The dark men assemble
War hides beat
A flame is lit
Three heroes pull at the strands
And watch them gather
Gods Day, Fertility Week, Dark Season to Wild Day, Stasis Week
Across the clan tula troll activity is declining. No one is certain whether the trolls have dispersed or regrouped, but the number of alarms have reduced. The hall heads, the powerful sheep men of the clan, begin to discuss sending their flocks back to the upper pastures before the lower pastures are grazed clean.
Though attacks on the flocks have reduced there is at least one troll gang still out there, preying on the flocks. They are a small band of Dark Trolls who can conjure a fast-moving mist to conceal themselves by day. This mist rolls in off the hills, allowing the trolls plenty of time to attack and make their getaway.
Orvald and Neela’s hall head, Finn, suggests setting a daytime ambush for the trolls. As the Night Brothers are stretched, despite the reduction in the troll menace, he puts together a small group comprising himself, his healer wife Tara, and the trio of Orvald, Neela and Fastulv. Fastulv’s troll-killing spear seems to thrum and thirst for troll blood, so it’s unsurprising that the young shepherd suggests their strategy. He will take a small flock into the hills as bait, while most of the group hide in one of the nearby sheilings—the small summer shepherd huts that dot the hills. They will ambush the trolls if the dark men dare to make an attack.
Before the party set off Jarstak, the head of the stead, gathers the three companions to speak with them. He is concerned that the clan is being pulled into a war that maybe they should sit out. He would be content to allow the troll clans to annihilate each other, but now Chief Olfir has decided to accept an expensive offer from the rebellion of thanes to help fight the Following Dark. These warriors will be arriving soon and the stead head worries about the burden on the clan. Jarstak is suspicious of Queen Pika’s herald, Kragar. The appearance of this silver-tongued troll seems to have dragged the Clan Chief into the war. ‘Who benefits from this?’ he asks.
Neela speaks for the companions. She says that she also does not entirely trust Kragar, but believes his claims about the Following Dark clan allying with the Lunars. Was the red fire seen at the last battle not proof that the heretic trolls have new magics? And the claim that the Lunars have promised the Kendring land to the trolls seems too real and present a danger to dismiss. Neela has no illusions that Kragar is manipulating the clan into an arrangement that would benefit Queen Pika and the Blood Shadows. However, she also believes they have little choice at the moment. This is the prudent, cautious path.
Jarstak has no answer to this and grunts an agreement. Then he warns the three of another threat. With the troll threat declining he has heard that the hotheads of the Biting Storm faction might soon lead a raid on the Greycoat clan to sabotage the peace and forestall Orvald’s marriage to Leika Bundrisdotter. Jarstak has little more information than this. He has been identified as a peace supporter, so what he hears is often second or third hand. He warns Orvald to be careful.
After Jarstak leaves, Orvald wonders what to do. Should he warn the Greycoats? If necessary, he thinks he should do just that. But he knows that stopping a raid would not be enough. To be stopped for good the raiders would need to be humiliated. He’s not quite ready to do that to his own clansmen.
Neela suggests another way. Maybe they should call the men and women of the Biting Storm out for their recklessness? Their likely ringleader is Magnus Tree Hunter, the spakeman of the Fritharan bloodline. What if they were to confront him and let him know they were on to him?
The companions have no more time to thinkon this as Finn musters them and they march out to the pasture where they will lie in wait for the trolls.
It is a wan, chilly morning up on the high pasture. The low, cold sun can barely be made out through the grey cloud. The stiff stone fingers of the Seven Men Standing rise above the ground mist to the south. Fastulv, his alynx and his small flock stand, seemingly isolated, some hundred paces from one of the low sheilings. Inside the stone hut Orvald, Neela, Finn and Tara lie in wait, barely breathing, ready to explode out of the door.
