In the kitchen, Nanny looked up from her stitching. As she had earlier, Skild noticed Nanny’s eyes flicker towards the bolted cellar door. The steward knew something. “What’s down there?” Skild asked.
Nanny sighed and rested her stitching on her expansive lap. “Nothing good,” she said. “That’s all I can tell you.”
“Is that why you keep it bolted?” Eirvit was at her sister’s elbow. “The bolt has no lock. You’re not trying to keep children out, but something in.”
“Whatever’s down there cannot be kept in nor out,” Nanny said. “The bolt is symbolic only.”
Bevulf pushed his way into the kitchen. It was getting crowded, now, just inside the doorway from the main hall. “Well what is it?”
Nanny shrugged. “A feeling. Though it’s not always there.”
Skild had grown impatient. She strode to the door. When she threw the bolt, the wood planking opened toward her, just a bit, as if something on the other side had tapped it open in a welcoming gesture. A cool breeze, smelling slightly of must and – yes – of onions, wafted through the open edges.
For a moment, Skild’s heart misgave her. Then, scolding herself for a coward, she flung the door open the rest of the way.
Before her a single flight of rickety wooden stairs descended into utter darkness. The light in the kitchen illuminated the steps for a number of paces, but not far enough to where she could see the bottom. Some shelves along the north wall, hugging the steps, were lined with heavily stoppered glass jars of preserves. There was no south wall, nor railing, but the steps there were open to the cold, pressing darkness.
She swept her shield off her shoulder and onto her arm.
“Wait.” Eirvit’s hand touched the biceps of Skild’s fighting arm. “Erastil,” Eirvit said, “please light our way.” Skild’s shield began to glow as if it were a torch. Now Skild sensed Eirvit tracing patterns with her free hand; her arrowhead shone. “Erastil, please protect my sister from the touch of evil.” A power surrounded Skild, and now Eirvit removed her grasp.
“Bevulf,” Eirvit said, gesturing to the warrior.
“Sister,” Skild said, “protect yourself.”
Eirvit smiled and again touched Skild’s steely thews. “I have you to protect me, sister. Anyway, Old Deadeye’s blessing is meant for us all.” Bevulf now stood beside Eirvit. Hross and then Bera were entering through the kitchen doorway. Again Eirvit described runes in the air, a sign of blessing. Her arrowhead shone. “Erastil,” she prayed. “Please bless us all in the face of darkness. Make us resolute and courageous in the presence of our enemies.” The light of the arrowhead grew. Skild squinted her eyes in its radiance. It seemed to consume all the figures in the kitchen, their forms just sketched shadows in its brilliance. Then the light mercifully faded away, though Skild’s shield remained shining. Skild felt lighter and somehow stronger. The darkness at the bottom of the stair didn’t pose the same threat that it had earlier.
Nanny suddenly lurched up from her inglenook seat, took a few faltering steps towards Eirvit, and then collapsed on her knees before her. She looked up at the young woman—the old beseeching the young. “I see now,” she said, “that I should have had the courage to call you sooner. I have it now. If it will help, I’ll gladly descend into the darkness with you. I know now that you have the strength to drive the shadow from the darkness below.”
Eirvit smiled. “That may not be. Please don’t kneel before me, wisewoman. What power is mine is mine only because I’m Erastil’s vessel, and I fear that now I have used up the little that has been given me today. I’m sure you would have sought Erastil’s guidance sooner, except that whatever shadow that lies below probably clouded your mind and dissuaded you with powerless threats, shame, or doubts about the reality of its presence.”
“That may be,” Nanny said, rising, “but no more, I say.” From the central table she lifted the same knife that she had used to cut the pie. “If aught gets by you, I’ll meet it here.”
Eirvit’s smile grew even more beatific. “Thank you, Nanny,” she said. She turned to her sister. “Skild. Lead the way. Bevulf, if you would be so kind as to follow my sister. I want our main strength in the fore.” She turned to Hross. “Hross, you of course may choose your own way. If you are joining us below, you may lead me or follow.”
Hross sketched a bow. “My lord, it will be my pleasure, if I may, to lead you into possible peril.”
Skild’s wry smirk dimpled a cheek. So the marching orders were made. Despite her inflation by means of holy virtue, she wasn’t sure how she felt about being so far away from her sister. True, Eirvit should be safest in the rear, but if anything was to threaten Eirvit, Skild was as far as possible from her reach, with two men in between her and her sister. Hopefully, though, the threat was singular, and one that Skild would be able to dispatch at once. Her odds were even better with Bevulf just behind her—she grimaced—though she would like the situation a lot better if it were any other Blackraven warrior and not that one.
