The Prow Beast

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Authors: Robert Low
Tags: Fiction, Historical
gleamed and he slid away from me, out into the night; we crouched in the hut, waiting and listening.
    Three, I worked out. Maybe four. And a horse, though not ridden.
    ‘A hut,’ said a voice. ‘At least we can get dry.’
    ‘Perhaps a fire…butcher the horse and have a decent meal, at least,’ said another.
    ‘Oh aye – tell them all where we are, eh, Bergr?’ rumbled a third. ‘Before you go in that hut, Hamund, I would scout round and make sure we are alone.’
    ‘Of course we are alone,’ spat the one called Hamund. ‘By the Hammer, Bruse, you are an old woman. And if we are not to eat this spavined nag, why did we bring it, eh?’
    ‘We will eat it in good time,’ Bruse answered. They were all hunkered down in the lee of the hut, no more than an arm’s length and the width of a split-log wall between us.
    ‘I will be pleased when Randr Sterki is done with this,’ muttered Bergr. ‘All I want is my share, enough for a farm somewhere. With cows. I like the taste of fresh milk.’
    ‘Farm,’ snorted Hamund. ‘Why buy work? A good over-winter in a warm hall with a fat-arsed thrall girl and a new raid next year, that will do for me.’
    ‘I thought you were scouting?’ Bruse grunted and Hamund hawked in his throat.
    ‘For what? They are far from here. Everyone is far from here. Only the rain is here – and us. Who are these runaways anyway? A hump-back more dead than alive, I heard, and a couple of survivors from a battle we won, no more. Hiding and running, if they have any sense. The rest of them will be half-way over the mountains and gone by now. We should take what loot we can and leave.’
    ‘Go and scout – one of them is Finn Horsehead,’ Bruse answered, straightening with a grunt. There was a pause, then the sound of splashing and a satisfied sigh as he pissed against the log wall.
    ‘Finn Horsehead?’ muttered Bergr. ‘Of the Oathsworn? They say he fears nothing at all.’
    ‘I can change that,’ sneered Hamund.
    ‘Pray to Odin you never meet him,’ Bruse said, adjusting his stance and spurting in little grunts, his voice rising and fading – talking over his shoulder, I was thinking. ‘I raided with him, so I know. I saw him rise up and walk – walk, mark you – towards a shieldwall on his own and before he got there it had split and run.’
    ‘I know,’ said the voice and I knew, as I knew my own hands, that it was right in Bruse’s ear, a knell of a voice, tomb-cold and deep as a pit.
    ‘The others said it was my ale-breath. What do you think, Bruse?’
    The splashing stopped. Everything stopped. Then Bergr whimpered and Hamund yelped and everything was movement.
    ‘The ice will not be cleaved from within,’ Red Njal grunted, ‘as my granny used to say.’
    So we rose up and hit the door at a fast run as the screams and chopping sounds began.
    By the time we got there, the work was done and Finn, flicking blood off the end of The Godi, stirred one of the three bodies with the toe of his muddy boot.
    ‘I do not recognise him,’ he said, frowning. He looked at me. ‘Do you know him?’
    The man – Bruse, I was thinking, because his breeks were at his knees – was bearded, the blood and rain streaking his face and running in his open, unseeing eyes. I did not know him and said so. Finn shrugged and shook his head.
    ‘He knew me, all the same,’ he grunted. ‘Seems a pity that he knew me so well and I did not know him from a whore’s armpit. Does not seem right to kill such a man on a wet night.’
    Botolf lumbered up, clutching a rope end attached to a halter and a horse fastened to that. It limped almost in step with him and Finn laughed at the sight. Botolf, mistaking it for delight at his find, beamed.
    ‘Well, all that talk of horse-eating made me hungry. Now that they are dead, we can have a fire and cook this beast.’
    I moved to the horse’s head and had it whuff at me, for it knew me well and I knew it – a young colt, a good stallion in the making,

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