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The Herons are home in Skandia, but the usually peaceful country is in danger. The Temujairuthless warriors from the Eastern Steppeshave never given up on their ambition to claim Skandia for their own...and now they're on the move. Hal and his crew will have to brave the treacherous icy river and rapids to stop them, no matter the cost.
Climb aboard with the Herons in Return of the Temujai the exciting eighth installment of the Brotherband Chronicles!
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The closer they came to the border fort, the narrower the valley became. The steep, almost sheer walls towered high above them, blotting out the sun although it was only a few hours before noon. The floor of the valley was in shadow, the sun only reaching it for a couple of hours each day, which probably accounted for the snow that still lay thick and deep on the ground, even though spring was only a few weeks away.
In spite of the snow, the small party was making better time now that they had reached the top of the steep climb that led to the pass, and they were moving on level ground again.
There were two carts, each with a single pair of wheels and pulled by a small, sturdy horse. They were stacked neatly with sawn lumber, and as they were past the steep uphill climb, most of the
Heron brotherband rode on them, finding space among the stacks of planks and beams that filled the cart trays.
Hal and Stig rode two saddle horses, leading the way for the carts. It was a newly acquired skill for the two Heron leaders. Stig had decided that they should learn to ride.
“After all,” he’d told his skirl, “we always find ourselves in places where they expect us to ride. We might as well know how to do it. It’ll save us a lot of walking.”
Hal had agreed and Stig had searched around and procured two horses, rescuing them from a life where they would be destined to pull carts, and instead turning them into saddle mounts. They were stolid little creatures, quiet and unimaginative, nothing like a fierce, thundering battlehorse or a speedy, slender-limbed Arridan from the deserts to the south. But they carried the two riders uncomplainingly—even Barney, the one tasked with bearing Stig’s large frame. If need arose, both horses could be coaxed into a slow canter or, in extreme situations, a clumsy gallop.
Once Stig had found them, Hal hired one of the Araluen archers,
who was familiar with horses, to teach them the rudimentary points of riding. After suffering the inevitable tumbles, bruises and minor injuries, both of them emerged as reasonably capable riders.
They were, after all, fit and agile young men, with a good sense of balance and the rhythm necessary to match their movements to the horses’ gait.
With one exception.
“I don’t like trotting,” Hal stated. “I always seem to be going down when the horse is coming up. It’s an unnatural way to travel and it’s painful.”
His Araluen teacher, who could sit to a trot instinctively and so had no idea how to teach someone else to do so, took the easy way out.
“Why bother?” he had told the young skirl. “If you’re in a hurry, canter or gallop. If you’re not, just walk.”
That seemed reasonable to Hal, so he simply ignored the concept of trotting from then on. Occasionally, when he saw Stig managing to sit smoothly as Barney trotted beneath him, he felt a pang of jealousy. He was tempted to ask Stig how he managed it but refused to admit his own deficiency.
“I choose not to trot,” he would say, his jaw set stubbornly,
whenever the subject came up.
Thorn, on the other hand, chose not to ride at all, even though
Stig had offered to find a horse for him.
“I don’t trust horses,” Thorn said, glaring suspiciously at the two stocky little mounts his friends rode. “Even the small ones outweigh me by several hundred kilos. They have big teeth and hooves as hard as clubs. And they’re shifty.”
“Shifty?” said Hal, stroking Jake’s silky soft nose affectionately.
“They’re perfectly trustworthy.”
“Maybe to you,” Thorn replied darkly. “But not to me. Those big teeth could take off a few fingers—and I’ve only got one hand.”
And in fact, Barney and Jake seemed to sense his unease around them and his antipathy toward them, and they reacted in kind. If
Thorn walked too close behind Barney, the horse would often lash out, trying to kick him. And, several times, Jake had whipped his head around and given Thorn a painful nip on the shoulder. But with the cunning of their kind, the horses didn’t do so every time came within range, allowing him to be lulled into a false sense of security, whereupon they would kick or bite once more, without warning.
