“There is something up on the hill,” the baroness told her maid that evening, “something evil.”
Aeife, baroness of Manolada didn’t take an entourage, relying on the hood to conceal her identity as she rode on the muddy alleys of Calan-Kalesi. The city and the fortress of the same name was built on a hilltop nestled in a ring of mountains, with a road spiralling down around the hill in the shelter of ancient sycamore trees. Hilla, her mare trod on a colourful carpet of fallen leaves. The baroness passed the mossy, carved stone that marked the Geas-hill junction. This was the route the procession used at the four big festivals that marked the passing of the year, leading up to the highest of the summits hulking above the city.
Aeife rode in contented silence. She liked the fog, the solitude, being able to listen to her thoughts, a luxury she could seldom afford.
The scent of wet soil filled her nostrils. Breeze rustled among the branches of the beech trees that loomed through the mist, like phantoms. Water glinted between the rustling leaves; periodic streams ran across the path and she heard the murmur of a bigger brook. The path led through a pine grove, past flat boulders covered with people, ships, spirals, circles, and other mysterious images. They were said to be carved by the Old folk and were the subject of superstitious fear and veneration by the present dwellers of the duchy of An t-Aonach Môr. Aeife crossed herself and hurried Hilla on.
Near the peak the wind strengthened, swaying the branches of the few stunted trees and shrubs that replaced the forest. Something was off, but Aeife couldn’t put her finger on what it was.
Hilla snapped her head up. She recoiled with nostrils flaring. The baroness collected the reins and patted the palfrey’s neck, trying to soothe the animal to no avail. She got off and tied the horse to a sapling.
Silhouettes loomed in the mist ahead. The ring of stones had stood on the peak since time immemorial. It was believed to be another relic of the Old folk, along with the four festivals and many of the traditions, myths and beliefs of the peoples of the Inner Realms of Iamtaland. Aeife liked coming here despite the eerie atmosphere, watching as figures formed and dissolved in the fog. She spotted a shape which didn’t disappear along with the rest. It was a deer standing there, watching her. Aeife took a few steps towards it, but the beast didn’t move. She stretched out a tentative hand and rubbed ice crystals between her fingertips. The deer was frozen rigid with hoar glittering in its fur, on its eyes, on the feathers of the birds that lay scattered around it. The brittle weeds broke like glass under her feet.
Aeife realized just then what was amiss in the forest. Ever since she left the lower slopes, she heard no birds or the rustling of small animals. There was an oppressive silence on the mountain. The baroness left the stone circle, glancing back over her shoulder again and again at the deer. She slowed down, not wanting to frighten Hilla more than necessary.
The palfrey wouldn’t stand still, prancing, stepping away when Aeife wanted to put her foot in the stirrup.
“Easy, girl, easy… “
They descended from the mountain on a different, less used path, with Aeife holding tight the reins of a skittish Hilla. Something had changed in the woods, and the deer wasn’t the only sign of it. She saw a lot of invisible trees; unpleasant traps if one ran into them with enough force to tear through the bark. They were one of the many reasons why the forests of An t-Aonach Môr were said to be cursed. Invisible trees disappeared after a while, but there were too many of them now. They stood like ghosts by the roadside, the landscape and the other trees showing blurred through them. Hilla sensed one in the middle of the road in the last minute. Aeife stretched out her hand, feeling the fishlike, slimy crust as they passed it.
Back in the fortress Kolfinna greeted her. The maid made a half-hearted effort to hide her grin. “Milady, the fair Plaisance is here to see you.”
Aeife pursed her lips, then carefully reorganized her features in an expression of surprised delight before opening the door. “Lady Plaisance. What joy it is to find you here!”
The favorite of the Calan-Kalesi court, the queen of love and beauty at every tournament studied her stained glass windows. The clouds parted for a brief moment and twilight painted colourful patches on her blue embroidered dress, that shifted as the damsel moved. She didn’t wear her favourite flowers in her hair, but a circlet of braided gold wires.
Aeife’s smile waned. She’d rather people didn’t go close to her windows. They were rare and expensive gifts from Senach, her late lord husband, depicting scenes from the story of Tristan and Yseult, one with the princess and her knight sharing the goblet with the potion in it, the other with Yseult talking, while Tristan hid in a well.
Plaisance turned and her face lit up. She hurried across the room and embraced the baroness. Aeife hugged back with reserved zeal.
“Dear Lady Aeife, fresh off the horseback,” she chirped, and Aeife wondered if she smelled of the stables.
Kolfinna brought them hot, spicy wine in pewter goblets. The maid bustled about in the chambers to pick up juicy bits of gossip Aeife was sure.
