Foreign knights, officials and nobles from countryside tenures crowded in the Great Hall, exchanging news, strengthening ties with their affiliates. They gathered for the dinner in honour of the foreign delegation that had arrived just a few days before. Her brother Egill was not among them, but he was probably on the way.
“The Lady Manolada I presume?” The stout man who stepped up to her spoke with an outlandish accent. A dark red cap sat upon his grizzled hair.
“It is I, aye.”
“I am Theodoric of Caesarea. I am entrusted to give this parcel,” he fished a velvet bag out of his pouch, “to you, Milady.” He bent from the waist and melted back into the crowd before she could ask any questions.
Aeife peered inside the bag. There was an octagonal wooden box inside, inlaid with mother-of-pearl and ivory. She pulled the drawstring tight and hid the bag in one of her long sleeves.
There were four long tables set up for the dinner, three lengthwise and the top one across by the fireplace; that was where duke Markward and his family sat, along with the emissaries and the highest ranking nobles. Aeife sat by that table as well, close to one of the tall, narrow windows. Twilight painted colourful puddles of light on the flagstones.
The heavy wooden doors opened once more and Egill sauntered in late. He hugged Markward and they talked shortly, then he headed her way.
“How fare you, brother?” Aeife asked, when he flopped down on the chair between her and Caelfind, his lady wife, the duke’s younger sister.
“We are ready to set out within weeks, but I need more warriors. I’d love to have Afavldr and his troops by my side. I was wondering if you could get him to join my cause, sister,” he said, as he lifted his cup for the servant to fill.
Aeife shot him a flat glance. “I will not use him like that.”
Quietly, so Caelfind wouldn’t hear, she filled him in on the events of the past few days, omitting the package she just received from Theodoric.
He drummed with his fingers on his fist. “A cave, you say?”
A group of young men burst out laughing nearby. Aeife waited until the clamour settled. “Ua says it kills everything that goes near it. He suspects that Markward has something to do with it.”
Markward, duke of An t-Aonach Môr, rose. He cut an impressive figure with his ruddy hair and beard and lanky stature. The duchess Nerienda glanced up at him, her face expressionless, unsmiling as ever. She had most exquisite, unusual jewels hung around her neck and dangling from her ears; Aeife had never seen their like. They were all of l’aïa, the king of precious metals, found only in the perilous borderlands of Ytra-Lón. They reflected the firelight with a rosy pearlescent shine.
“My Lords and Ladies who honour us this evening, let us welcome the envoys, who arrived from the faraway realm of Outremer, daring many perils.”
The assembled lifted their goblets. Markward made a wide gesture as if to embrace them all. “As most of you may know, a crusading army is heading to Outremer under the commandership of the count of Gidel-Moe. His decision to take the cross, abandoning Caelfind, his beautiful consort,” he nodded towards his sister, “is one of courage and selflessness. I raise my cup to Egill, our beloved relative.”
Egill nodded and raised his own cup in return.
Food arrived. There were bowls of soup and cauldrons of porridge that could feed thrice ten men, there was a whole boar, stuffed with the bounty and spices of forest and field, and even a model of the castle Calan-Kalesi made of sweet pastry. Servants carried barrels and flagons of mead and good imported wine.
Acrobats and jongleurs entertained the crowd, minstrels sang about the chivalrous romances of king Aroth and his knights. They even played some of Afavldr’s lais. According to court gossip, ’Of thy doe’s eyes’ he wrote to Aeife.
The musicians switched to quicker tones and the tables were pushed aside for the dance. Courtiers, knights and ladies formed two circles; Aeife joined the outer one with Egill. The rings moved in the opposite direction and soon Plaisance and her maids passed them; the damsel graced the count with a smile. Egill chuckled at Aeife’s expression. They hopped and spun as the rhythm quickened and the cavalcade of dresses washed together in a whirlwind of color. At the end they stood breathless, with Egill holding on to her elbow. “Come on sister, don’t tell me one dance was enough. You are not that old.”
Aeife freed her arm smiling. “I’m afraid I am.”
Kolfinna rekindled the fire in the hearth; shapes of yellow-red light flickered on the tapestries that hid the grim, gray stones.
