Chapter 2.1: Farmers
Skydagger Mountains north-east of SeaGate. Third week of the month of Misting (Early Spring)
The sun peeked above the endless water to the east and cast shadows across the farm compound. As most farms were in this part of the world, the family had created a compound of outbuildings arranged into a triangle. A palisade enclosed the entire compound with the lone gate at the tip. The main house formed the base of the triangle as a defensive measure. Attackers would be forced through the chokepoint at the gate, and the family home would be protected, tucked against the palisade’s back wall. Contained within the palisade, which was roughly two heights of a big man, lay also the barn to the right side and the chicken coop and tool shed on the left.
The compound was quiet in the early morning hours, but in the family home, creatures and family members alike had begun to stir. The attic’s ladder rattled under the weight of the huge dog who clumsily climbed it, panting and whining. It reached the top, and the smell of hay filled its nose. Sniffing the air, it zeroed in on the boy burrowed under his blankets against the frosty air. The dog braced with his back legs, sticking his wagging tail high in the air, boomed out a bark, and pounced. Cries of dismay were muffled under its fur as the creature licked the child’s face. Giggles came from the other beds when the girls awoke to see their brother being savaged by canine affection.
“Up, children! The sun burns away the day,” their father’s gravelly voice beckoned from below. The oldest of the girls stood and picked the hay used for mattress stuffing out of her long dark hair. She started down the ladder and laughed again at the dog sitting on her prostrate brother, tail wagging as if pleased with his conquest. One small, tan hand flailed around at its ear. She whistled, and the dog stood and followed her down the ladder.
The two younger girls and one boy fell as much as climbed down the ladder to the main room of their home. The split logs of the walls were well chinked with mud to keep out the wind, but a breeze always made it in through the wooden shutters over the windows. They all ran to huddle around the fire where their mother was cooking oats and eggs. The small woman moved with an economy of motion that told of the hundreds of times this scene had played out. She scooted a child out of the way with a hip and a smile as she brought the pot of oatmeal to the table. Ringing the scoop against the pot’s metal sides summoned everyone to their seats as though it were a bell. She quickly ladled out the contents of the pot with the largest pour going into the huge blonde man’s plate at the head of the table. Each also got an egg and small dollop of honey on the side of their plate. Starting to cut into his egg, the big man heard his wife clear her throat. He put down the razor sharp dagger he still used, mostly as a habit, from his days as a warrior and took the hands of his eldest girl and only boy; the whole family bowed their heads. “Gods above,” the man rumbled in his box of rocks voice, “Aid and bless us this day. Marylyr, mother to farmers, grant us your wisdom as we go about your work. Raugoshe, great warrior and god of my fathers, grant us courage and wisdom to do right. Lynashra prevent any hurts and heal those we take.” The boy gasped and writhed under the pressure of his father’s great hand playfully squeezing his. A grin cut the man’s beard, though his head stayed solemnly bowed, “Yethyn, place in our hands your blessing for the crafts we undertake. Those above grant blessings and those gatherings we did not name turn your faces away from us, for we honor you as we do not speak your names. Blessings upon us.”
At the end of the prayer everyone quietly mumbled, “Let it be.” and began eating. The young boy ate like he was starved; his green eyes focused on the plate under his light brown, bowl cut hair. His older sister, with her mother’s dark hair and eyes but her father’s fair skin, ate primly like a lady but would occasionally kick him or her sisters under the table and act like nothing had happened when they squawked. The two younger girls giggled and picked at their food.
“Come, Anuri. Dion. There are eggs to find and goats to graze.” The huge man stood and walked towards the door after kissing his wife, Eirene, on the head with a smile. As he did each time he went through the passage, he brushed his hands on the gleaming axe above the doorway. Wolfing down the last of his food, the young boy Dion followed his sister and tried, as he always did, to jump up and touch the axe, but he wasn’t quite tall enough. Instead he darted over to the corner to the lovingly maintained suit of armor, shield and spear and played his hands across them before darting outside.
The chickens scratching under the two orange trees clucked and exploded away as the great dog barked and bounded over at them. More outraged clucking came from the coop as Anuri felt around in the nests to steal the morning’s eggs. Goats began to emerge from the barn led off by the old billy who trotted over to Dion and playfully butted him in the chest. Even in play, the billy was a huge pack breed, so its playful tap was enough to nearly knock the boy over as. Dion took up his staff and made sure his sling and stones were on his belt as his father moved the huge log that barred the palisade’s gateway at night. Boy, dog and goats streamed out into the hills to graze or guard as was their nature and duty.
