In the high woods
The beasts rattle
The dark men rally
Give thy breath to the great Lord of air,
Fill thy breast with fury
Bellow a warning to all creation
You are coming for them
As shields clash like thunder,
They will know only sorrow
Fire Day, Fertility Week, Earth Season
Sensing that they have shaken off the troll pursuit, Neela, Orvald, Fastulv and Magana stop to catch their breath and figure out what to do. The trolls are clearly smarter and more organised than expected, and are perfectly prepared to sacrifice the trollkin as sword-fodder. They damn near got bottled up in their own trap!
While taking the opportunity to take on water and a bite of food, Fastulv wonders whether they should try and use what they have learned. If the trolls are employing the enlo to flush them out of cover, that presumes they are driving any prey towards a waiting group of hunters or ambushers. What if the party were able to get the drop on the hunters first?
Orvald listens but is unhappy at the idea of going back into the troll lands again this soon. The trolls may well have their own wyter to warn of the party’s approach. And he would rather give it time for the trolls to relax their guard than re-enter into the jaws of another ambush. The thane is more interested in the insect column that Fastulv saw. They sound like pack animals en route to somewhere else. If the column was headed out from the troll stronghold maybe there is an opportunity to catch it somewhere on the fringes of the troll lands, far from help.
He suggests they try and pick up the column. Insects that large must leave a fairly clear trail through the forest. Fastulv agrees. He has a rough idea where the column is headed. It is still the afternoon, with plenty of daylight left. So gathering their gear together the group begin to march out to try and intercept the column, or at least pick up its trail.
As it turns out a trail is not hard to find, though it’s harder to determine if it is the column Fastulv saw. It is not so much a track as a boulevard of low vegetation slaloming through the forest of elms. Indents in the leaf mulch at the fringes suggest the wide legs of the monstrous insects, with a furrow dragged through the middle.
Neela and Orvald decide to follow the track downhill, away from the troll lands, and see where it ends up. Fastulv thinks that the path may be headed towards the Brightwater stead. The group trek down the path. They take it carefully, sending the scout and his keen-eared alynx some 20 yards ahead.
The alynx picks up the sound first. Fastulv notices the animal prick its ears and he cocks his head to hear the sound of movement. A rushing noise is coming towards them from downhill. He sends a hand signal to the group behind and they all melt into the undergrowth, with Fasulv hunkering down amongst the taller plants and Orvald finding a rock to hide behind.
In their hides the party waits, hearing the movement get closer. Fastulv cannot see much from where he is, and can only catch glimpses of dark and lustrous carapaces and grey-green humanoid limbs swinging into view. With a rushing and clicking noise, a column of insects and trolls is rolling past him now. The scout decides to pull back some of the plant cover to get a better look.
Orvald, behind his rock, is not sure where his friends are. But from the sound of it the head of the moving column is almost up to his position. The thane decides to poke his head up and see what is happening. When he does so things begin to happen very quickly.
What Orvald and Fastulv see are the great bulks of two monstrous beetles with dusty legs. The stag beetle in front has a pair of large, antler-like pincers. The rhino beetle behind has a huge upright horn of chitin. Both have big bundles strapped to their shiny black carapaces. With them are maybe two trolls and a larger number of trollkin. And somewhere amongst the convoy are the shambling figures of two humans, stood close together.
The moment Orvald puts his head up from behind the rock the lead troll raises a hand to halt the column and seems to grunt and nod its head as if sniffing the wind. Fearing he has been detected Orvald calls upon Mastakos the mover to aid him and with a bellow makes a great leap out of hiding, to descend on the troll spear-first.
Hearing the shout, Neela rushes out from her hiding place. She finds herself blocked by the bulk of the rhino beetle. Running up the side of the insect’s bulk she catches a glimpse of a small form on the other side and swings her hammer, crushing the head of a hapless trollkin against the insect’s flanks.
Fastulv stands up from his hide and finds himself behind the column. A swift arrow dispatches one of the trollkin near the two human figures. Fastulv notices that they are a pair of dirty and slightly raggedy-looking women.
The fight is on. Orvald’s troll stands almost seven feet tall, with sharp tusks and the runes of Man and Darkness tattooed on its well-muscled limbs. It wears little more than a cloth smock tied at the waist, and fetishes made of leather and matted hair. It has a club at the carry but staggers back under the thane’s onslaught, taking a gash in its side. Orvald raises his trollblind charm and screams a prayer to the spirit within, unleashing something that seems to stun the dark man and make him flail around as if unsighted. The stag beetle behind rushes at the thane, making stabbing motions with its great antlers.
Neela stands astride the bucking rhino beetle. Grabbing its horn in her left hand, she swings herself and her hammer around in a wide, lazy arc towards the second troll, catching it solidly in the shoulder and spinning it so that it crumples towards the ground. As Magana screams a battle cry from somewhere at the flank of the column, Fastulv pulls out his spear, Trollbone. He makes a rush at the felled troll and, shouting the Killing Word, uses both hands to jab his spear into its body. Trollbone glows dark in the presence of the Uz foes, its magic seeming to infuse the whole party and guiding their hands.
In moments, the fight is over. Orvald’s troll expires as he thrusts his spear into its chest. The stag beetle, menacing the thane, collapses as Magana jams her spearpoint between the head and thorax. The shield-maiden has also dispatched the remaining trollkin. Fastulv finishes the second troll, jabbing Trollbone again into its vitals. Neela is thrown off the Rhino beetle, which rampages off into the forest in a quest to get away.
