Aphelion Issue 242, Volume 23
August 2019
 
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The Mist Beyond the Circle

by Martin Owton





The smoke was the first sign we had; the smell of wood smoke on the evening breeze. We left the carts of turf then and ran. The settlement was two miles away, hidden in a fold of the hills. Evening was deepening into night as we reached the dry stone wall of the home field. Beyond it, the embers still glowed where the big barn had been fired. Two of the cottages were smoking rubble heaps, two others still stood roofless, and the thatch of the remaining one was scorched where the fire had failed to take hold. The stockade which had held the livestock was empty and the body of Anya's mother Mairead lay before the gate, her blood staining the trampled earth.

We ran through the settlement calling for our loved ones, numbly, blindly, unable to accept the evidence before us. No voices answered though we cried out as loud as we could before we fell to weeping, the ten of us together, except for Aron. He stood apart taking in the scene then strode to the one intact cottage, which he had shared with Tomas and Tomas's wife Nieve. He returned with two lanterns which he lit with the flint from the pouch he always carried, and handed one of them to Tomas.

"Everyone into the cottage, there's nothing to be done out here," Aron said softly, but with an authority it did not occur to me to question. Nodding to Nieve he said. "Get some food, we're going to need it." Taking the other lantern, he walked off into the dusk in the direction of the ruined barn.

We silently trooped into the cottage and packed into the main room, sitting where we could. Nieve roused the hearth fire which still smoldered in the grate and swung the cauldron over the heat. No one spoke except Niall, he continued to bawl pitifully even though the rest of us were past tears. I felt they were all looking to me for leadership. After all, I had brought this collection of younger sons with no hope of inheriting land back here, to the fields and woods of our childhood. I had begged the tenancy of the farm, derelict for years since the civil war, from the Earl and supervised the rebuilding, but I felt paralyzed by the loss of Anya, unable to think of anything but my pain.

Aron returned with a large oilcloth bag in his arms; there was a powerful smell of the midden as he placed the bag beside the door. "More than a few of them, mounted. They drove the stock off north-west."

"Into the wildlands," I said. "But why? Who are they?"

"I would guess they're headed for one of the passes through the mountains. That means they're making for Keshan on the coast; there's a market there for slaves as well as stock. Keshan's been a pirates' nest for generations, too tough a nut for anything less than the High King's army. It's the natural home for all the bandits and cutthroats in the west. I would guess they've been watching us for the last few days, did no one see anything?" asked Aron evenly. There was a general shaking of heads. I'd heard of Keshan, but I hadn't realized we were close enough to be in peril. I wondered if the Earl had known when he granted us the land. I supposed he must have done; we were the remotest of his holdings, the nearest to the wildlands.

"What about the Earl and his men?" asked Tomas.

"Too far away,” said Aron, his face grim. “Two days to his castle on foot, half a day's ride back. They'll be in the mountains by then,"

"We'll never catch them then." The despairing voice was Niall's. His wife Caitlin had given birth to their firstborn two moons ago and she had stayed at the settlement while we had gone to get the turf in. "I'll never see them again."

"Not so, man. Think about it," said Aron. "They have stock to drive and prisoners to ward. You've driven stock before, what distance can you make through the wildlands at night without scattering your profit from here to the river? No, they'll make camp to feast and drink. The cider stock is gone, that's our guarantee they'll not be riding through the night."

"How do we track them in the dark? We've no dogs, we've nothing to fight them with if we did find them, and the nearest help is too far away to be of use," said Tomas, practical as ever even in the face of this crisis.

"Wrong again." Aron picked up the reeking bag, untied the drawstring around its mouth, and gently drew forth its contents. A dozen or more standard army issue short swords lay on the beaten earth floor; each in a dark leather scabbard as long as my shin, protected from the moisture by a layer of grease. One was longer, its scabbard chased with silver.

"Where did those come from?" asked Tomas staring at Aron in surprise.