“Thank you, Kolfinna, that will be all for now.”
“Have you heard about the envoys?” Plaisance asked after they were left alone. “It is said they are coming from across the sea… does this have anything to do with your brother’s plans?” She leaned forward with her foggy gray eyes opened wide. This must be her tactics with her legion of admirers, Aeife thought sourly.
“I hope they make it here safe and sound,” Plaisance crossed herself. Her golden sweep of hair undulated with the movement.
“Why is that?”
Her face clouded. “Haven’t you heard? Travellers whisper about watching eyes in the forest, about scouts never returning to mercenary bands,” her fingers crept to the cross at her neck.
The baroness glanced at the window and the thickening gloom beyond, her hand searching for her own cross, mimicking Plaisance’s movement unawares. “Where did you hear that?”
The damsel rolled her eyes. “Nowhere. You know how menfolk are. They don’t want to upset us, but they talk when they think we aren’t listening. I hope your gallant brother is not travelling south.” She sipped from the wine and smacked her lips in delight. “Oh, this is excellent!”
“It’s the shortest route. What other way could he go?” Aeife asked, but she felt a chill creeping down her spine.
Plaisance’s hair spilled around her face like a curtain, as she bowed her head. “You’re right, I guess. I’ll pray for them every day.”
The talk turned to dance-feasts, banquets and tournaments to be had once the envoys have arrived. “I wonder what to put on; these foreigners are said to have an exquisite taste of fashion. I wouldn’t want to seem provincial…” Plaisance played with one of her tresses, pulling out the loose threads and shaking them gracefully off her fingers as she spoke.
Aeife sighed. She hummed, nodded at the proper places, winkled the dirt out of the engravings of her ring under the cover of the table. At one point Plaisance fell silent and the baroness realized too late that she’d missed a question about Lady Nerienda’s slightly garish new dress, or some other subject of similar importance. She mumbled something non-committal. After the compulsory round of exchanging hugs and kisses and promises to visit each other again soon, Aeife showed Plaisance out.
She could call in Kolfinna at last. “Try not to look like you heard the best joke in your life.”
The maid rolled her eyes. “She does it on purpose; you know it full well. I wonder why it still irks you after all this time.”
Aeife chose not to hear that. It was dark by the time she finished summing up the events of the day. “First the deer, the invisible trees and now these rumours… perhaps it’s time we visited Ua.”
The water seeped up next to their boots through the springy cover of fallen leaves, dampening the edge of their cloaks.
“One of my younger brothers is about to marry this coming year.” Kolfinna stopped to catch her breath. Her hair stuck to her face in matted strands. “Not a hard-working lass by the look of it.”
“You never thought of marrying, Kolfinna?”
“The one I liked chose the daughter of the wealthiest farmer in the village.” She grimaced remembering blond Kiallakr. “And you? The Lord Afavldr has been seeking your grace since you were a wisp of a girl in the court of Lord Cináed.”
Aeife used the roots as stairs, holding on to trunks and branches. She liked the rough touch of the bark under her palm. “Aye, he has. He is also married to Ásný the Virtuous.”
“So what? A dally to pass your time…”
Aeife didn’t return her grin. “I have no inclination for such, as you know it full well.”
The maid did know and wished she didn’t. She prayed every day that the evil spell would be lifted from her mistress’s heart. She didn’t want to think of the consequences it might have for both of them. “It’s just that I feel for the poor fellow, the way he is pining for you… they say he is writing a chivalric romance.” She swayed when a stone tilted under her foot. “Featuring you.”
“Who says that?” Aeife snapped.
Kolfinna peered at her with wide eyes. “Finella, maid of the fair Plaisance.”
“How would she know it? She is a blabbermouth, just like her mistress,” the baroness grumbled.
They had to watch their steps, as the trails seemed to wander in these woods from day to day. Without a guide one could get lost forever.
The fog thinned a little on the mountain pass and they could see the city below and, beyond the hills in the south, the Aballava meandering in the distance.
A silvery scintillation shone through the thicket on their left. It sparkled with a trembling light as if it was ever in motion.
“Don’t stop,” Aeife whispered. Kolfinna crossed herself.
Beyond the ridge the vegetation was scarcer. The women poured some ale on the ground to appease the spirits, before stepping in among the vast barustokkr trees. The needle-carpet absorbed the noise their soft leather boots made as they walked among trunks thicker than the bastions on the city wall, clouds entangled in their crowns.