Fastulv’s keen eyes see the magical mist first: a low grey thing speeding across the ground across his line of vision. He goads his sheep into making a great frightened blarting noise and Fastulv notices how the mist appears to change direction and head towards him. Inside the mist his owl’s eye can see three large spirits and two smaller ones, sweeping out in a line that would encircle him and his animals. In accordance with his plan Fastulv begins to herd his sheep away from the mist, back towards the sheiling. But the magical mist just bears down, moving faster than the shepherd can.
Fastulv is just twenty paces from the hut when he shouts out for help. Suddenly Neela leaps out of the door, her motion magic propelling her in a blur of speed. Just behind her, with immaculate timing, Orvald gives a mighty bellow and bursts out into the open, an arm whirling as he shouts a prayer to the mighty storm. A great wind instantly rises and blows the mist away, revealing the Uz, who blink uncertainly in the pale light. Then Neela descends from the heavens, landing firm-footed on the earth, and begins to lay about her, cracking one troll’s skull open with her hammer before it can respond.
There are three trolls, with two trollkin at their flanks. These trollkin are not quite the normal cowards but seem alert and ready for battle. They begin to swing their slings to hurl lead shot at the attackers. But they are peppered by arrows from Fastulv’s bow.
Now Neela dances in towards another troll who makes signs with his free hand. A black energy starts to form around the troll’s club, but before the dark man can defend itself the blacksmith lunges with her tongs and pierces the troll’s hide. She follows up with a mortal blow from her hammer and the troll ragdolls to the ground. As Orvald swings his sword to slash at the final troll, Fastulv rushes one of the trollkin, braving slingshot to gut it with his ravenous spear. The spear’s spirit, The Killing Word, has been guiding every arm and blow in this fight, and it commands Fastulv to pull it from the trollkin’s body and hurl it at the remaining enlo, who keels over.
The fight is over, save for Orvald delivering the mortal blow to his downed foe. As the trio stand triumphant, panting and recovering their breath and looking about for trophies, they notice Finn and Tara behind them. The husband and wife stand open-mouthed at what they have just seen: the troll gang demolished in a few violent seconds before Finn can enter the fray. Tara’s services are unneeded, there is not a scratch on any of the heroes. The companions’ reputation will be only enhanced in the long nights ahead with each telling at the mead bench.
In the following days Fastulv and Neela discuss what they can do to stop a raid on the Greycoats. Neela travels to the spiral fort at Goodhaven to visit Dorasola Ravenhair, the Earth priestess. The redsmith asks if Dorasola will help her confront Magnus Tree Hunter. Dorasola agrees to help but tells the young woman that it will be difficult to keep the hotheads in check. The Kendring are stronger in war than peace. Success at the clan moot was a rare victory for the Clanweaver faction. More than harsh words may be needed to maintain the peace.
As Neela talks with the Ernalda priestess, Fastulv travels to the Twenty Ewe stead where Magnus Tree Hunter lives. He has changed his appearance to resemble Jonrik Backfist, Darrold’s wayward son and a known Biting Storm sympathiser. His shapechanging magic makes him a perfect double of Jonrik, and he blows into the Twenty Ewe stead, trying to behave like the blustering thug. He finds Magnus in his hall, working. The two men greet each other, with Magnus seemingly unable to penetrate Fastulv’s disguise. Fastulv pretends that Jonrik is bored now that the troll alert has diminished and aches for some more action, particularly against the clan enemies. Slyly, Magnus suggests Jonrik return in a couple of days when he promises a meeting of like-minded people.
Fastulv realises that Magnus is looking at him strangely. Maybe his act is not as good as he thought it was. When the older man asks if anything is wrong, Fastulv/Jonrik decides to beat a retreat and takes his leave. He reports back to Neela that there is a meeting of the Biting Storm in two days time.
As Wild Day dawns, Orvald, Neela, and Fasulv are halfway to the mountains, herding a handful of sheep as payment to the trolls. They have an appointment with the troll Word Eater, who promised them news of Kragar. At the borders of Captain Slice’s camp they stop to make themselves known to the sentries, then continue up to the caves where the bandits live.
