The foemen come
We honour them with war
Our spearpoints sharp in the strife
Our play of swords
The crush of combat when corpses fell
They shall know our battle joy
Despite their tricks
Clay Day, Death Week, Earth Season to Wild Day, Death Week
Neela and Fastulv ask Jarstak if they can speak to him in private. They leave his hall and in the quiet and warmth of a byre, Neela asks the spakeman why the Greycoats burned Eoric’s Stead. She wants to know the truth.
Jarstak is reluctant. He’ll tell them the history if they insist, but he begs them to turn around and walk away and never ask again. He doesn’t believe they want to hear what he has to say. But Neela and Fastulv are adamant. They must know what happened. Eventually Jarstak gives in and begins to speak.
In a bitter voice he tells the pair that fifteen years ago he participated in a wicked act. Not just himself, either. Olfir was there, as was Neela’s mother, Insterid, and Fastulv’s father, Rollo. It begins to dawn on Neela and Fastulv why Jarstak had been so unwilling to speak.
In Jarstak’s account there had been a great war. The Lunars invaded Sartar and many warriors left the clan to defend the royal seat at Boldhome. The Greycoats sent many volunteers to fight. The cautious Kendring sent fewer men and as news came back that there had been a terrible defeat, they were grateful that they had restrained the menfolk from going. According to the heralds there had been a terrible slaughter as the Lunars overran the capital and many Orlanthi were lost.
The Greycoats were much weakened by their losses in the war. Though they had suffered a few casualties the Kendring were now stronger than their old rivals and saw the opportunity to enforce their claim on lands currently settled by the wolf killers.
This was the time before Olfir became chieftain, when he was still a thane and leader of the warband. He personally led a series of raids against the Greycoat border settlements along Dwarf Ridge. For the most part these were not bloody affairs. The warband would descend on a stead and smash it up. Property and livestock would be stolen. Anyone who resisted would be hurt, but never fatally. The objective was to make the border steads untenable, to intimidate the Greycoats into abandoning the land. For the most part the strategy was effective.
And then came the attack on the White Tusk stead. It had gone badly almost immediately. The men at the stead had decided to resist and the raiders found themselves sniped at by bowmen from a nearby treeline. One of Jastak’s younger brothers, Derek, was hit by an arrow. The fight was not going well at all and the raiders were becoming increasingly angry. Then suddenly the Greycoat women and children had burst out of the longhouses and attacked them with whatever weapons they had to hand: cooking knives, stones and even a ladle!
Frustration had gradually been building amongst the raiders, and when the womenfolk attacked they lost control. Jarstak remembers seeing a wild-eyed Insterid spearing a child and Fastulv’s father Rollo cutting down a young mother. Jarstak did something so terrible that he is ashamed to speak of it. Many Greycoats died in the berserk fury before the raiders slunk back to the safety of Kendring land.
Not long after the raid, Jarstak says, the thane Bundris came and burned Eoric’s Stead. At the clan moot afterwards there was a call to pass the Red Collar and retaliate, but Olfir refused and stopped it. He would not back the call for a feud and so the resolution died.
According to Jarstak, Olfir never spoke of why he balked at the demand for vengeance, but those who were present at White Tusk stead understood why. It was the shame of what they had done. Maybe there had been a moment when they could have stood like Orlanth, acknowledged their crime and atoned for it. But their moral courage had failed them. Instead they allowed the burning to be an end to things: the price that was paid for their wickedness.
At this admission, Neela and Fastulv ask whether Jarstak would support peace; a peace that would allow the unquiet spirits of Eoric’s Stead go to their rest. Jarstak nods agreement. He must make things right again. He will back the peace.
At this, the pair take their leave of the headman.
After explaining things to Orvald, they speak with Dorasola Ravenhair, the Ernalda priestess leading the peace faction. She is pleased to hear the head of the Arynwar bloodline will back an attempt to make peace with the Greycoats. Jarstak’s voice will carry a lot of weight both in council and at the clan moot. There is much still to be done, but it’s an encouraging start.
The priestess says that there will be a meeting of the clan ring soon to decide what to be done about the Lunar settlement of Eoric’s Stead. The peace option will be raised there. But it will need the agreement of the whole clan at a clan moot for peace efforts to go ahead. There are many important people who need to be persuaded: Olfir for one. But Jastak’s support will help and the voices of survivors of the burning, those of Fastulv and Neela, will be vital in swaying opinion.
