Hart Fell, the Black Mountain
Kingdom of the Selgovae
Late December, AD 573
The snows have come.
The cold seeps into my bones. Winter cuts into the mouth of this steep and dead-grassed valley, and the men huddle closer to the hearth, but no fire can warm usâ€”winter in its bleakness leaves us shut for too many hours within these squat, wattled huts. We cannot escape the ghosts that followed as we fled, friends and fellow warriors. Cousins. Nephews. Brothers.
I wake in the night to the haunting blast of a battle horn. To the sound of a thousand feet rushing toward the fortress through the river below. In sleep, I see bodies piled in heaps, bloodied. Sightless eyes. In sleep, my heels are slipping once more in mud, sliding backward into the muck, spears thrusting at my legs and swords battering my shield as I brace myself in the shield wall. â€œHold,â€ I cry. â€œHold!â€
I wake to find only hollow-eyed survivors, their eyes understanding in the dark.
When the cavalry charged, the thundering of horses swallowed our battle cry. Never had I seen an army so vastâ€”an angry horde of Britons, my own countrymen. We shared ancestors with even the most despicable among them; cowards who would not join us to fight the Angles came now, to finish us.
We watched from high atop the fortress walls as they crept across our fields like so many fleas. We lit the brush fires. Let the smoke sting their eyes and clog their throatsâ€”let them taste our bitter battle fog.
And as we stood, grim-faced in our armor, spear shafts in hand, a moment before the nightmare began, a single red deer fled from the forest below.
A shaft of sun caught the glory of autumn leaves and her sleek, tawny pelt, and for a moment I was a boy again, standing with my twin sister, Languoreth, on the banks of the Avon Water as we watched a stag drink in the shallows of the river.
A moment of grace before the horror of destruction.
Now it is Yule, the day of the longest night.
There are twelve days in winter when the sun stands still, and we warriors with our night terrors and our ill-knitting wounds and our bloody-faced ghosts need to conquer the darkness or we will be consumed by it. And so, at sunset, the men stood or propped themselves up as I spoke the old words and lit the Yule log.
The woman who minds the goats had come the day before to take the stale mats from the floor, laying down clean woven rushes that smelled soft and sweet, a distant memory of summer. She brought with her the charred remains of a new yearâ€™s fire, an offering to bless our hearth. â€œFor luck,â€ sheâ€™d said, â€œso far from your homes.â€
Her gaze lingered upon the mottled scar upon my cheek that runs from temple to chin, the welt Iâ€™d borne now for eighteen winters, half-hidden by my beard.
â€œChristians,â€ Iâ€™d said.
Sheâ€™d nodded as if I neednâ€™t say more. Here in the lands of the Selgovae, Christ had not yet taken hold. Perhaps his priests were too frightened by the shades and sharp-toothed creatures that frequent the vast Caledonian Wood.
Now my beard grows long.
I think of my wife and her thick, honey-smooth hair, the way she tilted her head to gather it, sweeping her fingers across the back of her neck. She is yet alive, I can feel her across the distance.
I can feel she is breathing.
She tethers me to my body when my spirit wants to flee, for as the days pass, my mind turns dark. When I sit in contemplation, my mind begins to slip. There is a beast that stalks in the pit of night.
I fear it will take me.
On the bleakest mornings, I climb the icy path up the valley to seek solace at the spring. The trickle of mountain waters is speaking.
Iron in blood, iron in water.
My sisterâ€™s husband hunts us with dogs.
Old Man Archer says, â€œRhydderch may have dogs, but we Selgovae are wolves. He will never catch you out, not whilst we conceal you here.â€
It is trueâ€”no one steps foot in the Caledonian Deep without being seen. The Selgovae have watchers who appear and disappear as if made from mist. And we warriors of Pendragon can climb quickly, those of us who are sound. We can slip into the deep chasm of these hills while Rhydderch and his hunters are still specks far below.
And yet one ear is ever pricked for the crow sound of our watchmen.
