Chapter 1: “Between the Dogs & the Wolves”______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Standing there, standing then, one could almost forgive himself for forgetting he was at war. How would he know? The song of swords and spears did not penetrate this place; could not, if it dinned somewhere nigh. The water strolled cool and careless this far upriver, though a quarter mile down, by the rocks, the froth was a lucid, unstained white. The rock and the roots had mellowed its sweet taste; in kind it had smoothed their edges over centuries. It was both the sculptor and the chisel, this river, and more patient than all the races that took root along its banks, and its designs, when carved, would long outlast their children and their children's children.
Swidda saw another in the corner of his vision, low and subtle against the grass. The birds had not gotten to it yet, he could see, for it was dark and plump with ripened fruits. He had to stoop, and that was war aplenty for a man as old as he, but when he stood again he had plucked another handful for his pouch. He left enough for the birds, and moved on, scanning for the next shrub.
He had asked for the name of the river when he reached the village. In reply he received a single word: Grauglang
. It hailed from another dialect, or it was another styling of name altogether, for the sage did not know its meaning. And in the moment it had felt profane to even ask. Maybe that mystery was the meaning in itself; men did not deserve to know, or they could not understand; these creatures to whom a river was something to be bridged, poisoned, dammed, diverted.
Another shrub. Swidda stripped the choicest branches clean, heavied the pouch with their fruits, and continued.
These waters—would they flow across eternity? Streams dried up; trees and grasses sprung from the muds of sinking swamps. The Grauglang carried a power unlike either of these, but was this power nothing more than the fathoms which swelled in Spring, and swept away with those caught in the crossings? Swidda could not help but be sure of it; he looked up, through the canopies, at the sky and the Thraxians, whose peaks burgeoned high and sharp. He could see them anywhere the trees cleared, and they assured him, comforted him like an emperor his castle walls. But the locals were not so assured. They must have felt more like the lions and parrots of the menagerie, surviving only by the tired amusements they offered some languid master. The walls did not liberate them; these people were trapped here, between armies, between indignities. They leered from their hovels even at the strangers bearing food and stories.
Just then even the earth resounded with the music of their scorn. Someone had just ordered his carnyces
blown; their cry shuddered over the hills and shook them into silence, like silencing a newborn babe, their intonations murdering the songs of birds and foraging insects. Another procession had arrived. Swidda brushed the dirt and the grass from his knees. He was not far from the village.
His own Chief Gederik sat in the cool of the afternoon shade, where the soil was damp and the moss grew thick. The foliage was thin where they met, and kissed on the cheek, and sat together; as they commanded a strong view over the narrowing path, so too were their uphill happenings evident to the newcomers—should they have thought to look up. Gederik and Swidda were not the sort who they had to impress; not yet. Many mothers scrambled about the hills, herding their children away from the scrutinies of this strange invasion. But all work seemed to have ceased at Skeldefjarn, for where there were men, there were woodaxes hanging from shoulders and leaning on trees; a cleaver and a headless chicken were abandoned upon a tree stump, and a puddle of oil evaporated on a whetstone.
Gederik had other company with him, too. "Aunstō," said Swidda, "it's good to see you."
"Likewise, old man. Glad to finally see some familiar faces on this godsforsaken hill."
"The arrivals bode ill, then?"
Aunstō sighed. "I don't know. Haven't seen another Eioning yet but you two."
In his lap sat a child whose knee he stroked with one hand, her hair the other. She had rare eyes, a glacial white-blue. "Daddy, who's that one?" she asked, pointing.
"I don't know, baby."
Gederik and his advisor looked that way. Neither did they.
"Where's the rest of your party, then?"
Gederik shrugged. "Around. We didn't bring many men with us."
"Too much pomp. It looks—what's the right word—'needy'?"
"'Garish,'" Swidda suggested.
"Either way," said Gederik, "I wouldn't want to look like I have so damn much to prove." He was addressing the procession, who had made a parade of their march through the modest hamlets, toward the law-hill. They were just below now. This chief had assembled a uniform for his thirty-some spearmen: red cloaks and red trousers and polished helmets with blonde plumes. They brought their legs up high, almost looking like they kicked each other in the arse with each fresh step. The man himself rode at the fore; they knew him from the scales of iron that he wore like a dragon's coat. But from each man of his camarilla hung fine and motley trappings, and each was astride a powerful beast.
