She was floating. There were no memories, just the the silence and the dark and and it was alright.
People running up and down aboard, eyes wide with dread in the light of the flashes. Creaking planks and whispered prayers under a furious black sky.
She pushed it away, holding on to the velvety nothing, but the more she clung to it, the more it eluded her.
Ocean Foam broke in two like a wafer. Men in the water fell prey to the creatures circling the vessel. They were dragged down, leaving a circle of bubbles and a spreading stain of blood behind.
She willed her mind to empty, but the memories kept seeping in. There was no escaping the burning of her eyes, the goosebumps on her arms, the roughness of sand on her face, her feet soaking in water and her skirts sticking wet to her legs.
Sea wolves! The sailors cried. Not having a choice they jumped overboard, hoping to outswim the streamlined shadows gliding parallel with Einherier. Afavldr dragged the women with him; the chill of the sea shocked her into stillness and her sodden clothes made every move a struggle. Triangles sliced the water around them. Even if the creatures don’t grab me, I’ll lose strength and drown, or my heart will burst, a small voice assessed the situation helpfully in the back of her mind. She vaguely sensed the spitting, coughing Kolfinna nearby. A sailor was swimming past them; he got yanked down, his scream cut short.
Kolfinna stared at the place where the man had been a minute ago, her mouth a frightened O. The maid was drifting farther every moment, the white oval of her face bobbing up and down as she rocked on the back of the waves. She would just slow you down, anyway. At least she can distract those beasts for a while. No-one can blame you for wanting to save your skin. She couldn’t see the maid any more.
Her arm felt like lead as she made the first strokes back, trying to find her way by the light of the flashes. Kolfinna was nowhere to be seen. A wave splashed in her face, the salty water burning her nose and the back of her throat. At least I won’t have to worry about An t-Aonach Môr any longer if I am to die here. Aeife didn’t find the thought as comforting as she should have. She wondered what it would feel like when the sea wolves tore her limb from limb. She hoped it wouldn’t last long. Another lightning struck and she spotted the maid. She pushed her aching muscles to their limits with every stroke, but Kolfinna didn’t seem any closer. Something brushed against her leg.
An eternity later Aeife stretched out her hand and grabbed the maid. Swimming and carrying the other woman at the same time was too much; the listless body began to slip from her grip and she couldn’t keep Kolfinna’s head above the surface any longer…
Her lashes were sticky with sea salt. Gulls struck down around the isolated rock columns farther out in the sea, their cries shrill above the murmur of the waves. Sparse weeds nodded in the wind at the top of the dunes.
Aeife sat up and curled up immediately against the wind. Her braid lay on her back like a wet rope. She was washed out on a strange coast at the foot of limestone cliffs. Two silent, soggy heaps lay on the sand a bit further away. She sat hugging her knees, looking out to the water again, her mind completely empty and serene.
Her fingers brushed the golden chain; the Talisman lay warm against her skin, but she had lost the ivory box she got from Egill. From the King.
One of the heaps finally stirred. Afavldr sat up and shook Kolfinna to life. They were not the only survivors; Styrmir, the captain of the soldiers on Ocean Foam and two of his men had crawled ashore just then.
For a while they were busy looking for a spot out of the wind and collecting firewood in a sort of stunned silence. Afavldr went to look for a path up the cliffs. The captain lit the small stack of branches and driftwood with the flint and tinder he kept in a waxed sack around his neck. Kolfinna stared at the meagre flames with such an empty gaze that Aeife was worried for her mind. The maid stretched her hands towards the fire, but the heat didn’t lessen her trembling. Aeife spotted grey hairs in her plait. I have some as well, probably.
“Where did they come from? There were no water-monsters in Őmát’Ím!” the baroness burst out when Afavldr got back.
“These live near the coast. The sailors know them.” The knight all but collapsed next to her. He had some good news. “I found a game trail.”
Aeife unbound her hair to dry; it fell on her back in a tangle of sea-smelling, matted locks. “Where are we?”
His face was drawn; there were new lines around his eyes and mouth. “Damned if I know, but I say we head north. We might find people, villages…”
They crept in single file, Afavldr, then Styrmir, Aeife and Kolfinna, the two soldiers Brastias and Olearo at the end of the line. They slipped from time to time, sending a shower of rocks down the cliff.
A grassy savannah stretched ahead of them, with a mountain range looming on the horizon and a river snaking north.
They passed abandoned settlements on their way. Kolfinna talked a lot with Brastias who was from Nulyn, near Labán-Eyeban, her home village. Olearo, a small mouse of a man preferred to scout alone most of the time. Afavldr discussed current problems with Styrmir. Aeife watched his long stride, the tattered cloak fluttering around his legs. She noted how naturally the knight took over leadership with Egill gone.
