Then from the mountains by misty ways
Three monsters came,
Their hearts laughing
Minded of mankind
A banquet to seek
Marching to an ancient design,
A distant drum
They shepherded evil
And sang their grim song
As death-marked Heortlings inside their walls
Trusted to craft and courage
Water Day, Death Week, Earth Season to Clay Day, Death Week
It is the late afternoon. The pounding and crashes from Jarstak’s Hall have stopped, but everyone in the stead is on edge.
Neela escapes from the dreadful atmosphere by busying herself in her forge. Fastulv makes off for the quiet of Maniski’s Hall to check on the sick sheep milling in their pens. Orvald decides to have a quiet word with Finn the Heavy.
Finn is one of the sheep men but he’s not up on the pastures this day. Instead he is busy doing many tasks around the stead. Orvald finds him labouring in one of the barns and greets him. After exchanging pleasantries, the shepherd tells Orvald that he is very uneasy. It is Water Day and the Red Moon will be dark for that night and also the next. There will be no moonlight to illuminate the landscape. He thinks the trolls might try to attack in the darkness.
After hearing Finn’s troubles, Orvald comes to the point and asks Finn about the Burning of Eoric’s Stead fifteen years ago. Something has been worrying him. Why did the Greycoats burn it down? Normally, raids don’t attack women and children but the Burning was, by Heortling standards, especially vicious.
Finn seems unusually evasive and warns Orvald to stay away from the issue, to leave it alone. Oblivious to the hints, Orvald presses on. Why wasn’t a feud declared and the ghosts of the stead avenged? Finn seems on the verge of revealing something, but instead mutters that it was something to do with Jarstak and Olfir. At that, Finn says no more, other than to suggest that Orvald not bring this up again.
Haunted by questions he dearly wants answers to, Orvald departs from Finn and goes to see the prisoners and their guard. They are comfortable in a byre, mostly lounging around on palliasses, looking bored. Estava the healer is also there. The Chalana Arroy devotee looks pale and delicate, like a porcelain doll. She has just finished fixing up the brawny youth that Fastulv speared the previous day. She says the lad, whose name is Torkal, is now safe and healed from the terrible gut wound. He had bled a lot, however, and will be weak for a while.
Estava leaves and Orvald dismisses the guard so he can speak in private. He catches the gaze of the skinny girl who is the raiders’ leader. She regards him with those flashing eyes of hers. Her head is raised and her jaw is firmly set. She is charismatic, this girl. It is no surprise that the others followed her.
Orvald addresses the girl, telling her that the lawthane will be there soon to deal with them. The girl, who gives her name as Leika, says that the ransom will be paid swiftly if her father has anything to do with it. With a smile, she begins to taunt Orvald, reminding him of the good fight her companion Hengist gave him. Leika tells the young thane that she has heard many things while a prisoner of the stead. After all, there is little to do as a prisoner but listen. She mocks the clan for being so afraid of the Three Tin Ton. Are they not famous troll-killers? Then she teases Orvald further, saying that she has also heard that something got inside his head. Has it made him afraid?
Orvald manfully deflects the taunts, and asks the girl bluntly why her clan attacked Eoric’s Stead all those years ago. Leika is taken back by this. Doesn’t the Thane know? Her smile curls into a sneer. Has the clan has been concealing its secrets from Orvald, she asks? Has it been hiding its dirty linen from the youngsters?
Shaking with unconcealed fury the girl spits out a tale about the White Tusk Stead, where Kendring men came in the night and killed men and women. She was a baby living at the stead when the bad men came and took the life of her own mother. Is it any surprise that the Greycoat warriors passed the Red Collar, made their oaths and launched a return strike against Eoric’s Stead? The Kendring got what was coming to them. The girl is building up a head of steam. She says that if she had a weapon she’d strike Orvald down there and then. Shaken by the news, Orvald retreats from the byre and the accusing stares of the prisoners.
Down at Maniski’s cottage Fastulv has checked on the sheep. The blacktongue does not appear to have gotten any better, in spite of the remedies Sarossa Ewe-Maiden has been feeding them. However, he knows it may be a while before the cure can take effect. He leaves the sheep coughing in their pen to go inside and speak with Ostra, who he knows to be an initiate of Ty Kora Tek. By custom she lays out the dead of the clan. The old grandmother is preparing food while simultaneously trying to handle a gaggle of grandkids, but she is able to chat with Fastulv. Like Orvald he has some searching questions about Eoric’s Stead.
