Swallow the Moon
Swallow the Moon
by Lisa Langeland
…born under red moon
and marked in blood
shall the wolf swallow the moon
and seize the sun
Loosed in grim dissolution
will winter descend
and ungird the winds
issuing ruin and darkness
So begins the age of the wolf…
(translated excerpt from the Nökkvimál)
Haldis hummed an old lullaby as she rubbed down the draft horse—much as she had done almost every night for the past five months—and paused to contemplate the growing dusk. The trees just beyond their camp wavered in the firelight, and crickets chirped the end of summer. The horse shift skittishly under her brush as a howl pierced the stillness. Another answered the call none too distant.
“Curse those wolves,” said Leiden as he took hold of the horse’s bridle. “These last few winters have starved the fear out of them. They grow too bold for my liking.”
“They do what they do to survive, as we all do,” replied Haldis, glancing up at him. His tousled blond hair needed a good trim. Not that he’d notice, she thought.
His hand strayed over hers. “How can you say that after what one did to you?”
The scars on her left shoulder and upper back hid far deeper secrets. “I have no memory of the attack. You know that.”
“And yet you always insist the wolf was black,” said Leiden.
His brown eyes searched her face for answers, but Haldis knew he would find none. Of that one detail, she was certain yet her mind refused to share any others. Like where I’ve been for the past year, she thought.
The fire behind them flared as Leiden’s younger brother, Reid, threw more wood on it. He stared intently at her. “Surely, you’d have them all wiped out if you could have your way.”
“They fear us more than we do them,” said Haldis, gently brushing the gelding’s flank.
“And yet they seem to be trailing us these last few days,” said Leiden, “perhaps hoping to take down one of the horses.”
Haldis doubted it. She had grown up near the Ironwood, the very woods beside which they now camped. Eight armed guards and the encampment’s fires would dissuade all but the most curious or desperate of wolves from straying too close.
“You can finish this,” said Leiden to his brother. “I need to speak with Haldis.”
“Like that’s all you want to do,” mumbled Reid as Haldis handed him the currycomb.
Leiden slipped his hand around hers and led her past the guards taking their evening meal. He gently drew Haldis behind the last wagon as he leaned back against its rear door.
“I thought you wanted to talk,” said Haldis, poking him teasingly in the chest.
“I guess I did…do,” he sighed reluctantly. “Your village—it isn’t far from here. It’s no bother to make a slight detour.”
Haldis dropped her eyes and began tracing circles on his forearms. “There’s no one left, you know that.”
Leiden was giving her the option to lay her nightmares to rest, but the wounds were too fresh. For her, it was as if the massacre had happened only months earlier, instead of more than a year ago when she had returned from an early morning of herb collecting in the Ironwood to find a scene as eerily quiet was it was grisly. Those unfortunate enough to rise early had been bled out in the road with their throats slit, their wares scattered about, and the doors to their homes and shops left ajar. Her home was no different, and her father’s unlit forge silently heralded what she found inside: her father barely visible under a table and pots strewed on the floor around the bodies of her four younger brothers. The memory constantly teased at the edge of consciousness. Haldis inhaled slowly and deeply to calm the familiar anxiety.
Leiden brushed back several honey-colored strands of hair that had fallen across her face. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
Haldis smiled weakly at him. “If you hadn’t found me…”
“I couldn’t leave you to die,” said Leiden.
He had found her—unconscious and barefooted—five months earlier while gathering firewood in the Ironwood. She had been garbed in an ornate black-laced gown. The eyes and hooklets that travelled the length of the bodice, and its elegant flared sleeves had led them to mistake initially her for a woman of status.
“Most people would have,” said Haldis, but she had quickly learned that was not his family’s way. “Instead you took me in.”
Leiden leaned in closer to her. “Haldis, I…”
She clasped his arms as an unshaven man suddenly emerged from the night. He carried a dead wolf across his shoulders. Leiden pushed her behind him as the guards, swords in hand, converged on the visitor. Reid ran up to join them.
“Didn’t mean to give you all a fright,” their visitor said.
“And who might you be?” inquired Leiden.
“Siarl, the earl’s forester,” he said. He lowered the wolf’s scraggy body to the ground and then pushed back the edge of his cloak to reveal the earl’s livery.
“Did he attack you?” asked Reid as he nudged the carcass with his foot.
“Hardly,” said the forester. “It’s rare for wolves to attack anything other than livestock. Still, I was tasked with seeing to those that to stray too close to Brynmoor. There are a right many people coming for the festival, not unlike you I suspect.”
Leiden nodded. “We’ve been on the western trade route since spring. The festival is our last stop on our way back to Westerfeld before winter sets in. We’ve heard rumor of some attacks here about.”
“Haldis was attacked by a wolf,” blurted Reid with a nod at her.
Leiden gave him a withering look.
“Well, she was,” said Reid sheepishly, “just not so recently.”
The forester eyed Haldis. “Then you know the beast all too well.”
Haldis sensed there was a question in his statement, but she shrugged. She was tired of talk of the past and of wolves. Leiden’s grandmother came up and put an arm around her shoulder.
“Surely you men can find kindlier subjects to speak on,” said Ora, “like the harvest festival.”
“Ay, ma’am,” said the forester with a broad smile. “With our young Lord Cerrin now Earl of Highmont, we have much to celebrate this year. There are some superstitious folks in these parts who feared he would be struck down unexpectedly, like his father, before this day came.”
“Superstitious of what?” asked Reid.
“An old prophecy from long before even I was born,” said his grandmother. “It’s nonsense.”
“Ay, but Lord Cerrin was born during the eclipse,” said the forester. “To those who believe, it lends credence to their unease.”
Reid poked Haldis in the side.
“Weren’t you born then too?” he whispered.
Haldis gave no reply, but the forester’s furrowed brow told her that he had heard the question, yet he said nothing.
“You’re welcome to stay the night and join us on the last leg to Brynmoor tomorrow,” said Leiden, breaking the uneasy silence.
The forester nodded his thanks and joined the guards at their fire. Haldis retired to the caravan wagon with Ora, but found sleep elusive. Her mind kept ruminating on the wolf. Do I remember it as a wolf attack simply because of the scars? she wondered. Her only memory was of the darkness springing at her. Frustrated, she sat up in the dim wagon. Ora slept soundly in the bed beside her. Haldis wrapped a shawl around her and slipped outside, keeping to the dark side of the wagons to return to where the wolf still lay. She knelt next to it.