As soon as they passed the mountain range, they felt a kind of change in the environment. Even the air tasted different. The stunted trees grew in distorted shapes. They heard no birds, and the animals they had seen they wished they hadn’t. The men caught some of them, but decided to leave their foul, greenish-gray meat to the scavengers.
Olearo found the grove on one of his recons. The trees, cocooned in a thick cover of cobwebs were dying; their leaves were withering, their bark gray and mottled. Olearo drew his dagger to cut open one of the cocoons.
Afavldr held his arm. “Don’t.”
Their presence lured out the owner of the web; it was a blurred, dog-sized shadow through the tissue. They backed away as quietly and quickly as they could.
Olearo found a village at dusk. The path widened into a road and the silhouettes of the first houses loomed beyond the trees. They walked faster, eager to meet people at last. They arrived to a square, circled by a ring of mute façades.
“Hello?” Captain Styrmir cried.
No reply came. Nothing moved between the houses.
They explored the village in pairs – Styrmir and Olearo, Afavldr and Aeife, Kolfinna and Brastias.
Aeife and Afavldr were searching the last house on the square, the manor of a wealthier citizen, where they found some locals who hadn’t left in time. One of them was a woman servant sprawled on a kitchen chair. Her jaw dropped, the lips pulled back from the teeth, the sunken eye sockets stared at the ceiling. There were more of them on the two storeys of the house. They did not smell; their skin, dried on their bones had the colour of old parchment.
Despite her dismay Aeife crept closer, trying to guess what had happened to the servant.
“I wonder why they didn’t go with the others.” She jumped at Afavldr’s voice.
He was carrying an armload of torches. “I’m sorry Milady, I didn’t want to startle you.”
Aeife took a deep breath. “Her dress is intact and, as far as I can tell, she suffered no injury.”
The sun had set by the time they met at the square. “I don’t think staying here for the night is a good idea,” the knight declared, “there’s something about this place…”
The others agreed and soon they were hurrying down the main street, in front of empty, black windows, their panting loud in their ears. The shadows between the houses withdrew from the light of the torches.
Aeife spotted it at the village’s last houses; a liquid shadow pulling back into one of the side alleys, taking shape as a man.
“Don’t look at it,” Afavldr hissed.
Still, silent shapes gathered in doorways and alleys, leaning toward and melting into each other, seeping from roofs, pooling into puddles.
They were almost by the church when there was a hiss coming from the end of the line; Styrmir’s torch burning out in a puddle. Something caught him; darkness condensed and swirled around his head. His legs drummed a rhythm in the mud as he thrashed. His flailing slowed, then stopped entirely as he shrivelled up in front of their eyes. He was howling all the while, but there was another sound underneath; a kind of hum, which was somehow more penetrating than his shrieks. The creature was nearly finished with him. Another one caught Brastias and there were more shadows approaching.
They darted past the last barns and into the forest. Sparks glinted in the eyes of creatures that followed their passage. Aeife caught herself praying to the Christian God and to other, older deities, squeezing the Talisman so tight her knuckles whitened. She was not sure if she saw shapes slipping away between the trees or whether it was just the play of the fluttering light. A cluster of leaves or a knot on a trunk turned into grinning, grimacing faces.
The fog descended in the small hours of the night, drawing a halo around the torches. They kept tripping on roots and stones as they grew more tired. Afavldr allowed a short break at dawn. They noticed only then that Olearo was missing as well. The knight searched the fog behind them.
He shoved his torch in Kolfinna’s hand and disappeared among the bushes.
For a while nothing happened, then they heard sounds of fight from the nearest cluster of trees. Someone cried out, then the knight re-emerged, dragging a shabby old man with him, the first living, breathing human they’ve seen for a long time. “I mean no harm, sir!”
“Why did you follow us? Are you from the village?”
“No, but there are many in our camp who are. You’re hurting me, sir.”
The knight finally let go. “What part of the world is this?”
The man rubbed his arm reproachfully. “You just left Ystradowen, alive. We are south of Lindgadan, in the duchy of Damalioch.” He bent his head. “Tuirbe Trágmer, at your service, sir.”
The knight introduced the others. “I am Afavldr, lord of Irion-Esytion, north of An t-Aonach Môr,” he said finally. “Have you heard anything of those lands?”
Tuirbe squinted. “Why, you are far from home. Come, I’ll take you to our camp noble sir, if that is truly what you are…”
The road twined in the valleys among the coastal hills, before it turned to the West again. Tuirbe slowed down and looked up, searching the slopes.
Afavldr followed his gaze. “What’s wrong?”
The little man didn’t reply and he didn’t need to, either. The men appearing from the scrubs were answer enough.
Afavldr made a grab at the hilt of his sword and cursed when he remembered he didn’t have one. The strangers closed in on them. “The less you fight, the easier it’ll be on you,” their leader announced.
Afavldr didn’t move. “Rohard?”
