The moors, 1020
The moors were an uninviting, unforgiving place. Every reed and blade of grass stood still, glaring at the world. Its evocative staleness doused all welcome, while its brown slush sported unwanted surprises- quick sand, fathomless bogs, poisonous bugs, mosquitoes and snakes. Its oozing grime suffocated its occupants, the heated stink of it making it almost unbearable during the daytime. Each part of it seemed designed to ward off intruders, to tell all living creatures that they were warned. And yet there was a serenity that lay in the stillness; a mysterious, brooding quality. One could not call the moors beautiful, but awesome, majestic, even- a citadel which opened for no one.
Many assumed that the moors were enchanted. There were whispers- whispers by those who lived in the pines that skirted its edge. Whispers that carried over the mountain and across the sea. The witch’s lair. She lies there…
Though it could never be proven, for no man dared journey across its perilous ground, once the rumour was spoken, it was difficult to silence. One townsman riding by the pines late at night thought he could see her shadowy form walking knee deep in the marsh. He was later struck with a fever, and died a few days after. The stories grew more sensational. Women who habitually got up at dawn to wash clothes in the River Chores claimed to see her figure rising amidst the black fog of the Den, an oozing mass that lay to its east. According to the womenfolk, as she espied them, she pointed a gnarled finger at one of their company whilst emitting a shrill stream of cackling, before vanishing into the air. The lady, who was heavily pregnant, gave birth to a stillborn child that month. The elders of the towns began to call her volva, a human consumed with unearthly powers.
Her presence, whether imagined or real, became a scapegoat for all sorts of evils that befell the townsfolk- a missing child, a miscarried babe, a sick animal. The witch of the moor became an effective tool for silencing unruly youngsters, and a dramatic story to excite good and bad children alike when necessary. People said that the volva was hideously ugly in appearance, sporting a bulbous nose, scaly gray skin and frightening red eyes; that she was cunning and was able to see through solid stone. She had the mind of a serpent and the teeth of a hyena, and would gladly torment a lost traveller in the marshes until he was driven mad with fear and took his own life. She feasted on children’s bones, and wore a necklace of their teeth around her neck as a trophy. And the stories became legend, and in legend they remained.
An auburn dusk began to settle over the horizon, the final rays of the sun piercing the stagnant wetland and briefly giving it the brightness it was devoid of by nature. A young boy of about nine waited, watching, half hidden in shadow of the pines. He waited until the light from the sun completely faded, leaving cool darkness settling about him. A twig then snapped; the boy turned around suddenly.
“Wympol, it’s me.”
Another boy, much younger than Wympol, toddled and clambered down the slope to join him. The tension in Wympol’s body subsided slightly and he exhaled sharply.
“Godric, go home!”
The younger boy frowned a little, a wrinkle appearing on his forehead, and shook his head in defiance.
“I’m going with you Wympol. I’m going to find the witch’s house too!”
Wympol sighed. “You can’t, Godric. Go back home to mother.”
Godric shook his head emphatically. “I’m not going home. I’m staying here!”
“Shush, hush now. It’s a very dangerous journey. Not this time, Godric. When you grow up and I’ve found it I’ll take you.”
Godric seemed to consider this for a moment before a stubborn frown appeared across his small face.
“I’m going with you!”
Wympol, angered, looked on the verge of raising his arm when sounds arose nearby. It was the sound of galloping hooves and several shouts of men.
“Be still, Godric!”
Wympol looked alarmed as he pulled Godric closer to the pine he lay against. Torches could be seen now from the direction of his home village.
“They’ve come to take us back!” Godric said excitedly.
But Wympol knew that was not the case. It was the riders that brought their townsfolk out, and Wympol knew that he would surely be discovered. As he stood still in contemplation, holding his brother, the sounds grew closer.
The torches burned brighter, and Wympol could see his father at the front of the column of people, a tall red bearded man whose hair colour Godric shared.