Aeife opened the octagonal box. There was a miniature on top, painted on silk; the minstrel played to the Lady, with the Knight watching from his hiding place. She found a smaller, plain black box underneath, with no writing or any kind of carving on it.
There was a golden medallion inside, two inches in diameter and as thick as her little finger. Its back was covered with tiny chiselled figurines and interlacing twines. A ring of floral patterns and some kind of inscription ran around the edge. Aeife squinted to see it better; To the Lady of the Distant Land.
There was a clasp on the edge. It contained a tress of his golden hair, braided together with her own that she’d sent him before. Part of the plait was brown with his dried blood.
She first heard of him, of his keen mind, of his quickness to laugh and his superb horse riding skill from Senach, of all people. Her late husband told her how the lion-hearted knight of Outremer had led a charge against the infidel at fourteen, not suspecting what he started. It was courtly love reversed; she had to see him with her own eyes if only once before she died.
She closed the Talisman and hung it around her neck. There was a letter under the box. She unfolded it and read his scrawly handwriting.
She summoned her maid. Seeing the Talisman, Kolfinna slumped onto one of the chairs all the colour drawn from her face. “Oh no,” she muttered.
Aeife ignored that. “Kolfinna, I need you to find the right day to meet Fiγsmi,” she said, knowing that the maid was more familiar with the old ways, than her.
The maid’s hand crept in front of her mouth. “D’you wish to go personally?”
Aeife put the miniature back into the octagonal box. “Of course. Nobody else can do this in my stead.”
“Aye, Milady,” the maid curtseyed and retreated. In the shelter of the door she crossed herself.
The right day came before the winter-eve celebrations.
“Even a favourable day is not a guarantee when dealing with Fiγsmi,” Kolfinna warned. The maid crumbled her apron in her hands. “Are you sure you want to go yourself, Milady? I don’t mean to be meddlesome but Fiγsmi–”
Aeife looked up from her embroidery. “I have to, Kolfinna. It’s my Talisman.” She sounded more confident than how she felt.
Some days later, when the city-folk were busy preparing to lit the Sauin-bonfires on the Geas-hill, Aeife and Kolfinna were walking straight into the heart of the woods, to a lonely barustokkr in a clearing, taller and more ancient than any of the other trees in the forest. If Fiγsmi was willing to talk to them at all, it would happen here.
The thick roots were strewn with the remnants of earlier sacrifices. The women arranged food and drink offerings in a cosy nook, completed the necessary rites and waited. The afternoon turned into twilight, and the shadows thickened between the trunks. Unable to sit still any longer, Aeife got up and began walking around the trunk. She passed Kolfinna twice and began her third circle, scanning the gloom under the shrubs. Her glance wandered up and she stopped dead in her tracks.
“Kolfinna,” she whispered. There was no reply. Aeife didn’t dare to go back for the maid, didn’t dare to let it out of her sight. “Kolfinna!”
She heard leaves rustling, as the maid came running.
The Bonecarver was squatting on a branch at the edge of the clearing, working on a bone fragment. After some minutes he jumped off and disappeared among the trees. The women saw the leaves of a thicket closing behind him just as they got there. The chase went on into the night, ever deeper into the forest. Aeife was about to suggest they give up, when she realized she had no idea where they were.
The women had been stumbling on a path they hoped would lead them back where they came from, but they weren’t sure any more if there was a path in the first place. Aeife’s muscles ached and her skin burned where her boots chafed it raw. She tore her skirts and cape free from the the spiky scrubs with a sort of apathy.
“We are lost,” Kolfinna sounded resigned.
Aeife fought her way through a tangle of undergrowth. “We’ll find the way soon,” she tried to sound cheerful for both of their sakes.
“This is our punishment for practising magic hateful to God. What is this if not a sign of His wroth? And on Sauin’s night!”
“Kolfinna!” Aeife shot her a hard stare, although the other couldn’t see much from it.
The maid turned back, her eyes were dark smudges in the pale oval of her face. “I’m sorry Milady, I’m just so damn scared of wild boars and other critters that might lurk around here.”
Aeife didn’t know what to say to that. She dreaded boars too; they were beasts still venerated in this part of Iamtaland, animals to be feared and avoided. “You know the forest better than me. You’re the one loafing out here with the brigands all the time.” She ignored Kolfinna’s half-hearted protests. “Try to find something familiar. Look at the stars.”
