By Martin Owton
Art by Michael McClinton
From Black Gate 14, copyright © 2010 by New Epoch Press. All rights Reserved.
The smoke was the first sign we had; the smell of woodsmoke on the evening breeze. We left the carts of turf then and ran. The settlement was two miles away, hidden in a fold of the hills. Evening was deepening into night as we reached the drystone wall of the home field. Beyond it the embers still glowed where the big barn had been fired. Two of the cottages were smoking rubble heaps, two others still stood roofless, the thatch of the remaining one was scorched where the fire had failed to take hold. The stockade which had held the livestock was empty and the body of Anya’s mother Mairead lay before the gate, her blood staining the trampled earth.
We ran through the settlement calling for our loved ones, numbly, blindly, unable to accept the evidence before us. No voices answered though we cried out as loud as we could before we fell to weeping, the ten of us together, except for Aron. He stood apart taking in the scene then strode to the one intact cottage, which he had shared with Tomas and Tomas’s wife Nieve. He returned with two lanterns which he lit with the flint from the pouch he always carried, and handed one of them to Tomas.
“Everyone into the cottage, there’s nothing to be done out here,” Aron said softly, but with an authority it did not occur to me to question. Nodding to Nieve he said. “Get some food, we’re going to need it.” Taking the other lantern, he walked off into the dusk in the direction of the ruined barn.
We silently trooped into the cottage and packed into the main room, sitting where we could. Nieve roused the hearth fire which still smoldered in the grate and swung the cauldron over the heat. No-one spoke except Niall, he continued to bawl pitifully even though the rest of us were past tears. I felt they were all looking to me for leadership. After all, I had brought this collection of younger sons with no hope of inheriting land back here, to the fields and woods of our childhood. I had begged the tenancy of the farm, derelict for years since the civil war, from the Earl and supervised the rebuilding. But I felt paralyzed by the loss of Anya, unable to think of anything but my pain.
Aron returned with a large oilcloth bag in his arms; there was a powerful smell of the midden as he placed the bag beside the door. “More than a few of them, mounted. They drove the stock off north-west.”
“Into the wildlands,” I said. “But why? Who are they?”
“I would guess they’re headed for one of the passes through the mountains. That means they’re making for Keshan on the coast; there’s a market there for slaves as well as stock. Keshan’s been a pirates’ nest for generations, too tough a nut for anything less than the High King’s army. It’s the natural home for all the bandits and cut-throats in the west. I would guess they’ve been watching us for the last few days, did no-one see anything?” asked Aron evenly. There was a general shaking of heads. I’d heard of Keshan, but I hadn’t realised we were close enough to be in peril. I wondered if the Earl had known when he granted us the land. I supposed he must have done; we were the remotest of his holdings, the nearest to the wildlands.
“What about the Earl and his men?” asked Tomas.
“Too far away,” said Aron, his face grim. “Two days to his castle on foot, half a day’s ride back. They’ll be in the mountains by then.”
“We’ll never catch them then.” The despairing voice was Niall’s. His wife Caitlin had given birth to their firstborn two moons ago and she had stayed at the settlement while we had gone to get the turf in. “I’ll never see them again.”
“Not so, man. Think about it,” said Aron. “They have stock to drive and prisoners to ward. You’ve driven stock before, what distance can you make through the wildlands at night without scattering your profit from here to the river? No, they’ll make camp to feast and drink. The cider stock is gone, that’s our guarantee they’ll not be riding through the night.”
“How do we track them in the dark? We’ve no dogs, we’ve nothing to fight them with if we did find them, and the nearest help is too far away to be of use,” said Tomas, practical as ever even in the face of this crisis.
“Wrong again.” Aron picked up the reeking bag, untied the draw string around its mouth and gently drew forth its contents. A dozen or more standard army issue short swords lay on the beaten earth floor; each in a dark leather scabbard as long as my shin, protected from the moisture by a layer of grease. One was longer, its scabbard chased with silver.
“Where did those come from?” asked Tomas staring at Aron in surprise.
“From a past I thought I’d left behind,” Aron said and picked up the longer sword. His dark eyes and the silver threads in his hair gleamed in the lantern light; he and the sword seemed well matched. “I’d hoped I wouldn’t need this. Pass them out, Padraig.”