"From a past I thought I'd left behind," Aron said and picked up the longer sword. His dark eyes and the silver threads in his hair gleamed in the lantern light; he and the sword seemed well matched. "I'd hoped I wouldn't need this. Pass them out, Padraig."

"We still have to find them," I said reaching for a hilt.

"That indeed is more difficult, but there is some hope. Nieve, boil a kettle of water please," Aron said and stepped through the doorway to the sleeping quarters.

I passed out the swords as Tomas searched for some rags to clean them. Everyone took one, even gentle Nieve, the tears in her eyes replaced by a look of cold determination as she cleaned the weapon.

Aron returned carrying a small leather pouch. He stepped around Nieve to look at the kettle. Lifting the lid, he poured the contents of the pouch into the heating water.

We sat in silence as the water boiled, each cleaning their sword and staring into the fire. My mind was paralyzed as I rubbed at the blade, I could only think of Anya and what she might be suffering. I supposed everyone's thoughts ran the same way. Aron took the boiling broth and filled nine mugs, which he passed around.

"Wait a while so it will not scald you, then drink it all and all of you together."

I brought the mug towards my lips. The brew smelt like hot pond water or worse.

"Not yet," Aron said sharply. "Wait till I give the word then drink it all, every last drop." He bent to add more turf to the fire, building it up as if for a long evening.

"What's in this?" asked Tomas cautiously.

"Dried mushrooms of a kind that grow on the open heathlands of the south. They open the doors of sight to those that have the gift."

"And what good will that do us?" Niall said sharply. His voice sounded close to breaking.

"I don't know, but it is all the hope I can give," said Aron, ignoring the tone of Niall's question. "Drink now and keep it all down."

As I lifted the warm mug to my lips, the smell of the brew made me gag. I took a deep breath and opened my throat to the disgusting fluid. My stomach rebelled and I nearly refilled my mug. By an act of will, I swallowed and clamped my jaws shut. The stuff was worse than any of the herbs my grandmother had ever dosed me with as a child. Across the room, Aiofe staggered to her feet and ran for the doorway, her hand over her mouth. The others were in similar difficulties, and when I could sit up and look around there was no one who was not pale and sickly. Aron quickly passed a jug of clean water around and we all rinsed the filthy taste from our mouths.

"Make yourselves comfortable and sit quiet now, it will take a while to work," Aron said as Aoife returned shame-faced and tearful to sit beside Owain, her husband of less than a year.

I huddled down in a corner trying to force my mouth to forget the taste.

"What do you suppose that was?" whispered Tomas, who was sat beside me. "I have never tasted worse in my life and I have never seen Aron like this before. He has become a completely different man in the last hour."

"He's your cousin, you should know him if anyone should," I replied.

"Second cousin, and I know less than you might think; I don't even know how old he is. Older than me, but by how much? I never knew him as a child, he arrived for my grandfather's funeral, and I just fell in with him. Obviously he has fought and

traveled, but who and where I don't know. He rarely speaks of it, but I think he's been to the Holy City. He had money aplenty, but I have never heard him mention a sweetheart. Other than that I would say the rest of you know as much."

I thought then about the Aron I knew. Quiet and competent with an inner calm and though sorely tried by one thing or another, I had never seen him lose his temper. He was a good teacher of what he knew and an easily taught pupil. A staunch companion in the wild or the alehouse. It occurred to me that I had never once in the one and a half years he'd been at the settlement talked to him of things that he believed in or that mattered to him. It was while I thought about him that the ground seemed to fall away and, though I knew I sat on the packed earth, I felt a brief surge of vertigo. I lifted my head and the room seemed to be growing misty at the edges. Abruptly Aron was before me, looking sharply into my eyes as if he could see the mist filling them.

"It begins," he said softly and then louder. "Join hands, form the circle."

Aron caught my right hand, Tomas my left, and the others joined likewise until the circle was complete.

