The Shifting Highlands, Dun Brannaw Fortress
The words Caradoc spoke nearly made Apata weep. It was the first day he’d been fully conscious after his fight with Brannaw. After the two healers finished his treatment, they ordered the Clan Brannaw men to retreat. In that moment full of fear, confusion, and rage, they held social rank. They were wise-women, to be heeded in a time of upheaval. Now the fight was three days over. Brannaw’s body two days burned. Now the folk were becoming restless. The opportunists of the clan were jockeying for positions of power. Now the healers held nothing.
Caradoc was recently awake, bleary-eyed and on the healthier end of gaunt. The brutal wound to his belly had healed clean—but only just—and the blood loss still left him woozy from all but the slightest of movements. As such, he was living proof that a man could be built of oxen-sinew and iron bone, but still be thinned and weak after three days of naught but goat’s milk and honey to eat. When he’d come around, the Soulmistress shooed Apata out of the room clucking her tongue and snorting, “Out with you girl! You know as well as I that the last thing a man needs after three days under the shade of Father Earth is to be suffocated by loved ones.”
“But nothing, lass. Out!”
Their rooms in the dun were a part of the stone-built, moated fortress. Most times, it was only populated with the Brannaw brood proper, Apata and the Soulmistress, and Caradoc as an apprentice. This was how it was now, after peace had been made of the feud between Kannach and Brannaw.
In times of war or strife, the dun housed the entire Clannad, from petulant babe to toothless grandfather.
The stone rooftop leaked with the harsh spring thunderstorms. The walls were insulated only by animal furs and tapestries, so the entire building was dank and cold with the wet. Aside, of course, from the few feet of soothing warmth given off by the various fireplaces. On a good day, the inside of the fort smelled like a mix of old straw and fresh cooking. Meat. Onions. Potatoes. Loaves. But, then, this is a bad day, so it smells much more like chamber pot and horseshite and mold. After she was sent away, she stayed near the doorway to the room that she and the Soulmistress shared. Unlike most men and women of the dun—who had nary a care but the crops now that the fighting was through—Apata had gotten rather little rest.
The door to the room that she and the Soulmistress shared was covered by a hanging quilt of patched furs. Great-bruin and scalewolf, long-fang tiger and sky elk. Furs put together in order to hold spirits of great strength. Even so, it was normally easy to hear voices through. The scalewolf pieces of the quilt even turned translucent when firelight was behind them.
None of that was happening now. Apata could hear the rise-and-fall drone of conversation, but could make out none of the words. She knew the torches behind the tapestry were lit, but could not see inside the room through the skin of the scalewolf. She realized with a small start that the Soulmistress was using neart: magic that was applied to specific purposes and took the body’s strength to use, instead of being fueled by the spirit. When she realized this… after a bit too long, I think. I could really use a rest, I could… she barged back into the room without delay. Almost angrily.
Caradoc’s exhausted gaze snapped to her immediately. His response lacked pause the same way her actions had.
“Apata, you need to listen the now, and listen well.” His voice—normally a gravelly baritone—was reedy and quiet. “You need to flee the dun. Leave the Highlands altogether.” His words struck her with all the force a blow would have. The room surrounding her became crystal clear, the details of fireplace, torch, cot, and medical apparatus so sharp as to be almost painful to the eyes. Her surprise was so strong that it kicked her directly into a defensive anger.
“How dare you!”
“Apata, I’ll not—”
She continued, interrupting him, “No. I’ll not leave you feeble and bed-ridden, brother mine. I’ll not be going anywhere.”
The Soulmistress spoke then, her voice a hissing whisper that could end the world. “You will, girl. You will leave these isles as fast as your feet can carry you.” Her words startled Apata. She felt nothing short of betrayed.
“There have been murmurings in the Clannad, little one. Doubtless you remember the guard that the Younger didn’t attack?”
“While you’ve been at the side of your brother’s bed, he’s been clamoring and cajoling.”
“So, while your brother’s intensive care was a liberty I permitted, for I know the same pain and worry you felt many times over, I have been watching the clan, and I have been watching him.”
“ I don’t see what this has to do with my leavi—”
“If you’d shut your gob for a gods-damned moment, you would!” the Soulmistress shouted suddenly. The wrinkles on her face deepened with exasperation and resolve in equal measures. “Outside this fortress, in the square and fields, the clan is milling with whispers for blood. That guardsman—Maertin Meriwether-Brannaw—has named your brother as the murderer of our chief, and you his accomplice.”
“I don’t care, I don’t!” Apata yelled.
