© N.J. Fawcett
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I'm going to the Darklands to talk in rhyme with my chaotic soul,
As sure as life means nothing, and all things end in nothing,
And Heaven, I think, is too close to Hell.
I want to move, I want to go.
Oh, I want to go.
Oh something won't let me go to the place where the Darklands are,
And I awake from dreams, to a scary world of screams,
And Heaven, I think, is too close to Hell.
- Jim and William Reid
A ruined amphitheatre near Paband, in the land of Sarvad
Night deepened. Shadows stretched out over the tumbledown stones. A few stars appeared, blinking as if they’d suddenly been woken from a long sleep, and a breeze drifted over the bowl of the ruined amphitheatre, a ghostly presence running unseen fingers through the vines that clung to every rock and crevice. Elany closed her fingers around one of her daggers, and her thumb caressed the hilt. She shifted her weight silently from one foot to the other.
Some time later – it might have been a few minutes or an hour, she couldn’t have said – lights flickered amongst the distant calyx trees.
“ Torches,” Drago said. The wyvern stirred at his feet and lifted its head. “ If we shot them now, we could all go back to bed and no one would be any the wiser.”
Elany looked down at the dark hollows below where the archer stood hidden. “ Lady Naimah wants them alive.”
“ Lady Naimah is fifteen years old, and she still believes in truth and justice.”
“ And we’re not going to be the ones who disillusion her. Let them summon their demon.”
Drago sighed. “ If it kills the Lady, we have failed.”
“ It won’t kill her,” Elany said. “ We all agreed this plan in advance. The others can hold it off for long enough for Oriax to banish it. All we have to do is take out the guards and immobilise the summoners.” She glanced over at Oriax as she spoke, hoping the man was up to it. He was the first Riven she’d met who didn’t seem scared of his own shadow.
The lights came closer, and she heard the murmur of voices. She fingered her daggers again. Six guards. Two for her, two for Drago, and two for the wyvern. They held the torches aloft, making them easy targets. She couldn’t make out their faces, but they carried themselves like men who’d long since lost the impulse to question the deeds of their masters.
The three summoners took their places on the stone platform. As they began their chant, linking hands in the shape of a triangle, she looked over at Oriax again. The voices of the summoners wormed through the darkness, tinged with an evil that made Elany’s fingers slick with sweat. Drago frowned.
She couldn’t see the Gate forming, but she felt it, like a hole in the night. When it opened, there was a flare of scarlet light. Veins of black stained it. Darkness flickered through it. She heard Drago take a deep breath. He released it slowly and raised his spear.
Something moved in the heart of the eddying black and copper shadow. Some thing. It moved and bubbled and oozed; there was a hint of vast leathery wings, then of spindly, spidery legs, and it bubbled and oozed its way across the arena, seeking its prey. Elany took an involuntary step forward, and Drago reached out and put his hand on her arm.
“ Go,” Oriax said. “ Remember. Do not kill the summoners. If they escape, or if one of them dies, the Gate will collapse.”
She didn’t wait to hear any more. One of her daggers took the nearest guard in the chest, a crippling wound if not a killing one. She didn’t have throwing knives, but she’d practised that move often enough to know it hadn’t missed; he clutched at the hilt and dropped to his knees, his mouth opening in an ‘O’ of shock and surprise. She jumped down the steps, ducking beneath the sword thrust of the next guard, and angled her second dagger up into his sternum.
The wyvern settled on the ground next to her, hissing. It was the size of a large house-cat, but it had teeth and claws the equal of any desert lion; the third guard backed off, dropping his torch, and Drago gutted him from behind. The others were already dead or incapacitated; the dragonkin and his familiar made a formidable team. Drago retrieved his long spear from one of the bodies and turned to look down at the stone platform. Elany searched for her daggers. The first guard was still alive, and she put him out of his misery with a swift heart-strike. Then she wiped her blades on her woollen breeches and re-sheathed them.
“ Nice work, “ she said to the dragonkin. “ You’re still faster.”
He grinned. “ I would say the spoils were equal. Two each.”
They turned together and looked out across the arena. The others had incapacitated one of the summoners and had the second cowering on the floor; Cas’kara was binding the hands and feet of both of them. The third lay in a huddle nearby, clutching at his stomach to keep his guts from spilling onto the stone.