Kolfinna perked up. She tried to peek above the knight’s shoulders.
The man kept his rusty sword by Afavldr’s throat. “Do I know you?”
“Me, and my companions.” Afalvdr pulled a reluctant Kolfinna to the front. “Lady Aeife and her maid, Kolfinna.”
Rohard’s frown deepened. A long buried memory stirred in Aeife’s mind. The outlaw was one of Kolfinna’s more notable pastimes, back in An t-Aonach Môr…
The man left them, waving his arms at the hills. The bandits around them withdrew their blades, muttering among themselves.
More people came out of the forest, following a mountain of a man. “What is it?” he bellowed. “I swear, if I’m not doing everything myself…” He fell silent when he saw Afavldr and his companions.
The knight spread his arms. “Master Ua, is this how you greet an old friend?”
“Lord Afavldr? Come here, you.” White teeth flashed in the shrub of his beard and he wrapped the knight in a bone-cracking hug.
Afavldr freed himself from Ua’s arms. “I brought friends, too.”
Aeife saddened at the momentary confusion on the man’s face. “I’m sure I looked more like a lady the last time we met, Master Ua.”
The chief brightened. “A little scrawny, a little weathered, but still our dear lady Aeife.”
“You were never one to mince words, Master Ua,” she laughed. “What are you doing here?”
Ua hung a hammy thumb in his belt. “I could ask the same of you. Shouldn’t you be over the sea?”
Her cheer soured. “We were sent away, to spare us from the hardships and dangers of Outremer.”
“Tell us of An t-Aonach Môr, Ua,” Afavldr asked.
It was the chief’s turn to grow serious. “Why don’t we talk about such matters by the warmth of the fire?”
Their camp was just a temporary one; they were constantly on the move, like everybody else in Iamtaland lately. A handful of makeshift hovels huddled by the piers of an ancient stone bridge. They settled around a fireplace under an awning, not far from the stream cutting across the camp. A middle-aged woman stirred a cauldron hung above the fire. They had ale brought in drinking horns and cups.
The chief sloshed some of the ale on the ground for good luck, before winding the horn. Afavldr and Kolfinna followed suit. “My man Tuirbe says you passed through Ystradowen.”
Afavldr wound his horn. “What’s going on in that village?”
“There is a grove a short ride north of Ystradowen that people whisper of, that all sorts of foul things crawl out of.” Ua crossed himself. “It used to be a sacred place of the Old People.”
“I’d like to visit it as soon as I’m rested.”
“You shall not go alone,” Ua declared in a tone that brooked no argument. “You’ll need fire, lots of it. From what I’ve heard it’s the only thing they fear.”
“As you wish.” The knight drank the rest of his ale. “Master Ua, you promised us a tale.”
“It’s not a merry one, mind.” The chief tugged on his moustache. “If you had plans of returning to An t-Aonach Môr, forget it.”
Aeife thought of her suite in Calan-Kalesi, her stained glass windows, her and Egill’s city houses, the winding staircases and secret passages of the castle, the floral carvings of the main gateway that she always touched in passing, the small side doors in the outer walls, barely visible under the curtain of ivy. She was glad Egill was far away in the questionable safety of Outremer. The irony of the situation wasn’t lost on her.
Afavldr broke the long silence. “What of Markward?”
“Gone, along with Sigbert and Aldhelm, fell in battle at the side of king Ethal around the time of the Midsummer festivals – no bonfires this year. I know not what became of the duchess and their children. And there are other rumours…” Ua hesitated. “You see, we learn the news from other bands like ours. Half of it might not be true.” He sipped from his ale. “They whisper about some unimaginable dread, deep in the mainland. They say it will keep on growing until it gobbles up the whole of Iamtaland. It sounds like something straight out of Aelli’s tales.”
Aeife looked at the others. Afavldr shrugged.
“In any case I’m glad to have run into friends this far away from home. Tell me Afavldr, what has befallen you?” Ua slapped the other man’s shoulder. Some of the knight’s drink spilled.
Afavldr wet his throat from time to time as he recounted their adventures since they left Calan-Kalesi. “Where are you headed, Ua?” he asked once finished.
“West, then north through Sûka-Kaszdim I suppose. Haven’t heard anything bad about Ytra-Lón.”
“The land of the Northern barbarians? They are as vile as demons themselves,” Kolfinna glanced up. Tresses of brown hair escaped her braid and hung loose around her face.
“As vile they may be, but they are still humans. We might come to an agreement with them,” Ua wiped his bearded face with his sleeve.
“I wonder where the hero is to save us,” Aeife murmured. She crumbled fallen leaves between her fingers.
“There are no heroes left, lady Aeife. Nuada Airgedlámh, Eochaid Ollathair, they all ran from the Cross. And this,” he spread his arms, “this is God’s vengeance for our sins.”
