Daughter of the Windswept Hills
Part One – The Windswept Hills
Across the windswept slopes of craggy hills a young woman ran, her bare feet treading lightly upon cold earth and stone. Largely barren, little grew in that region of hills bar a few gnarled trees and patches of moss. Drifts of snow banked up against boulders and the trunks of fallen trees. A chill wind carried from the mountains beyond, where grey clouds rolled down across snow covered heights.
Despite the cool that lingered in the air, the woman wore little to ward off the elements. Her legs were as bare as her feet, and she was clad in a short skirt of softened hide, a thin woven shirt, and a simple, sleeveless vest of the same material as her skirt. Across her back was slung a sheathed broadsword, the scabbard and hilt made of well worn leather, evidence of much use.
Her auburn hair flowed out behind her as she ran, damp from sweat, while her amber eyes were fixed with steely determination on a point ahead up the slope. Her legs ate up the distance as she climbed, yet for all her labours she breathed easy, showing little strain from the effort she was putting forth.
A fierce cry sounded from above as a bird of prey soared free upon the winds. The young woman looked up, searching the skies until she located the bird. She watched it for a moment before it dropped away, plummeting down into a valley hidden from sight, descending on prey.
The woman continued on in her run, headed towards where the valley cut into the hills. Slipping her way between a pair of hulking, fractured boulders, overgrown with pale lichens of greens and purples, she came out onto a ledge that overlooked the valley. It tumbled away far below, down precipitous cliff faces, to where a river crashed and raged. Hardy bushes clung precariously to the steep sides, surviving despite the worst that nature could throw at them.
On the ledge, looking down over the valley, stood a trio of stones, into which were carved symbols of bear and wolf and hawk, much faded with age and the weathering of wind and storm upon them.
The woman stopped before the three stones, touching each of them in turn. Once she had done that, she began to speak.
“I was born upon the windswept hills, beneath the open sky.”
Thus done, she turned and set off again, slipping between the boulders. She followed the route she had come up by back down again, picking up speed, bounding between the snows and the stones that lined the route, her bare feet making not a sound as she ran.
As she continued on, trees began to appear more abundantly, spindly things at first, leaning askance from the winds, but they grew taller and stronger the further down she ran. The cold and barren ground soon was lined with fallen branches and needles from the evergreen trees, while beneath them there was some shelter from the chill of the cutting winds, while the light faded into a gloom of shadows.
She ran on, weaving beneath the trees. Barely a noise was made as she ran across the fallen leaves, moving with the grace of a prowling cat, silent, alert, and on edge. Her path carried her deep into the forest, arriving in time at a clearing. Pale light filtered down through the gap in the canopy, settling upon three more standing stones at the centre of the clearing. Around them piled up a small mound of snow. The markings carved upon them were different from the first lot she had visited, being of mountain goat, snow leopard and owl, and were much less worn, sheltered by the trees as they were.
Once more the woman took her place before them, touching each stone in turn and reciting more lines.
“A rugged land where wolves do howl and eagles soar on high.“
Her feet leapt forward again and on she ran, darting through the trees. She leapt fallen trucks, landing swiftly and silently in a crouch on the other side, and ducked beneath low lying branches. Here the snows had yet to melt, and her feet left soft impressions on them. She followed no marked trial, beyond the one graven into her heart and mind, for this was her land, the land of her kin and clan, and she knew each part of it as well as she knew her own hand. The land was harsh, a place were living was a struggle in and of itself, and only the tough survived it, but it was home to the Aedring, a people as hard as they came. To the lowlanders of the cities upon the plains, they were seen as a crude, barbaric people, but for untold generations they had lived in the hills, resisting any attempts to drive them from their lands or to conquer them. The woman, Fianna, was a product of her environment, tough as the land itself and just as hard, with all the instincts of the wild animals that called it home as well, of the wolf and eagle, the bear and the great cats of the peaks.
Her run through the forest took some time, her course setting a weaving path between the trees. Few hints of the land about could be made out through the trees. When at last she emerged, she stood atop a ridge line, the afternoon sun before her, shrouded by the grey banks of clouds that gusted across the sky. Below her spread the lower slopes of the hill county of the Aedring, and beyond that she could make out the start of the great plains that reached all the way to the distant sea. From the hills and mountains, many small streams and tributaries crashed down to join the headwaters of the river Far’hadal, from where it snaked its way across the plains, to the Sea of Tyrants, where, at the far distant city of Qaiqala, it met the other great river of the plains, the swift flowing Shalahir.
Running along the ridge line, with the chill wind coming down off the snow stabbing at her like piercing knives, she came to a third set of standing stones. These sat a lonely vigil atop the ridge, surveying the lands below.
Stopping before them, Fianna repeated her previous rituals, just one more in a long line that members of her clan performed as part of their rites of initiation, the tour of the borders of their clan lands in which they recited the ancient Song of the Aedring.
“I was born with steel in my hand, and thunder in my heart.“
Taking a moment to survey the view beneath her before she once more continued on, Fianna caught a moment of movement down below, a brief flicker of motion that raised her hackles. Her amber eyes focused in on it as her hand went over her shoulder to the hilt of her sword with an instinctive wariness.
