Ishild’s knife left its sheath like a pike escaping a trap while Inga’s bow held an arrow poised to fly. But more threatening than either was the low rumble of malice that emanated from Ferox who, having spent several, fruitless hours sniffing for small prey in the ditch, now sensed the arrival of something much more substantial to sink his teeth into.
“Wait!” hissed Inga and the quivering beast held back, though not without a sullen glare at his mistress.
The longer she peered at the two specimens of manhood – no more than a dozen yards from her – the less apprehensive Inga became. Though darkness hid their features, neither man attempted to draw a weapon, or threaten them in any way. True, any man confronted by a monstrous Molussian war dog – not to mention two armed and, apparently very hostile, young women, was probably wise to exercise caution.
Were they from the nearby settlement, she wondered and, if so, why had they not raised the alarm at once? Perhaps they too were strangers and not from the village at all. Whatever the reason, the four of them could hardly stand there, facing each other down, all night. Aside from any other considerations, the impatient Ferox was unlikely to comply with her wishes for more than a few minutes longer.
Instinct persuaded Inga to take a risk and she lowered her bow a little. Ishild, following her lead, put away her blade, though with some reluctance. Ferox, however, remained a bulwark of belligerence and she knew that the slightest wrong move by either of the men would persuade the dog to attack.
She was still puzzling over why the strangers had not attempted to alert those in the village, when – perhaps in response to Inga’s gesture – they stepped back, as if inviting the girls to pass them by. It occurred to her that the pair might simply be enticing them forward with ill-intent. Where she stood now, her bow would still be lethal but, if she got any closer, it would be rendered useless. Indecision gnawed at Inga, for Ishild was staring at her, wild-eyed, and Ferox’s black body tensed as he prepared to spring forward.
Putting what she hoped was a calming hand upon Ferox’s head, Inga took a pace to her right – away from both the settlement and the two men. By walking away and maintaining a safe distance, she hoped to reduce the tension on both sides. Thankfully, the strangers seemed reassured by her actions and moved off, without a word or gesture, towards the settlement.
Neither she nor Ishild spoke until they reached the sanctuary of the dense stand of trees where their horse was hobbled. Even then, the encounter remained a mystery which posed several questions but offered no answers.
“Did I imagine it,” said Ishild, “or did those two climb over a low part of the earth bank and go inside?”
“But, why would anyone from inside, just leave us be? It must have been obvious that we were up to no good.”
“I know, it makes no sense,” agreed Inga, “unless… they too were up to no good too. But, for us, it changes nothing: we still need to get in there.”
“But what if they warn folk we’re coming?”
“If they didn’t before, why would they now?” said Inga.
Too weary to think, she insisted that they rest for the remaining hours of darkness but, so exhausted were the pair of them, that they slept on long past dawn, undisturbed by the morning chatter of the forest birds. When Ferox finally nudged Inga awake, with Ishild still nestled against her, a glimpse of the high sun told her that the morning was almost over. Perhaps it was for the best, she decided for, if they intended to breach the ditch and bank that night, they would need to be at their best.
“Get off me, Ferox!” she grumbled. “I know where that snout’s been!”
A groan from Ferox was followed by a sigh from Ishild, as Inga contemplated managing the pair of them for yet another day. The coming night would test them all and the responsibility would rest heavily upon her. Ishild would need to curb her natural inclination to hasty action and, most of all, Ferox would be required to remain outside the village bank and wait for them. Within a few moments, half a dozen possible problems occurred to her – after which, she shut them from her mind and began to work through a detailed plan.
Wrestling with her task all afternoon, Inga encountered only problem upon problem. By the time the last glimmer of sunset vanished, she was convinced that a rescue was impossible. Even assuming that they could actually find the captives in a settlement about which they knew nothing, how could they free them? There were certain to be guards and how could they overcome them without disturbing the whole village? And what about their escape, for Ambrosius and Arturus would need horses?
As if all that was not enough to worry about, there was also the unpredictable bundle of savage brutality that was Ferox. They might intend to work in silence, but Ferox would consider no such limitation.
“Ready?” asked Ishild, bright as steel.
“It’s hopeless,” muttered Inga.
But Ishild simply grinned back at her. “It always was impossible, though, wasn’t it?”
Of course it was, thought Inga. They had been destined to fail before they even set off; but what was always left unsaid was that both women would rather die than lose the men they loved.