“We still have to find them,” I said reaching for a hilt.
“That indeed is more difficult, but there is some hope. Nieve, boil a kettle of water please,” Aron said and stepped through the doorway to the sleeping quarters.
I passed out the swords as Tomas searched for some rags to clean them. Everyone took one, even gentle Nieve, the tears in her eyes replaced by a look of cold determination as she cleaned the weapon.
Aron returned carrying a small leather pouch. He stepped around Nieve to look at the kettle. Lifting the lid he poured the contents of the pouch into the heating water.
We sat in silence as the water boiled, each cleaning their sword and staring into the fire. My mind was paralyzed as I rubbed at the blade. I could only think of Anya and what she might be suffering. I supposed everyone’s thoughts ran the same way. Aron took the boiling broth and filled nine mugs, which he passed around.
“Wait a while so it will not scald you, then drink it all and all of you together.”
I brought the mug towards my lips. The brew smelt like hot pond water or worse.
“Not yet,” Aron said sharply. “Wait till I give the word then drink it all, every last drop”. He bent to add more turf to the fire, building it up as if for a long evening.
“What’s in this?” asked Tomas cautiously.
“Dried mushrooms of a kind that grow on the open heathlands of the south. They open the doors of sight to those that have the gift.”
“And what good will that do us?” Niall said sharply. His voice sounded close to breaking.
“I don’t know, but it is all the hope I can give,” said Aron, ignoring the tone of Niall’s question. “Drink now and keep it all down.”
As I lifted the warm mug to my lips the smell of the brew made me gag. I took a deep breath and opened my throat to the disgusting fluid. My stomach rebelled and I nearly refilled my mug. By an act of will I swallowed and clamped my jaws shut. The stuff was worse than any of the herbs my grandmother had ever dosed me with as a child. Across the room Aiofe staggered to her feet and ran for the doorway, her hand over her mouth. The others were in similar difficulties, and when I could sit up and look around there was no-one who was not pale and sickly. Aron quickly passed a jug of clean water around and we all rinsed the filthy taste from our mouths.
“Make yourselves comfortable and sit quiet now, it will take a while to work,” Aron said as Aiofe returned shame-faced and tearful to sit beside Owain, her husband of less than a year.
I huddled down in a corner trying to force my mouth to forget the taste.
“What do you suppose that was?” whispered Tomas, who was sat beside me. “I have never tasted worse in my life and I have never seen Aron like this before. He has become a completely different man in the last hour.”
“He’s your cousin, you should know him if anyone does,” I replied.
“Second cousin. And I know less than you might think; I don’t even know how old he is. Older than me, but by how much? I never knew him as a child, he arrived for my grandfather’s funeral and I just fell in with him. Obviously he has fought and traveled, but who and where I don’t know. He rarely speaks of it, but I think he’s been to the Holy City. He had money aplenty, but I have never heard him mention a sweetheart. Other than that I would say the rest of you know as much.”
I thought then about the Aron I knew. Quiet and competent with an inner calm and though sorely tried by one thing or another, I had never seen him lose his temper. He was a good teacher of what he knew and an easily taught pupil. A staunch companion in the wild or the alehouse. It occurred to me that I had never once in the one and a half years he’d been at the settlement talked to him of things that he believed in or that mattered to him. It was while I thought about him that the ground seemed to fall away and, though I knew I sat on the packed earth, I felt a brief surge of vertigo. I lifted my head and the room seemed to be growing misty at the edges. Abruptly Aron was before me, looking sharply into my eyes as if he could see the mist filling them.
“It begins,” he said softly and then louder. “Join hands, form the circle.”
Aron caught my right hand, Tomas my left, and the others joined likewise until the circle was complete.
“Listen now, clear your minds and join the chant.” With that he began to chant in a low voice words that had no resemblance to any language I had ever heard. He repeated the phrase endlessly and, not understanding, we all joined with him, filling the room with the sound. The mist grew thicker as we chanted, Aron’s grip seeming the only point of contact with the world.
“Find them now.” Aron’s voice came through above the chant. “Fill your mind with them. Reach out to them. This is your land. You are one with it. Send your spirit outwards and let the earth bring you to them.”
I tried to picture Anya as I had last seen her, half a lifetime ago, this morning. Her dark hair and blue eyes, her soft hands and voice, reaching out through the mist.