"Listen now, clear your minds and join the chant." With that, he began to chant in a low voice words that had no resemblance to any language I had ever heard. He repeated the phrase endlessly and, not understanding, we all joined with him, filling the room with the sound. The mist grew thicker as we chanted, Aron's grip seeming the only point of contact with the world.

"Find them now." Aron's voice came through above the chant. "Fill your mind with them. Reach out to them. This is your land. You are one with it. Send your spirit outwards and let the earth bring you to them."

I tried to picture Anya as I had last seen her, half a lifetime ago, this morning. Her dark hair and blue eyes, her soft hands and voice, reaching out through the mist.

I found something, something touched me in the mist. A woman's voice spoke to me in my mind.

"I have been waiting for you, come with me."

I left the room and the chant and stepped into the mist following the voice. Outside the room, the mist thinned, and I stood in the yard looking around. The familiar scene was lit by a directionless light that cast no shadows like midday on a cloudy day. I walked away from the cottage and a figure clad in a bloody white smock walked towards me from the stockade where the gate still swung on its hinges.

"Take my hand." The figure reached out one slim hand and looked me full in the face. Mairead. I felt fear then for I knew she was dead.

"The blood they have spilled and the fear they bring leaves a trail. The land itself burns under their passing. I will bring you to them. Hurry, we have a long way to go," said Mairead.

We began to run, Mairead and I, down the track away from the farm. The country went past as if we were riding a tireless, galloping horse. We turned north into the wide unsettled lands that lay between the farm and the mountains. We were in country I knew well, every tree and rock was utterly familiar from childhood. Mairead still clutched my hand and drew me on as the land flew by. We came to a wide river and turned westward.

"Searching for a ford." Mairead's soft voice whispered.

A dark-wooded hill loomed ahead as we followed the riverbank, swift as swallows. A plume of smoke rose before the wood and we made straight for it. The camp was inside a bend in the river. We slowed to walking pace as we approached. Large men, rough-haired and bearded, drank around a fire under a spitted sheep. We stood outside the circle. I counted ten warriors, then Mairead drew me away to where our prisoners lay in a small stand of trees. I looked for Anya and saw her huddled close to Caitlin who cradled her child desperately in her arms.

"Here is your enemy. Bring back my girleen and then I can rest with my man."

Anya's eyes opened at the sound of Mairead's voice and she looked up at us in surprise.

"I can see them." Niall's voice jerked me abruptly out of the raiders' camp, back to the cottage fireside.

"Where are they?" Aron's voice.

"Under the trees," answered Niall in a breathless whisper.

"Who's there?" Aron again.

"All of them." said Niall.

"Look outwards, what can you see?" asked Aron.

"Water"

"Still or running?" said Aron

"Running."

"How many guard them?" asked Aron, an edge of urgency breaking into his voice.

"Ten, one of them is wounded," replied Niall.

"Follow the water. Where does it flow?"

"It flows towards the setting sun," Niall called out triumphantly. "It is the Greyswan's stream, where it meets the North river."

"Just below the ford. They're at the edge of Peadar's Wood camped in the big bend." I spoke and my voice seemed to echo in my ears.

"Then we have them," said Aron quietly

I tried to find Mairead; to return to the camp, but the contact was severed.

"Come back away from them Niall, follow the stream back through the woods," said Aron. "Does anyone watch the path?"

"I'm coming back through the woods. It's getting dark. I can't see."

"Where are you now?" asked Aron.

"There's a clearing. I'm beside the burial mounds. I’m cold." A shrill note entered Niall's voice. "Why’s it cold? Aron? There's something else here."

Aron knelt beside Niall and caught his hands. "Niall, come back to us," he called. "Wake up now."

"It's all around me, so cold." Niall cried out, fear filling his voice. "I can't breathe. Aaaah!"

His scream was cut off by the jug full of cold water that Aron sluiced over him, but the fear still shone in his eyes. He shivered in his chair as Aron awoke the others by the same method. I had no idea how long I had wandered in the mists, but the fire had burned down to a few embers.