But the maid was pointing straight ahead instead. “Milady, look.”
There was a faint glow ahead. They found a single dolmen on a treeless spot and next to it, Fiγsmi standing unmoving, itself like a feature of the terrain. Aeife swallowed. She’d met this spirit of the old world once before, but she could never get used to it. The attarvi wore a material that undulated like water with its every movement and a hood covering its head, and she was thankful for that small grace.
“Venerable Fiγsmi, I come humbly begging for a favour.” The baroness took the Talisman off her neck.
“Again?” It talked with a dreamy slowness in an ageless voice.
“Aye. The pair of the one I brought you at summertide. I ask for your blessing on this one too. Bind me to the man who sent it to me, in this life and in eternity.” She felt Kolfinna shudder beside her.
It stretched out a pale hand for the necklace. “What have you brought me?”
“Blood and soul, flesh and bone,” she recited the ritual text. “Take whichever you like.”
“Your hand will do.”
Despite the pain, Aeife watched in astonishment as its dagger drank her blood; not a drop was wasted. The attarvi pulled away the dark blade.
“You have no idea what you’ve done,” Kolfinna hissed, while she bandaged her hand. Aeife turned away from her.
“Venerable Fiγsmi, how do I…” her words died away, when she saw that the creature was already gone. “…retrieve the Talisman?”
Egill was hurrying along one of the corridors of the castle, when he ran into Aeife.
“Brother, may we speak?”
He sighed. “About what? I’m rather busy–”
“I’m coming with you. To Outremer.”
He stopped dead in his tracks. “Why would you do that? What is this new madness? Do you have money at all? How do you want to get ready in the few weeks that are left?”
Aeife grabbed his arm. “I will spend most of my fortune and this year’s revenue from the estate on it. If that shouldn’t suffice, I’ll sell bits of the land to the king and Senach’s city-house.”
The count swallowed any profanities that crowded on his tongue and turned away, towards the end of the corridor.
“You need more warriors. You said so, yourself–”
“Quiet, sister, please.”
The past year he spent equipping his warriors, getting provisions, exchanging letters, collecting all he could to cover the costs, organizing the matters of Gidel-Moe, preparing himself spiritually. It was hard enough without his sister making it even more difficult.
“It would make sense if I knew you to be a pious woman, but this?” he said as he turned back to her. “I’m sorry but I cannot let it happen. The journey is dangerous.”
“Afavldr might join us as well. I may be able to sway him.”
Back in Gidel-Moe, his sister had been the apple of their father’s eye, expecting and receiving acknowledgement for everything she did. Egill didn’t mind as he had more freedom this way, but Aeife drove him insane with her whims sometimes. He folded his arms. “You thought of everything, didn’t you? At least tell me why, then. You want to repent for your sins?”
“What if I do?” Aeife sulked, “is it so hard to imagine?”
The count laughed in her face. “I see you must have your way, as usual. Oh well, the Holy Land might even cure your wickedness. I pray that it be so. Order your men-at-arms to join mine and prepare for months of journey on land and water.”
“Thank you brother,” she clung to his neck, “I need your help equipping and preparing Senach’s men. Some of them have only a sword, or not even that.”
He pushed her away. “If you are so bent on this folly, then I’ll just let you provide for your own warriors. I’d hurry up if I were you.”
Frost covered the ground in the mornings as the weather got colder and soon the first snows fell.
Even with the assistance of her steward Gunthar and Kolfinna, Aeife could barely cope with the task. She arranged the fate of Manolada, leaving the fiefdom and Castle Aberrheidol in the care of Gunthar. Feasts, balls, hunts came and went, but she was too tired to take part in the court’s life.
Egill caught her in one of the vaulted doorways leading to the Great Hall. “Be at the South-Eastern gate by compline.”
Snow rustled under the hooves of the horses. Markward and his company didn’t make extra cautions to keep silent. Branches waved in their wake, showering the path with snow. Starlight glinted on the fresh fall in the hoof prints, night birds called. Bushes rustled, as Egill and the women scrambled out of the thicket and followed the riders.