She contemplated Ua, looming across from her on the other side of the fireplace. He had the looks of one who had seen and went through too much. He must have lost a stone or two. “You did not strike me as a pious man, Ua. It is quite an odd vengeance, isn’t it? Nothing such as you can read in the Scriptures.” She let the leaf morsels plummet from her fingers. “What about Outremer? It had none of the troubles we have here.”
Ua straightened himself. “Lady Aeife, it is Jerusalem we are talking about! Of course the Lord won’t bring down that incense-scented city. The Saracens and a sickly king are enough curses for the Holy Land.”
Aeife ignored Kolfinna’s pointed glance. “I find it hard to believe that the End Times are upon us.”
“The good lady Aeife, always hoping for the better,” Ua smiled sadly.
“It’s not that,” she snapped. “It’s just…” Aeife was thinking about the council with Fiγsmi. She wished she didn’t feel like they were groping in the dark, drifting aimlessly. She was wondering if the dreammaster and the Shadowsword were just symbols, the keys to some cosmic riddle. No matter how she wrestled with it, she didn’t get any closer to the solution. It was lurking under the surface, like a word on the tip of her tongue. “There must be some other explanation,” she said at last, defeated.
“And if there is?”
Aeife had no answer to that. The woman ladled stew in wooden bowls and they ate in silence. Ua put his bowl aside. “At least Aelli lives. He’ll outlive us all, the old geezer.”
Aeife was glad to hear the tale teller was still around; he was part of a quickly vanishing world. She saw him scurrying to and fro on his thin legs with a bundle under his arm until he noticed them; then he stopped dead and glared at them. Afavldr waved, but Aelli didn’t seem to notice.
They were appointed their night lodgings; a tent on a tree platform. Aeife settled on the floor cross legged. “I’m coming with you to the grove.”
Afavldr stopped unfolding his bedroll. “What? No. Absolutely not. Egill asked me to take care of you…”
The baroness had none of that. “He’s half a world away; I’m here and I’m coming.”
She hurried out into the predawn darkness where she found Afavldr with Ua and Tuirbe on horses.
“I think we’ve discussed this, Milady,” the knight said.
“I release you from your promise to my brother.”
“You cannot do that.”
“I just did.”
Afavldr glared at her. “Go back inside, Milady.”
Aeife climbed up behind Tuirbe, who was the lightest of the men. “Let’s not waste time by arguing, shall we?”
The forest looked like a dreamscape in the light of the torches, with a barely discernable path running between the trunks. Condensed fog dripped from the leaves. The undergrowth swished around the legs of the animals. Standing stones lined the road, like mossy guardians.
“A grove of the Old People?” She noticed how quiet the forest was when she spoke; even whispers were disturbingly loud.
“It’s always been a strange place,” Tuirbe crossed himself.
“‘Tis not as bad at daytime,” Ua growled into his beard. He stopped his mount. “They won’t come any further.”
Walking lulled Aeife, so for a while she didn’t realize that she was hearing something. She noticed the barking only when it stopped for a moment.
“Don’t speak, and for God’s sake, do not stop.” Ua warned them. The barking sounded again, and they caught glimpses of white. A pair of overgrown slabs guarded the road; Aeife could make out the worn carvings under the moss cover. The dogs were at their base, one at each dolmen, their bodies so white they seemed to glow in the mist, their ears a deep red, like dried blood. Their lips withdrew from their fangs; shaking with excitement they drummed with their paws on the soft soil. Ua passed between the columns. The animals turned after him growling deep in their throat. Tuirbe followed, then Aeife, acutely aware of the snapping jaws near her calves.
The path led to a stone circle. Within each dolmen there was a roughly human shaped form trapped, unmoving. On a flat stone behind the altar there was something out of a nightmare. It was covered with blinking, rolling eyes, some of them closed, some staring with unveiled malice, following the group’s movement. They were of all sizes and colours, one small as a needle hole, another as big as a plate, some had slit or angular pupils, more than one pupils or none at all. One blazed like a tiny sun. The rock surrounding them had a skin-like colour and texture.
“Don’t,” Afavldr warned, as Tuirbe stretched his hand out.
“It’s warm,” the old man reported. Aeife’s stomach turned at the sight of his fingers pressing into the material.
“We’ve heard rumours about this place, but this,” Ua whispered, “is beyond anything any of us imagined.”
Afavldr prodded the stone. “What is this?” he squatted and looked into a big, red eye with a double pupil. It looked back at him.
One of the shadows broke free of its stone and drifted towards them, buzzing. Ua forced it back with his torch. With the coming of dawn the figures came to life, squirming in the stones. Two more floated towards them.