I do not know whether I fear him or am calling him as I stand upon the boulder, high above the iron salt waters, looking out over the winter hills.
I stand upon the boulder and wait for Rhydderch and his men.
And I remember.
Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
Strathclyde to the Borderlands
Kingdom of Strathclyde
Late Summer, AD 572
It was the time of year when daylight stretched long. Travelers were often spied long into the lingering hours of dusk, yet on this day, the moors still blazed hot beneath sun when we stopped to make camp for the night.
We were bound for the Borderlands, two daysâ€™ ride from my boyhood home, the fortress of Cadzow. Weâ€™d followed the wide and glittering twists of the river Clyde south and east, through lofty patches of oak and ash, past merchants rowing upstream in their currachs and men fishing from little coracles. We passed timber-built grain mills and neatly thatched tenant crofts as we traveled through the villages of my distant kin: men and women yet loyal to me and my sister, the children of Morken. Our father had been a fierce and honorable king. But as the people gathered to greet our caravan along the road, it was not me alone they cheered. They rushed from their huts to catch sight of the man who rode by my sideâ€”Uther Pendragon. Though he was not their ruler, he and his warriors had fought for many a winter to keep the Angles of Bernicia at bay.
Gradually, the terrain shifted, and we left the villages behind. Soon hills rose turtle-backed in the distance, where pastures gave way to the wild, boggy expanse of moor. It was this land that spoke to me, for it led into the heart of the new kingdom that had become my home. The kingdom ruled by my foster brother, Uther.
But Uther had not always been my foster brotherâ€™s name.
He was a boy of fifteen winters called Gwenddolau when he first joined Emrys Pendragon. Emrys was a leader whoâ€™d inspired a brotherhood to rise up against the Angles, invaders from across the North Sea. The Angles had gained footing on our soil as hired mercenaries, but before long, through violence, theyâ€™d carved out a kingdom from stolen land and named it Bernicia. In resisting them, Emrys and his men became known throughout our land as the Dragon Warriors. There were battles, and then there was peace for a time. But when Emrys was murdered, war stirred once more. We chose the man best suited to defend Emrysâ€™s lands. In becoming Pendragonâ€™s successor, Gwenddolau became something more than a man. He became hero, protector, king.
He became Uther Pendragon.
The Other Pendragon.
Iâ€™d become more than a warrior, or son of Morken. I was a Wisdom Keeper, trained from a boy to be a kingâ€™s counsellor, his most trusted advisor. We defended our stretch of the Borderlands through the vigilance of our scouts and the brunt of our swords. Our tenant farmers were grateful. The Gods protected us. The land produced. All we required, we possessed in bounty.
We traveled fast on fleet-footed horses. We traveled light, with thick cloaks and thin bedrolls, with little more than the sack full of oats each man strapped to his horse to be fried with water or blood from wild game. Thirteen leagues in a day we passed with ease.
And yet on this day, weâ€™d scarcely traveled through Hawksland and the Blackwood when my young niece bolted upright in the saddle before me and cried out, â€œStop!â€
My horse tossed his head as I yanked back on the reins, gripping Angharad to keep her astride as the caravan came to a halt. â€œAngharad. What is it?â€ I asked.
The Dragon Warriors drew up their mounts, restless and questioning. Theyâ€™d never traveled with a child. Who among us had? Now we traveled in the company of a freckled girl of eight winters whose gray eyes were yet swollen with tears. At sunrise, Angharad had left all she had known to train with me as a Wisdom Keeper. That I was her uncle was little consolation.
â€œThe feathers,â€ she said now, pointing to the ground.
â€œFeathers.â€ I followed the line of her finger to the place where, indeed, a cluster of crow feathers lay, their ink glinting rainbows in the sun. â€œAnd so they are.â€
It was this childâ€™s curiosity about the natural world that had first endeared her to me, and now I was to foster her. Yet despite my reassurances to my sister, I was still learning the way.