Light loomed ahead, covering the trees in a ghostly gloom.
“Shhh!” He was peeking out at a clearing between two trunks.
Temperature dropped, until they shook uncontrollably. A thin coating of ice glistened in the weak light on the trees closest to the clearing. A crow perched on a branch, with a cataract of ice crystals covering its beady eyes. Foxes, deer, wolves, even a bear gathered around what seemed to be an entry hovering in thin air, without a solid rock formation behind it. The duke and his men tied their horses at a safe distance. One of them knocked over a deer; the carcass broke clearly off its legs, as if it was made of glass. The four hairy shins stuck out of the snow, with the bone looming pale in the black mineral of bloody flesh.
Hell was not the fiery pit the priests preached about, Aeife thought as she squatted in the snow with Kolfinna. It was this; an icy plain, with statues of animals staring forever into the bluish scintillation. She felt like the skin might come off her feet, if she had to remove her boots right now.
Egill crept across the field and was almost at the entrance, beckoning to them. The women crawled up to him on painfully throbbing legs and peeped in, trying to ignore the cold spreading inside. Aeife couldn’t believe there existed such cold – it seemed to freeze their very soul, advancing to the heart, slackening the blood flow, penetrating everything, oozing from the opening.
The cave bathed in the pale glow emanating from a floor to ceiling mirror, that whirled in irregular patterns, as if it reflected some kind of consciousness. Its movement sped up as the men approached and the duke began talking. The pulsing colours slowed, then began rippling to a different rhythm. Hypnotized by the spectacle, Aeife failed to notice something watching her, studying her bare soul, something so alien, so distant a life form that she thought her mind would shatter from its very presence.
The surface flattened, then cast a wave starting from the middle as if a rock was thrown into it. The men spun. For a moment Egill and the women stayed rooted to the spot.
The count was the first to move. He dragged the others with him and unbound the horses. They didn’t have time to mount, so he slapped their rump and the animals fled neighing.
Aeife heard the voices of their pursuers from behind, too preoccupied with her stinging side and the heartbeat thundering in her ears to notice the massive trunks that replaced the pine trees. Kolfinna took the lead in the barustokkr forest. She stopped at a tree and searched the roots with a maddening slowness, while Egill swept away their footsteps.
Markward and his company weren’t far either, probably just a few trees away.
The maid finally found what she was looking for, and soon they were crouching in a dark crevice, listening to Markward on the other side of the moss curtain.
“We’re not going home until we find them, lads.”
They were pressing on a shelf cut in the trunk at the level of the lowest branches. Sparks of torchlight flashed below – Markward wasn’t giving it up so easily.
Kolfinna was pointing somewhere above them. When Aeife saw the faint outlines of the platform far above the shelf and the way leading up to it, her stomach lurched. She closed her eyes and wished she could crawl back into the trunk and wait for the morning to climb back down.
A flight of logs was drilled into the cortex. It looked ancient, with some of the logs loose, some of them missing.
They dragged themselves up on the platform, then just lay there, panting. Aeife could fall asleep there and then. It took all her strength to pull herself together and stumble on after Kolfinna and Egill.
They passed platforms and suspension bridges, until the maid stopped. Something moved in the dark.
Kolfinna bent herself and lifted her hands palms out in front of her face in a gesture of humility. “Venerable Fiγsmi–”
“O Noskori Bembas, the world is in convulsion! The demon of Darkness has come out of its hiding place, aye. Come.”
They climbed higher on a hair-thin ladder – at least the humans did. Fiγsmi scuttled up, almost flowed up the trunk in one sinuous motion.
The rungs were wrought from the same barely visible thread, so they bent gently when Aeife and her company weighed on them. They climbed, missing the rungs more often than not, groping for them with stiff hands, swaying the ladder nauseatingly. Aeife contemplated the blood-filled cracks on her hands, faintly intrigued how she was able to find the thread at all with her numb fingers.
Before entering Fiγsmi’s hut of interlacing branches, Aeife spotted a handful of fén scurrying away into the darkness. This was the first time she saw the small folk with her own eyes.
