In the great hall,
Fists crash on shields,
Thunder and wind, shouting:
“Violence is always an option!”
But the mouse voice says:
“There is another way.”
Dark Day, Movement Week, Dark Season to Fire Day, Movement Week
The snows have finally arrived. The sheep have been penned or huddle together for shelter in the hills in the lee of rocks and folds of ground. This is a bad time for the shepherds. The hardiest have magics that allow them to sit or sleep safe in the snow without dying, and they are up on the hills, protecting their sheep against the winter monsters.
The solstice is coming, the shortest, coldest day of the year. The clanwomen are preparing for Protection Day when all good Orlanthi go onto the hills and sing to the storm, hearing Orlanth thunder his way across the kingdom. The tribal market day is also coming, though few merchants and farmers from the clan will be trudging their way through these snows to Red Cow Fort.
At the Blue Starling stead, Mighty Goose is in a bad mood because of the snow and cold. He keeps trying to muscle his way into Finn’s Hall to share the warmth, making messes on the floor and hissing at anyone who gets too close.
Since the snows began the smithy has become more crowded than usual. The clansmen ignore Neela’s peevish attempts to shoo them away from the warmth. She has to put up with the yammering of the men as she works.
As she hammers a sword into shape, Neela hears Maniski Half-Man gossip about Jonrik Backfist. The bully-boy of the stead has been complaining that something strange is going on. Jonrik says he was seen at Twenty Ewe stead, supposedly talking to Magnus Tree-Hunter of the Biting Storm faction, but doesn’t remember doing this. Maniski ribbed him for being drunk again but Jonrik insists something odd is up. He swears he’s been on troll patrol or with the sheep these past weeks. He hasn’t even had a moment to get drunk.
At that, Orlgard Crookstick, the old man of the Laronil bloodline, has a tale of his own. He says he was chatting with Jarstak one day, bid him good day, then walked around the corner of the hall and bumped into Jarstak again, though dressed a little differently. Maniski laughs this one off as Orlgard growing old and having a lapse of memory, but something nags at the back of Neela’s mind.
Having found out from Fastulv’s deception that Magnus Tree-Hunter is holding a meeting of like-minded folk, all of whom are against the peace, Neela is determined to forestall trouble by crashing the meeting. She has already persuaded the Ernalda priestess Dorasola to come as a witness. When Jarstak hears about this he looks worried. Neela is not as cold and rational as other women. She has a temper like a man’s and a tongue that might get out of control and escalate feelings. The smith assures him she will not cause trouble, but the stead head decides to go with her all the same.
So it is that Dorasola Ravenhair and Jarstak Trollspear accompany Neela, Fastulv and Orvald through the snow to the Twenty Ewe stead. Magnus is the head of his stead and spakeman of the Frithara bloodline, so has a magnificent hall that can accommodate many people. It is dark when the party arrive and when they enter the warm hall they find it is packed with a good fifty people, crammed shoulder-to-shoulder around the walls. Neela leads the way in, muscling her way past the men and women at the back and clearing a path for Dorasola. Orvald stays by the door as the others push their way to the centre.
The visit was unexpected, and as the attendees realise they have been invaded a bubble of silence spreads out across the room. Neela and Fastulv can see many cottars and stickpickers crowded into the hall. Many of these are the young and those with little property. Neela suspects that Magnus has been selling them a dream of land and glory. They are the men and women who are hungriest for wealth and soil of their own to till. They are resentful of any peace that might snatch that away.
Just the other side of the hearth are the ring-leaders of the Biting Storm faction. There’s Magnus Tree-Hunter who once felled an oak with a bowshot in some mighty fit of pique. There’s Alebard the Shadow-Trail, the canniest raider in the clan, who has grown wealthy on cows and sheep stolen from the clan’s enemies. Kornos Ever-On is a hothead filled with nervous energy, ready to pick a fight with anything. Then there is Harmast Twin-Shield, a former thane known for his upright bravery and skill in the fyrd’s battle.
Finally, there’s Gara the Witch. Many clansmen, even those of the Biting Storm, give Gara a wide berth, because she sympathises with the goddess Ana Gor. Even in the Orlanthi religion, where human sacrifice is viewed as evil and chaotic, there is a niche for the goddess Ana Gor, who in extremis will use sacrifice to weave powerful magics. But all good Heortlings treat the practice with distaste, and such events are rare.
As the visitors make their way to the centre of the hall, Magnus recognises Dorasola and Jarstak; two important clan members who demand respect. Stiffly, he greets them and asks their business.
Dorasola, now speaking to a hushed crowd, gives a speech that reminds all present of why the clan must make peace with the Greycoats at a time when they are beset on all sides by a troll war and the Lunar occupiers. Neela picks up the priestess’s thread and with cold, feminine logic speaks of how a war clan like the Kendring must focus its strength against one enemy at a time. She tells them of the harm that would come should they war with their neighbour; that the clan cannot afford a fight on three fronts.
