Dun Brannaw Clannad, two weeks after Apata set sail
Caradoc Macdowell Himself clenched his left fist hard enough for the nails to draw blood. He released it and clenched it again. The liquid beaded in the cuts his nails had made through thick callus. The red tinge the world had taken on subsided. His brow furrowed. He had been on his feet for a week now. The Soulmistress’s head was nailed above the throne hearth: long-held Clannad tradition for an Anamri that trifled with dark forces.
Never again would she heal the aches and ails of the children. Never again would she ease the pain of the dying, or set the clan warrior’s broken bones to mend. Still this farce was playing out before him. Still, Maertin Meriwether—no longer Brannaw, because, for the first time in eons, there was no longer a Brannaw to swear to—persisted in his games. Meriwether sowed discontent and disbelief amongst soldiers as if it were what the clan gave him a living for. Outside of the hunt, he was a tanner and a smith. He had his aspirations though, and he was willing to step on the Soulmistress’s corpse and Caradoc’s own head to sit on the chief’s chair.
…for he’ll be happy to be chief of nothing, as what matters is that he’s chief at all.
The folk of the clan at hearth were mollified. Caradoc had regained the trust of the women, the husbands, the oldsters, and the children.
The sedition Meriwether had bred into the clan’s First Warriors—the men with no familial obligation, and thus the men seeking status and sent out first in war for it—was a different matter. The shame of it was, the two had been honest friends before Brannaw’s death made them enemies.
Maertin was a puckish man. Thin, short, and quick as whisping fae-fire—which was how he came to be Brannaw’s guard in the first place. His beard was full, curly, and coarse as hog’s quills. He was also a bastard in every sense of the word except for one, which was blood.
In that sense, he was a standard orphan, grown to working age on the streets, just like Caradoc’s sister…
…and if you were here, Apata, what would you do on sight of the wheels turning in Meriwether’s eyes?
The answer was simple. She would kill him. That was Apata’s way, and it had served the form of survival she’d needed to learn in childhood well. Acting without too much thought often gave an urchin a leg up on an foe who thought too much. Maertin himself had no qualms about showing off a few rather gruesome scars Apata had given him in their childhood days.
Her impulsivity served a healer doubly, in that well-trained hands which acted quickly were better at the art than any well trained head acting slowly. She would’ve loved the scalewolf hunt. As a matter of fact, she’d loved Brannaw the Elder’s stories of it more than any other kind he’d told.
Maertin had joined the hunt at the normal age of fifteen, when most lads—including Caradoc himself—could grow a beard. A late bloomer would join the hunt at seventeen.
It was a violent, risky rite of passage among Abrugaels. A boy had to come back from the hunt three times with three hides each time before he could swear it off or be considered a man ready for marrying. Even then, a man who collected only nine hides wasn’t going to come home with the belle of the harvest dance.
Caradoc was twenty, and this was his first time joining the hunt, courtesy of two weeks abed without a shave. He’d been dodging the ritual on purpose, first to avoid worrying Apata and then to make sure that he was alive to mitigate the idiocy of Brannaw the Younger as best he could. Through jeering and social rebuke and plain mean-spiritedness on the part of his fellows in the Chief’s Guard, he’d always judged the hunt too great a risk.
Funny, then, how that cow-pat-fucker should die and make it the lesser of two evils.
The form of survival Caradoc had needed to learn as a boy was much more multifaceted than the one his sister had grown up with. It was strategic. It was a game of leaders and followers, of steps and missteps. Closer to a dance than a brawl.
To his view, a leader could be two types of mad: a natural-born gods-damned fool, or outright evil. Brannaw the Younger had been the former. Caradoc’s father—who folk referred to as Mad-man while they were trying to be polite—was the latter.
A constant barrage of abuse at any instance of failure in this game of men and ideas had taught Caradoc the supreme value of forethought. If he killed this smug, petulant naysayer, what next? Either he becomes a martyr and I a tyrant, or I wipe the headless clan of its fighting men still free of other obligations. I’ll probably die even trying that, I will.
So the heads of his hunting hatchets stayed dry. For now. The men—including Maertin and Caradoc—were rosy cheeked and panting like bellows. The hike to the starting grounds was not an easy one. No child could make it. The men sang as they moved to warn any ambitious predators off their trail. They sang the Hunter’s Song.
