Talore turned at the sound of Cadda's voice. The village looked like another place, half-seen in the misty, early autumn morning. The cattle raiders had probably counted on being hidden. But now that his kinsman had shown him where to look, Talore could faintly see two tall men running between the steadings of the village toward the largest pasture. Cadda was after them like a hound after hares, and Talore followed him close behind.
The lowing and stamping of the cattle came to them as they cleared the last garth, and the mist was raveling away in the light of the rising sun. And there before them were not the two raiders they had seen, but another two, as well. The man closest to Cadda and Talore heard the thud of their approaching feet and swung around to meet them with his long knife drawn, but the others must have had their ears filled with the noise of the cattle that they were intent on stealing. Cadda knocked the knife aside with his buckler and thrust with his war spear. The man shouted as Talore leapt past him, and his companions turned around at last.
Talore plunged his own spear into the nearest raider's chest. He was so close that the thrust went deeper than he expected, and as the man gave a hoarse cry and fell to his knees, the spear was wrenched from Talore's grasp. From the corner of his eye, Talore saw another raider attacking him and swung his buckler up to meet the blow.
The force of the strike was so great that Talore was almost knocked backward. As the raider drew his arm back for a second blow, Talore realized that his foe was armed with a large ax rather than a spear or a sword. The buckler didn't feel right, and as Talore groped for the spear shaft with his right hand, the ax landed again, and clove the buckler in two.
Talore's shield arm felt numb. He dragged his spear out of the dying man and brought his arm back for a thrust, but the ax was already descending for a third time. Reflexively, he brought up his left arm, the remains of the buckler still hanging from the straps, and a blazing pain crushed him to his knees.
Cadda shouted behind him, and a spear suddenly appeared in the axman's chest. As Talore stared stupidly at his life's blood pumping out where his left hand should be, he was dimly aware of the sound of many approaching feet behind him, and more shouting. Someone's hand grasped his throbbing wrist, and the flow of blood all but stopped. Talore turned his head to see Cuthlyn staring at him, horror in his eyes, and that was the last thing he knew for some time.
At first, his waking moments were few, and he could barely remember what had happened. He could scarcely move, and it felt as though his left hand had been thrust into red-hot coals. Gradually, he was able to stay awake longer, and then he would remember, and know that the burning hand that he thought he felt was in truth no longer there at all. He wondered, once, what they had done with it: burned it like a dead man, buried it like unwanted offal? He had no wish to think of such things, and it was easy enough to flee into the darkness again.
But there came a day when oblivion would not claim Talore, although he kept his eyes shut as he listened to the soft, rhythmic thump of his wife Ria's loom and the sound of his eldest son Æsk scraping a bow stave or a spear shaft, the snap of the fire and the faint drip of a gentle rain outside the house-place. He opened his eyes at last to see his little son Isar watching him with a look of sad patience that did not belong on his young face. As Talore's eyes met his, the boy cried aloud, joyously, and leapt to his feet. "Mam! He's wakening!"
The weaving and the scraping stopped, and he heard Ria's soft footsteps coming toward the sleeping stall. It was too late to pretend that he was not awake.
Isar turned away and let Ria take his place by Talore's bed. "My husband!" she said, very softly, and clasped his right hand.
"How long -?" His voice was so rusty with disuse that no sound came out at first. "How long have I been ... asleep?"
"Nearly a moon. I was fearful ... ." She pressed his hand to her cheek. Her face looked thinner, and her bright brown hair was lank. Behind her, leaning against the wall, he could see his great bow, unstrung.
"Fearful," he said, dully.
"That you would not wake, my heart."
"Best perhaps if I had not."
Her hands, the two of them, closed on his one. "How can you say that?" she whispered.
"I was Talore the Hunter, and now I cannot draw that bow."
She bit her lip. "There ... there are throwing spears among your gear, too."
"What do you know of it?" he said, angrily. "This is the business of men, wife."
"Yes," she said, at last, releasing his hand, and he saw that she was weeping, although she had not made a sound. He was sorry then, and ashamed, for he had never spoken to her thus.
"Ria," he said, gently, and reached up to stroke her cheek. She smiled at him through her tears.
"You must eat. I have some broth - " and she was away to the hearth. Talore followed her with his gaze and saw all three of his lads, Æsk and Tam and Isar, watching him with worry and longing in their eyes. And he knew that he could not flee from his family and himself any longer.
"Come, now, the three of you: what have you been doing while I was away in the other world?"
They crept to his bedside and soon overwhelmed him with their chatter - even Æsk, who was trying so hard to act the man he would soon become in truth. He drank his broth, and listened, and finally fell into a sleep that was somehow less dark than the place he had been before.