“Not so mean and fierce like this,” said the forester as he rounded the wagon. He crouched beside her, seemingly unsurprised by her arrival.
Haldis placed her hand on the animal’s side, almost expecting it to rise with breath. She was acutely aware of the forester studying her.
“This wolf that attacked you, have you seen it since?”
“I think it’s dead,” said Haldis.
His gray eyes held a bemused look. “Either the beast is dead or it isn’t, miss.”
Haldis stared at the wolf in silence.
The forester tried again. “Where was it that the wolf attacked you?”
“What does it matter now?”
“To me, not so much,” said the forester, “but for the earl, I would know where you met it.”
“In Prynton,” replied Haldis softly.
The forester’s expression softened. “No survivors, I heard.”
Haldis ran her fingers through the wolf’s gray pelt. “I was in the Ironwood when it happened.”
The forester nodded understandingly. “It might be best if you went in, miss. The wild ones are afoot tonight.”
◊ ◊ ◊
“It looks like we’re the first to arrive,” said Leiden to Haldis who sat on the bench beside him.
“That’s a good thing, right?” she asked.
Having their pick of prime locations, the last leg of their journey would likely be as profitable as
the ones that preceded it—no small feat since it was his first time leading the caravan. At only twenty, it was a responsibility he had not expected to assume for several years, but the unexpected death of his grandfather had shifted procurement to him while his father took on the day-to-day management at home. His father had groomed him for the role his entire life, yet he still felt unprepared.
Leiden roped off the reins and hopped to the ground, helping Haldis descend after him. She had grown increasingly melancholy as they neared the city. It can’t be easy for her to be back, he thought, especially since she used to attend the festival every year with her father and brothers. He squeezed her hand as his grandmother approached and his brother began to unhitch the horses to stable them.
“Haldis can help us set up while you get the trade permit from the bailiff,” said his grandmother. “And don’t let him give you any grief. He liked to banter with your father. I think it was a game between the two of them, silly men.”
Leiden chuckled. Having accompanied his father on many occasions, he easily tracked down the bailiff. While he questioned Leiden exhaustively, he was reasonable and fair. Permit in hand, Leiden called on several of their regular trade partners to renegotiate terms for their goods, an act made more lucrative since they were unable to use competing offers to work the price higher. By the time he returned to the wagons, Reid had just finished securing the tarpaulin over their booth, and the commons had filled up considerably in his absence.
“No troubles, I presume,” said his grandmother.
“None,” replied Leiden, “and I’ve already made this stop profitable.”
“Your father will be pleased to hear that,” she replied. “Since there’s nothing left to be done, I suggest we take our evening meal and turn in. Tomorrow will be a long day.”
Her assessment proved accurate. Leiden spent the day making the rounds with the local merchants while the others manned the stall. It was late in the evening before he headed back, but throngs of jovial people still crowded the commons for the festivities. He spied his brother dancing badly to a jig.
“He’s really quite awful,” said Haldis as she came up behind him.
“Just don’t tell him that.”
Haldis laughed and entwined her fingers with his as she leaned her head against his shoulder.
“Pardon me, but are you the merchant from Westerfeld?” inquired a short, slightly hunched man. The man’s dress, though simple, reflected a house of wealth.
“I am,” replied Leiden.
“Excellent,” said the man. “Lord Alban, my master, directed me to collect you both.”
“At this hour?” asked Haldis.
“It is late, I know,” apologized the man. “Alas, he was quite insistent.”
Leiden stifled a groan, wanting to simply spend what was left of the evening with Haldis. Father would never pass up a business opportunity, he reminded himself, least of all with the former regent of Highmont.
Haldis answered by hooking her arm through his. They strolled away from the revelries, soon leaving the crowds behind for the peace of a secluded avenue framed on one side by the high boundary wall of the earl’s estate. She skimmed her fingertips against its surface.
Lord Alban’s man abruptly stopped near a gate in the wall. Several guards emerged from the darkness and surrounded them.
“What is this?” asked Leiden.
“You are free to leave,” said Lord Alban’s man, “but she stays.”
“Haldis is a free woman,” said Leiden, barely able to contain his disgust that this lord thought privilege meant could take any woman he wanted. “Our business here is finished.”
“If you elect to withhold her, then your family’s business will indeed be finished.”
“What do you mean?” ask Haldis.
The man stepped in closer to her. “Lord Alban can see to it that his family is banned from trading in this region.”
Leiden’s breath hitched in his throat. “Why would he do that?”
“That is Lord Alban’s business,” said the man. “Would choose this woman over your family?”
Leiden glowered at the man, unable to stomach either option.
Sensing Leiden’s hesitation, the older man gave a nod to the guards. One suddenly seized Haldis while, at the same time, his compatriots shoved and held Leiden back.
“Leiden!” shouted Haldis.
He watched helplessly as the guard dragged Haldis through a gate in the wall.
“You would do well to forget about her,” instructed Lord Alban’s man. “She is no longer your concern.”
“You have no right,” asserted Leiden.
“But we do,” declared the man. “No good will come from associating with her ilk, and do not attempt to seek recourse. My master does not make petty threats.”
The guards waited until Lord Alban’s man departed before depositing Leiden near the festivities, laughing at some merriment to which only they were privy. He found their brazen indifference antagonizing, but he knew better than to take the bait even though he was seething—at the former regent’s presumption as much at his own reticence to contest it more vigorously. Still, he knew a petition to dispute the lord’s will were limited—more so since Haldis was born within the earl’s domain and unrelated— and would find few advocates.
Torn between his familial duties and Haldis, Leiden wandered back in the direction of the caravan, hoping some option would present itself along the way that would allow him to safeguard both.
◊ ◊ ◊
The guard pulled Haldis deeper into the grounds, binding her wrists and ignoring her repeated inquiries. They soon came to a terraced area that, in turn, led to a walled garden built into a natural depression in the terrain. The lower garden was lit by a solitary lantern, allowing Haldis to discern arched colonnades with gated doorways at either end of the garden. Two pikemen were posted at each. The guard tugged her down a staircase into the sunken garden and thrust her into its center where a well-groomed, gray-haired man paced the paving stones. The man halted in front of her.
“Who are you?” asked Haldis as she straightened up. “Why have I been brought here?”
