A Glibertarians Exclusive:  Season of Ice VII

At the homestead

A hands-span of days after Hengist reckoned they had enough firewood – and indeed, the shed was full to overflowing – the first snow came.  Mabinne awoke in the night to a strange luminosity from the window.  She got up, even though the bedroom had grown chill with the fire burned down to coals and looked out through the glass.

The snow was already at least ankle-deep, and more was falling, great, silent flakes.

She heard Hengist rouse, but stayed at the window, watching.  It rarely snowed in Beretan, and then only wet, spitting pellets, miserable stuff; she had never seen this kind of snow, the great, crystalline flakes floating gently down.

She gently fingered the binding collar, still on her neck.  She had once commanded the cold; now she could only watch it.

Hengist had tossed another log onto the bedroom’s guttering fire.  Now he came to stand behind her, looking over her shoulder out the window.

“It’s beautiful,” she said.

“It is, sweet,” Hengist agreed.  “And so are you.  But it’s cold, here by the glass.  Let’s be back under the furs.”

It was cold.  Hengist had his hand extended.  With a small sigh, she took it, and allowed him to lead her back to bed.

Two days later, early in the morning, two men showed up on horseback.  They knocked on the front door as Hengist and Mabinne were just sitting down to bowls of hot boiled groats with chunks of beef, Hengist’s favored breakfast.

Hengist looked up at the knock.  Mabinne was still standing, so went to the door and opened it to find two men she had not seen before; Ikslunders, clearly, like Hengist, but older, their dark blonde hair and beards shot through with gray.  They were thickly clothed in heavy leather and wolf furs.  Behind them, their horses breathed plumes of mist into the cold air.  Large lances were carried upright in leather holsters on the saddle, one on each side, each with a long iron blade on the end.

“Jordvir, Engvar!” Hengist called.  “Come in!  Will you eat?”

The two men said they would, and came in, kicking their snowy boots off in the anteroom.

“Taken a new wife, have you Hengist?” the one called Engvar asked in a gravelly voice.  “A pretty one, she is.”

“This is Mabinne,” Hengist answered simply.  “My sweet, this is Jordvir and Engvar, they are brothers with a big place up north on the edge of the steppe.  They are mammoth hunters.”  Mabinne’s eyebrows rose; Hengist had not corrected Engvar’s use of the word wife.  She opened her mouth to object, but at the last moment, chose not to.

“We are farmers,” Jordvir chuckled.  “But, yes, in the winter, we hunt mammoths, for the meat, the fur, and the fat.”

“We are low on rendered mammoth lard,” Hengist mused.  Mabinne had noted that to Hengist only the day before.  “I wouldn’t mind some mammoth meat, either.  Sweet, you’ve never tasted the like; rich, fatty, smooth.  A mammoth roast is a feast all on its own.”

“He speaks true,” Engvar agreed.

“Putting a party together, are you?”

Jordvir drained a cup of tea.  “We are,” he replied.  “Thought you might be interested.”

“Usual split?”

“Yes,” Jordvir said.  “The tusks to the man who strikes the fatal blow.  Equal shares of meat for all in the party.  Pelts likewise divided.”

Hengist looked at Mabinne.  “I would go with them, sweet, if you’ve no objection.  I’d be gone three, maybe four days.  I can ask Gerd to come stay with you if you wish.”

“There’s plenty of wood and plenty to eat,” Mabinne said.  “I’ll be fine.”

“As you wish.  Boys, let’s finish eating, and I’ll get my gear together.”

They rode off at mid-morning, Hengist on the more spirited of his two horses, lances like the others bore framing him as Mabinne watched him ride away through the snow.

The next few days passed slowly.  The house seemed strangely quiet without the big Northman’s bustling presence, and the big bed seemed to take an inordinate amount of time to warm up.  Mabinne found she had to stoke the bedroom hearth-fire up more to sleep warm; she hadn’t realized how much warmth Hengist’s presence generated under the furs.

