Thorgaut watched the creature moving slowly and methodically across the camp. It glanced up in his direction and he held his breath. One eye was missing from its socket, and the other was covered with hair. No wonder the ugly thing hadn’t been able to see him very well earlier.
He let it walk around the camp for a bit and then watched as it started to shuffle off in the other direction. He threw a stick out into the middle of the camp near the fire. The noise attracted the Shuffler’s attention.
It walked back towards the fire with its back to Thorgaut. It was time to see what this thing was made of. He pulled back an arrow and let loose. The arrow found its mark and dug deep into its back right about where its heart should have been.
The Shuffler let out a loud high-pitched scream that sounded almost like a squeal. It clawed around madly, trying to grab the arrow coming out its back. But it didn’t fall down. It kept moving around in circles as it tried to get a grip on the arrow.
It managed to reach around far enough to get its hand on the arrow. It tugged at the arrow but screamed at the pain. It was facing him now, and he fired off another arrow directly into its throat. The Shuffler tried to scream, but this time only a gurgling rasp came out.
Thorgaut waited, but it didn’t fall. So, he fired another arrow directly into his forehead just above the bridge of the nose. This time the creature fell backward onto the ground. It tried to get up again, but was unable to and fell back over into the dirt. It continued to move it’s hands and feet around though as if it were trying to get up.
Thorgaut climbed down the tree by grabbing on to the branch and swinging his legs down over the edge. From there it was just a short drop to the forest floor.
He walked over to the undead shuffler and circled it slowly. The stench coming up off this thing was awful. Thorgaut had to cover his face to keep from puking.
It realized he was there and reached out in his direction. Thorgaut stepped back and was careful not to let it touch him. The Shuffler moaned loudly and started chomping its teeth as if it were already biting him.
The creature tried to roll over, but the arrows in its throat and forehead prevented it from turning over. It started to vomit and Thorgaut backed up even more.
The stories he heard as a child said that the vomit was how they killed their victims. It poisoned them and paralyzed all who came in contact with it.
When it had finished puking and doing its thing, Thorgaut raised his sword and sliced off its head. The shuffler lay there twitching as he drove his sword into the soft dirt to clean the blade of blood.
Thorgaut grabbed the arrow shot into its forehead and pulled it over to the fire. He tossed the head into the flames. The blood that dripped from its neck and head burst into a fiery mass as soon as it hit the flames. He had to step back and let it settle down a bit before moving back in to finish up. He pushed the ends of the logs together to refuel the flames.
Then he wiped off his hands on his pants and smiled proudly at killing his first Broken Shuffler. He hoped that it would find peace and make its way into the afterlife. Technically, it had died in battle, but he didn’t know if the Valkyries would allow it into Odin’s hall.
Thorgaut turned around and froze at what he saw. Four more of the same foul creatures all coming his way.
Thorgaut pulled his sword out of the ground and gathered his stuff quickly. The shufflers moved slowly. Two of them paused and bent over to vomit. That was what worried him. He knew he could kill them easily because they were so slow. The only thing he had to be careful of was to not get any vomit or blood on his body.
He knew he could outrun them and hide in the safety of the darkness. He considered it for a moment. They wouldn’t be able to see him. And he could just wait for the darkness to pass and the sun to rise in the morning.
He wanted to turn and run into the woods. He could take them on later that day after it was light, but his Viking training and upbringing was ingrained too deeply. He had been taught to always stand his ground against his enemy.
It didn’t matter that these were undead beings, nor that he had nothing to defend. It was his duty to fearlessly fight anything and anyone who opposed him.
He whipped out an arrow and notched it in the string. Thorgaut pulled back the taut with all his strength to get as much power out of it as he could. His fingers pulling back on the string touched the base of his ear and trembled from the force of the bow waiting for release.
Thorgaut leveled it in the direction of the closest shuffler and let go of the arrow. It hit the one-eyed shuffler and drove deep into the creatures cheekbone below the right eye. The blow stopped its forward trajectory. It stopped and stood still turning its face back toward the Viking. It shrieked in fury and then started walking again.
By this time, Thorgaut had already notched and released a second arrow. He had aimed for the second shuffler’s heart, but the zigzagging walk caused it to hit its shoulder. The first one was walking faster and pretty close. So, Thorgaut shot it again.
