VOYAGE OF THE MERRY HANGMAN
The Black Forest
Four men stood under the tree where a young girl cowered in fear. The fierce red hair and the elk hides she wore told Arron that she was one of the Twelve Tribes, and though she was not a member of his family, she was of his people. The Black Forest and the Frozen Vast was her home. She didn’t look more than twelve winters old.
And the men were outsiders, from the hated Heteronomy to the south where wizards worked their dark arts.
The men grinned and taunted her. Since there were only four of them, Arron believed they were scouts for a larger force that could be nearby. Lately there had been more and more Heteronomy soldiers through the Black Forest. The shamans among the Twelve Tribes all saw portents of evil things to come.
“Come down, girl. We won’t hurt you.” The tallest of the Heteronomy warriors waved at the girl. He was big and strong and wore a fierce beard as the Southerners sometimes did while in the Vast. The Black Forest people went beardless. The scout’s chainmail gleamed in the afternoon sunlight and he kept his right hand on the long sword at his side.
The girl only hugged the tree bole more fiercely and cried out again for help. Snow had been tramped down all around the tree, mute evidence that the men had looked for openings. A small obsidian knife gleamed in the girl’s hand. The blade was used more for gutting elk and bear and rabbits than as a weapon. But it was enough to hold the Heteronomy soldiers at bay.
A surge of pride flared through Arron. She was a true child of the Twelve Tribes, and the men before her were cowards.
Another man stood gazing up at the girl while holding a loaded crossbow at the ready. “She’s not gonna come down, Rukkan. And if we let her keep squalling like that, some of them redheaded vermin will come along to spoil our fun.” He licked his lips. “Been a long time since I’ve had a girl that young. If you want, I can put a quarrel through her leg, bring her down to us.”
“I don’t want her wounded.” Rukkan frowned and fisted his sword.
“It’s not like she’s gonna live long after anyways.”
“I don’t care about that. It’s the mess that concerns me. I don’t want to have to wash her blood out of my clothing.”
While the men had been talking, Arron had drawn his bow from his back, strung one end of it, then braced it against his foot and bent it to string the other end. The men continued watching the girl like sharp-nosed foxes waiting for their prey to make a mistake. Silently, Arron nocked one arrow and drew the fletchings back to his ear and held another at the ready in his left hand as he gripped the bow.
He figured two arrows would be the most he could get into the air before the men knew he was there. After that, he might get another shaft or two toward them. He knew he had to make them count because four to one on the ground could mean the death of him.
And the girl.
Fifty feet away, he was a silent, bronzed wraith in the spruce trees around him. His elk hide pants and shirt blended in with the forest and he wore his red hair pulled back. He shifted just enough to get a clear line of sight on the four men and the girl.
The crossbowman was the most immediately dangerous. The short, heavy quarrels could dance through the brush fairly accurately and plunge through chainmail in a twinkling.
And Arron had marked the man because he had been so callous in his thoughts of the girl.
Letting out half a breath, Arron released the first arrow and smoothly nocked the second one while the first was still in flight. He’d intended to take Rukkan down with his second shaft, but one of the other men stepped in front of the man, making the shot harder. Arron shifted targets automatically and loosed the second arrow.
The first arrow flew true, hissing across the snow-covered ground and sinking into the crossbowman’s neck just an inch above his shoulder. The soldier dropped his crossbow and clawed frantically at the arrow that pierced his throat as his screams turned to frightened gargling. Bright blood splashed over his chest and hands, and Arron knew the obsidian tip had sliced his enemy’s jugular.
The second arrow thudded into the hollow of the second soldier’s neck just below his skull. That, too, was a killing shot, and one that took life faster. The second man dropped like a brained fish and sprawled across the snow-covered ground, spilling crimson onto the pristine whiteness.
Arron drew and loosed again, aiming again at Rukkan. Wily as a wolf, the soldier threw himself forward and fetched up behind the tree where the girl hid.
“Hoff!” Rukkan peered around the tree and Arron’s fourth arrow nearly took him in the eye as the obsidian tip raked splinters from the bark. “How many do you see?” The man’s voice remained cool and controlled despite how close death had come calling.
“Only one.” Hoff, the other Heteronomy warrior, flashed through the surrounding woods and closed on Arron’s position.
Arron only spotted the man now and again. Then he cursed himself because he realized the brief conversation had been meant to distract him from Rukkan. When Arron glanced back at the tree, the Heteronomy commander had disappeared.
Gently, making himself breathe normally, the air cold enough to turn his exhalations into puffs of gray fog, Arron leaned his bow against the nearest tree. He reached over his shoulder and took up the short-hafted battle-axe he carried as his main weapon. He closed his left hand around the pronghorn hilt of the long knife at his waist and pulled it free. The knife had been forged of good steel, as the axe had been. He had labored and traded for those weapons, as he had for the skills with which he used them.
The silent way he moved through the harsh wilderness came from hunting and foraging for years in the Black Forest. His father had raised him to be a hunter and a scout, and few of his tribe were better.
Arron stayed low and kept his weapons at the ready as he strode through the trees. He chose to remain a moving target rather than holing up. Prey in motion drew out the hunters, and he wasn’t a widefoot rabbit to lie in wait for the wolf that would eat him. He glanced up at the girl in the tree. She was his eyes now, whether she spoke to him or not, because she had the high ground.
The girl looked to the left and to the right, letting Arron know his two opponents had chosen a split approach. Her voice was thin in the gusting winter winds, but she called out almost calmly, “Look out to the left.”