“I am Lord Alban,” he said. “I have but a few questions I would put to you.”
“About what?” asked Haldis.
“You were born seventeen years ago during the eclipse, correct?”
“That’s what I was always told.”
“And you are from Prynton,” said Lord Alban.
“How is it that you alone were spared the fate of the others?”
Haldis was tired of being asked that question. “Does it even matter?”
“I don’t suppose it does.” Lord Alban played with the rings on his fingers as he hovered over her. “Tell me, have you been attacked by a wolf?”
Haldis flinched. How could he even know that? she wondered.
“Yes or no?”
“Then it left its mark on you?” asked Lord Alban.
Haldis remained silent.
“Did it?” demanded Lord Alban.
“Yes!” exclaimed Haldis. “Why are you asking me this?”
Haldis shivered despite the unseasonable warmth. Does he really expect me to undress?
“Your cooperation is convenient, not necessary,” he whispered as he nodded to the guard that had brought her.
Horrified by the insinuation, Haldis loosened her bodice and shrugged her dress and chemise from her shoulders. She clasped the front with her bound hands as it dropped down her back.
“So the wolf has finally shown itself.”
“I don’t understand.”
He touched the crown of her head gently. “I am truly sorry, but it must be done.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Dael stretched out his legs as he perched atop the balcony railing with his back to the manor’s outer wall. The festivities in Brynmoor proper will continue well into the night, he thought, and Cerrin will disappear half way through them. It was one of his cousin’s most annoying habits, one picked up after witnessing his father’s gruesome death at the age of ten—leaving him withdrawn, as well as parentless for his mother had died in childbirth. Shortly before his death, their grandfather, the previous earl, requested that Dael be sent to keep Cerrin company.
After nearly three years, I’m still not sure where he goes, thought Dael, but he won’t be able to indulge in such behavior now that he’s earl; better him than me. He considered it a blessing to learn the duties of leadership without being compelled to assume it—the benefit of being the spare son.
“There you are.” Cerrin strode purposely toward him, his movements as deliberate as his attire and his demeanor as dark as his neatly combed hair, which always curled disobediently at his temples. “Come with me.”
Dael slid off the railing and fell into step beside his younger cousin. “What’s happened?”
“I believe Lord Alban may do something unfortunate,” said Cerrin, “in the name of the prophecy.”
Not that again, thought Dael. “How so?”
“My forester mentioned to Lord Alban that he met a survivor of the Prynton massacre,” said Cerrin, “a girl by the name of Haldis, who was born during the eclipse as I was.”
“That no doubt caught his attention,” said Dael.
“I fear what he might do with that knowledge.”
“You think he intends to kill her?” asked Dael. Would Lord Alban truly be so brash?
“He hired a band of mercenaries to slaughter an entire village,” replied Cerrin, “clearly because he feared this girl would fulfill the prophecy. I believe him capable of anything.”
Dael suddenly wished he had consumed less alcohol. “Where would he take her?”
“The one place he always goes to be alone with his thoughts.”
Aunt Elyn’s garden, thought Dael. Given its proximity to the lake, Lord Alban could dispose of the girl’s body easily—definitely not what their grandfather had in mind when he built it as a wedding present for Cerrin’s mother.
Despite the late hour, they had no difficulty finding their way to the garden due to the bright moon. Lord Alban’s voice emanated from below, but Dael was unable to make out more than a few words. They circled around to one of the lower entrances to approach unseen. Dael gently nudged open the outer gate, grateful that its hinges refrained from rasping. Cerrin slipped in ahead of him and crept along the wall to the inner gate where their position provided them an unobstructed view. Lord Alban bent to whisper something to a slender young woman. She blanched and then loosened her dress, letting the back slip free of her shoulders.
“So the wolf has finally shown itself,” said Lord Alban.
The woman frowned. “I don’t understand.”
Lord Alban laid a hand on her head. “I am truly sorry, but it must be done.”
“What must be done?” challenged Cerrin, barging through the gate.
Dael had little choice but to follow, but two spears came down to halt their entrance. Cerrin glared at the guards and then Lord Alban.
“I would remind you,” said Dael as he stepped in front of his cousin, “that Lord Cerrin is now earl and will not be hindered on his own lands by his own guards.”
Realizing their error, the guards quickly withdrew their weapons and let them pass.
Dael strode up to Lord Alban and stared the older man squarely in the eyes. “I believe my cousin asked you a question.”
“My lords…Cerrin, please,” begged Lord Alban as he tried to block access to the woman.
Dael grasped his arm to hold him still.
“For your safety, I beg you leave now,” pleaded Lord Alban.
“I doubt this girl is a threat to anything but my virtue,” replied Cerrin smugly.
Lord Alban pulled free of Dael’s grip. “You do not understand.”
“You’re right, I don’t,” said Cerrin, his humor evaporating as quickly as it had come, “not your actions of last year and certainly not now.”
“The prophecy…” began Lord Alban, but a disdainful glare from Cerrin stopped him short.
Cerrin and Dael circled behind him. The young woman slouched, hugging her loose dress to her chest. Her long hair fell forward, obscuring her face but revealing healed puncture marks on her left shoulder. Jagged scars etched several inches down her back from them.
“I see no harbinger of doom,” stated Cerrin.
Lord Alban swung to face him. “Then you are blind, my lord. She bears the mark of the wolf.”
“That proves nothing,” said Cerrin. “Would you punish her for her misfortune?”
Lord Alban refused to meet Cerrin’s gaze. “She is from Prynton.”
“We come back to that,” stated Cerrin. “Do you fear your own creation?”
Lord Alban sputtered.
“Yes, you,” snarled Cerrin. “Would you take her life as you did those in her village?”
The woman suddenly straightened and glared at Lord Alban in a mixture of rage and anguish.
“If it would protect you, then yes. The prophecy…”
“You made these events happen,” snapped Cerrin.
“She was born during the eclipse just as you were, and it is she who bears the mark,” insisted Lord Alban. “It cannot be simple coincidence that she alone survived the massacre and is here now, just as you take your grandfather’s place as the Earl of Highmont.”
Cerrin shook his head is disbelief. “Leave us. All of you.”
“Surely you do not intend to be alone with the object of your destruction,” exclaimed Lord Alban.
“If that is my fate, then I have little power to avoid it,” responded Cerrin. “Now leave.”