The house-place was quiet with the hush of the new snowfall outside and the soft noises of the household within. Ria was spinning woolen thread, the spindle humming as it twirled at the end of the soft green strands of new yarn. Æsk was scraping and smoothing some bit of woodcraft, and his brothers were alternately working a couple of fox skins to soften them and playing at nine pegs, with the holes and lines scratched and dug in the floor by the fire. Talore's hounds yawned and scratched and loafed around the fire.
Talore was trying to fletch arrows. There seemed little reason to it - Æsk already made his own arrows, and his brothers used his cast-offs - but he had sometimes bartered arrows to other men for household goods that they could not make well themselves, and without his hunting the last few weeks, they had not many goods laid by for trade. It was usually a soothing task, but now, without any good way to hold the shaft firm, it was awkward, to say the least. Bracing the shaft under one thigh and across the other risked warping or breaking the thin wood.
Perhaps he should give this task over to Æsk. The lad was clever with his hands, like his mother. But next spring, Æsk would go to the Boys' House, and they would have to do without him for three years.
"Tam, come here," Talore said. "It's time you worked at something more skillful than stretching pelts."
Tam came, reluctantly. He was a skinny dragonfly of a boy, already proving to be a decent shot with his small bow but bad at sitting still, no matter whether it was to wait for a hare to settle or to work at the making of things.
The arrow-making lesson did not go well. Talore, clumsy with his one hand, had much less patience than he would have had even six months since, and Tam, restless with spending time within doors and the lack of the company of his friends from the village, had no mind for the delicate handiwork that the task required. The painstakingly smoothed arrow shaft snapped. Talore's good hand itched to fetch the boy a buffet across his scowling face, and he restrained himself. His household was already suffering enough from the lack of their master's usual livelihood, and he knew that temper would not help. "That is enough for now. Get you back to the pelts," he said, at last.
Æsk looked up and then rose to his feet. "Father, perhaps Tam could try again later. Look you - ." He came over to Talore's side with his work in his hands. It was an odd arrangement of lashed, glued, and pegged slats and bars. "Here. See, you sit on this portion, with the thing between your legs, and you can tie the arrow shaft to these bars - so, and so. And now ... ." Æsk handed him a thin string of sinew and pushed the basket of feather fletches and the glue pot over closer to his father's side.
The contraption had notches that held the arrow firmly enough while the thongs were tied to hold it in place. Even a one-handed man could manage. Talore found the end of the arrow was now at the perfect height for him to see and handle. His heart rose within him, but slowly and cautiously. If he dabbed the glue gently, laid the fletch on carefully, he would be able to wrap the sinew around and hold the feather firmly in place. His weight kept the frame firm as he worked. "I'll need a sheepskin," he said, at last.
Æsk looked worried. Talore smiled. "Your wonderful tool is less than wonderful on my backside. I would be sore and cross after fletching a single arrow, but with a folded sheepskin on top of it, I shall do well enough to fletch a dozen. I am a fortunate man, to have such a clever son!"
His eldest turned crimson and ducked his head. "I have also made these for you, Father ... ."
They were two beautifully balanced throwing spears. The shafts were almost perfectly straight and as smooth to the touch as a fine deerskin. Talore stood and hefted one and then the other. His body awoke to the movement, and his mind's eye could see the forest, and the deer feeding on twigs and tree bark in the snow. He placed the spears gently against the wall and turned to Ria, who was watching them from the corners of her eyes as she twined the thread. "Tomorrow, if the weather clears, we shall go hunting, Æsk and Tam and I."
"The fresh meat will be welcome," said Ria, setting aside the spindle. "And I, too, have something for you."
She pulled a bundle from one of the baskets against the wall. It proved to be a very soft, carefully tanned lambskin, and some flat deerhide straps, and an odd piece of wood, forked at one end and shaped to a blunt knob at the other. Ria carefully wrapped the lambskin over the enflamed mass of flesh that the ax and the healer's heated tools had made at the end of his left arm, and then bound the two ends of the fork firmly on each side of his forearm. When Talore held out his arms, the knob on the left was in line with his fingertips on the right. Ria's face was tight and closed as she looked at him. "Try to put on your shoes, my husband."
Talore looked into her worried eyes, and then he turned to where his shoes - unworn since the cattle raid - were neatly placed by the doorway. He reached out with the wooden knob, and snagged a shoe and brought it to him. He found he could hold the shoe in place with the knob and his right hand as he slipped his foot inside. He could even peg the end of the thong against the floor with the knob as he pulled the other end tight with his good hand. "Ria, I am doubly blessed, with a clever son and a wise wife. But I am thinking that the wound will become sore quickly."
"Just so," she said. "The lambskin will help, but you will have to use this ... crutch for but a short time at first. I pray that the wound will heal and your arm become accustomed to it. It seems to me that there could be a better way to do this thing, but whatever it is, it has not come to me yet."
"So - this will do for now. Talore will be a hunter once more."
And Tam and Isar cheered.