Caradoc shouted in return, taking up the Soulmistress’ argument: “You damned well should, you daft girl! You’ll die if you stay!”
“And you won’t?”
“No. As luck would have it, the only thing more fearsome than the rage of a jilted chief-lord is the rage of a mad jilted chief-lord,” the man said, sardonically. “If I am killed—and believe you me, Da will know if that happens—the clan Brannaw will have the fury, fire, and vengeance of the Mad-man MacDowell thrust on them in full. The Clannad here will be returned to his holding, everything and everyone a burnt cinder of smoke and ash. You, though? No such luck, lass.”
“Aye, so the clan will fall on me with ripping hands and biting teeth because I’m a bastard daughter, but you’re safe in your weakened state because you’re a legitimate son? I wonder when it was that angered mobs started to concern themselves with pedigree, I do.”
“For Caradoc, I’ve come up with a solution,” the Soulmistress said. She outlined her plan in full, and Apata’s anger coalesced into cold, distilled fear.
“Things are so bad that someone has to die?”
“Aye, and it must be one of us. Caradoc is a likely young lad filled with vim and vigor and wisdom to boot. You, lass, are a healer of talent I’ve not seen in any of my days as a mentor of such. I am, as our late and not so lamented chieftain put it, ‘a daft old tit’ and I’ve but one life to give, girl.” For the first time in her many years with her, Apata saw the Soulmistress’s eyes brim with tears.
“So you see now why you must run?” Caradoc asked. His voice was still reedy, but was now also croaking with sadness and fear.
Apata’s spirits sank. The old stories were full of folk being possessed by beings against their will. She could recount a few stories where the very thing portended had been recorded. The Jack and the Reeds. The King of Smoke and Fire. The Man with Flower Skin. The Soulmistress had decided to exploit that. Caradoc would be abed just a short while longer, but when he was ready to rise, he would claim that the older woman had made him do as he did.
And he would execute her.
“Aye. Aye, that I do.” At that moment, she could’ve sworn she felt worms crawling across her skin.
The Roiling Strait, South Easterly Current
Apata’s knees wobbled as her dinghy rose and fell on the heaving waves. The Roiling Strait wasn’t a place for a fishing dinghy. It was hardly a place for a three-masted sailing vessel. Apata had set off for it shortly after that Meriwether bastard had sounded the alarm and set the people of the clan following her escape trail.
Upon reaching it, her optimism was short lived. The strait got its name from the confusing pattern of currents that ran its length. On average, it forced ships southeast swiftly, but those were ships. And that was on average.
The currents in the strait smashed into each other with vicious force, steeping, milling, and heaving like elk rams at the rut. A large ship wouldn’t feel most of these forces, and would instead ride them as if it were a sleigh being drawn by them.
Apata was in a dinghy of light, well-sealed pinewood. She felt every curl of the sea hitting her modest vessel, and while she was still headed southeast, at times she was forced east direct, or southward, or even to the north. She had never been off of the Shifting Highlands. Her position in society always demanded she stay at home, or near it; she had no sea legs to speak of…
…and days at sail alone do not bring them, sure. The weakness was hitting her hard now. Two days without food. Twelve hours without water. Her supplies—the small amount she could steal on her flight from the highlands—had run short a week into her expedition at sea. She distilled some from the sea, using heat to evaporate it to pure water directly into her waterskin, but without food she was running out of the energy required to use her neart. She had to make it last.
And it tastes of pickled gourds and meats anyhow. Another wave crashed into the blindside of the dinghy, sending a spray of water into her face and causing the deck to buck and roll. Apata lost her footing on the slippery pine and fell, bashing the back of her head into the single, square sailed mast of her vessel with a sharp crack!
Light and sound slowly faded away, the rope tying her to the mast, and the high walls surrounding the bottom the only things keeping her limp body on the tumultuous boat. Her dreams, her memories, were as vivid as the day she lived them.
Dun Brannaw, 13 years ago
Apata was six summers old and quite a bit confused. The dun was in a tizzy of movement, a kicked beehive of people running from one stead to another, between shops and homes and the fortress proper. Tax day was upon them.
As she did every year, Apata clutched at the folds of her mother’s kilt while her mother bustled toward the last marker leading to the shifting paths.
Someone important was coming today. It didn’t take six summers to figure that out. Apata could feel it singing in her soul. When they reached the final path of solid earth, her mother stopped, sighing.
It was like this every year. Men were walking down from the mountain-framed entrance to her home isle. The hill was steep, the bushes and trees sparse and hardy. All of the men coming toward them bore weapons. Great swords and pikes. Axes and war bows. All of them had Godmarks on their skin, swirling patterns of bright red almost the color of wet blood.
