By midafternoon the air had become very cold. The ground became hard and frozen, and the breath of riders and horses alike steamed in the crystalline air. People began to lag a bit as they donned more clothing which inadvertently served to encumber them. There having been no winter in living memory, they possessed no heavy winter clothing, and had to compensate for this lack by wearing successively larger layers of oversized clothing not designed for cold weather. The sky gradually began to pale from its usual deep blue to the pale grey of winter. They were still some ten miles from the break in the mountains when it began to snow lightly. The wind picked up, sending the light snow scudding like dust about their feet. For many who had never seen snow, the landscape began to appear lonely, sullen, desolate, and inhospitable.
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By dusk, the sky was darkening as they entered the break in the mountains. Some saw this as a foreboding omen, but others took it in stride, knowing that they were still close to the Elf Kingdom. When nightfall finally enveloped them in darkness, Birin ordered a halt, and tents were set up for the first time.
‘We are on the western border of the Elf Kingdom,’ he announced. ‘Beyond is the unknown. It is early yet, but we will stop for the night now.
‘According to the old maps, there is an open hill country some distance past the gap. Beyond this country was said to be a forest, which was reported to have been very great. Through the midst of this forest, there was a great river, and it was along the banks of this river that our ancestors followed its course from the west.
‘Our ancestors,’ he continued, ‘were loath to enter into that forest, not because it was solely the demesne of Faeriekind, but because the forest itself was said to be enchanted. Unlike our ancestors, however, we hope to find that this still holds true today.’
The tents were set up in a wide circle, with a watch set up around the perimeter. The night was preternaturally cold and clear compared with what the Elves were used to. Around midnight the wind died altogether, and the refugees soon discovered that the utter and complete silence was hurtful to the ears, as one strained to hear the least sound, of which there was none.
The moonless night was so dark that, lest someone wander off and become lost, a large bonfire fuelled by piled scrub was set in the center of the encampment. For those used to being within the comfortable safety of their homes, it was an uncanny feeling, being in an open space, and utterly blind.
In the dead of night, Pran returned to the tent to awaken Ralph, so that he could begin his turn at the watch. Putting a finger to his lips, Pran led him out to the perimeter, and pointed out into the darkness. Glittering coldly, tiny pairs of yellow flecks were about the camp, a fair distance away. Ralph did not need to ask what the flecks were; they were distinctly and unmistakeably the eyes of some night creatures illuminated by the firelight.
‘We do not know what they are,’ whispered Pran, ‘but they have been there for some hours now. So far they have kept their distance. I will get my bedding and sleep here, I think. I suggest that you keep your sword ready at hand.’
One by one, as the first light of dawn approached, the pairs of eyes vanished with the night. When it became light enough, Birin sent a few scouts out to investigate. The news when they returned was unsettling.
‘There is nothing,’ the scout said to Birin and the awaiting soldiers. Pran and Ralph stood nearby, listening. ‘Not a footprint. Not a trace of spoor. Not a sign that anything was there at all.’ Birin and the soldiers were clearly worried, despite the fact that nothing seemed to have come of the strange incident.
Ralph raised a question that had been bothering him since he had begun his watch. ‘Why couldn’t we see their breath in the light? Why just their eyes and nothing else?’
One fellow, a farmer who had lived not far from Pran, having overheard Ralph’s observation, said, ‘Maybe it was just our own eyes staring back at us.’ There was some laughter at this, for the farmer was well known for his droll sense of humour. The level of tension dropped immediately.
With a crooked smile, Birin said, ‘Ezra, my friend, at times like this I am glad for your presence. But the eyes left two by two. Unless,’ he said, glaring about humorously, ‘there were more falling asleep on the watch than I was aware of.’
For the time being, the fear caused by the eyes was dispelled, and they began preparing for the morning meal, and departure. When news of the incident reached Theuli’s ears, however, she was greatly disturbed. ‘Deborah was awake a good part of the night.’ she told Pran and Ralph. ‘She kept saying that she heard voices calling out to her. She became hot to the touch and delirious, until morning came.’ Deborah was asleep now, and had to be carried to the wagon and wrapped warmly against the cold. Pran went straightaway to Birin to tell him what had happened. Birin’s reaction was to grip the pommel of his sword until his knuckles whitened.
‘Necropheids! It is as the Thane has told us; that creatures of the Netherworld are crossing over as more than mere shadows.’
‘Necropheids?’ Ralph asked, looking blank.
Birin’s look was apologetic. ‘I forget, sometimes, that your knowledge of this world is scant. Necropheids are of an order of creatures of the Netherworld that are associated with illness, and when the illness is very severe, with death and dying. Normally, the presence of these particular creatures portends nothing worse than fever dreams. But if their efficacy becomes great enough, they will call your friend to her death. It is her illness which draws and feeds them.’