Afavldr was still staring at the eye, then, on a sudden impulse, he poked his dagger into it. It burst, covering the blade with a black liquid, hissing and corroding the stone as it poured down on it, making many other eyes in its way roll in agony, but this wasn’t the worst. It was the scream in their heads forcing them to their knees, with their hands pressed on their ears in vain. The ground shook and the shadows in the stones went crazy. When they thought they couldn’t take it any more, the scream died away.
“Afavldr, no!” Aeife cried too late. The knight chose the blazing eye; a small flame struck out when his blade pierced it. The shadows were almost upon them and Ua and Tuirbe were too busy trying not to go insane from the shriek to hold them back.
Afavldr was watching an eye with only the white showing, his weapon hovering in mid-air.
Aeife held her torch close to the stone. “Fire is the only thing they fear.” The eyes exploded with a small pop. Ua and Tuirbe joined her.
The earth still rumbled. The surface of the slab boiled; it waved and bulged as if something was trying to get out.
Once they were done with the biggest eyes, they noticed a subtle change; the scream still made them grind their teeth, but it was not as unbearable as before. By the end it was not much more than a powerless whine. The shadows were gone and the dolmens were looming solid and non-committal at the edge of the clearing. The sockets were vanishing quickly from the slab; even the black fluid was fading. The only proof that anything out of the ordinary happened on that clearing were the soot-stains on the rock.
Ua, still shaky a little, leaned against the altar. “Let’s get out of here.”
The hounds were still barking madly at the gateway.
“What’s with these dogs?” Aeife grumbled once they were at a safe distance from them.
“They are remnants of an ancient magic. Soon they shall disappear too, along with every other memory of a world that was,” Ua said with melancholy.
Back in the camp Aeife went to search for a place to wash. She didn’t want to recognize the gaunt wench under the layers of filth, with the dishevelled hair and dark circles under her haunted eyes in the mirror of the shallow pond. What has happened to the baroness of Manolada? This cannot be her.
Baldwin’s ring waggled on her left index finger, so she kept it curled not to lose it. The gold and the ruby shone dimly, the dirt drew out the Jerusalem cross with dark lines. It reminded her of another of his gifts…
They had had a smooth trip before the storm scattered them. She opened the ivory box in the privacy of her cabin. Inside, a white-brown striped plume lay on the red velvet. Aeife lifted the falcon feather and breathed a kiss on it on an impulse. It was lost, along with everything else.
Aeife went to explore the camp some days later. She was wandering in the woods, and decided to return before getting lost, when she heard a crack from the bushes. She bent the branches. A pair of eyes were staring back at her. “Aelli! You startled me, old man.”
“You must return to An t-Aonach Môr,” he said, “but not without this.” He offered her a bundle. Aeife took it from the knobby fingers. Her eyes grew wide as she unfolded the object. The last time she saw it it hung above an opening, woven from branches…
“The Face of Truth! How did you get it?”
The tale teller giggled. “So you’ve been to its lair.”
Aeife tore her glance away from the Face. “Fiγsmi gave it to you?”
“Before it left, so it did. ‘Give this to the daughter of Alric’ it said.”
She looked back at the swarm of sparks nested in the soft cloth. “Where did Fiγsmi go?”
The old man spread his arms. “Watch out, it’s very fragile, so it is. Good thing I don’t have to carry it nomore.” With that he scuttled away down the path.
“Wait, how do I use it?”
The only answer was the rustle of branches.
The plants and animals were less spoiled in the north, but the giant sûka leaves that gave this part of the realm its name withered and shrivelled up. The wind blew from the west, but they couldn’t smell the ocean yet. There was more and more traffic on the road as they approached Faileuba, and a city of tents sprawled outside the walls. The port town flourished on the traffic in every direction of the compass. Ua’s band camped about an hour’s ride from the walls. Afavldr went into the city to look for a captain sailing to the Misty Isles, who would take them on his ship. The first week he didn’t succeed, and returned to his tent every night with growing frustration.
Aeife rose long before dawn on the sixth day. She checked if Kolfinna was fast asleep. The light had dimmed in the maid to Aeife’s sorrow; it was mostly her fault. She could have spared the maid of all this. Kolfinna had been in Aeife’s service since she was but a lass in the court of Lord Cináed. Aeife was sorry she couldn’t leave anything as a parting gift, or at least say proper goodbye. She touched the maid’s face, took her few belongings tied in a bundle, and stepped out into the slumbering camp. Dawn was still far off and the stars shone above her. The baroness pulled her tattered cloak together and headed towards the edge of the camp. She’d checked the route the previous days and tucked away bits and pieces of the hard tack. She was stepping over ropes and pegs, when she noticed the sparks of the guard fires in the distance. Aeife took some deep breaths to calm herself, collecting courage to cross the open space beyond the line of the last tents. The road should be straight ahead.
“Where are you going, Milady?”
She jumped. “Afavldr! How long have you been following me?”
