flexed to the hilt bobbing at his side.
"They don't have to mean trouble," Ulfrik said as he extended his arm across Finn's chest. Finn bucked against it, his young and freckle-splattered face contorted into a scowl.
"And black clouds don't always mean rain, except when you're stranded outside with no shelter. Then you can count on a soaking."
A thin smile cracked Ulfrik's dour face, and he let his hand drop away to his own sword hilt. He lacked mail or hides for protection, not even a shield. Only long experience killing foemen offered him any defense. He set his feet wide and settled into the center of the path. Even birdsong fell away as he challenged the trio of shadows drawing upon him.
"Hail, friends," he said. "What good fortune it is to meet fellows on the road."
The lead man stopped and his two companions halted close behind so their bodies melded in the shadow like a single broad-shouldered beast. A patch of yellow light struck the leader's head, illuminating cold blue eyes and a wolfish smile.
"Good fortune, indeed, but for who it remains to be seen."
"You're Northmen," Ulfrik said, a hint of relief in his voice. He was still unsure of Frankish and Norse borders after his long absence. "Danes, from your accent, I take it."
"Isn't it nice to find old friends?" The lead man's voice was rock-on-rock rough. "But this ain't a visit, brother. You're in my way on my road and there's a tax for that."
Ulfrik smiled and looked about as if only just realizing his place. "Have I not come into Hrolf the Strider's lands? If Hrolf collects a tax for this unused goat track, then he's far poorer than I recall."
"Ah, one for jokes, are you? That's good, like it better than the ones that beg or piss themselves. All the same, friend," he warped the word like a curse, "I'll be taking swords and packs off you and your boy lover."
"I'm eighteen," Finn said.
"Not a boy," Ulfrik said.
"That's how you're going to play it?" The leader's sword hissed from its sheath, and his two companions in shadow slid their blades free. "Enjoy your laughs now, 'cause it ain't going to be funny when you're trying to hold your guts in."
Ulfrik drew his sword with lazy confidence, offering them a smirk. However, his stomach fluttered and his hands grew cold. These were strong and young men built to withstand their own foolishness. Ulfrik, however, felt his age from the ache in his hips and legs to the burning twitch in his shoulder. A hundred battle scars raked him from the inside, tearing at his confidence like a hungry wolf.
"Three to two is a poor bet," Ulfrik said, ranging his sword at the knot of enemy. "I've cut down twice as many enemies in one stroke. Better to stand aside and let us on our way."
The leader guffawed and his companions joined him. "Old man, you're so funny I may keep you around for some fun. Now put down the sword and do as I say."
Ulfrik burst into action, a lightning strike at the lead man's sword hand. The blade gouged a chunk of flesh from the knuckle, drawing a surprised scream. Finn wasted no time, darting into the underbrush lining the thin track.
"You dog-shit bastard!" The scar-nosed leader stepped back to parry Ulfrik's follow-up strike, their blades clanging together as the two other's leapt to their brother's aid.
Pushing through, Ulfrik collided with the man behind the leader, a thick brute swathed in a wolf pelt and reeking of urine and sweat. He stepped on the man's foot then drove his shoulder into his chest, sending him toppling back. Ulfrik whirled in time to catch the leader's follow-up strike with the blade of his sword.
Hurry up, Finn, he thought. The two of them had become a tight fighting team in the years spent as merchant ship guards. Ulfrik set himself as an anvil upon which Finn hammered their foes. Ulfrik's deep, mature strength and Finn's serpent-swift, precise strikes were natural complements.
Reemerging from the brush, all attention centered on Ulfrik, Finn plunged his sword into the kidney of one of the enemy. The yellow-haired brute's eyes flashed wide enough to show through the shadowed hollows of their sockets. His sword dropped as Finn shoved him forward into the leader, sending both off balance.
The remaining man slashed at Ulfrik's exposed leg, but he had left it out as bait. He stepped out of the blow but rounded his blade on the attacker, slamming against the helmet and spinning it on his head so the noseguard blocked his eye. He had hoped to kill with the strike, but had only disoriented the man. Ulfrik spun away, leaving this one for Finn.
His face was flushed red, camouflaging his freckles, and Finn pierced the hamstring of the man as he fumbled with his helmet. He screamed and grabbed his leg as he fell. A man on the ground in battle was as good as dead, and Ulfrik assured it with a quick stroke across the enemy's neck. Brilliant red sprayed across the dirt track and splattered Ulfrik's legs.
"Get him before he runs," Ulfrik's voice boomed, no longer the voice of a tired old man but once again that of the battlefield commander and jarl he once was. The leader had regained his footing and was already sprinting into the woods. Finn sprang after him like a hound after a boar.
Ulfrik had reclaimed his strength and battle sense out of the wreckage of his life, but his stamina for sprinting and chases never returned. His gait carried a slight limp now, and hard running was better left to younger men or moments when death loomed.
Following snapped branches and quivering underbrush, Ulfrik plodded toward Finn's hollering. The gleeful howl echoed off the pines trees whose roots threatened to trip the unwary. He dashed the final distance, finding Finn wrestling the larger man. The two rolled over root and rock, neither having an advantage for long, though Finn had wound his hand into the enemy's hair and pulled hard.
He considered letting the battle play out, but the risk to Finn was too great. He stuck his sword into the ground and drew his knife. Approaching from behind, he worked the cold iron blade under the throat of the attacker.
"Don't struggle or you'll cut your own throat," Ulfrik said into the man's ear, spitting out the final word with disgust. "Friend."
The man released his grip on Finn, who scrambled out from underneath. His gray shirt has ridden up to his chest to reveal red scrapes across his belly.
"I'd have had him in another moment. Bastard was just fatter than I thought." Finn ran his arm under his nose. "Thanks for saving me the trouble."
"All right, tax collector. I warned you about the odds. But you just saw an old man and kid lost on the road."
"Save your bloody talk." The man threw an elbow back into Ulfrik's gut that winded him, but the blade remained in place. Finn, now on his feet, had recovered his sword and jabbed the point into the man's thigh. He went still and remained seated in the dirt.
"Answer my questions," Ulfrik said. "Are these Hrolf the Strider's lands? How far are we from Rouen?"
The man struggled, but Ulfrik dug the blade into the flesh. He could smell the grease of the man's hair. "You're on the border still. This is Frankish land."
"And who rules this place?"
Finn looked at Ulfrik expectantly, but the name meant nothing to him. He shrugged, then dug the blade harder and forced the man to stand up. His legs were getting numb from crouching in the cold dirt. They rose with great care, Ulfrik for his sore legs and his prisoner for the edge at his neck.
"How many more in your bandit group? Tell me where they are so I can avoid killing the rest of them."
"It was just us."
"Liar." Ulfrik pulled the blade until blood trickled and the man bucked.
"Gods, it's true! We were headed to join the count's army."
"You were Hrolf's men?"
The man waved his free hand. "No, Meldun Wood-Eye's men. Meldun died of fever so we left."
"But not to Hrolf? Why the Franks?"
"Because they're winning, and the count is hiring our people for a fair wage. Look, just free me. I've told you the truth, just like you asked. Ain't nothing else I know. You're right, we saw you for easy pickings and were wrong. That's all there is to it."