The onlookers, who were respectfully quiet during Dorasola’s speech, grow restless and mutter during Neela’s. The mood turns positively ugly when Orvald decides to blow in, all wind and passion and recklessness, to shout about how all that matters is the trolls and Lunars. In the midst of his boast he dashes a necklace of troll teeth and tusks to the floor.
Now voices are being raised, almost drowning out Fastulv’s attempts to be heard. Magnus shouts down Neela, telling her that there is no peace yet. This negotiation is clearly a ruse by the Greycoats to catch the clan with its guard down. While showing his respect to Dorasola, he points a finger at Neela and calls her stupid for believing these Greycoat lies.
“No peace can change a Wolf’s coat.” he bellows. “They are killers through and through. Will it take their teeth at your throat to realise you cannot make peace with them?”
Neela bites back her anger. She wants to rant at Magnus about the death and loss that would result from a ruinous war with the Greycoats, but she remembers Jarstak’s words and keeps her counsel, even when Kornos shouts that they should attack the wolf men. She responds with reminding the impetuous man what had been agreed by the clan at the moot. Dare he go against the clan’s decision?
But now there is trouble brewing at the back of the hall. Orvald overhears one man telling another that the Greycoats wear wolf pelts. Who knows what taint they have picked up from communing with wolves?
Then another clansman, slyly looking towards the young thane, whispers that Orvald is a traitor for wanting to marry some bony chit of a girl. He has been bewitched by the wolf-woman. He needs some sense to be slapped into him.
At this Orvald flies into a rage and pins the man against the wall, screaming at him. Hands reach out and try to prise the young thane away from the cottar whose feet are dangling in air. In the centre of the hall, Harmast is whispering in Magnus’s ear, trying to stop him from saying more that would escalate the situation. Jarstak lays hands on Neela’s shoulders to pull her back from the confrontation.
Harmast seems to bring Magnus to his senses. Magnus thanks Dorasola for her kind words and firmly suggests she and her companions leave. Jarstak is only too eager to get out and soon is bundling Dorasola, Neela and their companions out of the door into the cold and snow outside. Inside, voices are raised in a clamour.
“That could have gone better,” Dorasola sighs. But as the party trudge away from the Twenty Ewe stead, the priestess reckons that the intervention went as well as could be expected. She thinks if nothing else it would have given the plotters pause and may have split some of the waverers away from them.
News of what happened at Twenty Ewe stead soon makes its way around the clan, being embellished in the process. By the time it reaches Orvald’s ears, it sounds like he was involved in a full-on brawl with twenty cottars and Neela had made a fierce denunciation of Magnus. All Heortlings subscribe to the belief that the feminine is rational and the masculine emotional and in this argument both Neela and Magnus played their roles, with good sense getting the upper hand.
In other news, the thanes promised by the rebels have begun to assemble at Goodhaven. Many of them are being distributed amongst the steads to spread the hospitality.
Orvald finds there are concerns amongst the weaponthanes about security. Some of these guests are well known to the Lunars and a few have bounties on their heads. Harvand the Hoof, the warband leader, hopes that the winter snows will keep the Lunars from coming up into the highlands and searching for them. He tells Orvald that there was there was a sighting of Erianda the Red on Elkenvale land, at what little is left of the Ashborne Stead. But there is no current information on where she is or where she has gone.
Amongst those assembling are men of renown such as Gernu the Mask and his Alynx, Dernu. There is also Aski Flash, an associate of Elmalandti Bluespruce, and Butaros Painmad, the Uroxi Chaos fighter who no-one wants in their halls but ends up at the Great Cow stead. These heroes are being initiated into the Night Brothers to gain the benefit of Pole Star’s night-vision magic.
At the Blue Starling Stead, two thanes come to stay as guests of Jarstak and Darrold. Into Jarstak’s hall comes Pola Scarmaker, an initiate of Barantaros, the Hidden Wind. Pola is said to be one of Gyffur Ulfsson’s men, part of the ‘Hidden Gale’ guerrilla band. He is fiercely anti-Lunar and Orvald contemplates asking him not to create trouble with the Lunars while at the stead. To Darrold’s hall comes Olav Three-Leap. Olav once leapt over a sheep, then a house, then a mountain. He carries a spear that he can throw then jump on. One day he says he will leap over the great mountain Kero Fin.
But Orvald has business other than the new guests to attend to. The clan matchmaker, Griselda Thrice-Married, all but commands him to begin courting the Greycoat woman, Leika. She tells him he should be at the White Tusk stead on Fire Day, to attend a feast there arranged by the Greycoats’ matchmaker.
