Heroes of the valley, p.1
Table of Contents
By the Same Author
Map of the Valley
Heroes Of The Walley
Part I Chapter 1
Part II Chapter 7
Part III Chapter 14
Part IV Chapter 23
Also by Jonathan Stroud
The Last Siege
The Bartimaeus Trilogy
The Amulet of Samarkand
The Golem's Eye
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HEROES OF THE VALLEY
A DOUBLEDAY BOOK
978 0 385 61401 6 (hardback)
978 0 385 61402 3 (trade paperback)
Published in Great Britain by Doubleday,
an imprint of Random House Children's Books
A Random House Group Company
This edition published 2009
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Copyright © Jonathan Stroud 2009
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For Jill and John, with love
Arnkel Arbiter of the House
Astrid Lawgiver of the House
Leif Their elder son
Gudny Their daughter
Halli Their younger son
Brodir Arnkel's brother
Katla Halli's nurse
Hord Arbiter of the House
Olaf His brother
Ragnar Hord's son
Ulfar Arbiter and Lawgiver of the House
Aud His daughter
Showing the Twelve Houses of the Heroes
LISTEN THEN, and I'll tell you again of the Battle of the Rock. But none of your usual wriggling, or I'll stop before I've begun.
In those early years after the settlers came, the Trows infested the whole valley from Riversmouth to High Stones. After dark, not a home, not a byre, not a stable was safe from them. Their tunnels honeycombed the fields and went under the farmers' doors. Each night saw cows taken from the pastures and sheep from off the slopes. Men walking late were snatched under within sight of home. Women and babies were dragged from their beds; in the morning, their blankets were found half-buried in the earth. No one knew where the Trows' holes might open next, or what might be done.
To begin with the people of each House paved their farms with heavy granite slabs – hall, stable, yards and all – so that the Trows could not break through, and they circled the buildings with high stone walls, and posted guards upon them. This improved matters. But at night the fingers of the Trows could still be heard tap-tap-tapping below the floorstones, searching for weaknesses. It was not a pleasant situation.
Now, for some years Svein had been in his prime, the greatest hero of the valley. He had slain many Trows in single combat, as well as ridding the roads of outlaws, wolves and other menaces. But not everyone had his prowess and he thought it was time to do something about the problem once and for all.
So he called the other heroes together one day in midsummer. All twelve met on a meadow midway along the valley, near where Eirik's House is now, and to begin with there was much bristling of beards and flexing of shoulders, and every hand was on its sword-hilt.
But Svein said, 'Friends, it's no secret we've had our differences in the past. My leg is scarred, Ketil, where your spear-point struck, and I fancy your backside still aches where I shot that arrow. But today I propose a truce. These Trows are getting out of hand. I suggest we stand together and drive them from the valley. What about it?'
As you'd expect, the others coughed and hummed and looked in every direction but at Svein. At last Egil stepped forward. 'Svein,' said he, 'your words are like an arrow-bolt in my heart. I'll stand with you.' And one by one, motivated perhaps by shame as much as by bravery, the others did likewise.
Then Thord said, 'That's all very well, but what's in it for us?'
Svein said, 'If we vow to protect the valley, it henceforth belongs to us for ever more. How's that sound?'
The others said that would do very nicely.
Then Orm said, 'Where shall we make our stand?'
'I know the very place,' said Svein, and he led the way to where a great rock rose from the meadow, tilted on its side in the wet earth. Heaven knows how it got there; it's half again as big as a farmhouse, as if a piece of the cliffs above the valley had been snapped off by a giant and tossed into the field for fun. This stone lies aslant so that it rises like a ramp from the field. The lower portion is covered in grass and moss, but the higher parts are bare. A coppice of pine trees grows about it, and one or two trees are even balanced on the rock itself. It was the Wedge then, but they call it Battle Rock now. Gatherings at Eirik's House are held there. You'll see it one day.
Svein then said, 'Friends, let our next action, which summons the Trows, also bond us, so that we protect each other as best we can.'
Then they drew their swords and each one cut another's forearm, so that their blood dripped upon the earth at the base of the great stone. The sun was just g
'That's good timing,' Svein said. 'Now we wait.'
The men stood there, side by side along the rock's base, staring out across the fields.
