Daughter of the Windswept Hills
Part Five – Aedring, Arise
The Aedring warriors took up positions near the entrance to the valley to the west, from whence the raiders would come. The stream crashed its way down through the gap, towards the lowlands, and there an old trail made its way alongside it. The valley narrowed there, and the hills grew steeper still, almost to vertical in parts, enclosing the valley. The Aedring faded away into the landscape, using the terrain as only a native could, as sly as a hunting fox, hidden from sight so as to make the valley appear open and inviting to any that entered it. Even the sharpest eyed hawk would have been troubled to spot them. In the hill country, surviving required great skill in the arts of stealth and camouflage.
Fianna waited not far away from Hraega, her sword in hand and at the ready. She crouched low behind a boulder and a patch of hardy shrubs. Her back up against the boulder, she peered around the edge, through the branches of the shrubs with exceeding care, watching towards the valley entrance. Her sharp ears strained for the sounds of the raiders approaching. The wind that swirled about in the valley caught up noises and tossed them around, making the exact location and distance of the raiders hard to ascertain, but they were coming. The sound of boots, the jangle of harness and weapons, the report of voices, they all came to the valley, growing steadily stronger.
The thought of exile, while troubling, she had set aside. She could not change the past, and to let it trouble her would distract her during the coming fight. With the fatalism that was part of the character of the hillsmen of the Aedring, she would let it play out and accept it when the time for it came about.
Patience played its role, and with it the enemy raiders appeared at last, a motley band of mercenaries drawn from all parts, sixty two in number by Fianna’s account. They were led by a man on horse, and were equipped much as any mercenaries, with shirts of iron and leather and weapons of their choice. Long haired, unshaven, dirt smudged, yet their weapons were well kept and tended to, for by them they earned their living. The rider appeared much as any other city-dwelling Ishmarite, with dusky skin and a pointed beard so black it was almost blue. He wore a long robe, split at the sides, of pale greens and whites, over a light shirt of mail. A curved scimitar hung at his side, and a spiked helm rested on his head, from which flowed a mail guard down across his shoulders.
The mercenaries stopped at the entrance to the valley, and though alert and gazing up the valley with intent, they did not spot the hidden Aedring, for few could. Ahead they could see the goat pens, and the young Maeti.
Their leader, Sheik Mashraf, or so that was who Fianna suspected that the rider was, spoke a few words to the mercenaries, ordering them onwards. He remained behind, with a half dozen of the mercenaries, while the rest unlimbered shields and weapons and began a march, soon passing the fallen bodies of those shot down by Maeti.
The bow sung in Maeti’s hands as she sent a shaft flowing through the air towards them, a sure shot aimed for a big man who stood at the heart of the band, one with a dark, braided beard and shaven head, a broad axe in one hand and iron rimmed wooden shield in the other. Quick as a striking snake he brought his shield up and the arrow slammed home into it.
The mercenaries had reached halfway up the valley when Hraega unveiled the ambush, emerging from where he had hidden. His bronze armour glittered in the pale sunlight, his cloak rippling behind him. He raised his hammer on high and bellowed out a challenge.
“Who dares come to the lands of the Aedring?”
The advance of the mercenaries halted as suddenly as it had begun, their heads turning to look upon the grey-haired Aedring man. Mashraf wheeled his horse about, seeking cover behind the members of his band that remained with him near the gap at the entrance to the valley.
Seeing only the one man standing there before him, Mashraf snatched up a javelin that hung in a quiver beside his saddle. He hefted it and cast it towards Hraega. The shaft flew straight, yet Hraega, despite his age, stepped aside and it flew by him to strike the ground behind him.
“The answer has been given,” Hraega called out. “Aedring, arise!”
All around the valley, the hidden Aedring stood up from where they had been secreted, bellowing war cries as they did. The raiders turned this way and that, surprised by the sudden appearance, trying to assess their current situation.
“Let none leave this place,” Hraega bellowed, charging down from his vantage point towards the enemy. From all parts the Aedring, wild and reckless, followed in his stead, their cries ringing through the hills. A hail of darts and arrows preceded the charge, falling among the mercenaries. They pierced gaps in shields and armour, bringing a number of men down.
The leader of the mercenaries who were advancing reacted with calm precision, reordering his lines to meet the changes. Mashraf, though, turned his horse about and took flight even before the Aedring had reached them, his horse pounding off back down the valley the way he had come. One of the men who had been with him started to take flight as well. Before he could take more than a few steps, Hraega was upon him, his hammer crashing down with brutal force, crushing the life from the man.
With screams and shouts, the other Aedring reached the enemy, flinging themselves into the fray, fighting with the cunning and wild nature bred into their bones by a thousand generations of life in the harsh hills. The mercenaries may have been skilled, but in comparison to the Aedring, they were but untrained striplings, made soft by life in the lowlands.
