Cold men, bred for cold weather. Lachlan peered out from his rocky
perch, following the contours of the old hunting runs as they snaked through the mountains. Steam poured from his open mouth. His face was flecked by ice pellets. His clothes were welded to his skin by the freezing and thawing of the frost, hanging in tatters from his ribs, and his eyes had retreated to within the chasms gouged around the sockets by the blasting wind. He had spent too long out in the wilderness. But he could smell his rich rewards, and licked his chapped lips.
"Can you taste that?" There was a subtle, but distinct,
taste in the mouth - a sharp twang that simple rainwater did not provide.
"All I can taste is snow." His companion was laying on
his front, looking over the edge.
"No, no. I can taste it: salt. Sweat! Alcohol!"
"Sea salt?"His companion scanned the skirt of pine forest that hung around the mountainside for any sign of movement. Lachlan nodded. "There must be a lot of them if you can smell them from here."
"Can you see them?"
"No - not yet." The man's eyes pierced the shadows between the trees. There were flickers of movement amongst the sparse pines: shadows drifted across clearings, bushes ruffled. Branches swayed. "Soon."
The two men let silence descend upon them, save for the roaring wind. The broken figures of men soon came trickling through the treeline, their faces striped with mud. They looked like bugs from so high up, but down there they towered over the rocks and boulders in their path: they were a good six foot, each, and clad in head to toe in glistening chainmail tunics that came right down to their ankles. The handles of their axes were almost as long as they were tall.
The faint echoes of incomprehensible speech drifted to him. The shouts and calls as they navigated their way through the forest. Something had spooked them. Lachlan was confident that it wasn't any of his men, but, either way, the plan had changed.
"Something's not right." His comrade shuffled uncomfortably.
"How do you mean?"
"Look at them." He gestured. "All chainmail armour and battleaxes. Not standard raiding party material, is it?"
"Maybe the last raid got lucky. They went back and bought a boatload of new arms and armour back in the old country." The grizzled warlord bit his nails.
"Maybe. I don't know. It feels odd."
"They look like they're expecting something."
"Well even a stopped clock is right twice a day," Lachlan chuckled. "Don't worry about it, a chara."
"Our plan could go up in smoke, and half our army with it!"
"And the next village - if we lose our nerve. Hold fast, Somerled. Shoot the captain: deliver us victory."
"Oh, we'll have victory, all right? But at what cost?" The two men looked at each other uncomfortably. Lachlan took a deep intake of breath, and let it out slowly. Somerled glared at him. "We can't go on like this, Lachlan."
"Never you mind about it - just you shoot the captain. If the poison fails to work, take your knife and finish him off. Understood?" Somerled nodded.
"Understood, Lachlan." Lachlan patted him on the shoulder, and cantered off into a corrie. Somerled steadied himself, stroking is bow and his beard tentatively. The Norsemen were almost out of the trees: their front ranks had spilled onto the road, casting around themselves for their suspected enemies. Fingers flung this way and that around as they barked out orders and tried to organise themselves. The captain, for his part, was seated on a rock, letting events unfold. He was quite average in appearance - yet his presence inspired a sort of hand-trembling, gut-wrenching thirst for hate. Somerled would have preferred to use his knife: he may yet get the chance. He pulled back the bowstring, and took one final look around at the nooks and crannies, the corries, the crevaces, and the hanging valleys all around: filled to the brim with renegades, rebels, and murderers. He thought of Lachlan, now scrambling up the scree on the far side of the glen to join his finest axemen. He thought of Cathal, the archer, whose bow had conveniently fallen apart. He thought of Cael, the swordsman, whose fine blade bent on impact with a harsh gale. And he thought - was this why it was unsafe for him to know the identity of his father? He guessed he was about to find out.
He nocked the arrow.