She shook the thoughts away and focused on descending the stairway. Behind her, she heard the grate of Bevulf’s sword sliding from its sheath. The shadows retreated before her flaring shield. Turning her buckler like a beam as she descended below the level of the upper floor, she looked out and down on a storeroom. The area at the base of the stairs was fairly clear, the flagged floor strewn with clumps of loose straw that looked fairly fresh for this time of year: it was the custom in these parts to put dry straw on the floors of cellars, to soak up residual moisture, every autumn. From the rafters hung bundles of catnip, basil, garlic, onions—possibly other materials could be identified, if Skild had spared them more than a glance. The smell was comforting and magical and emboldened her further against the darkness. Barrels lined the floor. From some open ones rose the sweet smells of ale, mead, and cider.
Skild reached the foot of the stairs. More jars of preserves lined the west wall, the opposite side of the room from where she now stood. Beyond the assortment of barrels, on the south wall, was an arched opening in the tall stone foundationl. Skild sensed, by the way her holy light seemed to glance away from the shadows in that opening, that in here was the object of her search.
Suddenly the dark there reached out to her. It drifted across her field of vision. Faces were in it, faces with eyes wide with fear, mouths open in silent screams—suddenly Skild was face to face with her sister, though Skild knew her sister still was on the stairs behind her. Eirvit’s face before her, moreover, was too pale, pale as death. Suddenly Skild feared for Eirvit. This could happen to her sister; this could happen now! Skild wanted nothing more than to rush back up the stairs—knock the others out of her way while she did so, if she had to, to grab her sister, hustle her back out of the cellar and into the clean and good outdoor spring air, get into the sunlight, get away from this pit of terror.
A part of her also told her, though, that this was the feature of some spell. These weren’t exactly her real feelings. These were being forced on her by whatever presence was in that root cellar, that pit of soft sand in which potatoes and carrots and beets and radishes were dug to keep through the long winter. Evidently something else had kept there, through the winter, as well.
Then, as if it wasn’t bad enough that the creeping shadows were full of images of her sister’s death, Skild grew aware of something emerging from the root cellar, something slowly breaking the surface of the darkness as if it were coming up out of oily black water. When she saw the glints of glowing red eyes, she realized also that the shape she had seen emerging from the very center of that arch was the tip of a long, gray nose. Now a chin emerged, adorned with bristly black hair like that of a billy goat. The creature’s grin was impossibly wide, showing enormous white teeth that sharpened to points where the top teeth touched the bottom. It had bristly black eyebrows in a craggy, gray brow above its gleaming eyes. Bristly hair swept up from his forehead and melded with the shadows behind him.
Its voice was sneering and rasping. “Put out your light,” it said. It swept out a long-fingered, hairy, gray hand tipped in long black nails. Something left its grasp, clattered on the floor in front of Skild. Palpable darkness burst from that object. Abruptly Skild’s shield went out.
The entire basement now was plunged in impenetrable black. Skild bit her tongue until she tasted blood. She would not scream. She struggled to hold onto her shield—her shield! In disbelief she realized that her terror was so absolute that almost she had thrown it away.
Checking yet another defeatist, reflexive gesture, she tried to find her companions. She reached out her fighting arm. She grasped Bevulf’s large, sweaty hand—and he flinched away from her. She realized he must share her own fear, and he probably hadn’t realized the touch was from her and not some vile shadow. Skild’s main concern was for Eirvit anyway. “Eirvit!” she cried. “Eirvit! Are you here?”
“Here,” she heard her sister say, clearly, from the steps behind her. “Everyone find a partner,” Eirvit called. Perhaps only Skild could hear the terror beneath her sister’s otherwise resolved and authoritative command. “I’ve got Hross. Bevulf?”
“Here,” groaned Bevulf from the darkness beside Skild.
Laughter—low, echoing, rolling, evil laughter — sounded from seemingly every corner of the room. The effect wasn’t instantaneous, but the originator of the laughter seemed to be first here, then there, in a manner that caused Skild’s brawler reflexes to be unable to determine from which area to anticipate an attack. She decided that the effect was yet another—accurate—attempt to put her off her guard. Relieved now that she hadn’t thrown away her shield in her initial moments of terror, she brought it to bear in the direction in which she had seen the figure first emerging.
