At Marqueem's Cross
Somewhere behind the thick curtain of rain and cloud, the sun slid below the horizon. Shadows stretched amongst the bracken and rock, bubbling water and heather, marking the passing of the day. As it had, many times over, the fall of that special night was greeted with a mournful wolf cry. The procession of cloaked figures paused atop the ridge to peer into the gathering gloom.
The oldest amongst them was leaning upon a rowan staff, and she nodded over the sound. "The bones of our Mother remember," she pronounced.
"And Her children mourn," the others completed, before the procession resumed. Like the knotted patterns the Cūn love, the cycle was on the move once more, without beginning or end - just being.
Under the circumstances Raena supposed she could blame no one but herself. While she was tempted to lay all fault at her brother's feet, the Ileshian noblewoman knew it was her stupidity that had brought her to this pass. It was not as though it was unusual for sudden storms to lash the Beacon or for travelers to become disorientated in the dark. At this time of year, the wind and rain should have kept Raena near her brother's hearth, but the headstrong noblewoman had ridden out into a gray day without such much as an escort.
Now she was lost in countryside fit only for the barbarians, not a place for a lady of noble birth. With a confused frown she stared for a moment at the crumbling remains of a wall which stretched away into the heather. A croft had once stood here. As there were no such deserted holdings on her brother's land, she was well and truly lost, and much further from home than she had first thought.
Rain lashed across the bracken, stinging sheets carried upon the howling wind. Standing alone upon the desolate slope amongst the ruins, Raena eyed her empty surroundings. The blonde noblewoman's hair was plastered to her forehead, and her clothes sodden through, but Raena managed a smile at her own folly.
"Well this is one way to avoid a wedding," Raena chuckled, blinking against the driving rain.
Old Bedrut had begged her not to go out, with his talk of brooding airs and storms. His family had lived amongst the hills for generations, and like most of the locals he was superstitious. It was decades since the Kral had driven off the wildbloods, only to themselves be defeated by Ilesh. Yet stories of barbarian witchcraft and the supernatural perils of the hills persisted. In fact, it was this quaint folklore that brought Raena out here.
Always an unusual child, since reaching womanhood Raena had started seeing things others could not. Though at first she tried to make light of what was happening, the Ileshian began having the kind of true dreams that the Kral commonfolk refer to as the Second Sight. Though she did not understand what was happening to her, the self-possessed young woman felt she would find the answer out amongst the hills. She did not believe in Kral superstitions, or wildblood mysticism, but Raena did want to unravel the mystery.
Predictably, Ilere, her brother, heaped scorn upon her for her notions. As Squire of the Malese Estate and head of their family, Ilere wanted his younger sister to help with the running of his house, not fill her head with frivolous ideas. Better yet, she should make a good match with one of his neighbors. Indeed he had announced he was bringing a suitor to dinner, so she could be looked over like some prize mare. With a toss of her head, Raena railed against her brother, and the lot of a noblewoman.
"Damned if I'll marry any man who doesn't please me," she snarled. Just the mere thought of being forced to marry someone against her will made Raena livid. If her brother would not be reasonable about his plans to marry her off to some fool of a lord, why shouldn't she go riding when and where she pleased?
Peering towards the horizon with the striking cornflower blue eyes which spoke of her pure Ileshian heritage, the young noblewoman looked for a landmark she recognized. With a sigh she admitted she was lost. If her palfrey had not been startled by that wolf, she might still have reached home before the storm. Certainly she would never have fallen, never lost the horse, or become turned around and confused.
As it was, she was alone and drenched in hard country, with only the dripping clothes on her back, and no notion of which way she should head. What galled her most was the thought that, as soon as her skittish mount returned to her brother's stable, Ilere would come looking for her. The notion of being rescued by her brother, and his inevitable cracks about young women needing husbands to keep them safe, was almost worse than the thought of being alone on the beacon in a storm - almost.
"What's that?" Raena frowned from the imperfect shelter of the moss-covered and crumbling wall. For a moment the shivering noblewoman had seen a flash of light from a nearby gully. As she stood peering toward the shadowy defile, Raena was struck by the sense of the familiar turned strange, as if she should know this place, but did not. Though she was troubled and unsure, a distant wolf howl sent the bedraggled noblewoman scurrying towards the shelter of the gully.
The sound of their voices reached Raena long before she saw anyone. Muffled by the rain and undergrowth, the singing was indistinct, but the melody moved the Ileshian noblewoman with its intensity. Drawn to the sound, Raena picked her way through the wicked thorns and nettles.
"This cannot be," she breathed when shafts of rainbow light shot from the gloomy sky, illuminating the shadows of the gully with their brilliance.
The women were kneeling in the mud in a circle around a lichen covered marker stone, called a cross. Raena's breath caught in her throat when she realized the gathered women were Cūn; barbarians who still haunted the Banner's more desolate parts. Though she was frightened to find herself this close to wildbloods, the Ileshian noblewoman did not flee. While she stared at the barbarians, Raena's first thoughts were how strange it was to find a weatherworn cross in such a place. Such marker stones were used to help travelers find their way, but her family's estate house should be the only destination in these parts. The only marker stone for many miles was Marqueen's Cross, but this could not be that stone. Whatever place was recorded under the cake of lichen and grime, the age of the marker stone was incongruous. Once more Raena was struck by a sense of the world turned strange.