Godric wriggled free from his brother’s grasp at the sight of his father and ran towards him.
“Papa!” he cried.
Wympol’s father started in surprise.
Godric collided with his father’s knees and held them close, unable to completely clasp his small arms around them. His father’s eyes then traced back the direction from which Godric had run, his sharp gaze making out the dark figure of Wympol by the tree even by torchlight. His eyes narrowed, but before he could utter a word the riders crashed through the other end of the clearing.
They looked a fearsome sight. Most wore armour, and swords hung idly by their sides. Their clothes bore signalia but their chainmail was rusted in several places and dirt covered their tunics. A glance told Wympol’s father these men were trained warriors, and as their leader ordered the riders to a halt, he sank to one knee in respect. The villagers behind him followed suit.
Their leader removed his helmet, revealing a surprisingly young face with a shock of black curls.
“Milord,” Wympol’s father rumbled.
“Rise, my good fellow.”
Wympol’s father rose, along with the rest of the villagers.
“What is your name sir?” the leader asked.
“I am Handen, milord. Of the village of South Chores, about a hundred yards from here.”
“I am Ranald, son of Reinhald, Duke of Ayr. These men serve my father.”
Handen bowed his head in respect.
“A long way to travel, milord.”
“We have been away a long while. I am anxious to get back to Strathclyde as soon as possible. How much further to Northumbria, do you know?”
“The village of East Chores is three days ride, milord. When you get to the Wash it be another three days to York, and perhaps another to get to Alba. The latter I only know from folk who travel past these parts. Your horses may go faster, or slower.”
The lord cursed silently.
“Then it be seven days ride in all. Longer to rest the mounts.”
“It is too long. I bear urgent news back to King Eogan. I take it you have heard of the rebellion taking place up north?”
“Of a sort, milord. The only news we get here is from travelling folk, merchants and the like. We see envoys but seldomly.”
“ King Eogan is in a perilous position at the moment. We may lose Strathclyde any moment. How far does the moor stretch?”
A hushed stillness overtook the villagers and Handen’s frank face was full of shock.
“It be best to avoid the moor, my lord. No traveller goes that way. The only safe path is around it, the path through the pines.”
Lord Ranald laughed. “A bit of mud on the boots of my men will not dampen their spirits too much.”
Handen’s face turned hard and his jaw set stubbornly.
“Nobody crosses the moor and lives, sire. No man would laugh in the face of death.”
“I think I remember now. There have been stories that have even reached Ayr. The witch of the moor… a most fearsome person. Some say even a beast.”
The lord looked to his second in command, sharing a grin.
Handen looked put out but not embarrassed enough to back down. “The legends be true. Men who travel those forsaken paths have never come back. I beg you, take heed.”
Lord Ranald appeared to take stock of Handen’s words for a small moment, then shook his head.
“I am afraid we cannot delay. We have already lost enough time crossing the mountain. If we cut across the moor we can bypass the Wash and ride straight towards Alba. It will save us fair time.”
“But my lord…”
“Many thanks, my friend. I bid goodnight to you and your people.”
He gave a curt nod, then pushed his helmet back onto his head and pulled in the reins of his horse, rousing it into a short trot.
The riders all spurred their horses to follow in the direction down the slope of the trees, close by to where Wympol stood, now petrified.
“It is folly!” Handen shouted after them. “You will only meet your deaths!”
A ghostly ripple of laughter came from the end of the line of riders, and then they were gone, the hooves of their steeds pattering faintly in the distance.
When Wympol had just gone to bed, he heard his father creep into his room and shut the door quietly behind him. After the riders had left, he had been so dreadfully afraid of what would happen next his knees knocked together, but his father had not called him out. His piercing eyes had sank into his before pulling Godric up into his arms and leading the villagers back to South Chores. Wympol had sighed in relief and felt absurdly glad he had not left the village, and ran back down the road to his own house.