â€œAngharad. Surely youâ€™ve seen crow feathers before.â€ I leaned forward only to see her brow furrow.
â€œBut I want to pick them up.â€
â€œWell, of course you may. But you must take more care when alerting me to feathers on your next sighting. You nearly tumbled from Gwydionâ€™s back.â€
Angharadâ€™s face flushed scarlet, her voice a whisper. â€œIâ€™m sorry, Uncle.â€
Thereâ€™d been little admonishment in my tone, yet my words alone were enough to flatten her. She pursed her lips in an effort to hold back tears, and guilt struck, pointed as a spear. â€œOh, no, Angharad. Please. You mustnâ€™t cry.â€
The warriors looked baffled as I glanced round in search of aid. Gwenddolau sat mounted at a distance beside my cousin Brant, expressions vigilant yet uncertain.
â€œSheâ€™s your kin as well,â€ I grumbled, then motioned to Maelgwn, who already trotted toward us on his horse, green eyes alert.
â€œWhatâ€™s happened?â€ he demanded.
â€œSheâ€™s weeping,â€ I said.
â€œAye, I can see.â€ He dismounted and went to her, taking her small hands in his. â€œAngharad, what is it?â€
â€œI didnâ€™t intend for all the men to stop. I only wanted the feathers,â€ she said.
â€œTell me why.â€
She took a breath, searching the sky. â€œMy mother told me our hearts are like birds, pricked full of feathers, and that each time we say good-bye, a feather will fall. One for a friend, two for a sweetheart. Three for a child.â€
At the mention of Languoreth, Maelgwnâ€™s gaze softened. â€œAnd here you spied three feathers, just as your mother said.â€
Angharad nodded. â€œShe promised if I found a feather, it had fallen from her heart. She promised if I picked it up and held it close, it would keep me safe.â€
â€œThen you must have them,â€ Maelgwn said.
I watched as he handed Angharad the cluster of crow feathers. Long had Maelgwn loved my sister, Languoreth.
As Angharad drew them to her chest, I searched for the right words.
â€œI know your sadness, little one,â€ I began. â€œLanguoreth and I, we lost our own mother when we were no more than ten wintersâ€”â€
Angharadâ€™s eyes widened at the very thought. â€œBut my mother is not dead.â€
â€œAye. I mean, nay! Of course she isnâ€™t.â€ I reached for her. â€œI only hope to say I know how your own heart must feel. We may collect each feather you see. But you need no such talismans to keep you safe. I swore to your motherâ€”and I swear the same to youâ€”you are safe with me, Angharad. Iâ€™m your uncle, your own blood, andâ€¦ I love you.â€ The last came too gruffly, and I cursed myself again. Maelgwn frowned.
But Angharad only wiped at her eyes, casting a weary look over her shoulder. â€œYouâ€™re not terribly good with children, are you?â€
I smiled in spite of myself. â€œYouâ€™re right, then,â€ I decided. â€œWeâ€™ve traveled far enough. We shall stop here for the night.â€
Gwenddolau approached, swinging down from his horse. â€œA rest is fine, but we cannot yet make camp. We havenâ€™t passed more than five leagues, Lailoken.â€
â€œWell enough,â€ I said. â€œBut â€™tis only the first day of our journey, and Angharad is unaccustomed to long days upon horseback, brother. You cannot expect her to last from dawn â€™til dusk in the saddle.â€
Gwenddolauâ€™s clear blue eyes swept the broad expanse of moor, resting on the grassy mound that rose in the distance. â€œSurely it is ill luck to make our camp so close to a hill of the dead. I have seen enough shades in my day.â€
â€œAye, we all spied the mound, and many a time have we passed it,â€ I said. â€œBut the hill lies upstream, and the ashes within it are sleeping. Besides, we are not far from the old ring of stones. Iâ€™m certain Angharad would wish to see it. If youâ€™ll not brave the shades for me, brave them for your niece, eh?â€
The look I received was one of predictable gravityâ€”Gwenddolauâ€™s humor had gone with seasons past. â€œI feel no more ease bedding beside a stone ring than I do a mound of the dead.â€
Brant drew up his horse, his brown eyes touching on Angharad with concern. â€œThe ring will make a good enough boundary for the horses,â€ my cousin said. â€œTheyâ€™ll not stray beyond it.â€
â€œAye,â€ Gwenddolau agreed at last, signaling for the men to dismount. â€œTheyâ€™re ill at ease, as I am, round places of the dead.â€
In truth, I knew rest would suit Gwenddolau as well, whether he cared for it or not. His old battle wound was on the mend, with thanks to Languorethâ€™s remedy, but he needed to recover his strength. Thirteen leagues in a day or half that, what did it matter? Angharad was ours nowâ€”all of oursâ€”and I meant to tend to her as best as I could.