Elany raised her eyebrows.
“ My axe slipped,” he said.
“ Naimah told us not to kill them.”
“ Oh, he won’t die for a few days yet.”
Oriax – Lady Naimah’s guardian and, or so rumour claimed, her lover – stood nearby, in front of the shifting darkness of the Gate. His storm-shot eyes were closed. His face looked a little strained; apart from that, he might as well have been asleep.
Cas’kara edged closer. “ How do you think it’s going?”
“ Hard to tell,” Elany said. “ This looks nothing like any Gate I’ve seen before.”
It was difficult to see that there was anything there at all. It felt more like an absence than a presence. A triangle of nothingness. She wondered what would happen to a man who fell into such a thing or walked into it willingly.
“ Death,” Oriax said. “ He would die.” His voice sounded like it had travelled over a great distance. And the lines of strain on his face looked deeper. “ Think less loudly please. Hard to concentrate.”
All four of them stepped backwards. After a second, Cas’kara moved forward again and pushed his glove into the mouth of the wounded man.
“ He can hear what we’re thinking?” he asked.
“ Apparently so,” Drago replied.
“ Perhaps we should go and make sure the others are well?”
“ You go,” Elany said. She felt as though she needed to stay with the Riven. The triangle of emptiness seemed to be pulsating now, roiling backwards and forwards between its boundaries as if it sought to escape. She was revolted and yet fascinated at the same time.
Suddenly Oriax’ eyes flew open, and he lurched backwards.
Drago caught hold of him.
“ What?” he demanded. “ What is happening?”
“ Whoreson,” Oriax hissed.
“ What? Who?”
“ No time. Must . . . must close the Gate.”
“ Close it?” Cas’kara muttered. “ What about the demon?”
Drago looked at Elany. “ If I let go of him, he will fall. He is pouring everything he has into the Gate to keep it under control. Something has gone wrong.”
“ One of the great ones,” Oriax gasped. “ Coming through. I . . . I can’t hold it. Too strong.”
“ Hells!” Cas’kara swore. He hefted up his axe.
Drago laughed suddenly. “ I do not think an axe, even one as stalwart as yours, is going to aid us much.”
Cas’kara scowled. “ No whoreson demon is going to make me run away, great one or not.”
“ Not much time,” Oriax muttered, pulling himself upright. “ Help me. Find Naimah.” He seemed to be struggling for breath. “ Not much time. Can save her but . . . Need time.”
Cas’kara shrugged and re-sheathed his axe. Then he picked up the weakened Riven and started to jog back towards the others. Elany followed, drawing her daggers again as she ran. Turning her back on the emptiness of the Gate felt like the hardest thing she’d ever done. She expected to hear demonic laughter and feel claws raking down her back at any moment.
When they reached the others, she spared barely a glance for the first demon. Naimah was staring at Oriax as he struggled out of Cas’kara’s hold and staggered to his feet. She had her hand over her mouth, but she said nothing.
Behind her, Drago drew his sword. He nodded to Elany.
“ What?” Naimah demanded. “ What happened? Is the Gate closed?”
“ One of the great ones,” Cas’kara said, moving forward to stand on her other side. “ Time to die like heroes, Lady.”
Oriax stood upright. “ There will be no dying. Lady Elany, I need your help please.”
She hesitated, wondering what he planned. Then she straightened her shoulders and nodded. “ What must I do?”
“ Keep Naimah alive until the words are spoken. If . . . if I fail, then you must speak them. No one else here knows how. You understand?”
She bit her lip. He didn’t need to explain what words he meant; she knew the answer only too well. She simply prayed that she’d have his courage if it came to it. “ Yes. Yes, I understand.”
“ What words?” Naimah demanded. “ What words? Oriax? Tell me. What are you doing? I demand that you . . .”
Before she could finish speaking, there was a sudden, echoing noise like thunder overhead. So loud it sounded like the sky itself had shattered. They all cried out and put their hands over their ears. Above them, the first demon roared, and then it disappeared so abruptly it might never have existed at all.
Oriax straightened his shoulders and began to speak.
“ Lord of the Esir,” he said. “ Father of the Balance. Heed my prayer. Come now in the hour of my need. Be a guard for my people, a bulwark between them and the hungry darkness.”