His mother had chastised him dearly for missing supper and being nowhere to be seen. She was somewhat distracted, however, being close to giving birth, and her swollen belly seemed to be the most of her worries. Pottering around awkwardly, she had fed Wympol cold soup and a small meal of meat and vegetables, and then sent him off to bed. Now he feared his retribution was to come, but he found it unlikely it would be a beating as Godric lay in his own crib next to his, peacefully sleeping, and his father would not wake him.
He felt his father sit down beside him and sigh.
“What am I going to do with you, Wympol?”
Wympol’s lower lip quivered. “I’m sorry, Papa.”
“Sorry for what exactly? That you left or you got caught?”
“I’m sorry for scaring you, Papa. I’m sorry for everything!”
His father pulled him close and Wympol threw his arms around him. After some time, Handen gently detached himself from the boy and sat him down.
“When I was a lad like you all I wanted to do was explore too. But there be no game in going to the moors, Wympol. Strong men have died there. Horrible deaths. Our village men have pulled carcasses from that swamp, floating downriver to the village. What would I do if something happened to you? What would your mother do? Or Godric?”
Wympol’s eyes started to water.
“And what of the little one you will soon have as brother or sister? Who will watch over them during the day, if you are gone?”
Wympol sobbed a little. “I will be good, Papa.”
“There is no good in inviting trouble to yourself. Everything I do is for you, your brother, your mother, and the little one she bears inside her. I could not bear to have any one of you taken from me.”
Wympol wiped his face on his nightshirt.
“Now off to sleep with you. We have a lot to do in the morning.”
Wympol settled into his blanket comfortably as his father strode gently to the door, careful not to wake Godric.
“Papa, what do you think will happen to those men?”
Handen went still, and his face became grave.
“I am afraid those men will not see daybreak alive, Wympol.”
And so Wympol went to sleep, and his father was right. King Eogan received none of the urgent message Lord Ranald bore. Two weeks later, Strathclyde was lost to the Scots.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
As Wympol lay sleeping, darkness continued to cover the slush of the wetlands. It was now well into the night, and it was pitch black for miles, without a soul to be seen.
High above the ground flew a raven.
Across the moors, the tiniest light flickered. And the raven dived.
As the bird came closer, one could see the source of the light. It was a cottage, or more like a derelict shack. A window opened, and the raven flew inside, flapping its wings to cradle its descent. A single candle, barely a stump, sat sputtering on the pane. The raven landed onto calloused palms.
“Arrow. What a pleasant surprise.”
The raven affectionately cawed. The woman whose hands Arrow rested upon wrestled slightly with the scroll tied to the bird’s leg.
“There. You’re free now.”
Arrow stepped down from her hands onto the worn table. The desk was littered with scrolls, papers, and dried tubs of ink. Strutting curiously across the writing implements, Arrow stuck his head inside a particularly dirty tub.
“If you’re looking for food, it’s in the kitchen,” the woman said firmly, shooing him away.
Arrow got the point immediately. Flapping his wings, illuminated by the soft light of the candle, he made the short distance from desk to kitchen. Seeing remnants of supper on the table, he proceeded to feed himself. The woman was now reading the scroll intently. It was quite lengthy, and written in spidery script that even she, a seasoned peruser of illegible writing, was finding hard to decipher. She kicked her boot against the right leg of the desk and pushed her chair closer to the left side, where the candle lay on the table, still guttering. Careful not to get wax on herself, she thrust the paper under as much light as she could muster in her sitting position.
The room was cozy in the candlelight. Half drawn sketches were pasted on its stone walls. It was large for one person, and was most probably built for a family. The corner next to the window served as a small library and a writing space. A collection of potted herbs lay by another table on the far side of the room where Arrow was busily eating. Sprigs of fresh rosemary, parsley and vegetables hung from above. In the other corner lay a straw mattress which served as a bed. The covering was fresh and clean, and a thick blanket lay folded on top of it.