And it’s go, boys, go,
They’ll scent your every breath,
And every day you’re in this place,
You’re two days nearer death.
At the end of the refrain, Caradoc’s voice rang out in a clear baritone: “But you go.”
They were in the Peak Forest, which rested on the Clannad mountains, as the name suggested. It was a place where alpine trees jutted out of the ground like teeth from the maw of some stone-faced monster. Where fall lived the year round, and winter was visiting more often than not. Where the bones of brave, stupid, and cowardly men rested with no real differentiation between the three.
Well a hunting man am I, and I’m telling you no lie,
I’ve ducked and dodged amongst the beasts who try and make me die.
There’s terror all around me, and there’s screams upon the air,
There’s a lousy smell that smacks of hell, and ice all in me hair.
The refrain came again.
And it’s go, boys, go…
This time, Maertin sang “but you go” in a high countertenor.
From here, the more courageous hunters would go further up and into the mountains, facing larger scalewolves on a one-to-one basis. The more intelligent men in the group would retreat into the lush warmth of the Valleywood to fight smaller, quicker beasts group-to-group. The forest on the peaks was, in a limited sense, safe for men to walk. Not nearly so safe as the dun and its village, but not teeming with claws and fangs set to kill and eat either. Momentarily and without warning, the whole group stopped. Maertin turned around, a malicious grin playing on his face.
“So we’ve a newcomer in our midst this year, lads. Wee little Caradoc finally mustered the bollocks to let grow his beard. A shame he didn’t let it grow when they decided it could!” Maertin Meriwether said. “Then we might have seen what he was made of. Against a man grown though, most scalewolves don’t even have a sportin’ chance.”
He feels exactly like the cat who ate the canary, I’m thinking. You go ahead then lad. Forbye, the bones might give you stomach pains. Caradoc had no doubt that in a stand up fight, he would crack Maertin in half. Maertin probably had no doubt of this as well, which was why opportunities for a stand up fight weren’t resoundingly numerous.
For their part, the fighting men laughed. They ranged in size from Maertin’s short, angular litheness to Caradoc’s barrel-and-bucket bulk.
“Better I think for me bollocks, than they start thinking for me now, mate.”
The men guffawed. Maertin’s eyes narrowed. “I’m no friend to a murderer and I’ll never be.” The men stopped laughing.
“So then you’ve no friends here? We’ve all had to kill to feed and protect our folk. Or had you forgotten?” Caradoc responded. The audience of around thirty men milled. “You were there for the start of the fight, Maertin. You watched Brannaw stab me like a shank of beef and then sprinted for the fields balls out and hair on fire, you did.”
Maertin was not without his own version of events, of course. In his, Apata had berated Brannaw, and then Brannaw had said something to make Caradoc defend her honor. A hot-blooded crime that would’ve been, and understandable to boot, but it was still a crime.
Further compounding the issue was the Soulmistress’ version of events, crafted specifically to combat Maertin’s. The truth was garbled somewhere between the two sets, and left the First Warriors dancing somewhere in the middle road in terms of loyalty. Every move counted.
“That weren’t what I saw.” Maertin said. “What I saw was you lunging at the chief when he called your sister a whore-daughter. And weren’t it you who said the Soulmistress did all them dark works? Made you a puppet she pulled strings on?”
Caradoc blinked, and grimaced inwardly. He’s a clever bastard, I’ll give him that. “My, and doesn’t the year’s wheel spin around fast? I could’ve sworn we’ve had this talk before, you pole-bodied git. A man possessed doesn’t have to remember fine details in his heart. The Soulmistress confessed because she felt the guilt strongly,” Caradoc paused for a moment, letting a fake pondering expression slide across his face “You on the other hand, you ran like a kitten from a hound when you could’ve—and should’ve—put me down.” Another inward grimace. Ad Hominem. Poor show, boyo. You can certainly manage better. Outwardly his face was as unmoving as stone. Outwardly counted here.
Whatever else he was—and Caradoc was not averse to using an awful means for a good end—he had no natural inclination for lying. It came from his childhood. His father would lie to his underlings simply to sow entertaining brawls at the dinner table. Caradoc could count the number of outright lies he himself had told on one hand.
