The thieves fled across the water, and the man in black followed them.
Pastor Edwin was standing at the bow of the church war ship when it closed in on it’s prey. The bayardian trade vessel had lowered it’s sails when they understood that he was coming for them – no one wanted to get on bad terms with the military might of the church.
Rope were thrown down from the larger trade ship and he climbed up quickly, still spry even though it’d been a long time since he was young. His hat almost flew of in the wind, but he caught it and pushed it down better on his head.
“I’m looking for two men and a woman who signed on in Cebea”, he said to the ship’s captain, who met him on deck. “They have stolen something from the church vaults.”
“We brought on three passangers for a journey to Bayard”, said the captain. “But they disappeared from the ship after the second night on the sea, even though they had already payed for the full trip.”
“There were fishing boats close by, someone must have picked them up.”
Edwin nodded. He could waste his time searching through the ship, but he already knew the thieves were no longer on board. He had known since he’s feet first touched the deck.
“Then I will wish you continued safe sailing to your destination”, he told the captain. “Let the light of the Most High lead your way.”
The captain bowed, obviously relieved to be allowed to continue on his journey. Edwin knew that his white collar and what it stood for made many that did not belong to the church nervous. And of course it didn’t make things better that he had turned up with a ship that could have sunk the trade vessel in minutes.
He climbed back down to his own ship and ordered the captain to change course, towards the southern edge of Alovrest and the mainland beyond.
“Nothing?” said Pudas.
“Nothing”, said Edwin. “It was a false trail.”
Pudas did not react to the news. She was a paladin: steady as a rock and known as a stone face, even within her own order where cold logic and control of every emotion and bodily motion was seen as the first of virtues. She was his constant companion when the council sent him on assignment, and no one knew him better.
“Do you have another lead to follow?” said Wilson, his second companion on this assignment.
Edwin nodded. In his minds eye he could see the thieves clearly, having caught their spiritual trail on the trade vessel. They were on a fishing boat that was not interested in fish, just of the south point of Alovrest, heading to the west coast of Jenis. The image would get less clear as the days passed, and they had a lot of time to make up, but he did not despair.
“Good”, said Winson.
Winson normally worked as a smith in the church capital of Cebea. Edwin had known him for many years as well, but they had never travelled together before. This quest needed someone with his particular skillset though, once they had caught up with the thieves.
The wind was westerly, as it often was during summer, and strong. The captain and crew of the war ship was experienced and the ship almost flew across the water. Edwin left the bow and went down to his cabin. They were many days behind their quarry, and even though the fishing boat could never match the church ship it was very likely that those they were after would make landfall before he and his ship caught up with them.
As the days progressed the clear image Edwin had of the thieves grew weaker. Before it was completely gone he had time to see them leave the boat on a deserted beach in the country of Nudduh in west Jenis. He would have to pick up the trail again to be able to follow them, and he guided the captain of the ship to the spot where the thieves had went ashore.
They found the fishing boat empty, abandoned in a lonely bay south of the Twin city. At once Edwin could see clearly again, and knew where the thieves where. They were four now, so the person that picked them up with the boat must have been one of them, not just a hired fisherman.
He thanked the captain and crew of the war ship, who left them on the beach to return to Alovrest. Now it was up to him, Pudas and Winson. His horse was snorting impatiently, having been kept in the hold for the whole trip across the sea.
“Will we be able to catch them?” said Winson.
“Do you have doubts?” said Pudas.
“We have regained most of their advantage”, said Edwin. “And now I know where they are. They will not evade me again, but I hope they keep trying.”
Winson nodded, and they left the beach.
They traveled east through central Nudduh. Forests and fields, swamps and high lands, the thieves did their best to use all possible terrain to try and mask their journey. The tracks were not always easy to find, but there was a reason that the church had sent Edwin and no one else after them, and he was not fooled.
When they could they spent the night in churches and prayer houses, but most of the time they slept under the open sky. When they passed rich congregations they traded in their horses for new ones, and restocked their bags with new supplies.
Resounding applause washed over them. The biggest amphitheater of Vinland was packed full and the sound of ten thousand varangians cheering and screaming was deafening. Nobog smiled and bowed again and again, until the massive gates closed and she could breathe out.