"I reckon we have five hours of darkness left to us. That should be time enough to get us to them at dawn if we take the footpath over the hills and follow the Greyswan's stream through the woods," said Aron.

"Get us where?" asked Owain.

"Where the Greyswan's meets the North river. In the elbow of the bend in the river."

"How do you know that?" said Tomas.

"Niall and Padraig saw them in the mists," said Aron.

"And you believe that?" said Tomas

"I have to. If I don't believe it then I have no hope left."

Tomas looked around at the rest of us, for support in his argument.

"Shut up Tomas," said Nieve. "Shut up and clean your sword."

There was silence for a moment as Aron waited to see if the argument was over. "Now we eat," he said, "and then we run."

"I don't like the notion of going near the barrows. I felt something there and there's stories about them too, 'tis a bad place to be after dark," muttered Niall.

"We've no choice. We must go that way, if we're to be there by dawn. Do you like the notion of our folk in the slavers' hands? If you're afeared stay here," said Aron.

There was no dispute after that. Nieve brought bowls of stew and we ate. The room was quiet. I guessed that everyone was thinking of what we had to do when we reached the raiders' camp. I was. I had never been in a real man's fight, let alone killing, but when I thought of Anya the fears left me to be replaced by a cold determination.

"What did you see?" I heard Tomas whisper to Nieve.

"Nothing. Just shapes in the fire now shut up and eat your stew," replied Nieve. I wanted then to tell them what I'd seen, to tell them it was real; but it didn't make enough sense to me so I kept silent.


* * *

So we ran, clutching our swords, following Aron in single file; across our own fields at first then out into the untamed ground beyond. Fortune favored us for there was a late risen moon to light our way between ragged wind-driven clouds. I would say the same journey would have been impossible without the moon, but Aron would have still made us go. He led us at a gentle trot that ate up the miles without burning the lungs, occasionally the mists threatened to return but the exertion of the run kept them at bay. Despite the cold of the night, sweat ran down my face and my nose began to run. Mopping at my face broke my rhythm, but to not do so caused me much irritation. It was a trivial dilemma I could not resolve much to my annoyance. Even though I knew the country well, everything looked different under moonlight and it was difficult to keep track of where we were in the darkness. Most of the time, I watched Tomas's back in front of me and tried not to trip over some snag. It would have been so easy for one of us to turn an ankle and the rest to tumble over them in the gloom.

After a long time we came to trees. The path was more difficult here with less light and Aron slowed us to a walk. Still in single file, we pushed deeper into Peadar's Wood until we crested a ridge and descended into the steep-sided valley of the Greyswan's stream. The path ran beside the stream and we were able to run again until we reached a point where the valley opened out into a shallow bowl. Here the trees gave way to a grassy clearing where the ancients had raised their burial mounds. Aron halted and drew us into a close huddle.

"They are within two hundred paces if I have it right. Wait here, I'll go on to spy out their camp."

We sank gratefully into the soft turf as Aron moved off into the night, momentarily skylined as he climbed out of the bowl. I was soaked with sweat from the run, I lay back against a tree and tried to concentrate on getting air into my lungs. No one else was moving around, somewhere across the bowl, I could hear someone retching, but I did not have the energy to investigate just at that moment. The air in the bowl was very still and, even though I was hot from the run, it seemed icy on my skin.

I closed my eyes for what seemed a moment, then the silence was torn by a scream. I recognized Niall's voice in the cry, but in the darkness, I struggled to see where he was. A vast shadow filled the bowl, blotting out the meager moonlight, and Niall's cries came from the centre of it. I drew my blade and ran across the bowl towards the sound of Niall's voice and was stopped dead. It was as if I had collided with a wall of ice which then threw me backwards to land winded on the turf. An angry throbbing filled my ears, paralyzing me with fear. I felt held in the power of some huge savage beast. Niall cried out in pain and terror up ahead of me and I was helpless to respond. Then Aron was there and the hold was broken. With his sword in his right hand and a blazing pine branch in his left, he ran towards the shadow that squatted over the barrows.