The air around him glimmered as Elany sheathed her knives and started to build a shield of protection. The ground beneath them trembled as if something immeasurably vast walked slowly towards them.
“ What?” Naimah demanded. “ What’s happening? What’s he doing?”
Drago shook his head. “ I do not know.”
“ He’s summoning Odin,” Elany said, her hands continuing to move as she wove her webs of protection. “ Only one of the gods can banish a demon without a Gate. Oriax lost control of the first when the demon lord started to come through, and we don’t have time to build another. He’s calling on Odin to help us.”
“ Will he answer?” Cas’kara demanded.
“ I don’t know.”
“ Should we help him pray?”
“ No!” she exclaimed. “ By the Last Gate, no. Say nothing. Do nothing.” She looked at Drago quickly, and he leaned forward towards her.
“ What?” he muttered.
“ If Oriax fails, I must do it. Make sure no one interferes or tries to help me. No one.” She didn’t have time to explain why; she just needed the dragonkin to agree. Odin would answer the prayer, if it was made with a willing heart, but there was a price to pay for his aid. “ You understand?”
“ Promise me?”
“ I promise.”
The voice of the Riven had risen to a chant - a hymn - which reverberated around them as if earth and sky reflected it. “ Odin, Lord of the Esir, hear me. Odin, Father of Wisdom, come to me. Odin, Master of the Balance, protect my people. I make my sacrifice freely, with love, respect and honour.”
“ What sacrifice?” Naimah demanded. “ What sacrifice?”
“ Hush,” Drago said, putting his arms around her. “ Hush.”
Beyond the glimmering web of her magic, Elany could see a vast ocean of emptiness, as if the earlier Gate had burst out of its shackles. There was a figure at the centre of the nothingness. It looked – perhaps a little - like a man. But she knew it was nothing human. She wanted to look away or close her eyes, but she refused to do so. If the others could watch death as it stalked them, so could she.
“ Do nothing. Say nothing,” she muttered like a mantra. “ Do nothing. Say nothing. Do nothing. Say . . .”
Her voice disappeared into a grinding earthquake of sound. The pain of it bent her double, and she clutched at her ears. Bile churned in her stomach, and she retched. The world seemed to be collapsing around her, but she didn’t care. All she could feel was pain.
When it passed – although it seemed to last an eternity – everything was silent, and she wondered if that last, terrible sound had deafened her forever. Then she wondered if she were dead. She opened her eyes and discovered she was still in the arena. Cas’kara was kneeling in front of her. There was blood running down the side of his face.
“ Are you hurt?” she croaked.
Cas’kara shook his head. “ It’s just a scratch. I hit my head when the . . . when it . . ..”
“ When Odin came,” she said. She hadn’t seen the god, but she knew he’d answered. And she knew, without needing to look, that Oriax was gone. The soft noise she could hear, like the whisper of waves on a shore, was the sound of Naimah weeping.
“ Odin?” Cas’kara said. “ Odin came?”
Drago sat down heavily. “ The sacrifice?”
Elany nodded. “ Yes. The price for summoning a god. But for a god, you have to pay it willingly. Without the sacrifice, Odin won’t answer.”
She heard Naimah’s answering wail. And she heard the words underneath it.
“ No,” the Lady said. “ No! Odin could have spared him. He did it for love. Odin should have spared him. He did it for love.”
I wear this crown of thorns upon my liar’s chair,
Full of broken thoughts I cannot repair.
Beneath the stains of time the feeling disappears.
You are someone else.
I am still right here.
What have I become, my sweetest friend?
Everyone I know goes away in the end,
And you could have it all; my empire of dirt.
I will let you down.
I will make you hurt.
Withensee in the Hetwold
Three years later
The carved sign outside the Three Feathers hung still and silent in the heavy fog. Rivulets of moisture ran down its faded surface, dropping onto the shallow steps below. Athol Turner was grateful for the protection of his wide-brimmed hat as he climbed the steps to the tavern door and shook out his cloak. If he dripped water all over her polished floor, Magret Oughty wouldn’t spare him the edge of her tongue. She was a fine cook, the inn-keeper’s wife, but she had little patience with customers. He was gasping for a jug of ale and a bite to eat or he wouldn’t have chanced an encounter; her pale, sharp eyes were enough to turn a man’s stomach sour. But she made the best mutton broth this side of Castle Albany, and he had a long ride ahead and a cold house awaiting him up the valley.