A string of men could be seen making their way along the slopes below, headed towards the lower pastures further north, where the hardy mountain goats that her clan kept were penned. They were the wealth of the clan, producing the wool and milk and meat that did much to sustain them. With barely a thought, Fianna altered the course of her run, ducking down below the ridge line so that the men could not see her, running towards the pasture. They were not of her clan, that much she was certain of. And nor were they of any of the other clans of the Aedring.
Fianna’s pace quickened and she now ran low to the ground, moving with all the cunning and speed of a hunting wolf circling about its prey. The sword slid clear of the scabbard across her back. In her hand, it had a secure, comforting weight.
Behind the ridge line, she began the descent towards the pastures were the goats were kept. A few trees whispered passed her as she darted between shadows, her keen eyes alert for any sign of scouts ahead of the main group of men, for there were bound to be some if the raiders had any sense of tactics, and understanding of whom they were dealing with.
A narrow trail, worn into the side of the hill, started to emerge, and this she ran along side of, slipping between boulders and trees. She stayed off the trail to minimise any chance of being spotted.
She could not say what alerted her to the danger, only that some sense deep within her called out a warning. The sword came up, brought there by the instincts honed into her bones by generations of Aedring born to the wild hills, blocking a downward slash from a man who appeared before her from behind the cover of a large, lichen covered boulder.
The man stood taller than her, a hulking brute, dark hair framing a grim, flat face, with dark eyes showing surprise at her quick reactions. No Aedring looked as he did, yet Fianna, unversed as she was to those that lived in the lands below, could not tell from what people he came. A jerkin of leather, to which were attached blackened disks of metal, covered his arms, torso and upper legs, while he wielded a heavy broadsword, one longer and bulkier than her own, gripped in both hands.
The sudden sound of clashing blades rang out across the hills, and, from further down the path that Fianna followed towards the pastures, she heard a shout in an alien language.
The raider grinned with contempt at the mere woman who opposed him and pressed forward, swinging his broadsword in a vicious hacking downwards blow. Fianna stepped in to meet it, striking a blocking blow in reply, putting the might of her hardened thews behind it. The two blades crashed together, locking tight. Neither budged as they faced each other, yet Fianna saw a flicker of astonishment in the raider’s eyes. He had not counted on her being as strong as she was, a match for him despite the advantages he held in size.
As he eyes narrowed and fastened on his, she lashed out with a bared foot, kicking for his knee. The unexpected move caught him solid upon it, and he took a hobbled step pack, a wince upon his coarse face. The blades separated. Fianna drove forward, taking advantage of the momentum, her sword stabbing with the speed of a lashing snake, driving up beneath his arm where the armour did not protect. The blade punctured deep and the raider gave a coughing rasp as it tore through his lungs. Ripping it clear, Fianna scythed her sword across the man’s throat. Blood sprayed as the blow hammered deep, half severing the head from the body. The man dropped like a stone to the ground, his sword falling free from his grasp. Blood from his quivering body flowed out across the path, seeping into a drift of snow.
Barely had he fallen than two more raiders came scrambling into view up the path. One, the taller of the pair, a man with dirty blond hair and beard, carried a spear and wore a hide jacket, while his shorter, dark bearded companion, had a short bow with an arrow strung to it.
Fianna was already moving as the bow came up, the string being drawn back to its full extent. With a hoarse cry she charged, bloody sword in hand, making for the two raiders. The spearman moved forward to intercept as the bowman took aim at her. Fianna darted aside as the string was released. The arrow sung through the air, whistling where moments before she had been standing, so close that she could feel the passing of it. The spear came thrusting at her at the same time. It caught in her shirt just above her hip, tearing through the cloth.
Her fist drove forward, smashing the hilt of her sword into the spearman’s face. Blood erupted from his mouth as it struck home beneath the chin and he slumped to the ground, his eyes rolling back in his head.
The other raider dropped his bow, clawing frantically for the short sword at his side. He had only managed to half drag it clear when Fianna’s broadsword slid home, driving between his ribs. Blood gurgled from his mouth and his eyes blinked for a few seconds as he crumpled.
Picking up the fallen man’s bow, and taking the quiver of arrows from his body, Fianna scrambled to the top of the ridge line, running low to the ground. Near the top she dropped and crawled the last little bit, carefully raising her to peer down the other side.
A line of raiders could be seen making their way up towards the pasture, far too many for her to deal with. Even assuming each arrow she carried struck home, they would only account for perhaps a half of them, and the rest she could not face alone with a sword. Yet she could not let them get to the pastures, and the goats.
It left just one option remaining to her, to return to the village and warn them of the approaching raiders. That itself posed problems, for she had not yet completed her rites of initiation. To return to the village before the rites had been completed would carry grave consequences. The Aedring were a hard people, and only one sentence awaited those who failed; banishment.
Fianna had seen what happened to those who were banished. Among her clan were five from other clans who were under banishment, living among them yet at the same time not part of them. They were a people apart, not wholly trusted, or at least seen not quiet as true Aedring, not until their banishment had been fulfilled.
That was the fate which awaited her should she return to the village, and yet the clan came first, the survival of it, of her family, paramount even if it came at the expense of her own honour. Nothing else could matter.
She required barely a moment to come to that conclusion, little more than an acknowledgement of the facts and her fate, before she was moving again. Scrambling down the slope, she returned to where the man she had rendered senseless with the strike to the chin lay. She drove her sword point first into the ground before picking him up and hoisting him over her shoulders. Reclaiming her sword again, she started towards the village, moving at the best speed she could beneath her burden.