Here once stood a lofty idol, that saw many a fight, whose name was the Cromm Cruach; it caused every tribe to live without peace.
He was their god, the wizened Cromm, hidden by many mists: as for the folk that believed in him, the eternal Kingdom beyond every haven shall not be theirs.
For him ingloriously they slew their hapless firstborn with much wailing and peril, to pour their blood round Cromm Cruach.
--From the Metrical Dindsenchas, poem 7
By the time the long twilight of the northern summer had descended, Talan’s men were loading slaves and ingots of silver onto their ships. After six summers of taking back what had been taken from him, Talan found the ice-born had not improved the defenses of their villages in the least. No more than stockade fences and miners with pikes protected their silver, which Talan found easily, buried in an obvious souterrain.
The head of the jarl who had ruled this place hung beside the door to his hall, little more than a clapboard barn with carved beams and a sod roof. A trestle table filled the center of the room and servants wailed and wept as they served smoked salmon to Talan and his chieftains.
“They left the door wide open,” he said to Pyrs, and handed him a bowl of honey-creamed cloudberries.
“Are they so ignorant?”
“I’d not count the ice-born among the ignorant,” Pyrs replied. “Stubborn perhaps, but not ignorant.”
The sound of soldiers taking what they wished from the village drifted with the smoke about the high rafters of the hall. Women’s screams, goats’ bleats, impossible to tell one from the other.
“Perhaps they thought your vengeance was sated after last summer.” The voice belonged to Maygan, Talan’s solás. She asked, “How much more do you need to be satisfied?”
Talan’s solás, his druí advisor and conscience these past six years, spoke with the voice of the land, as if she knew what the gods of the Five Quarters wanted of him. Her ash gray eyes were locked on his, and he knew ignoring her was not an option. Her plain face was set upon a weak neck, her mouth, a pale gash above a receding chin. Before he had become king, he had imagined that his solás would be a woman of uncommon beauty, uncommon wit and wisdom, one to be lusted after the way Nechtan had wanted Lyleth. There was magic in that desire; there’s magic in all desire. Yet Maygan surely wielded no magic at all.
“We have peace through strength,” Talan said. “Isn’t that right, Pyrs?” He clapped a greasy hand on the shoulder of the chieftain who sat beside him. “Our people prosper as never before. Tell Maygan, Pyrs. Do you wish to stop this retribution we serve to the very people who enslaved our own but six short years ago?”
Pyrs was still a handsome man, though past his prime, golden-haired, unscarred, and broad in the shoulders. It had been difficult to win his allegiance, for he had been Nechtan’s closest ally and friend. They had both subscribed to their own lofty code of honor which had left their lands in ruin. But Talan had offered Pyrs the chance for vengeance, the taste of which brings such sweet satisfaction that it seduces even the most deluded and honorable, Pyrs among them.
“We are in the right to take what was taken from us,” Pyrs agreed. “But Maygan speaks some truth, my lord. The score was likely evened some time ago.”
“And now we sow the seeds of pure hatred among the ice-born,” Maygan said. “We’ve paid our debt of pain. Now we take for the sake of taking.” She never had the presence required of her position, the commanding aura of one who spoke with the authority of the green gods. She said, “Soon they will seek their own vengeance on us.”
“Blood makes us strong, blood is our song, blood is our past, blood binds us fast.”
It was the voice again, screaming inside Talan’s skull—probably spilling out from between his lips. By the looks of the faces at the table, it had taken his tongue and screamed the verse aloud. The voice came from the little man who had burrowed deep inside him and now he wasn’t sure if it was Talan or the little man who had spoken. The creature had been so quiet for so long, Talan hoped he had left him.
Maygan gave him a horrified look, and the chatter of his captains down the table ceased and all stared at him.
“Words of the Old Blood,” Maygan said. “Do you feel unwell, my lord?”
He could not be unwell. Not in front of his chieftains. “Weary,” he whispered, then clamped his mouth shut for fear something else would spill out.
He stood and navigated a path through the men who crowded the hall, pouring ale down their throats to nourish their own little men, those voices that make the decisions for each one-- the puppeteer that draws the bow, that swings the sword, that rapes the girl in the village square, because this is war and war forgives all.
