The children of the Quivini
Proud and strong
Halls filled with bold boasts,
These stout-hearted hill striders
Guardians of the King’s Way
Waiting ’ere the Argrath comes,
Raises his noble banner against the red men
And bends all loyal thanes of Sartar
To march against the moon
Freeze Day, Death Week, Earth Season 1618
Just more than half a mile from the Blue Starling Stead lies Maniski Half-Man’s cottage. It is a modest hall. Maniski is a Half-Carl who lost a hand and one side of his face in the defence of the stead during some long-ago raid. He owns a half-share in a plough-and-oxen team with his hearty cousin, Jarmast Big-Laugh. Today Maniski watches the redsmith Neela fix a new bronze facing to his plough. It will cost him dear: half a ewe and some bushels of barley for the labour and metal. It will be a somewhat leaner winter for his family.
Nearby is Fastulv the shepherd, who is fussing over some sick sheep in one of Mankiski’s pens. They show signs of the disease known as blacktongue. Every ewe and lamb will count, as it is close to harvest time. Only healthy animals can be slaughtered for the pot or for preserving.
Down to the cottage comes Orvald the weaponthane, bearing news. A sheep was discovered on the High Pasture, cut open and with its entrails arranged in a purposeful pattern. The signs are clear: the Three Tin Ton, a band of notorious trolls, have come down off the mountain and are readying to raid the nearby steads.
Maniski shakes his head. This is bad news on top of all the clan’s ills. Jarstak Trollspear, the head of the stead, will demand a night curfew, he tells the thane. He won’t risk a fight with the Trolls. They have come to hunt human flesh for their pot, preferably that of children. Any curfew will shorten the working day and interrupt the harvest. It may result in lost or sick animals: maybe more than the trolls will kill for themselves. On top of the Lunars’ heavy taxes and fines the stead’s supply of food in wintertime will be even more meagre for this incursion.
Orvald asks about the Three Tin Ton. Maniski explains they were last seen five years ago, before Orvald had been initiated as an adult. They were the raiders who cost the Half-Carl his face and hand, and crippled a leg. They come only at night and their concealment spells can defeat watchman magics.
The Three Tin Ton are a fearful danger and even the Night Brothers, the clan’s band of troll-hunters, give them a wide berth. They have armour that lets them move silently and which is made of a metal that cannot be pierced by weapons. The Night Brothers captured a piece of it once and found it was specially enchanted. Neela asks about the armour but Maniski says he knows little about it. She should ask her father — master smith Farnan Hammerhand — about it instead.
Before the companions can ask for any more information on the trolls, everyone notices the wind snap in their faces. It is the clan wyter, the guardian spirit Valenstor, communicating with them. Wordlessly, it tells them that the clan territory, the tula, is being invaded by someone or something hostile. Maniski shouts and points to where a flock of starlings can be seen wheeling and diving beyond a distant treeline. Yossi Greenwing, the stead’s spirit, is manifest as a cloud of chattering starlings that appears to be mobbing the intruders.
Fastulv takes up his spear and with his Alynx bounding at his heels he heads off in the direction of the invasion, to scout out what is happening. Orvald and Neela start back in the opposite direction, towards the Big House, hoping to raise the stead militia, the fyrd. In the distance they can see a grey dot waddling out of the palisade gates, angrily hissing and honking. It is the Mighty Goose, issuing a warning call.
The pair see a young boy around eight years running toward them. It is ‘Snothead’, whose real name is Snorri, come to tell them of a raid on the upper pastures. Some Greycoats have made off with some fifty of Old Man Broddi’s sheep. They are now on their way back to Greycoat territory via the path beneath Little Star Ridge and the Thunder Oak. As the horn on the watch tower sounds out, Snorri tells the pair that the fyrd are mustering. Orvald orders the boy to tell the fyrdsmen to come as soon as they can. At that both Neela and Orvald turn around and head towards the mob of starlings, hoping to intercept the enemy and delay them sufficiently for the rest of the steadsmen to come to their support.
Racing ahead, Fastulv is faced with a choice. The direct route would take him through the Cinder Pits, a haunted place where Eoric’s Stead used to be. Fearing the ghosts that haunt the place he chooses the longer route around the thick, tangled forest known as The Acres. Using his knowledge of the land and the endurance given to him by his spirit charm, he makes good time.
Behind him, Orvald and Neela decide to take the direct route through the Cinder Pits. Heedless to danger they plough on, following the cloud of starlings. As they cross into the overgrown land that was once Eoric’s Stead, all goes quiet. The only thing they can hear is a distant whispering of many voices. And then this sound stops, and a chill briefly courses down their spines.
