Daughter of the Windswept Hills
Part Two – The Return
The familiar ring of hammer on anvil carried to Fianna as she neared the village, of the sound of her grandfather Hraega at work as he had been her entire life. Always it had been a comforting sound, as he had seemed to a young girl as indestructible, and with him around she knew no danger could come to her. Now it carried within connotations of a different kind, of the ring of finality. She pushed on, following the path alongside the brook that flowed near the village. Coming around a bend in the hills, she saw it before her.
A score of houses were built in the shelter of the lee of a cliff face. Circular in shape, there were constructed of grey stones, with thick thatched roofs. A few wisps of smoke drifted into the sky through openings at the top of the roofs, rising from the cooking hearths inside the buildings. A few of the clan were out and about at work around the village. Work there never ended, not in the harsh environs of the hills. One pair sat up atop one of the houses, re-thatching the roof. Others tended small patches of farmland, making ready the spring plantings.
At her approach, people looked up from their labours. If they were surprised, they did not show it much. They knew that none could have returned from the rites so soon. At the earliest she should have been back the following morning. Then they spotted the burden over her shoulders, and the sword in her hand with its drying blood. All activity ceased as they came across to her.
As she reached the middle of the village, she dumped the raider she carried roughly to the ground. The man stirred as he hit, his eyes starting to flicker open. As his awareness returned, he saw a sword, still stained with blood, levelled at his throat, beyond it a grim expression on the face of an auburn haired woman, her amber eyes showing no fear, and no mercy.
Other began to join her, men and women, children and even a couple of dogs. Few did not share that grim expression of the woman, the harshness of the environment eked upon their faces, their bodies and in their eyes. They were, for the most, on the shorter side, wiry rather than bulky, for in the hills food could be scarce, with little to spare, yet they had an iron strength within that came from their environs and their way of life.
Then an older man made his way through the gathering, one with silver grey hair and beard, wearing a leather apron pocked by tiny burns from sparks from working the smithy. He carried over his shoulder a hefty smithing hammer. He looked not to the man on the ground but to the woman over him with the sword.
“You have returned to us before your time, granddaughter. It grieves me to see it so.”
“My heart is heavy, grandfather,” Fianna replied, though her sword wavered not an inch, “But in this I acted for the clan. There are raiders coming from the lowlands, headed even now towards the pastures and the goats.”
Hraega’s eyes moved from Fianna to the raider lying on the ground, and the hammer came down from his shoulder, swung as easily as if it were a tree branch. He squatted down, using the hammer as support, staring at the raider.
“Is this true?” he simply asked.
The raider could only nod, terror gripping at his heart as the seriousness of his situation became apparent to him now that his wits had fully returned. The tales of the barbarian Aedring were many, and in that moment the stories began to return to him, chilling his bones.
Hraega sighed slowly. “It has been a while since last the lowlanders dared to test us. We will have to set an example once more I fear. Tell me, lowlander, who is the one responsible for this? Speak truthfully and you yet may live.”
The raider swallowed hard, before speaking. The Aedring had not voiced a second option, and he did not want to discover what it was. His words came out as barely a whisper. “We are mercenaries, hired to the employ of the Sheik Mashraf of Abar Sul.”
Hraega nodded gravely and stood back up. “Laefa, fetch some cord to bind this man with until we verify his words. Aodan, we will march out to meet these raiders and then we shall send out word to the clans. It is time this Mashraf of Abar Sul learned that the Aedring are not to be prodded at like an angry bear, least they provoke it.”
“What of me, grandfather?” Fianna asked. She appeared calm, without concern, ready for whatever fate befell her. If she felt more than that she would not show it.
“All will be dealt with in time, but for the moment we have these raiders to deal with. You will accompany us for that.”
“As you say, grandfather.”
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