The woman made a slight grumble as the candle petered and died. She raised her hand over the smoking wick in a negligent gesture, and immediately a flame appeared, this time somewhat steadier. Satisfied, she resumed reading.
The woman wore a shabby garment and a roughly hewn cape that covered half her face. Her boots were old and covered in scratches; they looked more like a man’s boots than the dainty things worn by females. Her careworn appearance was deceptive, however. Looking closer by the candlelight, the cape hid a young face with fair features, the skin firm and healthy looking. The tangled and matted hair that lay underneath was thick, and if brushed out properly, the colour of fresh straw.
After she had finished reading, a small crease appeared in her brow. She sat for some time, thinking, as the raven pecked into a lump of bread. Then she hmphed once, brought out a fresh scroll and dipped her quill into the ink. It glided over the paper. For the lengthy letter, the reply she made was absurdly brief.
I am in good health. Very well. I will meet you this day next week, in the glade.
She rolled up the paper and sealed it with hot wax from the dripping candle.
“Stop stuffing yourself with my food and do something useful,” she lectured Arrow. “Come over here.”
The raven clumsily half flapped his way over to the desk. He allowed her to tie the scroll securely onto his leg. “Caw,” it said seriously. Grendelin sighed.
“Visit me more often,” she said as she ran a hand down his back. “Safe journey, Arrow.”
Arrow cawed once more and then took flight, away into the pitch blackness from where he had come.
Grendelin spent her week busying herself for the journey to come. It was not a long one. The glade was a full two days’ ride, depending on the traffic on the road. She would ride south first, to the village of South Chores, and cross the river. It would have been quicker, if it were not for the whirlpool to the east, which nobody crossed. It was the deepest, most grotesque part of the moor, a bubbling cesspool of churning muck. The villagers called it the Moor’s Den, and the black air that arose from its depths the breath of hell.
Grendelin’s routine each day was quite fixed. She would wake, often at a late hour, wash, and eat a small meal. She would then spend time reading or in meditation, though a good part of the day was occupied with tending to the vegetable garden, her primary means of sustenance. The cottage was built atop a flat mound, and the soil was not soggy, but still very moist. Over years of careful maintenance, the garden now sported a variety of vegetables- carrots, peas, onions, as well as traditional herbs such as rosemary, parsley, sage and thyme. It was shaded partially by an apple tree that loomed over the stables and its single occupant, a large and rather grumpy looking horse.
After dusk Grendelin would cook a supper for herself, before returning to her books. It was at night that her studies flourished. The presence of the moon amplified the effect of spells and her natural abilities, for after all, Grendelin Hyde was a witch.
Not just any witch- for there were common hedge witches, who could no doubt fix a man’s cough with a potent posset, or place an effective poultice on a wound. Grendelin was born with witch blood. Her mother had married a simple farmer with a simple name- Hyde. But Grendelin was really a Brunika, and the Brunika were descended from the great sorcerer Merlin.
A day before her journey she busied herself packing food for the journey to the pines. She jammed some apples into the bottom of a rucksack she used for travelling, as well as half a ham still left on the table. Fortunately, she had a half loaf of bread left, which she packed, as well as a slab of cheese. She also remembered her aunt’s request for more rosemary, and plucked as many sprigs as she could from the hanging plant. The Brunikas were experts in witch lore and healing. Morgana, Grendelin’s aunt, was amongst one of the most famed healers in the land. However, Grendelin’s mother Marla, who was also a natural healer, had become so devoted to her ordinary husband she resolved to use her magic only for domestic purposes- so much so that her powers grew weaker, and smaller, to suit her intent.
Grendelin’s history was a sad one, which was not uncommon for a witch. Marla had fallen in love and married Tom young, and they lived a simple life on his farm, poor but happy. They had tried for a child, and one was born quickly, and had died just as quickly. However, a few years later, Marla conceived and gave birth to Grendelin. For Grendelin, the next nine years were the happiest years she remembered. It was bitter that their happiness remained so brief, for soon after that, Tom had become ill.