He did know how to argue though. If his station of birth gained him nothing else, he still had a large collection of tomes on everything from rhetoric to natural philosophy. Which was why he was surprised when the desperate verbal blow landed dead center.
“Aye, you can say that twice lad! We’re as tired of this shite as you are!” one of the older First Warriors hollered.
The men laughed and jeered, one even threw a clod of soil at Maertin. Caradoc quirked one of his brows, smirking at his rival. Maertin’s face went mottled red. “A test, then! The test of the old chieftains for the new Clannad line! I say we let the gods decide!”
That certainly had precedent, though the ritual hadn’t been performed for long and long. Caradoc found himself genuinely surprised that Maertin had a reading bone in his body. The only way a modern Abrugael could know about that was if he read the clan histories. It was how the hunt came to be a rite of passage: two men vying for an empty dun would enter the forest. The one who brought back the more valuable prize won the dun…
…and the loser gets three or four feet of cold steel up the arse often as not, if I’m recalling correctly. “And how are we to go about a lost and dead ritual the now?” one of the warriors said.
“Aye, I’ve got no idea what you’re talking about, you mad idjit!” said another.
“Simple! I’ll go to the Valleywood, and Caradoc to the mountains. Whosoever brings back the better prize gets the Clannad, and the loser claps his gob until Father Earth pulls him under for the long and long.” The First Warriors gave general murmurs of assent.
“I wonder though, Meriwether, wouldn’t taking the mountain hunt screw Caradoc harder than a whore at harvest?” another of the First Warriors asked by way of shouting.
My, and if I didn’t know better that actually sounded like loyalty. Caradoc thought. He idly scratched at his beard.
“Hardly,” Maertin responded. “Seeing as how Carnángarda hides are much more princely a prize than the skins of measly Coillcuradh.” The First Warriors milled again. Caradoc didn’t protest at all.
Maertin was smiling smugly. He thought he had pulled a clever move choosing the Valleywood for himself and the mountains for his rival. The men started forward on the trail, once more beginning to sing:
Well I’ve fought among the scalewolves and I’ve shirked their sickle strokes,
I’ve sequestered ‘mongst the sawmouths till their odor made me choke,
I’ve stood knee-deep in hate-lamprey, flesh rotted, drained and burned,
Been journeying rough, I’ve seen enough to make your stomach turn.
And it’s go, boys, go…
Caradoc sang automatically, chewing inwardly on his thoughts. He was reminded of an item of interest. For the scalewolves, it was whelping time. The time of year that they were the most foolhardy, the most desperate. The hungriest. The time when they began raising new pups. That thought brought to mind a saying Brannaw the Elder was fond of: Opportunity is a mean bitch who loves rough, and lad, she has teeth.
Caradoc smiled inwardly, keeping his face blank of expression barring the effort of song. Most of the men trailed into the Valleywood. Some made for the caves on the edge of the Peak Forest. He was the only one that went up the mountainside into the snow. Toward biting cold and thinning air. Toward the peaks that gave the shifting Highlands their name.
Into the baleful, alpine teeth Caradoc strode. Toward the Carnángarda. Toward opportunity. Into the Peaks of Sun and Blood.
The Valleywood, four days later
Maertin Meriwether Himself, first of his name and creed, danced around the Coillcuradh’s jumping strike. Even if the scalewolf wasn’t trying to kill him, he would’ve danced. It’s done. That spoiled lordling is going to die, or he’s going to lose, and I’ll have everything. Not an orphan will cry in this Clannad ever again. And it was a close thing, too. Bugger me for fair if it weren’t.
The Valleywood was thick and teeming with life of all shapes and sizes. It rang with the sounds of insects and birds; it smelled of musty decay and new flowers. It surrounded the Clannad in a ring with a single opening: the Southport. And that was a small opening indeed.
To get to the Shifting Shores, an army had to journey through the Valleywood. To visit relatives that lived anywhere else in the Shifting Highlands, a family had to go through the Valleywood. A clan’s bounty came from their Valleywood; it was life, it was food, it was money, and—for the hunters—it was home. Despite all the other hazards the forest held, knifemaws and great-bruins and all the rest, scalewolves were the single most fearsome rival people had in the Shifting Highlands.