They discover the bandits hurriedly gathering possession and dismantling their camp. The bandit leader known as Captain Slice is there, directing the operation with his bodyman Hengist beside him. He can only give the heroes a few moments, but tells them that a Lunar woman had come to the camp a little while earlier. She is blue on one half and red on the other. She was accompanied by a man in gladiator gear and a woman with a featureless helmet. The companions immediately identify her as Erianda the Red, the Lunar witch they had run into beneath Drum Top four weeks ago.
Captain Slice tells them that Erianda tried to get the bandits to betray the Blood Shadows trolls and show them the secret ways to the troll caverns. Slice reluctantly agreed, sending the Lunars off into the mountains with his lieutenant Ploa as a guide. He knows that Ploa will lose them somewhere in the mountains while he gathers his band and makes for some new hiding place. Ploa has powerful magic that allows her to fly and he is sure she will be safe from the Lunars. He is sorry he cannot help the companions more, but tells them that he will stay in touch with Malta and that they should speak with her should they need to contact him.
With that, Slice gets back to organising the bandits’ retreat while Neela, Orvald and Fastulv head up the path towards the troll caves, where they are due to meet Word Eater. They move swiftly, hoping they don’t run into Erianda again.
They arrive at the crack in the mountain where they met Word Eater the last time. No-one is there so they wait for the troll to turn up, while the sheep look increasingly nervous. Eventually, a figure appears blinking into the daylight. It is Word Eater, squeezing through the cave crack and out into the world.
Orvald offers the troll his payment. The Dark Troll lopes over to the frightened sheep and in a couple of deft swings of his arms clubs two of them to death. Then he picks up another up and dashes it against a cliff face. With a throaty chuckle he begins to drag the carcasses back into his cave.
The heroes watch on silently, wondering whether they have been robbed of their sheep. After a short while a second figure appears, clad in a robe. It slides out of the crack and limps towards them. The figure is clearly a troll with darkness and communication runes on its robes similar to those that Kragar wore. But it has its hood up, covering its snout in shadow. It halts before the heroes and hails them, identifying itself as Kragar, herald of Queen Pika.
The heroes have come to set a time and a place to meet and discuss some kind of parley with the clan. Once this is settled Kragar has other business to discuss with them.
Neela asks about the fire they’d seen in the great battle, Kragar tells them that the war against the Following Dark has not gone well. Not all of the Following Dark clan have gone over to the Lunar heresy but Queen Uddag, the nobles and many warriors have adopted the new religion and they have gained new fire magics that seem to come from the Red Moon.
Kragar feels that this religion is so new and alien to the trolls that its magics, though powerful, are brittle. If the magic could be defeated the Queen and her circle would be vulnerable to being overthrown from within. Kragar does not reveal how he got this information but the heroes suspect he has agents within the Following Dark.
To attack this magic Kragar and Minaryth Purple quested to find an old artifact: the Ashen Spark that Arkat the Destroyer used to destroy the land of Dorastor more than a thousand years before. By guile they travelled through the mythic realm and stole the Ashen Spark from the Army of Truth.
Now Kragar, after gathering a band of troll heroes together, took a new quest path. He intended to travel to Arkat’s assault on Nysalor at the Tower of Justice in the City of Miracles; a event that took place almost 1200 years ago. He hoped to find the secret that would crack the Red Moon’s power just as it had the devil Nysalor’s. But instead his hero band found themselves at the Battle of Night and Day where the Army of Defence (comprising the Heortlings, Uz and Unity Council) fought the Great Army of Restraint (Lokomo’s Storm Army, the Dorastran and Dara Happan Armies). This was the terrible battle where the troll goddess Kyger Litor was wounded and the trollkin curse inflicted by Nysalor. Here the questers were hurt and had to escape before the end of the battle.
At this Kragar pulls back his hood and reveals his face, which is half-burned on one side as if by fire. He says that he has tried to find ways to crack the puzzle through troll myths but has not yet succeeded.
Then Orvald remembers that Arkat, before he become a troll, had been a human, a Humakti. He ponders whether there might be another path to get at the magic to defeat the Lunar power…