This was way beyond Eirvit’s power, this bogey in the basement, but it absolutely could not be allowed to remain. There was nothing for it but to go back to Deadeye Rock and speak to Mother, Aldis. Truthfully, Eirvit wondered if even her mother would be strong enough for the bogey, but hopefully she could do something. In the meantime…
Eirvit watched Bevulf, striding down the path, his two-handed, juice-streaming blade wagging loosely from one arm. Hross followed the barbarian from a discreet distance. Eirvit guessed that they were heading for Skark’s House. Knowing it, her heart misgave her: something terrible approached, some tragedy loomed, and she might be powerless to stop it.
She turned back to Bera and Nanny. “We should leave the house now. You’re certain that no children are in it, that everyone is in the field?”
“All except for Billy,” Nanny said.
“Billy?” Skild had rejoined them, after her too-late attempt to aid Bevulf with the weedwhip.
“A brownie,” Nanny explained. “He lives in the cupboards and helps with the baking.”
Eirvit adjusted her cloak. “He should leave, too, if he can be prevailed upon.” She stepped to the open doorway, but, without need, she dared not set foot inside. “Billy?” she called. “Are you there?”
Nanny came to Eirvit’s side. “Allow me,” she said. “He’s distrustful of strangers. He’s distrustful of nearly anyone but me, and largely he only likes me because of my baking. Billy Bannock, he calls himself. He cares for little more.” She pitched her voice into the kitchen. “Billy? The cleric of Erastil here says we must leave the house. There’s a great evil in the basement and it’s no longer safe here. Billy?”
When Eirvit saw no sign of Nanny’s attempts being responded to, she touched Nanny on her shoulder and said softly, “Just don’t go back into the house.”
Then Eirvit turned to her sister. “I should go to Mother,” she said. “She must know of this as soon as possible, and someone should be sent after those Blackravens. I have a bad feeling about this. I think they’re charging into something more dangerous than they can handle.”
“The fair one might handle it,” Skild said.
“He might be wiser to the situation, I agree,” Eirvit said, “but his power may be outmatched, just as all of ours was here.”
Eirvit knew her sister well enough that she was certain Skild had picked up on her intent when she had specified “I should go back to mother,” but still she was surprised when her sister said, without a note of defiance in her voice, “You want me to stay here.”
“I do. Protect these people as best you can. And make sure no one enters this house. When you have everyone together, bring them—bring them to Deadeye Rock.”
Eirvit noted the barest flicker of surprise in Skild’s eyes. “A fair number for our Houses.”
“We’ll make do.”
Skild held Eirvit’s gaze a moment longer and then severed the connection, adjusting her shield before her as if she were going into battle. Nanny turned to Eirvit. She had been calling into the kitchen throughout Eirvit’s and Skild’s exchange. “I’m sorry,” Nanny said. “I think I might be able to draw him out if you all were gone.”
Eirvit touched her on the shoulder again. “It shall be so.” She looked to Bera. “Gather everyone from the fields and come to Deadeye Rock. Skild shall help you. Do not allow anyone to go into the house. I go to my mother now to prepare your way and to receive counsel about what to do here.”
Then, consciously refusing any last eye contact with her sister, Eirvit started after the Blackravens.
She thought it unlikely that she would catch up to Hross and Bevulf, but she thought she might at least try, even though she doubted that she would be able to convince Bevulf to wait for another moment in which to encounter Skark. She hurried along, delighting in the feel of her muscles warming to the exertion. There was a still a chill in the very center of her heart, and she knew it wouldn’t dissipate until she was certain that all was set to right. But how could anything be set to right? Even if her mother had the strength to drive the bogey from Orphan Hall, it remained to learn what was the truth about the missing children and the dolls. And, even if that was accomplished, might the threat of evil truly be gone? Not as long as Irrisen lay to the east.
Pogonip Falls lay just leagues to the west of the border with Irrisen. Many in this town were refuges, rebuilding and replanting after suffering decimations in the Battle of Winter Blight. For many their first home had been Warm Hearth, the village that had lain nearest the site of that battle. Now it was lost, given over to the Irriseni magic that now made of it a landscape of perpetual winter. The epicenter of the fight itself, the Fields of Winter Blight, was impossible to enter, and even Warm Hearth was dangerous, because the Irriseni cold brought many diseases, Chillbane being the most common.