Dorasola says that she will get things started but may call on the group again for help.
A few days pass and the visitors to the stead and their entourage leave. At her cave in the Brambleberry Hills, the shaman Asterid gives charms to Neela and Orvald that she says will give them help in resisting the effects of the spirits possessing them.
It is now Wild Day and everyone is going about their business. Neela and Orvald are talking near the smith’s forge when they hear the voice of the wind. It is the clan wyter again, the spirit of the old warrior Valenstor, talking to them on the breeze. The wyter does not use words. Rather, they sense the meaning of the message. They are told there are intruders on the stead, coming in by the old raiding route in the shadow of Dwarf Ridge.
Orvald does not tarry. He immediately summons the fyrd. The sheepmen and farmers nearby have already heard Valenstor’s call and are assembling near the Big House, Fastulv amongst them. Neela joins them, her leather apron still tied and her hammer and tongs in hand.
Orvald decides to be bold. He will try to intercept the raiders with all his men, leaving the stead completely undefended. He orders Fastulv to scout ahead with his alynx and report back what he finds. Eleven fyrdsmen muster at the stead, along with Tara Redbraid, who serves as the nurse to the fyrd. Leaving only steadwomen and an injured Jonrik to keep a watch on the prisoners, Orvald marches his band out in the direction of the raid.
There are several routes into the stead lands, but Fastulv heads towards the most likely approach, towards the Thunder Oak that sits like a landmark atop the great escarpment of Dwarf Ridge. He moves carefully as he rounds the thicket of forest by The Acres. Then he sees them: the Greycoats! About a dozen of them are moving in file up the old raiding route in the shadowed shelter of the ridge. They are mostly lightly armed and armoured, as if on a sheep raid. It is difficult to tell where they are headed. If they keep going in the same direction they will soon reach the low pastures. But they could hook southwest towards the stead.
Fastulv decides not to stay and welcome the raiders but head back to tell Orvald what he has seen. He soon he finds the thane marching briskly with the fyrd along the path he had come. The two friends consult for a moment. Orvald thinks the best thing to do is to set an ambush for the raiders on the return route. Fastulv knows the land well and thinks there is a good ambush spot in a narrow defile beneath the Thunder Oak. He suggests setting the ambush there.
Orvald agrees and begins to organise his column for a march to the defile. However, he sends Magana back up the path to try and pick up the raiders. He wants her to track them and report back should they try anything unexpected. The shield-maiden departs on her scouting mission.
Beneath the grey skies the defile is what Fastulv said it was: a deep scrape in the ground with steep sides, maybe a hundred and fifty yards long. Bushes and shrubs fill the bottom. There is a narrow path skirting the north of the dip in the shadow of the ridge, and to the south there are trees and scrub. Orvald sets his dispositions, taking a group of men to the far end of the defile and placing groups either side to funnel people into it. Neela leads a small group to hide in the trees to the east, to spring the trap behind the raiders. It s a well-made trap, if only the Greycoats will walk into it.
Then Fastulv sees a figure rushing towards them in the distance. As it gets closer he can see it is Magana, trotting back towards where the ambush is going to be set. Magana arrives out of breath and Orvald emerges from hiding to greet her. She says that the raiders are headed their way with a large flock of sheep they rounded up on the lower pastures near the Bone Field. But more troubling, as she was looking for the raid, she saw men on horseback riding past. There were two men with five horses and they seemed to bear off towards the stead. Magana fears the raiders are a ruse. They are cover to attract the attention of the clan wyter while the riders dash in and liberate the prisoners.
Orvald thinks quickly. He is now worried for the undefended stead and there is a danger the prisoners have been released. He asks Neela to tae a few men and head back across the Prince’s Pasture to the stead. The redsmith rushes off with her small file of men.
Neela doesn’t get far before she sees horses headed towards her. She tries to get her group to squat out of sight in the long grass and bushes, but it is clear the horsemen have seen her and they skirt around, well out of range of a spear throw. Now the smith can see that there are seven people on the five horses, with a couple of them doubled up. One of those riding tandem is the lithe form of Leika Bundrisdottir, her arms around the waist of the tall rider in front.
As the horses gallop away, Neela turns and leads her band in pursuit, hoping that the ambush will give her a chance to catch up.
