“That’s one mother of a splinter,” Balfour turned the sliver of wood over in his hands. Sharp as a boar tusk and almost as long it still wore the rusty stains of Nessa’s misadventure.
Settling in by a sizzling peat fire on a cold winter night, the hulking ironsmith considered his charges. Young and untried it is true, but still, merry and game to test themselves at challenges well beyond their abilities. He chuckled to himself at the various cruelties he had inflicted on them over the past year. If it were a gesa to laugh at your own jokes then Balfour would have been flayed apart by redcaps long ago.
The giant lad, Morwynne, would no doubt make a fierce warrior. Only 8 and already as tall as some of the men in Dachaigh. Yes, that boy would strike terror into enemies with half an ounce of sense. To top it off he had a madness for the forge like Balfour had never seen before. Any chance he got he was underfoot asking questions about this or that tool, burning his fingers on the tongs, or stealing a glimpse of molten iron coming out of the crucible.
By contrast Ceildh was a bleeding nuisance. Always disappeared when you wanted her, frolicking with some shepherds flock coming into town, or teaching the cats in Dachaigh to leap from the thatching and catch birds. Teaching cats! How do you even do that? And when you didn’t want her then you couldn’t escape her sharp wit or her collection of small vermin. One night Balfour found a tamed vole in his bed. He had a lot of work to do with that one unless she turned out like one of the fair folk in the stories leading an army of wild creatures into battle like the tide of fur before a forest fire.
Tormey and Tierman were like two halves of a walnut. You never saw those two apart from each other. They swore to the whole village that they were twins taken from the same mother though anyone with one eye could plainly tell this was a fantasy. Tormey was short and ginger and covered in freckles. Tierman was gangly and fair with raven hair. It was no sense spoiling their fun, though. “The Twins” as everyone had taken to calling them were not possessed of any outstanding talent except their fierce loyalty to each other and willingness to keep trying at whatever task was set them. Once in a while Balfour would set them an impossible task just for his own amusement.
Of all the children Meric was the one Balfour knew to be most dangerous. A congenial boy, already a hearty drinker, and a fun lad to have on a hunt, Meric could make you like him easy. Behind all that charm though was a mind like a razor cutting to the heart of any problem, finding your weakness, applying pressure… Meric seemed to know things he had no right to, like details of private conversations, but Balfour never caught him snooping. One day he’d be a good man to have on your side, and a disaster to have pitted against you.
Surly little Iain amused Balfour with his perpetual glower and impertinent tongue. Poor boy never met a joke he could master though he was the butt of more than a few. None of it fazed him though. He was lost in his own world – which sometimes included getting lost in this world. Balfour had yet to figure out where the boy was wandering off to, which was hardly the only mystery to wee Iain. One morning before dawn Balfour stepped outside to piss and caught the lad crossing a rope strung between the ridgepoles of two huts. Foot over foot like a squirrel. Balfour never told the boy he’d seen him. He just pondered this while trying to find some way to get him to crack a smile.
Lastly, Nessa, she of the giant splinter. Was there ever a girl destined to crush more egos than that one? She never turned down a dare, and she rarely failed to pull off a stupid stunt that she attempted; even if it meant dragging her bloody limbs back for Cerridwen or Cathmor to tend. Nessa could already knock the air out of Balfour with a punch. She could hurl a spear or an axe and when one of the fourteeners while sparring called her a sow in heat she cracked him over the skull with her wooden sword so hard it snapped like a twig under a heavy snow.
Each one warmed Balfour’s guts like a good mead. They were hard kids like only Clan Brus could grow, but noble ones. They would learn to love the land, to love their people, and they would fight with the ferocity of starving wolves against whatever threatened the safety of the Northern clans. He had no doubt he’d be proud of who they became. His only doubt came from something Cathmor had whispered to him at the festivities of Samhain.
“The way is closing. They will open it again, or they will be the last.”