The bonfire blazed with infernal heat under the star-filled sky. Drummers sitting around it started pounding their great oval rune-carved Star Drums with large sticks of smooth oakwood. Their booming noise drowned all other sound. Talvikki motioned to the children with one hand and to the warriors with other. Those seeking the blessings and power of the spirits would gather around the fire and start dancing and leaping wildly to the beat. Talvikki led them with her spirit web in one hand and the ceremonial starmetal torch he had used to lit the bonfire in another. She closed her eyes and could feel the heat of the fire on her skin and the force of the drums beating deep within her body. Then the shamanistic trance washed over her. In her mind everything came into clear focus.
She could sense the contented spirits of older people dancing further from the fire. She felt the violent souls of the young warrior men and women at the peak of their power dancing closer to the fire. And strongest in her mind was the pristine life force of the young dancing closest to the flames. Pure energy of life filled her as her spirit form started to rise up. At first, her view shifted just a little. Then she zoomed towards the sky. A blink of an eye later she was far above the fire, above the village and the large ship in its dock, From high up she could see the lake Starpath and the river flowing in from the north. Others called it the Great Northern River, but she knew it was the River of Life itself. She could see everyone and everything. Above her the Polestar shone brightly, enveloping her into its light. And then, there was another …
Cries of horror penetrated her trance. In an instant she swooped down and was in her body again.
“Help! They are dying!” a woman beside her screamed in panic.
She opened her eyes. The village square was in chaos. People were shouting and knocking chairs and tables over as they ran around mindlessly. At the fire there were dark lumps lying on the ground. It was at first hard to make out what they were against the brightness of the flames.
“The children! Please, do something” a man yelled.
A sharp cold wrung her gut. Most of the young ones were down. She could sense the psychic death shocks blasting her mind, as one by one their small hearts stopped. “Tuuli! Where is Tuuli?” she cried out in terror “Tuuli! TUULI!”
“Sis?” a familiar voice, filled with fear, answered behind her, “What is happening?”
Talvikki turned around and pulled her sister into a crushing hug. Then she looked back at the fire, already ashamed of having felt so relieved when people were dying around her. She rushed to the closest slumped figure and turned it around. She instantly recognized the young girl.
“Helka!” Tuuli rushed to her side shouting and kneeled. “Wake up! What is wrong with you?” she shook her friend to no avail.
As Talvikki touched the sweaty hand of the unconscious girl it dawned to her. Her shaman senses had been trying to tell it to her all along. “Poison,” she said out loud. “Their veins are filled with hoarleaf poison”.
“Tuuli,” she said with an urgent but already more composed voice. “Go get my medicine bag.”
Still holding the dying child with her left hand, Talvikki closed her eyes and put the fingers of her right hand onto her forehead. Her mind crackled with absolute coldness as she prepared to coerce the spirits to her will. There was no time for bargaining if she was to save the few that were still alive.
Talvikki was casting purification spells on the small motionless bodies. A Starpole man standing nearby started shouting, “I heard her! She said it is poison! The filthy southerners have poisoned us with their vile food!”
A silence came upon the marketplace as everyone turned to look at Ahiram and his men. Some of the tribal guards, who had kept their spears through the festival, approached the foreigners threateningly. Other men ran to the council hall and came out with more weapons. In response many of the mariners drew short swords and long daggers they had concealed under their tunics.
“What the scorpion’s shit?!” Ahiram thundered, sounding appalled. “We all ate the same damn food. If the poison was in it, we should all be dead.”
Another man with a burning torch in his hand shouted back, “Perhaps it works faster on the children. Maybe we shall all die soon.”
There was angry murmur in the crowd. Ahiram’s men followed their imperial naval training and gathered back to back forming a defensive ring around their captain. Meanwhile the old Adoteriel kept glancing back and forth at the mob and the southerner captain, looking confused and uncertain about what to do.
The standoff lasted for what seemed an eternity before he finally started talking. Addressing Ahiram he said, “The question is fair. Are you responsible for this, captain?”
“What? Why the hell would we want to kill you?”
“I don’t know,” Adoteriel answered. He had gained some confidence realizing the villagers clearly held the upper hand, should it come to blows. “You tell me, captain.”
“Are you out of your mind, you old goat? My fleet could have stormed your puny village, had I ordered them. We wouldn’t need poison to kill you.”
“Stop, stop, stop! That’s enough.” a strong female voice interrupted the argument. “Ahiram and his men are not responsible. Their people don’t even know the magic for using hoarleaf poison.” Talvikki was standing her arms raised in front of the fire.
“Stand down,” she continued with her unfaltering command voice, “Now!”
People looked at each other. There was some grumbling, but after a while everyone had put their weapons down. Almost forgetting the death and horror, Tuuli looked on in awe.
How does she do it? the girl wondered.
Talvikki approached Ahiram and with an icy ring in her voice she said, “I still liked your diplomatic touch at the table better than that rhetoric. Do try to not get yourself stabbed in the next ten minutes. I don’t have any healing spells left for you.”
Then she turned to Adoteriel, “Have everyone clear the square. We can’t start squabbling amongst ourselves now.”
Looking at her sister, she said, “I’ve done what I can for them for now. Make sure they are taken to the medicine hut and made comfortable. I’ll prepare a proper antidote before morning, but right now there is something I’ll have to do, if I’m to catch whoever is responsible.”
A cold wind seemed to rise out of nowhere and surround Talvikki, as she walked out of the marketplace, heading east.
