Henrik wasn't gone for very long. He was back inside a quarter of an hour, and gave Sven and Lasse a scare. He had chosen a different route on his way back, reentered the forest to the side, and crept around to approach them from behind. He said:
Sven and Lasse whirled round, Lasse raising his bow.
"Relax, relax," said Henrik.
"You're a fucking fool," Lasse said, repaying the compliment Henrik had paid him earlier. "I very nearly shot you."
He would have said more, but Sven silenced him with a raised hand.
"Learn anything?" he asked Henrik.
"Yes. Those two guys on horses have come from another settlement."
"We knew this much already," Lasse said.
"Shut up," Sven said to Lasse. He turned to Henrik.
"Go on," he said.
"That settlement is about two hours on horseback from here."
"How do you know that?"
"Because one of them said they must get going soon if they are to get home before sunset."
"Yes. They wanted a quick fuck from the women. From the remarks they made I gathered there aren't many females in that settlement of theirs."
"The two women they wanted to fuck were willing, but the rest said no. One of the men in the group said they still had to cover a lot of ground today to make it home by sunset tomorrow."
"Very good," said Sven. "Excellent. You did well, Henrik. Thank you."
"They're already coming back," said Lasse. He had been sulking after Sven had told him to shut up, and had resumed watching the action under the tree in the middle of the clearing.
Sven stood up - they'd all been crouching - and took a look, taking care to remain hidden behind the trunk of the tree. Lasse was right. The two horsemen had remounted their steeds, and as Sven watched they trotted away.
Sven narrowed his eyes: yes, a pair of sacks tied together bounced behind each horseman. They were carrying whatever goods they'd received back to their settlement. But he couldn't see the people that had brought them, and became anxious. Did they choose a different route? Then he saw their heads emerge into view and realized they'd been invisible because of a dip in the ground.
"Let's move back," he told the others. "They're all looking in this direction."
Crouching, they ran fifty steps back into the forest. When they stopped, Sven said:
"We're going to ambush them by that cliff. They are taking the same route to walk back, and that will be the perfect spot."
"It's three to six," said Lasse.
"Scared?" said Henrik. Lasse reddened with anger.
"I don't like the idea of chasing any of them for the rest of the afternoon," he snapped.
"Lasse's right," Sven said. "We can take out three of them right away, maybe four. The survivors are going to run like hell. If there are more than one, they'll separate and then we'll have to separate as well. We could end up spending half the night looking for each other. All right, let's get going. I'll try to think of something along the way."
They half-ran, half-walked back to the cliff: Sven estimated the distance at six to seven hundred meters. He didn't have a lot of time to think of a plan, and still hadn't thought of anything good when they reached the cliff. But his problem was solved when he examined the site of the ambush.
The pathway ran right by the cliff, and there was a ragged drop on its other side, at least a full meter. The six people in the group would have to walk in a line, no more than two abreast. They'd have to stay that way for twenty-thirty steps.
He grinned and turned to face his men and said:
"They will pass through here in a line. You two will take them from the front. When they were going the other way, the men were in the lead, and they'll probably walk in the same formation. Whether they do or not, you two kill the two men right away. Then Lasse steps back with bow ready and shoots anyone trying to run. Henrik, you'll cover him. Don't kill any more of them unless someone's trying to escape, clear?"
"What about you?" asked Henrik.
"I'll take them from the back. I'll hide there." Sven pointed at a large bush growing at the base of the cliff.
"They'll spot you," said Lasse.
"No. There's a a hollow if the cliff right behind that bush. I'll be able to lay down."
Henrik walked up to the bush and looked behind it. He turned round and looked at Sven and said:
"Let me do it."
Sven hesitated. He preferred to be the one who would be acting alone. If the group tried to fight back they would rush him, not the two men in front. He was confident he could handle that. He wasn't confident Henrik could.
But Henrik really did have an amazing talent for merging into the background and becoming invisible. Sven said:
"Okay. Henrik, make sure the last one has passed by a few steps before you move. Don't get too close to them, kill only if someone attacks you or tries to run away."
"I can take one down with my throwing ax," said Henrik.
"Save it for anyone trying to escape. I and Lasse will take out the two men, and I'll also kill the nearest woman. The remaining three should be easy to deal with."
"They'll run Henrik's way," said Lasse.
"So? You get one, Henrik gets another, and there'll be just one left to chase, if she's still running. I think she won't. I think she'll freeze and shit herself with fear."
"What if she doesn't?"
"Then we'll have to do a bit of running," Sven said. "I want at least one of those people taken alive. You understand? At least one. I prefer two or all three."
"Three," said Henrik. "This way, everyone gets a cunt of his own."
Sven shook his head and sighed.
"What's the matter?" asked Henrik. "We won't get to fuck them?"
"You will," said Sven. "But not until I tell you that you can. Got it?"
"Loud and clear."
"Good. Let's do it, they'll be here before long."
The closest cover Sven could find was twenty paces away from the spot where the pathway left the cliff. Lasse was forced to move even further back: Sven's hiding place was too small for both of them.