Seeking a place to rest, Talan found his way to the jarl’s personal quarters where he found a treasure of silver bowls, combs, ewers, and an effigy of a god with a single red stone for his one eye. He picked up a silver mirror and opened his mouth wide, searching for those ember eyes. But the little man hid in his gullet.
He heard Maygan enter the room. Come to taunt him some more, or force her soporifics down his throat to quiet the little man. Like a crow harassing a hawk.
He picked up the crude sculpture of the one-eyed god, saying, “Why did this god fail the jarl? He clearly abandoned him in his hour of need.”
When she did not reply, he went on, “Or perhaps the god was usurped by another, a younger god who wielded powers far greater than those of the old. Isn’t that the way of gods? Just like men, they fall to the stronger ones who come after. Just like Nechtan fell to my spear.”
He turned to look at her. There was no shock on her face. She didn’t even humor him with a look of fear. Of course, she knew that Talan had killed his uncle. Didn’t everyone? Yet no one cared, for Talan had brought peace through strength. He had brought them a king who could not die, a king who would rule forever. His fingers absently touched his neck, the scar left by an ice-born axe that should have taken his life.
Maygan looked at her hands and swallowed hard. “The green gods allowed you to take the throne, my lord. Without their will, you would not have succeeded.” But her words lacked conviction.
“What gods will usurp your green gods, Maygan?”
“It is not my place to predict the future for my gods. Let me mix you a draught.” She reached for a silver cup and pulled a pouch from her belt. The sum total of the magic she knew lay in some crushed weeds.
He batted the cup across the room. “Your gods are powerless, sister greenleaf. Others stir. You feel them. You sense them. You hear the voice of the little man, but claim to be deaf. I know you hear him.”
He felt a surge of hope that she understood, that she wasn’t as useless as he’d thought. He gripped her hands and placed them on his chest. “Feel him. He’s singing his blasted tune. His wailing drives me mad. Do you feel his voice shake my ribs? Look.”
He opened his mouth wide and forced her to peer into his throat. It’s where the little man lived. And he was awake again, his commands could not be ignored.
“Do you see him?” he cried.
Her eyes were round and full of tears. She shook her head and tried to draw her hands away. But he held them.
“Let me go, my lord!”
“You must feel him! You must cut him out of me! Here—here,” he fumbled to take his dagger from his belt.
“Take my blade. Cut him out!”
But it fell from her weak hand and clattered to the floor. Worthless bitch. Worthless leaf from a worthless tree.
The back of his hand landed on her cheek and knocked her to the floor.
“Please, my lord,” she begged. “You’re troubled, your senses deceive you.”
She’s a pathetic kneeler, the little man said aloud. She’s unworthy of her title, unworthy of our trust.
Maygan clung to his legs. “My lord, I have served you with all of my being--”
He crouched over her, clutching the silver statue of the ice-born god. “Then. Why. Have. You. Failed?”
Talan felt tears sting his eyes. What was he doing? A searing heat rose from his gut and flooded his limbs. The little man clawed his way to his tongue and screamed, “The green gods will fall!”
The silver statue felt ice cold in his hand. He tried to drop it. But that was not the action written upon the skin of time. He knew what he must do. If he did not, the sun would not rise. The little man had been clear about it.
She made no move to defend herself. Talan hammered her skull with the silver god. He fought to step away, but his feet had grown to the floor. His body was not his own.
When she lay in a pool of blood, the little man laughed. He wasn’t laughing at Maygan, but at Talan.
The little man touched the blood. Tasted it. He rewarded Talan with a wave of ecstasy that coursed through his flesh.
The little man whispered with Talan’s lips, “You will find another solás, one who has the ear of a new god.”
Talan crumpled to the floor beside his solás. How would he ever be free of this beast inside?
After the hall had fallen quiet but for the soft sobbing of the women, Talan carried Maygan’s body to the shore in a sack. There, he sent her to the bottom of the fjord. An offering to a new god, one of Talan’s own making.
In the morning, he would set a course for the Isle of Glass. For there, Lyleth had given birth to Nechtan’s child. Talan’s little cousin. The Child of Death.