• Joshua Blaylock

Chapter Two: Freya

Updated: Sep 4, 2020

One month earlier.

The steady beat of heavy steel against hardened birch resonated through the entire valley. The stomping of leather-bound feet against earth shook the ground. Freya pounded sword to shield and foot to ground along with the rest of the villagers and soldiers, though she did not entirely understand why. She had done similar rituals in the past to scare away beasts that wandered too close to the village. But today they were not scaring anything away. Now, a mere three hours after the first time she had ever touched a real sword, she stood in a field, the sun peeking over the horizon to her left. Her hunting clothes (thick leggings and a shirt, both made from the pelt of a reindeer she had killed in the early winter) were covered in sparse pieces of armor composed of a thick, strong leather; and she held a sword that was half her height and a circular shield that she was unsure would do any good in protecting even her small frame.

Until yesterday, Freya’s life had been a mostly boring mix of listening to tutors drone on about things that she already knew and training with her master, Fenella. For the past year, she had been spending the latter half of each day training as a hunter. This was the role chosen for her. In her earlier years, she was required to study all disciplines. As she got older, those in which it was clear she would not excel were slowly removed from her training until only hunting and husbandry remained. She had enjoyed husbandry, but the need for hunters was greater. In the end, hunters were more likely to get to work with horses than horse trainers were to have the opportunity to hunt, so she was happy with their decision.

Yesterday played out the same as every other day — breakfast, tutoring, lunch, then off to see Fenella, who was already tracking a sionnach when Freya found her in the woods. Fenella was difficult to see, lying on the ground, her white clothes blending in with the late snow that had not yet melted from the forest floor. Freya noticed her just in time to pivot her foot before stepping on her. The quick adjustment threw off her balance, causing her to stumble loudly. Fenella turned her head and placed a finger to her lips. She pointed at a line of tracks on the ground. Her hand traced the tracks to a nearby tree with a small hole at the bottom. Sionnachs, being primarily nocturnal, were uncommon to see during the day, but the tracks leading out of the tree were fresh, likely made less than twenty minutes ago.

This was a perfect opportunity for Freya to practice tracking. Fenella let her take the lead, and they followed the tracks through the trees. After about ten minutes, Freya stopped and pointed at a tree thirty feet away, squinting to see what was there. A barely noticeable tuft of gray fur shifted along the canine’s otherwise solid white back on the ground near the tree. Freya pulled out her bow, nocked an arrow and drew it back. As she prepared to release, she was distracted by her target’s own prey — a beautiful coineanach with a thick coat of short brown fur. It was busy eating something off the ground, but kept popping its head up and turning it left and right. When its head was up, it stood about six hands high, not including the ears, which added another one.

Distraction caused Freya’s aim to falter, and the arrow she loosed hit left of its target, just as it leaped toward the coineanach. The sound of the arrow gave a preliminary warning to the prey. Unfortunately for the small creature, it was only enough to prevent the predator’s bite from meeting its intended mark of the animal’s neck. Instead, the sionnach bit down on its short tail. Frightened, the coineanach fell over, dead — a self defense mechanism of the most preyed upon of animals, the ability to die, either from fear or pure will, to avoid the suffering that was sure to come. But the sionnach had no time to revel in its kill or taste its rewards. Freya’s bowstring snapped taut, releasing another arrow, this time finding purchase in the larger animal’s neck.

They returned to the village with two carcasses. The insides of them belonged to the village. Their pelts belonged to Freya. No sooner had they given the kills to the butcher than a horn sounded on the outskirts of the village. A man rode hard toward them from the north. It appeared at first that he might not slow down. He barreled down closer and closer to the guards, but at the last minute he pulled back hard on the reins. The horse stopped so quickly the man had to brace himself to not fall off.

The conversation between the rider and guard was inaudible from inside the village, but after a moment, the guard pointed to the village Ceannard, Kollyn Strang, who was already walking that direction. The rider dismounted his steed, and a guard took the reins and led it toward a nearby trough. The beast had a beautiful coat that was two shades of dark brown, and a long black mane that curved upward before falling to rest halfway down its neck. It must have been at least twenty-four hands to the shoulder. The rider was not a small man, around seventeen hands tall, but he had to remove his feet from the stirrups before his dismount and would need a stool when climbing up again.

From where the rider met Ceannard Kollyn — the village leader and head of their clan — Freya could hear their conversation clearly.

“Latha math, Ceannard,” the rider began, gripping Kollyn’s forearm. “I bring disturbing news. Ceò has fallen. The Rí rides south.”

