The fog writhed under the peaks but it was still a safe distance from the village. Cælin couldn’t see past the swirling wisps, try as he might. He had gone roaming deep in the forest again, despite all the warnings and threats of his parents. But the thick, white cover was high above the valley, so why worry? Even if the fog moved, he’d still have time to run and alarm the village.
He squinted, hoping for just a glance of the Fog-people, the Jiarra Talamothía, as the old ones called them, heroes of so many fireside tales and nightmares of the dwellers in Labischka village.
What he thought to be vaguely human shapes turned out to be just another patch of fir. Cælin made a face. He wanted to ride with the Hidden People on their fog-steeds, hunt with them in the forests of the night and dance with them under the starlight. Of course he couldn’t tell any of that to his parents or his siblings. The only one who’d understand him was his gran.
“Take your mind off the hills,” his mother said. They all wanted him to grow up at last and busy himself with things that mattered – trimming the sheep’s feet, or milking Acha, his father’s mean old cow who did everything not to be milked, and eventually getting a good girl and starting a family like every other decent young lad.
That path wasn’t there the last time, Cælin thought. I wonder if there is still time to discover a bit… before he knew, he was pressing through under the low-hanging pine branches. He passed the fairy village – a cluster of boulders, complete with miniature doors and windows fastened onto the stones by the villagers as a warning.
When the outlines of the trees began to dim in the approaching dusk, he realized how long he’d been away. He could expect a tongue-lashing, perhaps even a thrashing from his father… but that boulder farther ahead looked like a frozen giant; he absolutely had to see it close up. Cælin searched the shadows. The clouds broke up for a moment and stray sunbeams found their way into the murk under the branches. The boy could almost see the little folk dancing in the hazy light around the stone-giant.
He was about to scramble up the boulder, when he finally heard the bells. The villagers must have been tolling them for quite a while. What a scolding he would get if he returned to the village after the Fog had come!
He noticed the tendrils of mist creeping among the tree roots as he ran past. He gathered all his remaining strength for a final sprint.
He came out of the woods on the ridge above Labischka and stopped, panting, leaning on his knees. But as he straightened, his breath froze in his throat – a grayish-white blanket was spilling into the valley. On the houses still visible at the upper end, the shutters of the windows were pulled in and safely locked. The people inside would be huddling together quietly, turning down the light of the oil-lamps, talking of ageless legends only in whispers.
“Cælin! Cælin, come inside! He is out there somewhere again,” the woman said, despairing.
Her man joined her in the doorway. “Once I find him, he’s ripe for a good whipping.”
She didn’t mind him. “Cælin!”
“I told him a thousand times not to lurk out there,” the farmer muttered to himself. “A thousand times. Especially at this time of the year, when the mist is down so often. Sometimes I think he sits on his ear.”
Cælin didn’t dare to show himself to them. Although they were only a few steps away, they couldn’t see him through the thick, milky fog.
“Cælin, I know you’re out there somewhere.” His mother sounded like she wanted to reassure herself. “I’m going to count down from ten and if you don’t come out by one…, ten, nine, eight, seven…”
I could just slip away, they’d never notice.
“Six, five, four…”
I could go and find the Jiarra Talamothía, join them and feast with them beneath their hollow hills.
“Three, two, one…”
“I’m here, mother.” He knew her moods; it was better to give up now, when he could get away with a few stripes from the belt and some extra chores.
He twitched from the pain in his back as he was cleaning out sheep dung from the stalls. There is no sheep dung in the land of the Hidden people, he thought resentfully, nor harvest or milking the cows. He acted as if he didn’t notice his brothers peeking in above the stable door, whispering and giggling. No brothers either, who act like you are not one of them.
After he had spent the morning cleaning dung, his mother took mercy on him and sent him to the market for eggs and cheese.
Through the morning mist, the village seemed something entirely different; a city not entirely of this world, out of his dreams. Then a whiff of breeze blew away the mist and the village turned back to what it always was: good old boring Labischka.
Cælin bought the eggs and the cheese at Noll’s stall. Eanfrid, one of Noll’s sons, was at the stall today. He was a big hulk of a pimply lad, a few years older than Cælin.
