The Perilous Realm Online, Part Sixteen

Book One: The Endless Road

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

 Outside the keep it was morning and some sunlight had managed to pierce through the grey shroud over the city. When they reached the far side of the moat, Freya left them briefly, and returned with a donkey cart lined with straw, as well as a small parade of onlookers.

 “Who is that?” one of the townsfolk said, as Finn and Freya lifted the mage into the cart. “Is that one of the Four?”

 “It is!” someone else cried. “It’s Strigon!”

 “Come to my father’s house at noon, Eikin,” Freya said to a tall man in a butcher’s apron. “Bring the other sheriffs of the watch.”

 “If that’s one of the mages, girl, you’d better let us have him,” an angry voice shouted, and there were a few murmurs of agreement.

 “Who are these strangers?” a woman shouted. “Are they going to slip out of the city with that traitor?”

 The man called Eikin stepped forward.

 “We will get our answers in good time,” he said in a loud but calm voice that stilled most of the muttering. “Ragnar and his family have always served this city faithfully. Let them go now.”

 There were a few more angry remarks and dark looks, but the crowd began to disperse. The companions hurried on again, and without any further encounters they reached the smithy and brought the mage inside the house. Harke met them and Ulla hurried to make a bed ready.

 

***

 

The other sheriffs of the Watch soon arrived at the blacksmith’s house. Will, Rowen, and Finn stayed in the upstairs room. They had already been seen by too many townsfolk, Harke cautioned, and the rumours about a band of strangers were no doubt flying thick and fast. Both Will and Rowen were exhausted, and glad of the chance to rest for a while. Pendrake and Ulla tended to the mage, who had not wakened again since he collapsed in the keep.

 

When the meeting was over, Harke came upstairs to tell Pendrake and the others how things had gone. Will and Finn joined Pendrake in the blacksmith’s kitchen, while Rowen, who had fallen asleep, was still upstairs.

 

“There are reports of the werefire vanishing all over Skald,” Harke said. “And the nightcrawlers have started fleeing.  The Watch already drove a pack of blood-hobs out of the city.”

 

“What about Hodge and Flitch?” Will asked. “Has anyone found them?” He had told the blacksmith about the hogmen earlier.

 

Harke shook his head grimly.

 

“Not yet, but they are being sought,” he said grimly. “If they’ve done the things you told me of, they must pay.”

 

“And Strigon?” Pendrake asked. “Has anything been decided?”

 

“There is still much anger at the mage, but folk have had a weight lifted from their shoulders. They want to celebrate, not hold a trial. Better that than pounding at my gate, I say.”

 

“Strigon spoke of the Needle’s Eye…”

 

“The high pass in the mountains,” Harke said with a nod. “A three day journey from here, up the valley of the Whitewing River.”

 

“The mages found something there,” Pendrake went on, with a glance at Will. “Something we must find. We need to leave as soon as Will is rested enough from his ordeal in the keep.”

 

“You are all welcome to stay as long as you like, my friend.”

 

“Thank you. When we go, I would ask that Rowen stay here. She is in no condition for such a journey. Will you look after her, Ragnar, until I return?”

 

 

 

 

 

Will was surprised, but said nothing.

 

“Of course, old friend,” Harke said. “But none of you is ready to set out. Stay with us, just a while longer. We’re going to hold a samming.”

 

“What’s that?” Will asked.

 

“Something left undone for far too long,” the blacksmith said, his face breaking into a grin.

 

Will and his friends stayed in the blacksmith’s house that night. In the evening Finn went out with Freya to join in the hunt for the hogmen and the other nightcrawlers, while Pendrake stayed to tend Rowen and the mage. As he lay in his bed Will was glad to find there were no disturbances or faces looking in at windows. But despite the quiet, he had a restless sleep filled with dreams in which he found himself back in the keep, lost in its dark maze.

 

In the morning he felt somewhat better, but still shaky. Every now and then a wave of dizziness would pass over him and his sight went cloudy. He guessed that the werefire was to blame. When they sat down to breakfast, Rowen still looked pale but insisted that she felt much better. Pendrake said nothing about his decision to leave her in Skald, so Will did not mention it either. The loremaster watched her with concern, but Will could also tell that he was restless and eager for them to be on their way out of the city.