Fianna came scything in behind Hraega, her sword describing a tearing arc as she threw herself at a dark haired mercenary, his face marked by a dangerous scar slashing across it. Swords crashed together and sparks flew. She whirled about, a tempest given form, sword sizzling again. The mercenary stepped backwards, barely blocking the impassioned blows that sought to carve him apart. All around them rang screams and shouts, the clash of blades and whirling weapons.
Fianna fought with the impetuousness of youth, with no thought to risk or danger, throwing her body, honed by the wild, into the battle. Her foe may not have had her barbaric nature or resolve, but he had the cunning and guile earned from a hundred such clashes as a mercenary over the years. Each time she attacked, he backed off further, drawing her deeper into the swirling melee, and each blow that came close he parried aside, letting her expend her rage and energy against his defence, wearing her down. In her youth and focus, she did not see what he did, or if she did, then she did not let it stop her, for her blood was up. Exlied though she would become, she was Aedring still, and these were her lands, the lands of her clan, unconquered though all the world raged against, and while she remained alive she vowed to keep it so.
“I was born upon the windswept hills, beneath the open sky,” she snarled, unleashing another blow that was driven by iron strength, the blade slamming into her opponent’s sword with a crashing ring.
The mercenary spoke no words, instead fixing on her with a contemptuous grin, one twisted by the scar across his face to give it a dark aspect. Fianna’s blood boiled at it, and she screamed as she doubled her wild efforts, her sword slashing and slamming with relentless speed and aggression, one her opponent almost failed to account for. Close it came to slipping by his defences, each time only narrowly being parried aside.
Yet Fianna’s energy was not endless, and her efforts began to tire her, the blows slowing and coming with less might behind them. Her mouth hung open, sucking in deep breaths of air.
The battle around them was coming to its climax, for most of the mercenaries were already down, having been surprised, surrounded, unready for the nature of those they faced and swarmed over by the tribesmen, hard men and women. The mercenary captain still stood, and with him a handful of his men, but the Aedring closed in on them, Hraega at their fore.
Then Aifgar was there, bleeding from a cut across his arm, his sword running crimson. He charged past the tiring Fianna and fell upon her foe, the passion of his heart driving him on. The mercenary, unsettled by the suddenness and fervour of his attack, turned first one way then another. Their swords crashed together, and then Aifgar’s slid by the mercenary’s defence, taking him in the side. Blood pouring from his wound, the mercenary stumbled, unable to bring his sword up in time again as another blow descended, dropping him to the ground, slain.
“What are you doing?” Fianna scowled at Aifgar, a hard glare arrowing his way.
Aigfar showed no signs of worry, simply wiping his blade clean. “He had your measure,” he told Fianna, “Whether you could see it or not. You may be going into exile, but I can not loose you, my Peregrine. You have to but ask and I will come with you.”
“I can not ask that of you,” Fianna told him, her glare softening to some extent. “This burden is mine alone to bear.”
“You do not have to do it alone.”
“Yes I do,” she said softly. “Your place is here, for when I return.” She turned from him, towards were the rest of the clan gathered. The last of the mercenaries had gone done, Hraega and the mercenary captain meeting in a final, furious contest. Hraega had emerged triumphant, though he had taken wounds. Many others had likewise done so, and ten of the Aedring had been slain during the clash, a hard loss for a small village.
Hraega came hobbling over towards Fianna and Aifgar, his face set in grim lines. He bled from a cut to the leg and another across his cheek.
“Their leader fled like a worthless cur,” he said, “Not that I expected much more from a lowlander who gets others to do his work for him. The captain of the mercenaries, he was a man though. Fought to the last, without a hint of surrender. He we will bury with respect. There were a handful of others of a like to him. The rest, they were merely in it for the loot and fought as such.”
“The lowlander will sting from this rebuke,” Aifgar stated. “He will attempt it again, and with more men at his back, I foresee.”
“I am sure that he will, which is why we must send a message to the lowlanders to remind them what happens to those that transgress upon Aedring lands. We shall send word to the clans, to bring them together and then we will go to Abas Sul and punish them by such means that it shall be long ere they attempt such an outrage again.”
“What of I, grandfather?” Fianna asked.
Hraega gazed upon his granddaughter, his expressions unreadable. “You know our customs and our law, and you know that they can not be broken, no matter the circumstances. I can do no else but to pronounces your exile for the period of five years. Given what you did for the clan, that you sacrificed your honour for it, we shall likewise honour you. You shall march with us to Abas Sul, and take pride of place in the assault upon it. And when it comes time for you to leave us after the punishment has been delivered upon the lowlanders, we shall send you on your way with gifts and sing the praises of your name so that none may forget you or your deeds.”
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