The arrow found its mark directly in it’s one remaining eye. It screamed again and threw it’s head down between its legs as it tugged and pulled at the arrow.
One of the other shufflers had stopped to help pull the arrow that was still stuck in the shoulder of the second creature Thorgaut had shot. That left only one shuffler that was an immediate threat to Thorgaut at the moment. So, he took his time aiming right between its eyes like he had done with the first shuffler he had killed.
This time, the arrow found its mark and sank deep into the creatures foul head. Thorgaut expected it would fall over, but it didn’t. It still kept coming. It was too close to get off another shot, so he pulled out his sword. The shuffler had raised its hands at an awkward angle. It looked like it wanted to shake his hand, but had a sore shoulder.
When it got close enough, Thorgaut dodged out of its reach and sliced off its right arm. That didn’t seem to phase it because it just kept right on coming at him. Thorgaut spun around to the other side and sliced off its other arm. It still kept walking at him even though it didn’t have any arms.
It paused and gagged in preparation to vomit. Thorgaut spun around to the side and raised his sword high into the air. He brought it down with all his might across the back of the shuffler’s neck just as it started to puke. Its head rolled off into the darkness, and its body fell into a mess of blood and vomit.
Thorgaut didn’t pause to admire his handiwork. He turned towards the original one-eyed shuffler that was now blind. It was still stumbling around close to the fire. Thorgaut walked around behind it and kicked it into the fire. It stumbled and tried to catch itself. Unable to keep itself upright, it fell into the fire and rolled out on the other side. Its body had burst into flame and kept right on burning even after it had rolled out of the fire.
He heard something behind him and spun around.
Thorgaut froze for an instant. He ducked and moved to the side while looking around quickly. Nothing attacked him which was a relief. So, the Viking warrior resumed walking after a few seconds of bated breath.
He reached his little camp clearing without incident. Thorgaut had never felt so happy to see a fire before. The flickering flames made him realize how cold he was.
Thorgaut rushed to sit down beside it so he could warm himself up. He placed another log of wood in the fire. Then stretched out his hands to bask in the warm glow of the coals.
He heard the woman scream again and sighed. But this time he didn’t move. He sat there and watched the flames dancing in the darkness.
Thorgaut wanted to help her. He really did. But deep down he had a feeling that this was a ruse. Someone trying to get him deeper into the woods.
He peered into the darkness and realized that the creature could be out there looking for him. He pulled the logs away from each other so the flames would die down. He sat there and continued to warm his hands over the embers that glowed red and hot in the cold darkness of the forest.
The woman continued screaming, but Thorgaut tried to ignore it. After a while, she stopped. Thorgaut pulled his coat tighter and lay down.
He curled up as close as he dared to the embers to suck up their warmth without bursting into flames himself. That was the last thing he needed tonight out here alone in the dark.
Then the woman started screaming for help once again. He sighed and rolled over trying to block out the sound. He realized her screams didn’t seem to be out of desperation. At least it didn’t sound like the kind of noise someone made when they were hurting or in pain.
He figured she had been tied up and held against her will somewhere. That is if she really did need help. He didn’t like to think about what kind of person would do something like that to trick someone else.
Thorgaut closed his eyes and tried to fall asleep so he could get some rest before morning. He would head out as soon as there was light enough for him to see what was going on. There wasn’t much he could do to try to find her in the dark anyway. That dark creature would attack him again if he made any noise.
He closed his eyes and tried to sleep, but a thought kept nagging at the back of his mind. What if the screaming woman didn’t survive until morning.
Thorgaut tried to rationalize the feeling away, but it kept bugging him. He knew he would never forgive himself if she did need help, and he hadn’t done anything to save her.
His friends would call him a coward for sure. Not that he cared what his friends thought because he would be the first to hold himself responsible.
Besides, what if this was an opportunity in disguise. Maybe a challenge from the fates to test his mettle and courage in the face of danger.
Or what if was his soulmate, and this was Destiny’s way of drawing them together? He smiled into the darkness. His mother always said he was a hopeless romantic.