The beast Maertin was facing was the size of a medium hound; its rough hide was covered in mottled brown feathers and spiny quills. Its eyes were full of empty black hatred. It stood—or rather latched to the tree—with two long legs, ending in talons, one on each foot a wicked sickle shape. “Come back you little shite!” he called. “I don’t think our fight is over!”
It wasn’t. Just one of the scalewolves of the forest—the Coillcuradh—was latched to an oak tree, digging its sharp claws into the bark. Its face held an odd avian expression of surprise. It had just missed. Maertin laughed aloud, the adrenaline thrumming in his veins. The beast’s head darted and bobbed, gauging distance, direction, the movement of its target. Its leathery black mouth opened, a hoarse croak emanating from its throat. Fi-ight! Ov-er!
These animals didn’t get their names from any physical resemblance to wolves. If anything, they looked like a single angry god’s attempt to ruin the creation of birds for all the other gods. Scalewolves got their name because they shared the mentality of their mammalian brethren. They hunted viciously. They planned accordingly. They moved in numbers. The beast’s packmates all shouted towards the treed Coillcuradh’s call in response. Ov-er! Over! Ove-er! Barring the squawking and repetition, they were horribly perfect imitations of Maertin’s own shout. They came from all directions in the rustling undergrowth.
Sure, and surround me. I’m the quickling, you little squawking bastards. We’ll see how well you like trying to taste of my skin when there’s fifteen men hurling knives at the spot I used to be standing in.
Despite his internal bravado, Maertin shuddered. He had always found that eerie. The little monsters could mimic the words of men. They used that ability to disastrous effect. Mostly on children and oldsters. He had scars as old as his sixth summer from a Coillcuradh trying to drag him into the forest. Bertran had heard him screaming—thank the gods for his staying late in the smithy—and pulled him out of the weeds just in time. Maertin hated scalewolves nearly as much as he hated ignorant nobles…
…and there’s no way under Father Earth’s restful hands that Caradoc would be any better than Brannaw’s whelp. Not with who his da is. The Mad-man Macdowell was even worse than scalewolves were. Say what you like about them, even the angriest scalewolf would only attack a man because it was hungry. Only men and dogs killed for sport, and the latter because time among the former had taught them cruelty.
Some rumors held that Carnángarda, the mountain scalewolves—big as the striped knifemaw cats who roamed the Valleywood grounds—were as intelligent as men themselves. Those same rumors said they spoke only using a hissing language that men couldn’t grasp without a teacher and only attacked men for retaliation or revenge.
Bah. Maertin readied his hatchets, banished all thoughts of smart-arsed scalewolves, and sent a hand axe whirling at the beast on the tree. The mist was beginning to roll in, which meant the First Warriors had two choices: break the hunt and make camp for another night in the Peak Forest or run—as Caradoc had so finely put it—balls out and hair on fire for the Dun. He had to take at least one more hide today. For nothing else but the grub.
He was running low on food, as were the other men on the hunt. Their fires would burn long tonight. Meat would cook and fresh hissweed would smoke to repel opportunistic little nuisances.
Maertin was so lost in his anticipation that he almost forgot the hunt itself. Don’t count your chickens afore they hatch lad. The whistle that snapped him out of his thoughts was quick and chattering. Somewhere between a bird’s chirp and a beetle’s click. The signal. The bushes rustled at the edges of his vision. Maertin pitched his body headlong to the left as the scalewolves leaped, falling into a practiced spring that sent his body hurtling forward and into the air. He scampered up a tree fast enough to see the results of the Coillcuradh’s failed effort.
Two of the Coillcuradh collided in midair. A third fell on top of them, creating a roiling mass of claws, hide, and feathers. The treed beast squawked in distress, its head bobbing every which way in search of Maertin. He smiled and stroked his beard.
The treed scalewolf’s head sprouted an arrow with a sudden flat snap! and the brawlers descended, double the scalewolves’ number.
For his part, Maertin hurled his spare hatchet into the incipient chaos, only to receive the response of, “Mother Sun’s glimmering shite! Are you trying to kill me lad?” The voice was rough and deep. Maertin recognized it as Haggerty, his smithy’s co-owner.