It so happened that the stone walls around the Houses had been very successful at keeping the Trows out, so that famine gnawed in their bellies and made them desperate for the meat of men. When they smelled the spilled blood in the earth, they came hastening from far away. But to begin with the men heard nothing.
After a while Svein said, 'These Trows are getting sluggish. We'll catch our death of cold standing here all night.'
And Rurik said, 'The women will have drunk the kegs dry by the time we get home. This weighs on my mind.'
And Gisli said, 'This field of yours, Eirik, is really very bumpy. We should do you a favour and till it for you, once we've killed the Trows.'
Just then they heard a faint, persistent noise, a scratchy sort of hum. It came from underground and all around them.
'That's good,' Svein said. 'I was getting bored.'
While they had been waiting, the moon had come out over Styr's Widow (which is the mountain with the hump peak you can see from Gudny's window), and it shone its light full on the ground. And all across the field they could see the nettles and tussocks shaking as the Trows passed beneath them, tearing through the soil. Soon every inch of ground on that great field was settling and shifting back and forth as if it were water. But the men had their boots on solid rock and stood steady, though they did move back a pace.
Then Gisli said, 'That's one job we don't have to do, after all. Eirik's field is going to be nicely tilled before the night's over.'
But that was one comment too many for Gisli. Just as he spoke, the ground at his feet exploded with a shower of earth and a Trow rose out, grabbed him by the neck with its long thin hands, and pulled him down onto his knees in the mud of the field. Then it bit his throat out. Gisli was so surprised he didn't say anything.
With this, the moon went behind a cloud and the men were blinded.
They took another step back in the darkness, holding their swords in front of them, and listening to Gisli's body thrashing on the ground. A minute went by.
And all at once the sound of digging rose from a hum to a mutter to a roar, and all along the base of the tilted rock the Trows burst forth, spattering the men with soil and reaching with their clasping fingers. Svein and the rest stepped back again, a little way up the rock, for they knew that Trows are weakened when they no longer touch the earth. And soon they heard the claws clicking on the stone.
Then – blinded as they were – they swung their swords mightily and had the satisfaction of hearing several heads go bouncing down upon the rock. But as the dead Trows fell, new ones erupted from the churned muck of the field, and still more came pressing behind them, snapping their teeth and stretching out their thin, thin arms.
Little by little the line drew back up the slope, fighting all the way. The sides of that rock are steep and cliff-like, yet the Trows clambered up them even so. The hero Gest, who was standing at one end of the line, stepped too close to the edge; the Trows grasped his ankle and pulled him off, down into the boiling horde. He wasn't seen again.
By now the remaining ten were weary, and most of them were wounded. They had retreated almost to the top of the rock, above where the pine trees grow, and they knew that somewhere close behind was a precipice dropping to the field. But still the Trows pressed at them, teeth snapping, claws slashing, crooning with hunger.
'Now,' Svein said, 'it would be pleasant to have a little light, if only so we could wake up and fight properly. I've been dozing all this time, and the rest has done me good.'
Even as he spoke, the moon came out at last from behind the clouds and shone harshly on the scene. It did so as if in answer to Svein's words, which is why, to this day, we of his line all wear clothes of silver and black.
And in that first flash of moonlight, all was revealed: the great rock rising, its slope choked black with the bodies of the Trows; the field itself, a waste of pits and holes through which the enemy still came; the summit of the rock, not ten paces from the precipice, where ten bloodied men still held their ground.
'Friends,' Svein said then, 'it is midsummer. The night will not last for ever.'
And with that, all ten gave a great cry and redoubled their efforts joyfully, and not one of them took another step back towards the edge of that cliff.
* * *
Dawn came; the sun rose over the sea. And with the light, the people of the nearby House, who had lain awake all night trembling in their beds, unlocked the gates and ventured into the fields. It was silent now.
They picked their way across the field, among the pits and holes, and when they got to the base of the rock they found the Trows' bodies piled there like chaff.
Then they looked up and seemed to see twelve men standing high above them on the rock, though the dawn rays shone so strongly along the valley that it was hard to be sure. So they climbed up eagerly, only to find, right at the very top, ten dead men lying slumped together in a line, their eyes unseeing, their hands still warm upon their swords.
