Without the distinctive sway of the Grauglang for a guide, Swidda could have thought them the features of another valley, another river altogether. For the scene he accosted now was nothing like the one unto which he had wandered just a night and a day ago. No birds sang here; or if they did, the scrubbing of pots drowned them out. No fish swam where the buckets and gourds were dunked, and where naked hairy men waded out to wash their bodies, to the vexation of the ones throwing hooks and nets out from shore. Lines had formed downriver where they waited to take a dump while the ones with bursting bladders marked any trees wide enough to keep them modest. They even tromped the far banks, scanning for prey long since driven deep, deep over the ridges. It was loud. So loud.
Swidda knelt and found a washberry shrub. They had trampled it; the pale green of its snapped branches looked to him like the color of weeping, and they too were naked, stripped of every fruit, even the hard green ones too sour to chew on. He had seen enough. The horns began to blow just as he descended the last bluff, entering the bounds of the village again, the sacred trees marked with runes, the others thinning far and fast across the hillside. One of the lords had ordered a mansion built. What was a patch of grass when they bedded that night was now a foundation, stripped bare and scooped up, and already cords and cords of wood were cut for the walls. Upon the foundation sat little more than a groaning ribcage so far, still shabby with bark in places, but this tangle of pillars and rafters would demand many more venerable trees yet before it was built.
That Swidda would soon be politicking on an empty stomach was a far and fleeting concern. If he already did not recognize the Skeldefjarn of yesterday, how much longer did the Acani have left? Would Swidda return there only to find himself an intruder in a changed land, as he had once before, east of the mountains so many years ago?
But Gederik waited for him. For now, the tribe needed his cunning, not his pity. The old man shrugged past the construction site, past the fields of stumps (some dozens of rings thick), past tent of canvas and hovel of clay.
He must have made a struggle of it, however. A nearby soldier was making the same hike look effortless even under mounds of wool and iron. "Need a hand?" he asked.
"Thank you," said Swidda, noting the colors of the man's tartans. "To which people would I owe the kindness?"
"Ah, just wanted to help," replied the soldier.
"I would that you tell me, nonetheless."
"There'll be time aplenty for flags and borders later, I reckon. Just wanted to help."
The calluses grated on Swidda's skin as the swordsman drew his hand away at the top of the hill. Swidda wavered and nearly collapsed, learning all at once how badly he had worn himself on all the other hills he'd marched that morning. His phantom toes burned, the stubs of his fingers too. The soldier watched for a time longer but then he turned and parted.
At the foot of the hill sat a sheet of stone, slate, maybe, which was meant as the top of a table. It sat in a tangle of damp, muddy grooves where the earth had been ripped away; vainly some team or other of Þraxian engineers had gathered to excavate that stone, then to get it up the hill, but they had no pulleys, no cranes, and the earth gave out beneath them. The people ascended without it. They climbed up to the law-stone, which jutted from the very peak of this hill, and they settled there a ring of blankets and hewn stumps. At a glance it was not always so evident who was the chieftain of a tribe and who its lieutenants; many sat on the stumps, taking the higher seat as the more esteemed, while others preferred to sit nearer the earth and the damp. Some sat in front of their advisors, meaning to lead the charge of their people; some stood in the back, the cooler, more measured place. But they sat in their grape-bunches. Friend to friend, and kin to kin.
The stone itself drew a strange reverence from the guests of this land, like salt drawing the moisture from slabs of fish. A dozen times or more a man may have walked by this shape in the distance, this silhouette in stone, and paid it no more mind than that. The power in such a shape was in its size, a monolith best beheld from afar. But now they had come to it. They nodded in its shadow, and its letters glinted where the sunlight struck, or where its features dribbled with rainwater. This particular menhir was far from the most magnificent or the most august even among more remote places'. But the stone could have stood proud among any of those estimable storytellers. The laws there written—and the blank, unmarred sections—both of them sang. Of Skeldefjarn's past—and its future.
Near the top of the southern facet, the first decree had already been scrawled. Þraxia's first greatcouncil had begun.
Except—no one seemed to know who had chiseled it: for whose turn they waited, or what signal to be silent. Somebody had to have organized this conspiracy, somebody here had to have a strategy, but he was letting the agitation bubble up around him, biding. Until he wasn't. It took the hum of the crowd a moment to die away, but the cheek of an axe was driven against a copper shield like they were drum and mallet. An elder, wearing his silvered hair long and in a tidy braid, rose to meet this summons.
"I am Hwulgô," he bellowed. "We thank you for coming."
Behind him, and to whom he gestured, sat several chieftains more. A few of them nodded sternly, affirming the we by which they were addressed. They, at least, raised no objections with their chosen spokesperson.
"Some among us will look at this gathering and see friends: to be kept, or earned anew. Rivals. A bloodstained past, and an uncertain future. I would invite those people to look around them, even across from them, and see this gathering as I see it. It is a miracle. For behold. We have Rhaeads sitting beside the Dralgi. We have Alduluz and Brulgirs breaking bread with Carogacts. Sons of Slōgri and sons of Firrudal, ready to forget old blood, and bury an ancient feud. I do not recognize you all, nor all your colors. But we will learn them, for we are strangers no longer. Despite one or two—incidents—"
The assembly flared up again with its murmurs and sidelong glances. Swidda and his company were among them. What, the old sage thought to himself, already? Certainly the scene at the riverbank could have preceded any number of troubles. Aunstō looked sure, however, that Hwulgô spoke of something else entirely.
"—each of us has gathered here his tartan. We have bared our bosoms and sliced out the hems. We are ready to sew them together, and create of the colors a single rainbow, unfurled on the winds of fate. Great and glorious would be this flag, representing each and all of us at once, the body and its hundred organs.
"It was not easy, you must have realized. You had to look old enemies in the eye. Accept their remorse and acknowledge their grief. You've forgotten old vows of vengeance, broken decades-old cycles of hatred. By even being here you have proven your mettle. Already your courage distinguishes you from your peers, the tribes too complacent for this work which we must do. Or too cowardly. You should be proud.
"But this battle is not won. We will be waging it for months to come, years, even. Soften our resolve for even one day and we may fracture again under new blows. For I need not remind you that our enemy is already united. He is one king, ruling over one nation, and all his armies carry the same banner. It is for them that we must persevere. Even when our loyalties are tested, even when we strain and suffer; if we lose our faith in each other, we'd may as well yoke ourselves now. Geld ourselves, whip ourselves like we whip our cattle, in preparation for how our enemy will treat with us. His unruly, rebellious slaves.
"Faith. Yes. We do not always see our gods' grand designs or knowingly partake in their plans. Yet still we build their idols, we burn their wheat, we sacrifice their enemies. Because we know they are there, judging us. Have faith in your allies, though they may not always be friends. Trust in them. Only then can we triumph.
"This is the brunt of what we wanted to say. Thank you again. For coming, for listening, and for believing."
Hwulgô finished to the silence which only the rustling of leaves and squabbling of birds can invoke. His breath floated in his throat. Waiting to see whether they approved; whether he had slain some of the doubts hanging over the village. At least for a little while, before the negotiations started.