This was the oldest part of the woods; these trees were here before the stone circles on the hills and the road markers in the valleys. They were old when man came to Iamtaland. They climbed a cluster of boulders, careful not to slip on the wet moss, then turned left and right until Kolfinna stopped in front of a barustokkr, bulkier than any of those they’d seen before. The maid felt the crust. The opening concealed under the beard of moss was so low they had to crouch to fit in. In the greenish haze inside they could make out the end of a winding staircase.
Light filtered in through tiny windows cut in the trunk. Thick as it was, the light seemed to come from the end of a tunnel, barely illuminating the fine carvings on the steps, worn down to almost nothing. The glow became dimmer once they reached the level of the lowest branches. They had to take a break to get some air. Aeife sweated despite the cold.
Twice more they stopped and twice more they moved on, trying to ignore the protest of their cramping muscles, their panting and the drumming of their heartbeat drowning out anything else, their attention limited to putting one aching foot above the other on the endless steps. When Aeife thought she couldn’t go on much longer, they reached an opening with a low threshold.
“Careful,” Kolfinna warned. They stepped over the threshold, holding up their skirts and capes. The spiky grid loomed above them in the semi-darkness of the foliage. The women saw it only because they knew where to look. It was the crude work of the foresters, not one of the refined traps of the Old folk. Tree crowns and branches dawned through the fog around them, one single limb massive enough to support a smaller house, though whatever remained of the settlement of the Old folk was higher up, hidden from prying eyes. From the platform they were standing on, a flimsy suspension bridge led to the neighbouring tree. Aeife couldn’t shake the feeling that they were being watched as they crossed it, holding on tight to the rope handrail, but she saw nothing when she looked around.
Legend had it that the oldest of the trees had seen the creation of the world. Sages, storytellers and occasionally scholars scaled them seeking wisdom, even if priests preached against the practice. Once felled, barustokkr changed into invisible trees most of the time.
They stepped over unremarkable-looking planks, over an almost invisible thread at ankle-height, ducked under tiny holes in the bark, went round the faint outline of a trapdoor. The fog nearly dispersed and they could see the ground dizzyingly far below, yet if someone was watching from the ground, they couldn’t have spotted them as the lower branches hid this spiderweb of suspension bridges.
Kolfinna stopped so abruptly that Aeife nearly ran into her.
“Did you see that, Milady?” the maid breathed. Parts of this platform were just clever illusions, so they had to watch their step closely. She was staring at a point among the boughs. “I think it was a gárlin-chog.”
“Gárlin-chogs come out at night, Kolfinna. If they exist at all.” But Aeife was scanning their surroundings as well.
The light was getting stronger as they got closer to the edge of the forest. Soon they were standing on the last platform, eyeing the chasm that stretched as far as they could see in both directions. They searched the foliage, but did not find what they were looking for.
“Look.” Aeife pointed to the neighbouring barustokkr. The giant, rubbery sûka leaves were big enough for a tent, which was what the foresters who planted the parasite there used them for, among other things.
The platform had a runway stretching past the foliage. They climbed the lower branches and broke off two of the surprisingly light leaves. The women grabbed the hairy stalk in one hand and the tail-end in the other.
“How I hate this.” Aeife searched her leaf for holes and tears.
“We’ve done this many times before.” The maid smiled, but her voice was a little shaky.
They turned towards the chasm. The line of barustokkri continued on the other side, with numerous runways jutting out of the greenery.
They waited for the right air current, then jumped.
Aeife would’ve enjoyed gliding on the back of the wind if her right hand, which didn’t quite reach around the stalk wasn’t shaking so hard. A rivulet twined at the bottom of the canyon, littered with the bones of those who let go of one end of the sûka leaf.
Not soon enough for either of them, they landed on a deck. “I wonder if there isn’t another way,” she grunted.
They dropped the leaves. “There are many, I’m sure, that they keep hidden from outsiders.” Kolfinna said, dusting her dress.
Temperature dropped with the approaching dusk. The women climbed down to the ground once the barustokkri were replaced by smaller deciduous trees. They heard voices above the wood’s rustle; figures were moving among the trunks.
Aeife saw it near a cluster of birches; the Bonecarver, squatting on a branch. He looked like a boy clad in a gown sewn from leaves and twigs, just the way he was described in legends. He took no notice of her, busy carving a piece of bone.
The maid looked back, but the Bonecarver was already gone. “What is it, Milady?”
“You didn’t see him? The Bonecarver, he was sitting right there on that branch.”
“Milady, the Bonecarver is–”
“a myth? Like the gárlin-chog, aye.”