The thought seemed to weigh upon Gwenddolau, too, for as I watched, he placed his sunbrowned hands round Angharadâ€™s waist, lifting her from my horse with a smile at last. â€œWell enough, Angharad. Come, then. Letâ€™s find a suitable place to make camp.â€
I dismounted, following behind. â€œItâ€™s bound to be boggy. Iâ€™ll fashion a bed so Angharad might sleep in the cart.â€
Next to me, the old warrior Dreon chuckled.
â€œOh, go on, then, Dreon. Letâ€™s have it,â€ I said.
â€œWell. I have naught to say but this: a handsome lord, in his prime at thirty-two wintersâ€”a Wisdom Keeper to bootâ€”already become staid and matronly as an old mother hen.â€
â€œAn old mother hen?â€ I said. â€œYou should mind you donâ€™t choke on a chicken bone.â€
Dreon lifted his hands. â€œEh, now! Thereâ€™s no need for bandying curses about.â€
â€œWhen I curse you, you shall know it.â€
â€œI believe you.â€ The warrior clapped me upon the shoulder. â€œWhatever you may do, you mustnâ€™t fret, Lailoken. I have bairns of my own, and Iâ€™ll lend you some wisdomâ€”children are like wolves. They can smell your fear.â€
Iâ€™d met Dreonâ€™s offspring. A wild pack of stoats, more like.
â€œWell,â€ I said, â€œseeing as youâ€™re such a master of your own fine progeny, perhaps youâ€™d like to try a hand at fostering mine.â€
â€œNay.â€ He frowned. â€œAnd rob you of the joy?â€
I waved him off and found Gwenddolau and Angharad crouched at the waterâ€™s edge, looking upstream.
â€œWe call this water Wildburn,â€ Gwenddolau said, bending to splash his face. Droplets clung to his golden beard, and when he stood, he shook the water from his head like a dog, smiling at his niece.
â€œWildburn.â€ Angharad looked about. Sheâ€™d drawn the black feathers from her cloak and clutched them like a doll. â€œUncle.â€ She turned to me. â€œIs it true thereâ€™s a ring of stones nearby?â€
â€œAye. Just beyond that rise.â€
Her face brightened, a joy to see. â€œMay we go there? May we go now?â€
â€œIndeed,â€ I said. â€œIâ€™m to train you as a Keeper, am I not? Here you are, eight winters, and you havenâ€™t yet stepped foot in your first ring of stones. Come now, and we shall see them.â€
â€œThe midges will be upon us,â€ Gwenddolau called after us. â€œMind that Angharad has some salve.â€
â€œSeems Iâ€™m not the only mother hen,â€ I said beneath my breath. Stopping at my horse to take the ointment from my saddlebag, I smiled at Angharad and dropped it into my satchel.