“Seriously, there must be an easier way to make a living”, she said.
Henko, her constant companion, smiled his usual easy-going smile.
“Oh!” he said. “You’re joking. I thought the great Nobog found this small performance to be easy as cake.”
“Easy as pie”, said Nobog.
“Even better”, said Henko. “So what are you complaining about?”
This was always the way. Every time Nobog and Henko entered the tightly packed sand in the middle of the huge amphitheater in the capital, or any of the similar but smaller establishments in other parts of the country, all seats sold out. Everyone wanted to see them.
Nobog should have gotten used to it by now.
“I’m not complaning”, she said, and put down a huge, double bladed great-axe, before pulling of her clothes and stepping down in the big tub of hot water.
Henko was already enjoying his time in a similar tub, while dexterous hands were massaging his shoulders.
“Mmmm”, he groaned. “What did you say?”
“I’m not complaining.”
“Nice. Neither am I.” He made another long groan when a especially stubborn know were worked on by the soft hands.
“I’m just saying that sometimes it feels pointless”, said Nobog, while another pare of smooth hands started massaging her.
The pair of young masseuses said nothing.
“It is pointless”, said Henko. “You’ve always known this. We enter, defeat whatever force they send against us, preferably with the suitable amount of bloodshed but with no one getting killed, the audience cheers, the money rolles in, everyone is happy. But any deeper mening then that – no, there is none.”
He closed his eyes and sank deeper into the water.
Nobog and Henko were gladiators. The gladiator art on Vinland had developed some from it’s earlier bloody days, but was still a violent sport, and immensely popular amongst the fighting classes of the country.
Almost ten years ago, she and Henko had met in the arena and fought for almost twelve hours. Nobog was the larger of the two, a giant varangian woman: almost two meters tall and well above 100 kilos. She had thought victory would come easy. But Henko had a more stamina and strength than Nobog had expected.
Finally they both had been so exhausted that the couldn’t even hold their weapons, and were instead wrestling on the ground. Even then Nobog could not defeat the smaller Henko. Two victors had been declared that day, and after that they had started to fight together.
The story quickly spread, and people started to flock to see the cooperating champions that defeated everyone they met. A decade later and they still had never lost, and they always fought side by side.
“I’m not happy”, said Nobog. “I’m restles. I’m …”
“You’re very tense”, said the woman that was massaging her shoulders. “Try to relax.”
“Ha!” said Henko. “Relax! That one? Not on your life!”
“I am relaxed”, said Nobog. “I’m so relaxed that if I became more relaxed they would stuff me in a casket and bury me and I wouldn’t even protest. I don’t want to relax, I want life. Parties. Fights, real ones that is. I want to sail to new places, experience now things. I’m tired of doing the same thing day in and day out.”
“I thought you said you weren’t complaining”, said Henko, still with his eyes closed.
The young woman that had been massaging his back had now entered the bath with him, and was soaping up his chest.
“Don’t you ever get tired of this life?” asked Nobog. “You rise at ten in the morning, eat your five course breakfast, practise for five hours with your sword, travel to an amphitheater, defeat all opposition, have sex in the bath …”
“Hmm …”, said Henko. “Let’s not count our geese before they hatch.”
The woman, now naked and sitting behind him with arms and legs wrapped around him, giggled.
“And anyway, that part I definitely don’t have a problem with.”
“… go to some tavern where everyone wants to buy you all manner of drinks, go home and sleep it off, and then it all starts up again”, Nobog continued.
“You don’t ever seem to have a problem with that bit either”, said Henko.
The woman that had been massaging Nobog dropped out of her clothes and entered the bath as well. Nobog stopped complaining.
A couple of hours later Nobog and Henko stepped out of the stadium and directly into a waiting wagon, which brought them to their room in one of the nicest inns in the city. They had to change rooms and inns frequently since rumor quickly spread about where they were, and many of the people that followed them in the arena wanted to get to know them in person as well. Which could be a hassle, even if Henko didn’t mind so much if the person in question was a reasonably young, reasonably pretty woman. Most were middle age men though, which he did not find as enticing
In the room a friend of Henko was waiting. Nobog also knew her since before.
“Hello Minova”, said Henko.