They emerge from the trees to find the drover’s path beneath Dwarf Ridge. They are not far from the Lightning Stone. In the distance they can see a flock of rustled sheep being driven away. Before them, is a line of five armed men and women, waiting for them. They are from their old enemy, the Greycoat clan. As soon as they see Neela and Orvald the Greycoats start to beat their weapons and shields together. They are giving out the challenge to combat.
Fastulv arrives by a different path to see Neela and Orvald advance on the five, who are still beating out their challenge. He tries to slip around the defenders, to get at the sheep, which are being driven away at a good pace. Fastulv wonders why the Greycoats intend to fight a stand-up battle rather than ambush and harry as most raiders do. Are they trying to prove something?
As Neela and Orvald approach they can regard the five warriors. Two of them wear the wolf pelts that indicate full-fledged wolf hunters. But something is strange. They are smaller and slighter than full-grown warriors and the men have no beards. They wear the tattoos of adults but are clearly youths, maybe no more than 15 or 16 years of age, recently initiated to adulthood.
One of them, a skinny girl with flashing eyes, carries herself as if she was their leader. She directs two of the boys to run up the hill and intercept Fastulv while she organises the remaining two to help her take on the smith and weaponthane.
Orvald stops twenty paces short of the invaders and bellows: “Who will face me in single combat!”
The Greycoats are taken back by the mighty noise, but the leader girl says: “Hengist, fight the man. I shall take the smith. I shall show you how I master metal.”
I shall show you how I master metal.
The words trigger a memory in Neela. She recalls an old legend. It is about the goddess Vinga, daughter of Orlanth. In the tale she mastered the lowfire by leaping over it and beating down upon it with her weapon. She did this again and again, and each time she beat the fire it became smaller but more intense, until all that remained was a bright blue flame, hot enough to work metal with. In this way Vinga mastered the smith’s art and it was one of the skills she offered to Orlanth when she joined her father’s household.
Neela watches as this girl, with her Henna’d hair and bearing the tattoos of a Vingan, begins to glow and change. She is heroforming, taking on herself the identity of her goddess. No longer is she a skinny teenager, but a grown woman with strong limbs and fire in her eyes. Neela is amazed that one so young should be powerful enough to forge such a close identity with her goddess.
As the young man Hengist lines up against Orvald, Neela sees the Vingan girl crouch as if for a leap. The Greycoat jumps high in the air, as if re-enacting the myth. But Neela is ready and as she is overhead takes a swing with her hammer and catches the girl on the knee, knocking her out of the air and making her flip onto her back as she falls to the ground. Now the Vingan is on the grass and for a moment her hero light flickers. Neela can see a look of fear on the girl’s face. She is struggling to maintain her identity as a goddess and the surprise of Neela’s action has almost robbed her of her power.
Neela tries to humiliate the girl and force her true identity to the surface by giving her a mighty kick. It partially works, sending the Vingan rolling across the ground, but does not buckle her identity. The girl’s hero light stabilizes.
Meanwhile, Orvald is in a tough fight, spear-to-spear with Hengist. Orvald has the greater skill and experience but the beardless boy he faces seems to be holding his own, and even getting an edge. The fight becomes a frustrating match of thrust and counter.
Up the hill, two boys rush at Fastulv. The shepherd tries to slip past them, using his Alynx as a distraction, but the stratagem fails. Now he finds himself with a battle with two Greycoats, one with a spear and the other with a net. They are trying to work together to defeat Fastulv by netting then skewering him.
Back down the hill, Neela hammers at the Greycoat leader, who is still on the ground, and…
She sees her daughter, Orana, picked up bodily and thrown back into the flames. Her son Endurev, not yet an adult, charges at the raiders with a meat knife. He is butchered as he stabs at them. Her husband lies sightless and bleeding on the ground…
Neela shakes her head. These memories have come from somewhere else. They are a memory of the burning of Eoric’s Stead. They are not hers.
As Orvald parries and thrusts, strange memories that are not his own creep into his mind and disturb his ability to fight…
He remembers there were too many. Raiders in their wolfskins, laughing and beating their shields. He dropped his spear and ran. But then he was felled by a well-aimed javelin. It stuck in his back. He could feel the hot blood running down his skin…
Now Neela is beating on the Vingan and all she can feel is a rage and all she can hear in her ears are screams of vengeance, demanding she kill the Greycoat. A final great blow is enough to defeat the raider. Neela see the girl change, almost deflate back to her mundane form as her connection to her goddess is broken. She can faintly hear the Vingan cry out, asking for quarter.