“You’re Hilda’s kid brother, aren’t you?” he asked, when Cælin handed him the coppers. “How is she? Is she coming to the Summereve dance?”
“I guess.” In truth he had not seen his sister since he’d come back from the forest.
“You’re not the chatty type, are you?”
Here we go again. “No, I guess I’m not.” And I’m perfectly fine with that, he thought as he turned away from the stall, not waiting for Eanfrid’s answer.
He looked up at the ridges above Labischka. The mist never fully retreated from among the mountains. It was always there like a reminder, sometimes only in floating tufts, but often only the peaks rose above the milky sea. He could almost see an army of the Jiarra Talamothía swarming down the hillside, matchless warriors all of them, barely more substantial than the fog, with women of astounding beauty waiting for their return from the glorious battle.
“Watch out, boy.”
The boy stumbled from a near-collision with a stocky citizen pushing a cart full of turnips.
When he arrived home, his gran was in the kitchen, huddled by the fireplace for a little warmth. “Took you long, lad – went pixie huntin’? That’s just as well, as long as you don’t break the Geis. You just wait until you are a man grown and your heart has grown a crust; you’ll laugh when you think back on all your mooning,” she said with a hint of rue in her voice. She leaned closer confidentially: “Lad, if you are looking for the true holy places, the ancient places, look not in the gilded churches, but in the groves where time stands still.”
Cælin only stared. He hated to be called ’lad’ but he didn’t even notice that now. Such a flood of words was not like his gran. “The Geis?”
“Prattling too much again, mam, holding up this useless boy?” His mother stormed into the room, then turned towards him with her arms akimbo. “Where are my eggs, Cælin? You pray that they haven’t gotten broken, you hear me? Go help your brothers – they are in the sheep shed.”
They were there all right, shooting him suspicious glances as he entered.
You’re the odd one out – not used to it yet?
Summereve came, complete with a barn-dance and a bonfire at the main square. There was a boar roasting on a skewer, and Tondbert, the innkeeper, broached a few kegs of ale. Cælin stood in the corner of the barn, watching the twirling, laughing mass of people, wishing the girls were laughing at him the way they were laughing at his handsome blond brothers. The hall was gaily decorated with ribbons. The scent of wilting flowers filled the air.
The boy looked out into the dark and wondered if They were out there, lurking, envious of the light. And just then he saw a flutter in the mist – like the ripple of a veil, delicate as a cobweb. He strained his eyes, but it was just Alwunn and Bertana, the miller’s daughters, coming in from the cold, their breath swirling around their faces. When they saw him, Alwunn whispered something to her sister. Cælin nodded to them and stepped out into the dark. A part of the sky seemed to move, the stars floating in front of his eyes, as he looked up.
All that cider. He rubbed his eyes and squinted, but the stars stayed put.
The air didn’t warm up too much even this late in the summer. The end of the village wasn’t far and it felt good to walk under the light of the full moon. Mist hung above the pastures beyond the last houses. The forest drew closer to the road and darkness pooled under the trees.
He saw movement from the corner of his eye. The darkness was alive and swirling under the branches; it gleamed with a silvery sheen as it crept out from the protection of the trees. The tentacles of mist coiled around the trees, blurring their outlines, blotting out the stars. The Fog was coming.
Cælin backed up a step. All those people dancing and laughing and maybe cracking some naughty jokes about Summereve children, no one to warn them of the approaching Jiarra Talamothía. He bolted.
The merrymaking was at its peak and the musicians were giving it their best when he got back. He hung onto the doorframe panting, trying to shout over the clamor. Behind him the fog was already creeping on the road and among the houses.
Cælin looked around in despair. He spotted Eanfrid and Hilda in the corner. He fought his way to them. “Eanfrid, the Fog is coming!” But the other was too busy teasing Cælin’s sister.
Cælin tugged on his sleeve and Eanfrid finally looked at him. “What?”
He gestured towards the barn door. “The Fog. Go see yourself.”
Eanfrid looked out the doorway at the swirling miasm.