“Hello Henko, hello Nobog”, said Minova.
For a while no one said anything.
“Nice”, said Henko.
“I hope so”, said Minova. “But that’s now why I’m here.”
Nobog closed the door behind them.
“Do you want something to drink?”
“Just water, thank you.”
Nobog entered the kitchen and got a glass water and to pints of beer. She gave the glass to Minova and one of the pints to Henko.
“I’ve gotten word from Relam”, said Minova.
Relam was Minova’s younger brother. He had left Vinland and sailed to the human kingdoms of the continent and taken service with the king of Ireus and quickly risen in the ranks.
He was also an old friend of Henko.
“Wow”, said Henko. “How?”
Humans did not really sail to Vinland. It was a religious thing. Or possibly superstition. Also, the journey was hard and long. And the varangians that had travelled to Jenis did not often return.
“Magic, probably. They were waiting on my side table when I woke up this morning. Two sealed letters. One was for you.”
She gave an envelope to Henko. It was high class paper, with a seal that Nobog did not recognize, but probably had something to do with the titles that Relam had gotten since he joined up with the king of Ireus.
“Odd”, said Henko.
“You can say that again”, said Minova.
Henko broke the seal and read the letter.
“Odd”, he said again.
Then he gave the paper to Nobog.
“Hulting, 16th July 802 a S
To Henko Llen
It’s been so long that I almost don’t know where to start.
You were once my friend, and I hope that you still are. Me and the kingdom I’ve come to see as my own needs your help, and the help of Vinland.
Since more than five hundred years the kingdom of Ireus have been ruled by kings and queens of the line of Series. They lost their power four days ago. A man named Eraim Chartsin took over the capitol in a coup. I myself were elsewhere in the northern citadel of Hulting, probably because of the intrigues of this man. I am still there now.
King Borelius XV have been a good an just monarch, that I have learned to like and respect. Eraim Chartsin, self-styled magus, will destroy this proud land and drive it’s people to starvation to further his own plans, which I’m sure involves ruling the whole of the continent of Jenis.
I know that the resistance in Vinland are great when it comes to travel to Jenis and help the humans one more time, but I’m still asking you to speak for me in congress, and if the leaders of Vinland, whoever they may be, don’t want to support me then I ask that you at least come yourself with whatever help you can find.
Your faithful friend
Commander of the royal army of Ireus”
“That’s quite some ask”, said Nobog.
“It wasn’t as bad when he left”, said Minova. “There were still many that looked favorably on involving ourselves in the dealings of Jenis. Almost the entire brotherhood, for one. Now it has lost influence, and the brothers that are still in congress are the cautious ones.”
“Why are you showing me this?” said Nobog to Henko.
“I thought you said that you wanted change. More change than travelling to Jenis and fight against sneaky humans is hard to find. Do you know how to sail?”
“Of course I know how to sail”, said Nobog. “Do you?”
“What are we waiting for?” said Henko.
“You could at least try to get congress on board”, said Minova. “I don’t know what was in your letter, Henko, but I’m assuming it was similar to mine. I’m not saying that you aren’t great warriors, but I think that Relam would prefer ten longships full of warriors, rather than one ship with just two.”
“I guess we can try”, said Henko. “But two is probably all he’s getting.”
“Stop”, said Pudas.
The other two reined in their horses at once.
It had been almost a week since Edwin, Pudas and Winson started their hunt on horseback.
“Something is wrong”, the paladin continued.
Edwin still had the image of the thieves presense clear in his mind. He and the others had continued to gain on them, and were now just two days behind.
“What is it?” he said.
Pudas pointed in the direction they were going.
“That spot is perfect for an ambush.”
The path they were following passed between to wooden hills with sharp rocky edges. It was impossible to see if anyone was on top of the hills, and once they were between them there would be no other way to go than forward or back again.
“If we take a detour we will lose a lot of time”, said Edwin.
“If we enter there and I’m right we will never exit again”, said Pudas.
Edwin nodded. They took a detour.
Now they were at least four days after their quarry, and worse than that was the fact that the thieves apparently knew that they were being followed. Edwin, Pudas and Winson could no longer travel as fast, since they now had to keep an eye out for more traps along their route.