"This one must be bidding," Aunstō remarked.
"Is he important?" his little girl asked.
"He sure wants us to think so."
The front row of soldiers raised its instruments again, those long horns of brass and bronze. Shaped like serpents and elephants, their snouts snapped and wailed and issued wide their buzzing cacophony. All along the slope, children smothered their ears; their parents, Swidda, Gederik, they simply waited for the rattle to leave their marrow.
Gederik was smoothing out his mustache, like the blare was a wind which had rustled through it. "Are we your friends or your foes, then?" he asked of the men in the march. "You put on a Triumph for us, but you assail us with the music of war."
His advisor, too, sought to soothe some raveled piece of his nerves. Swidda may once have had suppertime schemes in mind for his satchel of sweetmeats, but he reached for them now by the pinch. He grasped them delicately between knotted fingers, that he may press them to the roof of his mouth—burst them with his tongue—an innocent pleasure of which the most innocent onlooker plainly took notice.
Aunstō swatted at his daughter's head. "We are polite to our elders, Al."
"No, no, I'm happy to share," Swidda said, turning. "Allorn, are you hungry? They're freshly picked."
Although she may well have been more intrigued with the mottled scarring in Swidda's hands than their contents, Allorn did accept his offer. Ere long her hands looked not too unlike his own, though the popped washberries left behind brighter, more vibrant stains than the wine-reds of the sage's flesh. Whereas Swidda ate with a quiet dignity, the child slurped and smacked, and finished greedily, and had returned already to the scene splayed out before her. The demonstrators were growing only more "colorful," more bizarre, as they arrived to represent farther corners of the homeland. Passing them then was a horseborne woman. Many such women marched beside their husbands and paramours, their sons and pupils, but none yet like this one, of whom young Allorn had become entirely enraptured. Her mop of hair, untamed like a fire's tongues; her right breast black-blue with the tattoos of the mystics, the left clothed with a strap of green plaid, binded with a golden penannular. By day it was a voluminous sash and skirt; by night, a wide expanse of warm bedding. A warrior's tartan.
"I'm sorry, Al. I don't recognize her."
Allorn, in her ignorance, looked defeated. Her father's friends looked likewise in their knowledge.
"I do. That's Hridvir," said Gederik. "Hridvir the Defiled." Unlike her face and bearing, her name struck Aunstō like a slingstone. He and Gederik and Swidda exchanged glances.
"She looks scary! Is she a chief, too?" said the girl, her spirits renewed and refreshed at once.
"Da, will I look like her when I'm the chief?"
Aunstō's eyes sought some sort of aid from amongst his friends, but they had none to offer him. No answer could they conjure which would satisfy the child's curiosity and the gods' justice alike. These aging men could not help but think back to figures they, too, had once idolized; men who were not quite men, embodied more by the symbols they carried. The warrior's axe and bracelets, one of the latter for every victory taken. The huntsman's wolfhounds and yew staff. Swords, crowns, mail shirts; all their glamors and affectations.
No, she would not understand yet. But as long as she obeyed, as long as she trusted still in the eternal wisdom of a girl's father ...
"We will talk about Hridvir in a few days," Aunstō replied. Maybe even he needed to see which of the legends were falsehoods, and which worth heeding, before he would know how to handle this stranger of whom he had heard whispers. "Now find your mother. Go to her."
"But it's not over yet!"
"Please, daddy, I want to stay."
Aunstō grimaced. "We'll see each other at the first council, then, won't we?" he said, rolling his tongue around his mouth. His daughter moved to comply as he stood, looking ready to drag her there if she would not volunteer herself.
"Aye," said Gederik, "the Acani will stand with you."
Allorn was too old to tantrum, but they heard her huffing and pouting well down the hillside. Swidda and Gederik had no other words to share, or no need for sharing a sentiment they already understood between them. Who next, then; who marched for the menhir, to set camp at the foot of its hill and wage war from its crest? Who was the next friend, the next foe, the next decider in the days to come?