The black bird was in a foul mood.
It couldn’t really remember why that was and it only served to annoy it further.
It was pretty certain that its frustration had something to do with the bright place and something… edible? Grain or seeds possibly. The shiny people were very pretty, but they always seemed to want something from it. And for some reason they had not given it grain.
Yes, that had to be it. Possibly the most infuriating thing in all of it was that it could never remember much about what had happened once it departed the bright place. And what little it remembered would always vanish from its mind soon after, leaving only a kind of uncomfortable sense of urgency.
Now, come to think of it, it had no idea what it had been angry about earlier. Had it been angry? No matter. It could already see the nice lake with the nice place of woody caves there only one long way or possibly two long ways below it. The wood caves were nice, because they had shiny things in them. The kind of shiny things it could actually touch and take with it and hide in even nicer places. Too bad there were also those not-so-nice big, noisy creatures that tried to keep it from taking the shiny things. Then again, when had they managed to keep it from doing so.
The luxurious spring sun shined from an almost cloudless sky and warmed the spotted black wings of the descending bird. Warm breeze caressed its feathers as it circled above the great lake in no particular hurry. The sunlight reflected off the surface of the water bathing the bird in a brilliance it would have found very familiar, had it only been able to remember anything about its recent experience somewhere far higher up. Of course it could not. Now it just enjoyed itself soaring lazily in the gentle winds. There was a scent of fresh pine in the air.
On the northern side of the lake, just before where the great forest started, there was a large village of some threescore houses. The remains of an ancient wooden palisade encircled the buildings, although much of it had fallen down and been replaced by much lighter snake fence. At the shore just east of the village a group of young women were standing knee-deep in the water. Late spring was the season for gathering kelpie hair, a lake weed that grew just beneath the surface close to the shores. They wielded long rakes with triangular heads to pull up the strands.
Beryl colored glassy filaments glittered among the sharp bronze spikes of their tools as they carried the harvest to dry on the large root string nets they had stretched on wooden poles near the shore. Once dried, the algae would be carded and spun into azure yarn for the village weavers. Surprisingly warm and resistant to both wind and humidity, this was the fabric of choice for most of the tribes in these parts of the land. Game was relatively scarce this far north and their hides were mostly reserved for ceremonial purposes. What remained was traded away to the sea folks sailing in from the south in their tall horse-headed ships. While not truly trusted by the Starborn peoples, the visitors offered in exchange metal and potent medicinal herbs that were too frail to survive the harsh winters of the Northlands.
Most of the smaller houses were built of blackened pine logs and covered with roofs of brittle amber-shaded reed. Their small wooden shutters were open today to welcome in the warm sweet smelling spring air. The buildings formed a two-layered circle. In its middle there was a wide oval shaped market place covered with brownish sand. Many of the villagers were outside, busy with repairing the marks the harsh winter storms had left on their homes or busy in their crafts preparing goods for trade, as merchants ships were due to arrive before the upcoming festival. The square was filled with good-humored chatter and the excited clamor of children running around and playing tag the deer and run with wolves.
Slightly west from the plaza on solid grey granite there stood a much larger house. Its roof rose at least twice as high as the others and unlike them, it was made out of dull reddish shingles – a privilege and symbol of the council of elders. The shamans of the Polestar tribe knew how to extract such pigment from certain rare clay deposits and prepare it into a thick paste that could be used to color the most hallowed buildings and protect their wood from the elements and decay. The great hall seemed gloomy and even foreboding, almost out of place in the bright spring weather. People glanced at it in silent reverence as they quickened their steps to pass by. No-one came or went through its huge carved oak doors.
Pillars of grey smoke rose from several houses around the village and one totally white column of thick smoke came from a house that looked slightly different from the other small ones. The unusual feature about it was a courtyard, the only one in the village. Someone had lugged quite a number of furniture items among the green grassy patches of the small inner garden. As if reminded of something the black bird took a sharp left turn and headed straight toward the white smoke house.
It managed to land on the finger-thick reed stalks without anyone noticing. Or almost anyone that is. As it carefully peered down from the inner edge of the roof into the yard, a small pair of slit-like pupils fixated on it and stared cautiously hidden on the other side of the roof’s ridge. Some ten feet below the bird could see a couple of those beings it didn’t particularly like. They had a name, the bird thought. “Something stupid sounding. Himes? No that was not it.” The bird closed its eyes concentrating intensely for a moment, then blinked and cocked its head in jubilation. “Humons! Yes, these creatures were definitely humons.” It was extremely happy with itself, which was not entirely unusual of it.
Many of the humons were lying on simple wooden cots. Most of them stayed almost still. A wispy shadow was floating close to each of them, surrounding their heads and chests. The black bird wondered why the wisps bothered with them at all. As the bird watched, it noticed how one of the supine forms grew restless. This one’s skin was all wrinkled and grey. The shimmering cloud around it was thinner and further from it than that others had been to the humons they followed. It shifted about seeming almost skittish. The bird saw how the vapor was slowly fading, tearing itself free. This never lasted for very long. Tomorrow it would already be gone and the creature would have ceased to move. The bird turned its head uninterested. Such things did not concern it.