Edwin kept finding clear tracks from the thieves and updated his mind’s eye’s image of where they were, so he was not worried about losing them, but the hunt that had looked to be almost over was now anyones game again.
Another week passed and they were now in northern Nudduh, riding through hilly terrain full of crops. They had avoided another ambush a couple of days before and were still four–five days after the thieves; as soon as they gained on them something turned up to slow them down.
Winson was riding first this morning. Apart from being a blacksmith he was also an accomplished scout and usually picked up on tracks the others missed. Edwin was behind him and Pudas was at the end. They had recently switched out their horses and were travelling fast amongst a clear path between to fields of barley.
Edwin closed his eyes for a few seconds and immediately saw the thieves – they were riding through a landscape that was basically identical with what he had seen before he closed his eyes. That didn’t tell him much, since most of norther Nudduh and also southern Ireus on the other side of the border, looked like that.
He opened his eyes again, only to see how Winson was thrown head over heel from his horse, which were falling forward with a heart-piercing shriek. Edwin stopped his horse before it as well fell into the covered pit that Winson’s had got stuck in. He jumped of the horse at the same time as Pudas stopped hers, and ran to Winson. The blacksmith had landed hard and rolled over and over again and when Edwin reached him he was still not moving. Edwin carefully turned him over on his back.
“Winson? How are you?”
Winson’s eyes were open and he groaned. From behind Edwin could hear the screams of the horse suddenly grow quiet. Pudas must have decided that it couldn’t be saved and given it a quick end.
“How are you feeling, Winson? Can you speak?”
Winson waved weakly with his hand. Edwin assumed that meant no.
“Where does it hurt?”
Winson waved both hands in a negative gesture. Edwin gave him a minute to recover.
“I got the wind knocked out of me”, he finally managed. “I’m fine now”
He looked back at his horse. Edwin followed his eyes.
Pudas had used his sharp dagger to sever the horse’s carotid artery.
“Thank you”, said Winson. Pudas nodded.
Edwin held out his hand. Winson took it and pulled himself up on his feet. The other two horses had shied away from what had happened and Pudas went to get them. Edwin and Winson stood over the dead horse. Winson bent down and put his hand on it’s chest.
“Thank you for the time you carried me”, he said. “I’m sorry we did not get more time together.”
Pudas came back with the horses.
“I saw a farm over there”, she said.
“Good. We’ll tell them about the pits, and about the horse”, said Edwin. “We don’t want our misfortune to spread to others, or that all of this will go to waste.”
“They might have a horse for sale”, said Pudas.
Edwin nodded. Winson had recovered enough to climb up on the horse behind him; Pudas was the smallest of the three, but dressed from top to bottom in mail, with plates of steel covering her chest, back, legs and arms and a big claymore on her back she still by far the heaviest of them.
The farmer did have a horse to sell, but it was not a quick animal and they lost a lot of time as the other two horses had to adapt to it’s speed. They passed the border to Ireus a few days later, and traded it for another the first time they came to a larger church.
Luckily the thieves then made their first big mistake. They left the wilderness and stayed at an inn in a city that Edwin recognized. Thanks to this Edwin and the others no longer needed to follow the path of their game, but could take the paved high road straight to that city.
Once they reached it the thieves had left, but they were now just two–three days behind again, and with new horses they continued their hunt across the continent.
An hectic time followed for Nobog and Henko. They were a lot better suited to the task than Relam could have possibly known when he sent his letter. The two gladiators did lose many supporters when they started to talk on his behalf, but enough remained that they were able to push the issue all the way to congress.
They used their large personal assets to buy and equip a two-masted longship. The hull of the ship were strengthened and the masts replaced with new ones to be able to withstand the harsh weather that they might meet on the ocean between Vinland and Jenis, and they bought new sails and new rope.
None of them believed that congress would grant Relam’s request. The commander was from a well respected family, which beside the fame of Nobog and Henko were the main reason the issue was even raised by the highest deciding body of the country, but he had been with humans for way to long and everything he said was tainted by it.
“Do you know when someone went to Jenis last?” asked Nobog. “Was it the expedition that Relam joined?”
“Yep”, said Henko.
“And when was that?” said Nobog.
