Unlike Ernst, Ard and his brothers wear fabric shirts, not leather. They prefer the lighter and more flexible garments for using their bows. Naturally, their over-garments are made of ibex leather. Are wears a cape made from a wolf that he killed. His brother, Aldo, wears a cape made from a bear, felled from a single arrow. The presence of Aldo on this journey augurs well with the rest of the men who look not only to Ernst and his wisdom, but to the strength of Ard and his brothers.
Drak stopped the column on the first change of plants, a marker on the route up the Alps as obvious to these men as a road sign. He motioned Ernst forward. Breathing through is mouth and nose at the same time, Drak said, “I can smell bad weather brewing.”
Ernst knew to trust his scout in all matters pertaining to tracking and the portents of weather. “How soon?”
“On the other side, not here. The air is coming over the pass and down this side.”
Raiding could not be accomplished in the rain since the moisture stretched their bow strings and made them useless.
Ernst looked up the hillside, “We continue until we are stopped by the weather, agreed?”
Drak said that he did and continued forward. Winter scud drifted over the peaks and portended the early coming of snow, but it had not snowed yet. An escape over the pass in winter beating the snowpack would be a daring strategy. Ernst had pulled it off before, but there were significant risks that came with that brash strategy. They ran the risk of being snowed in on the other (Austrian) side, effectively marooned. Since all of them were known in those distant lands, and not in a good way, it could lead to their deaths.
The first night they made the last large fire of the trip and sang songs. Ard brought arag, a drink of fermented milk blended with blood. Before long all of them with the exception of Ernst were roaring drunk. Arag always soured his stomach and gave him the running burns. Naturally, Ard’s innermost desires came out and he spoke of his lifelong quest to find a large condor, possibly the largest in the world, trap it and then ride it up until he could grab the stars. He wanted to bring one back for the dowry he needed to pay for his bride-to-be. Absent that, slaves and booty from this raid would have to do. He’d made a down payment of a bear pelt, two sheep and a good knife. One more installment and she would be his.
The raiders drifted off to sleep with Ernst standing vigil until after the moon set, when Drak relieved him.
Waking provided serious pain with Ernst coughing to the point of nearly passing out. It took herbs, water and a bit of breakfast to bring him to the point where he could set off. All of the others worried about him just as they deferred to his judgment. Leading the raid set him apart from all others in Mer and without it, he would be diminished, and he did not want to be considered to be old, even though he felt it more each day. Drak was right. He could feel the coming storm in his bones. Understanding the situation, he pushed the raiders in their pace.
Descending from the pass felt just as it had so many times before. Herds of sheep belonging to the others were still in high pastures, nipping off the last bit of grass before the weather forced them down into their winter range. Herders and their families lived in the summer camps that Ernst had raided many times before.
Drak called a halt at the crest of a ridge and dropped to his chest.
Ernst and Ard crawled up next to him. “I smell them. I smell their food, their sweat, their shit, and there are more of them than we usually encounter.”
“What have you seen,” Ard asked.
“Nothing. Look for yourselves. There are fat herds in the field for the taking, they are tended by callow youths, there is no guard and there are no dogs.”
“That sounds perfect,” Ard said.
“It’s a trap.” Ernst’s pronouncement echoed Drak’s. The question is how we can exploit the trap to our advantage.
Drak said, “Count on thirty armed men in addition to the herders. We will know more as we draw closer. They anticipate our last raid of the season. When the herds depart, the armed men will depart with them, but we can not attack them then. We must either return home empty handed and intact, or risk a skirmish against uneven numbers with winter at our back. Whatever you do, Ernst, guide us now and pray we move quickly for the winter is upon us.”
Ernst studied the landscape with a practiced eye. “We will go up and around in the darkness after the moon sets and will will take their camp from behind before they awaken, seize what we can and make for the pass.”
Ard cast a glance at him. “The chance for loot…”
“Will be diminished because we must fight our way back through them and clear the pass before the snow. They won’t want to follow us down the other side because they can be trapped by the snow as easily as we are.” Ernst’s word was law. They crawled backwards and informed the other raiders.
