The shout came from behind. Huckie pulled out his sword in a split second and spun around. Two warriors rose from behind the rocks that lay near the path. One had a battle axe, and the other was swinging a heavy iron ball covered in spikes and joined to a short wooden handle with a massive chain.
Huckie had been completely lost in thought, pondering the dead farm, and had stopped watching his flanks. And now he’d apparently walked right into an ambush as a result.
"Drop your sword, warrior."
Once again, the voice came from behind him. Huckie turned around and saw two more fighters blocking his path. One looked like a simple peasant, grasping a broad-headed spear. He was stiff with tension, which led Huckie to the conclusion that the lad was inexperienced and afraid of a fight. The other one was armed with a sword, and protected by armor made of thick boiled aurochs hide. Their leader, surmised Huckie.
He was facing four people who had him closely surrounded.
"What do you want?"
His calm and level voice made the attackers halt for a moment.
"Weapons and gold," said the leader with a nasty grin. There was a predatory glint in his gray eyes.
Wolf suddenly felt a wild rage grip him. This always happened when someone tried to deprive him of his life or possessions.
"Well, come and get it, then," muttered Huckie through his teeth.
The four muggers started toward him, closing the circle inexorably.
Wolf observed them keenly. Only two of them were really dangerous—the leader and the goon with the morning star. The lad with the spear was clearly afraid, and the one with the axe was favoring his right leg, as Wolf's experienced eye had picked up on despite the man's attempts to walk normally.
Huckie rested as he waited for the battle to begin, making the strain leave his muscles by an effort of will. And yet all his senses were heightened. His perception recorded every little thing about his enemies' behavior confidently, allowing Wolf to become one with each of them at some level. He could feel the pain that made the lame man's face twitch. He could feel the strength of the giant's muscles as he swung his deadly ball around. He could see the sweaty back underneath the shirt of the lad with the spear and his damp shaky hands, sensing the sticky fear making his body ever stiffer. He could hear the words of a bawdy song sang by the leader of the group under his breath, perceiving the man's confidence and the kind of elation a master swordsman feels before a battle.
Huckie tried to conserve his strength and make no unnecessary movements. He just turned his head around a little, trying to estimate who will strike first.
Suddenly he sensed—or, rather, read an attacking motion in the eyes of the lame bandit. Wolf reached the foe in a momentous leap, driving his right foot into the man's right knee as hard as he could. There was a horrendous cracking sound, followed by the bandit's bloodcurdling scream. Enraged, he tried to reach Huckie with his axe, but the warrior deftly moved out of the line of attack, diving underneath the attacker's right arm. The blade flashed, and the bandit's right hand fell to the ground, still gripping the axe.
He howled horribly as he gripped the bloodied stump with his left hand, nursing it at his chest as if it were a baby. He tried to crawl aside, dragging his broken leg behind him, but he got underneath the feet of his comrade with the morning star.
The lame man raised his head and uttered with an effort:
The other bandit grinned cruelly and swung the ball around in a barely noticeable motion, smashing his hapless partner's head…
In the meantime, Huckie had already reached the pikeman who’d grown rabid with fear, swinging his spear around wildly, more dangerous to his own comrades than to Wolf.
Huckie took advantage of that. He dodged the spear easily, trying to stay close to the lad, so that the robbers would get in each other's way.
The goon with the morning star was much more dangerous. He was a real professional, swinging the heavy spiked ball around so fast that Wolf barely managed to follow his movements. It was as if a gigantic hornet was buzzing around his head, capable of delivering a deadly sting at any second. That was the very reason why Huckie stayed close to the lancer—he didn't dare use his sword to reflect those crushing blows for fear the spikes might wrest it out of his hand. All he could do was dodge the morning star to the best of his ability.
He felt fatigue at some point, which was extremely dangerous. He had to neutralize one of the stronger opponents, and soon. But how? Huckie fended off another attack from the leader. He made a show out of turning away from him, as if to invite an attack from the fighter with the morning star, who rushed at the foe immediately and without hesitation. Huckie was retreating right toward the lancer, who was preparing to stick the broad spearhead into his back. But at that very moment Huckie dodged sharply to one side, jumped and threw himself headfirst over the shaft of the spear, somersaulting over his shoulder as he touched the ground, and rising to his feet. The power of inertia drove the spear into the stomach of the attacking behemoth. The latter tried to swing the spear away and caught the shaft with his chain. The lad, instead of letting go of the spear and helping his comrade free his formidable weapon, started to pull on the shaft. Huckie the Wolf instantly took advantage, slaying the tangled robbers with two swings of his sword.
It was time for the duel—Hucky's goal from the start, and one that was by no means easy to achieve.
"Isn't that a bit too high of a price for an old sword and a few gold trinkets?" he asked the robber standing before him.
"You shall not pass," the man muttered his reply through his teeth.
"You don't look like simple robbers, the likes of which haunt remote corners in multitudes. I have the feeling that you—and at least two of your men—are mercenaries hired by one of the local jarls…"
"Enough talk already! Fight!" shouted the leader as he rushed forward to attack Wolf.
The swords clashed, and then clashed again, mighty blows sending cascades of sparks in every direction. Thus began the deadly dance of two experienced warriors who knew their craft well. They spun and moved in straight lines, attacked and defended themselves, jumped and crouched, blocked and dodged, and the clangor of blades was fitting music for this impetuous dance of death.
Both fighters were already wounded a few times, and blood seeped from underneath the cuts on their clothes. They were growing tired gradually, but the blades kept on clashing, time and again. Each expected the other to make a mistake, but the duelists' moves remained measured and precise.