Neela holds her hammer up, ready to stove the girl’s head in. Then she stays her hand.
She masters what control of her body she can, while the screams in her mind go on and on. She cannot kill this girl. She says the words out loud: she will accept surrender; she will give quarter.
Meanwhile Orvald must struggle with the fear that engulfs his mind and threatens to unman him. He masters his fear, fending it off to focus on bringing down this young opponent. Dropping his spear, Orvald launches himself at the youth with his long bronze blade, bearing him down with righteous fury until the youngster crumples.
Fasulv is making short work of the two boys who face him. A wild leap with his spear whacks one upside the head and sends him straight down. Fastulv stabs him in the gut to make sure and sends the incapacitated boy into a screaming fit. The other lad with the net runs and the shepherd and his Alynx are quickly on top of him, beating him down and forcing a surrender.
This leaves the remaining unengaged girl trying to tackle Neela while Orvald comes to help. For a short while the fight is in the balance, but no-one, however plucky, can survive long against two experienced fighters and the girl is knocked to the floor, defeated.
The fight has ended and the rest of the fyrd are now within sight. Leaving their prisoners to the fyrdsmen, Neela, Orvald and Fastulv start their pursuit of the rest of the raiders, who are driving the flock of sheep down the old drover’s track. As soon as the raiders see the pursuit they run, leaving the sheep to scatter across the hill. Fastulv peels off from the pursuit to gather them all in, using his Alynx to shepherd the stragglers.
Neela and Orvald pursue the remaining raiders until they are well beyond the boundary stones of the clan’s land.
Making their way back to the stead, the party meet with Finn the Heavy. He is the hearth head for Neela and Orvald’s home, and a brother to Jarstak Trollspear. He praises them for their work and says that the young snots they just beat will bring a good ransom from the Greycoats. He sends them back to the stead but warns them to tread carefully around Jarstak. The news of the return of the Three Tin Ton has put the old troll hunter into a foul mood and he will be demanding a curfew, whatever the cost to the stead in harvest and slaughtered sheep. He also asks if Neela could look out for Jarstak’s young wife, Swena. However rough-tongued Jarstak is to all the steadsmen he will be even tougher on his newlywed wife.
Back at the stead, Orvald and Fastulv see Tara Redbraid, Finn’s wife, to get patched up. She is a Bevaran initiate and expert with bandage, needle and splint. She soon patches their cuts. She has also been binding the wounds of the prisoners, all of whom look sullen.
The Greycoat prisoners are honour-bound not to create trouble but are surly, even when Orvald praises them for their bravery. The leader is a wiry girl with a pretty face and startling eyes, who tells Orvald she fought an open fight to earn a mead-hall boast; something she failed to achieve this time. The implied threat that there will be a next time is there.
While Fastulv wonders whether he should go and make sure the retreating raiders haven’t doubled back, Neela and Orvald go to find Jarstak to tell him about the spirits that possessed them. On the way they see Jara, Jarstak’s daughter, who has not been right in the head since a childhood visit to the Cinder Pits. The moment Jara looks at them she starts screaming. She screams and screams, unmoving, until Swena appears from a longhouse and draws the girl back inside, whereupon the screams stop.
Even the Mighty Goose seems to sense the presence of something alien inside the smith and weaponthane. It honks and hisses at them as it waddles past.
It’s getting into the late afternoon when they find Jarstak near the rickety watch tower. He is in a good mood and praises them for their success in battle. He says that Jarald the Lawthane will come to try and negotiate a ransom. The raid leader, whose name is Leika Bundrisdotter, is the daughter of a great thane and could be worth 25 cows. The others are easily worth 5 cows each. This bounty could be a real help to the stead through the winter.
Now it is time for Neela and Orvald to face the music. They tell Jarstak their bad news about their trip through the Cinder Pits. At this his mood darkens and he shouts at them, accusing them of being stupid idiots. He refuses to let them sleep in any hearth until the spirits are exorcised. They will have to make sleeping provision elsewhere. A god-talker will have to be sent for to consult on what to do about the haunted couple.
Jarstak also orders Orvald to prepare a full curfew. They must bring all children and as many of the adults as they can convince into First Safety, the palisade of the big house. No night patrols will be mounted and the fyrd are to stay within the walls.
Glumly, Orvald goes off to tell the fyrdsmen. They are not eager to stop patrolling and wonder why they cannot have a crack at the Three Tin Ton. By Jarstak’s orders stand and they accede to his wishes.
Meanwhile Neela considers whether she should visit her adoptive father, the old master smith, in Goodhaven…