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imageChapter 1: Sigurd and the Band of Thieves

Ah, the romantic life of a wandering bard! Free as the wind. Sleeping 'neath the open skies. Enjoying the company of the farmers' daughters.

Everyone knows the chorus as well as I and we all join in with a lusty "Hey-nonny-nonny". I wrote my own verse about the innkeeper's lovely daughter.

That verse was as close as I ever got to the young lady.

Let's face it, the romantic life of the wandering bard was great fun when I was sixteen. As the years have passed, however, I think more about having a roof over my head, rather than sleeping 'neath the open skies.

The truth is that the open skies tend to rain a lot.

So, as I've neared twenty, I've started looking for a post as a court minstrel. Someplace with warm fireplaces, soft beds and a lord who sets a decent table.

Needless to say, those sorts of posts are generally already filled.

In deference to my advanced years, I was following the trade trails where a man traveling lightly; a man who owns nothing but his eating knife and his lute, can reach an inn by nightfall. I can sometimes get a meal and a bed in exchange for an evening of song and story.

At worst there's space in the barn.

It was half past October when I stopped at a tiny inn where the trade path crosses the River Wier. The inn was built with stones borrowed from the long-abandoned Roman wall. The Romans constructed good, solid walls of well dressed stone. Now that the legions have been gone for some three hundred years, that stone is finding better uses.

The innkeeper was a gruff ex-armsman who wasn't eager to have a bard filling space where someone with coins might sit. But he let me sing and beg for pennies as long as I kept everyone happy and buying drinks. He even gave me a mug of ale he'd watered down just a bit more than necessary.

Since the evenings were getting cool and I had hopes of being allowed to sleep near a fire, I was singing my best sagas: ''Sigurd and the Seven Thieves'', ''Sigurd Slays the Dragon'', and even ''Sigurd and the Three Virgin Sisters''.

My stock in trade are the Sagas of Sigurd. I sometimes sing the traditional sagas, but usually I sing ones I've composed myself. Adventures to thrill you, romances to enthrall you, a moral to fulfill you and perhaps even move you to offer charity to a hungry bard.

In the end, I slept in the stable. The stable was not built from well-cut stone. The walls were rough wood with large gaps to allow the night-breezes to flow freely. These breezes kept the stables as cold as outside without affecting the stable's unique odor.

Being the only traveler too poor to pay a penny to sleep by the fire, I pulled some straw into a pile, wrapped myself in my cloak and was lucky enough to fall asleep without being stepped on by the horses.

Just after moonrise, my luck changed. I woke suddenly when I heard the stable door creak open, followed by the soft tread of gentle footsteps. Opening one eye, I spied an almost boyish figure approaching, the moonlight streaming through the open door glinted on long blonde ringlets.

It's not unheard of for a young lady to sneak out from her bedroom to visit a bard in the stable. It happens most often after an evening of the tales of Sigurd. The stable door opens, a slim form slips in, and in a hushed voice whispers, "Do you know where Sigurd is now? Are his adventures likely to bring him near here?"

Still, I keep hoping. There are enough songs about a quick dally in the stable that there must be some truth in the tales.

I admired the golden locks. The form beneath was a bit stocky, but it would do. Then a noise in the stable yard made my romantic visitor turn, and I saw the moonlight gleaming on the full blond beard.

I suddenly hoped this was not a romantic visitation. Just another traveler without coins looking for a dry place to sleep.

"Bard?" the visitor whispered, "Are you awake?"

I could sense my luck fleeing. This would not make a good song.

I considered faking sleep and then wondered what my visitor might consider amusing activities to pursue with a sleeping bard.

"I am now," I grumbled.

"Good." The visitor settled on his haunches near my chest and looked down at me. "I greatly enjoyed the Sagas of Sigurd you sang tonight. They thrilled and inspired me."

How many times have I wished to hear a comely lass whisper those words. Not some hero-worshiping lad almost as old as I.