The screaming and yelling started up again. Thorgaut knew he couldn’t lie there all night and wait for the light. He had to take action, and it had to be now. He stood up and worked speedily on the execution of his plan.
Thorgaut gathered his stuff in preparation for battle. He piled the rest of the wood he had cut earlier onto the fire. He broke and tore several more branches off the dead tree to toss into the flames as well. He knew the noise would attract the dark thing in his direction, so he worked as fast as possible.
When he was ready, he pulled out his pouch of mushrooms and took a large bite. He would need all his courage to fight this thing. Whatever ‘it’ was. Thorgaut knew this would be a fight to the death for one of them. He was ready for it.
He pulled out his canteen and took a swig to wash down the rest of the mushroom in his mouth. He felt a wave of fresh courage and boldness wash over him. It had been several weeks since he had been in a good fight. And he was ready for it.
“Hey! I’m over here you ugly monster.” Thorgaut yelled into the woods. “Come and get me. What are you waiting for?”
Thorgaut picked up the bow and quiver of arrows that he had left leaning against the tree. He turned away from the fire and walked into the darkness of the woods.
He went in the opposite direction from which it would come. He wanted it to walk through the light of the campfire to get to him. He wanted to see what it was that he would be fighting.
Then once he killed it, he would find the screaming woman. If she were in trouble, he would help her. Otherwise, he would kill her himself for all this trouble she had put him through.
Thorgaut hid behind a tree and waited outside the circle of campfire’s light. Everything was silent and still. Even her screams had subsided.
Thorgaut wanted to yell again. But the memory of that the dark thing attacking him mid-yell earlier held him back. He didn’t want to make it too easy for the creature to find him.
He realized he would be safer in the tree and climbed up it. He sat there for a bit, but nothing happened.
“Where are you? Come and get me you ugly creep.” Thorgaut finally yelled.
He continued to sit there for a bit, but still no movement or sound. He stood up on the branch to change position and stretch his legs.
Thorgaut had just taken a deep breath to yell again when he noticed some movement at the edge of his camp. He lowered himself back down on the branch to get a better view through the leaves.
He couldn’t tell what it was at first in the low light from the fire but continued to watch as it moved closer to the fire. The flickering light from the flames revealed more of its features with each step it took.
It was a man, or at least it used to be a man at one time. Now, it looked like a walking corpse. It walked hunched forward with its arms pointed out and down at a stiff, awkward angle.
“Broken Shufflers,” Thorgaut growled. He never understood why they were called that before. Now that he had seen one though, he realized the name made perfect sense.
These were the undead walkers who were controlled by wizards of old to do their bidding. He had heard of such creatures when he was a child. His mother and others had spoken of them. There were other names.
Venom vomiters. Scuttlers. Swarmers.
But he never actually believed they existed. He thought they were just old wive’s tales told to keep children in line and make them behave. At most legends of old that no longer existed.
Yet, here it was. One of these creatures was right there in front of him. The strange-looking being filled him with morbid fascination and dread. According to the legends he had grown up hearing, these creatures couldn’t be killed. They were already dead. The only way to destroy them was to cut off their heads and burn their bodies.
Thorgaut watched as the slow creature shuffled towards the fire. He found the sight of the strange creature fascinating.
The skin around the lower half of its face was gone exposing decaying yellow teeth. Its matted black hair was missing large chunks, but other parts of it stuck out wildly in all directions.
It was horrid looking. No wonder the poor woman had been screaming for help. He, Thorgaut Kabbisson of Ulfvergr, would kill this creature. He would save the damsel in distress. And he would make his mother proud.
Thorgaut gripped his sword tighter. He spread his legs wider and crouched lower into a fighting stance. He cocked his head to the side and listened intently into the darkness.
Listening for the sound of footsteps. Listening for the sound of anything strange that might be going on out there in the darkness.
“Are you still there?” he yelled out to the woman. “Come over here. I’ve got…”
Something large and dark came barreling out of the woods straight towards him. He could sense it before he heard it or saw it. It rammed right into him and knocked him over.
Thorgaut fell on the ground several feet away. The blow dazed him for a minute. The dark, bulky creature shuffled around the area where he had been standing. It was making strange sniffing sounds like it was trying to catch a whiff of his scent in the dark.
