Excerpt – Immortal Outlaw
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Sent by their jarl to capture a great treasure of gold and jewels, the warriors led by Brand Einarsson fell under a spell cast by the powerful sorceress who guarded the hoard and whose son they had killed. The witch Cwen cursed them to spend eternity as shadow beasts, living half as animal, half as man, each taking the form of his fylgja, the spirit companion whose image he wore. After she worked her foul magic, Cwen took their amulets and had them scattered across the land so they would never be found, and she drove the men off into the forest to live their accursed lives.
Some twelve-score years later, Ivar Graycloak, known to the Normans who by then ruled England as Ivo de Vassy, found both his amulet and a woman who loved him even knowing the monster he was, and through their combined magic, Cwen’s power over him was broken. The eight remaining warriors found hope in Ivar’s victory and began to scour the English countryside for their fylgja amulets. They ransacked ancient ruins and burial mounds, standing stones and wells, graveyards and even the most venerable buildings of the Christian church, searching for some trace or clue of the amulets. And as they searched, they also watched for signs of Cwen, who had been sore wounded and gone to ground.
Decades passed and neither Cwen nor any of the amulets were found, and the warriors lost hope and once more resigned themselves to their half-lives. Slowly, as Ivar had, some began to make their way along the edges of humankind, finding work and friends and even the occasional moment of peace among mortal men and women.
Others could not, their animal forms being too strange to move easily among the beasts of England or too deadly to live near her people. One of these was Steinarr, son of Birgir BentLeg, called Steinarr the Proud, who so terrified the English as the lion he became each night that he was driven from forest to forest without cease and who did such damage to the other warriors that most would not tolerate his company. But even a man who lives in the wilds has need of clothing and food and other things of men, so he learned to find coin where he could, turning to thievery, banditry, and even, when the opportunity presented itself, to hunting men…
~from the Dyrrekkr Saga of Ari Sturlusson
(E.L. Branson, trans.)
Nottinghamshire, August 1290
He knew better than to try to help an Englishman.
But this one was old and tiny, and the reavers attacking him were young and hale and armed with clubs. And three against one was too many, even when the one wielded a quarterstaff and knew how to use it. Steinarr tossed his packhorse’s reins over the nearest branch and quickly fitted an arrow to his bowstring. Before he could take the shot, however, the biggest of the three slipped in behind the old man and brought his club down hard. The crack made Steinarr’s stomach clench; he well knew the sound of a deathblow.
His arrow hit the outlaw’s shoulder before the old man hit the ground. The reaver bellowed with pain, and his two friends whirled, searching for their attacker. In quick order, two more arrows thudded into the side of the cart between them, and they panicked. Spinning their horses around, they tore away. The injured man trailed after them, weaving perilously in his saddle, the shaft of Steinarr’s arrow protruding from his back. Steinarr sent another arrow whizzing past his ear into a tree for good measure, then watched the three disappear up the road.
When they were gone, he galloped over to the old man and leapt off to check him. It was too late; he was gone, his eyes empty and his skull laid open like a gourd, his blood darkening the dust of the road.
Steinarr lifted the old man’s flat purse from his belt and emptied it into his palm. All that tumbled out were two silver farthing pieces. Not even a full penny. He shook his head in disgust. Thievery he understood. He practiced it himself when he needed to, waylaying a merchant or nobleman or the occasional churchman when other means of getting money failed. But he chose only those with silver to spare, and he left their skulls intact. These three had set upon a poor man, and killed him merely for the sake of killing.
And he, fool that he was, had both failed to save the old man and lost one of his best steel arrowheads in the process. Steinarr considered taking the old man’s cart as recompense, but it looked about to fall to pieces, as did the sad little mare, more bones than meat, that stood between the shafts. Even the harness she wore had been patched a dozen times, apparently with more hope than skill. Weighing what little he might gain against the time he would lose taking them to market, he decided to keep the halfpenny and send the mare back down the road for others to find.
First, though, there was the body to deal with. Steinarr dropped the farthings into his purse, and then dragged the old man off the road a little way. He used the edge of his shield to scrape a shallow grave, which he covered over afterward with stones and brush. It wasn’t a good grave, but it would serve for the time being, and he could tell the priest in the next village where to find the body to do a better job. Finishing, he took a moment to stand over the grave, silently asking the gods to watch over the old man on his journey.
“His name was John,” said a soft voice behind him. “John Little.”
Steinarr whirled, hand reaching for sword, but he froze as the voice registered and he saw who stood in the verge. A woman? Here? “Where did you come from?”
