Part 3 - Knife In The Dark

As the man raised his voice to speak, Emeric's eyes narrowed as he went on. The man's tone was annoying him. He didn't know about the other two, but this one? This one deserved to spend some more time in the rain, he reckoned. Maybe he'd then realise they were doing him a favor. Staying his voice, his eyes darted towards Rikard. The young Velian had no desire to speak out of line this time, but it was quite clear that first impressions had not impressed him.

Fidgeting somewhat, the warrior straightened, taking a deep breath. He wondered how this little group had survived the journey from Linden when they had had so much trouble. Between man-eating birds, a giant troll, Quadan warriors and bandits, there was a diverse array of problems that could crop up in the journey North.

And yet here they were. Maybe they were just really lucky.

"Barren," Cuthred muttered, taken aback by Vigdis's disdain for their homeland. Linden could be a hard place, but it had its own charms. At least Cuthred thought so.

When Vigdis complained of the "uncouth" Stromlanders, he couldn't help but guffaw. Is he being ironic, or is he just that soft headed? He kept his thoughts to himself, though. The man was wet and tired, not to mention facing down well armed strangers. A bit of discourtesy was forgivable given the circumstances.

"We all have our own purposes," he said, glancing at Rikard, "but I'd not speak for the others. For now we're travelling together, heading deeper into Stromland. I myself am looking for an old friend from our barren homeland." Specifics would have to be revealed later, if at all.

He stepped back a few paces, making more room for the newcomers. "I'm Cuthred, by the way. Forgive my rudeness for not introducing myself." One by one, he named the others. Courtesies observed, he turned back to Vigdis. "Strange for a Lindener to come to the mainland to deal with an inheritance. I'm sure there's a tale behind that."

Rikard's smile faded somewhat, but he deigned not return discourtesy for discourtesy. "Rustic or not, my friends and I are warm and dry, and you are soaked to the bone. Sit and recover by the fire, and if you find our simple kindness not to your liking, you are free to depart at any time." Having said this, his expression darkened to match his sour mood. "Know this, however: we have seen much evil and more amiss in these parts. If you cast your lot with such mischief-makers, have a care in our company, for we have slain better than you this fortnight."

"Indeed," Vigdis said simply in reply to both men. He looked over his shoulder and nodded at the larger man behind him. The scarred-faced man introduced as Kettil made a grunting noise, roughly took the slave woman by the meat of her arm, and led her to the fire in the center of the room. Though it was clear she attempted to conceal it, she was shivering. By way of force, he sat her down. Kettil began removing layers of clothing, beginning with the fur cape clinging about his broad shoulders. He was an older man, the worn lines on his face made apparent by the orange glow of the fire.

"Thank-you," he said, his voice low and hoarse, though not unkind. The man named Bruide said nothing as he approached the fire. He removed his wet cloak, revealing a stout jerkin of leather and a cudgel at his waist. He laid the cloak out on the stone floor and sat unceremoniously. His hair and beard was a blonde color, matted and dirtied from travel. He scratched at his chin.

Vigdis removed his own cloak and coat, revealing an iron cudgel at his waist. As he sat near the fire, he removed a bundled bedroll that was slung across his back. He unrolled it on to the floor, spilling a few things that were obviously wrapped inside. He picked up one of the bags that fell out, opened it, and inspected the contents within. When satisfied, he gathered up the others and placed them into a pocket. He looked up, and offered a halfhearted smile.

"I'm sick, you see. These are my medicines." He coughed, as if to demonstrate. It was a wet cough, rasping like a sword being drawn from its scabbard.

Tristan's eyes followed the larger man as Vigdis nodded to him, and watched him lead the slave woman across the room and sit her in front of the fire. Though he'd spotted them earlier he still made note of the weapons on the other men, his eyes often flitting to them. He moved across the floor though and back towards the fire, his left hand still gripped loosely around the hilt of his longsword. He positioned himself on the other side of the woman and continued to watch Kettil for a moment. Then, without a word to the other man, he pulled the rough cloak from his shoulders and glanced towards the woman.

Now watching her, he held the cloak in a bundle out towards her. "Dry yourself, and don it. You'll get warmer quicker."

"I see." Cuthred sat opposite Vigdis. He examined him through the thin wisps of smoke still drifting up from the fire. He grabbed a nearby stick and prodded some more life from the coals.

"Let's hope it's not catching," he said. He drew one knee up to his chest and propped his arm across it. As Tristan made a gift of his cloak to the slave, Cuthred watched Vigdis for a reaction. "How long have you been on the mainland, Vigdis?" he asked, both out of genuine interest and in an attempt to distract him.

Kettil grinned at Tristan when he addressed the slave, showing dirty teeth beneath the mass of tangled hair that was his beard. "Careful, Haerlander. She'll cut off your prick and feed it to you in your sleep. She's a witch."

The slave-girl accepted the cloak, her face betraying no emotion. But her eyes -- those bright eyes filled with hidden life, love -- gleamed in the firelight, catching Tristan's gaze for a fleeting second. They seemed to say something, but then it passed, and she looked down.

Vigdis glanced indifferently at Tristan, then turned his attention back to Cuthred. "A week, maybe longer." He replied apathetically, as if it were a chore he must go through before going to sleep. He pulled off both boots and stood them next to the fire, water leaking from the seams. He seemed grateful at least for the warmth of the fire and extended his hands towards it.

Tristan let his arm drop back to his side as the woman took the cloak, but made no move to drop his left hand from the hilt of his sword. The cloak wasn't exactly clean, but it was dry, and Tristan's eyes didn't leave the woman until it was clear she would accept it. Only then did he turn to Kettil. He studied the man for a moment. The scowl had gone from his features, but it was replaced by a lack of any emotion. A blank slate, similar to that of the slave woman, though the reasons for it were likely much different.

"Maybe she will, maybe she won't. Either way something tells me I won't be placed at the top of her list," he said, seating himself where he'd been standing.

He stopped gripping at his sword as he sat, but the hunting knife kept sheathed at his belt was drawn. His gaze was never still, most often flicking between Kettil and the woman, but sometimes to the other men as he idly cleaned the dirt from beneath his fingernails with the blade of the knife.

"I've seen this before. Women accused of witchcraft. Though it is not often when the accusations are founded in truth. I've seen it most frequently used when grudges and resentment are held against that individual. With nothing to show for it, they are sentenced to death." said the Velian, his eyes surveying each of the three men in turn. "I very much doubt you would elect to keep an actual witch in worst conditions than I've seen dogs kept, if she was the real thing." he concluded, unwilling to let his superstition supersede logic.

With that, the Velian stayed standing, moving to his own corner of the fire, looking to stay close to Braithe. If taking women as their possessions was a sport of theirs, he had an axe he'd like them to meet. With watchful eyes, the Velian kept a perhaps uncharacteristically low profile.

A chill slithered up Cuthred's spine at the word. Witch. He stared hard at the woman, though he knew that was pointless. Witches looked like anyone else, and that was what made them dangerous.

He relaxed visibly though as Emeric spoke. While he was more than willing to let his superstition's run ahead of his mind, he couldn't deny Emeric's reasoning. No one would be stupid enough to suffer a witch to live, let alone keep one as a slave. Kettil was simply being dramatic. Yes, that was it.

He swept his gaze over the three men, then settled on Vigdis again. The man was reticent, but he seemed to be in charge of the ragged little band. "You said you've found this land harder than the last time you were here. We might've seen some of what's changed a day past: men housebreaking and burning, raping and killing villeins. I've never been to Stromland, but I think it's safe to say that's not the normal way of things here. Have you seen anything of the like on the road?"


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