Kollyn’s countenance shifted at the news, the worry spreading across his face. “Fallen? How?”

The man leaned in, aware of the ears that had begun perking up at the conversation. “A large group of trows have been tearing through our villages. Ceò was not the first, but it was the first to know ahead of time. There was no time to prepare a defense, but they were able to evacuate most of their people to the nearby caves.”

“Are caves a wise choice for hiding from trows? Is that not like a worm hiding from a bird inside its nest?”

“Normally, yes, mo charaid. But as this pack has torn its way from the north, they have not been resting in mountain caves. They have been moving swiftly from village to village, destroying everything and moving on. They appear to be more focused on the villages themselves. The Korrs inside are either a bonus or an unintended casualty.”

“Then we evacuate — hide in the forest until they have passed. It is a terrible loss, but we can rebuild. Why does our king ride here?”

“The Rí wants to end this treachery. He does not expect you to evacuate any except your very young. He wishes for every man and woman of an appropriate age to be in that field come sunup tomorrow.” The rider pointed toward the direction from which he arrived.

They took the rest of the conversation inside the Ceannard’s tent, out of reach of the wondering ears of the many villagers who had stopped whatever they were doing to listen.

Later that evening, Rí Bothan Hannay, the king of all Innis Tìle, second only to Ard Rí Gawyn Munhall, high king of all the Korr peoples, arrived at Bai-Coille with an army whose population nearly matched that of the small village. While the villagers took their rest, safe in the knowledge that trows would not come above ground after sundown, Rí Bothan and Ceannard Kollyn discussed the attacks and their plans for how to end this with a singular defensive maneuver.

Three hours before dawn, the guards began blowing their horns to awaken the village. Most of the villagers had little experience with weapons, if any at all, but the Rí hoped they would not really need it. After a couple hours of instruction, the villagers mingled with the Rí’s soldiers and took their positions in the field.

Now, as the sun rose over the horizon, Freya stood in a defensive line trying to draw out an enemy that she would much prefer to stay in the ground. “They have come up near the noisiest areas of the villages,” they had been told. “The commotion should hopefully draw them up out here. We must keep an ear open, though. The rumbling of their ascent should give us less than a minute of warning before they break through.”

Hope would not fail them that day. After ten minutes of pounding and stomping, the ground began to rumble more violently. “They’re coming out! Fifty feet north! Move!” Freya moved back as she had been instructed. The line alternated between those who were stepping back to take archer positions and those who were stepping forward, pulling up large shields and forming a barrier to protect against the rocks which would soon come hurtling from the ground.

Freya tried to hook her sword onto her belt, but when it did not work, she had no desire to waste any more time with it. She stabbed it into the ground by her foot and unhooked her bow from behind her back. As she drew the bow, the ground exploded a few feet in front of the shield-bearers. For a moment, it was hard to tell the flying debris from the creatures who were causing it.

“Release!” The voice came from her right side, only a few feet away. It rang out louder than the chaos and helped her to focus. Amidst the dust, dirt and stone still hurtling through the air in all directions rose eleven massive beasts. She had never seen a trow before, though she had heard tales which she now believed to be accurate. They were each about two-and-a-half times the height of the tallest Korr and looked like they were composed entirely of rocks and red dirt.

The one nearest her picked up a large piece of earth near its foot and was drawing it back to throw. She loosed her arrow and struck it on the shoulder. The arrow, like all those that were given to the archers, was dipped in teine ​​flùr, a liquid which, on impact, caused an explosion that startled the beast and knocked it back. The projectile it was holding fell from its hand. For a moment, it appeared as though they had taken down the entire line, smoke and fire from a hundred explosions obfuscating the upper half of the beasts.

The more experienced soldiers, knowing better than to be fooled by the display, had already released their second volley. Freya quickly followed suit, drawing and releasing. By the time she released her third arrow, three of the beasts had fallen. For the rest, shock had given over to anger, and they were pressing their attack again.

“Fall back!” The voice boomed, and people along the line began moving toward the village.

The trow she had been attacking slammed its massive fists on the ground, knocking Freya off balance and sending her fourth arrow just to the right of its head. She kept her bow in her hand as she turned and ran toward the village with the rest of the line. Before Freya reached her next position, she could hear a new set of explosions behind her.

Once in position, she took a moment to absorb the situation. The soldiers were already preparing for the next step, but most of the villagers in her line were tired, scared and confused. She turned around to see the shield-bearers still running, their shields hooked over their shoulders. Just over half of them remained. Beyond them, only six trows were left standing, some clearly having taken more hits that others, and twenty horses were riding in from behind them.