That was how she knew they weren’t her clansfolk. There were many differences between the Abrugael clans. The Godmarks were an easy touchstone. All clans were said to have been sired by Father Earth, each by a different mother. Clan Kannach, whose Godmarks were bright green, were birthed by the forest. Clan Brannaw, who had pale blue Godmarks, were birthed by the sun. Clan MacDowell, it was said, was born of blood and fire. More specifically, the fires of war.
This all held little bearing on Apata. She was a child still. The only thing she knew was that her Godmarks were different from the others. Her mother and her folk all bore the swirling patterns in the exact, diluted blue of the sky, even as children.
She bore marks blue as the flower people mistakenly called a violet. Deeper. Darker. And she knew no end of pain for it. The children would make fun of her. The adults gave her odd looks at best, and some of the oldsters were actively malicious, yelling at her about how she was the daughter of a slattern—whatever that was.
The only people who had ever shown her or her mother real kindness in her short life were Old Chief Brannaw and the Soulmistress. One was quick with a compliment and a sweet, the other to heal ails and care for sickness. Sometimes the Soulmistress would teach Apata how to mix herbs and stitch wounds. She would always praise Apata for not being squeamish, whatever squeamish was.
Every year, Chief Brannaw permitted her mother a day of rest when Clan MacDowell’s tax men came in, so that they could apparently come to watch the soldiers walk down the path.
Every year her mother would sigh until the entire garrison passed, and then they would go home, she would take to her bed, and weep herself to sleep.
This year was different. Apata’s mother clutched her hand tightly, striding forward to meet the man at the head of the garrison. Upon seeing them, he lifted his hand in a clenched fist, and the garrison halted. A boy Apata’s age, or a little older, clutched at his sporrans the same way Apata grabbed at her mother’s.
The tax man was different this year, too. Normally he was a middle-aged fellow with brown hair. This year’s tax collector was a man in his prime. His hair, beard, and eyes were black as night. He was thin-framed, but moved like a coiled snake, as if he could explode into deadly movement at any time. His Godmarks were the same color as the blood that ran under the door of the slaughtershed at yearling time. A red so bright it hurt to look at.
The worst part of him, Apata noted, were his eyes. They sparkled with charm and charisma, intense thought, and absolute madness. “And who are you, woman, to deny the Chief King Macdowell his right of taxes?”
Apata’s mother snorted, “I am his one-time concubine, I am. And he owes my child a chance at a good life for it.”
The man looked down at Apata and smiled. A wide, head-splitting grin that would have looked joyous if his eyes hadn’t flared entirely open. His teeth were perfectly white. All that grin did was make him look crazy.
“I don’t think this child is mine, nor any of my concern, lass. Sorry to disappoint you.”
Apata’s mother grunted, as if she’d been struck by a fist. Then she responded, “What matters, lord, is not what you think, but what I know.”
His mouth closed, his face clenching in what Apata recognized as rage. “Come hither then, let me get a look at the pair of you.”
He stooped to one knee, looking Apata directly in her eye. For her part, Apata clutched at her mother harder and began to tremble. The man cocked his head.
“Aye. It would seem I was wrong then. You’ve got my look about you, little lass. In the shape of your face if not its coloring.” The man stood up straight once more. The rage didn’t leave his face, though. It simply ran cold. “I acknowledge to all in sight and earshot that this girl is my daughter—” He looked at her, and Apata grasped what he was asking for after a few seconds.
He nodded once, the motion sharp and controlled. “Apata MacDowell-Brannaw, of Clan Brannaw and Clan MacDowell both, and should be given position and prestige at Brannaw’s steading as such. Especially considering the impossibility of her return to my own home, and the recent death of her mother.” The man’s face went stone calm, and he lifted his clenched fist and then three fingers one at a time.
Apata’s mother let loose a single, startled yelp as three arrows struck her. One each in head, throat, and heart. The blood ran in rivulets and spurts, spattering the ground and the young girl. Her mother’s still warm corpse fell to the ground with rag-doll finality.
Apata had six summers, and she began to cry as any child that age would when confronted with violent death. The man, the evil man, stooped to one knee once more. He clutched her face so hard that his fingers drew her blood and whispered, “Run, lass. Run as fast as your little whore-daughter feet will carry you. Run and hide. For if I see your face again while I visit Old Brannaw, I will bleed you like a yearling piglet.”
The boy who clutched the man’s sporrans was crying. He silently mouthed words to her, which Apata found strangely easy to understand. I’m sorry, little sister. So, so sorry. The world faded, first to monochrome, then into complete whiteness.