"Thanks," I mumbled back, "may I go back to sleep now?"

"A moment of your time. As I said, the sagas inspired me. Are they your own?"

"Yes. They are my own. Carefully crafted so that none can fail to recognize my talen..."

"Wonderful. As I said, they inspired me. I believe I could be Sigurd."

"Well, every man should aspire to do the best he can do in the eyes of man and God. I aspire to sleep most deeply."

"You mistake my meaning. I do not aspire to be as heroic as Sigurd. I aspire to be Sigurd. Sigurd the Hero."

I grunted a querulous grunt.

I began to realize that he wasn't attempting to seduce me. That was the good news. The bad news is that he was obviously insane.

Everyone knows that Sigurd is imaginary. Nobody could survive all the adventures I've composed about him. You might as well aspire to be Roland, or Lancelot or even a king like Charlemagne or Arthur. It's a grand dream, but it can't happen.

I started to gently explain this, but he interrupted me.

"I'm a sell-sword," he said. "A sell-ax, actually. Swords are expensive. But I live like you do: traveling and earning money when I can. I guard a farmer taking his crop to town today, fill the ranks of some earls arguing about boundaries tomorrow, and wonder where I'll sleep the day after that."

"Aha, You think you have a story that would make a saga? In the morning I'll be happy to hear your tale."

Everyone thinks their life would make a great saga. Too many of them are willing to tell me all the details in exchange for just a small portion of the gold I receive for singing about their boring lives.

"Don't I wish I had adventures like Sigurd. Particularly the one with the three maidens." He paused and looked dreamily at the ceiling. "But, that's not why I'm here. While you sang, I realized that Sigurd is tall and fair-haired, like me. If I were Sigurd the Hero, I'd be paid with pieces of gold instead of chunks of cheese."

"So, tell people you're Sigurd. Tell them you're Hercules for all I care."

"No one will believe me if I claim to be Sigurd. But, if you claim me to be Sigurd, then I'll receive greater rewards for my services and your songs will be grander for my presence. We'll both be sleeping on feather beds, not in stables."

That pretty much settled it. The man was insane. Insane and armed with an ax. Not to mention standing while I was lying down wrapped in a cloak.

Discretion is a bard's first weapon.

"You have a very interesting proposition. I'd like to sleep and think about it. Let us continue talking in the morning."

"Thank you, Friend Bard. In the morning it shall be."

And he turned around and left the barn. I was surprised. I'd expected him to continue talking about his grand idea.

As soon as he left, I checked my pack. My lute and the rest of my belongings were all packed and ready for me to travel. I learned years ago to be fully packed the night before leaving. It makes it easier to slip out quietly before dawn. Before the innkeeper remembers that you haven't paid and before anyone has collected the day's eggs.

I woke a bit before cock-crow. The chickens were a bit restless when I looked for some breakfast, but it seemed they weren't laying today. It was lamentable, but not my first breakfast-less morning.

I tip-toed across the yard and out the gate, turned the corner and almost tripped over the blond ax-man. He had a half dozen eggs sitting in a circle around a small fire and was busily turning them to bake evenly. In the daylight I could see the battered leather pauldron that covered his shoulders and upper arms above a dirt-brown tunic. His leggings were nearly as patched and ragged as my own.

"Good morning, Friend Bard," he greeted me. "I thought you would be an early riser. Would you care to share my breakfast? The eggs are fresh."

The road only gets longer when you start on an empty stomach. I sat down, knowing I'd regret it.

He picked up an egg, shook it gently then tossed it to me. It was hot. I peeled back a bit of shell and bit into it.

"Nicely done." I complimented him. I'm always polite to my host. Especially when there are two more eggs that could be mine.

"Thank you, kind sir. Just one of the skills I've picked up in my travels." He cracked the shell with his teeth and nibbled the steaming egg. "And, speaking of travels. Have you thought about my plan?"

"A bit... But, let us not discuss such things before breakfast." I looked pointedly at the remaining eggs.