“No, Haggerty, I figured you could use help, the now.”
“Last I checked,” Haggerty said, breathlessly, “the scalewolves were all too eager to help us die, boyo. When I want yours with the matter, I’ll fucking ask, I will.” His statement was punctuated with a wet thock! and a scalewolf’s screech of pain.
“Who’s hatchet were the one to kill that last bird Haggerty?”
“I’m unsure, I am, but I think the owner needs to eat shite!” he shouted.
Maertin chuckled. The din of the brawl descended and then ceased. The brawlers stepped back, and the two bowmen of the group shot the scalewolves that were still twitching.
Maertin descended from his perch and claimed the hide of the scalewolf he’d treed. The brawlers took the hides and feathers of the rest, while the archers went off in search of wanderlings, young scalewolves who would undoubtedly be close by, too small to hunt anything but squirrels and rabbits.
It took three wanderling hides to make a full hide, but a bowman came home with a goodly amount of meat and fletching supplies. Wanderling bones could be sold to make anything from needles to fish hooks.
The position was filled by men who were reluctant to swear away the hunt, but had people needing them to come home at its end.
Maertin tied a weighted rope through the ligaments in the legs of his chosen carcass, then tossed the weighted end over a tree limb. He pulled his Sgian-dubh—his preferred knife for skinning and breaking game—from its sheath in his foot leathers, then ripped a red slash across its gut and throat. Haggerty hoisted the carcass up on the rope line. Around him, the other brawler duos were performing the same ritual. Smiling, Maertin broke into song. The sun descended as he did. Maertin looked up at the mountain peaks in the distance. Great black storm clouds wrapped around them like a scarf of fine grey fur. The mountains were breaking a tropical storm. All of the drenching rain would turn to driving ice on their peaks. Maertin’s smile grew ever wider. The clouds, he knew, had been there for days. As had Caradoc.
The Peaks of Sun and Blood, three weeks after Apata set sail
Caradoc Macdowell Himself stumbled into another snow drift. He didn’t know how long he’d been away from the Dun. He didn’t know where he was at all. He was cold. Sleeping and waking came in waves. The cave-bruin cloak he’d pulled from his pack and thrown on no longer helped his body retain heat. His face was numb; icicles formed from the snow that melted in his beard. The sky was the same color as the ground as often as not. The snow fell so thickly and so densely that his vision became a field of searing white.
He’d made a misstep. He was going to die. He’d failed. Been arrogant. Rash. Stupid. Useless. Useless. Useless. No.
Caradoc rose to his feet, knees knocking together like swinging tavern doors. He lurched to one side, then to the other, and fell again, only to rise once more. In front of him stood a firm figure. A man two heads taller than he and a head broader at the shoulder. The man’s fiery red hair was shot through with gray, both it and his skin were streaked with a blue so saturated it looked like what the gods had intended the color blue to be, instead of what it actually was. Caradoc recognized the man despite that strangeness. “Old man Brannaw? You’re dead, you are! Dead as I’m like to be!”
“No lad. You’ll not be useless by your own will. Not ever again. She died because you couldn’t hack it then. If you can’t hack it now, then the folk led to misery by me idjit son will die, too. You will not lay down willing for Father Earth. Not yet.”
“Go fuck a goat old man!” Caradoc shouted. To his thinking, Brannaw’s comment was out of line. But Caradoc’s head was whirling in a rage as fine as the strongest liquor, compounded by days of exhaustion and hunger. His next lurching step was a swing at the chief who’d been more of a father to him than his own blood.
He found himself swinging through air. Diving into yet another drift of ice-covered snow. His hands were battered, bruised and scratched. This newest fall had pierced his left palm proper bad, a shard of ice drove deep then melted and fell out.
Caradoc snarled, his face a rictus of pain and rage. Blood spattered from his slashed palm, bouncing and steaming on top of the snow. The wind howled. His blood melted the ice, and he knelt to slurp up the coppery brew. His water skins had frozen through some time back, and he had no real use for chunks of ice belted to his waist. He let loose a mad cackle. “Should a man need ice here, he but has to look around, I’d think!” he continued to laugh. The water could wait.
