“Oh, great,” said Bevulf.
Hross could tell by the tone that his heavy-limbed companion meant the opposite. Hross glanced ahead through the dappled light of the long-fingered pines framing the path and saw two shining figures in the yard just outside the hall. “What?” he asked.
Bevulf didn’t reply. When Hross moved his gaze away from the shining gold locks of the most arresting figure ahead — the one in the light blue form-fitting gown, the one with the silver-gilt cloak shimmering like water misting in the morning chill of early spring – and glanced at the warrior to see if Bevulf was going to say more, Hross received only a raised eyebrow and a thin smirk beneath Bevulf’s poorly trimmed, spotty, young-man’s lip growth.
Not that Hross’s was much better, and he self-consciously put a hand to his three days without a shave and wondered if the gesture might make him appear contemplative and sufficiently studious. No matter. He hadn’t had any trouble with women in the past. They inexorably found their hands fingering his slightly curled locks that they exclaimed shone like spun gold. They often found themselves gazing into his blue-gray eyes that looked out at them as serenely and as at peace as cloud-flecked skies. Bevulf’s chagrin at meeting these two women hadn’t slowed their steps any, and the two women turned to regard the approaching newcomers. Hross basked in the opportunity to examine these beauties head on and in greater detail.
Hross preferred the one with golden braids and the open countenance. A soft light seemed to emanate from her pale features. Her freckles were like flecks of gold. She wore an arrowhead on a string depending from a clasp on her cloak. He knew her for a cleric of Erastil.
The other must be her sister. Not as attractive, in Hross’s estimation, which didn’t mean he wouldn’t have had her as well or instead, given the opportunity. She might be more exciting, anyway. Her limbs were lean and taut with muscle, bulging in the forearms. Her thighs were more stout than any man’s. Somehow attached to her left shoulder was a light, wooden shield, gouged and cracked as if it had deflected many a blade – or seen other uses that, for now, he only could speculate on. Her lips were a bit narrower than her sister’s, and, instead of braided, her gold hair was chopped short as if with a few slashes of a notched knife. At the approach of Hross and Bevulf, she stepped slightly in front of her sister as if from instinct, as if from a long life of having protected her. But her narrowed eyes indicated that she knew Bevulf and so certainly couldn’t foresee them as a threat.
“Bevulf,” she said with the same tone of voice in which Bevulf had alerted Hross to the women’s presence.
“Hross,” Bevulf said grimly, “this is Skild.” And in a much lighter tone of voice, and with a sweep of his hand that suggested something of a bow, he said, “And this is her sister Eirvit.”
“Good hunting to you,” said Eirvit, Erastil’s ritual greeting, as she drifted forward. Purely on instinct, Hross found himself taking her fingers between his own.
A moment later, Hross behaved as if he had just come back from losing himself in this cleric’s presence, which wasn’t far from the truth. As he released her hand, he nodded his head in a suggestion of a bow of his own and said, “Charmed, I’m sure, and not by the grace of Erastil but through thy own virtue alone.”
Eirvit’s laugh was like ringing swordplay. Hross guessed that she was pleased, even though he was certain that she had similarly been flattered many times before. Hross prided himself on being able to dust off and reemploy what many had long ago put away in the attic of rhetoric as trite overused phrases and devices.
Skild cleared her throat, a deep, gravelly, moist sound, and Hross was surprised when she didn’t spit a gob of phlegm at his feet. He almost gagged, thinking that she must have swallowed that mess.
Eirvit expressed in language what Skild perhaps had just now meant to suggest through snorting, “I trust that you have come from Arrowstone on the same errand as we?”
Before Hross could speak, Bevulf said gruffly, “Children missing.”
Hross smiled when Bevulf didn’t continue. It occurred to him that Bevulf knew only what Hross had told him, so Hross now would be the better one to explain the situation to the women and therefore the one to gain all their attention.
But before he could seize the opportunity, Skild now chose to use words instead of spit, saying acerbically, “And the Blackravens have no greater use of your warrior’s skills than to round up missing children?”