Back at the ambush site Fastulv sees a great mass of sheep approaching, driven from behind by a group of men strung out in a great crescent. They are doing a poor job of handling the sheep, many of which are breaking or cutting away to the sides. But they still have a great number of them remaining when they come to the defile.
At this point the raiders and their stolen flock split into three, with some taking the route to the north and south of the great ditch, and the majority taking the easy route through the middle. Orvald waits until almost everyone is committed to a path before the door on his trap shuts.
Fastulv is the first to open fire, peppering the men on the main path with bowshot. To the south, Magana and a group of men rush from hiding to tackle a trio of raiders skirting the defile. In the centre Orvald rises up in front of the mass of black-faced sheep and gives a mighty shout that sends the beasts shoving backwards in terror.
The enemy are surprised. The Greycoat raiders are strung out in a loose line and in the centre the sheep have been panicked, adding confusion to those men in the defile. Magana and her men take on three wolf-killers, pushing one into the defile and finding themselves in a surprisingly tough fight with the remaining two. A couple more Kendring men fire arrows from the lip of the defile into the group of Greycoats below as Orvald charges, leaping like a man possessed across the very backs of the sheep to dive into the press of surprised and jostled raiders.
A confused melee follows, with Orvald striking this way and that at the enemy. The frightened shade of Minaryth tries to possess the thane, but Orvald’s fury and Asterid’s spirit charm keep the fear at bay. Meanwhile Magana has her hands full with a particularly resilient Greycoat, while Fastulv picks off what enemies he can.
Hoofbeats can be heard. The horsemen gallop into the mess of fighters and sheep, taking the northern path. But seeing Fastulv and the jostling flock in front of them they veer off to the north, trying to skirt the fight by climbing the steep sides of the ridge. The horses are slowed, particularly the ones carrying two riders as they struggle up the slope.
Fastulv takes a few speculative shots at the horses, which fly wide. Then he sees a chance to try and slow the horse carrying Leika and the tall-looking thane. He launches his bolas at the horse’s legs, which entangles it just long enough for it to stumble, throwing off the riders.
Neela has been racing at full pelt to catch up to the fight. She waves her men off to join Orvald, who is slowly picking the raiders apart, while she sprints up the steep ride to catch the tumbled riders. The horse rights itself, while the Greycoat thane clutches at its reins. Meanwhile Magana has disentangled herself from her fight long enough to launch a lightning bolt at Leika, who is now picking herself off the ground. The lightning arcs up the ridge, catching the girl by surprise and throwing her off-balance.
Now Neela is almost on the pair. The rest of the riders have made it to the top of the ridge, leaving Leika and her companion trying to climb up on foot, shielded by their horse, which is spooked by Fastulv’s bowshot. But they have to turn and face Neela, who seems to be powered by the fury of the ghost inside her. Leika is armed with a small knife-like weapon, but her companion, who Neela realises must be her father Bundris, has a fearsome-looking sword. He swings it around like a cleaver, keeping the smith at bay while he claims the higher ground.
Bundris yells to his daughter to run for the top of the ridge, while he covers her. The girl scrabbles up the slope while Neela is forced to deal with a highly dangerous weaponthane. But the smith has a few tricks up her sleeve. She calls upon the magic of the lowfires to heat the metal of his sword, while she uses the tongs to wrench it out of his hand. The ruse works, the weapon going flying. But he has a knife out in a instant. He is still dangerous.
Bundris tries to leap, as if enacting some great feat. But before he is barely off the ground, Neela hits him again, catching his legs with her hammer and sending him spinning, just as she’d done to his daughter days earlier. He thuds back onto the ground, rolls a little, and is forced to scramble back to his feet as a wild and furious Neela is almost atop of him.
Further down the ridge, Fastulv takes a shot at the retreating Leika, and misses as she crests the ridge and disappears from view. He’d try to shoot Bundris, but dare not fire for fear of hitting his friend.
Neela seems to have the advantage, but Bundris has a trick of his own. With one last lunge he manages to slash viciously at Neela and hurt her. The strike gives him just enough time to rush up the remaining few dozen yards to the crest and remount one of the horses waiting for him there.
But the time Fastulv makes it to the top of the ridge the riders are well away, out of bowshot. Below him in the defile the fight is all but over…