Slack and shiftless
Thievish men of the hills
No credit earned amongst them
Except in the secret halls of heroes
Where their true names are honoured
These foes of the red cloak
Winds Day, Death Week, Dark Season to Wild Day, Fertility Week
There is a mixed reaction in the stead to the news that Orvald has been matched for marriage with the sword maiden Leika Bundrisdotter of the Greycoat clan. Many of the women are delighted at the news; some because of the strife it would end while others because there would be a new steadwife to break in. A few are hopeful that a woman of such rank will bring a rich dowry to the stead at a time of scarcity. But some of the men are unhappy, mindful that just a season ago this young woman, this new-fledged thane, was raiding their stead and trying to make a name for herself in battle. Amidst the squeals of delight there are angry mutterings.
Orvald is in a state of shock. But both Fastulv and Neela, like many of his kinsmen, pressure him to marry the girl and help make the peace. The matter is sealed a few days later when Varmand Cut-in-Twain, Orvald’s father, blows into the stead full of wind and bluster. He is like the spirit of Helamakt, the Fighting Storm, full of fury at the news that his son will marry a filthy Greycoat. He launches a barrage of invective at the clan enemies.
“She smells of wolf, that girl,” Varmand sneers just as he makes to ride off. “I forbid you from marrying her. Our family’s blood will not mingle with theirs.”
Orvald’s response is electric and he bellows at his father’s retreating back that he will defy his sire and marry the woman, and nothing will stop him.
The days following the battle in the Brambleberry Hills is a busy time as the clan is on constant alert as. It seems the defeated troll army has disintegrated, but there are still many roving bands of Uz and enlo on the Kendring tula. They have holed up wherever they can and emerge to raid steads and outlying halls for food. Some are even desperate enough to attack during the day and the fyrdsmen muster often to hunt and kill them. It worries Orvald that there’s no way to distinguish between the Following Dark trolls and those who might be the Kendring’s allies against them.
In the meantime Neela is becoming increasingly agitated. Recent weeks have had her concealing secrets from her kinsmen and she is reaching the point where she can hold them in no longer. She persuades Orvald and Fastulv that they must tell Jarstak everything.
It is always hard to find privacy in a tight-knit community like the Blue Starling Stead, but they are able to find enough time alone to unburden themselves to Jarstak, telling him of their mission to help the troll Kragar to Jonstown and their commission from Chief Olfir to make contact with the herald again. The old trollhunter listens, interjecting rarely. It’s clear he appreciates the news but at the same time is angry at being kept in the dark. Keeping his temper bottled he asks them never to keep such things from him again. It’s a stern telling-off but the trio agree to the hall head’s request.
Neela is keen to find Kragar. She seems curiously respectful of the troll herald and eager to see him again. So she summons a messenger crow and sends it to Malta the Hurt, the rebel representative, with a request to meet her in Jonstown in a couple of days.
Fastulv and Orvald escort Neela to Jonstown but decide to avoid ‘Imperial entanglements’ and wait outside the walls as the redsmith goes in through the main gate. Neela is back again in the alien noise and smell of the big city and leaves her blanket roll at the Cinsina House, with its statue of the Fat Ragged Cow. She meets the guard Jarstak of Pavis at the house, but does not see One-legged Viturian, the steward who is said to never let the house run out of Honey.
Malta is not at the House, so Neela treks down the hill to the New City and the great ‘Y’ of the Jonstown Library, in the shape of the Truth rune. The line of supplicants and truth-seekers at the main gate is too long, so Neela finds the tradesmen’s entrance and bluffs her way in, requesting to see the sage Yend. Yend is summoned and is somewhat taken aback to encounter the redsmith, but he recovers smoothly and takes her off to a private cell to ask her business.
