• Joshua Blaylock

Chapter Four: Freya

Hundreds of small, multi-colored explosions lit up the night sky. The sound of jubilation filled the village for the second night in a row. The night before, they celebrated victory — they had held off the assault and halted the threat before it could reach the few remaining villages further south. Tonight, they celebrated life. In particular, the lives sacrificed to secure the home for those who remained.

But Freya’s celebration was stilted — by guilt, by grief, by uncertainty. There were two lives which, despite her turmoil or because of it, she celebrated that evening.

Nairne of Hannay, formerly Nairne of Brymer, a soldier of Rí Bothan Hannay, was a shield-bearer. A trow crushed him underfoot when his shield caught on a sword planted in the ground. He had time to question what snagged him, but not enough to find the answer or attempt to escape it before his shield came down on top of him, propelled by the enormous foot which bore down on it. He was nineteen years old.

Fenella of Strang was a resident of Bai-Coille, fighting to protect her village. She had delivered several explosive arrows that helped take down no less than four of the trows. While rushing to attack the final beast, it swept her up in its hand. It broke her body in its grip as she plunged her sword into the space between its thumb and forefinger.

Freya felt inept. Her failure to secure her sword, or at least to remember it as she ran toward the village, was directly responsible for one death and prevented her from attempting to stop the other. She understood that it was unlikely she could have stopped Fenella’s death, but she also understood that a change in events may have changed everything. Perhaps she would have been the one picked up if she had been closer, leaving alive someone who deserved it far more. Perhaps she would have died fighting for her village. Then she would be celebrated here, instead of standing in the middle of a village of strangers. Perhaps, with two more people fighting, the beast would have gone down sooner, saving more lives than just theirs.

Whatever the possibilities, it mattered little as she stood in the doorway of her hut, trying to determine which area of the wake to visit first. She decided that it made the most sense to remember Nairne first. She knew little about him and therefore had less to remember and celebrate.

Freya walked out to the camp at the northern edge of the village, where they were celebrating the fallen soldiers. Because his family lived in the North, like many of the fallen soldiers, there was no one there to receive the gift she brought. Instead, several crates lined either side of the camp’s entry. They would send their contents to the parents or children when they left the village. A soldier stood by the gifts, dressed in armor as if for battle. He nodded at her as she placed the coineanach pelt that she had earned the day before the trow invasion into the one marked for Nairne.

“Aye, it’s a glorious day, innit?” A hand fell on her shoulder. It was covered in scars, along with a few fresh gashes, including one at the base of the thumb that appeared to be rather deep. She could only see to the wrist, which was wrapped in a wide leather band. She assumed it was the end of a gauntlet that started just below his elbow. The hand was clean, but blood caked the leather band. “Lots of lives to celebrate today.”

She turned her head. The man was in his twenties, and he stood about a hand taller than her. His hair was pulled messily into a fraying braid which ran along the left half of the top of his head. The rest of his hair was shaved clean against his scalp. His beard was white like his hair and hung down just below his neck, but his lip remained uncovered. She was certain that he had been one of the riders jumping onto the backs of the trows to take them down.

“Yes,” she replied. “There is much to celebrate tonight.”

“Aye. And what reason do you celebrate Nairne of Hanney?” He did not remove his arm, but turned and began walking. He guided her toward the center of the celebration, where a few soldiers were shooting arrows into the sky and many more were drinking Dùsgadh.

She was unsure how to respond. “I celebrate him fighting for our village.”

“So, you plan to offer a pelt to every soldier who died?”

“Oh, no. Just this one.”

He looked at her, puzzled. “What sets this one apart, then?” His head cocked. “Was he sweet on you the night before?”

Her face turned a little red. “No, no. He was the shield-bearer that stood in front of me. He protected me during the emergence.” Perhaps she said too much. She wished to celebrate his sacrifice, but she had no desire to betray her guilt. What would they do if they knew that her sword had caused his death? What would she do if their roles had been reversed?

“Ah! A noble reason, indeed.” As they approached the Dùsgadh, he removed his arm. He filled two cups, handing one to her and keeping one for himself.

“Before we begin the festivities, I should probably introduce myself. I am Tamnais, head of the Rí’s cavalry.” He held out his right hand. She had been right about the gauntlet, though the sheer number of scratches on it surprised her, as did the blood stains that covered it. It was clear this was not all from the previous day’s battle.

She grabbed his forearm, putting her own in his hand. “My name is Freya. I was training to be a hunter, but now I’m no longer certain of what my role is. My master is among those being celebrated today.” Her face showed sorrow and confusion, and his voice attempted reassurance.

“Well, Freya of Strang, let us drink to Nairne of Hannay. Then, we can go celebrate your master, and perhaps tomorrow we can talk of your new role.” They banged their cups together and turned them up, pouring the contents down their throats.