From his position where he lay, Thorgaut could see the massive dark form outlined against the sky. He couldn’t tell what that thing was, but it was no woman. He was sure of that. There was no way a small woman could have knocked him over like that. Thorgaut figured that whatever this thing was, it must be at least as big as he was, if not bigger.
Thorgaut’s dark clothes must have blended well into the ground in the dark. He was grateful for that. He raised his head and saw a glimmer of light in the darkness. His sword. He stretched out his hand. It was out of reach.
Thorgaut rolled to the side and pulled himself up. A twig cracked under the movement, and the creature stopped snuffling. It turned in his direction and took a step forward.
He stayed still for a minute, and the creature continued snuffling around in the darkness. Closer this time than before.
Thorgaut couldn’t see the sword any longer from his current position. He knew it was in front of him though and kept his hand still so as not to lose his place.
He felt about in the dirt for some small pebbles and twigs. His fingers found some in the darkness and he picked up a small handful. Thorgaut tossed one as far as he could into the darkness beyond the creature.
The pebble bounced off a tree trunk and made a loud thunking noise. The foul creature immediately stopped sniffing. Thorgaut caught whiff of the creature, and it really did stink. The stench emanating from it was horrible. He almost gagged and covered his face to keep from making any noise.
The foul-smelling creature whirled in the direction of the pebble’s sound and crouched down a bit as it listened for the sound. Thorgaut threw another pebble in the same direction. Only harder so it would go farther. He wanted the creature to think that he was moving in that direction.
The ruse worked, and the creature began walking back into the darkness of the forest the way it had come. Thorgaut stretched out his hand quietly in the direction of his sword. His fingers touched the blade, and he was able to pick it up without making any noise.
Thorgaut wished he had brought his bow and arrow with him, but he had left back by the fire. He rose from the ground with the sword grasped tightly in his hands. Thorgaut waited for a minute.
He couldn’t hear the creature moving around in the underbrush which was strange. He wondered how something that size could move around in the dark without making any noise. Especially since it hadn’t even seen him lying on the ground close by.
Thorgaut shook his head. That crazy woman screaming must have been a ruse to locate him. But who would be trying to get him? And why did they want him?
A dark cloud rolled out from under the moon which shined a little more light for Thorgaut to see. He took a slow, careful step forward while trying not to step on anything that would make noise. But that would be almost impossible till he got back onto the path.
So, he knelt down and felt around with his hands to remove any dry leaves or twigs from in front of him. When the area in front of him was free of debris, he crawled forward on his hands and knees.
Thorgaut felt silly for sneaking around in the dark. He was a Viking warrior by nature. He had never flinched when facing his enemies. Even when staring down the blade of their sword.
He had never been afraid to fight. He did not fear death. He wanted to die in battle so the Valkyries would take him to Odin’s lodge. He wanted to feast with the mighty warriors of old.
But this felt different. He felt like a thief sneaking around in the dark stealing someone’s chickens in the night. This wasn’t how he wanted to die here because this wasn’t a battle. If he died here, he doubted any Valkyries would come to take him to be with Odin.
This was ridiculous. He couldn’t even see his enemy to challenge him to a fight. He didn’t want to be murdered in the middle of a dark forest all alone at night. There would be no one around to give him a proper funeral burial.
So, he continued clearing the area in front of him quietly and crawling forward little by little. Thorgaut found his way back onto the path again. He breathed a sigh of relief and stood still in the center of the trail to catch his breath.
Thorgaut walked back up the trail ever so carefully step-by-step. Putting one foot tentatively in front of the other. Feeling his way along for anything that might make noise.
It took him awhile to get far enough back up the trail to see the fire. The flames had died down quite a bit in the short time since he had left camp.
He felt like it had been a lifetime since he had left the camp, but then everything had seemed so strange that day. He saw the fire and felt encouraged.
Thorgaut breathed easier at seeing he was back in his camp and hadn’t gotten lost again. Once he got back up into the light, he would at least be able to see what that thing was if it tried to attack him again.
He picked up his pace and started walking normally again. Then, halfway up the path, Thorgaut stepped on a small twig that cracked loudly under his feet.
Thorgaut walked a little way into the wood but didn’t find anything of interest. The trail ended in a pile of bushes where the forest closed in and became too dense to continue. So, he turned around and headed back.
