The cracking of dry branches snapped Lars from his melancholy. Daydreaming was dangerous, especially in a wood with night fast approaching. Lars’ staff came up automatically and he turned to face the potential threat. A man crashed through the thick undergrowth; a cudgel raised in his right fist. His wild eyes screamed silent hatred as he bore down on the big man. Lars was a fighter, and his instinct took over. Other men might have blocked the cudgel’s downward stroke, but Lars knew that time was crucial in a brawl. Without thinking, he lashed out with a straight-
The combination of the man’s momentum and Lars’ blow snapped his assailant’s head back, jarring Lars’ arm. His assailant’s legs buckled, and he fell to the woodland floor, a scream impossible through his damaged throat. His eyes bulged and his hands went to his windpipe as he thrashed for air, grunting with the effort to breathe. Turning, Lars sought new enemies, and, to his chagrin, he saw several shapes moving through the trees, forming a ring of ragged-
“Surround him,” one of the men shouted.
Lars cursed his earlier lapse of concentration. A foolish mistake he should never had made. Slowly he turned, assessing the men before him, his staff held out, ready to counter an attack. They were a mixed bunch. Dirt made their appearance even more threatening. A smell of unwashed bodies assailed Lars. He knew that these were desperate men. Their clothes were torn and badly patched in places. All were armed with an assortment of cudgels, knives and two of them had swords.
“Move in together,” the man who had spoken earlier demanded. He was clearly their leader. He pointed his sword towards Lars but did not advance himself. Lars kept turning, but no one moved. His eyes kept straying to the leader’s sword, speckled with rust, the edge chipped and blunt. If the blade did not kill him, blood poisoning would. Focus: watch their shoulders and eyes, not their weapons, he thought.
The wounded man’s thrashing became wilder. Others glanced down at him. His face had turned blue, and his tongue protruded as though seeking to absorb the air he so desperately needed. A few final kicks and then he was still, his body contorted in the final spasm.
“He’s killed Ballan,” one of the shorter men said unnecessarily. The others grumbled and then one man shouted a curse, leaping forward, his knife raised. Lars’ back was to him, but hearing the shout and cracking of twigs, he spun around, sweeping the staff in an arc. The man ducked back as the staff whistled by his head, his eyes instantly turning from anger to fear. Lars stabbed down at him, but he was already scuttling back out of range.
“He’s one man! Everyone, attack him!” their leader shouted.
“You’ve got a sword. You attack him,” a man sneered.
Lars stared into the leader’s eyes, daring him. He was as tall as Lars was, but lean. His nose must have been broken many times and so odd was the shape that it was barely recognisable. The leader waved at Lars with the sword’s tip. “After three,” he said. “One, two—three!” He screamed, lunging forward.
Lars threw the staff forward, allowing it to slip through his fingers until he judged the length right. He grabbed the staff before the end left his hand and punched at the leader. The staff jolted as it cracked into his face, but he was already turning, using all his strength he swung the staff in a wide circle. Lars was strong and he put all his effort into the blow. The wood whooshed through the air and his attackers rocked back on their heels, their eyes wide with fright as they were brought to a sudden halt.
The leader fell back, cursing and clutching his head in his free hand. When he removed his hand to inspect it for blood, there was a neat red circle on his brow where Lars’ blow had connected.
“Anyone else who moves, dies,” Lars announced. His heart hammered and he felt blood rush to his face. These men were bullies and, no doubt, cowards, but their numbers might overcome their fear.
He started turning again so he could see them all. “Kill him,” a man wearing a fleece urged. He spat at Lars but made no move himself.
“He isn’t worth it,” another man said. He was fat and bald. One eye looked infected and was weeping, making it look like he was crying.
“He looks as poor as we do,” the man with the fleece commented. “I doubt if he has any coin.”
“We are not quitting now!” the leader said. “He killed Ballan!”
“What do you care? You hated him,” the man with the weeping eye growled.