Even now, as the old sea wolf trudged determinedly beside them through the snow, Jake was tending to sidle closer to him,
measuring the distance between his teeth and the shabby, patched sheepskin vest that covered Thorn’s shoulder—Jake’s favorite point for biting. Knowing what his horse was planning, Hal twitched the reins against his neck and pressed his right knee into the horse’s side, urging him away from Thorn.
Thorn noticed the movement, and Jake’s indignant toss of his head as his plans were thwarted.
“See?” he said. “I told you those beasts there cannot be trusted.”
Stig, sensing that Thorn might be about to launch into another discourse on the evils of the equine species, hurried to redirect the conversation.
“So, what’s got Erak up in a lather?” he asked Hal. “Is it something serious or is he just getting clucky in his old age?”
Hal grinned. “Try saying that ‘old age’ thing around him. He’ll likely brain you with that big silver-headed walking stick he carries.”
He paused, then answered the question. “No. He’s had word that the Temujai have been nosing around the border.”
“They’re always doing that,” Stig said dismissively.
But Hal shook his head. “They’ve been doing it a lot more than usual,” he said. “That’s why he wants Lydia to scout around across the border while we check out the fort itself.”
With their ship laid up for repairs and maintenance during the winter months, the Herons found themselves with time on their hands. Erak, the Oberjarl of the Skandians, had summoned Hal to his lodge in the center of Hallasholm. The young warrior was one of Erak’s most trusted skirls. Hal led an elite group of fighters in his crew, but Erak knew that Hal was more than just brave in battle. He was smart, which a lot of wolfship captains weren’t. Hal could observe a situation with a keen and intelligent eye, and that was what Erak wanted in this case.
“Take a look at the border fort,” he instructed the younger man. “See if it’s secure against attack. And see if there’s any way you can make it more secure.”
Fort Ragnak defended Serpent Pass, a narrow pass at the junction of the Skandian, Teutlandt and Temujai borders. The pass was the only practical way to travel down from the mountains and access Skandia’s flat coastal strip. Hal moved to the large map on the wall of Erak’s lodge and studied the pass and the fort. The walls of the pass were steep, he knew, and the fort was positioned where they came close together, closing a gap of only twenty meters.
“You have archers here?” he asked.
Erak nodded. “Fifteen of them. I rotate them in and out every three weeks, along with the rest of the garrison—thirty troops. It’s too cold and miserable up there to leave them on site for much longer—although in winter it’s sometimes hard to get men there to relieve them.”
Since the Temujai attempt to invade years previously, Skandia received a detachment of one hundred archers each year from their ally, the Kingdom of Araluen. The archers tended to redress the imbalance between Skandia’s own warriors, who were armed with axes, spears and swords, and the mounted Temujai archers. It meant that the Skandians could fight fire with fire, particularly when they were ensconced in a secure position, like the border fort.
“I was thinking,” Hal said slowly, “maybe we could set up a couple of manglers on the sides of the cliffs—here and here.” He pointed to the cliff walls behind the fort and either side of the fort.
“That’d give the Temujai riders a nasty shock if they attacked.”
“Manglers?” Erak said. “You mean like that giant crossbow you carry on the bow of your ship?”
Hal nodded. “We could build shooting platforms halfway up the walls. Then we could sweep the approaches to the fort before the Temujai got in range.”
“It’s a good idea,” Erak said, reflecting that this was why he had chosen Hal for the task. The young man had an ability to come up with new and unexpected ideas like this, and Erak could see how two of those massive crossbows could make a powerful addition to the fort’s defenses.
“I’ll get onto it straightaway,” Hal said, stepping back from the map. “I’ll build them here, then break them down for transport,
and reassemble them once we have the platforms ready. I’ll need to take lumber to build those as well.”
Erak shrugged. “Plenty of trees up there.”