This water, however, seemed to be running away. Caradoc scrambled towards it.
Kin of my kin, raised to manhood by my sister’s shining rays, follow the stream of your life’s water. Follow it and all will be made clear.
The small dribble surged forward, melting and steaming as it went. Caradoc was too bewildered to do anything but follow on his hands and knees, his slashed palm paining him with every shuffle forward. The bloodied water trickled onward in the snow. Onward and…
Father Earth’s multicolored grin, that water is flowing upwards! As soon as the thought passed through his mind, the steaming water began to form a circle. Seconds later, he found himself kneeling at the feet of Maertin Meriwether. Maertin kept his face neutral, his gaze never leaving Caradoc’s own. His eyes were filled with something…
…else. This is no Meriwether I’ve ever known. Once again, no sooner had the thought passed through his mind than Not-Maertin began to smile. This wasn’t like his normal ear-to-ear grin, though. It was diffident. Almost saddened.
Not-Maertin knelt and clasped Caradoc’s uninjured palm, pulling him up from the ground and placing the arm in his grip around his own shoulders, to support Caradoc’s wobbling knees.
They moved forward together, Caradoc feeling the snow in his footleathers and the wind whipping across his cloak at his shoulders. Sure and that’s an oddity.
The mountains weren’t holding back anything. The cold was seeping through every precaution Caradoc took against it, the wind cutting like a boning knife, deep and precise. The pair of men forged onward, upward, until Caradoc reached his limit. Then the world started to shimmer.
And it started to break.
Caradoc heard the wind start to whisper; the sound was soft, sibilant, as if the whole world were singing him a lullaby.
It’s in the laying of the cobblestones,
You’ll find it breaking with your bread,
The snow doth fall, and air doth groan,
Child rest your weary head.
The whiteness surrounding the men shivered and undulated. They continued onward. Caradoc found himself walking over the brick roads of Dun Brannaw’s village center. His thoughts felt thick and cold, like a bottle of pressed cooking oil left out in the snow. He felt the sensations of his feet firmly on the street and sloshing through deep snow simultaneously. The pair moved through the Dun, through the open fortress door, toward the chief’s chair.
All at once, the Dun vanished and the whiteout returned, and the driving wind still sang.
The sails, they flutter, flap and fold.
Top gallants fall and tie,
The seas go calm, the sun grows dull,
For this day too, must die.
Caradoc and Not-Maertin kept moving forward. The whiteness shimmered again, and they stood on a small boat that bucked and rolled over a stormy nighttime sea. Caradoc blinked, and for a solitary moment he saw nothing but a craggy rock he alone was standing on, and a vast expanse of undulating snow. But only for a moment. Then the sea was back.
The boat, Caradoc found, was not empty. The sail and rudder were manned by a woman with a figure like an hourglass. Her skin—colored both the blue of calm sea depths and a pinkish white—was heavily blackened by ash-ink knotwork earned for accomplishments in healing. By the stars, it can’t possibly be—
It wasn’t. As his thoughts slipped through his mind, thick and slimy and slow moving, Not-Apata turned her head.
Her eyes were completely brown. The dark color of turned and moistened earth. Caradoc felt hatred in them. She stood and took his hand. The contact of skin on skin caused a bubbling hiss, and Caradoc recoiled, taking Maertin to the floorboards with him. His hand was burned by an alien heat. It wasn’t frostwaste and it wasn’t a scald. The injury rested somewhere between the two.
“No,” Not-Maertin hissed. Not-Apata flinched back, fear and anger and hurt warring on her face. “The balance was struck long ago, old man. Begone.”
The sea and the boat vanished. The snow returned to claim Caradoc’s vision. The wind began to murmur once again.
So kindled wood men’s souls must be,
For life’s fire to flicker fair,
But kindled wood to ash must burn,
And men turn to dust and air.
The two men crossed the expanse, the wind howling about them. They neared a crevice in the rock and passed a threshold where the wind shrieked as it whipped across but could not push through.