Pran’s mouth became a hard line. ‘We have not yet left the Elf Kingdom, and already we are beset by a great evil. Once, long ago, alone and in the wild and wracked by illness, I felt the presence of such beings. Even as mere shadows they are terrible!’
‘Indeed,’ said Birin. ‘But what is to be done?’
One of Birin’s soldiers, having overheard, said, ‘If old tales be true, they cannot abide the light of day; but when darkness falls, fire is said to keep them at bay. And,’ he added, ‘in the elder days of our Lore, before it became usurped from us common folk by our Loremasters, spells were used which banished the presence of such creatures.’ He said this last bitterly, and it was plain that his fellows shared his sentiments towards the Loremasters.
Gannet, who had been listening to this exchange, his features stony, said, ‘These Necropheids, they are a tenuous thing, you say, only half in the world of the living. If they be so insubstantial, then why do we not put them to the sword, or drive them off with fire?’
Spurred on by Gannet’s bravado, several nearby muttered assent, but Birin was quick to quash talk of any such action.
‘I doubt not your bravery, Gannet, nor your willingness to do battle with Demons, should the need arise; but Necropheids and other fell creatures of the Netherworld cannot be brought to heel with arms or by main strength. The sword is not a weapon fit to contest the arcane might of the sort of deadly soul-sickness these creatures wield.’ He looked from eye to eye around the circle to enforce his will in the matter. ‘Let no one take it upon himself to confront these creatures. Even were you to survive such an encounter, your survival would be short-lived. Even if you be a mighty man of arms like Gannet here, you would soon begin to sicken, with a malady beyond the skill of our best Healers. And in the end you would beg for death, or for the strength to take your own life. There will be no more talk of waylaying these creatures.’
Gannet shrugged, though he appeared unconvinced. ‘As you wish.’
Heading out through the break in the mountains, and so leaving the Elven Kingdom altogether, they found themselves in a hilly country, much like the one described in old tales. The snow lay deep here, though it was interrupted by ancient oak trees with leaves that, although dead and brown, clung to the branches yet. Beneath these, there was little snow. That evening, the travellers made camps of fifty beneath ten of these trees, and made preparations to meet the threat of the Necropheids. Piles of brush were laid in a wide circle outside the camp, to be set alight in the event of the creatures’ return.
In the dead of night, drawing about the encampment like a noose of fear, the eyes returned. Birin directed a number of archers to shoot fire-arrows into a few of the piles of brush, not wishing to waste all the fuel at once.
The moment the first pyre burst into flame, grey shapes could be seen, scrambling away from the light. At first glance, Ralph thought they looked like women. But the sight of their faces chilled his heart with the worst dread he had ever known. Below their cold, bat-like black eyes was a wide oval maw set with long, inwardly curved, thin teeth. Their hands bore long claws, and their skin was grey like the underbelly of a spider. Their long hair was the white of cobwebs, and they made not a sound.
One of Birin’s archers, at his direction, fired a bolt into the chest of one of the hideous creatures. The moment he did so, a horrifying scream came from one of the tents.
It was Deborah, who lay in a wild delirium, clutching frantically at her chest as though trying to pull something out of it. Dashing back to the perimeter, Ralph told Birin to instruct his archers not to fire at the Necropheids again. The Necropheids did not return that night, but Deborah’s condition was much worsened. She did not recognize her friends, and was still in the throes of delirium when morning finally came.
Theuli spoke with Birin at first light.
‘This cannot continue,’ she said. ‘The girl is failing. We must find some way to succour her.’
‘It is unfortunate,’ replied Birin, ‘that the Healer from her world did not accompany us. It was he who saved the girl from the Goblin’s poison when none other could. This matter is beyond the skill of our Healers.’
‘In the elder days,’ Theuli said, ‘when magic was not pursued as a private craft, our people summoned their strength as one, by means of ritual. Are we so lost that such skill is no longer open to us?’
‘Our forebears were a tribal people possessed of a primitive Lore that was known to all. We are no longer that same people. We know only that they sang eldritch songs of power,’ Birin told her. ‘However, no one alive today now remembers what those songs were.’
They set out at as great a pace as they could muster, Birin assuming, perhaps irrationally, that the presence of the Necropheids was a local phenomena, that simply by removing themselves, or by putting distance between themselves and the creatures, that the crisis would be over. The going was slow, however; their best pace was only a mile every hour, if that.