Winters in the Hetwold were always cold. It wasn’t a frosty, bright cold either, but a damp, foggy cold that burrowed marrow-deep into bones. Mist hung in every hollow, dripped from every rocky outcrop. Silence pressed down on the biggest and the least of things; even the clack-clack of the windmills in the meadows was stilled.
Most creatures - or at least those with any sense - sought burrows and holes to hide out the worst. Even sheep preferred to stay inside their crowded barns when the fog was down. In winter, only men went out of doors; men, and the Twisted Folk, the corrupted monstrous ones who liked to creep about in mist and shadows. Perhaps sheep never talked nervously amongst themselves of the Twisted – who can tell what sheep talk of, after all - but there was no question that they preferred the shelter of the barn when it was dark and damp outside.
Athol pushed the tavern door open and sighed to himself at the sight of Magret behind the counter. She was a tall, thin woman – scrawny, he’d say, if he wasn’t a gentleman – and she pulled back her hair in a tight bun that made her face look even more ill-tempered. He’d hoped Ged, the innkeeper, would be there instead, his wife banished to the kitchen. But Athol’s day had gone badly from start to finish. His horse had bolted with him at the sight of a brownie lurking in a roadside ditch, and he’d spilled half his pack whilst struggling to pull up the gelding. Then he’d had to ride back a mile or two to collect his scattered goods, and Godran at the town store had only given him half their worth because the cheese rinds were covered in mud. Having to endure Magret’s nagging was just another sign that fate was toying with him. He hoped the food and the beer would prove worth it.
He waited for her to harangue him about his wet boots and his dripping cloak as he crossed the room. But instead she hardly glanced his way. She was frowning at two men sat close to the fire and – from her narrowed eyes and intent expression – he guessed she was trying to eavesdrop. There was no one else in the tavern and, despite the fire, the place felt chilly. It was too big to be warm and cheery in the winter, although Ged could have filled it three times over in the summer. Folk came to Withensee from all over Upper Landen in the summer because of the trade fairs.
“ Half of ale and a bowl of your fine stew,” he said, slapping two copper coins down on the counter. “ If you please, Mistress.” Best to start off polite; it was hard to know when Magret’s tongue might get the better of her.
She glared at him, and he sighed.
“ Get out of bed the wrong side, did you?” he asked.
“ Mind your manners, Athol Turner.”
He’d gone to school with Magret; he knew when he was fighting a pointless battle with her temper. “ I might if I thought it would bring me any benefit, lass.”
“ That’s Mistress Oughty to you.”
“ Oh, get off your high horse, Magret. And pour me my beer. I’m dying of thirst here.” He swivelled round on his high-legged stool and looked over at the strangers. “ What’s with them? Not seen them around here before, have I?”
She lifted down a pewter flagon from the shelf above the counter. It had been Athol’s Da’s, and his Granda’s before that. There was an etching of a ram’s head on the side of it although long years of use had made the markings fade. “ They’re not from round these parts. Look at those outlandish swords they’re carrying.”
“ Scimitars,” he said, trying to sound like he knew one end of a weapon from another. He carried a cudgel to protect himself, but he was hardly a warrior. “ Western blades.”
Magret lowered her voice. “ You think they’re from Sarvad?”
“ Could be. I’m surprised you haven’t asked them.”
She snorted. “ I know better than to ask questions of a couple of Sarvaddians. I’d likely end up with my throat cut. Nasty buggers.”
“ We’ve been at peace with the Imperials for years now. Seventy at least.”
“ Closer to a hundred,” she replied. “ But that don’t make them popular. People have long memories.”
Athol shrugged. “ Aye, well, I didn’t pay that much attention in history lessons. Never saw the point of history. And I’m not about to hold a grudge over a war that ended before my Granda – the gods rest him - ever even drew a breath.”
He looked over at the two men. They sat huddled together, not talking, their faces pinched and miserable. He put that down to cold and damp; travelling through the Hetwold in winter was enough to make any man ill-tempered. There was nothing remarkable about either of them except for their swords. That, and the rarity of strangers in Withensee at this time of year. “ I’ll go make friendly-like. Find out what they want.”