Hiding amongst the ferns, a matter of steps from danger was delicious. Raena set aside her disquiet to watch the wildbloods sing and work their ritual with wide-eyed intensity. Under their loose cloaks and plaids the Cūn women were naked, revealing vibrant and complex tattoos covering nearly every inch of their bodies. Their voices were lifted in chorus, an intricate melody so different from the ballads sung by either Ileshian or Kral bards. Yet the young noblewoman's heart swelled with the sound. It was as though the light had turned thick and into syrup. Energy flowed through the air and wrapped around her like ribbons upon the wind.
"Come out," a wizened old woman pronounced.
Blinking in surprise, it took Raena a few moments to realize the singing had stopped. An elderly Cūn was bent toward her hiding place, balancing against a rowan staff. The Ileshian flinched backward, wondering how she could have been so stupid. The Kral had taken this land from the wildblood clans, before losing it to Ilesh. Despite the passage of time, the barbarians still considered this country theirs, and were unlikely to be pleased to find an Ileshian noblewoman spying upon them.
"We won't hurt you," the old woman assured, with a gentle smile.
Alone, cold and wet, Raena regarded the old woman and the Cūn seated beyond her with a furtive expression. The truth was, she was lost and confused. Everything seemed so strange and she could find no familiar landmarks. With a sigh, the Ileshian admitted even if she ran she was unlikely to escape, and the Cūn might just be persuaded to help her. After smoothing her dirty and sodden dress Raena eased out from under the bush. She offered silent thanks to the gods that her clothes did not catch on the thorns as she clambered out. Ignoring the old woman's proffered hand, she did her best to hold herself straight and proud, as an Ileshian noble should.
"My brother will reward you if you help me home," Raena said, carefully sounding out the words as though to a child. One of the younger Cūn women snorted, and said something in the lilting tongue of the wildbloods.
The old woman snapped at her young companion, before offering Raena a kind smile, "We will help." Her expression turned hard for an instant, "If the lady is strong enough."
The bray of a fearful horse struck against the rolling clouds, followed by a desperate scream. A bloody rose lay nestled upon two sets of household colors, its petals gorged and dripping. A golden ring bound a terrified starling, while a heart hammered out a final dance. She knew these things... understood what they meant.
"No!" Raena sobbed as she jerked upright. The Cūn were knelt around her, holding hands and humming as they regarded the panting Ileshian woman with blank expressions. Strange and horrifying things moved through the beating rain and wind around them. Though she shook in pale-faced terror, Raena forced herself to look. Expecting to find the wolf that seemed to be stalking her, she found only grazing deer watching her in return. With shaking hands she tied back her long hair, before turning to where the old woman sat. "Will you not help me home?"
When the wizened Cūn said nothing, Raena's gaze settled once more upon the ruined wall she had seen before. How did she get back here, when she did not remember leaving the gully? What was it about this wall that looked so familiar? When the realization hit her, Raena choked and fell to her knees.
"You recognize this place?" the Cūn elder pronounced with a nod.
When Raena replied, the calm sound of her voice surprised her, "This was a croft run by one of my brother's vassals." "For many seasons it has stood in ruin." The shaking noblewoman shook her head, first at the old woman, then at the heavy sky, "This land belongs to my family."
"No... you're wrong," the elder sighed. When the Ileshian turned and glared at her for her impertinence, the old woman laughed, "Even those of you Ileshians blessed with the gift cannot see." With a gesture, the elderly Cūn took in the Beacon and surrounding hills. "We belong to the land, not the land to us. You belong to this place, which is why you've never left... even when the men came to punish your brother for his crime."
The screaming horse stumbled, blood gushing from its neck. Though she fought, Raena knew the palfrey was already dead. The warrior looked on without emotion, a wolf his blazon - her family's crest. Raena's gaze met her brothers, took in the murder she found there.
"You will wed who I say," he hissed. Horse and rider went down, tumbling toward the rocks and darkness.
"You've been haunting this place," the old woman pronounced, taking in Raena's horrified expression. "Your shade has frightened away those who stood by while your brother murdered you." The Ileshian woman's only answer was a moan. "This place has been left once more to those who remain open to the way of things." A wolf cry rent the air, startling Raena with its anguish.
Through the darkness a tearful face came into view, and she felt a trembling touch upon her bloody cheek. "Why did you have to be so different?" Ilere sobbed. She tried to answer, but the breath would not come. "Even when they denounced you as a witch for your visions, I stood by you." Crying the Squire stretched over her. "If you just married Gadrone everything would have worked out fine."
"If you let it, this land will heal you both," the old woman told the young woman and wolf seated before her. Using the rowan staff to stand, the Cūn motioned for the others to follow. "Blindness and ignorance robbed the gift of you from this place... but still you can serve... by helping those you once scorned." Though the storm seemed to call, begging her to return to her search for home, Raena stood watching the Cūn shaman file away. The old woman looked back with a pleased smile, "Learn to forgive yourself, then seek us out."
Gary Allen was born in Tunbridge Wells in the County of Kent in the United Kingdom. He grew up in Crawley, West Sussex. Of Welsh heritage, Gary has long been fascinated by the ancient cultures of Britain, particularly the Celts.
It was more than seven years ago that, at the insistence of his wife (whom Gary describes as his muse), he became began working on what was eventually to become The Lath'roug Saga.
At the suggestion of a fellow author and friend, Gary has also been submitting some of his short stories to publishers. He continues to enjoy success with the publication of these distinctive stories. In the last year Gary's work has appeared more than twenty times in a range of quality online publications. These stories provide an introduction to the world of The Lath'roug Saga, and has captured the imagination of a growing following of readers. You can find out more about his work, and find links to his other published work at his web site - www.lathroug.com
Published by permission of the author.