Griselda tells Orvald to move fast, for there are other suitors competing for Leika’s hand. She is a woman of rank and a highly desirable match. Ultimately, the decision of who to marry is hers to make. “No one can make you do anything,” the proverb runs. Though Griselda wryly adds, “Your family can make your life miserable if you don’t make the right choice.” The other suitors may have been at the White Tusk stead for a while, long enough to stake a claim. Though Orvald has the clan’s backing, that doesn’t guarantee success. He must impress young Leika and seal the marriage.
Griselda worries that Orvald does not appear sufficiently prosperous. Though he has his arm rings awarded by his Chief, he lacks the wealth to be able to give the jewellery, animals and goods that would impress a prospective bride. His father is clearly uninterested in supporting the marriage match, so Griselda urges him to find patrons willing to gift him wealth and back his quest for marriage. So this Orvald does, seeking help from Olfir himself, from Dorasola and Jarald the Edge. Aileena the Proud, one of the Clanweavers, gently suggests her son Darrold sponsor the thane. Surprisingly, although Darrold’s sons include members of the Biting Storm, the wealthy shepherd spies an opportunity and seems pleased to back the young thane.
This backing does not come free. Orvald finds himself bound to these patrons for favours, to be called in at a future time. A lot of people are betting that Orvald will be someone important one day and are prepared to invest some treasure in him.
So it is that the day after Protection Day, with thunder still rumbling through the overcast, Orvald trudges through the snow toward Greycoat land, accompanied by Neela and Fastulv. The weaponthane has decided to be generous with gifts and leads a handsome pony laden with goods. Alongside him, Fastulv drives a small flock of sheep, to be offered as a gift to Orvald’s prospective in-laws. Neela bears a sword, a fine weapon of her own manufacture. Recalling her battles against Leika, and remembering the way in which the young woman fought, Neela has made a weapon of perfect size and balance, decorated on the hilt with symbols of a wolf’s head and a starling. It is a thing of power and beauty, one of the best pieces she has made and she loves it.
At the border stones the party wait in the cold for their escort from the Greycoats to arrive. Out of the winter mist a pair of thanes come, who offer The Greeting in a rather gruff fashion. They are now under the protection of their enemies, while promising to behave honourably. With their escort in front they walk along the old raiders’ route to the White Tusk stead, which sits nestled beneath the hills where just ten weeks before they had skirmished with their hosts.
Visitors and escort walk up through the entrance to the palisade where much of the stead has turned out to watch their arrival. Some Greycoats are wrapped in fine furs to greet the newcomers and many of the men wear dapple-grey wolf pelts across their shoulders. Orvald, Neela and Fastulv walk between two rows of clanspeople, aware they are under close scrutiny. Fastulv notices Torkal, the man he speared in the fight with Leika’s band, staring back with a face like thunder. Wiry Dafith, whom the shepherd defeated, stands next to Torkal. Orvald sees Hengist, the boy he beat down, give a flicker of recognition to which Orvald returns a nod. Then there is doughty little Hardra, the last of the raiders to fall, who had required both Neela’s and Orvald’s efforts to defeat.
Two other familiar figures can be seen. One is Bundris Blacktooth, nemesis of Eoric’s Stead, standing tall and proud in bronze armour and furs, a great wolf’s pelt wrapping his shoulders. Beside him is his pretty daughter, Leika.
And she looks wretched.
Imagine if you will a thoroughbred killing machine, a lithe assassin bundled rudely into a dress. It has berry juice smeared on its lips and rubbed into its cheeks to give them life. Arm-rings and necklaces adorn it. Orvald cannot help smile. It is an ill-advised attempt by some clan mothers to make this pocket warrior look like a demure clangirl. It’s plain that Leika doesn’t know how to play this role. The dress hangs off her shapelessly as if she cannot find the right way to carry herself. Here is a woman more comfortable in breeks and armour, on a horse or with a weapon in her hands. In a gown she looks thoroughly miserable and her eyes dart about as if looking for something to kill.
Orvald approaches with his companions flanking him. Bundris welcomes the trio, extending the hospitality of his hearth to the young swain and his friends. Orvald responds with gratitude and, expresses his pleasure at meeting Leika again. Their previous encounters were in battle, where Bundris’s daughter acquitted herself with honour. At this, the young Vingan woman looks up, curiously. Orvald turns to Neela, who hands him the fine sword, sheathed and hanging from a belt of fine workmanship. Eyes burning with emotion, he gifts it to Leika.
Eyes wide, Leika takes the sword, unsheathes it, and is almost instantly transformed. Her carriage changes to adopt a weapon stance, and as she does this the gown no longer looks shapeless but drapes her figure perfectly. She tests the balance and heft of the weapon, then in the clear space nearby tries a couple of evolutions: a guard and a thrust. No longer stiff and awkward, she is all fluid grace, in tune with her new blade. With one smooth move she resheathes the weapon.
She smiles at the thane, thanking him for the majestic gift, and they go into Bundris’s hall together.