The brigand leader launched yet another attack. The head… the thigh… the stomach… a roundabout swing and a strike at the feet… But he stepped on a pebble as he was turning around, losing his balance for a moment. Huckie reacted at once. He struck at his adversary's sword as hard as he could, making him release his grip on the hilt. The leader tried rising to his feet in surprise, and at that very moment Wolf's blade pierced his leather armor, sliding in right underneath his ribs. The enemy grunted and started to slide to the ground. Huckie pulled the sword free, which made the bandit fall on his back. Wolf stood over him, breathing heavily, watching the spark of life leaving the body of this strong yet cruel and dangerous man.
Huckie felt no joy or relief in such moments. He was overcome by a wave of darkest melancholy and deathly weariness. Unable to resist, he lowered himself to the ground, and sat immobile for a long time, hugging his knees, and feeling completely empty inside, until the voice of the dying man broke his reverie.
"Give me my sword," uttered the bandit with an effort.
Huckie turned toward him slowly.
"Place a sword in my hand. I want to die like a warrior."
Wolf rose to his feet with some difficulty, picking up the brigand leader’s sword, holding it by the blade and pushing the hilt toward him. The man grabbed it feverishly.
"Thank you. You were right—I am no robber. We were ordered to kill anyone who would try to reach the castle of the King of the North."
"Who gave you the order?"
"The secret isn't mine to reveal… Farewell!"
The man's body convulsed in agony. His body straightened and he grew silent, his gray eyes peering into a gray sky that was just as cold.
Huckie ran his hand over the man's face, closing his eyes. He untied the strings on the cloak and pulled it from underneath the body. Wolf covered the body with the cloak, and only then proceeded to see to himself.
He made his way down to the creek, pulling off his bloodied shirt, washing his wounds and dressing them with the ointment that he always carried in a leather purse inside a box made out of birch bark. Then he took clean clothes from his pack, changed, quenched his thirst from the creek, and walked uphill to the path again.
"Who would be trying to harm the King of the North, and for what purpose?" he wondered.
The expedition that he had realized to be necessary two days earlier, after encountering the dead farm, looked like it might be cut short before it would even begin. He could not let that happen.
Once Wolf reached another pass, he saw a group of riders down below. The party was moving in his direction. The soldiers would stop every minute to examine the terrain carefully. They were obviously looking for someone. Once the riders got close enough for him to be able to make out individual figures, he identified one of them as Gunnar Droopy Mustache, one of the most trusted knights of Torismund, King of the North.
Huckie called out to him. The man raised his spear in response, sending his group toward the pass. Wolf set on a large rock beside the path and watched the shaggy-haired and stocky northern horses carry their riders, galloping past large rock piles strewn across the way with ease.
The riders approached the traveler. Huckie rose and greeted Gunnar and his men. Gunnar dismounted and hugged his old friend.
"Huckie the Wolf, as I live and breathe. Haven't seen you in our parts in a while, you old vagabond."
"A pleasure to see you, Gunnar. Your droopy mustache looks even droopier. You'll have to wrap the ends around your neck like a scarf soon enough, or they'll start getting in the way in battle."
"Let them grow. You should know, Huckie—my luck is in my mustache, and the longer it grows, the luckier I get."
"May the Sleeping One guard you. Are you guys hunting or mushrooming? I've been watching you stop at every rock."
"It isn't mushrooms that we're after. You could say we're hunting, but our quarry walks on two legs. You know that Torismund is gathering loyal people for a large expedition. Someone's been trying to stop him from succeeding. There are mercenaries who ambush warriors making for the castle and kill them. The king has sent me and a number of other parties to make sure the roads are clear of that scum. But there are just too many of them. Have you encountered any yourself?"
“As it happens, yes. Four guys invited me to a party. We partied so hard I can barely walk."
"What about those guys?"
"They're having a rest right next to the path underneath the mountain pass. Two of them meant real business."
"They did indeed come prepared. They knew who their quarry was. We lost three men fighting them, and two horses… I can give you a spare horse—you'll reach the castle faster that way. Sorry, but I can't let any of my men accompany you—I need each and every one of them."
"I can manage without escort. Give me some bread if you have any. I've been living on mushrooms and berries for the last few days."
"Why didn't you say so at once? Hey, you over there! Get me some flatbreads!"
One of the soldiers took a bundle with bread from one of his saddlebags and handed it to their leader. He took the flatbreads, fumbling with his enormous hands, and gave them to Wolf.
"There you go, Huckie. They're a bit stale, but they should see you through until you reach the castle."
"Much obliged, Gunnar."
"And now fare thee well, brother. See you at Torismund's court."
Gunnar hoisted his bulk onto his mount, saluted to his friend with his lance, and headed for the pass with his men, in the direction from which Wolf had just come.
"See you around, Gunnar! And take good care of your mustache!"
He heard a reply from somewhere below:
"I sure will, Huckie the Wolf! My luck's in it, after all!"
The sound of the hooves faded in the distance. It took Huckie some effort to get into the saddle—his whole body hurt as if it were a piece of metal that had just been pounded into submission by a smith's hammer, and pulled on the reins.
His left hand was still clutching the bundle with the flatbreads. He pulled one out, and hid the rest in his bosom.
He rode, breathing in the aroma of stale bread, and feeling completely happy—happy about overcoming all the hardships of the journey, about meeting his friend, and about the prospect of sleeping in a soft bed underneath a roof, with enough food to eat…
He looked at a flatbread one last time with great tenderness, and broke it in two.