Daughter of the Windswept Hills
Part Four – We Shall See To These Lowlanders
In the rugged wilds of the hill country the Aedring called home, the lot of the goat herders was no easy one. Assigned to the care of the young, both boys and girls, there were many threats that could strike at any moment. Wild beasts roamed the hills, always on the look out for an easy meal. During times of blood feuds, there were raids from other clans to be worried about. Fierce storms could sweep down at any moment, or recalcitrant animals could wander off. Else times, the boredom was the greatest threat.
Seldom did the thought of raiders from the lowlands concern the goat herders, for the occurrence of such was one that barely occurred, not for many years.
Thus it was that those tending to the goats that day were not on the sharpest lookout for those approaching from the lowlands, and when at last they did spot them, it came almost too late to do much about it had not Fianna already raised the alarm.
From the pastures, a young boy with dark, sweat matted hair ran up the trail towards the village, a stabbing pain in his side from the effort, yet he could not allow himself to stop. The appearance of Hraega in his armour of bronze and the other warriors came to him as something of a surprise, not expecting to see them until he reached the village.
The boy came to a panting halt as he reached Hraega. “Grandfather Hraega,” he reported in between deep breaths, “Lowlanders, coming up the valley.”
“We are aware of that, son,” Hraega told him. “Where is Maeti?”
“She is still at the pastures,” the boy replied, “Getting the goats into the enclosures.”
“We had best hurry then,” Hraega said sternly. “There is not telling what these lowlanders are capable of. Did you get a good look at them?” he added, setting off once more.
The boy had to scurry to keep up with Hraega’s stride. “As best we could.”
“Tell me of them.”
“There are around sixty of them, from what we could see,” the boy told Hraega. “One there is that rides a fine mount, but the rest come on foot, with no semblance of order. They had two scouts who came out ahead to survey the pasture, but Maeti saw to them.”
“Where did you last see them?”
“They were just crossing the ford over the Old Meander.”
“That does not give us much time,” Hraega mused. “We must push on,” he called out, starting to jog forward. Behind him, the other warriors loped on, following at a deceptively fast pace for the effort they appeared to be putting in.
“They can not hope to achieve much with a mere sixty men,” Fianna stated boldly. “They should have brought three times that many. The goats alone are not worth the effort.”
“It would seem that way,” Hraega responded even as he continued on, “Yet you take our goats and our village would not survive. And if they had come upon the village unaware, even those sixty would have sufficed. Outnumbered, surprised, ill equipped and in small groups, we would have been cut down, our village destroyed and looted. No doubt we would kill many, but not enough.”
“That would bring down the retribution of the other clans though.”
“Aye, it would, yet it would not change what had happened to us.”
“The loot taken would hardly be worth it.”
“The loot itself would be incidental. What they would be after, and of most value, would be slaves.”
“You can not enslave an Aedring,” Fianna retorted. “We would die first.”
“An adult, yes, but a child? Take them when they are young and you can break them yet still claim they are Aedring. They are most valuable I hear.”
Fianna fell silent as she jogged, given much to ponder.
The trail carried them down from the higher hills, alongside a swift flowing stream, one that bounced and crashed down slopes, swirling through pools and craggy rocks, out into a valley that cut into the hills, one much richer in grass than any of the lands higher up. From their vantage point looking down over the valley, they could see a series of pens made of stone walls into which were being driven the goats of the clan by an older girl, a quiver of arrows at her side and a strung bow in hand. At the far end of the valley, where it dropped away again, lay two bodies where they had been struck down by the girl, feathered shafts lodged in them.
The Aedring swarmed down the trail with the dexterity of mountain goats, sure footed and swift, reaching the valley floor before the raiders had arrived. Maeti waited for them near the pens, a lanky, raw boned girl losing the flesh of childhood but yet to acquire her adult shape.
“You have all the goats safe?” Hraega asked of her.
Hragea gave her a brief nod. Praise did not come easy for the Aedring, not for a task done as was expected. Only if a goat had been lost, even despite the trying circumstances, would he have made mention of it.
“Stay with the goats and guard them,” Hraega ordered Maeti. “We shall see to these lowlanders.”
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