This is a story told in lines of mist on the cold seas of the Northern Isles . . .
Spring had been driven back by a chilling sea fret the night the Pilgrim Woman told this tale. Foghorns groaned. She gave all who came a space by the hearth and something warm to wet their throats. This is how she introduced the story:
‘A short tale from colder lands to the north – where haars are common and courage is everything.’
The evening after war was declared, Toril sat by her peat fire alone. Lowering sun glimmered through bottles on the deep window ledge.
The goose shuffled in her sleep. One white feather fell from her perch and twirled on the stone flags. A draught from the byre, sweet with cow breath, danced with it. Nothing else moved in the longhouse but the flames.
Pink, orange, green as the sheen on a hoodie crow’s wing, they slid and puttered. Far away, a curlew warned an intruder off. Salt winds sailed through the oat garth, leaving a wake of rustling.
One last orange curve of the sun slipped behind the nearest stone circle. The day paused and laid a pall of grey cloud over the land.
The herring hanging in the rafters put on another layer of smoke. Dripped their oil on the back of the firewall. Left her to her thoughts.
Another white shape fell. Spiralled down from the lumb – bright against the open chimney’s tarry sides. The peat spattered in surprise. More came. Tiny, delicate, doomed – and bonny. The snow hissed softly. Toril roused herself. A tongue of ash flickered on the grate – a stranger was coming.
Boot steps on stone, the jangle of metal. She stood and lifted the sneck on the unlocked door.
The stranger bowed his head.
‘We need you.’
Toril buckled on her sword.
‘I have gathered my forces. Time for battle.’