The Dùsgadh, as usual, kicked in almost immediately. As the burn in her throat subsided, so did much of Freya’s guilt and grief. She spent a few minutes in the camp, meeting others whose names she would likely forget by morning and hearing stories from the short time that Nairne had been with the Rí’s army.

Before leaving the camp, the soldiers offered her an opportunity to shoot a celebration arrow, which she did not hesitate to accept. The bow they gave her was much nicer than any she had ever used before. It was small and very light. The grip was precisely shaped to fit the hand, and it curved in and back out again at the ends. There were beautiful designs carved into the inside and outside curves of the bow.

Black powder covered the bottom half of the arrowhead, and they dipped the tip in teine flùr just before handing it over. As instructed, she pulled the arrow back, aimed up, and released it. As the arrow flew, the teine flùr traveled down the arrowhead toward the powder. Once it came into contact, it ignited, causing an explosion that lit up a small portion of the sky.

Freya’s new companion, Tamnais, walked with her to Fenella’s house. On the way, they stopped to pick up the gift for her daughter. At forty years old, Fenella was the youngest master in the village, and she had one child, Catriona, who was not yet five. The sionnach fur from her last kill was a good size for her. They could use it to make a coat and have enough left over to adorn pants, gloves and boots.

When they arrived at Fenella’s house, Freya headed directly toward her family. She had gotten to know her husband and daughter well over the last year, typically spending at least one or two evenings with them every week. Ros, Fenella’s husband, stood up to greet her. He was about the same height as Freya. His long white hair was pulled back from the front, his beard was cleanly trimmed, and he was wearing a ceremonial white robe to designate himself as part of the celebrated family. On this day, though, with over fifty being celebrated, the white stood out less than usual. Some took off their robes when visiting other houses, but most did not.

Ros gave Freya a hug and thanked her for coming. Catriona wrapped her arms around Freya’s leg, and Freya leaned over to pat her back. They were both in a cheerful mood, and when Freya handed Catriona the sionnach pelt, she was much more excited than expected.

“It must be the Dùsgadh,” her father said, laughing. “I only gave her a small amount, but she has been jumping up and down all evening.”

“Well, it’s good to see her celebrating.”

“And who is this?” Ros looked at the man who had been standing quietly, respectfully, behind her.

“Oh! This,” Freya grabbed his arm at the elbow and guided him to her side, “is Tamnais. He’s the head of the Rí’s horsemen.”

“Cavalry,” Tamnais corrected.

“Oh yes. The Rí’s cavalry.”

“And did you know my wife, Fenella?”

“Unfortunately, I did not.” Ros nodded in resignation at his answer. “But I did bring a gift for your daughter. I had no idea she was so young.” He handed a bow, similar to the one that Freya had shot earlier, to Ros.

“It’s ok. It surprised most people from your army to know that someone so young had an apprentice. She was an exceptional woman, and I’m sure Catriona will grow into this bow in no time. It is exquisite.”

“Thank you, sir. I made it entirely myself.”

“The carvings and everything?”

“Yes, sir. The designs are my own. I even picked out the material and twisted the string.”

Ros was impressed. He was a woodworker and the only bowyer in the village, but he worked with fairly standard designs. He loved making bows but had never considered coming up with his own design.

“Please sit.” Ros pointed to places for Freya and Tamnais to sit down. “Can you tell me about these curves at the top and bottom?”

“Yes. They help the bow bend more tightly when stringing it, giving it much more raw power.”

“Oh! That makes sense.” Freya had been intrigued by the power of the small bow she had used earlier. “That’s why such a small bow could still perform so well.”

“Yes. We need the bows to be smaller so we can use them more easily on horseback. Also, their size and weight make them easier to carry around. I mean, it’s not that normal bows are heavy, but when running through the woods, every small bit counts. I even used a lightweight but strong hemp and twisted it into strands which are counter-twisted together to create a strong bowstring with fewer fibers. This is especially important because the power of the bow can be very taxing on a simple string.”

Ros handed the bow to Catriona as another man walked up, also dressed in a celebration robe. Freya was unsure who in his family had died. Ros stood up and greeted the man, who handed him a small cake. They shared a few words before the man turned to walking away.

“I would love to know a little about Fenella.” Tamnais started the conversation up as soon as Ros sat down again.

“Well, I am not allowed to tell a story,” Ros replied, “until I have heard a story. And Freya has yet to tell one.”

“I thought about it all day yesterday,” said Freya, moving forward in her seat and leaning in to make sure that everyone could hear, “and I believe the story that I would most like to tell is about the first time that we went out on a hunt together, around the end of summer last year. That was also the first time she introduced me to her family.”

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