The Dragon Warriors were moving through the rhythm of setting up camp: laying out bedrolls, watering the horses, and rinsing in the burn, while the youngest men gathered fuel for the fire and unpacked the cook pots. My twin sister had sent us away with great flats of dried beef and a bounty of summer crops, perfect for a stew of wild game, but her face had been ashen as we said farewell that morning. And as weâ€™d ridden off through Cadzowâ€™s gatesâ€”I with her youngest child before me in the saddleâ€”Iâ€™d looked over my shoulder to see Languoreth standing on the platform of the rampart, watching us depart. It was enough to wound her that I was taking Angharad away. But her lover, too, traveled in my company.
â€œNo ale before supper,â€ Malegwn called to the men. His jaw was tight as he joined Gwenddolau beside the stream. Each of us had left Cadzow carrying our burdens, it seemed.
Yet Angharad was no burden. Languoreth and I had been so very close when we were children, before our fates had compelled us to live kingdoms apart. Now, with her daughter at my side, I felt the rift somehow mended. Angharad threaded her fingers in mine as she so often had upon my visits, when she and I would walk the woods together, naming things. She had my sisterâ€™s tawny-red hair and the winter-gray eyes of her father, Rhydderch.
It felt right, in that moment, that she should be with me. That I should be training her in the way of Wisdom Keeping, raising her as my own. I felt my confidence return, pointing as we drew close. â€œSee it there? The ring of stones lies just beyond that rise.â€
But Angharad had already spotted them. â€œOh,â€ she breathed. I wondered if the ring was quite what sheâ€™d expected.
Far to the north, Iâ€™d visited the ancient, imposing stones of Pictlandâ€”towering behemoths that brooded against molten silver skies. Iâ€™d sat within vast circles of sixty stones or more that rose amid thick sprays of heather. Iâ€™d walked, enthralled and nearly seduced within intimate stones, places where the rocks had been weathered so round that their curves resembled the finest bits of a womanâ€™s body.
Each circle felt different, and rightly so. For buried deep at the root of the stones were the ashes of men and women who had come before, awake and then sleeping with the shifting of stars and the rise of the moon. Though flesh had failed them, rock had become their new earthly body. Now their spirits were ever present. I could feel them regarding us now, as if the stones themselves were breathing.
These stones were not set in a circle. They formed instead the shape of an egg, sunk into the moor in perpetual slumber, rimmed protectively by a gently sloping dyke. The tallest among them was scarcely the height of a man, while the others stooped, irregular and hobbled. Still, they beckoned with their own particular enchantment, and Angharad made to enter swiftly before I caught her hand.
â€œIt is ill luck to enter without seeking permission,â€ I said. â€œThese stones are guardiansâ€”men and women of old. They do not take kindly to trespassers and can cause all sort of maladies if they wish.â€
Surely your mother has taught you as much, I nearly said. But Languoreth was no Wisdom Keeper. There was a time when sheâ€™d wished more than anything to train, as our own mother had. As I was Chosen to do. But Languoreth was not Chosen. The gift had fallen instead to her youngest daughter. Languoreth had known Angharad was marked. That the child possessed gifts was evidentâ€”a thought that stirred excitement in me even as it raised protectiveness in my sister.
But I, too, had seen things as a child. Things that frightened me. Things I could not understand. It was enough to make old spirits out of young ones. Perhaps this was the reason I felt so compelled to teach Angharad how to wield her giftsâ€”so they would not become a burden. So they could not break her.
â€œSome Wisdom Keepers are showmen,â€ I told her now. â€œThey would have our people believe that spirit speaks in great booms, like thunder. But spirit speaks in whispers. The best Keepers understand this and keep quiet so they might hear. Close your eyes and be still.â€
Through the joining of our hands I could sense her, alert as a rabbit. A little fearful. And beneath the surface, sorrow issuing in a foul and muddy water. I could take it from her if I wished. Draw it into myself, and she might experience some relief. But the source of such wellsprings ran deep. Water will find its wayâ€”it would only rise up again. Better to let her come to it in her own time. Her own way.
â€œBe still,â€ I repeated. Angharadâ€™s eyes flared with frustration, but she closed them, her cinnamon-colored lashes settling against her freckled cheeks.