The black bird was sitting on the fence, exceptionally amused. Its belly was full of delicious yellow peas and it was looking at one of the sorriest sights it had seen for a while. Sorry in a funny way, that was.
The grey and white striped kitten was lying on its side on the ground and panting heavily with its small pink tongue out. After some five hundred failed attempts to attack the black bird, the little cat was so exhausted it couldn’t move any longer. It just couldn’t get it. How in the world did the bird always manage to evade its attacks? It never even seemed to move and yet it was always elsewhere when the kitten’s charges landed.
If starlings had a sound for laughing, the black bird was making it right now. At first it had just thought the kitten a nuisance, but after a while it had found its perseverance very entertaining. Such a good festival this year, it thought.
Then it sensed something very unusual. Someone had said something very humon sounding. Only the voice had not said it like humons usually speak. It had been more like how special birds like it talked itself. The worlds hadn’t been meant for it to hear, but being such an exceptionally sharp bird, of course it had. Now, what had the voice said again? It had been something strange like, “Distract the bird!”
The bird looked at the kitten. It was up again and all suddenly its eyes were flaring with bright bluish-white light. It leaped at the bird with unexpected fervor. Oh dear, the bird thought. This looks like magic. It actually had to take a step to dodge this one. As usual the kitten flew clear beside it and over the fence.
Still wasn’t that hard, it thought, again pleased with itself.
At the same moment something heavy hit the black bird from behind with the force of a falling timber. Swept along, the bird fell uncontrollably, barely able to open its wings to soften the strike. It closed its eyes and squawked in alarm.
The black bird opened one of its eyes just slightly and peeked. It was lying on its back. A huge grey furry head with long whiskers, sharp fangs and a collar of blue shiny, pretty stones loomed above it. Great forepaws pinned its wings to the ground.
Fully opening its eyes the black bird studied its assailant. It was possibly the largest cat it had ever seen. This is not good.
It was starting to understand it was in real trouble, but the jewelry made it hard for the bird to concentrate. Such pretty gems. This animal must belong to someone rich. Aw… Try to focus. I better think my way out of this soon or this stupid fleabag is going to have starling for solstice dinner.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?” the giant grey cat demanded.
“Um… “, the bird started to respond. Then it was very surprised.
“Cats can’t talk,” it said.
“Neither can starlings,” the cat answered.
“Uh oh… I guess you’ve got me there, furball.”
The cat got angry again and tightened its grasp. Its sharp claws stung the black bird’s wings painfully.
“DID YOU HELP THEM TO STEAL THE CHILDREN’S SOULS? WHERE DID THEY GO?”
The black bird finally understood. This was not a cat at all. It was the damned humon woman who could see it. It cursed itself for not having paid more attention to the psychic compulsion this cat erm… humon had used on the kitten.
“Oh the souls. Yes. I can see how you humons could be interested in such things.”
The claws bit again into its sensitive feather shafts. It could feel blood flowing down its right wing. Ok, she’s pretty damn angry. Better not to piss her off any more.
“Just passing by and eating peas. Seriously, I have nothing to do with the soul stealing stuff. Actually, a group of humons with peculiarly more souls than bodies just crossed the ford a little while ago. They are going that way, running along the shore.”
“I mean are they going s… Nevermind.”
Then the giant cat was gone.
The black bird rose up and groomed its feathers. Cats or humons, all the same. No manners at all. The angry cat-humon-woman had even forgotten to thank it for all its help.
Ah well, the black bird thought. She was in such a hurry that it must just have slipped her mind. A good thing for her that it didn’t slip mine. The Starling pulled a large blue gem from under its wing. So very nice of her to bring this to me. I think I can forgive her this time.
Some little angry hissing was heard from behind the fence. The black bird opened its wings and rose to the clear night sky. A blue flame flickered inside the magnificent jewel in its beak.
“The Icewinders did it!” Talvikki shouted as she shifted back to her human form. “And I know where they are now.”
Everyone still left at the square turned to look at her.
Ahiram raised an eyebrow at the shaman, “Did you just…?”
“Yeah, I did. Now shut up and listen. They have crossed the ford and are moving southeast along the shore. They have almost an hour of head start.”
Adoteriel approached them with Juuvel and Ulrik behind him. “Why would the Icewind tribe want to kill our young?” he asked almost cautiously, “Rika is a nasty old hag, but this … I’d thought something like this was beneath even them.”
“I don’t think it was really about killing them. I believe they used their spirit webs to capture the kids’ souls for some purpose. You know like…” Talvikki looked around and saw mostly everyone staring at her baffled. “It’s complicated. I’ll try to explain later.”
After a brief moment of what seemed to be intense contemplation she continued, “Now, I could catch them by air but I am no match for two shamans, let alone a pack of warriors. We’ll have to gather the runners and get going.”
“By air?” Ahiram repeated her words sounding puzzled.
Sighing Talvikki turned to face him, “Yes, by air. As in flying. Look, I know it’s a lot to take in this suddenly, but I don’t have time for you now.” Then she addressed a group of village hunters standing closer to the fire, “I’m going to need all those quick on their feet with me. Go get your spears.”
“Wait,” Ahiram said. “Did you say they are moving along the shore?”
“Yes I did,” Talvikki snapped, clearly annoyed. “Now let me do my job.”
“I can help.”
With a skeptical look Talvikki paused and turned to face him, “What do you mean?”
Ahiram turned around pointing southward. “I have a gauloi moored right there, you know.”
Talvikki stared at the great captain with her mouth open. It took a moment for the idea to sink in.
Her expression turned into a wide grin. “I think I may owe you an apology, Ahi.”