Hross stifled a laugh. Skild wasn’t far from the mark, at that. When Hross had been brought from his breakfast in Arrowstone Hall to the smaller hall where Captain Kolbern planned strategy, the half-orc, in his half-growl, had said nearly as much. If young Bevulf won’t give up the pleasures of the bed for the duties of the field, he might as well do something. Hross grinned again. Pleasures of the bed, indeed. Everyone knew where to find Bevulf these mornings, in the arms of Fleka Dyer. Glancing sideways, Hross noticed with a bit of glee that Bevulf still had a fluff of pillow feather and a straw clinging to his wavy, shoulder-length red hair. He also smelled sickly sweet of honey – mead – which rumor had it Fleka was almost as good at brewing as she was the rich dyes of her fabrics.
Bevulf attempted a retort. “And the Shield Champions of Deadeye Rock have no greater use for…” He paused, wrinkled his forehead. His face seemed to express a sudden realization that what he had been about to say couldn’t possibly go anywhere particularly witty.
Skild’s triumphant smile showed her white, wide teeth.
“Fine then,” Eirvit said, sparing Bevulf any further embarrassment. “The Heart and the Hand. The two forces committed to the wellbeing of Pogonip Falls: the Shield Champions of Erastil and the Blackraven Rangers who guard us from the cold perils of Irrisen. Let us look into this mystery together.”
There was no disagreement there, so all four turned and regarded the exterior of what now was referred to as Orphan Hall, ever since Bera Lurch had opened her home to the orphans of Pogonip Falls after the many years of deaths resulting from the clashes with border raids from across Irrisen. The place was strangely silent. Neither couple had seen anyone on the south fields it had traversed during its approach. The two great doors of the main hall stood open, but only shadows could be discerned within. A wing attached to it on the east emitted a plume of smoke from a chimney. This probably was the kitchen, and it could be expected, no matter what the time of day, that someone would be in the kitchen: food must be in constant preparation, especially for large households. Beyond this kitchen, and beyond a newly seeded garden – the soil rich with black and recently turned over and sifted of rocks – was an outbuilding that appeared to be a smithy, judging by the tendril of smoke that rose out of a chimney not of stone like the kitchen’s but of hammered copper plating – and by the heaps of charcoal underneath a lean-to on the side of the building.
The kitchen door was invitingly open to the cool, spring morning. Eirvit stepped toward it, Skild beside her. Hross found himself following Eirvit. After two strides, though, he realized that his Blackraven companion was not with him.
Bevulf, facing the open doors of the main hall, remained standing in the yard. “I’ll go check in there,” he said.
Eirvit and Skild entered the kitchen, a voice of greeting meeting them.
“Check for what?” Hross asked. It seemed to him that the usual investigative manner would be to question the stead-keepers first, and, by the sound of that greeting, at least one of them was in the kitchen.
Bevulf shrugged. “I don’t know. Anything unusual, I guess.”
Hross grinned. It was clear Bevulf hadn’t much of a plan; Bevulf just wanted to avoid Skild. Hross hardly cared why. It was only too easy to guess that the two had some history between them, probably some bad blood arising from flirtations or dalliances gone wrong. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll check in with you soon.”
He stepped into warm, sweet-scented air pushed by the western breeze coming in through an open window. The smells of sugar, flour and butter rose from rows of pies on a long table filling the center of the room. An armory of pots and pans hung from hooks on the ceiling. A cauldron crouched over flames in a great hearth; whatever simmered inside it mingled meat-scents with the baking. Two great, round women had risen from where they had been sitting on either side of the inglenook. Stitching had been left in their wooden rocking chairs, and now one was seating the Aldisdottirs at one end of the table while the other cut into a pie with a great knife.
The woman who had just sat the Aldisdottirs turned to Hross. She was old, but the bones of her face were strong beneath her flesh. Her iron-gray hair was wrapped in tight braids that curled into a kind of crown on her head. Her eyes were like the gleam of sword blades. She wore a thick, gray, embroidered coat over a modest, homespun gown. She extended a hand and walked stiffly toward Hross, favoring her left leg. “Bera Lurch,” she said. Hross felt he could easily guess the origin of her byname. An old war injury? “I am jarl of this hall. I’m guessing you’re new to town?”