"Fire, bring fire you fools, drive it away from the barrows," cried Aron as he threw a small pouch towards the others. The shadow drew away from Aron. He continued to advance, circling, trying to drive the shadow as a dog drives sheep. Niall's cries, weaker now, still came from the centre of the darkness which responded to Aron's advance and a more solid shape became discernable against the skyline. Another figure with sword and fire appeared away to my left. The shadow was now a solid vast figure which retreated towards the trees. A third flame appeared next to the second then a fourth. Figures ran to kindle brands and then spread to follow the shadow and cut it off from the wood.

I stood up and joined the attack, though without a flame it seemed the shadow ignored me. Niall was whimpering like a sick puppy now, somewhere ahead of me. The ring of flames advanced and the shadow retreated away from the barrows up the path we had come down. We continued to press it back up the hill and more flames joined the hunt. As I lost sight of the barrows, I heard something heavy fall among the dry branches further up the slope. The black figure howled like some lost soul in pain and dissolved before the torchlight. We ran forward to where Niall had landed.

"Are you hurt?" asked Aron softly, kneeling beside him.

"No. Just give me a minute. Is it gone?" Niall replied, his voice quavering. "That’s what I saw in my vision. What in the name of God was it?"

"Some kind of elemental I would guess, enslaved to guard the burials. It draws its strength from the site. That's why we had to get it away from the barrows before it would release you," replied Aron. He produced a flask from a pouch and handed it to Niall.

Niall took a mouthful and gulped it down. "I thought I was a dead man," he said, his breathing quick and shallow. "And being carried off to hell." "Not yet," said Aron putting his oil bottle and flint back into his belt pouch. "Something must have woken it though. These burials are old. It would take more than a few travelers passing among the mounds to rouse it, otherwise the whole world would know of this place."

Niall took another mouthful from the flask and then passed it on. Aron was the only one who refused a drink.

"I think we should leave now," Aron said. "I have found the raiders. They are three hundred paces from here, and I pray we didn't rouse them with what passed here. We'll find out soon enough if they're awake. They have the livestock penned against a bend in the river and their camp is between the wood and the pen. There are ten. One only stands guard, and he is watching the animals. The other nine sleep. Our people are roped to trees in pairs. The sentinel is mine, the others are for you, one each. We will get to just below the crest above us and then we crawl. Rub your faces and hands with earth. There is plenty of cover, and we have some time yet till dawn. Each one of you must get to within a few paces and take them as soon as there is enough light to be certain of your blow. Take them all at once, we cannot allow the camp to be roused. If you see or hear someone strike, then strike yourself. Think of nothing but the quarry in front of you. Remember what they have done and strike firmly."

"And kill a sleeping man." The thought intruded unbidden; the voice was of the preacher I remembered from my childhood. Anger pulsed through my mind. These men had killed Mairead, burned my home, and carried off Anya; certainly, I would kill a sleeping man.

Aron then drew close to each of us in turn, whispering directions to take us to our individual enemies. He took the longest time with Niall, one arm around his shoulders, his other hand over Niall’s gripping his sword hilt. He then spoke a few words in a tongue I did not recognize. A warrior's blessing possibly.

We climbed the short rise to the crest and then, on Aron's direction, dropped onto our bellies to crawl over the crest. There was not much to see. The trees thinned downhill and between them, I caught the gleam of water in the moonlight. I could not see the camp of the raiders but then I decided it was unlikely that they would be able to see me. In the sky a thick bank of cloud was advancing from the east to swallow the moon, soon it would be darker than at any time during our run. We started cautiously down the slope, feeling our way down, pushing twigs and other potential noise sources out of our paths. The night grew very dark until I could not see a tree further than three paces distant. The others, I knew, were all around me, but I could hear nothing that marked their passage. A dread grew in my heart as I inched down the slope. I felt myself to be a tiny lone insect crawling towards certain destruction at the hands of a vastly stronger enemy