The darkest night of the year had come and departed. The weather had become cold and blustery, sometimes with falls of snow. The days were slowly growing longer, the lambs had been born, and the earliest buds were forming on the branches of the trees. Now Talore's household had pelts in store - not as many as in earlier years, but still enough to trade for pots and barley meal and more and finer cloth than Ria could weave, and for bronze spearheads and hunting arrow points. There were sheafs of arrows for use and for trade, and there was deer meat or rabbit or mutton in the stew pot at night, and the misery that had stalked the family through the last few months was all but gone.
Talore, fresh from the hunting trail, unbound the straps that held the latest wooden "hand" to the stump that was left from the raider's ax. The actual wound was finally healing, leaving a shiny mass of crumpled flesh behind. His forearm was roughened and sore with the weals of the thongs, despite the latest soft lambskin bought from the Half People for a fine deerskin. This was the fourth such hand that Ria and Æsk had made for him, and Talore was beginning to think that the things would never last more than a moon or so, and that he would never be free of one sort of pain or another in that arm. There was only so much that could be done, and he counted himself fortunate that he could at least provide once more for those at his hearth and that he had three sons to do the work of the scraping and smoothing and tanning of the hides.
Ria looked up from her corn grinding and smiled. She laid aside the grindstone and fetched out something small from one of her baskets. "My soul, I have a thought."
"What, then?" said Talore, and held out his good hand.
She dropped into it the small bone hook that she used to pull threads into place in her weaving, along with a necklet that he had bought her from a traveling smith the year before. The ornament was a small oval of bronze set with a red carnelian stone cunningly incised with the shape of a blossom, and it hung from a thin, strong thong dyed black, with a hooked clasp of bronze. Ria pointed at the hooked portion. "See, husband, how the bronze wire that makes the hook has also been wrapped around the end of the thong, and this knot stops the coil from slipping off. Think you that the smith could make a much larger such hook, with its tail set to wrap about your arm? The scarred flesh would be the knot. Then you could use the hook as I use my little bone here. It would not wear out like the wood you have been using, and the tail could be bent and shaped to the form of your arm. And I could trim and stitch the lambskin beneath to fit closer to you, as well."
Talore looked, and thought. "It would take much metal to make such a thing. I think it would be best of copper, for bronze would not wrap my arm so closely and well."
"We have pelts and hides in plenty."
"I had meant to get you a copper pot with the finest of those, wife."
"I had much rather this new hand for you than any number of copper pots, my heart."
"So be it," said Talore. "I will speak with Kian next morning." And he took her in his good arm and hugged her to him so that their bones creaked.
It was the spring of the year, with birds singing and nesting, cow parsley blooming along the byways and bluebells in the woods, and fresh greens and eggs cooking at the hearths of the Golden People and the Half People alike. Now the work of the households could move outdoors to make the most of the long days, and sometimes the people sang or whistled at their work, reveling in the warmth of the sun and the twin festivals of the New Spears and Beltane to come.
Talore was working at the straps of his new bronze-faced bull-hide shield. The thing was large and heavy and sturdy enough for him to hold it with his feet and legs, and only occasionally did Æsk need to come over, silently, from where he was working at cutting a deer hide into thongs, and help his father rearrange the great shield and its furnishings. The cunning snake of copper that wound around Talore's forearm did its part of the work again and again, and with a start, Talore realized that he had been working for the best part of the afternoon without even thinking of thing - as though it were truly becoming a part of him.
"So, you are here," said Cuthlyn, standing at the edge of the steading with the track to the village behind him.
Talore look up and smiled. "Here am I, and you are welcome, Cuthlyn son of Ebur."
"I have a thing to ask of you, Talore the Hunter."
"Come you and sit, then, and we will speak. Ria, wife ... ."
Ria slipped off to the house-place and returned with a jar of buttermilk, which she offered to the guest. Cuthlyn drank deeply and passed the jar to Talore. "You know that my young brother Urical is finishing his days in the Boys' House. He has hunted with you and your lad Æsk many and many a time this winter past."
"He has, and he is wise in the ways of the wild for one of his years."
"Could you find it in your heart to stand with me beside my brother when he becomes one of the New Spears, seven days hence?"
"You ask this, even so?" said Talore, and held out the hook at the end of his left arm.
"I saw how that came about," said Cuthlyn, "And Kian has made a cunning job of your new ... hand. But you are the one who has done the work of becoming again all that you were - and more, I say. It is thus that I come to ask you, for now that our father has gone, Urical could have no better example for his life to come."
Talore felt his heart swell within him, and he rose to his feet, and picked up his shield with his snake of copper, and slipped it onto his left arm with one swift movement. Then he took his great war spear in his right hand and thumped its butt on the ground between himself and Cuthlyn. "Then on that day, Talore the Hunter will be proud to stand beside you and your brother!"
And Æsk grinned proudly, and Ria smiled as though she might never weep again, because Talore was whole once more.