That illness had caused a rift between Grendelin’s mother and aunt forever. The incident had also forever blunted Grendelin’s faith in her ancestors, however powerful they seemed to be. For no matter what Morgana tried, Tom would not get better. It was a curiosity, and one that even until now Morgana nor Grendelin could fathom.
Grendelin could remember the day her father died clearly. He was propped into a half sitting position on the bed in her grandmother’s stone cottage- this cottage. His face was wan, though tiny beads of sweat surfaced on his skin. His dark hair lay dishevelled on the pillow. His face, so handsome before, with a wide forehead, strong straight nose, looked sickly and dehydrated.
Morgana sat next to Tom on a wooden stool, dipping a cloth into a wide bucketful of water and turning to mop his forehead. “He’s cold,” she said. “I don’t understand this.”
Marla was pacing up and down the room, her eyes red with weeping. “How can you not? You have healed worse cases than this. How can a man not recover by now from a simple head cold?”
Morgana pursed her lips, biting back a reply. She had come as soon as she had heard Tom was ill, and had not left his side in days. “This cannot be a natural illness. This must be witchcraft.”
Young Grendelin had been watching from her corner, from the corner where the desk now stood. She remembered shivering when she heard the word; ‘witchcraft’. She swore she felt an ominous figure pass through- a dark shadow, and she whimpered.
Tom’s eyes turned towards Grendelin. “Grennie..” he said weakly. His mouth broke into a slanted smile. “Come here, little mouse.” His arm reached out to where she stood.
Grendelin had moved timidly toward her father’s outstretched hand. She touched it; it was deathly cold.
“Papa- why are you cold? It is summer, and hot outside.”
Her papa grinned weakly in spite of his illness. “Have I told you a story, Grendelin of the marshes? Of the Ice Kings of Alba?”
Immediately taken by the premise of this story, Grendelin grew close to her father. “No papa. Tell me about the Ice Kings.”
Tom coughed a little, and his voice was soft, but he carried a story weaving air in his words- the kind he used to send Grendelin to sleep. The kind she loved. “Far, far in the north, there lived the Ice Kings. They lived in huge homes under the ice, and there they ate, and drank, and were merry. There were seven Ice Kings in all- led by their chief, Caldizar.”
The whole room had fallen into a hushed silence, out of respect, perhaps, but also in part due to the magical air of Tom’s story telling.
Grendelin sat next to the bed, now rapt in attention. “Just like Great grandfather Merlin Papa?”
Tom nodded. “Yes, exactly. Probably not as large as our family, mind. Ice creatures don’t usually have that many children. “
“Was he as powerful as Great grandfather Merlin? This Caldizar?”
Tom smiled. “Probably not, young Grennie. For Merlin is a younger god, not just a magician. He is immortal, which means he can live forever.”
Young Grendelin had listened in awe. “Can he be killed?”
Tom nodded. “When he was created, the Old Gods wanted to create a master sorcerer, but one that also understood mortal plight. Merlin possesses both enormous power as well as the beating heart of a human.”
“Wow,” Grendelin said in a hushed voice.
“Now I thought you wanted to hear of the Ice Kings?” Tom gently reminded her.
“Of course, Papa!”
Tom continued. “Alright. So there were seven Ice Kings, led by Caldizar, their chief. Now the Ice Kings were content in their home, for there was plenty of ice and snow, and so none of us Englishfolk ever heard of them for a long, long time.
Now I will tell you one very important thing about the Ice Kings. They are very shy people, and do not normally make contact with any human people. And just as well, for if they ever did make contact with a human, the coldness of their bodies would affect a human so badly they would shiver for weeks on end and freeze as if they had exposed themselves naked to the snow.”
Grendelin blurted out, “Is that’s what happening to you papa? Did you get infected by an Ice King?”
Her mother gently moved to the other side of the bed and stroked Tom’s hair.