I found something. Something touched me in the mist. A woman’s voice spoke to me in my mind.
“I have been waiting for you. Come with me.”
I left the room and the chant and stepped into the mist, following the voice. Outside the mist thinned, and I stood in the yard looking around. The familiar scene was lit by a directionless light that cast no shadows, like midday on a cloudy day. I walked away from the cottage and a figure clad in a bloody white smock walked towards me from the stockade, where the gate still swung on its hinges.
“Take my hand.” The figure reached out one slim hand and looked me full in the face. Mairead. I felt fear then for I knew she was dead.
“The blood they have spilled and the fear they bring leaves a trail. The land itself burns under their passing. I will bring you to them. Hurry, we have a long way to go,” said Mairead.
We began to run, Mairead and I, down the track away from the farm. The country went past as if we were riding a tireless, galloping horse. We turned north into the wide unsettled lands that lay between the farm and the mountains. We were in country I knew well, every tree and rock was utterly familiar from childhood. Mairead still clutched my hand and drew me on as the land flew by. We came to a wide river and turned westward.
“Searching for a ford.” Mairead’s soft voice whispered.
A dark-wooded hill loomed ahead as we followed the riverbank, swift as swallows. A plume of smoke rose before the wood and we made straight for it. The camp was inside a bend in the river. We slowed to walking pace as we approached. Large men, rough-haired and bearded, drank around a fire under a spitted sheep. We stood outside the circle. I counted ten warriors, then Mairead drew me away to where our prisoners lay in a small stand of trees. I looked for Anya and saw her huddled close to Caitlin who cradled her child desperately in her arms.
“Here is your enemy. Bring back my girleen and then I can rest with my man.”
Anya’s eyes opened at the sound of Mairead’s voice and she looked up at us in surprise.
“I can see them.” Niall’s voice jerked me abruptly out of the raiders’ camp, back to the cottage fireside.
“Where are they?” Aron’s voice.
“Under the trees,” answered Niall in a breathless whisper.
“Who’s there?” Aron again.
“All of them.”
“Look outwards, what can you see?” asked Aron.
“Still or running?”
“How many guard them?” asked Aron, an edge of urgency breaking into his voice.
“Ten, one of them is wounded.”
“Follow the water. Where does it flow?”
“It flows towards the setting sun,” Niall called out triumphantly. “It is the Greyswan’s stream, where it meets the North river.”
“Just below the ford. They’re at the edge of Peadar’s Wood camped in the big bend.” I spoke and my voice seemed to echo in my ears.
“Then we have them,” said Aron quietly
I tried to find Mairead; to return to the camp, but the contact was severed.
“Come back away from them Niall, follow the stream back through the woods,” said Aron. “Does anyone watch the path?”
“I’m coming back through the woods. It’s getting dark. I can’t see.”
“Where are you now?” asked Aron.
“There’s a clearing. I’m beside the burial mounds. I’m cold.” A shrill note entered Niall’s voice. “Why’s it cold? Aron? There’s something else here.”
Aron knelt beside Niall and caught his hands. “Niall, come back to us,” he called. “Wake up now.”
“It’s all around me. So cold.” Niall cried out, fear filling his voice. “I can’t breathe. Aaaah!”
His scream was cut off by the jugful of cold water that Aron sluiced over him, but the fear still shone in his eyes. He shivered in his chair as Aron awoke the others by the same method. I had no idea how long I had wandered in the mists, but the fire had burned down to a few embers.
“I reckon we have five hours of darkness left to us. That should be enough to get to them at dawn if we take the footpath over the hills and follow the Greyswan’s stream through the woods,” said Aron.
“Get us where?” asked Owain.
“Where the Greyswan’s meets the North river. In the elbow of the bend in the river.”
“How do you know that?” said Tomas.
“Niall and Padraig saw them in the mists,” said Aron.
“And you believe that?” said Tomas
“I have to. If I don’t believe it then I have no hope left.”
Tomas looked around at the rest of us, for support in his argument.
“Shut up Tomas,” said Nieve. “Shut up and clean your sword.”
There was silence for a moment as Aron waited to see if the argument was over. “Now we eat,” he said, “and then we run.”
The complete version of “The Mist Beyond the Circle”appears in Black Gate 14.