"It is evil that has come among us," Nosnra stated flatly to his witan. "It is evil that breaks Eadwig's spirit. You are strong Engenulf, and you know much, but you are not your father." he caught the angry flash in his friend's eye. "And I am not Tofig, but I tell you, he would have done as I do now, and Engulfen would have stood beside him."
"I stand beside you." said Engenulf.
"No my friend, you obey me," Nosnra said sadly, "There is a great difference." He cast a lonely eye across the hilltop. The crowd of warriors had dispersed. The majority followed the pair that carried Eadwig to a cell. They were young, as was Eadwig and while loyal to their thegn, the sub-chief was as an older brother to them. Nosnra did not doubt that had the fight gone against him it would be his body, lifeless most likely, that the warriors would be dragging away.
The steading looked peaceful enough; no harm had come to the walls or roof, or to most within, just two of his kindred dead, like his own sons that he could not allow to rest.
* * *
Once again the chief's hall was filled, but a sober calm had silenced the gathering. Word of Huon's and Eadnoth's fate had spread, as well as the tale of Eadwig's fight, defeat and imprisonment in the dungeon of the Keeper.
The chief saw defiant looks here and there, but these were an older bunch than those who lionized his sub-chief. Many here could have been Eadwig's sire, but even those, older in years, had a fondness and respect for their youthful leader. Few male giant young were of the sub-chief's age, a sickness had come that defied the spells of the aging witan, Engulfen, and babes and mothers both had died. For five seasons young brides had joined the ranks of kindred dead, the pyres burnt on and on. Yet matrons who had birthed before survived, and girl children lived, though only one in three, but each year would pass and not a single son would see an hour's span upon the oerth.
Engulfen aged a year for every kindred dead and in the end he set a pyre, he offered up himself, his life, so that one son might live and break the curse. A wailing babe was born that day, Eadwig, Tostig's son, though he soon became the son of all the clan. His birth saw the end of the deadly spell. Engulfen's sacrifice had proved its worth.
* * *
"Yes," said Nosnra to the leaders of the clan. "Eadwig has fallen too."
"But chief..." a bald greybeard began.
"There is nothing to be said. It's done, his fate is set. He lives or dies, but his time among the clan is over."
"Exile!" cried Engenulf.
"Had I lost and lived, such would be my fate," Nosnra replied. "Enough! He will be given time, but when he rises and walks again, he leaves."
"But..." Engenulf sought to change his old friend's mind.
"No!" His voice was harsh. "I said enough, I will not hear more. Those who wish may share his fate. Speak now and leave this hall, or raise their hand against me. Who challenges my right to rule?"
He faced them all, defiant and without fear. No voice called out, no giant moved, though some lowered heads or looked away, torn at heart between thegn and kin.
Thiodolf spoke up, "Thegn, none stand against you here," he turned and glowered at some who could not meet his eyes.
"Engenulf," Nosnra called to the witan, "tell of what you have divined."
"Yes, my thegn," he said quietly. Then in a louder voice began his tale. "Human, elf and dwarf, have come among us. Yes, this most of you will already know. I saw nine crows fly past the steading's walls and the spirits of those who died cried out as they went overhead. There are only nine who come against us, nine, but not farmers or herdsmen, not the weak children we have raided and brushed aside. Three crows called out to me and one disappeared. Then another turned into an eagle, then a mighty dragon, and then I saw Eadnoth's face before it too was gone. The last spoke in an eldritch tongue of power and cast a bolt such as a storm cloud makes and burnt at me though only in a vision. Behold!" He held out a black-streaked arm, blistered from palm to chest. "Such power is very great to reach from that spirit realm where visions walk as we do here on oerth."
"What of the other birds?" a wide eyed warrior called.
"Two others called to me and it seemed that each was carried in a great and mighty hand, one blazed with light, a white hot blinding fire that did not scorch the feathered wings it held aloft. The other was a plain sturdy fist, a hand of flesh and bone, but strong and rough, this bird cawed and screeched as any of its oerthly brethren might. The final four were a varied lot, one old, but large, the mightiest of its kind that I have ever seen. A warrior spirit I have no doubt. Two others that wore the shape of the crow but at heart bore a serpent's soul, their tongue and eyes were red as blood. Before they passed out of sight I saw them both set upon the elder bird and strike him by surprise. They fell, all three in a tangled heap beyond the horizon's edge and then they too were gone."
He paused and drank deeply from a pot of ale set by his side. "The last was small, full grown but stunted or from a smaller breed of crow. It weaved and wheeled across the sky, sometimes it lead the flock then fell back and hid behind the others. It was last to disappear but in its beak I saw the glitter of some gem or jewel, and my vision ended there."
"What good does hearing all this do?" asked Gosfrith, keeper of the wolves. "We waste time sitting here."
"You ask such questions?" Nosnra said, "I thought better of our huntsman."
"Huntsman, yes, and that is where I should be, not wasting precious time..." He paused then bowed his head to Engenulf, "I ask your pardon, witan. I mean no disrespect, but the trail goes cold."
"Your wolves found no scent upon the hill, these foul, human scum have hidden their tracks well, ensorceled them no doubt. They're put to better use as guards than running blind down valleys and over hills."
"We will find their scent," Gosfrith said. "Hidden trail or no, I do not believe they have covered every track. My pets will sniff them out if you will but allow it!" His voice ended in a shout.
"Watch your tongue! My patience is worn thin. I have had enough rebellion for one day," Nosnra shouted back. "Hear what Engenulf has said. This was no flock of birds that sit and peck upon a field of grain. He has all but named them. We know their number and have heard and seen something of their strength. Wizards, yes, and servants of some mortal gods it sounds, and warriors, brave and bold enough to hunt us in our own domain. They have killed by stealth and dweomencraft, I have no doubt that they will come again, and soon. I will not have you chasing rabbits when you should be here."
He stopped and watched the faces of his warriors. In some he saw his words sink in but others looked incredulous or showed sour disappointment. "Some here have fought such as these before down below in human lands. Some have broken dwarven halls and squashed the burrowing rats beneath your feet, but also felt the stings of spears or lost a finger, toe or hand to an axe's edge. I have seen them call upon their stunted gods or summon powers of the oerth or walking walls of fire. Yet many here have never faced the like and cannot know the strength within these tiny childlike beasts."
"Listen to your thegn!" Engenulf said, commanding their obedience. "This gap between the young and old, between those who fight now for the first time against a dangerous foe and those of us who have bled beneath a human's sword or elven spear or been cut down by a dwarvish axe, this disunity must end!"