“Hush Grendelin. Remember, you have to wait until your father tells the entire story first.”
Tom continued. “Now, one day one of the Ice Kings discovered a trickle of water leaking down the wall of their house.”
“Their house was melting?!”
“Yes, yes, that’s exactly what happened. It started with a trickle, and then the next day a sort of shower. And all the furniture got wet and after a while the Ice Kings and their families found themselves inches deep in water.”
Grendelin sighed in satisfaction at this dilemma. “So what did they do papa?”
Tom inhaled and said, “Well, they had to move out of their home and find a new one. They wanted to go north, but since they were really not very bright, they ended up going south instead. They found themselves in Alba, and then they ended up getting separated. Because of the heat some ended up melting away. Now it is said that some managed to find or steal boats, travelled across the German Sea, and lived peacefully in the countries north of the Holy Roman Empire. But some got lost, and wandered south, south, into England.”
Grendelin was holding her breath. “And did you meet one papa?”
Tom’s voice became softer still, so soft Grendelin had to lean forward further to hear him. “On one of my walks through the pines, yes, I met an Ice King.”
“What did he look like?”
“Big, tall, and completely made of ice. Very clever in blending into his surroundings. My guess is that he travelled only by night and hid in caves to protect himself from the glare of the sun. His very breath chilled me to the bone. I am afraid I startled him, and he ran past me- brushing me just. And I am afraid that is why my skin is so cold, my dear.”
“Oh papa, is there any way to make it better?”
“I’m not sure my love, but your Auntie is trying everything, and she is the best healer in the world.”
“Where did you see the Ice King papa? Maybe I can try to find him too and see if he knows how to fix it. I’m sure he isn’t a mean person. He probably didn’t know he was so cold.”
Tom tried to manage a chuckle but ended up coughing again. “Oh, I’m sure he didn’t.”
After his coughing did not cease, Morgana came back to his bedside while her nurse shooed her away. She was fed a little supper of soup, and cuddled in her blankets next to the kitchen on a tiny crib.
In the middle of the night, her mind still slurred from sleep, she was awoken by voices.
“He is not getting better, Marla.”
“Try! Try- anything!”
“I have tried. I have tried everything in my power. There is a dark evil here; one which has taken root in his physical body. His mind is still intact, but the disease is instilling itself like a virus. It is spreading.”
Marla began weeping loudly.
After a minute or so Tom awoke from the sound, coughing badly. His voice was parched and very weak, but he opened his lips and breathed out raggedly. “Marla…”
Marla’s sobs subsided slightly as she turned to hear her husband’s voice. Tom spoke again, with difficulty. “I love you…always.”
Tears streamed down her face as she whispered, “I love you…so very much.”
He coughed yet again. “Bring Grennie here…”
Grendelin was wide awake now, and she scrambled her way to the side of the bed. Tom’s eyes were closed now, and his forehead sweated heavily. “Be strong, my child…I will…always…be with you.”
Grendelin instinctively knew that this was a goodbye. Tears started to well at the sides of her eyes, dripping down her cheek. “I love you, Papa.”
Tom began gasping for air then, and she remembered being whisked away then by her nurse, while her aunt began to evoke the protection of the gods, both old and young. “Woden, Nerthus, Donar…I call you, watch over this man’s spirit, protect him from evil…My Father Merlin, My Lady Evienne…I call you, watch over this man’s spirit, protect him from evil, spare his life…”
Grendelin had shivered while this had been done, feeling as though a microcosmic battle was taking place between the forces of good and evil in the room of the cottage. The nurse had taken her outside then, into the stables, and made a crib for her there, next to Dechalomain, her mother’s stallion. It was there in her crib, when she lay sobbing, that she begat an idea. With her child like faith, she prayed the hardest that she had ever prayed in her life. She made her supplications to the powerful Merlin, with an earnest and breaking heart, while tears ran down her face. “Great grandfather Merlin, help us, help us…”
Over and over she repeated these words, with faith, until her throat was sore and her lips numb, but it was to no avail. The next morning, her father was dead.