The terrain, though not difficult, was not conducive to speed where the heavily laden wagons were concerned. The trail they made for themselves wended its way through an endlessly convoluted land of snow-covered hillocks topped with clumps of bare trees or tall copsewood. Twice they were brought to a near-halt by bands of thick bracken of an evergreen sort, waist-high, broad-leafed and dense. There was no choice but to plough straight through these, as they blocked all passage from north to south from one side of the valley to the other. Midway was a further obstacle, a sharp embankment dropping to a lower level, followed by what appeared to be a shallow lake, or deep marsh, covered by only a thin skin of ice.
They were fortunate in that the water was not deep; only three feet or so in spots; not enough to endanger the goods being transported in the wagons, but the going was arduous. They had to assemble the oxen into large teams and drag the wagons through this mire two by two, a task that was finally accomplished at dusk. Those travelling by foot and by horse were less fortunate than those travelling by wagon; both ox and horse had to be led by hand, and few horses were able to bear their riders across without mishap. By the time they reached the other side, most of the company was wet, filthy, shivering in the damp cold and exhausted.
Though they would have liked to stop, upon reaching the far side, Birin and some of the more experience soldiers elected to press on, distrusting the low ground underneath the snow which was just soft enough to be worrisome. Once again, as though faced with a mirror-image of the side they had left, the company was presented with a sharp embankment, followed by a wide band of bracken on the same variety they had breasted earlier.
By evening, they were crashing through the last of the snow-covered bracken, and to their relief, discovered that the land beyond this barrier resumed its former pattern of hillocks crowned with stands of trees and thick copses.
Prostrate on their feet, trembling from exhaustion, Elf and animal alike came to a halt, and half-stumbling, began to set up camp for the night.
‘I never thought it could possibly feel so good to put on clean, dry clothes,’ Ralph said to Pran. He was juddering with cold, having just stood naked and been washed by Theuli and Malina, who had waited for and ministered to the men, each in their turn, with a tub of steaming-hot water, washcloths, and towels at the ready.
‘At least this is the time of year when the vermin that live in such waters are dormant,’ Theuli said, and shuddered. Pran glanced up at this, looking uncharacteristically chastened.
Ralph did not ask her what sort of vermin she was referring to; what his imagination supplied him with was more than sufficient.
Working with experienced efficiency, Theuli, with Rani and Malina’s assistance, had soon prepared a hot meal. As they prepared to set to, however, she and Malina disappeared into the wagon with food for themselves and Deborah. Soon after eating, Zuic, who had collected most of their firewood, picked up an axe and went to collect more. Before two minutes had gone by, however, he returned at a run, his features ashen, holding the axe in both hands as though he meant to fend something off. Seeing the manner of his return, the men were drawn to their feet.
‘Something is out there!’
At the same time, they heard a noise from the wagon, and with a feeling of cold dread, knew what that something was. Almost immediately, Theuli’s head appeared at the back of the wagon.
‘Ralph! I need you in here! Right now! I need you to hold her down! Pran- no, don’t bother coming in here- we need . . . get Birin! She needs help- get a Healer-!’
Pran had already left at a run, but not before telling Zuic to stay close to the wagon, and to throw the remaining wood onto the fire.
Ralph had never experienced the sort of sickening fear that he felt at that moment. Even in her delirium, Deborah was surprisingly strong, but it was clear that she was in serious trouble. Her eyes, though half-open, were rolled back in their sockets; she was writhing, head tossing from side to side, desperately fighting for every last breath.
In the dim yellow light of the single lantern, he was aware of Malina and Rani, who looked on helplessly, holding each other, their features suffused. Theuli worked frantically, stripping off Deborah’s clothes, giving her a sponge bath with ice-cold water in an effort to bring her fever down. Outside, he could hear a babel of voices, and recognised those of Pran, Birin, and some of the Healers.
‘No one is to venture beyond the camp unaccompanied! I don’t care if there aren’t enough axes! Use whatever implements you can find! Use swords if you have to! Yes, build it here, where the light will be of the best effect. And another there! What? Well, if it’s too close, then move the other wagon!’
‘. . .Lore? Spells? Don’t blame me if we haven’t such things! The King and that passel of sycophants he surrounds himself with, ask them! Yes, I have brought my pharmacopoeia! But this matter is beyond the realm of medicine! Or are you deaf to those voices that surround our camp?’
In the midst of this confusion, something, a mote of clarity, of unflagging certainty, seemed to settle upon Malina’s soul, like the eye of calm at the center of a storm. Rani, sensing something, looking up at the Pixie woman’s tearstained visage, caught her faraway look; and somehow, in that same moment, she too knew what had to be done.