The leader smiled. Black gaps made his teeth seem more uneven. “Not until this fat pig is dead,” he spat.
“We need a bow,” one man said.
“Then go back to the camp and get one,” the leader raged. The man did not need further urging, and ran off between the trees, disappearing in an instant in the growing gloom.
Lars muttered a prayer, “Slathor, give me strength!”
“What did he say?” one of his tormenters asked.
“How the Kalanth do I know!” the leader roared.
Lars realised he had to do something before the other man returned with a bow. Turning, he tried to decide which man might break if he charged him. He assessed each man in turn and soon found a candidate, a short man with wild dancing eyes and an ugly, uncaring face. His opponent held a sword awkwardly but if Lars had judged correctly, the sword would not matter. The man was also closest to the tree line, and if Lars could make it there then he could escape into the darkness.
His mind made up, Lars roared, leaping at the man, and swinging his staff. He had selected his target well, but, instead of fleeing, the man stood his ground, petrified by the suddenness of the larger man’s attack. Lars swung his staff, its length keeping him from the other man’s sword. The staff cracked against the other man’s temple sending him flying. The blow was well timed, and its shock raced along Lars’ arm.
Not stopping, Lars leapt over the body as two men sought to cut off his escape. Now that the action had started, adrenalin conquered the other men’s fear. With shouts, they were all converging in on the big man. Lars flicked the staff out at the man on his right, missing his opponent who dodged to one side. It slowed him, but already the man to Lars’ left was closing the gap.
“He’s killed Arland!” Lars heard from behind him. “Take him alive!”
Something heavy slammed into Lars’ back, catching him between the shoulder blades and knocking the breath from his body. Lars stumbled forward, his attack on the man to his left failing as his loss of balance threw off his aim. Lars gasped for air as the man to his left grabbed his staff but, rather than slow down, Lars let go, abandoning the weapon. The other man, not expecting to take the weapon so easily, lost his balance and fell heavily to the ground.
Someone from behind Lars tumbled into his legs, throwing Lars to the woodland carpet. Another man lashed out with his cudgel, striking Lars across the shoulders. He gritted his teeth and grabbed a handful of dirt in agony.
“I want him alive,” the leader roared.
Twisting, Lars threw one man off him, but the others had caught up. Fear of their leader stopped their blows. Lars lashed out with his fist, catching one man under the chin, and throwing him backward. Someone grabbed his arm, and a man threw himself across his legs. Roaring his defiance, Lars threw out another punch. Then, Lars yelled as his hair was grabbed from behind, forcing his head back. A knife pricked his flesh, and a thin trickle of blood ran down his neck. Lars stilled.
“Don’t move,” the man with the knife threatened. His breath was foul and combined with the stink of his clothing was almost overpowering.
Cursing, the leader ran at Lars and booted him in the face. Lars rocked back on the ground while the men struggled to hold him down.
“You killed my brother,” the leader screamed, kicking Lars in the ribs. “Tie his hands and feet. I will make you suffer,” the leader continued, breathless with rage, his eyes bulging and spittle running down his chin.
The men obeyed and shortly Lars could not move. “Pick him up and carry him to the camp,” the leader ordered.
It took three men to lift Lars, whilst two more picked up the body of the short man Lars had killed. Lars could see the bruise on his temple where he had crushed his skull.
Lars tried to escape, and his efforts caused the men carrying him to let go. He made it to his knees before the leader stood over him, his sword aimed at Lars’ heart. “Tonight, you will die,” he said. “Slowly—and before you die you will beg me for mercy, but do not expect to receive any.”
Lars summoned all his strength, trying to break his bonds. He must not die. He had to find his wife and son. With a roar of rage, he threw every bit of his strength against his bonds. His muscles bunched and, for the briefest moment, he felt his bonds give.
The pommel of the leader’s sword crashed against his temple, blackness engulfed him, and he knew no more.