He walked back up the trail in the same direction he had come. After a few minutes, Thorgaut figured he had walked back out almost as far as he had into the woods. But he hadn’t yet come back to the edge of the clearing.
The trees became larger and grew closer together here. Thorgaut felt like he was heading even deeper into the woods. He hadn’t even walked that far into the woods. This was weird.
It was the second time today that he felt like he had lost his bearings. Even stranger because this path had only led in one direction. There hadn’t even been any forks in the trail for him to veer off in another direction. One path going into the woods. The only other direction to head was back up the trail and back to the edge of the plains.
Thorgaut looked around trying to get his bearings. There was nothing he could see that gave him any sense of location. For all he knew, he could have been walking in just about any direction.
He looked up and could see a little light in the sky. But here under the trees, it was almost too dark to keep walking. Soon he wouldn’t be able to see where he was going.
It was cold and Thorgaut shivered. It would be best to make a fire while there was still light. He found a place to hunker down for the night between the roots of a large tree. He wanted to have his back against something solid.
He gathered some dead branches that were lying around. He pulled some dead leaves and bramble together as his starter. The flames licked up around the edges of the leaves and started to burn. He scattered some twigs on top of the leaves in a criss-crossed fashion. They were a little damp from the forest floor and let off smoke as they started to heat up. It caused Thorgaut to cough and turn his head to the side
Once those started to burn, he tossed on some larger twigs and small branches. A small fire soon blazed cheerily as Thorgaut warmed his hands and face. He broke several good sized branches and tossed them on as well. They would burn up quickly though, so he needed to cut some good sized logs to bank his fire. That way he could keep it burning through the night.
He found a dead tree that had fallen over and set to work chopping it up. He started on the smaller end as it was closer to the fire and he had more light to see what he was doing. He could chop it faster and toss it on to make the fire bigger. That would give him more light to see by to cut up the rest of the wood he needed.
It was hard work and he was soon sweating from the exertion. After a bit, he stopped to put some of the wood on the fire and warm his hands.
The greedy flames immediately licked up over the edges of the larger logs. The leaped and feasted merrily on the freshly-cut wood as the light flickered over his face. He sat down and leaned back against the tree to relax his weary body for a few minutes. He rested for a bit, and then went back to cut more wood to last him for the rest of the night.
Thorgaut piled the wood up close to where he planned on sleeping. Then he settled down and pulled his coat closer around him to protect himself from the chill. It was the end of summer, and the nights were getting cooler. He was also farther North than he had ever traveled before.
He also longed for the companionship of his friends and sighed. roasted the partridge he had shot earlier and enjoyed a nice warm meal. He drank some water from his canteen. Then he leaned back and relaxed against the tree.
Thorgaut had just started to drift off when there was a loud scream. A woman’s scream. Close.
He jerked awake and sat up. Had he been dreaming? Or was there really a woman around. The flames had died down a bit. He must have slept for at least a little while.
Thorgaut pushed the logs on the fire closer together. The ends had burned and there was space between them. As soon as he pushed them all together again, the flames burst back up in joyful dance once more. Thorgaut picked up a couple more logs and tossed them on top of the fire.
He waited for a bit but didn’t hear anything else. The flames continued to rise and cast their flickering shadows over the trees in an eerie dance.
Thorgaut looked around carefully in all directions. After a minute or so, he decided that it must have been a dream. He realized that he had been holding his breath. He chuckled and let it out with a sigh of relief. He gulped in a long breath of fresh refreshing oxygen.
He walked back over to the tree to settle back down to sleep again. He had just gotten comfortable when he heard the voice again.
“Help! Help me!”
It seemed to be coming back down the trail. Deeper in the woods from the way he had come.
Thorgaut stood up slowly and took a few steps down the path. He didn’t feel like running off down the trail in the dark and getting lost again. But he couldn’t leave a screaming woman out there alone in the dark.
He sighed and looked back at his warm fire. He went back and tossed several more logs on the fire so it would blaze higher. Then he turned and started walking down the trail.
He walked a little way, turning his head to make sure he could still see the fire flickering safely in the distance. After a while though, he reached a point where he couldn’t see the fire any longer between the trees.