I waited until her face began to soften. She had found her way to the quiet, the place where deeper meaning could reside.
â€œI will teach you the blessing Cathan once gave me,â€ I said. â€œCommit it to memory. The words will serve you well.â€ I moved through the old chant twice, then once more for good measure. â€œTomorrow we will return, and those words will be yours to speak. Yes?â€ Angharad nodded and I released her hands. â€œYou may enter now. Touch the stones if you like.â€
â€œSunwise?â€ she asked.
â€œAye. Isnâ€™t that the way of it all?â€
A summer wind played, flapping at the corner of Angharadâ€™s gray cloak as she stepped into the stonesâ€”a gentle sort of greeting. As she began to explore the circle, I told her what I knew of their story.
â€œThis ring was built by your ancestors, those who came to this great island and first dwelled in the north. I speak of a time long agoâ€”time out of memory. What you see are not only stones. They are your people, your clann. Their alignments track the course of moon and sun. The sunrise at Midwinter, the movements that mark the quarter year, too. In this way they are Time Keepers. Cathan brought me hereâ€”to this very circleâ€”when I was but a boy. I saw for myself how this stone pairs with yonder hill.â€ I pointed to the slope that rose in the distance. â€œIf you stand just here on Midwinter sunset, there is a cairn upon the summit that marks the grave of an ancient king. You can watch the evening sun slip down its curve like the yolk of an egg, until it disappears into the earth.â€
I turned back to find that Angharad was not listening and fought the compulsion to throw up my hands. Such inattention from a novice was inexcusable. But Angharad was my kin, and the girl had never before visited a circle. I held my tongue and watched her explore, fingers tracing the pale lichen that bloomed from the speckled skin of a stone.
It was as if the air around us had gone cold. I looked up, expecting to see a swift-moving storm, but the sky was cerulean, dotted with fat, friendly clouds. Strange. Yet there could be no questionâ€”the atmosphere had shifted. I could scarcely focus on Angharadâ€™s form, my sight gone blurry.
Stones had a particular fondness for the attention of children. But with Angharad in the stones, this was something more. Ill at ease, I closed my eyes and turned inward, searching for the cause of such a shift, and felt suddenly as if I were being observed.
Nay, not observed.
My blood beat against my temples. These stones were born of my own kin. Never before had I felt such malevolence. What dared stalk me now? What dared stalk my niece?
Angharad stood with her palms pressed flat against a stone. I strode into the ring, but she did not notice my presence. The wind shifted again, but now the smell that met my nose was rank, like flesh gone rotten. I did not wish to speak, fearful of lending more power to this unnamable thing, yet I could sense it, a shadow approaching, traveling across the ages. Ancient. Such power stirred I nearly reeled.
A strange look had come over Angharadâ€™s face.
â€œAngharad, step back.â€ I spoke evenly, not wishing to cause her alarm. But the child did not hear me. It was as if she were entranced. â€œAngharad. Step back, I said.â€
Pulling her from the rock was a danger, too abrupt. She had clearly joined some part of herself with the stone. There was risk in tearing her away that all of her might not return. But I could not wait. Reaching out, I yanked Angharadâ€™s hands from the granite and drew back, startled, as she rounded on me, crying out as if wounded.
â€œIt is coming for you! It comes for my mother!â€ she cried, then slumped against me, boneless. I caught her limp body in my arms. She weighed little more than a sack of feathers. Her freckled skin had gone waxen.
â€œAngharad. Speak to me. Are you all right?â€
Even as I held her, even as I questioned, I knew what had taken place. Angharad had experienced a Knowing.
My tutor Cathan was wont to have them, but heâ€™d held such mastery over himself, his utterances were more akin to a common suggestion than a vision arrived from beyond the veil. Few Keepers Iâ€™d known had possessed sight equal to his. For me, divinity spoke through nature. Augury and rhetoric were my skills. Book learnings and king lists. Strategic maneuverings. I was a counsellorâ€”an advisorâ€”not a priest as such. Yet I knew some Seers suffered exertion from their visions, and I imagined the effect could be more taxing on someone young, one who did not yet know how to wield it.