The Roiling Strait, present day
Apata awoke with a start, noting the dried film of salt covering most of her skin. Though she was awake, her head pounded. Her vision was blurred around the edges and dim. Mercifully, Mother Sun had descended beneath the waves. The sky above her—all she could look at, for she could not muster the strength to do more than blink—was a curling palette of blues, blacks, and purples. The moons were full, bright, and one was orange as a ripe peach. The other one—the larger one—was cornflower blue. The stars sprayed across the colors like the waves spattered onto her boat…
…or how my dear mother’s own lifeblood fell onto me that horrible day. Dreams, her folk held, were often a way for high spirits to guide their human subjects. Just as the mother and father of flesh might guide a child with advice, the mother and father of the soul guided with visions and images. There was no wholeness of control to be had. After all, how could someone fully grown explain all the facts of world and intent to an infant? How then, a god to a person? She chewed on her thoughts for a while, eventually setting the matters of the dream, or recollection, or what have you, aside for another day. She’d certainly lived with them long enough already.
Her head spun from the wound she had received earlier that morn. Or was it earlier that week? She had no way to be truly sure of how long she’d been under Father Earth’s restful hands. She did know that the strait had become no calmer. She felt every kicking, bucking wave inside her head, as if the ocean itself was trying to crack her skull like a walnut for the meat inside. The thought of food made her whip her head to the side automatically. She opened her mouth and sprayed the little sustenance left in her stomach across the floorboards of the dinghy’s deck. She groaned as the throbbing in her head came back in force…
…and it’s certain, sure I am, that I needed that food and water. If only the body treated getting knocked into the black like taking a nap, the world would be an easier place.
Her vision blurred in and out of focus, the stars turning from dots in the sky to eddying trails of light and back again. The moons doubled and then tripled in number, resolving back into clarity as the stars stilled. It would be beautiful, sure and it would, if it didn’t come at the cost of feeling like someone took a mallet to the back of me head, with all of Father Earth’s fruitful glee.
Apata felt the flap of the sawmouth’s wings more than heard it. The bird alighted onto the handrail of her dinghy, cocking its head to point one beady black eye in Apata’s direction. It was no small fowl, either.
Sawmouth gulls were some of the pettiest wildlife to be found in Shifting Highlands and on the World Seas; they were an absolute menace to sailors. They hunted and scavenged in flocks whenever opportunity came their way. Disputes within the ravage—what a group of them were called—were mainly decided by fights to the death. They were fiercely territorial and simultaneously migratory…
…the which makes no sense at all, at all. Alas, I’ve healed enough bite wounds from the befeathered little shites to know that they don’t care much for making sense.
In body, the bird was about the size of a house cat, excluding wingspan. Its feathers were mottled blue and grey and white; its webbed feet stark, inky black. The bird squawked at Apata. The sound was an unmusical combination of breaking lute strings and nails on slate which came from its gut. Gur-gurwuak! Gurwuak-wuak!
When it opened its leathery yellow mouth to call, Apata caught a look at the inside. It had rows of saw-edged teeth. If one broke or was knocked loose, another would move forward to take its place. This was where the bird got its name. It smelled of carrion and rot. Oftentimes, the collective smell of a large ravage was enough to warn farmers indoors and leave their livestock to pasture if they knew anything about survival at all…
…and still, every year at least one clansman gets besotted on mead and honeyjack and makes a meal of himself for the little bastards.
Apata opened her sporrans, grabbing around inside them for her empty waterskin. She knew she had little use for a spare at the moment. Either I’ll make landfall before the one I’ve got runs empty, or I’ll die and be a corpse on a boat with two empty waterskins.
Then she thought better of chucking it at the beast.
Apata grabbed for her Sgian-dubh—a small knife tucked into her all-leather trail boots. She gathered her wits as best she could, standing shakily. The sawmouth ruffled its feathers, swiveling its head to catch better sight of her. It called again. Gur, gur-rawk!
It was the last call that Sawmouth ever made. Apata lunged with speed and reflexes trained by six years of street fights and knife hunting in forests so indifferent to man they bordered on hostile. She clutched the bird’s mouth with three strong fingers, two in the nostrils and a thumb forced hard into the lower jaw.
Sawmouths could clamp down on prey with startling force, but the same muscles that allowed them to shut their jaws with might and speed also made them unable to open against even the slightest resistance.