The knight was just a darker silhouette between the shadows. “Since you stepped out of your tent. I knew you were up to something. Where are you going?”
Aeife picked up her bundle. “To the East.”
“Please take care of Kolfinna, and make sure she marries well.” She searched the darkness that hid the knight’s face. “And you, be well, Afavldr. You two are the last ones I have from my old life. The sole reminders that I had a life, before all this…”
He didn’t move. “I’m coming with you.”
“No, it’s dangerous!” She glanced around nervously. Sleepers were murmuring in nearby tents.
“Says you, who cannot even sneak away properly,” Afavldr snorted.
“What about Kolfinna?”
“Ua will take care of her.” With that he set out, expecting her to follow. “Where in the east?”
She swung the bundle on her back. “An t-Aonach Môr.”
They followed the paths snaking in the valleys between the mountains that separated the inland from the coast. The wind felt stronger every day. Game got scarcer and they had to live from their scant reserves. They crouched at the bottom of the hollow where they settled for the night, huddling as close to the fireplace as possible, yet the wind nearly blew out the flames anyway.
They spent the night near Yzta-Baeli. It was Aeife’s turn to guard. Her lids became heavy as the endless hours dragged on, and she caught herself dozing off.
She sat up abruptly. People were standing between the trees – at least they looked human at first glance, except for the tall, featureless cones where their head was supposed to be.
Her hand tightened around the hilt of the dagger Afavldr lent her. “Hello?”
They didn’t react and she wondered if they heard her at all. They didn’t move when she crept up to the knight. He woke to her slightest touch.
“Can you see them…?” Her words died away. There was no-one in the shelter of the trees. “They were right there, watching us…”
“There are still a couple of hours till morning; try to rest a little, Milady.”
She turned back to him. “You don’t believe me, do you?”
“I believe anything these days.”
Aeife bundled back into her covers, not knowing any more if she had been just dreaming the whole episode.
They found a lake some days later, sparkling blue and unreal in the colourless landscape. They rushed down the slope to refill their gourds. Aeife got there first, kneeling at the shore.
She turned back to Afavldr, but the knight was staring at something beyond her. She followed his glance and her expectations of fresh water evaporated.
There was a deer carcass half in the water. Its head and neck were covered with ulcers.
Aeife backed away from the water. The lake was teeming with some sort of fish; stocky cylindrical creatures that pulled a long tail of hairs behind them. A fish got tangled in those hairs; it twitched a little, then the same hideous wounds blossomed on it.
They were gnawing on the last dry bits of hard tack in a resigned silence at the base of a cluster of boulders. “The wind is getting stronger as we go deeper inland, but it should have died away when we reached the hills,” Aeife mused.
The knight shrugged. He wouldn’t allow such a behaviour with her before, but they were both past caring. Aeife nibbled on. She could think more clearly if only she could fill her stomach just once. Something was off with the wind. It didn’t feel natural. It didn’t behave like wind should, but for that matter nor did the fire, stretching towards the boulders as if…
She straightened. “Look at the fire! The wind doesn’t reach here, so why does it flutter like that?”
“This is no wind.” He watched the flames, his eyes wide above the shaggy beard. “This is–”
“Something sucking the air.” She crumbled some bits of the hard tack. The morsels drifted towards the boulders.
“We already felt it on the coast.”
They looked at each other in silent horror.
Near Gidel-Moe the wind got so strong they feared it would snatch them up and drag them away like the dry leaves, branches and birds that drifted with it. Struggling with it, Aeife remembered some of Afavldr’s lines; ‘catch me wind, fly me into the sun to dissolve in the glare, wrap me in veils of light.’ Well, if this wind cannot do it…, the baroness thought sourly.
The knight’s bag slipped off his shoulder; he caught it in the last minute. Their cloaks clung to their legs as they lurched along the road. “It doesn’t take rocks.”
“What?” Aeife’s hair flapped around her dirty face as she turned to him. Her collarbone stood out sharp under her rags.
“Not even pebbles, look,” Afavldr pointed. He was right; stones lay undisturbed as everything else swung past them in the wind storm.
They lay awake in the dark that night, listening to the hiss of the wind.
“How much farther can we go before it takes us?” Afavldr wondered.
“I have to keep going, but you could turn back,” Aeife had to try. She rubbed her arms to warm herself up.
Afavldr snorted. “Why? What do you think you can do?”
She turned to where she suspected Afalvdr in the dark. “Probably nothing. I’ll never know if I never try. Whatever is happening here will sooner or later reach the Isles and Outremer and beyond. Like a rotten apple that spoils the whole basket.”
“You are worried for… Outremer?” The knight asked cautiously. They never talked about the Talisman and what it implied, but knowing Egill, her brother must have told Afavldr about it.
