As he walked through the settlement in the early morning sunshine, Aodh was glad for his fur tunic. The day might be sunny, but the air still carried a bite of winter. The settlement was quiet around him. There was no smoke coming from the smoke holes, no animals braying, no children playing, and the fact that it was early was only part of the reason. Most of the silence stemmed from the heavy toll the war had taken.
He nodded to a yawning man that was stumbling in the direction of the jakes. As he approached the chieftain’s roundhouse in the center of the settlement, he tried to figure out why he had been summoned.
Bradach might be fond of me, he thought, but I am young for a warband leader. Too young, according to some people.
Before the war begun, he hadn’t planned to become a warrior, but a smith. Like the rest of his clan, the war had changed his life.
He pushed away those thoughts, and opened the gate in the wicker fence around the Chieftain’s roundhouse. He stepped inside, closing the gate before any of the precious hens or goats could escape, then he walked down the path leading to the door and knocked on the door. Surprise filled him when the door opened and the Chieftain stood in the doorway. Normally opening the door was a duty assigned to children.
“Come in. Let’s break fast and talk,” Bradach rumbled.
Aodh nodded and stepped into the large room. Unease filled him when he saw that the only ones awake in the room were him, the Chieftain and his wife, Dairine. Normally, all the warband leaders were at present at the meetings with the chieftain. This was the first time he had been summoned alone.
“Where are the other warband leaders,” he asked, struggling to keep the wariness from his voice.
The Chieftain and his wife glanced at each other.
”They will not join us. Sit.” Bradach gestured at a low bench.
Aodh shook off the urge to run and hide. You haven’t done anything wrong, he told himself, and sank down at the bench. A couple of moments later, Bradach and Dairine sank down on the other side of the table. Aodh frowned when the Chieftain hesitated, and glanced at his wife. Odd, he could count on his fingers the number of times he had seen Bradach at a loss of words.
Dairine sighed and looked back at Aodh. “The war is taking a toll on the clan. On all clans. Last night, the goddess came to me in a dream. She told me the war has to stop.”
“ The goddess was not wrong. I have heard… rumors, that the Portal Clan simply have too many warriors. More than they should have, considering how long and ugly the war have been,” Bradach added.
Aodh shuddered. His clan was located far enough to the east that they didn’t bear the brunt of the Portal Clan’s attacks, but they hadn’t gone entirely unscathed. During their last raids Aodh could have sworn he fought the same warriors he had maimed in their last skirmish.
“We want to find out why. Are they getting support from another realm? Are they forcing the mountain clans to join their ranks?”
“Or are they dabbling in foul magic,” Dairine added.
Bradach looked at his wife. She calmly looked back. Something passed between them. Aodh watched them and wondered if it was true that some Priestesses could speak mind to mind with each other, and loved ones.
I don’t want to find out, he decided. He liked his thoughts to be private.
The Chieftain sighed. “This is why we are sending you, and your warband, to find out why their forces are not diminishing. And, if you find out why, we want you to stop it. .”
Aodh gulped. “Why me?”
The Chieftain looked at him. “Because you are young.”
Aodh considered the Chieftain’s response. It made sense. The other warband leaders had more experience, but they were getting slower in battle.
“I’ll do anything for peace,” he said.
He thought longingly of the peaceful times when he could spend his days in the forge. Now the forge was stripped of its metals but, if his mission was successful, one day soon he would be able to return to the forge. For that alone, he would have accepted the Chieftain’s Quest.
Aodh rose. “If there wasn’t anything else, I will go and inform Meallan and Finn.”
The Chieftain waved.”Go.”
Aodh bowed, before he strode toward to the door. Once outside, he exhaled. He wasn’t certain what he had expected when the Chieftain summoned him, but it hadn’t been that.
Either I’ll be known at the hero who stopped the war, he thought wryly, or the fool who was caught by Portal Clan. He knew that if the Portal Clan caught them snooping, they wouldn’t stop until his clan was annihilated. Bile rose up in his throat at the thought, but he choked it down. Don’t think about what ifs. Focus on the task ahead.
He glanced at the sky and was surprised that sun wasn’t higher on the sky. It felt as though he had spent at least half the morning in the Chieftain’s house.
Maybe we will be able to leave today. The thought echoed in his head as he hurried toward the wattle and daub hut that he shared with his fellow warriors. Around him, the settlement was coming to life. Dogs were barking, men were walking toward the palisade. He heard a woman singing softly at a wailing child.
The sounds faded as he walked toward the outskirt of the settlement. Before the war, this area had contained goat pens, but when the war began the old Chieftain had decided to build huts for warriors here instead. He pushed aside the door flap made of elk skin and ducked inside. Relief filled him when he saw that Finn and Meallan was up, if not entirely dressed. He didn’t glance toward the empty beds that always reminded him of the ones that hadn’t returned.
Meallan spotted him.
“Aodh! What did Bradach want?“
Aodh sank down on his bed and looked at his friends. Part of him had hoped for a longer break before the fighting resumed. It was a foolish dream, he knew, but sometimes all you had was dreams.
”He wants us to find out why the Portal Clan can send fresh warriors, unscathed warriors, to their battles.”