The shrieking turned into the groaning of a strained rope. The mountain about them shivered again, and Caradoc felt warmth against his skin. A breeze rustled his hair gently. The smells of wood smoke, sweat, and dung fought for dominance in his nostrils. He was shaded on either side by buildings of stout brick, the window coverings were an even split. Some were made of new crystal glass, the panes rippled the light of the sunset reflected from the sea. Others were made of paper, glowing with the wavering orange light of wick-oil lanterns. Still others were not present at all.
The alley was dark, but not pitch black. The sounds of a clamoring city surrounded Caradoc, filling his ears with creaking and jostling noises. Then, without warning, they were gone.
The rock and snow of the mountain reclaimed their place in the world. Not-Maertin continued on with Caradoc’s arm slung across his shoulder. The wind screamed and buffeted the pair of men, swaying their balance to and fro. The voice that had been a mournful dirge picked up pace, intensity. The song continued as a war cry.
So do not weep, nor lose yourself,
Nor waste what time you’re given,
For the deeds men do and words men speak,
Are how men mark the time they live in.
They neared an outcrop of rock and ice, where spears of water jutted downward like crystalline teeth from the low mouth of a cave. And just as suddenly as the alleyway departed, the sight of the cave was gone. The cave vanished, replaced with the low-slung door of a lean-to hut. The spear-like icicles hung menacingly from the ceiling. In the distance, thunder cracked. It was the angry type of sky-roar that would’ve been accompanied by a torrent in the Highlands. Here—wherever here was—the sound was partnered to a gentle, heavy fall of snow.
The lean-to was dimly lit by a fire. Caradoc tried to stop, but Not-Maertin pulled him forward by his still slung arm. The lean-to’s back wall bubbled, the image shifting like steam above a frothing kettle. Caradoc and Not-Maertin continued forward, the small shelter stretching beyond the space it was meant to occupy. The whirling patterns crystallized into geometric shapes. Facets with sharp distinction, colored with the colors of the wall and the flickering light of the fire. Squares and triangles and sharp cornered shapes without name struggled against each other for dominance; to Caradoc it looked like a cut jewel reeling in pain.
And then the back wall of the hut shattered. The cut facets flew apart, making a hole in the wall sizable enough for two men to pass through. They crossed the jeweled threshold into a world of swirling color.
Warmth and strength flooded through Caradoc, seeping into his bones as if he were a chicken thrown into a pot to make broth. Just ahead, a woman sat cross-legged on the shore of a small lake, the water glimmered with the light of the moon. Palm trees—trees that Caradoc had only ever seen once, on a singular visit to Niki island as a small child–—rustled in the wind.
Everything. Everything in this place ran with enough color that Caradoc had to squint to keep his eyes from hurting. It was as if a mad water-artist had splashed the world in a layer of strongly pigmented honey paints that made not a lick of gods-damned sense. The scarlet Godmarks on Caradoc’s skin writhed and twisted, like snakes newly born.
Not-Maertin vanished as if he were never there to begin with. Caradoc walked upright, his gait strong and steady for the first time in a long time. He approached the woman at the lakeshore. She had Godmarks the same color as his. Her face was a softened, rounded version of his own blunt rock-slab features. Her eyes were the same jolly hazel. She was just past thirty, the same age he last remembered seeing her. He gawked. “Mam?” The word came out a weepy gasp.
“After a fashion,” the woman said, smiling. Runnels of blue, violet, and indigo shaded her face where tones of black and beige would have done the job in Caradoc’s world. He knew in his bones that this was no world he’d come from. In her lap sat a scalewolf whelp, butting its head into one of her palms in what Caradoc took for affection. The whelp was the size of a large hound, but by the soft down covering its body, it was young.
“Hello, child of my children.”
“If you’re not my mam, who are you?” He asked. And why are you wearing her face? remained an unspoken second half of the question.
“I believe the Abrugaels call me Mother Blood.”
Caradoc laughed then. He laughed long and hard, almost pissing himself in the process. “Aye, you’re Mother Blood, and I’m the king of all Godmarked folk to walk the Shifting Highlands. Not just a dying man attempting to become chief of a dying clan.”
She looked him in the eye again. Her eyes held an ancient wisdom. A straightforward bent. They held weight beyond the parental authority she’d had in life. She quirked an eyebrow. She was Mother Blood. He could feel it in the air he was breathing. Which meant…
“So I’m to be king then?” Caradoc asked scratching his shoulder.