The girl was far too open. Angharad had opened herself and something had come, something unbidden. And I had unwittingly placed her in danger.
I should not have brought her here, I thought. Not without yet understanding her. Then she stirred in my arms and my shoulders dropped with relief. Angharad looked up at me, blinking.
â€œIâ€™m all right, Uncle. Truly.â€
I studied her. â€œNay, not quite. But do you think you might stand?â€
Angharad nodded and I placed her down gently, searching her eyes. Her gray eyes were stormy, but thank the Gods, wherever her vision had taken her, it seemed all of her had returned.
â€œAngharad. You must tell me what happened,â€ I said.
â€œWhat happenedâ€¦â€ She spoke slowly, as if only just remembering the use of her mouth.
â€œAye,â€ I encouraged, and her gaze turned distant.
â€œThe stone felt soft. Soft as a sea sponge. And empty. Hollow. As if I might push it. As if I might push it and fall right through.â€
â€œAnd did you? Did youâ€¦ fall through?â€ I watched her intently.
â€œNo, for there was something else then. Something coming as if through a tunnel deep in the earth. It rushed toward me like a wind, fast as a thousand galloping horses.â€
â€œAnd then? Angharad, I do not wish to press you, but I must know the entirety of what happened so I know you are now truly safe. This spirit. Did it feel an evil thing? Aâ€¦ beast of some kind? What did you see?â€
She frowned, frustration mounting. â€œI saw nothing, Uncle! It was a feeling, thatâ€™s all.â€ She struggled to find the words to explain it. â€œIt wasâ€¦ a Thing.â€
â€œA Thing.â€ I drew her to me. â€œI should not have brought you here. Not so soon. There are things I must teach you. I made an error, one I shall not make again. I am sorry you were frightened.â€
â€œBut I was not frightened.â€
I could not hold back my surprise. â€œWere you not?â€
â€œNay. The Thing did not come for me,â€ she said simply. â€œIt came for you.â€
A shiver traced my arms, and I pressed her more tightly. Then quite suddenly Angharadâ€™s face shifted and she drew away, laughing. â€œWhat is it, Uncle? Why do you embrace me so?â€
â€œIâ€”I wish to comfort you.â€ I blinked.
â€œComfort me? Whatever for?â€ She smiled. â€œI am sorry, Uncle, for I must not have been listening. I cannot recall what you did say! Tell me again what such stone rings were built for. I do so wish to explore.â€
The child had no memory of the events that had taken place only moments ago.
â€œNay, Angharad.â€ I reached for her. â€œPerhaps tomorrow. But the stones are before you. Now you have seen them! You will be hungry. Come, let us return to camp. The air grows chill. It will soon be time for supper.â€
She furrowed her brow but followed nonetheless. As we picked our way back over the grassy tufts of moor, I puzzled over what had taken place. I had spent time in shadow. In caves and underground pathways. In ancient stone chambers built for the dead. Iâ€™d faced my own darkness and my share of shadesâ€”in this world and the other. Yet never had I encountered such aâ€¦ Thing.
At our camp beside Wildburn, the night fire was crackling. We slathered on ointment to fend off the midges that swarmed with a vengeance. Dreon whittled a shaft of ash with his blade, shaping a new spear. We filled our stomachs with hot stew, and the men took turns recounting tales of the woods until Angharadâ€™s lids dropped and she slept where she sat. I picked her up and laid her gently on her bedding in the cart, tucking the sheepskin round her face, so peaceful now in sleep.
But I did not close my eyes that night for fear that the Thing, whatever it might be, should return, that Angharad would somehow be lost to me. I sat awake the long night, spine slumped against the wheel of the wagon, watching the shadows cast from the fire as they flickered and shifted, growing in the dark.