The gaps between the trees became greater, and clumps of brambles began to impede my way. A night breeze brought me a hint of wood smoke and the faint chuckle of the stream became audible. I was taking more care now with each forward movement. My cold hands slipping through wet grass, the front of my clothes soaked through with dew, surely I was getting close. It was hard to shake the feeling that something huge and malevolent was following my every move. Crawling round another clump of brambles, tearing my fingers on the trailing dragon's tails, another smell caught my nose. A smell of stale cider and unwashed man. Gods! I was nearly on top of them, but still I could see nothing. If they had been on our cider then they would be sleeping soundly! Courage, another few yards. Surely beyond the next clump. A snake would have made more sound as I inched there and then a little further, far enough to peer my dirt-streaked face around the clump. A mound slightly smaller than a bush lay four paces away. The mound grunted and I thought my intake of breath must have been heard across the river. The mound shifted and grunted again, then settled to its cider-sodden dreams. I edged back into the shadow of the clump to wait for the dawn.

In the dark, the ears become the major sense, and I listened for the others creeping into the raiders' camp, someone sneezed away in the dark. I held my breath and buried my face in the grass waiting for a reaction from the sleepers. Our cattle moved restlessly somewhere beyond the camp, but the raiders slumbered on and the moment of terror passed leaving my hands chilled with icy sweat.

I grew cold waiting for the slow lightening of the sky and cramp gnawed at my legs. I thought about the man just beyond the clump. I had no curiosity about what had brought his life to this place, I just wanted him to stay asleep. I wondered, too, about what Niall had seen at the end of his vision; had he wakened the guardian of the barrows when he spirit walked? Mostly though I thought of Anya.

Clouds covered the horizon eastward so the light came suddenly with a rift in the shroud. Looking about I could see other mounds, bodies rolled in blankets and no sign of the sentinel. A soft mist was rising from the river. I was reaching over my shoulder to draw my blade when I heard someone moving through the long grass. I shrank back into the deep shadow as I spotted a darker shape moving against the dark background of the trees; moving towards me. I drew my blade and held my breath as he approached. He was coming directly for me. If I didn't move, he wouldn't see me. His pace didn't vary, and as he stalked closer, I could see he was a big man, tall and broad with shaggy hair and beard. He carried a drawn sword held out before him, and he probed into the bushes with it. I tightened my grip on my sword and gathered myself to attack as he came closer, wondering where best to strike him. The raider was within two paces of me when there was a rustle from the grass away to my left behind him. He turned around instantly and strode away from me towards the sound. I saw a dark figure rise up behind him from the far side of the clump. One hand seized the raider's chin forcing his head back as the other drove a knife deep into his throat below the larynx. Blood fountained from the wound, the raider struggled briefly and then slumped, a dead weight in his assailant's arms. Aron looked over at me and nodded towards the other raiders who slept on unsuspecting as he let the dead sentinel slide silently to the ground.

I gathered my legs beneath me and then pushed myself out of the shelter of the brambles towards the nearest blanket-wrapped mound. Using my whole body's momentum, I ran the blade into the mound with much less resistance than I had expected. It all happened in silent slow motion. The raider let out a deep bubbling sigh that set the cattle lowing. His body jerked violently, pulling me off balance as I struggled to keep hold of the hilt. Then the rift in the clouds closed and I was in darkness again. I tried to stand, but my limbs were shaking so much that I stayed where I was, kneeling beside the body of the dead marauder.

Away to my left metal clashed and voices cried out in alarm, something heavy smashed through the bushes, snapping branches, setting off a commotion amongst the penned livestock. I grasped my sword hilt and pulled it free of the man I’d slain. I turned towards the sound, crouching down beside the corpse, trying to make myself look as small as possible. A figure ran from the dark of the trees, too bulky to be one of us. It was too dark to tell if he was armed. A smaller figure, Owain perhaps, appeared to block his path, but was knocked aside with a squeal of pain. I raised my sword and waited, the breath frozen in my throat, as he ran straight towards me. From my crouch, I thrust at him as he passed me. The blade struck metal and skidded off. A foot caught me on the hip, momentarily paralyzing my leg. I yelled out in pain as I collapsed, something heavy struck my head. _I’ve failed you Anya_ I thought as bright lights whirled in my head.