She smiled and shook her head. The gesture was filled with the weight of years and looked incongruous on a woman just past thirty summers. “No, child. At least, not for certain. Your world, fickle thing that it is, stands on a precipice. A great many people of consequence have been born into it simultaneously. A great many choices and possible outcomes lay before your kind. You are one of those people, young one. The choices that you, and others like you make will either bring this world back from the brink, or drive it screaming over the edge, you along with it.”
“So if I’m not to be king, what are you doing here?”
“I’m here to help you, for the moment. Despite your potential for destruction, your potential for good is such that I cannot stand by willingly and let you die.” The scalewolf whelp butted at her palm more and more fervently. Softly crying out.
“So a ritual. One I taught your people long ago, and that your people forgot,” she said, smile growing wider, happier. “Caradoc Macdowell, blood of my blood, clansman of my clan, give me your Sgian-dubh.”
He did as she told without question, handing the knife over, while simultaneously feeling it firmly in his grasp. She cut the scalewolf whelp lightly on one of its haunches. The young animal butted its head into her palm again and again so fast that Caradoc could tell it was panicking. Caradoc felt its flesh resist the blade that wasn’t in his hand. He felt the blade cut the scalewolf with his palm while his mother did the work. For a bare moment, the two images held equal place in his mind. Then he blinked, and the colors had overtaken his vision again.
Mother Blood gestured to him once more, using the dagger to re-open his injured palm. She placed the hand that was flowing blood onto the cut in the scalewolf whelp’s haunch. The scalewolf stopped butting its head into her palm. It’s head swung around, its eye, one that was a cerulean blue that matched the sky over the mountain, locked with his.
Caradoc felt anam flow through his cut and into the beast’s. When he pulled his hand away, the cuts on both man and animal were healed, leaving a long, bright slash of violet. He held the scalewolf’s gaze for a long time.
Above him, around him, a hissing voice whispered Anamchara. At the sound, Caradoc looked up. His mother—Mother Blood—was gone. In her place was the body of a fully grown female Carnángarda, eyes glazed over with the milky whiteness of death long passed. The grown beast was not breathing. It was so thin that Caradoc could see all of its bones under its flesh. The baby scalewolf nudged his hand and cooed softly. He saw images of the same grown Carnángarda in his mind. Saw it feeding him regurgitated meat. Protecting him from another angry, fully grown scalewolf. Saw it die. Caradoc felt a chill run down his spine.
Lugos Macdowell Himself sat the throne of the dun which held his name. The voice of Father Earth, the voice of the creator of all mankind, reverberated about the halls. About the throne. Inside of his skull.
“Insolence! Disobedience! Failure!” The words streamed off into a slew of long forgotten curses. The shouts were loud enough that Lugos thought his skull was cracking. For a bare moment, the two beings inside—the man of flesh and the god of his people—were one.
His hand clutched at the armrest of his throne. He bit his tongue hard enough to draw blood and then smiled, looking upwards, looking inwards. Feeling the infinite presence of the being responsible for the birth of his folk. Feeling the blood trickle through his teeth and down his chin. A single word snapped him out of his reverie. “Sir?”
A pair of guards were standing before his throne. One of the stupid fleshlings was looking a question at him. He raised a clenched fist, pointing a finger at the man who spoke. Three arrows sprouted from the man’s chest. Lugos Macdowell looked to the other man, relishing the expression of horror on his face for a moment before snapping his own fingers to gain the man’s attention. Once gained, he said: “Bring me my daughter. I would see the woman my Apata has become.” For a single instant, the guard he was speaking to looked him in the eye.
What the guard saw made him kiss the back of a clenched fist and then move the fist across his brow: a long held gesture of spiritual aversion among his people. A gesture meant to ward off evil. After he performed this gesture, the guard turned, trembling, and ran like all the hounds of hell and fire were after him.
Lugos MacDowell’s eyes were a single solid brown all the way across. There was no iris. No pupil, nor white. He looked like he had moistened stones in his eye sockets. His eyes were the dark color of turned and moistened earth. His grin widened. The blood ran freely down his stubbled chin.