But Hal shook his head. “It’ll take us time to cut and saw them into posts and planks. Better if we take whatever we need. We should be able to get a couple of horse-drawn carts up through the pass. And we don’t want to give the Temujai too much notice that we’re strengthening the defenses. If they are planning an attack,
they might decide to go early.”
“That’s true. Do it that way. And while I think of it, you might get that girl of yours to scout across the border and see if the
Temujai have any troops gathering there.”
They both knew that Lydia, the only female member of the
Heron brotherband, was an expert scout. She could cross the border and infiltrate Temujai land without being seen or heard by the enemy. Hal had no qualms about agreeing to the suggestion.
“She’d rather do that than help build the platforms,” he said,
and left the lodge to start gathering tools and equipment.
“So, what do you think?” Stig asked. “Are the Temujai really getting ready to invade again?”
The Temujai were a warlike, nomadic race from beyond the mountains east of Skandia. They were committed to a path of conquest and domination and had long cast jealous, hostile eyes toward the wealthy countries of the west—Gallica, Teutlandt and even Araluen. But before they could spread their influence so far,
they would need to conquer Skandia and gain control of its ships.
Some years previously, they had launched an all-out attack on the
Skandians, breaking through the mountain pass and down onto the narrow coastal plain around Hallasholm. The Skandians, with the help of a small Araluen force of hastily trained archers, had repelled them. In more recent times, the Temujai had turned their attention elsewhere, conquering and plundering the lands to the east. But they constantly returned to the Skandian border, the site of their only defeat, testing the strength of the defenses at Serpent
Pass, the scene of their previous incursion.
They were a cruel and pitiless enemy, small, hardy warriors who were skilled riders and expert archers, shooting from horseback with their short, curved bows. Their army was highly mobile and their generals were skillful and cunning. All in all, they were a formidable enemy.
The presence of the Temujai, and their longstanding threat to the welfare of Skandia and its people, were a fact of life to Hal and his companions. Hal’s generation had grown up all too aware of the
Temujai and their aggressive stance toward Skandia. It was something to be guarded against and prepared for. They knew that the threat could not be ignored. The Temujai, if they sensed any slackening of the Skandians’ readiness or will to fight, would sweep down from the high country like a malevolent flood. But Hal and his fellow Skandians were well aware of their own ability and battle skills. So long as Serpent Pass was kept secure and Fort Ragnak maintained and garrisoned strongly, the Temujai were a problem that could be dealt with. Constant vigilance was the answer to the threat they posed. Danger would come if the Skandian nation ever slackened that vigilance, or if the Temujai happened to find an alternative, and undefended, route down from the high country to the coastal plains.
So far, neither had happened. From time to time, the Temujai probed the defenses at Fort Ragnak. When they did, they found the garrison there ready and more than capable of repelling them.
Thorn had fought the Temujai many years before when they had penetrated down to the coastal strip.
“They want access to the sea,” he replied to Stig’s question.
“They always have. And they want our ships. Their plan is to dominate our part of the world.”
“Charming people,” Hal commented.
Thorn shrugged. “War and conquest is what they’re good at,”
he said. “It’s their reason for being. Their leaders know that if they’re not conquering new territories, they’ll begin fighting among themselves and the confederation of tribes will eventually be broken up. They’re like a shark that has to keep moving to stay alive. They have to keep moving, fighting and conquering.”
“Do they seriously think we’ll just let them walk in and use our ships?” Hal asked.
Thorn shook his head. “I’d say they assume that if they invade us and conquer us, we’ll do as we’re told.” He paused and smiled.
“Of course, first they have to invade us and conquer us.”
“And before they can do that, they have to break through the border up here. Which is a tough nut to crack,” Stig said.
“And which we plan to make a whole lot tougher,” Hal agreed.
The three of them fell silent for a few seconds as they considered the task ahead and its importance to the well-being of Skandia and the other nations around them.
Thorn raised his hook in a warning gesture to Jake, who had once again begun sidling closer to him.
“Just try it, you shaggy barrel,” he said. “I’ve eaten horsemeat before. Next time, I might just bite back.”