The bird struggled hard, jerking its head from side to side unpredictably, but Apata’s hand was set like a fishhook. She brought her knife around, punching it in behind the bird’s ear cavity through the top of its brittle, hollow-boned skull into the brain and then slashing it across the throat. The bird gave a few final galvanic twitches, and then it was still.
Apata was hit by a fit of dizziness so strong that she nearly fell out of the dinghy. Once she regained her bearings, she upended the bird, bringing her mouth toward its throat.
She hesitated then, the smell of iron and the stench of the buzzard making her gag. She steeled herself. Come on lass, it’s just like blood pudding. Barring oats, and spices. And a fire to kill any sickness lurking inside. So not anything at all like blood pudding, then.
Apata put her mouth to the bird’s wounded throat. The blood ran onto her tongue, thick, hot, and tasting metallic in a way that was only more revolting. Still, she drank. The blood hit her stomach like rotten meat and curdled milk. With the combination of her head wound and her weakness, she found it hard to keep the stuff down.
She fought the urge to vomit, dropped the dead bird onto the deck of the ship, and clutched at her sporrans.
She downed some of her distilled water, careful to conserve half of the skin. Once the blood was diluted by the water, her stomach settled from convulsing to merely straining. It was also full—or what full felt like to a woman nearly starved—for the first time in days. Apata sat, finding that once she did, she lacked the wherewithal to stand again. She rested her head against the mast of the dinghy and fought to keep her hard won castaway’s dinner in her stomach.
The stars turned into tracers again, the moons blurring until they were smudges of color against a smeared sky. Her vision dimmed, and she drifted into sleep.
Dun Brannaw, 7 years ago
Apata was thirteen summers old. She was cold. Winter had fallen upon Dun Brannaw with force, blanketing every part of the village in deep snow. Her hands were trembling, and in the wan blue light of the Lonesome Moon, she could see that they were red and purple with the cold. She clutched her cloak—made of small patches of poorly-tanned leather and threaded together with stolen needles—tighter around her body. The iron brazier her lean-to was beside held no fire anymore. Only sputtering embers. She briefly considered breaking into a house. The idea of a warm fireplace was so enticing.
Alas, you’ll fall asleep, and then it’s only a short step to the stocks and losing a hand. She looked at her fingers, idly. They were still red and purple. Aye, could be that your fingers will get lost to coldrot anyway. This wasn’t her first winter on the streets of Dun Brannaw. But it was certainly the harshest in her memory. Most orphans had options for shelter against the cold. But then, most orphans didn’t have a barbed tongue and horrible rumors about them spreading around the village.
She was able to spend her days by the fire in the Soulmistress’s quarters, but, being that Clan Brannaw already had a Soulmistress, and that she needed no assistance in moving about as yet, Apata could not spend her nights there. The Soulmistress lived in the Fortress. Orphans didn’t even get to eat there, let alone live there. Those were the rules.
She was torn from her reverie when a man approached out of the winter gloom. He was carrying a torch. Apata wondered if she could clout him and steal it, but was surprised when he stopped and started to talk to her. He was a short man. Squat. He had a patronizingly kind smile and maddeningly happy eyes. His Godmarks were red, which was enough to instantly enrage her.
“You the lass whose mother were killed at tax time some years back?”
“Aye. If you’re here to lynch me, just get it over with. If not, I’d like to get back to me cold and wet and miserable please.”
“Nay, I can’t say I’m here for that, girlie. I’m here because Chief-Prince Caradoc has sent for you. Wants to bring you to the Fortress and all that.”
“Oh does he now? And I’m sure if I get up and follow you, we would just need to make a quick stop in the alley for a rut, and then you’ll take me off to the palace of meats and cheeses.” She paused, glaring. “Or more likely, you’ll just brain me and leave me for dead afterwards, yeah?”
“I see what the little lord Caradoc means about you being his sister, that and I do,” the man said, laughing. “You’ve got the Mad-man’s fire, if not his menace.”
“I’ll not be going anywhere with you.”
“Fine, lass,” he said, shrugging. “Have it your way. I journeyed far enough in the snow that I’ll not be feeling guilty for it. I’ll leave you to your cold and your wet.”
Apata spent the night freezing and weary. The cobblestone streets of the dun gave little protection against the sleety highlands winter, but even when her teeth set to chattering, Apata stayed her course. Even when the bitter winds blew through the stout village, Apata stuck by the dying embers of the iron brazier. Finally, dawn’s light began to suffuse the sky with a pink glow. When Mother Sun began her daily ascent, Apata rose with her, shuffling toward the Fortress proper. As she shuffled forward, the sleet turned to snow and began to fall more heavily. Eventually, the white blotted out all else.