Neela asks to see Kragar but Yend cannot help her. The troll returned with Minaryth from a quest and then went south, to the Quivin mountains and the Blood Shadow troll clan. He can tell her no more than that. When Neela asks to see Minaryth, Yend admits that the great sage is not there either. He left a few days ago under Lunar escort. He believes he has gone to see the Lunar Governor, Fazzur Wideread, though for what reason he cannot say.
Neela bids Yend farewell and returns to the safety of the Cinsina House to wait for Malta the Hurt. The Red Cow woman arrives, somewhat crabby about having to infiltrate the Lunar-held city and wondering what urgency required her there. When Neela explains her need to find Kargar to arrange some kind of understanding in the war with the Following Dark, Malta simply nods and offers to do all she can to help.
Malta appears eager to take this opportunity to forge a temporary truce between the troll hunters and the trolls. Such connections, she says, were why she and Brena were in the Brambleberry Hills, trying to contact the troll clans. Though her capture was the first hint that the Following Dark had become aligned with the Lunars.
The two women leave the city. They brazenly walk out the main gate unmolested, though Malta is careful to cover her tattoos lest she be recognised by the Lunar guards. The Lunars ignore her, preferring to deal with the long queues wishing to enter at the gate. Outside of town the pair meet Fastulv and Orvald and together the four return to the Blue Starling Stead.
“How do we find Kragar?” Neela asks Malta. The rebel woman admits she does not have a direct means of contact, but suggests they talk to the Blood Shadows troll clan, who are allied with Queen Pika of Tarpit. The best way to contact the trolls will be through an intermediary. When Neela asks who the intermediary is, Malta admits it is the notorious bandit, Captain Slice.
The four Heortlings return to the stead in time for Ancestor Day. Jarstak admits Malta to his hall for the day as an honoured guest. Neela travels to Willem’s Hall where she meets Magana and Grandmother Dust.
Willem’s Hall has been prepared for the great day. Everything is clean, the children have been smartened up and the hall’s best animals have been tied to the door of the stead. The families have fasted for a day, but a feast has been prepared and Willem’s and Jarmast’s families are prepared to dine well with their guests. But there is a nervousness there. Everyone is on edge and none more so than Willem, his wife Yrsa and his daughter Magana. Grandmother Dust has searched the Caverns of Silence, Ty Kora Tek’s sacred place, but says there is no sign of Swen Willemsson’s soul there. It seems the young man never passed on to the Courts of Silence and his final judgement.
As night falls the ancestors rise from the urnfields, translucent but visible in their divine glory. They appear as they are remembered in their greatness: thanes and mothers, stout carls and industrious cottars. They come to inspect the stead and give it a blessing or a curse.
Across the clan the day passes without remark, with many blessings and a few curses for the slovenly and ill-deserving. But at Willem’s Hall a different drama unfolds. As the ancestors enter the hall, looking resplendent, a new and horrible spirit is with them. It is like a transparent cord, hanging in the air, that vibrates and shrieks a terrible sound that sets the teeth on edge.
The first amongst the ancestors, some ancient thane that speaks for the bloodline, speaks sternly to the families. He says that this is the ghost of half a man, whose soul was severed in the Battle of Castle Blue. The spirit threatens to curse the hall for leaving the rest of Swen’s soul writhing in a Lunar Hell.
But then Grandmother Dust raises a bony hand and, pulling back her hood, reveals a visage like that of a skull. In her hero light she resembles the goddess of the dead places, Ty Kora Tek, who escorts the dead to the afterlife. In a terrifying voice she demands the chance for the family to set things right.
Faced with the words from the goddess herself, the ancestors relent a little. They will give the family until Sea Season to right the wrong that has been done. Grandmother Dust agrees to this concession and allows the spirits to depart. Grandmother Dust says she must consult with the Earth priestesses as to what should be done next. A subdued feast follows in Willem’s Hall.
The morning after Ancestor Day, Neela, Fastulv and Orvald slip off with Malta into the Quivin mountins, heading further up into the forest of firs that skirts Hordros Mountain. These are dangerous forests full of roaming troll bands and other monsters. At least once, the group stops to let a troll column wander past. Then they continue their climb up towards the crags and rocks between the patches of firs.