As Lord Alban did so, Dael cut the ropes that bound the woman’s wrists. “It’s Haldis, yes?”
She nodded as she pulled her clothing back up over her shoulders and retied the laces of her bodice.
“What if he’s right?” she whispered.
“Intentions are not the same as deeds,” said Cerrin, “especially those you clearly have no desire to commit.”
Lord Alban won’t be so easily deterred, thought Dael. He eyed his cousin, who scowled in deliberation. Cerrin abruptly turned to him.
“Meet me in the northeast corner of the grounds at midnight,” ordered Cerrin.
“Cousin?” asked Dael.
“It’s time we put the prophecy to rest,” he replied. “We need to go back to where this started.”
Dael didn’t understand, but Haldis evidently did.
“I can’t go back there,” she stated.
“Don’t you want to know the truth?” asked Cerrin.
“Do you?” she countered.
Dael admired her pluckiness. A sideways glance at Cerrin told him that his cousin appreciated her candor far less.
Cerrin’s intense stare shifted to him. “Midnight, northeast corner.”
He turned on his heel and walked from the garden.
“Where are we going?” called Dael at his cousin’s back.
“My village,” answered Haldis.
“What can he possibly hope to find there?”
She rubbed her wrists. “I don’t know.”
Dael cursed his cousin’s impulsiveness, but retrieved the abandoned lantern and led Haldis to the manor’s kitchen, which was unoccupied due to the late hour. He put her to work helping him gather a day’s provisions.
“Can’t you see how foolish this is?” she asked.
Dael regarded her, noticing that light freckles dotted her cheeks beneath her amber eyes.
“You have to understand,” he said. “When my cousin gets an idea in his head, there’s no changing his mind. He’s determined to see it through to the end, no matter the price.”
“But that price may be his life.”
Dael knew she was right. He also knew better than to argue with his cousin in such instances. The best he could do was to protect Cerrin from himself.
“Was it truly a wolf that attacked you?” he asked.
“Five months ago, I woke up with no memory of the past year—not where I’ve been, not what I’ve done,” she replied as she bundled up the supplies. She lifted her gaze to his. “I don’t remember being attacked, and yet the scars are there. What other explanation can there be?”
What indeed, thought Dael. He took the bundle from her hands and swung it over his shoulder. “It’s time to go.”
She followed him silently as they left to rendezvous with Cerrin. Their lantern brightened a neglected hedge that lined the eastern boundary of the estate. It was the only side not replaced with masonry. Dael lifted the light to chase away the shadows cast by the overgrown bushes, but Cerrin was nowhere in sight.
“Over here,” came a whisper from the corner where the hedge met the wall.
Dael squinted into the shadowed intersection.
The hedge’s boughs shifted outward, and his cousin emerged from the murk like a specter.
“There’s an opening through here,” said Cerrin. “We’ll be able to leave unnoticed.”
Dael held the branches as his cousin slipped back into the darkness. The lantern revealed a well-hidden gap between the hedge and wall. He entered the passage with Haldis close behind. On the other side, two horses already waited.
“Handy that,” commented Dael.
“My father showed me,” said Cerrin. “Cover for me while we’re gone.”
Dael was stunned. “I’m coming with you.”
“I need you here.”
“You need someone to watch your back,” contended Dael. “If not me, then someone else.”
“Fine,” spat Cerrin, obviously annoyed at having to change his plans. “I guess we’ll need another horse then.”
“I don’t know how to ride,” confessed Haldis.
Her admission seemed to irritate Cerrin further. He clenched his teeth.
“She can ride with me,” offered Dael.
“Fine,” repeated Cerrin as he mounted his horse. His tight rein forced the horse to dance in a circle before moving off.
Dael gave Haldis a resigned shrug. He stashed their provisions in the saddlebag on the other horse and then mounted, helping Haldis up behind him and motioning the horse after Cerrin’s. They made good progress until clouds obscured the moon and forced them to decrease their pace lest the horses misstep.
His cousin said little during the journey nor was Haldis particularly talkative, although her silence he could understand. Dael was relieved when Prynton finally came into sight as dawn tinged the horizon behind them. He maneuvered the horse between the burned out buildings. He felt Haldis trembling.
“Just breathe,” said Dael, placing his hand on hers. It was cruel to bring her back here, he thought as he dismounted and tied his horse beside Cerrin’s near the village center. Dael helped Haldis down from the horse. “Better?”
She nodded, but was clearly unnerved by her last memories and the remnants of her home. She strayed to the town well where she absently traced the well’s mortar with a fingertip.
“This is where the wolf attacked me,” she said, “and where my memory ends.”
“Then it began here,” said Cerrin.
“What began?” asked Dael.
He glanced at Cerrin when he gave no response, but his cousin’s attention was focused elsewhere. Dael followed his line of sight. Men garbed in wolf headdresses and animal furs converged on their location.
Dael propelled Haldis toward their horses. They were quickly cut off, and a masked man grabbed Haldis from behind. Dael moved to intervene, but fell to his knees, momentarily dazed, as he was struck in the back of the head. His assailants held him as they poured a bitter liquid down his throat, shoving a cloth into his month to prevent him from spitting it out. An unnatural lethargy quickly seeped through him. Dael lost consciousness as his leaden body pulled him to the ground.
◊ ◊ ◊
By the time Leiden reached the wagons, everyone had turned in save two guards standing watch over their stall. He sat down on the steps at the wagon’s rear and remained there as dawn rose. He heard the door open behind him.
“Leiden?” asked his grandmother. “Why are you sitting out here? Is Haldis with you?”
“I think made a mistake.”
“We all make them, dear,” said his grandmother. She placed a hand on his shoulder as she eased herself down on the step next to him. “The question is whether it’s the kind you can live with.”
It was one to which he already knew the answer.
His grandmother patted his leg. “Then why are you still sitting here?”
Leiden kissed her cheek. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
He retraced his steps to the gate in the wall. No guards remained, but he hesitated. Would they think him trespassing? Surely, the new earl would be lenient, thought Leiden. Even so, he slipped cautiously through to the earl’s grounds which were expansive. He headed toward the only buildings he could see and soon found himself at the edge of a stable area where he saw ten men readying horses. The forester was among them. He saw Leiden and came over.
“What are you doing here, lad?” he asked.