Running feet crashed through the undergrowth nearby.

"Stop Tomas! Leave him!" Aron’s voice. "Let him go. See to the women and children. We’ve got what we came for."

More feet around me.

"Padraig. Padraig."

Warm hands stroked my cheek. I opened my eyes; Anya was leaning over me framed against the east light.

I tried to move, but the lights flashed again inside my head. I groaned at the stab of pain.

"Thank the Gods. I thought I’d lost you."

"I’ll live," I gasped.

She laid her head next to mine. "I knew you'd come," she whispered. "I dreamed about you. You were with mother searching for me in the mist. I saw you and I knew you'd come."

Away in the dark, there was a flare of flame as someone put more wood onto the embers of the campfire and kicked it into life.

"It was Aron. It was all his doing. We didn't know what to do and he did."

Anya looked to the fire where the others were silhouetted against the flames and just burst into a flood of tears. I reached my arms around her and held her for a long time until I had the strength to sit up.

"Come to the fire and get warm," Anya said.

Sitting beside the fire as the light grew around us, I thought back over the whole mad story. Less than a day had passed since I had left Anya in our cottage to go and get in the turf. I looked at Aron with new eyes; he seemed taller, older, and infinitely more mysterious than the man I had loaned a turfing spade to yesterday. I looked around to see where he was, momentarily surprised that he wasn’t with us beside the fire. He reappeared a moment later, a pair of boots in one hand and bundle of clothes in the other.

"What’ve you there?" I asked.

"Some small payment for the damage they did us," he said. He threw the bundle to the ground and I saw the clothes were dark with blood.

"We should burn those," cried Niall, looking up from where he cradled Caitlin in his arms. “Burn them all. I want nothing to do with them.”

"No," said Nieve firmly. "Aron’s right. It’ll be hard enough rebuilding without burning good gear."

"We should take what we can use from them, and trade the rest for livestock to replace what they slew," said Anya. "It’s what mother would have wanted."

My eyes stung with tears as I remembered Mairead’s last words to me. “Your girleen is back, rest in peace.” I sent the thought out to dawn sky, hugging Anya close, and made a silent promise that our first daughter would be called Mairead. I looked over at Aron, squatting nearby scrubbing the blood from his hands with wet grass, and our first son will be Aron.

Aron looked up and saw me looking at him. He smiled a weary smile.

"How could you be sure they'd be here?" I asked, conscious of Anya's eyes on us.

"You saw them, remember Padraig? You and Niall," said Aron.

"That was a true vision then?"

"I have come to trust things seen that way," Aron said slowly.

"How did you know it would work on us?"

"I didn't, but there's always a good chance that in any group of ten people you'll find one with the sight, and we had two."

I smiled for a moment at the thought that I possessed the legendary gift, but then remembered the warnings in the old tales: that the gift could grow so strong and the otherworld draw you in until you walked in both worlds at the one time and descended into madness. I thought of the guardian of the burials and shivered.

"Will I dream of ghosts and demons from now on then?" I asked.

"Nay, you'll sleep sound enough," Aron said and glanced momentarily at Anya. "But be careful about which mushrooms you eat."

"You need not worry about that." I grimaced as I recalled the foul brew he'd made us drink. "I think I'll remember the taste for a very long time."


THE END


2010 Martin Owton

Bio: Mr. Owton is an Aphelion alumni who had long since moved on to the world of pro sales, agents, and a book coming out with Telos Publishing next year, but he stopped in again to deliver this piece, which was originally published in Black Gate magazine. His last Aphelion appearance was waaay back in March 1999, Issue 22, with Dark Hunter. Welcome back, Martin.

E-mail: Martin Owton

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