Through screens of pine on either side rolled yellow fields of last year’s grasses as Eirvit walked. Far to the south was the green mass that would be Emla’s Grove—misnamed, really, because the number of trees formed a veritable forest. Some stately halls were built at intervals on either side of the road, a road that grew wider and muddier as she came nearer to town. She had to walk on the sides of the road, to keep the mud from spattering the hem of her gown. Carls were in some fields, few on the road, and she thought how bad it would be for them this year, if the Ice-Trolls raided across the border in the spring and prevented the farmers from planting their fields.
That’s why it was good that they at least had the Blackravens and the old holy site of Arrowstone, which made an ideal fortress. Pogonip Falls had nothing else that could be as well defended, and it was good for the Falls that they had that rock standing as a deterrent against the force from the east. Not everyone was pleased about the Blackraven presence—not least of them Un the Fishmonger, a person whom Eirvit’s thoughts naturally turned to as she began to see the mists of the falls rising up before her. She began to pass through the modest residences of the fisherfolk, amongst their gardens and taverns growing up near the large lake immediately below the falls. Eirvit guessed that Un objected to the Blackraven presence in Arrowstone not actually because it was holy, as she over-explained to others, but because Un herself wanted to exploit the site for her own uses. It was well known that many arrowheads of the First Hunters—quite valuable arrowheads that caused their arrow flights to be remarkably true—could be dug out of the land around the rock. Even more enticing, certainly, were the rumors of a large treasure of the First Hunters hidden deep in the heart of the mysterious and bewildering tunnels honeycombing the rock.
The air grew drastically colder as Eirvit passed through the Falls section of the village. She gathered her cloak tighter against the damp in the air. The chill mist rising from the falls occluded the sun. She nodded to fisherfolk, who looked up from gardens or through their front doors, for all knew the Aldisdottir. She hadn’t caught up with Bevulf and Hross, and now she would not. That Bevulf had quite a stride to him. He probably wouldn’t slow down for the sorcerer, and, unless the sorcerer had some sort of Haste spell, he’d certainly be running to stay caught up.
After the fish flats, the river narrowed, and the houses on its banks began to boast wider construction and additional stories. Most of these had boats tethered to small docks behind the houses. She passed various evidences of industry and commerce—smiths and tanners and fletchers and brewers and butchers—nodding a lot more than she had in the fish flats, and, because the sun was again warm, letting her cloak fall back over her shoulders.
Because of the houses hugging the lake bank, Eirvit could see only in glimpses in between the structures, but it was noticeable that the body of water beyond was stretching wider and wider with her passage. The bank here also began to rise from the water, so more and more of the houses were built directly on it—in times of high water the boats might be tied directly to the back of the house, and boat-faring Ulfen often would take a boat out to visit neighbors across the lake. With many more paces, Eirvit made it to the floating bridge that would bring her to Deadeye Rock, the island and grove to Erastil that lay in the very center of the lake. She was intent on bringing her news directly to her mother, Aldis, but, if she had wanted to, she could have gone on to Skark’s House, just a quarter-league away, built directly upon the water. It actually wasn’t a house so much as it was a converted boat shed. A boat builder had owned the house before Skark moved to Pogonip Falls from Warm Hearth, renamed Cold Hearth after the desolation. Skark had come here broken, defeated, and no longer able, because of his grief, to perform his clerical duties.
The floating bridge gently swayed beneath Eirvit’s tread, bobbing ever so slightly in counter-beat to the lap of the waves underneath, the thick, heavy, twisted hemp cords for the railing creaking and bending. The water around her smelled fresh and clear, only faintly of the fish from farther upstream, and she wondered if even that scent was just residual from her having passed through that area. The sun was bright on the lake ripples, and she squinted over at Skark’s house. She saw a pair of large hangar doors shut tight, two smaller doors on either side likewise shut tight. No sign of movement. No open windows, even. The houses of the neighbors were close by, the alleys between Skark’s house and the two neighbors flanking either side providing just a few feet of space. Eirvit never had looked at Skark’s house with any near attention, but it seemed to her now, now that she was thinking of it, that she never had seen any signs of life there. Well, no movement, anyway, because she was sure she had seen smoke rising from one of its three chimneys, which she was seeing now.
