But then the war came.
The island had never been more than a collection of homesteads, somewhere the young could be raised and the old could retire to; but the call of the sea was still strong in their blood. The restless leapt at the chance to answer the tug of the waves to explore far off lands and left to aid in defending Vanut territory. Marion’s two eldest daughters were among them. Of the few adults without children that remained, Courtney was one. He had married once; but as luck would have it, opposites attract, and that wanderlust was irresistible to her. June had become his wife when they were just nineteen and had left to explore the world the very next morning. Courtney had only seen her once or twice since then and only briefly before she set out on the next adventure – but the arrangement suited him well, and he was satisfied. As Courtney was married to his land and his pigs, so was June to the ebb and flow of the tides.
The Vanut controlled the sea; although, in their minds, they belonged to it. They had no investment in the war to begin with, but their southern borders merged with Threta’s waterways and their scattered archipelagos proved the best crossing ground to reach the Níurian continent to the west. The Threcian Emperor was convinced that the people of his nation were a superior breed and had always been unwelcoming towards foreign visitors and trade – but never before had he ventured fangs beyond his borders. Some even whispered that he had gone mad. Threcian troops had begun to raid any Vanut settlements that they encountered on their way to wage war against the people of Níur, killing, enslaving and torturing as they did so.
The Vanut had never had an army. They were explorers at heart, large, nomadic family tribes with a shared culture, and lacked any form of concrete government. The closest thing they had was a council of Elders: Shamans and Matrons both, who were those closest to their deity Vahn, Vanut, the sea. Each tribe was self-governed and headed by a chieftain, and a man could earn the right to become a chieftain through fathering children. There were female chieftains too, although less common, and they could earn the title through other accomplishments.
As individual tribes stepped up to defend their homes and families, others moved to the front lines. Guerrilla factions formed and picked away at the Threcian troops who tried their luck at crossing or offered their aide to the Níurian people. Courtney imagined that his wife June would be out there in the thick of it. He was unconcerned, though; she could handle herself. Meanwhile, he contented himself with the pigs.
It was the height of summer when the raiders came. They were unprepared. The island was far to the northwest, and not on any route that the Threcian troupes travelled, but they were getting bolder in their advances. Courtney was in the hills with some of Marion’s younger children as the sun began a lazy descent towards the horizon. They started the trek home with stomachs rumbling, but still in high spirits. Ahead of Courtney the eldest child, Martin, froze as he crested a rise.
“What is it lad?” Courtney called to him, adjusting the sleepy seven-year-old on his back. She was the youngest among them now.
“Metal…” the boy replied uncertainly.
Sure enough, as Courtney joined him and squinted at the sea below, he saw them too. Four long, steel vessels glinted dully as they approached the island. His heart stopped but he could not show it. Martin, a few days away from his twelfth birthday, was old enough to understand. He shared a worried glance with his uncle.
“Do you remember the cave near the fishing pool?” he asked them, a little more sharply than he had intended. “The one you have to swim to?”
They all nodded. Courtney lowered his niece from his back and pressed her hand into Martin’s. The boy was trembling. He paused for a moment to grip his shoulder comfortingly.
“Take them there,” he told his nephew. “Do not show yourselves to anyone but myself or your mother. Do you understand?”
Martin nodded once, firmly. Courtney pulled his knife from his belt and gave it to him.
“Just in case – and only to defend.”
He watched them depart back in the direction that they had come, ensuring that they were on their way, and then took off at a run towards the coast. Courtney was a large man, a lifetime of wrestling pigs and working the fields adding heavy muscle to his frame, but he was not accustomed to running. Heavy footfalls left deep imprints in the green turf as he fought between pacing himself and the urge to sprint harder – he could not afford to arrive exhausted if there was fighting to be done, but nor could he bear to be too late. He pressed onward, ignoring the burn in his legs.
Marion’s homestead was a little way away from the coast, but faint screams already rose from the shoreline as he arrived. A few people had emerged from their homes and their evening meals to investigate – and Courtney bellowed at them as he passed.
“Threcian warships!” he cried in warning. “Arm yourselves if you can, or flee!”
He drew to a halt as he reached the small square that marked the centre of the collection of homesteads. A few small workshops and shop fronts bordered the area, and at the far end was an open-topped tower – the signal tower. Drawing deep, heaving breaths, he paused. The signal fire had not yet been lit, and the sounds of slaughter were growing ever closer. Marion’s homestead was still a short distance away. He cursed quietly under his breath. The rest of the island must be warned. Lighting the fire atop the tower would surely draw them uphill towards him, though, and he was still unarmed. After another moment of deliberation, he approached the empty blacksmith’s shop. There were farming tools mostly, hung from the walls, but upon the anvil rested a heavy headed hammer. Yes – a hammer would do nicely. There was not a huge difference between human and pig anatomy, he thought, and the blunt head would cave the Threcian’s steel armour where a blade would fail to pierce it. He grasped the unfamiliar tool tightly and made directly for the tower.
Marion was a fierce, sensible woman. She would know to flee at the first sign of danger. And, despite his intense worry, the signal fire must be lit.