“Thirty years ago”, said Henko.
Nobog whistled. Sure, it was a long journey, at least a month when the winds were good and in the right direction. And sure, most of the times the winds were not good, and not in the right direction. And storms were common. But still. Thirty years since anyone from Vinland had traveled to the continent. It wasn’t a small trip they were planning.
“He traveled with Dehres”, Henko said.
“The handsome?” said Nobog.
Dehres the handsom was a legendary varangian warrior; many said he was the best in two hundred years. He had led a band of soldiers almost as good as himself, and when the king of Ireus sent for help fighting the kobolts of the north they had sailed from Vinland. None of them had never returned.
“I thought they disappeared”, said Nobog.
“Jenis is far away”, he said. “No one knows.”
“True”, said Nobog.
There were occasional ships from Bayard that reached Vinland, the traders were the only humans that traveled that far west. But it did not happen often. So no one on Vinland could really know what was going on in the continent. Relam had obviously not disappeared, but impressed the king of Ireus – if he was high commander now.
“Is it the same king?” Nobog asked.
“That Relam’ works for that Dehres went to help?”
“Maybe. It was a long time ago”, said Henko. “Humans die easily.”
The doors to the arena opened, and the sound of the audience struck them.
“I wonder who they are sending against us today”, said Nobog.
“Just one way to find out”, said Henko and pointed into the light.
Nobog exhaled. She and Henko had spent even more time than normal in the amphitheaters around the capital, sinse they had to fight a certain number of fights to finish their contract. They were of course not slaves and could break the contracts, but then no one would deal with them again and they would be excluded from most of the varangian society, according to the strict honor laws that governed so much of their culture.
“After you”, she told Henko, who grinned and rushed into the arena.
The next morning Nobog was waiting to be summoned to the podium in one of the many chambers of congress. She was way more nervous and clumsy here than she ever where fighting in the arena, even though the risk of bloodshed was slightly less here.
Relam’s sister had just finished a long speech, where she had given all the reasons for congress to send the fleet to Ireus. Now an older man stepped up, a representative for the dorvingian party.
“Honored colleagues, we’ve heard member Minova put forth the arguments for intervening in the business of Ireus. Much of what she has said have been said in these halls before, when other expeditions have been sent to the countries of Jenis. But let me remind you, honored colleagues, of two things.”
Nobog hoped that no one expected her to talk like that. How was it that I’m the one to end up here? It should be Henko that stood here, but somehow he and Minova had convinced him that it was better if she was the one to speak for them.
“One”, the man said and held up a finger. “Every time Vinland have sent men and women to Jenis to fight in the wars of man, against each other or against the kobolts, our people are the ones that have died. What have Vinland gained out of getting involved that can compensate for the loss of lives amongst our fighting classes?”
Minova came and stood next to Nobog.
“As if he ever cared about the fighting classes”, she said in a low voice.
Nobog grunted as a reply.
“Two”, the man said and raised another finger. “Wasn’t it the humans who drove us from Jenis in the first place? Why should we help them now?”
That statement drew scattered applause from around the hall.
“Do people actually believe in those old fairy tales?” Nobog asked Minova.
“More than you might think”, Minova replied. “Some just when it suits their purposes, but for others it’s very real and alive.”
The man was still speaking, but Nobog had lost track of what he was saying. She looked around the hall instead. It was hard keeping track of who was an ally and who was a friend in this fight. The fact that the brotherhood and the dorvingians had dominated varangian politics for centuries didn’t make the political map any easier to navigate, and it was constantly shifting. Temporary alliances were formed each day, to be broken the next.
Who really decided what was hard to know, and many decisions seemed to be made by people that didn’t really have any right to make them.
A short but forceful round of applause made Nobog focus on the stand again, and she realised in horror that the dorvingian politician were leaving. It was her turn.
She walked up and took the stand with heavy steps. Now she wished she had put more time into preparing what to say.
“My name is Nobog Euros”, she said. “Some of you might have heard my name. I’m a gladiator and ruling champion together with Henko Llen.”
“Woho!” Henko called out from the back of the hall, where he was leaning on the wall.
Scattered laughter could be heard from the hall. Isn’t it enough that he tricked me to stand up here …Nobog thought.