She nodded at Ulvid, a Shield Champion languidly walking the bobbing bridge. Ulvid only belatedly nodded back at her. A Shield Champion walked either bridge, at any moment of the day and night, more as a message that Deadeye Rock was watched and protected than because the Shield Champions ever were needed to stop someone from entering the island. There had been two years of peace, and Eirvit prayed that they would have many more. The signs and the revelations given to Erastil’s servants said different, though.
It was a long walk to the island. What was most noticeable, from this distance, was the Grove, rising like a fringe of green hair on a colossal head that was pushing up out of the lake. A few more people passed Eirvit. Most greeted her cheerfully, but some had downcast eyes, walking slow with cares or worries or illnesses that Aldis or the other clerics of Erastil hadn’t been able to help them with today. Recognizing this limit to the power of Deadeye Rock, Eirvit reflected again upon looming war. She considered how defensible Deadeye Rock would be. The bridges could be cut. Deadeye Rock had its own store of boats and inland ships to send for provisions once their stores ran out, but with enough enemy boats and forces the Rock could be overrun. A better place of defense would be Arrowstone—no, Eirvit amended, for that too was just a point in a lake of land. The only true defense was peace. No one could be kept out forever—not, at least, an adamant enemy bolstered with great numbers, and certainly not as long as people needed to eat. Sure, the clerics of Erastil were able to create some amount of food and water, but could it be enough for everyone they may need to feed? And casting such spells required energy diverted from other spells, spells that might provide military defense. And who could tell what magic Irrisen next time would be wielding?
Again, Eirvit thought, the only sure defense was peace.
She had reached Deadeye Rock. She ascended the rock steps from the pebbly strand and emerged to the shouts and crash of shield on shield as the Shield Champions drilled on their nearby grounds. Eirvit glanced to the north, to the longhouses that housed the students, to the student gardens in neat plots outside the barracks. With a pang, these reminded Eirvit of Orphan Hall. Frith stood in the gap at one end of two rows of Shield Champions each facing the other. She yelled, “Hit!” The students in both lines, as one, yelled in response and took two measured strides, closing the gap. Shield clashed against shield. Frith shouted, “Hold!” She walked the uneven line, giving instruction in a voice that Eirvit couldn’t quite hear.
There were only a few men in the lines. The Shield Champions didn’t actively dissuade men from joining their numbers. It was true that more men had gone to the Battle of Winter Blight than women, so that there were fewer to join. Students also had to bring some property to be held in common as a donation to Deadeye Rock, and all knew there was very little property to go around in these war-torn times. But Skild was of the opinion that men were intimidated by strong, practiced women, and, since there were so many of the latter on the island to begin with, this dissuaded other men from joining. Aldis, however, hearing this, had said, “Men prefer their swords.” When she had said it, she had spoke with a look in her eye that had had Eirvit pondering and sifting, looking for the clearly intended double meaning that she still sought now as she gazed at the practice.
She had very little opportunity to try to learn about that double meaning by quizzing a man, an object of that comment. Until today—when that sorcerer had looked so openly at her—she had begun to wonder if men were frightened of her in some way. So few of them came near her, and when they did it was in a manner of supplication—as indeed they often sought from her divine aid or Erastil’s wisdom. Eirvit found it slightly odd—and worthy of anecdote—that animals seemed so much more comfortable and at peace with her than the male of her own species. It said something about simplicity and the power of beauty that had little force on animals, as Scruffins, a goat that favored her, bleated and clattered up to her now from the pastures to the south.
From here the road was paved. More people passed by her. Some in Pogonip Falls, when they had no other duties, liked to come to the Rock simply to bask in the goodness that was Erastil. Indeed, the sunlight felt a little brighter here. The wood of the grove in the distance—already fully leafed, even though everywhere else in the area trees still wore their buds—seemed to stain everything with its radiating, verdant hue. Flowers bloomed from the multitude of little gardens, and many villagers sat on the many stone seats—or on the ground itself—heads lowered in prayer or contemplation of the life that was awakening here on the Rock.