Finn and Meallan glanced at each other. Aodh held his breath, waiting for them to speak.
“He wants us to spy on them,” Meallan stated flatly.
Aodh shook his head. “More a scouting mission, but if we succeed, the war will end soon. If we fail, the clan will probably be annihilated.”
“I’m in. I’d much prefer dying with the knowledge that I have tried to stop the war, over dying in a meaningless skirmish,” Finn said.
“Me too,”Meallan chimed in.
Aodh swallowed a relieved sigh. He had been afraid that Finn and Meallan would have said no. Which had been a possibility, since he couldn’t force them to do something. If they had said no, he would have done the mission on his own.Because for a scouting mission like this he wanted warriors he could trust.
“I will be glad to have you by my side,”he told them.
Meallan snorted. “As if we would have let you get all the glory.”
He smiled, and shook his head. ”Start packing. We are leaving as soon as we can,”he told them.
Aodh adjusted the carrying basket’s shoulder straps. The basket was heavy, but not heavier than the baskets he carried during the clan’s hunting trips. He glanced at the crowd that had gathered, and hid a grimace. Aodh had hoped to leave without any attention, but the preparations had taken longer than planned. By the time they were finished, the news that the Chieftain was sending them on a special mission had spread.
He felt a pang when he spotted his mother. Her eyes were filled with worry, as they were every time he left. Aodh wished he could ease her mind, but the only thing that would calm her down was that he returned uninjured.
He made the sign for the departure and walked toward the large open gate. He felt a twinge of worry. They were a small group and they would have to cross the territories of several clans before they reached the Portal Clans. He didn’t know if the clans would be hostile towards them, or not. Maybe the other clans were tired of the war too. It was a faint hope, but it was all he had.
The gates closed behind them with a thud that felt final. They walked down the narrow path that lead past the fallow fields. Once they had had fields further away from the settlement, but they had been forced to abandon them when the war began. Aodh thanked the goddess that so far the fields hadn’t been burned. He knew that if his mission failed, there was only a time before they were overpowered by a stronger clan. Once that happened, the settlement would burn. He shivered. Hopefully they would avoid that fate for a bit longer.
When the path split, he led his men down the Western path, away from the meager protection of their allies in the East. Forest surrounded the path. The branches were still bare after the winter, but he could see green buds beginning to grow. He fingered the haft of his spear. At least the bare branches would make it easier to spot predators. He had no doubt that there would be desperate predators, both animals and Dhurians, during their journey.
Hopefully they will not spot us. Most clans that saw them would assume they were scouts, sent out to plan a raid. They would react accordingly, and send out warriors to intercept them. His lips twisted. In a way, they were planning a raid. One that most clans wouldn’t have the courage to do.
Aodh wasn’t certain how long they had wandered when the forest began to thin, but he did know that the path had been climbing for a while. He stopped at the edge of the forest and gazed at the valley below, where he could see people moving around.
Aodh glanced back at the forest. It looked like they were alone, but he knew it was only a matter of time before a sentry spotted them.
“Come on, Aodh. Let’s go, before the sentries spot us,” Meallan murmured, echoing his own thoughts. .
Aodh nodded. If the local clan was hostile, it was bad to be caught at the top of a hill, surrounded by forest. Come to think about it, it was bad to be caught while going down a hill too. He gripped his spear harder, and prayed to the Moon goddess that this clan wouldn’t be hostile to them. On his guard, he walked down the hill, followed by Finn and Meallan.
Bitterness filled him when he saw the undamaged farmsteads, but the bitterness faded a bit, when he came closer and saw that they weren’t so undamaged, after all. The thatched roof was intact, but the wicker fence surrounding it was scorched. Aodh suspected that the whole farmstead had been burnt out, but that they had rebuilt the house.
A moment later, a group of armed men stepped out from the farmstead. Aodh stopped. The welcoming committee was here. A scarred, brown-haired man dressed in a leather kilt, holding a spear in his hand, stepped forward. The man gave them a wary look.
“What is your errand?” he demanded.
“We are just passing through. Our Chieftain sent us a mission to the Portal Clan,” Aodh told him truthfully.
The man gave him a wary look. “What mission?”
Aodh was torn. The last thing he wanted was for the word of their mission to reach the Portal Clan, but it was clear that the warriors wouldn’t’ let them pass through without more detail. “He wants us to find out why the Portal Clan isn’t showing any signs of being worn down by the war.”
The leader grunted.” Yeah. Our clan has wondered as well. “He gave Aodh an apologetic look. “I wish we had enough men and supplies to send some with you but our stores are dangerously low.
Aodh wasn’t surprised. Most of the clans were feeling the impact of the war, with the exception of the Mountain Clans who had been herders instead of farmers.
“May the goddess watch over you,” the leader said, and it was clearly a dismissal.
Aodh bowed when he heard the Warrior’s blessing. They would definitely need the assistance of the goddess to succeed.
The leader gestured, and the warriors stepped aside.
When he glanced over his shoulder, he saw that the leader was saying something to the other warriors, who listened respectfully, nodded, and hurried away. Did I just talk with the Chieftain of the Clan? Aodh wondered. No – no sane Chieftain would meet a group of enemy warriors with just a handful of guards, he decided.