Unnoticed, hand in hand, as in a dream they left the wagon and began walking, away from the fires and from the light, until at last they stood alone in the night. All around them were shadows and whispers, the faint glint of eyes reflecting the firelight.
Rani was uncertain what was going to happen next. All she knew was that Malina knew what to do; that she was not afraid; all she had to do was wait, and watch, and listen. And when the time came . . .
Deborah’s struggles had ceased. She lay unnaturally still, her pallor beginning to grey as life left her altogether; her eyes, though no longer rolled back, were staring, and beginning to take on the glassy aspect of death . . .
Ralph was too stunned at first to understand what Theuli’s words meant.
‘She’s gone. There is nothing more that we can do.’
Devoid of life, Deborah’s naked form lay white, almost ethereal-looking, in sharp contrast to the dark blankets upon which she lay in the semi-darkness of the wagon. She seemed somehow smaller, as though her inner fragility had finally pushed its way to the surface, forcing out everything that was strong in her, leaving her diminished . . .
Outside, a sound came to their ears. It barely registered at first, it was so small and faint; that of a single voice, alone in the dark. After a moment, it became joined by another . . .
Years ago, as a child, Malina’s mother had taught her a song; a simple child’s song, to sing to herself for her own protection, when her mother was drawn away by some necessity. She had sung it to herself often when her mother had disappeared, and often in the years after when she was alone and frightened. And for all those years, alone, undefended and defenceless, it had kept her alive; had kept her spirit unbroken. And when she had come upon Rani, as a little girl, lost in the woods, she had taught the child that same song.
Now, with only the two of them, alone in the night amidst creatures that would freeze the marrow of the bravest soldier in the camp, hand in hand, they sang that same song, with voices and hearts that were pure, that were proof against the evil which surrounded them.
‘That song . . .’ Theuli muttered, frowning in concentration.
At that same instant, Deborah drew a gasping breath.
At the sound of their voices, soldiers and other people came from out of the darkness, bearing torches. Elders, women and children too, came to join them.
Many of the elders recognised the simple melody; the words too, almost as from a time before living memory. They joined the two, adding their voices; the children, too. Almost reluctantly, the menfolk began adding their voices. But as their voices grew in number, so did their confidence grow.
At last, as a single congregation, some inner-memory that may have been instinct caused them to separate their voices away from the simple melody into a chorus that seemed to make the night itself ring with the after-echo of an auditorium. At last they reached the end, and the last note, and though it was over, its effect seemed to linger on for several moments.
It took several more moments for them to realize that they had won, that the spell they strived against had been broken.
Malina, Rani, and Pran quickly left the circle and returned to the tent, dreading to find Deborah lying dead, or worse. As Zuic opened the flap for them, they saw that she lay there still, looking very pale, with Theuli and Ralph hovering over her worriedly. Theuli had just wrapped the girl warmly in blankets.
Her eyes opened. Though she was still very weak, her gaze was clear . . . focused.
‘Theuli? I had the worst dream. Am I really dead?’
Overcome with relief, her friends gathered about her.
‘It was just a bad dream,’ said Theuli. ‘You were very ill. The worst is over.’
Deborah shuddered, sighed, drifting back towards sleep. ‘They were trying to take me away. But all of you stopped them. They wanted to take me to my father. Make me like him.’ She began crying. ‘They hurt me. He hurt me . . .’
‘Shush,’ whispered Theuli, ‘They’re gone. Try not to think about it. You’re going to sleep now. And all of us are going to watch over you. You’re never going to be alone again.’
Trying to focus her sleepy gaze on Theuli as she drifted off, Deborah muttered, ‘. . . thought you were . . . an angel . . .’
Stroking the girl’s face tenderly as she fell asleep, Theuli replied through her tears, ‘Sleep now, child. The long night is over. You’re home now, and safe in bed.’
'. . . safe . . .’ Deborah fell asleep, smiling.
As the congregation began to disperse, in the fading firelight, Nevana found herself standing alone in the snow, feeling utterly alone, abandoned, her feet aching from the cold, shivering in the gelid night air. It seemed to her as though she was utterly shut out, from family, friends, community . . . adrift and alone. All around her, the others were in the warmth of their tents, consoling and reassuring one another.
At the last, she stood there still, a lone figure in the dark, forgotten.
She had wanted so badly to join in with the others, and at first she had tried to sing. But no sound would come, as though she had forgotten how to speak. Then, when she discovered who it was that led them in song, she suddenly felt herself to be an unwanted stranger. Even as the sense of community grew about her, she could feel herself being pushed out.
Staring into the night, she tried to weep, but no sound would come. If she had possessed the volition, she would have gone stumbling off into the darkness. But there was no need; the source of that emptiness was now inside her.