"A good idea," he replied, picking up the eggs and wrapping them in a bit of felt. "Breakfast is now complete. These eggs will be a fine luncheon."

He carefully placed the eggs in his travel sack, "By that I mean for Sigurd and his partner."

I'd learned early to be friendly to ax-men. "Alas, my friend," I said, "Sigurd is imaginary. Everyone knows that. There aren't any heroes today. They all died out ages ago. If they even existed then. If I pointed at you and called you Sigurd, people would laugh."

I ran my finger along the inside of the eggshell to collect the last remnants of a small meal.

"I thank you for sharing your breakfast, but I fear it is time to travel." I looked back at the inn. I could hear the first sounds of people waking and moving about. The next sounds would be people noticing which travelers and how many eggs were missing.

"An excellent suggestion. I believe we are both traveling north, so we may as well walk together."

He stood and offered me a hand up. I rose without the assistance. I may be almost twenty, but I don't need help to stand. He set a strong pace down the path. A soldier's pace, designed to get you where you need to be. Not a bard's pace, designed for watching the birds and trees while you search for the right couplet to complete a verse.

He slowed a bit and started to talk again.

"People want heroes to be real. That's why they pay you to sing about Sigurd. They want to believe in someone better than them, someone who knows what he is doing."

He bit his lip for a moment, then continued, "That's why an armsman obeys a sergeant and a sergeant obeys an earl and an earl obeys his lord. Nobody knows how a battle will flow. The lord is as confused as the earl, the sergeant or the foot-soldier. But they all want to believe that someone understands and has a plan. So, they all follow orders. Even when they know that the orders are wrong."

He paused. He was looking through the tall oaks and elms and into the past.

"People would rather die than not believe in a hero."

He shook his head and I could see him forcing himself to relax. I hadn't noticed him tensing until he unclenched his fist and dropped his shoulders.

This man had a story I'd never ask for and didn't really want to know. I knew I'd learn it if we traveled together. It wasn't a grand story like the Sigurd legend, but it would be a story that would touch the old soldiers. It might earn me a penny or two.

He continued speaking, barely looking at me. "People want to hire a hero to guard their flock, not some sell-sword. They'll pay a hero more than they'll pay a nameless ax-man."

He slowed again and glanced at me.

"If you tell people that I'm Sigurd, they'll want to believe. They'll know that I'm not the Sigurd of legend, but they won't care."

He stopped and turned to face me. He wasn't looking into the past now, he was looking at me and spoke quickly.

"You can keep the money you earn singing and I'll split the coins I earn with you. I'll give you one of every ten coins I earn as Sigurd."

Suddenly, he was talking sense.

"Two pieces out of ten. From each task you do while we're traveling together, whether you claim to be Sigurd or not."

"Deal." He spat on his hand and held it out. I spat on mine, and clinched the best and worst bargain of my life.

I wiped my hand on my tunic and looked back him. "I'm commonly called Bard, or sometimes, Bard the Lutist. How are you known?"

He smiled. "Why, you can call me Sigurd, of course."

There was no answer to that, so we continued walking without conversation. Scarcely an hour later, we reached a fork in the path.

Sigurd glanced at the paths and then at me.

"I choose my direction by flipping a coin." He looked at me closely. "Do you have a coin?"

I smiled. I would show this youth the advantage of my years of experience, but not whether or not I had a coin.

"Last night, a traveling tinker told me that the inn on the west fork had the best ale he'd ever tasted. We go east."

"East? If the best ale is west?"

"Any ale a tinker likes is too thin and sour for me."

We turned east, walking a narrow path between the tall trees. The forest was dark and still and seemed to go on forever. I was starting to think that thin ale was better than no ale at all when we reached a clearing. One moment the trees were so thick that we couldn't see ten paces, and suddenly there were open fields of wheat and barley.

In the north was a plume of smoke.

"Someone must be clearing more land," I suggested.