The West House of Hospitality rose up before Eirvit. As all of Erastil’s “temples,” his house was a simple domicile—not even as extravagant as a typical Ulfen longhouse—but more of a cottage, ivy climbing up the rock face on the south side, a comfortable porch front on the west side offering many wicker chairs, upon which the many visitors awaited if there was a crowd hoping to meet individually with one of Erastil’s clerics inside. There was a crowd now, but even if they didn’t sense Eirvit’s alarm and sense of urgency, they would have made way for her anyway, by her right as an Aldisdottir and as a cleric herself. Their faces, as they looked up from contemplation or illness or pain showed only reverence and concern as she went through the open door and into the receiving chamber inside.
Abruptly the smell of spoiled fish assailed Eirvit’s nostrils, as if she were in the Fish Flats again, and she knew before she even saw the hunched, shrunken form sitting across from Aldis, both of whom were seated in rocking wickers before the cheery, small fire in the hearth, that Un the Fishmonger was here again. Eirvit quelled a sudden upsurge of spleen: it was true that Un was ill—it happened to many people who fished the plentiful waters beneath the Pogonip Falls. The worst cases were those whose lungs, before they had relocated here, already had been weakened by the Chillbane that had descended on Warm Hearth. But the icy mists rising from the falls themselves seemed to breed a pestilence in those who breathed it: an enervating effect, chills that could not be shaken, difficulty breathing, even a slow clouding of the eyesight. Un—who seemed to have managed to have bought out every available boat and to have filled them with her own hires—seemed to have been most afflicted with the “Nip,” as it was called. Even now she raised her head from underneath a cloth, its hem embroidered with a repeating scene of stag-headed Erastil hunting caribou, that had been draped over her tight-wound white hair and the nape of her neck, from where she had been breathing vapors rising from the—by the other smell in the room, competing in vain with scent of fish viscera clinging to Un’s garments—mint, catnip, and nettle that was steeped in the hot water in a wide, earthen bowl beneath her face.
Un looked to Eirvit with too-pale, wormish features, her eyes a blue fading to white, the dew that had condensed on her face because of her breathing mist making her expression even more fishy, especially as she now sucked on the gaps of missing top and bottom teeth. Eirvit tried not to let her own features form into a glare as she considered how dangerous Un’s recommended position must be—to alienate and drive away the most proficient military force in Pogonip Falls, thereby—all for one person’s greed and vanity and secular interests—leaving not only Pogonip Falls but major lengths of border open to Irriseni assault. Any sane view—the view of Deadeye Rock itself—would recognize that, if anything, the Blackraven occupation of Arrowstone had a hallowing effect on the military defense at Arrowstone, Erastil himself blessing and directing the Blackraven efforts to defend the Ulfen and fey and—indeed, most of life itself—particularly the diversity of plant and animal life here in Hagreach and beyond to the rest of the kingdoms in the Lands of the Linnorm Kings. As by all reports the Dwarf Druid Duf of Summerglen, who had taken up residence in the Arrowstone Grove, seemed to indicate.
Eirvit forced civility. “Fishmaster Un,” she said, inclining her head, telling herself she could be forgiven for not thinking to remind herself to address the woman by the much better-sounding and more accurate “Master of Fisheries.”
Aldis glanced sidelong at Eirvit, her expression well lit by the sunlight streaming in through the open windows and yet somehow unreadable. “My daughter is returned from Orphan Hall with news for me,” Aldis announced to Un in a clear, pleasant voice that, when directed to most people, made them feel like they were the most cherished people in the world and some of Aldis’s most-respected intimates. And yet somehow, at the same time, it distanced them, telegraphed to them Aldis’s pure heart and power and suggested that they had little hope of being that kind, that clear-seeing, that conscientious, though any contact with Aldis convinced them that they must endeavor to be so.