“I was hoping I might get an audience with the new earl,” said Leiden. “It’s about Haldis.”
Siarl the forester’s stance turned rigid.
“What’s happened?” ask Leiden.
“The earl and his cousin have gone missing,” said Siarl. “The main guard is searching the grounds, but a sentry thought he might have seen them leaving with a young woman.”
“I believe so, given the description. The captain of the guard doesn’t put much stock in it, but two horses are also missing,” said Siarl. “Why do you want to see Lord Cerrin?”
Leiden explained the situation.
“Lord Alban is missing as well,” said Siarl. “Somehow your girl is the key. Where might they have gone?”
Leiden knew of only one place. “I’ll tell you if you take me with you.”
“You aren’t really in a position to bargain,” said Siarl.
“All I want is Haldis back. I need to make this right.”
Siarl regarded him. “Meet us at the main gate.”
Leiden hurried back to the wagons, retrieving his bow and quiver, and then headed to the stable to saddle one of the guard’s horses. His task was interrupted by Erling, who began saddling another horse.
“What are you doing?” asked Leiden.
“My job isn’t just to protect the caravan, sir. And even if it was, I’d still go with you.”
Leiden clamped the other man’s shoulder in gratitude. “I’ll fill you in on the way.”
They met up with the earl’s men and set out toward Prynton, arriving by late morning. Only the burned out husks of the buildings stood. Leiden pulled up his horse as they passed what had obviously been the blacksmith’s shop based on the forge that had withstood the conflagration. Haldis was right not to return, he thought.
“Someone was here not long ago,” said Siarl, pointing to the fresh indentations in the soil.
“Those came from a lot more than three people,” said Erling.
Siarl nodded and began tracking them from the village.
“So they met up with another group?” asked Leiden.
“That’s one possibility,” said Erling.
The implication was not lost on Leiden. But to what end? he wondered.
Siarl called them over to the edge of the Ironwood. “The tracks head in.”
“Can you follow them?” asked Erling.
“They’ve made no attempt to hide them,” said Siarl. “And even if they had, I’ve yet to find a beast I can’t track.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Haldis blinked away the blurriness in her vision, bringing into focus several roughly hewn openings near the ceiling and through which cool air and dim light seeped. Dael lay unconscious a few feet from her. She crawled over to him and gently turned his head to examine where she had seen him struck. No blood matted his brown hair.
That’s something at least, thought Haldis as she climbed to her feet and tried the windowless door that blocked their exit. Unsurprisingly, it was locked. She sat back down next to Dael. After a time, she noticed a slight twitch in his fingers. He groaned groggily and his eyelids gradually fluttered open. Dael squinted at her, his pupils nearly engulfing the blue irises.
“It’ll pass,” said Haldis, helping him sit up. “Just give it a few minutes.”
He grimaced as he tenderly felt the back of his head. “How long have I been out?”
“Given the weak light, I’d say it’s probably near sunset,” said Haldis.
“You were the only one here when I woke up.”
“But you’re okay?”
“They didn’t hurt me.”
Dael let loose a sardonic laugh. “No, they just drugged and kidnapped us. Who knows what they’ve done to Cerrin. If they believe in that ridiculous prophecy, he might already be dead.”
“Then why keep us alive?”
“Good question,” considered Dael, pulling up a leg onto which to rest his forearms. “They must have followed us from Brynmoor.”
Haldis was less certain. There were too many of them, she thought, to have remained hidden during the entire journey. Somehow, they knew we would be in Prynton.
Before Haldis could give it further thought, she heard the door tumblers click free. Several men flooded into their small cell and pulled her and Dael to their feet. They were led down a long corridor of cells and through a fortified door into an open-aired amphitheater encircled by sheer cliffs save for a single narrow fissure. Scattered doorways and windows penetrated the towering walls. At its center, a series of raised platforms had been carved from the bedrock. Their captors brought them to the uppermost level where a stone altar rested and a man clad in furs and a wolf-mask waited. He pulled a large object from a sack and casually tossed it at their feet. Haldis recoiled. It was Lord Alban’s head. The man chuckled as he removed the mask. It was Cerrin.
“I would think you’d be pleased, Haldis,” said Cerrin. “He did intend to kill you.”
“Are you bloody mad?” exclaimed Dael, aghast. “What have you done?”
“Many, many things,” replied Cerrin, “most of which I’m sure you wouldn’t approve.”
Dael strained against the hands imprisoning him. “Why are you with these people?”
“In what?” asked Haldis, trying to squelch her growing unease.
“The prophecy and our place in it.”
“Then why kill Lord Alban?” asked Dael. “He was its most ardent believer.”
“He feared the prophecy,” corrected Cerrin. “We fed his paranoia to draw attention away from us, but his actions revealed—quite unexpectedly—that there was another player essential to its fruition.”
His hazel eyes shifted to Haldis. He reached out to touch her face, but his fingers paused just above her cheek. “This is where we made you.”
“Meaning what?” she asked curtly.
“We marked you with a wolf’s teeth and then anointed you with its blood.”
Dael glared as his cousin, incredulous. “The scars, you did that to her?”
“She has her place in the prophecy,” replied Cerrin, “as do I. Certain sacrifices must be made.”
“Like my family and everyone in my village?” asked Haldis horrified. Her blood drummed fervently in her ears.
“Lord Alban was responsible for that, although my men did set it ablaze after taking custody of you to ensure no one noted your absence among the dead,” explained Cerrin. “Fate spared you to bring forth the wolf age.”
“And how many are you willing to sacrifice to achieve that?” asked Dael.
“As many as required,” replied Cerrin. “I too have sacrificed those closest to me— my father, our grandfather.”
Haldis saw Dael’s face whiten.
“Father was an accident,” confessed Cerrin, fidgeting with the gold clasps of his vest, “but grandfather grew suspicious of my absences and the company I kept. If he had just let it be, he could have died a natural death.”
“What happened to you, cousin?” asked Dael.
“I was born,” said Cerrin, “as were other things.”
He gestured to a man to bring over a basket draped with a cloth. Cerrin lifted back the cloth to reveal a baby. “This is your son, Haldis.”
Haldis felt as if the stone beneath her feet meant to swallow her. That’s where the year went, she thought.
“The drugs effected your memory,” said Cerrin. “You wandered off in your…delirium.”
“Escaped, more like it,” muttered Dael.