 

Harke had met at dawn with the city elder, and announced to all at the kitchen table that the samming would be held the following evening. Ulla clapped her hands, and Freya beamed happily.

 

They spent the next day much as the last: resting at the blacksmith’s house so that Will could recover. When evening approached and it was nearly time to set out for the samming, they discovered that Ulla had cleaned and mended their traveling clothes. Rowen said that she felt well enough to go out, and Pendrake reluctantly agreed. After dinner Freya took Rowen to her room to find her something more “fit for a samming,” as she said. When dusk fell and it was finally time to set out, Rowen was still not ready and so Will and the others set off, agreeing that she and Freya would join them later.

 

Harke led them to a wide square ringed by trees from which many lanterns hung. The brightly-lit space was filled with people, young and old. Children were perched up in the limbs of the trees, older folk sat on benches, but most of the Skaldings were seated on a carpet of thick, soft furs that had been laid down on the stones. Many curious looks were directed at Will and his friends as they arrived.

 

“Someone asked me whether you and your companions are the new League,” Harke said to Pendrake. “By the Stormrider’s helm, some folk never learn.”

 

Will and his friends found a place to sit on the furs.Large platters of bread and meat and fruit were passed around, and cups were filled with a sweet ruby-coloured juice. They accepted the meal eagerly. As they ate no one spoke, and Will was beginning to wonder if this was as lively as the gathering would be. Then a group of people began to gather on a raised wooden platform, carrying pipes and drums and small, rounded instruments that looked like plump fiddles.

 

The musicians began to play, slowly and softly at first, but soon the music was running along at a lively pace, and some of the Skaldings got up and began to dance. Some danced alone, stepping lively and clapping their hands, while others linked arms and danced in a ring, whirling faster or slower as the music changed pace.

 

Someone sat down beside Will and he turned to see that it was Rowen. Her red hair, which she’d worn tied back for much of the journey, now hung thick and full over her shoulders. She was wearing a long green dress set with tiny gleaming stones at collar and wrists. Freya was with her, and she too had changed, into a white gown with red embroidery. Will gaped at them in surprise, then recovered and turned his attention back to the dancing.

 

After a while the musicians took a rest and refreshed themselves with food and drink. Some of the children now grew bold enough to approach Will and the others. They were curious about Shade, and took turns stroking his fur, which he bore with surprising patience. When the music began again, the lanterns were dimmed and the tune was now slow, and sad.

 

“First we dance,” Harke said. “Then we remember.”

 

An ancient-looking old man with a white beard stood up and began to sing, in a language Will could not understand.

 

“He’s telling the story of our lost home,” Freya said. “Long ago we Skaldings lived in a far northern land by the sea. A land of foaming rivers, great pine forests, and snowy mountains where dragons and frost giants dwelt. On winter nights we would look up and see, gleaming among the stars, the citadel of the High Ones, across a shimmering rainbow. The home of the Stormrider, the Thunderer, the Snow Maiden, and their kin. Their story was our story. We thought ourselves powerful like them, and we became proud, and arrogant. Although we already had all we could need, we demanded tribute from weaker folk, in return for our protection. Those who resisted, we conquered. We celebrated our victories in song, and thought ourselves the masters of the world.

 

“Then a shadow of fever and fear fell upon the land. The rivers dried up, the ice on the mountains melted away, the animals sickened and died. One night there was a mighty storm in the heavens, and after that the citadel of the High Ones was gone. The sky was empty. Our towns and villages fell silent. Tales and songs were forgotten. And then hisarmies came, and with them came those we had conquered, eager for vengeance. They swept our strongest warriors aside like straw. And then we were told there was a new story, and a new power to kneel before.”

 

The old man bowed his head, as if gathering his strength, and then went on with his song.

 

“He sings of the few who refused to kneel,” Freya said. “How they escaped and set out in search of a new home, wandering for years through dangerous lands. And how they came at last to these mountains, and they looked up at the moonlit peaks, and it seemed to them that they saw the citadel of the High Ones there, once again. And once more they heard the roar of dragons among the clouds, and the chill of the frost giants on dark winter evenings.”