“There, my lord,” she said, pointing to a thick patch of bracken a few yards behind her, still swaying where she had passed. “John heard them coming and bade us hide. He said no one rides that hard in this part of the forest but outlaws or soldiers, and that we wanted to meet neither, since they are so often much the same.”
“You are fortunate. If those three had seen you…” He knew by the way she blanched that she understood his meaning. “‘Tis a shame John Little did not take his own good advice.”
“He thought they would not trouble with him. He had nothing of value to steal.”
“Only his life,” said Steinarr, and her moss-green eyes glittered with tears as she nodded. He gave her a moment to collect herself before he asked, “What was John Little to you? Father? Servant?”
“Neither. A kind stranger who offered his aid when our horse went lame.”
“You said ‘our.’ Who is the other?”
“My cousin.” Twisting, she spoke over her shoulder to the bracken. “Stand up and let this good man see you, Rob. He means us no harm.”
A tall, bony lad wearing a green chape over his reddish hair slowly unfolded from the bracken. He hadn’t filled out yet, but by the small, pointed beard that decorated his chin, he must be about the same age as the maid, perhaps eight and ten.
He appraised Steinarr warily. “How do you know? He looks like one of them.”
“And so I might be.”
The maid shook her head. “You drove them off.”
“Perhaps I hoped to rob the old man for myself.”
“He did empty John’s purse,” pointed out the boy.
“He would be a fool to bury his money with him.” She turned back to Steinarr. “I am sure he intends to return it to John’s family.”
“‘Tis only a halfpenny,” said Steinarr.
“Several days’ food for a poor man,” she said.
And didn’t he know it? Steinarr decided to shift her mind to other matters. “You were foolish to reveal yourselves. What is your name, boy?”
“Robin,” interrupted the woman. “His name is Robin. Mine is Marian. We are pilgrims.”
The boy looked flustered, but nodded. “Aye, pilgrims. Bound to Lincoln to pray to Saint Hugh.”
But not bound to tell the truth, apparently—not that their lies or their true purpose made any difference to Steinarr. He pulled the two arrows out of the cart and returned them to his quiver, then swung up on the stallion and started up the road to retrieve the shaft he’d put into the tree. “Well, Robin, I hope you take better care of your cousin on the rest of your journey. Fare you well.”
“No!” She bolted out onto the road after him. “Surely you will not leave us here alone, my lord.”
“You have your saint to protect you,” Steinarr said over his shoulder. “I am told that should be enough for a good Christian.”
“But those men will be waiting for us.”
“They will kill us!”
“If you are lucky,” he said darkly, and once more saw his warning raise a shadow of fear in her eyes. Good. She should be afraid, especially with only Robin for protection. He’d already shown his colors—a lad that size should have been fighting next to the old man, not hiding in the bushes with her. “Go back to Sheffield and wait for a larger group of travelers. It should only be a day or two.”
“He is right,” said the boy, flicking a spider off his sleeve as he joined her in the road. “We should have waited to begin with.”
“We have no time for waiting,” she muttered, then louder, “Why can we not travel with you, my lord?”
“Because I have better things to do than play shepherd to stray pilgrims.” Steinarr reached the tree, worked the arrow loose, and jammed it into the quiver with the others. “Make haste, so you are out of the forest by dark. A safe journey to you.”
Which would have been a good way to take his leave, except he’d forgotten that his rouncey was still tied where he’d left him, and these supposed pilgrims stood between him and his horse. As he turned the stallion around to go back, hope flared in their eyes. In her eyes.
“No.” He shook his head firmly. “I only fetch my pack horse. Your path is there.” He pointed back the way they should go, then swung his arm around to point south and east. “And I go that way.”
She stood there in the road open-mouthed as he retrieved the rouncey, and she was still there when he led the horse back into the road. He could feel her accusing eyes burning into his back as he headed off. He was nearly out of hearing when he heard her call out, “Some help here, Robin, if you please.” He glanced back to see her tugging at the mare’s harness.
Good. They were going back. Satisfied, he cantered the horses until he’d left the pilgrims well behind, then let the animals settle back into a walk. Keeping one eye alert for the outlaws, he let his mind wander to other things. He was working through his plans for capturing Long Tom when the sound of an approaching horse snapped him back to the present and sent his hand to his bow. He already had an arrow nocked to the string when he realized the sound was behind him, not ahead.
Them. His curse echoed through the forest as he turned. “You go the wrong way, Pilgrims.”
“We go the way we must, my lord,” the maid called back as they came bouncing up the road bareback on the old mare.
Then they would go it alone. Making a quick decision, Steinarr reined his horses off the road and headed into the forest.
“I told you,” he heard the boy say. “He will not suffer our company.”