"Better he than I," my friend replied. "I'd rather guard a harvest than plant one."

I squinted at a wooden building about a half-mile ahead. "Is that a tin cup nailed above the door?"

"If it is, then it's probably an inn." He paused a bit. "We should not enter together. You go in first, and then I'll come a bit later. We can recognize each other as if it were a chance encounter."

He settled beneath a huge oak and I continued down the road. Now that I wasn't with him, I was starting to have second thoughts about the idea of presenting him as Sigurd.

I do two things: I carry news, mostly true, and I present legends, mostly otherwise. Nobody pays me an extra penny to hear that a king has a new son or that a viking band burned a village. I get the extra pennies and sceats for the stirring sagas of my imagination.

Would my imagination be worth a penny if people thought I was just reporting the real life adventures of a real live Sigurd?

By the time I arrived at the inn I was considering slipping out through the stables on the far side and heading out of town.

But, I had time for an ale before I made that decision. One egg is not enough for a long day's travel.

I brought my lute to my chest, brushed my sleeve across the waxed maple front to bring out the shine, checked the tuning quickly, strummed a flourish and strode into the inn. I glanced about the dim interior, checking the rough wooden benches for potential benefactors. The inn was empty except for a lanky, gray-haired innkeeper.

"Good Day, Friend Innkeeper," I called, "Would you spare a glass of ale for some news and song?"

"A small cup for a song," the innkeeper replied. "More will depend on how much I like the song." He wiped a small copper cup on the hem of his woolen tunic, filled it and set it in front of me. A wooden cross swung from a leather strip around his neck. I thought of appealing to his Christian charity, but gave up the idea when I saw the size of the cup .

He was true to his word. The cup was small. But it was wet and not too sour.

I sang him the first five verses of ''Sigurd and the Seven Thieves''. Right up to my favorite stanza.

Seven jackals circled taunting, 
Sigurd smiling, still undaunted. 
Points he to the largest, laughing, 
"You shall be the first to die."

I let my voice crack and nodded towards the glass. "Perhaps a bit more, good Innkeeper. The dusty road, you know..."

He brought me a large wooden mug, and I did it some small honor.

"Would that Sigurd were real. We have only three thieves, but it would be a worthy saga if they were just driven away, let alone killed."

I stopped honoring the ale and started choking on it.

"Three thieves?"

"Three runaways from the King's Army. They camp back in the woods, take what they will and burn buildings when someone protests." He nodded toward the smoke. "That would be Goodman Barley's house. He was never one to part quietly with his stock." He placed a stack of wooden mugs on the counter and nodded at my lute.

"Sing your songs of Sigurd this evening. It's worth dinner, a bed, and all the ale you wish. Mayhap it will put enough backbone into our farmers to send them against the villains."

I was still choking a bit. As soon as Sigurd announced himself, he'd be pressed into service. Three trained foemen would make short work of him.

I'd not miss him a great deal. We'd just met. But I didn't want to have to finish my sagas with ''Sigurd and the Ignoble Death''.

I turned towards the door and was starting to run and warn Sigurd to not announce himself when the door swung wide and Sigurd burst in.

"Friend Bard!" he cried, "I thought I saw you enter this inn. Let us share some ale and I'll tell you my latest adventures. They will make good songs."

The innkeeper looked at Sigurd suspiciously. "You know this man?" he asked me.

I started to protest that he was a stranger, but Sigurd was louder.

"Know me? Why he is my favored historian. I am the great Sigurd, and this is my trusted bard, the teller of my tales."

The innkeeper's jaw dropped. Sigurd was right. People wanted to believe.

"Sigurd?" he gasped, "The Sigurd?"

A bard should be in control of a situation. It's how we survive. But, situations like this aren't what we practice.

I was still gasping when the door opened again and a peasant dressed in a rough farmer's tunic stumbled in shouting, "Mad bull! Run!"

He was followed by a large, brown bull.