Fastulv wonders how much Ostra remembers about the Burning. The grandmother replies that she can remember it well. A Greycoat named Bundris led the raid. It was a terrible time, she says.
Fastulv asks Ostra whether she had tried to speak to the dead of the stead. The grandmother tells the shepherd that she is not skilled enough for that. She simply lays out the dead and does the rituals to let souls pass to the Courts of Silence, but dare not handle a ghost. She leaves such matters to Grandmother Dust, the Ty Kora Tek god-talker for the clan.
Fastulv then asks why no-one has talked to the ghosts of the stead. Oh but they have, says Ostra. Grandmother Dust spoke to them many years ago, but she could not persuade them to leave the place. Fastulv ponders for a moment, and wonders why there was no retaliation after the Burning. Why weren’t the ghosts avenged?
Ostra thinks back all those years. Then she tells the young shepherd that Olfir would not allow it. He was not a chieftain back then but sat on the clan ring and firmly recommended against passing the Red Collar that would announce a feud. She didn’t know why he cautioned against it but his voice was well-regarded and the clan followed his advice.
Bidding the old lady goodbye, Fastulv heads back up to the Big House, which is preparing to accept the families for another night of curfew. On his way through the compound he notices pretty Swena, Jarstak’s wife, walk past. She has a livid bruise on the side of her eye and cheek. A fresh one, too. The shepherd stops for a moment, deep in thought and watches her walk away. Then he turns and goes to find Orvald.
As the sun goes down the weaponthane is up at the Big House. Fastulv greets his friend and briefly asks whether Orvald can go and talk to Swena if he gets the chance, as he’s worried about her. The subject changes to the organisation of the defence. Many of the shepherds are still out in the hills with their flocks and refusing to come down while the Three Tin Ton are abroad. Fastulv suggests he should go and check on the shepherds the next day. Magana, the stouthearted fyrdswoman, asks whether Orvald will try to persuade Darrold to come up to the house for the night. After considering it for a moment, he decides to leave the stubborn shepherd be.
However, without Darrold’s sons this leaves Orvald with only eight fyrdsmen, plus himself, Fastulv and Neela. He needs to arrange watches and a lookout in the creaking watch tower, as well as a guard for the prisoners. His command will be stretched. However, everyone seems to be alert at least.
The families from the other halls are now inside the palisade and the gates are closed. As twilight fades into night and clouds hide many of the stars, Orvald and Fastulv invite Maniski to go for a walk with them. They want to ask him about the trolls and about the Night Brothers.
The old farmer hasn’t hunted trolls for twelve years, ever since they maimed him. However, he remains a member of the Night Brothers, men who have all proved their worth by killing a troll before joining. He can tell the youngsters what he knows.
What Maniski says to them is not comforting. The Three Tin Ton are smarter than normal trolls, he says. They are not like Zorak Zoran berserks, who are deadly but straightforward. These trolls have an understanding of tactics and ruses and stratagems. There’s no pattern to them either. They seem to alter their behaviour on each visit, not always repeating what they do.
Maniski opines that that they may be worshippers of the troll goddess Kyger Litor. Possibly members of Karrg’s Sons, the warrior cult of the darkness religion, though no one can be sure. He doesn’t know how many of them there are. No more than three have ever been seen at once.
Then there’s the problem of finding them. The Three Tin Ton seem to be cloaked in the darkness and the clan and stead wyters cannot sense their presence. The Night Brothers, all experienced troll fighters, have special magic from their guardian spirit, Pole Star, that allows them to see in the dark. However, even that bright spirit could not detect the Three Tin Ton before they attacked.
It’s not that the trolls fear light so much as they avoid it, for it robs them of concealment and makes it possible to fight them on even terms. The Three Tin Ton do not engage in open fights. They ambush from the darkness. On that fateful night twelve years ago, the Night Brothers had been well-prepared with their best magics. Pole Star was alert. Farnan Hammerhand had done the Smith’s Quest so that he could defeat the troll’s armour. They had readied their troll-killing weapons. And still they were ambushed and four men killed. Derek Seventh-Son and Liek Harvasson, both Jarstak’s brothers, fell. Olend Bluenose and Brandig the Swift were cut down. Maniski lost a hand. The only prize they had was some small piece of metal that Farnan had bashed off the armour of a troll.
