The diseased mire stretched on in every direction: a vast expanse of rotting plants, slime, and stagnant water full of creeping, crawling life. But the midges were the worst; they swarmed the procession of tired, slumping men, pricking and stinging wherever they found exposed flesh.
When the group passed by a low hill, Herre left his horse’s lead with one of the other men of the company. Swiftly, he crested the hill and--once at the top--scoured the horizon until he spotted a small cluster of specks trudging north through the mire.
With energy renewed, Herre hurtled down the slopes of the hill and caught up with the men of his company. He pushed through them to where their lord stood.
“I see them still, my liege,” Herre answered, unable to conceal the pride in his voice.
The lord was a stern man, gray-haired and pot-bellied, yet of great strength. He was a Kerel, a noble who ruled according to the old customs of the Sorfolk: just and with steel--unlike some of the coin-counting, silk-clad men that polluted Adelfán.
Presently, the lord turned to look out over the mire and asked softly, of no one in particular, the question that was on everyone’s mind:
“Will they march through the night, or will they rest?” Unsure of whether or not his response was required, Herre kept his peace. “If they rest,” the lord said, “so may we. Yet if they march, I fear we shan’t ever catch up with them, and all of this will have been in vain.”
Herre creased his eyebrows and stroked his sparse beard, eager to look contemplative.
The lord paid him no heed and stood lost in thought for a moment. Finally, he shook his head. “We needs must rest,” he said, loud enough for all to hear. A collective sigh of relief came from the ranks. “We continue for a while longer, while we have the sun’s light still. Then we make camp.”
Herre stood torn in doubt. It was not the decision he had hoped for, nor was it the decision he had anticipated. The Trow were nocturnal beasts: it was not likely they would rest when the sun had waned, for that was when they were at their best. And while it was true that the men and the horses were tired, they had made good time, and to stop now was to lose the quarry.
“My liege,” he said, careful not to sound disrespectful. “I fear we should lose them if we rest tonight.”
The lord rested his stern gaze on Herre. “Indeed?” He said.
Herre nodded and repeated the arguments he distilled from his internal dialogue but a moment ago. They sounded less convincing now, as if they had been toppled by the might of the lord’s bushy eyebrows, which had risen at Herre’s speaking up.
“Well,” the lord said, “that may all be, but the men must rest. But I appreciate your counsel.”
And that was that. The lord led on, and Herre was left with oozing ambition and damp armpits.
And yet, as he so often did, Herre jumped over his disappointment and found opportunity. For Herre was an optimist: he saw solutions where others saw problems. And right now, a solution took shape in his mind’s eye.
When the sun dipped behind the western hills to paint the mire red, the lord called for a halt. Some men made camp and set up a perimeter, for these wild lands held more dangers than just Trow. Others prepared some of the simple fare they had taken when they rode out from the village in haste, and several skins of mead and cider were passed around.
There was little merry-making, nor were there any songs of great battles, tall tales of maidens conquered, or crude jests at the expense of the younger ones such as Herre. Instead, the men ate their fare without complaint, measly though it was, and laid themselves to rest on their mantles and skins, while those assigned watch duty set about patrolling the perimeter, yawning as they went.
Herre had no trouble warding off sleep; the excitement at his secret plan kept him awake. When the sound of snoring men waxed to a point where Herre was certain nearly all slept, he quickly gathered his shield, scabbard with sword, and javelins. He placed his casque atop his head and slinked off into the shadows.
Getting past the guard was easy: Herre told him that he needed to answer nature’s call. The man did not even stop to ask Herre why he needed his shield and javelins for that mundane and non-martial task. Herre smiled as he disappeared into the shadows. He had always found that lying worked best when done boldly, hiding naught but the truth.
The trail of the Trow, he knew, led further north, and Herre had no trouble picking it up. He was quick, and he hailed from the swamplands to the southwest; these mires were not much different so Herre felt right at home. In fact, there were fewer trees here, which made it easier to get around. It also helped that he didn’t go about bumbling in a shining dress of iron rings. The lord was a great man, but in these unfortunate choices (and others--who brings horses to traverse a mire?) Herre recognized that he was a general in the field: a commander in situations where two forces would stand in neat, opposed rows, ready to thwart the flight of arrow or javelin with a well-placed face, until ordered forward to die horribly under the strokes of the blunt, rusted axe of a yeoman who had rather been at home to bed his sow of a wife (or just his sow) and drink himself into a stupor afterwards. . .
No, Herre stalking a mire at night on his own would be a lot quicker, a lot more silent, and a lot deadlier than a parade of the lord’s finest riders with no suitable ground on which to deploy for their impressive charge.
He made good time tracking his foe by the moonlight, and as he went, Herre could already imagine how grateful the lord would be when he would return. He would be the hero of Enkelby!
The sun already touched the night sky in the east when Herre finally came to the end of the trail. It led to a low mound: a barrow of the folk who once lived in these parts. At the entrance stood a single sentry--or what passed for a sentry among the Trow. In between picking all manner of bounties from its vast nose, it occasionally eyed the rising sun with beady, suspicious eyes.
This was no challenge to one such as Herre. He rounded the low barrow under the cover of rock and shrub, crested it from the other side, and rushed at the Trow's back, dagger in hand. He smashed into the creature with all of his might, knocked it breathless to the ground, and straddled it. His dagger made quick, bloody work of the bearded, filthy neck.
A corridor led deeper into the mound, and soft light burned at the end of it. It was a simple affair, dug carelessly and supported by wooden beams that wore the black mold of centuries. The stench of Trow met his nose, but there was something else, too: a rotting smell of the earth. Herre hesitated for a moment. Then he heard soft snoring from within. He smiled, and slipped into the barrow.
These barrows were often small: no more than a simple mound in which the dead had been piled. So it was with this one. The corridor opened into a low chamber, round and braced with thick beams and rafters of ancient wood. The walls of packed, cold dirt revealed many an opening--graves, all. At the center stood a sarcophagus of dark stone that basked in the light of tallow candles. The floor was littered with sleeping Trow, but their snoring and heavy breathing was lost on Herre. He stared at that sarcophagus as a man lost in thought, and his feet slowly carried him towards it.
On the lid sat a maiden with skin as starlight and hair as flame-lit as that of the rising sun that warmed the cold soil outside. Even the filthy Trow that slept at her feet gained an aspect of calm and serene beauty in her presence. The slender fingers of her right hand trailed the stone lid of the sarcophagus, and the relief sculpted upon it resembled her in repose. With her left hand, she held up the jewel-encrusted, golden mirror that the Trow had stolen from Herre’s lord; the prize they had set out to retrieve.
Almond-shaped eyes looked up at Herre from under long, dark eyelashes, and gone were his fancies. Herre no longer thought of being the hero of Enkelby--or of Enkelby at all. His lord was but a shadow, the warriors he had ridden with a whisper, and even the Trow that slept restlessly at his feet were no more than dust in the corner.
He stepped forward. An icy fascination clamped around his heart, and the maiden welcomed him with her sweet eyes and her languid smile, cold as the tomb she sat on. He opened his mouth as though to speak, although even his sarcastic wit had left him at the sight of her.
As her arms reached out to meet him, Herre saw for a fleeting moment her reflection in the mirror she held. When he gazed upon her true countenance, his muscles became as frail as her flaking skin and brittle bone, his mind as empty as the eye sockets that leered eyelessly at him.
Then he resigned into cold arms, the forgetfulness of the tomb embraced him, and Herre thought no more.