Aeife looked for stars overhead, but didn’t see any. “I’m worried for the whole world. Fiγsmi said there is a way to stop this; if nobody else is willing to try, then I guess it has to be me. Even if I’m not made of a particularly heroic material,” she laughed sadly.
Afavldr rested his head on his arm. Jolly Egill would know how to use such a moment to his advantage. But he wasn’t Egill, so he just let the opportunity pass. He thought of the boy king who had her heart and cast it away and the knight couldn’t help hating him. Out loud he only said; “I wish I could talk you out of it.”
Aeife didn’t answer for so long that he thought she’d fallen asleep. “Have you been writing lately?”
Afavldr was surprised by her question. “On what? With what?”
“Is it true you were working on a chivalric romance?”
He thought of the piece he left behind in Irion-Esytion. It was his first work of greater length. He was nearly done with it, and for once he was quite satisfied with the result. He missed working on it during the long months of wandering. “No, chivalric romances are not for me.”
In the morning they discovered that their food supplies had been pilfered.
“There is a living creature nearby and it sneaked into our camp without us noticing. It might still be around,” Aeife hugged herself against the chill.
“Should it come again I’ll take care of it,” Afavldr growled. They stumbled on in the pull, finding it harder and harder to resist.
“Shall my eyes go blind, that I came to see this,” she murmured as they passed through the dead landscape that was once Gidel-Moe, the ancestral home of her family.
The thief followed them; bits of their gear and food kept disappearing.
“It’s small enough to creep around unnoticed, yet the wind doesn’t take it back to hell where it came from,” Afavldr grumbled. It was his turn to guard and Aeife was glad to lie down finally.
She was back on Einherier and she couldn’t run anywhere from the falling beams and the loose barrels kept hitting her. Afavldr was shaking her shoulder. The knight was staring at something beyond the fireplace.
“On the left.” His mouth barely moved as he formed the soundless words.
Her eyes widened. The knee-high creature’s black skin shone in the light of the embers, its big, orange eye cast down as it hunted for rewarding bits in their bags. One of the humans moved, and the gárlin-chog scooted away in the blink of an eye.
Afavldr cursed. “I’ll find a way to get rid of this vermin.”
She squatted by their bags to assess the damage. “Not so fast; I might have an idea.”
Afavldr was away looking for food, and she stayed to watch the camp. It was almost impossible to resist the pull now; the knight went away staggering, his clothes flapping like sails. They searched for rocks to camp next to and in this they were lucky at least; there was barely anything else but stones left in the valleys. Aeife withdrew behind a boulder like she did so many times before in the past few days. The gárlin-chog never came since she began her watch, so she almost missed it when it finally appeared sniffing around their bags, crawling under their blankets. Aeife jumped out form the shelter of the rocks with the Face of Truth in hand. “Gárlin-chog!”
The gárlin-chog’s eye locked on the Face, hypnotised by the swirling dots. The scintillating died away and the creature stirred. With the stars gone the Face was just a hole on reality in the shape of a face with a single closed eye in the middle. It was similar to the fidgeting gárlin-chog that way. Aeife had to find out what to do, and soon. She turned the Face, moved closer, tried prying open the eye, but all she achieved was breaking her already battered nails. In a desperate last ditch effort she put on the Face, just when the gárlin-chog slipped away.
The creature froze. The Face stayed on and Aeife looked around awestruck, taking in layers upon layers of realities, starry vastnesses behind, beyond, interwoven with her own reality. Things of mind-boggling size moved in the dark, empty gulfs of space.
Seen through the Face the gárlin-chog was more like a black blob hovering mid-air.
“Gárlin-chog,” she repeated.
You don’t need to talk, the toneless voice sounded slightly irritated in her head.
Do you have a name?
How come the wind doesn’t take you, Örlyg?
I exist outside the fabric of this time and space; gravity doesn’t affect me. Same as the dragonfly-man.
An image flashed in Aeife’s mind; there was no mistaking the deep grooves on Fiγsmi’s face, half-hidden under the hood. She had no idea what the gárlin-chog was on about, but she had to know one thing. What is this thing ahead of us?
Eater of the Worlds.
Why doesn’t it take stones?
You’re asking the wrong questions.
Aeife thought for a second. Can you put me and my companion under your spell? We also need food and drink. You seem to have no problem getting any of that.
The blob followed her every movement. It sunk when she sat on the ground.
Do you want it now?
The gárlin-chog was gone with a pop before she finished.
“What the hell was that?” Afavldr cried from the edge of the camp.
Aeife looked at him. The knight paled and backed a step. She could only imagine how she looked to him; a hole where her face should have been.
She had to remind herself to talk aloud. “Well, this was my idea.”
“I think you can take that off now.” Afavldr plopped down by the fireplace. He came back empty handed; even the berries they nibbled at in the last few days had run out. They were facing starvation.
“Not sure that’s a good idea. The gárlin-chog obeyed me once I put it on.”