The beasts continued to push toward the village. The explosions were slowing them down, but not enough. There were no shields remaining between her and the trow which she had been attacking, but she was unsure if it actually made any difference. It had not attempted to throw anything since that first shot. The kick of the explosive arrows made it too difficult for the beast to hold on to something long enough to throw it. And the trows were so massive that a shield-bearer would be nothing but fodder during a charge, a minor annoyance that might not even slow their progress at all.

Freya drew her bow again to help, but just before she would have loosed the arrow, a rider leapt from her horse and plunged her knife into the trow’s back. The armor the riders wore, which was much more protective than the sparse leather plates she was given, made it obvious that they were the Rí’s soldiers. The metal bands around her forearms had curved spikes protruding from them. She had seen them on some guards that morning when they were training, but she was uncertain of their purpose.

The soldier dug her left arm into the creature’s back, the spikes on her armband sinking into its earthen skin, then removed her blade before reinserting it, this time in its neck. The creature fell to the ground, and the soldier rolled forward to prevent herself from being thrown. Freya admired the soldier for a moment, as she got up and jumped back onto her horse, then turned her attention to the five remaining trows.

This was the last stage of the defense, and the trows were close. The remaining shield-bearers had already reached their marks and planted their shields into the ground. They pulled back and drew their swords, ready to do what little they were able should a trow make it that far. By this point, the arrows were potentially more dangerous to the riders than the trows. A few of the soldiers had already been knocked off a beast’s back by the arrow of an overly anxious, inexperienced villager.

Within minutes, the riders took down three more of the beasts as those in the line watched, the archers waiting, with bows drawn, for a clear opportunity to fire. Only four riders remained, the rest having been thrown from their targets and injured or killed.

Many of the less skilled archers had already given up on shooting and pulled out their swords to defend. Freya was not ready to resign to that. She contributed to a small rain of arrows headed toward one of the remaining trows who had just thrown off another rider. The other beast was struggling to get a hold on the Korr hanging from its back. The two other riders leapt onto it, and it went down hard. One soldier shifted wrong and was pinned down by the lifeless corpse.

One final wave of arrows shot through the sky before Freya dropped her bow and reached for her sword. It was gone. Where did it…? She looked back to where she had been standing when she stuck it in the ground. Large chunks of earth and the bodies of shield-bearers were scattered around the area. She could not see the sword. She considered pulling an arrow and trying to stab the beast with it, but the explosion was likely to hurt her, or someone else, more than it.

The beast headed toward the center of the line. The two remaining riders had mounted their horses again and were racing toward it. They would not get there in time. Freya stood helplessly and watched as it swept its left hand, knocking away many villagers and soldiers who were unable to get away in time. A villager who was caught in the sweep grabbed onto the back of its hand and began stabbing it furiously. The trow slammed the back of its hand into the ground, crushing him.

While it was distracted, many of the fighters rushed its legs. Some began stabbing at it while others tried to climb. The beast kicked, throwing off most of its attackers and crushing others under its foot as it came back down. Freya searched frantically through the scattered bodies of soldiers and villagers, trying to find a sword to use.

She looked across the field in time to see the beast reach down and grab a woman who rushed back toward it after being thrown. The woman shouted as she thrust her sword into the beast’s hand. While the dust and smoke in the air made it difficult to see who she was, the shout was unmistakable. It was her master, Fenella. “No!” She screamed and ran toward the beast, still unarmed. She considered again the possibility of using an arrow against it. Her bow lay on the ground amongst the rubble somewhere behind her. She could throw an arrow, but it might not penetrate, leaving it to fall to the ground and explode at the feet of the Korrs attacking it. She finally located a fallen sword, and as she knelt to pick it up, she heard a loud crack, followed by the most terrifying scream she had ever heard. Another crack, and the screaming stopped.

She was too late. She looked up to see the beast toss the body aside as the first of the two riders jumped onto its back. Within seconds, they had taken down the final trow. She stood motionless, the dead soldier’s sword held loosely between her fingers. Her master, a woman who had become a second mother to her, was gone, and she did nothing. She felt helpless, useless. How long had she been standing there in silent shock? She could not cry like so many others. She could not celebrate like so many others. Could she even feel anything anymore? She surveyed the field, trying to take in the reality of all the lives lost. She told herself that Fenella was dead over and over, until finally, it sunk in. Her knees buckled, tears filled her eyes, and she wept.

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