Thorgaut stopped and walked back a few paces till he could see the flames again between the trees. Now he was in a dilemma. If he continued on, he could get lost and not be able to find his way back to the fire.
The moon had finally risen. He could see it through the tops of the trees. It didn’t cast enough light for him to continue walking into the dark. It was safer here where he could get back to his fire quickly if needed.
Thorgaut considered the possibility that the screams could be a trap. Someone trying to get him away from the fire and out into the dark. Unable to see, he would be easy prey.
He considered yelling, so she could come to him. But he didn’t like that idea because he didn’t know who she was nor what she needed help from. And if something was attacking her, would know what he was there too.
Thorgaut preferred to keep the element of surprise. But, he knew he couldn’t risk walking deeper into the forest in the dark. So, he decided to yell.
“Hey! Hello? Anyone there?” Thorgaut shouted. “Where are you? What’s going on?”
“Please! Help me!” he heard again. The voice closer this time. It wasn’t far away. Thorgaut took a few steps deeper into the woods.
“I’m over here,” he yelled. “Come this way!”
The first wolf came in low. Thorgaut caught it with a backhanded blow from his bow just behind the ear. The wolf reeled back and fell over. Thorgaut hoped it wasn’t dead, but didn’t have time to check it now.
The last wolf took a flying leap into the air, reaching for his throat with its open jaws. Thorgaut grabbed it by the neck with both hands. These were normal sized wolves that would have been a threat to any average-sized man. But to Thorgaut’s massive hands and bodies, they seemed like normal-sized playthings.
He squeezed hard enough to choke the wolf’s breathing until it stopped moving. Then he laid it on the ground.
Thorgaut cut the deer up so it would be easier to carry. He worked quickly to leave the scene before either of the creatures came to. Thorgaut left the head and intestines for the wolves. He felt bad for them, and under normal circumstances would have left the deer for them. But he needed this food for his family and the people of his village. Thorgaut sighed at the memory.
He had been a hunter and killed all his life. He had fought battles and killed other men. But those wolves that he had killed that day haunted his dreams for a long time afterward.
He dreamed of them often. Generally, the leader of the pack would bring him messages and warnings. But in the end, it always ended the same way. Thorgaut would apologize to the wolves and stand there with his neck bared. And then he would awake when they attacked.
The wind had picked up and the chill reminded Thorgaut that night would soon be falling fast. He looked back at the sun. It was setting quickly and the shadows were growing longer.
Thorgaut quickened his pace. He wasn’t afraid, but the eerieness of the place had started to get on his nerves. He should have come across the camp by now and found his friends.
They had left their ships three days back and explored inland towards the mountains. They had set up camp last evening at the edge of the woods.
It was a nice spot. The woods on one side with plenty of game. A nice view of the mountains spread out before them. Thorgaut had laid awake most of the night under the light of the moon and stars dreaming of the future.
He had left the camp earlier that morning to hunt game and explore the area. Thorgaut had slipped away before anyone could follow him. He wanted to be alone with his thoughts.
He had walked West and deeper into the woods. He had seen a lot of game but didn’t try killing anything right away. There would be plenty of time for that later. Otherwise, he’d have to turn around and lug it back to camp.
Thorgaut didn’t plan on being gone that long, but the scenery was stunning in every way. The forest. The hills. The animals. Everything amazed him.
Thorgaut pressed on deeper and farther. He wanted to explore everything. He could imagine himself living here someday when he had expanded his kingdom out this way.
He imagined building a huge longhouse made of stones. A massive fortress, like the ones he heard sailors talking about in their tales of faraway lands.
A strong, safe home surrounded by a large stone wall. A wall to protect himself and his people from any enemies between their raids. He knew Runa would love it. He would marry her, and she would make a beautiful queen by his side.
He kept walking and exploring until the sun was high in the sky. He had finally turned around and headed back towards the mountains. Thorgaut had finally reached the edge of the woods. He came out into the plain that spread out toward the mountains. Now, all he had to do was follow the edge of the woods until he got back to camp.