The path ran between two hillocks. They climbed the bigger one on the left. Beech trees grew on the limestone boulders that lined the basin below. People perched on a log that lay across the bottom, slicing bread and bacon. The rest gathered around fires at the base of the boulders, perched in the hollows of the rocks. Their strangled murmur reached the newcomers in shreds. Most of them wore leather garbs and animal skins, but some dressed in ornate garments, which they must have robbed from caravans passing through their territory. They watched the women warily, as did the sentries on the trees. Aeife glanced at her maid; this was not the welcome they were used to.
They headed towards the hollow in the shadow of the largest cliff, where Ua Maiglinni, Bane of Travellers sat with his chief men, Sigbert of the narrow face and Aldhelm, who scarcely spoke but heard and remembered every word. The exiled lord had built up an organization during the years, exerting considerable influence over the local nobility.
The maid sulked next to the baroness, careful not to draw Rohard’s attention on herself; the way she ended her affair with the brigand was a nasty business she was not proud of.
They settled on two logs around the fireplace as Ua spoke. “It is not wise for womenfolk to roam the woods in such times.”
“Hear me out, master Ua. I was on the Geas-hill a few days ago–”
Ua lifted a bushy eyebrow. “What were you doing there at this time of the year, lady Aeife?”
The baroness ignored his question. “I saw a deer in the stone circle. It was dead, frozen to the ground. Kolfinna saw a gárlin-chog on the way here and there are more invisible trees…”
Aeife fell silent, waiting to see the effect of her words, but Ua just shook his thick mane. “Is it just the forest you find odd? What about the duke?”
She rubbed her hands together to warm them up. “What about him?”
“Not like it’s my business,” Ua answered in his unhurried manner, “but he was seen lurking around at night without entourage. Weird things started to happen around the same time he was first spotted. Here and in the south, as I’m sure you’ve heard.”
She pursed her lips. “Er, in truth, no. I’ve heard hints, scattered among the exhausting detailing of Lady Nerienda’s slightly garish new gown.”
Ua’s teeth flashed white in the shrub of his beard. “From whom?”
“Damoiselle Plaisance. By the time she reached my chamber she must have forgotten half of what she’d heard. After all its relevance is dwarfed by the courtly feasts.”
“Or maybe you just didn’t ask the right questions,” he chuckled. “She is a prime source of information; if she doesn’t talk about matters of substance with you, it reflects on you, not her. Chances are she was watching you closely while she lulled you into inattention.”
Aeife narrowed her eyes. She could have taken offence at such words, but this was Ua, king of the forest and friend of her late father Alric.
“Anyway, now that you are here, I might as well tell you what I know.” He cast a careful glance around them. “We heard about groups of pilgrims gone. All of them, disappeared, just like that.”
The baroness swallowed. “Just an exaggeration, surely.”
Ua scratched his chin, Sigbert put another log on the fire. Aldhelm looked away.
The lord of the outlaws slapped his belly. “Will you join us for our evening merriment? Even in such times one needs music and dance.”
The women shared their meat and mead. There was a roundabout that Aeife didn’t take part in.
As the youngsters tired themselves out and the company settled for the night, Aelli, the elderly storyteller told them about Nuada of the Silver hand and the battle of Mag Tured. These tales were familiar from her nurse, who came along with Aeife’s mother from the island kingdom of Dalriada.
Ua stood. “You can return to Calan-Kalesi in the morning after a good night’s rest. I have an escort to–”
“Begging your pardon, master Ua, but did you tell me everything you know?”
“Tell her,” Aldhelm spoke for the first time. The flickering light illuminated his stubbly face.
Sigbert poked the fire with a stick, sending a shower of sparks to the sky. Ua sighed and sat back. “We had reports of a cave. It never remains in one place for more than a couple of days. No-one knows what lives in it, but it is said that one glance at it can be the death of you. Birds fall out of the sky dead if they fly too close.”
“A wandering cave; how is that even possible?” Aeife pondered. She sat wrapped in a bundle of furs, yet she drew closer to the flames.
Ua shrugged. “It appeared around the same time duke Markward started sneaking around here, but it may have been here earlier. We have known about it for a month, perhaps.” He held up his shovel-like hands. “I’m not saying there’s a connection, it’s just–”
“There are too many coincidences.”
They sat in silence for a while. Sigbert and Kolfinna had already retreated to sleep.
“So, Egill is hell-bent on going?” the firelight reflected in Ua’s eyes. “Is he taking the southern route?”
“The journey takes at least six months longer if he follows the Via Maris. The provisions… ” Aeife fell silent. She sounded like she was trying to convince herself, and she did not care for it, not one bit.
Ua shook his head and grunted something in his beard.
The baroness joined Kolfinna in a nearby cave. The maid was snoring softly on a hay-filled mattress. Aeife lay awake staring at the sooty roof, thinking, trying to silence her worries.