Sigurd was still standing in front of the door, just starting to turn when the bull came in and paused, looking for the peasant he'd been chasing. He saw Sigurd, lowered his head and pawed the dirt floor.

Sigurd was fast. He loosed his ax, grabbed it by the head and struck the bull on the nose with the ax-handle. He stepped in close, stuck his fingers in the bulls nostrils and twisted.

The bull bawled once and stopped fighting.

The innkeeper turned to the peasant. "Goodman Barley," he said quietly. "Would you remove your bull from my inn?"

The peasant looked at Sigurd, still holding the bull. "Good sir, my thanks. The bull is well-behaved, but the robbers." He paused for a breath. "Those villains burned my barn and scared my poor bull until he went mad. They stole three of my chickens, and a firkin of ale." He looked at the innkeeper. "We've got to stop these varlets. Drive them from our valley. Nobody is safe as long as they're about."

The innkeeper pointed at Sigurd who was just beginning to realize that there was more than an angry bull in this village.

"We are in luck." the inn-keeper said with a grand wave of his arm to include Sigurd and me. "Just now, the legendary Sigurd has walked into my inn, obviously having heard tales of my ale. Sigurd would never let an opportunity to save our village pass him by."

Sigurd looked at me with an expression much like that of the bull he was holding.

"Three runaways from the King's Army," I summarized for him. "Hiding in the woods, living on pillage."

He paled a bit, but caught himself. "Three." he paused with enough drama to have been a bard. "Three is hardly worthy of my talents, but I might give the farmers a bit of advice and training."

The innkeeper spoke up quickly. "I assure you that these three villains are worthy of your effort. They have been ravaging the farmsteads around the village for almost six months, and none of the farmers have been able to defend themselves. I'm sure your bard will write a marvelous ballad about this adventure."

Goodman Barley started to lead the bull away, but Sigurd was still staring at the innkeeper and me. The bull was wheezing as Sigurd squeezed its nose harder. He finally noticed Goodman Barley and released the bull, wiping his hand on his tunic.

"Not a single farmstead in this entire village has fought the villains?" he asked.

"Oh, plenty have fought," the innkeeper replied. "But no one has been able to drive them off. If you fight, they burn one of the farm buildings. If you just let them take what they want, they don't burn any."

I looked at Sigurd. His altercation with the bull and conversation with the innkeeper had given me a chance to think. It was time to get him off the hook.

"Sigurd, " I spoke slowly. "Don't you have an urgent quest east of here? A princess in despair, wasn't it?"

He looked at me blankly, and then intently as he recognized my ploy.

"Of course. The princess. I'm sorry, good innkeeper, but I really cannot tarry."

The innkeeper set a large mug of ale on the counter.

"Well, perhaps for a bit, but I really can't take the time to search the woods for your knaves. It could take days to find them, you know."

The innkeeper set a half a fowl next to the ale.

"It wouldn't take that long to find them. We can direct you to the section of woods where they always go after they steal some food or ale from the farmers."

Sigurd tore a leg from the fowl and started eating. "Still, it would take me time, and I cannot afford it. I do wish your village well..."

The innkeeper interrupted him. "I know that a hero expects a reward. This is a small village, but we would not expect you to risk your life for nothing. Not that three knaves would present any risk to a hero like you."

Sigurd took a large bite from the leg and looked at the innkeeper.

"I will offer all you can eat and drink tonight, for both you and your bard."

Sigurd took a swallow of the ale and kept looking at the innkeeper. "And a bed... for each of you..."

Sigurd swallowed the last of the bird and cleared his throat. "I'm sorry, my bard and I must attend to the quest. But I do thank you for this meal."

The innkeeper looked ill. "I'll give you my horse," he said. "It's the best in the town. Rid us of these villains and traveling on horseback will make up for the time you spend here."

A horse was a serious temptation. Sigurd was a very good bargainer.

"And trappings?" I suggested.