Cerrin cast a disapproving scowl at his cousin before brushing back some hair that had fallen into her face. Haldis tried not to flinch.
“Fate brought you back to your son,” said Cerrin. “Our son.”
“No!” exclaimed Haldis. She yanked herself free of the man holding onto her, but Cerrin seized one of her arms possessively.
“You bastard,” snarled Dael.
Cerrin backhanded Dael in the face, knocking him to the ground. “Why is he even still here?”
His man nodded, and then he and another man proceeded to half drag, half carry Dael away.
“Don’t do this,” begged Haldis. “He’s your cousin, your own blood.”
“The only blood that matters is what runs through your veins.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Still dazed, Dael staggered as his captors guided him through a dim, unfortified passage barely wide enough for three men to walk abreast. They soon broke from the stone crevice into the moonlit forest outside and halted in a small clearing not far from Cerrin’s stronghold.
“This is as good as place as any,” said the bigger of the two. The man freed a long knife.
The other man pushed Dael to his knees and tied his wrists behind him.
And to think I came along to protect that bastard, he thought as the knife-wielding man circled around behind him. From the corner of his eye, he saw the knife begin to move toward his neck, but his executioner suddenly groaned and lurched into Dael before sliding to the ground. Two arrows protruded from his back. His associate called out in alarm, but was similarly silenced. Stunned, Dael staggered to his feet as a group of men emerged from the trees. All but two wore the earl’s livery. In the lead was his cousin’s forester, bow in hand. He freed Dael’s wrists.
“How did you find me?” asked Dael.
“We tracked you from Prynton,” replied Siarl. “My lord, where is the earl?”
“He ordered this,” hissed Dael.
Several of the men exchanged confused looks.
“My lord?” said Siarl.
“He’s deranged,” declared Dael. “He confessed to murdering our grandfather and causing his own father’s death. He also returned to me the head of Lord Alban.”
“And Haldis?” asked a blond man about the same age as him. He held a long bow, but was not one of the earl’s men. “What of her?”
“She’s important to Leiden,” said Siarl without elaborating. “He can be trusted.”
“She was alive when I last saw her,” said Dael. “They’ve probably drugged her again.”
“Again?” asked Leiden. “That’s why she can’t remember?”
Dael nodded, unable to meet Leiden’s gaze. “It’s probably better she never does.”
“My lord?” asked Siarl.
“They’re the ones who kidnapped and scarred her, so she would fit into that ridiculous prophecy,” explained Dael, silently wishing that was all they had done. “And Cerrin…he forced her to bear his child.”
Leiden’s hand tightened around the grip of the bow, leaving his knuckles white and the muscles in his forearm taut. It was the only outward sign of his ire and a restraint Dael knew he himself lacked.
“Cerrin has some plans for her,” said Dael as he picked up a sword from one of the fallen men. “I don’t know what, but we have to stop him.”
“We are not much of a militia,” stated Siarl, “and you’re injured, my lord.”
“We just need to buy enough time for reinforcements to arrive,” said Dael. “Who here is the fastest rider?”
A man stepped forward.
“Head back to Brynmoor and tell the captain of the guard what’s happened,” said Dael. He pulled off his signet ring and handed it to the man as proof of the message. “Go with speed.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Haldis studied the windowless room into which she had been confined. She searched the room for the chamber pot and forced herself to vomit up the acrid liquor they had made her drink—one she suspected was tainted by whatever they had used on her before. She hid the pot under the bed as muffled voices came from the other side of the heavy wood door. Wiping her mouth, she quickly threw herself down on the bed and feigned stupor as a girl about her age entered with an elderly woman.
“Why did they drug her?” asked the girl. She laid out a wine-red beaded gown beside Haldis. “Do they want her to miscarry again?”
Haldis struggled to keep her expression vacant.
“It’s only for the ceremony,” said the older as she spread out combs, brushes, and hairpins on a dressing table.
“They should have married when they first brought her here,” said the girl as she helped Haldis to her feet.
Together, the two women stripped Haldis down to her chemise and dressed her in the gown. As they walked her to the dressing table, Haldis deliberately stumbled forward to scatter the hair accessories across the floor. She slipped a large hairpin inside the cuff of the gown as the older woman righted her into a chair and the girl retrieved the items. None the wiser, they proceeded to comb and elaborately braid her hair down her back with another that encircled the crown of her head. Smaller braids draping around both like rope.
They slipped a silver filigree knuckle ring onto the center finger of her right hand before giving her over to a burly man. He hooked his hand firmly around her elbow and brought her back to the amphitheater, its precipices embracing the hunter’s moon above them. Cerrin stood beside the bonfire-illuminated altar while at least twenty of his followers loitered in front of him. A man Haldis presumed was a priest gestured to her escort to bring her up to the dais, but on the side opposite Cerrin. The man released her and positioned himself a few arm spans away.
Haldis fingered the head of the pin hidden in her sleeve as the priest addressed the assemblage. She tuned it out and took in her surroundings as surreptitiously as she could. She spied a doorway she might be able to reach before being intercepted. If I cause a sufficient distraction, thought Haldis. She caressed the hairpin again and fixed her gaze on the priest. He raised his hand to quiet Cerrin’s cheering followers and placed the other on her shoulder.
“Under this moon, we shall bind this woman to our lord and herald in the age of the wolf,” he announced as he smiled down at her.
Haldis slipped the hairpin into her palm and moved swiftly, plunging it into his chest. Stunned silence gripped the onlookers, but it lasted only a moment as Haldis dashed from the platform. Fingers snatched at the back of her dress, but abruptly fell away just as she made it to the doorway. She ran down the ill-lit passage, but was tackled from behind as she came to a broad chamber. Haldis slid hard into the floor, scraping her palms bloody. Cerrin grappled with her legs in an effort to pull her toward him, but Haldis kicked him in the chest and scrambled to her feet and into the nearest hallway.
“You were born to this,” bellowed Cerrin as he pursued her, “and you will play your part!”
Haldis pulled up short as she found herself in a kitchen, startling a scullery girl stoking the fire. Cerrin dug his fingers into the braid at the nape of her neck and yanked her backward to the floor. Her head banged into the edge of the hearth, spared only by thick braiding. The girl fled.
“You should be honored,” declared Cerrin as he straddled her and tried to snare her arms. “Fate chose you to be more than the lot you were born into. In time, you’ll see things my way.”
