Let it not be Toli, he prayed. Turning away the weary traveler in a storm was a black enough deed. Welcoming him in only to spill his blood would be an unforgivable crime, no matter who it was.
The two young warriors hauled on the handles of the heavy oaken door, causing the iron hinges to groan loudly in protest. Icy rain slanted in, forming into a misty cloud that filled the entrance hall. The door scraped open, revealing four shapes huddled in their cloaks, trying desperately to shield themselves from the beating rain. They moved quickly into the hall, then pushed the door closed. It banged into place with an ominous thud that instantly dulled the chatter of the storm outside.
"Thank-you." It was unclear to heroes who spoke the words, but it did not come from a voice yet heard. One of the cloaked shapes stepped forward, removing its hood with two gloved hands. Beneath a bedraggled mop of thick brown hair was the gaunt, pale face of a man. His dark eyes were shadowed by prominent brows, and his bony nose was crooked. He licked his swollen red lips, and cleared his throat. The others removed their hoods, save the woman who was now standing separate from the others, tethered at ankle and wrist.
She was cloaked in rags; weather-worn and soaked through by rain. She had no skins and no furs and her feet were bare and muddied. The freezing air had colored her lips violet and her cheeks scarlet. Though it was her eyes and not her complexion that was most intriguing about her, for they were dark, drawn and grey – the color of stone and steel; unblinking and focused on the strangers.
The flesh at her wrists was mauve and russet; bloodied, scabbed and raw. The backs of her hands, her wrists and even her neck were inked in dye and showed patterns of serpents and circular patterns and other things. Her forearms were bruised and though she stood apart from the men, and would seem to be their captive, she showed no fear of them; only equal measures of malice and spite.
"Thank-you," the gaunt-faced man said again. He nursed a bloodied lip with the back of his hand. "We crossed a river a day ago; the bridge was nothing more than a few pieces of wood strung together with rope. Ah, I slipped. None of our horses would cross with the rain. The river was already like to burst. We're on our way to the coast. My name is Vigdis. This is Kettil and Bruide. The girl is my slave."
"No," Vigdis said in response to Cuthred's inquiry. He said the word slowly, and with more than a touch of irritation. He looked down at his hands, then slowly peeled off one wet glove. He shook it out before peeling off the other. When he was satisfied, he looked up at Cuthred.
"No," he said again; this time with a more level tone. "We have just come from Linden. I don't ever want to see that barren, gods-forsaken land ever again." As if to emphasize his words, he spat. "We are on our way to the coast, to charter a ship northwards. I have an uncle I need to see about... an inheritance."
When Rikard spoke, he turned to address the man. He inspected the man with a quick glance, but let his gaze linger over the warrior's sword. He slowly raised his gaze to meet Rikard's. "Quite funny, actually. I can hardly blame you for your suspicions. These are hard lands; harder than the last time I was here. I'm familiar with this land, though not overly fond of it. It is an uncouth place, with... rustic folk." He emphasized the word rustic with a particular disdain directed towards Rikard.
"If we are going to be keeping company together, may I know your purposes?"