So! That is the story, and the truth of it. Since that day no living Trow has dared enter the valley, though still they watch us hungrily from above.
Now pass me that beer and let me drink. My throat is parched.
SVEIN WAS A BABY when he came to the valley with the settlers. They'd been so long in the mountains, the sun and snow had burned their faces black. When they came down at last among the sweet green forests, they stopped to rest in a quiet glade. Baby Svein sat in the grass and looked about him. What did he see? Sky, trees, his parents sleeping. Also a great black serpent, winding from behind a log, fangs drawn back to strike his mother's throat. What did he do? He reached out his little hands and caught the snake by its tail. When his parents woke they saw Svein grinning at them, a throttled serpent hanging like rope between his fists.
Svein's father said: 'This portent's clear enough. Our son shall be a hero. When he's old enough, he shall have my sword and silver belt, and with them he shall never lose a battle.'
Svein's mother said: 'The valley will belong to him. Let's build our farm here. It's a place of luck for us.'
So it was. The other settlers spread about the valley, but our House, first and greatest, was built right here.
Halli Sveinsson was born shortly after noon one midwinter's day, when snow clouds hung low over Svein's House and the skirts of the hills could not be seen. In the very hour of his birth the drifts piled so high against the old Trow walls that a portion of them collapsed. Some people said this was a portent of great good in the boy, others of great evil; the man whose pigs the wall crushed had no opinion either way, but wanted recompense from the child's parents. He sought arbitration on the matter at the Gathering the following year, but the case was thrown out as unproven.
When he was older, Halli's nurse, Katla, drew his attention to the date of his arrival in the world. She clucked and whistled through her nose at the sinister implications. 'It is a dangerous day, midwinter,' she said as she tucked him tight into his cot. 'Brats born then have an affinity with dark and secret things, with witchcraft and the promptings of the moon. You must be careful not to listen to this side of your nature, else it will lead without fail to your death and the destruction of your loved ones. Aside from that, dear Halli, there is nothing to worry about. Sleep well.'
Despite the raging snowstorm, Halli's father took the blood and bits from the midwife as soon as the cord was cut, and set out up the hill. After a climb that left him frostbitten in three fingers, he reached the cairns and threw the gift beyond the stones for the Trows to feed on. It was considered that they must have liked what they ate because from the first the baby drank lustily at the breast. He grew fat and thrived, and the black creep did not touch him all that winter. He was the first of Astrid's children to live since Gudny's birth three years before, a
In the spring Halli's parents held a feast to celebrate the latest in Svein's line. The cradle was set out upon the dais in the hall and the people shuffled past to pay their respects. Arnkel and Astrid sat together on the Law Seats and accepted the birth-gifts, the offerings of skins, cloth, carved toys and pickled vegetables, while little Gudny stood stiff and silent at her mother's side, her blonde hair immaculately braided into a dragon's tail. Halli's older brother Leif, heir to the House and all its lands, ignored the proceedings; he played with the dogs under the table, fighting with them for scraps.
Cradle-side comment was loudly complimentary, but at the corners of the hall, where Eyjolf and the servants had stacked the beer kegs, and the lantern smoke coiled thickly, opinions were less sure.
'The baby is a peculiar-looking creature.'
'There is nothing of his mother in him.'
'More to the point, nothing of his father. I see more of his uncle there.'
'A Trow is more likely! Astrid cannot abide Brodir; that's no secret.'
'Well, the boy has life in him, all the same. Listen to him cry!'
As Halli grew, his distinctiveness did not diminish. His father, black-maned Arnkel. was broad in shoulder and sinewy in limb, a tall, commanding presence in the hall and fields. His mother, Astrid, had fair tresses and the pinkish skin of her kin down-valley; she too was tall and slender, with a beauty strange and disquieting among the dark-haired people of Svein's House. Leif and Gudny mirrored their parents in miniature: both were considered slim, graceful and easy on the eye.
By contrast, Halli was from the first short in leg and broad in back, a cumbersome stump of a boy, with hands like ham joints and a low, swinging gait. His skin was swarthy even by the standards of men bred among the mountains. With a small snubbed nose, a defiant, protruding chin and wide-spaced eyes alive with curiosity, he glared out at the world from under an unruly mess of thick black hair.