“You’re mad,” spat Haldis.
She blindly reached into the hearth to scoop up a handful of ash and flung it at him. The gray powder exploded in his face. Haldis knocked him off of her and clambered to her feet.
Coughing, Cerrin wiped it from his eyes with his sleeve and tried to blink away the soot. “There is nowhere you can run that fate won’t return you to me and no one who can help you that I can’t kill.”
Haldis snatched the girl’s abandoned wrought-iron poker from the hearth. The ragged-wrapped handle bit into the abrasions on her palm, and heat radiated from the opposite end where the tip flushed amber. It might not be as hot as one from my father’s forge, thought Haldis, but it will still do the job.
◊ ◊ ◊
Leiden loosed an arrow into the man chasing Haldis, but Cerrin slipped into the doorway before he could let fly another. The remaining assemblage stirred and began to move on their position.
“Go after him, Lord Dael,” said Siarl, “but take Leiden and his man with you. We’ll deal with these others.”
The three nodded wordlessly and split off from the main group. Two of Cerrin’s followers broke from their fellows to intercept them.
“Behind you!” yelled Erling.
Leiden felled both in quick succession.
“Your aim is impeccable,” said Dael when they reached the doorway into which Cerrin had disappeared.
“I had a good teacher,” replied Leiden with a nod to their companion. He had never used his bow on anything other than game, and the realization that he had likely taken the lives of several men weighed on him.
Erling turned to Dael. “Perhaps it might be best if I take the lead, my lord.”
Dael gestured down the hallway in assent.
“Keep your bow at ready, Leiden,” said Erling. “Swords are ill-suited for this narrow passage.”
Leiden reached back to count the arrows in his quiver. Only five remained. Not good, he thought as they came to a large chamber from which three other passageways branched off.
“You know Haldis better than anyone, Leiden. Which one would she take?” asked Erling.
Leiden contemplated each passage in turn. If I pick the wrong one, he thought, it might cost Haldis her life. So might indecisiveness.
A light footfall scraped against the stone from the passage to his left. He swung around, nocking an arrow in his bowstring as he did so. A young girl stopped in her tracks with a squeak when she saw the arrow aimed at her. Leiden slowly eased the tension on the string, pointing the arrow downward.
“You’re here for that woman,” stated the girl, almost sobbing. “You have to help her.”
Leiden approached the girl warily. “Where is she?”
“They’ll kill me if I tell you.”
“Then show us,” ordered Dael.
Leiden knew that approach would do nothing to allay the girl’s fears. He gently put a hand on her shoulder. “We can keep you safe. Please.”
The girl hesitated, but then nodded and warily led them into the hallway she had exited. They passed several bisecting corridors when a pained shriek suddenly reverberated through the passage from just up ahead of them. The girl froze.
“Stay here,” whispered Leiden as he moved past her to follow Erling and Dael.
They rushed into a chamber where they discovered Cerrin thrashing on the floor holding the left side his face. Haldis stood behind him, a poker in her hands. Her hair was a disheveled halo around her head. At seeing them, her surprise was replaced by relief.
“Leiden?” The poker slid from her fingers and clanged against the stone floor.
He quickly closed the distance between them and embraced her, watching as Dael and Erling dragged Cerrin to his feet and doubled him over a table. Elongated burn marks tracked from his brow to the collar of his jacket.
“I’ll find something to bind him,” said Erling, calling for the girl to help him.
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” gasped Cerrin to his cousin. “You still could serve me.”
“There are people in this room I would trust with my life,” said Dael. “Sadly, you’re no longer one of them. I can’t believe I ever trusted you.”
“And you shouldn’t,” stated Haldis.
Leiden reluctantly let her draw away from him.
Dael pushed Cerrin into the table. “What is she talking about?”
Cerrin remained stubbornly mute.
“He lied,” said Haldis. “That baby isn’t mine.”
Dael twisted his cousin’s arm. “Is this true?”
“I figured she’d be more compliant if she thought it was,” said Cerrin. “We wouldn’t need to drug her then.”
“Because you knew it would cause me to miscarry,” said Haldis. “Again.”
Leiden came up beside her. “You really were pregnant then?”
She averted her eyes. “Apparently.”
It took every measure of discipline for Leiden to squelch the urge to throttle Cerrin, but it did nothing to assuage his guilt. Dael was not so disposed. He clamped Cerrin’s arms behind his back and slammed him down into the table.
“You’re a sick bastard, you know that?” hissed Dael as Erling returned with some salvaged cord.
Cerrin smirked despite the burns. Dael secured his hands, pulled him upright, and prodded his cousin behind Erling and the girl as they took point again while Leiden and Haldis brought up the rear. They met no resistance as they retraced their steps, but Erling halted the group just inside the doorway to the amphitheater to scout ahead. He quickly returned.
“It would appear that our unexpected arrival worked in our favor,” said Erling.
When Leiden emerged from the passage behind the others, he saw Siarl and his men rounding up the handful of Cerrin’s followers that still lived. Siarl waved them over.
“I see you were successful as well, my lord,” said Siarl with an askance look at Cerrin.
“That credit goes to Haldis,” said Dael with an approving nod, “and I know just where we can lock up my cousin and his cohorts.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Haldis shivered as the first chill air of autumn descended into the walled amphitheater. Daybreak had already begun to hide the moon as she studied the gap that led out to the Ironwood. It would be so easy just to disappear, she thought. She could stay and face the constant shame of having been raped—even though she had no memory of it—or try her chances in another village. With no family, she knew either option likely led to bleak prospects.
“You’ll catch cold standing there,” said Leiden as he hugged a blanket around her.
Haldis said nothing, unsure how to broach the uncertainty of their relationship.
“It’s alright,” whispered Haldis. She steeled herself for the inevitable rejection.
“It’s not,” replied Leiden. “Lord Alban’s ultimatum—you or my family—I wasn’t prepared for that kind of decision.”
“Your family should come first, not me.”
He turned her around and tenderly stroked her cheek. “I would very much like them to be one and the same.”
Haldis frowned and pulled away. “How can you still want me after all this?”
“It doesn’t change how I feel.”
“But I have nothing, Leiden,” professed Haldis. “I’m just a blacksmith’s daughter.”
Leiden caught her bandaged hands. “And my grandfather was the illegitimate son of a priest, but he refused to let that define him. My family’s business is his legacy.”