“I care little for what he will suffer. Go after him.” She said something else Steinarr couldn’t hear, and they kept coming, the little mare trotting along gamely.
Balls. Perhaps the creature would have been worth taking to sell after all—and if he’d taken her, they wouldn’t be following him now. In an effort to discourage them, he sent his horses crashing through a thicket. But the branches slowed his animals, while the mare actually gained ground using the way he’d cleared. Determined to be rid of the pair, Steinarr led them deeper, twisting and turning through the thickest part of the forest in a path as crooked as a ram’s horn. They stuck like burrs.
“Stubborn fools,” he muttered to himself. They had no idea who—what—they were following, nor what trouble they would be in come sundown if they succeeded. Abruptly he wheeled his horse around and drew his short sword. “I will cut that animal’s throat if you do not go back.”
The boy reined the mare to a halt and backed her up a few steps. “I am sorry, my lord, but my sister…”
“Sister?” Steinarr pounced on the word. “I thought she was your cousin.”
“I am his cousin,” said the girl quickly. “He was going to say that his sister is very ill and our pilgrimage is for her sake. He fears that if we go back instead of forward, our prayers will come too late.”
“He fears that, does he?” Steinarr nudged his horse closer, glaring at the maid for a long moment before he shifted his frown to the boy. “Do you also fear to speak, that you let your cousin put words in your mouth?”
The boy flushed, but raised his hands in a gesture of helplessness. “I find she does whether I speak or not, my lord.”
Despite himself, Steinarr snorted back a laugh. “No doubt. And she likely talked you into coming after me as well.”
“Aye, my lord, she did that.”
“Then you are both fools, putting yourself at the mercy of a stranger, deep in a wild forest, riding an animal that could founder at any moment.”
“The mare is stronger than she looks,” said the maid, adding, “my lord,” as if in afterthought. “She will carry us well enough, so long as you keep your blade from her throat.”
Steinarr waggled said blade, sending shafts of light glinting around her head. “Perhaps I should use it on that tongue.”
“Perhaps, my lord, but you will not.”
Not a whiff of fear in her, when it came to this. Steinarr frowned. “You speak with great sureness, considering you do not even know my name.”
“I saw you take the time to bury an old man you did not know. That is enough for me. The name, I will learn as we ride together.”
His glower deepened. “We will not ride together.”
“But you go the same direction we do.” She took a long look around her, and a crease formed between her brows. “At least, you did. I am no longer certain…”
“And yet you follow me like puppies.”
“Only because you force us to it. Please, my lord, let us go on with you. We will be no trouble.”
“You are already trouble,” he said flatly. He glanced around to get his bearings, then pointed once more. “The road is that way. Go.” He turned and rode away.
Behind him the boy began, “If we hurry, we ca—”
“Do not,” she snapped. “Do not! Ride after him. Go.”
Pigheaded little wench. Steinarr pushed the horses a little faster, even as he calculated whether he was going to have to let these dogged pilgrims catch him. He’d lost the entire morning in burying the old man, and now he was losing the afternoon in trying to shake off these two. It had grown too late to send them back; nightfall would catch them still in the woods among the wolves and worse.
The problem was it had grown too late to take them forward, as well. If he escorted them on, he was the one who would be caught, changing into the lion too close to where men lived. A cow or sheep—or worse, a man—would be found half-eaten, and frightened, angry peasants would pour into the forest with traps and snares and spears and dogs searching for the beast who had done it. He’d be forced to move on yet again and end up freezing his balls off in Scotland.
“Scotland!” he muttered, and the stallion swiveled his ears around to listen. In four hundreds of years, he’d come to hate Scotland and the Scots even more than he hated England and the English. Every man of them seemed to own a hound the size of a horse, and their weather was as vicious as their dogs. “That’s what I get for helping one of these cursed Englishmen. Nothing good ever comes of it. Ever!”
Just then, the maid laughed at something her cousin said, as if to remind Steinarr that she, too, would have died, if those outlaws had found her hiding in the bracken. Now that would have been a shame, he thought, glancing back at her. She was a comely thing, young and fair, with full, red lips and honey-colored braids that peeped from beneath her linen headcloth. She wore a simple gown of dark brown wool, laced to show the curves of her body, in the way Englishwomen tormented their men these days. She caught him looking back at her and leaned against her reedy cousin to murmur something that made the lad grin.