Hross flashed his most spectacular grin. “New to town” would be a polite way of putting it. He was new to the Blackravens, and he understood that some in town resented the growing numbers of the largely martial border patrol with Irrisen. Hross wasn’t exactly one of them – well, he wasn’t exactly martial, but he was considered a Blackraven. “I am,” he said. As he took her fingers, he said, “And I regret that I never made your acquaintance before this day.”
Bera frowned and brought back her hand, but Hross suspected that she wasn’t entirely displeased with his attention. He extended the circle of his radiance now to include the other woman, who promptly identified herself as Nanny – Nitpick, she added, specifying that it was what the children called her, and she hoped that it was because she always was tidying and pulling on their clothing and not because she was unnecessarily fastidious.
As soon as she had served the guests their pie, she returned to her stitching, her fingers darting the needle in and out of the fabric like the pecking beak of a bird.
“But where are the children?” Eirvit asked.
Bera had sat herself beside Hross, across the table from the sisters – no, no pie for her, she had had too much already – and she seemed to speak for herself and Nanny both. “Oh, they all are in the northwest fields at about this time, tilling, sowing seed. They’re with Nain Nailwright.” She then explained, in a euphemistic manner, that Nain was a dwarf so ancient that he had lost most of his at one time prodigious skills as a smith. Now he was reduced to blackmithing and farming. Hence his sobriquet.
Over the rhubarb pie – quite tart because, because of the constant border wars with Irrisen, refined beet-sugar was a rare commodity in these parts of Hagreach–the two from Deadeye Rock and the two from Arrowstone learned that the children – Lut, Spryg, and Ta, names that meant little to Hross, being a stranger—most likely had vanished or had ran away sometime in the middle watches of the night.
“And where do they sleep?” asked Eirvit.
“Most sleep in the loft above the main hall,” Bera explained, “to make the most use of the warmth of the hearth fire.”
Skild stood. “We should investigate.”
Eirvit nodded. “Yes.” But she looked again at Bera, then over at Nanny, who, apparently aware of her gaze, put her stitching down and looked into her eyes. “Is there anything else you might tell us,” Eirvit asked gently, “anything at all? Were the three children happy here? Did they have reason, that you know of, for wanting to leave? Were they – ” Eirvit paused. Impossibly, her voice grew even gentler. “Did they have reason to feel that they were being mistreated in some way?”
Noticing what Eirvit was doing, Hross glanced askance at Bera and saw her eyes go round, but not necessarily with guilt or anger.
Nanny said, “No. They weren’t mistreated, and I know of no cause for why they would want to leave. We all know there aren’t many places to go, at least not in this town, and if they had a mind to go anywhere else, they’d have to look for kin in the wilds of Hagreach, or take one of the few roads to Trollheim or the like. And even then it’s not easy just to vanish without notice.”
Eirvit nodded. It seemed that Nanny had given this a lot of thought. Bera began to rise, evidently ready to lead the company to the lofts.
“Except,” Nanny continued, “they complained about their dreams. All the children did so—and do, actually.” Her voice grew softer, lower, as if she feared someone overhearing. Hross thought her gaze flickered toward what appeared to be a cellar door, heavily bolted. “Night terrors. They say a dark shape visits them at night, creeps out of the walls, terrorizes them.”
The spring sunlight outside the kitchen window wavered, as if a crow had flown across the face of the sun, and a cool breeze fondled the nape of Hross’s neck. Now he stood, too, as a means of shaking it off.
“There might be something to their claims,” Hross said. “After all, it’s common knowledge that there are many sentient shadows in this world and beyond, and most certainly wish us harm. If you don’t mind, I think I’m ready to look at these lofts.”
“Yes, Hross,” Eirvit said, in a tone that suggested that just now Hross somehow had been a great help, though Hross guessed that this was just her way of using a form of flattery through which to foster goodwill. “I think we should look at the lofts now.” She looked now from Nanny to Bera. “Though I most certainly would like to speak to the children, too, before we are done here.”
“Of course,” Bera said. “If you will follow me.”
All except for Nanny, who remained in her nook, rose and followed Bera through a wide, open doorway into the next room, which, before even entering, reason told Hross, by his sense of space, would be the great hall. It was, and therein was Bevulf, looking up at the rafters impassively. The range of his gaze shifted to the company as they entered, and Hross noticed that Bera acknowledged Bevulf’s presence without introduction. Of course, he thought. This town is so small—or so decimated from the recent wars—that everyone knows everyone. Except for a few other recent Blackraven recruits, Hross probably was the only one who required an introduction.