Somewhere behind the black bird there was a slight, almost perfectly inaudible rustle of reeds as an unseen predator sprung its patiently prepared ambush and pounced at the winged invader. With a deliberately slow motion the bird turned the most minuscule amount a bird could possibly turn. Actually, had it turned any less, it could have been said to not have turned at all.
The grey and white striped kitten was no more than three or four months old. It sailed through the air past the black bird. To the kitten’s credit its attempt had been far more competent than most cats of its age could have managed. As it vanished below the edge of the roof it let out a surprised meow. Several fractions of a second later there was an unmistakable splash of a rain barrel. Then some further meows could be heard. In all honesty they were by now pretty much devoid of the former murderous attitude of the little predator and sounded almost sympathetic. That is, of course, unless one is starling, which tend to regard such meows only as pathetic.
Had the kitten been a year or two older it might actually have been necessary for the black bird to take a step. Such absurdity, it thought. The really old cats could sometimes even be a real nuisance. After all they could see many things those bulky creatures below could not. Some of them could see into almost as many places as the black bird itself. This did not really concern it either. Bothersome pests, it thought briefly and started to look around for something more interesting like shiny things.
A while later the black bird heard a cracking sound below. Someone had opened one of those bigger holes to the wooden cave. A crate of shiny objects walked out. They smelled a little funny, but oh how pretty they were. Glistening in the sunlight there were round shiny objects in all the colors of a rainbow. And there were edgy shiny objects, tempting it with their sparkle of bronze and silver. The big box wobbled around for a moment and then started to lumber toward the wrinkly humon. “Now we are talking,” the bird thought triumphantly. It spread its wings and was about to leap into air, fully prepared to grab its prize. Just a split second before it did, something occurred to it. The box might not have been walking around entirely by itself. Now that it really thought about it, some thing could actually be carrying the box.
The tall humon had long, almost white hair and was wearing a worn dark blue robe with short sleeves. “A female.” the bird thought. Looking at the figure it sensed something unusual and disturbing enough to cause its neck feathers stiffen. “This one would be able to see it for what it was,” the bird realized and became annoyed again. Things had been going reasonably well and now, at the same moment something worth its attention had appeared, this had to happen. The black bird thought several gloomy thoughts of the kind that would have been quite unpardonable in the bright place. Then, sensing that the white haired humon was just about to become aware of it, it turned away and dived off the roof.
Now the black bird was in a foul mood again.
In one of the smaller houses a certain young woman named Lili was smiling. She had been about to get off the bed early today, but her newlywed husband, Alrik, had stopped her. Grabbing his wife and pulling her back into bed he had said the work could wait. She had at first thought to argue, but as he embraced her in a long, passionate kiss, she had quickly decided against it. Reasonably certain they wound not be missed for a while, the young couple had spent a lustful morning under the rugs dedicated only to each other and making love. They had not noticed the black bird outside, casually watching their amorous enterprise through a small crack in the closed shutter.
The bird had actually been about to leave the village in frustration, but some vague compulsion it had not been able to entirely understand had kept it from doing so. It felt like there was something is was supposed to do first, although such notion seemed silly to it. Still, unable to convince itself to go quite yet, it had spent some time flying around the village and nibbling stray crumbs of bread from the ground. As it had passed this tiny house, the sensation had grown stronger, drawing its attention.
Now, after about an hour sitting here on the windowsill and peeking inside, trying to figure out what was so special about these two naked humons, it was slowly starting to remember. The shiny people had not been worried about grain. It had been seeds after all. Just only not the kind of seeds it had had in mind earlier. Not at all. No, this had been about the soul stuff again. Certainly not one of its favorite topics. It was perfectly happy with not being able to remember these things at all for most of the time. They were really quite tedious.
In truth it had to admit that finishing such tasks did give it occasional pleasure, but it preferred to believe the feeling was merely healthy satisfaction for being done with the inconvenience. It was about to think that this did not concern it either. Then it was somewhat surprised to realize that not being able to complete its charge actually bothered it. This was unlike its typical annoyed or foul mood. Could it really be feeling bad for the humons? “Such a distasteful feeling,” it thought and took to flight. Perhaps this did concern it a little.
Lili and Alrik were laughing and kissing. They were very much in love and nothing could spoil this wonderful spring day they had chosen to spend together.
Neither of them would ever learn about their son, whose spark had been due to be kindled within her today. He would never be born nor grow up. He would not feel the power of the animal spirits nor the biting winter winds, never know love nor victory. He would never be, for there had been no more souls left in the heavens for the Starling to deliver into this world.
Talvikki rubbed greenish, earthy smelling ointment onto the chest of the sleeping man, who was lying in one of the garden beds of her medicine house. She was concerned for gammel Olav. Of course he was old, but he had been in such good health, still working in the fields until yesterday. The fever had come so quickly. It was probably only grass pox. He would most certainly be better in just a couple of days. She felt disturbingly uncertain.
A cold breeze drew her attention. No, not breeze. The sheets hadn’t moved. Talvikki hoped she was not about to catch something as well. Not knowing why, she looked up into the sky. A small black dot was receding high above the lake. Perhaps the birds were migrating back. It would be a good omen. They were late this year, but then again, if it was this cold, no wonder they wouldn’t want to come yet. She was still shivering herself.
Shrugging, she turned her gaze back to her friend and pulled out the spirit web from her medicine box.
Perhaps its sound would help to comfort the old man.