He was there still. She could see his dim outline in the darkness, either because of some supernatural ability—clearly he wanted the company to see him—or because of the faint light of his luminescent red eyes. His head was too large for that thin, long-armed body. His legs seemed too short, comically short, and slightly bowed – and was that a tail whisking about behind his knees? And yet, as he emerged from the root cellar, he seemed to stretch progressively higher, until he looked down at them from almost ceiling height.
Behind Skild, Eirvit’s voice quavered. “What have you done with the children?”
Again that laugh, rolling all about the cellar, but this time there was a note of evil, high-pitched glee in it that froze Skild’s chest. Her arm trembled behind her shield.
“The children,” the bogey rasped. “Oh, yes, I love the children so. Their fear is so tasty, so succulent, so fat. But I’m afraid not only I have a taste for them, though admittedly I feast on such different parts.”
Skild attempted to aid her sister. She couldn’t leave the entire interrogation to her. “Explain thyself, miscreant!”
Abruptly the troll darted toward her, it’s long nose pecking over the edge of her shield and almost poking her in the face. “No,” he breathed, and his warm breath held the stench of putrid bile. Despite herself, Skild stepped backward, though now the monster was no longer directly in front of her, but back in its location outside the root cellar. She wondered if it ever had been that close, or if the vision had been yet another trick of the shadows.
Abruptly Bevulf charged. Both hands swung his greatsword down in an arc aimed at the bogey’s chest. But the shadows flickered, the troll rustled neatly to one side, and the steel clanged with force onto the stones. The crash jarred Skild’s teeth and made her wince for the damage that might have been done to the blade.
The bogey lazily waved a clawed hand. Black shapes flowed from it, surrounded Bevulf. He was knelt forward, in the process of drawing back his sword. He stiffened against the contact and then become preternaturally still, still kneeling. Because of the posture, Skild was certain his immobility was magically induced.
The bogey sighed. A rush of moist air blew past Skild and, she imagined, right up the stairs behind her. The monster spoke again, and now his voice had a note of impatience in it that caused Skild’s nerves to scream for flight. She saw clearly that if this creature meant to harm her, then she had no defense against it. “I have no interest in you mortals. You try my patience. I show myself to you only for your benefit. I love the children here. Their terror is delicious to me. When the first child vanished, and then the second, that only increased their terror. The disappearances were like adding cream to my coffee. But I can’t have all my cattle driven away, so I appear to you now. Stay out of my affairs, but I direct you to others. Look to the dolls.”
As he spoke, the shadows grew – though it hardly seemed possible – thicker yet, and his form began to move backwards into the environs of the open root cellar. At the last of his words, the tip of his nose slipped back into the shadows. His impossible teeth shone redly. Then his black lips closed over them. The embers of his eyes winked out.
Suddenly, magical light again blazed out from Skild’s shield, but it could not penetrate the root cellar.
In front of Skild, Bevulf shuddered and raised his sword. He staggered, as if he hadn’t been prepared for the sudden release of the holding spell.
Fragments of terror still clung to Skild’s spine. As a feeble attempt to demonstrate that the bogey no longer had power over her, she willed herself to take her eyes away from the yawning mouth of the cellar and to glance behind her, up the stairs, to Eirvit. Beside Skild’s sister, Hross’s face was tight with fear.
Eirvit nodded down at Skild. Skild forced herself to allow Bevulf first to ascend the stairs. She tried not to run the last few lengths, tried to ignore the sensation that something was about to seize her, perhaps seize her about the ankles.
As, after what seemed like much too long of a time, she finally made it into the blessed late morning light filling the kitchen and, heedlessly dropping away her shield, spun to secure the door, she swore she heard, low and for her ears only, a soft, patronizing chuckle in the shadows below.
She threw the bolt, thanking Erastil and Nanny’s foresight for this one – though inadequate – consolation. Then she realized that she was gasping uncontrollably. She tried to measure her breathing, shamefully aware of Bevulf’s presence particularly, even though she knew that his terror was as baldly visible as her own.
Her legs were weak. She needed air – clean outdoor air. The scent of rhubarb pie pervading the kitchen now was nauseas, and the pie she had eaten was threatening to come up.
Bevulf was partly in her way. She lifted her shield, shoved him away with it, and stamped into the blessedly cool, bright air outside.