Chores occupied most of her days.  Hengist normally cared for the milk cow and the ducks, all of which required attention morning and evening, but Mabinne had grown up on a farm, and had lived on one after her marriage, so none of the chores were new to her.

And even on her own, the big estate’s requirements left her with idle time during the day.  She had only herself to cook for and she ate relatively little, so even meal preparation didn’t take up much time.

On the second afternoon, she walked down to the lake.

The sun was already growing low in the sky, setting the western horizon glowing orange behind a few scudding clouds.  Mabinne walked out onto the small dock and looked out on the cold waters.

She felt the weight of the binding collar on her neck.  She stuck an index finger under the collar and wiggled it, but there was almost no play in the device; it fit well.

Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes and concentrated.  Her hands rose, making the sign for an ice-bolt.  She bore down, mentally, forming the signs in her head and with her hands for the spell, but nothing happened save for the binding collar growing warm.

She tried a wind spell.  Bearing down again, mentally, and physically, she thought she felt the slightest response, but then the collar began to grow uncomfortably hot.  She let the spell drop.

I wonder if that’s how it’s supposed to work, she mused.  If I start being able to work some magic, the collar grows hot and burns. 

I wonder if I could overpower it, freeze it out before it grows hot enough to kill me.

There didn’t seem to be any way out short of Hengist removing the collar.  Meanwhile, it was growing dark; with a small sigh, Mabinne walked back to the house.

Five days later, in the morning, the hunting group returned.

Mabinne was in the back of the house feeding the ducks, who set up such a gabble while she was scattering grain that she didn’t hear the horses approaching.  Her first warning was when the mammoth hunter Engvar walked around the house and hailed her.

“Mabinne,” he called.  “You’d better come along.  Hengist has been hurt.”

She felt her heart suddenly skip a beat.  Why? She wondered briefly but hurried to follow the big Northman.

In front of the house, several men and horses were assembled.  Hengist’s big gelding Toothbreaker was drawing a travois made of two long mammoth tusks; as she drew near, Mabinne saw Hengist lying on the travois.

She broke into a run.  As she stopped beside the travois, Hengist looked up at her; his face was pale, drawn up in pain, but he managed to smile.

“Sorry, my sweet,” he breathed.  “I’m afraid I didn’t dodge in time.”  He coughed once and faded into unconsciousness.  Mabinne saw blood on his lips.

“Help me get him inside,” she told the others.

Once Hengist was bundled inside, changed into a nightshirt, and laid to sleep in the main bedroom the main body of the hunters left.  Jordvir and Engvar put up Hengist’s gelding, stacked the mammoth tusks up against the front of the house, and spent some time transferring a large quantity of mammoth meat and fat tightly wrapped in mammoth hide into the cold cellar beneath the house.  With that done at last, Mabinne made hot tea for Engvar and Jordvir, and when that was served and the three were seated at the big dining table, the brothers told Mabinne the story:

“It was morning, the day before yesterday,” Jordvir began.  “We spotted four cow mammoths, with three youngsters.  We were planning how best to move in on them when Hengist sighted the old bull, up on a ridgeline.”

“A grown bull is still fine eating,” Engvar added, “not quite as good as a young cow, of course, but the tusks are worth a pretty price, either in trade or in workings.  Nothing like ivory for handles, jewelry and so on… But forgive me.  Jordvir, go on.”

“Hengist wanted to go after the bull, so we split the party.  The Hardresen brothers went to take one of the cows, while we two and Hengist went for the bull.  We had it planned, you see; we two, on horseback, would approach the old fellow from the front, gaining his attention, while Hengist approached on foot from the rear, taking advantage to get in close and strike a deep blow with one of his lances.  While we rode into position on the ridge, Hengist tied Toothbreaker to a bush and took up his two lances.”

“I was in a better position to see what happened next,” Engvar explained, “as I was a bit higher up the hillside.  We two rode in about ten paces apart and paused about fifty paces from the old bull.  He had seen and scented us, of course, as the wind was from us to him, but old bull mammoths aren’t afraid of anything.  He trumpeted at us, of course, and shook his tusks at us to warn us off.  We each took up a lance in case he came for us, but otherwise we sat still.  The old fellow stopped feeding and watched us in turn, which was of course what we wanted.”