The next week her aunt and mother barely spoke. Grief had filled Marla entirely, and though her aunt tried to comfort her, the depth of her loss was too great. The nurse was asked to leave, and sometime after, Marla asked her aunt to leave. Reluctantly, her aunt packed her belongings and readied her things. Dressed in riding gear, Morgana faced her sister squarely.
“Marla, please. You cannot be so near sighted in your pain. Grendelin needs you.”
“Go, Morgana. I want to be alone in my grief.”
Resigned, Morgana had left. Marla had lived with Grendelin in the cottage, although Grendelin thought it was like living with a spectre. Marla occasionally cuddled her close and crooned her to sleep, but the loss of her husband made her a shell of her former self, and Marla could not hide her sad eyes and lack of energy from her daughter. Aunt Morgana attempted to visit, but the visits remained brief. Her mother had passed away three years ago, when Grendelin had turned twenty. It seemed the only reason she lived was her child, which was reason enough, but made Grendelin bear the horrible guilt of thinking that her mother endured over a decade of living in unhappiness in order to provide for her until adulthood. It also made Grendelin seek the comfort of her books and her magic.
After her mother had died, Grendelin had dug a grave next to her father’s, near the pines. She took up sole residency of the cottage, sweeping and cleaning it from top to bottom. She refurbished it for one person, and she lived in it ever since, the sadness never entirely leaving her.
Grendelin changed into her nightclothes and settled herself into her bed. She was tired, and would have to wake early to journey to the pines. Before she did however, she heard the sound of hooves, muffled by the mud. Men’s shouts came from a distance away, sounding like desperate cries in the night. Grendelin’s heart felt sorrow, for she knew the men would never make it through the night. The natural perils of the moor, coupled with the enchantments laid over it by her ancestors, ensured that no human would ever best it.
She knelt by her bed and prayed to the old gods for them, without much hope in her heart. Then she pulled the blankets over herself, and blew the dying candle out.
This part of the story should have ended here, with Grendelin asleep in her bed. But someone else moved near the moor that night, and what he saw was too curious not to mention. It was a creature who knew the land well enough to stay away from the marshy waters. He was tall, agile, and strong. His body was crouched, and his arms rested on his knees. He watched as the candle went out, his long limbs balancing easily atop a pine tree. He did not stir, save the mechanical blinking of his dull green eyes.
He was a Veran, a tree keeper. It was his turn to guard tonight. He had been here a few hours, and he was well settled in his spot for the long night ahead. He was absorbed in his own meditations now, letting his mind wander into clarity as the sounds of wildlife drifted around him. A pair of pine martens scooted passed him, lightly disturbing the branch he perched on. They paid him no heed. He was one with nature, one with the land, one with the tree.
The moon had disappeared under the shadow of a cloud, and the night was nearly black. It was near impossible to see anything, but the man did not need his sense of sight to realise someone else was coming, and it was not one of his brethren. His feet were too heavy, although his tread was light. The tree man’s nose twitched a little, and he blinked several times. The sound was coming closer now. The man tensed. If it were a stray villager, a vagabond, then he would not bother, for it was sure folly for any human to be out at this time of night. An owl hooted nearby, and the footsteps stopped cautiously. It was then that the moon decided to show itself, the cloud wrapped around it unravelling like the end of a ragged thread.
The Veran’s face was gnarled and sunken. Although he was fair skinned, he had a feral look, made stronger by the strange paint smeared across his cheeks. He wore a dull brown smock and light, cloth like shoes. By the light of the moon it could be seen that the stranger who had disturbed him was directly beneath the tree he stood on. In contrast, the stranger was handsome, his skin smooth and shaven. His hair was a brilliant gold colour. He was dressed plainly, in undyed breeches and tunic, but he carried a broadsword at his belt. His eyes darted warily around him as he stepped forward in the darkness, feeling his way through the pine. He moved at an almost abominably slow pace, and every few minutes he would stop by some tree, feeling around the base of it, poking it with his fingers. He did not move in a linear direction, but it was clear that he would reach the moor sooner or later.