Magret drifted across the room behind him, pretending to dust tables so that she could listen in on the conversation. He cleared his throat as he drew near the two strangers, and they looked up.
“ Good day to you,” he said, hooking a stool with his foot and sitting down at an adjoining table. “ And a foul day it is too. What brings you gentlemen to the Hetwold? If you’re interested in sheep, I’m afraid they’re all abed this time of year.” He chuckled at his own joke and heard Magret sigh behind him.
The first of them smiled. “ Not sheep, sir. We’re messengers. Travelled from Paband with a letter for one of your people. Perhaps you can help us with directions? I fear we’ve lost our way somewhat in the fog.”
Athol cocked his head on one side. “ Oh? You two from Sarvad then?”
Both of them nodded.
“ Begging your pardon,” he said. “ But we don’t get many Sarvaddians hereabouts. Folk here are still a bit wary of people from the western lands.”
“ With good reason,” Magret muttered. Athol pretended he hadn’t heard her.
“ So we’ve learned,” said the first man, a little wryly. “ But I assure you, we’re here with no ill intent. We bring a letter only.”
Magret abandoned her attempts to pretend she wasn’t listening. “ Who’s the letter for?”
“ A woman named Elany Byrne. She lives at a place called Coldlaw Farm. Or so we’ve been led to believe.”
Athol stared. He suddenly felt a great deal more suspicious of these travellers. Elany Byrne was famous – or perhaps that was infamous – in the Hetwold, and he liked to think she was a friend of his. “ We know where she lives. What’s your business with her?”
“ You know her? But this is excellent news. Perhaps you can . . .”
“ Sorry, friend,” Athol said, pushing back his stool. “ But I ain’t handing out directions till I know better you can be trusted.”
Magret sniffed. “ Elany can look after herself. Those daggers she wears are sharper than dragon’s teeth, and she knows how to use them.” She looked sidelong at the men. “ Trained at the temple in Arbat, you know. She calls herself a healer, but no one carries that much weaponry if they’re not looking for a fight. Got herself in trouble, has she? I knew she didn’t come back to these parts out of the goodness of her heart.”
Athol shook his head. Elany and Magret had never been friends, even as children. They were both too fond of the sound of their own voices – both too convinced that they were always right – to get along with each other.
“ She’s in no trouble,” said the first man. “ We simply bring a letter.”
“ Pity,” Magret replied. “ You just missed her. She was down in the town only yesterday.”
Athol turned to stare. “ She was? You never said.”
“ And why are you so interested, Athol Turner?” Magret’s face was sly. “ Still carrying a torch for her? Didn’t you learn your lesson when you tried to kiss her and she upended you in your father’s meadow?”
Athol flushed. “ That was years ago. And I was drunk.”
“ Aye, well, she hasn’t gotten more amenable in the time since. Called me an interfering old goat when I asked if her sister planned to marry that new man they got in as steward. I was only being neighbourly. Folk are bound to talk. Two women up there, alone with all those men . . .”
“ Faonn’s only been a widow for a few months,” Athol snapped. “ And she’s two young children. It was very good of Elany to come back and help them. And they need the men to run the farm and look after the horses. If Elany thinks you’re spreading gossip about her sister, I’m not surprised she . . .”
“ Always taking her side, aren’t you?” Magret demanded. “ Even when we were kids, she couldn’t do wrong in your eyes. Despite all her high and mighty ways. Reckoned she was better than us, she did.”
He struggled to keep hold of his temper. “ Since she went off and trained in the temple as a healer, I think she did all right for herself.”
“ She’s no monk. Don’t make me laugh. She’s no more than a common adventurer. Too ready with those daggers. And too free with her . . .”
“ That’s enough,” he said. “ These gentlemen aren’t interested in Hetwold gossip.”
The messenger smiled and made a gesture Athol thought was meant to be placating. “ If you could give us directions to Lady Elany’s house . . .”
Magret snorted. “ Lady Elany? She’s just a horse breeder’s daughter. With ideas above her station. But you’ll have no trouble finding Coldlaw Farm.”
“ Magret . . .”