The innkeeper sighed. "Saddle, bridle and blanket."

Sigurd looked at me. "I say we sample our landlord's hospitality tonight, and rout the ruffians in the morning."

I nodded and wondered when it became we who were to do battle.

We spent the afternoon and evening sampling the innkeeper's ales and ciders, singing when there were enough folks to listen and exchanging news of the kingdom and neighboring villages with the innkeeper when there was nobody else around.

Among other bits of gossip, I learned that Prince Wellach and his company had stopped at this inn on their way north to pay court to King Elmar's daughter Beornwyn. This would be a fine bit of news at the next inn I visited. It would be grand if I could winter in a king's court, but taverns were the finest places I'd ever been allowed into.

A day with all the ale you can drink is a marvelous thing. It loosens the tongue, brightens the wit and by the end of the day it makes the path to the outhouse much longer and convoluted. I had almost reached my destination when I realized that it was already occupied. Two voices were discussing an important matter.

The first voice said, "Sigurd is merely a bard's story. This lout is trying to steal from you."

"Not so, " the second voice responded. "I swear I saw it with my own eyes. He hit the bull with his bare hand and it stopped dead in its tracks. Then he threw it to the ground with a single flip of his wrist. Ask the innkeeper. He saw it as well."

"He won't be a match for the gang in the woods."

"Hah! Didn't you hear the bard? Seven Saracens he slew, armed with just a dagger. He'll probably behead those three with a single swing of his ax."

"Go tend to your chickens. I need to get another ale."

The footsteps went in different directions, and I barely made it to the outhouse. The trail back to the inn was shorter and straighter. Something in that conversation was very sobering, but I wasn't sure just what it was.

I sang the long version of "Sigurd and the Three Virgin Sisters." By the time I reached the last sister, only Sigurd, the innkeeper and I were left.

The innkeeper apologized. "It's a fine song, but the chores start early around here. Your beds are in the loft, up the ladder. Breakfast at dawn. I'll give you my horse after you've driven the bandits from the woods."

Sigurd and I helped each other up the ladder. It was straighter than the path to the outhouse, but might have been longer.

The beds were clean straw tick over tight cords. Our host kept a good inn.

Dawn, however, came much too early and brought a headache with it.

Breakfast was eggs and oatmeal, washed down with some watered ale. Sigurd and I dawdled over our meal, trying to make it last long enough that we could think of some way to leave without dying in the woods.

The longer we dawdled, the more villagers came to watch us go search for the bandits.

I finally couldn't eat any more. The expression on Sigurd's face as he chewed a mouthful of oatmeal told me that he'd reached the same condition.

We stood together and the villagers cheered.

"You see that corner of the wood." The innkeeper pointed to the left of where we'd seen the smoke yesterday. "That's where the knaves always run after they pillage. Their camp must be just inside the woods. Bring back proof that you've driven them off and I'll give you my horse."

We set out slowly, with a few of the villagers trailing behind. The closer we got to the woods, the fewer villagers there were.

Sigurd glanced at me. From the side of his mouth he whispered, "I hope you have a plan."

I kept my head straight. "I thought you'd just slay them with a single blow, I'd write a saga, and we'd ride to the next town."

He stumbled and caught himself. "There are three of them. They're trained. They might even be sergeants or yeomen. If we're lucky, they'll just kill us quickly."

I laughed. "I have a plan," I assured him. "We go into the woods, and as soon as we're hidden by the trees, we head back to the road and take the other fork. I'm thinking that the tinker might know a good ale after all."

By now we were alone and the woods were close. There was a narrow deer trail leading into the woods. After we followed it for a dozen paces I glanced back over my shoulder. We could not be seen from the village. We were safely out of sight.

I smiled wisely at Sigurd. My plan had worked. We could slink away with our bellies full with no need to attack any bandits and no need to ever return to this village.

As I nodded toward the trail, we heard voices. We had found the bandits after all. I just hoped that they hadn't found us.