“Come.” He broke a path through the crowd towards the musicians. Cælin saw his plan; there was no use shouting – the music had to be stopped. Eanfrid headed towards the fiddler and Cælin went up to Guntram, the bagpiper. The big man didn’t want to notice him, absorbed as he was in his play.
“The Fog is upon us,” Cælin cried in his ear.
The bagpipe music died away. “What?”
By this time the music had stopped and the hall was filled with confused noise. The musicians began shepherding out the reluctant crowd. When the word spread about the Fog though, they were more than willing to move, forgetting about the bonfire, the roast boar and even the casks of free ale. In the confusion no one noticed Cælin hanging back. The barn was strangely silent now, the noises muting with an eerie quickness as if the fog had sucked up the sounds. He took a few deep breaths before he dared to look out. It was all gone, the houses, the road, the hills and the forest, wrapped in a gray nothingness. There was movement inside the Fog, slow and dreamlike like the deep undercurrents of the ocean, shapes coalescing in the folds of the translucent white. You’ll never have such an opportunity again. His breath and his rabbiting heartbeat seemed to be the loudest noises in the world as he finally gathered the courage to step out. The mist wrapped him in sticky, wet sheets. Fantastic forms swirled around him, ethereal phantoms called to him, just to dissolve when he turned their way. Not wanting to walk off the road Cælin walked with careful little steps.
When he heard the sounds, he thought they were just a trick of his imagination. They were somewhere ahead of him, but he couldn’t be sure of the direction. He didn’t dare cry out – after all the time he’d spent dreaming of meeting Them, Cælin was too scared to see them closeup, but he knew he couldn’t delay it forever. One step. Another. He walked several paces, but the muffled voices didn’t sound any closer.
After what seemed like hours of trudging through the silvery sea, the fog thinned and Cælin caught sight of dark shapes ahead. He ran towards them. The last veil of mist cleared away and he halted in front of two men, woodcutters by the look of them.
The bigger one leaned down to him. “You lost, lad?”
Cælin looked at him, then at his companion. “Who are you?” he blurted out.
“You come from the valley?” the first man asked, pointing at the road behind Cælin.
The boy looked back. The valley was filled with fog, with Labischka drowned in the milky porridge. “I come from…”
The forester made the sign against witchcraft. “That is an ancient and cursed place, lad. Nothing decent comes from there.” They backed away from him as Cælin turned and dived back into the mist.
This time he didn’t watch out for the road. He heard sounds now, voices chanting, whispering, singing in an unknown language. He caught them from the corners of his eyes, inconceivably alien shapes, barely more substantial than their environment. He tried to follow them but they evaded him.
“Where are you? Eanfrid? Guntram? Gran?”
The voices only snickered in response.
You’re lost, child.
Cælin stopped. He heard the sexless voice, more like a whisper of the wind than any human voice, as much in his head as with his ears.
It was the Geis, the voice sighed with a hint of sadness.
“Who are you? Where is Labischka? Where is my family?”
There is no village, child. There never was. You broke the Geis when you wandered out of the fog. You cannot return ever again.
All the strength ran out of Cælin’s legs and he collapsed on the road. My whole life was a lie. He had spent his life among the Fog-people, the very people he longed to join. It was all a cruel joke, worthy of the Jiarra Talamothía.
The loggers found the boy huddled at the base of a menhir in the stone circle, once the fog finally withdrew. He didn’t answer their questions, but didn’t resist when they pulled him up and tucked him in one of their wagons. The scenery passed in front of his dull glance, forest, pastures, the houses of an unknown village. Faces intruded his sight, scraps of conversations reached his ears. “…a changeling child…” “…found him out there by the circle of the Hidden People…” A woman broke through the circle of faces and wrapped him in her arms, matting his hair with her tears.
They took him in, these people who claimed to be his long lost family. He did his best to feel like one of them. He replied to their questions as best as he could, but when they asked about his time among the Jiarra Talamothía, he hesitated. His memories had already begun to blur. All he knew was that he had lost something, something that he could only find in the fog that descended from the hills and made the villagers shut themselves into their homes, where they talked only in whispers and prayed that the bad weather would pass as soon as possible.
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