“ What? You heard what they said. They just want to deliver a letter.” She smiled at the two men. “ Just follow the road out of town until you reach the Arkendark Hills. There’s a path from there up into Coldlaw Valley. You can’t miss it.”
Athol shook his head, and she flashed him a look. It challenged him to scold her, and he decided to save himself the bother. If she’d done wrong, she’d berate herself for it afterwards, he knew. She wasn’t a bad soul; just ill-tempered and too quick to act without thinking.
The two strangers drained the last of their beer, bowed their thanks, and left the tavern. Magret watched them go, biting her lip.
“ Don’t fret,” Athol said, taking pity on her. “ I’ll ride up to Coldlaw tomorrow. I shouldn’t be that far behind them if I hurry.”
“ I’m not fretting,” Magret snapped. “ Elany Byrne can look after herself.”
“ Let’s hope you’re right,” he said.
Coldlaw Valley, the Hetwold
The next morning
Elany turned her horse onto the narrow, snaking track that led up to Coldlaw. A stream tumbled down the hill beside the track; rowan, birch and alder trees huddled alongside the water, and they loomed up out of the fog like bent and silent old men. In summer the place was pretty enough, but in winter it was easy to imagine ill-omened creatures lurking in the mist. She tapped her fingertips on one of her daggers and urged her mare forward.
It had been a long, wet and cold ride from Withensee, but she was used to the discomforts of the road. And she was glad to leave the town. She’d been born and raised in the Hetwold, but it still angered her when the townsfolk poked and pried into her business. If they hadn’t needed supplies – needles and thread for Faonn, spices for cooking, soap and a few candles – she would have stayed well away. As she thought of Magret Oughty and her infernal, gossiping tongue, her fingers tightened on the reins. The woman was worse than a pestilence.
It wasn’t that Elany hated her homeland. The wide meadowlands of the Hetwold in summer had always stayed in her mind as a definition of beauty. There were places there where the grass grew to waist-height or higher, seas of blue-green that swayed with the breeze, plump seed-heads growing plumper day by day. Tall bumblehocks bloomed among them, and white cloud-mantle; and the bees for which the Hetwold was famous tumbled from one flower to the next like fat, drunken merchants. Every turn in the road revealed another small windmill, its sails turning endlessly, grinding flour from the bounty of grass. And there were sheep everywhere, gluttonous as the bees.
But Elany had always wanted wider horizons, greater challenges. Fool that she was, she’d wanted fame and fortune; to hear bards sing her name in tavern songs as they did of the first Eikon, Lady Maia. If she’d been sensible - more like the girls she walked to school with as a child – she’d have accepted Athol Turner’s marriage proposal and settled down to the life of a farmer’s wife. But no one had ever called her sensible. Wrong-headed, yes. Wild, certainly. But never any word close to sensible.
After a mile or so, the track emerged onto a steep-sided valley. The grass grew more sparsely this high up, but it was still fine grazing for horses, and fenced meadows lined the path that led to the farm. She could just make out the farmhouse in the distance, despite the mist. It stood two storeys tall, in the shape of a letter L, forming two sides of a cobbled yard. Her grandfather had built a sturdy barn on the third side; stalls for the horses, a feed room and a store-room took up the ground floor of the barn, whilst the second housed the men they employed. Her father had added a stout stone wall to the fourth side. A tall gate, wide enough to admit a horse-drawn cart, opened out onto the path.
Elany sighed with relief when she saw smoke rising from the chimney and heard the sounds of the men moving about the cobbled yard. As she rode under the gate, Griggory abandoned his pitchfork and ran forward to take her reins.
“ Welcome home,” he said. “ Get everything you needed?”
She never stood on ceremony with the men. Something else Magret Oughty would disapprove of, no doubt.
“ Aye, full saddlebags,” she replied, sliding down off the mare. “ Everything went well here?”
“ Everything’s fine. Starl’s in the office if you want to talk with him.”
“ I’ll go warm up and get some food first. Mucking out done?”
Griggory smiled. “ We’ re working on it.”
“ I’ll join you in a while then,” she said, moving towards the back door.
When she opened it, the children squealed and hurtled towards her, erupting in a flurry of arms and legs. She laughed and hugged them, nodding to her sister. Faonn was already bustling around the kitchen, pulling out a chair for her and fixing a bowl of hot vegetable broth.