In the aftermath all is confusion. The two women have disappeared, but Orvald is more concerned with hacking the heads off the two troll bodies than going to look for them. Neela is out for trophies of her own and begins to cut the stag antlers off the dead beetle. Fastulv rushes off to try and corral the rampaging rhino beetle, leaving only an annoyed Magana to make a fruitless search of the surrounding area for the women.
Fastulv tries to herd the beetle and has some success in steering it a little, but he clearly cannot get control of the creature. Before it can get too far away he decides to slash at the loads strapped to its back to cut them off so he can take a look. Big bundles topple off the back of the giant beetle, which trundles like a clockwork toy off into the gloom of the forest. Fastulv finds rolls of cloth in one bundle and a pack of thirty bronze spearheads in another.
Back at the site of the fight, Magana does a similar thing and rifles through the packs on the back of the stag beetle. What she finds is mostly food. Unpreserved meat, almost certainly beef. Not all of it is fresh.
As Fastulv begins to track back to the rest of the party, carrying the spearheads with him, he sees two figures creeping through the undergrowth. Drawing his bow he shouts at them to show themselves. Two women stand up. With their clothes and tattoos, both appear to be Heortlings. And they are bound, their hands tied behind their backs.
Orvald finishes removing the troll heads just as Fastulv appears, leading the two women. The scout has untied their hands but the women are reserved and seem wary of the party. The weaponthane appraises the two. They both have the dyed red hair and tattoos of Vingan warrior women. Both appear to be tough, with broad shoulders, solid trunks and wiry, muscled arms. The fine white lines of old scars can be seen.
They wear ordinary Heortling kirtles of wool, though they look dirty, as if they have been rolled around on the earth a bit. They have dried mud on their hands and faces. But most interesting are their tattoos.
The taller woman has the wide-horned tattoo of the Red Cow, a clan of the Cinsina tribe that lives in the northern parts of the tribal lands and are neutral to the Kendring. The shorter woman hears the tattoo of the Greenhaft clan, another Cinsina clan but one that is hostile to the Kendring, as they are the enemies of the allied Frithan clan. Orvald notices that Greenhaft woman has strange burn marks on her skin as if she has been branded. On looking closer, he can see fragments of runic tattoos at the edges of the brand. It looks as if someone has robbed the woman of her magic by burning the runes off her.
Orvald gives them the short Heortling Greeting, introducing himself and his lineage and clan and offering them words of reassurance. The women respond hesitantly, exchanging glances before they reply. The Red Cow woman says that her name is Berinda. The Greenhaft woman introduces herself as Enothea. The names sound familiar to Orvald. Berinda is an uncommon name, but gives itself to a band of healers known as ’Berinda’s Sisters’. He has the feeling that something is not quite right here.
However, before he can dig further, a distant yipping noise can be heard. It sounds as if there are more troll search parties out there in the hills. It’s time to start moving and after packing up the spearheads and the troll trophies, the group sets off behind Fastulv, heading away from the insect path on the direct route towards Brightwater stead.
As they walk fast, Orvald tries to probe the women further. He asks how they came to be captured. Berinda seems to speak for the both of them, telling the thane that they were arranging a trade deal with the trolls. For some reason, and she is not sure why, the deal went sour. They were captured by the trolls and their goods stolen. Orvald asks whether it was only the two of them trading with the trolls. Berinda hesitates and says yes, it was just the two of them. She doesn’t seem willing to give much more away than that.
As the light fails and suspicions form in Orvald’s mind, the group emerge from the forest into the high pastures overlooking Brightwater stead. Berinda thanks the party for saving them from the trolls and ask that they be allowed to leave the clan lands. But Orvald stands firm and insists that the women come with him to the Blue Starling stead. In spite of their protests he will not accept any answer other than ‘yes’. Reluctantly, the women agree to come with him.
The return to the stead that evening is, in typical Heortling fashion, a boisterous and confused affair. There is joyful surprise as Orvald presents the gory trophies of their battle with the trolls. Neela regales the children with the story of how she fought from beetle back. Jarstak enters the melee of kinsmen and grumbles that the party had gone off to take on the trolls unsupervised, but is clearly pleased at the result. Finn slaps Orvald on the back and tells him that the prize of these heads will earn the group entry into the Night Brothers. They will be initiated at the first possible opportunity.
However, Fastulv’s new appearance earns a more muted response. Many of the clansmen and women instinctively keep away from the scout and avoid his gaze, clearly unnerved by his owl’s eye. Jarstak knows immediately that Fastulv’s eye and spear were Asterid’s work and bawls the young man out for his perfidy, shouting at him for having anything to do with that ‘treacherous witch’.
However, the eye brings new insight for Fastulv. He sees Mighty Goose hissing at Neela and Orvald as they walk past and cannot help notice that the bird’s spirit seems to be larger than the beast itself. There is something powerful inside there, though he cannot make out what it is.
When Jarstak has cooled down, Orvald introduces the Red Cow and Greenhaft women to him. His response is very measured as he hears them introduced as Berinda and Enothea. Then to Orvald’s surprise he invites the two to spend the evening at his hearth, in spite of one of them being a clan foe. The women stroll off with the headman.
That evening there are celebratory meals in several of the hearths. Stories are swapped and exchanged. Neela has to tell her tale of the battle again and again.
Fastulv heads out from the big house towards his home at Maniski’s Hall when he notices three figures outside, talking out of earshot. As he sidles over for a closer look he notices Jarstak in a deep and animated conversation with Berinda and Enothea. But before the scout can get close they notice him and stop talking.
Feeling something very odd is going on, Fastulv returns to Maniski’s hearth.