The camp of Tyrolleans had been laid out in much the same way as it always was. Tents made of tanned deer hide, rubbed with bear grease provided waterproof and weather proof enclosures for the summer herding. Families slept in the tents. The small army of forty-two warriors was picketed between the tents and the pass in small war bands to repel and kill any of the Valley people from Mer who frequently attacked at the very end of the season, to prevent a concentrated chase down the other side of the pass. Never before had they hired mercenaries, never before had they provided a serious defense to their herds, but they resolved to end the continuing raids led by Ernst and his warriors.
Ernst and his men struck before sunrise, binding three young pre-pubescent women, the most valued slaves, two copper cooking pots and a gold necklace belonging to the head man’s wife. They killed four warriors who stood watch over the camp with arrows that sliced out from the darkness and took them as they huddled around fires for warmth. The head man died from a stroke of Ard’s axe, and they were gone as the alarm began to sound. Ernst and Drak provided a rear guard, disguising their back trail as they moved out with their bounty.
There was some concern among all of the men because the warriors they killed were all well armed with yew bows and had arrows with iron tips. In an age when ten men constituted an army, they came to realize that they faced something that they had not anticipated, even when Drak estimated thirty. These men between them and the pass could be just as competent as they were.
As they rushed to make the pass they encountered four men, all heavily armed, no archers among them. Ard and his brother sent them to the great beyond with heavy arrows before they could lay a blow, but they’d shouted, and one man blew a ram’s horn, sending a clear note across the vale. What had started as routine for the raiders became something more deadly, something that they had never encountered before — superior odds.
Among boulders that had tumbled from the summit in eons before time, they divided. Ard and his brothers took the slaves, three others the booty, leaving Ernst, Drak and three others to delay their pursuit.
Moments after Ard, hefting his load, disappeared, an adversary rounded a bolder, his eyes on the ground cutting for sign. Ernst put an arrow through his throat at a distance of not more than three paces. He stepped over the gurgling man to retrieve the arrow and slipped it back into his quiver. Turning to join the others another man jumped him from behind.
Muscle memory cut in as it became a desperate struggle. The man brought his hatchet down on Ernst’s right arm and again, severing two fingers of his right hand. Drak finished the adversary with a club and picked up Ernst. “There you are, fighting on the ground when arrows are better, Ernst.” He spoke to the others. “Go up, protect our escape with arrows.”
From their position higher in the boulders, they could see men strung out along what had been their path out of the valley and they began go despair because of the numbers. They sent arrows out, slowing their pursuit but knowing that they’d never stop it as Drak helped Ernst limp up the side of the mountain. “Faster,” they prodded.
An arrow found Drak moments later, a glancing blow along his left cheek that bled over Ernst. The old man looked at his young friend, his eyes sharp with concern. “Head and face wounds bleed, Ernst, concentrate on walking. Don’t worry about me.”
They made good time climbing and Ernst seemed to get his second wind, up the winding stairs of the trail, over rocks, through copses of trees. The mercenary soldiers who pursued them were valley people and did not seem to have the stamina, blended with adrenalin that the raiders possessed. Raider arrows, aided by gravity told on the numbers of the pursuers, but would it be enough to spread the distance out of arrow range. Truth told, not all of the adversaries were keen to close on the raiders. They’d seen enough of their men fall that the pursuit became less strident.
When Drak felt that they were finally in the clear, as snow flurries began to fall, a lucky arrow arced up and took Ernst in his back, lodging under his left shoulder blade. Blood flowed freely as the arrow, which traveled through his lung, caused him to bleed from his mouth.
Taking his knife, and turning toward the pursuers, Ernst said, “Go my friend. I will hold them off and buy time for you and our brothers.”
Drak left Ernst standing and bleeding, and leaped up through the brush like an ibex with its tail on fire. His last view of his friend through the snow, growing heavy now, was Ernst, on the ground with a small, broad man standing over him, beating him with a club.
Five thousand, three hundred, thirty-three years later, hikers in the Alps found Ernst’s body, frozen.
|A vintage map of Merano, Italy –
referred to as Mer, in this story.
|Merano, as it appears today, with the Alps in background|