Despite being sisters, they didn’t look alike. Faonn was small and sweetly rounded; Elany was taller, and muscular where Faonn was curved. Faonn had brown hair touched with honey and copper highlights, and she wore it in a neat coronet that framed her face. Elany’s hair was the bright red of freshly spilled blood. It hadn’t been easy, growing up in the Hetwold with hair that colour; even as a little girl, people had always eyed her askance. She remembered Faonn weeping because the children at school told her Elany wasn’t her sister at all. She was a goblin changeling, left behind in the Coldlaw cradle by some mischievous elemental.
“ Sit,” Faonn said. “ Eat. Leave your aunt alone, you two. She’s too tired to answer your questions; it’s a long ride back from Withensee.”
The farmhouse kitchen took up most of the ground floor, and the great brick chimney at the kitchen’s centre took up half of that. In the winter they kept the fire burning all the time. A large wooden table occupied most of the remaining space. There was just enough room in the nook by the window for a couple of rocking chairs and Faonn’s needlework box. Upstairs there were three more rooms. Faonn had the largest; her children shared another; and Elany made do with the narrow cupboard-like area under the eaves. It was just big enough to fit a bed and a chest for her clothes. Her books surrounded the bed in untidy piles, but at least she could reach out easily for one when she woke from bad dreams. That happened far too often these days; she kept a candle and her flint on top of the pile of books closest to the bed so that - when she sat up, gasping with grief and fear - she could banish the darkness and the dream voices quickly.
Elany tucked into her soup with another sigh of relief. After a mouthful or two she looked up, and Faonn smiled.
“ The fence down at Beckside needs checking,” she said.
“ I know. I saw as I came up the path. I’ll go down there with Diron tomorrow.”
Faonn wrinkled her nose.“ He can mend a fence himself, can’t he?”
“ Of course he can, but it’s safer if we both go. I saw a couple of brownies over there earlier in the week. The fog brings them in too close to the farm. They’re looking for easy pickings.”
Yoan slid off his stool and tugged at the hem of her jerkin. “ I want to see brownies, Aunt Ela.”
“ Well, now,” Elany replied, leaning over so that her head was level with his. Until her return to the farm, seven months before, she hadn’t had much to do with children, not even her own kinfolk. If there were rules in such dealings, she didn’t know them. So she chose to treat them as though they were simply small adults, unless they seemed hurt or frightened. Hurt or frightened, she behaved as she would around one of the foals. It seemed to work, although it made Faonn sigh and raise her eyes heavenwards.
Yoan was nearly four, but he still smelled of sweet, soft, baby smells. Despite that, he was more bother than a basketful of wild snow-kits. If there was mischief to be done or trouble to be found, Yoan would sniff it out.
“ See here,” Elany said, making sure that he was paying attention. “ Some brownies are not so bad but . . .”
Her sister snorted, and Elany looked up at her and shrugged. Not all elemental creatures were as monstrous as the Twisted Ones, but she’d learned it was pointless trying to explain that. According to the tales, brownies wanted nothing more than a warm house to hide in and an occasional bowl of milk to keep them happy. In exchange they swept the kitchen at night and made sure that the bread rose and the beer brewed sweet. But they could turn feral without warning, so most folk preferred not to take any chances. Elany disapproved, but she understood. And, given Yoan’s nose for trouble, she wanted to make sure he wouldn’t run off looking for the creatures by himself.
“ There’s a brownie in Castle Albany,” she said. “ Whose name is Moffat. He has a shop that sells wooden horses. Horses just about the right size for a young man of your great height to gallop around on.”
“ I am big, aren’t I?”
“ Yes, you are,” Elany agreed, swallowing a smile. “ But the brownies that sneak up to Beckside won’t care how big you are. They aren’t nice brownies, not like Moffat. The bigger you are, the better dinner they think you’ll make. So I’ll give you a promise. If you’re a good boy for the whole winter – the whole of winter, mind – I’ll take you to Castle Albany come spring and buy you a wooden horse from Moffat.”
Yoan widened his eyes. “ Really?”
“ Winter’s very long, though, isn’t it?”
“ It is,” she acknowledged.
“ I’ll try,” he said, so seriously she had to fight again not to smile.