“Relam’s message came to us, just as it came to congress, since Henko and Relam are friends of old. Friendship and honor leads us to sail across the ocean to help him. We just wish that congress gives those that want to join us leave to do so.”
No one was booing, or clapping, so Nobog continued.
“We have friends that wants to go. Most are soldiers or gladiators. Sailors. Healers. Relam would have much use of them if they could travel. But they are all bound by the laws of honor that only congress can lift.”
Nobog looked out over the hall. Minova was nodding and smiling. So was the faction that had supported Dehres’ and Relam’s trip, but it’s influence had waned badly since then. Mostly she saw skeptical faces, mainly from the dorvingians, the stauchest defenders of varangian culture and the ones most dismissive of humans. And they were at the moment the strongest party in congress by far.
She left the stand. The applause she got was weaker and more spread out than the previous speaker.
“It’ll just be us”, she said as she reached Henko.
Nobog and Henko had gotten their ship, well knowing that they would probably be the only ones crewing it. Relam hadn’t given them a deadline, but they knew that time was short. Every day staying here trying to convince this or that faction to join, was another day that Relam fought alone against who knew what.
They were back in an inn, Nobog, Henko and Minova. Nobog and Henko had to move around even more after they had started to carry Relam’s torch. Now they also hid from political extremists, that wanted to stop them at any cost. The room where they sat were a lot more run down than the one where they had read the letter.
They were waiting. Congress were gathered a few blocks away, and they had pushed the decision through all the different chambers as quickly as possible. Today was the day. They were not allowed in the building for the final count, but had messengers that would let them know the second a decision was reached.
Henko, totally calm on the outside, was eating an apple. Nobog was slouching, almost asleep. The only one showing any nerves where Minova. Once in a while she stood up and walked across the room, and her nails were bitten down to the cuticles.
“Why aren’t they here yet?”
“They will get here when they get here”, said Nobog. “No reason to get revved up.”
“It takes a lot more than a congress decision for me to be revved up”, said Minova. “I’m just annoyed by all the waiting. A king would have made a decision a long time ago.”
“And the wrong decision at that”, said Nobog, a stout anti-royalist.
“Which congress will do too”, said Minova. “But we have waisted almost a month.”
“We’ll leave tomorrow”, said Henko. “No matter the decision.”
“I know”, said Minova. “But if …”
“It is what it is”, said Nobog. “No reason to speculate in ‘what if’s.”
“Easy for you to way. It’s not your brother that is over there, fighting with only treacherous humans by his side.”
“Ha! If congress would hear you now then we would really be screwed. You’re the one that is all for humans normally.”
“I don’t give a damn about the wars of Jenis. As far as I’m concerned they can fight until there is not a single one left standing. I’m worried about my baby brother.”
“He’s not so little anymore”, said Henko. “He can take care of himself.”
“I don’t know”, said Minova. “He’s always taken things too lightly. If he’s actually asking for help then it’s bad. He must be afraid of this Eraim Chartsin, or whatever he called himself. Strange name.”
“Humans have strange names”, said Henko. “No reason to be revved up about it.”
“I said I’m not revved up”, said Minova.
At that moment there was a knock on the wall. Minvoa jumped and drew in her breath.
“You do sound a bit revved up”, said Henko and stood up. He walked over to the door and let the messeenger in.
“Well? What did they decide?”
Minova was almost yelling at the messenger, that had hardly had time to get in through the door.
“What do you think?” he said. “They decided not to decide anything. Someone found a loop hole to push the decision for another month.”
“We’re going tomorrow”, said Henko.
“And Relam only get’s two people helping him, against who knows how many thousands”, said Minova.
“Better two than none”, said Henko.
“You’ll have to continue the fight here”, said Nobog. “Maybe you can convince more members of congress now that you have more time.”
“I doubt it”, said Minova. “But we will try.”
They started their journey early the following morning. Many waved goodby as they left, and as the passed the long docks in Bow a huge crowd of people had gathered. Henko jumped up on the side of the boat, holding one of the many lines keeping the mast steady, and waved, while Nobog was steering.
Applause washed over them as they left Vinland behind.
(Photo: Dylan Shaw/Unsplash)