Ever since then, says Maniski, Jarstak hasn’t been quite right. He called the first curfew soon after and has kept to that policy ever since. He took the deaths very badly and hasn’t permitted any more sorties against the Three Tin Ton.
Orvald and Fastulv thank Maniski and allow him to return to the comfort of his family, who are bedding down in one of the barns. They have much to think on.
The Big House settles for the night. Patrols walk the inside of the palisade and Falstulv climbs the fragile watch tower to look around. He can see almost nothing on this night, with no moon and little starlight. The stead is an dim-lit island in a sea of dark.
Then Orvald notices a great honking and hissing. Stalking through the compound, its head down and wings raised, is the Mighty Goose. It seems to walk up to the wall, facing south and to the east where Maniski’s Hall can be found.
Moments later there are the sounds of screams in the direction the goose is pointed. It is the sounds of sheep in the distance, their terrified bleatings being cut off one by one.
The dreadful sound causes a commotion in the stead. Fyrdsmen come hurrying out from their beds, wide-eyed and clutching spears and shields. All can hear the sound of children waking and crying.
Then all goes quiet. Jarstak tells everyone to listen to the thane. All eyes are on Orvald, who calls for calm and for everyone to stay where they are. Each man and woman’s breath is tense and heavy.
Minutes stretch into ten minutes, then twenty. No one moves until Orvald tries to get checks on the walls organised. Fastulv keeps watch from his high perch. Mighty Goose keeps hissing, getting more intense in its honks.
Suddenly there is an enormous BANG at the main gate, which strains on its hinges.
There is another thump of something heavy against the gate.
Orvald, who is still on watch, rushes to the platform by the gate. He throws his torch over the palisade to illuminate whatever is beyond and pokes his head up to look.
Orvald sees nothing, but from his perch in the watchtower Fastulv can momentarily see a shadowed figure in the pool of light from the torch. He is ready with his bow. Muttering a prayer to the ancient hero Umak Redshot, the shepherd looses an arrow, but it whizzes harmlessly into the night. The figure melts back into the dark and Fastulv can see nothing more.
Back at the palisade, something hisses out of the dark at Orvald’s head. He twitches enough that the small, hard object ricochets off his helmet, knocking it off. It’s enough to cut his scalp. The thane ducks into cover and shouts for the other fyrdsmen to throw more torches over the wall, which they do.
Jarstak comes up on the platform to join him, his trollspear glowing in his hand. Orvald asks him whether the Three Tin Ton are likely to scale the walls. Jarstak thinks it unlikely. They’ve never done that before and they don’t like to reveal themselves to the light.
As they climb down from the platform both men agree that they should hold the gate and walls as best they can. Now all the fyrdsmen are awake they are sent to patrol the inside of the palisade. Orvald notices Estava Smoke-Eyes and Tara Redbraid, the two healers, standing at the ready. Tara flutters over to fuss at the weaponthane and bandage his cut.
Time telescopes. The torches sputter on the ground outside the gate, but Fastulv can see nothing. The torches are beginning to go out. Orvald tries looking up over his parapet and again something whizzes past his head, forcing him to duck before it impacts a far wall.
However, from his tower perch Fastulv can hear some sounds outside the walls: a snort and then some footsteps near the gate. They seem to move away to the south, to where Darrold’s Hall squats near Whistling Hill, with its lonely lantern outside.
Inside the walls Orvald sits fuming. He feels they cannot leave the safety of the palisade or they’ll be cut down. He thinks the trolls are trying to draw them out and refuses to give them the satisfaction. Encouraged by Jarstak he agrees to stay inside the walls.
Minutes draw out into half an hour. Then Fastulv shouts that he can see a light near Darrold’s Stead. It is a lonely speck of flame tossed on the ground. From that direction there are the sounds of distant thumps and angry shouting borne on the wind.
Again all eyes are on Orvald , who wrestles with the decision to go and help Darrold and his sons out in their lonely cottage. He curses himself for not insisting they come up to First Safety. For the second time he decides to stay safe inside the palisade and hopes the sheepherder and his boys can keep the trolls at bay. He has no desire to risk the fyrdsmen by walking out into a troll ambush.