 

“You built Skald to be like the citadel of the High Ones,” Rowen said eagerly. “A city across a bridge of light.”

 

Freya nodded.

 

“We built the city to remember,” she said sadly. “We remember all that we had, and lost. By joining hands we remember what true strength is.”    

 

As the singer reached the end and fell silent, there were tears in many eyes.

 

“First we celebrate, then we remember,” Harke said again, and grinned. “Then we celebrate some more.”

 

After a few moments the music began again, and now it was louder than ever, and many voices joined in song, until Will’s ears began to throb with the noise.

 

“We will make a noise this night,” Harke shouted over the din. “A noise that will tell the nightcrawlers their time is over.”

 

Dancing was the furthest thing from Will’s mind, but then a girl came hurrying toward him from among the dancers and pulled him to his feet. Before he could protest she was whirling him around and around, laughing as he blushed and tried to keep up. As he spun he glanced at his friends and saw their amused faces, especially that of Rowen, whose look went from wide-eyed disbelief to delight at the spectacle before her. Then a young man crossed the carpet of furs and tugged her out among the dancers, too. 

 

The music began to go faster, and the dancers along with it, until they were whirling at dizzying speed. Then they began letting go of their partners. Folk tumbled onto the furs amid a chorus of laughter. Before Will could prepare himself, the girl let go of his hands and he went sprawling, too, his head spinning. He picked himself up, and there was Rowen, also sitting on the furs with a stunned look. They grinned sheepishly at one another, then sat back down to endure the applause and laughter of their friends.

 

“You dance well, Will Lightfoot,” Shade said. “Now I see how you got your name.” Will looked warily at him, unsure if he was being made fun of.

 

Ulla danced with the toymaker, and Finn with Freya. Will was surprised to see that Finn was a good dancer. That must be something else the Errantry taught you, he supposed. He also couldn’t help noticing that Finn and Freya looked into each other’s eyes throughout the dance. When they returned to their places they sat close together, and talked in quiet voices.

 

All at once there was a shout, and hands pointed skyward. Everyone looked up as the music broke off. Will saw Morrigan spiralling toward them out of the blackness beyond the lanterns, turning end over end. As she neared the ground she appeared to gain more control of her flight, and made straight for Pendrake, who caught her in his arms.

 

She lay there, her wings beating feebly.

 

The Skaldings began to back away and mutter amongst themselves.

 

“The Stormrider’s bird,” someone cried. “A messenger of doom.”

 

“She is a friend,” the toymaker said loudly. “She did not come from the Stormrider.”

 

He bent his head close to the raven’s beak. The crowd had fallen silent, and Will was able to hear Morrigan’s whispered clicks and croaks.

 

“Is she hurt?” Rowen asked anxiously.

 

“She was keeping watch above,” Pendrake said. “The shrowde attacked her. She’s injured, but I do not think it is severe. She managed to drive her attacker off.”

 

He looked up at the blacksmith.

 

“I’m afraid we must leave now, my friend,” he said.

 

“We will protect you,” Harke said, “as you did us.”

 

Pendrake shook his head.

 

“This is something far worse than the nightcrawlers,” he said, and then he turned to Rowen. “You will stay here, Rowen. And this time there will be no argument.”

 

Rowen gaped at him in shock. Then her eyes blazed.

 

“No, Grandfather, you can’t–”

 

“I said there would be no argument. I see now how foolish it was to bring you with us. You weren’t ready for the Weaving yet, for all of this. And there is no time to teach you how to use your gift, not when we are hunted and on the run.”

 

“I made it this far,” she shot back.

 

“From here the road gets much harder, and you need to recover your strength. If this hope fails, there may be a longer road ahead for all of us. We will take Will to the Needle’s Eye and return as soon as we can, whatever the outcome.”