A transparent tube was coiling above their head, waving gently as if it was moved by sea-currents, emitting a pulsing glow of ever changing colour. A cluster of shards floated and rotated in a corner. Above an opening in the branches hung a Face of Truth; a cloud of sparks swarmed on it, like the reflection of the night sky on the surface of a pond. In a crystal ball a vortex of stars spun around a dark spot, that swallowed them one by one.
“A black hole. It was a bit of a challenge to capture it. Never mind,” Fiγsmi said, seeing the blank faces of its visitors. It poured a silvery drink into filigree glasses, that lit up as the liquid filled them. It was liquid fire in their mouth and throat; it numbed the pain in their limbs and banished the last splinter of cold. The sores disappeared from Aeife’s hands.
Fiγsmi reclined on a sûka leaf-shaped seat. There were deep grooves on its cheeks, as if some kind of corrosive liquid poured out from the holes where its eyes were supposed to be. Veins pulsed under its marble-like skin.
Egill stretched out his long legs as he warmed up. He told the attarvi about Markward and the cave. “What is it? How did it get into our forests?”
“Your forests?” The attarvi went on, not waiting for an answer. “What it is, depends on what you want to use it for. Or what it uses you for. They can be passages or windows to distant places, times, worlds… it gives the duke glimpses of the future, or at least a version of it, offers information about rivals, baubles, all the while subtly chipping away at his sanity.”
The baroness remembered lady Nerienda’s unusual jewellery.
“Is there a way to destroy it?” Egill asked.
The attarvi turned its face towards the ceiling. Aeife got the feeling that this was the closest it got to amusement. “Only a mortal can ask such a question. For you, there isn’t.”
“I cannot intervene.” Fiγsmi said almost apologetically, barely turning its empty eye sockets towards them. “I can’t see the fate of this world clearly. There is a turbulence, as if reality was twitching.”
The count threw in the rest of his drink. “Are there more of them?”
“There are always new ones born and old ones closing or collapsing. All of them are a bit different. They tend to open in universes that are doomed to fall. Or their opening causes the fall; the connection is not clear.”
A shard drifted in front of her face; Aeife whisked it away. She remembered all the invisible trees she saw… “How can we stop it?”
“Stop it?” The attarvi seemed baffled at the idea. “You can try getting Jamana Alaїda’s Shadowsword. You will also need a dreammaster, as they alone can wield it. It will be entertaining to watch you try. The Lord of Blood and War is not likely to give His sword willingly; it’s made of his body, after all. If all else fails, try finding Jack; he might be your second best option. He is the antimatter to Alaїda’s matter. Give my regards to the One with Nine Names.”
They sat in silence with the shards floating between them, trying and failing to make sense of Fiγsmi’s words. Egill flicked one of the shards, sending it spinning across the room. “How come the cave didn’t freeze Markward?”
Fiγsmi made the slightest shrug. “It is not done with him yet.”
The first light of dawn etched the branches with black on the sky.
“Your paths separate in the realm of the Laughing King.”
Aeife perked up. “What do you mean?”
But the attarvi stretched out to infinity, with only the fabric of reality springing for a while where it disappeared.
Aeife looked around in her chamber. She wasn’t done with a lot of important matters yet, but it couldn’t be helped. The small packet she prepared for the knight of Outremer lay on the bed. Her maidservants already quenched the fire. She was standing in the still warm room, absent-mindedly reaching into her pouch, when she felt something in it. Whispering a silent thank you to Fiγsmi, she hung the Talisman around her neck. Despite having spent the night in her purse, it felt warm and somehow alive. Aeife suppressed a shiver and tucked it under her shift.
She stepped out of the gate of Calan-Kalesi castle. Theodoric wasn’t surprised to see her joining them; Egill must have filled him in and, as Aeife predicted, Afavldr was there too. The great hunting falcon, a present to the king of Outremer perched on the arm of the falconer, rustling its feathers against the cold.
The preoccupied and grim Markward was bidding them a formal farewell. His men would escort the army until the borderlands; beyond that the host had to rely on its own strength. In the havens of Colwyn it would board war-galleons, the gifts of king Ethal, lord of the Inner Realms, to the king beyond the sea.
Aeife, who had never been outside the Inner Realms, let alone the whole of Iamtaland, glanced up at the ivy-covered walls and the mountains looming above them nervously, as if she wanted to memorize the sight.