Very soon the shouting stops and the light goes out.
The half hour drags into hours, in which the fyrdsmen in their tiny fortress try to keep alert and warm in the cold of an Earth Season night. And then the pre-dawn light comes and everyone feels relief that they survived. Fastulv, now down from the watch tower, hunts for the shot that missed Orvald. He digs the projectile out of a wall with his knife and finds a round lead pellet used as a slingshot. The sight of it is sobering.
Orvald prepares a sortie out of the main gate as soon as it is properly light. They will go and check on Darrold’s Hall.
As the sun pokes up, filtering cold light between layers of cloud, Orvald, with Fastulv and Jarstak, leads a file of men out down the bleak slope towards Whistling Hill. The hall, which is a longhouse surrounded by some outhouses and pens, seems in good order, until they see the door. It looks as if it has been partially stove in, as if by something large and blunt. However, it still stands.
Orvald calls out to the inhabitants, and after some work unbarring the door and dismantling barricades, Darrold emerges, ashen-faced into the light. His sons and all the children are fine, if shaken. The trolls had made quite a commotion at the door, but hadn’t managed to bash their way through.
The defenders had thrown a torch out a window as a signal when the trolls attacked. When Orvald says that he daren’t send anyone to help, Darrold is too shaken to do anything but nod acceptance and mumble that he’ll bring the family up to the hall that night.
Dismissing the fyrdsmen, Orvald and Fastulv go check on Maniski’s Hall. The sheep pen is half beaten down and the inside is a total mess. All they can see are the smashed and ripped corpses of dead sheep. Fastulv sees no sign of missing organs or chew marks. These sheep appear to have been killed for the sport of it. Or as a distraction.
Orvald stomps back up the hill in a fury, resolving to talk to Jarstak and discover what he knows about this troll band. Fastulv, pacing up the path with him, suggests they need to speak with Dancing Asterid and see what magical aid they can get. Orvald agrees. They shall travel to her cave later that day. He also thinks they need to join the Night Brothers, if necessary going on a troll hunt to earn the right to join the brotherhood and gain their magics.
Back at the Big House the two men go their separate ways. Orvald heads over to find Jarstak, but bumps into Swena on the way. He notices the large bruise-mark on her face and remembers what Fastulv said. So he stops and asks if she’s alright. The steadwife looks nervously away and says that she’s fine; she just had an accident, that’s all. When the young thane presses her on this, she repeats that she just fell over and is fine now. With that she hurries away.
Orvald finds Jarstak in the cattle shed where some of the stead’s few milk cows are kept. He asks him about the Three Tin Ton. The old troll fighter grudgingly repeats some of what Maniski said: that the trolls were clever and did not often repeat their behaviour. While most trolls had lead armour that could be enchanted to stay silent, these ones wore something lighter and which could not be pierced by normal weapons.
Jarstak has no idea of what the goals of the Three Tin Ton are. They often try to take children, and their grisly remains, sometimes chewed on, have been found on the hills. But occasionally they have taken adults too. Jarstak thinks it is something to do with the Dark Mother’s religion. Some kind of sacrifice, perhaps?
Orvald asks about the time the Night Brothers tried to take on the trolls, twelve years ago. Jarstak becomes quiet at this. Slowly, he tells the thane that they had prepared an ambush for the Three Tin Ton and it went wrong. The trolls came at them, like silent assassins from the dark, and took out many of the brothers before they could do anything. Somehow they’d avoided all the detection magics and magical preparation before attacking the group.
Orvald asks whether Dancing Asterid had provided any help for the Night Brothers. At this Jarstak becomes agitated and starts to spit out words. He says that the ‘witch’ betrayed them. She gave them magic that didn’t work. She’d scryed for a time and a place for the ambush and still the trolls caught them unawares. He won’t have anything to do with the shaman again and warns Orvald to stay away from her.
Orvald thanks the old troll fighter and leaves. And as he makes his way over to his hearth hall he meets Finn, who has come to find him. The shepherd has some fresh news. Word has come from Dorasola Ravenhair, the Ernalda priestess. She and Grandmother Dust want to meet Orvald and Neela at the Cinder Pits that evening at sundown…