 

Will expected Rowen to protest some more, but she went silent and did not say a word on the way back to the smithy. By now Morrigan had recovered enough to fly off in search of Moth. Will and the others hurriedly packed their belongings. The blacksmith’s family gathered in the courtyard to see them off. Ulla gave them all warmer fur cloaks for the mountains, and had made small needed repairs to their packs and other gear. Freya had sharpened their weapons.

 

Will thanked her and Ulla for all they had done. He was sorry to leave them. Despite all that had happened, Skald now seemed a safer place to him than the world beyond its walls.

 

Ulla leaned close and kissed him on the forehead.

 

“Find your way home, child,” she said.

 

Harke said a gruff goodbye to everyone and saw them off at the gate of the smithy. Rowen had refused to leave her room, but at the last moment she appeared, came up to Will and gave him a quick hug.

 

“Goodbye, Will,” she whispered.  “Good luck.”

 

Will swallowed hard.

 

“I don’t know where I’d be now if it wasn’t for you,” he said thickly. “Get home safely. Some day maybe I can come back. We can see each other again….”

 

Rowen nodded, her eyes filling with tears.  She hugged Finn and Shade, and clung to her grandfather for a long time before turning away suddenly and running back to the house. Ulla followed her.

 

***

 

Freya led them through the quiet streets to the western wall of the city. Here there was no gate, only a short flight of steps that descended to a low, cramped tunnel, at the end of which was a door guarded by three armoured men. It was quickly unlocked and the companions passed through in single file, into another narrow tunnel and down another staircase, at the bottom of which they found their way blocked by a thick hedge with thorny, intertwining branches. Freya came down the stairs last. Reaching a hand in among the branches, she tugged at something unseen, and a part of the hedge swung outward like a door.

 

“Clever,” Finn said.

 

“The League was good for a few things,” Freya said.

 

The companions filed out into a shadowy thicket beyond the hedge. Freya walked with them a short way down a steep path lined with standing stones, to a swiftly-running stream bordered by willows. The sun was rising already and a pale rosy light streamed through the trees and lit the city wall, like the flush on the face of someone who has been ill for a long time and is now recovering. Here Freya gave them some final directions for their road west, and then they said their farewells.

 

Freya wished them all good fortune on their journey, then she turned to Finn.

 

“The Errantry will be welcome here now,” she said with a shy smile.

 

“And your people will be welcome in Fable,” Finn said, with a blush that surprised Will. “Our cities need no longer be strangers.”

 

When she had gone, Pendrake gazed up into the treetops.

 

“Now all we have to do is find …” he began, but a gruff bark from Shade cut him off. Before anyone could speak a word, Moth stepped out of the shadows with Morrigan on his shoulder.

 

“You people make far too much noise,” said the archer with a shake of his head.

 

Moth listened attentively while they told the tale of all that had happened in Skald. He congratulated Will on his clever escape from the hogmen, which made Will grin with pleasure. Then Moth gave his own report.

 

“There has been no sign of Lotan himself,” he said. “But if the shrowde is here he cannot be far away. And I’ve overheard frightened talk from folk on the roads. Talk about people who were thought dead but have been seen walking.”

 

“Fetches,” Will whispered.

 

“They may be inhabiting the dead, or simply taking their shape,” Moth said. “This is not a good place for us to linger, even if the darkness in Skald is lifting. I found a cave not far from here, near where this stream flows out into the River Whitewing. We can rest there for a while before setting out again. There was another occupant, but Morrigan and I persuaded him to leave.”

 

“Who was it?” Will asked.

 

“It wasn’t really a who so much as a what,” Moth said. “It left in a hurry, having so many legs to run with. At any rate, we should assume our pursuers have found our trail again, and we must travel with stealth.”

 

Moth led them along the stream. They came out into a more open space where the snowy mountains rose up before them, lit by the morning sun and much closer than Will had imagined they were. The bank grew steeper and rockier as they went along, so that when they reached the cave they had to scramble up a slope of sand and shale to reach it. The cave was not warm, but it was dry and out of the wind that had risen as they walked.

 

Will listened as Pendrake, Moth and Finn discussed the road ahead, but said nothing. His thoughts were on the portal Strigon had spoken of. If four powerful mages couldn’t open it, what hope was there that he could?

 

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