“This is, of course, where we all eat,” Bera said, and she didn’t even slow her shuffle as she motioned to the benches and the great, oaken table. She lurched past an impressive open hearth to a wide, stout ladder. As she climbed, with each rung extending her good leg as far as she could stretch it and then leaning her body far to one side to give her game leg enough clearance to land on the dowel, she said, “And up here is where the children sleep. Me and Nanny and Nain, naturally, like to have some of our own space in the evenings. So this is where we say goodnight to the children each night. We don’t see them again unless one of them starts trouble in the night, or if someone gets ill, or if someone gets… alarmed.”
The rest followed her up the ladder. In the loft, they looked onto the hall over a stout railing. A number of well made beds were flush with the walls. Each had bedchests at their feet, their uniform design upset with obvious signs of personalization, like painted stencils or runemarks, carved initials, bouquets of dried flowers.
“If the children decided to sneak out at night,” Hross said, “how might they do it?”
“Down the ladder and out the door is the only way, or the most likely way. It wouldn’t be difficult to do, particularly since I sleep in my own chamber, Nanny in a chamber off from the kitchen. Nain sometimes sleeps in the closet down below, particularly in the cold winter months—sometimes we all do, to conserve fuel—but in the summer he tends to stay out at his forge.”
“Which beds belong to the vanished children?” Eirvit said.
Bera began to lurch to the nearest bed that once had belonged to a missing child, pointing out the other two, and there appeared to be no pattern to it, unless the pattern was for the maximum distance possible, all the way around the encircling balcony. Bera shuffled until she was about halfway down the west wall of the balcony. The bed she stopped at was perfectly made, the coverlet tight over the corners of the thatch, a fox-skin at its foot. The age darkened cedar chest had an eagle feather wedged underneath a metal band. Something was tucked under the blanket, resting on the pillow.
Eirvit’s hand reached for it, as if impulsively, but then, to Hross’s perception, she seemed to catch hold of herself and paused. She turned to Bera. “What is this?” Her hand hovered just above the object, which seemed to be the form of a small humanoid, as if it were a tiny fey that even now was stealing a quick nap in a vanished child’s bed.
“A doll,” Bera said. “All the children have one.”
“May I?” said Eirvit, and Bera nodded.
As Eirvit slipped the doll out from under the cover, Hross asked, “What Nanny said about the night terrors, about a shape coming out of the wall, have you heard the same?” When Bera nodded also to him, Hross asked, “Does the shadow come out from anywhere particularly?”
At that, Bera looked puzzled, and Hross guessed that she had not thought to ask. He noticed that Bevulf was watching him closely. Hross caught Bevulf’s eye, nodded, and without words the two began to make their way down along the balcony, among the beds. Hross started studying the walls. Behind him, Bevulf casually reached out and rapped on the wooden wall. He took a step, knocked again.
“The walls are essentially hollow,” Bera said behind them. “They’re filled with thatch.”
At a glance, Hross noticed that almost all of the beds had a doll in them, and now the one nearest to him caught his eye. It was on its backside on the bedchest, one shoulder and it’s head partly on the edge of the bed, in a posture that suddenly seemed to Hross to suggest that it had just been sitting up, moments ago, perhaps watching as Bera emerged through the hole at the end of the balcony, and then had suddenly lay down as if to “play” at being a doll. Hross stood above it and gazed keenly down at it.
He felt an instinctive revulsion of it, though, superficially, he could not understand why, and he was amazed at Eirvit’s apparent willingness to take such a thing into her hands. He actually should have been quite impressed with the craftsmanship. It had the semblance of a Valkyrie. The wood she was fashioned of was as white as ivory. The features of her face were sharply defined. Her eyes seemed to have more than one color in their irises. Her red lips wore a slightly mocking smile. Two braids of golden thatch descended from the sides of a helmet painted with a steely luster. The hue of her “chain” armor was similar, woven of a thick fiber. Across her knees rested a lance, and a star glittered on its point.
Hross crouched and peered at the gem. He had no skill in the area, but he was willing to swear that that glimmer was a little piece of actual diamond. A cold breeze seemed to waft from it.