The team of donkeys came moaning their displeasure through the gate, the plow already connected to them. It was the third week of the month of Misting, so the cold around the spring solstice had passed and the constant rain was water rather than ice or snow. It was time to break the ground for planting, and a farmer’s work never ended. The spring melt was well underway, and the salt flats to the east were filling up with water as they did for a few months every year. It was strange watching the desert become a temporary lake – stranger still when the water all dried and left the sands crusted in salt and dead fish. That was the time of plenty when the desert bloomed for a few months: mud exploded into hardy grasses before the sun burned them away and everything returned to nothing but sand and salt.
While the goats cropped the grasses of the hills around the farm and the nannies fed their babies, Dion huddled under his cloak. The rain wasn’t crushing, but the drizzle never stopped. It made for a dreary job only occasionally broken up when a rabbit would show itself. The boy was a good shot with his sling and had four gathered for the pot with the loss of only five stones. All the creeks and normally dry arroyos were full with rushing water from the snows melting off the Skydagger Mountains to the west, but on their edges, plenty of smooth rocks could be found to be flung at rabbits through the day. The staff was a good time-waster as well. His grandfather had made it as a name day gift. It was a man’s height at just over six feet, big for the boy barely two thirds that, with strong bronze knobs at the top and bottom. Grandfather had been a master woodcarver, and the staff was an exemplar of his art. Carved into it was the story of the how the new gods rose and of their pantheons. It had also been a gift intended to help mend the fence with his then estranged son-in-law, and so the gods of war that the gorellen people worshipped were given pride of place at the top with Raugoshe’s burning spear in relief at the tip. That was the god of his father’s people, the fierce warriors and raiders of the north and the far western islands. His mother’s people worshipped the more peaceful pantheon of knowledge, and it mystified the old man until his death a few years ago what his lovely daughter saw in the blood-drinking mercenary who she seemingly tamed into being a farmer. The staff was also what was used to teach the children their letters since the house held no books. Dion had read the tale of the gods a hundred times and would probably read it a hundred more while he stood and occasionally chivvied a wandering goat back towards the herd with the joyous aid of his canine companion.
It was late afternoon and the shadows were long when Anuri came running out to the herd. “Dion, Dion!” She panted a bit as the flock had wandered a good ways searching for grass. “Father says to start bringing them all back in and hurry. There’s smoke coming from the Eleni place, and it don’t look good!” she swatted at Harul the dog who noticed her excitement and barked alongside. The three - girl, boy and dog - got the goats reluctantly moving back towards the farm and headed into the gate. Their father stood there looking like a warrior hero from the tales in his full armor with spear, shield and axe across his chest. The armor was strained a bit across the middle as he tried in vain to stretch the breastplate over a middle aged man’s belly.
“Good children. Get the goats into the barn and get you up onto the roof. Keep a sharp eye out.” These were not the jovial tones of their father they were used to, and both hurried to obey. A short whistle and Harul stopped barking and cavorting to heel by his master. He snuffled the armor and his tail wagged slowly. “Aye dog, we may just see if you are half the warrior your sire was before this night ends.” He absently rubbed the creature’s ears once the gate was closed and securely barred.
“Da, there’s fire showing against the hill. I think the Eleni place is burning!” Anuri cried out as soon as she had climbed to the rooftop. The palisade gave her something to lean against as she watched their nearest neighbor’s home burn. The Eleni family usually kept to themselves; they had never approved of the mixture of cultures, his gorellen father and his mother’s peaceful tribe, that Dion’s family represented. Anuri started as a hand touched her back. Her mother had come up to the rooftop to see the fires and found an open space to lean against the palisade wall.
“Take your sisters to the attic and play with them. Keep them calm,” Eirene said in her quiet voice while she ruffled her oldest daughter’s hair. “Chrysanthe could use some help sewing up her doll. There was a rip in it.” The girl looked to argue but instead nodded her head and scampered off.
“Good eye, girl.” Her father clapped her on the back as she walked by. He had his favorite chair pulled out by the gate and looked to have settled in, spear across his lap and dog by his side.
“Ma, what’s that?” Dion’s high-pitched voice broke just a bit as he pointed out some shadows moving across the hillside from the direction of the fire.
“Hrolf, I think its trolls,” Eirene said in a tense tone.