“ That means not going looking for any bad brownies in the meantime,” she pointed out.
“ I know. I’m not silly. But you would eat the bad brownies, Ela. They wouldn’t eat you. You’re a ‘venturer, Diron says so. You would kick their bony . . .”
“ Yoan!” exclaimed his mother. “ Don’t make me wash your mouth out.”
“ I didn’t say it,” he protested.
“ Only because I interrupted you, you naughty imp.”
“ Peace,” Elany said. “ Peace. Let’s not squabble. And I’m not an adventurer any more, Yoan. I’m a farmer now, like you. So we’ll all stay away from the bad brownies if you please.”
She pushed back her chair and picked up her sheepskin coat, even though she’d only eaten half of her soup. Lingering in the warmth any longer meant finishing her chores in the half-dark, when it was better and safer to be indoors. The farm made its profit from breeding and training horses so - fog or no, winter or no – the animals were turned out every day. Diron would be watching over them, ready to call an alarm if anything untoward loomed up out of the mist. And it was hard work for Griggory, mucking out the stalls by himself. He wouldn’t complain – she paid him too much for that – but she preferred to lend a hand when she could.
At least the Twisted Ones who roamed the Hetwold were relatively harmless. They’d catch and gut a lone horse if they found one, or a child, or a random traveller who lacked the means to defend himself. But they were no match for Elany’s men. Or for her. She wore a pair of iron daggers at all times, even when the most demanding task she faced was peeling vegetables for supper. It wasn’t the life she’d have chosen for herself – truthfully she was no farmer – but she couldn’t desert her kinfolk. And if she had other reasons for turning her back on the roads . . . well . . . she preferred not to acknowledge them, even to herself.
She sighed again, ruffled Yoan’s hair, and stood upright.
“ Go and play with your sister,” she said. “ I have to go finish mucking out the horses.”
He scowled. “ But Shani is boring. All she wants to do is read.”
“ You could stand to spend more time at your books.” his mother retorted. “ Did you finish that ciphering your aunt gave you? No? Well, there you are then. Something to do. Aunt Elany will expect to see it when she comes back in. If you don’t keep up with your learning, my lad, you’ll fall behind all the others when school goes back in the spring.”
Yoan’s scowl deepened. “ I don’t care. I hate school. It’s even more boring than Shani.”
Elany fled outside before the two of them could embroil her in their argument.
Fog enveloped her as soon as she stepped through the door. She could still see the gate posts on the other side of the yard; they loomed up out of the mist like the twin prows of a Tuath warship. But the mist was definitely thicker than it had been. She hunched her shoulders and pulled her sheepskin closer, longing for a strong wind to come and blow it all away. Sea haars crept down from Hayton’s Sound every year, from Mistmoon to the end of Greymoon, and they stayed until the spring breezes swept them northwards.
Her footsteps sounded oddly muffled as she crossed the cobbles, as if she had wool for boots. There was no point calling Diron, the sound wouldn’t carry through the fog. Besides, he’d already be in the barn, putting up the feeds. She’d been longer than she intended in the kitchen. She looked through the doorway of the farm-office as she passed and called out a greeting to Starl. She suspected that the man was interested in being more than Faonn’s steward; Magret Oughty had certainly implied as much. He’d gain the farm along with the woman, of course, but Elany absolved him of entirely mercenary motives. Faonn seemed not to notice his admiration. Apparently she’d forgotten that men had other purposes apart from keeping accounts and chopping wood.
Elany sighed again and pushed open the barn door. For herself, she’d forgotten nothing. But the free and easy code of the roads wouldn’t lie well with Hetwold folk. Since she couldn’t change matters - not in one lifetime - she had no choice but to grit her teeth and endure them. And besides, who would she take for a lover, out here? She’d as soon lie with one of the brownies as with any of her neighbours. And they felt the same, no doubt. They eyed her daggers and her red hair with disapproval and frowned at her whenever she spoke her mind.
She hitched up her pitchfork and set to on the first empty horse-stall, pushing her thoughts away. By late afternoon the light had faded almost completely. Griggory lit torches whilst the rest of them finished sweeping the yard. Diron brought the horses in and settled them in the stable; Elany could hear the animals whickering to each other as she shouldered her brush for the last chore of the day.