He rose again to his full height. If he hadn’t felt that subtle sense of unease, he would have coveted such a doll, if he were a child. Nay, he would have coveted now, as an adult, and not just for the fleck of diamond, if it hadn’t been for that faint feeling of “wrongness.”
And the dolls weren’t single-gendered. He had glimpsed enough to know that what Eirvit held in her hands was the semblance of some kind of warrior, perhaps an Einherji—the male near-equivalent to the Valkyrie he gazed at now.
He began the spell almost before he had consciously decided to do so; he raised his hands, tracing runes in the air. He whispered the words that would reveal magical secrets, and it seemed to him that the doll before him began to shimmer, though he knew that only he could see it. This was a magical aura. No surprise: the doll was magical.
Hross was dimly aware that the others had noticed that he was casting a spell. If they had been speaking before, now they had grown silent and were watching respectfully. He weaved the spell tighter. He sensed spell wavers rolling out in a widening arc from his hands. Another doll in a bed beyond lighted up: it was safe to say that all of the dolls were magical in some way. He strengthened the spell yet some more, but he couldn’t quite understand the nature of the magic nor the type of spells – if any – that were in operation. Probably it was a combination of schools of magic. He let the cantrip fade.
All were looking at him. He said, “The dolls are magic.”
“Just a glamer, perhaps?” As Eirvit spoke, Ross noticed that the cleric had replaced the doll she had been holding onto the bed. “Something to make them more exquisite?”
Hross felt his forehead crinkle. Why couldn’t he understand more about these? “Perhaps,” he said, “but I think it might be more than that.”
“Why would Skark be giving the children magic dolls?” Bera mused.
“Perhaps they’re meant to protect the children?” Skild ask-mused. “Or comfort them? Skark was the only survivor of the Battle of Winter Blight. Perhaps he feels partly responsible.”
“It’s true he hasn’t been the same since,” Eirvit said, “which is to be expected. We should pay him a visit. It’s been too long.” She looked at Bera. “You say Skark has given the children these dolls? For how long? When did it begin?”
“It began right away,” Bera said. “Right after the Winter Blight. He started by bringing a few at a time, and promising all of the children who didn’t get one that they’d have one eventually. Said that the dolls took time to make. I believe it. Fine work. At length he provided every child with a doll.”
“And maybe the dolls are meant to comfort the children in their dark dreams,” Skild continued. She turned to Bera. “When did the nightmares start? Did Skark know? Is there any correlation?”
Bera frowned. “I don’t know.”
Eirvit looked at Hross. “Skark is a cleric of Erastil,” she said. “He would cast divine spells. Are you sure you couldn’t make out the school of magic?”
As Hross shook his head no, a bed screeched across the floorboards. All looked at Bevulf. “Check this out,” he said.
Behind the headboard of the bed he had dragged from the wall was a gnome-sized fissure at the base of the wall. In it was inky darkness.
Eirvit strode forward. Her hands described runes, she spoke in a strange language, the arrowhead on her breast glowed with a dazzling light.
“They’re not evil,” she said, almost immediately, and then, continuing her spell, “but…” She gaped at the jagged opening. Hross thought he saw that darkness bell out, into the room, into the light streaming from Eirvit’s chest, and then retract back into the wall. The darkness seemed palpable, threatening, and even though Hross wasn’t the caster of the spell, he could swear he sensed the evil himself. A dull fear rippled along his spine.
“You might want to stand back from there, Bevulf,” Eirvit said. “Bera, the children tell stories about something coming out of the wall. Do you have any idea what’s inside there?”
“Just thatch, as I said, as far as I know,” Bera said. “This hall has been standing for four generations.”
Despite Eirvit’s warning, Bevulf hadn’t stepped aside. Instead, he stepped up closer, crouched and peered into the darkness. “Can’t make out anything in there,” he said. “Right uncanny, it is. But there’s cold air coming up.” He sniffed. “And the smell of onions. Herbs, too, maybe. Smells like stew.”
“How far down these walls extend?” Skild asked.
“Might be they go to the basement,” Bera said. “Our root cellar. We’ve hung dried herbs and garlic down there.”
Skild adjusted the shield on her shoulder. “I think we need to go to the basement.”