Malta tells the group to be careful around the bandits. These are the dispossessed and the outlawed, living a miserable existence in caverns rented from the trolls. Orvald could lawfully kill them on sight. And yet the bandits have worked for the rebels from time to time, harassing the Lunars when asked. So notorious were they that the Lunar College of Magic once blew the top off the mountain in response. Malta asks the three companions not to provoke the bandits.
Orvald wonders why the bandits have not troubled the Kendring for a while. Malta admits it’s because many of the heads of the steads, including Jarstak, have been paying off the bandits with food. It’s an arrangement that has been going on for a long time.
Nearing the bandit camp, Malta asks the group to hang back and let her present herself to the bandits. She is a trusted face to them. Malta leaves, but returns soon with a stern, toughg-looking woman named Ploa. The bandit leads the group up to the camp.
The sight that greets them is of a makeshift encampment outside a series of caverns. The caves turn out not to be damp, uninhabitable holes, but dry, liveable spaces crafted by the trolls. A later exploration reveals not wide caverns but narrow cracks in the rock which it would be hard to fight in. The weapons of choice here would be short thrusting blades such as knives.
In the camp there are maybe twenty or thirty men and women who look as if they could bear arms, and a large number of camp followers and children amongst the bandits. Most look lean, hungry, ragged and filthy. On the way to see Captain Slice Orvald sees a familiar face: that of Ellisif Berensson, who was last seen being outlawed from the clan for adultery. The Underwillow girl Esrania is there with her lover. Although they were expelled from the clan only weeks ago, they already have the hollow, hungry look of the other bandits.
Captain Slice is a vigorous, charismatic man, surrounded by a guard of dangerous-looking men and women. The biggest if them is the bandit leader’s body man, named Hengist Neversleep. However, Slice is gruffly courteous to the visitors; it seems that Malta has vouched for their bona fides. He hears Neela’s request and then tells the companions that he does not know how to contact Kragar but can set up a meeting with the Blood Shadows clan. They would know how to find the troll. However, there would be payment required: food for the coming winter to help supplement their rations. Food in the form of meat will also be needed to buy the trolls’ assistance. The three Kendring agree to this.
Days later they will return with some sheep, taken from their bloodlines’ wealth. Again, Malta leads them up to the bandit hideout to ensure their safety. On the way the Red Cow woman tells them a little more about Slice, which is not his real name. He used to be a weaponthane of the Culbrea tribe, one of Hofstaring Treeleaper’s own men who served with the king during Starbrow’s Rebellion. When King Hofstaring was dragged into hell by the Lunars, he found himself serving the Lunar puppet, Ranulf Turn-Tail. When Lunar missionaries appeared in the Culbrea to convert the court and clansmen, Slice went berserk. He violated then killed the Sarassi the Eye, the head of the Lunar Provincial Mission. The he fled to the hills, declared an outlaw by his new king. For all his courtesy to the companions, he is a dangerous man, who despoiled and murdered a woman.
Fastulv and his alynx shepherd the sheep into the hands of the grateful-looking bandits, who shortly afterwards begin a slaughter of the beasts. Slice is thankful and upholds his part of the bargain. The three are led to a distant place, a crack in the mountain said to be an entrance to one of the Blood Shadow cavern complexes. Like many of the troll caves, this is a narrow crack in the rock face, and yet soon they see a troll in lead armour squeeze cat-like through the narrow place. It’s clear to the friends that any fighting in such a place would be near impossible against the trolls.
Malta tosses some of the freshly cut mutton out to the troll, who greedily gorges on the meat. When it is done, Neela identifies herself and asks its name. The troll introduces itself as Word Eater and impatiently asks her business. When Neela asks to contact the herald Kragar, Word Eater thinks and asks them to return in a week.