“Cousin!” snorted Steinarr under his breath. “Lover more likely. There’s an angry father on their heels, I wager. That’s why they don’t want to go back the way they came.” The lad didn’t seem bold enough to lure a quick-tongued creature like that into his bed. Perhaps it was she who did the luring…though why, Steinarr couldn’t fathom. He assessed the boy out of the corner of his eye: All knees and elbows. Spot-faced. Scarred chin beneath the beard that tried to disguise it. Craven. Unless the lad carried Frey’s own pillock inside those breeks, he had little to recommend him.
Well, whatever they were to each other, he’d rather not see the crows picking over their lion-killed bodies come morning. There was only one thing to be done. He reined his horses around in a circle, so he could fall in alongside the mare.
“Steinarr,” he said. They both blinked, not comprehending, so he repeated, “I am called Steinarr.”
“Oh.” The maid found her tongue first, of course. “Does this mean you—?”
“It means I have no stomach for leaving innocents in the forest as wolf bait, even when they have wasted much of my day. We will make camp nearby where you will be safe, and in the morning, I will see you as far as Maltby. After that, you find your own way.”
“We are grateful, my lord,” said the boy, relief clear on his face.
“Most grateful.” The girl battled to keep the smugness out of her smile. “You will not be sorry, my lord.”
“Mmm.” Steinarr spurred the stallion ahead again before he was tempted to make her sorry.
One of his favorite campsites—a shallow cave tucked into the side of a hill—lay nearby and he led them to it with plenty of daylight to spare. He started unsaddling the stallion, and to the pilgrims’ credit, they both set to work without being told. As soon as the mare was secure, the boy hurried over to unload the rouncey, while the girl started casting about for firewood. By the time she returned with her first scant armload of twigs, all three horses were nibbling at the grass nearby and Steinarr was shredding dry bark and leaves into tinder, in preparation for laying a fire.
“Others must have made camp here recently, my lord. There is little wood left on the ground.”
“Not others. Me. Last month. There is a fallen tree over that way, about a bowshot. You will find wood enough there.” He jerked his head toward the east, then pulled his scramasax from his belt and proffered it hilt first to the boy. “Here. You need something heavier than that plaything at your waist. You’ll want four or five good armloads each to keep the wolves at bay all night. See you’re done and back here well before sunset.”
Steinarr watched until he was certain they were headed in the right direction, then took out his flint and striker and went to work. A tiny flame soon crackled before the shallow cave. He added enough twigs to keep it going until the pilgrims brought real wood, then retrieved his quiver. As the bees buzzed lazily overhead, he pulled out several good, straight reeds he’d been drying for arrows, selected the best, and began to work it smooth with the file he kept for the purpose. The girl and her cousin came and went several times, dumping armloads of wood into a pile nearby, and Steinarr kept working, scraping until the shaft met his satisfaction, then nocking it and working the tip down to a point, which he carefully cured over the fire. Smoke-hardened reed made a poor substitute for good steel, but it would have to do until he could buy more points—that was his penalty for helping an Englishman.
He glanced up as it occurred to him that he hadn’t seen his other penalties in a while and that he hadn’t heard any chopping either. Even with the long summer afternoon, he would have to leave soon to make certain he was well away by sunset, and he needed to make sure his pilgrims, or lovers, or whatever they were, were safe by the fire before he left. Muttering about their parentage, he slipped the unfletched new arrow into his quiver and pushed to his feet. He’d gone barely a dozen yards when he heard them coming through the woods, laughing and talking.
“What took you so long?” he demanded as they neared.
“It is still well before sunset, my lord.” The maid carefully held out a wide curl of bark, piled with brambleberries. I made Robin wait so I could gather some.”
He’d forgotten the berries. They hadn’t been ripe yet when last he’d been here. “Mmm. Well, I hope you got enough, for they will be your only supper. There was no way to hunt with you two chattering like jays.”
“Oh, we have food, my lord,” said the boy. “Bread and cheese.”
“We would not set out without food,” said the maid, adding, “We are not the utter fools you think us.”
“We shall see about that.” Cheese. Steinarr’s stomach rumbled at the mere mention of it. And bread. His meals had been nothing but wild foods and small game for far too long. “You’d better cut some boughs for your beds, while ’tis still light. I’ll take the horses for water.”
Steinarr dug through his gear bag for a small leather pail, then led all three horses around the hill to the tiny spring that made this campsite one of the better ones he’d had recently. He filled the pail first, then stood back to let the animals have their fill while he contemplated the possibility of melting some of that cheese over the bread before he had to leave. By the time he led the horses back to camp, imagination had him smelling the toasting bread.
He quickly secured the rouncey. As he bent to hobble the mare, he heard light footsteps coming up behind him. “What?”
“You had no dinner today because of us, my lord. I thought you might be hungry.”