He had been walking most of the afternoon since reaching the plains. But for some reason, he still hadn’t come across any of his friends. Thorgaut felt confused. It seemed that he had walked back towards the East along the edge of the woods, even farther than he had gone West. He should have come across the camp by now. It was mostly out in the open, so it wasn’t like he could have missed it.
Thorgaut kept an eye on the setting sun. Darkness would be falling fast. If he didn’t find his friends soon, he would need to find a place to set up camp for himself. And he would have to do it while there was still light.
There would be a full moon later on that night, but it wouldn’t rise until midnight. There were also some clouds in the sky that concerned him. They would block any light he could use to see by. He would be unable to continue looking for his friends until morning.
Thorgaut was about to turn off into the woods to find a suitable spot to sleep when he saw movement up ahead. He smiled to himself. He was getting old. Here he thought he had gone too far past the camp already. But fortunately, it was over. He was back, and this strange day would be over.
Thorgaut shook his head and chided himself. He was generally pretty good with directions and locations. He had remained alert and aware of his surroundings at all times. It was rare that Thorgaut found himself in a place where he could consider himself lost.
Thorgaut chuckled at the thought of telling his friends what had happened. “I thought was wrong and had gone too far. Yet it turns out I was right the whole time. So, it turns out that I have never been wrong. Only once when I thought I was wrong and yet had been right the whole time.”
It was an old joke that he liked to tell. People knew he was generally right about everything. It was rare that anyone could outargue or debate Thorgaut. And once he made up his mind about something, it was rare anyone could persuade him to change it.
Thorgaut picked up his pace and soon came to the place where he thought he had seen the camp. There was no one there.
He did find a long cloth draped over a low-hanging branch swaying in the soft wind. That must have been what caught his attention earlier. It looked new and clean. Not like something that had been out in the open elements for very long. Nothing else indicated that anyone had been in the area recently though.
Thorgaut caught glimpse of what appeared to be a trail leading into the woods. If you could call it a trail. He tried to see where it led, but couldn’t see much between the dusky twilight and shadowy darkness of the forest.
This looked about as good a place as any to set up camp. A dead tree had fallen to the side of the trail and would provide plenty of firewood for the night. He wouldn’t have to do much for the night, and there would still be light for a little while.
Thorgaut decided to head down the trail a little way. Perhaps he would find the person who had left the cloth. Maybe it was left there purposefully to mark the trail. He hoped he could find someone to point him in the right direction to his camp first thing in the morning.
Thorgaut Kabbisson walked along the edge of woods trying to get his bearings. He was lost and he knew it. Something was wrong. He should have been back at their little camp. It wasn’t very big, but there is no way that he could have missed it and walked past it.
The sun hung low on the horizon. Darkness would soon be upon him. He wanted to stop and build a fire to warm up, but he needed to keep moving. If Thorgaut didn’t find his friends before the sun set, he would be alone in the woods at night. He tried to shake the thought from his head and focus on something a little more pleasant.
The nights were growing longer and he didn’t want to spend it by himself here at the edge of the woods. Not that there was much that scared Thorgaut. He was the firstborn son of a feisty little Earl in a small village. Thorgaut was the oldest of 12 brothers. His brothers were all small like their father.
But Thorgaut was taller than his father. Taller than all his brothers. Taller than anyone else in his village. Head and shoulders above the next tallest man. His body was wider and broader. Thorgaut was built like a bull. He didn’t have the lanky build his father and brother’s possessed. He was also the only member of the family with red hair.
People talked of course. Rumors ran rampant. Some suggested he was special. A gift from the gods. Others whispered behind his back though and suggested otherwise.
Either way, Thorgaut knew what they said about him not being the rightful heir to his father’s throne. He knew his brothers would try to keep him from sitting on it after his father’s passing.
What the people said, didn’t bother him. Neither did his brothers plans to keep him off of the throne. He planned on sitting on it and ruling the people well.
A partridge burst out of a bush in front of him. His steps must have spooked it. The loud beating of it’s wings spooked him at first. He jumped back, but managed to keep his wits around him fast enough to pull up his bow and notch an arrow. He shot straight and true. The partridge fell behind a small mound of snow, and he veered off the path to collect his supper.
Thorgaut relished the thought of sitting on the throne. He smiled as he continued walking. He had been born to rule. He felt it in his bones. The desire to reign flowed through every fiber of his being. Everyone else knew it too. Or rather they could sense it.