“Gods, there haven’t been trolls in this area for decades.” He shook his head and stood from his chair, armor rattling. “What would bring them this far out of their normal ground?” Dion turned to watch as his father began a series of exercises with shield and spear that he’d done in the evenings many times. It looked different now, grimmer and less of an entertainment for a small boy raised on tales of courage. Trolls, the huge, ape-like, tribal primitives of the mountains, rarely came out of their traditional hunting areas, but on rare occasions would trade with travelling merchants. When roused, they were powerful and savage warriors.
He put the spear aside for a moment, thumbed the blade of his axe, and then drew a sharpening stone. “You’ve got the darts, love?”
“Of course I’ve got the darts.” Eirene rattled a bucket in her hands. “That’s why I’m up here. If they come, we’ll pepper them and scoot inside.”
“That’s my brave lady. I love that fire in you. We’ll make a song tonight.” The exercises continued in the yard.
“What does he mean, momma? A song?” the boy asked nervously.
“You’ve heard the tales of his people? They do not fear the afterlife; they create a song to meet it. They tell the tale of their deeds that their ancestors may hear them and take them to the place of battles to await the end of things.” She put down her bucket of darts and hugged the boy close to her side, hard enough to hurt him a bit, but the tough farm boy did not cry out. He and his mother just watched the shadows creep across the newly plowed fields towards their home. “Get your sling, lad. Make good practice with it.” She let go of him slowly.
He dropped a rock into the sling’s pouch and whirled it around his head. In his nervousness the first stone flew wide of any of the shadows. They all froze for a moment at the sound. He loaded another, and this time it went true. Low growling erupted from the field amongst the shadows. Something that might have been a language was barked, and the shadows ended their skulk and began a loping run towards the compound. Some knuckle walked as much as they ran in the manner of humans, but these weren’t humans.
Anuri called from behind, “Mama, we got the brazier and want to put it on the roof. Maybe somebody will see it and come help.” The three girls carried the wide bronze firepot up from the attic and set it onto the clay tiles of the roof. They added logs so the coals roared into flame.
“That’s good thinking, baby. Finish stoking the fire and get yourselves into the house.” Eirene watched her daughters with reddened eyes. Anuri grabbed several branches from the orange tree and dropped them into the brazier where their green wood burned and sent a column of white smoke into the evening sky. Once that was done, she walked back into the house holding her younger sisters hands.
Dion kept small rocks whizzing towards the group of creatures coming across the field. One had fallen with a cry and lay still, but more and more of the stones were banging off shields, a reminder that these weren’t beasts. They finally got close enough so that his mother could begin to hurl her darts: forearm long spikes with thin metal blades and feathers at the rear. Some rocks clattered against the palisade as the trolls threw them in response. One rock about the size of a child’s hand smashed into the boy’s shoulder and knocked him down with a cry. Eirene, his mother, turned for a moment but went back to throwing the darts while screaming in rage. Tears welled up in the child’s eyes; he was only nine after all, and he rubbed his shoulder where blood was beginning to seep through his shirt. With a grimace, he stood back up and starting hurling more rocks with his sling, if a bit slower than before.
A large brown simian hand came over the top of a palisade soon joined by another. Their clawed fingers dug deep into the wood and a long simian face soon pulled up over the edge of the wall. A spear flickered up almost too quick to see, and a gaping red hole appeared where there had been an eye. The creature howled and dropped out of sight. Hoots and yells were coming from the edge of the palisade now, and the great gate rattled. Hrolf, armor gleaming in the torchlight, crouched behind his shield and held his spear over his head in the long grip used to reach distant foes. Blood dripped from its steady blade.
Another set of hands grasped the upper edge of the farm’s wall, and Eirene lunged forward to stab at them with one of the few darts she had remaining. The creature lost a finger and dropped, never having come completely into sight. She smiled and turned towards her son. “Don’t be afraid!” she yelled to him. Behind her another of the great brown hands grabbed onto the pointed stakes at the top of the wall and a long gorilla arm shot over the edge to grasp her around the waist. Without a sound she was pulled over the edge and out of sight.
“Mama!” Dion rushed to the edge of the wall. At its base, almost half a dozen of the stringy furred creatures hooted while hopping and dancing. Two of them worried at the broken red remnant of his mother, pulling gobbets of flesh free and stuffing it into their mouths. Tears filled his brilliant emerald eyes as he fumbled for another rock to load into his sling. He dropped it and fell to his knees. She had always seemed to fill any room; how could her remains have been so small?The gate boomed with the blows from powerful trollish hands, rocking in against the bar holding it shut. The dog barked, and Hrolf stood unmoved. Only the closest of observers would have noted the tears streaming down into his beard.
Chapter 2.2: Kidnappings