“Well, it’s gone.” He tossed a pebble into the cold fireplace.
“You should see things the way I do now,” she said in a dreamy voice.
“I’d rather not, and I’d rather you took that thing off before it does something to your mind.”
Aeife studied him. She saw him at every age, as a child, as an old man, as a youth, as an infant, dead and alive at the same time, the skull looming through his bearded face, a million version of him in every possible world.
“Will you stop that!” he snapped.
She looked away. “Sorry.”
They prepared for another night spent listening to the rumble of their empty stomachs.
The gárlin-chog appeared as suddenly as it had left, carrying a jar of wine, eggs, warm bread, fruit, treats they hadn’t seen for a long, long time. Aeife stared at the food as if it was a vision that could vanish anytime. Afavldr admired an apple on his palm. “How will you eat with that thing on your face?”
Aeife lifted a sweetmeat to her mouth. It passed through the Face of Truth as if it was air. “Like this.”
A little while later Afvaldr was leaning against a boulder satisfied, stretching out a leg. “Where did you get it from?”
“Aelli gave it to me, who got it from Fiγsmi, along with the message to go back to An t-Aonach Môr, but the old man said nothing about how it works.” Aeife licked fruit juice off her fingers. “Do you know anything about it?”
He wound a flagon of wine. “Nothing more than what the legends say. It takes the veil off your eyes and the evil spell from your mind. But nothing such as making a gárlin-chog your servant. By the way, does it?”
“Take the veil off your eyes.”
“You have no idea.”
- They kept guard at night, as Afavldr didn’t trust the gárlin-chog. There were no people around, although some unfortunates did venture too far inland; they saw only a smear of them as they swished past. Trees were torn from the ground, clogs of soil still clinging to their roots. This was how they reached An t-Aonach Môr, or what was left of it.
“Look at them,” Aeife whispered. The path ran among trees; all of them invisible, transparent memories of a forest that was. They saw the mountains, blurry through the trunks and crowns. The pull had no effect on them; their branches didn’t stir, the glassy leaves hung unmoving. The villages in the valleys were gone, the proud castles on the summits were in ruins. River Aballava dried up almost completely; only some puddles of stale water here and there in the shelter of rocks reflected the colourless sky at the bottom of the riverbed.
They were near Calan-Kalesi when they first noticed a bruise on the sky. As far as they could tell it was near the Geas-hill. They saw more of it as they climbed a neighbouring mountain, although they wished they hadn’t.
It was as if a slice of starless night opened on the Geas-hill, a hole torn on the fabric of reality. It stretched from the top of the hill up into the sky among scraps of clouds.
They stared at it with fascinated horror. Trees, animals and other living things disappeared in the yawning black depth. It reminded Aeife of the glass ball in Fiγsmi’s hut, and she couldn’t help wondering if it was that thing that broke loose and grew to this size. A cart whooshed past them.
Aeife knew. Örlyg, lead him away from here, put a spell on him if you must, and leave him once he’s safe.
“I have more sins than I can count and I have wavered in my faith. And I’m too weak to do this.”
The knight tore his glance away from the apparition. “What are you talking about?”
“You cannot give me absolution, but you’re the only one to hear my confession.”
He stared at her wide-eyed. “I knew it’d do something to your mind.”
She lifted her hand to take off the Face. For a minute she was worried it wouldn’t come off, then the veils of endless worlds were gone. The hole on the Geas-hill seemed no less horrendous. The dots swirled on the Face. “Take this. Watch out; it’s fragile.”
Afavldr didn’t take it from her. “I’m coming with you.”
She shoved the Face in his hand. “You’ll do no such thing. I’ll not have your death upon my conscience.”
“Oh, but it’s fine to have your death upon my conscience, eh?” he scowled. “Even now you only think of yourself.”
“Please, Afavldr. I’m sorry I dragged you into this, I really am…” she stared at the hole helplessly.
“You expect me to watch you go into your death–”
“You cannot know that.”
“I’m pretty sure, looking at that thing.”
“Do you think I feel like doing this?” Aeife’s voice was shrill with anger and fear.
“Then don’t. Come with me to the north, we’ll find Ua and–”
She pointed at the hole. “Do you think I could turn my back on this and blithely elope with you? This is the Eater of Worlds, Afavldr. There is nowhere to run from it.” The fight went out of her. “Let’s not spend this moment arguing.”
He weighed the Face in his hand. “No. I cannot stand by, watching you getting yourself killed. Not as a knight, not as a man…”
Aeife closed her eyes. She had to act fast. “Örlyg, take your spell off me.”
“No!” He reached after her too late; his hand grasped empty air. His frightened glance was the last thing she saw before she was dragged away.
She flew like a fallen leaf towards the hole in the sky; then it was only darkness and the wind blowing in the void.