Eirvit waited. She had no desire to say anything of what was happening at Orphan Hall in front of Un, for she was certain that Un would find some way to use it to her advantage, though she wouldn’t be surprised if Un knew about it already, for Blackravens were involved. If Eirvit had been more paranoid, she would have been convinced that Un had spies at Arrowstone, for the fishmonger always seemed to know every action and maneuver the Blackravens enacted. Eirvit also knew that Aldis had no desire to speak of these things in front of Un.
“I believe that’s all we can do today,” Aldis said, gently taking the wide bowl back from Un with one hand—her only hand, her left hand. The right hand had been digested in the guts of a Winter Wolf years ago. Then she turned her body and deftly, despite it having such a wide rim, poured the tea into the narrow opening of a clay jar. Then, setting the bowl down on the edge of the hearth, she stoppered the jar with a wooden pug. She handed the jar, by means of a leather handle, to Un. “It’s perfectly safe to drink, and I would sip as much as you are able to on your walk back to your occupation. If it agrees with you, you might brew some more of your own.” Aldis’s voice was so enchanting that Un, if she had wanted to, might not have been able to resist it. She held the jar in her hands, and now Aldis handed her a packet of herbs wrapped lightly in rustling birchbark. “You saw me prepare it, Un. You might do the same.”
“Thank you, holy one,” Un said, rising.
“Please tell Torek to wait a moment,” Aldis said to Un’s exiting form. “I must speak to my daughter a spell.”
“Certainly,” Un said, and the scent of fish left with her passing, leaving the air clean with mint and hearthsmoke. Eirvit closed the door—a door that seldom was closed—behind the fishmonger.
“Daughter,” said Aldis.
Eirvit rushed to her mother. To Eirvit’s surprise, Eirvit’s eyes were full of tears, and her voice was almost hysterical, no matter how she tried to control it. “It’s terrible, mother!” she gasped. “There’s a darkness, a force of great evil, residing in the basement. It’s so much more than I can handle! In fact, it was toying with us—me—and I think I would be dead now if it had willed it.”
“Peace, child,” Aldis said. Eirvit wasn’t sure how it had happened, but Aldis was standing now, cradling Eirvit’s head to her shoulder. “What of the children? Did you find them?”
“We know nothing, nothing, but the bogey in the basement says that he has nothing to do with it, if we can believe him. He says to look at these dolls, these exquisite crafts that Skark has been giving the children. And they’re magical.”
Eirvit sensed Aldis stiffen. “How do you know?”
“A Blackraven. A new one. Hross is his name. He has some magic and showed us so.”
Eirvit now was comforted enough to step backward and look at her mother’s face. She found her mother as beautiful as her reputation, though with age and care lines had formed in her hard flesh. More silver than gold streaked her hair now, and her gray-blue eyes shone like light on water. “Your sister,”Aldis said. “Where is she?”
“I recommended she stay with the steaders, that she not allow anyone back into the hall, that she gather everyone and bring them here—Mother, what is it?” She asked this because she saw something, like a shadow on water, cross her mother’s face.
“I fear for her,” Aldis said. She reached to the inglenook and drew from its customary leaning point her hunting spear. Its shaft was smooth, white ash. “We should go to her. Now.”
Hope surged in Eirvit. “Yes, Mother.” Eirvit knew what force was needed. As she followed her mother out onto the porch, she took down from where it hung above the lintel the silver horn of Erastil. She noticed everyone on the porch looking up at her mother from their chairs, one of them—Torvek, perhaps—rising from his seat, probably thinking it was his turn for counsel or a blessing. But as Aldis nodded affably to the company on the veranda and yet continued right on down the few stairs onto the sward, others began to rise, too, sensing that something more important was afoot. And they knew it when Eirvit raised the horn to her lips and uttered three quick blasts.
She had never blown the horn before. Its power took her breaths, intensified them, shuttled them out to what seemed like, to her ears, all of creation. The supplicants on the porch gaped openly at her. They could hear nothing else but the horn blasts, but though it consumed or obliterated all other sounds, it couldn’t be described as defining: pleasurable, to the contrary, a music that seemed to fill one’s entire center.
A long period of silence seemed to follow those blasts. Then, just before Eirvit considered raising the horn again to her lips, she heard three answering clashes of perhaps a hundred shields on shields from the Shield Champion practice yards. Deadeye Rock was going to move.