“Your parents..,” began Haldis.
“Will understand,” he finished. “The choice is mine, and I would call you my wife—that is, if you’ll have me.”
Speechless, Haldis studied Leiden, silently wishing her father could have met him.
“You don’t have to decide here, in this place,” he said.
“You already know my answer.”
Leiden bent to kiss her, but a shout from a guard spoiled the moment.
“What now?” groaned Leiden.
The forester’s men were congregating in the prison area. Haldis and Leiden pushed their way through to the front where Dael and Siarl stood. The cause for the alarm was obvious: everyone in the cell was dead.
Haldis pointed to several white objects beside one of the bodies. “Mistletoe berries.”
“It’s the same here,” called Erling from the neighboring cell.
Dael rushed to his cousin’s cell. Haldis and Leiden caught up with him as he threw open the door. Cerrin sat against the wall and greeted them with a condescending smile confined solely to the uninjured side of this face. On the other, the burns had already begun to seep and blister.
“Do you really think I’d take my own life like some common dog?” he taunted. “You should know better, cousin.”
Dael yanked Cerrin to his feet and shoved him violently into the wall. Leiden seized Dael’s cocked arm, using it to pivot him away, and then placed himself between Dael and the object of his rage.
“How can you protect him after what he’s done?” growled Dael gesturing at Haldis. He surged forward, but Leiden held him back.
“He’s goading you, my lord,” hissed Leiden. “He wants his blood on your hands.”
“Because he’s too much of a coward to end his own life,” stated Haldis from the threshold.
Cerrin’s smugness waned.
Dael shoved off Leiden’s hands and stormed past Haldis, his rage palpable as he brushed past. Leiden rejoined her at the door and leveled a pitiless gaze on Cerrin.
“You will die,” he stated, “but not today and not by our hands.”
Haldis hooked her hand around the door handle. “Pray the king’s tribunal is merciful.”
With that, she closed the door on Dael’s cousin.
◊ ◊ ◊
A company of reinforcements arrived shortly after sunrise and helped flush out a few remaining holdouts hiding in the stronghold. Once the prisoners had been chained together, Cerrin was bound atop a horse’s saddle. Dael mounted his own horse and took the other’s reins, but Cerrin’s attention was fixated on Haldis. His cousin’s upper lip quivered unconsciously as she climbed up behind Leiden on his mount and tenderly wrapped her arms around him.
Dael shook his head in disbelief as they moved out. Cerrin’s current predicament had done little to lessen his obsession, he thought. No doubt he’ll grace us with his incessant taunts all the way back to Brynmoor.
His cousin, however, said not a word, and they arrived without incident. Dael immediately sent a messenger to the king’s court, but it still took over two weeks for the three lords of the tribunal to arrive. Their deliberations, in contrast, took less than a day, for Cerrin denied nothing. They found him guilty of every offense to which he was accused and sentenced him to hang with his followers. Dael was far more surprised by their intent to recommend that he succeed Cerrin.
On the eve of the execution, Dael found himself drawn to his cousin’s cell. Cerrin lay on the straw pallet, staring at the ceiling, seemingly indifferent to Dael’s presence and unconcerned by his impending punishment. The burns mottled his face, their leathery edges pinching taut against the undamaged skin.
Dael leaned against the metal bars. “Haldis married Leiden.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Cerrin. “She will always belong to me.”
“She was never yours.”
“We were bound the day we were born.”
Dael held back his angry retort, trying to emulate Leiden’s self-control. “The prophecy is a farce spouted by some heathen cleric centuries ago. It’s meaningless, and it was all for nothing.”
Cerrin scoffed. “Its meaning can’t be comprehended by one such as you.”
“You’ll be dead by this time tomorrow. The prophecy won’t save you.”
Cerrin laughed at him. “I don’t need to be saved. The prophecy is already in motion.”
Dael shook his head, dumbfounded by his cousin’s unyielding refusal to renounce the ancient prediction of ruin. It was then that he realized Cerrin had been lost long ago.
◊ ◊ ◊
“You’re sure you don’t want to be there?” ask Leiden.
Haldis glanced back at Brynmoor as the three caravan wagons passed through the city gate. A sudden cheer out rang out from behind them, no doubt from the crowd gathered for the execution—the same crowd that had only weeks earlier celebrated Cerrin as its young earl. Their exuberance sickened her.
Too many had already died to venerate the prophecy, thought Haldis as she settled back onto the bench beside Leiden. “It won’t change anything.”
“It might give you closure,” replied Leiden.
“I’ve seen enough death,” said Haldis, quietly adding, “and caused enough.”
Leiden reached over to take her hand. “It’s not your fault.”
“How is it not?” asked Haldis. “Everyone is my village is dead simply because I lived there.”
“Cerrin manipulated Lord Alban to feed his fear—with no regard for the outcome—and then killed those who got in the way of what he wanted.”
“He wanted me,” whispered Haldis, “needed me to give validity to the prophecy.”
“And yet you resisted his influence over you, even when it was near absolute,” said Leiden. “You were no willing participant.”
“Then why do I feel so guilty?” asked Haldis.
“Because you care,” said Leiden. “You wouldn’t feel the weight of it otherwise, but it’s not your burden to shoulder.”
Haldis knew he had taken several lives to come to her aid and was struggling with that knowledge. “It’s not yours either.”
He hooked his arm around her waist and slid her closer to him on the bench. Haldis leaned into him as the wagon skimmed the Ironwood. Something caught her eye in the dim understory. She stiffened as it resolved into a distinct form of a wolf. A black wolf.
“Haldis?” asked Leiden.
The beast’s yellow eyes captured hers as the wagon came even with it. Her mind insisted it meant nothing, but an unsettling sense of kindred clutched her—as if the wolf sought to rouse what Cerrin believed slumbered within her. The question is, thought Haldis, do I?
The wolf then yawned and trotted back between the trees. Their crowded silhouettes quickly swallowed it.
“Just a shadow,” replied Haldis as she turned to Leiden. “Nothing more.”
Lisa Langeland lives in Minnesota, but spent her youth in various locales in eastern South Dakota and, as a young child, in a central Ontario mining town. She has an insatiable curiosity and a laid-back, self-depreciating sensor of humor. She is also an amateur nature photographer. Her fiction has appeared in “New Myths” and “The Colored Lens.”