He was a natural leader and easily influenced those around him. He didn’t even put much effort into trying to be persuasive. He seemed to have a hypnotic hold over people that made them want to follow him. The intensity of his focus had a magnetizing effect on those around him.
He knew that ultimately his father’s throne would become too small for him. That was one of the reasons he led these yearly raids farther and farther away. He wanted to explore everything and see how other people lived and fought. The entire time, he was planning and scheming how he would expand his empire.
But it wasn’t just about conquering new lands. Thorgaut knew that ultimately, he wouldn’t be content to sit around. He didn’t want to resolve daily squabbles and petty arguments among the villagers. He would soon grow tired of trying to get them to hunt and store up food for the winter. Thinking about those things bored him.
No. Thorgaut was ambitious. Much more ambitious than anyone imagined. He was a mighty warrior. He would become a mighty king. He would lead a mighty army. He would sail hordes of ships. He would conquer many villages. And he would rule them all.
He would eventually leave his brothers behind to squabble over his throne. That way he would know who was the strongest among them. Then he would allow the strongest of them to rule over other lands he conquered. He planned to keep his family united. And keeping his brothers under control would be easy by tossing them crumbs from his table.
Thorgaut knew that the great king already feared him. He could see the fear his eyes. Thorgaut knew that he could already challenge the king to a duel, kill him, and take his throne. He didn’t even have to wait for his father to die and suffer through a family feud. But Thorgaut wasn’t in any rush. He enjoyed his freedom to roam, hunt, and explore the land with his friends. He didn’t want to tie himself down to the duties of a king yet.
He would bide his time and slowly climb his way to the top. He knew that these raids allowed him to gain invaluable experience. Thorgaut enjoyed leading small bands of ships and warriors on these exploratory raids. He planned to start implementing his conquering strategy soon, but he wasn’t in any hurry. He was young and had plenty of time.
Thorgaut heard the howl of wolves off in the distance as he continued walking. A pack of wolves preparing for their nightly hunt. He smiled. He loved wolves. All wolves. They were majestic creatures.
He wasn’t afraid because knew they wouldn’t attack him. He had seen plenty of game in the woods throughout the day. There was easier prey to be had in the woods. They wouldn’t attack him unless he posed a threat to them. But Thorgaut knew he could handle them even if they did attack.
Wolves were no match for him. He had faced down a pack of them three summers ago during the time of the great famine. Everyone was hungry and his sister extremely ill.
Thorgaut had shot a deer, and a pack of six white forest wolves wanted to fight him for it. He knew they had been waiting jump the deer. But Thorgaut killed it first.
He needed it for his family. He felt bad and would have left it for them if it hadn’t been for the famine in the land. His sister needed the nourishment.
He tried to shoo them off, but they wouldn’t leave. They moved between him and the freshly killed deer. Then they attacked. The leader of the pack rushed him first.
Thorgaut had already prepared his bow. He had made it himself. It was long and powerful. None of the other men in his village could fire it. It had taken him a long time to build up the strength and stamina to bring it under his control. But after that he had shot farther and better than any of the other warriors in his village.
Thorgaut let the arrow fly and his shot rang true. He bowled the wolf over with a massive arrow straight to the chest.
A second wolf followed close behind, but fell when he sank his ax through its skull. “It was almost too easy,” he thought to himself.
Two other wolves attacked in unison. He ran one through with his sword. Then he kicked the other back as it snapped at the legging of his thick fur pants.
Thorgaut attempted to shake it off and swat it away with the broad edge of his sword. It pulled back from the blow, but then dove back in for a second attack. This time Thorgaut felt the pressure and its teeth on his leg. He drove the sword down through its neck above the shoulder blades.
The other two wolves had ignored the fight and started tearing into the deer’s underbelly. He yelled at them and they paused trying to decide what to do. Thorgaut picked up his bow and pulled the ax out from the wolve’s head before it froze in the blood and brains.
The wolves looked at the meal before them trying to decide if it was worth the fight. They looked at each other and then lowered their heads to growl in unison as they turned to face him.
“Okay, boys. So, you wanna fight, do you? Let’s go!”
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