It was a curious feeling that the tree man was getting now, and his lips were unconsciously curling into a snarl. The man felt wrong. He looked like a villager, but he was not. He was something else, and he was not kin.
There was a thud as the Veran landed on the floor of the forest, only a few feet in front of the golden haired man. The stranger looked wildly at the oddly dressed man, but before he could register anything there was the scrape of metal against metal. The Veran had unsheathed his dagger and plunged it forward. The stranger yelped, stumbling backwards, as the blade narrowly missed his chest. The tree man pulled back, readying his stance again.
“I wish you no harm!” the newcomer hissed through his teeth.
“Who are you?” the Veran said in a harsh voice, his eyes bulging.
“I am not your enemy,” the stranger said in a placating tone, his hands raised in front of him.
The tree man took some time to check his adversary, the tiny points of his sharp teeth showing as he growled low in his throat. He took in the man’s dress, his bearing. There was nothing of interest there. But when he gazed into his face, the tree man gaped. One of his eyes was a shade of the most brilliant green he had ever seen, but the other was dull brown, like the colour of rotting leaves.
“Who has cursed you?” the Veran said with a shudder.
“Curse? What curse?” the stranger said, his voice rich and sonorous.
“Your eyes.” The Veran circled him now. “Only old magic can do that. And when it happens, bad luck will follow him the rest of his days.”
“I was given them at birth. They are no curse.”
“You are strange,” the Veran said in a puzzled voice, “And your presence hurts my ears. Why?”
“I don’t know. I’m not your enemy, look- I am coming in peace-“
The man fumbled to loosen his belt, and the broadsword clattered in the dirt. The stranger kicked it towards the tree man.
“See. I am surrendering my weapon. I mean no harm.”
The Veran frowned, unsure. He lowered his arm but still gripped his dagger tightly. After a moment’s pause he spoke.
“Better I take you to my kin. Then we decide what to do with you.”
The stranger raised his arms again, protesting, but the tree man took no notice of him. He advanced again, sheathing his dagger, but the stranger resisted. There was a struggle, and then the tree man grunted in pain; the stranger had driven his knee into his ribs. He fell on his back, gasping. The other man looked at him hesitatingly, before picking up his sword and running quickly away from the fray.
By the time he had recovered he heard the noise of a horse whinnying in the distance. The Veran scrambled to his feet sharply, cursing, before digging his nails into the nearest tree. His feet planted themselves deftly on either side of it, and his lithe form crawled soundlessly up the trunk, scaling it almost to the top in a matter of seconds. He saw nothing at first, though his eyes were sharp in the dark. There was a blink of metal in the moonlight, about a half a mile away. He was astonished; the man far too quickly for a human. He jumped, landing neatly onto the branch of the next pine tree, running its length and skipping over to the next tree’s branches. Nimbly he leapt from pine to pine, following the sound of the horse’s hooves.
Mile after mile he covered this way, neither gaining nor losing any distance between himself and his target. The horse was still at a gallop, even now, and his limbs grew wearier by the hour. The Veran knew it was no good to continue his chase. Day break would be close at hand, and they were now nearing the edge of the pine. Even if he stretched his strength to reach the strange man, he would not have the energy to overpower him. He should return, tell his people of his encounter, and accept he could not trap his quarry.
The Veran halted in defeat, clinging onto a twisted branch above him. A shower of pine needles rained on him, but he was barely aware of them as he watched, peering curiously at the figure of a man on his horse. Too fast a man. Too fast a horse. Unconsciously, he knew the stranger was also looking back, watching him. He waited with regret until all sound faded away, and then turned around, preparing to make the long journey back to the moor.