He glanced over his shoulder to find her holding out a thick slice of coarse, dark bread. Melted cheese, rich and savory, oozed over the fire-browned edges. The smell alone pulled him to his feet, and he reached out greedily. He took a bite and groaned as the warm cheese hit his tongue.
She accepted the tribute with a nod of her head. “You are welcome.”
He made some indistinguishable grunts of thanks and took another huge bite. Stepping past him, she stroked the mare’s nose, and he was amused to hear her whisper a few words of thanks to the creature for bearing her and the boy. Next, she went to the stallion, where she murmured a greeting and let him sniff at her palm. Her brow wrinkled in puzzlement, then cleared a bit.
“Ah. He has a raw spot. I think the saddle rubs.” She moved around to run her hands over the animal’s withers and suddenly stopped. “God’s knees. What happened here?”
“He was attacked.”
“By what?” She traced the scar lines that raked the stallion’s back, spreading her fingers wide to match the breadth of the lion’s paw. “They look like claw marks.” She lifted her eyes to accuse him. “Or whip marks.”
“I would not whip my own horse,” growled Steinarr, flushing in fresh shame at what he’d done to his friend so long ago. And not just to Torvald. Nearly every man in the crew had felt those claws, either as man or beast. Steinarr choked down the last of the bread, now gone tasteless, and stepped around to join her. He laid a hand over the scars in apology for the lie he was about to tell to protect them both. “‘Twas wolves. One leapt on his back. The wounds are long healed, but I need a new pad to protect the scars better.”
In truth, he needed two new pads: the one for the rouncey was just as bad.
She touched the raw spot, and the stallion’s flesh rippled as if he shook off a fly. “I have some help, I think.” She untied the knot in one long sleeve and fished a tiny wooden pot out of the hem. She twisted the stopper free and dug out a bit of greenish salve on one finger.
“What is that?”
“A balm I carry to ward off blisters on the road.” She gently daubed the salve over the wound. “It should bring some ease.”
Steinarr had the distinct impression she spoke to the stallion and not him, but he nodded anyway. She finished tending the horse and rubbed the excess into her hands, and as they walked the few yards back to the fire, he admitted, “You may be slightly less trouble than I first thought.”
“Thank you, my lord.” She picked up another slab of cheese-covered bread from a flat stone that lay at the edge of the coals and handed it to him. “My name is Marian.”
He frowned. “I know. You told me earlier.”
“You never said it, my lord, not all day,” said the boy, coming up to throw a big load of green boughs into the mouth of the cave. “Nor my name. We thought you had forgotten.”
“You were mistaken.” There had simply been no reason to use names when he’d planned to be rid of them. Steinarr savored another bite as he checked the sun once more. “Well, Marian and Robin, I must leave you now.”
Robin started. “Leave? But you said—”
“That you would be safe here, not that I would stay here with you.”
“But where will you be?”
“Nearby. Stay near the fire and keep it well stoked and you will be fine. And you will want to…” He stumbled to a stop, not sure how to say this to a woman. “Um…take care of your needs early.” The creases across her brow told him he hadn’t been clear, and he tried again. “You can’t be going off into the bushes after dark. The wolves.” And the lion.
Faint pink roses blossomed in her cheeks, but she nodded. “I understand, my lord.”
“Good.’Tis important.” He retrieved the roll of clothing that was Torvald’s, snagged one more large piece of bread and cheese, and swung up on the stallion bareback, having decided to leave the saddle where it was secure for once. “I will return a little after sunrise. Be ready.”
“We will be, my lord,” promised Robin.
“And I will keep some bread and cheese for you,” added Marian.
“Do that,” called Steinarr as he rode off.
He rode downwind far enough that Torvald’s cries of agony during the changing wouldn’t be heard, then slid to the ground. He placed the bread and Torvald’s clothes on a nearby log for his friend to find when he was a man again, then stripped the bridle from the stallion and hung it in a nearby tree, where it would be safe for the night.
“Guard over them, and we will meet back here, first thing. Cheese or not, I want to be rid of them by midday.”
His only answer was the sound of the stallion chewing a mouthful of grass, but it didn’t matter; Torvald kept a part of his human-self intact while he was in the stallion’s form. He would remember, at least enough, and watch from a distance to see that the lion stayed away. Without bothering to say good-bye, Steinarr set out on foot, trotting away from camp as fast as the terrain would permit. By the time the last of the sun’s disk finally slipped below the horizon, he had put enough distance and enough trees between himself and his two pilgrims that the lion’s roar should be little more than a whisper on the evening breeze.
IMMORTAL OUTLAW (ISBN 978-0425228340)
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