"I'll have to close the distance a little when the time comes," Sven told him. "I'll just walk out and keep walking towards them, saying something to distract them. When you see me raise my arm to throw my ax, shoot. If the men are side by side, take the guy on your right. If they're in line, take the second one."
"Of course," said Lasse. "But what do we do if they discover Henrik?"
"We move very fast," he said. "Go."
Lasse scurried away to hide behind his chosen tree. Sven crouched behind a bush similar to the one that grew in front of Henrik's hiding place. He was perfectly still, yet his heart was speeding up, beating strongly. A low-pitched whistle started in his ears. It was his blood singing, it was his blood song whenever he prepared to kill.
His victims were a long time coming. Sven was becoming impatient when he heard a laugh, followed by a murmur of voices. He couldn't see anyone yet: a screen of trees blocked his view of the pathway on the other side of the cliff.
He glanced over his shoulder at Lasse, who gave him a thumbs-up before sliding out of sight. The voices were getting louder and closer. They sounded happy and relaxed.
Finally, after another small eternity, the group came into view. Like before, it was led by the two men walking side by side, and Sven swore softly when he saw them.
The bows! He'd forgotten those assholes carried bows. They'd be sure to aim them at him when he showed himself. If they rightly suspected he had bad intentions, they would shoot. And they wouldn't miss, not at distance of a dozen paces.
He felt sweat bubbling up on his forehead. He'd have to rush them, count on being able to run ten steps before they reacted. It was too late to tell Lasse about the change to their plan. He'd have to count on Lasse using common sense. Lasse had shown plenty of that on several occasions, most recently when they attacked the village. Yes, he could count on Lasse.
Sven pulled his ax from behind his belt, and picked up his shield. He'd intended to walk out without it to appear as harmless as possible, but now it could be useful if those two managed to get an arrow off. He had good reflexes, a good chance of stopping a single arrow with his shield. If there was more than one -
He stopped thinking about that. The group had stopped, and he could only count four - the two men and two women. Then he saw them glancing back and guessed they were waiting for the stragglers to catch up. He was instantly proven right when one of the men shouted:
"Move your fucking asses, we've only got an hour of light left."
"Don't be silly," a woman's voice called out in answer. "At least two."
"It's darker in the forest. Stop trying to be clever, and move your ass."
"You're just jealous because Hugo wanted to fuck me."
The women giggled and Sven saw the man mouth something that was probably a curse. Then he turned and started walking forward again, his companion following. The two stragglers finally came into view, trotting and giggling. Sven grinned: they were in for a rapid change of mood.
He waited until the two men were just a couple of steps away from where the cliff ended, and the pathway entered open terrain. Then he sprang forward like a wild cat pouncing on its prey.
He'd run several steps before they even looked at him, several more before they understood what his appearance could mean. He was within accurate range and raised his arm to throw his ax and heard the twang of a bowstring. Good old Lasse!
Lasse's arrow hit just as the ax was leaving Sven's hand. The arrow hit with such force that the hit man staggered backwards, raising his hand to his neck with his eyes close to popping out from shock and his mouth working soundlessly. Lasse had hit him in the throat.
His companion glanced in his direction and Sven's ax hit his jaw. There was a crack of breaking bone and a scream from the woman who had been walking directly behind him. Sven ran at her, pulling out his sword. He was about to run her through the belly when she dropped to her knees and raised her hands as high as she could and started screaming:
"Don't kill me! Please! I surrender! Don't kill me!"
Sven glanced up from her and saw that Henrik was holding a woman by her hair. Another lay at his feet. The fourth woman was pressing her back against the cliff, as if she hoped it would part and let her escape inside it. Her mouth was wide open and her head kept flicking to Sven, to Henrik, back to Sven again.
Sven stepped up to the man he'd hit and wrenched his ax out of his face. Then he split his head with a single blow, spilling blood and brains. The kneeling woman let out a whimper.
Sven looked at her and saw that she had her hair braided into a single thick braid: very useful! He grabbed it, making her squeal with fright.
"Shut up," he told her. He looked at the woman still trying to wriggle into the cliff, and smiled.
"An honorable surrender?" he called. She nodded, and lowered her eyes.
"Come over here," Sven told her, and nodded to Henrik to join him as well. Lasse already did, another arrow ready on his bow.
"Kneel down beside her," Sven said to the approaching woman. He let go of the braid. No one was going to do any running. It was over.
When Henrik had joined with his captive, Sven said:
"I'm sorry, ladies, but circumstances require we tie your hands."
They did that with strong leather thongs, making them tight: no one dared complain. Then they blindfolded the women with clothes ripped off the corpses, tying them over their faces so that just the chin and the forehead showed. There was a little squirming when they did that, and one of the women said:
"You don't need to do that. We're not going to try to escape."
"Promises, promises," said Sven, and made sure all the blindfolds were tight.
"You can sit or lie down now if you want," he said when he'd finished. "Make yourself comfortable."
He winked at Lasse and Henrik, and added:
"We're going to have a nice conversation. It's so nice to meet someone new in this wilderness."
He dropped to a squat in front of the woman in the middle, the one with the braid. He reached out and gently grasped her chin and turned her blindfolded face towards his. He said:
"What's your name?"
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