Following the girl’s direction almost caused Arron’s undoing. He glanced to his left as he readied his weapons, but saw nothing save stirring snow ghosting between the trees and brush. Only the heavy crack of the warrior’s boot plunging through a patch of frozen bog warned Arron of the man’s approach from behind.
Spinning to his left, Arron dropped his axe to a low position and lifted his knife. He caught his opponent’s blade more by instinct and training than through sight. Everything happened in a blur. The man followed his overhand sword blow, using his body as a battering ram and trusting in the chainmail he wore.
Knocked only partially off balance because he’d been expecting the move, Arron planted his right boot as he swung about to glance off his opponent. Regaining his footing, Arron shifted his weight to his left foot and whipped the axe around in a tight arc.
Too late, the Heteronomy warrior realized his mistake. Legend had it that Black Forest tribesmen could move like ghosts through the ice and snow, that they could sense the arctic muskeg that shifted so treacherously underfoot. Those stories were overblown, of course, and none of the Twelve Tribes were able to turn into bears either.
But they were dangerous foes, especially on their own terrain.
The axe smacked the warrior’s helm a ringing blow and left him staggered. Before he could recover, Arron thrust the long knife up through the man’s throat and into his brain. Bright red blood spattered the skirling snow. One of the clan shamans could tell events of the man’s life from the blood skein, but Arron could not.
He regained his footing and stood in a half-crouch, taking a brief instant to take fresh grips on his weapons. His breath puffed in gray fogs before him as he looked around. Panic clawed at him when he realized he’d lost sight of the Heteronomy warrior. Still, he made himself be calm as he turned in a circle. He lifted his voice to the girl.
“Do you see him?”
“No.” Fear thinned her voice. Slowly, she started to climb down the tree.
“We can fight together.” Though she argued, the girl froze in place.
“No. You’ll only get in the way.”
“Not if I can get a bow in my hand.”
If Arron hadn’t been so afraid, he would have laughed at the girl’s spirit. That certitude was what Sovitta-Maton, the God of Darkness, Cold, and Cruelty, had given the Black Forest people so that they might survive in the inhospitable land eternally locked in winter’s embrace. Fear was a constant in the Black Forest, but a man could not give in to it. Giving in to fear created a fracture that would shatter even the coldest resolve.
And Arron’s resolve was that the Heteronomy warrior would die at his hand as had his fellows.
Though the man made no sound and he was hidden by trees, Rukkan remained visible to Arron’s keen eyes. Forever hunting in the Black Forest had trained the young warrior to look for telltale signs of quarry. The cold was his world, and he was part of it. One lesson that he had learned was that everything living had to breathe. And if that thing breathed in the Black Forest, it left its breath in the air.
A thin trail of gray fog slid out from behind a tree to Arron’s right. He weighed his chances of taking the man with his axe and knife, and thought it was possible. But his bow lay only a short distance away. As soon as his decision was made, he turned and sprinted for the bow, thinking he could get an arrow into his foe before the man knew he was onto him.
Instead, the warrior exploded from hiding. Brush broke across his mailed body and cracked in the cold air.
Arron spun and managed to get his axe up to block the man’s sword blow. Both weapons became tangled and locked. The man kept coming, throwing out his left hand to close around Arron’s throat and snatch his breath away. Instinctively, Arron stabbed with his knife as the bigger man drove him backward through the snow. The chainmail stopped the dagger again and again, and the dulled scrape of the blade across the rings echoed around Arron.
“You’re going to die this day, whelp.” Rukkan’s face was terrible with fury. There was fear in there as well, and Arron took pride in that. He had put fear in that man.
Arron drew back his knife to strike again, but his opponent headbutted him and he blacked out for just a moment. He managed to keep the long sword locked with his axe and prayed to the Cold One that the Heteronomy metal would break.
Still pushing Arron before him, Rukkan shoved the young Black Forest warrior through a wall of dense brush. The jagged ends of broken branches tore at Arron and pierced his flesh. Warm blood trailed the burning fire of the cuts. He lost the dagger when his hand slammed into a tree. Then he rebounded from another tree and was suddenly through the brush and into a clearing.
With a mighty heave, Rukkan shoved Arron away from him and lifted his sword. Unable to get his footing, Arron skidded across a snow-covered sheet of ice. He tumbled and rolled, instinctively spreading his weight across the surface of the unseen pond. Bogs filled the Black Forest, all of them potentially holding hidden death.
Falling through the ice into the depths was one of those hidden deaths. Arron knew where he was now, and he knew that this particular bog was deep enough to sink a man thrice over.
“Are you prepared to meet your heathen god, boy?” Rukkan grinned menacingly. “Or do you need a moment more?”
“No. I’m ready.” Arron tightened his hand around the hilt of his axe. “But I won’t be meeting him today. When you see Sovitta-Maton, tell him it was Arron of the Black Forest who sent you.”
Rukkan cursed and started forward.
Quick as he could, Arron lifted his axe and struck the frozen ice. Once. Twice. On the third strike, and Rukkan only then surmising what might be happening as ice chips flew, the bog’s surface splintered and black bog water drank down the ice.
Unable to get away, Rukkan went through as well while Arron scrambled back from the cracking surface. Partially drenched by the bog water, Arron held up, then turned back and looked at his vanquished foe.
Rukkan fought the water, but it was for naught. His armor, the very thing that had protected him, now served to pull him under. Through the black water, Arron grimly watched as the screaming, pallid oval that was the Heteronomy warrior’s face sank into the bog.