“Hengist is a brave fellow,” Jordvir added.  “Coming in on foot like that.  Some would say foolhardy, but we’ve seen him do the like before.  The young fellow just doesn’t seem to know fear.”

“Yes,” Mabinne breathed softly.  “I have seen that about him.”

“Hengist came in from behind and downwind,” Engvar continued.  “I thought he was moving to hamstring the old fellow, and sure enough, his first blow struck true, breaking the hamstring on the bull’s off hind foot.  The bull really let out quite a roar, but mammoths can’t move much with a hind leg crippled, so that struck him in place.  We started forward intending to attack from the front.”

“He came around the crippled bull on the downhill side, where I was approaching,” Jordvir added.  “I intended to strike from the left, as my brother came in to strike from the right, but we rode well clear of the trunk and tusks, you see, so it took us a few moments longer.  The bull was making quite a commotion, of course, and Hengist saw a moment, so he ducked low and came in fast, intending to strike for the heart with his second lance.  You’ve seen the lances, dear lady; that’s what they are made for, almost a sword on the end of a long pole, meant to strike deep on a large, strong animal, and at such things Hengist excels.  But the mammoth, while immobilized, wasn’t helpless; as he came in, it sensed him moving, and pivoted on its three good legs.  Swinging its head with tusks low, it caught Hengist up on its tusks and threw him.”

“The only reason he’s alive at all is because of his initial strike,” Engvar explained.  “When he was struck, he was tossed a good twenty paces down the hill, and were it sound, the bull surely would have followed to trample him or seize him up in its trunk and dash him against the ground.  As it was things would have been less dire, but when Hengist landed he struck a large rock.”

“We moved in and killed the bull then,” Jordvir concluded.  “That is the meat and fat you have below, and the bull’s tusks at the front of the house.  Hengist had sat up and waved at us, so we did not at first understand the extent of his injuries, but once the bull was dead, we went to him and saw blood on his lips.”

“One of the Hardresens is good at physicking and takes care of injuries and illnesses for the local folk in their area.  He examined Hengist and said he had several broken ribs and had taken a nasty hit on the head.  We bound his ribs and bandaged him up, but that night he fell into raving.  None of us slept that night, but towards morning Hengist fell into a deep sleep.  We had done with our butchering – the Hardresens spooked the cow herd and didn’t land a blow there – so that morning we made up the travois, broke camp and brought Hengist to you, travelling through last night to get here.”

“The tale is told, then,” Engvar said, yawning hugely.

Mabinne looked at the two men, noticing again the gray in their beards.  “Traveling through a day and a night, you must be exhausted.  Wait here, I’ll bring food and some ale.  When you’ve eaten, go into the extra bedroom, just through there, and I’ll bring you hot water for washing.  You can sleep there as long as you like.”  She stood and turned towards the kitchen, then turned back.  “And thank you so for bringing Hengist home.  I will do my best to care for him.  He will be fit for next year’s hunt, I promise.”

The brothers slept through the balance of the day, rising only in the evening for a meal before immediately heading back for more sleep.  Mabinne reminded herself again that they were older men, probably well past their normal limits of exhaustion after the hunt, the butchering, and the overnight journey to get Hengist home.  When Engvar and Jordvir finally left the next morning, she had prepared food and drink for them for their journey.  She hugged them both as they made to depart.  “Thank you again for bringing Hengist home to me,” she said.  “I’ll take care of him.  He’ll live, and be well as before, I promise you.”

“You are a good woman, to care so for him,” Engvar said with a sad smile.  “Hengist is lucky to have you here.  Be well.  We’ll let his kinfolk know, I feel sure his sister will want to come help you care for him.”

He must recover, she added to herself.  Otherwise…

“Thank you both,” Mabinne told the brothers.  “I will be glad to have the help of Hengist’s kinfolk, if they can spare the time for the journey.”

Then the brothers left, and she was alone, with Hengist still unconscious in the big bed.